2009 - %3, August

Quote of the Day

| Mon Aug. 31, 2009 10:59 PM EDT

From former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, describing his favorite congressman:

This is a guy that’s got the intellect, he’s got the energy, he cares, and he wants to legislate, knows how to legislate. He’s interested in getting across the finish line.

The congressman in question is Barney Frank, as described in a series of interviews given to Todd Purdum in Vanity Fair.  Paulson, who comes across in these interviews as almost astonishingly naive about how Washington works, basically says that Frank was the only honest, straightforward guy on the entire Hill.  "I just wish he were a Republican," he said.

Paulson has nice things to say about Nancy Pelosi too (“She was engaged, she was decisive, and she was really willing to just get involved with all of her people on a hands-on basis”).  And Tim Geithner (“He understands Treasury. He’s an internationalist....He’s smooth, but there’s ... inside, he’s tough as steel”).  But his fellow Republicans?  Not so nice:

“It’s not enough to just sit there and say, ‘I’m right, the other guys are wrong,’ ” he told me at one point, explaining why it was often so difficult working with some of the more doctrinaire members of the White House staff. “It’s not that there’s anything wrong with ideology. I’ve got my ideology and my philosophy. But those that say, ‘I won’t compromise,’ to prove a point, and then ‘I’m going to point a finger afterwards and say, See, I was right ... ’ ”

Sounds like he and John DiIulio could have a very simpatico conversation about the Bush White House if they ever got together for a beer or three.

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Lincoln's Cottage, Green Lessons

| Mon Aug. 31, 2009 8:05 PM EDT

We used to know how to live well with less energy. Take Lincoln's Cottage at the Soldiers' Home, where the president retreated from the heat of Washington DC—literally and figuratively—for three summers of the Civil War, and where he wrote the second draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. From June to November, 1862 through 1864, this cottage kept Lincoln cool.

How? First off, reports Saqib Rahim for Earth News, prior to air-conditioning, people actually thought about where they built their homes to capitalize on natural features like breezes. That meant taking into consideration trees, hillsides, sun, and shade.

The Cottage at the Soldiers' Home has been recently renovated as a National Trust historic landmark and the decision was made to maintain its 19-century cooling technologies. These read like a list of once-common sense that suddenly evaporated with the advent of air conditioning. The builders relied on smarts not watts. Some of their techniques included:

  • Orienting the building so a powerful crossbreeze blows when the front door and rear windows are opened
  • Installing tall windows with two sections, a top half to expel warm air and a bottom half to introduce it
  • Attaching shutters to block the sun or let light in when necessary
  • Decorating with lace curtains to minimize bugs not breezes

These are smart passive technologies we should consider as requirements in modern building design. Let's start with shutters—no, not those useless anachronisms flanking modern windows that do nothing except need paint. Real shutters, the kind that open and close, are a great way to moderate sunlight and reduce heat. Let's pair them with hinges again.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, which restored Lincoln's neglected cottage and opened it to the public last year, is seeking a LEED label (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) from the US Green Building Council. They believe old innovations deserve recognition too.  >

Corn on Hardball: Is Barack Losing the Left?

Mon Aug. 31, 2009 7:28 PM EDT

David Corn and Eugene Robinson joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball this evening to discuss Obama's relationship with the left and what's up next for health care reform.

Visit msnbc.com for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy

The Public's Right to Know

| Mon Aug. 31, 2009 6:47 PM EDT

Today Adam Liptak gives us yet another reason to lament the financial meltdown in the newspaper industry.  In the past, it was most often newspapers that filed lawsuits demanding access to information that had been placed off limits for one reason or another.  But as their finances dwindle they can't afford to file these kinds of suits as often, and other types of publishers don't want to:

Consider the aftermath of a recent settlement in a lawsuit against Amtrak....As part of the settlement, the parties asked Judge Lawrence F. Stengel of Federal District Court in Philadelphia not only to vacate eight of his decisions in the case but also to “direct LexisNexis and Westlaw to remove the decisions” from “their respective legal research services/databases.”

The judge agreed, and the database companies complied.

“In the infrequent event that we are ordered by the court to remove a decision from Westlaw,” explained John Shaughnessy, a spokesman for the service, which is owned by ThomsonReuters, “we will comply with the order, deleting the text of the decision but keeping the title of the case and its docket number. We also publish the court’s order to remove so there’s a clear record of the action.”

In cases like this, newspapers have traditionally refused to cooperate.  What's more, they filed suits to keep this kind of information public not just out of concern for their business, but because their owners were genuinely obsessed with First Amendment rights.  Newer businesses, conversely, tend to either have reason to cooperate with the government, or else think of these suits strictly from a perspective of whether they're economically worth it.  We've still got the ACLU, of course, but they can't pick up all the slack.  In the great power struggle between government secrecy and the public's right to know, the demise of the newspaper industry is a victory for the bad guys.

Playboy's Green Gala

| Mon Aug. 31, 2009 6:27 PM EDT

This September, the Playboy Mansion will host a bash to benefit the environment—making it the latest unlikely bedfellow of the green movement.

The swanky cocktail gala, co-hosted by the Entrepreneurs Organization, promises celebrity sightings (it's sponsors include Billy Zane and Matthew Modine), casino games and, of course, scantily clad bunnies. At $600 a head, proceeds will benefit the Intergovernmental Renewable Energy Organization, a UN-backed IGO dedicated to developing green technology.

But is this a shining example of eco do-goodery, or yet another case of Tinseltown greenwashing? As Dave Gilson wrote in Mother Jones last year, "(Hollywood is) turning the traditional messages of the environmental movement on their heads, replacing existential anxiety with a relentlessly feel-good, prime-time-ready version of saving the planet." 

Notes the event's invitation: "We we will open our doors to celebrities and others that share our desire to celebrate life and promote a better world."

If only it were that easy.

No Recruit Left Behind

| Mon Aug. 31, 2009 5:01 PM EDT

Young people who choose to serve in the armed services deserve our thanks. But all too often the choice to enlist isn't rooted in patriotism. Rather, it's a decision that's made when a teenager has few other options. And it doesn't help that military recruiters have infiltrated public schools in order to convince kids as young as 15 to join up instead of go to college.

David Goodman examines the intersection between military recruiting and public education in his piece, "A Few Good Kids?". Goodman shows that the military doesn't just rely upon persuasive recruiters. It's got other tricks up its sleeve, like luring potential recruits to undercover Army websites and using secretly obtained personal information to target students. And it's all completely sanctioned by No Child Left Behind.

Here's an excerpt:

The military has long struggled to find more effective ways to reach potential enlistees; for every new GI it signed up last year, the Army spent $24,500 on recruitment. (In contrast, four-year colleges spend an average of $2,000 per incoming student.) Recruiters hit pay dirt in 2002, when then-Rep. (now Sen.) David Vitter (R-La.) slipped a provision into the No Child Left Behind Act that requires high schools to give recruiters the names and contact details of all juniors and seniors. Schools that fail to comply risk losing their NCLB funding.

Read the whole thing here.

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Physicians' Group Seeks Criminal Investigation of Torture Docs

| Mon Aug. 31, 2009 3:52 PM EDT

Doctors, nurses, psychologists, and other health care professionals complicit in the US torture program should be subject to an independent investigation, and those found to have violated professional ethics or the law should be prosecuted and/or lose their license and professional society memberships. That sentiment, from the nonprofit Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), may well mark the first time a doctors' group has demanded true accountability of its professional peers.

Back in 1986, PHR was founded on the idea that health care professionals—given "their specialized skills, ethical commitments, and credible voices, are uniquely positioned to investigate the health consequences of human rights violations and work to stop them." Little did the founders realize they would one day be looking into the activities of their own government and colleagues.

Cheney: Screw the Law

| Mon Aug. 31, 2009 3:20 PM EDT

Twice, Dick Cheney, as vice president of the United States, took an oath to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." Apparently, he did not take those words seriously, for on Sunday, he said that it was fine by him if government officials broke the law.

Appearing on Fox News Sunday, Cheney made news--once again--by attacking the Obama administration. He denounced Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to appoint a special prosecutor to examine possible CIA abuses of terrorism suspects. He decried Obama and the Democrats as soft on national security. He suggested that he had wanted to undertake military action against Iran before the Bush-Cheney administration ended, but that his "colleagues"--including President Bush--were not as gung-ho. All of this generated the predictable headlines and cable chatter.

But one short exchange between the former veep and host Chris Wallace did not receive the attention it merited. After Cheney defended the use of enhanced interrogation techniques (aka torture), Wallace asked him about the alleged abuses mentioned in a CIA report recently released. Cheney insisted, "It was good policy." The host followed up:

Wallace: So even these cases where [CIA interrogators] went beyond the specific legal authorization, you're OK with it?

Cheney: I am.

Interrogators can break the particular rules and laws that govern their actions, and Cheney has no problem with that. (Wallace did not press him further on the matter.) This is a rather Jack Bauer-ish approach to the old Barry Goldwater line, "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." Yet Cheney's taking it further: breaking the law to break terrorists is no problem.

Over the past several years, there has been a debate over how far the United States should go to defend itself against non-state actors who have expressed a desire to attack America with nuclear weapons. Decision-makers, policy wonks, and citizens have tried to figure out where to draw the appropriate lines. But Cheney is essentially saying, "To hell with that--even if there are lines, they don't matter."

Which means that for almost eight years, the United States had a vice president who did not believe in the rule of law. What a win for the terrorists.

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

The Great Exception

| Mon Aug. 31, 2009 2:07 PM EDT

On this one-way planet of ours, it’s hard sometimes to imagine things any other way, but for a moment let’s try. Imagine, for instance, that in recent years the director of Iranian intelligence oversaw a program of “extraordinary rendition” aimed at those who were believed to be prepared to commit acts of terror against that country’s fundamentalist regime. Practically speaking, what this often meant was kidnapping suspects -- some quite innocent of such aims -- off the streets of Middle Eastern or South Asian cities and transporting them secretly to Iran, to “black sites” set up abroad, or to allied regimes known for their torture practices.

Imagine that these suspects, once in the hands of his agents -- the Geneva Conventions having been declared not applicable to them -- were then tortured, abused, and sometimes murdered. Imagine that, for this, the director, in a public ceremony with great hoopla, was awarded the Ayatollah Khomeini Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the land, and on retiring honorably wrote a bestselling memoir about his years in office. Imagine as well that, to help Iranian interrogators, lawyers close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had rewritten the law so that acts which the world had long agreed to be torture were now redefined as not so, and on that basis, they were instructed to do such things as waterboarding suspects, even as the fundamentalist regime regularly announced that, on the basis of its own definitions, it did not condone torture.

When Pintos Explode in a Good Way

| Mon Aug. 31, 2009 1:49 PM EDT

When is an exploding Pinto a good thing? When that Pinto explodes from zero to 60 in 3.5 seconds, powered exclusively by electric batteries. Last week, NPR ran a great piece on the National Electric Drag Racing Association, a group of hot rod enthusiasts who are replacing V8s with electric motors in old muscle cars and kicking ass on the racetrack.  "I tore it all down, took the front end down, took the engine," said Mike Willmon, owner of the 1978 Pinto. "The infamous exploding gas tank is gone. Now the batteries take up the back trunk area where the gas tank used to be."
 
To the extent that their hobby catches on, people like Willmon will be vital low-carbon emissaries to the NASCAR crowd. Sure, Tesla's $100,000 roadster has shown that electric cars can be fun, but taking that message to Joe Sixpack means proving that clean-tech can be done in your garage and can smoke the fossil fuel competition. Clouds of burning rubber, Willmon told NPR, "is the only emissions this car makes."