Monday, January 4, 2010

Pants on Fire

President Obama is trying to pretend that we are not at war. ... Why doesn’t he want to admit we’re at war? It doesn’t fit with the view of the world he brought with him to the Oval Office. -- former Vice President Dick Cheney, December 29, 2009

Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. -- President Barack Obama, Inaugural Address, January 20, 2009
In this week's Sift:
  • The Zero Decade. For the first time since the Depression, we had a decade with no job growth, and no increases either in median household income or median household net worth. How is that possible? Didn't we cut taxes, slash regulations, hobble unions, and do everything else in the conservative growth plan?
  • Reacting to the Underpants Bomber. Al Qaeda's latest star managed to harm nothing beyond his own reproductive prospects. And yet, this supposedly shows that the terrorists have Obama outmatched, and that we need even more draconian procedures to keep us safe. Maybe Dick Cheney's pants are on fire too.
  • Short Notes. Community banks as an anti-Wall-Street protest. Karl Rove proves that traditional marriage is in trouble.  What makes Garrison Keillor lose his cool? Brit Hume evangelizes Tiger Woods. Bono gives you ten things to think about. And more.

The Zero Decade
Interesting juxtaposition of articles: The New York Times editorialized about what we need to do to avoid a "lost decade" like the Japanese had after their real estate bubble popped in the late 80s, while the Washington Post's Neil Irwin pointed out that we've just finished a lost decade: There's been no net increase in the number of jobs in this country since 2000. (The article comes with a very good graph.)
Middle-income households made less in 2008, when adjusted for inflation, than they did in 1999 -- and the number is sure to have declined further during a difficult 2009. ... And the net worth of American households -- the value of their houses, retirement funds and other assets minus debts -- has also declined when adjusted for inflation
All the decades since the Depression have been very different than this: They all had at least 20% job growth and substantial increases in median income and median net worth.

In part, Irwin acknowledges, this is a statistical anomaly: The decade sandwiched two recessions around a single expansion. But the current recession is very sharp and the expansion (the "Bush Boom") was anemic -- especially if you measure medians rather than averages. (Rich people did quite well during the decade, and their extreme gains pull the averages up, just as Bill Gates raises the average net worth of any crowd he walks into.)

The decade was dominated by bubbles: The Internet bubble popped at the beginning of the decade and the mid-decade expansion was driven by the housing bubble, which popped in 2008. Irwin's article concludes with economists scratching their heads, trying to learn the lesson that will lead to bubble-free prosperity in the future.

Devilstower on DailyKos is not scratching his head, because he knows exactly what went wrong: During the Naughts, we followed a conservative philosophy that doesn't work.
this decade, no matter what anyone on the right might say, was conservatism on trial. You want less taxes? You got less taxes. You want less regulation? You got less regulation. Open markets? Wide open. An illusion of security in place of rights? Hey, presto. Think we should privatize war by handing unlimited power given to military contractors so they can kick butt and take names? Kiddo, we passed out boots and pencils by the thousands. Everything, everything, that ever showed up on a drooled-over right wing wish list got implemented -- with a side order of Freedom Fries.

... What did we get for it? We got an economy in ruins, a government in massive debt, unending war, and the repudiation of the world.
It's important not to forget the bright future that conservatives projected if we cut taxes and regulation: Investors would be motivated to invest productively in new industries that would create new jobs. The people who drive our economy (i.e., the rich) would work harder and more creatively. The benefits would trickle down to everyone.

It didn't happen, and it never does. When the rich get richer, the rich get richer. That's the long and short of it.

The point the NYT editorial was making is also worthwhile: If we get overly concerned with the deficit now, the economy could tip right back into recession. Paul Krugman makes the same point in more detail: The housing boom isn't coming back and consumers are likely to remain wary until after their job prospects perk up. Businesses aren't likely to make major investments without more evidence that a sustained expansion is starting. So even though we're likely to get a blip of good economic numbers in the next quarter, if government stimulus fades out this year as expected, the recession is likely to start again.

I wish I heard more long-term vision from Krugman. You can always have short-term growth if somebody is willing to borrow enough money and spend it. Until 2008, middle-class Americans were borrowing and spending their home equity. Now the government is trying to fill the borrow-and-spend role. But sustainable growth requires something else. Where is it going to come from? I understand that this new growth-engine may not appear tomorrow or the next day, and that we need to stave off disaster in the meantime, but which part of the horizon should we be staring at?

Reacting to the Underpants Bomber
I'm sure you heard: On Christmas Day, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up Northwestern Flight #253 as it descended towards Detroit. He smuggled chemicals onto the plane in his underwear, but his bomb only managed to ignite rather than explode. Passengers captured him while flight attendants put out the fire. Other than Abdulmutallab himself, there were no major injuries. The plane landed safely.

In a sane world, this event would be seen as a major propaganda coup for the United States. Think about it: You imagine you're on your way to a glorious martyrdom, but instead of waking up in Heaven surrounded by virgins, you find yourself in an American hospital with painful burns in unmentionable places. Even thinking about those virgins must hurt.

I want Abdulmatallab's story told in excruciating detail everywhere that young men dream of jihad against the West. All across the Muslim world, I hope that mothers and girl friends are saying, "You keep hanging around with those radicals and you'll wind up burning your dick off like that Nigerian fool."

I hope this incident completely dissolves the image of competence that Al Qaeda had after it destroyed the twin towers on 9-11. These guys are going to bring down the Great Satan and restore the Caliphate? They can't even set their own pants on fire properly.

That's how sane people would react. Republicans have been responding differently. To them, the attempted underpants-bombing is a disaster comparable to 9-11 or Hurricane Katrina. Janet Napolitano's "the system worked" is supposedly a gaffe on the scale of "heckuva job, Brownie." (Let me add this: If the underpants-bombing really is like 9-11, shouldn't Republicans be rallying around President Obama now the way that Democrats rallied around President Bush then? Just wondering.)

The point man on the Republican criticism of Obama has been Dick Cheney. His statement (issued through Politico's Mike Allen) contains numerous false assertions like the one I highlighted in the opening quotes. But Politico was founded by veteran Washington Post political reporters, so its mission is not to present facts, but to provide a venue for people like Dick Cheney to issue statements without criticism or follow-up questions. (Like: Wasn't it your administration that released the Yemenis who supposedly trained the Underpants Bomber? Didn't your administration try the Shoe Bomber in civilian court -- the same thing you're criticizing Obama for planning to do with the Underpants Bomber?) 

You have to wonder whether Mike Allen had these thoughts and repressed them, or if years of stenography have dulled his journalistic instincts completely. Fortunately, Rachel Maddow does ask questions like this, which is why both Liz and Dick Cheney are afraid to appear on her show, despite numerous invitations.

Charles Krauthammer spreads a related lie: that Obama has "declared the war over." The Wonk Room rebuts. Matt Yglesias notes that Krauthammer's column is in both National Review (where publishing lies about Obama is a central part of the mission) and in the Washington Post (where ... what?).
It makes you wonder what the Post’s owners and editors think the purpose of the product they’re putting out is. Is it supposed to convey accurate information to readers? If that’s what it’s supposed to be doing, they’re not doing a very good job of it. But what’s more, they don’t even seem to be trying. 

A lot of the Republican criticism has centered on the words President Obama uses rather than any particular thing he has done. In particular, Republicans object to Obama's reluctance to use the word terrorism. They claim he doesn't use it at all (which is false), but it is true that Obama says violent extremism in many situations where Bush would have said terrorism

I think the administration has done a bad job of explaining this, so let me take a stab: President Bush misused the word terrorist until it broke. Under Bush, terrorist just meant a Muslim I don't like. That's how most of the world hears it now.

The dictionary on my desktop widget defines terrorism as: "the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims." The word would still be viable if the Bushies had consistently used it that way. But when a conservative brought a shotgun into a children's pageant at a Unitarian church in Knoxville and killed two people because of (as a police report put it) "his belief that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country" -- the Bush administration didn't call that terrorism. Assassinating abortion doctors or trying to blow abortion clinics wasn't terrorism either.

You had to be a Muslim (or, more recently, a friend of Obama) to be a terrorist. That -- along with complete amnesia about 9-11 -- was how Dana Perino could say: "We did not have a terrorist attack on our country during President Bush’s term." Or how Jeffrey Weiss could claim (and subsequently correct, to his credit, after Glenn Greenwald pointed out that it was just flat false) that "100% of attempted terrorist attacks ... since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing have been committed by people claiming to act in the name of Islam."

The word is tainted now, and Republicans have no one to blame but themselves.

There's been a spirited debate about whether security officials should have known that the Underpants Bomber was dangerous. His father (a Nigerian banker, but apparently not the one who keeps sending me email) had warned the U.S. embassy that his son was involved with Islamic extremists. With the advantage of hindsight, we can now find a number of additional clues about the UB's intentions. Should the security system have put those clues together and arrested him before he got on the plane? Or would a system capable of doing that create more problems than it solved?

Newsweek does a good job of describing the current system that handles information like the father's warning. The UB's name went on a master list of 550,000 names, but wasn't on the 13,000-name list of people who should get extra screening before they board a plane or the 4,000-name no-fly list. (Other sources claim the number of names on these lists is higher.)

From one point of view this a cumbersome bureaucracy that might let people die while information grinds slowly through its mills. But we also need to think about all the mistakes and abuses this system prevents. We've all heard stories about innocent people who are hassled because their name resembles some suspicious person's. Now imagine that anyone close to you could shut down your travel plans by telling officials that you might be a terrorist. How many angry wives would use such a system to prevent their husbands from flying off to see a mistress? How many controlling parents would use it (or threaten to use it) to keep their adult children from leaving the country?

One lesson we should have learned from the lead-up to the Iraq War (when Dick Cheney established a system to "stovepipe" any raw data that implicated Saddam -- circumventing the usual intelligence analysis process that filtered out unreliable reports) is the importance of the distinction between raw data and actionable intelligence. We collect so much raw data that it can imply anything if you cherry-pick it. We need a system in which knowledgeable, unbiased people investigate and make judgments before action is taken. Sometimes, information may not get through the system in time to be useful -- but taking action on bad intelligence also leads to horror stories.

Here's a depressing stat: 58% of Americans want the Underpants Bomber waterboarded. Uh, folks, he confessed already. Unless torturing him is an end in itself, I'm not sure what this is supposed to accomplish.
A retired Air Force general wants to turn our airports into Abu Ghraib: "If you are an 18 to 28-year-old Muslim man then you should be strip searched," General McInerney said on Fox News. If they're not terrorists already, they will be.
Former Bush officials who think Obama is doing the right things on terrorism are afraid to say so in public.

Short Notes
Huffington Post is pushing an interesting protest action: Move your money out of the too-big-to-fail banks and into community banks.
The idea is simple: If enough people who have money in one of the big four banks move it into smaller, more local, more traditional community banks, then collectively we, the people, will have taken a big step toward re-rigging the financial system so it becomes again the productive, stable engine for growth it's meant to be. 

Daniel De Groot on Open Left puts his finger on why the Right can't admit global warming is happening: "Denial is the only way to save their worldview."

OK, I admit I'm highlighting this because it echoes what I said in February:
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.

The Swedes are attacking global warming with a foreign aid project to train the natives in Virginia.

Will AIG really suffer a brain drain if we don't let them pay million-dollar bonuses? Let's find out.

Karl Rove just divorced his second wife after 24 years of marriage. I guess that proves a point he's been making for years now: Traditional marriage is in trouble. Glenn Greenwald comments:
If Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh and their friends and followers actually were required by law to stay married to their wives -- the way that "traditional marriage" was generally supposed to work -- the movement to have our secular laws conform to "traditional marriage" principles would almost certainly die a quick, quiet and well-deserved death.

Pointing out right-wing hypocrisy and the media's double standard is shooting fish in a barrel, but this stands out: In 2003, conservatives thought it was almost criminal when one of the Dixie Chicks said in London that she was ashamed to be from the same state as President Bush. Boycotts were organized, and the whole story is told in the movie Shut Up and Sing. Well, Ted Nugent, also in England, told Royal Flush magazine that President Obama is a "communist" who "should be put in jail." This registered a zero on the outrage meter.

Having listened for years to the calm, understated voice of Garrison Keillor, I have often wondered what it would take to get him to lose his cool. Well, now we know: Unitarians singing unfamiliar lyrics to "Silent Night". 

As a Unitarian Universalist myself, I thought Cooper Zale's response was spot on. Zale commiserated with the pain of having your buttons pushed, pointed out where Keillor's rant had pushed his own buttons, and closed with: "And so, buddy Garrison ... I would like to wish you a return to your usual wonderful loving and knowing self, as soon as possible!"

A less charitable but very correct response came from Dan Harper (who I know), writing in his Mr. Crankypants persona. Mr. C points out that the "Silent Night" lyrics in the UU hymnal are not a rewrite (as Keillor charges), they're a more accurate translation of the German original. The English lyrics Keillor loves are, in fact, the rewrite. (And while we're on that subject: "O Come All Ye Faithful" is a clumsy translation of "Adeste Fideles".)

I'll add this: Garrison, how about showing some gratitude to the Unitarians who wrote "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and "Jingle Bells"?

Surprising fact discovered while researching the previous note: James Pierpont (the Unitarian organist who wrote "Jingle Bells") was the uncle of John Pierpont Morgan, the banker. (No, Morgan was an Episcopalian.)
Fox News anchor Brit Hume opines that if Tiger Woods wants to "recover as a person" he needs to convert from Buddhism to Christianity. If he does, Hume says, he can "make a total recovery and be a great example to the world." And get all his endorsements back too, I'll bet.
Bono's "ten ideas that might make the next decade more interesting, healthy, or civil" are worth a look. Some are a little fanciful, and you have to bear in mind the Moody Blues' warning ("I'm just a singer in a rock and roll band") -- but he does give you something to think about.

Ezra Klein asks: 
What happens when one of the two major parties does not see a political upside in solving problems and has the power to keep those problems from being solved?
That's what's happening in California, and is starting to happen nationally. Because it takes a supermajority to get anything done in the legislature (as in the U. S. Senate), the Republican minority can block any proposed solutions to California's fiscal crisis, and then blame the Democrats supposedly "in power" for the ensuing problems.


Anonymous said...

What happens when one of the two major parties does not see a political upside in solving problems and has the power to keep those problems from being solved?

I don't know whether E.K. answered his question and am too lazy to look. What the Republicans are looking for is to create a mess so large and comprehensively bad that the cleanup will require a savior. Also known as a dictator. Duh. Maybe E.K. was asking a rhetorical question....

Doug Muder said...

Klein doesn't go there.

I'm not sure I go there either. Maybe there are a few Cheneys who have that vision, but I'd guess the rank-and-file Republicans in Congress just think that they're playing Chicken, a game they're better at than the Democrats: They'll get their way, even as a minority, because they're willing to push the country closer to the brink than the Democrats are.

Anonymous said...

Bono wants the U.S. to follow China's lead in tracking content online in order to preserve his profits. How magnanimous of him. He blithely ignores the studies indicating online sharing of music actually drives sales of small artists up, not down. He can go cry in his Wheaties over his lost profits, for all I care.