2010 - %3, April

Vietnam Revisited

| Fri Apr. 30, 2010 10:44 AM PDT

Two interesting Vietnam-related things to check out today:

1. This morning, WGBH Boston launched the Vietnam Collection, an online video library drawn from their 1983 series Vietnam: A Television History. The series was originally recorded on film (actual film!), and now those hours of archival footage and interviews with key decision makers and vets have been digitized and released to mark the 35th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. Browse the online library here.

2. I had an opportunity to speak with Karl Marlantes, author of the epic new Vietnam War novel Matterhorn, about a week ago. We discussed why it took more than 30 years for him to get the book published, talked about the craft of fiction, and touched on the reverberations of Vietnam. Read the interview here.
 

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Do Republicans Want to Win?

| Fri Apr. 30, 2010 10:39 AM PDT

Ramesh Ponnuru comments on the upcoming midterm elections:

Do House Republicans actually want to take the majority? I have asked that of nearly every House Republican I have met since January 2007. Life in the minority is just as satisfying if you're in it for the perks; more satisfying, actually, since you don't have to make appropriations bills go out on time, run committee hearings, etc. Only once, a few weeks ago, have I heard anyone say that more than half of the conference wants the majority. That congressman said that his colleagues do want to be in the majority but are not yet ready to do what it would take. But he thinks they're getting there.

Wow. I mean, technically, sure, I guess that being in the minority is less stressful. But everything I've ever heard on this subject suggests that, overall, being in the minority just absolutely sucks. You get nothing. You have no ability to do anything. You're shut out of decisionmaking completely. Your staff is minuscule. Etc. etc. The only way in which it's better than being in the majority is if you just like having the doorman call you "congressman" and literally don't care about the process of lawmaking at all.

But apparently virtually no one in the GOP House caucus thinks that even a majority of their fellows wants to take control in November. I could understand a few slackers not wanting the aggravation, but a majority? Holy cow.

Rush: "I'm Just Noting the Timing Here"

| Fri Apr. 30, 2010 9:23 AM PDT

Me, in email with a friend last night about the Louisiana oil spill:

I can't wait until Rush figures out how this is all actually Obama's fault. 

Honest to God, I didn't know he'd said this a few hours earlier:

I want to get back to the timing of the blowing up, the explosion out there in the Gulf of Mexico of this oil rig....Now, lest we forget, ladies and gentlemen, the carbon tax bill, cap and trade that was scheduled to be announced on Earth Day. I remember that. And then it was postponed for a couple of days later after Earth Day, and then of course immigration has now moved in front of it. But this bill, the cap-and-trade bill, was strongly criticized by hardcore environmentalist wackos because it supposedly allowed more offshore drilling and nuclear plants, nuclear plant investment. So, since they're sending SWAT teams down there, folks, since they're sending SWAT teams to inspect the other rigs, what better way to head off more oil drilling, nuclear plants, than by blowing up a rig? I'm just noting the timing here.

Plus there's this, from the friend I was emailing with: "Maybe not Obama, but the WSJ snuck it in their story yesterday: you know, if the environmentalists didn't make us drill so deep, so far out from shore, this wouldn't have happened." I haven't seen that story, but I wouldn't be surprised if this meme picks up steam in the days to come.

Politicians, Disclose Thyself!

| Fri Apr. 30, 2010 9:22 AM PDT

This week, a group of senators and representatives introduced a measure dubbed the DISCLOSE Act to counteract the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision that opened the door for free-wheelin' corporate spending related to elections. The transparency-loving folks at the Sunlight Foundation note that the bill:

does shine a powerful light on new spending and activities related to corporate political expenditures. Many of the provisions echo the recommendations Sunlight made shortly after the decision came down. For example, the bill creates new stand-by-your ad provisions requiring the leaders of corporations, unions and other organizations to appear in their campaign ads and state they approve the message. It goes even further towards uncovering the true power (and money) behind the ads by also requiring the top funder of an ad to make a stand-by-your-ad disclaimer and by requiring the top five donors to the organization that purchases the ads to be listed on the screen.

But they also have a major gripe about the measure: "the light fades to a little more than a flicker when it comes to disclosing the information about the activities of members of Congress and lobbyists who attempt to influence them." The group explains:

While the bill rightly requires lobbyists and lobbying entities to disclose details about the electioneering expenditures they make, it should also require disclosure of the names of the officials who were lobbied. Current law does not require lobbyists to say they lobbied the office of Senator Smith. Instead, lobbyists are only required to report that they lobbied the House, the Senate, or the executive branch.  But, without knowing who the lobbyist reached out to for a significant government action, there is no way for the public to know if there is a link between lobbying activities, the votes or other actions taken by a member of Congress, and when that member of Congress becomes the focus of corporate electioneering expenditures.

Forcing more information into the public realm about the activities of lobbyists who scurry through the hallways of Capitol Hill has long been a goal of Washington's good-government advocates. But, of course, legislators don't want to tell the public about the lobbyists they and their staffs are meeting with. After all, that might actually give citizens some insight into how decisions are made in Congress. So it comes as no surprise that even reform-minded lawmakers left this out of the DISCLOSE Act. These officials are only willing to show so much.

Reinflating the Bubble

| Fri Apr. 30, 2010 8:58 AM PDT

The LA Times reports on the homebuyer's tax credit:

Buyers can get a tax break of up to $8,000 for first-time purchasers and $6,500 for some current homeowners if they reach agreements by April 30 and seal their deals by June 30.

California lawmakers sweetened the package last month by passing a $10,000 credit that kicks in Saturday. Now, some buyers in the state can qualify for as much as $18,000 in federal and state tax relief if they time their purchases just right.

Seriously? California, which is in only slightly better fiscal shape than Greece, is handing out money to homebuyers? Jeebus. So how's that working out?

The dual incentives have created a mind-set reminiscent of the bubble years, particularly among first-timers, who stand to gain the most money. "I am looking at properties almost constantly, and it is just kind of a feeding frenzy right now, which frustrates me," said Zeenath Shareef, 30, a Venice Beach renter and finance director for a Santa Monica consulting firm who took half days off to look for a home.

"In my mind, properties are going more quickly, and in some cases for more than what they would normally sell for, because people are in such a rush to buy ahead of this deadline," she said. "I hear people saying, friends of mine saying, ‘I have to buy, I have to buy, I have to buy.' "

We are a nation of idiots.

ID, Please

| Fri Apr. 30, 2010 8:39 AM PDT

Ezra Klein reports that the new Democratic immigration proposal includes a shiny new way to enforce employment laws:

I don't think the Democrats are going to like me calling this a biometric national ID card, as they go to great lengths to say that it is not a national ID card, and make it "unlawful for any person, corporation; organization local, state, or federal law enforcement officer; local or state government; or any other entity to require or even ask an individual cardholder to produce their social security card for any purpose other than electronic verification of employment eligibility and verification of identity for Social Security Administration purposes."

But it's still a biometric national ID card. It's handed out by the Social Security Administration and employers are required to check it when hiring new employees. Essentially, if you want to participate in the American economy, you need this card.

I've written about this before, and it's fine with me if they call it a national ID card. I'm in favor. It's not as if these things are security panaceas or anything, but they'd be pretty useful for things like reducing employment fraud or voter fraud. And what are the drawbacks? Every time this comes up I hear lots of vague but alarming talk about police states and the end of liberty, but nothing concrete about how this would really change things much from the status quo ante, in which most of us have to produce IDs multiple times a day merely to get through our lives. As for making it easier for the federal government to track us, please. They already have all the tools they need to track us. It's called a Social Security number. A non-fakable Social Security number would be an improvement, not a further infringement on our liberty.

The main difference a national ID would make is that if the federal government provided these cards free of charge, then poor people would have a reliable form of ID too, not just rich and middle class folks. Could they be abused? Sure, but no more than our current hodgepodge of SSNs and corporate ID cards. Other countries seem to have them without descending into totalitarianism.

Unfortunately, as Ezra says, this whole thing is a nonstarter: "The oddity of this strategy, of course, is that anti-immigration sentiments run highest among the same communities that are most opposed to national ID cards." There's not much chance of this proposal getting anywhere.

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Goldman Gets the Criminal Treatment

| Fri Apr. 30, 2010 8:08 AM PDT

If you're Rep. Marcy Kaptur or the 61 other congressmen—or, for that matter, the 140,000 petition signers—then you've got to feel pretty powerful right now. Yesterday, Kaptur hand-delivered a letter to the Justice Department calling for a criminal investigation of Goldman Sachs, the besieged investment firm facing fraud charges for a complicated 2007 deal gone bad. Less than 24 hours later, reports emerged that the federal prosecutors have opened a preliminary criminal inquiry into Goldman's trading activities.

The case was referred to the Southern District of New York prosecutor's office by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which filed a securities fraud suit against Goldman two weeks ago. The SEC's suit alleges that Goldman misled investors by not disclosing that a hedge fund trader who wanted to bet against a product of Goldman's making had influenced what went into the product, called a synthetic collateralized debt obligation (CDO). Essentially, the SEC says that the hedge fund trader, John Paulson, got to rig the CDO so that his bet against it was almost certain to pay out. (It did: Paulson ended up making $1 billion, while the two investors who invested in the CDO, called Abacus, lost roughly the same amount.)

Right now, the criminal investigation of Goldman is in the early stages. It's also worth noting that the burden of proof in a criminal case like this is higher than in a civil suit, like the SEC's, meaning federal prosecutors have their work cut out for them to show blatant wrongdoing by Goldman. Nevertheless, today's reports cap arguably one of the worst weeks in Goldman's history. The firm's top brass were grilled by Senate lawmakers on Tuesday, the company's stock has slumped, and a pair of shareholders filed what's projected to be the first of multiple shareholder suits against Goldman. The worst, it seems, could still be on the horizon.

Has John Boehner Become a Tenther?

| Fri Apr. 30, 2010 8:06 AM PDT

House Minority Leader John Boehner has been trying hard to woo the unruly grassroots activists who make up the Tea Party movement. So far the effort doesn't seem to be going that well, but he is apparently going to keep trying, even it means crossing over into fringe territory. Many Tea Party activists are stalwart believers in the primacy of the Tenth Amendment, that little clause in the Constitution that they see as a powerful bar to federal government overreach. They're using it to fight health care reform, to try to nullify federal gun laws, to launch a host of radical state sovereignty measures, and even to advocate secessionism. For the most part, members of Congress have shied away from this particular element. But on Wednesday, Boehner held a press conference in support of Arizona's draconian new immigration law, and he specifically invoked the Tenth Amendment:

"The people of Arizona have the right under the 10th Amendment to write their own laws -- and they have," Boehner said. "It has a 70 percent approval in Arizona and I think we ought to respect the people of Arizona and everyone should make their own decisions."

But at least one die-hard Tenther wasn't buying Boehner's conversion. Michael Boldin, founder of the California-based Tenth Amendment Center, pointed out in his blog Wednesday that Boehner's track record on Tenth Amendment fealty isn't exactly stellar. He notes that Boehner has voted for a string of federal statutes that Tenth Amendment purists see as massive constitutional violations and illegal federal intrusion into local affairs, including the No Child Left Behind Act, the Real ID Act, the TARP bailouts, as well as the Patriot Act and its reauthorization. Given all that, Boldin concludes:

"it seems pretty clear to me that Boehner, like most of the thugs that occupy D.C. in the name of the people, has almost no respect for the Constitution at all. He just pays it lip service when it serves his purpose."

 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 30, 2010

Fri Apr. 30, 2010 4:49 AM PDT

 

Sapper competitors complete the rope climbing portion of the obstacle course before sprinting to the finish line. The Best Sapper Competition gives engineers throughout the Army the opportunity to compete in a grueling six phase and three day competition to determine who are the best engineers in the Army. Photo via the Defense Department by Benjamin Faske.

Fart Chart: Cow Emissions by State

| Fri Apr. 30, 2010 4:10 AM PDT

The EPA has spent nearly $15 million and two years studying bovine emissions to assess how they affect climate change. So what's the result? This handy "fart chart" shows you exactly how much crap cows are putting into the air. Although the EPA's original chart, here, only gives you the top 10, we've crunched the rest of the data so you can see exactly how flatulent your state's cows are. Top 10 below, full list after the jump.

1. California  2. Wisonsin  3. New York  4. Pennsylvania  5. Minnesota  6. Idaho  7. Texas  8. Michigan  9. Ohio  10. Washington