Kevin Drum

Gog, Magog, and George Bush

| Thu Aug. 6, 2009 5:13 PM EDT

I may regret posting this, but here's an account of how George Bush tried to talk French president Jacques Chirac into supporting the invasion of Iraq:

Chirac recounts that the American leader appealed to their “common faith” (Christianity) and told him: “Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East.... The biblical prophecies are being fulfilled.... This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a New Age begins.”

This bizarre episode occurred while the White House was assembling its “coalition of the willing” to unleash the Iraq invasion. Chirac says he was boggled by Bush’s call and “wondered how someone could be so superficial and fanatical in their beliefs.”

After the 2003 call, the puzzled French leader didn’t comply with Bush’s request. Instead, his staff asked Thomas Romer, a theologian at the University of Lausanne, to analyze the weird appeal.

....In 2007, Dr. Romer recounted Bush’s strange behavior in Lausanne University’s review, Allez Savoir....Subsequently, ex-President Chirac confirmed the nutty event in a long interview with French journalist Jean-Claude Maurice, who tells the tale in his new book, Si Vous le Répétez, Je Démentirai (If You Repeat it, I Will Deny), released in March by the publisher Plon.

This isn't brand new: the Toronto Star wrote about it a couple of months ago, though it's gotten very little attention since.  In any case, consider it your weirdness of the day.  Not that we've exactly been lacking for that lately.....

(Via Andrew Sullivan.)

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Stimulus Around the World

| Thu Aug. 6, 2009 2:45 PM EDT

Does fiscal stimulus work when the economy is in a deep recession?  There's no way to definitively "prove" that it does, but we can certainly amass evidence for it.  Via Tim Fernholz, here's a chart from a talk CEA chair Christina Romer gave today.  The question she's addressing is whether countries that applied bigger stimulus packages have recovered more quickly:

To get evidence about this, we started with a set of forecasts of growth in the second quarter of this year that were made last November — after the crisis had hit, but before countries had formulated their policy response. We then collected analysts’ recent best guesses for what second-quarter growth will be in those countries. This figure shows the relationship between how countries’ second-quarter growth prospects have changed from what was expected back in November, and the countries’ discretionary fiscal stimulus in 2009.

The fact that the observations lie along an upward-sloping line shows that, on average, things have improved more in countries that adopted bigger stimulus packages. And, the relationship is sizable: on average, a country with stimulus that’s larger by 1% of GDP has expected real GDP growth in the second quarter that’s about 2 percentage points higher relative to the November forecast.

Italics mine. This is, obviously, hardly ironclad proof about how well fiscal stimulus works.  For one thing it's based on estimates, not final data, and if those November forecasts were systematically overoptimistic they might also have been systematically useless.  What's more, eyeballing that line doesn't suggest to me that Romer's correlation is very strong — especially since it mostly seems to rely on three Asian outliers.

Still, it's up and to the right, and that's a data point in favor of using fiscal stimulus during an economic crisis.  There's more evidence in the talk too, all of which is suggestive though not conclusive.

Of course, you wouldn't expect anything conclusive at this point.  Overall, though, I expect data from 2008-2011 to become a rich field for economists to study in the future.  We haven't had a worldwide recession like this since the Great Depression, and it presents a unique opportunity to study what worked and what didn't.  There are enough variables that drawing firm conclusions will always be hard, but it's nonetheless the best chance we've had in decades to get meaningful comparative data on macroeconomic policy responses to an economic crisis.  This paper is a start.

Restless Pharmaceutical Companies

| Thu Aug. 6, 2009 1:30 PM EDT

Megan McArdle asks:

Why is restless leg syndrome always the poster child for people who hate pharma advertising?  Both my fiance and I clearly have it, and you know what?  It's really not very much fun not being able to sleep, nor are the cramp-like sensations that accompany the uncontrollable urge to kick your legs.

I've wondered about this too.  Is it just because it's kind of funny sounding?  I don't have it myself, but I have a friend with RLS and he tells me he can barely sleep in the same bed with his wife when it's acting up because it's so violent.

Actually, though, the answer doesn't seem to have much to do with whether RLS really exists.  It's more about whether pharmaceutical companies are vastly overestimating its incidence in order to sell more drugs.  In Britain, for example, GlaxoSmithKline got in trouble for promoting an off-label use of one of their products for RLS:

Dr Des Spence, the Glasgow GP who raised the complaint, said the case was an example of the way pharmaceutical companies used patient groups to promote a new condition, and then supplied drugs to treat it.

“The Ekbom Support Group was hijacked by GSK to promote restless legs syndrome and the GSK drug ropinirole,” he said. “I am not saying some people do not experience pain and restless legs but claims on the website that it is a widespread and serious condition are disproportionate.”

The Ekbom Support Group says 5% of the population suffer from the condition. Doctors say fewer than 3% experience symptoms on a regular basis and, of them, only a minority require any treatment.

This is the great gray area of pharmaceutical advertising, of course.  On the one hand, letting people know about a condition and a possible new way to treat it is perfectly fine.  On the other hand, we're all natural hypochondriacs, and it's all too easy to convince millions of people whose legs twitch a bit that they have a serious disease.  In fact, most of them just have legs that twitch a bit.

Anyway, the lesson here seems to be (a) RLS is real but (b) you probably don't have it.  What the policy response to this should be I'm less sure of.

On Accepting Apologies

| Thu Aug. 6, 2009 12:44 PM EDT

In an episode of "Mouthpiece Theater" last week, Dana Milbank and Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post joked about what brands various luminaries might be served at future beer summits.  For Hillary Clinton, they suggested "Mad Bitch."

Ha ha ha!  Well, Mouthpiece Theater has been cancelled and Milbank and Cillizza have apologized.  But Bob Somerby isn't happy:

We’ve long been aware of Milbank’s oddness. But you haven’t seen “corporate media clueless chic” until you read the apology the bosses beat out of Cillizza. Each fellow was required to feign regret; below, you see how Christopher did it. So you’ll know, his blog at the Post is called “The Fix:”

CILLIZZA (8/5/09): I would like to personally apologize for the content in last Friday's video as it was inconsistent not only with the Post brand but, more important and personal to me, the Fix brand which I have worked so hard to cultivate.

Good God, that’s awful! Calling a woman a “bitch” is, at this level, remarkably stupid. Unless you’re a modern, upper-end “journalist,” in which case the practice is inconsistent with a long string of brands! Never mind the denigration of the woman in question! The real harm here was carelessly done to Cillizza’s beloved Fix brand!

This is something that bugs me.  I'm not quite as willing to forgive and forget this episode as MoJo's editor is, but neither do I think it was exactly a hanging offense.  Jokes go awry all the time.  More to the point, though, Cillizza apologized.  But these days, that's never good enough.  Either it's a "non-apology apology" or it's not groveling enough or it's not sincere enough or it came too late or it's an unforgivable crime and no apology can ever erase the stain.

Or something.  Get over it, folks.  Cillizza screwed up, but he groveled plenty for my taste. "I would like to personally apologize" is admirably direct, and there's nothing wrong with also acknowledging that his reputation is going to take a hit from this.

I've mentioned this before, but I sometimes wonder why anybody ever bothers to apologize for anything anymore since it never seems to do any good.  I remember that someone in comments to that post suggested that apologies should be done for their own sake, not in hopes of getting forgiveness.  That's an admirable sentiment, but it's also fabulously innocent of human nature.  Like it or not, public apologies are hard to do, and people hope to get something out them.  If all they get instead is more grief, they'll quit bothering with them.  Learning how to accept an apology is as important as learning how to give one.

Feeding the Beast

| Thu Aug. 6, 2009 11:33 AM EDT

Who's to blame for conservatives gaining traction with ridiculous arguments like Betsy McCaughey's that Democratic healthcare proposals will make it easier for government bureaucrats to kill old people?  Brendan Nyhan says it's not Obama:

Who's to blame for this problem? I largely fault the media. While the Obama administration's message strategy has hardly been perfect, it's absurd to say, as Cynthia Tucker did on This Week, that Obama "allowed the opposition [to health care reform] to scare people" (my emphasis). In a polarized political system, the McCaughey/Taitz approach to concocting and promoting misinformation probably would have worked no matter what the White House did. As Kevin Drum and Matthew Yglesias recently argued, it's extremely difficult to myth-proof a bill or to effectively counter these claims once they are made. Until the media stops giving airtime and column inches to proponents of misinformation, the playbook is going to keep working.

James Ridgeway elaborates:

In recent weeks, variations of this argument have been sprouting up all over the conservative ecosystem. Rush Limbaugh has been laying it on particularly thick for his 22 million listeners. "People at a certain age with certain diseases will be deemed not worth the investment, and they will, just as Obama said, they'd give them some pain pills, and let them loop out till they die and they don't even know what's happened…They're preparing you to die," he said on one show. (A caller who said she was 66 responded, "You know, Rush...they want to get rid of the old people so they can insure the illegal aliens for their voting base.") And it gets even more sinister: Rahm Emanuel’s brother Ezekiel, a physician and White House health care policy adviser is, Limbaugh says, a "central figure" who believes it’s a "waste of money to invest in health care in the elderly. " Plus, he plans to expand hospice care. And we all know what that means!

Fox News host Sean Hannity has also taken up the cause, as has [Randall] Terry, the former head of anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, who has been railing against the President's "death care." Donny Ferguson at the libertarian Small Government Times writes that Obama's plan "sends government employees to your home to monitor your parenting…and forces the sick and elderly to submit to 'end of life counseling.'" According to the Washington Post, Betsy McCaughey, the former New York politician who played a major role in derailing the Clinton health care initiative, told former GOP senator and failed presidential contender Fred Thompson on his radio show that the health care reform bill contained mandatory counseling sessions for seniors "to end their life sooner" by showing them how to "decline nutrition...and cut your life short."

Hmmm.  So this is getting lots of play in the conservative media — places like talk radio and the Wall Street Journal editorial page — but how much play has it been getting in the mainstream media?  I'm not saying it hasn't, but I'm curious abut this since I don't watch much of it.  Outside of Fox, has the "Democrats want to kill granny" meme gotten much play?  Help me out here in comments.

Revenge of the Nerds

| Thu Aug. 6, 2009 2:26 AM EDT

Crunching numbers is the new cool thing:

“I keep saying that the sexy job in the next 10 years will be statisticians,” said Hal Varian, chief economist at Google. “And I’m not kidding.”

The rising stature of statisticians, who can earn $125,000 at top companies in their first year after getting a doctorate, is a byproduct of the recent explosion of digital data. In field after field, computing and the Web are creating new realms of data to explore — sensor signals, surveillance tapes, social network chatter, public records and more. And the digital data surge only promises to accelerate, rising fivefold by 2012, according to a projection by IDC, a research firm.

They want to know what you're doing and what you're likely to buy next.  That's worth a lot of money.  Multivariate correlations and data cluster analysis are the new black.

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Southern White Culture

| Thu Aug. 6, 2009 12:42 AM EDT

Kathleen Parker muses on the Republican Party's woes:

Not all Southern Republicans are wing nuts. Nor does the GOP have a monopoly on ignorance or racism. And, the South, for all its sins, is also lush with beauty, grace and mystery. Nevertheless, it is true that the GOP is fast becoming regionalized below the Mason-Dixon line and increasingly associated with some of the South's worst ideas.

It is not helpful (or surprising) that "birthers" — conspiracy theorists who have convinced themselves that Barack Obama is not a native son — have assumed kudzu qualities among Republicans in the South. In a poll commissioned by the liberal blog Daily Kos, participants were asked: "Do you believe that Barack Obama was born in the United States of America or not?"

Hefty majorities in the Northeast, the Midwest and the West believe Obama was born in the United States. But in the land of cotton, where old times are not by God forgotten, only 47 percent believe Obama was born in America and 30 percent aren't sure.

Southern Republicans, it seems, have seceded from sanity.

Well, look, I like magnolia groves and bluegrass music too, but let's call a spade a spade.  Parker never actually uses the word "white" in her column, but later on she makes it clear that's what she's talking about.  Not "the South."  Not "Southern Republicans."  Southern whites.

Parker says Republicans need to "drive a stake through the heart of old Dixie," and she's right.  The rest of us need to help.

NOTE: Penultimate paragraph redacted on advice of my frontal lobe.

A New Thesaurus, Please

| Wed Aug. 5, 2009 8:37 PM EDT

Here's an email I got today from Richard Viguerie's shop:

Dear conservative friend,

In one of the White House's creepiest acts yet, it has posted a blog, which amounts to asking citizens to turn in those opposing Obamacare.

They even set up an email address so citizens may tell the White House who is spreading "disinformation" (wink, wink) about Obamacare.

Can you believe it?  President Obama and his radical community organizers at the White House want literally to "keep track" of those who disagree with the government-run, potentially bankrupting health care bill, with its rationing of medical procedures to control costs, which Obama and Democrats in Congress are trying to ram through the system and into law.

They want information passed through "emails or even casual conversation."  How Orwellian is that?

Totalitarian regimes, such as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, used similar tactics (without email, of course) to keep tabs on dissidents and other critics of those regimes.

I love the parenthetical remark at the end: "without email, of course."  Wouldn't want to be historically inaccurate or misleading!

OK, fine.  Richard Viguerie is nuts and it's not fair to tar all of conservativedom by pretending he speaks for them.  But Steve Benen, who pointed out earlier today that one of the differences between lunacy on the left and lunacy on the right is that right wing lunacy frequently migrates from the fringe to serious political actors, informs me that Sen. John Cornyn (R–Tex.) is now serving up the same derangement:

Cornyn says this practice would let the White House collect personal information about people who oppose the President.

"By requesting citizens send 'fishy' emails to the White House, it is inevitable that the names, email, addresses, IP addresses and private speech of U.S. citizens will be reported to the White House," Cornyn wrote in a letter to Obama. "You should not be surprised that these actions taken by your White House staff raise the specter of a data collection program."

Cornyn asked Obama to cease the program immediately, or at the very least explain what the White House would do with the information it collects.

God save us.  Before long we're going to have start inventing new words to describe these guys.  My thesaurus is running dry.

Quote of the Day

| Wed Aug. 5, 2009 3:18 PM EDT

From Rory Stewart, director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard’s Kennedy School and advisor to the Obama administration on Afghanistan and Pakistan:

It’s like they're coming in and saying to you, "I'm going to drive my car off a cliff. Should I or should I not wear a seatbelt?" And you say, "I don't think you should drive your car off the cliff." And they say, "No, no, that bit's already been decided — the question is whether to wear a seatbelt." And you say, "Well, you might as well wear a seatbelt." And then they say, "We've consulted with policy expert Rory Stewart and he says ..."

Plus there's this about our military strategy in Afghanistan: "The policy of troop increases will look ridiculous in 30 years."  Read the whole thing.

(Via Steve Hynd.)

Deranged

| Wed Aug. 5, 2009 2:45 PM EDT

Earlier this morning I talked about Obama Derangement Syndrome and Bush Derangement Syndrome.  Both involve lots of anger, but that's about where the similarity ends.  ODS is way more detached from reality, and that's no coincidence.  Bob Somerby reminds us today of the granddaddy of them all, Clinton Derangement Syndrome:

Is this attack on Obama “simply nuts?” Actually, yes — it is, quite sadly. But the last time a Democrat went to the White House, the following beliefs were widely asserted — and those beliefs were clinically crazy too....

 • As governor, Bill Clinton murdered many rivals.Hillary Clinton was involved.

 • As first lady, Hillary Clinton was involved in Vince Foster’s death.

 • As governor, Bill Clinton trafficked drugs through Mena, Arkansas.

 • Bill Clinton was himself a major coke user. It’s why his nose is so red.

 • As a graduate student, Bill Clinton visited Moscow because he was a Soviet agent (or something).

 • The Clintons decorated the White House Christmas tree with condoms and drug paraphernalia.

Those beliefs were also clinically insane; they were widely trumpeted and believed all through the 1990s. Indeed, one of the nation’s most famous “Christian leaders” actively pimped the lurid film which detailed the many murders. He remained a cable favorite — and a Meet the Press guest.

Good times.  When it comes to being unhinged, you just can't beat movement conservatism.