Kevin Drum

Was Joseph Stack a Terrorist?

| Sat Feb. 20, 2010 10:55 PM EST

Was Joseph Stack a terrorist? Andrew Sullivan says yes: "This was obviously an act of terrorism. When someone is mad at the government, and when he flies a plane into a federal building, killing two and traumatizing countless others and urges others to do the same, he is a terrorist." Glenn Greenwald says yes: "The issue isn't whether Stack's grievances are real or his responses just; it is that the act unquestionably comports with the official definition." Dave Neiwert says yes: "Since when, after all, is attempting to blow up a federal office as a protest against federal policies NOT an act of domestic terrorism?" Dave then helpfully supplies the FBI's official definition:

Domestic terrorism refers to activities that involve (1) acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any state; (2) appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (3) to influence the policy of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and (4) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States. [18 U.S.C. § 2331(5)]

Well, let's take a look at this. I've added numbers to the FBI definition for easy reference, and obviously Stack met conditions #1 and #4. No argument there.

But how about #2? Was Stack trying to intimidate civilians? In his manifesto he says, "Nothing changes unless there is a body count....But I also know that by not adding my body to the count, I insure nothing will change." Italics mine. This means (obviously) that he was willing to kill himself to make a point. Then there's this: "I can only hope that the numbers quickly get too big to be white washed and ignored that the American zombies wake up and revolt." Is he talking here about more killing of civilians? Or is he hoping that other people follow his lead and kill themselves, with the numbers eventually getting so big that the "American zombies" wake up? At best, it's unclear. He's certainly not trying to inspire civilian fear here (he wants them to wake up, not give in), but beyond that it's hard to say.

But if #2 is ambiguous, #3 isn't: Stack doesn't really have a policy he wants changed. He's mad at the government, he's mad at paying unfair taxes, and he's mad at the turns his life has taken. But if, instead of killing people, suppose he had been holding them hostage. What would his demands have been? Repeal of Section 1706 of the tax code? That's about the closest he comes to saying something specific.

"Jews out of Palestine" is a policy grievance. Ditto for "abortion is murder," "freedom for Tamil," and "Jim Crow forever." But all Stack has is a vague and inchoate rage caused by his feeling that he's been screwed by the IRS and nobody is willing to help him. Calling that a policy grievance is to strip the word of all meaning.

Not everybody who goes postal is a terrorist. Stack didn't have a political agenda in the usual sense of the word, he was just a guy who'd reached the end of his rope and finally snapped. That happens to thousands of people every year. Stack may have chosen to end his life a little more spectacularly than most, but that doesn't raise him to the level of a terrorist.

POSTSCRIPT: Just for the record, I agree with all the commenters (and others) who say that if Stack had been a lone wolf Muslim who had some equally vague complaints about, say, being treated badly by U.S. customs officials, right-wingers would be quick to call it terrorism if the guy snapped and killed a few in revenge. But they'd be wrong, and the way to fight this attitude is not for lefties to insist that Stack is a terrorist too, it's to insist that we use the word properly for everyone. You need to have some kind of at least semi-coherent political agenda to be a terrorist, and "the IRS sucks" is no more one than "the INS sucks."

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The Insurance Industry's 11th-Hour Gift

| Sat Feb. 20, 2010 2:49 PM EST

The LA Times reports on the recent rash of huge rate increases on individual policies by health insurance companies:

Health insurers across the country are dramatically increasing rates and slashing benefits for many of the estimated 17 million consumers with individual insurance policies, while making it almost impossible to obtain affordable alternatives.

....Rate increases by insurance companies are a fact of life for the nation's insured, but sharp hikes this year in California have provoked a national outcry that has brought criticism from President Obama and prompted investigations in Sacramento and Washington.

...."A lot of what you see today is a product of the way the market works," said Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans, the industry's Washington-based lobbying arm. "The market is broken. Those people who do need the coverage wind up covering the cost of everyone else."

Italics mine. Look: if the chief flack for the health insurance industry says the market is broken, then you have to believe that the market is broken. And it won't fix itself, either. Despite what Republicans pretend to believe when they're in front of the cameras, the way to correct this isn't to deregulate further, allowing insurance companies to raise rates even more freely. It's to broaden the insurance pool by mandating guaranteed issue so that no one gets turned down for a policy; enforcing community rating so that everyone pays a fair price; creating an individual mandate so that healthy people can't game the system by buying insurance only when they get sick; and establishing federal subsidies so that low-income families can afford the premiums. And guess what? That's what the current bill in Congress does. So let's pass the Senate bill, agree on a compromise with the House version, and then pass it via reconciliation. It's good policy, it's good politics, and the insurance industry, bless its black, greedy little heart, has unexpectedly done an 11-hour face plant and given Democrats all the cover they need.

And if conservatives freak out when they finally figure out that Democrats have the stones to pass healthcare reform after all? Let 'em.

Regulate 'Em All

| Fri Feb. 19, 2010 10:42 PM EST

Billionaire private equity honcho Stephen Schwarzman thinks that bankers are being unfairly pilloried:

If there is one common theme that I have heard in conversations with senior bank executives over the past several months, it is that their fundamental business model is under siege. They are uncertain about [blah blah blah]. These uncertainties have severely hampered banking executives' ability to plan how to run their businesses or even know what their businesses may include. Predictably, bankers are reacting to this unprecedented uncertainty by becoming conservative and cautious. The result is that there is less lending and less credit available.

....It is important to remember that a variety of actors helped create the financial crisis....Regulators permitted dramatic increases in leverage at investment banks, and billions of dollars of debt stayed off some banks' balance sheets. There was failure at virtually every level of regulatory oversight, including, critically, minimal controls over mortgage brokers, who encouraged many subprime borrowers to contract for houses or take out additional loans that they could never afford.

Tim Fernholz is unimpressed:

Doesn't it sound like a burglar complaining a robbery was not his fault because the cops weren't watching the house closely enough? Schwarzman seems to forget that regulators permitted these bad actions in response to financial sector lobbying — it's not like the regulators just up and announced absurd leverage requirements without outside pressure.

Yep. Financiers will do whatever the law allows them to. And they'll always push to make the laws as friendly as possible. That's just human nature and it's not going to change. Which is exactly why Congress ought to start ignoring them and begin passing laws to rein them in, just like Stephen Schwarzman apparently thinks they should. After all, if you want to cut down on speeding, you don't just sit around complaining about how reckless people are. You pass a law against speeding and then staff up the highway patrol.

POSTSCRIPT: By the way, Schwarzman's op-ed is actually even more damning than Tim suggests. Schwarzman's point isn't just that there was regulatory failure, his point is that there were huge failures everywhere in the financial industry. He's right! But far from exonerating bankers, it's exactly why regulatory reform ought to be broad and sweeping. His op-ed is an argument for regulating bankers and everyone else too.

Friday Cat Blogging - 19 February 2010

| Fri Feb. 19, 2010 3:59 PM EST

After a couple of weeks of heavy rain, the weather here in Southern California has been spectacularly beautiful for the past few days: clear skies, mid-70s, and just a hint of a breeze. Inkblot and Domino, of course, are pleased that their staff managed to twist a few arms and make this happen. On the left, Domino celebrates by rolling around in the sunshine and waiting for her masseur to come over and rub her belly. On the right, Inkblot employs the long-awaited sunshine to its highest and best purpose. Have a nice weekend, everyone.

Quotes of the Day: Hank Paulson Edition

| Fri Feb. 19, 2010 3:26 PM EST

From Newsweek's summary of Hank Paulson's upcoming memoir, which recounts his days running the Treasury Department during the great financial meltdown of 2008:

Paulson delivers a continual and biting critique of Republicans....Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning is a “cantankerous conservative” (page 275). Meetings with Senate Republicans were “a complete waste of time for us, when time was more precious than anything” (page 275). Ideas that Republicans do add are “unformed,” like Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor’s plan to replace TARP with an insurance program. In a rare moment of sarcasm, Paulson goes off on the minority Whip: “I got a better idea. I’m going to go with Eric Cantor’s insurance program. That’s the idea to save the day” (page 285).

This is no surprise. In his Vanity Fair interview last year, Paulson had glowing comments about Barney Frank, Nancy Pelosi, and Tim Geithner, but about his fellow Republicans he was considerably less charitable. Basically, he says they were preening, ignorant, ideologues. Imagine that.

Health Insurance Across State Lines

| Fri Feb. 19, 2010 2:50 PM EST

Bob Somerby takes both liberals and the media to task for not fighting back against a conservative meme:

In recent weeks, we’ve mentioned the press corps’ failure to examine a ubiquitous GOP claim — a claim asserting the merits of letting consumers buy health insurance “across state lines.” On the various cable “news” channels, voters hear this proposal advanced again and again and again.

....The voters deserve to hear this explained. We have never seen this explained on cable, although we’ve endlessly heard the proposal. And we still haven’t seen this matter explained in a simple, “explainer” news report. For the most part, our big news orgs simply don’t explain things. In all candor, they rarely seem to know what sorts of claims are being made in the wider discourse.

We’ll offer one further suggestion for any newspaper which might want to do an explainer piece — a piece which might be called, “Buying across state lines for [us] dummies.” On cable, Republicans and conservatives often draw a comparison between health insurance, which can’t be sold “across state liners,” and car insurance, which apparently can. Since voters constantly hear that refrain, an “explainer” piece ought to address it.

Is it really true that no cable or major print outlet has ever addressed this? It might be! I don't watch enough cable to know, and I don't read every article in every major newspaper. But I confess that my memory says Bob is right: I don't remember ever seeing this given any kind of serious treatment.

The basic problem with this proposal, of course, is pretty simple. If you allow health insurance policies to be sold across state lines, states would start competing for insurance industry business by writing ever friendlier regulations. Eventually some small state will win this contest with an absurdly lax regulatory regime, and every insurance company in America will set up shop there. Essentially, the entire country would be forced to accept whatever pro-industry rules that, say, Wyoming decides to write for the rest of us. Do the citizens of all the other states really want to cede that power to Wyoming?

As for car insurance, if you want to sell auto policies in California, you have to abide by California laws. Ditto for the other 49 states, regardless of where your company is actually located. So the comparison is bogus. Every state does have its own auto insurance regulations, just as they do in the health insurance arena.

But a longer, more definitive explanation would be welcome. If Bob is right that no one has ever bothered to do this even though conservatives repeat this proposal regularly, maybe someone should think about taking a reporter or two off the CPAC beat and assigning them to this instead.

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CPAC and the Press

| Fri Feb. 19, 2010 1:50 PM EST

Why does the press devote so much attention to CPAC every year? Marc Ambinder (sort of) asks the question:

It has become a place to network and cheer at applause lines — nothing more. Leave the hall and end the day, and you've had a good time, but you don't feel fulfilled. CPAC is a guilty pleasure.

....CPAC isn't supposed to be a policy conference, which is fortunate, because policy is almost non-existent. Some of the panels are set up to rehearse the conservative-libertarian divide over certain issue sets, but no ideas get advanced at CPAC. Judging by the exhibitors, conservatives don't care about education, or the environment, or health care, or urban policy — only abortion, Supreme Court nominations, gun rights, campaign finance (Citizens United has a very nice booth) and deifying Ronald Reagan.

Asked and answered! Put on a serious conference that discusses real ideas, and you will get no attention. Put on a show with fake sumo wrestling and lots of outrageous speeches and the media will beat a path to your door. Ambinder thinks CPAC is showing its age, but I think CPAC is actually a perfect symbol of contemporary politics as reality show spectacle. As long as a camera is there, it's all good.

And if you're loud enough, the cameras are always there, aren't they?

Obama and the Public Option

| Fri Feb. 19, 2010 1:21 PM EST

Ezra Klein reports that the White House is opposed to the effort to revive the public option and pass it in the Senate via reconciliation. Why? Because they want to appear "bipartisan." Matt Yglesias is unimpressed:

While it’s true that the White House has sought to brand itself “as a bipartisan outpost” you know and I know and Ezra Klein knows and I certainly hope David Axelrod knows that at the end of the day if a health care bill emerges no Republicans will vote for it. And any shine of bipartisanship that Obama may or may not have put on himself is going to go away. So what’s the point in being “sharply opposed” to the public option concept? This is very bad logic, and if true very fishy behavior on the part of the White House.

I think this gets to the deepest, most mysterious question about Barack Obama: does he really believe in bipartisanship? That is, does he actually believe that if he sticks to his guns and keeps pushing away at compromise, eventually Republicans will start to work with him in good faith? Or is this basically a ploy to get public opinion on his side because he knows that the public is deeply in love with bipartisanship?

I hope it's the latter, because even a year ago the former was a belief that only a political naif could maintain. Today, you'd have to be a thoroughgoing idiot. But all evidence suggests that Obama is neither naive nor stupid, so I have to assume that this is basically part of a long-term effort to turn public opinion sharply against Republicans.

Alternatively, I suppose it could be strictly a short-term, inside play to maintain Democratic support for passing a bill. Obama may believe that Dems are so scared, and support for passing anything is so fragile, that bringing back the public option at this point runs the risk of frightening a big chunk of the caucus away for good. Sadly, I can't pretend this is a groundless fear.

Conservatives and the Stimulus

| Fri Feb. 19, 2010 12:29 PM EST

Following up on my post yesterday about the stimulus, Robert Waldmann makes a good catch. Reihan Salam had said, "I don't think that anyone doubts that ARRA helped perk up growth," but it turns out that not only is this untrue, it's spectacularly untrue. Here's a CNN poll from a few weeks ago:

So 41% of American adults think the stimulus had no effect or made things worse. CNN doesn't provide crosstabs, but I think it's a pretty good guess that this belief is primarily held by conservatives and right-leaning independents who take their cues from conservative media. In other words, it's likely that upwards of three-quarters or more of conservatives believe the stimulus had no effect.

That doesn't happen unless conservative pundits and politicians are almost unanimously pushing exactly that belief. There might be a few conservative thinkers out there who are offering up judicious, nuanced conclusions about the stimulus, but their effect on public discourse in general is nil. Among the vast majority of conservative opinion leaders, not only is it untrue that few people doubt ARRA helped perk up growth, but apparently virtually everyone doubts that ARRA helped perk up growth.

Which Conservatives Matter?

| Thu Feb. 18, 2010 9:24 PM EST

On Tuesday, David Leonhardt took issue with conservatives who think the stimulus didn't do any good for the economy. The next day, Reihan Salam took issue with David Leonhardt:

Leonhardt refers to "hard-core skeptics," and my worry is that this does a lot of the work for him. Critics like Desmond Lachman believe that the stimulus was poorly timed and poorly designed....Others are concerned about the impact of heavy deficit spending on long-term growth prospects, i.e., the fiscal stimulus program has a beneficial growth impact in the short term, but exacerbating extreme fiscal policy swings are very difficult to sustain....So is Leonhardt taking issue with people who believe that spending hundreds of billions of dollars in the space of a few month would have zero impact on GDP growth? In that case, I would enthusiastically agree with him.

....But again, I don't think that anyone doubts that ARRA helped perk up growth. It is very hard to imagine that spending an enormous sum of money would not.

Reihan claims that Leonhardt is arguing with a strawman, but as both Jon Chait and Matt Yglesias point out, there really are lots of conservatives — including most of the loudest ones — who believe that the stimulus literally had no impact on jobs or growth — or maybe even a negative one. It's hardly a stretch to say that this is a pretty widely held right-wing view, and Matt draws a broad conclusion from Reihan's reluctance to acknowledge this: "I think [this is] a pretty common failing among the smarter set of conservative commentators, namely a tendency to dismiss as straw-man characterizations positions that are in fact the mainstream conservative orthodoxy."

Well, yes. I'm reminded of Megan McArdle's revelation a couple of years ago when she discovered that mainstream conservatives really do have a party line that insists tax cuts always raise revenues. "A conservative publication," she admitted, "just spiked a book review because I said that the Laffer Curve didn't apply at American levels of taxation....I suppose I ought to have known, but I didn't. Go ahead liberals, pile on: you told me so."

But I think there's something else going on here too. In his post about the stimulus bill, Reihan is implicitly suggesting that liberals ought to be engaging with the best of conservative thinkers, many of whom hold nuanced and moderate positions. And it's true: some of them do. The problem is that in the real world, these nuanced and moderate thinkers have virtually no influence. Among actual politicians and high-profile yakkers, it's nearly unanimously held that, for example, the stimulus had no positive effect on the economy; that tax cuts always increase revenues; that Europeans all have poorer healthcare than Americans; and that man-made global warming is a delusion. Reihan and Megan and others like them may hold more careful views, but the vast bulk of the conservative movement simply doesn't. And that's the reality of the world that liberals have to deal with.

Now, whenever something like this comes up, I wonder if there's something similar on the liberal side of the aisle. Are there hot button issues on which the Kevin Drums and Jon Chaits of the world hold moderate, techno-googoo views, but on which elected politicians and bigfoot TV pundits unanimously insist on extreme, lockstep views? I can't really think of any. Taxes? Healthcare? National security? Immigration? Climate change? Education? Abortion? Gay rights? Labor law? On all of these, either liberal politicians hold a fairly broad variety of leftish views (national security, immigration, education) or else they hold pretty similar views but so does the commentariat (climate change, gay rights). No important issue comes to mind in which the liberal think tank community holds a lively and diverse set of opinions but actual liberal politicians unanimously maintain a death grip on some extreme, base-pleasing position.

But that doesn't mean there isn't one. It just means I can't think of it. So help me out. Can anyone come up with a few good examples?