Friday, May 29, 2009

Kristof: Liberals hit their dads

Very interesting theory. I wonder, what does it make you if you'd slap somebody else's father?

I'm constantly disgusted. I nearly faint at the sight of my own poo. And I wash my hands like 20 times a day. I guess that makes me a fascist.

Seriously though, I've long believed that one's political persuasion is immune to logical persuasion. It's like arguing about what flavor of ice cream is the tastiest. (Of course, I am the exception, as my correct beliefs are based solely on impeccable logic and universal experience.)

Would You Slap Your Father? If So, You're a Liberal

By Nicholas D. Kristof

May 27, 2009 | New York Times

How's this: Would you be willing to slap your father in the face, with his permission, as part of a comedy skit?

And, second: Does it disgust you to touch the faucet in a public restroom?

Studies suggest that conservatives are more often distressed by actions that seem disrespectful of authority, such as slapping Dad. Liberals don't worry as long as Dad has given permission.

Likewise, conservatives are more likely than liberals to sense contamination or perceive disgust. People who would be disgusted to find that they had accidentally sipped from an acquaintance's drink are more likely to identify as conservatives.

The upshot is that liberals and conservatives don't just think differently, they also feel differently. This may even be a result, in part, of divergent neural responses.

This came up after I wrote a column earlier this year called "The Daily Me." I argued that most of us employ the Internet not to seek the best information, but rather to select information that confirms our prejudices. To overcome that tendency, I argued, we should set aside time for a daily mental workout with an ideological sparring partner. Afterward, I heard from Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia. "You got the problem right, but the prescription wrong," he said.

Simply exposing people to counterarguments may not accomplish much, he said, and may inflame antagonisms.

A study by Diana Mutz of the University of Pennsylvania found that when people saw tight television shots of blowhards with whom they disagreed, they felt that the other side was even less legitimate than before.

The larger point is that liberals and conservatives often form judgments through flash intuitions that aren't a result of a deliberative process. The crucial part of the brain for these judgments is the medial prefrontal cortex, which has more to do with moralizing than with rationality. If you damage your prefrontal cortex, your I.Q. may be unaffected, but you'll have trouble harrumphing.

One of the main divides between left and right is the dependence on different moral values. For liberals, morality derives mostly from fairness and prevention of harm. For conservatives, morality also involves upholding authority and loyalty — and revulsion at disgust.

Some evolutionary psychologists believe that disgust emerged as a protective mechanism against health risks, like feces, spoiled food or corpses. Later, many societies came to apply the same emotion to social "threats." Humans appear to be the only species that registers disgust, which is why a dog will wag its tail in puzzlement when its horrified owner yanks it back from eating excrement.

Psychologists have developed a "disgust scale" based on how queasy people would be in 27 situations, such as stepping barefoot on an earthworm or smelling urine in a tunnel. Conservatives systematically register more disgust than liberals. (To see how you weigh factors in moral decisions, take the tests at

It appears that we start with moral intuitions that our brains then find evidence to support. For example, one experiment involved hypnotizing subjects to expect a flash of disgust at the word "take." They were then told about Dan, a student council president who "tries to take topics that appeal to both professors and students."

The research subjects felt disgust but couldn't find any good reason for it. So, in some cases, they concocted their own reasons, such as: "Dan is a popularity-seeking snob."

So how do we discipline our brains to be more open-minded, more honest, more empirical? A start is to reach out to moderates on the other side — ideally eating meals with them, for that breaks down "us vs. them" battle lines that seem embedded in us. (In ancient times we divided into tribes; today, into political parties.) The Web site is an attempt to build this intuitive appreciation for the other side's morality, even if it's not our morality.

"Minds are very hard things to open, and the best way to open the mind is through the heart," Professor Haidt says. "Our minds were not designed by evolution to discover the truth; they were designed to play social games."

Thus persuasion may be most effective when built on human interactions. Gay rights were probably advanced largely by the public's growing awareness of friends and family members who were gay.

A corollary is that the most potent way to win over opponents is to accept that they have legitimate concerns, for that triggers an instinct to reciprocate. As it happens, we have a brilliant exemplar of this style of rhetoric in politics right now — Barack Obama.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Intel experts: Cheney's claims untrue

Intel experts: Dick Cheney was wrong about Bush Administration moves
By Jonathan S. Landay and Warren P. Strobel
May 24, 2009 |

Former Vice President Dick Cheney's high-profile speech Thursday defending the Bush administration's policies for interrogating suspected terrorists contained omissions, exaggerations and misstatements, according to intelligence officals and the historical record, including:

Cheney said waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques produced information that "prevented the violent death of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people." He also quoted Director of National Intelligence Adm. Dennis Blair as saying the information gave U.S. officials a "deeper understanding of the al-Qaeda organization."

In his statement April 21, however, Blair said "these techniques hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security." A 2004 CIA inspector general's investigation found no conclusive proof that the information helped thwart any "specific imminent attacks," according to one of four secret Bush-era memos released last month. And FBI Director Robert Muller said in December that he didn't think that the techniques disrupted any attacks.

Cheney said his administration "moved decisively against the terrorists in their hideouts and their sanctuaries, and committed to using every asset to take down their networks." In fact, the Bush administration began diverting U.S. forces, intelligence assets, time and money to planning an invasion of Iraq before it finished the war in Afghanistan, leaving Osama bin Laden and his chief lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahri, at large nearly eight years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

There are now 49,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan fighting to contain the bloodiest surge in Taliban violence since 2001, and extremists have launched a concerted attack on nuclear-armed Pakistan.

Cheney accused Obama of "the selective release" of documents on Bush administration detainee policies, charging Obama withheld records that Cheney claimed prove information gained from the harsh interrogation methods prevented terrorist attacks.

In fact, the decision to withhold the documents was announced by the CIA, which said it was obliged to do so by a 2003 executive order issued by former President George W. Bush prohibiting release of materials that are subject of lawsuits.

Cheney said only "ruthless enemies of this country" were detained by U.S. operatives overseas and taken to secret U.S. prisons.

A 2008 McClatchy investigation, however, found that the vast majority of Guantanamo detainees captured in 2001 and 2002 in Afghanistan and Pakistan were innocent citizens or low-level fighters of little intelligence value who were turned over to American officials for money or because of personal or political rivalries.

[But now many of these innocent detainees may indeed be ready for jihad, after being imprisoned with real terrorists for years, and mistreated by guards, and denied lawyers or habeus corpus. Might not you be pissed off and ready for revenge if another country imprisoned you for no good reason, taking away several years of your life? This is the no-win dilemma that Obama inherited from Dubya. And Guantanamo is not the only prison. Dubya set up a network of prisons with no clear plan what to do with these detainees, or how to screen and release the innocent ones. - J]

Cheney denied there was any link between the Bush administration's interrogation policies and the abuse of detainees at Iraq's Abu Ghraib jail, which he blamed on "a few sadistic guards." But a bipartisan Senate Armed Services report in December traced the abuses at Abu Ghraib to approval of the techniques by senior Bush officials, including former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Sirota: Bloomberg, Yankees, & socializing risk

Concludes Sirota: "In the new Gilded Age, socializing risk and privatizing profit has become the standard." While Joe the Plumber and teabaggers may think that spreading private risk among taxpayers while keeping profits private began with Obama, the truth is that it's been going on for decades. Both parties are guilty. All those rich people and corporations don't give fat campaign contributions for nothing! They're not dumb: U.S. oligarchs expect a nice return on their investment.

The House That Taxpayers Built

By David Sirota

May 22, 2009 |

Somewhere, likely in a basement, the next great documentarian is scavenging YouTube for clips of congressional inquisitions, Wall Street perp walks, and CNBC rants for a future Oscar-winning film about the times we're living through. I'm hoping this future star calls her film "Wall Street II: Cataclysmic Boogaloo," and more importantly, I'm hoping she gets footage of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, preferably wearing a top hat and monocle.

Even amid CEO testimony, Bernie Madoff grimaces and Rick Santelli diatribes, nothing better captures the moment's destructive greed than a billionaire politician using the municipal office he bought to defend charging $2,500 a ticket to a new Yankee Stadium he forced the public to finance. If there is a single act showing how kleptocracy and let-them-eat-cake-ism are systemic and local rather than momentary and exclusively federal, Bloomberg turning the House that Ruth Built into the House That Taxpayers Built is it.

Foreign oligarchs use guns to confiscate citizens' wages. American oligarchs rely on government to give theft the aura of legitimacy, and Manhattan's richest man is no exception. As an investigation by Assemblyman Richard Brodsky (D) documents, Bloomberg used various public agencies to extract between $1 billion and $4 billion from taxpayers and then spent the cash on a new stadium for the Yankees, the wealthiest corporation in sports.

The move followed a Bloomberg-backed 2005 initiative giving infamous investment bank Goldman Sachs $1.6 billion in taxpayer-financed bonds to construct its new headquarters — and amazingly, this encore rip-off is more spectacular. Mimicking tax cheats' deliberately complex transactions, the city owns the stadium, leases it to an agency, which then leases it to a corporate subsidiary, which then leases it to the Yankees. At the end of the Ponzi scheme, the team is permitted to use the taxes it already owes to pay off the mortgage on its new chateau.

New Yorkers might be celebrating if these giveaways delivered verifiable returns to taxpayers.

But Brodsky's report notes that "there is little in new job creation, private investment, or new economic activity" from the expenditure. Taxpayers don't even get affordable seats. According to Newsday, they get a stadium charging the highest ticket prices in baseball — $2,500 for "premium" views (since reduced to "just" $1,250) and $410 for a family of four in the cheap seats.

Like Wall Street firms insisting that trillion-dollar bailouts are a small price for economic stability, Bloomberg first justified everything first by saying taxpayers "put next to nothing" into the stadium. (In fairness, a media-mogul mayor who is the planet's 17th wealthiest man may genuinely believe a few billion is "next to nothing" — but, for comparison, it's more than all the devastating cuts to police, firefighting, school and infrastructure budgets that he proposed in his budget).

Then Bloomberg offered the same laissez-faire paean that financial CEOs cite in opposing executive pay caps. "Don't ever think sports is anything but a business," he said, joining bankers in selectively forgetting that arguments for free-market "business" ring hollow when government is propping up said "business."

If this tale of the House that Taxpayers Built was some anomaly, it might be vaguely funny. But while Bloomberg sets milestones for avarice, the bailout-ism he espouses is the norm.

In Washington, "The Obama administration has broken all records in the distribution of taxpayer dollars to American businesses, primarily banks, automobile manufacturers and insurance companies," reports the Huffington Post. At the local level, lawmakers trip over themselves to throw giveaways at corporate campaign donors.

In the new Gilded Age, socializing risk and privatizing profit has become the standard — as American as General Motors, Bank of America and, yes, the New York Yankees.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Chomsky on history of U.S. torture

I would pay good money to see Noam Chomsky debate Dick Cheney (or Rumsfeld, Bolton, Negroponte, Kristol, or similar) in public.

Chomsky, to his credit, gives Obama no special treatment, and criticizes him for being as bad as Bush when it comes to legalizing torture.

All moral & legal considerations about torture aside, this excerpt in particular worries me, and confirms some of my earlier fears about the unintended results of our using torture "to keep us safe:"

Perhaps culpability would be greater, by prevailing moral standards, if it were discovered that Bush administration torture had cost American lives. That is, in fact, the conclusion drawn by Major Matthew Alexander [a pseudonym], one of the most seasoned US interrogators in Iraq, who elicited "the information that led to the US military being able to locate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qa'ida in Iraq," correspondent Patrick Cockburn reports.

Alexander expresses only contempt for the Bush administration's harsh interrogation methods: "The use of torture by the US," he believes, not only elicits no useful information but "has proved so counter-productive that it may have led to the death of as many US soldiers as civilians killed in 9/11." From hundreds of interrogations, Alexander discovered that foreign fighters came to Iraq in reaction to the abuses at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, and that they and their domestic allies turned to suicide bombing and other terrorist acts for the same reasons.

There is also mounting evidence that the torture methods Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld encouraged created terrorists. One carefully studied case is that of Abdallah al-Ajmi, who was locked up in Guantánamo on the charge of "engaging in two or three fire fights with the Northern Alliance." He ended up in Afghanistan after having failed to reach Chechnya to fight against the Russians.

After four years of brutal treatment in Guantánamo, he was returned to Kuwait. He later found his way to Iraq and, in March 2008, drove a bomb-laden truck into an Iraqi military compound, killing himself and thirteen soldiers--"the single most heinous act of violence committed by a former Guantánamo detainee," according to the Washington Post, and according to his lawyer, the direct result of his abusive imprisonment.

All much as a reasonable person would expect.

The Torture Memos and Historical Amnesia
By Noam Chomsky
May 19, 2009 | The Nation

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Gallup: More Americans now Democrats

The GOP is losing ground among all demographic sub-groups, with the exception of regular churchgoers, who remain steadily GOP. 

Gee, I guess that just goes to show that God is a Republican....

GOP Losses Span Nearly All Demographic Groups
By Jeffrey M. Jones
May 18, 2009 | Gallup

Re: Cow farts & energy costs

Yep, cap-and-trade of cow farts is next on Obama's agenda.

Seriously though, eating less meat is very good for the environment. The meat supply chain takes a lot more grain to feed, and fuel and energy to process livestock than it does to bring vegetables and grains to market. Livestock also require lots of inputs: it takes 5 kilos of grain to produce 1 kilo of meat. Raising livestock and processing meat also generates a lot of waste -- including direct runoff into our water supply. This is not to mention all of the (sometimes illegal) steroids and antibiotics they feed livestock nowadays, which go into us.

Check out this extremely interesting analysis from the NYT, which compared meat to oil:

"... if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius. Similarly, a study last year by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan estimated that 2.2 pounds of beef is responsible for the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles, and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days."

And, as usual, the poorer countries suffer the most because of our high consumption:

"Though some 800 million people on the planet now suffer from hunger or malnutrition, the majority of corn and soy grown in the world feeds cattle, pigs and chickens. This despite the inherent inefficiencies: about two to five times more grain is required to produce the same amount of calories through livestock as through direct grain consumption, according to Rosamond Naylor, an associate professor of economics at Stanford University. It is as much as 10 times more in the case of grain-fed beef in the United States."

It's also healthier and cheaper to eat less meat: there is a growing "meatless Monday" movement. Americans eat about 8 oz. of meat a day, twice the global average. If China starts eating beef like we do, the world will be in trouble.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Roubini: Demise of dollar's dominance

Here's red meat for all you rabid anti-stimulus folks. Have at it!

The Almighty Renminbi?
By Nouriel Roubini
May 13, 2009 | New York Times

THE 19th century was dominated by the British Empire, the 20th century by the United States. We may now be entering the Asian century, dominated by a rising China and its currency. While the dollar's status as the major reserve currency will not vanish overnight, we can no longer take it for granted. Sooner than we think, the dollar may be challenged by other currencies, most likely the Chinese renminbi. This would have serious costs for America, as our ability to finance our budget and trade deficits cheaply would disappear.

Traditionally, empires that hold the global reserve currency are also net foreign creditors and net lenders. The British Empire declined — and the pound lost its status as the main global reserve currency — when Britain became a net debtor and a net borrower in World War II. Today, the United States is in a similar position. It is running huge budget and trade deficits, and is relying on the kindness of restless foreign creditors who are starting to feel uneasy about accumulating even more dollar assets. The resulting downfall of the dollar may be only a matter of time.

But what could replace it? The British pound, the Japanese yen and the Swiss franc remain minor reserve currencies, as those countries are not major powers. Gold is still a barbaric relic whose value rises only when inflation is high. The euro is hobbled by concerns about the long-term viability of the European Monetary Union. That leaves the renminbi.

China is a creditor country with large current account surpluses, a small budget deficit, much lower public debt as a share of G.D.P. than the United States, and solid growth. And it is already taking steps toward challenging the supremacy of the dollar. Beijing has called for a new international reserve currency in the form of the International Monetary Fund's special drawing rights (a basket of dollars, euros, pounds and yen). China will soon want to see its own currency included in the basket, as well as the renminbi used as a means of payment in bilateral trade.

At the moment, though, the renminbi is far from ready to achieve reserve currency status. China would first have to ease restrictions on money entering and leaving the country, make its currency fully convertible for such transactions, continue its domestic financial reforms and make its bond markets more liquid. It would take a long time for the renminbi to become a reserve currency, but it could happen. China has already flexed its muscle by setting up currency swaps with several countries (including Argentina, Belarus and Indonesia) and by letting institutions in Hong Kong issue bonds denominated in renminbi, a first step toward creating a deep domestic and international market for its currency.

If China and other countries were to diversify their reserve holdings away from the dollar — and they eventually will — the United States would suffer. We have reaped significant financial benefits from having the dollar as the reserve currency. In particular, the strong market for the dollar allows Americans to borrow at better rates. We have thus been able to finance larger deficits for longer and at lower interest rates, as foreign demand has kept Treasury yields low. We have been able to issue debt in our own currency rather than a foreign one, thus shifting the losses of a fall in the value of the dollar to our creditors. Having commodities priced in dollars has also meant that a fall in the dollar's value doesn't lead to a rise in the price of imports.

Now, imagine a world in which China could borrow and lend internationally in its own currency. The renminbi, rather than the dollar, could eventually become a means of payment in trade and a unit of account in pricing imports and exports, as well as a store of value for wealth by international investors. Americans would pay the price. We would have to shell out more for imported goods, and interest rates on both private and public debt would rise. The higher private cost of borrowing could lead to weaker consumption and investment, and slower growth.

This decline of the dollar might take more than a decade, but it could happen even sooner if we do not get our financial house in order. The United States must rein in spending and borrowing, and pursue growth that is not based on asset and credit bubbles. For the last two decades America has been spending more than its income, increasing its foreign liabilities and amassing debts that have become unsustainable. A system where the dollar was the major global currency allowed us to prolong reckless borrowing.

Now that the dollar's position is no longer so secure, we need to shift our priorities. This will entail investing in our crumbling infrastructure, alternative and renewable resources and productive human capital — rather than in unnecessary housing and toxic financial innovation. This will be the only way to slow down the decline of the dollar, and sustain our influence in global affairs.

Nouriel Roubini is a professor of economics at the New York University Stern School of Business and the chairman of an economic consulting firm.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Obama can't ignore Bush Admin.'s past

Part of me wants to ignore all this because it could distract from achieving Obama's legislative priorities.  But another part of me wants truth and justice.  In any case, it looks like "the truth will out," as the cliche goes. 

Obama Can't Turn the Page on Bush

May 16, 2009  | New York Times

TO paraphrase Al Pacino in "Godfather III," just when we thought we were out, the Bush mob keeps pulling us back in. And will keep doing so. No matter how hard President Obama tries to turn the page on the previous administration, he can't. Until there is true transparency and true accountability, revelations of that unresolved eight-year nightmare will keep raining down drip by drip, disrupting the new administration's high ambitions.

That's why the president's flip-flop on the release of detainee abuse photos — whatever his motivation — is a fool's errand. The pictures will eventually emerge anyway, either because of leaks (if they haven't started already) or because the federal appeals court decision upholding their release remains in force. And here's a bet: These images will not prove the most shocking evidence of Bush administration sins still to come.

There are many dots yet to be connected, and not just on torture. This Sunday, GQ magazine is posting on its Web site an article adding new details to the ample dossier on how Donald Rumsfeld's corrupt and incompetent Defense Department cost American lives and compromised national security. The piece is not the work of a partisan but the Texan journalist Robert Draper, author of "Dead Certain," the 2007 Bush biography that had the blessing (and cooperation) of the former president and his top brass. It draws on interviews with more than a dozen high-level Bush loyalists.

Draper reports that Rumsfeld's monomaniacal determination to protect his Pentagon turf led him to hobble and antagonize America's most willing allies in Iraq, Britain and Australia, and even to undermine his own soldiers. But Draper's biggest find is a collection of daily cover sheets that Rumsfeld approved for the Secretary of Defense Worldwide Intelligence Update, a highly classified digest prepared for a tiny audience, including the president, and often delivered by hand to the White House by the defense secretary himself. These cover sheets greeted Bush each day with triumphal color photos of the war headlined by biblical quotations. GQ is posting 11 of them, and they are seriously creepy.

Take the one dated April 3, 2003, two weeks into the invasion, just as Shock and Awe hit its first potholes. Two days earlier, on April 1, a panicky Pentagon had begun spreading its hyped, fictional account of the rescue of Pvt. Jessica Lynch to distract from troubling news of setbacks. On April 2, Gen. Joseph Hoar, the commander in chief of the United States Central Command from 1991-94, had declared on the Times Op-Ed page that Rumsfeld had sent too few troops to Iraq. And so the Worldwide Intelligence Update for April 3 bullied Bush with Joshua 1:9: "Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go." (Including, as it happened, into a quagmire.)

What's up with that? As Draper writes, Rumsfeld is not known for ostentatious displays of piety. He was cynically playing the religious angle to seduce and manipulate a president who frequently quoted the Bible. But the secretary's actions were not just oily; he was also taking a risk with national security. If these official daily collages of Crusade-like messaging and war imagery had been leaked, they would have reinforced the Muslim world's apocalyptic fear that America was waging a religious war. As one alarmed Pentagon hand told Draper, the fallout "would be as bad as Abu Ghraib."

The GQ article isn't the only revelation of previously unknown Bush Defense Department misbehavior to emerge this month. Just two weeks ago, the Obama Pentagon revealed that a major cover-up of corruption had taken place at the Bush Pentagon on Jan. 14 of this year — just six days before Bush left office. This strange incident — reported in The Times but largely ignored by Washington correspondents preparing for their annual dinner — deserves far more attention and follow-up.

What happened on Jan. 14 was the release of a report from the Pentagon's internal watchdog, the inspector general. It had been ordered up in response to a scandal uncovered last year by David Barstow, an investigative reporter for The Times. Barstow had found that the Bush Pentagon fielded a clandestine network of retired military officers and defense officials to spread administration talking points on television, radio and in print while posing as objective "military analysts."  Many of these propagandists worked for military contractors with billions of dollars of business at stake in Pentagon procurement.  Many were recipients of junkets and high-level special briefings unavailable to the legitimate press.  Yet the public was never told of these conflicts of interest when these "analysts" appeared on the evening news to provide rosy assessments of what they tended to call "the real situation on the ground in Iraq."

When Barstow's story broke, more than 45 members of Congress demanded an inquiry. The Pentagon's inspector general went to work, and its Jan. 14 report was the result. It found no wrongdoing by the Pentagon. Indeed, when Barstow won the Pulitzer Prize last month, Rumsfeld's current spokesman cited the inspector general's "exoneration" to attack the Times articles as fiction.

But the Pentagon took another look at this exoneration, and announced on May 5 that the inspector general's report, not The Times's reporting, was fiction. The report, it turns out, was riddled with factual errors and included little actual investigation of Barstow's charges. The inspector general's office had barely glanced at the 8,000 pages of e-mail that Barstow had used as evidence, and interviewed only seven of the 70 disputed analysts. In other words, the report was a whitewash. The Obama Pentagon officially rescinded it — an almost unprecedented step — and even removed it from its Web site.

Network news operations ignored the unmasking of this last-minute Bush Pentagon cover-up, as they had the original Barstow articles — surely not because they had been patsies for the Bush P.R. machine. But the story is actually far larger than this one particular incident. If the Pentagon inspector general's office could whitewash this scandal, what else did it whitewash?

In 2005, to take just one example, the same office released a report on how Boeing colluded with low-level Pentagon bad apples on an inflated (and ultimately canceled) $30 billion air-tanker deal. At the time, even John Warner, then the go-to Republican senator on military affairs, didn't buy the heavily redacted report's claim that Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, were ignorant of what Warner called "the most significant defense procurement mismanagement in contemporary history." The Pentagon inspector general who presided over that exoneration soon fled to become an executive at the parent company of another Pentagon contractor, Blackwater.

But the new administration doesn't want to revisit this history any more than it wants to dwell on torture. Once the inspector general's report on the military analysts was rescinded, the Obama Pentagon declared the matter closed. The White House seems to be taking its cues from the Reagan-Bush 41 speechwriter Peggy Noonan. "Sometimes I think just keep walking," she said on ABC's "This Week" as the torture memos surfaced. "Some of life has to be mysterious." Imagine if she'd been at Nuremberg!

The administration can't "just keep walking" because it is losing control of the story.  The Beltway punditocracy keeps repeating the cliché that only the A.C.L.U. and the president's "left-wing base" want accountability, but that's not the case.  Americans know that the Iraq war is not over. A key revelation in last month's Senate Armed Services Committee report on detainees — that torture was used to try to coerce prisoners into "confirming" a bogus Al Qaeda-Saddam Hussein link to sell that war — is finally attracting attention. The more we learn piecemeal of this history, the more bipartisan and voluble the call for full transparency has become.

And I do mean bipartisan. Both Dick Cheney, hoping to prove that torture "worked," and Nancy Pelosi, fending off accusations of hypocrisy on torture, have now asked for classified C.I.A. documents to be made public. When a duo this unlikely, however inadvertently, is on the same side of an issue, the wave is rising too fast for any White House to control. Court cases, including appeals by the "bad apples" made scapegoats for Abu Ghraib, will yank more secrets into the daylight and enlist more anxious past and present officials into the Cheney-Pelosi demands for disclosure.

It will soon be every man for himself. "Did President Bush know everything you knew?" Bob Schieffer asked Cheney on "Face the Nation" last SundayThe former vice president's uncharacteristically stumbling and qualified answer — "I certainly, yeah, have every reason to believe he knew..." — suggests that the Bush White House's once-united front is starting to crack under pressure.

I'm not a fan of Washington's blue-ribbon commissions, where political compromises can trump the truth. But the 9/11 investigation did illuminate how, a month after Bush received an intelligence brief titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.," 3,000 Americans were slaughtered on his and Cheney's watch. If the Obama administration really wants to move on from the dark Bush era, it will need a new commission, backed up by serious law enforcement, to shed light on where every body is buried.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

2% and SS is good thru 2083

By Alicia H. Munnell
May 14, 2009 |
Alicia H. Munnell is the Peter F. Drucker professor of management sciences at Boston College and director of the Center for Retirement Research. She was a member of President Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers from 1995 to 1997 and was assistant secretary of the Treasury from 1993 to 1995.
The nation's financial and economic crisis provided a stress test for the nation's public and private retirement system.

The 2009 Social Security Trustees report released Tuesday provides a basis for assessing how each held up. On the one hand, assets in 401(k) accounts -- which are predominantly in stocks -- have declined in value by about a third, employers are suspending matching contributions, and millions of unemployed workers have seen their retirement savings efforts disrupted.

On the other hand, the Social Security Administration continues to send out monthly checks to 35 million retirees and their spouses, 9 million disabled workers and their families, and 6 million families whose breadwinner has died. In other words, the government system has proved to be much less fragile than the private system of retirement savings.

Social Security did not escape totally unscathed, however. As firms laid off workers, payrolls and payroll tax revenues declined below levels that had been assumed in the previous report. This decline in revenues, together with some changes in assumptions about how long people will live, has accelerated the date when the trust fund is projected to be exhausted and has increased the deficit the system faces over the next 75 years.

The Social Security Trustees now predict that trust fund assets will be exhausted in 2037, four years sooner than the estimate in last year's report. Assuming no new legislation, what happens in 2037?

This date is often described as the point at which Social Security is "bankrupt," leaving the impression that there is no money at all.  But payroll tax revenues continue rolling in, and Social Security still has enough revenue to pay roughly three-quarters of promised benefits.

The financial crisis has simply accelerated the date at which this event occurs. Looking at the silver lining, the acceleration may convince policymakers that action needs to be taken sooner rather than later to eliminate the financing gap.

And how much action is required? The Social Security Trustees report the deficit over the next 75 years as a percent of payrolls. That deficit also increased as a result of the financial crisis, but remained in the familiar territory where it has been for the last 15 years.

Over the next 75 years, the Social Security Trustees project a program shortfall equal to 2 percent of covered earnings. That is, if the payroll tax rate were raised immediately by roughly 2 percentage points -- 1 percentage point each for the employee and the employer -- the government would be able to pay the current package of benefits for everyone who reaches retirement age at least through 2083.

A lasting fix for Social Security would require additional changes, as an aging population continues to present financial challenges beyond the 75-year horizon. Solutions that focus just on the next 75 years typically involve the build up of trust fund assets in the near term and the sale of those assets to pay benefits in the out years.

Since the trust funds have no further bonds to sell in the 76th year, the program is suddenly short of money. So, realistically, eliminating the 75-year shortfall should probably be viewed as the first step towards long-run solvency.

The bottom line, however, is that the 2009 Trustees Report did not reveal any important new information about the finances of the Social Security system. The system has enough money to pay full benefits for decades, although for a few years less than previously reported because of the financial/economic crisis. And the system faces a long run financial shortfall of about 2 percent of taxable payrolls, a figure that is higher than last year's estimate because of the financial/economic crisis but well within the range of deficits estimated over the past 15 years.

The new information that we have about Social Security is how well it has withstood the onslaught of the financial/economic crisis. Social Security checks have gone out on time. Though the amounts are not large, the benefits are increased each year to reflect changes in the cost of living, and they continue for as long as the recipient lives. So, despite the modest amounts, the benefits are extremely valuable and people can count on them regardless of what happens to financial markets or the real economy.

In contrast, the financial crisis has demonstrated the vulnerability of 401(k) plans to economic and financial conditions. 401(k) balances, which are modest at best, declined in value by about one-third. And, as the financial crisis spread to the real economy, employers suspended their matches, and employees without jobs were forced to discontinue contributions. In other words, in the wake of the shift away from traditional defined benefit pension plans, the only real supplement to Social Security for most private sector workers is fragile.

The fragility of the employer-sponsored system, as evidenced by the impact of the financial/economic crisis, makes the basic public pension system all the more important.

So when the time comes to decide between revenue increases and benefit cuts to close Social Security's financial shortfall, policymakers may be surprised to find that Americans might be willing to pay up to maintain current benefit levels. Of course, the amount that they have to pay up will be less the sooner the problem is addressed. So if the 2009 Trustees Report serves as a call to action, then it has played a useful role.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Taibbi: Who you callin' a traitor?

It's actually sad that Taibbi has to spend several hundred words explaining the obvious like this.  I hope you're one of the smart ones who already understands his thesis implicitly. 

Being anti-torture doesn't make you pro-terrorist

By Matt Taibbi
May 12, 2009  |

"WASHINGTON — Torture is an impermissible evil. Except under two circumstances. The first is the ticking time bomb. An innocent's life is at stake. The bad guy you have captured possesses information that could save this life. He refuses to divulge. In such a case, the choice is easy. Even John McCain, the most admirable and estimable torture opponent, says openly that in such circumstances, "You do what you have to do." And then take the responsibility.

Some people, however, believe you never torture. Ever. They are akin to conscientious objectors who will never fight in any war under any circumstances, and for whom we correctly show respect by exempting from war duty. But we would never make one of them Centcom commander. Private principles are fine, but you don't entrust such a person with the military decisions upon which hinges the safety of the nation. It is similarly imprudent to have a person who would abjure torture in all circumstances making national security decisions upon which depends the protection of 300 million countrymen.

The second exception to the no-torture rule is the extraction of information from a high-value enemy in possession of high-value information likely to save lives. This case lacks the black-and-white clarity of the ticking time bomb scenario. We know less about the length of the fuse or the nature of the next attack. But we do know the danger is great. We know we must act but have no idea where or how — and we can't know that until we have information. Catch-22.

Under those circumstances, you do what you have to do. And that includes waterboarding."

-- Charles Krauthammer,

So I got pelted with emails from the usual lunatics this weekend after making the mistake of saying on television that I thought the lawyers who greenlighted the waterboarding program should be prosecuted. I'm not going to delve into this too deeply, because this is clearly one of those issues that few people are willing to change their minds about, but I feel like I've got to talk about one particular aspect of this debate, because it's just too crazy to let go.

Here's a snippet from one letter I got: "What really gets me about liberals like you is that when other countries torture and kill our people, and cut off their heads, [there's] not a peep from you. But you dunk some terrorist's head underwater for a few minutes and you go all weepy."

I saw the same kind of thing in a letter from a guy named Robert Reeg to the New York Post this morning:

My chest was crushed in the collapse of 2 WTC. If people think waterboarding is torture, they should try having their chest cracked while fully conscious. I haven't had a pain-free day since then, never mind the memories. What outrages me most is the "selective" outrage. No one complains when Americans are tortured and murdered.

Obviously Mr. Reeg suffered a terrible experience; I would never make light of that. What I do want to say is that there seems to be this idea that those of us who are against making torture an allowable practice in the U.S. are somehow condoning the behavior of those wacko/asshole religious extremists, that we're picking "their side" in the debate, like it's an either/or proposition or something. I don't think I could count the number of times I've had this argument on the campaign trail at Republican rallies:

ME: No, actually I'm not even talking about whether torture works or not, although incidentally it doesn't. I'm just saying that no civilized society does it, and we probably shouldn't either, so –

ANGRY WHITE PERSON: But what about what those monsters did to our boys in Fallujah? I suppose you're not outraged about that!

ME: (perplexed) Well, I — wait, what? Where the fuck do you get that from?

ANGRY WHITE PERSON: You're standing in front of me complaining about water-boarding! It just follows that you're not outraged about what they did to our boys in Fallujah!

ME: (scratching head, confused) Um…

The thing is, we've been listening to this stuff for so long that when we hear it, we don't recoil in confused disbelief anymore — we're so familiar with these arguments we've forgotten that they don't make any sense. It's similar to that other Bush-era standard: "We fight them over there, so we don't have to fight them here."

I never understood what the hell that was all about. The best I could figure is that the people who were saying this think of the world like a big Stratego game, and they think that if we commit a big force to some place like Iraq, the "other side" will have to leave all his forces over there or something to keep us from moving through Eurasia. This might make sense in a real war, in a war-between-nations war, but it's completely absurd in a conflict where the "other side" is actually hundreds if not thousands of different/unrelated actors and can successfully attack a country like the U.S. using just a few people at a time. Sending 160,000 troops to Iraq does absolutely nothing to prevent a terrorist group like al-Qaeda from sending over a couple of "exchange students" to dump botulinum toxin into the Akron reservoir.

Okay check that — it does nothing positive. Because it might prevent such attacks in the sense of giving foreign terrorists an array of more enticing targets to shoot at who are closer to home. But in real terms the idea "we fight them over there so we don't have to fight them here" is just magical thinking, the kind of notion that feels like it makes sense because your brain is running amok in the unconscious making unsupervised connections between unrelated things, sort of like an OCD patient who believes that if he steps on every third sidewalk crack he won't get into a car accident. What's amazing about this sort of propaganda is that once it gets hammered into your head enough, the logic of it begins to feel self-evident, above the need for explanation. Over and over again on the campaign trail last year I had people explain this concept to me by simply repeating themselves. I once asked a guy in South Carolina who had laid that line on me if he thought our forces in Iraq were, simultaneous to their occupation mission, physically blocking the airports in Saudi Arabia and Yemen to keep potential terrorists from coming to the U.S.– if that was why fighting them over there kept "them" from committing terrorist acts here.

"You're not listening to me," he said. "The point is that if we weren't over there, we'd be fighting them here. Now that we're over there, they fight us there."

"But why can't they attack us here anyway?" I asked.

He stared at me for something like thirty seconds. I remember having enough time to check to make sure I had tape left on my recorder. "Because we're over there," he said finally.

It's the same thing with this torture business.  There are a lot of people in this country who genuinely believe that torture opponents are "not upset" about things like 9/11 or the beheading of American hostages.  The idea that "no one complains when Americans are murdered" is crazy — of course we "complained," and of course we'd all like to round up those machete-wielding monsters and shoot them into space — but these people really believe this, they really believe that torture opponents are secretly unimpressed/untroubled by Islamic terrorism, at least as compared to American "enhanced interrogation." For them to believe that, they must really believe that such people are traitors, nursing a secret agenda (an agenda perhaps unknown even to themselves, their America-hatred being ingrained so deep) against their own country. Which is really an amazing thing for large numbers of Americans to believe about another large group of Americans, when you think about it.

The reason it's possible is that it's been drilled into their heads to instinctively perceive opposition to their point of view as support for their enemies. They've lost the ability to distinguish between real, honest-to-God enemies (al Qaeda, Kim Jong-Il) and people they simply disagree with or dislike (Boston liberals, the French, gays, the ACLU, etc).

If you give a Yankee fan shit about Joba Chamberlain's fist pumps, his first answer is going to be to wonder why you're not also complaining about Jonathan Papelbon's screaming — because he assumes everyone who disagrees with a Yankee is a Red Sox fan. The same sort of thing is at work here. You bring up the subject of torture as an American citizen, concerned about what allowing torture would do to us as a society, how it would change us, and these people answer the issue by wondering why we're not also complaining about the terrorists on 9/11 or in Fallujah. Because the thinking here is that everyone who disagrees with the torture position is in some degree or another in league with a real murderous enemy.

They don't understand that this is not a question of taking different sides in a war; this is two groups of Americans having a disagreement about how best to deal with a foreign enemy both of these groups of Americans despise, fear and revile equally. My group, the anti-torture group, believes that what should make us superior to terrorists is respect for law and due process and civilization, and that when we give in and use these tactics, we forfeit that superiority and actually confer a kind of victory to the al Qaedas of the world, people who should never be allowed any kind of victory in any arena. We furthermore think that the war on terror doesn't get won with force alone, that it's a conflict that ultimately has to be won politically, by winning a propaganda battle against these assholes, and we can't win that battle so easily if people in the Middle East see us openly embrace these tactics.

Whether or not you agree with that is up to you — we could be wrong, after all — but when you respond to these arguments by asserting that people like me didn't "complain" when Americans were tortured and murdered, what you're really doing is calling me a traitor. And while it may be more interesting and exciting for you to think like that, in reality it's just nuts. Seriously. Trust us on this one. So think it over and ask yourself again if it really makes sense to say that torture opponents like me didn't "complain" when Americans get their heads chopped off. Ask yourself if you really mean that, before you say it. And then get back to me.

Top 1 percent's 'missing' wealth

Very interesting!

Pondering America's Most Puzzling Inequality Stat

Families in the nation's top 1 percent are grabbing a rising share of the nation's income. So why do newly released Federal Reserve numbers show no jump in their share of the nation's wealth?

April 20, 2009

By Sam Pizzigati |


[I]n 2007, even without the fortunes of the Forbes 400, the top 1 percent still held a whopping 33.8 percent of America's total family wealth. Families in the bottom 90, all together, only held 28.5 percent.

Robert Frank, the Wall Street Journal reporter who covers the paper's wealth beat, finds these numbers deeply troubling — and not just for the obvious reason that they reveal a staggeringly unequal America. For Frank, the Fed numbers on the top 1 percent's wealth just don't make sense statistically.


The Wall Street Journal's Robert Frank has still another explanation for the top 1 percent statistical puzzle, an explanation that no one, he concedes, can yet prove.

Those huge incomes that go into rich people's pockets aren't translating into a greater share of the nation's wealth, Frank postulates, because the rich have been busy spending massively on "McMansions, yachts, planes, Gucci bags, bottles of Mouton Rothschild, and $300,000 watches."

The rich, in other words, have been consuming, not investing, a huge chunk of their incomes. Now some of this consumption may add to a rich person's net worth on paper. A yacht, for instance, can appreciate in value over time. But much of this consumption — a $2,632 ticket to a ballgame at the new Yankee Stadium, for instance — simply subtracts from a rich person's net worth.

Could America's rich actually be consuming, on personal pleasures, enough to put a statistically significant dent on their share of U.S. family net worth? Maybe. We have no reliable national data on rich people's personal consumption. But every so often we do get a glimpse at the immense fortunes America's rich are regularly spending to be all they can be.

The puzzle of our top 1 percent's static net worth share, for now at least, must remain unsolved. Should that bother us? Does this puzzle, in the final analysis, really matter?

Sure does. The puzzle that the Wall Street Journal's Robert Frank has identified carries much more than just statistical significance. The entire rationale for cutting taxes on the rich rests, after all, on the notion that the wealthy will "invest" the extra dollars tax cuts deliver unto them. These investments, the argument goes, will strengthen the core economy and leave all of us better off.

But if the rich are frittering away their fortunes, they're not creating wealth, they're burning through it. And that, advises the Journal's Frank, ought to be "a worrying sign for those who hope that the rich are sitting on the sidelines with loads of accumulated wealth, ready to lead us into recovery."

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

T.I.: 'We have to put our guns down'

If homeboys can decide that guns shouldn't be "part of everyday life," then maybe good ole boys can, too.


Responsibility Is A Lifestyle: It's Time to Bury Da Beef

By T.I.

May 11, 2009 |


In a few weeks, I will begin a one-year prison sentence for being in the possession of illegal firearms. Where I come from, having a gun is just part of everyday life. But, through this painful process of going to court and being convicted, I realized that I had to make a change. I made some bad decisions. I broke the law and will accept my punishment. With deep reflection about where my life was headed, I have begun the process of redemption, and decided that before I go to prison, I want to speak to young people about responsibility as a lifestyle. I hope that through my mistakes, young people can begin to learn, as I did, that we have to put our guns down and start to give our guns back. It pains me inside to hear about so many of our people dying because of gun violence. Just in the past weeks, a 13-year old boy was shot in the head in Harlem, a 17- and a 19-year old were murdered in a double homicide in Queens and a 15-year-old was chased, beaten, shot and burned in Chicago.


We will gather today in Harlem, with many mentors and supporters by my side, including Rev. Al Sharpton, Russell Simmons, Kevin Liles,, Political Swagger, Mobile Regime and the C.H.A.N.G.E. Initiative to share the message that now is the time. Now is the time to speak out against gun violence. Now is the time to take responsibility for our actions. Now is the time to make our communities safer. Now is the time to support good legislation, like the S.N.U.G. bill in NY. Now is the time to give back our guns. Now is the time for me to lead by example.


We can and we will do better.

Harry & Louise want reform

According to Forbes, health care costs increased 8% per year from 1993 to 2007.  Inflation over that same period was less than 5%.  If "Hillarycare" or some other reform had passed in 1993, it's possible we could have kept costs even with inflation.  We all could have saved several hundred billion dollars. 

Health care costs are predicted to rise 6.2% per year until 2019.  But considering the 8% rate of increase in the abovementioned 14-year period, I fear that's a low estimate.  So, if we delay health care reform again (until another new, charismatic Democrat is elected President after Jeb Bush), we could pay an even steeper price and lose several hundred billion dollars more.  That's what's at stake.  That's our money that the health care industry is fighting to keep for itself.  We can't blame them for trying.  But we must blame Congress for not listening to us.  Last week, doctors and other advocates of a single-payer health insurance system were not included among the "stakeholders" invited to testify before the Democratic-controlled Senate Finance Committee.  When they stood up in the audience to protest, Sen. Max Baucus [D-Mont] ordered them escorted out by police, then laughed about it, along with John Kerry and other Democrats.

Bury Harry and Louise
By Joshua Zumbrun
May 11, 2009 |

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- When the Clinton administration attempted major health reforms in 1993 and 1994, industry groups rose up to crush them. The Health Insurance Association of America funded a series of ads featuring Harry and Louise, a generic American couple of the future, grumbling about the bureaucratic nightmare their health care had become.

This time around, President Barack Obama is trying to get the health care establishment on his side. Six of the biggest players in the industry came to the White House on Monday to pledge to reduce the rate at which U.S. health expenses are increasing. (See "The 1.5% Solution")

Obama, always predisposed to symbolism, drove the point home: "Harry and Louise, who became the iconic faces of those who opposed health care reform in the '90s, desperately need health care reform in 2009."

Standing behind him as he made the remarks were the leaders of the Advanced Medical Technology Association, the American Medical Association, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the American Hospital Association and the Service Employees International Union--trade groups representing medical technology companies, doctors, pharmaceuticals, hospitals and labor.

Also in attendance was the head of America's Health Insurance Plans, which was formed from a merger of the Health Insurance Association of America and another insurance lobby. The very group that ran the famous Harry and Louise ads is now onboard for reform.

What's changed? In 1993, national health expenditures were around $900 billion a year, or about $3,500 per person, according to the government's National Health Expenditure Accounts. By 2007, that had risen to $2.2 trillion, or $7,400 per person.

Left unchecked, the next decade is shaping up to be a rough one for Harry and Louise. If current trends continue, annual health expenditures would grow to over $4 trillion a year in about a decade. That'd be about $12,000 per person.

Monday's pledge is to slow that growth, so that in a decade we're spending $600 billion less a year than we otherwise would be. But where those savings will come from is unclear.

Some specific savings have been identified by the White House, such as unnecessary re-admissions to hospitals. Almost one-fifth of hospitalizations under Medicare occur for people who had been discharged from the hospital within the month. Doing a better job the first time they're in the hospital could save $25 billion over the decade.

Changes to Medicare Advantage plans could reduce overpayment by $177 billion over the next decade. The plan also calls for "pay for performance" plans. Currently a doctor would be reimbursed at a certain rate for each X-ray and procedure, which creates an incentive to order up a lot of unnecessary tests.

With a "pay for performance" plan, a doctor would receive a fixed rate for, say, fixing someone's knee, eliminating the incentive to order up lots of unnecessary test. This could save $12 billion over 10 years.

The industry has pledged to reduce the growth in costs by 1.5 percentage points a year, which works out to saving $2 trillion over 10 years. The savings identified thus far are a fraction of that.

[I think we can put that promise in the same category as, "Profits from Iraq's oil will pay for reconstruction." - J]

More important to the industry groups is ensuring that they have a seat at the table. In 1993, the Democrats had control of both houses of Congress, but there were 57 Democrats. With the defection of Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter to the Democratic Party, and assuming Al Franken prevails in the still-unresolved legal battle for the open Senate seat from Minnesota, there will be 60 Democrats.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, says he's determined to move health care legislation this year. "Health care reform is my top priority and I look forward to working with these stakeholders as we consider a health care reform bill in the Finance Committee in June," says a statement from Baucus. "I'm confident that together with doctors, hospitals, patient groups and industry experts, we will determine the best ways to get health-care costs down, improve patient care and build the health care system that Americans deserve this year."

[Um, excuse me, but what about the 300 million stakeholders called the American people?  Who in Washington is listening to them?  Take your pick: poll after poll after poll shows increasing numbers of Americans fed up with our health care system and would support either a single-payer health insurance system, or, as Obama has proposed, an expanded role for Medicare, and/or a federal "national health insurance exchange."  A majority of Americans, to their credit, are also willing to pay higher taxes if it means insuring every American.  In addition, 60% of members of the National Small Business Assocation supported a "federally funded, government administered health care system financed through taxes."  Even 59% of U.S. physicians surveyed in 2008 supported a single-payer system, not to mention the 124,000-member U.S. College of Physicians.  So... who's more important, these stakeholders, or the ones making all the money off the current system?  Whose voices are more important? - J]

By jumping on board, the health care industry hopes to stop the proposals it feels would be most damaging. (Ultimately, if people are paying less for health care, then someone--the doctors, or the hospitals, or the insurers, or the drug companies, or the tech firms--will probably receive less.)

Insurers, for example, are particularly worried that the government would introduce a government health insurance plan that could damage their business. It may be dismaying, then, for them to hear Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., talk about Monday's announcement. "This commitment to cost-cutting is a good-faith gesture by the health care industry, but it does not mitigate the need for a public plan option in the upcoming reform bill," says Schumer.

The health industry will not really have any accountability to make the cuts pledged Monday. But they've clearly decided that this time, when it comes to health care legislation, it's better to be on a freight train than in front of one.