2009 - %3, September

Warning: Don't Tease the Prosecutors

| Tue Sep. 29, 2009 11:41 AM EDT

I've managed to avoid blogging about Roman Polanski before now, but I have to admit to sharing some curiosity about the timing of this whole affair.  After all, Polanski has been flitting around Europe for decades and owns a home in Switzerland.  So why did prosecutors in Los Angeles suddenly feel the need to go after him now?  The LA Times thinks it has the answer:

Sources have told The Times that Polanski's attorneys helped to provoke his arrest by complaining to an appellate court this summer that Los Angeles County prosecutors had made no real effort to capture the filmmaker in his three decades as a fugitive.

The accusation that the Los Angeles County district attorney's office was not serious about extraditing Polanski was a minor point in two lengthy July court filings by the director's attorneys.  But the charge caught the attention of prosecutors, who had made several attempts to apprehend Polanski over the years.

Lesson of the day: keep an eye on your lawyers.  Sure, they're clever, but sometimes they can be a little too clever.

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A Way Out for Obama on Iran?

| Tue Sep. 29, 2009 11:08 AM EDT

Obama seems to be walking into an either/or trap with Iran: convince China and Russia to back tougher sanctions on Iran that are not likely to persuade the thuggish regime of Tehran to give up its nuclear program or engage in military action that would not put a permament end to Iran's nuclear ambitions but could destabilize the region (especially Iraq). What to do?

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, both former National Security Council staff members, propose a third way in a New York Times op-ed. They write:

Instead of pushing the falsehood that sanctions will give America leverage in Iranian decision-making — a strategy that will end either in frustration or war — the administration should seek a strategic realignment with Iran as thoroughgoing as that effected by Nixon with China. This would require Washington to take steps, up front, to assure Tehran that rapprochement would serve Iran’s strategic needs.

On that basis, America and Iran would forge a comprehensive framework for security as well as economic cooperation — something that Washington has never allowed the five-plus-one group to propose. Within that framework, the international community would work with Iran to develop its civil nuclear program, including fuel cycle activities on Iranian soil, in a transparent manner rather than demanding that Tehran prove a negative — that it’s not developing weapons. A cooperative approach would not demonize Iran for political relationships with Hamas and Hezbollah, but would elicit Tehran’s commitment to work toward peaceful resolutions of regional conflicts.

Not demonizing Iran? That may be tough, given how easy it is to demonize a government led by repressive brutes who suppress dissent and deny the Holocaust. But the Leveretts effectively sum up the lack of good choices. Essentially, their point is that sometimes you have to work with someone who doesn't deserve the time of day. If sanctions may not succeed (other than to cause hardship on an Iranian public that the Iranian regime obviously doesn't care that much about), and if war is too uncontrollable and messy (and it is), then the United States might have no other alternative but real and comprehensive engagement.

The Leveretts write:

Some may say that this is too high a price to pay for improved relations with Iran. But the price is high only for those who attach value to failed policies that have damaged American interests in the Middle East and made our allies there less secure.

But even if such a course makes sense policy-wise, selling it to the public—while the Iranian government is in the hands of mullahs and tyrants—will be a tough task. The Leveretts don't suggest how Obama do so. That's above the pay grade.

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Australia's Climate Chaos

| Tue Sep. 29, 2009 7:04 AM EDT

Exactly a week ago the people of Sydney, Australia, awoke to find that their normally deep blue sky had gone bright orange. One resident told a radio reporter for the Australian Broadcasting System that when she first looked out her kitchen skylight that morning, it was as if Armageddon had arrived.

What had arrived was the most massive dust storm in nearly a century. A dust cloud nearly a thousand miles long and two-hundred and fifty miles wide engulfed the city in millions of tons of fine red dust from the drought-stricken interior.

 

 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 29, 2009

Tue Sep. 29, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

Chief Warrant Officer 4, Terry Polwort, from Enid, Okla., an AH-64D Apache attack helicopter instructor pilot in Company A, 4th Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, Multi-National Division - Baghdad, reads through his checklist during a preflight inspection of an Apache at Camp Taji, Iraq, Sept. 24. (US Army photo via army.mil.)

Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday, September 29

| Tue Sep. 29, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

What's up in environmental news here at Mother Jones and elsewhere:

Corn con: Think corn-state representatives won big last week when the EPA said pending biofuels rules will reflect "uncertainty" around indirect emissions from land-use change related to biofuel production? Not quite.

Digging for health care dirt: Two investigative pieces make the case for health care reform.

Green labels are Greek to consumers: With more than 400 labels on the market, shoppers don't quite know what to make of all their eco options. [Treehugger]

Greener continents: Elisabeth Rosenthal on why Europe is better at conserving than America [Yale Environment 360]

Another one bites the dust: The largest electric utility company in the US vows that it will not renew its membership in the Chamber of Commerce because of its opposition to global warming action.

 

Need To Read: September 29, 2009

Tue Sep. 29, 2009 6:59 AM EDT

Today's must reads would remind you that Roman Polanski raped a child:

Follow me on twitter! David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, also tweets, as does awesome new MoJo blogger Kate Sheppard. So do my colleagues Daniel Schulman and Rachel Morris and our editors-in-chief, Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein. Follow them, too! (The magazine's main account is @motherjones.)

*Corrected. Sorry.

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Cute Animal in Danger: Pygmy Tarsiers

| Tue Sep. 29, 2009 6:56 AM EDT

The pygmy tarsier, one of the world's most endangered primates, was thought extinct until 2000, when one of them accidentally ended up dead in a rat trap. The pygmy tarsier lives 7,000 feet above sea level in the Indonesian jungle, and weighs only 50 grams: about the same as three tablespoons of sugar. These pint-sized mammals have such huge eyes that they can't turn them very well: instead, they can turn their heads 180 degrees. Some have called the big-eyed animals "real-life gremlins," thought pygmy tarsiers definitely eat after midnight (they're nocturnal, and like insects and fruit) and have specially dense fur to keep them dry and warm in their moist, cool climate.

In 2008, a two-month expedition by Texas A&M researchers used 276 nets in an attempt to capture a pygmy tarsier. Eventually, they netted three (one got away) and fitted them with tracking devices. It didn't go smoothly. "I have the dubious honor of being the only person in the world to have bitten [by a pygmy tarsier]," the expedition's lead researcher, Sharon Gursky-Doyen, told LiveScience. "I was attaching a radio collar around its neck and while I was attaching the radio collar he bit me [on the finger]." That particular tarsier, the researcher reported, was later eaten by a hawk.

Gursky-Doyen has said that she hopes the team's research will help nudge the Indonesian government to protect the species. “They [tarsiers] always look like they have a perpetual smile on their face, which adds to the attraction."

The Empire Strikes Back

| Tue Sep. 29, 2009 1:46 AM EDT

Apparently the Vatican has finally decided that the best defense is a good offense.  According to a bellicose statement issued Monday, the Catholic Church doesn't have a paedophilia problem, it has an ephebophilia problem, thankyouverymuch.  Plus this:

The statement, read out by Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican's permanent observer to the UN, defended its record by claiming that "available research" showed that only 1.5%-5% of Catholic clergy were involved in child sex abuse.

He also quoted statistics from the Christian Scientist Monitor newspaper to show that most US churches being hit by child sex abuse allegations were Protestant and that sexual abuse within Jewish communities was common.

Only 1.5-5%!  Not bad!  And anyway, Protestants and Jews are doing it too.  So there.

Admittedly, I'm not a theological expert, but to my ears this sounds only slightly more sophisticated than something you might hear from a red-faced five-year-old.  Augustine must be spinning in his grave.

Fixing the Ratings Agencies

| Mon Sep. 28, 2009 10:03 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias comments on the packaging of crappy loans back in the heyday of the credit bubble:

The mysterious thing isn’t that people made bad loans that they were able to package and sell off, the mysterious thing is that they found buyers for the securities.

Ultimately this looks to me to go back to the ratings agencies, an issue [Barney] Frank sort of dodged. But the ratings agencies are private for-profit companies that also enjoy a kind of government-sponsored monopoly status. In theory their behavior should be subject to market discipline, but in practice it’s not. They screwed up badly. But while lots of companies have gone bankrupt and lots of people have lost their jobs, the ratings agencies are all still in business. And no new competitors are coming to the fore and there’s no real way for anyone to break into the industry.

No question about it: over the past decade ratings agencies were, at best, negligent, and at worst, perpetrators of outright fraud.  "It could be structured by cows and we would rate it" is surely one of the all-time great quotes of the bubble era.  And the fact that agencies shared their models with issuers so they'd have an easier time tweaking their products to get high ratings is prima facie evidence of corruption.  Slapping a AAA rating on every cobbled-together junkpile that slithered its way out of a Wall Street structured finance group certainly helped fuel the fantastic expansion of risky investments that all came crashing down in 2008.

Still, I have to admit that over the past year ratings agencies have moved down my personal league table of bad actors.  If you take a look at the list of possible causes for our recent financial meltdown here, I probably would have put the ratings agencies in the top five a year ago, while today I'm not sure I'd even put them in the top ten.

Partly this is because I've become more sympathetic to fundamental macroeconomic explanations for the bubble: easy money, current account imbalances, massive abuse of leverage, and huge increases in both debt and risk that were masked by ever more baroque credit derivatives.  Partly it's because widely accepted1 risk models based on CDS spreads mostly produced the same results as the ratings agencies.  Partly it's because the negligence/fraud involved in producing high ratings was pretty clearly a two-way street: buyers and sellers of structured investments were every bit as anxious to get them as the ratings agencies were to provide them.

Beyond that, I'm also a bit flummoxed about what the answer to the ratings agency problem might be.  There's probably a reasonable regulatory solution for fraud and negligence, but there seems to be wide agreement that the real problem is incentives: since issuers are the ones paying for ratings, it's inevitable that agencies are going to lean into the wind to provide ratings the issuers like.  I've read dozens of proposals for ratings agency reform, but the only one that really gets at this fundamental conflict-of-interest problem is to simply do away with them and turn debt rating into a government function.  I'm a little skeptical of that, though, since it's not at all clear to me that a government agency could hire the kind of talent it takes to keep up with Wall Street's rocket scientists.  What's more, it's not at all clear to me that anyone — Fed regulators included — would have rated SIVs much differently during the boom years than the ratings agencies did.

So....I'm not sure what the answer is.  Tighter regulation would obviously be welcome, but how do we get rid of the underlying conflict-of-interest problem?  How do we align agency incentives in favor of long-term accuracy?  How do we encourage real competition between the agencies, rather than a race to the bottom?  None of the regulatory reforms I've seen really get at this in a fundamental way.  Does that mean that a government takeover is the only real answer?  Or does it mean that there is no real answer and we've collectively decided to shrug our shoulders and allow this to happen all over again in a few years?  Somebody should ask Barney Frank.

1Whether they should have been widely accepted is a different question.  But they were.

Facebook Poll Asks: Kill Obama?

| Mon Sep. 28, 2009 7:34 PM EDT

The Secret Service is investigating a facebook poll (since taken down) that asked if Obama should be assassinated.

The answer choices: "Yes," "No,” "Maybe," and "Yes if he cuts my health care."

Pretty scary stuff. But what’s scarier is how unsurprising it is.

Really, what's the difference between this and a gun-toting Obama-hater holding a sign that says "It's Time to Water the Tree of Liberty"—a nod to a Jefferson quote about neccessary bloodshed? (The health care angle is particularly predictable, considering the feverish odium it’s evoked).

But gimmicks like these tend to serve as an easy access point for greater social ills. And there’s something about a poll like this—its hatred so distilled and its medium so pedestrian—that forces you to confront the question: Just how bad have things become?