Kevin Drum

Friday Cat Blogging - 1 May 2009

| Fri May 1, 2009 2:06 PM EDT

Happy May Day!  The Worker's Paradise of Cattistan welcomes you.  On the left, Domino strikes a heroic socialist post.  On the right, Inkblot relaxes with a concrete bunny while his human serfs provide for his every need.  Come join us, comrades!  You have nothing to lose but your chains.

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Nominating Judges

| Fri May 1, 2009 1:20 PM EDT

Is Arlen Specter's defection to the Democratic Party bad for the Democrats?  Jay Newton-Small suggests there's one extremely specific way in which it might very well be.  You'll be unsurprised to hear that arcane Senate rules are at the bottom of it.

Souter's Legacy

| Fri May 1, 2009 12:54 PM EDT

So who will Obama nominate to replace David Souter?  Ideologically, probably someone who's not all that different.  But it's worth remembering that Souter's real legacy is that he's the one who made Supreme Court appointments the artery-hardened slugfests they are today.  It's not his fault or anything, but he was supposed to be a conservative strict constructionist when George H.W. Bush appointed him, and then, over time, turned out not to be.  In 1992 he voted with the pro-choice contingent in Planned Parenthood v. Casey and after that became a steadily more liberal influence on the court.  The conservative rallying cry following this slow-motion defection became "No more Souters!" and liberals learned the Souter lesson too.  The result: nobody gets nominated anymore unless their judicial temperament is fully and unequivocally cast in stone.  The market for moderates and interesting thinkers is pretty much gone.

And all because of mild mannered David Souter.  Who would have guessed?

Fun with Photoshop

| Fri May 1, 2009 12:05 PM EDT

James Fallows looks at the tableau of Obama muckymucks at yesterday's announcement that Chrysler would be allowed to file bankruptcy and is impressed with the "human dramas suggested by these faces."  It is, he says, "an impromptu work of art."

Today he's taking nominations for which Old Master it reminds him of.  My contribution is below: a crude Photoshop that makes the scene into an Old Master.  Enjoy!

New Frontiers in Product Branding

| Fri May 1, 2009 11:38 AM EDT

Via Tyler Cowen, an idea from Geoffrey Miller about product branding that's "intriguing but absurd":

For example, companies could sell certain products only to consumers who have a certain minimum or maximum score on one or more of the certain Central Six [personality] traits....Lexus could sell the "Mensa Quartz Medallic" color of the LS 460 only to customers whose validated intelligence scores are high enough for them to join Mensa International (IQ 130+ or the top one in fifty).  The more exclusive "Prometheus Glacier Pearl" color could indicate an IQ above 160 (the top one in thirty thousand) — the qualification for joining the Prometheus Society.

Too late!  This idea is clearly stolen from J.T. M'Intosh's World Out of Mind, putatively a novel about an alien invasion of Earth, but in reality just a vehicle that allows him to lovingly describe a future in which everyone takes a cognitive test in early adulthood and is assigned a color forevermore.  There are the dull witted Browns, the worker bee Purples, the middling bright Reds, all the way through the Oranges, Yellows, and supergenius Whites.  And in case that's not enough for you, each color is further divided into its Circles at the bottom, followed by its Triangles and then its Stars.  The White Stars, needless to say, run the world.  And in M'Intosh's world, you wear your badge at all times or else.

(Yes, those are really the colors he used.  Race theorists should feel free to have a field day, especially since Miller's proposed colors are remarkably similar to M'Intosh's.)

50s science fiction.  You can't beat it.  We will now return to our normal political kvetching.

Naming Names

| Fri May 1, 2009 11:01 AM EDT

Ezra Klein says Obama called the bluff of the holdouts who forced Chrysler into Chapter 11: "Not only did the administration let Chrysler fall to the bankruptcy courts, but Obama called the investors out by name."

Really?  That's great news.  I want names!  Sadly, it turns out Obama didn't call out anyone by name at all, saying only that "a group of investment firms and hedge funds decided to hold out for the prospect of an unjustified taxpayer-funded bailout."

Boo.  Hiss.  I want names.  It's pitchfork time.

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Krauthammer on Torture

| Fri May 1, 2009 10:24 AM EDT

Charles Krauthammer writes today that there are only two circumstances that justify torture.  The first is the ticking time bomb.  Of course.  But I'll let that one slide for now.  Here's the other one:

The second exception to the no-torture rule is the extraction of information from a high-value enemy in possession of high-value information likely to save lives. This case lacks the black-and-white clarity of the ticking time bomb scenario. We know less about the length of the fuse or the nature of the next attack. But we do know the danger is great. (One of the "torture memos" noted that the CIA had warned that terrorist "chatter" had reached pre-9/11 levels.) We know we must act but have no idea where or how — and we can't know that until we have information. Catch-22.

What an astonishing coincidence!  That's exactly the situation the Bush administration says it was in.  If it weren't for his legendary dedication to intellectual integrity, you'd almost think Krauthammer had simply taken a post hoc look at what his own team did and had then made up a justification to fit.  But he wouldn't do that, would he?

Of course, any rule worth the paper it's written on has to apply to more than just our side, so presumably this means Krauthammer thinks it's generically acceptable to torture anyone of sufficient rank and value.  If the Germans had captured a colonel with probable knowledge of Patton's battle plan, torture would have been OK.  If the Taliban caught a deputy consul who knew when the next attack on Kandahar was scheduled, torture would be OK.  If al-Qaeda catches a Air Force pilot who might tell them the secret of detecting and shooting down drones, torture will be OK.

Krauthammer's exception isn't an exception.  It can justify practically anything, either from us or from anyone else.  It's essentially the end of the civilized consensus against torture.  Unfortunately, I imagine that's the point.

Out of Iraq

| Fri May 1, 2009 12:47 AM EDT

A few days ago the New York Times reported that we might be trying to fudge the June 30 deadline for withdrawing combat troops from Iraqi cities.  Our main military concern was the "troubled northern city of Mosul, according to military officials."

Today, McClatchy talks to different officials and says it's not so:

The Obama administration is determined to continue withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq on schedule, despite a surge of violence in two Iraqi cities that shows no signs of abating and could increase in the weeks ahead, administration and military officials said this week.

"We are not even talking about" changing the withdrawal plan, an administration official told McClatchy. "The situation would have to get a lot worse for that to change."

....In any event, said the officials, who requested anonymity because the administration's public position is more optimistic, there's little more that the United States can do to help the Iraqis end their political, ethnic and sectarian feuds; resolve their disputes over oil revenues, political power and other issues; and build a stable, prosperous and unified nation.

(Italics mine.  Ever since news outlets "banned" the use of anonymous sources, I've been collecting the hilarious excuses their writers are forced to come up with every time they use one.  This is one of the best.)

Anyway.  This is good news.  There's still wiggle room, of course (what if the situation does get a "lot worse"?) but this is still an encouraging sign.  There are always going to be a hundred reasons why we should hold off on withdrawal either from a particular place, or for a particular reason, or for a particular period of time.  If we don't stick to our guns, we'll never get out.  It's time for us to let Iraqis run their country.

Souter Stepping Down

| Thu Apr. 30, 2009 9:33 PM EDT

Looks like Obama gets to put one more thing on his plate:

NPR has learned that Supreme Court Justice David Souter is planning to retire at the end of the court's current term.

....Souter is expected to remain on the bench until a successor has been chosen and confirmed, which may or may not be accomplished before the court reconvenes in October.

At 69, Souter is nowhere near the oldest member of the court, but he has made clear to friends for some time now that he wanted to leave Washington, a city he has never liked, and return to his native New Hampshire.

This won't change the ideological makeup of the court a lot, but it will probably move it to the left both a little more reliably and for a longer time.  Plus it'll give conservative activists another thing to go bananas over now that the tea parties have run out of steam.  That should be entertaining.

Waiting to Exhale

| Thu Apr. 30, 2009 8:07 PM EDT

Here's yet another data point on marijuana legalization from the Washington Post:

Respondents were near split on another issue that until recently was deemed untouchable in many parts of the coutry — marijuana legalization. Forty-six percent of all respondents said they supported legalizing "possession of small amounts for personal use," with rates of support higher among men, among younger voters and among independents, a majority of whom supported legalization.

The Post also found that support for gay marriage and immigration reform had increased.  Here's a guess: views on social issues have been moderating all along for the past eight years, but only some of that moderation has shown up in polls.  The presidency of George Bush and the domination of public discourse by triumphalist Republican narratives has acted sort of like a dike holding back the waters, but now, with Obama in office and conservatives demoralized and in disarray, the dike has been breached and public opinion is returning to its natural tendency to soften on social issues over time.  In the short term, though, we'll see a sudden shift as public opinion catches up to its normal trend line.  It's sort of like we've been holding our breath for eight straight years and now we're finally, collectively, heaving a long-awaited sigh of relief.

On a related note, it's good to see that the Obama administration today embraced common sense and simple justice by endorsing a plan to end the indefensible 100:1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.  It's about time.