Monday, April 27, 2009

Torture Justifications Unravel

Violence can only be concealed by a lie, and the lie can only be maintained by violence.
-- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
In this week's Sift:
  • The Devastating Senate Report on Torture. I hate to lead with torture two weeks in a row, but new info keeps coming out. You know all that stuff Jane Mayer and Phillippe Sands reported? The stuff liberals believe and conservatives don't? A bipartisan Senate report says it's true. The arguments that defend the Bush administration torture regime aren't tenable any more.
  • Short Notes. To balance all these ugly thoughts about torture, I present a picture I took Friday of a soon-to-be-momma swan. And funny videos, like Lex Luthor asking for a government bailout.

The Devastating Senate Report on Torture
"In the space of a week," writes Scott Horton, "the torture debate in America has been suddenly transformed."

The instrument of that transformation is the Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody report that the Senate Armed Services Committee released on Tuesday.

If you've been following this story on the Sift over the last year or so, and clicking the links out to reporting by people like Phillippe Sands and Jane Mayer, you may wonder what is so remarkable -- because the story told by the Senate report is not new. But the significance of the Senate report is its authority and authenticity. Until now, if you didn't want to believe that torture of detainees was a real problem, you could point to the anonymous sources in Sands', Mayer's, and Seymour Hersh's reports and say they were making it all up; it was just a bunch of left-wing propaganda from the Bush-haters.

You can't do that any more. The Armed Services Comrmittee included Republicans like John McCain, John Warner, Elizabeth Dole, and Lindsey Graham. (The report was finished by the previous Senate, in November.) It reviewed "more than 200,000 pages of classified and unclassified documents" and interviewed over 70 individuals, some under subpoena. This the most authoritative document on torture we currently have.

And -- together with the testimony of newly emboldened officials who are saying in public what they previously said only off the record -- it absolutely destroys the layers of disinformation that the Bush administration laid down to protect itself. Let's take those layers one by one.

It's not torture. President Bush said it outright in 2007: "This government does not torture people. We stick to U.S. law and our international obligations." And Dick Cheney said in December: "We don't do torture. We never have." For the longest time, simply saying the word torture marked you as part of the liberal fringe. It was OK to talk about enhanced interrogation or to use euphemisms like "the gloves came off," but not torture.

As long as the techniques were not described in detail, you could tell yourself it wasn't really torture. Rush Limbaugh minimized it like this: "If a few terrorists get slapped around or sprinkled with water or lack air conditioning to protect us from further attacks, we can live with it." Joe Lieberman said waterboarding was "not like putting burning coals on people's bodies." (Like that's the standard.)

Well, the not-torture argument has fallen apart. In a report written in February 2007 but just leaked a few weeks ago, the International Committee of the Red Cross repeated what it had heard from 14 detainees -- descriptions that now closely match the techniques OK'd in the Bybee memo -- and said that this treatment "amounted to torture and/or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment." The Senate report quotes a CIA lawyer as saying in 2002: "If the detainee dies, you're doing it wrong."

Now that the American people have heard about slamming people's heads into walls, stuffing them into boxes, soaking them in cold water and leaving them to shiver in chilly cells, and waterboarding them as much as 183 times in a month -- and from Bush administration memos, not liberal reporters -- you can't make those mental images go away with Orwellian Newspeak like enhanced interrogation.

Even House Republican leader John Boehner said the newly released memos outlined "torture techniques". (His spokeman tried to back away from those words later.) George Will (full quote to come) somewhat apologetically referred to "torture, if you will". Increasingly, refusing to call these techniques torture marks you as part of the conservative fringe.

Even if it is torture, it's not policy. This is the "few bad apples" defense that the Bush administration used after the Abu Ghraib photos came out. The Senate report:
The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of "a few bad apples" acting on their own. The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees. ... Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques for use at Guantanamo Bay was a direct cause of detainee abuse there.
Even if it is a policy of torture, it's legal. This was the gist of the John Yoo memos: The president's power as commander-in-chief trumps all treaties, laws, and even the Bill of Rights. So if the president wants to order torture, fine.

As long as Yoo's memos were secret, people in the government could vaguely tell each other that the lawyers said the techniques were OK. You could almost imagine that some legal wizardry really did squeeze them into the letter of the law. But when the memos started coming out in 2004, the low quality of Yoo's reasoning was obvious to everyone. Jack Balkin called them "arguments that make you ashamed to be a lawyer." NYT reporter Anthony Lewis wrote:
The memos read like the advice of a mob lawyer to a mafia don on how to skirt the law and stay out of prison.
There was, in fact, no other reason to classify the Yoo torture memos. They didn't mention any specific interrogation techniques or contain any other information that would help our enemies. The "secret" was the sheer brazenness with which Yoo declared the law to be whatever the President wanted it to be.

We've found out since that competent lawyers were working for the government as well, and that circumventing their accurate analysis required all of David Addington's bureaucratic cleverness. The military judge advocate generals (JAGs) were uniformly opposed to torture. Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora tried to get the torture tactics rescinded, and thought for a while that he had succeeded. State Department lawyer (and 9-11 Commission executive director) Philip Zelikow wrote a memo dissenting from the Bush administration torture memos. He reports: "The White House attempted to collect and destroy all copies of my memo."

Why would they do that? The Anonymous Liberal explains:
The only reason to collect and destroy all copies of this memo would be in order to preserve, for as many Bush administration officials as possible, a potential defense against later prosecution. If the extent of these activities ever became public and investigations were commenced, the White House wanted to be able to argue that everyone involved relied in good faith on the advice of counsel. That defense would be severely undermined if it could be shown that these officials were warned, by a lawyer of Zelikow's caliber and rank within the administration, that the legal arguments they were relying on were poorly reasoned and unlikely to be sustained by a court.
Attempting to destroy all copies of Zelikow's memo, in other words, is evidence of bad faith. They knew they were wrong.

Even if it's illegal, it's necessary. This is the "ticking time bomb" argument. Michael Scheuer (the former head of the CIA's Bin Laden unit) made that argument yesterday in the Washington Post. (I feel bad about Scheuer. I learned a lot from his 2004 book Imperial Hubris, but he's been getting wiggier and wiggier ever since.)

Here's the problem with that argument: There has never been any reason to believe that torture is an effective interrogation strategy. The Senate report makes it painstakingly clear that our torture program was never even designed to be an interrogation strategy. The torture techniques come from the SERE school, which mimicks a Chinese program designed to get false confessions. (That same Chinese program is the root of the classic Cold War novel The Manchurian Candidate. It's about brainwashing, not getting information.) SERE trains our own soldiers to withstand a Chinese-style brainwash. But it was always a school for the potential victims of torture, not a school for interrogators. The SERE techniques were brought into interrogations largely over the objections of trained interrogators.

Unsurprisingly, then, the McClatchy newspapers report:
The CIA inspector general in 2004 found that there was no conclusive proof that waterboarding or other harsh interrogation techniques helped the Bush administration thwart any "specific imminent attacks," according to recently declassified Justice Department memos.
Even more damning was an article by FBI interrogator Ali Soufan published in the New York Times on Thursday.
For seven years I have remained silent about the false claims magnifying the effectiveness of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding.
Using only standard FBI interrogation tactics, Soufan and another agent questioned Abu Zubaydah, the suspected terrorist whose interrogation became the subject of a Jay Bybee memo. Bybee wrote: "The interrogation team is certain that he has additional information that he refuses to divulge." Quite the opposite, Soufan writes that Abu Zubaydah was cooperating.
There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics. In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions — all of which are still classified.
Even if it's illegal and unnecessary, it only hurts people who deserve it. Karl Rove was making this point in 2005 when he said: "Liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to ... offer therapy and understanding for our attackers." No politician wants to go before the voters as a defender of terrorists' rights.

But until detainees have been through some kind of legal process, they're just suspects. And sometimes they turn out to be innocent, like Maher Arar, the Canadian we arrested while he was changing planes in New York and shipped off to Syria to be tortured. Our mistake cost him a little more than a year of his life. Or like Khaled al-Masri, a German citizen we abducted in Macedonia and held for four months in Afghanistan. (He had just argued with his wife, who -- when he seemed to vanish into thin air -- assumed he had left her and their four children.) In The Dark Side, Mayer reports: "Almost from the first moments that the CIA took custody of him, some Agency officials suspected that Masri was innocent. Yet for months they subjected him to unsparing abuse anyway."

Finally, this story: A soldier in Iraq killed herself after refusing to participate in abusive interrogations. The Army covered it up.

Even if it's illegal, unnecessary, and hurts innocent people, it doesn't hurt ordinary Americans. Soufan points out one of the ways that torture makes us all less safe: It reconstructed the wall between the CIA and the FBI that the 9-11 Commission tried to tear down. Because the FBI's purpose is to send criminals to prison under the law, an FBI investigation needs to be untainted by techniques that would get the whole case thrown out of court.
Because the bureau would not employ these problematic techniques, our agents who knew the most about the terrorists could have no part in the investigation. An F.B.I. colleague of mine who knew more about Khalid Shaikh Mohammed than anyone in the government was not allowed to speak to him. ... Almost all the agency officials I worked with on these issues were good people who felt as I did about the use of enhanced techniques: it is un-American, ineffective and harmful to our national security.
The Senate report is very clear about how we've been hurt by our abusive interrogation tactics:
Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority.
This judgment about our "moral authority" flies in the face of another standard argument, made often by Dick Cheney and as recently as last Sunday by George Will:
Rahm Emanuel said that the terrorists use our enhanced interrogation -- torture, if you will -- as a rallying cry. [But] before we had this enhanced interrogation, we had the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the attacks on the East African embassies. We had the bombing of the Cole. The terrorists weren't waiting to be incited.
Where to start with this? First, note the hidden assumption that prior to torture America had done nothing to incite anyone. We were just minding our own imperial business, and then 9-11 happened out of the blue. But in The Accidental Guerrilla, counterterrorism expert David Kilcullen makes the opposite argument: Most of the enemies we face are "accidental" -- they were the ones minding their own business when we blundered into their territory chasing terrorists.

Even if it's illegal, unnecessary, hurts innocent people, and makes us all less safe, no one should be held accountable.
This is the point that is still under argument. For example, Senators Graham, McCain, and Lieberman have issued a statement asking the administration not to prosecute the lawyers who wrote the torture memos:
Providing poor legal advice is always undesirable, and the Department of Justice is currently conducting an internal ethics review of the OLC memos, but that is a quite a different matter from making legal advice with which we may disagree into a crime.
This line of defense is no more credible than any of the others. In fact, no one is saying that bad-but-honest legal advice or bad-but-honest policy advice of any kind should be criminal. In order to prosecute someone like John Yoo or Jay Bybee, you'd need to show bad faith: that they knew they were giving bogus advice that facilitated the administration's law-breaking. Bad faith is hard to prove, but the fact that the administration destroyed memos and lost emails is awfully suspicious. Who knows what we'd find if we did a serious investigation?

Jim White of Oxdown Gazette nailed this argument back in February:
there would be no need to "criminalize policy differences" with the Bush Administration if the policies themselves were not crimes. Torture is not a policy difference, it is a crime. Wiretapping without a warrant is not a policy difference, it is a crime. ... To complete the inversion of logic here, now note that since there are indeed crimes that have been committed by the Bush Administration, when there is a call not to prosecute because Bush was the President and he and his minions were acting "for the good of the country", this is actually a call to inject a political consideration [my emphasis] into the decision of whether to prosecute.
The way to keep politics out of the legal process is to do what Colin Powell's former chief of staff wants: appoint a special prosecutor and let him or her follow the evidence wherever it leads.

Even over at Fox News, support for torture is starting to unravel: During the "Freedom Watch" segment Wednesday, Shepard Smith completely lost it on the air. After listening to a colleague make the point that torture helps keep us safe, Smith repeatedly slaps the desk for emphasis as he says:
We. Are. America. I don't give a rat's ass if it helps. We are America! We do not fucking torture! We don't do it.

The Senate report quotes Major Paul Burney about one motivation for torture:
we were focused on trying to establish a link between AI Qaeda and Iraq and we were not being successful ... The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish this link ... there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate resuIts.
This is the real nightmare scenario -- torturing people until they say things to support the torturer's delusions. It's lose-lose in every direction.

Not sure why, but putting Jay Bybee's words to music somehow captures their nonsensical quality better than just reading them on a computer screen.

You know your frame is winning out when people have arguments like this: Paul Begala said that we executed Japanese soldiers for waterboarding during World War II, but National Review's Mark Hemingway claimed Begala exaggerated: It was only 15 years at hard labor. Begala replies: Those were two different cases.

Short Notes
The new kids on my block. My apartment building is right next to Mine Falls Park (pictured), so one couple in my neighborhood is a mating pair of swans. They tell me that it's nesting season, and that they expect to hear the splish-splash of little cygnets any day now.

If you've never seen a straight steal of home, you weren't watching the Red Sox and Yankees last night.

The "Gathering Storm" parodies just won't stop. Here, some actors you might recognize (Alicia Silverstone, for one) get together to do one for

While you're at FunnyOrDie: If all the villainous Wall Street firms are getting bailouts, why not LexCorp? Lex Luthor (played by Mad Men star Jon Hamm) has great plans for his federal cash. And no nerds were harmed during the filming of the Malin Akerman Watchmen Tour. Alyssa Milano (from Charmed -- how do they get these people?) is Lady Liberty in this parody of a trailer for "The Wrestler" -- but the broken-down wrestler is Uncle Sam. Wonder what Lindsey Lohan's eHarmony video would look like? What about the video Bristol Palin's ex-boyfriend would make in response?

Bill Kristol has won a quarter-million-dollar prize from the conservative Bradley Foundation. Joan Walsh's reaction: "Maybe there isn't a God."

Now ask the rest of us. Near the bottom of a long and otherwise standard "If the election were held today ..." poll of Texans, Research 2000 asked: Do you think Texas would be better off as an independent nation or as part of the United States of America? More than 1 in 3 Texans endorsed independence, and Republicans split evenly, 48-48.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Exceptional Circumstances

No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture. -- Article 2.2 of the Convention Against Torture, signed for the United States by President Ronald Reagan on April 18, 1988 (21 years ago Saturday)

In this week's Sift:

  • The New Torture Memos. If you're surprised, you were probably in denial.
  • Now That You've Brought Up Thomas Paine ... I have to point out that he was a flaming liberal. Glenn Beck should read Paine's Agrarian Justice before he brings actors onto his show to play Paine.
  • Short Notes. Gloria, Newt, and the pirates. Satirists accept the challenge of "The Gathering Storm". George Will denounces blue jeans. And conservatives finally begin to understand why a surveillance state is a bad idea.

The New Torture Memos

Thursday, the Obama administration released four new memos in which the Bush Justice Department interpreted away our laws against torture. I have read one of the newly released memos and summaries of the others. What is new here is the specificity. If you were in denial about the fact that the United States of American tortured people as a matter of policy (and not just by the actions of a few over-zealous guys in the field), that denial just became a lot harder to maintain. On the other hand, if you took the previous torture memos seriously and imagined what they must mean -- this is about what you should have expected.

In the memo I read, Jay Bybee OK'd the CIA's interrogation plan for suspected terrorist Abu Zubaydah, in which he would be deprived of sleep, slapped, slammed against a wall, put into a small box with an insect he was morbidly afraid of, and waterboarded. Bybee objected to nothing the CIA proposed, and drew no line-in-the-sand that they dare not cross in the future, saying only that if the facts he had been given were to change, "this advice would not necessarily apply."

In the previously released John Yoo memos, you could imagine that the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel was engaged in an academic exercise about what the law conceivably might allow -- doing a bad job of it and grossly exagerating the power of the president, but not directly hurting anybody. That fig leaf is gone now. Bybee was one of the last links in the decision chain about whether to torture a specific man in specific ways. He had every reason to believe that if he said yes, the torture would happen. He said yes, and it happened.

In all the accounts I've read of the Bush administration and torture (many of which are collected in Jane Mayer's The Dark Side, which I reviewed last month) I can find no trace of a conversation at the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld level about whether torture works. They just assumed it did. Lower-level people, many of them with training and experience in interrogation, tried to raise the issue that torture was not the best approach to getting information, but they were consistently told that the question had been decided already; you were either on board or you weren't.

Bush CIA Director Michael Hayden went on Fox News Sunday to claim that revealing these memos has made America less safe, because torture "really did work." Of course, we have to take his word, because all the evidence is classified. And naturally, if it were true that he had sold America's soul and gotten nothing for it, he would tell us. Right?

No one ever points out how torture costs American lives. When we've got terrorists cornered, whether in Tora Bora or in some isolated cabin in the Rockies, our best weapon is their knowledge that if they just surrender, they'll be treated well. Medical care, a warm safe place to sleep, three meals a day -- just surrender. Frag your commander if you have to, but surrender. You'll be fine. But if surrender means torture and degradation, terrorists might well decide to go out shooting and take as many Americans with them as they can.

Matt Yglesias comments:
In historical terms, you don’t look back on the Spanish Inquisition or on Stalin’s Russia and say man, those guys had some crack investigators! Rather, you see that historically the function of torture has been to extract false confessions and to inspire a general climate of fear.

Perhaps the worst thing we did to the detainees is rarely discussed, and seemed to need little justification: extended solitary confinement. American citizen Jose Padilla spent three and a half years in a military brig. For much of that time he saw no one but his interrogators -- not even guards -- and was held in a wing with no other prisoners. At least some of that time he lived in sensory deprivation.

Former interrogator Col. Steven Kleinman (retired): "I'm not a psychologist, but if he is not profoundly psychologically disturbed from that experience then he is a stronger man than me."

He's not stronger. By all acounts from people who knew him, we broke Padilla. Not in the interrogation sense of breaking his resistance, but in the human sense that he can't function in society any more.

NYT: The interrogation program Bybee approved occurred "despite the belief of interrogators that [Abu Zubaydah] had already told them all he knew" because higher-ups in the CIA had "a highly inflated assessment of his importance." Nonetheless, Bybee's memo summarizes information he had been given like this:
The interrogation tearn is certain that he has additional information that he refuses to divulge. Specifically, he is withholding information regarding terrorist networks in the United States or in Saudi Arabia and information regarding plans to conduct attacks within the United States or against our interests overseas.
This is one of many reasons why you don't want a bureaucracy handling torture. Bureaucracy is a constant game of telephone: Each player distorts things a little bit, and the distortions accumulate as information goes up and down the chain.

TPM collects the commentary about these memos on the Sunday talk shows.
Glenn Greenwald was struck by a Steven Bradbury memo that acknowledges:
Certain of the techniques the United States has condemned [when other countries do them] appear to bear some resemblance to some of the CIA interrogation techniques.
But in a footnote Bradbury says:
Diplomatic relations with regard to foreign countries are not reliable evidence of United States executive practice
In other words, we're not bound by any of that high-minded stuff we preach to other countries.

The NYT wants Bybee, now a federal appeals judge for life, impeached:
These memos make it clear that Mr. Bybee is unfit for a job that requires legal judgment and a respect for the Constitution.

A day later than Marcy Wheeler, the NYT noticed that two detainees were waterboarded a total of at least 266 times. Matt Yglesias comments that this should put to rest "the notion that some kind of ticking time bomb story lies at the heart of the Bush administration’s torture policy." There weren't 266 ticking time bombs, were there?

In a later post, Matt explained waterboarding:
Basically the idea is that if you would like to torture someone by holding them under water until they nearly drown, but your lawyer tells you that you’re not allowed to run the risk doing permanent physical harm to the torturee, “waterboarding” is a nifty method of producing all the relevant torture but without the chance of accidentally drowning the guy you’re torturing. The only reason anyone could ever reach the conclusion that this isn’t torture is that they (a) want to torture people, and (b) don’t want to admit that they want to torture people.

The Obama administration continues to oppose any accountability for torture, either at the interrogator level or at the policy level or at the top. Obama's official statement says:

This is a time for reflection, not retribution. I respect the strong views and emotions that these issues evoke. We have been through a dark and painful chapter in our history. But at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past. Our national greatness is embedded in America’s ability to right its course in concert with our core values, and to move forward with confidence. That is why we must resist the forces that divide us, and instead come together on behalf of our common future.

That's the White House line: insisting on the rule of law is just "emotion". Rahm Emanuel elaborated that this is not a time for "anger and retribution." The official statement continues:

The United States is a nation of laws. My Administration will always act in accordance with those laws, and with an unshakeable commitment to our ideals.
But this plainly is not true, as UN Special Rapporteur Manfred Nowak has pointed out:
The United States, like all other states that are part of the U.N. convention against torture, is committed to conducting criminal investigations of torture and to bringing all persons against whom there is sound evidence to court
In other words, we have an obligation under the law to prosecute torturers. By ignoring this obligation President Obama, like President Bush, is picking and choosing which laws he will live by.

In another region of the Bush legacy: Yesterday Congressional Quarterly reported a sinister series of deals centering on Democratic Congresswoman Jane Harman that allegedly happened in late 2005. (Harman denies the story and it's based entirely on anonymous sources, but CQ is a quality publication.) The first alleged deal is that Harman would use her influence with the Bush Justice Department to support two pro-Israel lobbyists accused of espionage; in exchange the pro-Israel group AIPAC would use its influence with Nancy Pelosi to get Harman appointed chair of the House Intelligence Committee if the Democrats took control of Congress in 2006.

That conversation allegedly was picked up by an NSA wiretap (directed at the Israelis, not at Harman), and the Justice Department began investigating Harman. Then CQ claims a second deal happened: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales stopped the investigation because "Gonzales wanted Harman to be able to help defend the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, which was about break in The New York Times and engulf the White House."

Glenn Greenwald comments:
Jane Harman, in the wake of the NSA scandal, became probably the most crucial defender of the Bush warrantless eavesdropping program, using her status as "the ranking Democratic on the House intelligence committee" to repeatedly praise the NSA program as "essential to U.S. national security" and "both necessary and legal."
Josh Marshall at TPM raises the question that popped into a lot of people's minds, including mine: "Any particular reason people in the intel community would want to start talking to the press right now?" Maybe the NSA is reminding Obama that a lot of high-ranking Democrats are implicated in the Bush administration's crimes.
Wednesday, the same NYT reporters who exposed the NSA's illegal warrantless wiretapping program in the first place reported that the NSA's spying on Americans' email and phone calls "went beyond the broad legal limits established by Congress last year." Glenn Greenwald agrees with Digby: "It was so inevitable that I can't even find the energy to get worked up about it." Digby concludes:
I'm going to spend the rest of the night re-reading all the moving speeches that were made on the Senate floor just a year ago, talking about how we didn't need to look in the rear view mirror and the safeguards in the bill would solve all problems.

Now That You've Brought Up Thomas Paine ...
As Glenn Beck invokes the spirit of Thomas Paine, it becomes apparent that Beck has never read Paine's essay Agrarian Justice. Paine's ideas are both radical and simple, and our current political debates would advance considerably if everyone understood them.

Writing in the French Republic in 1795 (having recently escaped death during the Reign of Terror) Paine begins his essay by comparing civilized society to what he has seen of a hunter-gatherer culture:
The life of an [American] Indian is a continual holiday, compared with the poor of Europe; and, on the other hand it appears to be abject when compared to the rich. Civilization, therefore, or that which is so-called, has operated two ways: to make one part of society more affluent, and the other more wretched, than would have been the lot of either in a natural state.
In his characteristic cut-to-the-chase style, Paine puts his finger on civilization's key problem: the system of private property, by which the rich claim the communal inheritance of humanity.
It is wrong to say God made rich and poor; He made only male and female, and He gave them the earth for their inheritance.
Paine doesn't see how civilized society could function (and support its larger population) without private property. But he has a plan to rectify the inherent injustice of the property system. First, if we can no longer honor each person's right to a share of the Earth, at least give everybody enough capital to get started in life. He proposes:
To create a national fund, out of which there shall be paid to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property:
Second, start an old-age pension.
And also, the sum of ten pounds per annum, during life, to every person now living, of the age of fifty years, and to all others as they shall arrive at that age.
Funded how? By an inheritance tax -- a death tax, if you will. Paine calculates that 10% should do the trick. No one can rightfully object to such a tax, Paine reasons, because his inheritance is already the result of usurping the natural inheritance of everybody else.
Various methods may be proposed for this purpose, but that which appears to be the best ... is at the moment that property is passing by the death of one person to the possession of another. In this case, the bequeather gives nothing: the receiver pays nothing. The only matter to him is that the monopoly of natural inheritance, to which there never was a right, begins to cease in his person. A generous man would not wish it to continue, and a just man will rejoice to see it abolished.
But what of the argument often made by conservatives, that good works like this should be done by private charity, not by the government? that they should be funded by voluntary individual contributions rather than by taxes? Paine answers that the cause of poverty is inherently social, not individual. It requires a social solution.
It is not charity but a right, not bounty but justice, that I am pleading for. ... There are, in every country, some magnificent charities established by individuals. It is, however, but little that any individual can do, when the whole extent of the misery to be relieved is considered. He may satisfy his conscience, but not his heart. He may give all that he has, and that all will relieve but little. It is only by organizing civilization upon such principles as to act like a system of pulleys, that the whole weight of misery can be removed.
So I thank Glenn Beck for restoring Thomas Paine to national attention. Maybe Beck could devote an hour or two of his show to explaining the Agrarian Justice program and the liberal ideas behind it.

The Beck message from Thomas Paine repeated the invocation of the mysterious and sinister they, as in Beck's We Surround Them diatribe. According to the faux Paine (beginning at the 2:20 mark), they did a series of dastardly things we thought they wouldn't dare do: bomb Pearl Harbor, destroy the World Trade Center, attack the Pentagon, and pass the Stimulus Bill. Yep: Democrats in Congress, the Japanese Empire, and the 9-11 conspirators all go together somehow. What might they do next if we don't rise up and stop them?

Meanwhile, Texas Governor Rick Perry talked to a tea-party group about secession. (Didn't they try that once before?) Blogger Occam's Hatchet sympathizes with the encircled liberal capital of Austin, and wants to hear an updated version of JFK's "Ich Bin Ein Berliner" speech:
There are some who say that Republicanism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Austin. And there are some who say in Congress and elsewhere we can work with the Republicans. Let them come to Austin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that Republicanism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Let them come to Austin!

Short Notes
CNN's Gloria Borger on Newt Gingrich's running twitter-commentary about Obama's handling of the pirate incident:
If Republicans can't allow that the president did his job well in this unambiguous case, why should we believe their complaints about anything else? If they can't pat him on the back for this one, why should we even listen to their arguments about the budget, about health care, about energy?

The anti-same-sex-marriage ad "The Gathering Storm" (that I linked to last week) might as well have yelled "Bring it on!" to satirists everywhere. Parodies abound. This one is pretty good. And this one was created without anyone needing to act or speak or even draw. ("If you can type," they say, "you can make movies.") And Stephen Colbert had to get into the act too.

Now somebody needs to parody George Will, who has gone into full-blown cranky-geezer mode. Having already warned us about the global-warming conspiracy, Thursday he took on a true American scourge: blue jeans. Seriously. He wrote a column in the Washington Post denouncing blue jeans. Syndicated.

A new report from Homeland Security warns local police about right-wing extremist activity and the possibility of violence. Glenn Greenwald collects comments from outraged right-wingers, but also asks where they've been these last few years. How many times, he wonders, were liberals told that if we'd done nothing wrong we had nothing to hide? "When you cheer on a Surveillance State, you have no grounds to complain when it turns its eyes on you."

Monday, April 13, 2009

Still in the Dark

The very word "secrecy" is repugnant in a free and open society. -- John F. Kennedy

In this week's Sift:

  • Obama Disappoints on Secrecy. In two important cases, he has reaffirmed Bush's precedents rather than rejecting them.
  • The Gathering Storm of Conservative Victimhood. A new ad shows how the Religious Right plans to oppose gay rights going forward. But the "rights" they claim to be losing were already rejected in Greensboro in 1960.
  • Untruth and Consequences. If you report the truth and it sets off some violent whacko, that's not your fault. But if you set off the crazies by making stuff up, then maybe it is your fault.
  • Short Notes. Why Palin will never be president. Ted's still got it at Fenway. Will Franken ever get to occupy the senate seat he won? It's official: protesters aren't terrorists. My limited sympathy for Ted Stevens. Tracking the decline of newspapers. How other countries handle criminal leaders. And the ultimate small car from GM and Segway.

Obama Disappoints on Secrecy

The wars and the economy get all the headlines, but an equally important issue President Obama has inherited is executive power. The Bush administration put forward two principles (I'm stating them in my own words, but I believe I'm doing it fairly) that may sound reasonable individually, but taken together are very dangerous:

  • By making the president commander-in-chief, the Constitution gives him the power to conduct a war without interference from the other branches of government.
  • It is up to the president to decide (again without interference) what situations are part of an ongoing war.

Taken together, these principles imply that in wartime (and Congress has at least recognized and accepted that we are at war, even if war has never been formally declared), the president has unchecked power whenever he decides that he has unchecked power. It's a roadmap for dictatorship, no matter whether the president is a Republican or a Democrat.

Many of us have hoped that President Obama would announce a new doctrine of executive power, one that would consign the Bush ideas to a "bad old days" that should never return. (Of course, the ultimate way to reject the Bush/Cheney power claim is to prosecute Bush and Cheney for war crimes. Future presidents would have to take account of that.) He hasn't done so yet, and that has left us trying to read the tea leaves whenever he makes any decision related to executive power.

One recent leaf comes from the warrantless wiretapping issue. The Bush administration, with help from key Democrats in Congress, had managed to close off nearly every avenue for investigating this program, which on the face of it appears to be illegal. The one remaining chink in the program's armor was a lawsuit that the Electronic Frontier Foundation had filed against the NSA. Raw Story reports:

In their filing Friday, the Justice Department argued that the case should be dismissed because information surrounding the program was a “state secret” and therefore couldn’t be litigated or discussed. It also proposed that the government was protected by “sovereign immunity” under federal wiretapping statutes and the Patriot Act, arguing that the United States could only face lawsuits if they willfully elected to disclose intelligence obtained by wiretapping.

So Obama is not only trying to close the final door on accountability for illegal wiretapping, he is doing so by invoking the state secrets privilege, something he criticized the Bush administration for abusing.

Another tea leaf is the administration's effort to make the Baghram prison in Afghanistan the same kind of legal black hole as Guantanamo was under Bush -- a place where suspects can be detained without any oversight or hearing.

During the Bush administration, some on the Right thought that executive power was purely a partisan issue, and that the Left would rally around a liberal president who made the same claims. It's not happening. On both Baghram and state secrets, Glenn Greenwald having the kind of reaction that got him the nickname Glenzilla . Keith Olbermann is having a fit (video, transcript) as well. They're not alone.

I'm sure Glenn and Keith and all the other liberal bloggers and pundits want to root for Obama, and everyone realizes that he is juggling a lot of important issues right now. But a Democratic Congress failed in its duty to impeach Bush when he broke the law. If a Democratic president now fails to reverse his policies, the effect will be a permanent change in the relationship between the branches of government. It's not enough for Obama to try to use the Bush powers responsibly. If he leaves them intact, some future president will use them irresponsibly.

OK, here's one good tea leaf to read: CIA Director Leon Panetta says the secret prisons have been shut down.
And not everybody reads the tea leaves the same way. See Obama supporters here and here.

The Gathering Storm of Conservative Victimhood

One of the few conservative successes in 2008 was Proposition 8, which made same-sex marriage illegal again in California. They did it with a change of tactics, which they are now trying to take national. The first tactic against same-sex marriage was to laugh it off -- the idea was absurd; people proposing it couldn't be serious.

When it started becoming reality in places like Massachusetts (then Connecticut, Iowa, and now Vermont -- by an act of the legislature, unprompted by the courts), the second tactic was apocalyptic: "The family as it has been known for more than five millennia will crumble," prophesied James Dobson in 2004, "presaging the fall of Western civilization itself."

But that message is less and less effective as it becomes clear that Massachusetts families are doing no worse than any others -- better than Bible Belt families, by most statistics. Boston continues to be a center of civilization. Entire countries -- Canada, for example -- have married Adam to Steve with no sign of apocalypse.

Worse (from the Right's point of view), the public is beginning to sympathize with same-sex couples, to see them as real people trying live their lives rather than as monsters intent on seeding moral chaos. The Courage Campaign's "Don't Divorce Us" video was a powerful weapon against Proposition 8.

And so we're into the third round of tactics: claiming victimhood. This approach asserts that protecting gay rights means taking rights away from conservative Christians. Salon reports on a new ad called "The Gathering Storm" full of that-ain't-right sound bites that don't stand up to scrutiny.

For example, one of the characters in "The Gathering Storm" says: "I am a New Jersey church group punished by the government because we can't support same-sex marriage."

Not exactly. You should smell something fishy right away, because New Jersey doesn't have same-sex marriage. The reference is to a the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, a Methodist group in New Jersey. The LA Times explains that the OGCMA
owned seaside land that included a boardwalk pavilion. It obtained an exemption from state property tax for the land on the grounds that it was open for public use and access. Events such as weddings -- of any religion -- could be held in the pavilion by reservation. But when a lesbian couple sought to book the pavilion for a commitment ceremony, the nonprofit balked, saying this went against its religious beliefs. The court ruled against the nonprofit, not because gay rights trump religious rights but because public land has to be open to everyone or it's not public.
Most of the claims along these lines are similar. The "right" being violated is like the "right" of the Greensboro Woolworths not to serve blacks at its lunch counter. Like Woolworths in 1960, the Religious Right is arguing that it can define "the public" in such a way that some group is not part of it.


Stanley Fish asks nails this one: "When a professional hangs out his shingle doesn’t he offer his services and skills to the public and not just to members of it who share his morality?"

And so I say an equal "no" to the professional photographer who won't work at a same-sex reception, the marriage counselor who won't help same-sex couples stay together, and the fertility doctor who won't help lesbians get pregnant. You don't get to define the public. That "right" can't be taken away from you because it was never a right to begin with.

Untruth and Consequences

It's tempting to point to all the recent shootings as evidence for my past claim that we're going to see an upswing in right-wing violence. But it's not quite that simple: Of the recent incidents, only Richard Poplawski's shooting of three Pittsburgh police officers seems to be politically motivated. Poplawski was a heavily armed 22-year-old white supremacist who believed all sorts of conspiracy theories. Comments Gary Kamiya at Salon:

Poplawski's black-helicopter and anti-Semitic ravings put him at the outer edge of the right. But his paranoid fear that Obama was going to take away his AK-47 is mainstream among conservatives. That fear, fomented by the NRA and echoed by right-wing commentators from Lou Dobbs to Limbaugh, is ubiquitous online.

A lot of conclusions might be drawn here, but this is the one that strikes me: There are consequences to making stuff up and promoting it to the public as if it were true.

In any well-informed free society, you have to live with the possibility that some nutcase might have an extreme reaction to the news. If a Poplawski sees a headline about our trillion-dollar deficit and decides he has to kill somebody, what can you do (other than try to give our officials good security)? We do have a trillion-dollar deficit, and people should know about it.

But a considerable effort goes into manufacturing hysteria on the right, by pushing stories that have no basis in fact. Such as, Obama is going to: And not that he could do it or might do it or we're afraid he'll do it -- he's doing it. If you're going to stop him you have to act now.

In addition to the Obama myths are the nefarious activities attributed to liberal groups like ACORN, which was the object of vote fraud smears during the 2008 campaign, and is part of the "rig the census" charge. (ACORN is one of 250 groups helping the government recruit the 1.4 million temporary workers the census needs.) Did you know that ACORN is going to get $4 billion from the stimulus bill? (Nope.) Or that ACORN is sending in undercover agents to disrupt the conservative "tea party" protests? (Nuh-uh. If you don't know what a tea party protest is, you're in the same boat as ACORN's leaders.)

These imaginary stories are then fanned with inflamed rhetoric about taking back America and revolution. Congresswoman Michelle Bachman: "There is no free country for us to repair to. That's why it's up to us now." Glenn Beck: Obama is a "bloodsucker" and can only be stopped with "a stake through the heart".

None of these Republican politicians and conservative media celebrities is saying "go shoot somebody". Driving a stake through Obama's heart is -- you knew this, right? -- a metaphor. And talk about poisoning Justice Stevens was "just a joke". But they have to know that the right-wing fringe includes a lot of Richard Poplawskis and James Adkissons and Timothy McVeighs. (The Left has its own nutcases, but ours are more likely to hit you with a cruciatus curse than to blow you away with an AK-47.) It's not hard to guess what such people will do when they swallow what they're being fed.

I've long believed that conservatives look on the news cycle as a kind of game, where you win by getting people to believe and talk about stories that help you and hurt your opponents. But it's not a game. Untruth has consequences.
BTW, if you want to know why liberals can't discuss the teabag protests without cracking a smile, DailyKos TV explains -- with help from Sex and the City. That's why Rachel Maddow can barely keep from dissolving into laughter, while Jon Stewart just seems embarrassed by it all.
I have to give Glenn Beck this much credit: In this segment, he exercises a little quality control on the lunatic fringe. He debunks the YouTube videos claiming to show FEMA's concentration camps.
TPM readers who worked on the 2000 census are worried what might happen to census workers if they're perceived as part of some left-wing plot.
I'm convinced that there are plenty of unbalanced people who won't leave their houses to seek liberals to kill, but will kill a "radical leftist" (Steele's words) who knocks on their door in a mission to "falsify the U.S. Census and manipulate elections in their favor" (again, Steele's words).

Short Notes

Ted Kennedy doesn't walk smoothly any more, and his attempt to throw out the first pitch at Fenway Park Tuesday didn't go very far. But he's still got the Kennedy smile.
Now that we've had a count, a recount, a review by the Board of Elections, and now a ruling by a three-judge panel, is it finally time for Norm Coleman to admit that he lost the Minnesota senate race and let Al Franken take his seat? Even many conservatives are finally urging him to give up.
Matt Yglesias makes a persuasive case that car sales have to perk up soon: At the current sales rate, it would take more than 25 years to replace the cars on the road.
Peru just convicted its former president Alberto Fujimori of authorizing a death squad against the Shining Path insurgents. The court sentenced him to 25 years. Digby comments:
It's interesting, no? The people all believe he committed these crimes yet he remains popular because of his economic policies. And the legal system operates independently of all of that, pursuing the case on the merits. How novel.

On the other hand, we're doing better than Zimbabwe:
President Robert Mugabe's top lieutenants are trying to force the political opposition into granting them amnesty for their past crimes by abducting, detaining and torturing opposition officials and activists, according to senior members of Mr. Mugabe’s party.

Now that his felony convictions have been thrown out due to misconduct by the Bush Justice Department, former Republican Senator Ted Stevens is receiving an outpowering of sympathy, including Gov. Palin's call for a special election so that he can win his Senate seat back.

Everybody needs to take a breath. You know who else is free because of prosecutor misconduct? Bill Ayers. Getting off on a technicality doesn't mean you're innocent.
Speaking of Palin, lately we've been seeing the main reason why she will never be president: She doesn't have the temperament for it. National politicians need to have thick skins, and to know when a fight is beneath their dignity. Palin doesn't. That's what the Troopergate story showed: Becoming governor was just a new way to pursue a family vendetta, not a mandate to rise above it.

The recent example of this character flaw is her reaction to the media tour by Levi Johnston and his family. A savvy politician would have either ignored it or released an above-it-all statement recognizing that the Johnstons were bound to tell the story in their own way. Salon's Rebecca Traister comments:
Not Sarah Palin! No, this wizard decided the best way to tackle the (understandably irritating) problem of her loose-lipped would-have-been son-in-law was to publicly rebuke the kid, in a grandiose statement of denial and affronted morals, the weekend before the offending interview was to air, thereby ensuring that the episode of "Tyra" would become must-see television.
She struck back again after Levi told CBS that the Palins were "snobby". And now she's in a public cat-fight with a family that feels it has to deny being "white trash".
The RNC 8 are would-be protesters who face felony charges because of their "conspiracy" to "disrupt" last September's Republican Convention in Minneapolis. The good news: terrorism charges against them have been dropped. You can watch their arrest in September.
You can track the ongoing demise of the newspaper industry through the blog Paper Cuts. Salon has an article about the effort to fund investigative journalism through non-profits. It also contains this interesting observation:
Long before the current recession and radical cutbacks, many newspapers had lost their community watchdog function, no longer bothering with the expensive and time-consuming work of investigative reporting. A 2005 survey by Arizona State University of the 100 largest U.S. dailies found that 37 percent had no full-time investigative reporters, and the majority of the major dailies had two or fewer.
As if to illustrate the point, a Daily Kos post takes apart a NYT article on the well-paid global warming nay-sayer Marc Morano. After reading the Times' article, you know what lots of people claim, but no objective facts that could help you assess those claims.

If only it were someone's job to uncover those facts, or to check people's statements rather than just quote them. That would be worth paying for.

Finally, DailyKos founder Kos points out that a lot of investigative journalism gets done outside of newspapers.
GM and Segway combine on a vehicle that looks very cool, but you have to wonder about the crash tests.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Still Crazy After All These Years

It is not hard to learn more. What is hard is to unlearn when you discover yourself wrong. -- Martin Fischer
In this week's Sift:

Republican Budget: The song remains the same
One reason to read the Weekly Sift is that I do a lot of disagreeable things so that you don't have to. This week I read the 62-page House Republican Budget Alternative, which is supposed to prove that Republicans are not just the Party of No; they have ideas of their own.

They do have ideas -- Ronald Reagan's ideas from nearly 30 years ago, put forward as if the last few decades have nothing to teach us. They propose cutting both taxes and spending. As always, they're very specific about which taxes they're going to cut (rich people's), and very vague about what they're going to spend less on. It's worth noting that whenever Republicans have been in power, the vague spending cuts have failed to materialize, and the tax cuts went straight to the deficit.

Taxes. The tax cuts are a laundry list of everything the rich and powerful want:
  • the top tax rate goes from 35% to 25%
  • the corporate tax rate goes from 35% to 25%
  • the Bush tax cuts are made permanent rather than expiring in 2011
  • capital gains taxes are eliminated in 2009 and 2010. (Notice: This is the same "temporary" trick as the Bush cuts. As soon as it passed, Republicans would start complaining about the "tax increase" scheduled for 2011. Also: this cut goes almost entirely to the wealthy. Lots of middle-class people have a few hundred dollars of capital gains in a good year, but capital gains are a major portion of the income of the wealthiest Americans.)
  • the estate tax (a.k.a. the "death tax") is eliminated. (Again, this goes entirely to the wealthy. Currently, only estates larger than $3.5 million pay the estate tax.)
The one part of their plan that helps ordinary people is to raise the standard deduction to $12,500 ($25,000 for couples) and the personal exemption to $3,500. So a family of four would pay no tax on the first $39,000 of income. All other personal deductions are gone.

The spending cuts are just decrees that there shall be spending cuts. No actual programs are picked out for reduction or elimination, other than repealing the stimulus bill. So the hard part of budgeting -- telling people that they're going to lose their jobs or that their child won't get a liver transplant or that their bridge won't get maintenance again this year -- is punted down the field.

For example, the report says this about entitlements:
Total mandatory spending increases by an average of 3.9 percent per year for the next 10 years. This is slightly slower growth than projected in the Congressional Budget Office baseline and the Obama/Democratic budget.
It's an old Republican budgeting trick to talk about capping spending growth rather than cutting benefits. But if there's inflation and an increase in the number of people eligible for benefits (more old people, say), then the only way to cap spending growth is to cut per capita spending. Benefits for each individual go down, in other words, even though total spending on the program may go up.

More money is saved by giving states "more flexibility for their Medicaid recipients." In other words, someone else -- governors, most of whom are Democrats -- will have to tell poor people that they won't be getting as much health care.

Spending on defense and veterans is allowed to increase, but all other discretionary spending "is assumed to be level-funded through fiscal year 2014 before growing at a moderate rate through 2019." Again, this means that the hard choices are somebody else's problem. If you want to increase spending on, say, modernizing the electrical grid, you'll have to find something else to cut -- maybe college scholarships or food stamps.

This approach makes sense only if you assume that the federal budget is full of bridges to nowhere -- programs that can be eliminated without hurting anybody. But whenever Republicans try to identify some, they embarrass themselves. Examples: Sarah Palin talking about "fruit flies" in the fall campaign and Bobby Jindal ridiculing volcano monitoring in his response to President Obama's joint-session-of-Congress speech. This document doesn't risk getting that specific. But I have to wonder: If the government really is full of wasteful programs, is it too much to ask them to name one?

In fact, wasteful spending is fairly hard to find, the scale of it is nothing like the trillions of dollars in Republican tax cuts, and most of it consists of unnecessary weapons systems and pointless favors to big business -- not scientific research, welfare fraud, foreign aid, or most of the other things Republicans complain about.

Having decreed that spending shall not rise, the document then has some multi-color graphs showing spending not rising, and the national debt increasing more slowly than under Obama's budget. Of course, they could just as easily have decreed that spending would go to zero and then made a graph of that.

Energy. They do go into some detail about energy.
Despite abundant domestic resources, the Federal government has adopted policies that largely prevent domestic production of oil and natural gas.
Abundant is relative. We have proven oil reserves of 21 billion barrels, which sounds like a lot until you realize that we consume nearly 21 million barrels a day. So our proven oil reserves are about a three-year supply. If we explore more, we might find more. But people have been looking for oil in the U.S. for more than a century. If some new Saudi-scale oil field were down there, we'd have found it by now.

In order to more efficiently recover our "abundant" resources, the Republicans call for "streamlining of environmental laws and regulations." Because the environment is doing great, I guess, and we've been way too zealous about protecting it. And offshore drilling ... what could possibly go wrong with that?

To be fair, the document does admit that "Increasing domestic oil and gas production alone will not end U.S. dependence on foreign oil." And it does say that we'll have to transition more of our transportation to run on electricity. A lot of that electricity will have to come from "the most abundant and lowest cost of domestic energy resources" -- coal. Coal is also our dirtiest energy resource, but the Republican document cleans it up by calling it clean coal. (As the TV spot puts it: "Clean coal harnesses the awesome power of the word clean.")

But they're not relying on coal alone, because "increasing nuclear power generation is the most effective strategy at reducing emissions". Emissions of what? They're not saying. The term global warming (which is controversial in Republican circles) does not appear in the document.

Health Care.
The budget reforms the health care marketplace by making quality health care coverage affordable and accessible for every American regardless of pre-existing health conditions.
How? I have no clue. Maybe by harnessing the awesome power of the words affordable and accessible.

Wait, they do provide one clue: "Medicare and Medicaid themselves contribute in their own way to medical inflation." So over the long term (not affecting people currently 55 or older), their proposal privatizes Medicare so that the government subsidizes private insurance premiums instead of paying for care. I guess some kind of magic-of-the-marketplace (which hasn't worked up until now -- private alternatives to Medicare currently cost the government more per person than Medicare does) is going to create massive savings.

The truth here is simple, and runs exactly counter to what the Republicans claim. The main reason we spend more for health care than other countries and get worse results (see graph below, taken from here) is that we waste massive amounts of effort arguing about who is going to pay for care. In a single-payer system, that question is answered and the system can focus on providing care.
One more thing. The Republican budget repeats a talking point that has been bugging me at least since the 2008 primary campaign:
[Our proposal] reinforces the decision-making of patients and their doctors, not government bureaucrats
That focus-group-tested phrase sounds great. But if you've ever been seriously ill or injured, you know that this "patients and their doctors" thing is a fairy tale. Major medical decisions are made by insurance-company bureaucrats -- people whose companies profit by providing as little care as possible. If our fates are going to be decided by a bureaucracy, you can have the insurance companies and I'll take my chances with the government.

Social Security. The Republicans continue the alarmist rhetoric President Bush used when he tried to privatize Social Security.
Social Security as currently structured is going bankrupt and cannot fulfill its promises to future retirees.
Social Security has been "going bankrupt" since FDR created it in 1935. Every now and then the tax or benefit rates have to be rejiggered to make the numbers work out. The last time it got rejiggered (in the 1980s), the system was within a few months of having the checks bounce. As currently structured, it's good through 2041 under slow-growth assumptions and longer if growth matches the historical averages. As Paul Krugman says: "There is a long-term financing problem. But it's a problem of modest size."

The solutions the Republicans propose are technical and I can't figure out what they would actually affect. But there are no tax increases, so any shortfall is taken out of benefits.

Connecting the Dots Between Guantanamo and Your Safety
Rachel Maddow is turning into the liberal conscience of cable TV. Smart, calm, rational, and often even funny -- she manages to say the things that need saying without being nasty about it.

Friday, she connected the dots between prosecuting Bush administration officials and regaining our standing in the world. North Korea is holding two female American journalists from Current TV, and is rumored to be charging them with the vague crime of "hostile acts" -- which could land them in a North Korean prison camp for many years. Asked about their fate, North Korean officials reportedly laughed and said, "We're not Guantanamo."

Rachel sums up how our bad behavior can boomerang back at us in cases like this:
We inquire about how long they're going to be held, and they shoot back, "Well, it's been seven years plus that you've been holding hundreds of foreigners at your offshore prison at Guantanamo."

We inquire about charges: "What is this 'hostile acts' ridiculous charge?" And they shoot back, "Well, at least we're bothering to charge them. How many of the prisoners at Guantanamo and Baghram and the CIA prisons have had charges brought against them?"

We inquire about how well these women are being treated, and they shoot back by -- what? -- quoting to us from the list of approved enhanced interrogation techniques, maybe? Quoting to us from the transcripts of Dick Cheney on TV saying waterboarding ain't no thing? [She plays a clip of Cheney's ABC interview, where he says that none of interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, went too far.]

There is a new president in place now, one who has very, very, very, very different ideas about interrogations and prisons than Bush and Cheney do. But to a certain extent the damage has been done. We would never want Americans to be subjected to imprisonment for years in some foreign country without charges. We would never want Americans to be tortured. And if we're going to get back the power to stop Americans from being subjected to things like that, don't we have to make it clear that America believes no one should get away with treating people like that?

I know that Washington apparently has no appetite for Senator Leahy's truth commission, but maybe the need to fix this is bigger than the appetites of Washington politics. Maybe this stretches 13 time zones, into every corner of the world where Americans might find themselves in trouble and need some help.
There is another way to look at this, of course: That we should just stomp on any country that would treat Americans the way we treat citizens of other countries. It could work, I suppose. But we should be honest about what this is: a might-makes-right approach to the world. It means giving up completely on the idea that the United States of America represents something higher and better than what big powers have been in the past.

There are lots of appropriate labels for people who hold this view. But don't call them patriots.

Short Notes
For years, German police had been finding the same woman's DNA at crime scenes all over the country. But strangely, the crimes seemed to have no other connection. Finally they tracked her down: She works for the company that makes the cotton swabs forensic teams use.

Irish police mounted a equally successful manhunt to catch the notorious scofflaw Prawo Jazdy, a Polish man who had racked up traffic violations all over Ireland, but escaped justice by somehow inducing police to record a different address each time. Eventually an ingenious detective figured out that prawo jazdy is Polish for "driver's license".
Huffington Post names the five greatest April Fools pranks of all time.

Once again, Jimmy Kimmel demonstrates that anything sounds nasty if you bleep enough of it.

Ever since Glenn Beck started weeping on camera about how much he loves his country, a lot of us have been wondering what satirist Stephen Colbert could possibly do in response. Had Beck passed into a you-can't-top-this realm beyond satire? Clearly not.

I'm betting a bunch of Wall Street Journal readers didn't realize that Thomas Frank's recent op-ed was tongue-in-check. He's responding to a recent case in Pennsylvania, where two judges took kickbacks ($2.6 million) in exchange for sentencing kids to a for-profit juvenile detention facility. But Franks' combination of conservative get-tough-on-criminals rhetoric with pro-privatization rhetoric fits right in on the WSJ opinion page.

Today the do-gooders revile those efforts as "kickbacks," but before long we will see them as legitimate tools of justice. Our laws governing lobbying and campaign contributions have struck the right balance between the wishes of the people and those of private industry, so why are we so quick to doubt that the same great results can be achieved by putting the government's justice-dealing branch on the same market-based course?

The public will get to see their neighbors' kids go to jail, the judge who sends them there will be able to afford a nice condo in Florida, and the company that satisfies the public's desire for punishment will make a handsome profit. It will be a win-win result for everyone.

Same-sex marriage is for those way-out liberal states like ... Iowa?
Another important legal decision: Three prisoners at our Baghram prison in Afghanistan can appeal to a U.S. court. The Obama administration had continued making the Bush-administration case that the courts shouldn't interfer with Baghram because it's in a war zone. They lost because these three prisoners were captured outside of Afghanistan and moved there.

The court is right and Obama is wrong. Yes, the executive branch has to have leeway to operate in special situations. But when they start gaming the system by moving people into those special situations, specifically so that they can take advantage of those special powers, they've got to be held accountable somehow.

Things continue to get worse in Pakistan.
Interesting and more-or-less optimistic article about the future of news in the internet era. Steven Berlin Johnson uses a ecological metaphor, and advises basing predictions on the "old growth" areas of internet news coverage: technology and politics.

The Washington Times (the Moonie newspaper) reports that 12% of Americans still believe President Obama is a Muslim -- maybe because media outlets like the Washington Times keep finding ways to put Obama and Muslim in the same headline.

Following up on my article on the Employee Free Choice Act two weeks ago, here's an account of the tactics used at one company whose workers were trying to join a union.

It took four years to figure out that a Pakistani died in a New Jersey immigration detention facility. The NYT wonders: how many other deaths in detention have gone unrecorded?

Metaphor meets reality: Boats need a bailout.

Correction from last week: In my discussion of David Kilcullen's The Accidental Guerrilla, I noted that his preferred term for al Qaeda terrorists is takfiri rather than jihadi or mujahid. But I got wrong what takfiri means. There's a longer discussion of the word in Juan Cole's Engaging the Muslim World, and I think I get it now.

Takfir is a declaration that someone who claims to be a Muslim actually is not. A takfiri is someone who makes such declarations, particularly someone who makes sweeping declarations that lots of people aren't really Muslims. Al Qaeda does this, following the lead of its "ideological godfather" (Cole's term) Sayyid Qutb, who was executed by Egypt's secular Nasser government in 1966. To Qutb, anyone who believed that humans can make their own laws (rather than receiving laws from God) was not really a Muslim.

Cole agrees with Kilcullen that this is a position held by a small minority of Muslims, and has been denounced by the most reputable and influential scholars. (It also ticks off ordinary people, the same way that Christians get ticked when some small group claims to be the only real Christians.) "Mainstream political Islam," says Cole, "roundly rejected [Qutb]." So labeling al Qaeda types takfiri calls attention to the way they differ from the majority of Muslims, while jihadi or mujahid are terms that al Qaeda embraces because ordinary Muslims view them favorably.