2009 - %3, October

High Noon

| Fri Oct. 30, 2009 1:47 AM EDT

Now that it looks like Congress is only inches away from producing a surprisingly decent healthcare bill, Paul Krugman lays down the law:

Everyone in the political class — by which I mean politicians, people in the news media, and so on, basically whoever is in a position to influence the final stage of this legislative marathon — now has to make a choice. The seemingly impossible dream of fundamental health reform is just a few steps away from becoming reality, and each player has to decide whether he or she is going to help it across the finish line or stand in its way.

....For conservatives, of course, it’s an easy decision: They don’t want Americans to have universal coverage, and they don’t want President Obama to succeed.

....Should progressives get behind this plan? Yes. And they probably will.

The people who really have to make up their minds, then, are those in between, the self-proclaimed centrists....I’d just urge them to take a good hard look in the mirror. If they really want to align themselves with the hard-line conservatives, if they just want to kill health reform, so be it. But they shouldn’t hide behind claims that they really, truly would support health care reform if only it were better designed.

For this is the moment of truth. The political environment is as favorable for reform as it’s likely to get. The legislation on the table isn’t perfect, but it’s as good as anyone could reasonably have expected. History is about to be made — and everyone has to decide which side they’re on.

I don't know if "self-proclaimed centrists" listen to Krugman, but he's right.  The modest public option that's survived the sausage factory so far just isn't a big enough deal to sink the entire bill over.  At least, it's not if you really want healthcare reform in the first place.  It's time for everyone to figure out if they do.

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Rubber Dodo Awarded to Worst Human on the Planet

| Thu Oct. 29, 2009 6:30 PM EDT

Well, that is, if you measure humans by their ability to help or hurt biodiversity. Today the third annual Rubber Dodo Award was bestowed by the Center for Biological Diversity upon Michael Winer, portfolio manager for the giant real-estate investment firm Third Avenue Management, or TAREX.

The CBD's Rubber Dodo memorializes the person who's done most to drive endangered species extinct. The 2007 winner was Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne. In 2008, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin got the dishonor.

So what has heretofore unknown Michael Winer done to deserve the ignominy? Under Winer's leadership, says the CBD, TAREX has become the largest stockholder of companies driving the development of the largest private landholdings remaining in Southern California and Florida. These splendid lands also happen to be home to some of the highest numbers of endangered species in North America:

  • In California, TAREX is pushing the Tejon Ranch Company to pave thousands of acres of federally designated California condor habitat.
  • In Florida, TAREX is pushing the St. Joe Company to flood tens of thousands of acres of the Florida Panhandle with upscale developments.

According to Adam Keats, director of the CBD's Urban Wildlands Program:

"Under Winer’s money-obsessed leadership, TAREX has become the poster child for unsustainable, endangered-species-killing sprawl. He specializes in finding massive, remote estates far from urban centers and turning them into a sea of condos, malls, golf courses, and resorts. There is good reason that even Wall Street commonly calls TAREX a 'real-estate vulture'."

Ouch. A vulture-killing vulture.

In California, Winer is a driving force behind the Tejon Ranch Company’s bid to build two new cities 50 miles north of Los Angeles—likened to dropping a city the size of Boulder Colorado into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

What's at stake in Tejon? Oh, only 270,000 acres at the convergence of five geomorphic provinces and four floristic regions. Plus federally designated California condor critical habitat, home to 23 known types of plant communities, home to 20 state and federally listed species, a unique "oak laboratory" for more than a third of all California oak species.

The Center for Biological Diversity would rather see Tejon Ranch be preserved as a new national or state park and preserve, to protect a bounty of native plant and animal communities, cultural and historic features, and scenic vistas.

How about we offer a carrot? Name it the Michael Winer Corrective Karma National Park?

BTW, this leads me to one of my pet, oddball, make-the-world-better schemes. In thinking about the most environmentally-friendly way to dispose of ourselves after death, why not do like the Tibetans, who practise sky burials? In other words, make ourselves food for vultures, specifically, California condors. Michael Winer, when your time comes, could you lead the way, in a park named for you?
 

Should the DOJ Take Up the Letter Fraud Case?

| Thu Oct. 29, 2009 6:25 PM EDT

Will the coal industry representative who may have lied under oath to Congress on Thursday face legal repercussions?

Steve Miller, CEO for American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a major coal industry lobby group, said under oath that his organization "has never opposed the Waxman-Markey bill," when in fact the group both publicly opposed the House climate bill and funded campaigns to convince legislators to vote against it.

Mother Jones contacted the Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming to see whether they plan to pursue the issue. "We are currently reviewing the testimony and we will make any assessments on steps going forward after we review the testimony," said Eben Burnham-Snyder, a spokesman for the committee.

If the committee decides that there's cause to believe that Miller perjured himself, the matter would be turned over to the Department of Justice for investigation.

Activist groups are already hoping that the DOJ will get involved. After the details of the forged letters broke in August, the Sierra Club asked the DOJ to look into the case as potential wire fraud and MoveOn urged its members to sign a petition asking for a DOJ investigation.

Gay Marriage in Maine

| Thu Oct. 29, 2009 5:34 PM EDT

Via Andrew Sullivan, here's a sample of the pro-marriage (left) and anti-marriage (right) ads running in Maine right now.  Reminds me of California 11 months ago: generally bright and positive from the pro side, dark and fearmongering from the anti side.  Note especially the almost comically menacing musing from the anti folks.

Of course, as we all know, fear sells: the anti side won in California.  But not by much!  Only by a couple of points, and I remain convinced that if Barack Obama had been willing to step in a little more forcefully he might have turned things around.  I understand his reluctance to address hot button cultural issues until he gets most of his legislative agenda through Congress this year, but justice is justice.  He ought to speak up on this.

RFK, Jr. to Big Carbon: Your Day is Over

| Thu Oct. 29, 2009 4:28 PM EDT

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr’s keynote address to the Solar Power International conference in Anaheim, CA, has been described in the media as a “barn-barner” (the New York Times), “rousing” (Greentech Media) and “inspiring” (New Energy News).

It certainly was all that. As someone who has followed not just Robert, Jr., but also the career of his late father, Senator RFK, Sr., the best way I can describe the speech is, “consistent.”

 

Quote of the Day

| Thu Oct. 29, 2009 4:18 PM EDT

From Fay Chapman, former chief legal officer at Washington Mutual, about loan standards during the housing bubble era:

"Someone in Florida had made a second-mortgage loan to O.J. Simpson, and I just about blew my top, because there was this huge judgment against him from his wife's parents," she recalled. Simpson had been acquitted of killing his wife Nicole and her friend but was later found liable for their deaths in a civil lawsuit; that judgment took precedence over other debts, such as if Simpson defaulted on his WaMu loan.

"When I asked how we could possibly foreclose on it, they said there was a letter in the file from O.J. Simpson saying 'the judgment is no good, because I didn't do it.' "

Via Mark Thompson.

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The Golden Years America: Can't Work, Can't Retire (Unless You're a Bailed-Out Banker)

| Thu Oct. 29, 2009 2:36 PM EDT

The National Committee to Protect Social Security and Medicare reports today on recently released statistics that illustrate the lose-lose situation now faced by many older people, thanks to Wall Street and the recession it spawned.

The National Retirement Risk Index shows that a majority of American households are at high risk of not having enough money in retirement. The 51% finding is the highest at-risk percentage since the index’ creation in 2006. The report concludes: 

"...half of today’s households will not have enough retirement income to maintain their pre-retirement standard of living, even if they work to age 65, which is above the current average retire­ment age. Even if the stock market should bounce back, the housing bubble is unlikely to reappear. And as defined benefit plans fade in an environment where total pension coverage remains stagnant, Social Security’s Full Retirement Age moves to 67, and life expectancy increases, the outlook will get worse over time. The NRRI clearly indicates that this nation needs more retirement saving."

And yet, working longer isn’t as easy as it sounds for the over 60 employee.  The New York Times sums up the unemployment figures for seniors: 

…there are more Americans 65 and older in the job market today than at any time in history, 6.6 million, compared with 4.1 million in 2001.  Less well known, though, is that nearly half a million workers 65 and older want to work but cannot find a job — more than five times the level early this decade and this group’s highest unemployment level since the Great Depression.  The situation is made more dire because of numerous recent trends: many people over 65 have lost their jobs as seniority protections have weakened, and like most other Americans, a higher percentage of them took on debt than in previous generations.

With prospects like this, some old people may start to feel like going before those mythical “death panels” isn’t such a bad idea after all.

None of this applies, of course, to the people responsible for placing large numbers of America’s seniors in financial peril in the first place. Wall Street is busy whining about he limits on executive pay announced last week by White House “pay czar” Kenneth Feinberg. These restrictions apply only to the 25 top execs at each of the seven huge companies that are currently using bailout funds, and allow them to make multiple millions per year. What’s more, unlike the rest of us, these guys can still look forward to getting golden parachutes to cushion their golden years. As the New York Times reports:

...it’s worth noting that certain contentious pay issues were either ignored or shoved under the rug. Ken Lewis, the soon-to-be-retired chief executive of Bank of America, has declined to take a salary in 2009, at Mr. Feinberg’s urging. But he is still going to get around $70 million in retirement pay — which Mr. Feinberg could do nothing about. And so Mr. Lewis will soon join the ranks of other top Wall Street executives who walked away with millions after doing a miserable job.

Taking on the Iron Triangle

| Thu Oct. 29, 2009 2:30 PM EDT

It's a testament to the difficulty of healthcare reform and the power of the healthcare lobby that it's able to make reform of Pentagon procurement look almost easy by comparison.  But that's how it's turned out: at the same time that President Obama's healthcare reform has been fighting through the congressional underbrush one painful subparagraph at a time, his defense cuts have practically sailed through.  Remarkably enough, he's succeeded almost completely in cutting back the weapons platforms he targeted earlier this year, and he's succeeded so quietly that I'd pretty much forgotten it was even happening.  But it did, and the defense appropriations bill Obama signed yesterday included nearly all the cuts he had asked for:

Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said Wednesday that the plan was to threaten a veto over a prominent program — in this case, the F-22 fighter jet — “to show we were willing to expend political capital and could win on something that people thought we could not.”

Once the Senate voted in July to stop buying F-22s, Mr. Emanuel said in an interview, that success “reverberated down” to help sustain billions of dollars of cuts in Army modernization, missile defense and other programs.

....Military analysts said [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, also aimed at the most bloated programs. And Senator John McCain of Arizona, the former Republican presidential candidate, who has criticized the Pentagon’s cost overruns, provided Mr. Obama with political cover to make the cuts without being seen as soft on the military.

“They probably get an ‘A’ from the standpoint of their success on their major initiatives,” said Fred Downey, a former Senate aide who is now vice president for national security at the Aerospace Industries Association. “They probably got all of them but one or maybe two, and that’s an extraordinarily high score.”

Yes, Obama and Gates mostly took on only the most egregiously bloated Pentagon programs and then plowed the money they saved into other areas, which probably cut down considerably on opposition grumbling.  Still, this is a landmark effort.  Cutting even a single bloated program is usually the work of years, and to cut three or four at once is unprecedented.

Having a conservative (and politically savvy) Defense Secretary like Gates carrying the ball for the program cuts was instrumental in getting them done, in the same way that having a conservative like Gates carrying the ball for ending DADT will probably be instrumental in getting it abolished next year.  I was sort of ambivalent about the Gates appointment when it was announced last year, but I have to admit that so far he's come through on the potential upside.

(Via Steve Benen.)

Fiore Cartoon: S.C.R.E.W. U.

Thu Oct. 29, 2009 2:00 PM EDT

In light of recent reform efforts, the credit card industry has implemented a new plan. They like to call it the Safe Credit Revision Everyone Wins Undertaking, otherwise known as S.C.R.E.W. U.

Watch satirist Mark Fiore outline the plan, which includes fees for breathing or being left or right-handed, below:

Did Coal Lobby CEO Lie Under Oath?

| Thu Oct. 29, 2009 1:41 PM EDT

In testimony before Congress on Thursday, Steve Miller, CEO for American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a major coal industry lobby group, stated under oath that his organization "has never opposed the Waxman-Markey bill."

But ACCCE's previous statements indicate otherwise. On the day that the House passed the legislation, Miller himself issued a press release stating, "ACCCE cannot support this bill, as it is written because the legislation still does not adequately protect consumers and the domestic economy."

In addition, documents released Thursday by a congressional investigation into 13 forged letters sent to Congress by an ACCCE subcontractor show that ACCCE spent nearly $3 million this year on so-called grassroots efforts to persuade vulnerable legislators to vote against the Waxman-Markey bill. (Miller did tell the House Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming that ACCCE "supports federal carbon legislation that could include a mandatory cap-and-trade.")

An email exchange between ACCCE's contractor, the Hawthorn Group, and its subcontractor, Bonner and Associates, identifies seven House Democrats to be pressured to oppose the bill. The email describes Rep. Chris Carney (D-Pa.) as "a potential/probable 'no' vote on here so we're doing a little more intel to determine whether or not to keep him on our target list." The goal was clearly to convince members to vote against the measure. Once they were known to oppose it, they could be taken off the list.

Carney did indeed go on to vote against Waxman-Markey, along with five of the other targeted members. Yet ACCCE testified on Thursday that they did not actively campaign to get members to vote against the bill.

The coal industry group wasn't the only one making questionable claims in the hearing. Jack Bonner, head of Bonner and Associates—the ACCCE subcontractor that sent the forged letters—testified that his organization made a sincere effort to reach out to the community organizations whose names were misappropriated, as well as the lawmakers who received the forgeries. But the written and oral testimony from both Bonner and the community groups makes it clear that Bonner took its time. The Waxman-Markey vote was on June 26, and ACCCE, Bonner and Hawthorn all knew about the forgeries at least 48 hours before that. "Our immediate reaction to the fraud was to advise our client and reach out to the organizations," Bonner told Congress. Yet Bonner staffers didn't actually begin reaching out until June 29 (to one of the community organizations) and July 1 (to members of Congress). They didn't speak to the staff of two forgery recipients until July 13, and never contacted Carney's office at all. Lisa Maatz, director of public policy and government relations for the American Association of University Women, said she only learned about a fake letter bearing her organization's name by reading about it in the newspaper. Hilary Shelton, senior vice president for advocacy and policy of the NAACP, said his group found out when contacted by the media.

By the end of Thursday's hearing, only Select Committee Chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Jay Inslee (D-Wa.) were present to grill the witnesses. But they evidently weren't satisfied with the answers they received: After the hearing, Markey indicated that his committee will continue looking into the case.