Could Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, in what’s likely to be one of the last major votes of his 30-year career, cast the decisive vote on Congress’ long-awaited Wall Street reform bill? As Senate Democrats jostle behind the scenes to avert an embarrassing, late-round defeat of their legislation, the stage is set for one last highlight for the outgoing veteran-Republican-turned-Democrat.
Two final votes stand between Congress and passage of the Dodd-Frank bill. On the House side, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who deftly ushered the bill through the bipartisan conference process, looks to have the votes needed to pass the 2,000-plus-page reform bill. (The House's version of financial reform passed by 21 votes in December.) The Senate's picture, however, is far less certain.
Right now, Senate Democrats and their staffs are tight-lipped about the pending Dodd-Frank vote as they try to secure the support of at least 60 senators. A vote was slated for this week, but now the Senate is reportedly delaying its vote on the bill by a week or so due to doubts about whether the 60-vote supermajority is in place.
US Army Pfc. Justin Coats, from Red Tank, 1st Platoon, Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment, keeps watch on a patrol near Forward Operating Base Baylough, Afghanistan, on June 16, 2010. Photo via the US Army by Staff Sgt. William Tremblay.
Rather than being rewarded for its actions  Ireland is being penalized. Its downturn has certainly been sharper than if the government had spent more to keep people working. Lacking stimulus money, the Irish economy shrank 7.1 percent last year and remains in recession. Joblessness in this country of 4.5 million is above 13 percent, and the ranks of the long-term unemployed — those out of work for a year or more — have more than doubled, to 5.3 percent.
....Despite its strenuous efforts, Ireland has been thrust into the same ignominious category as Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain. It now pays a hefty three percentage points more than Germany on its benchmark bonds, in part because investors fear that the austerity program, by retarding growth and so far failing to reduce borrowing, will make it harder for Dublin to pay its bills rather than easier.
In the case of Ireland, it's not clear if they had a lot of choice. They're a eurozone country, so they couldn't devalue their currency, and they're running monster deficits even with the cutbacks they've made. Bigger deficits might simply not have been possible for a country their size.
Still, the results are pretty obviously horrific, and any country that can avoid Ireland's fate surely ought to. We certainly can, for example. So why do so many people want us to follow the Irish path instead?
From this point on it this summer it becomes impossible to think about the oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico without talking about the weather.
First off, there are record-breaking high sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the Gulf of Mexico right now. This map gives you a sense of just how hot those waters are compared to the Atlantic, Caribbean, or equatorial Pacific at the moment. (The map scale is in centigrade, convertible to Fahrenheit here.)
So the question naturally arises, are these record-breaking SSTs in any way related to the fact that oil is covering a large part of the surface waters of the Gulf? A lot of scarily high temperatures are coming in from NOAA's buoy #42040, 64 nautical miles south of Dauphin Island, Alabama. There's an interesting discussion of that at Jesse Ferrell's WeatherMatrix blog. Are the sensors gummed with oil? Or is it really that hot? In regards to air temperatures, Ferrell writes:
Whatever the fate of the instruments at the #42020 buoy, SSTs in much of the northern Gulf are above 84 degrees F already. In this high resolution NOAA-AMOL image, you can see how closely the hot water mirrors the oiled water.
Roy Spencer, a climate denier published by the überconservative Encounter Books, doesn't think the oil is contributing to the warmer waters of the Gulf. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn't. But Spencer also doesn't believe we have anything to fear from more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Jeff Masters at WunderBlog discusses whether the oil on the surface of the Gulf's waters might reduce evaporation enough to limit the growth-potential of a tropical storm system:
"Hurricanes are sustained by the heat liberated when water vapor that has evaporated from warm ocean waters condenses into rain. If one can reduce the amount of water evaporating from the ocean, a decrease in the hurricane's strength will result. Oil on the surface of the ocean will act to limit evaporation, and could potentially decrease the strength of a hurricane. However, if the oil is mixed away from the surface by the strong winds of a hurricane, the oil will have a very limited ability to reduce evaporation. According to a 2005 article in Popular Science magazine, Dr. Kerry Emanuel of MIT performed some tests in 2002 to see if oil on the surface of water could significantly reduce evaporation into a hurricane. He found that the slick quickly dissipated under high wind conditions that generated rough seas."
Masters writes this evening about the prospects for Tropical Storm Alex:
"Satellite loops show that Alex has a very large circulation covering about 2/3 of the Gulf of Mexico. We can expect that should Alex become a Category 2 or stronger hurricane, its storm surge will affect a much wider stretch of coast than Hurricane Dolly of 2008 did.
Whatever the effects of oil on the water, and whatever Alex's ultimate track path, it looks like there will be enough weather in the vicinity of the Deepwater Horizon gusher in the next few days to prevent BP from deploying its third oil containment rig.
And if you check out this water vapor image in the next 24 hours, you'll likely see a fairly energy intensive pulse of moisture coming off the west coast of Africa, en route to the Caribbean and maybe the Gulf, sometime in the next week or so, along a route known as Hurricane Alley.
As I have indicated for some time now, my test for the financial regulatory reform bill is whether it will prevent another crisis. The conference committee’s proposal fails that test and for that reason I will not vote to advance it. During debate on the bill, I supported several efforts to break up ‘too big to fail’ Wall Street banks and restore the proven safeguards established after the Great Depression separating Main Street banks from big Wall Street firms, among other issues. Unfortunately, these crucial reforms were rejected. While there are some positive provisions in the final measure, the lack of strong reforms is clear confirmation that Wall Street lobbyists and their allies in Washington continue to wield significant influence on the process.
Can I vent for a minute? I know Feingold is proud of his inconoclastic reputation. I know this bill doesn't do as much as he (or I) would like. I know the financial industry, as he says, continues to have way too much clout on Capitol Hill.
But seriously: WTF? This is the final report of a conference committee. There's no more negotiation. It's an up-or-down vote and there isn't going to be a second chance at this. You either vote for this bill, which has plenty of good provisions even if doesn't break up all the big banks, or else you vote for the status quo. That's it. That's the choice. It's not a game. It's not a time for Feingold to worry about his reputation for independence. It's a time to make a decision between actively supporting something good and actively supporting something bad. And Feingold has decided to actively support something bad.
What's more, his reasons for doing this don't even make sense. This bill won't prevent another crisis? No it won't, but voting for the status quo does even less. It doesn't break up the big banks? The status quo does even less. It suffers from too much lobbyist influence? Well, Wall Street lobbyists are far more enthusiastic about the status quo than they are about this bill. There are only two choices available here, and on virtually every level Feingold is voting in favor of the alternative that does less of what he says he wants.
But who knows? Maybe this won't make any difference. Maybe Harry Reid will be able to round up three or four Republicans to vote in favor of proceeding. But maybe not. With Robert Byrd's death, Feingold's vote could end up being the one that dooms financial reform for another decade. I sure wouldn't want that to be my legacy.
On Monday, the Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling that struck down Bernard Bilski and Rand Warsaw's "business method" patent for hedging energy prices against the weather. Some observers had hoped that the court would issue a broad ruling rejecting many "business method" patents — such as Amazon.com's "one-click" purchasing — entirely. (Critics of business method patents argue that you shouldn't be able to get patent protection for something as supposedly "obvious" and vague as one-click ordering.) Instead, the court ruled narrowly....That leaves the door open for the Patent Office to continue granting recognition to things like Amazon's one-click.
Well, that's a drag. I think that business method patents are harder to get now than they used to be, but Amazon's ridiculous one-click patent was granted this year after they revised a few of their claims. It's idiocy. I'd be delighted to see the Supreme Court or Congress do away with the whole business method patent cesspool entirely. The triviality of most business method claims has long since gotten way out of hand, and the whole world would be better off if we just put an end to them.
This is important. Cap-and-trade — any version of it — has been deemed wholly unacceptable by Republicans this year. But given the intense opposition to the idea, it's easy to forget that Republicans used to consider cap-and-trade a reasonable, market-based mechanism that was far preferable to command-and-control directives that the right found offensive.
And I'm not talking about the distant past — the official position of the McCain/Palin Republican presidential ticket, not even two years ago, was to support cap-and-trade. Not just in theory, either. The official campaign website in 2008 told Americans that John McCain and Sarah Palin "will establish ... a cap-and-trade system that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions." McCain/Palin's official position added, "A cap-and-trade system harnesses human ingenuity in the pursuit of alternatives to carbon-based fuels."
Actually, I think conservatives have a pretty defensible position on these things. Take pollution regs. Their preferences go something like this:
Worst: Command and control
Best: No regs
If they have the opportunity to support cap-and-trade when the alternative is almost certainly some kind of command-and-control mandate (as in the case of acid rain), then they'll take cap-and-trade. Half a loaf is better than none. But their strongest preference is still to do nothing. So in the case of greenhouse gas emissions, where there's still a credible chance of having no regs at all, they oppose cap-and-trade. There's really nothing especially devious about this.
But how about Sarah Palin, who specifically supported cap-and-trade for greenhouse gases just two years ago and now assails it as a job-killing monster? Well, that's harder to justify, but still possible. After all, it's hardly news that vice presidential candidates are routinely forced to officially support the policies of their running mate even if they disagree with them. In fact, it's a longtime media sport to force them to somehow justify their change of position even though everyone knows exactly what's going on. So Sarah Palin played along as a good soldier in 2008, but once the campaign was over she no longer had an obligation to her ticket and was able to revert to her true position. It's not exactly a principled conversion, but it's hardly the height of hypocrisy either.
So fine. But how about John McCain himself? He didn't owe any kind of fealty to anyone else. Cap-and-trade was his plan for reining in greenhouse gases, he fought for it, and he believed it. At least, he said he did. But then, as soon as he lost an election in which cap-and-trade seemed like an electoral winner and started up a campaign in which it seemed like an electoral loser, he dumped it. How about that?
Here, I'm afraid I can't help. There's just no excuse for this. John McCain is a slick opportunist and always has been. There's just no there there.
Lacking any controversial court rulings or off-the-cuff remarks to beat up on, Republicans have seized on a rather unusual strategy for attacking Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. In what might be called the "guilt by association approach," on the first day of Kagan's confirmation hearings, GOP senators hammered away, not at her record, but at that of legendary Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Kagan, who clerked for Marshall, has called him her hero. Why the GOP thinks trying to sully the name of a justice who has become synonymous with the civil rights movement is a good idea is something of a mystery. After all, their party doesn't count a single African-American senator in its ranks. But one by one they plowed ahead, undeterred even by the presence of Marshall's son sitting behind Kagan in a show of support.
Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl seemed to be the designated hitter on Kagan "channeling" Marshall. In his opening statement Kyl said, “Ms. Kagan identified Thurgood Marshall as another of her legal ‘heroes.’ Justice Marshall is a historic figure in many respects, and it is not surprising that, as one of his clerks, she held him in the highest regard. Justice Marshall’s judicial philosophy, however, was not what I would consider mainstream. As he once explained: ‘You do what you think is right and let the law catch up.’ He might be the epitome of a results-oriented judge." Texas Sen. John Cornyn continued the theme, and also wrote an op-ed in USA Today Monday reinforcing the idea. It's clear that the GOP intends to continue with this line of inquiry during the rest of the hearing.
Given the party's already poor showing among minority voters, it's hard to see how the GOP wins many points by bashing Marshall, especially given that there is exactly zero chance that Kagan won't be confirmed. Of course, a cynic might conclude that Republican senators are using the Marshall attacks to appeal to their angry white Tea Party base. And unlike with Sonia Sotomayor, the party isn't so restrained in its white pandering because the nominee isn't a minority herself. Either way, trying to use the Kagan hearings to tarnish the record of someone like Marshall doesn't reflect well on them.
ESPN is reporting today that FIFA, soccer's world governing body, will censor instant replays on the large screens inside the World Cup stadiums, after footage of the first goal by Argentina's Carlos Tevez in yesterday's Argentina-Mexico match showed that Tevez was offside. The replay, which came in place of normally-scheduled "infotainment," spurred the Mexican players to protest the referee's call in real time. FIFA's answer: No more replays inside the stadiums.
"This will be corrected and we will have a closer look into that," a spokesman said today. "We will work on this and be a bit more, I would say, tight on this for the games to be played." This comes amid mounting evidence of the game-changing fallibility of FIFA's referees, who have made bad call after bad call in this year's World Cup (see: Koman Coulibaly).
Soccer is one of the last sports not to use video replay technology to corroborate decisions by its referees. FIFA's president, Sepp Blatter, has said that relying on replays would disrupt the "natural dynamism of the game" and, perhaps more significantly, he thinks it's better for business, er, entertainment to leave fans guessing. After rejecting a free upgrade in his Geneva home to a new HDTV box, which has instant replay capabilities—and after a valid goal by England's Frank Lampard was disallowed in Germany's second-round drubbing of England yesterday—Blatter told journalists: "I like not being able to see things again, and prefer to try and guess what happened from one viewing, rather than confirm my suspicions by rewinding the live action and confirming my thoughts either way." Really?
What happens when, byte by byte, footage of the most publicized, advertised, politicized sport in the world is available to audiences but not to referees? What of these apparent "blind spots" in sports, both accidental and enforced? This World Cup is expected to be the most-watched television event in history, with 22,750 hours of feed produced and SONY deploying new 3D cameras to film the matches. As FIFA buries its head in the sand, the world is watching—and wondering whether this uneasy marriage of access and willed ignorance can last.
Much of the time, our wars may hardly exist for us, but in the age of celebrity, our generals do—exactly because they become celebrities. When Barack Obama picked Stanley McChrystal as his Afghan war commander, the general was greeted by the media as little short of a savior. He was, we were told, superhumanly fit, utterly austere (eating only one meal a day), and—strangely for the man who was to oversee a protect-the-people counterinsurgency war—had spent his professional life in the deepest shadows of counter-terror warfare at the head of groups of hunter-killer special operations forces. His was the darkest of legacies, but he was greeted like Superman.
Reading the Michael Hastings Rolling Stone piece that unseated him, you can sense in the contempt that McChrystal and his aides (many former special ops officers) express for the Obama administration and its civilian representatives in Afghanistan just what a blunt instrument the man was. No leader or group speaking that way, or that crudely, in private could help but exude similar feelings in public. McChrystal was, in fact, always a divided man, caught between his counter-terror past—he significantly increased special operations units in Afghanistan and sent them out to hunt Taliban mid-level leaders (and in the process kill civilians)—and his newer fealty to counterinsurgency which led him to institute rules of "courageous restraint" that left American ground troops grumbling.