Kevin Drum

From the Annals of Corporate Idiocy

| Wed Jun. 10, 2009 8:48 AM PDT

I love stories like this:

[Mark] Elliot's cellphone nightmare began last week when he received a notice from Bank of America saying a payment had bounced on his online bill-pay service. He looked into it and discovered that Verizon was trying to charge him $9,993.88 for his April bill.

....According to the bill, Elliot used his cellphone to upload, download or otherwise access more than 44,000 megabytes worth of data in a single month.  That's the equivalent of downloading about 11,000 songs from iTunes or 60 full-length movies.

[Blah blah....some idiocy from Verizon about how this was all perfectly normal....blah blah]

Elliot woke up Tuesday morning to another notice from BofA saying something was amiss with his account. Turns out Verizon had once again billed his account for the entire $9,993.88 — and this time BofA paid the bill.  This resulted in Elliot losing the $781 he had in his checking account and then owing more than $9,200 to the bank.

So I contacted BofA. Tara Burke, a bank spokeswoman, said the way the online bill-pay system works is that if insufficient funds exist in an account, the first two attempts by a business to withdraw funds will be rejected.  But if the business tries a third time, the transaction will be processed.

Verizon and BofA eventually fixed this stuff, but only after learning that it was going to be publicized in the LA Times.  Without that, this might have gone on forever.  And who knows if it's really over anyway?  I wonder if Elliot has checked his credit report yet to see if anyone has put a big fat black mark on it that will take the next five years to clear up?

Anyway, this is why I don't use electronic bill pay.  You have been warned.

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Uighurs Headed to Different Island

| Tue Jun. 9, 2009 10:20 PM PDT

The Uighurs have apparently finally found a home:

The United States has won an agreement to transfer up to 17 Chinese Muslims from the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to Palau, a sparsely populated archipelago in the North Pacific, according to a statement released by Palau to The Associated Press on Wednesday.

....The agreement opens the door to the largest single transfer of Guantánamo prisoners and is the first major deal on detainees since President Obama pledged upon taking office in January to close the prison within a year.

It also gives Mr. Obama some relief on an issue that has become a political hot button among Congressional Republicans and even some Democrats, who have noisily protested against releasing what they call potentially dangerous extremists on American soil or transferring them to prisons in the United States.

According to Palau's UN representative, "Palau is paradise."  Better than Cuba, anyway.

Quote of the Day

| Tue Jun. 9, 2009 2:18 PM PDT

From Sarah Palin, responding to a question from Fox News' Sean Hannity:

Hannity: Tim Geithner got laughed at in China last week.  Is this even more than you thought was going to be in terms of where the president would take the economy?

Palin: What's more than I thought would be is, we're hearing a lot of good rhetoric.  A lot of this is wrapped in good rhetoric, but we're not seeing those actions, and this many months into the new administration, quite disappointed, quite frustrated with not seeing those actions to rein in spending, slow down the growth of government. Instead, China's Sean it's the complete opposite. It's expanding at such a large degree that if Americans aren't paying attention, unfortunately, our country could evolve into something that we do not even recognize, certainly that is so far from what the founders of our country had in mind for us.

Damn, I love Sarah Palin.  This doesn't even begin to make any sense.  I very sincerely hope that she stays on the public stage as a face of the Republican Party for a very, very long time.

UPDATE: My bad.  I transcribed this wrong — and without the China reference it does make sense.  A little garbled, but still comprehensible.  My apologies.

Late Term Abortion

| Tue Jun. 9, 2009 10:45 AM PDT

Ross Douthat points out today that late-term abortions are vanishingly rare, but says that's part of the problem:

If anything, by enshrining a near-absolute right to abortion in the Constitution, the pro-choice side has ensured that the hard cases are more controversial than they otherwise would be. One reason there’s so much fierce argument about the latest of late-term abortions — Should there be a health exemption? A fetal deformity exemption? How broad should those exemptions be? — is that Americans aren’t permitted to debate anything else. Under current law, if you want to restrict abortion, post-viability procedures are the only kind you’re allowed to even regulate.

If abortion were returned to the democratic process, this landscape would change dramatically. Arguments about whether and how to restrict abortions in the second trimester — as many advanced democracies already do – would replace protests over the scope of third-trimester medical exemptions.

The result would be laws with more respect for human life, a culture less inflamed by a small number of tragic cases — and a political debate, God willing, unmarred by crimes like George Tiller’s murder.

There are a whole bunch of missing steps here.  Regardless of the merits of overturning Roe v. Wade, why does Ross believe that protests over second-term abortions would be any less inflamed than protests over late-term abortions?  Does he really think that if we adopted a European-style regime that banned abortion at, say, 18 weeks instead of 26, this would reduce the culture war heat that abortion breeds?  I'm really not seeing the logic here.

Identity Politics on the Right

| Tue Jun. 9, 2009 9:59 AM PDT

Despite the fact that we now know pretty thoroughly that Sonia Sotomayor has been judicious and evenhanded on the bench, Jonah Goldberg remains worried:

If an Irish judge gave a speech to the Ancient Order of Hibernians and dabbled in a bit of excessive Irish pride, it might be inappropriate but it wouldn't be disqualifying. But if there was evidence that he gave preference to Irish plaintiffs out of "empathy," I would like to think that would get him in serious trouble....Would judge Sotomayor be your first pick in a lawsuit against a Puerto Rican organization if your livelihood was on the line? It may be entirely unfair to her, but I think reasonable people might think long and hard on that question.

Does Goldberg seriously want us to believe that he might ever have criticized as "inappropriate" a speech from a white guy displaying "a bit of excessive Irish pride"?  Give me a break.

Conservative response to Sotomayor has been astonishing.  It hasn't really, of course.  It's been drearily predictable.  But you know what I mean.  Sotomayor is a liberal judge nominated by a liberal president, and she has a long track record of speeches, prosecutions, and court opinions to her name.  Conservatives surely have at least a dozen good avenues to attack her.  But right out of the gate, seemingly as an exercise in pure reflex, they attacked her on racial grounds.  All based on one sentence from a speech eight years ago and one case in which she narrowly ruled against some white plaintiffs.  But no mind.  They zeroed in on race instantly and relentlessly anyway.  I guess they know their audience pretty well.

Bank Regulation Heats Up

| Tue Jun. 9, 2009 8:48 AM PDT

Some possibly disturbing news from the Wall Street Journal:

The Obama administration is backing away from seeking a major reduction in the number of agencies overseeing financial markets, people familiar with the matter say, suggesting that the current alphabet-soup of regulators will remain mostly intact.

....The administration, for example, is unlikely to call for merging the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission, an idea it had considered, these people say. It also isn't expected to call for the Federal Reserve, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. or the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency to cede their primary authority to supervise banks, they say....Officials worry that trying to start from scratch could ignite messy turf battles that might slow or even derail the entire process.

I'm not necessarily dedicated to the idea that a single bank regulator is an absolute necessity, but it sure seems as though a root-and-branch reform — which is a necessity — is going to require a considerable amount of consolidation.  If the Obama administration is backing off from this already, it's a bad sign.

I'm not always in favor of these box drawing exercises.  I'm still not convinced, for example, that creating a Director of National Intelligence was a great idea.  But bank regulation in the U.S. really is archaic, and it really is counterproductive to have so many regulatory bodies that banks can choose from.  Having two or three with clearly defined mandates to supervise well-defined sectors — or possibly well-defined spheres of activity throughout the entire industry — is probably OK.  Having a few different agencies around to disagree with each other is a good thing.  But half a dozen with fuzzy responsibilities?  That better not stay on the table for long.

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Restraint

| Mon Jun. 8, 2009 11:19 PM PDT

David Brooks on Sonia Sotomayor:

She is quite liberal. But there’s little evidence that she is motivated by racialist thinking or an activist attitude.

....When you read her opinions, race and gender are invisible. I’m obviously not qualified to judge the legal quality of her opinions. But when you read the documents merely as examples of persuasive writing, you find that they are almost entirely impersonal and deracinated.

....To my eye, they are the products of a clear and honest if unimaginative mind. She sticks close to precedent and the details of a case. There’s no personal flavor (in the boring parts one wishes there were). There’s no evidence of a grand ideological style or even much intellectual ambition. If you had to pick a word to describe them, it would be “restraint.”

Is anyone listening?

More on Democracy

| Mon Jun. 8, 2009 10:57 PM PDT

Michael Rubin agrees with me that George Bush didn't do a bang-up job on the democracy promotion front, but thinks this shouldn't be a partisan fight:

I do agree a bit with Drum, albeit without the snark, when he says, "George Bush's main achievement in this arena wasn't to promote democracy, it was to completely cement Arab cynicism about America's obvious lack of concern for democracy." The difference between me and Drum appears to be that I don’t think partisan animus toward a previous president should excuse the abandonment of transformative diplomacy. Give Bush credit: He broke with the past and made democratization central to the debate. Cynicism toward democratization existed long before Bush was president when, in the context of the Cold War and after, Washington proved itself willing to coddle dictatorships. It is infuriating, however, that the gap between the rhetoric and reality of the Bush administration grew so large, and that in his second turn, Bush was willing to accept such backsliding in Lebanon, Egypt, and elsewhere.

I don't know enough about the literature on democracy promotion to say an awful lot about this, but I don't agree that Bush "broke with the past and made democratization central to the debate."  Rather, I think Bush and his team of old school anticommunists merely revived the Cold War context Rubin talks about, where democracy was less a real goal than it was a rhetorical cudgel to use against countries we didn't like.  In the postwar era, that mostly meant working to overthrow left-wing dictatorships while leaving the right-wing variety alone (famously given an intellectual foundation by Jeanne Kirkpatrick in "Dictatorships and Double Standards").  In the Bush era, this transitioned with barely a pause into working to overthrow Middle East dictatorships we didn't like while giving a pass to the ones that supported us.

That just doesn't seem transformative to me.  It never has.  In fact, Bush always struck me as less serious about democracy than his predecessors.  To him it was a nice slogan — every American politician is in favor of democracy, after all — but anyone who's serious about democracy knows that it's not the kind of thing you can get overnight.  It depends critically on education, on institutions, on culture, on overcoming corruption, on property rights, on the rule of law, and a dozen other things.  None of these were things that Bush ever seemed to have the patience to bother dealing with.

Obama, conversely, seems to have a better handle on this, both temperamentally and intellectually.  The result might be less bombastic and emotionally satisfying, but it's a more effective way of actually accomplishing something.  Less transformative rhetorically, perhaps, but if he follows through it's likely to be much more genuinely transformative in practice.

I'm still being partisan here, but I'm not sure that can be helped.  The approaches of Bush and Obama aren't just personal, after all, but reflect different world views.  The Bill Kristol wing of the conservative movement believes pretty strongly in a big bang approach to democratization, something that I just don't see any future in.  The Obama wing of liberalism, conversely, seems to see democracy promotion as small ball: lots of hard slogging, lots of public diplomacy, and lots of minor initiatives that fly under the radar and don't produce dramatic moments to rally around.

Unfortunately, that approach seems to elicit little but scorn from conservatives.  Like Rubin, I'd like this whole arena to be less partisan, but I'm not sure that's possible.  At least, not judging from the first few months of the Obama administration, anyway.  It's too bad.

Bad Behavior Update

| Mon Jun. 8, 2009 9:36 PM PDT

Ed Whelan has apologized to Publius.  Good for him.

Quote of the Day

| Mon Jun. 8, 2009 9:32 PM PDT

From George Will, demonstrating that he's about nine months behind the curve on state-of-the-art Obama crackpottery:

"I," said the president, who is inordinately fond of the first-person singular pronoun, "want to disabuse people of this notion that somehow we enjoy meddling in the private sector."

Jesus.  This would be an embarrassingly fatuous thing for a supposedly serious columnist to write even if it were true.  But a bare minimum of fact checking shows that it's not.  It's really, really, really not.