Kevin Drum

No More GWOT

| Thu Jan. 15, 2009 1:52 AM EST

NO MORE GWOT....Britain's foreign minister, David Miliband, writes today that it's past time to ditch the phrase "war on terror":

The idea of a "war on terror" gave the impression of a unified, transnational enemy, embodied in the figure of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. The reality is that the motivations and identities of terrorist groups are disparate. Lashkar-e-Taiba has roots in Pakistan and says its cause is Kashmir. Hezbollah says it stands for resistance to occupation of the Golan Heights. The Shia and Sunni insurgent groups in Iraq have myriad demands.

....The more we lump terrorist groups together and draw the battle lines as a simple binary struggle between moderates and extremists, or good and evil, the more we play into the hands of those seeking to unify groups with little in common....We must respond to terrorism by championing the rule of law, not subordinating it, for it is the cornerstone of the democratic society. We must uphold our commitments to human rights and civil liberties at home and abroad. That is surely the lesson of Guantánamo and it is why we welcome President-elect Obama's commitment to close it.

The Guardian reports that British officials "cannot wait" for the Bush administration to finally leave town. "The new administration has a set of values that fit very well with the values and priorities I am talking about," Miliband told them.

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No Science Allowed

| Thu Jan. 15, 2009 12:59 AM EST

NO SCIENCE ALLOWED....Today Chad Orzel passes along a Seed magazine interview with outgoing Presidential Science Advisor John Marburger. Here's an excerpt:

Seed: Did you see President Bush ever change his mind based on the scientific evidence that you presented him?

Marburger: As far as I can tell, the president, as a matter of principle, doesn't think it's wise to defy nature. By the time I've arranged a presentation about something for the president, all science questions have been resolved. And he expects it. He would probably fire me if I permitted a science question to leak into his briefings.

Chad comments: "It really lifts my spirits to know that we've been led for the last eight years by a man who would fire his science advisor if he were to be forced to confront a science question." Mine too!

Quote of the Day - 01.14.09

| Wed Jan. 14, 2009 10:57 PM EST

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Robin Hanson, on the source of human disputation:

We disagree because we explain our own conclusions via detailed context (e.g., arguments, analysis, and evidence), and others' conclusions via coarse stable traits (e.g., demographics, interests, biases). While we know abstractly that we also have stable relevant traits, and they have detailed context, we simply assume we have taken that into account, when we have in fact done no such thing.

There's more to disagreement than this, of course, but still. There's probably more truth to this than most of us would like to admit.

Mapping Your Enemies

| Wed Jan. 14, 2009 8:39 PM EST

MAPPING YOUR ENEMIES....Rod Dreher:

Here is a Google map that allows you to find your way to the homes of people who donated money to Prop 8 in California. It's damn creepy, is what it is. What could possibly be the use of this kind of information, presented in this way? It's intended to intimidate people into not participating in politics by donating money. Do that, and you'll end up on some activist group's map, with hotheads being able to find your street address on their iPhones.

....You might be thinking: those haters deserve to be outed. But think about how this same technology can be used against gay folks and gay-marriage supporters in parts of the country that aren't inclined to support gay rights. Would you want some gay-bashing group to post to the Internet a map to the homes of contributors to a pro-gay marriage initiative?....What happens if there's another Islamic terrorist attack, and some vigilante group posts a Google map to the homes of donors to CAIR, or other Muslim causes?

Andrew Sullivan isn't impressed: "The second anyone does anything inappropriate with this information Dreher has a right to complain. Until then, it's public information."

I'm....not so sure about that. It's not as if I have an answer to this problem — like Dreher, I accept that political donations need to be public — but I have to say that I find it kind of creepy too. This sort of thing has been possible for quite a long time, of course, but it was inherently limited in scope because of the time and money it took. Technology has changed that: it probably required little more than a few hours of coding to create a map that identified every Prop 8 donor in the state. And that map isn't only in the hands of the folks who created it. It's out on the internet where it's practically begging to be abused by some nutball.

I dunno. I'm probably overreacting. And it is public information. But I remain a bit of a privacy crank who hasn't yet been reconciled to the inevitability of David Brin's "Transparent Society." I can at least see Dreher's point.

Raw Data

| Wed Jan. 14, 2009 7:12 PM EST

RAW DATA....Andrew Gelman presents us today with the chart on the right. Basically, it's a measure of statewide vote changes between the parties from one election to the next. The big spike upward in 1976, for example, shows that Jimmy Carter won a whole bunch of states that had been won in 1972 by Richard Nixon.

The overall trend is down, which means that states are, in some sense, more set in their ways today than they were in the past. Red states are red states, blue states are blue states, and they just don't swing much from election to election. This is consistent with a bunch of data that shows increasing self-segregation in the United States: communities tend to attract likeminded residents, and as the number of likeminded residents increases, they become far less likely to encounter opposing views that might swing their vote from one party to the other. So they vote the same way year after year.

There's also a view that blames part of this trend on the increasing partisanship of the media. If you can surround yourself exclusively with Fox News and Rush Limbaugh on the one hand, or NPR and Daily Kos on the other, you're going to become much more set in your ways. But although that seems plausible, I have my doubts: European countries have long had a more partisan media than in the U.S., but that doesn't stop them from having big swings from election to election. In any case, my sense is that while partisan media may be on the rise in the U.S., its audience is mostly people who are already true believers. The swing voters still watch CNN and read Time magazine. Contrary data welcome, of course.

HSR in California

| Wed Jan. 14, 2009 6:48 PM EST

HSR IN CALIFORNIA....Ryan Avent takes me to task for my lukewarm views toward long-haul passenger rail:

It's hard to know what exactly he means by long haul; in the past I believe he's raised doubts about whether HSR from San Francisco to Los Angeles could compete with air travel, despite obvious and resounding evidence from the northeast corridor that for such distances, the answer is yes. Let's assume it's no more than that distance. Well now, that would rule out an HSR line from Boston to Miami, unless one considers that a long haul route is really a bunch of short haul routes put together. Consider — the distance from Washington to Boston is longer than that from San Francisco to LA, so if SF to LA is the max, then one shouldn't support HSR from DC to Boston. But of course, that route will also carry passengers from DC to Philly, and Philly to New York, and DC to New York, and Philly to Boston, and New York to Boston.

This is a good point, but there's a little bit of a bait-and-switch going on here. The metro Boston area has a population of 4 million. New York clocks in at 19 million, Philly at 6 million, Baltimore at 3 million, and DC at 5 million. That's a lot of people.

LA-San Francisco is a little different. The terminal cities are big enough, but what's in between? Basically, you've got Bakersfield at 790,000 and Fresno at 900,000. San Jose is bigger, but Caltrain already serves the Silicon Valley area and HSR would only slightly improve its current 57-minute time to San Francisco.

This is why I'm a lot keener on improving passenger rail in the northeast than I am in California. I'm not wildly opposed to the LA-SF project or anything — mildly skeptical is more like it — and I genuinely hope it works out, but it's a whole different animal compared to the Eastern seaboard. We just don't have the density they do.

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Dinner With Barack

| Wed Jan. 14, 2009 3:12 PM EST

DINNER WITH BARACK....Last night Barack Obama had dinner with conservative uberpundits Bill Kristol, George Will, David Brooks, and Charles Krauthammer. If George Bush had done something similar with liberal columnists eight years ago, Jon Chait thinks wingers would have gone ballistic:

And the reason is that they wouldn't have confidence in Bush or McCain to be surrounded by liberal ideas without being deeply influenced by them.

....And that's why liberals aren't having a cow. They know that Obama understands far more about policy than any of his right-wing dinner companions, is used to being exposed to opposing ideas, and won't come out of that dinner telling his staff, "Hey, did you know we cut half the capital gains tax and raise more revenue?"

I don't know if Obama thinks he can actually persuade Kristol & Co. to support his ideas, but he's self-aware enough to know that a face-to-face meeting can change the tone of criticism even if it doesn't stop it. Once you've met someone in person, it's just a little bit harder to be really nasty toward them in print. It's the same dynamic that makes it hard to unload both barrels against a debate opponent: things are different in person than they are when they happen second or third hand. Obama's demonstrating yet again that he's a smart cookie.

Moving Ahead on Nukes

| Wed Jan. 14, 2009 2:31 PM EST

MOVING AHEAD ON NUKES....Hillary Clinton got all the press yesterday, but Steven Chu was up on Capitol Hill too and he got lots of questions about nuclear power during his confirmation hearing for Secretary of Energy. Blogger KB of NEI Nuclear Notes says, "If you're a proponent of nuclear energy in the United States, I'm not sure that Steven Chu's testimony...could be any more encouraging." Here's one excerpt from the transcript:

Senator Bob Corker (R-TN): The issue of nuclear. I'm gonna skip down and just be very brief since you've had now nine questions regarding that. I noticed a lot of people say that they support nuclear, but they also mention the waste issue. And it's as if once we solve the waste issue then we can pursue nuclear again. It's my understanding, based on what I've heard here today, you mean pursue nuclear now in spite of the, some of the issues that we have regarding waste. Is that correct? All out now? Loan guarantees, let's move ahead. We have 104 plants today. Probably need 300, let's move on?

Steven Chu: Yes, because I'm pretty confident, I'm confident that the Department of Energy, perhaps in collaboration with other countries, can get a solution to the nuclear waste problem.

Italics mine. Obama has been fairly ambiguous about nuclear power in the past. "We should explore nuclear power as part of the mix," he said during the primaries, but he's also insisted that his support was contingent on first solving safety, waste storage, terrorist attack, and weapons proliferation concerns. Conversely, Chu seems to be much more nuke friendly. I don't know how much of a bellwether this is, but it's worth noting. More at the link.

Prosecuting for Torture

| Wed Jan. 14, 2009 1:48 PM EST

PROSECUTING FOR TORTURE....Susan Crawford, head of military commissions, says charges can't be brought against Mohammed al-Qahtani because she has determined that he was tortured during his interrogation. Matt Yglesias argues that this demonstrates why Barack Obama should be willing to open prosecutions against Bush administration officials for authorizing torture:

We have here a legal determination that a captive in US custody was tortured. And if he was tortured, that means someone tortured him. And torture is a crime....To me, it doesn't make any sense to say that we're going to have determinations that people were illegally tortured and yet we're just not going to do anything about it. It'd be one thing to pardon people for this kind of thing as part of some larger legal or investigative strategy. But to just leave it hanging? If Crawford thinks Qahtani can't be prosecuted because he was tortured, then it stands to reason that there's someone who can be prosecuted for the torturing.

I won't pretend that I don't have mixed views on this, but basically I agree. There's one thing I'd be interested in seeing first, though, that I don't think I've seen before: a sober legal analysis of whether torture prosecutions are likely to succeed. The fact that Qahtani's case has been tainted is based on a certain set of legal principles, and Crawford almost certainly made the right ruling here. But there's a whole different body of statutory law and evidentiary requirements that would come into play if a prosecutor were trying to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a specific person was guilty of breaking U.S. law by ordering or carrying out the torture of Qahtani. That's a much, much harder case to make.

I guess this is my worst case scenario: we end up bringing charges against Bush administration officials and then they get off. That would be tantamount to an official sanction for this stuff.

Now, obviously no prosecution is ever certain, and fear of failure is a poor reason for doing nothing. But I'd still like to know that there's a decent chance that the legal case here is strong enough that convictions are at least likely. And I'd like to hear it from someone without a huge vested interest one way or the other. Without access to all the evidence this would be something of a whiteboard exercise, but still, has anyone with the appropriate background ever scoped this out?

Ho Ho Ho

| Wed Jan. 14, 2009 1:11 PM EST

HO HO HO....December sales, as expected, were pretty miserable:

Retail sales tumbled by 2.7% last month from the previous month on a seasonally adjusted basis, the Commerce Department said Wednesday.

....The producer price index, due for release Thursday, is expected to show a 2% drop in prices. Consumer prices due out Friday are expected to have declined 0.8%.

Adjusted for inflation, then, sales were down only 1.9% I'd do better if I could, but that's about the most positive spin I can come up with.