2010 - %3, May

Tennessee to Sea Turtles: Enough Already

| Thu May. 6, 2010 12:11 AM PDT

Tennessee has a problem, and it's not the massive May Day flood damage. It's the people: They're so damn nice to each other in a crisis that they think FEMA and the rest of the country might pitch in without being asked. (There's a reason it's called the Volunteer State.)

So far my hometown's optimistic view of Yankee nature isn't working out too well. Unhelpfully, the nation's TV cameras are still turned towards the Gulf oil spill and Times Square bomb scare. Until a point tips, Nashvillians on Facebook half-jokingly discuss "waiting for Sean Penn or George Clooney to decide that they should care about this so everyone else will start."

Seriously, do you know how badly damaged Tennessee is from Saturday's flood? Nashville alone got three full months of rain in 48 hours. Twenty people died (and counting). Days after one of the worst deluges in Nashville's recorded history, thousands of people are out of power and whole neighborhoods are still underwater or homeless. Plus, one of the city's two drinking water treatment plants have been compromised by flood damage, so people are being told to "delay showering or washing dishes" to avoid a potable water shortage. In any other news cycle, Anderson Cooper would already be down there interviewing country music icons, right?

Here's how you can help the flood victims if you're interested.

And here are two videos if you want a quick Red State primer on the flood, how Tennesseans think about the flood, the Nashville Weather Penis, and the imminent "Obama Hates White People" meme:

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Ratings Agency Update

| Wed May. 5, 2010 10:35 PM PDT

Quick ratings agency update. Al Franken has introduced an amendment that reforms the way ratings agencies compete for business. Dave Dayen explains.  Meanwhile, over at Rortybomb, former Moody's director Jerome Fons suggests that this is a good idea but not a sufficient one. He wants to remove the regulatory reliance on ratings and then crowdsource ratings by making the details of every security public knowledge. You can read the whole thing here.

Carbon Emissions Down 7% in 2009

| Wed May. 5, 2010 8:08 PM PDT

This just in from the EIA's latest report: carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. were down 7% last year. That's on top of a 3% drop in 2008. This means that we're already more than halfway toward our goal of reducing carbon emissions 17% from 2005 levels by 2020. About one-third of the reduction was due to the recession, one-third to reduced energy intensity, and one-third to the use of cleaner energy. Joe Romm has more.

Congress and the Fed

| Wed May. 5, 2010 5:51 PM PDT

Matt Yglesias comments on the prospect of the Fed finding itself on a tighter congressional leash in the future:

I think common sense holds that the Fed is losing some of its independence because the world is mired in a giant recession. When Paul Volcker was seen as having licked inflation, and then Alan Greenspan was seen as having delivered a “Great Moderation” spanning two decades, then politicians hesitated to challenge Fed leaders. With unemployment at 10 percent, people get antsy and start giving the Fed a hard time.

Personally, I welcome the idea of more attention to the importance of the Fed and its activities, but I’m not hearing a ton of constructive ideas from the Hill. The idea of “auditing” the Fed seems largely besides the point, like if your big worry was that John Roberts might be embezzling office supplies rather than issuing bad rulings.

This is pretty much where I am. If we put a Consumer Finance Protection Agency inside the Fed, then the Fed is going to have accept more oversight. After all, consumer protection just isn't the kind of thing that anyone thinks ought to be "independent." Frankly, though, that's a better argument for putting the CFPA elsewhere than it is for subjecting the Fed to more oversight.

More broadly speaking, I guess my problem is this: I don't mind stronger congressional oversight of the Fed's regulatory functions. But Congress does a lousy job of this on a day-to-day basis, and we'd be a lot better off if they didn't pretend otherwise and instead just tied the Fed's hands a little more strongly via statute. That's how you get better regulation.

But what most people seem to have in mind when they talk about increased oversight is even worse. They're upset about the extraordinary actions that the Fed took during the financial crisis, and they don't want the Fed freelancing like that anymore. But that's crazy. The Fed didn't regulate well and it didn't manage the housing bubble well, but the one thing it did do well was react to the crisis once it hit. That's the one place where having a free hand worked. If Congress had been involved in this stuff, it's even odds that unemployment would be at 20% today, not 10%.1

As for monetary policy, that's even worse. Maybe I like Ben Bernanke's monetary sentiments and maybe I don't, but Fed independence in this realm really does strike me, like democracy, as the worst possible system except for all the others. I know that inflation hawkery is out of style right now, but I'm a little more sympathetic to it than most. It's one of those reputational things that takes decades to build up and just a few days to lose if you abandon it during a crisis, so a bias toward hawkery isn't altogether a bad thing. And in any case, even if Bernanke is keeping things tighter than I would, I trust Congress to stick its oar into this about as much as I trust Homer Simpson to keep his hands off the donuts.

So the whole "Fed audit" thing doesn't do much for me. If Congress wants stronger regs, it should write stronger regs. As for the rest, until we genetically engineer better congressmen, Fed independence is probably something we should stick to. I'm open to counterarguments, though.

1No, I'm not joking. The thought of Congress being seriously involved in this just sends shivers up my spine.

UPDATE: Dean Baker disagrees. This is bad news since I'm not generally keen on disagreeing with Dean. However, his view seems to be that the Fed should disclose its actions after a certain period of time, not that it should make everything public as it happens. I could probably live with that.

Obama Endorses "Los Suns"

| Wed May. 5, 2010 5:00 PM PDT

It's not quite on par with the Iranian soccer team's protest of disputed 2009 election results, but this (via Kevin Drum) is pretty darn cool: The NBA's Phoenix Suns are staging an on-court protest for tonight's home playoff game to show their displeasure with their state's insane new immigration law. As The Nation's Dave Zirin reports, the Suns will alter their jerseys to become "Los Suns" for their televised second-round matchup with the San Antonio Spurs:

In a statement released by the team, Sarver said, "The frustration with the federal government's failure to deal with the issue of illegal immigration resulted in passage of a flawed state law. However intended, the result of passing this law is that our basic principles of equal rights and protection under the law are being called into question, and Arizona's already struggling economy will suffer even further setbacks at a time when the state can ill-afford them."

Or maybe they were just tired of being bombarded with signs like this. The Sun aren't acting alone, either. Spurs coach Greg Popovich said his players support their opponents' effortsin fact, they would have played as "Los Spurs" but weren't able to get the custom jerseys made in time. President Obama, who has soundly denounced Arizona's new immigration law, gave a shout-out to the team's protest in his Cinco de Mayo address, telling his audience, "I know that a lot of you would rather be watching tonight's gamethe Spurs against 'Los Suns' from Phoenix." Meanwhile, the Major League Baseball Players Association has already denounced the law, and and there's an ongoing campaign to prevent the Diamondbacks from hosting the All-Star game as scheduled in 2011.

But not everyone in sports is unified in opposition. Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson told ESPN.com, "Am I crazy, or am I the only one that heard [the legislature] say ‘we just took the United States immigration law and adapted it to our state":

I don't think teams should get involved in the political stuff. And I think this one's still kind of coming out to balance as to how it's going to be favorably looked upon by our public. If I heard it right the American people are really for stronger immigration laws, if I'm not mistaken. Where we stand as basketball teams, we should let that kind of play out and let the political end of that go where it's going to go.

The Etymology of Fannie Mae

| Wed May. 5, 2010 4:13 PM PDT

Where did Fannie Mae get its name? It is, obviously, a nickname derived from its real name, the Federal National Mortgage Association, but why did this particular part of FDR's New Deal alphabet soup get anthropomorphized and not any of the others? It's not as if the WPA was known as Willie Pad or the TVA was known as Tammie Vat, after all. Ben Zimmer gets us part of the way to an answer:

Fannie Mae started out as a government agency back in 1938, as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. Though it was officially known as the FNMA, it was almost immediately given its feminine nickname as a playful acronym. The July-Dec. 1938 issue of Architectural Forum explained that the agency had already been "nicknamed 'Fanny May' by Washington's bureau wags."

Fine. But why did Washington's bureau wags nickname it Fanny May? Whatever the answer, it must have happened quickly. The NMA only became the FNMA in May 1938, and the July-Dec issue of Architectural Forum must have gone to press by June at the latest. So that means the wags began their wagging within a few weeks.

It seems like the name must be somehow related to the Fannie May candy company, right? But according to their site, they were still a strictly midwestern company in the 30s. Did the nickname originate with some wag originally from Chicago? Or what? Maybe this is completely lost in the mists of time and oral history. ProQuest provided no clues. If there's any kind of further explanation, I've been unable to find one.

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Mark Levin vs. Everyone

| Wed May. 5, 2010 2:32 PM PDT

Did I ever write a post about the great Manzi-Levin feud? A quick search says I didn't. Nickel summary, then: NRO contributor Jim Manzi, who accepts the fact of global warming but opposes aggressive action to fight it (see here), opened up Levin's Liberty and Tyranny the other day and read his chapter on climate change. Manzi was appalled at the hackish level of Levin's rant and wrote a post saying so. Levin responded in the fourth grade vernacular that he specializes in.

(Seriously. The guy makes up names like "Keith Overbite" and "Susan Dumass" for his enemies. He brags about how great he was at their age and how little they've accomplished compared to him. He tosses out juvenile insults like M&Ms. He really, genuinely, sounds like a fourth grader with a temper problem.)

Anyway, NRO's Kevin Williamson, after reading a Levin tirade today directed at Ross Douthat, has seen the light:

When I first read Manzi's much-remarked-upon remarks re: Mark, I thought them unduly harsh. I am revising that opinion, just a little.

I guess a little is better than nothing. I mean, even Rush Limbaugh usually manages to sound like an adult. A crazy one to be sure, but an adult. Levin, on the other hand, is a petulant child. He needs a few days in detention hall, not a cheering squad.

More Failures at MMS

| Wed May. 5, 2010 2:32 PM PDT

I have a piece up today about the litany of failures at the Department of Interior's Minerals Management Services over the years that may have contributed to the current situation in the Gulf of Mexico. And it doesn't end there.

Washington Post has another piece of damning evidence on MMS today, reporting that the division "exempted BP's calamitous Gulf of Mexico drilling operation from a detailed environmental impact analysis last year."

An MMS evaluation of the Deepwater Horizon lease application vastly underestimated the amount of oil that could be spilled from the rig, and said it would not likely reach the coast. The evaluations prompted MMS to give the operation a "categorical exclusion" from the National Environmental Policy Act in April 2009.

The Post also has more on BP's underestimation of potential spills:

BP's exploration plan for Lease 206, which calls the prospect of an oil spill "unlikely," stated that "no mitigation measures other than those required by regulation and BP policy will be employed to avoid, diminish or eliminate potential impacts on environmental resources."
While the plan included a 13-page environmental impact analysis, it minimized the prospect of any serious damage associated with a spill, saying there would be only "sub-lethal" effects on fish and marine mammals, and "birds could become oiled. However it is unlikely that an accidental oil spill would occur from the proposed activities."

Looks like MMS might still have a long way to go in cleaning up its act.

Dems, GOP Pass Too-Big-to-Fail Tweak

| Wed May. 5, 2010 2:00 PM PDT

An overwhelming number of senators from both parties passed the first major amendment on financial regulatory reform this afternoon, making substantial changes to how too-big-to-fail banks are liquidated when they fail. The vote was 93 to 5, with Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), a staunch supporter of reform, the only Democrat to vote against it. The Dodd-Shelby amendment, named for senators Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), replaces the previous proposal—that a $50 billion fund be created to pay for the orderly euthanization of Citigroup-like megabanks—with a provision giving the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation the power to wind down these banks. (The FDIC already takes over and winds down small to medium sized banks.)

The Dodd-Shelby amendment mandates several more new rules. Shareholders who receive government money in a bank's wind-down will be forced to pay back any funds exceeding what they would've received had the bank simply been liquidated. The Federal Reserve will only be allowed to use its emergency lending powers with banks who are still solvent, and not failed. Finally, the amendment, if it remains untouched and the bill passes, will give regulators the power to ban top executives and directors of failed banks from again working in the financial sector, a proposal sure to draw ire of Wall Street and its phalanx of lobbyists.

Earlier this afternoon, the Senate also passed the Boxer amendment, which explicitly says that taxpayers will never again be on the hook for future bailouts or support to struggling megabanks. That amendment also passed with near-unanimous backing from both parties.

"Los Suns" Protest AZ Immigration Law

| Wed May. 5, 2010 1:53 PM PDT

The Phoenix Suns will be "Los Suns" tonight in protest against Arizona's new immigration law. But James Joyner harshes all over their protest by noting that they've done this before without needing bad laws as an excuse:

Amusingly, while this move is getting a lot of attention because of the present controversy, this isn’t anything new. The NBA has been celebrating Noche Latina the last four seasons, and at least eight teams — including the Suns — have worn Spanish variant jerseys in commemoration of that. And the Suns have apparently worn these jerseys twice previously this season without the fanfare.

So we have Los Suns, Los Mavs, Los Bulls, etc. Needless to say, though, Los Angeles has been way ahead of everyone on this front. Go Lakers!

UPDATE: Hmmm. Maybe I spoke too soon about the Lakers.