2010 - %3, February

Friday Cat Blogging - 26 February 2010

| Fri Feb. 26, 2010 2:54 PM EST

This has felt like a long week. Was it just me? Either way, I need to emulate my cats and catch up on some sleep this weekend.

And speaking of cats, here they are, just in the nick of time. On the left, Domino, as usual, has staked out one of the roving patches of sunshine in the house (entryway in the morning, top of the stairs in the late morning, in front of the dining room table in the afternoon, etc.). On the right, Inkblot is pursuing one of his favorite non-sleeping activities, namely preventing me from blogging.

In other news, Carly Simon has revealed that the subject of "You're So Vain" is named David. Let the guessing games begin anew!

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Fiore Cartoon: Capitalism Clapper

Fri Feb. 26, 2010 2:34 PM EST

Sometimes the government is the problem. Sometimes it's the solution. Sometimes banks are so big, we think they can't possibly fail. Sometimes they're so big, they do fail.

Sometimes America embraces a free market. And sometimes...it doesn't.

Watch Mark Fiore take on our capitalist fickleness below:

Climate Skeptic Sponsored by Fossil Fuel Interests

| Fri Feb. 26, 2010 2:02 PM EST

Get the latest on environmental politics on Blue Marble:

Cape Wind Site Not So Sacred After All?

Dirty energy interests (with help from wealthy land owners, including the Kennedys) have been leading a campaign for nearly a decade to block Cape Wind, the country’s first offshore wind farm in the Nantucket Sound. They have been successful in delaying the project, but their real hope for conquering the wind farm once and for all didn’t come until last year, when two local Native American tribes requested that the sound be declared off-limits for development because it would interfere with their spiritual practice. But one tribe member says that argument is a complete fabrication.

Most Credible Climate Skeptic Not So Credible After All

Patrick Michaels has more credibility than your average climate skeptic, and is often featured prominently in the press to offer an alternative view on global warming. But what Michaels doesn't mention in his frequent media appearances is his history of receiving money from big polluters.

EPA Block Bad for Auto Industry, Says DOT

Efforts underway to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse-gas emissions would "profoundly" harm the already-ailing auto industry, warned the Department of Transportation in a letter.

McCain Goes Off the Nuclear Deep End

Obama’s $54.5 billion plan to restart the nuclear industry apparently isn’t good enough for John McCain.

The Hard Road Ahead

| Fri Feb. 26, 2010 1:53 PM EST

The path forward for healthcare reform is now widely agreed on: pass the existing Senate bill through the House, and then tack on a package of changes negotiated between the House and Senate that can be passed through both chambers on a simple majority vote via the budget reconciliation process. Simple. Except for one thing: who goes first, and what gets passed when? Michael Scherer outlines the process:

The Senate does not want to go first because Republicans will be able to bottle up the reconciliation process, delaying the vote and making for another ugly sausage making spectacle that Americans hate to watch. If reconciliation takes too long, the thinking goes, then the House will never act, and the whole health care deal will die. But if the House goes first by passing the Senate bill, and the president signs it, then the incentive for Republicans to bottle up reconciliation would be diminished. Health care reform would, at that point, already be law. The horse would be out of the barn. Republicans would then be obstructing fixes to the law that would make the bill, arguably, better by getting rid of stuff like the "cornhusker kickback," a much tougher proposition.

Here is where it gets tricky: The House is not going to vote on the Senate bill (even with a separate package of amendments to match the Senate's reconciliation) until it is dead certain that the Senate will act. So how could those assurances be arranged? With the help of C-Span cameras, of course, or perhaps a letter from 51 Democrats vowing to pass reconciliation come hell or high water. Once the letter is read on the nightly news, the House can act, and suddenly the pressure would be on the Senate Republicans. With health care already law, the GOP will have to decide whether or not to spend weeks gumming up the Senate to delay some amendments to that bill.

Without a doubt, the whole thing is a long shot. It's not clear that Pelosi has the votes she needs, but if she can get to 217, then it is unlikely to be all that difficult to get the Senate to 51, despite Republican carping over process. There is a path. It's tiny. But it's there.

Of course, Scherer has skipped a step here: coming up with the reconciliation compromise in the first place. It has to be something that can still get 51 votes in the Senate — which probably isn't too hard — and a majority in the House. And since abortion language can't be changed via reconciliation (it has nothing to do with the budget), that means the House majority has to suck it up and accept the Senate's abortion language. Considering that the Senate language is pretty stiff, that shouldn't be too hard, but if anti-abortion Dems are casting around for an excuse to vote No anyway, that would be a pretty handy one.

Anyway, I keep reading that the House and Senate hate each other's guts these days, which is going to make this whole process difficult. That seems crazy to me, since you'd think a bunch of professional politicians would have a pretty hard-boiled view of the institutional issues that affect both chambers. But in the same way that inter-party relationships have gotten far more personal and vitriolic since the Gingrich revolution, apparently so have intra-party relationships. Obama's got his work cut out for him.

Oath Keepers Boss: Bybee Nixed Me

| Fri Feb. 26, 2010 1:40 PM EST

At the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, lawyer Stewart Rhodes, founder of controversial "patriot" group Oath Keepers, told a legal reporter that he was rejected for a 2003 clerkship with infamous federal appeals court judge Jay Bybee—co-author of the Bush administration's Torture Memos.  "Of course I didn't get the clerkship," Rhodes said. "But I didn't want it anyway."

The subject of our March/April cover story "Age of Treason," Oath Keepers urges members—mostly active-duty soldiers, police officers, and military veterans—to disobey a set of orders they consider unconstitutional infringements on American liberties. Rhodes says his lack of faith in Bybee stems not from his approval of torture, but from his actions, along with lawyer John Yoo, "justifying applications of the laws of war even on American citizens. I find that very dangerous."

Rhodes and his organization have drawn praise or attention from right-wing icons like Glenn Beck, Alex Jones, and a coterie of GOP congressional representatives and 2010 candidates. But speaking to Rhodes on his program last week, Bill O'Reilly suggested that some of the group's ideals invite anarchy.

Bybee remains on the bench, and although Congress says it intends to hold hearings on the Torture Memos, key details of the case remain mysterious. But when Bybee eventually leaves his robe behind, it looks like there won't be an Oath Keepers membership waiting for him.

Cape Wind Site Not So Sacred After All?

| Fri Feb. 26, 2010 1:01 PM EST

Dirty energy interests have been leading a campaign for nearly a decade to block Cape Wind, the country’s first offshore wind farm in the Nantucket Sound. They have been successful in delaying the project, but their real hope for conquering the wind farm didn’t come until last year, when two local Native American tribes requested that the sound be declared off-limits for development.
The turbines would disrupt their ritual of greeting the sun rise and impose on ancestral burial grounds, the tribes argued. The National Park Service determined last month that the sound could be considered for listing in the National Register of Historic Places in response to the tribes’ request.
But one tribe member says that appeal is a fabrication. "I never participated in, witnessed or even heard of a sacred spot on the horizon that is relevant to any Aquinnah Wampanoag culture, history or ceremony,” wrote Jeffrey Madison a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head in a letter to Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar obtained by the Martha's Vineyard Gazette. "The notion that locating wind turbines in Nantucket Sound will impose on, impact or harm any cultural tradition is just plain false … I believe it to be a fabrication, invented by a small number of tribal members, who happen to be involved in tribal government and who happen to be opponents of Cape Wind who wish to derail the project."

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Roy Moore: Next Alabama Governor?

| Fri Feb. 26, 2010 12:51 PM EST

Roy Moore is running for governor again. The former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice who was thrown off the bench for refusing to remove a giant Ten Commandments sculpture from his Alabama courthouse has long been a darling of the Christian Right. But he still lost the GOP primary in 2006 to Bob Riley by a 2 to 1 margin. This time around, his prospects look a whole lot better as he has been embraced by the burgeoning Tea Party movement and those who want to return to a strict states' rights reading of the Constitution. They've championed Moore not just for his religious displays but because he basically told the federal government to go stick it when he was ordered by a federal judge to get the Ten Commandments out of his courtroom. And according to Moore, even though his Republican opponents are outspending him by millions of dollars, recent polls show he's got a double-digit lead over the next closest candidate in the primary.

Moore spoke Friday at a Tenth Amendment Summit in Atlanta sponsored by Ray McBerry, another "Constitutionalist" candidate running for governor of Georgia, and was greeted with many standing ovations and cheers of "Amen" by the many state legislators, aspiring candidates and various Tea Party and John Birch types assembled for the event. (There was even a guy carrying an actual pitchfork.) He fired up the crowd with rants against federal education spending, federal bailouts and the cap and trade bill, noting that the Constitution doesn't give the federal government authority "over the weather." Moore mixed his campaign platform with long quotes from Patrick Henry and other early patriots, and infused his take on the Constitution with a healthy dose of religion. "From God, all our rights proceed," he intoned.

But the best part of his presentation came when he showed the illicit video footage, "what the federal government didn't want you to see," of his 2002 trial testimony from the lawsuit filed by the ACLU over the Ten Commandments statue. In court, Moore emphatically stated that to uphold the Constitution he had to "invoke the favor and guidance of almighty God" and that regardless of the outcome of the trial, he would never take the Ten Commandments out of his courthouse. Commenting on his testimony Friday, Moore exclaimed, "For once we told the federal government we will not bow down!" He had the Tenth Amendment crowd leaping from their seats. Apparently Moore sees the testimony as so compelling that he's using it in his gubernatorial campaign ads, and you can watch some of it here.

He wrapped up with fighting words: "The war's inevitable. Let it come. This is the war for our Constitution."

 

When Cities Battle Wall Street

| Fri Feb. 26, 2010 12:43 PM EST

Fed up with the predatory practices and utter absence of foreclosure help from Wall Street, local politicians, unions, and citizens in Los Angeles have decided to battle the big banks and financial services community themselves in LA's own version of "Move Your Money." While Washington stumbles its way toward financial reform, a bill in the Los Angeles city government right now would crack down on banks and lenders who hang out to dry beleaguered homeowners and would rein in unfair practices; the bill would also create a series of policies calling for the divestment of LA's funds now held by large banks to more consumer-friendly ones. The campaign, led in part by the union SEIU, will be voted on before LA's city council as early as next Friday, an SEIU rep says, and marks a major effort in the "Move Your Money" campaign to yank both consumers and cities' own dollars out of bailed out institutions that aren't helping consumers, and into smaller, often local banks or credit unions.

A representative for SEIU today sent me the latest details of LA's "Move Your Money" bill under discussion by an LA city government committee, which recently took the following actions:

  1. Adopted the standards for banking relationships based on foreclosure prevention, small business lending, neighborhood banking and send to the full Council for approval;
  2. Called for the creation of a “report card” to evaluate the track record of banks that want to do business with the City. This report would include data on the number of small business loans provided, evidence of working with homeowners facing foreclosure, the number and location of branches and ATMs and the use of federal TARP funds. It would also allow LA policymakers the opportunity to choose banks that are giving back to the community;
  3. Directed the Chief Legislative Analyst to mandate a system of periodic assessment in addition to the report card to evaluate whether financial institutions meet the standards of socially responsible investing. This would include an annual, public report to the Council and Treasurer. The city would then give preference to banks in the top two deciles and lead to possible divestment for those that do not;
  4. Instructed the City Administrative Officer (CAO), in coordination with the Treasurer, the Chief Legislative Analyst (CLA) and the City Attorney, to enforce a moratorium on any new swap deals, and renegotiate or cancel current interest rate swap transactions at no cost to the city. The city will not do any business with banks refusing to renegotiate or cancel swaps deals. The city is currently paying $10 million each year on swaps deals and would be forced to pay $29 million to exit them;
  5. Requested that pension funds and proprietary departments with their own investment pools create similar policies to the ones proposed by the committee.

SEIU is also trying to introduce similar legislation in Maryland, and hopes the city-wide "Move Your Money" campaign will catch on. It's an ambitious effort, without a doubt, and while a few hundred depositors moving their money from, say, Citigroup to Weequahic Credit Union is more symbolic than anything, convincing a half-dozen cities to do the same could have a sizeable impact.

John McCain and California's Caps

| Fri Feb. 26, 2010 12:38 PM EST

During the healthcare summit yesterday, John McCain hailed California and Texas for implementing damage caps in medical malpractice suits. But then he stumbled a bit and decided he actually wanted to talk only about Texas, not California. He nervously made a lame joke about California stealing Arizona's water to cover this up, but at the time I tweeted: "McCain doesn't want to talk about California's damage caps. Why? Because it hasn't kept premiums down."

And it hasn't. We passed a law called MICRA in 1975 that limited noneconomic damages in malpractice cases to $250,000. Adjusted for inflation, that cap is now about the equivalent of $60,000. Nonetheless, its impact on malpractice premiums has been negligible. The chart below comes from the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, which definitely has a dog in the fight since it was founded by insurance industry scourge Harvey Rosenfield, who championed Proposition 103, an initiative that implemented state approval of insurance rates. It was passed in 1988.

Still, the results are pretty clear. After 1975, malpractice premiums continued to zoom upward, rising at an even higher rate than in other states. But after 1988 (that's the green line for easy reference), California premiums leveled off while rates in the rest of the country continued to rise. The reason for this is pretty simple: large damage awards are actually pretty rare and don't make up a huge proportion of total malpractice payouts. Capping them changes the picture, but it doesn't change it that much. But it does substantially cut into trial lawyer income.

Which, of course, is the whole point. If you want to annoy trial lawyers, you should cap damages. If you really want to reform malpractice law, however, look elsewhere.

Housing Recovery Hits Brick Wall

| Fri Feb. 26, 2010 12:14 PM EST

Is the housing recovery dead in the water?

The latest news from Foreclosureland sure seems to say that, dealing a death blow to projections that a recovery was imminent. In January, new data shows, new home sales plunged 11.3 percent to a record low, according to the Commerce Department. That drop brings home sales to their lowest point in nearly 50 years, and comes at a time when economists were predicting an increase of around 5 percent or so from December's totals. The budding recovery in the housing sector "has taken another big step back, even with the government aid," said Jennifer Lee, an economist at BMO Capital Markets, in a research note. That aid, including the Obama administration's multibillion-dollar Home Affordable Modification Program, its flagship relief effort, has done next to nothing to quell turmoil in the housing industry—turmoil showing little signs of abating.

Indeed, the housing industry appears to be at something of a crossroads right now. Just in the past week or so we've seen reports saying there are more "underwater" homeowners than ever before, at 11.3 million; that delinquencies (people late on their payments by 60 days or more) have been increasing for three years straight; but also that foreclosures are decreasing, according to recent data from the Mortgage Bankers Association, whose economist—perhaps prematurely—commented, "We are likely seeing the beginning of the end."

Well, if this is third and final act of the housing crisis, which began with subprime meltdown back in 2007, than you'd better get comfortable in your seats because this act apparently has quite a long way to go.