2010 - %3, January

How McCain-Palin Nearly Blew Alaska

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 6:00 AM EST

A key and attention-grabbing section of Mark Halperin and John Heilemann's new book, Game Change, focuses on the less-than-adequate vetting of Sarah Palin by John McCain's presidential campaign. The campaign's internal report on the Alaskan governor was thrown together in less than 40 hours, according to the book, and the report's author, a Washington lawyer named Ted Frank, included a disclaimer: Given the time constraints, the vetters might have missed something.

What the media missed (and what's not reported in Game Change) was Frank's full role in the McCain-Palin campaign—a role that could have caused a big political headache for Palin had it been known at the time. Frank was part of a team of lawyers scrutinizing potential candidates for vice president. After working on the vetting report, Frank was dispatched to Alaska to help with damage control on "Troopergate"—the quasi-scandalous allegations that as governor, Palin had pressured the state public safety commissioner to fire her ex-brother-in-law, a state trooper who had allegedly made death threats against Palin’s family in the midst of a nasty divorce and custody dispute with her sister.

At the time, Frank decided that it was best that his work for the McCain-Palin campaign remain undisclosed. The reason? He had been an outspoken critic of the 1994 federal jury verdict that required oil conglomerate Exxon to pay $5 billion in punitive damages to some 30,000 Alaska residents after the Valdez ran aground and spilled 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. That verdict had been extremely popular in Alaska.

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Econundrum: 5 Handi-Wipes or Hot Shower?

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 5:50 AM EST

This question comes by way of Mother Jones board member Jon Pageler, who's currently helping with the relief effort in Haiti, where water is in short supply. But I've heard of folks taking waterless showers in non-emergency situations, too. Last year, for example, People reported that that Brad Pitt sometimes cleans up with baby wipes. Granted, Pitt does it to save time between scene changes on the set. But considering that showers comprise 17 percent of indoor residential water use in the US, could bathing with wipes be better for the planet, too?

Probably not, says Jonathan Kaledin, a water conservation expert at the Nature Conservancy. "You have to consider all the water it takes to make the handi-wipes," says Kaledin. "The wipes, the chemicals—it all adds up." The Water Footprint Network, a water conservation nonprofit based in the Netherlands, estimates that growing the wood to make a single sheet of paper requires 2.6 gallons of water. That's already 13.2 gallons for 5 sheets of paper—and that's just the wood. By the time you figure in the water costs associated with the manufacture of the paper, producing the solution the wipes are soaked in, and packaging and shipping the wipes, you're looking at significantly more water (and energy, for that matter) than a five-minute shower, which, if you're using a low-flow showerhead, requires only about 10 gallons of water.

Under extenuating circumstances—disasters that jeopardize water supply, or even regional droughts—wipes might still be a better choice, says Kaledin. But as a general rule, a short shower is a better bet than wipes. Especially if you bathe efficiently: Keep the heat down to save energy. Turn the water off while you soap up. And if you haven't already installed a low-flow shower head, do it now—it'll save as much as 15 gallons of water per shower, not to mention moola on your water bill.

Shopping tip: Showerheads bearing the EPA's WaterSense label are about 20 percent more efficient than their conventional counterparts.

Iraq IG Slams Training Contract Oversight

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 12:01 AM EST

In October 2007, Stuart Bowen, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), was forced to temporarily call off an audit of a billion-dollar contract to train Iraq's troubled police force. The problem was there wasn't much to audit. Invoices and other supporting documentation were missing or error-riddled—in such "disarray," as Bowen put it, that it was impossible for his office to render any definitive judgment. His staff could only conclude [PDF] than the State Department division overseeing the contract simply had no idea what it had received in return for most of the $1.2 billion it had paid out to the contractor, DynCorp International.

More than two years later the main thing that has changed is the amount of money the government can't fully account for. In a new audit [PDF] released Monday, SIGIR concludes that the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) "continues to exhibit weak oversight" of DynCorp's work under the police training program. "As a result, over $2.5 billion in US funds are vulnerable to waste and fraud."

Getting to Yes

| Sun Jan. 24, 2010 11:23 PM EST

The top line takeaway of this short piece in Newsweek is that a senior Democratic aide says Nancy Pelosi is "way short" of the votes needed to pass the Senate healthcare bill. But reading further, the news is more positive:

The big hang-up is about the Cadillac tax passed by the Senate, which would pay for the full reform package by taxing people with top-shelf health-care plans (as opposed to just taxing the wealthiest Americans, which the House approved in its bill). House Democrats are also uneasy about the Nebraska “Cornhusker Kickback” compromise that initially won over Sen. Ben Nelson....This aide says that unless Senate Democrats will commit to repealing it through reconciliation, Pelosi can’t get to 218.

....For now, senior lawmakers are working the phones furiously to talk up the idea of the Senate promising to retroactively unravel several distasteful components. If House Democrats make the good-faith deal, Pelosi is arguing that the Senate promise would be easy to keep. Reconciliation votes require only a 51-vote majority. Or even 50, in which case Vice President Biden could break the tie.

This aide says that leadership considers reconciliation, with the House conditioning its support on promised fixes in the Senate, as the much more strategic route than breaking the package into parts, which isn’t ideal because all of the parts are interlocking. Asked what the timetable would be for that, this aide says weeks, not months.

Italics mine. This is good news: both that passing the Senate bill along with an agreement to fix specific pieces later via reconciliation is the preferred strategy, as well as the fact that the Democratic leadership is apparently "working the phones furiously" to make it happen. After all, it shouldn't be too hard: a deal on the Cadillac tax was cut over a week ago, and Ben Nelson has already agreed to give up his special deal for Nebraska. If those are the biggest roadblocks, there's really nothing in the way of reaching an agreement to proceed.

Next step: how about actually talking about this stuff in public and making it clear that this is what everyone is working toward? Assuming it actually is, of course.

Posting Bail

| Sun Jan. 24, 2010 7:23 PM EST

The county jail in Lubbock, Texas, is bursting at the seams. But it's not because crime is up dramatically. Nor because convictions are up dramatically. It's largely because the Lubbock jail has a lot of inmates who are sitting around waiting for trial because they can't afford to post bail:

Twenty years ago nationally and in Lubbock, most defendants were released on their own recognizance. In other words, they were trusted to show up again. Now most defendants are given bail — and most have to pay a bail bondsman to afford it.

Considering that the vast majority of nonviolent offenders released on their own recognizance have historically shown up for their trials, releasing more inmates on their own recognizance seems like an easy solution for Lubbock. But that is not the solution Lubbock has chosen.

County officials have instead decided to build a brand new megajail, costing nearly $110 million. And Lubbock is not alone. At least 10 counties every year consider building new jails to ease a near-epidemic of jail overcrowding nationwide, according to industry experts.

That's from NPR's Laura Sullivan. So why the change over the past couple of decades? Mostly, Sullivan says, "to protect the interests of a powerful bail bonding industry." Gruesome details in this accompanying piece. Both are well worth a read.

(Via Jim Fallows.)

Gates in Pakistan

| Sun Jan. 24, 2010 2:12 PM EST

Juan Cole says that this week's visit to Pakistan by Defense Secretary Robert Gates "has in many ways been public relations disaster":

In one of a series of gaffes, he seemed to admit in a television interview that the private security firm, Blackwater, was active in Pakistan.

....Dawn, a relatively pro-Western English daily, quoted the exchange, saying Gates was asked by the interviewer on a private television station, “And I want to talk, of course, about another issue that has come up again and again about the private security companies that have been operating in Iraq, in Afghanistan and now in Pakistan. . . Xe International, formerly known as Blackwater and Dyncorp. Under what rules are they operating here in Pakistan?”

Gates replied, “Well, they’re operating as individual companies here in Pakistan, in Afghanistan and in Iraq because there are theatres of war involving the United States.”

....Gates went to Pakistan to emphasize to Islamabad that the US was not again going to abandon it and Afghanistan, as it had in the past. Pakistan, he wanted to say, is now a very long-term ally of Washington. He hoped for cooperation against the Haqqani, Taliban and Hizb-i Islami guerrillas. He wanted to allay conspiracy theories about US mercenary armies crawling over Pakistan, occasionally blowing things up (and then blaming the explosions on Pakistanis) in order to destabilize the country and manipulate its policies.

The message his mission inadvertently sent was that the US is now increasingly tilting to India and wants to put it in charge of Afghanistan security; that Pakistan is isolated; that he is pressuring Pakistan to take on further counter-insurgency operations against Taliban in the Northwest, which the country flatly lacks the resources to do; and that Pakistani conspiracy theories about Blackwater were perfectly correct and he had admitted it.

More at the link.

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Cross Over Crosswords

| Sun Jan. 24, 2010 1:54 PM EST

I admit that this story sounds an awful lot like an urban legend, but if it is, at least it's an amusing one. It's from Simon Bucks about a complaint to a British newspaper:

The paper's crossword had a clue which invited the solver to name the current beau of a young actress....Not long after it appeared, a letter was delivered to the paper's managing editor from one of London's top libel lawyers. It said they represented a young man, also an actor. They complained that the number of letters in the answer to the clue was the same as the numbers of letters in the surname of their client! Since he was adamant that he was NOT stepping out with the young woman in question, he had been potentially libelled, so would the paper a) promise not to do it again, b) pay his costs and c) pay damages.

According to Bucks, the paper's crossword editor "is planning to leave a gap when he publishes the puzzle's answers, with a note blaming the omission on legal considerations." I guess when that happens we'll know for sure that the story is true. Hopefully some British reader can give me a heads up if they run across this. (Via Felix Salmon.)

Confirming Ben

| Sun Jan. 24, 2010 1:25 PM EST

Yesterday I dithered a bit about Citizens United. Today I'm going to dither a bit about Ben Bernanke.

Since I was opposed to Bernanke's renomination from the start, you'd think I'd be pretty happy about the growing opposition in the Senate to confirming him for a second term as Fed chairman. But for a couple of reasons, I'm not sure I am.

First, I really do believe as a matter of principle that the president's picks for executive branch positions deserve a fair amount of deference.1 Not infinite deference, but a lot. Any other rule will turn appointments into even more of a circus than they are now, with rump minorities routinely refusing to allow presidents to appoint policymakers who will carry out their agendas. So we're at a different point now than we were five months ago: like it or not, Bernanke is Obama's choice, and he deserves a fair amount of deference in that. Bernanke isn't unfit for office, he's plainly well qualified, and he isn't wildly outside the mainstream of economic/monetary opinion (quite the contrary, unfortunately). That should be enough.

I imagine, though, that most of you don't find this very persuasive. So here's a second, related reason: If Bernanke goes down, who would Obama nominate in his stead? Here's the problem: the opposition to Bernanke isn't principled, it's a toxic partnership of left and right that would almost certainly force Obama to choose someone even worse. The reason to oppose Bernanke, after all, is that even if he did a good job steering the Fed through the 2008 financial crisis (and I think he did), that's not what we need now. What we need is someone who can unwind the Fed's balance sheet (a technical job that's largely up to the Fed staff) and who will be a champion for a smart and reinvigorated regulation of the financial sector.2 Barbara Boxer and Russ Feingold, two of the Democrats who are opposing Bernanke, are surely on board with that, but what are the odds that Richard Shelby and Jim DeMint, the Republican leaders of the opposition, would support someone with genuinely progressive views on bank regulation? About zero. If Bernanke goes down and we've implicitly approved of the notion that high-profile nominees can be filibustered, Republicans and "centrist" Democrats will almost certainly band together to take down a more liberal alternative to Bernanke too.

I'm not excited about Bernanke's reappointment, but teaming up with wingnuts to filibuster him would do far more long-term damage to the progressive agenda than giving him another term. Once that's done, we become hostages to them. I think Obama was wrong to renominate Bernanke, but he's the president, not me. He should be allowed his choice.

POSTSCRIPT: But while we're on the subject, I'll also say this. If I had to choose between Brad DeLong's belief that Bernanke privately has sound views and Matt Yglesias's view that Bernanke can be far more easily understood as simply a conventional conservative Republican, I think Matt wins in a walk. The evidence that Bernanke is, both privately and publicly, a smart but conventionally conservative economist, is overwhelming. It should hardly be a mystery that he acts like one.

1Judicial appointments are a different story. For practical reasons, I think presidents still deserve a fair amount of deference here, but less than when they're dealing with their own branch of government.

2There are, of course, lots of other arguments both for and against Bernanke's nomination. Some are good (he's made too many mistakes to deserve reappointment, voting him down would damage Obama when he can least afford it) and some are bad (voting against him would roil the markets! we're mad at him for spending lots of money!). I'll leave those for another day.

Google's Back Door

| Sat Jan. 23, 2010 9:43 PM EST

Bruce Schneier tells me something I didn't know about how those Chinese hackers managed to break into Google's email system:

In order to comply with government search warrants on user data, Google created a backdoor access system into Gmail accounts. This feature is what the Chinese hackers exploited to gain access.

....Official misuses are bad enough, but it's the unofficial uses that worry me more....China's hackers subverted the access system Google put in place to comply with U.S. intercept orders. Why does anyone think criminals won't be able to use the same system to steal bank account and credit card information, use it to launch other attacks or turn it into a massive spam-sending network? Why does anyone think that only authorized law enforcement can mine collected Internet data or eavesdrop on phone and IM conversations?

....In the aftermath of Google's announcement, some members of Congress are reviving a bill banning U.S. tech companies from working with governments that digitally spy on their citizens. Presumably, those legislators don't understand that their own government is on the list.

If you hide a spare key under a rock outside your house, you'd better make sure that no one else can find it. But what are the odds if that "someone" is a thousand smart, obsessed, Chinese hackers? Probably not as good as you'd like no matter how clever you think your hiding place is.

Oh, and this problem isn't limited to Google. Read the whole piece for more.

Partisan Politics

| Sat Jan. 23, 2010 7:19 PM EST

Jonathan Bernstein thinks Democrats are making a mistake by thinking they can quiet Republican attacks by passing a pared down healthcare bill that everyone agrees with. As he reminds us:

Democrats can be assured that Republicans will attack them, regardless of what they do....That's politics.  It's how partisan politics is played.

....Don't believe me?  Republicans are attacking Democrats for taking away people's guns, even though the Democrats basically surrendered on that issue fifteen years ago.  They are attacking Democrats for cutting Medicare and for allowing Medicare to grow so fast that it'll bankrupt the nation — sometimes in the very same speech (I've seen it in the same paragraph).  Republicans have, repeatedly, attacked Barack Obama for not using a word he uses all the time.  Last I heard, they were still attacking the Democrats for bringing back the Fairness Doctrine, something that as far as I know not a single elected Democrat has any interest in doing.  No, it didn't make sense, but if they don't have attacks ready that make sense, they'll use ones that don't.

On the News Hour last night, David Brooks and Mark Shields both agreed that congressional Democrats were in a state of panic over Republican attacks. Within the Democratic caucus, they reported, "it's every man for himself."

Well, guess what: it's not going to stop no matter what kind of healthcare bill you pass — or even if you pass no healthcare bill at all. So buck up, pass the Senate bill, fix it in reconciliation, and then get out on the stump and defend it. You don't win elections by cowering, you win them by getting stuff done and making sure your constituents know about it. So get cracking.