Monday, April 14, 2008

Flying Pork and Other Signs of Success

All the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting. – George Orwell

In this week's Sift:

Leave Iraq? No Time Soon: General Petraeus came back to Washington, but his troops will stay in Iraq for a long time.

Time to Assess the Bush Boom: If we're going into a recession, we can make fair comparisons to the start of previous recessions. The results don't look good.

Chaff and Bitterness: Chaff issues sparkle, but have no content. They work because voters are cynical, and voters get more cynical when chaff issues dominate the debate.

Short Notes: Bush confessed to war crimes and no one cared. Railroading Don Siegelman. And the Daily Show's history of Fox News.

Leave Iraq? No Time Soon
That minor skirmish in Iraq came briefly back into the spotlight this week. General Petraeus spent two days testifying in front of Congress, and it all led up to a speech in which President Bush "accepted" Petraeus' advice to stop withdrawing troops when the Surge brigades leave -- as if he ever considered doing anything else. In a conversation with Bill Kristol, Bush admitted the deception: "My answer is no. [But] I'm not going to say that. I'm going to say that I agree with David, that we ought to take a look."

You can watch Bush's 17-minute speech for yourself. It closes with this heartfelt message to our worn-down troops:
The day will come when pigs sprout wings, and you will fly home on their backs.
Wait, I must have nodded off and dreamed that part. According to the transcript he actually said this:
The day will come when Iraq is a capable partner of the United States. The day will come when Iraq is a stable democracy that helps fight our common enemies and promote our common interests in the Middle East. And when that day arrives, you'll come home with pride in your success, and the gratitude of your whole nation.
No time soon, in other words.

So what did we learn this week? The gist of General Petraeus' testimony was predictable: We're making progress in Iraq, but that progress can't be quantified in any way that would allow us to make predictions (at least not in a time frame shorter than "the day will come"). The failure of the recent Basra offensive was spun like cotton candy into a sign of this unmeasurable progress. Petraeus kept using mathematical metaphors like "battlefield geometry" and "political-military calculus," but appealing to the intimidation factor of mathematics rather than the objective, calculable aspect. "Political-military calculus" seems to be something that experts like General Petraeus can understand, but can't explain to doofuses like the American people or their elected representatives (like that well-known blond airhead, Senator Clinton).

The hearings were also a chance for the presidential candidates to audition their Iraq policies. (See TPM's selected highlights of the hearings, including Ohio Republican Senator George Voinovich saying: "The American people have had it up to here" at about the 5:40 mark.) Their performances are good examples of how each one thinks.

Senator McCain gave an opening statement that sounded a lot like President Bush: He framed the situation in simplistic terms that appeal more to American emotions than to the complicated reality of Iraq -- success, failure, victory, dying in vain, and so forth. He also read his statement as badly as Bush usually does. (Check out Clinton's bored expression at the 2:20 mark.) His conclusion: "With the untold costs of failure and the benefits offered by success, the Congress must not choose to lose in Iraq. We should choose instead to succeed."

Senator Clinton tried to turn the administration spin around. She responded to "suggestions that have been made leading up to this hearing and even during it that it is irresponsible or demonstrates a lack of leadership to advocate withdrawing troops from Iraq. ... I fundamentally disagree. Rather, I think it could be fair to say that it might well be irresponsible to continue the policy that has not produced the results that have been promised time and time again."

Senator Obama treated the hearing as if it were a genuine discussion rather than a set-piece for everyone to play predictable roles. (The first time I watched, I had no idea where he was going.) He stated his personal opinion -- "I continue to believe that the original decision to go into Iraq was a massive strategic blunder" -- and then tried to craft a bipartisan narrative for the committee as a whole: "Our resources are finite. This is a point that has just been made by Senator Voinovich. It's been made by Senator Biden, Senator Lugar, Senator Hegel. ... When you have finite resources, you've got to define your goals tightly and modestly. ... I'm trying to get to an end point. That's what all of us have been trying to get to." And then he plunged into the details to see if he could drive the definition of "success" downward to something that is achievable. His ultimate question was: If "a messy, sloppy status quo" in Iraq -- modest Al Qaida involvement, some violence, some corruption, some Iranian influence, but no threat to Iraq's neighbors and no secure base from which Al Qaida could launch external attacks -- could be maintained by the Iraqi government without American troops, would that count as success? Crocker and Petraeus did not seem to know what to do with this kind of questioning. Crocker first tried to interpret it as a proposal for "precipitous drawdown". Then he got condescending: "This is hard. This is complicated." And then he seemed to me to more-or-less agree, while closing on the caveat: "That's not where we are now."

Time to Assess the Bush Boom
One way people get tricky with statistics is to pick their dates carefully. Unless you're at the worst moment in all of human history, you can always say: "Stuff has improved this much since that time when stuff was worse." If you go back to the Great Depression or the Black Death, you can always show phenomenal improvement.

That's how on January 4 the White House was able to announce: "Since August 2003, more than 8.3 million jobs have been created." Why August, 2003? Because that's when the job market bottomed out. Stuff has improved by 8.3 million since that time when stuff was worse. Should we be impressed or not?

In economics, the only meaningful comparison is across a complete business cycle. If you're, say, 40% of the way through a cycle, the meaningful comparison is to a time 40% of the way through the last cycle. Unfortunately, you usually don't know where you are -- the term business cycle is sort of a euphemism -- so you aren't sure what to compare to. The economy goes up and down, but it doesn't roll along smoothly like a wheel. It's more like a wheel on an icy, bumpy road.

Right now, though, it's pretty clear where we are: We're going into a recession. So that makes this a good time to total up. How do things look compared to the start of the last recession in 2000? And how does that complete cycle compare to previous cycles?

For years, cheerleaders like CNBC's Larry Kudlow have been telling us about "the Bush Boom" and how media bias has kept Americans from appreciating just how wonderful things are. In December Kudlow wrote:
fiscal and monetary coordination will continue the Bush boom for years to come. Though mainstream media outlets will never admit it, President Bush has kept America safe and prosperous. But history will eventually judge him in a more kindly light.
Now that this business cycle is over, history can start judging. And you know what? This cycle, to use the technical economic term, sucked. The suckiness shows up in jobs, GDP, length of expansion, and all the other statistics. But in Wednesday's New York Times David Leonhardt put his finger on the key number: median annual family income.
In 2000, at the end of the previous economic expansion, the median American family made about $61,000, according to the Census Bureau’s inflation-adjusted numbers. In 2007, in what looks to have been the final year of the most recent expansion, the median family, amazingly, seems to have made less — about $60,500. This has never happened before, at least not for as long as the government has been keeping records.
This graph of median annual family income makes the point even clearer. No recent cycle comes close to the Kennedy-Johnson record of a 37% increase, but the subsequent cycles have shown increases of 7%, 6%, 6%, and the Clinton cycle's 11%. And now it goes down. Heck of a job, Georgie.
“We have had expansions before where the bottom end didn’t do well,” said Lawrence F. Katz, a Harvard economist who studies the job market. “But we’ve never had an expansion in which the middle of income distribution had no wage growth.”
So what happened? Briefly, the expansionary part of this cycle was pretty anemic to begin with, and all the money that it did generate went to the rich. That trend towards increased inequality goes back to Reagan, as Paul Krugman argued last September using this graph of the percent of total income going to the top 10%.

For a more detailed analysis, see this post by Hale Stewart (a.k.a. "bonddad" on Daily Kos). He argues that increased debt makes the median family even worse off than the income statistics suggest: Total household debt was 92% of GDP in 2005 compared to 70% in 2000. Stewart sums up:

1.) Job growth was the weakest of any post WWII recovery.

2.) Real median income actually dropped for the duration of this expansion.

3.) To sustain consumption, consumers went on a mammoth debt acquisition binge, so that now

4.) Debt payments are as high as they have ever been on a percentage of disposable income basis.

So after 7 years of economic expansion we have lower incomes and more debt.

Lower income, more debt -- sounds great, doesn't it?

I'm tempted to end on a Bush-is-the-worst-president-ever note, but that's too easy. The Bush administration is not some bizarre anomaly; it is the culmination of a conservative movement that started with Goldwater and took control with Reagan. The Bush policies -- cut rich people's taxes, spend a lot on defense, squeeze the welfare state, and deregulate business -- are core Goldwater-Reagan policies that will continue if conservatives keep power by electing McCain.

We've tried those policies. They don't work.

The only difference between Bush the Second and other recent conservative presidents was that W had a freer hand. He had Republican majorities in Congress for most of his term, and the Democratic opposition was unusually timid in the wake of 9/11. So this administration is the fairest test yet of conservative economics.

Those ideas don't work. It's that simple. The facts are in, and among rational people the debate should be over: We don't just need a new face in the White House, we need a fundamentally new approach to the economy.

Chaff and Bitterness
I wasn't going to comment on this week's campaign controversy: Obama's "they get bitter" comment about small towns that have been exporting jobs overseas for 25 years. It seemed like a non-issue that had already gotten too much attention elsewhere. But then I realized that, precisely because it is so vacuous, this story provides a good opportunity to discuss what I have started calling "chaff issues".

Chaff, as all Cold War buffs know, is the aluminum foil that B-52s release in strips as they approach a target. It looks all sparkly on radar, so it confuses air defense systems. A chaff issue works the same way: It sparkles like a major issue, but has no content. If a campaign releases enough chaff, the real issues facing the country might never be detected at all. The classic chaff issue was the pledge of allegiance, which Bush the First used against Dukakis in 1988.

Daily Kos has a good review of the "bitterness" issue: text of what Obama said, responses from McCain and Clinton, and a video of Obama's comeback. Obama's point, in essence, explains chaff issues: The reason they work, he claims, is because people have lost faith in the government's ability to change their lives in a meaningful way. (Bill Clinton made more-or-less the same point in 1991.)

Let's flesh that idea out. If people had believed that they'd get better jobs under a Gore administration than under Bush, would they have cared whether or not Gore claimed to have invented the Internet? Of course not. But if government is so useless or corrupt that it makes no difference in your life, then why not treat the presidential race like an episode of American Idol? Elections become dramas about characters, not attempts to change the country. "That John Kerry is rich and he windsurfs and his wife has a funny accent. Screw him."

The McCain/Clinton attempt to flog Obama's comment into some issue about "elitism" or being "out of touch" with regular people -- really that just illustrates Obama's point. Suppose you genuinely believed that Obama would end the Iraq War but McCain wouldn't. Would you care whether Obama was "elitist"? Picture it: "Sure, my nephew in the Marines might have to die if McCain gets in, but I can't vote for Obama because he's just not a regular guy."

No. Chaff issues work because people are cynical about government. They don't believe that their votes can end the Iraq War, get them health care, or change their lives in any meaningful way at all. And it's a self-reinforcing cycle: The more campaigns revolve around chaff issues -- issues that by definition lead to no change in everyday life -- the more cynical people get.

Here's a key point that is often missed: Republicans do well with chaff issues because they want people to be cynical about government. But Democrats play with fire when they stir up chaf. A cynical electorate is never going to support a new New Deal. Instead, it's going to use government as a club to beat down people it doesn't like -- gays, immigrants, Muslims, foreigners -- because that's all government seems to be good for.

So in the long term Democrats can't win by developing new and better chaff. Democrats need to overcome voters' cynicism rather than pander to it. They need to run on issues that mean something -- Iraq, health care, the environment, energy -- and then deliver clear progress after they get elected. And they need to encourage the opposite of cynicism, to (in the words of Rabbi Michael Lerner) "overcome the alienation from each other that this way of being has created so that we might once again recognize each other as embodiments of God."

Short Notes
Last week I linked to Phillippe Sands' article alleging that "enhanced interrogation" came to Guantanamo from top-level administration lawyers. Well, this week ABC News went further and placed the blame right at the top: First came a report (based on anonymous sources) that the National Security Council principals group -- Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, Powell, Tenet, and Ashcroft -- approved specific tortures for specific detainees. Friday, this claim was confirmed by the highest possible source. President Bush told ABC News' Martha Raddatz: "Yes, I'm aware our national security team met on this issue. And I approved." For some reason a lot of us are having a hard time fathoming, the president's confession of war crimes has not become a major story. (See Digby, Emptywheel.) I remember the media outcry for Obama to denounce Rev. Wright -- where's the outcry for McCain to denounce Bush?

If you wonder why anyone should care about the U.S. attorneys' scandal and the politicization of the Justice Department, watch this 60 Minutes piece on former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, who has spent most of the last year in prison. CBS presents Siegelman's conviction as the result of a long-term attack plan masterminded by Karl Rove. I was struck by this quote from Siegleman's lawyer: "You still have to investigate crimes, not people. It undermines the entire system of justice, because at that point anybody can be a target. Any prosecutor can look across the table and say, 'You know what? I just don't like you.' " Last Monday, MSNBC's Dan Abrams' interviewed Siegelman (part 1, part 2), who just got sprung from prison (pending his appeal) by an appellate judge.

Blue Texan on FireDogLake gives us a great example of how to respond quickly and efficiently to pro-war propaganda. In Friday morning's Wall Street Journal, Michael Yon wrote a glowing account of the achievements of the Surge and its new counterinsurgency strategy: Now young Iraqi boys want to grow up to be American soldiers; Abu Ghraib has been forgotten; our hired Sunni tribesmen are like the soldiers at Valley Forge; Iraq is making political progress, because military progress IS political progress. These "facts" lead to a conclusion about the "outdated" discussion going on in Congress: "Precisely because we have made so much political progress in the past year, rather than talking about force reduction, Congress should be figuring ways and means to increase troop levels." (In other words: Congress should reach into its top hat and pull fresh brigades out like rabbits.) By 10:30 that morning, Blue Texan had googled Yon's previous articles and pointed out that the Surge and counterinsurgency have nothing to do with Yon's rosy outlook: Two and even three years ago Yon was waxing eloquent about how we were "winning" the war, despite how the media was "deluding" us.

Your weekly minimum humor requirement: The Daily Show's John Oliver does a hilarious and biting history of Fox News. And 23/6 cuts an episode of Wolf Blitzer's Situation Room down to one minute -- losing surprisingly little.

3 comments:

Betsy said...

Interesting analysis of "chaff" --- I don't think the pilings on about Obama's words are overreacting. Nor do I think it's chaff.

For someone new to the national arena, despite the national campaigning, Obama is still relatively unknown. People vote, especially in presidential elections, for those they like, personally like. Obama is beginning to show himself as arrogant and unlikeable, even though the teeney-bopper types of shrieks and "I love you backs" are still to be counted.

All of this is still the getting-to-know-you stage and that's why his religious affiliation (and gifts) to Wright's church for more than 20 years, his own comments about poor people clinging to religion and guns so resonate.

Doug Muder said...

I think Obama's remarks are being spun to make him sound arrogant and unlikable. We've got a scratchy audio of a few sentences. David Coleman, who was at the meeting in question, describes it very differently
at Huffington Post.

Doug Muder said...

It took me a while to remember that I actually have a better response to betsy's comment. A little over a year ago I covered a Clinton speech, and in my write-up I defended her against the charge that she was unlikeable, noting that Gore and Kerry were supposed to be unlikeable too.

I wrote: "This stuff is all nonsense. Hillary is 'unlikeable' because she's the front-running Democrat. If Obama becomes the front-runner, the press will instantly discover something unlikeable about him too."

Well, he has and they have.