Kevin Drum - March 2009

The Presidential Bracket

| Wed Mar. 18, 2009 1:36 PM EDT
Jeez.  Not much love for the Pac Ten from our hoops loving president.  A first round win for Washington is all he's got for us in his NCAA bracket.  Somebody needs to take this up with him when he shows up here in Orange County later today.

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Essay Mills

| Wed Mar. 18, 2009 1:03 PM EDT
Alan Jacobs proposes a novel theory for the success of essay mills in cranking out low-cost papers for slothful college students:

It seems to me that the most noteworthy fact here is this: essay mills of this kind can succeed only because college professors all over the Western world assign precisely the same kinds of papers. No wonder some of the writers can turn out dozens of the damned things in a week — “I can knock out 10 pages in an hour,” one of them says. “Ten pages is nothing.” The assignments we professors give are so woodenly predictable that they positively invite woodenly predictable essays in response.

I can feel a contest coming on: Propose a topic that's truly essay-mill-resistant.  Better yet, propose a general algorithm that makes any topic harder to fake from a distance.  Remember: extra credit for originality!

Wilkerson on Guantanamo

| Wed Mar. 18, 2009 12:31 PM EDT
Over at Washington Note, Larry Wilkerson writes about several dimensions of the debate over Guantanamo Bay that he thinks haven't gotten enough attention:

The first of these is the utter incompetence of the battlefield vetting in Afghanistan during the early stages of the U.S. operations there....The second dimension that is largely unreported is that several in the U.S. leadership became aware of this lack of proper vetting very early on and, thus, of the reality that many of the detainees were innocent of any substantial wrongdoing, had little intelligence value, and should be immediately released.

....The fourth unknown is the ad hoc intelligence philosophy that was developed to justify keeping many of these people, called the mosaic philosophy. Simply stated, this philosophy held that it did not matter if a detainee were innocent....All that was necessary was to extract everything possible from him and others like him, assemble it all in a computer program, and then look for cross-connections and serendipitous incidentals.

....Thus, as many people as possible had to be kept in detention for as long as possible to allow this philosophy of intelligence gathering to work. The detainees' innocence was inconsequential. After all, they were ignorant peasants for the most part and mostly Muslim to boot.

Read the whole thing.  He presents some compelling evidence that although shutting down Guantanamo might be politically difficult thanks to Dick Cheney's "recent strident and almost unparalleled remarks about the dangers of pampering terrorists," it's almost certainly not much of an operational challenge at all.

Damn Liberals

| Wed Mar. 18, 2009 11:33 AM EDT
ThinkProgress glosses a Roll Call story today telling us that Evan Bayh is spearheading a group of 15-20 Democratic senators "seeking to restrain the influence of party liberals in the White House and on Capitol Hill."  And it's about time, isn't it?  We've now gone nearly a full two months without Democrats forming a circular firing squad designed to bring down a Democratic president and prove that Democrats can't actually get anything done.  I say, that's two months too long.

But at least a bunch of senators will get to preen a bit about how they managed to water down progressive legislation and get the White House to beg them for their votes.  And that's what public service is all about, isn't it?

Quote of the Day - 3.17.09

| Wed Mar. 18, 2009 12:50 AM EDT
From Sen. Judd Gregg (R–NH), on the possibility of using the budget reconciliation process to pass healthcare and cap-and-trade bills in the Senate:

"That would be the Chicago approach to governing: Strong-arm it through.  You're talking about the exact opposite of bipartisan. You're talking about running over the minority, putting them in cement and throwing them in the Chicago River."

Hell yes.  This is supposed to be a democracy.  Why, allowing legislation to pass based on nothing more than a simple majority vote would be just this side of mob rule.

Ex Post Punitive

| Tue Mar. 17, 2009 11:32 PM EDT
Would it be legal to pass a law that retroactively taxed away the bonuses of all those AIG traders who destroyed the planet?  The main constitutional objections are that such a law might be construed as either ex post facto or a bill of attainder.  So what about that?

Well, Conor Clarke talked to certified expert Laurence Tribe, and he says not to worry about bill of attainder issues: "It would not be terribly difficult to structure a tax, even one that approached a rate of 100%, levied on some or all of the bonuses already handed out (or to be handed out in the future) by AIG and other recipients of federal bailout funds so that the tax would survive bill of attainder clause challenge."

Great!  So what about the problem with it being retroactive?  The Supreme Court has upheld retroactive taxes against ex post facto arguments before, and over at Interfluidity Steve Waldman quotes Daniel Troy, author of Retroactive Legislation, on a similar objection to the Superfund legislation: "Because the ex post facto clauses do not apply to civil laws, Superfund therefore would have to be characterized as punitive in nature to be classified as an ex post facto law. The current Court, though, has suggested that unless a law is exclusively punitive, it will not come within the scope of the ex post facto clauses."

Italics mine.  So it looks like the answer here is simple: even though the purpose of this tax would pretty clearly be punitive with extreme prejudice, we need to carefully pretend that it's not.  And we need to make sure the legislative history shows that it's not (it should be "manifestly regulatory and fiscal" Tribe says).  Then everything is kosher!  We can tax their socks off!

So there you have it.  Now we just have to figure out if most of these guys are actually U.S. citizens in the first place.  I hear that New York state AG Andrew Cuomo is working on that.

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Kindle Followup

| Tue Mar. 17, 2009 8:48 PM EDT
Everyone is eagerly waiting to find out how I like my new Kindle.  Right?  Well, aren't you?

The quick answer is: it's pretty cool.  I like it a lot.  You know the basic drill: it's small and light, it holds lots of books, you can download new books in a few minutes, you can search your books, etc.  However, after a couple of weeks of using it there are also a few slightly less obvious things that I like and dislike about it.  First, the things I like:

1. Battery life is as good as advertised. I use it for an hour or two a day, and I haven't had to recharge it yet.

2. The leather cover Amazon sells for it is great.  It fits nicely, folds open completely, and feels good.  Well worth $30.

3. Here's an odd one: I normally have trouble skimming books, even when I'm reading sections that I'm not very interested in. I don't know why, but the Kindle makes it easier.  Although I read most stuff at my normal sluggish pace, for some reason I find it a lot easier to browse quickly through the passages I'm only marginally interested in.

4. This isn't really a like or dislike, just a suggestion: publishers should start sending review copies of books via Kindle.  Cheaper for them, more convenient for us.

And now the dislikes:

1. Different books use different fonts, and some of the fonts have pretty mediocre resolution.  The image on the right is a sample from one of the books I've downloaded.  It's not horrible, but it's definitely not the kind of resolution you get on a printed page.

(Technical note: It's surprisingly hard to photograph the Kindle accurately.  Get too close and the picture is misleading since you don't actually read the thing with a magnifying glass.  Reduce the image and it gets fuzzy.  Etc.  This image has been Photoshopped so that it looks subjectively similar to real life.  To my eyes, anyway.)

2. It's hard to page back and forth in a book.  This is by far my biggest complaint, and it might just be inherent in the medium.  In a physical book, it's easy to flip back 50 pages to re-read something, or to flip forward to the glossary to look something up.  On the Kindle, it's a pain.

3. On a related note, it's surprisingly hard to flip to a different page momentarily and then get back to your current page.  You have to bookmark your current page before you move, then move, then use the menu function to display your bookmarks, and then select the right bookmark.  Or you can repeatedly hit the Back button.  This is bizarre.  At the very least there ought to be a way to temporarily bookmark your current page and then get back to it instantly.  At best, the Kindle would keep track of it for you and offer a "Return to current page" option.

4. Pictures are sometimes several pages away from the text that references them.

5. There's occasionally odd behavior after you do a search: the Next and Previous Page buttons sometimes move you three or four pages instead of just one.

So that's that.  #2 is the only one that really bugs me, and it might not be a big deal once I get a little more fluent with menus and bookmarks.  Your mileage may vary on the other issues, or on whether you can stand to give up the feel of a good old paper book.  So far, though, I'm hooked.

POSTSCRIPT: Sorry about the lame list numbering.  That's twice in one day.  Unfortunately, our new site design doesn't seem to like HTML list commands, and I haven't been able to figure out yet how to fool it into working.  So inline numbers are all I have.  This should improve someday.

The Third Front

| Tue Mar. 17, 2009 5:40 PM EDT
Only Nixon could go to China, and maybe only a Republican Defense Secretary can make serious cuts in big-ticket weapons systems.  Bob Gates has been rumored to favor axing some major platforms for quite a while, and the Boston Globe reports today that he's serious about it:

Two defense officials who were not authorized to speak publicly said Gates will announce up to a half-dozen major weapons cancellations later this month. Candidates include a new Navy destroyer, the Air Force's F-22 fighter jet, and Army ground-combat vehicles, the officials said.

More cuts are planned for later this year after a review that could lead to reductions in programs such as aircraft carriers and nuclear arms, the officials said.

....Gates's budget plans remain closely guarded, but aides say his decisions will be guided by the time he has spent with soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One aide who has traveled with Gates more than a dozen times said the secretary "is particularly keen and aware of the urgent operational needs on the ground."  That likely means greater investments in intelligence-gathering systems such as pilotless drone aircraft, special-operations forces and equipment, and advanced cultural training for military personnel, aides said.

Obviously we've heard this all before, and there's no telling if Gates and Obama will be able to fight and win this battle.  They don't call it the Iron Triangle for nothing, after all, and a fight like this will suck down political capital faster than a dozen stimulus bills.

On the other hand, it looks as if Gates is carefully taking away equal numbers of toys from the Army, Navy, and Air Force, and it's possible that the stuff he wants to replace them with will be fairly evenly split too.  That may make his job easier.  Maybe.

Death and Taxes

| Tue Mar. 17, 2009 3:30 PM EDT
The AIG bonuses have already been paid out, so how can we get them back even if we want to?  Some clever congressmen think they have the answer:

Senate Democrats will seek to recoup $165 million in bonuses paid to executives of the troubled insurance giant American International Group through a narrowly focused tax, unless the money is returned voluntarily, party leaders announced this morning.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) said Finance Committee Chairman  Max Baucus (Mont.) would unveil a proposal by tomorrow that would tax up to 98 percent of the bonus money. "That will certainly send a message to the people at AIG and all others who try to benefit from the hardships the American people face," Reid said.

In the House,  Reps. Steve Israel (N.Y.) and  Tim Ryan (Ohio) introduced the "Bailout Bonus Tax Bracket Act" to create a 100 percent tax on bonuses over $100,000 that are distributed to employees of financial firms receiving federal bailout funds.

On the scale of grand karmic justice, this all sounds fine.  Screw 'em.  Sadly, though, the world doesn't work on the principle of karmic justice.  If it did, Rush Limbaugh would be flipping burgers at a McDonalds in West Sacramento.  So, some random thoughts:

• Would this cause havoc with the sanctity of contracts?  Would no one ever trust the United States government again?  I've now read variations on this theme several times, and I'm unimpressed.  More likely, I'd say, is that the lesson everyone would learn is that if you destroy the global financial system then you might have your bonuses taken away.  This does not strike me as such a bad lesson.

• Would this be legal?  Just curious.  The Supreme Court is fine with retroactive tax increases, but if you target this too finely couldn't it be read as a bill of attainder?  Maybe some legal eagles can chime in on this.

• I wonder how many of the folks at AIG getting the big bonuses are American?  Can we get Gordon Brown to put the screws to the ones who aren't?

• There's actually a genuine unfairness in applying this to every financial firm that's received federal bailout funds.  This is one of the reasons I opposed Hank Paulson's dramatic October gathering where he insisted that every big bank accept TARP funds: it means that we don't know which banks really needed the money and which ones didn't.  If, as Richard Kovacevich continues to insist, Wells Fargo never needed the money in the first place, does the government really have the moral authority to wipe out Wells Fargo's bonuses?

• Are we afraid that if we don't pay these guys millions of dollars they'll all quit and AIG will implode even worse than they already have?  Here's an idea: draft 'em.  Rewrite the selective service law to remove age limits, make financial wizards a special category, and then induct them into the Army.  Unlike the world of foreign affairs, this is one place where the carrot and stick metaphor is genuinely appropriate: instead of the carrot of millions of dollars for good performance, we'd use the stick of years in the stockade as a way of preventing bad performance.  Plus we could make them all wear uniforms and clean out the latrines in their spare time.

That last idea is dedicated to Tyler Cowen. We don't want bloggy fame making us too conventional, do we?

A Question

| Tue Mar. 17, 2009 1:31 PM EDT
I've asked this before, but I'm going to ask it again.  This time I don't want it to get lost, so I'm including no long discussion or analysis.  Just the question.  Here it is:

Why is the modern financial system so profitable?  Shouldn't it actually be getting less profitable over time?

All types of guesses are welcome.  Give it your best shot.