Kevin Drum - March 2012

Is Barack Obama a Murderous Sociopath?

| Wed Mar. 14, 2012 4:09 PM PDT

Glenn Greenwald commends to our attention today a piece by Jeremy Scahill about the imprisonment of Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye. You should read all of Scahill's piece, but here's the nickel summary for those of you who won't.

On December 17, 2009, the Yemeni government — "with American assistance" — launched an attack on an alleged al-Qaeda site in the village of al Majala. The Yemeni government claimed that its own air force was responsible for the attack, but Shaye visited the site and photographed pieces of Tomahawk missiles (helpfully labeled "Made in the USA") that the Yemeni air force doesn't possess. He also revealed that 14 women and 21 children were among the casualties. Seven months later Shaye was seized by Yemeni security forces who, according to a friend of Shaye's, warned him to shut up and then dumped him back on the street. But Shaye didn't shut up, and a month later he was arrested, thrown in prison, probably tortured, and then tried and convicted on charges of aiding and abetting al-Qaeda.

But that's not the end of the story. Tribal leaders immediately began pressuring the Yemeni president to pardon Shaye, and a month after Shaye's conviction a pardon was in the works. But then, on February 3rd, 2011, in a phone call, President Obama "expressed concern" over Shaye's release. After that the pardon was shelved and Shaye remains in prison to this day.

But why? "There is no doubt that Shaye was reporting facts that both the Yemeni and US government wanted to suppress," says Scahill, and he quotes Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar at Princeton University who was in frequent contact with Shaye, saying much the same thing: "Certainly Shaye's reports were an embarrassment for the US and Yemeni government," says Johnsen, "because at a time when both governments were seeking and failing to kill key leaders within AQAP, this single journalist with his camera and computer was able to locate these same leaders and interview them."

Scahill is circumspect about going further, but Greenwald isn't:

There is one reason that the world knows the truth about what really happened in al Majala that day: because the Yemeni journalist, Abdulelah Haider Shaye, traveled there....Shaye’s real crime is that he reported facts that the U.S. government and its Yemeni client regime wanted suppressed.

Now we get to the part where I wonder what's really going on. Because here's the thing: the attack on al Majala was no secret. It happened on December 17, and the very next day, on its nightly newscast, ABC News reported this:

On orders from President Barack Obama, the U.S. military launched cruise missiles early Thursday against two suspected al-Qaeda sites in Yemen, administration officials told ABC News in a report broadcast on ABC World News with Charles Gibson.

....Until tonight, American officials had hedged about any U.S. role in the strikes against Yemen and news reports from Yemen attributed the attacks to the Yemen Air Force.

....Along with the two U.S. cruise missile attacks, Yemen security forces carried out raids in three separate locations. As many as 120 people were killed in the three raids, according to reports from Yemen, and opposition leaders said many of the dead were innocent civilians.

This story was picked up fairly widely, including in this detailed report from Bill Roggio and in this post from Glenn himself. So while Shaye's photos might have been the kind of smoking-gun proof you'd need in a courtroom, within a few hours of the strike it was common knowledge that U.S. cruise missiles had done most of the damage and that there were local reports of many civilian casualties.

So is President Obama keeping an innocent Yemeni journalist in prison merely because he reported facts that Obama wanted suppressed? If I said that I find that hard to believe, I supposed I'd be accused of terminal naiveté or possibly an acute case of Obama worship. But what's the alternative? Everything that Shaye reported in 2010 had long since been common knowledge. Obama has suffered, as near as I can tell, literally zero embarrassment from this episode. The al Majala attack got a small bit of media attention when it happened and has been completely forgotten since.

So what kind of person would pressure the Yemeni president to keep an innocent journalist in prison over a slight so tiny as to be nearly nonexistent? Almost literally, this would be the act of a sociopath.

The U.S. government insists that Shaye is no mere journalist. "Shaye is in jail because he was facilitating Al Qaeda and its planning for attacks on Americans and therefore we have a very direct interest in his case and his imprisonment," says Gerald Feierstein, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen. Is that true? I have no idea.

But which do I find more likely? That Shaye is indeed affiliated with al-Qaeda based on evidence that hasn't been made public? Or that Barack Obama is a sociopath who pressures foreign leaders to keep innocent journalists in prison based on the fact that they very slightly annoy him? Call me what you will, but I have to go with Door A. U.S. attacks within Yemen might be bad policy. The entire war on al-Qaeda might be bad policy. What's more, Obama — along with the entire security apparatus of the United States — might be specifically wrong about Shaye. But I don't believe that they're simply making this story up because of a basically inconsequential piece that Shaye wrote two years ago. That just doesn't add up.

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A Simple Technique to Turn Yourself Into a Genius

| Wed Mar. 14, 2012 12:19 PM PDT

Via Tyler Cowen, Tony McCaffrey, a psychology PhD from the University of Massachusetts describes a systematic way of coming up with creative solutions to problems. He calls it the "generic parts technique":

Here's how GPT works: "For each object in your problem, you break it into parts and ask two questions," explains McCaffrey, who is now a post-doctoral fellow in UMass's engineering department. "1. Can it be broken down further? and 2. — this is the one that's been overlooked — Does my description of the part imply a use?"

So you're given two steel rings and told to make a figure-8 out of them. Your tools? A candle and a match. Melted wax is sticky, but the wax isn't strong enough to hold the rings together.

What about the other part of the candle? The wick. The word implies a use: Wicks are set afire to give light. "That tends to hinder people's ability to think of alternative uses for this part," says McCaffrey. Think of the wick more generically as a piece of string and the string as strands of cotton and you're liberated. Now you can remove the wick and tie the two rings together.

Does this work? Beats me. But according to McCaffrey, "obscure features and obscure functions" are the key to every single innovation he's studied. What's more, in a study he did, "People trained in GPT solved eight problems 67 percent more often than those who weren't trained."

However, I suppose the best part is that it sounds relatively simple, and we all love simple techniques, don't we? The next time I'm stumped about something I'll give this a try and report back to you.

The Republican War on Teleprompters Backfires

| Wed Mar. 14, 2012 10:50 AM PDT

Jon Chait comments on recent polling showing that residents of Alabama and Mississippi mostly don't believe that Barack Obama is a Christian:

My good friend Michelle Cottle, a southern expatriate, took umbrage that this was “cultural profiling.” Okay, but why are these states the first ones we’ve seen that have sullen convicts in garish prisoner stripes hauling around ballot boxes? We have been able to follow primary voting in many other parts of the country without wondering if we had dropped in on a scene from Cool Hand Luke. A flustered Wolf Blitzer, taking in the scene, commented awkwardly, “they’ve been asked — they’ve been told, actually” to haul ballot boxes. What we have here is a failure to communicate.

And speaking of a failure to communicate, the Republican war on TelePrompTers has poetically backfired. It began as a quasi-racist meme among the fever swamps of the right, a way for right-wingers to express their belief that Obama is a brainless talking doll. By catering to it, Republicans backed themselves into a position where they can’t use TelePrompTers at all. The result is a series of rambling election night speeches that manage to be at once frightening and dull. The speeches, like the race, just go on and on and on.

Do all those terrible election night speeches really suck because the candidates are refusing to use teleprompters? I thought it was just because each one of the remaining Republican candidates is either awkward or snarling or self-righteous or some combination of all three. But here's what I really want to know: what's the legal truth of the whole TelePrompTer vs. teleprompter thing? If I use it without all the weird capitalization, will some Madison Avenue lawyer send me a nasty letter demanding a correction? According to Wikipedia:

The word teleprompter, with no capitalization, had become a genericized trademark, because it is used to refer to similar systems manufactured by many different companies. The United States Patent Office does not have any live trademarks registered for the word "teleprompter", but this does not rule out the possibility of a company enforcing the trademark without registering it.

Hmmm. The actual TelePrompTer Corporation sold its prompting business in the early 60s and got into the cable TV business. The corporation was later sold to Westinghouse, then to the New York Times, and finally to Bright House Networks. So if there's any trademark here at all, presumably it's owned by Bright House, which isn't in the prompter business and couldn't care less if I capitalize the name.

So why do so many people keep doing it?

The Weird Politics of Simpson-Bowles

| Wed Mar. 14, 2012 9:57 AM PDT

Steve Benen is amused at renewed conservative love for the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan:

Perhaps now would be a good time to note a relevant detail that's gone largely down the memory hole: Republicans used to hate the Simpson-Bowles plan. In fact, the reason it's called the "Simpson-Bowles plan" instead of the "Simpson-Bowles commission plan" is that GOP officials on the panel refused to support it, guaranteeing the commission's failure. Indeed, how many of the Republican lawmakers on the panel agreed to endorse the chairmen's plan? Zero.

Actually, I don't think that's quite true. The Republican House contingent all voted no, but the Republican senators supported the plan. It failed because it needed a supermajority of 14 out of 18 votes, but failed to win support from three Republicans and four Democrats.

But this doesn't spoil Steve's point much. The House Republicans were the tea party contingent, the ones who represent the base of the party these days. And they refused to support the plan because they refused to support anything that included so much as a nickel of revenue increases. This remains firm Republican orthodoxy to this day, which means that anything like Simpson-Bowles remains dead to this day.

On the campaign trail, claiming that "President Obama ignored the report of his own commission!" might be a good applause line among the muppets1, but the plan Obama did support during the debt ceiling fracas last year was actually more right-wing friendly than Simpson-Bowles was. And Republicans erupted in revolt against that too. There's just no there there as long as Republicans remain stuck in holding-their-breath-til-their-faces-turn-blue mode.

1According to Greg Smith, this is how Goldman Sachs directors refer to clients that they consider gullible and naive. Since this is how Republican leaders seem to view their own supporters, it seems appropriate here too.

Is it Science or Is it Bullshit?

| Wed Mar. 14, 2012 9:21 AM PDT

Someone at Modeled Behavior — they like to coyly keep us guessing who — tweeted this today: 

Yeah, probably. But that reminds me. Apropos of something I posted a few days ago but don't remember, as well as a recent blog conversation with Matt Yglesias about the value of empirical research, plus Mark Kleiman reminding me a few days ago of the old saw that "you can't take the con out of econometrics" — anyway, apropos of all that, I think the world desperately needs someone to write a regular feature called "Is it Science or Is it Bullshit?" This would most likely focus on headline-grabbing research in the areas of medicine, economics, sociology, and general culture, but there's no reason not to find some bullshit in the harder sciences too. Just not as much, probably.

In any case, think of it as after-the-fact peer review with an attitude. The winning candidate for this position will have a pretty good mathematical background, a sneering contempt for sloppiness, an obsessive attention to detail, a willingness to read mounds of tedious crap, and probably a fairly severe case of insomnia. You'd also need to be really fast, since debunking bullshit a month after every news outlet in the country has hyped it does no one any good. It needs to be debunked the day it hits the streets. (Or praised, of course. We're looking for rigor here, folks.)

Oh, and the job doesn't pay anything. Anyone interested?

Greg Smith Tells Goldman Sachs to Take Their Job and Shove It

| Wed Mar. 14, 2012 8:05 AM PDT

Greg Smith quit his job at Goldman Sachs today, and he quit in a way that most of us can only dream of: by giving his firm a gigantic middle finger on the op-ed pages of the New York Times. Goldman, he says, just isn't the hardworking, principled firm it used to be:

What are three quick ways to become a leader? a) Execute on the firm’s “axes,” which is Goldman-speak for persuading your clients to invest in the stocks or other products that we are trying to get rid of because they are not seen as having a lot of potential profit. b) “Hunt Elephants.” In English: get your clients — some of whom are sophisticated, and some of whom aren’t — to trade whatever will bring the biggest profit to Goldman. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t like selling my clients a product that is wrong for them. c) Find yourself sitting in a seat where your job is to trade any illiquid, opaque product with a three-letter acronym.

....It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off. Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as “muppets,” sometimes over internal e-mail. Even after the S.E.C., Fabulous Fab, Abacus, God’s work, Carl Levin, Vampire Squids? No humility? I mean, come on. Integrity? It is eroding. I don’t know of any illegal behavior, but will people push the envelope and pitch lucrative and complicated products to clients even if they are not the simplest investments or the ones most directly aligned with the client’s goals? Absolutely. Every day, in fact.

Felix Salmon, for one, is skeptical of Smith's motives. I'm having a hard time too. If this were someone who started working for Goldman in the 60s, it would be easier to find him believable. But Smith started out at Goldman in 2000. He was a senior member of the firm during the height of the housing/derivatives bubble. This was not a period of time famous for its integrity and client-centered focus. So what, exactly, has changed in the past four or five years compared to then? Smith is maddeningly unclear about this.

So it's a little hard to know what to make of this. Is Greg Smith a disgruntled employee? A genuinely outraged man of honor? Hopelessly naive? Angling for a job at the SEC? Planning to open his own boutique firm and hoping to gain a reputation for unusual probity? It is a mystery. But it'll be interesting to follow Smith on the talk show circuit, which is his obvious next destination. Perhaps things will become more clear after a few more people have grilled him about this.

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Finally, California Might Actually Matter

| Tue Mar. 13, 2012 8:18 PM PDT

John Holbo muses over tonight's razor-close election results:

One of the many, many reasons to hope the unusually silly primary season stretches on and on is that eventually we get to New York (April 24). Maybe all the way to California (June 5). What if California actually matters? If Newt and Santorum are still hanging on, how are they going to pander shamelessly to California voters?

This is a good question, and one I've been wondering about too. When was the last time a California presidential primary really mattered? 1968? And what happens this time if the race actually goes that far?

One thing to keep in mind if you're not from California is that our Republicans are not like, say, Maine Republicans: kind of moderate because they live in a basically liberal state. California Republicans are fire-breathing, take-no-prisoners, down-with-the-ship Republicans. I live in Orange County, which most people think of as ground zero for conservatism in the Golden State, and it's true that we're pretty conservative here. Our county board of directors routinely turns down federal money if it's sullied in any way with connections to Obamacare. Still, as near as I can tell, OC Republicans are pussycats compared to Central Valley Republicans. I don't know if the Central Valley Rs are more conservative than Alabama Republicans, but they'd sure give them a run for their money.

Anyway, all this is to say that although Romney seems like he'd be the best bet to win California — it's a big, media-driven state; he's ahead in the polls; he's got good connections; etc. — a guy like Santorum has a chance. Maybe even a pretty good one. Does anybody out there who pays a lot of attention to state politics (which is decidedly not my thing) care to weigh in on this?

Wikipedia Claims Yet Another Victim

| Tue Mar. 13, 2012 4:09 PM PDT

The Encyclopaedia Britannica has seen its final print run:

The last edition of the encyclopedia will be the 2010 edition, a 32-volume set that weighs in at 129 pounds and includes new entries on global warming and the Human Genome Project.

....The oldest continuously published encyclopedia in the English language, the Encyclopaedia Britannica has become a luxury item with a $1,395 price tag; it is typically purchased by embassies and well-educated, upscale consumers who feel an attachment to the set of bound volumes. Only 8,000 sets of the 2010 edition have been sold, and the remaining 4,000 have been stored in a warehouse until they can be purchased.

Sad. I have a 1993 copy of the Britannica, purchased in 1994 for about a hundred dollars. I never cottoned to the macropaedia/micropaedia thing, and like everyone else, pretty much stopped using it once the internet became the font of all knowledge. As you can see, today its primary use is to lift my monitor to eye level, which I suppose is especially humiliating when I'm using the monitor to read something from Wikipedia. But it had a good run. R.I.P Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Sarah Palin and the Queen of England

| Tue Mar. 13, 2012 1:50 PM PDT

I don't get HBO and didn't see Game Change this weekend, so I missed the fact that the film unearthed yet another howler to add to the Sarah Palin hall of fame. Apparently she believed that the Queen of England was in charge of the armed forces:

Her confusion emerged during a coaching session with Steve Schmidt, a top McCain adviser, who asked Mrs Palin what she would do if Britain began to waver in its commitment to the Iraq war.

In one of the many rambling responses that steadily eroded her credibility during the campaign, Mrs Palin reportedly replied that she would "continue to have an open dialogue" with the Queen.

A horrified Mr Schmidt informed her that that the prime minister, then Gordon Brown, would be responsible for the decision.

If the economy had stayed strong just a year longer, Palin might well be a heartbeat away from the presidency as we speak, my friends. A heartbeat away.

Hat tip goes to T.J. Simers. Just goes to show that a habit of reading the sports page during my morning, uh, rituals occasionally pays off.

Building a Better Taco

| Tue Mar. 13, 2012 11:39 AM PDT

Why are tacos from food trucks better than tacos from restaurants? Felix Salmon has a theory:

My favorite theory is that it basically comes down to the amount of time that elapses between the taco being made and the taco being eaten. Fillings can stay warm and delicious for a while, but the tortilla really is at its very best within seconds of coming off the stove, rather than getting soggy at the bottom of a tortilla warmer brought to you by your server. I suspect that if you could walk into the kitchen of a decent taco restaurant and get the chef to make you one then and there, it too would taste better than the same taco ordered off the menu.

This sounds right. My favorite taco place (a restaurant, not a truck) seems to deliver tacos to my table in a pretty fresh state. I'm no foodie, but the shells seem to be hot off the griddle most of the time, and that does indeed make the taco taste better.

Alternatively, if we did a blind taste test maybe it would turn out that tacos from trucks aren't any better than tacos from restaurants. Perhaps we just like the idea of eating food from trucks?