Stewart and Yoo

"There is an unexpected silence in the liberal blogosphere," says Adam Serwer, "after last night's highly anticipated Daily Show episode, in which Jon Stewart hosted John Yoo, the author of many of the Bush adminstration's torture memos and one of the people most responsible for giving legal sanction to the practice of torture. That's probably because Stewart found himself completely outmatched by a charming, tactful Yoo."

I think Stewart's problem was twofold. (Video here.) First, he was woefully unprepared. Yoo's argument was, plainly, about what counts as torture. Stewart didn't get that — or pretended not to get that, I'm not sure which — and that led him to continually act surprised by perfectly ordinary statements from Yoo. "You're saying we'd never before considered whether torture was OK?" Stewart would ask, and Yoo would respond, "No, we were trying to figure out for the first time which interrogation techniques were torture and which ones weren't." That's really not hard to understand, but Stewart continually misunderstood it and wasted the entire first segment of the interview.

But I'm not sure it mattered much anyway. The real problem with interviewing Yoo is this: once you start arguing about the legal basis of the president's wartime powers you've pretty much lost the game. That's a subject that's genuinely complex, and a guy like Stewart will never win an argument about that with a guy like Yoo. He'll just toss out yet another precedent and plow on.

The debate really needed to be about the fundamentals: Stewart needed to graphically describe all the things that were done — multiple waterboardings, sleep deprivation, head slamming, stress positions, etc. — and get Yoo to defend those as permissible. And when he retreated into legalisms, he should have asked Yoo whether he, personally, agreed with his own legal position. That's a fair question for an author on a book tour.

That likely wouldn't have worked either, but at least it would have pushed Yoo a little bit harder than Stewart's tactic of relying on spluttering and facial tics. He needed his A game, not just a weak brushback pitch.

As the country prepares to force necessary legislative reform on the long-reviled health insurance industry, two economists have proposed the creation of a whole new insurance market—one that "protects" college drop-outs from enormous student loan debt. The authors explained their  concept in a working paper last week at an American Economic Association meeting.

Satayajit Cjatterjee of Philadelphia's Federal Reserve Bank and Felicia Ionescu of Colgate University suggest that insuring college students against the full cost of their (potentially incomplete) education may increase enrollment. Students with failure insurance might only have to pay half of their student loan debt upon dropping out, so if students are less worried about the financial ramifications of doing poorly in college, they might be more apt to stay enrolled, work harder in their classes, and ultimately obtain a degree, Cjatterjee and Ionescu argue. According to the authors' calculations, failure insurance could increase college enrollment by 3.5 percent and college graduation by 3.8 percent. But it would also mean that students who pay for insurance and don't drop out have unnecessarily spent hundreds on monthly insurance payments. Failure insurance's idiosyncracies aside, Cjatterjee and Ionescu still think its an important concept considering that 47 percent of ex-students who took out loans don't have college degrees, according to the Fed's Survey of Consumer Finances. Without a degree, college dropouts also make less money and retain more educational debt than graduates. So even if they wanted to complete their degree later on, finances might make it difficult.

“The financial risk of taking out a student loan but being unable to complete college may discourage some people from taking out a loan and enrolling in college,” the economists write. “Thus, even though prospective students may not be credit constrained, a mechanism to share the risk of failing to complete college—college failure risk—might improve the welfare of enrolled students and encourage more people to enroll and complete college.”

When did a student's decision to drop out of college become financial in nature? I was recently a college student myself, and I can't think of a single person who worried: "What if my Cs turn into Ds and I have to drop out? I should probably quit now before my student loan debt grows any further." And if there is too much financial risk tied to giving higher education the ol' college try, then why not make it less financially risky, i.e. more affordable? If college was a generally cheaper endeavor, more students might matriculate without taking out five or six figures in student loans. Cjatterjee and Ionescu have certainly proposed an interesting concept, but failure insurance is merely a bad solution to a symptom of a larger problem: the soaring costs of higher education for all students. 

James McCusker of the Everett, Washington Daily Herald has a pitch-perfect response to the criticism that failure insurance tackles the wrong problem:

We need to do something about higher education, but the dropout rate is a symptom, not the source of the problem. The costs of higher education continue to rise uncontrollably and borrowing to meet that cost makes little sense for most people. Notably, dropouts are not included in the calculations when college marketers tout the economic benefits of higher education.
We need to address the distorted costs of higher education, not underwrite the existing cost structure by offering risk-sharing insurance. We also need to address the decaying standards of our secondary schools, not encourage unprepared students to enroll in college—only to saddle them with indenture-like loans when they drop out.

To see the rest of James' analysis, check out the Daily Herald here, and to see an interview with Chatterjee and Ionescu, check out the Chronicle of Higher Education here.

In strident speech in Washington this morning, US Chamber of Commerce president Tom Donohue renewed his assault on the Obama agenda and pledged to fight the President's allies in the 2010 elections. The Chamber will wage "the largest, most aggressive" campaign in it's 100-year history, he said, to "highlight lawmakers and candidates who support a pro-jobs agenda, and hold accountable those who don't."

Lashing out out at Democrats' leading initiatives, Donohue called health care legislation pending in Congress "a prescription for fiscal insolvency and eventual government takeover of American health care." And he said the Waxman-Markey climate bill "would tie economic activity in knots and eliminate jobs from one end of the country to another."

As I reported in Mother Jones' January/February issue, the Chamber of Commerce's image as the voice of  American businesss is increasingly at odds with it's right-wing political agenda and undemocratic leadership structure. Greenwire recently reported that a third of the Chamber's massive budget--it spends upwards of $300,000 per day on lobbying--comes from a mere 19 supporters (it has long refused to name its backers or members).  "People have criticized us for helping industries or individual companies," Donohue told the Wall Street Journal last year. "What the hell do you think we do? That's our business!"

Midterm Money

I don't want to underplay the political problems Democrats are facing in the upcoming midterm elections, but it's worth remembering that Republicans have a few problems of their own. National Journal reports that money is a big one:

The national GOP party committees continue to trail their Democratic counterparts, in receipts and/or in cash on hand. The grassroots "tea party" movement, which has channeled public anger over the economy and Democratic health care plans, has failed to translate into campaign dollars, and intraparty primary fights may drain GOP coffers for the general election.

Party donations from both incumbent GOP lawmakers and individual donors are sharply down. Profligate spending at the Republican National Committee has prompted grumbling in the GOP rank and file, and fueled simmering complaints over the RNC's sometimes-controversial chairman, Michael Steele.

...."It doesn't seem that the anger you're seeing nationally and in the polling is resulting in more dollars," said Carl Forti, a campaign and media strategist with the Black Rock Group, who previously held senior posts at the National Republican Congressional Committee and with Mitt Romney's presidential bid.

Forti added: "Some of the people in that tea party movement are frustrated with the party. They want to see a more conservative party and more conservative candidates supported."

The tea party movement has generated a lot of heat, but it's also generated a lot of intraparty rancor and quarreling. Steve Benen runs down the problems here. And conservative Ramesh Ponnuru points out in Time that the economy could revive, the Republican Party is still unpopular, Republicans are disorganized, they have no agenda, and the tea parties aren't enough anyway.

I continue to think that Democrats have the chance to make their own bed this year. Some losses are almost inevitable, but big losses aren't. If healthcare gets passed, the economy starts to pick up a bit, and Obama does something to help energize the liberal base, Dems could still do pretty well in November. As my sister frequently says to me in frustration, "Why should I vote for either of these parties?" Obama needs to give her an answer.

Gawker's Alex Pareene on Harold Ford's plan to (maybe) run against Kirsten Gillibrand for US Senate in New York:

The problem most people had with Kirsten Gillibrand was that she was a moderate from upstate whose career wasn't particularly distinguished and who held some beliefs (mostly gun control) that wouldn't fly with New York City Democrats.

So, of course, these brilliant minds decided that she would best be challenged by a conservative from Tennessee whose career is a joke and who holds no beliefs. Honestly, Democrats? Field conservative and moderate Democrats in conservative and moderate districts and states. In New York, field a fucking liberal New Yorker. There is not a Republican Senator from Mississippi who happens to be an anti-war atheist. There should not be a pro-gun anti-choice Senator from New York. [Emphasis added.]

The rest is here. The man who works for Nick Denton is right. There's a pretty good liberal argument to be made for Harold Ford as a senator from Tennessee. But you'd have to think that Sen. Ford (D-N.Y.) would make Nate Silver's next list of "least valuable Democrats." This doesn't make much sense.

Flickr/cesarastudillo (Creative Commons).Flickr/cesarastudillo (Creative Commons).RedState's Erick Erickson has been doing a lot of lying about Erroll Southers, the Obama administration's nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration. Erickson is trying to suggest that Southers said anti-abortion activists and Christians in general are a major terrorist threat to the US—bigger than Al Qaeda. As you can probably guess, none of that is true. The trigger for all this lying is this statement by Southers, who was responding to the question "Which home-grown terrorist groups pose the greatest danger to the US?":

Most of the domestic groups that we have to pay attention to here are white supremacist groups. They're anti-government and in most cases anti-abortion. They are usually survivalist type in nature, identity orientated. If you recall, Buford Furrow came to Los Angeles in, I believe it was 1999. When he went to three different Jewish institutions, museums, and then wound up shooting people at a children's community center, then shooting a fellow penal postal worker later on. Matthew Hale who's the Pontifex Maximus of the World Church of the Creator out of Illinois and Ben Smith who went on a shooting spree in three different cities where he killed a number of African Americans and Jews and Asians that day. Those groups are groups that claim to be extremely anti-government and Christian Identity oriented.

Erickson—and Andrew Breitbart's breitbart.tv, which also picked up the "story"—either don't know or are pretending not to know what "Christian Identity-oriented" means. Mother Jones' own James Ridgeway knows. So does my friend Matt Gertz at Media Matters, who enlightens the unenlightened:

According to the Anti-Defamation League, "Christian Identity is a religious ideology popular in extreme right-wing circles. Adherents believe that whites of European descent can be traced back to the 'Lost Tribes of Israel.' Many consider Jews to be the Satanic offspring of Eve and the Serpent, while non-whites are "mud peoples" created before Adam and Eve. Its virulent racist and anti-Semitic beliefs are usually accompanied by extreme anti-government sentiments."

I really hope that the mainstream media isn't dumb enough to make this mistake.

In her effort to block the Environmental Protection Agency from taking action on climate change, Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski is getting help from some familiar faces: some of George W. Bush's top environmental officials who now lobby on behalf of dirty energy interests.

The Washington Post reports that Bush-era EPA assistant administrator for air and radiation Jeffrey R. Holmstead and general counsel Roger R. Martella, Jr. have worked with Murkowski to draft legislation cutting off the EPA's ability to regulate emissions.

Holmstead now heads the environmental strategies group at Bracewell & Guiliani, which lobbies on behalf of energy giants like Southern Company, Progress Energy, Duke Energy, and the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council. Martella is a partner at Sidley Austin LLP, where he lobbies on climate on behalf of clients like the National Alliance of Forest Owners and the Alliance of Food Associations.

Former Bush EPA officials know plenty about how to successfully avoid action on emissions—they ignored the issue for eight years. But letting lobbyists so explicitly help write legislation also raises some big ethical questions. Kert Davies, director of Greenpeace's PolluterWatch, told the Post that his group will ask the Senate Ethics Committee to look into it.

Murkowski's spokesman argued that there is nothing "improper" about working with "outside experts," and that it is "responsible legislating" to do so. Murkowski was expected to introduce a new bill dealing with EPA regulation of greenhouse gas emissions next week, but now it seems her measure might be considered at a later date.

Conan the Underdog

It looks like Conan O'Brien may get shafted by NBC's failed "Jay Leno at 10 p.m." experiment. It's sad for Conan, and embarassing for NBC. But it's good for viewers: Cone-Dog has always thrived under pressure. Behold—a truly great Conan monologue:

 

The American Farm Bureau, the major agricultural lobby group, is calling on farmers to be even more aggressive in their opposition to climate legislation. And in a vehement speech to an AFB conference last weekend, the organization's president, Bob Stallman, set the tone by comparing proposed regulation of the agriculture sector to a policy to attone for slavery following the Civil War. "A line must be drawn between our polite and respectful engagement with consumers and how we must aggressively respond to extremists who want to drag agriculture back to the day of 40 acres and a mule," said Stallman. "The time has come to face our opponents with a new attitude. The days of their elitist power grabs are over."

Stallman's comments signaled that the farm lobby intends to intensify its already strenuous attacks on any government attempt to curb carbon emissions. Stallman vowed in his speech that his group would fight "aggressively" against "misguided, activist-driven regulation." The conference also included a session disputing the existence of climate change—titled "Global Warming: A Red Hot Lie?" and featuring climate skeptic Christopher Horner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

And the lobby's allies in Congress are taking notice. The Washington Independent reports that Agriculture Committee Chair Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), who voted for the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill in the House, recently told a conservative talk radio show that if a climate bill passes the Senate he wouldn't support its final passage. "First of all, this isn’t going anyplace in the Senate," Peterson said. "But if it did and we ended up with a bill that was similar to what came out of the House and that was going to become law, I would vote no."

TV Can Kill You

Bad news, Mad Men fans:

Researchers found that each hour a day spent watching TV was linked with an 18% greater risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, an 11% greater risk of all causes of death, and a 9% increased risk of death from cancer.

....People who watched more than four hours a day showed an 80% greater risk of death from cardiovascular disease and a 46% higher risk of all causes of death compared with those who watched fewer than two hours a day, suggesting that being sedentary could have general deleterious effects. The numbers were the same after the researchers controlled for smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, an unhealthy diet and leisure-time exercise.

OK, I guess this is really no surprise or anything. Still: get off the couch and do something useful instead! Like blogging.