Kevin Drum

Middle East Update

| Thu Apr. 16, 2009 2:33 PM EDT

M.J. Rosenberg passes along a report from Yedioth Achronoth, Israel's largest circulation daily:

Rahm Emanuel told an (unnamed) Jewish leader; "In the next four years there is going to be a permanent status arrangement between Israel and the Palestinians on the basis of two states for two peoples, and it doesn't matter to us at all who is prime minister."

He also said that the United States will exert pressure to see that deal is put into place. "Any treatment of the Iranian nuclear problem will be contingent upon progress in the negotiations and an Israeli withdrawal from West Bank territory," the paper reports Emanuel as saying.

....So far neither the White House or the Israeli government has commented on the report which, it should be noted, comes from Shimon Shiffer, one of Israel's most highly respected journalists.

Seriously?  Rahm Emanuel said that?  We're going to somehow put in place a two-state solution whether the Israeli government likes it or not?  And to make it happen, we're going to make negotiations on Iran's nukes contingent on Israel playing ball?

That would certainly be a change of policy from the United States, wouldn't it?  But I'll bet it turns out this isn't quite what Emanuel said.  Probably best to hold off on comment until we hear a little more about this.

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The Nutcase Right

| Thu Apr. 16, 2009 1:26 PM EDT

Responding to a David Frum column about the recent outbreak of freak-show hysteria among conservatives, Matt Yglesias says:

Now to be fair, during the Bush years more than one person passed me this “14 Characteristics of Fascism” document in order to prove that under George W. Bush the United States had become a fascist regime. Overreaction to policies you don’t like is a pretty understandable human impulse. The difference is that mainstream, prominent outlets usually try to restrain that kind of impulse. But this sort of over-the-top rhetoric isn’t burbling from the grassroots up, it’s being driven the very most prominent figures in conservative media and also by a large number of members of congress.

Never were truer words spoken.  I was never a fan of the whole "Bush is a fascist" line, and over six years of blogging I was able to ignore it almost completely because it never broke out of its niche among the activist left.  You may or may not approve of that, but the simple reality is that aside from occasionally covering lefty protests and marches, mainstream pundits and politicians never took up this theme.  On the contrary, most of them ridiculed it if they ever noticed it at all.

But today's wingers, after Obama has been in office a grand total of 12 weeks, have already decided that we aren't merely on the road to serfdom, we're on the road to confiscation, tyranny, domestic gulags, and jackbooted thugs coming to take their guns away.  This time, though, it's not just fringe nutbaggery.  There's a whole brigade of right-wing pundits and politicians who are not only taking up the theme, but leading the charge.  They've gone completely crackers.

I still can't decide whether this makes the right more dangerous or less.  After all, if they go too far overboard, their crackpotism becomes so apparent that the whole movement becomes a joke.  On the other hand, if they aren't a joke yet, what's it going to take?

Besides, maybe they have a point.  Don't let this get around, but did you know that Barack Obama's Secretary of Defense has taken to quoting Joseph Stalin approvingly?  True story!  Click the link if you don't believe me.  And don't say that Glenn Beck didn't warn us about this.

Tick Tick Tick

| Thu Apr. 16, 2009 12:47 PM EDT

Obama sure is taking his sweet time deciding whether to release those Bush-era OLC memos authorizing various torture techniques, isn't he?  Is he planning to wait until 11:59 pm, or what?

In the meantime, what's your guess?  (a) No release, (b) limited release with lots of redactions, or (c) pretty close to full release with only a few redactions?  Vote in comments.

Cutting Back

| Thu Apr. 16, 2009 12:09 PM EDT

Yesterday, as I was talking to an economist about something, he explained that some research he had done had demonstrated a particular small effect.  "It really only affected things at the margin," he said.

"OK," I asked, "But doesn't everything work at the margin?"  He sort of laughed.  "Are you an economist?  That's how economists talk."

Nope, not me.  I just quote 'em on my blog.  Still, that seems to be the best explanation for this story in the Washington Post today:

Denise Kimberlin and her husband, Craig, of Woodbridge are government contractors who make nice livings. They recently got raises. They don't fear losing their jobs.

Yet, something is driving them to change their spending habits. They have cut back by at least $250 a week on clothes, dinners out and other discretionary spending.

....Economists say many still-flush consumers are handcuffed by psychological traps that cause them to tighten their purse strings even though economic hardship is not their reality....Psychologists explain that people fall prey to what is known as social proof. The most famous study pointing at the effect was done in the 1960s by psychologist Stanley Milgram. He had one or two people stand on a busy city block in New York and stare up at a sixth-floor building window. Most pedestrians ignored them. But when he had 15 people stand and stare at the window, nearly everyone walking down the street looked up at it, too.

I guess that might be the explanation.  But here's another one: when there's massive, objective evidence of a huge recession and rising unemployment, even people with good jobs act to cut their spending on the margin.  Why?  Because they also fear bad news on the margin.  The Kimberlins might not be afraid of losing their jobs, but I wouldn't be surprised if they're, maybe, 1% afraid of losing their jobs.  Or 5% afraid of getting a pay cut.  Or 10% afraid that their bank will raise the rate on their credit card debt.  Or 90% afraid that they can't use their home as an ATM machine anymore.  So they're cutting back spending a little bit, right in line with that limited amount of fear.  Social cues might have something to do with this, but surely a rational response to tangible, predictible outside events has even more to do with it?

No More King

| Thu Apr. 16, 2009 11:42 AM EDT

California may be a big state, but we still only get two statues in the Capitol building's Statuary Hall.  And now one of them is being swapped out:

After 78 years of standing in the Capitol, Thomas Starr King is about to be ousted by a better known Californian — Ronald Reagan.

...."Those of who us who love Thomas Starr King and know about his life are really sorry to see him go," said the Rev. Roger Fritts, senior minister of Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, Md.

....Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona) launched a campaign nearly five years ago, shortly after Reagan's death, to replace the statue of King, described as "the orator who saved the nation," with one of "The Great Communicator."

Well.  My mother attended Thomas Starr King Middle School in Los Angeles, so we take this personally around here.  I guess Unitarians just don't have the clout they used to.

Listening in on Congress

| Wed Apr. 15, 2009 9:49 PM EDT

James Risen and Eric Lichtblau report in the New York Times today that the NSA may have exceeded the wiretapping authority it was given by Congress in 2008.  The whole story is pretty vague, and introduces the unknown-to-me euphemism "over-collection," which apparently means that technical problems led NSA to " 'target' groups of Americans and collect their domestic communications without proper court authority."

But then there's this buried in the middle of the story, which isn't vague at all:

New details are also emerging about earlier domestic surveillance activities, including the agency’s attempt to wiretap a congressman without court approval on an overseas trip, according to interviews with current and former intelligence officials.

....The agency believed that the congressman, whose identity could not be determined, was in contact as part of a congressional delegation to the Middle East in 2005 or 2006 with an extremist who had possible terrorist ties and was already under surveillance, the official said. The agency then sought to eavesdrop on the congressman’s conversations to gather more intelligence, the official said.

The official said the plan was ultimately blocked because of concerns from some officials in the intelligence community about the idea of using the N.S.A., without court oversight, to spy on a member of Congress.

Jesus.  If a member of Congress isn't a "United States person" protected from warrantless surveillance by every version of FISA that's ever been on the books, who is?  Shouldn't this have set off alarm bells at every possible level at NSA, rather than merely being "ultimately blocked" because "some" officials had "concerns" about it?

SILVER LINING UPDATE: Looking on the bright side, maybe this will finally motivate Congress to take NSA surveillance more seriously.  Having one of their own members come within a hair's breadth of being an NSA target ought to concentrate their minds wonderfully, if anything will.

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Press Freedom in Iraq

| Wed Apr. 15, 2009 7:12 PM EDT

The press is coming under renewed attack from the Iraqi government:

The Iraqi military put local journalists on notice on Monday that their organizations could be shut down for misquoting officials, while the Iraqi government accused the news media of deliberately seeking to promote sectarian strife.

The top military spokesman in Baghdad, Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta, said he was filing a lawsuit seeking to close the Baghdad office of Al Hayat, one of the most prominent newspapers in the Arab world, as well as the satellite signal of Al Sharqiya, a popular Iraqi television channel that has been a strong critic of the government.

Marc Lynch comments:

That's not a good sign. Reminds me of the bad old days of 2004-2005 when the Iraqi government and MNF-I were routinely attacking the Arab media for fueling the insurgency and the offices of al-Jazeera and other satellite television stations were shuttered....At a time when many Iraqis and Iraq-watchers worry about a creeping authoritarianism in the Maliki government, this move against al-Hayat and al-Sharqiya is a screaming red flag.  Let's hope that it is quickly reversed.

Some of this may be creeping authoritarianism, but it also seems to be related to the steady breakdown of the celebrated Sunni Awakening.  The Sunni tribal chiefs were basically bribed to cooperate with the central government, but as the bribes have dwindled so has the cooperation — and apparently the Maliki government would just as soon not have anyone around to report this.

Quote of the Day - 4.15.09

| Wed Apr. 15, 2009 2:37 PM EDT

From former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, on banks that are rushing to return TARP money so they can escape limits on executive compensation:

"If banks now claim they want to return the money because they don't need it, why do they have to raise new capital to replace the money from we the people in order to repay the government?"

Right.  If Goldman Sachs never really needed their TARP money in the first place, they could have returned it without first doing a risky and ultimately disappointing share offering.  One can only conclude that, yes, they needed the money back in October, no matter what they say now.

In related news, Felix Salmon takes note of the fact that due to a legal fluke Goldman's FY2008 ended in November but their FY2009 started in January.  In December they reported huge losses, but those losses are now in sort of a weird limbo:

I suspect that when it comes to bonus time at Goldman, December 2008 will never matter. The 2008 bonuses will be paid based on the 2008 fiscal year, while the 2009 bonuses will be paid based on the 2009 fiscal year. And those $1.3 billion of losses in December — losses which will never show up in any annual report — will be conveniently ignored by the compensation honchos.

Clever!  And it shows that Bill Gates was right.  As William Cohan reminded us yesterday, he once said that Microsoft’s biggest competitor was Goldman Sachs. “It’s all about I.Q.,” he said. “You win with I.Q. Our only competition for I.Q. is the top investment banks.”  And this is exactly the kind of thing that Wall Street has spent the last decade applying its galactic brainpower toward.  Too bad they aren't researching a cure for cancer instead, isn't it?

Sarah Palin Update

| Wed Apr. 15, 2009 2:07 PM EDT

The latest on Gov. Sarah is here.  She continues to amaze.

(No, this has nothing to do with Bristol and Levi Johnston.  That's a soap opera I'm not touching.  This is something completely different.)

Carbon Policy

| Wed Apr. 15, 2009 12:52 PM EDT

Obama's big speech yesterday about the economy was.....fine.  I don't think he addressed our banking problems quite as forthrightly as a lot of people seem to think, but he didn't do too badly either.  I was more pleased, however, that he said this about transforming the economy to be less carbon intensive:

The only way to truly spark this transformation is through a gradual, market-based cap on carbon pollution, so that clean energy is the profitable kind of energy....We can no longer delay putting a framework for a clean energy economy in place. If businesses and entrepreneurs know today that we are closing this carbon pollution loophole, they will start investing in clean energy now. And pretty soon, we'll see more companies constructing solar panels, and workers building wind turbines, and car companies manufacturing fuel-efficient cars.

OK, it's not much.  But one of my complaints about Obama during the primary was that he didn't take the chance to actually sell the country on carbon caps.  Sure, cap-and-trade was always part of his plan, but on the stump it was all windmills and green jobs and other happy talk.  What would happen, I wondered, when the time came and suddenly Joe Sixpack realized that Obama was planning to raise energy costs via a cap-and-trade program?  That's still going to be a huge fight, but at least he's beginning to mention it in public now.  It's a start.

And as long as I'm writing about yesterday's speech, what's the deal with the White House website?  The speech is blared across the entire front page of the site, but if you click on "Read the Remarks" you cannot, in fact, read the remarks.  You can read a blog post excerpting a few of the remarks, but the blog post doesn't link to the full remarks.  If you click on "Speeches" instead, the most recent entry is from February.  Maybe the full speech is somewhere on the site, but I couldn't find it.

What gives?  Bush's website wasn't as pretty, but at least it was usually pretty complete and easy to navigate.  I never had trouble finding his speeches.