Kevin Drum - August 2010

14th Amendment Crackpottery

| Wed Aug. 4, 2010 2:12 PM EDT

The folks at First Read are gobsmacked:

Out of touch? By now, you've probably heard about the GOP push — embraced by Mitch McConnell, Jon Kyl, and even John McCain and Lindsey Graham — to hold Senate hearings into whether the 14th Amendment should be amended. At issue: the 14th Amendment granting automatic citizenship rights to anyone born in the United States, even the offspring of illegal immigrants. Just askin, but do these Republicans want to be tied to wanting to change this historic, post-Civil War amendment, which made former slaves and their children full citizens in this country? At a time of 10% unemployment and two wars, do politicians really want to debate a Constitutional Amendment from the 19th century? For the GOP, does this help them with their problem at wooing non-white votes? This seems a tad tone deaf; it may be popular with folks who listen to talk radio or watch evening infotainment debate shows but really?

As a friend says, "Yes, Really." But look: there's no mystery here. Republicans know perfectly well this isn't going anywhere, but they also know that symbolic issues like this are great for firing up their base. People like me scratch our chins and wonder why their base falls for this schtick so regularly when Republicans never follow up on this stuff, but that's not the point. The point is....to make a point. They're just signalling to their base that their hearts are in the same place and their values are aligned. And that's good politics.

Democrats, as critics like Drew Westen routinely point out, aren't as good at this. This might have something to do with the liberal temperament, but I sort of doubt it. More likely, it's just that the liberal base is smaller. When Republicans pander to conservative hot buttons, they're pandering to something like two-thirds of the party. When Democrats do it they're pandering to about a third of the party. So the arithmetic is simple: for Republicans this kind of pandering is a winner, probably producing more votes than it loses. Among Democrats it's just the opposite, so they don't do it as much. There's too much risk of offending large numbers of independents, as well as the (still) fairly significant number of conservative Democrats.

As for why the press continues to treat this stuff seriously, I think this is the reason: they know perfectly well that this is just political puffery, but they figure that all's fair in love and politics. Who are they to tell the parties how to pander to their own base? Quite the vicious circle, no?

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Facebook Bleg

| Wed Aug. 4, 2010 1:19 PM EDT

This is a small abuse of the blog for purposes of personal mental hygeine, but.....

As part of its campaign to take over the world, Facebook has persuaded more and more sites to install its social networking widget. Unfortunately, beginning on Saturday, it started driving my browser nuts. I finally figured out how to uninstall it on the Washington Post front page, but since then I've noticed half a dozen other sites using it too. Every one of them sends my browser into overdrive, refreshing manically two or three times a second as it tries to figure out what the latest news from all my Facebook buddies is.

Of course, it's only a problem on Opera. Firefox and Explorer work fine. Sigh. Which means no one cares. But maybe someone does! Anyone else having this problem? After a bit of trial and error I've blocked *facebook.com/plugins* and this seems to mostly fix the problem, but I know deep in my heart that it's going to end up causing some kind of unforeseen massive system failure in the future. It always does. Anyone have any advice about how to fix this for real?

Eating Our Seed Corn

| Wed Aug. 4, 2010 12:28 PM EDT

And now, combining yesterday's post about the value of preschool with today's post about federal aid to strapped state budgets, here's the latest news on budget cuts aimed at the worst possible place:

States are slashing nearly $350 million from their pre-K programs by next year and more cuts are likely on the horizon once federal stimulus money dries up, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. The reductions mean fewer slots for children, teacher layoffs and even fewer services for needy families who can't afford high-quality private preschool programs.

....Wealthier parents can afford to send their kids to private preschools, but children from poorer families will likely languish in lower-quality childcare that doesn't prepare them for kindergarten, experts said.

....Marci Young, director of the Pew Center on the States' Pre-K Now program, said prekindergarten is the key to helping the Obama administration achieve one of its main goals — improving persistently failing schools. "When you're thinking about turning around low performing schools or making sure you're helping close the achievement gap ... you've got to start in the early years," said Young.

She pointed to studies that show states see a $7 return for every $1 they invest in early education because children who attend prekindergarten are more likely to not need remedial education, to graduate from high school, to go to college and to have higher-paying jobs that produce more taxes.

Sounds like socialism to me! Here in America we prefer nature red in tooth and claw. For poor people, anyway.

Arguing With Conservatives

| Wed Aug. 4, 2010 12:12 PM EDT

Who should liberals be arguing with right now? Option A: the smartest, freshest thinkers on the other side. That's who you should test your ideas against. Option B: actual influential conservatives, since they're the ones who control Congress and determine what happens in the real world.

Smart conservatives think the answer is Option A. And I don't blame them! Hell, I get bored with shooting ducks in a barrel anyway, and it would be great to have more meaningful conversations, stretch our minds a bit, and maybe even raise the profile of the non-Tea Party wing of modern conservatism in the process. The problem is that the non-Tea Party wing is pretty damn small these days, which means that conversations like this pretty quickly take on an air of la-la land. Take this exchange between Ezra Klein, for the left, and Reihan Salam for the NTP right, about a supposed "consensus" among Republicans that they're in favor of federal aid to states as long as states are willing to reform their budgeting processes. Here's Ezra:

When asked to name some legislation, Reihan didn't come up with much. "That is the basic idea behind Sen. Scott Brown’s Fiscally Responsible Relief for Our States Act," Reihan said. But Brown's proposal — a proposal from one of the most moderate Republicans who is representing one of the most liberal states in the union — doesn't have any co-sponsors, so it's hard to see how it represents a consensus....Moreover, making aid conditional on budget reform is not the basic idea behind Brown's bill. Just ask Brown.

....The basic idea behind Brown's bill is that state aid should be funded using preexisting stimulus dollars. That's what he talks about in the video. He doesn't say anything about conditions. And to double-check, I read the bill. Still nothing.

It's possible I'm missing something in the legislative language, but from what I can see, Brown's bill doesn't make aid conditional on state reforms, and it doesn't have Republican co-sponsors. It provides no evidence for the contention that Republicans would happily partner with Democrats on state aid, if only Democrats would embrace more stringent conditions.

My guess is that making aid conditional on states developing fiscally sound long-term budgets is unworkable. It's too hard to define what "sound" means, it would take too long to do it, and it's next to impossible to guarantee that states would stick to their bargains once the crisis has passed. But it would be an interesting discussion. Way more interesting than, say, commenting on Sean Hannity's latest attack on the New Black Panthers.

Unfortunately, you'd have to be happy leading an essentially monk-like existence to do this on a regular basis. In the real world Republicans are mostly yammering about the Ground Zero mosque and other assorted idiocies, not developing creative proposals that address actual problems. Even Paul Ryan's "Roadmap" proposal, which I don't think is nearly as smart as consensus has it, can't get any real support in the Republican caucus. They're too busy pretending that they're going to repeal healthcare reform or get rid of the 14th amendment. Bottom line: I don't demand a huge conservative groundswell before I start blogging about some of these more moderate proposals, but there's got to be some support for them. Otherwise this is just a dorm room bull session.

Flying Windmills

| Wed Aug. 4, 2010 1:08 AM EDT

OK, let's end the day with a bit of (potentially) good news: flying turbines. The basic idea is simple: the wind gets stronger the higher up you are, so why not build flying turbines that hover a mile or two above the earth and crank out the megawatts? Gar Lipow looks into the future and explains:

Other factors being equal, the power available from wind is the cube of its speed....A turbine at ten kilometers can generate eight or more times the energy of a turbine at 100 meters. Estimated high altitude energy potential is about 100 times all energy human civilization currently consumes.

....Kites have been used for millennia, balloons for centuries, motorized planes and helicopters for more than 100 years. Put turbines on an automated kite, plane, balloon or helicopter with no human pilot. Run a tether to transmit the electricity to the ground, and in (in many cases) to provide power for the initial launch. The result is a flying energy generator....This is not merely an idea. A number of companies have working prototypes. It has been proven possible, though not yet practical.

The rest of his piece includes a long Q&A that answers most of the obvious questions (Is it safe? What kind of tether do you need? Would it interfere with airplanes?). The video above shows one concept. I would have used this one instead, which looks cooler, but apparently the folks at Joby Energy don't really want anyone embedding their videos. In any case, I for one look forward to our jetstream-powered future.

The Secret Code That Controls Your Destiny

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 11:34 PM EDT

In David Corn's piece this morning, Rep. Bob Inglis told a story about meeting up with some constituents who earnestly regaled him about the sinister origins of the number on the back of your Social Security card. "That number indicates the bank that bought you when you were born based on a projection of your life's earnings," they told him.

Good times. But it got me wondering: what number on the back of your Social Security card? I haven't owned a physical Social Security card for decades, so I couldn't check. Luckily, Marian is more conscientious than I am and managed to dig hers up. Sure enough, there's a number on the back. But what's it for?

To my disappointment, a Google search didn't turn up much. However, I did run across a blog post that recounted a few interesting tidbits about Social Security numbers. Interesting, but not what I was looking for. Pay dirt was in the comments. I figure we could all use a laugh now and then, so here it is: the meaning of the numbers. Enjoy.

F. Howles: Here’s one to research. What’s the red numbers on the back of a social security card for?

Captian Jack Sparrow: Does anyone know what those red numbers on the back are for. I am very curious as well.

freedomfighter: about that serial or whatever on the back…im researching it but from what I’ve gathered that is a bank routing number linking you as property of some royalty british bank.

golbguru: Do you have a reference for this statement: “but from what I've gathered that is a bank routing number linking you as property of some royalty british bank.” ? As far as I am concerned that’s total BS.

freedomfighter2: I’m actually looking for documentation but all I remember is hearing about it in some google video…not the most reassuring evidence, but for now until im disproven I suggest leaving it as an option…when i come across the video ill post it.

Puzzled: I’m still trying to find out more about the numbers on the back of Social Security cards. My friend’s card has red numbers. Mine are of another color and I don’t know why.

Puzzled: By the way, about that thing that you think is BS, with your SSN being tied to some royal british bank is in fact completely true. Your SSN is tied to Social Security Administration which is tied directly to the Federal Reserve System, which is privately owned by stock-holding banks, one of which is Barclay’s, a Royal Britich Bank, as well as several American banks, which are also British owned and controlled.

Beaver: I heard an urban legend that the red numbers on the back of the social security card are your EIN, employer ID number. If you’re just a regular John Doe citizen, you’re an employee of the US Corporation, and are in fact yourself a corporation. That’s why you use the number on the front, your employee ID number (SSN). Supposedly, if you have a replacement card issued to you, the number on the back will come in red ink, and you can use it to declare that you’re a soveriegn American and not a citizen OF the United States....If you use the number on the back, the “tracking number for blank cards” printed in red ink, you’re claiming ownership of the card and the chattel property it represents. You are the chattel property. If you don’t, they “own” you. You’re their chattel property, and you’re being used as collateral on the bankruptcy the US Govt. filed to the international banking houses back in the 1930’s, the time of the great depression.

ChelC: came upon this when someone referred me here:

http://activequote.fidelity.com/mmnet/SymLookup.phtml?QUOTE_TYPE=&scCode=M&searchBy=F&searchFor=76E52351078&submit=Search

They told me to enter the year of my birth, followed by the red number. Select Mutual Fund and Fund number. You will find out what yours is if you have one. So, if I was born in 76, I would enter 76xxxxxxxx.

Fed Up: I called Social Security headquarters asking about this. The representative had the following four answers: 1) “No idea, hold on.” 2) “Hold on, I have never heard of that.” 3) “I am still checking, I have never had this question before.” And finally 4) “It refers to when the card was issued. It is a reference number, having nothing to do with your SS #.”

RON: The # on the back of your ssn card is “Priority Exemption Acc. #” The letter represents the Federal Reserve Bank that hold the bond the 8 digits is the acc. #

chandra: Is there a way to research the federal reserve bank that corresponds with the letter???

a good samaritan: There’s ten bonds associated with one SSN at the Fed. The number on the back of the card is only one of ten numbers which identifies the bond it’s associated with. The bond, which is held by the Fed, has an account associated with it. This is the account talked about called “Private Exemption”. The only way to take control of these bonds/accounts is through the Depository Trust Company.

Strobel: Looking for more information on the red numbers on the back of the SS card. A guy I met told me he pays his monthly bills using that number. It is supposedly a bank routing number attached to the British bank some people here have mentioned. Does anyone have any more specifics on this?

No One: well to answer your questions about the red numbers on the back of your cards when i was working for the government i learned that during the great depression the government started investing in the world market in our names and using our ssn #’s so that if that ever happened again they could pay out the unemployed.

Falcon: So far in my research I have heard many different theories on how to go about capturing your STRAWMAN, charging up your treasury account, and discharging your debt. The problem is, they are all theories!

Please beware my friends of people who want to charge you money for this information. I paid out a pretty penny so far and the information I received is conflicting. I have some friends that are working with a “Patriot” who has gladdly accepted many thousands of dollars from them as a fee to help them and so far all that has happened is they got there bank accounts closed for righting fraudelent checks. Nobody has been arrested though so that is interesting but I am following there progress closely.

At this point, as you can see, it's actually getting kind of pathetic. These stories always seem pretty silly, but there are plenty of bottom feeders who prey on the kind of people who believe this stuff.

But of course, I don't want to leave you without the answer. What is the number on the back of your Social Security card? Here's the answer:

FedWorker: The numbers on the back are inventory control. Each paper blank now has a number and must be accounted for

And a bit more detail from a speech by Donald Walton, a U.S. bankruptcy trustee, on eight "key signs that can identify a subject social security card as either legitimate or fraudulent." Here's #7:

7. Sequential Control Number. On the rear of a legitimate card there is a sequential control number. The control number is a combination of alpha and numeric that bears no relation to the actual social security number on the card. However, the computer records of the Social Security Administration should show a correlation between the control number and the social security number and name on the card.

Of course, he would say that, wouldn't he? He's probably a bankruptcy trustee for the Bilderbergers.

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Stupid or Venal?

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 7:04 PM EDT

The Cordoba Initiative is an organization in New York City that wants to tear down an old building a couple of blocks from the World Trade Center site and convert it into a community center and mosque. Recently this has become famous as the Ground Zero Mosque, which Sarah Palin wants to refudiate and Newt Gingrich labels "an assertion of Islamist triumphalism which we should not tolerate." It's also, of course, the latest 24/7 ratings obsession for Fox News. Jeffrey Goldberg, not exactly a shrinking violet in matters of national security, is appalled:

The Cordoba Initiative, which is headed by an imam named Feisal Abdul Rauf, is an enemy of al Qaeda, no less than Rudolph Giuliani and the Anti-Defamation League are enemies of al Qaeda. Bin Laden would sooner dispatch a truck bomb to destroy the Cordoba Initiative's proposed community center than he would attack the ADL, for the simple reason that Osama's most dire enemies are Muslims....al Qaeda's goal is the purification of Islam (that is to say, its extreme understanding of Islam) and apostates pose more of a threat to Bin Laden's understanding of Islam than do infidels....Bin Laden wants a clash of civilizations; the opponents of the mosque project are giving him what he wants.

Mark Thompson agrees:

I can sympathize with the position advanced by some that, whether or not the project should be permitted, the property owners should choose not to build it in the proximity of Ground Zero. I may disagree with this position, but it is not for me to decide what does and does not offend others. But what is not only wrong, but also plays right into the hands of al Qaeda, is the decision by the movement Right to choose this as just the latest battleground in the culture wars with the Left, further dividing the American people in the process, as well as just another battleground in the clash of civilizations with Islam that is precisely what al Qaeda desires.

I know this is an eternal question with no answer, but I can't help but wonder what's driving this mania on the right. Is it stupidity or venality? It's one thing for a few lunatic bloggers like Pam Geller to go nuts over this kind of thing, but it's hard to believe that most rank-and-file Republican politicians, or even firebrands like Newt Gingrich, really believe what they're saying about the GZM. It's just so plainly specious and so plainly not in American interests to foster this kind of attitude. On the other hand, if they don't believe it, would even modern conservatives be cynical enough to promote this kind of obviously dangerous hysteria just for partisan purposes?

Some and some, I guess. They probably have managed to talk themselves into being offended and they probably really are willing to exploit this kind of xenophobia for their own ends even if it almost certainly harms American goals in the Middle East. But even after years of having my face rubbed into this kind of behavior, it still freshly dismays me whenever I run into it again because, somehow, it always seems one notch worse each time. I guess I'm just terminally unworldly or something. In any case, I think Andrew Sullivan has a pretty good take on it:

It has always seemed to me that this war against al Qaeda is a war for religious freedom, and ultimately for the separation of church and state. It is al Qaeda's psychotic conflation of politics and religion that we fight, not their religion itself. But these are very abstract things for anyone to fight for, to identify with emotionally and viscerally. And so, even when we start with good intentions and clear minds — we are fighting not Islam but Islamism, not religion but theocracy — we can soon simply drift and degenerate into more primitive associations.

What we've been watching from Palin to Gingrich is an exploitation of this human degeneracy, or in the ADL's case, sheer liberal cowardice in the face of tribalism. Even now, Gingrich and Palin fail to understand that rhetorical polarization may be good politics but it is terrible statesmanship in a war of ideas as well as physical combat. It's a long war that will only be won in the minds of most Muslims, which is why how we act remains of importance. Yes, the human psyche will make easy and common and hard-to-resist associations between a religion and an act of war by the most deranged and nihilist members of that religion.

For once, I really do miss George Bush. The damage he did to the American cause in the Muslim world is incalculable, but at least he never countenanced this kind of lunatic bigotry. Are there any Republican leaders left today who can say the same? Anyone willing to just quietly and frankly defend traditional American notions of religious freedom and traditional American notions of tolerance and decency? This is, after all, a big part of the reason that Muslims have integrated so successfully into American society. Anyone?

Skewed Incentives

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 5:56 PM EDT

We just got new windows installed in our house. It cost about $10,000 and I paid by credit card. Result: the window company had to pay a $200 fee to Visa for a transaction that probably cost about a dollar (credit risk included) and Wells Fargo rebated about half that back to me in the form of reward points that I will eventually convert into cash. In other words, I was just paid a bonus of $100 to use a credit card instead of paying with cash. Someone please explain a sane economic theory under which this makes sense.

But the windows look nice.

UPDATE: Commenter 98th Story spells things out:

I don't understand what's hard to understand here. Visa made out by netting $100 on the transaction. You made out by conveniently using a credit card and scoring $100 in rewards. And the window company made out by scoring a $10,000 dollar job, part of which included handling a $10,000 transaction in a smooth and covenient way. Maybe you wouldn't have gone with another company just because this one didn't take a credit card, but I'm positive a percentage of their customers would. Especially if they didn't quite have $10,000 to spend on windows this month, but wanted to get it done anyway. This is called a win-win-win, and it happens in capitalism all the time.

Check, check, and check. The question is, is this sane? Is it sane to aggressively incentivize people with cash discounts to buy things on credit even if they can't afford them "this month"? I'd argue that it's not, even though every individual in this transaction might come out ahead in the short term. If the financial implosion of 2008 didn't convince us of that, then I guess we deserve whatever follow-on financial collapse we get in the future.

Plus, keep in mind that I'm not opposed to credit card interchange fees. I just want them to be transparent. If everyone really is a winner from the current state of affairs, I very much doubt that Visa and Mastercard would prohibit my window installer from charging me a fee for using a credit card. So why not find out? If he did have that right, and chose not to charge me extra, it would be a strong indication that the fee is worth it to him. But if he had that right and chose to pass it along to me, it would be a strong indication that someone was trying to make a bit of monopoly rent at his expense. Why not let every merchant choose whether or not to pass along interchange fees to their customers and see what happens?

Chart of the Day: The Economy Still Sucks

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 2:34 PM EDT

Here's the latest from Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. It shows the number of people who have experienced various kinds of economic distress over the past year. In their latest poll, 44% have seen reduced wages, 41% have lost their job, 28% have lost their health insurance, and 22% have fallen behind on their mortgages. Every single one of these numbers is up since the beginning of the year.

And the political result? About what you'd expect: a year ago people trusted Democrats over Republicans by 14 points to manage the economy and by 9 points to manage the deficit. Today they trust Republicans by 13 points and 18 points respectively. I'm still willing to go out on a limb and say that Democrats will retain control of the House in November, but polls like this don't do anything for my confidence.

America's New, Peaceful Future?

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 1:52 PM EDT

Matt Steinglass is surprisingly optimistic that we're about to enter a new, more reticent age of American power projection:

There haven't been many examples lately of people learning from their mistakes, but the invasion of Iraq appears to be a mistake from which some lessons have been learned. It's difficult to imagine America returning to fantasies of easy conquest and democracy-building anytime in the next few decades, anywhere in the world. Summing up the mood, Joe Klein calls the invasion a "national disaster", and calls for new criteria for the use of American military force that are actually rather old criteria: "We should never go to war unless we have been attacked or are under direct, immediate threat of attack. Never. And never again."

I would very much like to believe this. But I really don't. We left Vietnam in 1975 and were supposedly so scarred that we'd never do anything like that again in any of our lifetimes. Your definition of "like that" might be different from mine, but a mere five years later we dipped our toe into Afghanistan and then, over the next 30 years, intervened militarily in Grenada, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Kosovo, Afghanistan 2.0, and Iraq 2.0. In other words, once every three or four years, which is about as frequently as we did this kind of thing before Vietnam. Some scarring, eh?

Right now it looks like we've learned a lesson because, aside from a bit of chest beating from frustrated neocons over Iran, no one's banging the war drums. But no one was banging the war drums in 1976, either, which is why it looked like maybe we were going to enter a new era back then too. Then the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and suddenly everything changed. So let's not declare a victory for common sense in foreign policy just yet. I'll believe things have changed when something actually happens overseas, a president tries to build support for intervention, and Congress and the public—including Joe Klein and me—balk. That will mean things have changed.

In the meantime, my friend Marc Danziger, whose son is in Afghanistan, is full of contempt for the way the Pentagon wages war ("It's like we turned the military over to the DMV") and believes that our big problem there is that "We have no strategic objective." Well, one man's strategic objective is another man's blather, but the fact is that President Obama has clearly articulated what he wants to accomplish:

I set a goal that was narrowly defined as disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda and its extremist allies, and pledged to better coordinate our military and civilian efforts....We must deny al Qaeda a safe haven. We must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future.

Now, maybe you don't like this objective. Maybe you think it needs to fit into a grander global plan of some kind. I don't, especially, but it's a perfectly legitimate view. Still, even if we had a different global plan than we do now, I don't think it would change what we want to accomplish in Afghanistan and it wouldn't change the difficulty of accomplishing it. This kind of counterinsurgency campaign is just really hard, and hardly anyone ever succeeds at it. Our current rules of engagement, which are frustrating for everyone, nonetheless seem to be about as effective as they can be. A year from now, if they're still not working, even with a huge increase in troops and an obviously highly competent officer like David Petraeus in charge, it's hard to believe that anything else would work either. The Pentagon's idea of how to wage war might or might not be as good as it could be, but failing to do the impossible is hardly evidence of it. It's primarily evidence that we've taken on an intractable task.

And we'll probably do it again. Just give us a few years to regroup and a plausible sounding enemy somewhere overseas. I'm pretty sure we'll hop right back on that horse.