2010 - %3, July

Taxing the Rich

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 2:16 PM EDT

I may be more sympathetic to certain kinds of regulations than Matt Yglesias is, but I'm certainly open to higher taxes on the rich as well. Via Matt, then, here's a Wall Street Journal chart showing exactly who would be affected by Obama's tax plan (which allows Bush's tax cuts on high earners to expire) vs. the Republican plan of extending the entire Bush package. Call me crazy, but after a decade of living large in ever more sumptuous beach houses and promoting policies that almost wrecked the economy, I think the folks earning a million bucks a year can probably afford to pay an extra 5% in taxes. Seemed to work OK in the 90s, anyway.

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A Renewable Energy Hail Mary?

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 2:14 PM EDT

Climate legislation is now officially dead in the Senate, but does that mean that we can't accomplish anything on clean energy this year? With Majority Leader Harry Reid set to bring what's left of the energy package to the floor this week, environmental and labor groups, along with a number of clean technology companies, are making a last-ditch effort to get a renewable electricity standard attached to the bill.

Reid said Saturday that he doesn't think he can pass even a bare-minimum renewable electricity standard, or RES, which would mandate that every state draw a specific portion of their power from renewable resources. "Right now, I don't think I have 60 votes to get that done," Reid told a crowd at the Netroots Nation conference Saturday.

But advocates of the RES say he's mistaken. "I certainly know that finding 60 votes in the Senate on the verge of an important election is no easy task," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. "But the votes are there for an RES."

A Senate Democratic aide told me that leadership is concerned about including the RES now that the other climate provisions have been axed, because the RES "would replace the cap in terms of scare tactics from the right."

But some Senate Democrats are pushing back on the idea that the votes aren't there, including some moderate Midwestern Dems who were considered "no" votes on a carbon cap like Byron Dorgan (N.D.). Dorgan, Mark Udall (Colo.) and Tom Udall (N.M.) took the lead on a letter to Reid on the issue, which at least 17 other Democrats have reportedly signed as well so far.

The sad thing is, an RES really shouldn't be a tough measure to pass. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia already have one in place. Most importantly, both the House and the Senate have passed an RES multiple times in the past decade, though it still has not made it into law.

The Senate actually passed a renewable energy standard calling for 10 percent of power to come from renewables by 2020 for the first time back in 2002, and passed it again in both the 108th and 109th Congresses. Then the House got its act together and, during the prolonged debate over the 2007 energy bill, the twice passed versions of the bill that included an RES. But then the Senate couldn't muster enough votes and it didn't make it into the conference bill, either, after the Bush White House pledged to veto the measure.

The House managed to pass an even more ambitious RES last June as part of the American Clean Energy and Security Act, one that requires 20 percent of electricity to come from renewables by 2020 (though it gave states an out if they couldn't meet the target). But now the Senate can't seem to muster support for even a minimal RES right now, like the 15 percent by 2021 RES that the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed last June with bipartisan support.

Solar and wind advocates say that even the House-passed standard is actually less ambitious than the path that the industry is already on, and have advocated for a 25 perecent standard by 2025. But at this point, they'll take anything to put the US government on record in support of a renewables mandate. "Getting a signal in place that we're open for business is going to be critical to build the base in the US and attract manufacturing," said Denise Bode, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) in a call with reporters Monday. "In this political climate we have to do what we can do."

AWEA, United Steelworkers, Sierra Club, Xcel Energy, and 11 other groups representing labor, environmental, and green business interests sent a letter to Reid asking him to include an RES in the package. "Without immediate passage, hundreds of thousands of future jobs in the clean energy sector could be lost and surrendered to other countries forever," the groups wrote to the leader.

Governors are also joining the drumbeat for an RES, including Iowa's Chet Culver (D), who extolled the value the state portfolio rule has had for Iowa, bringing the state to 20 percent renewables from just 5 percent four years ago. "Our energy future in this country depends on it," said Culver.

For environmental groups, the RES has become the last best hope for anything resembling a clean energy requirement in a bill this year. "While we are deeply disappointed that the Senate is not moving a comprehensive clean energy and climate bill at this time, we think it would be a huge missed opportunity if this package did not include a strong renewable electricity standard, which creates jobs and has bipartisan support," said Sara Chieffo, deputy legislative director at the League of Conservation Voters.

It's still anybody's guess whether the RES stands a chance of making it into the package this year. The RES could be the last hope for calling the Senate energy bill meaningful movement forward, or it could go down in flames along with the idea of mandatory carbon reductions this year.

Is Tom Perriello Cooked?

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 1:35 PM EDT

The media love Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.). The freshman congressman is an interesting guy—a Democrat from a red district who often (okay, sometimes—he's pro-gun rights, for example) votes like he's from a blue district. Perriello's bold (or reckless) strategy has earned him countless mentions in national magazines and newspapers—including a New Yorker profile. Why is the press so fascinated by a relatively unimportant congressman from rural Virginia? The Yale Alumni Magazine's headline (Perriello has two Yale degrees—and now, apparently, a cover story to go with them) probably summed it up best: "Is Tom Perriello a new kind of congressman? Or just the kind who doesn’t get reelected?" 

According to a new poll, the answer may be the latter. Survey USA (one of the most accurate pollsters, according to polling guru Nate Silver's rankings) shows Perriello trailing his GOP opponent, state senator Robert Hurt, 58-35. If those numbers are even close to right, Perriello's goose is cooked. James L. at Swing State Project sees a glimmer of hope for Perriello in the SUSA poll's internals:

[L]et's first compare this poll to SUSA's final poll of this race from 2008. In that one, SUSA's likely voter universe was 40% Democratic and 38% Republican. This time, it's 42% Republican and 27% Democratic. In 2008, SUSA pegged the electorate as 22% black—this time, just 13%. Furthermore, African-American voters give 27% of their votes to Hurt in this poll, a significantly higher share than the 13% given to [Virgil] Goode [the Republican who Periello beat in 2008]. Young voters, too, have completely flipped against Perriello; Hurt racks up a 62-30 lead among 18-to-34 year-olds after Perriello rocked Goode among those voters by a 61-34 margin two years ago. 

Back in February, a Public Policy Polling poll found Perriello and Hurt much closer, at 44 each. Who's right? It's hard to tell, but Perriello is a relatively liberal freshman in a red district—exactly the kind of congressman the Republicans should be able to beat in a GOP year. If he hangs on in November, it'll be a sign that the Dems' night might not be as bad as everyone expects. If he gets as badly crushed as the SUSA poll suggests he could, well, hold on to your hats.

Leaving Iraq

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 12:49 PM EDT

If you don't follow the Boston Globe's Big Picture blog, you should. The blog compiles the best wire photos on given subjects into powerful, evocative photo essays, with big, high-quality images. Every month, you can see the latest scenes from the Afghanistan war, for example.

Last week, the Big Picture published a series of recent photos from Iraq—the foreground fight that has moved to the background of the media's consciousness. Many of the images are striking, but I was particularly drawn to a relatively peaceful shot (by Getty's Ahmad al-Rubaye) of acres and acres of military vehicles, sitting idle in Baghdad's Camp Victory. As the photo's caption notes, all of those vehicles have to be either "taken home, sent to Afghanistan, or destroyed, two months ahead of a deadline that will serve as a precursor for a complete US military pullout from Iraq."

In 2007, Mother Jones devoted an issue to how, exactly, the US could get out of Iraq. The whole package is here; but of particular interest is this graphic on what it takes to get a tank unit home from Iraq and this summary of what sorts of stuff we're going to leave behind when we go. Even when combat troops "leave," there will still be a sizeable American contingent left behind—the beginning of what could end up being a permanent presence

So while today's news focuses on Wikileaks' Afghanistan documents, please remember that there's still a lot we have to work out with the other war we're fighting, too—even if John McCain says the war's "already won."

Ground Truth from Afghanistan

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 12:36 PM EDT

Afghanistan is truly an under-reported war—and, more important, an under-discussed and under-debated war. Last week, for instance, Andrew Breitbart must have received a thousand times the ink and hits that the war did, and even he might think that wasn't right. This conflict is costing the nation about $100 billion a year, at a time when our federal budget is under great pressure. The loss of American lives in Afghanistan has been increasing. Civilian casualties have created resentment against US and NATO forces. The US military and civilian agencies are involved in a tremendously complicated endeavor in a land very few Americans know anything about, and US success depends on collaborating with Afghan political and security institutions that are often inept and plagued with corruption. Yet this war receives little air-time in the United States. There is the occasional hearing on Capitol Hill, but no rousing debates. The media and public pay attention in spurts—such as when President Barack Obama conducted a review that led to increasing the number of US troops in Afghanistan, or when Gen. Stanley McChyrstal and his staff dumped on the White House while talking to a Rolling Stone freelancer. Yet these short bursts come and go—while the war slogs on, with much of the United States remaining detached from and ignorant of what is happening day to day in their name, with their tax dollars, in Afghanistan.

So when Wikileaks posts 92,000 classified US military reports detailing assorted aspects of the war, it is disheartening to see bloggers and commentators dismiss this document dump as not much that's new. In a post headlined "Underwhelmed by Wikileaks," Tom Ricks writes,

A huge leak of U.S. reports and this  is all they get? I know of more stuff leaked at one good dinner on background.

The "this" he referred to was a New York Times story based on these documents that reported that that Americans fighting the war in Afghanistan have long suspected Pakistan's intelligence service of secretly helping the Afghan insurgency. And Ricks cites a dismissive posting by Mother Jones' Adam Weinstein: "I mean, when Mother Jones yawns,  that's an indication that you might not have the Pentagon Papers on your hands." The Center for New American Security's Andrew Axum (a.k.a. Abu Muqawama) took a similarly sarcastic view, noting last night when the story broke: "I'm going to bed, but if I were to stay up late reading more, here is what I suspect I would discover: 1. Afghanistan has four syllables. 2. LeBron is going to the Heat..." Andrew Sullivan writes, "What do we really learn from the Wikileaks monster-doc-dump? I think the actual answer is: not much that we didn't already know." But Sullivan does concede that this material is "rivetingly explicit" and "confirmation of what anyone with eyes and ears could have told you for years." The Economist blogged,"while this unvarnished heap of military intelligence adds a lot of colour to our understanding of the war in Afghanistan, the first headlines to have come streaming from the mess of it tell us little that we did not know already."

Should Your Boss Get To See Your Credit Report?

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 12:31 PM EDT

Should we ban businesses from pulling your credit score as part of their hiring process? Megan McArdle thinks it's a lousy practice, but not one that the government should prohibit:

I've no doubt that there are a few people out there who have been unjustly hurt by this; but we cannot regulate every bad business decision that hurts a few people. Each regulation may sound fine on its own, but collectively, they massively raise the compliance cost of starting a business and hiring workers, two things we want to support. So we need to set some sort of bar to ensure that we're only regulating things that have substantial, widespread negative impact.

Yesterday I used this as the jumping-off point for a massive lament on the subject of how liberals talk about regulation, but today I want to make a much more specific point: I don't think of this as a regulation that should be aimed at small businesses or at hiring managers in general. Rather, I think of it much more broadly as a regulation that should be aimed at the credit reporting agencies who are aggressively marketing this service. In the same way that medical records are available only to people with a legitimate medical need, I think that credit records should be available only to those who actually extend credit. Beyond that, they're private. Employers don't get them, the FBI doesn't get them, journalists don't get them, and my neighborhood association doesn't get them. I don't care how much each of these people really, really thinks it would be handy to have a peek at them. Short of a subpoena or a court order, my financial records are my business. You can't have them.

Does this raise the compliance cost of starting a business? Hardly. If a prospective employer asked my doctor for a copy of my medical records, he'd just say no. The compliance cost is zero. Ditto for credit scores. Until a few years ago no one bothered asking for them, and if releasing these records were prohibited, they'd go back to not bothering. The compliance cost is zero. As for the credit reporting agencies, they've been placed in a privileged position where they're allowed to collect sensitive privateinformation — just as doctors and banks and census takers are. That privileged position means they have a heightened responsibility for maintaining privacy, not a license to use their databases for anything that can make them an extra buck or two.

I'm a privacy crank. I know that I don't always persuade people that we should take this stuff more seriously, especially in an era of Facebook and Twitter and thousands of databases just a mouse click away. But I wish we would. As Megan points out, "I sort of suspect it's not the CFO who has to submit to the indignity of having HR paw through his credit card utilization and unpaid library fees." If CFOs deserve to have their privacy respected, so do the rest of us.

UPDATE: Just to make myself clear: I'm not proposing that we make any changes to employment law regs. Let employers do whatever they want. I am proposing that we write a regulation prohibiting credit reporting agencies from releasing credit information to anyone not directly involved in extending credit. This wouldn't add any burden to businesses or give them any additional rules they have to know about. It only affects the credit bureaus.

Front page image courtesy of Laughing Squid/Flickr.

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Why 2010's Most Formidable Hispanic Candidates Are Republicans

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 12:00 PM EDT

While Republicans have risked alienating Hispanic voters even further by supporting Arizona's harsh new immigration law, the GOP has managed to recruit a better, more prominent crop of Hispanic candidates than the Democratic Party this year. Slate has a good overview of the Hispanic GOP candidates in top-tier races, leading off with Susana Martinez, the Republican gubernatorial contender in New Mexico whose right-wing views include a hard-line stance against illegal immigrants. If Martinez prevails, Democrats should be quaking in their boots, writes Molly Ball:

If she wins in November, she will be the first female Hispanic governor in U.S. history—and an instant national GOP spokeswoman…In addition to Martinez, who currently leads in the polls and has been endorsed by Sarah Palin, there's Marco Rubio, the Tea Party favorite who drove Gov. Charlie Crist out of the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in Florida, and Brian Sandoval, a former judge who holds a big lead in the Nevada gubernatorial race. Sure, that's only three candidates. But in the 74 elections this year for governor or U.S. Senate—not all of them competitive—there are no Democratic Hispanic nominees. "Republicans have done a great job of recruiting Hispanic candidates," one Democratic strategist told me. "They are giving us a big wakeup call this year."

The GOP's Hispanic candidates won't necessarily be an immediate draw for Hispanic voters, given the group's overwhelming support for Obama and the Democrats in 2008. But it could certainly help the Republican Party seem more diverse and inclusive in what's shaping up to be a banner year for minority GOP candidates. We already know that Nikki Haley will almost certainly become South Carolina's first Indian-American governor, while Tim Scott, the black GOP candidate for Congress in South Carolina's 1st district, stands a great chance of becoming the first black Republican in Congress since former Rep. J.C. Watts retired in 2003.

On Charlie Rangel

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 12:00 PM EDT

As the storm clouds continue to gather around Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y), who's still pursuing what his colleagues call a "futile effort at total vindication," I'd like to remind readers that this blog called for the "ethically challenged" congressman to take a hike way back in December, 2008. As Barack Obama likes to say, the arc of the moral universe is long... but it bends towards justice.

Carbon Pricing and Regulatory Uncertainty

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 11:17 AM EDT

Bloomberg writes today about the months-long effort by utility companies to get Congress to pass a climate bill that includes a cap-and-trade component. Industry lobbyist Ralph Izzo is discouraged:

“I don’t know what more you can do,” Izzo said. “We are essentially volunteering to be the first to be regulated and people don’t want to do it.”

....“The odds are still very long,” said David Brown, senior Vice President for Federal Government Affairs at the Chicago- based utility Exelon Corp., who estimates he’s held hundreds of meetings with senators and staff on the issue. “Everybody’s just exhausted.”

Utility companies anticipate Congress will eventually pass legislation that mandates reductions in greenhouse gases and favors renewable sources of energy, rather than letting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decide how best to regulate.

Still, not knowing when Congress will step in makes planning investment difficult. “There’s a lot of capital sitting on the sidelines just waiting for more regulatory clarity,” said Lewis Hay, CEO of Juno-Beach, Florida-Based NextEra Energy Resources LLC.

Italics mine. Conservatives keep complaining that the recession isn't really the fault of weak demand, it's the fault of businesses holding back on investment because of uncertainty over new regulations. This is about 90% bogus, but to the extent it's true, one solution is simply to pass regulations that make the investment picture clearer. A cap-and-trade bill would have done that. But now that it's been killed, no one knows what will happen next. Regulations from the EPA based on the Clean Air Act? A carbon tax sometime in the future? Or what?

You want regulatory certainty? Pass a cap-and-trade bill. This makes it clear what the primary regulatory tool will be; it makes it mostly clear what the future price of carbon emissions will be; and those who want even more clarity can largely hedge away the remaining uncertainty in the futures market if they want to. But now, none of that can be done. And the planet will continue to heat up. And we run the risk of the EPA being forced to make things worse by applying a badly-constructed law to the problem. Nice work, conservatives.

Liberals for Palin in 2012

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 11:09 AM EDT

At the Netroots Nation conference in Las Vegas last week, the liberals and Democrats gathered for this annual tech-centric event were polled on a range of issues, including which GOP candidate they want to take on Obama in the 2012 presidential election. Their answer? "Mama grizzly" Sarah Palin, by a landslide.

Talking Points Memo, which snagged an early version of the Netroots straw poll results, reports that 48 percent of those polled want the ex-Alaska governor and former vice presidential nominee to win the Republican nomination in 2012. Libertarian figurehead Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) came in a distant second, with 11 percent. Filling out the rest of the pack were former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (11 percent), 2008 GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney (9 percent), Newt Gingrich (8 percent), and Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty (7 percent).

The takeaway here is obvious: Liberals want wacky, fringe candidates—or in Santorum's case, candidates with horrendous image problems—so as to clear the way for four more years of Obama.

More from TPM on the straw poll:

A fascinating result within the poll is what the frustrated netroots want Obama to focus on next. They overwhelmingly (74 percent) answered "improve jobs situation" when asked what should be the "highest priority" for Obama and Congress. Far runners up were "finish Afghanistan" with 8 percent, immigration reform with 7 percent, repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell with 6 percent, drawing down troops from Iraq with 3 percent and reduce deficit with 3 percent. (See Obama's surprise message to the convention here.)

The group also—by 69 percent—said health care reform was Obama's "top accomplishment." That was followed by his economic recovery plan with 13 percent, improving the U.S. image abroad with 7 percent, extending unemployment benefits with 5 percent, Wall Street reform with 3 percent, moving toward the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell with 2 percent and a new Afghanistan strategy with 1 percent.

The majority of respondents think Obama is handling his job as commander-in-chief well, with 32 percent saying they "strongly approve" and 51 percent saying they "somewhat approve." On the disapproval side, 13 percent disapprove somewhat, and 4 percent strongly disapprove.