2010 - %3, August

The Missouri Health Care Vote

| Wed Aug. 4, 2010 12:07 AM EDT

[MoJo has more elections coverage: Andy Kroll has a report on the Michigan governor's race and a post-mortem on Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick's political career, and I have the details of Missouri's Senate and House primaries.]

Missouri primary voters struck an impotent blow against health care reform on Tuesday, rallying behind Proposition C, a ballot measure that supposedly prohibits the government from requiring that people obtain insurance or punishing them if they don't. (A key provision of the health care reform law, the so-called "individual mandate," requires most people to purchase insurance. Starting in 2014, the law imposes penalties on people who don't buy insurance. Prop C was designed to counteract this part of the reform bill.) Around 70 percent of the voters in the heavily Republican primary electorate supported the measure, which does not actually do what it claims to do. The Associated Press explains [emphasis mine]:

Tuesday's vote was seen as largely symbolic because federal law generally trumps state law. But it was also seen as a sign of growing voter disillusionment with federal policies and a show of strength by conservatives and the tea party movement.

Legislatures in Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana and Virginia have passed similar statutes, and voters in Arizona and Oklahoma will vote on such measures as state constitutional amendments in November. But Missouri was the first state to challenge aspects of the law in a referendum. 

Republicans and red states oppose health care reform, so it's not surprising that they'd like to pass laws invalidating it. Unfortunately for GOPers, the Affordable Care Act is a federal law, and states can't just choose to disobey it—just as states can't pass their own immigration laws without earning a Constitutional challenge from the Justice Department. We're talking basic constitutional principles here. Cable news will probably try to make a big deal out of this ballot measure on Wednesday, but this is really a bunch of sound and fury signifying nothing. Meanwhile, opposition to health care reform is declining. Here in the real world, Missouri's Prop C isn't even going to scratch health care reform, let alone stop it. If the GOP wants to actually do some damage to the Affordable Care Act, they need to win back the House and kill the bill by cutting its funding in the appropriations process.

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The End Of The Kilpatrick Dynasty?

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 11:45 PM EDT

[MoJo has more primary coverage: Read my report on Michigan's gubernational results, and Nick Baumann's take on Missouri's primaries for US House and Senate.]

"This is the final curtain: the ending of the Kilpatrick dynasty."

So concluded Detroit political consultant Eric Foster in the Detroit Free Press' report on the primary defeat of Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick.

Cheeks Kilpatrick, a seven-term Democrat, represented Michigan's 13th congressional district, which includes large parts of Detroit. Her defeat is largely attibutable to one of the worst scandals in that city's history. The salacious saga centered on her son, Kwame, Detroit's disgraced former mayor, who had an affair with his chief of staff, lied about it under oath, and spent millions in city funds fighting public disclosure of text messages and secret settlements. The former chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Cheeks Kilpatrick lost to state Senator Hansen Clarke;  at 11:45 p.m., Clarke had 46 percent of the vote and Cheeks Kilpatrick 40 percent. The Free Press described Hansen's win as a "stunning upset victory."

Here's more from the Freep as the results roll in:

The defeat could spell the end of a 14-year congressional career for Kilpatrick, who has been dogged by the legal problems faced by her son, former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, now serving time for violating probation on state felony charges and awaiting trial on federal charges of tax evasion and mail and wire fraud.

The race has been among the most watched races in the state.

A subdued crowd at Kilpatrick’s election night party in downtown Detroit waited for the final numbers to roll in, hoping that absentee ballots might reverse the trend...

At Clarke's party at the Centaur Bar in Detroit, the mood was much more upbeat. Cheering erupted as Clarke greeted the crowd.

"What’s missing is a congressman willing to work in the city," said Detroit city councilman Gary Brown. "I hope he can bring the Michigan delegation in Washington together."

The View From My Windshield: Green Shoots

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 11:44 PM EDT

Test-Tube City: Five years after Katrina, New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward is still largely uninhabited. But there are signs of change: Here's one of 150 ultra-sustainable houses being constructed at the behest of Brad Pitt (Photo: Tim Murphy).Test-Tube City: Five years after Katrina, New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward is largely uninhabited. The roads are filled with craters, 12-foot-tall grasses obscure stop signs and intersections, and you have to drive to St. Bernard Parish to buy groceries. But there's still plenty of activity: The area has become a hub for architectural students and philanthropists, who see the Lower Nine as a blank canvas for building a 21st century city. Brad Pitt and his organization, Make it Right, have pledged to build 150 ultra-sustainable houses just like these two (Photo: Tim Murphy).

Michigan Guv: Big Labor vs. Big Biz

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 11:33 PM EDT

[More MoJo primary coverage: Nick Baumann reports on the Missouri primaries for US Senate here.]

Big labor, at least in a manufacturing state like Michigan, still wields some major political muscle. That's one takeaway from Tuesday's Democratic gubernatorial primary in Michigan, in which labor's pick, Lansing mayor Virg Bernero, easily defeated state House speaker Andy Dillon. Most media outlets called the race for Bernero early in the evening, and with 50 percent of voting precincts reporting, Bernero led Dillon by more than 40,000 votes.

Bernero, once seen as the underdog candidate, trailed Dillon in the polls for most of his primary campaign. But recently labor groups like the AFL-CIO and AFSCME mobilized their members and ramped up their ground campaign on Bernero's behalf, and as a result, the blunt Lansing mayor surged in the most recent polls. A fiery politician, Bernero is largely seen as a defender of the working class, especially the auto industry, and will garner even more support from Michigan's still-influential unions heading into November.

While Bernero sounds like a classic Michigan Democrat, Rick Snyder, who easily defeated longtime Rep. Pete Hoekstra in Michigan's GOP gubernatorial primary, is hardly your typical Republican. The former CEO of Gateway computers, Snyder trounced his more established Republican opponents, leading Hoekstra by 63,000 votes with 53 percent of precincts reporting. Like Bernero, Snyder got off to a rocky, unassuming start, but quickly gathered momentum as voters latched onto his job-creation message in a state blighted by 13 percent unemployment.

Rep. Roy Blunt Wins GOP Senate Nod in Missouri

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 11:03 PM EDT

[MoJo has more primary coverage: Andy Kroll has a report on the Michigan governor's race and a post-mortem on Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick's political career. I also have the details of Missouri's competitive House primaries below.]

Rep. Roy Blunt, who held several top positions in the leadership of the congressional GOP during the Bush years, won the Missouri Republican nomination for Senate and will face Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan in the fall. Blunt was leading tea party-backed State Sen. Chuck Purgason, 72 to 13 percent, when the Associated Press called the race. 

(Meanwhile, "auctioneer and former radio personality" Billy Long looks set to replace Blunt in Congress. He's leading an eight-way GOP primary in Missouri's heavily Republican 7th district, which Blunt represented for seven terms.)

The Carnahan-Blunt race—which pits members of two Missouri political dynasties (Carnahan's dad was governor; Blunt's son served as secretary of state and governor) against each other—is shaping up to be a blockbuster. The winner will replace retiring Sen. Kit Bond, a Republican, in Washington, and Carnahan's high name recognition and strong polling suggest that this is one of the Democrats' few legitimate pickup opportunities among 2010 Senate races. 

Carnahan, unlike some Dem candidates, doesn't seem squeamish about being tied to President Obama, who narrowly lost Missouri in the 2008 presidential contest. She better be committed to that position, because if she changes her mind now, it's going to be really hard to distance herself from the White House—last month, Obama has visited St. Louis and raised $500,000 on her behalf. That's the kind of thing voters remember. Carnahan probably needed the money—as a longtime member of Congress, Blunt can definitely raise a lot of campaign cash. But hanging out with the President could cost her. One poll puts Obama's approval rating in Missouri at 34 percent. That stinks. 

Fortunately for Carnahan, Blunt has liabilities of his own. Obama may be unpopular in Missouri, but so was George W. Bush. Blunt was a key player in implementing Bush's agenda, and he knows his work in Congress is a vulnerability. As Andy Kroll pointed out a few weeks ago, Blunt—like Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.), who's also running for Senate—couldn't even bring himself to acknowledge his current job in his first campaign ad. If Carnahan can tie Blunt to Bush and Congress and make the case that she's not a "Washington politician," she'll have a shot.

The Bush/congressional GOP attack might not even be Carnahan's most potent ammo. The government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has repeatedly named Blunt one of its "most corrupt" politicians, and last month it put the congressman on its bipartisan list of 11 "crooked candidates." Here are some highlights:

As a member of Congress, Rep. Blunt came under fire for a variety of issues including employing the same corrupt tactics that forced his mentor, former Texas Rep. Tom DeLay, to resign. Rep. Blunt’s ethical issues were documented in CREW’s 2006 report on the most corrupt members of Congress.

In 2003, Rep. Blunt divorced his wife of 31 years to marry Philip Morris (now Altria) lobbyist Abigail Perlman. Before it was known publicly that Rep. Blunt and Ms. Perlman were dating – and only hours after Rep. Blunt assumed the role of Majority Whip – he tried to secretly insert a provision into Homeland Security legislation that would have benefitted Philip Morris, at the expense of competitors. Notably, Philip Morris/Altria and its subsidiaries contributed at least $217,000 to campaign committees connected to Rep. Blunt from 1996 to 2006.

Also in 2003, Rep. Blunt helped his son, Andrew Blunt, by inserting a provision into the $79 billion emergency appropriation for the war in Iraq to benefit U.S. shippers like United Parcel Service, Inc. and FedEx Corp. Andrew Blunt lobbied on behalf of UPS in Missouri, and UPS and FedEx contributed at least $58,000 to Rep. Blunt from 2001 to 2006.

Family connections have also helped another of Rep. Blunt’s sons, former Missouri Governor Matt Blunt. Gov. Blunt received campaign contributions from nearly three dozen influential Missouri lobbyists and lawyers when he ran for governor of Missouri in 2004, half of whom had provided financial support to his father. Earlier in 2000, when Matt Blunt was running for Secretary of State, Rep. Blunt was involved in an apparent scheme, along with Rep. DeLay, to funnel money through a local party committee into Matt Blunt’s campaign committee.

Rep. Blunt and his staff had close connections to convicted former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. In June 2003, Mr. Abramoff persuaded then-Majority Leader DeLay to organize a letter, co-signed by then-Speaker Dennis Hastert, then-Whip Blunt, and then-Deputy Whip Eric Cantor, which endorsed a view of gambling law benefitting Mr. Abramoff’s client, the Louisiana Coushatta, by blocking gambling competition by another tribe. Mr. Abramoff had donated $8,500 to Rep. Blunt’s leadership PAC, Rely on Your Beliefs.

In the end, I suspect that Missourians disappointment (fair or unfair) with Democrats' management of the economy will trump any concerns about Rep. Blunt's ethics. Carnahan will find that ethical complaints are complicated and hard to explain. Blunt probably knows that 9.2 percent unemployment doesn't even have to be explained. 

UPDATE, 11:45 p.m. EST: In the state's other competitive primary, it looks like former state Rep. Vicky Hartzler has beaten State Sen. Bill Stouffer for the right to take on 17-term Dem vet Rep. Ike Skelton, the chair of the House Armed Services Committee. Hartzler is a serious candidate, but if she beats Skelton in November, it's going to be a very bad night for the Dems.

The Secret Code That Controls Your Destiny

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 10:34 PM EDT

In David Corn's piece this morning, Rep. Bob Inglis told a story about meeting up with some constituents who earnestly regaled him about the sinister origins of the number on the back of your Social Security card. "That number indicates the bank that bought you when you were born based on a projection of your life's earnings," they told him.

Good times. But it got me wondering: what number on the back of your Social Security card? I haven't owned a physical Social Security card for decades, so I couldn't check. Luckily, Marian is more conscientious than I am and managed to dig hers up. Sure enough, there's a number on the back. But what's it for?

To my disappointment, a Google search didn't turn up much. However, I did run across a blog post that recounted a few interesting tidbits about Social Security numbers. Interesting, but not what I was looking for. Pay dirt was in the comments. I figure we could all use a laugh now and then, so here it is: the meaning of the numbers. Enjoy.

F. Howles: Here’s one to research. What’s the red numbers on the back of a social security card for?

Captian Jack Sparrow: Does anyone know what those red numbers on the back are for. I am very curious as well.

freedomfighter: about that serial or whatever on the back…im researching it but from what I’ve gathered that is a bank routing number linking you as property of some royalty british bank.

golbguru: Do you have a reference for this statement: “but from what I've gathered that is a bank routing number linking you as property of some royalty british bank.” ? As far as I am concerned that’s total BS.

freedomfighter2: I’m actually looking for documentation but all I remember is hearing about it in some google video…not the most reassuring evidence, but for now until im disproven I suggest leaving it as an option…when i come across the video ill post it.

Puzzled: I’m still trying to find out more about the numbers on the back of Social Security cards. My friend’s card has red numbers. Mine are of another color and I don’t know why.

Puzzled: By the way, about that thing that you think is BS, with your SSN being tied to some royal british bank is in fact completely true. Your SSN is tied to Social Security Administration which is tied directly to the Federal Reserve System, which is privately owned by stock-holding banks, one of which is Barclay’s, a Royal Britich Bank, as well as several American banks, which are also British owned and controlled.

Beaver: I heard an urban legend that the red numbers on the back of the social security card are your EIN, employer ID number. If you’re just a regular John Doe citizen, you’re an employee of the US Corporation, and are in fact yourself a corporation. That’s why you use the number on the front, your employee ID number (SSN). Supposedly, if you have a replacement card issued to you, the number on the back will come in red ink, and you can use it to declare that you’re a soveriegn American and not a citizen OF the United States....If you use the number on the back, the “tracking number for blank cards” printed in red ink, you’re claiming ownership of the card and the chattel property it represents. You are the chattel property. If you don’t, they “own” you. You’re their chattel property, and you’re being used as collateral on the bankruptcy the US Govt. filed to the international banking houses back in the 1930’s, the time of the great depression.

ChelC: came upon this when someone referred me here:

http://activequote.fidelity.com/mmnet/SymLookup.phtml?QUOTE_TYPE=&scCode=M&searchBy=F&searchFor=76E52351078&submit=Search

They told me to enter the year of my birth, followed by the red number. Select Mutual Fund and Fund number. You will find out what yours is if you have one. So, if I was born in 76, I would enter 76xxxxxxxx.

Fed Up: I called Social Security headquarters asking about this. The representative had the following four answers: 1) “No idea, hold on.” 2) “Hold on, I have never heard of that.” 3) “I am still checking, I have never had this question before.” And finally 4) “It refers to when the card was issued. It is a reference number, having nothing to do with your SS #.”

RON: The # on the back of your ssn card is “Priority Exemption Acc. #” The letter represents the Federal Reserve Bank that hold the bond the 8 digits is the acc. #

chandra: Is there a way to research the federal reserve bank that corresponds with the letter???

a good samaritan: There’s ten bonds associated with one SSN at the Fed. The number on the back of the card is only one of ten numbers which identifies the bond it’s associated with. The bond, which is held by the Fed, has an account associated with it. This is the account talked about called “Private Exemption”. The only way to take control of these bonds/accounts is through the Depository Trust Company.

Strobel: Looking for more information on the red numbers on the back of the SS card. A guy I met told me he pays his monthly bills using that number. It is supposedly a bank routing number attached to the British bank some people here have mentioned. Does anyone have any more specifics on this?

No One: well to answer your questions about the red numbers on the back of your cards when i was working for the government i learned that during the great depression the government started investing in the world market in our names and using our ssn #’s so that if that ever happened again they could pay out the unemployed.

Falcon: So far in my research I have heard many different theories on how to go about capturing your STRAWMAN, charging up your treasury account, and discharging your debt. The problem is, they are all theories!

Please beware my friends of people who want to charge you money for this information. I paid out a pretty penny so far and the information I received is conflicting. I have some friends that are working with a “Patriot” who has gladdly accepted many thousands of dollars from them as a fee to help them and so far all that has happened is they got there bank accounts closed for righting fraudelent checks. Nobody has been arrested though so that is interesting but I am following there progress closely.

At this point, as you can see, it's actually getting kind of pathetic. These stories always seem pretty silly, but there are plenty of bottom feeders who prey on the kind of people who believe this stuff.

But of course, I don't want to leave you without the answer. What is the number on the back of your Social Security card? Here's the answer:

FedWorker: The numbers on the back are inventory control. Each paper blank now has a number and must be accounted for

And a bit more detail from a speech by Donald Walton, a U.S. bankruptcy trustee, on eight "key signs that can identify a subject social security card as either legitimate or fraudulent." Here's #7:

7. Sequential Control Number. On the rear of a legitimate card there is a sequential control number. The control number is a combination of alpha and numeric that bears no relation to the actual social security number on the card. However, the computer records of the Social Security Administration should show a correlation between the control number and the social security number and name on the card.

Of course, he would say that, wouldn't he? He's probably a bankruptcy trustee for the Bilderbergers.

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Stupid or Venal?

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 6:04 PM EDT

The Cordoba Initiative is an organization in New York City that wants to tear down an old building a couple of blocks from the World Trade Center site and convert it into a community center and mosque. Recently this has become famous as the Ground Zero Mosque, which Sarah Palin wants to refudiate and Newt Gingrich labels "an assertion of Islamist triumphalism which we should not tolerate." It's also, of course, the latest 24/7 ratings obsession for Fox News. Jeffrey Goldberg, not exactly a shrinking violet in matters of national security, is appalled:

The Cordoba Initiative, which is headed by an imam named Feisal Abdul Rauf, is an enemy of al Qaeda, no less than Rudolph Giuliani and the Anti-Defamation League are enemies of al Qaeda. Bin Laden would sooner dispatch a truck bomb to destroy the Cordoba Initiative's proposed community center than he would attack the ADL, for the simple reason that Osama's most dire enemies are Muslims....al Qaeda's goal is the purification of Islam (that is to say, its extreme understanding of Islam) and apostates pose more of a threat to Bin Laden's understanding of Islam than do infidels....Bin Laden wants a clash of civilizations; the opponents of the mosque project are giving him what he wants.

Mark Thompson agrees:

I can sympathize with the position advanced by some that, whether or not the project should be permitted, the property owners should choose not to build it in the proximity of Ground Zero. I may disagree with this position, but it is not for me to decide what does and does not offend others. But what is not only wrong, but also plays right into the hands of al Qaeda, is the decision by the movement Right to choose this as just the latest battleground in the culture wars with the Left, further dividing the American people in the process, as well as just another battleground in the clash of civilizations with Islam that is precisely what al Qaeda desires.

I know this is an eternal question with no answer, but I can't help but wonder what's driving this mania on the right. Is it stupidity or venality? It's one thing for a few lunatic bloggers like Pam Geller to go nuts over this kind of thing, but it's hard to believe that most rank-and-file Republican politicians, or even firebrands like Newt Gingrich, really believe what they're saying about the GZM. It's just so plainly specious and so plainly not in American interests to foster this kind of attitude. On the other hand, if they don't believe it, would even modern conservatives be cynical enough to promote this kind of obviously dangerous hysteria just for partisan purposes?

Some and some, I guess. They probably have managed to talk themselves into being offended and they probably really are willing to exploit this kind of xenophobia for their own ends even if it almost certainly harms American goals in the Middle East. But even after years of having my face rubbed into this kind of behavior, it still freshly dismays me whenever I run into it again because, somehow, it always seems one notch worse each time. I guess I'm just terminally unworldly or something. In any case, I think Andrew Sullivan has a pretty good take on it:

It has always seemed to me that this war against al Qaeda is a war for religious freedom, and ultimately for the separation of church and state. It is al Qaeda's psychotic conflation of politics and religion that we fight, not their religion itself. But these are very abstract things for anyone to fight for, to identify with emotionally and viscerally. And so, even when we start with good intentions and clear minds — we are fighting not Islam but Islamism, not religion but theocracy — we can soon simply drift and degenerate into more primitive associations.

What we've been watching from Palin to Gingrich is an exploitation of this human degeneracy, or in the ADL's case, sheer liberal cowardice in the face of tribalism. Even now, Gingrich and Palin fail to understand that rhetorical polarization may be good politics but it is terrible statesmanship in a war of ideas as well as physical combat. It's a long war that will only be won in the minds of most Muslims, which is why how we act remains of importance. Yes, the human psyche will make easy and common and hard-to-resist associations between a religion and an act of war by the most deranged and nihilist members of that religion.

For once, I really do miss George Bush. The damage he did to the American cause in the Muslim world is incalculable, but at least he never countenanced this kind of lunatic bigotry. Are there any Republican leaders left today who can say the same? Anyone willing to just quietly and frankly defend traditional American notions of religious freedom and traditional American notions of tolerance and decency? This is, after all, a big part of the reason that Muslims have integrated so successfully into American society. Anyone?

This is America, Speak Cajun

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 5:00 PM EDT

Lafayette, Louisiana—One of the larger themes behind this trip has always been, amorphous as it might sound, to make some sense of the map. Part of that is geographical: Do these towns with the funny names on the map really exist? Did Vermont quietly leave the Union without anyone noticing? But it's cultural, too. You develop an odd sense of what a particular region is like if you spend your entire life reading about it without ever once walking its streets and talking to its people. For most of my childhood, for instance, my mental image of Atlanta came exclusively from old photos from Civil War anthologies: black-and-white, bustling with horse-drawn carriages, and prone to periodic outbreaks of cholera. Think of it as cultural autodidacticism.

So on that note, it was kind of awesome to arrive in the Cajun country of southwest Louisiana and discover that, in the heart of a region possessed by a "This is America, Speak English!" nativism, you can go to a gas station, or a convenience store, or a diner, or anywhere else locals tend to gather, and with a little bit of luck, hear people speaking an Old World tongue passed down from their exiled Canadian ancestors and kept intact over three centuries. For lack of a better analogy, it felt a bit like Samwise Gamgee's first encounter with the elves.

Whether Cajun will surivive a fourth century is unclear; the handful of aging fluent speakers I talked to all had the same complaint: The younger generations just don't feel the need to keep the tradition alive. And that's probably true. But if Cajun  fades away as a spoken dialect, it's at least sticking around a little while longer in musical form. In Lafayette, at the epicenter of Acadiana, we caught a twinbill show at a local bar featuring two popular Cajun bands, the Pine Leaf Boys and Feufollet (which translates to something like "Will-o-the-Wisp," I think). Both groups were young—twentysomethings, mostly—but the crowd covered a much wider range, all there to hear the distinctive accordion- and tambourine-flavored Old World rhythms.

Anyway, this was really just an excuse to post some cool (and pretty unique) music, so here are the Pine Leaf Boys:

And here's Feufollet, below the jump:

Skewed Incentives

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 4:56 PM EDT

We just got new windows installed in our house. It cost about $10,000 and I paid by credit card. Result: the window company had to pay a $200 fee to Visa for a transaction that probably cost about a dollar (credit risk included) and Wells Fargo rebated about half that back to me in the form of reward points that I will eventually convert into cash. In other words, I was just paid a bonus of $100 to use a credit card instead of paying with cash. Someone please explain a sane economic theory under which this makes sense.

But the windows look nice.

UPDATE: Commenter 98th Story spells things out:

I don't understand what's hard to understand here. Visa made out by netting $100 on the transaction. You made out by conveniently using a credit card and scoring $100 in rewards. And the window company made out by scoring a $10,000 dollar job, part of which included handling a $10,000 transaction in a smooth and covenient way. Maybe you wouldn't have gone with another company just because this one didn't take a credit card, but I'm positive a percentage of their customers would. Especially if they didn't quite have $10,000 to spend on windows this month, but wanted to get it done anyway. This is called a win-win-win, and it happens in capitalism all the time.

Check, check, and check. The question is, is this sane? Is it sane to aggressively incentivize people with cash discounts to buy things on credit even if they can't afford them "this month"? I'd argue that it's not, even though every individual in this transaction might come out ahead in the short term. If the financial implosion of 2008 didn't convince us of that, then I guess we deserve whatever follow-on financial collapse we get in the future.

Plus, keep in mind that I'm not opposed to credit card interchange fees. I just want them to be transparent. If everyone really is a winner from the current state of affairs, I very much doubt that Visa and Mastercard would prohibit my window installer from charging me a fee for using a credit card. So why not find out? If he did have that right, and chose not to charge me extra, it would be a strong indication that the fee is worth it to him. But if he had that right and chose to pass it along to me, it would be a strong indication that someone was trying to make a bit of monopoly rent at his expense. Why not let every merchant choose whether or not to pass along interchange fees to their customers and see what happens?

Is Cap and Trade To Blame for the Death of the Climate Bill?

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 4:29 PM EDT

Last week, longtime environmental researcher/campaigner Charles Komanoff published a piece in The Nation called "Senate Climate Bill Dies—Does the Environment Win?" I took issue with the piece on Twitter—I may have used the word "loony"—and it caught the eye of Nation editors. They arranged for Komanoff and I to do a brief debate on Grit.tv with Laura Sanders. (Why I agreed to do a video when I was working at home, had just rolled out of bed, and could not look more like a dirty f'ing hippie, I do not know.)

I seem to have gotten a reputation as someone who defends cap-and-trade at all costs—a running dog lackey of Big Green and Corporate Dems and Wall Street and so on. Naturally I dispute this! I think my position has been misconstrued, in part due to some category errors.

To my mind, Komanoff has fallen prey to what Matt Yglesias calls the Pundit's Fallacy: the notion that what politicians really ought to do, or ought to have done, to achieve political success is what the pundit favors on substantive grounds. It's one thing to argue your policy will reduce greenhouse gases more efficiently; it's another entirely to argue that it can overcome the substantial political barriers to enactment. C&T's policy competitors haven't told a plausible story about that yet.

Just to stake out a specific spot in all this:

1. Cap-and-trade was the only federal climate policy that had any chance of passing in 2010. In 2008, both presidential candidates backed it. It had the support of a wide range of stakeholders, including large corporations, military groups, religious groups, green groups, and swing-state legislators. It had been put before the Senate before and analyzed to death by relevant congressional staffs and executive agencies. Even so, it was, obviously, a long shot.

That is why I spent so much time defending cap-and-trade from attacks: because it was at hand and good enough. The progressive punditosphere is beset with pony hunters whose alternative policy would supposedly vault over all the work that's been done on cap-and-trade with the Power of Sheer Logic if only Big Green would permit it. In the end, though, all the alternative policy scuffles, including the one over the Cantwell/Collins CLEAR Act, had little effect except to sap momentum from the actual bill by turning its supporters against one another. Oh, and give concern trolls like Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) places to hide.

2. The climate bill failed for primarily structural rather than policy-related reasons. The antidemocratic 60-vote supermajority requirement in the Senate, the Republican strategy of total obstruction, and the crappy economy together basically doomed the bill. The idea that pushing a different form of carbon pricing would have made the difference is fantastical. Any policy that threatened status quo energy interests—nay, any policy at all that came from Democrats—would face the same nihilistic obstruction from Republicans and a handful of coal-state Dems. The numbers just don't add up to 60 on this issue.

3. Quasi-religious debates over how to penalize carbon (C&T; no, F&D; no, EPA!) eclipsed discussion of how to support clean energy. There was never sufficient support rallied around the policies that would drive adoption of renewables and efficiency—"the energy stuff." Those policies are more popular with the public and have more bipartisan support, but they were relegated to the role of "complementary" while all attention focused on the carbon price (read: jobkillingenergytax), which was the least popular policy in the bill.

Thus, when cap-and-trade went down, the renewable energy standard went with it.

4. CapFee-and-dividend is unlikely to spark a mass movement that will obviate the need to strike deals with energy incumbents. C&D proponents argue for something like the following: advance an ambitious policy, unsullied by compromises and side deals with special interest groups, commensurate with the scale of the problem; you lose the support of utilities and oil companies and ag groups and financial institutions and 95 percent of the lobbying muscle on Capitol Hill, but it won't matter, because you'll get The People. The masses will rally around the alternative policy because it's so logical. It just makes sense! Then we'll have a movement like the civil rights movement and bring down The Man.

I don't see it. Average citizens know almost nothing about politics and even less about policy; they don't care very deeply about climate change; they are highly cynical and suspicious of government and policy elites; the mechanisms that served to drive public discontent on civil rights (and other '60s victories) are not available to climate campaigners due to the nature of the issue -- the harms are mostly far away in time and space and the costs are immediate. And we're not just talking about persuading "the people" to get active, we're talking about creating a credible electoral threat in Nebraska and West Virginia. They're receptive to policy arguments from left intellectuals there, right?

If there is movement among The People on climate change, it will almost certainly come from something exogenous to the U.S. federal policy debate.

5. I, David Roberts, am, for the most part, policy agnostic. I have no deep philosophical attachment to cap-and-trade. The barriers to taking action on climate are so high that getting anything passed is a miracle. If a refunded carbon tax, fee-and-dividend, cap-and-invest, massive investment strategy, carbon wing-dang-doodle, or whatever else could pass, fine! I'd support them. If it's cap-and-trade, fine. If it's EPA and a patchwork of subsidies and regulations, fine. The differences among these policy alternatives are less significant in the near term than the imperative to get f'ing moving. Once we're moving, lots of stuff will shake itself out and our choices will be greatly clarified.

Of course I have my own policy preferences. If I could design my own pony it would look vastly different from the bills I've spent the past two years defending. But you can't just bypass power politics on the strength of an argument. Some folks have put so much personal investment in policy disputes that they end up thinking the defeat of competing policies is a "win" for the environment. No. Failure to act is a disaster, period.

6a. Cap-and-trade is a messaging and organizing disaster. On this, I think, almost everyone agrees. Green groups got all jazzed at the bipartisan potential of cap-and-trade after the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments and they made a classic technocrat's mistake: they put mechanisms at the heart of the message. The American electorate does not understand or care about policy mechanisms. They don't particularly care how greenhouse gases are reduced. They don't even care about greenhouse gases at all! They care about their jobs, their families, and their identities. Until climate action is discussed in ways that resonate with those concerns, it won't seriously engage the public.

6b. A shift in messaging does not (necessarily) require a shift in policy. These are the days of post-truth politics. The people battling climate action are not doing so on the basis of reasoned policy objections. They are acting out of fear and tribalism. As the (d)evolution of the bill over the last two years should demonstrate, policy compromises do not yield any reduction in the hysteria of opponents' rhetoric. Tea Party protesters aren't interested in whether carbon fees are rebated to taxpayers directly or through local distribution companies. They just don't want socialism on their energy.

If policy compromises have no effect on the political battle, then greens should pick whichever policies will work and think about the political battle as something separate, to be fought with its own strategies and weapons. Neither policy compromise nor reasoned argumentation—God bless the many folks who strive so valiantly to do those well -- is the only or even the most powerful such strategy.

Of course, all this leaves unanswered the question that animates Komanoff's post in the first place: What is the best strategy? What's the best way forward for climate campaigners? It can't be doing the same thing over again, can it? I'm sure we'll all be talking about that quite a bit in the months to come, but I'll leave it here for now.

This post was produced by Grist as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.