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July 2008

Jason Furman on the Tax Policy Center's Analysis of McCain

Jason writes, from BOfPWHQ:

To: Interested parties
Fr: Jason Furman, Economic Policy Director, Obama Campaign
Re: John McCain’s tax plan is $2.8 trillion more expensive than his advisors previously admitted
Dt: July 23, 2008

In recent months, Senator McCain and his campaign staff have offered several different, and often conflicting, descriptions of the McCain tax plan. As the New York Times concluded, “Mr. McCain is having it both ways. On the campaign trail, he has sounded like a bold tax cutter. To budget wonks, though, his campaign has gingerly inched away from those plans, saying details will be forthcoming. In the meantime, the most-cited analysis of his proposed budget doesn’t square with what he is saying on the stump.”

To take just one example, on the McCain website, it states that “John McCain will permanently repeal the AMT” and the McCain campaign touts this as a $2,700 tax cut for 25 million families. Yet in July when the Tax Policy Center undertook an analysis that threatened to show the true fiscal cost and the full extent of the regressivity of Senator McCain’s tax plans, his aides apparently told the Tax Policy Center that this was not his plan and their analysis accordingly stated “Senator McCain does not plan to repeal the individual AMT.” According to the McCain campaign’s own estimates, the difference between these two positions is $60 billion per year.

Today, the Tax Policy Center released a new analysis of the McCain and Obama tax plans, which provides a comparison between what each of the candidates says on taxes (their actual plans) and what their campaign advisors claim. It finds that the true cost of Senator McCain’s tax proposals is $2.8 trillion larger than what his advisors have acknowledged. And most of that $2.8 trillion is the cost of yet more tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. The plan still offers very little for ordinary Americans.

While the Tax Policy Center analysis has some flaws, it confirms a number of important points about the candidates’ tax plans:

  1. John McCain’s actual tax policies are $2.8 trillion more expensive than his advisors previously admitted.
  2. Even the extra $2.8 trillion in tax cuts does not change the fact that, as the National Review editorialized, “the McCain plan… offers very little in the way of direct benefits to Americans in the middle of the income scale.” McCain’s true, expensive tax cut offers only half as much to the middle class as the Obama tax plan. (The original plan described by advisers offered one-third as much to the middle class as the Obama plan.)
  3. McCain’s true tax policies are even more stacked against typical families than his campaign previously admitted – giving a total of $1.8 trillion in tax cuts to corporations and more than a half-million dollars ($577,000) per year to the 0.1 percent of taxpayers who make more than $2.8 million per year. A different analysis shows that the oil companies would get $4 billion of these tax cuts, including $1.2 billion for Exxon-Mobil alone.
  4. IRS data shows that McCain’s only middle class tax cut provides $0 in direct relief to 101 million households. Ninety seven percent of seniors would get nothing from McCain’s middle class tax cut.
  5. Obama’s numbers add up – while McCain’s plan would add $3.4 trillion to the deficit over the next decade and would require cutting Social Security and Medicare by 56 percent to meet McCain’s goal of balancing the budget in 2013.

Jo Walton Disbelieves in the Wrong Singularity

She writes: Singularity Problem and Non-Problem: I don't think we'll ever get to the point where understanding the future would be like explaining Worldcon [i.e., the world science fiction annual convention] to a goldfish...

She may be right about the future. I think that she is almost surely not right about the past.

I have here a time machine, into which I will place Jo Walton, and send her back 50000 years so that she can greet the first group of behaviorally-modern humans to venture out of the Horn of Africa and into Arabia, and explain Worldcon to them.

Someone should write this up. I hereby disavow and relinquish any and all intellectual property rights, including cinema, to all existing and any future forms of informative or entertainment media, in the interest of getting this puppy started...

The Financial Economy Has Galloping Pneumonia, Influenza, *and* the Grippe, But the Real Economy Just Has a Cold Opinion

John Berry of Bloomberg is also puzzled at the disjunction: Opinion: Sure, the U.S. economy has lots of problems, including falling payroll employment, the highest inflation in 17 years, declining home prices and a shaky financial industry. Consumer confidence has dropped into the basement, partly because of the cost of gasoline, which has gotten so high it's killing sport-utility-vehicle sales. Maybe without the tax-rebate checks, consumers wouldn't have been spending on other stuff. Nevertheless they have. The dollar is in the tank, too, adding to inflation, even for goods coming from China.

And for all that, the U.S. economy expanded in the second quarter, and not at too shabby a rate considering the many drags... about a 2.5 percent annual rate in the second quarter.... "The second quarter appears to be actually better than expected," Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said at a congressional hearing on July 15. "We're looking at the remainder of the year as being probably positive growth but certainly not robust growth."...

At a July 16 hearing, Massachusetts Democratic Representative Barney Frank... said "if the numbers on employment in the second half are no better than those for the first half, we are on track to lose nearly 1 million jobs this year." That's true, though with about 138 million payroll jobs, that would be a loss of three-quarters of 1 percent. Losses in recessions normally are much higher than that.... The unemployment rate... is about a percentage point higher than it was in the first half of 2007, and it is likely to increase unless economic growth becomes stronger than now expected....

Hefty productivity gains are making a difference this time, a contrast with past slowdowns in which productivity normally fell.... Gross domestic product, which had increased at a 4.9 percent rate in the third quarter, all but came to a standstill in the fourth, registering a 0.6 percent gain. The first quarter was a bit better at 1 percent. As demand slowed, businesses quickly cut the number of hours.... In the fourth quarter... [p]roductivity increased at a 1.8 percent pace. The first-quarter numbers... output was up 0.7 percent, hours down 1.8 percent and productivity increased 2.6 percent. Productivity gains in manufacturing... were much stronger than in other industries....

[O]ver the past 12 months manufacturing production fell 0.6 percent.... In the 2001 recession... was caused by a large retrenchment in business investment, there were several months in which factory output fell 0.6 percent or more...

The Most Liberal Senator

In spite of what the National Journal says, the most liberal senator is not John Kerry or Barack Obama. It may be Russ Feingold. He has a plan to use your money for good:

Daily Kos :: Diaries: When we started the Progressive Patriots Fund in 2005, our goal was to promote a progressive reform agenda and support candidates across the country.  To date, we’ve contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars directly to Democratic candidates everywhere, we’ve come a long way on advancing the issues on which we all care for deeply, and in 2006, we hired and trained 20 grassroots activists we call the Patriot Corps, and sent them to work on campaigns across the country.  These paid field staffers were part of the movement that helped Democrats retake the House and Senate in 2006 and as many of you already know – from our emails and ads here and elsewhere online – we’re once again looking to make the Patriot Corps an important part of our effort to build on the Progressive movement sweeping through our nation...

Morning with John McCain

Mark Kleiman writes:

The Reality-Based Community: Note to John McCain: Ummm ... Senator? About this?

I'm afraid that it's a very hard struggle, particularly given the situation on the Iraq-Pakistan border. And I would not announce that I'm going to attack Pakistan, as Senator Obama did.

  1. Iraq and Pakistan do not share a border. They'd like to share a border, they've tried to share a border, but 1000 miles of Iran and Afghanistan keep getting in the way. That was a mistake, Senator. You've been making a lot of those lately.

  2. Barack Obama never announced that he was going to invade Pakistan. That was a lie, Senator. You've been telling a lot of those lately, too.

And, of course, Mark Ambinder's reaction is to say that Barack Obama doesn't know much about foreign affairs--that his need for daily paper is "a reflection on Obama's learning curve" and to endorse the Republican line-->"John [McCain] doesn't need daily talking points."

John McCain does too need daily talking points. John McCain needs talking points more than anybody I have ever seen.

Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?

UPDATE: Matthew Yglesias writes:

McCain's Gaffes: Mike Allen and Jim Van deHei finally take note of McCain's frequent gaffes. Interestingly, they view his proclivity for misstatements primarily through the lens of age -- perhaps McCain's getting old and losing his grip. To me, though, if take a broader look I think it's just a campaign that's not doing a good job of briefing people. We've seen Carly Fiorina not realize McCain disagrees with her about whether insurance companies should cover birth control, and several different McCain surrogates promise to "fully fund" No Child Left Behind even though that's not actually McCain's position.

Are they lazy? Are they arrogant? Understaffed? Have they just decided that these kind of mix-ups don't matter? I couldn't say for sure. But it's not a personal issue with McCain, it's reflective of a broader trend in his campaign toward people being unprepared.

Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times Endorses Barack Obama

Gideon Rachman: / Columnists / Gideon Rachman - Back Obama for commander-in-chief: [W]hile the armchair generals in Washington will denounce Mr Obama for weakness on Iran, the real generals support his position. The great constraint on the radicals in the Bush administration is that the US’s top brass has made it clear that it has no appetite for launching yet another war... the last thing the American military needs is a third front.

The generals know that the idea of a surgical strike to “take out” Iran’s nuclear facilities is a fantasy.... Mr McCain would risk all this because he believes that the Iranian leadership just might be crazy enough to risk Armageddon by using nuclear weapons or passing them to terrorists. Talk long enough about President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad’s religious beliefs and you just might scare yourself into thinking that it is worth launching the third and biggest war in America’s stumbling bid to remake the Middle East.

But the calmer heads around Mr Obama are, fortunately, not convinced.... The US has already had to learn to live with nuclear weapons in the hands of countries that are far more oppressive and irrational than Iran: North Korea, Mao’s China, the Soviet Union.

One of the great lessons of international relations since 1945 is that nuclear deterrence has worked. Mr Obama respects that lesson. Mr McCain does not. For that reason alone, Mr Obama would make the better commander-in-chief.

Republicans Eat Their "Budget Experts"!

Ross Douthat screams and leaps. His targets: Glenn Hubbard and John Cogan:

The Road To Serfdom?: Note that the increase [in domestic discretionary spending as reported by Cogan and Hubbard] looks roughly twice as shocking as it actually is because the chart-makers, John Cogan and Glenn Hubbard, decided to start with a baseline of $200 billion rather than zero.

They're honest enough to allow that a chunk of this increase is inflationary, and another chunk homeland-security related; what they don't show, though, is the growth of the U.S. economy during the same period, and how the Bush-era increase in discretionary domestic spending looks in historical context as a percentage of GDP. To his credit, [Peter] Robinson queried Cogan on this point:

Q: The chart shows the increase in spending in dollar terms. Haven't you been able to find a chart that shows the increase in spending as a proportion of GDP?

A: No, I haven't--not in the time I've had available for Googling this weekend, which, since I've been scrambling to get the family ready to go back East for a couple of weeks (we're off at 4.30 this very morning) amounted to a little under half an hour. Sorry about that. And I'll check in the from the beach when I can.

Um ... what? According to Cogan's bio, he's a professor in the Public Policy Program at Stanford University, and his "current research is focused on U.S. budget and fiscal policy, social security, and health care" - yet he can't find a chart showing one of the most relevant statistics to a debate about whether George W. Bush is a wild and crazy overspender? I know where to find those statistics right off the top of my head, and I'm a rank amateur: Just head to, click on Historical Budget Data [], and flip to page 8, where you'll discover that in 2001, when Bush took office, discretionary domestic spending accounted for 3.1 percent of GDP, and in 2007 it accounted for... 3.3 percent of GDP. In the years between, it rose as high as 3.6 percent of GDP, which is on the high side by post-Reagan standards (we averaged 3.25 percent a year in the 1990s), but way lower than in the profligate, post-Great Society Seventies, when we were spending as much as 4.8 percent of GDP a year on domestic programs.

The bottom line: The Bush years haven't been a small-government success story by any means, and fiscal conservatives have every right to be disappointed. But the road to serfdom this ain't. (Certainly Friedrich Hayek himself, who vigorously defended free markets without taking anything like the Norquistian position on the pressing need to drown the welfare state in a bathtub, wouldn't recognize it as such.)

Ross is, of course, right.

He is right on the substance: the complaint against George W. Bush's discretionary spending has been that the defense side has been stupidly overbloated (increases for the navy and the air force to keep them at parity with the expanded army) and the domestic side misallocated (farm subsidies for agribusiness), not that spending on non-homeland security domestic programs has grown unusually rapidly.

And he is right in his imputation of--let's call it "shoddy worksmanship" on the part of Cogan and Hubbard, especially the claim that they were unable to find the time to plot discretionary domestic spending ex-homeland security as a share of GDP.

As Ross says, it takes you two minutes to find the domestic discretionary share of GDP in 2008. It takes you thirty seconds to find that nominal GDP has grown from $8,304B in 1997 to $13,870B in 2007--an increase of 67%. It then takes another thirty seconds to take the $245B 1997 discretionary domestic spending number, multiply it by 1.67 to get $409B, and then add in $48B in increased homeland security spending according to AEI's Veronique de Rugy to get a 2007 number of $457B as the constant-share-of-GDP domestic discretionary baseline:

Ross Douthat (July 21, 2008) - The Road To Serfdom? (Politics)

Todd Gitlin Reports on Meet the Press

Todd Gitlin says that Meet the Press is vastly improved now that Tom Brokaw has replaced Tim Russert as its moderator:

CJR: Sunday Watch 7-20-08: Imagine! Almost an entire installment of Meet the Press devoted to an interview with a private citizen who is not running for office—who receives the attention not only because he is famous but because he…knows something... Al Gore...

Tom Brokaw sat still for this rampant seriousness. He did not force Gore to debate a crackpot from cloud-cuckoo-land who is still waiting for the evidence to arrive about human sources of radical climate change....

Brokaw broached a doubt: cost. “Let’s talk about the cost.”... The cost question is legitimate, as is the question of how those costs will be paid. Brokaw rightly inquired.... Brokaw could have nitpicked around the edges. To his credit, he didn’t. So, for a change, we got a TV talk show for grown-ups, where a burning issue of our time was discussed without a single gotcha moment, a single accusation of flip-flopping, a single objection from a representative of the Flat Earth Society. Hallelujah.

Another Reason We Cannot Afford to Elect John McCain

Lindsay Beyerstein:

McCain's senior foreign policy advisor tied to global petro-influence peddling: John McCain's senior foreign policy adviser [Randy Scheunemann] is a close business associate of Stephen Payne, the lobbyist caught on tape offering access to top administration officials in exchange for donations to the Bush Library.... Scheunemann is listed as a member of Worldwide Strategic Energy's executive team in a pre-prospectus... circulated to prospective investors in 2007.... Payne is the president and CEO of WSE....

The document explains WSE's business model. The company is seeking oil and gas leases in "politically complicated" and "often misunderstood" countries.

Geopolitical risks have often caused the hydrocarbon development opportunities in these regions to be overlooked or underdeveloped.... WSE will be able to capitalize financially by continuing to offer geopolitical and business development assistance to a host government while acquiring leases and lease options. The lease-holding governments will issue the leases and lease options to WSE based on our significant knowledge of both the energy and political worlds...

Scheunemann lobbied for the Caspian Alliance as late as 2006, according to public records. Scheunemann himself was an agent of Georgia until 2006 and his firm, Orion Strategies, still represents Georgia, according to public records.... Here's what the brochure has to say about Randy Scheunemann's influence-peddling mojo:

Scheunemann has developed a very close relationship with President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili and many senior Georgian officials.... Randy Scheunemann was a key player in the U.S. involvement in the Iraq war through his role as the President of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq where he coordinated the White House’s “Outside the Government” public relations campaign on Iraq while administering relationships with key Iraqi leaders in exile. Randy’s work with the then-exiled Iraqis developed close relationships with many elements of the elected Iraqi leadership...

The brochure features a photo of Stephen Payne, Ahmed Chalabi, and Randy Scheunemann...

Maliki's Endorsement of Obama's Iraqization Policy

Hoisted from Comments: Tom F. writes:

Grasping Reality with Both Hands: Today's NYTimes headline is "Comment Stings Iraqi Leader on Eve of Obama Visit".

Well, we've all read the comment and it contains no poison-tipped barb, so what or who did the stinging?

Presumably, the American's "stung" Maliki over the comment. Let's see. Diplomatic back and forth... US officials express surprise & confusion... Iraqi spokesman says comment was contact b/t Maliki and US directly...Hey, where's the sting?

So, in the headline, the NYTimes is basically playing the role of the teacher's pet on the courtyard saying to Maliki "Oooh, you're gonna be in trouble" even though the teacher (the Pentagon and Bush admin.) haven't disciplined him yet. The NYTimes is more royalist that the king!

Why read so much conscious intent into the headline? Because it bears information that is entirely tangential to the story. The story does not scream out "Maliki Stung!", that's an entirely grafted concept.

Quite revealing, though nothing new. Vintage death spiral watch.

Yes, the New York Times death spiral watch continues. Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?

UPDATE: Todd Gitlin writes:

TPMCafe: By unimpressive contrast, the Washington Post's Sudarsan Raghavan and Debbi Wilgoren took the lazy way out, stenographically copying the Maliki's spokesman's denial and repeating Spiegel's boilerplate "stands by its interview." If I were in the business of writing textbooks, the contrast would be my choice for a textbook case of careful vs. perfunctory reporting.

No, Todd. It's not laziness. It's corruption. The Washington Post death spiral is far more advanced than the New York Times's. This is not to say that the Times can pull out. Josh Marshall writes:

Talking Points Memo | New Details Emerge: [T]he [New York Times] headline is misleading ("Iraqi Premier Steps Back on U.S. Troops Comment"), [but] the article itself [by Sabrina Tavernise and Jeff Zeleny] is quite good. And it contains two key details. First, any question of mistranslation or misunderstanding is put to rest. The interpreter was al Maliki's, not Der Spiegel's.... There is also a more detailed explanation of the White House's pressure on the Iraqi government... to walk back Maliki's comments. The gist of the White House's explanation is that the Iraqis and Maliki specifically were simply too unsophisticated to grasp the implications of Maliki's remarks...

I disagree with Marshall. Not only is the headline very bad, but the article itself practices Bush-favorable stenography. Look at how it begins:

Comment Stings Iraqi Leader on Eve of Obama Visit: On the eve of Senator Barack Obama’s visit to Iraq, its prime minister tried to step back Sunday from comments in an interview in which he appeared to support Mr. Obama’s plan for troop withdrawal. The interview with the prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, was published Saturday in the online version of Der Spiegel, a German magazine. It was widely picked up by American newspapers because it appeared to give an unexpected boost to Mr. Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, who has called for an expedited withdrawal.... Scott M. Stanzel, a White House spokesman with President Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., said that embassy officials explained to the Iraqis how the interview in Der Spiegel was being interpreted, given that it came just a day after the two governments announced an agreement over American troops. “The Iraqis were not aware [of how the interview was being interpreted] and wanted to correct it,” he said...

That last is simply untrue. The Iraqis do not want to correct anything. As Brian Murphy writes:

Iraq sees hope of US troop withdrawal by 2010: Iraq's government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, followed talks between Obama and Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki — who has struggled for days to clarify Iraq's position on a possible timetable for a U.S. troop pullout. Al-Dabbagh said the government did not endorse a fixed date, but hoped American combat units could be out of Iraq sometime in 2010. That timeframe falls within the 16-month withdrawal plan proposed by Obama, who arrived in Iraq earlier in the day as part of a congressional fact-finding team...

Robert H. Reid provides the journalism that neither Sudarsan Raghavan, Debbi Wilgoren, Sabrina Tavernise, nor Jeff Zeleny dare:

Iraq playing US politics for best deal: The Iraqi prime minister's seeming endorsement of Barack Obama's troop withdrawal plan is part of Baghdad's strategy to play U.S. politics for the best deal possible over America's military mission. The goal is not necessarily to push out the Americans quickly, but instead give Iraqis a major voice in how long U.S. troops stay and what they will do while still there. It also is designed to refurbish the nationalist credentials of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.... Now an increasingly confident Iraqi government seems to be undermining long-standing White House policies on Iraq.

The flap began Saturday when Germany's Der Spiegel magazine released an interview quoting al-Maliki as saying U.S. troops should leave Iraq "as soon as possible" and that Obama's proposed 16-month timeline to remove combat troops was "the right timeframe for a withdrawal."... A top al-Maliki adviser, Sadiq al-Rikabi, insisted the Iraqi government does not intend to be "part of the electoral campaign in the United States." But that is precisely what the Iraqis intended to do: exploit Obama's position on the war to force the Bush administration into accepting concessions considered unthinkable a few months ago. Already, the Iraqi strategy has succeeded in persuading the White House to agree to a "general time horizon" for removing U.S. troops — long a goal of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government.

According to senior Iraqi officials, the decision to play U.S. politics emerged last month after Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari's trip to Washington.... The visit took place as the U.S. and Iraq were negotiating rules that would govern the American military presence in Iraq once the U.N. mandate expires at the end of the year. The talks had bogged down over U.S. demands for extensive basing rights, control of Iraqi airspace and immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law for U.S. soldiers and private contractors.... With the talks bogged down, the Iraqis sensed desperation by the Americans to wrap up a deal quickly before the presidential campaign was in full swing. "Let's squeeze them," al-Maliki told his advisers, who related the conversation to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The squeeze came July 7, when al-Maliki announced in Abu Dhabi that Iraq wanted the base deal to include some kind of timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops. The prime minister also proposed a short-term interim memorandum of agreement rather than the more formal status of forces agreement the two sides had been negotiating...

Also take a look at Jonathan Chait, who writes:

Maliki's Endorsement - The Plank: The Bush administration and the McCain campaign have replied by suggesting that Maliki doesn't really want an American withdrawal, he's just saying it for domestic political purposes. Maybe so. But that just underscores the point. If Maliki has to publicly favor American withdrawal, this shows that the Iraqi polity is not going to stand for an extended occupation. President Bush may not have been sincere either when he came out for a prescription drug benefit and campaign finance reform, but he signed those measures because he had to. That's the nature of democracy. If Iraq is going to be a democracy, then we're not going to stay there forever. So the bigger story, beyond the presidential ramifications, is that we know how the Iraq occupation is going to end...

And Juan Cole, who writes:

Informed Comment: Despite all the talk about Iraq being "calm," I'd like to point out that the month just before the last visit Barack Obama made to Iraq (he went in January, 2006), there were 537 civilian and ISF Iraqi casualties. In June of this year, 2008, there were 554 according to AP. These are official statistics gathered passively that probably only capture about 10 percent of the true toll. That is, the Iraqi death toll is actually still worse now than the last time Obama was in Iraq!...

The hype around last year's troop escalation obscures a simple fact: that Obama formed his views about the need for the US to leave Iraq at a time when its security situation was very similar to what it is now! Why a return to the bad situation in late 05 and early 06 should be greeted by the GOP as the veritable coming of the Messiah is beyond me. You have people like Joe Lieberman saying silly things like if it weren't for the troop escalation, Obama wouldn't be able to visit Iraq. Uh, he visited it before the troop escalation, just fine....

Ali al-Dabbagh, who is usually described as al-Maliki's spokesman but actually seems to work for the CENTCOM or Pentagon Middle East command, was trotted out to make vague statements about Der Spiegel's having mistranslated or misinterpreted what al-Maliki said. This denial was issued through CENTCOM! When the original demand came from al-Maliki for a timetable for US withdrawal, it was al-Dabbagh who reinterpreted it as a 'time horizon.' Al-Dabbagh was contradicted by National Security Counsellor Muwaffaq al-Rubaie, who seems actually closer in this thinking to al-Maliki. My guess is that al-Dabbagh has been recruited by some agency in Washington, DC, to explain away al-Maliki's statements whenever they contradict Bush's.

Der Spiegel stood by its story. The text of Der Spiegel's statement is here. It turns out that the translator involved works for al-Maliki, not for Der Spiegel, and so presumably knew what the prime minister's words meant in Arabic. And for the piece de resistance, it turns out that Der Spiegel has an audiotape of the Arabic....

But you see, it does not matter that al-Maliki actually said what he said. It does not matter that Der Spiegel can prove it. All that matters is that the Goebbelses around Bush and Cheney have managed to muddy the waters and produce doubt, taking the hard edge off the interview. Even AFP, the usually skeptical French wire service, asserted that al-Maliki had "denied" the accuracy of the Der Spiegel interview! Of course, al-Maliki has done no such thing...

The World's Best Development Economics Weblog

The highly intelligent and articulate Dani Rodrik say that the highly articulate and intelligent Chris Blattman runs the world's best development economics weblog. IMHO, Dani is right:

Chris Blattman's Blog: When things fell apart:

Working in Uganda in the early 1980s, I came to learn what it meant to live in a world of violence. Among the reasons my colleagues in the Ministry of Cooperatives welcomed the overthrow of Idi Amin was that with Uganda no longer a pariah state, they could now attend international conferences.

And among the reasons they attended such conferences was that they could then sleep, for they need not fear the arrival of soldiers in the night.

Insights like this reminded me of something of which I was but fleetingly aware: not only the fragility of life, but also its political premise. I knew then that I would some day have to return to the issues to which that recognition gave rise.

Thus Bob Bates opens his new book, When Things Fell Apart. Now a senior professor of government at Harvard, he looks back at years of study and service to understand the roots of conflict and violence in Africa.

African states and societies developed distorted economies in the decades after independence. By the 1970s and 80s, these state structures were precariously perched. Bates describes the collapse that ensued: how plunges in commodity prices and pressures to democratize destabilized regimes, reignited old disputes, and plunged much of the continent into disorder.

What's unusual about this book: it's short, it's readable, and it's intelligent. Normally, if I get just two of the three, I'm thrilled.

Bates holds the same theory as I do: volatility in commodity prices drives conflict through the center, not the periphery. Falling prices don't make rural farmers more willing to rebel; rather falling prices lead to falling state revenues, undermining the apparatus of control.

The problem: I think we both may be wrong. The data (so far) don't support the theory. After many years in library basements copying numbers from ancient African statistical yearbooks, I have the numbers to test it. And so far: no result. Watch this space for more...

I would have put it differently. I would have said that in some places collapses in commodity prices reduced state revenues and undermined the apparatus--fewer carrots to induce compliance and fewer resources to make sticks. But I would also have said that in other places rising commodity prices undermined the center by greatly increasing the gains from upsetting the political applecart--and making the destruction wreaked on the domestic economy by civil war of little account. Anything that generates change collapses the immediate post-colonial order. Both the military and the political class have to regard themselves as servants rather than masters of the constitutional order in order for peaceful ordered liberty to be possible. Neither of these has been the case in Africa since 1960.

In retrospect, I cannot help but think that there had to have been another way. Early dominion status, with Elizabeth II R or her governor-general asking whatever politician seems most likely to maintain the confidence of the legislature to form a government--all this backed up by a military that remains part of the organization commanded from the Horse Guards. Could that have possibly worked?

One does wonder what would have happened to the constitutional order in America at the end of the eighteenth century if Adams and Hamilton had not had their huge fight that broke the Federalist Party. Would Hamilton have taken steps to ensure that the Francophile-slaveholder alliance could never take power--steps of which the Alien Act, the Sedition Act, and the formation of a standing army in the late 1790s were only the first three? I approve of what Alexander Hamilton accomplished. I do not trust him.

Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki's Endorsement of Obama's Withdrawal Plan

The Spiegel interview:

SPIEGEL Interview with Iraq Leader Nouri al-Maliki: 'The Tenure of Coalition Troops in Iraq Should Be Limited' - International - SPIEGEL ONLINE - News: The situation in Iraq seems to be improving. SPIEGEL spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki about his approval of Barack Obama's withdrawal plans and what he hopes from US President Bush in his last months in office.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Prime Minister, the war and its consequences have cost more than 100,000 lives and caused great suffering in your country. Saddam Hussein and his regime are now part of the past. Was all of this worth the price?

Maliki: The casualties have been and continue to be enormous. But anyone who was familiar with the dictator's nature and his intentions knows what could have been in store for us instead of this war. Saddam waged wars against Iran and Kuwait, and against Iraqis in the north and south of his own country, wars in which hundreds of thousands died. And he was capable of instigating even more wars. Yes, the casualties are great, but I see our struggle as an enormous effort to avoid other such wars in the future.

SPIEGEL: Germany was opposed to the war. German Economics Minister Michael Glos was in Baghdad the week before last, Daimler AG plans to build trucks in Iraq, and you will travel to Berlin this week. Has everything been smoothed out between Germany and Iraq?

Maliki: We want closer relations, and it is my impression that the Germans -- the government, the people and German companies -- want the same thing. Our task is to rebuild a country, and the Germans are famous for effective and efficient work. We have great confidence in them and want to involve them in the development of our country.

SPIEGEL: And there is truly no resentment against a country that opposed the war in 2003?

Maliki: We do not judge our partners on the basis of whether or not they were militarily involved in toppling Saddam. The decisions back then corresponded to the national will of the countries, and we respect that.

SPIEGEL: What exactly do you expect from the Germans and from German companies?

Maliki: We want to get to know them, and we want to know what they want -- and the things they fear when thinking about Iraq. We have to start over again in many areas, including oil production, the development of the power grid and all industries. There is much to be done.

SPIEGEL: What do you expect from the Germans, politically and militarily? The Bundeswehr (German Armed Forces) occasionally trains Iraqi security forces -- but only in neighboring countries.

Maliki: What matters most to us is that we develop resilient political relationships and work together economically. Our security forces are steadily improving, partly as a result of German efforts. We will be pleased to turn to the Germans to equip our police and military; and should there be new training programs with the German Bundeswehr, we will be happy to accept their help. However, we would clearly prefer that the training take place in Iraq in the future. Overall, I believe that we are gradually becoming self-sufficient.

SPIEGEL: Three weeks ago, your government filed a civil lawsuit in New York against companies that allegedly paid bribes to officials in the Saddam regime. The defendants include three German companies: Daimler and Braun Melsungen and a number of Siemens affiliates. How is this compatible with your overtures to German industry?

Maliki: We are in negotiations with Siemens for the construction of power plants, which shows just how serious we are. Whether the suit you mention succeeds will be for the courts to decide. Under no circumstances will the consequence be that we no longer wish to work with the companies in question.

SPIEGEL: Large parts of Iraq's assets abroad remain frozen -- and inaccessible to creditors. Now, victims of the Saddam dictatorship want that money to go towards reparations. What will happen to this money when the UN Security Council mandate for Iraq expires at the end of this year?

Maliki: We have hired several international law firms to deal with these assets. At the moment, they are protected by UN resolutions, American law and the personal commitment of President George W. Bush -- and we want this protection to remain in place after the end of UN mandate on Iraq. We consider the claims being lodged against this money to be unjustified. Iraq cannot be punished for crimes that were committed by the dictator. This is very important to us, and a key aspect of our negotiations over the future status of US troops in Iraq.

SPIEGEL: Germany, after World War II, was also liberated from a tyrant by a US-led coalition. That was 63 years ago, and today there are still American military bases and soldiers in Germany. How do you feel about this model?

Maliki: Iraq can learn from Germany's experiences, but the situation is not truly comparable. Back then Germany waged a war that changed the world. Today, we in Iraq want to establish a timeframe for the withdrawal of international troops -- and it should be short. At the same time, we would like to see the establishment of a long-term strategic treaty with the United States, which would govern the basic aspects of our economic and cultural relations. However, I wish to re-emphasize that our security agreement should remain in effect in the short term.

SPIEGEL: How short-term? Are you hoping for a new agreement before the end of the Bush administration?

Maliki: So far the Americans have had trouble agreeing to a concrete timetable for withdrawal, because they feel it would appear tantamount to an admission of defeat. But that isn't the case at all. If we come to an agreement, it is not evidence of a defeat, but of a victory, of a severe blow we have inflicted on al-Qaida and the militias. The American lead negotiators realize this now, and that's why I expect to see an agreement taking shape even before the end of President Bush's term in office. With these negotiations, we will start the whole thing over again, on a clearer, better basis, because the first proposals were unacceptable to us.

SPIEGEL: Immunity for the US troops is apparently the central issue.

Maliki: It is a fundamental problem for us that it should not be possible, in my country, to prosecute offences or crimes committed by US soldiers against our population. But other issues are no less important: How much longer will these soldiers remain in our country? How much authority do they have? Who controls how many, soldiers enter and leave the country and where they do so?

SPIEGEL: Would you hazard a prediction as to when most of the US troops will finally leave Iraq?

Maliki: As soon as possible, as far as we're concerned. U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes.

SPIEGEL: Is this an endorsement for the US presidential election in November? Does Obama, who has no military background, ultimately have a better understanding of Iraq than war hero John McCain?

Maliki: Those who operate on the premise of short time periods in Iraq today are being more realistic. Artificially prolonging the tenure of US troops in Iraq would cause problems. Of course, this is by no means an election endorsement. Who they choose as their president is the Americans' business. But it's the business of Iraqis to say what they want. And that's where the people and the government are in general agreement: The tenure of the coalition troops in Iraq should be limited.

SPIEGEL: In your opinion, which factor has contributed most to bringing calm to the situation in the country?

Maliki: There are many factors, but I see them in the following order. First, there is the political rapprochement we have managed to achieve in central Iraq. This has enabled us, above all, to pull the plug on al-Qaida. Second, there is the progress being made by our security forces. Third, there is the deep sense of abhorrence with which the population has reacted to the atrocities of al-Qaida and the militias. Finally, of course, there is the economic recovery.

SPIEGEL: Critics have accused you of striking harshly against the Mahdi army of Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, while going easy on his rival Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim's Badr militia.

Maliki: That's not true. We proceed just as firmly against anyone who breaks the law. Just a few days ago, we had an incident with a group associated with the Badr people. The army moved in immediately and arrested them all. No one was spared. The punishment is based purely on the nature of the crime, not on the identity of the criminal.

SPIEGEL: In southern Iraq, where you come from, you have been compared with Saddam Hussein when it comes to harshness.

Maliki: That's the sort of thing that people say who don't understand how urgently Iraq needs stability -- or these people prefer instability. We don't want to spread fear and terror in Iraq. We have, for example, given the militias several deadlines to hand over their weapons. Their resistance was tremendous, so we had to oppose them with tremendous force of our own.

SPIEGEL: What role do you envision for your chief rival, Muqtada al-Sadr? Can there ever be national reconciliation in Iraq without his participation?

Maliki: You can only reconcile with someone who wants to reconcile. His Excellency Muqtada al-Sadr can be a political partner, especially if, to that end, he draws on the great spiritual legacy he has inherited from his ancestors. He has understood that his following was eventually infiltrated by criminal elements, by men from the former regime, al-Qaida people and others. The fact that he is now in the process of systematically separating himself from these elements makes him even stronger as a political partner. As a politician, I might add, not as a militia leader.

SPIEGEL: You spent part of your exile in Iran, and you have visited the country several times since you took office. Can you explain to us what the leaders in Tehran are up to? Are they building a nuclear bomb? Do you see this as a serious threat?

Maliki: I have not been made privy to the details of the Iranian nuclear program. Iranian representatives assure us, however, that this program serves peaceful purposes. Even if Tehran wanted to develop a nuclear weapon, it would take a very long time, simply from a technical standpoint. It is obvious that our region is far too fragile for even a single country to possess nuclear weapons, because it will always be an incentive for other countries to also build their own.

SPIEGEL: Exactly 50 years ago, the monarchy in Iraq was overthrown and a republic established. But we didn't see any celebration of this event at all. What does that day mean for the history of Iraq?

Maliki: There may have been people who celebrated. But certainly not all Iraqis. On July 14, 1958, and era came to an end, but what came afterwards didn't live up to our expectations and hopes. What came were decades of military putsches and the dictatorship. We are still dealing with the aftermath today.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Prime Minister, your job is probably one of the most dangerous a politician can have. How do you cope with this, and what do you do to make it bearable?

Maliki: I lead a very simple life -- one that is shaped by external forces, which is apparently what fate has determined for us Iraqis. In that regard, the past few decades of dictatorship have not changed all that much. What keeps me going? The constant exertion of my job -- and the successes we are now having. It means a lot to me to see how much closer we are today to a democratic Iraq, one that respects human rights, than we were only a few months ago.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Prime Minister, thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

Interview conducted by Mathias Müller von Blumencron and Bernard Zand in Baghdad

Matthew Yglesias comments:

Matthew Yglesias: The Walkback: I think you had to regard some effort at walking back Nouri al-Maliki's strong endorsement of Barack Obama's plans for Iraq as inevitable. Thus, the only thing really surprising about this development is how little effort was made to make it convincing:

Dr. Ali al-Dabbagh, a spokesman for the Iraqi government, issued a statement saying Mr. Maliki’s statement had been “as not conveyed accurately regarding the vision of Senator Barack Obama, U.S. presidential candidate, on the timeframe for U.S. forces withdrawal from Iraq,” but it did not address a specific error. It did soften his support for Mr. Obama’s plan and implied a more tentative approach to withdrawing troops. More of the statement, which came from the U.S. military’s Central Command press office: [...]

You can read the full statement at the link, but this summary really tells you what you need to know, namely that the walkback (a) doesn't involve Maliki on the record, (b) says the reports are inaccurate but doesn't name inaccuracies, and (c) was issued through CENTCOM. Basically, this morning we saw Maliki speaking in person and endorsing Obama's plan to end the occupation in no uncertain terms. By the late afternoon, an Iraqi government spokesman was pretending this never happened in a statement released by the occupying army. That's hardly even a serious effort at bamboozlement. Now the question becomes: what happens when the CODEL currently in Afghanistan makes its way to Iraq? Meetings with Maliki are presumably on the agenda.

Ben Smith comments:

Ben Smith's Blog: Political leverage in the 51st state: It's almost a convention of politics that when a politician says he was misquoted, but doesn't detail the misquote or offer an alternative, he's really saying he wishes he hadn't said what he did, or that he needs to issue a pro-forma denial to please someone. The Iraqi Prime Minister's vague denial seems to fall in that category. The fact that it arrived to the American press via CENTCOM, seems to support that. It came, as Mike Allen notes, 18 hours later, and at 1:30 a.m. Eastern, a little late for Sunday papers; his staff also seems, Der Spiegel reports, not to have contested Iraqi reporting of the quote, even in the "government-affiliated" Iraqi press. The notion this was a misquote also bumps up against Der Spiegel's standing by its reporting, and providing a long, detailed transcript.

More broadly, Maliki's words illustrate a political reality: Foreign players have a real influence on American politics, and they know it. Osama bin Laden appeared to be trying to tilt the 2004 election with a sinister 11th hour statement. His motives are unknown, but observers including John McCain thought he helped President George W. Bush. There's already quiet speculation about how Al Qaeda will seek to influence this election, and whether they see themselves as standing more to gain from continued American presence in Iraq or from withdrawal.

Leaders of a number of countries have some power to affect our election. An Israeli strike on Iran before November would dramatically shift the terrain. Iranian belligerence, or cooperation, could favor one candidate or the other. Europeans could pledge more, or less, support for American efforts abroad. North Korea could continue to engage, or withdraw. Many other leaders, from Syria to China, could offer their own October surprises. The conventional wisdom is that gestures of engagement or negotiation would favor Obama, who has pledged negotiations; war or belligerence favor McCain, who is more skeptical of the power of diplomacy. But this isn't always easy to predict. In this context, though, Iraq's elected leaders have more power than any others. There used to be occasional references to Iraq as the 51st state; the number of American soldiers and civilians in Iraq appears to be well north of 150,000, more than a quarter of the population of Alaska. And both McCain and Obama cast their policies, in part, in terms of what's good for the Iraqis and what they want.

So while there's been some suggestion that Maliki was playing domestic politics, this seems like the opposite. (Who plays domestic politics in the pages of Der Spiegel?) Maliki is playing international politics, American politics even. While some may object to that, it may be a sign that he intends to be a player in the American election from now until November, and realizes how much more leverage he has now on the next president's stance toward his country than he will after our election.

Maliki's Endorsement and the American Press

Jonathan Chait:

Maliki's Endorsement: The fact that Iraq's prime Minister has endorsed, by name, Barack Obama's plan to withdraw most U.S. troops from his country in 16 months is a huge, huge deal.... How can John McCain paint Obama's plan as wildly naive or irresponsible when the Iraqi government favors it too? The Bush administration and the McCain campaign have replied by suggesting that Maliki doesn't really want an American withdrawal, he's just saying it for domestic political purposes. Maybe so. But that just underscores the point. If Maliki has to publicly favor American withdrawal, this shows that the Iraqi polity is not going to stand for an extended occupation....

[T]he paucity of coverage of these remarks is inexplicable. The big newspapers have given this story a paragraph at most. Unbelievably, [Mark Halperin's] The Page [at Time magazine] gave this headline to Maliki's walkback: "Maliki Clarifies Seemingly Pro-Obama Remarks."

Seemingly? It was a direct endorsement of the idea. And, for that matter, Clarifies? There was no attempt to clarify, only to muddy the waters to minimize the embarassment to President Bush and his allies.

Ben Smith explains this pretty well:

It's almost a convention of politics that when a politician says he was misquoted, but doesn't detail the misquote or offer an alternative, he's really saying he wishes he hadn't said what he did, or that he needs to issue a pro-forma denial to please someone. The Iraqi Prime Minister's vague denial seems to fall in that category. The fact that it arrived to the American press via CENTCOM, seems to support that. It came, as Mike Allen notes, 18 hours later, and at 1:30 a.m. Eastern, a little late for Sunday papers; his staff also seems, Der Spiegel reports, not to have contested Iraqi reporting of the quote, even in the "government-affiliated" Iraqi press. The notion this was a misquote also bumps up against Der Spiegel's standing by its reporting, and providing a long, detailed transcript.

Exactly right. The Page's credulousness about the walkback is an embarrassment.

Why does Mark Halperin still have a job? Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?

Apple Doing a Lot Better than Expectations

John Gruber:

Daring Fireball: I just went through Apple’s iPhone availability checker for all 50 states in the U.S.: one store in Hawaii has one model (8 GB), one store in California (out of 38 in the state) has one model (16 GB black), and the Fifth Avenue flagship store in New York has one model (16 GB white). That’s it.

So much for my “just wait a week and then cruise in and pick one up in five minutes” plan.

This doesn't appear to be an "underproduce to make sure you keep the buzz" stockout. This appears to be a genuine surprise stockout...

Let Us Welcome Our Web 2.0 Publisher Overlords

Charlie Stross on Tor Books's arrival on the internet at http://www.tor/com/:

Charlie's Diary: Dragged kicking and screaming into the Century of the Fruitbat: It's something of a truism that the larger a publisher gets, the more trouble they seem to have in understanding this interwebnet thingy. While smaller outfits like Baen Books and Subterranean Press seem to have more than half a clue, it's been almost embarrassing to watch the larger book publishers flailing around... so it's nice and refreshing to see one of them get their act together.

Case in point: — Tor's revamped and relaunched web presence. It's very Web 2.0, with original fiction, blogs, and social networking bells and whistles; hopefully it'll be linked up to their long-awaited ebook store fairly soon so you can all buy my books. (Ahem ...)

Tor editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden says:

Welcome to the Frontpage: The conversation: Effective blogging is a combination of good personal writing and smart party hosting. A good blog post can be a sentence long, or three pages long; what matters is that it encourages further conversation.

Back in the heyday of the Whole Earth Catalog, visionary Catalog editor Stewart Brand told would-be reviewers to (I quote from memory, and probably imperfectly) “write as if you are writing a letter to an engaged and interested friend who knows almost nothing about the subject.” That’s a good starting point for blogging. is for fans of science fiction, fantasy, the universe, and the many “related subjects” that such persons are also liable to be interested in.... We’re not trying to convert everyone to our particular geeky obsession, but we do assume that our natural audience is composed of people who understand the pleasures of geeky obsession, and we hope to share the cool.

Much of what has driven is our desire to more fully contribute to the great conversation that is the subculture of SF.... That conversation has done nothing but expand. It is a major tributary to the modern Internet. aspires to be part of that conversation. We recognize it as something older and bigger than we are.

We’ve recruited a number of front-page bloggers based on their knowledge of certain specialized subjects and their demonstrated ability to blog interestingly....

As this site’s editorial straw-boss, I guess what I’d say to everyone playing here, front-page bloggers and commenters alike, is: Converse. Be yourself; be a person, not a megaphone--a personal point of view, not an encyclopedia or an “objective journalistic voice.” Even the original fiction is part of the conversation; the authors writing for us are aware that there'll be a public comment thread following every story, just as if it were a blog post. Talk to the rest of us like we’re human beings at an interesting social event. If you feel like you’re up at a lectern on a big stage, reconsider. aspires to be a room party, not Carnegie Hall. Circulate and talk.

Joint New York Times/Washington Post Death Spiral Watch

Outsourced to Attaturk:

Rising Hegemon: Heroic levels of inanity: Remember when a columnist was expected to at least be sober?

I have a girlfriend in New York who puts her boyfriends through Feats of Strength...

Or, perhaps you remember when they weren't supposed to be laughably pathetic?

That noon, I had lunch with two veteran Republican operatives not working in the McCain campaign and asked them what they would recommend for the Arizona senator. "Get Alan Greenspan to run with you," said the first...

Yes, this from David Broder is so wrong on so many levels:

A Deputy Dilemma For McCain: That noon, I had lunch with two veteran Republican operatives not working in the McCain campaign and asked them what they would recommend for the Arizona senator. "Get Alan Greenspan to run with you," said the first. "Or Warren Buffett," the second offered. Neither of those celebrated financial wizards is likely to be available....

But it got me thinking.... I spent the rest of the afternoon on the phone.... Several [Republicans] suggested that McCain has been so candid about his own lack of expertise in economics that... he could be well advised to tell the public that he wants his running mate to be the "deputy president" for domestic affairs.... But who?... [McCain] clearly needs help from someone to compete with Obama on the economy. Greenspan and Buffett aren't going to do it for him.

And this from Maureen Dowd is worse:

Ich Bin Ein Jet-Setter: I have a girlfriend in New York who puts her boyfriends through Feats of Strength... to see if they can pass muster with her athletic clan. It starts to dawn on these young men in the middle of their romantic triathlon that they are on a perilous quest and that if they falter, another lad might touch down in Kenosha several months hence.

Now Barack Obama is about to embark on his own Feats of Strength. Maybe that’s why, back home in Chicago, he worked out three times on Wednesday. An Associated Press report jokingly compared his fitness regime to that of Mr. Universe and marveled at “a distinct lack of visible sweat on the Illinois senator.”...

He has a week to prove his commander-in-chiefiness, even though he doesn’t have the authority to do anything commander-in-chiefy.... [H]e must bedazzle three European countries without causing Middle America to begrudge his popularity with a bunch of foreigners... he can’t be seen as too insidery with the Euro-crats.... Even if Obama is treated as a superstar by W.-weary Europeans, some Obama-wary Americans may wonder what he’s doing there, when they can’t pay for gas, when the dollar is the Euro’s chew toy, when Bud is going Belgian and when the Chrysler Building has Arab landlords. “I don’t know that people in Missouri are going to like seeing tens of thousands of Europeans screaming for The One,” a McCain aide snarked to The Politico...

Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?

Washington Post Death Spiral Watch

Outsourced to John Cole:

Balloon Juice: Our Continuing National Disgrace* Is our media. Today’s evidence is this Michael Gerson op-ed, in which he opens with a story about the endangered polar bears, threatened by climate change, and informs us that their worst enemy is… environmental activists:

Once, the main threat to these creatures came from hunters who lived in lonely shacks and set traps along the ocean shore. Now a threat comes from an unexpected source: elements of the environmental movement, whose political blindness and ideological baggage may undermine efforts to reduce the role of carbon in the global economy....

Some Republicans and conservatives are prone to an ideologically motivated skepticism. On AM talk radio, where scientific standards are not particularly high, the attitude seems to be: “If Al Gore is upset about carbon, we must need more of it.” Gore’s partisan, conspiratorial anger is annoying, yet not particularly relevant to the science of this issue.

This points, however, to a broader problem. Any legislation ambitious enough to cut carbon emissions significantly and encourage new energy technologies will require a broad political and social consensus. Nothing this complex and expensive gets done on a party-line vote. Yet many environmental leaders seem unpracticed at coalition-building. They tend to be conventionally, if not radically, liberal. They sometimes express a deep distrust for capitalism and hostility to the extractive industries. Their political strategy consists mainly of the election of Democrats. Most Republican environmental efforts are quickly pronounced “too little, too late.”

Got it? Environmental activists are to blame for not working enough with the people who oppose them, denounce them, mock them, work openly to sabotage their efforts, and have created a cottage industry creating and spreading pseudo-scientific babble.

What twisted bastard at the Washington Post reviews these op-eds and thinks they are worth printing? What kind of jackass believes the real problem regarding the environment is the environmental movement, and not James Inhofe. This is like blaming doctors for not being willing enough to work with the tobacco industry to prevent cancer.

I don’t know why anyone reads the Washington Post op-ed pages anymore. Just a disgrace.

Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?

Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki's Endorsement of Obama's Withdrawal Plan

Ilan Goldenberg writes:

It's Over: Not much to say here.  Other than the fact that this is a huge huge huge deal.  Article speaks for itself.

In an interview with Der Spiegel released on Saturday, Maliki said he wanted U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq as soon as possible. "U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes"


Asked if he supported Obama's ideas more than those of John McCain, Republican presidential hopeful, Maliki said he did not want to recommend who people should vote for. "Whoever is thinking about the shorter term is closer to reality. Artificially extending the stay of U.S. troops would cause problems."


"The Americans have found it difficult to agree on a concrete timetable for the exit because it seems like an admission of defeat to them. But it isn't," Maliki told Der Spiegel.

Is there anything left to say?

Yes, there is. Impeach George W. Bush. Impeach Richard Cheney. Do it now.

Political Liberalism

From Carroll, Lewis, Lo, McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal:

Who is More Liberal, Obama or Clinton?: Royce Carroll, Jeff Lewis, James Lo, Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal: Senator Obama is at most marginally more liberal than Senator Clinton but the difference is negligible.... The two are by no means the most liberal Democrats in Congress. There are a total of 286 Democrats in the 110th House and Senate (counting replacements). There are 88 members to Obama's left -- 8 Senators and 80 Representatives. The 8 Senators are Feingold (D-WI), Whitehouse (D-RI), Sanders (I-VT), Boxer (D-CA), Kennedy (D-MA), Brown (D-OH), Lautenberg (D-NJ), and Levin (D-MI). Between Obama and Clinton are 8 members -- one Senator, Akaka (D-HI) -- and 7 Representatives...

Who is More Liberal, Obama or Clinton?

As I said, there is no reason for anybody to read the National Journal.

Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?

Spencer Ackerman on Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki's Endorsement of Obama's Iraq Withdrawal Plan

Ackerman is shrill:

ATTACKERMAN » Fight War, Not Wars: Last fall was really the high-water mark for the surge in terms of public opinion.... [P]olling data -- too lazy to Google that now -- never actually reflected a shift in favor of the war again, but the surge did a good-enough convincing elite opinion to consider the surge a success outside the context of the larger war. Nevertheless, the electoral picture still clearly favored a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress, both of whom would be elected on a platform of ending the war if they were to be elected at all. Bush's answer was to declare that he and Maliki had agreed on an enduring U.S. troop presence.... The surge had worked so well, in other words, that its just reward was the ownership of Iraq....

That was only the first phase of White House overreach. Immediately, the administration announced that it would not submit its long-term occupation deal to Senate approval nor Congressional oversight.... In order to serve the legal fiction that the permanent-occupation deal wasn't a treaty -- which the Senate must approve -- the administration said that "friendship and cooperation" meant that the U.S. wouldn't even come to the defense of the Iraqi government if attacked (too treaty-esque), which didn't exactly sit well with the members of that government. Even before negotiations began in earnest, the Bush administration succeeded in offending Congress and the Iraqi government.

When those negotiations began, the U.S. reportedly presented the Iraqis with terms so breathtaking that they'd embarrass Lord Curzon. Bush wanted unilateral control of Iraqi airspace; legal immunity for all U.S. troops and contractors; the unilateral right to arrest and detain any Iraqis his commanders desired, and for unspecified periods; and several military bases. When Maliki indicated discomfort over acting like Gaius Baltar on Occupied New Caprica, Bush gave another indication of his "friendship and cooperation" -- blackmail.

All this came in a political context that Bush was either unattentive to or dismissive of. Despite spotty media coverage in the U.S., the deal prompted a massive backlash in Iraq, where basically every organized political force not part of Maliki's government rejected it.... Maliki has read the tea leaves and evidently realized what the rest of us considered obvious: that the only one demanding that he turn Iraq to permanent foreign domination is a president thoroughly discredited in his own country who'll be out of office in a few months....

And so Maliki flip-flopped.... He has forced George Bush to accept what Bush and McCain has said for years would lead to doom, ruin, humiliation, catastrophe -- a euphemistic "time horizon" for withdrawal.... [O]nce again Bush's attempt at denying reality only creates a trap for McCain. If McCain embraces the time-horizons, he shatters his own previous argument that such a thing will bring national ruin and indicates a certain moral and strategic turpitude on the part of its advocates. His only solution is to magically pretend that Bush's move isn't politically motivated and hope no one laughs at him. But now... Reuters reports that Maliki has embraced Obama's 16-month withdrawal plan.

The Iraq war is and has always been... a filthy lie born of avarice and lust for power masquerading as virtue.... [N]ow [Bush] is impotent, unable to impose his will, and the nakedness of his attempted imposition has led the American and the Iraqi peoples to wake up and end his nightmare. May his war-crimes prosecutor be Iraqi; may his judge be American; and may he die in the Hague.

DeLong Smackdown Watch: Tim Duy Edition

Tim Duy writes:

Economist's View: Tim Duy: Not So Bad?: Brad DeLong is puzzled. Earlier this week, defending Greenspan-era monetary policy,

Now we are not yet out of the woods. If the tide of financial distress sweeps the Fed and the Treasury away--if we find ourselves in a financial-meltdown world where unemployment or inflation kisses 10%--then I will unhappily concede, and say that Greenspanism was a mistake. But so far the real economy in which people make stuff and other people buy it has been remarkably well insulated from panic at 57th and Park and on Canary Wharf.

Today Delong adds:

I still do not understand why the real side of the economy is doing so well in relative terms. The worst financial distress since the Great Depression ought to trigger the worst downturn in demand, production, and employment since the Great Depression. It hasn't--at least not so far.

Good questions; I think economic activity has surpassed most peoples’ expectations. My answer to DeLong’s question comes in three parts:

(1) The nature of the expansion defines the nature of the following contraction. The post-tech bubble expansion was anemic by most measures.... The tepid upside suggests a tepid downside....

(2) The impact of the consumer slowdown is partially offshored, a point which I think deserves greater attention. This shifts job destruction to an overseas producer.... Note too that exports are not falling as they were in the 2001 recession as the global economy has held up better than expected.

(3) Perhaps most importantly, however, is the massive liquidity injections from the rest of the world, or what Brad Setser calls “the quiet bailout.” In the first half of this, global central banks accumulated $283.5 billion of Treasuries and Agencies, something around $1,000 per capita. This is real money.... Foreign CBs are happily financing the first US stimulus package; will they be happy to finance a second? Do they have a choice? Their accumulation of Agency debt is also keeping the US mortgage market afloat. Do not underestimate the impact of these foreign capital inflows. If the rest of the world treated the US like we treated emerging Asia in 1997-1998, the US economy would experience a slowdown commensurate with the magnitude of the financial market crisis.... In short: External dynamics play a significant role in explaining the relatively mild US downturn. As long as foreign CBs are willing to accumulate US debt, the US government is willing to issue debt, the Federal Reserve is willing to accommodate the debt with low interest rates, we will avoid the most dire deflationary predictions.

National Journal Death Spiral Watch

Back when I was in the government, I enjoyed reading the National Journal. Its coverage of lobbying and influence peddling was the best. Its coverage of legislative process was very good. And its coverage of policy substance was OK--handicapped by he said/she said journalism and the fact that it took every Republican claim seriously, but OK.

Since then it has gone downhill. And now it has jumped the shark: IMHO, nobody should be reading the National Journal. Nobody should be paying a cent to the National Journal--you can get better, more reliable, more sophisticated information from less dishonest information brokers from other places.

Steve Benen:

The #1 most liberal senator is … Barack Obama?: Be prepared to hear about this, over and over again, for quite a while....

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., was the most liberal senator in 2007, according to National Journal’s 27th annual vote ratings. The insurgent presidential candidate shifted further to the left last year in the run-up to the primaries, after ranking as the 16th- and 10th-most-liberal during his first two years in the Senate....

If all of this sounds a little familiar, it’s because in 2004, National Journal named John Kerry the most liberal senator of 2004 (John Edwards was fourth), which became one of the principal talking points of the Bush-Cheney campaign.... But before anyone takes the National Journal rankings at face value, it’s worth noting... the methodology... was misleading in 2004, and it’s equally misleading now.... Obama and Joe Biden were both considered more liberal than Russ Feingold and Bernie Sanders. This, alone, should make one wonder....

What’s more, Obama was the 16th most liberal senator in 2005, and the 10th most liberal in 2006, before racing to the front of the pack in 2007. National Journal suggests this has something to do with Obama moving to the left to curry favor with Democratic primary voters. But... Obama missed a whole lot of votes in 2007.... The rankings use an amorphous meaning of the word “liberal,” and the percentage doesn’t take missed votes into account at all (which also helps explain why Kerry nabbed the top spot four years ago)....

As Brian Beutler noted, [T]his is philistinism masquerading as social science — it’s the U.S. News College Guide of Washington politics. Journalists ought to understand that. And those of conscience ought to ignore it, or lay it bare...”

Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?

Why Deficit Hawks Shouldn't Vote for Republicans

"He talks a good game in private. He always talked a good game in private," said one of my lunch companions a few weeks ago. "But then [Senator Pete] Domenici would vote the Republican Party line on the budget every time. His deficit hawkishness is just to make me and people like me feel good."

EconomistMom explains why the only real deficit hawks left are in the Democratic Party. I don't know what to call these Republicans: Deficit doves? Deficit chickenhawks? Deficit chickens? According to this new policy paper on the Senate Republican Policy Committee’s website, the reason (or rather the latest reason) the Senate Republicans have refused to pay for tax cuts a la the PAYGO rules is not “just because,” and not because they don’t believe in fiscal responsibility, but because PAYGO isn’t fair to tax cuts. 

Apparently they buy into the line of argument made on the Tax Policy Center’s TaxVox blog by Rudy Penner.... There’s so much to point out that’s wrong in this piece that I don’t know where to begin.... [W]hat I really want to scream about is their last couple paragraphs in the executive summary, where they first chastise Democratic lawmakers for not complying with PAYGO “again and again” (gee, why was that?…) and then scold those same lawmakers for complying with PAYGO with increased taxes (aha, there’s the real problem…).

And then the last paragraph in the summary refers to lawmakers using PAYGO as just a “mask of fiscal responsibility.”  Mask?  That would mean a facade–something used to hide one’s true character, as if those members of Congress who have been insisting on PAYGO (such as the Blue Dogs) are actually engaged in some grand deception, fooling the American public into liking them for their popular(?) positions on raising taxes and restraining spending, when all they really want to do is increase the deficit.  Wow.  Really?

I like to think of PAYGO as a “fig leaf” rather than a “mask.”  It seems that it’s the only shred of anything to cover our vulnerable fiscal parts, the only little thing that’s keeping the fiscal situation from getting even more obscene.

Rudy Penner Is too Smart too Spend His Time Playing Budget Three-Card Monte

Rudy Penner writes:

How the Budget Baseline Favors Spending: [A] renewal of a temporary entitlement at current levels, such as food stamps, is not considered to be a spending increase, but a renewal of temporary tax relief is considered to be a tax cut. This has important consequences.... Reauthorizing agricultural subsidies at current levels does not have to be paid for whereas extending temporary relief from the alternative minimum tax does require raising another tax or cutting an entitlement... the definitions... tilt the playing field in favor of spending, because the extension of a temporary tax cut is said to “increase” the deficit whereas the extension of a temporary entitlement does not.... [S]ensible reforms would make it easier to extend the Bush tax cuts for upper income groups...

And then he gets upset that people interpret this as smoke-and-mirrors and an endorsement of the extension of the Bush tax cuts.

He needs to step back and rethink what he is doing, hard. He is playing intellectual three-card monte. As Diane Rogers writes:

Paying for Tax Cuts Is Hard To Do…So Should We Sabotage It Entirely?: Rudy... [forgets] that “renewal” and “temporary” as applied to the entitlement program vs. the tax cut have different meanings.  The “renewal” of a “temporary” entitlement program is a “reauthorization” of an entitlement program already in law... [t]he permanent, multi-year costs of [which were]... scored and subject to budget rules at the time they are enacted.... [T]he “renewal” does not represent new spending, at least not under CBO scoring conventions. In contrast, when a tax bill is (intentionally) written to have tax cuts expire... only the costs up to that expiration are scored.  So “renewal” of expiring tax cuts involves costs that have not previously been counted...

For Penner, a "level playing field" is one that counts the budgetary costs of spending twice and of tax cuts once. That's simply wrong.

The Financial Crisis Rolls Forward, Oddly Decoupled from Production and Employment

Paul Jackson of Housing Wire:

JP Morgan’s Dimon: Prime Mortgages Look “Terrible”: While second quarter earnings Thursday from JP Morgan Chase & Co. (JPM: 40.80 +13.52%) beat analyst expectations... executives at the company sounded a strong warning bell over growing trouble in the nation’s mortgage market....

JP Morgan’s no-nonsense CEO Jamie Dimon was clearly trying to temper investors’ newfound enthusiasm with a dose of market reality. “Our expectation is for the economic environment to continue to be weak – and to likely get weaker – and for the capital markets to remain under stress,” he said in a press statement. “We remain conscious that since substantial risks still remain on our balance sheet, these factors will likely affect our business for the remainder of the year or longer.”...

“Prime looks terrible,” he told analysts on the call. “And we’re sorry, and there’s nothing else we can say.” The company currently holds $34.4 billion of jumbo mortgages, along with $2.5 billion of Alt-A mortgages. Net charge-offs among prime loans in the second quarter rose to $104 million, more than double the $50 million recorded just one quarter earlier. JP Morgan jumped in headlong into jumbos and Alt-A mortgages during 2007 — obviously an ill-timed bet, given where the market has headed. “We were wrong, we obviously wish we hadn’t done it,” Dimon told analysts. “We’re very early in the loss curve.”

Home equity loans are also proving to be problematic; JP Morgan holds $95.1 billion in the category, and saw net charge-offs rise to $511 million in Q2 from $447 one quarter earlier. High CLTV seconds in particular are “performing poorly,” according to the company’s investor presentation. Chief financial officer Michael Cavanagh suggested that roughly 10 percent of the seconds on JP Morgan’s books are currently underwater — meaning that the borrower owes more on their combined mortgages than their home is worth. “That could be headed to 20 [percent],” he said on the earnings call. “We can’t predict how homeowners will react when they go into negative equity. We’re assuming they won’t act well, but it’s possible things aren’t as bad as we expect”...

I still do not understand why the real side of the economy is doing so well in relative terms. The worst financial distress since the Great Depression ought to trigger the worst downturn in demand, production, and employment since the Great Depression. It hasn't--at least not so far.

Externalities and the Environment

The Bellows:

Economics for Dummies: Matt’s quite right, but there’s something else he doesn’t mention. When he or I make the decision to ride the train or burn coal for fun we consider the costs and benefits of those actions to ourselves only. We say, is this good or bad for me, given the costs of the activity and available alternatives? What we do NOT do is consider the social costs of our decision. When I get on the train, I spend no time at all thinking about how that decision might benefit drivers, who’ll have one less car on the road to deal with. And, for the most part, I spend no time at all thinking about how getting on the train affects my personal carbon footprint. Why should I? From my perspective, that tiny shift from driving to taking Metro has essentially no effect on CO2 concentrations and climate change.

But when no one considers social costs, these individual decisions add up to enormous problems. This is what economists call an externality, and it’s the basis for the entire national discussion of appropriate emissions policies. It’s a damn shame that our president and his enablers in the media have no freaking clue what it all means.

Americans can optimize their personal consumption decisions all day long, but without a policy in place to internalize social costs, they’ll still end up creating costly traffic jams and devastating climate change.

Washington Post Death Spiral Watch

Outsourced to Media Matters:

Media Matters - ABC News/ Wash. Post withheld results of poll favorable to Obama: Summary: ABC News and The Washington Post issued staggered releases of the results of their latest poll, withholding from their first release results favorable to Sen. Barack Obama, including the finding that 50 percent of registered voters would vote for Obama for president versus 42 percent for Sen. John McCain. The next day, the Post ran an article headlined "Poll Finds Voters Split on Candidates' Iraq-Pullout Positions," which did not mention Obama's 8-point lead over McCain. Later that day, ABC News and the Post issued a second release with additional poll results that stated: "Obama continues to hold most of the advantages in the presidential race."

Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?

Bush vs. Bernanke on the Economy

Silent Patriot sends us to the Daily Show:

And comments:

Crooks and Liars » Daily Show: Bush vs. Bernanke on the Economy: For my money, this is when “The Daily Show” is at it’s best. Last night, Jon juxtaposed President Bush’s rosy (and wholly unrealistic) appraisal of the economy with Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s much more sobering (and frightening) Congressional testimony, and noted that President Bush “accidentally” scheduled his press conference for the same time as Bernanke’s testimony, certainly not knowing it would overshadow it.

New York Times Death Spiral Watch

100% outsourced.

Thomas Levenson on David Brooks:

With Apologies to … « The Inverse Square Blog: Why oh why can’t we have a David Brooks-free press corps, at least when it comes to bloviating about science? In his most recent column, Brooks writes (under the pretentious and meaning-free headline, “The Luxurious Growth”) that the research community has grown “more modest about what we are close to knowing and achieving.” That is, Brooks is once again channeling what “science” thinks — and he’s wrong, of course. Headline writers may have made the kinds of claims he decries, that genetics would soon explain all of human behavior, but I can’t recall any scientist involved in, say, the genetics of alcoholism, claiming a single gene-behavior connection. Instead, fifteen seconds on Google turns up lots of statements like this.

Alcoholism is a complex, genetically influenced disorder. Multiple phenotypes – measurable and/or observable traits or behavior – contribute to the risk of developing alcoholism, particularly disinhibition, alcohol metabolizing patterns, and a low level of response (LR) to alcohol.

In other words: scientists have known as they do their research that individual studies of particular measurable and or observable phenomena will not produce a synoptic view of any complex behavior. Brooks knows this too. After all, with a magisterial air of explaining the hard truths to resistant materialists, he writes that

It’s now clear that one gene almost never leads to one trait. Instead, a specific trait may be the result of the interplay of hundreds of different genes interacting with an infinitude of environmental factors. must know this too — I can’t believe he’s that bloody ignorant, though perhaps I’m just too much of a polyanna here.

Again — this is a revelation only to those who haven’t been paying attention for years. And I do think that Brooks knows that as well.... [H]e has an ulterior motive for claiming that once arrogant science has learned humility — and he does, the usual one that data-averse ideologues acquire: nasty scientists who seek material explanations are evil:

Starting in the late 19th century, eugenicists used primitive ideas about genetics to try to re-engineer the human race. In the 20th century, communists used primitive ideas about “scientific materialism” to try to re-engineer a New Soviet Man.

And Jonas Salk, that commie, used his “primitive ideas” to invent a smallpox vaccine, the key step in what has become the first ever eradication of a human viral pathogen….and so on; this is an old and stupid back and forth. Brooks wants to say that there are other sources of insight into the human condition — that “novels and history can still produce insights into human behavior that science can’t match.” I’m not sure what he means by “match,” in this case. I suppose we don’t need science to say that happy families are all alike (you sure about that, Leo?) or that England’s Catholic King James II fell not due simply to his religion but because of his political ineptitude. But such insights, no matter how valuable are of a different quality, a different explanatory timber, than that which has investigated, for example, something as material and as essential to the human condition as the evolution of tool use.

But again — I fear it gives Brooks too much credit to engage the debate at this level. His goal is not to examine honestly the power and limits of scientific inquiry into human nature. The goal is to devalue the enterprise to the point that inconvenient facts can be ignored. Brooks gives the game away about half way through the piece. He writes that:

There is the fuzziness of the words we use to describe ourselves. We talk about depression, anxiety and happiness, but it’s not clear how the words that we use to describe what we feel correspond to biological processes. It could be that we use one word, depression, to describe many different things, or perhaps depression is merely a symptom of deeper processes that we’re not aware of. In the current issue of Nature, there is an essay about the arguments between geneticists and neuroscientists as they try to figure out exactly what it is that they are talking about.

Brooks takes as evidence of ignorance the fact that different disciplines argue about terms. By that token, as of 1900, the state of play on the nature of matter would have led us to conclude the issue was intractable. Chemists had used the concept of atoms as real material objects... for a century or so. Histories written from a physicists point of view, by contrast, commonly date the confirmation of the reality of atoms from Einstein’s 1905 papers on molecular dimensions and on Brownian motion. So — I guess for a century all those chemists had no idea what they are talking about.... Cherry picking disciplinary debates may give the appearance of deep disagreement - but doing so, as Brooks does, is really just garden-variety intellectual dishonesty. Put it another way: acknowledging limits to knowledge is not the same thing as denying the power of the same body of knowledge up to that limit. But, of course, that’s what Brooks needs to do if he is to make his real point:

This age of tremendous scientific achievement has underlined an ancient philosophic truth — that there are severe limits to what we know and can know; that the best political actions are incremental, respectful toward accumulated practice and more attuned to particular circumstances than universal laws.

Nice sleight of hand, eh? Brooks is back to his most comfortable role, masquerading as the honest broker.... The con takes place in incremental steps. Limits to knowledge become “severe” — that is, forseeably unsurmountable. Sez who? Sez Mr. Brooks, of course. Trust him — he speaks so nicely and has a marvelous tan.... Brooks wants to be able to pick and choose, based on criteria known only to him, what change meets some ill-defined criteria of respect and particularity. This is nothing more than a cartoon version of what some conservatives say conservatism is about (though the last few years might give an honest man pause about the incompatibilty of this flavor of conservatism and power). Brooks would rather not have to defend it in detail (see revolution, American)... so instead he comes up with a parody of scientism and hopes that it sounds grand enough to deflect scrutiny...

Glenn Greenwald on Tom Friedman:

Tom Friedman doesn't understand why America is unpopular in the world: Tom Friedman is befuddled. He cannot understand "the decline in American popularity around the world under President Bush" and is specifically upset about the fact that "China is now more popular in Asia than America and how few Europeans say they identify with the United States." Friedman generously allows that "[a]n America that presides over Abu Ghraib, torture and Guantánamo Bay deserves a thumbs-down" -- a "thumbs-down": what a playful movie critic says about a boring film.... Despite that list of America's "mistakes" ("Abu Ghraib, torture and Guantánamo Bay"), Friedman nonetheless pronounces that worldwide disapproval of America is "self-indulgent, knee-jerk and borderline silly." Why? Because Zimbabwe is worse (its dictator stole the last election and represses the country's citizens), as is China and Russia (they vetoed U.N. sanctions against Zimbabwe this week). Friedman thus lectures the world as follows:

Perfect we are not, but America still has some moral backbone. There are travesties we will not tolerate. . . . So, yes, we're not so popular in Europe and Asia anymore. I guess they would prefer a world in which America was weaker, where leaders with the values of Vladimir Putin and Thabo Mbeki had a greater say, and where the desperate voices for change in Zimbabwe would, well, just shut up. Friedman pronounces Russia and China's opposition to anti-Mugabe sanctions as "truly filthy," and says that "when it comes to pure, rancid moral corruption, no one can top South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki."...

[W]hatever else is true, when it comes to morally reprehensible and threatening behavior -- to use Friedman's righteous terms: "pure, rancid moral corruption" that is "truly filthy" -- is there anything that remotely compares with what Tom Friedman and his like-minded comrades have said and done over the last seven years?... [W]hat would you find more threatening -- the repressive dictator of a small African country, or the world's sole military superpower that continues to listen to and honor a Foreign Policy Expert who utters disgusting sentiments such as this?...

What other country in the world has leading members of its political class who justify unprovoked attacks on other countries -- who casually justify the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people -- in such depraved and sadistic terms?... If there were a powerful nation (besides the U.S.) that had a leading foreign policy analyst unapologetically justifying the brutal destruction of another country by explaining that its citizens needed to "Suck On This," and had a leading presidential candidate who sung songs about dropping bombs on the U.S. and who told jokes about killing Americans (while his leading ally demands that that country attack even more countries), we would be subjected to an endless array of Op-Eds from Fred Hiatt and Charles Krauthammer condemning them and demanding that "meaningful action" be taken against such a "rogue nation." And Tom Friedman would be righteously and darkly insisting that such a country be "compelled to change its behavior."

In light of that, just ponder the self-delusion required for Tom "Suck-On-This" Friedman and the political establishment he leads to express befuddlement -- confusion -- over our extreme unpopularity in the world over the last seven years. How would a rational person expect our country to be perceived when the face we present to the world is the face that appears on that grotesque You Tube clip -- the same face that, to this day, giddily boasts that "sometimes it takes a 2-by-4 across the side of the head" to get our message across and that we need high-ranking foreign policy officials "quietly pounding a baseball bat into his palm"?...

Clint Hendler on Maureen Dowd:

CJR: Dowd's Colorful False Impression: Today’s Maureen Dowd column tries to make the case that Obama is humorless.... Dowd warms over quotes from herself, The Los Angeles Times, Andy Borowitz, and a New York Times colleague—you wonder if you’re reading a column or some sort of mutant clipping service—before coming to this:

He’s already in danger of seeming too prissy about food — a perception heightened when The Wall Street Journal reported that the planners for Obama’s convention have hired the first-ever Director of Greening, the environmental activist Andrea Robinson.... The “lean ‘n’ green” catering guidelines, The Journal said, bar fried food and instruct that, “on the theory that nutritious food is more vibrant, each meal should include ‘at least three of the following colors: red, green, yellow, blue/purple, and white.’ (Garnishes don’t count.) At least 70% of the ingredients should be organic or grown locally, to minimize emissions from fuel during transportation.”

I think we can all agree it’s a cheap shot to attribute the convention’s green-focused catering decisions to Obama, especially when the host committee named its greening director in August 2007, back when Obama trailed Clinton by double digits.... But Dowd... leaves a false impression on a matter of fact... [you] probably think that the fried food ban and the color and sourcing requirements will be the inflexible law of the land come convention time. Well, no, as the convention planners pointed out earlier this month... said “guidelines” exist, frou-frou color requirements and all, but they only apply to foods that vendors offer and label as “Lean ‘n Green.”... So if a Denver caterer wanted to serve deep fried chicken that was trucked across the country, no problem—they just couldn’t call it “Lean n’ Green.” Think of it as little bit of party-enforced truth in labeling.

Another word for that might be accuracy.

With bonus Justin Fox on Howell Raines:

Howell Raines, energy expert: In his newish incarnation as media critic for Conde Nast Portfolio, Howell has written a column arguing that the "children of Reaganomics" now populating newsrooms are way too willing to swallow the oil company line that high gas prices are merely the result of supply and demand. If only, he says, today's reporters would dig deep for explanations the way the great Don Barlett and Jim Steele did in the pages of TIME in 2003.

What did Barlett and Steele find back then?... [H]ere's their explanation for high oil prices:

While the world is swimming in crude oil, it already trades at an inflated price of $30 a bbl., a level essentially dictated by Saudi Arabia with the approval of the U.S. government.

Now... it seems pretty clear in retrospect that (a) $30 a bbl. wasn't an inflated price and (b) it probably wasn't being dictated by Saudi Arabia. By far the biggest story in global oil markets since 2003 has been sharply rising demand from China, India and other emerging economies, coupled with lots of declining big oilfields and more and more questions about whether Saudi Arabia really does have enough excess capacity to manipulate oil prices. In other words, it's a supply and demand story.... [T]he supply-demand thing also happens to be the only credible explanation for why Barlett and Steele were so wrong in 2003 and why oil prices have gone up so much since then. Yes, some of the price premium right now seems to be the product of a futures market feeding frenzy. How much? We'll find out over the next year or so.

ExxonMobil and the other big Western oil companies are of course happy spectators to this price rise. They certainly aren't doing much to thwart it.... But... I certainly can't believe that a company that produces only 3% of the world's oil is capable of pushing prices from $30 a bbl. to $140.... When it comes to the domestic gasoline market, ExxonMobil and its cohorts do have some pricing power.... Raines does make an interesting point about prices at the pump being set by the latest spot prices for bulk gasoline... deliver[ing] a windfall to refiners when oil prices are rising... cut[ting] into profits when oil prices fall...

Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?

Rules of War

John Ashcroft says that it was perfectly OK for the ChiComs to use the water torture on American servicemen captured in Korea:

Waterboarding ‘Consistently’ Seen As Legal: During a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee today, former Attorney General John Ashcroft falsely claimed that waterboarding has “consistently” been defined as “not torture” and refused to agree that the use of enhanced interrogation techniques — including waterboarding — on captured U.S. soldiers is “unacceptable” or “criminal.”

REP. MAXINE WATERS: Do you think that if these techniques were used on American soldiers that they would be totally unacceptable and even criminal?...

ASHCROFT: My job, as Attorney General, was to try and elicit from the experts and the best people in the Department definitions that comported with the statues enacted by the Congress and the Constitution of the United States. And those statutes have consistently been interpreted so as to say, by the definitions that, waterboarding, as described in the CIA’s request, is not torture....

Impeach John Ashcroft. Impeach Richard Cheney. Impeach George W. Bush. Do it now.

New York Times Death Spiral Watch

Outsourced to Kevin Drum:

The Washington Monthly: FINANCIAL REPORTING FOLLIES....The New York Times reports today that the stock market is up. Here's the story they invented to explain it: (a) there's a widespread belief that the global economy is tanking, thus (b) reducing the demand for oil and (c) driving down oil prices. Wall Street, (d) seeing plummeting oil prices, (e) is elated and (f) drives stock prices up.

There are two basic possibilities here: (a) this explanation has been created out of whole cloth or (b) Wall Street investors are idiots. Or both. For now, I'm going with (a).

Yep. Michael Grynbaum:

Shares Rise as Oil Continues to Fall - Stocks rose for two reasons, analysts said, a renewed sense of confidence in investment banks and an unusually sharp dip in the price of oil, which plunged more than $5 to end the day under $130 a barrel for the first time in six weeks.

Ironically, analysts believe that the bleak outlook is the primary cause for the dip in oil prices. As the economy slows and Americans spend less, analysts expect domestic demand for gasoline to fall. That could lead to a pullback in prices.

Noodle Salad Blogging

From As Good as It Gets:*

Carol Connelly: OK, we all have these terrible stories to get over, and you-...

Melvin Udall: That's not true. Some have great stories, pretty stories that take place at lakes with boats and friends and noodle salad. Just no one in this car. But, a lot of people, that's their story. Good times, noodle salad. What makes it so hard is not that you had it bad, but that you're that pissed that so many others had it good...

IMHO, this is Jack Nicholson's best movie line evar.

New York Times Death Spiral Watch (Time's Numbers Master Gets Shrill, Berserk, and Medieval on Adam Nagourney and Megan Thee

Via Karen Tumulty:

Obama and Race: Another View: Jackson Dykman, our datameister here at TIME... had some problems... not with the poll data itself, but with the way it was framed in the New York Times story:

I’ve rarely seen a story so wildly off from the actual data on which it is based.

Aside from point C in the Obama response (which is true and basically negates the story), the premise of the story is, well, utter nonsense. Are we really supposed to think that because a black man has become the Democratic nominee in recent weeks that he somehow should have cured (or markedly improved) race relations in this country? This is just a silly premise, yet the story thrust of the story seems to be shock and surprise that the mere fact of Obama’s candidacy hasn’t reversed—or obliterated—the slight increase in racial tensions in this country over the past 8 years....

I can’t decide whether it’s the headline or the story that really creates the schism. The hed in the paper is: “Poll finds Obama candidacy isn’t closing country’s divisions on race.”

Are you kidding me? The guy just wrapped up the nomination. Racial divisions in the U.S. have a wee bit of a 400-year head start on him. If Obama goes on to win the election, I really hope the Times does this poll again in four years. Whatever the result, THAT would be a story.

I’m going to show my age here, but this reminds me a lot of some days I spent reporting in Chicago way back during the Harold Washington/Bernard Epton race for mayor. I did a bunch of man-on-the-street stuff in some white West Side neighborhoods. The most prevalent rumor at the time was that if Washington were elected, he would cut off electricity to white neighborhoods. People believed this.

Thinking of that and reading this poll, I gotta think we have made progress.

Two other points. In the poll data, 79% of white voters think an Obama administration would treat both whites and blacks the same. And 82% of white voters think a McCain administration would treat both races the same. Okay, fine. The real story in this question is this--90% of black voters think Obama would treat whites and blacks the same, but only 50% of black voters think McCain would treat both races the same.

Yet Obama is the one who’s failing to close “the country’s divisions on race”?

Finally, I looked it up again because I couldn’t believe it, but Point E in the Obama response is correct. Why on earth would the story say “there’s even racial dissension over Mr. Obama’s wife, Michelle: She was viewed favorably by 58% of black voters, compared with 24% of white voters.”

The numbers for Cindy McCain: 20% favorable among white voters, 9% favorable among black voters (!!!)

I've long made the argument that journalists care wildly more about candidates’ spouses than readers do, but someone needs to tell me why the racial dissension is “over Michelle Obama.”

Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?

New York Times Death Spiral (Misogyny Watch Edition)

Adam Nagourney and Megan Thee spin their poll to try to convince us that whites do not like Michelle Obama:

Poll Finds Obama Isn’t Closing Divide on Race: There was even racial dissension over Mr. Obama’s wife, Michelle: She was viewed favorably by 58 percent of black voters, compared with 24 percent of white voters...

Here is what the poll says:

Doesn't the fact that 56% of whites surveyed either refused to answer this question, said that they were undecided, or said that they did not know enough worthy of inclusion?

And whence comes the word "dissension" anyway?

John McCain's wife, Cindy McCain, is not mentioned in the story at all. According to the poll, she is viewed favorably by 9% of Blacks, and 20% of whites. Isn't that worth mentioning?

Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?

What All Schoolchildren Learn/Those to Whom Evil Is Done/Do Evil in Return

Both the Israeli and the Palestinian governments have very bloody hands.

But there is a special circle of hell reserved for those who gleefully boast of their bloody hands--like Mahmoud Abbas today.

Dan Nexon:

The Duck of Minerva: That's just sick, or "we haven't had a good Israel-Palestine flamewar here yet... let's hope I don't start one": I don't post a great deal on Israel-Palestine issues. I basically want to see a peace deal that involves an equitable variant of the two-state solution and that empowers moderates on both sides. I don't have much sympathy for those who want to paint the conflict in black-and-white terms, and I get sick of the way that advocates of one side or the other spotlight the various infractions of their opponents.

But f*ck it, this is just sick:

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is currently visiting Malta, welcomed the prisoner exchange and sent his greetings to Kuntar upon his release from Israeli prison. Abbas's Fatah party organized a rally in Ramallah.... "This is an historic victory over Israeli arrogance," said Ahmed Abdel Rahman, a top Fatah official and advisor to Abbas. He described Kuntar as a "big struggler."...

To understand what's wrong with this picture, read this....

The Israeli government should never have agreed to this swap. No matter what the Jewish religion holds about the remains of its adherents, they've taken another step towards... demonstrating that violence is the best way to extract concessions from them...

Why We Need a Different Opposition Party to Compete with the Democrats (Miscellaneous)

Matthew Yglesias writes about Reihan Salaam and Ross Douthat's Grand New Party:

Matthew Yglesias: The Trouble With Sam's Club: [T]he big flaw with Grand New Party... is that its analysis of why the GOP is the way it is.... The book is very good on the nature of the GOP's predicament and on possible ways out of the predicament, but it seems to view the "how did we get here?" issue as... [bad] luck -- Bush wasn't very bright or something.

I think that's wrong. And importantly wrong.... Republicans [do not] literally only care about their super-rich financial backers. But... other impulses Republicans might have are ultimately undermined by the stranglehold that the tax cut jihad holds over the party. At the end of the day, a political party whose politicians all need to portray themselves as "tax cutters" is going to be very limited in its ability to do anything constructive....

[T]he models Ross & Reihan point to... book were governors or mayors during the 1990s who, thanks to the robust economy, were able to cut taxes while also spending non-trivial amounts of new money on programs.... Republicans aren't congenitally incapable... [but] in order to do useful domestic policy stuff... they would need to be freed from the iron grip of tax cut mania.

How hard would it be to do this? I don't know.... John McCain's primary defeat in 2000 and his primary win in 2008 appears to confirm the idea that the GOP is first and foremost a tax cutting party.... [W]hile Grand New Party is... implicitly critical of the "tax cuts ueber alles" forces, its authors seem to believe that those forces are sufficiently powerful that they shouldn't be taken on... head-on...

As I see it, back in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s the spinmasters for Goldwater, Nixon, and Reagan rooted the Republican Party in three beliefs:

  1. the government is not on your side--the government is on the side of the Negroes
  2. tax cuts always raise revenues
  3. the people outside our borders (and the people inside our borders who came from outside our borders) are not our friends

The ramifications of these beliefs have poisoned the entire party. They are the reason that smart well-intentioned Republicans--like George H.W. Bush--turned out to be mediocre presidents; that not-smart but well-intentioned Republicans--like Ronald Reagan (who with the help of his wife and her astrologer partially escaped #3)--turned out to be lousy presidents; and Republicans who were neither smart nor well-meaning--like George W. Bush--has turned out to be either the worst or the second-worst president in American history (depending on what you think of James Buchanan).

The problems are thus deeper than Matt thinks. He sees #2 as the big problem--and sees it as the insurmountable obstacle to making the Republican Party a source of strength rather than weakness and corruption for America. But as I see it, it's only one of three big insurmountable obstacles.

Hence my belief that it would be better to dear the thing down and start again from scratch. Retire the Republican Party, give it an honorable place in American history for its long, successful run from Fremont to Eisenhower. And pass over what has happened since in silence.

Greenspanism Looking Pretty Good...

Martin Wolf is gloomy:

A year of living dangerously for the world: It is now almost a year since the US subprime crisis went global. Many then hoped that the repricing of risk would be no more than a brief interruption.... Such hopes have been disappointed.... So where is the world economy now? And where might it go? Here are some preliminary answers to these questions.

The answer to the first comes in two main parts: continued financial distress and commodity price rises.... Equity investors are not the only people worried about the health of banks. The banks themselves are also worried. Spreads between rates of interest on inter-bank lending in dollars, euros and sterling and expected official rates... [o]n six-month loans... are now as high as at the two previous peaks, in September and December of last year.... This is no mere liquidity crisis. The banks are expressing concern about the solvency of their peers....

Meanwhile, the price of oil is close to $150 a barrel.... has doubled over the past year. In real terms, the price of oil is now 25 per cent higher than in 1979.... [W]hy are commodity prices soaring when the world economy is slowing?... Producers will leave oil in the ground if the rise in real oil prices is expected to be faster than the return on the alternative assets. What determines the current price then is the expected future price. The most important drivers have been the prospective growth in the demand of emerging countries, particularly China, and gloom about alternative sources of supply....

So what happens to the world economy next?... It is hard to see any outcome other than a sustained slowdown in the world economy.... [R]isks could combine in dangerous ways. An attack on Iran might push the price of oil above $200.... If the ongoing deleveraging of the US economy weakened US consumption, the economy might go into a deep recession. US fiscal deficits would then soar and long-term US interest rates might jump. This could make the debt dynamics of the US government look very unpleasant. A flight from the dollar and dollar bonds might even ensue. Who would then want to be running the Federal Reserve?

The good news is that the world economy has held up surprisingly well. The bad news is that the risks remain squarely on the downside...

My reading is somewhat different. Back in the second half of the 1990s, various people went into Alan Greenspan's office. "Raise interest rates!" they said. "Let unemployment go up! The Phillips curve can't have shifted in this far! The natural rate of unemployment can't have fallen so far so fast! These stock market valuations can't be rational! We are headed for a big crash, or a big inflationary spiral--unless you change course now!"

Alan Greenspan responded that there was no sign of overly-tight labor demand, no sign of accelerating demand-pull or wage-push inflation that would warrant interest rate increases. People were indeed investing enthusiastically in high-tech start-ups and those buying stocks at outsized price-earnings ratios. But the people doing the buying and investing were relatively well-off, and were grownups. If it turned out to be a serious bubble, and if the unwinding of the bubble triggered a financial panic and threatened to produce a high-unemployment recession, then would be the moment for the Federal Reserve to step in and clean up the mess. In the meanwhile, it would be a shame to destroy millions of jobs and wreck a period of 4%+ economic growth just because the Federal Reserve thought that it knew better than grownup investors what prices they should be paying for stocks and shares in high-tech startups, and feared that there might be trouble in the future.

Similarly, in the middle years of the decade of the 2000s, various people went into Alan Greenspan's office. "Raise interest rates!" they said. "Let unemployment go up! Long-term interest rates cannot stay this low for long! The sustainable pace of construction can't have risen so far so fast! These real estate valuations can't be rational! We are headed for a big crash, or a big inflationary spiral--unless you change course now!"

Alan Greenspan responded that there was no sign of overly-tight labor demand, no sign of accelerating demand-pull or wage-push inflation that would warrant interest rate increases. People were indeed building houses and buying mortgages and taking out home-equity loans enthusiastically at outsized price-rental and mortgage-value income ratios. But the people doing the buying and investing were relatively well-off, and were grownups. If it turned out to be a serious bubble, and if the unwinding of the bubble triggered a financial panic and threatened to produce a high-unemployment recession, then would be the moment for the Federal Reserve to step in and clean up the mess. In the meanwhile, it would be a shame to destroy millions of jobs and wreck a period of 3%+ economic growth just because the Federal Reserve thought that it knew better than grownup investors what prices they should be paying for mortgages and houses, and feared that there might be trouble in the future.

The unwinding of the dot-com bubble in 2000-2002 went remarkably well: no significant macroeconomic distress, and less financial panic and distress than I believed possible. The unwinding of the real estate bubble in 2007-2009 is so far not going well. There is, by contrast, more financial distress than I believed possible. Who thought that quantitatively sophisticated hedge funds would have enormous unhedged exposure to subprime risk? Who would have thought that highly-leveraged investment banks with an originat-and-sell business model would keep lots of the securities they had originated in their own portfolios--and kept them because they were high yield for their rating, i.e., because the market did not believe they were as low risk as the investment banks had bamboozled the ratings agencies into claiming? Who would have thought that those buying subprime mortgage securities from the likes of Countrywide had done no investigation into how Countrywide was screening out borrowers?

But so far--look: In the dot-com boom of the 1990s we were the winners. The rich investors of America built out a huge amount of fiber-optic cables and conducted an enormous amount of experimentation in business models from which we all benefit. In the real-estate boom of 2000s the rich investors of America and the world built an extra four million houses and loaned the rest of us money at remarkably low interest rates for five years. Those who moved into newly-built houses with teaser-rate mortgages wish those teaser rates would continue--but they won't, and in the meantime they got to live in a nice house for quite a low rent. Those of us who took out big home equity loans wish the low interest rates would continue--but they won't. And those of us who felt rich because our house values have appreciated wish we still could think of ourselves as sleeping on a pile of gold--but we can't.

The dot-com bubble and the real-estate bubble were bad news for the investors in Webvan, WorldCom, Countrywide, FNMA, and securitized subprime mortgages. But they were, by and large, good news for the rest of us. And investors are supposed to take care of themselves.

Now we are not yet out of the woods. If the tide of financial distress sweeps the Fed and the Treasury away--if we find ourselves in a financial-meltdown world where unemployment or inflation kisses 10%--then I will unhappily concede, and say that Greenspanism was a mistake. But so far the real economy in which people make stuff and other people buy it has been remarkably well insulated from panic at 57th and Park and on Canary Wharf.


Peter Orszag: Anesthesiology provides one example of a great success story in putting evidence- based standards into practice. In the mid-1980s, after analyzing the most common sources of errors, the American Society of Anesthesiologists promulgated standards of optimal practice (both in procedures and equipment).6 Providers had an incentive to follow the standards because deviations from them made the imposition of malpractice liability more likely. After the standards were adopted, mortality rates fell to about 5 per million encounters, as compared with averages above 100 per million during earlier periods.7 Thus, aggressively promulgated standards backed by some incentives can alter a long-standing and suboptimal status quo.

Research suggests, however, that the merely providing information to physicians results in an “exceedingly modest behavioral response.”8 The current financial incentives for both providers and patients tend to encourage or at least facilitate the adoption of expensive treatments and procedures, even if evidence about their effectiveness relative to existing therapies is limited. Costly services that are known to be highly effective for some patients are sometimes provided to others for whom the clinical benefits have not been rigorously demonstrated. Therefore, to alter providers’ behavior, it is probably necessary to combine comparative effectiveness research with aggressive promulgation of standards and changes in financial and other incentives.9

6 See Jeffrey B. Cooper, “Getting Into Patient Safety: A Personal Story,” AHRQ WebM&M: Morbidity and Mortality Rounds on the Web (Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, August 2006), available at

7 See David Hyman and Charles Silver, “You Get What You Pay For: Result-Based Compensation for Health Care,” Washington and Lee Law Review (Fall 2001).

8 David E. Kanouse, Joel Kallich, and James P. Kahan. “Dissemination of Effectiveness and Outcomes Research,” Health Policy, vol. 34, no. 3 (1995), pp. 167–192.

9 See Congressional Budget Office, Research on the Comparative Effectiveness of Medical Treatments: Issues and Options for an Expanded Federal Role (December 2007).