2009 - %3, January

Friday Cat Blogging - 9 January 2009

| Fri Jan. 9, 2009 3:48 PM EST

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....Yesterday was a nice sunny winter day, so Inkblot got a bee in his bonnet and suddenly decided to scamper up our jacaranda tree. Perhaps he knew that we're about to have it removed and wanted one last look? Hard to say. As usual, though, he didn't really know what to do once he got up, and came scampering down about as fast as he scampered up. Domino, who knows her limits, enjoyed the winter sun from ground level.

In other cat news, the Bush family cat, India, died on Sunday. R.I.P.

Debra Bowen, California's Secretary of State, sends along news of her critters: "I'm up to three cats now — Mapplethorpe, Oz and Sushi. Sushi, my latest pound cat, hangs out on the 6th floor of the SOS office fairly often — and knows everyone who works there, and who has the best sleeping spots at what time of day." She promises pictures someday.

Finally, last week Blue Girl started up Friday Public Art Blogging over at her Missouri blog. "Does Missouri have any public art of cats?" I asked. Probably so, but this week a dog will have to do. And Zoe!

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Quote of the Day - 01.09.09

| Fri Jan. 9, 2009 3:25 PM EST

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Ben Shapiro, describing the Benjamin "Henry Gale" Linus character on Lost:

Benry is evil to be sure — but he's pure, solid, wonderful evil in the mold of Dick Cheney.

Yes, this is meant as a compliment.

Lessig's Change Congress Changes Course, Demands Nationwide Donor Strike

| Fri Jan. 9, 2009 2:08 PM EST

Last year, Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig announced a new focus on corruption and a new organization, Change Congress, which asked politicians to support its four goals: a ban on earmarks, "total Congressional transparency," public funding of elections, and the rejection of PAC and lobbyist money. Now he's changing course. Today, Change Congress announced a strike of campaign donors until Congress takes steps to eliminate the influence of money in politics.

The strike is directed at a specific goal: passing the Fair Elections Now Act sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Arlen Specter (R-PA), and Reps. John Larson (D-CT) and Walter Jones (R-NC). That's good, because the old model wasn't working all that well. Very few incumbents had signed up for Lessig's plan—a point highlighted by all of the red "Pester Now" buttons on the Change Congress website. (Voters could click on the buttons to harass recalcitrant representatives into taking a stand on Lessig's reform goals.) That page, with its embarrassing list of reluctant politicians, is now gone from the Change Congress site, replaced with a much simpler, much more publicity-friendly idea: the donor strike.

But while a donor strike may be a better idea than asking voters to demand that their representatives take stands on reform, it suffers from the same, fundamental problem: it requires a huge mass of people to sign on to get it to work. Upton Sinclair said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on not understanding it." The salaries of members of Congress depend on their reelection, and money from PACs and lobbyists help them get reelected. They'll be reluctant to give up that corrupting money unless something else threatens their salaries more. The only way for that to happen would be for a huge number of people to refuse to donate to them. Let's hope enough do. Want to help? Join the strike.

High-Speed Rail

| Fri Jan. 9, 2009 2:04 PM EST

HIGH-SPEED RAIL....John Judis makes the case for a big piece of the stimulus package to be spent on high-speed rail:

One area that is ripe for such investment — and that is not, from what I have seen, a declared priority of the Obama administration — is high-speed rail. Amtrak's Acela trains — the closest thing we have to one — average less than 100 mph between Washington D.C. and Boston, whereas trains in Western Europe and Japan go more than twice as fast. Many of them also run on electricity. They would be the most energy-efficient and quickest means of getting between places like Boston and New York, or Los Angeles and San Francisco. But they would require a massive investment. For instance, installing high-speed rail in the Northeast corridor could cost about $32 billion, while California's high-speed rail system would require up to $40 billion. A system that would address the other areas of the country could easily raise the cost to the hundreds of billions. The House transportation and infrastructure committee has currently proposed $5 billion in stimulus funds for intercity rail--not even a down payment on what it would cost to convert the U.S. to high-speed rail.

Investing in high-speed rails would be very expensive, but unlike tax cuts — the benefits of which can be siphoned off in the purchase of imported goods — the money spent would go directly to reviving American industry and improving the country's trade balance. That doesn't just mean jobs creating dedicated tracks or new rail stations: Though the U.S. abandoned train manufacturing decades ago to the French, Germans, Canadians, and Japanese, this kind of production could be undertaken by our ailing auto companies or aircraft companies — if the federal and state governments were to place orders. And building trains that would run on electricity would be a paradigmatic example of the "green jobs" that Obama often touts.

I agree with some of this. The train manufacturing part seems like small potatoes, and I have my doubts that there's anything to be gained from trying to revive that particular part of the American manufacturing scene. On the broader picture — and I say this even though I live in California — I'd be happiest with a large and highly targeted investment in high-speed rail in the northeast. Most medium and long-haul rail projects in the U.S. are both iffy in conception (LA-San Francisco is really at the bleeding edge of what's likely to be workable for high-speed rail) and so far from being started that they'd have no immediate stimulative impact at all. The northeast, by contrast, fairly cries out for a modern, fast, European style rail system. It's geographically compact and densely populated; its residents are fairly train-centric already; and most of the terminal cities have good public transit. That's not really true of any other region in the country.

Unfortunately, this is a political minefield. There's no way Congress will allocate tens of billions of dollars to the northeast unless lots of other congressional districts get their pet rail projects too. Amtrak has always been a porkfest, and it's not clear that anyone has the political will to put a stop to it.

But maybe! Common sense suggests that high-speed rail in the northeast corridor would be a pretty good national project to get started on, and other regions of the country should probably focus either on urban subway/light rail projects or on non-transit spending. For now, the northeast ought to be both a showcase and a pilot project for serious high-speed rail. If the French can do it, so can we.

Cap-And-Trade vs. Carbon Taxes

| Fri Jan. 9, 2009 1:32 PM EST

CAP-AND-TRADE vs. CARBON TAXES....Exxon's CEO call for a carbon tax:

The chief executive of Exxon Mobil Corp. for the first time called on Congress to enact a tax on greenhouse-gas emissions in order to fight global warming.

In a speech in Washington, Rex Tillerson said that a tax was a "more direct, a more transparent and a more effective approach" to curtailing greenhouse gases than other plans popular in Congress and with the incoming Obama administration.

Is this good news? Hard to say. It's certainly good news that Tillerson is in favor of something, and favoring a carbon tax puts him on the side of Al Gore and lots of academics, who think that a tax is the quickest, cleanest, and technically most efficient way of pricing carbon, thus reducing GHG emissions and slowing the progress of global warming.

But it's bad news if his goal is mainly to roil the waters. Barack Obama has called for a cap-and-trade system, not a carbon tax, and most green groups have backed cap-and-trade as well because they feel that a tax is a political nonstarter. But if Exxon can help gin up a big fight between tax advocates and cap-and-trade advocates, who knows? Maybe nothing will get passed at all. If that's Tillerson's calculus, then his newfound support for carbon taxes is just a cynical ploy.

Technical and political issues aren't the only big difference between taxes and cap-and-trade, either. Both raise money (the tax directly, cap-and-trade by selling emission permits), but with a tax you don't know for sure what effect it will have. You have to guess. So you set a carbon tax of, say, $50/ton, with the goal of reducing carbon emissions 5%, and then cross your fingers and wait a few years. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn't. Conversely, cap-and-trade works on the theory of a hard cap. If you want to reduce carbon emissions by 5%, then you auction off credits equal to 95% of current emissions and you're done. You're taking a chance on what the price of credits will be (something that businesses hate since they like price stability), but you know for sure that you'll meet your cap as long as your have adequate enforcement mechanisms in place.

This alone is enough to make me a cap-and-trade advocate. Not only is it more politically feasible than a tax, but it's more attractive to the public since it focuses on the thing they really care about: a hard cap on carbon emissions. Price instability is a legitimate issue, but I don't think it's a big one: energy intensive companies already have to deal with considerable instability in gas and oil prices, and Wall Street will eagerly help them hedge against future instability in carbon permit pricing if it's really important to them.

The "trade" part of cap-and-trade is attractive because it makes the whole system more efficient. But it's the "cap" part that's really important. In my mind, that makes it a better solution than a tax for the carbon pricing piece of a broad climate change plan.

Economy in Peril; Congress Poised for Pay Raise

| Fri Jan. 9, 2009 12:52 PM EST

Taxpayers for Common Sense has a point. Member of Congress are poised to receive their annual 2.8 percent pay raise, boosting their base salaries by $4700 to $174,000, while working Americans are suffering cuts to their 401K matches, suspensions of annual cost-of-living increases, and in some cases salary decreases. And that's those of us who are lucky enough to be employed. It just doesn't seem right.

Congress has managed to avoid the always unpopular pay raise issue since 1989, when the House voted to make the yearly cost-of-living increase automatic—that is, unless members vote to reject the pay hike. Taxpayers for Common Sense is calling on Congress to do just that:

To regain some credibility and demonstrate shared sacrifice, Congress should immediately move to suspend the pay raise and swear them off until the economy is in full recovery. Or until the unemployment rate is well below 5%. Or both.

There is recent precedent for a contingent raise. When the Democrats took control in the 110th Congress, they voted not to take a raise until the minimum wage was increased. After that happened, they took their raise. Right now many Americans can't even get a minimum wage job, so this seems to be a good time for similar action.


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Lighting a Fire

| Fri Jan. 9, 2009 12:15 PM EST

LIGHTING A FIRE....Felix Salmon finds a silver lining to today's very, very grim employment report:

Maybe the only real upside to this report is that it should light a fire under Congress to pass a stimulus package sooner rather than later — including the release of the second tranche of TARP funds. Let's start getting money out the door now: that's more important than haggling over what goes where.

Well, it worked for FDR. Maybe it will work for BHO too.

Liberal Economists Skeptical of Obama Stimulus Package

| Fri Jan. 9, 2009 12:00 PM EST

Despite the fact that President-elect Obama described his stimulus package on Thursday with only broad generalities, the proposal is already coming under criticism from economists on the left. Anxiety that the package is too small is combined with a fear that the rumored $300 billion in tax cuts for individuals and corporations will do little to jump-start the economy. They argue that Obama, in seeking a solution that Republicans on the Hill will support, has sacrificed key components that would make the package work most effectively.

Paul Krugman, Nobel Laureate and in-house economic lefty for the New York Times, wrote on his blog this week:

Obama's Aide from the "Dark Side"

| Fri Jan. 9, 2009 11:51 AM EST

With one hand, he giveth, with the other....

By tapping Leon Panetta to be CIA chief, President-elect Barack Obama sent a clear signal: no to torture. A year ago, Panetta wrote an article declaring, "We cannot and we must not use torture under any circumstances." And he included waterboarding--which the CIA has used---as torture. When Obama on Friday morning publicly announced his appointment of Panetta, he declared, "under my administration, the United States does not torture." He noted that he was handing this "clear charge" to Panetta and that this policy "will ultimately make us safer."

In fact, Obama's reported first choice for the CIA job, John Brennan, a career CIA official, had had his chances scuttled after bloggers and others griped that he had been soft, if not supportive, when it came to torture and CIA renditions. A New Yorker piece by Jane Mayer identified him as a "supporter" of so-called enhanced interrogation methods. And in a 2006 PBS interview, Brennan said, "we do have to take off the gloves in some areas" but without going so far as to "forever tarnish the image of the United States abroad." He added that the "dark side has its limits."

Well, Brennan didn't get the top post at Langley. But Obama has selected him to be his chief counterterrorism adviser in the White House. The job requires no Senate confirmation. So Brennan will not be inconvenienced by questions regarding any past involvement with CIA renditions and waterboarding. (Brennan has reportedly told Obama he had no direct role in CIA's abusive interrogation policies and even internally expressed reservations.) In announcing Brennan's appointment, Obama noted, "John has the experience, vision and integrity to advance America's security."

Pay No Attention to the Party Behind the Curtain

| Fri Jan. 9, 2009 1:56 AM EST

PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE PARTY BEHIND THE CURTAIN....Citigroup has agreed to drop its opposition to "cramdown" legislation:

Key congressional Democrats on Thursday reached an agreement with financial giant Citigroup Inc. on a proposal to make it easier for bankruptcy judges to adjust the terms of home loans and possibly forestall many foreclosures.

....The breakthrough agreement boosts the chances that Democrats can push new laws through Congress that direct bankruptcy judges to rework mortgage terms by writing down the principal on the millions of homes that now are worth less than the mortgages they carry.

Most of the reaction to this announcement has been dismay that Congress had to "negotiate" with Citigroup in order to pass this legislation, but it's important to get clear what's actually going on here. The negotiation wasn't really with Citigroup, it was with Senate Republicans, who have almost unanimously opposed this legislation in the past. With Citigroup on board, Durbin and Dodd and Schumer hope that other banks will hop on board too, and once the banks are on board then maybe a few of those legendary "moderate" Republicans will also see the light and do the right thing.

Maybe it will work, maybe it won't. But it's Republicans that are the problem. Banks are just fronting for them.