Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Ever-Diminishing Dollar

Sparked by the decision of South Korea's central bank to diversify its currency funds away from the dollar, the New York Times has both an editorial and an op-ed by Thomas Friedman worrying about the ultimate fate of the dollar. Nothing we haven't discussed here before, just another update in this continuing saga.

It Just Doesn't Stop With These Guys

The Bush administration has made a number of epic blunders in personnel selection, but their latest tops all others. Salon is reporting today that D. Reed Freeman, former "chief privacy officer" for the notorious malware company Gator has been appointed to Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee of the Department of Homeland Security. Gator (aka GAIN) has truly been a trailblazer in the fields of ad-ware and spy-ware. Their exploits have been well documented and reported. They are just the sort of sleazy fucking scumbags I want watching over our nation's data privacy. The slashdrones are up in arms. If this goes through there will be riots of bespectacled, propeller-beanied geeks, flipping over cars and setting things on fire. It's almost worth it.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Look At the Numbers

Robert Samuelson has an excellent piece in the Washington Post analyzing both numbers and the press coverage of the Bush social security plan. He finds them both lacking, and draws parallels to coverage of the medicare drug plan and the subsequent shock at its high costs.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

The FCC Can't Rule the World (or Take Your Broadcast Flag and Shove It)

As D-day for the odious broadcast flag approaches, the D.C. Circuit took oral arguments today in a challenge to the compatibility requirements by the EFF and other consumer groups. Although they expressed doubts about the challengers' standing, the judges left little doubt how they felt about the broadcast flag requirement. Said Judge Edwards: "Ancillary does not mean you get to rule the world. ... You've gone too far. ... Are washing machines next?" Added Judge Sentelle: "You can't regulate washing machines. You can't rule the world." Thank goodness for this bulwark of justice, the D.C. Circuit, bravely protecting our washing machines. Because we all know that regulating the washing machines is the first step to world domination. Anyway, so far so good. We'll have to see what happens with the standing issue though...

Friday, February 18, 2005

Realpolitik Hypocrisy?

In a Washington Post column, neocon Bob Kagan attacks liberals for hypocritically casting doubt on the newly elected Iraqi government. How, he asks, can liberals hold that the U.S. wrongly coddled politically convenient dictators during the Cold War, yet be critical of the democratically elected government that has replaced Saddam Hussein? Are liberals prejudiced against Shiites?

The response, I think, needs to address a number of points. First, is that criticism of the realpolitik approach that led the U.S. to overthrow democracies and train death squads comes with limits. Critics, as far as I know, never advocated that the U.S. should invade any country that doesn't meet Western democratic standards. The criticism was, and remains, that we should not allow short-term political convenience to overshadow our commitment to freedom and democracy. This is generally not a belligerent, hawkish group of people. They have advocated working within the international diplomatic and economic framework to advance our ideals and values.

The Bush administration stands as guilty as any Cold War administration in this regard. We invaded Afghanistan, not to promote democracy, but to take out Al Qaeda, and Iraq to secure Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. Meanwhile the U.S. has deepened its ties with numerous anti-democratic human rights violators all across the Middle East and Central, South, and South-East Asia. Bush's inaugural address notwithstanding, there has been no great commitment to democratic ideals by this administration.

Kagan's apparent response is that even if liberals would not have advocated invasion, shouldn't they celebrate the advances of democracy there? But, while the liberals we're talking about are critics of realpolitik, I think they are not critics of political realism. They don't advocate abandoning empirical analysis, but rather a shift in priorities and methods in pursuing American foreign policy objectives. As such they are rightly worried about the course of events in Iraq.

It requires no prejudice to be concerned about what will happen when the Shiite controlled government takes power. From my perspective, it is not any peculiar qualities of Shiites that worries me, but rather that they suffer from all of the usual weaknesses and frailties common to mankind. The Baathist purges of Shiites aside, the Sunni militants have consistently targeted Shiites in violent attacks since the occupation started (here are . a couple just from the past week). They have declined to retaliate largely due to the calls for restraint from the Ayatollah al Sistani, the same man who has driven the timetables both for the hand-over of sovereignty and the recent elections. Are we to think they harbor no animosity towards Sunnis, no desire for vengeance? Are these angels in the form of men? Or have they been playing hard-ball, waiting (and pushing the process foward) for their demographic advantage to inevitably deliver the power of government to them. What happens when they gain control of the machinery of state? How will a Shiite-controlled military respond to Sunni attacks against Shiite targets? Will the response be measured, moderate, and proportional? And when the Shiite-controlled military crosses the line, how will the Sunni population in the country respond? The threat of all-out civil war is very real and frightening. What then for democracy in the Middle East?

Neither does one have to view the Shiites as Iranian stooges to be concerned about Iraq's relationship with Iran, now more so than ever. While I don't share the loathing of Iran held by many in this country, the newly announced alliance between Iran and Syria, following shortly after the election of a pro-Iran government in Iraq could drastically change the balance of power in the Middle East. If the new Iraqi government throws in their lot with Iran and Syria, Iran will have taken a major step up as a regional power and the U.S. will be left scrambling to try and pick up the pieces. Again, rejecting realpolitik does not mean rejecting political reality. And the political reality here is that the occupation of Iraq seems to be producing many undesirable results. There is little cause for rejoicing here, for liberals or anyone else.

Rumsfeld update: Yep, He's Still An Asshole

This Post story on Rumsfeld's appearance before the House Armed Services Committee (full transcript) is one of the funnier things I've read lately. It's entertaining when the Bush administration sends Rumsfeld over to the hill to remind the congresspeople exactly where they stand. Aside from Rumsfeld's stubborn refusals and amusing one-liners, I found this question interesting in light of our recent discussions:

REYES: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

And, Mr. Secretary and General, thank you for being here with us this morning.

I have a question for each one of you, but the first one, Mr. Secretary, deals with what I think fits under the category of where the system does not work. And it concerns the U.S. pilots that filed a lawsuit -- as this was reported in the L.A. Times on the 15th of this month, where they filed a lawsuit against Iraq for compensation.

REYES: They won their case, were awarded and now the administration is taking a position that this should be dismissed.

The irony -- there are a couple of ironies. One of them is that some of these pilots were tortured in the same Abu Ghraib prison where prisoners were abused by our troops.

And the article quotes that, Mr. Secretary, you're in favor of awarding compensation to Iraqi prisoners who were abused by U.S. military at this prison and at the same time our own pilots that have won a court case are now being denied the same kind of compensation.

I was wondering, do you have any comment on that?

RUMSFELD: Congressman, I don't. It's a matter that the Department of Justice handles for the United States government, not something the Department of Defense does.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Doesn't Anyone in the Pentagon Watch Movies?

The NYT has this article describing the U.S. Military's plan to convert its armed forces to robots, imposing an additional 20 percent on the military budget, excluding war. Some snipits:

Military planners say robot soldiers will think, see and react increasingly like humans. In the beginning, they will be remote-controlled, looking and acting like lethal toy trucks. As the technology develops, they may take many shapes. And as their intelligence grows, so will their autonomy.

Despite the obstacles, Congress ordered in 2000 that a third of the ground vehicles and a third of deep-strike aircraft in the military must become robotic within a decade. If that mandate is to be met, the United States will spend many billions of dollars on military robots by 2010.

"The lawyers tell me there are no prohibitions against robots making life-or-death decisions," said Mr. Johnson, who leads robotics efforts at the Joint Forces Command research center in Suffolk, Va. "I have been asked what happens if the robot destroys a school bus rather than a tank parked nearby. We will not entrust a robot with that decision until we are confident they can make it."

"As machines become more intelligent, people will let machines make more of their decisions for them," Mr. Joy wrote recently in Wired magazine. "Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage, the machines will be in effective control."

Seriously, what could go wrong?

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Stranger Than Fiction

All hell is breaking loose on liberal blogs today as details are being unearthed on a supposed reporter named Jeff Gannon. There are a gazillion threads and comments, and it's hard to piece it all together, but I gather that:

a) Gannon (likely an alias for Jim Guckert) has been acting as a reporter in the Washington press corp for the past 6 months or so, and as far as I can tell nobody had ever heard of him before that,
b) Gannon was a reporter in the employ of Talon News, a right-wing activist quasi-news organization and is essentially a political operative,
c) Gannon is well connected to the administration and gets preferential treatment at White House press conferences, which he uses to serve up cheesy softball questions (such as the 'how will you work with people who are divorced from reality' question at Bush's recent press conference),
d) Gannon was subpoenaed in connection with the Valerie Plame case, and the Kossacks believe that he was used by the White House as part of their misdirection damage control operations after Novak's famous column,
e) Gannon is somehow connected with a number of gay military escort sites (because this story just needed more absurdity).
f) as of today, Jeff Gannon has quit his job and will "return to the private life".

That's some wierd shit...

Torture Just Ain't What It Used To Be

Slate has this article entitled, "The Plain Meaning of Torture? Literary deconstruction and the Bush administration's legal reasoning." I recommend it (although I have to admit I have never heard the phrase, "PMR" before).

Partisanship at its Worst

The two hot topics these days, Social Security and the budget proposal, serve to illustrate the crippling partisanship gripping the federal government. There are real problems to be addressed, but both the Bush administration proposals and the Democratic responses are geared almost entirely towards partisan posturing with no apparent concern about results.

Social Security is not in a good state. There really should not be a great dispute about this. It is not an urgent crisis, but neither is everything fine and dandy. The real onset of problems is still years away, but this would be a great time where we could make relatively painless adjustments to get things back on a sound footing before things get too far out of whack. Unfortunately the Bush proposal for private accounts, while interesting, does not really appear to address the real problems. The issue of whether this system should be a pay as you go social welfare program or a government-supported private investment program is a good philosophical question. But for now the immediate problem is that future outlays exceed income. The basic issue is whether we will reduce benefits or increase revenues or some combination of the two. Meanwhile, Democrats, who until recently were willing to discuss and consider this issue, are now locked into deep denial that there is a problem at all. This is a silly tactic when there is, and for some time has been, a powerful public perception that there is a real Social Security problem. At this stage in the game, denial comes off as disingenuous and out of touch. And while both sides are brawling over this on the public stage, nobody is talking about the much larger problem that looms in Medicare.

Then comes the budget proposal which takes the shocking step of reducing 1% of a third of federal spending. We're running record deficits here, such a minor reduction in spending should not be a big deal. Unfortunately these cuts have been precision targeted to produce peak outrage among Democrats. I read somewhere that last year's budget proposed cutting 65 programs, only 5 which actually ended up being cut. Both sides understand how this game is played. The administration wants to come out and say they tried to cut spending, but were obstructed by congress. Congress wants to say that Bush tried to kill all their state's pet programs, but they valiantly save them from the axe.

The disheartening thing is that our long-term budget outlook (including the Social Security and Medicare impacts on the same) is a critical problem, one that I think should be the top priority for the federal government. It's sad to see so much effort spent by politicians, the press, and the public fighting over these issues when it all amounts to sound and fury, accomplishing nothing. And when everyone is exhausted from the fight, these issues will be returned, unresolved, to the back burner to simmer away until they explode into an all-out crisis that will threaten to crash the dollar and destroy the U.S. economy.

The Rummy Returns

Oh, silly Rumsfeld. This is straight from the DOD's official transcript:

: The budget suggests that -- the budget shows that Army spending is going down by $300 million in fiscal --
Rumsfeld: Which, as you know, is not the case.
Journalist: Well, that's what I see.
Rumsfeld: Yeah, I should have mentioned that.... The only way you can look at this budget is to look at the supplementals with it, and it would be a misunderstanding of the situation to come to the conclusion that you pretended you had come to. But of course you did not, being as knowledgeable as you are.
Journalist: Well, are you hiding -- are you -- are they, in fact, hiding noncombat costs in the supplemental --
Rumsfeld: No, of course not.
Journalist: -- by accelerating here?
Rumsfeld: No, that would be wrong -- (laughter) -- and we wouldn't do that.

Monday, February 07, 2005

David Kay: Here We Go Again

In the Washington Post, former top weapons inspector in Iraq David Kay writes that the current posture towards Iran looks strikingly similar to the path we travelled to Iraq. Kay urges that we apply the lessons learned in Iraq, and gives a good accounting of a number of those lessons. Acknowledging mistakes and attempting to learn from them seems to be a rare and noteworthy act in the modern political environment...

Looking At the Long-Term

Fresh off his trip to Africa, Russ Feingold wrote a column for CS Monitor on America's failure to engage Muslim nations. He notes that many Muslim nations face a youth bulge in their demographics that presents both an opportunity and a threat. If we fail to engage them, our opponents will be all too happy to fill the void. Also on CS Monitor today is a column on the painfully slow, but still noteworthy progress of the African Union. The challenges face by the AU are many, and any progress is good news. The Western reaction to Darfur has certainly highlighted for Africans exactly how much they can depend on the West for help.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Re: What Next for Guantanamo

The Washington Post has an editorial that is a reasonable synthesis of Dahlia Lithwick's analysis from yesterday, and my remarks of Jan 21 on Judge Bork's WaPo column. The courts are not the best place to be figuring these things out, but as long as the administration fails to engage Congress on them, there's not much alternative.

Blogs and Journalism

There's an interesting case afoot that will bring to the fore the ongoing debate about the journalistic value of blogging. Apple has filed suit against a Mac fan blog for divulging trade secrets. The proprietor, Nick dePlume (likely an alias), is likely to claim First Amendment protections as a journalist. Some discussion on slashdot here and here, and a CS Monitor story here. It's an interesting question, and I would tend to think that the term "blog" ought not to have anything to do with the result. The variation in scope, purpose, audience, and impact among blogs is so great as to defy any sensible unified treatment. It's hard to argue that the top tier of bloggers (Powerline, Talking Points, etc) don't serve functions that would typically be equated with journalism. Bloggers who use their blog as a personal diary would likely not qualify for the same treatment.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

What Next for Guantanamo?

Dahlia Lithwick on Slate contrasts yesterday's ruling with another district court ruling by Judge Richard Leon whose ruling ran almost completely contrary with Judge Green's In re Guantanamo Detainee Cases decision. What fun for the appellate courts...