Kevin Drum

Obama Takes On the Pentagon

| Mon May 17, 2010 1:36 PM EDT

Having given up on Wolf Hall (spoiler alert: Anne marries Henry, gets head chopped off, etc.) I've now picked up The Promise, Jonathan Alter's take on President Obama's first year in office. One of the most fascinating sections, about Obama's drawn-out planning process for the Afghanistan war and the Pentagon's PR counteroffensive for more troops, has now been excerpted in Newsweek:

The AfPak sessions led to an explosion of unauthorized disclosures, spin, and cutthroat bureaucratic gamesmanship, including the leak of the McChrystal Report to Bob Woodward of The Washington Post....The military, practiced in the ways of Washington, now ran PR circles around the neophytes in the Obama White House, leaking something to the Pentagon reporters nearly every day. The motive for all the leaks seemed clear to the White House: to box the president into the policy that McChrystal had recommended, at least another 80,000 troops and an open-ended commitment lasting 10 years or more.

....It was important to remind the brass who was in charge. Inside the National Security Council, advisers considered what happened next historic, a presidential dressing-down unlike any in the United States in more than half a century. In the first week of October, Gates and Mullen were summoned to the Oval Office, where the president told them that he was "exceedingly unhappy" with the Pentagon's conduct. He said the leaks and positioning in advance of a decision were "disrespectful of the process" and "damaging to the men and women in uniform and to the country." In a cold fury Obama said he wanted to know "here and now" if the Pentagon would be on board with any presidential decision and could faithfully implement it.

"This was a cold and bracing meeting," said an official in the room. Lyndon Johnson had never talked to Gen. William Westmoreland that way, or George H.W. Bush to Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf. Presidents Kennedy, Carter, and Clinton had all been played by the Pentagon at various points but hadn't fought back as directly. Now Obama was sending an unmistakable message: don't toy with me. Just because he was young, new, a Democrat, and had never been in uniform didn't mean he was going to get backed into a corner.

There is, of course, no telling who Alter's sources are for this or what axe they have to grind. So take it with a grain of salt. But there's also this conversation after Obama has agreed to the troop escalation the Pentagon wanted:

Inside the Oval Office, Obama asked Petraeus, "David, tell me now. I want you to be honest with me. You can do this in 18 months?"

"Sir, I'm confident we can train and hand over to the ANA [Afghan National Army] in that time frame," Petraeus replied.

"Good. No problem," the president said. "If you can't do the things you say you can in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?"

"Yes, sir, in agreement," Petraeus said.

I'm not a fan of Obama's escalation in Afghanistan, but this conversation makes me feel a little bit better about it. Only a little bit, though. Promise or not, I'll bet that next year, when the drawdown is supposed to start, Petraeus tells us we need to stay.

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Can Federal Debt Rise Forever?

| Mon May 17, 2010 12:58 PM EDT

A few days ago Ezra Klein interviewed lefty economist James Galbraith (John Kenneth's son) and asked him whether the long-term growth of the federal deficit was a problem. He said no:

EK: Why?

JG: What is the nature of the danger? The only possible answer is that this larger deficit would cause a rise in the interest rate. Well, if the markets thought that was a serious risk, the rate on 20-year treasury bonds wouldn't be 4 percent and change now. If the markets thought that the interest rate would be forced up by funding difficulties 10 year from now, it would show up in the 20-year rate. That rate has actually been coming down in the wake of the European crisis.

This is a common argument, but I've never been much impressed by it. After all, for about a decade "the markets" thought that housing prices would rise forever and subprime CDOs were a great investment. Then they changed their minds practically overnight starting in 2007 and touched off a global financial panic. Those same markets may now think that U.S. interest rates are going to stay low forever, but they can change their minds about that just as quickly if they suddenly decide to get scared about the size of our deficit. That may or may not happen, but the fact that we're witnessing a flight to safety in the middle of a global slump isn't very good evidence that it never will.

But that's the less interesting of the two things he said in the interview. Here's the more interesting one:

EK: But putting inflation aside, the gap between spending and revenues won't have other ill effects?

JG: Is there any terrible consequence because we haven't prefunded the defense budget? No. There's only one budget and one borrowing authority and all that matters is what that authority pays. Say I'm the federal government and I wish to pay you, Ezra Klein, a billion dollars to build an aircraft carrier. I put money in your bank account for that. Did the Federal Reserve look into that? Did the IRS sign off on it? Government does not need money to spend just as a bowling alley does not run out of points.

What people worry about is that the federal government won't be able to sell bonds. But there can never be a problem for the federal government selling bonds. It goes the other way. The government's spending creates the bank's demand for bonds, because they want a higher return on the money that the government is putting into the economy. My father said this process is so simple that the mind recoils from it. [Italics mine.]

This strikes me as wrong. I don't know when Galbraith Sr. made that (typically witty) comment, but I imagine it was in the 50s or 60s, when inflation was restrained, the deficit was low and federal debt was shrinking, global capital flows were more regulated, and government bonds were mostly sold domestically. But that's no longer the case. Domestic banks have lots of things they can do with their money besides stashing it in treasurys, and they do. What's more, treasury bonds these days are held in large part by overseas investors and central banks, and they could lose their appetite for funding both our federal deficit and our current account deficit any time. There's no simple law that says there has to be a market for as much debt as the United States cares to run up.

Countries usually get into trouble when their debt levels get too high. It generally leads to default, high interest rates, high inflation rates, a currency crash, or a combination of all four. Now, the United States has the singular advantage of having its external debt denominated in dollars, but that doesn't make us invulnerable. It's true that we're not in any trouble right now (in fact, just the opposite since the rest of the world looks even shakier than we do) and there's no reason we should be cutting back on spending during a massive recession. But surely the long-term picture is less rosy than Galbraith makes it out to be?

But I'm no economist. Maybe I just don't get it. However, I've waited a few days to post about this, and I still haven't seen any real economists comment on this. Anybody want to take a crack at it?

Europe's Financial Woes

| Mon May 17, 2010 11:23 AM EDT

Yesterday the New York Times reported that Europe's financial woes are hurting their economy more than expected:

After a brief respite following the announcement last week of a nearly $1 trillion bailout plan for Europe, fear in the financial markets is building again, this time over worries that the Continent’s biggest banks face strains that will hobble European economies....Bourses and bank shares in Europe plunged on Friday because of these fears, with Wall Street following suit. Shares were also down in Tokyo and Australia in early trading on Monday.

Today they report that Europe's financial woes are hurting China more than expected:

The pain of the European debt crisis is spreading, with the plummeting euro making Chinese companies less competitive in Europe, their largest market, and complicating any move to break the Chinese currency’s peg to the dollar.

....Some economists warn that there may be much worse to come. The biggest reason Chinese exports plunged early last year was not weakening demand in industrialized countries but a sudden, temporary disappearance of trade finance. The availability of trade finance could easily become a serious problem again soon, said Dong Tao, the chief Asia economist at Credit Suisse....The Shanghai stock market plunged Monday, with the composite index falling 5.1 percent on worries about global demand as well as concerns about possible further moves in China to limit a steep rise in real estate prices this spring.

If Europe and China both go down, the United States is going down too. So we'd all better pray that the political and central banking leaders in Europe and China get a handle on this. Ours may have made plenty of mistakes back in 2007-08, but in the end they did the right things. They're not in charge this time around, though, and there are, it turns out, worse things than bailing out a bunch of fat cat bankers. For example, not bailing out a bunch of fat cat bankers. Buckle your seat belts.

Israel's Demographic Challenge

| Mon May 17, 2010 2:00 AM EDT

Peter Beinart writes that demographic and political trends are turning Israel inexorably more reactionary:

Israeli governments come and go, but the Netanyahu coalition is the product of frightening, long-term trends in Israeli society: an ultra-Orthodox population that is increasing dramatically, a settler movement that is growing more radical and more entrenched in the Israeli bureaucracy and army, and a Russian immigrant community that is particularly prone to anti-Arab racism. In 2009, a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 53 percent of Jewish Israelis (and 77 percent of recent immigrants from the former USSR) support encouraging Arabs to leave the country. Attitudes are worst among Israel’s young....This March, a poll found that 56 percent of Jewish Israeli high school students — and more than 80 percent of religious Jewish high school students — would deny Israeli Arabs the right to be elected to the Knesset. An education ministry official called the survey “a huge warning signal in light of the strengthening trends of extremist views among the youth.”

And these same trends are visible in America, splitting the younger half of the Jewish community into one group that increasingly doesn't feel any attachment at all to Israel and a smaller — but growing — group that identifies with the Israeli hard right:

Because they marry earlier, intermarry less, and have more children, Orthodox Jews are growing rapidly as a share of the American Jewish population. According to a 2006 American Jewish Committee (AJC) survey, while Orthodox Jews make up only 12 percent of American Jewry over the age of sixty, they constitute 34 percent between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. For America’s Zionist organizations, these Orthodox youngsters are a potential bonanza. In their yeshivas they learn devotion to Israel from an early age; they generally spend a year of religious study there after high school, and often know friends or relatives who have immigrated to Israel. The same AJC study found that while only 16 percent of non-Orthodox adult Jews under the age of forty feel “very close to Israel,” among the Orthodox the figure is 79 percent. As secular Jews drift away from America’s Zionist institutions, their Orthodox counterparts will likely step into the breach. The Orthodox “are still interested in parochial Jewish concerns,” explains Samuel Heilman, a sociologist at the City University of New York. “They are among the last ones who stayed in the Jewish house, so they now control the lights.”

These trends have been apparent for many years, and it's hard to see how they can be turned aside. It's also hard to see how they turn out well. Beinart's essay must have been hard to write, but because of that it's worth reading.

Using Your Ear(s)

| Sun May 16, 2010 10:02 PM EDT

A new study suggests that cell phone use probably doesn't have any link to brain cancer:

But the leaders of the project acknowledged that the study had flaws. They said one source of possible inaccuracies was the fact that participants were asked to remember how much and on which ear they used their mobiles over the past decade.

This reminds me of something. In movies, characters are endlessly picking up a phone, putting it to their right ear, and then hastily switching it to their left ear so they can pick up a pad to write a note. I never do this. I always use my left ear. Always. My right ear works fine in general, but I can't talk on the phone with it any more than I can use my left hand to write. Which is to say, I can do it, but it feels clumsy and I have a hard time following the conversation.

Is this unusual? Or is ambi-aurality (or whatever) just a movie affectation and most people prefer one ear over the other just like I do? What sayeth the hive mind?

Immigration and the Economy

| Sun May 16, 2010 8:13 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias recommends a recent FactCheck.org piece that looks at the economic impact of immigration and concludes that "study after study has shown that immigrants grow the economy, expanding demand for goods and services that the foreign-born workers and their families consume, and thereby creating jobs." This is true. Most research shows that increased immigration — legal or illegal — has at most a small negative effect on low-skill workers who lack a high school education and has a positive effect overall. Matt comments:

But of course when you look at the politics of this issue, none of this is reflected. The people clamoring to “control the border” aren’t recent low-skill immigrants from Mexico. It’s very rarely native born high-school dropouts either. Rather, the people upset about immigration tend to be white high school graduates, a group that has a lot of conservative opinions about many issues but generally benefits from high levels of immigration.

This suggests, of course, that opposition to immigration is rooted less in economic concerns and more in cultural resentment and language angst. All of which gives me an excuse to link to a Chris Hayes piece from 2006 about John Tanton, the founder of FAIR, the nation’s oldest and most influential immigration restriction group. For years, Tanton tried to preach an anti-immigration message based on economic and conservation grounds. But it didn't work. Chris tells us what did work:

Crisscrossing the country, Tanton found little interest in his conservation-based arguments for reduced immigration, but kept hearing the same complaint. “‘I tell you what pisses me off,’” Tanton recalls people saying. “‘It’s going into a ballot box and finding a ballot in a language I can’t read.’ So it became clear that the language question had a lot more emotional power than the immigration question.”

Tanton tried to persuade FAIR to harness this “emotional power,” but the board declined. So in 1983, Tanton sent out a fundraising letter on behalf of a new group he created called U.S. English. Typically, Tanton says, direct mail garners a contribution from around 1 percent of recipients. “The very first mailing we ever did for U.S. English got almost a 10 percent return,” he says. “That’s unheard of.” John Tanton had discovered the power of the culture war.

The success of U.S. English taught Tanton a crucial lesson. If the immigration restriction movement was to succeed, it would have to be rooted in an emotional appeal to those who felt that their country, their language, their very identity was under assault. “Feelings,” Tanton says in a tone reminiscent of Spock sharing some hard-won insight on human behavior, “trump facts.”

And part of that emotional appeal? Beyond language and culture, it's the fear that Hispanic immigrants are responsible for an "illegal alien crime wave." But that, it turns out, probably isn't true either.

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Democracy in the Air

| Sun May 16, 2010 6:47 PM EDT

Corporate America — with the eager backing of the Republican Party — has spent the past several years fighting "card check," a procedure that would allow unions to win representation merely by getting a majority of workers to sign a card. No secret election needed. The basic argument against card check is that it's undemocratic: when we want to decide things in America, we use elections. And we keep votes secret so that neither side can intimidate voters.

Fine. I think card check would work perfectly well (details here if you're interested), but at least the reasoning of its opponents is coherent enough. But guess what? The airline industry has been governed since 1936 by the Railway Labor Act, and when the National Mediation Board proposed a change to RLA elections that would make them more democratic, the same folks didn't like that either:

Before today, under the RLA, workers who did not vote in a union organizing campaign — including workers on furlough, military leave and extended medical leave — were counted as “no” votes. So in order to form a union, workers had to gain a majority of all workers, instead of a majority of voting members. It was as if people who did not vote in a Presidential campaign were recorded as voting for one party or the other.

The NMB’s rule-change — which it first sought comment on back in November — states that workers who do not vote in an election simply won’t be counted (just like in political campaigns). This would bring the RLA in line with the other major piece of legislation governing unionization, the National Labor Relations Act.

Makes sense! But corporations are dead set against it and so are Republicans.

So where did the original interpretation come from, anyway? The Railway Labor Act merely says that "The majority of any craft or class of employees shall have the right to determine who shall be the representative of the craft or class for the purposes of this chapter." The plain meaning of "majority" has always been "majority of those voting" unless there's specific language saying otherwise, but for obscure administrative reasons the NMB decided otherwise back in the 40s. It's not clear to me if anyone actually knows why anymore.

In any case, requiring a majority only of those who actually cast a vote is pretty plainly consistent with the statutory language, and certainly more in line with customary voting practice. Which is to say, more in line with the customary voting practice that corporations and Republicans defend so zealously when it comes to card check in NLRB elections. But in this case they don't like it. It's almost as if they don't really care about democratic procedure at all. They just support whatever makes it hardest for unions to organize. But that can't be it, can it?

Obama and Civil Liberties

| Sun May 16, 2010 2:14 PM EDT

I should have linked to this a couple of days ago, but better late than never. Here is Glenn Greenwald noting that recent anti-terrorist measures — some directly from President Obama and others not, but mostly with bipartisan support in Congress in either case — go well beyond what the Bush/Cheney administration ever proposed. Instead of merely targeting foreign nationals, these new proposal are aimed directly at American citizens:

A bipartisan group from Congress sponsors legislation to strip Americans of their citizenship based on Terrorism accusations. Barack Obama claims the right to assassinate Americans far from any battlefield and with no due process of any kind. The Obama administration begins covertly abandoning long-standing Miranda protections for American suspects by vastly expanding what had long been a very narrow "public safety" exception, and now Eric Holder explicitly advocates legislation to codify that erosion. John McCain and Joe Lieberman introduce legislation to bar all Terrorism suspects, including Americans arrested on U.S. soil, from being tried in civilian courts.

....There is, of course, no moral difference between subjecting citizens and non-citizens to abusive or tyrannical treatment. But as a practical matter, the dangers intensify when the denial of rights is aimed at a government's own population. The ultimate check on any government is its own citizenry; vesting political leaders with oppressive domestic authority uniquely empowers them to avoid accountability and deter dissent.

Aside from war and occupation, governments have far more coercive power against their own citizens than they do against residents of other countries. There are natural limits to what the U.S. government can do, say, to Chinese or French nationals in their own countries. But within the United States itself, the only restrictions on state power are largely legal, and without those legal limitations the federal government has an almost unlimited ability to exercise its coercive authority over anyone it chooses to. This is why the distinction between citizens and non-citizens is so important.

I am, fundamentally, an admirer of Barack Obama. I like his temperament, I like his worldview, and I like his management style. As I've said before, he has a habit of disappointing me just a little bit on an almost routine basis, but most of the time that doesn't interfere with my basic admiration. The one exception has been his attitude toward civil liberties and terrorism. His early ban on torture was profoundly welcome, but aside from that he's mostly continued Bush-era policies with only minor changes and then added to them things that Bush and Cheney could only have dreamed of. In this one area, I feel betrayed.

For a couple of reasons it's funny that I feel this way. First, this is really nothing new. Democrats have been only marginally better than Republicans on these issues for years. The Clinton era was hardly a golden age of civil liberties, after all, and after 9/11 most of Bush's infingements on civil liberties were supported — sometimes publicly, sometimes merely implicitly — by plenty of Democrats. Obama was one of those Democrats while he was a senator, and he's still one of them now.

Second, unlike Glenn, I'm not a hardcore defender of civil liberties in every conceivable circumstance. Global terrorism really does blur the lines between traditional battlefields and domestic policing in ways that are tricky to resolve. Guantanamo and the broader issue of enemy combatants is, as I said several times while Bush was still in office, an excruciatingly difficult one. Even the operation of broad surveillance networks poses some genuinely complicated problems thanks to the technical architecture of modern communications systems.

But as difficult as a lot of these problems are generally, once the U.S. government starts targeting U.S. citizens without warrants or due process, we've crossed a bright line that's dangerously corrosive. That includes the warrantless wiretapping and non-appealable no-fly lists of the Bush administration, and it includes assassinating Americans and removing Miranda protections under the Obama administration. They're outrageous and dangerous transgressions no matter who's doing them, and Obama needs to take a long, deep breath and reconsider how he's handling these issues. In most things, Obama is famous for taking the long view and not letting day-to-day political considerations force his hand. He needs to start doing the same thing here.

The Senate Tackles Debit Cards

| Sat May 15, 2010 6:10 PM EDT

Hey, the good guys won a vote last night. Debit card companies charge merchants an outrageously high "interchange fee" every time you use one of their cards — a fee that's passed directly on to you, of course — and the Senate finally decided to put a stop to it:

Sixty-four senators, including 17 Republicans, agreed to impose price controls on debit transactions over the furious objections of the beleaguered banking industry....Last year businesses paid Visa and MasterCard $19.71 billion on debit card transactions, according to The Nilson Report, a trade magazine that is regarded as the best source of data on the industry. Visa and MasterCard in turn passed about 80 percent of the money, roughly $15.8 billion, to the banks that issued the cards.

So what are banks going to be forced to do in order to make up their lost profits?

Some experts warned that lower profit margins could lead banks to curtail bank card reward programs.

Ouch! No more reward programs. I think I can live with that. But if your life got a whole lot grimmer when you heard this, consider that what it really means is that for the past decade you've been paying about 1% extra on every single debit card purchase you've made so that banks could then rebate about half that amount back to you in the form of "rewards." Anyone who thinks that's a good deal, raise your hands. (No, not you bankers in the back. We already know it's a good deal for you.)

Still not convinced? Well, Europe mandates fees about one-quarter ours and somehow manages to support a thriving debit card business anyway. And if even that doesn't convince you, go back and read this post about how debit cards used to be essentially free until Visa barged into the market and deliberately set out to force merchants into a higher-cost program, and then after they'd succeeded, raised fees on the lower cost program too. Not because either of these programs actually cost anything to run, but just because they could. If it doesn't make your blood boil, then nothing will.

Yet More on Atheism and Death

| Sat May 15, 2010 3:47 PM EDT

I promise not to blather forever on the death and atheism meme, but I think I'll do one more post on the subject just to finish things up. I wrote a few days ago that although knowledge of our inevitable death is unique to humans, it doesn't define what it means to be human any more than a hundred other things that are unique to humans. Andrew Sullivan disagrees:

I find Kevin's final statement unpersuasive. To be human is to be aware of our own finitude, and to wonder at that. Montaigne argued that to philosophize is to learn how to die. Camus put it differently: men die and they are not happy. For me, this last thing is our first thing as humans. It is our defining characteristic, even though some animals may experience this in a different way.

And our ability to think about this casts us between angels and beasts. It is our reality. Facing it is our life's task.

I think I hardly have to say that this subject is light years outside my usual wheelhouse. So I don't have a lot to say about it. But this attitude toward death surely sums up a vast chasm between the religious and the nonreligious. "Facing it is our life's task"? I can't even conceive of that. I think about death sometimes, just like everyone, and sometimes these thoughts bother me more than other times. But thinking about it all the time? Casting it as uniquely central to the human condition? That's almost incomprehensible to me. Wondering about our own finitude is one thing — I imagine we all do that from time to time — but why should this be elevated above the human ability to create art, science, mathematics, love, war, poetry, trade, government, or ethics — or the ability to wonder in the first place? Why is learning how to deal with our eventual death the defining characteristic of being human? Not just because Montaigne said so, certainly.

There's no answer, of course. Andrew thinks it is and I don't. But I confess that even on an intellectual basis I have a hard time grasping this. Still, we can't just let things rest there, can we? So instead, in an audacious effort to wrest this question away from the high-minded philosophers and transform it back into the kind of research and policy drudgery this blog excels at, here's an odd and seemingly unrelated thought: are autistics less religious than the rest of us? In general, as you go further along the Asperger's/autism spectrum are you less likely to believe in God and be concerned about death? And vice versa for those at the other end of the spectrum? I'm not sure why this conversation caused this particular question to pop into my head, but it did. Does anyone know if there's any research on this subject?