2010 - %3, September

Bond Tries (and Fails) Yet Another EPA Block

| Tue Sep. 28, 2010 12:03 PM EDT

Democrats batted down yet another attempt to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating planet-warming gasses on Monday. Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) tried to offer legislation that Democrat Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.) drafted earlier this year that would bar climate regulations for two years.

Bond attempted to get the measure approved under unanimous consent, but Democrats rejected it. After the attempt, Bond issued the obligatory angry statement about how Democrats blocked his valient attempt to stop "job-killing carbon regulations." "If the Democrats are serious about protecting jobs they would have sided with the American people, rather than EPA bureaucrats," said Bond. "It’s disappointing that Democrats again blocked bipartisan action to protect the American people from the backdoor national energy tax coming in the form of new job-killing carbon regulations from EPA."

Meanwhile, Rockefeller still plans to introduce his own measure this year, likely after the mid-term election. At that point it may be more of a threat, as at least six or seven Democrats will likely back it, along with the entire Republican caucus.

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Obama's Defense

| Tue Sep. 28, 2010 11:11 AM EDT

Jann Wenner reports in Rolling Stone today that after his recent interview with President Obama was over, Obama returned briefly to the Oval Office and tacked on a coda, speaking "with intensity and passion, repeatedly stabbing the air with his finger":

It is inexcusable for any Democrat or progressive right now to stand on the sidelines in this midterm election. There may be complaints about us not having gotten certain things done, not fast enough, making certain legislative compromises. But right now, we've got a choice between a Republican Party that has moved to the right of George Bush and is looking to lock in the same policies that got us into these disasters in the first place, versus an administration that, with some admitted warts, has been the most successful administration in a generation in moving progressive agendas forward.

....If we want the kind of country that respects civil rights and civil liberties, we'd better fight in this election. And right now, we are getting outspent eight to one by these 527s that the Roberts court says can spend with impunity without disclosing where their money's coming from. In every single one of these congressional districts, you are seeing these independent organizations outspend political parties and the candidates by, as I said, factors of four to one, five to one, eight to one, 10 to one.

We have to get folks off the sidelines. People need to shake off this lethargy, people need to buck up. Bringing about change is hard — that's what I said during the campaign. It has been hard, and we've got some lumps to show for it. But if people now want to take their ball and go home, that tells me folks weren't serious in the first place.

If you're serious, now's exactly the time that people have to step up.

Well, that's not going to be popular with Obama's lefty critics, though obviously you'd expect a mushy sellout like me to agree with him. And I do! But I'd also make a distinction. If you're, say, Glenn Greenwald, I wouldn't expect you to buy Obama's defense at all. All of us have multiple interests, but if your primary concern is with civil liberties and the national security state, then the problem isn't that Obama hasn't done enough, it's that his policies have been actively damaging. There's just no reason why you should be especially excited about either his administration or the continuation of the Democratic Party in power.

On the other hand, if your critique is the broader and more common one — that Obama has moved in the right direction but has been too quick to compromise and hasn't accomplished enough — then I think you should take his defense of his record way, way more seriously. It's all too easy, like Velma Hart, to convince yourself that he could have waved a magic wand and gotten a bigger stimulus and a better healthcare bill and stronger financial regulation and a historic climate bill. But honestly, you have to buy into some pretty implausible political realities to believe that (Olympia Snowe would have voted for a trillion-dollar stimulus, there were Republican votes for a climate bill if only it had been a bigger priority, healthcare reform could have been passed via reconciliation, Harry Reid could have unilaterally ended the filibuster, etc.). The votes just weren't there and the president's leverage over centrist Dems and recalcitrant Republicans just wasn't very strong. Maybe he could have done better, but the evidence says that, at best, he could have done only a smidge better.

And the alternative? Well, if the prospect of ripping apart healthcare reform, shutting down the government, deep sixing START, slashing social spending, and reliving the glory days of investigations over Christmas card lists isn't enough to get you motivated, I guess I'm not sure what is. I wish I got more warm and fuzzies from Obama too, and I wish, like Mike Tomasky, that his "fetish of not kowtowing to public opinion" were a little less ostentatious. But letting Darrell Issa take over the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform doesn't seem like a very good way of getting that message across.

OK then. I think I'll go donate a hundred bucks to someone. Who do you think it should be?

Everything Old is New Again

| Tue Sep. 28, 2010 9:00 AM EDT

So, how about that whole tea party movement, eh? Quite the contemporary phenomenon, isn't it? After all, they mostly seem to be mad about newly skyrocketing deficits, a recently passed healthcare bill, an unprecedented bank bailout, and a huge new stimulus bill enacted last year. But no. That's really not it at all:

Too many observers mistakenly react to the tea party as if it's brand new, an organic and spontaneous response to something unique in the current political climate. But it's not. It's not a response to the recession or to health care reform or to some kind of spectacular new liberal overreach. It's what happens whenever a Democrat takes over the White House. When FDR was in office in the 1930s, conservative zealotry coalesced in the Liberty League. When JFK won the presidency in the '60s, the John Birch Society flourished. When Bill Clinton ended the Reagan Revolution in the '90s, talk radio erupted with the conspiracy theories of the Arkansas Project. And today, with Barack Obama in the Oval Office, it's the tea party's turn.

....The growth of the tea party movement isn't really due to the recession (in fact, polling evidence shows that tea partiers are generally better off and less affected by the recession than the population at large). It's not because Obama is black (white Democratic presidents got largely the same treatment). And it's not because Obama bailed out General Motors (so did George W. Bush). It's simpler. Ever since the 1930s, something very much like the tea party movement has fluoresced every time a Democrat wins the presidency, and the nature of the fluorescence always follows many of the same broad contours: a reverence for the Constitution, a supposedly spontaneous uprising of formerly nonpolitical middle-class activists, a preoccupation with socialism and the expanding tyranny of big government, a bitterness toward an underclass viewed as unwilling to work, and a weakness for outlandish conspiracy theories.

That's me in the latest issue of the magazine. But don't despair: it turns out there is one thing new about the tea parties after all. But you'll have to click the link and read to the end of the story to find out what it is. Enjoy.

A High-Minded Debate Over Legalizing Pot

| Tue Sep. 28, 2010 8:00 AM EDT

At precisely 4:20 PM last Saturday, proponents and foes of legalizing marijuana in California were scheduled to hold a debate at the International Cannabis and Hemp Expo inside the Cow Palace arena just outside San Francisco. Things didn't go as planned. "The whole debate thing was just a disaster," organizer Susan Soares* later told me. For one thing, the debate's starting time posed a logistical problem. While 20 past 4 is stoner culture's designated hour to light up, the debate room was not within the official pot smoking area where anyone with a medical marijuana card—which meant just about everybody in attendance—could freely sample marijuana-infused fruit smoothies, lollipops, and beef jerky, in addition to joints proffered by busty cigarette girls in tight-fitting nurses outfits.

But no matter: While everyone was still partaking, Dennis Peron, a fervent medical marijuana activist who opposes legalization on arcane legal grounds, held the stage hostage for several minutes in an effort to be added to the speakers list. The actual debate didn't start until 4:48, at which point the crowd of red-eyed pot growers, suppliers, and smokers was standing-room only.

Run Silent, Run Cheap

| Tue Sep. 28, 2010 6:23 AM EDT

"Most things in here don't react too well to bullets," Sean Connery's crusty Russian sub captain tells Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October, moments before the latter stalks off to shoot a spy between dozens of the boat's atomic missiles.

These days, it turns out some things on the Navy's newest nuclear subs don't react well to, um, seawater. Or something. Actually, the service isn't sure what's causing the $2 billion behemoths' protective skin to peel off in the water. But it probably has to do with cost-trimming and corner-cutting by the Navy's two go-to contractors, Northrup Grumman and General Dynamics, who tag-team assembled the Virginia class of attack subs at breakneck speed and (relatively) bottom-dollar rates.

Even though the Cold War is over, the silent service wants to expand its sub fleet, and it's sold Congress on the Virginia program as the cheapest alternative. Yet as subs get delivered from the factory with their special soundproof tiling already falling off in sheets, the program looks anything but inexpensive. "The demand to build this submarine in a fast, cost-effective way led them to skip some steps that should have been in the process," one analyst told me. "They've got this beautiful, fantastic vessel, and they just covered it in a Wal-Mart tarp."

Read my complete story about the Navy's big boondoggle—and its tough time telling the truth—here: "What's Long, Hard, and Wrapped in a Wal-Mart Tarp?"

"Topless Mountains Are Obscene"

| Tue Sep. 28, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

I wrote yesterday about the Appalachia Rising events taking place in Washington, DC this week to call for federal action to stop mountaintop-removal coal mining. On Monday, approximately 2,000 Appalachians and supporters marched from the Environmental Protection Agency to the White House, demanding an end to the practice.

The group also stopped at a branch of PNC Bank, which has come under fire for providing loans to the coal companies that engage in this destructive type of mining. More than 100 activists were later arrested at the White House for occupying the sidewalk outside in an act of civil disobedience.

Here are some photos from the march:

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 28, 2010

Tue Sep. 28, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

Sgt. 1st Class William Pegler, the battalion fuel handler for 3rd Battalion, 20th Special Forces Group at Camp Montrond, Afghanistan still wears an Americal Division combat patch he earned while serving in the Vietnam War. His unlit cigar is a staple for the 58-year-old grandfather. Photo via U.S. Army.

The Power of Fox

| Tue Sep. 28, 2010 12:30 AM EDT

Paul Waldman argues today that although the left has made some progress catching up to the right's media infrastructure, it hasn't closed the gap yet. That's especially true in one key area:

Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism at Columbia University, says the key is Fox News....On the right, he says, "it's Fox that makes the difference." While MSNBC's evening schedule features three liberal hosts (Olbermann, Maddow, and Ed Schultz), it doesn't have the same around-the-clock consistency of both ideology and story selection that Fox does.

Fox does more than amplify the conservative message; it builds momentum for a story by hammering it over and over for days or weeks until the mainstream media finally feels compelled to discuss it. While Maddow may take an interest in a particular story other media are ignoring, she won't be backed up by six separate MSNBC shows doing a dozen segments a day on her new pet topic. But Fox routinely takes that all-hands-on-deck approach. Recently Media Matters counted 95 separate segments on the New Black Panther Party voter-intimidation case — a contrived story conservatives did their best to trump up — in a period of two weeks on Fox. This kind of relentlessness doesn't work every time, but it works often enough. Eventually, many other news outlets covered the voter-intimidation story.

Yep. In most areas the left is at least close. The right has Drudge, we have the Huffington Post and TPM. The right has Rush, we have NPR. The right has the Wall Street Journal, we have the New York Times. The right has the Heritage Foundation, we have CAP. All of these comparisons are imprecise in one way or another (NPR isn't an anti-Rush, Heritage is bigger than CAP but the left boasts lots of center-left think tanks, the WSJ's editorial page is far more aggressive than the NYT's, the right has nothing to compete with Daily Kos or Jon Stewart, etc.) but they're at least in the same ballpark.

But nothing we have comes even close to the power of Fox. It is unique. MSNBC is so far behind in the agenda-setting arena that it's hardly even playing the same game. So far, the mainstream media simply hasn't figured out how to deal with Fox, and there's no hint that they're getting any closer.

Why Income Matters

| Mon Sep. 27, 2010 9:10 PM EDT

I'm a little bored at the moment. How about another post on income inequality to liven things up? That should bring the page views pouring in, shouldn't it?

I'm going to start by reporting on Will Wilkinson's emotional state: he's sad. He's been trying to explain the idea that there can be different inflation rates for different groups of people, but it's a complicated concept and hard to get across. However, he thinks it's an important part of the inequality argument, and that's the part I want to address.

So here's the simple version. Suppose that rich people tend to consume lots of Porsches and tins of Beluga caviar, while poor people tend to consume lots of Chevrolets and hot dogs. Now suppose that over the past decade the price of Porsches and caviar has gone up 20% while the price of Chevrolets and hot dogs has stayed the same.

Got that? Now suppose you read that the incomes of the poor had been flat during the aughts while the incomes of the rich had gone up 20%. You would be outraged. The rich are getting richer while the poor are stagnating! Inequality is rising! When will it ever stop?

And yet....rich people are consuming the exact same number of BMWs and tins of caviar as they did ten years ago and poor people are consuming the exact same number of Chevrolets and hot dogs. Looking at income is misleading. Both groups are doing about the same.

Now, measuring inflation is hard enough already, and the measurement problems associated with trying to figure out separate inflation rates for rich and poor are convoluted enough to make grown econometricians cry. What's more, you can't just assume that everyone is buying the same stuff today that they bought in the past. Maybe purchasing patterns have changed over time in response to different growth rates in wages. It's a tough nut to crack.

In theory, though, it's a legitimate topic of research if you're interested in understanding the lived experience of different groups. You also need to consider government transfers, tax rates, household compositions, number of hours worked, and lots of other things. It's a fertile field of study.

As it happens, though, it's not the topic I'm usually interested in. The topic that's my normal preoccupation is understanding how the private economy works. That is, how does the private economy reward various groups of people? How has this changed over time? Why has it changed over time? Is it healthy? Can it last?

This second question is purely one of income and wealth distribution. I just want to know how money flows to different classes of people. Because while it's reasonable to say that a particular industry can be a growth driver during some particular period — electricity in the early 20th century, cars during the middle, and computers later on, for example — it's not really reasonable to say that a particular income class is a growth driver. Does anyone really think that 30 years ago rich people suddenly became more responsible for economic growth than the poor or the middle class?

I don't, and the comparative international evidence doesn't suggest it either. Rather, I think the rich in America have simply managed to reengineer our political and economic institutions to suppress middle class income, thus producing a vast pool of money that flows in their direction. As a result, their share of national income becomes ever more swollen. And this is horribly corrosive. I believe pretty strongly that a modern mixed economy can remain healthy only if prosperity is broadly shared, economic values are widely regarded as fair, and the middle class is becoming steadily wealthier. If that stops happening over an extended period of time it spells trouble on a whole bunch of fronts. The middle class becomes alienated and discouraged. The rich wall themselves off from the rest of us. The political process becomes increasingly co-opted. Boom and bust cycles become ever more pronounced.

You can mask this, of course. Technological improvements can make life better even with a stagnant income. Globalization can make low-end consumer goods seemingly cheaper. The rich can loan money to the middle class — for a while. Government programs can redistribute wealth a bit.

But those are just band-aids. The real long-term problem is that the fruits of economic growth are being increasingly funneled to a small group of the super rich in the first place. This just isn't sustainable without becoming a banana republic. Eventually, if we want a prosperous society, the private economy needs to distribute economic growth reasonably equitably in the first place.

Plus there's this: money is money. Even if stagnant incomes can produce growing consumption for a while, it comes at the cost of other things money can buy: leisure, retirement, savings cushions, etc. Rising incomes for the middle class would allow them more of everything that money can buy, not just more consumer goods.

Bottom line (so to speak): how people live their lives is an important topic. But it's not the only topic. How the private economy distributes wealth and income is important too. And on that score, all the signs point to an ever-widening gulf between rich and poor — an unhealthy, unsustainable gulf. We can't just shrug our shoulders and accept it.

From the Sketchbook: Tea Party Catharsis

| Mon Sep. 27, 2010 5:36 PM EDT

Denver, Colorado—Just a quick sketch: Andrew Breitbart is midway through his keynote address at the Colorado 9/12 rally (on 9/13) when he's interruped, loudly, by a middle-aged black man in an orange Broncos hat and a Hawaiian shirt, with a fundamental disagreement: "You Tea Partiers are racist!"

"Go back and watch television and they'll affirm your worldview," says Breitbart.

Breitbart continues his remarks (about ACORN—maybe you've heard of it?) but the focus shifts away from him for a few moments as the dissenter keeps up his charge. He's quickly encircled, but shows no sign of relenting. "You white people out here are splittin' the country up with your hateful views!" Now he's surrounded, by video cameras looking to capture this moment for posterity, and a dozens faces flush with vindication. This is what we're up against; this is what the media never show you; this is the real racist.

To his right, a man and two women are holding hands tightly and bowing their heads; they're praying, out loud, for his soul. A Tea Partier wants to know: "Did your mother teach you to talk like that?" Answer: "Did your mother teach you to be so goddam stupid?" The situation is not defused. Finally, he unleashes a furious: "Why don't you all go down to Mississippi and burn some goddam crosses," and makes his exit. Throughout all of this, a woman is standing just a few feet away from the spectacle, pleading with the crowd not to encourage him. "Don't give him an audience! Don't give him an audience!"