2009 - %3, August

Simple Answers to Simple Questions, Birther Edition

| Mon Aug. 3, 2009 9:05 AM EDT

WorldNetDaily, which has been riding the birther traffic train all the way to the bank for the past few months, has a document that purports to be President Barack Obama's Kenyan birth certificate. They ask: "Is this really smoking gun of Obama's Kenyan birth?"

No. No, it isn't.

(Simple Answers to Simple Questions is an Atrios trademark.)

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GITMO in Kansas?

| Mon Aug. 3, 2009 8:44 AM EDT

Obama’s leaked plan to move Gitmo to either Fort Leavenworth in Kansas or the Standish state prison in northeastern Michigan has set off a fresh set of political battles over how to close down the detention facility. The Kansas congressional delegation firmly opposes the idea. "Enemy combatants should under no circumstances be housed at Fort Leavenworth," Sen. Sam Brownback told the AP.

However, some key Michigan Democrats are more receptive to the plan—seeing an influx of detainees as a possible source of relief for a state hit particularly hard by the economic crisis. Because of a state budget squeeze, Michigan aims to close up to 8 state prisons, including Standish, whose prisoners are already being moved out of the facility. Michigan Democrats Rep. Bart Stupak and Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin have both endorsed the idea, according to the Hill, with Stupak touting the notion as a means to save jobs and provide economic stimulus to the area. However, their GOP counterparts aren't so enthusiastic: Pete Hoekstra, the House Intelligence Committee's ranking Republican, opposes the plan.

In January, former Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius—now Obama’s Secretary of Health and Human Services—wrote to Defense Secretary Robert Gates saying that she supported shutting Gitmo down but opposed transferring the detainees to Leavenworth. Here were some of her arguments:  

  • If GTMO detainees are sent to Fort Leavenworth, it is likely that eminent domain would be used to obtain additional land around the Fort… Some of the land expected to be included in eminent domain is prime development land for the region…
  • Fort Leavenworth currently does not have a medical facility, and it is estimated that it will take three to five years to build the required class three medical facilities for GTMO detainees. In the meantime, high risk detainees would be transported through the community to a nearby VA hospital. Based on past escape/break out experiences with the United States Penitentiary, this is an unacceptable risk to local citizens.
  • The local airport is on Fort Leavenworth, and that airport will most likely no longer be available to local citizens. Furthermore, Congress granted a right of way to a rail line to pass through the installation more than 100 years ago, and today more than 50 trains a day use the line to transport goods to Omaha. Additionally, the river running through the Fort has commercial barge traffic. The airport, rail line and river traffic can become security risks, and making them inaccessible will significantly impact the economics of the area.

Will Health Care Reform Happen?

| Mon Aug. 3, 2009 6:05 AM EDT

You might have missed it in all the hubbub about the so-called "beer summit," but health care reform passed a major milestone on Friday. By a vote of 31-28, the Energy and Commerce committee became the third and final committee in the House to pass a version of reform legislation. The three committees' very similar bills will now be combined. Meanwhile, in the Senate, legislation has passed the more liberal Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee but remains stuck in the Max Baucus-led Finance committee, where a group of three conservative Democrats and three even more conservative Republicans is supposedly trying to craft a bipartisan bill. (I've already written that we should worry about whether Baucus is making a sincere effort.)

There won't be votes on the House or Senate bills this month. The House has already recessed; the Senate has another few days. That means any momentum health care reformed gained from Friday's vote will be long gone by the time Congress gets back from its vacation.

But while the action in DC cools down, the fight across the country will be heating up. Liberals will be gearing up to support the public option and conservatives will be trying to stall reform altogether. What members of Congress see and hear back to their districts will definitely affect their votes when they return to DC. The biggest open question is what impact Barack Obama's campaign organization, Organizing for America, will have. Will OFA put pressure on members of Congress to get reform through? Or will OFA members' voices be drowned out by well-funded and extremely motivated right-wing groups? I'll be listening in to some OFA strategy calls over the next few days and talking to organizers to see what kind of impact the group is having. We'll also be taking a look at the opposition's strategy and reporting on its tactics. It's sure to be a contentious month.

Music Monday: David Lynch...Rocks?

| Mon Aug. 3, 2009 6:00 AM EDT

When Pitchfork announced in June that David Lynch had a forthcoming rock album, I was skeptical. Great, another celebrity vanity project. Anybody else remember that awkward interview with Billy Bob Thorton's rock band where he tried to claim he actually wasn't an actor at all? Or Balthazar Getty's little band? And then there was Scarlett Johansson's Anywhere I Lay My Head, featuring really bad Tom Waits covers. Add to this the fact that Lynch is famous for fascinating but somewhat inaccessible ideas. (Remember the magician kid in Twin Peaks?) All told, it looked like we had a recipe for trouble.

Which is why I'm surprised to say that the result is actually, well, pretty good. Lynch doesn't sing on Fox Bat Strategy: A Tribute To Dave Jaurequi, but he did write the lyrics, apparently. To call this a tribute to his group's singer/guitarist is slightly misleading since these songs were actually recorded back in 1994—and Jaurequi died in 2006. The album features seven songs by artists involved in the soundtrack for Lynch's cult TV series Twin Peaks; bassist Don Falzone, drummer Stephen Hodges, and engineer Bruce Robb have all been involved with Lynch and his projects.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 3, 2009

Mon Aug. 3, 2009 6:00 AM EDT

Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, addresses local Nawa men and key officials of the Nawa District during a shura July 23. The purpose of the shura is for Helmand Provincial governor Gulav Mangal to address the reestablishing of the Afghan National Government in the Nawa District. (Photo by Lance Cpl. James Purschwitz courtesy of marines.mil.)

Eco-News Roundup: Monday, August 3

| Mon Aug. 3, 2009 6:00 AM EDT

A Monday morning mix of what's new and Marble-esque in our other blogs:

Single-payer step forward: House liberals have struck a deal with Henry Waxman to bring legislation that would establish a single-payer health care system up for vote.

God smiles on Harry Reid: Between Max Baucus distracting the left on health care reform and the White House threatening to delay or cancel the proposed nuclear waste depository at Yucca Mountain, it's been a good month for the Senate majority leader.

The biggest loser, kitty edition: Kevin Drum figures the Internet is (shockingly) wrong about how many calories his cats should consume, especially if they want to keep their girlish figures.

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Need To Read: August 3, 2009

Mon Aug. 3, 2009 5:55 AM EDT

The one piece you must read today:

The best of the rest:

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 is my colleague Daniel Schulman. Follow them, too!

The Economics of Social Destruction

| Sun Aug. 2, 2009 11:56 PM EDT

As he so often does, Paul Krugman gets to the heart of what's wrong with the financial industry these days:

Even before the crisis and the bailouts, many financial-industry high-fliers made fortunes through activities that were worthless if not destructive from a social point of view.

[Recent examples include high-frequency trading and Andrew Hall's multi-billion dollar oil speculation.]

Just to be clear: financial speculation can serve a useful purpose. It’s good, for example, that futures markets provide an incentive to stockpile heating oil before the weather gets cold and stockpile gasoline ahead of the summer driving season.

But speculation based on information not available to the public at large is a very different matter. As the U.C.L.A. economist Jack Hirshleifer showed back in 1971, such speculation often combines “private profitability” with “social uselessness.”....As the great Stanford economist Kenneth Arrow put it in 1973, speculation based on private information imposes a “double social loss”: it uses up resources and undermines markets.

Now, you might be tempted to dismiss destructive speculation as a minor issue — and 30 years ago you would have been right. Since then, however, high finance — securities and commodity trading, as opposed to run-of-the-mill banking — has become a vastly more important part of our economy, increasing its share of G.D.P. by a factor of six. And soaring incomes in the financial industry have played a large role in sharply rising income inequality.

So what's to be done?  Krugman ran out of room before he could make any suggestions other than taxing high incomes, and I'm not sure that's really all that useful anyway.  There's a more basic problem here that has to do with financial transparency, the rise of derivatives, widespread abuse of leverage, and the basic profitability of the financial sector.  It's getting late and I don't feel like speculating on that right now, but one way or another, that's where we ought to apply our energies.

Tomato Woes

| Sun Aug. 2, 2009 10:42 PM EDT

A couple of months ago we bought one of those upside-down tomato planters you might have seen advertised on TV.  I like it.  It hangs right outside my window, so I get to watch it grow every day.

And it's done well.  At least, we thought it was doing well until the first tomatoes ripened and we took a look at them.  The top halves are all fine, but the bottoms all look like the ones in the picture: convered with a gray, pulpy mass and basically ruined.  I'm not sure what causes this kind of thing.  Is it a bug?  A parasite?  Overwatering?  An alien nanobot infestation?  Something else?

I desperately need advice.  Are there any expert tomato farmers out there who can tell me what's going on?

....Are Condemned to Repeat It

| Sun Aug. 2, 2009 10:34 PM EDT

Responding to a John Quiggin post lamenting the fact that the financial disasters of the late 90s produced no real regulatory action, Matt Yglesias says:

Whatever you think of Greenspan’s overall legacy [...] I think it’s a bit hard to regret that he acted swiftly and decisively to keep the world out of a major recession at the turn of the millennium....Letting things fall apart would have led to millions of additional unemployed people, state budget crises, cutbacks in critical social services, etc., etc., etc.

But it really does seem that the success of these operations was taken as a reason to avoid any serious systematic reform. And you can feel the same kind of thing happening today. It’s disturbing.

You can say that again.  Part of the reason for this might be the fact that even now, with wild figures being routinely thrown around about the size of the bailout ($17 trillion! $23 trillion! 3 years of GDP!), most people still don't truly understand the size and scope of the government action that was required to keep the private sector from melting down completely.  And the reason is pretty simple: the vast, vast majority of it was done behind the scenes by the Fed.  TARP and the stimulus bill were the only parts that really got any public scrutiny.  All the rest was done without congressional debate via an alphabet soup of loan guarantees, term facilities, interest rate reductions, conservatorships, currency swaps, commercial paper backstops, interest on reserve balances, liquidity pumps, collateral forbearance, asset stop-loss guarantees, and more.  This stuff is never going to add up to the astronomical sums people have been tossing out, but it's still a huge amount of money.  And without it, the entire financial industry would have collapsed.

But in the event, the Fed did do all this stuff, and the result is that what most people see is a bad recession but nothing more.  Just part of the business cycle, thankyouverymuch, and like other recessions it will end soon and life will go on.  And needless to say, the financial industry will be lobbying its ass off to make sure that Congress is inclined to see things the same way.  Disturbing indeed.