Kevin Drum - January 2009

Joe!

| Wed Jan. 7, 2009 1:50 PM EST

JOE!....Via Atrios, our friends at Pajamas Media have landed an exclusive:

Joe The Plumber is putting down his wrenches and picking up a reporter's notebook. The Ohio man who became a household name during the presidential campaign says he is heading to Israel as a war correspondent for the conservative Web site pjtv.com.

Another triumph for citizen journalism. Maybe Sarah Palin will join him for a surprise appearance at a bomb crater somewhere.

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The Curious Case of the Curious Case of Benjamin Button

| Wed Jan. 7, 2009 1:39 PM EST

THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON....Apropos of nothing in particular, I decided to read Fitzgerald's short story "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" after seeing the movie, and it's curious indeed. Aside from not being a very good story (working in the dark ages before the rise of sf, Fitzgerald pretty clearly had no idea what to do with the concept), it's notable that the film doesn't contain even one single element from the story. Not one. Aside from the title, the only thing they have in common is the basic idea of a man aging backward, and even that's treated entirely differently in the film than in the story.

Now, I don't have any problem with this. Screenwriters should write whatever screenplay they want. But what I'm curious about is why the filmmakers even bothered to pretend their movie was based on the Fitzgerald story. If it were, say, I, Robot, I'd get it: the association with Isaac Asimov would be considered good for the box office. Ditto for all the bestsellers made into movies. But the association with Fitzgerald wasn't really played up much in the publicity for the movie, and Fitzgerald is hardly a huge draw for modern audiences anyway. So why bother? Oscar bait of some kind? Or what?

Snubbing Obama?

| Wed Jan. 7, 2009 1:00 PM EST

SNUBBING OBAMA?....Last month, Barack Obama asked the White House if he could move into Blair House a couple of weeks early so that his daughters Malia and Sasha could start school. They turned him down, saying there were guests already booked to stay there, and at the time I assumed this was legitimate. George Bush is many things, but turning down the request just out of personal pettiness didn't seem like his style.

But as so often happens, whenever I give Bush the benefit of the doubt, I turn out to be wrong. ThinkProgress has the dope. It's still possible that bureaucratic bungling or miscommunication might be the culprit here, but it doesn't really look like it.

Quote of the Day - 01.07.09

| Wed Jan. 7, 2009 12:31 PM EST

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Megan McArdle:

I recently realized that over the past few weeks, without really noticing, I've slipped quite naturally into referring to the current crisis as "the Depression". I also realized that no one I've spoken to has challenged that description.

It's sort of stunning to step back from the daily minutiae once in a while and realize just how bad this economic crisis is. As near as I can tell, the underlying shock really is as intense as the one that kicked off the Great Depression, and the only thing preventing soup lines these days is that we've learned a helluva lot since the 1930s. Retirees all continue to have purchasing power and healthcare thanks to Social Security and Medicare. The unemployed are receiving unemployment insurance. Deposit insurance is preventing bank runs. The Fed has lowered interest rates to zero and is prepared to intervene massively to prop up the money supply. Barack Obama is readying a massive federal spending stimulus package. The Treasury is pumping capital into the banking system to prevent a complete collapse of the credit markets. Aside from tinkering around the edges, most countries have agreed (so far!) not to ratchet up protectionist tariffs and trade barriers. We aren't hobbled by reliance on the gold standard.

Take that stuff away today and unemployment might already be in double digits and still heading up. Put this stuff in place in 1929 and we probably never would have had the original Depression (or World War II). So thanks, FDR! Thanks, modern mixed economy! Thanks, countercyclical policy measures! I sure hope it's enough.

Gupta vs. Moore

| Wed Jan. 7, 2009 11:51 AM EST

GUPTA vs. MOORE....Barack Obama has nominated celebrity doctor Sanjay Gupta to be Surgeon General, and over at his place Ezra Klein has a full rundown of the smackdown between Michael Moore and Gupta after Sicko came out a couple of years ago. I remember being annoyed by this at the time, primarily by Gupta's idiotic insistence that, no, America doesn't spend $7,000 per person on healthcare, it spends only $6,000. Wham! Take that, Moore!

This seemed even more egregious than Gupta's other errors, since it was a purely technical disagreement and Gupta knew perfectly well that (a) there was nothing wrong with Moore's number and (b) it was a trivial difference anyway. Moore's point was that we spend way more money than other countries without getting better results, and that's beyond argument. In the end, though, I wrote it off not so much to mainstream dislike of Moore as to mainstream insistence that if you're going to fact check something, then by God you'd better find some errors even if there aren't any.

Gupta had a few other issues with Moore that Ezra didn't comment on (is national healthcare "free"?, do other countries have longer waiting times than the U.S.?), and he didn't do much better on those. Still, I guess in the end I agree with Ezra that this has been blown out of proportion:

But it's not, as some of the e-mail has suggested, evidence that Gupa is either conservative or an opponent of universal health care. He's read Obama's plan. He's coming on in a largely communications capacity. And that'll be his role. Krugman says that the problem with Gupta's performance was that it was another example of elites engaging in "Village" behavior. He's right about that. But at the end of the day, if the villagers support Obama's heath reform plan, it has a far better shot than if they don't. That's why Gupta's hire is good for health reform, even if it's not good for pundit accountability.

Surgeon General just isn't that big a deal. Gupta will be an effective public face for healthcare, but it's not likely he'll have any major input into the policy end of Obama's primary healthcare plan. It's not worth getting too excited about.

UPDATE: Over at Kos, DrSteveB writes the brief for the opposition. The main problem is that Gupta has a long string of connections with various pharma and healthcare companies. I'm not sure how unusual this is, and I'll wait to hear more about it before saying more. But it's certainly something that needs to be addressed.

UPDATE 2: Oops. Turns out the long string of connections belongs to a different Sanjay Gupta. DrSteve has updated accordingly. Obviously the usual vetting is still in order, but there's no evidence that Gupta has any inappropriate industry ties.

Panetta at the CIA

| Wed Jan. 7, 2009 1:45 AM EST

PANETTA AT THE CIA....Fred Kaplan asked Richard Clarke about Leon Panetta today, and Clarke mentioned that a point in Panetta's favor as CIA director is that as Bill Clinton's budget director and White House chief of staff during the 90s "he was one of a very few people who knew about all of the covert and special-access programs." That could come in handy:

These "special-access programs" — satellites, sensors, and other intelligence-gathering devices whose very existence is known only to those with compartmentalized security clearances — form a welter of costly, overlapping, ill-coordinated, and largely unsupervised projects that are run by private contractors to a greater extent than most people might imagine.

One former CIA official who is familiar with these programs (and who asked not to be identified) speculates that Panetta's main task might be to clean up not only the agency's high-profile mess — the "black ops" that have tarnished America's reputation around the world — but this budgetary-bureaucratic mess as well. Certainly, he knows where the line items are buried to a degree that few insiders can match.

But I wonder how much control Panetta would have over this stuff. Isn't most of it part of NSA, NRO, or other Pentagon outfits? Still: an interesting point. Panetta's past experience may be more relevant than people think.

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Better on the Small Screen?

| Tue Jan. 6, 2009 8:00 PM EST

BETTER ON THE SMALL SCREEN?....Last month, after emailing to taunt me about getting schooled by Ta-Nehisi Coates for my primitive esthetic sensibilities, Scott Eric Kaufman regaled me with some weird theory he had about why The Dark Knight is actually better on a TV set than on the big screen. Over the weekend he explained this theory on his blog:

Watching the film on a small screen — one on which a bug of a Batman glides between five-inch tall skyscrapers while Heath Ledger's Joker licks human-sized lips and establishes human-sized eye-contact — it's impossible to deny that this supposedly epic performance is better suited to the televisual medium.

"Impossible to deny" is a mighty strong claim, but I just rented Dark Knight on my way back from the market and plan to put this theory to the test sometime soon. Anybody else have an opinion on this vital question?

And Then What?

| Tue Jan. 6, 2009 5:58 PM EST

AND THEN WHAT?....Marc Lynch went to a lecture this morning given by Israel's Ambassador to the United States, Sallai Meridor:

It was a profoundly dismaying experience. Because if Ambassador Meridor is taken at his word, then Israel has no strategy in Gaza.

Asked three times by audience members, Meridor simply could not offer any plausible explanation as to how its military campaign in Gaza would achieve its stated goals....As to a political strategy tied to the military campaign, nothing. No guidance as to whether Israel would re-occupy Gaza, or on what terms it would accept a cease-fire. No thoughts as to whether the campaign would cause Hamas to fall from power or help the Palestinian Authority regain political power.

....In short, Meridor quite literally offered no strategy beyond hitting Gaza hard and hoping for the best. "In terms of creating damage we are certainly on the right path," noted the Ambassador. Few would disagree with that assessment, at least. But some might hope that the bloody, battered path might actually be leading somewhere.

To be honest, this seems to be true of most wars these days: hit 'em hard and hope that something shakes loose. But while that may have been a plausible strategy in colonial wars a hundred years ago, it doesn't seem to work so well anymore. I doubt very much that it's going to work for Israel this time around either.

Media Destruction Watch

| Tue Jan. 6, 2009 5:31 PM EST

MEDIA DESTRUCTION WATCH....Felix Salmon reports that the latest auction of defaulted Tribune Company bonds produced dismal results:

Much more startling is the price on the senior secured loans: just 23.75 cents on the dollar. I checked in with Nishul Saperia at Markit, and he said that it was the lowest recovery rate he'd ever seen for a secured loan....

I should imagine that today's news has been greeted with a shudder at the Chicago Tribune, the LA Times, and other Tribune properties: clearly no one on Wall Street thinks they're worth much even without the huge pile of debt that Sam Zell loaded onto their fragile shoulders. Is David Geffen still interested in buying an uneconomic trophy property? He could turn out to be many employees' final hope.

I wonder how much longer I'll be getting a newspaper delivered to my driveway each morning?

Public Service Announcement

| Tue Jan. 6, 2009 4:46 PM EST

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT....Apparently "PEBO" is the latest shorthand for "President-Elect Barack Obama." Just thought you'd like to know.