Saturday, May 13, 2006

More good news about avian flu

The New York Times' Donald McNeil Jr reports on an encouraging trend in the place where avian flu started:

Even as it crops up in the far corners of Europe and Africa, the virulent bird flu that raised fears of a human pandemic has been largely snuffed out in the parts of Southeast Asia where it claimed its first and most numerous victims.

Health officials are pleased and excited. "In Thailand and Vietnam, we've had the most fabulous success stories," said Dr. David Nabarro, chief pandemic flu coordinator for the United Nations.

Vietnam, which has had almost half of the human cases of A(H5N1) flu in the world, has not seen a single case in humans or a single outbreak in poultry this year. Thailand, the second-hardest-hit nation until Indonesia recently passed it, has not had a human case in nearly a year or one in poultry in six months.

Encouraging signs have also come from China, though they are harder to interpret.

These are the second positive signals that officials have seen recently in their struggle to prevent avian flu from igniting a human pandemic. Confounding expectations, birds making the spring migration north from Africa have not carried the virus into Europe.

Dr. Nabarro and other officials warn that it would be highly premature to declare any sort of victory. The virus has moved rapidly across continents and is still rampaging in Myanmar, Indonesia and other countries nearby. It could still hitchhike back in the illegal trade in chicks, fighting cocks or tropical pets, or in migrating birds.

But this sudden success in the former epicenter of the epidemic is proof that aggressive measures like killing infected chickens, inoculating healthy ones, protecting domestic flocks and educating farmers can work, even in very poor countries.

If we are very, very lucky, the fear of an avian flu pandemic will be akin to fears about the imact of the Y2K bug -- serious and real, but successfully contained through the necessary policy responses.

posted by Dan at 05:43 PM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, May 12, 2006

How low can Bush go?

I don't like kicking a man when he's down, but the latest poll numbers have the hard-working staff here at debating among themselves: how low can Bush's poll numbers go?

Consider the latest Harris/WSJ Online poll numbers:

Of 1,003 U.S. adults surveyed in a telephone poll, 29% think Mr. Bush is doing an "excellent or pretty good" job as president, down from 35% in April and significantly lower than 43% in January. It compares with 71% of Americans who said Mr. Bush is doing an "only fair or poor" job, up from 63% in April.

Meanwhile, approval ratings for Congress are also sliding, as 18% of Americans say Congress is doing an "excellent or pretty good job," compared with 80% who say Congress is doing an "only fair or poor" job. In February, 25% of Americans gave Congress a positive rating and 71% gave a negative rating.

Elsewhere, roughly one-quarter of U.S. adults say "things in the country are going in the right direction," while 69% say "things have pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track." This trend has declined every month since January, when 33% said the nation was heading in the right direction.

Then there's this bit from CNN's poll:
In a new poll comparing President Bush's job performance with that of his predecessor, a strong majority of respondents said President Clinton outperformed Bush on a host of issues.

The poll of 1,021 adult Americans was conducted May 5-7 by Opinion Research Corp. for CNN. It had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Respondents favored Clinton by greater than 2-to-1 margins when asked who did a better job at handling the economy (63 percent Clinton, 26 percent Bush) and solving the problems of ordinary Americans (62 percent Clinton, 25 percent Bush)....

When asked which man was more honest as president, poll respondents were more evenly divided, with the numbers -- 46 percent Clinton to 41 percent Bush -- falling within the poll's margin of error.

The fact that Clinton is even in the ballpark on this last question has got to depress the White House staff.

So, question to readers: how low can Bush's poll numbers go? Previous predictions of bottoming out have not turned out well, so proceed with caution.

UPDATE: Mystery Pollster points out that the recent NSA revelations will probably provide a slight boost to Bush's numbers:

MP makes no predictions, but Bush can only stand to gain if the public's attention shifts from his handling of gas prices, the economy, immigration and Iraq to his administration's efforts to "investigate terrorism." The Post-ABC poll found that 51% approve (and 47% disapprove) of "the way Bush is handling Protecting Americans' privacy rights as the government investigates terrorism." That is "hardly a robust rating," as the ABC release puts it, "but one that's far better than his overall job approval, in the low 30s in recent polls."
LAST UPDATE: Well, here's another poll where Clinton outperforms Bush -- but I think Bush would be happy with that.

posted by Dan at 07:31 PM | Comments (40) | Trackbacks (0)

How to write back to Mahmoud?

In Slate, Fred Kaplan has a pretty good idea for how to respond to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's letter:

President Bush should publicly respond to the letter—at length and in detail. Daffy as the letter is, it does contain one clue that Ahmadinejad might really be seeking a dialogue. More to the point, many people and governments in the world, especially (but by no means exclusively) in the Muslim world, are taking the letter seriously and believe that it deserves a reply.

In short, it provides a perfect opportunity for Bush to do what he should have been doing for the last few years—to lay out what America stands for, what we have in common with Muslim nations, and how our differences can be tolerated or settled without conflict.

If such a reply leads nowhere—if it turns out that Ahmadinejad's letter is as empty as it seems on the surface—no harm will have been done. Bush can continue to step up pressure on Iran's nuclear activities. In fact, civil correspondence with the Iranian president could be touted as a sign of Bush's good intentions and his desire for diplomacy.

Kaplan is correct about Ahmadinejad's letter being a PR boost in the Muslim world -- which is truly depressing, for the letter is a rambling, inchoate, milleniarian text.

Readers are invited to outline what should be contained in the best possible response letter.

The only downside to responding would seem to be that a response somehow confers legitimacy upon Ahmadinejad -- which Bush is anathema to do.

A final note: Kaplan also goes onto confirm that I'm not crazy in being ticked off at the administration for whiffing on an opportunity to negotiate a grand bargain with Iran back in 2003. Kaplan links to the obvious source for the original FT story on this -- former NSC senior director Flynt Everett. Check out his January 2006 New York Times op-ed here and his Q&A with interviewer extraordinaire Bernard Gwertzman here.

UPDATE: Historian par excellance Mary Sarotte recounts the history of letters as a tool of diplomacy in the Washington Post. Her conclusions are consistent with Kaplan's:

If there is a lesson from this checkered history of correspondence in crisis, it is this: Content doesn't count. The historical record shows a clear mismatch between what was written in a letter and its consequences. Zimmermann meant to threaten the United States in secret; instead, his leaked telegram shored up its public resolve. Bismarck used a boring missive to mount a war; Kennedy ignored public demands of the Soviets to maintain peace.

Now, Ahmadinejad's letter is a highly suspect olive branch and an obvious public relations ploy. But it represents a rare opportunity in this particular contest of wills. Surely, there is a foreign policy official in Washington today who can figure out something better to do with Ahmadinejad's letter than ignore it.

posted by Dan at 10:32 AM | Comments (20) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Open CIA thread

I've been remiss in posting about the debates over who should head the CIA and what it should do, so here's an open thread.

Readers are encouraged, before posting, to read John Crewdson's dissection in the Chicago Tribune of the bureaucratic conflicts at work behind Porter Goss' resignation and the Hayden nomination:

[A] senior U.S. intelligence official with firsthand knowledge of events says Goss was dismissed as CIA director after the White House became convinced that strong disagreements with his immediate boss, John Negroponte, were beyond resolution. Those disputes involved changes that Goss feared would limit the agency's scope and influence, undercutting its role in analyzing intelligence.

The disagreements, the official said, had been "ongoing for a couple of months" before Goss' departure. In an ironic twist, it was Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, whom President Bush has nominated to fill Goss' position, who began the critical assault on Goss by complaining of his performance to a CIA civilian oversight body.

It should be noted that Crewdson's chief source was a Goss loyalist.

I tend to agree with Matt Yglesias and Fred Kaplan that Hayden's military status is a nonissue -- though, on the other hand, Amy Zegart does seem exercised about it, and that it reason enough for concern here at

Fire away!!

UPDATE: This could definitely be a problem for Hayden's confirmation. See Orin Kerr on this point as well.

posted by Dan at 10:41 AM | Comments (11) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Am I a liberal in bloggers' clothing?

It's no secret that I've been disenchanted with President Bush for some time. It's also no secret that I'm not alone in this sentiment -- indeed, conservatives appear to be the latest deserters.

However, the hardworking staff here at has begun to ask me whether, given my lack of faith in either the Republican administration or the Republican Congress, I'm really a Republican. Now I'm a libertarian, so I've never fit perfectly within much of the Republican canon. But has my opposition to Bush caused me to unconsciously morph into left-libertarianism?

Fortunately, the Atrios Litmus Test for Liberals (usefully edited by Kevin Drum) has recently made available for one and all to dissect. Let's take it and see how I do!!

The liberal party planks that I'm supposed to support are below. My answers are underlined:

1) Repeal the estate tax repeal: Hmmm... I confess to being pretty agnostic about this one on philosophical terms, but in the spirit of fiscal rectitude I'll back it.

2) Increase the minimum wage and index it to the CPI. This proposal does make me nostalgic for the good old days of wage-price spirals. No.

3) Universal health care (obviously the devil is in the details on this one). Do free ponies come with this one? Hacker and Pierson tell me that details matter a lot when one party is in power, so no, I'll pass.

4) Increase CAFE standards. Some other environment-related regulation. Whenever someone says anything akin to "some other... regulation," I get hives. No. [But what about gas prices?--ed. Sorry, not worked up yet -- besides, high gas prices should have a much greater effect on fuel economy than CAFE standards.]

5) Pro-reproductive rights, getting rid of abstinence-only education, improving education about and access to contraception including the morning after pill, and supporting choice. On the last one there's probably some disagreement around the edges (parental notification, for example), but otherwise. This is a bit fuzzy to me. I certainly oppose government restrictions on access to contraception, etc., but the language makes it sound like the government should be funding these choices. I'll be charitable and say yes, though.

6) Simplify and increase the progressivity of the tax code. Completely agreed on the simplification -- which is why I vehemently oppose the increased progressivity.

7) Kill faith-based funding. Certainly kill federal funding of anything that engages in religious discrimination. Opposed to the first part, OK with the second.

8) Reduce corporate giveaways. Phrased that way, sure. Just curious, though -- would universal health insurance be considered a corporate giveaway?

9) Have Medicare run the Medicare drug plan. Hell, no. Just kill the motherf#$er.

10) Force companies to stop underfunding their pensions. Change corporate bankruptcy law to put workers and retirees at the head of the line with respect to their pensions. Wow, that would do wonders for private investment in general and the stock market in particular. No.

11) Leave the states alone on issues like medical marijuana. Generally move towards "more decriminalization" of drugs, though the details complicated there too. Sounds good -- yes.

12) Paper ballots. Oh, please. With the obvious caveat about protections against fraud, this one falls under "leave the states alone" for me.

13) Improve access to daycare and other pro-family policies. Obiously details matter. Again, only with the free ponies!! Details make me itchy. No.

14) Raise the cap on wages covered by FICA taxes. If it would fund the transition funds to an actual private pension system, yes. But I suspect that this is not what Atrios is thinking, so no.

15) Marriage rights for all, which includes "gay marriage" and quicker transition to citizenship for the foreign spouses of citizens. Yes on the first point, but part of the problem with current immigration policy is that the legal system is already stacks the deck in favor of spouses and other relatives, so no on the second.

So, that adds up to five and a half points of agreement, which equals only 36.6% agreement. So no, I'm not a liberal. I'm a bit more sympatico with the DLC crowd, but that's not terribly surprising.

Readers are encouraged to see if they are liberals too. However, my gut tells me that readers of are wonks more than anything else, so reading statements like "details matter" or "some more regulation" will make them a bit itchy as well.

UPDATE: Whoops, I missed the question on the bankruptcy bill -- I'm afraid I have to plead uninformed on it. Megan McArdle -- who pays more attention to domestic policy than yours truly -- performs the valuable public service of also taking the test. She gives more detailed answers, and reminds me that on the progressivity point, I certainly support the premise behind the EITC/negative income tax.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Stephen Bainbridge takes the test too.

posted by Dan at 09:26 PM | Comments (32) | Trackbacks (0)

Drezner dares you to explain HUD!

Most poltical scientists believe that regular, law-like patterns govern a large part of political phenomenon worthy of study. However, most political scientists will also acknowledge that there are events that occur which simply go beyond our analytical toolkit and fall under the category of "random variation" -- in layman's terms, "we have no idea what's going on."

Which brings me to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson. The Dallas Business Journal's Christine Perez describes the close of a speech he gave in late April to minority contractors:

After discussing the huge strides the agency has made in doing business with minority-owned companies, Jackson closed with a cautionary tale, relaying a conversation he had with a prospective advertising contractor.

"He had made every effort to get a contract with HUD for 10 years," Jackson said of the prospective contractor. "He made a heck of a proposal and was on the (General Services Administration) list, so we selected him. He came to see me and thank me for selecting him. Then he said something ... he said, 'I have a problem with your president.'

"I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'I don't like President Bush.' I thought to myself, 'Brother, you have a disconnect -- the president is elected, I was selected. You wouldn't be getting the contract unless I was sitting here. If you have a problem with the president, don't tell the secretary.'

"He didn't get the contract," Jackson continued. "Why should I reward someone who doesn't like the president, so they can use funds to try to campaign against the president? Logic says they don't get the contract. That's the way I believe."

Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said canceling a government contract due to political views "is not a door you want to open."

"Whether or not it's legal, it certainly draws your judgment and the judgment of your office into question," Jillson said. "It's just not the tone you want to set."

This prompted a lot of blogosphere reaction -- as well as some coverage in the Washington Post.

Today, the story gets even stranger, as Frank James of The Chicago Tribune's DC blog The Swamp reports:

I called HUD and talked with Jackson's spokesperson, Dustee Tucker, about the incident. After talking with Jackson, she returned with information that made the matter even more extraordinary.

She essentially said that Jackson made the whole story up. He told a room full of people something happened which didn't.

"What the secretary was talking about (in his speech) was all of our accomplishments with minority contracts. At at the very end of his statement, the secretary offered an anecdote to explain politics in Washington D.C. He was speaking to a group of business leaders in Dallas and there were lots of Dallas Cowboys in the room.

"So he was offering an anecdote to say, this is how politics works in DC. In DC people won't just stab you in the back, they'll stab you in the front. And so the secretary's point was a hypothetical, what he said was an anecdote. It did not happen."....

But with partisanship in Washington so nasty in reality, why would Jackson feel he had to resort to inventing a scene like the one he described in Dallas?

Let's pick up with Tucker's explanation. "It did not happen. The secretary is not part of the contracting process here at HUD. That is handled by a senior official in our procurement office. He was offering it as an anecdote to say this is what happens. People in D.C. will come up to you, trash you, say terrible things about you, trash your boss, and then they'll turn around and ask you for money.

"So the secretary was offering it as an anecdote," she said. "He definitely said this in front of the (Dallas) meeting. But this meeting did not occur. The meeting with this official (in his office.) It was a hypothetical. He was offering it anecdotally.

"You know when you tell a joke you put yourself in first person, for delivery," she said. "You say I was on this train and so and so did this even if you know it wasn't a train. The secretary was putting himself in that first person to make the story more effective...

"The secretary was taking situations that have happened to him in the past. As you know, people come up to political figures all the time and say 'I don't like you, I don't like your politics, I don't like the president... He was blending together things that happened to him in the past."

This was all so "complicated, confusing and to be honest, a bit weird," I told Tucker.

"I can understand that," she said....

Clearly, Jackson very much would prefer to have evaporate the notion that he's torpedoeing contracts of administration critics, so much so that he'd rather push the idea that he says untruths in his speeches. Either way, it's all very strange.

I, for one, would like to thank Secretary Jackson for his odd behavior -- until now, the only thing about HUD that I had found funny since Eddie Murphy's TV series The PJs put a sign outside a government building saying, "HUD: Keeping you in the projects since the 1960's."

Readers are invited to try to divine what, exactly, Jackson was thinking over the past week.

posted by Dan at 01:07 PM | Comments (16) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Who's the least trusted of them all?

BBC and Reuters commissioned a poll of 10 countries to find out how much media sources are trusted. One finding that was consistent across countries stood out:

National TV was the most trusted news source overall (trusted by 82%, with 16% not trusting it) - followed by national/regional newspapers (75% vs 19%), local newspapers (69% vs 23%), public radio (67% vs 18%), and international satellite TV (56% vs 19%). Internet blogs were the least trusted source (25% vs 23%) – with one in two unable to say whether they trusted them.

posted by Dan at 12:23 PM | Comments (12) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, May 8, 2006

Dear George: Hi, it's Mahmoud.....

Both the New York Times and the Financial Times report that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has written a letter to President Bush about the current tensions between the two countries. The NYT story by Christine Hauser is more thorough:

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has written a letter to President Bush with suggestions on how to resolve current international tensions, Iranian officials said today, but there was no immediate information about whether he was proposing a solution to differences over Iran's nuclear program.

Officials in Iran would not disclose the contents of the letter, which was being forwarded to Washington through the Swiss embassy, which represents American interests in Iran. White House aides said it had not arrived by early afternoon....

"Ahmadinejad, in his letter, spoke of the current tense situation in the world and suggested ways of solving problems and of easing tensions," said an Iranian government spokesman, Gholamhossein Elham, at a news briefing today that was carried by the Iranian news agency Irna. He also said that the Iranian president had sent letters to other leaders of "certain countries."

An Iranian foreign ministry spokesman said that the text of Mr. Ahmadinejad's letter would be made public after the United States received it.

Readers are warmly encouraged to imagine what such a letter would have to say in order to ratchet down tensions between Tehran and Washington.

UPDATE: Here's a link to the actual letter, courtesy of the Council on Foreign Relations. I found this part intriguing:

Liberalism and Western style democracy have not been able to help realize the ideals of humanity. Today these two concepts have failed. Those with insight can already hear the sounds of the shattering and fall of the ideology and thoughts of the liberal democratic systems.

We increasingly see that people around the world are flocking towards a main focal point – that is the Almighty God. Undoubtedly through faith in God and the teachings of the prophets, the people will conquer their problems. My question for you is: “Do you not want to join them?”

Mr President,

Whether we like it or not, the world is gravitating towards faith in the Almighty and justice and the will of God will prevail over all things.

You know the world is a cockeyed place when George W. Bush is considered to be the secular alternative.

posted by Dan at 02:21 PM | Comments (30) | Trackbacks (0)

Sunday, May 7, 2006

Do tax cuts starve or stoke the government beast?

Kevin Drum links to a Jonathan Rauch column in the Atlantic Monthly (non-subscribers can click here to read the whole thing), which summarizes William Niskanen's finding that starving the government of tax revenue doesn't starve the beast of government spending -- if anything, the trend is the exact opposite. From Rauch's story:

Even during the Reagan years, Niskanen was suspicious of Starve the Beast. He thought it more likely that tax cuts, when unmatched with spending cuts, would reduce the apparent cost of government, thus stimulating rather than stunting Washington’s growth. “You make government look cheaper than it would otherwise be,” he said recently.

Suppose the federal budget is balanced at $1 trillion. Now suppose Congress reduces taxes by $200 billion without reducing spending. One result is a $200 billion deficit. Another result is that voters pay for only 80 percent of what government actually costs. Think of this as a 20 percent discount on government. As everyone knows, when you put something on sale, people buy more of it. Logically, then, tax cuts might increase the demand for government instead of reducing the supply of it. Or they might do some of each.

Which is it? To the naked eye, Starve the Beast looks suspiciously counterproductive. After all, spending (as a share of the gross domestic product, the standard way to measure it) went up, not down, after Reagan cut taxes in the early 1980s; it went down, not up, after the first President Bush and President Clinton raised taxes in the early 1990s; and it went up, not down, following the Bush tax cuts early in this decade.

Niskanen recently analyzed data from 1981 to 2005 and found his hunch strongly confirmed. When he performed a statistical regression that controlled for unemployment (which independently influences spending and taxes), he found, he says, “no sign that deficits have ever acted as a constraint on spending.” To the contrary: judging by the last twenty-five years (plenty of time for a fair test), a tax cut of 1 percent of the GDP increases the rate of spending growth by about 0.15 percent of the GDP a year. A comparable tax hike reduces spending growth by the same amount.

Again looking at 1981 to 2005, Niskanen then asked at what level taxes neither increase nor decrease spending. The answer: about 19 percent of the GDP. In other words, taxation above that level shrinks government, and taxation below it makes government grow....

[C]onservatives who are serious about halting or reversing the dizzying Bush-era expansion of government—if there are any such conservatives, something of an open question these days—should stop defending Bush’s tax cuts. Instead, they should be talking about raising taxes to at least 19 percent of the GDP. Voters will not shrink Big Government until they feel the pinch of its true cost.

Without necessarily endorsing the "starve the beast" theory of political economy, my first reaction is to ask about lagged effects. As I've understood it, the starve the beast idea does not say that government spending will immediatekly go down as deficits rise; it argues that eventually the increase in deficits creates market and political pressure to cut government spending. My guess is that if you lagged taxes by five years you might get a different result.

I see that this paper made the blog rounds a few years ago -- but it does not appear to have been published. Furthermore, the link to the original conference paper is not not working.

Still, the argument is provocative enough for readers to chew on.

UPDATE: Sebastian Mallaby sure seems convinced.

posted by Dan at 09:37 PM | Comments (17) | Trackbacks (0)