2009 - %3, December

Watch: McKibben, Lomborg, and Kerry on Copenhagen

Thu Dec. 17, 2009 9:15 PM EST

Here are today's FORA.tv clips from Copenhagen. First, Mother Jones contributor Bill McKibben explains just how discouraging the conference has been so far. According to current international proposals, he said, "we'll live in hell, or a place with a remarkably similar temperature" by 2010:

 

 

Danish climate skeptic Bjorn Lomborg worrys that the conference will yield nothing more than empty promises:

 

 

And yesterday, Sen. John Kerry emphasized the "building anger" at the developed world's sluggish response to climate change:

 

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Health Care Reform and the Myth of Regulation

| Thu Dec. 17, 2009 9:13 PM EST

Plenty of countries have created excellent health care systems largely through regulation--so why can't we seem to do the same? The French and Japanese health care systems, for example, do not exclude private industry. They are not socialist in any sense of the word, and even retain a role for private insurance companies. What each system consists of is a regulatory apparatus that serves as the instrument for carrying out national policy–which is ensuring high quality health care for all the country’s citizens at a reasonable cost. The regulation works because you can’t get around it, and because it was designed–and actually operates–in the public interest.

To achieve anything similar in the United States, however, would require a virtual revolution in how things work. Our system of government regulations isn’t really what we think of as regulation at all. Rather, it throws up a facade of rules, which corporations walk right through. And no wonder, since although the regulations are supposed to be arrived at independently and designed for the public good, corporations have long had a hand in writing them, as well, thanks to the power of lobbying, campaign contributions, and the revolving door between business and government.

Rather than being enacted to protect the public from the limitless greed of private industry, many regulations are actually passed in support of corporations. The worst example is probably the Securities and Exchange Commission, which is just a clubhouse for Wall Street. Another top contender is the Food and Drug Administration. The basic legislation passed by Congress in the 1930s and updated in the early 1960s set policy governing the sale and use of drugs, which demanded that companies demonstrate the proposed product is safe and efficacious. But that policy directive was quickly abandoned. Today the drug manufacturers breeze through the FDA, setting their own rules for use, establishing their own prices, and exercising their monopoly rights within the patent system which in the case of pharmaceuticals is  maintained for their benefit.

An excellent article in the December Harpers, “Understanding Obamacare”by Luke Mitchell,  provides a clear understanding of how the  American system of regulation in the corporate interest works. “The idea that there is a competitive ‘private sector’ in America is appealing, but generally false,” writes Mitchell. He continues:

 

Batwoman and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

| Thu Dec. 17, 2009 7:52 PM EST

Because I don’t often read comics, it had completely slipped my mind that DC Comics’ Batwoman came out as a lesbian in 2006. I was reminded while reading a recent blog by Eric Grignol at change.org, which details the superheroine’s gay-rightsy travails with a policy just like "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell."  Grignol describes the storyline:

Readers find that as a young adult, Batwoman is at the top of her class at the United States Military Academy. When it’s discovered that she’s in a lesbian relationship with another student, she’s asked to deny the allegations or be expelled for violation of the military’s code of conduct. She could stay in the military if she’d just tell her commanding officer "what he needed to hear."

Batwoman’s response? She bravely cites the cadet honor code: "A cadet will not lie, cheat, or steal, nor suffer other to do so. I’m sorry sir, I can’t."

Refusing to lie about who she is, Batwoman is discharged and forced to leave her potential life of service behind. What follows is depression fueled by drugs and alcohol after sacrificing one part of her identity (military career) for another part (lesbian individual), until finding a redemptive relationship with another woman. Through the whole ordeal, Batwoman never questions her decision to be honest and truthful about her sexual orientation.

Batwoman in a drug-fueled depression prompted by dismissal from the military for her lesbianism? Sign me up. Apparently I’ve been wasting my time watching oil wrestling on The L Word; the most interesting and up-to-date pop cultural explorations of sexuality and society seem to be taking place on the pages of a comic book. I guess this makes Batwoman the Lieutenant Dan Choi of comic characters. Or does it make Lieutenant Dan Choi the Batwoman of real-life "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" abolitionists?

Now if only Batwoman could speak at congressional hearings on the policy slated for next year-ish.
 

Angry About Bailout, Some Divest

| Thu Dec. 17, 2009 7:51 PM EST

This morning, more than 60 janitors, security guards, window cleaners, and other working folks marched in front of Wells Fargo's San Francisco offices to protest the $150 billion in bonuses, benefits, and compensation the six largest banks in the US are giving executives this year. The SEIU-organized protest comes just days after Wells Fargo and Citibank announced they'd be repaying the last of their TARP funds, and in doing so, avoid government scrutiny on executive pay and risk assessment. Though the TARP funds (plus interest) are on their way to government coffers, it's not enough for working people of California, who continue to be outraged at record bank bonuses. Down at Wells Fargo HQ, the anger was hand-written on signs reading "Bank of America: You're Overdrawn," "Arrest those Bank Robbers," and "Theft is Theft! Throw Banksters in Jail!"

"This is your money," said Marvin Webb, a minster at Richmond's Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church, to the crowd. "This is money we invested, this is money we deposited, this is money that they're using to pay for bonuses." The money doesn't just go to pay bonuses, it pays mortgage middlemen to foreclose on properties still undergoing loan modification. Gina Gates, who spoke at the event, said she took her money out of Bank of America after they foreclosed on her home, despite the fact she was willing to pay off the balance left on her mortgage. "If they can't take care of our money, why are we giving it to them?" she asked.

 

Bernanke Then and Now

| Thu Dec. 17, 2009 5:44 PM EST

Courtesy of Sen. David Vitter (R–La.), Brad DeLong gets the chance to ask Ben Bernanke why he's not willing increase the Fed's inflation target from 2% to 3%:

The Federal Reserve has not followed the suggestion of some that it pursue a monetary policy strategy aimed at pushing up longer-run inflation expectations. In theory, such an approach could reduce real interest rates and so stimulate spending and output. However, that theoretical argument ignores the risk that such a policy could cause the public to lose confidence in the central bank’s willingness to resist further upward shifts in inflation, and so undermine the effectiveness of monetary policy going forward. The anchoring of inflation expectations is a hard-won success that has been achieved over the course of three decades, and this stability cannot be taken for granted.

I think this demonstrates pretty well why it's entirely possible to say both (a) Bernanke's background made him extremely well suited to play a crisis management role in 2007-08 and he did a good job at it, but (b) he's not the right guy to lead the Fed going forward.  What we're likely to need over the next few years isn't a crisis manager, but someone who unwinds the Fed's position gradually and takes its role in boosting employment more seriously.  But Bernanke is a mainstream conservative, and mainstream conservatives have always been more concerned with inflation than with unemployment.  This was entirely predictable, and it's why, even though he did a creditable job in his first term, he shouldn't have gotten a second.

Proof Copenhagen Is "an Elaborate Sham"

| Thu Dec. 17, 2009 5:17 PM EST

For two weeks we've been listening to the story of the leaked emails from the University of East Anglia—a media tempest in an English teapot. And all the time the biggest scandal has been directly under our noses.

This afternoon at Copenhagen a document mysteriously leaked from the UN Secretariat. It was first reported from the Guardian, and by the time it was posted online it oddly had my name scrawled all across the top—I don't know why, because I didn't leak it.

My suspicion, though, is because it confirms something I've been writing for weeks. The cuts in emissions that countries are proposing here are nowhere near good enough to meet even their remarkably weak target of limiting temperature rise to two degrees Celsius. In fact, says the UN in this leaked report, the  cuts on offer now produce a rise of at least three degrees, and a CO2 concentration of at least 550 ppm, not the 350 scientists say we need, or even the weak 450 that the US supposedly supports.

In other words, this entire conference is an elaborate sham, where the organizers have known all along that they're heading for a very different world than the one they're supposedly creating. It's intellectual dishonesty of a very high order, and with very high consequences. And it's probably come too late to derail the stage management—tomorrow Barack Obama will piously intone that he's committed to a two degree temperature target. But he isn't—and now he can't even say it with a straight face.

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Friedman's War

| Thu Dec. 17, 2009 4:10 PM EST

Matt Yglesias reads Tom Friedman so you don't have to:

I think I lack the words to adequately express how morally outrageous Tom Friedman’s call for a Muslim civil war is. But we can at least focus a bit on how factually inaccurate it is.

I was all ready to be outraged, but it turns out Friedman probably isn't asking for the military kind of civil war at all:

We don’t need more NATO allies to kill more Taliban and Al Qaeda. We need more Arab and Muslim allies to kill their extremist ideas....Only Arabs and Muslims can fight the war of ideas within Islam....What is really scary is that this violent, jihadist minority seems to enjoy the most “legitimacy” in the Muslim world today. Few political and religious leaders dare to speak out against them in public....How many fatwas — religious edicts — have been issued by the leading bodies of Islam against Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda? Very few....Etc.

I say Friedman "probably" isn't asking for a military conflict because, unfortunately, he also includes a paragraph about the "ferocity" of the American civil war and says, "Islam needs the same civil war."  But it's still couched as a war against bad ideas, and I imagine that's what he's really focused on.  Still, Friedman could stand to clear this up for us.  Just what kind of war does he want in the Muslim world?

The 0.5 Degree Question

| Thu Dec. 17, 2009 3:13 PM EST

In the final 48 hours of the Copenhagen climate conference, one of the biggest differences remains a very small number: half a degree.

While most of the attention here is focused on the remaining divide between the United States and China when it comes to measuring and verifying emissions reductions, a much larger split remains between the 102 countries that have called for a limit on temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius and the much more powerful nations that have called for a 2 degree target.

The nations pushing for a 1.5 degree target include members of the Alliance of Small Island States, the G77, the bloc of Least Developed Countries, the Africa Group, and several nations from Latin America and Asia. But there is significant pressure being exerted on these nations to consent to the 2 degree target that has been embraced the United States, European Union, China, and other nations here seen as the most powerful players in a final deal. But leaders from the 1.5 camp say they are holding firm on their target, and won't sign onto a deal that calls for anything else.

"I will not sign anything less than 1.5," said Apisai Ielemia, Prime Minister of the tiny island nation of Tuvalu, which may become one of the first casualties of global warming. The low-lying Pacific island nation made headlines last week for shutting down talks with calls for a legally binding treaty. Now they're staking out their desire for a deal at this summit that will not condemn them to rising tides, they say. "This meeting is about our future existence," said Ielemia. "We don't want to disappear from this earth ... We want to exist as a nation, because we have a fundamental right to live beside you."

"For developed countries to choose to not use that figure, is morally, politically irresponsible," said Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping, the Sudanese chairman of the G77.

The debate over what figure to put in the final agreement here maybe meaningless, however, if the corresponding emissions reductions goals would not put the world on a path to stay below that limit. A leaked draft analysis from the UNFCCC of the commitments put on the table from developed countries states that what they have pledged so far would lead to a 3 degree temperature rise. If targets aren't raised, "global emissions will remain on an unsustainable pathway," the document states.

Meanwhile, frustrations remain high among developing nations over what they see as pressure from rich nations to consent to a higher target. "We are not yielding to these pressures, because our future is not negotiable," said Ielemia.

Fiore Cartoon: Bonusmas

Thu Dec. 17, 2009 2:58 PM EST

Satirist Mark Fiore takes on the classic Night Before Christmas with a spin for Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, and other finance greed mongers. Sample line: "The bonuses were hung by the chimneys with care, in the hopes the angry mob wouldn't notice them there..."

Watch below:

Bond Mania

| Thu Dec. 17, 2009 2:07 PM EST

I have an idea.  Instead of complaining about all this "war bond" nonsense, why don't we jump on the bandwagon?  It could be great!  We could sell "healthcare bonds" to pay for premium subsidies.  We could sell "unemployment bonds" to pay for unemployment insurance.  We could sell "carbon bonds" to pay for cap-and-trade.  The possibilities are endless.  And since financing things via bonds apparently makes them free, the entire liberal dream could be paid for totally painlessly.  Who's with me?