Take a look at the following three phrases:

  • Getting stamps by mail
  • Filling a box full of boxes
  • Taking a picture of a camera

Is there a description for this kind of thing? Is it even a definable category? Obviously it has something to do with subject and object being similar, and the words reflexive and recursive both come to mind. What would you call it?

Are American agents involved in an ongoing plan to kill Iranian nuclear scientists? Mark Perry says no: Israel's Mossad is behind the operation, and in the past they've recruited assassins from Jundallah, a Pakistani militant group, by posing as American agents. Perry bases this on memos written during the Bush administration as well as interviews with six currently serving or recently retired intelligence officers:

While the memos show that the United States had barred even the most incidental contact with Jundallah, according to both intelligence officers, the same was not true for Israel's Mossad....The officials did not know whether the Israeli program to recruit and use Jundallah is ongoing. Nevertheless, they were stunned by the brazenness of the Mossad's efforts. "It's amazing what the Israelis thought they could get away with," the intelligence officer said. "Their recruitment activities were nearly in the open. They apparently didn't give a damn what we thought."

....According to one retired CIA officer, information about the false-flag operation was reported up the U.S. intelligence chain of command....The report then made its way to the White House, according to the currently serving U.S. intelligence officer. The officer said that Bush "went absolutely ballistic" when briefed on its contents.

"The report sparked White House concerns that Israel's program was putting Americans at risk," the intelligence officer told me. "There's no question that the U.S. has cooperated with Israel in intelligence-gathering operations against the Iranians, but this was different. No matter what anyone thinks, we're not in the business of assassinating Iranian officials or killing Iranian civilians."

According to Perry's sources, nothing was done about the Israeli program until Barack Obama took office, at which point he "drastically scaled back joint U.S.-Israel intelligence programs targeting Iran":

"We don't do bang and boom," a recently retired intelligence officer said. "And we don't do political assassinations." Israel regularly proposes conducting covert operations targeting Iranians, but is just as regularly shut down, according to retired and current intelligence officers. "They come into the room and spread out their plans, and we just shake our heads," one highly placed intelligence source said, "and we say to them — 'Don't even go there. The answer is no.'"

Is this true? Needless to say, there's no way to know. After all, if we weren't involved, we'd deny it. But if we were involved, we'd deny it too. Still, take this as a data point. Apparently lots of current and retired officers say that we have nothing to do with the Iranian assassinations.

Go ahead and admit it: You're jealous. I have an Inkblot for President T-shirt and you don't. It was a Christmas gift from my sister Inkblot's super-PAC, and it was produced with absolutely no coordination with his campaign. But you can tell he likes it thanks to the extremely presidential look on his face today. He's already measuring the drapes in the Oval Office.

New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane has been on the business end of a shit-ton of flack since yesterday for asking whether the Times should challenge statements of fact from public figures. I've sort of ignored the whole kerfuffle because the quality of the conversation on both sides was pretty willfully obtuse, but I think John Quiggin gets to the core of the issue here:

It's unreasonable to expect reporters to take the burden from scratch in refuting zombie lies. Newspapers, including the NYT, should include a set of factual conclusions, regularly updated, in their style manuals. The most relevant current example is that of global warming. As with the current account deficit (routinely glossed as ‘the broadest measure of the balance of payments’) the NYT should formulate a standard set of words (such as “a conclusion endorsed by every major scientific organization in the world’) to be used whenever the views of Repubs on the issue are mentioned. Similarly, any reference to claims about ‘Climategate’ should include the words ‘a conspiracy theory refuted by a number of inquiries in the US and UK’. Rinse and repeat wrt evolution, the Ryan budget plan etc.

There's fairly broad agreement that quoting public figures saying something wrong about Subject X in a news story, and then correcting the record on Subject X only in a follow-up fact-checking piece, is a lousy practice. After all, everyone reads the A1 story, but very few people read the A17 fact-check. The current system just doesn't work.

And yet, if you insist on real-time fact-checking being done in news stories, then you have to do exactly what John suggests. Every news organization needs some kind of "fact manual" that provides the agreed-on facts for every conceivable assertion. The copy desk then has to ensure that these stylized facts are included in any story in which a public figure says something different.

Question: Do you really want this? Does anyone want this? A few weeks ago PolitiFact declared that "Republicans want to end Medicare" was their Lie of the Year. If the Times adopted this position, it means that every time a Democrat said this the Times would explain that it's not really true. Are we all up for that? Are we really as willing to allow the Times to be the supreme arbiter of truth as we think?

There are, among lefties, a smallish number of issues where we believe that conservatives routinely peddle flagrant factual falsehoods that ought to be refuted immediately. Climate change is the obvious one, and there are a few others. But the truth is that misstatements of plain facts are fairly rare. That's just not how most political debate works. I think that federal stimulus would be good for the economy. Republicans claim otherwise. Is this a fact? No: it's an argument. That kind of thing makes up about 99 percent of all political discourse. It's just not fact-checkable in the usual sense.

That said, there are still a few widely repeated lies that news outlets ought to correct on the spot when they pass them along. "The planet is cooling" is certainly one. "47 percent of Americans pay no taxes" is another. Those qualify as naked facts. So let's make a list in comments. The rules are simple: (a) It needs to be something that gets repeated fairly often, and (b) it needs to be absolutely, concretely wrong. The Times might not need an entire fact manual for this kind of thing, but maybe we can supply them with a top 10 list.

I don't use Gmail, but Henry Farrell does and he's pretty unhappy with its latest iteration:

It used to be that Google claimed that their motto was ‘don’t be evil.’ Now it appears to be ‘I’m sorry, but we have to be evil to compete with Facebook.’

Just out of curiosity, did anyone ever really believe that "don't be evil" stuff? I mean, Google's a big corporation. They've been a big public corporation for nearly eight years. Big public corporations are in business to make money and enhance their stockholders' wealth, and that's that. Google has long been big enough and profitable enough that they could sort of pretend otherwise now and again, but even that was only bound to last as long as their competition remained weak and ignorable. That's no longer the case, and Google is responding normally.

I happen to agree that Google's new design esthetic is terrible, and I also hate the idea of features being deliberately removed in order to force feed everyone into Google+. All of us who hate this should fight back, as Henry says. Still, there's nothing evil about what Google is doing. They're just doing what big corporations do.

Felix Salmon has an interesting post today about the phenomenal recent sales growth of works by two early/mid 20th century Chinese painters, Zhang Daqian and Qi Bashi. In 2008, both accounted for only a few million dollars in paintings sold at auction. In 2011, extrapolating from auction sales through June, they accounted for nearly a billion dollars each.

Impressive! But I had never heard of either of them, so I checked out Wikipedia to educate myself ever so slightly. Interestingly, I learned that Zhang Daqian, in addition to being a great artist in his own right, was also one of the great forgers of the twentieth century. "So prodigious was his virtuosity within the medium of Chinese ink and colour," says Chen Jiazi, "that it seemed he could paint anything. His output spanned a huge range, from archaising works based on the early masters of Chinese painting to the innovations of his late works which connect with the language of Western abstract art."

So here's my question: Is a Zhang forgery now a valuable commodity too? Would it be cool to hang one in my living room as a forgery? That is, not on the pretense that it's an original 12th-century Song Dynasty landscape, but specifically that it's a forgery of a 12th-century Song Dynasty landscape by a famous forger. Anyone happen to know?

Via Suzy Khimm, here's a shocker: according to Gallup, low-income people are worried about jobs. High-income people are worried about the deficit. Naturally, this means that Congress and the media can talk about almost nothing except the deficit these days. Welcome to America.

My dream has finally come true: I've appeared on the Daily Show! Sadly, I missed this when it flashed on the screen last night, but apparently one of my blog posts was used as an on-screen example in John Oliver's bit about the rise of incivility in the media.

What's double-plus-great about this is that they took it completely out of context! Not only is that post over a year old, but I'm calling my own side idiots. See, I'm a Democrat. It's true that the post itself asked, "What in God's name are the morons who pass for leaders of the Democratic Party thinking?" And I guess that wasn't very civil. But it was my own peeps I was calling out. Aren't we even allowed to use colorful language within the family anymore?

Anyway, that's irony #1. Irony #2 is that I'm pretty sure I've called Republicans much, much worse on multiple occasions. So why not use one of those posts?

And irony #3? The whole bit was an interview with Froma Harrop, who's apparently in charge of a media initiative to restore civility but nonetheless said last year that tea party leaders have engaged in economic terrorism for holding the debt limit hostage. Pretty uncivil! Well, it turns out that I know Froma. Sort of. We sat next to each other for a couple of hours last June and shared the experience of not winning a Loeb award in the same category. She seemed very nice.

Atrios today:

This isn't especially new and original, but I hadn't quite thought of it this way before. It was quite the triumph of conservative propaganda to convince people that the housing bubble was, once again, about poor minorities getting more than they deserved.

It is pretty remarkable, isn't it? I'm routinely impressed by the creativity of conservatives when it comes to stuff like this. It would never occur to me to blame the financial crisis on a piece of legislation designed to help low-income home buyers, especially one passed 30 years ago, but they got right on it. They come up with stuff like this all the time, and it's pretty damn brilliant.

Last week, when President Obama made a series of recess appointments even though the Senate claimed to be technically still in session, I argued that he ought to make his legal reasoning public. Today he did. It turns out that before he acted he did indeed request an opinion from the Office of Legal Counsel, which placed its opinion on the OLC website earlier this morning. Adam Serwer summarizes:

The opinion from the Office of Legal Counsel, authored by Assistant Attorney General Virginia Seitz, argues that these "pro forma" sessions, which have historically been used by both parties to deny presidents the ability to make executive and judicial appointments, can't be used to block appointments unless the Senate is conducting actual business.

....The opinion relies on previous memos written by Republican and Democratic officials, and it does marshal some strong historical evidence for its interpretation. The opinion quotes Alexander Hamilton writing that the recess clause of the Constitution is triggered when the Senate is not "in session for the appointment of officers," a sentiment echoed by a Senate Judiciary Committee letter from 1905 informing President Theodore Roosevelt about the limits of his authority to make recess appointments.

The bottom line is this: The Justice Department takes the view that when the Senate "is not available to give advice and consent to executive nominations," it is effectively in recess and the president can make appointments. Moreover, the opinion states that the Senate's constitutional authority to set its own rules cannot be used to keep the president from making appointments. Key here is that the opinion doesn't prevent the Senate from blocking appointments—it merely states that the Senate has to actually be in session in order to do so.

The full opinion is here, and it's pretty readable. I'm happy with the reasoning, which concludes that the Senate is only in session if the Senate is, in fact, truly in session and able to conduct business, and I'm happy that the opinion has been made public.

So what's next? I'm not especially happy that the appointment wars have been escalated yet again, but at some point Republicans in the Senate have to agree to some kind of reasonable compromise here. "Advise and consent" shouldn't mean flat out refusal to confirm anyone simply because the other party occupies the White House, and if there's a silver lining to this mess (aside from the fact that both the NLRB and the CFPB get to continue functioning) it's the possibility that Obama's actions will get the Senate leadership to the negotiating table. Senators understandably want to keep their confirmation power intact, along with the leverage it gives them, but both sides need to agree on some kind of restraint. Maybe this will involve time limits for confirmations, maybe it will involve a limit on the number of holds or filibusters senators can mount against presidential appointees, or maybe it will involve something else. But a minority in the Senate shouldn't be allowed to unilaterally bring the executive branch to a halt, and that's increasingly what's been happening. It's time to bring some common sense back to the confirmation process.