2009 - %3, January

CBO Scores the Stimulus Bill

| Mon Jan. 26, 2009 11:45 PM PST

CBO SCORES THE STIMULUS BILL....So what does the Congressional Budget Office really think about the stimulus bill currently wending its way through Congress? Answer:

CBO anticipates that implementation of H.R. 1 would have a noticeable impact on economic growth and employment in the next few years.

Specifically, they estimate that in the spending portion of the bill, $477 billion out of $604 billion would be disbursed either this fiscal year or in the next two fiscal years. That's 79% of the total.

I guess opinions can vary on this, but that strikes me as pretty good. What's more, most of the spending that comes in FY2012 or later is either for projects that simply take more than two years to complete (highways, school repairs) or infrastructure improvements that have long-term paybacks (renewable energy programs). There are a few other items in the out years that are more arguable, but they add up to a pretty small portion of the bill.

Overall, then, it looks like the spending part of the bill is maybe 90% clean as short-term stimulus. And on the supply side, nearly 100% of the tax cuts are allocated during the next 18 months. Given the realities of the appropriations process, I'm not sure the White House could have done much better than this. Looks like pretty good work from the economics team.

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MoJo on MSNBC: The Barracuda vs. The Whales (Video)

| Mon Jan. 26, 2009 7:39 PM PST

This evening I was a guest on David Shuster's show on MSNBC, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where we discussed Governor Sarah Palin's plans to sue the federal government to reverse the endangered species listing of the Cook Inlet beluga whale. This, I might add, was the second time in as many weeks that a MoJo staffer was featured on Shuster's "Muckraker of the Day" segment. Last week, the honor went to David Corn, who chatted with Shuster about Obama's first-day transparency and accountability moves, as well as the Obama administration's new web site.

Check out tonight's segment:

Is Facebook a Sin?

| Mon Jan. 26, 2009 5:49 PM PST

Parsing Pope Benedict XVI's statement on social networks:

 "The concept of friendship has enjoyed a renewed prominence in the vocabulary of the new digital social networks that have emerged in the last few years..."

Hey! I'm on YouTube!

 "The concept is one of the noblest achievements of human culture. We should be careful, therefore, never to trivialise the concept or the experience of friendship..."

So long as those experiences are hetro...

 "It would be sad if our desire to sustain and develop on-line friendships..."

NSFW!

 "were to be at the cost of our availability to engage with our families, our neighbours and those we meet in the daily reality of our places of work, education and recreation. If the desire..."

NSFW!

 "for virtual connectedness becomes obsessive, it may in fact function to isolate individuals from real social interaction while also disrupting the patterns of rest, silence and reflection that are necessary for..."

thinking, thinking...

 "healthy human development."

And the Award for the Biggest Cold-Hearted Bastard in America Goes To...

| Mon Jan. 26, 2009 3:47 PM PST

Bay City (Michigan) Electric Light & Power manager Robert Belleman. Upon learning that 93-year-old Marvin Schur froze to death—"a slow, painful death" according to the medical examiner—in his home, Belleman defended the utility's decision to cut off the man's power, without warning, during last week's subzero cold snap. Installing "limiters" which put a cap on power usage and shuts off the juice altogether if an owner exceeds the limit, is company policy, noted Belleman, and he saw no reason to change it in the light of Schur's death. As for the utility's failure to inform Schur?

"I've said this before and some of my colleagues have said this: Neighbors need to keep an eye on neighbors," Belleman said. "When they think there's something wrong, they should contact the appropriate agency or city department."

Schur, who was $1,000 behind on his utility bill, was indeed found by his neighbor—four days after the limiter was switched on, in a sub-freezing room that had icicles on the insides of its windows.

Update: Wow, this is worse than I thought. Bay City Electric Light & Power is a community-owned utility (one of the nation's 2,000 such utilities). And Robert Belleman is not just the manager of the utility, he's the manager of Bay City itself. So I guess when he meant that citizens had a duty to report that their neighbors were freezing to death due to the reckless disregard of utilities to the proper government officials, he meant himself! Thanks to commentor wikibrain for bringing this to my attention.

Obama Administration Can't Get White House Emails Working

| Mon Jan. 26, 2009 1:27 PM PST

The Bush administration came under fire for losing its emails. Almost a week into his presidency, Barack Obama's administration can't get its email addresses to work at all. Emails to Obama's top press officials bounced back Monday, and Nick Shapiro, a White House spokesman, told Mother Jones that he could give reporters his email address, but "it wouldn't do any good," since the White House email system isn't working. What about those Gmail addresses the Obama press team set up last week to handle press requests while the system was being set up? Those won't work, either, says Shapiro, because you can't access Gmail from White House computers. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs promised during Monday's press briefing that he would "endeavor to fix the email system," but gave no time frame for that to happen. (Update: It's fixed as of Tuesday morning.)

While the lack of functioning email addresses is surely frustrating for the new denizens of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, email has been far from the new administration's only tech problem. In a post on the White House blog, an administration official (probably Macon Phillips, the Director of New Media for the Obama White House) tacitly acknowledged that the much-touted new WhiteHouse.gov website had experienced problems, too:

Stimulus Pills

| Mon Jan. 26, 2009 12:24 PM PST

STIMULUS PILLS?....Conservatives are pretty good at picking tiny pieces out of big bills and making hay with them (remember midnight basketball?), and it was in that spirit that John Boehner spent the weekend complaining that the $800 billion stimulus bill includes $200 million in spending on contraceptives. Today Steve Benen provides the details of what's really in the bill, and concludes:

It's likely that Boehner, Drudge, and others hope that they can simply say, "Democrats want to spend $200 million of your money on contraceptives" and the howls will be so loud, the money will be stripped from the spending bill. As is too often the case, they're assuming the public won't hear, or care about, the details.

True, but I suspect this is mostly just a base play. Most of the public probably won't ever hear about this, but you can bet that every religious right newsletter in the country will get the news out to their readers. And they'll know that John Boehner is working to keep family values safe.

Whatever. But here's the funny thing: culture war issues aside, this is probably pretty good stimulus. If you eliminate the requirement for states to get Medicaid waivers in order to fund family planning, lots of low-income women will take advantage of it, and they'll probably take advantage of it pretty quickly. That's a boon for the contraceptive industry and all the fine people who work in it. Just be sure to buy American!

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Sean Penn: Straight Men Can't Even See Statue Penises

| Mon Jan. 26, 2009 11:58 AM PST

The SAG Awards ("The Award Show Where Only Actors Vote") were held last night in Los Angeles, and begged to differ ever so slightly from the Golden Globes. While Slumdog Millionaire took, as expected, the award for best cast, both major acting nods were sort-of upsets: Meryl Streep won best actress for Doubt, and Sean Penn won best actor for Milk. Many have remarked on Penn's sensitive, fully-realized portrayal of the gay San Francisco supervisor, but his acceptance speech last night kind of rubbed me the wrong way. He approached the microphone to a tumultuous round of applause, and then tried a little comedy:

Thank you and good evening comrades. (Laughs) That was for O'Reilly. Something happened to me during the making of this movie. I noticed it tonight, where I noticed that the statues have rather healthy packages ... As actors we don't play gay, straight ...we play human beings. I'm so appreciative of this acknowledgment. This is a story of equal rights for all human beings.

Okay, yes, it's a standard line to reference the genitalia on those statues and awards, and forgive me for being a wet blanket, but the idea that it would take researching and playing a gay role to even see the bulge on a giant statue seems to play into the stereotype of gay men as being "all about sex." It's particularly bothersome since it's this idea, of the lascivious sexual deviant, that has led to a wide variety of discrimination, particularly when it comes to gay men as teachers or parents. I'm as much for a good chuckle as the next guy, and obviously Mr. Penn feels himself to be such a clear and honest supporter of gay rights that he can make those jokes from the "inside." But context is everything, and I'd just like to point out that he's not on the inside.

On the other hand, other gay journalists like AfterElton.com didn't seem bothered, so maybe I'm just a curmudgeon. Riffers, thoughts? And does it even matter, since Mickey Rourke is the Oscar lock?

Wikipedia Could Begin Reviewing Edits For Accuracy

| Mon Jan. 26, 2009 11:44 AM PST

2112615614_c81e30326f.jpg

Wikipedia, the world's largest online encyclopedia, has grown organically over the years, the product of the collective wisdom of its users. Until now, virtually anyone with an Internet connection has been allowed to contribute new topics and edit preexisting ones. For all that, at least in my experience, Wikipedia is a useful—and surprisingly accurate—source of information. But Jimmy Wales, the site's founder (who famously broke up with his girlfriend by making a change to his own Wikipedia page), has had it with what he calls the "nonsense" that sometimes appears on the site.

In particular, he's referring to an incident last week in which users made changes to the pages for senators Robert Byrd and Edward Kennedy, saying that both had died at a Capitol Hill luncheon following Barack Obama's inauguration; the two men sought medical treatment, but both remain very much among the living.

Wales has proposed to the Wikimedia Foundation that all new editorial additions by new or unknown users be flagged for review by proven users as a means of avoiding future shananigans. As you might guess, the Wiki faithful allege Wiki treason and have begun a flame war against Wales. They claim that reviewing posts will be too time-consuming, slowing the flow of information. And indeed, the German version of Wikipedia, which adopted the flagged-revision system last year, did slow significantly. It can now take days or weeks for changes to be posted, say critics. But perhaps accuracy is more important than speed? Maybe it's the journalist in me, but I tend to think so.


Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Joi.

Bipartisan Support for an Investment-Based Stimulus Does Exist, Just Not in Congress

| Mon Jan. 26, 2009 11:24 AM PST

Obama is working overtime to get Republicans on the Hill behind his stimulus package, which is driving him to excessive tax cuts and other questionable decisions. But if bipartisan support is his goal, he's already got it. The American voting populace, including Democrats, Republicans, and independents, is behind a progressive stimulus package that sees infrastructure investment, not tax cuts, as the primary vehicle for restarting the American economy. Here's top dog Republican pollster Frank Luntz, via David Sirota:

Last month, I conducted a national survey of 800 registered voters on their attitudes toward infrastructure investment...The survey's findings were unlike any other issue I have polled in more than a decade...A near unanimous 94% of Americans are concerned about our nation's infrastructure. And this concern cuts across all regions of the country and across urban, suburban and rural communities. Fully 84% of the public wants more money spent by the federal government -- and 83% wants more spent by state governments -- to improve America's infrastructure. And here's the kicker: 81% of Americans are personally prepared to pay 1% more in taxes for the cause.
This isn't "soft" support for infrastructure either. It stretches from Maine to Montana, from California to Connecticut. Democrats (87%) and Republicans (74%) are prepared to, in Barack Obama's words, put skin in the game, which tells you just how wide and deep the support is...

I hope Obama takes heed of this. Instead of bending to the will of an obstructionist minority, he should show that minority that the American people are on-board with a progressive stimulus, and it can do the same or risk getting left behind.

And speaking of getting on-board, can we get some mass transit in this sucker?

Regulating Carbon

| Mon Jan. 26, 2009 10:34 AM PST

REGULATING CARBON....Noah Millman writes today about the best way to regulate greenhouse gases without having the regulations fatally undermined by special interest lobbying:

Well, let's look at the alternatives from the perspective of which is most likely to be deformed by special interests. It's pretty easy to see how a big government investment in alternative energy could become a boondoggle giveaway to connected business interests that does nothing to reduce carbon emissions. Meanwhile, a cap-and-trade scheme is often marketed as being preferable to a tax on carbon because of the additional business associated with the "trade" side of the scheme, and because the existence of a market in emission permits and offsets would ensure the most efficient allocation of the "resource" of net carbon emission.

....I suspect that a small-government egalitarian would say that the best solution, from the triple perspective of trying to avoid regulatory capture by special interests, maximize personal freedom and autonomy, and actually reduce carbon emissions, is to slap a tax on carbon and return 100% of the revenue raised to the people, ideally in the form of a per-capita birthright dividend, something I speculated about here by analogy with Alaska's Permanent Fund.

Noah goes on to say that libertarians are more open to this idea because of their natural distrust of big government. Liberals, who lack that distrust, end up promoting other ideas because they don't take regulatory capture seriously.

In general, maybe there's something to that, but it's wrong in this specific case. In fact, ten or fifteen years ago liberals widely believed a carbon tax was by far the best way to implement some kind of carbon pricing scheme. Many of them still do, and most liberal economists believe that a tax is fundamentally more efficient than cap-and-trade. So why is cap-and-trade so popular on the left these days?

Technically, cap-and-trade has one1 big advantage over a tax: it's a cap. With a tax, you have to set a rate and then hope that carbon emissions go down as much as you think they will. With cap-and-trade, you set a firm cap, and as long as enforcement is adequate you know you'll meet that cap. The "trade" part is merely there to get back some of the efficiencies that you would have gotten automatically from a tax in the first place.

But that's not why cap-and-trade has become so popular among liberals. The reason it's become so popular is that conservatives and libertarians have teamed up to make the word "tax" so toxic that there isn't an environmentalist in the country who thinks we can get a carbon tax through Congress. Remember Al Gore's BTU tax in 1993? It went down in flames and took the Democratic Party down with it. And since then things have only gotten worse.

So: you want a carbon tax? No problem. You can get liberals on board pretty easily: all you have to do is promise them that conservatives and libertarians will climb on board too. And you want a rebate to taxpayers? Again, no problem. Every single liberal carbon pricing plan includes at least a partial rebate, and many include a 100% rebate. If the conservative/libertarian axis decided to give up on its 30-year anti-tax jihad, we could pretty easily end up with a compromise somewhere in the middle.

But that won't happen. And that's why cap-and-trade is the future of carbon pricing. It's conservatives and libertarians who got us here, not liberals.

1There are other differences too. But this is the main one.