Pete Sessions Speaks

What's the deal with members of Congress named Sessions?  Via HuffPost, here's Rep. Pete Sessions (R–Tex.) describing Barack Obama's nefarious scheme to destroy capitalism:

In an interview, Mr. Sessions cited rising unemployment in asserting that the administration intended to “diminish employment and diminish stock prices” as part of a “divide and conquer” strategy to consolidate power.

Mr. Sessions, in his seventh term, said Mr. Obama’s agenda was “intended to inflict damage and hardship on the free enterprise system, if not to kill it.” By next fall, he predicted, voters may regain appreciation for the era of Republican governance when “many dreams were achieved,” the size of the economy doubled and employment and financial markets hit record levels.

Every party has goofballs who say stupid things.  But the GOP is apparently trying to get itself into the Guiness Book of World Records or something.  I'd sure like to see a complete transcript of this interview, if only for the entertainment value.

Obama to Release Torture Report?

The Washington Post today describes the difference between the limits placed on waterboarding by Justice Department lawyers and the practice of waterboarding once it got into CIA hands:

When the technique was employed on Abu Zubaida and later on 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and al-Qaeda planner Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the interrogators in several cases applied what the CIA's Office of Inspector General described in a secret 2004 report as "large volumes of water" to the cloths, explaining that their aim was to be more "poignant and convincing," according to a recently declassified Justice Department account.

....Government officials familiar with the CIA's early interrogations say the most powerful evidence of apparent excesses is contained in the "top secret" May 7, 2004, inspector general report, based on more than 100 interviews, a review of the videotapes and 38,000 pages of documents. The full report remains closely held, although White House officials have told political allies that they intend to declassify it for public release when the debate quiets over last month's release of the Justice Department's interrogation memos.

....Although some useful information was produced, the report concluded that "it is difficult to determine conclusively whether interrogations have provided information critical to interdicting specific imminent attacks," according to the Justice Department's declassified summary of it.

Emphasis mine.  Greg Sargent says that Hill sources describe this report as the "holy grail" because "it is expected to detail torture in unprecedented detail and to cast doubt on the claim that torture works."  Doubt probably won't be enough, though.  If there's even a hint of "useful information," I imagine the torture advocates will stick to their guns.

Quote of the Day - 5.11.09

From my sister, after a conversation about the death grip the financial industry continues to exert on Congress:

"Why should I even bother to vote if none of these people ever does anything that's good for me?"

Good question!  I didn't really have a very good answer.  Can anyone help?

Cui Bono?

Today a bunch of healthcare industry executives will announce that they plan to go shoulder to shoulder with President Obama in his quest to cut healthcare costs.  Paul Krugman is cautious but supportive.  Jon Cohn is cautious but enthusiastic.  Ezra Klein is just cautious.

Count me in Ezra's camp.  The healthcare folks are promising initiatives that will cut the growth of healthcare spending by 1.5 percentage points a year.  Here's Jon Cohn on that:

That may not sound like a lot of money. But it is. If indeed the industry could produce such savings, according to the White House, it'd be worth around $2,500 a year to the typical family — which, it just so happens, is what Obama promised during his presidential campaign. (Amazing coincidence, no?)

....This doesn't mean the groups are acting out of altruism. The five big industry groups are the Advanced Medical Technology Association (AdvaMed), America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the American Hospital Association (AHA), the American Medical Association (AMA) and Pharmaceutical Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). And they've made no secret of their opposition to proposals for creating a public insurance plan, into which anybody could enroll. Monday's gesture may simply be an effort to cut a deal that leaves out the public plan.

Ya think?  My problem here isn't that the industry folks haven't proposed detailed plans or enforcement mechanisms.  That's to be expected.  My problem is that they're apparently planning to argue that things like streamlined billing and "encouraging" the use of evidence-based guidelines will be enough to entirely meet Obama's cost goals.  Cost effectiveness research?  No need!  A public plan?  No need!  It's just like 1993, when the HMO revolution was going to change medical care so dramatically that there was no need for Bill Clinton's healthcare reform.  That didn't work out so well.

Anyway.  Jon argues that the optics are good even if we should continue to watch these guys like hawks.  Ezra just thinks we should just watch them like hawks.  I'm with Ezra.  Their incentives here are simply too clear to believe they want to genuinely be of help.

UPDATE: Matt Yglesias offers a comment:

Whatever kind of backstabbing these industry groups may or may not do in the future, they won’t be able to take back the fact that once upon a time they stood beside the White House in agreeing that it’s possible to achieve massive cost-savings without compromising patient care. That argument may well prove hugely important, politically, to getting a package through congress.

True enough.

Taxing Carbon - Part 4

A few days ago I took Jeffrey Sachs to task for a post he wrote supporting a carbon tax in preference to cap-and-trade.  Over the weekend he sent me a response.  I'll probably have a reply later today, but in the meantime, here's Sachs:Kevin Drum is certainly right that a cap-and-trade system potentially can look a lot more like a carbon tax than actual cap-and-trade systems have done in the past.  My worries are about the reality of such systems, not the theory.  Both the Waxman-Markey draft bill and the actual experience of the European Union Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) give me concern for the reasons that I mentioned.  While a tax can be levied at a few upstream points, the EU ETS involves around 12,000 enterprises and the draft Waxman-Markey bill would apparently involve several thousand US sites as well (essentially all industrial units which emit more than 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gases). We would create for essentially no reason a highly expensive, Wall-Street-based system of permit trading and enterprise compliance that could be substituted by an easy-to-implement upstream tax.  Mr. Drum correctly notes that the Waxman-Markey proposal is both upstream and downstream.  I do indeed like the upstream part. The fact, however, that it is also a downstream system, which is the administratively cumbersome part that would be avoided by an upstream carbon tax.

As for the lack of price predictability, the price fluctuations of the EU ETS are notorious.  Emissions prices actually collapsed for Phase I permits at the end of that phase (2007), and recently emission permit prices have declined from more than 30 euros per ton in 2008 to less than 15 euros this year.  Some European economists are arguing for a floor price in the EU ETS, which indeed would make it much more like a tax.  I disagree with Mr. Drum that we should see the trading system as a helpful macro stabilizer and therefore like the fact that the price on carbon emissions has collapsed. We need a stable carbon price into the future to give the right incentives for a new generation of low-emissions technology development and adoption, and should use other economic instruments for cyclical policies.

I agree with Mr. Drum that an emissions system can cover most of the economy like an upstream tax, but in practice the EU ETS covers only around 50 percent of the economy.  The Waxman-Markey bill aims for much more, so perhaps I'm too pessimistic on that count and Mr. Drum is correct, but we'll see once the negotiations proceed further.  As for revenues and for revenue transparency, I still believe that a tax is the right way to go. I am not very confident about the fairness of backroom haggling over emissions rights now underway in Washington, or which has characterized the EU ETS.  I think that the tax approach can be more direct and visible, and less vulnerable to unfair insider dealing.

Finally, I would like to remind Mr. Drum and his readers that I stated clearly in my brief Yale article cited by Mr. Drum that either a tax or a cap-and-trade system is far superior to the status quo.  We are arguing about matters that are less than essential.  If Congress actually adopts a cap-and-trade system, that would be a huge advance. In fact, putting a market price on carbon emissions (through either a tax or permit system) is just one modest part of a truly comprehensive and effective carbon mitigation strategy, that must involve standards, R&D, demonstration projects, and many other kinds of incentives and public policies.

Sachs is, among other things, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and author of The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time.

Is Al Qaeda's Ibn Shaikh al-Libi Dead?

Curious news from the Arab press by way of Andy Worthington and bmaz over at emptywheel: multiple Arabic-language sources and Algeria's English-language Ennahar Online are reporting that Ibn Shaikh al-Libi, who the Bush administration once cited as the link between Al Qaeda and Iraq, has died in a Libyan prison. There's been no independent confirmation of this news yet. If true, it's an interesting coda to the story of one of the first Al Qaeda members to be captured and tortured by the United States—and the person who provided one of the key pieces of "evidence" tying Saddam Hussein to Osama Bin Laden.

Al-Libi—whose real name was Ali Abdl Aziz al-Fakhiri—was picked up in Afghanistan on or around December 18, 2001. After that, it was the same story you've heard many times: the FBI tried traditional methods of interrogation and found some success, but the CIA wasn't satisfied, and took control of the prisoner. One of the most disappointing things to those pushing for war with Iraq had to be that al-Libi hadn't said anything tying Saddam to Al Qaeda. That would change.

Al-Libi was sent to Egypt, where he was subjected to torture, including, as David Corn and Michael Isikoff reported in their book Hubris, a mock burial. Suddenly, al-Libi was singing a different tune. He told interrogators that Bin Laden had sent two Al Qaeda members to Iraq for training in weapons of mass destruction.

Talking Fishing With Todd Palin

Does Alaska's first dude hold a grudge against Mother Jones for doing some tough reporting on his wife, Sarah Palin? Attending Tammy Haddad's White House Correspondents' Dinner pre-party on Saturday, our Washington bureau chief, David Corn, thought he might be in for an earful (maybe even a fistful) when John Coale, husband of Fox's Greta Van Susteren, told him that Todd Palin wanted to meet him.

"Please don't hit me," Corn joked as he shook hands with the champion snowmobiler and all around bad-ass-looking guy. Palin laughed, and, steering clear of politics, they went on to have a pleasant discussion about having 8-year-old daughters and about commercial fishing. (Palin is gearing up for salmon season in Bristol Bay. This morning I asked Corn what the heck he knows about fishing, commercial or otherwise. He responded, "I know the difference between a gill net and a slip net, don't you?" Umm, no.)

The sight of Corn and Palin engrossed in conversation was sufficiently unusual that it warranted mentions in not one, but two papers.

Pirate "Consultants" Track Ships From London

You wouldn't know it from the pictures of scrawny, hungry-looking men chasing after mammoth commercial ships in faded-white speedboats with outboard motors, but Somali pirates operate what experts believe to be a sophisticated international network, complete with its own intelligence apparatus and PR flacks. Piracy is a multi-million dollar business, after all, taking in an estimated $150 million in 2008 alone, and is the only growth industry in Somalia, offering starved fisherman a taste of the good life. It's doubtful, however, that so many pirates would driving around Somalia's dusty roads in luxury cars without their coterie of undercover operatives in some of the world's busiest commercial ports.

That they have eyes and ears in key locations is not a new revelation, but a European military intelligence report, obtained by the Spanish radio station Cadena SER, lays bare the current thinking on the network's structure and function. Pirate "consultants" based in London, says the report, coordinate intelligence on ships bound for the Suez Canal by satellite phone, allowing the pirates to strategize individual hijackings long before ships enter the attack zone.

Last Thursday, the American Conservative's James Pinkerton and our own David Corn had another one of their frequent bloggingheads.tv diavlogues. Among the topics discussed: Afghanistan, Pakistan, the missing torture memo, and, of course, the new Star Trek movie, which opened this weekend to rave reviews:

Their Mamas Didn't Raise Them Right

If you thought Justin Timberlake and Andy Samberg couldn't top this, you were wrong. Check out their 'ode' to Mother's Day. I watched it Saturday and hit rewind four times, snorting Diet Coke through my nose each time. I only stopped because my stomach hurt so bad. Today? Five times and counting. It's so, so wicked.

If you're feeling less subversive, check out Jimmy Kimmel's take on honoring Mom. It's weirdly sweet and mildly genre-bending. A keeper.

My Mother's Day? Well, my son's birthday is always the day before, so until they're older, Mother's Day doesn't really exist. Thankfully, their school did an incredibly sweet assembly where we were all given roses and escorted by our munchkins to the gym. Then, the kids did the most snot-inducing songs ever. One of them was to the tune of "My Baloney Has a First Name," but still. It killed. When my son's 2nd grade class (he turned 8 on Saturday) did this song, you could barely hear them braying off key while everyone wept and blew their noses. Not me of course. Didn't affect me at all. Sniff. At least not until he stopped singing to just stare at me like I was the most wonderful creature on the planet. Then, he ran to me before the song was even over, took my face in his hands and said: "Now do you know how much I love you?"

Stupid Mother's Day.