Monday, May 25, 2009

Festina Lente

Make haste slowly. -- Caesar Augustus
In this week's Sift:
  • The Unequal Duel. Dick Cheney was speaking at the same time on the same subject, but Obama's was the only speech worth paying attention to. He's moving very slowly to define the new relationship between liberty and security -- and that's driving everybody nuts.
  • Why It's Hard to Think Clearly about Social Security. We use several conflicting metaphors to describe Social Security, because of them is quite right. A time trip back to 1937 helps clarify matters.
  • Short Notes. Endangered species have no solidarity. Mancow changes his mind. Porn star challenges john for the senate. A few good online interviews. And Colbert on Guantanamo and Yoo.

The Unequal Duel
Thursday, very close to high noon, Dick Cheney [text, video] and President Obama [text, video] both gave speeches about national security. The media couldn't resist the temptation to frame this as a debate or even a duel. They shouldn't have. Obama's speech was a policy address to the nation by the President of the United States, foreshadowing proposals whose details may not emerge for some time. Cheney's was an encore performance of the golden oldies of right-wing propaganda. (He's still playing word games that link the Iraq invasion to 9-11.) So I'll focus on Obama and resist the temptation to give Cheney's speech the line-by-line refutation it deserves.

This isn't the best sound bite in Obama's speech, but I think it's the place to start:

After 9/11, we knew that we had entered a new era -- that enemies who did not abide by any law of war would present new challenges to our application of the law; that our government would need new tools to protect the American people, and that these tools would have to allow us to prevent attacks instead of simply prosecuting those who try to carry them out. Unfortunately, faced with an uncertain threat, our government made a series of hasty decisions. ... We're cleaning up something that is, quite simply, a mess

Since Inauguration Day, Obama has moved quickly on things like the economy. But when it comes to the security/liberty trade-off, he doesn't want to be "hasty".

On all sides, that's driving people nuts. Everyone wants to project ahead and react with alarm to what they see in their crystal balls. Dick Cheney sees "people more concerned about reading the rights to an al-Qaeda terrorist than they are with protecting the United States". Glenn Greenwald sees Obama "extending the 'preventive detention' power beyond a handful of Guantanamo detainees to anyone, anywhere in the world, alleged to be a 'combatant'." Former Bush OLC director Jack Goldsmith sees a terrorism policy not radically different from Bush's. Digby sees that "the government can capture and imprison anyone they determine to be 'the enemy' forever. The only thing that will change is where the prisoners are held and few little procedural tweaks to make it less capricious."

Depending on the exact wording of Obama's proposals and how those proposals will be implemented, any of those futures is still possible. It's also still possible that Obama will do something fairly reasonable. I'm inclined to trust him, so let me try to put the most reasonable construction on what he said Thursday.

You don't have to buy into the 9-11-changed-everything rhetoric to admit that Al Qaeda is a different kind of security challenge. It's stateless, borderless, loosely organized, and though it has few directly-commanded dedicated-for-life soldiers, it has millions of sympathizers and potential recruits. It can't be conquered like Nazi Germany. Unlike a Mafia family, its violence doesn't simply protect its profit-making activities; quite the opposite, it raises money for the purpose of doing violence.

Captured Al Qaeda agents, then, are sort of like criminals, sort of like prisoners of war, sort of like foreign spies, and sort of like political prisoners. Laws can be applied to them, but the laws weren't designed with them in mind. What to do?

The Bush approach was to give up on the law. Instead, he created zones outside the law, where the president could order whatever he thought necessary. Guantanamo was a physical zone outside the law. "Enemy combatant" was a classification outside the law. (Once the president had declared you an enemy combatant, you had no rights of any kind; no one outside the executive branch had the right even to check that you were still alive.) Warrantless wiretapping was an intelligence-gathering system outside the law. The original Bush military tribunal system was a procedural show that could do nothing but rubber-stamp outside-the-law decisions already made. Signing statements and the unitary-executive theory allowed the president to put aside whatever laws he found inconvenient.

That's the "mess". The courts have rejected a lot of the Bush system, and will probably reject all of it eventually. And so we have hundreds of people in a legal situation that should never have been allowed to happen: They have been taken outside the domain of law and held there for years. Some of them are probably dangerous and some of them probably believe they are at war with us -- so just saying we're sorry and letting them go seems really stupid. Now we need to figure out some other way to re-admit them into the domain of law.

Obama's speech does not define exactly what "the rule of law" means to him. But at a minimum, it seems to mean that your judges are independent from your accusers, and that both are part of some organized system recognized by Congress. So far, so good, but that's pretty vague, and is still open to wild interpretations in many directions.

On the other hand, we're still only four months into the Obama administration. He doesn't want to be hasty. Which I guess is OK, if he eventually gets it right.

I'm reminded of a Gahan Wilson cartoon that unfortunately I can't find online. A westerner and a native guide are crossing the desert on two enormous tortoises. The guide says: "Our people have many sayings on the vanity of haste, effendi."

Jane Mayer says that the al-Marri case is the one to watch.
As usual, John Stewart had the most complete coverage of the "duel".

A Justice Department attorney blogging in his private-citizen capacity thinks Obama is open to prosecuting Bush officials who broke the law. He picks this line out of Obama's speech: "The Department of Justice and our courts can work through and punish any violations of our laws."

Why It's Hard to Think Clearly About Social Security
Every year the trustees put out a report on the current state of the Social Security Trust Fund. There's always some projected year when the SSTF starts paying out more than it takes in (now 2016), and some later year in which the SSTF's balance is zero (2037). Every year, this report is followed by headlines about how Social Security is "going broke". As a result, lots of young people believe that they will never see a dime out of Social Security. I thought that myself when I was 30.

How seriously should we take these fears? Is 2016 or 2037 some kind of crisis point? Do we need to drastically cut benefits, raise the retirement age, or privatize the system in order to save it?

Salon's Michael Lind does a pretty good job of debunking the worst of the fear-mongering, including pointing out the most common rhetorical trick: Combine Social Security (which is in reasonably good shape) and Medicare (which isn't) into one big "entitlement crisis" -- then ignore Medicare and claim that this crisis forces major changes in Social Security.

In this article I'd like to take one more step back and ask: Why is it so hard to wrap our minds around Social Security, and consequently so easy to fear-monger about it? Looking back, we've always discussed Social Security in terms of something we understand better: insurance or pensions or charity or a big collective IRA or even a Ponzi scheme. Al Gore used to talk about putting the SSTF in a "lock box" so that the government couldn't raid it to pay for other programs.

And that's the problem: None of these metaphors is exactly right, so if you follow any of them too far, you end up talking nonsense.

Start at the beginning. Social Security comes out of the Great Depression, when even people who had worked hard and been thrifty all their lives might be destitute in old age because a bank or a pension fund went broke. My father once rented a room from a widow who had lost her savings in a bank failure. She had never intended to run a boarding house, but it was her only remaining option. There were lots of people like that, and many didn't have a house to fall back on.

We sometimes talk about old people being too proud to accept charity, but that was less than half the story. The very idea of it -- that no matter what you do, you still might be a charity case when you get old -- sent a ripple of fear through all age groups. The public wanted to know that working while they were able would guarantee some kind of security in old age. The Depression had proved that personal savings and private pension funds couldn't make that guarantee (as many people are rediscovering after the Crash of 2008). Only the government was big enough.

So the charity metaphor was unacceptable from the beginning. And that shows why one proposed solution -- means-testing -- won't work. If only losers collect, we've missed the point.

The pension-fund metaphor also won't work, because from the beginning the problem was too immediate. A pension fund is essentially a group savings plan. A large number of people pay in for many years, a trustee invests the money, and the survivors get old-age payments for as long as they live. It takes time to get rolling. But in 1937, the country didn't have time. So in 1940 the first monthly Social Security check went out to Ida May Fuller of Ludlow, Vermont. Ida makes a good example, because she had paid in $24.75 during the previous three years, and was already ahead by her second check. She ultimately lived to be 100 and got $22,888.92. A pension fund couldn't do that. And when younger people retired much later, they didn't get a "pension" either -- because Ida had spent their money already.

That's why some critics call Social Security a Ponzi scheme -- an investment fund that gives high returns by paying current investors the money that comes in from new investors. A Ponzi scheme is a type of fraud -- Bernie Madoff is our generation's Charles Ponzi -- which inevitably collapses. But that doesn't capture Social Security either, because Ponzi schemes collapse by exponential growth. The number of investors necessary to keep the scam going eventually becomes larger than the population of the world, so something has to give. Social Security is more disciplined than that; it grows with the population, not faster. So there's no mathematical reason why it can't go on forever.

Insurance is a model that allows some people (like Ida) to take out much more than they put in -- like if your house burns down the day after your fire insurance policy takes effect. The insurance metaphor is why you see the acronym FICA on your paychecks: the tax was set up by the Federal Insurance Contributions Act. But Social Security isn't really insurance either, because Ida very predicably turned 65 on her 65th birthday; it wasn't an accident.

The macro thing. And then we get to the most mind-straining aspect of Social Security, the macro-economics. This is where Social Security runs into something else that we only sort of understand: money. On a personal level, money seems totally real, and saving it for retirement makes perfect sense: You pile it up while you're young, then you draw down the pile when you're old. Simple.

But now imagine that everybody in the world is the same age and that we all save our money for retirement. On the appointed day, we all retire. We all take money out of our pile, go down to the marketplace and buy ... nothing. Because nobody's making anything to buy; we're all retired.

On a macro level, the money we saved was an illusion. If we had saved clothing or non-perishable food, if we had invested our pre-retirement effort in building shelters that would last the rest of our lives -- then we'd have something. But from saving money we have nothing.

Macro-economic issues came up right away. The "Roosevelt Recession" of 1937 -- a second dip within the Depression -- was blamed in part on Social Security, which had started collecting taxes that year but was paying only death benefits. Retirement checks weren't supposed to start until 1942, after the SSTF had piled up some money. It sounds sensible, but macro-economic weirdness strikes whenever the government tries to pile up money: It's an anti-stimulus. Demand drops and the economy shrinks.

So in 1939 Congress speeded up the plan, which is why Ida started getting checks in 1940. The whole point was to avoid having a big balance in the SSTF. Think about that for a second. We're panicking about the SSTF shrinking; in 1939 they worried about it growing.

The Boomer problem. Congress has fiddled with Social Security's taxes and benefits many times over the years. The most recent major revision (which happened only months before the trust fund would have gone to zero) came in 1983. The payroll tax was increased and the retirement age gradually raised. (It is 66 and a couple months for me; 67 for everyone born after 1960). The point of doing that was to build up a balance that could be drawn down to pay benefits for the Baby Boomers, whose numbers would have broken the system otherwise.

So why haven't we been in a Roosevelt Recession ever since? Simple: the rest of the government used up the Social Security surplus by running big deficits. (Raiding Al Gore's lock box, in other words.) So there is no big pile of money waiting for the Boomers to draw it down. Instead, the SSTF owns a bunch of government bonds.

And this is where it gets confusing. On a personal level, that plan would make perfect sense: You save money for retirement and invest it in T-bills. What could be more sound than that? But on a macro level, it seems like a shell game: The "surplus" that is supposed to fund the Boomers' retirement consists of one part of the government holding IOUs from another part.

And here's what nobody explains: Any financial thing we might have done to prepare for the Boomers' retirement -- like a big pile of money in the SSTF -- would have been equally dubious. Because (like the everybody-retires fantasy) Boomer retirement is a problem in the real economy, not the money economy.

Forget money. Independent of the paper in anybody's wallet or the electronic blips in the computers of the Federal Reserve, 20 or 30 years from now there are going to be an unprecedented number of old Americans. Most of them are going to consume more than they produce, because ... well, that's how aging works. A lot of us 80-somethings are going to need surgery, for example, and nobody trusts an 80-something surgeon. We're also not going to be flying airliners, breaking down the doors of serial killers, pitching for the Yankees, or waiting tables at Hooters.

Younger people are going to have to do all that stuff, and a lot more. As a group, working-age people have always produced more than they consume. Over the next few decades, that phenomenon is going to be a little more extreme. Nothing we can do with money will change that fact.

No matter how much is in the SSTF, the rest of the government is going to have to start running a surplus in not too many years -- reversing the tide that's been running since 1983. That means higher taxes, less spending, and fewer wars. It's not impossible -- Clinton was running a surplus when he left office. And the Social Security outflow will be an economic stimulus on its own, so special stimulus programs should not be necessary.

But there will be pressure to examine our priorities -- all of them, not just how committed we are to the idea that hard-working people shouldn't be poor just because they get old. Lind brings that fact home with this thought experiment:
Suppose that in an alternate Rod Serling universe our other-dimensional twins paid for Pentagon spending on the basis of a dedicated national consumption tax, while they paid for Social Security and Medicare out of general taxation. In that case, opponents of Pentagon spending might have a field day denouncing the gap between the estimated federal consumption tax revenues in, oh, let's say, 2050 and the military threats they estimate that the U.S. will face in half a century. But in this "Twilight Zone" America, neither Social Security nor Medicare, lacking dedicated taxes, would have "unfunded liabilities" any more than the Pentagon does in our world.
So the real question is: Going forward, what are our priorities as a country? It's a general problem, not specifically a Social Security problem.

Short Notes
I think this started as a joke, but I'm not sure it still is: Porn star Stormy Daniels has formed an exploratory committee as a first step towards running against Republican Senator David Vitter (of D.C. Madam fame). She's got a web site and everything. Josh Marshall's response to the Stormy Daniels Exploratory Committee: "Is that a euphemism?"

I guess endangered species don't share a sense of solidarity. Now that the bald eagles are coming back in New England, they're feasting on the chicks of the great cormorant.

Stephen Colbert knows what to do with the detainees after Guantanamo is closed. And he responds to the controversy over John Yoo's newspaper column.

In previous Sifts I've told you about two books: The Dark Side by Jane Mayer and Torture Team by Philippe Sands. Amy Goodman interviewed both of them Wednesday about recent developments in the torture issue.

DailyKos' top economic blogger Bonddad doesn't think that we'll see inflation from all the money being created.

In this video, the American News Project interviews Scott Horton and Bruce Ackerman on the subject of what should happen to the federal judgeship of torture-memo writer Jay Bybee.

How long did it take conservative talk-radio guy Erich "Mancow" Muller to change his mind about whether waterboarding is torture? Seven seconds. "It's way worse than I thought it would be," he said.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Respectable Gentlemen

There is small reason to fear the devil when we meet him alone, but the devil well attended by respectable gentlemen, -- that is the devil who is alarming. -- Theodore Parker

In this week's Sift:

  • No Ticking Bomb. What if torture wasn't about protecting the American people?
  • What's Cheney Up To? On the surface, the former VP's 24/7 media blitz looks like a political disaster. Is it some subtly brilliant trap for Democrats? Or is it just another episode in Dick's long-running series of screw-ups?
  • The Next Time You're in the Bookstore ... look for Reza Aslan's How to Win a Cosmic War. Aslan has great insight into fundamentalism in general, jihadism in particular, and what we should do about it.
  • Short Notes. A non sequitur from Pat Robertson. Jon Stewart finds a moral line we won't cross to win the War on Terror. Congrats to Marcy Wheeler. And more.

No Ticking Bomb
The week's most important story wasn't new and is still speculative, but the pieces are starting to come together: Torture wasn't just used to find ticking time bombs and save American lives. The Bush administration may also have tortured people for political gain.

The story has been percolating since a McClatchy Newspapers article April 21 (based on the Senate Armed Services Committee report), but the latest round started with Robert Windrem's article in Wednesday's online Daily Beast. Based on what has been written by Iraq Survey Group head Charles Duelfer (the guy whose report finally closed the book on Saddam's mythical WMDs) and interviews with two anonymous intelligence officials, Windrem claims that someone in Dick Cheney's office wanted a captured Iraqi waterboarded, even though those in the field (i.e. Duelfer) believed he was already cooperating. Why? Because he wasn't providing the information the administration wanted: a connection between Saddam and Al Qaeda.

Along with WMDs, the supposed Saddam-AQ link had been a big part of the administration's case for invading Iraq. Post-invasion, evidence of this link had no ticking-bomb value, but would have bolstered the administration politically.

If true, this is huge. The Bush administration has always presented its "enhanced interrogation" policy as a sound (if distasteful) moral trade-off: weighing the lives of innocent Americans against the pain of suspected terrorists. But Windrem is telling a story of pure corruption, in which the administration broke laws and flouted morality for no purpose higher than re-election.

The difficult-moral-trade-off frame has always been a key part of the argument for not investigating torture: Americans are probably happier not knowing about the ugly things that were done to keep us safe. (As George Orwell may or may not have said: "People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.") But if our safety was not the point, if this is just about corruption, then how can we not investigate?

TPM provides a timeline of the torture-for-politics story, and Rachel Maddow clearly connects the dots while interviewing Duelfer and Windrem (part 1 summary, part 2 Duelfer, part 3 Windrem).

Republicans counter-attacked by trying to make Nancy Pelosi the center of the torture story. I'm startled by how nakedly thuggish this tactic is -- as if one Mafia family were warning another that investigations would be bad for business. This montage of right-wing pundits and spokespeople lays out that threat very clearly.
Before Jesse Ventura was a governor or a wrestler, he was a Navy SEAL and was waterboarded during his training at the SERE school. Here's what Jesse told Larry King last Monday:
I'll put it to you this way: you give me a waterboard, Dick Cheney and one hour, and I'll have him confess to the Sharon Tate murders.

A military mom responds to the claim that waterboarding can't be torture because we do it to our own troops:
My son did NOT volunteer to be tortured. He was NOT told what would be done to him at SERE. He was told he would be taught to survive. Instead he was tortured, humiliated, degraded, shamed, and told to keep quiet about it. ... These people, Cheney and his talking heads, everyone of them chicken hawks who avoided serving, should NOT be allowed to use torturing our troops as rationalization for their crimes.

What's Cheney Up To?
For weeks now, Dick Cheney has been on a media tour defending the Bush administration's torture policy. At a time when the Republicans are in post-defeat chaos, this has made the unpopular and untelegenic Cheney the Republicans' most visible spokesman, and has centered public attention on torture, which is not a good issue for the Republicans. It also has pushed attention backward onto the Bush administration and away from any new faces or new ideas the party might have.

President Obama had been eager to let the whole issue drop, but Cheney's tour has waved a red flag at Democrats, and greatly increased the likelihood of either a truth commission or actual prosecutions, possibly even prosecution of Cheney himself. So what's Cheney up to? Surely this is all part of some ingeniously complex scheme, a trap he is baiting that will snap shut as soon as Democrats commit themselves. Right?

Maybe not. The more I study the Bush administration, the less I believe in the myth of Dick Cheney as some kind of Doctor-Doom-style mastermind. On issue after issue, Cheney comes off as a profoundly ignorant man. Looking back, it's clear that he knew
  • nothing about Iraq. Assume for a second that he really believed we'd be "greeted as liberators". How ignorant was that? And then there was his unshakable certainty that Saddam was an ally of bin Laden. As the administration's WMD-hunter Charles Duelfer said: "That's just born out of ignorance. I mean, to anyone who knew anything about the Iraqi regime ... there was no logic for Saddam to have a connection at all with Al Qaeda."
  • nothing about Afghanistan. The Bush administration made the classic mistake of would-be conquerors of Afghanistan: to (in the words of counter-insurgency guru David Kilcullen) "confuse entry with victory". At a time when the Afghan War was just getting started, Cheney thought we had won and could move on to Iraq.
  • nothing about Islam. The tensions betwen Sunni and Shia, between secular leaders like Saddam and jihadists like bin Laden, between the traditionally recognized imams and the upstart theology of Al Qaeda, between local tribal traditions and by-the-book fundamentalism -- it was all lost on Cheney. Instead of isolating Al Qaeda and finding allies all over the Muslim world, we launched a "crusade" that validated everything bin Laden was saying about us.
  • nothing about terrorism or counter-insurgency. Cheney never got beyond a kill-the-bad-guys approach to fighting insurgents. He never understood that the War on Terror is a war of ideas, and the key battlefield is in the minds of 15-year-old Muslims all over the world. By giving up inspiring American ideals like decency and the rule of law, Cheney unilaterally disarmed the United States.
  • nothing about the traditions of our military. In instituting the torture policy, one of the administration's key problems was how to circumvent the military judge advocate generals. Ditto for instituting military tribunals, which came straight out of World War II as if the last half-century never happened. Cheney never understood the value that the JAGs -- and our military in general -- place on the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
  • nothing about the law. I'm coming to the conclusion that Cheney actually believed the absurd legal arguments put forward by administration lawyers. Numerous behind-the-scenes accounts indicate that Cheney's legal alter-ego David Addington was actually shocked by the defeats the administration suffered in the Supreme Court.
  • nothing about interrogation. Cheney's certainty that torture is the most effective interrogation technique does not come from our trained and experienced interrogators. Quite the opposite. Consider this advice from a memo by Major Sherwood Moran, the legendary interrogator of Japanese prisoners during World War II:
get the prisoner to a safe place, where even he knows there is no hope of escape, that it is all over. Then forget, as it were, the "enemy" stuff, and the "prisoner" stuff. I tell them to forget it, telling them I am talking as a human being to a human being, (ningen to shite). And they respond to this. ... To emphasize that we are enemies, to emphasize that he is in the presence of his conqueror, etc., puts him psychologically in the position of being on the defensive, and that because he is talking to a most-patient enemy and conqueror he has no right and desire to tell anything.
The history of the Bush administration is a history of blunders -- usually blunders that even a rudimentary knowledge of the field in question could have prevented. And if you trace those blunders back, you inevitably find Dick Cheney. He's not Doctor Doom, he's Wile E. Coyote.

So my advice to Democrats is: Take the bait. Walk into the trap. You'll find that it's as poorly constructed as everything else Dick Cheney had a hand in.

National Journal finds that most Republican insiders think Cheney is hurting the party. Says one: "The best thing he can do is disappear for the next 10 years."
Speaking of unattractive Republican spokesmen ... on National Review Online's conservative blog The Corner, Jerry Taylor had the courage to suggest that (in view of Rush Limbaugh's 19% approval rating) "the more people who think Rush Limbaugh leads the GOP, the fewer votes the GOP will get." So of course the other NRO contributors shouted him down. Matt Yglesias' assessment:
I just find the whole thing kind of mind-boggling. Rush’s defenders understand, I hope, that painting Rush as the all-powerful lord of conservatism before whom all else must submit was, in its origins, a political strategy devised by their enemies, right? So why are they jumping so quickly to prove that the argument is dead-on?
Memo to dittohead Republicans: 19% makes a great radio-show audience, but in any election it's a landslide defeat. So Rush can win while you lose.

Rush may drive his favorability even lower if he keeps arguing with 97-year-old ladies like Roberta McCain.

The Next Time You're in the Bookstore ...
... look for How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror by Reza Aslan. This is a different kind of war-on-terror book. It doesn't reveal new details about what happened on the battlefield or at Guantanamo or inside the Bush administration. It's about backing up, getting context and perspective, and making sense of things.

Aslan is an Iranian-American who came here when he was seven. He's also that rarest of birds: a liberal Muslim who can get attention from the media. His previous book No god but God (which I reviewed for UU World) retold the history of Islam as a liberal Muslim might understand it, and said that the current Muslim ferment was symptomatic of a reformation -- similar to the (sometimes violent) convulsions Christianity went through in the 1500s and 1600s.

Cosmic War starts with perhaps the most mysterious aspect of the War on Terror: the number of people on both sides who view it as a cosmic event.
A cosmic war is a religious war. It is a conflict in which God is believed to be directly engaged on one side over the other. Unlike a holy war -- an earthly battle between rival religious groups -- a cosmic war is like a ritual drama in which participants act out on earth a battle they believe is actually taking place in the heavens.
And so the 9-11 hijackers prepared themselves as if for a religious ritual. On the American side, Lieutenant General William Boykin (speaking in uniform at a church) said "the enemy is a guy named Satan," Donald Rumsfeld's daily war briefings for President Bush led off with Bible quotes, and Bush himself announced that the goal of the war was to "rid the world of evil". Such a goal, Aslan notes,
ensures that a cosmic war remains an absolute, eternal, unending, and ultimately unwinnable conflict.
Why would anyone sign up for such a thing? To say that they're just crazy, or that religion makes people crazy, just excuses our lack of understanding; it explains nothing.

I have a rule of thumb for judging explanations of bizarre behavior. Bad explanations make the explainer feel safe. They explain why he will never do anything like that, not why the other person did. (So: the religion-makes-you-crazy argument comes from Richard Dawkins, an atheist.) Good explanations are a little threatening. They start with motives we all share, and make us realize that everyone is a lot closer to the Abyss than we like to think.

Identity and Globalization. Aslan starts with identity. We all need to have a story about who we are and why our living-and-dying is worthwhile. Identity-stories usually involve boundaries, either physical or metaphorical. (People like me are here; people not like me are over there.) But globalization is breaking boundaries, and so threatening traditional identities.

Take national identity, for example. What does it mean to be English? It used to mean a lot of things: not just that you lived on a particular island, but that you had certain racial and ethnic characteristics; you spoke and thought in English; you probably had an ancestor someplace like Waterloo or Agincourt; you were a Christian who either belonged to or was alienated from the Church of England; you shared cultural heroes like Shakespeare and Newton, and had a strong opinion about Oliver Cromwell. But today, citizenship in the UK (or the EU) implies none of that. Being English is not something you can hang your hat on anymore.

Lots of identities don't work as well as they used to. You might live half a dozen places in your life and have two or three professions. Over time, you might have more than one spouse, more than one set of children, and a new best friend every five or ten years.

So who are you? What story explains why your living-and-dying is worthwhile? Who will carry on after you're gone? And even if somebody wanted to, what would they carry on?

A century ago, intellectuals took for granted that religion was a relic. Surely it would fade away as science explained more and more of life's mysteries, and as increasingly cosmopolitan people realized how parochial their local mythologies were. But the intellectuals failed to grasp something important: The modern world was killing off all the traditional identity stories, and people still needed to identify with something. So religion would thrive in the modern world; and the religions that created the most satisfying identities would thrive best.

Fundamentalism rocks as an identity. Whether you're a Pentecostal speaking in tongues, an illegal Zionist settler reclaiming Palestine for God's chosen people, or a jihadist training for martyrdom in the tribal areas of Pakistan -- you know who you are. You know who your people are and exactly what they will carry on after you die.

Islamists vs. Jihadists. A second important point of the book is the distinction between Islamists and jihadists. The jihadist is a cosmic warrior. The problems of his fellow Muslims, either locally or far away in Palestine or Iraq, form his identity as a member of an aggrieved community -- but his actions are not part of any worldly program to resolve those grievances. Rather, a jihadist acts to demonstrate the power of God, and it is ultimately God who must remake the world and solve its problems.

The Islamist, on the other hand, is motivated by his religion to solve worldly problems through worldly action. Aslan cites the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the ruling Justice and Development Party of Turkey as examples. He sees them evolving into the role that the various Christian Democrat parties play in Europe. Because their goals and methods are of this world, they can compromise and learn to work with non-Muslims.

The key question for the next generation of Muslims is whether they have sufficient hope to reform the world rather than blow it up so that God can start over. Can mere people organize to replace corrupt governments like Mubarak's in Egypt? Or must they rely on God to topple the whole world order first, starting with the United States?

How to Win. The answer promised by the book's title is simple: The only way to win a cosmic war is not to fight one. Otherwise, both victory and defeat are apocalyptic myths. And so we must simultaneously resist the efforts of our own fundamentalists to frame the current struggle in cosmic terms, and do whatever we can to break the jihadists' cosmic-war frame.

Aslan gives a clear picture of how jihadists -- like the 7/7 London bombers -- are made: First, legitimate local grievances (like the alienation of young British Muslims) are interpreted in religious (not ethnic, racial, or class) terms. Then distant problems (like the oppression of the Palestinians, Chechans, and Kashmiris) are built into an identity as an aggrieved global people. Then the apparent Muslim leaders (clerics, politicians, or tribal sheiks) are portrayed as corrupt collaborators in the current order. And finally an apocalyptic global jihad is presented as the solution.

He recommends disrupting that process at every stage: doing a better job of integrating Muslims into Western society, seeking justice for oppressed peoples worldwide, and working with non-jihadist Muslim leaders rather than regarding all Muslims as potential jihadist sympathizers.

Singapore has an interesting approach: They let Muslim clerics deprogram young jihadists. Teen-age jihadist foot-soldiers typically have only a slogan-based understanding of Islam. Like many fundamentalist Christians in this country, they can parrot scriptural proof-texts but know little about the larger context. At that age, regular one-on-one sessions with a trained Islamic scholar can make a huge difference.

Short Notes
Media Matters collects what the Right is saying about same-sex marriage. Pat Robertson has the clincher:
And what about bestiality? And ultimately, what about child molestation and pedophilia? How can we criminalize these things and at the same time have constitutional amendments allowing same-sex marriage among homosexuals?
A real conundrum, that is. Unless you actually think about it or something.

Jon Stewart connects some new dots: When the subject is torture, the Right claims we have to use "all our assets" to prevent another terrorist attack. But when the subject is don't-ask-don't-tell, they want to punt away assets like Arabic interpreters:
So it was OK to waterboard a guy over 80 times, but God forbid the guy who could understand what that prick was saying has a boyfriend.

An impressive set of graphics demonstrates something I've suspected for a while: Canada is pretty well governed.

My reaction to the Philadelphia Inquirer giving John Yoo a column: I don't want to hear from Yoo again unless he's under oath.
Double standard: Two guys cheat on their cancer-stricken wives. The Democrat (John Edwards) is a pariah. The Republican (Newt Gingrich) is a leading conservative spokesman.

The next time somebody tells you that newspapers do real journalism and bloggers just opinionate, have them read Marcy Wheeler, who just got a well-deserved Hillman Award.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Hope for the Economy?

The less we deserve good fortune, the more we hope for it. -- Seneca

In this week's Sift:
  • Which Way is the Economy Going? It depends on whether you focus on stocks or jobs. And the long-term irrationality of the world economy still hasn't been addressed.
  • Who Gets to Audition for the Supremes? The white males who dominate punditry are very upset that white males aren't being considered for the Supreme Court vacancy.
  • Onward Christian Soldiers. Al Qaeda tries to make American soldiers unpopular by calling them "crusaders". So why are they acting like crusaders?
  • The Do-As-I-Say Theory of Teen Sex. Like many mothers of infants, Bristol Palin has discovered abstinence.
  • Short Notes. Should I have had children? The demography of religion and politics. Pork and swine flu. Arresting journalists is OK if you're American. And the iPhone commercial you'll never see on TV.

Which Way is the Economy Going?
Every time I try to write an article about the economy, I run into the problem that I don't really know what to tell you. Depending on what you look at, you can argue that the economy is headed either up or down. The Dow (see this one-year chart) has already made a considerable rebound: It hit a low of 6440 in early March and (despite a bad day today) is well over 8000 as I write this.

Federal Reserve Chief Ben Bernanke expects the economy to start growing again by the end of this year, while the Fed unemployment projections have it topping out soon and starting to go down slowly in early 2010. The Obama administration is predicting a 3.5% growth rate by the end of 2009.

The problem I have putting it all together is that there are economic problems on many different time scales, a few getting better, some still getting worse.

Inventory. The shortest-term problem has been an inventory correction: When the economy crashed in September, businesses of all sorts realized they had more stuff on the shelves than they could sell, so they stopped ordering new stuff. This happens fairly often even in healthy economies and is nothing to worry about. As long as sales don't fall to zero, eventually businesses work through their inventory and start ordering again. That's starting to happen.

Jobs. In April, the economy was still losing a lot of jobs (539,000 of them), but not as fast as in the previous few months. Unemployment is up to 8.9% officially -- a 25-year high. It's even worse if you add in "marginally attached workers" (who would like a job and have looked for one in the recent past, but not recently enough to count in the official rate) and part-time workers who want full-time work but can't find it. That bumps unemployment up to 15.8%, according to Americans for Democratic Action. A ZNet article on jobs notes the economy needs to generate 127,000 jobs a month just to keep up with our growing population. "In other words, the economy is currently 7.8 million jobs below where it would need to be simply to maintain pre-recession employment rates."

Bonddad, one of my favorite economic bloggers, notes that average-weekly-hours-worked is still dropping. That's a bad sign, because a company that is cutting hours is moving towards firing, not towards hiring. You'd expect to see employers increase hours before deciding that they need to hire more workers.

Real estate. Then there's the housing bubble. reports that Americans lost $704 billion in real estate valuations during the first quarter, and that 21.9% of homeowners have negative equity. Their real-estate index is down 21.8% from its peak in 2006. The good news -- and this is pretty thin for good news -- is that the cities where the real estate crash started are now falling more slowly. "It’s quite a statement of current market conditions when the good news is that the bad news isn’t getting worse."

Banks. The best news is that talk about the banking system collapsing has subsided. in the last few months, some of the best gainers in the stock market have been the big banks. A share of Citigroup was briefly below $1 in March, and is now up around $4. (Of course, it was over $50 in 2007.) You can say a lot of bad things about TARP, but in September there was a real look-out-below moment when Great Depression II seemed very likely. That seems to have passsed.

The dollar and the deficits. On a much longer time scale, though, the world economy has been doing something fundamentally unsound for a long time. The United States has a huge budget deficit and trade deficit. In the simplest possible terms, that means that the U.S. government prints dollars, which go overseas in exchange for things like sneakers and TVs. Ordinarily that would cause inflation as foreigners shipped those dollars back to America. But instead, they have been trading that paper for more paper: U.S. government bonds.

In other words, foreigners have been content to keep their savings in American paper, and haven't demanded that we take that paper back in exchange for anything tangible. And as long as they are all content, they have every reason to be content. It's a Yossarian Paradox. (In Catch 22, people keep asking Yossarian "What if everybody thought the way you do?" And he answers, "Then I'd be a damn fool to think any other way.") But if significant numbers of them were ever to worry that something awful might happen to the dollar, then something awful would happen to the dollar. Maybe that will happen tomorrow, maybe 20 years from now.

The worrisome thing is that the different time scales conflict. Short term, the government needs to run a huge deficit to keep the economy going until the inventory correction is over and the housing bubble has stabilized. But it makes the long-term dollar problem worse.

Matt Yglesias explains why you can't count on markets to correct themselves in any kind of timely fashion. His title comes from a quote often attributed to John Maynard Keynes: The Market Can Stay Irrational Longer Than You Can Stay Solvent.

Who Gets to Audition for the Supremes?
As the Mainstream Media Village considers the prospect that somebody other than a white male might be appointed to the Supreme Court, wagons are beginning to circle. WaPo's Richard Cohen protests that such affirmative action is a relic of a bygone era:
For most Americans, race has become supremely irrelevant. Everyone knows this. Every poll shows this.
Yeah. That's why the Obama Waffles joke was so funny. And the Obama monkey. Atrios comments:
When the white guy is chosen, all of the people who bemoan the evils of affirmative action nod and clap at how "qualified" he is, despite the fact that generally white men are the greatest beneficiaries of various forms of affirmative action in this society, from inherited wealth and privilege, to the good old boys' club, and to, of course, fluffing by our media.
As we all know, a white man has to be over-qualified and razor-sharp to make it in this politically correct world. If you don't believe me, look at George W. Bush. Or ask Digby, who also has her sarcasm dial set to 11:
After all, the women and the minorities are just overflowing the Supreme Court with unqualified losers and the poor white guys can't catch a break.
So far, 43 out of 44 presidents and 106 out of 110 Supreme Court justices have been white males. Draw your own conclusions.

Ezra Klein disputes the whole most-qualified-individual premise:
[The Court] is responsible for a country that's 51 percent female and whose law graduates are 48 percent female. Its highest profile cases revolve exclusively around things that happen in a woman's body. If we were aware of those facts and were stocking the Court from scratch, there is no doubt that we would strive for more gender balance. Viewed from that perspective, the situation clarifies considerably. The reason white men are disadvantaged in this nomination process is pretty simple: They are not, right now, what the Court needs. They are not the best candidates for the job.
Maybe a sports analogy will help guys grasp this point: If a basketball team played the best five individuals it could find, it might wind up with five centers or five point guards. The team would suck.

I've got an idea for how to move the Overton window on this nomination: Obama should leak (and deny) a short list that includes Chief Justice Margaret Marshall of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. The Right would have a hissy fit of Biblical proportions, because Marshall wrote the same-sex marriage decision of 2003. No other name on the list would get the slightest attention. The actual nominee, when announced, would seem like a compromise candidate.

Let's put Alan Page on the list, too. As a justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court and the leader of the Vikings' famous Purple People Eater defense of the 1970s, Page could continue the Court's Whizzer White tradition. He would also represent a different kind of affirmative action: I don't think a defensive player or a lineman has ever been appointed to the Court.

No matter who Obama nominates, we're sure to hear conservatives rail about "judicial activism". My opinion on so-called judicial activism hasn't changed since my Wide Liberty essay of 2005, which explained why same-sex marriage or the right to privacy do not depend on judicial activism: Claims of judicial activism almost always rest on a fundamental misunderstanding of the Constitution and our founders' views about rights. Interestingly, when Hamilton spoke against writing a Bill of Rights in Federalist #84, he predicted this misunderstanding would arise.

Onward Christian Soldiers
Here's a great way to make American soldiers unpopular and unsafe in Muslim countries: Al Jazeera reports that military chaplains are encouraging soldiers in Afghanistan to convert Muslims to Christianity. If true, that's a violation of military policy and probably of the U.S. Constitution. Worse, the Afghan government we're supposedly supporting has a law against attempting to convert Muslims to another religion. The report backs up the Al Qaeda characterization of American soldiers in Muslim lands as "crusaders" -- enemies of Islam.

The smoking gun here is a film of a prayer meeting of U.S. soldiers. They've got a stack of Bibles in the Afghan languages of Dari and Pashtu, and a chaplain seems to be leading a discussion on ways to work around the military order against proselytizing. A separate video shows the top military chaplain in Afghanistan, Lieutenant Colonel Gary Hensley, giving a sermon where he says "as Christians, we hunt people for Jesus. ... That's what we do, that's our business." Now this might well be exactly what the military claims -- remarks taken out of context. (Hensley might be encouraging soldiers to evangelize to other American soldiers -- also dubious, but at least not against Afghan law.) But I'm sure Hensley (wearing part of his uniform and holstering a gun) looks very threatening to a Muslim TV audience.

A deeper issue here is the overall corruption of the chaplain corps by evangelical Christians. Paying ministers with taxpayer dollars is tricky under the Constitution. The chaplains pass muster because they have a secular purpose: Without chaplains offering the sacraments and guidance soldiers want and believe in, the military could only recruit people who were willing to give up their religious practices for months at a time. So the chaplains are paid to serve American soldiers, not to serve God or any religious institution. When chaplains try to convert soldiers to a religion they did not hold when they enlisted, though, a line has been crossed. It's illegal, unconstitutional, and the chaplains should be fired.

The Do-As-I-Say Theory of Teen Sex
Back in February, Bristol Palin's interview on Fox News ventured beyond the prepared talking points, and she made an uncommon amount of sense: "Everyone should be abstinent or whatever, but it's not realistic at all."

I guess the deprogrammers are finished with her now, because now she's back on message:
I just want to go out there and just promote abstinence, and just say "This is the safest choice. This is the choice that's going to prevent teen pregnancy and prevent a lot of heartache."
Naturally, the best person to tell you you're full of crap is your ex. Levi Johnston (who is getting bonus time on his 15 minutes of fame) says:
I don't just think telling young kids: "You can't have sex" -- it's not going to work. It's not realistic.
The NYT's Gail Collins shares my horror:
If you have ever watched Levi Johnston on TV for two minutes you will appreciate how terrifying it is when he has the most reasonable analysis of a social issue.
But then Collins goes too far. She has the bad taste to bring facts into the discussion:
while encouraging kids to wait is obviously fine, the evidence is pretty clear that abstinence education is worse than useless. Texas, where virtually all the schools teach abstinence and abstinence alone, is a teen pregnancy disaster zone.
The alternative is to teach kids about birth control, so that the ones who do have sex won't necessarily make babies. But according to the Right, that is a "mixed message". Apparently they think any message more complicated than "No" just won't fit into a teen-ager's tiny brain.

I guess Bristol's message sounds clear to them. Here's how Collins sums up the moral of the Bristol's-baby saga, as presented at the Republican Convention:
If your handsome but somewhat thuglike boyfriend gets you with child, he will clean up nicely, propose marriage, and show up at an important family event wearing a suit and holding your hand. At which point you will get a standing ovation.
Even now that Levi is history, Bristol thinks her baby is "wonderful" and "a blessing", even if he is "a lot of work". She isn't sorry she has him, she just wishes she'd "waited" -- about ten years, according to her Fox News interview. (Waited ten years with Levi? Or if without him, how would that be the same baby?)

That's the abstinence message in a nutshell: Babies and sex are like pieces of chocolate cake that you can't eat until you finish your lima beans. At a time in your life when fifth period seems like it will never end, you should swear off that chocolate cake for a decade or so. Because babies are a lot of work and ... I guess you're too lazy and stupid to deal with them.

Was there ever a message better designed to provoke an "I'm going to prove them wrong" response? I wonder about the people who compose these "unmixed" messages and convince the Bristol Palins to repeat them. Were they ever teen-agers? Have they ever listened to a teen-ager?

Even for people who don't remember their adolescence, the general ineffectiveness of abstinence programs has been clear for at least two years. The full report is here.

In a duel of high-profile Republican daughters, Meghan McCain responds to Bristol Palin:
The key, honestly, is communication between parents and children. ... Unfortunately, Republicans typically don’t like to discuss or deal with things they think are wrong or immoral. And that’s a huge mistake. If we can’t discuss birth control in addition to abstinence, and in a nonjudgmental way, kids will continue to make bad choices for lack of having access to informed, safe options. ... [T]he GOP continues to struggle with open communication about serious issues most people deal with rationally, and on a regular basis. Unless we learn how to integrate that kind of discussion, our party will continue its descent into irrelevance.

Short Notes
In addition to my current-events blogging, I also write a column for the UU World web site. My day-after-Mother's-Day column is about not being a parent, and how that decision looks as my friends' daughter gets ready to graduate from high school.

On OpenLeft, Chris Bowers makes demographic projections about religion and politics. He breaks the country into four religious groups: white evangelicals (plus Mormons), white traditionals (i.e., Catholics and mainstream Protestants), non-Christians, and non-white Christians. Of the four, white traditionals is currently the largest (37% of the electorate), and the most bipartisan (7% advantage to McCain in 2008). The other three groups all skew at least 3-to-1 to either the Democrats or Republicans.

Using demographic data, Bowers then projects the future size of each of these groups, and comes to the conclusion that each will be about 1/4 of the electorate by 2032, with both non-Christians and non-white Christians passing the white evangelicals. In 2032, white traditionals are still the largest group, but down to 27%.
Combined, the two strongly Democratic groups, non-Christians and non-white Christians, should increase from 39% to about 52% of the electorate between now and 2032. A shift like that would add another 10% to the Democratic margin if partisan preferences within the groups remain the same.
This underlines a point I was making last week: Long-term, Republicans really need to start appealing to Hispanics. Blaming all our problems on Mexican immigrants is one of the dumbest things they could be doing.

Every now and then something reminds me that I overestimate public intelligence. Apparently, the pork industry has to waste advertising money telling people that they can't catch swine flu by eating bacon -- I got to this link by clicking through an online ad. Which makes me wonder: Is the poultry industry doing enough to educate us about chicken pox?

Iran has decided to suspend the sentence of Roxana Saberi, a free-lance journalist (BBC, NPR) who hold dual U.S. and Iranian citizenship. She was convicted of spying for the U.S., though it's widely suspected she was just being a journalist. She'll be released today, but she's banned from working as a journalist in Iran for the next five years.

Glenn Greenwald notes how different this result (and its surrounding publicity) is from the cases of journalists arrested by Americans. Sudanese cameraman Sami al-Haj was working for Al Jazeera when he was arrested in Pakistan and shipped to Guantanamo. He stayed there for six years with no trial of any kind. Bilal Hussein was a photographer for Associated Press until we arrested him in Iraq and held him for two years without charges. We still refuse to release Reuters photographer Ibrahim Jassam Mohammed even after an Iraqi court has ruled that there is no evidence against him.

SlateV finds this parody of the iPhone commercial.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Prepared Minds

Chance favors the prepared mind. -- Louis Pasteur
In this week's Sift:

Swine Flu: If I'm Not Supposed to Panic, What Am I Supposed to Do?
In the same way that economists worry about another Great Depression, public health people worry about another Great Influenza of 1918. Half the population of the world caught it, and it killed more people than World War I -- a lot more. Like war and unlike most flus, it was particularly lethal for the young, and it worked fast. You'd see a healthy young man walking down the street, and then hear a few days later that he was dead.

Like a Great Depression, a deadly flu pandemic is the kind of low-probability/high-impact event that humans don't know how to think about. Evolution programed us to run from tigers and to rest when the tigers aren't around. "Take precautions because something really bad might happen soon but probably won't" -- that thought didn't come up very often on the plains of prehistoric Africa. And so today, we still just want to know whether it's a tiger or not.

The swine flu is starting to look a little less tigerish than it did a few days ago, but the jury is still out. Here's the recent good news:
Still, schools are closing here and there all over the country. And if things took a sudden turn for the worse, you could see businesses closing as well. A precaution worth taking: Stock up on essentials now, while there's still no panic. Think about what you'd need if stores and restaurants were closed for a few weeks.

A very good book on the 1918 flu is The Great Influenza by John M. Barry. A lesson I learned from it is that public health really is public. Plagues are controlled because governments step in with quarantines, curfews, drug rationing, and other draconian measures. A libertarian society would be completely helpless against a major epidemic.

Here's the official CDC advice. They're tracking the cases state-by-state here.

DemFromCT answers a lot of basic questions, including what a pandemic is and why closing schools is a good early strategy. DarkSyde explains how flu-evolution works.

Dr. Charles Ericsson, head of the clinical infectious disease department at the University of Texas Medical School, describes the symptoms of swine flu: "Basically you will feel just plain rotten." Thanks, Doc.

Judge Hawkins Schools Obama on State Secrets
Tuesday, the 9th Court of Appeals rejected the Obama administration's interpretation of the state secrets privilege. The opinion, written by Judge Michael Daly Hawkins, is a very nice primer on what the state secrets privilege is and how it should work. It rejects the executive-supremacy claims of the Bush (and now Obama) administration.

First, what's the case and where does it stand? Five non-American-citizens claim they were victims of rendition; the CIA flew them to countries like Egypt and Pakistan, where they were tortured. For technical reasons I don't completely understand, they're suing not the government, but the Boeing subsidiary that did the actual flying, Jeppesen Dataplan.*

The government has argued that the case should be thrown out because of the state secrets privilege. The lower court agreed, and the appeals court is now reversing that judgment, sending the case back to the lower court for trial.

But what is the state secret privilege and where does it come from? There are two major precedents:
  • Totten v. United States (1875). A Civil War spy sued because the government didn't pay him. The court threw the case out, ruling that Totten's agreement with the government (if it existed at all) must have included an implicit provision that it remain secret. "The secrecy which such contracts impose precludes any action for their enforcement."
  • United States v. Reynolds (1953). Widows of RCA employees killed in a military air crash sued the government. They tried to force the government to produce the accident report, but the government convinced the court that revealing the report would harm national security.
In Totten, the case gets thrown out. But in Reynolds, the case goes forward without the secret evidence. (The widows and the government negotiated a settlement.) Judge Hawkins argues that Reynolds is the right model here, not Totten, and so the lower court was wrong to dismiss the case.

At issue is what precisely the state secrets privilege protects. Hawkins claims it protects evidence, not facts.
According to Reynolds, therefore, the question is not which facts are secret and may not be alleged and put to the jury’s consideration for a verdict; it is only which evidence is secret and may not be disclosed in the course of a public trial.
This makes state-secrets similar to other privileges. If, say, I tell my lawyer that I really did murder the guy, the lawyer-client privilege keeps our conversation from becoming evidence at my trial. But the fact that I murdered the guy is not privileged; if the prosecution can prove it some other way, they are free to proceed.

The government claims that "the very subject matter" of the Jeppesen case is a secret. Hawkins points out what a bad precedent this would set:
This sweeping characterization of the “very subject matter” bar has no logical limit—it would apply equally to suits by U.S. citizens, not just foreign nationals; and to secret conduct committed on U.S. soil, not just abroad. According to the government’s theory, the Judiciary should effectively cordon off all secret government actions from judicial scrutiny, immunizing the CIA and its partners from the demands and limits of the law.
Hawkins also rejects the idea that classified is the same as secret. It's a checks-and-balances issue. The executive branch classifies documents on its own, without the participation of any other branch of government. If courts just accept that, then the executive branch is supreme; it has an unchecked power to decide what evidence courts can and can't consider.
It follows that, while classification may be a strong indication of secrecy as a practical matter, courts must undertake an independent evaluation of any evidence sought to be excluded to determine whether its contents are secret within the meaning of the privilege.
Hawkins argues for balancing various interests, rather than letting the executive's desire for secrecy automatically trump everybody else:
Within the Reynolds framework, the President’s interest in keeping state secrets secret is, of course, still protected: the court must balance “the circumstances of the case” and the plaintiff’s “showing of necessity” for the evidence against the “danger that compulsion of evidence will expose matters which, in the interest of national security, should not be divulged.” Where a plaintiff’s need for the evidence is “strong . . ., the claim of privilege should not be lightly accepted,” but “even the most compelling necessity cannot overcome the claim of privilege if the court is ultimately satisfied” that the privilege applies.
And a state-secret claim should not automatically dismiss a case. Instead, the privilege excludes specific evidence. The case may later be dismissed for lack of evidence, but that's a separate judgment.
Thus, within the Reynolds framework, dismissal is justified if and only if specific privileged evidence is itself indispensable to establishing either the truth of the plaintiff’s allegations or a valid defense that would otherwise be available to the defendant.
The upshot is the beginning of a case is the wrong time to claim the state secrets privilege. It should be claimed when evidence is being introduced, on an item-by-item basis:
We simply cannot resolve whether the Reynolds evidentiary privilege applies without (1) an actual request for discovery of specific evidence, (2) an explanation from plaintiffs of their need for the evidence, and (3) a formal invocation of the privilege by the government with respect to that evidence, explaining why it must remain confidential.
Hawkins' concluding instructions to the lower court:
On remand, the government must assert the privilege with respect to secret evidence (not classified information), and the district court must determine what evidence is privileged and whether any such evidence is indispensable either to plaintiffs’ prima facie case or to a valid defense otherwise available to Jeppesen. Only if privileged evidence is indispensable to either party should it dismiss the complaint.

*Lest you think Jeppesen is just caught in the middle here, Judge Hawkins includes this footnote:
Plaintiffs cite, among other things, the sworn declaration of Sean Belcher, a former Jeppesen employee, who stated that the director of Jeppesen International Trip Planning Services, Bob Overby, had told him, "We do all the extraordinary rendition flights,"which he also referred to as "the torture flights " or "spook flights." Belcher stated that "there were some employees who were not comfortable with that aspect of Jeppesen’s business" because they knew "some of these flights end up" with the passengers being tortured. He stated that Overby had explained, "that's just the way it is, we’re doing them" because "the rendition flights paid very well."
In other words, they're scumbags. Don't feel sorry for them.

Will Republicans Go Extinct?
The news that Senator Arlen Specter is defecting to the Democrats started a new round of stories about the dire state of the GOP.
  • The remaining 40 Republican senators can't sustain a filibuster, in the unlikely event that the 60 Democrats -- when Al Franken finally gets seated -- all unite.
  • A new survey announced that the number of Americans calling themselves Republicans has dropped to 22%, and is still dropping.
  • The Northeast's surviving two Republican senators -- Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins from Maine (NH's Judd Gregg is retiring) -- are being asked when they're going to switch. Certainly they don't fit any better than Specter did. And Snowe's NYT op-ed didn't sound very happy with the direction of the party. ("Ideological purity is not the ticket back to the promised land of governing majorities.")

DailyKos is gleefully trying to name the goposaur (see left) created by malacandra.

The media narrative has the GOP swirling around the drain like this: Fewer voters consider themselves Republicans; the remaining Republican voters are the extreme conservatives; in order to appeal to those primary voters, Republican candidates are going to have to take extreme conservative positions on the issues; extreme conservative positions will alienate moderates; so even fewer voters will consider themselves Republicans.

The issue that epitomizes that pattern is immigration. Karl Rove's once-feared plan for a "permanent Republican majority" included winning over the fast-growing Hispanic demographic by appealing to their Catholic heritage on issues like abortion and gay rights. But that's can't work when the current Republican base is brimming over with anti-Hispanic racism. McCain was the least offensive of the Republican primary candidates, and Obama still got 67% of Hispanic votes, helping him win once-reliable red states like Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada. If Democrats hang on to 2/3rds of the Hispanics going forward, Republicans are sunk. (Leading immigrant-basher Tom Tancredo interprets this differently, of course, referring to the "so-called Hispanic vote".)

So is it over for the Republican Party unless they stop being so conservative? I've got my doubts about that.

Not so long ago, pundits all agreed that the Democrats were too liberal to survive, and that they needed to move to the center by embracing candidates like Joe Lieberman rather than Howard Dean. That's why every Democratic senator but Feingold voted for the Patriot Act in 2001, and why Kerry, Edwards, and Hillary Clinton voted to authorize the Iraq invasion in 2002. The 2002 and 2004 elections were disasters, mostly because moving to the center gave Democrats a mushy image and no issues to run on.

Moving to the center wouldn't work any better for Republicans now. Changing your basic philosophy to try to match the American people's philosophy is a losing strategy because (unlike the talking heads on TV) most Americans do not have a political philosophy. Instead, they have lives. They have hopes and fears and experiences. So in order to win elections you need to
  1. stand for something
  2. connect what you stand for to ordinary people's hopes, fears, and experiences.
Republicans are failing at step 2, not step 1. Getting fuzzy about what they stand for -- like Kerry in 2004 -- will just create a new problem without fixing the original one.

If you look at the pillars of Reagan conservatism -- small government, low taxes, strong defense, traditional values -- they all still sound good in the abstract. But the trains of reasoning that once connected those core Republican principles to people's hopes and fears have derailed. Who still believes that cutting rich people's taxes will create her next job? Who feels personally safer because we have troops in Iraq? Who worries that gay marriage threatens his own family? That diehard 22%, and nobody else.

On the other hand, the connections between American hopes/fears and an active liberal government are strong right now. When banks start falling like dominoes, what's our last line of defense against a second Great Depression? Whose helicopters are going to pull us out of the floodwaters? Who's going to keep our food safe? Who will make sure we (and our kids) get medical care if we lose our jobs? Active, competent government, that's who.

But that doesn't mean that the American people have a liberal philosophy now, any more than they had a conservative philosophy a few years ago.

Think about how the pendulum swung to the Right between LBJ and Ronald Reagan. It wasn't a philosophical change, it happened because the Right spoke to everyday fears (some real and some imaginary). People were afraid they'd be mugged, afraid their children would be forced into unsafe schools, afraid affirmative action would rig the system against them, afraid environmental regulations would shut down their local factory. They had sticker shock whenever they walked into a store, and conservatives convinced them that liberal social spending had caused that inflation.

The conservative sound bites -- "tax-and-spend liberals", "law and order", "soft on defense", "family values" and so on -- all had long tails. They were part of a network of ideas, repeated in every campaign, that connected everyday life to conservative principles. That's what it means to have a good political brand.

From 9/11 into Bush's second term, Democrats struggled unsuccessfully to connect Bush's horrible policies with everyday life. The war could only kill you if you volunteered for the military. Nobody you knew was being tortured. But the conservative brand started to unravel with Katrina: They would leave me to fend for myself. Then came $4 gas and the tainted-food scares and your 401(k) tanking and not knowing whether your job was safe or not. Nobody's looking out for me.

That's been the switch. Rather than being afraid of government, Americans are now afraid of government neglect. All the rhetoric about freedom and individual responsibility falls flat if you're thinking about a Katrina-like situation: You're free to take responsbility for your own drowning.

The GOP's problem right now is that they are stuck in abstraction, not that they're stuck in conservative abstraction. They've lost their line into everyday life. Gay marriage won't affect you if you're not gay. Nobody's going to force you to get an abortion. Republicans are in the position Democrats were in a few years ago: trying to make people care about things that have no direct impact on them. And they're trying to compensate by raising their rhetoric. If calling Obama liberal didn't work, let's call him socialist or Marxist or even fascist.

That won't get it done. Reinvigorating the GOP has to start with everyday life, not with philosophy -- and certainly not with name-calling. What are ordinary people's hopes and fears? How can small government, low taxes, strong defense, and traditional values address those hopes and fears?

Democrats shouldn't get cocky; there's no reason those questions can't have convincing answers again.

Short Notes
So there I am, sitting in an Italian restaurant and futilely trying to remember somebody's name while the background music croons away. What else could I do? I wrote the song parody "That's Aphasia! " to the tune of Dean Martin's classic "That's Amore!"

A number of bloggers caught this gaffe by Byron York of the Washington Examiner:
[President Obama's] sky-high ratings among African-Americans make some of his positions appear a bit more popular overall than they actually are.
Because those silly opinion polls count blacks as if they were people or something.

Maybe Hell sets a bad example. A Pew survey says that frequent church-goers are more likely to support torture.

Charles Krauthammer has thoughtfully written a column in the WaPo explaining when torture is justified. I'm hoping it's the first of a trilogy. The sequel could examine when slavery is justified, and in the conclusion Charles might tell us when genocide is justified.
Greg Mitchell marks the sixth anniversary of "Mission Accomplished" by looking back at the glowing coverage of President Bush's most famous photo op. Meanwhile, 19 American soldiers died in Iraq in April, the most in any month since September. The death toll is up to 4284, compared to 139 when Bush declared victory.

Devilstower has a very good article on the disasters that led to government regulations:
No one implemented health, safety, and environmental legislation because they thought it would be fun. We didn't do it because we hate corporations, because we wanted to make jobs for government bureaucrats, or out of some desire to snatch power away from states. We did it because that kind of freedom, marketplace freedom, was literally killing us.