2009 - %3, May

Novel Theories of History

| Wed May 27, 2009 12:09 PM EDT

Over at In These Times, David Sirota advances a new theory of American history:

The birthing of the most famous political periods and the success of their transformative agendas almost always hinge on struggles between Radical Teabaggers and Establishment Douchebags. And typically, the teabaggers of a prior era have defined the next epoch’s politics.

The point that Sirota's trying to get at is another riff on his familiar refrain—progressives need to embrace populism, or, as he puts it in this piece, "stop spending their time ridiculing teabaggery and start co-opting it through their own brand of full-throated populism." But couching such an argument in the language of UrbanDictionary is a new twist. It's definitely an attention-grabber.

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The Best Places to Live in America

| Wed May 27, 2009 11:50 AM EDT

Kiplinger's magazine has just named its ten best cities to live in America, and San Francisco isn't on the list. Washington, DC, however, is number three. Why, you ask? This year's list is "all about jobs," Kiplinger's says, and DC is a great place to find and keep a job in a recession:

For better or worse, the federal government is big and getting bigger. And for the Washington, D.C., area economy, that means for the better. "The government just keeps spending and adding jobs," says city spokesman Sean Madigan.

Only about one in eight workers in the Washington area—spanning D.C. proper and big chunks of adjoining Virginia and Maryland—are employed directly by the feds. Still, the government fuels nearby companies in almost every industry, especially law firms, lobbyists, and aerospace and defense companies.

We'll try to keep an eye on all of them for you.

Do We Need More Think Tanks?

| Wed May 27, 2009 11:43 AM EDT

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former CBO director and John McCain campaign advisor, wants to start up a new conservative think tank, a "Center for American Progress for the right."  Matt Yglesias, who works for the actual Center for American Progress, isn't impressed:

This seems pretty misguided to me. In particular, DHE needs to think harder about the fact that there are already well-resourced conservative think tanks with plenty of capabilities. Before CAP came on the scene, there really wasn’t a “Heritage of the left.” On the right, Heritage and AEI already exist. The problem they face is that the conservative movement, as presently constituted, is not prepared to accept anything other than “tax cuts” as a solution to anything. Consequently, they’re not really even prepared to accept the premise that other problems exist. Tax cuts can’t solve climate change, so there must be no such thing! Tax cuts can’t curb inequality, so there must not be a problem with growing inequality.

But there's another way to look at this.  After all, a decade ago conservatives would have said that liberals already had think tanks too: Brookings, the Ford Foundation, CFR, etc.  The problem is that they were the wrong kind of think tank: they may have leaned toward the left institutionally, but they weren't overtly partisan.  They weren't dedicated to a cause.

So liberals decided they needed more direct competitors to Heritage and AEI, and CAP was one of the results.  Likewise, although Holtz-Eakin may say his proposed think tank is CAP for the right, my guess is that it's really more a DLC for the right.  That's what the conservative movement needs, after all.  They have plenty of partisan, conservative think tanks at their disposal, but they've ossified so much that they're now as much a part of the problem as the Republican Party's special interest base itself.  What they need is a think tank that tries to move the party back toward the sane center, one that produces ideas beyond bashing gay rights, extolling endless tax cuts, pretending that global warming doesn't exist, and cheerleading the death of ever more people from central Asia.  They need a conservative DLC, and I'll bet that's what Holtz-Eakin really has in mind.

Why Grover Norquist Is Happy With Sotomayor

| Wed May 27, 2009 10:57 AM EDT

Yesterday, as the political and media world was processing President Barack Obama's nomination to the Supreme Court of federal appellate judge Sonia Sotomayor, I noted that his decision could split the right. Social conservatives immediately called a crusade against Sotomayor, but Senate Republicans and GOP chair Michael Steele were keeping their powder dry, obviously concerned about the political consequences of attacking the first Latina nominated to the highest court.

And more evidence of a possible split between the party's base and its leadership in Washington is emerging. I asked conservative strategist Grover Norquist if he believes the Sotomayor nomination would revive conservatives and become a rallying point for the right. "Is the organizer in you happy this happened?" I asked. Norquist emailed a reply: "Yes. Unifies the right. She said what conservatives fear liberals really think--on judges making the law, racial quotas, personal interests trumping the law." In other words, Sotomayor is the right's bogeywoman. And Norquist wants to see his side go after her.

Richard Viguerie, a founder of the modern conservative movement, also yearns for an anti-Sotomayor crusade. The day after her nomination was announced, he declared:

Fundraising Finale

| Wed May 27, 2009 1:50 AM EDT

Two things.  First, I want to thank everyone who contributed to our fundraising drive last week.  These donations really help, and even the small ones add up.  Second, if you didn't contribute last week, how about doing it today instead? 

Your contributions help keep our reporters at work (including me!), but we can only keep doing what we do if our readers deliver the financial support we need to stay on the story.  This is the final week of our fundraising drive, so if you can afford to part with a few dollars, click here to make a donation.  It's a quick credit card donation form, and if you contribute $35 or more you get a subscription to the magazine too.  Thanks!

Supreme Court Kabuki Watch

| Wed May 27, 2009 1:38 AM EDT

The nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court is only 12 hours old and I'm already sick of it.  Conservatives, who seem constitutionally incapable of viewing any non-white nominee as anything other than identity politics run wild, have already decided she's just a crass affirmative action hire.  Out of a decade-long appelate court career, the only opinion of hers they seem to have heard of, or care about, is Ricci.  And unlike all the middle class white guys on the court, who are apparently paragons of race-blind rationality, they're convinced that she's just naturally going to be incapable of judging any case before her as anything other than a woman and a Hispanic.

Not that it matters.  We all know how this is going to play out.  First, everyone is going to start looking for some dark secret in her background that will derail her nomination.  That will probably fail.  Then she'll testify before the Senate, and everyone will ask what she thinks of Roe and Casey and Kelo.  She'll dutifully claim that she's never even heard of these cases, and on the off chance that any of them ring a bell, she'll sing the usual song about how it would be improper to say anything about any matter that might come before the court in the future.  Which is everything.  After a few weeks of this, all the Democrats and maybe a dozen or so Republicans will vote to confirm her and she'll join the court in time for the fall term.

It's all so tedious.  So instead of going though with it, why don't we just pretend we did all this, confirm her tomorrow, and then get back to something important, like fighting a couple of wars, trying to rescue the world economy, creating a national healthcare plan, and stopping global warming?

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Owning GM

| Wed May 27, 2009 12:50 AM EDT

Here's the latest on America's auto industry:

General Motors Corp. and the United Auto Workers have agreed to a new restructuring plan that would give the union a significantly smaller stake in the company than previously envisioned, and leave the U.S. government owning as much as 70% of the car maker.

....The union — concerned about the GMs prospects — sought the lower stake in exchange for preferred shares that provide annual income as well as a $2.5 billion note from GM, said people familiar with the situation.

I know this is only "temporary."  I know that the followon problems from a collapse of GM might be devastating.  Maybe we have to do this.  Maybe there's no choice.  But I sure don't like it.

Banks are one thing. They're systemically important in a way no other industry is.  When they go broke the government has to either arrange a fire sale or else take them over.  But owning a car company?  Especially one that's in such bad shape that there's a good chance we'll never be able to re-privatize it?  Which means that we'll probably keep it on life support forever because it's politically impossible to shut it down?  Jesus.  This whole deal just keeps getting worse and worse.

Healthcare and Me (And You)

| Tue May 26, 2009 9:20 PM EDT

Over at the Washington Monthly, Jonathan Gruber writes that universal healthcare would create more fluid job markets and spur entrepreneurship:

The main reason for this is a phenomenon known as "job lock," a term coined during the last round of debate over universal health coverage in the early 1990s. Job lock refers to the fact that workers are often unwilling to leave a current job that provides health insurance for another position that might not, even if they would be more productive in that other position. This is because employer-provided insurance is traditionally the only reliable form of fairly priced private insurance coverage available in the U.S.

....[Alison] Wellington estimates that universal health care would therefore likely increase the share of workers who are self-employed (currently about 10 percent of the workforce) by another 2 percent or more. A system that provides universal access to health insurance coverage, then, is far more likely to promote entrepreneurship than one in which would-be innovators remain tied to corporate cubicles for fear of losing their family’s access to affordable health care.

That's true.  Take me.  Suppose I wanted to quit my job and write a book.  The first step would be for me to have a book in mind that I wanted to write — which, unfortunately, I don't.  But say I did.  Would I leave MoJo to do it?

Probably not.  I've never shopped around for an individual healthcare policy, but my guess is that despite my general good health, I'd get turned down simply for being over 50 and having high cholesterol.  And without health insurance, I really couldn't afford the risk of being self-employed.

It's true that this is a moot point until I have a burning desire to spend full time writing a book, but you never know.  Maybe someday I will.  It doesn't matter, though, because that book will probably stay unwritten no matter how good it might be, since I'd have to give up my health coverage to write it.  Pretty stupid system we have, isn't it?

Don't Burn the Crops

| Tue May 26, 2009 8:44 PM EDT

Want a quick recipe for reducing Arctic ice melt fast? Stop burning northern hemisphere farmlands and pasturelands.

New research finds that large-scale agricultural burning in Russia, Kazakhstan, China, the US, Canada, and the Ukraine is melting Arctic ice.

The big contributor: Spring burning, when farmers torch crop residues and brush to clear new land for crops and livestock. The black carbon soot produced by these fires flows north, warms the surrounding air, and absorbs solar energy when it falls on ice and snow.

How bad is the problem? Springtime burning may account for 30 percent of Arctic warming to date.

The good news is there's an easy fix. Targeting these burns gets us a genuinely fast reduction in temperature over the Arctic. Plus we know how to control these pollutants right now. Just stop burning. Right now. Before the melting ice rewires the oceanic currents delivering us the climate we're used to.

The research is part of POLARCAT, an international effort to track the transport of pollutants into the Arctic from lower latitudes. Researchers were surprised to find 50 smoke plumes that analysis of satellite images revealed came from agricultural fires in Northern Kazakhstan and Southern Russia and from forest fires in Southern Siberia. The emissions from these fires far outweighed those from fossil fuels.

"These fires weren't part of our standard predictions, they weren't in our models," says Daniel Jacob, a professor of atmospheric chemistry and environmental engineering at Harvard.

Although global warming is largely the result of excess accumulation of carbon dioxide, the Arctic is highly sensitive to short-lived pollutants like black carbon. Forest fires, agricultural burning, primitive cookstoves, and diesel fuel are the primary sources of black carbon.

Reid Flip-Flopping on Gitmo Detainees in US Prisons?

| Tue May 26, 2009 5:15 PM EDT

President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit Nevada on Tuesday to participate in a Las Vegas fundraiser for Sen. Harry Reid, who hopes to raise $25 million to fend off possible GOP challenges to his 2010 reelection campaign. The trip coincides with a sudden—and convenient—change of heart by Reid on the thorny issue of what to do with Guantanamo Bay detainees once the facility is shuttered.

Senate Democrats have clashed with Obama over his plan to close the prison and perhaps relocate some of the detainees to a facility in the United States. Last week, Reid was telling reporters in no uncertain terms that he rejected just such an idea, even though there is a long list of terrorists already in US prisons. David Corn and Steve Aquino explained the issue:

Senate Democrats, including Reid, moved to strip the Gitmo shutdown money after the Republicans initiated a scare campaign, warning that the worst will happen if Obama transfers Gitmo detainees to federal prison facilities in the United States. Looking for a winning political issue, Republican House members and senators have been sending letters to Obama and declaring, "Not in my state." Though Reid's home state of Nevada has no federal prisons, he joined this chorus, saying: "Part of what we don't want is [terrorists] be put in prisons in the United States. We don't want them around the United States."

But in advance of Obama's visit to Sin City, Reid's singing a different tune. He told Las Vegas journalist Jon Ralston on Monday that he is open to moving some Guantanamo Bay detainees to US prisons. Here's the relevent portion of the transcript of Reid's conversation with Ralston:

"A maximum security prison in the United States, there has never been a single escape."

JR: "You think eventually the plan is going to be to put them in maximum security prisons here in this country, correct?"

"I think some. Keep in mind, Jon, there's so many different issues. There's no question that a number of these people who are there are not guilty of anything. The Uighurs, these are a group of Muslim Chinese who are guilty of nothing. They were arrested, put in there. They are there. They are doing nothing. We're going to have to find someplace to put them. We can't send them back to China. Should they go into a maximum security prison? Probably not."

Could the need to raise $25 million—and the prospect of more help from the extremely popular Obama—be influencing Reid's rhetoric on Guantanamo? If not, this is definitely an interesting coincidence.

(h/t Marc Ambinder)