2009 - %3, December

New Frontiers in Obstructionism

| Wed Dec. 2, 2009 1:49 PM EST

The filibuster is far from the only delaying tactic available to Republicans as they try to hold off healthcare reform.  Taegan Goddard glosses an article from Roll Call for us:

For instance, instead of offering a conventional amendment to the bill this week, Republicans used "an esoteric procedural tactic" that would send the bill back to committee with instructions to eliminate certain cuts. If successful, Republicans would force Democrats to "hold another filibuster-killing vote on whether to restart debate on the bill."

"Republicans said they are likely to use the procedural tactic repeatedly during debate this month as they seek to make the point that the Senate should go back to the drawing board on the health care bill."

This is going to be fun couple of months, isn't it?

 

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Chevy Volt Near Release

| Wed Dec. 2, 2009 1:37 PM EST

Atrios writes about the new Chevy Volt:

Plug-in hybrid car goes on sale next year. I don't think "pure" electric vehicles will really be viable until the range goes up a bit and fast charging stations are more widely available, though an exception would be for certain government and business fleets. Obviously some people might want one!

Atrios gets this right: the Volt is basically a hybrid, though not of the same type as a Prius.  I'm not sure why I care about this, but for some reason an awful lot of people think the Volt is a "pure" electric vehicle.  It's not.  It's got a gasoline engine that kicks in when the battery gets low, charging the battery as you drive.  It's true that the drivetrain is pure electric (the gasoline engine is there purely to charge the battery), but the range of the Volt is far more than the 40 miles you usually hear about.  Basically, if you do, say, 90% of your driving around town, there's a good chance that 90% of your driving will be purely electric.  When you take longer trips, though, the gasoline engine will kick in to keep you going for as long as you want.  That makes it a pretty versatile car.

Of course, it still costs $40,000.  That's probably a bigger drawback than the technology.  Still, if you do most of your driving locally, and then add in a government subsidy that you might get, the Volt could end up being a decent deal in the long run.

Erik Prince: CIA Asset, Aspiring High School Teacher

| Wed Dec. 2, 2009 12:47 PM EST

After 9/11, Erik Prince, the patriotic and intensely private founder of Blackwater, applied to work for the CIA. The agency turned him down, Prince tells Vanity Fair in a just-published article, because he lacked "enough hard skills, enough time in the field" to be of use as a spy. The irony is that his company and Prince himself would go on to take part in some of the agency's most sensitive work. Not only was the CIA a Blackwater client but, Vanity Fair reveals, its ex-Navy Seal founder eventually became a "full blown asset."

Three sources with direct knowledge of the relationship say that the C.I.A.’s National Resources Division recruited Prince in 2004 to join a secret network of American citizens with special skills or unusual access to targets of interest. As assets go, Prince would have been quite a catch. He had more cash, transport, matériel, and personnel at his disposal than almost anyone Langley would have run in its 62-year history.

...

...Two sources familiar with the arrangement say that Prince’s handlers obtained provisional operational approval from senior management to recruit Prince and later generated a “201 file,” which would have put him on the agency’s books as a vetted asset. It’s not at all clear who was running whom, since Prince says that, unlike many other assets, he did much of his work on spec, claiming to have used personal funds to road-test the viability of certain operations.

Leaving Afghanistan

| Wed Dec. 2, 2009 12:30 PM EST

So are we really planning to leave Afghanistan in 2011?  Michael Crowley rounds up some reasons to be skeptical:

I wonder how many Americans who may be paying only cursory attention appreciate the thinness of Obama's pledge to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in 2011. Subsequent commentary from administration officials has made this point clearer than Obama did last night.

First, there was Michèle A. Flournoy, under secretary of defense for policy, who told the New York Times this morning that "The pace, the nature and the duration of that transition are to be determined down the road by the president based on the conditions on the ground."

Next there was Centcom commander David Petraeus....When it comes to expectations about a near-term withdrawal, he added: "Conditions-based [are] very important words that need to be focused on."

And then there was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton...."I do not believe we have locked ourselves in to leaving," Clinton responded, before repeating the core administration talking point: "By July 2011 there can be the beginning of a responsible transition that will of course be based on conditions."

This was something struck me pretty starkly too.  All Obama promised to do was to begin withdrawals in 2011.  He didn't say how many troops would be withdrawn, how fast they'd be withdrawn, when he expected the withdrawal to be complete, or whether he intended to keep some number of troops there forever.  In other words, he really didn't promise much of anything.

At the same time, I still think it was an important promise.  Vague as it was, it set some very public expectations that we don't plan to stay in Afghanistan forever.  This is good for the Afghans, who now have a clearer incentive to take control of their own security.  It's good for the troops, who now have a specific goal and don't feel like they're stuck in an endless quagmire.  It's good for our allies, who might be better able to sell their own publics on the war if it's seen as a time-limited commitment.  It's good for Muslim public opinion, since it reduces fears of a permanent American empire in the Middle East and central Asia.  And for the Taliban, which already hopes to stay around forever regardless, it really doesn't make any difference.

So it's a positive step, setting expectations and aligning incentives in the right way.  At the same time, Crowley is right: there's a helluva lot of wiggle room in this promise, and even in the best case Obama plans to keep us in Afghanistan in force for at least four more years.  Maybe longer.  That's a pretty thin promise.

Senate Healthcare Followup

| Wed Dec. 2, 2009 11:56 AM EST

I made this point briefly in comments on Monday, but after reading coverage yesterday of the CBO report on the Senate healthcare plan, it probably deserves a quick front page post of its own.

The CBO report says that the average cost of an individual policy will go up under the Senate plan.  (The cost of group coverage goes down slightly.)  However, this is because CBO expects that people will be attracted, on average, to policies that are more generous.  Roughly speaking, CBO expects the average policy to get 30 percent better but cost only about 10 more.  Subsidies will then lower this cost further for most families.

That's a pretty good deal, and it doesn't mean that the Senate bill raises the cost of individual health insurance.  It means that people are buying better insurance.  In fact, if you compare similar policies with similar coverage, they cost less under the Senate bill.  This is the comparison that Jonathan Gruber was trying to make in my original post.  He figures that costs will go down about 5%, while the CBO report itself figures 7-10%.

Bottom line: premium costs will go up for some people, but not for most.  And if you choose to buy a policy similar to the one you have today, your cost will almost certainly go down.

AFL-CIO Wants $400-$500 Billion For Job Creation

| Wed Dec. 2, 2009 11:43 AM EST

When the White House's jobs summit kicks off on Thursday, America's largest labor federation wants President Obama to put real money where his mouth is. During a conference call on Wednesday the AFL-CIO's chief international economist, Thea Lee, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), and economist James K. Galbraith called for massive employment programs that Lee estimated would total $400-$500 billion. "We need to create three million jobs every year for five years to get back where we were [before the financial crisis]," said Galbraith.

The overwhelming message of the call, convened by Campaign for America's Future, a liberal policy organization, was that an unemployment rate over 10 percent is too high to fight with half-measures. "We could sit around and do nothing and wait for the private sector to create the jobs, but I think we'd be waiting a long time," said Lee. "One of the things we can't do is act small.... I don't think we can have an economic recovery—I don't think it can be sustained—if people are out of work for years at a time."

An investment on the scale that Lee and Galbraith are proposing is going to be incredibly tough to get through Congress. But Galbraith argued that the White House needs to follow the "political model" of the Reagan tax cuts: Do something so big that people can't help but notice.

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MySpace, Facebook Unfriend 3,500 Sex Offenders

| Wed Dec. 2, 2009 10:00 AM EST

As long as there have been screennames, there have been perverts with screennames. If you happen to be a registered sex offender in New York State, you can bet the Attorney General's office is watching yours like a hawk.

Despite the internet's reputation as the last bastion of anonymity and a safe haven for nefarious things, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced Tuesday that his office has wiped 3,500 sex offenders from social networking platforms MySpace and Facebook. Or as he put it, "purge(d) them from their online worlds."

Under the new Electronic Securing and Targeting of Online Predators Act (e-STOP), New York offenders must register their email addresses and usernames, in addition to their physical addresses with the state. So far, only Facebook and MySpace have agreed to help the state, but that's kind of like saying only Apple and Microsoft have signed on.

It's unclear from the attorney general's statement whether the sweep actually caught anybody attempting to do something illegal, but the e-STOP law is pretty stiff. Depending on offenders' parole status and the nature of their crimes, some offenders are barred from ever opening a profile. Which to someone like me who came of age in the aughts, sounds like the best way to keep the online Humberts and Lolitas of the modern world apart, and also just a teensy tiny bit Orwellian. 

If social networking is a privilege you think sex offenders should universally forfeit  (and I'm not necessarily disagreeing), consider this: only about 8,000 of New York State's nearly 30,000 sex offenders are registered under Cuomo's internet database. If, as America's Most Wanted host John Walsh said in the press release, "social networking websites have become the private hunting grounds for sexual predators," someone might want to start, you know, collecting those screennames.

What do you think? Should more states take New York's no-tolerance line? Is purging an offender's Facebook profile going too far? In a world as slippery as the internet, will offenders just find a work-around? 

The Story of Cap and Trade

| Wed Dec. 2, 2009 9:14 AM EST

Annie Leonard, creator of The Story of Stuff, a popular web video that argues against consumerism, released a new video yesterday on cap and trade. Like her earlier effort, The Story of Cap-and-Trade features engaging narration and cute, easy-to-understand comic sketches to explain an extremely complex issue.

The problem? Leonard vastly oversimplifies cap and trade and its problems. The video blames the current difficulties surrounding cap and trade entirely on the policy itself, not the lawmakers and special interest groups seeking to load the legislation with exceptions and giveaways. The problems she highlights would dog any proposal to address climate change in the US. If Congress suddenly adopted a carbon tax, the coal, oil, and gas lobbies, aided by their favorite senators, would carve out gaping loopholes for their industries. The policy isn't the real villain  here—it's the politics. 

"The next time somebody tells you cap and trade is the best we’re going to get, don’t believe them," Leonard concludes. But what superior proposal has any kind of meaningful political support? Leonard never attempts to explain this. The reality is that ditching cap and trade now would leave us with no politically viable legislative options to combat climate change at all. 

The estimable David Roberts has a thorough take-down of the video at Grist, which I recommend. And here's the video, so you can decide for yourself:

The Story of Cap & Trade from Story of Stuff Project on Vimeo.

Cute Endangered Animals: Global Warming Edition

| Wed Dec. 2, 2009 7:03 AM EST

In honor of Copenhagen, here's one of the US animals the Endangered Species Coalition has dubbed as most in danger from global warming-related threats. You can read the whole list, which includes lynxes, and salmon, and bears (oh my!) here.

One of the animals on the ESC's list is the dimunitive Kauai Creeper, a 4" tall bird that's languished waiting to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. Found only on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, the creeper (also called the Akikiki) has been on the ESA waitlist since 1994. Now, there's only an estimated 1300 individuals left (down from 7,000 in 1970) most of which live in a 14-square mile patch of swamp.

Sadly, rapid population decline in native birds is not an unfamiliar tale to local biologists. Hawaii is one of the most biodiverse locations in the United States, yet habitat for most animals is restricted due to the island being, well, an island. Not only is land and vegetation limited, invasive species are especially devastating to the small ecosystem. Housecats, for example, prey on adult and juvenile Kauai creepers, feral pigs eat and destroy plants the creepers need for habitat, and mosquitoes carry avian malaria that the birds have no natural defenses against. As global warming ramps up, more and more of Hawaii's forests will become warm enough (55 degrees F or higher) for mosquitoes to thrive and multiply, potentially increasing disease threats to many animals.

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

Wed Dec. 2, 2009 5:59 AM EST

HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan (Oct. 28, 2009)—Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Nicolas Grey, assigned to Combined Anti-Armor Team 2, pauses during a patrol in Nawa District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment is one of the ground combat elements deployed with Regimental Combat Team 7. (US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. James Purschwitz.) This was also the photo for David Corn's article on Barack Obama's Afghan "surge."