Obama Defuses a Racial Bomb Ignited by Bobby Rush

It was supposed to be just another absurd day in the absurd life of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. Then Bobby Rush showed up.

Blagojevich held a mid-afternoon press conference Tuesday to name former Illinois Comptroller and Attorney General Roland Burris to Illinois' vacant Senate seat, an act that stood in defiance of both the stated wishes of every Democratic senator in Washington and Majority Leader Harry Reid's threat to refuse any Blagojevich appointee entrance into the Senate. The appointment, which the Secretary of State of Illinois stated he would not certify, would likely create weeks of legal wrangling and prolong the sideshow atmosphere surrounding Blago. So far, so bizarre, so good.

Then Congressman Bobby Rush of Illinois' 1st district stepped to the mic in support of Burris, who is black, and said, "I will ask you to not hang and lynch the appointee as you try to castigate the appointer." Lynch. That's crazy even by Blago standards.

Let's have no doubt: In a different world and at a different time, Burris would have legitimate claim to the seat. The first black man to win a major statewide office in Illinois, he served three terms as comptroller (beginning in 1979) and one as attorney general (beginning in 1991). In his era, he was popular throughout the state. He managed to serve for 16 years without scandal, which may be a record in Illinois. But despite his accomplishments, Burris cannot hope to untangle himself from the web of scandals woven by Blagojevich. And even if those scandals were not so all-consuming, few prominent politicians in Illinois would stand up for Burris: half want the seat he has been appointed to fill, and the other half would rather endorse someone who will be a future power player, someone who could repay the favor down the line. Few would see the sense in supporting a man who, though a distinguished public servant, is in his seventies and hasn't held public office in over a decade.

Yet More Cap and Tax

YET MORE CAP AND TAX....A couple of days ago I mentioned that a generic carbon tax would raise the price of gasoline by only a little bit, and since gasoline use is pretty inelastic this means it wouldn't reduce consumption much. Because of this, we probably need more than just a carbon tax if we seriously want to cut gasoline use. David Roberts comments:

Kevin Drum grasps this basic problem, but for some reason the separate policy he favors is ... a higher gas tax.

But if a price signal is blunted by low elasticity, is the best solution simply to jack up the price?....If we are so hell-bent on getting people out of inefficient vehicles — and we certainly should be — why don't we take a more direct route? Why don't we try to directly increase elasticity of demand by creating more low-carbon alternatives? Build the crap out of public transit. Buy gas guzzlers off the road through junker programs. Issue a new ruling that the government will only buy plug-in hybrid or electric vehicles. Raise CAFE standards to 60 mpg and pay the Big Three off with stimulus money (they're probably going to get it anyway).

Just for the record, I pretty much agree. Price signals are important as a backbone policy (you can think of them as sort of like a tailwind that helps everything else along), and since gasoline use responds slowly to price hikes I think a mixed carbon trading/gas tax policy that raises the price of gasoline heavily is a good idea. Still, it's absolutely true that you often need more than just a tailwind. If you want better gas mileage, you can get it way faster by increasing CAFE standards than you can by jacking up the price of gasoline. Getting rid of gas guzzlers is another good idea, and I'm also a fan of a revenue neutral feebate that's based on gas mileage (you get a rebate when you buy a car with exceptionally good mileage and pay a fee on cars with exceptionally bad mileage). There are probably plenty of other good ideas out there too, many of which I haven't even heard of.

Still, generally speaking, taxes and carbon trading are more efficient regulatory mechanisms than command and control, so the more you can rely on them the better. For that and other reasons, I remain in favor of trying to increase carbon prices fairly heavily, and gasoline prices even more heavily. It's true that you have to do this carefully to avoid making the price hikes into a de facto regressive tax, but there are pretty good policy mechanisms available for achieving fairness. It's time to get started.

We get a lot of exceptional photo essays submitted each week. It's hard to pick just one per issue, and even with the expanded outlet of the website, there's still not enough room for everything worthy that passes across my desk. Between the photo essays that ran in the magazine in 2008, and those that found a home on the Mother Jones website, this was a bang-up year for picture stories here.

That said, below are my five personal favorite MoJo photo essays of 2008.

At a Loss for Words

AT A LOSS FOR WORDS....In case you're wondering what I think about Rod Blagojevich having the balls to appoint a replacement to Barack Obama's Senate seat, I don't really have the words for it. I mean, what can you say about something like this? Blagojevich is obviously living in his own personal looking-glass land these days.

Still, the silver lining here is that maybe this will give the Illinois legislature the kick in the butt it needs to get cracking on impeachment. Maybe.

Housing Market Continues to Suck

HOUSING MARKET CONTINUES TO SUCK....Housing prices are still plunging:

Home values in 20 large metropolitan areas across the country dropped at a record pace in October as the fallout from the financial collapse reverberated through the housing market, according to data released Tuesday.

...."October was clearly the free-fall month," said David M. Blitzer, chairman of the index committee at Standard & Poor's. "Everything was going against us in October, without exception."....Prices are falling at the fastest pace on record, a sign that the housing market is a long way from recovery.

The housing market is obviously in terrible shape, but for what it's worth, I think the idea that October was uniquely bad is slightly miscast. As you can see in the Case-Shiller index at right, housing prices began plunging at a rate of 2-3% per month in October 2007, moderated a bit starting in May 2008, and then resumed their 2-3% monthly decline in September. It's not so much that we're suddenly seeing record declines, as it is that the record declines that started last year got interrupted for a few months this summer and are now back in business. But this is no surprise: the Case-Shiller index is still only down to 158, and we've always known that it's not going to stop much before it gets into the 100-120 range. What's more, rapid declines aren't entirely bad news. We're probably better off getting to 100 sooner rather than later, since economic recovery almost certainly can't start until housing prices bottom out.

In the meantime, of course — and I say this as someone currently trying to sell a house — the news is grim every direction you look. Even at 2-3% per month, we've got at least another year before the housing market starts to reach its natural level. Until then, we're screwed.

Gangsta Rap != Street Violence

Ta-Nehisi Coates, blogging his way through the holidays just like us, finds that statistics support his suspicion of a long-prevailing cultural myth. Says Coates: "Anyone who knows hip-hop knows that when the music was most conscious—late 80s, early 90s—the streets were insane. And when the streets were most sane—mid to late 90s—any fool who could gun-talk was going platinum."

So don't blame gangsta rap for the dramatic rise in murders among young black men that has been getting ink lately. Gangsta rap sales have declined as murder among young black men has risen. The numbers, courtesy of dallaspenn.com:

cdsalesgraph.jpg

In fact, from the looks of this chart, we need to bring back gangsta rap. Apparently, nothing drives down street violence like Ice T records. That said, here's a caveat: record sales are tanking across genres as Internet downloading makes those plastic coaster things that used to play music more and more obsolete. Gantsa rap's relation to street violence may not be an inverse one, but instead merely nonexistent.

What's more bizarre, the fact that the ethically challenged Congressman Charlie Rangel (D-NY) paid for parking tickets using campaign donations as Dan notes below, or the fact that he somehow earned himself $1,540 in said tickets in just two years?

Couple other points on top of Dan's: (1) This sort of entitlement, bred over years of being in power, makes a solid argument for term limits. (2) Rangel is the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. If he is this irresponsible with his own money, how does he expect to have any credibility when spending taxpayers' money? (3) What on earth will it take for Charlie Rangel to finally get the boot? Does he have to murder a guy and then pay for the cover-up using campaign contributions from nuns?

*The Stimulus Bill

THE STIMULUS BILL....Tim Fernholz points to this Bloomberg piece about Mitch McConnell's reaction to a massive stimulus bill:

"A trillion-dollar spending bill would be the largest spending bill in the history of our country at a time when our national debt is already the largest in history," McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said in a statement. "As a result, it will require tough scrutiny and oversight. Taxpayers, already stretched to the limit, deserve nothing less."

McConnell called for giving lawmakers and the public at least one week to review the legislation once it has been written. He also said he wanted Senate committee hearings on the measure, rather than immediate floor consideration.

Italics mine. Obviously McConnell is just trying to rustle up opposition to the bill, and his tired invocation of "fraud and waste" harkens back to equally tired Republican opposition to the WPA in FDR's day. It's pretty weak tea. Still, I'll give him a pass on this. If the public stance of the Democratic leadership during a Republican presidency was a request for one week of hearings and review on a $700 billion measure, that would seem pretty reasonable to me. Coming from a Republican during a Democratic presidency, it seems pretty reasonable too. I'll bet McConnell gets that and more. Hopefully, the days of thousand-page bills coming out of conference and getting sent to the floor within 24 hours died when....

....Mitch McConnell's party lost control of the Senate. I say, let it stay dead.

A Very Rangel Holiday Scandal

If you're Charlie Rangel, your New Year's resolution has got to be to dust off that congressional ethics handbook and brush up on the dos and don'ts of elected office. Lately, when the New York congressman's name has surfaced in the press, it has often been in connection with allegations of conduct unbefitting a member of the US Congress. Today's report by CQ Politics that Rangel has, in the past two years, used more than $1500 in campaign funds to pay DC parking tickets rates relatively low on the outrage meter, particularly considering that he also stands accused of trading a legislative favor for a sizable contribution to the center for public service at the City College of New York that was named in his honor. But parking ticket-gate caps off a horrendous year PR-wise for the Rangeler, who also faces charges of failing to disclose rental income from his villa in the Dominican Republic; renting four below-market-rate apartments in a building owned by the family of a campaign contributor; using a congressional parking garage—in violation of congressional rules—as long-term storage for his undrivable 1972 Mercedes-Benz; and receiving a tax break on his DC home that he was not entitled to.

When do-gooders waste precious blogosphere space to do boring things like beg for a FEC that actually plays an active role in regulating America's elections (i.e. does its damn job), this is why. Bloomberg:

The Federal Election Commission, in a party-line vote, has overruled a recommendation by its counsel to fine a U.S. Chamber of Commerce group accused of illegal spending practices in attacking the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2004.
The Republican members of the FEC opposed the penalty against the chamber's November Fund, creating a 3-3 deadlock that rejected the counsel's recommendation.
The November Fund was accused of violating federal campaign spending limits by using $3 million it received from the chamber to attack Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards, a former trial lawyer, in 2004. The FEC deadlock in the November Fund case was announced last week.
"The FEC has transformed itself from a merely dysfunctional agency to one that now openly thumbs its nose at the law," said Paul Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center.

The facts of the case seem to suggest this should have been an open-and-shut deal. The Republicans who are declining to fine the Chamber are refusing to justify their decision to the press. But don't think this is a partisan problem. The three Republican commissioners on the FEC protect the GOP and its most valuable allies (in this instance, that mean the Chamber of Commerce) and the three Democratic commissioners on the FEC protect the Democratic Party and its most valuable allies. If the group in question was the SEIU and not the Chamber, you'd have similar gridlock.

The FEC's incompetence and unwillingness to take aggressive action is borne out of the same conflict of interest created when the Bush-era EPA decided to let corporations self-police their emissions. The regulated do the regulating. As long as the politicians that fall under the FEC's purview are allowed to appoint the FEC's commissioners (and currently, congressional lawmakers basically tell the president who to install), you will have a body that prioritizes the powers that be over the public interest.

And one final point. Why on earth is the FEC still adjudicating cases from the 2004 election? (Part of the answer here.) Any major special interest — like the Chamber of Commerce, for example — that knows it can influence an important election and then tie up the relevant regulatory body for four years is going to take advantage of that option. Who would blame it? Just another reason why the FEC badly needs reform.