Monday, March 30, 2009

Knitting the Afghans Together

A government that is losing to an insurgency is not being outfought, it is being outgoverned.
-- attributed to Bernard Fall in The Accidental Guerrilla by David Kilcullen

In this week's Sift:
  • Obama's New Afghanistan Policy. I read The Accidental Guerrilla to get a handle on the ideas behind it.
  • Looming Right-wing Violence II: Bachman Overdrive. Did you know that Obama is about to replace the dollar with a global one-world currency? That we need a revolution if we're not going to lose our country? That the American people should be armed and dangerous? That we have to make a stand here, because there are no other free countries in the world? Me neither, but Congresswoman Michelle Bachman knows these things. And she's taken seriously by the right-wing media.
  • Short Notes. A not-so-happy anniversary for the labor movement. Trash-talk about Michelle Obama. Big Agriculture wants pesticides on the White House garden. Cool British names. An AIG executive's appeal for sympathy. And more.

Obama's New Afghanistan Policy
For years, the Afghan War has been like a godmotherless Cinderella. This is the deserving war, the one whose connection to 9/11 was more than just propaganda. And yet our effort in Afghanistan has had to scrimp along with whatever resources we had left after showering everything on its undeserving step-sister, Iraq.

Now the Obama administration is trying to change course in Afghanistan, using many of the same counter-insurgency ideas behind the Surge in Iraq. It's way too early to tell how well this will turn out, but in an effort to understand at least what it's trying to accomplish, I've been reading the new book The Accidental Guerrilla by counter-insurgency guru David Kilcullen.

Kilcullen, an Australian on loan to the U.S. military, doesn't pigeonhole neatly as a liberal or conservative. For example, he writes things like this:
Iraq represents a cautionary example of exactly the type of conflict we need to avoid if we wish to successfully defeat the threat of takfiri* terrorism. ... The Surge worked: but in the final analysis, it was an effort to save ourselves from the more desperate consequences of a situation we should never have gotten ourselves into.
*[takfiri is Kilcullen's chosen label for al Qaeda's beliefs. Literally, it refers to the willingness to change another person's religion by force. He prefers this term to jihadi or mujahidin because those words have positive connotations in Muslim culture -- just as crusader has a positive connotation in the West. But Takfirism is recognized as a heresy by most Muslims.]

The easiest way I can think to explain Kilcullen's approach is to describe what he thinks we've been doing wrong in the Global War on Terror so far.

Killing Bad Guys Instead of Protecting the People. Kilcullen refers to our previous strategy as the "enemy-centered" approach. The problem: Smart enemies lead you on a merry chase through vulnerable areas, and you get blamed for the trail of destruction left behind. The people turn against you, and the enemy is able to recruit far more fighters than you've been able to kill. (Kilcullen's "accidental guerrillas" are the people whose concerns are local or personal, but who get swept up into the global insurgency by the course of events.)

What's more, insurgents only need occasional access to a village in order to intimidate its leaders into cooperation. Local leaders will side with the central government over the insurgents only if they are convinced that the government can protect them 24/7. So rather than sending troops out on search-and-destroy missions, Kilcullen wants them close to the villages where people can see them as protectors rather than raiders.

Helping the Enemy Unite. When we lump all the "bad guys" together, as the Bush administration did with its war-on-terror rhetoric, we give our enemies a unity that otherwise they would be hard pressed to achieve. Bin Laden is the one who wants to make One Big War out of the Chechan conflict, the Palestinian insurgency, the struggle for Kashmir, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Danish Mohammed cartoons, the French headscarf controversy, and so forth. Al Qaeda wants to convince every Muslim with a grievance against his local government that he is a victim of American/Zionist/Western imperialism. We should be trying to dis-aggregate these conflicts, and separate the al Qaeda global insurgency from the local and personal issues ("they killed my cousin") that cause the masses to take up arms.

Even worse than the Bush administration are the right-wingers who argue that Islam is the enemy. (More extreme version here.) Muslims haven't been united since the era of the Arabian Nights, but we might be able to unify them if we declare Islam to be the enemy. Heck, why stop there? Why not declare Allah to be the enemy?

Using Firepower Instead of Troops. This is the classic imperial mistake. When you aren't willing to commit enough troops to fight an insurgency, it's very tempting to compensate by blowing more stuff up. When you outnumber the insurgents, you can take them out at relatively close quarters, and maybe only kill the people who are actually shooting at you. But if they outnumber you, you're more likely to call in an air strike against a sniper and maybe kill a few dozen innocents -- all of whom have relatives who may decide they now are now honor-bound to take revenge on you.

Believing the Lines on Our Maps. Here's one thing Afghanistan and Iraq have in common: The British drew the border, and it signifies nothing. The dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan (around 40% of the population) is the Pashtuns, and the border with Pakistan (the Durand Line, named for the Brit who drew it) cuts right through their territory. So you've got 26 million Pashtuns in Pakistan and 13 million in Afghanistan, more or less.

Kilcullen argues that the Taliban is not so much an Afghan or Pakistani or Muslim insurgency as it is a Pashtun insurgency. We overthrew the Taliban in 2001 by backing the Northern Alliance, made up mostly of Tajiks and Uzbeks. (You can visualize the situation by looking at Wikipedia's demographic map of Afghanistan: the Tajiks and Uzbeks are in the north, the Pashtuns in the south, next to Pakistan.) So the quest for an Afghan solution is hopeless without a Pashtun solution that includes the 26 million in Pakistan.

You can see all these ideas represented in one way or another in the Obama plan: more troops, a regional Afghan/Pakistani framing, more talk about protecting the population. I find myself convinced this far: If you're going to fight the Afghan War at all, this is how you have to do it.

The problem is that it's a long hard slog. The enemy-centered strategy projected the mirage that we might kill all our enemies quickly and be done. (Seven years after capturing Kabul, we've killed a lot of people, but we're no closer to being done.) Kilcullen's counter-insurgency provides no similar short-term hope. Ten years from now, maybe well-functioning Afghan and Pakistani governments have won their people's trust and can survive on their own. But how much blood and gold should we be willing to spend on that outcome? What's the alternative if we don't?

Juan Cole doesn't like either Obama's new plan or the argument he makes for it. My Kindle has Cole's new book Engaging the Muslim World on it, and I'll report soon.

This bit of news from Iraq is really bad, and has implications for our counter-insurgency strategy in general: Forces of the (Shia-dominated) Iraqi government are clashing with the Sunni militias of the Iraq Awakening.

The Surge of 2007 took advantage of a developing split between al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the Iraqi Sunni tribes. (In Kilcullen's terms, it separated the global insurgents from the accidental guerrillas.) Before 2007 they had been on the same side, fighting an insurgency against the US invasion and the new Shia government in Baghdad. But there had always been a tension between them. The tribes want local autonomy and the ability to live by their own traditions. AQI wants a global caliphate enforcing sharia law. (By analogy, imagine scripture-based Christian fundamentalists in, say, Guatamala dealing with a culture where Catholicism has absorbed local pagan traditions.) When several issues boiled over into violence, the tribal leaders started believing that AQI was a bigger long-term threat to them than the Americans were.

Short-term, flipping the tribes from AQI's side to ours gave us the local allies we had always needed in the Sunni areas, and went a long way towards racheting down the violence in Iraq. But the broader political settlement between Sunni and Shia has never happened. (That subtlety gets lost in those arguments about whether the Surge "worked".) Our improved relationship with the Sunni tribes has not developed into an improved relationship between them and the Baghdad government, as it was supposed to.

If this goes back to civil war, as it might, we're in the difficult position of arming both sides.

Looming Right-wing Violence II: Bachman Overdrive
Two weeks ago I wrote about how the Right responds to despair with fantasies of violence while the Left responds with fantasies of escape. Case in point: Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachman (the one who in October called for an inquisition into whether other congresspeople were pro-American or anti-American). A week ago Saturday, she talked in a radio interview about wanting the American people to be "armed and dangerous" because
Thomas Jefferson told us, having a revolution every now and then is a good thing. And the people - we the people - are going to have to fight back hard if we're not going to lose our country.
OK, a spokesman walked that back a little, saying she was talking metaphorically about being armed with information about outrages like Obama's cap-and-trade proposal to combat global warming. (So, we're going to "lose our country" if we have to reduce our carbon footprint?) Then Wednesday she's talking to Sean Hannity and goes off again. More about "revolution" against Obama's "economic Marxism." Escape? No way:
Do we get into an inner tube and float 90 miles to some free country? There is no free country for us to repair to. That's why it's up to us now.
If you're a right-wing loony, that's the problem in a nutshell: Every other country that isn't a hellhole is more liberal than we are. Bachman's state borders Canada -- she could get there without an inner tube. But if liberalism means slavery, then Canada, Denmark, New Zealand ... they're not free countries. There's no place to run. America is the Alamo.

Bachman's spinmeisters can reinterpret her however they want. But when it becomes clear that they're not getting their way, people who really believe what she's saying are going to get violent.

Let there be fear. Bachman was one of several Republicans fear-mongering this week about a conspiracy to replace the dollar with a "one world currency". ThinkProgress notes not just Bachman, but also Senator Jim DeMint, Glenn Beck, and Karl Rove pushing the story. Numerous claims have been made that somebody -- Tim Geithner, the Chinese, the Russians, etc. -- are advocating a one-world currency. But when you chase down the references, no one is proposing anything of the kind. Like the God of Genesis, the conservative noise machine has created this story from nothing. Matt Yglesias explains.

Another manufactured story recently made the trip from right-wing-talking-point to the mainstream media: something about Obama and teleprompters. Bob Cesca summarizes the non-issue, and DailyKosTV demonstrates how widespread the non-story suddenly is.

Let's think this through: A teleprompter is a way for a speaker to deliver a prepared text; it replaces papers on a lecturn. Making an issue out of Obama's teleprompter is supposed to frame him as a mere mouthpiece for whoever is writing the text.

But does Obama rely on prepared texts more than other recent presidents? In fact, the exact opposite is true. Unlike Bush, Obama exposes himself to uncontrolled interactions. Bush only appeared in front of friendly audiences, and only hand-picked people got to ask him questions in public. In press conferences, Bush would repeat the same talking points over and over, because that was all he knew. But President Obama can answer reporters' questions with a detailed exposition of his point of view, and holds town-hall meetings that people get into on a first-come first-served basis. (The crowds are mostly pro-Obama because those are the kinds of people who will wait in line all night to see him, not because they've been hand-picked.) That means he sometimes has to answer hostile or wacky questions -- something Bush would never do.

Short Notes
The next time somebody tells you that workers don't need unions or governments to protect them, because industry can regulate itself -- don't argue with them, teach them some history. Wednesday was the 98th anniversary of one the pivotal events in the American labor movement: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City. 146 of the 500 employees died -- mostly young women, mostly from Jewish or Italian immigrant families, some as young as 15. Many of the factory's exit doors were routinely locked to keep workers from sneaking out early. They stayed locked during the fire. Cornell University's online archives tell the story.

No one should kid themselves that this couldn't happen again today if workers had only their bosses' goodwill to protect them. The Kader Toy Factory Fire in Thailand in 1993 was even worse. There, rural Thai girls new to the big city made stuffed animals for delivery to American companies like Disney and Mattel. (You may own one.) Piles of stuffing were everywhere, and they went up fast. Again, exit doors were locked. Don McGlashan wrote a song about it.

Just in case your blood pressure is still too low, listen to this 2-minute clip from Tammy Bruce, who was the guest host on Laura Ingraham's right-wing talk-radio show. She starts by ridiculing a tape of Michelle Obama talking to kids in a D.C. classroom, and concludes with "We've got trash in the White House."

Bruce went on to defend herself here, claiming that the "trash" comment was mild compared to what Democrats said about President Bush -- like calling him a "war criminal". Let me explain two differences. First, this is the president's wife, not the president. If the Left ever abused Laura Bush like this, I missed it. Somebody's going to have to play me a tape before I'll believe we did.

Second, I'm one of the people who called President Bush a war criminal, which I admit is a seriously negative thing to say about a person. I said it -- and continue to say it -- because he has claimed responsibility for authorizing specific acts (waterboarding three Guantanamo detainees, for example) that are recognized internationally as war crimes. So, "Bush is a war criminal" is an assertion about facts, which opponents can dispute by citing other facts, if they have them. I'd love to see Bush dispute the claim in court.

Calling Michelle Obama "trash", on the other hand, is just a gratuitous insult. It serves no purpose other than to raise hate. Is that clear enough?
Another place where Michelle is drawing fire: She has broken ground on an organic garden to supply fresh produce for the White House kitchen. Seems harmless at worst, right? Well, not to Big Agriculture. A trade group has started a letter-writing campaign to convince her to use pesticides, or "crop protection products" as the industry now calls them.

She's the Limit. British people just have cooler names than we do. After 9/11, I envied the UK for having a foreign secretary whose name sounded like the plucky hero of a fairy tale: Jack Straw. (Now he's Lord High Chancellor Jack Straw. How cool is that?) And then there's their attorney general, Patricia Scotland -- that'd be like us appointing Captain America or maybe Joe Montana. But the latest great name I've run across is the British woman who is General Odierno's political advisor in Iraq: Emma Sky.

Speaking of Lady Scotland -- I'm still trying to picture a U.S. attorney general named Lord Vermont or something -- she has asked police to investigate charges that British officials colluded with the U.S. in torturing a British citizen at Guantanamo. Apparently the British have something they call "the rule of law" that forces them to investigate things that look like crimes -- even if the government would rather not. Weird. And Spain is part of this rule-of-law fad as well: It's thinking about indicting several Bush officials.

I wonder: Will Dick Cheney's book tour make any stops in London or Madrid?
Oh, and this just in: More reports that torture didn't accomplish anything.

John Shimkus, the Republican Congressman from the Illinois district just south and east of where I grew up, on why he opposes limiting carbon emissions: "So if we decrease the use of carbon dioxide, are we not taking away plant food from the atmosphere?" He's serious.

Portfolio magazine has an interesting article on how Governor Palin has bungled the natural-gas pipeline she bragged about during the campaign. Apparently, she has a tendency to do things that sound good without thinking them through. Who could have guessed?

Glenn Greenwald argues that decriminalizing drugs is working in Portugal.

The "sexting" controversy -- teens using their cellphone cameras to send naked pictures of themselves to their friends -- is getting even weirder. Now sexting teens are being prosecuted for child pornography. In other words, the law that was supposed to protect an underage girl from exploitation is now being used to prosecute her for exploiting herself. But if we start using the laws that way -- if anything that would be illegal for somebody to do to you is also illegal for you to do to yourself -- then I think a lot of us committed sex crimes in our teen years.

Apparently the ACLU isn't happy about this either.

A longer article on the economy is overdue, but got squeezed out again this week. (I try to keep the Sift's length down.) In the meantime, Jake DeSantis' resignation letter from AIG -- which was at the top of the NYT's most-read articles list all day Tuesday -- underlined the cultural divide between the financial community and the rest of us.

DeSantis is bitter about being villainized for receiving a bonus. He wasn't involved in the activities that destroyed the company. He has lost money in the collapse of AIG stock. He works very hard. He agreed to work for $1 a year in expectation of a bonus. And now he's being pressured to return the $742K he got. He's so bitter he's going to quit and give the after-tax portion of his bonus to charity.

He was doing great until he mentioned the amount. Ordinary Americans understand that innocent people suffer when a company goes under. We feel bad for them. But we don't feel $742K worth of bad for them. Lots of hard-working people don't get that much in a decade. DeSantis and the folks who forwarded his article to all their friends don't seem to understand that.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Short Notes Extravaganza

Good things, when they are short, are twice as good. -- Baltasar Gracian

In this week's Sift:
  • Does the EFCA Threaten Life As We Know It? The rhetoric about the Employee Free Choice Act (or "card check" as its opponents call it) has gotten way out of hand, to the point that it's hard to find out what the bill would actually do. I try to sort it out.
  • Short Notes. Way, way more short notes than usual, including a bunch that readers have sent in. (You know who you are.)

Does the EFCA Threaten Life As We Know It?
One of the founders of Home Depot calls it "the demise of civilization," and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has apparently compared it to Armageddon (though I'm not able to find the original link). Business interests are spending tens, maybe hundreds, of millions to campaign against it. The mere possibility that it might pass was enough to cause a Citibank analyst to downgrade WalMart's stock. What is this approaching apocalypse? It's the Employee Free Choice Act, which its opponents refer to (in typical conservative "death tax" fashion) as the "card check" bill.

I'd love to link to a level-headed, fact-based discussion of this issue and be on my way, but it turns out to be remarkably hard to find one. What everybody seems to agree about is this: The EFCA would change the way workers at non-union companies decide whether or not to unionize, and would make it easier for unions to win these battles.

Most discussions of the EFCA begin with one side saying the bill would do X, then the opponents saying it wouldn't, and before long people are calling each other "corporate shills" and "union thugs" and other nice names. I want to start somewhere else. To understand the EFCA, you first need to understand this: The process for organizing a union in this country is seriously screwed up, and something needs to be done about it. Only then does it make sense to ask whether the EFCA is the right thing to do.

How Things (Don't) Work Now. On paper, the current unionization process sounds fairly reasonable: A union demonstrates its support by getting at least 30% of a company's workers to sign a card saying they want the union to represent them. Then the company has a choice: It can either recognize the union and start negotiating a contract, or it can call for a secret-ballot election. The election is held a couple months or so later, and is overseen by the National Labor Relations Board, which has strict rules about what the two sides can and can't do during the campaign. If more than half the workers vote for the union, it's in.

Anti-EFCA articles present this process as if things really happened that way. But in practice, they don't. The NLRB election rules are not exactly fair, and what's worse, many companies have decided that the penalties for violating the rules are less than what a union would cost them. Lawsuits to extract those penalties can drag out for years, delaying the secret-ballot election indefinitely.

For example, when workers at a St. Louis nursing home tried to unionize, management illegally fired a number of union supporters within weeks and harassed pro-union workers in a variety of other ways, some legal, some not. After a year of litigation, the fired workers got their jobs back, but the union election still hadn't happened.

A report by Human Rights Watch says this isn't a unique case:
Enforcement is so lax, remedies are so weak, and delays are so prolonged that many employers become labor scofflaws who see action by labor law authorities as a routine cost of doing business, worth it to destroy workers' self-organizing efforts.
Even within the rules, the company has total control of the environment. University of Oregon political scientist Gordon Lafer writes:
Anti-union managers are free to campaign to every employee, every day, throughout the day; but pro-union employees can campaign only on break time. Furthermore, management can post anti-union propaganda on bulletin boards and walls — while prohibiting pro-union employees from doing the same. By law, employers can force workers to attend mass anti-union propaganda events. Not only are pro-union employees not given equal time, but they can be forced to attend on condition that they not ask any questions. Recent data show that workers are forced to attend between five and 10 such one-sided meetings. If, during the 2004 presidential campaign, the Democrats could have forced every voter in America to watch Fahrenheit 9/11 (or if the Republicans could have forced everyone to watch the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth video), with no opportunity for response from the other side, none of us would have called this “democracy.”
Management can't legally threaten to close or move the business if the union wins the election, but if they just predict or speculate about it, that's OK. And what if they don't fire union supporters outright, but just give them crappy assignments and hours, and hope that they'll quit during the indefinite delay before the election? That's OK if it doesn't go too far, and even it does, not much can be done about it. And there's no policing what management might say in one-on-one meetings. The Human Rights Watch report quotes an unidentified worker at Nebraska Beef:
The main plant manager is Mexican. He knows who are the undocumented workers. He called them in one-by-one to his office and told them that if they voted for the union they would be deported. People were scared the company would find out how they voted. In Mexico the vote is not secret. They thought it was like that here.
Now suppose that even with all these disadvantages, the union wins the election. The law says the company has to negotiate with the union then, but what if it doesn't? Well, that's a whole new legal battle. Or, the union can strike, the company can use illegal strike-breaking tactics, and then the union can sue about that. And so on.

You get the idea: Even if workers overwhelmingly want union representation, they might not get it for many years, during which they might just give up. The process has to change.

What the EFCA Does. The most publicized piece of EFCA is the "card check" provision. If more than half of the workers sign cards saying they want a particular union to represent them, that's it. No campaign, no election. (30-50% still brings on an election.) EFCA opponents raise two issues here:
  • Intimidation. Now it's the union organizers who might have the one-on-one (or many-on-one) meetings. Management-types portray this as union thugs showing up at your door and refusing to leave until you sign a card, but it's hard to say how realistic that picture is. Threats of violence would be illegal, of course, but now the enforcement shoe is on the other foot; the devil would be in the details, which I don't know. More likely (and probably more effective) than violence would be peer pressure, salesmanship, and other totally legal methods of getting a signature out of somebody who might vote No on a secret ballot. Whether or not that's bad depends on your point of view.
  • Uninformed workers. In theory, the whole union-organizing process could happen without management -- or even all the workers -- knowing about it. Instead of having months or years to make its anti-union case to the workers, a company might just be informed out of the blue that it has to start bargaining with a legally-recognized union. Two thoughts in response: (1) If management is that far out of touch, the workplace really needs a union. (2) How to be represented is the workers' decision to make; if they don't respect management's opinion enough to ask for it, that's their choice. Jane Hamsher doesn't beat around the bush: "People are capable of deciding what information they need to make a 'fully informed choice.' Just because you don't get to peddle your bullshit first doesn't make it 'uninformed'."
Another change is that illegal union-busting tactics (like firing organizers) would have real penalties, rather than continuing to be "a routine cost of doing business." Instead of just giving fired workers their jobs back or throwing out the results of a tainted election, courts would be able to impose punitive damages on companies that break the law.

After the union is recognized, the EFCA would allow 120 days for union and management to work out a contract. Otherwise, either side could request a government mediator, beginning a process that could result in binding arbitration. So companies would have real motivation to bargain in good faith, rather than just thumb their noses and dare fledgling unions to strike. Business interests protest that this gives government power over private industry, but management can avoid that outcome by reaching an agreement with the union. What really is lost is management's complete autonomy over the workplace. They have to negotiate with somebody, either the union or the government. Again, whether that's good or bad depends on your point of view.

Summing Up. That doesn't sound much like "the demise of civilization" to me. I think the rhetoric about the EFCA has become so heated because it's a proxy for a larger issue: Are unions good or bad? People who feel strongly one way or the other on that question tend to support any set of rules that gives the result they want.

But that's the wrong issue, because Congress shouldn't be deciding whether or not workers unionize. If workers want to negotiate with their employers collectively through a union, or if they don't, they should be able to make that choice themselves. Currently, the deck is stacked in such a way that many workers who want a union can't get one. The law should provide a fair process and then get out of the way, not dictate a result.

My take on the EFCA comes down to this: It's a legitimate attempt to solve real problems with the current process. There might be a devil in the details somewhere, but if so, the opposition should point out the problems and propose amendments. The current process is grossly unfair, so just defeating the EFCA and leaving things the way they are should not be an option.

Short Notes
Every week people send me things I should mention on the Sift, and I hardly ever do. I guess I have a found-it-myself bias. Well, this week I'm going the other way. Several of you will recognize this stuff.

To start with, my sister-in-law (who is responsible for more than a few of the links that follow) sent me this video, of comedian Louis C. K. on Conan O'Brien's show. Louis speaks for a lot of us older folks, who are amazed by the things that younger people take for granted. About people who complain about air travel, he says: "You're sitting in a chair in the sky."

I try not to get caught up in the media-firestorm-of-the-day, figuring that you already know as much about that as you want to. Occasionally, though, something gets out-of-hand to the point that that becomes the story. The AIG bonus outrage is getting there; I'll watch it for another week and maybe try to sort the legitimate stuff from the hyperbole next time.

But I can already tell you that I think Frank Rich (who I usually like) went over-the-top by wondering whether this would be Obama's "Katrina moment". Inky99 on DailyKos responded by posting a few pictures of dead bodies from Katrina. So no, the AIG bonus outrage does not constitute a Katrina moment. It's also not a Holocaust moment, a killing fields moment, or a Noah's Flood moment.

Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief-of-staff for Colin Powell, wrote a great article about Guantanamo. He makes the charge that most of the detainees there were innocent and top American officials knew it. I'm not surprised. McClatchy published similar conclusions last June.

The underlying logic of the situation was laid out by Iraq interrogator Tony Lagouranis in Fear Up Harsh, which I recommended last June. At every level, the pressure was not to let any terrorist get away. There was no comparable pressure to let the innocent go. So the "safe" thing to do was to detain everybody, and to keep pushing them up the chain until they wound up in Abu Ghraib or Bhagram or Guantanamo.

Wilkerson, I think, has just become the highest-ranking former Bush official to apply the adjective this policy deserves: evil.

Pope Benedict on AIDS in Africa :
"You can't resolve it with the distribution of condoms," the pope said aboard his plane to Cameroon. "On the contrary, it increases the problem."
The logic here is basically the same as when people claim that sex education increases teen pregnancy: If we make promiscuity as dangerous as possible, then people won't do it. In the history of the world, has that ever worked?

The Bellows provides two revealing charts that break down unemployment by industry. Matt Yglesias summarizes:
not only is the total unemployment rate in finance low, but the increase in unemployment there has been distinctly modest compared to construction, mining, agriculture, manufacturing, retail & wholesale, and even transportation. It’s a reminder that endlessly fascinating as the financial snarl may be, you’re mostly look at a collapse in demand. People in general are buying less stuff, leading to fewer jobs in the fields of making stuff, moving it around, and selling it.

The transcript of Dick Cheney's interview with CNN's John King is here. (The only way I can stand to watch Dick Cheney these days is in Scott Bateman's animation.) The interview is not 100% softball -- King does play the "We'll be greeted as liberators" clip -- but it's pretty soft. The word torture only appears when King asks whether Obama's admission that waterboarding is torture will make us less safe. And that definitely is a softball question.

In general, Cheney has his say on a subject, and then King moves on without any challenging follow-up. I'm reminded of what Glenn Greenwald asked after King interviewed John McCain in 2008:
if McCain's actual Press Secretary ... had conducted this "interview," how would it have been any different?
Ariana Huffington had the same thought I did: What if it had been Jon Stewart interviewing Cheney?
I believe it does me good, every now and then, to read something I think is totally wrong-headed. So thank God the Washington Post published this: Charles Murray (co-author of The Bell Curve) explains why it would be awful if America became more like Europe. The gist (and don't trust me on this, because it's hard to summarize something that doesn't make sense to you) is that Europeans don't make lots of babies or go to church much, and they work to live rather than live to work. So it follows that their lives are meaningless. Oh, and I forgot this part: Any day now science is going to get around to proving that European lives are meaningless, or that equal opportunity is a bad idea, or something like that. Read it yourself. It's good for you. (Nicholas Kristof thinks it's good for you too.)

The WaPo was on a roll Sunday. They also marked the 30th anniversary of Three Mile Island with 5 Myths On Nuclear Power. The article leaves me with this logical conundrum: If you take a half-truth and say that it's false, is your statement also a half-truth?

While I'm ragging on the Post, I have to give them credit for this: They allowed Chris Mooney to point out that George Will has been spouting nonsense about climate change. Matt Yglesias, though, believes that Mooney didn't come down nearly hard enough.

Digby makes an interesting point: With all the conservative attempts to label Obama a "socialist" -- to the point that a NYT interviewer asked him about it -- why is it that no actual professing socialists are ever consulted? I mean, I've seen gobs of libertarians on TV over the years. Why no socialists?

Happy 20th birthday to the World Wide Web. Little-known fact: Tim Berners-Lee and I used to go to the same church and have several friends in common, but I don't believe we've ever actually had a conversation.

I've mentioned Sandra Day O'Connor's "Our Courts" project before, but it continues to evolve. She introduces it with a 4-minute video explaining that she wants to give Civics "a makeover". I wouldn't have thought of that metaphor, or this one:
The Founders of our Constitution and our government created three equal branches of government. Like super heroes, each branch of government has special powers, but each one also has certain weaknesses.
Just in case we need it again someday, I'm still looking for Executive Kryptonite.

I wandered over to Our Courts from Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project, a blog where a woman who used to work for O'Connor is chronicling her year-long exploration of every conceivable theory of happiness. It's a thought-provoking site. I imagine a lot of Gretchen's female readers are provoked to have this thought: "I'd be happy if I looked like that."

I had my own small-scale Happiness Project once: I led a reading course comparing Bertrand Russell's The Conquest of Happiness with the Dalai Lama's The Art of Happiness. Oddly, even though the once-a-week course was led by a man and men wrote both books, only women signed up. My wife referred to it as "Doug's night out with the girls."

Another journalism experiment: Patch, a collection of local-news web sites.

President Obama sent a video message to the people of Iran as they celebrate their new year. (Happy 1388!) In it, he made the bold move of calling the Iranian government by its actual name: the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The Bush administration usually referred to the Iranian government as "the Iranian regime" or some other disrespectful name. It's the same thought process that causes Republicans to refer to "the Democrat Party" rather than "the Democratic Party". It took me a while to figure this out, but apparently the Bushies thought it was a sign of power to demonstrate that you can call things by whatever name you want.

One more reason to be glad their era is over.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Fight vs. Flight

I may run for president of Texas. -- Chuck Norris

In this week's Sift:
  • The Looming Right-wing Violence. When liberals would despair a few years ago, we fantasized about leaving the country. But recent conservative despair-fantasies are about killing people.
  • Stewart vs. Cramer. Mainstream journalism today is a little like King Lear -- only the Fool is telling the truth.
  • The Next Time You're in the Bookstore ... look at The Origin of Wealth by Eric Beinhocker. It will change the way you look at economics. But you probably want to skip Part III.
  • Short Notes. Maybe the Boomers will have to start those communes after all. McGraw-Hill propagandizes children. The AIG bailout is really a Goldman Sachs bailout. The UN gets ready to investigate our secret prisons. Fewer Christians, more secularists, different Catholics. And what would Watchmen look like as a Saturday morning cartoon?

The Looming Right-wing Violence
Back in the darkest days of the Bush administration, a lot of us on the Left worried that things could reach a point of no return, from which it would be impossible to vote the Bushies out. Maybe they'd rig the voting machines, or manufacture an emergency and claim that holding elections or transferring power right now was "too risky". Or something.

When we had those dark fantasies -- whether on liberal blogs or in conversations over beer late at night -- sooner or later the discussion would turn to this question: What will be the sign that it's time to leave the country? We talked a lot about the Jews in Nazi Germany, most of whom missed the sign -- whatever it was -- that it was time to get out. We didn't want that to happen to us.

Well, the Right is going through similar despair now, but with a disturbing twist: Their fantasy isn't escape, it's violence. At what point, they wonder, is the political situation so hopeless that it's time to start killing people?

The rhetoric on conservative blog Free Republic has gotten so bad recently that Jim Robinson, the guy who runs it, had to post a message warning people against "salty talk" that the Secret Service might have to investigate as a threat against the president. (The comments on this thread -- more than 500 at last count -- give you some idea where the community is.) In his warning -- his attempt to calm things down, mind you -- Robinson says that protecting Obama
places an enormous strain on our Secret Service agents. It's obvious to anyone with a brain that Obama is an enemy of the constitution. So should the SS defend the constitution or defend the anti-constitution commie? ... And even though your visiting agent may agree politically, and may take his oath to the constitution seriously, he's still sworn to protect the officeholder and it's his duty to take all threats seriously.
Abortion clinics are reporting an uptick in violent threats and expecting worse to come. As I write this, the most popular post on the conservative web site Pajamas Media (Could Americans' Discontent Turn Violent?) says: "Americans don’t go John Galt. We go postal." NRA president Wayne LaPierre told the CPAC conference: "Freedom is nothing but dust in the wind until it's guarded by the blue steel and dried powder of a free and armed people." People for the American Way has more.

Former Republican presidential candidate Alan Keyes calls President Obama "an alleged usurper", questions whether the military is obligated to obey his orders, and predicts "chaos, confusion, and civil war". Fox News commentator Glenn Beck is predicting war in the streets -- claiming to be terrified but sounding strangely gleeful. During an interview with Chuck Norris, Beck called for a military coup:
I mean this sincerely: I would love to have General Petraeus go up to Washington and clean that hornet's nest out. I'd like him to set up a military tribunal and call them in one by one, okay, going to have a little interview with you. Find out if they're guilty or innocent of being involved in, you know, all kinds of the scandals that are going on and kick them out.
And Norris replied with a fantasy about taking justice into his own hands:
I want to go with General Petraeus myself and be next to him and when he finds out who's guilty and, you know, dishonest, then I will take care of it for him.
Later in the interview Beck says "parts of the country will rise up", which leads to Norris' talk about running for president of Texas. Thursday, Beck speculated that the cause of the Alabama shooting spree might be "political correctness" and wondered how his listeners can avoid "turn[ing] into that guy."

My best guess is that people like Keyes and Beck and Norris will be hiding under a table if violence does break out, so why does this talk worry me? Because every group has some far-out folks who read the tea leaves more fearfully than everyone else. For a handful on the Left, the point-of-no-return signal really did arrive sometime during the Bush administration, and they moved to Canada or Australia or France. We can laugh about it now, because no harm was done. Maybe they like it there.

But think about the comparable people on the Right. Something -- maybe a new immigration law or national health care or some made-up story about ACORN -- will signal to them that America can't be saved by politics. And then they'll start killing people.

If you're wondering when that will start, it started last July when James Adkisson took a shotgun into the Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville and interrupted a children's performance by killing Greg McKendry and Linda Kraeger, wounding six others. As he explained in a letter :
This was a symbolic killing. Who I wanted to kill was every Democrat in the Senate & House, the 100 people in Bernard Goldberg's book. I'd like to kill everyone in the mainstream media. But I know those people were inaccessible to me. I couldn't get to the generals & high ranking officers of the Marxist movement so I went after the foot soldiers, the chickenshit liberals that vote in these traitorous people. Someone had to get the ball rolling. I volunteered. I hope others do the same. It's the only way we can rid America of this cancerous pestilence.
It could get worse. Before he died in a domestic dispute in December, Neo-Nazi James Cummings was gathering materials for a dirty bomb.

And you might think that seeing his book as a hit list would give Bernard Goldberg pause, but it hasn't. It's not fair to mention Goldberg and Bill O'Reilly fantasizing about beating up a NYT editorial writer with a baseball bat at this point, because Adkisson's letter hadn't been released yet. But not only didn't Adkisson come up during Goldberg's March 2 interview with Beck, Goldberg had the gall to say this: "The haters, the big haters are on the left these days."

I hear a lot of over-simplified right-left comparisons. Rush Limbaugh is just like Michael Moore was, and so on. But the differences -- like escape versus violence -- are important. I recently heard Newt Gingrich talking about the people on the Left who said they wanted George Bush to fail (as Limbaugh has said of Obama). But if that ever happened, I'd like to hear a quote.

Here's how I remember it. When I looked into the future and imagined Bush's policies failing, I did get a feeling of satisfaction. It's very human, I think, to get a rush from fantasizing that you'll be proven right and your opponents wrong. But the difference between Right and Left comes down to this: I was ashamed of those feelings. I think we all were. The temptation to root against my country was like the temptation to cheat on my wife or steal money -- something I didn't want to encourage because I didn't want it to affect my actions.

But Limbaugh is not ashamed. He's rooting for the leader of his country to fail, and he's proud of it. And a crowd at the CPAC conference cheered him for it. That never happened on the Left, not with Moore or any popular liberal. If you think it did, try Googling up a reference.

Stewart vs. Cramer
Last week I linked to a series of videos where Comedy Central's Jon Stewart took on the business network CNBC. Well, this week it turned into a media "war" between Stewart and Jim Cramer, the frenetic host of CNBC's "Mad Money". (Does anybody else remember when "mad money" was the cab fare a woman took on a date in case she had to get home on her own?)

It culminated Thursday when Cramer (to his credit) came to Stewart's "Daily Show" for an amazing interview. (Parts 1, 2, and 3 -- without the bleeps.) I half-expected Stewart to play it for laughs and engineer some sort of kiss-and-make-up. He didn't. Instead he demonstrated the kind of hot-seat interview that CNBC might have done with all those negligent or criminal CEOs.

Amid rumors that NBC wasn't letting its networks cover the smackdown, CBS News not only covered it, they got it right. Unsurprisingly, so did Glenn Greenwald , who summed up the complaint against CNBC like this:
They would continuously put scheming CEOs on their shows, conduct completely uncritical "interviews" and allow them to spout wholesale falsehoods. And now that they're being called upon to explain why they did this, their excuse is: Well, we were lied to. What could we have done? And the obvious answer, which Stewart repeatedly expressed, is that people who claim to be "reporters" are obligated not only to provide a forum for powerful people to make claims, but also to then investigate those claims and then to inform the public if the claims are true.
As Glenn notes, this isn't just about Cramer or CNBC or the financial crisis. This is a microcosm of what's wrong with mainstream journalism. The system revolves around access to newsmakers -- if they'll talk to you, appear on your show, and return your calls, then you're major leaguer. But the price is too high. In order to get and keep access, reporters repeat uncritically whatever the newsmakers say. If the CEO of Lehman Brothers tells you they're not in trouble, then that's what you tell your viewers. If Dick Cheney tells you that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction, you print it like gospel. Otherwise they'll stop talking to you.

A comedian like Jon Stewart is an unlikely journalistic hero. But for years he has been willing to pull out the tape and show us the contradictions between what powerful people say and what they had said before. (Example: his interview with Cheney biographer Stephen Hayes.) That has been a vacuum in mainstream journalism, and a comedian filled it because no one else would.

The Next Time You're in the Bookstore ...
... look at The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics by Eric D. Beinhocker. Maybe. It's a fascinating book, but its various parts are written at different reading levels, some of which are much more difficult than the books I usually recommend. Part I is at about the level of Newsweek, Parts II and IV more like Scientific American, and I recommend skipping or skimming Part III unless you're an economist.

Part I is an excellent (and easy to understand) history of economics, explaining why it is the way it is. What's wrong with traditional economics is so obvious people make jokes about it. Here's one: An economist and an engineer are trapped in a deep pit with slick walls and no tools. The engineer wracks his brains for a way out, but eventually falls into despair. The economist thinks for a while and then brightens up: "I know how to get out," he says. When the engineer asks how, the economist raises his index finger. "Step 1. Assume a ladder."

Here's another (from the book): A young economist and an old economist are walking together when young economist bends down to pick a $20 bill off the sidewalk. "What are you doing?" asks his elder. "That's obviously counterfeit." The young economist examines the bill, can't find anything wrong with it, and asks why it's counterfeit. "Because," explains the old economist, "if there were a real $20 bill on the sidewalk, somebody would have picked it up."

In other words, traditional economics makes unreasonable assumptions and sticks to them even when the real world is saying something different. The reason for this turns out to be historical: Back in the late 19th century when economists were trying to make a science out of their profession, they borrowed the ideas and techniques of the most advanced science of that day: physics. So the economy was modeled as a system that was seeking equilibrium, but never quite getting there because of external shocks. (Imagine a tank of water in the back of a truck on a bumpy road.) In order to make the theory work, the economists had to assume some strange things: that information was perfectly and instantaneously distributed and that people reacted to it with perfect rationality. (I ran into an example of this kind of thinking during the debate over the stimulus bill. An economist was claiming that government borrowing and spending wouldn't stimulate the economy, because people would anticipate higher taxes in the future to pay the debt. So, he claimed, individuals would save exactly what was necessary to balance the government borrowing. Who, I wondered, actually behaves that way?)

They've continued to build on that unsound foundation ever since, even though physics has moved on to incorporate all sorts of new models and ways of thought. Like the Earth-centered model of the solar system, equilibrium-based economics has had enough bells and whistles added to it over the years that it more-or-less corresponds to what we see most of the time. But the fundamental assumptions are just wrong.

Part II introduces some ideas from what Beinhocker calls complexity economics. The basic idea is that the individuals who make up an economy are fairly simple creatures with limited information, and the complexity of an economy comes from their interactions. (It's an emergent property, in technical language.) I first ran into this way of thinking when I read about how the special-effects people made the computer-modeled flock of bats in the first Batman movie. They didn't have a single "flock of bats" model. Instead, they modeled each bat individually, and gave it some very simple motivations: stay with the group, don't run into anything, don't run into other bats. Then they fiddled with the weights attached to those urges until the flock looked like a flock. The complicated ripples that passed through the flock emerged from the simple individual behaviors.

The examples from Part II are fascinating, because they show how the kinds of behaviors we see in the economy (but not in standard economic models) can occur in very simple artificial systems. In chapter 4, a simple computer-generated economy (the Sugarscape) is built up step-by-step, with new large-scale properties emerging with each additional feature added to the simple agents that make up the economy. To begin with, the agents wander around the game-board seeking the sugar they need to survive. Then the agents are programmed with slightly different talents from each other. Then they can reproduce, with mutations in their descendents' behavior programs. Then a second product, spice, is introduced, and agents are allowed to make sugar-for-spice trades with each other. Then they're allowed to make loans. The Sugarscape develops an interest rate and an exchange rate -- both of which gyrate in ways that real markets do, but traditional market-models don't. Behaviors evolve (spontaneously) so that some agents become traders, others bankers.

In another chapter, you learn about the Beer Game, a simple demonstration that when people act on imperfect information, markets can boom and bust even without external shocks, just by reacting to themselves.

Part III is a theoretical explanation of what wealth is in the new way of thinking; this is way harder and less interesting than the rest of the book.

Then Part IV discusses how the new economics might affect public policy. A number of things are interesting here, but I'll limit myself to one: In the new view, economies may have multiple stable points rather than evolve towards one optimal structure. For example, there seem to be two stable relationships between public trust and productivity. There are high-trust, high-productivity economies and low-trust, low-productivity economies, but economies don't stay for long in either of the other two quadrants. Low-trust is an example of a poverty trap, where it's not in any individual's interest to start trusting others, even though the economy as a whole would do better if everyone had more trust. Here's the interesting tidbit: Measures of public trust have been falling in the United States in recent decades, to the point that we're in danger of dropping into the unstable low-trust, high-productivity quadrant -- from which we will either develop more trust or slide into poverty.

Short Notes
A bunch of people all at once have noticed that Baby Boomers are going to have to change their plans, because -- after the housing bust and the stock market tanking -- we're collectively a lot less wealthy than we thought we were. Best article on the topic I've seen so far is on AlterNet, where they've noticed that the number of Boomers looking for housemates has gone way up. Economic necessity may bring back those Woodstock-era commune fantasies.

Ever wonder what the Saturday-morning-cartoon people would do with Watchmen?

McGraw-Hill's news site for students is blaming the financial crisis on "good intentions" like laws encouraging minority home-ownership. The refutation of this is simple: If government regulations had caused the mess, the corporate dominoes would have fallen in the opposite order -- the highly regulated banks first and other financial institutions later. In fact, it was the relatively unregulated investment firms (like Bear Stears) and mortgage companies (like Countrywide Financial) that went down first.

TPM reports an amazing coincidence: McGraw owns Standard & Poors, whose AAA ratings for worthless CDOs played a key role in things falling apart. I wonder when McGraw will tell the kids about that?

New survey on religion in America: Compared to 1990, fewer people call themselves Christians and more claim to have no religion. The most interesting dynamics are among Catholics: White ethnics in the Northeast are leaving the church, but Hispanic immigration in the West is keeping membership stable.

19 famous people answer: What should Obama be reading? Try to imagine a similar article about Bush.
Before all of our medical records become electronic, somebody needs to solve the security problem.
I pointed out last week that AIG is a conduit of federal money to other firms. Today we find out that the #1 recipient of the government money put into bailing out AIG is Goldman Sachs, former employer of Bush treasury secretary Hank Paulson and Clinton treasury secretary Robert Rubin.

Fahreed Zakaria:
The problem with American foreign policy goes beyond George Bush. It includes a Washington establishment that has gotten comfortable with the exercise of American hegemony and treats compromise as treason and negotiations as appeasement.

Finally, somebody is going to investigate Bush's secret prisons -- the UN. Martin Scheinin, UN special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism: "Before a page can be turned, we have to know what's on it, in order to move forward." Will Obama cooperate?

Monday, March 9, 2009

Secret Laws

I call on all governments to join with the United States and the community of law-abiding nations in prohibiting, investigating, and prosecuting all acts of torture and in undertaking to prevent other cruel and unusual punishment. -- George W. Bush, June 26, 2003.

Ninety-nine percent of what we do is legal. -- Scooter Libby, quoted by Jane Mayer in Chapter 12 of The Dark Side.

In This Week's Sift:
  • Secret Laws: Nine Bush Memos Declassified. If the Bush administration had really believed in its theory of presidential power, it wouldn't have been classified.
  • The Next Time You're in the Bookstore ... look for Jane Mayer's The Dark Side. It's the best summary of the Bush administration war-on-terror story.
  • Tigerhawk. I develop sympathy for a maligned conservative blogger.
  • Short Notes. A couple scoops from the Onion. Thomas Friedman's biggest mistakes. Atlas Shrugged as prophesy. Is Tim Geithner starting to sound like Donald Rumsfeld? Jon Stewart vs. CNBC. And more.

Secret Law: Nine Bush Memos Declassified
By now you've probably heard of the nine Bush administration memos that got declassified and released by the Obama Justice Department last Monday. I've skimmed a couple of these memos, but haven't gone through them all in detail, so I am relying on people who have: Scott Horton, Glenn Greenwald, and Jack Balkin. (Back in April, I went through the Yoo torture memos line-by-line, so I'm not surprised by anything I'm reading now.)

The memos, prepared by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) shortly after 9/11, say that the president can order military operations within the United States, and that the Bill of Rights would not apply to these operations. Also, according to the NYT:
the president could unilaterally abrogate foreign treaties, ignore any guidance from Congress in dealing with detainees suspected of terrorism, and conduct a program of domestic eavesdropping without warrants.
The newly released memos have gotten a lot of coverage in the press, but I think one point is so basic that it's in danger of being missed: Why on Earth should legal opinions be classified in the first place?

In my previous life as a mathematician for the MITRE Corporation, I had a clearance and occasionally ran into classified documents. Usually, the classified pages in a document were very specific and technical -- the exact specifications for some radar or communications system, for example. But you wouldn't classify an abstract discussion of radar or communications. Those theories are in textbooks.

These secret memos, by contrast, don't reveal detailed government plans that would be useful to our enemies. They put forward an abstract legal theory that Jack Balkin sums up like this:
The President, because he is President, may do whatever he thinks is necessary, even in the domestic context, if he acts for military and national security reasons in his capacity as Commander in Chief. This theory of presidential power argues, in essence, that when the President acts in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief, he may make his own rules and cannot be bound by Congressional laws to the contrary.
If that theory is true, then it shouldn't be classified, it should be in Civics textbooks. We should proudly teach our children that our rights exist by sufferance of the president, who could revoke them all if he so decided.

Secret law -- and when an "interpretation" stands the written law on its head, in essence it becomes a new law -- runs against our entire legal tradition. As far back as the Roman Republic, the West has believed that laws should be written down and displayed in clear view.

Why did these memos have to be classified? Because they're absurd. You never need to classify the fact that 2+2=4. But if you want the government to operate under the assumption that 2+2=5, then you do have to classify it, because your government will be a laughing stock otherwise.

Background. If you've been reading the Sift for a while, you have run into the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) before. It is the highest legal authority inside the executive branch of government. Unless and until the courts directly contradict it, the OLC's interpretation of the law is official. So if lawyers from the Navy disagree with lawyers from the State Department, an OLC opinion settles the matter in the same way that a Supreme Court opinion settles disagreements between lesser courts

Like the Supreme Court, the OLC can be extremely powerful if it falls into the wrong hands. It can declare that black is white, and (so long as the issue stays out of the courts), the rest of the government is forced to go along with the assumption that black is white.

Bush defenders frequently ask some version of this legitimate question: Shouldn't the president be able to respond to whatever comes up, even if the law or the Constitution didn't foresee this exact situation? If you get into one of those ticking-nuclear-bomb scenarios, you don't want the president waiting for an act of Congress before he does anything about it.

In such a situation, the president should act more-or-less the way Lincoln did: Do what you need to do, then go confess your sins to Congress. At that point Congress can either retroactively approve your actions or start impeachment proceedings. Instead, the Bush administration made up bogus legal theories about why they didn't need anybody's permission or approval. Consequently, we (and Congress) still don't know most of what they did.

The Obama administration doesn't want former enemy combatant Jose Padilla to be able to sue John Yoo for his mistreatment.

Glenn Greenwald looks at Britain's reaction to the allegations that Binyam Mohamed, a British resident recently released from Guantanamo, was tortured there with the knowledge and assistance of the British government. He finds their public discussion strikingly different from ours.

the tacit premise of the discussion is that credible allegations of criminality -- even if committed by high government officials, perhaps especially then -- compel serious criminal investigations. Imagine that. How shrill and radical.

The Next Time You're in the Bookstore ...
... look for The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals by Jane Mayer.

Mayer has been covering civil-liberties issues for the New Yorker all through the Bush administration. I find I agree with the WaPo review by Andrew Bacevich: This book's "achievement lies less in bringing new revelations to light than in weaving into a comprehensive narrative a story revealed elsewhere in bits and pieces."

I've read a lot of the Bush administration books and articles, and reviewed some of them here on the Sift, so few of the specific events in the book were new to me. But seeing them all laid out in order from 9/11 to last April provided a new depth and perspective. If you've been reading reviews of the various war-on-terror books and thinking you should get around to reading one someday, put those aside and read this one.

Seeing the whole story in one place deepened my feel for the characters. Mayer's Dick Cheney, for example, is not a one-dimensional Dr. Evil. Instead, he seems like a man afraid to admit that he's out of his depth. Cheney came to office with no background in terrorism, the Muslim world, counter-insurgency, interrogation, constitutional law, or any of the other issues that instantly became central after 9/11. Suddenly, the country needed a strong vision from its leadership, and no one else was in a position to provide one -- certainly not President Bush, who hated briefings longer than five minutes.

The emergency post-9/11 mentality was in part an overreaction to the administration's neglect of terrorism pre-9/11, coupled with an administration-wide character flaw that didn't allow them to admit or learn from their mistakes. The true story of 9/11 is that collectively the government had all the information it needed to prevent the attack, it just didn't route those bits of information to people who could have put them together and acted on them. 9/11 was a failure of management, not of power. But the administration was congenitally incapable of telling the story that way, even to itself. Instead, 9/11 was always invoked to support the government's push for more power: the power to spy, to torture, to invade.

Much of the book follows the lawyers of what became known as "the War Council" -- essentially a shadow government consisting of the major players' legal counterparts: David Addington (Cheney), Alberto Gonzales (Bush), Jim Haynes (Rumsfeld), and John Yoo (who technically was under Ashcroft, but was really a loose cannon). Addington (like Cheney) dominated the group, while Gonzales (like Bush) was a lightweight who never really wielded the power he had on paper. It's doubly interesting who was left out of the group: Ashcroft, as well as the top lawyers of the FBI, the State Department, or the military judge advocate generals (JAGs).

this insular, unelected, self-reinforcing group, with virtually no experience in law enforcement, military service, counterterrorism, or the Muslim world, was in position to make many of the most fateful legal decisions in the post-9/11 era. ... “Addington spoke authoritatively about what the President decided in 2002, but he wrote the document, and it was probably his decision,” a former White House official said later.

The War Council's lack of relevant experience led to some major mistakes. For example, the original Guantanamo military tribunals were based on tribunals convened by FDR -- ignoring the subsequent Uniform Code of Military Justice established in 1951. Any military lawyer could have told the War Council that the JAGs would consider this a return to the Bad Old Days -- but no military lawyers were present when the decision was made.

The torture policy was based on a similar lack of experience. This story is worth repeating in its entirety:

The FBI had an embarrassing firsthand reminder of why such tactics are illegal when, immediately after September 11, they coerced an Egyptian national who had been staying at a hotel near the World Trade Center into falsely confessing to a role in the attacks. Abdallah Higazy, like the other hotel guests, fled when the hijacked planes smashed into the towers. Soon after, the hotel told the FBI it had found in his closet a radio communication system for air pilots. The FBI took Higazy into custody. According to Higazy, an FBI agent told him that if he didn’t confess that the equipment was his, and that it connected him to the Al Qaeda attacks, his family in Egypt would be tortured. After first denying the charges, Higazy confessed under the pressure. Luckily for him, an airline pilot who had also been a guest at the same hotel soon returned to ask for his radio back.

Again and again, torture led to false testimony. (Colin Powell was convinced to make his famous presentation to the UN after he was unknowingly given false testimony produced under torture.) That was entirely predictable: The enhanced interrogation techniques came from the SERE school whose purpose was to train American soldiers who might face torture if captured. Ultimately their techniques were copied from the KGB, who intended to produce false confessions.

The program and their claims were never subjected to any independent analysis. They always went back to the same people who were running the program at the Agency to ask if it was working, and they always said it was.

My takeaway from The Dark Side is to be more convinced than ever that President Bush himself needs to be put on trial. The only motivation lawyers have to tell their clients things they don't want to hear is to keep those clients out of jail. If presidents can't go to jail, no matter what they do, no one will ever tell them No.

I haven't gotten around to reading David Kilcullen's new book about counter-insurgency yet, but Andrew Bacevich has.

Sometimes I don't understand my own liberal-blogger tribe. A minor conservative blogger named Tigerhawk put up a video explaining that well-to-do professionals like him (the over-$250,000 folks whose taxes Obama wants to raise) work extremely hard and are not the villains of this financial crisis. He recommends that Obama come to them with more of a your-country-needs-your-help message than a you-haven't-been-paying-your-fair-share message.

Reasonable stuff, as far as it goes. (I'm sure lots of minimum-wage people work hard too, when you lump their three part-time jobs together.) But I wouldn't have found this video at all if the liberal blog Sadly, No! hadn't picked it out as an example of rich people's whining arrogance. I didn't react that way at all. In fact, wandering around Tigerhawk's blog, I realized this was gold as far as I'm concerned: a conservative blogger who seems to have some standards about facts and logic. No ranting about Obama's birth certificate or how we need to have an armed insurrection to keep the country from going Communist. (I think it helps that we're both Big Ten fans raised in the Midwest. The "hawk" part of his name comes from the Iowa Hawkeyes.)

I've recommended a lot of liberal blogs, but I think it's important that we not become an echo chamber. So I'm adding Tigerhawk to my bookmarks and I'll drop in now and then to see how things look from the other side. Catching up a little: Tigerhawk's take on the financial crisis is pretty interesting. It's reassuring to know that a (self-described) conservative CFO from a medical device company tells the story pretty much the same way I do. And his questions for health care reformers are pretty good, if somewhat affected by the whole medical-device-company thing.

Short Notes
If you needed any more proof that pundits don't belong to a meritocracy, Vanity Fair summarizes the most outrageous predictions of Thomas Friedman.

The Onion reports that American blacks are being "creeped out" by all the positive responses they're getting from white strangers now that Barack Obama is president: smiles, pats on the back, offers to fist-bump or high-five. "To be honest, you people are kind of terrifying when you're happy," says one. And another adds: "I know you mean well and all, but seriously, knock it off. You're giving my children nightmares."

Another Onion scoop: A school-board member in Arkham, MA wants the curriculum to reflect a really old-time religion, preparing students for the apocalyptic return of the Elder Gods.

This one isn't from the Onion, it just sounds that way. Republican Congressman John Campbell:
we’re living through the scenario that happened in Atlas Shrugged, The achievers, the people who create all the things that benefit rest of us, are going on strike. I’m seeing, at a small level, a kind of protest from the people who create jobs, the people who create wealth, who are pulling back from their ambitions because they see how they’ll be punished for them.”
Speaking as somebody who was a huge Ayn Rand fan in my misguided youth, this is deeply weird. Picture it: Somewhere there's a guy who has the next Google or Microsoft in his head, but when he sees the capital gains tax going up to 20% he thinks: "Why bother? I'd only get to keep 80% of those billions. I'm not going to take that kind of punishment." How likely is that?

Tigerhawk provides an interesting datum: On March 3, Atlas Shrugged was up to #38 on Amazon's sales list. I just checked, and it's still at #54. Not bad for a book published in 1957.

California's Proposition 8 saga continues. The ballot initiative to make same-sex marriage illegal again (and give involuntary divorces to thousands of same-sex couples) passed in November. Now the state's Supreme Court is hearing a case challenging Prop 8's legitimacy.

The issue here sounds technical: Is Prop 8 a constitutional "amendment" (as it claims to be) or a "revision"? Amendments are narrow and can be passed by majority vote, while revisions are more sweeping and require either 2/3rds of the legislature or a constitutional convention. It's an important distinction, because California's amend-the-constitution-by-majority-vote provision is insane without some strict limitations. Otherwise, a simple majority could proclaim Schwartzenegger dictator-for-life.

Congress may become a branch of government again: It looks like Karl Rove and Harriet Myers are finally going to have to testify about the US atttorneys scandal.

Al Rodgers on DailyKos collects a few Daily Show clips that prove a point: Jon Stewart is more on top of the financial crisis than the so-called "serious" reporters are. My favorite moment comes during his conversation with NYT financial reporter Joe Nocera (about the 4:25 mark in the third clip), when Jon nails CNBC's fawning interviews with the very people who turned out to be at the center of the disaster.
It'd be like the Weather Channel interviewing Hurricane Katrina and saying "You know, there's a report that you have high winds and flooding." And Katrina's like, "No, no, no -- I'm sunny." And they're like "All right" and they walk away.

This clip from Tim Geithner's testimony to the Senate is disturbing, because he doesn't answer Senator Cantwell's question about the AIG bailout. In essence AIG is a conduit: It insured bad debts for other financial institutions, so as the debtors default, the federal bailout money is flowing through AIG to those other institutions. Cantwell is trying to get Geithner to say who the insured institutions are and how much they're getting, but he provides no specifics.

The worrisome thing is that Geithner seems to be taking the same attitude towards Congress and the bailouts as Donald Rumsfeld took towards Congress and Iraq: Your job is to keep writing the checks. We'll decide what you need to know about where the money is going.

It started out as one of the more bizarre stories that the Republicans made up about the stimulus bill: Harry Reid was setting aside $8 billion to build a mag-lev train from Disneyland to Las Vegas. Now the story is getting even better, as stories unconstrained by reality often do. In the new version, the train goes from Disneyland to a particular Nevada brothel, which in the real world is nowhere near Las Vegas. And Fox News is reporting it all as fact.

The New Yorker's Atul Gawande has an interesting take on the health care system: We should build on what we have. I was skeptical, but then he retells the history of how other countries got their health care systems.