Kevin Drum

The Truthiest New Show on Television

| Tue Jan. 13, 2009 12:02 PM PST

THE TRUTHIEST NEW SHOW ON TELEVISION....Over at TNR, Jeffrey Rosen reviews ABC's Homeland Security USA: "Every segment inadvertently reminded us why DHS officers spend so little time protecting the homeland against violent threats: Investigations that begin by looking for terrorists come up short, so officers have no alternative but to snag people for non-violent crimes." Good to know.

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Stimulus Math

| Tue Jan. 13, 2009 11:52 AM PST

STIMULUS MATH....Jonathan Stein points me to a Washington Post story telling us that Barack Obama has decided to ditch the $3,000-per-job tax credit that was part of his original stimulus proposal. Good. It was a dumb and almost certainly unworkable idea. But there's also this:

Obama advisers said further adjustments may be made to the president-elect's tax priorities, including to a proposed $500 payroll tax credit for individuals. Many Democrats have criticized Obama's idea of distributing the benefit over 12 months, saying it would amount to about $20 per paycheck for workers who are paid every two weeks. They would prefer to distribute the credit over a shorter period.

I'm basically with Obama here. But I'd actually suggest something different: make the credit bigger, pay it out over two years, and have it automatically decline. For example, how about $2,000 paid out quarterly over two years? The credit would be $400 in the first quarter, $300 in the second and third quarters, and so on until you get down to $100 in the eighth and final quarter. This front loads the stimulus now, when it's most needed, keeps it going throughout the expected length of the recession, and makes it predictable enough that people know they can count on it. It might also strike a good balance between the amount of the stimulus that gets spent vs. the amount that gets saved. Worth a thought, anyway.

Bush's Mistakes

| Tue Jan. 13, 2009 11:26 AM PST

BUSH'S MISTAKES....Noam Scheiber points to an interesting passage from President Bush's press conference yesterday. The subject is whether he made any mistakes in office:

I believe that running the Social Security idea right after the '04 elections was a mistake. I should have argued for immigration reform. And the reason why is, is that — you know, one of the lessons I learned as governor of Texas, by the way, is legislative branches tend to be risk-adverse. In other words, sometimes legislatures have the tendency to ask, why should I take on a hard task when a crisis is not imminent? And the crisis was not imminent for Social Security as far as many members of Congress was concerned.

As an aside, one thing I proved is that you can actually campaign on the issue and get elected. In other words, I don't believe talking about Social Security is the third rail of American politics. I, matter of fact, think that in the future, not talking about how you intend to fix Social Security is going to be the third rail of American politics.

This is sort of fascinating on a few different levels. First: that Bush somehow thinks immigration reform would have been less contentious than Social Security. In what universe? He may not read blogs, but surely he and Karl Rove were at least dimly aware of what Rush Limbaugh and the dittoheads all thought about this? Is he really this out of touch with the base of his own party? Or does he just not want to admit to himself what that base is really motivated by?

Second: that he thinks he campaigned on the issue of Social Security reform. But in fact he barely mentioned it. One of the very reasons his proposal flopped (though certainly not the biggest reason) is that it came out of the blue. He spent most of the 2004 campaign talking about national security and tax cuts and whatnot, and then as soon as he won he suddenly announced that a massive Social Security overhaul was at the top of his agenda. If he had campaigned on it, he either would have learned quickly what a loser his privatization plan was or else ginned up some support for it. But he didn't.

Third: Bush is still a political animal. His motivation for immigration reform was to lure Hispanics into the GOP fold, as he had successfully done in Texas, and his failure to do that still resonates with him as one of his biggest mistakes. He continues to find it hard to fess up to any kind of real policy errors (cf. Katrina during the same press conference), but he's far more open to taking blame for failures in electoral strategy, which is sort of the game-playing side of being president and head of the party. In the end, apart from his tireless infatuation with being a "war president," I think that's always been the part of the job that animated him more than any other.

Printing Money

| Tue Jan. 13, 2009 10:13 AM PST

PRINTING MONEY....Ben Bernanke says the Fed still has "powerful tools" at its disposal to fight the recession even though interest rates are already down to zero. Felix Salmon is unimpressed:

The natural response to this is simple: if you still have powerful tools at your disposal, why haven't you used them already? And why did you enact that final rate cut to zero, which necessarily comes accompanied by all manner of nasty consequences in the repo markets and at money-market funds? That decision certainly made it seem as though the Fed believes a marginal further reduction in the Fed funds rate is still far more effective than any of its other policies.

If I had to guess, I'd say that Bernanke believes there's a price to be paid for taking extraordinary measures, and it's a price he'd rather not pay unless he absolutely has to. Printing money may be within his authority, but there's no surer way of admitting that literally everything else has failed and you're now on your last legs. I don't blame him for not wanting to go there if there's even the slightest chance he doesn't have to.

Quote of the Day - 01.13.09

| Tue Jan. 13, 2009 9:52 AM PST

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Peter Schrag, former editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee, on the California GOP:

With each passing day, Republicans look ever more like a suicidal cult than a political party.

Oddly enough, this really isn't hyperbole. It's a pretty sober statement of consensus reality right now in the Golden State.

Trade Deficits

| Tue Jan. 13, 2009 9:48 AM PST

TRADE DEFICITS....Atrios comments on our financial predicament:

As all good economists "know," one day our trade gap will have to shrink....

I wonder what those scare quotes are supposed to mean? Is it a way of suggesting that the conventional wisdom about trade deficits is wrong? That economists are idiots? Perhaps a comment on the ultimate ineffability of true knowledge? What? Sometimes it's like trying to decipher Peking wall posters over there.

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Showing Who's Boss

| Tue Jan. 13, 2009 9:19 AM PST

SHOWING WHO'S BOSS....Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert explains how he gets things done when the U.S. State Department is pushing to vote for a UN resolution he opposes:

"I said, 'Get me President Bush on the phone,' " Mr. Olmert said in a speech in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, according to The Associated Press. "They said he was in the middle of giving a speech in Philadelphia. I said I didn't care: 'I need to talk to him now,' " Mr. Olmert continued. "He got off the podium and spoke to me."

....Mr. Olmert claimed that once he made his case to Mr. Bush, the president called [Condoleezza] Rice and told her to abstain. "She was left pretty embarrassed," Mr. Olmert said, according to The A.P.

There are, of course, many things you could say about this. But the question that most piques my curiosity is: Why? Why would Olmert tell this story? Sure, he's bragging for a local audience, but what's the point? It's not as if he's running for anything these days. And he has to know that a story like this will embarrass the American government on a whole bunch of different levels. So why do it? Is he an idiot? Does he just not care anymore? What's the deal?

UPDATE: The most obvious comment about Olmert's story, of course, is this one:

"This is terrible for the United States," said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator. "This confirms every assumption they have in the Arab world about the tail wagging the dog. . . . It's a story you're likely to hear quoted there for years to come."

I'd say that's a pretty fair guess. Thanks a lot, Mr. Prime Minister.

Guantanamo Update

| Mon Jan. 12, 2009 11:45 PM PST

GUANTÁNAMO UPDATE....The latest on Guantánamo:

President-elect Barack Obama plans to issue an executive order on his first full day in office directing the closing of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, people briefed by Obama transition officials said Monday.

But experts say it is likely to take many months, perhaps as long as a year, to empty the prison that has drawn international criticism since it received its first prisoners seven years ago this week. One transition official said the new administration expected that it would take several months to transfer some of the remaining 248 prisoners to other countries, decide how to try suspects and deal with the many other legal challenges posed by closing the camp.

This doesn't surprise me in either respect. That is, it doesn't surprise me that Obama plans to issue the order immediately, and it also doesn't surprise me that he thinks it will take upwards of a year to actually complete the shutdown. It will.

So far, Obama has been as good as his word on a wide variety of subjects, which means he deserves the benefit of the doubt here. Figuring out what to do with detainees at Guantanamo really is a tough problem, and suggesting that it will take several months to resolve is just a recognition of reality. Still, we'd all like something a little better than "trust us," and Hilzoy suggests a couple of things that would help:

Luckily, the Obama administration can help us out here, by doing a couple of things that would clearly demonstrate good faith, and that the administration could do by fiat. First, it could suspend ongoing trials under the existing system of military commissions. That system is a joke. There is no reason to go on using it.

Second, it could accept the Uighurs into the United States. The Uighur detainees at Guantanamo have been found not to be enemy combatants. They have never taken up arms against the United States. The Uighur community in DC is prepared to help them out, as are religious communities in DC and Tallahassee. A judge has ordered them to be released into this country. There is no earthly reason not to do so; after holding them for seven years, it's the least we can do.

Last month the Washington Post reported that several European countries have quietly made it known that once Obama takes office they're willing to consider resettling some of the Guantanamo detainees who can't be returned to their home countries. But one thing they want first is for the United States to take at least a few of the refugees itself as a show of goodwill that will help them sell the program to their own citizens. Apparently, though, the Bush White House has resisted the idea:

In interagency discussions, the State Department has argued that the Uighurs be brought to the United States to help persuade Europe to resettle other detainees. But a State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the departments of Homeland Security and Justice, as well as White House officials, considered resettlement in the United States a "red-line" issue.

Hopefully Obama can remove this red line, resettle the Uighurs, and get this program going.

Analogies

| Mon Jan. 12, 2009 4:56 PM PST

ANALOGIES....Matt Yglesias warns us about the use of analogies, especially historical analogies:

I did a post the other day that used an anecdote from my real life to illustrate a point about the concept of self-defense. Since the point was relevant to the debate over the fighting in Gaza, I tried to explicitly say that I didn't want the story to be read as an analogy since I don't believe in trying to conduct arguments by analogy. Well along comes Michael Moynihan to point out that the facts in my story don't precisely parallel the situation in Gaza.

This, though, is why I don't believe in analogies. If you make an argument that hinges on an analogy then people fire back by pointing out some respect in which the situation you described isn't precisely analogous to the thing you're arguing about. It then becomes a contest to specify the analogy so as to exactly mirror the situation you're debating. In which case you may as well just debate the situation. Long story short — these analogy fights are stupid.

This is all true, and anyone who's ever used an analogy in a blog post knows exactly what Matt is talking about. The nitpicking is especially annoying since imprecision is inherent in the form itself: after all, if all the facts matched up precisely, it wouldn't be an analogy. It would be a xerox copy.

Speaking generally, though1, there's another side to this. The point of an analogy isn't precision (we have long, little-read white papers to fill that niche), it's to help people understand a situation better by relating it to something they already know and have some opinion about. So the question is: did Matt's analogy succeed at that purpose? If it did, then it probably made some converts to the cause regardless of whether it was perfectly apposite. The people who pick analogies apart know this perfectly well, of course, and that's why they try to pick them apart. They're hoping to irritate their opponents enough that they cave in and stop using an effective rhetorical tool.

But that's obviously no reason to stop using them. If an analogy is bad or ineffective, then sure: toss it out. But if it's good, keep using it regardless. When the other guys are reduced to cavilling over trifles, you're probably on the right track.

1Which is to say, I'm not defending the specific analogy in question. Just making a broad point about the usefulness of analogies regardless of whether or not they get attacked.

Cuspers

| Mon Jan. 12, 2009 4:23 PM PST

CUSPERS....Debra Dickerson points to an essay at CNN.com by Marian Salzman about the end of the baby boom era:

After strutting and tub-thumping and preening their way across the high ground of politics, media, culture and finance for 30 years, baby boomers have gone from top dogs to scapegoats in barely a year.

As baby boomers lose their authority and appeal, generational power is shifting one notch down: to cuspers (born roughly 1954-1965), who arrived in style in 2008 with their first truly major figure, Barack Obama (born 1961).

Cuspers! Hooray! I had always thought of myself as a baby boomer and had become resigned to wearing sackcloth and ashes for the rest of my life. But no. As a 1958 baby, I'm a cusper instead, entitled to hold my head high and sneer at baby boomers just like everyone else. I'm relieved.

Of course, you may be wondering why I should trust Marian Salzman on this subject. CNN provides the answer: "She was named among the 'top five trendspotters' by VNU in 2004 and has been credited with popularizing the term 'metrosexuality.'" Works for me! From now on, I'm a cusper. Bye bye, baby boom.