Kevin Drum - August 2009

Four More Years

| Mon Aug. 24, 2009 8:49 PM EDT

President Obama announced today that he plans to renominate Ben Bernanke for a second term as Fed chairman.  That's change we can believe in!

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Healthcare, Steele Style

| Mon Aug. 24, 2009 5:49 PM EDT

RNC chairman Michael Steele unveiled his party's latest appeal to senior citizens today.  I've edited it slightly to save you some time:

Democrats are promoting a government-run health care experiment....The Democrats’ government-run health care experiment....The Democrats’ government-run health care experiment....The Democrats’ government-run health care experiment.... their government-run health care experiment.

Steele, it turns out, really really loves Medicare.  He just hates government-run healthcare programs.  Or something.  Hard to say, really.  For the most part, he's just repeating the standard Republican schtick: if Dems leave Medicare alone, scream about how they're bankrupting the country; if they propose ways to increase efficiency, scream about how they're trying to ration care.  Steele's embarrassingly gushy paean to Medicare comes from the latter school.

As it turns out, though, this is too raw even for some of the folks over at NRO.  "Such blatant finger-in-the-wind leadership from the RNC is disappointing," says Robert Costa.  And the response from AARP was entertaining too: "AARP agrees with Chairman Michael Steele’s goals for reforming our health care system, and we are pleased nothing in the bills that have been proposed would bring about the scenarios the RNC is concerned about."  Their press release went on to explain that they support pretty much everything Obama has proposed.  And Roy Blunt's former chief of staff twittered: "RNC Chair Michael Steele is an idiot. Past time for him to go."  Though, in fairness, that was about Steele dissing Blunt on the radio this morning, not about healthcare.

For Michael Steele, it was just another day at the office.  He's the gift that keeps on giving.

Mass Market Crankery

| Mon Aug. 24, 2009 2:11 PM EDT

Ezra Klein comments on Howard Kurtz's lament that even though the mainstream media debunked the "death panel" nonsense, it took hold anyway:

It is true that Palin's statements eventually got fact-checked. The New York Times, in particular, spoke clearly and forcefully, albeit well after the controversy had begun dominating the coverage. But the world is full of lies. There aren't enough reporters on the planet to fact-check them all. That's okay, as most lies aren't reported. Stories about the Obamas heading to Martha's Vineyard do not have to contend with stories about a crank who thinks they're really heading to a secret rejuvenation chamber in the Himalayas.

....Reporting the facts is important. But so too is not reporting — or at least not focusing, day after day — on the lies. The average voter doesn't take their cues from the fifth paragraph in our articles, the one that explains that the quote in the first paragraph isn't necessarily true. They form fuzzy impressions from the shape of the overall conversation. The occasional fact-check isn't nearly so powerful as the aggregate impression conveyed by the coverage. And even if, as Kurtz says, the media has made some admirable efforts to combat specific lies, they — we — have allowed lies and chaos to emerge as the subject of the health-care reform debate.

It's true: crankery used to go largely unreported.  But that's not much of an option these days — or at least, the media doesn't treat it as an option.  And the reason is obvious: crankery isn't limited to beady-eyed obsessives with mimeograph machines in their basements anymore.  It's beamed out in practically raw form to an enormous audience by Drudge, talk radio, Fox News, and the blog/Twitter/Facebook channel.  Once that's happened, mainstream outlets don't feel like it's ignorable.

Plus there's the fact that although news pages (and the straight news reports from TV anchors) may have mostly debunked the death panel story, op-ed pages and chat shows retailed it with vigor.  What's more, even in the news pages most of the debunkings came days or even weeks after the crankery had already reached a fever pitch.

What do do?  Fighting back is the obvious answer, but that's a two-edged sword since it also gives the crankery an even higher profile.  Ditto for faster reaction from the news desks.

I dunno.  We now live in an era of mass-market crankery ("saturation bullshitting," in g.powell's memorable phrase), and that's that.  Either some bright cognitive researcher needs to figure out how to actually fight crankery, or else the rest of us have to figure out how to get things done even in the face of a permanent lunatic fringe.  All legal ideas welcome.

Paragraphs!

| Mon Aug. 24, 2009 1:37 PM EDT

James Joyner notes that a New York Times story about problems filling senior positions in the Obama administration takes its sweet time before mentioning that every administration has this problem:

It’s worth noting that one has to read seven “paragraphs” (NYT style apparently requires treating most sentences as complete thoughts and justifying a new paragraph) into the piece to start to get a sense that this is par for the course and into the 13th “paragraph” before this is stated outright.

Have you ever wondered why newspapers do this?

That is, why every sentence is a new paragraph?

I'm here to help.

Back in the days of old, when men were men and computers didn't yet rule the earth, stories couldn't be edited merely by hitting the delete key a few times.  So when a story needed to be cut to fill a particular space, it was convenient for every sentence to be its own paragraph.  That way, you could cut any single sentence you wanted, join up the copy, and you were done.  You always knew exactly how many lines you were saving and it was simple to make the cut without resetting the entire piece.

Electronic typesetting makes this unnecessary, of course, but there's another advantage to this custom: it adds a bit of white space to the page.  Newspapers that don't do this end up looking gray and intimidating.  So the custom stays.

As it happens, this caused me problems in college.  As a journalism major, it quickly became second nature to start a new paragraph after nearly every sentence.  My non-journalism professors were generally unamused by this and wanted to know why I didn't use paragraphs properly.  After that, I adopted a more conventional writing style for term papers, which was no big deal, but does seem a little clunky once you get used to newspaper style.  (If you're not used to it, of course, it's newspaper style that seems weird.)

On the substantive point of James's post, though, I'll offer my usual advice: we could largely take care of this problem by eliminating the Senate's idiotic insistence on confirming everyone under the sun.  Personally, I'd limit them to cabinet level positions and maybe (maybe!) their #2 deputies.  Add to that federal judges and perhaps the top ten or twenty most important amabassadors, and you're done.  The other thousand or so positions should simply be appointed by the president without the Senate wasting its time on them.  As a bonus, this might also cut down a bit on senatorial whining about how they can't possibly be expected to actually pass more than one big bill per year.

Darkness at Noon

| Mon Aug. 24, 2009 12:47 PM EDT

At the New Yorker, Laura Secor reports on the show trials currently being mounted in Tehran against opposition leaders who protested the results of the June election:

The indictments prepared by the public prosecutor are almost surreally obtuse. Before the election, one indictment claims, Western governments, foundations, and individuals joined forces with corrupt Iranians in an attempt to overthrow the Islamic Republic and institute a regime compliant with American designs. The nefarious plotters engaged in “exposing cases of violations of human rights,” training reporters in “gathering information,” and “presenting full information on the 2009 electoral candidates.” Apparently, the Iranian citizen is meant to consider it self-evident that the country’s national interest depends on concealing human-rights abuses, censoring the news, and obfuscating the electoral process.

....Meanwhile, Iranians are turning the show trials into a kind of black comedy, by mocking the predictability of their ugliness. Last month, Mohsen Armin, a prominent reformist, issued a preëmptive statement declaring that, no matter what he might say should he be taken to prison, he is not the agent of foreign powers. Perhaps no one has done more to undermine the effect of forced confessions than Ebrahim Nabavi, an exiled Iranian satirist who has released a parody confession video. Dressed in striped pajamas and wearing bandages, he confesses to meeting with a C.I.A. agent, importing green velvet, and having affairs with Carla Bruni and Angelina Jolie (“She had a very ugly and terrible husband”). He apologizes to the Supreme Leader and to the paramilitaries who “kindly” beat him.

Via Patrick Appel.

Quote of the Day

| Mon Aug. 24, 2009 12:12 PM EDT

From Paul Ulrich, a spokesman for EnCana Corp., on their unceasing dedication to the safety of Wyoming's oil workers:

The notion that operators don't do everything they can every day [to ensure safety] is ludicrous.

No doubt.  But on the off chance that they could do just a wee bit more if they were properly motivated, some of Wyoming's oil workers think they should have the right to sue for injuries or deaths that are caused by negligence.  The problem, if I'm reading this story correctly, is that they actually work for independent operators, not the oil companies themselves — but operators are legally immune from lawsuits and courts have ruled that oil companies are liable for workplace injuries only if they actually run the workplace.  Technically, though, the operators run things.  So no one is responsible.  Neat.

In any case, my guess is that tighter safety regulation would be more effective than lawsuits, but I think I can guess what the operators and oil companies think of that idea too.  In the meantime, state representative Roy Cohee says workers should pound sand: "They took a high-risk job. Are they willing to assume some of the consequences when they're injured?"  I wonder if he then called over his butler to fetch him a cigar?  Cohee obviously missed his calling as a pious industrial baron in Victorian England.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

More on Afghanistan

| Mon Aug. 24, 2009 11:16 AM EDT

Last night I mentioned in passing the conventional wisdom that it will take five years or more to train the Afghan army up to a point where it can successfully take over counterinsurgency operations against the Taliban.  Why so long?  BruceR, who recently returned from a tour in Afghanistan, provides an answer:

1. Building anew is harder than renovating.
2. Multinational coalitions are inherently less efficient at army building.
3. Force protection measures in a warzone limit mentoring.
4. We still have limited experience with the culture at our command levels.
5. Giving someone independence before you give them an army limits what you can do later.
6. Growing in size and in quality at the same time is hard.
7. Risk aversion: in some ways, we've taught them too well.

Details are at the link.  He also says this: "At some point in this game, saying something takes a long time is going to be the equivalent of saying it's impossible. [Italics mine.] And raising an army in a country where security is this uncertain may well be impossible for us....If any army with a piece of the Afghan puzzle has cracked the nut with their unique approach, I haven't heard it. If we ever do, the force of effort now being applied could rapidly gain traction, I have no doubt. But we're certainly not at a point that we have a solution and we're unable to implement it: I would suggest we simply don't have the whole solution yet."

Well, our top commanders in Afghanistan say they figure they have 12-18 months to figure this out.  If Bruce is right, that's pretty close to impossible.  Which means that in 12-18 months they'll be back asking for another 12-18 months.  (And more troops.)  And then another 12-18 months.  (And more troops.)  We might want to think about getting off this train now instead.

A Second Stimulus?

| Mon Aug. 24, 2009 10:27 AM EDT

Should we pass a second stimulus?  A growing chorus of economists say yes.  They're afraid that the mini-recovery we're seeing right now is going to stall soon, leading to a second recession.  Consumer and business demand just isn't up to the task of keeping the economy growing, so government demand will have to step in.

But that risks blowing up the deficit and causing long-term problems.  Reuters columnist James Pethokoukis has a solution:

Olivier Blanchard, chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, may have cracked the code on to boost the economy and not spook bond investors and budget hawks. Blanchard’s grand bargain, one I have been suggesting for months, is for government to spend more money in the short term to boost growth while simultaneously taking strong action to reduce the long-term budget deficit. “The trade-off is fairly attractive,” Blanchard said in a report this week. “IMF estimates suggest that the fiscal cost of future increases in entitlements is 10 times the fiscal cost of the crisis. Thus, even a modest cut in the growth rate of entitlement programs can buy substantial fiscal space for continuing stimulus.”

....As an analysis I commissioned from the American Enterprise Institute revealed, extending the Social Security retirement age while at the same time indexing benefits to inflation rather than wages would turn a $5 trillion present value deficit into a $5 trillion surplus.

In principle, this isn't crazy.  By credibly phasing in entitlement reductions, we could spend more money now without setting off debt alarm bells down the road.  And you wouldn't have to go as far as Pethokoukis either.  You could finance a trillion dollar stimulus package with only a tiny change in Social Security or Medicare growth.

The problem, of course, comes from Pethokoukis's specialty: "the nexus of Washington and Wall Street."  It's true that Republicans would normally be in favor of entitlement cuts, even if they were fairly small.  But they aren't in favor of stimulus packages and they really, really aren't in favor of doing anything to support the Obama administration.  So in real life, if Democrats proposed some kind of bargain like this, they'd instantly do exactly what they're doing right now with health care: begin screaming about rationing (if the cuts were to Medicare) or selling out the elderly (if the cuts were to Social Security).  They're the Party of No, it seems to be working pretty well for them, and there's no reason to think they're willing to give that up in order to help the president rescue the economy.

So this seems like a political nonstarter, even if technically it might have potential.  Until someone explains how to get Republicans to grow up and get on board with this, it's not going anywhere.

Squaring the Afghan Circle

| Sun Aug. 23, 2009 11:13 PM EDT

The New York Times yesterday:

In a region the Taliban have lorded over for six years, and where they remain a menacing presence, American officers say their troops alone are not enough to reassure Afghans. Something is missing that has left even the recently appointed district governor feeling dismayed. “I don’t get any support from the government,” said the governor, Massoud Ahmad Rassouli Balouch.

....Even with the new operation in Helmand Province, which involves the Marines here and more than 3,000 others as part of President Obama’s troop deployments, the military lacks the troop strength even to try to secure some significant population centers and guerrilla strongholds in central and southern Helmand.

The New York Times today:

American military commanders with the NATO mission in Afghanistan told President Obama’s chief envoy to the region this weekend that they did not have enough troops to do their job, pushed past their limit by Taliban rebels who operate across borders.

....The possibility that more troops will be needed in Afghanistan presents the Obama administration with another problem in dealing with a nearly eight-year war that has lost popularity at home, compounded by new questions over the credibility of the Afghan government, which has just held an as-yet inconclusive presidential election beset by complaints of fraud.

OK then.  More troops aren't getting the job done because we're not getting any support from the Afghan government.  So we're going to ask for more troops.

OK, OK: I know that's just a smart ass comment.  In fact, here's some good news from McClatchy: "Pakistan's extremist Taliban movement is badly divided over who should be its new leader, and analysts and local tribesmen say the al Qaida-linked group may be in danger of crumbling."  Though even that's a mixed blessing.  The second NYT story suggests that the death of Baitullah Mehsud, which set off the problems in the Pakistani Taliban, may also cause the Pakistani army to lose interest in the tribal areas and move on to other, shinier toys.

Overall, the evidence suggests that steadily increasing U.S. troop strength has had virtually no effect in the past; that the Taliban is getting continually stronger; that the central government is corrupt and incompetent; and that even under the best circumstances the Afghan army can't be brought up to speed in less than five years.  At the same time, U.S. commanders say they understand that they have only 12-18 months to turn things around.

Someone needs to explain to me how that's going to happen.  Anything even remotely plausible will do for a start.  Because I sure don't see it.

Death Books

| Sun Aug. 23, 2009 12:38 PM EDT

Sweet Jesus.  We've gone from death panels to death books?  Crikey.

BTW, I just did a Nexis search, and as near as I can tell the pamphlet in question wasn't mentioned a single time between 2006 and last month.  In other words, until it became a political football this week, not one single person thought this issue was important to enough to mention even in passing in any news outlet whatsoever.  The reason, of course, is that before now no one actually thought this was outrageous.  Because it isn't.