2011 - %3, March

What the People Want

| Thu Mar. 3, 2011 2:04 AM EST

A new NBC/WSJ poll tells us that Democrats, if they could manage to agree on a halfway coherent message, most likely hold all the cards in a budget showdown:

The survey [...] listed 26 different ways to reduce the federal budget deficit. The most popular: placing a surtax on federal income taxes for those who make more than $1 million per year (81 percent said that was acceptable), eliminating spending on earmarks (78 percent), eliminating funding for weapons systems the Defense Department says aren’t necessary (76 percent) and eliminating tax credits for the oil and gas industries (74 percent).

The least popular: cutting funding for Medicaid, the federal government health-care program for the poor (32 percent said that was acceptable); cutting funding for Medicare, the federal government health-care program for seniors (23 percent); cutting funding for K-12 education (22 percent); and cutting funding for Social Security (22 percent).

Those numbers, GOP pollster McInturff says, “serve as a huge flashing yellow sign to Republicans ... if they are going to start to talk about changes to Medicare and Social Security.”

Roger that. The tea party might have different priorities, but the tea party is still a pretty small part of America no matter how loudly they yell or how much attention the media pays to them. Out in real America, people want to tax the rich, cut stupid weapons programs, and stop subsidizing prosperous oil companies. They don't want to cut Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, or education.

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Quote of the Day: Huckabee on Healthcare

| Wed Mar. 2, 2011 9:05 PM EST

From Mike Huckabee, explaining why he's putting off a decision to run for president:

If I run, I walk away from a pretty good income. I don’t want to walk away any sooner than I have to because frankly, I don’t have a lot of reserve built up....One thing I committed to myself, to my wife and God, was that if I do this I’m hopefully going to be in a position that I’m not so completely destitute at the end of it, that I have no idea what to do if I get sick.

Yep, it's a drag that destitute people in America have big problems if they get sick. Perhaps this is something Huckabee should have an interest in fixing?

Yawning Along With the GAO

| Wed Mar. 2, 2011 8:44 PM EST

One of the problems with the GAO's report on government inefficiency is that the vast bulk of it is just eye-glazing stuff. It's all about coordinating this, doing better data collection on that, calculating ROI for something else, and performing better oversight on yet another thing. Yawn. What's more, some of the most interesting big ticket items are already being addressed. Take improper payments. GAO estimates that the federal government pays out a whopping $125 billion per year that it shouldn't. Here's a chart:

There's no question this is real money. But President Obama has already issued a series of orders aimed at reducing improper payments, and last year Congress passed the Improper Payments Elimination and Recovery Act, designed to "to enhance reporting and recouping of improper payments." The goal is to reduce that $125 billion figure by $50 billion over the next two years.

So that's already on the docket. Among other big ticket items that I've picked out of the report, tax expenditures are probably off the table because Republicans won't vote for anything that Grover Norquist defines as a tax increase; ethanol subsidies are probably off the table because small farm states control the U.S. Senate; IRS efficiencies are probably off the table because Republicans don't want the IRS to be more efficient at collecting taxes from rich people; and negotiating better prices for VA/DOD prescription drugs probably won't go anywhere because Republicans are already on record as believing that it's unfair for the U.S. government to reduce pharmaceutical industry profits.

There's other stuff in the report that I haven't gotten to yet. The entire Pentagon procurement section, for example. But aside from that, it's mostly small-ticket stuff that depends on better reporting/coordination/oversight and might or might not produce any benefits. I'll let you know if anything further catches my eye.

Corn on "Hardball": Huckabee's Birther Lies

Wed Mar. 2, 2011 7:00 PM EST

David Corn and Joan Walsh joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss Mike Huckabee's recent boneheaded birther remarks and the racist undercurrent to the birther movement.

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

Are GOPers Playing Politics With Military Gear?

| Wed Mar. 2, 2011 6:31 PM EST

[UPDATE: Today, the Washington Post's Dana Milbank follows up on this story and updates my numbers: Turns out Rep. Bill Young hasn't gotten $26,350 in contributions from the builders of the Humvee. He's gotten $80,000.]

You probably don't know C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.), the chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee. But the folks who make Humvees sure do: Since 2003, AM General has given Young at least $26,350 through its political action committee and 11 of its top executives. Their CFO and his wife have poured more than 10 grand into Young's reelection coffers. Last year, the automaker's PAC also gave $5,000 to Young's GOP colleague on the panel, Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey.

Why's that interesting? From today's Defense News:

Members of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee have refused to allow the Pentagon to shift $1.2 billion because the U.S. Army wants to stop buying Humvees...the Army planned to stop buying Humvees in 2011, but the lack of an appropriations bill means there are hundreds of millions of dollars still slated to buy them.

The biggest single chunk of reprogrammed funds - $864 million - would be moved from Humvee purchases and used to buy gear to protect forward operating bases...The gear would fill a request from Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, for fixed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sensors, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told House appropriators during a March 2 hearing.

It makes sense that the Army is ready to do away with Humvees: They're about as safe, efficient, and useful in the war zone as a civilian Hummer is on the streets of Lower Manhattan. IEDs do nasty things to Humvees, and so they've been passed by for other, heavier vehicles in the field. And since the majority of service members in Iraq and Afghanistan are vulnerable to rocket and mortar attacks on their bases, the military would like to take its Humvee money and beef up base defenses.

Perfectly understandable! So why the holdup? Ask Rep. Young. He "said the panel is worried about the cost that would be incurred should the Army decide to restart the Humvee program down the road," Defense News reported. So, a GOP congressman won't kill an obsolete defense program to free up money for immediate lifesaving gear, because there's a chance that obsolete program might make a comeback. (Maybe we should start stockpiling slings and arrows, too. You know, just in case.) That's one explanation. Another is that Young and other Republicans on the subcommittee want to do right by the Humvee's manufacturer, AM General. Either way, Defense Secretary Bob Gates is not pleased:

Gates said the House Appropriations defense subcommittee is the lone holdout among the four defense oversight committees that must approve reprogramming.

"[O]ur troops need this force protection equipment and they need it now," the secretary said. "Every day that goes by is one more day they will do without. Every day that goes by without this equipment, the lives of our troops are at greater risk."

The Pentagon wants to get this equipment on contract immediately so the systems can be delivered to Afghanistan before fighting intensifies in the spring.

"We should not put American lives at risk to protect specific programs or contractors," Gates said.

We should always be skeptical when the US military establishment inserts itself into the US political process. But in this case, a little military assertiveness isn't necessarily a bad thing. Republicans enjoy a reputation for hawkishness, and as a result they often have fewer qualms about messing with military budgets than Democrats, who fear appearing "weak on defense." Last year, for instance, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) held White House nominations hostage to steer an Air Force tanker contract to a foreign plane maker with a plant in his district. Last month, the Air Force struck back. And it appears that the DOD will again assert itself against Young's GOP-led panel. Whether that will be any consolation to the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan remains to be seen.

BREAKING: Danish CEOs on Verge of Collapse

| Wed Mar. 2, 2011 6:13 PM EST

This comes from Politiken, but it sure sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Since 2008 when the crisis hit, outlays for directors [i.e., CEOs] at the 16 largest Danish companies have increased by 23 percent....This compared to general labour market wage rises of just over nine per cent in the same period.

....Carlsberg Chairman Povl Krogsgaard-Larsen defends the fact that his two directors shared DKK 39 million last year — 30 percent more than in 2008.  “If we are to ensure the most motivated and talented executives, who are willing to work 25 hours per day and risk their health, we should be able to offer salaries close to those paid abroad,” Krogsgaard-Larsen says.

Actually, I take that back. Even in America, I don't think anyone would quite have the balls to claim that their executives deserved outsize pay packages because they were "risking their health" by working so hard. In the BS department, apparently Wall Street has met its match.

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My First and Only Stamp Collecting Post

| Wed Mar. 2, 2011 4:56 PM EST

Ryan Avent links to a report that the market for rare stamps is heating up:

The wave of Chinese money that has crashed through the markets for fine wine, art and antiques is now flooding into the altogether sleepier world of stamp collecting. At an auction in Hong Kong this week, a rare block of four stamps from the Cultural Revolution sold for HK$8,970,000 (US$1.1m) — an all-time record for a Chinese stamp or multiple. Including a 15 per cent buyer’s fee, the anonymous buyer paid over US$1.3m for the stamps.

This reminds me of something totally unrelated to Ryan's point, namely that it's surprising how inexpensive lots of old stamps are. A couple of weeks ago I noticed a dusty stamp album sitting in one of my bookshelves and realized that I'd never actually opened it up. I don't know where it came from, but it's dated 1940 and I assume it must have been my father's.

Anyway, I took a look inside, and on the very first page there was a stamp from 1851. This was part of the second series of stamps ever released in the United States — issued before the perforated stamp revolution of 1857 — and you'd think it might be worth something, even in used condition. But no. According to this site, it's worth at most either $70 or $7 depending on whether it's orange-brown or dull red. What do you think? Looks like orange-brown to me, which makes it worth $70. Maybe.

Cheap! And that's for one of the earliest stamps ever issued in America. I guess stamp collecting must be a pretty accessible hobby — though they make up for the low prices with a fantastic array of varieties and special issues. Still, a bargain compared to coin collecting.

Why is Huckabee Talking to Bryan Fischer?

| Wed Mar. 2, 2011 4:43 PM EST

Yesterday, we flagged an interview in which possible GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee alleged that President Obama developed an anti-colonialist worldview because he was raised by his father and grandfather in Kenya. Huckabee later clarified that he misspoke—he meant to say that Obama was raised by his father and grandfather in Indonesia. Which is also incorrect. Today he doubled down in an interview with the American Family Association's Bryan Fischer, explaining that while his words have been distorted, he really does believe that the Mau Mau Revolution has deeply influenced Obama's thinking.

Adam Serwer says Huckabee threw conservatives under the bus, but maybe the larger concern isn't what Huckabee said but who he said it to. Why is Mike Huckabee appearing on Bryan Fischer's radio show? Let's review the record: Fischer has previously argued that gay sex is "domestic terrorism," that Native American societies were a "slop bucket" that deserved to be wiped out by Christians, that the President is a "fascist dictator," that Muslims should be banned from serving in the military, that gays literally caused the holocaust, and that grizzly bears should be slaughted to appease an angry God.

There's no evidence that Huckabee agrees with any of that, but Fischer's radical views aren't exactly unknown—and it's not the first time Huckabee's been on the show. We've contacted Huckabee's PAC for a response; we'll let you know if we hear back.

BP's Back in Deep Water, Baby!

| Wed Mar. 2, 2011 2:56 PM EST

On Monday, the Department of the Interior green-lighted the first deepwater drilling permit since BP's Deepwater Horizon rig blew up last year and ruined a big piece of the world for a lot of people for a very long time. But, as the National Journal figured out, nearly half of that well is owned by...BP.

"This permit was issued for one simple reason: the operator successfully demonstrated that it can drill its deepwater well safely and that it is capable of containing a subsea blowout if it were to occur," said the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement in a press release. Noble Energy, which owns 23 percent of the well, says that it will be responsible for handling all the operations of the well.

An agency spokesman says to "expect further deepwater permits to be approved in coming weeks and months based on the same process that led to the approval of this permit." That process includes, of course, meeting BOEMRE's much-touted "Important New Safety Standards," so there's nothing to worry about. Though the Important Standards can't require drillers to guarantee potential spills won't kill a bunch of baby dolphins or coat the ocean floor in a blanket of death long after a disastrous explosion.

Colbert: "Why Not Make it Official? Let the Rich Start Their Own Country."

| Wed Mar. 2, 2011 2:30 PM EST

Our new issue's cover package on the new plutocracy has gotten a record response—more than two million people have looked at the income inequality charts that accompanied Kevin Drum's piece. Among them, it turns out, was Stephen Colbert, who built a segment around the package in Tuesday's show and offered a simple, brilliant solution. Over to you, Stephen.