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.

Friday, November 11, 2005

France

After two weeks of rioting in France, just about everyone with any axe to grind in American politics has found some way to "explain" riots they often know little about among a group in French society they rarely know anything about. These "explanations" almost always come packaged with a barely concealed effort to promote the analyst's pet policy. People who want to fight poverty talk about poverty in the banlieux, people who want to fight Muslims in Iraq talk about a "French intifada." All in good fun, and no more than is to be expected, I suppose. The Journal gets in on the act in a big way today, with a long lead editorial, a Daniel Henninger op-ed, and another run at the topic on the "Taste" page of Weekend Journal. With so many others having already joined in the game of pin-my-pet-issue-on-the-French, it would be churlish to mock the Journal for its unsurprising conclusion that the riots prove the need for tax cuts. So this will be a short offering today.

The lead editorial does, however, make one point which cries out to be addressed. After having proved to their satisfaction that tax cuts would fix whatever ails those melancholy French people, the editors can't resist one final parting shot. They caution "advocates of multiculturalism" that the French riots prove the dangers of an insular ethnic community cut off from the mainstream of national life. Maybe so, but whatever the French experience proves it doesn't offer much evidence of the consequences of multiculturalism. French immigration policies are now, and have been for quite some time, obsessed with maintaining unity and solidarity. Remember, after all, the great French rallying cry, "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite;" this was a call to brotherhood and equality, not to a gorgeous mosaic that celebrates difference. If French policies have in fact produced isolated ethnic subcultures cut off from and hostile to mainstream French society, the last people in the world whose proposals are discredited by that are advocates of affirmative action and multiculturalism.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Moving Targets

Ah, it feels good to get back home again. After a few days of devoting itself mostly to denouncing American intelligence agents and lauding Iranian ones, the Journal has returned to its signature issue, not to say absurd hobbyhorse, of tax cuts at all times and places. Its analysis of the election results turns, of course, on the supposed centrality of taxes to GOP defeats. A note to the Journal on that point: Jerry Kilgore was in fact an early and vocal opponent of Mark Warner's tax reform in Virginia. That Warner is now one of America's most popular governors makes it hard to take seriously the suggestion that more vocal opposition to his most visible policy success would have been a ticket to victory for Kilgore.

Let's leave the Journal to wallow in recriminations on its own, though, and move on to the main tax editorial of the morning. This editorial, "Snowe Daze," is an extended whine about Olympia Snowe's refusal to vote to make permanent the 2003 Bush tax cuts or even to vote for what the Journal supposes is a minimally adequate 2-year extension of the cuts. She'll only agree to one, and the Journal all but promises to hold its breath until it turns blue if she won't sign up for more than that.

The real injustice here, the Journal thinks, is to the tax cuts themselves. So little gratitude, which "we could understand if the tax cuts had failed to do what supporters promised, but they have done that and more." Poor tax cuts! Maligned cruelly and unjustly by the Senator from Maine, after they did so much for the economy. And, as is its wont, the Journal has numbers to make its case!
"Almost from the day in May of 2003 when it became clear they'd become law, the U.S. economy shifted into a higher gear -- to 4% average GDP growth from 2%. The stock market bounced back, corporate investment revived, and unemployment declined to its current and historically low rate of 5%."
Well, now. The Journal is correct that GDP growth increased from almost 2% in the first quarter of 2003 to almost 4% in the second (link opens Excel spreadsheet), and that unemployment is now at 5%, which makes it almost as low as when the President took office. The interesting thing about these statistics, though, is that the Journal begins its analysis "when it became clear" that the tax cuts would be passed, rather than when the cuts actually took effect. The reasoning here is a bit obscure, but it apparently has something to do with the fact that businesses making long-term capital investment decisions are focused on expected tax rates five or ten years hence.

Conveniently, this new rule draws attention away from the fact that economic growth has been slowing (link opens Excel spreadsheet) ever since the brief burst in the summer of 2003 to which the Journal points so proudly. In other words, by the time the tax cuts had been implemented, the economy was already beginning to decelerate, and it has continued to do so despite the cuts. So we get the newest iteration of the editors' tax-cut dogma. It turns out to be the act of cutting taxes, not the cut itself, that produces the promised economic miracle.

Oddly, the Journal has been less vigorous about making that case about the 2001 tax cuts. Presumably the nature of investment decision-making didn't change too radically between 2001 and 2003, but since the economy slipped back into recession and then stagnation in the third quarter of 2001, the first one to follow George Bush's signing of the 2001 cuts, the new evaluative rule is dropped for that round of cutting.

The editors further cite a burst in federal tax revenue as proof that the tax cuts have been "self-financing." Of course, the burst in revenue came this year, while the Journal located the benefits of the tax cut in 2003. When a similar temporary uptick in revenue took place in the final years of the Clinton Administration (and for the same primary reason, a rising stock market) the Journal denounced it as an example of "record-high taxes." Now, rising revenue is evidence of the benefits of tax cuts.

It would be enough to make a lesser man despair. Journal editorial arguments are hard enough to parse when they hold still. But the editors' explanations for why we need ever more tax cuts move around so quickly, it's enough of a job just to remember where they are from day to day.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Chalabi

This morning, the Journal has an editorial welcoming Ahmed Chalabi to America. Chalabi is one of the more sinister figures from the campaign for war with Iraq, running as he did an organization honeycombed with Iranian spies and feeding a constant stream of disinformation to the American government about the threat supposedly posed by Saddam Hussein. But Chalabi's spectacular mendacity and double-dealing (the Journal proudly points to his electoral allies of the moment, but is there any group in Iraqi politics Chalabi has not pretended to ally himself to at some point in the last few years?) at least has a kind of dignity. He was seeking power for himself and the end of a vicious government and disastrous isolation for his country, and he has succeeded far more impressively than any reasonable person might have imagined was possible five years ago. So, a year ago, he told a British newspaper that "we are heroes in error. As far as we're concerned we've been entirely successful. That tyrant Saddam is gone and the Americans are in Baghdad. What was said before is not important." For an Iraqi, the view that deceiving Americans is a matter of trivial significance is understandable. After all, their principal concern is Iraq. What's the Journal's excuse?

It's the Journal's country whose secrets were handed over to Iranian intelligence by Chalabi and his organization. The Journal places great faith in the judgment of Iraqi criminal justice that Chalabi was innocent of the counterfeiting charges lodged against him at the same time. Readers can decide for themselves if they are prepared to subcontract American counter-intelligence to Iraqi judges, and if it is plausible that Chalabi (indicted for counterfeiting in Iraq, convicted of bank fraud in Jordan, accused of espionage in America) is constantly the innocent victim of misunderstandings. But there is no question that Chalabi's principal deputy was an Iranian spy. He has now taken up residence in Teheran.

It's the Journal's country that was induced to start a war by "intelligence" gleaned from "defectors" presented to the CIA and, when it tired of the lies, to the more credulous members of the war party. The Journal dismisses this with a reference to their favorite investigation of Iraq and the intelligence community, the Silberman-Robb report. As per usual, the unambiguous statements about narrow issues in the report find their way into the Journal shorn of any reference to the issues they address. It is true that the Silberman-Robb report found that Chalabi's INC had "minimal impact" on CIA assessments of Iraqi weapons capacity. What else would the editors expect, considering that the CIA had lost faith in Chalabi and his organization years earlier? After the CIA concluded that Chalabi had betrayed to Saddam a covert CIA operation to foment a coup in Iraq because he was afraid that he would be left out of the action, they paid little attention to anything he or his people had to say. Silberman-Robb, investigating the CIA's evaluations, concluded that Chalabi had little impact on their assessment.

But the CIA was not the only organization evaluating intelligence about Iraq in the Bush Administration. A coalition of war enthusiasts centered around the Office of the Vice President were also looking at and evaluating the "evidence" provided by Chalabi. Eager to believe what he told them, this group was responsible for promoting information provided by INC-sponsored defectors like the infamously unreliable "Curveball." The Vice President and his allies put the information into Presidential speeches, including the State of the Union, and into Colin Powell's presentation of the case against Saddam before the UN Security Council. Powell later said of these claims that "the sourcing was inaccurate and wrong and in some cases, deliberately misleading."

Last year, Chalabi fell out of favor with the administration after his role in the exposure of classified information to Iran became known, and he allied himself for a time with Moqtada al-Sadr (you may remember him from our brief war against him in the spring of 2004) and Iranian intelligence. None of this shakes the faith of the Journal and other true believers, though. Even more than George W. Bush, perhaps even more than endless tax cuts, faith in Chalabi and the fantasy that this slippery swindler is the George Washington of Iraq is Journal theology.

Someday, even the Journal will have to wake up from this dream. We can only hope that not too much more damage will be done to American interests while we wait.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Ressentiment

In today's editorial, "DDT Saves Lives," the Journal takes up a right-wing hobbyhorse that reveals more than intended about its promoters. The Journal's story is fast becoming a familiar one: influenced by Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, environmentalists set out to stop the use of DDT, resulting in a surge of preventable malaria deaths. Now, Senator Sam Brownback has stepped forward to require US AID to allocate more of its budget to spraying life-saving DDT and the Journal celebrates that an irresponsible bureaucracy with blood on its hands is finally being subjected to what it calls "adult supervision" from pro-DDT congressmen.

The true story of DDT is a bit more complicated. It has been used to combat malarial mosquitos and the disease outbreaks they caused, but also for agricultural purposes as a pesticide. Rachel Carson warned about the dangers of employing DDT in agriculture, both because of the environmental damage it caused and because it ran the serious risk that natural selection would produce mosquitos resistant to the pesticide. And in fact this is exactly what has happened, with many malarial mosquitos now immune to DDT. In order to avoid contributing to the problem further, and because of the broader environmental risks, DDT is now rarely used in agriculture and is being phased out entirely.

When it comes to anti-malarial uses (pdf), of course no one advocated, as the Journal hyperbolically suggests, "allowing women and children to suffer and die rather than employ[ing] methods that work." The evolved resistance of the mosquitos has, however, limited the usefulness of DDT in anti-malaria campaigns, and the treated mosquito nets that the editorial scoffs at are often a more effective option.

All of this is a fairly dry and technical matter which might under ordinary circumstances be left to experts who are better placed to know the likely effectiveness of DDT at a particular place and time than are either Senator Brownback or Paul Gigot's merry band at the Journal. There is little profit to be made from the production and sale of this commodity chemical, the details of bednets and pesticide resistance are certainly not riveting, and it needs hardly be said that the ins and outs of disease control and economic development in the Third World rank well down the list of normal preoccupations on the Journal editorial page. Yet the issue lives on, and the Journal now lends its voice to the pro-DDT rallying cries. Why is this?

The reason comes down to the simple fact that, way back when, Rachel Carson called for banning DDT in agriculture. Carson's book was published almost a half-century ago, and she herself has been dead for nearly as long. But she still symbolizes for the editorialists at the Journal the liberalism of the 1960s, and they just can't stop themselves from leaping on any pretext to recycle the same conservative complaints about tie-dyed hippies, pointy-headed bureacrats, limousine liberals, and all of the other right-wing hate figures of the era. Even forty-plus years on, the conservatism of the Journal is still founded in this never-ending parade of ressentiment. Indeed, on days like today, it can seem to amount to little else. Nonetheless, it is hard not to be a bit shocked that, faced with the authentic human tragedy of disease, poverty and death in the Third World, the Journal has nothing to offer but a self-righteous, and factually-challenged, sneer at its own domestic enemies. "Adult supervision," indeed.

Monday, November 07, 2005

The Big Deal

Mark Bowden, the author of "Black Hawk Down," writes a surpassingly odd piece about torture in this morning's Journal. He begins with some grumbling about Geena Davis' new television show. A recent episode of the show apparently reconceived the by-now hoary "ticking bomb" scenario as an argument against torture rather than for it. In Bowden's telling, the repurposed scenario sounds just as contrived as the originals from which it derives, but the whole issue is anyway just a throat-clearing exercise for the real business of the article, which is to offer an extraordinarily obtuse take on the issue of torturing prisoners.

Bowden starts by supporting the McCain Amendment recently passed in the Senate to ban torture and affecting not to understand the fuss about it. After all, "the provision offers nothing new or even controversial. Cruel treatment of prisoners is already banned. It is prohibited by military law and by America's international agreements." Moreover, "one thing it will not do, sadly, is stop the abuse of prisoners." So what's the big deal? Perhaps we can explain it to Bowden.

After asking why anyone would oppose the McCain Amendment, Bowden spends several paragraphs explaining that war is hell, and mistreatment of prisoners under such conditions is unavoidable. As we journey through this vale of tears, it turns out, cruelty, man's inhumanity to man, and insufficiently rigorous oversight in the military chain of command are inevitable.

Well, yes. Any war will inevitably have some Lieutenant Calleys and some Henry Wirzes, people who take the opportunity of wartime to indulge their taste for deliberate cruelty. But that misconduct by individual bad actors is precisely what is not controversial about the issue of torture. Obviously if American soldiers act on their own to mistreat prisoners they should be held accountable, and several of the enlisted men and women at Abu Ghraib already have been.

The driving force behind the McCain Amendment is not anger at Lynddie England, Charles Graner, and other young soldiers caught up in the hell of war. No one questions that they will be brought to heel. But the torture that has taken place in Afghanistan, in Cuba, in Iraq, and apparently in a network of secret prisons in eastern Europe and elsewhere was not undertaken by accident or on the initiative of low-ranking soldiers. It was administration policy, justified by legal "arguments" from the White House Counsel and ordered by the Vice President's office. That explains why the Bush Administration and its willing agents in the Republican House are so intent on killing the McCain Amendment, or any step to uncovering the full story of executive branch involvement in and direction of the mistreatment of prisoners. It isn't, as Bowden would have it, a perversely excessive concern with the remote possibility that soldiers would face a "ticking bomb" scenario and be hamstrung by an amendment to an appropriations bill. It is rather the fear that this provision will be the beginning of an investigation into the complicity of high-ranking military and civilian officials in the widespread torture, by deliberate design, of prisoners under the control of American forces.

BONUS MONDAY MOCKERY

This may be a continuing series, depending on what sort of slapstick buffoonery the Journal offers on future Mondays. But today's article by Norm Coleman, the Minnesota Republican Party's answer to Ted Baxter, is too rich an opportunity to pass up. Senator Coleman, who has apparently decided to make a name for himself as the Congress' most eager and least intelligent critic of the United Nations, warns today of a "Digital Munich." The UN, it seems, is plotting to steal the internet, or rather the root servers that are currently controlled by the US. Anyone familiar with the history of the Elgin Marbles will be unalarmed at the prospect that the resolutions of international bodies will force America to give up anything it doesn't want to give up. But for those who quake with fear that a mighty UN army is coming to steal our internet, rest easy! "Responding to the present danger," says Senator Coleman, "I have initiated a Sense of the Senate Resolution." And with that, a clownish man and his trivial weapons have truly met a fittingly insignificant challenge. Fight on, Senator Coleman, and leave no WSIS Internet Governance Subcommittee activities untouched by your fearsome Sense of the Senate Resolutions. We here at Lucky Duckies can think of no public policy issue to which your talents are better suited.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Redux

The Journal is at it again. For the second day in a row, they have an op-ed by a Washington Republican lawyer explaining why burning Valerie Plame was no big deal. This one is different from yesterday's installment mainly in that it was written by two people instead of one. David Rivkin and Lee Casey have made a cottage industry out of this argument for several months, and today the Journal offers them the space to make the case one more time.

This article replays several of the same tunes played by Victoria Toensing yesterday morning. But Rivkin and Casey also add a new wrinkle: "Ms. Plame's identification as a CIA employee was not a crime because she was not a covert agent." They mean by this not, as you might expect, that Valerie Plame was not a covert agent. Rather, they mean that she was not "covert" under the strict standards of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. They give two reasons. First, the act requires that the agent have served overseas in the past five years. Plame had not been posted overseas for more than five years (they choose not to mention how long it had been--six years). But in fact the act doesn't require that the agent lived overseas, just that he or she had been on overseas missions, which Plame had been.

Second, the CIA has to have been taking "affirmative measures" to conceal the agent's identity. Rivkin and Casey are fairly vague about why they believe that this standard was not met, although they make much of the fact that Ms. Plame married a former Ambassador and Ambassador Wilson listed her as his wife in Who's Who. So let's review:

Valerie Plame's existence . . . . not a secret
Valerie Plame's marriage to Joe Wilson . . . . not a secret
Valerie Plame's employment at the CIA . . . . secret

The fact that Valerie Plame, energy consultant, was married to Joe Wilson, consultant and ex-Ambassador, in no way made it obvious that Valerie Plame was in fact a CIA agent. The Journal and the authors ought to be embarrassed at the quality of this argument. From here, the article descends into frantic handwaving, as the authors insist that the Espionage Act must not mean what it says, and that Joe Wilson is a very bad man.

All of this dust and smoke is kicked up to make the case that Valerie Plame just missed qualifying as a covert agent under the IIPA, either because of the precise timing of her foreign postings, her marriage to a man of whom the authors disapprove, or something (anything) else. And, indeed, the IIPA is a narrowly crafted law that the White House officials who leaked Plame's identity may have just barely avoided violating.

But the authors' case is not just that Karl Rove and Scooter Libby behaved legally, but that they behaved ethically. And they acknowledge that "the ethical standard for government officials must be higher than a mere avoidance of criminality." But they go on to define ethical conduct in an eccentric way.

"This was not a retaliatory attack on Ms. Plame," they assure us. But of course, no one supposes that Rove and Libby were retaliating against Wilson's wife. They were retaliating against Wilson, and attempting to discredit him. And they did so by revealing the identity of a covert agent. Bizarrely, this is Rivkin and Casey's defense, when they say that "How he [Wilson] got the job was highly relevant to the public debate he himself initiated over his conclusions, and especially as a means of rebutting any implication that he was selected by, or reported to, Vice President Cheney." Since Rove and Libby were merely attempting to smear a political opponent, Rivkin and Casey claim, their exposure of a US intelligence operative couldn't have been unethical.

But this, of course, has it exactly backwards. When Rove and Libby exposed Plame, obviously they did it for a reason. But the fact that they really wanted to make sure no one listened to Joe Wilson, and really believed no one should, doesn't exempt them from the duty to behave ethically in making their arguments. If it did, it would hardly be possible for an administration official, or anyone else, to behave unethically.

The simple fact of the matter is, Rove and Libby exposed a covert agent for domestic political reasons. The facts may or may not fit within the bounds of a particular law, and if Rove and Libby have not violated any law then of course they should not go to prison. But desperately parsing the details of Valerie Plame's last overseas posting and Joe Wilson's biography in Who's Who doesn't change the fact that her status and her contacts were classified information of serious significance to national security. And pleading that it was politically important to the administration to smother Wilson's allegations doesn't constitute a rebuttal to the fundamental issue at all. Rove and Libby preferred to sacrifice the contacts and career of a US intelligence operative than to let a New York Times op-ed go unchallenged. That tells us all we need to know about them, and the Journal editorial board's running defense of their actions tells us all we need to know about it.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Plots

This morning, in her op-ed "Investigate the CIA," Victoria Toensing calls for a congressional investigation to determine whether or not the CIA is engaged in “covert action against the White House.” It’s worth pausing for a moment to savor the lunacy of the charge that the American intelligence community is conducting subversive activity against the United States government. If Toensing has evidence for this charge, she might be well advised to submit it to the appropriate authorities, provided they aren’t in on the plot as well.

Of course, she has no such evidence, which is why she has repaired instead to the Journal op-ed page, where lack of evidence is never held against you. Her dark hints about CIA plots are a response to a broader dilemma. When Toensing complains about the horrible unfairness of investigating the leak of Valerie Plame’s covert status, her argument rests heavily on the claim that Plame was not really a covert agent at all. But since the CIA referred the case to the Justice Department for investigation as a leak of classified information, there can be no doubt that the CIA believed that she was covert. So the “CIA plot” thesis provides an ingenious method of squaring the circle. Yes, the CIA says she was a covert agent. But the CIA only says that because they are either incompetent or plotting against the government.

Rather than joining in Toensing’s pursuit of scheming intelligence operatives, let’s focus on a particular point that both she and the Journal editorial board lay great stress upon today. According to Toensing, when Joe Wilson was sent to Niger to investigate claims about Iraq’s efforts to purchase uranium, “the assignment was given, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee, at Ms. Plame's suggestion.” Toensing makes several references to the “bipartisan 500-page report” of the Intelligence Committee, from which she takes this claim. What she fails to mention is that the section from which she takes it is not the report itself, but the appended “additional views.” (pdf file; see p. 443) Senators Pat Roberts (the chairman of the committee), Kit Bond, and Orrin Hatch make the claims she attributes to the whole committee. But before they do, they say that

Despite our hard and successful work to deliver a unanimous report, however, there were two issues on which the Republicans and Democrats could not agree: 1) whether the Committee should conclude that former Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s public statements were not based on knowledge he actually possessed, and 2) whether the Committee should conclude that it was the former ambassador’s wife who recommended him for his trip to Niger.

In other words, the Intelligence Committee was specifically unable to reach a bipartisan agreement on this point, and it was left out of the bipartisan report. In fact, several CIA officials have asserted that Plame did not, and was not in a position to, recommend anyone for the mission. Toensing may feel that they are part of the plot against the government, or she may have some other reason for disbelieving them. She should not, however, claim the unanimous bipartisan support of the Intelligence Committee on the strength of the views of three Republican senators.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Baselines

Since this is the inaugural effort, let's not waste time in petty nitpicking. When today's lead editorial ("Big Mack Tax Reform") observes that the President's tax reform commission has proposed to raise to $20,000 the limit on annual IRA contributions and claims that the proposal "nearly quadruples the amount of annual tax free savings for middle-income families," I might point out that median family income last year was $44,389. This would leave a little less room than the Journal suggests for middle-income families to "nearly quadruple" their savings to $20,000 per year.

The editors tell us that Congress opened a one-year window last year allowing businesses to expense (that is, deduct) capital expenditures in the year they were made rather than depreciating the assets over several years. When they say that this led to "a surge in business spending for plant, equipment and technology purchases," I might ask what they expect to happen to capital expenditures when Congress passes a one-year-only tax holiday for capital expenditures. If Congress passed a one-year-only law exempting any newspaper with hedcuts (those elegant, pixillated drawings that are the Journal's substitute for photos) from federal tax, the Journal might be joined by a temporary flood of hedcut-imitators, but this would tell us nothing worth knowing about tax reform.

And I might note in passing that the editors' mask of good-government earnestness slips a bit when they advocate using the repeal of the AMT as a club with which to beat Democrats. After all, they charmingly suggest, "their [Democrats'] voters in high-tax states are the AMT's biggest victims."

But that would be petty, and we'll have plenty of time for pettiness in the days to come. Let's instead focus on the editorial's waspish complaint that "President Bush insisted that Mr. Mack and his friends propose a 'revenue neutral' reform." The Journal of course seizes the opportunity to complain about the vast revenue increases that will go unrealized unless taxes are cut as part of this process. But the important point here is not this supply-side insanity (that is after all standard fare on the Journal editorial page) but the sleight-of-hand involved in getting there. The President did indeed call for "revenue neutral" reform, but he (and the Journal) define the term in a decidedly eccentric way. Ordinarily, a "revenue neutral" change to the tax code would leave revenue at the same level as projected under current law. The President and the Journal, on the other hand, treat the baseline revenue as the amount of money that would be collected if the President's upper-bracket tax cuts were made permanent.

Doing so would be wildly reckless, of course, since the country already faces massive deficits under current law, without making permanent tax cuts that were originally presented as a readily-affordable plan for short-term economic stimulus. So, needless to say, this is a cornerstone of the President's, and the Journal's, economic plan for the future. The Journal is obviously free to argue for as reckless a tax cut as it likes, and it surely will. But even minimal intellectual honesty ought to lead the editors to refrain from peddling the illusion that this highly controversial change has already been agreed upon, and tossing off the suggestion as a pretended aside. The Journal to the contrary, Connie Mack and his commission have produced nothing close to a "revenue neutral" tax plan.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Getting Started

Welcome! This blog is dedicated to providing a daily review of the Wall Street Journal editorial page. There are plenty of people in America who suspect Bill Clinton of involvement in multiple murders, who believe the events of this world are guided supernaturally through the intervention of dolphins, and who struggle with basic math skills. There are also plenty of people who have influential voices in the shaping of government policy. The odd fact that the editorial pages of one of America's great newspapers are the scene of an intersection between what you might expect to be entirely distinct groups has received rather less attention than I think it deserves. What follows will, I hope, be a small attempt to correct this puzzling oversight. Thanks for joining me, and let's see how it goes, shall we?