Friday, January 30, 2009

It's Pity Party Time

Break out the violins for Wall Street.
While Wall Street investment banks and other financial firms make headlines for the millions paid out to certain executives, more modest bonuses go to workers from human resources representatives to secretaries as well as employees who actually made money for their companies last year.
There's an implied sneer in that, at "workers from human resources representatives to secretaries" as people who don't make money for their companies. But let's turn it around... Let's say, "Even in the financial industry it's okay to give bonuses to the employees who made money for their companies last year... but do we need more than one hand to count them?"
Jason Weisberg, vice president of the Wall Street brokerage Seaport Securities, said bank employees count on performance bonuses like salesmen count on commissions.

"What are you supposed to pay them?" Weisberg asked. "Or are you not supposed to pay them?
Salesmen count on commissions from their sales. If they don't make sales, believe it or not, they don't get commissions. Similarly, if we're going to refer to "performance bonuses", they perhaps should be somehow related to... performance?
And if you don't pay them, how do you expect that employee to stay employed at that company?"
Well, if they're not performing... do you really care? And with financial industry employer's shedding employees like leaves, odds are that only those employees who actually performed will be marketable - and their performance bonuses are defensible.
"The reality is good people will always be able to get a job someplace else if they are unhappy," Hall said. "So do you want to own stock in a company that is filled with people who can't get a job anywhere else?"
You mean, the "good people" who lost hundreds of billions of dollars, and caused the value of my stock to plummet to the point that the only reason it has any value is... not even the bailout money it has already received, as that hasn't fixed things, but the expectation that hundreds of billions in additional taxpayer dollars are on the way? No, I don't want stock in that company, but it's not because I'm concerned that the "good people" might leave.... Stock in the company that's doing well enough to poach them, on the other hand....

This is funny - a Wall Street veteran states the obvious:
"You could absolutely make an argument that we shouldn't be getting any bonuses this year," said the worker, who also requested anonymity because of his company's restrictions on talking to the media.

"If you are going to have a pay-for-performance system, you have to take the lows with the highs," he said. "This just happened to be a really low year."
It's only the guy who speaks out against bonuses, it seems, who "can't" use his name.

Regional Expressions

The producers of “Idol” apologized Thursday on behalf of its judges, who apparently misinterpreted what a contestant in Louisville, Ky., said after a failed audition.

On his way out, Mark Mudd said: “Take care and be careful.”

Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell took that as a threat.

Abdul scolded Mudd, telling him: “You don't say that to people, ‘Be careful.' That's just not a normal thing to say.”

It turns out “Be careful” is a regional parting expression.
But really, it seems fair to ask, why didn't he say something that theater people couldn't possibly take as a threat - like "Break a leg"?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

"Nobody Knows What These Assets Are Worth"

You've heard that one, right? That banks are sitting on trillions of dollars of securities, state on their books that those securities have a specific value, but that "nobody knows" what they're actually worth? Even though, not so long ago, those same securities were traded on the market and everybody "knew" what they were worth?

Let's be honest for a moment: It's easy to figure out what the securities are worth. Put them up for sale. The price somebody is willing to pay for them? That's what they're worth. The protest, "But once financial markets settle down and the economy becomes more normal, they could be worth a lot more"? Sure. But the person who is buying the securities in the current market is considering that when setting a price. Gasoline may be back up to $4/gallon next fall; but that doesn't mean I'm going to buy gas at a station that wants to charge me $4/gallon today. (If I believe gas is going to go up to $4/gallon, I might buy futures, but I'm not going to buy them at $4/gallon.)

We're caught between financial institutions that claim, "We don't know what these securities are worth" because they don't want to establish a market price that would render them insolvent, and a government hoping to rescue those same financial institutions from insolvency without creating a massive public uproar that they're paying tens or hundreds of billions of dollars over market for some extraordinarily risky securities. And we're supposed play along because the consequence of establishing a market price could make everything a lot worse.

A Lunatic Investigation....

Hey, I have an idea. You know how people always complain about "letting the lunatics run the asylum"? Well, what proof do you have that it would actually be all that bad? We're making rash assumptions based upon logic, common sense, law... but is that fair to lunatics? So here's what we do:

We create a commission, but we don't let psychiatrists, legal experts, or sane people lead the commission. If we did that, the lunatics might denounce it as a witch hunt. Instead we find and appoint prominent lunatics to head the commission. We can appoint some of the sane people and experts also, but as window dressing. We wouldn't want to demonstrate bias by letting them run the show or influence the panel's findings.

Sure, some sane people will complain about the heavy presence of lunatics on such a panel. But the alternative is no panel at all. Why? Because I said so. I mean, in fact, sane people, legislators, psychiatric experts could hold such a panel any time they wanted to, but shut up - I'm pontificating here. So when I say "surely any panel is better than where we’re headed: which is no investigation at all", don't question me.

And I'm confident that when the panel concludes its investigation it will issue a stinging repudiation of letting inmates run asylums that no one could lightly dismiss. And we can use that consensus in the future - because laws, the constitution, sound public policy... if the lunatics take over, they could all go out the window. If we form a consensus on these issues, and by that I mean letting the lunatics decide what we should do, we'll be better off when the lunatics once again rule! And the rest of the world will once again respect us!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Making the "Bad Bank" Not Quite As Bad

If we must have a 'bad bank'... Dean Baker proposes a provision that will keep taxpayers from being completely soaked when they buy up toxic securities from our nations bankrupt banks:
We can just attach a clawback provision, under which the bank will be forced to make up any money that the bad bank loses on their junk, plus a penalty. For example, if Citibank sells $100 billion in junk, and the bad bank ends up selling it for $70 billion, then Citibank has to cover this $30 billion loss, plus a 20 percent penalty ($6 billion). This structure will both ensure that Citibank doesn't run off with our money and also discourage banks from trying to mislead the bad bank about the true value of their junk. (Senator Dodd proposed a similar measure in the debate over the TARP.)
Under the Bush-Paulson plan, we gave away a ton of free cash, no strings attached, and we were rewarded with... Yeah. Enough of that.

Note, though, that an honest valuation won't make the banks solvent.

They're Not Actually Smoking Crack, You Know....

When people like John Bolton start suggesting that Gaza be placed under Egyptian occupation control, your initial reaction may be, "What's he smoking? Why would Israel ever allow Egyptian troops on the streets of Gaza? Why would the Palestinians go along with such a thing?" But that would be missing the point. People like Bolton don't put stuff like this on the editorial page of the Washington Post because they're pulling wacky ideas out of thin air - they are attempting to prepare the public for an outcome that is acceptable to a particular political faction - one that disfavors ever allowing a genuine Palestinian state, but wants to remove the burdens of occupation from Israel.

Thanks to Carter, a president Bolton no doubt loves to malign, Israel and Egypt have several decades of stable peace. They're both highly dependent upon U.S. aid, and Egypt would certainly love to get more. Egypt has experience oppressing controlling its own Islamic factions, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt may not have much concern about Israeli politicians blaming every rocket that flies out of Gaza on Hamas, but as an occupier they would not want every rocket that flies out of Gaza to be blamed on them. So Israel gets more peace, Egypt gets more money, the Palestinians get more oppression, and everybody... everybody who matters to Bolton... is happy. If he can get Jordan to take over managing and controlling the Palestinian population on those remnants of the West Bank Israel chooses not to keep, all's the better. He concedes,
This idea would be decidedly unpopular in Egypt and Jordan, which have long sought to wash their hands of the Palestinian problem.
That's more than a bit dishonest. Jordan has a very large Palestinian population. In the past, this led to an ugly and violent confrontation between Jordanian forces and the PLO (September 1970, or "Black September"). It's difficult to conceive of a Jordanian occupation of the West Bank that would not ultimately precipitate similar conflict. (But what does Bolton care?)

Bolton refers to this as a "Three State solution", but it's patent that he doesn't actually give two figs about the Palestinians, and that it's actually a "one state solution with different occupying powers for the Palestinians."
One place to avoid problems is dispensing with intricate discussions over the exact legal status of Gaza and the West Bank.
Or as I suspect he puts it in less polite company, "Palestinians? F--- 'em". People more honest than Bolton who adore this "solution" are more accurate in their description - see, e.g., Daniel Pipes:
The National Post cleverly dubs my plan (in its title to this article) the "back-to-the-future option," but I like best the name bestowed on it by blogger Mary P. Madigan: "the no-state solution." Perfect.
Although analysis like this is typical of the garbage that passes for "scholarship" at the American Enterprise Institute, that's not the same as saying Bolton has no valid points. It does make sense to tie Gaza into Egypt's economy, particularly given how Israel has frozen it out of the Israeli economy - it's only other neighboring country. The same holds true for the West Bank and Jordan - although there are some real structural difficulties in separating the West Bank from Israel, worsened if Israel doesn't remove most of it settlements (and, believe me, removal of settlements is not part of Bolton's plan - he doesn't even mention them.) If we ignore religious and ethnic issues, it would make far more sense to fully incorporate the West Bank and Gaza into Israel; but that's not going to happen. Even with a tunnel connecting the two territories, it's hard to imagine the West Bank and Gaza forming a viable economy as an independent state.

Friedman Dancing With Bolton
Today, along comes Thomas Friedman with what he no doubt thinks is a clever twist on things - The 5-State Solution. In the column, Friedman pretends that he's King Abdullah II, proposing how the conflict can end... without a Palestinian state. This is a "five state solution" to Friedman as it involves Israel, Egypt (to occupy Gaza), Jordan (to occupy the West Bank), Saudi Arabia (to bankroll the occupations), "Palestine" (the nation not created, because it would continue to be under foreign occupation; but Friedman leaves open the possibility that there might be a Palestinian state at some point in the future, perhaps revisiting the issue after five years), and Israel. Oops - he forgot to consider this caveat: "The U.S. would be the sole arbiter of whether the metrics have been met by both sides" - I guess it's a "six state solution"? That'll go over well, on the day Saudi Arabia says, "We're done here, and now we should create a Palestinian State", and the U.S. says "no".

What of democracy, you ask? Well, I'm not sure that Friedman has ever cared about democracy. Palestinian human rights? Well... same answer. What's important to Friedman is that "This would be an Arab solution" that happens to resolve the conflict in a way 100% consistent with Friedman's own prejudices and desires, and that's good enough for him. The only question remaining is, does he know he's doing a slow dance with John Bolton and Daniel Pipes? I suspect so.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Games Politicians Play

I don't know if Obama should scold the person who stuck the birth control provision into the stimulus bill, or thank them. The scolding should follow from the fact that this was supposed to be a pork-free, non-political bill that could pass with broad bipartisan approval. The birth control provision gave right-wing Republicans a talking point - they could point to it and say "What does birth control have to do with stimulation."

And that brings us to the possible "Thank you." Other than being fodder for an easy one-liner, Republican opposition has been unprincipled and dishonest. The fact is, the provision is good public policy and is consistent with the Medicare policies of a number of Republican governors. It would have saved those governors a ton of money and unnecessary hassle in obtaining waivers so that they could offer birth control benefits through Medicaid. And when the provision was dropped, the Republican answer was still "no" - giving Obama the opportunity to... do this:
“We’re not going to get 100 percent agreement, and we might not even get 50 percent agreement, but I do think people appreciate me walking them through my thought process,” the president said, as he left a meeting with GOP senators just off the Senate floor.

“I hope I communicated a sincere desire to get good ideas from everybody,” he added. “My attitude is this the first major piece of legislation we’ve worked on, and that, over time, some of these habits of consultation and mutual respect will take over, but old habits die hard.”
The shoe is on the other foot. The Republicans were ignoring public policy in favor of a talking point, leaving Democrats to explain why the birth control provision belongs in a stimulus package and makes good sense. Now the talking point is gone and the Republicans are left to sputter things like "We need more tax cuts" or "It's unfocused... not that we have any better ideas".

Obama was placed in an awkward position by the legislators who stuck the birth control provision into the stimulus bill. That measure was inconsistent with his stated goals for the bill. But to ask for its removal opened him up to attacks from the left, accusations that he's selling out women's health. While it's standard Washington fare to stick appropriations like this into "must pass" legislation, this really wasn't the time. I hope that Democratic party leaders have a bit of a sit-down after this, to discuss how they might avoid shooting the President and themselves in the foot over the next two years. Meanwhile, they should work to get a similar appropriation passed through, perhaps, a bill directing some aid or assistance to the states or updating Medicaid rules.

Torture and Morality

Typical of his way of thinking, which is to say... poorly, Richard Cohen today argues that we can't prosecute Bush Administration officials for torture because we're all guilty.
"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." So goes an aphorism that needs to be applied to the current debate over whether those who authorized and used torture should be prosecuted. In the very different country called Sept. 11, 2001, the answer would be a resounding no.

Back then, a Post poll gave George W. Bush an approval rating of 92 percent, which meant that almost no one thought he was on the wrong course.
This shouldn't have to be explained, but then... it's Richard. No, the high approval rating for a President immediately after a moment of national crisis does not translate into equivalent approval for his policies, let alone each and every one of his policies. Nor could it. How smart do you have to be to recognize that Bush hadn't even stated his policies on torture on 9/11. He hadn't declared an intention to invade Iraq. It was Bush's bad policy choices (and their consequences) that caused his popularity to plummet.

What Cohen really means here is that after 9/11 he got climbed onto a "Bush can do no wrong to avenge this" bandwagon, and he saw nothing wrong with the use of torture to achieve Bush's objectives, stated and unstated. That's fine - he can put himself on the dock next to G.W. for his stupid, credulous, thoughtless acceptance of everything Bush did as being right. But please - leave the rest of us out of it.
At the same time, questions about the viability of torture were very much in the air. Alan Dershowitz was suggesting the creation of torture warrants -- permission from a court to, in effect, break some bones.

Dershowitz, mind you, was not in favor of torture but argued that if torture was going to be done, it was best that it be done legally.
Actually, I think the better argument is that Dershowitz is very much in favor of torture, but chooses to dance around the subject rather than approaching it honestly.
In a similar vein, the thoughtful Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter mulled the legality, the morality and the efficacy of torture. In the end, Alter ruled it out -- although not sodium pentothal (truth serum) or offshoring terrorism suspects "to our less squeamish allies." In fact, the government was already sending suspects abroad to be interrogated.
So... an intellectually dishonest law school professor favored torture and a Newsweek columnist ended up endorsing extraordinary rendition... and this proves what, exactly? That when confronted with extraordinary circumstances, people like Dershowitz increase the volume of their calls for us to abandon our values, and people like Alter wonder if they're right? (While sheep like Cohen go, "Baaaaaah"?)
Around the same time, historian Jay Winik wrote about the usefulness of torture, how Philippine agents in 1995 got a certain Abdul Hakim Murad to reveal a plot to blow up 11 American airliners over the Pacific and send yet another plane, this one loaded with nerve gas, into CIA headquarters in Langley. After being beaten nearly to death, Murad was finally broken by the hollow threat to turn him over to Israel's Mossad.
The moral of this story being what? That the Mossad would have finished beating Murad to death, as opposed to beating him almost to death, and that fear caused him to reveal additional information? That the Bush Administration was correct to insist that nobody could possibly have conceived of a plan to crash airplanes into buildings? That if you torture somebody until they reveal a horrible terrorist plot, no matter how ludicrous, you will eventually get them to "confess" such a plot? Really... other than as an idea in Murad's mind, this notion of crashing a plane loaded with nerve gas into the CIA headquarters is supported by... what? There was a ton of documentary and physical evidence that Murad was planning to hijack and blow up airlines. Was there any to support this special new plot, or that any other person even knew of this supposed plot, learned of through the tactics Cohen approves?
According to journalists Marites Vitug and Glenda Gloria, authors of the book Under the Crescent Moon, agents hit him with a chair and long piece of wood when Murad did not talk. They forced water into his mouth, and crushed out lit cigarettes on his genitals. Murad's ribs were completely cracked. Agents were surprised that he survived.
To be clear, is Cohen in the Dershowitz, "Get a warrant before putting out your cigarettes on a prisoner's genitals" camp, or is he in the Alter "Send the prisoner to a foreign nation where somebody else's steel toed boots can get dirty while kicking in his rib cage" camp? If we're going to pretend Murad was a "ticking time bomb", what actionable evidence was obtained through his torture that prevented the fanciful "CIA nerve gas attack" from being carried out? And if we're not pretending that he was a "ticking time bomb", such that his torture did not provide us any information or evidence useful in preventing a future attack, let alone an imminent attack on Langley, what's Cohen's point?

Cohen continues with his insipid analysis:
The Philippine example was widely mentioned at the time, even by those who opposed the use of torture. The conventional wisdom that torture never works - so counterintuitive as to be an absurdity - was not yet doctrine.
No, Richard. The argument isn't that "torture never works". The argument is that evidence obtained through torture is not reliable. For example, I take Cohen prisoner, and he denies his association with al-Qaeda. After a few rounds of torture, he finally admits his affiliation. So now I ask him to identify his contacts. He denies having any contacts, or claims not to know their names. A few rounds of torture later, I have names. But none of that information is reliable.

Frankly, as a torturer, I probably don't care. If I let Richard Cohen live, return him to the streets hobbled, covered with cigarette burns, he serves first as a message of my ruthlessness - this is what I do do people who challenge state power. If Cohen's lucky it ends there. If not, he's treated as an informant - he wouldn't have been released, after all, had he not talked. Maybe I even put out the word that he talked, and my agents watch to see who takes revenge - that's actionable intelligence. Or I can whisper to the next person I pick up, "If you give me the information I want, right now, I can let you go and nobody will ever have to know you were in custody. (Or you can end up like Cohen.)" That could be true. It's more likely a lie, but it may scare some information out of the guy before the torture sessions begin.

Whatever information I get, I can act on it. I can pick up the friends Cohen named and start round two with them. Their confessions, with or without torture, will either confirm or refute Cohen's. It doesn't matter. Then round three, round four.... After I torture enough people, I'll have enough confirming information to have a pretty good idea of whether Cohen gave me real names. If he didn't and he's still alive, whether he's in custody or has to be picked up yet again, I can torture Cohen to find out why he lied. By that time I may think that Cohen was wrongly accused in the first place but, no matter. He lied during an official investigation, and that's a crime in and of itself. Besides, we're back to sending a message - and what message would an apology send?

Torture is very intimidating to dissidents - perhaps Cohen is too obtuse to have noticed that particular use of torture by oppressive regimes, but I'm sure they'll confirm that it "works". Also, if you're intent on getting information at any cost and are willing to act on the information you obtain no matter how dubious it may be, torture gets you lots of information you can act upon, usually faster and in much greater volume than would interrogation. Who's arguing that would be ineffective? The debate is over the measure you use for "effectiveness", and... silly things like American values and morality.
At the same time, we have to be respectful of those who were in that Sept. 11 frame of mind, who thought they were saving lives - and maybe were - and who, in any case, were doing what the nation and its leaders wanted. It is imperative that our intelligence agents not have to fear that a sincere effort will result in their being hauled before some congressional committee or a grand jury. We want the finest people in these jobs - not time-stampers who take no chances.
When we had the finest people in those jobs, we didn't need or use torture. When we had immoral, stupid, sociopathic people in those jobs, we got Abu Ghraib. There's a term that I've heard used for people who claim, "I was only following orders," when their on-the-job atrocities are challenged. Do you know that term, Richard?
The best suggestion for how to proceed comes from David Cole of Georgetown Law School. Writing in the Jan. 15 New York Review of Books, he proposed that either the president or Congress appoint a blue-ribbon commission, arm it with subpoena power, and turn it loose to find out what went wrong, what (if anything) went right and to report not only to Congress but to us.
"If anything"? Richard doesn't see any tension between his implication that nothing went right under Bush, and his blind endorsement of everything Bush did post-9/11?
We were the ones, remember, who just wanted to be kept safe.
It's quite reasonable for the citizens of a nation to ask that their government protect them from foreign enemies. That's part of the government's job. It's quite another for the government, or hacks like Richard Cohen, to read into that, "At all costs." Unlike Cohen, some of us were never ready to surrender our core values. But then, perhaps Cohen never had any.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Purely Coincidental, I Tells Ya!

Of course it is.
Marvelous Malia and Sweet Sasha are the names of the dolls manufactured by Ty - the company that made billions from the Beanie Babies.

* * *

Ty spokeswoman Tania Lundeen told a Chicago newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times Wednesday the dolls were inspired by the first family's daughters.

Later, she told the Associated Press the names of the $10, brown-skinned dolls were chosen because "they are beautiful names," and not because of any resemblance to the Obama children.
Haughty H. Ty Doll
Sure. And when I launch my line of plush CEO toys, my "Haughty H. Ty" doll will be so named merely because "H. Ty" is a beautiful name. No other connection is even conceivable.


The town of Mount Charleston, Nevada, appears to be split between people who are mostly solidly middle class and people who are wealthy. But with a population of 240, there aren't many kids in town so the Clark County school district was considering closing the elementary school. The nine students attending the school would have then been bused an appalling 75 minutes each way (along with middle school and high school kids) to the closest public elementary school. (I'm not sure why that's acceptable for the older kids; but perhaps it's because they never had a local middle school or high school in town.) For now, the school will remain open.
Lundy's per-pupil cost is estimated at more than three times the district average. The district expects that closing Lundy would save about $240,000 a year.
Let's hear a parent's perspective:
Marino, who runs an air duct cleaning company, recalled growing up in a tightknit Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood. He wants his boys, Gavin and Sebastian, to experience a similar sense of kinship. The Marinos long owned a vacation home in Mount Charleston. They knocked it down and spent four years building a 7,000-square-foot replacement after visiting the school.
Er... and he wants how much of a taxpayer subsidy for his millionaire's lifestyle? And, surprise, he's threatening to sue if he doesn't get to keep that taxpayer subsidy? Hard to feel much sympathy there. Let's try a different parent.
"The school far exceeds what you get unless you pay $1,000 a month for private school," said Rose Getler, its Parent Teacher Organization president.
Well, you know, at a cost of about $2,700 per month, per pupil (assuming ten months per year of tuition), you would hope you at least approach the value of a $1,000/month private school. Hey - if a $1,000/month private school is an available local option, how about having the kids go there, Clark County picks up the tab, and everybody walks away a winner?

Seriously, though, for all of its decades of experience operating the tiny school, it sounds like Clark County has no conception of how it might operate a one-room schoolhouse on a reasonable budget. They're spending over $110,000 per year on "instruction" - is that two full-time teachers, or a full-time teacher and a full-time principal, for nine kids? If it's the latter, does the principal have any classroom duties? They spend about $85,000 per year on "operations" - is that because the school also needs a full-time caretaker/groundskeeper? How much money could they save if they had a principal supervise the school remotely, leased the school's space from a local landlord that was responsible for maintaining the grounds, and contracted out cleaning to a local janitorial service? That approach may not be feasible given Clark County's operating procedures and contractual obligations, but... maybe it should be.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

But It's Even Worse, Isn't It?

If you wait long enough, somebody's probably going to articulate what you are thinking, and probably say it better. Case in point: I haven't had much time to type out my thoughts on the nation's fear of "nationalization", but Robert Reich does a pretty good job of describing something that's been bothering me:
The federal government -- that is, you and I and every other taxpayer -- has taken ownership of giant home mortgagors Fannie and Freddie, which are by now basket cases. We've also put hundreds of millions into Wall Street banks, which are still flowing red ink and seem everyday to be in worse shape. We've bailed out the giant insurer AIG, which is failing. We've given GM and Chrysler the first installments of what are likely to turn into big bailouts. It's hard to find anyone who will place a big bet on the future of these two.
In terms of the companies lining up for bailouts,
If anyone has a good argument for why the shareholders of these losers should not be cleaned out first, and their creditors and executives and directors second -- before taxpayers get stuck with the astonishingly-large bill -- I would like to hear it.
I completely agree. But there's something Reich doesn't mention that concerns me: Our current bailouts aren't working. That is, it may cost us more to continue bailing out loser companies while declining to nationalize them than it would if we nationalized them, ate their bad debt and, as quickly as possible, restored them to private ownership. (Part of the reason, of course, is the appalling greed of incompetent managers.)

I can also tell you this, not far off from one of Reich's points - Chrysler is a black hole. If it weren't, Cerberus would be bailing it out itself. They shouldn't be invited back for more "loans" or bailout funds, save perhaps a bridge loan to help them seal a takeover deal with a viable company.
Addendum: "Moral haz... whuttard?" David Ignatius flat-out calls for subsidy:
How will the managers of the Bad Bank coax the gremlins out of hiding? With money, of course -- buying up an estimated $1 trillion to $2 trillion in toxic paper. Will the government overpay? Of course it will, especially at first, as it discovers fair prices for securitized debt for which there isn't now a functioning market.
Anybody even casually conversant with this crisis knows that the government will overpay because to do otherwise won't help the banks. We can buy them for the pretend value the banks presently use, knowing we're paying probably two, three, four times their actual value, removing a huge liability from the banks' shoulders, then hope that with actual assets back in their coffers banks will return to "business as usual". Or we can try to come up with something approximating market value, force banks to report multi-billion dollar losses on those assets, and... then most of them have to admit insolvency.

At least people seem to be through arguing that if the taxpayer ends up owning these toxic assets, there's a chance of "turning a profit". Does Larry Kudlow blush when he reads crap like this, or does he shrug, smile at the corporate interests he serves and say, "It was worth a shot."

Friday, January 23, 2009

I Get It Now....

What else could it be? Gerson, Frum and Thiessen are in some sort of contest, to see who can say the dumbest things in public yet still be taken seriously as a political commentator. The goal is to be the editorial page equivalent of Chauncey Gardener. And Marc Thiessen goes for the lead:
It’s not even the end of inauguration week, and Obama is already proving to be the most dangerous man ever to occupy the Oval Office.
Less than a week out of his White House job and, by all appearances, all he needs is a syndicate to pick him up and he'll have stolen Gerson's hard-won title.

I joke, but that sort of stuff is par for the course among Bush's media adherents.

Am I Too Hard on Gerson

Oh my....

Attacking Michael Hirsh, and accusing him of being "'even happier' about the advance of liberal arrogance than he is about the advance of racial justice", Michael Gerson writes,
Most of us have witnessed this attitude, usually in college. The kids who employed contempt instead of argument, who shouted down speakers they didn't agree with, who thought anyone who contradicted them had a lower IQ, who talked of "reason" while exhibiting little of it. They were often not the brightest of bulbs. Most people recover from this childish affliction. Some do not.
Pot... kettle... black? No wait, that's unfair to Hirsh, who obviously didn't say what Gerson chooses to pretend. Not that I can't understand why Gerson chose to personalize Hirsh's comments.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Save Us From the Speechwriters

First it was David Frum, not a stupid man but one predisposed to fatuous assertions; next Michael Gerson, the nation's dumbest syndicated columnist. Now erupting, from deep within the bowels of the White House... Marc A. Thiessen.
When President Bush left office on Tuesday, America marked 2,688 days without a terrorist attack on its soil.
Except for anthrax. And the Beltway sniper (close enough to terrorism to test "homeland security", even if without a political objective). And, although certainly not a terrorist attack, the colossal screw-up after Katrina that let the nation know that, for years after 9/11, Bush and his administration were completely incompetent to handle any large-scale disaster on U.S. soil. And if we're counting days, the amount of time between the first attack on the World Trade Center and the end of Clinton's term was even greater, with no subsequent anthrax attacks to conveniently overlook.

Thiessen's goal here seems to be to defend Bush's record of torture, disregard of the Constitution, and indefinite confinement of suspects without charges or recourse to the courts. It's one of those arguments where Bush's adherents wish to be taken on faith. Khalid Sheik Mohammed refused to talk until he was tortured, and the information gathered was so valuable that only Bush and those with top security clearances, like... his speechwriters have been trusted with the intimate details. But it allowed the government to claim to have prevented terrorist attacks that may have been planned for U.S. soil, and a few of those directed at overseas targets, so, you know, shred the Constitution and all hail Bush. And shame on Obama for describing torture for what it is.

It's astonishing that Bush's defenders are so quick to defend the use of torture, but so scared of the word itself. Have they no courage in their convictions? No, that qualification isn't needed. Have they no courage?
President Obama has inherited a set of tools that successfully protected the country for 2,688 days - and he cannot dismantle those tools without risking catastrophic consequences.
You know, it's like potato chips. You hold a guy without charges or access to the courts, torture him, make sensational claims about what you supposedly learned through torture (but refuse to substantiate them)... and how can you possibly stop at just one? C'mon Obama - taste the forbidden fruit. You'll like it....
On Tuesday, George W. Bush told a cheering crowd in Midland, Tex., that his administration had left office without another terrorist attack. When Barack Obama returns to Chicago at the end of his time in office, will he be able to say the same?
Again, that's a claim Clinton could have made - more honestly. But that's not the point, is it. Thiessen wants to set a stage where any further attack on the U.S. vindicates Bush and redeems his miserable record. From his tone, it almost sounds like Thiessen is hoping for an attack, just so he can snivel, "I told you so." Even though it would vindicate nothing in his argument and, quite possibly, reflect and result from the failure of the Bush Administration's policies.
In 2007, President Bush revealed intelligence that Osama bin Laden had told al-Qaeda leaders in Iraq to form a cell to conduct attacks inside the United States - then the surge drove them from their havens and set back those plans.
In 2004, President Bush (via Condoleezza Rice) revealed that in 2001 they sat on intelligence that Osama bin Laden was determined to attack targets within the United States. I wish he'd taken that, you know, 1% as seriously as the notion that a planned terrorist cell ostensibly to be based in U.S. occupied Iraq had similar intentions.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

You May Not Like Me Now....

But they'll sign songs about me and throw parties in my honor... after I'm dead!

Seriously, I'm used to the litany of articles at the end of a Presidency, reminding us that a president's legacy can change over time - for the better or for the worse.

But is there any precedent for the defense offered of Bush by his faithful followers - that when all the living witnesses are dead, there's a good chance he'll be beloved?

Congratulations, Mr. President

And relax. It's not like the expectations are high.

I've never liked this song, but it seems appropriate for the occasion. I'm thinking... A Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi duet outside the window of the Lincoln Bedroom?

Monday, January 19, 2009

Prepare to be Chastened

You remember Bruce Anderson from his ethnically sensitive column on Hurricane Katrina (Don't blame Bush - Blame black people!), or perhaps from his "carbon emissions, schmarbon emissions" column about global warming (Yes, The real leader on climate change is Mr Bush ). Watch out, Bush critics - he's coming for you.
It is not difficult to make the case against George Bush.
There have been mistakes.
Mistakes, plural? My how the world has changed following Bush's final press conference... Bush sort of admits to three mistakes,
Clearly putting a "Mission Accomplished" on a aircraft carrier was a mistake. It sent the wrong message. We were trying to say something differently, but nevertheless, it conveyed a different message. Obviously, some of my rhetoric has been a mistake.

* * *

I believe that running the Social Security idea right after the '04 elections was a mistake. I should have argued for immigration reform.
Back to Anderson:
But in their abuse of him, many of his liberal critics demonstrate their own weak hold on reality.
You mean, like crazily being concerned about carbon emissions, or not blaming the Katrina disaster on African Americans? Or what? (Sorry, Bruce - I'm not even sure G.W. is on your side on those points.)
In trying to belittle him, they merely reveal their own littleness.
Yes, yes. Tiny little liberals. We get it.
George Bush is a much more considerable figure than the caricature version.
Er, Bruce, that's not a defense... you're damning him with faint praise.
As he has set great events in motion, it will be impossible to judge his Presidency for many years.
Another presentation of the "You can't judge Bush by his decisions, but must wait a few decades or generations to see what comes next. If you parked a feces flinging monkey in front of a fan, Anderson would likely assure us that "You have to wait to see if a verdant tomorrow grows out of the monkey's newly fertilized surroundings." Had Bush initiated a nuclear war, Anderson would probably be telling us that we have to wait and see if the benefits of reduced world population and possible beneficial mutations of the human genome lead future generations to regard him as a great man. Or, as Anderson so aptly puts it,
It is not impossible that history will offer a partial vindication.
Partial vindication is not impossible? Does praise get any fainter than that?

Okay, that was Anderson's first paragraph and there's a lot more... of similar quality. Read it and weep, you tiny little liberals. Anderson continues to make sweeping, unsubstantiated statements (e.g., "Although some of George Bush junior's speeches will rank high in the annals of political oratory, once he was without a text, he often went adrift." - er, which speeches?), and presents a second-hand depiction of Bush's astonishing leadership behind closed doors that's worthy of a SNL skit. For eight years we've been told that Bush is brilliant, witty, smart and commanding, until a camera lens hits him at which time his brain seems to turn to mush. Maybe there's some hidden camera footage? An audio recording? Because as much as I want to give Bush the benefit of the doubt, you would think by now we wouldn't have to take people like Anderson's apocryphal friend at their (purported) word.

Typical of Bush's defenders, Anderson wants to reinvent the Iraq war.
After 11 September, the US Administration asked itself one repeated and agonised question. Why do these people hate us? The Bush team came up with their answer: because they live in failed states, which offer their young no hope in this world and thus leave them open to the temptations of fanaticism and a better deal in another world.
Well, not quite. What Bush actually said was,
They hate what we see right here in this chamber - a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms - our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.
That's not quite the same thing, is it.... Anderson apparently didn't convince even himself, as he carries on about Hussein's desire for WMD's and suggests that choosing not to invade Iraq and topple Hussein would have been tantamount to waiting "until the certainty of a mushroom cloud".
It seemed that all the routes to progress in the Middle East and safety in the West led to Iraq.
Talk about your hyperbole.... But "seemed"? His defense of the entire Iraq debacle is "Appearances were deceiving"?

But in moving forward with the war, "There was one problem." Just one, mind you. Wanna guess? I'll give you three tries.
Largely because of the malign influence of that fraud and tautology, international law, we have grown squeamish about regime change.
I bet that was at the top of your list. I mean, think of all the leaders who weren't toppled due to American squeamishness about regime change and fear of international law. Manuel Noriega, Bernard Coard, Slobodan Milosevic, Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras... all happily ruling their countries. Squeamishness like that almost assuredly was why the U.S. would never have backed a coup attempt in Venezuela before not invading Iraq.
As a result, the overwhelming desirability of regime change in Iraq had to be downplayed, and there was a further difficulty: the most unfortunate un-meeting of minds in recent public policy. After 2001, in both Washington and London, there was a split between those who knew Iraq, who were generally hostile to the War, and those who wanted war but usually knew nothing about Iraq.
Oh, this is too good. Here's Bush, downplaying regime change in a joint press conference with Blair, April 6, 2002:
THE PRESIDENT: Maybe I should be a little less direct and be a little more nuanced, and say we support regime change.

Q That's a change though, isn't it, a change in policy?

THE PRESIDENT: No, it's really not. Regime change was the policy of my predecessor, as well.

Q And your father?

THE PRESIDENT: You know, I can't remember that far back. (Laughter.) It's certainly the policy of my administration. I think regime change sounds a lot more civil, doesn't it? The world would be better off without him. Let me put it that way, though. And so will the future.
Talk about nuance. But what about Anderson's concern about the split of opinion on the Iraq invasion between, shall we say, those who knew what they were talking about and those who didn't?
George Bush had little confidence in his Secretary of State, Colin Powell. Unable to sack Mr Powell, he made up for it by not listening to the State Department. Tony Blair never took much notice of his foreign secretaries.

As a result, the Arabists' expertise was disregarded and ... the direction of events was left to the neo-conservatives, most of whom were dangerous idealists who believed that democracy was an infallible political antibiotic.
But enough about Fred Hiatt. No, in fairness to Hiatt, he at least recognized Bush's "commitment" to democratization for what it was. If the people Bush in fact allowed to lead him around by their nose were even half as informed as Hiatt, Anderson's account would fall apart. What's amazing to me is that Anderson's trying to defend Bush by arguing that Bush had a choice between going with knowledgeable experts and Colin Powell, and people who knew absolutely nothing about anything - and that Bush made the wrong choice. Anderson elaborates that, if Iraq hadn't been such an unmitigated disaster in the hands of the incompetents picked by Bush, "George Bush's ratings would be much higher". Well, yeah, but in that universe we might be talking about how Bush's record of good decision-making justifies calling him a good President, rather than how once the dust settles and future Presidents and people put Humpty Dumpty back together, it's "not impossible that history will offer a partial vindication".

The funny thing is, having just said that, Anderson tells us:
There was one unfortunate side effect of the war on terror: Guantanamo.
I guess Anderson sees the rest of the side-effects, including two years of chaos and lost opportunity in Iraq, the idiotic disbanding of the Iraqi military, loss of world respect, loss of respect as the world's preeminent military power, as fortunate side effects?
At the time, it seemed a good idea: a cunning means of preventing American lawyers from undermining America's security. But the US prides itself on being a nation founded upon laws. It follows that a legal vacuum is only tolerable for a brief period.
So it seemed like a good idea to ignore U.S. law and values, create a legal black hole where you could drop prisoners, many of whom were picked up by mistake, deny them due process, charges, access to lawyers, trial, smear anybody who tried to assert that we would be better off respecting our historic values and providing an example for the world of fairness and justice (the type of American values somebody like Anderson sees as "undermining America's security"), and engaging in treatment of some prisoners so atrocious that, despite their crimes, we may have virtually no evidence that we can use against them in court in anything resembling a fair trial. By now even Anderson's ready to bring the Guantanamo prisoners back into the light, but he adds,
That said, anyone who denies that there are some exceedingly dangerous men in Guantanamo should be forced to live among them.
No, in fact, it's the people who flouted American law, and people like Anderson who cheered them on, who should be forced to live among those we are unable to convict due to the Bush Administration's use of torture and contempt for the law.

Funny how only a couple of years ago Anderson saw Bush's Katrina failure as relevant to his legacy, but now... nary a mention. But there's a consistency with his prior piece - then, as now, every failure that occurs on Bush's watch is the fault of something that came before his Presidency:
The decisions which doomed New Orleans were taken years before he became President, including the one to build the city in the first place.
Yes, I'm sure that there were many times in the wee hours of the morning when Bush woke up screaming, "Darn you, French Mississippi Company! Darn you, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville! How could you do this to Brownie and me!" How could Bush possibly have foreseen a disaster that was a mere 287 years in the making. In fact, it's unfair to expect that Bush would have foreseen any disaster. Really:
On the economy, and like Gordon Brown, George Bush could be accused of failing to fix the roof while the sun was shining. But two years' ago, it all seemed to be working. ... George Bush did not foresee the crisis. Who did?
A lot of people saw disaster coming, actually. Sure, they were largely marginalized by the media, save most notably for Paul Krugman who hollered loud, clear warnings from the editorial page of the New York Times. If all of that flew below Bush's radar, it can fairly be said that as with Iraq, a large part of the fault lies with his natural tendency to surround himself with incompetents who tell him what he wants to hear, while marginalizing and ignoring anybody who knows anything about anything.

So there you go, Bush critics. Don't you feel small?

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Look What You Can Make From A Sow's Ear!

Imagine a football game, three seconds left, the team with possession trails by five points, they're on their own forty yard line... What do they do? Even people who aren't acquainted with football knows what comes next - the "Hail Mary pass". So imagine the next day you open the sports page and read something like this:
If the abysmal performance of his team through most of the season represents a massive stain on the coach's record, his decision to call for a "Hail Mary pass" now looks like his finest hour. Given the mood in the stadium and the team's fan base as a whole, it would have been far easier to do the opposite. Politically, the coach took the path of most resistance. He endured an avalanche of scorn, and now he has been vindicated. He was not only right; he was courageous.
You would recognize that for what it is: horse puckey. The coach's only other choice was to admit defeat. So how is this different:
But if Iraq overall represents a massive stain on Bush's record, his decision to increase America's troop presence in late 2006 now looks like his finest hour. Given the mood in Washington and the country as a whole, it would have been far easier to do the opposite. Politically, Bush took the path of most resistance. He endured an avalanche of scorn, and now he has been vindicated. He was not only right; he was courageous.
There's no courage in throwing a Hail Mary. It's an act of desperation. In Bush's case, given the choice between admitting his failures and making a desperate last effort to redeem himself, there was never a chance that he would go on camera and tell the American people, honestly and candidly, of the mess he made and the odds against success.

Like William Kristol, Peter Beinart points to the Anbar Awakening as evidence of the success of the surge, despite the fact that it preceded the surge. At least Beinart adds this:
Is the surge solely responsible for the turnaround? Of course not. Al-Qaeda alienated the Sunni tribes; Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army decided to stand down; the United States assassinated key insurgent and militia leaders, all of which mattered as much if not more than the increase in U.S. troops. And the decline in violence isn't necessarily permanent. Iraq watchers warn that communal distrust remains high; if someone strikes a match, civil war could again rage out of control.
In other words, we're judging the surge solely by the question of whether it has been a military success. We're attributing successes to the surge that are, in fact, wholly or partially attributable to other factors or changes in strategy. And we're completely ignoring G.W.'s own criteria for whether or not the surge is a success - political progress, made possible by a reduction in violence.
The surge has been a success militarily, but it has not accomplished its goals. To quote, you know, the President:
A successful strategy for Iraq goes beyond military operations. Ordinary Iraqi citizens must see that military operations are accompanied by visible improvements in their neighborhoods and communities. So America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced.

To establish its authority, the Iraqi government plans to take responsibility for security in all of Iraq's provinces by November. To give every Iraqi citizen a stake in the country's economy, Iraq will pass legislation to share oil revenues among all Iraqis. To show that it is committed to delivering a better life, the Iraqi government will spend $10 billion of its own money on reconstruction and infrastructure projects that will create new jobs. To empower local leaders, Iraqis plan to hold provincial elections later this year. And to allow more Iraqis to re-enter their nation's political life, the government will reform de-Baathification laws, and establish a fair process for considering amendments to Iraq's constitution.
By what measure beyond the military - something the President told us up-front was an inadequate measure - is the Surge a success?
To me, when the surge was announced, the largest questions were "is it big enough to suppress the violence", and "is it too little, too late?" On the first question, the answer appears to be that in the full context of Iraq - other changes in leadership and strategy, the Anbar Awakening, physical separation of warring sects, etc. - it was sufficient in size to help reduce and control violence. But I can't applaud Bush as having formed a great or brave strategy in sending what a potentially insufficient number of troops as he had no real choice - our armed forces are overextended, and many are concerned that our commitments in Iraq have jeopardized our progress and chances of success in Afghanistan. As for the political progress that Bush told us is the true measure of success.... Well, let's let's revisit Beinart's answer:
Iraq watchers warn that communal distrust remains high; if someone strikes a match, civil war could again rage out of control.
Ouch. I'm happy to agree with General Petraeus, that the surge has helped suppress violence and create opportunity for political progress. But unless and until that political progress occurs, it's premature to call the surge a success.

Here, Beinart's every bit the football fan, judging decisions not by the thought or strategy that went into them, but by the final score. He has concluded that the surge worked, so everybody should judge it by the outcome, admit that G.W. showed good judgment and that it was a great success. But at the same time he suggests that "Iraq overall represents a massive stain on Bush's record". If five, ten, twenty, fifty years from now Iraq is a peaceful, progressive democracy, based on the same kind of outcome-driven measure, is Beinart going to be telling us that the decision to invade Iraq "now looks like his finest hour"?

Friday, January 16, 2009

It's Better To Speak To The Facts

The Guardian presents an editorial, a curious cross of self-pity and self-indulgence, that repeats two arguments that are inevitably presented every time Israel engages in an asymmetric battle with the Palestinians or Lebanon. First, the suggestion that to criticize Israel is somehow anti-Semitic. Second, that if you're not presenting equal condemnation of human rights abuses in other parts of the world, you are somehow suspect when you question Israel's actions.

Even acknowledging the continued existence of anti-Semitism in the world, and that some of Israel's critics (and defenders) are driven by attitudes that are reasonably characterized as anti-Semitic, both of those arguments are misplaced.
While I would prefer to equate the fate of the Palestinians with that of Israel – meaning, I'd like to believe we're all on the same side – I think that might be a difficult political fiction to maintain at the moment. And while I'd like to artificially separate anti-Zionism from antisemitism, like most American Jews, I'm not willing to make that false distinction: when there is more than one Jewish state, the world's hatred of Israel might become no different from its exasperation with any other country, but since Israel is the only homeland, and really it is nothing more than six million Jews living together in an area the size of New Jersey, I can't pretend that the problem with Israel is that it's a poorly located country that happens to be at odds with its neighbours and only coincidentally happens to be Jewish. The trouble with Israel is the trouble with Jews.
Here's the thing. Israel may be the "only" Jewish nation state, but that doesn't mean that it's the "homeland" of all Jews, nor does it mean that it speaks for all Jews, nor does it mean that all Jews support its policies, nor does it mean that criticism of its policies is criticism of Jews or their faith. More to the point, criticism of Israel's policies and combat operations can be profoundly pro-Jewish, both theologically and in terms of its role as a "homeland" or "safe haven". As the story goes, Hillel once advised, "The main idea of the Torah is 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Everything else is commentary." How effective have Israel's policies been, either at making Israel a safe haven for the world's Jews or in walking the walk of Jewish theology? Unless we're talking "near perfection" in both areas, it's not anti-Jewish to suggest that Israel's policies haven't worked and aren't working.

Moreover, the author conflates Israel with Judaism, thereby lending credibility to the people she is supposedly opposing. There's no honest way to simultaneously argue, "Israel represents the world's Jews", and "You're anti-Semitic for suggesting that Israel represents the world's Jews."

The other argument,
But here is what I finally know: with all the troubles in the world, with the terrible things that the Chinese do in Tibet, and do to their own citizens; with the horrors of genocide committed in Darfur by Sudanese Muslims; with all the bad things that Arab governments in the Middle East visit upon their own people – no need for Israel to have a perfectly horrible time – still, the focus is on what the Jews may or may not be doing wrong in Gaza. And it makes people angry and vehement as nothing else does.
In reality, for the most part the Israel-Palestine conflict flies under the radar screen. There's little to no news coverage, no attention is paid to the plight of the Palestinians, and for people not directly involved life goes on as usual. During those times, protests occur in relation to other conflicts, such as the Iraq War, that don't look much different from the "angry and vehement" reaction the author purports is unique to Israel's military actions.

There are multiple problems with comparing the Israel-Palestine conflict to other conflicts, starting with the fact that it's not at all flattering to Israel. If the argument is that the conflicts are comparable, Israel is being compared in its conduct to China, Sudan, and Middle East tyrannies. If the argument is, "What they're doing is worse", look at the measure you're using for Israel's conduct. When a nation claims to be a member of the modern, western world, it's more than fair to say that it's conduct should be much better than that of a communist dictatorship or despotic state or kingdom.

The biggest problem here is that if you compare Israel's conduct to that of other western states, the people who criticize Israel also criticize similar acts by their own government or by the U.S. The author implicitly concedes as much when she whines,
Whereas it actually hurts my feelings when someone says something nasty about Israel, or even the United States, for Israelis, this is just the way of the world: they probably manufacture their flags to be flammable.
I recognize that some people like to pretend that criticism of the United States only arises out of "anti-Americanism", whatever that means, but that only serves to highlight the absurdity of the thesis that every anti-Israeli sentiment is anti-Semitic. If it hurts your feelings when somebody points out that your country has done something wrong or stupid, let alone criticizes another nation whose residents are largely unfazed by the critique, the problem may just be with you.
Excepting a business trip I took to England, Scotland and Ireland in early 2002, I have not been to Europe since 9/11. It's become an unbearable place to be, as the anti-American feelings in light of the Iraq war have mingled with antisemitism to a point where they are indistinguishable, the new phobias of the First World.
And you know what? I went to London and Paris last year, and was treated wonderfully in both places. Without discounting the fact that it's easier to imagine Europe as a boiling sea of anti-American and anti-Semitic sentiments if you don't actually go there, if what I experienced truly was anti-Americanism "mingled" with anti-Semitism "to a point where they are indistinguishable", life's pretty good.

An accusation of anti-Semitism is a sword best kept sheathed until you encounter bona fide anti-Semitism. Using that accusation shotgun style weakens it, angers people you wrongly accuse, and casts a shadow of doubt over everything else you declare to represent anti-Semitism.

The second problem with the comparison is that the nature of the conversation is different. If I were to go around the country angrily declaring, "What China's doing in Tibet is terrible - they're violating the Geneva conventions, they've committed war crimes, their leaders should be in prison," I would not get much of a reaction. I would probably have to attempt to intrude on a Chinese embassy before I inspired any strong reaction to my statements. Simlarly, "What Sudan is doing in Darfur is atrocious" - who's arguing? Or, "The despotic kingdoms and tyrants of the Middle East, and the pseudo-democracy in Egypt, need to stop oppressing their people, allow freedom of religion, democratize, allow a free press...." at what point does somebody rise up in anger and tell me that I'm being anti-Islamic? Heck, I could try that at a CAIR office, and they would probably agree with me. There's no debate, let alone angry debate, when virtually everybody is on the same page. Any outrage is directed at the powerful group acting atrociously toward the less powerful group.

In contrast, the unfortunate tendency of certain very loud voices in the Israel-Palestine conflict is to try to shut down the debate. They attempt to brand Jewish critics of Israeli as "self-hating Jews", and every other critic as an "anti-Semite" or at best reflecting latent anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, another set of voices spin the conflict, presenting skewed, self-serving histories, distorting or misrepresenting the facts, and complaining incessantly that the slightest criticism of their side's conduct represents "media bias". That happens on both sides of the debate but, at least in the United States and Canada, Israel's public relations efforts are far professional and far more successful.

Meanwhile, unlike any of the other conflicts mentioned, there's actual participation in the conflict by certain western nations. The "Quartet" and its British emissary, Tony Blair. The long role of the United States and certain European nations in trying to broker peace agreements. The role of the United States and Britain in shielding Israel from Security Council action and providing it with state-of-the-art arms. Billions of dollars in U.S. aid, every year. An obsequious Congress. Reasons exist why people in the west can perceive this conflict, and their own government's role in perpetuating what they see as an injustice, differently than they do with other conflicts where their own nation plays no meaningful role.

I have an invitation for the author. I'll post a scathing critique of the Arab world, in relation to this conflict, along with my feelings on Hamas and Fatah, their past and present leadership, and their role in creating and perpetuating this crisis. She can then argue the other side. No? Well, then, she can find me somebody who will provide a spirited defense for the other side. Or not.

Admittedly, she may be able to find somebody who tries to shout me down as being biased against Arabs and Islam. But then....

Say It Ain't So....

Counter-blogging? And I thought I got the USAF comments here because I was so clever and witty.

Bad Karma (Chameleon?)

Boy George jailed for 15 months.

He's no longer, one might say, a man without conviction.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

What Truly Amazing Timing

Good news - after years of diligent searching, literally days before he ducks out the door, G.W. finally found his missing emails!
A Justice Department lawyer told a federal judge yesterday that the Bush administration will meet its legal requirement to transfer e-mails to the National Archives after spending more than $10 million to locate 14 million e-mails reported missing four years ago from White House computer files.
This is interesting....
Once the e-mails are transferred to the National Archives, federal law allows them to be requested under the Freedom of Information Act after a five-year interval.
Without digging deeper, I'm not sure: Does this mean Bush has put off disclosure of these potentially embarrassing emails until 2014, where they would otherwise have been open to FOIA requests next year?

Simple Ideas Can Return Huge Savings

Savings both in financial and human costs:
A simple operating room checklist, similar to the one pilots use in the cockpit before takeoff, can dramatically reduce major complications in patients and even save lives, according to a just published study.

Performing that brief task in eight hospitals in as many countries caused an overall drop in the death rate by more than 40 per cent and major complications by more than a third, according to the New England Journal of Medicine study released online today and in print later this month.

* * *

Data collected from 3,733 patients before implementation of the checklist and 3,955 after the checklist was implemented, showed an overall drop in major complications from 11 per cent to 7 per cent. Inpatient deaths following major operations dropped from 1.5 per cent to 0.8 per cent.
Potential annual cost savings? Possibly $15 to $25-billion per year.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Walking... or is it Crossing a Fine Line

Thomas Friedman expands his "suck on this" psychology to the Palestinian territories, arguing that Israel's principal goal in its recent armed conflicts is to destroy civilian infrastructure, and to frighten and punish civilians:
Israel’s counterstrategy was to use its Air Force to pummel Hezbollah and, while not directly targeting the Lebanese civilians with whom Hezbollah was intertwined, to inflict substantial property damage and collateral casualties on Lebanon at large. It was not pretty, but it was logical. Israel basically said that when dealing with a nonstate actor, Hezbollah, nested among civilians, the only long-term source of deterrence was to exact enough pain on the civilians — the families and employers of the militants — to restrain Hezbollah in the future.
Glenn Greenwald responds that Friedman's approach to asymmetric warfare sounds an awful lot like terrorism.
The war strategy which Friedman is heralding - what he explicitly describes with euphemism-free candor as "exacting enough pain on civilians" in order to teach them a lesson - is about as definitive of a war crime as it gets. It also happens to be the classic, textbook definition of "terrorism."...

Other than the fact that Friedman is advocating these actions for an actual state rather than a "subnational group," can anyone identify any differences between (a) what Friedman approvingly claims was done to the Lebanese and what he advocates be done to Palestinians and (b) what the State Department formally defines as "terrorism"?
I'm not endorsing Friedman's interpretation here. As is his wont, he's describing what's happening in his own mind and projecting it onto the rest of the world. But really, it's a deplorable position and one likely to result in even more blowback.

Friedman yammers about how he believes Israel's infliction of pain on Lebanese civilians has deterred Hezbollah from launching missile attacks during Israel's Gaza invasion but, in giving a rather skewed history, he glosses over the fact that Hezbollah and Hamas have different political agendas, and also are of different religious sects. And why even if we assume that Hezbollah has been "deterred" from small attacks, that means next to nothing if hostilities again break out between Israel and Lebanon. As Dan Larison has repeatedly argued, if you choose a strategy of disproportionate response, you may deter smaller conficts, but at a significant potential cost:
If every incident, no matter how small, results in a large-scale response, there is nothing – short of their physical annihilation (which may or may not be achievable) – to keep those whom you are trying to deter from making ever larger and more destructive attacks. They will attempt to do the maximum of damage before the inevitable large-scale response comes. The more disproportionate the response now, the less restrained an enemy will be by deterrence in the future.... The disproportionality of response seems effective in pummeling your adversary this time, but it is only truly effective as a deterrent to others if the adversary is wiped out or permanently disarmed (an objective that would currently require an even more disproportionate response than Israel has so far employed).
Perhaps Friedman hasn't been paying attention, but by all appearances Hezbollah has rearmed and has better, longer-range rockets and missiles and better defenses than ever before. And it's political standing in Lebanon seems undiminished. For what use does Friedman imagine Hezbollah has amassed its new arms, and how much of a popular uprising have the battered civilians of Lebanon managed to present in order to prevent its rearming? Meanwhile, let's look at an important international relationship - Israel's relationship with Turkey. How his all of this going over in Turkey? (Don't you hate it when facts get in the way of armchair chest-thumping?)

Monday, January 12, 2009

On Looking Forward

Dahlia Lithwick doesn't seem to have much patience for the argument that we should look forward as the Bush Administration is replaced by Obama's:
Those who say that there should be no investigation or prosecution of senior officials who authorized torture and warrant-less surveillance rarely even bother offering legal justifications. They argue that the Obama administration has more urgent problems to contend with. They insist that any such process would devolve into partisan backbiting from which this country could never recover. And they insist, as did Attorney General Michael Mukasey in early December, that there is no basis on which to prosecute the architects of torture and wiretapping policies because each was acting to “protect the security in the country and in the belief that he or she was doing something lawful.”
I personally wouldn't say "there should be no investigation or prosecution of senior officials who authorized torture and warrant-less surveillance"; I would say "If Justice Department officials are aware of crimes, they can consider whether or not to prosecute them". (And here I mean "consider" in the sense that any prosecutor evaluates a case, and choose to prosecute some while passing over others.) I take issue with bringing out the muckrakes and trying to dredge new indictable offenses out of the Bush Administration's... I suppose there's no real need to continue that metaphor; you get the point. There's lots of muck to rake, but there's a real cost and risk in choosing that path.

Of all of the reasons not to prosecute that Lithwick attributes to opponents of (large-scale investigation and) prosecution, the only one I agree with is this: "the Obama administration has more urgent problems to contend with". Sure, the cost of any distraction that resulted from a full-scale investigation of "the crimes of the Bush Administration" would have to be weighed against the benefits of finding and prosecuting crime. Would the benefits, either in the long- or short-term, outweigh the costs? Lithwick apparently believes they will; I suspect otherwise. Lithwick implies that the decision should be made on legal grounds, not practical or political grounds, but even if that's technically possible the nation will nonetheless interpret the choice to prosecute through a political filter.
Others — including unnamed officials on the Obama transition team — have already claimed that there is simply no political will for criminal prosecutions, or even a truth commission.
Is that untrue? I personally haven't sensed a strong public sentiment toward either an independent counsel or a truth commission. If Lithwick is seeing a strong grassroots movement, or is aware of opinion polling suggesting otherwise, I would welcome more information.
We are telling ourselves that bad people did bad things under bad circumstances, but that it’s better to forgive and forget, that we are really truly sorry and it won’t happen again. We sound like a nation of drunks after a bender. We are full of good intentions, but unwilling to hold ourselves to account.
Actually, I have very little sense that a large number of people on either side hold that mindset. I sense that there are people, including myself, who are very worried that the Bush Administration's bad policies will happen again, and that some will be carried forward into the Obama Administration. I've even heard some Bush critics cynically suggest that Obama doesn't want to take action because he doesn't want to tie his own hands. On the other side, there are partisans who would not admit (and perhaps can't contemplate) that any act contemplated by the Bush Administration was wrong, or that any action nominally taken "in the interest of national security" should ever be second-guessed. The number who argue, "We meant well but we were wrong, so let's let bygones be bygones?" They're probably out there, somewhere; I'm just not running across them.

Lithwick argues,
Nobody is looking for a series of public floggings. The blueprints for government accountability look nothing like witch hunts. They look like legal processes that have served us for centuries.
Some commentators have suggested that any such truth commission should promise immunity or a pardon in exchange for truthful testimony, but I believe that if it becomes clear that laws were broken, or that war crimes were committed, a special prosecutor should be appointed to investigate further.
Although Lithwick correctly states, "It’s not a witch hunt simply because political actors are under investigation", I disagree with her suggestion that nobody wants the witch hunt / public flogging of former members of the Bush Administration. I believe that some people very much want that, and that they will overshadow the motives of those who want an investigation focused upon determining facts and preventing the recurrence of bad acts. Frankly, as long as you leave the threat of special prosecutors and indictment hanging over the witnesses, all you're going to get at your hearings is a long succession of people who either refuse to testify or, after being subpoenaed, recite, "On advice of counsel, I hereby respectfully exercise my Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination...."

If our world were more ideal, Lithwick's view would prevail - and an efficient, entirely non-political investigation would quickly reveal important truths, help ensure that crimes were punished, help prevent similar crimes in the future, etc. Nobody would have to worry that the prosecution would be perceived as politically motivated, because that would be unthinkable. (But in a world that ideal, we wouldn't be in this position in the first place, would we?) I hate to drag practical concerns and politics into this, but in our often dystopian world and under our imperfect political system that's an unfortunate necessity.

Didn't Ken Starr initially have a very high approval rating, and broad popular support for his Whitewater investigation, before it went metastatic in its "leave no stone unturned" quest to get Clinton? "Oh no", his defenders protest, "he only investigated possible criminal acts he found during his other investigations". "Even if Starr ran amok, this time will be different", proponents of a sweeping investigation of the Bush Administration contend. Yeah, right.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Obama's Correct To Look Forward

Without wishing to minimize the bad acts committed by members of the Bush Administration, the need to prevent recurrence, or even the instinct to seek a bit of revenge for the Clinton impeachment, I just can't get on board with this mindset:
Worst of all, Obama (in response to Stephanopoulos' asking him about the number one highest-voted question on, first submitted by Bob Fertik) all but said that he does not want to pursue prosecutions for high-level lawbreakers in the Bush administration, twice repeating the standard Beltway mantra that "we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards" and "my instinct is for us to focus on how do we make sure that moving forward we are doing the right thing." Obama didn't categorically rule out prosecutions -- he paid passing lip service to the pretty idea that "nobody is above the law," implied Eric Holder would have some role in making these decisions, and said "we're going to be looking at past practices" -- but he clearly intended to convey his emphatic view that he opposes "past-looking" investigations. In the U.S., high political officials aren't investigated, let alone held accountable, for lawbreaking, and that is rather clearly something Obama has no intention of changing
Now I'll grant that there are circumstances when we should look backwards and criminally prosecute bad actors from an outgoing administration, and I'll concede that it's difficult to articulate the circumstances under which that is or is not appropriate, but here's one small measure: If the sins aren't sufficient to trigger impeachment by a Congress controlled by the opposition party, that alone raises a serious question not only about whether they are so serious as to trigger criminal investigation and prosecution, but also whether the opposition party shares culpability for having failed to act sooner.

An after-the-fact appointment of a special counsel, whose job is essentially to dig for criminal acts and prosecute those who committed crimes, not only can be easily spun as "revenge for the Clinton impeachment", but sets a precedent that could haunt any outgoing administration, no matter how squeaky clean. Didn't Ken Starr teach us, no matter where you start out, if you keep expanding the scope of your investigation you will eventually find some opportunity to accuse somebody (rightly or wrongly) of crimes, coerce witnesses, set perjury traps... create a great deal of pain and disruption for the nation and its governance and, at the end of the day, quite possibly accomplish nothing meaningful?

Another problem is that when you create a sideshow of the type proposed, it can take everybody's energy and attention away from the very real issues we must address, while looking forward. Thanks in no small part to Bush, this nation has a lot of very serious problems that need to be quickly addressed. The investigation and prosecution of a host of officials of the outgoing administration has the potential not only to interfere with the new administration's focus, it could polarize the nation, and make the Dems seem as small, petty, obsessed, biased and vindictive as Ken Starr looked to them when he finally released his report.

If Justice Department officials are aware of crimes, they can consider whether or not to prosecute them. There are issues that the new Congress should investigate, and it's possible that crimes will be uncovered there as well. We don't need to look away from the past. But despite the temptation and opportunity, and a mile of muck to dig through, I don't think it's necessary or wise to start appointing special prosecutors to ferret out people and acts to prosecute. Even if it doesn't end up looking as counter-productive as Ken Starr's investigation run amok.

Friday, January 09, 2009

How... Nice For Him

Just when you thought Joe's fifteen minutes were over, we get another dose of tragi-comic relief:

Joe the Plumber's Magic Umbrella

Is he scared that one of the Hamas rockets might have his name on it? Not really. After all, as he explained, he's a Christian so God will keep him safe.

"Being a Christian I'm pretty well protected by God I believe," he said.
So basically, we'll see "Joe the Plumber" follow up on stories of tragedy and loss by asking, "Have you considered converting to Christianity so you, too, can be protected by G-d's magic umbrella?"

Do you think that Joe will stop by Bethlehem for a few "man on the street" interviews with the local Christians? (Do you suspect, as I do, that Joe doesn't even know where Bethlehem is located?)

Lessons from Fifth Grade

Really, lessons about teaching. It's not the ideal way to be reminded of somebody's life work, but...
He moved to Saskatchewan and began teaching in the fall of 1976 in Saskatoon. He was a gifted teacher who inspired his students through music, history and the love of nature. He championed children with learning disabilities, founded Camp Tamarack in 1977 and initiated the formation of the Saskatchewan chapter of the Learning Disabilities Association.
Ken Marland's fifth grade classroom included a large contingent of learning disabled and emotionally disturbed kids, and the categories weren't mutually exclusive. When it came to helping troubled kids, Ken walked the walk.

Having spending almost a year in that classroom I can tell you that having a caring, dedicated teacher can make a difference, but you'll never be able to convince me that the baggage a child brings in from home doesn't affect their classroom performance, or that you can "have it all" - that the time a teacher spends maintaining classroom order, and providing structure and support for struggling students, doesn't take something away from everybody else. At the same time, you're going to have difficulty finding a teacher who either tried harder or could have done better under the same circumstances.

No Blackberry?

Apparently they're a security risk. (I blame.... Paris Hilton.)

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Citing Scripture

In terms of the invidious citing, distorting, and fabricating scripture to justify the unjustifiable, this remains "right up there":
In Gaza a few years ago, I conducted an on-camera interview with the political leader of Islamic Jihad, Mohammed al-Hindi. With his finely trimmed beard and gracious manners, he symbolized the modern - and moderate - Muslim man.

But his interpretation of the Koran suggested something else. "Where," I asked, "does it say that you can kill yourself for a higher cause? As far as I know, the Koran tells us that suicide is wrong."

Through his translator, the physician assured me that the verses endorsing suicide operations could be found "everywhere" in Islam's holy book. I challenged Dr. al-Hindi to show me just one passage.

After several minutes of reviewing the Koran, then calling for help on his mobile, then looking through companion booklets, he told me he was too busy and must go. "Are you sure you're not pulling a fast one on me?" I asked. He smiled, clearly understanding popular American lingo. "I want to know that you're telling me the truth," I repeated.
The essay continues exactly as you should expect, but not from reading the popular media, listening to western political leaders, or listening to most religious leaders.
Of course, most people - not just Muslims - could use more independent thinking. This point grabbed me at the Gaza office of Mohammed al-Hindi. As we left, I asked his translator why Dr. al-Hindi would give me an on-camera interview, knowing that he could not find a single verse to prove his claim that the Koran justifies suicide operations.

The translator replied: "He assumed you were just another dumb Western journalist." Reporters from the West had never asked this veteran terrorist the most basic of questions: Where is the evidence for what you do in God's name?
It's widespread, abject, unforgivable ignorance that leads dolts like George W. Bush to glorify suicide bomers as "homicide bombers", "jihadists" or "Islamofascists", rather than emphasizing their suicides and the distance between their actions and Islam.