Kevin Drum - January 2010

Chutzpah or Desperation?

| Mon Jan. 18, 2010 4:38 PM EST

The finance lobby is hard at work:

Wall Street’s main lobbying arm has hired a top Supreme Court litigator to study a possible legal battle against a bank tax proposed by the Obama administration....Executives of the lobbying group, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, wrote that a bank tax might be unconstitutional because it would unfairly single out and penalize big banks, according to these officials, who did not want to be identified to preserve relationships with the group’s members.

The message said the association had hired Carter G. Phillips of Sidley Austin, who has argued dozens of cases before the Supreme Court, to study whether a tax on one industry could be considered arbitrary and punitive, providing the basis for a constitutional challenge, they said.

Paul Krugman calls this chutzpah — which it certainly is — but what I'm curious about is why they're wasting their time on this. A tax on one industry might be considered arbitrary? The United States has loads of excise taxes that fall on individual industries. It might unfairly single out big banks? There's no constitutional bar to progressive taxes — and in any case, there are lots of compelling policy reasons to focus on big institutions. Beyond that, the federal government generally has lots of leeway both in tax policy and banking regulation. The tax would have to be way, way out of line before the Supreme Court would be likely to strike it down.

That's my amateur opinion, anyway, which is worth exactly what you just paid for it. But I'd sure like to hear from someone more knowledgable about this stuff. Is this idea as cockamamie as I think it is? Or might they really be able to make a case? And why bother fighting such a minuscule levy anyway? They should be celebrating for getting off so easily.

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Suicide or Murder?

| Mon Jan. 18, 2010 2:31 PM EST

In June of 2006 the Pentagon reported that three prisoners being held at Guantanamo had committed suicide. In Harper's this month, Scott Horton presents some eyewitness testimony suggesting that, in fact, the prisoners died as a result of torture during interrogation. According to Army Staff Sergeant Joseph Hickman, who was on duty the night of the deaths, he observed a van used for transporting prisoners make three separate trips from Camp 1, which housed the prisoners, to a secret facility outside the main perimeter that had been informally dubbed Camp No:

The night the prisoners died, Hickman was on duty as sergeant of the guard for Camp America’s exterior security force....A moment later, two Navy guards emerged from Camp 1, escorting a prisoner....When the van reached the first intersection, instead of making a right, toward the other camps, it made the left, toward ACP Roosevelt and Camp No.

Twenty minutes later — about the amount of time needed for the trip to Camp No and back — the paddy wagon returned....The guards walked into Camp 1 and soon emerged with another prisoner. They departed Camp America, again in the direction of Camp No. Twenty minutes later, the van returned. Hickman, his curiosity piqued by the unusual flurry of activity and guessing that the guards might make another excursion, left Tower 1 and drove the three quarters of a mile to ACP Roosevelt to see exactly where the paddy wagon was headed. Shortly thereafter, the van passed through the checkpoint for the third time and then went another hundred yards, whereupon it turned toward Camp No, eliminating any question in Hickman’s mind about where it was going. All three prisoners would have all reached their destination before 8 p.m.

In all, three prisoners were ferried out. Later the van returned, but instead of returning the prisoners to Camp 1 it backed up directly to the medical clinic:

Hickman says he saw nothing more of note until about 11:30 p.m, when he had returned to his preferred vantage at Tower 1. As he watched, the paddy wagon returned to Camp Delta. This time, however, the Navy guards did not get out of the van to enter Camp 1. Instead they backed the vehicle up to the entrance of the medical clinic, as if to unload something.

Hickman [...] asked his tower guards what they had seen. Penvose, from his position at Tower 1, had an unobstructed view of the walkway between Camp 1 and the medical clinic—the path by which any prisoners who died at Camp 1 would be delivered to the clinic. Penvose told Hickman, and later confirmed to me, that he saw no prisoners being moved from Camp 1 to the clinic. In Tower 4 (it should be noted that Army and Navy guard-tower designations differ), another Army specialist, David Caroll, was forty-five yards from Alpha Block, the cell block within Camp 1 that had housed the three dead men. He also had an unobstructed view of the alleyway that connected the cell block itself to the clinic. He likewise reported to Hickman, and confirmed to me, that he had seen no prisoners transferred to the clinic that night, dead or alive.

The next day, Horton reports, the camp commander called a meeting of the guards and told them that “you all know” three prisoners in Camp 1 committed suicide during the night by swallowing rags, causing them to choke to death. But then he told the guards that "the media would report something different. It would report that the three prisoners had committed suicide by hanging themselves in their cells."

There's more at the link. The evidence here isn't bulletproof, but it's strongly suggestive that the official story was a coverup. It's worth reading the whole thing.

Obama's Discontents

| Mon Jan. 18, 2010 1:02 PM EST

Bernard Avishai on the election in Massachusetts:

The "undecideds" in South Boston and working class suburbs like Lynn don't like Cambridge and Back Bay, but they respect its winners, when they act like winners....They smell insincerity a mile away. I wish I had a bluefish dinner for every time Coakley referred to the health package as "not perfect." It all came out so forced and fake.

The real question Democrats have to ask themselves is: how come the greatest piece of social legislation since Medicare is something a progressive Democratic candidate for Ted Kennedy's seat has to speak so defensively about?

And we can look no further than Howard Dean, and MSNBC, and Arianna Huffington, and, yes, some columnists at the Times and bloggers here at TPM — you know, real progressives — who have lambasted Obama again and again since last March over arguable need-to-haves like the "public option," as if nobody else was listening. They've been thinking: "Oh, if only we ran things, how much more subtle would the legislation be," as if 41 senators add up to subtle. Meanwhile the undecideds are thinking: "Hell, if his own people think he's a sell-out and jerk, why should we support this?"

The frustration on the left with Obama — and with healthcare reform specifically — was almost inevitable. During the campaign, a lot of people chose to see in him what they wanted to see, pushing to the back of their minds not just the obvious signs that Obama has always been a cautious, practical politician, but also the obvious compromises and pressures that are forced onto any president. It was a recipe for disappointment. The striking thing to me, though, is how fast the left has turned on him. Conservatives gave Bush five or six years before they really turned on him, and even then they revolted more against the Republican establishment than against Bush himself. But the left? It took about ten months. And the depth of the revolt against Obama has been striking too. As near as I can tell, there's a small but significant minority who are so enraged that they'd be perfectly happy to see his presidency destroyed as a kind of warning to future Democrats. It's extraordinarily self-destructive behavior — and typically liberal, unfortunately. Just ask LBJ, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. And then ask them whether liberal revolt, in the end, strengthened liberalism or conservatism.

I've got all sorts of complaints about Obama. He's been weaker on civil liberties than I'd like. His approach to bank regulation has been far too friendly to financial interests. I'm not thrilled with his escalation in Afghanistan. He hasn't moved as quickly on gay rights as I hoped. And he hasn't used the bully pulpit nearly as effectively as I think he's capable of. He could afford to attack obstructionism and conservative retrenchment far more directly than he has.

Still, none of that comes within light years of providing a reason to turn on him. The national security community has tremendous influence; the financial lobby has a stranglehold on Congress; Obama told us explicitly during the campaign that he planned to escalate in Afghanistan; his caution on gay rights is quite likely smart politically; and he certainly gave us fair warning about his dedication to reaching across the aisle and trying to work with Republicans. The fact that they've spent his entire first year in a raging temper tantrum is hardly his fault. Given the cards he was dealt, he hasn't done badly. I think Andrew Sullivan — writing in his Dr. Jekyll persona — gets it about right here.

Losing the Thread

| Mon Jan. 18, 2010 3:21 AM EST

Why has the public turned against Obama and the Democratic Party? Stubbornly high unemployment with no end in sight is probably the main reason, but conservatives have pitched a different story: as E.J. Dionne puts it, they blame Obama's fondness for "big government, big deficits, an overly ambitious health-care plan, a stimulus that spent too much and other supposedly left-leaning sins of the Obama regime." And their story is winning:

The success of the conservative narrative ought to trouble liberals and the Obama administration. The president has had to "own" the economic catastrophe much earlier than he should have. Most Americans understand that the mess we are in started before Obama got to the White House. Yet many, especially political independents, are upset that the government has had to spend so much and that things have not turned around as fast as they had hoped.

....The truth that liberals and Obama must grapple with is that they have failed so far to dent the right's narrative, especially among those moderates and independents with no strong commitments to either side in this fight.

The president's supporters comfort themselves that Obama's numbers will improve as the economy gets better. This is a form of intellectual complacency. Ronald Reagan's numbers went down during a slump, too. But even when he was in the doldrums, Reagan was laying the groundwork for a critique of liberalism that held sway in American politics long after he left office.

Liberals can win elections, but they still have trouble winning the narrative. There are dozens of plausible explanations for this, but the noise machine still seems like the biggest one to me. There's simply no liberal counterpart to Drudge and Fox and Rush: a conservative commentariat that concedes nothing, pounds home its points like a jackhammer, repeats its themes relentlessly, and has the ear of the Washington mainstream press in a way that liberal commentators don't. Dionne calls their approach the "audacity of audacity," and the press seems to take it as evidence of sincerity in a way that they don't with liberal arguments. As a result, even when they think conservatives are misguided the Washington press largely grants them the presumption that their beliefs are driven by deep and earnest heartland principles. Liberal positions, by contrast, are more often portrayed as a crude collection of special interests and cynical political calculations.

That's hardly the whole story, but it's a big part of it. And I'm not sure what the answer is. The noise machine, even against the backdrop of humiliating failure over the past decade, remains an overwhelming presence. For more, see Paul Krugman today.

Connecting the Dots

| Mon Jan. 18, 2010 2:27 AM EST

The New York Times reports that there are even more unconnected dots than we thought in the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Christmas bomber. For example:

In September, for example, a United Nations expert on Al Qaeda warned policy makers in Washington that the type of explosive device used by a Yemeni militant in an assassination attempt in Saudi Arabia could be carried aboard an airliner.

Considering that PETN is over a century old and was used eight years ago by Richard Reid to try to blow up an airplane, I'm pretty sure American intelligence was already aware it could be carried aboard an airliner. As new dots go, this is pretty unimpressive. But there's also this:

In early November, American intelligence authorities say they learned from a communications intercept of Qaeda followers in Yemen that a man named “Umar Farouk” — the first two names of the jetliner suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab — had volunteered for a coming operation.

Now we're talking. So in November Abdulmutallab's father warned us that his son, Umar Farouk, had been radicalized and might be dangerous, and separately a communications intercept suggested that someone named Umar Farouk had volunteered for a terrorist assignment. I gotta admit: Unless Umar Farouk is a more common name than I think, two separate warnings about the name within a few days of each other sure seems like it should have set off sirens in a database somewhere. If this is confirmed, I think I'm swinging toward the "massive intelligence failure" camp.

Video of the Day

| Sun Jan. 17, 2010 2:12 PM EST

Back in 2008, when the birther movement was loudly questioning whether Barack Obama was really born in the United States, an interviewer mentioned to Scott Brown that although Obama's mother may have been 18 when he was born, she was married at the time. "Well, I don't know about that," he chuckled.

Brown, of course, is now running for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts and trying to portray himself as a nice, moderate kind of Republican, not some kind of tea party wingnut. But I hope Massachusetts voters know what they're getting themselves into if they elect him. His moderate persona sure seems to be hiding an inner wingnut.

Anyway, here's the video. If liberals had their own version of the Drudge/Fox/Limbaugh axis, this would have been on a 24/7 loop across the country all weekend.

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Quote of the Day: John McCain Edition

| Sun Jan. 17, 2010 1:19 PM EST

Dave Weigel says this is the best Game Change quote so far. It's from John McCain:

Fuck you! Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!!!

That's a good quote. But not as poetic as this one from Sir Richard Mottram, a British civil servant, commenting on a particularly embarrassing PR fiasco:

We're all fucked. I'm fucked. You're fucked. The whole department is fucked. It's the biggest cock-up ever. We're all completely fucked.

Actually, I'm considering adopting this as my personal weltanschauung — though, as you'd expect from a weltanschauung, you need to sub in "world" for "department" and the cock-up in question would have to change daily. Still, as long as the kids are in the other room it's pretty serviceable for a wide variety of life's little predicaments.

Targeting Inflation

| Sun Jan. 17, 2010 12:47 PM EST

In general, which is a better inflation target: 2% or 4%? Matt Yglesias ponders the question here. I've long thought that the higher target is better for a variety of reasons (spurs consumption, allows wages to react to recessions faster, provides greater monetary flexibility, etc.), but my crude understanding of the situation is that even if this is all true, policymakers are afraid that once inflation targets get above 2% or so, you run the risk of a runaway spiral. Inflation of 4% is OK, but when that turns into 5% and then 7% and then 10%, you've got a big problem. And that's what happens if you're anything but maximally hawkish.

But what I don't know is whether history really supports that view. Aside from episodes of hyperinflation, which aren't really germane to our situation, do inflation targets higher than 2% often lead to an inflationary spiral? In America, the obvious historical episode is the high inflation of the 70s, but that had a variety of causes, and it's not clear that inflation targeting (implicit in this case, since the U.S. Fed doesn't have an explicit target) had anything to do with it.

Anyway, comments welcome. It's obvious that a higher inflation target right now would probably be a pretty useful thing, but how about as a general policy? Would markets go crazy, convinced that the Fed would keep raising the target whenever the economy needed a bump? Or would they shrug after a while and just revert to all of their usual non-inflation-related pathologies? My guess is the latter, but what do I know?

A Paywall for the Times?

| Sun Jan. 17, 2010 12:19 PM EST

Bad news from New York magazine:

New York Times Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. appears close to announcing that the paper will begin charging for access to its website, according to people familiar with internal deliberations. After a year of sometimes fraught debate inside the paper, the choice for some time has been between a Wall Street Journal-type pay wall and the metered system adopted by the Financial Times, in which readers can sample a certain number of free articles before being asked to subscribe. The Times seems to have settled on the metered system.

From a reading point of view, this is not a big deal to me. If I need to subscribe to the Times, I'll subscribe to the Times. But from a blogging point of view, it's a problem. An important part of the great Blogosphere Circle of Life™ is the ability for readers to click on links, both to get the full story for its own sake and to make sure bloggers are playing fair with their excerpts and commentary. If the Times cuts this off, it's a big hit.

So it's semi-good news that they're planning to adopt the FT model, where casual readers can access a dozen or so articles per month without subscribing. At least that's something. Alternatively, if they go with the WSJ model, I hope they provide some mechanism to provide short-term access for nonsubscribers. The Journal does this via email links, which provide public access to linked articles but expire after a week.

And of course, the big question: will it work? Will the Times gain more subscription revenue than they'll lose in advertising revenue? I doubt it, though that depends a lot on whether the recent collapse in online advertising revenue is just a temporary result of the recession or a reflection of long-term trends.

And the second biggest question: will other newspapers follow their lead, thus bringing to an end the great era of endless free news on the internet? Or is the Times one of the few who can even arguably pull this off? Wait and see.

The Black Death

| Sat Jan. 16, 2010 1:11 PM EST

Chapter 6 of William Bernstein's A Splendid Exchange is about the Black Death of the 14th century. It contains this passage:

Even this greatest European apocalypse is only a small part of the story. If the cultural and demographic records of the Black Death are imperfect in Europe, those for the Middle East and Far East are essentially nonexistent; there is no Arab, Indian, or Chinese Decameron.

The basic story here is that the Black Death was actually considerably worse in the Middle East than it was in Europe. In the Nile Valley, where there was no place for city dwellers to escape to (thanks to the surrounding Sahara Desert), the original plague and its aftershocks were especially devastating. Egypt never recovered.

But why are there so few non-Western accounts of the plague? 14th century Arab and Chinese culture were more advanced than European culture, after all. So why no records?