2010 - %3, March

Google Wins Again

| Thu Mar. 4, 2010 9:17 AM PST

Guess what? This is my first blog post written on Chrome. Looks pretty much the same, doesn't it?

We'll see how it goes. Firefox generally works fine, but I finally got tired of the performance problems. Too many sites these days seem to have scripts or code that freewheel forever, sucking up so many CPU cycles that they bring the entire browser to a screeching halt. The Wall Street Journal is especially bad on this front, but plenty of other sites do it too. Chrome seems to be a bit better on this score, so I'm giving it a try.

Sadly, AdBlock doesn't seem to work as well as it does on Firefox, so I have to put up with more ads than I used to. But maybe that will improve.

Got any advice for me? Leave it in comments. I'm thinking about getting a new email client too that has a better search capability than Thunderbird. Feel free to offer recommendations.

UPDATE: Well, that was a short-lived experiment. Turns out that our blogging software doesn't play well with Chrome, and I don't feel like keeping two browsers open all the time, so it's back to Firefox. Sic transit etc.

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How to Grill Citigroup

| Thu Mar. 4, 2010 8:55 AM PST

The Congressional Oversight Panel (COP), the watchdog investigating the government's bailout and other financial rescues, is set to question Vikram Pandit, the CEO of Citigroup today. Simon Johnson, former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, says the grilling offers the COP an easy chance to ask some tough questions of the leader of one of the nation's biggest supermarket banks. "This is an important opportunity," Johnson writes, "because, if you want to expose the hubris, mismanagement, and executive incompetence—let's face it—Citi is the low hanging fruit."

To that end, Johnson offers five questions of his own, each well worth reading, that the COP should ask Pandit today:

  1. As far as anyone can judge, Mr. Pandit, you are completely unqualified to restructure and run a disaster prone global bank. Can you please explain in detail how you got the job? 2.
  2. Your hedge fund. Old Lane Partners, was closed by Citi in June 2008. Please elaborate on why it was closed, including how much money you lost on what kinds of securities. (Hint: follow the NYT through the sad story.)
  3. Please review for us the details of your promised compensation package and how much you have actually received – including cash, deferred compensation, stocks, and perks (including executive jet travel, valued at market rates); do not forget your chunk of the Old Lane deal. How much taxpayer money has been injected into Citi and on what basis?
  4. Of course, as you understand full well, the true cost to society of Citi’s misdeeds is vastly more than the direct taxpayer injections of capital. Please tell us – as specifically as you can – what other burdens Citi has generated for the rest of us. (Hint: there is a right answer here, which includes more than 8 million jobs lost since December 2007, a 30-40 percent increase in net government debt held by the private sector, and much higher taxes for everyone in the future.)
  5. Mr. Pandit, your proposed restructuring plans simply make no sense; there is nothing you have put on the table that would reduce the risks posed by Citi to the national interests of the United States. Even John Reed, the man who built Citi as a global brand, now says that it should be disbanded. There is no evidence – and I mean absolutely none – for economies of scale in banks over $100bn in total assets. Richard Fisher, head of the Dallas Fed, calls for immediate action in terms of breaking up large dysfunctional banks such as yours; please explain to us why the Fed should not move immediately to apply his recommendations to Citi – surely, the safety and soundness of our financial system is on the line.

Climate Skeptics and Creationists Join Forces

| Thu Mar. 4, 2010 8:53 AM PST

With their powers combined, can climate change skeptics and creationists succeed in getting anti-science views into the country’s classrooms?

The New York Times today reports that there is a growing (evolving, perhaps?) movement to unite skepticism of both global warming and evolution in hopes of a creating a winning legal case for getting their agenda into schools. This move comes after a 2005 ruling in the United States District Court in Atlanta found that a school district that had placed stickers on textbooks telling students that evolution is just a theory violated the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. The Times reports:

The linkage of evolution and global warming is partly a legal strategy: courts have found that singling out evolution for criticism in public schools is a violation of the separation of church and state. By insisting that global warming also be debated, deniers of evolution can argue that they are simply championing academic freedom in general.

But Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist who directs the Origins Initiative at Arizona State University sums up what's really going on here: "Wherever there is a battle over evolution now," he said, "there is a secondary battle to diminish other hot-button issues like Big Bang and, increasingly, climate change. It is all about casting doubt on the veracity of science--to say it is just one view of the world, just another story, no better or more valid than fundamentalism."

The anti-science crowd has found success recently, at least in a few states. The Texas Board of Education last year mandated that teachers present "all sides" of the evidence on evolution and global warming and has lead efforts to overhaul textbooks. South Dakota approved a resolution to require public schools to teach climate skepticism last week, and similar efforts are underway in Kentucky to force schools to teach the "advantages and disadvantages of scientific theories."

Why stop at joining climate and evolution? Surely gravity and western medicine can’t be far behind in the firing line for the "teach the controversy" crowd.

Moderates Warming to Climate Bill?

| Thu Mar. 4, 2010 7:55 AM PST

Word around Washington is that the triumvirate of senators working on climate and energy legislation may release more information about their bill as soon as Friday. And with expectations high, the senators are in a final push to convince fence-sitting Democrats and Republicans to sign on.

A spokesman for John Kerry said on Wednesday that the bill he is working on with Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman will be released sometime in the "coming weeks." Earlier this week, the senators indicated that their bill would take a hybrid approach, shunning the term "cap-and-trade" that has defined much of the congressional debate so far. The move aims to revive interest in legislation that many have assumed to be dead. The anticipation among bill-watchers is that they won’t release the legislation until they’ve got 60 senators signed on—so this final push is key.

The sponsors reportedly met with Republicans George Voinovich of Ohio and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, and Democrats Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin of Michigan, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Mark Warner of Virginia, Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, and Max Baucus of Montana on Tuesday evening. They’ve also been meeting extensively with Democrat Maria Cantwell of Washington, who has offered her own alternative measure with Republican Susan Collins of Maine.

So, what do these moderates think of the proposal? A few seem to be warming to the idea.

Senate "Very Close" on Financial Deal

| Thu Mar. 4, 2010 7:16 AM PST

The Senate banking committee is reportedly "very, very, very close" to reaching a deal on a consumer-protection agency, which in turn could lead to a breakthrough on a broader agreement on financial-reform legislation. The latest news from the Senate's grueling, ongoing talks is that several more Senate Republicans—Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), and Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH)—have joined the negotiations already being lead by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), chair of the banking committee, and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Dodd's main GOP negotiator, the Wall Street Journal reports. It's unclear why the additional Senate GOPers jumped on board, perhaps to help finish off the closed-door talks.

The WSJ also reported that a deal to house a consumer-protection agency within the Federal Reserve, an idea of Corker's, remained on the table. The Fed option has been roundly panned by consumer advocates—John Taylor, president and CEO of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, said he'd rather put the agency at the National Zoo than the Fed—and if passed, would be viewed as a win for the Big Finance. The Senate's financial-reform negotiations continue today, and a agreement within the banking committee could come as early as this week.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 4, 2010

Thu Mar. 4, 2010 4:30 AM PST

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US Army Capt. Carl Subler, right, a chaplain, celebrates Catholic Mass for soldiers at an abandoned compound during Operation Moshtarak in Badula Qulp in Helmand province, Afghanistan, on Feb. 21, 2010. Photo via the US Air Force by Tech. Sgt. Efren Lopez

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Will Progressive Candidates Run on the Public Option?

| Thu Mar. 4, 2010 4:01 AM PST

Since launching his Senate primary campaign in Arkansas this week, Bill Halter has zeroed in on Senator Blanche Lincoln’s failure to support the public option. This has prompted some to wonder if other progressive candidates might follow suit as liberal legislators continue to push to keep the proposal alive. Over at the Daily Dish, Jonathan Bernstein was bullish about the public option’s campaign comeback:

In fact, I expect virtually every Democrat in contested primaries during this and (if still not enacted) the next campaign cycle to support the public option, at least in any district in which Democrats have a chance to win.

Rallying behind the public option—which would set up a government-run health plan in the planned insurance exchange—could certainly give liberal candidates the opportunity to tap into the extensive grassroots network that mobilized behind the proposal last year. It was the last time that the liberal base seemed visibly excited and unified behind a single proposal coming out of Washington. Most Democratic candidates—whether they are incumbents or challengers—will sorely need to close the enthusiasm gap, and having a built-in constituency (and donor base) could give them a significant boost. In Halter’s case, the progressive netroots has already used his support of the public option to headline their fundraising efforts.

Pay No Attention to the PowerPoint Behind the Curtain

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 4:55 PM PST

You know, when liberals claim that conservatives are rabid reactionaries motivated by fear, hatred, and greed, they say we're a bunch of coastal elitists who are out of touch with the feelings of real Americans living in the heartland. But guess what? In the privacy of their own fundraising PowerPoint presentations, it turns out that Republican Party honchos describe their base pretty much the same way:

The small donors who are the targets of direct marketing are described under the heading “Visceral Giving.” Their motivations are listed as “fear;” “Extreme negative feelings toward existing Administration;” and “Reactionary.”

Major donors, by contrast, are treated in a column headed “Calculated Giving.” Their motivations include: “Peer to Peer Pressure”; “access”; and “Ego-Driven.”

So who do you think should be more offended by this: small donors or major donors? I say major donors. The small givers are characterized as fearful and reactionary, and who knows? They might actually glory in that description. ("Reactionary? Hell yeah.") But the major donors who are supposedly motivated by peer pressure, access, ego, and greed? It's possible that their egos are so big they'll just assume this applies only to other major donors, not them, but probably not. If I were them, I'd be pretty pissed.

In any case, pay no attention to all this. "Chairman Steele did not attend" the presentation an RNC flack assures us. "Obviously, the Chairman disagrees with the language and finds the use of such imagery to be unacceptable. It will not be used by the Republican National Committee — in any capacity — in the future," he said. Click the link to see just what "imagery" he's talking about.

Healthcare and Hard Votes

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 4:11 PM PST

One of the great tensions in the politics of healthcare reform is between what's good for the Democratic Party and what's good for individual members of Congress. On the former, I think you can make a pretty strong case that passing reform is a net benefit for the party as a whole: Dems are going to suffer the downsides of supporting healthcare reform no matter what happens, but if it passes at least they have an accomplishment to their credit that they can try to sell. Without that, they just look completely hapless.

Now, I think this is a pretty strong argument, but it's obviously a debatable one. In the case of individual members of Congress, however, there's just no question about it: there are certain Democrats in conservative districts who are going to suffer if they vote for reform. Maybe even lose a seat they might otherwise have won. That's what happened to Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky when she provided the 218th vote for Bill Clinton's tax-raising budget in 2003. Karen Tumulty catches up with her today:

Margolies insists that she did the right thing. What was wrong was with politics itself, she says. The bill was at least 80% grounded in Republican-backed ideas, and had been endorsed by Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan. The fighting over that last 20% was "heartbreakingly partisan to me, and I'm very much a centrist," she recalls. "It just infuriated me."

She thinks it has only gotten worse since she left Congress. "What has happened is the minority has taken over," Margolies insisted. "Democrats don't frame as well as Republicans do. [And for Democrats,] this is the vote that is going to get a tremendous amount of play in their districts."

Margolies thought that she could make her constituents understand why she had made the choice she did. But she underestimated the power of the sound bite. "I was really good at the four-minute explanation when I went back back to the district," she says. "But it's the Frank Luntz 30 seconds that kills you." She notes ruefully that her name has become shorthand in Washington for committing political suicide. "I was a terrible politician. It was a drive-by," she says. "I never thought I'd become a verb."

Now, you can take two lessons from this. The first is that Margolies did indeed commit political suicide with her vote. The other is that 1994 was a Republican tidal wave and she would have lost her seat regardless. But make no mistake: Margolies is the example that haunts a lot of fence-sitting Democratic congressmen today. In the end, I think healthcare reform will probably pass, but it's going to come down to a handful of individuals making very difficult, hardheaded decisions about their own personal futures. It won't be easy.

Don't Mess With Textbooks

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 4:08 PM PST

Last night's Texas Republican gubernatorial primary might get most of the attention (don't ever give up, Debra Medina!), but it was another primary result in the Lone Star State that may, in the long run, have a far greater impact: The end of Don McLeroy's tenure on the State Board of Education. McLeroy, you might recall, is the dentist who, as leader of the Board's conservative bloc, tried to rewrite public school textbooks to de-emphasize the civil rights movement and encourage the teaching of intelligent design, as well as global warming denialism. (He was the subject of that huge New York Times Magazine piece a few weeks back).

McLeroy didn't lose by muchand the other social conservative who faced a strong primary challenge, Ken Mercer, ended up winning big (the "weak on terror" whisper campaign paid off, apparently). Still, the result is significant. In the most likely scenario going forward, archconservatives go from seven seats on the board to just six. Beyond that, as the Texas Tribune points out, their traditional swing vote, a Democrat, is not running for re-election and will likely be replaced by someone with much more moderate views.

So, why should we care? Simple. Texas, as the nation's largest purchaser of textbooks, essentially sets the standards for the textbook market; other states are often stuck with whatever standards the Texas State Board of Education asks for. In that sense, McLeroy's loss was a local election with potentially significant ramifications for public schools nationwide. While far from ideal, Tuesday's result, is, if nothing else, at least a step in the right direction.