Kevin Drum

Torture and Civilization

| Wed Apr. 29, 2009 12:49 PM EDT

Christopher Orr weighs in with a utilitarian argument about why torture is bad:

When a group of combatants are badly outnumbered, or surrounded, or otherwise very, very unlikely to win a conflict, they have a considerable incentive to surrender — but only if they believe they will subsequently be treated with mercy. That is why individuals, and nations, surrender. The humane treatment of surrendered captives, therefore, is a crucial — arguably the crucial — understanding between adversaries if their conflict is to end in any way other than with the wholesale slaughter of the losers.

If arguments like this persuade anyone, I'm all for them.  Any port in a storm.  But ultimately these exercises in logic chopping never work.  Is torture OK against an enemy that refuses to give up?  Is torture OK in a non-combat setting?  Is torture OK if you somehow convince yourself that it will save the lives of your enemy in the long run by ending the war sooner?  In the end, you can always chop the logic a little bit finer if you're minded to.  It just doesn't work.

I don't have either the vocabulary or the literary sensibility to explain with any eloquence why I oppose torture, so I usually stay out of conversations like this.  Besides, they depress the hell out of me.  But for the record, it goes something like this.

I don't care about the Geneva Conventions or U.S. law.  I don't care about the difference between torture and "harsh treatment."  I don't care about the difference between uniformed combatants and terrorists.  I don't care whether it "works."  I oppose torture regardless of the current state of the law; I oppose even moderate abuse of helpless detainees; I oppose abuse of criminal suspects and religious heretics as much as I oppose it during wartime; and I oppose it even if it produces useful information.

The whole point of civilization is as much moral advancement as it is physical and technological advancement.  But that moral progress comes slowly and very, very tenuously.  In the United States alone, it took centuries to decide that slavery was evil, that children shouldn't be allowed to work 12-hour days on power looms, and that police shouldn't be allowed to beat confessions out of suspects.

On other things there's no consensus yet.  Like it or not, we still make war, and so does the rest of the world.  But at least until recently, there was a consensus that torture is wrong.  Full stop.  It was the practice of tyrants and barbarians.  But like all moral progress, the consensus on torture is tenuous, and the only way to hold on to it — the only way to expand it — is by insisting absolutely and without exception that we not allow ourselves to backslide.  Human nature being what it is — savage, vengeful, and tribal — the temptations are just too great.  Small exceptions will inevitably grow into big ones, big ones into routine ones, and the progress of centuries is undone in an eyeblink.

Somebody else could explain this better than me.  But the consensus against torture is one of our civilization's few unqualified moral advances, and it's a consensus won only after centuries of horror and brutality.  We just can't lose it.

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AmEx Woes

| Wed Apr. 29, 2009 11:49 AM EDT

Apparently some American Express customers are being told they have to send in copies of their tax returns if they want to keep their credit cards.  Gotta be a scam, right?  No one in their right mind would do that.

Nope.  It's for real.  AmEx must be in a world of hurt these days.

Kathleen Sebelius

| Wed Apr. 29, 2009 11:16 AM EDT

Matt Yglesias ruminates on the meaning of yesterday's vote to (finally) confirm a Secretary of Health and Human Services:

It seems to me that if you can only get 65 votes for what should be an uncontroversial HHS appointment, then the odds of a broad bipartisan coalition for big picture health care reform are not so good.

....The prevailing spirit within the GOP is clearly that Obama is a very bad president and so they should vote “no” on his initiatives. Which is fine. But it means that if Obama wants to deliver on his campaign pledges, he needs to use every legal means at his disposal to just pass things over the objections of the minority that opposes him.

I had sort of the same thought yesterday.  I mean, I understand the political/fundraising motivations for voting no on Sebelius as a sop to the pro-life contingent in the GOP, but everyone knew there was no way it would ever make a difference.  It's not as if Obama would have turned around and nominated a pro-lifer to HHS, after all.  It's ridiculous.  But nearly the entire Republican caucus voted against her anyway, which means that their desire to work with Obama even at the most basic level of allowing a president to choose his own cabinet is less important than their desire to prove their absolute fealty to the conservative base.

Not a good sign — although I suppose there's an alternate reading that's less dire: if you know that Sebelius is going to be confirmed anyway, voting no is something of a freebie.  So maybe this doesn't really mean too much after all.  On balance, though, I think I'm with Matt.

Economic Update

| Wed Apr. 29, 2009 10:56 AM EDT

So how's the economy doing?  Let's take a look!

New York Times: U.S. GDP shrank by 6.1% in the first quarter, far worse than the "consensus" prediction of 4.7%.

Bloomberg: A full third of the country's biggest banks need additional capital, according to leaked preliminary results of the Treasury's stress tests.

RGE Monitor: According to a government report leaked to Sueddeutsche Zeitung, bad assets in the German banking system total slightly over a trillion dollars.  Over half of bad assets worldwide are in the European banking system, which has done much less to recognize them than we have in the U.S.

Wall Street Journal: Business fixed investment in the U.S. was down a whopping 37.8% last quarter.

Want some good news to go with that?  Sorry!  Apparently personal consumption was up 2.2%, which is probably a mixed blessing, and home prices were down 18% compared to last year, but didn't quite fall at a record rate.  That's the best I can do.  Ed Yardeni tries to do better, but one of the green shoots on his list of reasons to feel optimistic is the fact that Portfolio magazine has shut down.  Put me down as unconvinced.

Green Shoots

| Tue Apr. 28, 2009 5:21 PM EDT

Tapped glosses an EPI report on green jobs:

Most notable is its pronouncement that a "green" investment is one of the most stimulative forms of government spending, providing a 1.6:1 return-to-investment ratio. This is greater than generic infrastructure investment (1.59), temporary tax cuts (1.03), and corporate tax cuts (0.3)....Now for the less-than-rosy projection: men would be disproportionately advantaged by this spending, accounting for 75 percent of the total employment gains.

Actually, that's not as bad as it sounds — at least in the short run.  As CAP's Heather Boushey points out, men have absorbed 75% of all job losses during the current recession, so a stimulus program that targets them disproportionately makes some sense.  After all, it's either that or let them stay home grinding their teeth and taking cues from Fox News about who to blame for all this.  And we don't want that, do we?

Overall, EPI's model projects that $100 billion in green investments would generate 750,000 jobs and raise wages of non-college educated workers by about half a percent per year.  Plus it would help prevent us from turning the planet into a cinder.  So that would be another bonus.  The whole paper is here.

Specter and EFCA

| Tue Apr. 28, 2009 4:39 PM EDT

A few weeks ago Arlen Specter announced that he would oppose the Employee Free Choice Act (aka "card check"), labor's top legislative priority.  But now that he's a Democrat, what will he do?  Jon Chait speculates:

Specter says he’ll still oppose EFCA, but I have trouble seeing him really maintain that stance. He has to make it through a Democratic primary now. That’s very hard to do in Pennsylvania when the AFL-CIO is out for your blood.

Specter’s most likely play is to stay formally opposed to EFCA, but support a compromise along the lines of what some moderate Democrats might favor. He certainly can’t risk being the decisive anti-EFCA vote. Democrats in the Senate may be offering him institutional support in the primary, but primaries tend to be low-turnout operations, and Specter is going to have to work his way into the favor of the partisan Democratic base.

I think that's probably right.  Specter won't completely flip-flop, but there was some wiggle room in his statement announcing opposition to EFCA.  Even without changing his position on secret ballots, then, I could see him working with a few conservative Dems and moderate Republicans to construct a compromise bill that pretty effectively boosts his labor bona fides.  After all, the current version of EFCA is almost certainly dead in the water (and was likely dead before Specter announced his oppostion), so gaining support for even a watered down version would allow him to position himself as the guy who rescued EFCA and got half a loaf where there was nothing previously.

It might not work, of course, but it's probably worth a try for him.  I wouldn't be surprised to see him give it a go.

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The Photo Op

| Tue Apr. 28, 2009 3:02 PM EDT

I know it's Arlen Specter 24/7 most places, but I'm still curious: what was the "photo-op" that the White House staged with Air Force One over the streets of Manhattan yesterday?  The Washington Post explains:

The event was intended to update a stock photo of the presidential plane that is used for distribution to media and others, according to a person familiar with the matter who was spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. The photo, featuring the Statue of Liberty, is to replace one of the aircraft flying near Mount Rushmore, the person said.

Jeebus.  They had to provide this explanation on background?  I know it's embarrassing, but can't they just fess up to the whole thing in public?

Quote of the Day - 2.28.09

| Tue Apr. 28, 2009 2:47 PM EDT

From Family Research Council President Tony Perkins:

What do sick pigs have to do with widespread, taxpayer-funded abortion? More than you might think.

Click the link if you dare.  Or you can just jam burning bamboo shoots under your fingernails instead.  Your choice.

Chart of the Day - 4.28.2009

| Tue Apr. 28, 2009 1:27 PM EDT

Today's chart come from the long-term trends section of the NAEP, the "nation's report card."  It shows — surprise! — long-term trends on the NAEP's reading and math tests, and the results are shockingly humdrum.  (Can something be shockingly humdrum?  I say yes!)

Did American education go completely to hell in the 70s and 80s?  It sure doesn't look like it.  Both reading and math scores stayed almost rock steady during the entire "Nation at Risk" period.  Did things improve with the passage of NCLB and the advent of massive high-stakes testing?  Scores for 9-year-olds have gone up a bit, but past evidence suggests that gains among young children usually wash out by the time they're 17.  There might be a bit of progress over the past eight years, but the evidence is very thin and very tentative.  Overall, among 17-year-olds, the average reading score during the past four decades has gone from 285 to 286 and the average math score has gone from 304 to 306.  There's hardly cause for either alarm or excitement.

Obviously there are lots of details when you look at this stuff.  NCLB mostly focuses on lower grades, and most of those kids haven't yet gone on to high school.  So maybe it just needs more time.  There are racial and gender gaps to look at, differences between public and private schools, and the effects of concentrated poverty.  Still, I think it's useful sometimes to take a look at the bottom line: plain old average scores over the past four decades among 17-year-olds.  And despite all the changes during that period in demography, testing, pedagogy, and popular culture, there just hasn't been much change.  I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader whether that's good news or bad.

The Road to 60

| Tue Apr. 28, 2009 12:30 PM EDT

Fascinating news out of Pennsylvania today:

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter will switch his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat and announced today that he will run in 2010 as a Democrat, according to a statement he released this morning.

...."I have decided to run for re-election in 2010 in the Democratic primary," said Specter in a statement....He added: "Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right. Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats. I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans."

That's surprisingly forthright wording, isn't it?  It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Specter finds his views more in line with Democrats these days solely because there are 200,000 more of them in Pennsylvania than there used to be.  Points for honesty, I guess.

Of course, if he's really serious about this, he could switch parties now.  And maybe announce his support for a few Democratic initiatives while he's at it.  Interesting days.

UPDATE: Obama is "thrilled" by the news.  And who can blame him?

UPDATE 2: I think I may have misunderstood Specter's statement.  Apparently he does plan to begin caucusing with the Democrats immediately.  I think.  Press reports seem oddly fuzzy on this point, though.

UPDATE 3: In 1950, Specter participated in the National Debate Tournament, which addressed itself to the following topic: "Resolved: That the United States should nationalize the basic nonagricultural industries."  How newly relevant!  My father beat him, 969-964.  Take that, Ivy League.