Tuesday, February 27

Tonkin Toys

A couple of weeks ago I noticed something odd about Bush's latest news conference: his sudden rhetorical fixation on protecting the troops. He used a permutation of the phrase "protect the troops" seven times in a half-hour of Q&A. Initially, it merely sounded like he had glommed onto a talking point and didn't want to let go.

Digby has a more sinister interpretation. "So, when president Bush used the phrase 'protect our troops' followed by everyone from Gates to Rice, my antennae were way up; it was obvious that it was a potential cassus belli for an attack on Iran," Digby writes.

Like you, I haven't yet read Seymour Hersh's latest on the administration's Middle East shenanigans. I'll wait till my copy arrives in the mail Thursday. But you don't need to read the details of the administration's latest strategic flip-flops to arrive at a conclusion about the administration's tactics. Bush is looking for his Gulf of Tonkin excuse to attack Iran.

This is where the moral monstrousness of Bush stands out in bold and italic. He sends hundreds of thousands of our military people in harm's way, with insufficient armor and paltry numbers of boots on the ground. Then he uses their vulnerability as bait to draw Iran into military conflict.

To Bush, our military people are mere Tonkin Toys, to be expended as a way of getting his desired war with Iran. He will get his confrontation, whether manufactured or not.

Saturday, February 24

Splendid quitter

I picked up Harvey Pekar's confessional, The Quitter, in the public library's "new books" section. The fact that the book was published in 2005 tells you what you need to know about the Palm Beach County library system.

Pekar is best known as the protagonist of the 2003 biographical movie American Splendor, in which he appears as himself and as portrayed by Paul Giamatti. If that sounds confusing, Roger Ebert describes it well here.

Pekar is a graphic novelist who recounts the quotidian details of his life. He bared his life in a series of comics called American Splendor, and in a book called Our Cancer Year, about his treatment for lymphoma. As portrayed in the movie, Pekar has zero drawing ability. He writes, and a hired cartoonist draws. The first issues of American Splendor were drawn by the legendary R.Crumb. The Quitter is illustrated ably by Dean Haspiel.

I was about a quarter of the way through the book when I came across the movie while channel-surfing last night. I had seen it before, twice, but now that I've read Pekar's book, I'm astonished at the way Giamatti poured himself into that role. The back of The Quitter has pictures of Pekar in the 50s and 60s, and Giamatti's resemblance is uncanny.

The Quitter is an unusual type of biography. It's not a memoir -- names and dates and places -- nor is it a full-fledged autobiography, telling the full story of his life. It's narrower than that. Pekar has identified one of the things that he doesn't like about himself -- that he would rather quit than rise to a challenge -- and goes back to his childhood and young adulthood to discover the roots of his character defect. This tight focus allows the story to be told with economy. He tells of how hard he worked to prepare for his bar mitzvah, and how his father was proud of how well Harvey did in the ceremony. "And then, boom, we went our separate ways, with practically no communication between us."

Pekar recounts his disastrous month in the Navy, when he washed out of basic training because he couldn't do laundry.

As Pekar tells it, a pivotal event of his life happened when he got a C-plus on a geography test in college. He was so frustrated at himself that he went home and kicked a chair to splinters, which led to a brawl in the kitchen with his father and cousin. Harvey quit school and moved out. That's when the rest of his life began -- when he quit school and quit his family.

Wednesday, February 21

Ratfucking in the 21st century

I got an email from the John Edwards campaign. Join One Corps (an organization that, as of yet, is not well-defined; I'm not sure what relationship it has to the campaign) and do something to push for universal health care. I typed in my ZIP code and got a list of five One Corps chapters in my area.

Good enough so far. I click on the chapter closest to me: One Corps for Palm Beach County Students. In the description of the chapter, it begins: "My name is Jeff and I'm a sophomore at a local high school."

And there's one more member listed besides the founder, Jeff. The other one is a guy who calls himself tedfun21. There's a photo of him, grinning, standing in a room, his arms crossed. Big arms. The guy works out. He's proud of those big ol' guns.

Let's look at the next-closest chapter, presumably a chapter started by a voting-age person in Palm Beach County. Thirteen members. And the second member listed is tedfun21. The next-closest chapter, just north of here. Two members, one of them tedfun21. The nine-member chapter in West Palm Beach includes tedfun21. And the seven-member chapter 22 miles south ranks tedfun21 as a member.

Let's check tedfun21 out by looking at his One Corps profile. Turns out he lives on South Beach, more than 100 miles south of the kid who started One Corps for Palm Beach County Students. He belongs to One Corps chapters from Florida's Panhandle to Miami Beach. Presumably, as part-owner of PR business, he's not going to have time to drive to all the meetings.

I mention the case of tedfun21 because he illustrates a hazard of online organizing. There's a real risk of getting ratfucked. (To put it another way, if a Republican candidate starts up something like One Corps, there's an opportunity to ratfuck his campaign.)

My first objection is the choice of the peurile handle "tedfun21." That sounds like the handle of someone who's cruising for anonymous sex partners, not like someone who is a serious, dependable political volunteer. Tedfun21's profile says he was Edwards's state volunteer coordinator in 2004. Well, OK. It still looks kind of weird when a grown man calling himself "tedfun21" gloms onto a high school sophomore online.

My second objection is the apparently unfettered ability for anyone to sign up for any One Corps chapter.

Neither one of these objections sounds like a big deal unless you consider the ratfucking possibilities. For the sake of argument, let's assume that John McCain starts something like One Corps, a vaguely defined online organizing thingie. Call it MegaCorpses, for his support for more killing in Iraq. Someone could adopt the handle GookKillr and join every chapter in the nation.

Someone calling herself Pu55yLiquor could join every chapter of Mitt Romney's online organization. If the object were to tweak the Mormon, the name Pu55yLiquor would provide a two-fer: lesbianism and alcohol.

Giuliani's online organization could be plagued by a guy calling himself Diallosnitestik.

Or maybe a guy calling himself Tedfun22 could join all the Republican online campaign organizations, post a nude picture of himself in his profile, and troll constantly for sex partners. That would take valuable time away from the people running the sites.

Naturally, we shouldn't expect the Republicans to come up with the same idea.

Update: Kos knows a potential ratfucking when he sees one.

Tuesday, February 20

History's greatest midwife to change

"We are losing our wars in the Muslim world because our vision of history is at odds with reality, " Michael Vlahos writes in, of all places The American Conservative.

Vlahos adds: "In fact, what empires have most in common is how their sacred narratives come to rule their strategic behavior—and rule it badly. In America's case, our war narrative works against us to promote our deepest fear: the end of modernity."

As I interpret it, Vlahos's argument goes like this: Our success as an empire leads us to believe that we embody the endpoint of history: American-style liberal democratic capitalism where religion is personal and not societal. When a group comes along to challenge that way of organizing the world, we regard it not as a political and philosophical disagreement, but as a mortal threat to The American Way of Life.

"The attacks were not simply a violation of the national person --as in 1941-- but an affront to all that was right and true. Yet its emotional symbolism had a darker side too -- the suggestion, felt but unvoiced by Americans, that the attacks were the first black sign of The Fall of the City, the beginning of the end of the American sacred narrative," Vlahos writes.

As we overreact, our opponents gain adherents. As they gain adherents, we tighten our embrace with authoritarian, corrupt regimes like those that run Saudi Arabia and Egypt. As our hypocrisy becomes clearer and clearer,our opponents gain more adherents. And as we attack them and they survive, they draw even more admirers. Eventually, their ideas will win many adherents. Maybe their ideas will prevail over ours.

Vlahos seems to say simultaneously that it didn't have to be this way because we could have reacted differently, and that it was inevitable that we would react this way because of our status as the world's dominant empire.

We lose our moral authority, Vlahos says, because we shut out the world's poor and dispossessed from our shiny vision of modernity. In addition, we strengthen our opponents when we demonize them. And we pick the wrong military fights, so when we lose, observers note that we are an emperor with no clothes.

We can't defeat our opponents by killing them, because most of our opponents are ordinary, unarmed civilians who disagree with our way of life, and disagree with our support for totalitarian regimes. We demonize groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Muqtada al-Sadr's followers. So when they win political legitimacy among their own societies, we have no one to talk to.

"America's destruction of Iraq and Afghanistan mobilized the Muslim world against us, but more than that it put the global other on notice. For much of the West and most of Islam, the lie of modernity as American altruism is dying in Iraq. Americans care about the death of their soldiers but barely a whit for the destruction of a society wrought in the name of 'democracy,'" Vlahos writes.

Eventually, maybe after we're dead, he says, we will "birth a changed world" and "cast off [our] claim to the universal." And maybe that won't be so bad. "No longer the object of all attack, we might productively rethink our national purpose."

Sunday, February 18

Economic security is the cornerstone of economic opportunity

In his book The Great Risk Shift, Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker describes how individuals have individuals and families have lost much of their security over the last three decades. Incomes are more volatile, jobs can go poof in an instant, two-earner families are in greater peril of suffering severe declines in income. Most importantly (at least, these would be the most important notions I would push if I were a politician), we are much less secure than we were 30 years ago in our retirement income and in the financing of our health care. In the old days, before I went to college, most employees worked for medium and large corporations that paid 100 percent of the premium for family health coverage. Now fewer than a quarter of those employers do that. And where companies once provided defined-benefit pensions, now they offer defined-contribution 401(k)s.

What strikes a chord most deeply, though, is Hacker's invocation of the Personal Responsibility Crusade. This crusade has emedded itself so firmly in our culture that we rarely notice it. When we do, we have trouble describing what's so wrong-headed about it.

When President Bush blamed torture at Abu Ghraib as the actions of a few bad apples, he was parrotting the party line of the Personal Responsibility Crusade. Whenever anyone wonders out loud why the hijackers of Sept. 11, 2001, hated the United States so much, all debate is shut off as Personal Responsibility Crusaders angrily reply that those 19 hijackers were responsible for what they did, and U.S. foreign policy had nothing to do with it.

This kind of buck-passing is infuriatingly hard to argue against, because the buck-passer is disclaiming all responsibility for his actions by explicitly pinning the responsibility on others. Buck-passers don't dodge the issue; they sidestep it expertly by invoking the Personal Responsibility Crusade.

The Personal Respsonsibility Crusade is, among other things, anti-insurance. On the issue of medical insurance, the Personal Responsibility Crusade says we should abandon broad health-insurance pools, and instead we should embrace Medical Savings Accounts, to force us to live healthier and to, I don't know, I guess we're supposed to comparison-shop for medical care -- find the cheapest lab to process biopsies for cancer, that sort of thing.

Hacker says there is "a simple but forgotten truth: economic security is the cornerstone of economic opportunity."

No one has forgotten this. But if you mention it, you're branded as a class warrior. And "class warriors," like "conspiracy theorists," are not allowed to participate in our mass-media discourse.

A couple of years ago, I was visiting a good friend, a guy who is married to a woman with an MBA degree from Wharton. (Did she grow up on my side of the tracks? Hell, no -- she's the stepdaughter of a former president of a huge cosmetics company.) We had dinner with my friend and his wife, and some friends of theirs -- a Wharton classmate and her husband, who owns a company that employs in-home nurses.

The guy was worn out and seemed a bit unhappy, although not to depressed to usher us out to his new car, a Bluetooth-enabled Acura. His cross to bear: He was being sued by his employees for alleged violations of wage-and-hour laws. I made a gently smart-ass remark about how maybe he should have followed the wage-and-hour laws, for which I spent half an hour in the social deep-freeze. Clearly, I was to side with my friend's wife's friend's husband, not with his employees who complained about working unpaid overtime.

What bugged me even more was that the guy's home-nursing business had been kick-started with an investment by his wealthy father. His dad staked him the money to start his business. Nothing wrong with that, but the guy had no idea of what it must be like to have a job where your boss forces you to work overtime and you risk losing your job -- and possibly your home -- if you complain.

"Economic security is the cornerstone of economic opportunity." Yeah, and those who grew up with a surfeit of economic security often don't realize that they're in the minority. That most people can't be entrepreneurs with Dad's money. That most of us can't work unpaid internships to get the experience needed to get a good start to our careers.

"Economic security is the cornerstone of economic opportunity." We're going to talk a lot about that in the coming election season.

Saturday, February 17

Watch your language

Let's stop calling our occupation our war in Iraq.

There's a war going on, yes, between Sunnis and Shiites and among various militias. But we're no longer at war. That mission was accomplished years ago.

The verb for what we're doing is "to occupy."

The noun for what we're doing is "occupation."

The noun that most accurately describes our nation is "occupiers."

Despite its horrors, war often sounds noble and grand. As Lincoln so eloquently described it, the "exceeding brightness of military glory -- that attractive rainbow that rises in showers of blood, that serpent's eye that charms to destroy." People get angry when you question the mission of our men and women at war. They don't listen.

An occupation doesn't sound so noble, and people are more willing to listen. Yes, there have been moral and effective occupations. Our occupations of Japan and Germany come to mind. But there are ignoble occupations that corrupt the occupiers: the Soviet occupation of Germany, the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. From the Iraqis' point of view, we're more like the Soviets in East Germany than the Americans in West Germany.

When the occupied country emphatically doesn't want the occupiers there, an occupation corrupts the occupying country. What we did in Japan was noble. What we're doing in Iraq is corrupting us, both there in Iraq and here at home.

It's harder to fit on a sign or on a lapel button, but "End the occupation" is a more powerful slogan than "End the war." Dirty hippies are anti-war. Decent people who take showers want to end an occupation and bring their men and women home.

Repeat after me: America's occupation of Iraq… Our occupation of Iraq… Occupation forces in Iraq… The nearly four-year-old occupation… Our occupiers are caught in the crossfire of an Iraqi civil war…

End the occupation. The war ended long ago.

Pay for a dishonest war? Here's what Lincoln said

On Jan. 12, 1848, U.S. Rep. Abraham Lincoln, a Whig from Illinois, gave a speech on the House floor in which he denounced President Polk for lying to justify an unprovoked war against Mexico. Not only that. Lincoln complained that Polk had characterized "every silent vote given for supplies, into an endorsement of the justice and wisdom of his conduct."

Lincoln continued:

…in his late message in which [Polk] tells us that Congress, with great unanimity, only two in the Senate and fourteen in the House dissenting, had declared that, "by the act of the Republic of Mexico, a state of war exists between that Government and the United States" when the same journals that informed him of this, also informed him that when that declaration stood disconnected from the question of supplies, sixty-seven in the House, and not fourteen merely, voted against it…
Lincoln accused Polk of an "open attempt to prove, by telling the truth, what he could not prove by telling the whole truth." He added that "all the President states as facts, he falls far short of proving his justification; and that the President would have gone farther with his proof if it had not been for the small matter that the truth would not permit him."

Lincoln brought up three issues, all of which are found in the debate over the occupation of Iraq: funding of the occupation, deception about the reason for war, and predictions about the ease and brevity of the fighting. On all three issues, today's Democrats echo Lincoln's arguments.

First, Lincoln thought Congress had a right and a responsibility to end the war in Mexico by tightening the purse strings.

Second, the bulk of Lincoln's speech concerned Polk's assertion that the war was justified because American blood had been spilled on American territory. Lincoln believed that Polk's assertion was a lie, just as today, most Americans believe Bush's warnings about weapons of mass destruction were lies.

Third, Lincoln bitterly recalled that Polk had "driven into disfavor" a general who had predicted that the war wouldn't be a cakewalk, and that it would take at least three or four months. The war was 20 months old when Lincoln made his speech.

Lincoln said that Polk had tried to escape scrutiny
by fixing the public gaze upon the exceeding brightness of military glory -- that attractive rainbow that rises in showers of blood, that serpent's eye that charms to destroy -- he plunged into it, and has swept, on and on, till, disappointed in his calculation of the ease with which Mexico might be subdued, he now finds himself where he knows not where. How like the half insane mumbling of a fever-dream is the whole war part of his late message!
Then Lincoln diagnosed the current problem in a passage that could be spoken on the floor of today's House with few alterations:
As to the mode of terminating the war, and securing peace, the President is equally wandering and indefinite. First, it is to be done by a more vigorous prosecution of the war in the vital parts of the enemy's country; and, after apparently talking himself tired on this point, the President drops down into a half despairing tone, and tells us that "with a people distracted and divided by contending factions, and a government subject to constant changes, by successive revolutions, the continued success of our arms may fail to secure a satisfactory peace." Then he suggests the propriety of wheedling the Mexican people to desert the counsels of their own leaders, and trusting in our protection to set up a government from which we can secure a satisfactory peace; telling us that "this may become the only mode of obtaining such a peace." But soon he falls into doubt of this too; and then drops back on to the already half abandoned ground of "more vigorous prosecution." All this shows that the President is, in no wise, satisfied with his own positions. … His mind, tasked beyond its power, is running hither and thither, like some tortured creature on a burning surface, finding no position on which it can settle down and be at ease.

Again, it is a singular omission in this message that it nowhere intimates when the President expects the the war to terminate. … As I have before said, he knows not where he is. He is a bewildered, confounded, and miserably perplexed man. God grant he may be able to show there is not something about his conscience more painful than all his mental perplexity!
I, unlike Frank Gaffney, have not fabricated quotes from Lincoln. The text of the speech can be found on the site of the Library of Congress. If this link doesn't work, go here and search the phrase "Lincoln Mexican War."

More importantly, the speech shows that today's Democrats -- and 17 lonely House Republicans -- are the patriotic heirs of Abraham Lincoln.

Thursday, February 15

GOP hands the reins to Osama bin Laden

Sun Tzu said, "the clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy's will to be imposed on him."

Fight for your objective. If you and your enemy are fighting for different reasons -- if your enemy wants to start a religious war, and you merely want to be left alone -- it's foolish to adopt your enemy's objective. To do so is a form of surrender.

Osama bin Laden wanted to provoke a religious war. The United States didn't, and doesn't. Only a fool would make this a war about religion. Among Americans, only a naif would agree with Osama bin Laden that this war is about religion.

Zac Wamp, R-Tenn.:

First, the war on terror is the worst-named war in the history of our country. We are at war with Islamic jihadists, fundamentalists, radicals. We need to be more clear as to who we are fighting. Frankly, my view is that this is a religious conflict.
Rep. Virgil Goode, R-Va.:
When the commentary begins in the Middle East, in no way do I want to comfort and encourage the radical Muslims who want to destroy our country and who want to wipe the so-called infidels like myself and many of you from the face of the earth. In no way do I want to aid and assist the Islamic jahadists who want the green flag of the crescent and star to wave over the Capitol of the United States and over the White House of this country. I feel that radical Muslims who want to control the Middle East and ultimately the world would love to see "In God we trust" striken from our money and replaced with "In Muhammad we trust."
You have joined the wrong team, guys.

Awww, poor wittle babies!

The Republican Party is auditioning for a new name: the Pity Party.

This week, legions of Republicans take the House floor to oppose the resolution against the escalation in Iraq. Few Republicans argue that 21,500 additional troops will do any good. Instead, they talk about emotions. They shed tears for the hurt feelings of our men and women in uniform. They lament the jubilation that Iraqis supposedly will feel if the resolution passes.

It's odd to hear this kind of talk coming from Republicans, who frequently complain that liberals are mushy-headed dealers in therapy-speak. It is a most toxic form of narcissism.

Lamar Smith, R-Texas:

How would you feel if you were an American soldier in Iraq and Congress passed this resolution?

Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.:
You know, the Democrats have every right to disagree with the President's plan, but a nonbinding resolution is not the way to go. It sends a message of no confidence and no support to our troops in the field, weakening their morale while encouraging and emboldening the enemy.

John Carter, R-Texas:
So what should Americans expect from what is being asked for here today? I think they should expect discouraged troops. I think they should expect an encouraged enemy.

Mac Thornberry, R-Texas:
Just put yourself in the shoes of those men and women going into battle in Baghdad. Does this resolution encourage you or discourage you? Put yourself in the shoes of those people who do not want stability in Iraq, our adversaries. Does this resolution encourage you or discourage you?

Over and over, Republicans opposed the resolution because they believe the insurgents will feel happy if it passes. In doing so, these Republicans are allowing the insurgents to dictate their votes on the resolution. They have already surrendered.

It's a pity they feel that way.

Hu the moon

Why, the People's Daily asks, is China determined to go to the moon when it has economic, social and environmental problems to resolve? Partly it's for the same reason that the United States was so eager to beat the Soviets to the moon -- for bragging rights. Or, as China's chief space scientist, Ouyang Ziyuan, puts it, "increasing China's international prestige and the cohesive power of the Chinese nation.

It's not all about ego, though. China is determined to make sure that the United States doesn't monopolize the military use of outer space. China believes there might be treasures buried under that gray, powdery surface -- and it doesn't all belong to the United States by default.

"Furthermore, mineral deposits, energy resources and environment on the moon constitute a crucial sphere for the humankind and, if China fails to make any inquires into this sphere, the country accordingly will not have any right to speak about in this regard," the People's Daily says.

The newspaper says that China might be able to build solar panels on the moon to supply the earth with electricity. No specifics on how the energy would be transferred. And heavy helium, which could be used in fusion power plants, is in abundance on the moon.

And then China mentions the m-word. "With a very special space environmental resource on the moon, and high-precision and low-cost astronomical observation posts and research bases to be built in this environment, the moon can be the top height for environment monitoring with vital military importance."


Stay tuned. Americans might be going to the moon soon too.

Wednesday, February 14

Gotta get some protection

From today's presidential news conference:

But the point I made in my initial speech in the White House about Iraq was, is that we know they're there and we're going to protect our troops.
I have put out the command to our troops -- I mean, to the people who are commanders, that we'll protect the soldiers of the United States and innocent people in Iraq and will continue doing so.
And so we will continue to protect our troops.
And to say it is provoking Iran is just a wrong way to characterize the Commander-in-Chief's decision to do what is necessary to protect our soldiers in harm's way.
And we're going to protect our troops.
My job is to protect our troops.
No. It means I'm trying to protect our troops. That's what that means.
For someone who is so intent on protecting our men and women in uniform, this president does a piss-poor job of it. Someone needs to point it out. More than 3,000 have died and many thousands more have been injured. Bush sent an inadequately sized occupying force with inadequate armor. Four years after the invasion, our servicepeople in Iraq and Afghanistan still don't have the proper equipment. It's so dangerous on the ground that the Army has switched to using helicopters more often, and now the helicopters are being shot down.

And Bush requested a cut in Veterans Administration health care to cut his budget deficit.

How is any of that protecting the troops?


At his news conference today, the president was asked: "Do you have to support the war to support the troops here? I mean, if you're one of those Americans that thinks you've made a terrible mistake, that it's destined to end badly, what do you do? If they speak out, are they by definition undermining the troops?"

The president replied, in part: "I think you can be against my decision and support the troops, absolutely. But the proof will be whether or not you provide them the money necessary to do the mission."

Let's get this straight.

It is possible to be against the escalation and to support the troops.

But to prove that you support the troops, you have to pay for the escalation.

The president added: "Your question is valid. Can somebody say, we disagree with your tactics or strategy, but we support the military -- absolutely, sure. But what's going to be interesting is if they don't provide the flexibility and support for our troops that are there to enforce the strategy that David Petraeus, the general on the ground, thinks is necessary to accomplish the mission."

It's certainly comforting to know that the president considers the reporter's question valid. What will happen to the reporter who asks an invalid question?

Then the president says it's possible to disagree with his tactics and support the military. On the other hand, he says, if you don't support those tactics, you don't support the military.

This is the rhetoric of the wife beater, of the child abuser: "If you don't do as I say, I will hurt you, because I love you." Bush is pushing a cruel form of cognitive dissonance that is designed to force listeners to give up thinking for themselves, and surrender to his will.

"Daddy loves you and that's why he rapes you."

"I'm sorry I hit you, honey. You know I love you."

He's a mean, dry drunk who learned during his drinking days how to manipulate people cruelly. The press and the people let him get away with it.

He's a big bully

Here's the transcript of a minute in the middle of the president's news conference today:

Q Thank you, Mr. President. Sir, we've now learned through sworn testimony that at least three members of your administration, other than Scooter Libby, leaked Valerie Plame's identity to the media. None of these three is known to be under investigation. Without commenting on the Libby trial, then, can you tell us whether you authorized any of these three to do that, or were they authorized without your permission?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, thanks, Pete. I'm not going to talk about any of it.

Q They're not under investigation, though?

THE PRESIDENT: Peter, I'm not going to talk about any of it.

Q How about pardons, sir? Many people are asking whether you might pardon --

THE PRESIDENT: Not going to talk about it, Peter. (Laughter.) Would you like to think of another question? Being the kind man that I am, I will recycle you. (Laughter.) John.

Q Thank you --

THE PRESIDENT: You like that one? "Recycling" him. (Laughter.)

Q That took care of one of my questions, as well, sir.

THE PRESIDENT: If that's the case, sit down. Next question. (Laughter.)
"Being the kind man that I am, I will recycle you." Hi-larious!

"Sit down. Next question." Har de har har!

A transcript doesn't convey the middle-school-lunchroom feel of this exchange. You had to have heard it on radio or seen it on TV. Our president is a bully who refuses to confirm or deny that he ordered his underlings to unmask a spy. He jokes about "being the kind man that I am," which is his way of admitting to us (and maybe to himself) that he is a cruel man. He brusquely orders a reporter to sit down, like a dog.

And our press corps laughs.

Straight out of the middle-school lunchroom. You remember those days. They're the bullying years. And when a bully humiliated a kid in front of an audience -- such as in the lunchroom -- the cowardly bystanders laughed. They laughed with the bully because they didn't dare cross him. The bully might go after them next. They certainly didn't step forward and protect the victim from the bully.

That's your press corps. Subjecting themselves to a big, mean bully who gives reporters unwanted nicknames and orders them to sit down (kiddingly but not really) and tells them that he will "recycle" them.

It's so sad to hear these munchkins laugh when the big bully is beating up on a colleague.

As Digby says (links to Hullabaloo aren't working well; scroll down to the item "706 Days Left): "by far the most painful thing is watching the press corps laugh and laugh when he treats them like children and makes unfunny, puerile jokes at their expense. It's the most pathetic thing I've ever seen and that includes many decades in a business where brownnosing the boss has been raised to the level of religion."

Friday, February 9

Whose side are you on?

We are starting a debate in this country about economic inequality, and it is in danger of being hijacked by well-meaning but misguided people.

John Edwards talks about economic inequality a lot, and maybe that's what's pushing this onto the country's agenda. A couple of days ago, NPR did a piece on the pay disparity between NBA players and the men who play in the NBA Developmental League, which is the top domestic minor league. The NPR story was introduced with the observation that Fed chairman Ben Bernanke spoke this week about economic inequality.

Bernanke said that globalization, technological change and a decline in union membership are some of the factors that drive income inequality. He said: "The sources of the decline in union membership are much debated, and certainly long-run structural changes in the economy, such as the decline in manufacturing employment, have played a role."

He didn't mention that government policies have played a vital role.

Steven Pearlstein, writing in the Washington Post, is pleased that, in Ben Bernanke, we might now have "the trustworthy moderator" that we "desperately need."

This is dangerous. Bernanke is not a moderator and he shouldn't be touted as one.

If you go to a Third World country and ask a taxi driver where to dine, don't be surprised if he drives you to the restaurant that his brother-in-law owns, even if the food is bad. Bernanke is that taxi driver, and Pearlstein is the travel writer who tells you to heed the restaurant recommendations of Third World cab drivers. He's naive.

Bernanke is not a disinterested party in discussions about the widening gulf between the haves and have-nots. As chairman of the Federal Reserve, he represents the moneyed interests. If he didn't represent the interests and the values of the rich, he wouldn't have been named chairman of the Fed.

Pearlstein, other journalists, and politicians must not get away with painting Bernanke is an impartial referee. Bernanke, like his predecessor, Alan Greenspan, makes frequent visits to the White House. He is a political operator, just as any other powerful person in Washington is a political operator. That's not meant pejoratively; it's simply a fact.

There is no neutral observer when we debate who gets what. Bernanke is as impartial as Andy Stern, president of the nation's largest union, on this topic.

This debate is going to be resolved by good, old-fashioned politics. If Bernanke is appointed by the media as an impartial referee, then the haves and the have-mores will continue to win.

Everyone is on one side or another. Instead of appointing neutral referees, let's all ask the question: "Whose side are you on?"

Wednesday, February 7

In other words…

You gotta love the title of the presidential speech delivered Tuesday at a Micron Technology office in Virginia. It's …

Wait. I want you to guess.

Think about it for a few seconds. What title would the president give his speech to the good people of Micron? I'll give you two hints: It's not about technology. And don't forget that Bush submitted his proposed budget the day before.

Come up with your best guess and post it in comments. Be fanciful, be serious, I don't care.

You can find the answer here, with the text of the speech.

The thing that jumped out at me, besides the ludicrous title, is Bush's use of the phrase, "in other words." He uttered that phrase 19 times in this address. The speech, when read, comes off as the work of a high school salutatorian who is trying to prove that he's smarter than the valedictorian.


Like, if you're confident in what you make, you ought to be for trade, because people are going to want to buy what you make. Ninety-five percent of the customers in the world live outside the United States. I mean, we're 5 percent of the population; 95 percent is elsewhere.

…It's probably counterintuitive to some, particularly those who tend to trust government, but, see, I believe it is not only possible, we have proven it through a document, that by keeping taxes low and being wise about how we spend your money, we actually achieve balance in the budget.

…One of the things I presume you expect us to do is analyze programs. In other words, if they say, this is going to do this, and the results aren't there, I think the American people expect us to eliminate those programs or cut the programs back or not fund them, and that's exactly what we do. It's a little hard sometimes to say to a person, a member of Congress, by the way, the program that you think is a good program is not working. But we spend a lot of time doing that in Washington, D.C.

… I'll tell you this, that if government and private sector doesn't continue to work together to make sure people have a skill set, the jobs will go somewhere else. And therefore, now is the time to educate our people. We live in a global economy, and therefore, lawsuits matter.

Wal-Mart, SEIU and the grand bargain

Steven Pearlstein of the Washington Post takes a more forgiving view than mine of Fed chief Ben Bernanke's speech about rising inequality. Pearlstein calls Bernanke a desperately needed "trustworthy moderator for this national debate," and he says Bernanke

gently, but deftly, dismissed the favorite conservative arguments that the story is not one of greater inequality so much as one of greater mobility. At the same time, Bernanke exposed as myth all those overblown fears about the broad decline in standard of living and the death of the American middle class.

Pearlstein says there's little to be gained by debating the relative importance of various factors contributing to rising inequality -- technological change, globalization, superstar compensation for a tiny minority in every field, the decline of unions, deregulation. "Having followed this debate for nearly 20 years, I've come to the conclusion it has become a meaningless exercise," Pearlstein writes.

Instead of arguing about causes, Pearlstein says, we should discuss how "to preserve the political consensus for open and flexible markets by offering Americans a stronger economic safety net -- one that might include more portable and affordable health insurance and pensions, some expansion of income support in the event of a job loss and a big new investment in education and training, from early childhood through adulthood."

Pearlstein says this sounds like the idea of an economic grand bargain that's been bandied about since the election. Rep. Barney Frank has been a proponent of this grand bargain, where businesses get fewer restrictions on trade, and less regulation, in exchange for -- well, I'm not sure what the middle and working classes get out of it.

Maybe this is where the grand bargain is taking shape. The CEO of Wal-Mart and the president of the Service Employees International Union have agreed to lobby for universal health coverage.

As Katie Porter mentions in Credit Slips, the problem isn't merely one of income inequality, but also of income volatility.

The success of excess

The headline:
Boston scare suspect videotaped bomb squad

One of the men criminally charged after placing blinking cartoon advertisements around the city and causing a terrorism scare videotaped a police bomb squad removing one of the devices, but did not tell the officers the object was harmless.
Surveillance cameras caught 27-year-old Peter Berdovsky videotaping officers removing what they thought was a possible bomb last week.
"Mr. Berdovsky didn't do anything inappropriate," his lawyer, Walter Prince, said Tuesday.

Let's try an alternate history, with this headline:
Two dead terrorists, many unanswered questions

Police fatally shot two men who interfered with a bomb squad that had been removing one of many mysterious electronic devices planted in vulnerable places.
Authorities said the two men had been videotaping the removal of the device. Police said they believe that the men were planning to provide al Qaeda with the video so the terrorist organization could have a better understanding of U.S. police methods and procedures.
The suspected terrorists, Peter Berdovsky, 27, and Sean Stevens, 28, approached a police officer standing by yellow tape that had been placed around the Sullivan Square transit station. As they tried to gain the officer's attention, he warned them back. The American-born terrorists slipped past the yellow tape to confront a group of police officers standing next to a cruiser nearby.
"The subjects were ordered to stop," Police Commissioner Ed Davis said. "They persisted in attempting to engage the police officers in conversation. When they turned to leave, one of the terrorists stated that he had placed the device at Sullivan Square and had placed other devices in other locations. Upon hearing this, the officers discerned that one of the terrorists was holding a weapon. Both men were killed in the ensuing gunfire."
The "weapon" turned out to be a video camera. Police were examining the camera last night to determine if it was booby trapped.

Tuesday, February 6

Ben Bernanke's disappearing act

Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, gave a speech today about economic inequality, then sidestepped some of the most important drivers of inequality. He performed a magic act: Poof! The federal government disappeared. Wealthy special interest groups vanished.

Bernanke introduced his topic this way:

Although we Americans strive to provide equality of economic opportunity, we do not guarantee equality of economic outcomes, nor should we. Indeed, without the possibility of unequal outcomes tied to differences in effort and skill, the economic incentive for productive behavior would be eliminated, and our market-based economy--which encourages productive activity primarily through the promise of financial reward--would function far less effectively.

This type of economic propaganda has been spouted so tirelessly for so long that no one notices that it's propaganda. "We do not guarantee equality of economic outcomes, nor should we." Both clauses of that sentence are untrue. We do guarantee equality of economic outcomes for some people. And we should -- but for a different group of people.

We guarantee high incomes for doctors, especially. Also for drug companies, movie studios, and corporate lawyers. We do this by limiting the number of doctors, lawyers and other highly paid professionals who are allowed to practice. The medical and law professions ensure that medical schools and law schools admit a limited number of students each year. More important, they make sure that the federal government keeps a lid on the number of immigrants who practice highly paid professions.

Movie studios, record companies and drug manufacturers are protected by strict copyright and patent laws.

Dean Baker has been beating this drum for years.

In today's speech, Bernanke sought to explain why the rich have gotten so much richer in the last few decades, leaving the poor and especially the middle class behind. (The people in the middle quintile of the income scale have advanced the least, in relative terms.)

Bernanke trots out the role of global trade and technological change, and then he comes up with this:

Finally, changes in the institutions that have shaped the labor market over the past few decades may also have been associated with some increase in wage inequality. For example, unions tend to compress the dispersion of pay for jobs in the middle of the skill distribution. Thus, the decline in private-sector union membership over the post-World War II period -- particularly the sharp drop in the 1980s -- has been associated with an increased dispersion of pay among workers with intermediate levels of skill. The sources of the decline in union membership are much debated, and certainly long-run structural changes in the economy, such as the decline in manufacturing employment, have played a role.

No mention of Ronald Reagan. No mention of PATCO. No mention of a decades-long effort to throttle unions until they constitute just 7.4 percent of employees of private companies.

Unions do guarantee equality of outcomes for some people -- those who hold similar jobs. The decline of unions over the past 30 years has happened at the same time that income has been redistributed upward. That's not a coincidence. It's the deliberate result of policy, adopted mostly by Republicans.

God is not on our side

Just checking in on what Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell said on Sept. 13, 2001, when they accused the ACLU, liberals, feminists, abortion rights supporters, gays and lesbians, and People for the American Way of seizing control of jetliners and crashing them into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.

JERRY FALWELL: Well, as the world knows, the tragedy hit on Tuesday morning, and at 2:00 in the afternoon, we gathered 7,000 Liberty University students, faculty, local people together, and we used the verse that I heard you use a moment ago, Chronicles II, 7:14, that God wanted us to humble ourselves and seek his face. And there's not much we can do in the Church but what we're supposed to do, and that is pray. Pray for the President that God will give him wisdom, keep bad advisors from him, bring good ones to him, praying for the families of the victims, praying for America.

… I sensed a brokenness, tears. People were sobbing at the altar. And, they have no shame about it. It was the kind of brokenness that no one could conjure, only God could bring upon us. And, that is to me the most optimistic thing that I see today as I look across America. And every city, I called a friend in Springfield yesterday. He said at least a hundred churches, Springfield, MO, at least a hundred churches have special prayer meetings for America today and tonight. And, that's happening by the thousands all over America. This could be, if we will fast and pray, this could be God's call to revival.

PAT ROBERTSON: Well, I believe it. And I think the people, the Bible says render your hearts and not your garments, and people begin to render their hearts and they weep before the Lord, and they really get serious with God, God will hear and answer. We'll see revival. I am thrilled to hear that about your church because it's happening all over.

Falwell and Robertson were thrilled with the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. They said that if the deaths of thousands of civilians is what it takes to put asses in pews, then they're all for it. Just two days after Sept. 11, 2001, Falwell and Robertson announced that they were on the same side as the terrorists who had killed more than 3,000 people. Like Osama bin Laden, they don't like liberals and they don't like their fellow Americans and they want Americans to turn to the One True Religion.

There's some disagreement as to what that One True Religion is, but Falwell and Robertson didn't want to make such distinctions while they were metaphorically clasping fists with bin Laden. Dinesh D'Souza is making the same argument as Falwell and Robertson did, at book length.

But our mission today isn't to marvel at the hatred of America that Falwell and Robertson share with bin Laden. It's to ask a simple question: Why didn't God answer all those prayers that Falwell and Robertson talked about?

Why didn't God give President Bush wisdom? Why didn't God keep bad advisers from him? Why didn't God bring good advisers to him? Why didn't God comfort the families of all the victims? Why didn't God prevent America from division?

Falwell and Robertson were chirpily confident that a religious revial would result from the deaths of thousands of Americans. Where's the revival? Do Falwell and Robertson now believe that the terrorist attacks were in vain? Are they disappointed?

Sunday, February 4

Learn this word: Chang'e

In China, 13 designers are competing to draw up plans for a lunar rover. China's Chang'e project will launch a satellite into earth orbit. That satellite will launch another satellite that will go into moon orbit and provide 3-D maps and analyze the moon's chemical composition to figure out how it could be useful to pioneers living there.

Later, China will send an unmanned rover to the moon that will drill core samples and send them back to earth. The goal is to do this by 2017. Then China will decide whether to send people to the moon.

What's the over-under date for when the conventional wisdom holds that there is no longer one superpower, but two?

Damn Colties

Someone had to say it, and Joe Queenan says it best: Today's Super Bowl offers fans a chance to root for absolute good over unadulterated evil.

You have the Bears. The descendants of George Halas. Working class. Have stayed with the same stadium since 1971, continuing to love it as it aged and sagged and had a facelift. Play in the rain and snow, like real football players. NFC.

You have the Colts. Owned by the satanic Irsays. White collar. Skedaddled out of Baltimore at night like little 'fraidy cats, then lacked the class to adopt another name and logo. Play indoors, like little girls in the play area at a mall. AFC (derisive snort).

Marvin Harrison might be the greatest wide receiver ever, even better than Jerry Rice. Did you see the catch he made on the 2-point conversion in the AFC title game? But tell me: Who would you rather have a beer with -- Harrison or Muhsin Muhammad? (If you say, "Muhsin who?," that's your loss.)

A lot of people root for Peyton to win a Super Bowl. The last time I felt that way was when I was rooting, inexplicably, for John Elway of the damned AFC's Broncos. Later, I wondered, "Why care about Elway? There were about 106 guys on the combined rosters."

This game isn't about Manning. It's about what Queenan calls "the serious moral issues underlying the set-to."

Go Bears!

Update: Lance Mannion, who is rooting for the Colts, makes the case against rooting for a team solely because of the athletes' political beliefs.

CNN gives a sloppy wet one to the prez

Digby has a post about what she calls "the giddy reception that President Bush received on the floor of the NY stock exchange last week," with a partial transcript of the CNN coverage.

As CNN correspondent Susan Lisovicz noted in her stand-up, Bush is the second president to visit the exchange during trading hours. The first was Herbert Hoover. Just kidding. The first was Hoover's ideological heir, Ronald Reagan.

Lisovicz's report from the trading floor had this bit:

President George W. Bush, we believe, has just entered the building, and he may pass right behind me. Of course, the president of the United States using Wall Street as his stage to talk about his economic policy, and there's a lot to talk about that is quite favorable to the Bush administration.

We've had 7.2 million jobs created since 2003. The jobless rate historically low, 4.5 percent. We just got the first look at the fourth quarter GDP coming in better than expected at 3.5 percent.
It takes a little work to get employment data, but it's not that hard. You can find it at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The disappointing thing is that you can't create a chart on the BLS site and then link to it. It's all dynamically generated and unlinkable.

Anyway, let's look at nonfarm payrolls. In January 1993, when President Clinton took office, people had 109,725,000 nonfarm jobs in this country. In January 1999, there were 127,477,000 nonfarm jobs. The economy created a net 17,752,000 jobs in Clinton's first six years.

In January 2001, when President Bush took office, people had 132,471,000 nonfarm jobs. Last month, people had 137,258,000 nonfarm jobs. The economy created a net 4,787,000 jobs in Bush's first six years.
  • Clinton: 17.8 million net new jobs in six years.
  • Bush: 4.8 million net new jobs in six years.
Lisovicz is engaging in propaganda. Is she factually correct about 7.2 million jobs created since 2003? In August 2003, after the recession, employment bottomed out at 129,818,000. Payrolls have grown by 7.4 million since. In the equivalent period during Clinton's presidency, nonfarm payrolls increased by 9.9 million.

This stuff is easy to look up. I don't expect Lisovicz to go to the BLS web site while she's standing on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange, shivering in ecstasy when the president is standing just five feet away. But a real journalist doesn't merely parrot an administration's talking points. A true journalist puts those talking points in perspective.

Saturday, February 3

Trillions, billions, thousands -- what's the difference?

The Washington Post reports that "President Bush will ask Congress for close to three-quarters of a trillion dollars in defense spending on Monday, including $245 billion to cover the cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan…"

It would be helpful if the Post did some math for us. How much is $245 billion? How much is three-quarters of a trillion dollars? Those numbers are abstract. The article throws around more numbers that are so large as to be meaningless: $170 billion to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan this fiscal year and at least $145 billion next fiscal year, and $745 billion in war costs since Sept. 11, 2001.

That $745 billion comes out to about $2,500 for every man, woman and child living in the United States. In my family of three, that's $7,500 to pay for five years of war.

In 2003-4, there were 95,726 elementary and secondary schools (kindergarten through 12th grade) in the United States, and 48.4 million students. (Census) If we hadn't shipped that money to Afghanistan and Iraq, we could have kept it here and given it to schools -- for an average of $7,782,630 per school, total, over the five-year period. Or the federal government could have handed the schools $15,392 for each student. That's a student subsidy of $3,078 a year.

In 2004, there were 3.1 million public school teachers in this country. Instead of going to war, we could have given them $240,322 each. That would be an average annual raise of $48,000, which would more than double the average teacher's salary of $45,800. If we did that, we would probably end up with better teachers.

Does that put these numbers into perspective?

Blithe Manor

The New York Times profiles twentysomethings who fancy themselves real-estate moguls . Luciana Hyman is 24 and her husband, Daniel, is 27. They just bought a co-op in Manhattan for $875,000. Judging by the photo, it needs tens of thousands of dollars of fixing up.

As owners in a building with relatively lenient policies, like 10 percent down payments and flexible sublets, the Hymans talk about their apartment as a strategic investment that they someday plan to turn into cash.

"We're more comfortable with taking on debt and paying tomorrow," Mr. Hyman said. "If the cards topple, you can rent your place out and go somewhere cheaper."

Let's unpack this to demonstrate the unreality that the Hymans display, and the odd bias that the Times consistently shows -- an assumption that most twentysomethings (she's a schoolteacher and he's a securities trader) can afford homes that cost a million or more, give or take a hundred thousand.

I'll assume that they bought their share in the co-op building for $875,000 and put down 10 percent. That means they borrowed $787,500. Let's say that got an interest-only 5/1 ARM at 6.25 percent. The monthly payment for principal and interest is $4,102. That excludes co-op fees, taxes and insurance.

What happens if, in Daniel Hyman's words, the cards topple? Let's say that means there's a recession in which the value of the co-op falls by 20 percent and Daniel's income falls precipitously. At that point, their co-op is worth $700,000. If they have an interest-only loan and haven't aggressively been paying down principal, they owe $87,500 more than the place is worth. Meanwhile, their family income is down, so they decide to move out, find a renter, and rent an apartment.

If the co-op's value has dropped 20 percent, to $700,000, and if a lot of owners join the Hymans in putting their places on the rental market, the overall rental market is probably soft. What would be a fair market monthly rent in such an environment? $3,900, tops. Probably closer to $3,500.

Meanwhile, their monthly mortgage payment is $4,102, plus co-op fee, taxes and insurance. Unless they have $87,500 in cash, they can't refinance the loan. If they don't have $87,500 in cash, plus another $42,000 or so for the real-estate commission, they can't sell the co-op. On top of that, they're renting a place and commuting into the city.

It just doesn't work, and the reporter apparently didn't confront the Hymans for their blitheness.

Introducing Queequeg

In Moby Dick, Queequeg was the chief harpooneer on the whaling ship Pequod.

Ah, the Pequod. Then, as now, a metaphor for the United States.

The Pequod was commanded by the mad Captain Ahab, who had been hired by the ship's owners because he presented himself as a sane, sober man who would discharge his duties as a responsible steward of the ship on its multi-year voyage. Once the Pequod was far out to sea, Ahab revealed to his startled crew that he had his own agenda. The Pequod wasn't on a voyage to hunt whales and deliver a hold full of whale oil to the ship's owners; no, gathering whale oil was only incidental to Ahab's true purpose: to hunt down and kill Moby Dick, the great white whale that had "demasted" Ahab on a previous voyage -- had taken Ahab's leg.

The chief mate was Starbuck, a reasonable, moral man who knew that Ahab's mission was folly. Starbuck was decent and ineffectual. He prophesied that the voyage of the Pequod would end in doom, but he refused to challenge Ahab's authority, thus allowing the catastrophe to happen.

The second mate was Stubb, who didn't give a damn about anything and thought everything a joke, and the third mate was Flask, who had a third-rate mind and a blind hatred of whales.

And Queequeg? Queequeg was Starbuck's harpooneer. Whenever a whale was spotted, three boats were dropped into the water, each whaling boat led by one of the mates. In the whale hunt, Starbuck directed where to row the boats. But Queequeg did the important work, thrusting his lance into the quarry.