2010 - %3, May

Lieberman on Gulf Spill: "Accidents Happen"

| Wed May 5, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

With oil politics threatening to upend the already fraught Senate climate and energy negotiations, Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said Tuesday that senators aren't planning to scrap offshore drilling provisions in the measure.

"There were good reasons for us to put in offshore drilling, and this terrible accident is very rare in drilling," Lieberman told reporters (via National Journal). "I mean, accidents happen. You learn from them and you try to make sure they don't happen again."

Lieberman's nonchalance about the Gulf spill belies the increasing tensions among Democrats about over how climate and energy legislation should deal with drilling. Three coastal state Democrats have pledged to vote against anything that expands drilling. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said he would filibuster legislation if he has to, and has pushed John Kerry (D-Mass.), the bill's lead Democrat, to remove those provisions.

"I have explained my position in no uncertain terms," Nelson told reporters. He said that he has not gotten any commitment from Kerry that drilling would not be on the table. Yet the issue threatens to further delay the release of a bill that already faces an uncertain path forward in the Senate. The measure remains under wraps after the lone Republican co-author, Lindsey Graham (SC), walked away from negotiations after butting heads with Democratic leadership on the timing of the measure.

Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) acknowledged in remarks to reporters Tuesday (via The Hill) that the caucus is split on drilling: "The Senate and even our caucus goes in different directions on the drilling question ... With the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it is front and center and may be a major element in this debate."

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Chart of the Day: The Party of the Rich

| Wed May 5, 2010 1:29 AM EDT

In the Weekly Standard, Christopher Caldwell adopts the populist lefty position on financial reform (break up the banks, sow their smoking ruins with salt, and if they fail again just let them die) and then wonders why Republicans are fighting this. Is it because they're the party of the rich? That's surprisingly unclear. Exit polls show that, with the exeption of the most recent election, the moderately well-off (those with $200,000+ incomes) have voted pretty reliably for Republicans for decades, and Andrew Gelman has shown that this pattern is especially pronounced in poor states. But the really rich seem to support Democrats in pretty sizeable numbers. This chart shows the pattern of political contributions in the richest zip codes in America:

Now, this isn't bulletproof evidence of who the really rich support. Apparently there isn't any. But it's pretty suggestive. And Caldwell is disgusted with the conclusion he draws:

Republicans have been paying a high price in both public opinion and political coherence to defend the prerogatives of a class that despises them. It was to cosset just these people with tax cuts that George W. Bush destroyed the balanced budget. It would seem that Republicans are either an exceptionally idealistic political party (pursuing their ideology to the point of self-destruction) or an exceptionally foolish one (convinced that anyone with a great big pile of money is their friend). There may be another explanation. To paraphrase something Clinton aide David Dreyer said many years ago, Republicans have done Lord Acton one better — they’ve been corrupted by power they don’t even have.

There's actually an interesting question here: why do Republicans support the preferred policies of the rich so reliably, when that support isn't reciprocated? I can think of a few possibilities:

  • Inertia. The rich did support Republicans in the past and old habits die hard. Although party leaders seem to understand that ever since Nixon their base has been primarily among the white working class, they still haven't really internalized what this means. So they just keep on supporting the rich.
  • Why not? Republicans appeal to the working class mainly via social policies. So even if it won't get them overwhelming support, why not get whatever support they can from the rich by supporting economic policies they like?
  • Coincidence. The GOP is the party of big business, and the interests of big business mostly coincide with the interests of the rich.
  • Bad data. Actually, the rich do support Republicans more than Democrats. The top 20 zip codes are heavily urban and Jewish, which are traditional Democratic constituencies, so this isn't good evidence of their overall habits. A better survey of the rich might show that, in fact, they support Republicans pretty heavily.
  • Something else I haven't thought of. That should cover all the remaining possibilities.

Vote in comments!

Should Felons Be Allowed to Vote?

| Tue May 4, 2010 11:03 PM EDT

Over at The Corner, Roger Clegg writes:

The Supreme Court has asked the Obama administration for its views on whether to grant review in a case that challenges felon disenfranchisement as a violation of the Voting Rights Act. It will be interesting to see what the solicitor general does. The Left does not like it when felons are not allowed to vote, but the Justice Department in years past has defended these laws, and a partisan volte-face will, or at least should be, embarrassing.

Help me out here. Why should it be embarrassing for the Obama administration to take a different position than previous administrations? Don't presidential administrations do that all the time?

How Did the Times Square Suspect Become a US Citizen?

| Tue May 4, 2010 9:39 PM EDT

Right after the news about the Times Square bomber broke, some Republicans were outraged that the suspect--a naturalized US citizen—had been read his Miranda rights after his arrest. The next installment in the debate is sure to be exactly how Pakistan-born Faisal Shahzad gained his citzenship--and whether it should have been granted in the first place.

Shahzad became a naturalized US citizen just a year ago, after marrying an American citizen in October 2008, according to one Bloomberg report. After being approved for US student visas in 1998 and 2002, Shahzad had passed all the necessary national security background checks and was naturalized in April 2009. The suspect also "apparently went back and forth to Pakistan often, making his last trip in February," reports the New York Times, adding that he had traveled with three passports—two from Pakistan and one from the US.

There's no way of knowing at this point whether Shahzad’s citizenship had facilitated any aspect of the attempted bombing or its genesis. Nor is it known whether Shahzad had designs to carry out the plot while he was seeking American citizenship. But federal officials are already looking to see if Shahzad had lied on any part of his citizenship application. And the questions surrounding his path in the US are likely to prompt renewed calls from conservatives for tightened immigration controls as a national security measure—particularly as the immigration debate heats up.

Though the debate has focused predominantly on Latino immigrants so far, it wasn’t long ago that concerns about terrorism were a big driver of both the national politics and policy of immigration. In 2007, in the midst of the last Congressional immigration debate, then-Colorado Rep. and GOP presidential hopeful Tom Tancredo released a TV ad claiming that "jihadists frothing with hate" would use the southern border to cross into the U.S. And it seems like such concerns could end up entering the political bloodstream once again. Already, security hawk Joe Lieberman (I-CT) has floated one especially draconian proposal: revoke the citizenship of Americans with ties to known terrorist networks, so they will be denied Miranda rights and can be tried in military tribunals instead of civilian courts. Now that's a handy work-around: afford Americans the protections of citizenship only when it's convenient.

Woody Allen on God and Life

| Tue May 4, 2010 9:25 PM EDT

This is, I guess, Woody Allen's version of Pascal's wager:

I was with Billy Graham once, and he said that even if it turned out in the end that there is no God and the universe is empty, he would still have had a better life than me. I understand that. If you can delude yourself by believing that there is some kind of Santa Claus out there who is going to bail you out in the end, then it will help you get through. Even if you are proven wrong in the end, you would have had a better life.

It's from an interview with Robert Lauder, and this is actually one of the more cheerful parts.

What the Coast Thinks of BP

| Tue May 4, 2010 6:33 PM EDT

Erica Grieder has been reporting from the Gulf Coast and passes along this bit of commentary about the blowout at British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon oil rig:

National public sentiment is running very high against the oil industry in general, and BP in particular. But the closer you get to the coast the more moderate the feeling becomes. I've talked to oilfield workers who were shocked that this happened on a BP rig, because in their experience BP is more stringent about safety measures than any other firm.

....It's not cheerleading — everyone is very clear that they want BP to take full responsibility. And feelings will change if the crisis worsens, if the joint command doesn't quickly get the leak and the spill under control, or if BP tries to shirk its responsibility now or in the years to come. To my ears, it sounds oxymoronic to describe BP as "a very responsible spiller" (Mary Landry, a rear admiral in the Coast Guard), but it's been an interesting perspective to see how differently offshore drilling and BP are perceived down here.

Of course, this isn't an unusual reaction. Loggers have a different attitude toward old growth forests and miners toward mountain top removal than outsiders do. When it's your job on the line, you have a lot more sympathy toward dangerous/polluting industries than your average urban white collar worker.

Still, it's an interesting note about BP. Just thought I'd pass it along as food for thought. The other side of the story is ably told by James Ridgeway here and Kate Sheppard here.

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Oklahoma's Abortion Two-Step

| Tue May 4, 2010 5:22 PM EDT

Last week, Mother Jones reported how Oklahoma legislators ratified two of the country's toughest constraints on safe legal abortion. Now, the state's attorney general is reluctantly blocking enforcement of one of those laws; he says the delay will give Oklahoma's favored anti-choice attorney time to mount her defense of the regulation. But thanks to that attorney's public comments, the state's case just got a lot messier, and it may have to jettison one of its draconian laws to save the other one.

The New York Times and the "T-Word"

| Tue May 4, 2010 5:01 PM EDT

I know there are a lot of other subjects in the news this week, but I don't want to let this excellent post by John Cole go unacknowleged. As Cole notes, major American news organizations that avoid the word "torture" when describing conduct by the American government are perfectly willing to use the word when they're talking about foreign governments:

The New York Times:

 

The torture of Iraqi detainees at a secret prison in Baghdad was far more systematic and brutal than initially reported, Human Rights Watch reported on Tuesday.

The Washington Post:

Adding to the political tension, Human Rights Watch released a report late Tuesday saying that members of a military unit under the command of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, systemically tortured and sexually abused hundreds of Sunni Arab prisoners.

NPR:

Iraqi men held for months at a secret prison outside Baghdad were systematically tortured and forced to sign confession statements that in at least some cases they were forbidden to read, according to a new report by a human rights group released Wednesday.

When OTHER people do it, HRW is a legitimate, credible source, and it is not "allegations of torture" or "enhanced interrogation techniques."

 

More, including an interesting discussion in the comments section, here.

Public Workers Paid Less Than Private

| Tue May 4, 2010 4:40 PM EDT

A friend sent me a link to a new study that follows up on a question I asked a few weeks ago: are public sector employees paid more than comparable private sector employees? According to Keith Bender and John Heywood, who did a study for the Center for State and Local Government Excellence, the answer is no. In the chart on the right, the zero line (at the top) indicates parity. Anything below that indicates lower pay than the private sector. As you can see, pay for state employees crept up to near parity with the private sector in the late 80s, but ever since the late 90s the differential has been about -12%. If you add in the richer benefits that public sector employees get, the pay differential is about -7%.

I'm offering this as a data point only. There are loads of caveats. For starters, the authors use broad averages from the Current Population Survey and then adjust for things like education, age, gender, and so forth. However, this quite likely masks a considerable skew in the data. The very top jobs in the public sector — lawyers, doctors, executives — are paid quite a bit less than in the private sector. So if the average pay difference is -7%, it's quite possible that the majority of mid-range workers are paid more than their private sector counterparts. It would be interesting to see them do a similar comparison that excludes, say, the top 10-20% of earners.

It's also possible that this research underestimates the future value of public sector pensions, which appear to be badly underfunded right now. Data for current years may not capture this. And overall averages might not capture differences in specific job categories.

What's more, I don't know anything about Center for State and Local Government Excellence, so I don't know what kind of axe they may or may not have to grind.

Still, even with all those caveats, aggregate data is still worthwhile. What we're mainly interested in, after all, is the total payroll expense of state and local governments compared to a demographically similar private sector organization, and this data suggests that the difference is small but negative. The report also contains data for individual states, which shows, for example, that California workers are paid just slightly less than their private sector equivalents while Texas pays their workers nearly 15% less. Overall, I don't think this report settles the public-private question for all time or anything, but it's interesting data.

The Forever Too-Big-to-Fail War

| Tue May 4, 2010 4:00 PM EDT

More than any other issue, the question of what to do with too-big-to-fail banks has perplexed and divided lawmakers since the glaring need for new financial rules was laid bare in the fall of 2008. Ever since global insurer AIG teetered on the brink of collapse in 2008, and then took a $134 billion lifeline from the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve, experts, financiers, and politicians from both parties agreed something had to be done to prevent the next AIG from imperiling the global economy. Almost two years after the financial collapse, though, lawmakers still can't agree on how to fix our too-big-to-fail conundrum.

A recent exchange on the Senate floor illustrated this chasm. In one camp are senators like Ted Kaufman (D-Del.). Kaufman took to the floor on Monday for an impassioned speech calling for strict caps and restrictions on the size of banks. Citing financial experts and even former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, Kaufman said too-big-to-fail banks were too-big-to-regulate and a danger to the economy. Kaufman's amendment, authored with Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), would not only cap the size of banks' balance sheets but also the amount of leverage—the money they borrow to amplify the gains or losses of their investments—they can use. "The truth is that these financial institutions have become so large and complex that regulators rely upon the banks and the markets to self-regulate," he said, adding that self-regulation is effectively no regulation. Capital and leverage limits essentially dummy-proof financial regulation, taking decisions out of regulators' hands and simply saying banks can't grow to AIG-like size.

Kaufman's proposal was cheered by outside experts like Simon Johnson, former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, who wrote on Tuesday that ending the specter of megabanks is the "most pressing issue of financial reform." Yet Johnson rued the fact that Kaufman's proposal isn't getting a fair hearing in the Senate, which is content to "keep the 'debate,' in terms of votes, on issues less likely to infuriate powerful banks."

Presumably, Johnson is alluding to senators like Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who today brushed off the need for capital and leverage restrictions. Corker, in essence, said we didn't these caps; the best way to deal with too-big-to-fail banks, he said, is to remove the implicit guarantee that megabanks will always be bailed out. The prospect of failure, Corker's thinking goes, will dissuade banks from growing to too-big-to-fail size, and if the bill ends up as he wants it, there will be no bailouts. "The best way to level the playing field is ensure that if a big company fails it fails," Corker said. The Tennessee senator said he also supported a resolution authority, which would be a special process created by the bill to handle the failure of these big banks in a timely way, outside the traditional bankruptcy process.

Think of Kaufman's proposal as the proactive one, and Corker's the reactive. While some see Kaufman's idea as the unwarranted reach of big government, Corker's stance overlooks the turmoil and pain involved with the failure of a big bank, an event sure to shake the foundations of the financial markets like AIG's near-collapse did. Letting big banks fail, instead of offering ad hoc bailouts, is indeed important, but Corker's position doesn't prevent the growth of new megabanks at all, failiure or not—a situation with ominous consequences for the markets and our country, says Johnson. At the end of the day, he sees the war over too-big-to-fail as more than just a debate over bank size:

This is, of course, partly about the political power of corporations. But corporations are, in this sense, merely a veil—this is really all about which people have what kind of power in our society. To what extent are we really still a democracy—and how far have we already slipped down the road to oligarchy?