Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Hybrids

And, we're back from our extended Thanksgiving holiday. Today will be a short entry, since Holman Jenkins' extended sneer at hybrid cars and their purchasers is not entirely wrong to say that most new hybrid cars don't pay for themselves in gasoline savings over time. This being the Journal, though, Jenkins wasn't satisfied with mere unembellished facts, so there are a few matters to clear up.

First, Jenkins wildly overstates the amount of time that it would take for the average hybrid puchaser to make up the additional cost in gas savings. He tells car buyers that "Toyota applauds your willingness to spend $9,500 over the price of any comparable vehicle for the privilege of saving, at current gasoline prices, approximately $580 a year." Doing the math, he concludes that "should the price of gasoline rise to $5, after 10 years and/or 130,000 miles of driving, you might even come close to breaking even on your investment in hybrid technology."

This is a cherry-picked example that, by seizing on one of the most popular and therefore expensive hybrids available, makes the decision look obvious. In fact, according to a recent Detroit News study, if the price of gas averages $3 a gallon, some hybrids could save enough in gas to be worth the extra cost within four years (the average length of time a buyer will own a newly purchased car is 5 years).

Of course, that example is just as extreme a case as Jenkins'. The generally agreed fact of the matter is that, at current prices, most hybrid vehicles don't save enough money in gas to make up for the extra cost compared to a similar non-hybrid. Obviously, for someone who is currently driving an SUV, the math would be different. But there is more than enough real evidence for Jenkins to make his point. Why not make it in a credible way, rather than embellishing the evidence to make the case seem stronger than it is?

Second, Jenkins adds a throwaway line observing that "driving a fuel-efficient car does not yield any substantial benefits for society if it doesn't save the owner money." But this is simply wrong. The pollution and other negative externalities associated with gasoline usage are not borne by anyone involved in the transaction (hence, "externalities") and are therefore not reflected in the price. So, even if the price of gas at the pump isn't high enough to make a hybrid a money-saving proposition for an individual, the hybrid could be a net gain for society. We at Lucky Duckies don't know if in fact the costs of gasoline that are not reflected at the pump are enough to make hybrids a social good even if they cost their owners more money. Jenkins might well have a case to make that they do not. But we'll never know, because Jenkins simply denies the existence of the issue. Welcome once again to the Journal editorial page, where intellectually honest arguments are discarded even when a plausible case could be made for them, because a cheap shot and an unsupported assertion make for better copy.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Tom DeLay and Ron Carey

Former FEC Chairman Bradley Smith writes in defense of Tom DeLay this morning on the Journal op-ed page. Smith is fairly well-known as a strong opponent of campaign finance laws, and his appointment (at the insistence of Republicans in Congress) to the commission that oversees those laws caused some comment when it first happened. His time on the commission was devoted primarily to weakening enforcement of those laws that exist, and to doing what he could to undermine support for further legislation. His column this morning is best seen as an extension of that mission.

He argues that Tom DeLay's actions, and those of TRMPAC (his Texas political action committee), were legal. The outlines of Smith's account are familiar to anyone sufficiently determined or caffeinated to follow to the end of news accounts of the scandal. Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC, for short) was not allowed, under Texas law, to take corporate contributions except for limited purposes. So they took the money, donated it to an arm of the Republican National Committee, and included a list of candidates for the Texas state legislature to whom they wanted the RNC to donate approximately the same amount. Surprising no one, the RNC made the donations. Thus, tightly restricted corporate money was magically transmogrified into unrestricted donations.

Smith rests his defense of DeLay on the ground that the various transfers from committee to committee and account to account are common practice, and "it was widely understood to be legal, ethical and even encouraged by state and federal law." This is true, so long as the transfers are not linked to one another in order to avoid campaign finance regulations. If they are, it becomes a form of money laundering. Smith waves off this issue with the observation that "it is perfectly legal for a national party committee to seek the advice of local political leaders when spending money in their states." Perhaps, but it is fairly credulous to suppose that the "advice" in this instance was much more than a fig leaf. DeLay wanted to use money he wasn't legally allowed to use, so he, in effect, "swapped" the contributions with another committee.

The Journal editorial board can perhaps offer some helpful counsel to Smith in this regard. When the Teamsters and their then-President Ron Carey were caught up in a quite similar scandal involving money that could not be used in a political campaign (Carey's re-election campaign, in that case) being laundered into seemingly legal contributions nine years ago, the Journal was unforgiving. When Carey was indicted, the Journal editorialized that the indictment was "long overdue" and described the fundraising two-step as symptomatic of "the problem of union corruption, which is clearly widespread and probably growing."

Smith is a longstanding opponent of campaign finance laws who, as a matter of principle, regards almost all restrictions on campaign spending as illegitimate and unconstitutional. His enthusiasm for a relaxed reading of the law may be right or wrong, but it is unquestionably honest. The Journal's enthusiasm for vigorous enforcement of the law when it's being applied against Democratic union leaders, but not when Republican machine bosses are in the crosshairs, is something rather less impressive.

Friday, November 18, 2005

States

Predictably, the Journal editorial page today devotes all of its energy to a full-scale attack on anyone, from John Murtha to John Warner and everyone in between, who has suggested that we should be thinking about an end to American involvement in the Iraq War. The lead editorial assures us that "that's pretty much exactly what the White House has in mind assuming next month's Iraqi elections go smoothly." Nonetheless, anyone else who advocates it is, according to the Journal, giving aid and comfort to the enemy. The Journal claims that, despite the Bush Administration's plans to withdraw, any suggestion that we might withdraw will inspire terrorists and insurgents, while undermining our Iraqi supporters. Given that premise, it's hard not to wonder if the Journal spilling the beans on the White House's still nominally secret plan to start withdrawing won't have the same effect.

But never mind all that. Endless back-and-forth over this failed presidency is hardly worth the trouble anymore. More interesting is the question of where we go from here. On that issue, the most interesting piece from today's Journal is Daniel Henninger's column.

We'll politely look past the concluding nonsense about "the current opposition spectacle in Washington" in which Henniger concludes that "the political absolutism now normal in Washington arrived at the moment -- Nov. 7, 2000 -- that our politics subordinated even a war against terror to seizing the office of the presidency." Mr. Henninger was deputy editor of the Journal editorial page in the nineties, so he was presumably around for the series of editorials insinuating that Bill Clinton ordered the murder of Vincent Foster, the editorial explicitly suggesting that Bill Clinton ordered the return of Elian Gonzalez to his father because he was being blackmailed by the Cuban government, and the many other instances of lunatic opposition featured on the pages of the Journal in those halcyon days. He must have just forgotten.

What we really want to call attention to is not the partisan rabbit punch at the end, but the central point of the article, because it comes so close to a genuine insight, but then narrowly misses in a revealing way. Henninger claims to be concerned that if Americans believe George Bush lied about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, they might also come to believe that "the very notion of weapons of mass destruction is also doubtful." This seems pretty wildly unlikely, but at least the opportunity to fret about the hidden costs of any criticism of George Bush gets Henninger focused on the issue of nuclear weapons in terrorist hands. This is among the most important foreign policy issues facing the US today, if not the most important. A successful nuclear terror attack would kill orders of magnitude more people than died on 9/11, and likely cause sweeping crackdowns with unpleasant effects on civil liberties and the American way of life.

Henninger warns that, "Saddam may be gone, but what isn't gone is the global marketplace and trade in nuclear-weapons material that is the legacy of the infamous A.Q. Khan network." This network, which sold bomb parts and technical knowledge around the world to the highest bidder, has indeed been a disaster. Khan, a Pakistani national hero for his work in developing the Pakistani bomb, has not been seriously punished for the creation of the network, and parts of it are surely still at large. So Henninger is right to conclude from this episode that "mass murder has gone mass market . . . all you need is money; the expertise and material can be bought."

But he then goes on to ask "Do we prefer this ability in the hands of democracies or dictatorships?" Well, of course, as Henninger suggests, a Brazilian bomb would be of less concern than an Iranian one. We have less to fear from nuclear weapons in the hands of governments that are democratically elected and broadly share our values than we do from the same weapons in the hands of dictators who aren't and don't. Not always; Indian nuclear weapons are considerably more likely to be used (in a Kashmiri war) than are the weapons of dictatorial China or authoritarian Russia. But in general conservatives like Henninger are of course right to say that friendly, democratic states are less of a threat than unfriendly dictators.

Unfortunately, this misses the main point that Henninger ought to be taking from his own observation. If "all you need is money," then you don't need a state at all. And in fact it is nuclear weapons in the hands of non-state actors that represent the most alarming threat of all. The Iranian and North Korean leaders that worry Henninger may be evil and crazy, after all, but so were Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin. Both men had nuclear weapons and neither used them because America's nuclear weapons were a deterrent. There can be no guarantee that deterrence will work as well against these new nuclear powers, but there is no chance of deterring a stateless terrorist group with no fixed address to retaliate against. State-centered conservative thinking on these issues, and the Bush foreign policies that have been guided by it, never quite come to grips with this central fact of modern times. The real threats to America in the future are likely to come not from hostile governments, but from Al Qaeda-style non-state terrorist organizations that form and flourish in chaotic, lawless war zones. Henninger's column this morning assembles all of the pieces of this insight, but remains trapped in the very state-centric view that 9/11 and the A. Q. Khan network have demonstrated is a less and less valuable way to think about the world.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

CPB

The Journal usually gives us a fairly wide menu to select from when making our choice of what to write about. But this morning they have only a single editorial, giving their side of the story with respect to a report released yesterday (pdf) by the Inspector General of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The Journal is involved in the story because of the recently cancelled "Journal Editorial Report," a joint project of PBS and the Journal editorial board.

The Journal writes at such great length in order to make the point that "PBS came to us, not vice versa." It's not completely clear why they think this point is so crucial; the report certainly never suggests otherwise. But for anyone who is in doubt, there is no evidence that the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal orchestrated a conspiracy to broadcast a television show on PBS. We're glad that we could help the Journal get the word out about that.

Back on Planet Earth, the Inspector General's report was concerned with the violations of procedures established to keep the Board of Directors at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in control of major policy shifts. In most, though not all, cases it was former Chairman of the Board Kenneth Tomlinson who committed the violations, and Tomlinson resigned from the board shortly before the publication of the report. Tomlinson, a Republican operative appointed as Chairman of the Board in 2003, began early in his tenure moving aggressively to combat what he saw as liberal bias in public broadcasting and to pressure public radio and tv stations to better reflect his own conservative views.

To this end, he hired two conservative ombudsmen, commissioned a fantastically sloppy study of the relative proportion of liberal and conservative guests on four public broadcasting programs, and put strong pressure on PBS to either hire a conservative to balance Bill Moyers on the NOW program that he hosts, or to create an alternative conservative version. PBS (PBS, like NPR, is a consortium of local public broadcasters that produces programming for public broadcasting stations; the stations themselves are under the umbrella of the CPB, though with signficant autonomy) eventually produced two such conservative alternatives. One of the two was the "Journal Editorial Report." Tomlinson had lobbied strongly for this program and had exchanged emails with Paul Gigot of the Journal strategizing over how to get the program produced.

In none of this, it seems, did Tomlinson consult with the CPB Board of Directors as required. The Journal is contemptuous of the CPB's decentralized structure, writing that "as an organization, the PBS system resembles late Ching Dynasty China: The Emperor at headquarters may give an order, but the warlords who program individual stations might or might not follow it." But the reasons for procedures which involve the entire board rather than simply a rogue chairman/emperor barking orders are not hard to understand.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was designed to be as insulated as possible from political pressure. Its Board of Directors reflects that concern in its efforts to ensure balanced representation. No more than five of the nine members are allowed to be of any one political party, and two of the nine seats are reserved for representatives of local stations. The point, plainly, is to prevent any single presidential appointee to the board from imposing his own ideological views (or those of his sponsors) on public broadcasting as a whole. This is of course what Tomlinson tried to do, and the report quite rightly recognizes that, whatever the merits of the programming changes he wanted to make, the procedures in place for board involvement are in place for a reason and ought to be followed.

The Journal may find this inconvenient, and they are clearly resentful of the local programmers who failed to pick up their show, although in an uncharacteristically passive-aggressive way ("There is more to say about those programmers and their motivations than we have space for today."). But there are good reasons why public broadcasting is not subject to the whim of a single presidential appointee, even if he does share the Journal's ideological biases.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Deficits

The Journal's lead editorial this morning is devoted to some fairly justified complaints about the Republican Congress' "deficit reduction" bill. This makes a disorienting but briefly refreshing change from most media coverage of the debate, which has focused on the $50 billion in cuts the Republicans in the House proposed without noting that this was an increase from the originally planned $35 billion, or that the spending cuts are spread over five years, making the supposedly austere Republican budget plan $3 billion a year cheaper than the original plan. This is, as the Journal accurately notes, a drop in the bucket of Republican fiscal profligacy over the last five years.

Not surprisingly, the vertiginous experience of intellectual honesty doesn't last long. The editorial continues in the long line of Journal editorials that deliberately conflate spending restraint with deficit reduction. Of course, the budget contains both revenues and expenses. But for the first time in the history of the federal budget process, Republicans in Congress have chosen to split the budget reconciliation bill into two separate halves. One is for spending cuts, which amount to somewhere between $35 and $59 billion, depending on which bill the Republicans ultimately manage to pass. The second is for tax cuts, which will total about $70 billion. In other words, the two bills are really just separate parts of a single budget reconciliation, which will expand the deficit marginally over the next five years.

The only possible reason for Republicans in Congress to have adopted this unwieldy system is to conceal the cost of the tax cuts and allow their members to pretend to vote to bring the budget closer to balance, while at the same time setting the stage for even larger deficits in the future. The Journal editorial mentions none of this, because it would clarify the point that they want to obscure. For all of their complaints about fiscal profligacy and "Democrats who fancy themselves as deficit hawks," the Journal's real complaint isn't about deficits at all. The editors want to cut spending on Social Security, health care, food stamps, and other entitlement programs. It's understandable that the Journal editors would prefer to dress up these unpopular policy preferences to look like efforts to achieve the more popular goal of a balanced budget. But as long as they refuse to account for the costs of their beloved tax cuts, they ought to abandon the pretense of being concerned about deficits, rather than simply about cutting spending on programs that benefit the poor and middle class.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Europe

George Melloan's "Global View," column this morning claims that "Nobody Wants a European Crackup." That may be exaggerated; Donald Rumsfeld's famous joke about "Old Europe" and "New Europe," if it meant anything, meant to highlight divisions between the pro-war "New Europe" and the anti-war "Old Europe." But that particular distinction never made any sense, and the Journal at least can justly claim to have been supportive of European integration, although perhaps more enthusiastically at those moments when it looks like integration might produce tax cuts than at other times.

Melloan spends most of today's article rebutting the claim that "America is trying to split Europe." The splits and crises in European politics are all the doing of Europeans, Melloan claims, and in no small measure the fault of the French and other socialists. If only other Europeans could be more like the pro-American Poles, he laments, the problems in Europe would be solved and the fractured Atlantic Alliance repaired.

Well, perhaps. At any rate, Melloan is surely correct that the future of European politics and European integration will be shaped by the decisions of Europeans rather than the actions of outsiders.

But in his catalog of European troubles, Melloan includes the assertion that, "the United Nations Oil for Food scandals have shown that the principle guiding France's defense of Saddam Hussein in 2003 may have been an appetite for Saddam's bribes among well-connected French businessmen, rather than the lofty motives professed at the time." Let's think about this for a moment.

The "Oil-For-Food scandals" are a bit of an odd hybrid scandal. There is real evidence of genuine misconduct, but the evidence has been so buried underneath an avalanche of self-dealing by Ahmed Chalabi and his equally dubious friends that the full truth of the matter may be nearly unknowable.

The short version of the scandal is as follows: when the "oil-for-food" program was established, ground rules were set that allowed Iraq to sell its oil on the world market at just under the world price. The proceeds went into a UN-controlled bank account that the Iraqis could use to purchase food and medicine. The first thing to say about the program is that it was established in response to credible warnings of widespread malnutrition arising from the quite draconian sanctions imposed after the invasion of Kuwait, and that it solved the problem. Incidents of deaths due to malnutrition or easily cured illnesses plunged after the program began, and it obviously did not open breathing space for Saddam to restart a nuclear weapons program.

But although the program worked, it also created multiple obvious opportunities for Saddam to game the system. Since he had access to what amounted to a slush fund of guaranteed oil profits that he could dispose of at his discretion, he predictably used that discretion sometimes to extort bribes from companies that wanted to participate and at other times to reward old supporters and recruit new ones with the lure of the oil contracts.

This is where the story stood at the time Baghdad fell, and for a little while afterward. Then Ahmed Chalabi popped up to announce that his Iraqi National Congress had discovered documents that proved that a number of western companies and politicians had taken explicit bribes (in the form of oil contracts) in exchange for their support of Saddam. Shockingly enough, all of the bribe-takers turned out to be Chalabi enemies, and Chalabi refused to allow anyone but his allies to look at the documents he claimed to have found. The INC's stage-managed "investigations" turned into low comedy, and it anyway takes a special sort of sucker to believe Ahmed Chalabi bearing "slam dunk" documentary proof of anything.

Nonetheless, real bribes were paid and real officials were corrupt (pdf). Did they influence French opposition the war? No one who has paid any attention to French politics over the last generation or so has many illusions left regarding Jacques Chirac's probity. And French politicians are as likely to have been influenced in their opposition to the Iraq War by the contracts that Saddam made available to French companies as American politicians are to have been influenced by the likelihood of US companies benefitting from post-war contracts. But is it really necessary, at this late date, to dream up conspiracy theories for why the French might have been opposed to war with Iraq? Does Melloan seriously suppose that the war has gone so smoothly over the last three and a half years that no objections save self-interested ones remain plausible? Individual opponents of war may have had any number of motives, but by now it is fairly clear to all but the most credulous observers of administration spin that the vast majority of the world's population that opposed the war did so because they accurately concluded that it was likely to be a fiasco.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Promises

We don't do weekends here at Lucky Duckies, so we missed out on the opportunity to pile on to the Journal's Saturday morning endorsement of "aggressive interrogation" (don't call it torture!). That had it all, with tendentious mischaracterizations of the relevant international treaties (treaty commitments not to torture and to treat prisoners of war humanely are separate commitments; proving that someone is an "unlawful combatant" doesn't entitle you to employ 16th-century water tortures on him), breathtakingly selective accounts of the available evidence (it's all about the hoods; pay no attention to the dead detainees!), and through it all the sort of belligerent, yet utterly unwarranted sanctimony that keeps us coming back to the Journal editorial page for material every day.

But this has already been rehashed repeatedly by now; for a running commentary and a fairly exhaustive selection of links to the relevant critiques see andrewsullivan.com. With the story 48 hours old and already growing stale, it's time to move on. And we confess anyway to a certain preference for the subtler strains of Journal mendacity. Knockabout nonsense like Saturday's offering is fine for an occasional treat, but true connoisseurs understand the thrill of hunting for that crucial nugget of dishonesty hidden at the heart of even the most seemingly "reasonable" Journal piece.

Speaking of which, it's time for today's installment. Much of today's page is taken up eulogizing Peter Drucker, and we obviously have no quarrel with that. Rest in peace, Mr. Drucker. But leading the page is the Journal's attempt to head off at the pass what it clearly sees as the most potentially damaging threat to Samuel Alito's confirmation to the Supreme Court. Headlined "Alito's Sock Drawer," the editorial is an extended whine about the questions that Democrats have raised regarding Alito's participation in Monga v. Ottenberg, a case involving the Vanguard mutual funds.

The editors threaten their readers with an extensive recitation of the "gory details" of the case, but it only winds up taking them about three sentences to cover it. Judge Alito promised during his confirmation hearings to the Appeals Court not to rule on cases involving Vanguard, since he was an owner of Vanguard mutual funds. He did so anyway and, when challenged, wrote to the chief administrative judge of the court that "I do not believe that I am required to disqualify myself based on my ownership of the mutual fund shares."

The facts here are all fairly straightforward and unquestioned. Although the editors make a brief feint at drawing a distinction between Alito's "initial service" on the court (however that might be defined) and his ongoing tenure, they never make any attempt to explain what the distinction might be or how it could be relevant. So the argument proceeds instead to an outlandish misrepresentation of the issue. The Journal insists that Alito was right in his ruling on the merits of the case itself, and claims "there was no legal or ethical reason for him to recuse himself from cases involving Vanguard . . . If such a standard did hold, we'd add, then only judges who kept their savings in mattresses or sock drawers would be deemed worthy of confirmation to the High Court."

Well, of course no one has questioned Alito's right to invest in the stock market while serving as a judge, only his right to rule on issues where he has a conflict of interest. And most of his critics are fairly open to the idea that there was no real conflict in this case. It isn't obvious to the staff of Lucky Duckies, anyway, why ownership of a mutual fund would create a conflict on a case involving the firm that sold it. But this is all neither here nor there. The issue, which the Journal chooses simply to ignore, is whether Alito should have felt bound by the promise he made during his confirmation hearings not to rule on such cases. He says he changed his mind in the interim, and that's that. But Senators have an obligation to inquire more closely.

After the brief Miers interregnum, the editors have presumably returned to their previous policy of disputing the Senate's right to ask meaningful questions of any Bush judicial nominee. But Senators who take their constitutional responsibilities in this matter more seriously might justly wonder what the point is in asking Judge Alito any questions at all if he doesn't regard promises he makes while seeking confirmation to be binding once he wins it.