Kevin Drum - March 2011

Excitement vs. Peace

| Fri Mar. 18, 2011 12:00 PM EDT

Ezra Klein endorses this sentiment from a Fast Company article on happiness:

Younger people feel happiest when they are excited, while older people equate happiness with peacefulness.

This only struck me because of how strongly I disagree with it. I'm quite a bit older than Ezra — though, admittedly, maybe not yet antiquated enough to qualify as "older" in the context of the article — but I have no interest in peacefulness at all. In fact, I feel like I'd kill for some genuine excitement in my life these days. Not the constant faux tension inspired by modern media and our kindergarten-level politics, but real excitement, the kind generated by believing that there's a real chance of something new and rewarding and galvanizing taking shape.

I haven't felt that in a while. But I'd sure like to.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

What's Next in Libya?

| Fri Mar. 18, 2011 11:23 AM EDT

Jon Chait reacts to the news that Muammar Qaddafi has called a cease-fire following the UN approval of a no-fly zone over Libya:

A few lessons pertain here. First, the neocon model of standing up to aggression, while frequently wrong, is not always wrong. The model holds that dictators are like bullies, and if you make clear you'll stand up to them, they'll back down. Obviously, this way of thinking fails a lot, most notably leading up to the Iraq war, when Saddam Hussein apparently remained in total denial about U.S. intentions to depose him. One of the main flaws with the idea is that dictators who are crazy enough to carry out mass bloodshed also tend to err on the risk-seeking side in other ways, too.  But some of them have a keen sense of self-preservation.

Opponents of intervening in Libya all seemed to assume that the threat of force would automatically mean employing force. This may not turn out to be a correct assumption.

Opponents also assumed that any use of force would devolve into an occupation and/or quagmire. They may be right, and their cautions deserve to be taken seriously. But one caution I have about the caution is how deeply it has been imprinted by the Iraq war. Ross Douthat's recent column ("Iraq Then, Libya Now") views Libya almost entirely through the Iraq prism, when Iraq is not the most relevant historical example.

Iraq, of course, has lessons. But the overwhelming tendency of our foreign policy debates is to over-learn the lessons of the most recent war. I confess to this myself, as my support for the Iraq war was strongly influenced by the successful interventions of the 1990s (the Iraq war, Bosnia, Kosovo.) In war, things usually go differently than we expect -- often for the worse, but not always.

Points taken. It's true that nearly everyone has a tendency to over-learn the lessons of the last war. That was one of the conclusions of Gideon Rose's excellent How Wars End. However, it's worth keeping in mind that his other conclusion is that political actors almost never think through post-war scenarios clearly enough.

In this case, that means wondering what happens after the cease-fire. Can Qaddafi simply leave a big chunk of his country in rebel hands? I don't see how, and this means that one way or another this war has to either simmer along forever (unlikely) or else come to some kind of definitive end. I'd bet on the latter: This cease-fire isn't going to last forever, and Qaddafi is highly unlikely to just give up. So what then?

We'll see. I doubt that Qaddafi has simply folded his tent in the face of a UN resolution. More likely, he's taking a breather to figure out how to continue prosecuting the war in a way that's relatively safe from air power alone. If that's the case, what's Plan B?

POSTSCRIPT: I should just say that I'm not discounting entirely the possibility that Qaddafi really has decided to give up. He's a weird dude, after all. It's just that the fundamentals of the situation don't make that very likely. One way or another, someone has to win this war, and it's hard to see how the rebels do that, even with air cover, unless the army defects from Qaddafi's control.

UPDATE: From the Guardian:

A disturbing call from Misrata was just broadcast on al-Jazeera which, assuming the caller was genuine, adds to the evidence that the Libyan regime is not abiding by its announced ceasefire. Mohamed Ali, who said he is at the medical centre, said there has been "indiscriminate shelling" which has wrought, "savagery and destruction on the whole city".

This is, obviously, developing as we speak.

The Limits of Tax Jihadism

| Fri Mar. 18, 2011 10:16 AM EDT

Remember the Republican abortion bill that tried to redefine "forcible rape"? That bit of the bill got removed after a public outcry, but the rest of it is still sailing through the GOP-controlled House. And in its zeal to make sure that no one anywhere ever gets an abortion, Republicans have decided that money you save via tax breaks or tax credits isn't your money after all. It's their money, and they want to make sure you spend it the way they want. Nick Baumann:

Under a GOP-backed bill expected to sail through the House of Representatives, the Internal Revenue Service would be forced to police how Americans have paid for their abortions. To ensure that taxpayers complied with the law, IRS agents would have to investigate whether certain terminated pregnancies were the result of rape or incest. And one tax expert says that the measure could even lead to questions on tax forms: Have you had an abortion? Did you keep your receipt?

....The proposed law, also known as H.R. 3, extends the reach of the Hyde Amendment—which bans federal funding for abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is at stake—into many parts of the federal tax code. In some cases, the law would forbid using tax benefits—like credits or deductions—to pay for abortions or health insurance that covers abortion. If an American who used such a benefit were to be audited, Barthold said, the burden of proof would lie with the taxpayer to provide documentation, for example, that her abortion fell under the rape/incest/life-of-the-mother exception, or that the health insurance she had purchased did not cover abortions.

Here in the Drum household, for example, Marian is very big on taking advantage of her company's cafeteria-style health plan and putting aside pre-tax dollars each year to pay for medical incidentals. This is why I always save receipts for copays or bottles of aspirin or whatnot: so Marian can get reimbursed for this stuff out of pre-tax dollars.

The GOP's normal line is that this is your money, not the government's, despite the fact that it's a tax break that obviously costs the government some revenue. But no longer. If we were to submit a claim for an abortion, I guess it would be illegal unless it were the result of rape or incest. And we'd have a gang of jackbooted IRS thugs smashing down our door and demanding that we prove it.

Or something. It's unclear, of course, what the law would actually require. But at least we finally know the limits of the GOP anti-tax fervor. In a battle between tax cuts and making it harder for women to get an abortion, it turns out that abortion demagoguery wins.

One Man's Corruption Is Another Man's.....

| Fri Mar. 18, 2011 12:13 AM EDT

Over the weekend the Washington Post ran a story about a DC lawyer who enriched herself by taking advantage of a contracting program intended to help poor Alaska natives, even though she isn’t an Alaska native. She won $500 million in federal contracts and paid herself and her family hundreds of thousands of dollars along the way. David Boaz comments:

And so far this impressive story by Robert O'Harrow Jr. has generated 4 comments, 7 tweets, 11 "likes" on Facebook, and only one other blog post that I can find. Are we so jaded that a full-page investigation of self-dealing and corruption involving affirmative action, small business, defense contracting, and complicated financial maneuvers just doesn't get our juices flowing?

Jaded? Maybe that's the right word. More concretely, though, I think the problem is that although the details of this specific case are new, nothing else is. In fact, this scam is almost legendary. The basic program to help Alaska natives was set up back in the 60s, but in the ensuing decades a series of changes were made that allowed it to be widely abused — and these changes were made very deliberately, very ideologically, and with the very determined help of former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens. Here is Benjamin Wallace-Wells, in the Washington Monthly six years ago, describing how one particular tribe tapped into this latter day gold rush:

Stevens eventually inserted an exemption in the land claims settlement act that allowed native corporations to ignore sole source contracting limits....The senator worked to obtain additional benefits for them — most notably, loopholes in tax law — but by 1992, the corporations were still having a hard time getting their feet on the ground. That's when Chugach, down to 12 employees and in bankruptcy, hired Mike Brown....Brown convinced the SBA to list Alaskan natives as eligible for minority small business loans, and realized, with gathering excitement, that they had unique access to sole-source contracts.

....By law, minority-owned corporations and their subsidiaries are required to actually have a minority as CEO....Stevens soon got his colleagues to pass legislation exempting native companies from the minority CEO rule. Then Chugach grew too big to qualify for programs favoring small businesses; Stevens lobbied for and passed an amendment letting native corporations retain their small business status regardless of how large they become. And when Chugach began to approach the nine-year limit for a single company's participation in the small business program, Stevens won yet another statutory break allowing Alaskan native firms to create endless new subsidiaries so that the parent firm could have indefinite access to contracts.

....Yet another party stood to benefit from native contracting. By 2001, Bush administration officials saw in the sole-source exemption a way to privatize government quickly. That year, a joint venture of two native corporations — Chenega and Arctic Slope — won a no-bid, $2.2 billion deal to operate the Defense Mapping Agency, which uses sophisticated computer modeling to map potential battlefields. The companies didn't have any of the technical experience these contracts demanded, but they did have something else. Unfettered by the need to provide civil service protections to their employees, they cut staff and streamlined operations more aggressively than the federal government itself could have.

[Etc. etc.]

Indian tribes aren't the only ones eager to see the exemption expanded. While some in Washington are uneasy about its costs and corrupting effects, many in the GOP leadership view it as a model for the kind of federal government they would like to see more of. It is a privatized system that circumvents the civil service, enriches politically-connected corporations, provides a trickle of money to the poor, and secures Republican power. For some conservatives, in other words, the Eskimo loophole is not a failed experiment in social engineering. It is the future.

So there you have it: it's basically GOP-friendly privatization run wild, and the rules that allowed the abuse O'Harrow uncovered were no accident. They were all part of the plan.

Obama's Accidental Success in Libya

| Thu Mar. 17, 2011 7:54 PM EDT

Here's a Twitter conversation from a few minutes ago:

Now that I've got the MoJo vote locked up, I wonder what other people think about this? I should point out clearly that I'm not saying this was necessarily a deliberate strategy on President Obama's part. Still, it strikes me that if the United States had aggressively endorsed action against Libya from the start, this would have created a tremendous amount of suspicion around the world about our intentions, and that might have been enough to derail global support. It would have been, yet again, America plus a few allies vs. everyone else. As it's played out in real life, however, other countries have taken the lead, which forces them to be truly committed to this operation, and opposition has been muted because the whole thing didn't turn into yet another big power pissing match.

Yes? No? What says the commentariat?

Yet More On Ron Schiller

| Thu Mar. 17, 2011 6:47 PM EDT

I really don't want to beat the NPR/Ron Schiller affair to death, but I guess I'm going to anyway. I continue to think that Schiller flatly did nothing wrong — at least, nothing wrong in the actionable, firing sense of the word — and I continue to be bugged by the fact that virtually nobody seems to agree with me about this. Even reporters who have finally listened to James O'Keefe's entire sting video, and now understand just how deceptively it was edited, always add a "to be sure" like this one from Time's James Poniewozik:

Whether you agree with [Schiller] or believe he's lumping economic, small-government Tea Partiers with Evangelical Christians, the fact that he's offering this political speech while representing NPR would probably be enough to get him in hot water.

Poniewozik is talking about Schiller's infamous statement that tea partiers tend to be racist and xenophobic. But here's what Schiller said right before that:

Now I'll talk personally, as opposed to wearing my NPR hat....I grew up a Republican, and am proud of that, even though I've voted mostly Democratic lately. I like the Republican Party in terms of fiscal conservatism and the fact that the Republican Party of old really believed that government has no role in personal lives, in family lives, and that government is really about other things.

So here's my question: why is nobody outraged about this? An NPR executive was caught on video saying that he admires the Republican Party's fiscal conservatism! He's obviously taking sides here and implicitly criticizing Democrats for fiscal profligacy. Is that allowable behavior?

Look: it's either a fireable offense for an NPR executive to take a political position in a private conversation or it's not. This isn't a question of whether Schiller was right or wrong. As it happens, I think he's wrong on both counts: I don't think racism is a primary motivating force behind the tea party movement, and I obviously don't believe the Republican Party is even remotely fiscally prudent. Still, there's plenty of survey evidence suggesting that tea partiers, as Jon Chait puts it, "hold distinctly reactionary views on racial issues," just as there's an argument to be made that Republicans are more fiscally prudent than Democrats. Neither view is outrageous enough to get you banned from polite society, nor should they be.

So again: it's not really a matter of the context of Schiller's remarks (though his caveat about taking off his "NPR hat" is obviously relevant). Nor is it a matter of whether it's politically counterproductive to say the things Schiller did (it probably is). Rather, it's a matter of whether an NPR fundraising executive is allowed to express provocative but widely held political opinions in a private conversation. If he's not, then we should be just as outraged about his admiration of the GOP's fiscal conservatism as we are about his belief that tea partiers are xenophobic.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Our Shiny New War in Libya

| Thu Mar. 17, 2011 3:30 PM EDT

It looks like we're going to get a no-fly zone over Libya after all. The UN Security Council plans to vote on one tonight, and the resolution is expected to pass:

Ambassadors met in the early part of the day to go over the draft resolution written by Lebanon, France and Britain that aims to establish the No-Fly Zone requested by the Arab League. Diplomats said some changes were made, but language authorizing states to take "all necessary measures" to enforce the ban on flights remained. Those measures could include targeted air strikes on Libyan military defenses. But the text excludes the possibility of an "occupation force”"

But there's more:

A source at UN headquarters in New York said military forces could be deployed "within hours" of a new security council resolution calling for states to protect civilians by halting attacks by Muammar Gaddafi's forces by air, land and sea.

The resolution would impose a no-fly zone over Libya — but a no-fly zone was no longer enough, the source said. "The resolution authorises air strikes against tank columns advancing on Benghazi or engaging naval ships bombarding Benghazi," he said.

That sounds an awful lot like a declaration of war against Libya, doesn't it? I sure hope this works.

No More Free Lunch at the Times

| Thu Mar. 17, 2011 1:02 PM EDT

The New York Times announced today that it will put up a paywall at the end of March. Felix Salmon points out that the pricing is kind of weird:

$15 per four-week period gives you access to the website and also its smartphone app, while $20 gives you access to the website also its iPad app. But if you want to read the NYT on both your smartphone and your iPad, you’ll need to buy both digital subscriptions separately, and pay an eye-popping $35 every four weeks. That’s $455 a year.

....The pricing structure is also a strong disincentive to use the iPad app at all, of course. If you’re already paying $15 every four weeks to have full access to the website, why on earth would you pay extra just to be able to read the paper on its own dedicated app rather than in Safari? I, for one, prefer the experience of reading nytimes.com on the web on my iPad, rather than reading an iPad app which has no search, no links, no archives, no social recommendations, etc etc. If the NYT wanted to kill any incentive to read and develop its iPad app, it’s going about it the right way.

Maybe so. Or maybe the Times plans to improve their iPad app to make it worth the extra money? Beats me.

Overall, Felix is pretty down on the paywall, but then, he's down on most paywalls. I'm a little happier about it than he is. Overall, the Times seems to have struck a decent balance here: you get 20 views free per month before the paywall kicks in, and you can follow links from other sites (blogs, Facebook, etc.) free. This will generate a bit of revenue from serious readers who routinely read the Times heavily, but keeps the Times widely available to casual users and also keeps them front and center among the kinds of sites that refer lots of traffic and drive online conversation. That works for me pretty well. I don't like linking to pieces that my readers can't get to (sorry about that, New Republic), but the Times paywall doesn't interfere with that. I'll have to subscribe myself, of course, but that's OK. I'm a heavy user, and there's no reason not to ask heavy users to pay for online content.

It's true, as Felix says, that a rough calculation suggests that the paywall won't initially generate a ton of revenue for the Times. Still, I really don't see a business model going forward in which companies like the Times continue to lose print subscribers as they give away their product online. One way or another, news readers have to get used to paying for content that they use heavily, and they might as well start getting used to it now. After all, if the Times, which is easily the best general purpose news outlet in the country, can't convince people to pay for their stuff, then who can?

Quote of the Day: Crying Wolf Yet Again

| Thu Mar. 17, 2011 11:47 AM EDT

From David Roberts, who continues to have trouble generating the proper amount of cynicism in his daily life, on power industry opposition to new rules designed to reduce mercury emissions:

What is surprising — what continually surprises me, even as cynical as I've gotten — is how seriously polluters are taken in each successive episode of air pollution regulation. By now the script is numbingly predictable: industry commissions rigged studies showing that compliance will threaten power reliability and jack up costs; independent reports show otherwise; politicians from coal states uncritically echo the industry perspective; the media he-said she-saids; and finally, years later, the regs turn out to be cheaper and easier to comply with than anyone guessed. Every. Damn. Time.

It is, truly, amazing. When it comes to the cost of environmental rules, industry scaremongering is virtually always wrong. And not just a little wrong. A lot wrong. Yet serious people continue to stroke their chins and take their pseudo-studies seriously.

Anyway, read the whole thing. Mercury is a huge health hazard, the new EPA rules have been in the works for decades, and mitigation technology is available that works pretty well at a reasonable cost. The power industry really doesn't have a leg to stand on here.

By the way, this is an example of what I was talking about the other day: if the nuclear industry ever hopes to be competitive with coal and gas-fired plants, then coal and gas-fired plants need to be forced to pay for their actual cost of operation, not just the part that doesn't include killing thousands of people a year. These new rules are a good start.

Who's Being Serious Here?

| Thu Mar. 17, 2011 11:00 AM EDT

Paul Ryan has taken to asking if President Obama is "an Erskine Bowles Democrat or a Nancy Pelosi Democrat?" Well, if this is the best that Bowles can do, I guess it makes Obama's choice a lot easier:

Mr. Bowles's tone on the call was grim. "The problem is real," he said. "The solutions are all painful. There is no easy way out." At one point, he said if the country doesn't do anything to tackle the debt, "we're going to have one hell of a crisis."

....Mr. Bowles had harsh words for fellow Democrats. He dismissed the idea that raising taxes alone might help erase the deficit, saying "raising taxes doesn't do a dern thing" to address health care costs that are projected to be a big driver of future fiscal problems.

If there's anything that could be called a wonkish consensus on the left, it's this: we should eliminate the Bush tax cuts in a couple of years when the economy has recovered, and we need to rein in the long-term growth of healthcare costs. It's true that taxes don't address healthcare costs,1 but it's just sophistry on Bowles' part to put it like that. Taxes do address the medium-term deficit, and that's important. Quite separately, PPACA makes a start on holding down healthcare costs and thus addressing the long-term deficit, and I hardly know anyone on the left who doesn't agree that more needs to be done.

But I doubt that I need to tell Bowles that there are no common sense ideas along these lines actually on the table, and that's not because of his fellow Democrats. It's because of congressional Republicans, who flatly refuse to consider tax increases under any circumstances whatsoever and who have no serious ideas for addressing rising healthcare costs.

Jon Chait has more on this, including a more detailed takedown of Bowles' own proposals for healthcare, which are almost laughably inadequate.

1I'm talking about the Bush tax cuts here. As Matt Yglesias and Brian Beutler point out on Twitter, excise taxes aimed at healthcare plans can indeed slow the growth of healthcare outlays.