Kevin Drum

How Does It End?

Is there even a glimmer of hope left in the Middle East?

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 12:47 PM EDT

Jeffrey Goldberg on the Israeli flotilla raid:

What I know already makes me worried for the future of Israel, a worry I feel in a deeper way than I think I have ever felt before. The Jewish people have survived this long in part because of the vision of their leaders, men and women who were able to intuit what was possible and what was impossible. Where is this vision today?

This is a subject I don't write about often, but I pretty much feel the same way. I guess the difference between Goldberg and me is that I've felt this way for quite some time. Several years, at the least; maybe a decade, ever since the Camp David accords broke down; and maybe ever since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. It's a little hard to say at this point.

It's also a little hard to write about since I don't have anything original to say. A million people have already said it. Fanatics on both sides have been in control of the region for years — the hardline Orthodox population relentlessly gaining influence in Israel and Hamas terrorists among the Palestinians — both convinced that they can win if they can only provoke enough insane overreactions from the other side. Which they do with depressing regularity. Hamas's rocket attacks are indefensible, the Gaza embargo in return is indefensible, the blockade runners in their turn were plainly hoping to provoke an overreaction that would force Israel's hand, and the Israelis then went insanely beyond anyone's expectations by landing commandos on one of the ships and killing nine people while it was still far off in international waters. And now, there are rumors that the Turkish navy might escort the next ship that tries to run the blockade.

In David Petraeus's famous phrase, How does this end? Unless something dramatic happens, it ends with Israel as a nuclear-armed pariah state. Where else can it go? Hamas and Hezbollah are never going to stop attacking, Israel's responses will continue to get deadlier and more hysterical, the West Bank will never be freed because no Israeli government can any longer cobble together the public support it would require to take on the most extremist elements among the settlers, and like it or not, Israel eventually becomes a permanently armed camp and an apartheid state. Israelis may have hated it when that's what Jimmy Carter called it, but even if it's arguably not quite accurate today there's very little question that it will be before long.

Unless something changes. But what? I guess it's possible that a crisis like this can prompt both sides to get serious in a way they haven't been for a long time, but there have been crises like this before and they haven't prompted anything of the sort.

So help me out here. Is there any glimmer of hope on the horizon at all? Or is despair the only rational response to all this?

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Turkey and the Flotilla

What was Turkey's motivation?

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 11:46 AM EDT

Here's a couple of paragraphs from a New York Times story about the Turkish reaction to Israel's raid yesterday on the flotilla attempting to run its blockade on Gaza:

A senior Israeli official said that Israel had tried for two weeks to persuade Turkey to stop the flotilla’s voyage, but that Turkey said it was a nongovernmental action that it was powerless to stop. Israel’s ambassador in Turkey, Gabi Levy, did not return a call for comment.

One wild card is Mr. Erdogan, a strong-willed former Islamist who is the driving force behind Turkey’s criticism of Israel and its policy toward the Palestinians. He has pushed a foreign policy that has taken a more active role in the region, serving as mediator between Israel and Syria. But the United States has not appreciated all his efforts, like his recent attempt with Brazil to broker a nuclear deal with Iran.

....Asli Aydintasbas, a columnist at the Turkish daily Milliyet, argues that the episode was a striking failure in diplomacy, for both the United States and Turkey. The new foreign policy pursued by Turkey’s government has given it a confidence that sometimes results in overreaching. For example, Turkey believed it could change Israeli policies toward Gaza.

More here. I haven't seen very much that tries to dive deeper into this part of the story, but at first glance it almost seems as if Turkey was deliberately trying to provoke an incident that would justify cutting off relations with Israel. After all, the Israeli commando raid may have turned out more deadly than anyone expected, but something like it was always probable and the Turkish government surely knew it. Alternatively, maybe Aydintasbas is right: it was just a massive miscalculation by Erdogan, who quixotically thought that Israel would soften the blockade if it knew that Turkey stood behind the blockade runners. Or maybe Turkey really was powerless to do anything about the flotilla.

I'm sure there are a thousand layers upon layers that could be said about this, and I can't even comment sensibly on the top one. But if anyone can point to some really knowledgable commentary on this particular aspect of yesterday's incident, let us know in comments.

California Propositions

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 10:00 AM EDT

[Update: Looking for a guide to the California Propositions on November's ballot? Click the link!]

This is a special post for California readers. The rest of you may safely ignore it.

There are five initiatives on the California ballot next Tuesday. As longtime readers know, my default position is to very strongly oppose all initiatives (reasons here), so keep this bias in mind as you read this. For what it's worth, though, the only ballot measure this bias might affect even slightly this year is Prop 14. The other two NO votes are completely solid regardless of what you think about initiatives in general.

  1. Seismic retrofits: YES. The original Proposition 13, passed in 1978, froze annual property reassessments for existing buildings. New construction was supposed to be assessed at the time it was finished, but in 1984 Proposition 23 created a 15-year exemption for seismic retrofits of "unreinforced masonry buildings." In 1990, Proposition 127 exempted seismic retrofits entirely but didn't remove the 15-year limit for unreinforced masonry buildings. I have no idea why, and the five minutes of googling I was willing to apply to this question didn't provide an answer.

    This year's Proposition 13 (it's just a coincidence that it has the same number as the original) would exempt all seismic retrofits completely. It was approved unanimously by one of the most famously partisan legislatures in the country and the voter guide doesn't even have an argument against it — which is pretty remarkable given that even the most innocuous initiatives usually prompt an argument from at least one wingnut group or another. So go ahead and vote for this. It seems harmless.

  2. Open Primaries: NO. This initiative would create an open primary system: instead of separate primaries for Republicans and Democrats, there would be only a single comprehensive primary and the top two vote getters would proceed to the general election even if they're from the same party. Supposedly this would produce more moderate candidates — though the evidence for this is pretty slim — but even if it did, I've always been pretty uneasy about open primaries. If political parties are to have any meaning at all, they have to be allowed to pick their own candidates and they have to be allowed to contest general elections. This is especially true for third parties, which would be shut out of general elections almost entirely by Prop 14. It should also be clear at all times which party a candidate belongs to, something Prop 14 obscures by allowing candidates not to declare a party. For all its flaws, the current system strikes me as fairer and more transparent than Prop 14's pseudo-runoff system.

  3. Fair Elections Act: YES. This is sort of an interesting little initiative. Basically it's an experiment in public financing of political campaigns: it applies only to one office — Secretary of State — and only to the elections in 2014 and 2018. On January 1st of the following year it automatically disappears for good unless voters decide they like it and want to extend it. It's funded by a tax on lobbyists and requires candidates to raise $5 from 7,500 registered voters in order to qualify for public funding. This might or might not be a good idea, but Prop 15 is the kind of thing we should do more often: experiment. If Prop 15 fails, not much harm is done. If it works, it will have proven itself in the toughest arena of all: real life. It’s a small bore way of allowing voters to find out if they like the idea before committing themselves to a sweeping and permanent change. We could use more initiatives like this.

  4. Municipal Power: NO. This is one of the sleaziest initiatives I've seen in a long time. Here it is in a nutshell: PG&E doesn't like having to compete against municipal power companies, so they're sponsoring an initiative that would prohibit the creation or expansion of any municipal power system without a two-thirds approval from voters. Which, of course, is essentially impossible. And the best part? Municipal agencies aren't allowed to spend public money on political campaigns, so PG&E, which has spent nearly $50 million so far promoting Prop 16, is basically running unopposed.

    Prop 16 is a poster child for everything that's wrong with the initiative process in California, and it's as pure an example as you'll ever find of a big corporation using the ballot box to cynically undercut its competition. Even if there's nothing else on the June ballot you care about, you should make sure to get to your polling place just to vote against Prop 16. Ditto for your family and friends. Your enemies too. Liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, it doesn't matter: everyone should vote against Prop 16.

  5. Auto Insurance: NO. Most auto insurance companies give you a loyalty discount if you stick with them for several years in a row. Proposition 17 is framed as fixing a "flaw" in California law that prevents you from taking this discount with you when you switch insurers, but that masks the real issue at stake here: should insurance companies be allowed to give you a discount merely for being insured continuously? Or, put another way: Should insurance companies be allowed to penalize you if you drop your insurance for a period of time (perhaps because you sell your car, or sign up for hitch in the Army, for example) and then later re-apply?

    Proposition 103, passed in 1988, was designed to stop insurers from basing their rates on factors unrelated to the likelihood of filing a claim (where you live, for example, or your income). To accomplish this, Prop 103 mandates that insurers consider only three factors: your driving record, the number of miles you drive, and the number of years of driving experience you have. The insurance commissioner can approve other factors as well, but only if they bear a substantial relationship to the risk of loss.

    Continuous coverage doesn't qualify on that score. This isn't a flaw in the law, it's the whole point of the law. (Loyalty discounts are a little questionable on this score too, but it turns out that they do correlate with driving safety, so they're allowed.) Mercury Insurance, which has been fighting this battle for years, is pretty much the sole sponsor of Proposition 17, and their motivation is simple: they think it would help them poach more business from other insurers. And it might! But it would do so by lowering rates for some and raising them for others based on a factor that has nothing to do with the likelihood of filing a claim. We decided to put a stop to that two decades ago, and I don't see any reason to change it now.

Shaking the Federal Money Tree

Should Obama be fighting for a second stimulus?

| Mon May 31, 2010 1:16 PM EDT

Lots of lefty econ bloggers have suggested that the answer to our financial woes is a walloping big second stimulus. But we aren't getting one. Tyler Cowen thinks that should tell us something:

Reading the Keynesian bloggers, one gets the feeling that it is only an inexplicable weakness, cowardice, stupidity, whatever, that stops policies to drive a more robust recovery. The Keynesians have no good theory of why their advice isn't being followed, except perhaps that the Democrats are struck with some kind of "Republican stupidity" virus. [...] The thing is, that same virus seems to be sweeping the world, including a lot of parties on the Left.

Romer, Geithner, Summers, et.al. know all the same economics that Krugman and DeLong and Thoma do. If a bigger [aggregate demand] stimulus would set so many things right, they'd gladly lay tons of political capital on the line to see it through and proclaim triumph at the end of the road.

Except they expect it would bring only a marginal improvement.

Now, there are a few things to say about this. First, Tyler's definition of "marginal" might be different than, say, Krugman's. Would a two-point drop in unemployment be marginal? Or dramatic? Second, it doesn't have to be weakness or cowardice driving the Obama team's actions. If, for whatever reason, they've concluded that a second stimulus is simply politically impossible, then they're going to turn their attention elsewhere no matter what they think about it. That's just common sense. Third, even if a ton of political persuasion might (barely) push a second stimulus bill through, it might be too late. They might disagree with Krugman et. al. not on fundamental grounds, but simply on timing.

But despite all this, there's one pretty good reason to think that Tyler is basically right: tax cuts. Lefty economists might generally believe that increasing spending is a more efficient way of stimulating consumption than reducing taxes, but they'd almost certainly accept a big tax cut as an almost-as-good substitute. And tax cuts have two big advantages over spending. On the substantive side, they work faster. Spending takes time to work its way through the economy, but a tax cut (for example, a payroll tax holiday) boosts the economy almost immediately. And on the political side it's quite doable. Republicans would be persuadable because they love tax cuts and Democrats would be persuadable because it would help the economy. For Obama, then, it would be the best of all worlds: a fast stimulus that gets bipartisan support, something that boosts the economy while dampening the inevitable criticism he'd get for blowing up the deficit.

But he's not pushing for this. Not even quietly. And this suggests that Tyler is right: Obama's advisors might be in favor of further fiscal stimulus, but not by much. And the best explanation for this is that lefty or not, they're genuinely afraid, as Tyler says, that it would bring only marginal improvements at the cost of significant problems down the road.

But would it? I'd like to hear more about this. I feel like the liberal economic community is largely getting a free pass on this because the opposition has been so stupid: if you're arguing that inflation (or hyperinflation!) is a near-term threat that needs to be vigilantly opposed, it's pretty easy to explain why this is wrong. But the better argument is that inflation is a long-term threat that has to be contained early, because once the genie pokes its head out of the bottle it's very, very hard to stuff it back in. And the medicine it takes to do the stuffing is painful indeed.

Now, that argument might be wrong too. But because conservatives mostly aren't making it, liberals mostly aren't taking it on. But they should. Political realities being what they are, reining in the federal deficit will be hard even under the best of circumstances, and if we decide to make it worse now it's going to become even harder to rein in down the road. That's not a problem for today or tomorrow, but it might well be a problem in 2015. Right?

Griping About Obama

Can we please stop obsessing about Obama's acting abilities?

| Mon May 31, 2010 12:18 PM EDT

Matt Steinglass reins in his temper better than me today and writes lucidly about the moronic critiques of Barack Obama's emotional response to the BP oil spill, culminating in Maureen Dowd's angst this weekend over Obama's "inability to encapsulate Americans' feelings":

Ms Dowd's involvement is fitting, as this may be the sorriest spectacle of content-free public hyperventilation since Al Gore's earth tones. The difference is that in this case the issue is deadly serious; it's the public discourse that is puerile. There is plenty of room for substantive critique of the flaws in governance and policy uncovered by the Deepwater Horizon blowout. You could talk about regulatory failure. You could talk about corporate impunity. You could talk about blithely ignoring the tail-end risk of going ahead with deepwater drilling without any capacity to cope with catastrophic blowouts. Precisely none of these subjects are evident in the arguments our pundit class is having. Instead we have empty-headed squawking over what the catastrophe is doing to Barack Obama's image.

Look: no one knows how to stop this spill. It's not a matter of effort, it's a matter of the current state of human knowledge. As Matt says, the substantive critiques are fine (Obama should shut down all offshore drilling, he should send more workers to clean up the shore, he should use this as an opportunity to talk about clean energy, etc.), but witless griping about Obama's emotion level or his need to "take charge" is just dumb. Knock it off, everyone.

Nonfiction on the iPad

Does the iPad do a good job of rendering nonfiction on the screen?

| Sat May 29, 2010 5:21 PM EDT

I asked this once a while back, but now that the iPad has been out for a while I want to ask again: how good is it for reading nonfiction books? Specifically, I have two questions for iPad users who read a fair amount of nonfiction:

  • How good is the selection of nonfiction? (Obviously this will vary from person to person depending on what kind of nonfiction they read.)
  • How well is nonfiction rendered? That is, is the layout of tables, charts, images and so forth similar to a paper book?

I've read a ton of commentary about the iPad, but oddly little about how good it is as a book reader. But in my case, that would be its primary function, with all its computerish functions secondary. So what's the verdict, nonfiction fans?

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Citizens and the Census

If you want to change the representation of state in Congress, you'll need a constitutional amendment.

| Sat May 29, 2010 4:47 PM EDT

In the LA Times today, Richard Greener and George Kenney haul out a familiar conservative hobbyhorse: illegal aliens are counted in the census and this produces an unfair apportionment of congressional districts:

The reapportionment of today's static 435 seats according to census results would be a respectable example of representative democracy if each individual included in the count had a vote.  But, just as in 1790, the system remains badly fractured and fundamentally unfair.

Hmmm. Kids and (in some states) felons can't vote. But we count them. In the 19th century women couldn't vote. But we counted them. In 1790 residents without property couldn't vote. But we counted them. Hell, slaves couldn't vote either, but the infamous 3/5 compromise shows that the founders deliberately agreed to count them in the census for purposes of congressional representation anyway. So voting status is a pretty poor argument for not counting non-citizens. But even if you agree with Greener and Kenney for other reasons, their solution is deliberately obtuse:

The good news is that the Constitution leaves the manner of conducting the census, and the apportionment of the House, up to Congress. Passing a census reform law should be a relatively simple fix, if we have the leadership and the will to do so.

Would this work? Let's go to the text of the constitution:

[Article 1 Section 2]: Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

[14th Amendment]: No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States....Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.

The text is pretty clear: citizens is used in some places and persons is used in others. And persons means just what you think it means. So if you want to change the way non-citizens are counted in the census, Congress isn't enough. You need a constitutional amendment. Because, in this case, both the plain text of the constitution and the intent of the framers is quite clear. From a CRS report written earlier this year: "The Framers adopted without comment or debate the term 'persons' in place of the phrase 'free citizens and inhabitants' as the basis for the apportionment of the House....During the debate on the Fourteenth Amendment, Congress specifically considered whether the count was to be limited to persons, citizens, or voters. The term 'persons' was used instead of 'citizens' due, in part, to concern that states with large alien populations would oppose the amendment since it would decrease their representation."

If Greener and Kenney want to change the way states are represented because they're afraid the Mexican government might collapse, "sending hundreds of thousands of refugees across the border," that's fine. But pretending this is something Congress can do on its own is just populist demagoguery. They know better.

Quote of the Day: Sarah Palin's Mob

| Sat May 29, 2010 3:25 PM EDT

From author Joe McGinniss, who was besieged by Sarah Palin's fans after she portrayed him as a wannabe pedophile when he rented the house next door to hers:

Look, this is a pain in the ass for them. I understand that. If I were her, I'd be upset. I'd be annoyed. But I'd be an adult about it, and I would figure out, okay, how can we resolve this in a way that's not going to make into something that everybody gets obsessive about? By being here I have learned things, and I've gotten an insight into her character, into her ability to incite hatred, that before I only knew about in the abstract.

Dave Weigel has the rest here.

Friday Newsletter: The End of 24

24 is over. Finally.

| Sat May 29, 2010 11:12 AM EDT

Here's my Friday newsletter post from this week. And it reminds me: I have virtually no TV shows left that I watch regularly. Any non-HBO recommendations from the crowd?

Two of my favorite TV shows ended their lives this week: Lost and 24. Lost has gotten endless coverage for its season finale, its fan base polarized between hating it because it failed to resolve any of the questions they've been obsessively hashing over for the past six years, and loving it for the way it mawkishly closed the loop on all the characters they've come to love, finally allowing them a well-deserved measure of peace and contentment.

You can count me among the haters. But though it got less attention, it was the finale of 24 that was a bigger cultural moment: in a way, its ending, not the 2008 election, marked the final close of the George Bush era. For nine years, starting just two months after 9/11, super agent Jack Bauer has been fighting terrorists on American soil, and in many ways the show's message was a neocon’s wet dream: America was always under relentless attack; the bad guys were from the Middle East as often as not; time bombs really, literally, ticked; and torture not only worked, it was practically a patriotic duty.

This was, in a lot of ways, a reflection of the American id during the Bush years. But there was always more to 24 than just its anti-terrorist heroics, just as there's more to the American id than fear of foreign attack. Jack Bauer may have stolen the show when the action was in the field, but it was the White House that stole the show the rest of the time. And there, its message was considerably different. The terrorists, it turned out, were often being bankrolled by American superpatriots. Hawkish foreign policy, it turned out, almost always failed miserably. Hawks themselves, it turned out, were almost always stupid, cowardly, scheming, and blinkered. And the terrorists themselves, far from hating us for our freedoms, were either pawns of powerful interests or else ideologues who hated us for things we actually did.

So while one of the lessons of 24 was the hawkish one that everyone — including its creators — always talked about, neither the show nor America itself was ever so simple. Even during the height of the war on terror, Americans wanted to be assured that this was all just a temporary frenzy, that there was a better way of engaging with the world than bluster and vengeance. That message was always a part of 24 too, and it was a big part of what made the show so successful. But when Barack Obama entered the White House and brought that better model of global engagement with him — well, we didn't really need a TV show to remind us that better days and better ways would someday be possible again. We had real life for that, and that spelled the end of 24.

So will I miss 24? Not really. It filled two needs for a decade, one cathartic and one aspirational. The aspirational message never got the same attention as the heroics, but it was every bit as central to the show's success. The fact that neither message holds our attention the way they used to is well worth the loss of an hour of Monday night escapism.

Friday Cat Blogging - 28 May 2010

| Fri May 28, 2010 3:16 PM EDT

Domino hopped into the TV cabinet the other night and spent most of Jeopardy! staring out at us. The only way to save this moment for posterity was by using a flash, so that means today we get to see mild-mannered Domino rip off her mask and take to the blog as LaserCat, sworn foe of digital clocks and Blu-Ray players. Beware her powers. By the next day, however, she was back to being Domino, and Inkblot was willing to settle down next to her because it was nearly 5 o'clock and he didn't want to stray too far from the food bowl. Sure enough, his attentiveness paid off and food magically appeared. Assuming you consider a can of Fancy Feast to be magic. Which he does.

Have a nice three-day weekend everyone. But don't offer your pets anything in return for a job. That could spell trouble.