Kevin Drum

State Secrets

| Tue Feb. 10, 2009 5:19 PM EST | Scheduled to publish Tue Feb. 10, 2009 2:30 AM EST

STATE SECRETS....In the pre-Bush era — from 1953 to 2000, including the entire period of the Cold War — the government invoked the state secrets privilege about once a year. Since that time, its use has been massively increased, with the government invoking it more than six times per year in the post-9/11 era.

By itself, this is bad enough. But it's not the worst part of the Bush administration's use of the privilege. Before 2001, the state secrets privilege was mostly used to object to specific pieces of evidence being introduced in court, something that nearly everyone agrees is at least occasionally necessary. But the Bush administration changed all that. In their typical expansive way, they decided to apply the privilege not just to individual pieces of evidence, but to get entire cases thrown out of court. What's more, they did this not merely when a state secret was incidental to some unrelated complaint, but when the government itself was the target of the suit.

Now Barack Obama is president, and unfortunately he's decided to continue the Bush administration's expansive reading of the privilege. The case involved the rendition and torture of Binyam Mohamed and four other detainees:

In a closely watched case involving rendition and torture, a lawyer for the Obama administration seemed to surprise a panel of federal appeals judges on Monday by pressing ahead with an argument for preserving state secrets originally developed by the Bush administration.

....A government lawyer, Douglas N. Letter, made the same state-secrets argument on Monday, startling several judges on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

“Is there anything material that has happened” that might have caused the Justice Department to shift its views, asked Judge Mary M. Schroeder, an appointee of President Jimmy Carter, coyly referring to the recent election.

“No, your honor,” Mr. Letter replied.

Judge Schroeder asked, “The change in administration has no bearing?”

Once more, he said, “No, Your Honor.” The position he was taking in court on behalf of the government had been “thoroughly vetted with the appropriate officials within the new administration,” and “these are the authorized positions,” he said.

So Obama is adopting the same expansive interpretation of the privilege as the Bush/Cheney administration, and using it in order to cover up American involvement in torture and rendition programs that have been in the public record already for years and can hardly even be said to be secrets, let alone state secrets that are vital to U.S. national security. This is decidedly not change we can believe in. Greenwald has more.

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Asia

| Tue Feb. 10, 2009 3:24 PM EST | Scheduled to publish Mon Feb. 9, 2009 9:38 PM EST

ASIA....You think our economy is in trouble? Things look even worse in Asia.

The Size of the Stimulus

| Tue Feb. 10, 2009 3:22 PM EST | Scheduled to publish Mon Feb. 9, 2009 7:51 PM EST

THE SIZE OF THE STIMULUS....This is apropos of nothing in particular, but all the sound and fury surrounding the Nelson/Collins $100 billion cut in the stimulus bill makes me think that maybe it ought to be put into perspective. So here's some perspective.

The original bill totaled about $800 billion, and according to CBO estimates the amount of stimulus (spending + tax cuts) provided by the bill over the next two-and-a-half fiscal years would have been about $700 billion. This, we're told, would help create about 3 million jobs. The bigger Senate bill would have added $100 billion to that, and the current Nelson/Collins bill gets us roughly back to the original amount.

But stimulus isn't restricted to bills labeled "stimulus." Any deficit spending counts, and there's a ton of that already in the budget. Not counting TARP and bailout money (since it doesn't necessarily stimulate consumption), CBO estimates that the federal deficit this year will come to about $800 billion. If we assume the same next year and maybe half as much the year after, that's a total deficit-driven stimulus of about $2 trillion. Presumably this creates jobs at the same rate as spending in the stimulus bill, so that amounts to something in the neighborhood of 9 million jobs.

So: With the cut, total fiscal stimulus over the three years starting last October comes to $2.7 trillion and 12 million jobs. If we had kept spending at its higher level, it would have come to $2.8 trillion and perhaps 12.5 million jobs. That's a difference of about 3%.

Now, the nature of that 3% is hardly defensible. State aid and school construction are way better uses of the money than a lot of stuff that was left in the bill. Still, the fact remains that the total amount of stimulus over three years is $2.7 trillion, not the $800 billion number that dominates the discussion. That's a helluva lot of stimulus, and if it doesn't do the job it's doubtful that $2.8 trillion will do it either.

Chart of the Day - 2.09.2009

| Tue Feb. 10, 2009 3:12 PM EST | Scheduled to publish Mon Feb. 9, 2009 2:33 PM EST

CHART OF THE DAY....Justin Fox presents this chart showing the pace of unemployment during the past six recessions. Unlike a similar chart that's been making the rounds, which showed only the 1991 and 2001 recessions, this one shows employment decline in percentage terms, not as raw job losses. This is a better way of doing it since the population of the U.S. has grown substantially since 1974.

But it still looks plenty bad. Right now we can say that this is the worst recession since 1981, but by summer it's almost certain that we'll be saying it's the worst recession since World War II.

Healthcare Update

| Tue Feb. 10, 2009 2:55 PM EST | Scheduled to publish Mon Feb. 9, 2009 1:40 PM EST

HEALTHCARE UPDATE....Jon Cohn says that despite doubts in liberal circles that Obama will aggressively pursue healthcare reform this year, high-ranking Obamaites have confirmed that it will be a "central focus" of his upcoming budget:

In interviews over the past week, administration officials have said repeatedly that the dobuts about Obama’s commitment are unfounded. They say Obama himself has indicated health care is a top priority, to be pursued shortly after the debate over the economic stimulus package is over.

...."I've been in meetings with him and it's clear this guy is committed to getting health care and getting coverage to everybody," says one high-ranking member of the administration. "There's no question in my mind."

And while these advisers acknowledged that the question of whether to deal with health care in the next budget had been under discussion, another senior official on Sunday indicated a decision had already been made: “Health care reform will be included — and indeed a central focus — of the budget,” this official said, while declining to offer more details.

We should stop being surprised by stuff like this. If there's one thing we should all have figured out about Obama by now, it's the fact that his priorities and his political beliefs are not will-o-the-wisps. The big ticket items he talked about during the campaign are things he's thought hard about and believes deeply in. They weren't just dodges to win a few votes here and there.

From a lefty point of view, there's both upside and downside to this. The upside is obvious: he said he wanted to withdraw from Iraq, pass major healthcare legislation, and take serious action on global warming, and he will. At the same time, he also said he wanted to work cooperatively with the opposition, add troops to Aghanistan, and continue Predator raids into Pakistan. Liberals might not like those promises quite so much, but guess what? He's apparently pretty committed to all that stuff too.

In other words, he's doing what he said he would do. How about that?

Everybody Loves Barack

| Tue Feb. 10, 2009 2:52 PM EST | Scheduled to publish Mon Feb. 9, 2009 1:01 PM EST

EVERYBODY LOVES BARACK....According to Gallup, President Obama is handily winning the stimulus debate: 67% of Americans approve of the way he's handling the stimulus bill compared to only 31% who approve of the way congressional Republicans are handling it. And if anything, these numbers will probably diverge even more as Obama goes on the road this week to sell the bill.

And there's more good news for Obama in this poll. Over 50% of respondents have more confidence than they did two weeks ago in Obama's ability to improve the economy and manage the federal government. And 80% believe that passing the stimulus bill is either important or critically important.

That's some serious wind at his back. The question is: does this mean he never really needed to compromise on the bill in the first place? Or are these poll results partly a result of the fact that he was willing to compromise? I'm pretty skeptical of Obama's efforts to reach across the aisle on this stuff, but I have to admit that the latter seems pretty plausible to me. Compromise might have its benefits after all.

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Single Page

| Tue Feb. 10, 2009 2:43 PM EST | Scheduled to publish Mon Feb. 9, 2009 12:42 PM EST

SINGLE PAGE....With a slowdown in advertising prompting online sites to cut back on their ad inventory, Felix Salmon suggests one easy way to do it:

In the early days of the web, in an attempt to goose pageviews, publishers started asking readers to click through two or three or sometimes even a dozen different pages to get through one story. It's annoying and self-defeating, and I devoutly wish that a move to reduce inventory will kill off this miserable habit.

....Every time I go to a website like the NYT or The Big Money, the need to hunt around for the "single page" button and click on it and wait for the page to reload makes me hate the site just a tiny bit. For really gruesome offenders like Time, I simply don't read a lot of their listicles, no matter how good they are, because the multiple-page format makes them all but unreadable. Now that the need to maximize inventory has disappeared, maybe this whole annoying thing will go away.

Sign me up! The multiple page format is both stupid and obsolete, and it's long past time to get rid of it. The worst offenders are sites that break stories up into three or four (or more) chunks and sites whose only option for single-page reading is a "printer format" that's clunkily formatted and annoying to read. I'm with Felix on this: time to knock it off, folks.

Kindle 2.0

| Tue Feb. 10, 2009 2:29 PM EST | Scheduled to publish Mon Feb. 9, 2009 12:07 PM EST
KINDLE 2.0....Brad Stone is liveblogging the release of the Kindle 2.0 book reader:

10:21 a.m. | The Reveal: Mr. Bezos is showcasing the device: The Kindle2 has resdesigned page-turning buttons along its sides, a thinner profile, a metal back, and standard round keys — none of the angular weirdness of the original model. It has 16 shades of gray, crisper photos, clear text, 25 percent faster page turns and 25 percent more battery life. “You can read for 2 weeks on a single charge,” says Mr. Bezos.

....10:26 a.m. | Interface Updates: Mr. Bezos is demonstrating the new Kindle and the joystick-like controller. The old version of the Kindle had an awkward scroll wheel and a separate vertical screen that helped users maneuver a cursor up and down its screen. Kindle users can use the five-way controller to highlight a word and automatically look it up.

That certainly sounds nice. Does this mean I should go out and buy one? Or would it be yet another electronic gadget that I use a few times and then set aside to collect dust? Consider this an open thread to persuade me one way or the other.

Tax Cuts

| Sun Feb. 8, 2009 1:59 AM EST | Scheduled to publish Sat Feb. 7, 2009 6:54 PM EST

TAX CUTS....Matt Yglesias on the stimulus bill:

It strikes me as indefensible that a stimulus package featuring hundreds of billions of dollars of tax cuts doesn’t include any FICA provisions. Payroll tax cuts wouldn’t be my first choice of stimulus measures, but there’s a strong case for including some tax-side measures in the package and they’d probably be my first choice of tax cuts to include.

Agreed, but isn't the $500/$1000 refundable tax credit in the current package essentially the same thing? Technically it's a credit against income tax, but in practice, since it's refundable, it's a flat tax rebate for everyone who's employed, which makes it roughly the same as a temporary payroll tax cut. The only real difference is that a flat tax credit is relatively more generous to the working poor than a payroll tax cut — which is a good thing — and internally it gets charged to the general fund rather than the Social Security trust fund — which doesn't matter one way or the other. What's not to like?

Bush USA Watch

| Sun Feb. 8, 2009 1:56 AM EST | Scheduled to publish Sat Feb. 7, 2009 5:28 PM EST

BUSH USA WATCH....From a Washington Post story today about campaign finance allegations lodged against Michael Steele:

The claim about the payment, one of several allegations by Alan B. Fabian, is outlined in a confidential court document....The U.S. attorney's office inadvertently sent the confidential document, a defense sentencing memorandum filed under seal, to The Washington Post after the newspaper requested the prosecution's sentencing memorandum.

Over at The Corner, Steve Hayward snarks:

Inadvertently sent what was supposed to be a sealed document to the Post? Yeah, sure, and the Post will sell you the Brooklyn Bridge real cheap, too.

Is anyone in the U.S. Attorney's office going to lose their job over this? Will the Obama DOJ launch an investigation to make sure this wasn't politically motivated? What would the Post and others have said if this had happened to, say, Howard Dean, during the Bush administration?

Well, considering that U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein was appointed by George Bush, my guess is that he will indeed lose his job pretty soon. Just like all the rest of Bush's USAs. As for an investigation, that seems like it would be a petty and vindictive partisan attack on a Bush appointee who's going to be out of office soon anyway, but I guess it's OK with me if conservatives insist.