Monday, July 28, 2008

Changing the Current

The Old Order Amish of Pennsylvania, who live a life poor in appliances but rich in community, had a depression rate about one-tenth that of their neighbors. ... We don't need to become Amish, but we do need to start building an economy that works for our current needs, rather than constantly readjusting our lives to serve the growth of the economy. -- Bill McKibben, Deep Economy


In this Week's Sift:

  • How Reasonable is Gore's Challenge? It's easy to find opinions about Al Gore's speech challenging the U.S. to get all its electricity from renewable sources in ten years. But it's much harder to pull together credible information about how ready renewable energy sources are to meet that challenge.
  • Media Bias: In Whose Favor? The networks cover Obama more than McCain, but they say more bad things about Obama while ignoring McCain's mistakes. The "liberal media" may be the biggest myth the conservative media ever sold us.
  • Short Notes. The length of the Gore article has pushed this Sift up to my self-imposed length limit. Short Notes will be back next week.

How Reasonable is Gore's Challenge?
Last week I promised an article about Al Gore's challenge to produce 100% of our electricity from renewable sources in ten years.

Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down. Feeding Al Gore's name into Google News gets you a wide range of opinion and analysis. Penn & Teller did an episode of their TV show "Bullshit" on Gore, global warming, and the idea of buying carbon credits. (My reaction: They ridicule some sources and give an uncritical platform to others for no apparent reason beyond what they seem to want to believe.) Real Clear Politics' Jack Kelly is also a skeptic. And Mark Davis in the Dallas Morning News asks: "Who are we to assert that we know the planet's ideal temperature?"

If you want to read upbeat reviews of Gore's speech, check out the Toledo Blade, the Hartford Courant (which also published this critical reader response), or the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

That's the kind of stuff I was finding last week: people who agree or disagree, but nobody who was telling me anything to help me make up my mind. That's why I punted to this week's Sift, so that I could dig a little deeper.

Framing the message. In terms of political strategy, I think Gore has it exactly right. There are two main ways to push policy in a more environmentally sound direction. One is a "Repent, sinners!" approach that emphasizes the wasteful and extravagant nature of the American lifestyle. This case is easy to make -- we use something like 1/4th of the world's oil with less than 1/20th of the world's population -- but it's not a very effective political message. Ronald Reagan once summed up conservation as being hot in the summer and cold in the winter. That's not a campaign promise anybody can run on.

Gore, on the other hand, is saying that a new era is coming and the United States can lead the world into it. That's an optimistic, patriotic message. It asks people to be willing to sacrifice to achieve a greater goal, but loses completely the dour, preachy implication that comfort is bad and suffering is good. The parallels with JFK and the space program help a lot. If the national debate gets framed as the environmentalists' futuristic vision versus the desire of conservatives to keep the old oil economy going just a little bit longer, the environmentalists win.

Gore is also on the mark that ten years is the right time frame:
a political promise to do something 40 years from now is universally ignored because everyone knows that it's meaningless. Ten years is about the maximum time that we as a nation can hold a steady aim and hit our target.
Ten years also is long enough to get us past a course that Gore criticizes as "incremental proposals made up of small policies designed to avoid offending special interests, alternating with occasional baby steps in the right direction."

So yes, I'm totally on board with the shape of Gore's proposal: A bold goal to be achieved in ten years.

Now, what goal should that be?

Other Plans. In 2003 Howard Dean proposed to generate 20% of America's electricity from renewable sources by 2020. But he wasn't trying to be radical, he just wanted to bring the U.S. up to the standard already being set by Denmark and Holland. (Two weeks ago I linked to this New Yorker article about an island in Denmark that already generates all its own power from wind.) It was a stop-falling-behind vision, not a lead-the-world vision. That it seemed bold at the time says something about the state of American politics.

Last December's issue of Scientific American published a plan that its authors clearly considered bold. It called for massive solar arrays in the Southwest, storing excess daytime energy as compressed air in underground caverns for use at night, and a long-haul DC transmission network to get power from the Southwest to the rest of the country. (The power would be converted to AC before use; they're not talking about rewiring the whole country. DC power travels better for reasons I don't understand.) The authors estimate their plan would generate 69% of America's electricity by 2050. They call for $420 billion in government subsidies during 2011-2020 to get things rolling, with the program paying for itself thereafter. By 2020 (about the time frame of Gore's plan) they foresee the DC transmission backbone in place and 84 gigawatts of solar generating capacity, compared to the 3,000 GW they foresee by 2050.

Those numbers are purely solar, and mainly the gigantic array in the Southwest. So the total national renewable-energy capacity, including residential solar panels and wind turbines, would be higher.

If you have a more vigorous imagination, picture putting solar arrays in space, where cloudy days are never an issue. Then you beam the power down to receiving stations on Earth in microwaves that are also not blocked by clouds. The government could launch the first power arrays by 2016, and then hope for private industry to take over, producing 10% of our electrical needs by 2050. The president of the Space Power Association says, "The challenge is one of perception," which is my nominee for Understatement of the Year. The paranoia potential is immense -- "Death Rays From Space" and so forth. Political practicality aside, former NASA executive O. Glenn Smith promoted the idea this week in the New York Times. A detailed report from the Pentagon's National Security Space Office is here.

Israel is a natural place to look for leadership in renewable energy. They have a concentrated population, a high-tech research infrastructure, a sun-soaked desert, and a national security interest in ending the Age of Oil as fast as possible. And sure enough, they are planning the world's largest solar plant to be built in the Negev desert by 2012. It's supposed to supply 500 megawatts of power, or about 5% of Israel's needs. The director of Ben Gurion University's Solar Center has predicted that Israel could go totally solar by 2036. I'm not sure whether or not those calculations include the power necessary to convert Israel to electric cars, which is also on the drawing board.

And what could you do if you had infinite amounts of money to play with and could build a city from scratch? The United Arab Emirates intend to find out. They're planning a zero-carbon-emission city of 50,000 just outside of Abu Dhabi.

Maybe you've seen T. Boone Pickens' recent TV commercials. The clearest explanation of Pickens' plan is a five-minute video of Pickens in front of a white board; he does a great job, with a little extra help from patched-in graphics. The difference between Pickens and Gore is that Pickens worries only about the impact of imported oil on the U.S. economy, and apparently not at all about global warming or any other environmental issue. For Pickens, the problem is that $700 billion is leaving America each year, "the largest transfer of wealth in the history of mankind." His solution: Instead of using our domestic natural gas to run power plants, use it to run vehicles, replacing gasoline from foreign oil. Then use wind power to replace the 22% of our electricity that currently comes from natural gas. Like Gore, he sees his plan as a ten-year vision. (Also like Gore, he invests in companies that are doing the stuff he says needs to be done. For some reason I can't grasp, this supposedly makes Gore a hypocrite, but not Pickens.)

From a global environmental perspective rather than a national economic one, Pickens' plan is kind of wacky -- as explained by Grist's Joseph Ramm. The craziest environmental thing we currently do is generate half our electricy from coal. Pickens' plan leaves that intact, because coal is a domestic fuel. (Foreign = Bad; Dirty = OK.) As fossil fuels go, natural gas is our cleanest way to generate electricity. And an electricity-generating plant can burn natural gas at 60% efficiency, while a natural-gas-burning car operates at 15-20% efficiency. So Pickens has us do this massive turn-over of our infrastructure (cars that burn natural gas; stations that distribute it) and the result is that we wind up still burning fossil fuels in our cars and generating our electricity with coal. Ramm says: Build the wind farms, and use the electricity either to phase out coal or to fuel plug-in hybrid cars.

I did learn one important thing from Pickens' video: The best place for wind farms is in the Great Plains, in a north-south strip that sits just to the east of the prime solar territory. Politically, this is huge. Local special interests could get middle-of-the-country senators from Arizona to North Dakota -- mostly Republicans currently -- to back an alternative energy plan.

That's what currently happens with ethanol, which (along with other biofuels) gets a mixed review from National Geographic:
Biofuels as currently rendered in the U.S. are doing great things for some farmers and for agricultural giants like Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill, but little for the environment. Corn requires large doses of herbicide and nitrogen fertilizer and can cause more soil erosion than any other crop. And producing corn ethanol consumes just about as much fossil fuel as the ethanol itself replaces. Biodiesel from soybeans fares only slightly better.
But the same article claims ethanol from sugar cane (the way Brazil does it) has an 8-to-1 energy payoff, compared to 1.3-to-1 for corn ethanol. So biofuel is not a total chimera. And energy from bio-byproducts makes a lot of local sense. You'd never start raising cows just to get methane from their manure, but if you already have a dairy it's an obvious win. Ditto for running vehicles on used cooking oil, as my local fried-chicken-delivery place does. Ditto for co-generation, where the waste heat of some industrial process is captured. What kind of national impact idiosyncratic projects like these can make is hard to estimate, but I'll bet the current estimates are too low.

Summing Up. So what have I concluded from my week of alternative-energy web-browsing? I think the most important thing Gore (with independent help from Pickens) has done is move the Overton Window, the range of ideas that Serious People are willing to talk about. Getting up to 20% renewable power by 2020 seemed pie-in-the-sky when Dean proposed it in 2003. But Pickens is proposing that much power from wind alone, and nobody is laughing. If President Obama's inaugural address contains a proposal for 50% renewable power by 2020 and 100% by 2050, it will sound reasonable. Building a political coalition behind it will be easier than most people think. There's a culture clash to overcome, but a skillful president could get Pickens-style nationalists working with Gore-style environmentalists.

Second, there are some common elements in everybody's plans. For example, an upgraded electricity transmission grid, with some kind of DC long-haul capability. We need it, and a lot of corporations stand to make money building it, so the politics should work. (I just bought stock in General Cable Corporation, which should profit from such a plan. Does that make me a hypocrite like Gore or a patriot like Pickens?)

Right now, if you're somewhere with a prevailing wind, wind power works. Solar is at an earlier stage, but it works if you're in a sunny place and can use the power immediately not too far away. (I noticed this week that those portable signs announcing road construction are solar-powered now.) The main economic problem with each is the up-front money; once you've got the wind turbine or the solar panel in place, you don't have to pay for the wind or sun. But that's the kind of financing problem governments have been solving since the Athenian tyrant Peisistratos subsidized olive tree planting in 500-something BC. (The trees wouldn't be productive for 15 years. That's why the olive branch became a sign of peace: there's no point planting olive trees unless you think you can go 15 years without having your fields burned.) It's mainly a question of political will, not technology.

But do I believe that Gore's goal is feasible as stated? Not yet. Maybe a Kennedy-like man-on-the-Moon research project would yield some startling breakthrough like near-perfect-efficiency batteries or large-scale economically-viable superconductors. But things like that are hard to predict and can't be counted on. And if we go to plug-in cars, that moves the goal posts for the electricity-generating problem.

But even though I don't expect to see the result Gore called for, I'm glad he did it. That such an idea is out there and being talked about changes the political dynamic for the next proposal.

Media Bias: In Whose Favor?
All three network anchors decided to accompany Obama on his recent foreign tour, and the result was predictable: numerous statements-of-fact that the mainstream media is "in the tank" for Obama. (See a collage of Fox News repeating this talking point here.) A blog called the Tyndall Report got a lot of press when it appeared to make this point quantitative:
In the seven weeks since the primary season ended (04jun08-23jul08), John McCain has logged 67 minutes on the three broadcast networks' weekday nightly newscasts, Barack Obama 166.
But (and this wasn't mentioned by most of the folks who quoted Tyndall) that same Tyndall post doesn't say the media is biased in Obama's favor. Instead, it makes a case for obsession, not favoritism:
Obama gets more positive coverage, more negative coverage and more trivial coverage. Who else has stories filed about them on how he shakes hands with his wife?
Think about that three weeks of non-stop Jeremiah Wright coverage in the spring: Obama certainly dominated the news, but hardly because the media was trying to get him elected. The Center for Media and Public Affairs did the math and found that in fact it's John McCain who gets the advantage from media bias:
when network news people ventured opinions in recent weeks, 28% of the statements were positive for Obama and 72% negative. Network reporting also tilted against McCain, but far less dramatically, with 43% of the statements positive and 57% negative
I think even that understates matters, because the most important measure of bias is whose talking points get repeated. And there I think McCain is the clear winner. I don't have numbers, but you can probably verify this from your own experience: Compare how many times Obama is asked whether he was wrong about the Surge to the number of times McCain is asked whether he was wrong to want to invade Iraq in the first place. The link in the last sentence is the first time I've heard anyone ask McCain that question, while I've heard Obama confronted with the Surge countless times, starting at least back in January.

A second measure of media bias is what happens to candidate gaffes. Compare the coverage of Obama's "bitter" remark to any of a number of more serious McCain gaffes -- including the one where he describes the way Social Security has run since FDR set it up as "an absolute disgrace". And McCain made a huge mistake during a recent interview with Katie Couric: He said the Surge caused the Anbar Awakening, when the proven chronology runs the other way. This isn't a minor flub like when he says "Czechoslovakia" instead of "the Czech Republic", it's evidence that even on the issues that he builds his campaign around McCain doesn't know what he's talking about. So what did CBS News do with this major gaffe? They edited it out of the interview. Keith Olbermann's people unearthed it from the unedited transcript on the CBS News web site.

McCain's screw-ups, according to the mainstream media, just aren't news. Obama's are. The NYT's Bob Herbert finally gets this point into his supposedly liberal newspaper. And one other Herbert point: Negative coverage of Obama is supposedly justified by the excuse that the voters don't know him well enough yet. But how well do we know McCain? All we know is what he wants to tell us: "The mythical John McCain is an affable, straight-talking, moderately conservative war hero who is an expert on foreign policy." Is that true? Does he have views on other issues? Does he tell the same views to every audience? Nobody wants to poke at that story too hard.

I'll give two other people the last words. RKA on DailyKos:
But isn't it kind of cynical that the media gives Obama's trip a lot of coverage and simultaneously talks incessantly about how they are giving Obama too much coverage? If the media were truly in Obama's tank, there would be no navel gazing about their own coverage decisions. They would just slant the coverage and get on with it. But they don't. They offer themselves up as whipping boy to help John McCain turn lemons into lemonade.
Drew Westen:
But it's easy to confuse biased reporting with accurate reporting about a candidate who inspires voters. Reporting on that inspiration, or simply showing crowd response, is no less "objective" than reporting on voters who aren't convinced that he shares their values or is enough like them to vote for him ... [P]eople connect with Barack Obama in a way they don't with John McCain. He draws crowds that dwarf McCain's, and he excites enthusiasm both at home and abroad that McCain simply can't excite. And that's the news.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Re-telling Bush's Story

We're borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that's got to change. -- Al Gore

In This Week's Sift:
  • The Election's Central Issue. Is George Bush a bad president who coincidentally happens to be conservative? Or are his administration's failures the culmination of decades of conservative policies?
  • Gore's Moon Shot. I'm still trying to figure out what I think about Al Gore's call for 100% carbon-free electricity in ten years.
  • What Real Conservatives Want. The Texas Republican platform demonstrates how radical the party's base is. Democrats should make McCain and all other Republicans say whether they agree with it or not.
  • Short Notes. What Michelle means to black professional women. Who's still in high school: bloggers or mainstream media pundits? We're #12! Snuggly the Security Bear explains FISA. And same-sex marriage is on its way to becoming no big deal in Massachusetts -- just like I said it would.

The Election's Central Issue
This election has many individual issues -- the wars, health care, the economy, global warming, civil liberties, etc. -- but behind them all lies one simple question: How will the American people tell the story of George W. Bush?

It's not whether he has been a good president or a bad president. That's been decided. Bush has one of the lowest approval ratings ever (23% at last count), and has been unpopular for a long time. His approval has been below 40% in Gallup's survey (which is more favorable to Bush than most, currently 29%) since January, 2006. By comparison, at this point in his presidency Bill Clinton (already impeached-but-not-removed by then) had a Gallup approval number double Bush's, 58% vs. 29%.

My personal suspicion is that these numbers underestimate Bush's unpopularity. At 23%, you're down to the people who feel like they have to defend you. I'll bet a poll coupled with a polygraph would net a much lower number. As soon as Bush is off the stage those 23% will never invoke his name again, just as no Republican brings up Nixon today. (Gallup showed Nixon with 24% approval just before he left office. I wonder how many people would admit to belonging to that 24% a year or two later.)

The unresolved question, though, is: Why was Bush such a bad president? The Republicans can win this election if they can sell the story that Bush's problems are personal, that he made some bad judgments another conservative Republican wouldn't make. This is the line McCain pushes on Iraq: Bush listened to Rumsfeld and invaded without enough troops, then didn't employ a good counter-insurgency strategy. But Rumsfeld has been fired, the strategy has been fixed, and we're finally on track for the victory that we should have had in 2003. Bush bungled Katrina, but that was just bad management -- and management is a non-partisan skill. On the economy, Bush just wasn't conservative enough: He didn't control Congress' runaway spending. (The fact that Congress was controlled by Republicans during most of the Bush years is conveniently forgotten.)

The Democrats need to tell a different story: The Bush presidency's failures are the natural result of three big conservative ideas that go back to Ronald Reagan: Don't tax the rich, don't regulate business, and wave a big stick at the rest of the world. Replacing Bush changes nothing if we don't reject those ideas.

The last 28 years -- Clinton stalled the trend but didn't reverse it -- has been a more-than-fair test of this conservative philosophy, which we now see doesn't work. If you cut rich people's taxes, they get a lot richer, the government borrows a lot of money, and the benefits never trickle down. If you de-regulate corporations, you don't get reasonably priced health care for all, you get Enron, MCI, and the mortgage crisis.* If you take a might-makes-right approach to other countries, they won't cooperate. You'll spend trillions sending troops all over the world, until you have no more troops to send.

Which of those failed conservative policies do McCain or the Republican Congressional candidates reject? Maybe they're ready to stop denying global warming** -- some of them, sort of, maybe. But McCain proposes more tax cuts targeted at the rich.*** He promises more wars. The center of his health care plan is a tax deduction plus a proposal to de-regulate health insurance companies, and he makes this vacuous promise, which is unsupported by any specifics whatever:
John McCain understands that those without prior group coverage and those with pre-existing conditions have the most difficulty on the individual market, and we need to make sure they get the high-quality coverage they need.
In other words, if you have a pre-existing condition, John McCain feels your pain. Kind of.

So here's the story Democrats need to tell to the 77% of Americans who say the country is on the wrong track. It's not on the wrong track because President Bush made some bizarre wrong turn. He just went eight years further down the road laid out by Ronald Reagan, and this is where it leads. John McCain and the Republicans running for Congress want to keep going further down that road. Obama and the Democrats don't. If Democrats can convince the country to tell Bush's story that way, they'll have a landslide in November.

* I'm reminded of the commercials that John Houseman made in the Eighties for Smith Barney, which is now part of Citibank. "They make money the old-fashioned way," he asserted forcefully. "They earn it." The folks running Enron made money the really old-fashioned way -- they stole it. That's what big executives do when they know no one is watching them. Want more Enrons? Keep de-regulating.

** I haven't read the entire 2004 Republican Platform, but I know it doesn't contain the words warming or climate. The 2008 Platform of the Texas Republican Party says: "We oppose taxes levied and regulations imposed based on the alleged threat of global warming." If McCain tries to put something about global warming into the national platform, there's going to be a nasty fight. I'm betting he doesn't.

*** On his web site the plan to eliminate the Alternate Minimum Tax is promoted as a tax cut for "middle class families" with no mention of the rich. But the AMT was originally targeted only at the rich. Now it hits some families in the upper half of the middle class, because Bush lowered the non-AMT tax rates and left the AMT alone. Even so, in 2010 90% of the AMT will be paid by households with incomes over $100,000. McCain also proposes a cut in the corporate tax rate. Millions of middle-class Americans own some small amount of corporate stock, but the overwhelming majority of the benefit from a corporate tax cut goes to the very wealthy. He'll tell you it will trickle down, but it never does.

Gore's Moon Shot
"Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years," Al Gore said Thursday. (Here's the text and video of Gore's speech.) He compared this challenge to JFK's pledge to put a man on the Moon, which seemed far-fetched at the time but actually came in ahead of schedule.

I'm looking for thoughtful commentary about how realistic Gore's goal is, and I'm finding darn little of it. If you see something I should look at, either append a comment on the blog or email me. I'll return to this story next week.

What Real Conservatives Want
In most states the Republican Party has to wear a mask of reasonability. But in Texas they get to let it all hang out. The 2008 Platform of the Texas Republican Party is worth a read. In fact, I'd recommend that Democrats distribute this platform nationwide and make it as well known as possible. Here are some highlights:
The embodiment of the Conservative Dream in America is Texas. ... This platform is indeed the heart and soul of our Party.

We reaffirm our belief in ... eliminating the Endangered Species Act. ... We oppose taxes levied and regulations imposed based on the alleged threat of global warming. ... we oppose subsidizing alternative fuel production

We believe the Minimum Wage Law should be repealed.

We support an immediate and orderly transition to a system of private pensions based on the concept of individual retirement accounts, and gradually phasing out the Social Security tax.

Life begins at the moment of fertilization and ends at the point of natural death. All innocent human life must be protected. ... We are resolute regarding the reversal of Roe v. Wade. ... We oppose sale and use of the dangerous “Morning After Pill.” ... we urge Congress to withhold Supreme Court jurisdiction in cases involving abortion, religious freedom, and the Bill of Rights.

We believe [affirmative action] is simply racism disguised as a social virtue. ... We demand abolition of bilingual education. ... We have room for but one language here and that is the English language. ... We urge immediate repeal of the Hate Crimes Law.

We further call on Congress to pass and the state legislatures to ratify a marriage amendment declaring that marriage in the United States shall consist of and be recognized only as the union of a natural man and a natural woman. Neither the United States nor any state shall recognize or grant to any unmarried person the legal rights or status of a spouse. ... We urge the Legislature to rescind no–fault divorce laws. ... We oppose ... adoption by homosexuals.

We oppose any sex education other than abstinence until heterosexual marriage. ... We urge Congress to repeal government-sponsored programs that deal with early childhood development. ... We urge the Legislature, Governor, Commissioner of Education and State Board of Education to remind administrators and school boards that corporal punishment is effective and legal in Texas. ... We support objective teaching and equal treatment of strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories, including Intelligent Design. ... We pledge our influence ... toward dispelling the myth of separation of church and state.

We believe the Legislature should enact legislation: allowing: Concealed Handgun License holders to carry concealed weapons on publicly owned institutions of learning

No extraordinary medical care, including organ transplants or body part replacement, should be performed on prisoners at taxpayer expense.

The Internal Revenue Service is unacceptable to U. S. taxpayers! We urge that the IRS be abolished and the Sixteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution be repealed. We further urge that the personal income tax, alternative minimum tax, inheritance (death) tax, gift tax, capital gains, corporate income tax, and payroll tax be eliminated. We recommend the implementation of a national retail sales tax

There is no substitute for Victory! We commend and support the Bush Administration’s current policy regarding our military operations fighting the War on Terror and confronting radical Islamist terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries around the world. ... There should be no “time-table” applied to the withdrawal of our forces. ... We oppose any plan to close Guantanamo

Our [Israel] policy is based on God’s biblical promise to bless those who bless Israel and curse those who curse Israel ... We should not reward terrorism by allowing a Palestinian state carved out of historical Israel.

We demand Congress stop funding the IMF and any other international financing agencies. ... We ... urge our Texas Senators to unalterably oppose any agreement or treaty that seeks to establish an International Criminal Court (ICC) ... We urge Congress to evict the United Nations from the United States and eliminate any further participation.
These statements are scattered throughout the document, but aren't taken out of context in any way. The ellipses (...) are honest. I'm picking a few items from long lists, and grouping related items that may not be next to each other in the original. But the subjects and predicates really are intended to go together.

One reason Democrats lose is that we consistently allow Republicans to tell one story to their extremist base and another to the swing voters. Not just John McCain, but Republicans all over the country need to be asked about statements like the ones above. Do they repudiate the extremist Republican base, or do they support it?

Short Notes
Sophia Nelson writes a black professional woman's perspective on Michelle Obama for the Washington Post. Obama's treatment from the media comes as no surprise to Nelson, who presents a world in which stereotyping is the norm. If you're noticed at all, then you're seen as either a vixen or as angry. "This society can't even see a woman like Michelle Obama." To Nelson, Obama represents the have-it-all vision: "an accomplished black woman can be a loyal and supportive wife and a good mother and still fulfill her own dreams." Nelson reports that 70% of black professional women are unmarried, and that they're five times more likely than white women to be single at 40. From that point of view, Michelle really is a revolutionary.

Netroots Nation -- the annual gathering of liberal bloggers that was called YearlyKos last summer -- happened in Austin this week. (I wasn't there.) The Washington Post coverage dripped with condescension. "If the Netroots can be compared to high school ..." it said in the first paragraph, and continued the metaphor throughout the story. If you want to make your own judgments, the online video is here.

Media Matters turns that metaphor around while discussing the mainstream media's attempt to create an issue around Obama's "likability" or his ability to "connect with regular people" when polls consistently fail to find any such problem. The MSM pundits are like the middle-school in-crowd telling you who it's OK to like. "Like cliquish teens, the D.C. pundit class is all too happy to make up a reason why you should dislike a candidate if a real reason fails to present itself."
Frank Rich is one of the few mainstream journalists giving McCain's statements any scrutiny at all:
In February Mr. McCain said he would balance the federal budget by the end of his first term even while extending the gargantuan Bush tax cuts. In April he said he’d accomplish this by the end of his second term. In July he’s again saying he’ll do it in his first term. Why not just say he’ll do it on Inauguration Day? It really doesn’t matter since he’s never supplied real numbers that would give this promise even a patina of credibility.

I just finished George Soros' short new book The New Paradigm for Financial Markets. Basically, Soros has One Big Point he's been trying to make ever since he wrote The Alchemy of Finance in 1987, and every few years he writes a book interpreting the current crisis in terms of that Point. The OBP: If you're inside the system you're modeling, and if your ideas are going to take off, then your model needs to account for its own effects.

The mortgage crisis really is a good example. The people who created the complicated packages of mortgages (that are blowing up now) were counting on two facts about the real estate market: (1) It was generally stable, and (2) each local market had its own cycle. So a package of geographically diversified mortgages should have been super-stable, stable even if the individual mortgages that made it up were a little shaky. It didn't work because the mortgage packages themselves linked and destablized the local real estate markets. They created a flood of cheap financing that produced an unsustainable across-the-board boom, and made a path by which problems in one local market could propagate to the rest.

Why am I not reassured by this? The ultimate domino that could fall in the mortgage crisis -- after the U.S. government eats the sins of Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, who ate the sins of various mortgage lenders -- is that foreigners might stop wanting to own dollars or buy our government bonds. The argument that this won't happen is that just as the government considers Fannie and Freddie too big to fail, the foreign big-money types consider the U.S. too big to fail. They'll keep loaning us money because the alternative is too dire.

We're #12! A consortium of foundations has computed the "human development index" of the fifty states and the U.S. as a whole. The HDI was designed by the UN to boil a lot of development statistics down to one big number, as a general evaluation of the progress of developing countries. But what if you apply it to the developed countries? Turns out the U.S. is 12th in the world for 2005, the most recent year for which numbers are available. In 1990 we were second. But because we're fat and uninsured, our life expectancy -- one of the component numbers of the HDI -- has slipped to 42nd in the world, behind places like Costa Rica. We also lead the other 30 richest nations in children-in-poverty and people-in-prison.

The BBC posts a state-by-state map of the HDI. It bears a striking resemblance to our political map: The Northeast and California are highly developed, the South poorly developed. It's no wonder Colorado and Virginia are getting bluer, they have high HDIs compared to the neighboring states.

This week's internet animation: Snuggly the Security Bear explains the FISA compromise. Scott Bateman animates and anotates Bill O'Reilly talking with Karl Rove about defying a congressional subpoena -- it's really no worse than turning down an invitation to appear on O'Reilly's show.

Interesting piece in the NYT by Gail Collins about how uncontroversial same-sex marriage is becoming in Massachusetts. The state senate just approved a bill allowing out-of-state same-sex couples to be married in Massachusetts -- by voice vote, without objection. Collins comments: "There is no greater force against bigotry than the moment when something becomes so routine that you stop noticing it."

All of which leads up to my I-told-you-so moment. One of the first things I ever blogged about was the Massachusetts Supreme Court's decision allowing same-sex marriage in November, 2003. The final paragraph of that essay was:
Personally, I expect the same-sex marriage issue to follow the same course as interracial marriage. After a few years of Chicken-Little panic, the vast majority of Americans will recognize that the sky has not fallen, and that the new rights of homosexuals have come at the expense of no one.

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?

Monday, July 7, 2008

True Americans

The ideal of a God-given liberty and God-given equality have been posited from the beginning of our experiment in democracy as a standard that we will never achieve but will always, at our best, aspire to. ... So what we should not be at times when we're disappointed with our country is anti-American. We should be true Americans, and we should go back to those ideals and revitalize them, and hold the nation accountable for what its founders dreamed to be possible. -- Forrest Church, speaking at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly on 27 June 2008

In This Week's Sift:
Nationalism vs. Patriotism. Should we love our country and try to improve it? Or just worship it no matter what it does?

Silly Season on the Campaign Trail. Did you hear the terrible thing Wesley Clark said? Probably not, because he didn't say it.

Wars and Rumors of Wars. Will Bush attack Iran before he leaves office or not? Seymour Hersh paints a disturbing picture of an attempt to gin up an incident that will make the public accept another war. Also, the problem with the Surge suddenly becomes obvious.

Short Notes. Fat States of America. A 235 MPG car. Africa's worst dictator isn't who you think. Justice O'Connor goes gaming. And an archdruid coins a new term.

Nationalism vs. Patriotism
Everyone talks about patriotism near the Fourth of July. Obama did it better than most, but not even he put a name to the main threat to American patriotism: its rival, nationalism. Patriots love their country and want it to be as good as it can be. Nationalists make an idol of their country and demand that all kneel before it. The nationalist's country is great and good by definition, not because it lives up to its ideals.

In recent years authentic patriotism has been losing out to nationalism. In order to fight back, patriots need to start doing two things: First, always call nationalism by its true name; don't let the nationalists get away with calling themselves patriots. And second, we need to understand -- and make the public understand -- that nationalism is not just bad politics, it's bad religion. A nation, even one with the power and accomplishments of America, can only be a false god.

This week's clearest example of how nationalism has usurped the place of patriotism is the column Obama's Real Patriotism Problem that National Review Online editor Jonah Goldberg wrote for Tuesday's USA Today. Despite his superficial denial, the "patriotism" he promotes is pure and simple nationalism:
Definitions of patriotism proliferate, but in the American context patriotism must involve not only devotion to American texts (something that distinguishes our patriotism from European nationalism) but also an abiding belief in the inherent and enduring goodness of the American nation. We might need to change this or that policy or law, fix this or that problem, but at the end of the day the patriotic American believes that America is fundamentally good as it is.
No matter what our country does, it has "inherent and enduring goodness" and is "good as it is."

Goldberg goes on to charge that Obama, like liberals throughout American history, can't manage this kind of patriotism. He recalls a series of articles a liberal magazine published in 1922 in which "smug emissaries from East Coast cities chronicled the 'backward' attitudes of what today would be called fly-over country." Someone even had the gall to suggest "that Dixie needed nothing less than an invasion of liberal 'missionaries' so that the 'light of civilization' might finally be glimpsed down there."

Umm, Jonah, I don't know how to break this to you, but that's exactly what happened. The South in 1922? Jim Crow, remember? The liberal missionaries were the Freedom Riders and all the other civil rights activists of the fifties and sixties. If we follow Goldberg's definition, though, the real patriots were the people who thought the Jim Crow South was "fundamentally good as it was" -- not disloyal liberals like the Freedom Riders or Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King.

In May I was at the Newseum in Washington, the brand new journalism museum. They display a piece of the lunch counter from the Woolworth's in Greensboro where civil rights sit-ins began, and show a filmed interview with one of the original Freedom Riders, whose name escapes me. He explained that they didn't stage events for the press, but that if they expected trouble, they made sure reporters knew about it. "If you're going to beat us up," he said (or words to that effect; I'm pulling this quote out of memory) "don't beat us up by the dark of night. Beat us up where everybody can see."

Bunch of anti-American wimps, eh, Jonah? They just couldn't see the goodness of America as it was.

I suppose Goldberg must find Frederick Douglass' Fourth of July speech from 1852 to be extremely unpatriotic. Douglass pointedly refused to tell his white audience that America was good as it was:
The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.
Douglass had to contend with people who thought he should argue more calmly and reasonably against slavery, as today we have to contend with people who want us to do a cost/benefit analysis of torture. What, Douglass wondered, would such an argument be? Should he attempt to prove -- to those not already convinced -- that the slave is human? That humans have rights? Douglass refused:
At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation's ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.
Would that my country had more such people today. Because those are the words of a man truly loyal to the ideals that America represents, someone who wants his country to be as good as it can be. That's the patriotism of a true American.

Silly Season on the Campaign Trail
I was happy to see the L.A. Times recognize how silly all the recent campaign controversies have been. As Paul Krugman notes:
Al Gore never claimed that he invented the Internet. Howard Dean didn’t scream. Hillary Clinton didn’t say she was staying in the race because Barack Obama might be assassinated. And Wesley Clark didn’t impugn John McCain’s military service. ... Again and again we’ve had media firestorms over supposedly revealing incidents that never actually took place.
TPM put together everything you need to know about the Clark incident -- the simple true statements Clark made, the way they were blown into something Clark never said, and the indignant way the media shot down those overblown statements of their own creation. It's a good lesson in how political media works, and is pretty clear evidence that the media bias still tips towards McCain.

The other tempest in a teapot was Obama's alleged flip-flop on Iraq. Obama said that in pulling troops out of Iraq he would "take facts on the ground into account." If you had imagined that Obama's plan was for our troops to throw down their weapons and run full speed for the Kuwaiti border, then this was a significant change. But anyone who has actually been listening to Obama, like TPM's Josh Marshall or Tim Starks of Deutsche Welle's Across the Pond blog, wasn't all that shocked. Jed Lewison analyzes CNN's attempt to manufacture an issue here.

Like a lot of people, I'm disappointed that Obama isn't taking a strong stand against telecom immunity. And I'm even more disappointed that it looks like the FISA bill is going to pass. I expect to say more about this next week.

Wars and Rumors of Wars
Iran. The biggest question of 2008 isn't the election, it's whether Bush will attack Iran before he leaves office. Seymour Hersh says yes, as he has been saying for some while now. Mostly using his usual collection of anonymous sources, Hersh paints a picture of a bureaucratic wrestling match between Dick Cheney, who wants to attack, and the Pentagon, which doesn't.

The most disturbing part of Hersh's article is the allegation that covert ops are already in progress, aiming to exploit ethnic tensions among the Ahwazi Arabs (Iran is predominantly Persian, not Arab) and religious tensions among the Baluchis, who are Sunnis. (Iran is predominantly Shia). He quotes former CIA officer Robert Baer:
The Baluchis are Sunni fundamentalists who hate the regime in Tehran, but you can also describe them as Al Qaeda. These are guys who cut off the heads of nonbelievers—in this case, it’s Shiite Iranians. The irony is that we’re once again working with Sunni fundamentalists, just as we did in Afghanistan in the nineteen-eighties.
Hersh notes that 9-11 conspirator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is a Baluchi. Afghanistan in the eighties is where Al Qaeda came together.

While polls show the American public opposed to yet another war in the Middle East, an incident in January convinced the administration that the public might support -- or even demand -- a military reaction if it appeared that the Iranians had shot first. One of Hersh's anonymous sources told him that
a few weeks later, a meeting took place in the Vice-President’s office. “The subject was how to create a casus belli between Tehran and Washington,” he said.
Neocon columnist Bill Kristol, who has been pushing for an attack on Iran about as long as Hersh has been predicting it, said on Fox News that Bush might attack Iran "if he thinks Obama is going to win." Under that Bizarro-world logic, I guess, hawks should root for Obama and doves for McCain.

Commentary's Max Boot thinks that Hersh's article "is a combination of innuendo, hearsay, and opinionizing that detracts from the sum total of public knowledge" and that Hersh "is partly a victim of his anti-Bush worldview and partly a victim of his sources." Of the alleged meeting in Cheney's office he says, "That’s the kind of meeting which only takes place in the fevered imagination of Hersh and his leftist cohorts." However, Boot brings no facts or sources (even anonymous ones) to the table, just his own intuition about how the administration works.

Afghanistan and Iraq. In hindsight, the real problem with the Surge has become obvious: You should never commit your last reserves until the decisive battle. If you're about to win or about to lose, throw in everything. But otherwise, you need to keep the enemy guessing.

For the second straight month, coalition deaths in Afghanistan set a record, and were higher than coalition deaths in Iraq. 46 coalition troops died in Afghanistan in June, 31 in Iraq. (If you only care about American troop deaths, Iraq wins 29-28.) The Pentagon would like to send more troops to Afghanistan, but there aren't any. "I don't have troops I can reach for, brigades I can reach, to send into Afghanistan until I have a reduced requirement in Iraq," says Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen. The Taliban knows this, and can escalate attacks without fear that we'll escalate in response.

In Iraq, the insurgents and militias know we can't maintain this troop level, so why not lay low and wait? That's the real reason casualties and violence are down. We haven't disarmed or defeated the insurgents, and the Malaki government hasn't made peace with them. They're just waiting.

Strangely, the administration has fallen into the trap that they so often warned about whenever a timetable for withdrawal was proposed: If the enemy knows you're leaving, they can wait you out. Well, the Surge brigades are starting to leave now, and we don't have any brigades to replace them. The Iraqis know this. Look for violence to ramp up again after the November elections, when the Surge is completely over and Iraq starts to become the next president's problem.

Or maybe this isn't so strange. Maybe the point of the Surge wasn't to improve the situation in the long term, but just to kick the can down the road. For the rest of his life Bush will say, "We were winning when I left office." The mess he leaves his successor will not be his fault, because nothing is ever his fault.

Short Notes
I spent last week at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, where I kept a blog and wrote some articles for the UUA web site. You can find the links to them on my Free and Responsible Search blog.

538 still predicts a solid Obama win, but the margin has shrunk to a 309-229 electoral vote split, closer than the 339-199 projection two weeks ago. Real Clear Politics, which has always had a more conservative estimate of Obama's lead, has a similar 304-234 projection. My prediction: The race will drift closer until the conventions, when the nation compares Obama's acceptance speech to McCain's. Then the margin will grow, and the debates won't help McCain close it.

Slate's Peter Maass argues that the worst dictator in Africa is somebody you've probably never heard of: Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea "whose life seems a parody of the dictator genre." Maass explains why the American media hasn't bothered to cover Obiang. Yes, he's crushing the spirit of his nation, and yes, he's stealing all the oil money and leaving his people in poverty. But hey, the oil is flowing, ExxonMobil is happy, the Bush administration considers Obiang "a good friend," and the victims are almost all black. So what's the big deal? Nothing to see here. Move along. Move along.

Speaking of oil, Andrew Leonard's How The World Works column at Salon explains Why $140-a-barrel oil is no surprise
a tipping point has been reached. Enough people now believe that the era of cheap oil is over to ensure a significant, and ongoing, adjustment upward in the real price. Modern civilization as we know it is dependent on cheap oil, and cheap oil is becoming scarce. VoilĂ  -- time to panic. And a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy dynamic kicks in. The higher the price of oil goes without encouraging dramatic increases in production, the more worried the market gets.
One response is VW's soon-to-be-marketed concept car, which gets 235 MPG.

On a deeper level, John Michael Greer at The Archdruid Report -- how many of you have been reading that blog? -- has given a name to something that really needed one: the Silent Running fallacy. Named after a classic sci-fi movie, the fallacy is "the mistaken belief that human industrial civilization can survive apart from nature. It’s this fallacy that leads countless well-intentioned people to argue that nature is an amenity, and should be preserved because, basically, it’s cute." (Now we need a name for a similar fallacy on a smaller scale: that emotions are an amenity androids could function without.)

And just when we were getting used to the idea of Peak Oil, what about Peak Metal? A lot of industrial metals -- gallium, indium, hafnium, and even (to a lesser extent) zinc -- are being used up faster than we're discovering new supplies.

CalorieLab released its annual fattest states rankings: Mississippi is the repeat champion, with 31.6% of its adult population classified as obese. West Virginia waddled past Alabama to claim second at 30.6%. Colorado is the slimmest state at 18.4%. In general, the Mountain West and New England are the least obese regions, the South the most. But it's getting worse across the board -- CalorieLab had to shift the color-coding standards on its map this year.

Ian Welsh on FireDogLake comments intelligently on the rankings and why Americans are so fat. Our farm policy "literally subsidizes crap food that makes people fat. ... And if you're missing essential nutrients in your diet, your body keeps wanting them and keeps telling you to eat more, in the vain hope you might eat something that isn't crap." (Those subsidies could also explain why the fattest states tend to be the poorest states.) He also blames unwalkable suburbs and recommends that physical education classes teach children how to exercise rather than just play team sports that involve a lot of standing around.
When I grew up back at the dawn of time -- before SimCity, in other words -- we thought games like Monopoly were educational because you had to figure out how much change to give somebody who buys Baltic with a $500 bill. Well, games currently on the drawing board are supposed take things to yet another level. Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor is involved in a game project called Our Courts, which is scheduled to appear late next year. She describes it as "online, interactive civic education project for seventh- and eighth-graders." (It's necessary because the No Child Left Behind Act, according to Reagan appointee O'Connor, has "effectively squeezed out civics education" in the schools. Guaranteeing an uninformed populace for decades to come -- just one of the many accomplishments of George W. Bush.)

Microsoft and AMD sponsor the Imagine Cup, an annual student competition to create computer games. Each year (2008 is the sixth) the games revolve around a theme from the UN's Millennium Goals. This year the theme is "Imagine a world where technology enables a sustainable environment."

I noticed this stuff when Mike Musgrove wrote about it in his @play column in the Washington Post. But a more consistent source of information is the Games For Change blog.

While we're talking about play, a great internet toy is Policy Map. It combines U.S. maps with all sorts of data sets so you can see things like how income is distributed around the country, or between neighborhoods of your city, or which neighborhoods have a lot of car thefts. A bunch of the data sets come from the 2000 census, so the unemployment figures are way out of date. But the crime stats come from 2006 FBI reports, and the ethnic distribution of the country probably hasn't changed that much since 2000. The basic interface resembles GoogleMaps, so you can zoom in or out at will. It's hours and hours of wonkish fun.

I frequently highlight statistics showing how poorly the economy is doing. The American magazine presents the other side: How well the American economy is doing over the long term. One criticism: Most of the article's graphs display averages. Meaningful economic graphs display medians. Unlike medians, averages hide the gap between rich and poor, as well as the gap between the very rich and everyone else.

For example, if Bill Gates (net worth $58 billion ) walks into a bar in a poor neighborhood, the bar's average customer becomes a billionaire -- hiding the fact that all the other customers (besides the guy who mugs Gates) are still poor.

Suppose Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (net worth $16 billion) invites Gates to join him in the owner's box at a Seattle Seahawks game, and fills the rest of Qwest Field's seats with 66,998 homeless bums. Then the average fan is a millionaire, but the median fan is a homeless bum.