Sunday, May 31, 2009

Oil Prices

Matt Ygliesias paints a somewhat dismal picture of oil prices going up along with the economic recovery, perhaps resulting in another recession. That's quite possible. While the financial industry's misfeasance and malfeasance is at the heart of the global economic meltdown, the rapid escalation of gas prices appears to have triggered the collapse.

The funny thing is, we could make enormous strides with conservation. But as the world economy gears back up, we're going to be back to the situation of consistent annual growth in demand for oil, with new oil resources being more difficult and more expensive to tap. We really do seem to live in a world that will only respond to disaster, and even at that not very well... but one way or another we will be returning to a world where oil costs $100 or more per barrel, and where gas prices again hit $4 or more.

I doubt that the next generation will enjoy anywhere near the same level of mobility as this generation. Oh, sure, if you can afford it, the options will be there. But high fuel prices will price long road trips and air travel beyond the reach of many families who currently take cheap fuel for granted, and we already have a remarkable national amnesia about the months of $4/gallon gas.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Next Wave?

Through Google Wave, Google has unveiled a set of collaborative tools that both tie into and could potentially eclipse current social networking tools (including the oldest one, email). If you watch the keynote, announcing Wave to developers, you can get a sense of the incredible potential of this tool.

That's not to say "things can't go wrong". They can, most notably if it's too difficult or too cumbersome to incorporate Wave into third party sites (Google's open sourced most of the code to facilitate tool production and integration, but still...) or if people conclude that its use puts too much of their control of their data (or too much power) into Google's hands.

But it's pretty easy to see how Wave could transform most of the social communication tools we use today, from instant messaging to blogging, to forums, to social networks, as well as offering a broad set of collaborative tools that appear to significantly improve upon those currently available through Google Docs or similar services.

For now, though, we'll have to wait and see what happens. Some developers are getting an inside look, so they can start developing tools before the release to the general public, but for you and me... we don't get to try it out until "later this year".

Friday, May 29, 2009

Karl Rove Has a Point

If this is true, you gotta give the devil his due:
"We know from her record on the 2nd Court of Appeals that she's not a particularly effective colleague. I first got wind of this when Sam Alito, who was her colleague on the court while we were reviewing his record, it - you know, people who were familiar with the workings of the court said that she was combative, opinionated, argumentative, and as a result, was not able to sort of help create a consensus opinion on important issues.

* * *

"Well - in conference, excuse me - what she would do is she would mark [opinions] up like she was your English school teacher and - with your typos and misspellings and other words that she wanted to have changed, and send them back to her colleagues - not exactly the best way to ingratiate yourself with your colleagues."
I mean, if Sotomayor truly didn't have enough to do over in the Third Circuit, and spent her time intercepting draft opinions from the Second Circuit to correct their spelling and grammar mistakes, and was so involved in their decision-making that they described her as a "colleague", you have to wonder about her.

On the other hand, I suppose it's possible that Rove is spinning a Republican talking point, far less concerned with facts than with perpetuating a smear through the media. But really, what are the odds that Karl Rove, of all people, would resort to cheap, dishonest smear tactics.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Silly Political Tests

In what you might mistake for a David Brooks column, Nick Kristof shares two questions that supposedly indicate whether you're "liberal (which he later defines as believing that "morality derives mostly from fairness and prevention of harm") or conservative (which he implicitly defines the same way, but as also "upholding authority and loyalty — and revulsion at disgust").
How’s this: Would you be willing to slap your father in the face, with his permission, as part of a comedy skit?

And, second: Does it disgust you to touch the faucet in a public restroom?
Kristof explains,
Studies suggest that conservatives are more often distressed by actions that seem disrespectful of authority, such as slapping Dad. Liberals don’t worry as long as Dad has given permission.

Likewise, conservatives are more likely than liberals to sense contamination or perceive disgust. People who would be disgusted to find that they had accidentally sipped from an acquaintance’s drink are more likely to identify as conservatives.
I would expect them to be even more likely to self-identify as non-parents. Seriously, for Kristof's examples of "disgusting" things, he seems to focus on things you're likely to inure to with experience. Does it disgust you to "smell urine in a tunnel"? That reaction is likely to diminish over time if you live in a major city and it becomes part of the "background noise" of your daily experience.

Kristof challenges his readers to take the "disgust" test, so I did. And the results told me that (thanks probably exclusively to being a parent) on the whole I find things marginally less disgusting than an average person, they said nothing about my politics. So I read the background information on the test and read,
Disgust appears to play a role in moral judgment, moral conflict, and ethno-political violence. (For the best work on disgust and politics, see David Pizarro.)
Fair enough. And it seems like a paper, "Inbar, Y., Pizarro, D.A., & Bloom, P. (in press) Conservatives are more easily disgusted. Cognition and Emotion.", would be right on point. But not in the way Kristof represents. It's not about sink knobs and earthworms.
In the first study, we document a positive correlation between disgust sensitivity and self-reported conservatism in a broad sample of U.S. adults. In Study 2 we show that while disgust sensitivity is associated with more conservative attitudes on a range of political issues, this relationship is strongest for purity-related issues—specifically, abortion and gay marriage.
Although the disgust effect was not exclusive to "'sociomoral' issues of gay marriage and abortion ... a greater disapproval of gay marriage and greater disapproval of abortion", results are correlational and thus " it is possible that there are other variables related to both disgust sensitivity and conservatism that may account for the observed relationship." The study's conclusions are presented as a starting point for further research. But to the extent he wants to claim that "studies suggest" a link, the type of disgust Kristof should be focusing on is the type that sees purity as a moral virtue, and is evoked by behaviors that offend one's sense of purity even if they're harmless to the actor and to others. The type of purity you're likely to hear about in church, or see evoked in a Ross Douthat column.

As for comedy skits in which you slap your parent, that seems to tie more into Kristof's definition of conservatism as authoritarian in nature. But you don't have to be conservative to be authoritarian and, despite a correlation, don't have to be authoritarian to be conservative. But Kristof doesn't follow through on that claim, choosing instead to focus on disgust. If you're testing for authoritarianism, a better question would probably be, "Would you be more likely to slap your father with his consent as part of a comedy act, or to slap your child out of anger or to impose discipline?" But I think the answer would only correlate to political leanings for the aforementioned reason, that authoritarian personalities are more likely to espouse conservative politics.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Too Big To Fail?

The Financial Times offers an opinion rejecting the notion that any business should be deemed "too big to fail". The argument comes in X parts. First, sluggish giants aren't a source of innovation:
If “too big to fail” is incompatible with democracy, it also destroys the dynamism that is the central achievement of the market economy. In principle, there is no reason why disruptive innovations and radically new business models should not come from large, established, dominant companies. In practice, the bureaucratic culture of these organisations is such that this rarely happens. Revolutions in business generally come from new entrants
Arguably, some large companies - and especially the "too big to fail" companies - retard innovation by taking advantage of their market position to exclude new competitors. Second, selective government support for any company "distorts competition" and is "damaging to innovation and progress". Third, promises of future regulation are not credible and fail to hold current managers to account for their failures.

The author argues that banking is no different from any number of other essential services, including the electric grid and water supply, and that it's continuity of service that's important, not who happens to be providing the service.
In all industries where there is or might be a dominant position in the supply of essential public services, there needs to be a special resolution regime. The key requirement is that assets that are needed for the continued provision of these services can be quickly separated from the organisations engaged in their supply. The businesses involved must be required to operate in such a way that such a separation is possible.
Not a bad idea.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Liquidity vs. Excessive Compensation

It's safe to say this guy's in the financial industry. After an interesting analysis of how banking crises in Japan and Korea turned out, he comments,
Killing Detroit whilst bailing out fat-cat bankers is politically unpopular. If you want to see a justifiably upset victim have a look at this letter from a Dodge dealer. I don’t think the political sentiment in the letter is accurate – but it is perfectly understandable.

Likewise there is no end of complaint about bailing out banks so they can continue to pay million dollar bonuses – and the political sentiment in those complaints is accurate and entirely understandable.
Hempton, I suspect deliberately, conflates two entirely separate issues: saving the banks, and bankrolling excessive compensation with taxpayer money. I've seen plenty of grumbling about the auto industry bailout, no small amount of it focused on claims (usually false) about how much UAW workers make.

I personally don't believe Hempton missed that, or the calls for slashing worker compensation, associated not just with the effort to keep GM and Chrysler out of bankruptcy but also in relation to what "must" happen for viable companies to emerge from bankruptcy. It would have been very possible for the Bush or Obama Administrations to toss a few extra billion at the auto industry with the instruction that worker wages and bonuses were to be maintained, but you would have seen outrage at least as pronounced as that directed at the absurdity of handing out six and seven figure "retention bonuses" to the bankers who ruined their companies, or sat idly by while the guy at the next desk ruined their companies.

The outrage was not directed at financial industry salaries, which are quite high to begin with, and was certainly not directed at the bailout itself. The outrage was over bonuses that have absolutely no relation to either employee performance or to corporate profits, paid for with taxpayer money (or, if you think it's a more charitable description, deficit spending to be paid off by future taxpayers).

Just as it would have been possible (and wrong) to bail out GM and Chrysler in a way that maintained the status quo, including worker and executive compensation, at the cost of additional billions of taxpayer money, it was wrong to bail out the financial industry in a way that maintains the status quo, including compensation that's plainly excessive in the light that these institutions would be alongside Lehman Brothers, GM and Chrysler in bankruptcy but for a massive bailout. The skimming of profits to provide extraordinary compensation for ordinary work has become the norm in the executive suites of corporate America, and through the financial industry. The problem isn't that people were outraged by the siphoning of bailout funds to provide massive bonuses to financial industry employees and executives - the problem is that it happened anyway.


You know, there's truth to the notion that you can't really judge a parent's mistakes until you've been one. Some non-parents seem to perceive children as little wind-up toys who will do exactly what their parents want if only the parents... do something. But on the other hand, sometimes bad parenting is pretty obvious.
It wasn't so much the white supremacist phrases emblazoned upon her arms and legs that led social workers to remove a seven-year-old Winnipeg girl from her family, or the fact she had attended school two days in a row with a swastika inked upon her skin.

What alarmed social workers most about the little girl were her cold affirmations of racial violence, according to testimony in the first day of a heated custody hearing at Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench on Monday.
The parents are, of course, claiming "free speech" and that the children were taken solely because of their political views. But really:
In testimony Monday, the social worker said that, for 45 minutes, she grilled the girl about her home life and the ink covering her body. “She said the meaning of [the swastika] is that black people don't belong,” the social worker said. “She told me that we have to protect white kids from, quote-unquote, niggers.”
Not that I expect white supremacists to be the brightest of the bright, but these folks don't even know basic racist iconography. Like those poor kids in Jena who had no clue that the noose was a symbol of racial oppression. How would you know?

Maybe there's a market for "remedial racism" flash cards, so these folks can stop embarrassing themselves. "Which racial group is offended by this symbol? [Answer on back of card.]"1 The way things are going, these guys are going to hold a rally and offend the wrong ethnic group. How embarrassing would that be.
1. I suspect that you would need a reminder on the face of the card that the answer's on the back, because otherwise these folks might not figure it out and remain as confused as ever.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

"You Know That Comment I Made Eight Years Ago...."

The Washington Post gives an infamous Ari Fleischer comment the benefit of the doubt:
At issue was a line in Milbank's humorous May 12 Washington Sketch column about Rush Limbaugh's towering ego. After quoting White House press secretary Robert Gibbs's disapproval of a joke about Limbaugh and the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers, Milbank wrote: "It had an unfortunate echo of Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer's denunciation of comedian Bill Maher after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001: Americans need to 'watch what they say.' "

Fleischer quickly e-mailed Milbank: "You're not the first person to write that I said that about Maher - but in fact that's not what I said about him
Fleischer's quick with the email today, and the Post's interpretation of the transcript is quite credible, but I'm left wondering... why wasn't Fleischer quick to defend himself (and remove the negative light the popular interpretation cast on the Bush Administration) eight years ago. It's not as if he would have had difficulty finding a microphone and a room full of reporters who were hanging on his every word. Why wasn't he shouting it from the rooftops the first time somebody "got it wrong", and why weren't his bosses insisting upon it?

Friday, May 22, 2009

Time From "No Big Deal" to "It's Torture"....

Eight seconds.

Compare and contrast the Christopher Hitchens water boarding experience.

Fake Auctions Are Good Enough For Fake Assets....

So why not real auctions for real assets? Bloomberg details Geithner's latest giveaway to the banks:
Banks negotiating to reclaim stock warrants they granted in return for Troubled Asset Relief Program money may shortchange taxpayers by almost $10 billion if Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s first sale sets the pace, data compiled by Bloomberg show.
And a proposes solution:
Lenders shouldn’t be trusted to make suppositions that would be to the advantage of taxpayers, said Linus Wilson, an assistant professor of finance at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.... Wilson said the government would serve taxpayers better by auctioning off the securities to investors. The law that established TARP allows for an auction.
I love the complaints of the banks....
The Easton, Maryland-based bank’s warrants were valued yesterday at $12.33, or $2.1 million, according to data compiled by Bloomberg and modeled by Black-Scholes. Paying that to reclaim them would amount to an annual interest rate of more than 30 percent a year.
Because, you know, a bank would never dream of charging similar rates of interest on their poor credit risk customers.

It's Pity Party Time

Poor Ed Liddy... apparently by criticizing his statements, we little people hurt his feelings. Douglas A. McIntyre chastises us,
Liddy had committed one unpardonable sin, or at least that was the story that several members of Congress wanted to believe. He had agreed to previously planned bonuses for AIG employees who worked in the part of the company that had created many of the insurance firm's losses. Liddy was clear in making the point that AIG had a legal obligation to make the payments. He would have been better off to hold his tongue. The minute he gave an explanation for his actions, no matter how rational it was, his interrogators seized on it as another act of either bad faith or stupidity on his part.
Well, gosh... there you have it. So what can I really say, but this: "Mr. Liddy, I'm so sorry that when you, an insurance company executive and former CEO of Allstate, started lecturing the country on the sanctity and inviolability of contracts, I didn't thank you for telling me that it was raining."

Update: Jane Hamsher takes on the various "factual" assertions in McIntyre's editorial.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

There Are Too Many Fires....

It's hard to go a day, or is it an hour, without coming across somebody who is "disappointed" in a decision Obama has made, particularly in relation to Bush Administration policy. When Obama backs away from promises to reverse Bush policy, takes a more nuanced approach, or postpones action, the following four factors are typically absent:
  1. Broad support among the public;

  2. Positive media attention;

  3. Support by Congress; and

  4. A general sense that urgent action is needed.

When you get disappointed by Obama's failure to act to modify or eliminate "don't ask, don't tell," consider the "temperature" under each of those factors. Cool to lukewarm? Then it will wait for another day. What about closing Guantanamo? A public responding to ridiculous fear mongering about terrorists coming to America, with any number of Democratic leaders going along for the ride? Sorry, it's going to wait for another day.

A couple of things to remember: Obama has lots of pots on the boil at the moment, many of which are boiling over (or which have the potential to do so at any time). He's also learned in a big way from Clinton's mistakes (which include getting ahead of public support on key issues and getting into policy wars with his own party) and how they contributed to a loss of a Congressional majority two years into his Presidency. He's also dealing with issues that aren't of his making, but where he would be blamed for any consequence (e.g., "retaliation against the troops" for releasing torture and abuse photos), or where others could act as easily - more easily, in fact - than him (Congress can repeal the statute authorizing military tribunals for Guantanamo detainees at any time - instead they're taking away the funding to close the place).

As long as the Democrats in Congress go weak in the knees when they hear the word "terrorist", and the media treats Dick Cheney as an elder statesman as he trots across the country on his "Torture is K00L" tour, you can expect Obama to invest the bulk of his energies on other issues. Like health care. Difficult, contentious issues, but where he has at least some momentum in the media, with the public, and in Congress. You can call that a personal failing of Obama, if you wish, but it's actually reflective of the nature of our government and his skill as a politician. (If you thought you were electing somebody who wasn't a politician to the Presidency, an who would adhere firmly to his beliefs in the face of all opposition, sorry... but although we can and will disagree on what compromises are necessary or appropriate, at least this way something gets done.)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

They'll Prove Themselves Principled?

Ed Gillespie questions what happens if the Republicans defer to the President's judicial nominees1, despite past (and anticipated future) Democratic opposition of nominees on ideological grounds. Leaving aside the fact that this notion of Republican deference is a myth, it's interesting that my proposed answer apparently never occurred to Gillespie.
1. Gillespie actually refers only to the Supreme Court, apparently being of the mind that the various ideological litmus tests and hurdles the Republicans placed before Clinton's nominees for lower courts were duly deferential.

No Sense of History

If you read Michael Gerson's columns, you know that he has no sense of history. Not just about things like World War II and Nazism, but about what was happening one or two doors down the hall when he was sitting in a little office writing speeches for the President. One suspects that the only words he ever heard while working at the White House were, "Shut up, Gerson's coming."

Today he provides yet another "case in point":
In a little over 100 days, the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress have delivered a series of blows to the pride and morale of the Central Intelligence Agency.
This would involve releasing memos confirming the use of (a word Gerson still can't manage to choke out) torture, and that the Bush Administration had repeatedly lied about its use of torture. And Nancy Pelosi stating that the CIA misled her about its use of torture, something the CIA hasn't actually denied. That would be... all. But Gerson's doing his usual stenography, so what do facts matter to his analysis....

So let's flash back in time a few years, to the days of "Shut up, Gerson's coming" Gerson's service in the White House and what certainly couldn't have been "hypocritical congressional investigations":
The CIA has hit back angrily after reports that a United States Senate committee will criticise the agency and its embattled director, George Tenet, for "shoddy" pre-war intelligence on Iraq's suspected illegal weapons programmes.

The agency's senior officials summoned the media to a hastily-arranged briefing at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia late on Friday. With its credibility at stake, they insisted that an internal review had found no evidence of faulty work.
Thank goodness for the sane intervention of Peter Hoekstra (R-MI):
Hoekstra didn't spell it out in his note. But what he was saying was that he believed a CIA cabal has tried to undercut Bush regarding the war in Iraq - that CIA officials opposed to the war plotted against the president and sought to undercut his case for war by leaking stories indicating that the intelligence cited by Bush and his aides on Iraq's WMDs and purported connections to al Qaeda was not that strong.
G.W. always had the CIA's back:
US President George W. Bush refused to take the blame for using flawed data on Iraq's nuclear program in his State of the Union speech, saying the CIA cleared it before it was delivered.
And nobody in the White House would have dreamed of setting up an independent intelligence agency to second-guess (or undermine) what the CIA had to say:
It is no secret now that Douglas Feith, George W. Bush's undersecretary of Defense for policy, set up his own intelligence operation in the Pentagon, known as the Office of Special Plans. According to current and former Pentagon officials, Feith believed that the CIA and other intelligence agencies dangerously underestimated threats to U.S. interests.
The Bush White House, as you might expect, was also very careful to protect CIA operations and operatives. All of this, of course, left the CIA feeling respected and valued by the White House.

Gerson's arguments get no better from there:
Traveling recently in Iraq, Pelosi noted, "If we're going to have a diminished military presence, we'll have to have an increased intelligence presence." This has been the main Democratic argument against the whole idea of the war on terror - that guns and bombs are no substitute for timely information. "This war on terror is far less of a military operation and far more of an intelligence-gathering, law-enforcement operation," Sen. John Kerry once claimed.
In his curious ad hominem, Gerson somehow manages to miss the point that Pelosi is correct. If you're going to reduce the presence of U.S. forces in an area, and rely on fewer soldiers to control insurgency and potential terrorist activity, you need better intelligence. What about that is difficult to understand? And I recognize that it's standard operating procedure for stenographers like Gerson to sneer at the concept of the war on terror as being about pursing terrorists, as opposed to dropping the ball in Afghanistan in order to launch a massive war of choice against a country that was not involved in 9/11 (while slandering the CIA for somehow failing to find a connection), but in what sense have our victories in the "war on terror" been driven by that huge war in Iraq? Can Gerson actually make the case that Kerry was wrong, let alone that his approach wasn't superior to G.W. "Who's Bin Laden, again" Bush's?
But this object of praise - intelligence-gathering - is again the object of liberal assault. "To put the matter at its simplest," writes Gabriel Schoenfeld, "American elites have become increasingly discomfited over the last decades by the very existence of a clandestine intelligence service in a democratic society."
Oh, it must be true because Gabriel Schoenfeld says so. Er, just a moment... who the [bleep] is Gabriel Schoenfeld? You know, it's great that with in the right-wing echo chamber, Gerson can find other commentators that share his beliefs, and its great that he can quote them rather than resorting to, you know, boring things like facts, but it's hardly a way to build a valid argument. But then, he thinks the speck in the eye of the Democratic Party is larger than....

You know what else is lost in Gerson's "analysis"? The realization that in a Democracy it's appropriate, healthy, and sometimes very necessary for our elected officials to take on institutions like the CIA.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

My New Hedge Fund

Let's see what's in the news today....
Bidders interested in two luxury properties previously owned by disgraced attorney Marc S. Dreier may want to head to the Hamptons next month.

Last week, Southern District of New York Chief Bankruptcy Judge Stuart M. Bernstein set a June 17 auction date for properties at 109 and 111 Dune Road in East Quogue, N.Y., that were seized by prosecutors following Dreier's arrest in December. A report by Mark F. Pomerantz, who acted as receiver in Securities and Exchange Commission v. Dreier, 08 Civ. 10617, said selling the homes could generate $12.5 million or more.
Okay, that does it. Enough with this honest, law-abiding lifestyle. I'm starting a hedge fund.

Here's the deal: I'll invest your money in really expensive stuff that I get to use. And I guarantee you returns at least as large as you would have got from Madoff, had he used honest accounting principles. Send checks to....

What? You're not interested? Well, be like that. (For your information, that pitch works with four out of five former Madoff investors.)

Say... Wanna invest in my new bank? More or less the same deal, but with a better chance of a government bailout after I spend your money.

Straight From the Horse's... Other End

You gotta love it:
The Coalition for a Democratic Workplace is committed to reviewing proposals based on the merits, the soundness of the policy and the practical implications of each suggestion. We remain concerned that any offer for compromise under the guise of "reform" will morph into an anti-worker Trojan horse where the undemocratic card-check scheme and the job-killing binding interest arbitration provision are adopted as amendments.
The crocodile tears splash down like rain.... oh, the poor workers....

Is there a word of truth in there, other than their recitation of their name... which, of itself, is intentionally misleading? It would be so difficult to tell the truth here, that "The Coalition for a Democratic Workplace" is a coalition of businesses that would prefer not to have union workers, and opposes any measures that would make it more likely that their workers will unionize?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Although It's Not Quite What She's Arguing....

Gail Collins lays out a decent case for filibuster reform. And maybe when the Dems have sixty votes they can amend the procedural rules and make a more democracy-friendly version of the filibuster.

I don't hate the filibuster, although I respect the arguments against it. As constituted, at least in theory it can force the Senate to be a bit more deliberative than the House, and can slow things down a bit. I could easily get behind reforms such as:
  • 60% of Senators Present: Allowing a cloture vote based upon people who have actually showed up to vote.

  • 40 Votes to Prevent Cloture: Rather than forcing the side seeking cloture to get at least 60 Senators to show up, require the filibustering side to produce the warm bodies.

Given that we've all-but-eliminated the need to actually filibuster, Jimmy Stewart-style... it seems quite reasonable to increase the burden on those who wish to impede a majority vote.

9/11 Occurred When "Mr. Nobody" Was Vice-President?

Pat Buchanan brings us this rather... astonishing observation about Obama:
There is a high probability, if not a near certainty, that, one day, al-Qaeda is going to conduct some spectacular attack on this country or its allies, and Americans will say, “This didn’t happen when people like Cheney were running the show.”
I guess I can accept that, if Buchanan means that Dick Cheney and G.W. were too busy giving away the country to the rich and to various special interest groups to actually be said to be "running the show", but if that's not what he means...

I recognize that when 9/11 is mentioned, some like to pretend that everything that happens under a President's first nine months (or year?) in office didn't occur under that President's "watch", due to it's somehow being attributable to the prior administration. I'm sure they're jumping all over people like David Brooks for falsely attributing the auto and financial industry bailouts to Obama. But even assuming that were an honest argument, Buchanan seems to be attempting to invoke the "Cheney's so tough and mean, nobody would ever do anything like that during 'his watch', while Obama's an effete liberal" line of nonsense so he has no excuse.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Creationism as Superstitious Nonsense

I read about the case, C.F. v Capistrano Unified School Dist. about a week ago on Volokh, and respect Eugene Volokh's general conclusions that the teacher in the case was inclined toward making provocative statements that some (apparently including Volokh) might think inappropriate to a classroom setting. Although there's another interpretation under which this teacher was principally challenging his students to question their orthodoxies and to think about things that make them (or their parents) uncomfortable, and it does not appear to be a coincidence that the lawsuit against him was brought by people who don't like to have their ideas and opinions challenged.

As this case keeps popping up in editorials, pontificating over whether the trial court split the hairs in precisely the correct location, I decided to take a look at the court's analysis of the contentious quote - the statement Corbett made that the court found, as a matter of law, to violate his students' First Amendment rights:
The Court turns first to Corbett’s statement regarding John Peloza (“Peloza”). (Farnan’s Ex. I, pp. 222-25.) This statement presents the closest question for the Court in assessing secular purpose. Peloza apparently brought suit against Corbett because Corbett was the advisor to a student newspaper which ran an article suggesting that Peloza was teaching religion rather than science in his classroom. (Id.) Corbett explained to his class that Peloza, a teacher, “was not telling the kids [Peloza’s students] the scientific truth about evolution.” (Id.) Corbett also told his students that, in response to a request to give Peloza space in the newspaper to present his point of view, Corbett stated, “I will not leave John Peloza alone to propagandize kids with this religious, superstitious nonsense.” (Id.) One could argue that Corbett meant that Peloza should not be presenting his religious ideas to students or that Peloza was presenting faulty science to the students. But there is more to the statement: Corbett states an unequivocal belief that creationism is “superstitious nonsense.” The Court cannot discern a legitimate secular purpose in this statement, even when considered in context. The statement therefore constitutes improper disapproval of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause.
I haven't had any luck finding the student's exhibit, so I don't have the full context of what the student secretly recorded. But even without considering the standard a court is supposed to apply when granting summary disposition, I find the court's reasoning to be poor.

First, there's no "apparently" about the Peloza suit. It shouldn't be difficult for a judge to confirm the reality of the suit, Peloza v. Capistrano Unified School District, 37 F3d 517 (9th Cir. 1994). Sure enough, Corbett's a named defendant in the lawsuit. How did a federal court treat Peloza's theories of religion and evolution?
Peloza's complaint alleges that the school district has violated the Establishment Clause "by pressuring and requiring him to teach evolutionism, a religious belief system, as a valid scientific theory." Complaint at 19-20. Evolutionism, according to Peloza, "postulates that the 'higher' life forms ... evolved from the 'lower' life forms ... and that life itself 'evolved' from non-living matter." Id. at 2. It is therefore "based on the assumption that life and the universe evolved randomly and by chance and with no Creator involved in the process." Id. Peloza claims that evolutionism is not a valid scientific theory because it is based on events which "occurred in the non-observable and non-recreatable past and hence are not subject to scientific observation." Id. at 3. Finally, in his appellate brief he alleges that the school district is requiring him to teach evolutionism not just as a theory, but rather as a fact.

Peloza's complaint is not entirely consistent. In some places he seems to advance the patently frivolous claim that it is unconstitutional for the school district to require him to teach, as a valid scientific theory, that higher life forms evolved from lower ones. At other times he claims the district is forcing him to teach evolution as fact. Although possibly dogmatic or even wrong, such a requirement would not transgress the establishment clause if "evolution" simply means that higher life forms evolved from lower ones.
A federal appellate court had no difficulty dismissing Peloza's definition of "evolutionism" as excluding the possibility of a creator.
Only if we define "evolution" and "evolutionism" as does Peloza as a concept that embraces the belief that the universe came into existence without a Creator might he make out a claim. This we need not do. To say red is green or black is white does not make it so.
In short, the Ninth Circuit had no apparent difficulty recognizing Peloza's contention that evolution is a religion, or that evolution necessarily excludes the possibility of a God, as... nonsense.

There does not appear to be any controversy about Corbett's initial statement about Peloza, "Corbett explained to his class that Peloza, a teacher, 'was not telling the kids [Peloza’s students] the scientific truth about evolution.'" After all, Peloza's entire lawsuit was predicated upon his belief that he shouldn't have to teach his students the theory of evolution, and that teaching of evolution " is establishing a state-supported 'religion.'" The comment that the court held, as a matter of law, to violate the Establishment Clause:
Corbett also told his students that, in response to a request to give Peloza space in the newspaper to present his point of view, Corbett stated, “I will not leave John Peloza alone to propagandize kids with this religious, superstitious nonsense.”
The judge concluded from that statement,
Corbett states an unequivocal belief that creationism is “superstitious nonsense.”
That conclusion is not supported by the quote provided in the opinon.

As presented in the opinion, Corbett's statement was not "evolution is superstitious nonsense" - it was "[Back in @1993, when Peloza wanted to run an article sharing his personal theories of evolution in the school newspaper, I stated], 'I will not leave John Peloza alone to propagandize kids with this religious, superstitious nonsense.'" It's difficult to see what's wrong with that statement, given that the Ninth Circuit ultimately held that Peloza's personal theories of "evolutionism" were nonsense. In other words, Corbett's statement appears to be a historical fact ("This is what I said, back in @1993"), and it appears that the Ninth Circuit shared his assessment of Peloza's beliefs. Yet it's a violation of the Establishment Clause for Corbett to relate the factual history of that litigation?

Leaving the historical element aside for the moment. Let's pretend that the controversy was current, that Peloza was again asking for space in the student newspaper to advance his personal views of "evolutionism", and Corbett openly denounced those views with the statement, "I will not leave John Peloza alone to propagandize kids with this religious, superstitious nonsense.'" That's again a far cry from the court's representation that Corbett stated "an unequivocal belief that creationism is 'superstitious nonsense.'" The expression is about Peloza's beliefs, and what the Ninth Circuit calls his "made-up definition of 'evolution'", not creationism in general.

It's interesting that Peloza's view of creationism as excluding the hand of God is inconsistent with the teachings of some religions, including Catholicism. Religions advancing the concept of "intelligent design" similarly acknowledge that evolution is not inconsistent with their theology. Under the personal theory Peloza sought to advance, all of those religious teachings are wrong. In calling Peloza's theories "nonsense", could Corbett not in fact have been stating that it's perfectly reasonable to believe both in God and evolution?

In short, the Court makes an unjustified leap from Corbett's story about how, 15 years ago, he criticized a particular teacher's nonsensical beliefs about evolution as “superstitious nonsense", to represent that Corbett instead expressed that all creationist beliefs are “superstitious nonsense". I do not see how the facts before the court support that leap, let alone with sufficient certainty to meet the standard for granting summary judgment.

Even taking the court's conclusion at face value, creationism is not a religion. Creationism is a religious explanation of the origin of life. There are millions of people in this world who happily embrace their own religion's explanation of the origins of life, while regarding those of other faiths as "superstitious nonsense." Is the court instructing teachers that they can't treat any creation myth as "superstitious nonsense", or it is only an Establishment Clause violation if the teacher makes that statement about all creationist explanations as "superstitious nonsense"? Or is it okay to treat some creationist theories as "superstitious nonsense" (e.g., the Babuka myth in which a giant vomits up all of creation) but not others and, if so, based upon what objective distinction?

The court's opinion suggests that if you sprinkle your dogmatic statements with "magic words", you can avoid violating students' constitutional rights. You can't say "creationism is superstitious nonsense", but you apparently can say, "from a scientific standpoint, creationism is superstitious nonsense". The lesson here, then, is that teachers need to protect themselves by parsing their words and prefacing any potentially controversial comments with, "According to science..."? That's really going to make a difference to how students feel about the discussion? As Volokh put it,
Now I suppose it's possible for teachers, both high school and college, to carefully avoid calling anything that might possibly be linked to a religious belief system "nonsense," and instead just say "it's scientifically unfounded" or some such (though wouldn't that be disapproval, too?). But that would make the discussion pretty artificial, with the teacher being constitutionally barred from saying what is pretty obviously on his mind. Nor would it be true to the principle that schools should be forthright about what's true and what's false: Do we really want high schools and universities to be places where one can't call astrology or voodoo bunk?

* * *

And of course it's probably practically wiser to avoid calling a very common religious belief system nonsense, in order to maintaining a good working relationship with the students. On the other hand, tip-toeing around labeling as nonsense that which nearly all educated people agree is nonsense might actually interfere with a good working relationship with the students, for the reasons I mentioned above. But it's hard for me to see how these distinctions can be translated from pragmatic guidelines into constitutional rules.
I think there's a plausible case that, under current case law, a public high school teacher shouldn't be making blanket statements on religious subjects such as "creationism is superstitious nonsense", but I don't think it's good public policy to invite students to sue teachers for even strongly worded statements that challenge ideas that are grounded in religious faith. Volokh refers to notions of symmetry, with statements opposing religion being treated in a manner equivalent to statements advancing religion. But how do we draw the line between a statement opposing a religion and a statement questioning the tenet of a religion, or which tenets are off-limits and which are not? Or which religious beliefs are off limits for explicit criticism (implicitly here, some Christian theories of creation) versus which are not (Greek and Roman mythology? Babuka mythology? Scientology?)

Volokh brings up voodoo and astrology as religious topics that might be regarded as superstitious nonsense. A response to that is, at least to some degree, you can test voodoo and astrology. If you make a voodoo doll, but its use has no impact on your target, it calls into question the validity of that aspect of the faith. If an astrologer's predictions of the future don't come true, you cast scientific doubt on astrology. But those arguments oversimplify voodoo, which is about a lot more than the voodoo dolls depicted in cheesy horror movies and has its own creation myth, and miss the boat on prognostications of the future which, if worded properly, will always "come true" to a substantial degree. Also, if you're able to say that it's "superstitious nonsense" for astrology to predict the future, why can't you say the same of Revelations?

There's no actual symmetry between a teacher's proselytizing in favor of a specific religion, or the tenet of a religion the teacher favors, and a teacher's statements (sans "magic words") calling into question religious belief in general or expressing that a particular religious tenet is "nonsense". The judge in the Farnan case apparently meant to issue a very narrow ruling, in relation to a statement he believed was a broad denunciation of any religion that incorporates a creationist theory, but it seems to me that he's thrown the door wide open to Establishment Clause-based challenges to statements teachers may not even know contradict a tenet of one religion or another.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Wow... What a Huge Difference

According to Robert Samuelson:
  • Grandstanding: Promising to close loopholes that reduce the amount of taxes multinational corporations pay.

  • Substantive Policy: Promising to close loopholes that reduce the amount of taxes multinational corporations pay, while simultaneously cutting the corporate tax rate.

Samuelson makes some valid points in his column, although whenever there's an area of doubt (e.g., "Whether Obama's proposals would create any jobs in the United States is an open question") he draws an inference in favor of corporations ("But many experts believe his proposals would actually destroy U.S. jobs"). The argument that I find more convincing on this front was from Robert Reich, that this may be a sleight of hand to further the cause of a national healthcare program.

The biggest flaw of Samuelson's piece is his conflation of the complexity of the tax system with its overall fairness. Samuelson correctly observes that the corporate tax code (like every other tax code in this country) is bloated and complex. A case can certainly be made for tax simplification, and for Samuelson's idea of closing loopholes while simultaneously bringing the nominal tax rate closer to the effective tax rate. But Samuelson fails to explain how you would do that without bringing about an effective tax increase on those companies best able to exploit existing tax loopholes, the two thirds of corporations that presently pay no federal taxes and the multinationals who exploit tax havens to pay a much lower effective rate than their domestic competitors.

Samuelson sidesteps the issue that, even with a lower corporate tax rate, the effect of his "substance over grandstanding" would be much the same as Obama's - higher taxes on multinationals, with the same potential downside. If the argument boils down to a few percentage points one way or the other, Samuelson's argument seems less like an introduction of substance into the debate and more a matter of splitting hairs. Does Samuelson truly believe that the benefit of corporate tax loopholes is distributed evenly to all corporations, such that their reduction accompanied by an overall tax cut won't result in equal or greater distortion than the status quo? If so, can he make that case?

I personally very much favor tax simplification, as it makes it much easier to do your taxes, figure out how much you're paying, and how much others are paying, and makes dubious loopholes more obvious. That's not to be confused with advocacy of a flat tax; simplicity is but one factor to consider, and the end goal should be a just tax system.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

You Want Them Shipped Where?

This is quite the "stupid criminal" story....
[A Minnesota cell phone distributor] had sent 50 phones to 300 Washington Street in Monroe, only to discover its $2,359.45 payment was a "cahier's check".

FBI agents saw the suspect wave down a delivery truck driver outside the bureau later Thursday, stopped the transaction and waited for police.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Cradle to Gra...duation Conservatism

David Brooks joins the list of columnists who are stunned to realize that if you keep kids in school longer, offer more academic support inside the school, and offer social support outside of the school, their grades improve. This, of course, becomes a magic recipe that should be replicated across the nation, well, no... across the inner cities of the nation. Brooks hints at what the school at issue offers:
Some experts, mostly surrounding the education establishment, argue that schools alone can’t produce big changes. The problems are in society, and you have to work on broader issues like economic inequality. Reformers, on the other hand, have argued that school-based approaches can produce big results. The Harlem Children’s Zone results suggest the reformers are right. The Promise Academy does provide health and psychological services, but it helps kids who aren’t even involved in the other programs the organization offers.
But the program offers a lot more than that:
In 1997, the agency began a network of programs for a 24-block area: the Harlem Children's Zone Project. In 2007, the Zone Project grew to almost 100 blocks and served 7,400 children and over 4,100 adults.

Over the years, the agency introduced several ground-breaking efforts: in 2000, The Baby College parenting workshops; in 2001, the Harlem Gems pre-school program; also in 2001, the HCZ Asthma Initiative, which teaches families to better manage the disease; in 2004, the Promise Academy, a high-quality public charter school; and in 2006, an obesity program to help children stay healthy.
In short, the program demonstrates that you can achieve remarkable things through early, intensive, and consistent intervention in a community. This isn't a model you can simply impose upon a random school, and expect similar results. The success of the program also implicates a related issue, sustainability. We've seen a lot of successful programs that help kids who have fallen behind catch up, perhaps even surpass their peers. But I'm not sure that we've ever seen such an intervention where academic gains hold once the support is removed. The Harlem Zone program seems to recognize that, extending its reach to the adults of its community, but I'm not sure that Brooks understands that this isn't something we can do in middle school and then forget as kids go on to high school.

After noting that Harlem Zone schools have their students participate in 1.5 to 2 times as much classroom instruction as other schools, Brooks states,
They also smash the normal bureaucratic strictures that bind leaders in regular schools. Promise Academy went through a tumultuous period as Canada searched for the right teachers. Nearly half of the teachers did not return for the 2005-2006 school year. A third didn’t return for the 2006-2007 year.
In the absence of union protections and with a huge increase in hours worked, the program has created an astonishing level of churn among its teachers. One solution to this would be to pay teachers a lot more money so that they might voluntarily agree to work perhaps twice as many classroom hours. Another might be to hire more teachers, so that the workload and pay remain the same, and you avoid the churn that comes from overworking and undercompensating teachers. Brooks seems to be proposing a third way: break the unions and give teachers no choice but to work the extra hours at the same level of pay.

I guess that's the vestige of conservatism he retains in endorsing this form of massive social intervention. The thing is, I suspect that if we take Brooks' approach, what we'll actually end up with is an even greater shortage of teachers willing to work in the inner cities, and an even smaller number who have the level of qualification and commitment necessary to make a program like this work.

Chrysler in Bankruptcy

The American Enterprise Institute offers a drawn-out whine about how the Chrysler bankruptcy isn't sufficiently fair to creditors. As if you haven't guessed, I'm not impressed. The piece opens by comparing the Chrysler bankruptcy to "equity receivership", a contrived mechanism for the sale of distressed companies that predates Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The author, David Skeel, complains that the Obama Administration's desire for the bankruptcy court to quickly sell Chrysler to Fiat amounts to the same thing.

Except... Fiat's the only interested bidder. There may be other companies willing to buy small pieces of Chrysler, or who will buy some of its intellectual property, brands, equipment or real estate holdings at auction. But there's no other company even slightly interested in acquiring Chrysler as a going concern. The Obama Administration's pressure for a quick sale has to do with maintaining Chrysler's viability and not scaring off that single bidder. If the creditors who want to squeeze more money out of Chrysler manage to slow things down or increase the cost to Fiat, the odds are that Chrysler will fail. Skeel assumes that the creditors who are imeding the sale (who hold a minority share of Chrysler's debt) are acting in good faith; but it seems more like a continuing game of chicken. Can they coerce more money out of the other creditors, or out of Fiat, and will they really risk losing even more of their investment if they don't get the concessions they demand? Maybe; but it would not be responsible for the bankruptcy court to risk killing off Chrysler to find out.

As for Skeel's whinging about the union's share of the future Chrysler, coming out of bankruptcy:
It also seems to flout bankruptcy’s priority rules by giving Chrysler’s employees (who are general creditors) a big stake in New Chrysler while forcing senior lenders to take a major haircut. The usual rule is that senior creditors must be paid in full before lower priority creditors are entitled to anything.
Here's the deal: Chrysler only presently survives at all because it's benefiting from huge infusions of taxpayer money that, realistically speaking, won't be paid back. If Chrysler also backs out of its commitments to retirees, that's another burden that's places on the taxpayer, as the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. covers Chrysler's default on its pensions. While the AEI seems to be a huge fan of lemon socialism, some of us don't think it's unreasonable that at least some portion of the private losses involved remain in private hands. After all, but for the government bailout, the creditors who are whining about their losses would be suffering a far worse fate.

From there, it gets sillier. To "protect" creditors from the sale to Fiat, Skeel suggests,
First, [the bankruptcy judge] could insist on an independent valuation of the sale, rather than just taking the administration’s numbers for granted. Inviting competing bids, which Judge Gonzalez did this week, might serve as an adequate test of the government’s price in an ordinary case.
So we get an appraisal. But here's the thing about appraisals: They don't actually tell you market value. Do you know how you find out what something will sell for on the market? You sell it.

Oh, but "bidders who are willing to go head to head with the U.S. government are not likely to be thick on the ground"? Give me a break. Cerberus has been ready to dump Chrysler for at least a year, and the only company who made a viable offer was Fiat. It's childish to pretend that the dearth of bidders comes from Administration pressures, as opposed to the fact that Chrysler's a basket case that nobody wants. And while I'm sure the creditors who are trying to squeeze more money out of Chrysler's carcass are happy to have Skeel shill for them, the fact is that any attempt to "restructure" the deal could cause the only company willing to take on Chrysler to change its mind, or to line up with other companies to pick over the carcass of a dead company, returning far less to creditors than will be obtained through Chrysler's sale as a going concern.

If The Republican Party Wants to Become the Party of Whiny Victims....

...I think they've picked the wrong poster child. I mean, it may be fun to feign outrage because a white man didn't get a promotion, five years ago. Ricci's service as the named plaintiff in a lawsuit over that incident indicates that he's fully prepared to accept compensation if the Supreme Court ultimately decides his case has legal merit, but he's clearly moved on with his life, taken other opportunities, made other opportunities for himself. That's the part to commend and celebrate. Nonetheless, people like Pat Buchanan see him principally as a victim, and more than that want to celebrate him as a victim for political purposes.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

A Leader Who Play(-Acts) The Part

David Brooks has some interesting thoughts about Republicans....
Republicans generally like Westerns. They generally admire John Wayne-style heroes who are rugged, individualistic and brave.
Ah yes... Westerns. Like Batman, or Master and Commander. And this helps explain why Hollywood is making so many westerns - why, you can hardly go to a movie theater or turn on a television without... okay, not much there. No, wait, maybe he's talking about Brokeback Mountain?

As for Republicans liking movie heroes who are "rugged, individualistic and brave", they're different from Democrats, whose movie heroes are what? Craven "metrosexual" socialists? Really, take a look at box office returns and tell me that heroes who are 'rugged, individualistic and brave" have anything less than universal appeal.
They like leaders — from Goldwater to Reagan to Bush to Palin — who play up their Western heritage.
Let's see... Barry Goldwater, who took over management of the family store at the age of 21, straight out of college. Ronald Reagan, who left Illinois after College to start a radio career in Iowa, and a few years later was off to California under contract with Warner Brothers. Sarah Palin who... is from Alaska? George and G.W. Bush, ivy leaguers, born into extraordinary wealth and political privilege whose ties to the south revolve around oil, not culture. Looking at those prominent Republicans, I have to ask, did Brooks say "play up" or "play act"?
Republicans like the way Westerns seem to celebrate their core themes - freedom, individualism, opportunity and moral clarity.
Because there's no difference between westerns - they all star John Wayne, present issues with absolute moral clarity, and... dare I ask, has Brooks seen The Shootist? Oh, why bother.
But the greatest of all Western directors, John Ford, actually used Westerns to tell a different story. Ford’s movies didn’t really celebrate the rugged individual. They celebrated civic order.
So, wait, Republicans like westerns because they "celebrate the rugged individual", but not " the greatest" westerns that instead celebrate civic order? Well, I'm sure they'll be grateful that Brooks has pointed that out, and will now run off to rent Brooks' number one recommendation, "My Darling Clementine".
Today, if Republicans had learned the right lessons from the Westerns, or at least John Ford Westerns, they would not be the party of untrammeled freedom and maximum individual choice. They would once again be the party of community and civic order.
See? The problem is that Republicans like bad westerns, and thus (like Brooks) adore play-actors like Sarah Palin, instead of liking good westerns that would cause them (like Brooks) to value civic order over rugged individualism.
They would begin every day by reminding themselves of the concrete ways people build orderly neighborhoods, and how those neighborhoods bind a nation. They would ask: What threatens Americans’ efforts to build orderly places to raise their kids?
How might I paraphrase Brooks' sentiment... Oh yes: "It takes a village". And by focusing on bringing order to the village, "Democrats have been able to establish themselves as the safe and orderly party". So Brooks' message is that the Republicans really need a leader like Hillary Clinton, and then all will be well?
President Obama has made responsibility his core theme and has emerged as a calm, reassuring presence (even as he runs up the debt and intervenes rashly in sector after sector).
"Sector after sector" - I suppose Brooks means that quite literally, the financial industry and the auto industry. Except that both of those interventions were started by G.W. Bush and handed off to Obama. And what's Bush's record on running up the debt? No, wait, Bush play-acted his western roots, and Obama acts like he's, you know, a statesmanlike lawyer from Illinois. So Bush is forgiven because he fits with the Party of Lincoln, while Obama... Yeah.
If the Republicans are going to rebound, they will have to re-establish themselves as the party of civic order. First, they will have to stylistically decontaminate their brand. That means they will have to find a leader who is calm, prudent, reassuring and reasonable.
Like who? Brooks has named four Republican leaders, Goldwater (deceased), Reagan (deceased), Bush (the younger? Politically deceased, and term-limited out), and Palin. I know Brooks has something of a crush on Palin, but I don't think even he would try to depict her as "calm, prudent, reassuring and reasonable".
Then [Republicans] will have to explain that there are two theories of civic order. There is the liberal theory, in which teams of experts draw up plans to engineer order wherever problems arise. And there is the more conservative vision in which government sets certain rules, but mostly empowers the complex web of institutions in which the market is embedded.

Both of these visions are now contained within the Democratic Party
Okay, then, so if the Democrats now "do it all" why do we need Republicans? (Not that I would dream of accusing Brooks of not being able to think his way out of a paper bag thinking through an argument, but really - could he articulate the message that he believes Republicans should convey?)

Meanwhile Ross Douthat makes some fair observations about Arlen Specter,
You can’t have a successful political party without centrists. Happily for Republicans still smarting from last week’s defection, you can have a successful political party without centrists like Arlen Specter.
Defining the Rebublican Party around Arlen Specter would be a bit like defining the Democratic Party around Joe Lieberman - faithless, feckless, opportunistic, self-aggrandizing... you get the idea. Centrism is not about being different from the rest of your party, or putting a knife in your party's back when you think it will help advance your own individual goals, agenda or career. Also, talk of centrists smacks of historic talk of "bipartisanship", which in mainstream media parlance seems to translate into "caving in on key issues" rather than trying to broker an outcome that actually would have broad appeal or acceptability.

But I have only so much sympathy for Douthat's lament. Why? Because, going two for two, Douthat takes potshots but lacks the courage to state what he actually thinks the Republican party needs, or what it should actually do.
The larger species to which he belonged - Republicanus Rockefellus, the endangered Northeastern moderate - likewise has little to offer a party in distress. Indeed, if you listen carefully to high-profile Yankee moderates like Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and Lincoln Chafee, who fanned out across op-ed pages and TV shows last week to bemoan their marginalization, it seems as though they don’t even understand their own political situation, let alone the Republican Party’s.

The Northeastern moderates tend to style themselves as fiscal conservatives, spinning a narrative in which they’re the victims of a doctrinaire social conservatism and its litmus tests. But many of them are just instinctive liberals who happen to have ancestral ties to the Grand Old Party.
Republicanus Rockefellus? Now I'm stuck with an image in my head of Douthat giggling at Road Runner cartoons. But seriously, we go from Specter the self-serving opportunist to Specter the Rockefeller Republican, and the best explanation Douthat can give for why Rockefeller Republicans "offer little" is his speculation that "they don’t even understand their own political situation" or his suggestion that they're "instinctive liberals" (whatever that's supposed to mean). All we can do is infer from the label, "Rockefeller Republican", that Douthat opposes the type of social agenda exemplified by the Medicare prescription benefit and No Child Left Behind, or perhaps that he opposes fiscal conservatism that's premised upon setting tax rates at a sufficient level to cover expenditures... he doesn't tell us. But it's nice to see that Douthat now deplores Republicans who spend significantly in excess of tax revenues, even though given their track record over the past eight years that really means he should be deploring all of them.

Complimenting "reform-minded politicians like Gary Hart and Bill Clinton" as having had party loyalty and "definite ideas for how the Democratic Party could learn from its mistakes, and from its opponents, in order to further liberalism’s deeper goals", Douthat concludes,
No equivalent faction - rooted in conservatism, but eager for innovation — exists in the Republican Party today. Maybe something like it can grow out of the listening tour that various Republican power players are embarking on this month. Maybe it can bubble up outside the Beltway - from swing-state governors like Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty, or reformists in deep-red states, like the much-touted Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Utah’s Jon Huntsman. But to succeed, such a faction will have to represent something legitimately new in right-of-center politics. It can’t sound like Rush Limbaugh - but it can’t sound like Arlen Specter either.
So, pray tell, what would you like it to sound like? What do you think it should sound like? At least David Brooks had the courtesy to tell us that it should be a promise to make America look like a John Ford western.

The thing is, I think the problem is that Douthat has no interest in centrism. I know he's often depicted as moderate and thoughtful, yet he can't identify a single Republican who he believes could be a Republican Clinton or even a Gary Hart. (Let alone a "new Reagan".) He can't or won't articulate the new message that's going to help bring centrists of an acceptable sort into the Republican party, or even tell us what that "centrism" would look like. How about Tom Ridge? A law and order, security-type Republican? Why no mention of him as a model for the type of centrism that could... Oh, he's pro-choice, you say? In that light, perhaps Douthat's reticence makes more sense, even if it isn't helpful to the debate.

Everybody Gets an "A"!

Tim Geitner tells us that no banks are insolvent, and the banking system is well on the way to recovery.

Needless to say, this means we taxpayers must pour in additional hundreds of billions of dollars, and we must continue with Geithner's plan to buy up toxic "legacy" assets, even though those assets are now fairly valued and the banks remain "in the black".
We are continuing to execute our programs to relieve the burden of legacy assets, help small businesses and community banks, and tackle the mortgage and foreclosure crisis.
And, as you know, there's no better way to "help small businesses and community banks" than to hand tens... perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars to huge institutions like Bank of America and Citibank.

Update: What Geithner should have said:
“You’re going to hear criticism from both sides in this,” Geithner said. “A lot of people will say these were unfairly tough. … And there will be other people to say … that losses could be worse. But our stress tests were designed to rule out that possibility, and we're confident in the results of our tests.”
What Geithner said:
“You’re going to hear criticism from both sides in this,” Geithner said. “A lot of people will say these were unfairly tough. … And there will be other people to say … that losses could be worse. And they may be right.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Torture's Okay When We Do It

Quite a few justifications of torture....

Condoleeza Rice: With all due respect, we didn't torture Germans because, although WWII posed an obvious existential threat to our nation and our way of life, the Germans didn't attack us on our homeland... just repeatedly, in our territorial waters. Japan? No, with all due respect, I don't see how Japan would be relevant to my argument. Oh, and we didn't torture this time, either. Wait, you say we historically prosecuted people for water boarding and called it torture? Well, with all due respect... that's different!

Charles Krauthammer: Torture's immoral. Except for ticking time bombs. Or to torture "a high-value enemy" to save lives. Even if we don't know if the person is "high value" or has information that will save lives until after we torture them. (Did I mention, I love watcing "24"?)

Michael Gerson: I don't like the word "torture", and as a deeply moral person I find it better to define anything "they" do as torture and anything we do as "harsh interrogations". And let's start out by setting the record straight - while everybody else in the White House knew what was going on, and newspapers like the New York Times were publishing stories about water boarding, I had absolutely no clue that any of this was going on. I used to think harsh interrogations were bad, then I found out that other people spent time thinking about it. If you read the memos penned three years, eight months after 9/11, you'll see that people were still wrestling with how to justify harsh interrogations, and why what we were doing was different from, er, harsher interrogations. Compare and contrast WWII, where during the three years, eight months between our entry into the war and our declaration of victory over Japan, we did not spend three years, ten months thinking about anything we did, no matter how morally dubious. Oh, and my grasp of history is about as good as Condoleezza Rice's (who, again, I didn't talk to about harsh interrogations), so I think nobody lost any sleep over the creation and use of the atomic bomb, and nobody worried about the morality or criminality of fire bombing Dresden or targets in Japan. Besides, these are tough decisions, so we should accept anything a Republican President does as the pursuit of moral good in a complicated world.

Pat Buchanan: Torture's perfectly moral when we do it because we can assume that anybody we would torture is evil and doctors sometimes cause pain when they try to save a patient's life. Further, Taken, about a dad who tortures a kidnapper to free his daughter from white slavers, was a more popular movie than Rendition, a movie based on fact... (aren't facts a drag?) Further, if we don't torture people we won't prevent attacks that could have been prevented by torture, and no argument's better than a circular one.

Not that these examples from the "con" side are any better....

Michael Kinsley: If you voted in the 2004 election, unless the sole reason for your voting against Bush was torture, you're as guilty as the torturers themselves.

Richard Cohen: "Moral authority" is a worthless concept because terrorists think they have it, also (so imagine what I have to say about both teams saying a prayer for victory, get this, to the same God before a football game). Besides, lots of people have told me that torture works and, even though it didn't occur to me to ask what it means for torture to "work", they can't possibly all be wrong or lying - and I think it worked, once, to threaten somebody with being tortured by Mossad, even though prior torture of the same person hadn't worked. But still we shouldn't torture people because it it degrades us and runs counter to our national values, so we should ban it even though that doesn't make us safer. Also, the torture memos remind me of something a Nazi would write - and before you can torture anyone, you must first torture the law. But it's wrong and undermines the CIA to talk about prosecuting people who tortured the in order to authorized torture of people, rather than doing something to boost their morale like comparing them to Nazis.