2009 - %3, January

New Congress Begins With Progress on Earmarks

| Tue Jan. 6, 2009 3:38 PM EST

Now we're talking:

The chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations committees on Tuesday jointly vowed to slice the level of earmarks while providing unprecedented disclosure of Member requests.
House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) and Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) said that starting with the fiscal 2010 appropriations bills, when Members make their earmark requests, they will be required to post the requests on their Web sites explaining the purpose of the earmark and why it is a valuable use of taxpayer funds....

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Gaza War Bush's Parting Gift to Middle East

| Tue Jan. 6, 2009 3:29 PM EST

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At one point or another, most American presidents concern themselves with bringing peace to the Middle East. Ultimately, all other foreign policy achievements pale in comparison. It's the brass ring of presidential greatness, the elusive key to ensuring kind treatment in the eyes of history. Such thinking must become particularly acute as presidents reach the twilight of their terms and begin in earnest the inevitable consideration of how they will be remembered. Bill Clinton made a last-ditch effort late in his second term to become the great peacemaker. He failed, as had all others before him. But at least he tried. For his part, our current outgoing commander in chief, just weeks away from relinquishing his office, has steadfastly refused to get involved even as Gaza disintegrates into violence.

Not that this should come as a surprise. Bush's lack of engagement this late in the game, says the National Security Network, is nothing if not consistent with the rest of his term. As the group describes in press release issued today:

[Bush's] episodic involvement has been muddled and without coherent vision: supporting Palestinian elections in 2006, despite the very clear possibility that Hamas would win, then refusing to honor the results; asserting that the 'road to Jerusalem ran through Baghdad;' belatedly engaging through the Annapolis peace conference, which has proved to be too little too late. Experts and regional actors with differing views on the road ahead share the belief that the US absence from the scene is counterproductive and harmful to the interests of all concerned. The outbreak of war in Gaza confirms that after eight years in office the Bush administration will leave behind a region that is further from achieving a lasting peace than when it came to office.

Money For Main Street

| Tue Jan. 6, 2009 3:11 PM EST

MONEY FOR MAIN STREET....Currently, businesses that lose money are allowed to use those losses to offset profits from the past two years. The result in some cases is a refund against past taxes. Part of Barack Obama's stimulus bill is a plan to increase this period to five years, which apparently would provide businesses with about $25 billion in additional tax refunds this year. Matt Yglesias isn't impressed:

As stimulus, this doesn't work. Businesses spend money based on calculations of the likely returns on spending. Insofar as it's profitable to expand operations, businesses will spend money on expanding operations. Insofar as it's not profitable to expand, businesses won't expand. Transferring lump sums of money to existing firms doesn't alter the profit-loss calculus. A firm with no expansion opportunities it sees as profitable will just pocket the lump sum and consider itself fortunate. And a firm with expansion opportunities it sees as profitable will only be very marginally impacted by an infusion of cash.

I'd be curious to hear from other folks on this. Technically, this sounds right, but I think the reality might be a little different. Lots of things in the business world are sticky, and jobs are one of them. Corporations generally don't like to lay off employees, partly for business reasons (they don't want to lose good workers that they might not be able to rehire later), partly for ordinary human reasons (most bosses really don't enjoy laying people off), and partly just because of inertia. So it's possible that a tax refund that eased the P&L a bit might prompt them to keep on more workers than pure hard-hearted economic calculations might dictate. It would probably be a fairly small effect at the margins, but it might still be noticeable. Especially if the rest of the stimulus package gives business owners hope that the downturn might be short-lived.

Besides, all this does is change the tax timing anyway. Corporations that booked big losses in 2008 will be able to carry them forward against future profits regardless, which will decrease their taxes in the future. But maybe we're better off letting them get their refunds now, rather than two years from now when the economy has picked up again?

Alternatively, this is just another big corporate giveaway. Any nice liberal economists care to weigh in on this?

UPDATE: Via Jon Cohn, Dean Baker shreds the tax write-off proposal:

The break that allows businesses to write-off losses against taxes paid 4-5 years ago (as opposed to 2 years in current law) is simply a give-away to the financial industry and homebuilders. These are likely to be the only businesses that will have losses so large that they can't fully deduct them from earnings over the last two years.

This tax cut has nothing to do with stimulus. It is difficult to imagine that this sort of tax break would even be considered if it were not for the political power of the financial industry.

More from Jon about the stimulus package here.

Bush Designates Massive New Marine Monuments

| Tue Jan. 6, 2009 3:00 PM EST

Coral reefs worldwide are in peril. Marine species, protected by ineffective regulations, are being fished to extinction. Ocean pollution has our seas nearing cataclysm. Fortunately, there's one group that's doing something about it.

The Bush Administration.

It's true. On Tuesday, President Bush, whose environmental policies have not exactly been the hallmark of his administration, designated three new marine monuments in the Pacific Ocean, an act that will protect some of the world's most pristine places and give ocean ecosystems a chance at recovery. Together, the Mariana Trench monument, the Central Pacific Islands monument, and the Rose Atoll monument in America Samoa (PDF map and images here), will encompass over 190,000 square miles, roughly the size of the states of Oregon and Washington combined. The protected areas include the habitats for several threatened species, rare underwater geological formations, and some of the oldest known life forms on the DNA tree.

Stooges Guitarist Found Dead

| Tue Jan. 6, 2009 2:46 PM EST

Stooges Ron AshetonOriginal member of seminal rock band the Stooges Ron Asheton was reportedly found dead in his Ann Arbor, Michigan home this morning. He was 60 years old. While cause of death has not been determined, Rolling Stone reports that officials do not suspect foul play, and that "initial indications suggest Asheton had a heart attack." Asheton's personal assistant had not been able to reach him for days and contacted police, who found his body.

Asheton formed the Stooges in Ann Arbor in 1967 along with brother Scott, bassist Dave Alexander and legendary frontman Iggy Pop. The Stooges released only three albums between 1969 and 1973— The Stooges, Fun House and Raw Power— but despite their limited output, the band had an incalculable influence on modern music. Their edgy live shows set the bar for future performance artists and rock spectacles, while their raw, fuzzy sound can be heard in everything from punk to French techno. The Detroit Free Press put it this way:

The Stooges' raw guttural sound helped create the template for punk rock, and later became hugely influential in the alternative-rock revolution of the late 1980s and early '90s. Asheton was not an incredibly gifted player technically, but the dirgy, guttural sounds he created on early Stooges classics like "I Wanna Be Your Dog" were cited by guitarists as varied as Kurt Cobain, Thurston Moore and Jack White — who once called the Stooges' 1969 effort "Fun House" the greatest rock album of all time.

In 2003, Rolling Stone ranked Asheton at #29 on its "Greatest Guitarists of All Time" list, and in September of this year, the Stooges were nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr user RealLowVibe.

Even Heather Mac Donald Is Right Twice a Year

| Tue Jan. 6, 2009 2:38 PM EST

I have to give this one to my girl Heather Mac Donald over at City Journal. Well, partly give it to her. She's right on the problem, but wrong-ish on the solution.

There's been lots of talk lately, however muted since black dysfunction is the issue, of rising intrablack homicide and violence rates. Overall, crime is down, except for blacks. What gives?

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Geoghegan Running for Congress

| Tue Jan. 6, 2009 2:20 PM EST

GEOGHEGAN RUNNING FOR CONGRESS....Via Jim Fallows and others, I see that Tom Geoghegan (pronounced Gay-gan) is running for the House seat vacated by Rahm Emanuel. I can't say that I've read a huge number of Geoghegan's books and essays, but I've read enough to be pretty impressed. I guess this comes from two sources:

  • He has a fascinating writing style. I don't really have the vocabulary or esthetic sensibility to describe it properly, and if I did it would almost certainly seem like it shouldn't work. But it's sort of the writing equivalent of the bumblebee: it shouldn't be able to fly, but it does. (And stings, too!) I'd kill to be able to write as effectively and idiosyncratically as Geoghegan does.

  • He's a labor lawyer who's completely dedicated to the cause, but I've always gotten the sense that his eyes are wide open. He know which side he's on, and he knows why, and he can explain it in very plain English, but he never makes the mistake of thinking that unions are beyond reproach. They're human institutions, sometimes they suck, sometimes they're shortsighted, but they're still necessary and they're still the best bet we have to counterbalance the massive influence of corporations and the rich on the political and economic process.

The basic Geoghegan bio is on his Facebook page here. Kathy G. has a more personal account here. Fallows has this to say:

The remarkable thing is that in Geoghegan's case writing has been a sideline. Day by day for several decades he has been a lawyer in a small Chicago law firm representing steel workers, truckers, nurses, and other employees whose travails are the reality covered by abstractions like "the polarization of America" and "the disappearing middle class." Geoghegan's skills as a writer and an intellectual are assets but in themselves might not recommend him for a Congressional job. His consistent and canny record of organizing, representing, and defending people who are the natural Democratic (and American) base is the relevant point.

Geoghegan is running against a gaggle of competitors, including Cook County commissioner Mike Quigley, State Representative Sara Feigenholtz, Alderman Pat O'Connor, State Representative John Fritchey, and several others. I have no idea how to handicap the race, but it should be an interesting one to watch.

UPDATE: TNR has just posted a collection of Geoghegan's writings for them here. They're all more than ten years old and I haven't read any of them, but they might be worth checking out.

The GOP 's Grand Problems

| Tue Jan. 6, 2009 1:57 PM EST

I've been thinking about this analysis by Huff Po blogger Paul Jenkins of the quandary the GOP is in, having successfully turned itself into a whites-only party:

...it is utterly unrepresentative of America in the 21st century. Its Congressional representation is nearly uniformly white, and overwhelmingly male. So much so, in fact, that there is not one single African-American GOP member of Congress (out of 219 or 220); nor, for that matter, are there any black GOP Governors (out of 22). There are just four Republican Latinos in Congress, all Florida Cuban-Americans; one of them, Senator Mel Martinez, has announced his retirement. He is the only non-white or Hispanic GOP Senator.

...Even non-white members of George W. Bush's cabinet appear to have turned on the party: people like Colin Powell, who heartily endorsed Obama, or Condoleezza Rice, who seemed at her very happiest the day after Obama's victory. The last African-American GOP member of Congress, J.C. Watts, who retired in 2002, is equally as disillusioned, not to say anything of potential candidates such as Charles Barkley, a one-time Republican with aspirations to Alabama's governorship, who says the Republicans "lost their mind." And so the GOP trots out the same sad losers, Michael Steele of Maryland, and Ken Blackwell of Ohio, who have achieved little more than secondary elected office in their respective states, both losing in landslides when they sought a bigger job.

Finally being exposed for their corrupt, cronying, and most of all, hopelessly incompetent businessmen and policy makers hasn't helped Republicans either. The GOP is in tatters. About damn time.

Dennis Blair

| Tue Jan. 6, 2009 1:39 PM EST

DENNIS BLAIR....Last month Gary Farber noted that Adm. Dennis Blair, who is Barack Obama's choice to become our new Director of National Intelligence, has a gray spot on his record: in 1999, when he was Commander in Chief of the Pacific, he apparently cozied up with the Indonesian military at a time when they were supporting terrorist militias in East Timor — and he did it in spite of instructions to tell them it was time to shut down the militias. Here's a contemporaneous report from The Nation:

Officials say that this past April, as militia terror escalated, a top US officer was dispatched to give a message to Jakarta. Adm. Dennis Blair, the US Commander in Chief of the Pacific, leader of all US military forces in the Pacific region, was sent to meet with General Wiranto, the Indonesian armed forces commander, on April 8. Blair's mission, as one senior US official told me, was to tell Wiranto that the time had come to shut the militia operation down....But Admiral Blair, fully briefed on [a recent massacre at] Liquiça, quickly made clear at the meeting with Wiranto that he was there to reassure the TNI chief. According to a classified cable on the meeting, circulating at Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii, Blair, rather than telling Wiranto to shut the militias down, instead offered him a series of promises of new US assistance.

Last night Gary emailed to ask why nobody seemed to care about this. My response, essentially, was "I dunno."

And I really don't. In fairness, Blair doesn't seem to have disobeyed a direct order from the president or anything. The Nation piece uses the passive voice ("was dispatched to") in its description and a later admonition to Blair came from the State Department via the U.S. embassy in Jakarta. Blair, however, apparently felt that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, and chose to engage with General Wiranto in hopes of gaining his trust, rather than delivering a sharp rebuke that might have seriously damaged U.S.-Indonesian relations. In an update, for example, Gary quotes a line from a Dana Priest article in the Washington Post:

Robert Gelbard, a former U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, opposed Blair's push to work with that country's military in 2000, but he endorses Blair as director of national intelligence. "We had a legitimate policy disagreement. But he has a tremendous analytic mind and commands a lot of respect in Washington. His appointment comes at a time when there needs to be a critical reassessment of what the ODNI does," Gelbard said.

These kinds of intra-government disagreements happen all the time, so it's hard to say how big a deal this really was. And Gelbard certainly doesn't seem to hold it against Blair. Still, it seems worth making sure Blair's actions in Indonesia are at least on the table. So: is this a red herring or a legitimate beef? Anyone who happens to know more about what really happened here is invited to chime in in comments.

Happy New Year, Obama Baby!

| Tue Jan. 6, 2009 1:17 PM EST

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When we started developing Mother Jones' January/February 2009 cover, we were looking for a way to depict President-elect Barack Obama in a lighthearted way, while acknowledging the mammoth task he has ahead of him the minute he assumes office. After rejecting numerous ideas, including one of Hercules shoveling dung out of the Augean stables (you're welcome!), we were intrigued by the image of Obama as an innocent New Year's baby (the thinking being that "innocence" can mean "not guilty" of said mess, but can also imply "inexperienced.")

I arrived at Norman Rockwell's predecessor at the Saturday Evening Post, illustrator J.C. Leyendecker, who blogger Charley Parker claims to be the source of the New Year's baby metaphor. Aside from having developed the "Arrow shirt man" (reportedly a likeness of Leyendecker's partner of 48 years, Charles Beach), and Saturday Evening Post covers throughout the first half of the 20th century, it seems that Leyendecker created the New Year's baby image for a 1908 Post cover and continued to explore variations on that theme until his very last cover, on their January 2, 1943, issue.