Monday, November 30, 2009

The Purity of the Lonely

Steve Benen quotes conservative columnist Kathleen Parker on the new Republican "purity test," a proposal whereby prospective GOP candidates must support at least 8 of the 10 points to garner support from Republican committees
But that was before the "purity test" for the Republican National Committee came up. Parker sees it as a "suicide pact" to help "weed out undesirables from their ever-shrinking party."
In fact, the 10-point checklist proffered by Bopp and others is the antithesis of conservatism. As Kirk wrote in his own "Ten Conservative Principles," conservatism "possesses no Holy Writ and no Das Kapital to provide dogmata . . . conservatism is the negation of ideology: it is a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order."

Each of Bopp's bullets is so overly broad and general that no thoughtful person could endorse it in good conscience. Some are so simplistic as to be meaningless. As just one example: "We support victory in Iraq and Afghanistan by supporting military-recommended troop surges." What does that mean? Do we support all troop surges no matter what other considerations might be taken into account? Do we take nothing else into account? Does disagreement mean one doesn't support victory?

Whatever the intent of the authors, the message is clear: Thinking people need not apply. The formerly elite party of nuanced conservatism might do well to revisit its nonideological roots.
Noting what a departure the proposed litmus test is from intellectual seriousness, Parker added, "When did thinking go out of style?"

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Map of the World

From The Big Picture, credited to Prieur!
world accordign to USA

Fed Up?

Barry Ritholtz at The Big Picture takes on the Fed, Hank Paulson, and a few other juicy targets.
Here’s a candidate for the understatement of the year: The Federal Reserve is concerned that their free-wheeling, money-printing, dollar-destroying, quantitative-easing, zero-percent interest rate policy might be “fueling undue financial-market speculation.”
Do ya think?

The Fed is a serial bubble blower worse yet, they have refused to hold the most aggressive and damaging speculators accountable for their own losses. Instead, they have participated in a massive socialization of risk, where profits remain private but losses are the taxpayers’ burden.

Is this anyway to run a Central Bank? (and I am not calling for the Fed to be dismanttled or hobbled like others are).

There has been little or no clawback of the ill gotten gains from the people who caused the problem, but escaped with 100s of millions of dollars; there has been endless subsidies for the banks, but little hard-to-swallow medicine for the banking system.
My pet theory is that all of the anger about Health Care Reform is misdirected rage at the corrupt Bailouts. I don’t want to get too Continental on you, but the conversation in Europe I encountered repeatedly was the sheer perplexity at why people are protesting health care coverage for all. One fund manager said to me in Berlin, “You give trillions to rogue bankers, yet you have 40 million uninsured American. Why is that?”

My answer: I haven’t the foggiest idea why.

Meanwhile, the banks are (rationally) hording capital, thus they have not increased lending, all the while they garner huge state subsidized profits.
We have not yet sufficiently called out Hank Paulson for his role in this mess. Tim Geithner is starting to capture flack for his participation in the massive wealth transfer/taxpayer giveaway, but he was junior to what we now think of as the Hank & Ben show.

Let me be brutally frank: With George W. Bush AWOL during the crisis in 2008, it was Bernanke and Paulson who stepped into the void. But make no mistake about it — the chief architect of the massive bailouts was none other than former Goldman Sachs CEO and then Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Sully Goes Rogue

Sully on Palin's tome:
It is a religious book, full of myths and parables. And yet it is also crafted politically, with every single "detail" of the narrative honed carefully for specific constituencies. It is also some kind of manifesto - but not in the usual sense of a collection of policy proposals. It is a manifesto for the imagined life of an imagined Sarah Palin as a leader for all those who identify with the image and background she relentlessly claims to represent.

In this, the book is emblematic of late degenerate Republicanism, which is based not on actual policies, but on slogans now so exhausted by over-use they retain no real meaning: free enterprise is great, God loves us all, America is fabulous, foreigners are suspect, we need to be tough, we can't dither, we must always cut taxes, government is bad, liberals are socialists, the media hates you, etc etc.

I tried to write a fair account of Palin's various stories of her incredible fifth pregnancy, labor and delivery and to reconcile all the various facts we know and the various versions of the story she has told. Just for the record and because we have aired the public record on this before. I honestly however cannot make total sense of them in a way that I'm completely convinced by and so simply do not feel comfortable making any judgment on them in any way at this point. That's fair to her, my readers, my colleagues, and the innocent private people caught up in this circus.

I thought there might be some new facts in here that would illuminate my confusion and dispel the whole thing.

There is, rather, more barely-credible myth-making and descriptions of actions taken that really make no sense even on their own terms. But since we now know that Palin tells odd lies all the time even when she doesn't have to, we cannot hold her to common sense readings. The story she tells is largely incredible if you assume a rational actor at the center of it. But we do not have a rational actor in the center of it; we have an unbalanced, delusional, ambitious fanatic whose relationship to reality is entirely instrumental and can change from minute to minute. And so we cannot even say: that doesn't make sense so it probably isn't true. With Palin, anything is possible her world is so imaginary and magical. Much that makes sense with others may not make sense with her. And without external evidence, how can we tell which is which?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Troops, We Ain't Got No Stinkin' Troops

Tim Fernholz on TAPPED cites Spencer Ackerman as he muses about whether the US has enough available manpower to provide the additional troops that General McChrystal wants in Afghanistan.
Spencer Ackerman reminds us that amateurs study tactics while professionals study logistics. Can the U.S. deploy 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan without violating soldiers' rotation policies or becoming dangerously underprepared for a crisis?
If President Obama orders an additional 30,000 to 40,000 troops to Afghanistan, he will be deploying practically every available U.S. Army brigade to war, leaving few units in reserve in case of an unforeseen emergency and further stressing a force that has seen repeated combat deployments since 2002.

According to information compiled by the U.S. Army for The Washington Independent about the deployment status of active-duty and National Guard Army brigades, as of December 2009, there will be about 50,600 active-duty soldiers, serving in 14 combat brigades, and as many as 24,000 National Guard soldiers available for deployment. All other soldiers and National Guardsmen will either be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan already or ineligible to deploy while they rest from a previous deployment.

The shortage of available combat brigades means that an escalation of between 30,000 and 40,000 troops is “not realistic,” said Lawrence Korb, a former senior Pentagon official in the Reagan administration who now studies defense issues for the liberal Center for American Progress. To send practically all available soldiers into one of the two wars would leave the U.S. with “no reserve in case you had a problem in Korea.”
That's the real talk. There are other variables in the mix -- how much of the force is made up of Marines, how smoothly drawdown goes in Iraq -- but getting troop levels up to where Gen. Stanley McChrystal wants them won't be easy. When McChrystal made his original requests at the end of the summer, his strategic review described a 12-month window for changing the dynamic of the war, a window that is rapidly shrinking -- even if the first deployments began in January, it's not clear that overall levels could rise until the spring, nearly eight months after his deadline, and I'm curious what effect that would have on the conflict.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Make a Decision, Any Decision

Steve Benen calls out David Broder for this nonsense in his Sunday column:
The more President Obama examines our options in Afghanistan, the less he likes the choices he sees. But, as the old saying goes, to govern is to choose -- and he has stretched the internal debate to the breaking point.

It is evident from the length of this deliberative process and from the flood of leaks that have emerged from Kabul and Washington that the perfect course of action does not exist. Given that reality, the urgent necessity is to make a decision -- whether or not it is right.
"Whether or not it is right." The Commander in Chief, in other words, should put expediency over merit. Speed is preferable to accuracy. It's only the longest military conflict in American history, with the future of U.S. foreign policy on the line -- the president should worry less about due diligence and thoughtful analysis, and worry more about picking a course, even if it's wrong. Other than the loss of American servicemen and women, untold billions of dollars, and undermining U.S. interests in a critical region, what's the worst that can happen?
What a crock.

I realize there's been a painful decline in the quality of Broder's analysis in recent years, but this column is a mess. He's effectively calling for President Obama to act and think more like President Bush -- make decisions first, and think through the consequences and implications second.

Palin Palate Cleanser

Sully on Palin:
As this blog persistently demonstrated in last year's campaign, Palin is a delusional fantasist, existing in a world of her own imagination, asserting fact after fact that are demonstrably untrue, and unable to adjust to the actual reality after it has been demonstrated beyond any empirical doubt. The campaign's media strategy of making sure she was never in a position to be asked anything in an uncontrolled setting, and of never holding an open press conference (unprecedented in the history of presidential campaigns) were a response to this. The only interview that dared stray even a little from this fawning celebrity-deference, Katie Couric's, revealed Palin to be an astonishingly inept know-nothing, camouflaged by incessant victimology.

She is a deeply disturbed individual whose grip on reality is very weak, and whose self-awareness is close to nil. This much is not a leap, let alone unfair. It is simply unavoidable if one examines her surreal invention of reality - even when she must surely know that the evidence exists out there to contradict her.

As I have long noted, this is not the usual political mendacity and spin. It is far weirder and more disturbing than that. She creates her own reality. And the fact-indifferent, editor-free marketing company, HarperCollins, is only too willing to make some money off it.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

What the Bankers Learned

Felix Salmon picks up a quote from Andrew Ross Sorkin of the Times and reaches the logical and unsettling conclusion on the lessons the bankers have learned from the Crash of 2008.
One of the frustrating parts of researching my book came when I finally got to ask the question of Wall Street chief executives and board members that you just raised: Do you have any remorse? Are you sorry? The answer, almost unequivocally, was no. (Or they just didn’t answer.) They see themselves as just one part of a larger problem, with many constituencies to blame.

Many of the most senior members of management on Wall Street now consider themselves “survivors,” as if they were cancer survivors or something. That’s the word they use. While many of them are self-aware enough to politely nod at the notion that they received help and were part of the problem, they seem reluctant to acknowledge they were “rescued” or “saved.”
One of the key drivers of the crisis was the hubris and general lack of humility of senior bank executives. This is connected to the issue of executive pay: almost everybody thinks he deserves what he’s earning. But the only way you can deserve an eight-figure pay package is if you’re really on top of what’s going on in your bank. Ergo, everybody thought they were on top of what was going on in their banks, even when they weren’t; lower pay and more humility would have helped enormously in curtailing some of the most egregious excesses.
If bank executives (with the notable exception of John Reed) see no need to apologize for destroying the global financial system, they are still part of the problem and are very unlikely to be part of the solution. Which bodes ill for the future.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Decision-Making on Afghanistan

Sully on the process that Obama is pursuing as he reviews options on Afghanistan and nears a decision.
What we are seeing here, I suspect, is what we see everywhere with Obama: a relentless empiricism in pursuit of a particular objective and a willingness to let the process take its time. The very process itself can reveal - not just to Obama, but to everyone - what exactly the precise options are. Instead of engaging in adolescent tests of whether a president is "tough" or "weak", we actually have an adult prepared to allow the various choices in front of us be fully explored. He is, moreover, not taking the decision process outside the public arena. He is allowing it to unfold within the public arena. Others, moreover, are allowed to take the lead: McChrystal, or Netanyahu, or Pelosi, in the case of Af-Pak, Israel-Palestine and health insurance, respectively. Obama encourages the process but hangs back, broadly - and persistently - pursuing certain objectives without tipping his hand on specifics or timing.

So the troop question is rather like the public option question.

Obama's position - almost a year into his presidency - is yet to be revealed. The president waits, prods, allows the parties to reveal their hands, and keeps his final detailed position to himself. By allowing the debate to continue in public, he also tries to get the public more, rather than less, involved. So we too get to show our hand as the debate continues. And the polls show Americans pretty evenly - and understandably - divided on the excruciating and ultimately prudential question of what to do next.

What strikes me about this is the enormous self-confidence this reveals. Here is a young president, prepared to allow himself to be portrayed as "weak" or "dithering" in the slow and meticulous arrival at public policy. He is trusting the reality to help expose what we need to do. He is allowing the debate - however messy and confusing and emotional - to take its time and reveal the real choices in front of us. This is politically risky, of course. Those who treat politics as a contact-sport, whose insistence is on the "game" of who wins which news cycle, or who can spin each moment in a political storm as a harbinger of whatever, will pounce and shriek and try to bounce the president into a decision. And those who believe that what matters in war is charging ahead regardless at all times will also grandstand against the president's insistence on prudence.

But he won't be bounced and his concern seems to be genuinely to do the right and the most sustainable thing. Which is a kind of strength we haven't seen in a president since Reagan.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Truth About Republicans

John Cole on Balloon Juice waxes poetic about Repblicans.
The funny thing about all of this is that no matter how bad all their ideas are, no matter how disastrous their governance has been, no matter how many horrible things they have done to the economy and this country, what really is killing the Republican party is that deep down, they are just complete assholes. You see it in the way they treat women, you see it in the way they treat minorities, you see it in the way they treat homosexuals, you see it in the way they treat anyone who is not a white Christian, and you see it in the way they treat anyone who disagrees with them slightly about anything. They just have no respect for anyone, and it shows. People don’t like to be treated like crap, and grown-ups don’t want to be associated with people who yell “You lie” or scream “socialism” or “Hitler” or accuse you of being a terrorist whenever they don’t get their way.
If you read the Corner or the Weekly Standard, or listen to any talk radio or any of the mouth breathers on Fox, or read any right-wing blogs, you will instantly know what I am talking about. You can’t help but notice that they are just loudmouthed jerks, stubborn bully boys, and insensitive and insecure cads. James Wolcott once wrote that Eric Cantor looked like the “pricky proprietor of the Jerk Store,” and that could be applied to the majority of the prominent Republicans out there. I guess that should be suspected from a movement in which the only thoughts are “Fuck you, I got mine.”

Health Care Reform Through the Ages

Ezra reviews the history of health care reform efforts and concludes that passing a bill is the first step toward real reform, even if the bill is deficient in significant ways.
Failure does not bring with it a better chance for future success. It brings a trimming of future ambitions.

Truman sought single payer. His failure led to Kennedy and Johnson, who confined their ambitions to poor families and the elderly. Then came Nixon, whose reform plan was entirely based around private insurers and government regulation. He was followed by Carter, who favored an incremental, and private, approach, and Clinton, who again sought to reform the system by putting private insurers into a market that would be structured and regulated by the government. His failure birthed Obama's much less ambitious proposal, which attempts to reform not the health-care system, but the small group and nongroup portions of the health-care system by putting a small minority of private insurance plans into a market that's structured and regulated by the government, and closed off to most Americans.

Failure does not breed success. Obama's defeat will not mean that more ambitious reforms have "a better chance of trying again." It will mean that less ambitious reformers have a better chance of trying next time.

Conversely, success does breed success. Medicare and Medicaid began as fairly limited programs. Medicaid was pretty much limited to extremely poor children and their caregivers. Medicare didn't cover prescription drugs, or individuals with disabilities, or home health services.

But once the programs were passed into law, they were slowly and continually improved. They became more expansive, with Medicaid growing to cover not only poor families but also poor adults, and the federal government giving states the option, and matching dollars, to include more people under the program's umbrella. Medicare was charged with covering people with long-term disabilities, and it was eventually strengthened with a drug benefit, more preventive coverage, the option of supplementary plans and much more.

Monday, November 9, 2009

That Syrian Nuclear Plant

Kevin Drum picks up on a fascinating report in Der Spiegel concerning the Syrian nuclear plant that was destroyed by Israel in 2007.
In the spring of 2004, the American National Security Agency (NSA) detected a suspiciously high number of telephone calls between Syria and North Korea, with a noticeably busy line of communication between the North Korean capital Pyongyang and a place in the northern Syrian desert called Al Kibar. The NSA dossier was sent to the Israeli military's "8200" unit, which is responsible for radio reconnaissance and has its antennas set up in the hills near Tel Aviv. Al-Kibar was "flagged," as they say in intelligence jargon.

....In late 2006...a senior Syrian government official checked into a hotel in the exclusive London neighborhood of Kensington. He was under Mossad surveillance and turned out to be incredibly careless, leaving his computer in his hotel room when he went out....The hard drive contained construction plans, letters and hundreds of photos. The photos, which were particularly revealing, showed the Al Kibar complex at various stages in its development....One of the photos showed an Asian in blue tracksuit trousers, standing next to an Arab. The Mossad quickly identified the two men as Chon Chibu and Ibrahim Othman. Chon is one of the leading members of the North Korean nuclear program, and experts believe that he is the chief engineer behind the Yongbyon plutonium reactor. Othman is the director of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission.

....February 2007....An Iranian general [] decided to switch sides....Ali-Reza Asgari, 63, a handsome man with a moustache, was the head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard in Lebanon in the 1980s and became Iran's deputy defense minister in the mid-1990s....According to Asgari, Tehran was building a second, secret plant in addition to the uranium enrichment plant in Natanz, which was already known to the West. Besides, he said, Iran was apparently funding a top-secret nuclear project in Syria, launched in cooperation with the North Koreans.

....On an overcast night in August 2007 [] Israeli elite units traveling in helicopters at low altitude crossed the border into Syria, where they unloaded their testing equipment in the desert near Deir el-Zor and took soil samples in the general vicinity of the Al Kibar plant. The group had to abort its daring mission prematurely when it was discovered by a patrol. The Israelis still lacked the definitive proof they needed. However those in Tel Aviv who favored quick action argued that the results of the samples "provided evidence of the existence of a nuclear program."
A month later, Israeli jets destroyed the Al Kibar facility. The Israeli prime minister sent a message to the Syrians via Turkey that no further attacks were planned, and if they'd clam up about it, so would he. They did.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Health Care Reform On Its Way

Josh Marshall views the House passage of Health Care Reform as a seminal event that will inevitably lead to its final passage.
There are many events in life that, while more or less predictable in themselves (House passage of the health care bill), turn out to have an impact and significance that is only truly apparent after they occur. The passage of the House health care reform bill last night strikes me as one of them.

The precise contours of the post-conference legislation remains uncertain in a number of key respects, especially in regards to the public option. But having watched the events leading up to the House vote and the politicking in the senate, I have little doubt that a broadly similar bill will pass the senate, be reconciled with the House bill in a conference report and bill that will be signed by the president in relatively short order.

The reason these sorts of events happen so infrequently is that they are like colossal ships or vast armies, very difficult to build or assemble and get on their way but also extremely difficult to stop or turn once they are under way.

As Bill Kristol noted in his famous 1993 GOP strategy memo on the Clinton health care reform initiative, the key danger Republicans face from health care reform is precisely that the public will like it. And I suspect that the more forward thinking and perspicacious of his partisan colleagues today see it the same way.

If a health care reform bill passes, it's greatest point of vulnerability will be in the 2010 election. That's not only because of the on-going fall-out of the 2008 financial crisis, which sets the Democrats up for a tough midterm election. It's also because a lot of the key reforms in the legislation don't kick in for a few years. But even if you assume the worst possible outcome for the Democrats in 2010, loss of both houses of Congress, Republican majorities still wouldn't be able to overturn the law because President Obama would veto their repeal.

Last night's vote makes me think this will happen and it will be a genuinely historic development.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Yankees Win World Series

Thereby restoring the natural order of the universe.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Is the Public Option a Distraction?

Ezra analyzes the politics of the public option debate.
Most health-care wonks agree that the immense controversy generated by the public option has deflected attention from other important elements of the bill. You can draw only so many lines in the sand before a couple begin getting washed away. But there's a split on whether that distraction has been a good or bad thing.
The case against goes something like this: The success of the plan is going to depend much more on adequate subsidies than any of the public option compromises on the table, and letting all the energy go into the public option has left fairly little organizing capacity for things like tax credits for people making between 300 and 400 percent of poverty. The liberal obsession with the public option -- and not even a very strong public option! -- has distracted them from these more important policies, making it more likely that they'll fall a bit short of where they otherwise could be.

The case for goes something like this: The success of the plan is going to depend much more on adequate subsidies and the individual mandate than on any of the public option compromises on the table, and diverting all of the conservative base's energy into fighting around the margins of the public option has left them with fairly little organizing capacity to go after the revenues or the mandate or the total cost of the bill. The conservative obsession with the public option -- and not even a very strong public option! -- has distracted them from these more important issues, making it more likely that health-care reform survives with its basic structure intact.
I'm in the second camp. That's not to say this was the plan, or that the public option isn't worth achieving in its own right. But insofar as it's drawn fire away from the potentially unpopular elements that can't be sacrificed -- elements like the revenues and the mandate -- and toward a popular element that can be compromised, it's been a boon for the bill.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Hillary in Pakistan

Scott Horton discusses Hillary Clinton's visit to Pakistan and notes how the Obama Administration is trying to shift policy from the dead-end Bush approach.
When a critical assessment of the Bush-era “War on Terror” is undertaken, a vital chapter will focus on U.S. relations with Pakistan. President Bush labeled the nation “a major non-NATO ally” in order to qualify it for military programs. He then lavished Pervez Musharraf’s dictatorship with billions in aid designed to beef up its ability to engage the Taliban and Al Qaeda, only to see most of this money diverted into secret military programs designed to address Pakistani security qualms about India. Future historians may well conclude that the Bush team were played for patsies by Pakistan’s military, with Interservice Intelligence (ISI) in the lead. There is increasingly solid evidence that the ISI consciously thwarted the United States–facilitating the escape of key Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership figures from Afghanistan and sheltering them in Pakistan’s rugged Northwest Frontier Province. In their place, Pakistani authorities streamed hundreds of perfectly innocent people into American hands, filling the special detention center that Bush built at Guantánamo with chaff rather than the leadership figures the Americans were seeking.

Hillary Clinton is now on a visit to Pakistan. Her comments there reflect a new U.S. relationship with Islamabad, built on a far more serious understanding of Pakistan’s internal problems and a more aggressive view about dealing with them. But they also reflect a fundamentally different take on civilian-military relations in this nuclear power of 181 million. Reuters reports:
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wound up a bridge-building visit to Pakistan on Friday leaving a pointed question ringing in her hosts’ ears: Where are the al Qaeda leaders operating in your country? While no Pakistani officials were immediately prepared to answer, ordinary citizens told Washington’s top diplomat the country was living on a daily basis with the consequences of the September 11, 2001 attacks engineered by the militant Islamist group…

On Thursday Clinton expressed disbelief no-one in authority knew where al Qaeda leaders were hiding out — a remark that may fuel much reaction once she leaves the country. “I find it hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are and couldn’t get them if they really wanted to,” she told a group of newspaper editors during a meeting in Lahore.
While these remarks were portrayed by the clueless U.S. media as a gaffe, in fact they provide a deep glimpse into the Obama Administration’s agenda for Pakistan. To start with, they’re remarkably mild. She’s presenting as a question something that U.S. intelligence knows for a fact: the ISI has been coddling Taliban leaders and their Al Qaeda allies, just as the ISI has systematically enabled the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. While American commentators view this as something shocking or potentially offensive to an ally, in fact it regularly figures in Pakistan’s domestic political discourse, in which the mainstream political parties view the Pakistani military’s support for militant Islam as a threat. Thus, Secretary Clinton is speaking an obvious truth, and at the same time ratcheting up pressure on the Pakistani military to change its erring ways and fully embrace the crackdown.
Horton also points to a second track to US diplomacy in the region, which is to encourage negotiations between Pakistan and India...a difficult path certainly, but well worth the effort.