Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Let’s Call It What It Is

Take a look at the following opening sentence from an AP story on the crimes at Abu Ghraib:

WASHINGTON – Fresh photos showing American soldiers brutalizing Iraqi prisoners with snarling dogs or forced sex left members of Congress angry and disgusted…

Why beat around the bush? Why the careful avoidance of the obvious term for “forced sex”? The pictures show soldiers committing rape.

I guess the media is (once again) taking their cue from the administration. On Monday the Pentagon’s spokesperson simply said that the photos showed “inappropriate behavior of a sexual nature.” It doesn’t sound as bad as rape when you put it that way.

By the way, in case you were wondering (as I was) if the media simply tries to avoid using the term rape in general, the answer seems to be no. A quick search of Yahoo news turned up 11,707 recent news articles that use the word rape. But interestingly, almost none of them are about the crimes at Abu Ghraib.


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Campaign Fundraising

The FEC is set to rule today on the legality of soft money-funded 527 issue groups that have been working to boost or blast one candidate or the other. Indications are that the FEC will decide to postpone their decision by another 90 days. Of course, that effectively means that they’re making a decision to leave the current rules in place for the bulk of the 2004 election.

Some Republicans are saying that if the FEC does indeed decide to do that, then they are going to start using 527 groups more intensively themselves, to counter lots of ad buys by MoveOn and other such anti-Bush groups. Republicans (and some Democrats) have been surprised by the amount of money that the Kerry campaign has been able to raise, so they have unexpectedly been put slightly on the defensive regarding fundraising.

By the way, Kerry has launched a new $10 million in 10 days fundraising campaign. You know what to do.


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The Abu Ghraib Prisoner’s Dilemma, Revisited

If you will look to your right, you’ll see that I’ve added The Rumsfeld Wire, an application created by the DCCC that tracks blog posts relating to Abu Ghraib and/or removing Rumsfeld. Now, I think the Abu Ghraib scandal is a true scandal, and deserving of all the abhorrence it has received and probably more, the tragic events surrounding Nick Berg notwithstanding. However, I’m actually not ready to embrace Rumsfeld’s removal.

Even as I type that, I’m surprised. Rumsfeld’s done little right that I can think of, and if he’s been superb then I’m due for the next Nobel Prize in Economics. My primary concerns with Rumsfeld leaving his position in the next six months are the prospect of (1) the gigantic clown circus his successor’s confirmation hearings would inevitably create, and (2) Paul Wolfowitz running the show in the interim. So I’m not personally advocating his ouster at this point, but I will certainly not argue with those who do, nor side with Rumsfeld’s defenders. The best plan, of course, remains getting rid of the entire lot of them.

By way of contributing to The Rumsfeld Wire, I’m reprinting a post from 5/2 that I think has, sadly, proved true. (The post was no great act of prophecy; the escalation was all too predictable. But it does point to a way out — as Lindsey Graham said, “When you are the good guys, you’ve got to act like the good guys.”)


The Abu Ghraib Prisoner’s Dilemma

Phil Carter’s Intel Dump is the place to go for real-time analysis of military issues, from a former Army officer. Reading Phil’s thoughts on the Abu Ghraib situation, I was struck by this passage:

What’s worse is that other American soldiers may suffer for the brutal excesses of these MPs, interrogators, and OGA (“other government agency” = CIA) employees. Reciprocity is a very real thing where the laws of wars are concerned, and we should be very concerned about retaliation against any Americans captured by Iraqi insurgents in the future. Similarly, reprisals are very real problem in war; they’re often fueled by anger over mistreatment of one side’s own troops.

Carter is describing a classic Prisoner’s Dilemma: a situation in which, when two opposing parties pursue actions in their own best interest, the outcome for each is worse than if they had instead cooperated. Such instances are called prisoner’s dilemmas because the canonical example is two prisoners being interrogated in separate rooms. Each suspects the other will confess and so confesses in order to receive a lighter sentence, even though they would both be better off had neither confessed. Attempting to maximize short-run gain results in each party being worse off than if they had followed a cooperative strategy.

If, however, the game is repeated indefinitely, the outcome can change. In repeated interactions, one player can reward cooperation by the other player by cooperating tomorrow. A common outcome involves tit-for-tat strategies: each side pursues the cooperative action; if, however, one side should fail to live up to its side of the deal by taking an opportunistic action, then the other side will respond by also taking the opportunistic action in the next period.

One of the more classic examples of a repeated Prisoner’s Dilemma is in John Axelrod’s book, The Evolution of Cooperation. There, Axelrod (*) examines accounts of trench warfare in World War I, noting how on a day to day basis, the opposing troops pursued a cooperative strategy that basically entailed not shooting every enemy soldier they could:

A fascinating case of the development of cooperation based on continuing interaction occurred in the trench warfare of World War I. In the midst of this very brutal war there developed between the men facing each other what came to be called the “live and let live system.” The troops would attack each other when ordered to do so, but between large battles each side would deliberately avoid doing much harm to the other side — provided tthat thte other side reciprocated (p. 61).

… the historical situation in the quiet sectors along the Western Front was an iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma. In a given locality, the two players can be taken to be the small units facing each other. At any time, the choices are to shoot to kill or deliberately to shoot to avoid causing damage. For both sides, weakening the enemy is an important value because it will promote survival if a major battle is ordered in the sector. Therefore, in the short run it is better to do damage now whether the enemy is shooting back or not … mutual defection is preferred to unilateral restraint [and] unilateral restraint by the other side is even better than mutual cooperation. In addition, the reward for mutual restraint is preferred by the local units to the outcome of mutual punishment, since mutual punishment would imply that both units would suffer for little or no relative gain (p. 75).

Thus, there is a long history supporting Carter’s claim that “reciprocity is a very real thing where the laws of wars are concerned” and we should, therefore, be very concerned about reprisals against captured Americans. Each side can realize some gain by torturing its captives (e.g., intelligence and propaganda); the cost of doing so is that their respective troops are more likely to be tortured in the future. When either side does so, it gains some strategic advantage (we assume — otherwise they would not use torture), but over the long run, there is little relative strategic advantage when both sides employ extreme measures.

For example, just today [5/2/2004], we received the good news that Halliburton truck driver Tommy Hamill escaped after three weeks in captivity near Baghdad. Part of the reason Hamill was able to escape is that he had not been beaten, tortured, and chained. The likelihood of such restraint in the future is now, sadly, less than it was before Iraqis learned of the abuse at Abu Ghraib.

A paradoxical aspect of this situation is that to avoid the outcome in which both sides use torture, it must be the case that both sides are in fact willing to resort to torture or other vicious measures. Otherwise, the threat to punish the other side tomorrow for resorting to torture today is empty. Returning to the trench analogy, if the Germans never retaliated then the Americans would have no incentive not to shoot. It was the proven willingness of the Germans to strike back that rendered such striking back unnecessary, and vice-versa.

A second implication is that, in order to sustain the “cooperative” outcome in which torture is not used by either side, each side must also be willing to not use torture even when there are short-run benefits to doing so. Both sides have demonstrated their willingness and ability to break the cooperative, reciprocal, tacit agreement (see Fallujah and Abu Ghraib, respectively.) An open issue is whether the situation will spiral into a descending series of reprisals and counter-reprisals or whether reciprocity will emerge.


(*) See Chapter 5, The Live and Let Live System in Trench Warfare in World War I.

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Read This

Harsh C.I.A. Methods Cited in Top Qaeda Interrogations. The headline barely does justice to the content, about which you should be outraged (let Sen. Inhofe howl in outrage at your outrage.)


UPDATE: Read this too, on Congressmembers’ reactions to seeing the still classified photos and videos from Abu Ghraib:

  • “Hard on the stomach lining,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)
  • “Disgusting,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) [Lieberman failed to mention that this was all fine because “The people who attacked us on September 11 never apologized.”].
  • “Horrible,” added Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.)
  • Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.): “These people are not members of my Army”
  • Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oreg.): “It was beyond anything that I had anticipated … All I can tell you is that this means that it is so urgent that steps are taken to try to begin to repair the damage.”
  • “I saw things that made me sick,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose).
  • “It had nothing to do with trying to break them,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) “It was sadomasochistic sexual degradation.”
  • “Even more disturbing was a video of a man who seemed to be flailing himself against a door,” said Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), “… The nature of these photos is more inflammatory than the original photos”
  • Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.): “… no one can convince me, knowing the situation as I do, that this is all about seven reservists from Maryland … It’s about more than that.”
  • Sen. Feinstein (D-Ca): “[There was] not a strong chain of command in place, and the Geneva Convention was winked at. Somebody gave the order that prisoners had to be softened up, and someone came up with this idea of doing it in this disgusting way.”

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Data Roundup

Some recent tidbits of economic data that I haven’t had time to comment on:

The US trade deficit hit $46 billion in April. That’s a huge number. No one really knows how huge. I mean really, who actually can grasp how big a million is, much less a billion, much less 46 billion? (I’m feeling a bit like Douglas Adams at this point, but nevermind.) Yet still, I can’t get worked up about a big trade deficit like the US currently has. Trade deficits can be good and can be bad, just like a trade surplus can be good or bad. I think the US has plenty of other more fundamental, underlying problems to worry about.

Import prices rose 0.2% in April, which was a rather small increase (for which we can thank the stronger dollar in April). But still, for the past year import prices are up 4.6%, which goes some way toward explaining the recent rise in inflation in the US.

Oil prices have continued their climb, and crude oil is now nearing $41 per barrel. Gasoline prices rose in lockstep.

Tax refunds rose an average of just $98 this year compared to last year. That’s a rather smaller number than the optimistic $300 that the Treasury Department had predicted a couple of months ago. But of course since the Treasury Department’s analysts are not influenced by politics, we know that this was just an honest mistake on their part.

That’s all for now.


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Now In Graph Form

I thought the approval/disapproval numbers from the previous post might look nice in graphical form. Here is the result:

Notice any trends? Interestingly, the recent sharp approval drop/dissaproval spike appears to be simply an acceleration of a pre-existing trend.


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Waking Up and Smelling The Coffee

But why did it take so long?

President Bush’s overall approval rating has fallen to the lowest level of his presidency, 44 percent, in the latest CBS News poll, reflecting the weight of instability in Iraq on public opinion of Mr. Bush even as the economy shows signs of improvement.

Two weeks ago, 46 percent of Americans approved of the job President Bush was doing. On April 9, his approval rating was 51 percent.

American’s opinion of Mr. Bush’s handling of the economy is also at an all-time low, 34 percent, while 60 percent disapprove, also a high of the Bush presidency. Increasing employment is seemingly not affecting Americans’ view of Mr. Bush’s economic policy.

… The highest figure ever recorded, 64 percent, say the result of the war in Iraq has not been worth the cost in lives or money. Only 29 percent, the lowest figure yet, believe the war has been worth it. And just 31 percent of Americans now say the United States is winning the war.

And this is probably the worst news for the President:





Two weeks ago







Two weeks ago




If voters lose their faith in Bush’s ability to conduct the War on Terror, or at least to keep American safe, then he’s basically got nothing compelling, outside of his appeal to the Religious Right, on which to run. More tax cuts? Been there done that. More steel tariffs? Not a net vote-getter. More prescription drug plans? Republicans will revolt. More NCLB? States, including ones with Republican governors, will revolt.

Am I missing anything? Once you get past tax cuts, there’s really not much of a domestic agenda.

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Some Modestly Positive News

Cisco is hiring:

Cisco Systems’s announcement yesterday that it plans to hire 1,000 more workers is sure to bring throngs of out-of-work technology workers streaming into the city hoping that the company’s expansion, coupled with Google’s IPO, signals that the boom is officially on again.

This is presumably an indication that the commmunications companies that comprise Cisco’s customers are increasing their infrastructure investment (or at least have stopped reducing it.)


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From the Huh? Department

Via Mark Kleiman, Time is reporting that

It’s not exactly every day that the Pentagon warns military personnel to stay away from Fox News. But that’s exactly what some hopeful soul at the Department of Defense instructed, in a memo intended to forbid Pentagon staff reading a copy of the Taguba report detailing abuse of detainees at prisons in Iraq that had been posted at the Fox News web site.

Time put the original email up as well:

Fox News and other media outlets are distributing the Tugabe report (spelling is approximate for reasons which will become obvious momentarily). Someone has given the news media classified information and they are distributing it. THE INFORMATION CONTAINED IN THIS REPORT IS CLASSIFIED. ALL ISD CUSTOMERS SHOULD …

I suppose that, in writing that “spelling is approximate for reasons which will become obvious,” the sender meant that it was so secret that even he hadn’t read the report and learned the author’s name. You can read the executive summary of the report here and the full report here. In keeping with Pentagon directives, neither source is Fox News.


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Bush’s Disapproval Ratings

The bad news for Bush throughout late March and April – including the Clarke revelations about Bush’s lack of focus on terrorism, his reluctantly-given personal testimony in front of the 9/11 commission, and the sharp increase in violence in Iraq – all seemed to have no effect on how the US public viewed Bush’s presidency. In fact, if anything the adversity seemed to improve people’s opinions of him.

But in the past week or two that may have begun to change. Gallup’s new poll, reported by, shows George Bush’s disapproval ratings above 50% for the first time in his presidency:

Clearly the horrible stories about prisoner abuse in Iraq at the hands of the US military bothers people in a way that events in March and April did not. Furthermore, poll results such as these may indicate that many people believe that the crimes at Abu Ghraib reflect poorly on George Bush’s presidency, not just on a few individual members of the military.

The White House may want to move up their date for a dramatic OBL capture.


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