2009 - %3, December

Polishing the Pig

| Wed Dec. 23, 2009 7:21 PM EST

Matt Yglesias comments on Barack Obama's obviously false assertion that he never campaigned on the public option:

I think Obama could fairly say something like “for some activists, the public option may have been the centerpiece of health reform but it’s never been that for me and it wasn’t the heart of what I proposed during the campaign.” But he definitely did campaign saying he’d create one. I’m also really not sure why Obama would try to make consistency with campaign rhetoric a hallmark of his drive. He definitely campaigned against Hillary Clinton’s proposed individual mandate to buy health insurance and also attacked elements of John McCain’s health plan in terms that could easily be seen as inconsistent with the insurance excise tax concept.

Here's what I don't get. As near as I can tell, presidents pretty much never say things like this. They never concede a mixed bag on anything they're associated with. The Iraq war was always going swimmingly. Welfare reform was an unqualified boon. Reagan never raised taxes. Etc. Likewise, Obama seems unwilling to admit that the healthcare reform that finally got spit out of Congress is anything other than exactly what he wanted all along.

I suppose the conventional wisdom is that whatever you end up with is something you have to sell to the American public, and the only way to sell anything successfully is to relentlessly claim it's the greatest thing since Abraham Lincoln invented bifocals. So I guess my question is whether this is really true. Would it hurt Obama (or any president) to admit to a few modest reservations or problems while vigorously defending an overall initiative? Or is the conventional wisdom right, and the best offense is a good offense? Opinions?

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Keeping Class Actions Honest

| Wed Dec. 23, 2009 6:24 PM EST

I don't generally support the conservative crusade against class action lawsuits, but there's not much question that some can be pretty abusive while others are little more than fee generators with no real benefit for consumers. In particular, I really hate class actions that generate nothing for consumers but minuscule coupons that are basically just free marketing gimmicks for the companies that ripped them off in the first place. On this score, Todd Zywicki praises Ted Frank's Center for Class Action Fairness:

This is an issue that I worked on extensively while I was at the FTC, so I have some familiarity with how outrageous some of these settlements are and how important work like Ted’s is in protecting consumers.  In particular, what I became aware of is how many of these lawsuits are essentially settled in a collusive bargain between class counsel and the defendant.  Usually the defendant pays a couple million dollars to the lawyers and gives coupons or some similar redress to the members of the class.  In one case a judge noted that the coupons — which allowed class members to get discounts on future purchases — essentially amounted to a request for a court-ordered promotional scheme.  An example (in a case well after I left the Commission) was the FTC’s intervention in the Netflix settlement.

The danger here for a liberal, of course, is that there's no telling how much of the CCAF's work is genuinely dedicated to preventing consumer ripoffs and how much — either now or later — shades into a more general assault on the civil tort system. I'm in favor of the former, not so much the latter. Worth keeping an eye on, though, if Frank really does stick to consumer protection.  CCAF's website is here.

Strange Bedfellows Indeed

| Wed Dec. 23, 2009 5:52 PM EST

Apparently Jane Hamsher has decided that a healthcare bill that provides a trillion dollars worth of benefit to low and middle income workers is so odious that mere opposition isn't enough. Nor is opposition that increasingly employs the worst kind of right-wing talking points. No, it's so odious that it deserves a scorched earth campaign against the Obama White House in partnership with Grover Norquist.  Hard to know what to say about this. What's next? A joint Twitter campaign with Sarah Palin? A letter writing campaign cosponsored by Richard Viguerie? A joint lawsuit with Orly Taitz? Jeebus.

Coal's Greatest Hits, 2009 Edition

| Wed Dec. 23, 2009 4:00 PM EST

Santa's on his way, which means it's time for that great year-end tradition: the listicle! Thus, we bring you the Top 10 Most Evil and/or Ridiculous Things Done By or On Behalf Of Coal in 2009, in descending order.

10. Coal's favorite congressman, Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), jumping out of a plane to show his support for coal.

9. Industry group using iStockphotos instead of real people in their "grassroots" FACES of Coal campaign.

8. West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin (D) declaring coal the official state rock.

7. Handing out coal propaganda to kids.

6. Republican House members circulating talking points straight from the coal industry.

5. Coal lobby gets more than $60 billion in handouts for "clean" coal in the House cap-and-trade bill while avoiding the vast majority of regulations—but still opposes the legislation.

4. The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce pushing senators to hold health care legislation hostage until the Obama administration ends its "war on coal."

3. Steve Miller, CEO of Americans for Clean Coal Electricity, the main coal lobby group, appearing to lie under oath about the organization's views on climate legislation in a congressional hearing.

2. ACCCE misrepresenting two major veterans' groups in an email hyping coal's role in energy security.

1. Bonner and Associates sending forged letters to Congress (for ACCCE) claiming to be on behalf of veteran groups, minorities, women, and senior citizens.

Got your own reccomendations? Weigh in below.

While we're at it, who can forget 2008's greatest hit, the Clean Coal Carolers? Last Christmas, they brought us delightful hits like "Clean Coal Night," "Deck the Halls with Clean Coal," and "O Technology," at least until some PR person at ACCCE realized what an awful idea this was and yanked them off the internet. Thank goodness Treehugger saved the video for posterity. Here's my personal favorite, "Frosty the Coal Man":

CFACT Goes to Copenhagen

| Wed Dec. 23, 2009 3:00 PM EST

As Josh Harkinson reported yesterday, plenty of dirty American money is flowing to international climate change denial groups, who have been hard at work to derail progress on climate. I caught up with one of those groups, the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT), in downtown Copenhagen at their rally to "celebrate demise of UN climate agreement," as roughly 60,000 pro-climate action protesters were marching through the city. At that point, the celebration was a little preemptive, but about 30 representatives from CFACT were on the scene wearing branded scarves and waving signs pointing out that it's cold outside and that "Without CO2, Nature Suffers."

The handful of deniers didn't stand much of a chance beside the pro-climate forces. But that doesn't mean they didn't try. They passed around a megaphone singing Christmas-themed songs about Al Gore ("He's making a list, he's checking it twice, gonna find out who's carbon neutral or not."), and they appeared at the end of the rally with their banner proclaiming "CO2=Life."

I talked briefly with CFACT president David Rothbard, who mentioned their recent listing at No. 6 on our roundup of top climate deniers. "It's neat to be number 6, but we'd like to get higher," he said.

Their plan for getting a higher rank ahead of next year's climate summit in Mexico is to "educate" more people, he said. "We've been saying for 20 years now that the science isn't settled, but there's a rush to judgment," said Rothbard. "They've said the science is settled, we need to move to the policy. We say it's anything but."

Here are some photos from their "rally" in Copenhagen.

Physics Gifts

| Wed Dec. 23, 2009 2:13 PM EST

Are you interested in cool quantum mechanical type physics stuff but don't really understand it? Do you know someone else who fits that bill? Do you like dogs? Are you looking for a last-minute Christmas gift? If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, why not take a flyer on Chad Orzel's new book, How to Teach Physics to Your Dog?

You probably suspect that I haven't actually read it myself and I'm only saying this because Chad's a good guy and I like his blog.  Well, you'd be right. But I'll bet it's a fun book, and I don't have any other last-minute gift ideas for you. The book website is here, complete with a PDF of Chapter One and a bunch of videos. Have fun.

POSTSCRIPT: Alternatively, how about a gift subscription to Mother Jones? Our publisher probably likes that idea better. But you can always do both!

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Quote of the Day: The Demon Pot

| Wed Dec. 23, 2009 1:57 PM EST

From Mary Grabar, "conservative professor of English, commentator, fiction writer, and poet," on why alcohol is OK but marijuana isn't even though it tends to have a milder effect:

That’s exactly what the left wants: a nation of young zombies — indifferent, unengaged, and uncaring. They provide amenable subjects to indoctrination. Alcohol may fuel fights, but marijuana, as its advocates like to point out, makes the user mellow. The toker wants to make love, not war.

I guess she's nailed us, hasn't she? Back to the drawing board, boys and girls. Via Mona.

Nuclear Lab Accidentally Blows Up Building

| Wed Dec. 23, 2009 1:16 PM EST

Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico accidentally blew up a building on December 16 with a Civil War-style cannon. According to an occurrence report [pdf], which was first reported by the Project on Government Oversight, the lab's Shock and Detonation Physics team was testing a large-bore powder gun when they heard a "loud unusual noise."

About 20 minutes later, the researchers ventured out of their bunker to see what had happened. Upon further investigation of the facility’s Technical Area 15, the team discovered that Building 562 had been blown apart. Two doors were "propelled off the structure" and concrete shielding blocks were blasted off the walls. Parts of the cannon were also found lying on the asphalt nearby. The Facility Operations Director declared a "management concern" regarding the explosion. No-one was hurt, but sources told POGO that damages could cost $3 million. The lab reported that it has conducted a "critique" of the incident.

This is not the first time that Los Alamos has fallen short when it comes to safety and security matters. In early 2009, it emerged that the nation's major nuclear weapons lab had misplaced at least 67 computers sensitive information, and others had been stolen from a lab employee. The facility has also come under fire in recent years for, among other things, failing to properly protect nuclear materials and shipping a deadly radioative package by Fedex.

 

Gift Cards

| Wed Dec. 23, 2009 12:53 PM EST

Barry Ritholtz doesn't like gift cards:

Nothing says “I am both thoughtless and inconveniencing” like a gift card. They let the recipient know that you couldn’t be bothered actually picking out a present, so here is a cash equivalent — only so much less convenient than the crisp paper kind of cash. And, you can only spend it in one place.

Now much do gift cards suck? Each year, $5 billion in gift cards go unclaimed, forgotten about or lost. That’s how much people value them — they throw away $5 effen billion dollars worth every year!

My heart is with Barry.  But my brain says different: I'll bet $5 billion is peanuts compared to the value of actual physical Christmas gifts that are essentially thrown away every year.  How many sweaters/books/vases/novelties/etc. have you gotten over the years that basically got tossed in a drawer never to see the light of day again?

Barry goes on to provide a couple of further pieces of advice, one sound and one not. First, the sound one: "If you must get a gift card, then get them a Gift card they will actually use. Maybe they have a favorite clothing store or gadget shop....If your daughter is a Starbucks junkie, then at least you know the gift will be used — and appreciated." I have friends and relatives who love gift cards.  And you know, if that's what they want, then why not get them a gift card? It's their gift, after all. But yes: make sure it's to someplace they like to shop at, someplace where they'd enjoy having some "free" money to go on a little binge. It's fun!

And then the unsound advice: "Even better still: Get them a prepaid credit card. All the major credit card firms (Amex, Visa, Master Card) let you buy prepaid CC as a gift card. These can be used anywhere credit cards are accepted. Its practically cash, and far more flexible than a Abercrombie or a Sears gift card." This is bad advice — for now. The Fed has proposed new rules regulating expiration dates and limiting "maintenance" and "dormancy" fees on gift cards, but they haven't gone into effect yet.  Bank gift cards tend to be riddled with these things.  They're even worse than retail gift cards. AmEx is an exception, but for now I'd avoid Visa and Mastercard gift cards.

I'd add one more thing: some people have a hard time thinking of presents to suggest to their friends and relatives. This makes it hard to shop for them, and they feel guilty about this. So they suggest a gift card instead: it's something they can use, and it relieves the pressure of desperately trying to dream up a Christmas list even though they don't have a lot of good ideas on tap. If you know someone like that, give 'em a break. Get them a gift card and stop bugging them. Life will be happier all around.

The Greatest Sportswriter Who Ever Lived

| Wed Dec. 23, 2009 12:44 PM EST

Lester "Red" Rodney, arguably one of the most influential sportswriters in the profession's history, who used his sports page in the communist Daily Worker newspaper to campaign against baseball's color line, to cover Negro League stars like Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, and to pioneer a brand of sports journalism with a conscience, passed away this week. He was 98.
Dave Zirin, who's written extensively about Rodney in his must-read book What's My Name, Fool? and elsewhere, remembers Rodney in a wonderful homage over at Huffington Post today, parts of which I've included here. As Zirin writes, one of the reasons Rodney was never included in the pantheon of sportswriters came down to the masthead on his paper:

If you have never heard of Lester Rodney, there is a very simple reason why: the newspaper he worked at from 1936-1958 was the Daily Worker, the party press of the U.S. Communist Party. Lester used his paper to launch the first campaign to end the color line in Major League Baseball. I spoke to Lester about this in 2004 and he said to me, "It's amazing. You go back and you read the great newspapers in the thirties, you'll find no editorials saying, 'What's going on here? This is America, land of the free and people with the wrong pigmentation of skin can't play baseball?' Nothing like that. No challenges to the league, to the commissioner, no talking about Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, who were obviously of superstar caliber. So it was this tremendous vacuum waiting."

The man who stepped into that vacuum, Jackie Robinson, would go on to become a lightning rod for the intersection of race issues and sports. Robinson fascinated Rodney, and the writer always felt drawn toward the fiery, intelligent, sublimely talented first baseman:

As Lester fought to end the Color Ban, he also never stopped highlighting and covering the Negro League teams, giving them press at a time when they invisible men outside of the African American press. But it was Jackie Robinson who captured Lester's imagination. Armed with a press pass to the Ebbets Field locker room, he saw up close the way Robinson was told to "just shut up and play" despite the constant harassment during his inaugural 1947 campaign. "Jackie was suppressing his very being, his personality," said Lester. "He was a fiercely intelligent man. He knew his role and he accepted it. And the black players who followed him knew what he meant too." ...
 
Lester would still become emotional when he recalls Jackie Robinson and his impact. "There are very few people of whom you can say with certainty that they made this a somewhat better country. Without doubt you can say that about Jackie Robinson. His legacy was not, 'Hooray, we did it,' but 'Buddy, there's still unfinished work out there' He was a continuing militant, and that's why the Dodgers never considered this brilliant baseball man as a manager or coach. It's because he was outspoken and unafraid. That's the kind of person he was. In fact, the first time he was asked to play at an old-timers' game at Yankee Stadium, he said "I must sorrowfully refuse until I see more progress being made off the playing field on the coaching lines and in the managerial departments." He made people uncomfortable. In fact it was that very quality which made him something special. He always made you feel that 'Buddy, there's still unfinished work out there.'"

Sadly, there aren't many sportswriters out there today—Zirin an obvious exception—who cover not just balls and strikes but the political and economic and social undercurrents of the sporting world. Nevertheless, Rodney showed how influential and powerful a sportswriter with a keen eye, a conscience, and a few column inches can be. For further reading on Rodney, I recommend Irwin Silber's Press Box Red.