2011 - %3, January

Jeffrey Immelt? Seriously?

| Fri Jan. 21, 2011 3:36 PM EST

I'm trying to figure out if I should care about this:

President Obama announced Friday that he is forming a new economic advisory council and hailed the business leader he has appointed to head it, General Electric chief executive Jeffrey Immelt, as an innovator who can advance its core mission of promoting job creation and competitiveness.

On the one hand, Immelt is already on the existing version of this board, and it doesn't seem to be a very influential position anyway. So if Obama wants to suck up to the business community by appointing Immelt chairman, there's no real harm done.

On the other hand, seriously? The head of General Electric? A company that long ago became as much shadow bank as industrial manufacturer? A company that was right at the center of the 2008 financial meltdown? A company that was part of the TARP bailout? Mike Konczal points us to Raj Date's paper last year about the potential impact of the Senate financial reform bill:

Considering the “Killer G’s” — Goldman Sachs, GMAC, and GE Capital — can be especially instructive. Their business models are quite different from each other, but they share crucial common features: each was a shadow bank that ex-ploited a regulatory loophole to avoid bank holding company supervision; each took on substantial credit or liquidity risk during the bubble; each faced the possibility of catastrophic capital or liquidity shortfalls; and each was deemed too big to fail and rescued by taxpayers.

....GE Capital is the most instructive example in this category. The firm, a major subsidiary of the giant industrial conglomerate General Electric, is one of the largest U.S. shadow banks, and had more than $620 billion in assets at the end of 2007. Because of GE’s high-quality credit rating, GE Capital was able to satisfy most of its immense borrowing needs, during the bubble, in the capital markets. As the crisis developed, and capital market conditions tightened, GE leaned heavily on both Fed and FDIC emergency liquidity programs.

[Etc.]

Substantively, the Immelt appointment probably doesn't matter much. But symbolically? It's hard to imagine a much worse choice. Was Joseph Cassano not available or something?

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Abortion and Race

| Fri Jan. 21, 2011 2:56 PM EST

Peter Kirsanow is upset that the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights refuses to discuss an explosive topic:

Black Abortions: The Forbidden Topic

....Nearly one out of every two black pregnancies ends in abortion. Blacks account for more than forty percent of all abortions in America, a rate that dwarfs that of any other race. Does anyone doubt that if such disparities existed on other serious issues, advocacy groups would be clamoring for hearings? Why the silence? Are some lives less valuable than others?

I don't know if that statistic is correct. For now, I'll take his word for it. Nor did I know that the Civil Rights Commission is forbidden by law from addressing abortion — though I can certainly imagine why it might be.

But exactly which advocacy groups does Kirsanow think should be clamoring for hearings? Feminist groups? They think abortion is OK, so there's no reason for them to be concerned if one group has a higher abortion rate than others. Civil rights groups? Only if they think high abortion rates are somehow unfair to blacks. Conservative groups who don't think anyone should be allowed to get an abortion? Bingo.

Meh. If you don't like abortion, fine. We'll all be arguing about this until we go to our graves. But trying to race bait the issue? That's pathetic.

And while we're on the subject, if you want to know which states make it easier and which states make it harder for women of all races to get abortions, check out our interactive map here.

Smoke and Mirrors

| Fri Jan. 21, 2011 1:54 PM EST

What's the deal here? Yesterday Greg Mankiw observed that increasing spending by $1 billion and increasing taxes by $3 billion might technically reduce the deficit, but it's all just a bunch of fakery. It's really only the tax increase that does any deficit reducing. Today Charles Krauthammer takes up the same banner:

I've got a great idea for deficit reduction. It will yield a savings of $230 billion over the next 10 years: We increase spending by $540 billion while we increase taxes by $770 billion....This is a hell of a way to do deficit reduction: a radical increase in spending, topped by an even more radical increase in taxes.

Did conservatives meet on Wednesday and decide that this should be their latest brilliant talking point for use on Fox and Friends? Look: the CBO says that healthcare reform will reduce the deficit because the money it raises added to the money it saves is greater than the amount of new money it spends. You can argue with this — though it would be nice if conservatives would do it honestly instead of endlessly recycling the same clumsy lies — but that's what the CBO says. The bill reduces the deficit.

And, yes, it also raises spending. Is this really a surprise? We've spent the past two years yelling at each other about this, after all. Of course it raises spending. That's the whole point. We're covering more people and expanding access to healthcare. If you don't like the idea of more people having access to healthcare, that's fine. Just say so. But if you do like the idea, it's not going to be free no matter how much smoke and mirrors you use to confuse things. No free lunches, guys.

Now, I'll concede one point to our conservative friends. Liberals have recently taken to suggesting that anyone who voted against healthcare reform is obviously a hypocrite about deficit reduction, since they voted against a bill that reduces the deficit. This is nonsense. PPACA, at best, reduces the deficit only slightly, and there are plenty of reasons for conservatives to dislike it even if it does, in the end, reduce the deficit a bit by raising taxes to cover its costs. If Mankiw and Krauthammer want to complain about that, I'll back 'em up.

But they should also be willing to concede the more important point: Democrats were basically pretty honest about funding PPACA. It's not, and was never intended to be, a deficit reduction bill. It's a healthcare reform bill. But it's a healthcare reform bill that largely pays for itself, and, by the standards of Washington politics, does it remarkably honestly. Hell, it could have passed months earlier and with a lot more goodies if Democrats hadn't been so obsessed with making sure it was properly funded. PPACA is, in fact, the most honestly funded major bill in at least the last decade, and probably in the last two decades. Does anyone care to seriously debate that?

And one more thing: there's a silver lining here. Mankiw and Krauthammer are, tacitly, conceding that tax increases reduce the deficit. Progress!

Congressional Gameplaying

| Fri Jan. 21, 2011 12:50 PM EST

Yesterday I suggested that maybe Senate Dems should go ahead and put up a big public fight over repeal of healthcare reform. Sure, they could spend their time trying to pass bills to nationalize the coal mines or set up reeducation centers for tea party members, but they'd just get filibustered anyway, so why bother? Why not spend the next month forcing Republicans to take embarrassing votes on amendments to put the Medicare donut hole back in place, or to let insurers turn down people with preexisting conditions instead?

Well, Ezra Klein had a good question about that: "As a general point, I think 'making people take semi-embarrassing votes' is vastly overrated in American politics. Can anyone think of a campaign that even partly turned on one of these gambits?" Jonathan Bernstein agrees. But Barry Pump dives into the literature and says that while it's hard to tie a specific election result to a specific roll call vote, maybe that doesn't matter:

Finally, and I think this is the most important factor, both Mayhew and Arnold argue that members of Congress believe that voters are retrospective, so whether they are or not is besides the point. They structure voting situations because they think campaigns and elections may turn on certain roll calls....Now, is that position overrated? Well, some research suggests so. But another response could be, for the reason above, who cares if it’s overrated? When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

Pump also points to Bart Stupak as a possible example of someone who was undone by a roll call vote, and I suspect you could come up with some other examples in swing districts too. But whether this strategy works or not, Brian Beutler reports that apparently Senate Democrats are looking at it pretty favorably:

A top Democratic aide tells me that leadership staffers are considering ways to make Republicans take tough votes on popular elements of the bill, as Republicans figure out if and how they'll force a vote on full repeal.

Nothing's been finalized, including precisely how they'd go about it. But the point would be to turn a global health care repeal push into something more piecemeal — should seniors pay back their $250 doughnut hole check? Should children with pre-existing conditions be stripped of insurance?

"Senior staff are giving serious consideration to the strategy of forcing Republicans to take tough votes on extremely popular elements of the health care law, including the doughnut hole provision, as well as pre-existing conditions," the aide said.

Well, why not? Maybe it'll work, maybe it won't. Probably it won't, especially so long before an election. But Republicans have made it clear that they don't plan to do any serious legislating until they're finished holding timewasting symbolic votes in a desperate effort to assuage their tea party base, so why not give it a try? At the very least, maybe it will send a message to the GOP leadership that two can play at dumb legislative games.

Repealing Healthcare

| Fri Jan. 21, 2011 12:27 PM EST

Who wrote this?

With this week’s vote to repeal President Obama’s health care reform, House Republicans struck a blow for freedom.

They struck a blow for the freedom of hospitals to avoid financial penalties, no matter how many Medicare patients develop infections under their care. They struck a blow for the freedom of hospitals to avoid consequences, no matter how many Medicare patients are readmitted soon after treatment. And they struck a blow for the freedom of health care providers to receive unending annual increases in their Medicare reimbursements, even if they fail to improve their productivity by even a fraction of what’s occurring in other industries.

Take that, Big Government.

Coming from me or Jon Chait, this wouldn't be worth a second glance. But it's from longtime center-left political columnist Ronald Brownstein, who doesn't normally engage in quite such obvious snark. It's a sign that healthcare reform really is here to stay and mainstream Washington is already tiring of Republican game playing about repeal. It's also, I think, a sign that if Republicans really do try to shut down the government come March, they're not going to have much of anyone besides Fox News on their side.

What Progressives Want from Obama's SOTU: Fight

| Fri Jan. 21, 2011 11:40 AM EST

In his PoliticsDaily.com column, David Corn takes a stab at answering this question: what do progressives want from President Barack Obama's upcoming State of the Union address? He notes he's "no spokesperson for the left. But here's my hunch: fight." Corn explains:

The first two years of Obama's presidency have yielded mixed feelings among many of his supporters. He succeeded in scoring big legislative victories with his stimulus package, the health care bill, and the Wall Street reform law. But these initiatives all were marked by compromises that disappointed progressives....

In many of these episodes, progressives saw Obama toiling hard but not fighting fiercely enough. On health care, he spent much time courting a few Republicans who ended up not helping the bill pass. At the same time, Republicans and conservatives pummeled Obama, falsely calling the bill a "government takeover" of health care and decrying "death panels" that did not exist. It did not seem a fair face-off. Regarding the recovery package, Republican leaders asserted that the measure did not create a single new job. That was not true. (The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has stated that the stimulus measure saved or created up to 3 million jobs.) The Obama White House did try to talk up the success of the package. But what infuriated progressives was that the president and his crew were not able to punch back in kind. Facing Republican obfuscation, obstruction, and prevarication, Obama and his aides, perhaps trying too hard to be reasonable and responsible, kept losing the narrative wars. The president was slogging it out on Capitol Hill, but not confronting the right-wing attack machine with sufficient might.

This was frustrating for Obama's loyalists. And the grand climax came with the tax cut compromise Obama struck with the GOPers last month. As a candidate and as a president, he had pledged to oppose extending the Bush tax cut bonuses for the well-to-do. Then -- poof! -- he was hailing a package that included this extension (while still proclaiming his opposition to that provision). It again appeared as if the president had not been willing to slug it out with the other side.

Corn writes that progressives "will be listening on Tuesday night to what Obama has to say about policy matters -- Social Security, job creation, Afghanistan. They will be quite sensitive to any hints that he's willing to follow the suggestions of deficit hawks on Social Security and budget cuts. (In this speech, Obama will continue his tightrope walk: hailing government efforts to keep the anemic recovery going, while calling for a path toward balancing the government's books.) But most of all, they will be looking for signs that Obama is willing to battle the conservative and Republican forces that politically outmaneuvered him this past year."

He concludes:

During the State of the Union address, Obama will probably do what most presidents do: cover a laundry list of accomplishments and present a shopping list of policy initiatives. In those details, there will be much for progressives to applaud. But tone will trump specifics. The overarching question many progressives have about Obama, I'm guessing, is this: How vigorously will he fight the newly empowered Republicans for what we believe in? On Tuesday night, they want to see him flex.

Political muscle, that is.

 

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Republicans Target Energy Spending

| Fri Jan. 21, 2011 11:15 AM EST

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio)'s Republican Study Committee on Thursday released a list of programs they'd like to see cut as part of the Spending Reduction Act of 2011. Clean energy, efficiency, rail, and climate programs were all atop the two-page list of cuts, reaffirming the fact that when Republicans say they want an "all of the above" energy plan, they really mean just coal, oil, gas, and sometimes nuclear.

On the cutting room floor, if the committee gets its way: the Applied Research program at the Department of Energy, Amtrak, and the Washington Metro, among other programs that help reduce energy use and develop new techonologies.

David Roberts at Grist highlights the cuts that target clean energy and transportation programs. Here are some of the major ones:

  • Energy Star Program. $52 million a year.
  • Intercity and High Speed Rail Grants. $2.5 billion a year.
  • Department of Energy Grants to States for Weatherization. $530 million annual savings.
  • Amtrak Subsidies. $1.565 billion annual savings.
  • Technology Innovation Program. $70 million annual savings.
  • Applied Research at Department of Energy. $1.27 billion annual savings.
  • New Starts Transit. $2 billion annual savings.
  • FreedomCAR and Fuel Partnership. $200 million annual savings.
  • Subsidy for Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. $150 million annual savings.
  • Eliminate the National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program. $56.2 million annual savings.

Most of these are small changes in the grand scheme of things the federal government spends money on. Notably the list doesn't include cuts to defense or, more pertinent to the energy conversation, cuts to our investment in highways. And our research and development expenditures for energy are already paltry compared to other federal programs.

Video: FBI Questioned Gulet Mohamed Without Counsel

| Fri Jan. 21, 2011 8:47 AM EST

UPDATE: Gulet Mohamed was released over two hours after he was detained at Dulles airport by government agents. He left Dulles for his home in Alexandria, Virginia, without saying much about the questioning (at his lawyer's suggestion). But as he was entering a taxi, a reporter asked, "What everyone wants to know is, are you a terrorist?" Mohamed replied, "I am not a terrorist." Here's a photo of him in the cab.

UPDATE 2: Here's a video of some of the events of this morning:

The video was shot by me and produced by the estimable Siddhartha Mahanta. Gulet Mohamed's lawyer, Gadeir Abbas, has a shaved head and a red tie. Gulet has closely-shorn hair and a beard and is wearing a greyish sweatshirt with an emblem on it.

ORIGINAL POST: FBI agents have detained and are interrogating Gulet Mohamed, an American teen who was detained in Kuwait for a month, without counsel at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, DC, Mohamed's lawyer said Friday morning.

Mohamed's entire family was waiting for the teen, who says he was beaten and harshly interrogated in Kuwait by unknown officials and intimidated and repeatedly interrogated by the FBI despite asking repeatedly for his lawyer and invoking his right to remain silent. But a customs official called Mohamed's lawyer, Gadeir Abbas, on an airport phone around 7:30 a.m. and informed him that Mohamed would not be emerging. When Abbas demanded to represent his client, he says the customs official suggested he call the FBI's 1-800 number and then hung up. (I witnessed Abbas' end of the phone conversation.)

"It's outrageous that after the manifestly objectionable treatment that the US government has visited upon Gulet that they continue to violate his rights and cause his family distress," Abbas tells Mother Jones.

The FBI did not immediately return calls and emails seeking comment. Airport officials, TSA officers, and airport police present on the scene declined to explain the situation further.

Mohamed's family and lawyer claim that Mohamed has asked FBI officials for counsel multiple times during previous questioning. US legal and constitutional restrictions generally require that custodial interrogations stop when a subject asks for his lawyer. That rule does not seem to have been followed in this case. Mohamed traveled to Yemen and Somalia, two hotbeds of anti-American extremism, in 2009 (to visit family and learn Arabic, his family says). But he has not been charged with a crime in any country.

Airport officials are now trying to force television and other media to move their setup out of the main arrival area and down to the ground transportation floor. 

Eco-News Roundup: Friday January 21

| Fri Jan. 21, 2011 8:46 AM EST

Posts from our other blogs on Blue Marble-appropriate topics.

Healthy Fight: Talking Democratic strategy on health care repeal.

Pen v. Pharma: Generic drug studies get you a journal article, patented drugs get used.

Sticks and Stones: The Hitler-ization of health care reform debate.

Minority Stake: Why 50% oppose health reform but only 37% want to repeal it.

Free Market: If it were really up to the free market, we wouldn't have health care.

Hyde and Seek: Making the Hyde Amendment law could stop all insurance for abortions.

Change of Mind: Rep. Issa was hot on investigating ClimateGate. So why not now?

Poor Choice: Rep. King wants government insurance, but only for poor people.

By the Numbers: Numbers on what's at stake if health care is repealed.

Fear and Loathing: Insurance companies reverse antipathy toward Obama's health bill.

Orphaned: Haiti's orphans still have too little food, medicine, and clothes.

 

Gay Rights and the GOP in the Iowa Caucuses

| Fri Jan. 21, 2011 8:00 AM EST

Anti-gay-rights crusader Bob Vander Plaats buddied up with Chuck Norris and played a central role in Mike Huckabee’s Iowa caucus victory in 2008. Last November, he successfully got voters to oust three state Supreme Court justices whose decision opened the door to gay marriage. Now he's got his eye on the 2012 Iowa Republican caucuses. But how far can GOP presidential hopefuls go to appease social conservatives without alienating an increasingly tolerant general electorate?

Today Vander Plaats heads the "Christ-centered" Family Leader, the umbrella organization for groups including the Iowa Family Policy Center, whose president routinely says things like, "The secondhand impacts of certain homosexual acts are arguably more destructive, and potentially more costly to society than smoking." The Family Leader, determined to make evangelical family values central to the 2012 election, has announced plans to host a series of speeches by the next batch of presidential aspirants starting with former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.