2009 - %3, January

2010 Senate Rundown

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 1:16 PM EST

Who's vulnerable? What are the open seats? Which party will gain power? The excellent Swing State Project has a full 2010 Senate rundown.

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Change You Can Believe In

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 12:54 PM EST

CHANGE YOU CAN BELIEVE IN....Via Andrew Sullivan, I see that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has not been caught up in Obama fever:

The vituperative Iranian president, delivering his first public address since President Barack Obama's inauguration last week and Obama's own overture to the Muslim world this week, suggested today that the "change'' which Obama promised in his campaign means that the new American leader must apologize for U.S. "crimes" against Iran, including American support for the 1953 coup in Tehran and the backing of Iraq during the war between Iraq and Iran.

So, um, I guess this means Obama won't be making that big speech of his from Tehran, like I wanted. Cairo, anybody?

The Obama Girls' First Snow Day

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 12:35 PM EST

A few months ago, we offered up a meager plea to the Obama family that they consider sending their kids to a DC public school. They ignored us and enrolled Sasha and Malia at the tony Sidwell Friends in upper Northwest DC, which supporters contended offered superior safety and a Quaker education. Today, the Obamas discovered one of the drawbacks of their choice.

Washington awoke this morning encrusted in ice after the city's first big winter storm. Sidwell shut down for the day, leaving Sasha and Malia stuck at home. The DC public schools, meanwhile, merely opened a little late. (They were also open as usual yesterday when virtually every suburban school district shut down because of a few snow flurries.) The school closing prompted Obama to offer an unsolicited comment to the press this morning about Washington famous weather wimpiness. He though his kids' school closing was a bit extreme:

"Because of what? Because of some ice?" Obama said to laughter around the table. He said Sasha, his 7-year-old, pointed out that in Chicago, not only is school never canceled for snow, "you'd go outside for recess. You wouldn't even stay indoors." He concluded by saying: "We're going to have to apply some flinty Chicago toughness to this town. I'm saying that when it comes to the weather, folks in Washington don't seem to be able to handle things."

Hopefully someone will point out to the president that the city's public schools were showing plenty of flint this morning. It was only Washington's elite who were afraid of a little ice.

Schwarzman at Davos

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 12:13 PM EST

SCHWARZMAN AT DAVOS....Via Felix Salmon, Andrew Ross Sorkin is pretty clearly aghast at Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman's antics at Davos:

In fact, Mr. Schwarzman is already making a splash. At a discussion panel on Wednesday, hopped off his stool during a debate moderated by CNBC's Maria Bartiromo, grabbed the microphone, and boldly called for what private equity loves: More leverage!

Mr. Schwarzman argued that banks should be allowed lower capital ratios, freeing money normally laid away against losses for new lending. He also called for the end of accounting rules that forced lower and lower asset valuations. And, oh yes, the government should guarantee securitizations to help the market get moving.

But hold on a second. I've heard plenty of sensible people suggest pretty much the exact same things: capital ratios that ease up during recessions and tighten when times are good; an end to (or modification of) mark-to-market accounting rules, which force huge fire-sale asset writedowns in illiquid markets; and government backstopping of bank obligations, which was a big part of the Swedish response to their banking crisis in the 90s.

I'm not saying I agree with any or all of these proposals, but it's not as if this stuff comes from the gamma quadrant. There are plenty of reasons to dislike Schwarzman (Daniel Gross has a quick rundown here), but this particular proposition doesn't strike me as being as cringeworthy as it's being made out to be.

Gas Taxes and Climate Change

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 11:46 AM EST

GAS TAXES AND CLIMATE CHANGE....The Washington Post editorializes today about Barack Obama's recent actions to increase fuel economy standards. They appreciate the sentiment, but:

Unfortunately, the regulatory action that Mr. Obama set in motion is not the best, or even the second-best, approach to curbing climate change. It risks creating conflicting standards across the country and further stressing the domestic auto industry while accomplishing less than could be achieved with a simple tax increase on gasoline.

This is just flatly ignorant. The environmental policy community almost unanimously supports carbon pricing, including measures like increasing the gasoline tax, but I don't think you'd find a serious analyst in the country who thinks that a price increase at the pump is more effective at reducing gasoline use and GHG emissions than an increase in mileage standards. It would probably take a tax of three or four dollars a gallon to have the same effect on emissions as an increase in CAFE standards to 35 mpg, and we all know that's not going to happen anytime soon.

The Post editorial page needs to think before they write. Carbon pricing is an important backbone for any climate change policy, but there are lots and lots of places where ordinary regulation is cheaper, faster, and far more effective than a tax, and increasing auto mileage standards is one of them. We need them both, and Obama did the right thing here.

Mirror, Mirror

| Tue Jan. 27, 2009 9:23 PM EST

MIRROR, MIRROR....Carbon tax or cap-and-trade? Over at Gristmill, David Roberts writes that he's had a few off-the-record conversations in DC lately and has some blunt news for progressive advocates of a carbon tax:

The 111th U.S. Congress is not going to pass a carbon tax. Calls for a carbon tax, to the extent they have any effect, will complicate and possibly derail passage of carbon legislation.

It's possible that a carbon tax (and/or cap-and-dividend) bill will be introduced. One or both might even make it to a full vote, though I doubt it. But they won't pass. If you want carbon pricing out of this Congress, cap-and-trade is what you're getting. It follows that your energies are best spent ensuring that cap-and-trade legislation is as strong as possible.

Them's the facts.

I'm inclined to agree. Aside from technical issues, an awful lot of the pro-tax argument revolves around the political difficulty of getting a "clean" cap-and-trade bill. But while this is absolutely a reasonable concern (see Gar Lipow's comment to David's post for more), it's every bit as much a concern for a carbon tax bill. In fact, my guess is that it's more of a concern for a tax bill. After all, if there's anything Congress knows how to do after being in business for two centuries, it's how to muck up tax legislation for the benefit of favored industry groups.

Beyond that, though, the political picture is a little muddier. I think David is basically right: no matter what they say, conservatives are dead set against a carbon tax. But there's a wild card here. As Jonathan Adler points out, last year's decision in Massachusetts v. EPA requires the EPA to start regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. So if nothing passes this year, that's the default machinery that will be brought to bear:

This creates an interesting conundrum for those (like me) who think regulating greenhouse gases under the existing Clean Air Act would be a colossal mistake....I'd gladly take a revenue-neutral carbon tax in exchange for exempting greenhouse gases from the Clean Air Act. I suspect others may disagree. Yet what those who oppose a carbon tax (or cap-and-trade or whatever) need to recognize is that support for the status quo is support for regulating greenhouse gases under the existing Clean Air Act — and I doubt that's an alternative many carbon tax or cap-and-trade opponents would find more agreeable.

Politically, I'm not sure how this will play out. One possibility is that once tax-phobic conservatives finally figure this out they'll (reluctantly) jump on the cap-and-trade bandwagon, figuring that its market-based mechanism is a lesser evil than letting the EPA run wild. Alternatively, they might decide that taxes aren't as bad as either the Clean Air Act or a bureaucratic cap-and-trade program, and make common cause with progressive carbon tax advocates. Or they might stick their heads in the sand and pretend that the whole thing will go away if they just refuse to support anything.

I'm not sure, though I'd guess the majority will stick to their anti-tax ways and eventually accept Door #1 if there's a strong enough push for cap-and-trade. And there's one other thing to add to the mix: If (like me) you think that Obama takes his campaign pledges seriously, then sometime this year he's going to invest a huge chunk of political capital in getting a clean cap-and-trade bill passed. After all, that's what he said he'd do. If that happens, and progressives get into a circular firing squad with themselves over it, then it means that Ann Coulter is right and liberals are idiots. Just a little something to keep in mind.

POSTSCRIPT: Just for the record, here's the nickel argument for cap-and-trade vs. a carbon tax: (1) It sets firm limits on GHG emissions, (2) Europe is already committed to it, (3) the machinery was tested during the 90s and worked well to reduce acid rain, (4) the public will view a cap more favorably than a punitive "make 'em pay!" tax, (5) it's politically more palatable than a tax, (6) Barack Obama supports it.

POSTSCRIPT 2: By request, here's the nickel argument in favor of a carbon tax: (1) a tax is economically more efficient than cap-and-trade (details here), (2) it requires much less bureaucracy, (3) it can be implemented more quickly, (4) it sets a predictable price for carbon, which encourages investment in green technology, (5) it's easier to harmonize across borders under current trade agreements.

There are also two other arguments that are widespread: (1) taxes are more transparent and less open to manipulation by special interests, and (2) taxes can be made non-regressive via rebates and dividend payment schemes. Neither of these arguments really holds water, though. Taxes are obviously open to enormous amounts of manipulation, and cap-and-trade can rebate revenues back to taxpayers the same way a tax can. On both of these scores, the two approaches are a wash.

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Mad Magazine Imagines Obama's Freaking Out a Little

| Tue Jan. 27, 2009 7:53 PM EST

mojo-photo-madbarack-sm.jpgOkay, SNL, see, you've had so much trouble trying to get your Obama impersonation off the ground, and various editorial cartoonists, you seem to revert to jaw-dropping racial caricatures in place of humor, but Mad Magazine, I congratulate you, since this here is pretty funny. Mad's latest cover features our fresh president losing it in his "First 100 Minutes," smoking five cigarettes at once, his desk covered in scary newspaper headlines and top-secret files, a bottle of Pepto dripping onto a graph of the rising national debt. See, this is my theory for Obama comedy ("Obamedy"?), you have to go for the opposite, unlike with Bush where you just had to basically repeat what he said. Exaggerating the "cool," like that little SNL sketch from December, can only take you so far, but make Obama secretly neurotic and you've got comedy gold.

Check out a larger version of the Mad cover and the aforementioned SNL sketch after the jump.

Republicans Try To Triangulate: Obama, Good: House Dems, Bad

| Tue Jan. 27, 2009 6:54 PM EST

An opposition party has to oppose someone, right?

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama held separate meetings with GOP leaders in the House and Senate to discuss the stimulus bill moving through Congress. Afterward, the Republicans talked very nicely about the new president, saying that they appreciated that Obama was reaching out and listening to them. During the meetings, several of the Republicans noted that they welcomed "the tone that [Obama] had brought to Washington" and his "willingness to seek their views," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. In fact, Gibbs added, Representative Mike Pence, a leading conservative from Indiana, ended the House-side meeting by declaring that the door to the Republican House conference would always be open to Obama.

As a matter or realpolitik, the Republicans had little choice but to be darn gracious toward Obama. The president's early approval ratings are stratospheric. And with the economic crash continuing (if not accelerating, given this week's job loss numbers), a majority of Americans are rooting for the president, hoping whatever he tries to do about the economy will succeed. On Monday afternoon, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent out an email touting a poll noting that 66 percent of Americans support the economic stimulus package put together by the Democrats in the House and supported by Obama. It would be foolish--except for Republicans from the most Limbaugh-loving areas of the nation--to stand in Obama's way. And, no small matter, the GOPers don't have the votes--particularly in the House--to stop him and the Democrats.

But can the Republicans simply cave? They have raised a fuss about certain portions of the stimulus package, labeling some provisions pork and calling for more tax cuts. Their complaints about a provision that would extend birth control coverage under Medicaid did lead Obama to ask the House Dems to jettison this piece of package. (And jettisoned it was.) But the Republicans have not gone after Obama.

Consider this statement released by House Republican Whip Eric Cantor after the meeting with Obama:

Is PTSD Purple Heart Worthy?

| Tue Jan. 27, 2009 6:35 PM EST

Not according to the Pentagon and The Nation is fired up about it:

"Every badge hunter and his brother will have this distinguished award in their sights," Army Captain Matthew Nichols wrote in a letter to the editor of Stars and Stripes last spring, when the specter of thousands of emotionally wounded teenaged and twentysomething veterans became an issue too pressing to ignore. Joe Palagyi, national adjutant of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, equated psychological trauma to "almost getting wounded." In other words, if a soldier's postwar life is emotionally shattered directly because of his service to his or her country, then it's their own damn unsoldierly fault; any heroism or quick thinking that led to one's almost—as opposed to actually—getting wounded is not triumphant but rather a gateway to mockery.

Is it just me, or is this one a toughie?

We've all seen enough movies to know that lots of Purple Heart winners took a bullet in the bum under less than glorious, non-dangerous circumstances. Still, there was always the notion that one had to have shed some blood somewhere in theatre to win such an honor, without looking closely at how that blood got spilled. I'm not as disgusted as The Nation. Maybe I will be, but I'm not there yet.

This is one of those issues you never see coming and kinda wish had never come up. I wonder how the question arose; I can't see lots of GIs demanding the PH for their PTSD.

I'm stumped. And I can't stop thinking about it. According to the National Purple Heart Hall of Fame one earns this commendation:

Kevin Drum Named One of the Most Influential Liberals in US Media

| Tue Jan. 27, 2009 6:20 PM EST

Forbes has done a round-up of 25 writers, bloggers, and TV personalities it considers to be the elite of the liberal media elite, and our own Kevin Drum made the cut. He clocks in at #23, just ahead of Michael Pollan and Kurt Andersen, just behind Ezra Klein. Like all lists, it is fun to argue with who made the cut, and who fell where. But even more entertaining is how the assemblers—Forbes deputy editor Elisabeth Eaves, reporter Hana R. Alberts, and Tunku Varadarajan, Forbes columnist/Opinions editor and a professor at the Stern Business School at New York University and research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, who "canvassed the views of more than 100 academics, politicians and journalists"—defined "liberal":

Broadly, a "liberal' subscribes to some or all of the following: progressive income taxation; universal health care of some kind; opposition to the war in Iraq, and a certain queasiness about the war on terror; an instinctive preference for international diplomacy; the right to gay marriage; a woman's right to an abortion; environmentalism in some Kyoto Protocol-friendly form; and a rejection of the McCain-Palin ticket.

I guess that's as workable a definition as any.