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Archive for December, 2008

WaMu: The Power of Yes

[ 0 ] December 29, 2008 |

This is a pretty remarkable story about Washington Mutual, though most of its particulars — amphetamine-snorting mortgage supervisors aside — won’t be news to anyone who’s ever listened to “The Giant Pool of Money” episode of This American Life.

During Mr. [Kerry] Killinger’s tenure, WaMu pressed sales agents to pump out loans while disregarding borrowers’ incomes and assets, according to former employees. The bank set up what insiders described as a system of dubious legality that enabled real estate agents to collect fees of more than $10,000 for bringing in borrowers, sometimes making the agents more beholden to WaMu than they were to their clients.

WaMu gave mortgage brokers handsome commissions for selling the riskiest loans, which carried higher fees, bolstering profits and ultimately the compensation of the bank’s executives. WaMu pressured appraisers to provide inflated property values that made loans appear less risky, enabling Wall Street to bundle them more easily for sale to investors.

“It was the Wild West,” said Steven M. Knobel, a founder of an appraisal company, Mitchell, Maxwell & Jackson, that did business with WaMu until 2007. “If you were alive, they would give you a loan. Actually, I think if you were dead, they would still give you a loan.”

Actually, the Wild West analogy, though alluring, is a false analogy. The actual “Wild West” was possible only in the absence of effective civic authority and the inability/unwillingness of federal and territorial officials to restrain and punish the avarice of those who intruded on the landscape. What happened in the financial world over the past fifteen years was more akin to the collapse of civilization following a zombie infestation or the oft-dreaded — on this blog at least — communion of monkeys and robots.

On a somewhat related note, it’s worth mentioning a point that the Times article doesn’t include, even though it compares WaMu to a “sweatshop” — in addition to pushing through bad loans and treating their employees the bank also refused overtime pay to thousands of its employees. Here, the company’s sins were not unique. Following the Bush-approved 2004 revisions to the Fair Labor Standards Act, mortgage lenders across the country were able to reclassify their sales forces as “administrative” workers who were no longer eligible for overtime. Obviously, changes to federal labor laws played at best a tertiary role in the financial crisis, but it’s an issue that never receives mention in the press coverage. It’s difficult to muster sympathy for the brokers who got rich off the scheme, but the fact remains that bad public policy allowed institutions like Washington Mutual and Countrywide to bugger the very employees who were helping them wreck the economy.

No Endgame

[ 0 ] December 28, 2008 |

I don’t have many additional thoughts on the breaking of the Gaza ceasefire. The strategic aims seem clear; Hamas wished to provoke an Israeli attack in anticipation that the reaction will help Hamas seize control of the West Bank. Israel wants to damage Hamas’ state infrastructure, and thus apply enough pain to the Palestinians that they move back towards Abbas, and incidentally give Kadima a chance to win the upcoming elections. Although Egypt and Abbas seem to be on board with the Israeli plan, I know which way I’m betting; people rarely respond to bombing by picking the more moderate option. I’m guessing that Hamas comes out of this stronger than before, although of course the Egyptian reaction could change things a bit by affecting Hamas logistical situation. Even then, though, the policy of the Egyptian government can be quite different than the actual behavior of the Egyptian border guards and inspectors who monitor commerce with Gaza.

The thing is, I very much doubt at this point that Hamas will ever become “a responsible partner for peace.” That Hamas owes its position in Palestinian life to Israel doesn’t really change this fact; after thirty years of claiming that the Palestinians have only maximal ends the Israelis successfully created a Palestinian group that has maximal ends. I could be wrong, of course, but I’m guessing that any relaxation of the siege of Gaza would be met by further Hamas-supported attacks on Israel, at least in the short term. In the longer term, hopefully people will get tired of all this.

I’ll leave you with Spencer’s thoughts:

Do you believe for a moment that leveling Gaza will stop the rockets? Well, then you’ve lost your right to call the peaceniks naive.

And Again…

[ 0 ] December 27, 2008 |

Some depressing holiday news:

Waves of Israeli aircraft swooped over the Gaza Strip on Saturday, firing missiles at Hamas’s security headquarters and killing more than 200 people, bringing the highest death toll in Gaza in years in a crushing response to rocket fire by Hamas against Israeli towns.

After the initial airstrikes, which also wounded about 600 Palestinians, dozens of rockets struck southern Israel. Thousands of Israelis hurried into bomb shelters amid the hail of rockets, including some longer-range models that reached farther north than ever before. One Israeli man was killed in the town of Netivot and four were wounded, one seriously.

A military operation against Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, had been forecast and demanded by Israeli officials for weeks, ever since a rocky cease-fire between Israel and Hamas broke down completely in early November and rocket attacks began in large numbers against Israel. Still, there was a shocking quality to Saturday’s attacks, in broad daylight on about 100 sites, as police cadets were graduating, women were shopping at the outdoor market and children were emerging from school.

The center of Gaza City instantly became a scene of chaotic horror, with rubble everywhere, sirens wailing, and women shrieking as dozens of mutilated bodies were laid out on the pavement and in the lobby of Shifa Hospital so that family members could identify them. The vast majority of those killed were Hamas police officers and security men, including two senior commanders, but the dead included several construction workers and at least two children in school uniforms.

By afternoon, shops were shuttered, funerals began and mourning tents were visible on nearly every major street of this densely populated city.

“Hamas was warned a few times in a variety of ways, but I can’t elaborate on the warnings,” said Maj. Avital Leibovich, a spokeswoman for the Israeli military. “Anything associated with Hamas is for us a legitimate target, including an apartment in which the basement is a weapons storehouse. This operation is not finished yet, but for now it involves only aircraft.”

Israeli airstrikes continued after dark, striking a metal foundry and other targets in southern Gaza, Palestinian officials said. Calls on both Israel and Hamas to refrain from further attacks were issued by Russia, Egypt and numerous governments in Western Europe, as well as the United Nations. The Bush administration urged Hamas to stop firing rockets, but called on Israel only to avoid hitting civilians as it attacked Hamas.

I don’t really have much to add; I assume most of our readers will (like me) see the Israeli response as disproportionate and also see Hamas’ apparent conviction that this time firing some rockets at civilian targets will achieve political and security goals is roughly as rational as the continuation of the American embargo against Cuba (even if the reverse of the power symmetry makes it more understandable.)

Grenade

[ 0 ] December 27, 2008 |

Hadn’t seen this before… I wonder how many people have survived after throwing themselves onto grenades? There’s not even a category on wikipedia:

A Royal Marine who threw himself on to an exploding grenade to save the lives of his comrades is to receive the George Cross. Lance Corporal Matthew Croucher stepped on a trip-wire which triggered the device during a night raid on a Taliban compound in Afghanistan.

Realising that three other members of his patrol would be killed if he did not act, he launched himself forward to smother the explosion, managing to twist on to his back to let his rucksack take the full force of the blast. Having stepped on a trip-wire he threw himself on to the device allowing the rucksack to bear the brunt of the explosion and thereby save the lives of three colleagues

The explosion hurled him across the compound leaving him stunned, bleeding profusely from the nose and almost deaf. His rucksack was shredded and burning shrapnel from the kit he had been carrying was scattered around the area, with pieces found embedded in his helmet and body armour.

Miraculously the 24-year-old Marine survived and within minutes was on his feet, refusing evacuation and demanding to be allowed to stay with the patrol. He helped set an ambush and shot dead a Taliban insurgent in the ensuing gunfight.

Sam Huntington

[ 0 ] December 27, 2008 |

It appears that Sam Huntington has passed. Soldier and the State is a fine book. Many of his other works I can’t stand, to the point of repugnance. It’s fair to say, though, that virtually every graduate student who has passed through a political science department had to deal with Huntington in some fashion.

Bandido Yanqui

[ 0 ] December 27, 2008 |

Speaking of Drezner, he says what needs to be said regarding the “Yankees are killing America” meme.

Cooking the Books

[ 0 ] December 27, 2008 |

As to the absurd notion that George W. Bush has read several hundred books since 2005, I can’t offer much beyond what Steven Benen and Matt Stoler have already provided. In the very least, this is an elaborate put-on by Rove; to be slightly less charitable, his insistence that Bush devoted time this year to reading Jacobo Timerman’s Prisoner Without a Name — a book about torture, among other familiar ills — is sickening.

Or perhaps it’s just as well. Bush “reads” books in the same sense that his government “adheres” to the Geneva Conventions.

Charlton Heston? Really?

[ 0 ] December 27, 2008 |

I have never pictured Jack Aubrey as looking even vaguely like Charlton Heston, but apparently Patrick O’Brian did. I suppose that I might be more open minded about that possibility if I hadn’t seen Master and Commander before reading the first Aubrey-Maturin novel; the film obviously has its failings, but in general they concern the Maturin character (which is a completely and utterly different animal in the film than in the books), and the related issue of Aubrey being just a trifle too clever. Physically and in mannerism, though, I thought Crowe captured Aubrey almost perfectly. Even Crowe’s performance in Gladiator isn’t particularly Heston-esque, and his turn as Jack Aubrey just didn’t remind me at all of Heston.

Torture and Mitigation

[ 0 ] December 27, 2008 |

A while ago, Ross Douthat wrote a meandering, self-indulgent post about his feelings on torture, suggesting that while he felt torture was bad, he could also understand why the Bush administration had ordered it, mainly because Douthat himself was kind of scared after 9/11. Glenn Greenwald wrote a fabulous post pointing out that every regime that tortures thinks that it has good reasons for torturing; the point is the crime, not the motivation. Dan Drezner and Josh Cohen talked a bit about torture on Bloggingheads, which led Glenn to write a distinctly less interesting post questioning whether the two were torture “mitigators”. Glenn said yes, Dan said no, Josh said “what?“, Glenn suggested that Dan (and I paraphrase) was a douche, and Dan suggested that Glenn (and I do not paraphrase) tortures puppies. I don’t see it (the mitigation), but mileage may vary.

In the course of this, Glenn wrote:

More simplistic still is the very idea that the motives of Bush officials — including Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld — can be reduced to one clear and pure desire: To Protect Us. Even one’s own motives, let alone those of others, are notoriously difficult to ascertain. The certainty claimed by those who are defending Bush officials about what their motives were in torturing is absurd. There are all sorts of reasons to believe that they were motivated, at least in part, by the power that comes from torture, or a desire for vengeance, or the belief that the detainees in our custody were sub-human, or just general indifference to law and morality. How have those ignoble motives been ruled out by their defenders and noble motives so emphatically embraced? Ultimately, though, the reason leaders torture is irrelevant. It’s one of those few absolute taboos, and it’s almost as immoral to seek to dilute that taboo by offering motive-based mitigations as it is to engage in it in the first place….
A “root cause” theory that is deemed unspeakably evil in American discourse when applied to non-Americans is immediately embraced by our elites when we need a way to explain the fact that our own leaders committed unambiguous war crimes.

I have mixed feelings on this. On the question of war crime guilt, I would agree with Glenn, although of course the issue of motivation touches on several aspects of any criminal proceeding. But it also seems that Glenn is suggesting that there’s no utility in investigating the motivations behind torture; this may not have been his intent, but it’s how I read the argument. I suspect that there’s a disjuncture brought about by the difference between the academic and polemical worldview. From the polemicist point of view, it’s quite sensible to invoke the unfair manner in which the “root causes” concept is deployed, and consequently to deny its utility altogether. As an academic, I’m thinking that if an inquiry into the root causes of terrorism or torture is useful for non-Americans, then it’s probably useful for Americans, too. But allowing that, of course, reduces the polemical value of the assertion of criminality; this is true whether the assertion is being made about Americans or Cubans or Saudis or Zimbabweans. I should also note that it’s not my intention to assess any value to either the polemical or academic project, although obviously I have sympathy with the latter.

Regarding those root causes, I can think of a number of ways in which investigating the source of American torture could bear fruit. For one, I have to wonder why “torture porn” seems to provide such a box office draw, and what the relationship is between such porn (and I think that the CSI franchise would be an example of soft core torture porn) and the acceptance of torture in the Bush administration. I’m interested in how the torture narrative developed within the Bush administration, because I’m extremely skeptical that enhanced interrogation methods (so to speak) are actually the result of a serious concern with the safety of Americans. This is to say that I don’t really believe that the people who authorized such methods were primarily motivated by a “pure and clean desire to protect us” (not that it would matter in a criminal sense, anyway). Rather, I very much suspect that an understanding of “toughness” peculiar to the American Right, and in particular a desire to appear tougher than domestic liberals and foreign enemies, drove much of the consideration of the utility of torture. Joel Surnow, after all, put Jack Bauer on the torture train before the Bush administration opened Gitmo.

In some sense, it’s easier to account for torture in Saudi Arabia, Cuba, or Zimbabwe, because the regime in each case understands that torture is useful for destroying opposition political movements, but not so much for gathering intelligence. There’s at least, that is to say, a plausible connection between ends and means. In the American case not so much, and that’s a puzzle. [in comments, Martin rightly calls me out on this; the use of torture in Afghanistan and Iraq is fairly straightforward torture for repression, and has a history in US foreign policy. What's puzzling is the narrative that connects torture with intelligence; this is where the means-end relationship breaks down.] It’s a puzzle worth investigating, however; understanding the motivations of torturers is critical to understanding why torture happened here, and I daresay important to making sure it doesn’t happen again. As such, the stories that torturers tell themselves are valuable, even (and perhaps especially) if those accounts are self-serving.

This Really Must be Stopped…

[ 0 ] December 26, 2008 |

Think of the children:

With powerful and dynamic lyrics, each stanza of “Locked and Loaded” is meant to exhibit the complete synergy of each imperative component of the fight. For instance, lyrics for the combat control Airmen who are calling in the drop says:

“Walk in the shade of the clouds at night,”

“Crawling in the dirt, calling an A-10 strike,”

“Dancing in the shadows, lives are on the line,”

“Bombs are gonna fall, just in time.”

…In an interview with the music Composer TSgt Matthew Geist, also the band guitarist said, “..[O]n the tour… they were most impressed that it was an original song by our band.”

The lead singer for “Locked and Loaded” MSgt Ryan Carson, whose favorite phrase at the beginning of each concert is, “We’re going to rock your face off!” started out as an Opera Major at the University of Wyoming when the Air Force picked him up. Carson wanted to help the Airmen focus on why you do what you do for the Air Force.

I’ll be presenting an expanded and gussied up version of my Abolish the Air Force argument at this year’s ISA; Locked and Loaded, I think, will form the core of my case.

Little Blue Pills…

[ 0 ] December 26, 2008 |

Creative COIN:

U.S intelligence officials use “novel incentives,” but this is not limited to Viagra. Sometimes, “notoriously fickle warlords and chieftains” can be won over with tools, school equipment, and surgical assistance. But it appears the “pharmaceutical enhancements for aging patriarchs with slumping libidos” can be effective with older tribal officials.

Why not just hand out cash? It doesn’t work as well — Afghan leaders with U.S. dollars are recognized for having cooperated with the unpopular Americans. And with Taliban commanders, drug dealers, and even Iranian agents offering enticements, too, U.S. officials have had to get creative.

The key, one American said, is to “find a way to meet the informant’s personal needs in a way that keeps him firmly on your side but leaves little or no visible trace.” Viagra obviously fits the bill.

It’s all about the patriarchy, I guess. Via NB.

…I was also wondering about this.

Someone has to pay attention to this crap

[ 0 ] December 26, 2008 |

Voting in The Soggy Biscuit sweepstakes — dedicated to anointing the “biggest circle-jerk of the year” — is now open.

I’ll admit to having something of a soft spot for the African Press International scam. The fact that these folks are still at it — and are now requiring that anyone who wants to read their Michelle Obama coverage ask for a password from the editor — is worthy of admiration and underscores the resiliency of their devoted American readers. That said, the API thing was really just an opportunistic subset of the “Whitey Tape” fiasco, which strangely enough didn’t make the list. If it had, this year’s contest would be a no-brainer.

I’d also be tempted to vote for the “Fake Obama Birth Certificate” story, which EvenTheDerangedWingnut Bob Owens dismissed. It’s a sensible choice, and I suspect it will eventually carry the title Let’s be honest, though. Any circle jerk that doesn’t include Confederate Yankee isn’t really worthy of the name. For that reason alone, my vote will go to “Bill Ayers Ghost Wrote Obama’s Book,” a rumor that Owens entertained and for which a couple of idiot Republicans were willing to waste $10,000.

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