2011 - %3, May

The NBA's Full-Court Press Against Homophobia

| Thu May 19, 2011 4:19 PM EDT

The Miami Heat handed it to the Chicago Bulls Wednesday in the NBA East Conference finals second game, and breaks in the action featured the usual: commercials for sports drinks. Beer. Razors. Cars. Deodorant. Oh, and a public service announcement on gay slurs and why you shouldn't use them:

Yeah, you saw right. That's Grant Hill and Jared Dudley of the Phoenix Suns, lending their voices to a spot produced by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, or GLSEN. "Using gay to mean dumb or stupid?" says Hill. "Not cool." A sentiment probably very much appreciated by the Suns' newly out president, Rick Welts.

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The Laws of Economics

| Thu May 19, 2011 2:50 PM EDT

Ezra Klein highlights this interesting passage from Tim Harford about the problems that the Great Collapse exposed in the economics profession:

In terms of how economics needs to change in light of the crisis, where I would put my emphasis is not so much in behavioural economics, though I have no problem with it — it’s a very interesting area and it’s producing really important insights — but I think it’s more about engaging with the world, and the institutions of the world as it is. Economists got too used to reasoning in fairly abstract ways, without looking at the details of what was actually going on. If, as an economist, you’d looked at the way sub-prime loans were being sold, and the kinds of contracts that were being written and the financial instruments that were being created, you don’t need any mysterious appeal to psychology to explain the disaster. You just need to have been paying attention. That’s not to write off behavioural economics — but it’s just not true that behavioural economics was the single thing that was missing, that if only we’d had it, there would have been no crisis.

I think this is an interesting insight, but I'd make it more broadly. One of the interesting things about economics as a science is that its basic laws change all the time. This is quite unlike, say, physics, where the applications change but the basic laws of the universe don't.1 But the laws of economics are just fundamentally different in a barter economy vs. a money economy vs. a banking economy vs. a fiat money economy vs. a credit economy etc. etc. Keynes' great opus on unemployment literally couldn't have been written a century or two before 1936 because unemployment wasn't even a well-defined concept in the pre-industrial age.

So here's my guess: in the past, we could at least take solace in the fact that the basic structure of the economy didn't change very fast. But now it does. And the changes in the financial sector over the past few decades — which are part cause and part effect of the globalization and computerization of finance — have cumulatively produced enough quantitative change in the structure of the economy that it's finally become a qualitative change, one that I'm not sure the economics profession has entirely grasped yet. Long story short, the laws that govern the economy of 2011 are fundamentally different than the laws of only 20 or 30 years ago. And Harford is right: understanding how the financial sector has changed, and how that's changed the basic functioning of the economy, is really important. The question is whether modern economists are smart enough to figure out what the new laws are before the economy has changed on them yet again.

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: I am not an economist. I might be completely full of hooey about this. But then again, maybe not.

1New physical laws are discovered periodically, of course, but those laws have always been in operation. We just didn't know it. Conversely, once you get beyond supply and demand, many of the laws of economics actually change as the nature of the economy changes.

Massey Energy Caused Blast, Report Says

| Thu May 19, 2011 2:39 PM EDT

"Something bad is going to happen," Gary Quarles, a worker inside Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, told at least three people on Easter weekend last year. Large parts of the mine had filled with water, impeding the flow of air that would normally remove dangerous accumulations of methane. And there wasn't enough crew and functioning equipment to tamp down clouds of explosive coal dust. As workers returned to the mine on April 5th, some of them commented that it was stuffy and miserably hot inside. At around 3 p.m. that afternoon, a massive explosion ripped through the shaft and killed 29 men—the worst mining accident in 40 years.

The recollections of Quarles and other surviving miners feature prominently in a damning report on the UBB disaster released today. Put together by an independent team of investigators appointed by West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin, it reads less like a government tome at times than a nonfiction novella. Quarles, who is described as a big man and "a good guy" preoccupied by a divorce and the welfare of his two children, is the narrative's Cassandra. "When I get up in the mornings, I don't want to put my shoes on," he tells a friend. "I'm just scared to death to go to work."

The investigation firmly pins blame for the accident on Massey. "The story of Upper Big Branch is a cautionary tale of hubris," it concludes. "A company that was a towering presence in the Appalachian coalfields operated its mines in a profoundly reckless manner, and 29 coal miners paid with their lives for the corporate risk-taking."

The report's blunt tone reflects the clearer picture that has emerged since investigators began probing the causes of the accident more than a year ago. But it also underscores Massey's faded political clout. In January, Massey was acquired by Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources in a deal that made Alpha the nation's second-largest coal company while retiring Massey's tarnished name.

Democrats Challenge GOP's "Super-Duper PAC"

| Thu May 19, 2011 1:53 PM EDT

A pair of Democratic strategists have challenged right-wing lawyer James Bopp and his new scheme to use members of Congress to drum up unlimited cash for what you might call the GOP's new "super-duper" PAC.

In a letter to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) sent today, Monica Dixon and Ali Lapp, the directors of two new super PACs intended to bolster congressional Democrats in 2012, have questioned the legality of Bopp's new venture, simply called "Republican Super PAC." While federal law caps campaign donations directly to candidates at $2,500 a year, Bopp's plan would harness the fundraising prowess of politicians to funnel donations to Bopp's outfit—the donors could even tell Republican Super PAC to earmark their money for particular race. The key, Bopp told my colleague Stephanie Mencimer, is that "coordination only applies to spending, not to the fundraising." What Bopp's saying is that while PACs like his cannot directly coordinate with candidates or elected officials on TV ads, mailers, or other types of campaigning, it's perfectly legal to ask candidates to raise money for his PAC.

Dixon and Lapp, however, want the FEC to take a look at Bopp's strategy and declare if it's legal or not. Pointing to federal statute, their attorneys say that Bopp's plan "would appear to prohibit [federal elected officials, candidates for federal office, and national party committee members] from soliciting unlimited individual, corporate, and union contributions on behalf of" PACs like Bopp's. In an accompanying statement Dixon and Lapp said: "We are seeking immediate clarification from the FEC in order to ensure that our organizations operate fully within the law and in order to assure operational equivalency between Republicans and Democrats."

Which is to say, if the FEC approves of what the other guys are doing with their super-duper PAC, we should be able to do it as well.

Here's the full letter:

Advisory Opinion Request - IE PAC Solicitations

Goodwin Liu and the Politics of Personal Pique

| Thu May 19, 2011 1:50 PM EDT

Goodwin Liu is a smart, accomplished, liberal constitutional lawyer who's been nominated for a seat on the 9th Circuit Court. Lots of conservatives support him, but his confirmation looks increasingly unlikely regardless. Yesterday Adam Serwer tried to figure out why Republicans are so hellbent on blocking his nomination:

The real reason Republicans are trying to block Liu is this: Because of his youth (he’s 39), intelligence and outlook, he’d be a tempting choice the next time a spot opens up on the Supreme Court.

But I think Adam's take today is much closer to the truth:

Senate Republicans appear poised to filibuster the nomination of Goodwin Liu to the 9th Circuit Court of appeals, and they’ve settled on their reason why: Liu was awful mean to Justice Samuel Alito. As the Legal Times reports, Senators Lindsey Graham, John McCain, and Johnny Isakson all cited Liu’s testimony against Alito’s nomination as a reason for blocking him.

Yep. Liu is plenty liberal, which gives Republicans cover for voting against him. But honestly, it's mostly pique that's driving this. Here's conservative Jonathan Adler writing about Liu over a year ago:

I believe Senate Republicans are likely to oppose Prof. Liu for multiple reasons. First, Prof. Liu Chairs the Board of Directors the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy. This is not the sort of thing that should be disqualifying for a federal judgship, to be sure. Yet Senate Democrats firecely opposed, and ultimately blocked, confirmation of Peter Keisler to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, largely because he was a co-founder of the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies (where he is also now Chairman of the Board).

Second, Prof. Liu was an outspoken critic of President Bush’s nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. He co-authored an ACS report critical of Judge Alito’s record on death penalty cases and, more importantly, testified against then-Judge Alito’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. In his testimony, Prof. Liu argued that Senators should consider a nominee’s “judicial philosophy” and suggested that Judge Alito should fail such a test. According to Prof. Liu, then-Judge Alito was “at the margin, not the mainstream,” and that the America envisioned by his record on the bench “is not the America we know. Nor is it the America we aspire to be.” I suspect Senate Republicans will remember this testimony when considering Prof. Liu’s nomination.

Judicial nominations have spun out of control over the past couple of decades, and there's blame to go around on this. Conservatives have never forgiven liberals for the Bork/Ginsburg/Thomas trifecta of the late 80s and early 90s. Liberals continue to seethe over Orrin Hatch's transparent abuse of the blue slip rules in the aughts. Both sides are convinced that the other is dedicated to nominating extremists to the bench.

I don't know what the answer is. As a matter of policy, I believe that presidential nominations should get considerable deference. Conservative presidents are going to nominate conservative judges and liberal presidents are going to nominate liberal judges, and both sides should accept that. But there's always a but, and in this case it's whether there's genuinely a line that separates the merely ideological from the recklessly extreme. There probably is, but I've never heard anyone explicate it in an actually usable way. Maybe some nice bipartisan commission ought to take a crack at it.

Jon Huntsman's Climate Problem

| Thu May 19, 2011 1:36 PM EDT

Jon Huntsman is gaining traction as the notably less-unelectable potential GOP presidential candidate. So far, he hasn't said or done anything (ahem, Gingrich) that hurts his prospects. Unless, that is, you count his remarkably sane comments on climate change.

Time's recent profile of Huntsman, until recently the Obama adminstration's ambassador to China, is most notable for all the policy areas that Huntsman declined to weigh in on (including Afghanistan, Libya, or any specific issue on which he differs from either Obama or his fellow Republicans). But in excerpts of the interview released this week the potential candidate does offer his thoughts on both climate change and the policies with which to address it. And while he now rejects cap and trade, he doesn't dispute the underlying science:

You also believe in climate change, right?
This is an issue that ought to be answered by the scientific community; I’m not a meteorologist. All I know is 90 percent of the scientists say climate change is occurring. If 90 percent of the oncological community said something was causing cancer we’d listen to them. I respect science and the professionals behind the science so I tend to think it’s better left to the science community -- though we can debate what that means for the energy and transportation sectors.

It's a refreshing position coming from mainstream (if moderate) Republican, but does it go too far for his partymates? So it seems. The Competitive Enterprise Institute's Chris Horner unleashed a storm of barely readable crazy at the American Spectator lambasting Huntsman's statement. Writing at Commentary, Jonathan S. Tobin demand a Tim Pawlenty-style apology from Huntsman renouncing his climate views. (Lisa Hymas has more on the right-wing response over at Grist.)

Huntsman and Pawlenty aren't the only GOP contenders with green skeletons in their closet. Romney has taken a similar position Huntsman, maintaining that climate change is happening but disavowing his previous support for measures to address it. Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, prefers to pretend that whole climate kumbaya moment on the couch with Nancy Pelosi never happened.

But Huntsman also has an additional problem. He doesn't think that gay people are the scourge of the earth and perhaps may even be entitled to some basic rights, which could turn out to be a bigger headache for him than that whole climate thing.

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Crossroads GPS's New Target: Health Care Waivers

| Thu May 19, 2011 1:04 PM EDT

The right has found its newest political weapon against Obama and the Democrats, revving up its attacks on health care waivers even as accusations of political favoritism have proved spurious. Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies—the dark money sister group to Karl Rove's American Crossroads—has released a new attack ad that accuses "union bosses"  of "shov[ing] health care down our throats," then getting a free pass from the new rules imposed by the Affordable Care Act. In a spot more reminiscent of an action movie trailer than a political ad—complete with ominous music, rolling thunderclouds, and melodramatic cinematography—Crossroads GPS presents union leaders as thuggish, Scorcese-style villains who've made covert deals with the White House:

The ad points out that the Obama administration has granted 185 waivers to labor unions, accusing the White House of granting political favors to political allies. In an email accompanying the ad, Crossroads GPS rehashes accusations from prominent Republicans this week that Nancy Pelosi—as well as Harry Reid—were handing out political favors through the waiver process. "Earlier this week we discovered a large number of Obamacare waivers being granted in Nancy Pelosi's congressional district, and in the state of Nevada, where the two top Democrats in Congress reside," said Crossroads GPS communications director Jonathan Collegio. "The HHS [Health and Human Services] Department, which grants waivers, has yet to tell the public on what criteria they grant waivers, but appearances indicate that waivers are being given to the politically connected."

In actuality, the Obama administration has very clearly laid out the criteria for granting waivers, as well as has detailed the individual companies and policyholders who've reveived them them, which the Department of Health and Human Services has  listed on its website. The waivers don't exempt these companies from the entirety of federal health reform: rather, most grant a temporary reprieve from a provision that outlaws health insurance that provides less than $750,000 in annual benefits, giving them more time to adjust to the law.

As I reported this week, such waivers in Pelosi's district came through a third-party company that applied for them en masse without any contact with or assistance from the minority leader's office. Labor unions have asked for an exemption from complying to the new rules in part because collective bargaining agreements have restricted their ability to make sudden changes to their health policies. What's more, some 94 percent of applicants have been granted waivers, ranging from big franchises like Ruby Tuesday's to small local restaurants, dispelling the notion that unions and other Democratic allies have received special treatment.

To be sure, the White House could have done a better job explaining the waiver process. But like Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, and Sarah Palin, Crossroads GPS has conveniently chosen to ignore this reality in the name of launching another fact-free political attack.

Tom Coburn Is Angry at Tom Coburn

| Thu May 19, 2011 12:20 PM EDT

Sen. Tom Coburn is angry that the Senate can't seem to make any progress on deficit reduction. "The lack of leadership and initiative in the Senate is appalling," he says. Then this:

For the past several months I have been meeting with a small group of senators from both parties, informally known as the Gang of Six, that was designed to force the idle — not gridlocked — Senate, and then the House and the president, to enact a long-term deficit-reduction package. Our talks reached an impasse this week when, in my view, it became clear we would not be able to produce a balanced, specific and comprehensive deal that would improve on, and in some ways meet, the standard set by the Bowles-Simpson plan.

OK, let me get this straight. A group of six — six! — senators meeting together intensively for months can't manage to agree on a deficit reduction plan. And this is mostly because of Coburn himself, who walked out when the other five wouldn't agree to his ever-shifting list of demands. And yet, Coburn wants us to believe that even though six senators can't manage to agree on a plan, a hundred senators can. Despite the fact that, as usual, it will be Coburn himself throwing bombs from the sidelines if anyone tries.

Chutzpah, baby! Or something.

Throwing the Tea Party Under the Bus

| Thu May 19, 2011 11:56 AM EDT

Nick Carey reports that Wall Street wants the debt ceiling raised but the tea party movement doesn't:

That leaves [John] Boehner stuck between the Tea Party and a hard place. If he pushes too hard on cuts, that will rattle the Republican Party's powerful Wall Street wing, potentially roiling the markets and unsettling the broader electorate.

But backing down will also hurt him. "After accusations he didn't do enough in the budget battle, Boehner has to have something real to take back to conservatives or he's in trouble," said James McCormick, a professor of political science at Iowa State University. "He's boxed in between two components of the Republican Party. Obama knows that and is not under the same pressure."

If the Republicans falter, the search for establishment targets will kick into a higher gear — with freshmen, or those elected in 2010 seen as the easiest to unseat as they are new. "The Tea Party will almost certainly primary those they want to get rid of," said Larry Sabato, a politics professor at the University of Virginia. "They are not out to rebuild the Republican Party. They are out to take over the Republican Party and make it more like the Tea Party."

"If it takes some Republican defeats along the way to make that happen, then that is what they'll do," he added.

This scares Jon Chait, but frankly, I'm going to need more than the opinion of a couple of university professors to get my blood pressure up. They're not saying anything here that a thousand bloggers haven't already said before.

In any case, I actually see this as a bigger problem for the tea party than it is for Boehner. Don't get me wrong: it's a huge pain in the ass for Boehner because, in the end, he'll have to defy the tea partiers and do what Wall Street wants — which, on the bright side, also happens to be the right thing to do. In the longer term, though, this is just another sign of the tea party wearing out its welcome. It was a handy force for rousing the voters in the 2010 election, but there's only so much idiocy that even Republicans can put up with. Talk radio is one thing. Fox News is one thing. For the most part, they talk big but don't actually demand that politicians commit suicide. Tea partiers, conversely, do want them to commit suicide, and if they get their way the only real result is going to be more Democrats in Congress and the reelection of Barack Obama. The adults in the party understand this perfectly well, and they're going to throw the tea partiers under the bus if it looks like they're seriously screwing things up for GOP hopes next year.

So, yeah, Boehner is going to take this down to the wire. He's going to try to extort some spending cuts out of the White House. He might as well do what he can to appease the tea partiers, after all. But in the end, he'll vote to raise the debt ceiling, he'll get enough Republican votes to make it stick, and the Republican establishment is going to finally decide it's tired of the tea party if they make too much trouble about it. They already (arguably) lost a chance to take control of the Senate in 2010 because of the tea party, and they're not going to take that chance again in 2012. Either the tea partiers start playing ball with the millionaires or they're history. The history of the Republican Party is crystal clear on this point.

DEVELOPING: Shariah Bill Sponsors Still Kind of Clueless

| Thu May 19, 2011 11:18 AM EDT

The South Carolina legislature is debating a bill to halt the spread of Islamic Shariah law in state courts. Because there are no documented instances of Shariah law being forced on the good people of the Palmetto State, the bill has been criticized as superfluous, if not outright discriminatory. The bill's sponsor, GOP state Sen. Mike Fair sat down with Think Progress this week in an effort to set the record straight. Maybe that wasn't such a good idea. Here's Fair explaining the stakes if South Carolina doesn't act:

In Columbia, South Carolina, that beautiful state house right over there...you gotta walk through its gorgeous, but no horns sounding five times a day at times of prayer, which I'm told – haven't been to Michigan in a long time – been told that there are Islamic communities where there have […] in Dearborn, that’s exactly right, where with taxpayer dollars they're doing certain funded, doing certain things to accommodate Islam.

Sounds like he's really researched the issue! The good news is that the United States is in no danger of falling under the spell of a Muslim theocracy. The ACLU, which is a pretty big a fan of separation of church and state, is out with a new report this week that more or less eviscerates the myth that Shariah has unlawfully crept into American courts:

[The report] examines, in detail, the cases repeatedly cited by anti-Muslim groups as evidence of the alleged "Shariah threat" to our judicial system. The report concludes that these cases do not stand for the principles that anti-Muslim groups claim. Rather, these court cases deal with routine matters, such as religious freedom claims and contractual disputes. Courts treat these lawsuits in the same way that they deal with similar claims brought by people of other faiths. So instead of the harbingers of doom that anti-Muslim groups make them out to be, these cases illustrate that our judicial system is alive and well, and operating as it should.

There are lots of problems with the American judicial system. Fortunately, the imposition of Islamic law is not one of them. Or so I've been told; I haven't been to Dearborn in a while, though.