Kevin Drum

Stupid or Venal?

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 6:04 PM EDT

The Cordoba Initiative is an organization in New York City that wants to tear down an old building a couple of blocks from the World Trade Center site and convert it into a community center and mosque. Recently this has become famous as the Ground Zero Mosque, which Sarah Palin wants to refudiate and Newt Gingrich labels "an assertion of Islamist triumphalism which we should not tolerate." It's also, of course, the latest 24/7 ratings obsession for Fox News. Jeffrey Goldberg, not exactly a shrinking violet in matters of national security, is appalled:

The Cordoba Initiative, which is headed by an imam named Feisal Abdul Rauf, is an enemy of al Qaeda, no less than Rudolph Giuliani and the Anti-Defamation League are enemies of al Qaeda. Bin Laden would sooner dispatch a truck bomb to destroy the Cordoba Initiative's proposed community center than he would attack the ADL, for the simple reason that Osama's most dire enemies are Qaeda's goal is the purification of Islam (that is to say, its extreme understanding of Islam) and apostates pose more of a threat to Bin Laden's understanding of Islam than do infidels....Bin Laden wants a clash of civilizations; the opponents of the mosque project are giving him what he wants.

Mark Thompson agrees:

I can sympathize with the position advanced by some that, whether or not the project should be permitted, the property owners should choose not to build it in the proximity of Ground Zero. I may disagree with this position, but it is not for me to decide what does and does not offend others. But what is not only wrong, but also plays right into the hands of al Qaeda, is the decision by the movement Right to choose this as just the latest battleground in the culture wars with the Left, further dividing the American people in the process, as well as just another battleground in the clash of civilizations with Islam that is precisely what al Qaeda desires.

I know this is an eternal question with no answer, but I can't help but wonder what's driving this mania on the right. Is it stupidity or venality? It's one thing for a few lunatic bloggers like Pam Geller to go nuts over this kind of thing, but it's hard to believe that most rank-and-file Republican politicians, or even firebrands like Newt Gingrich, really believe what they're saying about the GZM. It's just so plainly specious and so plainly not in American interests to foster this kind of attitude. On the other hand, if they don't believe it, would even modern conservatives be cynical enough to promote this kind of obviously dangerous hysteria just for partisan purposes?

Some and some, I guess. They probably have managed to talk themselves into being offended and they probably really are willing to exploit this kind of xenophobia for their own ends even if it almost certainly harms American goals in the Middle East. But even after years of having my face rubbed into this kind of behavior, it still freshly dismays me whenever I run into it again because, somehow, it always seems one notch worse each time. I guess I'm just terminally unworldly or something. In any case, I think Andrew Sullivan has a pretty good take on it:

It has always seemed to me that this war against al Qaeda is a war for religious freedom, and ultimately for the separation of church and state. It is al Qaeda's psychotic conflation of politics and religion that we fight, not their religion itself. But these are very abstract things for anyone to fight for, to identify with emotionally and viscerally. And so, even when we start with good intentions and clear minds — we are fighting not Islam but Islamism, not religion but theocracy — we can soon simply drift and degenerate into more primitive associations.

What we've been watching from Palin to Gingrich is an exploitation of this human degeneracy, or in the ADL's case, sheer liberal cowardice in the face of tribalism. Even now, Gingrich and Palin fail to understand that rhetorical polarization may be good politics but it is terrible statesmanship in a war of ideas as well as physical combat. It's a long war that will only be won in the minds of most Muslims, which is why how we act remains of importance. Yes, the human psyche will make easy and common and hard-to-resist associations between a religion and an act of war by the most deranged and nihilist members of that religion.

For once, I really do miss George Bush. The damage he did to the American cause in the Muslim world is incalculable, but at least he never countenanced this kind of lunatic bigotry. Are there any Republican leaders left today who can say the same? Anyone willing to just quietly and frankly defend traditional American notions of religious freedom and traditional American notions of tolerance and decency? This is, after all, a big part of the reason that Muslims have integrated so successfully into American society. Anyone?

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Skewed Incentives

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 4:56 PM EDT

We just got new windows installed in our house. It cost about $10,000 and I paid by credit card. Result: the window company had to pay a $200 fee to Visa for a transaction that probably cost about a dollar (credit risk included) and Wells Fargo rebated about half that back to me in the form of reward points that I will eventually convert into cash. In other words, I was just paid a bonus of $100 to use a credit card instead of paying with cash. Someone please explain a sane economic theory under which this makes sense.

But the windows look nice.

UPDATE: Commenter 98th Story spells things out:

I don't understand what's hard to understand here. Visa made out by netting $100 on the transaction. You made out by conveniently using a credit card and scoring $100 in rewards. And the window company made out by scoring a $10,000 dollar job, part of which included handling a $10,000 transaction in a smooth and covenient way. Maybe you wouldn't have gone with another company just because this one didn't take a credit card, but I'm positive a percentage of their customers would. Especially if they didn't quite have $10,000 to spend on windows this month, but wanted to get it done anyway. This is called a win-win-win, and it happens in capitalism all the time.

Check, check, and check. The question is, is this sane? Is it sane to aggressively incentivize people with cash discounts to buy things on credit even if they can't afford them "this month"? I'd argue that it's not, even though every individual in this transaction might come out ahead in the short term. If the financial implosion of 2008 didn't convince us of that, then I guess we deserve whatever follow-on financial collapse we get in the future.

Plus, keep in mind that I'm not opposed to credit card interchange fees. I just want them to be transparent. If everyone really is a winner from the current state of affairs, I very much doubt that Visa and Mastercard would prohibit my window installer from charging me a fee for using a credit card. So why not find out? If he did have that right, and chose not to charge me extra, it would be a strong indication that the fee is worth it to him. But if he had that right and chose to pass it along to me, it would be a strong indication that someone was trying to make a bit of monopoly rent at his expense. Why not let every merchant choose whether or not to pass along interchange fees to their customers and see what happens?

Chart of the Day: The Economy Still Sucks

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 1:34 PM EDT

Here's the latest from Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. It shows the number of people who have experienced various kinds of economic distress over the past year. In their latest poll, 44% have seen reduced wages, 41% have lost their job, 28% have lost their health insurance, and 22% have fallen behind on their mortgages. Every single one of these numbers is up since the beginning of the year.

And the political result? About what you'd expect: a year ago people trusted Democrats over Republicans by 14 points to manage the economy and by 9 points to manage the deficit. Today they trust Republicans by 13 points and 18 points respectively. I'm still willing to go out on a limb and say that Democrats will retain control of the House in November, but polls like this don't do anything for my confidence.

America's New, Peaceful Future?

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 12:52 PM EDT

Matt Steinglass is surprisingly optimistic that we're about to enter a new, more reticent age of American power projection:

There haven't been many examples lately of people learning from their mistakes, but the invasion of Iraq appears to be a mistake from which some lessons have been learned. It's difficult to imagine America returning to fantasies of easy conquest and democracy-building anytime in the next few decades, anywhere in the world. Summing up the mood, Joe Klein calls the invasion a "national disaster", and calls for new criteria for the use of American military force that are actually rather old criteria: "We should never go to war unless we have been attacked or are under direct, immediate threat of attack. Never. And never again."

I would very much like to believe this. But I really don't. We left Vietnam in 1975 and were supposedly so scarred that we'd never do anything like that again in any of our lifetimes. Your definition of "like that" might be different from mine, but a mere five years later we dipped our toe into Afghanistan and then, over the next 30 years, intervened militarily in Grenada, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Kosovo, Afghanistan 2.0, and Iraq 2.0. In other words, once every three or four years, which is about as frequently as we did this kind of thing before Vietnam. Some scarring, eh?

Right now it looks like we've learned a lesson because, aside from a bit of chest beating from frustrated neocons over Iran, no one's banging the war drums. But no one was banging the war drums in 1976, either, which is why it looked like maybe we were going to enter a new era back then too. Then the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and suddenly everything changed. So let's not declare a victory for common sense in foreign policy just yet. I'll believe things have changed when something actually happens overseas, a president tries to build support for intervention, and Congress and the public—including Joe Klein and me—balk. That will mean things have changed.

In the meantime, my friend Marc Danziger, whose son is in Afghanistan, is full of contempt for the way the Pentagon wages war ("It's like we turned the military over to the DMV") and believes that our big problem there is that "We have no strategic objective." Well, one man's strategic objective is another man's blather, but the fact is that President Obama has clearly articulated what he wants to accomplish:

I set a goal that was narrowly defined as disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda and its extremist allies, and pledged to better coordinate our military and civilian efforts....We must deny al Qaeda a safe haven. We must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future.

Now, maybe you don't like this objective. Maybe you think it needs to fit into a grander global plan of some kind. I don't, especially, but it's a perfectly legitimate view. Still, even if we had a different global plan than we do now, I don't think it would change what we want to accomplish in Afghanistan and it wouldn't change the difficulty of accomplishing it. This kind of counterinsurgency campaign is just really hard, and hardly anyone ever succeeds at it. Our current rules of engagement, which are frustrating for everyone, nonetheless seem to be about as effective as they can be. A year from now, if they're still not working, even with a huge increase in troops and an obviously highly competent officer like David Petraeus in charge, it's hard to believe that anything else would work either. The Pentagon's idea of how to wage war might or might not be as good as it could be, but failing to do the impossible is hardly evidence of it. It's primarily evidence that we've taken on an intractable task.

And we'll probably do it again. Just give us a few years to regroup and a plausible sounding enemy somewhere overseas. I'm pretty sure we'll hop right back on that horse.

Quote of the Day: Living in the Tea Party World

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 11:52 AM EDT

From Rep. Bob Inglis (R–SC), a guy with a 93% rating from the American Conservative Union who lost a primary last month to a Tea Party candidate 71%-29%, on meeting up with his constituents during the campaign:

I sat down, and they said on the back of your Social Security card, there's a number. That number indicates the bank that bought you when you were born based on a projection of your life's earnings, and you are collateral. We are all collateral for the banks. I have this look like, "What the heck are you talking about?" I'm trying to hide that look and look clueless. I figured clueless was better than argumentative. So they said, "You don't know this?! You are a member of Congress, and you don't know this?!" And I said, "Please forgive me. I'm just ignorant of these things." And then of course, it turned into something about the Federal Reserve and the Bilderbergers and all that stuff. And now you have the feeling of anti-Semitism here coming in, mixing in. Wow.

David Corn has the full story here. And yes, I know it's South Carolina. Still, for those who occasionally think that tea parties represent just a small extreme wing of the Republican Party, you might think again after reading what Inglis has to say.

Why Prop 8 Passed

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 11:19 AM EDT

Why did California's Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage, pass in 2008? Obviously some groups voted for it in larger numbers than others, but in the LA Times today David Fleischer takes a look at which groups changed their votes as the campaign progressed:

The shift, it turns out, was greatest among parents with children under 18 living at home — many of them white Democrats.

The numbers are staggering. In the last six weeks, when both sides saturated the airwaves with television ads, more than 687,000 voters changed their minds and decided to oppose same-sex marriage. More than 500,000 of those, the data suggest, were parents with children under 18 living at home. Because the proposition passed by 600,000 votes, this shift alone more than handed victory to proponents.

....One final false assumption by same-sex marriage supporters was that the election was so close that it will be easy to pass same-sex marriage the next time out. It's true that the official election results — 52% to 48% — appeared quite close. But the truth is more complicated. The data we analyzed show that the No on 8 campaign benefitted from voter confusion.

Polling suggests that half a million people who opposed same-sex marriage mistakenly voted against the proposition. They were confused by the idea that a "no" vote was actually a vote for gay marriage. This "wrong-way voting" affected both sides, but overwhelmingly it helped the "no" side. Our analysis suggests that the division among California voters on same-sex marriage at the time of Proposition 8 was actually 54% to 46% — not so close. We are actually 1 million votes away from being able to reverse Proposition 8.

Fleischer suggests that the big turning point came when the Yes on 8 campaign started airing the "Princes" ad ("Mommy, mommy, I learned how a prince married a prince and I can marry a princess!"). Shortly after that, as the chart on the right shows, mothers with young children dramatically changed their views, going from 52%-38% opposition to 50%-38% support.

Anytime an election is close, as the Prop 8 election was, there are dozens of things you can point to as the difference maker. So this isn't necessarily the last word. Still, it's a pretty good demonstration of just how easy it is to demagogue gay marriage, even in liberal California. We're getting closer, but we're not there yet. The full report is here.

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Ryan's Roadmap Revisited

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 10:32 AM EDT

I complained yesterday that Paul Ryan's "Roadmap for America's Future" was a fraud: it doesn't really tell us where he'd cut spending, it just places arbitrary caps on various kinds of spending and calls it a day. Ezra Klein says I'm being unfair:

That's how single-payer works, too: It puts health-care spending into a single budget and caps its increase. That's how the Clinton plan worked, what with its global budgets and premium caps. That's how Jacob Hacker's plan for the Economic Policy Institute worked: Inside the exchanges, spending could only grow by GDP plus one percentage point. That's how the strong public option would've worked, as payment could only grow using Medicare's formula, which doesn't permit the cost increases of the private market.

At the end of the day, that's why Ryan's plan is a more honest entry into the debate. For a long time, liberals were talking about the sort of things you would actually have to do to get health-care spending under control while conservatives simply criticized the downsides of those intimidating reforms. And the main thing you have to do is get health-care spending into a single budget and then stick to it.

Fair enough. There's still the fact that Ryan doesn't really fess up to cutting Social Security payouts, doesn't provide any hint about how he'd cut discretionary spending, and proposes a new tax system that's wildly beneficial to the rich. But on healthcare costs, Ezra's point is fair enough.

Up to a point, that is, because there is still a difference. In a single-payer system, there's a pretty good theory about how costs are held down: by using the market power of the government to negotiate lower prices for drugs, devices, medical services, and so forth. What's more, we have the experience of dozens of single-payer systems in other countries to suggest that this works. Plus there's the fact that a single-payer system explicitly gives some government entity the job of deciding which medical services are covered and which aren't. Not everyone likes this idea, but it's there.

Ryan's plan, by contrast, doesn't do any of this. There's not even much of a theory about how it will hold down costs. It simply writes a check to Medicare recipients and then tells them to cut the best deal they can with any approved private supplier. This might work, but I can't really think of a lot of real-world examples where something like this has worked — especially since the bulk of the non-Medicare healthcare system is left unaffected by Ryan's plan. More likely, medical costs will continue to rise and Medicare recipients will either have to settle for crappy service or else simply pony up a whole lot of out-of-pocket expenses on their own.

Needless to say, not everyone likes this idea either. Let's be clear: we've given the private market many decades to show that it can make medical care more efficient and less costly. In theory, this ought to work, but in practice it's failed miserably. Conversely, single-payer plans have a demonstrated track record of providing high quality service while keeping costs well below what we pay in America. That's because single-payer systems have an actual mechanism for controlling costs. You can decide for yourself if you like that mechanism, but it's there. Ryan's plan, by contrast, doesn't have one and most likely won't control costs at all. It will just force Medicare recipients to pay an ever larger part of the bill. Your choice.

Freezing Out the Press

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 10:09 AM EDT

Here is Senate candidate Sharron Angle accidentally telling the truth about why she only talks to Fox News and other members of the right wing press:

We wanted them to ask the questions we want to answer so that they report the news the way we want it to be reported and when I get on a show and I say send me money to, so that your listeners will know that if they want to support me they need to go to

Okey doke. Even Fox's Carl Cameron had a little trouble swallowing this, but let's face it: this is the wave of the future. The traditional old school press grilling used to be the price you paid because you needed traditional old school press coverage. Today you don't really need that, so why not skip the whole thing and just appear in places that let you set the agenda and openly beg for money? I expect liberals to follow suit quickly.

Congress and the Media

| Mon Aug. 2, 2010 5:19 PM EDT

George Packer goes through a long list of reasons the Senate has become broken recently — CSPAN, 3-day workweeks, spiraling fundraising requirements, ideological hardening following the Reagan Revolution — and then adds this one:

One day in his office, [Tom] Udall picked up some tabloids from his coffee table and waved them at me. “You know about all these rags that cover the Hill, right?” he said, smiling. There are five dailies — Politico, The Hill, Roll Call, CongressDaily, and CQ Today — all of which emphasize insider conflict....Bloggers carry so much influence that many senators have a young press aide dedicated to the care and feeding of online media. News about, by, and for a tiny kingdom of political obsessives dominates the attention of senators and staff, while stories that might affect their constituents go unreported because their home-state papers can no longer afford to have bureaus in Washington.

[Chris] Dodd, who came to the Senate in 1981 and will leave next January, told me, “I used to have eleven Connecticut newspaper reporters who covered me on a daily basis. I don’t have one today, and haven’t had one in a number of years. Instead, D.C. publications only see me through the prism of conflict.” Lamar Alexander described the effect as “this instant radicalizing of positions to the left and the right.”

The new media environment may have some advantages over the old one, but the old one had a few too. This one is a pretty good example.

DC's Strange Love Affair with Paul Ryan

| Mon Aug. 2, 2010 4:31 PM EDT

Jamelle Bouie explains why Republicans ought to be delighted with Rep. Paul Ryan's "Roadmap for America's Future":

Under the Ryan plan, taxes for the richest 1 percent of Americans would fall by half, on top of making the Bush tax cuts permanent....Households with incomes of more than $1 million would receive an average annual tax cut of $502,000, and the richest one-tenth of 1 percent of Americans would receive an average tax cut of $1.7 million a year. To offset these tax cuts, the Ryan plan would place a consumption tax on most goods and services.

These taxes would overwhelmingly affect working and middle-class Americans. According to Citizens for Tax Justice, the Ryan plan would increase taxes by an average of $2,000 on everyone with an income under $100,000.

This is an underappreciated aspect of Ryan's plan. Another underappreciated aspect, and one that's fast becoming a pet peeve of mine, is that there's nothing "smart" or "brave" about it. For some reason, practically everyone talks about how Ryan is the only Republican in Congress who's willing to put his money where his mouth is and tell us exactly what he'd cut out of the federal budget. But he doesn't. His plan merely caps various kinds of spending: there's a cap on Medicare, a cap on Social Security, and a cap on domestic spending. Reduced to its policy essence, that's it.

This is the fourth grade version of a "plan." I can come up with something similar in about a minute. In fact, I will. Here's my "plan":

  • I think federal spending should be capped at 23% of GDP.
  • Interest on the national debt comes to 3% of GDP.
  • Social Security gets 5% of GDP.
  • Medicare gets 8% of GDP.
  • Defense spending gets 3% of GDP.
  • Domestic spending gets 4%.

Pretty good plan, huh? Of course I'd need to pad this out with lots of charts and tables, some quotes from famous people, and a policy proposal or two. Nothing damaging, mind you, mostly just things that hide the fact that I'm not really proposing any specific cuts, only offering a few broad spending caps and (natch) some tax cuts for the rich.

Oh, and his plan doesn't eliminate the deficit, either. Other than that, it's pretty good.