2011 - %3, August

Chart of the Day: Public Sector Jobs

| Mon Aug. 8, 2011 11:00 AM EDT

Whether the US is about to plunge into a double-dip recession or just on an incredibly long road to recovery, one thing’s for sure: the public sector is getting eaten alive.

Since August 2008, state and local governments have cut some 611,000 employees, according to estimates by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The cuts have only gotten worse over time, with 340,000 of the job losses coming in the past twelve months:

The fact that state-level belt-tightening increased as the Great Recession was allegedly coming to a close suggests that, for many states, recovery was never as close as optimists had claimed. It gets worse: The debt ceiling deal President Barack Obama signed on August 2 made sharp cuts to discretionary spending, the main source of aid for states. The public sector's woes are far from over.

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Michele Bachmann and the Politics of Stonewalling

| Mon Aug. 8, 2011 9:20 AM EDT
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).

The first rule of Michele Bachmann's presidential campaign: Don't talk about Michele Bachmann. Matthew Spolar of New Hampshire's Concord Monitor scored a sit-down with the Minnesota congresswoman and GOP presidential contender and reports that it ended abruptly when he asked her about the issue that definied her career as a Minnesota state senator:

Bachmann cut off an interview last week as she was being asked a question about gay marriage and emphasized that she is focused on rebuilding the economy and repealing federal health care reform.

"I'm not involved in light, frivolous matters," she said. "I'm not involved in fringe or side issues. I'm involved in serious issues."

This is a trend. Here's the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza, similarly recounting how his one-on-one with the candidate came to end: He asked one too many questions about Bachmann's ideological mentor, the theologian Francis Schaeffer:

As I started getting deeper into a conversation with her about Schaeffer, she abruptly ended the interview. She said she had to leave for an appearance on "Hannity" but would try to set up another time to talk. I didn’t hear from her again. Her press secretary later told me that Bachmann "wasn't comfortable with the line of questions, and that's why there wasn't a follow-up conversation."

Here's Davenport, Iowa's WQAD, detailing how it and other local stations were blacklisted by the campaign after they asked Bachmann about her Christian counseling clinic's practice of "reparative therapy," which seeks to cure gay people of their homosexuality:

The reporter asked a question about Bachmann's clinic and her husband. At that point, McClurg says the staffer took the microphone off of Bachmann, tossed it to the reporter and said their interview was over.

Here she is last month at the National Press Club, in response to a question about whether she still believes homosexuality can be cured:

My husband is not running for the presidency, neither are my children, neither is our business, neither is our foster children, and I am more than happy to stand for questions on running for the presidency of the United States.

And here she is in June, dodging the same question from Bob Schieffer:

"You know, I firmly believe that people need to make their own decisions about that," she said. "But I am running for the presidency of the United States. I am not running to be anyone's judge. And that's where I'm coming from in this race."

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 8, 2011

Mon Aug. 8, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Ghazni, Afghanistan— Soldiers from the 4th Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division, the Afghan National Police, and the Afghan National Army’s 203rd Corps assemble for a recognition ceremony for Operation Maiwand. The operation was initiated and planned by the Afghan National Army and was carried out with the help of the ANP and Task Force Fury. Together they conducted security and military operations and delivered humanitarian aid in Ghazni Province to gain support from the Afghan people.
(U.S. Navy Photo/ Petty Officer First Class David M. Votroubek)

A Case of the Yemen Blues

| Mon Aug. 8, 2011 6:00 AM EDT
Ravid Kahalani of Yemen Blues belts it out at The Independent in San Francisco.

Back in June, Yemen was embroiled in political unrest, and the long-standing dictator had already begun a series of brutal crackdowns on protesters that would shortly bring the country to the brink of civil war. That was serious business, and you might have thought a band with musical and family ties to that country would be, you know, on edge about it. Not really, Yemen Blues frontman Ravid Kahalani told me then.

"I hear some things, but I really focus on something that's much more basic than [politics]," he said.

To judge by a recent show in San Francisco (wrapping up a summer-long US tour), Kahalani's non-interest in politics belies a singular musical focus that leaves him free to disregard pretty much everything else, including the cultural barriers that separate musical genres. No one in the band claims Yemen as their homeland, yet traditional Yemenite folk music figures heavily; you won't see a guitar on stage, yet the blues wails in every song.

An uninhibited Kahalani ruled the stage with octave-jumping vocals, James Brown dance steps, and mic-stand dry-humping skills that would have made Elvis blush. Meanwhile, the octet behind him rocked the hell out of violas, trombones, and the Egyptian proto-guitar known as an oud, and an impressive spread of hand drums. If that sounds like a cacophony, it was anything but. The ensemble maintained a rich balance, with ample space for soloists—nearly every musician played alone on the stage at some point during the set.

The '90s Nostalgia Rock Tour: Awesome or Lazy?

| Mon Aug. 8, 2011 6:00 AM EDT
Weezer's Rivers Cuomo

Last year, beloved geek-rock band Weezer hit the road with a "Memories Tour," playing The Blue Album (1994) and Pinkerton (1996) in their entirety over two nights. Front man Rivers Cuomo told MTV that the tour was an "emotional, cathartic experience" and that "to see 5,500 people singing along to every last word through every song on the album, even the really difficult ones, was incredibly validating for me."

Similarly, in 2005 the Lemonheads regrouped after a nine-year hiatus and are now touring exclusively to the tunes of their 19-year-old It's A Shame About Ray. Likewise, after a 12-year breakup, the Pixies reunited in 2004, and have spent parts of the past two years on the road celebrating their 1989 release, Doolittle, by playing the 15-song album in its entirety. All of these bands are selling out shows. But are they also, well, selling out?

The answer lies somewhere between rock and a hard place. There's a reason why certain albums are described as timeless. (Not gonna lie—just reading reviews of the Memories Tour made me want to break out The Blue Album, and I haven’t listened to Weezer in years. Say it ain't so, whoa-oh!) It's not unusual for touring bands to focus on the hits that made them legendary, and indeed, if one is going to have a decades-long career, it's practically a necessity to revert to the classics from time to time. But a time-travel tour also feels a bit like the band has given up, or that they've become, as MoJo editor Mike Mechanic puts it, "the antithesis of RAWK."

Should You Ditch Your CFL Lightbulbs for LEDs?

| Mon Aug. 8, 2011 5:30 AM EDT
Philips' new LED bulb casts white light, even though it's yellow.

Last week there were lightbulbs in the air at Mother Jones. Reporter Tim Murphy had no sooner penned his piece on Rep. Michele Bachmann's weird conspiracy theories about compact fluorescent legislation than a big package arrived on my desk. I opened it, and there, unfortunately nestled between two hunks of Styrofoam (have I mentioned how annoyed I get when companies send me "green" swag swaddled in unnecessary packaging?) was Philips' brand new LED warm white bulb. According to its package, the 12.5-watt LED acts exactly like a 60-watt incandescent bulb—with the addition of a few cool tricks: It lasts 15 years and will save me $142.50 in electricity costs over its lifetime. On Slate, Farhad Manjoo recently raved about LED bulbs. I thought: Sign me up!

So I switched the new bulb into my desk lamp. For the past few days, it's been casting a nice whitish glow over my desk. Still, I probably won't be retrofitting my house with LEDs anytime soon, for one big reason: Models like the one Philips sent me retail for a prohibitive $45, compared to $1.50 for a CFL bulb. The price difference doesn't quite correlate with lifespan: CFLs last about one-third as along as LEDs. And while we all know older CFL bulbs were flickering, headache-inducing disasters, most newer models are actually pretty comparable to incandescents in light quality. So is the LED really worth the hefty initial investment?

First off, it's worth pointing out that both CFLs and LEDs are dramatically more energy efficient than old-fashioned incandescent bulbs, by about 75 percent and 90 percent, respectively. The main reason that LED bulbs cost so much more than CFLs is that they rely on more complicated (and therefore more expensive) technology. The light-emitting source in a CFL is a small amount of gas that, when stimulated with electricity, illuminates. LED bulbs, on the other hand, contain semiconductors, which give off light through movement of electrons when a current passes through. "Think of an LED like a small electrical appliance," says Celia Lehrman, deputy home editor at Consumer Reports.

Aside from their long lifespan, LEDs have a few noteworthy advantages over CFLs. While CFLs can take as long as three minutes after being turned on to reach their full brightness, LEDs brighten immediately. LEDs work much better with dimmers than CFLs. Another big LED plus: Unlike CFL bulbs, they don't contain mercury. Although few LED-bulb-specific recycling programs exist (Philips spokeswoman Sylvie Casanova says LED bulbs are "like small appliances" and therefore have to be recycled like any other e-waste) their long lifetime will give manufacturers a head start on creating recycling programs.

Lehrman expects Consumer Reports to release its report on CFL bulbs in September. Till then, if you're in the market for an LED bulb, says Lehrman, make sure you know what you're looking for. While incandescent and CFL bulbs' brightness is generally measured in watts, LEDs are measured in lumens: An 800-lumen bulb is roughly equivalent to a 60-watt incandescent. Another important label to look for is color temperature or light color, measured in Kelvin. My freebie bulb has a color temperature of 2,700, which means it emits a warm white light. With higher temperatures come different colors: 3,000 would look more like the bright, white light emitted from a halogen bulb, and 4,000 and higher would look bluish.

If you're not willing to shell out for an LED bulb yet, Lehrman says the price is likely drop down the line, and a few LED manufacturers are planning to offer rebates. Till that happens, I'll probably stick to CFLs and continue to phase out my electricity gobbling old incandescents. Sorry Michele Bachmann! 

 

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Quote of the Day: Rating S&P's Smarts

| Mon Aug. 8, 2011 2:06 AM EDT

From Economics of Contempt, formerly an in-house lawyer for an investment bank, explaining the difference between S&P and the other rating agencies when it came to making their case for getting a deal rated:

With S&P, it got to the point where we were constantly saying, “that’s a good point, but is S&P smart enough to understand that argument?” I kid you not, that was a hard-constraint in our game-plan.

That's actually one of the kinder things he has to say. The rest of the post is worth reading for the entertainment value alone.

Another Norm Down for the Count

| Mon Aug. 8, 2011 1:56 AM EDT

Jon Chait shakes his head at the S&P downgrade:

The "conclusion was pretty much motivated by all of the debate about the raising of the debt ceiling," John Chambers, chairman of S&P's sovereign ratings committee, said in an interview. "It involved a level of brinksmanship greater than what we had expected earlier in the year."

Meanwhile, the political effects of the downgrade will primarily harm the Obama administration. So now the Obama administration is fiercely contesting S&P. In other words, a ratings agency has sensibly concluded that the Republican Party poses a long-term threat to the stability of the U.S. financial system, and the Obama administration insists otherwise....I understand the logic here, but it's just a little odd for the Democratic-controlled Treasury Department to be pleading that the Republicans aren't really dangerous maniacs at all.

I've been browsing through conservative websites tonight, and the amount of crowing over the "Obama downgrade" is really pretty remarkable. S&P made it crystal clear that brinksmanship over the debt ceiling was the reason for the downgrade, and Republicans not only provoked the brinksmanship and bragged about it for months, but have since gleefully promised to repeat their performance at every opportunity. And yet they're now insisting that this is all Obama's fault. It's a display of chutzpah that's shameless even by their standards.

So what does it all mean? Republicans have been very effective over the past couple of decades at breaking norms of behavior for partisan gain: mid-decade redistricting, the institutional filibuster, flat refusals to allow votes on executive appointments, and so forth. This time, there's both a narrow norm and a broader norm they've broken. The narrow one, of course, is that the debt ceiling is an opportunity for a bit of routine invective on the House and Senate floors but nothing more. After the speeches are over the debt ceiling gets raised.

The broader norm they've broken is that you don't abuse the obligation of responsibility that presidents inherently possess. This norm gets broken all the time in small ways: backbench congressman can demand that we bomb Iran, for example, and it's brushed off as nothing serious. Likewise, presidential candidates can demand all manner of "getting tough" on China even though they know perfectly well that no sitting president could ever afford to follow through on the threats. But that stuff is mostly theater. This is different. The debt ceiling is a real, concrete thing with serious global implications, and Republicans knew all along that the guy in the Oval Office simply couldn't afford to let it expire because he's ultimately responsible for keeping things running. What's more, because a president's words are so much more important than anyone else's, they also knew that he couldn't even afford to fight back too hard. Markets would go crazy if he projected anything but a sense of calm confidence.

In the past, this has mostly been tacitly acknowledged, with opposition leaders reining in the bombthrowers when something serious enough was at stake. Not anymore. The president's obligation of responsibility still limits his actions on the global stage, but now, instead of this representing an outer boundary that restrains partisan attacks, it's just another political weakness to take advantage of. Needless to say, this is not a good sign in an allegedly mature democracy.

VIDEO: Tea Partiers Cheer the Downgrade of America's Credit Rating

| Sun Aug. 7, 2011 10:24 PM EDT

Is the tea party happy that Standard and Poor's, the credit rating agency, downgraded the United States' credit rating for the first time ever?

You'd think that was the case if you were in the crowd at a tea party rally in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, on Sunday morning. The Tea Party Express rolled into that northeastern city as part of its tour to bolster the six GOP state senators facing recall elections on Tuesday. But the most shocking moment of the event wasn't the vitriol spouted by tea party leaders, which has dominated news of the tour stops in recent days. Instead it was the cheers that erupted when one of the Tea Party Express' speakers described the recent downgrade as the tea party's fault.

Here's what happened: Midway through the Fond du Lac event, Florida talk show host Andrea Shea King took the stage. She told the audience that commentators were describing the downgrade of US debt to AA+ from AAA as the "tea party downgrade," laying the blame squarely on Congress' right-wing faction and its supporters. But rather than boo those who claim the tea party caused the downgrade, the 200 or so Wisconsinites in attendance cheered, sounding almost proud to be blamed for the downgrade.

Here's the video:

And here's the transcript:

SHEA KING: This week—I wrote it down—they are blaming the credit downgrade on the tea party movement.

CROWD: Yeah! [Cheers, clapping]

SHEA KING: They are calling it "the tea party downgrade." They are objectivizing [sic] us.

There you have it. At least here in Wisconsin, tea partiers are pleased that the full faith and credit of America took a knock, and are more than happy to take full credit for it.

Drew Westen Takes on No Drama Obama

| Sun Aug. 7, 2011 1:20 PM EDT

Over at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, Elias Isquith is unhappy with my recent defense of President Obama as a pretty effective legislator:

What struck about both of their defenses [i.e., mine and Andrew Sullivan's] is the utter lack of recognition of the President’s role as a rhetorical, political figure. Look at how Drum’s argument side-steps this issue entirely, as if Obama’s job was to be Legislator in Chief.

Well, you can only cover just so much ground in a single blog post, and that one happened to be focused on his legislative record. Anyone interested in my take on Obama's rhetoric should read "The Great Persuader"—not because it's especially brilliant, but because I wrote it in 2008. I've been keenly aware for a long time of Obama's limitations as a national storyteller.

Which brings us to Drew Westen. Isquith is a big fan of Westen's work and points us to an essay he wrote in the New York Times today about Obama's rhetorical failings. It's classic Westen. As it happens, I'm also a fan of Westen's basic message—politicians need to tell stories with emotional appeal, not just rattle off policy positions—but when Westen actually puts his advice into action, the results are a train wreck. Here's the speech he thinks Obama should have given at his inaugural:

I know you're scared and angry. Many of you have lost your jobs, your homes, your hope. This was a disaster, but it was not a natural disaster. It was made by Wall Street gamblers who speculated with your lives and futures. It was made by conservative extremists who told us that if we just eliminated regulations and rewarded greed and recklessness, it would all work out. But it didn't work out. And it didn't work out 80 years ago, when the same people sold our grandparents the same bill of goods, with the same results.

But we learned something from our grandparents about how to fix it, and we will draw on their wisdom. We will restore business confidence the old-fashioned way: by putting money back in the pockets of working Americans by putting them back to work, and by restoring integrity to our financial markets and demanding it of those who want to run them. I can't promise that we won’t make mistakes along the way. But I can promise you that they will be honest mistakes, and that your government has your back again.

This is what would have changed the political dynamic of Obama's first two years in office? Color me unconvinced. In any case, if you don't feel like reading the whole thing, Westen finally gets to his core complaint at the very end of his piece:

When he wants to be, the president is a brilliant and moving speaker, but his stories virtually always lack one element: the villain who caused the problem, who is always left out, described in impersonal terms, or described in passive voice, as if the cause of others’ misery has no agency and hence no culpability.

This is a familiar lament, but to Westen's credit, it really is the core left-vs.-left argument about Obama: Would he have done better and accomplished more if he had laced into his enemies from the start? If he'd made it crystal clear, over and over and over, who the villains were: Republicans, bankers, corporate fat cats, and the rich? Would this have inspired the public into supporting the full-throated left-wing agenda that Westen obviously yearns for?

Maybe my vision is as limited as Obama's, but I just don't see it. As my 2008 piece makes clear, I think Obama's rhetorical style really is too diffuse and too vague to move public opinion significantly. And I also think he had plenty of leeway to take on Wall Street and the banking community much more forcibly than he did—though that's a policy disagreement at heart, not a rhetorical one.1 More broadly, though, there's precious little evidence that turning into a fiery partisan warrior would have impressed the public much at all. What it would have done is unite the Republican Party even more unanimously against him. Most likely that means no stimulus, no financial reform, no DADT repeal, no nothing. He might still have gotten healthcare reform thanks to the filibuster-proof majority Democrats had in the Senate for a few weeks at the end of 2009, but that's it. Your mileage may vary, but I think that's a much worse outcome for Obama's first two years in office.

Beyond this, I think Westen misses the big point. The problem isn't that Obama didn't have a story. He did, and he told it pretty well. His story was one about the dysfunctional partisanship destroying Washington and how to move beyond it. You might not like that story, but it was there. And while it obviously didn't succeed in moving the needle on partisanship, it did allow Obama to produce a pretty decent set of legislative achievements. As much as two years of anti-conservative stem-winders would have thrilled me, I doubt they would have produced anywhere near as much.

1What I mean by this is that once Obama and Tim Geithner chose the banking policy they did—basically soft recapitalization instead of temporary receivership and reliance on Basel III instead of tough financial reform—it was almost impossible to then turn around and start delivering towering diatribes against Wall Street. The policy determined the rhetoric, not the other way around.

UPDATE: Both Joe Klein and Paul Krugman agree with Westen and, implicitly, disagree with me. They make some good points, as did Westen, and if this were an even-numbered day I might be on their side. Still, I'm just not sure I see it. Obama's cool demeanor got him elected and it's kept him personally popular in the face of massive Republican intransigence over the past two years. Like it or not, the public seems to prefer that to the pugilistic style that seems like such a no-brainer to us lefties.

Besides, Obama's biggest problem is a lousy economy, and that's much more the result of poor policies than poor messaging. He should have fought for a bigger stimulus; he should have fought harder for cramdown legislation; and he should have made more and better appointments to the Federal Reserve. Better storytelling would have made a difference, but not nearly as much as better policy.