2010 - %3, February

Don't Mess With Texas—or Drink There

| Thu Feb. 25, 2010 8:01 AM EST

When a magazine in Dallas offered me a job last summer, my wife and I jumped at the chance to settle in the city that Molly Ivins once painted red. We had visions of a Lone Star libertarian utopia, where there was enough open space and distrust of government to allow everyone some freedom in choosing their bliss.

Boy, were we wrong. From the hip neighborhoods of Lower Greenville and Deep Ellum to the grittier areas of South Dallas, what we experienced was an over-policed nanny state—exactly the sort of thing you'd expect pro-secession and anti-liberal Texans to hate. But they're not angry, because they're not the target: Few straight white Texans have anything to worry about. That's documented.

Want the full story? Check out my piece in the March/April issue of Mother Jones, "Lone Bar State." The Lone Star State, it turns out, is still a place where "undesirables" can be rounded up, humiliated by authorities, tossed in jail cells, and even have their skulls cracked—legally. It's made possible by a catch-22 in the state's penal code: a public-intoxication law that permits peace officers to go virtually anywhere, anytime, and arrest anyone they want. Except who they really want to arrest, it seems, includes mostly gays, Latinos, and blacks. As one cop told me, "We go after the disenfranchised, the people who can't stand up and defend themselves." Another lawyer who represents folks arrested for PI put it even more bluntly: "If you’re brown and you're around," he says, "you're going down."

Much of that goes down just a few miles from the chic Dallas-area estates of George W. Bush, H. Ross Perot, and a bevy of other prominent, wealthy Texans. Down there, they're fond of saying, "The eyes of Texas are upon you," and obviously they mean it.

But today, the eyes of our readers are on Texas.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 25, 2010

Thu Feb. 25, 2010 8:00 AM EST

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US soldiers rest next to a canal during a patrol in Badula Qulp during Operation Helmand Spider in Helmand province, Afghanistan, on Feb. 17, 2010. Photo via the US Army.

Afghanistan Update

| Thu Feb. 25, 2010 2:52 AM EST

Via Spencer Ackerman, the Christian Science Monitor reports that Pakistan's offensive against Taliban leaders on its territory has been far more extensive than we thought:

Pakistan has arrested nearly half of the Afghanistan Taliban’s leadership in recent days, Pakistani officials told the Monitor Wednesday, dealing what could be a crucial blow to the insurgent movement.

In total, seven of the insurgent group’s 15-member leadership council, thought to be based in Quetta, Pakistan, including the head of military operations, have been apprehended in the past week, according to Pakistani intelligence officials.

....Much about the arrests and Pakistan’s motives remain unclear, but they do reflect Pakistan’s evolving approach to the Afghan Taliban leadership inside its borders. “A year ago when this [Obama] administration was completing its first Afghanistan review and we asked the Pakistanis about the Afghan Taliban leadership operating from their country, they flatly denied it,” says Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who led President Obama’s initial Afghanistan policy review. “Now not only do they say there are senior Taliban leaders in their country, but they are frankly taking action against them.”

Pakistan's motivations are still murky, but they're obviously pretty serious about this one way or another. And even if they're doing this only because they want to make sure they have a seat at the table when it comes time to negotiate a peace settlement with the Taliban, that's probably OK too. After all, no settlement is worth much of anything unless Pakistan is OK with it.

So far, Obama's Afghanistan strategy seems to be paying steady dividends. I'm still not especially optimistic about our chances of accomplishing much of lasting significance there, but things have certainly gone better than I expected. Stay tuned.

Fun With Frank

| Thu Feb. 25, 2010 2:14 AM EST

Via TPM, we bring you tomorrow's conservative conspiracy theories today! This one comes from neocon nutcase Frank Gaffney, who has discovered treachery in the newly redesigned logo of the Missile Defense Agency:

The new MDA shield appears ominously to reflect a morphing of the Islamic crescent and star with the Obama campaign logo....Even as the administration has lately made a show of rushing less capable sea- and land-based short-range (theater) missile defenses into the Persian Gulf in the face of rising panic there about Iran’s actual/incipient ballistic missile and nuclear capabilities, Team Obama is behaving in a way that — as the new MDA logo suggests — is all about accommodating that “Islamic Republic” and its ever-more aggressive stance.

Watch this space as we identify and consider various, ominous and far more clear-cut acts of submission to Shariah by President Obama and his team.

You know who else is secretly promoting Sharia? The Pillsbury doughboy, that's who. The proof is right here.

Hurricanes Begat Warming, and Vice Versa

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 8:27 PM EST

More frequent hurricanes (and typhoons and tropical cyclones) in Earth’s past contributed to persistent El Niño-like conditions, which in turn made more hurricanes.

According to a new paper in Nature, tropical cyclones were twice as common during the Pliocene epoch 3 to 5 million years ago, when temperatures were up to 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than now. The storms also lasted two to three days longer than now. Unlike today, they occurred across the entire tropical Pacific Ocean. Co-author Christopher Brierley tells Yale:

"The Pliocene is the best analog we have in the past for what could happen in our future. We wondered whether all these storms could have contributed to the warmer climate."

Apparently they did. Cyclone and climate models revealed a positive feedback loop between tropical cyclones and upper-ocean circulation in the Pacific—which explains the increase in storms leading to permanent El Niño-like conditions.

We don't have a permanent El Niño today because cold water off California and Chile skirts the region of tropical cyclones, forming a "cold tongue" stretching west from South America. But during the Pliocene the cold tongue was repeatedly hit by one of many tropical cyclones, churning it with warmer waters. This equatorial warming led to changes in the atmosphere that in turn created more tropical storms.

Next step for the Yale/MIT team is to study how much of that kind of mixing might be happening with today's tropical cyclones.
 

The Slow Death of Financial Regulation

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 8:01 PM EST

So how is Chris Dodd doing in his negotiations with Republicans over financial reform? Felix Salmon points us to a memo from Taylor Griffin and Tony Fratto that suggests a compromise on the Consumer Finance Protection Agency is in the works: "An independent agency with its own source of funding would be established to regulate all federally chartered banks. The agency would have two divisions: one to conduct prudential regulation and one for consumer protection. The agency’s director would decide disputes between the divisions." Felix comments:

I'm not entirely clear what this means, but it seems, on its face, to imply that the FDIC, OTS, and OCC will all be combined into one agency, which would then have somewhat conflicting goals, when it comes to the zero-sum tug-of-war between banks and consumers. On the one hand, it would be responsible for ensuring that banks are profitable and well-capitalized; on the other hand, it would be responsible for ensuring that banks don't gouge consumers in their search for adequate profits.

Most worryingly, the consumer-protection part of the agency would only seem to have control over federally chartered banks. That's a very bad idea indeed, since it's precisely the non-bank financial institutions — subprime lenders, payday lenders, non-bank credit card companies, Walmart, etc etc — which need as much if not more regulation, from a consumer protection point of view, as the banks.

....So, there's no good news here, I'm afraid. And I'm inclined to agree [] that if working with Corker means losing the guts of the CFPA, it's best to ditch him altogether and just try to push something through the Senate with the support of Democrats alone.

As much as I'm in favor of a strong CFPA, I've never thought it was the linchpin of financial reform. Much more important are broad, effective limits on leverage and capital requirements. Unfortunately, the Senate bill probably won't do very much on that front either, and what limits it does put in place are likely to be limited to conventional banks. But as with the CFPA, if the bill's scope doesn't include all the non-bank financial institutions, it's really not likely to do much good.

So I agree with Felix in one sense: if you don't have rules that go beyond conventional banks, you're not doing anything very useful. But what I don't get is his belief that if Bob Corker won't bend on this, then "it's best to ditch him altogether and just try to push something through the Senate with the support of Democrats alone." How exactly can Democrats do this? This kind of regulatory stuff can't go through reconciliation, and it's certain to be filibustered. So without some Republican support, passing a bill is impossible. I don't really see what alternative there is.

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What Do Conservatives Want?

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 7:24 PM EST

NOTE: See update below.

This chart comes from John Sides, who gathered information from the 2008 American National Election Study about spending priorites. Self identified conservatives, it turns out, aren't actually in favor of cutting spending on much of anything. Child care scored the worst for some reason, getting more hostility than even perennial bogeymen like foreign aid and welfare. Still, even at that, only 20% of conservatives wanted to cut child care spending, and scores dropped precipitously from there.

What to make of this? It's a pretty good guess that if conservatives don't want to cut Social Security then they don't want to cut Medicare either. War on terrorism is probably a pretty good proxy for the defense budget. Low scores for public schools + welfare + aid to the poor suggests they don't really want to cut social safety net programs. And interest on the national debt is off limits no matter what they think. That accounts for about 90% of the federal budget right there, and spending on highways, the environment, crime, science, and foreign aid probably takes care of another 5%. And that's pretty much the whole ball of wax.

The lesson from this? It turns out that conservative politicians really do represent their base pretty well. They like to yammer endlessly about cutting spending, but when push comes to shove, there's not much they really think we're spending too much on. It's all just venting.

UPDATE: It turns out that Sides made some mistakes in his original chart. The corrected version is on the right, and a corrected post is here.

The basic point still holds: conservatives aren't in favor of cutting very much. However, foreign aid is still a bogeyman, though it represents only a tiny part of the federal budget, and conservatives are in favor of cutting "welfare" generally, though not so much in favor of cutting specific welfare programs.

This makes a little more sense: opposition to "welfare" is a longstanding conservative issue. Still, when you get down to specifics, there still aren't very many programs that more than a small fraction of conservatives actually want to cut.

Obama to CEOs: A Carbon Cap is Good for You

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 7:17 PM EST

Barack Obama made a business case for cap-and-trade to CEOs on Wednesday, arguing that cutting carbon pollution is necessary for the future of American companies.

"A competitive America is also an America that finally has a smart energy policy," Obama told the 100 corporate leaders gathered at the Business Roundtable, noting that he will "not accept second place for the United States of America" when it comes to energy. The roundtable's executive board include a number of CEOs of companies key in the climate fight, like Rex Tillerson of ExxonMobil., Michael Morris of American Electric Power, and Jeffrey Immelt of General Electric.

Obama reaffirmed the need for a cap and price on carbon, noting that "many businesses have embraced this approach." "I am sympathetic to those companies that face significant transition costs, and I want to work with organizations like this to help with those costs and get our policies right," he said.

But failure to act, he said, would present more uncertainty for businesses:

What we can’t do is stand still. The only certainty of the status quo is that the price and supply of oil will become increasingly volatile; that the use of fossil fuels will wreak havoc on weather patterns and air quality. But if we decide now that we’re putting a price on this pollution in a few years, it will give businesses the certainty of knowing they have time to plan and transition. This country has to move towards a clean energy economy. That’s where the world is going. And that’s how America will remain competitive and strong in the 21st century.

There has been some concern of late that the White House might not be backing off calls for a carbon cap, but Obama has made a point of reemphasizing his support for it in recent weeks. He also called on Senate Democrats to keep it a cap in legislation.

Big Banks Shifting Cash to GOPers?

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 6:11 PM EST

The Washington Post reports

Commercial banks and high-flying investment firms have shifted their political contributions toward Republicans in recent months amid harsh rhetoric from Democrats about fat bank profits, generous bonuses and stingy lending policies on Wall Street.

The wealthy securities and investment industry, for example, went from giving 2 to 1 to Democrats at the start of 2009 to providing almost half of its donations to Republicans by the end of the year, according to new data compiled for The Washington Post by the Center for Responsive Politics.

However you cut it, there's still a lot of campaign cash flowing from the banks to each party. But if the GOP were to start carrying even more water for Big Finance and the Dems were to carry less, such a shift could help the Democrats going into the 2010 elections. After all, who wants to be pegged as the favorite of Wall Street?

In the coming months, President Barack Obama and the congressional Democrats are going to have to figure out how to counter a powerful anti-incumbent trend in the electorate and turn the coming congressional elections from a referendum on Obama and the Democrats into a choice between the two parties. The fight over financial reform legislation presents an opportunity for Obama and his Ds. With Wall Street hedging its bets and tilting toward Republicans, it might be easier for the Democrats to distinguish themselves as the party less in the pocket of Big Finance. To do that, of course, they need to pass a strong financial reform measure.

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

Blackwater Did Rescue Alan Grayson

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 6:10 PM EST

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), who made his substantial fortune by suing military contractors and later lambasted them as a lawmmaker, was indeed evacuated from Niger by personnel working for Xe Services (the private security empire formerly known as Blackwater), his spokesman confirms.

Earlier today I reported on the testimony of Fred Roitz, an executive vice president at Xe, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Blackwater subsidiary Paravant. In his prepared remarks, he stated: "Xe Services, through its subsidiary Presidential Airways, provides aviation support and medevac services to Defense Department personnel in Africa. Just last week, our personnel evacuated a congressman from Niger during civil unrest."

This sure seemed to fit the description of Grayson, who was traveling in the country last week when a military coup erupted. The lawmaker was quickly evacuated out the country to neighborhing Burkina Faso. "The flight was arranged through the State Department," Todd Jukowski, Grayson's spokesman, told me. "The Congressman did not know, and frankly did not care, who owned the plane.” Later, Jurkowski followed up with an email confirming that Grayson was flown out of the country on a "Xe helicopter."

I also asked Jurkowski whether the experience had changed Grayson's thinking on the use of private military firms. Jurkowski replied: "The Congressman does not deny that there is admirable work being done by some employees of private contractors.  However, he stands by his criticism of companies who have been found to cheat the American people, defraud our government, and unnecessarily risk the lives of members of our military, all in the name of making a profit."