2009 - %3, October

Good News On Iran?

| Thu Oct. 1, 2009 4:25 PM EDT

In his new blog, Julian Borger of The Guardian has an intriguing take on today's talks about Iran's nuclear program. From his perspective, there's potential good news:

The dust is settling in the wake of the Geneva meeting, and it seems to have been a lot more productive than expected. Mohamed ElBaradei will be in Tehran on Saturday to nail down an inspection date for the newly-revealed Qom enrichment plant. There will also be another meeting of the E3+3 group with Iran before the end of October to continue negotiations on Iran's uranium enrichment programme.

Most importantly, however, there is an "agreement in principle" that Iran will send out a significant chunk of its low enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia for further enriching and then to France, to be processed into fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), for making medical isotopes.

If all this happens - and there will be a meeting on the details between Iran, France and Russia at IAEA headquarters in Vienna on October 18 - then a lot of the uranium the world is currently worrying about would be temporarily taken out of the equation. Western officials here say that to restock the TRR, Iran would have to send out up to 1200 kg of LEU. That's about three-quarters of what they've got, and it would be out of the country for a year. When it came back it would be in the form of fuel rods, so it could not be turned into weapons grade material in a quick breakout scenario.

The deal was apparently hatched by the Americans and Russians over the past month, and it could be a masterful means of lowering tensions. It would not infringe what Iran argues is its sovereign right to a fully-fledged nuclear programme, so face would be saved. But it takes off the table, for the time being, the main source of immediate anxiety - the uranium stockpile.

Of course anxiety is only relieved to the degree that you believe that there are no other Qoms hidden up Iranian sleeves. That is a question of confidence to be addressed by a new deal with the IAEA. And Iran would continue to enrich, even under freeze-for-freeze. But time will have been bought.

Of course, the deal could easily unravel on October 18, when the talk turns to details, but it does represent a cheap way for Tehran to achieve what it says it wants to achieve - civilian applications of nuclear technology.

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News From TreeHugger: Thursday, October 1

| Thu Oct. 1, 2009 3:55 PM EDT

Editor's Note: We're happy to introduce the first weekly roundup from our friends over at TreeHugger. Enjoy!

First Global Warming Lawsuit Against US Polluters a Success
The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals sides with coalition of states, New York City and environmental groups, who claimed that utilities' emissions from coal-burning power plants were a public nuisance—opening the door for more lawsuits against industries contributing to climate change.

The Climate Bill is Already Killing Coal Plants

In anticipation of a unified climate bill coming out of Congress, and the curbs it will place on carbon-intensive power plants, utilities in Arizona and Nevada are putting plans for new coal-burning power plants on hold.

It's Not Them, It's Us: Developing World Population Growth Not Adding Much CO2
Populations may be rising rapidly in parts of Africa, but in terms of global warming impact, this pales in comparison to much slower growth in the developed world—52% of the world's population contributing just 13% to growing carbon emissions. That's about equal to the contribution of the US, which only had 3.4% of world population growth.

China Buys 80 Very High Speed Trains for $4 Billion

Is the future of high speed rail in China? The Chinese Ministry of Railways has announced that it will be buying 80 new trains from Bombardier. With a top speed of 236 mph, China hopes to speed the the head of the pack.

EU & US Try to Woo China Into Climate Deal—Propose Eliminating Import Tariffs on Green Goods
Green technology transfer is a key ask on the part of developing nations if they are to sign onto a post-Kyoto successor, not to mention deeper emission reduction pledges from industrial countries. The EU and US are meeting to discuss the first part of that, and it could mean billions of dollars for China.

World's Largest Meat Exporter Says No More Amazon Deforestation Beef
JBS-Frisboi, the world's largest exported of meat products (think 40,000 cattle processed each day) has agreed no source beef from areas of the Amazon recently deforested, and will implement a new tracking system along it's supply chain, to back up those pledges.

Half of All Animal Species Will Be Extinct Within Your Lifetime, Unless Emissions Peak by 2020

The UK's Met Office has released new climate change projections and the outlook is grim. Under business-as-usual scenarios global average temperature rise will hit 4°C by 2100—meaning half of the world's animal and plant species face extinction. It gets worse: Under high emission growth scenarios, we hit that target by 2060.

Austan Goolsbee: Not Long for the White House?

| Thu Oct. 1, 2009 3:29 PM EDT

Austan Goolsbee, who is on the president's Council of Economic Advisers, is pretty funny (although he takes a while to get going). But as Goolsbee acknowleges at the end of his routine, these jokes aren't exactly safe for politics. If some of this stuff gets picked up on cable news, he could be in trouble:

Then again, they are just jokes.

No-Win in Afghanistan

| Thu Oct. 1, 2009 3:29 PM EDT

Marc Lynch is unimpressed with conservative sniping that Barack Obama is "dithering" over Afghanistan:

The overwhelming odds are that if the escalation option is chosen, in a year or two we will be confronting the exact same questions. More troops will once again be needed, a new strategy will once again be demanded, we’ll still be reading about how the Taliban is out-communicating us and about how the corruption of the Karzai government poses a serious challenge. And then the exact same debate will recur... the Kagans will demand more troops, dark mutterings about tensions between the administration and the generals will roil the waters, the Washington Post editorial page will publish debates where everyone is on the same side, the smart think-tankers will agonize over the tough choices but ultimately come down on the side of escalation.  Might as well have this debate now, and get it right.

That's admirably cynical.  Welcome to the dark side, Marc!

But he's got good reason: the aims of the all-in counterinsurgency supporters are flatly unrealistic.  "If the goal is the creation of a functioning, effective, legitimate Afghan state," he says, "then I would say the prospects are close to zero. Not with 40,000 troops, not with 400,000 troops, not in twelve months and not in twelve years."

Probably true.  And it's why I'm glad I'm not president right now.  If Obama doesn't approve all the new troops the Pentagon wants, then he's caving in to the terrorists.  If he does approve them, he's hitching himself to a policy that's almost certain to drag us ever further into a quagmire without ever producing results.  If that's not a no-win situation, I don't know what is.

Obama and the South

| Thu Oct. 1, 2009 2:38 PM EDT

Are Democrats going to lose the House in 2010?  Just to make things clear up front, I think it's dumb to even be asking this question so early in the election cycle.  The answer depends on healthcare, it depends on the economy, it depends on Afghanistan and Iraq.  Come back in April, when we have a better read on those things, and we can talk.

But Charlie Cook is talking now, and he thinks Democrats are in big trouble.  Brendan Nyhan, hauling out some fancy poli sci analysis, isn't so sure Cook is right, and Cook responds:

Have you been in the South lately? The level of anti-Obama, anti-Democratic and anti-Congress venom is extraordinary, and with 59 Democrat-held seats in the region, 22 in or potentially in competitive districts, this is a very serious situation for Democrats. I have had several Democratic members from the region say the atmosphere is as bad or worse than it was in 1994.

This is no surprise.  For the last forty years the South has been represented in the Oval Office one way or another.  They've been represented when a Republican was president, because Republicans represent their values.  (Or, at the very least, they talk a good game.)  And they've been represented when a Democrat was in office, because the last three Democratic presidents have all been Southerners.

But Barack Obama?  He's a northern Democrat.  What's worse, he's not from Hope or Plains or Johnson City and he doesn't pretend to be.  He's a biracial, urban, Harvard-educated northern Democrat.  If there's anyone in the world more likely to scare the hell out of traditionally-minded Southerners, I'm not sure who it is.  For the first time in decades, the South is completely out in the cold.  Completely powerless.

So their conspiracy-laden backlash against Obama is no surprise, and it might well lead to a further loss of seats for Dems in the South.  But will they lose all 22 of the competitive districts?  I doubt it.  And will they lose another 20-30 more outside the South?  I doubt that too.  If you live in Washington it's all too easy to get caught up in whatever whirlwind happens to be whirling at the moment, but this one won't last forever.  If Democrats manage to avoid terminal stupidity over the next few months1, they'll take some hits in the midterms but come out still retaining a sizable majority.  If Charlie or anyone else has some money they want put down on this, just let me know.

1Yes, yes, I know.

Chamber of Commerce Climate Civil War Continues

| Thu Oct. 1, 2009 1:36 PM EDT

The Chamber of Commerce civil war continues: the latest news is discontent from another significant player, General Electric.

GE spokesman Peter O’Toole told Politico that the company remains a member—though one clearly unhappy about the group's climate position.

"We’re a member of the Chamber because a lot of our customers are there, a lot of our competitors, so we get a good perspective on issues of national import," he said. "The Chamber does not speak for us on climate legislation, but we are still a member."

GE is the latest in a growing list of companies unhappy with the Chamber's position on climate. Yesterday, Nike announced that they are resigning from the board of directors, though they plan to maintain membership. The country's largest electric utility, Exelon, announced on Monday that they are leaving the group, joining California utility PG&E and New Mexico utility PNM in secession.

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Our Debt to Ronald Reagan

| Thu Oct. 1, 2009 1:28 PM EDT

Paul Krugman looks at this chart of the personal savings rate in the United States and concludes that Reaganomics is the most likely reason that it fell off a cliff.  Matt Yglesias admits the timing is right: "But is there a causal link? I think it’s suggestive, but I don’t know what it would be."

Krugman suggests that part of the cause was Reagan's blithe acceptance of federal deficits.  After all, if the government didn't need to balance its books, why should anyone else?  Thus was born an era of binge spending.

Fine.  But I'd point to two other things that Krugman mentions: financial deregulation and stagnant median wages.  Those seem like much more likely villains to me.  Starting in the late 70s, middle class wages flattened out, which meant there was only one way for most people to support the increasing prosperity they had long been accustomed to: borrowing.  At the same time, financial deregulation unleashed an industry that marketed itself ever more aggressively on all fronts: credit cards, debit cards, payday loans, day trading, funky home mortgage loans, and more.  It was a match made in hell: a culture that suddenly glorified debt; an easy money policy from the Fed that made it available; a predatory financial industry that promoted it; and middle-class workers who dived in to the deep end without ever quite knowing why they were doing it.

So, yeah, Reagan did it.  Sort of.  But he had plenty of help.

Alan Grayson and Liberal Moralism

| Thu Oct. 1, 2009 1:21 PM EDT

Alan Grayson is at the center of a media concern-trolling storm because he said that the GOP health plan is that people should 1) not get sick and 2) if they do get sick, die quickly. Matt Yglesias says Grayson broke the rules:

I think the real issue—and the real import—of Grayson’s statement is that it involved breaking one of the unspoken rules of modern American politics. The rule is that conservatives talk about their causes in stark, moralistic terms and progressives don’t. Instead, progressives talk about our causes in bloodless technocratic terms....

 There’s a semi-legitimate practical reason for this, namely the fact that substantially more people identify as conservatives than identify as liberals. Consequently, progressive politicians are at pains to describe their proposals as essentially pragmatic and non-ideological which doesn’t lend itself to moralism.

This is right. But people respond to rhetoric about morality. As Yglesias acknowleges, it's "very hard to do big things without a certain amount of moralism." I'd go farther: it's hard to recruit people to your cause if you don't couch your rhetoric in moral terms. Most people relate to issues by thinking about what's right and what's wrong. But liberals too often speak in the language of the lawyer or the bureaucrat instead of the language of the pastor or the parent. Much of the perception of liberals as "weak" stems from this disconnect. Couldn't liberal politicians' unwillingness to talk about morality be part of the reason so many more people identify as conservatives?

Fiore Cartoon: Taming Iran

Thu Oct. 1, 2009 1:04 PM EDT

It seems America has considered two strategies to deal with Iran:

1) Hit 'em with sanctions

2) Bomb their uranium back to the stone age

Watch satirist Mark Fiore take on the effectiveness of each after the jump:

Ben Bernanke and You

| Thu Oct. 1, 2009 12:52 PM EDT

The AP reports that Ben Bernanke didn't talk much about consumer protection in today's testimony before Congress:

Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., was stunned by what he thought was Bernanke's short shrift to the consumer protection issue. "Five sentences on consumer protection when everything else gets substantially more space," Watt said. "It is just not a good message to send."

During the hearing, Bernanke conceded that the Fed didn't do the job it should have in protecting consumers, but said improvements are being made. He suggested the central bank could take further steps to strengthen such oversight.

"We are competent and have the skills ... I think we can do that," he said.

You could take this two ways.  First, maybe Watts is right: this is evidence that Bernanke just fundamentally doesn't care about consumer protection.  Second, it might mean that Bernanke has decided not to continue opposing the creation of an independent consumer protection agency.  He's still making some pro forma remarks about the Fed's capabilities, but he's not really fighting to keep hold of its consumer protection portfolio any longer.

Either way, though, the next step is still the same: strip the Fed of its consumer responsibilities and put them in a CFPA that will actually make them a top priority.  Bernanke's testimony puts us a step closer to that.