2009 - %3, September

The Case of the Missing Documents

| Mon Sep. 28, 2009 1:44 PM EDT

Two years ago the ACLU filed a request for records about torture and detainee abuse.  Part of what they got was a list of 181 documents the government considered exempt from release.  But when the feds took another look this year, they couldn't find ten of the documents on the original list.  What happened?  Nick Baumann speculates:

"It was impossible to ascertain whether the discrepancy was the result of an error by the prior administration when it created the original...index or whether the prior administration misplaced the documents in question," Tracy Schmaler, a Justice Department spokeswoman, told Mother Jones. In other words, CIA and Justice Department lawyers might have mistakenly listed documents that never existed in the first place.

But is it plausible that the inconsistency could be merely a clerical error? After the Bush administration created the index, a CIA official swore under oath that she had reviewed the documents on the original list. And one of the disputed documents was listed on the original index as a 46-page memo "providing legal advice," classified as top secret and dated 25 July 2002. Schmaler says the Obama administration's search never found a document matching that description. Could the CIA and Justice Department lawyers who composed the original list have mistakenly included a non-existent memo — complete with a date and precise page count?

Well, maybe there were two 46-page memos written on 25 Jul 2002.  Or, um, maybe it was actually a memo about restraining booze, not detainee abuse.  Or something.  I'm sure it will all be cleared up soon.  Move along folks.  Nothing to see here.

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Largest Electric Utility in US Drops Out of the Chamber of Commerce

| Mon Sep. 28, 2009 1:13 PM EDT

Yet another blow for the Chamber of Commerce today: The largest electric utility company in the US vowed this morning that it would not renew its membership in the chamber because of its opposition to global warming action.

Exelon Corp. CEO John Rowe dropped the news in a speech before the annual meeting of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). "Exelon is so committed to climate legislation that Rowe announced during today’s speech that Exelon will not be renewing its membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce due to the organization’s opposition to climate legislation," the group said in a press release this morning.

This marks the third major departure from the Chamber over climate policy in just over a week, following the exit of California utility PG&E and New Mexico utility PNM. Exelon is a member of the US Climate Action Partnership, a coalition of environmental and business leaders advocating for a climate bill in Congress.

Rowe appeared in ads in support of a climate bill earlier this year. "I’m a utility CEO—not who you’d expect to be for a cap on carbon pollution," Rowe said. "But a smart cap will overhaul our economy by shifting us toward clean, American-made energy. And a smart cap will control costs and protect your family’s budget."

Rowe is also a big conservative funder, and has donated $10,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee for each of the past two years.

I wonder if William Kovacs, the chamber’s senior vice president for environment, technology and regulatory affairs, is regretting that "Scopes monkey trial" comment yet.

The Third Rail

| Mon Sep. 28, 2009 1:04 PM EDT

Conor Friedersdorf comments on Glenn Beck's recent heresy that a McCain presidency might have been even worse than an Obama presidency:

It is therefore no surprise that Comrade Beck is now being turned on by Comrade Limbaugh and Comrade Levin (the one among the trio who actually believes most of what he says)....

Well, Levin might believe most of what he says, but I was at Blockbuster the other day and found myself thumbing through a copy of his recent bestseller, Liberty and Tyranny(Why does Blockbuster now sell books?  That's a question for another time.)  To my surprise, it turns out that for all his bombast, Levin is a wimp.

The end of his book is taken up by a "conservative manifesto," and it's chock full of fire-breathing stuff.  Eliminate the income tax, eliminate corporate taxes, put a hard cap on the size of the federal government, eliminate tax-exempt status for all environmental groups, rein in judicial review, insist on originalism as the only proper way to interpret the constitution, make governments pay property owners for all zoning changes that affect them, wipe out all teachers unions, no national healthcare, crank up military spending, put God back in government, etc. etc.  I'm paraphrasing a bit, but you get the idea.  It's hardcore right-wingerism.

Obviously, then, a guy like this wants to do away with Social Security and Medicare, right?  Well, hold on there, pardner.  Let's not go off half-cocked.  Sure, they're "poisonous snake oil," but all Levin can bring himself to suggest is that young people be educated about the intergenerational "trap" of entitlements so that they can be "contained, limited, and reformed."  Educated!  Limited and reformed!  That's it.

Pretty weak tea for a firebreather.  Even among the wingers, it turns out, Social Security is a third rail.  After all, I guess Levin wants old people to buy his book too.

Trade Likely to be Flash Point in Senate Climate Bill

| Mon Sep. 28, 2009 12:38 PM EDT

Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) are expected to unveil the draft of their climate bill on Wednesday, but other legislators are already lining up to talk about what they'd like to see changed in the bill. It's already looking like there will need to be substantial revisions on the manufacturing and trade side if they're hoping to break the deadlock in the Senate.

E&E reports that the bill is not expected to include the language in the House bill that focuses on how to protect trade-exposed and energy-intensive industries like cement, steel, refining, paper, and glass. These provisions are seen as key to getting the votes of many Midwestern, industrial-state Democrats.

"It's going to need a lot of work," Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), told E&E. "My understanding is they did not include the House language on manufacturing ... But I've been talking to them about it. They are very open to it. They are in no way dismissive."

Brown is seen as a leader in the Senate on these issues, and perhaps a bellwether for how a vote on a climate bill might turn out. He's a progressive Democrat from a manufacturing and coal-dependent state, who in June 2008 voted against the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act. After that vote, he vowed his support for climate action—but only if a proposal insulated states like Ohio.

 

Who Benefits From Medicare Advantage?

| Mon Sep. 28, 2009 11:44 AM EDT

When Congress passed the Medicare prescription drug plan in 2003, it provided two ways for seniors to get access to pharmaceuticals: they could enroll directly in a prescription drug plan or, via Medicare Advantage, they could enroll in an HMO that offered drug coverage.  Medicare Advantage, of course, has long been controversial because the government provides subsidies to HMOs to participate, which means that it's more expensive to taxpayers than standard Medicare.

Still, Medicare Advantage enrollees enjoy extra benefits.  The program also provides incentives for HMOs to enter new areas and compete with each other.  So it's not as if the subsidies are being completely wasted.

But it does turn that they're being mostly wasted.  Austin Frakt, a health economist at Boston University, provides the dismal numbers:

My work (with Steve Pizer and Roger Feldman) shows that for each additional dollar spent by the federal government (taxpayers) on the program since 2003, just $0.14 of it can be attributed to additional value (consumer surplus) to beneficiaries....

What do we make of the other $0.86? That goes to the insurance companies but doesn’t come out “the other end” in the form of value to beneficiaries. In part it pays for the additional benefits themselves and in part it is captured as additional insurer profit.

Conversely, standard prescription drug plans provide more than a dollar of benefit for each dollar spent.  Roughly speaking, these plans cost taxpayers about 75 cents for each dollar of value they provide.

Bottom line: if healthcare reform cuts back on Medicare Advantage, the effect on retirees would be tiny.  Putting even half of the cuts back into standard prescription drug plans would almost certainly make everyone better off except for insurance companies.  The full paper is here.

How Dems Let the GOP Win on Health Care

| Mon Sep. 28, 2009 10:59 AM EDT

The Republican strategy for defeating health care boils down to a game of smoke and mirrors, with conservatives scamming seniors into thinking that reform will be bad for them. In fact, most of the proposed changes to Medicare would be positive. As the New York Times explained in a Sunday editorial, " the various reform bills now pending should actually make Medicare better for most beneficiaries—by enhancing their drug coverage, reducing the premiums they pay for drugs and medical care, eliminating co-payments for preventive services and helping keep Medicare solvent, among other benefits."

That’s not to say there won’t be cuts. The Times points out:

The Obama administration and Congressional leaders are hoping to save hundreds of billions of dollars by slowing the growth of spending in the vast and inefficient Medicare system that serves 45 million older and disabled Americans. The savings would be used to help offset the costs of covering tens of millions of uninsured people.

One of the main reasons for the confusion that reigns over all things health care right now is the Democrats’ refusal to make a clear case for reform.They aren't willing to go after the real enemies of affordable health care for all: drug and insurance companies. And so as usual, the ideological vacuum left by the Democrats is being filled by Republican misinformation and fear mongering.

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Eco-News Roundup: Monday September 28

| Mon Sep. 28, 2009 7:39 AM EDT

Environmental news from Mother Jones' other blogs and around the world.

How Hot?: WaPo article changes expected climate change temperaure rise.

Public Costs: How much exactly would that public option run us?

Cutting CO2: The recession is seriously slowing our CO2 emissions. [LiveScience]

Incoming: The Senate may see a climate bill soon after all, thanks to Boxer and Kerry.

Climate Forecast: Kate Sheppard fears climate fatigue may be setting in for policy-makers.

Big Plans: Some want to make a new, international, WTO-like climate body.

Big Spenders: China and Korea spend the most on green projects. [Planet Ark]

Subsidies Begone: G20 is moving forward with cutting subsidies for fossil fuel producers.

Chamber Defections: Companies are fleeing the US Chamber of Commerce over its climate policy.

High Expectations: A statement tries to downplay expectations of Obama at Copenhagen.

Crowd Survey: Checking the crowds at the G20 protests, Twitters and all.

Cantor's Choice: The GOP can have a full-scale plan, but not without involving the Feds.

 

Need To Read, September 28, 2009

| Mon Sep. 28, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

Some stories you may have missed over the weekend:

Bank of America stonewalls on providing Congress with recordings of phone calls from Countrywide to members of its VIP loan program

The revamped Recovery.gov site goes live today.

New York Times columnist, Nixon speechwriter and scrupulous grammarian William Safire passed away.

The Washington Independent's Daphne Eviatar finds evidence that interrogation of a teenage Guantanamo detainee violated even the anything-goes interrogation standards devised by Bush's Office of Legal Counsel.

How the Fed completely, utterly failed—in fact didn't even try—to monitor subprime lending.

David Corn and Obama transition chief John Podesta debate whether Copenhagen is dead or just in big trouble.

Why are the Russians so good at chess?

The Washington Post got really spooked by Twitter.

The Taliban in their own words.

David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, tweets, as does awesome new MoJo blogger Kate Sheppard. So do my colleagues Daniel Schulman, Nick Baumann and our editors-in-chief, Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein. YOu can follow me here. (The magazine's main account is @motherjones.)

 

Music Monday: The Monsters of Folk Rock Out, Sort Of

| Mon Sep. 28, 2009 6:30 AM EDT

Let's pretend that Monsters of Folk is, true to its tongue-in-cheek name, actually a supergroup. The first rule of supergroup appreciation is that you have to pick your favorite member. Sometimes it's a tricky choice: Nelson, Lefty, or Lucky Wilbury? Willie, Johnny, or Waylon? In Monsters of Folk, you have your pick of four artists who are neither real folkies nor real rock stars: M. Ward, Conor Oberst, Jim James, and Mike Mogis. Before even picking up their self-titled disc, my money was on M. Ward. I still have his Transfiguration of Vincent and Post-War on heavy rotation and even though his recent efforts have gone a bit soft (the inoffensive Hold Time and She & Him, a collaboration with the adorable yet Auto-Tune-worthy Zooey Deschanel), I'm a sucker for his melancholy pop.

Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst would be my runner-up, but only because I've never really listened to James' My Morning Jacket because the phrase "jam band" is often in proximity to its name, fairly or not. Bright Eyes' I'm Wide Awake It's Morning was great, but I have a low tolerance for Oberst's earnest warbling. And I must confess I have never heard of Mike Mogis (a member of Bright Eyes, and as the M.O.F.'s pinch hitter-slash-engineer, its Jeff Lynne, to borrow a Wilbury). So doing some quick supergroup mental math, I figured if M.O.F. was half as enjoyable as an M. Ward album, I'd be content.

Music Econundrum: Sacrifice Stadium Shows?

| Mon Sep. 28, 2009 6:00 AM EDT

Q: I heard stadium concerts are carbon nightmares. So do I have to skip U2 next time they’re in town?

A: In July, former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne slammed U2 for its massive 360˚ tour. “Those stadium shows may possibly be the most extravagant and expensive (production-wise) ever: $40 million to build the stage and, having done the math, we estimate 200 semi trucks crisscrossing Europe for the duration,” he wrote on his blog. Ouch—especially for a band that bills itself as socially responsible. An environmental consultant calculated that that the tour’s carbon emissions were equivalent to flying all 90,000 attendees at one of their London concerts to Dublin.

A tour like U2’s creates about 15 pounds of CO2 per audience member per concert, not including the carbon created by getting to the show. But few people attend more than a few truly extravagant live shows every year—most of the music we hear is recorded.

A recent study found that downloading music online creates between 40 and 80 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than buying a CD at a store, depending on how you get to the store and whether you burn and package your disc after you download it. In general: Assuming you drive to the music store, buying three physical CDs has 1.5 times the carbon footprint of attending a U2 show. For the same amount of carbon, you could download about 10 albums.

Tip: Don't burn downloaded albums onto CD. If you do, you're only creating 40 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than you would by buying a CD at the store. Sans physical CD, that figure jumps to 80 percent.

The bottom line: See your favorite band rock a stadium every few years—but download their albums online instead of buying a CD.