2013 - %3, January

Is Obama's Wall Street Cop Pick as Tough as She Seems?

| Fri Jan. 25, 2013 1:36 PM EST

Mary Jo White, Obama's new nominee to head a key financial regulatory agency, has quite a reputation: Sen. Chuck Schumer has called her "tough as nails," and when the president announced the pick yesterday, he warned, "You don't want to mess with Mary Jo." But when it comes to policing the big banks, is she really such a hard nose?

Many financial reformers are psyched the president chose White, the first female US attorney in Manhattan, to head the Securities and Exchange Commission, one of the federal agencies that oversees financial markets. They say that choosing someone with fierce prosecutorial experience and success in cracking down on white-collar crime signals Obama's intention to follow through on the liberal agenda he laid out in his inauguration speech Monday, and keep banks on a tight leash. At the same time, though, White has also defended Wall Street execs in private practice, and has the backing of big shots on the Street.

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Yes, Americans Will Learn to Unlove Their Cars

| Fri Jan. 25, 2013 1:18 PM EST

Stuart Staniford is unconvinced that Americans will ever warm to the idea of relying on networks of driverless cars instead of owning cars themselves:

You won't get any argument from me that driverless cars are on the way, but the idea that people will then agree to get around in networks of super-efficient automatic taxis that they don't own is, I think, complete wonkish naivety....The vast bulk of spending on cars in the US is for irrational emotional purposes: status display, feelings of safety, etc, not simple transportation....I see this in Silicon Valley in spades; parking lots dotted with Mercedes and Porsches well suited to doing 150mph on an empty autobahn or 200mph around a race-track, none of which ever get to do anything of the sort. Maybe occasionally the owner gets a break in the traffic on Highway 1 on a weekend away, but that's about it — maybe half an hour a year that they get to do what the car is actually designed for and the car ads told them it would make them feel good doing. Yet highly accomplished and rational meritocrats will cheerfully stretch the household budget to have one of these things to show off in the driveway or the parking lot at work.

As a person who drives a Porsche and doesn't even get half an hour on Highway 1 each year, I'm obviously sympathetic to this view. But I still think it's mistaken. Let me count the reasons:

  1. Sure, lots of people buy cars as status symbols. But lots of people don't. Honest. At a guess, I'd say that at least half of all drivers basically just buy transportation and don't actually care much about cars as status symbols. And half is a lot.
  2. Even among the status obsessed—or, more accurately, especially among the status obsessed—time is the most precious commodity. Driverless cars will appeal to the well-off because they'll allow them to be workaholics for an hour or two a day formerly dedicated to driving. And I suspect that once you stop actively driving a car, you'll start to view it as much less of a status symbol. After all, how many mucky mucks who qualify for a corporate/government car service decline to use it? And it's not like a plain black Crown Vic or Town Car is really much of a showpiece.
  3. This may be a generational thing. Young people already have a different attitude toward cars than the boomer generation, and they're also more tech savvy. I suspect the idea of using a smartphone to call up a car and get ferried around will be pretty appealing and, in some circles, a status symbol in its own right.
  4. Subscribing to a car service that's fast and efficient will be a lot cheaper than owning a car, and different companies will offer plenty of different service levels (think gypsy taxi vs. yellow cab vs. limo service). When you add up all the things that will conspire to make cars less of a status symbol, those savings will loom very large for all but the very richest folks.
  5. This isn't an all or nothing proposition. It could well start out with people using a service to provide a second car, instead of owning two cars. Or it might start with the elderly. Or in big cities. Or with technophiles. Or environmentalists (better than a Prius for showing off your low-carbon bona fides). But if the technology works, this is simply too compelling not to catch on one way or another. And this is precisely the kind of thing where my faith in the free market to come up with innovative solutions is practically unbounded.

Needless to say, there are still questions of whether the technology will ever work, as well as questions of liability and legal status. If those don't get resolved, the rest of this is moot. But if they do get resolved—and I fully expect them to—there's simply no way we won't see a future of car subscriptions. It probably won't happen exactly the way I expect it to, but it will happen one way or another.

Got the Blues? Eat More Kale

| Fri Jan. 25, 2013 12:55 PM EST
Just another mood-altering substance?

Humans have long turned to substances—from beer to Prozac—to improve their outlook on life. But there's another possible remedy to the rigors of existence that doesn't get nearly as much attention: the green stuff that grows in the field, and I don't mean marijuana (though, hey, that might help, too). A new study (abstract) from Harvard researchers found a strong association between adults' levels of optimism and the amount of carotenoid antioxidants in their blood. Carotenoids are found in richly colored green and orange vegetables, including kale, sweet potatoes, carrots, and collard greens. The more servings of carotenoid-containing vegetables you eat, the results suggest, the brighter your outlook.

Of course, the researchers can't be sure that the association means a cause-and-effect relationship: It may just be that optimists are more likely to eat their veggies than pessimists, they emphasize. But unlike, say, Prozac, veggies' side effects are positive—for example, eating them improves life for the millions of beneficial microorganisms that live in our guts and keep us healthy.

If you're able to get your hands on some good product this weekend, here's a recipe for raw kale salad that may or may not brighten your outlook, but will taste really good.

DC Circuit Court Rules Obama Misused the Word "The"

| Fri Jan. 25, 2013 12:15 PM EST

As you may recall, the last few years have been fraught ones for appointments to executive branch positions. Republicans in the Senate have spent their time filibustering President Obama's appointments, thus preventing their confirmation via the regular process, while House Republicans have tried to prevent Obama from making recess appointments by refusing to agree to breaks of more than three days, thus forcing the Senate to hold sham "pro forma" sessions when they adjourned for holidays. Obama finally called out these phony sessions for what they were, and went ahead with a handful of recess appointments that Republicans had blocked.

Today, the DC Court of Appeals ruled that Obama exceeded his authority: he is allowed to make recess appointments only between congressional sessions, not during any other kind of recess. Their reasoning is based on a combination of originalism and the meaning of the word "the." Seriously:

It is this difference between the word choice “recess” and “the Recess” that first draws our attention....[In 1787], as now, the word “the” was and is a definite article. [...] Unlike “a” or “an,” that definite article suggests specificity. As a matter of cold, unadorned logic, it makes no sense to adopt the Board’s proposition that when the Framers said “the Recess,” what they really meant was “a recess.” This is not an insignificant distinction. In the end it makes all the difference.

....Finally, we would make explicit what we have implied earlier. The dearth of intrasession appointments in the years and decades following the ratification of the Constitution speaks far more impressively than the history of recent presidential exercise of a supposed power to make such appointments.

John Elwood of the Volokh Conspiracy is surprised:

It appears that the Court invalidated the use of intrasession recess appointments, which have been in pretty heavy use since WWII, and were used for a number of high-profile recess appointments, including John Bolton and Judge William H. Pryor, Jr. This is in pretty clear conflict with an Eleventh Circuit opinion and is a broader basis for invalidating the recess appointments than I anticipated. I suspect this one is destined for the Supreme Court.

Yeah, that's a pretty broad basis, all right. Not only have presidents made intrasession appointments for over 50 years, but the court seems to be saying that anything that wasn't done in the early 19th century was pretty clearly meant to be prohibited by the framers. Hoo boy.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 25, 2013

Fri Jan. 25, 2013 12:03 PM EST

Marine advisors attached with the Afghan National Army run to a compound to take cover while receiving enemy fire during Operation New Hope, Kajaki, Afghanistan, Jan. 16, 2013. U.S.Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Mark Garcia.

Bobby Jindal Thinks the GOP Isn't Right-Wing Enough

| Fri Jan. 25, 2013 11:23 AM EST

I'm more bullish on Bobby Jindal's prospects for 2016 than a lot of people I know. Sure, he's got that exorcism thing in his past, but in four years that will be deemed "old news" and no longer something worth dwelling on. And sure, he gave a bad response to Obama's first State of the Union address in 2009, but everyone gives bad responses to State of the Union addresses. That's no big deal.

What Jindal has going for him is a peculiar combination. On the one hand, he's about as conservative as it's possible to get. On social issues he's roughly a clone of Rick Santorum, and on domestic issues he's…well, he's the guy who has the brass to suggest that Louisiana should abolish its income tax and replace it with a sales tax. In other words, he explicitly wants to lower taxes on the rich and raise taxes on the poor. Even Newt Gingrich would quail a bit at that prospect.

So that's the one hand. The other hand is that, for some reason, the media is willing—so far—to buy into his story of being a reformer who wants Republicans to stop being the "stupid party." And it's true: He's actually said that. But Jindal doesn't think the GOP needs reforming because it's drifted too far right, or because it's alienated young people and Hispanics, or because it's become too absolutist and unwilling to compromise. Quite the contrary. Jindal thinks the Republican Party isn't right-wing enough. Here he is from today's big speech preparing the soil for a 2016 run:

If any rational human being were to create our government anew, today, from a blank piece of paper—we would have about one-fourth of the buildings we have in Washington and about half of the government workers. We would replace most of its bureaucracy with a handful of good websites.

If we created American government today, we would not dream of taking money out of people's pockets, sending it all the way to Washington, handing it over to politicians and bureaucrats to staple thousands of pages of artificial and political instructions to it, then wear that money out by grinding it through the engine of bureaucratic friction…and then sending what's left of it back to the states, where it all started, in order to grow the American economy.

If it's worth doing, block grant it to the states. If it's something you don't trust the states to do, then maybe Washington shouldn't do it at all.

Later, there are pleasant rhetorical nods to looking forward, not backward; rejecting identity politics; not being the party of big business; and so forth. But that's just window dressing. Jindal's vision is plain: He endorses the most stringent social conservatism possible, alongside a breathtakingly absolutist rejection of the New Deal and everything that's come since. As Ed Kilgore says, "His 'populist vision' of conservative politics is about as new and fresh as that of John C. Calhoun, and the rhetoric has been worked to death by 'anti-Washington' politicians of both parties for decades on end."

Will the media continue to tout Jindal as a "breath of fresh air" for the Republican Party? Or will they eventually catch on that he basically wants to turn the entire country into Louisiana? We'll have to wait and see. But I think Jindal has more crossover appeal than a lot of pundits think. He's got obvious appeal to the tea party base, which loves his hard-nosed conservatism and really loves the idea of proving that they're not racists by voting for a hard-nosed conservative who's also a dark-skinned son of Indian parents. (Take that, liberals!) And the press will, as usual, be wowed by the idea of a hard-nosed conservative who has a high IQ and can discuss policy issues intelligently. The fact that Jindal is singing the same old tired song, and merely wrapping it in a thin fog of policy wonkishness, will take a while to sink in.

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Americans Like Obama's Gun-Control Ideas—Unless You Tell Them They're Obama's

| Fri Jan. 25, 2013 10:18 AM EST

Americans are remarkably supportive of requiring criminal background checks to buy a gun, banning civilans from buying armor-piercing bullets, and spending more government money training law enforcement officials to deal with mass shootings, new poll by Gallup finds. No fewer than nine in ten people said they'd support requiring criminal background checks for all gun sales, Gallup found; eight in ten said they'd vote for more government spending on mental health programs for young people and also on more training for police officers and school officials to respond to armed attacks. Indeed, the least popular of the nine gun-control ideas advocated by President Obama, according to the poll, is a ban on the sale of ammunition magazines holding more than 10 rounds. And that idea was still favored by more than half of all respondents.

So what's the catch? The poll didn't mention Obama by name. Last week, when Gallup polled Americans on the president's gun-control plans and name-dropped the president, just 53 percent said they'd tell their representatives in Congress to support them.

Here are the full results:

 

We'll leave it to others to ponder the reasons for the discrepancy, but in practical terms this represents a challenge facing the president as he makes the push for new gun policies: Sell the public on his ideas while staying out of the way. 

Sierra Club Turns to Civil Disobedience to Stop Keystone Pipeline

| Fri Jan. 25, 2013 6:11 AM EST

Earlier this week, the Sierra Club announced that it is lifting its long-standing institutional prohibition on civil disobedience so that it can protest the development of the tar sands. The club's board of directors approved the change, which executive director Michael Brune made public on Tuesday. While staff and board members have previously participated in acts of civil disobedience in a personal capacity, this is the first time that the organization will take part.

The group has been mum on exactly what sort of civil disobedience it is planning. It is cosponsoring an anti-Keystone XL rally on the National Mall on February 17 with 350.org and the Hip-Hop Caucus, but says that the civil disobedience will be a separate event.

I caught up with Brune on Thursday to talk about what this means for the 120-year-old environmental organization.

Mother Jones: So is this only allowing civil disobedience related to the tar sands, or does it open it up the possibility to use it for other issues as well?

Michael Brune: Right now the board has authorized us to do this singular action on tar sands and climate. It will have a broad frame of wanting the president to be as muscular in his approach to fighting climate change as he can, with a particular focus on the tar sands pipeline.

MJ: What was it about this issue in particular that forced the change?

MB: Look at what's happened in just the last year. Record-breaking wildfires, unusual heat waves in Chicago last February, a full degree warmer in the lower 48 than we've ever seen, droughts, Hurricane Sandy, the derecho, bizarre storms happening all across the country. It's clear that our climate is already destabilizing, and it's also clear that there's a lot that the president can do to solve the problem. So we need to provide as much urgency and focus to ensure that the president's commitment is an enduring one and that his ambition meets the scale of the challenge.

MJ: Has the Club ever officially done civil disobedience?

MB: The Club has never officially done civil disobedience in our 120-year-history. There was a standing rule, an explicit prohibition on civil disobedience that the board has lifted. I don't know exactly when it was put in place, but it's been in place for decades. When it's used rarely, in extraordinary conditions, American history shows that it has done a great deal in helping to address injustices. We think that given the time we're in right now, with the threats we face from climate change, and the opportunities we face from a clean energy transition, that we need the strongest possible leadership from the president. And civil disobedience can help to provide that.

Explained in 90 Seconds: It's Cold. That Doesn't Mean Global Warming is Fake.

| Fri Jan. 25, 2013 6:11 AM EST

At Climate Desk, we like to call them—affectionately—our "pet trolls." (You know who you are. Hi!) They are regular readers that pepper us on Twitter and Facebook with one of several climate myths upon the publication of every article, sometimes with freakish speed. One of the most popular myths is this: Global warming isn't real because it's really cold outside; climate models are thus full of sh*t. So, here in 90 seconds, is our attempt to explain something we interact with every day, in all sorts of ways, from flying in a plane, to getting a loan, to betting on a horse: computer modeling.

Our video features Drew Purves, from Microsoft in Cambridge, UK, a statistics whiz specializing in modeling the climate and ecosystems. Think of him as the Nate Silver of carbon. You can read about his latest research project, a rallying cry to model the entire world's ecology—that's right, the entire world—in the latest edition of Nature.

Republicans Might Be Outsmarting Themselves on the Electoral College

| Fri Jan. 25, 2013 6:11 AM EST

Republicans, apparently convinced that they really are facing demographic doom, have been taking increasingly desperate measures to ensure their continued existence. Does this include an effort to moderate their views in order to win more votes? Don't be silly. Instead, they're trying to game the mechanics of the voting system itself. The last two years, of course, have seen a raft of new voter ID laws designed to reduce participation by groups most likely to vote for Democrats: students, the poor, and minorities. But that's not enough. The Electoral College is looking tougher and tougher for Republicans—especially for hardcore conservative Republicans, who are suffering declining support outside the South—so that's their next target.

The plan is simple: There are half a dozen states that are controlled by Republicans but that often vote for Democratic presidents. Since most states (Nebraska and Maine are the only exceptions) use winner-take-all rules, this means that when Democrats win these states they get 100 percent of their electoral votes. So what would happen if these states instead divvied up their EVs by congressional district? Emory's Alan Abramowitz does the arithmetic:

If the congressional district system had been used in these six states in 2012, instead of Obama winning all of their 106 electoral votes, it appears that Romney would have won 61 electoral votes to only 45 for Obama. As a result, Obama’s margin in the national electoral vote would have been reduced from 332-206 to only 271-267.

That certainly makes things closer. A result like that would mean that Republicans were still very much in the ballgame, just a single small state away from victory.

However, Republicans might be outsmarting themselves. If this system of divvying up electoral votes were adopted nationwide, you could make a case for it. But the unfairness of adopting this system only in states that Democrats usually win is palpable. States in the deep South, for example, have no intention of adopting a similar system, and will continue awarding 100 percent of their electoral votes to Republican candidates. Republicans are picking and choosing different systems in different states, with not even a pretense that they're doing it for any reason aside from choosing whichever system benefits Republicans the most in each state. This is so obviously outrageous that it's likely to prompt a backlash.

Democrats don't have the votes to fight back with anything similar, but they do have another weapon in their back pocket: the National Popular Vote interstate compact, an agreement among states to award all their electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the popular vote nationwide. If states with more than half of all electoral votes sign up for this, it goes into effect.

So far, only nine states with a total of 132 electoral votes have signed up. But if Republicans continue their patently shameful effort to game the Electoral College system, it might spur more states to sign up. That's what a sense of outrage can do. Republicans might want to think about that as they move forward. If they keep going, the end result might be a system even less favorable to them than the current Electoral College.