2009 - %3, September

800 Years of Financial Folly

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

Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff have done something that, apparently, no one has done before: rigorously collect data on debt and risk management (or lack thereof) over the past 800 years, rather than only since 1980.  Their conclusion: excessive debt accumulation is always and everywhere a very, very bad thing.

Also: credit booms and busts happen over and over throughout history, with only the details changing; public sector debt crises are common and devastating; banking crises hit every country, rich and poor alike; and when credit bubble pop, everything pops along with it.  And finally, a fifth lesson, as summarized by Martin Wolf:

The final lesson is that financial liberalisation and financial crises go together like a horse and carriage. It is no surprise, therefore, that the last 30 years have seen waves of financial crises, of which the latest one is merely the biggest. The current crisis is the worst since the Great Depression. Yet, argue the authors, no one should have been surprised by this outcome. The US showed all the classic symptoms of a country heading for crisis: a huge current account deficit; soaring house prices; headlong credit growth; and, let us not forget, excessively complacent regulators.

It always comes back to debt and leverage, doesn't it?  There are lots of other things to watch out for too, but the bottom line is that if you keep leverage at reasonable levels, your financial crises are likely to be manageable.  If not, not.  Tim Geithner, please take note.

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EPA vs. Corn Huggers

| Mon Sep. 28, 2009 6:49 PM EDT

To the casual observer, it might seem like corn-state representatives got a big win over the Environmental Protection Agency last week, as administrator Lisa Jackson vowed that pending biofuels rules will reflect "uncertainty" around the indirect emissions that come from land-use change related to biofuel production. But upon closer inspection, it sure looks like Jackson played Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and other corn-state Democrats on this issue, offering them a pittance so they'd back off attempts to thwart EPA rulemaking.

The EPA is currently considering working on a updates to the renewable fuel standard. Harkin and other ethanol supporters have sought to block the EPA from considering the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from land use change in their final rule.

Harkin had planned to introduce an amendment to the EPA and Interior appropriations bill that would block the EPA from spending funds to study and include international indirect land use change emissions in their rulemaking on the Renewable Fuels Standards for one year. But last Wednesday, Jackson sent Harkin a letter informing him that their analysis would attempt to account for uncertainty involved in indirect land-use emissions. "This analysis will allow us to quantify the impact of uncertainty on the lifecycle emissions," the letter states. "We will present these estimates in the final rule, and I plan to incorporate those estimates of uncertainty in my regulatory decisions." Yet the letter made it clear that studies thus far "indicate that it is important to take into account indirect emissions from biofuels when looking at the lifecycle emissions."

Apparently, that was enough to fend off Harkin's onslaught. "In light of the EPA letter, and because EPA had said it would delay issuing regulations to establish renewable fuel volume biofuel requirements for 2010, Harkin decided not to press the amendment today," said Harkin spokesperson Grant Gustafson in a statement. "Harkin considers setting those fuel requirements in a timely manner as critically important to our national strategy for reducing our dangerous dependence on imported oil."

But that's not to say that Harkin and other corn-huggers won't pull out a win in the end, when the EPA finalizes its rules. They also scored a win last week when the final EPA rule on reporting greenhouse gas emissions excluded ethanol producers, after listing them in the initial proposed rule.

Security Tapes of Oklahoma City Bombing Raise More Questions

| Mon Sep. 28, 2009 6:22 PM EDT

At the heart of the Oklahoma City bombing case lies a lingering question: How did just two men—Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh—manage to mix up a large bomb overnight at a Kansas lake, drive it into Oklahoma City and set it off at the Murrah Building on April 19, 1995?

For a time, the FBI believed there was a third accessory to the crime, referred to as John Doe No. 2 and depicted in a police composite sketch as a muscular man with dark hair. Investigators initially pursued the possibility that John Doe No. 2 was in the cab of the truck, jumped out before the bomb blew up, and made a clean getaway.

But then the government dropped all references to John Doe No. 2. Early on in the case it maintained that there was no evidence supporting the existence of a third participant, and insisted its extensive investigation proved that the bombing had been carried out by two main players: McVeigh and Nichols.

In the July/August 2007 issue of Mother Jones, I wrote about a strange twist in the investigation: the case of a laborer called Kenney Trentadue. His brother Jesse, a Salt Lake City attorney, has accused federal agents of wrongly suspecting Kenney of being John Doe No. 2. When Kenney did not confess to aiding the bombing, Jesse Trentadue alleges, the agents beat him to death in a prison outside Oklahoma City and tried to cover it up by claiming he had killed himself. Kenney's death was indeed ruled as a suicide, but Jesse said his body bore numerous injuries that could not have been entirely self-inflicted. (The government later awarded the Trentadue family a $1.1 million settlement for its handling of the death.)
 
Ever since the bombing, Trentadue has been fighting the Bureau and Justice Department in one lawsuit after another to try and figure out what happened to his brother. In the process he has delved deep into the bomb case itself. He has sought to interview Nichols, a move opposed by the FBI and denied by a federal appeals court. He has submitted FOIA requests to obtain CIA files on the bombing, with scant success.

Now his search has at last borne some fruit. As the Associated Press reported Sunday, the government has released a set of surveillance tapes filmed moments before the bomb went off—tapes which have, until now, been withheld from the public. When Trentadue looked at footage from the various cameras around the site, he said the tapes had a blank spot in the minutes before the blast—eliminating imagery of the truck carrying the bomb and  people in the vehicle. Trentadue concludes that key parts of the tapes have been edited out—an accusation certain to fuel suspicions that the government may have withheld relevant evidence in the case. You can see the newly disclosed footage here.

Death Declines During Depressions

| Mon Sep. 28, 2009 5:19 PM EDT

People live longer during depressions. A new analysis in PNAS finds that life expectancy of Americans during the Great Depression increased by a whopping 6.2 years—from 57.1 in 1929 to 63.3 years in 1932. This was true for men and women of all races, all age groups, and all causes of death—except suicide.

The researchers analyzed mortality rates from the six most prevalent causes of death in the 1930s: cardiovascular and renal diseases; cancer; influenza and pneumonia; tuberculosis; motor vehicle traffic injuries, and suicide.

Health overall improved during the four years of the Great Depression, as well as during recessions in 1921 and 1938. Conversely, death rates rose during periods of strong economic expansion, such as 1923, 1926, 1929, and 1936-1937.

Why the counterintuitive results?

Well, the study didn't tackle this question. Though the researchers have a few hunches. All related to the fact that working conditions are different during economic expansions and recessions:

  • In expansions, firms are busy and typically demand a lot from employees, including overtime and a faster work pace. This creates stress, which is associated with more drinking and smoking. [Translation: They work you to death.]
  • In expansions, inexperienced workers are hired more likely to injure or kill themselves on the job.
  • People working a lot tend to sleep less, reducing overall health.
  • People working a lot eat more poorly. Either richer, fattier foods. And/or overworking crap food. [Might I add: more meat?]
  • In recessions, because there's less work, everyone works at a more relaxed pace. People sleep more.
  • In recessions, people feel, or are, poorer and spend less on alcohol and tobacco. [ Hmm. Not sure I agree with that one. The researchers are not bar-goers, is my guess.]
  • Economic upturns are associated with increases in atmospheric pollution, with its well-documented short-term effects on cardiovascular and respiratory mortality.
  • Economic expansion may increase social isolation and decrease social support because everyone's working so hard.

So, extreme ambition, cut-throat rivalry, pointless materialism, workalholicism, and general slavery to the almighty boss and his henchman the dollar is deadly to human life?
 

Making the Imaginative Case for Health Care Reform

| Mon Sep. 28, 2009 4:28 PM EDT

With so much ink already spilled in the political war over health care reform, it is the rare piece that can successfully redraw the battle lines in amusing and insightful ways. But two such examples have recently fought through the cacophony of the blogosphere to aid the ailing debate.

On Saturday Jonathan Rauch used a hilarious extended metaphor to expose the unconvincing arguments often offered in defense of the existing health care system. In a fictional dialogue with the booking agent for Air Health Care, Rauch imagines what the US travel system would be like if it was run like the health insurance industry. Exasperated, he explains to the agent that, "in a sane, modern system…I would be able to arrange a whole trip with a single phone call!"

The Air Health Care employee responds using some very familiar excuses:

Sir. Please. Calm down and be realistic. I'm sure the system can be frustrating, but consumers don't understand flight plans and landing slots. Even if they did, there are thousands of separate providers involved in moving travelers around, and hundreds of airports, and millions of trips. Getting everyone to coordinate services and exchange information just isn't realistic in a business as complicated as travel.

And this morning, the normally libertarian-leaning Economist posted a similarly spirited critique of the protests against centralizing health care—via a discussion of the merits of Macs vs. Microsoft. Building on a Talking Points Memo discussion, the Democracy in America blog likens the convenient, streamlined, interoperable "iFascism" of the Mac product line to the supposedly "Orwellian" attempts by Obama administration to overhaul health care and provide robust financial product regulation. In contrast, DiA posits, the existing health care system is more like Microsoft—it theoretically offers more choices, but is also "incoherent, hard to understand, often dysfunctional and bloated by obsolete legacy systems." The Economist's unexpected conclusion?

Opposition to quality centralised design doesn't make you freer. It just leaves you confused and helpless, and forces you to spend much of your time figuring out how to accomplish basic tasks, rather than doing the great things you wanted to do with your computer/life.

 

Report Predicts 7.3 Degree Temperature Rise by 2060

| Mon Sep. 28, 2009 3:02 PM EDT

Average global temperatures could rise by 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit by 2060, according to a new report from the United Kingdom's Met Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research. The startling new predictions come after a major letdown on climate progress at last week's G20 meeting, and as hopes fade that world leaders will make significant headway on a new international agreement this year.

Their report, conducted on behalf of the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change, found that they could see a 10 degree or greater rise in temperatures in some regions, which would cause droughts in some areas, flooding in others, sea level rises, and ecosystem system collapse. The Arctic could be up to 15.2 degrees warmer if we continue on our current high-emissions path, which would be "enhanced by melting of snow and ice causing more of the Sun’s radiation to be absorbed."

Land areas could warm by 7 degrees or more, with the highest in western and souther Africa, where average temperatures could increase by 10 degrees. Rainfall is expected to decrease by 20 percent or more in some regions, with the largest decreases expected in western and southern Africa, Central America, the Mediterranean and parts of coastal Australia. It is expected to increase by 20 percent or more in other areas, like India, which would increase flood risks.


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One Torture Document That's Not Missing

| Mon Sep. 28, 2009 2:20 PM EDT

As I reported this morning, and Marcy Wheeler first noticed, the Obama administration has been unable to find at least ten documents relating to the Bush administration's torture, detention, and extraordinary rendition programs. From my story today:

In 2007, the Bush administration was fighting a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which was seeking records related to the deaths of detainees, their treatment, and the administration's rendition policies. CIA lawyers drew up a list [PDF] of 181 documents that they considered exempt from release. Some of these records, which were stored in a secure facility, were so sensitive that Justice Department lawyers lacked the clearances to handle them.

After President Obama took office, he issued a new FOIA policy, instructing executive branch agencies to "adopt a presumption in favor" of releasing information. The Obama Justice Department reprocessed the ACLU's earlier request under the new guidelines. But when they did so, department officials discovered that 10 documents listed on the index compiled by the Bush administration were nowhere to be found. The Justice Department noted this in a filing [PDF] by David Barron, an acting assistant attorney general, which was submitted last week as part of the ongoing ACLU case and first highlighted by Firedoglake blogger Marcy Wheeler. Barron acknowledged in the filing that even more documents could be missing, because "many" of the documents the Obama team did find were "not certain matches" to the ones on the Bush administration's list.

In her initial blog post on the subject, Marcy brought up the case of the sixth document on
both the Obama and Bush administration lists:

The 2007 Index refers to the document as a 46-page document, dated July 25, 2002, providing legal advice. Yesterday's Index refers to the document as a 59-page document, from and to the DOD, dated July 25, 2002, providing legal advice.

The page discrepancy, by itself is interesting (that is, if they don't have the document, then how do they know that the original index listed the page numbers wrong?).

And then there's the fact that this document is missing. Some of these documents discussed SERE techniques as torture. In the SASC report, both Jim Haynes and John Rizzo were very squirmy about discussing how DOD advice to to OLC for CIA's torture memos; if we had the document itself, we might be able to explain that definitively. And then there's the possibility that someone took notes on this document.

While I was reporting this story, I got an answer about the discrepancy between the two administrations' description of the same document. Tracy Schmaler, a Justice Department spokeswoman, told me that the Obama administration made a filing error. They found a document with the same date as "Document 6" and, although it had 59 pages instead of 46, added its information to their list. Once they realized it wasn't a match, they forgot to remove that information from the index. So, to be clear: a 59-page Department of Defense top-secret memo from July 25, 2002 does exist, and the DOJ has sent it to the Pentagon for processing. It will appear on a future index if the administration decides to withhold it. What the Obama DOJ didn't find was the 46-page memo "providing legal advice" that's described on the Bush administration's list. That's still missing.

Wingnuts Unite: Ron Paul Joins Michelle Bachmann in Weirdest Town Hall Ever

| Mon Sep. 28, 2009 2:18 PM EDT

Ron Paul and Michelle Bachmann are supposed to be the oil and vinegar of the Republican Party. He's an anti-war, anti-Patriot Act, radically pro-civil rights libertarian. She's a Bible-thumping Bush acolyte who dreams of nuking Iran and likens gay sex to bestiality. But there they were on Friday, sharing the stage at a town hall organized by Paul backers, where Bachmann called him "one of the leading advocates for freedom in our capitol." What gives?

Bachmann's role is telling in what it says about how she and other Bush-era Republicans are trying to reposition themselves. As recently as last year's GOP presidential primary, Paul was ridiculed by the GOP mainstream for his opposition to America's costly military adventures abroad; the leading conservative website, Redstate.com, even banned his supporters from shilling for him in blog comments. Paul's votes against war funding were part of his general practice of opposing almost every government spending bill, a habit that earned him the nickname "Dr. No."

Now, of course, the once-lonely Dr. No finds himself surrounded by a Party of No. And the new GOP refuseniks want his blessing so they can obscure how their past fiscal recklessness tanked the economy and mobilize Paul's considerable grassroots machine against Obama.

That job requires some contortions. "Next year the government is going to spend more money on welfare in one year than they spent on the entire eight years of the war," Bachmann told the crowd, essentially arguing the GOP has been the party of fiscal restraint, even though Bush racked up record deficits. And now that Obama is trying to correct those excesses, she feels taxpayers' pain: "Sales tax, gas tax, every-time-you-turn-around tax," she complained. "In other words, at the rate your government has been spending, the fruits of your labor have already been spoken for."

Bachman, who has been tutored by Paul as of late during his Thursday "Liberty Luncheons," was so enamored of her new anti-tax identity that she couldn't contain herself. The "government takeover of healthcare" will literally tax away everything Americans make, she suggested, transforming the country into a communist economy: "In other words, 100 percent of your check has already been spoken for. You can't have everything that you make confiscated by the government. It doesn't work."

This and Bachman's other genuflections the the gods of the free market and small government were met with huge cheers, suggesting that Paulites are willing to forget how she and the rest of the GOP spent eight years undermining both of those things. It was almost as if the crowd was thankful to her wing of the party for royally screwing up, thereby confirming the libertarian notion that government is never the answer. Kick the dog enough, and it will lick your hand every time you whistle.

 

Assignment Desk Watch

| Mon Sep. 28, 2009 2:07 PM EDT

If the New York Times is serious about its shiny new plan to cover the conservative noise machine more thoroughly, they better jump on this one right away.  By tomorrow it will probably be gone, yet another important story missed by the mainstream media.  Get cracking, guys.

Surfing the New Stimulus 2.0 Website

| Mon Sep. 28, 2009 2:06 PM EDT

Big news for all you stimulus fans—Recovery.gov, the federal recovery website, just relaunched this morning. For months, the frustratingly sketchy website was the last place you'd go to keep track of where the $787 billion in economic stimulus was being doled out. While the adminsitration scrambled to live up to the president's promise to account for "every dime," ProPublica and Recovery.com put up relatively easy-to-use recovery trackers. (Congressional Republicans also set up a less-than-user friendly site at Sunshine.gop.gov.) So how does the revamped Recovery.gov 2.0 stack up against the competition?

A quick tour of the site reveals it to be a major improvement—especially when you consider it was pulled together in just 10 weeks. Its centerpiece is an interactive map where you can track grants, loans, and contracts by location, agency, or amount. You can zoom in on funding recipients by exact location, which you can't do on the ProPublica or Recovery.com maps, making it easy to see where the checks are going locally. It also offers text lists of recipients by state and agency. ProPublica and Recovery.com offer lists by county and city, respectively—so will someone please offer a choice of recipient lists by zip code, city, county, and state? Perhaps Recovery.gov can be of assistance: For the super wonky, it offers downloadable data for making "mashups and gadgets." Amid an otherwise so-so review of the site, OMB Watch says "this is actually a really nice feature."