2011 - %3, April

Washington's Biggest Battle

| Fri Apr. 29, 2011 11:16 AM EDT

Zach Carter and Ryan Grim have a long but terrific piece in the Huffington Post today about the fight over debit card fees. It's a case study in the lobbying industry and the not-so-secret priorities of Congress:

The swipe fee spat is generating huge business for K Street: A full 118 ex-government officials and aides are currently registered to lobby on behalf of banks in the fee fight, according to data compiled for this story by the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan research group. Retailers have signed up at least 124 revolving-door lobbyists.

....“Oh man, this is unbelievable. You’ve got the banking community, the financial community, pitted against the retail community,” says Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.). “They’ve both been in my office and I’m a clear yes vote on this ... so you can only imagine those who are trying to figure this out or are still on the fence. They must be getting flooded.”

....“Every time we go in to an office and tell them we’re here to talk about interchange, they cringe,” says Dennis Lane, who makes regular lobbying trips to Washington and has owned a Massachusetts 7-Eleven for 37 years. “I think there’s been more lobbying -- there’s been more hours and minutes spent on Capitol Hill discussing interchange reform -- than there has been talking about a shutdown of the government.”

....While cable news was recently overwhelmed by coverage of budget negotiations and a possible government shutdown, many of the nation’s most powerful political players were focused instead on the Tester amendment -- and on a lobbying scrum that even boggles the minds of seasoned politicians. “It’s the biggest issue in Washington right now,” says a senior Treasury official who’s grateful it doesn’t fall within his scope of responsibility.

This is such a classic case of how things work on Capitol Hill. The issue itself is (a) pretty much unknown to the average voter and (b) worth absolute mountains of money to a very small, very influential segment of American industry, namely big banks and big retailers. This makes it the perfect lobbying issue: banks and retailers are highly motivated to spend mind-boggling sums of money on this, while voters barely even know this fight is going on.

The whole piece is worth a read when you have a few free minutes. When you're done (or maybe before you start), you should also read this short post from Adam Levitin that explains the actual technical issue with swipe fees aside from the fact that one group of millionaires is fighting a different group of millionaires over how to split up billions of dollars. It explains the policy piece of the story that Carter and Grim don't.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Donald Trump's F-Bomb Attack

| Fri Apr. 29, 2011 9:59 AM EDT

So this is how Donald Trump pivots from his birther message, now that President Obama has vanquished that hideous meme: He unleashes the f-bomb.

In a Thursday night speech in Las Vegas, Trump railed against lawmakers that he described as "blood suckers," bouncing from subjects like gas prices, Iraq, and foreign trade. "We have weak, pathetic leadership," Trump said of the Obama administration. "Our leaders are stupid, they are stupid people."

But that paled in comparison to his expletive-laden zingers on foreign policy and trade. Speaking about America's military presence abroad, he said:

We build a school, we build a road, they blow up the school, we build another school, we build another road they blow them up, we build again, in the meantime we can't get a fucking school in Brooklyn.

Then, on the issue of oil prices and OPEC, the coalition with control on much of the world's oil supply, he quipped:

We have nobody in Washington that sits back and said, you're not going to raise that fucking price.

And despite the fact that some of his clothing is made in China, Trump bashed the Middle Kingdom. If elected president, what would his message for China be?

"Listen you motherfuckers, we're going to tax you 25 percent!" 

Ah, that'll do wonders for America's image abroad. Here's the video:

The GOP's B-List 2012 Debate

| Fri Apr. 29, 2011 9:06 AM EDT

The first Republican primary debate is scheduled for next Thursday in Greenville, South Carolina, and none of the cool kids are going to be there. Newt Gingrich says he's not ready, and if Newt's not going, Mitt Romney isn't, either. Mike Huckabee might not even run; Haley Barbour isn't running; Mitch Daniels needs more time; Jon Huntsman is still in China. The only serious contender who has pledged to attend the debate so far is former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who, Politico reports, is now trying to get his fellow heavyweights on board through passive-aggressive statements:

"My Presidential exploratory committee will file the necessary papers and fees with the South Carolina Secretary of State next Tuesday because it's important that Republicans show up now, talk about their records, and begin the debate on how best we can defeat this President," Pawlenty said, not mentioning any rivals by name.

But Pawlenty won't be the only GOP candidate on the stage in Greenville. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) says he'll be there. Godfather Pizza CEO Herman Cain might be there, too. Same goes for former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer. (Things aren't looking good for Fred Karger, though.) That's not a very glamorous ensemble. But it could make for an interseting night.

Those candidates represent three distinct, occasionally disagreeable aspects of the Republican party. Roemer is a former Democrat who has based his candidacy in large part on the need to end subsidies for the energy industry—including not just ethanol, but oil and gas too. Cain has used his platform to push the most extreme anti-Islam message of any of the candidates, at times going so far as to promise not to hire any Muslims in his administration. You know where Paul stands—anti-war, anti-Fed, pro-pot, pro-gold.

None of them will win the Republican nomination, but they stand a very good chance of saying something that will force Pawlenty to take a stand on something he'd rather avoid. What does he think about billion-dollar handouts to oil companies? How far is he willing to take his new anti-Sharia schtick? If nothing else, we'll be spared the usual monotony—some awkward one-liners, a few canned barbs, and a whole lot of forced references to Ronald Reagan.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 29, 2011

Fri Apr. 29, 2011 5:30 AM EDT

U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Gabriel W. Temples, a platoon sergeant assigned to Company D, 2nd Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, Task Force Storm, navigates the swamp-like farmland after air assaulting into Baraki Barak District, Afghanistan, April 17. Photo via US Army.

Global Warming vs. You

| Fri Apr. 29, 2011 3:00 AM EDT

The New York Times ran a report yesterday about New Jersey residents who are outraged by new solar panels on utility poles that are ruining the bucolic splendor of their neighborhoods. Matt Yglesias takes a look at the accompanying photo and finds himself underwhelmed:

This is not a pastoral view disrupted by solar panels. It’s a view of utility polls, street lights, and overhead electrical wires—now with solar panels! It would be interesting to see if people actually preferred a pastoral view free of the accoutrements of electrification but I doubt anyone actually prefers that. Instead, the customary interjections of technology into the suburban landscape are normalized while any deviation from the postwar pattern is anathematized. Had people 100 years ago had this attitude, I suppose nobody would have telephone service or electricity at all.

A few years ago I remember reading about a local outcry over a cell phone company that wanted to put their transmitters on existing light poles instead of building a bunch of new towers. It was over in a neighborhood called Turtle Rock, which is one of Irvine's most upscale "villages" (yes, we really call them that). I got curious, and since it wasn't far away I drove over to take a look. And I looked and looked. Finally I found the offending light pole and looked some more. And there it was! I didn't see it at first, but sure enough, there was a small round doohickey attached to the pole about 20 feet up.

All I could do was shake my head. It was a light pole! And the transmitter was barely even visible. And it was 20 feet off the ground. How could anyone possibly care? But they did.

I'm perpetually astonished by the level of NIMBYism pretty much everywhere. I mean, objecting to a toxic waste dump or something, that I get. But people who live in 100% built environments are remarkably resistant to even the most innocuous changes in that built environment, let alone things that might potentially have a minor but real impact. It's just a huge battle every time.

And in the non-built environment this is becoming a huge problem too. We need solar power and wind farms. But solar is no good if it's built in the sunny Mojave Desert because it might impact tortoise breeding grounds. Wind farms are no good if they mar the view off Hyannis Port or kill too many migrating birds. Everybody wants change, but nobody wants that change to occur anywhere that might affect their own backyard or their own pet cause. This is hardly breaking news, I know, but one of these days we're going to have to decide which is more important: marring our views a bit or preventing the planet from baking to death. I vote for the latter.

Front page image: Colin Smith/Geograph.org.uk

Life Is Human

| Fri Apr. 29, 2011 2:07 AM EDT

This post courtesy BBC Earth. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous.

Over the next few months will be a diving into what, how and why we do the things we do. We will be bringing you Human stories from all over the globe and from all different walks of life, and exclusively from the people who make it happen at BBC Earth.

1. Living fig tree bridges. Villagers in Meghalaya use the roots of live strangler figs to build living bridges. These roots are so strong that the bridges can hold as many as 50 people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2. Sacred bathing. The Ganges is more than just a river. Known throughout India as the Ganga Ma, "Mother Ganges" it's thought that anyone who touches this sacred water is cleansed of all sins.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. Underneath an ice sheet. The Greenland ice sheet holds 10 percent of the planets fresh water. If it were to thaw, water levels around the world would rise by around 7 meters. That’s the height of a three story building.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. Stilt houses. The oceans may cover 70% of the earth's surface but that hasn't stopped the people of the Sabah, Malaysia, living there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. A homemade crossing. The Mekong River is a deadly crossing in the flood season, but Samniang still risks his life most days to get dinner for his family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6. Mountain settlements. The Simien mountains reach as high as the Alps in some places but the highest point is Ras Dejen, the fourth highest peak in Africa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7.Sulphur miners. Toxic gasses, an active volcano, and the serious risk of death doesn't stop these men from going to work each day at the sulphur mine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8. The annual plastering of the Grande Mosque. Every year the Grande Mosque in Djenne is given a vital mudpack. Local people come together and recover the largest mud building in the world with more mud.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9. The Toka festival. For three days each year on Tanna island, up to 2,000 participants attempt to out-do each other with their lavish gifts, dancing skills, and ornate makeup.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10. The Wodaabe courtship dancers. For the people of the Wodaabe, it's the men who are judged on looks. White eyes and teeth will get you a long way, but the taller the better.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Chart of the Day: Our Ballooning Healthcare Costs

| Thu Apr. 28, 2011 11:54 PM EDT

The chart on the right comes from the Kaiser Family Foundation, and it shows the growth in healthcare expenditures in five selected countries over the past 40 years. The United States, of course, has the highest spending, but it also has the highest growth rate. An accompanying table shows spending in 15 OECD countries, and in 1970, the U.S. spent 58% more than average. In 1990 we spent 86% more. In 2008 we spent 91% more.

There are individual countries that have had higher growth rates than us, but all of them started from a much lower base. And even at that, nobody beats us by much. Even though our spending is already the highest in the world, our growth rate is still one of the highest too. No matter how much we pay our doctors, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and insurance carriers — and we pay them far more than any other country — it's never enough. They always want more.

Joshua Bell's Toughest Challenge

| Thu Apr. 28, 2011 8:34 PM EDT

I don't really know much about music, but Mike Mechanic's interview with violin superstar Joshua Bell was pretty interesting. For example:

MJ: What's the most technically difficult piece you've ever performed?

JB: It's not always what seems hard. The Beethoven violin concerto is technically maybe the hardest because it's so exposed. The Tchaikovsky is more technically difficult; it's got more acrobatics, yet you can get away with more.

MJ: What do you mean, exposed?

JB: If you mess up the tiniest little thing in the Beethoven concerto, or the phrasing isn't just exactly perfectly executed—Beethoven brings out the worst in the best violinist. You almost never hear a satisfying performance, because it doesn't play itself. The Tchaikovsky is technically bombastic, but it kind of plays itself.

Interesting! And although I know all about million-dollar Stradivariuses, I'd never heard of Tourte bows. They go for a hundred grand, and just like the Strads, no one can make their equal anymore. Also interesting!

Where Are the National Security Superstars?

| Thu Apr. 28, 2011 7:02 PM EDT

Over at his place, Kevin Drum brought up yesterday's national security team shuffle and asks a really, really great question. First, here's the Slate piece by Fred Kaplan that got him thinking about it:

What's glaringly obvious about this list is that [...] it's a game of musical chairs. No fresh talent has been brought into the circle. And one reason for this is that the bench of fresh major-league talent is remarkably thin.

There are plenty of smart, capable analysts and bureaucrats in the Pentagon's second tier or in the think-tank community—but very few, arguably none, who possess the worldliness, gravitas, intramural hard-headedness, and credibility on Capitol Hill that a president, especially a Democratic president, would like to have in a defense secretary during a time of two wars and ferocious budget fights....In the past few weeks, I've asked a couple dozen veteran observers—officials, analysts, Hill staffers, other reporters—who they think would be a suitable replacement, from either party's roster. Nobody could think of anybody. This in itself is a bit disturbing.

And here's Kevin's response:

Yes, that is disturbing. If it's true, that is...Is it really true that the bench of big-league talent in the top tier of the national security world is as thin as all that? And if it is, why?

Well, it is and it isn't, I think. The first, most important point here is the one that Kevin also makes in his post: You often don't know who the superstars are until you've plucked them from the bench and plopped 'em in the superstar's chair. Hey, we always knew Roy Halladay was a fine pitcher, but who really knew he had a playoff no-hitter in him when he was with the Toronto also-ran Blue Jays? Likewise with Robert Gates: No stranger to the Beltway, sure. But who really thought, back in 2006—at a time when we'd have been happy to replace Don Rumsfeld with a pygmy moth, or a broken stairclimber, or lichens—who really thought so many people five years later would be calling Gates a defense secretary for the ages? That's how these things tumble. You just never know.

But beyond that, Kevin and Kaplan are sort of right that there's a leadership gap in left- (and right-) leaning foreign and military policymaking. They seem to suggest it's chiefly a question of charisma and platform. But it's more a question of national security orientation. For the past five or six years, the military, the diplomatic corps, and the Dem think-tankers focused on issues like fighting a better war on terror than conservatives (leaving Iraq, focusing on Af/Pak, repairing multilateralism and soft power). They’ve been in step with the American public in one respect: All agree that neoconservativism sucked as a NATSEC strategy.

Keynes vs. Hayek, Round 2

| Thu Apr. 28, 2011 5:47 PM EDT

You remember "Fear the Boom and Bust," don't you, the rap throwdown between John Maynard Keynes and F.A. Hayek produced last year for EconStories.tv? It was great, and now its creators are back with "Fight of the Century: Keynes vs. Hayek Round Two":

At the risk of being a little meanspirited over a nonprofit labor of love, I'm wondering if I'm the only one who didn't really care much for this sequel? I was put off from the very beginning, which uses the exact same joke as the first video, except even more extreme. I was reminded of movie sequels that figure the only way to top the original is to feature even more car chases and even bigger explosions. Meh.

Beyond that, though, the actual content of the video just isn't as sharp as the first one. The production values are great, but the lyrics are kind of flat and there's not really any sustained economic argument from either of the characters. In the end, I think the producers just didn't have anything new to say. But they've got a ton of talent, and I hope that for their next video they ditch the Keynes vs. Hayek conceit and just do something completely new.