Silver Nitrate Bleg

A few days ago I went into the doctor to get a skin tag cut off (it was blocking my peripheral vision and annoying me). And cut it off he did. But first, he told a nearby nurse to get a silver nitrate stick in case there was bleeding. And there was bleeding, so the stick was duly applied.

Anyway, as this was happening I was thinking "Hmmm. Silver nitrate. I think I remember that from high school chemistry with Mr. Lantz. Stains the skin really badly and absolutely nothing gets it off, right?" Yes indeed. Stains it jet black, and as you can see above, the central spot where my skin was snipped is still jet black three days after it was applied. So my question is: just how long does it take until this stuff wears off? Any chemistry mavens around who either know or remember?

A Bit of Sunshine From Cancun?

Just got this direct tweet from one of MoJo's editors:

Hey Kevin, you want to tweet/blog link to Kate's Cancun wrap up?

Seriously? The Cancun climate talks? You're trying to tell me that I shouldn't have completely tuned them out weeks ago? That something actually happened there? Seriously? OK then. Let's see what Kate Sheppard has to say:

Broadly, the agreement accomplishes most of what observers hoped it would heading in two weeks ago: It records the commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions that developed and developing countries made in Copenhagen, establishes a framework for transparency, sets up a global climate fund with the goal of providing $100 billion in financing to developing countries by 2020, and establishes an initiative aimed at curbing deforestation.

Um, what? Actual progress? Granted, it was fairly modest progress, and apparently a decision to extend the binding Kyoto limits on greenhouse gas emissions was kicked down the road another year. As Sivan Kartha, a senior scientist with the Stockholm Environment Institute in Boston, says, it's not clear whether that one-year delay on a decision will serve as "a lifeline or a noose" for Kyoto.

Still, read the whole thing. I've been in such a deep funk over climate change for the past six months that I've barely paid any attention to it at all. I have a feeling I'm not the only one. But Kate quotes EU commissioner for climate action Connie Hedegaard, who says last year's failure at Copenhagen might have opened a few eyes. "The major difference is that people this year realized if we didn't get a result here the process risked dying," she said. "Basically it was the political will that changed."

The Noise Machine Revisited

On Thursday, Republicans filibustered a bill to create a $7 billion fund for 9/11 first responders who are experiencing health problems as a result of their work. Eric Boehlert is unhappy with the press coverage:

The fact that the 9/11-related legislation was defeated was news. Period. The fact that it was defeated as part of the larger Republican strategy to tie the Senate in knots made yesterday's vote even more newsworthy. But not at ABC, CBS or NBC. Last night, all three evening newscasts failed to report on the fact that Republicans had voted down a previously bipartisan bill designed to provide medical coverage for Sept. 11 emergency workers. At the major networks, that development was not considered newsworthy.

This is a pretty good demonstration of the difference between the liberal and conservative media machines. The reason the networks didn't bother reporting this is because everyone knew from the start that Republicans weren't going to vote for the 9/11 bill before the tax deal had cleared the Senate, so bringing it up for a vote was just political theater. And the evening newscasts don't generally cover that kind of stuff.

So why do they often cover it when the shoe is on the other foot? Because conservatives have the ability to turn political theater into real news. Once the Rush/Drudge/Fox machine gets rolling, there's genuine outrage all over the country. And that's what eventually gets reported.

For better or worse, liberals don't have this. In the case of the 9/11 bill, there was no ginned up outrage around the country, no tea party rallies, no congressional switchboard meltdowns, no sense that wow, people are really upset about this. The basic news may be the same when both sides do this, but the megaphone is completely different.

Please Be On Time

Matt Yglesias likes the Germanic devotion to punctuality:

I find the American thing where you’re supposed to show up late for everything but exactly how late depends on the precise details of the situation to be incredibly stressful. I’m really compulsive about time in a way that most people I know find very annoying. Germans (and Swiss) have this right. Pick a time and stick to it!

I agree. But it can bite you in the ass, too. I remember one time a few years ago, back when I still worked for a living, doing a roadshow thing in Europe for a couple of weeks. It was the same deal in every city: two or three PowerPoint presentations about the greatness of our product line and then everyone goes home. In Zurich, though, I never even got to finish. The invitations had said that we were going from — well, I don't remember. But something like 10 am to 11:30. And that day we were running a little late. Maybe ten minutes or so, no big deal. Or so I thought. I was last to speak, and at 11:30 the room practically started seething. Not just a bit of fidgeting or some discreet looking at watches, but loud and definite notebook closing and chair moving, people standing up and congregating around the door, etc. It was all so obvious that I just gave up, skipped to the last slide, and thanked everyone for showing up. The crowd practically bowled me over getting to the door.

I asked about this afterward and our host told me it wasn't unusual at all. In Switzerland, if you say you're going to finish at 11:30, then by God they expect you to be done at 11:30. And woe betide you if you think your presentation is so fascinating that you can get away with a few extra minutes. You can't.

Anyway, consider this a friendly warning about cultural differences if you ever have to speak in Switzerland. There's a reason that people talk about things running with the precision of a Swiss watch.

Friday Cat Blogging - 10 December 2010

The long arm of the law has caught up with me. After an excessive amount of turkey caused me to forget about my jury duty assignment last month, I'm now assigned to a jury pool for the week before Christmas. Hopefully judges and lawyers don't really want to work very much that week, so demand for jurors will be small.

And what does that have to do with catblogging? Nothing, really. But what do you think of Inkblot and Domino as potential jurors? They look like hanging judges in this rare picture of them sharing the same snoozing space without growling at each other. Usually Inkblot chases Domino away if he wants whatever spot she's sleeping in. Then, to add insult to injury, he wanders off because he didn't really want it after all. He just didn't want her to have it. This attitude is normally called "dog in the manger," but perhaps it should really be called "cat in the manger"?

And here's a contest: can you figure out where this picture has been photoshopped? There are no prizes for winning, just the warm glow of knowing that you have a keen eye for crude digital manipulation.

Is Cash King?

Jamelle Bouie writes about the social safety net:

If I were designing a welfare system from scratch, it would completely dispense with vouchers and stamps, and basically be a system of direct cash transfers to the poor and working-class, in the form of a negative income tax or some other method. As far as I can tell, food stamps, tax credits and unemployment insurance aren't efficient as much as they are ways to compensate for our country's long-standing ethnic and racial suspicion. In other words, restricting government assistance to a category is a way of keeping "those people" from spending your money on needless luxuries.

I haven't given the structure of welfare payments any serious thought, so don't take this as some kind of Olympian pronouncement. But if we did this, how big do you think those direct cash transfers would be? Bigger than EITC + Section 8 + food stamps + TANF + Medicaid? It's not a perfect comparison since not everyone with a low income qualifies for all those programs, but it's still a comparison worth thinking about. I don't think there's any question that social welfare programs are usually set up to ensure that public money isn't spent on things that the public doesn't want its money spent on, but (a) that's probably inevitable and (b) the poor might end up better off with a laundry list of in-kind programs than with a straight check every month. The generosity of the American taxpayer is not exactly legendary, after all.

Anyway, I'm not saying I disagree here. There are probably advantages to flat cash payments. But it's questionable whether this would end up being a boon for the poor.

Ask Not For Whom the Door Revolves

From DealBook:

A decade ago, a former Treasury secretary, Robert E. Rubin, left the Clinton administration to become a senior adviser and board member at Citigroup — collecting a $10 million a year paycheck with no management responsibility. On Thursday, Peter R. Orszag, President Obama’s first budget director and a protégé of Mr. Rubin, followed in his mentor’s footsteps and joined Citi’s investment banking group as a vice chairman.

....Inside Citigroup, the guessing games have already begun about how many zeros will appear on his paycheck — as well as the requisite jokes about whether his package would pass muster with the federal pay czar. Such a job typically pays at least $2 million to $3 million, according to bankers.

This is excellent news. I'm sure Orszag will use his position to rein in Citi's behavior and try to make them a more public spirited enterprise. Right?

Tax Revolt Still Alive and Well at Age 32

Just a quick note. A few years ago it was all the rage to suggest that the era of the tax revolt was over. Mark Schmitt's argument shortly after the 2006 election was typical: "Just as the tax revolt era had a beginning," he wrote, "so will it have an end. And there are indications that the end might be approaching." After all, several Democratic governors had raised taxes recently and lived to tell the tale. And our fiscal future was so grim that before long even Republicans were going to have to admit that taxes had to go up. Right?

Well, as it turns out, the tax situation has developed not necessarily to the Democrats' advantage. So what's next? Here was Mark's advice back in 2007:

The first step will be to establish an acute sense of fiscal and economic crisis. That won’t be difficult, since it’s true. The difficulty is in expressing it the right way. “The deficit” is an abstraction. As long as we accept that balanced budgets every year are not a realistic goal, the difference between a deficit of $150 billion and $600 billion is meaningless. Instead, Democrats should emphasize tangible consequences — such as a choice between cuts to vital services and a devastating economic shock versus manageable tax increases.

....A giant showdown with all revenues and spending on the table would certainly call the bluff of Republican conservatives who say they want to cut spending but have never been willing to take the political consequences of doing so. At the same time, it might allow Democrats to put on the table some of the tangible benefits of additional revenues, such as funding for expanded health coverage or for real economic security programs to help workers manage the risks of the economy.

....The risk here is of putting too little on the table rather than too much. If the fight is just about extension of a particular tax provision, it will be hard to win. And if politicians aren’t willing to talk honestly about the magnitude of the changes necessary, the default will be excruciating: In a few years, we will enter a period of chronic crisis, scraping by each year with a painful series of budget gimmicks, fee increases, and disguised tax hikes — just enough to get by for the year before the dreary cycle begins again. After a few years, the public impression would be of a government that is constantly raising taxes, constantly cutting services, yet never solving either the fiscal crisis or other problems. And the grinding obsession with that abstraction called “the deficit” would continue to make it impossible to reconnect taxes with the benefits and security people expect from government.

Well, the acute sense of fiscal crisis is here. And a giant showdown is certainly plausible in the near future. And Mark was certainly correct that a limited fight over extensions of particular tax provisions would be hard to win. Obviously we need to make a broader, more tangible case about taxes and funding of popular government programs.

But for whatever reason, liberals have utterly failed to make that case to the public. The only positive news on the tax front is that polls show most Americans favor higher taxes on the rich, and even there public sentiment is quite plainly too shallow to actually affect congressional action. Like it or not, over the past four years we've made exactly zero progress on the tax front.

So here's a note to every liberal activist raging against Obama's tax deal: this is all going to happen again in two years. We all know it, and that's one of the big reasons so many lefties are opposed to the deal. But public opinion counts, and right now public opinion is still pretty firmly on the side of low taxes. Whatever it is we've been doing for the past four years hasn't worked.

So what are we going to do differently between now and 2012? We know exactly when and where the next battle is going to take place. We know our old strategy has been a dismal failure. So what's our new one?

Bring 'Em On?

Should Democrats have negotiated an increase in the debt ceiling as part of Obama's tax cut package? You'd think so, but apparently Harry Reid is actually eager to have a debt ceiling fight:

The theory goes something like this: Republicans will demand sharp spending cuts in return for lifting the debt ceiling. Let them. "Boehner et al have had the luxury of proposing all sorts of ideas that bear no relation to reality," says Jim Manley, Reid's spokesman. "Next year, they’ll have to lay it all out. No more magic asterisks, no more 'we’ll get back to you.’ "

In this telling, the debt ceiling vote represents a trap for Republicans more than an opportunity for Democrats. If Republicans want to cut spending, now's their chance. But that means passing a package of spending cuts, which they may find less enjoyable than simply saying that Democrats should stop spending so much. And if the American people aren't supportive of the Republicans’ spending cuts, the GOP will be caught defending an unpopular package as part of a political gambit that could lead to the bankruptcy of the United State of America.

I don't know how the debt ceiling fight is going to go, but the Reid/Manley theory seems all wet to me. Here's the thing: Republicans almost certainly won't demand sharp spending cuts. There might be some posturing along these lines, but nothing serious. Both mainstream conservatives and tea partiers alike have made it crystal clear that when push comes to shove, they don't support actual substantial spending cuts.

But they do support modest spending cuts in areas that Democrats hold dear, and that's more likely where the fight will be. It will be over a bit of healthcare funding, a bit of education funding, and a bit of food stamp funding. Republicans can pretty easily come up with $50-100 billion in spending that their base doesn't care about and that doesn't seem too draconian to the public at large, and that's what they'll fight over.

So we'll see. My guess is that there will be lots of heat, very little light, and in the end both sides will agree to some modest cuts here and there and no more. The activist wing of the party might be itching to shut down the government, but I doubt that Boehner and McConnell are very eager to do that. They know perfectly well that, just as Bill Clinton was simply a more likeable figure than Newt Gingrich, Barack Obama is a more likeable figure than they are. He'll win a fight over a government shutdown and they know it.

Union Bashing in LA

Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a former teachers union employee and staunch union supporter, decided yesterday he'd finally had enough and delivered a stinging speech calling the LA teachers union, among other things, "one unwavering roadblock to reform." Needless to say, union president A.J. Duffy was unhappy:

Furious union representatives denounced the mayor's comments as those of a turncoat who seemed to ignore the pernicious effects of state budget cuts and had joined in a union-bashing chorus once associated with conservative Republicans. Some seemed bewildered at what they considered a betrayal from Villaraigosa, who defines himself as a "progressive" politician and man of the left.

"Pointing fingers and laying blame does not help improve our schools," UTLA President A.J. Duffy said in a terse statement. "UTLA will continue our partnership with all parties to overcome the devastating effects of the budget cuts on the education program for our students."

I'm not plugged into Los Angeles politics even slightly, but I sometimes wonder if Duffy understands just how widely his union is loathed? Somebody should correct me in comments if I'm wrong, but as near as I can tell from my occasional contact with Angelenos, UTLA almost literally has no support anywhere from anybody that it doesn't directly give money to. Everybody else hates them with a passion. That doesn't mean Villaraigosa can win a big public battle with UTLA, of course, since they give lots of money to lots of people, but he might. If Villaraigosa plays his cards right, he'll have about 90% of the city on his side. Pass the popcorn.