2009 - %3, January

New U2 Song Picks Up Where Queens of the Stone Age Left Off

| Wed Jan. 21, 2009 2:55 PM PST

mojo-u2-boots.jpgU2's new single, "Get on Your Boots," from their upcoming album with the weird cover, has made its debut, and it's okay. You can listen to a stream over here or at Last.fm, and you can even buy it, unexpectedly early, on iTunes. "Boots" is already a massive radio phenomenon, hitting No. 1 in Ireland and No. 4 in the U.K. on airplay-monitor charts and dominating radio playlists around the US. The track has a fuzzy, lo-fi vibe, and at the very least is a welcome break from the highly-produced pop of "Beautiful Day" or "City of Blinding Lights." More than anything, it evokes Southern California combo (and Party Ben faves) Queens of the Stone Age, with its rumbling guitars and vaguely Eastern half-step chord change. Unfortunately there really isn't a hook, other than the half-hearted exhortation to adorn one's feet with the aforementioned footwear. I'll be interested to see if the single has legs (ahem!) and if there's anything better on the album (out March 3).

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Too Fair

| Wed Jan. 21, 2009 2:25 PM PST

TOO FAIR....Abe Foxman on the mooted appointment of former senator George Mitchell to be Barack Obama's top diplomatic envoy to the Middle East:

"Sen. Mitchell is fair. He's been meticulously even-handed....So I'm concerned. I'm not sure the situation requires that kind of approach in the Middle East."

Quite so. But Abe: you're not supposed to say this in public.

Obama to Bush: I Can Release Your Records. Don't Like It? Sue.

| Wed Jan. 21, 2009 2:05 PM PST

barack-obama-closeup-250x200.jpg

On his first day in office, President Obama put former president Bush on notice. His administration just released an executive order that will make it difficult for Bush to shield his White House records--and those of former Vice President Dick Cheney--from public scrutiny by invoking the doctrine of executive privilege. Shortly after taking office, Bush handed down his own executive order, amending the Presidential Records Act to give current and past presidents, along with their heirs, veto power over the release of presidential records, which are considered the property of the American people.

"[Obama]'s putting former presidents on notice that if you want to continue a claim of executive privilege that [Obama] doesn't think is well-placed, you're going to have to go to court," says Anne Weismann, the chief counsel for Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington (CREW).

During the campaign, Obama promised to "nullify attempts to make the timely release of presidential records more difficult." (A transition spokesperson promised Mother Jones essentially the same thing when we asked a few weeks ago.) That was a reference to former president Bush's infamous Executive Order 13233, which gave current and former presidents and vice presidents, along with their heirs, unprecedented authority to block the disclosure of White House records. But Obama's taken his campaign promise a step further. While revoking 13233, Obama has also put forth a far stricter interpretation of executive privilege:

[T]he Executive Order on Presidential Records brings those principles [of openness and transparency] to presidential records by giving the American people greater access to these historic documents. This order ends the practice of having others besides the President assert executive privilege for records after an administration ends. Now, only the President will have that power, limiting its potential for abuse. And the order also requires the Attorney General and the White House Counsel to review claims of executive privilege about covered records to make sure those claims are fully warranted by the Constitution.

Weismann explains:

[Obama]'s basically saying if there's a dispute, and a former president thinks something should be covered by executive privilege and Obama doesn't agree, then Obama would direct the Archivist to release it [despite the former president's claim of privilege]. The only option a former President would have at that point would be to go to court and sue. [Obama]'s set up a process to review these claims which requires the Attorney General and White House Counsel to agree that these claims should be invoked, which indicates that it won't be either casually invoked or casually defended.

In Obama's remarks on Wednesday morning, he said that, "Going forward, anytime the American people want to know something that I or a former President wants to withhold, we will have to consult with the Attorney General and the White House Counsel, whose business it is to ensure compliance with the rule of law. Information will not be withheld just because I say so. It will be withheld because a separate authority believes my request is well grounded in the Constitution." The effect of that particular phrase is enormous, as emphasized by the response of a reader over at Talking Points Memo who works for the Justice Department. "That highlighted phrase has signaled a significant discussion around these parts." You can be certain that Obama's early moves to promote government transparency and accountability will be the subject of discussion and debate for a long time to come.

Photo by flickr user Barack Obama used under a Creative Commons license.

Inaugural Ball Performance Wrapup

| Wed Jan. 21, 2009 1:22 PM PST

So many stars, so little time! First up, via Pitchfork, it's this tear-jerking performance from Beyoncé at the Neighborhood Ball. She does an admirably restrained version of Etta James' "At Last" as our first couple dances somewhat awkwardly but charmingly on stage.

After the jump: Kanye, Mariah, and the 12-headed pop-rock-rap monster.

The Super Bowl is Recession Proof

| Wed Jan. 21, 2009 12:17 PM PST

In Steelers Nation, anyway.

Steelers Nation isn't about to let a recession ruin a chance at witnessing a possible record sixth Super Bowl victory.
By mid-day yesterday, less than 24 hours after the Steelers vanquished the Ravens in the AFC championship game, fans had snatched up all 50 three-day Super Bowl packages, at $4,895 a person, being offered by AAA East Central.
The trips sold out about as rapidly as they did in 2006, the last time the Steelers made the Super Bowl. But that time it involved a less expensive motor coach trip to Detroit, not a plane ride to Tampa, Fla.
"This probably parallels the type of response we had in previous years, which is a pleasant surprise given the economic circumstances," said Jim Lehman, AAA East Central senior vice president....
The Travel Authority, an Indiana-based agency teaming with the Steelers to offer trips to the Super Bowl, had 75 orders by noon yesterday for its highest-priced three-day package deal, starting at $1,725 per person, based on double occupancy. The package includes hotel accommodations, air fare, a welcome reception and tailgate party, but no game tickets.

Add to the price of these packages the price of tickets, which are currently going on stubhub.com for $1,800 each. All of those tickets will sell, believe me, despite the fact that a family of four might pay over $10,000 for the whole experience.

Oh, and by the way. Here we go, Steelers. Here. We. Go!

Carbon Pricing

| Wed Jan. 21, 2009 12:01 PM PST

CARBON PRICING....Over at Gristmill, Sean Casten reports on the latest energy boondoggle in his home state:

Tenaska, an independent power company, has been seeking to build a coal plant in Illinois. The problem being of course, that new, coal-fired power plants are really, really, really, really lousy investments....So how did the Illinois legislature respond? "Clean Coal Portfolio Standards." Seriously.

Tenaska gets a long-term power contract on what would otherwise be a massive economic boondoggle. Illinois gets to increase power rates and rates of fossil extraction....And the whole thing is dressed up in an environmental cloak. Methinks the impeachment proceedings shouldn't limit themselves to the executive branch.

Now, I'm one of those odd people who thinks that looking at the plain arithmetic of something like this actually makes it easier to comprehend. Luckily, Sean provides it for the project in question (the Taylorville Energy Center), which is getting approval for a rate increase in return for plans to sequester about half of its CO2 emissions. It's a 525 MW facility that will cost $3.5 billion, so here's how the costs break down:

  • $6,666 per kW

  • Delivered power costs on the order of 20 cents/kWh

  • Total CO2 emissions of 800-1,000 lbs/MWh

So how does this work out compared to the U.S. average? Here's the answer:

  • 300-500 lb/MWh reduction in CO2 emissions

  • Offset by a $0.11/kWh rate increase

  • Simple division shows that Illinois ratepayers will subsidize this plant to the tune of $400-700 per ton of CO2 reduction

This is the kind of thing to think about when people talk about carbon taxes or cap-and-trade programs. One of the problems with pricing carbon is whether we have the political will to price it high enough to really make a difference. For example, the European ETS program, a cap-and-trade system, currently prices carbon emissions at a meager $16 per ton of CO2. And that's after four years of operation.

But compare that to what the Illinois legislature just did: they put an effective price on carbon of more than $400 per ton of CO2. If they're willing to do that — if legislatures are willing to pay rates that high — then that's the market price of carbon. The only question is whether we're willing to charge that price openly, with the carbon charge going to the public, instead of being hidden inside a complex giveaway to a favored corporation. Count me on the side of the public on this one.

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Death of Satire Watch, Part I: Get Your War On, R.I.P.

| Wed Jan. 21, 2009 11:34 AM PST

gywosocks.gifWith George W. Bush gone and Obama still in his 100-hour honeymoon, there's been much hand-wringing about the fate of lefty political satire. The post-ironic era has already taken a victim: David Rees' guerrilla comic strip Get Your War On, which ended a nearly seven-year run yesterday. Born in the days when Bush was riding high in the polls and America was sticking its boot in the world's ass, GYWO channeled lonely lefties' frustration through a strip entirely based on repetitious office-themed clip art, ripped-from-the-buried-headlines rants—and a dash of expletives. (As Rees told Mother Jones in 2003, all the swearing wasn't meant to shock, but was a "rhythmic placeholder.") If you spent the last eight years in a continual state of "WTF?!", this was your strip. Rees put together a few compilations and Rolling Stone picked GYWO up as a weekly feature. And now it's freakin' gone. I can't tell if Rees' foul-mouthed cubicle drones are dead or just giving Obama a pass. Maybe they're just looking for new targets for their disdain—like Thomas Friedman.

So Long, Revolving Door

| Wed Jan. 21, 2009 11:17 AM PST

President Obama just signed executive orders prohibiting any of his current and future administration officials from leaving office and then turning around to lobby the administration on the issues of his or her expertise. This ban is in place not for two years, not for four years. It is in place for the full length of Obama's term in the White House. In a statement, Fred Wertheimer, president of good government advocacy group Democracy 21, called the move "the toughest and most far reaching revolving door provisions ever adopted." (For the full slate of new ethics rules, click here. For Wertheimer's full statement, which is almost gleeful, click here.)

Asked for comment, John Wonderlich of the Sunlight Foundation said that while he's waiting to see the details, "today's announcement is a significant shift in the executive branch's stance toward being held accountable to the public it serves." He called the move "very encouraging."

And it's not just encouraging for open government reasons. It's also smart politically. If you create a culture where industry shills can't run or work in Interior, the FDA, the EPA, and other federal agencies, you're left with a pool of civic-minded people who care about reform, regulation, and the environment to choose from when making appointments. It will be tough, one would assume, for a Republican president to change that culture in eight years. I think it makes the bureaucracy, on balance, less corporate and more progressive.

President Bush didn't just let former lobbyists work in his administration. He let them run entire departments. And he let current lobbyists make policy. That era is over. Decisively.

No Buyer Yet For Saddam Hussein's Bond Villain Yacht

| Wed Jan. 21, 2009 11:00 AM PST

A few weeks ago, I posted the story of a life-size replica of the White House in Atlanta that had gone into foreclosure—evidence, perhaps, of the recession reaching the upper rungs of the economic ladder (or of a sudden and unexpected outbreak of good taste among the monied elite.) In that vein, today I offer this story about how Saddam Hussein's custom-built, Bond-villain yacht has gone without a buyer for months and is now being returned to Iraq for storage.

The 270-foot "Basrah Breeze" (also known as the "Ocean Breeze" and "Qadissiyet Saddam") is decorated in the garish style of the deceased Iraqi dictator, complete with mahogany trim, gold bathroom fixtures, and plush carpets. And in case you happen to be a fugitive from Interpol or involved in a blood feud with an American president, the vessel also features a missile launcher and a secret escape hatch leading to a mini-submarine. Everything an aspiring Dr. Evil might require and all for the bargain price of $30 million. For all these amenities, Saddam himself never overnighted in his yacht, fearing a political uprising if he were to take to the seas even for a few hours.

The Iraqi government won the yacht from a Jordanian company in a court case last year and is apparently surprised (and not a little disappointed) that a buyer has not yet been found. The decision to bring the Basrah Breeze back to its home port in the Persian Gulf from its current home in the Greek port of Piraeus will save "docking and crew costs," said an Iraqi government spokesman, who went on to say that it has proven difficult to sell the yacht "in the current circumstances with the world dealing with the financial crisis."

Get to Work!

| Wed Jan. 21, 2009 10:56 AM PST

GET TO WORK!....Former presidential speechwriter James Fallows notes that Barack Obama has made a lot of speeches that were instantly praised as hits. But:

In many other cases, especially late in the campaign, the red-hots among his supporters thought he had "underperformed" or been "just so-so" immediately after an event, only to see the days-later and weeks-later reaction to the performance turn much more positive. The clearest example was his first debate with John McCain, where supporters thought he had missed chances to go in for the kill — but over time it was clear that he had established his steady, gravitas-worthy persona.

I think his inaugural speech will be in this second category. Now that I have a chance to look at some blog-world commentary, I see that some is underwhelmed, as after the first debate. I think that the speech was in fact very well-pitched to this moment in history and the messages Obama wants and needs to send. That is, both artful and useful.

I wouldn't say that I was "underwhelmed" by Obama's speech, but even after a night's sleep I'll stick to my initial reaction that it was fine, but not really very memorable. Still, maybe that was the point. If I had to describe the speech in a word, I'd call it "workmanlike," and maybe that's exactly what Obama wanted it to be. After all, his steady theme, both yesterday and for the past couple of months, has been that his administration will be one that buckles down and gets to work from Day 1. Memorable would have just gotten in the way.