Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Thursday, June 30, 2011 8:10 pm

Because if you don’t stop it, the next time it will be even worse

During the Bush era, I raised hell here about violations of law and the Constitution by the administration, for which I had my intelligence, sanity, patriotism and sexual proclivities questioned. On the good days.

And I did it for a reason: History suggests that if violations of the law by government are not punished severely, those violations will not only continue but worsen. And American history suggests that party affiliation is no guarantor of government legality.

We’ve watched that pattern play out again during the Obama administration. Although Obama campaigned (to some extent) against the criminal violations of the Bush national-security state, he’s continuing some of those same practices now that he is the one with the power. I warned of this behavior early in his tenure, and I’ve long since reached my breaking point. But the pattern is worsening, as Fecund Stench notes in this brief but telling roundup:

From Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic:

In Barack Obama’s rise to national prominence, when he criticized the Bush Administration for its false claims about WMDs in Iraq, its torture of detainees, and its illegal program of spying on American citizens without warrants, he owed a particular debt of gratitude to a New York Times national security reporter. In a series of scoops as impressive as any amassed during the War on Terrorism, James Risen reported in 2004 that the CIA failed to tell President Bush about relatives of Iraqi scientists who swore that the country had abandoned its weapons program; the same year, he was first to reveal that the CIA was waterboarding detainees in Iraq; and in 2005, he broke the Pulitzer Prize winning story about the secret NSA spying program.

These scoops so embarrassed and angered the Bush Administration that some of its senior members wanted Risen to end up in jail. They never managed to make that happen. But President Obama might. He once found obvious value in Risen’s investigative journalism. Its work that would’ve been impossible to produce without confidential sources and an ability to credibly promise that he’d never reveal their identities. But no matter. The Obama Administration is now demanding that Risen reveal his source for a 2006 scoop about CIA missteps in Iran. If he refuses to cooperate, which is his plan, he faces the possibility of jail time.

From Glenn Greenwald at Salon, last week:

The subpoena to Risen was originally issued but then abandoned by the Bush administration, and then revitalized by Obama lawyers. It is part of the prosecution of Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA agent whom the DOJ accuses of leaking to Risen the story of a severely botched agency plot — from 11 years ago — to infiltrate Iran’s nuclear program, a story Risen wrote about six years after the fact in his 2006 best-selling book, State of War. The DOJ wants to force Risen to testify under oath about whether Sterling was his source…

What’s particularly striking about this prosecution is that it involves digging deep into the ancient past (the Iran operation in question was begun under the Clinton administration): this from a President who insisted that Bush officials not be investigated for their crimes on the ground that we must “Look Forward, Not Backward.” But it’s not hard to see why Obama officials are so intent on doing so: few things are more effective in creating a Climate of Fear — one that deters investigation and disclosure and stifles the exercise of basic rights — than prosecuting prominent people for having challenged and undermined the government’s agenda. As Risen documents, that — plainly — is what this prosecution and the Obama administration’s broader anti-whistleblower war is about: chilling the exercise of basic rights and the ability to challenge government actions.

From David K. Shipler at the NYT, last week:

THIS spring was a rough season for the Fourth Amendment. The Obama administration petitioned the Supreme Court to allow GPS tracking of vehicles without judicial permission. The Supreme Court ruled that the police could break into a house without a search warrant if, after knocking and announcing themselves, they heard what sounded like evidence being destroyed. Then it refused to see a Fourth Amendment violation where a citizen was jailed for 16 days on the false pretext that he was being held as a material witness to a crime.

I’ll be honest: I’m scared. Once these freedoms go, they’ll be difficult, if not impossible, to get back. Once the precedents have been established that criminal violations of the law and violations of the Constitution by our government will go not just unpunished but, if possible, unrecorded, we have entered a long, dark tunnel at the end of which no light is visible.

If you’re content to live in Guatemala with a bigger economy, fine. I’ve always hoped for better.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011 8:54 pm

Potentially useful information: USA Today’s comments will not let you use the word “bastards.”

However, “douchenozzles” goes through just fine.

How Rod Blagojevich brought down President Obama

Oh, wait, he didn’t:

… when Blagojevich first faced accusations of trying to sell President Obama’s former Senate seat, speculation was rampant that allegations of corruption would marr Obama’s presidency before it even began.

For months after the initial accusations became public, media figures kept vaguely claiming that a “cloud” was now hanging over Obama, even though there was little evidence Obama or his staff had done anything wrong. When Obama said he wouldn’t comment on an “ongoing investigation,” that drew comparisons to the Valerie Plame and Jack Abramoff corruption scandals. When no gotcha moment occured, cable news pundits actually took to criticizing Obama for not being more effective in convincing reporters not to baselessly speculate that he was corrupt.

It’s not hard to understand how this happened, given how cynical American politics can get. Many reporters must have been thinking, “when was the last time a politician denied being involved in a corruption scandal and was actually telling the truth?”

It’s usually a better than even bet that they aren’t. And in the case of the Blago tale, the anticipation of a juicy corruption scandal going “all the way to the top” just didn’t pan out. It wasn’t the political press’ finest moment.

Journalists frequently attempt two things they’re pretty awful at: psychoanalysis  and divination. That’s one small but real reason why journalism is held in such ill repute.

BREAKING NEWS: Inhaling mushed-up pig brains is bad for you.

Filed under: Sad — Lex @ 8:28 pm
Tags: , , , ,

No, really.

Yeah, I couldn’t believe it myself.

Leonard Stern: Rest in _________ [noun]

Filed under: Fun,Sad — Lex @ 8:24 pm
Tags: ,

I missed this when it happened, but Leonard Stern, the TV writer/producer who invented the “Mad Libs” series of word-game books, died recently.

The New York Times has a nice piece here on how Stern and his partner, Roger Price, invented the game. They thought they had a money-maker, but book publishers thought it was a game and game makers thought it was a book, so they had to publish the first batch themselves, leading to this, my favorite passage from the story:

So in the late 1950s they published it themselves, storing the first printing — 14,000 copies — in the dining room of Mr. Price’s Manhattan apartment. He ate standing up for the next several months.

Now that’s ____________ [noun].

Monday, June 27, 2011 8:48 pm

Y’all listen up

Filed under: Y'all go read this — Lex @ 8:48 pm
Tags: ,

My friend the Rev. Mark Sills has retired. Fortunately, Mark, who has spent a lot of years looking after the kinds of Greensboro people whom Christ called “the least of these,” has no plans to be retiring. Indeed, he has started a blog. Y’all hit it.

Saturday, June 25, 2011 4:56 pm

New York legalizes gay marriage

Filed under: Salute! — Lex @ 4:56 pm
Tags: , , ,

On the one hand, WTF took New York, of all places, so long? OTOH, observes TBogg:

Someday, long after most of us are dead and gone and then reincarnated and then dead again and then maybe reincarnated once more, someone is going to have to explain to future generations why there was such a battle to treat everyone as equals and bestow upon them freedoms that are rightly theirs, and  more importantly, why it took so long.

And  it will have to be explained that some people sought out the opinions of bigots and homophobes and lunatics, a fringe religious cult and an ancient men’s club devoted to velvet robes and pedophilia and gave them a voice in the matter when instead they should have been sent from the room and not be allowed back in until they had  put to rest their own demons.

Democracy is kind of stupid that way.

As Churchill observed, the worst form of government except for all the others. Well done, New York legislature. And memo to President Obama: If you want to know what a leader looks like — and I realize you really don’t — you could do worse than to look at Andrew Cuomo. This country is significantly less unfair and messed up today because of him and the bravery and persistence of the LGBT movement and the straight friends and loved ones (particularly GOP N.Y. Sens. Roy McDonald and Mark Grisanti, who face roughly a 100% chance of a primary opponent next time around) who had their backs.

Yeah, I’m gonna brag a little

Filed under: Hooper — Lex @ 12:48 pm

Hooper made A-B honor roll all four quarters this past school year. I’d thought he’d missed one, but nope.

Without going into details, let’s just say this represents a huge, huge improvement from last year and a ton of hard work on his part.

Again, without going into details, he’s a classic example of a kid who doesn’t learn the way regular classrooms usually teach. So the fact that he has improved so much in an area that, to his way of thinking, is hard and takes way too much of his time is remarkable.

Yeah, I’m proud. That is all.



Friday, June 24, 2011 8:30 pm

Name fail

Filed under: Fun — Lex @ 8:30 pm
Tags: ,

I applaud Barnes & Noble’s initiative to try to get writers’ e-books in front of readers — well, I applaud it for now; I haven’t really examined the plusses and minuses carefully. However, the plusses and minuses are pretty much irrelevant if, like me, you can’t get past the name. Yes, I know how it’s supposed to be pronounced, but the little voice behind my eyes that reads to me pronounces it … differently.

Resources for the reality-based community

Filed under: Reality: It works — Lex @ 8:00 pm
Tags: ,

After 20 years of arguing online for a reality-based approach to public policy, I’ve pretty much decided that the time during which such a thing would happen has long since passed and, in the post-Citizens United era, will not  come in my lifetime. So I’ve pretty much stopped arguing for/about that and moved on to other things, to the extent that I still argue at all (as opposed to just pointing at weird things and saying, “Look! Weird!”).

But not everyone has. I’m grateful for that. And if you’re still doing that kind of arguing and want resources, you could do much worse than to track economist J. Bradford DeLong’s series of blog posts, “For the Virtual Green Room: Rebuttals to right-wing talking-points misinformation that I want to have at the forefront of my brain” (examples here and here). Unlike most of the talking heads who actually get face time on cable news and space in the country’s most influential op-ed sections, DeLong, like Dean Baker and the better-known Paul Krugman, has been sadly correct in most of his assessments and predictions during the past few years. If he had been making economic policy for the country since January 2009 we would be in much better shape.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011 8:02 pm

On not caring so much what the children think

Filed under: Journalism,We're so screwed — Lex @ 8:02 pm

Once your kid has told you for the 12th or so time that you’re the worst dad in the world — usually because of some atrocity related to having to put down the video games, brush teeth and get in the bed — you grow inured, if not hostile, to the notion that what your kids think matters. (Just ask Samuel L. Jackson.)

So why do the media always get a case of the vapors over how parents are supposed to talk to children about supposedly adult topics? I remember this being a big deal when the Starr report on Bill Clinton’s infidelities came out, and now it’s supposedly a big deal again because of Anthony Weiner.

Funny — I don’t remember the media advising my parents how to talk to me about the Vietnam War, back when 150 American soldiers a week were coming home in coffins. And I damn sure had some questions about that, even at age 8 or 9, and I remember my mother trying not to cry as she tried to answer them.

Doug Harlan J makes the same point at Balloon Juice:


What I’ve never understood about “what will the children think” is that it is always applied to something trivial, usually to consensual sexual relations among adults. No one ever asks “what will the children think about genocide in the Sudan?” or “what will the children think about the government torturing people?”

That’s actually not entirely true. I’ve had conversations with my kids before about Big Subjects. But it is a mark of the decadence of our national media that we find it more important to talk to kids about the legal, adult antics of some congresscritter most of them have never heard of than the fact that in countries around the world our government is kidnapping, torturing and killing people, some of them innocent, in our name; that we’re fighting three wars right now, two of which are illegal and the third of which has long outlived its usefulness; and that the richest one-tenth of 1 percent of Americans are using their money to rig the system and play the rest of us for suckers. Meanwhile, led by those mental midgets in Texas, we’re dumbing down our textbooks, shifting our educational focus to brute recall at the precise time in which we should be going in the opposite direction, and making it generally easier to foul the very air and water we depend on for survival.

In fact, when I think about it, I think it’s pretty clear we don’t give a damn what the children think.

Sunday, June 19, 2011 9:13 am

Quote of the day

Filed under: Quote Of The Day — Lex @ 9:13 am

” I never complain when a great artist produces less over time, or stops, because it’s a miracle that we get art at all, let alone genius.”

— Roy Edroso, The Village Voice

Saturday, June 18, 2011 9:36 pm

“We have one life, and it’s on that stage.”

Filed under: Fun — Lex @ 9:36 pm
Tags: ,

Clarence Clemons, 1942-2011. RIP.

Dammed if you do …

Filed under: Geek-related issues,We're so screwed — Lex @ 7:03 pm

Right now, there is a really bad drought in central China. That’s bad news for a lot of Chinese, for whom food is rapidly growing more expensive. But it might be bad news for all of us: Apparently, according to Scientific American, there’s at least some reason to think that China’s Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric project and the reservoir that that dam holds, may indeed be contributing to the drought:

Experts say that the 600-km (350-mile) long reservoir required to serve the 26 700-megawatt turbines at the Three Gorges hydropower plant prevents considerable volumes of water from flowing downstream.

But some environmentalists and climate specialists have also said that the reservoir acts as a giant heat reflector that affects the microclimate of the region, raising temperatures and reducing rainfall.

They also point to longer-term impact, saying that large reservoirs like the Three Gorges are net greenhouse gas producers because they submerged vast tracts of forest and farmland that would otherwise have absorbed climate-altering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

It would be ironic if a method of generating electricity that is believed to be a solution to anthropogenic climate change turned out to be part of the problem. But Dave Schuler at Outside the Beltway makes a point worth remembering:

… while we’re worried about greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and vehicles and global climate change, we shouldn’t lose track of localized anthropogenic climate change which can be induced by massive construction projects, bad land management, and air pollution just to name a few possibilities.

Science. It’s complicated.


Mercury retrograde

Filed under: Evil — Lex @ 5:10 pm
Tags: , , ,

It is common for political conservatives to complain that regulations in general, and environmental regulations in particular, are a drag on the economy. And it is common for the national news media to accept this complaint as a given, particularly when, as now, it’s a Democratic president who is trying to do his legal duty by enforcing regulation of such environmental toxins as mercury.

But is it true? Surprise! It isn’t. At least, environmental regulations either proposed or finalized by the Obama administration aren’t. Says who? Says the Economic Policy Institute, which analyzed them in detail and came to two important conclusions:

  • The total effect of such regulations on the economy in general and on employment in particular, one way or the other, is minuscule. “Fears that these rules together will deter economic progress,” study author Isaac Shapiro writes, “are unjustified.”
  • To the extent that that effect can be reliably calculated or at least estimated, the costs of such regulation are far outweighed by the benefits:

Expressed in 2010 dollars:

• The combined annual benefits from all final rules exceed their costs by $32 billion to $142 billion a year. The benefit/cost ratio ranges from 4-to-1 to 22-to-1.
• The combined annual benefits from four proposed rules examined here exceed their costs by $160 billion to $440 billion a year. The benefit/cost ratio ranges from 12-to-1 to 32-to-1.

Industry also likes to argue that any kind of regulation creates “uncertainty” and that that uncertainty hampers job creation. But as David Roberts at Grist points out:

… the rules EPA is rolling out now have been brewing for over a decade. Industry has known mercury and other toxics are going to be regulated for a looong time — Bush spent a decade [well, eight years — Lex] trying (and failing) to do it.

What’s causing the unpredictability is the scorched-earth warfare polluting industries have waged on the rules. That’s what causes the endless court cases, delays, and legislative skirmishes. Based on their behavior, if not their words, it appears polluters prefer uncertainty to, y’know, rules.

This is not, of course, what the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Wall Street Journal editorial page or Fox News will tell you. But what they’re telling you actually means this: They expect you to pay both the financial price and the price of your health to protect their profits, while not doing anything meaningful to create new jobs. Even Adam Smith thought that approach was toxic.

Friday, June 17, 2011 8:00 pm

Give him three steps

Filed under: Fun — Lex @ 8:00 pm

My cousin Alan having some fun with karaoke at Lake Keowee:

Numbers don’t lie, but the numbers guys do

Filed under: I want my money back. — Lex @ 7:00 pm
Tags: , ,

Back in the early 1990s, when I was first applying database analysis to newspaper reporting (I mean when I was starting to do it; lots of other people did it before me), I attempted to tackle the question of whether bids for milk contracts between dairies and N.C. public school systems were being rigged, as we were hearing. I gathered contract data from as many years as I could from as many school systems as I could — at least three and sometimes seven or eight years’ worth of data for almost every system in the state, in fact — and looked at what the numbers showed.

To my untrained eye, they appeared to show home-town favoritism, exclusive long-term relationships and a number of other things that you wouldn’t expect in a competitive market. Moreover, although transportation costs were the second biggest factor in the price of milk after the cost of the raw milk itself, contract prices tended to go up a lot more quickly and down a lot more slowly than did fuel costs.

But, having only an untrained eye, I sent my data to an agricultural economist at a large research university in another state and then called (this was in the immediate pre-email era for most Americans) and asked him whether what I thought I was seeing was actually what I was seeing. I pretty much expected him to say that there were, in fact, logical explanations for what I was seeing in the data, significant drivers of milk prices that I had overlooked,  subtleties of the school-milk marketplace that contract numbers didn’t account for, and so on and so forth.

Instead, what he said was, “Oh, yeah. If I was a DA, I could have a lot of fun with this.”

As it happens, the United States government has the equivalent of a DA for investment bankers, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, in Manhattan, where most American investment banks are based. That individual could have a lot of fun with this:

Mark Abrahamson, Tim Jenkinson, and Howard Jones, of Oxford University, have an utterly compelling paper out proving that there’s collusion among investment banks in the US — it doesn’t matter whether they’re European or American banks — to keep IPO proceeds set at 7%. Using a very high-quality new dataset, they compare US and European IPOs, and get the following result:


This chart just shows IPO fees for deals between $25 million and $100 million (in 2007 dollars). But the pattern is universal:

Between 1998 and 2007, 95.4% of U.S. IPOs between $25m and $100m had gross spreads of exactly 7%. The comparable figure between 1989 and 199… While Chen and Ritter showed virtually no IPOs over $150m with a 7% gross spread, we find that 77% of all offerings between $100 and $250m charge exactly 7%. (Note from Lex: The visual fooled me at first. That solid black line at 7% isn’t just an illustrative line. It’s that solid and that black because THOSE ARE ALL THE DATA POINTS.)

European IPO fees do not cluster, and only 1% of offerings raising $25m or more experience gross spreads as high as 7%. Within the $25m-$100m range, fees for European IPOs average just over 4%. Indeed, European IPOs are always cheaper: we find that there is a “3% wedge” between European and U.S. IPOs after controlling for size, issue characteristics, syndicate structure and time or country effects. Fourth, whilst gross spreads are lower for the larger offerings in both regions, our multivariate analysis indicates that fees for the larger U.S. IPOs have tended to increase in our sample period, while European IPOs have been getting cheaper.

The paper runs down a list of possible reasons why US IPOs might be so much more expensive than their European counterparts, and finds none of them convincing; their conclusion — the correct conclusion, I think — is that there’s an implicit cartel in the US, devoted to keeping IPO fees artificially high. (The term of art is “strategic pricing”: although it might be in any bank’s short-term interest to compete on price for any given deal, it’s in all of their long-term interest not to ever do so.)

The cost to issuers of this collusion is huge:

Our best estimates suggest that had these IPOs been conducted at European fee levels the savings to U.S. issuers over the period would have totaled $11.4 billion – or over $1 billion per year.

The moral of the story, first told to me when I worked in PR for investment banks in New York in the early 1980s, is that no one makes money on IPOs except investment banks. (That’s why I didn’t try to get in on the Netscape IPO even though, unlike most Americans, I’d actually tried the product at the time and KNEW it would be popular.) What’s different about this is that now we know why. What’s not different is that they’re going to keep getting away with it just as they have with everything else.

UPDATE: Hedge-fund manager John Thomas reminds us that because the seller of any security likely knows a lot more about it than you do, any explanation regarding why a company is going public usually translates to, “The insiders are getting out at the top.”

Wednesday, June 15, 2011 8:47 pm

Not quite “Fire in a crowded theater” …

Filed under: Aiee! Teh stoopid! It burns!,Evil,Journalism — Lex @ 8:47 pm
Tags: , ,

… but, lord, not good. Memo to Matt Drudge: I realize it’s all a game to you, but this crap can do real harm to real people, not that you care.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011 8:40 pm

Your home: SO not your castle

I don’t know what’s more bothersome about this recent Indiana Supreme Court decision, the fact that it “violates the Fourth Amendment against illegal searches and centuries of common law precedent regarding homeowners’ rights” or that it is “bringing Indiana in line with most other states”:

INDIANAPOLIS — A public defender has asked the Indiana Supreme Court to rehear a case she lost when the court ruled homeowners should not resist police officers who illegally enter their homes, a decision bringing Indiana in line with most other states but met here with widespread disapproval.

Vanderburgh County public defender Erin Berger filed a petition with the court seeking a rehearing, court spokeswoman Kathryn Dolan said Friday. Berger’s client, Richard Barnes, was convicted of resisting law enforcement for shoving a police officer who tried to enter his home after he told the officer he could not enter.

Critics argue the court’s 3-2 ruling upholding Barnes’ conviction violates the Fourth Amendment against illegal searches and centuries of common law precedent regarding homeowners’ rights. Some have called for the removal of Justice Steven David, who wrote the decision and faces a November 2012 retention vote following his appointment to the high court last year by Gov. Mitch Daniels.

“The ruling on its face appears to give police officers unfettered rights to enter any residence, for any reason, and dispenses with the occupant’s Fourth Amendment rights,” Berger wrote in her petition filed Thursday.

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller, for whose office the court’s ruling marked a victory, also has said the case should be reheard “to allow for a more narrow ruling that would continue to recognize the individual right of reasonable resistance to unlawful entry.” But Zoeller said the court still should uphold Barnes’ 2007 convictions for resisting, disorderly conduct and battery on a law enforcement officer, all misdemeanors.

Freedom. I miss it so.

Quote of the day

Filed under: Sad — Lex @ 8:17 pm

“The market imposes anti-educational values on educational programs.”

— Michael E. Brown, professor of sociology, Northeastern University, posted at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Friday, June 10, 2011 7:07 pm

Almost home

Filed under: Salute! — Lex @ 7:07 pm

The body of Flight 1549, the US Airways jet that safely landed on the Hudson River in New York back in January 2009, approaches Charlotte on Interstate 77 earlier today. My stepdad mom took this shot from the overpass at Exit 30 in Davidson.

And here’s video my stepdad shot:

Shrill liberal economists are shrill

Filed under: I want my money back.,We're so screwed — Lex @ 6:43 pm

All the Very Serious People in America know that we must raise interest rates right now lest the inflation monster consume us. Only shrill liberal economists are saying things like this:

In recent months, both the European Central Bank and the US Federal Reserve have become more vocal in their desire to raise rates.

This temptation must be resisted. The west’s inflation problem stems from the voracious demand from Asia’s new industrial powerhouses. This must give hope that a mild dose of stagflation is simply the temporary symptom of an inevitable economic shift. Squeezing domestic inflation to offset it would be counter-productive.

In abnormal times, policymakers should also be alive to the balance of risk between inflation and unemployment. Letting the latter rise and become entrenched at a time of weakness would risk hardening the economic arteries further.

The real peril now is a double-dip recession rather than inflation. This is no time for tightening.

Wait, what? That wasn’t some shrill liberal economist? It was the Financial Times editorial page?


Um. So we’re, like, really screwed, aren’t we?

Thursday, June 9, 2011 11:00 pm

What we’ve learned

Filed under: Evil — Lex @ 11:00 pm

A year ago yesterday, I asked my federal elected officials to take the action required of them by the Constitution with respect to acts of torture and other crimes against humanity ordered and carried out by former and current U.S. government officials. I have reproduced verbatim my original request and all subsequent correspondence, and I’ve summarized a telephone conversation I had with an aide to Sen. Richard Burr.

To summarize: I got no response at all from the White House or from Sen. Kay Hagan beyond the autoresponse one receives when one submits e-mail through their respective websites. The responses I got from Rep. Howard Coble and Burr were only barely on point. They in no way acknowledged the constitutional duties I was calling upon them to carry out.

To the surprise of no one except Dr. Mary Johnson, who has made clear she believes I am an idiot, I am not actually surprised by this lack of response. Sheer odds dictate that the likelihood that the elected officials would even read my note in the first place were exceedingly slim. I thought — correctly — that actually having known Howard Coble in real life for more than 20 years would make it more likely that he would respond personally, but the substance of that response was, to put it kindly, lacking. And while I appreciate the diligence of Sen. Burr’s aides in acknowledging my communication, he gets a big, fat zero in acting on it.

But, as I say, I expected nothing else. This exercise was just that: an exercise, an experiment to test my hypothesis that the rule of law is dead in this country.

Despite having developed this hypothesis over the course of a decade-plus, I still haven’t worked out all the implications. I ain’t that bright and I don’t have that much spare time.

And for sure, it doesn’t mean you can go out and, say, run a red light or rob a bank (with a gun, I mean — mortgage fraud, particularly if you’re anyone in the mortgage food chain other than the borrower — is fine) with impunity.

But here, I think, are some of the things it means:

  • In service of the War on Terror, the government is going to do what it damn well pleases, which is what pleases the interests that profit from that war. If that means allowing crimes by government and its contractors to go unpunished while persecuting those who try to blow the whistle on such activities, so be it.
  • If your crimes are sufficiently, breathtakingly large, if you sin on a world-historical scale, the rest of the world will 1) just throw up its hands and say there’s nothing anyone can do; 2) actually start defending you, in some sick manifestation of Stockholm syndrome; and/or 3) try to get a piece of the action.
  • The era of the United States as (an admittedly flawed) moral paragon is over. The era of payback is only beginning.

And you know what they say about payback.

Oh, good. I was afraid for a moment there that we were screwed

Filed under: We're so screwed — Lex @ 8:51 pm

Berkeley economist and blogger Brad DeLong on the recent departure of VP Joe Biden’s top economic advisor, Jared Bernstein, and now the departure of President Obama’s top economic advisor, Austan Goolsbee, just days after the crummy May job numbers were announced:

The scariest thing I have heard — well, not heard, but that was related to me — is that one of Obama’s most senior economic advisors is now saying that NEC [National Economic Council — the group that advises the president on economic policy — Lex] meetings are really peaceful now that there are no professional economists in the room. That strikes me as a very bad sign for policy rationality: given the central projections as of now and given the downside risks to the forecast, NEC members should be running around with their hair on fire.

Wonderful. We’re looking at the distinct possibility of a double-dip recession, unemployment went UP last month and one in six Americans has been un- or under-employed for almost three years now, but we got rid of those pesky economists so at least there’s comity around the table. I’d been afraid we were in real trouble.

When weasels martens are outlawed, only outlaws will carry weasels martens

Filed under: Fun,Weird — Lex @ 8:39 pm

Another tragic marten-related incident:

HOQUIAM, Wash. – Police say a man was carrying a dead weasel when he burst into an apartment and assaulted a man in Washington state.

The victim asked, “Why are you carrying a weasel?” Police said the attacker answered, “It’s not a weasel, it’s a marten,” then punched him in the nose and fled.

If people would just carry ferrets, we wouldn’t have this problem.

(h/t: pourmecoffee)

Why we’re done

Filed under: Aiee! Teh stoopid! It burns!,Evil,Journalism — Lex @ 8:36 pm

Glenn Greenwald connects the dots to find a pattern, the logical explanation behind which is that The Washington Post, that pillar of the Establishment, no longer believes in equal justice under the law or holding the powerful accountable:

The Post Editors, July 3, 2007:

IN COMMUTING I. Lewis Libby’s prison sentence yesterday, President Bush took the advice of, among others, William Otis, a former federal prosecutor who wrote on the opposite page last month that Mr. Libby should neither be pardoned nor sent to prison. We agree that a pardon would have been inappropriate and that the prison sentence of 30 months was excessive. . . . Add to that Mr. Libby’s long and distinguished record of public service, and we sympathize with Mr. Bush’s conclusion “that the prison sentence given to Mr. Libby is excessive.”

The Post Editors, October 27, 2007:

The biggest sticking point [in agreeing to a new FISA bill] concerns the question of retroactive immunity from lawsuits for communications providers that cooperated with the administration’s warrantless surveillance program. As we have said, we do not believe that these companies should be held hostage to costly litigation in what is essentially a complaint about administration activities.

The Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt, August 30, 2009:

[T]his is also a nation where two political parties compete civilly and alternate power peacefully.Regimes do not seek vengeance, through the courts or otherwise, as they succeed each other. Were Obama to criminally investigate his predecessor for what George W. Bush believed to be decisions made in the national interest, it could trigger a debilitating, unending cycle. . . . There is a better, though not perfect, solution, one that the administration reportedly considered, rejected and should consider again: a high-level, respected commission to examine the choices made in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, and their consequences. . . . The alternative, for Obama, is a series of debilitating revelations, prosecutions and arguments that could drip-drip-drip through the full length of his presidency.

The Post Editors, November 28, 2010:

THERE IS LITTLE DOUBT that former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) schemed to get around a Texas law prohibiting corporate contributions to political campaigns . . .  .Mr. DeLay’s conduct was wrong. It was typical of his no-holds-barred approach to political combat. But when Mr. DeLay, following the conviction, assailed “the criminalization of politics,” he had a fair point.

The Post Editors, June 3, 2011:

LET’S STIPULATE: There are very likely good grounds to prosecute deposed Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak. . . . The decision by Egypt’s ruling military council and state prosecutors to begin a trial of the former strongman on Aug. 3 — before the country holds its first democratic elections — is nevertheless a mistake.

The Post Editors, today:

[W]e would not be particularly troubled by the effort to impose a fine [on John Edwards]. But a criminal case based on this novel application of the law goes too far. . . . Mr. Edwards is a cad, to put it mildly. His deplorable conduct would appear to have ended a once promising political career. It is troubling that the Justice Department would choose to devote its scarce resources to pursuing this questionable case.

the Post Editors on May 31:

AGENTS FROM the FBI arrested Abdullah al-Kidd at Dulles International Airport in 2003. Mr. Kidd, who was headed to Saudi Arabia to study, was wanted as a material witness in an ongoing terrorism investigation.

Mr. Kidd, a U.S. citizen whose parents and wife, also U.S. citizens, all resided in the United States, was held for 16 days in three different facilities and kept in cells that were lighted 24 hours a day; he was strip-searched multiple times. After his release, he was subjected to domestic travel restrictions for two years, forced to report his whereabouts and submit to in-home visits from a probation officer.

Mr. Kidd sued former attorney general John D. Ashcroft after the government neither charged him nor called him as a witness, arguing that Mr. Ashcroft had violated his constitutional rights by knowingly misusing the material witness warrant to detain him.On Tuesday, a unanimous Supreme Court handed federal law enforcement a victory by ruling that Mr. Kidd was barred from suing Mr. Ashcroft. It is the right decision . . . In 2003, at the time of Mr. Kidd’s arrest, no court had squarely addressed the issue of whether a material witness warrant could be used to hold an individual suspected of terrorist activity. As such, there was no way for Mr. Ashcroft to know conclusively whether such an action contravened the Constitution.

[Then there’s] this April 28, 2010 Post Editorial which supports the recollection I had: in it, Post Editors defend Goldman Sachs from what it derisively calls “the blame game” and argues that the effort to ascribe culpability to the investment bank for the 2008 financial crisis “does not strike us as a terribly useful or even accurate analysis of the crisis.” Leave Goldman Sachs alone!, cry the servants of power masquerading as “journalists.”

Now, I make my claim about the Post based on inference, not deduction. But, really, is there a better explanation for the pattern Greenwald identifies?

And if The Washington Post has given up on the notion of equality under the law, then what the hell are the rest of us doing here?

Fact-checking the fact checker

The Washington Post has a guy named Glenn Kessler writing a column called “The Fact Checker: The Truth Behind the Rhetoric.” I did not know this, but then I don’t read the Post religiously; the existence of this column was brought to my attention by my friend Fred. A little box next to the column talks about all the years Kessler has spent covering this and that in the federal government. What it doesn’t indicate is the extent to which Kessler has learned anything about context.

That’s a problem, friends, because contextual accuracy is just as important as factual accuracy. It is a key element of fairness. It is an essential ingredient in determining the importance of a story. It underlies the frequency with which conservatives accuse national news media of being liberal. And, at least in this instance, it appears to be a subject with which Glenn Kessler has only glancing familiarity.

I say this because of this column, which purports to “fact-check” the president’s recent comments regarding the auto-industry bailout. Kessler focused on this passage:

“Chrysler has repaid every dime and more of what it owes American taxpayers for their support during my presidency — and it repaid that money six years ahead of schedule.  And this week, we reached a deal to sell our remaining stake. That means soon, Chrysler will be 100 percent in private hands.”

And here is what Kessler said about this passage:

What we found is one of the most misleading collections of assertions we have seen in a short presidential speech. Virtually every claim by the president regarding the auto industry needs an asterisk, just like the fine print in that too-good-to-be-true car loan.

Now, “misleading” is a word most mainstream journalists overuse because they’re too bent, bought, scared or lazy to use more straightforward words like “false” or “lying.” Of course, sophisticated readers know that — and Kessler, being as experienced as the Post claims he is, probably knows that they know that. So Obama must be lying out of his ass, right?

Um, not so much. What the president says does need some contextual clarification, and in fairness to Kessler, he appears to provide that clarification with rigorous factual accuracy:

According to the White House, Obama is counting only the $8.5 billion loan that he made to Chrysler, not the $4 billion that President George W. Bush extended in his last month in office. However, Obama was not a disinterested observer at the time. According to The Washington Post article on the Bush loan, the incoming president called Bush’s action a “necessary step . . . to help avoid a collapse of our auto industry that would have had devastating consequences for our economy and our workers.”

Under the administration’s math, the U.S. government will receive $11.2 billion back from Chrysler, far more than the $8.5 billion Obama extended. …

Even the Treasury Department admits that U.S. taxpayers will not recoup about $1.3 billion of the entire $12.5 billion investment when all is said and done.

But Kessler’s tone puts his own column in need of some contextual clarification, perhaps better known as perspective. Consider this sentence:

The president snuck in the weasel words “during my presidency” in his statement. … Through this sleight-of-hand accounting, the White House can conveniently ignore Bush’s loan …

What Kessler considers “weasel words” an accountant might consider a material factual clarification — hardly “sleight-of-hand accounting.” In any event, Obama is objectively defining the time period he’s talking about, a time period for which he, not his predecessor, is directly responsible. Is his omission of the Bush Administration loan a lie? Hardly. Is it misleading? Yeah, some. One could argue that Obama is talking only about the money lent during his tenure because, arguably, that’s the only money he’s responsible for. I don’t buy that argument — as a senator, he voted for Bush’s bailout loan — but reasonable people could disagree on it.

Or you could look at it this way: It’s not that Obama spun the facts, it’s that he spun them the wrong way. Suppose, instead of using the wording he used, he had said something like this:

We loaned Chrysler $12.3 billion total during my administration and President Bush’s. Yeah, we may have to write off about 12% of that. But we saved hundreds of thousands of jobs in the Big Three auto makers and their suppliers. I’d do that deal again in a heartbeat.

It’s factually accurate without the misleading spin of which Kessler complains. If I were an incumbent congresscritter who had supported the bailout, particularly one with a lot of auto-industry workers in my district, I’d happily run for re-election on a line like that.

Kessler grudgingly admits that, as the president said, Chrysler will soon return to 100% private ownership. But he errs himself in arguing that “The debate was over the right course to take in the bankruptcy process. … the debate was not either [bankruptcy]/or [not], but rather what was the best policy to bring the automakers back to financial health.”

The fact of the matter was that the debate was technically about what type of bankruptcy might have been the best idea. But the important context, which Kessler glides right past, is that the result of any form of bankruptcy likely would have been the permanent loss  of hundreds of thousands of jobs. I don’t know whether Kessler is objectively pro-Republican or whether the GOP “working the refs” has him bending over backward to avoid the appearance of pro-Obama bias, but his omission of this context is every bit as bad as Obama’s and has far greater consequences.

And yet Kessler awards Obama’s comments three Pinocchios on the Post’s 1-to-4 scale. According to that scale, three Pinocchios indicates “significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions.” I’ll let you decide whether one Pinocchio or two is more appropriate:

  • One Pinocchio: “Some shading of the facts. Selective telling of the truth. Some omissions and exaggerations, but no outright falsehoods.”
  • Two Pinocchios: “Significant omissions and/or exaggerations. Some factual error may be involved but not necessarily. A politician can create a false, misleading impression by playing with words and using legalistic language that means little to ordinary people.”

If anything, it’s Kessler who deserves three Pinocchios. His contextual shortcomings come a lot closer to the kind of material omission that constitutes a lie than did those of the president.

And here’s some more context: If Kessler wants to check some facts, he could check what government officials are saying about how we’ve coddled investment banks and why it supposedly was necessary not to let them fail.

And here’s even more context: Along with most other major national news outlets, the Post has focused its news coverage far more on the potential dangers of the current large budget deficits (primarily inflation, which, with rates on 10-year notes having fallen half a point in May, looks more remote than ever) than it has on the actual human suffering caused by years of high unemployment. With its coverage, it is saying that jobs don’t matter. That’s a value judgment, not a verifiable or disprovable factual assertion. But it says a great deal about the Post’s values, none of it flattering.

UPDATE: Kessler screws up even worse, failing to get even basic facts straight, in assigning three Pinocchios to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius’s recent denigration of Rep. Paul Ryan Medicare scam. Sorry, Glenn, but when you take away Medicare, replace it with vouchers worth substantially less and dump the patients into the private insurance market, it is demonstrable with straightforward mathematics that those people will be able to afford less care. And in that age group, health problems are so common that it logically follows that with less care, a nontrivial number of those people will indeed die sooner than they otherwise would. Saying so is hardly “outrageous”; it is common sense.

Nuremberg? That’s so pre-9/11

Filed under: Evil,I want my country back. — Lex @ 8:18 pm
Tags: ,

Benjamin Ferencz, one of those old guys who fought in World War II and later helped prosecute genocidal Nazi maniacs during the Nuremberg war trials, was blabbing on the radio up in Canada the other day. This is part of what he said:

I’m afraid most of the lessons of Nuremberg have passed, unfortunately.  The world has accepted them, but the U.S. seems reluctant to do so.  The principal lesson we learned from Nuremberg is that a war of aggression — that means, a war in violation of international law, in violation of the UN charter, and not in self-defense — is the supreme international crime, because all the other crimes happen in war.  And every leader who is responsible for planning and perpetrating that crime should be held to account in a court of law, and the law applies equally to everyone.

These lessons were hailed throughout the world — I hailed them, I was involved in them — and it saddens me to no end when Americans are asked:  why don’t you support the Nuremberg principles on aggression?  And the response is:  Nuremberg?  That was then, this is now.  Forget it.

That’s right. No biggie. Besides, some congressman sent a picture of his junk to a woman.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011 7:47 pm

This is not difficult

Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein has broken the law and should go to prison for five years.

I don’t mean in terms of conspiring to commit fraud or other complicated areas, although I personally believe he has broken the law there, too. I mean he has done the same simple, stupid thing that got former baseball star Roger Clemens indicted: He lied to Congress.

Matt Taibbi helpfully explains:

Though many legal experts agree there is a powerful argument that the Levin report [a report stemming from an investigation led by Sen. Carl Levin — Lex] supports a criminal charge of fraud, this stuff can keep the lawyers tied up for years. So let’s move on to something much simpler. In the spring of 2010, about a year into his investigation, Sen. Levin hauled all of the principals from these rotten Goldman deals to Washington, made them put their hands on the Bible and take oaths just like normal people, and demanded that they explain themselves. The legal definition of financial fraud may be murky and complex, but everybody knows you can’t lie to Congress.

“Article 18 of the United States Code, Section 1001,” says Loyola University law professor Michael Kaufman. “There are statutes that prohibit perjury and obstruction of justice, but this is the federal statute that explicitly prohibits lying to Congress.”

The law is simple: You’re guilty if you “knowingly and willfully” make a “materially false, fictitious or fraudulent statement or representation.” The punishment is up to five years in federal prison.

When Roger Clemens went to Washington and denied taking a shot of steroids in his ass, the feds indicted him — relying not on a year’s worth of graphically self-incriminating e-mails, but chiefly on the testimony of a single individual who had been given a deal by the government. Yet the Justice Department has shown no such prosecutorial zeal since April 27th of last year, when the Goldman executives who oversaw the Timberwolf, Hudson and Abacus deals arrived on the Hill and one by one — each seemingly wearing the same mask of faint boredom and irritated condescension — sat before Levin’s committee and dodged volleys of questions. …

Lloyd Blankfein went to Washington and testified under oath that Goldman Sachs didn’t make a massive short bet and didn’t bet against its clients. The Levin report proves that Goldman spent the whole summer of 2007 riding a “big short” and took a multibillion-dollar bet against its clients, a bet that incidentally made them enormous profits. Are we all missing something? Is there some different and higher standard of triple- and quadruple-lying that applies to bank CEOs but not to baseball players?

In fairness to both Taibbi and Sen. Levin and his investigators, there appears to be ample proof on the record that Goldman as a corporation and its individual officers committed a multitude of crimes — enough that any sane state would give Goldman the death penalty and lock the officers up for the rest of their natural lives. But those are, to a greater or lesser degree, complicated charges, challenging to prove. Lying to Congress? No-brainer.

They got Al Capone not for murder but for tax evasion. Lloyd Blankfein doing five years for lying to Congress wouldn’t be justice, but it would be a start.

One other question, perhaps more difficult: Why is it that you, I, Carl Levin and some scruffy reporter for Rolling Stone can see this but the Attorney General of the United States cannot? Are we just smarter, or what?

UPDATE: Apparently we’re smarter than the Attorney General on the John Ensign case, too.

Monday, June 6, 2011 10:33 pm

Refrain from torture as I say, not as I do

Filed under: Evil — Lex @ 10:33 pm

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls out Syria for torturing and killing 13-year old Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, and former chief Guantanamo prosecutor Morris Davis calls out Clinton … and the rest of us:

In the fall of 2005, when I was chief prosecutor for the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, I sat down for a lengthy discussion with a veteran member of the prosecution team, a Marine Corps officer with an extensive background in criminal prosecution. We discussed a case that caused him concern, one he said he was not comfortable prosecuting. After describing some of the specifics of the detainee’s treatment at Guantanamo, which was documented in official records, the prosecutor said: “Sir, they f—ed with him and they f—ed with him until now he’s as crazy as a sh*t-house rat.” In an interview with Bob Woodward published in the Washington Post in January 2009, Susan Crawford, the Bush administration official who supervised the military commissions, explained why she refused to send the same case to trial when it reached her desk in the spring of 2008. “We tortured Qahtani,” she said, “His treatment met the legal definition of torture.”

The alleged torture of Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, Syed Saleem Shahzad, and Mohammed al Qahtani by government agents that signed the Convention Against Torture begs the question, is a law that is ignored worth the paper it is written on? …

As chief prosecutor for the military commissions, I personally approved the charges against some of the detainees now convicted of war crimes and I participated in discussions on potential charges against others like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. A phrase used repeatedly in detainee charges is “in violation of the law of war.” As a career military attorney, prosecuting those who violated the law of war was a duty I readily accepted. For nearly two years, I was a vocal supporter of the detention facility at Guantanamo and the military commissions. In June 2007, I published an op-ed entitled “The Guantanamo I Know,” where I defended the detention facility and the military commission process.

I instructed the prosecutors that we would not use information derived by waterboarding or any other technique that went too far, and for two years that policy was unchallenged. Then, in October 2007, I received a written order from Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England placing me under the command of Brigadier General Tom Hartmann and Defense Department General Counsel Jim Haynes*. Hartmann disputed the policy I established arguing that “President Bush said we don’t torture, so what makes you think you have the authority to say we do?” He believed the information I had excluded should be introduced as evidence in detainee trials. Haynes was the architect of the memo former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld signed authorizing enhanced interrogation techniques, the memo on which Rumsfeld scribbled, “I stand 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to four hours?” I was summoned to the Pentagon and given a copy of the order. I went back to my office and drafted my resignation. Information obtained by extreme coercion – what most call torture – has no place as evidence in what purports to be an American military court of justice. …

Torture violates both domestic and international law, and like the basis for the charges against the detainees, torture is “in violation of the law of war.” The law requires that allegations of torture be investigated and those who engaged in it be held to account. To ignore that binding legal obligation is indefensible and inexcusable, whether it is the government of Syria, Pakistan or the United States who is derelict in performing its duties.

A lot of Americans seem to think God has turned his face from us. I don’t know about that. But I am reasonably confident that if He has done so, it isn’t because of abortion or Teh_Gay, it’s because of this.

And this isn’t just a Bush thing. Come to find out that one of the Polish prosecutors who was getting ready to bring charges against officials in that country who cooperated with the U.S.’s “black sites” effort has been fired, and the Polish government is using “state secrets” claims to investigate and even prosecute journalists there who have tried to report on the country’s crimes.

Emptywheel at Firedoglake comments:

Back when I was reading lots of samizdat in grad school, it was clear the US genuinely served as a model for Eastern European activists (whether or not we should have been a model is another question).

I guess we still serve as such a model. Only rather than serving as a model of democracy and creativity, we’re now showing others how to use state secrets to hide torture and other crimes.

Murca! Hail, yeah!

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