2009 - %3, November

This Is the TARP That Never Ends...

| Mon Nov. 2, 2009 4:00 AM PST

It was a tall order last fall when then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson Jr. asked Congress for $700 billion and nearly unilateral power over how to spend it. With the nation on the precipice of economic Armageddon, Paulson's request was granted. But now, as financial reform legislation makes its way through Congress, some lawmakers are worried that Paulson's replacment, Timothy Geithner, may be attempting another Paulson-like power play.

Currently circulating on Capitol Hill is a draft of the House financial services committee's "Financial Stability Improvement Act," a wide-ranging effort to rein in too-big-to-fail institutions and bolster oversight of the financial-services industry. The legislation, spearheaded by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the committee's chairman, and Secretary Geithner, who helped to craft the bill, would also create an oversight council staffed by government financial regulators, and would abolish the Office of Thrift Supervision, an agency faulted for its flimsy regulation before the crisis. (The Wall Street Journal has a good run-down of the legislation here.)

The legislation is meeting stiff oppostion, though, from members of both parties. What has lawmakers like Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Alab.) riled up is a provision in the bill they say gives the White House and Treasury unchecked authority to spend taxpayer money, without Congressional approval, to bail out any too-big-to-fail bank that's poised to topple the economy. Sherman calls the provision "TARP on steroids," writing in The Hill:

Geithner's proposal reminds me of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), the $700 billion Wall Street bailout adopted last year, but the TARP was limited to two years, and to a maximum of $700 billion. Section 1204 is unlimited in dollar amount and is a permanent grant of power to the executive branch. TARP contained some limits on executive compensation and an array of special oversight authorities. Section 1204 contains absolutely no limits on executive compensation and no special oversight.

Disconcerting, indeed. The economy reached the point of near collapse, in large part, due to a gross absence of oversight. And the TARP as well has been marred by a lack of transparency and oversight: As bailout watchdogs have consistently pointed out, we still know very little about how TARP money was spent by institutions that received billions in bailout cash. With that in mind, do we want financial regulation that institutionalizes this opacity?

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Health Care Reform: What Would LBJ Do?

| Mon Nov. 2, 2009 3:46 AM PST

As the Democratic leadership keeps rolling over to one health care industry demand after another, I'm reminded of a post that I wrote on my Unsilent Generation blog nearly a year ago, as Obama prepared to take office after promising to reform the American health care system. It's about President Lyndon B. Johnson's successful effort, back in 1965, to create the Medicare and Medicaid programs–-the only single-payer health care this nation has ever known. Like a lot of LBJ's War on Poverty programs, they were far from perfect. But compared with what today's Democrats are offering, they were something close to radical, and represented a triumph of political will on Johnson's part. 

I suspect that if if LBJ were alive today, he might have been able to get a decent reform bill through Congress, without all of the concessions to corporate interests that have rendered the Democrats' current legislation—including the public option—so weak that it is getting close to meaningless.

When it came to getting bills through Congress, LBJ—both as Senate Democratic leader and as president—had skills that make Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Rahm Emanuel, along with President Obama, look like rank amateurs. But more than this, he had the level of commitment—and the spine—required to stand up to opposing interests when it came to a basic need like health care.

I'm going to run most of that December 2008 post here, since its relevance has only increased with each passing month.

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Neocon Smear on "Iran's Man in DC?"

| Mon Nov. 2, 2009 3:46 AM PST

Did Michael Goldfarb, a former John McCain staffer and now an editor of the neoconservative Weekly Standard, defame Trita Parsi, the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, by suggesting that Parsi is working for the Iranian government?

Last week, Goldfarb described Parsi as "the Iranian regime’s man in Washington." Goldfarb didn't present any evidence to support this. He stated it as fact and moved on. When I emailed Goldfarb asking if he meant to say literally that Parsi is working for the Iranian government, he doubled down, replying, "If it walks like an ayatollah and quacks like an ayatollah.... Maybe you should do your due dilligence [sic] on Trita Parsi."

As Daniel Luban points out in an interesting post at The Faster Times, Goldfarb may have crossed a line here:

[The comment seems to accuse] Parsi not merely of holding substantively wrong political beliefs but of actively working for Iranian and against American interests.

Parsi, whose group advocates negotiating with Iran, says he believes Goldfarb was indeed accusing him of toiling for the Iranian government. He insists that is "nonsense" and "clearly a political campaign" against NIAC. "Anyone who has followed NIAC knows how critical we have been of the Iranian government," Parsi says. After our conversation, a spokesman for NIAC sent me 15 statements and op-eds issued by the group this year that criticized the Iranian regime.

Goldfarb wasn't alone in criticizing Parsi. Last Wednesday, the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg*  wrote that Parsi "does a lot of leg-work for the Iranian regime." Like Goldfarb, Goldberg did not cite any evidence. But when I emailed him about his comment, he backed away from implying Parsi was in league with Tehran:

No, I'm not saying he literally works for the Iranian regime. I think you're right, the term "leg-work" definitely could imply something I wasn't meaning to imply. If that's the way fair-minded people are reading it, then it's my mistake. What I meant to suggest is that his organization functions as Iran's AIPAC in Washington (though it's not as effective, of course). AIPAC, obviously, does a great amount of leg-work—meaning, in my understanding, a great deal of lobbying and advocacy—to advance its primary cause, a militarily and politically powerful Israel closely allied with the United States. But it doesn't take Israeli money, or, as best as I can tell, Israeli instruction. I assume, though I don't know, that Parsi doesn't take Iranian government money or Iranian government instruction, either. I think he does argue quite vociferously against sanctions, and he does tend to present, at least in my reading, a fairly benevolent understanding of Iran's rulers and their motivations, and a fairly harsh reading of the Israeli government's motivations. 

Goldfarb and Goldberg's remarks could potentially have legal consequences.

After another writer made similar allegations on a website, iranianlobby.com, in 2007, Parsi and NIAC sued for defamation. (The case is ongoing.) Parsi notes that his organization has not yet decided whether to pursue legal action against Goldfarb and Goldberg.

There's no credible, publicly available evidence that Parsi is paid by or takes instructions from the Iranian government. If Goldfarb is charging that Parsi really is an operative for the ayatollahs, he ought to back up the claim—lawsuit or not.

*Clarification: I don't think Goldberg's a neocon, and I hope this post doesn't imply that he is.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 2, 2009

Mon Nov. 2, 2009 3:45 AM PST

US Army 1st Lt. Russell Dasher teaches a boy how to "fist bump" as Army Staff Sgt. Donald Ottaway looks on at the Andar district bazaar in Afghanistan's Ghazni province, Oct. 20, 2009. (US Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Sarah Webb.)

Need To Read: November 2, 2009

Mon Nov. 2, 2009 3:41 AM PST

Today's must-reads:

Get more stuff like this: Follow me on twitter! David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, also tweets, as does 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.)

Music Monday Review: Rickie Lee Jones' Balm in Gilead

| Mon Nov. 2, 2009 3:30 AM PST

Rickie Lee Jones
Balm in Gilead
Fantasy Records

It took a couple spins of Rickie Lee Jones' new album to make me a fan. There's nothing groundbreaking or overtly powerful about Balm in Gilead, but much like Jones' weathered voice, its unassuming grit snuck up on me.

For one thing, the album moves much more slowly than I was accustomed to. But while it initially felt foreign, the record eventually felt refreshing—as if it were recorded on a back porch rather than a slick studio.

This authenticity is also evident in Jones' ability to move through genres without feeling forced. While she seems most at home with bluesy romps such as "Old Enough" and "Blue Ghazel," her smoky voice also lends itself nicely to the countrified "Remember Me" and sultry "The Moon Is Made of Gold." Her lyrics, too, feel more sincere than cunning: It's a dark night to feed a stranger, when I don't have enough to feed myself, she sings affectingly on "The Gospel of Carlos, Norman and Smith."

It's these touches that ultimately make this new album intimate and real, a welcome respite from an overwrought music universe. By the time Jones croons You hurt me bad this time on one of the last and best tracks, "Bonfires," she feels like an old, confiding friend—plaintive and genuinely heartbreaking.

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Econundrum: Phone Chargers Go Global

| Mon Nov. 2, 2009 3:00 AM PST

I recently forgot my phone charger on a weeklong trip. I was staying with friends, so I asked around: Surely someone had a charger that fit my phone? No dice. A subway ride to the AT&T store and $30 later, I had a new charger, identical to my old one. I used it for the remainder of the trip, then shoved it in a drawer when I got home. Good story, huh?

So-called "redundant chargers" are actually a big problem—not just for forgetful people like me, but for folks who buy the same phone over and over and get a new charger (they typically come with the phone) every time. An estimated 1.2 billion cell phones were sold worldwide in 2008, and the UN's International Telecommunication Union estimates that between 50 and 80 percent of those were replacements.

Good news: The Union just approved a universal charger. If enough manufacturers adopt it, the industry could make half as many chargers—thus reducing greenhouse gases from manufacturing and transporting replacement chargers by as much as 15 to 24 million tons a year.

Bonus: The universal charger will likely use half as much energy on standby as conventional chargers, solving the "wall wart" problem.

The charger is currently set to launch internationally next year, and a European industry group expects it to come standard with many phones by 2012. Manufacturers won't be required to sign on, but a few (Samsung, Nokia, Motorola) already have. 

So consider this a heads up: If you're in the market for a new cell phone next year, look for one with a universal charger. In the meantime, unplug your charger when you're not using it: If 10 percent of cell phone users unplugged, they would save enough energy to power 60,000 European homes. Consider a hand-crank or solar-powered charger. (People seem to like this one, which is also a radio and a flashlight. Cool.) And, uh, remember to take your charger with you on vacation.

The Power of Couch Potato-ism

| Sun Nov. 1, 2009 10:28 PM PST

Guess what? Apparently DVRs aren't the commercial killers everyone was afraid they'd be.  Even though DVRs let you skip past ads, it turns out that lots of DVR users are too lazy to bother:

Against almost every expectation, nearly half of all people watching delayed shows are still slouching on their couches watching messages about movies, cars and beer. According to Nielsen, 46 percent of viewers 18 to 49 years old for all four networks taken together are watching the commercials during playback, up slightly from last year. Why would people pass on the opportunity to skip through to the next chunk of program content?

The most basic reason, according to Brad Adgate, the senior vice president for research at Horizon Media, a media buying firm, is that the behavior that has underpinned television since its invention still persists to a larger degree than expected.

“It’s still a passive activity,” he said.

Hard to believe.  Maybe lots of people actually like commercials?  I can't tolerate them, myself. Whenever a commercial break comes on, I start manically flipping through the channels looking for something else.  Maybe a few minutes of a ballgame.  A little bit of CNN.  Anything.  Having to sit through commercials is like having to eat breakfast without something to read in front of me: completely intolerable.

Which really means I should get a DVR and join the 54% of viewers who do skip ads.  Instead I watch shows at their regularly scheduled times and then immediately start channel surfing whenever commercials come on.  Sometimes I get back before the show starts back up, sometimes I don't.  Pretty dumb, I suppose.

Rick Santorum's Crystal Ball

| Sun Nov. 1, 2009 2:41 PM PST

Rick Santorum, yesterday:

When Assemblywomen Dede Scozzafava suspended her campaign because it appeared that her Conservative-party opponent, a Republican, stood a better chance to win on Tuesday she noted that she was a proud Republican....Her announcement today is a lesson to all of us — that even those in our party who may not agree with us on many of our core principles and positions not only still want to be on our team, but want us to win.

Dede Scozzafava today:

State Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava (R), who dropped from the special election in Upstate New York yesterday, has now thrown her support to Democrat Bill Owens.

"It's not in the cards for me to be your representative, but I strongly believe Bill is the only candidate who can build upon John McHugh's lasting legacy in the U.S. Congress," said Scozzafava in a statement released moments ago.

Italics mine.  Apparently Santorum's version of the Republican Party is not quite so popular as he thought.

Poll Flippery Explained!

| Sun Nov. 1, 2009 12:20 PM PST

Suppose you conduct an opinion poll and get answer X on a particular question.  If you follow up with a question like "But what if....." then X is likely to change.  But how much?  Is there some minimum amount of change you'll get no matter what followup question you ask?

I asked that question a couple of weeks ago, and Dave Munger of Cognitive Daily decided to investigate.  The result was a cheap-and-cheerful nonscientific online poll that gauged whether some people would change their minds no matter what the followup question was.  I've been sworn to secrecy until now, but here are the results:

While it is true that someone changed their answer for each question, in some cases, very few people did. Consider the responses to the question "Should the United States withdraw all troops from Afghanistan?"....While 35 percent of respondents said they'd change their answer if the US kept one base in Afghanistan to address only the terrorist threat, only 4 percent said they'd change their answer to the original question if the US also closed the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Aside from one genuinely out-of-the-blue question, that seems to have been the baseline: you can get 4% of your respondents to change their minds no matter what the followup is.  That's actually pretty low.

But there's more!  Who changes their minds more, liberals or conservatives?  Click to link to find out.