2009 - %3, November

In Which I Listen to Lou Dobbs for 60 Seconds

| Tue Nov. 3, 2009 5:44 PM PST

So I thought maybe I should turn on the TV and see if there were any election results available.  I clicked over to CNN and Lou Dobbs was on.  Literally the first words I heard were a question from Dobbs about whether the fact that there were 180,000 absentee ballots cast in New Jersey meant there was some kind of "skullduggery" going on.  First panelist says, hey, who knows?  Maybe.  Second guy says let's not jump to conclusions.  Finally the third guy reminds us that New Jersey has a new law this year making it easier to apply for an absentee ballot.  Uh huh.

So within 60 seconds of turning on the TV my head hurt.  I know, I know, I could have chosen some other channel.  But still.  Jesus.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Cute Endangered Animal: Mono Titi

| Tue Nov. 3, 2009 4:52 PM PST

These tiny, playful primates are nicknamed squirrel monkeys. You can see them chattering and roughhousing with each other in the video below, which co-stars some befuddled, middle-aged Americans vacationing in Costa Rica. 

The mono titi is one of the smallest monkeys, weighing in at only one to two pounds, and are described as "peaceful primates." Like their relatives the bonobos, they have an egalitarian society in which males share in parenting duties can stay with their natal group past puberty. Only about 1,000 mono titis remain (down from about 200,000 in the 1980s) due to habitat destruction by deforestation. The monkeys only live in mangrove forests and mountainous foothills, both of which have been increasingly fragmented by agricultural development and logging. There are also some indications that the monkeys are being captured for export as exotic pets, and hunted for food. The monkeys live in tightly-knit bands of 20 to 75 animals, so the poaching of even one individual can have social effects on the entire group.

Approximately 200 of the remaining mono titis live in the Manuel Antonio National Park nature preserve in Costa Rica, which uses ecotourism to fund conservation efforts. An unknown number also live at the Corcorvado National Park further south. To learn more about the mono titi, you can see a video about issues surrounding the Manuel Antonio population here.

Monster Mashups Shine Light on Government

| Tue Nov. 3, 2009 4:40 PM PST

This story first appeared on the Miller-McCune website.

The gushing effluvia of spreadsheets and thick reports that flow from government are dissected, reconstituted and displayed by a dedicated band of coders.

Clay Johnson pulled out his iPhone to illustrate the kind of mashup that's possible when coders get their hands on data churned out by government, whole reams of transactions on where federal money is spent, who gets it and how it's used.

On the screen was a live view up 19th Street in northwest Washington, the moving picture overlaid with small bubbles representing projects on this very block paid for by the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.

"It blows your mind, right?" Johnson asked. "This is the tip of the iceberg."

Chamber Supports Senate Climate Debate—Sort Of

| Tue Nov. 3, 2009 3:09 PM PST

The Chamber of Commerce expressed support for a "bipartisan" solution to the problem of climate change in a letter received today by the Senate panel charged with advancing a climate bill. (And yes, the letter is real and not a prank.) Has the beleagured group finally done a 180 degree turn on its climate policy? Well, not exactly. While it may be trying to improve its image on climate issues, it's not willing to support the actual bill that the Senate is currently debating.

The press release accompanying the letter indicates that the Chamber still opposes any bill containing mandatory emissions cuts. "The Chamber believes the Senate has an opportunity to promote a workable bottom-up plan that starts by addressing the fundamental building blocks—rather than the top-down approach of targets and timetables it has taken thus far," Bruce Josten, the Chamber's executive vice president for government affairs, said in the release.

The Chamber is, however, enthused about the partnership between John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). The Chamber "agrees with a great deal of the principles" and believes they offer a "practical and realistic framework for legislation," the letter says, "one that echoes the core principles that the Chamber embeds in all of its communications on climate policy." (Except, of course, maybe this one, which seems to indicate that climate change is good for you.)

Quote of the Day

| Tue Nov. 3, 2009 12:01 PM PST

From Paul Shoop, a retired attorney who lives in "an enclave of multimillion-dollar homes off curving Malibu Canyon Road," on the LA water board's proposal to ban septic tanks and install a modern sewer system in Malibu:

It's like living in a Third World country not to have sewers. But nobody wants to pay that sort of exorbitant fee. If we need a sewer system, you expect government to provide that service.

Quite so.  Municipal services should appear magically for wealthy communities like Malibu.

Of course, the proposed fee for the new sewer system really is pretty exorbitant.  But a big part of the reason for that is because Malibu is so sparsely settled, which means the cost of the system gets divided up among a small number of homeowners.  And why is Malibu so sparsely settled?  Because the current wealthy homeowners like it that way.  Apparently they just don't like paying the price.

White House Poetry Jam Awesomesauce

| Tue Nov. 3, 2009 11:58 AM PST

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama hosted a "White House Evening of Poetry, Music, and the Spoken Word" back in May. Videos from the event are now online, and it's pretty clear that the highlight was Lin-Manuel Miranda. You may know Miranda from his musical In The Heights, which he starred in and wrote. (In The Heights won the Tony for Best Musical in 2008. I can assure you that it is great.) Anyway, Miranda has ridiculous, sick-nasty flow and can write a great song about pretty much anything. In this particular case, it was onetime Treasury Secretary, dead white man, and all-around badass Alexander Hamilton (the guy on the $10 bill) that got Miranda's creative juices flowing:

If this doesn't get the kids jazzed up for some musical theater, I don't know what will.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Shutting 'Em Up

| Tue Nov. 3, 2009 11:34 AM PST

The folks at Law Enforcement Against Prohibition emailed this morning to highlight an amendment that Chuck Grassley is offering to a bill that would create a National Criminal Justice Commission.  Here's the amendment:

The Commission shall have no authority to make findings....that involve, support, or otherwise discuss the decriminalization of any offense under the Controlled Substances Act or the legalization of any controlled substance listed under the Controlled Substances Act.

See?  If you want to make sure your experts don't come to conclusions you dislike, just prohibit them from talking about those conclusions.  Then they don't really exist.  That's the American way of science.

And it's becoming the British way of science too, at least when it comes to drug policy.  The Brits used to at least pretend to listen to their experts, but, as Mark Kleiman explains:

That has changed under the New Labour government, which has also taken a number of other steps to “Americanize” British governmental practice, for example by building up the power of the Prime Minister’s office vis-a-vis the ministries, in which the ministers are famously captives of their civil-service officials.  In some ways, this is a “democratizing” step, elevating the importance of the beliefs and values of elected politicians over those of unelected experts.  But that doesn’t mean that those of us in the business of being, and training, experts have to like it, and insofar as expert beliefs track objective reality more closely than do voters’ prejudices, it also means making decisions with a weaker connection to the actual phenomena.

When the head of the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs gave a careful, analytic lecture arguing that cannabis and LSD were over-controlled compared to more harmful drugs such as alcohol, the Home Secretary promptly sacked him on the grounds that for a scientific advisor to express an opinion touching policy made it impossible to have confidence in the adviser’s objectivity.   This is, not to put too fine a point on it, bullsh*t.  What the Home Secretary clearly means is that the Government is committed to the War on Drugs and isn’t interested in any advice that might get in the way.

More here on the British dustup.

What Now for the Public Option?

| Tue Nov. 3, 2009 10:19 AM PST

Photo by flickr user bored-now used under a Creative Commons license.Photo by flickr user bored-now used under a CC license.The public option has survived the legislative process so far, but only just. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that public option premiums will actually be higher than the premiums for private plans on the health insurance exchanges. That doesn't mean it's going to cost the government more money—the public option is paid for by premiums, not taxes; it actually cuts the deficit. But it will be more expensive than some private plans. Wasn't part of the point of the public option to prove that a government-run program could compete successfully with privately-run plans? Well, yes, but here's the problem: that was all based on the idea that the public option would pay health care providers at Medicare rates. That's been compromised out of the bill and now the public option will be paying rates comparable to those paid by private insurance. Ezra Klein explains what that means:

[B]ecause the public option is, well, public, it won't want to do the unpopular things that insurers do to save money, like manage care or aggressively review treatments. It also, presumably, won't try to drive out the sick or the unhealthy. That means the public option will spend more, and could, over time, develop a reputation as a good home for bad health risks, which would mean its average premium will increase because its average member will cost more. The public option will be a good deal for these relatively sick people, but the presence of sick people will make it look like a bad deal to everyone else, which could in turn make it a bad deal for everyone else.

What happens next? Private insurers will do everything in their power to drive sick people and bad risks towards the public option. That's their duty to their shareholders, after all—to do everything they can to maximize profits. There will be enormous pressure on politicians to subsidize the public option's operations. This is why you don't want to see laws get made. Washington is great at stripping the best, most effective parts out of every good policy idea (see also: the stimulus, climate change legislation) and leaving a barely functioning husk that only serves to confirm conservative suspicions about government.

I guess we can hope, as many progressives do, that winning the public option fight was important because a bad public option that you can improve is better than no public option at all. And we can take comfort in the fact that if health care reform passes, at least we'll have insured a whole bunch of people. However Rube Goldbergy and kludgy the solution is, it's better than the status quo.

Waiting for Obama

| Tue Nov. 3, 2009 10:18 AM PST

Politico reports on the timeline for healthcare reform:

Democrats have blown so many deadlines for getting health reform done this year that insiders are increasingly skeptical they can finish by year’s end — and some even suggest the effort might slip to a new deadline, before the State of the Union address.

....In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid is still wrangling with his moderate members to corral 60 votes just to get the debate started. And on Monday, Reid sent a letter to Republicans acknowledging that he is waiting on the Congressional Budget Office’s cost estimates and analysis to finish drafting a bill....Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad said he spoke with CBO Director Doug Elmendorf last week and that it sounded like “it would be quite a while” before the estimates were ready. The news makes a Christmas completion “a challenge,” Conrad said.

Regular reader RPH emails in response:

Was talking to some of the local Democratic Party organizers in Lancaster County, Virginia, aka my parents, and the feedback they hear is that Obama is quickly coming to be viewed as a ditherer, unable to timely make decisions or close the deal.  That he doesn't seem strong enough to push key programs through, etc.  This is the backdrop for why so many Ds in Va this year seem apathetic about voting.  Lancaster is also fairly conservative so I think many Ds are just parroting what their R friends keep spouting, I'm sure, with increasing volume, with the reality being the economy which is devastating that area of Virginia.  For what it's worth, everyone is extremely frustrated by the Ds poor showing in Va this year.

But still.

O needs to get some big things under his belt and soon.  If he can get Afghanistan off his plate, that might buy him some time on Health Care without running the risk of a dangerous loss of momentum.  But right now, every thing seems stuck in an endless loop.  Part of this is the media cycle of course, but that's unfortunately the reality of governing now — where the steady perception of action, decisiveness and competence are key.

Is RPH right?  Is this soon to become the new conventional wisdom?  I certainly don't blame Obama for healthcare, where his leverage to kick the Senate into action is limited, but even I'm getting a little antsy about Afghanistan.  Yeah, I want him to get it right, but there's a limit to how long this stuff can stay simmering on the cooktop.

Anyway, I'm only passing this along, not really endorsing any of it.  Just some raw data to chew over.

Republicans Bail on Climate Markup

| Tue Nov. 3, 2009 10:00 AM PST

As promised, the Republican members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee boycotted the markup of the climate bill this morning.

Nearly all of the Democrats on the panel showed up, but of the Republicans only Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) made an appearance. He reiterated that he wanted more time to allow for further study of the bill, then left immediately after his 15-minute opening statement.

Committee chair Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), had offered several olive branches to placate Republcans, including a extension of the deadline for amendments until 5 p.m. today. She also adjusted the schedule on Tuesday to bring in EPA experts to answer questions about their modeling and analysis of the legislation. In addition, Boxer said she has confirmed with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that he will call for a five-week analysis of the legislation once it is combined with relevant measures from other committees. The EPA, Boxer noted, has compiled more than 340,000 pages of analysis on both the House and Senate bills already.

Voinovich, however, insisted that despite the stalling tactics he did really "want to work on a bipartisan basis." He said: "I'm pleading to you, the chairman, as a matter of the golden rule, or the second commandment ... for decency. I'm not trying to con you."