2009 - %3, June

Reid and Sotomayor

| Wed Jun. 3, 2009 12:05 PM EDT

Harry Reid says he's never read one of Sonia Sotomayor's opinions and hopes he never does.  But she's a great choice anyway!  Conor Friedersdorf laments:

Unsurprising but depressing! As Gene Healy’s cult of the presidency continues apace, it is equally remarkable that the legislative branch so often seems unable or unwilling to carry out basic functions [prescribed] by the Constitution. This is a lifetime appointment! And Harry Reid feels comfortable consenting to it having read less of Judge Sotomayor’s work than I have?

Is this fair?  It seems to me that judicial opinions are generally pretty technical pieces of work that are hard to analyze without a fair amount of relevant expertise — and that's true even for someone like Reid, who has a law degree.  Most of us, then, as we do with other technical subjects, primarily rely on the judgment of legal experts rather than fruitlessly trying to read the primary literature in order to develop our own amateur conclusions.  Senators, who deal with hundreds of different topics and are accustomed to relying on their staffs to provide expert analysis, probably do this even more than most of us.

When senators decline to read reports on big issues that are specifically written to be understood by laymen, they deserve some flack.  But not here.  I don't think Reid is doing anything unreasonable.

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Pawlenty, Franken, and 2012

| Wed Jun. 3, 2009 11:43 AM EDT

al franken

On Tuesday, Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty said he will not run for reelection in 2010, fueling speculation that he is clearing his schedule in order to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. Pawlenty also promised that if the Minnesota Supreme Court orders a certificate of election when it rules on Al Franken and Norm Coleman's battle for a Senate seat, he will "not hold it up" or "delay in any fashion." (Franken is almost certain to win the court fight.) There's still some speculation that Pawlenty might break his promise and delay Franken's certification so as to appeal to the GOP primary electorate, but it's pretty far-fetched—Pawlenty made a clear promise that would be hard to break, and holding up Franken probably wouldn't help him anyway. The Economist's anonymous Democracy in America blog explained last month:

The conservative argument is that Mr Pawlenty, if he wants to run for president in 2012, would boost his chances if he blocks Mr Franken. That's just not true. Becoming identified with a partisan election count is the political equivilent of biting down on a cyanide capsule. What was Katherine Harris's reward for verifying the Florida election count in 2000? Two terms in Congress, sure, but a total party abandonment in 2006 when she ran for Senate. What was Ken Blackwell's reward for protecting George Bush's Ohio campaign in 2004? More disrespect from his own party, which tried to deny him the 2006 nomination for governor and then abandoned him. If Mr Pawlenty wants a political second wind, it's good news for Mr Franken.

If The Economist is right, you can expect to see Senator Franken strolling around Capitol Hill by early July.

Photo courtesy of flickr user ohad*.

Healthcare Costs

| Wed Jun. 3, 2009 11:38 AM EDT

Yesterday the blogosphere was crammed with charts showing that if the rise in healthcare costs is reduced by 1.5 percentage points a year, then long-term healthcare costs would be a lot lower than current projections.  That's hard to argue with, but what I kept wondering is, how are healthcare costs going to be reduced 1.5 percentage points a year?  The Council of Economic Advisers produced the charts, so Ezra Klein asked CEA chair Christina Romer about this:

It's not really something we looked at in the report. The report asks "if we manage to attain cost savings, what will it do to the economy?" We didn't look so much at the mechanisms that would bring those savings about. It was more about what health reform can do. I didn't get too much into the literature of how coverage could control costs. That's another project for the CEA to take on!

Well, OK.  I'm still a little confused about what the point is here, since I thought everyone was already largely in agreement that controlling the growth of healthcare costs would be a fine thing indeed.  It's how to do it that generates the controversy.  So I guess I'm still not entirely sure what the point of this exercise was.

New Zealand The World's Safest Country

| Wed Jun. 3, 2009 10:32 AM EDT

Citizens of Reykjavik, lock your doors! Iceland is no longer safe! Well, not as safe as it was last year, according to the third-annual Global Peace Index, released Tuesday. The brainchild of Australian tech entrepreneur, Steve Killelea, the study takes after similar annual ventures, such as Freedom in the World, and purports to be the world's only quantitative measure of global peace. Iceland topped the list in the first two years, but the global recession--a particularly dramatic event for the island nation, which led to the complete implosion of its government and banking system--has shuffled the deck. Still, the results are pretty much what you'd expect. The three safest countries on Earth are New Zealand, Denmark, and Norway--all relatively small, affluent, and democratic nations. Island countries also fair well. At the bottom end of the scale there are no surprises. Iraq remains the worst place in the world to go in search of peace, followed by Afghanistan and Somalia. But unless those places are on your vacation agenda, you should probably be alright. Full results of the report are available here.

Despite Economic Crisis, Clean Energy Emerging, Developing Countries Take the Lead

| Wed Jun. 3, 2009 9:39 AM EDT

Investments in clean energy companies and projects worldwide reached $155 billion in 2008. Not including large hydro (which may be clean but is hardly green). However, investment in the second half of 2008 was down 17% on the first half and down 23% on the final six months of 2007, a trend continuing in 2009.

Nevertheless, UNEP reports $13.5 billion of new private investment in companies developing and scaling-up new technologies. Plus $117 billion of investment in renewable energy projects from geothermal, wind, solar and biofuels.

Altogether, 2008 saw more than four times the investment of 2004. The breakdown, according to Global Trends in Sustainable Energy Investment 2009:

  • $105 billion to developing 40 GW of power-generating capacity from wind, solar, small-hydro, biomass and geothermal sources
  • $35 billion to developing 25 GW of large hydropower
  • Renewables currently account for the majority of investment and over 40% of actual power generation capacity additions last year
  • China became the 2nd second largest wind market in terms of new capacity
  • China became the  biggest photovoltaic manufacturer
  • Rises in geothermal energy getting underway in Australia, Japan and Kenya
  • Wind attracted the most new investment: 51.8 billion, 1% growth on 2007
  • Solar made largest gains: $33.5 billion, 49% growth
  • Biofuels dropped: $16.9 billion, 9% decrease
  • The price of solar photovoltaic modules is predicted to fall by more than 43% in 2009
  • Carbon markets grew 87% during 2008, reaching a total of $120 billion


Regionally, investment in Europe rose 2% in 2008 to $49.7 billion. Investment in North America fell 8% to $30.1 billion, due to financing shutdowns—thanks, Wall Street—and the fact that tax-credit driven markets are ineffective in a downturn. Yet developing countries surged forward 27% over 2007 to $36.6 billion, accounting for nearly one third of global investments:

  • China led new investment in Asia with an 18% increase over 2007 to $15.6 billion, mostly in new wind and some biomass plants
  • Investment in India grew 12% to $4.1 billion in 2008
  • Brazil accounted for almost all renewable energy investment in Latin America in 2008, with ethanol receiving $10.8 billion, up 76% from 2007
  • Africa achieved a modest increase, with investments up 10% to approximately $1.1 billion


Although private sector investment stalled in late 2008, governments appear ready to take up some slack in 2009. Sustainable energy investments are a core part of key government fiscal stimulus packages announced in recent months, accounting for an estimated $183 billion of commitments to date.

  • The US and China remain the leaders, each devoting roughly $67 billion
  • Yet South Korea's package is the greenest with 20% devoted to clean energy—illustrating the political will of an increasing number of governments to secure future growth through greener economic development, according to the report

Wall Street Loves Banks Again

| Tue Jun. 2, 2009 9:14 PM EDT

A few days ago I wrote that I was hopelessly confused about what was going on with the economy.  Here's Exhibit A: I thought it was a fantasy to expect banks to raise lots of private capital after the stress tests were completed, but apparently I was wildly, spectacularly wrong:

J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Morgan Stanley, American Express Co. and regional bank KeyCorp said Tuesday they sold a combined $8.7 billion in common stock. That pushed the total value of shares sold by the 19 financial firms that were stress-tested by the government to at least $65 billion since the results were announced May 7.

Nonguaranteed debt sales and the conversion of preferred shares to common stock have generated roughly another $20 billion, for a total of $85 billion or more, giving most of the banks considerably more capital than U.S. regulators have required them to amass as they ride out the recession. Money is pouring in so fast that surprised bankers can hardly believe it, especially since most investors didn't want to go near financial stocks just three months ago, even though they were nearly 40% cheaper.

"It's easy to raise capital now," one executive at a bank that recently raised capital through a public stock offering said Tuesday. Investors are "happy to gobble it up."

I dunno.  I continue to think that there are a lot of trouble signs for the economy, with further shocks still to come.  If I had to pick the most likely one, I'd say Eastern Europe, but really, there are a dozen candidates.  Overall, I'm with the unnamed "executive at a New York bank" who thinks investors are chasing after any tidbit of good news even though the financial system remains fragile.  "A bucket of cold water will be thrown in people's faces," he says.

Still, there sure are a lot of people who disagree and are willing to put their money where their mouths are.  I hope they're right but I fear they're wrong.  There are just too many imbalances left in the global economy, too many writedowns yet to come, and no obvious place for sustained consumer demand to come from.  Caveat emptor.

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I Am Officially Old

| Tue Jun. 2, 2009 6:14 PM EDT

I just got back from the optometrist with my first pair of bifocals.  (Thanks, Ben!)  Progressives, actually, and I guess these things take some getting used to, don't they?  I stopped in at the market on my way home, and when I moved my head around while looking down an aisle I felt like I was watching a bad student film project from the 60s.  Weird.  But I suppose my neurons will eventually adjust and trick me into thinking that everything is OK.  Or will they?  I actually don't wear my glasses very much, so it might take a while for my brain to figure out the new order of things.  We'll see.  In the meantime, hopefully I'll be able to watch TV and do a crossword puzzle at the same time once again.

A Confusing Contradiction in the Pentagon's Torture Photos Story

| Tue Jun. 2, 2009 5:01 PM EDT

I've been following Mark Benjamin's excellent reporting in Salon on the photos being withheld by the Obama administration. After the Telegraph reported Gen. Antonio Taguba's allegations that photos exist that "show rape" of detainees, Benjamin spoke to Taguba, who did not withdraw his claim that the photos exist but clarified that he was not talking about the photos Obama is withholding, which he hasn't seen. In the course of investigating Taguba's claim, Benjamin asked a Pentagon spokesman whether there were any more photos of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib beyond those that Salon already published in 2006. The official said no. But I've read Salon's summary of the 279 photos and 19 videos it published in 2006, so I did a double-take at this passage from Benjamin's article Tuesday:

Obama's Inexcusable Support for New Detainee Photo Secrecy Law

| Tue Jun. 2, 2009 4:16 PM EDT

While the press have been investigating Gen. Antonio Taguba's claim that photos existed that "show rape" of detainees by Americans, Congress and the Obama administration have been working behind the scene to pass a law allowing the executive branch to summarily withhold any photos of detainee treatment it wants for an effectively unlimited time. Salon's Glenn Greenwald reports that the White House is "actively supporting" a bill called The Detainee Photographic Records Protection Act of 2009 that would pre-empt the ACLU's court battle with the administration and allow Obama to pre-empt any future efforts to force the government to disclose evidence of torture. 

It's one thing for the president to fight in court for the ability to withhold these specific photos in this specific instance. It's another thing entirely to lobby for detainee treatment photos to get blanket immunity from the Freedom of Information Act. But that's what Obama's doing.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and usual suspect Joe Lieberman (I-CT), would allow the administration to easily suppress "photograph taken between September 11, 2001 and January 22, 2009 relating to the treatment of individuals engaged, captured, or detained after September 11, 2001, by the Armed Forces of the United States in operations outside of the United States" as long as the Secretary of Defense claimed it was to protect the troops. The bill is reportedly sailing through Congress. "What kind of a country passes a law that has no purpose other than to empower its leader to suppress evidence of the torture it inflicted on people?" Greenwald asks. Indeed. What kind of a president says "Let me say it as simply as I can: Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency," and then supports such a law?

No Twitter at the White House

| Tue Jun. 2, 2009 3:12 PM EDT

The White House Twitter feed has--as of this writing--233,182 followers. But apparently not too many are within the White House itself.

At today's daily press briefing, a reporter asked White House press secretary Robert Gibbs if the White House would use Twitter to disseminate the speech on US-Muslim relations that President Obama is set to deliver later this week in Cairo. Laughing, Gibbs said, "that would be awkward"--perhaps thinking that the reporter meant Twittering it before it happened. He then added, "we can't get" Twitter on the computers in the White House.

Really? When it was my turn to ask a question, I queried Gibbs on the George Tiller murder (he said Obama had nothing to add to his previous statement and indicated the president was not contemplating any additional steps to take), and I asked about the case of two American brothers who were imprisoned in Saudi Arabia after apparently participating in a religious protest (Gibbs said he was unfamiliar with this incident and did not know if Obama would raise it with the Saudi king when he sees him this week). Then I realized I had forgotten to ask about Twitter. And my turn was over.

After the briefing, I found a press aide who informed me that White House aides working on new media do have access to Twitter on their office computers, but that he and others in the White House press office did not. "Security?" I asked. He nodded.

So much of the White House is Twitter-free. That may be good for productivity. But Gibbs and his crew are missing a lot in the Twittershpere. Still, I wonder if Obama can get secret tweets on his BlackBerry.

Of course, I tweeted this story as it unfolded.