2009 - %3, August

Breakfast of Champions

| Thu Aug. 27, 2009 4:35 PM EDT

England will be sending four clubs to compete in the European Champions League tournament, which begins group play next month.  Matchups were announced today, and apparently the topic on everybody's mind is whether they have to play anyone more than 90 minutes away:

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez: "The important thing as always is that the travelling isn't too bad. We don't have too far to go for any of the games."

Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon: "There isn't a lot of travel, though, so we have to be reasonably pleased with the draw."

Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis: "It is good to have relatively short travel times, that's something that Arsene (Wenger) thinks about a lot."

Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson: "These are difficult ties, especially the trips to Russia and Turkey."

Seriously?  Anything more than a 2-hour plane ride is supposed to be a major drain on these guys?  Are they flying RyanAir or something?

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ExxonMobil: "Green Company of the Year?"

| Thu Aug. 27, 2009 3:03 PM EDT

Editors know that counterintuitive headlines sell magazines. They also know that making wildly exaggerated claims can damage their credibility. Writing a headline is often a balancing act between these two factors. So when you see a magazine like Forbes say that ExxonMobil is "Green Company of the Year," as it did this month, what it's really saying is that it's hurting. With advertising pages way down this year, the magazine feels the need to sell off its long-term credibility with some readers for the short-term gain of boosting page views. That, at least, is my take on what Forbes was thinking. Because there's simply no way that any serious reporter would wrap Exxon in a shroud of green.

Here's Forbes reporter Christopher Helman's argument in a nutshell: By next year, Exxon will become the world's top non-governmental producer of natural gas. Natural gas can replace coal in power plants, resulting in a 40 to 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. This would be the most cost-effective way to start addressing global warming. Therefore, Exxon is "Green Company of the Year."

Helman is not wrong, until he gets to the last part. His leap in reasoning is like saying that a military dictator is "Humanitarian of the Year" because he built 10 new hospitals, but failing to consider that he conducted a genocide. If that sounds a bit harsh, then consider the truly abysmal nature of Exxon's broader environmental record:

1.  Exxon has a long history of funding climate change deniers. And despite a 2008 pledge to discontinue contributions to groups "whose position on climate change could divert attention" from the need for clean energy, the company went right on funding them.

2.  Exxon is a leading opponent of the Waxman-Markey climate bill, the very legislation that would begin to price dirty coal out of the market. In May, the Exxon-funded Heritage Foundation released a wildly exaggerated study claiming that an emissions cap will kill millions of jobs and send gas to $4 a gallon (The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found middle-class households would pay only $175 a year more in 2020 because of the legislation).  And on August 18th, 3,500 energy workers rallied against the climate bill in a Houston demonstration organized by--you guessed it--Exxon and other energy companies, a leaked memo from the American Petroleum Institute reveals.

3.  The Exxon Valdez oil spill. See dictionary entry for "environmental genocide."

4.  Exxon is an aggressive player in Canada's tar sands, the world's top producer of ultra-dirty oil.

5.  The natural gas pumped by Exxon still contributes to climate change. Indeed, natural gas is currently responsible for about 20 percent of US carbon emissions. Curtis Brainard points out in his own takedown of the Forbes piece in the Columbia Journalism Review:

A recent study by Carnegie Mellon projected that replacing all coal burning with natural gas would significantly reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, but not enough to meet scientifically recommended targets for mitigating climate change. Moreover, it’s fairly ridiculous to suggest, as Helman does in the beginning of his piece, that natural gas will replace all coal burning any time in the near future.


Brainard goes on to point out that natural gas is a "bridge fuel," tiding us over until we're able to ramp up lower carbon alternatives. The race to create those alternatives and dominate an emerging global market in clean tech will be the biggest business story of the next decade--a story that Forbes seems to have forgotten.

Of course, the Forbes' approach clearly isn't about putting forth a coherent argument or roadmap to the future. Adding another layer of weirdness, there's an accompanying editorial that argues that "environmentalism is a religion, not a science" and "the very thesis that environmental carbon is bad is a matter of faith, not science." Really? So then why is Forbes hawking a 2,000-word feature on how Exxon is so great at cutting environmental carbon? Probably for the same reason that Exxon is pumping natural gas: Because there's money in it.


 

Fiore Cartoon: Patriot or Tyrant?

Thu Aug. 27, 2009 2:48 PM EDT

In his latest cartoon, satirist Mark Fiore takes on two types of Americans: Those who want guns, and those who want health care reform. Which is the most patriotic? Watch below to find out: 

Obama and the Kennedys

| Thu Aug. 27, 2009 2:48 PM EDT

Conservative historian Michael Knox Beran writes about Barack Obama and the Kennedy family:

President Obama may in time find it to his — and to his country’s — benefit to fix his gaze not on Ted, but on Jack. For in addition to his more superficial graces, President Kennedy possessed a degree of wisdom, which might be defined as grace of judgment. John Kennedy’s sentiments were liberal, but he knew that a wise president must have the country in his bones, must feel, as by instinct, the temper of the people, and must know what they will bear and what they will not. He was annoyed by those who, like Arthur Schlesinger Jr., urged him to be another FDR. Schlesinger, he said, wanted him to act as if it were 1932. But three decades had passed since 1932; the mood of the people, President Kennedy knew, had changed.

President Obama, if he reverences the memory of Ted Kennedy, would do well to eschew his politics. In joining the battle for health-care reform, Obama has entered on what promises to be the climacteric of his presidency. At so critical a juncture he needs to emulate, not the intoxicated extravagances of the late senator, but the sober moderation of his older brother, who knew that the world has indeed changed since 1932.

Actually, that's what I'm afraid of.  Like Obama, JFK had a charming manner, good judgment, a cool temperament, and liberal instincts.  What's more, as the Cuban Missile Crisis showed, he wasn't afraid to stand up to his advisors.  Obama has all these qualities too, which is why he so often seems like JFK's political heir.

But JFK was also famously cautious, dangerously mainstream on military and national security issues, better able to deliver inspiring speeches than to genuinely move public opinion, and had little sense of how to bend Congress to his will.  In the end, he left behind few accomplishments — a fate Obama risks sharing if JFK becomes too much a role model and too little a warning beacon.  Sober moderation may have its virtues, but worshipping at its altar isn't the stuff of great presidencies.

NY Says No to Shackled Prison Births: 44 States To Go

| Thu Aug. 27, 2009 2:26 PM EDT

Are America’s law-and-order pols finally getting some humanity? Well, at least this week, at least in New York state, where Gov. David Paterson has signed a bill banning the shackling of incarcerated pregnant women during labor and recovery. Ever give birth? I haven’t, of course, but my wife can tell you it pretty much sucks. Now try it while cuffed to a hospital bed. At the time, our 2008 prison package, entitled Slammed: The Coming Prison Meltdown, noted that 48 states allowed shackling, which the College of Obstetricians and Gynecologist noted puts “the health and lives of women and unborn children at risk.”

This week, the American Civil Liberties Union told the Associated Press that, with New York, six states—including Texas, Illinois, California, Vermont, and New Mexico—will have prohibited the practice; two others, Massachusetts and Tennessee are considering bans. (The New York law still allows women to be shackled if their behavior is deemed a threat to hospital or prison guards, which is reasonable enough, although in the AP article, an ACLU laywer cited continuing complaints of shackling even in states where it is limited.)

In any case, it's a small, humane step for a very, very troubled American institution.

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GQ's Douchiest Colleges

| Thu Aug. 27, 2009 2:04 PM EDT

GQ has just released the first ever list of 25 Douchiest Colleges. Introducing its "heavily researched, possibly stereotypey, but still accurate guide," the editors write, "The question isn't whether you're a douche bag when you go to college. We were all kind of douche bags when we went to college, if we're going to be honest about it. No, the question for America's youth is: What kind of douche bag do you aspire to be?" According to their results, you should attend #1 Brown University if you are a "limousine liberal" douche bag who's interested in such courses as "On Vampires and Violent Vixens: Making the Monster Through Discourses of Gender and Sexuality."

GQ's list brings up some important questions that students should think about before they apply to colleges. For example:

Where can you go if you want to major in Jet Skiing? How about if you're a trust-fund type but are embarrassed about it? What if you want to lord your intelligence over people for the rest of your life, in the form of a bumper sticker?

It likely won't surprise you that many of the top scorers on GQ's list also rank high on US News & World Report's annual list of top colleges and universities. But none of 'em made it onto the 2009 "MoJo Mini College Guide," complete with some of the best schools you've never heard of that won't destroy your wallet, the best jobs that don't require a college degree, and some of the more... uh... creative funding options out there. Think of it as a college roadmap for the thrifty, progressive douche.

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Intelligence and Secrecy

| Thu Aug. 27, 2009 1:29 PM EDT

Chris Hayes writes that after the torture and surveillance abuses of the past eight years, we need a new Church Committee to thoroughly examine the role and proper function of the intelligence community and the executive branch.  But we shouldn't do it with Frank Church's model in mind:

At one point Church referred to the CIA as a "rogue elephant," causing a media firestorm. But the final committee report shows that to the degree the agency and other parts of the secret government were operating with limited control from the White House, it was by design. Walter Mondale came around to the view that the problem wasn't the agencies themselves but the accretion of secret executive power: "the grant of powers to the CIA and to these other agencies," he said during a committee hearing, "is, above all, a grant of power to the president."

A contemporary Church Committee would do well to follow Mondale's approach and not Church's. It must comprehensively evaluate the secret government, its activities and its relationship to Congress stretching back through several decades of Democratic and Republican administrations. Such a broad scope would insulate the committee from charges that it was simply pursuing a partisan vendetta against a discredited Republican administration, but it is also necessary to understand the systemic problems and necessary reforms.

Yes.  The problem isn't with the CIA or the NSA per se, it's with the instructions they got from the president.  For the most part, they've been doing precisely what he wanted done, and they were provided with exhaustive legal opinions telling them it was OK.  Their fear is that an investigation is likely to turn exclusively into an agency witch hunt, and that's a legitimate concern if they end up bearing the brunt of the criticism when it's their political masters who should be bearing it instead.

Beyond those legitimate misgivings, though, lies something larger. As Chris notes, conservatives have built up a mythology in the years since the original Church Report was released that blames it for hobbling U.S. intelligence capability for decades.  There's little to back up such a view, though, and Richard Clarke in particular has no time for it:

"What bothers me," he says, "is the CIA's tendency whenever they're criticized to say, If you do your job, if you do oversight seriously — which Congress almost never does — then we'll pout. Some of us, many, will not just pout; we'll retire early. Our morale will be hurt." And if morale is hurt and the agencies are gutted, they argue, the country will be exposed to attack. In other words: "If you, Congress, do oversight, then we'll all die. Can you imagine FEMA or the agricultural department saying we're all going to retire if you conduct oversight?" Clarke asks in disbelief.

The principle of oversight aside, the right-wing story about the committee ruining intelligence capabilities for a generation posits a golden age of über-competent intelligence-gathering that simply never existed. The activities described in the committee report, more often than not, have a kind of Keystone Kops flavor to them. "From its beginning," says Clarke, "when [the CIA] does covert action as opposed to clandestine activity...it regularly fucks up. I remember sitting with [Defense Secretary] Bob Gates when he was deputy national security adviser, and he said, I don't think CIA should do covert action; CIA ought to be an intelligence collection and analysis [agency]."

I like the idea of a latter day Church Committee, but mainly I like it if it has a strong focus not just on the intelligence community itself, but on the entire apparatus of oversight and executive branch secrecy.  Even the interrogators brandishing the power drills and death threats, revolting as they are, don't deserve condemnation if the guys at the top who were quite plainly cheering them on get off without so much as a slap on the wrist.  We need to investigate the entire system, not just the hands that carried out the orders.

Clean Water

| Thu Aug. 27, 2009 12:30 PM EDT

SODIS is a simple method for disinfecting water in areas where lots of kids get sick and die from bad water.  Basically, you pour water into plastic bottles, put 'em on your roof for a day or two, and the water is clean.  But Katja Grace points us to a study showing that it's surprisingly hard to get people to do this:

The technical barrier is that people don’t do it much. About thirty two percent of participants in the study used the system on a given day....The leader of the study, Daniel Mausezahl, suspects a big reason for this is that lining up water bottles on your roof shows your neighbors that you aren’t rich enough to have more expensive methods of disinfecting water.

....Fascinating as signaling explanations are, this seems incredible. Having live descendents is even more evolutionarily handy than impressing associates. What other explanations could there be? Perhaps adults are skeptical about effectiveness?....Parents are known for obsessive interest in their children’s safety. What’s going on?

Skepticism sounds like a reasonable guess.  Or maybe parents know that their kids drink water from lots of different places, so cleaning up their own supply doesn't seem very effective unless everyone else is doing it too.  Or maybe it just takes a while for cultural norms to change.

Pat Leahy, Lion of the Senate?

| Thu Aug. 27, 2009 11:09 AM EDT

In the wake of Ted Kennedy's death, there's been a lot of speculation about who could fill his shoes in the senate. The answer, of course, is no one: Kennedy was unique—his credibility as a liberal combined with his seniority, his famous name, and his ability to get things done ensured that. Matt Yglesias made a good point about Kennedy's seniority yesterday:

[I]t’s worth being clear about the fact that he had such an impressive career in part precisely because he initially got a job he wasn’t qualified for. The Senate operates largely on the basis of seniority. A guy who can enter his fifth term and only be 54 years old is a guy who’s going to be able to wield some major influence for a long time.

Yglesias goes on to talk about how Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is as reliably liberal as they come, will probably never wield major influence in the senate because he was in his 60s when he was first elected. But Sanders isn't the person to look at here: his Vermont colleague, Pat Leahy, is. Leahy was in his mid-thirties when he was first elected. Leahy, who is 69, is a year and a half older than Sanders, but Sanders is 75th in Senate seniority. Leahy is third. When Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) retire (and they're both in their eighties, so that could be very soon), Leahy will be the most senior senator. He'll probably be in his early-to-mid seventies at that time. Kennedy got a lot of good things (voting against the Iraq war and trying comprehensive immigration reform) done in his seventies. Will Leahy be as effective?

Banking Health

| Thu Aug. 27, 2009 10:57 AM EDT

Can the banking industry earn its way back to good health?  In the long run, sure.  But in the short run, things don't look so hot.  Here's today's press release from the FDIC:

Commercial banks and savings institutions insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) reported an aggregate net loss of $3.7 billion in the second quarter of 2009, a decline of $8.5 billion from the $4.8 billion in profits the industry reported in the second quarter of 2008.

....Indicators of asset quality continued to worsen during the second quarter. Both the quarterly net charge-off rate and the percentage of loans and leases that were noncurrent (90 days or more past due or in nonaccrual status) reached the highest levels registered in the 26 years that insured institutions have reported these data.

...."Deteriorating loan quality is having the greatest impact on industry earnings as insured institutions continue to set aside reserves to cover loan losses," Chairman [Sheila] Bair noted. "Of all the major earnings components, the amount that insured institutions added to their reserves for loan losses was, by far, the largest drag on industry earnings compared to a year ago."

There's a vicious circle at work too.  As more banks go under, the FDIC has to assess higher fees to banks to keep its insurance fund solvent.  Those higher fees depress profits, which in turn keeps the industry underwater.  That's part of what happened this quarter: if it weren't for a special assessment of $5.5 billion the industry would have shown higher earnings.

Bank health, like employment, is a lagging indicator, so today's report doesn't necessarily mean the economy isn't starting to improve.  But the fact that loan quality continues to deteriorate and writeoffs continue to skyrocket sure isn't good news.  If unemployment stays at 10% or above for the next year, as the CBO now projects, this isn't going to turn around any time soon.