Kevin Drum

The Torture Commission

| Sun Nov. 23, 2008 1:04 PM EST

THE TORTURE COMMISSION....Newsweek's Michael Isikoff reports on the likely direction the Obama administration will take regarding state-sanctioned torture and detention of terrorist suspects:

Despite the hopes of many human-rights advocates, the new Obama Justice Department is not likely to launch major new criminal probes of harsh interrogations and other alleged abuses by the Bush administration. But one idea that has currency among some top Obama advisers is setting up a 9/11-style commission that would investigate counterterrorism policies and make public as many details as possible.

...."If there was any effort to have war-crimes prosecutions of the Bush administration, you'd instantly destroy whatever hopes you have of bipartisanship," said Robert Litt, a former Justice criminal division chief during the Clinton administration. A new commission, on the other hand, could emulate the bipartisan tone set by Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton in investigating the 9/11 attacks.

I find myself surprisingly torn by all this. My instinctive reaction is to turn over every last shred of paper in open court and mercilessly toss into jail anyone associated in any way with this stuff. But I suspect Obama is reacting more wisely than me in this matter. Not only would trials and jail sentences set off a firestorm of protest, but in the end they might not accomplish much either. That's discouraging as hell to write, but at bottom we still have a public opinion problem here: like it or not, half the country still seems to think that torturing al-Qaeda suspects was perfectly acceptable.

So in the end, perhaps we'll get half of a Truth and Reconciliation commission: we'll get the truth, but not the reconciliation, since I doubt that any of the perpetrators of this stuff are inclined to show the slightest remorse for what they did. I suppose that here in the real world this might be the most we can expect, but I don't have to like it. And I don't.

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Down South

| Sun Nov. 23, 2008 12:48 PM EST

DOWN SOUTH....The voters of California might be able to ban gay weddings, but they can't ban gay wedding receptions, can they? So that's where I was yesterday, down in San Diego at a reception for my sister-in-law and her partner, who squeezed in under the wire and got married before Prop 8 passed. Huzzah! Needless to say, the republic seems to have survived the event so far.

So everyone join me in congratulating Ginny and Cindy. Huzzah again! I'll spare you the picture of them feeding each other pieces of the wedding cake, but I will show you the eye-catching cake itself, which was designed by a good friend of theirs (it was lemon flavored and delicious). As you can guess, a lovely time was had by all.

Chart of the Day - 11.22.2008

| Sat Nov. 22, 2008 1:41 PM EST

CHART OF THE DAY....This comes from David Sirota, who has been watching the outbreak of the "center right" meme ever since November 4th, which you might recall as the day that America elected a liberal president, a liberal Congress, and a liberal Senate. David asked a friend who works with a company called Trendrr to track mentions of the term, and the results are on the right:

The media has exponentially increased the amount of times it claims that this country is a "center-right nation" — at the very same time public opinion data shows the country is a decidedly center-left nation.

Indeed. I guess a desire for less Bush, less war, better healthcare, competent governance, acknowledgment that global warming isn't fiction, and economic stimulus in the face of a massive recession is now evidence of a center right world view. As John Maynard Keynes famously said, "We are all center rightists now."

Citigroup's Collapse

| Sat Nov. 22, 2008 3:07 AM EST

CITIGROUP'S COLLAPSE....The New York Times explains the proximate cause of Citigroup's imminent demise:

The current turmoil can be traced back to the last weekend of September, when it sought to reassert itself by swallowing Wachovia, the stricken bank based in Charlotte, N.C., whose vast deposit base would have turned Citi into one of America's dominant lenders.

As the global financial crisis drove Wachovia toward collapse, the government frantically engineered their marriage. At a bargain price of $1 a share, Vikram S. Pandit, Citigroup's chief executive, was happy to oblige: The deal would have greatly enhanced Citi's retail banking presence and added more stable consumer deposits to a balance sheet staggered by billions in write-downs on bad mortgage loans and related securities.

But like so many other things for Citigroup over the last several years, it fell apart. Less than a week later, Wells Fargo, the powerful San Francisco-based bank, swooped in with a higher offer. Citi was left in the lurch, without a business that was vital to its future.

And why was Wells Fargo able to swoop in? You remember the Treasury notice a few weeks ago that modified Section 382 of the tax code, don't you? Pretty much every tax attorney in the country thinks the change was illegal, but Treasury went ahead with it anyway:

The notice was released on a momentous day in the banking industry. It not only came 24 hours after the House of Representatives initially defeated the bailout bill, but also one day after Wachovia agreed to be acquired by Citigroup in a government-brokered deal.

The Treasury notice suddenly made it much more attractive to acquire distressed banks, and Wells Fargo, which had been an earlier suitor for Wachovia, made a new and ultimately successful play to take it over.

The Jones Day law firm said the tax change, which some analysts soon dubbed "the Wells Fargo Ruling," could be worth about $25 billion for Wells Fargo.

I'd like to hear more about this before jumping to any conclusions. Citigroup's problems run deeper than merely the failed merger with Wachovia, after all. Still, if these two stories are right, it was the sudden and illegal change in Section 382 that allowed Wells Fargo to conclude their deal with Wachovia, and it was the loss of Wachovia that sparked the downward spiral of Citigroup, one of America's three big money center banks. Was this yet another own goal from the Treasury Department?

Battery Woes 2....The Empire Strikes Back

| Fri Nov. 21, 2008 8:26 PM EST

BATTERY WOES 2....THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK....I know you're all waiting on pins and needles to get the skinny on my trip to the Apple Genius Bar, so here's how it went. My appointment was scheduled for 3:20. At 3:20 they called my name. I told the tech my story, he nodded, plugged a doodad into my USB port and booted my MacBook. After a few seconds it came up with a special screen that said:

BATTERY STATUS: BAD

There was a bunch of other detail on the screen, but basically, it just confirmed that my battery was bad. And for what it's worth, the tech says we were all wrong: there's no harm in letting the battery discharge completely, and no harm in letting it sit around for a couple of months. It is a good idea to let it discharge to zero and then charge completely once a month or so, but that's just to keep the battery calibrated. And it's also a good idea to discharge it to 50% and turn the machine off if you think you're not going to use it for five or six months. But that wasn't my problem. I just had a bad battery. So he replaced it, and at about 3:30 I was on my way.

So: all whining about the battery aside, I have to say that this was just about the most painless tech support experience I've ever had. Kudos to Apple.

Obama's Cabinet

| Fri Nov. 21, 2008 6:10 PM EST

OBAMA'S CABINET....The New York Times says Hillary Clinton has decided to become Barack Obama's Secretary of State. New York Fed chief Tim Geithner will head up the Treasury. So far, then, Obama's cabinet looks like this:

State: Hillary Clinton
Treasury: Tim Geithner
Defense: Robert Gates (maybe)
Attorney General: Eric Holder
Health & Human Services: Tom Daschle
Homeland Security: Janet Napolitano

Whatever else you can say about this crew, there's not much question that Obama is assembling an extremely experienced and competent set of advisors. This is a team that can definitely hit the ground running.

On a related topic, I guess this means I have to eat my hat. After my trip to the Genius Bar this afternoon I shall search the local bakeries for a chocolate cake shaped like a hat and report back to you on how I fare.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 21 November 2008

| Fri Nov. 21, 2008 4:14 PM EST

FRIDAY NETBLOGGING.... After my Macblogging this morning (or perhaps Macwhining is more like it) (and yes, I have a 3:20 appointment today at the local Genius Bar, thankyouverymuch) (and I can hardly wait to find out if the only option is to buy a new battery at whatever inflated price Apple charges) — anyway, after all that, I figured I should update you on the netbook I bought last week too.

So here it is, propped up next to Inkblot to give you a sense of scale. (And before you ask: yes, the recursive wallpaper idea turned out to be a huge pain in the ass.) (And it didn't even work all that well, since the white balance of the LCD screen is way different than the white balance of the great outdoors.)

Anyway. It's an MSI Wind U100 and so far it's worked pretty well. Very light and convenient. Good performance. Uses Windows XP, not Vista. Sleep mode and hibernation work nicely. Battery life is advertised at five hours, but my guess is that a little over four hours of continuous use is more realistic. The keyboard is quite usable and all the keys are in the right place. The trackpad doesn't have a scrollbar (why? why?!?), but tapping the upper and lower right corners scrolls up and down, and that works pretty well. The trackpad, as I mentioned earlier, is very sensitive, which is a problem until you figure that out, and still a bit of a problem even after you get used to it. The screen is small, of course (1024 x 600), but very sharp and readable. The card reader gave me some problems until I figured out that internally it's a USB device and I have to click the "remove device safely" icon before I pop it out. Bluetooth and wireless work fine. The speakers suck, of course, but the sound is OK with headphones. (In fact, it's a nice little movie player, and I used it last weekend to finally watch The 27th Day, which I had downloaded months ago but never watched on my desktop machine.)

But there's got to be something wrong with it, right? Yes. And I owe it to the Mac fans to air this on the blog. Here it is: the wireless seems to work fine on all networks except mine. On mine, it continually cycles on and off trying to acquire an address. This could be the router's fault, of course, but the router works fine with every notebook I've tried except the MSI. The only failure comes with the combination of this router and this notebook. If I reboot the router, everything works fine for a while, but the next day it's bollocksed up again. It's probably related to the router releasing and reacquiring an address overnight or something, but I haven't figured out anything more than that yet. I don't suppose the Genius Bar folks can help me with that, can they?

Big Bonuses

| Fri Nov. 21, 2008 3:36 PM EST

BIG BONUSES....Dan Ariely writes in the New York Times today about an experiment he did to find out if paying people big bonuses motivated them to produce better results:

We presented 87 participants with an array of tasks that demanded attention, memory, concentration and creativity....We promised them payment if they performed the tasks exceptionally well. About a third of the subjects were told they'd be given a small bonus, another third were promised a medium-level bonus, and the last third could earn a high bonus.

We did this study in India, where the cost of living is relatively low so that we could pay people amounts that were substantial to them but still within our research budget. The lowest bonus was 50 cents — equivalent to what participants could receive for a day's work in rural India. The middle-level bonus was $5, or about two weeks' pay, and the highest bonus was $50, five months' pay.

....The people offered medium bonuses performed no better, or worse, than those offered low bonuses. But what was most interesting was that the group offered the biggest bonus did worse than the other two groups across all the tasks.

The gibes pretty well with my understanding of how to get the best performance out of people. Money matters, but not that much. Being happy in your job matters, but not that much. What really matters is (a) having the skill set for the job and (b) having the support infrastructure (tools, budget, executive buy-in, whatever) needed to allow you to do your job.

Now, obviously, money is important to attract people who have the skill set for the job. If CEOs are all being paid 400x the median salary, the best ones aren't going to work for someone who offers them only 100x. Why would they? Still, the huge secular increase in CEO salaries (and Wall Street bonuses) over the past few decades has almost certainly produced absolutely nothing in the way of higher performance. All it's done is suck money away from blue collar workers, who do respond the way you'd expect to monetary incentives, away from support infrastructure, which genuinely improves the performance of high-skill workers, and away from shareholders.

Bottom line: in a variety of ways, our economy would almost certainly operate more efficiently if the super-rich were paid less. At best it does no good, at worst it motivates reckless behavior, and in the end it prevents the money from being put to its most beneficial use. Quite a mess we've gotten ourselves into since 1980.

Quote of the Day - 11.21.08

| Fri Nov. 21, 2008 3:15 PM EST

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Felix Salmon, on the possibility of Citigroup merging with Goldman Sachs:

"Nothing's unthinkable in this market, not even the idea that you can tie two rocks together and hope that they float."

National Security Musings

| Fri Nov. 21, 2008 1:57 PM EST

NATIONAL SECURITY MUSINGS....I don't have a lot of independent comment on this, but here's a bit of miscellaneous rumormongering on the national security front. First, Joe Klein:

Lots of news from Obamaland on the national security front in the past 24 hours — Hillary Clinton "on track" to become Secretary of State, retired General Jim Jones said to become National Security Adviser (while Republican realist Brent Scowcroft has been advising Obama on National Security)...and some strong flutterings that Obama wants to retain Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense as first reported here last summer, which seems especially credible because no other name has been floated as a potential SecDef.

If true, this is an extremely strong, and wise, national security team. It would reflect a powerful desire on Obama's part to return to the tradition of bipartisan foreign policy, with politics stopping at the water's edge. And it would reflect a growing centrist consensus in the foreign policy/national security spectrum that includes most members of the Bush 41 and Clinton teams — in favor of the primacy of diplomacy over militarism, ready to begin talks with those the Bush Administration considered pariahs (the Taliban, Syria, Iran), but not averse to the use of force — against Al Qaeda, in particular — when necessary.

Hmmm. Here's Andrew Sullivan on John Brennan:

Marc reports the Republican, former chief-of-staff for George Tenet (who authorized war crimes as CIA head), admirer of Dick Cheney, CEO of the company one of whose contract employees improperly accessed Obama's and McCain's passports, and defender of renditions and "enhanced interrogations" is still Obama's front-runner pick to head the CIA. No, I'm not making this up.....Why is such a man even considered for the post under Obama? This man cannot end the taint of Bush-Cheney. He was Bush-Cheney.

From across the pond, Alex Massie considers Obama's views more broadly and concludes that we're not likely to see any dramatic change:

Viewed from outside the United States, the foreign policy "debate" in Washington is a curiously curtailed affair. It concentrates on means, not ends and this rather tends to obscure the fact that, on many and perhaps even most issues, there's less between the parties than might be thought.

....When you get down to the bottom of it, Obama hasn't yet given much indication that he either wants to, let alone will, break from the broad thrust of the Washington foreign policy consensus. That being so, why should hawks on either side of the aisle have anything to fear from him? Means matter, of course, but so do ends.

I'm not yet in the mood to make any thundering pronouncements on any of this stuff. None of these people have actually been announced yet, for one thing, and the rumor mill might be wrong. And even if these do turn out to be Obama's picks, they aren't the whole team. And anyway, Obama never pretended to be some kind of Noam Chomsky acolyte. He's a mainstream liberal American president.

Still — and keep in mind that I'm speaking as someone who's only modestly left of center on foreign affairs — this is a disturbingly hawkish team taken as a whole, isn't it? I get the whole "water's edge" thing, as well as Obama's desire to bring back some kind of consensus in the national security arena, but it would be nice to see at least one or two really serious progressives getting some high profile national security positions that have the president's ear, wouldn't it? I mean, that is why most of us voted for him, right?