Kevin Drum

Iraq Update

| Mon Oct. 18, 2010 1:58 PM EDT

Members of the Sunni Awakening, whose turn against al-Qaeda was instrumental in helping the surge to reduce violence in Iraq in 2006-07, have complained for a long time that the Shiite government treats them badly and shouldn't take their continued loyalty for granted. Now, the New York Times reports, those vague threats are becoming more concrete:

Although there are no firm figures, security and political officials say hundreds of the well-disciplined fighters — many of whom have gained extensive knowledge about the American military — appear to have rejoined Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Beyond that, officials say that even many of the Awakening fighters still on the Iraqi government payroll, possibly thousands of them, covertly aid the insurgency.

The defections have been driven in part by frustration with the Shiite-led government, which Awakening members say is intent on destroying them, as well as by pressure from Al Qaeda. The exodus has accelerated since Iraq’s inconclusive parliamentary elections in March, which have left Sunnis uncertain of retaining what little political influence they have and which appear to have provided Al Qaeda new opportunities to lure back fighters.

The success of the surge has always been hard to assess. As pretty much every critic has said, its goal was to reduce violence in order to provide the conditions for a political settlement. But that political settlement has never come, and it's starting to look like it never will. The surge and the Awakening (and the other Four S's) may have delayed a full-blown Sunni-Shiite civil war, and that delay might have eliminated the possibility for good. But an Iran-centric Iraq engaged in a low-level insurgency with its Sunni minority for years or decades? Yeah, that's still possible.

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The Latest From Alaska

| Mon Oct. 18, 2010 1:09 PM EDT

I try pretty hard not to spend too much of this blog's time reacting to the various outrages of the day, especially during campaign season, but WTF?

The editor of the Alaska Dispatch website was arrested by U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller's private security guards Sunday as the editor attempted to interview Miller at the end of a public event in an Anchorage school.

Tony Hopfinger was handcuffed by the guards and detained in a hallway at Central Middle School until Anchorage police came and told the guards to release Hopfinger.

Instead of just hustling Miller away from Hopfinger's presence, they cuffed Hopfinger and then (according to Hopfinger) erased his video recording? Seriously? Miller's a real man of the people, isn't he? As Adam Serwer tweeted, "Imagine if Dem 'bodyguards' had handcuffed a journalist. you'd need a new planet to fit all the Nazi references." No kidding. I think Fox News headquarters would probably literally melt down from the collective outrage.

Our Computerized Future

| Mon Oct. 18, 2010 12:12 PM EDT

Adam Ozimek imagines a future in which we all wear a "brain mounted computer," described as an "iPhone-like-device that is connected to a special contact lens that so that screens float in front on your face, and you steer the whole thing with your brain. The most important facts about this technology is that a) nobody will be able to tell whether you’re looking at your computer or not, and b) it will always be available to you."

As far as anyone who knows you can tell you will never misspell a word, not know a fact, forget the words to a song, or know any piece of data. Quick: what was the per-capita GDP of Guatamala in 1976? Anyone with a brain mounted computer will be able to tell you.

....Education will have to change drastically, and the fact based portion of schooling will become trivial. You’ll only need to learn how to look stuff up in a given field. All of accounting will take a week to learn. All fields will be trained more like librarians are today.

Call me skeptical on two grounds. First, I'd say Adam is thinking too small. If this kind of thing is inevitable, it will pretty quickly turn into a lot more than just a gateway for raw data. Knowing how to spell Guatemala and having instant access to its per-capita GDP in 1976 ($686 according to these guys) will be the least of the wonders of our computer-aided future.

But even if he's right, the fact is that librarians don't know how to do accounting. Nor do they know how to perform brain surgery, calculate an IS-LM curve, or write a blog post.1 There are lots of kids whose computer retrieval skills are vastly superior to mine, but it does them no good if they're trying to figure out anything more complicated than the showtime for Jackass 3D. That's because aside from trivia, fact retrieval isn't very useful unless you know what facts to look for in the first place, how to evaluate those facts, whether they're reliable, how to put them into context, what's missing, and what it all means. My retrieval skills are better than virtually any teenager's not because of my technical prowess, but because I have some idea of what to search for in the first place, how to follow those results to other results, and how to figure out if the stuff I find is meaningful in any but the most frivolous way. And that's because I have a store of background knowledge available to me from decades of broad-based fact gathering and actual learning. Faster retrieval, I like to say, makes smart people smarter and dumb people dumber. If anything, it makes schooling, including the fact-based part, more important than ever.

1OK, they might know how to write a blog post. But you know what I mean.

Government Spending

| Mon Oct. 18, 2010 11:42 AM EDT

Has government spending been skyrocketing ever since Comrade Obama took office? Karl Smith brings the data, and I overlay a red line in order to provide some added value:

In other words, government expenditures have grown about as fast for the past two years as they did during the Bush administration's final term. All the supposed tea party angst over spending and deficits is based on precisely nothing. Federal expenditures are about the same as they've always has been, while revenue has gone down and transfer payments have gone up because of the recession. We have been adding to the deficit, but it's because of the recession, not because spending has spiraled out of control.

So what should we do? Increasing spending quickly is hard, and in any case politically impossible at the moment. A payroll tax holiday is a popular choice for getting money into the hands of consumers quickly, but Karl has another idea:

Another option is a radical increase in the standard deduction. I believe in bold yet, simple measures and so I don’t see a problem with increasing it by a factor of ten. This accomplishes several goals.

First, it gets money into the hands of consumers. Its our helicopter drop.

Second, it avoids any debate later over whether this should be the new tax structure. No one is going to suggest that a standard deduction of 100K should last forever.

Now, doesn’t this run afoul of the permanent income hypothesis? If its temporary then people will save it, no? I am not so sure that the PIH holds in a recession like this. Unless we think that the massive phase shift we got in retail sales is because people suddenly downgraded their entire future income stream by 10% there is a scramble for liquidity going on here. This is precisely what we will help undo.

Interesting! I don't know if anyone has suggested this before, but it's the first time I've heard it. I'm also not sure if it's better or worse than a payroll tax holiday. Probably a bit worse, I think, since it wouldn't be as progressive and wouldn't get much money into the hands of the poor. If it were more politically palatable, however, I could live with it.

But I don't suppose it is. Republicans, after all, don't really believe in the recession. They only believe in reductions on top marginal tax rates — aka tax cuts for the rich — and this certainly doesn't accomplish that. So they'll just go on pretending that it's merely uncertainty over Obamacare among heartland small business owners that's responsible for the weak economy, not deleveraging or foreclosures or disinflation or weak consumer demand. And so those small business owners will go on suffering.

Mobs in China

| Mon Oct. 18, 2010 10:20 AM EDT

From China's Foreign Ministry spokesman, displaying just how troubled they are by a weekend of violent anti-Japanese riots:

It is understandable that some people expressed their outrage against the recent erroneous words and deeds on the Japanese side. Patriotism should be expressed rationally and in line with law.

It's good to see that the Chinese authorities have suddenly become so tolerant of free speech and free assembly rights, isn't it?

Bailouts, Deficits, and Spending, Oh My!

| Sun Oct. 17, 2010 11:55 PM EDT

Ross Douthat says today that the tea partiers' main concerns really are "bailouts, deficits and spending," but liberals refuse to take them at their word and accept this. So we keep coming up with one weird theory after another that "explains the tea parties—and then explains them away." One of those weird theories is mine: Namely that this kind of extreme conservative eruption is just what happens whenever a Democrat takes office. It's similar to FDR's Liberty Leaguers, the John Birch Society in the 60s, and the Arkansas Project gang during the Clinton years. Ross responds:

These parallels are real. But there’s a crucial difference. The Birchers only had a crackpot message; they never found a mainstream one. The Tea Party marries fringe concerns (repeal the 17th Amendment!) to a timely, responsible-seeming message about spending and deficits. Which is why, for now at least, it’s winning over independents in a way that movements like the Birchers rarely did.

Now, I actually agree with this, up to a point. One of the points I made in my tea party piece was that, unlike previous eruptions, tea partiers have all but taken over the Republican Party. So it's bigger, broader, and more mainstream than the previous movements. But the reason I don't really buy Ross's defense of the tea party movement's concern with spending and deficits comes in his very next paragraph, where he takes on a fourth and final liberal theory:

THE TEA PARTIERS ARE HYPOCRITES. That is, they say they’re for small government, but they don’t want anyone to touch their Social Security and Medicare. This is by far the most persuasive liberal storyline. Poll after poll suggests that Tea Partiers are ambivalent about trimming entitlements, even though that’s the spending that will ultimately send either deficits or taxes through the roof.

On the other hand, some Tea Party-backed candidates have been refreshingly courageous on this front — whether it’s Rand Paul telling Fox News that he’d support higher deductibles for seniors, or Buck apologizing to Michael Bennet, his Senate opponent in Colorado, for Republican demagoguery on Medicare.

So the jury is still out. If Tea Party standard-bearers end up being as hypocritical on entitlements as most American politicians, then this liberal narrative, at least, will have been vindicated.

But for the sake of the country’s finances, liberals should hope that the Tea Party proves their most convincing story wrong.

Sure, the jury is still out. But on this one, I'm willing to put my money where my mouth is. After all, Rand Paul has been running away from his Medicare heresy for weeks, while Republicans and conservative interest groups have been blanketing the nation with ads attacking Democrats for passing a health care reform bill that cuts Medicare spending. Given all that, Ken Buck is a pretty lonely figure sticking to his tea party guns on the subject.

Now, it's true that a divided government is almost certain to spend less than one controlled by a single party. Beyond that, though, there's little evidence that extreme conservatives are any more concerned about spending now than they've ever been, and over the past 30 years they've never been concerned about spending. They didn't cut it under Reagan, they didn't cut it under Bush Sr., and when they finally controlled the government completely under Bush Jr., they didn't cut it then either. Hell, Social Security privatization never got anywhere even within the Republican caucus despite the fact that it was sold relentlessly and dishonestly as a free lunch. Actual cuts in spending were never on the radar.

The tea partiers are angry not over spending, but because a Democrat is in the White House. Rick Santelli's rant, which kicked off the whole movement, occurred one month after Obama took office. That was before the auto bailout, before health care reform, before financial reform, before the Iraq drawdown, before cap-and-trade, and before extension of the Bush tax cuts was even on the horizon. The only thing that had happened at that point was the stimulus bill, but even as big as that was, everyone knew it was a one-time shot, not a permanent change in spending levels.

Really, there's just no evidence at all to suggest that tea partiers are any more upset about the level of spending and deficits than they ever have been. Rather, they're upset because the spending is currently being done by a Democrat. As soon as Republicans are doing it, they won't really care anymore.

And yes, that's too bad for the country's finances. So I hope I'm just being too cynical here. But what are the odds?

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Life in a Bubble

| Sun Oct. 17, 2010 11:06 PM EDT

The modern, tea party-inflected conservative movement is based on a few core principles. Global warming is a hoax. Income inequality hasn't been growing. Tax cuts don't increase the deficit. America has the best healthcare in the world. Evolution is a myth. The economy is weak because of regulatory uncertainty. Barack Obama is a socialist.

I'm trying to think of another successful political movement in history based on so many objectively fantastical beliefs. Not really coming up with any, though certainly there have been individual doozies here and there. Commenters?

From the Annals of Non-Stories, Part Infinity

| Sun Oct. 17, 2010 10:47 PM EDT

The Washington Post writes today about the recent ruckus over Campbell Soup's introduction of a line of halal soups in Canada. Here's their explanation of how it started:

Blogger Pamela Geller began calling for a boycott....

Stop. Just stop. Even if we agree on nothing else, can't we agree never again to pursue a story that begins with those words? Especially one that has produced only a Facebook page with 3,500 friends — about as many as my cat could get if I set up a fan page for him — and, according to Campbell, hasn't had the slightest actual effect on sales? Come on, people.

Sarah P. Comes to Town

| Sat Oct. 16, 2010 8:34 PM EDT

I'm not quite sure why I had to go to the New York Times to read this, but apparently Sarah Palin headlined a Republican Party rally a few miles up the street from me today, and neither one of our top Republican candidates wanted to be seen with her:

The two Republicans at the top of the California ticket — Meg Whitman, the candidate for governor, and Carly Fiorina, the candidate for Senate — skipped the event, both claiming prior commitments. That said, Ms. Palin is a decidedly unpopular figure in the state, particularly with independent voters, and Republicans said it was probably not a good idea for Ms. Whitman or Ms. Fiorina to be seen at a campaign rally with her this close to Election Day.

The Orange County Register adds a bit of detail: "Fiorina did not attend, instead stumping Saturday in San Diego with Sen. John McCain, which was widely seen as a snub because of Palin's poor standing in the Golden State." That's rough. Palin endorsed Fiorina in the primary against genuine tea party hero Chuck DeVore (my assemblyman!), but even here in deep blue Orange County Fiorina is embarrassed to be seen with her. She'd rather hang with John McCain.

As for the rally itself, Register reporter Jeff Overly tells us this:

Sarah Palin brought her bold brand of folksiness and ferocity to Orange County on Saturday, telling a throng of admirers that Republican success on Election Day is their only hope of "saving our republic as we know it."

....The crowd — overwhelmingly white and middle aged or older — was heavily clad in patriotic attire, including April Gentry, a Huntington Beach resident who sported a Liberty Bell shirt.

Good times.

Friday Cat Blogging - 15 October 2010

| Fri Oct. 15, 2010 2:07 PM EDT

Back in the day, both Inkblot and Domino used to stroll around on top of the fence between our house and our neighbors. The only way they could get up, though, was to jump onto the air conditioning unit first and then jump from there to the fence. That all ended a couple of years ago when we got a new air conditioner, which was too high and too rounded for them to get to. The days of fence walking were over.

Until now! But I'm stumped about what's going on. For about the last week or two they've been roaming along the fence again. Our first thought was that they were going into our neighbor's yard and jumping up from there, but Domino never goes over there. The air conditioning unit hasn't changed, and I'm pretty sure it's just too high for them to jump on. They always appear from the southeast corner, but there's nothing there that would help them make the jump. So what's going on?

One of these days I'll be outside and catch them in the act, and when I do I'll report back. In the meantime, here they are patrolling the fence. Don't you feel safer already?