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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Souter, Specter, Swine, etc.

whoa!... David Souter to resign from Supreme Court. Something else to put on Obama's plate.

and now back to our previously scheduled programming:

Various public figures respond to Specter's switch. I enjoyed this bit from Republican Ed Rogers (who I assume I'm not related to), formerly of the Reagan and H.W. Bush admins:

Notice to Republicans: Arlen Specter changing parties is good for the Democrats and President Obama and bad for us. If you think otherwise, put down the Ann Coulter book and go get some fresh air.

Jonathan Cohn and Kos both say that Specter's switch isn't as significant as it sounds in terms of upcoming votes, but it will send a powerful message to the public about where the GOP is at right now.

In terms of Senate votes, Gail Collins makes the point best:

Everybody knows, of course, that even when Al Franken finally makes it to Washington, getting all 60 Democrats-and-fellow-travelers to vote together on something will be like herding … something really impossible. Not cats. Cats I could envision all going in one direction if there was a little herring-flavored incentive at the end of the line. Herding rabid guinea pigs in a thunderstorm, maybe.

The President at a press conference White House Photo/ Chuck Kennedy

Marc Ambinder describes his experience attending last night's press conference

Obama defined his idea of bipartisanship

Interesting... the President reads Sully. Here's the blog post (which describes Churchill refusing to torture German captives even in the darkest days of WWII) that Obama referred to last night.

pigs Photo

an article worth revisiting?: a couple years ago Rolling Stone published a pretty shocking investigative report about factory hog farms...

now some are speculating that poor sanitary conditions at those industrial farms are responsible for the swine flu

(although others argue the evidence for that isn't in yet)


Matt Yglesias explains why torture is not useful.

interesting.... churchgoers more likely to approve of torture:

Thomas Frank says Congress won't investigate Wall Street, because to do so would reveal its own role in the deregulation that led to this mess

The Republicans are undertaking a "rebranding" effort, so some folks at DKos offered up a possible new logo:

showing how it might look in the context of a news report:

Finally, Sarah Palin is just the gift that keep on giving. Check out her chair that's made out of a bear:

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

100 days

(don't ask me what these mean... click on one if you're interested)

Well at this stage of every modern Presidency we pause to reflect on how, no matter how impressive the current President's early accomplishments may be, they ain't jack shit compared to what FDR did in his first hundred. And so it is now. But that's ok, cuz Obama's done a hell of a lot, and the stage has been set for much greater things to come (Allah willing).

And of course he got a nice little gift to round things out yesterday with Arlen crossing the aisle... but I'll post more on that another day.

In honor of this "Hallmark" day here are links to a whole bunch of different people talking about what it all means...

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Illustration by Charlie Powell.



The American Prospect on his foreign policy

The American Prospect on his domestic policy.

Joe Klein

Jonathan Alter

Andrew Sullivan

Arianna Huffington

James Fallows

six foreign policy people give their quick reactions

John Dickerson

David Rothkopf

Christopher Buckley

Rep. Peter King (R)

Mike Allen

Michael Tomasky (and video)

Reihan Salam

Stanley Crouch

Ana Marie Cox

Paul Begala

Kathleen Parker

Eric Alterman

Sean Wilentz

Lanny Davis

John Avlon

comparing Obama to other presidents

and of course the imminently serious Sean Hannity:

The White House blog has posted an extensive slide show of its behind the scenes pics that's definitely worth checking out. (also on Flickr)

Time mag also has some nice pics.

100 days of Obama's Facebook feed

Media Matters wants you to vote on the worst media moment of Obama's first 100 days:

100 days of Fox News:

100 days of No:

and more...

President's who fared poorly during their first 100 (with facial features!):

I'll close with a worthwhile thought:

we should take a moment to respect the miracle that these 100 days happened at all. Consider what we have come through in the last 12 years or so of conservative dominance: a politicized impeachment, an election in which the actual winner did not become president, a staggering usurpation of executive power, a long war premised on lies, a partly successful effort at one-party control, the most systematic violation of civil liberties since the Red Scare, a disgraceful and systematic embrace of barbaric behavior at the highest levels of government.

Step back any distance, and you'd say we've gone through an electoral crisis, several iterations of constitutional crisis, and a crisis of legitimacy. And yet here we are, with the constitution and our electoral democracy intact, a new leader and a new majority, diligently and democratically trying to undo the damage and build a new future. That's not the work of a hundred days or a thousand.

99th dream

following up on my previous post here's are highlights from the Sunday talk shows on the torture issue:

Scott Horton (Harper's) on David Broder's recent call for Obama to quash any investigation into torture:

In the frivolous world of David Broder, flitting between corporate-sponsored vacations and eating quail with his old friend Karl Rove, the question is just about a “policy difference.” In the real world, it’s about whether people will be beaten brutally in the Congo, boiled to death in a police station in Uzbekistan, or have their genitals slit in a prison in Morocco. The international prohibition on torture makes a vital difference in the lives of thousands around the world today and tomorrow. Coming from an Air Force family, I also think about the fate of an American airman captured behind enemy lines in a conflict of the future. The likelihood that this serviceman will be tortured has been greatly heightened by the Bush Administration’s reach to torture, and the failure of any subsequent administration to hold them accountable adds to that risk. But David Broder doesn’t see this. He can’t fathom the world outside the cocktail lounges, restaurants, and ballrooms of Beltwelt. Apparently, unlike Bill Clinton’s affair with an intern, the issue of torture is not a truly serious matter that affects the moral climate of Washington and the world beyond it.

It’s hard to read Broder’s effort and not conclude that he hasn’t taken the time to learn the basic facts about the torture debate, to read the documents, or to understand the issues. In the perverse world of David Broder, what counts is the equilibrium of the Washington matrix of which he is a long-established part. Broder is the perfect example of what William Wilberforce called “politics devoid of principle.”


Mark McKeon (prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal):

I hope that the United States has turned the page on those times and is returning to the values that sustained our country for so many years. But we cannot expect to regain our position of leadership in the world unless we hold ourselves to the same standards that we expect of others. That means punishing the most senior government officials responsible for these crimes. We have demanded this from other countries that have returned from walking on the dark side; we should expect no less from ourselves.

To say that we should hold ourselves to the same standards of justice that we applied to Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein is not to say that the level of our leaders' crimes approached theirs. Thankfully, there is no evidence of that. And yet, torture and cruel treatment are as much violations of international humanitarian law as are murder and genocide. They demand a judicial response. We cannot expect the rest of humanity to live in a world that we ourselves are not willing to inhabit.

Good news on the health care front... Obama's playing hardball:

A major overhaul of the health care system, he told the Republican leadership, would be done using a legislative process known as reconciliation, meaning that the GOP won't be able to filibuster it.

Congress has until October 15 to pass health care or student lending reform under the normal process. If it doesn't, reconciliation can be used to eliminate the 60-vote requirement.

Democratic aides said that Obama made clear to the GOP leadership that he would continue to work in a bipartisan way, but that they didn't have veto power over health care policy. GOP aides, however, said that Obama was pretty clear that reconciliation would be used. "From what was told me, it sounded more like he would almost definitely use reconciliation for healthcare. I don't think he hedged much," said one.

Under Bush Republicans used reconciliation twice to pass tax cuts for the rich, and Reagan used it to pass much of his agenda, so Republicans really can't complain too much (not that that will stop them).

This will have an effect:

It's hard to overstate how radically the reconciliation option would shift the dynamics of debate. It's not just that it would make passage of a bill more likely. It's that it would utterly redefine the conversation.

Put yourself in the shoes of a health care industry group--say, for example, the insurance industry. You probably have the power to swing at least a handful of senators your way, through advertising, astroturf organizing, and direct lobbying. If it's sixty-votes-or-bust in the Senate, reformers will probably need those senators to pass a bill. That means you have enormous leverage. You can hold out for the best possible deal and, barring that, simply walk away.

In other words, you know that there will eventually be two options on the table. A bill you like or no bill at all.

Now imagine Democrats have the option of using reconciliation. They need just fifty votes, which means they may not need your support after all. If you demand too much, they may just ignore you altogether--and craft a bill, perhaps with the help of more cooperative lobbyists, that is not in your self interest.

In this scenario, there are three options on the table. A bill you like, no bill at all, and a bill you really hate.

So what do you do? Chances are, you concentrate a lot harder on trying to get that bill you like.

Meanwhile Kennedy and Baucus, who each chair relevant committees to this issue, are working together to create similar recommendations to submit to the Senate. Back in 1994 these committees produced very different recommendations, leaving legislators with much to fight over, which added yet another impediment to passing legislation. Fortunately we seem to be learning from past mistakes. I would love it if Kennedy could see healthcare reform happen in his lifetime.

Orszag can match Lawrence Summers in policy expertise, and has proved to be a subtle and persistent political player.

The New Yorker has an interesting profile of Obama's budget guy Peter Orszag.

TNR has a great article on Obama's philosophy for managing the economy. Here are the key bits:

Barack Obama has the type of mind--orderly, analytical, well-read--that takes naturally to the study of ideas. But he's always been uncomfortable describing himself in ideological terms.

Like the New Democrats who ultimately shaped the Clinton administration's agenda, Obama has a deep respect for the market and wants to minimize the state's footprint on it. He has little interest in fixing prices or rationing goods or reversing free-trade agreements. But, while he basically shares the New Democrats' instincts, he rejects their conclusions. Reacting against the overweening statism of their liberal ancestors, many New Democrats came to believe that if government largely got out of the way and let markets work properly, the natural result would be widely shared prosperity. You only need to view the extent of Obama's domestic agenda to know he doesn't agree.

Instead, Obama has set out to synthesize the New Democratic faith in the utility of markets with the Old Democratic emphasis on reducing inequality. In Obama's state, government never supplants the market or stifles its inner workings--the old forms of statism that didn't wash economically, and certainly not politically. But government does aggressively prod markets--by planting incentives, by stirring new competition--to achieve the results he prefers.

The problem with Clintonism was that it had partly sacrificed the goals of 1960s- and '70s-style liberalism even though it had only meant to exorcise the bogeymen. Hence Obama's challenge: to reclaim progressive goals without the economic self-sabotage of the earlier era.

There are no grand theorists in the Obama orbit, certainly no in-house ideologists. During the campaign, Obama sold himself as a green-eyeshade pragmatist, insisting every one of his proposals was "paid for." But, in fact, there is, if not an ideology, then certainly a sensibility that reigns in Obamaland.

Perhaps the easiest place to see it is in the administration's fondness for behavioral economics, the branch of the dismal science that recognizes that humans aren't utility-maximizing automatons, but flawed creatures who often screw up simple calculations and struggle with self-control. The key behavioral insight is that the way we frame choices matters enormously. Take a classic behavioral example: pensions. In a fully rational world, everyone would enroll in their company's 401(k), which provides a financial incentive to save for retirement. In the real world, we frequently put off enrollment, not wanting to weigh all the confusing options or fill out tedious paperwork. If, on the other hand, our employer enrolled us automatically but allowed us to opt out, most would stick with it. Simply by changing the "default" option from out to in, we improve workers' welfare without limiting their freedom.

Thaler and Sunstein have dubbed this policymaking approach "libertarian paternalism," and it was highly influential within the campaign. (Sunstein, a longtime contributor to The New Republic, is now a top official in Obama's Office of Management and Budget.) For example, in addition to the retirement saving reform, which Obama later wrote into his budget, the campaign also warmed to a proposal called "intelligent assignment." The idea was a response to the fact that seniors enrolled in the Medicare prescription drug program are often overwhelmed by the dozens of plans they have to choose from, sometimes to the point of paralysis. The Obama wonks favored automatically enrolling many of them in the plan that best suited their needs, based on their drug-buying histories, then allowing them to switch if they found one they liked better.

In the grand scheme of things, these "nudges" were minor tweaks designed to elicit more rational behavior. But, in many respects, what the Obama administration has done these last few months is simply scale up the logic of nudging, albeit massively. Not all of Obama's nudges fall out of behavioral economics, per se. Some involve changing incentives to encourage certain activities and discourage others. Some involve fostering competition to trigger innovation. But, as in the behavioral examples, the Obamanauts typically have an outcome they want to promote. And, like the behaviorists, they instinctively recoil from imposing it unilaterally. So, instead, they monkey around with the choices people face, seeking to influence decision-making rather than mandate decisions.

Nowhere has this approach been more visible than the administration's response to the financial crisis. When it comes to the banks, many liberal economists favor seizing insolvent institutions, stripping out their toxic assets, restocking their supply of capital, and then selling them off to new owners. But the prospect of something so heavy-handed offends the administration's sensibilities. Instead, Treasury has chosen to partner with hedge funds and private equity firms to relieve the banks of their toxic assets. The thinking is that bad assets create uncertainty, which repels investors and makes it tough to raise money in the financial markets. By moving the toxic assets off their books, Treasury hopes to make the banks more attractive to investors and, therefore, less likely to need public money.

The thread that runs through these proposals is a hands-off approach to markets themselves, but a hands-on approach to the incentives and defaults that influence decisions. Obama only broaches direct intervention when he can't elicit the desired outcome through such rejiggering--as with the numerous investments the market won't finance because it can't capture the returns. Consider the scholarly consensus that every dollar of preschool spending on disadvantaged children produces enormous social returns--increasing future productivity and decreasing tendencies toward criminal activity and unplanned parenthood. Alas, there's no way for a private investor to pocket those savings. That's why Obama's stimulus allocated $2 billion to Head Start and Early Head Start. For similar reasons, Obama spent significant sums on high-speed rail, National Science Foundation research grants, and rural broadband access.

As a theory of government, this approach has much to recommend it. It's resolutely liberal in its ends, ambitious in its means, but also respectful of individual freedom. It is, in other words, a government that is activist but distinctly not socialist.

If anything, the lengths to which Obama goes to avoid impinging on the market are almost too great. In the case of the banks, temporary nationalization might be the simplest, most direct approach. By contrast, the Geithner plan, with its Public-Private Investment Program, seems to rely on a set of elaborate assumptions about bank and investor behavior. It presumes banks are willing to sell assets at a loss, that risk-shy investors will be compelled by cheap government financing, that other investors will park their capital in banks once their balance sheets are cleaner. If any of these assumptions fails, the whole effort could fall apart.

On the other hand, it's easy to underestimate the challenges of the more statist alternatives. Bank nationalization, for one, is fraught with pitfalls.

The political point is, in the end, difficult to overstate. Obama has groped toward a form of liberal activism that is eminently saleable in this country--both with the average voter, easily spooked by charges of creeping statism, and the constellation of political interests in Washington. Any economic program that lays out ambitious goals and actually has a chance of achieving them would have much to recommend it on those grounds alone. Better still, it may be the bold, persistent experimentation that the moment demands.

Illustration by Gluekit

New York Mag: The Wail of the 1%:

In a witch hunt, the witches have feelings, too. As populist rage has erupted around the country, stoked by canny politicians, an opposite rage has built on Wall Street and other arenas where the wealthy hold sway. Its expression is more furtive and it’s often mixed with a kind of sublimated shame, but it can be every bit as vitriolic.

“AIG pissed some people off, and now you’re gonna screw everyone on Wall Street?” rails a laid-off JPMorgan vice-president. (Despite the honesty of the conversation, many did not wish to be quoted by name.)

“No offense to Middle America, but if someone went to Columbia or Wharton, [even if] their company is a fumbling, mismanaged bank, why should they all of a sudden be paid the same as the guy down the block who delivers restaurant supplies for Sysco out of a huge, shiny truck?” e-mails an irate Citigroup executive to a colleague.

“I’m not giving to charity this year!” one hedge-fund analyst shouts into the phone, when I ask about Obama’s planned tax increases. “When people ask me for money, I tell them, ‘If you want me to give you money, send a letter to my senator asking for my taxes to be lowered.’ I feel so much less generous right now. If I have to adopt twenty poor families, I want a thank-you note and an update on their lives. At least Sally Struthers gives you an update.”

It is difficult to sympathize with these people, their comments laced with snobbery and petulance. But you can understand their shock: Their world has been turned on its head. After years of enjoying favorable tax rates, they are facing an administration that wants to redistribute their wealth. Their industry is being reordered—no one knows what Wall Street will look like in a few years. They are anxious, and their anxiety is making them mad.

Their anger takes many forms: There is rage at Obama for pushing to raise taxes (“The government wants me to be a slave!” says one hedge-fund analyst); rage at the masses who don’t understand that Wall Street’s high salaries fund New York’s budget (“We’re fucked,” says a former Lehman equities analyst, referring to the city); rage at the people who don’t “get” that Wall Street enables much of the rest of the economy to function (“JPMorgan and all these guys should go on strike—see what happens to the country without Wall Street,” says another hedge-funder).

For these people, it is difficult to imagine a world in which they are not at the top of the socioeconomic heap. But a number of economists and academics are arguing that it was not always this way, and that what we’re seeing now is “a return to normalcy,” as Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at NYU, puts it. Until the late seventies, banking was a career choice more akin to being a corporate lawyer or a doctor than a high-flying hedge-fund manager. Until the eighties, Wall Street counted for about 20 percent of all corporate profits in America, but by the peak of the bubble, it had grown to an astounding 41 percent. “Wall Street became a high-margin business because of the deregulated environment,” Moss says. “You basically had a casino culture operating in the financial-services industry.” And that huge profitability led to great influence. “The system as a whole became unstable because Wall Street developed this disproportionate influence. It’s an entire system of belief they had to create,” says Simon Johnson, the former chief economist of the IMF. In a recent Atlantic article, Johnson describes Wall Street’s influence as a ruling oligarchy, not dissimilar to those of the crony capitalists that have controlled the levers of power in places like Russia, Argentina, and Indonesia. The solution, according to people like Paul Krugman, is to make banking regulated, less profitable, and “boring” again.

It should come as no surprise that being a banker—indeed, simply being rich—is going to be a lot less fun under an Obama administration. In winter 2007, as the Democratic-primary contest got under way, Obama showed up at a Goldman Sachs client meeting to explain his economic agenda to a conference room full of potential campaign contributors. When he opened up the session to questions from the audience, one attendee lobbed the question that was surely on the mind of everyone in the room. “Are you going to raise my taxes?”

Obama looked out across the millionaires sitting around him. “Yes,” he answered, without a flicker of hesitation, according to a person familiar with the meeting.

During the campaign, Obama was never shy about his promise to undo the Bush tax policies. But it was easy to ignore his occasional lapses into populist rhetoric and focus on his intense intelligence and Ivy League education. Now, in the wake of the crisis, Wall Street’s politics are shifting rightward. “All the rich people I know took George Bush for granted,” says an analyst at a midtown hedge fund. “I’m a Democrat, but I agree with Rush Limbaugh on a lot of this stuff,” rails the wife of a former AIG executive.

The anger masks a deeper suspicion that Obama fundamentally doesn’t respect their place at the table. “I think he doesn’t have an appreciation for how hard it is to build these companies, the blood, sweat, and tears that goes into them,” says a senior executive from a failed Wall Street firm. “It’s just that he has no passion for it. He speaks dispassionately about the whole situation, except when he’s beating up on the Wall Street fat cats.”

The argument that Obama has in fact done a great deal to help Wall Street—to the tune of trillions of dollars—doesn’t have much truck with these critics. “If you really take a look at what Obama is promising, it’s frightening,” says Nicholas Cacciola, a 44-year-old executive at a financial-services firm. “He’s punishing you for doing better. He doesn’t want to have any wealth creation—it’s wealth distribution. Why are you being punished for making a lot of money?” As a Republican corporate lawyer puts it: “It’s the politics of envy, and that’s very dangerous.”

To Wall Street people who have grown up in the bubble, the meaning of the crisis is only slowly sinking in. They can’t yet grasp the idea of a life lived on less. “Without exception, Wall Street guys have gotten accustomed to not being stuck in the city in August. So it becomes a right to have a summer home within an hour or two commute from Manhattan,” says the Goldman vet. “There’s a cost structure of going with your family on summer vacation that’s not optional. There’s a cost structure of spending $40,000 to send your kids to private school that is not optional. There’s a sense of entitlement, that you need that amount of money just to live, that’s not optional.”

“You can’t live in New York and have kids and send them to school on $75,000,” he continues. “And you have the Obama administration suggesting that. That was a very populist thing that Obama said. He’s being disingenuous. He knows that you can’t live in New York on $75,000.”

That was an argument I heard over and over: that the high cost of living like a wealthy person in New York necessitates high salaries. It was loopy logic, but expressed sincerely. “You could make the argument that $250,000 is a fair amount to make,” says the laid-off JPMorgan vice-president. “Well, what about the $125,000 that staffers on Capitol Hill make? They’re making high salaries for where they live, maybe we should cut their salary, too.”

There’s a vast woundedness now on Wall Street, which is hard to contemplate after the period of triumphalism so recently ended. In this conversation about money, there’s a lot to work through. Just months ago, the masses kept what anger they had to themselves, and the bankers were close-lipped about what they thought they were owed by society. There wasn’t much of a dialogue about the haves and have-nots and who was entitled to what. For the privileged, it was a lot more comfortable when things remained unspoken. Almost more than the loss of money, they are concerned with the loss of status and pride.

“I was at a cocktail party on Friday. Some guy said to me, ‘You work on Wall Street? How’s that working out for you?’ ” says the JPMorgan banker who was forced out in a recent round of layoffs. “There was a little bit of nastiness there.”

It was a feeling I heard a lot as I spoke with Wall Street bankers, analysts, and traders. They had believed Wall Street was where the winners of American capitalism went. Now they were feeling shamed for their work. “You wear a nice suit on the subway, and people look at you,” the former JPMorgan VP continues. “I know it’s not wrong to be an investment banker in New York these days, but I get that feeling. Now anyone who made money on Wall Street has done the American people wrong?”

Could this really be the new pecking order? A future where banking is boring, salaries are capped, taxes are high, and—worst of all—you get to carry the blame for the Great Recession of ’09? It’s almost too much to bear.

“I always thought what I did was somewhat honorable,” the mortgage-investment banker recently told me. He had been trading Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac securities he thought were triple-A- rated investments until his fund blew up and put him out of work. “Suddenly, the simple fact I work on Wall Street means that I’m a bad person? You know, I lost my job. I’m more of a victim.”

The American Prospect on Simon Johnson, the guy who was chief economist for the IMF who wrote this (must read!) article I linked to a couple weeks back.

Here's a fascinating article about what's been going on in Iraq.

Still with the 'Gore is a nerd' stuff? Consider this exchange from Gore's testimony the other day?:

WALDEN: I've asked every other witness this: Have you each read the bill in its entirety? Can I get a yes or no?

GORE: Congressman, I have read all 648 pages of this bill. It took me two transcontinental flights on United Airlines to finish it.

And now the AP's characterization:

"I have read all 648 pages of this bill," Gore bragged, a boast that would surprise no one who caught his teacher's-pet performance in the 2000 presidential race. "It took me two transcontinental flights on United Airlines to finish it."

Media Matters:

The schoolhouse metaphor is appropriate, if not for the reason Kellman thinks. There are perhaps only two groups of people who view knowledge as a flaw, and ignorance as an asset: Seventh-graders, and the Washington press corps.

For years leading up to the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore committed the sins of taking policy seriously, and of knowing what he was talking about. As punishment for those sins, reporters like Kellman mocked him as a "teacher's-pet" and a dull, lifeless buffoon. They propped up a dim-witted Texan (by way of Greenwich Country Day, Andover, Harvard, and Yale) who had run business after business into the ground, and skipped out on the National Guard service that kept him out of Vietnam by virtue of his father's accomplishments. On the other hand, he called reporters "Stretch," and they loved him for it. And so George W. Bush became president.

Given what happened over the following eight years, you would think the media would have enough of a guilty conscience that they would avoid treating Al Gore with precisely the same petty, stupid middle-school-cafeteria derision that led to thousands of deaths in an unnecessary war, torture, warrantless surveillance, a stunningly incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina, and a Vice President whose shooting of a friend in the face doesn't even rank among his top fifty most offensive actions.

But no: Associated Press reporter Laurie Kellman is still pointing and laughing at Al Gore, because he bothered to read legislation that deals with his life's work before testifying about it. What a nerd.

A NYT photog recently got a Pulitzer for his coverage of the Obama campaign. Here's a nice slide show of his work.

Speaking of Pulitzers, this Pulitzer winning article isn't political but is well worth your time. It's about a girl who was essentially locked in a room for the first seven years of her life. It's a story you won't soon forget.

strange but funny:

Sunday, April 26, 2009

"best leave it unsolved, really...

it's not the most fun topic, but tonight I'm going to round up some news and commentary regarding the use of torture.

Of course this issue has resurfaced because the Obama Admin was forced to cough up some Bush era documents that outlined torture practices because of an ACLU freedom of information request (God bless 'em). They could have, however, heavily redacted the documents and at least kicked the can down the road as the ACLU would then have to file another request and argue in front of a judge, etc., etc. Obama considered this approach but decided against it.

Newsweek provides some backstory regarding the internal debate within the Obama Admin about what to release:

Running for president, Barack Obama was able to denounce the torture tactics the Bush administration used and to declare, "If crimes have been committed, they should be investigated." But after his election, Obama said he wanted his administration to look forward, not backward. If only it were so simple. Last week Obama--over the CIA's bitter opposition—authorized the release of Justice Department documents spelling out in great detail the enhanced interrogation techniques used by the CIA and permitted by Justice Department lawyers. That decision alone was one of the hardest the new president has had to face, say his aides.

But the Obama administration is not off the hook. Though administration officials declared that CIA interrogators who followed Justice's legal guidance on torture would not be prosecuted, that does not mean the inquiries are over. Senior Justice Department lawyers and other advisers, who declined to be identified discussing a sensitive subject, say Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. has discussed naming a senior prosecutor or outside counsel to review whether CIA interrogators exceeded legal boundaries--and whether Bush administration officials broke the law by giving the CIA permission to torture in the first place. Some Justice officials are deeply troubled by reports of detainee treatment and believe they may suggest criminal misconduct, these sources say. Even if prosecutions prove too difficult to bring, an outside counsel's report could be made public. For his part, Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is still pushing for a "truth commission." In a democracy, the wheels of justice grind on--and the president, for good reason under the rule of law, does not have the power to stop them.

The debate about releasing the memos was forced by a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. More than a month ago, Holder and White House counsel Gregory Craig recommended releasing the memos, partly on the grounds that the Obama administration wasn't using the techniques anymore and should not be put in the position of covering up for its predecessors. President Obama seemed onboard. But several administration officials who wished to remain anonymous discussing internal deliberations say the reaction at the CIA was indignant. Exposing some of the nation's most sensitive secrets would tear up the country's most prestigious intelligence service, its defenders argued. New CIA Director Leon Panetta was put on the spot. A former congressman and White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration, Panetta came with few ties to the intelligence community. Panetta needed to show he would stand up for his troops, the officials say, so he did, protesting that releasing the documents would destroy morale.

After several intense cabinet meetings, Obama appeared to back down and go along with a Panetta proposal to heavily "redact"—black out—all references to specific interrogation techniques, say the administration sources. But this would make the release meaningless, argued others, and Obama began to swing back again. Panetta had one ally, John Brennan, a former agency official who is now Obama's chief counterterrorism adviser. But Adm. Dennis Blair, the national intelligence director, backed a more complete release, and so did Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a Bush holdover (and former CIA director). In the end, Obama approved the disclosure of the documents, along with a strongly worded statement that agency professionals "who acted reasonably and relied upon legal advice from the Depart-ment of Justice" will be held blameless.

Predictably, people on the right were, shall we say, 'nonplussed' by the disclosures. My favorite protestation came from Peggy Noonan, who said that some things (like torture, apparently) are just best left "mysterious." Which for me immediately brought to mind this scene from This is Spinal Tap:

Jon Stewart has more:

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How the memos were applied in the real world:

One memo, written in August 2002 and signed by then OLC Chief Jay Bybee, approves a list of 10 "enhanced interrogation" techniques that the CIA wanted to use against Abu Zubayda, who was believed to be a senior member of al-Qaeda. The techniques are described in a detached, clinical manner: "walling," the act of throwing detainees against a "flexible wall," and "close confinement," the act of placing a detainee within a confinement box that forces the detainee to stand or sit. The memo also approves the use of insects with the confinement box to enhance detainees' sense of terror.

The techniques listed do not rise to the level of torture, the memo says, because they do not cause severe physical or mental suffering. But the abstract descriptions of these techniques stand in stark contrast to detainee testimony of how they were actually applied, according to a 2007 report by the International Committee of the Red Cross. In addition to describing techniques outlined in the Bybee memo, the ICRC report describes several other techniques, such as forced nudity, the dousing of detainees with cold water, and forcing detainees to wear diapers. All of these appear to violate the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment to which the United States is a signatory.

Alex Abdo, a legal fellow with the ACLU's National Security Project, says comparing the clinical description in the OLC memos to the ICRC report was surreal. "The four memos were written by lawyers trying to construct a legal regime that allowed the unthinkable. The sterilized language they use in the memos as compared with the graphic descriptions of the ICRC report make that patently clear," Abdo says. "It's as though you're in Alice in Wonderland."

(click through for examples)

But do these memos provide grounds for the legality of torture? That may have been their intent, but the law is clear:

In fact, the President has not “banned” torture. Torture was illegal before President Bush came to office, through our incorporation of the Geneva Convention into domestic law. (This is to say nothing of centuries of American custom and tradition holding that torture is unconscionable and morally abhorrent.) Members of the Bush administration did not somehow “unban” torture; they simply chose to ignore the law. Torture has not become any more or less legal since Obama took office.

The federal statute which outlaws torture defines it as “an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering.” The “color of law” language was included specifically because torture programs are expected to operate with government approval and legal justification. But the authors of the torture memos used Byzantine, arbitrary re-definitions of “pain and suffering” to advance the conclusion that torture is not torture.

Furthermore, enforcing our laws is not discretionary but a duty of the office. The President has the opportunity to protect these CIA agents and contractors through presidential pardon if he feels it just or necessary for the national well-being. Obstruction of justice is not a legitimate means towards that end.

Perhaps most disturbing about this navel-gazing is the assumption that the primary focus on any torture investigation should be its effect on the American public. But the American public is not the victim here. The victims are for the most part still locked away in foreign prisons. We have brutalized thousands of people through our torture program. Many of them are innocent of all wrongdoing, many of them are murderers, many are American citizens—the facts of their cases do not matter. All of them have the right to see the men and women who tortured them brought to justice, even if we find it inconvenient or unpleasant.

The next question is "was it effective?" Cheney wants to declassify a couple documents from his own VP files that he says will show that torture saved American lives. (Still cherry picking intelligence even in retirement!)

This McClatchy reporter, however, says that the CIA's own internal reviews said there was no evidence these methods had helped thwart a terror attack:

And as Mark Danner notes, the idea that we must compromise our values for our own protection is cynical to the extreme:

Republicans from Dick Cheney on down have been unflagging in their arguments that these "enhanced interrogation techniques . . . were absolutely crucial" to preventing "a major-casualty attack." This argument, still strongly supported by a great many Americans, is deeply pernicious, for it holds that it is impossible to protect the country without breaking the law. It says that the professed principles of the United States, if genuinely adhered to, doom the country to defeat. It reduces our ideals and laws to a national decoration, to be discarded at the first sign of danger.

This is why torture is at its heart a political scandal and why its resolution lies in destroying the thing done, not the people who did it. It is this idea of torture that must be destroyed: torture as a badge worn proudly to prove oneself willing to "do anything" to protect the country. That leads to the second paradox of torture: Even after all we know, the political task at hand -- the first task, without which none of the others, including prosecutions, can follow -- remains one of full and patient and relentless revelation of what was done and what it cost the country, authoritative revelation undertaken by respected people of both parties whose words will be heard and believed.

So what about the politics of all this. These new documents have gotten everybody worked up, but the truth is, as Danner points out in the same op-ed, we've known the broad outlines of what went on for some time now:

The first paradox of the torture scandal is that it is not about things we didn't know but about things we did know and did nothing about. Beginning more than a half-dozen years ago, Bush administration officials broke the law and did repugnant things to detainees under their control. But if you think that the remedy is simple and clear -- that all officials who broke the law should be tried and punished -- then ask yourself what exactly the political elite of the country has been doing for the last five years. Or what it has not been doing. And why.

However much we would like the scandal to be confined to the story of what was done in those isolated rooms on the other side of the world where interrogators plied their arts, and in the air-conditioned government offices where officials devised "legal" rationales, the story includes a second narrative that tells of a society that knew about these things and chose to do nothing.

Unlike Watergate or Iran-contra, today's scandal emerges not from a shocking revelation of wrongdoing but from a long process of disclosure during which Americans have stared at blatant lawbreaking with apparent equanimity. This means Democrats as well as Republicans, including those in Congress who were willing to approve, as late as September 2006, a law, the Military Commissions Act, that purported to shield those who had applied these "enhanced interrogation techniques" from prosecution under the War Crimes Act.

Though they could have filibustered the bill, Democrats let it pass into law. The midterm elections loomed, and it was no secret that the president had introduced the bill partly as a trap -- a little bait that might allow any Democrat who spoke up against it to be accused of wanting to "coddle terrorists." Having been burned by the "politics of fear" in 2002 and 2004, Democrats stood aside. Six weeks later, they won control of Congress.

The dirty little secret of the torture scandal and of all the loud expressions of outrage now clogging the country's airwaves is that until very recently, the politics of torture cut in the opposite direction. This is why, although we have known the general narrative of torture since the summer of 2004, most politicians have been loath to do anything about it. Republicans ordered it and, then as now, supported its use -- as long as they could call it something else. Democrats, on the defensive since 9/11 as the party of weakness on national security, saw no interest in taking up a cause perceived to be deeply unpopular. In the wake of 9/11, taking the gloves off was a badge of authenticity. Did Democrats really want to make themselves the party that stood for the rights of Khalid Sheik Mohammed?

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that Obama would rather dodge this issue, it's certainly nothing new coming from a Democrat. But I don't think this is about fearing being painted as soft on defense so much as it's about wanting to maintain control of the agenda. Obama realizes this could quickly spiral out of control as investigations uncover more brazen wrongdoing (who knows how far that rabbit hole goes!). The effect could be to ignite a partisan war, which might then derail his own efforts at healthcare reform, cap and trade, etc., etc. (In a monumental case of projection Republicans are already suggesting that investigating/prosecuting torture would amount to turning this country into a banana republic. Steve Benen dispenses with that absurdity here.)

I actually appreciate that Obama is mindful that he can't accomplish everything he'd like and that he has to set priorities. That's a good thing. It's a common refrain that he's bitten off too much already with his ambitious agenda, but clearly he is setting priorities. This issue apparently just doesn't make the cut for him.

Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is it's really not his decision to make, as Obama well knows:

As a constitutional law scholar, Obama knows he can't tell the Attorney General whom or whom not to prosecute; he doesn't want to influence the DOJ OPR reviews; the White House messed up the comms on this one, but their position never changed. Holder never wanted a special prosecutor either; during the transition, he and Obama explicitly discussed this subject and they found that they agreed with each other.

Holder and Obama also know that the ultimate decision to prosecute will be Holder's, and it will arise from facts not yet in evidence. Holder cannot order his U.S. Attorneys to refuse to accept evidence that interrogators, particularly contractors, deliberately violated the OLC guidelines. If the OPR review finds that DoJ lawyers willfully engaged in misconduct to justify obviously illegal practices, then Holder may not have a choice. (If he did, he wouldn't. But he might not.)

Rahm Emanuel, however, was apparently not so clear on the whole "independent judiciary" thing, and may have really stepped in it when he said the Obama Admin wouldn't pursue torture prosecutions:

The Daily Beast has learned that senior Justice Department lawyers were “incensed” at the Emanuel and Gibbs statements, as one put it—not because they disagreed with Obama’s apparent opposition to an investigation and prosecution, but because the statements violated well-established rules separating political figures in the White House from decisions about active criminal cases. The statements were viewed as a frontal assault on the autonomy and independence of the criminal-justice system. “Emanuel got far ahead of the process and described it in a way that clearly suggested that political judgment was driving the entire process,” one senior Justice official told me. “It was depressing and amateurish.”

Now the White House misstep may in fact be propelling the process in the opposite direction. Another Justice Department official observed, “The department is now in the process of making some very tough decisions about what to do with this extremely complex and difficult matter. Emanuel’s statement was unfortunate, because now if the attorney general decides against appointing a special prosecutor, people are going to believe that this was a politically dictated decision. The only clear way out of this bind may now be to do what the critics suggest and appoint a special prosecutor.” Demands for the appointment of a special prosecutor have been proliferating in recent days following the release of the torture memoranda on April 16.

That may help explain the shift in language from the Obama camp that Jon Stewart mocks here:

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A TPM reader captured the situation pretty well I think:

Let's say that all of the sudden, due to the catastrophic onset of a once-in-a-generation crisis, it no longer becomes possible to deny that the elites at the head of a societally important institution have a record of rampant violation not just of the law, but of our most cherished American ideals. Do you:

A) acknowledge that the institution itself has failed in fundamental ways, name and prosecute the true bad apples to the fullest extent of the law, and overhaul the system in a way that essentially wipes out many of the vested interests that have kept it going; or

B) attempt to patch up the existing system by agreeing to keep up various now-discredited fictions and illusions in exchange for a few hard concessions from the elites, all in the hope that the whole monstrosity can limp along until the crisis has passed, at which point it can recover and all of the elites can go back to business as usual

Obama is, by nature, a consensus seeker with inhuman levels of ambition and talent, which means that on both torture and on Wall St. bankster criminality he instinctively reaches for B), which is the (impossible) option that attempts to please everybody at least a little. But what we really need is A), which would seem to someone like Obama to be the most dangerous option, necessitating as it does the social trauma of genuine collective soul searching. You'd have to be able to gamble that America can tolerate this kind of huge rupture -- like the lancing of a boil -- and come through it all intact, and Obama is not a gambler.

But gambler or no, is doing nothing really an option?

Eugene Robinson (who recently won a Pulitzer btw) says we can't just let lawbreaking slide:

The rule of law is one of this nation's founding principles. It's not optional. Our laws against torture demand to be obeyed -- and demand to be enforced.

It's pretty amazing that such an obvious point needs to be made, but here we are.

Krugman says this is about our Nation reclaiming its soul:

America is more than a collection of policies. We are, or at least we used to be, a nation of moral ideals. In the past, our government has sometimes done an imperfect job of upholding those ideals. But never before have our leaders so utterly betrayed everything our nation stands for. “This government does not torture people,” declared former President Bush, but it did, and all the world knows it. And the only way we can regain our moral compass, not just for the sake of our position in the world, but for the sake of our own national conscience, is to investigate how that happened, and, if necessary, to prosecute those responsible.

These two commentators, however, are the exception not the rule. Much political commentary tracks closer to David Broder's, who argues that action would amount to the criminilization of policy differences.

It's worth noting that if we decide the acceptibility of torture really is just an honest policy difference between the parties we can pretty sure that it will take place again in the future.

I'll finish with a video and an incendiary bit of speculation...

This segment from Keith Olbermann ably explains why waterboarding is indeed torture:

And here's the incidendiary bit...

We have all heard the argument that waterboarding can't be torture because we do it to our own troops as a part of a military training program. As this article notes:

the military training program, called SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, had been created decades earlier to give American pilots and soldiers a sample of the torture methods used by Communists in the Korean War, methods that had wrung false confessions from Americans.

but Bush officials say they didn't know anything about what they had approved. If they would have done some research they would have discovered that

Government studies in the 1950s found that Chinese Communist interrogators had produced false confessions from captured American pilots not with some kind of sinister “brainwashing” but with crude tactics: shackling the Americans to force them to stand for hours, keeping them in cold cells, disrupting their sleep and limiting access to food and hygiene.

“The Communists do not look upon these assaults as ‘torture,’ ” one 1956 study concluded. “But all of them produce great discomfort, and lead to serious disturbances of many bodily processes; there is no reason to differentiate them from any other form of torture.”

Worse, the study found that under such abusive treatment, a prisoner became “malleable and suggestible, and in some instances he may confabulate.”

In late 2001, about a half-dozen SERE trainers, according to a report released Tuesday night by the Senate Armed Services Committee, began raising stark warning about plans by both the military and the C.I.A. to use the SERE methods in interrogations.

So ironically we employed a technique used to force confessions (because victims will say whatever their captor wants to hear to make it stop) as part of our own interrogations.

Or is it so ironic afterall? We now know that one of the primary goals of the interrogations was to "find" the link between Al Qaeda and Iraq, in order to provide the Bush Admn cover for their war. Frank Rich connects the dots:

we do have evidence for an alternative explanation of what motivated Bybee to write his memo that August, thanks to the comprehensive Senate Armed Services Committee report on detainees released last week.

The report found that Maj. Paul Burney, a United States Army psychiatrist assigned to interrogations in Guantánamo Bay that summer of 2002, told Army investigators of another White House imperative: “A large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq and we were not being successful.” As higher-ups got more “frustrated” at the inability to prove this connection, the major said, “there was more and more pressure to resort to measures” that might produce that intelligence.

In other words, the ticking time bomb was not another potential Qaeda attack on America but the Bush administration’s ticking timetable for selling a war in Iraq; it wanted to pressure Congress to pass a war resolution before the 2002 midterm elections. Bybee’s memo was written the week after the then-secret (and subsequently leaked) “Downing Street memo,” in which the head of British intelligence informed Tony Blair that the Bush White House was so determined to go to war in Iraq that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” A month after Bybee’s memo, on Sept. 8, 2002, Cheney would make his infamous appearance on “Meet the Press,” hyping both Saddam’s W.M.D.s and the “number of contacts over the years” between Al Qaeda and Iraq. If only 9/11 could somehow be pinned on Iraq, the case for war would be a slamdunk.

But there were no links between 9/11 and Iraq, and the White House knew it. Torture may have been the last hope for coercing such bogus “intelligence” from detainees who would be tempted to say anything to stop the waterboarding.

Last week Bush-Cheney defenders, true to form, dismissed the Senate Armed Services Committee report as “partisan.” But as the committee chairman, Carl Levin, told me, the report received unanimous support from its members — John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman included.

Levin also emphasized the report’s accounts of military lawyers who dissented from White House doctrine — only to be disregarded. The Bush administration was “driven,” Levin said. By what? “They’d say it was to get more information. But they were desperate to find a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq.”

Five years after the Abu Ghraib revelations, we must acknowledge that our government methodically authorized torture and lied about it. But we also must contemplate the possibility that it did so not just out of a sincere, if criminally misguided, desire to “protect” us but also to promote an unnecessary and catastrophic war. Instead of saving us from “another 9/11,” torture was a tool in the campaign to falsify and exploit 9/11 so that fearful Americans would be bamboozled into a mission that had nothing to do with Al Qaeda. The lying about Iraq remains the original sin from which flows much of the Bush White House’s illegality.

(more on this here)

Even if it wasn't their stated goal, you get the impression Bushco wasn't exactly worried about the possibility of forcing false confessions that might help them politically. Talk about down the rabbit hole. I'm about as jaded as they get when it comes to these guys, but to consider that our government may have tortured people to extract false confessions to use as a basis for going to war is hard to contemplate.

I, for one, would like to know if it's true.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

tax day!

It's tax time, so with that in mind here's an interesting piece on tax policy from the NYT Mag:

In 2011 the Bush tax cuts will expire, and President Obama plans to also close various loopholes. As Peter Orszag, Obama’s budget director, delicately says of the rich, “We are asking them to pitch in a bit more.” The current moment has the feel of an inflection point for the American wealthy, like the stock-market crash of 1929 or the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

But inflection points can be misleading. Even on the rare occasions when they occur, they often bring about less change than at first it seems. The mere fact of change is so startling that the magnitude of that change can become exaggerated. So it is with Obama’s approach to the wealthy, especially on taxes. His agenda is a bold one in many ways. Yet his tax code would still look more kindly on wealth than Nixon’s, Kennedy’s, Eisenhower’s or that of any other president from F.D.R. to Carter. And only part of the reason for this is widely understood.

It’s well known that tax rates on top incomes used to be far higher than they are today. The top marginal rate hovered around 90 percent in the 1940s, ’50s and early ’60s. Reagan ultimately reduced it to 28 percent, and it is now 35 percent. Obama would raise it to 39.6 percent, where it was under Bill Clinton.

What’s much less known is that those old confiscatory rates were not as sweeping as they sound. They applied to only the richest of the rich, because yesterday’s tax code, unlike today’s, had separate marginal tax rates for the truly wealthy and the merely affluent. For a married couple in 1960, for example, the 38 percent tax bracket started at $20,000, which is about $145,000 in today’s terms. The top bracket of 91 percent began at $400,000, which is the equivalent of nearly $3 million now. Some of the old brackets are truly stunning: in 1935, Franklin D. Roosevelt raised the top rate to 79 percent, from 63 percent, and raised the income level that qualified for that rate to $5 million (about $75 million today) from $1 million. As the economist Bruce Bartlett has noted, that 79 percent rate apparently applied to only one person in the entire country, John D. Rockefeller.

Today, by contrast, the very well off and the superwealthy are lumped together. The top bracket last year started at $357,700. Any income above that — whether it was the 400,000th dollar earned by a surgeon or the 40 millionth earned by a Wall Street titan — was taxed the same, at 35 percent. This change is especially striking, because there is so much more income at the top of the distribution now than there was in the past. Today a tax rate for the very top earners would apply to a far larger portion of the nation’s income than it would have years ago.

No one in the Obama administration or Congress has suggested taking rates back to their sky-high pre-Reagan levels. But a tax code that drew a sharper distinction between the upper middle class and the extremely wealthy, while keeping its top rate below, say, 50 percent, seems more conceivable.

The argument against such increases is not insignificant. Conservative economists say that higher tax rates could damage the economy and ultimately be self-defeating, because they would give the rich an incentive to shift their pay into stock or other investments that are taxed less. And to some degree, such shifting would surely happen.

But one economic lesson of the last couple of decades is that these responses are fairly modest. An academic study of the Clinton tax increases found that they caused corporate executives to exercise some stock options earlier than they otherwise would have. But the increases had no noticeable long-term effect. The executives didn’t ask to be paid entirely in stock, and the economy boomed. Increasing taxes on the rich, in other words, has some unintended consequences, but it mainly has the intended ones: it raises revenue and reduces inequality.

For 30 years, the debate over taxes has been shaped by a faith that a flatter code is always better. There is little reason to believe that and every reason to believe that tax brackets, as well as tax rates, should be part of the coming debate.

Here's what you're paying for (no real point here, just thought it worth posting):

oh, and pirate killing snipers!

Obama spoke yesterday on the economy. Here are some video highlights, in two parts:

Here's the basic thesis statement:

There is a parable at the end of the Sermon on the Mount that tells the story of two men. The first built his house on a pile of sand, and it was destroyed as soon as the storm hit. But the second is known as the wise man, for when "...the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that fell not: for it was founded upon a rock."

We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand. We must build our house upon a rock. We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity – a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest; where we consume less at home and send more exports abroad.

It's a foundation built upon five pillars that will grow our economy and make this new century another American century: new rules for Wall Street that will reward drive and innovation; new investments in education that will make our workforce more skilled and competitive; new investments in renewable energy and technology that will create new jobs and industries; new investments in health care that will cut costs for families and businesses; and new savings in our federal budget that will bring down the debt for future generations. That is the new foundation we must build. That must be our future – and my Administration's policies are designed to achieve that future.

Later in the day he introduced the new First Dog:

Tea-bagging gone wild!:

A BBC reporter finds us amusing:

This is old, but Thurston Moore's label Ecstatic Peace has some video clips up on their site of indie musicians talking about the then upcoming Presidential election. (I enjoyed Ash Bowie's concise analysis.)