Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Cold fusion!

So, hey, check this out...

I've decided that the best thing to do with this site is to fuse the blog, which is increasingly a key part of the site, with the comics section. So, welcome to the new Bird Brains/I Drew This comic blog.

Seagull, Beagle and I will keep up our text posts, and at least once a week I'll post a cartoon; just now I'm not going to commit to a day, but it'll be at least once a week. Beagle's talked about contributing some cartoons too and I really hope he does.

This is sort of a beta version of the new site and undoubtedly it's going to change a lot over the next few weeks. Send feedback to eagleberet at gmail dot com.


Pre-9/11 thinking: Is it underrated?

Note: A reader pointed out that it was the attack on Ft. Dix, not the JFK bombing, that was thwarted when a suspicious video was reported to police. I've corrected the article.

GOP Presidential candidate Rudolph Giuliani recently criticized President Clinton's handling of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, saying Clinton made "a big mistake" by treating the bombing as a criminal act instead of as a declaration of war. This has been a popular talking point among Republicans since at least 2004, when Republican Party Chairman Ed Gillespie said, "Terrorism is not a law enforcement matter, as John Kerry repeatedly says. ...this demonstrates a disconcerting pre-September 11 mindset that will not make our country safer." It's been repeated so many times that it barely registers anymore. But let's say Democrats do want to treat terrorism as a law-enforcement matter. Would that really be such a bad thing?

Look at recent attacks that have been thwarted. Most of them were uncovered using ordinary law enforcement techniques. The alleged attempt to attack Fort Dix, for example, was uncovered when the suspects dropped off a video to be transferred to DVD, and a suspicious clerk reported it to the local police. Likewise, the Bush Administration's attempts to prosecute terrorism suspects have been much more effective when pursued through normal legal channels. Late last year, Salon ran an article comparing the mess surrounding Jose Padilla's case to the successful prosecution, through normal "pre-9/11" channels, of right-wing terrorist Demetrius Crocker. Crocker was convicted easily; Padilla's case is still not resolved. It's hard to draw the conclusion that the "post-9/11" thinking that Giuliani touts is the most efficient way to lock up terrorists.

Giuliani also has a lot to answer for in his own reaction to the 1993 bombing. In spite of that clear evidence that the World Trade Center was vulnerable, he personally insisted that the city's crisis center be located on the 23rd floor of Building 7. I've been waiting in vain for someone to publicly call him on this decision as he runs, as the Onion put it, for "President of 9/11."

Finally, it's disingenuous to say that the events of September 11, 2001 prove that Clinton's approach was inferior to Bush's. After the 1991 World Trade center bombings, we didn't have another successful Al Queda attack on our soil for over eight years. We won't know until 2009 if Bush has been similarly successful, although for the sake of our fellow citizens I hope he has.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Sad CAFE

Congress is once again tinkering around the margins of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) law. While the effort is laudable, it's long past time we admitted that CAFE is obsolete and discussed alternate ways to encourage better fuel economy. While CAFE was partially responsible for a dramatic increase in fuel economy from 1975 to the mid 1980s, in recent years average fuel economy has declined. I believe this is in no small measure due to market distortions created by CAFE itself.

CAFE was passed in 1975 as a response to the 1973-1974 OPEC oil embargo. The concern then, as now, was with our nation's dependency on foreign oil. The law required (and still requires) that the average fuel economy of the cars a company sells meet a minimum standard. The goal was to double the 1974 passenger car fuel economy by 1985, to 27.5 mpg. Light trucks, however, were treated differently; no specific goal was set, only a guideline that the standard should be the "maximum feasible." The "maximum feasible" has always been interpreted to mean a standard significantly lower than that for cars. At the time, this probably seemed like a reasonable compromise; people did not generally drive trucks for pleasure, and they only represented 19% of total vehicle sales.

The consequences of this double standard were predictable for anyone who understands economics. In the 1990s, cheap gas created a demand for bigger, more powerful vehicles. Manufacturers couldn't cheaply meet this demand with passenger cars due to the fuel economy standards, so they created a new category of vehicles that were car-like, but met the CAFE definition of light trucks -- SUVs. Light truck sales exploded, going from 28% of the market in 1987 to 50% of the market in 2006. Meanwhile, average overall fuel economy declined, from 22.1 mpg to 21.0.

Further tinkering on the supply side, by changing the manufacturers' fuel economy rules, will probably not fix the problem, although recent proposals to make the car and light truck economy standards equal may help. What are really needed are demand-side incentives, because this is an area where basic free-market forces really do work. If there's public demand for higher fuel economy, manufacturers will scramble to provide it. It's not just rising CAFE standards that caused fuel economy to hit an all-time high in 1987; the Iranian revolution in 1981 triggered a vicious spike in gas prices that remained fresh in people's minds for several years afterwards, and they sought out economical rides. Today, interest in more fuel-efficient cars is starting to perk up as gas prices again reach record-setting levels. Abolishing CAFE and establishing a carbon tax, fuel tax, or even an income-tax incentive based on buying economical vehicles would go a long way towards speeding up this process. Unfortunately, these are politically difficult solutions, so what we'll probably get is more tinkering with the current, broken law.

By the way, this isn't to say I have much sympathy for the American auto manufacturers' lobbying efforts against raising CAFE standards. They're offering the same litany of tired old excuses -- it's too expensive, it's not practical, it'll mean cars that are unsafe -- that they've offered in response to every new fuel economy and emissions control proposal since the 1960s. They're continuing to show the same lack of vision that caused them to hand over leadership of the industry to the Japanese in the 1980s. It's depressing to see that the Big Three (well, really, the Big 2.5) have learned so little in the last two decades.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Perjury matters

It's a common refrain at the moment, from right-wing and neocon hacks to journalists who, really, ought to know better: "Scooter Libby's perjury wasn't really a crime because there was no underlying crime."

Look, this is very simple: Patrick Fitzgerald was unable to convict anyone of the underlying crime because Scooter Libby perjured himself and obscructed justice. Or, even if you aren't persuaded that there would have been charges relating to the underlying crime had Libby not perjured himself and obstructed justice, surely you must at least admit of the theoretical possibility that someone, somewhere, might lie to investigators to prevent them from being able to file criminal charges.

So, if we go around saying that perjury and obstruction of justice aren't crimes if no one is charged with the underlying crime, where does that leave cases where perjury and obstruction of justice prevent charges relating to the underlying crime? Why would any witness with anything to lose ever tell the truth under those circumstances? You'd only ever be charged with perjury if you did it badly, and people managed to prove the crime you were lying about anyway. Prosecuting anything at all would become impossible if those things weren't crimes by themselves, and therefore incentives to tell the truth.

So, I support jailing Scooter, and not just because he's Dick Cheney's lackey, and not just because he has a very stupid name. I think there's a principle involved here that gets to the heart of how our system of justice, indeed any system of justice, has to work.

Okay. So. I don't want to go into this, but I can already hear the chorus of "well, what about Bill Clinton?" Shut up, chorus. ...sigh, but I guess I do have to answer.

It's not the same thing at all. Scooter Libby obstructed justice and lied to investigators regarding an extremely serious matter: the alleged outing of a covert CIA agent (an act which George H.W. Bush onced called "treason"). This would in fact be a very serious crime, so it is very serious to lie in order to cover it up.

Bill Clinton lied to an out-of-control prosecutor originally tasked with investigating a failed 1974 Arkansas land deal. When, after years and tens of millions of dollars spent, that turned out to be nothing, Starr started casting about for other things he could nail Clinton for. This makes sense if, and only if, you understand that Starr's real assignment was not "find out the truth about Whitewater," it was "get Bill Clinton for something." Starr had already tried to quit once to take a position at Pepperdine University, and been forced back to work by the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy.

So, Starr, who, remember, was supposed to be investigating a land deal, found out about a blow job Clinton had gotten outside his marriage, then asked him a question about it that had nothing to do with anything, making sure Clinton was under oath at the time. I want to stress, here, that no one, not even Clinton's fiercest detractors, has ever claimed that the blow job itself was a crime. That is what "no underlying crime" really looks like--not merely failure to prove the alleged underlying crime, but the total absence of any such allegation.

So, Clinton lied under oath about a matter of exactly no importance, to an irrelevant question asked during a bullshit gotcha investigation. He did this precisely once. Now, should he have told the truth? Of course. I mean, he should never have been asked the question, but one, you should tell the truth under oath even in moronic circumstances like this, and two, he and the rest of us would have been spared a lot of headaches had he just said "yep, I slept with her, can I go now?"

So if Congress had wanted to censure him...fine. ( was founded to advocate precisely that course of action.) But I'm tired of people insisting that "perjury is perjury and the circumstances don't matter." That's simply not true, any more than it would be true to say that "theft is theft and the circumstances don't matter," and insist that stealing a pack of gum should carry precisely the same penalty as grand theft auto or holding up a bank.

No one believes that. But it's no sillier than arguing that lying in response to a bullshit question about sex ought to be regarded as precisely the same act as repeatedly lying to cover up a serious crime. It simply isn't. The trap Starr set for Clinton was a cynical abuse of perjury laws. Patrick Fitzgerald's conviction of Scooter Libby, on the other hand, is precisely the kind of case those laws were written to address.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Liberal media, my tailfeathers (hypocrisy edition)

Okay, lemme start by being shallow. Because, as shallow as our media discourse has become, as long as I talk about anything of substance anywhere in this post, I'm still doing way better than, say, Maureen Dowd.

Why on earth does the entire political media establishment seem to think Fred Thompson, a bald, jowly, aging white dude with prominent crow's feet, is the sexiest thing in the universe? He is possibly the least attractive person running for president. I don't think attractiveness should have anything to do with who gets to be president, mind you, but why does everyone think this guy is good looking? Because he's on "Law & Order"? Being on TV does not make you handsome.

More importantly, why do Chris Matthews and others keep gushing about how "authentic" Thompson is? They present his "signature red pickup" from his senate campaign in the 1990s as proof of how "real" he is. Jamison Foser put it really well in Media Matters:

The pickup was, literally, a rented prop designed to help a wealthy actor/Washington lobbyist/trial lawyer play the role of salt-of-the-earth populist.

But Chris Matthews and the Beltway pundit crowd don't encounter many actual working-class voters as they stroll the dunes of Nantucket. A wealthy lobbyist/actor who rents a red pickup truck to play the role of a regular guy strikes them as "authentic" and "folksy." Mark Halperin wrote this week that Thompson won his first Senate race "after driving his trademark red pickup truck all over Tennessee."

It reminds me of the way these same rich pundits who like to pretend they're totally blue collar fell for yet another rich candidate who liked to pretend he was blue collar: George W. Bush. Remember how authentic and folksy everyone in the media seemed to find that multimillionaire son of a former president who'd gone to Yale as a legacy and never worked an honest day in his life? But, see, that didn't matter. He liked to clear brush! (Look; no one likes to clear brush. Not that a bunch of rich media guys would know that.)

And they'd always apply a double standard. The formula was always "John Kerry lives in a really expensive house! By contrast, Bush likes to clear brush on his ranch." As if those were not two different ideas. You can't contrast how much someone's house cost with what someone else pretends to like to do at his house. There would have been contrast there if, and only if, Bush's ranch had been really cheap. (It wasn't. Rich guys' pretend cowboy ranches never are.)

Now, because Fred Thompson rents a pickup just long enough to be photographed in it and then drives away in a luxury car afterwards, he's "authentic."

Meanwhile, John Edwards, who genuinely grew up poor but became rich later, is a big phony:

And what of another wealthy Southerner who used to be a trial lawyer? One who doesn't rent props to hide his good fortune? The pundits channel Holden Caulfield and declare John Edwards to be a big phony. Just this week, Bill O'Reilly ("I have no respect for him. He's a phony and is in the tank for special interest to damage this country. Edwards is going nowhere, but deserves to be called out."), Dennis Miller, and Tucker Carlson ("Is Edwards an appalling phony, I guess is my question?") described Edwards as "phony."

The rich trial lawyer/lobbyist who rents a red pickup, not to drive, but to use as a prop? The media tell us he's folksy and authentic. And the rich former trial lawyer who doesn't hide his good fortune? He's a phony.

And why is John Edwards a phony? Because he doesn't pretend to be poor. See, if he faked poverty, he'd be authentic, but because he doesn't pretend to be poor, he's a phony. Following this? Well, it only gets dumber.

Because, see, John Edwards is a phony because he advocates policies that would benefit poor people.

If you don't think that makes any sense, think about the apparent rationale that leads journalists to conclude that Edwards is a phony: his policy proposals to fight poverty. He's rich and wants to fight poverty, so they say he's a phony hypocrite. As we have explained, that simply isn't what "hypocrite" means -- it isn't as if Edwards is running around saying everybody should be poor, then going home at night and swimming in gold coins like Scrooge McDuck. That would be hypocrisy -- and that isn't what Edwards advocates at all. He wants to combat poverty. Hypocrisy is generally considered one of the most damaging qualities a politician can exhibit. Political reporters certainly behave as though that is the case. And yet they demonstrate an absolutely stunning lack of understanding of what hypocrisy actually is.

Got it? If you're not actually poor, but want to help poor people, you're a "hypocrite." Anything other than naked self-interest is hypocrisy.

See, all those rich Republicans who want to cut taxes only for themselves and other rich people, while running around posing for photos in rented pickups they pretend to own? That's "authentic."

Now excuse me while I go beat my head against a wall.

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