2010 - %3, January

Vegas Covers Its Nipples

| Tue Jan. 5, 2010 5:27 PM EST

Absurd development in the national capital of reckless abandon: County officials in Las Vegas are putting their foot down about some nipples featured in a painted mural decorating the Erotic Heritage Museum. (See the mural here.)

The Las Vegas Sun reports: 

The exposed nipples on portraits of women in the Ho-Down Mural Project violated a county sign code that bans (among other things) the showing of the areola of female breasts, the county says.

After I died laughing, I just had to come back to life and write about this. Clark County maintains that the murals are signs for the neighboring Déjà Vu nude club, and the nipples have now been covered with pasties. What a relief! Now we can all go about our business without having our eyes burned out by areolas.

This is the third mural in recent years to provoke an ironically Puritan hissy fit. Four years ago, a member of the Las Vegas Centennial Committee whined about a mural by Los Angeles artist Alexis Smith that featured an upside-down rendition of the 18th-century Thomas Lawrence painting "Pinkie" covered with the inverted letter "A." (The Scarlet Letter turned on its head.) The reference to adultery, of all things, was seen as a problem. Adultery! This was right around the time that Las Vegas was riding high on the wildly popular "What happens here stays here" advertising campaign. At that time, Libby Lumpkin, former director of the Las Vegas Art Museum, explained that "people in the community see art as an intellectual retreat from the hyper-sexualized world we live in."

Meanwhile, back in the hyper-sexualized world we live in, Michelangelo and the creators of erotic frescoes at Pompeii rolled over in their graves. 

The only time I ever went to Las Vegas, I was too young to gamble, but I remember emerging into the sunlight the day after our arrival to find the sidewalks papered with pornographic advertisements. These too featured breasts, with stars printed over the nipples. The fliers rolled down the street like tumbleweeds, blown by the hot desert wind.

Who are you trying to fool, Clark County? When Vegas eventually does go the way of Pompeii, will its erotic heritage, unearthed by archaeologists, be one of covered nipples? Perhaps the conspicuous coverage actually provides more erotic allure than the uncensored version, sort of like when the Victorians covered up the legs of their tables and pianos, concerned that the bare shafts of supportive wood beneath their furniture might turn somebody on.

On a blog at Flavorwire, Kelsey Keith responds by covering up nipples in canonical art images.

Follow Evan James on Twitter.

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Murkowski Seeks to Thwart EPA Emission Regulations (Again)

| Tue Jan. 5, 2010 5:21 PM EST

The Environmental Protection Agency signaled last month that it intends to move forward on regulating greenhouse gas emissions, in the absence of a new law governing the planet-warming gases. But if Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski gets her way, the EPA won't get very far.

The ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee wants to tack an amendment onto unrelated legislation dealing with the statutory limit on the public debt that would curb the EPA's ability to regulate emissions. The move comes after the agency last month finalized their finding that greenhouse gases are a threat to human health, a necessary first step to moving forward on regulations.

Murkowski has been among the most active opponents of EPA regulation of greenhouse gases of late, despite stating repeatedly that she does want to see action taken to cut emissions. "I remain committed to reducing emissions through a policy that will protect our environment and strengthen our economy, but EPA's backdoor climate regulations achieve neither of those goals," Murkowski said last month. "EPA regulation must be taken off the table so that we can focus on more responsible approaches to dealing with global climate change."

Murkowski's measure is expected to go up for a formal vote on Jan. 20. Murkowski made a similar move last September, but was not successful. That particular measure was to have been added to an appropriations bill, and would have called for a year-long "time out" on EPA action regulating stationary sources of emissions, like power plants, manufacturers, and refineries. It would have blocked work on regulations at the agency by prohibiting the use of any agency funds for that purpose, though the EPA would have been allowed to move forward on regulations of emissions from automobiles and other mobile sources.

Murkowski's spokesperson said yesterday that there has not yet been a decision on whether to offer the same amendment, or something similar. At this point, all her office can say is that it will deal in some way with EPA regulation of emissions.

Cute Endangered Animal: Tiger

| Tue Jan. 5, 2010 4:26 PM EST

2010 is the year of the tiger, an Asian astrological sign known for its charisma and courageousness. Astrological tigers may be all around us, but two tiger sub-species have gone extinct since 1930, and many believe the South China Tiger is "functionally extinct" because it hasn't been seen in 20 years. Even for the remaining five tiger subspecies—Sumatran, Bengal, Indochinese, Siberian, and Malayan—the prognosis isn't good: the WWF recently announced that the 3,200 tigers living in the wild are among the most threatened creatures on Earth.

Wild tigers live in isolated pockets of jungle, usually inside wildlife refuges, in a handful of Asian countries. Tigers need a few things to survive: lots of prey like deer and pigs, water, and some dense vegetation. However, habitat encroachment has been epic in recent years and since 1900, tigers' range has decreased by 95% (see a map here).

However, I doubt that these majestic animals will disappear entirely. Their size, beauty, and potential deadliness make them popular, and lucrative, zoo exhibits around the world. In China, thousands of the big cats live in cages on tiger "farms" where tourists can visit them and where (it's been reported) tiger blood, bile, bones, paws, and other parts are harvested for the black market, for use in expensive traditional medicines. International regulations prohibit trafficking or selling any tiger parts, but China has lobbied for a suspension of the rule in the case of farmed tigers, arguing that the sale of legal tiger parts could reduce poaching and fund conservation efforts. So far, their appeals have been unsuccessful, and the black market in tiger parts continues to thrive. Like the Giant Panda, the tiger may go extinct in the wild, but its monetary value to zoos and the black market means it will likely be around for decades to come. To learn more about tigers and how to save them, check out the World Bank's conservation program and comprehensive threat analysis here.

Follow Jen Phillips on Twitter

 

 

How's Obama Doing?

| Tue Jan. 5, 2010 2:41 PM EST

Today's raging topic in the lefty blogosphere: is Mark Halperin merely a wanker? Or is he already Galactic Wanker of the Year a mere week into 2010?

The proximate cause of this conversation is his Time article, "A Report Card on Obama's First Year." Here's what he says Obama did well: work with Congress, handle foreign policy, focus on the long term, take executive action, and steer clear of scandal. Not bad!

But here's where he did less well: managing his image, creating administration stars, wooing the great and good, changing the tone, and managing the White House policy process. Hmmm. As pretty much everyone has commented, the good stuff is all substantive, while the bad stuff, with one exception, is all about optics and atmospherics. Do these lists really add up to an equal amount of good and bad?

Obviously not, although I think it's worth defending Halperin in one narrow way: the world is what it is, and if the world is full of people who think that optics and atmospherics are a big deal, then optics and atmospherics are a big deal. Deal with it. Aside from that, though, the real question is whether Halperin is merely reporting this stuff or if he actively approves of it. Take this passage, from his bit about Obama failing to change the tone in Washington:

Once the new President cast his lot with his party in passing an economic-stimulus measure rather than seeking bipartisan agreement, rival Republicans started digging in. The White House's original plan was to leverage Obama's popularity and the agenda-setting power of the majority to force centrist Republicans to break ranks and cast cross-aisle votes on key measures — but the Administration underestimated the weakness of the opposition, which paradoxically strengthened the hand of the conservative activist grass roots, making compromise by GOP officials with the Democrats seem politically untenable. Obama's aides continue to blame the Republicans for refusing to play ball, but the buck stops with the President, whose paths to success on issues such as climate control, jobs and education are all narrower because of a partisan bitterness that rivals that of the Clinton and Bush eras.

What to make of this? On the one hand, Halperin fails to mention that Obama agreed to let tax cuts make up 40% of the stimulus bill and still couldn't get any Republican support. On the other hand, he pretty clearly lays the blame for this on weak Republicans who have become slaves to the most extreme part of their base. But then, on the third hand, he whipsaws back and suggests that it's all Obama's fault anyway, because, well, he's the president. If he wants to be successful, then one way or another he needs to figure out a way to make Republicans play ball.

But is Halperin saying this is how things ought to be, or is he merely reporting that, like it or not, this is the way things are? Beats me. It gets harder and harder to tell at places like Time these days. In any case, maybe Halperin should follow up with a list of five things the media and the Beltway glitterati are doing better than you think — and five things they're doing worse. That would be some serious link bait.

The Curse of Cape Wind

| Tue Jan. 5, 2010 2:22 PM EST

Cape Wind, the proposed 24-square-mile wind farm off Cape Cod, just can't catch a break. Fiercely opposed by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and his family, who didn't want rows of spinning turbines sullying their view of Nantucket Sound (they claimed the turbines would cause environmental problems), and getting no help from an otherwise green-tilting Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the alternative energy project now has a new opponent: the Mashpee and Wampanoag American Indian tribes.

Situated on Martha's Vineyard, the two tribes say the 130 turbines would disrupt their sunrise greeting ritual, which requires a clear view of the horizon, and disrupt ancestral burial grounds. In response to the tribes' claims, the National Register for Historic Places announced it is considering the Cape Wind location for listing on its register, potentially ruling it out as a wind farm location. While it doesn't outright kill the project, the National Register's announcement could force developers to relocate it elsewhere.

The decision struck some as an unprecedented move, the New York Times reports:

Others said the finding was surprising because Nantucket Sound, which encompasses more than 500 square miles, is by far the largest body of water ever found eligible for listing on the national historic register. Other eligible bodies of water have included Walden Pond in Massachusetts, which covers about 60 acres, and Zuni Salt Lake in New Mexico, which is about 6,500 feet across, said Jeffrey Olson, a spokesman for the park service.

"The decision is without precedent in terms of implicating many square miles of what is, legally speaking, the high seas," said Ian A. Bowles, the Massachusetts secretary of energy and environmental affairs. "But as a procedural matter, it's a good thing a decision was reached, and the secretary is getting personally involved to get it over the finish line."

Now, Cape Wind isn't dead yet. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told the tribes and Cape Wind's developer they had until March 1 to reach a compromise, and even if they don't, Salazar himself could still make the final call himself. That said, it'd be quite a surprise to see Salazar go against the powerful Kennedy family, the two tribes, and rest of Cape Wind's fervent opponents.

Wall Street's Vacuum

| Tue Jan. 5, 2010 1:49 PM EST

Via Matt Yglesias, here is economist Maxine Udall (who apparently refers to herself in the third person) talking about the long-term effects of the three-decade financialization of America that began in the early 80s:

Maxine suspects that the longest term and most severe damage from the finance casino will not be from government deficits required to shore up too-big-to-fail banks and insurers. It will be from two powerful, long-standing price distortions that have distorted the composition of our labor force and the mix of human capital within it. The first distortion is the past diversion of some our best technical and mathematical minds away from physics, engineering, biology, chemistry, and, yes, even economics, to financial modeling, risk analysis, and all the other marvelous tools of speculation and gaming. Over the last 20 years or so, the financial sector has been diverting our future scientists and mathematicians into creating new derivatives aimed at managing risk (ha!) and into developing creative investment instruments aimed at obscuring risk.

The second long-term distortion is similar to the first. Maxine is thinking of all those bright, young, energetic people who came out of some of our best universities and opted to go to work for investment banks, not in technical jobs, but as traders, ratings specialists, analysts, again to support the conversion of trillions of dollars into chaff.  Many of them might have gone on to graduate degrees in chemistry, biochemistry, physics, engineering, biology or medicine.

I think this is right, but I've long thought that it's also slightly wrong in a way that's (just barely!) worth a blog post. Here's the thing: the raw number of hot shot physicists who defected to Wall Street is actually fairly small, and probably didn't really affect the field of physics in any measurable way.  And my guess is that, in general, the kind of person who's interested in high finance isn't the same kind of person who's interested in mass spectrometers and Erlenmeyer flasks. So I have my doubts that the siren song of Wall Street has really done significant damage to our technical and scientific sectors.

But the kind of person who's interested in high finance (and big paydays) is the kind of person who's also interested in starting up a hot new company or becoming a star manager in an existing corporation that makes actual goods and services that people use. That's where I suspect the damage has really been done. No matter what you think of Google or IBM or Ford Motor, they're good for the economy in a way that Goldman Sachs and the Blackstone Group just aren't. If they lose the tippy top 1% of the young men and women who are temperamentally interested in the corporate world, then their businesses become just slightly less better run, slightly less visionary, and slightly less ambitious. And on the flip side, all that brainpower is put to work in ways that, at best, seems to add no social value to garden variety banking, and at worst makes it actively more dangerous.

One of America's strengths has long been its deep and strong venture capital network, and obviously we still have plenty of bright people eager to take a flyer on a new idea. But startup firms are hugely sensitive to talent (and, yes, luck), and the loss of the very best startup talent can make the difference between a success rate of 3% and a success rate of 5%. That's a lot of Microsofts. And that's what we lose when we allow Wall Street to become so insanely lucrative.

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What Afghans Really Think

| Tue Jan. 5, 2010 1:46 PM EST

In the Western media, the views of Afghanistan's political leaders and news of their latest political debacles—President Hamid Karzai's standoff with the Parliament over his 24 cabinet nominations the most recent example—tend to dominate over all else; few and far between are the perspectives of those at the opposite end of the power structure, the Afghan citizens.

Which is why the Kabul-based Asia Foundation's most recent "Afghanistan in 2009" report [PDF] released yesterday, based on a poll of more than 6,400 Afghan people from all over the country, is so valuable, offering a fascinating and useful snapshot of the Afghans' views as the latest conflict in their war-torn country escalates. The poll's subjects range from war and gay rights to security and the economy. If I had to choose the single most encouraging subject that emerges from the poll, it would be the growing support for women's rights in Afghanistan. 28 percent said women should be able to work outside their home (up from 2 percent in 2006), even though Taliban forbid this, and in general, 67 percent of respondents think women should be allowed to work. 87 percent of respondents also said educational opportunities should be open to both sexes.

No More Northrup

| Tue Jan. 5, 2010 1:18 PM EST

Southern California lost its last aerospace company on Monday:

In a blow to Southern California, Northrop Grumman Corp. said it would relocate its headquarters from Los Angeles — leaving the region that gave birth to the aerospace industry without a single major military contractor based here.

....Northrop's announcement was seen as a bitter pill for the much-battered regional economy, which has suffered a series of high-profile corporate defections in recent years.

[Etc.]

This is a drag, but I really think they're overplaying the "bitter pill" angle here. It's only the corporate staff, after all, and I think everyone has known this was coming for ages. If you're an aerospace company, the people you need to bribe lobby are all in Washington DC, and who wants to spend their entire lives flying back and forth to DC just to schmooze and eat lunch with congressional aides and Air Force colonels? On the list of bad things to happen to California recently, this barely even cracks the top 100.

C-SPAN to Congress: Let Us In!

| Tue Jan. 5, 2010 1:04 PM EST

 When President Barack Obama was campaigning for the job in 2008, he vowed that he would bring greater transparency to government—especially when it comes to health care reform legislation:

We'll have the negotiations televised on C-SPAN, so that people can see who is making arguments on behalf of their constituents, and who are making arguments on behalf of the drug companies or the insurance companies.

Now C-SPAN is asking precisely for that. Its CEO, Brain Lamb, has sent a letter to House and Senate leaders, requesting that his network be permitted to broadcast the final negotiations, as the two chambers work out the differences between each body's version of the legislation:

As your respective chambers work to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate health care bills, C-SPAN requests that you open all important negotiations, including any conference committee meetings, to electronic media coverage.

The C-SPAN networks will commit the necessary resources to covering all of these sessions LIVE and in their entirety. We will also, as we willingly do each day, provide C-SPAN’s multi-camera coverage to any interested member of the Capitol Hill broadcast pool. 

The proceedings of conference committees—the House-Senate gatherings that merge and finesse different bills into a final measure—usually occur behind closed doors. And The New Republic has reported that the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate have decided in this case to skip a conference committee and hold informal negotiations instead, in order to avoid legislative procedures that Senate Republicans could use to stall the deliberations. That would make the process even more secretive. Yet Lamb argues:

President Obama, Senate and House leaders, many of your rank-and-file members, and the nation’s editorial pages have all talked about the value of transparent discussions on reforming the nation’s health care system. Now that the process moves to the critical stage of reconciliation between the Chambers, we respectfully request that you allow the public full access, through television, to legislation that will affect the lives of every single American.

He has a point. But Lamb shouldn't expect Obama to lean on his fellow Dems in Congress to grant C-SPAN its wish. Last July, Obama was asked about his campaign pledge:

Q: You promised that health care negotiations would take place on C-SPAN and that hasn't happened....Are you fulfilling your promise of transparency in the White House?

He replied:

With respect to all the negotiations not being on C-SPAN, you will recall in this very room that our kick-off event was here on C-SPAN. And at a certain point, you know, you start getting into all kinds of different meetings. The Senate Finance Committee is having a meeting. The House is having a meeting. If they want those to be on C-SPAN, then I would welcome it. I don't think there are a lot of secrets going on in there.

That was a dodgy answer. Obama's "kick-off event" was not part of the negotiations. And there are always "secrets" when legislators come together in private to slice and dice the sausage. Lamb is right to press Congress to show citizens how this important bill is being finalized. But he sure shouldn't count on filling any programming holes with broadcasts of these proceedings. 

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

Capital City

| Tue Jan. 5, 2010 12:24 PM EST

I've got a big piece in the January issue of Mother Jones about the finance lobby and its near total domination of Congress, the Fed, the SEC, the executive branch, and just about everyone else who matters in and out of Washington DC. And now it's online, so you can read it too! It starts with a bit of background: the collapse of Long Term Capital Management in 1998 thanks to massive overuse of leverage:

But a funny thing happened on the way to the crash: The New York Fed stepped in and arranged a bailout. Almost all of Wall Street's biggest firms participated, and they did so for one reason: The Fed convinced them that LTCM was too big to fail. An uncontrolled bankruptcy might set off a domino effect that could bring down dozens of banks. A few months later, an interagency report concluded, "The near collapse of LTCM illustrates the need for all participants in our financial system, not only hedge funds, to face constraints on the amount of leverage they assume." It was a bipartisan judgment, signed by Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan and by Robert Rubin, Bill Clinton's treasury secretary.

In any sane world, it would have been a call to arms. After all, LTCM was only worth a few billion dollars. If a relative minnow like that could pose a risk to the global economy merely through the use of profligate leverage, what might happen if a money-center bank worth 100 times as much did the same thing?

But we don't live in a sane world. We live in a world where leverage—as well as Wall Street's nearly endless stream of new contrivances for exploiting it—is largely controlled not by regulators or congressional committees, but by the finance lobby. And the last thing the finance lobby wants is constraints of any kind. So Wall Street promised solemnly to take the lessons of LTCM to heart and then got right down to the business of ignoring them. In fact it spent the next decade not merely blocking reform, but making things worse by lobbying relentlessly to expand leverage, complexity, regulatory forbearance, and risk.

If the aerospace lobby had told us after the 1986 Challenger disaster that the key to better performance was to turbocharge the engines and quit performing preflight inspections, everyone would have agreed that they were crazy. Yet that's essentially what the finance lobby has done over the past decade, and in some weird way we were too mesmerized to recognize it. Within months of a near catastrophe caused by one of the industry's brightest stars, the lobbyists were busily making certain that it would happen again — and that when it did happen, it would be bigger and more disastrous than ever.

LTCM was basically a dry run for 2008: too much risk, too much leverage, and then a collapse when a specific piece of the economy took a dive. In 1998, it was Russia that sparked the problem and in 2008 it was the housing market. So we knew the problems perfectly well but chose to do nothing about them. Why?

This article is my best effort to explain the political and cognitive problems that caused us to court disaster for ten years. Read it and tell me what you think. On Friday, David Corn and I will be on Bill Moyers Journal to talk about it. Check your local listings for the air time in your neck of the woods.