Monday, December 8, 2008

Recovering Our National Character

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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