2011 - %3, March

All About Oil

| Tue Mar. 8, 2011 12:52 PM EST

Chris Hayes offers up two propositions today. First: High gasoline prices are bad for incumbent presidents. Second: Speculators play a big role in driving up the price of crude oil, and therefore the price of gasoline as well. His conclusion: The CFTC should impose "position limits" that restrict the size of the bets speculators can make on oil futures, and to do that three out of five CFTC commissioners need to vote for these limits:

Not surprisingly, the big Wall Street banks like Goldman Sachs don't want this, and the two Republican members of the commission don't favor any position limits rules with real teeth. To his great credit, CFTC Chairman Gary Gensler (a former Goldman banker I was quite critical of when nominated to the position) has taken a strong leadership position in advocating strong limits, and Democratic commissioner Bart Chilton has been supportive as well. That leaves the deciding vote in the hand of Democratic Commissioner Michael Dunn, who's expressed misgivings.

Now, it just so happens Dunn's term is up in June and last night MSNBC's Ed Show reported that the White House has begun vetting his replacement. This may seem obscure and technical, but given the precariousness of the recovery and political explosiveness of gas prices, nominating a replacement enthusiastic about reigning in excessive speculation may be the single most important decision the White House makes between now and Election Day.

This should make for great cocktail party chatter if you want to sound super plugged in to the inside minutiae of campaign politics. Hey, who do you think Obama is going to replace Mike Dunn with? You know, the CFTC guy. Jeez: Commodity Futures Trading Commission, dude. Try to keep up!

On a more serious note, there's still considerable question about whether the 2008 spike in oil prices was driven by speculation, though I'm friendlier to that thought today than I was at the time. This time around there are the same problems trying to figure out what's going on (the WTI-Brent price spread remains a bit mysterious, for example), but beyond that there's also the obvious fact that there are pretty compelling supply explanations for recent price increases. Saudi Arabia may still be pretty stable, but plenty of other oil producers in the Mideast, with Libya in first place, aren't. It would be strange if the events of the past couple of months didn't produce a natural price spike.

Still, reasonable position limits might do some good and are unlikely to do much harm. For reasons both prudent and political, Obama might be well advised to find a CFTC commissioner who agrees.

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A Defense of Mitt

| Tue Mar. 8, 2011 12:15 PM EST

Is Mitt Romney really a chameleon willing to change his colors endlessly and without shame in his quest to become president? Brendan Nyhan isn't so sure. He's been reading recent press coverage of Romney (He's wearing Gap skinny jeans! He's hanging out at NASCAR races! It's Romney 3.0!) and feels vibes from the media's treatment of Al Gore in 1999-2000:

In both cases, of course, detractors of Romney or Gore will argue that the candidate really is especially phony or inauthentic. Even if this is true, the problem is that the perception that a politician is phony encourages reporters to manufacture misleading narratives to reinforce that frame (as we saw with Gore in 1999-2000). In reality, almost every politician is calculating in the clothing they wear, the images they present, and the events they stage. Any reporter can deconstruct this stagecraft or write stories about how candidates are reinventing themselves (indeed, this is one of the few sorts of criticism allowed under what NYU's Jay Rosen calls the view from nowhere). But they tend to only write these stories about candidates for whom the narrative of phoniness seems to apply. For instance, Fred Thompson, the former Tennessee senator who briefly ran for president in 2008, had a homespun manner. As a result, the story that Thompson pretended to drive away from a public event in his signature red pickup truck before transferring to a luxury car got little attention.

OK, point taken. But Brendan is right: I would say that Romney is unusually willing to say and do anything to make himself more acceptable to the tea party crowd that now controls the Republican nomination process. It's not so much his new jeans or his love for NASCAR as it is his all-too-transparent effort to scurry shamelessly to the far right and pretend that he's anything other than the moderate conservative technocrat that he really is. I suppose Brendan might say that all politicians are calculating in the positions they take during primaries too, and that's true. But unless I'm way off base, Romney sure does it a lot more — and a lot more clumsily — than most.

Rick Scott: Florida's Drug Fraud Enabler?

| Tue Mar. 8, 2011 11:49 AM EST

In 1997, Rick Scott was implicated in the biggest Medicare fraud case in US history, stepping down as CEO of Columbia/HCA after the hospital giant was fined $1.7 billion and found guilty of swindling the government. As Florida's new governor, Scott is now trying to kill off an anti-fraud database that would track the fraudulent distribution of addictive prescription drugs in Florida, over the protestations of law enforcement officials, Republican state lawmakers, and federal drug policy officials. 

Without consulting state lawmakers, Scott snuck a repeal of the database in his budget this year, despite the fact that it will cost Florida no money. (It's funded by federal money and private donations.) The governor claims the database—which allows doctors to search patient drug purchases for potential abuses—would amount to an invasion of privacy, as the New York Times notes in a story about state Republicans who are at war with Scott. Lawmakers from both parties and patient advocates who fought for the creation of the database are flabbergasted: some view the resource as a critical tool in combating black-market drug traffic, the proliferation of pain clinics, and the abuse of prescription drugs.

Florida is at the center of national epidemic of prescription drug abuse. Prescription drugs are estimated to kill seven people a day in the state, and the number of overdose deaths from oxycodone alone doubled to 1,185 between 2006 and 2009. As a result, Scott has received a hailstorm of criticism from all sides, as the St. Peterberg Times reports:

"This is a step in the wrong direction," said Capt. Robert Alfonso, head of the narcotics division of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. "We were looking forward to using it…"

"It makes no logical or rational sense," said Paul Sloan, a Venice-based pain clinic owner and president of the Florida Society of Pain Management Providers. "It's absolutely absurd. This is the most important weapon in the fight against prescription drug abuse…"

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who has been a champion of efforts to fight prescription drug abuse and sponsored the drug monitoring legislation, rapped the governor for sliding his proposal into his mass of budget recommendations.

"I'm extremely, extremely disappointed with the governor and his administration for sneaking this into a...bill," Fasano said.

Scott is also taking aim at Florida's Office of Drug Control, which is charged with raising private money for the database. His repeal effort has even caught the attention of the Obama administration, whose "Drug Czar" Gil Kerlikowske is currently trying to meet with Scott to persuade him not kill off the database.

Scott has made it clear that he doesn't plan to stop with the anti-fraud database. As the New York Times adds, he's also making a big push to privatize Medicaid as well—supposedly to save the state money—while trying to give corporations and property owners $1.7 billion in tax breaks. 

So it Begins: GOP Candidates Sound Off in Iowa

| Tue Mar. 8, 2011 10:31 AM EST
Photo: Gage Skidmore

With just 610 days to go before election day, GOP presidential candidates gathered at Point of Grace Church in Waukee, Iowa Monday night for their first candidate forum of the 2012 race. Or at least some of them did—Mitt Romney took a rain check; so did Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour, Sarah Palin, and Mike Huckabee (among others).

So what did the candidates who did show up talk about? Nothing particularly groundbreaking. They bragged about their children and grandchildren, the strength of their marriages, quoted scripture, and generally stayed within their individual comfort zones. Newt Gingrich lectured on Camus and Israel and American Exceptionalism—the latter two of which he believes are being ignored by the Obama administration; Buddy Roemer spoke bluntly about cutting off oil and ethanol subsidies; Herman Cain delivered the equivalent of a PowerPoint presentation, explaining how he'd fix the country in three simple steps; Tim Pawlenty gave the same stump speech you've already seen on YouTube, delivered with a hockey-coach-as-slam-poet cadence; Rick Santorum talked extensively about partial-birth abortion, and how his kids once thought his first name was "ultra" (good thing they didn't Google it).

If you're looking for a quick analysis, Dave Weigel's grades struck me as pretty spot-on. But in reality, the night was less about the five would-be candidates who showed up, than the man they were there to see: Faith and Freedom Coalition founder Ralph Reed. Just five years after his political career imploded amid the Jack Abramoff scandal, the former head of the Christian Coalition and GOP boy wonder has clawed his way back into the role of Republican kingmaker. The 2010 midterms were something of a trial run for Reed, who rode the tea party wave with his new organization, and then rushed into the post-election autopsy to take credit for everything.

Last night, he used his introductory speech to ask for money—"every dollar that you give tonight will stay in Iowa"—and to solidfy his role central in the nominating process. "Some have suggested that we call a truce on the social and moral issues," Reed said. "I don't know about you, but I prefer to have a leader who can walk and chew gum at the same time." Reed has re-emerged as a GOP power-broker by acting as if the past never happened. And for the men on stage, that just might be a good thing; if social conservatives can look past Ralph Reed's transgressions, there might be hope for Gingrich after all.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 8, 2011

Tue Mar. 8, 2011 6:30 AM EST

As the snow falls, U.S. Army Pvt. Lamont I. Wright a generator mechanic from Ocala, Fla., assigned to Forward Support Company G, 2nd Battalion, 320th Field Artillery Regiment, Task Force Balls, provides security during a recent convoy in eastern Afghanistan's Nangarhar Province, Feb. 28. Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Mark Burrell, 210th MPAD

Happy International Women's Day

| Tue Mar. 8, 2011 4:01 AM EST

It was kind of kick-started by commies encouraging women to contribute to a great socialist empire, but anyone can celebrate International Women's Day, which is today. Russians celebrate it by buying ladies flowers. Daniel Craig celebrates it by wearing a dress while Judi Dench assaults him with stats about gender inequality.

Some other suggestions for marking the occasion? Play around on the International Rescue Committee's new Wake Up website, a multimedia campaign that, among other things, introduces visitors to women who are battling violence and disparity in unfathomably hostile environments, like this Jordanian gal. Her organization sneakily provides services to Iraqi refugee women who are being abused with impunity. Or read this profile of an Afghan prosecutor so brave her story just might choke you up. Or check out the PBS documentary about how striking lady-workers helped start the whole American union movement.

May you enjoy this empowery holiday, even if there are no flowers or large men in drag in your life.

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David Koch: Lamenting Cancer Research Cuts—and Bankrolling the GOPers Behind Them

| Tue Mar. 8, 2011 4:01 AM EST

On Friday, conservative billionaire David Koch lamented the deep federal cuts that are expected to impact both the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute—and, by extension, MIT's new David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. "If the cutbacks happen, it will significantly diminish the level of research that can be carried on at the Koch Institute," he said, speaking at the opening of the research center.  Koch, the executive vice president of Koch Industries, implored the deep-pocketed attendees of the ceremony to fill the gap with personal donations: "I earnestly ask you to do all you can to help maintain the superb research at the Koch Institute at its maximum level."

But who's responsible for making these crippling cutbacks? Some of the very Republicans that David Koch and his brother, Charles, have bankrolled in their deep-pocketed—and successful—effort to help the GOP win back the House.

House Republicans axed $1.6 billion in NIH funding in the budget bill they passed last month—5.2 percent of the agency's budget—which will deliver a significant blow to the agency's National Cancer Institute, according to government officials. Spearheading the effort has been Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the party's budget-slashing golden boy, whose office tells Bloomberg that the NIH has received enough spending increases—and that "the Democrats' 'spending spree' must stop and that priorities need to be set."

Corn on "Hardball": Huckabee's Obama Derangement Syndrome

Mon Mar. 7, 2011 9:13 PM EST

David Corn and Eric Boehlert joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss the field of contenders for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination and whether or not Mike Huckabee's recent lies about Obama's childhood have cost him a shot.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

What Women, Unions, and the Village Have in Common

| Mon Mar. 7, 2011 8:24 PM EST
Wikimedia Commons

I was watching PBS’s American Experience the other night and learned some interesting union history I thought I’d share. Namely, that the women (and children) who worked in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City really helped to found the union movement.

The garment workers—young immigrant women aged 16 to early 20s—went on strike in November 1909 for things like: not being allowed bathroom breaks, having their pay docked for mistakes made by old or malfunctioning machinery, and working 75-hour weeks. The strike improved working conditions, but not before company-hired thugs beat the strikers, some multiple times. Despite the strike, which coincided with strikes by tens of thousands of New York garment workers, Triangle employees gained few concessions from management and did not unionize. In 1911, a devastating fire demonstrated just how badly changes were needed.

Fire broke out on March 25 in the multistory Triangle factory and fatalities were especially high because bosses had locked the only available exit door. The door was locked because the employers insisted on searching every worker before he or she left, to make sure they weren’t stealing from the company. The only fire-fighting equipment on the manufacturing floor (which was covered with cotton scraps) was a few buckets of water. The workers inside had nowhere to go (the lone fire escape stairway crumpled into ribbons from the heat), and even the fire department's ladders were not equipped to reach the 9th floor of the Triangle building. In total, 146 people died.

The fire kick-started the move for worker's rights. Shortly after, the New York State Factory Investigating Committee was formed and passed lot of legislation, including minimum wage guidelines, minimum age laws, work hour limitations, fire safety requirements, and laws governing proper light, toilet facilities, and ventilation. To learn more about Triangle, and how it affected the formation of national unions, you can go to the AFLCIO’s explainer here or watch the moving American Experience episode on PBS here.

What is Mitt Romney's Problem?

| Mon Mar. 7, 2011 7:03 PM EST

Jon Cohn sends us to Joe Klein's latest head scratching over Mitt Romney:

Romney remains a mystery to me: He's smart, he was a good governor, he's essentially a responsible moderate-conservative...but he has made an utter fool of himself flip-flopping and fudging--and taking wildly stupid positions (against the START treaty, for example) on issues about which he knows little or nothing. It almost seems a personality disorder. In this case, his efforts to distance himself from his own, essentially successful program, are particularly pathetic. If the man had the tiniest smidgeon of courage, he would make a conservative argument in favor of universal health care--it liberates a great deal of potential economic energy (all those would-be entrepreneurs now stuck in stultifying corporate jobs because they don't want to leave their health plans). Or he would simply plead humanity: it's inhumane for an industrial giant not provide health care for all its citizens.

But no. Instead we get the embarrassing spectacle of an intelligent man acting like a semi-coherent jerk.

This isn't really a mystery, is it? Romney's a moderate conservative who figured out sometime between 2006 and 2008 that it was no longer possible for a moderate conservative to win the Republican nomination for president. The events of the past two years have made this even clearer than before, but Romney really, really wants to be president. His only option, then, is to pretend to be a tea party conservative, but both his past record and his weak acting skills make this really hard to pull off. So he ends up sounding like a semi-coherent jerk.

This is common knowledge, isn't it?