Kevin Drum

Quote of the Day

| Thu Jun. 18, 2009 7:38 PM EDT

From Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Iranian filmmaker and external spokesman for Mir Hossein Mousavi, telling Foreign Policy magazine that rapprochement with Iran will only happen when both Iran and the United Status have leaders willing to put aside bluster and pursue real engagement:

FP: Would Mousavi pursue a different foreign policy than Ahmadinejad?

MM: As you may know, former President Mohammad Khatami, who is supporting Mousavi at the moment, was in favor of dialogue between the civilizations, but Ahmadinejad talks about the war of the civilizations. Is there not any difference between the two?

We are a bit unfortunate. When we had our Obama [meaning President Khatami], that was the time of President Bush in the United States. Now that [the United States] has Obama, we have our Bush here [in Iran]. In order to resolve the problems between the two countries, we should have two Obamas on the two sides. It doesn't mean that everything depends on these two people, but this is one of the main factors.

Actually, Khatami served most of his first term during Bill Clinton's non-blustery presidency, but at the time both presidents were too afraid of conservative backlash at home to make any real progress in U.S.-Iranian relations anyway.  Still, Makhmalbaf is right that it's more helpful than the alternative.  Keep your fingers crossed.

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Starr Endorses Sotomayor

| Thu Jun. 18, 2009 5:47 PM EDT

Ken Starr, the uber-conservative special prosecutor last heard from trying to chase Bill Clinton out of office, says he "thinks very well" of Sonia Sotmayor and has told several senators that he supports her nomination to the Supreme Court.  David Corn has the details.

The Party of Nyet

| Thu Jun. 18, 2009 5:18 PM EDT

Jim Manzi is opposed to the Waxman-Markey climate bill because he thinks it won't be effective and wouldn't be worth it even if it were.  Fine.  But there's something missing here:

At a practical political level, as far as I can see, the fulcrum of the debate is among midwest and mountain state Democrats. The Republicans (excepting the senators from Maine) seem solidly against it, and most coastal Democrats solidly for it. The legislative strategy appears to be to cut whatever side deals are necessary to get the swing Democrats to support it. This mostly has meant giving away special allowances and spending programs to pretty much every industry or region that actually produces greenhouses gasses at sufficient scale to play the lobbying game.

There does not seem to be any line in the sand that they will not cross. At this point, the side deals seem to have consumed the cap. That is, when you look under the hood, there is not really a material binding cap in this bill for at least a decade....In fiscal terms, Waxman-Markey will bring in almost nothing. We’ve given it all away.

Obviously I have a more generous view of Waxman-Markey than Manzi, but even if you accept his political analysis (which is basically correct, I think) you have to ask: Why is there no line in the sand that the bill's sponsors won't cross to get support from midwestern Dems?  Why are they so eagerly giving away the farm?

And the answer is obvious: it's because Republicans have cynically decided nearly en masse to blindly oppose any action on climate change whatsoever.  This means that Waxman and Markey have no choice except to grimly cut deals with every last parochial interest on the Democratic side just in order to get anything passed at all.  So that's what they're doing.  And it's ugly.

Now, if they wanted to, Republicans, in return for their votes, could fight to keep the bill cleaner, keep it more effective, and insert provisions that would make it more acceptable to conservatives.  That would be great.  Waxman and Markey wouldn't have to give away the store to every congressman with a coal mine in his backyard if there were even a small band of serious Republicans willing to support a climate change bill and bargain in good faith to help get it passed.

But there isn't.  It's the Party of Nyet that's created this political dynamic.  They can stop it anytime they want.

Philosophy!

| Thu Jun. 18, 2009 2:19 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias translates some questions from Le Bac, France's college admission test/high school leaving exam.  These are from the philosophy test:

— Does objectivity in history presuppose the impartiality of the historian?

— Does language betray thought?

— Explicate an excerpt from Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation

— Are there questions that are un-answerable by science?

Matt says the correct answers are "no, no, I don’t know anything about Schopenhauer, and yes."  That's surely wrong.  The correct answers are no (but it helps); sometimes; I don’t know anything about Schopenhauer; and yes.

That last one is especially strange, isn't it?  The answer is obviously yes in a trivial sort of way: science will never determine whether chocolate ice cream tastes better than vanilla, for example.  But that's so dumb it makes you wonder if something got lost in translation.  So here's the original: "Y a-t-il des questions auxquelles aucune science ne répond?"  Anyone care to retranslate?

As for the question getting the most mockery — "Is it absurd to desire the impossible?" — I would use the standard dodge of philosophy students everywhere: please first define "absurd."  That should be sufficient to derail the conversation long enough for everyone to get bored of the whole topic.

Relatedly, Dana Goldstein asks, "Could you ever imagine the SAT or ACT asking students to write an essay on such complex, intellectual topics?"  No, I couldn't — though I could imagine questions of similar difficulty showing up on an AP philosophy test.  If there were an AP philosophy test, that is.  Which there isn't.  However, I'd be very careful before using this as evidence of the superiority of French education.  It's different, surely, but not necessarily better.

Terrorists vs. Detainees

| Thu Jun. 18, 2009 1:22 PM EDT

Here's something weird.  In a recent poll, the New York Times asked people if we should shut down the prison at Guantanamo Bay, but they used slightly different wording for half the sample.  Here's the response:

People were actually more in favor of shutting down Guantanamo when told it was holding "suspected terrorists."  Granted, it was only a six point difference and might just be a statistical artifact, but it sure is the opposite of what you'd suspect.  Question: is this just some kind of strange outlier, or does it suggest that the events of the past eight years have actually made people more jaded about the supposed danger of "suspected terrorists" than they are about mere "detainees"?

The 5% Doctrine

| Thu Jun. 18, 2009 12:20 PM EDT

One of the regulatory proposals made by Barack Obama's financial team would prevent loan originators from making crappy loans and then immediately selling them off.  Instead, in an effort to make them pay more attention to the quality of their loans, they'd have to retain at least 5% of the risk of the loans on their own books.

I was skeptical about this when I first heard about it, but that was largely because I thought the 5% requirement applied to the banks who buy and securitize the loans, not the originators themselves.  Via Tim Fernholz, though, I see that that isn't true.  Here's what the administration white paper says:

The federal banking agencies should promulgate regulations that require loan originators or sponsors to retain five percent of the credit risk of securitized exposures. The regulations should prohibit the originator from directly or indirectly hedging or otherwise transferring the risk it is required to retain under these regulations.

....The federal banking agencies should have authority to specify the permissible forms of required risk retention (for example, first loss position or pro rata vertical slice) and the minimum duration of the required risk retention....The agencies should also have authority to apply the requirements to securitization sponsors rather than loan originators in order to achieve the appropriate alignment of incentives contemplated by this proposal.

The devil is in the details (what forms of risk retention will be required?), and I'd still prefer to see a higher number than 5%.  I'm also a little taken aback by the final sentence of the proposal, which explicitly allows regulators to apply the rule to securitizers rather than loan originators.  This is the kind of thing that looks harmless during ordinary times but becomes a gigantic loophole in the hands of pliant regulators when the economic mood swings into bubble mode.

Still, this regulation, along with the proposed new Consumer Financial Protection Agency, could go a long way toward cleaning up the mortgage market if Congress puts some teeth in it.  At the very least, it's a little better than I thought it was.

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Iran's Rural Voters Revisited

| Thu Jun. 18, 2009 11:22 AM EDT

Babak Rahimi, who left Iran in 1980s but visits frequently, is now a professor of Iranian and Islamic studies at UC San Diego.  Today, he echoes Eric Hooglund's skepticism that rural Iranians voted monolithically for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:

During the first couple of weeks after I arrived, I sensed little public interest in the election. But in the weeks before the election, the country underwent a dramatic change of attitude. I watched passionate supporters of Mousavi dance, sing and chant anti-government slogans on the streets of Tehran, despite a ban on most of these activities under Islamic law. From the southern port city of Bushehr to the northern towns of Mazandaran province, an astonishing sense of enthusiasm spread throughout the country. "I have never voted before, but I will vote this time," a resident of Bushehr told me, expressing a sentiment I heard again and again.

One major claim of those in power is that although there is some dissent in the cities, the countryside voted solidly for Ahmadinejad, which accounts for his win. But in my preelection fieldwork in a number of southern provinces, I observed major tensions between provincial officials — especially the local imams — and the Ahmadinejad administration in Tehran. I saw far lower levels of support for the president than I had expected. In fact, I heard some of the most ferocious objections to the administration in the rural regions, where the dwindling economy is hitting the local populations hard. As one young Bushehr shopkeeper put it: "That idiot thinks he can buy our votes. He does not care for us."

Iran Update

| Thu Jun. 18, 2009 10:47 AM EDT

The latest from Iran:

Days after it was urged to investigate last week’s disputed presidential election, Iran’s authoritative Guardian Council said on Thursday that it had invited the three candidates challenging the official results to a meeting to discuss their grievances, state media reported.

While the exact motives, timing and conditions for the invitation from the Guardian Council remained unclear, it was the first public indication that the authorities were prepared for some form of dialogue to defuse the outrage over the election results, Iran’s worst political crisis since the 1979 revolution. But the opposition seemed likely to view it warily.

Playing for time?  A genuine offer?  A sign of weakness?  Hard to say.  But the Guardian reports that today's demonstration in Tehran drew upwards of a million people.

Best in Blog: 18 June 2009

| Thu Jun. 18, 2009 9:00 AM EDT

Today's 5 MoJo must reads:

1) Tehran's declared war on satellite dishes; this email explains the methods.

2) Seattle lost its rain; The Onion wants its headline back.

3) Cheney "lost" those Valerie Plame emails; CREW found some damning docs under a big pile of his BS.

4) Remember the good old days of Obama's presidency, back when no one booed his crazytown health care ideas? Sorry Big O.

5) Last: Hey, a contest! Looks like gay pride flag designers are finally over the rainbow. Does Shepard Fairey know?

"Intolerable"

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 6:45 PM EDT

The Wall Street Journal reports:

A state television channel in Iran said the government summoned the Swiss ambassador, who represents U.S. interests in Iran, to complain about American interference. The two countries broke off diplomatic relations after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. An English-language state-run channel quoted the government as calling Western interference "intolerable.''

Hmmm.  Is this just another instance of their usual go-to position on everything, or does it foreshadow some kind of crackdown on "agents of foreign influence" or some such?