Monday, February 23, 2009

That River in Egypt

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.
-- Upton Sinclair
In This Week's Sift:
  • Still in Denial About Global Warming. Every time the debate seems to be over, the same bogus arguments rise again. Maybe it's because energy companies have hundreds of billions of dollars at stake.
  • Will Obama Really Give Up Bush's Tyrannical Powers? After a good start, the Obama administration has backtracked, and is making noises about not wanting to "weaken the institution of the presidency". But don't we need to weaken the presidency to restore the constitutional balance?
  • Not Your Father's Recession. To see why this economic crisis is different, look in your fridge. But don't worry, hard times are good for you.
  • Short Notes. Obama's elf. Bristol's interview. Neocons never existed. Iraqis are cool about having their homes blown up. Christians discover poverty. And more.

Still in Denial about Global Warming
There was a brief period last year when I thought the debate about global warming was over. Al Gore had his Nobel Prize. John McCain was telling Republican primary voters that global warming was real, and they were voting for him anyway. Even the foot-dragging of the Bush administration seemed to be losing conviction. Maybe, I thought, we can finally get down to figuring out what we're going to do about it.

Lately, though, the fog has been spreading again. Once again I'm seeing the pseudo-scientific arguments that global warming is all some big mistake, illusion, hoax, or scam. The most enterprising new tactic -- maybe I just didn't notice it before -- is to skip the pseudo-science entirely and baldly claim (as if all well-informed people already knew this) that the global-warming deniers have been proved right.

Take Fred Barnes at the Weekly Standard. As he tells it, the anti-global-warming case is so widely accepted that he can use it to condemn other stuff by analogy. This was his comment on Obama's defense of the stimulus bill:
Obama sounded like Al Gore on global warming. The more the case for man-made warming falls apart, the more hysterical Gore gets about an imminent catastrophe. The more public support his bill loses, the more Obama embraces fear-mongering.
Zachary Roth at TPM questioned Barnes on the claim that "the case for man-made global warming falls apart", and got the response that Barnes had a reference, but he wasn't telling what it was. Seriously. I last heard that argument in fifth grade.

I wrote that off as an isolated incident, but then George Will went even further. His February 15 column is full of easily checked falsehoods that he and the Washington Post apparently didn't check. I was going to list them all and their refutations, but Wonk Room did it for me. (I'll limit myself to this: Will referenced the Arctic Climate Research Center as the source for one of his "facts", and the ACRC web site contradicted him -- by name -- within hours. The WaPo didn't think that merited publishing a correction.) The column repeats some of the errors he propagated in a 2004 column, which were pointed out at the time here and here.

When you hear some apparently reputable people say "A" while other apparently reputable people say "not A", the natural conclusion is that the truth is complicated and unclear. But when the subject is global warming, a lot of people say obviously false or wildly misleading things, and outlets as reputable as the Washington Post publish them.

So what's going on? If the science is clear, why are there so many global warming deniers? I see three basic motives:
  • Money. At the base of the pyramid are researchers and publicists paid by the energy companies to produce confusion. They don't need to convince anybody; they win if they just make us all unsure enough that we won't call for action. Remember the Tobacco Institute fogging up the dangers of smoking? The main difference is the scale: Energy companies have hundreds of billions at stake rather than just billions. (As so often happens, the deniers try to turn this issue around by making a big deal out of environmentalists' financial motives, as if it weren't obvious where the big money really is.)

    The poster boy here is Steven Milloy, the "junk science" commentator on Fox News. He's an organizer of and other groups that receive Exxon-Mobil funding. He also apparently works for the tobacco industry, for whom he obfuscates the second-hand-smoke issue.
  • Ideology. Global warming became a left/right issue because the right has no answer for it. The market cannot deliver a solution to global warming without governments first constructing a substantial amount of structure (like creating some kind of cap-and-trade system). So if you believe with religious fervor that the market solves all real problems, then global warming can't be a real problem.
  • Partisanship. It becomes a Republican/Democrat thing both for ideological reasons and because the energy industry has more influence in the Republican Party. Once it's a partisan issue, positions freeze. As the evidence comes in, Republicans can't admit that they were wrong and the Democrats were right. (John Murdock tried on the New Majority blog, but the commenters weren't going to stand for it.)
As with tobacco, a few facts misstated or taken out of context can build a controversy out of nothing, and the media's obsession with "balance" always makes the sides sound equal. The best place to chase down these arguments is at Real Climate, a blog by climatologists. The responses are conveniently collected in the How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic guide.

I'll just discuss one, to give you a flavor of how this works. A common argument (it appears in the Will column and many other places) is that there has been no global warming "since 1998" or "in the last decade". Yearly temperature measurements fluctuate, and even though the long-term trend is clearly up, 1998 was a spike year -- it stand out above the curve. So starting your analysis there is a like starting your analysis of hurricanes in 2005, the Katrina/Wilma year, the worst year anyone can remember. Hurricanes are down since 2005 -- does that make you feel safe? A more complete article about the 1998 claim is here, including a graph that makes it all clear.

This video by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (no idea who they really represent) shows what you can do with images and music and enough money to buy air time: Fossil fuels are good and life-affirming, while the proposal to regulate CO2 is a threat to all you hold dear.

Will Obama Really Give Up Bush's Tyrannical Powers?
It's easy to point out the excesses of executive power when you're not the executive. When you are, giving up power is always fraught with problems. Your unchecked powers seem harmless because you know you will only do good things with them.

That's why civil libertarians have been watching President Obama carefully ever since he took office. The signs from the first few days were good. In his inaugural address he said:
we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake.
One of his first executive orders committed him to closing the prison at Guantanamo, and he suspended the prosecutions that were pending under Bush's military tribunals. His attorney general and CIA director ended the word games about torture. He restricted the CIA to the interrogation techniques listed in the Army Field Manual.

Since then the signs have been more ambiguous and occasionally ominous.
  • The administration has stood by the Bush claim that enemy combatants can be held indefinitely without charges at the Bagram prison in Afghanistan -- including four men brought there from outside Afghanistan. The ACLU's Jonathan Hafetz: ""They've now embraced the Bush policy that you can create prisons outside the law."
  • While the Justice Department is reviewing all the court cases where the Bush administration claimed a state secrets privilege, the privilege was re-asserted in a civil lawsuit against a Boeing subsidiary accused of involvement in renditions. The state-secrets privilege has been recognized since the Eisenhower administration, but Bush's expanded interpretation allows the executive branch to dictate what information courts can and can't consider. If it stands, the courts are not an equal branch of government.
  • The Obama administration is continuing the Bush effort to dismiss lawsuits concerning the "missing" Bush administration emails.
  • Obama hasn't committed one way or the other on Karl Rove's claim of "absolute" executive privilege, which allows him to ignore congressional subpoenas. Particularly worrisome is the statement of White House counsel Greg Craig that Obama "is also mindful as President of the United States not to do anything that would undermine or weaken the institution of the presidency."
But doesn't the institution of the presidency need to be weakened, after eight years of steroid injections? How else can we re-establish the constitutional checks and balances?

If (like me) you want to believe in the Obama administration's basic good intentions, you can blame a lot of this on its methodical character: They'll change a policy when they've figured out what the right policy should be, and not before. They've been left a huge mess, and they don't want to make a lot of fast, sweeping decisions that have more consequences than they realize.

Still, if new policies don't come out soon, they'll be harder and harder to make at all, because they'll have to reverse not just Bush, but a bunch of their own actions as well.

We'll know a lot more in a few weeks, because a number of key decisions are coming up.
  • Attorney General Holder has to decide whether to release a report that his predecessor blocked. The Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility looked into the process that resulted in the famous "torture memos" by the Department's Office of Legal Counsel. Because the OLC is the official interpreter of the law within the executive branch, those memos gave torturers the highest possible assurance that they were acting legally. Rumors about the report say that "OPR investigators focused on whether the memo's authors deliberately slanted their legal advice to provide the White House with the conclusions it wanted." That could lead to disbarment for former OLC lawyers like John Yoo and Jay Bybee, and could have criminal implications both for them and for co-conspirators in the Bush White House.

  • By March 4 the administration has to file its brief on executive privilege. Clearly, Obama will want to retain some kind of executive privilege. But the Bush interpretation of executive privilege allowed (and continues to allow) his aides to ignore congressional subpoenas completely, rather than refuse to answer specific questions. If that stands, Congress is not an equal branch of government.

  • Obama has to decide what to do with Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, a Qatari who was living in Peoria (under a legal visa) when he was declared an "enemy combatant". He has been held in isolation in a military brig for more than five years, with no charges filed and no opportunity to contest his imprisonment or the evidence against him.

Not Your Father's Recession
There continues to be no sign of a bottom: Not in the stock market, in jobs, or in ominious statements from financial leaders like George Soros or Paul Volcker.

Paul Krugman explains why this is different (and scarier) than other recent recessions :
Your father’s recession was something like the severe downturn of 1981-1982. That recession was, in effect, a deliberate creation of the Federal Reserve, which raised interest rates to as much as 17 percent in an effort to control runaway inflation. Once the Fed decided that we had suffered enough, it relented, and the economy quickly bounced back. Your grandfather’s recession, on the other hand, was something like the Great Depression, which happened in spite of the Fed’s efforts, not because of them.
But if you want real gut-level evidence that this one is different, stat guru Nate Silver has it: Beer isn't recession-proof any more. Looking back to 1959, Silver documents that alcohol sales are uncorollated with the overall economy -- until now. Take-home alcohol revenue (i.e., not bar sales) was down an unprecedented 9.3% in the fourth quarter, with beer down 14%.

Conservatives have been Pollyannas about the economy at least since Larry Kudlow enthused about "the Bush boom" late in 2007. But now Michael Gerson is taking it to a new level. Even if we are going into a depression, that might be good for us. It can "lead to the rediscovery of virtues that make sustained prosperity possible -- and that add nonmaterial richness to our lives." Evangelical megachurch pastor Jack Hibbs is pushing a similar message: Thank God for hard times. (The first depression had such an uplifting influence on the Germans, after all.)

Well, at least we're drinking less.

Recent events have taught Tom Toles a lesson about regulation.

It's weird that we're still arguing about the New Deal 75 years later, but we are. And Republicans are wheeling out their most reliable weapon against FDR: They're making stuff up.

Short Notes
Worst pun ever? As lucky as Barack Obama has been these last two years, it's not surprising that his elf is exhausted and ready to quit.

Last week I reported that the mercenary corporation Blackwater has changed its name to Xe. But I didn't do it with quite the panache of Harper's Scott Horton: "Xe? It looks like the obvious alternatives, SPECTRE and THRUSH, were unavailable."

I don't usually cover sports here, but if you want to raise your understanding of the game of basketball, read this piece on Shane Battier. Oh, and the New Yorker's A-Rod cover is fabulous.

Conservatives who make fun of liberal Obama-worship have conveniently forgotten what they were like back in the mission-accomplished days. Here's a little memory jog. And another. And a bunch more.

Bristol Palin's interview on Fox News had a number of interesting moments. "It was my choice to have the baby," she says (with about 6 minutes to go). Bristol seems very genuine and likable. She is still engaged, but it sounds like marriage is a long way off -- finishing school and getting a job are higher priorities. At the beginning of the interview she waxes about how fulfilling it is to be a mom, but later on (2:45 to go) she comments on teen pregnancy in general: "I think everyone should just wait ten years. ... It's not glamorous at all." The real surprise comes near the end: "Everyone should be abstinent or whatever, but it's not realistic at all." (No kidding. I think anyone who advocates abstinence-only sex education should be tested to see if they remember anything from their teen years.)

Salon's Rebecca Traister does a play-by-play of Bristol's interview, including recalling this Daily Show piece from September: Samantha Bee discussed Bristol's situation with folks at the Republican Convention, who tripped all over themselves trying not to say the word that Bristol says very openly: choice.

Brain pacemaker. The FDA has approved a device to be implanted in the brains of people with extreme, unresponsive obsessive-compulsive disorder. Like a pacemaker for the heart, it stimulates OCD-related parts of the brain with electricity. The device is also being tested for severe depression.

I love it when something that we all know turns out to be only sort-of true. Everybody knows that America has had a high rate of incarceration since the Reagan years. But it turns out this pattern goes back a lot further. Back in the 50s we had just as high a percentage of our people locked up, but more of them were in mental hospitals and less in prisons. We emptied the mental hospitals in the 70s and filled up the prisons in the 80s. So what is it about American society that makes us want to put so many people away?

Top neo-conservative Richard Perle is touring the country saying that neo-conservatives shouldn't be blamed for the failures of the Bush foreign policy because (1) there's no such thing as a neocon and (2) Bush never listened to them anyway. WaPo's Dana Milbank is skeptical.

And speaking of neocons, here's Surge-architect Fred Kagan Wednesday: "when the insurgents dig in and we root them out, the Iraqis don’t on the whole say 'darn it, you shouldn’t have blown up all of our houses.' They sort of accept that." Yeah, I'll bet they just laugh that stuff off, the same way we would if foreigners blew up our houses.

In another 2000 years, who knows what they might accomplish? Conservative Michael Gerson and liberal Jim Wallis are forming a bipartisan Christian alliance against poverty. This kind of project would be much easier if Christianity had ever had an influential founder. Preferably someone who spoke out about poverty. Maybe on a mount.

When Glenn Beck moved from CNN to Fox News, I thought: "Great. That's where he belonged all along." Little did I know that he had been reining himself in for CNN. Now that he's at Fox, he's wacko even by their standards. Witness this.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Things that just ain't so

It ain't so much the things we don't know that get us into trouble, it's the things we do know that just ain't so.
-- Artemus Ward

In This Week's Sift:
  • Myths. The stimulus lets government overrule your doctor, $30 million for mice, the unpopularity of investigating Bush, and the plot to get Rush off the air. Those are just a few of the baseless assertions that pass for facts these days.
  • Republican Watch: Newt's Energy Policy. It sounds great, but it boils down to oil and nuclear.
  • Some Brains Should Drain. Even the Obama administration is being taken in by the Wall Street brain-drain fear. But I just can't credit the idea that the architects of the current mess have a better job waiting somewhere else.
  • Short Notes. Porn star for Senate. Take your gun to church. Blackwater is no more. Planned Parenthood thanks Sarah Palin. Deregulation restores your right to have salmonella in your peanut butter. And more.

The Right has gotten very good at introducing false "facts" into the public debate. Typically, one of these "facts" begins its life in a memo or an email at some think tank or Republican congressional office. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Matt Drudge release it into the wild, where it gets repeated by Fox News and major Republican politicians. At that point, it's "news" and starts showing up on CNN and the broadcast networks. Once it gets that far, usually the best you can hope for is that it gets reported as a "controversy" rather than a fact. ("Next, our panel of experts debates whether up is down.") The major networks have such a fetish about "balance" that they will never come out and say "This is just false."

A common technique here is the "refused to rule out" story. Liberals are plotting to do something unless they rule it out to the satisfaction of conservatives, who will refuse to be satisfied.

Anyway, here's a sampling of recent myths.

Stimulus Myths. When the Republicans decided to go all-out against the stimulus bill (it passed with the support of three Republican senators and no Republicans in the House), they started telling horror stories about the specific programs "hidden" in the bill.

I have to conclude that the Democrats did a pretty good job of combing silly programs out of the stimulus, because the Republicans were quickly reduced to making stuff up. (A good summary of what is really in the bill is here.) The stimulus bill produced an amazing collection of mythology, almost all of which found its way into this single speech by Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia. I'll limit myself to two myths:

The government will overrule your doctor. This one started with an article by Betsy McCaughey, former Republican lieutenant governor of New York who now works at the conservative Hudson Institute.
One new bureaucracy, the National Coordinator of Health Information Technology, will monitor treatments to make sure your doctor is doing what the federal government deems appropriate and cost effective.
McCaughey then made a tour of the cable talk shows, repeating the point that the Democrats had hidden a Big-Brotherish takeover of medical decision-making in the stimulus bill.

This is such a misreading of the text that it almost has to be intentional. It's got the information flow backwards: the system is supposed to make information easily available to your doctor, not to make your doctor's decisions easily reversible by the government. (Also, it's not a new bureaucracy; it was established by the Bush administration in 2004.)

CNN's medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen asked McCaughey to show her where the bill does what she claims, and came to the conclusion that it "doesn't exactly say that". When challenged, McCaughey retreated to the position that the bill's language "could allow" what she describes -- in other words, the bill doesn't rule it out to her satisfaction.

The Wonk Room observes that McCaughey played a similar role -- cherry picking phrases out of a bill and making them sound alarming -- in the campaign against the Clinton health plan in the 1990s. Keith Olbermann notes that the Hudson Institute has funding from drug companies. McCaughey's response to Olbermann doesn't deny that, but claims that her position at Hudson is unpaid.

Pelosi's mouse. Many, many Republican congresspeople (Congress Matters quotes 18 of them) told this story: The stimulus bill contained $30 million for "Pelosi's mouse" -- the salt marsh mouse, which has a habitat in Nancy Pelosi's district in California.

Greg Sargent at The Plum Line has the real story: It starts with an email circulated by the staff of the Republican House leadership, claiming that people at an unnamed federal agency had told them they would spend $30 million of their stimulus money on “wetland restoration in the San Francisco Bay Area — including work to protect the Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse.”

The Republicans have not revealed the names of the people they talked to, the agency, what line in the bill produces the $30 million, or how much of the alleged $30 million is directly devoted to the mouse habitat.
“There are no federal wetland restoration projects in line to get funded in San Francisco,” Pelosi spkesperson Drew Hammill said. “Neither the Speaker nor her staff have had any involvement in this initiative. The idea that $30 million will be spent to save mice is a total fabrication.”
The American people don't want to see Bush investigated. We hear this over and over again from political pundits who think their own affection for people like Karl Rove is shared by the public. But then pesky data starts to show up. Gallup polled the public about three issues: politicizing the Justice Department, spying on Americans illegally, and torture. In each case, the plurality (from 38% to 41%) was for a criminal investigation and another 24-30% wanted an investigation by an independent panel, making 62-71% favoring some kind of investigation.

Interestingly, rather than headlining this poll "2/3rds of Americans want Bush investigated," Gallup decided to lump the independent-investigation folks together with the don't-investigate folks and headlined the piece: "No mandate for criminal probes of Bush administration". That's your "liberal media" at work.

Democrats are planning to destroy conservative talk radio by bringing back the Fairness Doctrine. The Fairness Doctrine is an FCC policy that was thrown out by the Reagan administration. It said that federally licensed TV and radio stations (i.e., not cable or internet) had to present controversial issues in a balanced way. If reinstated, it might require radio stations that carry Rush Limbaugh to balance his show with a liberal show. Some stations might decide it was easier just to drop Rush.

Unless you pay attention to talk radio or other conservative media, you probably have heard nothing about the attempt to reinstitute the Fairness Doctrine. That's because there is no attempt. There is no pending legislation, other than a Republican bill to strip the FCC of the power to reinstitute a Fairness Doctrine. (Democrats who don't support that Republican bill are refusing to rule out the Fairness Doctrine. Those schemers!) During the campaign Obama said he did not support the Fairness Doctrine. None of the major liberal media-watch organizations is pushing for it. It's got zero support on the liberal blogs. (We love Rush. We want to make him the poster boy for the Republican Party.)

But this issue is a bugaboo on the right, where they talk about it at great length and interpret every Democratic head-fake as the start of a major campaign. (I think they expect us to do it because they would if the situation were reversed.) Typical is this article from the conservative Gateway Pundit, which accuses liberal Media Matters of pushing the Fairness Doctrine. But the link supporting that claim is just an article criticizing conservative talk radio; the Fairness Doctrine is not mentioned. Or this one from conservative NewsBusters, where a Huffington Post article laughing at conservative paranoia about the Fairness Doctrine is interpreted as part of the plot to bring back the Fairness Doctrine.

Most recently, Politico over-interpreted David Axelrod. When Fox News' Chris Wallace asked Axelrod if he would "rule out reimposing the Fairness Doctrine", Axelrod refused to announce policy over the head of the new FCC chair. (It looks like this is one of the operating procedures of the Obama White House, and the media is having trouble adjusting to it. Policy announcements more often come from the experts lower in the administration, and top White House people -- including Obama -- are discouraged from anticipating what they will say.) Politico's Michael Calderone thought Axelrod's non-statement was worth writing an article about, because he didn't rule anything out.

Republican Watch: Newt's Energy Policy
Newt Gingrich in the Moonie Times wants to end "Bush-Obama" big government policies and instead stimulate the economy by tax cuts, including "Rep. Paul D. Ryan's proposal to eliminate the capital-gains tax."

It's fascinating to watch conservatives distance themselves from the unpopular word Bush, while continuing to promote tax cuts for rich people and all the other Bush policies. Did any of them say a word against President Bush in 2002-2003 when he was popular? Did any of them propose policies different from Bush when they ran in 2006 and 2008? Not that I noticed. But the word Bush -- they've totally distanced themselves from it. Us big-government liberals are responsible for Bush now.

Newt goes on to say that his American Solutions think tank will soon produce an energy policy
that will turn American energy assets (including clean coal, ethanol, more production of oil and natural gas, new technologies from hydrogen to wind and solar and a vastly expanded nuclear-power program, as well as a dramatic modernization of the electric grid and an expansion of conservation) into money that stays here at home.
Sounds great, doesn't it? Except:
  • No one has any idea what "clean coal" is. Perpetual-motion machines sound good too, but that doesn't mean we know how to make them.
  • Ethanol (at least the corn-based kind we've been producing) requires so much energy to produce that the energy gain is minimal. Remember Granny Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies making corn moonshine by cooking something in her still? Scale that up and you start to understand where ethanol comes from.
  • Hydrogen is a method for transporting and delivering energy, not an energy source. There's no hydrogen well that you can stick a pipe into. Instead, you need to use energy to produce hydrogen; then you move the hydrogen somewhere and burn it to get back slightly less energy than you put in.
  • "More production of oil and gas" is the whole drill-baby-drill thing from Sarah Palin's campaign. You can drill all you want, but the world's remaining oil and gas -- if you could burn it all without cooking the planet -- is almost all somewhere else.
  • "new technologies" like wind and solar, and "a dramatic modernization of the electric grid and an expansion of conservation" is some of that wasteful spending that Republicans hated in the stimulus bill. When conservative flagship National Review listed "50 of the most outrageous items in the stimulus package" they denounced "money-losing technologies that have not proven cost-efficient despite decades of government support" (presumably wind and solar energy) and "programs [that] would spend lavishly on technologies that are proven failures." Also included among their "outrages" were the $4.5 billion for the grid, the $6.2 billion for the Weatherization Assistance Program (conservation), and a number of other programs they described as "green sugar".
So Newt's list boils down to this: flim-flam, more subsidies for Big Oil, stuff Republicans overwhelmingly voted down when it was actually proposed, and "a vastly expanded nuclear-power program."

I wonder why he didn't just say that?

I tend to think of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity as the far right, but in fact there are regions of right-wing craziness that go far beyond Rush and Sean. (A good site for keeping track of them is Public Eye.) Recently I took a look around the web site of the anti-immigration group VDARE. VDARE's Peter Brimelow thinks that anti-immigrant hostility is a wave that the Republican Party can ride back to power.

The key, says Brimelow, is for the party to recognize that white people are its base. McCain beat Obama 55-45 among whites, and if he could have captured Ronald Reagan's 65% of the white vote, he'd be president. Yes, the non-white portion of the electorate is going up, but look at Alabama:
[In] Alabama, like the South in general, whites are only 65 percent of the electorate, whereas in the US at large they cast about 77% of the vote. So the GOP is in much worse shape in Alabama than in America generally. But still the GOP won overwhelmingly in Alabama—because it got 88 percent of the white vote in this last election.
Yep, that's the message Republicans should be pushing: White people, unite! Today Alabama, tomorrow the USA! Brimelow continues:
I think that whites, that is to say Americans, will organize. They will ultimately throw off the leadership they currently have. I think immigration will become an issue, and the issue will become an important part of that self-organization process, with your help

Porn star Stormy Daniels is being recruited to run as an independent against Louisiana Senator David Vitter. Commenting on Vitter's role in the D.C. Madam scandal , Davis said to CNN: "I might be a porn star, but I haven't done anything illegal. The big question is not just 'Why is David Vitter still in office?' but 'Why he isn't in jail?'" Huffington Post collects some of her recent interviews (with political journalists).

If this works, maybe we should recruit some dominatrix types to run against the senators who support torture.

Some Brains Should Drain
The stimulus bill contains a broader pay cap on TARP-receiving executives than the Obama administration wanted. Their reason for objecting to the pay cap goes like this:
“These rules will not work,” James F. Reda, an independent compensation consultant, said on Friday. “Any smart executive will (a) pay back TARP money ASAP or (b) get another job.”
(Like getting the TARP money paid back is something we should worry about.) An unnamed source in the administration supposedly warned Congressmen against causing a "brain drain" in the TARP-receiving firms.

Here's how I read this story. As head of the New York branch of the Federal Reserve these last few years, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has been contaminated by the information bubble surrounding the top Wall Street executives. People inside that bubble still believe that they are financial geniuses, and can't see what is obvious to the rest of us: They are failures. They're collectively responsible for the biggest economic disaster in many, many years. And even to the
extent they weren't individually responsible, it was their job to see something like this coming and maneuver their firms around and through it. They failed.

So, is it really true that other firms are eager to hire away, say, the top execs at Citibank? (1) I doubt it. (2) Let them. A new management team at Citi or one of the other insolvent banks is only a disaster if you think the current team is uniquely brilliant. Other than possibly the execs themselves, who believes that?

One more thing I notice about this argument: Nobody ever makes a similar case for blue-collar folks. I mean, at least some of GM's assembly-line workers must be very good at what they do. It's not their fault the company is going under. Why don't we worry that, if pay gets cut, GM's best workers will be hired away by some other factory? It's exactly the same logic. But no, when a manufacturing company is in trouble, we take for granted that the workers should have to tighten their belts to save their jobs. Why not bankers?

Short Notes
A 64-year-old diabetic veteran describes the nitty-gritty of getting healthcare from the Veterans' Administration. It's not a horror story and nothing awful happens to him, but in some ways the very ordinariness of his account makes it worse. I can easily imagine millions of people dealing with this kind of hassle and expense on a regular basis.

Planned Parenthood has Sarah Palin to thank for more than $1 million in donations. But Sarah isn't saying "You're welcome."

When your name becomes toxic, change it -- preferably to something unpronounceable. Blackwater is now Xe. Soon, I figure, Jeb Bush will change his name to some non-alphabetic symbol, like Prince did.

A lot of us have wondered what the heck Bernake and Paulson said behind closed doors last fall to scare Congress bad enough to pass the original TARP bill. We're starting to find out.

More like Rome every day. Now we're going to start trading citizenship for military service.

In God we trust. But just in case ... in Arkansas, you may soon be able to take a concealed weapon into church with you.
Department of Poetic Justice. It's hard to raise money in this bad economy -- especially if you're the guy responsible for it. Fund-raising for the George W. Bush Presidential Center at SMU is going slowly.
Wonder why there's salmonella in our peanut butter and mercury in our corn syrup? The number of food inspections by the FDA has been going down since about 1972. Food safety turns out to be one of those things that the free market doesn't do very well without government "interference".

I hadn't heard anything about this until a friend mentioned it to me, but lots of companies have stopped matching 401(k) retirement-plan contributions. (According to Eastman Kodak, General Motors, Motorola, Sears, FedEx, and maybe soon Starbucks.) It's a way for a company to cut its employee costs without changing people's take-home pay. But you have to wonder about the long-term effects, both on retirement savings and on the stock market. For a trend that affects so many people, this has gotten surprisingly little coverage.

18,000 couples are trying to save their marriages. They're same-sex couples, and they'll be divorced against their will if Proposition 8 is unheld in California. The Courage Campaign has put together this "don't divorce us" video.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Without Newspapers

Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.
-- Thomas Jefferson
In this week's Sift:
  • What's Black and White and in the Red? Newspapers -- and not just one or two. The whole industry is in serious trouble, because nobody has a business model that works. It's time to start thinking about what's next.
  • First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage, Then ... The pioneer same-sex marriage is breaking up, and bigots are rejoicing. But news stories read very differently when you know one of the people involved. Plus: an interesting same-sex interstate custody case is happening in Virginia.
  • Short Notes. Did you miss Ice Cream For Breakfast Day again? More on Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Thomas Ricks' new book on Iraq. Torture, rendition, the rule of law, and all my usual hobby horses.

What's Black and White and in the Red?
Industries in trouble can usually muddle along when the economy is good. But recessions are like hard winters; they cull the sick and lame out of the herd. This recession is absolutely destroying the newspaper business as ad revenues collapse. Here's a sample of recent developments:
  • The Tribune Company, which owns the Chicago Tribune, the LA Times, and several other major papers, has filed for bankruptcy.
  • So has the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
  • The New York Times is scrambling to pay its debts.
  • The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press are both cutting back their home delivery to three days a week (allowing a 9% reduction in work force).
  • Gannett -- the chain that owns the Free Press -- is requiring the employees of all of its papers (including the USA Today) to take a week off without pay.
  • The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is looking for a buyer. If it doesn't find one by March, it plans to stop publishing its paper edition and become a web-only enterprise.
You can make a case that financiers are at fault rather than the newspaper business itself -- the Trib, for example, is still making money, just not enough to pay the interest on the huge debt it was saddled with when Sam Zell bought it. But such deals were set up for a reason: The stock prices of newspaper companies got ridiculously low, because investors didn't believe in the future of the underlying business. That's what made high-leverage buy-outs look attractive.

Even newspapers whose troubles aren't making headlines are laying off staff. I recently talked to a friend who is finishing his masters in journalism and starting to look for a job. He's staring hard at his resume, trying to find a unique niche where he'll have an advantage over all the unemployed reporters with 15 years of major-paper experience. Magazines are having their own problems. Another friend is an editor of a small magazine, and notes that companies who used to buy big splashy ad spreads now just buy a simple ad promoting their web site -- that's where the big splashy ad is.

The problem is easy to state: Newspapers have embraced (or been forced into) a business model where they give away their content online and try to make all their money from advertising. It's not working. Former Time editor Walter Isaacson makes an interesting point: Even if the free-content model could generate enough revenue, he claims, it would be a mistake, because
good journalism require[s] that a publication's primary duty be to its readers, not to its advertisers. In an advertising-only revenue model, the incentive is perverse.
In other words: Free content isn't really free. When a newspaper survives because you pay for it, the journalists work for you. But when the paper survives by advertising, they work on you and for the advertisers. Instead of trading your money for the news, you're offering advertisers a chance to exploit and manipulate you.

Isaacson doesn't believe that the free-content model is some inevitable side effect of technological progress. Instead, he argues, the technology has been shaped by people with vested interests.
Internet service providers ... get to charge customers $20 to $30 a month for access to the Web's trove of free content and services. As a result, it is not in their interest to facilitate easy ways for media creators to charge for their content. Thus we have a world in which phone companies have accustomed kids to paying up to 20 cents when they send a text message, but it seems technologically and psychologically impossible to get people to pay 10 cents for a magazine, newspaper or newscast.
Isaacson longs for some iTunes-like service that would facilitate money-for-news transactions on the web. On a small scale, Amazon provides such a market for the users of its Kindle book-reader. I have no idea how much business it generates, but there are persistent rumors that Amazon will extend its market to users of more popular devices like the iPhone. With enough potential paying users, newspapers might be able to stop posting their content for free.

The retired editor of a Chicago-area weekly paper disputes Isaacson's point that newspapers need online subscription money, but agrees that newspapers like the Tribune have gotten distant from their readers:
our "local" daily ... lost its true local focus, that is, the town in which it is published. ... People living in its home city were deprived of beat reporters closely covering the city council, county government, and the school districts and other taxing bodies serving the paper’s community. Newspapers exist to provide news coverage, not feature stories or astrology charts or Dear Abby columns; news ought to ALWAYS be first. When Chicago papers were regularly scooping the local daily on local news, from the schools to the business community, alarm bells should have been going off all over the place, but they weren’t.
By contrast:
Our small independent weekly [newspaper] chain is still a money-maker, just like virtually all small weekly chains in areas that are either growing or have at least a stable population base. But over the years, we’ve seen profitable independent chain after chain bought out by the big boys, who come in and, in the name of "efficiency" and "economy" and (my all-time favorite) "better serving our readers," immediately cut out the things people buy local papers for: Local news coverage, particularly how property tax dollars are spent, meaning heavy school and municipal government coverage. After homogenizing the product into some sort of vanilla mess of features and canned columns, they profess surprise when the moneymaker they bought starts bleeding red ink and often has to be closed down.
Yet another retired editor, Tom Stites (I used to write for him at UU World, and we stay in touch), adds one more piece of the puzzle. Decades before the internet was a factor, newspapers had already abandoned a large segment of the population: the working class. Again, the reason has to do with advertising:
In this era of discount retailers like Wal-Mart that advertise very little, newspaper advertising tends to come from upscale retailers. Responding to the wishes of these advertisers, publishers no longer want nonaffluent readers. Over the last three decades, newspapers have increasingly reflected that.
When Stites was starting out in the 60s, local dailies aimed to sell their paper to everyone in the community -- 100% penetration. He worked at Newsday when it achieved 85% penetration. But when Stites was an editor at the Chicago Tribune in the 80s, the target audience was only the most affluent 40%. That's become typical.

Change the target audience and you change how the news is covered. When working-class unemployment rises or hourly wages drop, today's newspapers first consider how this will effect the stock market. You see occasional stories about the 40-odd million Americans who lack health insurance, but hardly any stories addressed to them -- how to get inexpensive coverage, which emergency rooms treat the uninsured fairly, what to do when you have a hospital bill you can't pay, and so on.

So the working class has few journalists working for them, and a lot working on them. That, Stites says, is the right answer to Thomas Franks' question "What's the matter with Kansas?" Joe Sixpack is uninformed and easily exploited because no one is trying to inform him and many people are trying to exploit him. The information he needs and cares about is hard to come by.

Stites believes that working-class people would pay for journalism that served them, if the price were reasonable. Internet technology combined with a new model of the editor/reporter/reader relationship might bring those costs down into the right neighborhood. That's the vision of his Banyan Project, which is still in its formative stages. (I'm listed as an advisor, but so far my advice mostly sounds like: "That's really cool.") (And speaking of me, I have to link to my Confessions of a Blogger somewhere in this article.)

Another effort to connect professional journalists to readers, without advertisers, is You can register at as a reader or a journalist. Readers express their interests, and journalists respond by pitching stories the way they would ordinarily pitch a story to an editor. The pitch comes with a price tag: A study of wealth and poverty in San Francisco, for example, costs $900. Readers can pledge any amount, and as of this morning the story had $342 pledged. If the $900 is reached, the story is commissioned, the pledgers send their money, and the journalist is paid to write his story.

Yet another vision of the future of journalism is Business Week's Business Exchange web site. Most of the content comes from readers, as on a group blog. BW's staff of business reporters shifts to a curating role: They frame issues and manage the discussion rather than report the story.

First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage, Then ...
Tuesday it was reported that Hillary and Julie Goodridge, the lead plaintiffs in the Massachusetts same-sex marriage case of 2003, had filed for divorce.

Ordinarily I might not cover this story, but by pure coincidence I met Hillary Goodridge this week. We serve together on a committee unrelated to gay rights. I had talked to her on the phone several times, but Thursday our committee got together for an all-day meeting in Boston, so we finally spent time in the same room. I like her. She has an engaging sense of humor and is fun to hang around with.

So anyway, thinking of Hillary as a real person rather than a national symbol, I read the news stories with a different eye. I grumbled at the predictable snarkiness of the Catholic News Agency, which always had to put scare quotes around the Goodridges' "marriage".

But Kris Mineau of the Massachusetts Family Institute really took the cake. Mineau describes his organizaton as "the leading voice for traditional family values in Massachusetts." I'm guessing that two of those family values are vindictiveness and self-centeredness. More than five years after the Goodridges won their case, Mineau still carries a grudge. News of the divorce causes him to reflect on "the pain this couple has caused the commonwealth and the nation." He concludes: "Obviously, they don't hold the institution [of marriage] in very high regard."

Think about that: Somebody else's divorce causes Mineau to think about the pain they have caused him. (What pain? I'm a month away from my 25th anniversary and I can't guess.) And regard for marriage? The Goodridges spent years of their lives fighting for their right to marry. If it was all just a stunt, something they weren't taking seriously, they wouldn't have to bother with the mess of a divorce. They could just laugh it off and move on.

No, it was a real marriage and it's ending in a real divorce, as many marriages do. If you're a person with any compassion in your soul, it's a time for sadness and sympathy.

Both the CNA and the Christian Post segued from the Goodridge divorce to a child custody case in Virginia: Two women (who I suspect are also real people and not just names in a newspaper) had a civil union in Vermont. A child was born. Later, the biological mother converted to an evangelical Christian sect, declared herself an "ex-lesbian", and took the child to Virginia. Vermont ruled that the other partner had visitation rights. The biological mother is suing in Virginia, claiming that Virginia state law nullifies any rights that come from same-sex relationships recognized by other states.

As you would expect, the CP story is one-sided, repeating the claims of the evangelical woman without any response from her former partner. (Picture reporting a contentious heterosexual custody case that way.) Clearly, the article is intended to evoke a "that's just wrong" response from its readers.

But resist your gut impulses for a moment and think about the underlying principle: What if anybody who didn't like their custody arrangement could just move the child to a state with more favorable rules and get the case re-opened? Chaos would break out. If there are any legitimate issues about the welfare of the child here, Vermont can handle them. The only reason to involve Virginia is to take advantage of its bigotry against homosexuals.

The evangelical woman's belief that she's protecting her daughter from an evil lifestyle complicates matters. But the my-ex-is-evil argument shows up in heterosexual custody cases all the time. Maybe one parent converts to a pacifist religion and the other is a soldier, or one is raising the child vegan (or kosher) and the other serves bacon-and-egg breakfasts. Yeah, it's messy, but that's how custody cases are.

Short Notes
Now you know it's gotten bad: Rhode Island is thinking of bailing out a casino.

Here's some data to support what I was saying last week about Rush Limbaugh: He's unpopular among anybody but the far right. According to Gallup, Limbaugh has a 28% favorable rating with a 45% unfavorable rating. If Democrats make him the face of the Republican Party, Republicans are in trouble.

I usually try to ignore Glenn Beck, but he really went off his meds this time.

You missed Ice Cream For Breakfast Day again, didn't you? It's the first Saturday in February, every year. I celebrated at Jake's in Amherst, NH. I didn't wear my pajamas, but I did try the bacon ice cream. It was too weird for my taste buds to sort out. First I'd taste the bacon, then the ice cream, then the bacon again. I couldn't pull it together.

An Egyptian author comments on President Obama's outreach to the Muslim world:
Mr. Obama has been silent [on Israel's recent invasion of Gaza]. So his brilliantly written Inaugural Speech did not leave a big impression on Egyptians. We had already begun to tune out. We were beginning to recognize how far the distance is between the great American values that Mr. Obama embodies, and what can actually be accomplished in a country where support for Israel seems to transcend human rights and international law. ... [N]o matter how many envoys, speeches or interviews Mr. Obama offers to us, he will not win the hearts and minds of Egyptians until he takes up the injustice in the Middle East.

Unindicted war criminal John Yoo thinks Obama's approach to terrorism (i.e. obey the law) is "rash" and "naive", and that he "may have opened the door to further terrorist acts on U.S. soil by shattering some of the nation's most critical defenses." Vyan on DailyKos takes Yoo's article apart line by line.

Glenn Greenwald wonders why the media's he-kept-us-safe excuse for Bush's policies is never applied to Spain. After the 2004 Madrid bombing, Spain pulled its troops out of Iraq and tried the bombers in ordinary courts under the rule of law (convicting 21). No bombings since.

UN torture expert Manfred Nowak reminds Obama that it's his treaty obligation to prosecute the people who ordered torture. WaPo's Richard Cohen, on the other hand, warns us "not to punish those who did what we wanted done." Glenn Greenwald disagrees:
this "ignore-the-past-and-forget-retribution" rationale is invoked by our media elites only for a tiny, special class of people -- our political leaders -- while the exact opposite rationale ("ignore their lame excuses, lock them up and throw away the key") is applied to everyone else. That, by definition, is what a "two-tiered system of
justice" means and that, more than anything else, is what characterizes (and sustains) deeply corrupt political systems.
One guy is going to trial: The Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at President Bush. Numerous reports say he has been beaten while in custody. He faces a maximum possible sentence (for "assaulting a foreign leader") of 15 years.
Hilzoy explains rendition and Obama's new policy on it.
One of the crazier aspects of the stimulus debate was listening to Republican senators -- people with government jobs -- deny the existence of government jobs. Driftglass ridicules RNC Chair Michael Steele's claim that "a job is something that a business owner creates." Soldier, firefighter, teacher, police -- I always thought those were jobs, not some kind of welfare.

Is this worse than other recent recessions? Yes.

DailyKos has spun off the blog Congress Matters. If you find yourself wondering about some arcane detail of the legislative process, this is the place to go. For example: Why did the stimulus bill need 60 votes in the Senate? It turns out the reason has nothing to do with filibusters.

And I'm sure all regular Sifters will want to use Cathoogle, "the best way for good Catholics to surf the web."

I'm of two minds about what Thomas Ricks is saying as he promotes his new Iraq-war book, The Gamble. I'm glad somebody is saying this:
A lot of people back here incorrectly think the war is over. ... None of the basic problems that the Surge was meant to solve have been solved. ... The Surge succeeded militarily, failed politically. ... Iraqis used the breathing space the Surge provided to step backwards, to become more divided.
But at the same time Ricks takes for granted that we must continue to spend American blood and treasure until Iraq is stable. That's McCain's why-not-100-years view. I stand by what I wrote in 2005, when we had lost less than half the soldiers we have lost now:
Not even America is so rich and so powerful that we can indulge such expensive fantasies indefinitely. We can leave Iraq now, or we can leave after our losses have grown. That is the only choice we have.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Can We Leave Nixonland Now?

Yet even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America - there's the United States of America.
In this week's Sift ... the theme is partisanship. Barack Obama became famous by calling on America to unite and rise above it. In a campaign based on hope and change, that was perhaps the change that Americans hoped for most, the one that made Obama president. Is there any chance he can deliver on it?
  • The Next Time You're in the Bookstore ... look for Nixonland by Rick Perlstein. In addition to being the best explanation of the partisan divide that I've seen, it's a fascinating retelling of the tumultuous period between Johnson's Democratic landslide in 1964 and Nixon's Republican landslide in 1972.
  • Two Weeks. That's how long it has been since George Bush's last day as president. A brief recap of what we've seen since then.
  • Obama Chooses His Opponent Carefully: Rush Limbaugh. Rush Limbaugh is emerging as the voice and face of the Republican Party. But that's because the Democrats are choosing him, and the Republicans can't afford to offend his audience.
  • Short Notes. Rachel Maddow has no TV. The credit crunch of 33 AD. Blaming God for a Super Bowl loss. And talent appears off the beaten path.

The Next Time You're in the Bookstore ...
... look for Nixonland by Rick Perlstein. Perlstein's key insight is that the rift between Red America and Blue America begins with Richard Nixon. In the Johnson-over-Goldwater landslide of 1964, America seemed to have reached consensus around an idealistic liberal agenda: end poverty, rebuild the cities, give Negroes the full rights of citizenship, and much more. A mere eight years later, Nixon's landslide re-election over McGovern exploited a broad-based resentment of all the groups who supported or benefited from that agenda: liberals, blacks, intellectuals, peaceniks, hippies, feminists, and anyone else whose patriotism was considered suspect. Nixonland is the story of those eight years.

The title is significant and well-chosen. The book isn't called Nixon, because while Nixon is at the center of this change, the book isn't really about him. It's about Nixonland, which Perlstein defines as: "the America where two separate and irreconcilable sets of apocalyptic fears coexist in the minds of two separate and irreconcilable groups of Americans." The word itself was coined during the 1956 campaign, when Nixon was Eisenhower's vice president and John Kenneth Galbraith wrote speeches for Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson:
In one direction lies a land of slander and scare; the land of sly innuendo, the poison pen, the anonymous phone call and hustling, pushing, shoving; this is the land of smash and grab and anything to win. This is Nixonland. America is something different.
One event from Nixon's college days provides a metaphor that stretches throughout the book. When Nixon arrived, Whittier College politics was dominated by an in-group known as the Franklins. Nixon became class president by establishing an out-group, the Orthogonians (literally at a right angle to the in-group), and cashing in on their resentment of the Franklins.
The Orthogonians' base was among Whittier's athletes. On the surface, jocks seem natural Franklins, the Big Men on Campus. But Nixon always had a gift for looking under the social surfaces to see and exploit the subterranean truths that roiled underneath. It was an eminently Nixonian insight: that on every sports team there are only a couple of stars, and that if you want to win the loyalty of the team for yourself, the surest, if least glamorous strategy, is to concentrate on the nonspectacular -- silent -- majority.
Nixonland is the extension of this insight from Whittier to all of America. To pull it off, Nixon needed to properly identify America's Franklins. He did, and his insight sticks today: The resented Franklins are not the rich (like John McCain) or well-born (like George W. Bush), but rather the sophisticated -- the people with silver tongues and Harvard degrees (like Barack Obama). The Franklins are people who think they know better than you, people who make you feel ignorant or stupid. They're elitists. They're celebrities. Orthogonians, on the other hand, don't have a lot of book-knowledge or the kind of experience that comes from foreign travel or from learning other languages and cultures. But they have small-town values. They're hockey moms. Their good hearts (not their legal expertise) qualify them for the Supreme Court.

Resentment against the sophisticated Franklins has been carefully cultivated ever since, and was on display often during the fall campaign.

Nixon's diabolical cleverness was matched by liberal blindness. One blind spot was about Nixon himself: Liberals had to admit that some people agreed with Nixon, but still couldn't believe that anyone liked Nixon. (There's a similar Palin blind spot today.) But the more serious blind spot was this:
It is a lesson of the sixties: liberals get in the biggest political trouble -- whether instituting open housing, civilian complaint review boards, or sex education programs -- when they presume that a reform is an inevitable concomitant of progress. It is then that they are most likely to establish their reforms by top-down bureaucratic means. A blindsiding backlash often ensues.
They/we are too quick to assume that all intelligent well-informed people will see that they/we are right, and that no one else matters. The no-one-else-matters part is a fat pitch that Nixons have been hitting out of the park for almost half a century. Another lesson of the sixties is that liberals do not understand working-class patriotism. Americans identify with their country and will resist anyone who seems to be attacking it. Bad news about America -- whether it's My Lai or Abu Ghraib -- has to be presented carefully, sadly rather than angrily. The perpetrators of such atrocities are an us, not a them.

Nixon's insight crystallized when New York construction workers attacked an anti-war demonstration in 1969. Organized labor had been a key component of the Democratic coalition, and Republicans could not afford to alienate their corporate backers by appealing to workers' economic interests. But if the white working class might vote on identity issues -- short-hairs vs. long-hairs, pro-American workers vs. anti-American hippies and intellectuals -- then economic appeals wouldn't be necessary. That in a nutshell is the red/blue divide.

Violence is another of the book's running themes. The sixties are remembered largely for left-wing violence, but Perlstein carefully documents the much more pervasive right-wing violence. Left-wing violence had a man-bites-dog quality that made it newsworthy. But the race riots, for example, were usually touched off by some egregious example of the everyday police abuse that was taken for granted in that era. One of the later Watts riots began when a black man was stopped for speeding and killed in front of his wife because he argued too vociferously. The speeding and arguing had a simple explanation: the wife was in labor and Watts had no hospital. White-on-black violence was often provoked by an "aggressive" act like moving into a white neighborhood or sending a child to a white school. The Walker Commission later characterized the violence at the 1968 Democratic Convention as a "police riot". Nonetheless, the "law and order" theme that developed was conservative code for cracking down on blacks and peaceniks, not on police, lynch mobs, or construction workers -- much less on state governments that defied the law's promise of equal protection for citizens of all races.

Perlstein himself (born in 1969) has no personal memories of this era, but his book is steeped not just in the political history, but the social history as well. Apparently he has paged through every relevant copy of Life, watched all the movies, and listened to all the songs. (Occasionally, as George Will's review notes, he gets something wrong. Straw Dogs, for example, was not a western.) For someone who did live through the era -- I had just turned 7 when JFK was assassinated and had a precocious interest in politics -- the book provides a continuous shock of recognition. It's easy to forget how many events got packed into a small space, and even today the memories still come with a soundtrack: Vietnam (both pro and con), the Summer of Love, the King and Kennedy assassinations, Woodstock, antiwar demonstrations, Kent State, the Chicago 7 trial, the backlash against it all, and much, much more.

The question Perlstein never answers is: How can we leave Nixonland? That seems to me to be the key question of the Obama administration. Will further attempts to polarize America start to fall flat now? Or will we just run the script again, with a new generation of Franklins telling a new generation of Orthogonians that their country is bad, and that their feelings and beliefs and opinions don't matter, because the facts (if they would only bother to learn them) are on our side?

Two Weeks
Believe it or not, this is the first Sift of the Obama administration. I took last week off, and two weeks ago George Bush was still president. Let's recap.
  • The House and Senate have both passed expansions of the S-CHIP program that provides health insurance to children. Bush twice vetoed similar bills; Obama is expected to sign it any day now.
  • He already signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to send a message "that there are no second class citizens in our workplaces, and that it's not just unfair and illegal - but bad for business - to pay someone less because of their gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion or disability."
  • Blackwater's contract to protect U.S. diplomats is not being renewed. Bye-bye, trigger-happy mercenaries.
  • Executive orders will lead to an increase in fuel efficiency standards for the 2011 model year, and will allow states (like California -- whose request Bush had blocked) to tighten emissions standards on cars.
  • Obama rolled back a Bush executive order that allowed past presidents to keep their papers secret, and instead assigns the responsibility for secrecy decisions to the National Archivist.
  • Lobbyists will have to wait longer before taking government positions related to companies who paid them.
  • Obama called for a 120-day freeze on the show trials at Guantanamo, giving him time to figure out better system.
  • He asked his generals to plan for "a responsible military drawdown" in Iraq.
  • He gave an interview to the Al Arabiya network telling Muslims that "America is not your enemy."
Right now the focus in on the stimulus bill, which (despite many compromises) got zero Republican votes in the House, but passed anyway. Basically, the debate comes down to this: Democrats want to stimulate by having the government spend money; Republicans want to stimulate by cutting taxes, particularly rich people's taxes (because we haven't been trying that already for eight years).

The Republican plan is based on supply-side economics, which boils down to the idea that lower taxes motivate people to try harder to make money. The problem with this theory is easy to explain: Economics has two main motivators -- greed and fear. Booms are dominated by greed; busts by fear. Supply-side economics is greed-based economics, and it describes pretty well how an economy will behave during a boom: Investors and entrepreneurs are just dying to buy more stocks and start more businesses, so if you give them an extra dollar, they'll use it as collateral to borrow three more and invest it in something.

But in a bust, supply-side economics doesn't work at all, because fear is dominant. Investors aren't even trying to make money, really. They're just trying not to lose their shirts. Cut the capital gains tax and most of them will say, "Blast from the past! I remember capital gains."

That's why the studies Republicans cite now to support a tax cut are all inverted in one way or another. The study shows, say, that raising taxes costs the economy jobs -- so they draw the conclusion that cutting taxes will create jobs in an equal and opposite way. Hidden in that mirror-image reasoning is the assumption that greed will magically replace fear. But it won't. Fearful people will sit on their tax cut, and do nothing to stimulate the economy.

Obama Chooses His Opponent Carefully: Rush Limbaugh
In this period where the Republican Party seems rudderless and faceless, Democrats are happily promoting Rush Limbaugh as the opposition's true leader. It's a little like what the Republicans tried to do with Michael Moore a few years back. Obama himself kicked it off January 23rd. In addition to a number of carrots, Obama's plea for congressional bipartisanship on the stimulus bill contained this hint of a stick: “You can’t just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done.”

Limbaugh, naturally, is doing what he does, saying things like: "We are being told that we have to hope [Obama] succeeds, that we have to bend over, grab the ankles, bend over forward, backward, whichever, because his father was black, because this is the first black president." And: "So I shamelessly say, no, I want him to fail."

The American people are (justifiably) scared right now, and most of us don't want to hear stuff like this. So Republican Congressman Phil Gingrey tried to distance himself from it, telling Politico: "it’s easy if you’re Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh or even sometimes Newt Gingrich to stand back and throw bricks. You don’t have to try to do what’s best for your people and your party." But the next day "because of the high volume of phone calls and correspondence received by my office since the Politico article ran" he had to back down: "I see eye-to-eye with Rush Limbaugh ... Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich, and other conservative giants are the voices of the conservative movement’s conscience."

I don't remember Michael Moore getting any similar apologies. Maybe Rush Limbaugh is the leader of the Republican Party.

Now, after House Republicans voted 177-0 against the stimulus bill (and Fox News gave Limbaugh credit), Americans United for Change has upped the ante a little: They're running ads targeting Republican senators: "Will Senator ____ side with Limbaugh too? ...
or will he reject the partisanship and failed economic policies of the past, and stand up for the people of ____."

Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker interprets all this as Obama taking Limbaugh's bait, and warns: "Never let rabble-rousers get under your skin -- especially those whose popularity in some circles compares favorably with your own and whose earnings make bailed-out bank presidents envious."

But Obama knows exactly what he's doing. The "some circles" where Limbaugh is more popular than Obama are all on the far right. The secret of Republican success the last few decades has been to court these extremists in ways that the general populace wouldn't see. But if Limbaugh becomes the face of the Republican Party nationally, they will lose big -- and they know it.

The lesson here is that Obama realizes he can't just unilaterally disarm in the red/blue wars. It remains to be seen whether he can wind the battle down. The Limbaugh gambit isn't a direct attack on Republicans, it's a shot across the bow. "Don't go there," he's warning them. But what if they do anyway?

They Don't Make Male Chauvinist Pigs Like They Used To. Another candidate Democrats could push as the face of the Republican Party is former House Majority Leader Dick Armey. Near the end of a discussion (about Limbaugh's influence) with Salon editor Joan Walsh on MSNBC's Hardball Wednesday, a frustrated Armey said: "I am so damn glad that you could never be my wife, 'cause I surely wouldn't have to listen to that prattle from you every day." (A bonus on that clip: You get to hear a tape of Rep. Gingrey groveling on Limbaugh's show.)

Young people won't remember, but this kind of remark was actually considered a clever comeback around 1970, when the patriarchs figured that the Women's Liberation fad would burn itself out before long. They were sure that (deep down) successful women like Joan Walsh really wanted to trade it all to marry powerful men like Dick Armey. Pointing out that this dream could never come true was supposed to be devastating. (Walsh seems strikingly undevastated.)

A new poll shows that Republicans believe their party has been too moderate these last eight years. Good luck with that, guys.

Jon Stewart summarizes the conservative reaction to the first day of the Obama administration.

Limbaugh's appearance on Sean Hannity's show (transcript part 1, part 2) included many other noteworthy quotes, including this Nixonlandish one:
We're a country comprised of human beings that the Democrat Party and the left have attempted to arrange into groups of victims, and that's who [Obama] appeals to ... You put people into groups then you victimize them and give the victims power over the majority because they, they have grievances that ... have been made up, and the majority gets cowed into fear because they don't want to be complained at.
So, America, don't be cowed. Join Rush and strike back at those so-called "victims" and their made-up grievances.

Short Notes
It's no big secret that I'm a Rachel Maddow fan. I love the interview that 60 Minutes host Lesley Stahl did with her. Especially this part:
LESLEY: I have to ask you something that is apropos of absolutely nothing. But I did hear that you do not own a television set. It’s true, right?
LESLEY: Yes. So before we get very far, I want to ask you if you have the foggiest idea who the hell I am.
RACHEL: I’ve Googled you extensively. Don’t worry.

Here's a parody of the athletes who thank Jesus for their victories: Kurt Warner: "God is to blame for this loss."

Thomas Ricks recalls how the Emperor Tiberius handled the credit crunch of 33 A.D. Part of his program is very familiar -- he loaned the banks a vast sum of money. But he raised that money in a novel way: by trumping up an incest charge against a very wealthy man, seizing his assets, and having him thrown off the Tarpeian Rock. "It makes me think Wall Street is getting off easy," Ricks comments.

One of the big myths of our society is that talent is scarce. So whenever I travel it does my heart good to pick up the local free papers and remember just how much good writing is hidden in small venues. Last week I happened across Flagstaff Live, where I found an engaging account of fighting crime with cans of beer, and a mother's meditation on her daughter's (false) complaint that there's no food in the house. I also liked the Slowpoke cartoon: "First they came for the record stores, and I said nothing, because I could download for free. Then ..."