Kevin Drum - December 2011

The Newest Anti-Romney Takes the Stage

| Mon Dec. 19, 2011 2:24 AM EST

From Public Policy Polling:

Newt Gingrich's campaign is rapidly imploding, and Ron Paul has now taken the lead in Iowa. He's at 23% to 20% for Mitt Romney, 14% for Gingrich, 10% each for Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry, 4% for Jon Huntsman, and 2% for Gary Johnson.

Seriously? Ron Paul is now going to take a turn as the GOP's reigning not-Romney? Republicans are just bound and determined to figure out some way to lose next year, aren't they? If I were a shrink, I'd say they subliminally get more pleasure from wailing about the imminent decline of everything good and true than they do from actually putting one of their own guys into office. This is just bizarre.

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The Power of Fish

| Sun Dec. 18, 2011 6:46 PM EST

This is possibly the single most profound passage in Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman's memoir cum valedictory survey of cognitive biases. He's recounting a year that he spent working in Vancouver:

The Canadian government's Department of Fisheries and Oceans had a program for unemployed professionals in Toronto, who were paid to administer telephone surveys. The large team of interviewers worked every night and new questions were constantly needed to keep the operation going. Through Jack Knetsch, we agreed to generate a questionnaire every week, in four color-labeled versions. We could ask about anything; the only constraint was that the questionnaire should include at least one mention of fish, to make it pertinent to the mission of the department.

"Always make sure there's at least one mention of fish." This is, somehow, a metaphor for the entire human condition. Explaining this is left as an exercise for the reader.

Newt Gingrich and God

| Sun Dec. 18, 2011 4:41 PM EST

Newt Gingrich isn't backing down from his jihad against the federal court system, and yesterday he said this:

When pressed as to whether a president could ignore any court decision he didn’t like, such as if President Obama ignored a ruling overturning his healthcare law, Gingrich said the standard should be “the rule of two of three,” in which the outcome would be determined by whichever side two of the three branches of government were on.

That's fascinating, isn't it? Unless I'm misremembering my lessons from Schoolhouse Rock, just about every law ever passed was approved by two out of three branches of the government. So this means the Supreme Court would never be allowed to overturn a law. Surely even Gingrich doesn't believe such a thing?

Apparently not. In fact, he wants the judiciary to be independent 99% of the time — which brings to mind all the usual jokes about being a little bit pregnant — and defines the 1% this way:

Another branch would step in, Gingrich said, when a judge or a court makes a decision that is “strikingly at variance with America.”

Even for Newt this is crazy stuff. I've heard of strict scrutiny and original intent and reasonable doubt, but I've never heard of the "strikingly at variance with America" rule. But not to worry. If you read more about Newt's views on this, it turns out that "strikingly at variance with America" isn't nearly as vague as you think it is. What it really means is any court decision dealing with religion in the public square. Newt wants religion front and center in the public square and he wants it funded and fully endorsed by any level of government that's so minded. And woe betide the judge who tries to get in the way.

That's pretty much it. Oh, he also makes some noises about decisions that restrict the president's power to handle enemy combatants any way he wants, but it's really nativity scenes and prayer in public school that animate him on this subject. He doesn't just want America to be a Christian nation, he wants to make sure the government is allowed to marshal all of its considerable resources to ensure it is a Christian nation without any pesky courts getting in the way. He's a visionary, Newt is.

Kids Just Want to Have Junk Food

| Sun Dec. 18, 2011 1:20 PM EST

A little while ago the LA Unified School District embarked on an ambitious plan to get rid of junk food in its schools and replace it with healthier fare. Kids participated in tasting sessions, and only stuff that passed teenage muster was added to the menu. So how's that working out?

For many students, L.A. Unified's trailblazing introduction of healthful school lunches has been a flop. Earlier this year, the district got rid of chocolate and strawberry milk, chicken nuggets, corn dogs, nachos and other food high in fat, sugar and sodium. Instead, district chefs concocted such healthful alternatives as vegetarian curries and tamales, quinoa salads and pad Thai noodles.

There's just one problem: Many of the meals are being rejected en masse. Participation in the school lunch program has dropped by thousands of students. Principals report massive waste, with unopened milk cartons and uneaten entrees being thrown away. Students are ditching lunch, and some say they're suffering from headaches, stomach pains and even anemia. At many campuses, an underground market for chips, candy, fast-food burgers and other taboo fare is thriving.

The experiment is only a few months old, so maybe with a bit of tweaking everything will turn out OK. So far, though, it looks like kids don't react any better to having their habits forcibly changed than any of the rest of us.

How the Euro Summit Failed

| Sat Dec. 17, 2011 10:58 PM EST

This is the damnedest thing. The Financial Times reports today on why the recent EU summit to save the euro collapsed into a debacle, with Britain opting out entirely and forcing the rest of Europe to go ahead without them. The basic story, of course, is that British prime minister David Cameron demanded special protections for London's financial sector and neither Germany nor France was willing to go along. But what's striking to me is how incompetent the negotiation process was on all sides.

The FT reports that Cameron met with Angela Merkel in November and got the impression she was willing to deal. So he went home to work on a proposal, but he and William Hague kept their cards close to their vests until the very last moment:

They wanted the bid to be kept secret from two potential adversaries. The first was Mr Cameron’s hardline eurosceptics, who want an EU referendum and repatriation of powers....The second was France....Moreover, the British position was not settled till late. On Tuesday December 6, Mr Cameron assembled his chief foreign policy advisers.

[Note: the summit was due to take place December 9th.]

....It is unclear whether Mr Cameron was aware of the warning lights flashing in the Whitehall machine....From Paris, too, came warnings that Mr Sarkozy was intent on a weaker, intergovernmental pact....Berlin, meanwhile, was warning London not to overdo it in pushing Germany. Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut, Ms Merkel’s Europe adviser, was given early sight of the City protocol and said it went too far. When asked what was acceptable, German officials made clear it was not their place to draft UK demands. After a flurry of Franco-German diplomacy, a common position took shape: if the British did not temper their demands, a deal would be done without them. Days before the summit, German officials said their “pessimism was more pronounced” – words intended as a clear signal to London.

You can read the rest of the piece for more details, but what's most striking is how little communication there was here. My sense of these kinds of summits is that they're always preceded by weeks of frenzied activity among mid-level negotiators so that the top level folks just have to work out a few well-defined issues before they appear smiling before the cameras when the summit ends. But no. As near as I can tell, Merkel's advisor, Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut, got a look at Britain's demands on December 7 and refused to engage with them beyond saying they went too far. On the morning of December 8 Merkel and Sarkozy met privately. On the evening of the 8th, the FT reports, they invited Cameron to a pre-summit meeting and "ambushed" him by flatly turning down his demands. And that was that.

What the hell kind of way is that to run a railroad? It's crazy.

Now, I'll confess that this whole affair puzzles me on another level. The main point of the summit was to gain agreement for some level of European control over national budgets, with automatic sanctions for countries that run budget deficits that are too big. I can understand Spain and Greece and the other periphery countries agreeing to this under pressure. But was Britain also willing to agree to this if only they got a special deal for their financial industry? I find that frankly hard to imagine. And yet, it doesn't seem to have been a sticking point.

But why on earth would Britain, which isn't part of the euro, agree to fiscal oversight like that? What's in it for them?

In any case, it's too bad Cameron didn't figure out a way to scuttle the whole noxious mess and force Merkozy — that's what everyone calls Merkel and Sarkozy, sort of like Brangelina but without the charisma — to deal with Europe's actual problem instead of obsessing over budget deficits and idiotically unenforceable "binding" sanctions. Until they deal with the root of the problem, this is all just so much gum flapping.

Quote of the Day: Herman Cain for Defense!

| Sat Dec. 17, 2011 2:04 PM EST

From Rick Perry, explaining to an Iowa crowd that Herman Cain would make a good Secretary of Defense:

He has all the characteristics of the type of person I would bring forward.

Yes indeed, in much the same way that, say, Hannibal Lecter has all the characteristics that would make him a good food critic for the Times. I smell a Twitter meme coming on here. #allthecharacteristics

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The Other Christopher Hitchens

| Sat Dec. 17, 2011 1:56 PM EST

So, Christopher Hitchens. I've never read any of his books, only his columns and magazine essays, but am I the only one who's feeling a strong need for a bit of perspective on the guy?

Politically, he spent the 80s as a Trotskyite, the 90s in transition as a lunatic Bill Clinton hater, and the aughts as a cheerleader for the Iraq war. This is not exactly an enviable track record of considered judgment. 

As a writer, he was all over the map. His prodigious memory was, indeed, prodigious, and he was capable of brilliance. And yet, quite aside from his subject material, I never much warmed to him. His writing contained provocation aplenty, but far too much of it, I thought, was tediously bloated, a few hundred words of dashed off substance wrapped around many more hundred words of tired reminiscences, random bile, and frustratingly circuitous filler. It certainly wasn't unreadable, and sometimes it produced a charm of sorts, but mostly it neither persuaded nor even really entertained on any kind of sustained basis.

So....I guess I've never quite gotten the cult of Hitchens. He had an impressively wide-ranging intellect, he was prolific almost beyond belief, and he was (I gather) personally gregarious and a good friend to thousands. But after half an hour of rereading old columns of his, most of them in carefully curated lists of "personal favorites," I was mostly just reminded of why I never much cared for him. There just wasn't much there there.

De gustibus non est disputandum. I have the mind of an engineer, so maybe his style was just never going to appeal to me. But his personal charisma aside, he sure seems to have combined almost appallingly poor political judgment with a rambling writing style that too often used its considerable (and genuine) erudition as a mask for its lack of a really sharp, well argued point. I never had anything much against the guy, but really, the hagiography is getting a little too thick to bear.

UPDATE: For what it's worth, I should make it clear that I'm talking here solely about Hitchens' writing on politics and current affairs, not his writing about culture and literature, which I'm not qualified to judge.

Friday Cat Blogging - 16 December 2011

| Fri Dec. 16, 2011 4:04 PM EST

This has been new things week. Not really new, of course, just new enough to be newly fascinating. The nights are getting chilly here in Southern California (mid 50s!) so Marian tossed an extra quilt on her side of the bed, and Inkblot instantly fell in love. Every day he hops up on the bed and burrows under it for his late morning nap. Likewise, I got a little chilly a few nights ago and grabbed a quilt, which I then tossed onto my chair after I was done. Domino, who has never shown any interest in this chair before, claimed it immediately. Yes, she's the round black ball in the middle of the nest on the right.

In other news, today is Beethoven's birthday, so go listen to a symphony. Or, better yet, his violin concerto. And in case you're a late riser and missed my fundraising pitch this morning, you still have a chance to contribute to the Mother Jones Investigative Fund today. This is our last beg of the year, and we're trying to raise $75,000 to help fund our reporting activities for 2012. Many, many thanks to everyone who's contributed so far, whether it's $5 or $500.

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The Nitty Gritty on the NDAA

| Fri Dec. 16, 2011 2:31 PM EST

So what does the much discussed National Defense Authorization Act actually do? This is one of several topics that I've been too fatigued to seriously dive into over the past week, and after getting about 90 minutes of sleep last night I'm sure not going to do it today. Luckily, Adam Serwer has a pretty good rundown here of what it does and doesn't do. It's worth a read, especially if you're confused about all the competing claims made about it as it wound its way through the sausage factory.

Bottom line: It's probably not quite as bad as you think, but it's hardly a triumph of civil liberties either:

So what exactly does the bill do? It says that the president has to hold a foreign Al Qaeda suspect captured on US soil in military detention—except it leaves enough procedural loopholes that someone like convicted underwear bomber and Nigerian citizen Umar Abdulmutallab could actually go from capture to trial without ever being held by the military. It does not, contrary to what many media outlets have reported, authorize the president to indefinitely detain without trial an American citizen suspected of terrorism who is captured in the US.

....Still, the reason supporters like Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are happy with this bill is that it codifies into law a role for the military where there was none before. It is the first concrete gesture Congress has made towards turning the homeland into the battlefield, even if the impact in the near term is more symbolic and political than concrete.

But "symbolic" and "political" doesn't mean "meaningless." Codifying indefinite detention on American soil is a very dangerous step, and politicians who believe the military should have an even larger domestic counterterrorism role simply aren't going to be satisfied with this. In fact, if there is another attack, it's all but certain they will hammer the president should he choose not to place the suspect in military detention.

Read the whole thing for all the details.

Quote of the Day: Just Making Things Up

| Fri Dec. 16, 2011 1:24 PM EST

From Mitt Romney at last night's debate:

This is a president who fundamentally believes that the next century is the post-American century. Perhaps it will be the Chinese century. He is wrong.

Seriously, where does he get this stuff? It's just made up out of thin air. Obama's never said this or anything even close to it. We have truly entered the era of the postmodern campaign.