Monday, July 14, 2008

A Government of Men, Not Laws

I think it might, in fact, be time for the United States to be held internationally to a tribunal. I never thought, in my lifetime, that I would say that, that we have become like Serbia, where an international tribunal has to come to force us to apply the rule of law. -- Jonathan Turley, law professor at George Washington University

In This Week's Sift:
  • FISA Wrap-Up. The good guys lost on this one. And when the key moment came, Obama wasn't one of the good guys.
  • Another Shoe Drops. A few months ago the government had to bail out Bear Stearns. Now it's bailing out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Who's next?
  • Stop Whining, Everybody. McCain's top economic adviser thinks the American people are a bunch of whiners. But I thought it was us elitest liberals who were supposed to look down on ordinary folks.
  • Bad Day in a Bad Place. Nine American soldiers died in Afghanistan Sunday. And that's not the worst of it.
  • Short Notes. A Chinese bullet train. The Times and Post cover something other than the news. The New Yorker has a controversial cover. Florida still can't get elections right. Plus a bunch of other stuff.

FISA Wrap-Up
Thursday President Bush signed the FISA Amendments Act (FAA), which passed the Senate the previous day with Barack Obama voting for it. Some Obama supporters are willing to give him a pass on this, but I'm not. I'm still going to vote for him, but I'm not going to make any excuses for him on this issue.

Wikipedia has a good summary of what's in the bill. Glenn Greenwald comments:
The most overlooked fact in the entire FISA debate -- the aspect of it that renders incoherent the case in favor of the new FISA law or even those who dismiss its significance -- is that virtually nobody knows what the spying program they're immunizing entailed and towards what ends it was used -- i.e., whether it was abused for improper purposes. Even those who acknowledge that the warrantless spying program was illegal like to assert that it was implemented for benign and proper counter-terrorism purposes (see Kevin Drum making that claim here) -- but they have absolutely no idea whether that is true. None. Zero.
The lawsuits against the telecoms were just about the last chances to get an independent judgment about what happened, and they have now been shut down.

Obama makes his case here. He points to two good features of the bill. First:
The exclusivity provision makes it clear to any president or telecommunications company that no law supersedes the authority of the FISA court. In a dangerous world, government must have the authority to collect the intelligence we need to protect the American people. But in a free society, that authority cannot be unlimited. As I've said many times, an independent monitor must watch the watchers to prevent abuses and to protect the civil liberties of the American people. This compromise law assures that the FISA court has that responsibility.
The problem here is that the original FISA law already asserted exclusivity. The issue wasn't the FISA law, it was President Bush's belief that his constitutional powers as commander-in-chief can't be limited by Congress. Bush still believes that, and a McCain administration will likely be populated with a lot of other people who believe it. emptywheel already identified what she called a "pre-emptive signing statement" in Attorney General Mukasey's letter to Harry Reid back in February. Bush (or some future authoritarian president) just has to say that he's going to interpret the law to be consistent with his powers under Article II of the Constitution, and exclusivity goes away.

Second, Obama is counting on the inspector general reports authorized by the bill to tell us what we need to know about past and current spying programs. I'm not optimistic about that, either.

emptywheel does a lessons-learned piece for the coalition of people who came together to fight this issue. Jane Hamsher sees this as one battle in a long war to regain democracy:
But I hope [the FISA vote] abolished once and for all the idea that our leaders are going to "lead" on this issue without encouragement to do so. Barack Obama and others will be great on this stuff when there is a reason for them to be great -- when the public comes together in a meaningful way and provides the political climate where it becomes the wise thing to do. We're not there yet. To make it happen, we need to reward those who were with us. We need to punish those who stood against us. We need to recruit and support primary challengers, and help those people with the tools they need to run winning races that don't rely on being in the good graces of the political establishment.
Another Shoe Drops
This morning the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve announced a plan to keep the semi-public mortgage insurance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in business. This is the biggest government intervention in the financial markets since the Bear Stearns bailout in March, and is part of the same issue: the popping of the real estate bubble.

I haven't had time to study the details or figure out who has, but I will note this: Once again, private investors profit when things go well, but the taxpayers are left holding the bag when things go badly. If the subject is jobs moving overseas, the big-money types talk about "creative destruction" and the wisdom of the market. But when one of their own gets wounded they want the government to stop the game.

Last April, after the smoke of the Bear Stearns disaster had started to clear, Michael Lewitt of Hegemony Capital Management made this prescient remark about how the mortgage market was being cleaned up:
Does anybody really think it’s a good idea ... for Fannie and Freddie to leverage their balance sheets further? All of these actions are going to have to be unwound at some point, which means that the day of reckoning is simply being delayed.
Delayed until today, when a new bailout is needed to push the day of reckoning off a little further. Long-term, it's obvious what needs to happen: The U.S. government needs to decide exactly what is too big to be allowed to fail, insure it, collect fees sufficient to fund the insurance, and regulate the hell out of it, so that private companies don't take advantage of their government insurance to stick the taxpayer with speculative losses. Lewitt again:
HCM often hears the argument that too much regulation will force business offshore and render the U.S. financial industry less competitive. Our response to that argument is that institutions and fiduciaries in the end will gravitate to the system with the strongest and wisest regulatory protections. Moreover, we should be pushing the most reckless practices out of our markets and into other markets. We should be creating global competition over best regulatory practices, not worst ones.
One more thing you might want to pay attention to: If your retirement plans involve owning some large chunk of stock in the company you work for, you need to think about what is happening to the employees of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Stop Whining, Everybody
John McCain's top economic advisor Phil Gramm thinks the recession is "mental" and that "we have sort of become a nation of whiners." McCain is trying to distance himself from Gramm, but TPM has the video of how McCain has tied himself to Gramm when he needed to establish his economic heft. (When you see the video of Gramm's statements -- also in that TPM clip -- it's worse than just reading the text. His voice and expression are full of contempt.) On the weekend talk shows conservatives tried to defend Gramm's point. George Will, for example, said "we are the crybabies of the western world."

Now, here's a thought experiment: Imagine if us pointy-headed liberal elitists were calling the American people whiners and crybabies. We'd never hear the end of it. But it's conservatives doing it, so the media will forget in a day or two. Matthew Yglesias reminds us of other stuff that has blown over:
John McCain doesn't know how to use a computer. John McCain doesn't know when he last pumped gas or what it cost. John McCain owns seven homes and forgot to pay taxes on one of them for the past four years. But at least he's not an elitist like Barack Obama.
Unless you read the conservative press regularly, it is easy to forget the extent to which they live in their own version of reality. Sunday's Washington Times editorial page, for example, wanted to give a gentle correction to Gramm. But they couldn't do it without first bowing at the altar of the Bush economic record. "After seven years of unprecedented strength," they began, "the U.S. economy ..." Not just strength, unprecedented strength, economic strength such as the United States has never seen before. The Moonie-owned newspaper continued:
It is a given that President Bush presided over one of the strongest economic periods in history, with staggering job creation of 2.6 million jobs, record minority home ownership and a market flush with investment.
"Given" is a well-chosen word here, because it is very hard to establish this point if anyone bothers to contest it. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities assembled statistics comparing the 2001-2007 expansion to the average period of economic expansion since World War II, and found that the Bush expansion is above average in only one area: corporate profits. If you weren't a corporation, the Bush expansion was pretty anemic. And that "staggering" creation of 2.6 million jobs? Compared to 22.7 million under President Clinton, the only staggering thing is that the WT dared to bring the number up at all. And the Dow closed at 10588 the Friday before Bush's inauguration in 2001; it was at 11101 last Friday -- up a grand 4.8% or well below 1% a year. Flush with investment indeed.

Bad Day in a Bad Place
Nine American soldiers were killed in Afghanistan Sunday. Fifteen wounded. That's bad enough as it stands, but how they were killed makes it worse. Usually when we lose a bunch of soldiers at the same time, it's because some lucky shot took out a helicopter. Not this time. These nine died because the Afghan insurgents attacked a NATO base. That's a level of tactical boldness that we haven't been seeing from the insurgents in either Afghanistan or Iraq, and it sends a message about their confidence. Juan Cole comments: "the evidence is that the Afghan insurgents are getting better at fighting the US."

Cole's article is a "friendly critique" of Barack Obama's plan to send more troops to Afghanistan:
Obama keeps talking about intensifying the search and destroy missions being carried out by US troops in the Pushtun areas of southern Afghanistan. As we should have learned from Vietnam, search and destroy missions only alienate the local population and drive it into the arms of the insurgency.
Another way we alienate the locals is that we keep killing civilians by accident, and then we compound the problem by claiming they were militants. This fools the American public, but the Afghans on the scene know better. A commission appointed by President Karzai concluded that's what happened in a bombing in Nangarhar July 6.
The commission is headed by Senate deputy speaker, Burhanullah Shinwari whose constituency is in Nangarhar province. He told the BBC: ''Our investigation found out that 47 civilians (were killed) by the American bombing and nine others injured. There are 39 women and children" among those killed, he said. The eight other people who died were "between the ages of 14 and 18".
Apparently this was a wedding party, not a terrorist encampment. We keep making this mistake, as Tom Engelhardt reminds us. Cole leaves Obama with this advice:
Stand up Karzai's army and air force and give him some billions to bribe the tribal chiefs, and let him apply carrot and stick himself. We need to get out of there. "Al-Qaeda" was always Bin Laden's hype. He wanted to get us on the ground there so that the Mujahideen could bleed us the way they did the Soviets. It is a trap.
Short Notes
Finally people are starting to say the obvious out loud: McCain's promise to balance the budget by the end of his first term is a fantasy. The Washington Post goes through the numbers.
The New Yorker tells the story of a Danish island that decided to become energy independent.
I'm a little late with this one, but Salon's Joseph Romm shines a light on the global-warming deniers in Congress.

Florida still hasn't solved its vote-counting problems. In an election in West Palm Beach in June, 14% of the votes didn't get tallied until somebody noticed that the totals couldn't possibly be right. But it was a light turnout, so that was only 707 missing votes. Such a small number couldn't make a difference in a state the size of Florida, could it?

No News Here. The New York Times dutifully reports the perpetual rumor that we're about to start pulling troops out of Iraq. I agree with Atrios' reaction: NA GA HA PEN. The official announcement of the rumored pullout is always about three months away, and it's going to happen because everything's turning out so well. It never happens. The only time Bush actually pulls troops out of Iraq is when the generals tell him there are no more troops. The Times analyzes:
Any troop reductions announced in the heat of the presidential election could blur the sharp differences between the candidates, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, over how long to stay in Iraq. But the political benefit might go more to Mr. McCain than Mr. Obama. Mr. McCain is an avid supporter of the current strategy in Iraq. Any reduction would indicate that that strategy has worked and could defuse antiwar sentiment among voters.
Ditto for rumors about reductions. Anonymous administration sources start such rumors to defuse antiwar sentiment and help McCain. They'll do it over and over again between now and November. And the Times will print the rumors because all those anonymous administration sources stop talking to you if you stop being a useful propaganda tool.

No News There. Just before 9-11 the media was consumed with a bunch of missing-pretty-girl stories. The biggest one was Chandra Levy, who had some kind of connection to Rep. Gary Condit. For a while 9-11 forced people to cover real news, but this week the Washington Post is back with a 12-part series on the Levy case. Armageddon wouldn't get a 12-part series out of the Post, but this 7-year-old missing-person case does. JonBenet Ramsey -- who has been dead nearly twice as long as she was alive -- is also making headlines again this week. I guess that means that all the post-9-11 problems are solved now. Note to Bin Laden: If you want to get back into the papers, kidnap a pretty girl.

A lot of bloggers are upset by the New Yorker cover depicting every anti-Obama smear simultaneously -- he's a Muslim, Michelle's a leftist revolutionary, and the flag is burning in the Oval Office fireplace under Bin Laden's portrait. Maybe I'm being too sophisticated here, but I thought the joke was on the people spreading these wild tales, not on Obama.

Matthew Yglesias nails a point often ignored these days. McCain makes a big deal about how he criticized the Bush administration on Iraq way back when. But his differences with Bush have always been entirely tactical. He thought and still thinks that the invasion was a good idea. (If you agree, you should vote for him.) Matt also spotted this "I'd Rather Be Waterboarding" t-shirt for sale on a conservative site. Whatta sense of humor those guys have.

Speaking of waterboarding, Philippe Sands' book Torture Team is out. This is the source of that Vanity Fair article "The Green Light" that I talked about in April.

Iran tested missiles Wednesday, and the price of oil went up. Has anybody noticed that Iran makes money when this happens? The ideal thing for Iran is to keep tensions high, but not so high that war breaks out. Ditto for Saudi Arabia and all the other Persian Gulf oil producers.

We spend our money on bullets, while the Chinese spend theirs on bullet trains. Who's getting the better deal?

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