2009 - %3, November

What's the Deal With Nukes?

| Fri Nov. 6, 2009 1:47 PM EST

I've long wondered just why conservatives are so obsessed with nuclear power.  If nukes had the potential to do away with our climate change problem entirely, then I could see it.  Hooray, no new regulations!  But even cheerleaders for nuclear power don't suggest that it could produce more than a small fraction of our electricity in the next 20 or 30 years.  So why has it become such a hobbyhorse?

Brad Plumer investigates today and basically says he's not sure either.  But it seems to boil down to yet another culture war issue: since hippy lefty types are against 'em, all right-thinking patriots are apparently for 'em.  Dreary stuff.  But it is what it is, and if it might serve as the basis for a bipartisan compromise on a climate change bill, maybe it's worth playing along.  But will it?  Here's Brad with the bottom line:

There's little point in acceding to the GOP's nuclear demands without getting anything in return. [Lamar] Alexander, for one, recently admitted that, even though he's taking part in talks over new nuclear provisions, nothing will persuade him to support a cap on carbon — which is the crux of any climate bill. "That's something to watch out for," grumbles one observer. "Is [the Nuclear Energy Institute] actually going to work to bring new votes to the table?" Perhaps it's finally time to see just how much this love affair is worth.

I have a guess about that, but I'll keep quiet about it for now.  There's no need for puerile cynicism while more optimistic negotiators are still taking a crack at getting a nonnegative answer, after all.  There'll be plenty of time for that later.

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Senate Unanimously Confirms Controversial Mining Pick

| Fri Nov. 6, 2009 1:23 PM EST

The Senate on Friday unanimously confirmed the nomination of Joseph Pizarchik to serve as Director of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. As we recently reported, Pizarchik is a controversial figure whose nomination was protested by many coal-field activists in his home state of Pennsylvania.

Pizarchik has served as the director of Pennsylvania's Bureau of Mining and Reclamation since 2002, where he has overseen mining permits and the enforcement of environmental rules related to mining and waste disposal. Residents of Pennsylvania mining areas say that he was too cozy with the coal industry and did not enforce existing environmental laws. Multiple senators on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee expressed concerns about his record in his confirmation hearing in August.

One mystery senator placed an anonymous hold on the nomination, and two—Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)—voted against him in committee. But apparently the hold was removed earlier this week, allowing a voice vote to go forward Friday afternoon. Mother Jones is still trying to get comment from Menendez and Sanders about whether they did, in fact, change their minds about the nomination.

 

Bring Back the WPA?

| Fri Nov. 6, 2009 1:11 PM EST

Channeling Paul Krugman, Matt Yglesias wonders why we don't fight unemployment by essentially bringing back the WPA:

Instead of saying to people whose UI benefits are about to expire “just kidding, here’s an extension” we could say “you’ll keep getting checks but you need to show up at such-and-such a place and pick up trash in parks.” This would be somewhat more expensive than a UI extension — you’d need to pay for garbage bags and supervisors — but it would have less of a disemployment effect than UI extensions and we’d also get cleaner parks in the bargain. It’s a little bit perverse to be paying people to do nothing when there’s work that could use doing.

I think this is more difficult than it sounds.  Matt admits later that public sector unions would — with good reason — oppose the idea of bringing in unemployed workers to do their jobs, but the problems go way beyond that.  The WPA didn't just send people to parks to pick up trash.  It was a huge bureacracy.  It was a program set up to last for years.  After all, there was a Depression on.

But that's not what we have today.  Nobody thinks the current recession will last for five years, and by the time a government bureacracy was up and running to provide jobs it probably wouldn't be needed anymore.  Like it or not, hiring people takes longer than it used to, building roads and post offices requires years of design and preparation, and there just isn't that much easy makework available.  It's a different era.

I might be missing something obvious here, but unemployment insurance can be extended instantly (barring Republican game playing, of course) and the money gets out to workers and then into the economy almost instantly too.  Conversely, creating useful jobs of some kind would take, I imagine, an absolute minimum of six months, and probably more like a year or more.  By then they wouldn't be needed.

It really does seem more efficient to write checks to the private sector, as well as to state and local governments, and let them hire people.  The federal government is good at writing checks!  But, at least in the 21st century, not so good at creating nationwide jobs programs, I suspect.

Eco-News Roundup: Friday November 6

| Fri Nov. 6, 2009 1:09 PM EST

GOP Gone: Repubs boycott the climate bill markup. Dems unimpressed.

Boxing Day: Sen. Boxer moves climate bill, Republicans or no.

Too Late: Even with climate bill moving, it won't get passed before Copenhagen.

Pay as You Go: California advances pay-per-mile auto insurance, partly to relieve air pollution. [Sacramento Bee]

Public v. Private: So the public option's still around, but its premiums will top private's.

Letter of Support: Chamber of Commerce says it supports bipartisan climate bills. Kind of.

Presidential Promise: Obama tells tribal leaders they won't be "forgotten" on climate. [New York Times]

Winning Cap: Cap and trade could actually be a really sweet deal for some companies.

Big Business: Not all business trade groups are anti-climate like the Chamber.

Nano-What?: Nanoparticles could damage DNA, even from a distance. [Guardian]

Bigger in Texas: Texas gov says state is a model of healthcare reform. Kevin Drum disagrees.

 

 

The Economy's Future—and Obama's

| Fri Nov. 6, 2009 12:20 PM EST

Photo by flickr user Tony the Misfit used under a Creative Commons license.Photo by flickr user Tony the Misfit used under a Creative Commons license.When it comes to electoral predictions, I'm kind of old-fashioned: I think that most elections are determined by the economic situation, and that if the economy is bad, people tend to want to throw the bums out. Whoever the bums are at a given moment isn't particularly relevant. Big news today is that the official unemployment rate is now over 10 percent. Paul Krugman worries that President Obama's agenda was far too modest (i.e., the stimulus was too small) and that "the fateful decision, early this year, to go for economic half-measures may haunt Democrats for years to come." Reuters' Felix Salmon recently received a note from Mohamed El-Erian, the CEO of PIMCO, an enormous investment company, making a related point:

The problem is that very few people in DC are thinking of this as a structural challenge. Until they do, there is little basis for the sketch of a potential solution.

The issue, Felix explains, is that unemployment will probably remain high "for the foreseeable future," and unemployed people don't spend lots of money, so consumer spending will remain depressed. There aren't any easy solutions to that problem. Felix says he thinks that Washington is aware of the problems—"most of them have been diagnosed sharply at one point or another by Larry Summers"—but "we’re at the limits of what monetary policy is able to achieve and the nation cannot afford to repeat the monster hit to the US [fiscal situation] which we’ve seen over the past couple of years."

What does this mean for President Obama and the Democrats? It means that they had better figure out what they need to do to fix the economy. If the economy is still in bad shape at the midterm elections, the Democrats will lose a bunch of seats. But if it's still in bad shape in 2012, the consequences could be far more dramatic.

The American political system has historically only seen big changes in times of great crisis. A still-depressed economy in 2012 would definitely qualify. If that happens, you're likely to see extremists come to the fore in both parties, suggesting far more radical solutions to the country's problems. A Barack Obama presiding over 10 percent unemployment in 2012 is a Barack Obama who will be primaried from the left. And with the Republican party already hurtling full speed towards the right, you could see a Ron Paul-type candidate who espouses truly wacky economics challenging seriously for the GOP nod.

It's important that liberals remember that FDR wasn't elected in 1932 because he was liberal. He was elected because the economy was a disaster and people wanted to throw the bums out (see photo above). If the economy is still in the dumps in 2012, no one will care about Obama's or the Democrats' excuses or the process obstacles that kept liberals from achieving their goals. Economic chaos causes unrest, and unrest is disastrous for incumbents. So liberals better hope that the administration understands the danger it's in.

Quote of the Day

| Fri Nov. 6, 2009 12:00 PM EST

From Securities and Exchange Commission enforcement chief Robert Khuzami, describing the way that Galleon Group's Zvi Goffer tried to keep his insider trading a secret:

If you find yourself chewing the memory card in your cellphone to destroy any record of your misconduct, something has gone terribly wrong with your character.

Roger that.  As an added bonus, the linked article also interviews "an eavesdropping-detection specialist" who says he's turned down three separate firms recently who were all desperate to know if the government was bugging them.  Hooray for Wall Street!

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Low Standards

| Fri Nov. 6, 2009 11:36 AM EST

Photo by flickr user dionhinchcliffe used under a Creative Commons license.Photo by flickr user dionhinchcliffe used under a Creative Commons license.Kevin is sarcastically celebrating the Senate's passage of unemployment insurance extension (which was packaged with the homebuyer tax credit that pretty much every expert thinks is a bad idea):

And Democrats only had to break three separate filibusters in the Senate to get this passed! The first filibuster was broken by a vote of 87-13, the second by a vote of 85-2, and the third by a vote of 97-1. The fourth and final vote, the one to actually pass the bill, was 98-0. Elapsed time: five weeks for a bill that everyone ended up voting for.

Why? Because even though Republicans were allowed to tack on a tax cut to the bill as the price of getting it passed, they decided to filibuster anyway unless they were also allowed to include an anti-ACORN amendment. Seriously. A bit of ACORN blustering to satisfy the Palin-Beck crowd is the reason they held up a bill designed to help people who are out of work in the deepest recession since World War II. Details here and here. That's called taking governing seriously, my friends.

Even Kevin's (admittedly meager) expectations for Congressional behavior are probably unrealistic. Of course movement conservatives (i.e., the vast majority of the congressional GOP) don't take governance seriously—their central belief is that government can't actually do anything right. Why worry about governance if it won't make a difference anyway? Better to just focus on crass politics and try to get back in power so you can keep Democrats from wasting money on things that you don't think will work. One of the big reasons American government doesn't work very well is that most of one party has an ideological commitment to the idea that government doesn't work very well.

That said, if we're going to set the bar low, let's set it really low. While Democrats can't seem to pass health care reform or financial reform or climate change legislation, they can at least stop Republicans from implementing conservatives' very worst ideas. We may not have any meaningful progressive reform, but at least we haven't made the health insurance industry more like the credit card industry, like the GOP wants. Just yesterday, the Senate killed two particularly bad ideas: Lindsey Graham's proposal to prevent 9/11 suspects from ever being tried in federal courts and David Vitter's plan to waste money and ruin the census by adding a question about respondents' immigration status 18 months after the survey was finalized. It could always be worse.

Congressional Oversight Panel: Guarantees Carry "Enormous Risk"

| Fri Nov. 6, 2009 11:34 AM EST

Government-backed guarantees of financial assets carry "enormous risks" and created perverse incentives for businesses, but taxpayers will probably turn a profit from them, according to a report [PDF] released Friday by Elizabeth Warren's Congressional Oversight Panel (COP), which is charged with monitoring the bank bailouts. "At its high point, the federal government was guaranteeing or insuring $4.3 trillion in face value of financial assets" in the guarantee programs of the Federal Reserve, the FDIC, and the Treasury, according to a COP press release. That number means that guarantees were the "single largest element of the government's response to the financial crisis." 

By standing behind high-risk assets held by "potentially insolvent institutions," the panel said, the government was taking a huge risk. And the guarantees unquestionably distorted market behavior:

These guarantee programs also created significant moral hazard. Guarantees create price distortions and can lead market participants to engage in riskier behavior than they otherwise would. In addition to the explicit guarantees analyzed in the Panel's report, the government's broader economic stabilization effort may have signaled an implicit guarantee to the marketplace: the American taxpayer stands ready to provide a financial backstop for certain markets and large market players to avert possible economic collapse. To the degree that investors, lenders and borrowers believe that such an implicit guarantee remains in effect, moral hazard will continue to distort the market.

You can see this problem most clearly in the return of highly leveraged risk-taking and massive bonuses to Wall Street just months after the entire global economy nearly collapsed. Kevin Drum will have more on this in the next issue of the print magazine.

Don't Get Sick in Texas

| Fri Nov. 6, 2009 11:33 AM EST

The governor of Texas has an op-ed in the Washington Post today explaining why his state is a great model for healthcare reform?  Seriously?  That's like "letting Dick Fuld testify on the adequacy of self-regulation on Wall Street," says Ezra Klein.  I think he's being too kind.  Holy cow.

Corn To Weekly Standard: I Accept

| Fri Nov. 6, 2009 11:24 AM EST

Please, you can stop with those congratulatory emails, telephone calls, Facebook messages, tests, and Twitter DMs. I already realize that I have won the much-coveted award: the Weekly Standard's "Twitter of the Day." On a daily basis, the staff of that conservative magazine reviews tens of millions of Twitter messages—"tweets," for those in the know—in order to identify that one very special less-than-140-character message deserving of their notice. We salute them for this hard work. After all, it does entail much sacrifice. Were they not poring over all the world's Twitter feeds, they could be reporting on Dick Cheney's hourly observations regarding national security. Thankfully, Cheney has not yet begun to tweet—he's dithering on Twittering—for were he doing so, the rest of us would not stand a chance to win this particular prize.

What won the judges' fancy was this tweet of mine:

And hundreds of millions don't. RT @GOPLeader: AP: ‘Thousands rally’ to protest Pelosi #healthcare http://bit.ly/1JUFJP #Housecall #killbill

I was responding to a message that had been sent out minutes earlier by Republican House minority leader John Boehner, who was celebrating the arrival at the Capitol of thousands—yes, thousands!—of conservative citizens who were willing to yell and scream and hold signs of hate to beat back the emerging health care reform legislation.

The award citation, written by Michael Goldfarb (who last received attention in these digital pages for confusing disagreement with treason), was direct and simple in its reasoning:

Good point, Corn. Just like the hundreds of millions who didn't march on Washington for civil rights or to end the war in Vietnam. Or the hundreds of millions who didn't take to the streets to protest the Iraq war. Or the hundreds of millions who didn't vote for Barack Obama. The silent majority strikes again!

Who knew that Goldfarb could perform such an exquisite imitation of Stephen Colbert? His portrayal of a right-wing fan of twisted logic, who is unable to discern the purposeful excess of my winning Twitter message, was spot-on. (Hooray for you, sir.) Of course, just such a person would suggest that the presence of a few thousand angry conservatives trumps the massive electoral majority assembled by President Obama in last year's election. And just such a person would also ignore the inconvenient fact that both houses of Congress are controlled by sizable Democratic majorities that were placed there by millions throughout the land. And just such a person would most certainly claim, all evidence to the contrary, that the thousands who were bused by conservative outfits to this mid-day gathering represent the true majority of this great country.

Given Goldfarb's bravura performance—inspired by my few meager words—I can only humbly say one thing: I accept.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter—as Michael Goldfarb knows.