Kevin Drum

Trade War Update

| Thu May. 14, 2009 10:26 PM PDT

The Washington Post reports on the way modern trade wars are being waged:

Ordered by Congress to "buy American" when spending money from the $787 billion stimulus package, the town of Peru, Ind., stunned its Canadian supplier by rejecting sewage pumps made outside of Toronto. After a Navy official spotted Canadian pipe fittings in a construction project at Camp Pendleton, Calif., they were hauled out of the ground and replaced with American versions. In recent weeks, other Canadian manufacturers doing business with U.S. state and local governments say they have been besieged with requests to sign affidavits pledging that they will only supply materials made in the USA.

Outrage spread in Canada, with the Toronto Star last week bemoaning "a plague of protectionist measures in the U.S." and Canadian companies openly fretting about having to shift jobs to the United States to meet made-in-the-USA requirements. This week, the Canadians fired back. A number of Ontario towns, with a collective population of nearly 500,000, retaliated with measures effectively barring U.S. companies from their municipal contracts -- the first shot in a larger campaign that could shut U.S. companies out of billions of dollars worth of Canadian projects.

....The United States is not alone in throwing up domestic policies assailed by critics as protectionist. Britain and the Netherlands, for instance, are forcing banks receiving taxpayer bailouts to jump-start lending at home at the expense of overseas clients. French President Nicolas Sarkozy initially insisted that his nation's automakers move manufacturing jobs home in exchange for a government bailout, but backed down after outrage surged among his peers in the European Union, of which France is a central member.

This isn't good news or anything, but frankly, it's really not much in the way of bad news either.  If this is as far as things go, I'd say we got through the recession without much damage at all to the international trade regime.

Frankly, I'm surprised there hasn't been more sentiment in favor of protectionism than there has been.  For better or worse, it's a testament to just how strongly the consensus in favor of liberal trade policies has become over the past few decades.  There's really no going back anymore.

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Chewing Update

| Thu May. 14, 2009 1:46 PM PDT

At the risk of getting my commenters riled up because I'm blogging about trivia, let me tell you what I had for lunch today: a pear, some cut up pineapple, and a bag of pretzel sticks.  Believe it or not, about halfway through I suddenly remembered yesterday's post about how we chew our food an average of ten times these days compared to 25 in the past, and I started counting chews.  The pear took ten chews per bite.  The pineapple about 13.  The pretzel sticks about 15.

This makes me suspicious of the claim that we modern Americans chew our food an average of ten times.  That pear was ripe and soft and each bite still took ten chews.  Short of chocolate pudding, I don't think food comes much softer.  So if it took ten chews to finish up each bite of pear, I have to figure the average is quite a bit higher than that.

Unless, of course, I chew my food more than most people.  Surely, though, this is something the web excels at determining.  So here's your assignment: pay attention today to how many times you chew your food, and then report back in comments.  I want data, people.  Let's get the hive mind cracking.

Followup - Pelosi and Waterboarding

| Thu May. 14, 2009 1:29 PM PDT

Earlier this morning Nancy Pelosi told reporters that the CIA had specifically denied waterboarding prisoners back when they briefed her in 2002.  Fine, I said, but "what about reports that one of your aides, Michael Sheehy, was briefed about waterboarding in early 2003 and passed the news along to you? Any comment on that?"

Robert Waldmann in turn has a pair of questions for me:

1) Did you listen to Pelosi's statement and/or read a transcript ?

2) Should you have checked what she said before accusing her of an omission ?

Um, no.  And yes.  Sorry.  I screwed up.  I didn't read Pelosi's whole statement, which did indeed address the issue of the 2003 briefing:

Five months later, in February 2003, a member of my staff informed me that the Republican chairman and new Democratic Ranking Member of the House Intelligence Committee had been briefed about the use of certain techniques which had been the subject of earlier legal opinions.

Following that briefing, a letter raising concerns was sent to CIA General Counsel Scott Muller by the new Democratic Ranking Member of the House Intelligence Committee, the appropriate person to register a protest.

This is a reference to Jane Harman's letter, which raised some questions about whether the president had approved the various interrogation techniques then in use.  It was hardly a full-throated denunciation of torture, and it's never been clear whether Pelosi even knew about the letter at the time.  In other words, there are still plenty of questions here.

But I still should have looked up the whole statement first.  Sorry.

Profiles in Courage

| Thu May. 14, 2009 9:51 AM PDT

Apparently Republican mau-mauing on Guantanamo is working:

A bill by Senate Democrats would fund the closure of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but it would block the transfer of any of the detainees to the United States.

....Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) on Wednesday circulated an approximately $91.5-billion measure that includes $50 million to shutter the Guantanamo facility and move its prisoners — with the proviso that they can't be sent to the United States. The Senate bill appears to favor paying foreign governments to accept the prisoners.

Are Democrats really still so afraid of loony-bin GOP videos that they have to indulge in this nonsense?  Prisoners who need to be transferred can be kept perfectly safely in any ordinary civilian or military prison in the United States, and everyone knows it.  It's time for Dems to get out of their fetal crouch, call out the Republican leadership loudly and clearly for its transparent cynicism and fearmongering, make it clear that we trust the United States Army to run a stockade, and pass a bill letting the military house the prisoners wherever it chooses to.  Somewhere near Washington DC would be a good symbolic gesture.  It's time for some adult supervision here.

The Osama-Saddam Connection

| Thu May. 14, 2009 9:24 AM PDT

Over at The Washington Note, Colin Powell's former chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, claims that the main purpose of torture in the months immediately after 9/11 was to find a link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein:

What I have learned is that as the administration authorized harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002 — well before the Justice Department had rendered any legal opinion — its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qa'ida.

So furious was this effort that on one particular detainee, even when the interrogation team had reported to Cheney's office that their detainee "was compliant" (meaning the team recommended no more torture), the VP's office ordered them to continue the enhanced methods. The detainee had not revealed any al-Qa'ida-Baghdad contacts yet. This ceased only after Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, under waterboarding in Egypt, "revealed" such contacts. Of course later we learned that al-Libi revealed these contacts only to get the torture to stop.

I wouldn't be surprised if this was the case.  But one way or another, Wilkerson is going to have to tell us how he knows this.  It's not enough just to say that he "learned" it.

Pelosi: CIA Lied about Waterboarding

| Thu May. 14, 2009 9:04 AM PDT

Nancy Pelosi fights back against news reports that she was briefed on the torture of CIA prisoners in 2002:

In her first public comments on the matter since an intelligence report contradicted her recollections, Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters today that she was never told about the fact that waterboarding had been used on a terrorist suspect, even though terrorist suspect Abu Zubaydah had been waterboarded a month before she was briefed on the subject in Sept. 2002.

“The only mention of waterboarding at that briefing was that it was not being employed,” Pelosi said, reading from a prepared statement. “Those briefing me in Sept. 2002 gave me inaccurate and incomplete information.”

Game on!  Two questions, though.  First, why did it take you a week to remember this?  Second, what about reports that one of your aides, Michael Sheehy, was briefed about waterboarding in early 2003 and passed the news along to you?  Any comment on that?

UPDATE: Actually, it turns out that Pelosi did address the Sheehy issue.  Details here.

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Quote of the Day - 5.14.09

| Thu May. 14, 2009 8:30 AM PDT

From Gil Kerlikowske, the Obama administration's new drug czar, on banishing the phrase "war on drugs":

Regardless of how you try to explain to people it's a "war on drugs" or a "war on a product," people see a war as a war on them.  We're not at war with people in this country.

It's a start.  It's going to take a while to get Congress calmed down enough to do anything sensible on this front, but it's a start.

Obama and Gay Marriage

| Thu May. 14, 2009 8:19 AM PDT

Andrew Sullivan unleashed a cri de coeur yesterday about Barack Obama's slow to nonexistent progress on gay rights so far, and today Dan Savage agrees, adding a complaint about a lame gag Obama told at the White House Correspondents Dinner on Saturday:

Our lives, our families, and our rights are not a joke, Mr. President. The discrimination faced by gay people — whether coupled and single — is distressingly real and persists even for same-sex couples in Iowa and other states where gay marriage is legal. Stop fucking around and start delivering on your campaign promises to us, to our families, and to our children.

Obama's slow progress is a disappointment and Sullivan's and Savage's anger is wholly justified.  At the same time, I sort of wonder: did either of these guys actually watch Obama during the campaign?  Did he do anything to suggest that he'd be anything other than extremely cautious and pragmatic on gay issues?  Because the guy I saw on the stump was relentlessly measured.  He was endlessly dedicated to bipartisan comity.  He was pals with Rick Warren.  He was anxious to turn down the volume on the culture wars.  Even when he was way ahead in the polls he declined to attack California's Proposition 8.

I'd like to see Obama get off the stick and do something about DADT too.  It's a disgrace that it's still around.  At the same time, it's hardly a surprise that he hasn't made this his highest priority out of the gate.  He gave us plenty of warning.

America's Most Hated Industry

| Wed May. 13, 2009 11:51 AM PDT

Charles Duhigg has a terrific piece about the credit card industry in the upcoming issue of the New York Times MagazineHere's an excerpt:

The exploration into cardholders’ minds hit a breakthrough in 2002, when J. P. Martin, a math-loving executive at Canadian Tire, decided to analyze almost every piece of information his company had collected from credit-card transactions the previous year. Canadian Tire’s stores sold electronics, sporting equipment, kitchen supplies and automotive goods and issued a credit card that could be used almost anywhere. Martin could often see precisely what cardholders were purchasing, and he discovered that the brands we buy are the windows into our souls — or at least into our willingness to make good on our debts. His data indicated, for instance, that people who bought cheap, generic automotive oil were much more likely to miss a credit-card payment than someone who got the expensive, name-brand stuff. People who bought carbon-monoxide monitors for their homes or those little felt pads that stop chair legs from scratching the floor almost never missed payments. Anyone who purchased a chrome-skull car accessory or a “Mega Thruster Exhaust System” was pretty likely to miss paying his bill eventually.

....Testing indicated that Martin’s predictions, when paired with other commonly used data like cardholders’ credit histories and incomes, were often much more precise than what the industry traditionally used to forecast cardholder riskiness....Data-driven psychologists are now in high demand, and the industry is using them not only to screen out risky debtors but also to determine which cardholders need a phone call to persuade them to mail in a check. Most of the major credit-card companies have set up systems to comb through cardholders’ data for signs that someone is going to stop making payments. Are cardholders suddenly logging in at 1 in the morning? It might signal sleeplessness due to anxiety. Are they using their cards for groceries? It might mean they are trying to conserve their cash.

Credit card companies used to be serious about extending credit only to customers they thought would pay their bills.  But then life changed, and they realized that they could make more money by deliberately extending credit to poor risks, encouraging them to overspend, and then dunning them with an endless stream of fees, penalties, and increased interest rates.  They were helped along in this by laws that allowed them almost insane levels of freedom to screw customers while protecting them from the results of their own folly.

But even the United States Congress wasn't enough to prevent them from taking huge losses during the current recession, so now they're getting serious about evaluating credit risks again.  Which is good.  Except for one thing: do we really want credit card companies making these decisions based on the results of bizarrely opaque data mining experiments?  If you're turned down for a card because you don't pay your bills on time, that's one thing.  But if you're turned down because you bought some generic motor oil — and 37% of generic motor oil buyers are poor credit risks — is that fair?  Is that something we want to allow?  What happens when it turns out — and it will — that a lot of this data mining correlates strongly with sex, race, age, religion, and ethnicity?  This is something we ought to start thinking pretty hard about.

But while you're thinking about it, read the rest of Duhigg's piece.  Especially be sure to read down to the section that describes how card companies like Bank of America are perfectly willing to cut distressed cardholder debt in half just for asking ("Much of what they’re paying, after all, is fees and interest that Bank of America itself tacked on"), but that instead of letting distraught customers know this they cynically and studiously create elaborate faux "friendships" over the phone so that customers feel obligated to their new pals.  It's nothing illegal.  But it is disgusting, indecent, and unscrupulous.  And they wonder why they're the most hated industry in America.

Factlet of the Day

| Wed May. 13, 2009 10:55 AM PDT

Tyler Cowen passes along the news that Americans used to chew their food 25 times before swallowing, but today the average is down to ten chews.  Interesting!  But how do we know this?  Has it been measured?  Here's the original source for the claim:

The modern American diet is mostly made up of "easy calories."  According to Gail Civille, a food-industry consultant and the owner of Sensory Spectrum, Americans of the past typically had to chew a mouthful of food as many as 25 times before swallowing; the average American today chews only 10 times.

In part, this is because fat, which has become ubuiquitous, is a lubricant. We don't eat as much lean meat, which requires more saliva to ready it for swallowing.  "We want food that's higher in fat, marbled, so when you eat it, it melts in your mouth," says Civille.  Food is easier to eat when it breaks down more quickly in the mouth.  "If I have fat in there, I just chew it up and — whoosh! — away it goes."

John Haywood, a prominent restaurant concept designer, agrees.  Processing, he says, creates a sort of "adult baby food."  By processing, he means removing the elements in whole food — like fiber and gristle — that are harder to chew and swallow.

Hmmm.  That's certainly plausible, but I still want to know where those exact figures come from.  I demand proof.