2009 - %3, August

Kicking the Fiji Habit? MoJo Bottle Giveaway

| Mon Aug. 31, 2009 1:48 PM EDT

It's summer (even here in San Francisco), and to celebrate, we're giving out some seriously nice stainless steel water bottles. These bottles are a great antidote to some of the problems we raised in our recent (and wildly popular) article on bottled water. Our SF neighbors at Earthlust created a special design for us (they have some other pretty sweet looks too). These are, of course, safe, reusable, and environmentally friendly. And did we mention they look great? To get one, go here. If you're one of the first 200 to respond, you'll get a free bottle.

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The Coming War Over Climate

| Mon Aug. 31, 2009 1:20 PM EDT

Joe Romm is pretty unhappy with today's WaPo story about the fight over the climate bill, but I'm not sure he's right to be.  Here's the gist of David Fahrenthold's piece:

Next month, the Senate is expected to take up legislation that would cap greenhouse-gas emissions. That fight began in blazing earnest last week, with a blitz of TV ads and public events in the Midwest and Mountain West.

It seems that environmentalists are struggling in a fight they have spent years setting up. They are making slow progress adapting a movement built for other goals — building alarm over climate change, encouraging people to "green" their lives — into a political hammer, pushing a complex proposal the last mile through a skeptical Senate.

Even now, these groups differ on whether to scare the public with predictions of heat waves or woo it with promises of green jobs. And they are facing an opposition with tycoon money and a gift for political stagecraft.

Joe points to polls showing that there's still majority support for climate legislation, and he's right about that.  But they aren't big majorities, and they can get whittled away pretty quickly if — as Fahrenthold suggests — opponents start treating climate change the way they have healthcare reform.

Which they will.  There are two basic parts to their opposition.  The first is the big picture, and everyone knows what that's going to be.  Just as warnings of a "government takeover" were the core of the anti-healthcare pitch, "cap-and-tax" is the core of the anti-climate pitch.  It's simple and effective, and it works because there's a kernel of truth to it.  Cap-and-trade will increase energy prices modestly, and that means electric bills and gasoline prices will go up for some people1.  And as the poll accompanying Fahrenthold's piece shows, electric bills don't have to go up much for majority support to crumble.  At $10 per month nearly 60% favor cap-and-trade.  At $25 per month, 60% oppose it.

Now, do you think the same people who were responsible for all those townhall shoutfests this month will have any trouble convincing people that $25 is the right number?  Or $100?  I didn't think so.

Are we ready for that?  I'm not sure.  But we'd better be, because the second part of the opposition's message will be the little picture.  In healthcare that turned out to be death panels and abortion funding and illegal immigrants.  For the climate bill it will be — who knows?  But it's a long bill and there's plenty to choose from.  Maybe it will be scare talk about Wall Street getting rich by trading emission permits.  Maybe it will be scare talk about China taking over the world because they get to keep polluting as much as they want.  Maybe it will be culture war talk about how Midwesterners are paying a bigger price to clean up the atmosphere than all those chi chi Californians.

I don't know.  But there will be plenty of it, and it's going to flow through the same Fox/Drudge/talk radio channels as the healthcare stuff did.  Are we ready for the street brawl to come on this?

1Yes, it's complicated, because some people will get rebates and see their net energy costs go down.  But that's the whole problem: it's complicated.  Fox and Drudge and Rush aren't likely to dwell on these nuances, are they?

The News and Us

| Mon Aug. 31, 2009 12:16 PM EDT

Paul Krugman muses about why news outlets tend to cover the politics and horserace aspects of things like healthcare far more than they cover the policy substance:

The WaPo ombudsman hits on a pet peeve of mine from way back: reporting that focuses on how policy proposals are supposedly playing, rather than what’s actually in them. Back in 2004 I looked at TV reports on health care plans, and found not a single segment actually explaining the candidates’ plans. This time the WaPo ombud looks at his own paper’s reporting, and it’s not much better.

Why does this happen? I suspect several reasons.

1. It’s easier to research horse-race stuff....2. It’s easier to write horse-race stuff....3. It’s safer to cover the race.

I suspect there at least two other reasons as well.  First, news operations, by definition, report news.  And horserace stuff changes all the time.  There's always something new to report.

But that's not so for the policy stuff.  You can write a big piece comparing the various healthcare proposals out there, and once you've done it, you're done.  You're not going to run another piece a week later covering the exact same ground.  You need to find a new angle.  But policy doesn't change all that much, and there are only just so many fresh angles on this stuff.  So if you're dedicated to reporting on new stuff, you're going to have a tough time writing lots of policy primers.

Second, let's face it: most people fall asleep when they come across stuff like this.  Even here in the blogosphere most readers have only a limited appetite for wonkery, and as Krugman mentions, trying to make this stuff interesting is next to impossible.  "I’ve spent years trying to learn the craft," he says, "and it still often comes out way too dry."  And that's despite the fact that he has the advantage of writing for the most educated, politically engaged audience you can imagine.

This is only going to get worse.  I don't think mainstream news outlets have ever been all that good at explaining policy, but they've probably gotten worse over the years as attention spans have shortened and the media environment has gotten ever louder and more ubiquitous.  You really can't explain healthcare reform in two minutes, but fewer and fewer people are willing to sit around for much longer than that.

The fault, in other words, lies not in the media, but in ourselves.  The mainstream media may have written ten times as much about the townhalls as they did about the actual substance of the healthcare proposals on the table, but the blogosphere only did a little better.  Even here in wonkland, the outrage of the day is a much more tempting blog topic than reimbursement rates for Medicare.

Checking in on the Bailout

| Mon Aug. 31, 2009 11:46 AM EDT

Good news!  We're making money so far on our bank bailouts:

The profits, collected from eight of the biggest banks that have fully repaid their obligations to the government, come to about $4 billion, or the equivalent of about 15 percent annually, according to calculations compiled for The New York Times.

This is good news, but I'm not sure it's worth blaring all over the front page just yet.  Here's the fourth paragraph of the story:

The government still faces potentially huge long-term losses from its bailouts of the insurance giant American International Group, the mortgage finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the automakers General Motors and Chrysler. The Treasury Department could also take a hit from its guarantees on billions of dollars of toxic mortgages.

The money that's being paid back first comes from the very strongest banks — mostly the ones that really didn't need capital injections in the first place.  They were always the ones who were likely to cash out first, cash out completely, and therefore provide the government with its highest rate of return.  In other words, looking at the results of TARP so far is as distorted as if you tried to get a sense of how an election was going by polling only your own guy's strongest precincts.  You'd just be kidding yourself.

TARP won't end up costing $700 billion.  But these early paybacks account for only about 10% of the total and really don't provide a very good sense of how the program as a whole is likely to turn out.  It's more like an absolute upper bound.

Is Kevin Drum Too Optimistic about Health Care?

| Mon Aug. 31, 2009 10:07 AM EDT

Has Kevin Drum been misled by Fox News?

He writes that the takeaway of this summer's angry town hall meetings--where rightwingers screamed at members of Congress about President Obama's plan to overhaul the health care system--is that actually not that many wingnuts showed up to voice outrage and shake their fists. And he presents what he calls "the optimistic view":

The Fox/FreedomWorks crowd has created some great political theater, but underneath it all not a lot has changed.  If Democrats can just take a deep breath after the trauma of being yelled at all summer, they'll realize that the loons at their townhalls represented about one percent of their constituency; that the public still wants reform and will reward success; that the plans currently on the table are already pretty modest affairs; and then they'll stick together as a caucus and vote for them.  And that will be that.

But has the Foxification of the health care debate drawn too much attention to the wrong players? Kevin is correct that the wing nuts don't matter much. But they are not the real problem. The issue for Obama and for congressional Democrats from certain districts and states is that many (if not most) independents are skeptical of comprehensive health reform--and can be swayed by the predictable GOP talking points: it's too costly and too risky. And as I wrote a few weeks ago, assorted polls

show that support for Obama on health care "is too generalized" and that "too many Americans . . . see health reform benefiting others but not them." Perhaps more important, large majorities of voters tell pollsters that they are generally satisfied with their health insurance coverage and consider their own insurance affordable. (One poll [Democratic pollster John] Marttila conducted found that 88 percent had insurance coverage and 85 percent were satisfied with it.)

Cable media, newspapers, partisan websites, and blogs have had a good time covering the loons of the town halls, and that has made it seem that they are the story. But the true fight at hand is not for the anger-filled hearts and rage-clouded minds of the pitchfork set. It's for the support of the indies. Recent polling shows that Obama still needs to win over more of them; that's the challenge he faces as he leaves behind lovely Martha's Vineyard and returns to the moshpit of Washington.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

Music Monday Video: British Popstar M.I.A. Amps Up Her Act

| Mon Aug. 31, 2009 8:30 AM EDT

Full Disclosure: I love M.I.A. I have loved M.I.A. since "Sun Showers" was a single, and I will keep loving her long after anyone else does. Even so, I tried not to get my hopes up for her Sunday show at Outside Lands. The complex rythms, beats, and remixes on Kala can't be reproduced on stage. That leaves just Maya Arulpragasm, which is fine for a club or the back of a record store, but not well suited to a stadium. After a lackluster Coachella performance this spring and that just-plain-weird Grammy appearance, there wasn't much to expect.

Fortunately, her hour-long set took me completely by surprise. The rapper has amped up her stage show, with a troupe of back-up dancers (including two almost identical looking redheads in Michael Jackson t-shirts and women gyrating in neon zebra-print leggings), an IMAX worthy video screen replaying a colorized version of the performance in near-real time, and a wardrobe straight out of a 1980s preschool nightmare. Before launching into the single "Boyz", M.I.A. and her back-up militia dumped hundreds of neon plastic horns into the crowd.

  (Translation: "A lot has changed since I last came here. I got engaged here. And then I got pregnant here. And now I'm really, really scared of this fucking town!")

In short, after several near-misses at big shows in the past, Arulpragasm finally seems ready for her close-up. Which is good, since, although Tenacious D technically performed later (filling in for the Beastie Boys), M.I.A. really had the last word on the main stage this past weekend.

 

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Music Monday: 15 Minutes With Bat for Lashes

| Mon Aug. 31, 2009 7:30 AM EDT

Natasha Khan might be a warrior on stage, but she didn't look much like her musical persona, Bat For Lashes, when we met her on a dusty access road backstage at Outside Lands. Absent were the circles of glittery eye-shadow, pastiche '80s outfits and feathered headdresses. Khan is known almost as much for her style as for the haunting lyrics and etheral voice that distinguish her sophomore album, Two Suns. Adorned in a simple red dress and brown moccasins with just a hint of blue and gold around her eyes, the singer/songwriter sipped tea and chatted about touring with Radiohead, building buzz in the States, and life after the Big Apple—not to mention magic carpets, emerald cities and the Freudian psychology of Steven Spielberg.

Mother Jones: Is this what you'll be wearing on stage?

Natasha Khan: No, but I want to be comfortable because with festivals it gets quite sunny. It's not so hot which is good. When we played Lollapalooza, it was like 96 degrees and I was wearing full, like, a sparkly leotard and it was a bit much. So I might wear something a bit more comfortable but I'm not sure yet.

MJ: You went from New York City to Joshua Tree National Park on this album. Why?

NK: I wanted to be somewhere that was just really the opposite of New York. [In Joshua Tree] I set about creating my mythology, I suppose. The duality of the landscapes definitely influenced different sounds in the music. It's almost different fairytales. It felt like the desert and the earth and the nature were connnected to the esoteric, spiritual aspects of the record and the more tribal sounds. New York was very much to do with escapism and, like, disillusionment—being subterranian and dark and the sparkely escapist sort of elements which are more to do with numbing yourself. I started to think of this fable: The album is kind of like I go across to New York, to this City made of glass and emeralds. It's me going through that journey.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 31, 2009

Mon Aug. 31, 2009 7:01 AM EDT

Soldiers from 17th Fires Brigade and 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, arrive by air and convoy to assist the Iraqi Army distribute humanitarian aid to the citizens of Faddaqhryah and Bahar in the Basra Province of Iraq, Aug. 18. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Maurice A. Galloway, 17th Fires Brigade, Public Affairs Specialist

Eco-News Roundup: Monday, August 31

| Mon Aug. 31, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

What's new and Blue Marble-ish so far this week:

Latest bizarre GOP health care claim: That a reformed health care system might discriminate against Republicans. Huh?

No love from NOLA: Was Obama all talk about the Katrina recovery?

Helluva show: The only thing missing from the health care townhall meetings was sharks with laser beams attached to their heads. 

Bottled water bullies: What the bottled water indsutry in Scotland plans to do in case "the media turns hostile to our cause."

Move over, pavement: And make way for...solar panels?

Need To Read: August 31, 2009

Mon Aug. 31, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

Lots of must-reads today:

Like most bloggers, I also use twitter. I mostly use it to send out links to interesting web content like the stuff above. You can follow me, of course. David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, is also on twitter. So are my colleagues Daniel Schulman and Rachel Morris and our editors-in-chief, Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein. Follow them, too! (The magazine's main account is @motherjones.)