2010 - %3, July

Chart of the Day: Healthcare Reform

| Thu Jul. 29, 2010 12:08 PM EDT

So how's healthcare reform doing? According to Kaiser, better and better: their latest poll shows that it's supported by 50% of respondents and opposed by only 35%. And of that 35%, only 27% think it should be repealed right away. The rest think it should be given a chance to work.

Now, in one sense all this tells us is that opposition has died down because healthcare is no longer the focus of 24/7 rabble rousing from Fox and Rush and Sarah Palin and half the conservative fundraising outfits in the country. But really, that's the whole point. There were always two separate questions here. #1: Could healthcare reform pass in the face of massive organized opposition? (Yes, it turns out.) #2: How would it fare once the demagoguery inevitably died down? Because it was inevitable. Nobody can keep up a fever pitch like we saw earlier this year forever unless there are continual fresh provocations.

So healthcare reform is safe. In fact, it's so safe that it's not even clear it will be a decent campaign issue this November, let alone anything else. Thirty years from now Republicans will probably be telling stories about how it's part of the fabric of America and it's a liberal myth that they ever opposed it in the first place.

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Goldman Sachs and the Liberal Funk

| Thu Jul. 29, 2010 11:20 AM EDT

Remember the Volcker Rule? It was designed to get commercial banks out of proprietary trading — i.e., the practice of making money from speculative bets of their own instead of making money based on selling actual services to their clients. It got watered down considerably before the final financial reform bill was passed, but it was still there and it still held out some hope of limiting the casino atmosphere at investment banks like Goldman Sachs unless they gave up their commercial bank designation. So what's Goldman going to do about this? Charlie Gasparino reports:

The big Wall Street firm has moved about half of its “proprietary” stock-trading operations — which had made market bets using the firm’s own capital — into its asset management division, where these traders can talk to Goldman clients and then place their market bets....By having the traders work in asset management, where they will take market positions while dealing with clients, Goldman believes it can meet the rule’s mandates, avoid large-scale layoffs and preserve some of the same risk taking that has earned it enormous profits, people close to the firm say.

....People close to Goldman say Goldman will now be weighing other similar moves — taking traders out of the firm’s brokerage division and moving them to other areas of the firm where they can deal with clients and circumvent the rule.

That didn't take long, did it? If this sticks, Goldman and others will essentially be completely unaffected by this new regulation. Sadly, I suspect this is going to end up being true of much of the rest of the bill too. It was worth passing, but only barely.

On a related note, I think this partly explains why liberals are in such a funk right now. The conventional wisdom is that we ought to be pretty happy. As Jon Cohn says, liberal dejection is hard to figure: "This seems totally nuts, purely on the merits. Obama and the Democrats passed a major stimulus that cut taxes for the middle class and invested heavily in public works. They saved the auto industry, created a new regulatory framework for the financial industry, and enacted comprehensive health care reform."

That's true, but think of this in a different way. Prior to 2008, what kinds of things had been on the lefty wish list? What made our hearts sing? A temporary tax cut and a one-time investment in infrastructure and energy projects? Nope. Bailing out General Motors? Nope. Financial industry reform? Nope. Before 2008, Wall Street reform was barely even on anyone's radar. It's purely a reaction to a crisis, not the culmination of a long campaign by populist liberals — and in any case the final result was watery enough that it's highly unlikely to change Wall Street in any serious way.

So that leaves healthcare reform. And watered down or not, that really is a big deal. But among big ticket items on the lefty wish list, that's it. That's all we got. And I hardly have to tell you that not every lefty is as enthusiastic about its final form as I am.

So in terms of setting liberal hearts aflutter, there's basically been just one thing — and not much hope of getting anything more for the rest of Obama's term. And to tot up against that, we've had an almost complete acquiescence to the Bush/Cheney vision of national security; an escalation of the war in Afghanistan; the reappointment of Ben Bernanke; a couple of very moderate Supreme Court picks; an obvious unwillingness to back a serious energy bill; and indefensibly slow progress in naming new appointments. All of these things can be justified individually, but if you put 'em together and weigh them against a single major piece of liberal legislation you don't get a very pretty picture. And that's the picture a lot of liberals are seeing.

"Let Them Eat Want Ads"

| Thu Jul. 29, 2010 10:48 AM EDT

Following in the footsteps of Nevada conservative Sharron "the unemployed are spoiled" Angle, another GOPer, Delaware congressional candidate Michele Rollins, recently claimed that jobless benefits make people "continue to do nothing." Ouch. Via Greg Sargent, the Democratic National Committee got Norris, who's running for Republican Mike Castle's open House seat, on tape saying this:

"I know this is a bad market and a very bad time. But you just cannot keep paying people, cannot keep taxing us to pay people to do nothing, because they will continue to do nothing for a very long time."

Any chance of Rollins winning over the 8.5 percent of Delaware citizens who are unemnployed just plummeted. Indeed, I'll bet that those 37,000 or so jobless people in her state would take offense to her claim that unemployment insurance is the same as "pay[ing] people to do nothing" and that aid makes people "do nothing for a long time." I'll bet most of them would tell Rollins they're sending out resumes every week, showing up at job fairs, dropping in on employers to ask about openings—hardly sitting around and continuing "to do nothing."

The very premise of Rollins' belief about unemployment aid—that it makes people "continue to do nothing for a very long time"—is factually wrong. As Harvard economist Raj Chetty has found, unemployment aid almost always is not a disincentive to finding a new job. And in the few instances where aid does somewhat prolong the duration of unemployment, it's not because some mom or dad found their check in the mail and got lazy; it's because that dad, who'd stopped spending time with his family or keeping up on medical appointments or going grocery shopping because he was looking for work nonstop, can now afford to see his kids once in a while. All told, Chetty says, general economic well-being increases when the unemployed receive aid. (For a thorough debunking of the jobless-aid-makes-people-lazy meme, I recommend watching Chetty's two-part presentation, here and here.)

Seeing as this bloc of jobless-aid bashers—Angle, Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), Wisconsin GOP Senate candidate Ron Johnson—continues to grow, Greg Sargent has crowned them the "Let Them Eat Want Ads" Caucus. T-shirts, anyone?

A Convincing Case for Elizabeth Warren

| Thu Jul. 29, 2010 10:42 AM EDT

Karl Smith thinks the criticisms of Elizabeth Warren's academic work are probably overblown, but argues that she'd be a poor choice to head the new Consumer Finance Protection Bureau anyway. Like Paul Krugman, he says, she's an intellectual steamroller with strong opinions:

Having the formidable, and seemingly strong priored Warren at the head of CPFA is dangerous. She seems to have strong beliefs and the analytical ability to plow through anyone in her way. A cold-hearted pointy head would make a better referee.

That’s not to say that passion has no place in intellectual discourse, but it is why its important that passions balanced. It doesn’t matter how good your intentions are, confirmation bias and a lack of diversity will leave glaring blind spots.

Consider me convinced. For a position like this — the very first head of an agency that needs to develop both a strong identity and an ethic that puts it squarely on the consumer's side — I think this is exactly what we need. Cold-hearted pointy heads are pretty useful in some areas, but not this one. We don't need a referee right now, we need a pioneer. Elizabeth Warren for CFPB!

Obama and WikiLeaks

| Thu Jul. 29, 2010 10:24 AM EDT

Doyle McManus on the WikiLeaks affair:

The most surprising thing about WikiLeaks' released trove of officially secret documents is how few surprises it contains.

That's largely because of a little-noticed, little-credited change in important parts of the U.S. military establishment over the last five years: a conscious decision to deploy the unconventional weapons of honesty and candor about the conduct of the war.

Mired in two wars that have been longer and more difficult than initially advertised, U.S. commanders have adopted an audacious but sensible strategy in describing facts on the ground: No more sugarcoating.

Why? Because one of the lessons of Vietnam was relearned in Iraq: When Americans believe they are being lied to about military operations, they stop supporting them.

Well, if this is true then the White House owes Julian Assange a debt of gratitude, doesn't it? After all, until now we couldn't really be sure they were telling us the truth about the war. Now, apparently, we can. That should be nothing but good news for the war effort. Maybe Obama should send Assange a thank you note.

"Disasters are Just a Normal Part of Doing Business for These Oil Companies"

| Thu Jul. 29, 2010 9:39 AM EDT

This week alone a pipeline in Michigan dumped up to 1 million gallons of oil into a river and a tugboat hit a wellhead in a Louisiana marsh causing a 100-foot geyser of oil and gas to erupt—and this, of course, on top of BP's massive spill. Due to the Gulf disaster, oil catastrophes are getting some more ink now, but this obscures the fact that minor (and sometimes major) disasters go unnoticed in the US all the time.

A new report, released today by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), details a number of these accidents over the past years. While the Deepwater Horizon disaster has surpassed previous spills to become the worst in US history, thousands of smaller spills, explosions at oil drilling or refining facilities, fires, and leaks have claimed dozens of lives and wreaked havoc on the environment in the past decade alone alone. Most of these accidents have never made national headlines, but serve as a reminder that oil and gas is a dirty (and deadly) business.

From 2000 to 2009, onshore pipeline accidents caused 2,554 major incidents, including 161 deaths and 576 injuries. Offshore, 1,443 incidents caused 41 fatalities, 302 injuries, 476 fires, and 356 releases of pollution into the waters. "These things happen nearly every day," said NWF's Tim Warman, director of the organization's global warming solutions program. "Disasters are just a normal part of doing business for these oil companies."

The report includes vivid, tragic details of many of these accidents. Some of the lowlights:

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Rich "Populists" Surge Ahead in Florida

| Thu Jul. 29, 2010 9:31 AM EDT

Florida candidate Jeff Greene might succeed in buying the Democratic nomination for US Senate after all. A new Quinnipiac poll out today shows Greene leading his Democratic opponent, Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.), by 10 percentage points, at 33 percent to 23 percent. Notable, though, is the fact that while most Floridians with their minds made up back Greene, the majority of those polled—35 percent—are undecided. Their support is up for grabs between now and the August 10 primary, and they will likely decide Florida's primary.

Florida's other wealthy dark horse candidate, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott, has likewise jumped out ahead of his opponent, state attorney general Bill McCollum. Scott leads McCollum 43 percent to 32 percent, with 23 percent undecided, the Quinnipiac poll found.

The takeaway here: "If there was any doubt that enough money can make a political unknown into a front-runner, the Democratic Senate primary and the Republican primary for governor should lay them to rest," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "Both Greene and Scott have come from nowhere to hold double-digit leads with just a little more than three weeks until the voting."

Talking with reporters yesterday, Meek, whose Senate bid has mostly floundered so far, bashed Greene for his profligate spending and vast array of investments and financial holdings. After delays, Greene filed his financial disclosure forms earlier this week, showing holdings topping $50 million in US Treasury bonds, scores of real estate holdings, and even investments in Venezuela's state-owned oil company, Petroleos De Venezuela. Meek also suggested that, should Greene beat him in the primary, he wouldn't support the Democrat in the general election. As Meek saw it, a general election pitting Greene, Crist, and Rubio would be a race "of three Republican candidates."

Read billionaire Jeff Greene's long-awaited financial disclosure filing here:

Jeff Greene Financial Disclosure Filing

Pelosi on Climate: "This Is An Issue the Senate Can't Walk Away From"

| Thu Jul. 29, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

Think you're frustrated by the Senate's inability to act on climate change? Try being Nancy Pelosi. The House climate and energy measure that she worked so hard to pass was attacked by many on the left as a half-measure. Then she had to watch as the bill, which she will admit was, at best, a "compromise" by the time it passed in the House, was watered down even more and eventually burried in the Senate.

When Pelosi took the reins as Speaker of the House following the 2006 election, one of her first actions was the creation of the House Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming. And within the first two years of Pelosi taking over as Speaker, the House passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act, or ACES, a landmark climate and energy package. It was a tough vote, by all accounts, passing by a narrow margin and incurring a good deal of "cap and tax" rhetoric from opponents on the right.

So it has been particularly painful to watch what was already a "compromise bill," as Pelosi calls it, in the House die repeatedly in the Senate. First, there was a bill from Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.), which looked much like ACES. That died in November. Then Kerry teamed up with Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) to pen yet another bill. They finally rolled out a bill more than seven months later, but only after losing the lone Republican cosponsor and bending over backward to please big oil and other interest groups. When that died, there was fleeting hope that maybe a pared down, utility-focused cap could pass, but that soon died too.

Pelosi has tried to remain positive. "This is an issue the Senate can't walk away from," Pelosi told the crowd of liberal activists at Netroots Nation last Saturday. Even if the Senate has, for now, Pelosi is optimistic. "It cannot be ignored," she tells Mother Jones. "I have confidence in the issue."

Despite her confidence that the issue resonates with voters, the bill has caused electoral angst for some House members. ACES was demonized by the right as an "energy tax" and dismissed by plenty of moderate Senate Democrats, not a good signal for those House members who face an uncertain future this November. But Pelosi says her members aren't too worried.  "I'm very proud of House members for taking the bold stand they did," she said. "Our members are proud of their vote. They know why they voted for it."

She called on advocates of climate action to create a stronger grassroots push that will ensure that members of Congress know this issue is important. "There really has to be a stronger outside mobilization on all of these, because members are asked to take many tough votes, and we want to give priority to certain ones over others," she said. "They have to hear from the outside how important this is."

Pelosi was hesitant to be too critical of the Senate bill, which includes oil-spill response and some pared-down energy incentives. "I would like them to have a stronger bill coming out, but whatever they're doing if we're making progress going in a forward direction, I welcome it … I would have liked to have seen a better bill, but we're not giving up on this."

She held out the hope that ACES, the various oil spill measures, and the Senate's energy provisions could be reconciled in conference at some point—and the House's tougher energy and climate measures could be included. (Though at this point, even the Senate's spill bill might be in jeopardy.) "We will go to conference on the bill," said Pelosi. "There isn't a chance that we won't." She didn't rule out the possibility of dealing with it in a lame-duck session, though she said she hopes they don't have to have one.

But to get anything dealing with energy signed into law, she continued, "they have to pass something first."

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 29, 2010

Thu Jul. 29, 2010 1:55 AM EDT

 

US Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters depart from Forward Operating Base Warhorse in Diyala province, Iraq, on July 21, 2010. Black Hawks are used to transport troops that are redeploying home after serving in Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Photo via the US Army by Spc. Brandon D. Bolick.

Even Yet More Warrantless Searches

| Wed Jul. 28, 2010 11:31 PM EDT

This is just excellent news:

The Obama administration is seeking to make it easier for the FBI to compel companies to turn over records of an individual's Internet activity without a court order if agents deem the information relevant to a terrorism or intelligence investigation.

The administration wants to add just four words — "electronic communication transactional records" — to a list of items that the law says the FBI may demand without a judge's approval. Government lawyers say this category of information includes the addresses to which an Internet user sends e-mail; the times and dates e-mail was sent and received; and possibly a user's browser history. It does not include, the lawyers hasten to point out, the "content" of e-mail or other Internet communication.

I forget. How many NSLs do the FBI and other federal agencies already send out every year? 30,000? 50,000? What's it up to now? Whatever it is, I guess it's still not enough. That business of getting approval from a judge is just so annoying, after all.

You know, if I'd wanted Dick Cheney as president I would have just voted for him.