Kevin Drum

Baghdad Update

| Mon Jul. 20, 2009 12:41 PM EDT

Four years ago, during a commemoration of the Shiite saint Imam Musa al-Kazim, a thousand pilgrims to the Al Kadhimiya Mosque in Baghdad were killed when rumors of an imminent suicide bomb attack caused a panicked stampede across a bridge.  Every year since then, the commemoration has been regularly targeted by insurgents and militias.  Until now:

President Barack Obama's withdrawal strategy for Iraq got a big bump this weekend, when the Iraqi military and police presided over massive gatherings of pilgrims from the provinces in the capital, and pulled it off with no bombings. Obama could not plausibly withdraw from Iraq unless Iraqi security forces could keep a minimum of social peace. But if they can do so, the withdrawal could go smoothly. This weekend's evidence is positive.

That's from Juan Cole, who has more over at his place, both good and bad.

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Fiscal Policy for Dummies

| Mon Jul. 20, 2009 11:51 AM EDT

Brad DeLong chides Clive Crook for opposing a second stimulus package because it would increase the federal deficit.  The problem is that Crook isn't distinguishing between short-term and long-term deficits:

But if you don't distinguish between these two — if you call them both "fiscal policy" and pretend they are the same thing, as Crook does — then you get yourself completely confused....A while ago I wrote that one of the big problems in American governance was that Washington's political class was stupider than the pigs in the Orwell novel Animal Farm. The fundamental slogan of Animalism — "four legs good, two legs bad" — is no more complicated than "cyclical deficit good, structural deficit bad," and if pigs can understand the first why can't members of congress, anchor persons, and op-ed writers understand the second?

Well....I agree with Brad, but I also don't think this is quite the mystery he makes it out to be.  The problem is both obvious and old: nobody trusts politicians.  They're eager to increase short-term deficits during recessions because that allows them to give away goodies to their constituents.  And they're perfectly happy to promise to rein things in down the road when the economy recovers.  Occasionally this even happens.  But not very often, and everyone knows it.  The world being what it is, short-term cyclical deficits have a strong tendency to turn into long-term structural deficits.  (cf. California, fucked up finances of.)

In a perfect world we'd auction off 100% of the permits in a cap-and-trade system.  In a perfect world we'd construct a healthcare system that covers everyone but makes sensible compromises about how much coverage everyone gets.  And in a perfect world we'd create whatever short-term deficits we needed during a recession because we'd all feel confident that when the emergency was over we'd dutifully reduce spending and increase taxes to create a cyclical surplus.

But this isn't a perfect world, which means that concerns about a short-term deficit spilling over into the far future are actually pretty understandable.  That doesn't mean we shouldn't do it, but it does mean that skeptics aren't being unreasonable if they ask for a credible plan in advance that insures deficits will come down in the future even in the face of monumental political pressures not to do it.  I have to admit that, given the current political environment, I'm not sure what such a plan would look like.

American Healthcare vs. American Soccer

| Mon Jul. 20, 2009 10:56 AM EDT

Over the weekend Mitch McConnell told David Gregory that "we have the finest health care in the world."  This is pretty standard Republican boilerplate, and it got me to wondering.

Has any Democrat ever said that "we have the worst health care in the world"?  Why not?  Sure, technically, you'd need to say "industrialized world" or some such, but aside from that it would be pretty accurate.  Certainly more accurate than McConnell's formulation.

So why not say it?  I can think of a few reasons.  (a) Americans don't like to hear anyone telling them they aren't the best at anything. (b) It would require politicians to explain how it is that other countries do healthcare better and cheaper than us — and Americans really, really don't like to hear that France does something better than us. (c) Since most Americans have health insurance and get adequate care, it's a tough sell. (d) Democrats agree with McConnell.

I suppose there are other possible reasons too.  But why nibble around the edges?  Republicans are willing to straight out claim that we're the best, even though there's virtually no metric in which this is even remotely the case.  It's as laughable as saying that America has the best soccer team in the world.  So why aren't we willing to stretch things a bit and flatly say that virtually every advanced country offers better healthcare than we do?  What's so hard about that?

Moby Healthcare

| Mon Jul. 20, 2009 10:16 AM EDT

On Friday I told David Corn that on odd days I was optimistic about the prospects for healthcare reform and on even days I was pessimistic.  Since it was Friday the 17th when we talked, I was optimistic.  The AMA is on our side!  The House Tri-Committee Bill is pretty good!  Hoorah!  He just laughed.  On Saturday, I was again pessimistic.  The centrists Dems are screwing everything up!  There's no way to pass a tax increase to fund it!  We're doomed!

On Sunday I was going to write about this.  But shortly after Tom Watson's epic meltdown at the end of the British Open, our power went out.  And stayed out.  It didn't come back on until 4:30 this morning.  Turns out that was mostly good news, though.  I did get to see all the golf, after all.  And the power outage spared you all some aimless musings about the politics of healthcare.  And since I had nothing else to do, I pulled Moby-Dick off the shelf and decided that dammit, I'd actually read it this time.  I haven't quite done that yet, but I'm about halfway through.

As for healthcare, I don't really know what I think.  It's an even day so I supposed I'm pessimistic.  We landed a man on the moon 40 years ago but we can't even pass a national healthcare plan?  What a screwed up country.  But check back with me tomorrow for another opinon.

Judging Sonia's Deadpan

| Sun Jul. 19, 2009 1:21 AM EDT

Hey, it's Laura. Kevin was oddly optimistic on health care reform in this week's podcast, and for David Corn's reaction alone I hope you'll listen. Also, Kevin chuckled twice. About Cheney and Canada, of all things.

Listen to Kevin and David also talk Friday about Sonia Sotomayor's excellent deadpan, secret vs. not-so-secret CIA assassinations, and the two most undercovered stories this week.

For more free Mother Jones podcasts, subscribe here, or in our iTunes store.

Laura McClure hosts podcasts, writes the MoJo Mix, and is the new media editor at Mother Jones. Read her investigative feature on lifehacking gurus in the latest issue of Mother Jones.

Friday Cat Blogging - 17 July 2009

| Fri Jul. 17, 2009 2:12 PM EDT

In news that should come as no surprise to anyone, it turns out that cats are pretty devious when it comes to getting humans to feed them.  The latest research shows that cats have two kinds of purr: there's the normal happy kind that we all know and love, and then there's "solicitation purring," a surprisingly annoying kind used in the morning to get us off our backsides and out to the food bowl:

"The embedding of a cry within a call that we normally associate with contentment is quite a subtle means of eliciting a response," said Karen McComb of the University of Sussex. "Solicitation purring is probably more acceptable to humans than overt meowing, which is likely to get cats ejected from the bedroom."

....McComb got the idea for the study from her experience with her own cat, who would consistently wake her up in the mornings with a very insistent purr. After speaking with other cat owners, she learned that some of their cats also made the same type of call. As a scientist who studies vocal communication in mammals, she decided to investigate the manipulative meow.

Domino has recently taken up this behavior too, though it's not clear why.  Around five or six in the morning she suddenly gets all perky and wants everyone to pay attention to her.  But the food bowl already has food in it, and that's not what she seems to be interested in anyway.  She just wants attention.  There's obviously something devious going on here, but I'm not sure what.

Anyway.  On to catblogging.  We recently acquired a new rocking chair, and it instantly became the new bestest thing in the world.  Domino doesn't rock much, but she loves the chair.  On the right, Inkblot is watching studiously as Domino crosses his field of vision.  You can't be too careful around these parts.

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Card Check Officially Dies

| Fri Jul. 17, 2009 1:42 PM EDT

This shouldn't come as any surprise at this point, but Democrats have decided to drop card check from the Employee Free Choice Act.  It never had unanimous support within the Democratic caucus and Republicans were sure to filibuster it, so it had no chance of passing.

But without card check, what's left?  Nathan Newman says "quite a lot":

Let's rename the bill, the "Prevention of Illegal Firings Act" (PIFA) and it's still important labor law reform....Majority signup provisions would be dropped, but elections would be held within five days, employees could not be forced into mandatory meetings, and unions could campaign on company property during the election period.

....This is worlds away from the present situation where elections take well over a month at minimum and often far longer, while mandatory meetings and firings destroy union support and any penalties come in months and even years later for employer actions — and the costs to the employer from those penalties are so minimal that they act as no deterrence.

If anyone wants a frame for this new labor law, it's simple — cracking down on illegal corporate behavior during union elections. The bill becomes a "tough on crime" bill, pure and simple. It's not everything labor wants and it's a dramatic compromise to placate conservative Democrats, but it would be a major improvement for workers rights if it passed in this form.

Centrist Dems have gotten what they wanted.  So will they support the bill now?  Stay tuned.

Pitchforks and Torches

| Fri Jul. 17, 2009 12:23 PM EDT

I miss Max Sawicky. But he's back temporarily this week, and today's sermon is about the origins of bubbles and other economic catastrophes.  Is fundamental irrationality the wellspring of financial chaos?  Nope:

What's missing from the meliorist framework of my fellow bloggers is the concept of Power. We're getting progressivism when we need populism.

....Let's recapitulate. Big finance ('BF') systematically dismantles regulation of its activities. BF takes taxpayer money and lobbies against the interests of taxpayers. BF shovels money to politicians. BF offers the sunny side of the revolving door to high-level officials in public agencies. BF provides a haven for its minions to make one-way/heads-I-win-tails-you-lose bets with other peoples' money. BF alumni construct new policies, in the wake of the meltdown, to make new one-way bets, with taxpayer money. BF luminaries walk away from this debacle with personal fortunes intact, if not larger, as well as high public office, followed by further personal enrichment. Even the former chief economist of the IMF thinks that government policy has been captured by the bad guys.

I won't pretend to have settled views about whether the financial industry owns the United States government lock stock and barrel or merely has a controlling interest.  It's at least the latter, and after the events of the past year it wouldn't take much to convince me of the former.  But whichever it is, I agree that irrationality just isn't a key factor in what happened — at least, no more than it normally is for any kind of organized human activity.  At every step of the way during the Bush-era bubble, virtually everything that financial actors did was either (a) outright fraudulent or (b) cold-bloodedly rational in the short run even if it was disastrous for the rest of us in the long run.  Where are the pitchforks and torches when you need them?

Supreme Court Kabuki

| Fri Jul. 17, 2009 11:05 AM EDT

David Savage sums up Sonia Sotomayor's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee:

Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor maneuvered through three days of an often-antagonistic confirmation hearing by portraying herself as a legal mechanic who would stick to precedent and never "make law." But in doing so she revealed almost nothing about the philosophy that would guide her on the high court.

It is not clear whether this play-it-safe strategy was a political calculation, perhaps dictated by the White House, or an accurate reflection of her background as a lower court judge who has not formed broader views on the law.

"It is not clear"?  Spare me.  It's crystal clear.  Back in the pre-culture war era, senators asked nominees questions and nominees more or less answered them.  And then, unless someone produced incriminating photos with a sheep, the nominee was confirmed.  A mere 20 years ago, Antonin Scalia, now a bête noire of the left, was confirmed unanimously after Ronald Reagan nominated him to the court in 1986.

But then things changed.  Robert Bork got borked in 1987.  David Souter and Anthony Kennedy turned out not to be as conservative as conservatives had hoped.  Clarence Thomas blasted his nomination hearings as a "high-tech lynching" and was only barely confirmed.  And everybody learned their lesson from this: nominate candidates whose views are clear (no more Souters!) and then make sure they say absolutely nothing about those views (no more Borks!).  Ginsburg and Breyer invented the technique, Roberts and Alito honed it, and as near as I can tell, Sotomayor has taken it to its reductio ad absurdum apex.  If it's something that might come before the court in the future (and everything comes before the Supreme Court eventually), tell 'em it would be inappropriate to answer.  If someone asks a more general question, say that you can't really answer in the abstract.  If more details are provided, switch gears and say that you can't engage in hypotheticals.  As near as I can tell, Sotomayor was barely willing to admit that she had a law degree, let alone that she had any opinions whatsoever regarding the law.

But look — that's the way the game is played these days.  Of course it was a political calculation.  Does anyone really seriously doubt this?

Climate Change and Failing States

| Fri Jul. 17, 2009 10:05 AM EDT

Among climate change "skeptics," one of the favorite line of attacks is to admit that global temperatures are rising ("we're not deniers!") but then claim that spending money to reduce global warming is a waste.  There are plenty of more urgent problems, and we should simply deal with the effects of warming when they happen.  Well, they're happening:

Ninety percent of Pakistan's agricultural irrigation depends on rivers that originate in Kashmir....Traditionally, Kashmir's waters have been naturally regulated by the glaciers in the Himalayas. Precipitation freezes during the coldest months and then melts during the agricultural season. But if global warming continues at its current rate, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates, the glaciers could be mostly gone from the mountains by 2035. Water that once flowed for the planting will flush away in winter floods.

....Water is already undermining Pakistan's stability. In recent years, recurring shortages have led to grain shortfalls. In 2008, flour became so scarce it turned into an election issue; the government deployed thousands of troops to guard its wheat stores. As the glaciers melt and the rivers dry, this issue will only become more critical.

....In 2007, the London-based NGO International Alert compiled a list of countries with a high risk of armed conflict due to climate change. They cited no fewer than 46 countries, or one in every four, including some of the world's most gravely unstable countries, such as Somalia, Nigeria, Iran, Colombia, Bolivia, Israel, Indonesia, Bosnia, Algeria, and Peru. Already, climate change might be behind the deep drought that contributed to the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan and hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Of course, it's already too late to do much of anything about Kashmir's glaciers, so I suppose that will become yet another reason for inaction.  And the aid to help Pakistan "deal" with global warming?  Somehow I have a feeling that's not going to happen either.

Via Hilzoy, who's hanging up her blogging spurs today back at my old home.  It's sad news for the blogosphere, and I wish her the best of luck.  I'll miss her.