2010 - %3, September

Texas Guv Candidate Bill White Talks Wind, Solar, and Urban Planning

| Mon Sep. 27, 2010 4:49 PM EDT

Earlier this year, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) made news with a characteristically rash declaration that the Gulf of Mexico oil spill was "an act of God" and that he had "full confidence" in BP's diligence. His opponent, Bill White (D), responded with a 10-page memo asserting that Perry's "sweeping generalizations are not helpful." It followed with a detailed analysis of the law and engineering of offshore drilling disasters, drawing on White's experience working in the energy industry and at the Department of Energy.

The underdog White—any Democrat running for statewide office in Texas is an underdog—is betting that his sober, pragmatic approach will appeal to voters ready for a change from the secession-talking, EPA-blasting Perry, the longest-serving governor in the state's history. Polls put White within 7 points of Perry, and if the challenger is able to cast the race as a decision between the past and the future, he may have a chance.

During White's time as mayor of Houston, the nation's fourth largest city, he ran a highly successful home-weatherization program and engineered a major purchase of 50 megawatts of clean energy, giving momentum to the state's booming wind industry.

White spoke to Grist this week about energy, high-speed rail, and the daunting prospect of urban planning in Texas. [And here's our look at Gov. Perry's record.]

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Earth to the SF Chronicle: Yes, Votes Matter

| Mon Sep. 27, 2010 3:23 PM EDT

The San Francisco Chronicle penned a brutal editorial on Sunday on why the paper isn't endorsing anyone in the California Senate race. But while the slight to incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer has gotten all the attention, the commentary should tell you more about the paper's inability to understand politics than it does about the race itself.

The paper makes it clear that they don't have much nice to say about Fiorina, nor do the editors think she'd make a good senator for the state. They acknowledge that her positions are "outside of the state's mainstream values and even its economic interest." They also note that hers is an "agenda that would undermine this nation's need to move forward on addressing serious issues such as climate change, health care and immigration." Indeed, the paper spends most of the column expounding on the litany of reasons Fiorina is not qualified for the job.

Most would assume that this then leads them to endorse Boxer, whose policies do seek to move forward in those areas and generally align with the state. But their main complaint about Boxer? No one likes her all that much:

Boxer, first elected in 1992, would not rate on anyone's list of most influential senators. Her most famous moments on Capitol Hill have not been ones of legislative accomplishment, but of delivering partisan shots. Although she is chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, it is telling that leadership on the most pressing issue before it—climate change—was shifted to Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., because the bill had become so polarized under her wing.

It's fair to say that Boxer had a limited ability to break through partisan bickering over the climate issue—the Chronicle is certainly not the first to make that point. But the paper ignores that Boxer is working within one of the most polarized committees on this issue (Republicans wouldn't even show up to vote on the measure). John Kerry couldn't get a bill on the issue passed this year, either.

The paper justifies its non-endorsement by noting, "[W]e believe Californians deserve more than a usually correct vote on issues they care about." But that's not an option here. There are two choices in this Senate race, one who will vote in line with what citizens in the state want (even if they don't particularly like her), and one that won't. It's a choice between someone who would surely vote for climate legislation and someone who, despite once claiming to care about the issue, now dismisses it as a petty concern and attacked policies to deal with it.

In a hyper-partisan Senate, and one that will likely be even more partisan next year, every single vote is immensely important. To pretend otherwise, as the Chronicle seems to be doing here, is a disservice to voters.

HUD: Mills? What Foreclosure Mills?

| Mon Sep. 27, 2010 3:15 PM EDT

"Why is Fannie Mae using lawyers that are accused of regularly engaging in fraud to kick people out of their homes?" asked three Democrats in the House of Representatives, including Barney Frank of Massachusetts, chairman of the financial services committee, in a recent letter to Fannie Mae, the government-owned housing corporation. As of late, Fannie, its twin Freddie Mac, and big banks have come under fire for hiring controversial law firms to handle foreclosures, also known as "foreclosure mills." (You can read my investigation into the mills, including one Grayson cites, the Law Offices of David J. Stern, here.)

Given all the uproar surrounding these foreclosure firms, and the fact that they've been doing business for decades, you'd think they'd be on the radar of the government's main housing agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Well, think again.

In July, a West Palm Beach, Florida-based legal analysis company, Legalprise, filed a Freedom of Information Act request with HUD, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Federal Trade Commission, asking for all records pertaining to regulation of these firms. A pretty wide net, in other words. Yet one of Legalprise's principals, Michael Olenick, today emailed me HUD's response letter, which surprisingly says they have nothing: "A search of Headquarters' records by knowledgeable staff failed to locate any documents at HUD Headquarters that would be responsive to your request," the letter reads.

Hmm, that's odd. Does the agency that for so long oversaw Fannie and Freddie, each of which retain a stable of handpicked law firms (some facing heavy criticism) to litigate foreclosures as fast and cheaply and efficiently as possible, have no records at all concerning these firms? Not a single memo or email? That's hard to believe.

Below are Legalprise's initial FOIA request and HUD's response.

Legalprise HUD FOIA

HUD-FHA Response Legal Prise

Tax Cut Update

| Mon Sep. 27, 2010 3:05 PM EDT

Bloomberg reports the latest on the middle class tax cuts:

Congressional Democrats and a top White House official said Congress will extend soon-to-expire tax cuts for low- and middle-income Americans after the Nov. 2 election. Republicans said the delay and the threat of higher taxes for top earners will hurt the economy.

Illinois Senator Richard Durbin said Democrats will come together to extend Bush-era tax cuts for the first $250,000 of a married couple’s income, including lawmakers who also want to keep the lower rates for high-earning Americans.

We'll see. I still don't see how this would be anything other than an election-year plus if they did it now, but I guess I'm not as smart as the Blue Dogs.

Election Primer with David Corn: MoJo Event in NYC

Mon Sep. 27, 2010 2:44 PM EDT

Attention New Yorkers! Join us next Tuesday, October 5, in New York City for a rousing political discussion with David Corn, Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief, moderated by MoJo publisher Steve Katz.

Is this the Washington we were hoping for? With midterm elections around the corner, will Republicans, in a replay of 1994, ride a wave of popular unease and resentment to take control of the House? Get an inside take on the potential outcomes and what comes next at this gathering of Mother Jones supporters. Space is limited so RSVP soon!

Details:
Tuesday, October 5, 2010, 6:30pm - 8pm
Broadway at East 19th St (we'll send you the exact address when we get your RSVP)

RSVP by September 30 to adehkan@motherjones.com or (973) 222-5413
Space is limited.

 

Gulf Scientist: The Oil's Still Out There

| Mon Sep. 27, 2010 1:56 PM EDT

Another independent expert disputed the Obama administration's claims that the vast majority of the oil from the BP spill is "gone." Dr. Ian MacDonald, an oceanographer at Florida State University, told the National Oil Spill Commission on Monday that he believes more than half of the oil is still in the Gulf, and that "much of it is now buried in marine and coastal sediments."

The administration's estimates on both the size of the spill and where the oil went have stirred up controversy in recent weeks. While the government claimed in early August that most of the oil was "gone", independent experts have found oil accumulating on the floor of the Gulf and suspended in giant underwater plumes.

MacDonald's testimony supports many of these independent reports:

[T]he BP oil discharge was at least 10,000 times more concentrated in space and time and about twelve times greater in magnitude than the total annual release from natural seeps of the Gulf of Mexico. In my scientific opinion, the bulk of this material was dispersed in surface layers, from which about one third evaporated and ten percent was removed by burning or skimming. An additional ten percent was chemically dispersed. The remaining fraction—over fifty percent of the total discharge—is a highly durable material that resists further dissipation. Much of it is now buried in marine and coastal sediments. There is scant evidence for bacterial degradation of this material prior to burial.

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On Not Fixing the Economy

| Mon Sep. 27, 2010 1:30 PM EDT

Here's another take on the structural vs. cyclic unemployment issue that I should have mentioned earlier. But better late than never! Here's the nickel summary: a recent IMF report suggested that about 1%-1.75% of our current unemployment is structural. So right off the bat, it means that most of our unemployment problem right now is cyclic: people just aren't buying enough stuff. It's a solvable problem.

But it turns out the structural problem is even smaller than that. Most people, when they talk about structural unemployment, are thinking of skill mismatches. So, for example, the construction industry is in a slump and lots of plumbers and bricklayers are out of work. Meanwhile, the healthcare industry is booming, but they need nurses and caretakers and they can't find any. Or, more generally, our economy needs lots of educated workers and we just aren't graduating enough people from college to meet the demand.

But that, it turns out, accounts for only about a third of structural unemployment. In other words, about half a percentage point, a drop in the ocean compared to our current 10% unemployment rate. The rest of our structural unemployment is caused by home foreclosures. Mike Konzcal explains:

Foreclosures are closely linked with what Ezra Klein calls the anti-stimulus, and what Bruce Bartlett summarizes as: “When the history of the current crisis is written, much of the blame will be placed on the sharp fiscal contraction of state and local governments…I think economists will view this as a preventable error equivalent to the Fed’s passive shrinkage of the money supply in the early 1930s.”

....We can, with one page, adjust the bankruptcy rules to allow lien-stripping of mortgages. There’s all kinds of clever plans coming out every month — here’s yet another voxeu plan — for how to monetize and share the potential upsides as well as arguing over who would carry this out and how, but it all comes back to a lien-stripping (“cramdown”) mechanism.

And the banks hate this. It didn’t even get 50 votes, much less the 60 you would need, in the Senate. This battle is what caused Dick Durbin to say “the banks own the place” about the relationship between financial sector and the Senate. Second-liens could be written-down overnight, but that would cause bondholders and owners of financial assets to take a hit. So that’s not going to happen either.

The evidence is overwhelming on multiple fronts. Only a tiny part — 0.5% — of our unemployment is caused by skill mismatches. The rest is caused by foreclosures and lack of consumer demand. We could reduce the foreclosure problem a variety of ways, but all of them would hurt banks and so we haven't pursued any of them. Instead we have only the hapless HAMP program. Likewise, we could stimulate consumer demand, but we didn't do that either. The federal stimulus program combined with state budget cuts provided a net government stimulus of about zero.

There's a lot we could do to reduce unemployment. We've simply chosen not to do it. Congress and the president have chosen not to seriously address either foreclosures or fiscal stimulus, and the Fed has chosen not to seriously pursue monetary loosening. It's as if a heavy rain were flooding your house and you just decided not to bother putting out sandbags or turning on the pump in your basement. Instead you gave your kids a bucket and told them to bail. And then, when your house was three feet underwater, you shrugged and said you'd done everything you could. But hey — at least Wall Street is happy. That's something.

Would More Reform Have Been More Popular?

| Mon Sep. 27, 2010 12:28 PM EDT

Atrios today:

A frustrating thing is that the administration doesn't say, "we'd like to do this but we got the best we can do," instead they say "what we did was awesome." The result is that they don't even come across as advocates for the more liberal (and quite often the more popular) position.

I share this frustration. Still, every incumbent politician in history faced with an election has regaled voters with the awesomeness of their accomplishments. When Ug was running for reelection as clan chief in 50,000 BC, he bragged about discovering fire and carving some great new wheels. He didn't mention the forest he burned down or the fact that his wheel split in two after one trip to the creek. It's not really reasonable to expect anything different during election season.

Second, Atrios links to a Dave Dayen post that links to a report that says, "A new AP poll finds that Americans who think the law should have done more outnumber those who think the government should stay out of health care by 2-to-1." And the poll does say that. However, it doesn't say what "done more" means, and the actual numbers suggest that a more liberal law wouldn't have been any more popular than what we got. Here are the basic results from the AP poll: 30% favor the healthcare reform law, 40% oppose, and 30% aren't sure. Then they asked the 70% who were opposers and not surers a second question:

So 23% of that 70% thought the law didn't do enough. That's 16%. Add that to the 30% who favor the law and you get 46%.

That leaves 54% who oppose all or most of the law. So you're still at 54%-46% opposed, and this is the best case since it's possible that making the law more liberal might also have turned some of the favorers into opposers. Of course, you can argue that this is still slightly better than 40%-30% opposed, but it's a pretty iffy thing. What's more, only 39% said they agreed with the Drum/Atrios/Dayen view that our system required a "great deal" or "a lot" of change compared to what we had before healthcare reform passed. Unfortunately, there's really not much evidence that making the law more liberal would have had a big impact on public opinion one way or the other.

3M Jumps onto Citizens United Bandwagon

| Mon Sep. 27, 2010 12:24 PM EDT

When Target and Best Buy decided to take advantage of the new political spending rules under Citizens United, they were wading into uncharted territory—and ended up stirring a tremendous backlash as a result. Another Minnesota-based corporation, 3M, has witnessed the fallout over Target and Best Buy's Citizens United-empowered donations, but the company has decided take the plunge anyway. The Minnesota Independent reports that the paper products giant has donated $100,000 to an independent group, Minnesota Forward, to run ads supporting conservative Minnesota candidates for state office.

Over the summer, Target and Best Buy came under fire from progressive activists for making contributions to the same group: both retail giants had developed a reputation as LGBT-friendly companies, and activists branded them as hypocrites for funding ads that supported GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, an opponent of gay rights and gay marriage. The Minnesota Independent explains that 3M has a similarly positive track record with the gay community, receiving 100 percent ratings on the Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index. But the company has apparently decided that the donation was worth the risk of potential blowback.

What's more, there are signs that activists might be less inclined to raise the same ruckus with 3M, according to the Independent.:

[s]o far, response from progressive organizations has been muted compared to the reaction against Target’s donation. Some have called for boycotts, and a petition was started on Change.org, though it has only garnered around 200 signatures at the time this article was posted….A spokesperson for the HRC said the organization reached out to 3M to inquire about the donation; HRC declined to comment until 3M responds. MoveOn did not respond to the Minnesota Independent’s request for comment.

There are some signs that corporations are, in fact, thinking twice about whether to take advantage of Citizens United. But while some have vowed restraint, there are growing signs that others are clamoring on board. And if the backlash is indeed waning, the stigma of embracing the Supreme Court ruling is likely wear off, and heavy corporate involvement in political ads could become the new norm.

No Baggage, No Refund

| Mon Sep. 27, 2010 11:55 AM EDT

Gotta love this. Since airlines now routinely charge large fees for checked baggage, it makes sense that the fee should be refunded if your checked baggage doesn't successfully get to your destination with you. Airlines, of course, are outraged at the idea:

In comments filed with the federal agency last week, the [Air Transport Assn.] said each airline should have the choice of offering a refund, depending on competition in the marketplace....The airline group also said it opposed the refund idea because a government mandate like this would only raise fares for everyone, including people who don't check bags. Finally, the association said a refund won't work because the requirement for "timely delivered" bags is a "subjective standard" and would "not account for varying conditions."

Varying conditions indeed. It's one thing if your flight is late due to weather or mechanical problems or whatnot. But if your flight makes it to your destination but your bags don't? What's the excuse other than airline incompetence? And why should I pay $25 a bag for that?

Feel free to take this kvetching with a grain of salt. I'm annoyed because Delta Airlines managed to trash yet another piece of my luggage yesterday. Considering that Marian and I don't travel more than a few times a year, it's remarkable how quickly our luggage falls apart these days. Is it crappy luggage or is it airline abuse? I guess I'll never be able to prove it one way or the other, will I?