2010 - %3, November

Terrifying Widget of the Day

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 11:56 AM PST

I just spent a few minutes on the website of the Population Institute, and according to the fast-moving, somewhat panic-inducing ticker in the upper right corner of the home page, the world population grew by some 6,000 people in that time.

What's the problem? These stats from Julia Whitty's recent Mother Jones cover story:

As recently as 1965, when the world population stood at 3.3 billion, we collectively taxed only 70 percent of the Earth's biocapacity each year. That is, we used only 7/10 of the land, water, and air the planet could regenerate or repair yearly to produce what we consumed and to absorb our greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Global Footprint Network, a California think tank, we first overdrew our accounts in 1983, when our population of nearly 4.7 billion began to consume natural resources faster than they could be replenished—a phenomenon called "ecological overshoot." Last year, 6.8 billion of us consumed the renewable resources of 1.4 Earths.

[...]

The only known solution to ecological overshoot is to decelerate our population growth faster than it's decelerating now and eventually reverse it—at the same time we slow and eventually reverse the rate at which we consume the planet's resources. Success in these twin endeavors will crack our most pressing global issues: climate change, food scarcity, water supplies, immigration, health care, biodiversity loss, even war. On one front, we've already made unprecedented strides, reducing global fertility from an average 4.92 children per woman in 1950 to 2.56 today—an accomplishment of trial and sometimes brutally coercive error, but also a result of one woman at a time making her individual choices. The speed of this childbearing revolution, swimming hard against biological programming, rates as perhaps our greatest collective feat to date.

Check out what all we're up against here. And this excellent companion piece about how it's kind of the Vatican's fault here.

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Does PPACA Contain a Surprise?

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 11:13 AM PST

One of the reasons that employer-based healthcare is so prevalent in the United States is that it's a good deal: unlike the normal income they recieve, employees don't have to pay taxes on their healthcare benefits. A $5,000 policy costs $5,000. Conversely, if your employer simply paid you a cash wage in lieu of healthcare benefits, you'd have to receive, say, $6,000 in order to buy the same policy. Why? Because you have to pay taxes on the $6,000 and still have $5,000 left over to pay the premium.

This difference in tax treatment is something that wonks on both left and right generally oppose, though in somewhat different ways and as part of somewhat different overall structures. Still, pretty much everyone opposes it. And guess what? Thanks to the healthcare reform bill, it might be going away. The details are complex, but Austin Frakt provides the gist:

PPACA may make it possible for workers to get the same tax break for purchasing health insurance on the individual market (via an exchange or otherwise) as they would if they bought their employer-sponsored plan (if they’re offered one). If this is the case, it removes one huge incentive for maintaining employer-sponsored coverage. With respect to taxation, it levels the playing field between the group and non-group (individual) markets.

There’s still the issue that until 2017 only employees of firms with fewer than 100 workers are eligible for exchange coverage. Beginning in 2017, states can open exchanges to employees of larger firms. Workers of firms of any size could buy coverage on the individual market that is outside the exchange, they just can’t obtain federal subsidies for them. Still, it’s the tax subsidy that makes employer-based coverage so valuable to workers. If it can be applied in the non-group market it would hasten the erosion of employer-based coverage (which is not a bad thing, necessarily).

This all depends on a particular interpretation of provisions in PPACA, but if regulators write the enabling rules properly it might well allow individuals to buy insurance on the exchanges with pretax dollars. This would reduce the cost of insurance substantially for anyone using the exchange. It's worth keeping an eye on.

The WikiLeaks Charade

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 10:33 AM PST

Republicans have made their stand on WikiLeaks clear: the Obama administration needs to destroy both the organization itself and its founder, Julian Assange. "Why was he not pursued with the same urgency we pursue al Qaeda and Taliban leaders?" demands Sarah Palin. "Is there no way to counter-attack against the attackers?" asks Bill Kristol. The Obama administration's response, writes Jonah Goldberg, has been pitiful, little more than a "tersely worded cease-and-desist letter to Assange, asking him to pretty please stop publishing thousands of state secrets." WikiLeaks should be designated a terrorist group, thunders Rep. Peter King (R–NY).

I don't know how much of this is pure politics and how much is just ignorance, but surely all these people know that WikiLeaks itself isn't the problem. It's the people who supply WikiLeaks with their leaks who are the problem. Even if the U.S. government somehow magically shut down WikiLeaks all over the world and tossed Julian Assange into a Supermax cell, there's nothing they can do to keep someone else from doing the exact same thing. It's just too easy to do. All it takes is access to the internet from some friendly country, and there's simply no way to shut down every possible entry to the internet. Like it or not, that's the era we live in.

In any case, I doubt the United States has any legal recourse against Assange or WikiLeaks. Assange is an Australian national not living in the U.S. and WikiLeaks is a distributed site not dependent on any single country's goodwill. What's more, despite some huffing and puffing to the contrary, I find it extremely unlikely that Assange has actually broken any existing laws. Perhaps new laws could be written, but it's hard for me to conceive of a law prohibiting actions like this that was both (a) effective and (b) not so broad that even Bill Kristol would oppose it. The United States has considerable control over actions by its own citizens on its own territory, but not over noncitizens who reside overseas and work primarily in cyberspace.

But then, I suspect most of the bloviators know this. WikiLeaks is, for most of them, just a good opportunity to bash the Obama administration (as if George Bush would have been able to act any differently) without having to actually offer any concrete solutions. And what makes this especially great for Obama's critics is that there's not really a lot Obama can do about it, aside from bloviating a bit in return.

Bloviating aside, though, we should be focused not on Julian Assange, but on figuring out how to keep anyone from providing this kind of information to him in the first place. That's more boring, but much more effective.

Bipartisanship at Last

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 9:36 AM PST

There's something odd about this:

The Senate on Tuesday approved the biggest overhaul to the nation's food safety laws since the 1930s, voting 73 to 25 to give vast new authorities to the Food and Drug Administration; place new responsibilities on farmers and food companies to prevent contamination; and — for the first time — set safety standards for imported foods, a growing part of the American diet.

....Despite strong bipartisan support and backing from a diverse coalition of major business and consumer groups, the bill was been buffeted by politics in recent weeks. It drew fire from some tea party activists, who see it as government overreach. On his television program this month, talkshow host Glenn Beck suggested that the measure was a government ruse to raise the price of meat and convert more consumers to vegetarianism.

If there's one thing that Republicans have been plain about, it's their opposition to the Democratic agenda of big government and job-killing regulations. Thus you have the tea party and Glenn Beck hostility to this bill. And yet it passed 73-25. A massive overhaul of the FDA's regulatory authority got not just one or two Republican votes, but 15. In fact, according to the New York Times, this bill was the first one in two years that managed to produce a bit of bipartisan comity: "Some Republican and Democratic Senate staff members — who in previous terms would have seen each other routinely — met for the first time during the food negotiations. The group bonded over snacks: specifically, Starburst candies from a staff member of Senator Mike Enzi, a Wyoming Republican, and jelly beans from a staff member of Senator Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat."

I don't get it. In normal times, I'd expect that a slew of high-profile food poisoning incidents would produce bipartisan consensus in favor of a food safety bill. But then, I'd expect the same of a huge recession and an epic financial failure, and there was certainly no cooperation on fiscal stimulus or financial reform. So what happened? Is food safety genuinely different? Or did big ag fail to cough up enough dough this year during election season?

Sen. John McCain Pays Homage to Russ Feingold

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 9:22 AM PST

This morning, the Senate was mostly consumed with various votes on a landmark food safety bill, dealing with amendments banning earmarks and other efforts by Republican Tom Coburn to scuttle the bill. But after all the partisan squabbling over the bill, and a long speech by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) cheering its passage, former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain took to the floor. And rather than bemoan the new costly bill and its pile of regulations, McCain instead took a very different tone. He spent the next few minutes paying tribute to outgoing Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wisc.), who was defeated in the recent election in his bid for another term.

McCain, who recently pledged not to work with any Democrats on immigration reform, choked up as he said, "Without intending it as a commentary on his successor, I have to confess I think the Senate will be a much poorer place without Russ Feingold in it." He went on to talk about his work with Feingold on trying to reform the campaign finance system, and he credited the Wisconsin senator for being true to his beliefs about the evils of soft money, even when his job was on the line:

We don’t often hear anymore about members of Congress who distinguish themselves by having the courage of their convictions; who risk their personal interests for what they believe is in the public interest. I’ve seen many examples of it here, but the cynicism of our times – among the political class and the media and the voters tends to miss examples of political courage or dismiss them as probable frauds or, at best, exceptions that prove the rule. In his time in the Senate, Russ Feingold, every day and in every way, had the courage of his convictions. And though I am quite a few years older than Russ, and have served in this body longer than he has, I confess I have always felt he was my superior in that cardinal virtue.

McCain, who has lost much of his "maverick" status in the Senate since running for president, seemed heartfelt in his tribute and his sadness at Feingold's departure also seemed genuine. He concluded by saying:

I can’t do justice in these remarks to all of Russ’ many qualities or express completely how much I think this institution benefited from his service here and how much I benefited from knowing him. I lack the eloquence. I don’t think he is replaceable. We would all do well to keep his example in our minds as we serve our constituents and country and convictions. We couldn’t have a better role model.

 

I have every expectation we will remain good friends long after we have both ended our Senate careers. But I will miss him here. Every day. And I will try harder to become half the public servant he is. Because his friendship is an honor, and honors come with responsibilities.

 

McCain's speech was a rather sad reminder about the sorry state of the nation's campaign finance rules. Not only is one of the crafters of major campaign finance reform legislation leaving the Senate, but his legacy has been all but demolished by the Supreme Court in recent years, most notably with its Citizens United decision allowing unlimited corporate money in elections. But McCain's tribute to Feingold also served as a reminder of happier days in the Senate when Democrats and Republicans actually did work together once in a while to tackle the hard work of solving some of the nation's more pressing problems. When McCain said he was going to miss Feingold, it was clear that he misses those days, too.

DC Ticker on ABC News: Hillary Clinton, sell; Patty Murray, buy.

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 8:30 AM PST

I've previously explained the DC Ticker I compile most days, which is now being featured weekly on ABC News' website show, Political Punch, hosted by Jake Tapper. Here are the picks featured on the latest PP:

* Hillary Clinton, sell. How would you like to explain to allies (and the public) that the US spied on the UN leadership, turned a blind eye to an Afghan vice president caught with $52 million in cash in his possession, and conspired with the Yemen government to cover up secret US bombing in that country? Thanks, WikiLeaks.

* Daniel Ellsberg, buy. Whenever there's a big leak, the O.L. (Original Leaker) reappears.

* Sen. Patty Murray, buy. After winning a reelection nail-biter, Murray's been courted by Democratic leaders to head up its 2012 Senate campaign. This boosts her profile, but that job will be tough, given that Democratic prospects look worse in 2012 than they did this year.

* Reynaldo Decerega, buy. One way to get noticed in Washington: pop the president in the mouth with your elbow during a friendly basketball game. After doing so this past weekend, the little-known director of programs for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute became a Google search term.

You can receive the almost-daily DC Ticker report by following my Twitter feed. (#DCticker is the Twitter hashtag.) Please feel free to argue with my selections—though all decisions of the judges are final. And please feel free to make suggestions for buy or sell orders in the comments below or on Twitter (by replying to @DavidCornDC).

DC Ticker is merely an advisory service. It and its author cannot be held liable for any investments made in politicians, policy wonks, or government officials on the basis of the information presented. Invest in politics at your own risk.

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Bogus Attacks On the CFPB

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 7:24 AM PST

First it was Republicans like Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), the likely chair of the House financial services committee in the 112th Congress, who took aim at the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Now, a high-ranking member of the Federal Reserve system, the agency that will eventually house the CFPB, is taking a cue from the US Chamber of Commerce's playbook and trying to chip away at the bureau's funding and clout.

On Monday, James Bullard, the president of the Fed's St. Louis branch, questioned the amount of money coming out of the Fed's budget to fund the new consumer bureau. Although housed within and funded by the Fed, the bureau, which is being launched by Harvard law professor and former bailout watchdog Elizabeth Warren, is an independent organization. It takes orders from no one but its presidentially-appointed chief. But the Fed's Bullard said the bureau's funding—about 10 percent of the Federal Reserve System's spending in 2011, 11 percent the year after, and 12 percent in 2013—"is not based on any careful assessment of what the needs of the bureau will be as it attempts to fulfill the mandate of the Congress with regard to consumer protection." He added, "I am concerned about this method of funding for the bureau."

Here's what the math looks like: The Fed system budgeted for $4.4 billion in spending in 2010, which means the CFPB could have its disposal about $440 million in its first year (though that's unlikely as the bureau is still staffing up and not yet at full capacity). But figure the bureau's budget will fall in the $400 to $500 million range with a staff that could reach around 2,200, as experts like Tim Duncan, chairman of American Business Leaders for Financial Reform, have suggested.

Now, let's put that number into some context. By comparison, in 2009, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the nation's top financial regulator, had just over 4,000 employees and a budget of $913 million. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which regulates the derivatives markets, clocks in at around 580 staffers on a $216 million budget, according to its most recent appropriations request. Then there's the Fed system itself, which has 20,000 employees and $4.4 billion in expenses.

When you compare the CFPB to other regulators, you'll see that its funding isn't at all out of whack or arbitrary. Indeed, the CFPB is on par with every other major financial regulator in the US.

A few more important points from Georgetown University law professor and financial expert Adam Levitin:

1. CFPB is not mandated to spend all that money. If CFPB doesn't spend its entire budget, that money goes back to Treasury. Therefore, it's really not a big deal if CFPB is overbudgeted.

2. Recall that a major reason we needed a CFPB was that consumer financial protection was severely compromised by housing it in bank regulators who got their funding from banks, not through the appropriations process.

So it's hard to see where Bullard is coming from here. Maybe he's just pissed that the CFPB is peeling off some of the Fed's money. Then again, given the Fed system's utter failure to protect consumers, choosing to sit on its hands for years in the face of mounting evidence of subprime mortgage abuses and rampant fraud, perhaps Bullard is lucky Congress didn't divert more of the Fed's cash to CFPB.

Black Harvard-Yale Alums = Gangbangers?

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 5:00 AM PST

Racial profiling has hit the Ivy League. Again. A party for black Harvard and Yale alums at a Boston club was shut down last weekend because the club owner was afraid that a long line of black people outside could "attract the attention of local gangbangers."

It all started when a group of recent graduates sold advance tickets for a party at a new Boston club, Cure Lounge. When the night of the party came, club management claimed some of the folks waiting in line were "local gang bangers," despite the organizers' strict guest list. Management then demanded that every guest show student ID, which the organizers argued was impossible since alums usually don't carry their old student IDs around. Eventually, on the basis that a line of black people would attract the "wrong crowd" (no joke), the owners shut the entire club down. Michael Beal, one of the organizers of the party, wrote in an email apology to the guests that "regardless of our crowd representing the pinnacle of academic achievement as Harvard and Yale College alumni, Law, Medical, Business and PhD students, we were perceived as a threat because of our skin color." Sounds right on. (You can read Beal's email in its entirety here.)

Writing about all this over at the Grio, blogger Lori Adelman makes a great point:

This incident is more than about entrance to a party, or how infuriating it is for black ivy league alumni to be perceived as a "local gang-banger," or discriminated against by way of "visual affiliation" (see: skin color). In fact, it should serve as an opportunity for us to examine the ways in which we as a black community can and must view our struggles as more connected across lines of class and education, now more than ever before.

Agreed. Obviously racism is class- and education-blind, as last year's arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who was just trying to get into his own house, confirmed. It's not just Gates: Ex-Harvard (and current Princeton) Prof. Cornel West has spoken to Tavis Smiley about being stopped and questioned by Harvard police while on his way to lectures, and black Harvard student groups picnicking on campus were recently questioned by campus police about their presence at the college. But as the Grio's Adelman points out:

Perhaps we might focus less on the offenders' inability to distinguish who deserves to be treated with dignity and fairness, and more on why there are criteria for such treatment in the first place.

Based on Cure Lounge's depreciating Yelp score and the calls from the blogosphere to boycott the place, it won't get away from the scandal unscathed. Too bad the same can't be said for racist institutions that target black folks who don't have degrees or money.

(h/t: Jezebel)

Yes We Cancun?

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 4:00 AM PST

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting began in Cancun on Monday, providing another chance for world leaders to huddle on solutions to the problems posed by rising global greenhouse gas emissions. This year's Conference of the Parties—or COP, as it's known—is certainly kicking off to much less hype than last year's meeting in Copenhagen, when delegates were expecting a major breakthrough on negotiations. Expectations are much lower this year, but there's hope that progress might yet be possible.

You can check out my run down of what to expect over the next two weeks at Mother Jones HQ. I'll be reporting live from Mexico for the next two weeks, which you can catch on Blue Marble and Twitter. In the meantime, here are some headlines from the first day of the event:

EU warns that U.N. climate talks "risk losing relevance"

Time for compromise, troubled UN climate talks told

US sees progress easing climate rifts with China

Frustrations show as climate talks resume

Cancún climate talks: In search of the holy grail of climate change policy

 

Also, take a look at the massive art project 350.org pulled off on the eve of the Cancun talks. And here's a video of the opening ceremony on Monday.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 30, 2010

Tue Nov. 30, 2010 3:30 AM PST

 

 

Congressional Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Salvatore A. Giunta rings the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange on November 22, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Ben Hider/NYSE Euronext)