2009 - %3, September

The Cost of Cultural Imperialism

| Tue Sep. 22, 2009 4:31 PM PDT

Matt Yglesias wants to know why Diet Coke Coca-Cola Light is so expensive in Europe.  Beats me.  But I can say that this has been the case for a very long time.  Back in 1980, after my junior year in college, I spent a few months traveling in Europe with friends and it seemed as if Coke got more expensive with every new country we visited.  As I recall, we finally just stopped drinking the stuff after paying five francs for a can in Paris once and having it finally occur to us just how much that was.  Adjusting for the then-current exchange rate and 30 years of inflation, that can cost me a little over $3.

But expensive though it might still be, fizzy sugar water won't set you back $3 a can these days.  So that's the good news: Coke may still be overpriced in Europe, but not by as much as it used to be.  Progress!

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The Murdoch-ization of the Wall Street Journal

| Tue Sep. 22, 2009 3:46 PM PDT

Felix Salmon takes a look at the fire-breathing headlines on the front page of last Friday's Wall Street Journal:

The WSJ is now being edited by a man who cut his teeth in the fiercely competitive Australian and UK markets, where front-page stories drive newsstand sales and newsstand sales drive profits. Sweeping curbs on pay and roiled allies make for great headlines, and mean that readers are that much more likely to shell out $2 for the paper. Unfortunately, they also increase readers' mistrust in the paper — Americans aren't used to the feeling, common in the UK, that the headline massively oversells the story.

The WSJ doesn't need to do this, but Murdoch does: it's in his blood. A Murdoch paper without punchy headlines which grab you by the throat is pretty much a contradiction in terms. Readers of the WSJ will have to get used to trusting the stories more than the headlines, or the implicit news judgment which governs where they're placed. The WSJ's journalism seems to be much less scathed than the headlines have been.

This assessment sounds a bit....how to put this....rosy to me.  Sure, maybe Murdoch will be content to jazz up the Journal's headlines and leave the rest of the journalism alone.  But what are the odds?  It's not as if he's ever been happy with half measures like this before.  Surely it's far more likely that this is merely the first step toward remaking the paper along the lines of his other properties, isn't it?  I figure it's only a matter of time until the WSJ is just a printed word version of Fox News.

Beck Watch: Mindless, Incoherent, Pathetic

| Tue Sep. 22, 2009 3:28 PM PDT

I thought Glenn Beck was finally starting to make sense when he told Katie Couric today that John McCain "would have been worse for the country than Barack Obama." Needless to say, some on the right weren't as pleased as I was. Conservative radio host Mark Levin said the claim was "mindless" and "incoherent." He added, "It may be entertaining, but from my perspective, it's not. It's pathetic."

MSNBC morning host Joe Scarborough joined the right-wing anger. “You cannot preach hatred. You cannot say the president is racist," he said. Are conservatives finally getting sick of Glenn Beck?

Here's a list of who's still advertising on the Glenn Beck Program:

Rosland Capital

Jos. A. Bank Clothiers

News Corp. (The Wall Street Journal)

Superior Gold Group

Loan Modification help line 800-917-8549

Lear Capital

Liberty Medical

Citrix (GoToMeeting)

Goldline International, Inc.

ExtenZe

IRSTaxAgreements.com

Clarity Media Group (The Weekly Standard)

American Coalition Against Nuclear Iran, Inc.

Carbonite

Roche Diagnostics (Accu-Chek Aviva)

PG&E Quits Chamber of Commerce Over Its "Extreme Position on Climate Change"

| Tue Sep. 22, 2009 3:13 PM PDT

Pacific Gas and Electric, the Northern California utility, has pulled out of the US Chamber of Commerce, citing what its chairman, Peter Darbee, called its "disingenuous attempts to diminish or distort reality" in the debate over climate change.

Darbee's often harshly worded letter to the Chamber, excerpted on the company's blog, expressed dismay that the Chamber "neglects the indisputable fact" that climate change is "a threat that cannot be ignored." 

With 3 million member businesses of all sizes, the nation's biggest business lobby has come under increasing fire for taking a hard line against this year's climate legislation. In May, a letter from Johnson & Johnson and Nike asked the Chamber to stop speaking about the issue as if it represented the entire business community. PG&E is the first business to move beyond those objections to publicly break with Chamber over its position. "[N]ot every issue is created equal," the company, a major investor in green power, said on its blog, "and sometimes companies decide they have to take a more decisive stand on really big ones."

It remains an enigma why the Chamber, which has called for a "Scopes Monkey Trial" on climate science, is working so hard to undermine climate legislation. The NRDC recently pointed out that Chamber president Tom Donohue has deep financial ties to the coal industry. The Chamber stresses that it position on global warming was hammered out by the its Environment and Energy Committee, which is chaired by Donald J. Sterhan, the owner of an affordable housing company. But a web search reveals that the Montana native is also a board member of the Billings Petroleum Club. The club's members often include people outside the oil industry, yet the club's September 2009 newsletter, the Gusher, lists numerous oil companies as sponsors, among them Devon Energy, Montana Wyoming Oil Company, and Petro-Hunt.

 

Pet Peeve Watch

| Tue Sep. 22, 2009 2:55 PM PDT

Congressional process wonk Stan Collender discusses one of my minor pet peeves today: the annual idiot-fest over increasing the debt ceiling:

This should be a purely administrative function. After all, in most cases the decisions to do the things that require the additional borrowing have already been made. But it usually turns into a political nightmare, because the party in the minority tries to use the vote to embarrass the White House and the majority by showing they can’t govern, can’t control their own Members, are big spenders, etc. In the meantime, interest rates are affected because Wall Street doesn’t like not knowing whether the government will be able to go ahead with its already-scheduled borrowing.

....There was a time when Congress had to approve each borrowing done by the Treasury. When that proved to be unwieldy, the process was changed so that Congress only had to approve a ceiling and the Treasury was free to manage the debt up to that limit.

But the current debt ceiling no longer serves any meaningful purpose and instead is little more than an excuse for a political food fight....Borrowing decisions actually are made whenever a spending or revenue bill is adopted. So the new debt ceiling should be increased automatically as part of those decisions. Members of Congress who earlier in the year are more than willing to vote in favor of the spending increases or revenue reductions that require Washington to borrow more should not be allowed to vote against the legislation that actually allows the government to do that additional borrowing.

This is just common sense.  We all know perfectly well that the debt ceiling is going to be increased this year and every year after, and we also know perfectly well that our representatives in Washington already have plenty of opportunities to throw faux tantrums for the cameras.  They really don't need another one.  They have better things to do.

MA Leg. Allows Gov. Patrick to Name Interim Senator

| Tue Sep. 22, 2009 2:52 PM PDT

The Massachusetts State Legislature has cleared the way for Governor Deval Patrick to appoint an interim replacement to fill the US Senate seat held by the late Edward Kennedy, according to a report in the New York Times.

The MA House had previously passed a bill to allow the Democratic Governor to pick someone to serve until a special election is held on January 19th. The state Senate also approved the measure this afternoon.

What seems like a short term, however, could have long lasting consequences, as the US Senate is working on critical pieces of legislation, including health care and a climate bill. With a Democrat in Kennedy's seat, the party would conceivably have the votes to block a Republican filibuster on both of these contentious issues. It's possible, that is, if the Democrats can act more like their rivals and maintain party unity for a few weeks.

There's no official word yet on who the Governor would appoint, but former presidential candidate Michael Dukakis' name has been mentioned frequently.

According to the story in the Times, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) read a note containing the news from Massachusetts, he reacted with a fist pump, celebrating the momentary victory that brings what Senator Ted Kennedy called "the cause of my life" -- affordable health-care coverage for all Americans -- a step closer to reality.

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Osha Gray Davidson is a contributing blogger at Mother Jones and publisher of The Phoenix Sun, an online news service reporting on solar energy. He tweets @thephoenixsun.

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"Pink Panties" Sheriff Joe Arpaio Targets ACORN

| Tue Sep. 22, 2009 2:31 PM PDT

Joe Arpaio, America's most notorious sheriff, announced last week that he will subpoena financial records of the community activist group ACORN. Arpaio believes that ACORN used federal funds intended for social services to launch a public relations campaign against him and his controversial immigration practices.

Arpaio is a hero amongst anti-immigration zealots thanks to his Arizona police department's ruthless policies related to cracking down on illegal immigrants. In March, the House Judiciary Committee asked Arpaio to testify (he declined) about accusations that he promoted crime sweeps in Hispanic neighborhoods and routinely used racial profiling to target undocumented workers. That same month, a group of ten Republican lawmakers declared the allegations baseless and criticized the DOJ investigation for "politicizing or chilling immigration efforts." To date, the DOJ has not reprimanded Arpaio.

Now, Arpaio is claiming that ACORN helped to fund a Mexican national's racial discrimination suit against him. In a statement, Arpaio said that he will prove that "ACORN is in bed with the anti-immigration enforcement organizations, which continue to demonstrate in front of my office trying to thwart my officers from enforcing state and federal law." (Arpaio has a track record of blaming others for his problems: Earlier this month, he claimed that Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon was behind the DOJ probe and asked the FBI to investigate.)

ACORN spokesman Scott Levenson says that there is no basis for these claims and welcomes Arpaio's opposition. "Sheriff Arpaio has long been the poster child of racist and prejudiced behavior around law enforcement," he told me. "I'm confident that Sheriff Arpaio attacking Acorn is proof that we're heading in the right direction."

OMG! Liv Dolls Totally Aren't Bratz, LOL

| Tue Sep. 22, 2009 2:28 PM PDT

Spin Masters, the creators of Tech Decks (the bane of every school teacher's existence), recently released a new line of dolls in an effort to compete with Barbie's half-century iron-clad hold on the market. Toymaker MGA tried a similar trick once with the release of Bratz (the bane of every feminist parent's existence); then a court determined that the rights of the Bratz line belonged to none other than Barbie's maker, Mattel.

The self-proclaimed rulers of boys' toys, Spin Masters are looking to break into the girls' toy market by creating what "girls really want." Apparently three years of development determined that what girls really want is...more of the same, but with articulated action-figure-like limbs. What started as a fully articulated "fashion robot" evolved into the top-selling Liv Dolls, who each have storylines continually updated via the LivWorld website (fully accessible for one year after purchase):

"Spin Master ….also gave its characters—four friends from an imaginary high school—backstories and imperfections that make them seem more real than the aspirational Barbie astronauts, beauty queens, and Presidential candidates."

For all of Barbie's flaws, I'd rather girls 6-10 aspire to be a presidential candidate or an astronaut instead of "following their dreams" by getting jobs at the mall—what the Liv dolls are doing according to their online diaries. Not only do the dolls ask girls to bring their aspirations down a notch, the depth of each character and the ability of girls to relate to them is pretty stereotypical and just as flimsy:

Alexis: A head-turning African American girl who is obsessed with fashion.
Imperfection: Her little brother, who she has to babysit all the time.

Daniela: A Latina who can sing and dance and pose for the camera.
Imperfection: School smarts. Her parents want her to be an engineer, but she really wants to be a pop star!

Sophie: The blonde whose calling is to be "Hairstylist to the Stars!"
Imperfection: She'll screw up your makeover if she isn't wearing her glasses. Oh, no! Not glasses!

Katie: The brunette who seems to pack in every attempt to make Liv dolls a positive alternative to their foresisters, she's smart, athletic, and a lover of books.
Imperfection: She's a klutz—oh, and clueless to the fact that every boy has a crush on her!

With their "extensive" back stories, it seems that Spin Masters attempted to find a space not just between Barbie and Bratz, but the other product of the Mattel trifecta—the American Girl line. At $19.99, Liv dolls are considered a more affordable option for girls who want to model their plaything after themselves, since you can change out their hair (so long as you have straight hair that takes well to curlers). But since just one extra wig will run you 12 bucks, even the affordability argument is a little weak.

Fans of Liv Dolls tout them as age-appropriate since they don't have Barbie's severe bust to waist ratio, or the Bratz' virtual closet full of hot pants and halter tops:

"The small details, says Varadi, were toughest. He says he worked for months making sure the lips were right, referring to pictures of his girlfriend for guidance. 'I didn't want them to look collagen-injected'."

While I'm sure his girlfriend appreciates the plastic portrayal, to me the Liv dolls still look pretty collagen-injected, anime-eyed, and vapid. It seems that for now girls looking for a real play alternative to fashion dolls will have to transgress the gendered lines in the toy-aisle sand, or (god forbid) venture into the "educational" section.

Star 6

| Tue Sep. 22, 2009 2:23 PM PDT

The shiny new toy du jour for the conservative movement is the Great NEA Conference Call Scandal.  Unless I'm missing something, here's what happened: a White House flack and an NEA flack arranged a conference call with a bunch of artists and encouraged them to create artwork in support of the president's National Day of Service.  That's, um, about it.  But conservatives are going absolutely ape over it.  Freddie can't take it anymore:

Yes, that’s it. That’s that horrible piece of unAmerican propaganda currently poisoning our government and causing Lady Liberty to weep bitter tears....What’s there is precisely the kind of vague, empty bureaucrat speak that suffuses not only every branch of government, regardless of the party of the sitting president, but also every corporate conference call promoting “synergy” and collective effort for collective goals.

....As SEK from the Edge of the American West blog says, the actual ends that this call is trying to achieve are an increase in community service, such as seeing more young people at blood drives. This is the alleyway the drunken husk of conservatism has crawled into, opposing service to one’s country and community as tantamount to socialism.

Now, that’s what matters — the fact that what was said was absurdly trivial, and that the conservatives screaming and carrying on like they’ve found a dead body in Joe Biden’s trunk are actually completely wrong about what they think the call is about. But, yes, the hypocrisy rankles. It does indeed bother me that the ideology responsible for having people sign written pledges declaring their support for President Bush before they see our elected officials speak now complains about this. It does indeed piss me off that a few short years ago, Republicans were routinely doing things like calling for Howard Dean’s hanging for criticizing the war in Iraq, and yet now they stand enraged over this meaningless conference call.

You know, we saw the same thing happen after conservatives helped expose the forged memos that Dan Rather touted on 60 Minutes.  For about two years after that, conservative bloggers saw forgeries everywhere.  Forged photos.  Forged documents.  Forged pieces of paper from senators' pockets.  They were so intent on recreating their most glorious moment that everything they saw became another potential Rathergate.

This has the same feel.  The ACORN sting was a brilliant piece of political theater.  Not exactly critical to the freedom of the Republic or anything, but certainly something that very entertainingly did some real damage to a liberal group that had been in conservative gunsights for years.  But since nobody really cares all that much about ACORN, the beast needs to be fed again.  And again.  And so they come up with stuff like this: a transcript of a phone call that, at most, suggests a minuscule bit of bad judgment from a couple of low-level flacks.

But there's good news here for liberals: if this is the direction Breitbart and Glenn Beck and the rest of the crew are going, they'll soon be taken about as seriously as Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies.  The first stunt is kind of cool.  The second one, not so much.  The third one is a yawn.  There's just no there there.  Unless there's another shoe to drop on the NEA call, this is a nothingburger.

But this won't be the end of it.  The old admonition to always leave 'em wanting more is good advice for any kind of theater, including political theater, but I don't think the wingers get that.  They should have quit while they were ahead.

Rumsfeld and Bush

| Tue Sep. 22, 2009 1:47 PM PDT

Taegan Goddard explains some of the background behind the kiss-and-tell memoir of the moment:

If you're wondering why Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld comes out unscathed in Matt Latimer's just released tell-all, Speech-less, his old Bush White House boss explains in the Wall Street Journal that it's because he's currently working for Rumsfeld as a ghost writer on his memoirs.

Writes William McGurn: "Not that Mr. Rumsfeld need fear. If this book is any guide, an employer will read how stupid Matt really thought he was only after he's no longer being paid."

There's another possible explanation, of course: Rumsfeld probably knew perfectly well that Latimer was busy slagging the White House in a book of his own and was cheering him on while he did it.  Rumsfeld is likely still pissed off at the way he was treated by Bush, which means that Latimer's behavior toward their old boss might have been a feature, not a bug.