Monday, September 28, 2009

The Party of Torture

Adam Serwer of TAPPED on how for the Republicans torture is fast becoming a "values" issue on the scale of opposing same-sex marriage and abortion.
The New York Times reports that Liz Cheney's star is rising in the party of torture:
“Mr. President, in a ticking time-bomb scenario, with American lives at stake,” she said, “are you really unwilling to subject a terrorist to enhanced interrogation to get information that would prevent an attack?”
By speech’s end, the crowd was standing, and the former vice president’s daughter was being mobbed for photos and hounded to run for office.
For the GOP, torture is no longer a "necessary evil." It is a rally cry, a "values" issue like same-sex marriage or abortion. They don't "grudgingly" support torture, they applaud it. They celebrate it. Liz Cheney's unequivocal support for torture methods gleaned from communist China has people begging her to run for office.

The reason Cheney sounds so much like her father, Mary Cheney told the New York Times, is "not because she’s been indoctrinated. It’s because he’s right.”

Over the past couple of months, events have conspired to prove the Cheneys wrong. the recently released documents Dick Cheney said would unequivocally prove that torture saved American lives did not. While professional interrogators and military leaders have argued against torture, the apologists have had to rely on anonymous pleadings filtered through the same people who brought us Saddam Hussein's connection to Al Qaeda. A scientific survey recently proved that torture is counterproductive. Despite the fact that Cheney and his daughter have been claiming the Obama administration's abandonment of torture has made America less safe, the past month or so has seen the U.S. eliminate Al Qaeda leader Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan in Somalia and Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in Afghanistan. In the past week alone, the FBI foiled three bombings, one of which appears to have been a very serious threat.

Reality, it seems, is a nemesis not only for the former vice president but for the entire Cheney family. But because torture is now a "values" issue for the right, it is, like abstinence-only sex education, unmoored from the necessities of proving its usefulness in the real world, which is why someone like Liz Cheney is finding herself where she is. Unfortunately, the consequences of one of the two major parties in America embracing torture will affect us all in the long run.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Whither the Stock Market

Steve Pearlstein has a clear summary in the WaPo of why the stock market continues to rise (h/t Atrios), despite questionable fundamentals and lackluster sales (earnings have been strong in many sectors). To no one's surprise, he credits the Fed!!
Let's start with the $1.45 trillion that the Fed has committed to propping up the mortgage market -- money that, for the most part, was simply printed. Effectively, most of that has been used to buy up bonds issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from investors, who turned around and used the proceeds to buy "safer" U.S. Treasury bonds. At the same time, the Fed used an additional $300 billion to buy Treasurys directly. With all that money pouring into the market, you begin to understand why it is that Treasury prices have risen and interest rates fallen, even at a time when the government is borrowing record amounts of new money.

As it was printing all that money, the Fed was also lowering the interest rate at which banks borrow from the Fed and each other, to pretty close to zero. What didn't change was the interest rate banks charged everyone else. As a result, "spreads" between what banks pay for money and what they charge are near record highs.

So who is borrowing? By and large, it's not households and businesses, which are reluctant to borrow during a recession. Rather, it's hedge funds and other investors, who have been using the money to buy stocks, corporate bonds and commodities, driving prices to levels unsupported by the business and economic fundamentals.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Making Sense of Missile Defense

 What do you do with a prohibitively expensive weapons system that cannot perform its designated function, that is intended to deal with a nonexistent threat, that is rejected by most of the supposed beneficiaries, and is opposed by the Joint Chiefs and most senior members of the Department of Defense? If you are the Obama Administration and the weapon system in question is the proposed missile defense shield intended to be based in Poland and the Czech Republic, you cancel it.

This missile defense system was sold by the GW Bush Administration as protection for Western Europe from a future threat from Iranian long-range missiles. But the real goal may well have been to assuage Polish (and Czech) fears of Russian irredentism. Since Iran lacks both nuclear weapons (at least, as of now) and long-range missiles, the real target of this system may well have been US-Russian rapprochement. The shift to a seaborne system based in the eastern Mediterranean and using existing technologies should help ease tensions with Russia and could actually threaten Iranian missiles (and protect Israel). Plus, the canceled plans' unpopularity in much of Europe will remove a source of irritation between the US and its closest allies.

Since Ronald Reagan first proposed Star Wars missile defense in 1983, all these efforts have done is eat vast quantities of money (some estimates claim over $250 billion to date) with little to show for it other than some great names. My favorite is "brilliant pebbles," a space-based system of autonomous mini-satellites that would intercept passing ICBMs and protect us all. Unfortunately, the technology did not prove to be feasible.

Of course, none of this stops John Bolton and his neocon friends (Joe Lieberman, for one) from screaming bloody murder about the policy shift. Their concern is Russia, and they view the cancellation of the radar in the Czech Republic and the 10 missile launchers in Poland as a devastating setback for containment. The fact that deployment was still a decade away and that the new plan includes the possibility of deploying a revised set of launchers in Poland only a few years later than the Bush plan is carefully ignored. Facts are not important when there are political points to be made.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Party of No

Sully on the modern Republican party:
The pattern is now clear: the imperative to play the political game has won on the right. The longer-term pattern is just as clear: a faction of congressional Democrats sometimes backed Bush on his initiatives (such as his tax cuts). No one in the Congressional Limbaugh-run GOP will back anything this president does. Not only that; they will assault him, race-bait him and insult him in a continuous reel of populist bile.

It seems to me that the GOP was once recognizable as a human personality. It had an id; but it also had a series of responsible egos - Eisenhower, Reagan, Bush I and, to some extent, Bush II; and it had a super-ego - some kind of conscience that made it think of the broader society over partisan warfare. What we've seen in the last few years is the removal of both ego and super-ego.

What you have now is just the rage at the world and its confounding trade-offs and compromises. The knowledge of the Rove right's total failure in the last eight years has only made the far right more fervent in its theo-ideology. Do they have a plan to balance the budget? To salvage or cut losses in Afghanistan? To integrate illegal immigrants rather than use their lives as political fodder? To get the working middle classes reliable healthcare insurance? Not that I can see beyond utopian platitudes.

But they do know that anything this president does is a threat to them. And the noise they can make and violence they can foment is out of all proportion to their numbers.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Quick Hits

 Carter Speaks Out: Jimmy Carter was interviewed by Brian Williams of NBC and gave a straight-forward yet stirring commentary on the racism that underlies a significant segment of the oppositon to Obama.
"I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man," Carter told NBC News' Brian Williams. "I live in the South, and I've seen the South come a long way, and I've seen the rest of the country that share the South's attitude toward minority groups at that time, particularly African Americans. And that racism inclination still exists. And I think it's bubbled up to the surface because of the belief of many white people, not just in the South but around the country, that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country. It's an abominable circumstance, and it grieves me and concerns me very deeply."

Health Care Cost Inflation
: According to the Kaiser Family Foundation's annual Employer Benefits Survey, the average cost of a family health insurance policy in 2009 was $13,375. Over the past ten years, premiums have increased by 131 percent, while wages have grown 38 percent and inflation has grown 28 percent. So the cost of health care for a family now exceeds the annual salary that is paid to someone making the minimum wage. And at this rate of growth, in 10 years, the annual cost would be $30,803. No one can say when this system will collapse of its own weight, but collapse it will, and sooner than most critics imagine.

US Airstrike Kills Al-Qaeda Leader in Somalia: On Sunday, US Special Forces used drones to strike in Somalia and kill the reputed mastermind behind the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. What is most interesting however is that the Obama administration has not publicly boasted of the success, unlike the Bush administration which regularly claimed credit for actions that later proved to be exaggerated or nonexistent. Perhaps the grownups are in charge again!

The Ghost Fleet of Singapore: With global trade having slowed dramatically over the past year, the question of what happens to all the out-of-work cargo ships and tankers can now be answered. They are floating at anchor off Singapore in the largest such fleet ever gathered in one place.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Employer-Sponsored Health Insurance: The End is Nigh

James Kwak at Baseline Scenario summarizes a discussion he has been having with Ezra about the slow but inexorable decline of employer-sponsored health insurance, which has been the backbone of the US health care for the last 60+ years.
Ezra Klein shows the new Census figures on the uninsured. The long-term trend is absolutely clear: employer-based coverage is declining and public coverage is increasing, but not enough to make up the gap. Looking at the underlying data, we can see that 2008 was the eighth consecutive year in which the proportion of people covered by employer-based health insurance declined.
This is a point I’ve also tried to make before. Not only is employer-based coverage deteriorating, but the reasons for that deterioration imply that it is likely to only accelerate. As health care costs continue to increase, even if the rate of increase stays the same, the rate of deterioration will increase, because each year health care costs become a larger proportion of total costs and therefore harder to absorb. (Put another way, if health care cost inflation remains around 7% per year, each year it will be 7% of a larger proportion of employers’ costs.) Deterioration will take three forms – some employers will drop health coverage altogether, some will increase the share paid by employees, and some will shift toward less-generous plans.

Klein’s point is that it may be dangerous to premise health care reform on the idea that the employer-based system will remain what it is, because it won’t. My point was that because the employer-based system is slowly dying, people with employer-based coverage should not be thinking, “I don’t need health care reform, I’ve got my employer-based plan;” they should be thinking, “I’m afraid of what will happen when my employer drops its plan, so I need health care reform.” Unfortunately, I think both of us are right.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Sam Walton: The Man, not the Myth

It is always important to be reminded how little regard corporate power has for the needs of its workers, and by extension for America as a whole. Harold Meyerson on Tapped has the story of how Sam Walton built Wal-Mart on the backs of his (illegally) underpaid workers, even when the law caught up with him.
The story isn't part of the official Wal-Mart creation epic, but it tells us almost all we need to know about the company's approach to the interests of its employees and the laws of the nation. Around the time that the young Sam Walton opened his first stores, John Kennedy redeemed a presidential campaign promise by persuading Congress to extend the minimum wage to retail workers, who had until then not been covered by the law. Congress granted an exclusion, however, to small businesses with annual sales beneath $1 million -- a figure that in 1965 it lowered to $250,000.

Walton was furious. The mechanization of agriculture had finally reached the backwaters of the Ozark Plateau, where he was opening one store after another. The men and women who had formerly worked on small farms suddenly found themselves redundant, and he could scoop them up for a song, as little as 50 cents an hour. Now the goddamn federal government was telling him he had to pay his workers the $1.15 hourly minimum. Walton's response was to divide up his stores into individual companies whose revenues didn't exceed the $250,000 threshold. Eventually, though, a federal court ruled that this was simply a scheme to avoid paying the minimum wage, and he was ordered to pay his workers the accumulated sums he owed them, plus a double-time penalty thrown in for good measure.

Wal-Mart cut the checks, but Walton also summoned the employees at a major cluster of his stores to a meeting. "I'll fire anyone who cashes the check," he told them.

Thatcher, Gorbachev and the Fall of the Berlin Wall

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sought to block the reunification of Germany, and by extension the demise of communism across Eastern Europe according to documents gathered by a researcher working at the personal foundation set up by former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev after he left office.  The Times of London reports the amazing details (h/t Andrew Sullivan):
Two months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Margaret Thatcher told President Gorbachev that neither Britain nor Western Europe wanted the reunification of Germany and made clear that she wanted the Soviet leader to do what he could to stop it. 
In an extraordinary frank meeting with Mr Gorbachev in Moscow in 1989 — never before fully reported — Mrs Thatcher said the destabilisation of Eastern Europe and the breakdown of the Warsaw Pact were also not in the West’s interests. She noted the huge changes happening across Eastern Europe, but she insisted that the West would not push for its decommunisation. Nor would it do anything to risk the security of the Soviet Union.
The article goes on to indicate that President George HW Bush was in accord, and quotes Thatcher as telling Gorbachev:
“We do not want a united Germany,” she said. “This would lead to a change to postwar borders, and we cannot allow that because such a development would undermine the stability of the whole international situation and could endanger our security.”
In some respects this is not that surprising a viewpoint.  For the postwar leadership in Europe and the US, maintaining a divided Germany was a fundamental policy precept (after all, Germany had caused two major wars within a 30 year period), and this was a goal that the Soviet Union was also happy to support.  But the realpolitik of the quote above does stand in stark contrast to the stated Western goal of spreading freedom to the captive nations of Eastern Europe.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Afghanistan: The Con in Neoconservatism?

The contrast of conservatism and neoconservatism as evidenced by the Afghanistan policy debate is summarized clearly by Andy.
You may recall a time when conservatives believed in a strong defense, but also opposed using the military for open-ended nation-building efforts against amorphous enemies in failed states. The argument was that you cannot impose order and civilization on alien societies with foreign forces, that the occupying troops will become part of the problem after a while, that culture matters and not every country is ready for democracy or even a functioning central government. Intervention should be brief, and only undertaken under duress. This is George Will's classical conservative take on the utopian beliefs of the neocons in Afghanistan. As a general principle, it is solid. But in this case, the argument is almost comically persuasive. I mean: if you were to come up with a country least likely to be amenable to imperial improvement and edification, it would be hard to come up (outside much of Africa) with any place less propitious than Afghanistan, a tribal alien place with almost no record of central governance whatsoever. We also have historical precedent for imperial and neo-imperial failure: the British failed in Afghanistan over many decades; the Russian empire was defeated in Afghanistan in one. Does anyone believe that Russia would be stronger today by remaining in Afghanistan? Yes, the Taliban hosted al Qaeda, and we were right to evict them. But al Qaeda can move to many failed states, and we cannot occupy or civilize all of them. Moreover, the war is showing signs of becoming a self-licking ice-cream: the insurgency is now only united by opposition to foreign troops, we have pushed it into Pakistan thereby actually increasing the odds of an Islamist state that already has nukes getting even more unstable. And yet the calls for repeating what cannot work - because the war is too big to fail - remain.

I guess neoconservatism is nothing if not anti-empirical. I remember Bill Kristol's and Lawrence Kaplan's assurances that ethnic and religious sectarianism no longer existed in Iraq before the invasion. (I also note no connection made whatever on the neocon right between the legacy of the massive Bush-Cheney debt and the scope of a super-power's ambitions.) We will soon be approaching almost a decade of occupation of Afghanistan, but a decade is not enough for some. Here is the neo-imperialist Max Boot making the case yet again for more empire for many more decades:
The impact on Pakistan—"a nation that actually matters," in Mr. Will's words—is particularly sobering. To the extent that we have been able to stage successful attacks on al Qaeda strongholds in Pakistan, it is because we have secure bases in Afghanistan. To the extent that we have not been more successful in getting the government of Pakistan to eliminate the militants on its own, it is because we have not convinced all of the relevant decision-makers (particularly in the military and intelligence services) that we will be in the region for the long-term. Many Pakistanis still regard the U.S. as a fickle superpower—here today, gone tomorrow. That impression took hold after we left Afghanistan and Pakistan in the lurch in the 1990s after having made a substantial commitment to fight Soviet invaders in the 1980s.
The failure of the US, in other words, has been in not stating firmly that the empire is for the indefinite future and that we will be there for ever or until what Richard Cohen calls "absolute security" is achieved. The logical conclusion of this argument is that for total security to occur, the US will have to occupy half the Muslim world. And, of course, any withdrawal, in the zero-sum macho calculations of the neocons, will embolden the enemy. There is no sense here of the tragedy of history, the fact that invasions can drift into permanent occupations, that they can act as engines for Jihadism, that they can radicalize neighboring states, like Pakistan. Less-is-more is not a nuance neoconservatism ever countenanced. For them the entire world is a potential West Bank.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Health Care Battle Resumes

Andy uses his weekly column in the Sunday Times of London to review the state of play on health care reform and to predict an Obama victory.
I remain convinced Obama will win this fight. Not totally; not without political cost; but win it he shall. And the strategy is really very simple. The most popular elements of the bill will be kept in and the most contentious left out.

The fundamental issue of costs will be deferred. A bill that prevents insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing illnesses; that creates healthcare exchanges, where people can buy their own insurance policy subsidised by the government; that brings agreed price reductions by the drug companies in return for all these new, previously uninsured clients: this will pass and be popular. How could it not? The option of a government-run insurance plan to compete with private ones will be either dispensed with or held in reserve. If, after a few years, health costs keep soaring and the private companies have not mended their free-spending ways, it could be brought back.

Obama has a solid majority and can achieve all this with Democratic votes alone. So why is he in such trouble? Partly it is that this kind of reform rightly stirs scepticism, and Obama has allowed a hapless and divided Congress to take the lead, muddying the message. Partly it is that the hard right is becoming more and more extreme and its fears have eclipsed the hopes of Obama’s supporters. But the most critical part, in my view, is the public understanding that after two massive bank bailouts and a vast stimulus package, with two still-intractable wars, the US cannot afford even the modest 10-year trilliondollar package Obama is proposing. And Obama’s inability to cut spending while the economy is so fragile means he is constrained from offering fiscal reassurance.

So, tactically, Obama is on the defensive. Strategically? Again, he is stronger than he now appears. When the health insurance bill is passed and elderly Americans are not rounded up into concentration camps and granny isn’t subjected to euthanasia, and when many uninsured people gain a peace of mind they have never felt before, and people become able to change job without fearing loss of insurance, the Republican scare tactics may come to seem absurd.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Quick Hits

Abolish Switzerland?: Libyan leader Mohammar Qaddafi was rebuffed by the United Nations this week when the General Assembly declined to accept for consideration his proposal for the dissolution of Switzerland. Apparently, his son Hannibal was arrested in Geneva after assaulting 2 of his servants. Qaddafi senior has taken to referring to Switzerland as "a world mafia and not a state." (h/t FP Passport).

Bush Think Tank Formed: Former President George W. Bush announced the appointment of James Glassman to head the think tank to be affiliated with his presidential library. Matt snarks:
Glassman is, of course, better known to bloggers who like to make fun of know-nothing conservatives as the author of the late nineties bestseller Dow 36,000. I think that’s the kind of detachment from reality you need to dedicate your life to bolstering the reputation of the Bush administration.
Japan's New First Lady: Miyuki Hatoyama, the new First Lady of Japan, has an interesting story to tell. As noted in the British paper The Independent, the 62-year old former actress claims to have met Tom Cruise in a prior life and to have been abducted by aliens,
"While my body was asleep, I think my soul rode on a triangular-shaped UFO and went to Venus," she explains in the tome she published last year. "It was a very beautiful place, and it was very green."
And to think I always thought Venus was the blue planet....

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Obama Strategy

Norman Ornstein, the noted Congressional historian, has an excellent WaPo op-ed on the Obama health care strategy (h/t Ezra) in which he counters some of the prevailing wisdom coming out of a turbulent August. 
The Obama strategy since his election has been based on a gimlet-eyed and pragmatic assessment of the prospects and limits afforded by public opinion and the political process. A naive president would have assumed that, after a landslide victory, huge coattails, swollen partisan majorities and a high approval rating, he could have it all -- and pushed hard and early for a far-reaching, soup-to-nuts upheaval of the health-care system. Obama and his strategists understood that would not work.
On the public front, it was clear that there was no groundswell for broad change. There is public dissatisfaction with the health-care system, but it is framed most by the universal public definition of reform -- "I pay less." Without some guarantee that reform thus defined will be enacted for the vast majority of Americans, the likelihood has always been that the closer government gets to enacting change, the more nervous voters would get about embracing the devil they don't know. And the closer one gets to broad change affecting 16 percent of the economy and a hefty slice of the workforce, the more those whose incomes depend on the current system will fight to keep their share.
At the same time, enacting reform the way it should be done -- with broad bipartisan leadership support and broad bipartisan majorities -- was simply not in the cards in today's political universe. Bipartisan support was clearly a non-starter in the House, if less so in the Senate, but past experience also showed that finding partisan majorities, even with healthy margins in both houses, would not be easy. Bill Clinton had almost identical Democratic support in the House and Senate, but he could not find a formula to keep his partisans together. Trouble with Blue Dog Democrats in 1994 nearly derailed health reform in the House and slowed it enough to prove disastrous in the Senate. Ideological, regional and urban/rural splits always make uniting Democrats a challenge. In 2009, unlike in 1994, every issue has a filibuster line drawn in the sand, making the hurdle 60 votes more often than 50.
How to prevail under these difficult circumstances? The only realistic way was to avoid a bill of particulars, to stay flexible, and to rely on congressional party and committee leaders in both houses to find the sweet spots to get bills through individual House and Senate obstacle courses. Under these circumstances, the best intervention from the White House is to help break impasses when they arise and, toward the end, the presidential bully pulpit and the president's political capital can help to seal the deal.

No health reform bill can be enacted unless the House and Senate each pass a version, and that has been the single-minded goal of the White House.