2011 - %3, May

The Revival of GM

| Thu May. 5, 2011 9:09 AM PDT

Jon Cohn turns his attention to Detroit:

Will the voters will ever give President Obama credit for rescuing the American auto industry? I have no idea. But it looks more and more like they should. On Thursday General Motors announced that, for the fifth consecutive quarter, it had made a profit. And not just a measly one, either. The $3.2 billion was higher than experts had predicted and more than three times the profit of the same quarter in 2010, when the company was still struggling to emerge from its bankruptcy.

...."Reducing excess capacity" is a Wall Street euphemism for eliminating jobs. A lot of people suffered, and still are suffering, because they lost their livelihoods. Still, if not for the Obama Administration's intervention, the entire American auto industry might very well have collapsed and taken the Midwest with it. Instead, the industry is on the rebound, at least for now.

Back in 2009, when the rescue of GM and Chrysler was up in the air, I remember that my main thought was, "I'm sure glad I don't have to make this decision." Philosophically, after all, a bankrupt company ought to be allowed to die. The government just shouldn't be in the business of rescuing badly run industrial behemoths, especially in an industry with the kind of massive global excess capacity that the auto industry has.

At the same time, would you want to be the guy who lets GM shut down at the height of the biggest recession in 50 years, potentially losing a million jobs and sending the economy into an even bigger tailspin? Not really. It was just a classic rock and a hard place.

In the end, though, Obama almost certainly made the right call. We don't know for sure what the impact of letting GM and Chrysler fail would have been, but it quite likely would have been grim. And in the end, despite the endless yowling about "Government Motors" and Obama's "secret socialist agenda," the fact is that his team rammed through a pretty good deal, GM has recovered, Obama was fastidious about letting GM's managers run the company,1 and taxpayers will likely take only a modest loss. It's not something anyone wants to repeat — and GM's board better understand that it's unlikely it ever will be — but under the circumstances it was the best we could do. And Jon is right: voters ought to give Obama more credit for it than they have.

1Why? Because Barack Obama is actually a boring, gray-flannel-suit, garden variety American capitalist pig. Like just about everyone else in the country, he has no interest in controlling the means of production and wants only to regulate capitalism's excesses, not replace it with socialism. But you knew that already.

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Undeterred, Missouri House Passes Birther Bill

| Thu May. 5, 2011 8:55 AM PDT

The Washington Post is out with a new survey suggesting that the number of Americans who doubt President Obama's citizenship has fallen dramatically. One week after releasing his long-form birth certificate to the public, just 10-percent of Americans say Obama was "likely" born abroad, down from 20-percent a year ago. That's progress, I suppose, but 10-percent is still a little high, and it's clear that some people are simply unwilling to let the conspiracy die.

Yesterday, for instance, the Missouri House of Representatives passed its birther bill, designed to protect the state from allowing any non-citizens to appear on the presidential ballot. Per the measure: "When certifying presidential and vice presidential nominees and requesting that such nominees be placed on the ballot, the state committees of each political party shall provide verifiable evidence of identity and proof of natural born citizenship."

When I spoke with the bill's sponsor, GOP Rep. Lyle Rowland, early last month, he emphasized that he's not a birther. "You know when I first started, reporters and other people were getting after me because I did this because of President Obama," Rowland said. "And as I told all the other reporters, it's not about President Obama. I believe the man is President of the United States and has met the qualifications for the presidency."

To that point, the Missouri bill is not as hysterical as some of the other proposals that have been introduced (there's no long-form requirement, for instance). But it's born out of the same hysterical climate, in which prominent conservatives sought to propogate a myth that the President was a foreign agent involved in an elaborate conspiracy to defraud the Republic. Missouri's provision, which is part of a broader package that includes a new voter ID law, still has to pass the Senate and win the approval of Republican Governor Jay Nixon.

Yes, Congress Sucks Worse Than It Used To

| Thu May. 5, 2011 8:22 AM PDT

Is Congress really more gridlocked than it used to be? Or is it just our imaginations? Don Taylor points us to a new paper by Craig Volden and Alan Wiseman that, among other things, codes every single one of the 119,040 bills introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives from 1973-2002 by type of bill. This is an impressive demonstration of either (a) massive OCD or (b) massive maltreatment of grad students. I'm not sure which. But code them they have, and when they strip out all the trivial/symbolic/post office naming kinds of bills, they come to two conclusions:

  • There really has been a secular decline in the number of bills passed over the past couple of decades.
  • Health bills have always had a harder time passing than other kinds of bills, so it's hardly surprising that Obamacare was such a close run thing.

Taking a look at all bill types, it turns out that health bills were among the hardest to pass. What else is hard to pass? Social welfare, housing, labor, and civil liberties legislation. Liberals just have a tough time all around. More details at the link.

Fox to Huckabee: Time to Make Up Your Damn Mind

| Thu May. 5, 2011 7:39 AM PDT

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee continues to flirt with the idea of running for president in 2012, but Fox News, one of his current employers, is getting annoyed by Huckabee's wavering. So annoyed, in fact, that the network has given him an end-of-May deadline to decide, according to RealClearPolitics' Erin McPike.

Huckabee faces the same situation as former Fox contributors Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. When they announced their respective presidential plans, Fox suspended their contracts in March. And since neither Gingrich nor Santorum pulled out of the race by May 1, their contracts are set to be terminated by Fox.

Huckabee, meanwhile, has continued to host his eponymous talk show on Saturday and Sunday nights while Republican operatives have quietly begun organizing a Huckabee ground campaign. Here's RCPs' McPike:

On a national level, Rollins has gotten verbal agreements from experienced Republican operatives who would join the team. A political director, fundraising team, media team, communications director, press staff, policy shop, and opposition research outfit are locked and loaded. Serious discussions with a respected national pollster are ongoing, and several national Republican operatives have told RealClearPolitics that they've gotten calls with the message: "This thing is happening. Do you want to be a part of it?"

David Beasley, a former governor of South Carolina who would chair Huckabee's efforts in the Palmetto State, said he has spoken directly with Huckabee several times in the past month, and had a serious discussion with him several days ago.

Beasley said he phoned Huckabee last week after it had been reported that he had "released" some of the staffers on his first campaign to work for other candidates and asked Huckabee to explain. Some in Huckabee's circle believe that those lines are being fed by former staffers who have gone on to other campaigns and need Huckabee to stay out of the race so it doesn't hurt their own candidates' chances. What's more, the South Carolinian said it may have been true a year ago when Huckabee seemed less destined to run, but it isn't now.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 5, 2011

Thu May. 5, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Darren C. Rickettes (left), Lt. Col. Donn H. Hill (2nd from left) and Deputy Commanding General of Afghan Development Brig. Gen. John Uberti, 101st Airborne Division, talk with an Afghan National Army commander during Operation Overlord in the Naka district of Paktika province, Afghanistan, on April 14, 2011. Operation Overlord is a division-level air assault mission designed to trap Taliban forces in the province. DoD photo by Spc. Zachary Burke, U.S. Army. (Released)

Alabama to Undocumented Kids: No Prom For You!

| Thu May. 5, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

Having trouble finding a date for the prom? Don't worry; under a bill that recently passed the Alabama state senate, undocumented teens might not be able to attend either. SB 256, the "Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act," takes steps to block employers from hiring illegal immigrants, gives law enforcement more authority to check immigration status, requires voters to bring proof of citizenship with them to the polls—and prohibits "participation in any extracurricular activity outside of the basic course of study" for K-12 students who aren't legal residents. In other words, no chess club or drama society for the kids; football might be a religion in Alabama, but that's off-limits too.

The bill, sponsored by GOP state Sen. Scott Beason, has many of the same features as the controversial law passed by Arizona last spring, with a few twists. Police officers would be required to to ask drivers for their immigration papers during routine traffic stops, if they have a "reasonable suspicion" the driver is not in the country legally. And because undocumented residents are already prevented from obtaining driver's licenses, the bill goes one step further, making it a crime to knowingly give a ride to an undocumented resident.

Beason, who did not respond to a request for comment, has previously called his measure a "jobs bill." He drew criticism in February when he told a county GOP meeting it was time to "empty the clip" on immigration reform. In the same speech he said this:

Liberals are always going to want to create their utopia—if they just have a little bit more tax money, if they just let a few more illegal immigrants in—they would just create this wonderful melting pot and it would all be beautiful and we'd run through the field of flowers. Well that’s not going to happen.

That does sound pretty nice, though. There are currently two similar immigration bills before the Alabama legislature; the other bill, which does not include the glee club provision, has already passed the House and made it through a Senate committee. It's not clear at this point which bill will be prioritized by the legislature. If Beason's bill does pass, though, Jared Shepherd, a law fellow with the Alabama ACLU, says the state can almost certainly expect a legal challenge.

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GOP Throws Ryan Under the Bus

| Wed May. 4, 2011 9:54 PM PDT

Paul Ryan's proposal to gut Medicare sure didn't last long:

Senior Republicans conceded Wednesday that a deal is unlikely on a contentious plan to overhaul Medicare and offered to open budget talks with the White House by focusing on areas where both parties can agree, such as cutting farm subsidies.

On the eve of debt-reduction talks led by Vice President Biden, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) said Republicans remain convinced that reining in federal retirement programs is the key to stabilizing the nation’s finances over the long term. But he said Republicans recognize they may need to look elsewhere to achieve consensus after President Obama “excoriated us” for a proposal to privatize Medicare.

Um, yeah, it was Obama's fire breathing stemwinders that turned the tide. It had nothing to do with the fact that constituents hated the idea and Republicans would have lost 50 seats in the next election if they'd stuck with it. Nothing at all.

Social Security's Paperless Transition

| Wed May. 4, 2011 5:44 PM PDT

As of May 1, new applicants for Social Security benefits will not be able to receive paper checks. The move is part of Social Security's gradual transition from paper checks to electronic banking, which will save the government about $1 billion over 10 years. The transition, which will be completed by March 2013, will also save 12 million pounds of paper in the first five years. But some people, like the commenters at Consumerist, have raised questions about whether the switch to direct deposit (or Visa-branded debit cards) will actually cost users.

It seems these concerns have some merit to them. Just a quick look at the Social Security site reveals that SS debit card users can be charged fees for things like ATM cash withdrawals. Users only get one free ATM withdrawal each month. After that, each withdrawal is $.90, and that's assuming the user has easy access to one of SS's in-network ATMs. Users can, however, get cash-back-with-purchase for free, as well as cash from a bank. Theoretically, the card should debit funds so quickly that users cannot overdraw their funds, but it's unclear whether this would hold true in practice.

For those SS users that opt for direct deposit instead of a debit card, there's the possible cost of opening a checking account: Consumer Reports says only about 64% of financial institutions offer free checking accounts (down from 76% in 2009). Big banks in particular are creating more hurdles, and potentially more fees, for low-balance customers. According to a Social Security spokesman's statement, there are about 4 million current users of Social Security who do not have bank accounts, and it's uncertain how many users will fall into that category by the March 2013 deadline. For those who do have bank accounts with big banks like Chase or Bank of America, there are the usual fees and restrictions: minimum balances, overdraft fees, money transfer fees, bill pay fees, and various other penalties. Credit unions usually offer somewhat reduced versions of these fees, or may eliminate them altogether.

And of course, a direct deposit or debit card are both virtual monies unless you convert them into cash. There have been many studies showing that paying with cash makes people behave more fiscally conservatively than paying with credit cards, debit cards, or even gift vouchers. Our brains, it seems, just don't grasp what exactly an item will cost us unless we're handling physical money.

In discussing all of this, it's important to note that about 80% of people currently receiving Social Security benefits already get funds electronically. For the remaining 20% (around 550,000 people), there might be some growing pains coming on. But it's hard to argue too much with a move that saves taxpayers $130 million a year, and almost all of the savings in the Social Security Trust Fund.

The GOP's Planet-Warming Task Force

| Wed May. 4, 2011 2:34 PM PDT

Over at E2Wire, Andrew Restuccia reports that House Republicans have formed a new coalition—the House Energy Action Team, or "HEAT."

The coalition will "promote Republican energy policies that will address rising energy prices, create thousands of good jobs and enhance our national security by promoting energy independence for America." In GOP-speak, that generally translates to "more oil and gas drilling."

Given their platform of enhancing fossil-fuel production and the party's almost uniform denial of climate change, the moniker is maybe just a little ironic. Something tells me they probably didn't think about that too hard though.

(h/t to Steve Kretzmann at Oil Change International for flagging this.)

Lindsey Graham, Graphic Photo Flip-Flopper

| Wed May. 4, 2011 2:01 PM PDT
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)

Now beginneth the backlash against the White House for its decision not to release photos of Osama bin Laden's bloated, bullet-busted corpse. According to ABC News:

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, believes President Obama's decision not to release the Osama bin Laden photos is "a mistake" that will "unnecessarily prolong this debate" over the death of the world's most wanted man.

"I respectfully disagree with President Obama's decision not to release the photos. It's a mistake," Graham said today.

Well, at least it's a respectful disagreement. But as long as Graham's demanding government accountability, perhaps he can explain why he was against releasing graphic US military photos before he was for it.

Back in 2009, he fought almost singlehandedly to keep additional photos of harsh inmate abuse in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison out of public view. "Every photo would become a bullet or IED used by terrorists against our troops," he said, while threatening to block funding for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq if the pics were released. He and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) put out a joint release explaining their desire to suppress the pictures:

The photos do not depict anything that is not already known. Transparency, and in this case needless transparency, should not be paid for with the lives of American citizens, let alone the lives of our men and women in uniform fighting on our behalf in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere...Such a release would be tantamount to a death sentence to some who are serving our nation in the most dangerous and difficult spots like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Strangely, that's similar to what President Obama said about the Abu Ghraib photos and the bin Laden shots. Obama's desire to suppress evidence of American service members' handiwork, good and bad, may be disheartening to transparency advocates, but at least he's being consistent. Graham, on the other hand, would do well to explain his photographic flip-flop.