Blogs

Obama's Agenda

| Wed Oct. 29, 2008 12:06 PM EDT

OBAMA'S AGENDA....Matt Ygelsias thinks Barack Obama is more activist than some people give him credit for:

Every time I read Ezra Klein pooh-pooing Barack Obama's domestic agenda, I feel a bit baffled. He's running on a platform that promises universal preschool, dramatic cuts in carbon emissions and investments in clean energy infrastructure, health insurance that would be affordable for all, comprehensive immigration reform, substantial labor law reform, large new spending on K-12 initiatives, and tax reform to make the federal code much more progressive overall.

I think that's a fair point. I'd say that his positions on tax reform (where the public face is primarily an endlessly repeated promise to cut taxes for almost everyone) and immigration reform (which hasn't gotten much public play at all) have been decidedly understated, but Obama has pretty clearly put himself on the side of big, important reforms in the areas of energy, healthcare and union organizing. (I'm a little less sure about education, where I feel like I sometimes get mixed signals about how big a priority this is with him. But that might just be the luck of the draw in which ads and speeches I happen to have seen.) He's also committed to withdrawal from Iraq, and so far at least, he hasn't backed away from that.

No question then: if Obama manages to get out of Iraq and pass significant legislation in the areas of healthcare and energy, and nothing more, that would make his first term wildly successful. If he also adds some serious labor law reform and financial market regulation to the mix, progressives ought to be pretty delirious by 2012.

The only question is, will he do it? The foundations all seem to be there (majorities in Congress, a viable electoral coalition, and a public seemingly open to change), but Obama's past history, both in the Illinois Senate and the U.S. Senate, is clearly one of caution and tactical compromise. In my case, then, my doubts lie not in whether he has the right policy instincts, but in whether he's got the temperament to seize the moment, stick to his guns, force recalcitrant committee heads to follow his lead, and get a big agenda passed. I sure hope so, but I think that's the big question mark, not whether he's campaigning on the right set of priorities.

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The Cost of the Crisis

| Wed Oct. 29, 2008 2:51 AM EDT

THE COST OF THE CRISIS....The latest international bailout news:

Hungary has been granted a multi-billion dollar rescue package by the IMF, the EU and the World Bank. The deal, worth $25bn (£15.6bn;19.6 euro), is intended to help Hungary cope with the ongoing effects of the world financial crisis.

Given the numbers that we've all gotten used to lately, I know this doesn't like all that much. But it's over 10% of Hungary's GDP. Meanwhile, BBC Business Editor Robert Peston estimates that taxpayers around the globe have spent (so far!) about $8 trillion to shore up the world's banks. That's more than 10% of total global GDP.

Given that, it seems likely that when it's all said and done, the U.S. is also going to spend 10% of GDP or more to bail out the financial industry here. That would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.5-2 trillion — double or triple what we've allocated so far. That fits the data I presented a couple of weeks ago, and it's also about what Paul Krugman thinks is possible. Buckle up.

Chart of the Day - 10.28.2008

| Tue Oct. 28, 2008 10:50 PM EDT

CHART OF THE DAY....Newspaper accounts of housing prices usually provide year-to-year comparisons, which are useful for some purposes but not for others. In particular, if house prices start to stabilize, you won't see it in the year-to-year charts because prices will still be way below their level from a year ago even if they aren't dropping any further. "21% below their peak" doesn't really tell you much about what's happening now.

For that, you want to see how prices compare to the previous month. Back in August I posted a Case-Shiller chart showing monthly comparisons (through June) that suggested prices might be stabilizing, but with a caveat that this stuff is seasonal and the good news might not hold up. Sure enough, it hasn't. Here is this month's chart (with prices through August), and it shows that month-to-month prices are not only still declining, but declining faster than they were earlier in the summer.

The rate of decline is still nowhere near its nadir in February, but this is yet more evidence that we still have a ways to go before housing prices bottom out. And people know it: this month the consumer confidence index fell to 38.0, lower than during the 1974 recession, lower than during the 1980 recession, lower than ever recorded before. And credit card companies are "sharply curtailing" credit lines. And to top it all off, we're running up an "ecological debt" of $4 trillion per year.

But the stock market is up! Why? Apparently because investors are looking forward to the Fed cutting interest rates tomorrow. Sure, the Fed is only contemplating this because the signs of recession are so bleak, and it's unlikely that interest rate cuts will have much of an effect anyway, but who ever said Wall Street investors were smart?

Video: The Miami-Dade Wild Card

| Tue Oct. 28, 2008 7:35 PM EDT

In Miami, non-Cuban Latino voters are more concerned with health care than with the Castros, and this year they are beginning to surpass the Cubans in vote registration. Unlike the Cubans, they tend to vote Democratic—when they vote.

John McCain is paying attention: Colombians are the second largest Latino group in Miami-Dade County. During the final presidential debate, he advertised his support for the Colombian Free Trade Agreement, which most Colombians support and Obama opposes. Still, most of these new immigrants seem more concerned with domestic issues than with their homelands. Could new Nicaraguan, Colombian, and Cuban citizens swing Florida this November? Watch the video above. Then click here for the full story of Miami's Hispanic swing vote.

Video by Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Don Duncan.

Global Warming Killing Yellowstone's Amphibians

| Tue Oct. 28, 2008 7:33 PM EDT

800px-Pseudacris_maculata.jpg The world's oldest national park cannot protect its populations of frogs and salamanders. Global warming is infiltrating park boundaries and destroying this amphibian refuge. A Stanford University study finds that remote ponds surveyed 15 years ago are now suffering catastrophic population declines in species supposedly not threatened. "The ecological effects of global warming are even more profound and are happening more rapidly than previously anticipated," the researchers write in PNAS.

The problem is disappearing ponds. The survey area lies in the lower Lamar Valley of northern Yellowstone. Dozens of small fishless ponds provide habitat once ideal for the breeding and larval development of blotched tiger salamanders, boreal chorus frogs, and Colombia spotted frogs. But high temperatures and drought are drying up the ponds.

The researchers studied climate and water records going back a century, ranging from handwritten logs of water flow in the Lamar River to satellite imagery. They could find no cause for the drying ponds other than a persistent change in temperature and precipitation. "It's the cumulative effects of climate," says biologist Elizabeth Hadly. . . Apparently national parks were a great idea of the 19th and 20th centuries. Now we need to graduate to the notion of a global park, refuge for us all.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

John McCain, Holy Man

| Tue Oct. 28, 2008 7:15 PM EDT

JOHN McCAIN, HOLY MAN....David Gelernter says that John McCain's big problem is that he's just too damn modest about his own saintliness:

Of course no candidate can advertise his own moral stature; he can use weak words like "maverick" and "I have been tested," but can't quite say "I stand before you as a hero of proven nobility."

No, I guess he can't, can he? Luckily, Gelernter does it for him: "In Hebrew he would be called a tsaddik — a man of such nobility and moral substance that he approaches holiness." Here's an example of McCain's alleged holiness:

McCain is only a part-time conservative and has never inspired enthusiasm on the right; but no one doubts that each of his leftward excursions has been a matter of principle and not convenience. His outspoken, unwavering support for Israel in the face of American Jewish indifference is a perfect example of principled versus self-interested politics.

I admit that I hadn't realized before that unwavering support for Israel was such a gutsy stand for an American politician to take. Live and learn.

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MOJO VIDEO: Palin for President?

| Tue Oct. 28, 2008 6:30 PM EDT

At a Sarah Palin rally in Fredericksburg, Virginia, earlier this week, Mother Jones found rank-and-file Republicans excited about John McCain, but even more excited about his potential VP.

— Taylor Wiles, Jonathan Stein, David Corn

New Music Out Today: The Cure, Deerhunter, Snow Patrol, Kaiser Chiefs

| Tue Oct. 28, 2008 6:25 PM EDT

mojo-photo-newalbums1028.jpg

While actual album release dates are even less relevant now that nobody has any money to spend on CDs, it's a good excuse to check out some new music. "New" is a relative term, though, when you're dealing with 30-plus-year-old combo The Cure, whose 13th studio album, 4.13 Dream, sounds kind of old. Nothing against old Cure, of course, and there are a few moments on the album that echo the dreamy landscape of Disintegration, for instance, like 6-minute album opener "Underneath the Stars," and jaunty single "The Only One." But as the UK Sunday Times put it, there are too many moments here that are "wearyingly over the top, and scary, too." Just in time for Halloween!

Atlanta's Deerhunter are only a few years into their noise-rock career, but their new album Microcastle has the assured edginess of Sonic Youth. Single "Nothing Ever Happened" plays with fire: a vocal harmony in the chorus whose notes are only one step apart. It could be grating, but instead it's hypnotic. Pitchfork gives it one of its best reviews of the year, with a 9.2 out of 10 score on the Forkometer and comparisons to Radiohead and My Bloody Valentine. They even say the album may be "a reason not to slit our throats before President Palin decides to nuke the world in 2017." Erp.

Obama the Cautious

| Tue Oct. 28, 2008 5:49 PM EDT

OBAMA THE CAUTIOUS....More Ezra, this time on the likely impact of a Barack Obama presidency:

If the fact of Obama's candidacy has been remarkable, however, it's hard to escape the signs that his presidency will be rather less transformative. Obama's domestic policy proposals were the weakest of the three major Democrats. His legislative instincts, as he's frequently admitted and as his career suggests, are fairly cautious. His staff is primarily comprised of competent representatives of the center-left. His campaign picked no major fights with Democratic Party orthodoxy.

This is what makes the eleventh-hour conservative meltdown over Obama (he's a socialist, a street thug, a terrorist lover, a radical leftist, etc. etc.) so strange. It's true that Obama is something of a Rorschach test, with all of us seemingly projecting on him what we'd like to see (or, in some cases, fear to see), but the reality of the man sure doesn't seem to support anything very apocalyptic. Yes, he's young, black, and charismatic, but let's get real: the real reason most people are thrilled with him is that he's not George Bush. After eight years of Republican misrule, the Democrats could have nominated Austin Powers and the world would have breathed a sigh of relief.

As for Obama himself, Ezra is responding to a Jack Shafer column that complains about reporters being completely smitten by "the notion that Obama's candidacy is momentous, without parallel, and earth-shattering." But the links he provides — presumably the best he could Google up — are pretty thin fare, mostly just a few pundits claiming that Obama might help restore respect for America abroad. In fact, what's struck me most about pro-Obama campaign punditry both in the blogosphere and the MSM is how little of it has been motivated by an active defense of Obama. Andrew Sullivan aside, the vast bulk has been anti-McCain and anti-Bush. The blogosphere, the country, and the world are just tired of Republicans. Obama has run a good campaign, but if Hillary Clinton had won the nomination (or Al Gore or John Kerry or Socks the cat) they'd all be ahead by seven points too.

How Much Does U.S. Spend on Spying? Almost $60 Billion

| Tue Oct. 28, 2008 5:27 PM EDT

How much do the spies of the US government spend on their spying? Over $47 billion a year, according to budget numbers released on Tuesday by the Director of National Intelligence. And if you count the military intelligence program, the total amount is closer to $60 billion. This is only the fourth time in U.S. history that the government has publicly disclosed the intelligence budget. Secrecy News explains:

The aggregate intelligence budget figure (including national, joint military and tactical intelligence spending) was first released in 1997 ($26.6 billion) in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the Federation of American Scientists. It was voluntarily released in 1998 ($26.7 billion). The National Intelligence Program budget was next disclosed in 2007 ($43.5 billion), in response to a Congressional mandate, based on a recommendation of the 9/11 Commission. And then there was today's release for 2008.
In recent years, the most passionate opponent of intelligence budget disclosure has been none other than Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), whose own financial non-disclosure practices have recently earned him multiple felony convictions.
In an October 4, 2004 Senate floor debate, Senator Stevens usefully marshaled all of the traditional arguments against disclosure. Most of them were false at the time. Others have since been disproven.
"No other nation, friend, or ally, reveals the amount that it spends on intelligence," Sen. Stevens said then.
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In fact, the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands and other countries have published their intelligence budgets for many years without adverse effect.