2010 - %3, February

5 Uses for Wall St.'s Bonuses

| Tue Feb. 23, 2010 10:15 AM EST

Bonuses on a resurgent, if not shrunken, Wall Street bounced back to more than $20 billion in 2009, up 17 percent from the year before, according to new data from the New York Comptroller's office. The average bonus was $123,850, and at three of biggest banks on the Street—Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and JPMorgan Chase, all of which taxpayers bailed out—bonuses jumped even more, up 31 percent from 2008. Mind you, 2009's bonus checks are nowhere near the ludicrously high totals we saw at the peak of the bubble, like the $34 billion in 2006 and $33 billion in 2007. (Who can forget this typical New York Times headline from bonus season in 2004: "That Line at the Ferrari Dealer? It's Bonus Season on Wall Street.") Still, when one in five Americans is "underwater" on their home and nearly one in ten are unemployed, $20 billion in bonuses is a staggering, incomprehensibly large sum that could go a long way if spread out across the rest of the population.

In that spirit, here are five alternative uses for that $20 billion in bonuses that might alleviate our current economic woes:

  1. You could pay the salaries of more than 390,000 public school teachers across the country.
  2. You could close nearly all of California's gaping budget hole.
  3. You could almost cover unemployment-fund shortfalls, now nearing $25 billion, in 25 different states.
  4. You could more than double the amount of Pell Grant funding given to students from low-income backgrounds who might not attend college otherwise.
  5. You could increase the budget of the Small Business Administration by more than 35 times, a much needed boost considering the SBA's coffers had dwindled from $3.5 billion in 1978 to $578 million in 2008.

But really, we'd all rather have a Ferrari anyway, right?

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MoJo Announces New CEO and Publisher

Tue Feb. 23, 2010 8:00 AM EST

As some of you know, last November, after 19 years of unflinching commitment to fiercely independent investigative journalism, Jay Harris stepped down as the publisher of Mother Jones. Following a short transition period, earlier this month the Mother Jones board of directors named Madeleine Buckingham chief executive officer, and Steve Katz Mother Jones' new publisher.

See the recent press release for more information. And feel free to offer your congrats/wishes/etc. in the comments!

Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday February 23

| Tue Feb. 23, 2010 7:22 AM EST

Damned if They Do: Why transparency in climate science often backfires.

Pre-Existing Logic: Why you can't protect pre-existing conditions with small-scale reform.

Ouch: Insurance companies are slashing benefits and raising premiums all over.

Bipartisan, Schmartisan: If Obama wants change, he may have to give up bipartisanship.

GOP Freak Out: GOPers thought they'd won the health care fight, now not so sure.

Obamacare 101: What you need to know about Obama's healthcare bill revisions.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 23, 2010

Tue Feb. 23, 2010 7:00 AM EST

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A US Army Soldier takes a break to arm wrestle an Afghan during a patrol to check on conditions in the village of Yawez in Wardak province, Afghanistan, on Feb. 17. Photo via the US Army.

Fact Checking the Skeptical Environmentalist

| Mon Feb. 22, 2010 8:48 PM EST

Danish political scientist Bjørn Lomborg has made his fame and a fortune publishing two books, The Skeptical Environmentalist (2001) and Cool It (2007). One reason for his success in muddying the media waters on matters of science regarding biodiversity and climate change is because he voluminously footnotes his own work.

So Howard Friel took on the unenviable task of fact checking Lomborg's sources. Friel found enough to be skeptical about in Lomborg's findings to write a whole book, The Lomborg Deception, due out with Yale University Press next month. From Sharon Begley's book review in Newsweek:

"When Friel began checking Lomborg's sources, 'I found problems,' he says. 'As an experiment, I looked up one of his footnotes, found that it didn't support what he said, and then did another, and kept going, finding the same pattern.' He therefore took on the Augean stables undertaking of checking every one of the hundreds of citations in Cool It. Friel's conclusion, as per his book's title, is that Lomborg is 'a performance artist disguised as an academic.'"

Hat tip to Pharyngula for the link.

Nuts: ACORN Cracks Under Pressure

| Mon Feb. 22, 2010 8:12 PM EST

Conservatives can once again boast of their unqualified success as scapegoaters. Another of ACORN's largest state chapters fell off the organization's tree today, pulled down by the weight of debts, lackluster fundraising, and—of course—right-wing targeting. The left-leaning network of community organizations acknowledged that its New York syndicate has split off from the national headquarters and rebranded itself as New York Communities for Change. It's a possible death-knell for community organizers—and a clarion call for Astroturf reactionary groups.

"This is what Fox has produced," an unnamed source in the New York organization told Politico. "National Acorn and (CEO) Bertha Lewis are continuing doing their thing, but the New York flagship has been forced into this new organization."

The move comes just a month after ACORN's California offices jumped off a similar cliff. And ACORN's national spokesman found himself playing defense, insisting that the organization wasn't dissolving - at least, not "all across the country," not yet.

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"Jobs" Bill Headed for Passage

| Mon Feb. 22, 2010 6:50 PM EST

Finally, some bipartisanship: Sens. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Christopher Bond (R-Mo.), and George Voinovich (R-Ohio) joined all but one Democrat present in voting to defeat a GOP filibuster of the Senate's "jobs" bill. The legislation will now move to a final up-or-down vote, scheduled for Wednesday. Jon Chait has the definitive take on why this happened:

It tells you that these [GOP] Senators recognized that the legislation is essentially symbolic, and therefore a good time to burnish their moderate credentials rather than spend political capital to advance their party's agenda.

Exactly. While it's all well and good that Democrats and Republicans could finally get bipartisan agreement on something, a couple billion dollars in payroll tax cuts isn't going to solve the nation's unemployment crisis. At around $15 billion, the so-called "jobs" bill represents around one-tenth of one percent of the total output of the American economy over the year ahead, and less than one-half of one percent of total federal spending over that period. It doesn't get much more symbolic than that.

Jackson: EPA Climate Regs Coming in 2011

| Mon Feb. 22, 2010 6:15 PM EST

The Obama administration on Monday sent an ultimatum to the Senate: regulate carbon dioxide this year, or we'll do it for you.

In her response to a missive from coal-state Democrats raising questions about impending regulations of greenhouse-gas emissions, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson for the first time laid out a clear timeline for pending rules from the agency.

Jackson emphasized that the agency is pushing ahead with regulations even as Congress continues to put off debate of a new law. The EPA shares the goal of "addressing greenhouse-gas emissions in sensible ways that are consistent with the call for comprehensive energy and climate legislation," she wrote, but offered a clear dictum that they do intend to regulate come 2011.

Jackson wrote that the agency intends to issue rules for stationary sources by April, and will begin phasing in permit requirements and regulation of greenhouse gases for large stationary sources of pollution beginning next year. For the first half of year, only those sources already required to obtain permits under the Clean Air Act for other pollutants will need to apply for greenhouse gas. Permitting for other major sources will be phased in the second half of 2011. Up until 2013, the agency intends to regulate only sources above 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide, like power plants, factories, and refineries. The agency does not expect to "subject the smallest sources to Clean Air Act permitting ... any sooner than 2016," she wrote.

Jackson also responded to their inquiry about potential impacts of the attempt to block the agency's finding that greenhouse gases are a threat to public health, noting that doing so would imperil the agreement on automobile emission rules that the Obama administration reached last year with automakers and state governments to create a unified national standard for vehicle emissions. The endangerment finding is a necessary prerequisite to those new rules, which are expected in late March. The deal, worked out after years of legal wrangling between parties, was the Obama administration's first big move in limiting planet-warming emissions, and was notable for its strong industry support.

Jackson's letter probably doesn't provide much comfort to the Senate, where a number of legislators have been hoping to avoid the climate issue altogether this year. But with EPA making it clear that regulations are coming whether they like it or not, senators may be forced to decide whether they are going to get to work on a new law, or block the EPA from doing its job.

Quote of the Day: Climate Change and the Media

| Mon Feb. 22, 2010 5:28 PM EST

From Matt Steinglass, on a Daily Mail headline claiming that a top climate scientist now admits there has been no global warming since 1995:

What's truly infuriating about this episode of journalistic malpractice is that, once again, it illustrates the reasons why the East Anglia scientists adopted an adversarial attitude towards information management with regard to outsiders and the media. They were afraid that any data they allowed to be characterised by non-climate scientists would be vulnerable to propagandistic distortion. And they were right.

The reality is that climate scientists need to be open with their data and methods regardless of what others are going to do with it. But yes, the incident Matt describes is exactly what they're afraid of if they do this: laymen with an axe to grind (and money at stake) are going to inundate them with bogus criticisms. They ignore this stuff at their peril, but if they respond to all of it they'd essentially have to stop doing real work. One part of the answer is for the media to insist on a certain level of rigor before they publish stuff from the skeptics, but obviously that's not going to happen. In lieu of that, maybe we need a new kind of rapid-response think tank devoted solely to climate change: one staffed by both experts and communicators, who can deploy quickly to address climate criticisms in a deep and fairminded way and then promote their findings in TV-friendly ways. Anybody got a few million dollars to spare to start one up?

Big New Ideas

| Mon Feb. 22, 2010 4:45 PM EST

Towards the end of a short essay about the low aspirations of modern think tanks, which he thinks are more interested in being better mouthpieces than in shaking up a stodgy establishment, Matt Bai says:

Perhaps the pace and shallowness of our political culture — the echo chamber of pundits and bloggers in which the shelf life of some new slogan can be measured in weeks or even days — makes it all but impossible to sustain a serious public argument over a period of years. Something like Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 essay on the “end of history,” which influenced a generation of conservative foreign policy, probably wouldn’t resonate today beyond the next news cycle or partisan branding session. Which is a shame, really, because there is an urgent need, on both the left and the right, to modernize rusting ideologies.

Tim Fernholz is unamused:

Bai makes a living as a political writer who takes ideas seriously, but the limit of his engagement with "serious public argument" is clear if he thinks that blogs aren't a venue for serious discussion. He obviously ignores political scientists, he's clearly never taken up with deeply wonky blogs like Credit Slips or read budget expert Stan Collender's work. As for pursuing arguments over years, how long has Ezra Klein been writing about health care? How long has Matt Yglesias been critiquing U.S. foreign policy? How long as Andrew Sullivan explored his own long-standing themes?

Now, I happen to partly agree with this. I thought Bai's book, The Argument, was terrific (and I still do), but here's what I said about his contention that the blogosphere doesn't produce any big new ideas:

Liberal political bloggers generally view the blogosphere as split into two halves: the netroots activists on one side and the "wonkosphere" on the other. They aren't separate groups so much as two halves of a single brain. Both sides want to win, and both sides want to push the Democratic Party moderately to the left, but it's the wonkosphere that likes to gab about policy big think. If the blogosphere is ever likely to produce a big new idea in an ideological sense, this is where it's going to come from.

But you'd never know that, because Bai doesn't waste any time with the wonkosphere, an omission that's unfortunate. It's not that the wonks have necessarily gotten a firm handle on the future [...], but at least they're talking about it. I usually think of the wonkosphere's discussions as "policy lite," but even at that they're frequently more penetrating and more honest than the 300-page white papers from the think tanks. And they make policy interesting and digestible to a huge number of people who wouldn't otherwise hear anything about it at all.

So, yes: Bai needs to get out more. And yet, reading Tim's post I'm left wondering again why we bloggers seem so often to be so thinskinned. Bai's criticism was just the lightest of glancing blows, and he obviously meant it to encompass not just the blogosphere, but also the rise of cable news, the permanent campaign, the dumbing down of think tanks, the MSM's endless horserace journalism, and so forth. What's more, he's right. There are plenty of policy-oriented blogs that do excellent work — often better work than the mainstream media — but they have their downsides too. And one of those downsides, obviously, is that even wonky blogs tend to be reactive, quickly written, and not especially prone to developing deep conversations about genuinely big new ideas. Ezra and Matt do a fine job of explaining and teasing out policy issues as they flit across our radar screens, but I don't remember either one of them ever making a sustained argument for a genuinely novel and transformative idea.

That's not a criticism, either. I mine the same territory, after all. It's just an acknowledgment of what the blogosphere is good at and what it isn't. So even though I think Bai's obsession with policy innovation tends to be both misplaced and slightly incoherent, it's hardly outrageous to suggest that our quick-cut media culture — of which blogs are a part — is making it harder for big new ideas to find a home where they'll promote a transformative, long-term conversation. Agree or disagree, it's an argument worth having without getting defensive about the blogosphere's role in it, for both good and ill.