May 31, 2005
Here's what can happen when you start imprisoning people without fair trials:
"When we went to Pakistan the local people treated us like brothers and gave us good food and meat," said another detainee. But soon, he said, they were in prison in Pakistan where "we heard they sold us to the Pakistani authorities for $5,000 per person."
There have been reports of Arabs being sold to the Americans after the U.S.-led offensive in Afghanistan, but the testimonies offer the most detail from prisoners themselves.
In March 2002, the AP reported that Afghan intelligence offered rewards for the capture of al-Qaida fighters — the day after a five-hour meeting with U.S. Special Forces. Intelligence officers refused to say if the two events were linked and if the United States was paying the offered reward of 150 million Afghanis, then equivalent to $4,000 a head.
That day, leaflets and loudspeaker announcements promised "the big prize" to those who turned in al-Qaida fighters.
Said one leaflet: "You can receive millions of dollars. ... This is enough to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life — pay for livestock and doctors and school books and housing for all your people."
Talk of fair trials and due process of law can sometimes sound excessively legalistic, like some kind of courteous behavior demanded by etiquette. The point that hasn't been drilled into people's skulls is that when you don't give a terror suspect a fair trial, you don't know whether he's a terrorist or just some goatherd who got caught in the net. And when you're capturing people in chaotic places like late-2001 Afghanistan, the risk of error is going to be way higher than in domestic circumstances. The need for a fair trial, likewise, is far higher.
So when you hear Richard Myers talking about how the detainees in Guantanamo want to slit our childrens' throats, remind yourself that there's no telling how many people he's falsely accusing. And given the way that the Bush Administration tries to cover up its mistakes, there's no telling how many innocent people are still locked up in Guantanamo to forestall a PR disaster.
A Plan for Social Security
Among left-wing bloggers, there's a general consensus that Democrats would be foolish to offer a competing plan for restructuring Social Security. This consensus is right (I refer the unconvinced to the Gospel of Matthew), but it leaves open the question of what to say when we're asked what our plan is, or why we don't have a plan.
There's a simple plan we can lay out here: Balance the budget, and no matter what happens with Social Security over the next 40 years, we'll be able to take care of it. Balancing the budget will put America into a sufficiently good financial position that we'll be able to shore up Social Security no matter what goes wrong. If Social Security needs a little extra money to keep going, we'll be able to come up with that.
The best thing about this strategy is that it allows us to segue immediately into talk about Republican fiscal incompetence. Here's where you start talking about tax cuts for the rich, or if you're in an anti-spending environment, big corporate giveaways like the ban on negotiating lower prices for Medicare prescription drugs. It's probably an especially good thing to say to people like Russert, since earnest talk about deficit reduction makes you look all principled and bipartisan in centrist environments.
So, what with the advent of the silly term "NASCAR Dad" and the recent kerfuffle over Robby Gordon's complaint about women drivers being lighter, so their car will go faster (Yes, I know that he was talking about Indy cars, but he drives NASCAR now), I got curious about the rules that govern NASCAR. Now, apparently, NASCAR doesn't release its rules publicly, but the folks who put together "A Yankee's Guide to NASCAR" have ferreted out a lot of them, and compiled the basics.
I don't have the patience to watch car racing or (or full cricket matches), but the NASCAR rules are pretty interesting reading if you like technology. What I found most interesting is that there are a lot of rules for car weight, horsepower, and technology imposed almost entirely to ensure that the winners are sorted from the pack by the team's talent and their luck on the day. Just because you can afford an Indy car that could beat the hell out of all those stock cars, that don't mean that you get to race the Indy car against the stock cars. That view, that talent and luck on the day ought to win out, is the liberal position.
Liberals are comfortable with inequality of outcome. We're comfortable with the notion that some people are smarter or stronger than others, and that they'll succeed while others fail. That's pretty much the luck of the draw. We're even comfortable with a fair bit of starting-point inequality -- some people are lucky enough to be born into better circumstances, and the cultural price to really level out those kinds of inequalities (even if it were possible) is really just too high for most people to contemplate. But our support for things like public education and some publicly-funded bottom to the income scale which falls well above starvation is based on a pretty simple notion: Talent and luck on the day should be more important than which car you can bring to the race.
Liberals: We're for NASCAR Rules.
John Edwards, blogging at TPM Cafe, has a terrific post on the cyclical costs of being poor:
David Shipler, who recently joined me on a panel at UNC, tells a striking story about a single mother he met while researching his book, The Working Poor. She had no savings and low earnings, so she had to live in a drafty wooden house. This exacerbated her son's asthma. That led to two ambulance rides to the hospital. Those trips led to ambulance charges she couldn't pay. Those charges damaged her credit report. And so then she was denied a loan to buy a mobile home. That meant she had to stay in that drafty house—the house that contributed to her son's asthma attacks. And she had to buy a car from a sleazy dealership that charged her 15 percent interest.
As one little boy David met told his mother, “Being poor is expensive.”
True enough. It goes beyond the disastrous, however, and deep into the mundane. The well-off have all sorts of expense savers: Amazon, Expedia, appliances that we replace by choice (and can thus shop for deals on) rather than by necessity, new cars that don't demand constant repairs, transportation options that allow us to reach far flung stores with lower prices, and so forth. So it really is an important point: on a per-dollar basis, being poor is much more expensive than being rich, making it ever-harder to climb out of debt and into a better, cheaper, income bracket. So props to Edwards for pointing it out, and read the rest of his piece. If that's really him doing the blogging, I'm much impressed.
The Power of First
Garance on Hillary:
she's also got one incredible and unique advantage no other candidate has: the power of history. For a Democratic Party that's seen as adrift and out of date, having a woman at the top of the ticket can become part of a narrative of national progress and forward motion. More importantly, it could have profound implications for field organizing and strategies for winning actual votes.
That's correct, actually, and a very interesting point. Further, Hillary, by virtue of her time in the public eye, won't be the "first woman nominated by a major party for president!" I mean, technically, she will be, but her candidacy won't be novelty, she's too natural a choice for the ticket. That allows her to reap the benefits of a trailblazer without being seen as a token. And indeed, it fits nicely with the Democratic narrative of civil rights and equality for women, a storyline that's recently derailed into endless arguments over gay marriage. Regaining some sort of "force of history" sheen is crucial for Democrats though, and Hillary might be able to help us with that.
I do, however, have to take issue with something Garance wrote:
as Villaraigosa showed, it can help to have a candidate who actively inspires a fraction of the electorate where there's room for vote growth.
Yes, Villaraigosa did enjoy broad Hispanic support, but given the election we just went through, I wouldn't quite put "inspire" in the same sentence with him. VIllaraigosa didn't inspire much of anyone, it's just that his opponent was actively reviled by broad swaths of the electorate. End result? Turnout was abysmal, but those who did bother to leave the house went with Villaraigosa. So he certainly won, but he's not exactly a good model for future campaigners.
Deep Throat Revealed!
It was W. Mark Felt, the FBI's #2 at the time. The upcoming Vanity Fair has a long interview with the newly named source, and the Capitol Buzz points us towards an advance copy of the article. It's pdf, but this is a big fucking moment. Off you go.
Is anyone else watching the president's press conference? He's doing stem cells right now and seems strangely hysterical. Out of breath, stammering, desperately defensive -- this is first term Bush, and in a bad way. On the bright side, he just said he won't attack North Korea.
Related note: the WaPo says his mandate is over.
The CEO's Are All Right
In case you were keeping track:
CEOs at California's largest 100 public companies took home a collective $1.1 billion in 2004, up almost 20% from 2003. That compares with the 2.9% raise that the average California worker saw last year, according to the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.
The difference is even sharper at the top rungs of the ladder. The 10 highest-paid executives on this year's list earned 36.7% more than last year's top 10 — garnering a collective $467.5 million. That's enough to buy about 275 homes in Malibu or 1.5 million sets of golf clubs or two 747 jumbo jets.
Some of those CEO's, like Yahoo's Semel or Apple's Jobs, have actually turned their companies around and justified a major salary for themselves. But was Semel's performance so impressive that he needed a 24,000% pay raise in 2004, which meant a total yearly haul of $175 million?
I'm all for performance incentives, but the market for them is simply too high. Since it's climbed so much in past years, any corporation attempting to attract a top CEO has to outbid an already-inflated going rate, leading to bizarro world stock options and cash bonuses. What to do? I'd suggest some nice Democratic demagoguery on the issue, but alienating the nation's CEO's probably isn't so good for our fundraising (particularly relevant as Dean continues to post lower than hoped donation totals). Savvier populists than I might have some suggestions on how to shame these numbers down or force stock options to enter ledger sheets in a rational way, but for now I'm relying on smarmy moral superiority to make my case. Keeps me warm at night.
Requests for TPM Cafe
Josh Marshall's blogospheric power grab finally manifested in a non-"more later"/"stay tuned" form this morning, and all seems well with it. John Edwards is the week's special surprise guestblogger, Matt's got his new home, and the place is generally humming along nicely. But in the spirit of Josh's declaration that the Cafe is a work-in-progress, here are some requests:
• Full RSS feeds, please. You guys have too much content to content (hah! repetition!) yourselves with one-line teasers. Let me get the posts and read 'em at my leisure.
• I know the theme is caffeine, and thus a hectic, crowded, stimulative template is to be expected, but could the design calm down a little bit? I'll probably get used to it one way or the other, but there are too many buttons, tabs, links, ads, medieval murals, aggregators, and offers screaming for attention. If you're not going to let me RSS the site, at least chill those guys out a bit.
• Put up a blogroll, for god's sake. I know TPM Cafe will be the whole world's single stop for trenchant political commentary and it'll soon render all other online outposts unnecessary, but use that power for good and offer some of these new readers a map to other sites. It's the neighborly thing to do.
Otherwise, it looks like it'll be an interesting set of blogs. As the kids say, check 'er out. And by the way -- is Marshall moving over to the new site? Or is he remaining separate but equal over at TPM?
The day before he began blogging here, Neil tagged me with the Caesar's Bath meme. Fun. This one makes you name five things everyone else thinks are great but you just think are kinda, well, nice enough. Plus, I've got a nice, controversial last one that you'll all flay me alive for. Off we go:
The New Yorker: Really, what's the fuss? I recognize that the writing is often inspired, but the topic choice rarely is, meaning I'm only occasionally interested in whatever the magazine has decided to spend that week's 40,000 words on. The latest issue wastes half its time reestablishing John McCain's credentials as a lovable, cuddly outsider whose tough as nails when the situation warrants and has the genetic makeup to live until 170 and the rest inveighing against the scientific bankruptcy of Intelligent Design. Fine articles both, I guess, but I could have absorbed the same information in less time elsewhere, and indeed, I did so years ago. I guess that's my problem with the New Yorker, other magazines feel they need to break stories, or find new angles on them, The New Yorker instead believes in legitimating them. At great length. When I no longer care.
Everybody Loves Raymond: This show been winning critical acclaim and a variety of awards for years now. How? I can't, offhand, think of anything quite as forgettable as this vanilla sitcom. The characters are stereotypes, the jokes are throwaways, and the plots aren't, well, there. Don't get me wrong -- I like my sitcoms, I thought Friends was terrific end-of-the-day entertainment, and even Will & Grace throws out the occasional worthwhile one-liner. But Everybody Loves Raymond? It's the quintessential Caesar's Bath show: nothing really wrong with it, just undeserving of its success.
Blogs: Look, they've been very good to me, I quite like reading them and lord knows I enjoy writing mine, but someone turn off the hype. We don't break stories, we don't fact check ourselves, we rarely challenge our reader's biases, we don't encourage bipartisan conversation, only a few among us write well, only a few among them think well, and, if all that's not enough, I've managed to ascend to a high tier. Shouldn't that prove the medium's at least a little overhyped? Maybe as TPM Cafe comes online, Democracy Arsenal continues to mature, and a few politicians get the hang of them, they'll mature into a much-needed, unfiltered channel of communication between those on the inside and those on the outs. Until then? We're just marginally awake folks with keyboards and time on our hands.
Google Library: As a project, this seems merely cool, not revolutionary. After all, does anyone really want to read Dostoevsky on their computer screen? How about Proust? And I can't imagine we're going to start printing out 400-page books -- at this point, it's cheaper (in ink and paper) to buy the Penguin edition. Moreover, my streamline stapler is just not an adequate replacement for binding. In the future, I could see digitized text becoming useful through, say, in-bookstore kiosks that allow you to choose most any book written, download the text, print it, bind it, make a nice cover, and, for 10 bucks, take it home, thus making bookstores repositories for most every book ever written, both obscure and popular. Indeed, maybe home versions of these machines will eventually come online, making Amazon transactions instant. But until then, the digitization of millions of texts strike me as a highly effective timesaver for college students who forgot where a particular quote was, but little else.
The Downing Street Memo: I promised controversy, right? This has been blowing a few minds on the left and creating some pretty ambitious calls to action (notably Shakespeare's Sister's Brass Blog Alliance, dedicated to supporting the efforts of Conyers and After Downing Street to find impeachable offenses in it and begin proceedings). The memo itself is essentially the minutes from a meeting of Blair and his principals from 2002, wherein they talk about Bush's desire to go to war, about how to sell it to the public, and basically prove that the whole run-up with the UN and the rhetoric around the inspectors and all the rest were crap -- war had already been decided on.
This is nasty stuff. And when historians review the War in Iraq, it'll attain Gulf of Tonkin significance, no doubt about it. But it's just not that significant now. First off, most everyone watching knew that the rationale for war was trumped up. The Bush administration wanted to knock off the Iraqi regime for ideological reasons, not because they were deathly afraid Saddam would launch warships on Florida or pass his nonexistent nuclear weapons off to his longtime enemy Osama bin-Laden, who'd recently declared that good Muslims should undermine Hussein's apostate regime. Both then and now, the question was whether or not you thought Bush's central purpose -- deposing Saddam -- was desirable. Even if every American was told that Bush withheld information as he led us to war and protested that our path was uncertain when it wasn't, you'd change few minds. Either folks believe the war was worth it or they don't, but few think Bush only came to his conclusion after deep soul-searching and Iraqi intransigence.
More to the point, what do Democrats or liberals gain from pushing this story? The last thing they should want is to refocus the debate on whether American should have gone to war and return to the safer -- for Republicans! -- ground of gassed Kurds and regional aggression. Our incompetence once we got there and the poor way the Administration has handled the conflict are much more effective and, indeed, important. Beyond that, we're there now. Recriminations can be handled once the war is over, but few in this country are going to stand for an extended debate on the righteousness of the conflict's beginnings until we're done securing Kirkirk. For evidence of that, take Britain, where the populace is broadly antiwar and wholly irritated at Blair, and yet the Downing Street Memo, which enjoyed extremely wide play, did nothing but shave a few more seats off his winning margin. It's a shame, but I fear folks just don't want to hear about it, and the left will pay a political price if we force it to the fore.