Kevin Drum - August 2009

Durable Goods

| Wed Aug. 26, 2009 8:33 AM PDT

This is a little bit confusing.  Durable goods orders were up in July, but it turns out it was mostly because Boeing had a good month:

As encouraging as the report appeared at first glance, it also suggested businesses were still cutting back. Orders for non-defense capital goods excluding aircraft, a barometer of business investment, fell 0.3 percent in July after rising 3.6 percent in June. New orders for computers and related products fell 2.8 percent after rising 0.5 percent in June.

The report today is likely to bolster the view, shared by a growing number of economists, that the recession is winding down or has already ended. It was further proof the manufacturing sector has begun to stabilize as businesses start to restock. Businesses had been slashing inventories for months as they tried to catch up with falling demand.

Aside from commercial jets, orders for durable goods fell 0.3% after rising in June, which "suggested businesses were still cutting back."  But three sentences later this bolsters the view that the recession is winding down.  What am I missing?

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Ted Kennedy Passes

| Tue Aug. 25, 2009 10:46 PM PDT

According to news reports, Sen. Edward Kennedy has died.  R.I.P.

Obama's Not-So-Tough Spot

| Tue Aug. 25, 2009 10:40 PM PDT

Scott Wilson and Joshua Partlow write in the Washington Post that Barack Obama is in a tight spot:

President Obama is caught between two important constituencies as he recalibrates his policy in Afghanistan — the generals who want more troops, and the base of his own party, whose tolerance for a worsening conflict is quickly evaporating.

...."Afghanistan is going to be a huge political challenge. There's no doubt about that," said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the military assessment is pending. "The key for us is to have a strategy and have the competency to execute that strategy. It's going to be hard to convey this. And it's never going to be popular."

Well, that sure doesn't sound like he feels caught.  It sounds, as usual, as if Obama is going to ignore his base and do whatever the Washington establishment wants him to do.  The fact that he's aware that his base doesn't like this is an entirely different thing from feeling that he has a genuinely tough decision to make.

But then again, why not?  As the Bernanke reappointment shows, even the people who have been criticizing the DC establishment relentlessly for showing too much deference to the people who originally got the financial crisis wrong fell all over themselves to declare the Bernanke choice brilliant once it was made.  So maybe Obama figures the Afghanistan criticism is just a bunch of hot air too.  And maybe he's right.

Quote of the Day

| Tue Aug. 25, 2009 10:10 PM PDT

From 18-year-old Kristen Nagy, proving that the kids are all right:

I just think it’s weird and I don’t feel like everyone needs to know what I’m doing every second of my life.

She's talking about Twitter.  Turns out it's mostly an adult phenomenon, according to the New York Times, which speaks well for our nation's youth and not so well for our nation's grownups.

Mideast Peace Talks Set To Restart?

| Tue Aug. 25, 2009 5:10 PM PDT

The Guardian reports that a deal to restart Mideast peace talks is close at hand.  President Obama has promised to push for expanded sanctions on Iran, including its oil and gas industry:

In return, the Israeli government will be expected to agree to a partial freeze on the construction of settlements in the Middle East. In the words of one official close to the negotiations: "The message is: Iran is an existential threat to Israel; settlements are not."

....Obama has pencilled in the announcement of his breakthrough for either a meeting of world leaders at the UN general assembly in New York in the week beginning 23 September or the G20 summit in Pittsburgh on 24-25 September.

The president, who plans to make his announcement flanked by Netanyahu and the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas — plus the leaders of as many Arab states as he can muster — hopes that a final peace agreement can be negotiated within two years, a timetable viewed as unrealistic by Middle East analysts.

....Israel is offering a nine- to 12-month moratorium on settlement building that would exclude East Jerusalem and most of the 2,400 homes that Israel says work has already begun on.

I'm not a Mideast wonk, so I don't really know how to judge this.  But my initial reaction is that substantively there's not an awful lot here: the expanded sanctions depend on agreement from both China and Russia in the Security Council, which seems unlikely, and Israel's settlement moratorium is pretty anemic.  If it's enough to get everyone talking, that's great, but it's not much of a sign that either side is ready to make much in the way of serious concessions yet.

Still: getting talks restarted on almost any terms is better than doing nothing, and there's not much downside.  Iran is pretty obviously in no mood to talk with the U.S. right now, so pushing for sanctions probably won't do a lot of harm.  And the settlement semi-freeze is at least a minor step in the right direction.  I wonder if Bruce Bueno de Mesquita thinks it has any chance of working?

The Torture Docs

| Tue Aug. 25, 2009 2:49 PM PDT

Do the recently released torture documents demonstrate that torture worked?  Back in April Dick Cheney said they would, but now that they're out in the open he's backing down:

The documents released Monday clearly demonstrate that the individuals subjected to Enhanced Interrogation Techniques provided the bulk of intelligence we gained about al Qaeda.

In case the fudge factor in that statement isn't crystal clear, here's a different version:

The documents released Monday clearly demonstrate that the individuals who received academic scholarships provided the bulk of the correct answers on final exams.

Well, no kidding.  But that doesn't mean that getting a scholarship made you smart.  It means that scholarships were given to people who were already smart to begin with.  Likewise, the "enhanced interrogation techniques" were used on the prisoners who were the most valuable in the first place.  They would have provided the bulk of the intelligence no matter what we'd done.  Michael Scherer comments:

Now that the memos have been released — with redactions — they provide no clarity to the question Cheney claimed they would answer: Did the enhanced techniques produce results? Rather the two memos describe the value of information provided by Al Qaeda detainees, which one memo calls a "crucial pillar of counterterrorism efforts." The memos, as redacted, are silent on the role of harsh interrogation in producing that information. One memo describes another effective technique — dubbed the "building block" process — that dd produce significant information. This process is an standard technique, of confronting one detainee with information from another detainee to produce more information. It does not involve any physical coercion. Does Cheney want other parts of the same memo, which were redacted in the latest release, made public? It is unclear.

Glenn Greenwald adds this:

(1) The fact that we are not really bothered any more by taking helpless detainees in our custody and (a) threatening to blow their brains out, torture them with drills, rape their mothers, and murder their children; (b) choking them until they pass out; (c) pouring water down their throats to drown them; (d) hanging them by their arms until their shoulders are dislocated; (e) blowing smoke in their face until they vomit; (f) putting them in diapers, dousing them with cold water, and leaving them on a concrete floor to induce hypothermia; and (g) beating them with the butt of a rifle — all things that we have always condemend as "torture" and which our laws explicitly criminalize as felonies ("torture means. . . the threat of imminent death; or the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering . . .") — reveals better than all the words in the world could how degraded, barbaric and depraved a society becomes when it lifts the taboo on torturing captives.

We managed to get through WWI, WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and a dozen smaller engagements without making the torture of prisoners into official government policy.  We can get through this one without selling our souls too.

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Keeping the Bribe Reasonable

| Tue Aug. 25, 2009 12:01 PM PDT

I guess I thought this was fairly obvious, but maybe not.  Here's libertarian Alex Tabarrok offering a defense of including a public option as part of any healthcare reform:

If insurance companies must take all customers regardless of pre-existing conditions it is obvious that sooner or later and probably sooner the government will require that everyone purchase health insurance.

In short, insurance reform will mean that everyone will be required to buy a product that will be tightly regulated and more homogeneous.  Both of these factors will increase the market power of insurance firms.  Since escape via non-purchase will no longer be a potential response to higher prices, mandatory purchase will reduce the elasticity of demand giving firms an incentive to increase prices.

....It's true that mandatory purchase doesn't necessarily lead to market power, auto insurance is quite competitive.  Nevertheless, given the potential of insurance reform to increase the market power of insurance firms the search for some disciplining device like the public option is reasonable.

The healthcare bills currently on the table are huge windfalls for insurance companies.  That's why the industry supports them.  It gives them more power and it ensures them more customers.  Liberals who back this approach are basically doing it because we figure that's just the way the world works: if you want the support of a big, powerful player, you have to bribe them.  And that's what we're doing.

But yes: if we're doing this, a "disciplining device" that gives customers a greater choice of insurance options is indeed reasonable.  Even from a conservative point of view, it's reasonable.  There's a limit to just how big the bribe should be.

Double Dip for the GOP?

| Tue Aug. 25, 2009 10:52 AM PDT

James Fallows goes medieval on yesterday's New York Times profile of Ezekiel Emanuel, the highly respected medical ethicist who's become a punching bag for the "death panel" crowd:

And now we have the New York Times, in a big take-out story, saying that Dr. Emanuel, in his role as Obama health-care advisor, is in an "uncomfortable place" because he is being criticized by:

1) Betsy McCaughey !
2) Rep. Michele Bachman (look her up) !!
3) Sarah Palin !!!
4) Lyndon LaRouche !!!!

McCaughey, Bachman, Palin, LaRouche — shaping American debate and media coverage about health policy? Was Zsa Zsa Gabor not available?

...."Out of context" and "false" are useful caveats. But why is the story about Ezekiel Emanuel being on the hot seat in the first place — and not about the campaign of flat lies by McCaughey, Bachman, Palin, and LaRouche? Why are real newspapers quoting what they say any more? (Interestingly, LaRouche's claims rarely get NYT coverage. In in this case, he is apparently "legitimized" by ... McCaughey.) If I start a campaign of lies against somebody and get Soupy Sales plus Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme to agree with me, can I expect them to be regularly publicized in the mainstream press?

But that's the problem: McCaughey, Bachman, and Palin are de facto leaders of the Republican Party, just like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.  And the actual leaders — people like John McCain, Michael Steele, John Boehner, and Chuck Grassley — are happily taking their cues from the goofballs.  What's more, it seems to be working.  Last year, a lot of us wondered how long the GOP would have to spend in the wilderness before they regained their sanity and became electorally significant again.  We still don't know the answer to that, but at this particular snapshot in time it looks as if the answer is: no time at all.  They don't need to become sane again.  Their public face is death panels and Sarah Palin and Fox News and the birthers and the town hall shriekers — and that seems to be working for them.  All the mainstream political analysts say their midterm prospects are looking up.

Who knows?  Maybe the GOP is in for the political equivalent of a double dip recession: they'll start to recover, but then in a few months they'll suddenly implode again and be in even worse shape than before.  I sure hope so, because given the fecklessness of the Democratic Party, it looks like they're going to need a majority of about 70 in the Senate before they can manage to get their own caucus to actually act like Democrats.  FDR must be spinning in his grave.

Bob Collier, Everyman

| Tue Aug. 25, 2009 9:55 AM PDT

Meet Bob Collier:

He skipped the antiwar protests of his college years, took a job as a regional salesman of paper and chemical products, and built for himself a quiet life of family and church (and hunting and fishing) in his rural hometown in southwest Georgia.

But on Thursday, Mr. Collier drove more than an hour down Route 19 to attend a health care forum in Albany, Ga., being held by his congressman, Representative Sanford D. Bishop Jr., a Democrat serving his ninth term.

To his wife’s astonishment, as the session drew into its third hour, Mr. Collier rose to take the microphone and firmly, but courteously, urged Mr. Bishop to oppose the health care legislation being written in Washington.

....The town-hall-style meetings that have so defined the national health care debate during this month’s Congressional recess have produced an endless video loop of high-decibel rants. In many instances, the din has overwhelmed the calmer, more reasoned voices of people like Bob and Susan Collier, who came to Mr. Bishop’s meeting not because they had received an electronic call to action but because they had read about it in The Macon Telegraph.

Bob Collier.  Just an average guy.  Minds his own business.  Hardly a political bone in his body.  Concerned about healthcare, but in a calmer, more reasoned way than all those right-wing loons.  Gets his news from the Macon Telegraph.  Bob Collier is just a normal guy trying to make up his mind about a complex issue.  Or maybe not:

The Colliers are committed conservatives who have voted Republican in presidential elections since 1980. They receive much of their information from Fox News, Rush Limbaugh’s radio program and Matt Drudge’s Web site. But they said their direct experience with the health care system had persuaded them of the need for change.

For chrissake.  If the New York Times wants to write a story that dives into the worldview of a committed right-winger who gets his news from Sean and Rush, that's fine.  There's no reason that can't be an interesting story.  But if that's what you're doing, why would you spend the first 500 words of the piece trying to convince us that your subject is just an average, nonpolitical, nonopinionated regular guy?  He's not.  He's quite plainly a committed right-winger, the same way I'm a committed left-winger.  There's nothing average about him.

But he's opposed to Obama's healthcare reform and he's not a loudmouth loon.  So that makes him a front page spokesman for the heartland, I guess.  Nice work if you can get it.

Can You Hear Me Now?

| Tue Aug. 25, 2009 9:22 AM PDT

Jonathan Weisman reports that Democrats have lately been doing linguistic research just like Republicans.  The results are on the right:

When Mr. Obama told grass-roots organizers last week that the mandatory purchase of health insurance would "be affordable, based on a sliding scale," the phrasing precisely mirrored language that had been poll-tested and put before batteries of focus groups by Democratic consultants over the past few years.

The words had been carefully chosen in an effort to take away the rhetorical targets of health-overhaul foes and replace them with terminology that would bring ordinary Americans on board. But under steady attack from opponents using more-emotional language, some of the president's allies are rethinking the linguistic strategy.

Yeah, I'd be rethinking it too.  I mean, public instead of government is a no-brainer.  Hell, Sean Hannity only figured out a few days ago that he ought to stop using the president's language and instead call it a "government option."  So no problem there.

But sliding scale?  I don't care how well that polls, it's ridiculous.  Nobody over sold anything by saying it was priced on a sliding scale.  It sounds like classic doublespeak.

The other stuff seems pretty questionable too.  Choice is good, of course, but are rules really better than regulations?  If you're talking about an institution people generally like (say, schools), then maybe the softer sounding rules is better.  But if you're talking about something that people loathe, like insurance companies, wouldn't they rather hear that you're putting in some toughminded regulations?  Something that really bites?  And what's wrong with competition and universal?  Those are nice, strong words that really say something.

The guys who created this list have focus groups on their side, and I don't.  So maybe they're right.  But it looks to me as if their main contribution has been to sand off the edges of the language so much that they're practically lulling everyone to sleep.  I understand they're trying to avoid scaring people, but you need to inspire them as well.  You need to appeal to their emotions.  You need to fire them up not just to accept change, but to demand it.  Language as relentlessly technocratic and boring as this doesn't do the job.