2011 - %3, July

Friday Campaign Blogging: Would You Buy a Used Car From This Cat?

| Fri Jul. 22, 2011 3:02 PM EDT

In the last election cycle, Inkblot announced his candidacy for president ten days before the election. Too late! He's learned his lesson, though, so today he's throwing his whiskers in the ring for 2012. His official campaign poster is below.

My mother says he looks shifty. I say he looks tough-minded but visionary. On a policy note, he's running on a promise not to raise the debt ceiling, which should go over well with his core tea party supporters. However, instead of cutting spending, his plan to balance the budget involves extremely punitive taxation against dog owners. I've advised him that this sends a muddled message to his followers, but he's a cat of principle and refuses to back down. He also plans to release much-needed supplies from the Strategic Cat Food Reserve and to break off diplomatic relations with Germany because they invented the German Shepherd. More details and white papers to follow.

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The Fog of War Budgeting

| Fri Jul. 22, 2011 1:44 PM EDT

Gordon Adams says that rumors that a budget deal will include $1 trillion in defense cuts is just smoke and mirrors:

Right now, the adminstration's budgets assume that war costs will be $50 billion a year over the next ten years. That is not a real number; it is what budget folks (like me) call a "plug" — we know something will go there, but we don't know what it is.

By contrast, the Congressional Budget Office uses its own "plug" in forecasting future war costs. Theirs is based on what was the last appropriation for the war, or $159 billion in fiscal year 2011. Then CBO just mechanically projects that number out over ten years, regardless of what policy might be.

So if the deal assumes that by, say, 2014 our wars all wind down to a mere $50 billion per year, that's a savings of $109 billion for eight of the next ten years compared to the CBO estimate. That comes to $872 billion over ten years, or, roughly speaking, $1 trillion.

And you never know: maybe this will actually happen. But simply saying so doesn't make it any more likely, nor does it make it any more likely that we'll avoid future wars. And it certainly doesn't force any serious cuts in the Pentagon's operating budget.

If it ends up making a budget deal more likely to pass the House, I guess I'm OK with it. But no one should mistake this for any kind of serious spending cuts. Those, apparently, are being saved for the poor and the elderly.

Oslo Bombing Roundup

| Fri Jul. 22, 2011 1:28 PM EDT
Central Oslo following the bombing of government headquarters on Friday.

A massive explosion hit Norway's government hub in central Oslo on Friday, mortally wounding at least two people and injuring at least 15 others. We'll have more details in a regularly updated explainer here.

Pawlenty Ad: Yes, We Need a Miracle

| Fri Jul. 22, 2011 12:20 PM EDT

At the 1980 Winter Olympics, a scrappy squad of college-aged American hockey players did the unthinkable: defeated a fierce, battle-tested squad of Soviet hockey super-soldiers, en route to winning the gold medal. It was a clasic underdog story, dramatized in the pretty-okay Kurt Russell movie, Miracle.

Hockey-loving, beer-guzzling Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty loves the story too. So much so that his campaign spliced in footage from the game in his latest campaign ad:

In the ad, Pawlenty reminds Americans that to overcome the impossible, "you fight, you bleed, you prevail," and that the US is "down...but not out." And he draws a none-too-subtle parallel between the country's fortunes, and those of his growing-less-relevant-by-the-poll presidential campaign.

Meanwhile, ABC—which broadcast the historic game—isn't pleased, The Des Moines Register reports:

ABC will soon be sending the Pawlenty campaign a cease-and-desist letter because the Republican presidential hopeful not only used the network's copyrighted footage but included a soundbite of Al Michaels' famous line, "Do you believe in miracles?"

"It’s a violation of our copyright and exclusive proprietary rights,” Louise Argianas, director of rights and clearances for ABC Sports, told the Register.

Argianas added that because Pawlenty's 30-second spot used Michaels' voice, she would also have to notify the announcer's agent. The ad began airing Wednesday in Iowa.

Pawlenty's campaign says the ad complies with fair use rules. But fair use is a tricky concept, one that the US Copyright Office's own statutes define in pretty murky terms.

Even if Pawlenty loses the fight with ABC, at least his ad embraces reality: it could, in fact, take a miracle to get him to the top of the GOP ticket. 

Chart of the Day: Manufacturing Back on Top

| Fri Jul. 22, 2011 12:17 PM EDT

This chart, inspired by Larry Summers, comes from Felix Salmon. Roughly speaking, it shows the relative valuation of tech companies vs. industrial companies. For the first time in two decades (and possibly the first time ever), the PE ratio of tech companies is lower than the PE ratio of industrial companies. In other words, given a choice between a tech company with earnings of $1 billion and an industrial company with earnings of $1 billion, investors today would pay a higher price for the industrial company. Generally speaking, this means that investors think the industrial company has better long-term growth prospects than the tech company.

So why has this happened? I can take a few guesses:

  • The ratio was fairly flat from 2004 until 2009 and then nosedived. For some reason, the recession had a bigger impact on tech companies than industrial companies.
  • Older tech companies, like Microsoft, aren't high flyers anymore, and new tech companies haven't gone public in big numbers. If tech companies like Facebook and Twitter were holding IPOs in normal numbers, average tech valuation would be higher.
  • Investors are still nervous about the dotcom bust and are afraid it could happen again.
  • Most of the manufacturing sectors that were in danger of losing their business to overseas competitors have already been decimated. The ones that are left are pretty healthy and unlikely to fall prey to competition from China or Malaysia.

I suspect the real answer is something else, but I don't know what it is. In any case, I'd like to see this chart decomposed so it's more obvious why these relative valuations have changed. Has it mostly been because tech PEs have gone down or because industrial PEs have gone up?

NATO Running Low on Blow-Uppable Sites

| Fri Jul. 22, 2011 11:40 AM EDT

NATO commanders in Libya have asked the United States to provide more drones. That's not too surprising, I guess. But the explanation for the request startled me a little bit:

NATO commanders requested the sophisticated surveillance aircraft after concluding that they were running out of military targets in Libya after four months of bombing and missile strikes against Kadafi's military forces and command facilities, U.S. and NATO officials said.

...."It's getting more difficult to find stuff to blow up," said a senior NATO officer, noting that Kadafi's forces are increasingly using civilian facilities to carry out military operations. "Predators really enable you study things and to develop a picture of what is going on."

Modern wars certainly present brand new kinds of challenges, don't they?

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Irate Emails From Allen West: A Continuing Series

| Fri Jul. 22, 2011 11:24 AM EDT

On Wednesday, Florida GOP Rep. Allen West dashed off an unhinged email rant to Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.), in which he called her "vile" and "not a lady." That was kind of standard operating procedure for West, who has previously called President Obama a "low-level socialist agitator." And it reminded me of another Allen West email incident in June, in which the congressman trashed his local alt-weekly, the Broward-Palm Beach New Times, in his weekly constituent newsletter. The paper had, in good humor, chided West for violating a federal law—Title 4, Chapter 1, Section 8, Subsection B of the United States Code—by bringing an American flag underwater on a diving expedition with military veterans.

West responded by writing this:

It appears that my taking a U.S. flag down to a sunken wreck (artificial reef) for us all to take pictures and video just riled up some idiot Liberals looking for anything to criticize when it comes to me. Well, doggone sorry, perhaps next time I will put on a tie-dyed shirt and jeans, dance around singing anti-war, anti-American songs, and burn a flag. Perhaps that would endear me to the delusional dummies out there who are probably just jealous because they cannot dive to 80 ft into a hard current and proudly carry an American flag. What a bunch of losers!

Meanwhile, West hasn't backed down from his aggressive language, telling Fox News yesterday that "[T]here are certain ways we talk in the military. I guess I haven't learned the DC-insider talk."

John Boehner: It's "Cut, Cap, and Balance"—or Bust

| Fri Jul. 22, 2011 11:09 AM EDT
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

As the White House demanded Congress reach a deficit deal to avert default on Friday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) sent a crystal clear message to Democrats and the Obama administration: It's the GOP's scorched-earth plan or bust.

Boehner told reporters at his weekly press conference that, despite media reports, there is no deal in the works between him and President Obama. Boehner insisted that his plan was the "Cut, Cap, and Balance" plan passed by the GOP-led House on Tuesday. "There is no agreement," Boehner said. "There is no deal in private. Our plan is 'Cut, Cap, and Balance.'"

That plan, which is likely to die in the Democrat-controlled Senate today, would slash federal spending by $111 billion in the 2012 fiscal year, and go on to cap spending at about 20 percent of US gross domestic product. According to the Center for American Progress, "Cut, Cap, and Balance" would necessitate a 25-percent cut to every item in the federal budget, from defense spending to education to veterans' benefits. And if, say, defense spending was spared, it would mean far deeper cuts to other federally funded programs.

Not surprisingly, the plan is anathema to Democrats—Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called it "weak and senseless" and "perhaps some of the worst legislation in the history of this country." The Senate voted to table "Cut, Cap, and Balance," and also announced that it would not be in session this weekend.

In his remarks this morning, Boehner, joined by a group of GOP lawmakers, blasted Democrats for not offering a deficit reduction plan of their own. "If they don't like our version of 'Cut, Cap, and Balance' that two-thirds of the American people support, then what's their plan?" Boehner said. "Our friends across the aisle aren't at all serious about doing what the American people are doing: spending less."

Boehner's flat rejection of any deficit deal with the White House, in exchange for raising the nation's $14.3 trillion debt ceiling before the August 2 deadline, contradicts multiple news reports on Friday saying he and Obama were eyeing a $3 trillion deal. That supposed deal included trillions in spending cuts as well as new revenues from an overhaul of the tax code. (That likely means lowering rates but expanding the tax base, not tax hikes, which GOPers won't accept.)

Now, the fate of any deal at all is up in the air. Boehner says he's "keeping lines of communication" open with the Democrats, who are fuming over rumors of an Obama-Boehner deal seen as too favorable to Republicans. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) still has a last-ditch plan on the table that would let Obama increase the debt ceiling but prevent political blowback on Republicans—a deal House GOPers dislike. And the White House is keeping its cards close to the vest.

Last month, the White House said July 22 was the deadline to cut an agreement to slash spending and raise new revenues in exchange for raising the debt ceiling before the US defaults. Well, today is that day, and it appears a gaping chasm still exists between the White House and Republicans.

NH GOP Politician to Unions: "Better Not F#%k with Me," or I'll Shoot

| Fri Jul. 22, 2011 8:15 AM EDT

Lynne Ferrari Blankenbeker, a Republican lawmaker in the New Hampshire Legislature, has taken union-bashing to a whole new level.

In a July 21 email obtained by Mother Jones, the New Hampshire state representative wrote to fellow legislators about a recent training stint with the Army at Fort Dix, in New Jersey. A military veteran who has served in the Middle East, Blankenbeker described learning to drive an Army Humvee wearing night-vision goggles. She also trained as a gunner, and had to this to say:

Today I got to be the gunner which was fun. The .50 cal is quite a gun! I was never ascared of the unions but they better not F#%k with me again!!! Just saying.

Blankenbeker did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Blankenbeker's relationship with unions in New Hampshire is a contentious one. The two-term representative, who represents parts of the city of Concord and says she's "generally against big government," has voted in support of right-to-work legislation, a direct affront to organized labor in the Granite State. Blankenbeker's legislative record reads like a union organizer's worst nightmare: She's backed lowering student drop-out age, opposed a minimum wage increase, and supported slashing taxes on business profits.

The president of the State Employees' Association, an affiliate of the national Service Employees' International Union, called for Blankenbeker's resignation just three months into the legislature's session for her anti-union votes. And SEA even set up a website, FireLynne.org, to push for Blankenbeker's ouster. "Your votes hurt the people who make our economy run," the site says. "We're tired of politicians making scapegoats of middle-class workers, like those who teach our children, plow our streets, and protect us during fires and emergencies."

Kurt Ehrenberg, political and legislative director with the New Hampshire AFL-CIO, said Blankenbeker's remark was "not surprising but unfortunate." He went on, "Rep. Blankenbeker has been part of this unprecedented assault on the New Hampshire middle class and working families."

Her union-threatening email isn't the first time Blankenbeker has stirred controversy with her remarks. In May, after President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden, Blankenbeker said there was a "possibility" that the Al Qaeda leader remained alive, joining a small band of "deathers" in questioning the terrorist leader's killing in Pakistan.

Nor is it the first time this year a political figure was caught threatening violence at unions and their supporters. During the mass protests in Madison, Wisconsin, in February, a deputy attorney general in Indiana named Jeff Cox wrote on Twitter that police should "use live ammunition" on protesters occupying the Wisconsin state capitol in protest of Republican Gov. Scott Walker's anti-union bill. Mother Jones broke the story of Cox's controversial tweet on a Wednesday morning; by Wednesday afternoon, Cox had been fired.

The Global Gag Rule is Back

| Fri Jul. 22, 2011 6:31 AM EDT

A House committee has voted to reinstate a ban on US funding to organizations that offer or even refer women for abortions around the world. Often called the "global gag rule" or the "Mexico City Policy," the measure goes so far as to prevent health and aid organizations from even presenting abortion as an option.

Republicans on the House Foreign Relations Committee included the prohibition in an authorization bill marked up this week. Here's the pertinent portion of the legislation:

None of the funds authorized to be appropriated by this Act or any amendment made by this Act may be made available to any foreign nongovernmental organization that promotes or performs abortion, except in cases of rape or incest or when the life of the mother would be endangered if the fetus were carried to term.

While the provision is couched in the argument that it aims to prevent American taxpayers from funding abortion abroad, it's a misleading one. The 1973 Helms Amendment already bans foreign aid money from being used for pay for abortion services. This goes a step farther and says that no organization that offers abortions at all, gives a woman a referral to seek one elsewhere, or even mentions abortion as an option is eligible for US funds.

Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush all adopted this policy via executive orders. And when Democrats Bill Clinton and Barack Obama took office, they both rescinded the rule, allowing international organizations that offer abortions to at least get funding for services like health care, family planning, or preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. Now congressional Republicans want to make the rule law.