Monday, December 22, 2008

Waiting for Obama

It is incredible what people say under the compulsion of torture, and how many lies they will tell about themselves and about others; in the end, whatever the torturers want to be true, is true.
-- Friedrich von Spee, Precautions for Prosecutors, 1631

Intense pain is likely to produce false confessions.
-- CIA interrogation manual, 1963

No Sift next Monday; holiday travel and socializing is going to eat all my time this week. But the Sift will be back on January 5.

Thanks to all of you who have asked, but I'm faring quite well under Winter's assault on the Northeast. My apartment (in Nashua, NH) hasn't lost electrical power, and I'm getting a Currier-and-Ives view from my desk overlooking the Nashua River. Yesterday I got out and tromped around in the snow, which in our local wetland park varied from 1 to 2 feet depending on unpredictable wind patterns. The most amusing thing I saw was on Main Street. Some deceased local Nashua guy has a bust in the center of downtown. I've never learned his story and his full name always escapes me, but the bust is labeled "Larry". Well, Sunday it looked like Larry had joined the KKK -- the wind had sculpted snow into a peaked white hood over his head.

In this Week's Sift
  • The Torture Discussion Spreads. For the last few years, the easiest way to get yourself denounced as a wild-eyed radical was to claim that high-ranking officials who ordered torture -- which is a war crime -- should be investigated and maybe even prosecuted. But as the Bush administration goes out brazenly defending its legacy, more and more mainstream voices are calling for some kind of legal accountability.
  • What's the Point of a Stimulus? Recessions are a funny time: Individuals need to save more, but the economy as a whole needs to spend more. Government has to make up the difference.
  • The Next Time You're at the Book Store ... look for The Army of the Republic, a novel about what can happen when legal accountability (and other democratic processes) break down.
  • About Rick Warren. I seem to be the only liberal who likes the idea of him delivering the invocation at Obamas inauguration.
  • Short Notes. Lots of them this week, but they're short. Don't miss Time's Top 10s.

The Torture Discussion Spreads
Now that a Senate report has made official what we all knew anyway, you can add the New York Times to the list of folks who want Bush administration law-breakers brought to justice:

We can understand that Americans may be eager to put these dark chapters behind them, but it would be irresponsible for the nation and a new administration to ignore what has happened — and may still be happening in secret C.I.A. prisons that are not covered by the military’s current ban on activities like waterboarding. A prosecutor should be appointed to consider criminal charges against top officials at the Pentagon and others involved in planning the abuse.

If things had played out like they usually do on 24 -- if torture saved innocent lives, in other words -- then we would need to have a real ethical debate. But a current Vanity Fair article sums up the tragedy of it all:
In researching this article, I spoke to numerous counterterrorist officials from agencies on both sides of the Atlantic. Their conclusion is unanimous: not only have coercive methods failed to generate significant and actionable intelligence, they have also caused the squandering of resources on a massive scale through false leads, chimerical plots, and unnecessary safety alerts
So torture is not an ethical dilemma at all, any more than it was an ethical dilemma whether we should rescue the people at the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina. In both cases, having morally impoverished people at the top of our government led to big screw-ups with no redeeming features whatsoever.

Glenn Greenwald charts how the bizarre leftist idea that government officials should be accountable for their crimes is spreading in the mainstream media. And he notes one of the big roadblocks to be overcome: Any real investigation will show that top Democrats in Congress knew what was going on, but didn't want to challenge Bush for fear of appearing unpatriotic. This, by the way, is why you should stand by your principles even when the wind is blowing the other way. If you don't, and your principles turn out to be right, you look really pathetic. You end up having to let the bad guys escape just to save yourself.

Sign the petition to demand a special prosecutor.

What's the Point of a Stimulus?
Last week I discussed bailouts, and how they are just disaster-prevention measures; they can't end a recession. Next we need to talk about stimulus plans, which are supposed to create jobs and get the economy moving again.

The basic idea here goes back to John Maynard Keynes, for whom Keynesian economics is named. His main observation is that a modern economy can invest in its future (by building things that will make it more productive, for example), but it can't really save. In Biblical Egypt, Joseph could fill graineries during the seven fat years and draw them down during the seven lean years. But today, if we all economize by, say, making our old cars last another year, GM doesn't keep building cars and store them in a warehouse for a time when we all decide we want new cars. Instead, it shuts factories and throws people out of work.

When a modern economy is working well, the savings of one person are balanced by another person (or corporation) going into debt either to consume or invest. But we run into trouble when everybody gets scared and decides to save (or not borrow) at the same time. Falling consumption leads to cuts in production -- layoffs and bankruptcies, in other words -- which scares people even more and makes them want to save more. This is an example of how the Invisible Hand of the Market screws up sometimes. Individually, it makes sense to consume less and try to save during hard times. But when everybody does it, it just makes the hard times worse.

When our collective interest conflicts with our individual interests -- that's exactly when government needs to step into the picture. Government takes the collective action that would be stupid for us to take as individuals. You'd be crazy to say, "Times are hard, so I'm going to borrow a bunch of money and start a new business, because that's what the economy needs." But that really is what the economy needs.

Instead, government borrows a bunch of money and uses it to do something like rebuild our crumbling bridges, or build the kind of power grid we need if we're going to generate solar power in Nevada and wind power in South Dakota. That gives people not just jobs, but confidence. And then they start to borrow and spend and invest they way they would in a healthy economy.

Conservative versions of a stimulus plan involving cutting taxes rather than raising spending, but that only works if individuals spend their tax cuts. (The rich tend not to, so cutting their taxes is a particularly inefficient stimulus.) And if they spend their tax cuts on imports, they stimulate China's economy, not ours.

This is brilliant: The Republicans have been blaming the auto industry's problems on the UAW and demanding that part of any bailout be that UAW workers wages be cut to the levels of non-unionized workers in plants (mostly in the South) of foreign automakers. Here's the response: Any company that got TARP funds should cut its executive pay to at most 20 times worker pay, the average in Japan and Europe.

The Next Time You're at the Book Store ...
Look for The Army of the Republic by Stuart Archer Cohen. It's a very intelligent, very well written political thriller that captures a lot of the more extreme issues raised by the actions of the Bush administration.

A few years ago, during the Enron scandal, I had an intuition I decided not to talk much about: If a combination of smart lawyering and political influence allowed some big corporate malefactors (like Ken Lay) to walk away unpunished, that would create an opening for a left-wing terrorist group. In many segments of the population, assassinating a few such guys -- guys the law apparently couldn't touch -- would have been very popular.

This novel begins with precisely such an assassination, by a group calling itself the Army of the Republic. (They have the coolest logo: Take the acronym AotR and merge the o and t to form the crosshairs of a rifle scope. Make the t-shirt red and the logo black, and you'd sell a lot of them.) The novel is set in an America where the excesses of the Bush administration became even more excessive: The government is run for the benefit of a class of plutocrats, who are making fortunes by privatizing public resources like water systems. There have been more wars. The media is manipulated by the government/plutocrat agenda. Elections are electronic, votes are counted by private corporations under government contract, and nobody trusts the administration's "victories". The administration has appointed enough judges by now that the courts will not stand against them. There's a private security corporation called "Whitehall" (i.e. Blackwater) that operates under private contracts when it needs to do things government can't do, and under government contracts when it needs to do things private companies can't do; maybe it can do anything it wants.

The story is told in the first person, but the "I" shifts among three characters: a co-founder of AotR, a nonviolent liberal activist, and a plutocrat who didn't set out to be a bad guy and is struggling hard to deny that he is a bad guy now. All three narrators are well-drawn characters and have an intelligent understanding of their strategies -- you'll learn a lot about terrorism, non-violent organizing, and manipulating a democracy for your own benefit. The author allows each narrator his/her point of view; Cohen himself is clearly on the Left, but the plutocrat is not always wrong, and exactly what Cohen thinks about the AotR is debatable.

The novel raises and explores big questions without claiming to settle them: What do you do when democracy starts to fail? What's the role of violence? (The non-violent activist thinks that violent groups like AotR make it easier for the Regime to marginalize her. The terrorist thinks that nonviolent activism only works if there is also a threat of violence; he sees his group as the necessary Bad Cop that will cause the Regime to compromise with the nonviolent Good Cops.) When the justice system fails, is there a legitimate role for vigilantes?

In addition to the political insight, it's just a good novel. I love the spycraft of the old John le Carre cold-war novels, and there's plenty of that here. Also, Cohen writes good sentences. (That's something I admire in a writer. I kept walking into the next room and interrupting my wife: "Listen to this one.") He never settles for the cliche adjective or metaphor. And Cohen understands that you characterize a first-person narrator not by what he says about himself, but by what he says about other things: You picture the terrorist best when you ask "What kind of guy would use these words and think of these metaphors?"

With the elections of 2006 and 2008, you have to hope that the danger has passed. But if it hasn't, if a Bush-only-moreso administration is in our future, then I could imagine The Army of the Republic playing a role similar to the one that Edward Abbey's 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang played (for better or worse) with ecotage groups like Earth First! and the Earth Liberation Front.

It's only fiction until somebody does it.

About Rick Warren
Much ink was spilled this week over Barack Obama's decision to have Rick Warren give the invocation at his inauguration. On the Left, almost everybody seems to think Obama is insulting us by inviting Warren.

Speaking as somebody on the Left, I don't get it. I think my fellow liberal bloggers are completely missing the point of an inauguration. Here's Matt Yglesias' analogy:
If Ahmadenijad is defeated at the next election by a candidate promising to take Iran on a different, more constructive path in international relations a lot of people will be excited by that. If said candidate follows up his electoral victory by elevating a cleric
who’s well-known for his high-profile endorsement of assassinations, people will be upset about that. And rightly so.
And the problem with that view is this: The inauguration is about elevating Obama to the presidency; Warren doesn't get elevated to anything. (Glenn Greenwald also talks about "elevating" Warren.) I accept Matt's analogy between Warren and an Iranian cleric -- that's why I like the idea. If the hypothetical Iranian reformer could get a major conservative ayatollah to play a role in his office-taking ritual, then I'd be thrilled, not upset. It would mean that at least some faction of the theocracy was willing to acknowledge and take seriously the fact that they lost the election.

Because that's the message that Warren's presence sends. Conservative evangelicals are not going to look at Warren and say, "I guess we really won the election. We're still in power." No, they're going to see Warren acknowledge that Obama is president now. The symbolism, on both sides, says: "I don't care whether you voted for Obama or not. If you're really an American, he's your president." No corresponding symbolism says that Warren has to be my minister now.

That's why I refuse to be drawn into the arguments about whether Warren is a "good" evangelical (more interested in AIDS, the environment, and poverty than most of their leaders) or a "bad" evangelical (still down-the-line anti-gay and using "Holocaust" rhetoric against abortion). That's not the point. The point is that Warren is ready to acknowledge Obama as his president, rather than positioning himself as part of some real-America-in-exile, waiting faithfully for God-fearing people to take the country back.

Which is what Jerry Falwell did. Let me tell you a story about Jerry Falwell. On election night in 1996, Bill Maher was doing a special edition of "Politically Incorrect" on Comedy Central. I happened to be watching at the moment when they reported that Clinton had over 270 electoral votes now and had been re-elected. Falwell was on Maher's panel, and (while I don't have a transcript in front of me) I swear to God the first words out his mouth were: "Well then, he'll have to be impeached."

Rick Warren accepted an invitation to give the invocation at Obama's inauguration. Jerry Falwell would never, never, never have done that.

Colbert King more-or-less agrees with me, and adds some historical research I was too lazy to do. Here's what I found most interesting: Having a minister begin the ceremony with prayer doesn't go back into the dim recesses of time. FDR started it with his second inaugural in 1937.

If you want to understand the passionate reaction to Warren's selection among gays and lesbians, read this.

Oh, and that religious-right talking point about how abortion leads to depression or some "post-abortion syndrome"? Nothing to it, apparently.

Short Notes
Interesting article in Public Eye about conservative "post-Palin feminists" and what the Sarah Palin candidacy means to them. On the one hand Palin represented "traditional family values". But on the other hand, Dad was watching the kids and being an attractive prop behind Mom's run for national office. It's hard to picture that happening in, say, your basic suburban ranch-house family of the 1950s.

In general, liberals and conservatives alike tend to underestimate the extent to which the meaning of "traditional" shifts from one generation to the next. The article quotes scholar Bradford Wilcox saying that white Evangelicals “typically talk right and, often unwittingly, stumble left.”

While you're at the Public Eye website, you might want to look at this critique of conservative "marriage promotion" policies as a way to address poverty.

Malcolm Gladwell has a fascinating New Yorker article that takes a while to develop. It starts out like a sports article, talking about how you can't predict which college quarterbacks will succeed in the NFL. But quarterbacking is just an example of a larger phenomenon: jobs where the so-called "qualifications" don't correspond to success. In such a situation raising your hiring standards won't improve quality, because the top performers aren't necessarily those who meet the top hiring standards.

Then we get to the real point: teaching. Higher grades in college, more education, higher scores on standardized tests -- none of that predicts who's going to be a good teacher. And good teachers really do matter. He claims that a really bad teacher gets half a year of progress out of an average student in a year, while a really good teacher gets a year and a half of progress -- a 1 year-per-year difference.

Gladwell winds up with a completely different model of how we should hire and retain teachers: Lower standards, hire way more new teachers than we need, see who actually succeeds or fails in the job, fire all but the top performers among the new teachers, and pay the survivors well enough that it was worth the risk of failing. After all, that's what we do with quarterbacks.

Speaking of quarterbacks ... for reasons I don't fully understand, it seems like a lot of football players die young. (That "GU" on everybody's helmet this season is for Hall of Famer Gene Upshaw, who died at 63.) But not the legendary Slingin' Sammy Baugh, who just clocked out at 94.

During the presidential campaign, Bill Ayers took a lot of opportunistic abuse from the right. But the people who have a lasting resentment of him are on the left.

Climate Progress says that the selection of John Holdren as Obama's science advisor, together with naming Stephen Chu as Energy Secretary, signals that "Obama is dead serious about the strongest possible action on global warming."

Retired General Wesley Clark tells the Democrats and the military how to get along. I saw Clark speak twice while he was campaigning for president in 2004, and once at the YearlyKos convention of 2007. He's always made a lot of sense to me.

Algiers Point is a white enclave in New Orleans, and also happened to be an island of safety during Hurricane Katrina. According to a new article in The Nation, the residents didn't set up an aid station for the blacks who came through escaping the floods. Instead, they armed themselves, considered any stranger as a potential looter, and shot a number of them. There seem to be a lot of witnesses to these shootings, but the police aren't interested.

It turns out I'm not the only person who is horrified by It's a Wonderful Life.

In its continuing effort to do as much damage as possible before leaving office, the Bush administration's EPA is going to allow more coal-fired power plants.

Now that a Democratic administration is in the wings, George Will is starting to notice that the executive branch is out of control.
Time magazine has assembled an awesome set of Top 10s. Don't miss: the viral videos, underreported stories, awkward moments, late-night TV gags, oddball news stories, and open-mic moments.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Crisis and Opportunity

To those who have plenty of personal opportunity, speak first about the environmental crisis. But to those who have plenty of personal crises, speak first about the environmental opportunities -- and how solutions for the Earth's woes can be solutions for their problems too.

-- Van Jones

In This Week's Sift:
  • The Big Picture on Bailouts. They can't stop the recession, but that's not the point. Avoiding a depression is the point.
  • The Next Time You're in the Book Store... pick up The Green Collar Economy by Van Jones. Lots of authors have good if-I-were-the-dictator plans. Jones has a good since-we're-a-democracy plan.
  • Short Notes. A bipartisan Senate report says that the blame for torture belongs at the top. A right-wing pastor wants courts to order gays into treatment. With a Democrat about to take office, the media goes back the Clinton Rules. Pakistan has multiple personality disorder. And Michael Ware is addicted to war.

The Big Picture on Bailouts
The current economic mess has so many sub-messes that it's easy to lose the big picture. Let me reframe a little: The important thing to worry about is the potential for Great Depression II. We're not there yet, but we could get there.

Most of what we've seen so far, painful as it is, is normal recession stuff: lost jobs, foreclosed houses, businesses cutting back or going under, and the market plummeting. That's all very bad for the individuals affected, but from a society-wide point of view it's just what happens. At the end of every business cycle, like clockwork, businesses get too bold. They overbuild and overexpand. Memories of the last recession get dim and big returns for little effort start to seem normal, so people forget to be skeptical of schemes that are too good to be true. When that happens, a recession has to restore the natural balance. It's the yin/yang of capitalism: When greed seems to have totally vanquished fear, fear has to make a comeback.

The last few recessions have not been nearly this bad, but anybody who lived through the recessions of the mid-70s or early-80s should know what I mean. Things got nasty for a while, but the balance got restored in a year or so and a new cycle started.

But depressions have a feature that recessions lack -- cascading bankruptcy. It works like this: You think your business is doing fine, but then I declare bankruptcy. When you factor in the likelihood that I'm never going to pay my bills, you realize that you're bankrupt too. After you announce that, your creditors discover that they're not solvent either. And on and on and on, like the chain reaction in an atom bomb.

That's what the bailouts have been trying to prevent. Even if I'm a terrible businessman who deserves to go under, the government stepping in to pay my debts might allow you and all your creditors stay in business. Bailouts can't fix the underlying recession -- we still built too much and expanded too far and trusted people we shouldn't have, and those chickens still have to roost somewhere -- but the whole economy doesn't have to go down the drain.

It's important to realize that such bailouts are only a short-term strategy. Eventually, poorly-run businesses have to fail, and fear has to be allowed to have its day. Otherwise, you're on your way towards a Soviet system -- and we know how well that worked. But the legitimate role of a bailout is to keep a big, poorly-run business from failing so abruptly that it takes a bunch of well-run businesses down with it.

That gives some context for thinking about the proposed auto-industry bailout. In the long run, the world has more auto-manufacturing capability than it needs, and some of those factories are going to have to close. But if GM, Ford, and Chrysler go out of business tomorrow, then (as Dick Cheney says) "It's Herbert Hoover time." A lot of well-run businesses that supply the auto industry are going to go down too.

Neither Republicans nor Democrats are ready to let that happen. But each has its preferred way to keep the factory doors open. The Democrats want a special arrangement that gives the government a seat at the table as the auto industry re-organizes. The Republicans want the re-organization to happen through the ordinary bankruptcy process -- the same way a bunch of airlines re-organized a few years ago.

The difference between the parties' positions reflects their divergent visions of the economy's underlying problems. Republicans believe that workers make too much money and have too much security; citizens get too many services from the government; rich people pay too much tax; capitalists are over-regulated; and markets will find the best solutions if government gets out of their way.

By contrast, Democrats believe that workers make too little money -- the distribution of wealth has gotten too skewed; capital needs more regulation -- otherwise it gets drawn into the kinds of schemes that created Wall Street meltdown; and the government needs to take the lead in some kind of integrated approach to our energy, environmental, and healthcare problems -- the market won't find the right solution on its own.

Republicans prefer bankruptcy court because a judge's first responsibility is to the creditors. Because a bankruptcy judge can break union contracts, s/he could fix that awful problem of working people making too much money and having too much job security. Democrats prefer a "car czar" who would have broader responsibilities -- not just to the creditors, but to the workers, communities, and the overall economy.

That stuff about UAW workers making $73 an hour is bogus. The people who keep repeating it know it's bogus.

Has there ever been a less professorial Harvard professor than Elizabeth Warren? She heads the congressional panel overseeing the $700 billion bank bailout, but Warren's interview with Rachel Maddow doesn't sound like anything you typically hear on TV. Imagine the conversation two ordinary people would have if they were well informed and very, very smart.

An anonymous middle-school teacher in Kentucky explains how the economic crisis is starting to affect her classroom. And that post got an echo from this teacher.

Yields on 3-month treasury bills briefly went negative Tuesday. That ought to be impossible.

One leader of the opposition to the auto bailout was Louisiana's Republican Senator David Vitter, the D.C. madam client. The leader of the Shreveport GM workers comments: "He'd rather pay a prostitute than pay auto workers."

The Next Time You're in the Book Store ...
... look at The Green Collar Economy by Van Jones. I can't think of anything currently available that pulls together so many of the right ideas -- environmental, economic, and political.

The book's subtitle is "How one solution can fix our two biggest problems". The two problems are saving the environment and our economy, and the solution is a Green New Deal, a massive re-orientation of our economy into a sustainable path that would along the way create large numbers of new businesses and new jobs.

Lots of books tell you about the environmental crisis or some unsustainable part of our economy and how something must be done. A few books go on to discuss one aspect of that something -- windmills or conservation or locally-produced food or some other step in the right direction. This is the only book I know of that goes on to describe how all those somethings could get done -- by building a green populist movement based on locally-visible issues, a movement that very plainly tells ordinary people how it will make their lives better.

The difference between Jones and a lot of other liberal writers is that he's willing to face this problem: The Left is still largely segregated by race and class. As an activist from the San Francisco Bay area, one of Jones' ongoing challenges has been to get the well-to-do environmental activists of Marin County and the working-class environmental justice movement in inner-city Oakland to work together. (In a nutshell -- and stereotyping only a little -- environmentalists wonder what global warming is doing to the polar bears; environmental justice is about why so many untreated chemical-waste sites are near poor, non-white neighborhoods.)

Environmentalism remains a niche issue because environmentalists are so easily stereotyped as elitists -- driving expensive hybrid cars, eating expensive organic food, and vacationing in exotic places that they want to keep pristine. On the other side of the class divide, people may not like their job in the coal mine or in the factory that pollutes their air, but they have to pay the bills somehow. Images and slogans that motivate professional-class environmentalists often have the opposite effect on the less well-off. (That's what this week's opening quote is about.) If you're wondering how you're going to feed your kids until payday and still make your rent payment at the end of the month, the idea that you should also be trying to prevent some nebulous environmental apocalypse is likely to be more than you can deal with. It sends you into despair or denial, not into action.

In addition to the usual environmental-apocalypse dystopia, Jones adds a new dystopia he calls eco-apartheid: The rich live in unpolluted areas with easy (if expensive) access to wilderness and healthy food, while the poor lead increasingly unhealthy and unsafe lives amidst ugliness and degradation. His contrasting view is eco-equity: We have to build a new economy anyway, so this time let's build one that doesn't leave anybody out. Building the new economy is going to take a lot of work at all skill levels, from inventing more efficient solar panels to retrofitting homes and offices to be more energy efficient. Let's make sure those are all good jobs that give people respect and a living wage.

Jones believes that any movement to achieve large-scale and lasting change (abolition, civil rights, and the New Deal are his models) has to be based on sweeping principles rather than ad hoc proposals. He proposes three principles for eco-populism: Equal protection for all; equal opportunity for all; and reverence for all creation. (That third principle is an explicit bid for religious support, which he thinks is necessary both to sustain the breadth of the vision and the breadth of the coalition necessary to achieve it.) And lest it get too abstract, the book is full of examples of existing programs, not just in liberal professional-class havens like Berkeley, but in Milwaukee and Chicago as well.

On a psychological level, Jones critiques some of the basic frames of left-leaning activism. He sees too many of us still trying to live out the David-and-Goliath story of a previous generation of activists. (Martin Luther King vs. the segregationists; Ralph Nader vs. GM; Woodward and Bernstein vs. the Nixon administration.) Would-be Davids come into a room looking for Goliaths -- and find them. Instead, Jones proposes a Noah frame: We're building something, and we need all the help we can get. If Goliath decides to pitch in, we've got some Goliath-sized jobs for him. He also recommends a frame he calls "the Amistad meets the Titanic" -- if they can't work together, the slaves and the slavers are both going down.

This attitude is reflected in the way Jones writes. He doesn't expect anyone to be perfect, so he can criticize without villifying. (Chapter 2, for example, is a very good thumbnail history of the environmental movement, describing both what we owe people like Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir as well as how we're still living with the effects of their mistakes and misconceptions.) And while he does not doubt that battles will have to be fought, he wants to avoid fighting the people who should be his allies, so that he arrives at the necessary battles with the largest possible coalition.
I first became aware of Van Jones when he spoke at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in June. (The first guy you see in the video is UUA President Bill Sinkford, not Jones.) He's an incredible speaker, and at the end of the talk we cheered as if he were a rock star who might come back for an encore. My comment the next day in my online journal was: "The world is fortunate that he wants to use his powers for Good."

Short Notes
The lead in a Washington Post article Friday:
A bipartisan panel of senators has concluded that former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other top Bush administration officials bear direct responsibility for the harsh treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, and that their decisions led to more serious abuses in Iraq and elsewhere.
Invictus analyzes what it all means for prosecuting war crimes. Short version: The legal cover the Bush administration set up for itself was too late; the crimes were already underway. The Senate report verifies the basic story that Philippe Sands was telling in his Vanity Fair article The Green Light back in April.

And it was all for nothing. The interrogator who caught al-Zarqawi says torture doesn't work. It's enough to make you throw your shoes. (See the video.)

The blog Gossip Boy punked right-wing Pastor Steve Kern by claiming to represent Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett. Apparently Cornett is seeking Kern's suggestions for who to put on the county's Library Commission -- part of a plan to purge any gay-friendly material from the local libraries -- so Gossip Boy posed as the staffer tasked with writing the mayor's official recommendation. By using anti-gay slurs himself ("faggots" and "perverts") GB made Kern comfortable enough to say this:
We have to ... start curing those sinners. It's past time that this nation stopped placating sin and start putting them in education programs. Courts can force drug offenders into treatment centers and violent people into anger management. There's no reason our courts can't do that with homos.
If you're curious what Kern means by "curing" gays, I reviewed a book on the subject here. As you might expect, the treatment doesn't even work on volunteers who really want it to work. Court-ordered "education programs" would be a little like the re-education camps Mao set up for his opponents during the Cultural Revolution.

Joe Conason wonders if the media's reaction to the Blagojevich scandal means that "the Clinton rules" are back: No negative speculation about a Democratic president is too unsupported to deserve attention. At Media Matters, Jamison Foser elaborates and names names:
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the media's attempts to link Obama to the Blagojevich scandal has been the volume of news reports that are purely speculative -- and not only speculative, but vaguely speculative. That is, they don't even consist of conjecture about specific potential wrong doing. They simply consist of completely baseless speculation that Obama might in some way become caught up in the investigation at some point in the future, for some reason. It's little more than, "Maybe Obama will be involved." Well, sure. And maybe he'll play shortstop for the Washington Nationals next year.

Associated Press reporter Liz Sidoti set the standard for pointlessly speculative news reports with an "analysis" piece declaring that "President-elect Barack Obama hasn't even stepped into office and already a scandal is threatening to dog him." In the very next sentence, Sidoti had to admit that "Obama isn't accused of anything" -- but that didn't stop her from continuing to offer ominous warnings that Obama could be implicated in the scandal, interspersed with concessions that he, you know ... isn't.
Meanwhile, (see the first Short Note) a new Senate report links high-ranking members of the Bush administration to war crimes -- actual crimes and actual links, not just vague speculations about "associations". How much coverage is that getting?

In contrast to the Nobel laureates Obama is appointing, a former State Department official recalls the hiring practices of the Bush administration. After telling the story of an ambassadorial candidate being interviewed by someone who couldn't pronounce the name of the country in question, law professor Thomas Schweich reports his own experience, which he describes as "typical":
I had three jobs in the Bush administration: ambassador for counternarcotics and justice reform in Afghanistan, deputy assistant secretary of state for international law enforcement affairs and chief of staff of the United States mission to the United Nations. For two of these jobs, my appointment was preceded by an effort by a 20-something in personnel to place an unqualified friend in the job
In other words, Monica Goodling was the norm, not the exception.

Juan Cole description of the puzzle that is Pakistan makes me think of multiple personality disorder. Whenever the powers-that-be in Pakistan have felt the need to do something inconsistent with their public persona, they have spun off some secretive, quasi-independent group to do it for them, like the "retired" intelligence officers who apparently trained the Mumbai terrorists. Once set up, these groups may even have their own funding sources -- drug smuggling or private donors. The government may not remember that they exist, much less know how to influence them.

Now, countries like the U.S. also do nasty things in secret, but we're more like a person who is just devious. No matter how hidden a program is from the public, it's listed somewhere in a classified part of the budget, and the chain-of-command could stop it if they wanted to. But unlike a devious person, a multiple-personality case really doesn't know how all these nasty things keep happening, and he feels helpless to stop them. That's President Zardari.

Of all the links in Cole's article, this one to Pakistani writer Irfan Husain is the most interesting.

Men's Journal just did a phenomenal article about CNN Iraq correspondent Michael Ware. I'm not going to stop watching him, but I'm going to feel a little bit guilty about enabling the war addiction that is wrecking Ware's life.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Recovering Our National Character

Character is much easier kept than recovered. -- Thomas Paine

In This Week's Sift:
  • Returning to the Rule of Law. We're coming to the end of an administration that has believed it is above the law. Is it enough that we got them out of office, or do they need to go to jail?
  • Cheap Gas: Energy Crisis Over? What is the market telling us when it prices gas at $1.75 a gallon? "Oh, never mind about that 'peak oil' stuff?" Why it's probably not time to buy a Hummer.
  • Short Notes. Soft power has a new name. The Obama-birth-certificate myth is a poster child for conspiracy theories. Kagan and Kristol propose new wars. Bush sincerely regrets that other people have made mistakes. And we just have to talk about naked cheerleaders, don't we?

Returning to the Rule of Law
People who don't work for either the Bush administration, Fox News, or the Weekly Standard share a fairly widespread agreement that laws have been broken: torture is illegal, warrantless wiretaps are illegal, using political criteria to hire civil-service employees is illegal. The last eight years have seen a wide range of illegal practices, together with a few examples of more targeted crimes, like the possible conspiracy to prosecute Alabama's Democratic Governor Don Siegelman.

But what should Obama do about it? Obviously, he should put a stop to any ongoing crimes as soon as he takes office. (If he doesn't, that will be the first clear evidence that "change" isn't all it was cracked up to be.) But should people be prosecuted, and if so, who? Do you start from the top (Bush and Cheney) or from the bottom (whichever CIA agent waterboarded Khalid Sheik Mohammed)? Or somewhere else? (John Yoo comes to mind.) Or should we have something like South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which would just try to get the truth out rather than punish people?

One of the best articles on this topic is by Harper's Scott Horton, who's been on top of these issues for years. Unfortunately, you have to subscribe to Harper's to see the article online. But the next best thing is Horton's interview with Glenn Greenwald. (A link to the audio is at the bottom of the page.) Horton makes two key points. First, the Bush administration is unique in American history. Greenwald sums up:
We don't have isolated serial cases of law-breaking; it's really an ideology of lawlessness -- a principle that was adopted that the president in general has the right to act outside the law -- that distinguishes it from even the worst law-breakers that have occupied the White House and government agencies.
Horton elaborates by referring to the account (in Barton Gellman's book Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency) of
David Addington, with the authority of Vice President Cheney, telling individuals who are putting in their proposals, to make their proposals completely disregarding the law, including the criminal law restrictions. And indeed, they specifically solicited proposals disregarding the law, and they implemented them disregarding the law -- knowing that they didn't have legitimate legal arguments to avoid the restriction, that they could just do it by force and dint of power and authority.
His second point is that torture is different than the other offenses. Not torturing is a core principal of the United States, going back to General Washington during the Revolutionary War and reaffirmed by President Lincoln during the Civil War. The issue goes to the core of what kind of country we want to be.

Horton wants Bush administration law-breaking investigated by a commission similar to the 9-11 Commission, with power to demand documents and compel testimony. Their report could be followed up by specific prosecutions that might be based in the Justice Department or handled by a special prosecutor.

The key thing to remember is that any process has to be sold to the public. If conservatives can spin it as a partisan witchhunt -- which they will certainly try to do -- then it won't matter who goes to jail. They'll just be martyrs to the conservative cause, and they'll be vindicated as soon as conservatives get back into power.

The bad example here is Iran/Contra. In the congressional hearings, Oliver North managed to cast himself in the Dirty Harry mold: the only person man enough to do what needed to be done. As a result, after North and John Poindexter's felony convictions were overturned on technicalities, no further action was taken against them. The first President Bush pardoned six Iran-Contrarians, including Elliott Abrams, who went on to have a position in the administration of the second President Bush. Other people tainted by the scandal also got positions under Bush II, with no public outrage to speak of.

So if Obama doesn't do this right, both legally and politically, the bad guys will come back to break the law again.

Other good discussions of this topic:
  • The Last Secrets of the Bush Administration by Charles Homans in Washington Monthly
  • No New Torture Probes in which Jack Goldsmith (former head of the Bush Office of Legal Counsel, who reversed some of the most egregious legal abuse by his predecessor John Yoo) argues in a Washington Post op-ed that Obama should let ongoing investigations in Congress and within the Justice Department move forward, but not push anything himself.
  • a Bloggingheads discussion between Jack Balkin (of Yale Law School and the legal blog Balkinization) and Eric Posner (of the University of Chicago Law School)
  • Progressivism and the Rule of Law by Senator Russ Feingold.

Digby discusses the case of Mary Beth Buchanan, one of the more politically tainted of the Bush U.S. attorneys, who is not planning to submit her resignation when Obama takes office.
When the US Attorney scandal broke, you'll recall that there was a lot of wingnut chatter saying that because Bill Clinton had asked for the resignations of all US Attorneys at the beginning of his term, Bush had a perfect right to fire US Attorneys who refused to do political dirty work. They set the stage for this at the time. It was entirely predictable that the new administration would be held to a completely new standard --- he would not be allowed to fire any US Attorney who had been appointed by Bush for any reason at all or risk being accused of using the Justice department for partisan gain. It's how they roll.
The principle here really isn't that difficult: U.S. attorneys are political appointees but shouldn't be political operatives. There are legitimate policy changes from one administration to the next, such as how to allocate law-enforcement resources among street crime, white collar crime, drugs, etc. So a new administration should have a chance to assemble a team that is in agreement with its policies. But political interference in specific investigations is completely beyond the pale.

Biologist Olivia Judson makes a plea for honest government science. Remember when this was a complete non-issue? Not so long ago, really.

Cheap Gas: Energy Crisis Over?
I've heard a lot of muttering about gas prices lately. Nobody minds the price coming down to $1.75 or so, but it makes last summer's $4 gas look all the more suspicious. Was all that talk about "peak oil" some kind of conspiracy or something?

Actually there's an economic explanation, and it's similar to why you can sometimes get plane tickets to London for $100 or some other ridiculous price. Both industries have high fixed costs and long lead times before supply can be matched to demand. Take the airlines: Once you've bought a plane, hired a crew, and rented gates at JFK and Heathrow, there's no way to get that money back. Instead, you've got a fixed number of seats to sell, and you charge whatever it takes to fill the plane. If you have to sell a bunch of $100 New-York-to-London tickets, you lose money. But you'd lose a lot more money if you kept the ticket price high and flew an empty plane.

Ditto for gasoline. Once you've drilled the wells, built the pipelines, set up the refineries, and contracted the supertankers -- that money's gone. Now you've got the capability to produce and distribute some quantity of gasoline -- way more than you can possibly store -- and so you have to sell it for what people will pay. In other words, supply is fixed in the short term. (In the long term, the oil companies can adjust supply by doing more or less drilling; but that takes a long time to have any effect. Or we could bring down supply by invading Iran.) So the price has to gyrate up or down to make demand match that fixed supply. If demand is high, the price might have to go up to $4 to dampen it. If it's low, you may have to sell gas for less than $2.

Things work differently for, say, the car companies. When demand crashes, they can close plants and bring supply down within a few weeks. That's why you never get the kinds of deals on new cars that you get on airline tickets -- no $5,000 Hummers, no matter how badly they're selling.

The price of gas is down now because the recession has crushed demand. (Demand is down partly because people started buying smaller cars last summer, but a much bigger factor is that the unemployed don't need to commute.) In the long run we're still running out of oil. But in the short run we're set up to produce gasoline faster than it can be sold at $4 a gallon during a recession.

It's not getting nearly as much coverage as the possibility that our car companies will go under, but our major newspapers are in trouble too. The Tribune Company, which owns the Chicago Tribune and the LA Times, has filed for bankrupcy. Fortune speculates that the New York Times (which also owns the Boston Globe) will be next.

As we replace fossil fuels, we'll probably have to change our industrial-age mindset. The industrial age was based on mass markets and one-big-solution thinking. So we have a tendency to look for One Big Thing that's going to replace oil: nuclear or solar or clean coal or some other One Big Thing.

But maybe the new economy will be based on a whole bunch of little ideas that each have their own niche. Commuting by bicycle, for example, is always going to be a better idea in flat Amsterdam than in hilly San Francisco.

Think about electric cars. Right now they have a short range, so you wouldn't do a one-for-one swap and replace your summer-driving-vacation family car with an electric. Now think about Hawaii. No oil of its own. A long way to ship gasoline. Lots of sunshine and wind. And no long distances to drive. Electric cars will need a lot of work before they're practical in Texas. But maybe not so much before they're practical in Hawaii.

I'm still working out what I think about an auto-company bailout, but it's always interesting to test the vague impressions I get from the media against actual data. After watching the news, I'd assume that U.S. car-makers are getting whipped by the competition because their cars are too big and they have UAW workers with big contracts. But Emptywheel looks at the numbers on November car sales and notices some things that don't fit: Year-over-year Honda and Toyota sales are down worse than Ford. And Prius sales are down 48.3% from a year ago, compared to, say, the Chevy Silverado, which is down only 22.5%.

U.S. auto companies have a lot of long-term problems, but their immediate problem isn't unions or gas-guzzlers, it's that people aren't buying cars. And the reasons they aren't buying are industry-wide, not something specific about the Big 3:
  • With gas bouncing up to $4 a gallon and back down to $1.75, nobody knows what kind of car it makes sense to buy.
  • Being anxious about their jobs, people don't know what they can afford.
  • We're in a credit crunch, so banks only want to give car loans to people who don't need them.
Any bailout that works is going to have to do something about those problems, not just front the companies some money or beat down the unions.

Short Notes
Jim Arkedis wins the rename-that-concept prize. For years, liberals have been arguing that the U.S. needs to use its economic, diplomatic, and cultural influence more effectively, and that if we did, we might occasionally get what we want from other countries without invading them. Unfortunately, the most common term for all that non-military clout has been soft power, which makes us sound like a bunch of softies. Go on TV to make the point that we should use soft power on, say, Iran, and you might as well be Colmes arguing with Hannity. Karl Rove would accuse you of wanting to give therapy to terrorists, and that would be the end of the discussion.

The problem with most renamings is that they sound way too clever and puffed-up, like calling garbagemen "sanitation engineers". But a good renaming is so natural that it can slip in without most people noticing. That's what Arkedis' does. So stop talking about soft power versus hard power; talk about civilian power versus military power. Why did we ever call it anything else?

Amazingly, the Obama-birth-certificate story is still alive. Salon has a good article using this as an example of how the internet keeps conspiracy stories going.

Like a bunch of other Obama rumors (he's a Muslim; he's part of some deep revolutionary conspiracy with Bill Ayers; etc.) it didn't get much attention in the mainstream media because there's actually no story. You see, unless something goes badly wrong at a newspaper, an article needs at least one fact -- preferably a newly revealed fact that makes the story "news". Nobody could find one here. But to the rumor-spreading community, this neglect just showed that the media was covering up an Obama scandal. (You can see the process at work in the comments of this conservative blog article.)

One of ongoing missions of The Weekly Sift is to provide simple rules for judging news stories and would-be news stories, so that you can decide whether they're worth getting upset about. Here's one: When you come across some media-coverup charge, look at the neglected story and try to imagine rewriting it as a news article. What's your lead? When you break a story, you need to start your article with a fact -- not an accusation, a rumor, a possibility, or an explanation of why some piece of countervailing evidence should be disregarded, but at least one relevant thing that you know to be true. If you can't find one, or if the uncontestable facts you can find seem trivial or distant from the main thrust of the story, then you don't have news. Chances are, you've just repeated the thought process that is going on in newsrooms around the country.

Because occupying two Muslim countries isn't enough, neocon Robert Kagan proposes "an international force to work with the Pakistanis to root out terrorist camps in Kashmir as well as in the tribal areas. ... Would such an action violate Pakistan's sovereignty? Yes, but nations
should not be able to claim sovereign rights when they cannot control
territory from which terrorist attacks are launched."

Meanwhile, Bill Kristol wants to invade Somalia. I mean, why not? Other than our troops and the Somalians, who'd even notice?

In his interview with Charles Gibson, President Bush was asked if he would wish for a "do-over" of anything in his administration. Now, with the advantage of hindsight there are a hundred answers he might have given without accepting any real blame. For example, who wouldn't wish that we had built up the levees in New Orleans before Katrina got there? Or that we'd implemented the recommendations of the 9-11 Commission before 9-11?

But even something like that is too self-critical for The Worst President Ever. So he wished that the intelligence services hadn't given him bad information about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. In other words, he deeply regrets that other people made mistakes. He's a victim of those mistakes, not a mistake-maker himself. (Maybe he should read the 150-page report from the GAO about the screw-ups he bequeathes to the Obama administration.)

Matt Yglesias and Eugene Robinson say what needs to be said. Tom Tomorrow imagines an alternate world in which Bush really doesn't have anything to regret. And uses a Bush impersonator to make their own Bush exit interview.

Maybe Bush can't regret his bad moves because he's not done making them yet. Like this new "right of conscience" rule for medical service providers. Here's my question: If a Catholic doctor can refuse to prescribe (or even mention) the morning-after pill to a rape victim, can a Jehovah's Witness technician refuse to give me a blood transfusion? I mean "morally objectionable" is in the eye of the beholder, isn't it?

In the email version of last week's Sift, I spelled Barry McCaffrey's name wrong. Meanwhile, Glenn Greenwald discusses NBC's inability to grok McCaffrey's conflict-of-interest, and Scott Bateman re-animates a McCaffrey interview with Chris Matthews.

Every now and then a story makes me realize that I never completely grew up -- sometimes the teen world still makes more sense to me than the adult reaction to it. For example: this breathless CNN discussion of the high school cheerleaders who got kicked off the squad after they text-messaged nude pictures of themselves to their boyfriends ("sexting" is the new word) and those photos got forwarded all over the school. The segment is three minutes of hyperventilation occasionally interrupted by a total non sequitur. One CNN "expert" tells parents to "take a stand" by not letting their kids have camera-phones. (Yeah, that'll solve it.)

Maybe I'm crazy, but it seems to me that the villains here are the guys who started forwarding the photos. In fact, everyone who looked at somebody else's private message -- including, say, the school officials -- deserves a reprimand. As for the girls, they've learned the eternal Watergate-tapes lesson: Don't make documents that you don't want to get out. And I'll bet they had already learned that lesson pretty well by the time the photos made it to the principal.

The folks at feministing have a similar point of view. Maybe they never completely grew up either.

Latest sign that global warming is real: The Northwest Passage is becoming commercially feasible.

Read any of the NYT's ten best books of 2008? Me neither. Maybe I'd have a better shot at the ten worst books.

Didn't you always want to see Jack Black play Jesus? Now you can in Prop 8: the Musical.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Is "trillion" really a number?

No warning can save a people determined to become suddenly rich. -- Lord Overstone

In this week's Sift:

  • The Scale of the Bail. How can bailing out the financial system possibly cost this much money?
  • Tea-leaf-reading the Transition. I'd love to tell you exactly what Obama's appointments mean for the next four years, but I can't. And don't think anyone else can, either.
  • Media Corruption. Wouldn't it be nice to watch a TV talking head without needing to wonder who's paying him?
  • Short Notes. When I figure something out about Mumbai, you'll be the first to know. It's a tough winter for squirrels in Washington. The Evangelical sex problem. And Nixon as the father of modern Republicanism.

The Scale of the Bail
From the beginning, the strangest thing about the economic crisis has been its scale. The amounts of money being thrown around to solve it are way out of proportion to the size of any suggested cause. And even those sums don't solve it.

TPM took a whack at listing all the government bailout programs, being careful to separate out direct loans and investments from less direct stuff like loan guarantees. If you just blindly total it up, you wind up in the $5-$10 trillion range. Presumably a bunch of that will get paid back, and the government might even make a profit on some of it, but still it's one of those size-of-the-universe numbers that's hard to relate to anything. (For example, the total federal debt at the end of the Clinton administration was about $5.7 trillion. It took two centuries to run that up, not a few months.)

So what caused our many-trillion-dollars-so-far problem? Ask anybody and you'll hear about the housing bubble, subprime mortgages, defaults, falling house prices, and so on. But the New Yorker did a long article on Fed chief Ben Bernanke recently, and gave this account of why Bernanke didn't see the crisis coming:
Relative to the fourteen trillion dollars in mortgage debt outstanding in the United States, the two-trillion-dollar subprime market seemed trivial. Moreover, internal Fed estimates of the total losses likely to be suffered on subprime mortgages were roughly equivalent to a single day’s movement in the stock market, hardly enough to spark a financial conflagration.
In other words: When this started, all the mortgages in the United States were $14 trillion, including $2 trillion of subprime. As of mid-summer, about 90% of all mortgages had their payments up to date, and even the ones that will eventually default are not going to be total losses. The underlying houses are worth something, after all, even in cases where they won't cover the outstanding value of the loan.

So let's do a back-of-the-envelope calculation: Say the 10% of mortgages with late payments all end up in foreclosure. Ten percent of $14 trillion is $1.4 trillion. Now let say that the underlying properties are only worth 80% of the outstanding value on the loan, so there will be a 20% loss for the banks and investors to eat. That gets you a $280 billion loss.

The point of that calculation isn't to be exactly right, but to establish scale. (Suppose another 10% of mortgages eventually go under; now you're up to $560 billion.) Where do we wind up with a $10 trillion problem? To get a $10 trillion loss just from mortgages, you'd have to have all mortgages default, and then underlying properties only sell for about 30% of the value of the loan.

Well, there's a reason for the scale, but it's way more complicated than the people-bought-houses-they-couldn't-afford version. (And, by the way, all those conservative attempts to blame the crisis on too much government regulation depend on the people-bought-houses-they-couldn't-afford explanation.) The real problem isn't in the mortgages themselves, it's in what happened to those mortgages after Wall Street got hold of them. It's a two-step process.

The first step is known as securitization. (Alan Greenspan attributed the current crisis to "not the subprime problem itself, but to the securitization of subprime.") There's a pretty good article about this on Wikipedia, along with a very good diagram, so I won't go into a lot of detail. Here's the important point: A mortgage-backed security can wind up being worthless, even if the houses the mortgages are based on still have value. This is because the mortgage pool gets sliced up in such a way that one set of investors gets first call on any payments, then the next set of investors gets paid, and so on down to maybe a fifth tier, who will probably lose everything.

Securitization re-arranges the losses and creates uncertainty that freezes the system. (Imagine throwing one poison M&M into a bag. Who's going to eat anything out that bag?) But to blow the problem completely out of scale you need the second step: short selling. This is the part of the problem that most people don't understand at all. Fortunately, there's finally a good recent article about it by Michael Lewis, author of the book Liar's Poker about the boom-bust cycle on junk bonds in the 1980s.

It a nutshell, short selling means selling something you don't own. When you put it like that, it sounds like it ought to be illegal, but it goes back to the very beginnings of our market system. (If you're the kind of person who learns stuff best from fiction, pick up the novel The Coffee Trader by David Liss. It's set in the Amsterdam commodities exchange in the 1600s. You can also learn about short selling from the Eddie Murphy/Dan Ackroyd movie Trading Places. If I remember right, the film includes this pithy rhyme by 19th-century financier Daniel Drew: "He who sells what isn't his'n // must buy it back or go to prison.")

In 17th-century Amsterdam, the commodity traders would sell (for future delivery) the cargo of ships that hadn't arrived yet. If a ship sunk, the trader would have to buy the commodity somewhere else to make his contract good. Eventually somebody noticed that you could sell the cargo of a non-existent ship, and if the commodity price dropped before the ship was supposed to come in, you could cover your contract for less than you got by selling it. (If the price went up, on the other hand, you had a problem.) Short selling was born. It continues to be completely legal on investment exchanges of all sorts.

So as a strategy, short-selling works like this: You believe the price of something is going to go down, so you sell it (even though you don't own it). After the price goes down, you clean the slate by buying back the thing you sold. Because it costs less now, you made a profit.

Now imagine that you were one of the first people to figure out that these mortgage-backed securities were going to turn out to be worthless. (Such a person is the main character in Lewis' article.) You could sell them short, and after the rest of the world figured out that they were worthless, buying them back would cost you nothing. 100% profit, in other words.

But trading doesn't create value, so one person's trading gain is another person's trading loss. That means somebody bought a mortgage-backed security that never really existed in the first place and lost money on it.

And that's why the losses might be so huge. Short-sellers walked away with vast sums of money, and the banks and investment banks -- and now you the taxpayer -- might wind up with losses that are far larger than the losses on the underlying bad mortgages. And the short-sellers aren't even villains. They were just right. It's as if Lehman Brothers took their clients' money and made a vast bet on the Patriots to win last year's Super Bowl (which seemed like a good bet at the time). The people who bet on the Giants (and wound up with the money) wouldn't be the villains in the story. The villains would be the lax regulators (who let Lehman do it), the investment-rating services (who did the equivalent of guaranteeing that the Patriots would win), and Lehman Brothers themselves.

Matt Yglesias raises a very good point concerning banks that are "too big to fail" and hence require government bailouts: Why don't we rig the system to discourage such banks from forming in the first place? It wouldn't be that hard and shouldn't even require any Standard-Oil-type breakups. Just make it a rule of thumb that the bigger you are, the more stringently you're regulated. If you're a giant-bank CEO who finds the regulations oppressive, you just have to spin off some subsidiaries and get small again.
So far it's taking about $150 billion of federal money to keep insurance giant AIG -- once a very profitable company -- from going bankrupt. Probably if your on-the-job screw-ups were vying for a place in The Guiness Book of World Records, it wouldn't occur to you to expect a bonus. But the economy works differently for the corporate elite. (The people who wrecked Wachovia Bank are dividing $100 million, just to give one example.) So AIG got a lot of good publicity by announcing that its top execs won't get bonuses this year.

Except ... it turns out that 130 AIG managers will get "retention payments" -- in one case as much as $3 million. Naturally, there's an explanation: If AIG loses these executives it might be harder to sell off the parts of the company they run, which is how AIG is supposed to pay the government back. So the retention payments aren't just throwing good money after bad, they're protecting the public's investment.

I can't decide whether I want this explanation to be true or not. I mean, if it's false, then insurance executives are blatantly ripping off the taxpayer in full public view. I'd hate to think that's happening.

But if the explanation is true, it means that AIG executives are in demand. They're in such demand that we have to make special payments (over and above their already-high salaries) to avoid having them hired away (in this job market, no less) by companies who want to give their own stockholders the benefits of AIG-style management. Doesn't that thought make you shiver?

There's a lot of discussion going on about what kind of stimulus package Obama should put together, and this given new relevance to academic discussions about the Depression and the New Deal. Paul Krugman has been arguing that FDR's only mistake was not being bold enough: He worried too much about ballooning the deficit, and should have been more aggressive in spending on things like public works. Meanwhile, Price Fishback agrees that the New Deal wasn't that big a stimulus (and that even World War II wasn't that big an economic stimulus when you factor in the inflation hidden by price controls), but draws the conclusion that we don't really know what ended the Great Depression. So he's skeptical about the usefulness of a big stimulus plan in turning things around now.

Tea-leaf-reading the Transition
Political analysts are at their worst when they really want to find an answer, but there just isn't enough information to go on.

That's what's been happening with the transition these last few weeks. Blogs and mainstream pundits alike have put a lot of energy into analyzing what Obama's appointments and rumored appointments mean, but it's really impossible to say. Eight years ago some people looked at Colin Powell and foolishly got hopeful about Bush's foreign policy. But how much was that insight worth?

Basically, Obama's appointments are a Rorschach test. If you're the kind of liberal who believes that we always get screwed somehow, and that the Establishment always finds a way to co-opt the will of the People, then that's what you're seeing. Conversely, if you have a basic faith in Obama to assemble the best people and do the right thing, then you're seeing that.

Personally, I'm still in the faith-in-Obama camp, though I recognize that (like everybody else) I'm projecting my reaction onto events rather than genuinely reacting. My own decision-making philosophy amounts to this: You don't always have to follow the conventional wisdom, but you should always know what it says; and when you don't follow it, you should know why you're not following it. Unlike Bush and all his heckuva-job-Brownie appointments, Obama is picking people who will know the conventional wisdom. I'm hoping they'll also find reasons to violate it in a bunch of areas, but we'll see.
The Bush administration's push to politicize the non-political parts of government will continue right up to the inauguration. The Washington Post has been covering the process called "burrowing" -- in which people move from political appointments they're about to lose to permanent civil service jobs. Together with all the people already hired inappropriately for political reasons, these folks may form a Republican fifth column inside the Obama administration. The Bill Kristols and Rush Limbaughs should have a steady stream of embarrassing leaks for the next four years.

Media Corruption
One of my running themes is the media corruption we take for granted these days. For the most part, the pundits you see on TV or read on the op-ed pages are just saying what they want you to believe; it's not clear they believe it themselves. Their future is tied to their partisan identity, not to the insight or information they bring to you. Karl Rove doesn't plan to live on what Fox News pays him; he hopes to get back into power someday.

Well, sometimes the corruption goes way beyond this subtle where's-my-true-loyalty variety and becomes ordinary give-me-the-money corruption. This fall Dick Morris used his position as a Fox News commentator to push for viewers to donate to GOP Trust, a PAC that ran Jeremiah Wright ads against Obama late in the campaign. Guess what? Morris was being paid not just by Fox News, but by GOP Trust.

Sunday, the NYT ran a long article on the vast conflict-of-interest that is retired General Barry McCaffrey. The system works like this: McCaffrey (like a few dozen other former officers) uses his influence as an NBC commentator to sell the Pentagon's point-of-view to the public. This buys him influence with the Pentagon, which he uses to get contracts for Defense Solutions, a company that pays McCaffrey a whopping salary. Keep all this in mind the next time you see McCaffrey (or any retired general) on TV. He's not working for you, he's working on you.

Remember those reports that Sarah Palin didn't know Africa was a continent? Well, maybe that informed source wasn't as informed as we thought. Just be patient, I'm sure Sarah will say enough stupid things that we won't have to make any up.

As we get closer to taking action on greenhouse gases, expect to see more articles like this one in Politico: "Scientists urge caution on global warming." The article refers to a "growing accumulation of global cooling science", but doesn't quote a single global-cooling climatologist or refer to a single study from this "growing accumulation". (A meteorologist writing in the Old Farmers' Almanac doesn't count.) Maybe that's because there actually is no story here, and the Politico was manipulated by industries that make money off of fossil fuels. Grist's David Roberts debunks.

One of my favorite annual lists: Project Censored's Top 25 Censored Stories. Important information is lying around, but nobody picks it up.

Short Notes
The biggest thing that happened this week was the Mumbai terror attacks. I'm not ignoring them, but in the Sift I try to restrict myself to topics where I have some insight to add. So far, I'm just watching CNN like everybody else.

I'll confess to being glad that the attack happened before Obama takes office. There's not a lot an American president can do about this directly, and if it had happened on January 21, Obama would look weak no matter how he responded.

The election still isn't over in at least two states. The runoff in the Georgia senate race is tomorrow, and polls favor incumbant Republican Saxby Chambliss. In Minnesota, they're still recounting ballots.

Sign of the Apocalypse: There's a famine going on in the squirrel kingdom, and nobody seems to know why. Apparently the oaks around D.C. (and a few other parts of the country) didn't produce acorns this year. First the mysterious disappearance of honey bees (it's even got a name: "colony collapse disorder"), and now this.

I believe the traditional solution to this kind of situation involves the king's son joining a squirrel and a bee on a quest. But maybe in this democratic and egalitarian age one of the Obama girls could do something.

The best analysis of the Republican Party I've seen in a while was by Neal Gabler in Sunday's L.A. Times. Most people tell the Republicans' recent history ideologically, and trace the royal lineage from Goldwater to Reagan to W. Gabler focuses more on campaign tactics and identity politics, tracing the lineage from Joe McCarthy to Nixon to W. The pivotal role of Nixon is also the subject of Rick Perlstein's Nixonland, which I will have to read soon.

Meanwhile, Matt Yglesias (who has been on a roll lately, I find myself quoting him a lot) is not letting Republicans get away with their Bush-wasn't-a-real-conservative spin. He's running occasion historical pieces pointing out how syncophantic those same conservatives were when Bush was popular. I like this 2004 quote from The Weekly Standard: "It’s obvious not only that George W. Bush has already earned his Great President badge (which might even outrank the Silver Star) but that much of the opposition to Bush has a remarkable and very special
quality; one might be tempted to call it 'lunacy'.”

In case you missed it: Keith Olbermann's moving comment on same-sex marriage. Keith's special comments are usually a little too overwrought for my taste -- Rachel Maddow's irony and dry humor work better for me than Olbermann's seriousness -- but this one is dead on.

Evangelicals and sex -- what could make a more interesting article? Basically, if you rely on abstinence education (which doesn't work) and then you tell kids that condoms don't work, and that it would be sinful to plan ahead about sex -- you get a real mess.