2010 - %3, October

I Can Predict the Future

| Wed Oct. 27, 2010 6:51 AM EDT

Flickr/Kraetzsche Photo (Creative Commons) Flickr/Kraetzsche Photo (Creative Commons)

Whatever happens in next Tuesday's midterm elections, one thing seems certain: there will be a lot more Republicans in Congress. President Barack Obama has a plan for that: an "appropriate sense of humility about what we can accomplish," and spending "more time building consensus." The thing that continues to blow my mind about the Obama administration is that they understand why they've failed to build bipartisanship, but they keep trying anyway. It's like Lucy and the football. They're doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. You know, the definition of crazy. Here's Dan Pfeiffer, Obama's communications director, diagnosing the problem to the New York Times:

Dan Pfeiffer, Mr. Obama’s communications director, said the president had "repeatedly extended his hand" to Republicans, who "made a political decision" to oppose him at every turn. "That was their choice," Mr. Pfeiffer said.

And here he is, in the very next sentence, kicking at the football again:

"Hopefully, they will make a different one after the election."

See what I mean? You may not know this, but I can predict the future. Here goes: after November, the Republicans will continue to oppose Obama at every turn and focus their efforts on making him a one-term president. How do I know? I'm listening to them. Here's Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), a member of the House GOP leadership:

Look, there will be no compromise on stopping runaway spending, deficits and debt. There will be no compromise on repealing Obamacare. There will be no compromise on stopping Democrats from growing government and raising taxes. And if I haven’t been clear enough yet, let me say again: No compromise.

Here's Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.):

The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.

As Andrew Sullivan writes, this is what the congressional GOP stands for: defeating Obama and putting more Republicans in power (and, of course, tax cuts for the rich). Democrats, of course, wanted to beat George W. Bush. But many of them—including even the late Ted Kennedy—were willing to make common cause with him occasionally. I don't see any of that from the current GOP caucus. The only mystery, as Kevin Drum argues, is what Obama will do. Will he push for Republican policy goals (as Bill Clinton did with welfare reform) so that he can at least sign some legislation before 2012? Or will he veto them?

Of course, there's a chance the whole country will become consumed with another impeachment drama and we won't have to worry about either of those things.

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Greens Go All Out for Perriello

| Wed Oct. 27, 2010 6:41 AM EDT

President Barack Obama will make a visit to Charlottesville, Va. on Friday to rally for Tom Perriello, the vulnerable freshman Democrat who has championed a number of White House causes in the past two years (see David Corn's recent profile of him). House races don't usually draw this much attention. Nor do they draw as much spending as Perriello's has—outside groups have already poured $4 million into the race.

Environmental groups have been among the biggest spenders for Perriello, whose unabashed support of the House climate and energy bill last year won him quite a bit of cred in green circles. The Sierra Club has spent $450,000 on the race, while the League of Conservation Voters has spent another $525,000 on TV and radio ads, phones calls, mailers and canvassing. Some of the ads talk up Perriello, while others bash his Republican opponent, state Sen. Robert Hurt.

Two environmental groups have also been among his top five contributors—LCV has directed $32,522 to his campaign committee, while Environmental Defense Fund has given him another $13,955. But those direct contributions are tiny compared to the independent expenditures in this race.

Recent polls show Perriello cutting into Hurt's early lead, with the Republican now averaging a four-point advantage.

Here's the latest ad from Sierra Club, which began running on Tuesday:

The Things We Google

| Wed Oct. 27, 2010 6:37 AM EDT

It's great when new readers find their way to our website, no matter how they do it. And thanks to a program called Mint, we actually get to see which search terms brought them our way. It's pretty fascinating to scroll through looking at stuff like that when you should be working. In any case, here's a selection of a dozen searches conducted over the past 10 minutes or so—with links to the articles these searchers found...

(Hey, we never claimed that all of our readers are classy.)

1. women who put items in their vaginas

2. schizophrenic obama

3. sex fiji

4. sex in American

5. Yoda of the Rumsfeld Defense Department

6. you tube gay

7. dumping toxic waste on a body of water

8. sarah palin just shut up

9. how old is Gloria Steinem

10. ku klux klan robes

11. all about pandas

And finally, the gift that keeps on giving...

12. cats


 

Counting to 218

| Wed Oct. 27, 2010 6:11 AM EDT

Democrats appear poised to suffer major losses in next Tuesday's midterm elections. Polling guru Nate Silver puts the over-under for the number of seats the Dems will lose in the House at 51—12 more than they need to lose control of the lower chamber. But some liberals are still hopeful that the Dems will hold on to a small majority—and that a smaller, more ideologically coherent Dem caucus will be more successful. The Nation's Ari Berman summarized this argument in a New York Times op-ed on Sunday (Digby agrees with him):

Democrats would be in better shape, and would accomplish more, with a smaller and more ideologically cohesive caucus. It’s a sentiment that even Mr. Dean now echoes. “Having a big, open-tent Democratic Party is great, but not at the cost of getting nothing done,” he said. Since the passage of health care reform, few major bills have passed the Senate. Although the Democrats have a 59-vote majority, party leaders can barely find the votes for something as benign as extending unemployment benefits.

A smaller majority, minus the intraparty feuding, could benefit Democrats in two ways: first, it could enable them to devise cleaner pieces of legislation, without blatantly trading pork for votes as they did with the deals that helped sour the public on the health care bill. (As a corollary, the narrative of "Democratic infighting" would also diminish.)

I beg to differ. In the House, you need 218 votes to pass legislation. A smaller caucus may be more ideologically coherent. But the person who is the 218th vote on any given piece of legislation still holds the most power. With fewer conservative Dems to choose from as potential 216th, 217th, and 218th votes, the conservative Dems that remain will have even more power than they have now. If you're talking about things like messaging and narrative, having a smaller majority might be better (and being in the minority might be best). But if you're talking about passing legislation, each additional Democratic vote beyond 218 reduces the leverage of any potential holdouts.*

Of course, none of this is likely to matter, since the Dems will almost certainly lose the House. When you're not in the majority, you don't have to worry about catering to the whims of moderates at all!

*Liberals should still try to mount primary challenges against members of Congress who are too conservative for their districts/states. Conservatives do the opposite all the time. Those sorts of primary challenges are conservatives' most effective method of making the GOP more conservative—far more effective than just hoping for moderate Republicans to lose to Democrats.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 27, 2010

Wed Oct. 27, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Richard Thomas, left, congratulates an Iraqi soldier graduating from an equipment training course on Joint Security Station Al Rashid in Baghdad, Oct. 7, 2010. Thomas, who helped instruct the Iraqi soldiers, is an armor crewman assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division's 3rd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment, 1st Advise and Assist Brigade. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Mary S. Katzenberger

Afghanistan: Not Going So Well After All

| Wed Oct. 27, 2010 2:11 AM EDT

The Washington Post's Greg Miller has a front-page response today to Carlotta Gall's recent optimistic report in the New York Times about our military offensive against the Taliban in Kandahar:

An intense military campaign aimed at crippling the Taliban has so far failed to inflict more than fleeting setbacks on the insurgency or put meaningful pressure on its leaders to seek peace, according to U.S. military and intelligence officials citing the latest assessments of the war in Afghanistan.

....The blunt intelligence assessments are consistent across the main spy agencies responsible for analyzing the conflict, including the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, and come at a critical juncture. Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

....Among the troubling findings is that Taliban commanders who are captured or killed are often replaced in a matter of days. Insurgent groups that have ceded territory in Kandahar and elsewhere seem content to melt away temporarily, leaving behind operatives to carry out assassinations or to intimidate villagers while waiting for an opportunity to return.

Hmmm. It sounds like the intelligence guys and the military guys are going to have a wee bit of disagreement when they get together for the review of Afghanistan planned for December. They have met the enemy, and it is them.

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Quote of the Day: Secret Campaign Cash

| Wed Oct. 27, 2010 1:42 AM EDT

From Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing earlier this year about corporate campaign donations in the Citizens United case:

With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.

Oops. David Savage has more in the LA Times today.

Public vs. Private

| Wed Oct. 27, 2010 12:21 AM EDT

Are public employees paid more than equivalent private sector employees? Several recent studies suggest they aren't, but AEI's Andrew Biggs thinks those studies are flawed. He's willing to accept their conclusions about basic wages, but thinks their estimates of future retiree benefits are off. California, as usual, is the example du jour:

As many people are aware, public sector defined-benefit pension plans are significantly underfunded. Using private sector accounting standards, which is necessary to make apples-to-apples comparisons, the typical public pension is less than 50 percent funded....A good guess of true public pension compensation is to divide the reported pension contribution of 8.2 percent by the 50 percent funding level of California pensions, producing a value for promised pension benefits of 16 percent of compensation. This increases the 2 percent pay advantage that the CWED study already acknowledges to a public sector pay premium of around 10 percent.

....There’s also another factor contributing to the flawed interpretation of data: Retiree health benefits aren’t counted as worker compensation. Most public employees receive free or subsidized health coverage after they retiree, a benefit that most private sector workers do not get. Given how early most public employees retire and the high cost of health insurance for older individuals, this retiree health coverage can be worth several hundred thousands of dollars over the course of their lifetimes....How much is this coverage worth? Using data from the Pew Foundation, I calculated how much each state would need to put aside each year, as a percentage of workers’ wages, to fully fund their retiree healthcare. For California, the answer is around 12 percent of pay, among the highest in the country. Accounting for retiree health coverage would increase total compensation by around 8 percent, pushing the total California public pay advantage to around 18 percent.

The form of this argument strikes me as basically sound because I've had the same reaction to all these recent comparisons of public and private sector pay: they seem OK on wages and current benefits, but don't appear to fully take into account the value of future benefits. At the same time, I'm not sure that using the 50% underfunding figure is entirely justified since a lot of that is based on losses suffered recently by pension funds during the housing crash. If investments recover over the next few years, pension funds may turn out not to be as underfunded as we think right now.

As for the retiree healthcare benefits, I'd certainly be interested in seeing some other folks try to calculate this stuff. In general, though, I find Biggs's 8% figure easy to believe given the skyrocketing cost of healthcare. But whatever the right number is, it ought to be taken into account.

Anyway, I hope that some of the organizations that have produced these reports respond to Biggs. It's a conversation worth having, and it would be nice to at least get everyone on roughly the same page about which numbers to include and how big they are.

Audio: Googling in the Wind

| Tue Oct. 26, 2010 8:21 PM EDT

Once upon a time, Google was a simple white web page with a little search bar.

Now, the company has its own Google Price Index, Google Television, a Google phone — even a "driverless" Google car.

So what's next for the search giant? Apparently, green energy.

Google announced last week that it was investing at least $200 million in an unprecedented plan to build a transmission network for wind energy across the Atlantic Seabord. Called the Atlantic Wind Connection, the 350-mile spine would allow off-shore wind farms in the waters off Virginia, Delaware and New Jersey to power as many as 2 million homes, once the project gets off the ground in 2016.

As a company, Google has drawn its fair share of criticism, from privacy advocates for example. But the wind farm project seems to have achieved a surprising amount of consensus. Both the Republican governors of New Jersey and Virginia are for it, as is the Obama administration.

To learn more about the plan, Need to Know's Alison Stewart spoke with Rick Needham, the director of green business operations for Google and a former nuclear submarine officer. According to Needham, Google's investment not only makes good sense, it makes good business as well.

This podcast was produced by Need to Know as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

States Have Clean-Energy Momentum, But It’s Under Threat

| Tue Oct. 26, 2010 7:56 PM EDT

For all the dysfunction, moral cowardice, and hamfisted leadership in the fight for a federal climate bill, there's a good deal of ambitious work being done at the state level. Cleantech entrepreneurs are finding ways to build profitable businesses nearly everywhere, but particularly in states that deliberately encourage it.

Thirty-two states do this by participating in the Northeastern, Midwestern, or Western cap-and-trade programs. Thirty states guarantee a market for clean energy through renewable-energy standards (which require electricity providers to get X percent of their power from clean sources by X year). Interestingly, Texas, Colorado, Wisconsin, New Mexico, and others have strengthened their original targets after finding them cheaper and quicker to reach than expected.Shaded states have some form of renewable energy standard.: Image: The fantastic map collection at the Pew Center on Global Climate ChangeShaded states have some form of renewable energy standard. Image: The fantastic map collection at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change

The progress isn't just on energy. Other states are changing the built environment through complete-streets policies, smart growth plans, and transit investment that reduces the need for oil.

However—you knew it was coming, right?—much of this work is threatened by candidates for governor who don't buy the potential of clean energy, don't see the point of non-auto transit, or simply demonstrate indifference to it all. Of the 37 Republicans running for governor this fall, 22 reject the science of climate change, as Brad Johnson of Think Progress found in a run-down.

California Republican Meg Whitman, Florida Republican Rick Scott, Wisconsin Republican Scott Walker, and Ohio's Kasich all promise to reject federal high-speed rail funds for their states. A frustrated Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood compared this to states trying to opt-out of the President Eisenhower's interstate highway system in the ‘50s.