Tag Archives: Jason Linkins

Choo Choo Canned Heat Collectivism

George Will in Newsweek:

So why is America’s “win the future” administration so fixated on railroads, a technology that was the future two centuries ago? Because progressivism’s aim is the modification of (other people’s) behavior.

Forever seeking Archimedean levers for prying the world in directions they prefer, progressives say they embrace high-speed rail for many reasons—to improve the climate, increase competitiveness, enhance national security, reduce congestion, and rationalize land use. The length of the list of reasons, and the flimsiness of each, points to this conclusion: the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.

To progressives, the best thing about railroads is that people riding them are not in automobiles, which are subversive of the deference on which progressivism depends. Automobiles go hither and yon, wherever and whenever the driver desires, without timetables. Automobiles encourage people to think they—unsupervised, untutored, and unscripted—are masters of their fates. The automobile encourages people in delusions of adequacy, which make them resistant to government by experts who know what choices people should make.

Time was, the progressive cry was “Workers of the world unite!” or “Power to the people!” Now it is less resonant: “All aboard!”

Jason Linkins at Huffington Post:

One way of looking at high-speed rail systems is that they are a means by which distant communities get connected, economic development and jobs are fostered, and workers with a diverse array of marketable skills can improve their mobility and thus their employment prospects. But another way of looking at high-speed rail is that it’s some nonsense that came to a bunch of hippies as they tripped balls at a Canned Heat concert. That’s my takeaway with George Will’s latest grapple-with-the-real-world session, in which he attempts to figure out “Why liberals love trains.” It’s “Matrix” deep, yo

Sarah Goodyear at Grist:

In case you’re wondering about the provenance of that “collectivism” word — well, collectivism was a favorite demon of Ayn Rand, right-wing philosopher and the Ur-mother of libertarianism in the United States. Here’s a typical usage, from The Objectivist Newsletter of May 1962 (via the Ayn Rand Lexicon):

The political philosophy of collectivism is based on a view of man as a congenital incompetent, a helpless, mindless creature who must be fooled and ruled by a special elite with some unspecified claim to superior wisdom and a lust for power.

“Collectivism” also recalls some of the very worst communist ideas, including the “collectivization” of farms in the Stalinist Soviet Union — among the great atrocities of the 20th century (a crowded category).

Which makes it a pretty strong term to be throwing around when it comes to funding different modes of transportation in 21st-century America. But Will persists with his formulation:

To progressives, the best thing about railroads is that people riding them are not in automobiles, which are subversive of the deference on which progressivism depends. Automobiles go hither and yon, wherever and whenever the driver desires, without timetables. Automobiles encourage people to think they — unsupervised, untutored, and unscripted — are masters of their fates. The automobile encourages people in delusions of adequacy, which make them resistant to government by experts who know what choices people should make.

A couple of things here. First off, automobiles are not the only vehicles capable of encouraging “delusions of adequacy.” Bicycles, one might argue, are a lot more capable of encouraging such delusions — fueled as they are entirely by the body of the “unscripted” individual. Which is perhaps why they seem to enrage people in cars, who have to worry about gasoline and the like, so very much.

Second, let’s talk about modern air travel. What mode of transport is more capable of sapping the human sense of possibility, more confining of the untrammeled human spirit? Perhaps before Will goes after high-speed rail, he should call for the defunding of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Paul Krugman:

As Sarah Goodyear at Grist says, trains are a lot more empowering and individualistic than planes — and planes, not cars, are the main alternative to high-speed rail.

And there’s the bit about rail as an antiquated technology; try saying that after riding the Shanghai Maglev.

But anyway, it’s amazing to see Will — who is not a stupid man — embracing the sinister progressives-hate-your-freedom line, more or less right out of Atlas Shrugged; with the extra irony, of course, that John Galt’s significant other ran, well, a railroad.

Matthew Yglesias:

But I do think this is a good look into the psychology of conservatives. Maybe high-speed rail is a waste of money and maybe it isn’t. I think it’s plausible to say we should just spend the cash on better regular mass transit or whatever. But I’ve long struggled to explain the right-wing’s affection for status quo American policies that amount to massive subsidization of the automobile. A small slice of that is spending on roads. A much larger amount is minimum lot size rules, parking mandates, the whole shebang. It’s a bit odd, and my instinct had been to say that this just goes to show that conservatism has nothing to do with free markets and everything to do with the identity politics of middle aged white suburban conformists. But Will offers another explanation here. Automobile use is not a sign of the free market, but an actual cause of it. Driving inculcates habits of freedom, and thus coercive pro-car regulations are, in a way, freedom-promoting.

More Krugman:

A bit more on this subject — not serious, just a personal observation after a long hard day of reading student applications. (My suggestion that we reject all applicants claiming to be “passionate” about their plans was rejected, but with obvious reluctance.)

Anyway, my experience is that of the three modes of mechanized transport I use, trains are by far the most liberating. Planes are awful: waiting to clear security, then having to sit with your electronics turned off during takeoff and landing, no place to go if you want to get up in any case. Cars — well, even aside from traffic jams (tell me how much freedom you experience waiting for an hour in line at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel), the thing about cars is that you have to drive them, which kind of limits other stuff.

But on a train I can read, listen to music, use my aircard to surf the web, get up and walk to the cafe car for some Amfood; oh, and I’m not restricted by the War on Liquids. When I can, I prefer to take the train even if it takes a couple of hours more, say to get to Boston, because it’s much higher-quality time.

Yes, your choices are limited by the available trains; if I wanted to take a train from beautiful downtown Trenton to DC tomorrow, I’d be restricted to one of 21 trains, leaving roughly once an hour if not more often, whereas if I wanted to drive I could leave any time I wanted. Big deal.

And don’t get me started on how much more freedom of movement I feel in New York, with subways taking you almost everywhere, than in, say, LA, where you constantly have to worry about parking and traffic.

So if trains represent soulless collectivism, count me in.

Atrios:

As Krugman says, trains really are the best way to travel, at least for travel times that are roughly competitive with air travel. That fact doesn’t automatically mean that therefore we should spend huge amounts of public money on it, but, you know, it does mean that people like trains for more reasons than their insidious collectivist promotion.

Scott Lemieux at Lawyers, Guns and Money:

Manypeoplehave, for good reason, taken their knocks at syndicated columnist William F. George’s ludicrous column about trains, with particular emphasis on the substantial amount of government subsidies that facilitate “individualistic” car travel.    In addition, I’d note that the flying experience is a good example of Republican “freedom.”   For some distances flying is of course necessary and useful, although a good high-speed train network would reduce the number of routes that make flying more practical. For the ordinary person, however, flying is a miserable experience — more waiting in line than a Soviet supermarket during a recession, the potentially humiliating security theater, and incredibly cramped and uncomfortable travel.     But — and here’s the rub — people as affluent as Will can buy their way out of the worst aspects of flying, with separate security lines, private lounges, and first-class seating.   With trains, on the other hand, the experience for the ordinary person is infinitely superior but the affluent can obtain an only marginally better experience.   So you can see why Will hates it.   The fact that trains might represent more meaningful freedom for you isn’t his problem.

More Krugman:

Some of the comments on my various pro-train posts have been along the lines of “Oh yeah, try taking the train to Los Angeles.” But that, of course, misses the point.

I think about the trains/planes comparison something like this: planes go much faster, and will continue to go faster even if we get high-speed rail; but there are some costs associated with a plane trip that can be avoided or minimized on a rail trip, and those costs are the same whether it’s a transcontinental flight or a hop halfway up or down the Northeast Corridor. You have to get to the airport at one end, and get from it at the other, which is a bigger issue, usually, than getting to and from train stations that are already in the city center. You have to wait on security lines. You have to spend more time boarding. So if we look just at travel time, it looks like this:

DESCRIPTION

Suppose that I put those fixed costs at 2 hours; suppose that planes fly at 500 miles an hour; and suppose that we got TGV-type trains that went 200 miles an hour. Then the crossover point would be at 667 miles. It would still be much faster to take planes across the continent — but not between Boston and DC, or between SF and LA. Add in my personal preference for train travel, and I might be willing to train it to Chicago, maybe, but not to Texas.

Now, if we got vacuum maglevs

More Yglesias:

I endorse Krugman’s analysis, but in some ways I think the fact that you can’t get to LA on a train actually is the point. You can’t take the train from New York to Los Angeles. You can’t drive from New York to Los Angeles. You need an airplane. But LaGuardia Airport has limited runway capacity and many daily flights to Boston. Clearly, though, you can take a train from New York to Boston. So money spent on improving the speed and passenger capacity of NYC-Boston train links is, among other things, a way to improve New York’s air links to the West Coast.

Now a separate question is whether there’s any feasible way to actually do this in a country that doesn’t have a French (or Chinese) level of central political authority empowered to build straight tracks through people’s suburban backyards. The answer seems to be “no,” but the potential gains from greater rail capacity in the northeast are large and would (via airplanes) spill over into the rest of the country.

More Goodyear:

In the dark days immediately after 9/11, Will seems to have had a revelation about how a certain mode of transportation could help our nation be stronger and more secure. In an Oct. 1, 2001 column syndicated in the Jewish World Review, Will recommended three steps in response to the attack that the nation had just sustained. First, buy more B-2 bombers. Second, cut corporate taxes. And third? Let Will speak for himself (emphasis mine):

Third, build high-speed rail service.

Two months ago this columnist wrote: “A government study concludes that for trips of 500 miles or less — a majority of flights; 40 percent are of 300 miles or less — automotive travel is as fast or faster than air travel, door to door. Columnist Robert Kuttner sensibly says that fact strengthens the case for high-speed trains. If such trains replaced air shuttles in the Boston-New York-Washington corridor, Kuttner says that would free about 60 takeoff and landing slots per hour.”

Thinning air traffic in the Boston-New York-Washington air corridor has acquired new urgency. Read Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker essay on the deadly dialectic between the technological advances in making air travel safer and the adaptations to these advances by terrorists.

“Airport-security measures,” writes Gladwell, “have simply chased out the amateurs and left the clever and the audacious.” This is why, although the number of terrorist attacks has been falling for many years, fatalities from hijackings and bombings have increased. As an Israeli terrorism expert says, “the history of attacks on commercial aviation reveals that new terrorist methods of attack have virtually never been foreseen by security authorities.”

The lesson to be learned is not defeatism. Security improvements can steadily complicate terrorists’ tasks and increase the likelihood of defeating them on the ground. However, shifting more travelers away from the busiest airports to trains would reduce the number of flights that have to be protected and the number of sensitive judgments that have to be made, on the spot, quickly, about individual travelers. Congress should not adjourn without funding the nine-state Midwest Regional Rail Initiative.

Now that it’s a Democratic administration advocating for rail, Will sees it not as a sensible solution for moving people from one place to another, but instead as a tool to control an unsuspecting populace:

To progressives, the best thing about railroads is that people riding them are not in automobiles, which are subversive of the deference on which progressivism depends. Automobiles go hither and yon, wherever and whenever the driver desires, without timetables. Automobiles encourage people to think they — unsupervised, untutored, and unscripted — are masters of their fates. The automobile encourages people in delusions of adequacy, which make them resistant to government by experts who know what choices people should make.

In his recent screed against rail, Will explicitly dismissed arguments that it would be good for national security. He also didn’t mention air travel. Maybe that would have reminded him of what he himself wrote nearly 10 years ago.

David Weigel:

Good get, but if we’re going to be talking about stupid ideas people had right after 9/11, we’ll be here all day. Will’s rail fetish was a passing fancy, and since then he’s come around to the conservative consensus that rail can never, ever work as a replacement for air travel, so rail projects are essentially boondoggles.

This is an odd discussion to have as the Atlas Shrugged movie comes out. The book and the film absolutely fetishize rail; the film makes it clear that rail will become necessary once gas starts to really run out. And this is something liberal rail adherents point out, too. But I don’t see conservatives coming around to HSR, which needs a massive manpower and financial and land commitment to get going, outside of that sort of crisis thinking.

Jamelle Bouie at Tapped:

This isn’t to play “gotcha,” as much as it is to note a simple fact about our world: We’re all partisans, whether we admit it or not. Reason’s opposition to the individual mandate has almost nothing to do with the substance of what is truly a center-right policy and everything to do with current political circumstances. The mandate was implemented by a Democrat. Reason, as a right-libertarian institution, is part of the conservative opposition to the liberal president. Likewise, Will’s opposition to high-speed rail is purely a function of partisan politics.

This isn’t a bad thing. Yes, partisanship can be taken too far and veer into ideological blindness, but, in general, it is a useful way of organizing our thoughts on policies and politics. Indeed, it’s how most voters process political information. Political commentary would be much more bearable if pundits were willing to accept the partisan origins of their biases and skepticism, instead of playing a game where we pretend to be open-minded observers.  Most are anything but.

Gulliver at The Economist:

Mr Bouie might be overstating the influence of partisanship a bit, and it’s hard for people to know exactly what is driving others’ opinions—or even one’s own. Still, partisanship is certainly a useful frame through which to view both the most ardent opponents and the most passionate defenders of HSR. There is political science research that shows that a president weighing in on one side of a given debate (as Barack Obama has with high-speed rail) dramatically increases political polarization on that issue. Of course, if Mr Bouie’s theory is correct, we should be able to point to some lefty supporters of HSR whose support seems to be driven primarily by partisanship—or even a few who, like Mr Will, have switched positions on the issue. Anyone have a nomination? Let us know in the comments.

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Ashton Kutcher Is Surely Behind This

Adam Weinstein at Mother Jones:

Is that really Scott Walker? [Update: Yep.] A New York-based alt-news editor says he got through to the embattled Wisconsin governor on the phone Tuesday by posing as right-wing financier David Koch…then had a far-ranging 20-minute conversation about the collective bargaining protests. According to the audio, Walker told him:

  • That statehouse GOPers were plotting to hold Democratic senators’ pay until they returned to vote on the controversial union-busting bill.
  • That Walker was looking to nail Dems on ethics violations if they took meals or lodging from union supporters.
  • That he’d take “Koch” up on this offer: “[O]nce you crush these bastards I’ll fly you out to Cali and really show you a good time.”

But was it for real? Check out the details on the guerrilla caller and audio of his conversation below the jump.

According to his Wikipedia entry, Ian Murphy is a gonzo journalist and editor of the Buffalo Beast, an online mag that was founded in 2002 as an alternative biweekly by gonzo Matt Taibbi and a band of colleagues. Murphy’s probably best-known for a tough read about America’s war dead called “Fuck the Troops.” But if his latest Beast post, “Koch Whore,” is to be believed, it’s likely to be read a lot more widely.

When Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Tim Carpenter complained that Walker wouldn’t return any of the Dems’ calls, Murphy says he wondered: “Who could get through to Gov. Walker? Well, what do we know about Walker and his proposed union-busting,no-bid budget? The obvious candidate was David Koch.” Koch, of course, is one of the right-wing brothers behind Americans for Prosperity and a host of other GOP-friendly causes; MoJo‘s own Andy Kroll broke the news last week on the Koch brothers’ past support for Walker and his agenda.

So, Murphy says, he managed to have a phone audience with the governor by posing as Koch. And he taped the whole thing, copied on the videos below.

Jason Linkins at Huffington Post:

Here’s something for your “can this possibly be for real” file this morning. Over at the Buffalo Beast — the former print alt-weekly turned online newspaper founded by onetime editor Matt Taibbi, typically best known for its annual list of “The 50 Most Loathsome Americans” — there appear to be recordings of a phone call between Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and current editor Ian Murphy. Now, why on earth would Scott Walker want to talk on the phone with the editor of an online site in Buffalo? Well, he wouldn’t.

But what if said editor pretended to be David Koch of the famed Koch Brothers? Well, that’s a different story altogether, apparently! And so Walker, believing himself to be on the phone with his patron, seems to have had a long conversation about busting Wisconsin’s unions.

Buffalo Beast Publisher Paul Fallon told The Huffington Post that the audio is “absolutely legit.” That the call took place as described by the Beast has been confirmed by Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie.

“Basically what happened was, yesterday morning [Murphy] was watching television about this Wisconsin stuff and he saw a report where he saw Walker say he wasn’t going to talk to anybody,” Fallon said. “And he said, ‘I bet he would talk to somebody if he had enough oomph behind him.'”

This all apparently went down Tuesday afternoon, hours before Walker made his “fireside chat.” It took some doing: Murphy-as-Koch said he had several hoops to jump through before he was granted access to Walker, beginning with a receptionist, leading to the governor’s executive assistant, and finally ending up with his chief of staff, Keith Gilkes.

Alex Pareene at Salon:

So Walker will happily take a call from a Koch brother. He says that he considered “planting some troublemakers” among the protesters. He is convinced that everyone is on his side. Like most people who only watch Fox, he has a skewed impression of the popularity of his union-crushing proposals. (His plan is, nationally, roundly unpopular. Except on Fox.)

When “Koch” calls Mika Brzezinski “a real piece of ass,” Walker does not respond by saying something awful, which is a bit of a disappointment.

Walker does reveal that he is planning to trick the Democrats into coming back into town for a “talk,” despite his lack of interest in compromising anything. He will ask them to open a session in the Assembly, and then take a recess for this talk. At that point, the Senate Republicans would hold the vote on the bill while Walker distracts the Democrats with this entirely pointless discussion:

They can recess it … the reason for that, we’re verifying it this afternoon, legally, we believe, once they’ve gone into session, they don’t physically have to be there. If they’re actually in session for that day, and they take a recess, the 19 Senate Republicans could then go into action and they’d have quorum because it’s turned out that way. So we’re double checking that. If you heard I was going to talk to them that’s the only reason why. We’d only do it if they came back to the capitol with all 14 of them. My sense is, hell. I’ll talk. If they want to yell at me for an hour, I’m used to that. I can deal with that. But I’m not negotiating.

Walker also thinks that Reagan crushing the air-traffic controllers’ union was “the first crack in the Berlin wall,” because he’s been stewing in the propaganda of conservative mythology for years.

Greg Sargent:

The Internet is burning up with the news that Governor Scott Walker may have been pranked by a caller claiming to be David Koch, and a spokesman for the Governor, Cullen Werwie, emails a statement confirming the call is legit:

The Governor takes many calls everyday. Throughout this call the Governor maintained his appreciation for and commitment to civil discourse. He continued to say that the budget repair bill is about the budget. The phone call shows that the Governor says the same thing in private as he does in public and the lengths that others will go to disrupt the civil debate Wisconsin is having.

More on this in a sec, but for now, suffice it to say that this will reinforce perceptions that Walker is in way over his head.

Michelle Malkin:

A left-wing website that specializes in pranking celebrities, pundits, and politicians — a la Howard Stern — is doing a Snoopy dance over a fake call its operatives made to GOP Gov. Scott Walker.

The hoaxer pretended to be David Koch, the progs’ favorite capitalist target.

I’m not going to give any direct traffic to the infamy-seekers. Here is the Memeorandum link round-up on the story. In sum, Walker talked to the poser for about 20 minutes (audio is here).

Walker stood firm on his no-negotiations stance with Big Labor and talked about his already publicized efforts to bring the Dems back to the state by requiring them to collect their paychecks in person

Ezra Klein:

To Walker’s credit, he doesn’t say anything incriminating. When Murphy/Koch offers to plant demonstrators, Walker declines. The worst you can say is that when Murphy/Koch makes a lewd comment about Mika Breszinski, Walker doesn’t challenge him on it. But that portion reads to me as Walker politely grunting in response to an odd provocation. I imagine politicians are pretty good at gently moving the conversation along when their contributors say crazy things.

But if the transcript of the conversation is unexceptional, the fact of it is lethal. The state’s Democratic senators can’t get Walker on the phone, but someone can call the governor’s front desk, identify themselves as David Koch, and then speak with both the governor and his chief of staff? That’s where you see the access and power that major corporations and wealthy contributors will have in a Walker administration, and why so many in Wisconsin are reluctant to see the only major interest group representing workers taken out of the game.

The critique many conservatives have made of public-sector unions is that they both negotiate with and fund politicians. It’s a conflict of interest. Well, so too do corporations, and wealthy individuals. That’s why Murphy — posing as Koch — was able to get through to Walker so quickly. And it shows what Walker is really interested in here: He is not opposed, in principle, to powerful interest groups having the ear of the politicians they depend on, and who depend on them. He just wants those interest groups to be the conservative interest groups that fund him, and that he depends on.

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Lemonade At Around The Sphere! 10 Cents! Today Only!

Terry Savage at The Chicago Sun Times:

This column is a true story — every word of it. And I think it very appropriate to consider around the Fourth of July, Independence Day spirit.

Last week, I was in a car with my brother and his fiancee, driving through their upscale neighborhood on a hot summer day. At the corner, we all noticed three little girls sitting at a homemade lemonade stand.

We follow the same rules in our family, and one of them is: Always stop to buy lemonade from kids who are entrepreneurial enough to open up a little business.

My brother immediately pulled over to the side of the road and asked about the choices.

The three young girls — under the watchful eye of a nanny, sitting on the grass with them — explained that they had regular lemonade, raspberry lemonade, and small chocolate candy bars.

Then my brother asked how much each item cost.

“Oh, no,” they replied in unison, “they’re all free!”

I sat in the back seat in shock. Free? My brother questioned them again: “But you have to charge something? What should I pay for a lemonade? I’m really thirsty!”

His fiancee smiled and commented, “Isn’t that cute. They have the spirit of giving.”

That really set me off, as my regular readers can imagine.

“No!” I exclaimed from the back seat. “That’s not the spirit of giving. You can only really give when you give something you own. They’re giving away their parents’ things — the lemonade, cups, candy. It’s not theirs to give.”

I pushed the button to roll down the window and stuck my head out to set them straight.

“You must charge something for the lemonade,” I explained. “That’s the whole point of a lemonade stand. You figure out your costs — how much the lemonade costs, and the cups — and then you charge a little more than what it costs you, so you can make money. Then you can buy more stuff, and make more lemonade, and sell it and make more money.”

I was confident I had explained it clearly. Until my brother, breaking the tension, ordered a raspberry lemonade. As they handed it to him, he again asked: “So how much is it?”

And the girls once again replied: “It’s free!” And the nanny looked on contentedly.

No wonder America is getting it all wrong when it comes to government, and taxes, and policy. We all act as if the “lemonade” or benefits we’re “giving away” is free.

And so the voters demand more — more subsidies for mortgages, more bailouts, more loan modification and longer periods of unemployment benefits.

They’re all very nice. But these things aren’t free.

The government only gets the money to pay these benefits by raising taxes, meaning taxpayers pay for the “free lemonade.” Or by printing money — which is essentially a tax on savings, since printing more money devalues the wealth we hold in dollars.

If we can’t teach our kids the basics of running a lemonade stand, how can we ever teach Congress the basics of economics?

Jason Linkins at Huffington Post:

You know, I say, “All hail the cranks of America, who are willing to put almost anything they encounter in the world on trial and find it guilty of destroying society!” But if I could offer a word of advice: maybe stop short of actually yelling at children, to make them feel bad about themselves. But that’s exactly what Chicago Sun-Times columnist Terry Savage has done, and she apparently wants a medal for it.

See, Terry was driving around her “upscale neighborhood” over the holiday weekend, when she encountered some of the upscale neighborhood children at a lemonade stand. And apparently, she has some sort of personal “rule” that compels her to always stop and get some lemonade, because of her unquenchable thirst for citrus or something. But, as it turned out, the three little girls at the stand were just straight up giving away the lemonade for free. And thus began the tirade!

Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing:

Get that, kids? The correct thing to do with the stuff you appropriate from others is sell it, not give it away! Sounds about right — companies take over our public aquifers and sell us the water they pump out of them; telcos get our rights of way for their infrastructure, then insist that they be able to tier their pricing without regard to the public interest. Corporatism in a nutshell, really.

Dan Mitchell at Big Money:

I’m truly not interested in how she leaped from little girls having fun in their front yard to the government extending unemployment benefits or bailing out banks. The answer would involve “bootstraps” or something, I presume. Something horrendously simplistic. No matter what her explanation might be, it would still be based on her belief that it’s bad to give away something you got for nothing, but it’s perfectly fine—in fact highly laudable—to sell it. And that this somehow teaches you that (she really used this phrase), “there is no free lunch.”

The irony here is that Savage could have written a good, perfectly sane column about why it’s better for kids to sell lemonade than to give it away. As she notes amid all the nutty John Galt stuff, it would teach them a lot about business—managing costs, pricing, etc.

But maybe they can learn that next summer. This summer, they learned about the satisfaction of giving someone a cold drink on a hot day. They learned about kindness and, yes, the spirit of giving. They learned, perhaps, that though we are economic creatures, we are not only economic creatures—that there is more to life than money, and that believing otherwise makes us shallow and soulless. And less fun.

And maybe they learned to be careful of strangers in the street exhibiting odd behavior.

And onto other subjects involving lemonade. Sam Stein at The Huffington Post:

Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle has moderated a host of policy positions in her transition from a primary candidate to general election contender battling Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. One thing she has not backed away from has been her insistence that abortion should be outlawed universally, even in cases of rape and incest.

In a radio interview Angle did in late June, the Tea Party favorite re-affirmed her pro-life sensibilities (rigid, as they are, even within Republican circles), when she insisted that a young girl raped by her father should know that “two wrongs don’t make a right.” Much good can come from a horrific situation like that, Angle added. Lemons can be made into lemonade.

Stock: Let me bring up one other topic that I rarely talk about here, because it’s one of those topics that’s a lose-lose, but we’ve got to talk about it because it was brought up in your TV interview and that has to do with the issue of abortion, and whether or not abortion should be available in the case of rape or incest. The question to you at the time by the interviewer was that do you want the government to go and tell a 13 year-old child who has been raped by her father that she has to have that baby. And of course you responded ‘I didn’t say that I always say that I value life.’ Where do you stand on the issue of abortion, a consensual abortion, from a person who is raped or is pregnant as a result of incest?Angle: Well right now our law permits that. My own personal feelings and that is always what I express, my personal feeling is that we need to err on the side of life. There is a plan and a purpose, a value to every life no matter what it’s location, age, gender or disability. So whenever we talk about government and government’s role, government’s role is to protect life and that’s what our Founding Father said, that we have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Stock: What do you say then to a young girl, I am going to place it as he said it, when a young girl is raped by her father, let’s say, and she is pregnant. How do you explain this to her in terms of wanting her to go through the process of having the baby?

Angle: I think that two wrongs don’t make a right. And I have been in the situation of counseling young girls, not 13 but 15, who have had very at risk, difficult pregnancies. And my counsel was to look for some alternatives, which they did. And they found that they had made what was really a lemon situation into lemonade. Well one girl in particular moved in with the adoptive parents of her child, and they both were adopted. Both of them grew up, one graduated from high school, the other had parents that loved her and she also graduated from high school. And I’ll tell you the little girl who was born from that very poor situation came to me when she was 13 and said ‘I know what you did thank you for saving my life.’ So it is meaningful to me to err on the side of life.

Jim Newell at Gawker:

Savvy.

It is actually more ideologically consistent for strictly pro-life people to not leave out exceptions for rape or situations where the mother’s life is at risk. If you see abortion as the murder of a human life, then you should not feel compelled to make politically appealing make cop-outs! But you should also not try to spin these things into positives, either, because they’re really hellishly bad.

Dan Amira at New York Magazine:

Nevada’s Republican, tea-party–backed candidate for Senate, Sharron Angle, is so against abortion, she doesn’t think it should be a legal option even for 13-year-old girls raped by their fathers. Because, after all, that’s just a great opportunity for them to turn “a lemon situation into lemonade.” Harry Reid, you are one lucky bastard.

Digby:

No word on what happened to the incest victim, but that’s really not something anyone should waste much time worrying about.

And anyway it just shows that God provides many good alternatives to abortion for for young girls who are raped by their fathers — perhaps we could just bend the rules a little bit and the little girl could marry her daddy so they could make a new family all their own. Talk about lemonade!

I wonder if Third Way has found a way to accommodate these views inside the Democratic Party. There must be some common ground, here, right?

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Filed under Abortion, Mainstream, Political Figures

These Colors Don’t Torture, They Just Waterboard

Andrew Sullivan:

This blog, along with others, compiled some anecdotes and research to show how the New York Times had always called “waterboarding” torture – until the Bush-Cheney administration came along. Instead of challenging this government lie, the NYT simply echoed it, with Bill Keller taking instructions from John Yoo on a key, legally salient etymology. Now, we have the first truly comprehensive study of how Bill Keller, and the editors of most newspapers, along with NPR, simply rolled over and became mouthpieces for war criminals, rather than telling the unvarnished truth to their readers and listeners in plain English:

Examining the four newspapers with the highest daily circulation in the country, we found a significant and sudden shift in how newspapers characterized waterboarding. From the early 1930s until the modern story broke in 2004, the newspapers that covered waterboarding almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture: The New York Times characterized it thus in 81.5% (44 of 54) of articles on the subject and The Los Angeles Times did so in 96.3% of articles (26 of 27).

By contrast, from 2002‐2008, the studied newspapers almost never referred to waterboarding as torture. The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4%). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8% of articles (3 of 63). The Wall Street Journal characterized the practice as torture in just 1 of 63 articles (1.6%). USA Today never called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture.

In addition, the newspapers are much more likely to call waterboarding torture if a country other than the United States is the perpetrator. In The New York Times, 85.8% of articles (28 of 33) that dealt with a country other than the United States using waterboarding called it torture or implied it was torture while only 7.69% (16 of 208) did so when the United States was responsible. The Los Angeles Times characterized the practice as torture in 91.3% of articles (21 of 23) when another country was the violator, but in only 11.4% of articles (9 of 79) when the United States was the perpetrator.

So the NYT went from calling waterboarding torture 81.5 percent of the time to calling it such 1.4 percent of the time. Had the technique changed? No. Only the government implementing torture and committing war crimes changed. If the US does it, it’s not torture.

Jason Linkins at Huffington Post:

Wow. So, not long ago, America’s major newspapers basically decided that waterboarding was somehow okay. American waterboarding, that is! In the same time frame, the same newspapers made it clear that if any other country practiced waterboarding, it was torture.

Emptywheel at Firedoglake:

One of the most telling details from the study is the description of how newspapers admitted that waterboarding is torture without their omniscient editorial voice describing it as such: they quoted other people.

All four papers frequently balanced their use of softer treatment by quoting others calling waterboarding torture. Except for a brief spate of articles in 1902‐1903 in the NY Times which quoted mostly military officials and senators, almost all of the articles that quote others calling it torture appeared in 2007 and 2008.

More telling still, newspapers barely began to do that until 2007, three years after they started talking about torture, and they most often relied on John McCain to state what–before it became clear the US engaged in such torture–their own pages had stated fairly consistently beforehand.

When quoting others who call waterboarding torture, there is a shift in who the LA Times and the NY Times quoted over time.

Before 2007, the NY Times had only scattered articles quoting others. However, beginning in 2007, there is a marked increase in articles quoting others, primarily human rights groups and lawmakers. Human rights representatives predominate during the first half of the year. However, beginning in October, politicians were cited more frequently labeling waterboarding torture. Senator John McCain is the most common source, but other lawmakers also begin to be cited. By 2008, the articles’ references are more general such as “by many,” or “many legal authorities.” Stronger phrases such as “most of the civilized world” also begin to appear.

The dead tree press, apparently, couldn’t find an expert they believed could adequately voice the long-standing consensus that waterboarding is torture–a consensus recorded in their own pages (at least those of LAT and NYT)–until after McCain started speaking out on the topic.

One more point. The study only examined the four papers with the greatest circulation: NYT, LAT (both of which had extensive archives the study measured for previous uses of torture), USA Today, and WSJ (which didn’t have the same range of archives). So it did not include the WaPo in its study–the paper notorious for torture apology from both the newsroom and Fred Hiatt’s editorial page. So the numbers could be even worse!

What a remarkable measure of the cowardice of our press. And what a remarkable measure of how it happened that torture became acceptable. It’s not just that the press failed in their job, but it’s clear that’s a big part of it.

Glenn Greenwald:

As always, the American establishment media is simply following in the path of the U.S. Government (which is why it’s the “establishment media”): the U.S. itself long condemned waterboarding as “torture” and even prosecuted it as such, only to suddenly turn around and declare it not to be so once it began using the tactic.  That’s exactly when there occurred, as the study puts it, “a significant and sudden shift in how newspapers characterized waterboading.”  As the U.S. Government goes, so goes our establishment media.

None of this is a surprise, of course.  I and others many times have anecdotally documented that the U.S. media completely changes how it talks about something (or how often) based on who is doing it (“torture” when the Bad Countries do it but some soothing euphemism when the U.S. does it; continuous focus when something bad is done to Americans but a virtual news blackout when done by the U.S., etc.).  Nor is this an accident, but is quite deliberate:  media outlets such as the NYT, The Washington Post and NPR explicitly adopted policies to ban the use of the word “torture” for techniques the U.S. Government had authorized once government officials announced it should not be called “torture.”

We don’t need a state-run media because our media outlets volunteer for the task:  once the U.S. Government decrees that a technique is no longer torture, U.S. media outlets dutifully cease using the term.  That compliant behavior makes overtly state-controlled media unnecessary.

Adam Serwer at The American Prospect:

Greenwald says this proves the media’s “servitude to government,” but I think it’s actually the conventions of journalism that are at fault here. As soon as Republicans started quibbling over the definition of torture, traditional media outlets felt compelled to treat the issue as a “controversial” matter, and in order to appear as though they weren’t taking a side, media outlets treated the issue as unsettled, rather than confronting a blatant falsehood. To borrow John Holbo‘s formulation, the media, confronted with the group think of two sides of an argument, decided to eliminate the “think” part of the equation so they could be “fair” to both groups.

Of course, this attempt at “neutrality” was, in and of itself, taking a side, if inadvertently. It was taking the side of people who supported torture, opposed investigating it as a crime, and wanted to protect those who implemented the policy from any kind of legal accountability. Most important, it reinforced the moral relativism of torture apologists, who argued that even if from an objective point of view, waterboarding was torture, it wasn’t torture when being done by the United States to a villain like Khalid Sheik Mohammed, but rather only when done by say, a dictator like Kim Jong Il to a captured American soldier.

Like they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In this case, journalistic conventions helped pave the way for an unaccountable national-security apparatus.That doesn’t mean that some journalists have skewed perceptions of whom they actually work for, but I think that’s the lesser issue here.

Kevin Drum:

As always, where you stand depends on where you sit.

James Joyner:

The fact of the matter is that the United States Government was engaged in this policy against Very Bad People for reasons the American people enthusiastically supported.   Most Americans were nonplussed when news broke that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times because, after all, KSM was a Very Bad Man who did Unspeakably Horrible Things.

This puts the decisionmakers of the American press, whether they agreed or not, in a very difficult situation.  To have insisted that the U.S. Government was engaged in torture when the leaders of said Government adamantly denied that what they were doing constituted torture and most citizens supported the “enhanced interrogation techniques” and dismissed as buffoons those worried about poor widdle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would have not only been taking sides in an ongoing debate but taking a very unpopular stand.

Additionally, the use of the word “torture” has legal and propaganda implications.  To have matter-of-factly stated that the U.S. Government was engaged in torture was to say that those carrying it out are criminals.  The press doesn’t do that with accused criminals, even when there’s incontrovertible video evidence.  And, of course, saying that the U.S. Government is engaged in “torture” is a propaganda victory for the enemy.  That’s a tough thing to do in wartime.

Further, while the press doubtless came to despise some members of the Bush Administration, they naturally had close relationships with the team and saw most of its members as good people trying earnestly to protect the country from another 9/11 type attack.  It’s  psychologically and professionally difficult to dismiss their insistence that they’re not committing torture as simply untrue.  Simultaneously, it’s easy to believe that waterboarding done under the auspices of a despotic regime for the sole purpose of maintaining tyranny is something inherently different and thus worthy of a different name.

Does this amount to “servitude” to the government and “cowardice”?   Maybe.  But I think it’s more complicated than that.

Michael Calderone at Yahoo News:

But the New York Times doesn’t completely buy the study’s conclusions. A spokesman told Yahoo! News that the paper “has written so much about the waterboarding issue that we believe the Kennedy School study is misleading.”

However, the Times acknowledged that political circumstances did play a role in the paper’s usage calls. “As the debate over interrogation of terror suspects grew post-9/11, defenders of the practice (including senior officials of the Bush administration) insisted that it did not constitute torture,” a Times spokesman said in a statement. “When using a word amounts to taking sides in a political dispute, our general practice is to supply the readers with the information to decide for themselves. Thus we describe the practice vividly, and we point out that it is denounced by international covenants and in American tradition as a form of torture.”

The Times spokesman added that outside of the news pages, editorials and columnists “regard waterboarding as torture and believe that it fits all of the moral and legal definitions of torture.” He continued: “So that’s what we call it, which is appropriate for the opinion pages.”

Clearly, the Times doesn’t want to be perceived as putting its thumb on the scale on either side in the torture debate. That’s understandable, given traditional journalistic values aiming for neutrality and balance. But by not calling waterboarding torture — even though it is, and the paper itself defined it that way in the past — the Times created a factual contradiction between its newer work and its own archives.

More Sullivan:

But it is not an opinion that waterboarding is torture; it is a fact, recognized by everyone on the planet as such – and by the NYT in its news pages as such – for centuries. What we have here is an admission that the NYT did change its own established position to accommodate the Cheneyite right.

So their journalism is dictated by whatever any government says. In any dispute, their view is not: what is true? But: how can we preserve our access to the political right and not lose pro-torture readers? If you want a locus classicus for why the legacy media has collapsed, look no further.

So if anyone wants to get the NYT to use a different word in order to obfuscate the truth, all they need to do is make enough noise so there is a political dispute about a question. If there’s a political dispute, the NYT will retreat. And so we now know that its core ethos is ceding the meaning of words to others, rather than actually deciding for itself how to call torture torture. Orwell wrote about this in his classic “Politics and the English Language.” If newspapers will not defend the English language from the propaganda of war criminals, who will? And it is not as if they haven’t made this call before – when they routinely called waterboarding torture. They already had a view. They changed it so as not to offend. In so doing, they knowingly printed newspeak in their paper – not because they believed in it, but because someone else might.

This is not editing. It is surrender. It is not journalism; it is acquiescence to propaganda. It strikes me as much more egregious a failing than, say, the Jayson Blair scandal. Because it reaches to the very top, was a conscious decision and reveals the empty moral center in the most important newspaper in the country.

Brian Stelter at NYT:

Representatives for The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times and USA Today said their newspapers declined to comment.

Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times, said the newspaper has written so much about the issue of waterboarding that, “I think this Kennedy School study — by focusing on whether we have embraced the politically correct term of art in our news stories — is somewhat misleading and tendentious.”

In an e-mail message on Thursday, Mr. Keller said that defenders of the practice of waterboarding, “including senior officials of the Bush administration,” insisted that it did not constitute torture.

“When using a word amounts to taking sides in a political dispute, our general practice is to supply the readers with the information to decide for themselves,” Mr. Keller wrote. “Thus we describe the practice vividly, and we point out that it is denounced by international covenants and human rights advocates as a form of torture. Nobody reading The Times’ coverage could be ignorant of the extent of the practice (much of that from information we broke) or mistake it for something benign (we usually use the word ‘brutal.’)”

The Times does not have an “official, written rule on when or how to use the word “torture,” Phil Corbett, the newspaper’s standards editor, wrote in an e-mail message. “In general, when writing about disputed, contentious and politically loaded topics, we try to be precise, accurate and as neutral as possible; factual descriptions are often better than shorthand labels.”

Some critics, like Greg Sargent, a blogger for The Washington Post, asserted this week that The Times had indeed taken a side in a political dispute, and in a legal one as well.

“The decision to refrain from calling waterboarding ‘torture’ is tantamount to siding with the Bush administration’s claim that the act it acknowledged doing is not illegal under any statute,” Mr. Sargent wrote Thursday. “No one is saying the Times should have adopted the role of judge and jury and proclaimed the Bush administration officially guilty. Rather, the point is that by dropping use of the word ‘torture,’ it took the Bush position — against those who argued that the act Bush officials sanctioned is already agreed upon as illegal under the law.”

The Times and other newspapers have also written about the is-waterboarding-torture debate at length, and many columnists and editorial writers have called the practice a form of torture.

Although the study assessed only the four newspapers identified above, other major newspapers reached similar conclusions about the use of the word after waterboarding re-entered the national lexicon in 2004.

Asked for comment on Thursday, Cameron W. Barr, the national security editor for The Washington Post, wrote in an e-mail message, “After the use of the term ‘torture’ became contentious, we decided that we wouldn’t use it in our voice to describe waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques authorized by the Bush administration.

“But we often cited others describing waterboarding as torture in stories that mentioned the technique,” Mr. Barr wrote. “We gave prominence to stories reporting official determinations that waterboarding or other techniques constituted torture.”

The Harvard study made no claims about the reason for the change in depiction of waterboarding, but concluded that “the current debate cannot be so divorced from its historical roots.”

“The status quo ante was that waterboarding is torture, in American law, international law, and in the newspapers’ own words,” the students wrote. “Had the papers not changed their coverage, it would still have been called torture. By straying from that established norm, the newspapers imply disagreement with it, despite their claims to the contrary. In the context of their decades-long practice, the newspapers’ sudden equivocation on waterboarding can hardly be termed neutral.”

More Greenwald:

Whether an interrogation technique constitutes “torture” is what determines whether it is prohibited by long-standing international treaties, subject to mandatory prosecution, criminalized under American law, and scorned by all civilized people as one of the few remaining absolute taboos.  But to The New York Times‘ Executive Editor, the demand that torture be so described, and the complaint that the NYT ceased using the term the minute the Bush administration commanded it to, is just tendentious political correctness: nothing more than trivial semantic fixations on a “term of art” by effete leftists.  Rather obviously, it is the NYT itself which is guilty of extreme “political correctness” by referring to torture not as “torture” but with cleansing, normalizing, obfuscating euphemisms such as “the harsh techniques used since the 2001 terrorist attacks” and “intense interrogations.”  Intense.  As Rosen puts it:  “So, Bill Keller, ‘the harsh techniques used since the 2001 terrorist attacks’ is plainspeak and ‘torture’ is PC?  Got it.

Worse, to justify his paper’s conduct, Keller adds “that defenders of the practice of water-boarding, ‘including senior officials of the Bush administration,’ insisted that it did not constitute torture.”  Kudos to Keller for admitting who dictates what his newspaper says and does not say (redolent of how Bush’s summoning of NYT officials to the Oval Office caused the paper to refrain from reporting his illegal NSA program for a full year until after Bush was safely re-elected).  Senior Bush officials said it wasn’t torture; therefore, we had to stop telling our readers that it is.

And then there’s this, from Cameron Barr, National Security Editor of The Washington Post, which also ceased using “torture” on command:  “After the use of the term ‘torture’ became contentious, we decided that we wouldn’t use it in our voice to describe waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques authorized by the Bush administration.”  Could you imagine going into “journalism” with this cowardly attitude:  once an issue becomes “contentious” and one side begins contesting facts, I’m staying out of it, even if it means abandoning what we’ve recognized as fact for decades. And note how even today, in an interview rather than an article, Barr continues to use the government-subservient euphemism:  “waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques authorized by the Bush administration.”  Just contemplate what it means, as Keller and Barr openly admit, that our government officials have veto power over the language which our “independent media” uses to describe what they do.

I’m not one who wishes for the death of newspapers, as they still perform valuable functions and employ some good journalists.  But I confess that episodes like this one tempt me towards that sentiment.  This isn’t a case where the NYT failed to rebut destructive government propaganda; it’s one where they affirmatively amplified and bolstered it, and are now demonizing their critics by invoking the most deranged rationale to justify what they did:  political correctness? And whatever else is true, there is no doubt the NYT played an active and vital role in enabling the two greatest American crimes of the last decade:  the attack on Iraq and the institutionalizing of a torture regime.  As usual, those who pompously prance around as watchdogs over political elites are their most devoted and useful servants.

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Filed under Mainstream, Torture

Beware The Zombie Curmudgeon Who Talks Of Lesser People

Jane Hamsher at Firedoglake:

Each time the Catfood Commission holds its secret meetings, Alex Lawson of Social Security Works has been outside with his camera, shooting video of the closed front door as FDL runs a live stream on our front page. The Washington Post wrote it up recently.  As committee members go in and out of the room Alex asks them questions when he can, and yesterday he had an exchange with Alan Simpson that was…well, extraordinary.

Simpson is apparently a graduate of the Bobby Etheridge school of charm. Alex Lawson was incredibly respectful and polite as the crankly Simpson berated, interrupted and cussed him. Simpson has been a long-time supporter of rolling back the New Deal, and when asked about cuts he would recommend to the President and Congress on CNBC, Simpson said  “We are going to stick to the big three,” meaning Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.  His sentiments haven’t changed.

CJR’s Trudy Lieberman recently ran down Simpson’s history of delicate statements on the subject of Social Security.   He is equally decorous on camera with Alex, who clearly knows a great deal more about the subject than he does.  Simpson starts from the premise that the Treasury will default on the bonds issued to the Social Security trust fund, because all the best people apparently know that it’s better to default on America’s senior citizens and plunge them into poverty than it is to default on, say, the Chinese.

Despite Simpson’s assertions, raising the retirement age to 70 IS a benefit cut.  It would put an estimated 1.5 million  senior citizens into poverty. After two years of watching billions of dollars in taxpayer money being paid out to Wall Street CEOs in lavish bonuses while the White House breaks every promise they’ve made to rein them in, that takes a fat load of nerve.

The commission is also looking into cutting Medicare benefits, because the deal guaranteeing no-bid Medicare contracts to the pharmaceutical industry by both Republicans and Democrats can’t possibly be abrogated.  The committee claims it’s independent, but it’s not THAT independent.  So, old people, too bad for you.

Erskine Bowles has returned to run the same play he ran during the Clinton administration, when he negotiated the secret deal between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich to cut Social Security benefits.  Despite warnings from both John Boehner and John Conyers that the commission will report its recommendations to a lame duck Congress who could pass it before the end of the term.  Both Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have promised to bring the commission’s proposals up for votes.

In the absence of any transparency coming from the committee about what transpires in its secret meetings, Simpson’s comments to Alex are the best insight we have into what is being discussed there.

Bottom line:  bon apetite, Grandma!

ALAN SIMPSON:  We’re really working on solvency… the key is solvency

ALEX LAWSON: What about adequacy? Are you focusing on adequacy as well?

SIMPSON: Where do you come up with all the crap you come up with?

SIMPSON:  We’re trying to take care of the lesser people in society and do that in a way without getting into all the flash words you love dig up, like cutting Social Security, which is bullshit. We’re not cutting anything, we’re trying to make it solvent.

SIMPSON:  It’ll go broke in the year 2037.

LAWSON:  What do you mean by ‘broke’? Do you mean the surplus will go out and then it will only be able to pay 75% of its benefits?

SIMPSON:  Just listen, will you listen to me instead of babbling?   In the year 2037, instead of getting 100% of your check, you are going to get about 75% of your check. That’s if you touch nothing. If you like that, fine. You’ll be picking with the chickens yourself when you’re 65.

So we want to take care, we’re not cutting, we’re not balancing the budget on the backs of senior citizens. That’s bullshit. So you’ve got that one down. So as long as you’ve got those two things down, you can’t play with anymore, that we’re not balancing the budget of the United States on the backs of poor old seniors and we’re not cutting anything, we’re stabilizing the system.

LAWSON:  Thanks for being so frank. My question is: raising the retirement age, is actually an across-the-board benefit cut?

SIMPSON:  There are 15 different options being discussed in here today, and why nail one of them…[inaudible]…if you would like to get one of them that pisses your people off.

Jason Linkins at Huffington Post

Breitbart.Tv:

Alan Simpson, co-chair of the White House Debt Commission, provides a full and frank engagement with an activist questioning him on the proposed reforms of the Social Security system. He doesn’t duck. He doesn’t hide. He doesn’t grab the guy around the wrist or neck. And the cry-babies at Huffington Post complain that he uses profanity.

James Joyner:

I’m frankly amazed that Simpson spent 8 minutes, 20 seconds talking to some yahoo with a video camera.   Regardless, the problems he describes are real.    Social Security and Medicare are massive structural burdens, even compared to the spectacular cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.   Those will soon go away whereas the entitlement demands will continue to skyrocket.

Now, Hamsher and Lawson are right:  Simply raising the retirement ago to 70 won’t work, either.   There are many occupations that are too physically demanding to work that long.  And many people’s health declines much sooner than that.   The ultimate solution is going to have to be some combination of means testing and raising the ceiling on the FICA tax.   But that’s going to require an admission that Social Security and Medicare are subsidies for the less fortunate elderly rather than “insurance” programs wherein we fund our our retirement during our working years.

But that was always the intent!  They were poverty relief programs, designed to provide a safety net for people who couldn’t support themselves one they were no longer able to earn a steady paycheck.   Most jobs didn’t provide retirement annuities and many people don’t earn enough to save for retirement, much less for fifteen years of retirement.    I’m willing to kick in some money to help those people get by.

Instead, though, we’ve created a bizarre system where I’m paying a pretty nice chunk of change every month and being told that I’m paying for my own retirement.  Yet, even if we were able to sustain the current setup, my return from Social Security will be so modest that, barring unforeseen circumstances, it’ll be a tiny portion of my income.   And we’re bankrupting the system to keep up the illusion.

John Berry at Fiscal Times:

In the interview, Simpson maintained Social Security is already insolvent because it is paying out more than it is getting in tax revenue. It is not clear whether that will be true for the current fiscal year or the next few years, but it will be happening not too far in the future.

Then Lawson asked, “But what about the $180 billion in surplus that [the trust fund] brings in every year [in interest payments on the Treasury securities it holds]?”

“There is no surplus in there. It’s a bunch of IOUs,” Simpson said. “Listen. It’s two-and-a-half trillion bucks in IOUs which have been used to build the interstate highway system and all of the things people have enjoyed since it has been set up.”

Since Social Security finances were overhauled in 1983, tax revenues have far exceeded costs. That surplus went into the trust fund, was invested in Treasuries and has been earning interest for almost 30 years. Those annual surpluses meant that the government did not have to borrow as much from the public to finance whatever it spend money on. (However, interstate highways have not been financed even indirectly by Social Security surpluses, but rather by motor fuel taxes.)

Whenever tax revenues don’t cover Social Security costs, Simpson said, ” What do they do? They go to that trust fund and say, ‘We need the IOUs out of it.’ And they say, ‘You can have them, but you have to pay for them.’ So you’re taking a double hit on your own government. Makes no sense.”

Indeed, Simpson makes no sense. What is the “double hit”? The government didn’t have to borrow in the past, or pay interest on what it didn’t borrow. Now it has to borrow from the public and pay the interest. There’s no “double hit” involved.

Finally, Lawson said that his understanding was that part of the justification of the 1983 changes was “prefunding the retirement of the baby boom by building up that huge surplus.”

Simpson responded, “They never knew there was a baby boom in ’83.”

Well, Alan Greenspan, who headed the bipartisan commission that proposed the 1983 changes, would tell Simpson something different. The big demographic shift that began right after World War II was precisely why Social Security was expected to face a deficit as the number of workers relative to beneficiaries began to decline when the Baby Boomers began to retire. And that was why taxes were raised and benefits were cut then–to build up a trust fund surplus so benefits could be paid.

Edmund L. Andrews:

Simpson always likes to be outrageous in a cranky-old-man kind of way. It’s part of his charm. But as John points out, Simpson throws around a lot of claims that are just plain wrong and insulting to boot.  Among other things, he talks about Social Security being for the “lesser people.”  His comments threaten to undermine the commission’s credibility.

Paul Krugman:

OK, the immediate problem is the statements of Alan Simpson, the commission’s co-chairman. And what got reporters’ attention was the combination of incredible insensitivity – the “lesser people”??? — and flat errors of fact.

But it’s actually much worse than that. On Social Security, Simpson is repeating a zombie lie — that is, one of those misstatements that keeps being debunked, but keeps coming back.

Specifically, Simpson has resurrected the old nonsense about how Social Security will be bankrupt as soon as payroll tax revenues fall short of benefit payments, never mind the quarter century of surpluses that came first.

We went through all this at length back in 2005, but let me do this yet again.

Social Security is a government program funded by a dedicated tax. There are two ways to look at this. First, you can simply view the program as part of the general federal budget, with the the dedicated tax bit just a formality. And there’s a lot to be said for that point of view; if you take it, benefits are a federal cost, payroll taxes a source of revenue, and they don’t really have anything to do with each other.

Alternatively, you can look at Social Security on its own. And as a practical matter, this has considerable significance too; as long as Social Security still has funds in its trust fund, it doesn’t need new legislation to keep paying promised benefits.

OK, so two views, both of some use. But here’s what you can’t do: you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that for the last 25 years, when Social Security ran surpluses, well, that didn’t mean anything, because it’s just part of the federal government — but when payroll taxes fall short of benefits, even though there’s lots of money in the trust fund, Social Security is broke.

And bear in mind what happens when payroll receipts fall short of benefits: NOTHING. No new action is required; the checks just keep going out.

So what does it mean that the co-chair of the commission is resurrecting this zombie lie? It means that at even the most basic level of discussion, either (a) he isn’t willing to deal in good faith or (b) the zombies have eaten his brain. And in either case, there’s no point going on with this farce.

Brad DeLong:

You don’t name an arsonist to co-chair your fire department. If Obama wants his commission to do anything, he needs to replace Alan Simpson with a reality-based co-chair.

Digby

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Filed under Entitlements, Political Figures

“I’m So Happy. Cause Today I Found My Friends.”

James Risen in The New York Times:

The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself, according to senior American government officials.

The previously unknown deposits — including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe.

An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerrys.

The vast scale of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth was discovered by a small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists. The Afghan government and President Hamid Karzai were recently briefed, American officials said.

While it could take many years to develop a mining industry, the potential is so great that officials and executives in the industry believe it could attract heavy investment even before mines are profitable, providing the possibility of jobs that could distract from generations of war.

“There is stunning potential here,” Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the United States Central Command, said in an interview on Saturday. “There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant.”

Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic:

Were it not for the byline of James Risen, a New York Times reporter currently in a legal battle with the Obama administration over the identity of his sources, a second read of his blockbuster A1 story this morning, U.S. Identifies Vast Riches of Minerals in Afghanistan, would engender some fairly acute skepticism. For one, a simple Google search identifies any number of previous stories with similar details.

The Bush Administration concluded in 2007 that Afghanistan was potentially sitting on a goldmine of mineral resources and that this fact ought to become a central point of U.S. policy in bolstering the government.

[…]

The way in which the story was presented — with on-the-record quotations from the Commander in Chief of CENTCOM, no less — and the weird promotion of a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense to Undersecretary of Defense suggest a broad and deliberate information operation designed to influence public opinion on the course of the war. Indeed, as every reader of Jared Diamond’s popular works of geographic determinism knows well, a country rich in mineral resources will tend toward stability over time, assuming it has a strong, central, and stable government.

Risen’s story notes that the minerals discovery comes at a propitious time. He focuses on lithium, a critical component of electronics. One official tells him that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium” — a comparison to oil. (I can see it now: “We must wean ourselves off our dependence on foreign lithium!”)

The general perception about the war here and overseas is that the counterinsurgency strategy has failed to prop up Hamid Karzai’s government in critical areas, and is destined to ultimately fail. This is not how the war was supposed to be going, according to the theorists and policy planners in the Pentagon’s policy shop.

What better way to remind people about the country’s potential bright future — and by people I mean the Chinese, the Russians, the Pakistanis, and the Americans — than by publicizing or re-publicizing valid (but already public) information about the region’s potential wealth?

The Obama administration and the military know that a page-one, throat-clearing New York Times story will get instant worldwide attention. The story is accurate, but the news is not that new; let’s think a bit harder about the context.

Blake Hounshell at Foreign Policy:

Wow! Talk about a game changer. The story goes on to outline Afghanistan’s apparently vast underground resources, which include large copper and iron reserves as well as hitherto undiscovered reserves lithium and other rare minerals.

Read a little more carefully, though, and you realize that there’s less to this scoop than meets the eye. For one thing, the findings on which the story was based are online and have been since 2007, courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey. More information is available on the Afghan mining ministry’s website, including a report by the British Geological Survey (and there’s more here). You can also take a look at the USGS’s documentation of the airborne part of the survey here, including the full set of aerial photographs.

Nowhere have I found that $1 trillion figure mentioned, which Risen suggests was generated by a Pentagon task force seeking to help the Afghan government develop its resources (looking at the chart accompanying the article, though, it appears to be a straightforward tabulation of the total reserve figures for each mineral times current the current market price). According to Risen, that task force has begun prepping the mining ministry to start soliciting bids for mineral rights in the fall.

Don’t get me wrong. This could be a great thing for Afghanistan, which certainly deserves a lucky break after the hell it’s been through over the last three decades.

But I’m (a) skeptical of that $1 trillion figure; (b) skeptical of the timing of this story, given the bad news cycle, and (c) skeptical that Afghanistan can really figure out a way to develop these resources in a useful way. It’s also worth noting, as Risen does, that it will take years to get any of this stuff out of the ground, not to mention enormous capital investment.

Daniel Foster at The Corner:

In one way, at least, Ambinder is obviously right. By its very nature, a story like this couldn’t be “news.” This isn’t Jed Clampett popping off his scattergun at a gopher and discovering Texas Tea. The “discovery” of vast mineral resources in a number of geographically distinct sites scattered across the country isn’t the sort of story that “breaks” over the course of hours or days. Rather, it moves at the speed of, well, at the speed of rocks. As Ambinder himself notes elsewhere in his post, the Soviets knewAfghanistan might be a jackpot way back in 1985, and the Bush administration was already building-in the political economy of mineral discoveries into itsAfghanistan policy in 2007.

So no, this isn’t “news” news, but that doesn’t necessarily make it hand-fed from the Obama administration. Perhaps I’m being credulous here, but the sourcing and timing of the story, and the fact that there is now at least a rough dollar-figure — $1 trillion — attached to the cache could just as likely indicate that what were heretofore diffuse bits of information and speculation have now cohered, reached a critical mass and crossed over from abstract-future-opportunity to bona-fide-policy-challenge.

Ed Morrissey:

My first thought on reading this was that the Soviets may have had better reasons for invading Afghanistan than first thought.  There has been no real reporting on whether the Soviets attempted to exploit Afghanistan’s mineral resources, but had they succeeded in keeping their grip on the nation, they could have found a new way to stay in business against the West rather than going bankrupt in the Cold War economic warfare that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher conducted against Moscow.

That is pure speculation, but don’t expect that to end just because the Soviet Union collapsed.  We’ve spent over eight years in Afghanistan attempting to subdue the radicals and fight those across the border in Pakistan’s frontier provinces, and many people have questioned why we’re spending so much blood and treasure in a country known for its ability to bankrupt empires.  We have plenty of good strategic reasons to attempt to salvage Afghanistan and keep it from becoming a failed state, but this find will definitely have those inclined towards conspiracy theories cranking up new plots and dark cabals as the real reason we’re attempting to salvage Afghanistan.  A trillion dollars in new mineral deposits don’t come along very often, after all, and some of these minerals will be critical to energy and military applications.

Still, this is a blessing for the Afghan people.  They will need a massive improvement in infrastructure in order to get the materials out for export, but that investment will come a lot faster with this find.   It gives them a real alternative to narco-trafficking, which because of the poverty and Stone Age infrastructure of the country, has been the only option for many Afghans.’

Spencer Ackerman:

So if you were still operating on the presumption that the real reason we remain at war after nine years is something to do with the world’s least efficient way to establish and control an oil pipeline, you’re so 2000-and-late. What, you thought it was a coincidence that the Center for a New American Security established its natural-resources/defense program so soon after the first wave of its leadership entered the Obama Pentagon and State Department? It’s a shame we can’t manufacture cellphone batteries from your vast deposits of naivete.

But I digress. This could potentially work out well for Afghanistan’s opium-and-foreign-aid dependent economy. But Risen details the ways in which the so-called “resource curse” is primed to take effect after the discovery: massive official corruption; weak legal understandings controls delineating ownership and revenue-sharing between national and provincial authorities in mineral-rich areas; decades of warfare. And now, naturally, someone’s telling Risen about the specter of great-power resource competition that just so perfectly implies a new rationale for extended war and post-war foreign influence:

American officials fear resource-hungry China will try to dominate the development of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, which could upset the United States, given its heavy investment in the region. After winning the bid for its Aynak copper mine in Logar Province, China clearly wants more, American officials said.

Hey, just because something aligns with a conspiracy theory doesn’t mean it lacks geopolitical impact.

Matthew Yglesias:

So Afghanistan is going to be “the Saudi Arabia of lithium”, but a more prosaic way of putting the point might be that Afghanistan is, if it’s lucky, poisoned to become the next Bolivia. Indeed, when last we saw geopolitical lithium hype this was the concern and thanks to lithium’s use in batteries for the hypothetical fleet of electric cars that will allegedly save the planet, Bolivia’s been called “the Saudi Arabia of the green world”. But it’s also an impoverished backwater.

Part of the problem, as you can read here and here is that it’s simply difficult in practice to put this kind of wealth to good use.

Kevin Drum:

I have a very bad feeling about this. It could quickly turn into a toxic combination of stupendous wealth, superpower conflict, oligarchs run wild, entire new levels of corruption, and a trillion new reasons for the Taliban to fight even harder. And for the cynical among us, this line from Risen’s piece — “American and Afghan officials agreed to discuss the mineral discoveries at a difficult moment in the war in Afghanistan” — suggests that the Obama administration might be eagerly thinking about these discoveries as a shiny new reason to keep a military presence in Afghanistan forever. I can hardly wait to see what Bill Kristol thinks of this.

On the other hand, maybe it represents lots of new jobs, enough money to suck away the Taliban’s foot soldiers, and the stable income base Afghanistan needs to develop a modern infrastructure. I doubt it, but you never know.

Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic:

Here’s an idea: rather than asking Americans to trod across this minefield in hopes of getting some of the treasure on the other side, let’s take a lesson from history, fully appreciate all the buried danger, and ask ourselves how we can best withdraw ourselves from the situation, sending someone else across the minefield in our stead. The United Nations? The World Bank? The China Mineral Corporation? Whoever it is, better that they suffer the consequences of this find than that we do.

Rod Dreher:

I told a friend the news that the U.S. has discovered vast mineral wealth in Afghanistan. She said sarcastically, “Oh great, now we get to ‘Avatar’ those people” — by which she meant that the U.S. stands to economically colonize Afghanistan, like the earth people did to the N’avi in “Avatar.”

I don’t think that’s the danger here. Rather, I think that this means US troops will be permanently stationed in Afghanistan, protecting US access to those mineral deposits. It is to be hoped that the money to come will help Afghanistan stabilize itself. I am skeptical, though. There’s this comment from the Times story:

An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerrys.

Yeah, that’s just what we need: another hyper-wealthy Islamic extremist state with the financial resources to export its radical interpretation of Islam. There may be a realist case for keeping US troops in Afghanistan to prevent the Taliban from gaining control of the mineral wealth and using it to export radical Islam.

Whatever the truth, I am very sorry these resources were discovered in that cursed country. It’s going to mean no end of trouble. I expect that I’ll live to see Chinese soldiers in the Middle East.

It’s very hard to imagine that a country as misgoverned as Afghanistan will be an exception to the rule that whom the gods destroy, they first make rich in natural resources.

UPDATE: James Risen interviewed by John Cook at Yahoo News

And everyone chimes on that interview:

James Joyner

Jason Linkins at Huffington Post

Dan Amira at New York Magazine

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What If Jazz Musicians, Botanists, And Sushi Chefs Wrote The News?

Christopher Beam at Slate:

A new article in the Columbia Journalism Review discusses the differences between political journalism and political science. What if academics started writing the news?

A powerful thunderstorm forced President Obama to cancel his Memorial Day speech near Chicago on Monday—an arbitrary event that had no affect on the trajectory of American politics.

Obama now faces some of the most difficult challenges of his young presidency: the ongoing oil spill, the Gaza flotilla disaster, and revelations about possibly inappropriate conversations between the White House and candidates for federal office. But while these narratives may affect fleeting public perceptions, Americans will ultimately judge Obama on the crude economic fundamentals of jobs numbers and GDP.

Chief among the criticisms of Obama was his response to the spill. Pundits argued that he needed to show more emotion. Their analysis, however, should be viewed in light of the economic pressures on the journalism industry combined with a 24-hour news environment and a lack of new information about the spill itself.

Republicans, meanwhile, complained that the administration has not been sufficiently involved in the day-to-day cleanup. Their analysis, of course, is colored by their minority status in America’s two-party system, which creates a strong structural incentive to criticize the party in power, whatever the merits.

At the same time, Obama’s job approval rating fell to 48 percent. This isn’t really news, though. Studies have shown that the biggest factor in a president’s rating is economic performance. Connecting the minute blip in the polls with Obama’s reluctance to emote or alleged failure to send enough boom to the Gulf is, frankly, absurd.

Democrats have also slipped in their standing among “independent voters.” That phrase, by the way, is meaningless. Voters may self-identify as “independent” but in almost all cases they lean toward one party.

John Sides:

Brendan Nyhan and I supplied Beam some of our pet peeves — e.g., this one and this one — although the humor is all his.

Steven Taylor:

The Slate piece, penned by Christopher Beam, attempts to write a news story as if it was written from a polisci perspective.  The basic observations in the piece are fairly accurate, although the tone is hardly academic (which, for readability purposes, it probably a good thing!).

Some paragraphs that struck me:

Obama now faces some of the most difficult challenges of his young presidency: the ongoing oil spill, the Gaza flotilla disaster, and revelations about possibly inappropriate conversations between the White House and candidates for federal office. But while these narratives may affect fleeting public perceptions, Americans will ultimately judge Obama on the crude economic fundamentals of jobs numbers and GDP.

Indeed.  While many of these events are significant in and of themselves, the overall economy is far more likely to determine Obama’s electoral fate—but that is pretty boring to note over and over again.

Really, the piece is far more a critique of mass media than it is an exhortation of political science.

Jason Linkins at Huffington Post:

I’m loving this piece from Chris Beam in Slate entitled “The Only Politics Article You’ll Ever Have To Read.” It’s a rather brilliant and hilarious plumbing of the puddle-deep political tropes that the political media and political academics reflexively dials up, as if they were half-dissected frogs who occasionally get the twitchy benefit of an electric current.

Andrew Gelman:

In 1993, Gary King and I published an article, ” Why are American Presidential election campaign polls so variable when votes are so predictable?”, in which we argued (with 10 figures and no tables (except for a brief summary of data sources in the appendix)) that short-term swings in public opinion during presidential election campaigns (for example, the predictable post-convention bounce) have little if any impact on the vote. The bit about elections being so predictable was not original to us—we leaned heavily on Steven Rosenstone’s 1984 book on forecasting presidential elections. What was new in our paper was to take that finding seriously and work through its implications for campaigns.

When we wrote the article, Gary and I wanted to make a difference, to elevate public discourse. It was so frustrating to see the news media focus on the horse race, especially given that there was no evidence that these horse-race stories made any difference. We thought our article might change things, because instead of the usual strategy—criticizing the media for distorting politics with endless stories on the horse race—we were taking the opposite tack, essentially mocking the media for running story after story about campaign gaffes etc. that had no effect. If it’s really true (as we found from our analysis) that what’s most important are the so-called fundamentals (political ideology, party identification, and the economy), then the way the media could have the most influence would be to report on the fundamentals—report what’s happening in the economy and report the candidates’ positions on major issues—rather than the trivialities.

We really hoped that, if our goal was to change how campaigns were reported, we’d do better to portray the standard media practices as ineffectual, rather than as harmful. If you want someone to change, it’s better to describe him as a loser than as a bad boy.

I was frustrated for many years at how little difference our argument seemed to have made. But, if Beam’s article is any evidence, maybe our message really has been getting through!

Matthew Yglesias:

Note that I think it would be a better world if that’s how political news was covered. The articles about horse-race politics would be boring—and rightly so—which means that if you wanted readers for your articles about politics, you’d have to try to find a way to make policy writing engaging. It’s a bit of a hard challenge because it doesn’t involve the same obvious level of human narrative drama, but at the end of the day superficially dry policy debates actually have massive consequences for very real human beings all around the country and the world, so it should hardly be impossible to bring this stuff down to earth

Ezra Klein

Conor Friedersdorf:

It’s a wonderful piece, but Mr. Beam frames it as if all academics are political scientists.

What if sociologists wrote the news instead?

Untangling Race & Gender from Catastrophic Incidences of Corporate Exploitation In Semi-Natural Ecosystems: A Case Study

by Tenure C. King, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Tulane University

NEW ORLEANS — Absent from the dialogue surrounding the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which began on April 20, 2010 following an explosion that killed eleven workers, are the roles of class, race and especially gender. Due to the environmental devastation wrought by the catastrophe, which is likely to fall heaviest on the working poor, it is understandable that attention is largely focused on efforts to plug the oil well undertaken by British Petroleum, a corporation founded in imperial Britain to exploit the oil resources of people of color.

It is not insignificant to cleanup efforts, however, that even today BP’s leadership lacks adequate gender diversity, its board of directors being made up of fourteen persons, only one of them who self-identifies as a female, and all of whom earn significantly more than the median income in Louisiana, Alabama, and even the relatively privileged residents of coastal Florida.

Among other things, this raises important questions as to whether Gulf Coast populations most affected by the spill will see mitigation efforts as legitimate. Asked about this issue, Mijntje Lückerath-Rovers, a legal researcher at Erasmus University Rotterdam, noted that “any comprehensive investigation of the impact of providing legitimacy by female board members on corporate performance should not be limited to profitability (which is mostly concerned with shareholders profit), but should include, for example, social and market performance and the satisfaction of relevant stakeholders.”

Thus far, however, neither a protocol for evaluating the satisfaction of stakeholders nor a safe space where they might be interviewed has been established by the disproportionately white, male pubic servants with a responsibility to respond..

Despite the fact that the United States has institutional frameworks insufficient to adequately safeguard environmental assets through federal intervention, other observers are calling for President Barack Obama to assume a greater role over efforts to stop the spill. While his participation would certainly improve upon the actual and perceived diversity of oil mitigation efforts, a long pattern of institutional racism in American history and the resulting exclusion of African Americans and other people of color from the Oval Office means that scholarly data cannot predict how an increase in racial diversity would impact performance in mitigating the environmental impacts of an oil spill.

Jonathan Chait at TNR:

I foresee a progressively less-amusing internet trope. By the time this devolves into “What if biologists wrote the news?,” we’re all going to want to kill ourselves. In the meantime, Friedersdorf’s piece is pretty darn good.

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