Throughout his long political career, 92-year-old Robert Byrd has been one of the coal industry's staunchest defenders. But in a significant shift, he's now arguing that the industry needs to face facts and "embrace the future."

"[T]he time has come to have an open and honest dialogue about coal’s future in West Virginia," Byrd wrote in an op-ed on Thursday. Byrd acknowledged that coal-industry jobs had been declining in the state, that mountaintop removal mining comes with environmental and health problems, and that some regulation of carbon dioxide emissions is inevitable.

Byrd took aim at the industry's denial of climate change. "To be part of any solution, one must first acknowledge a problem. To deny the mounting science of climate change is to stick our heads in the sand and say 'deal me out,'" he wrote. "West Virginia would be much smarter to stay at the table." Coal-producing states "hold some powerful political cards," he continued, and can play a part in shaping policy—but only if they are "honest brokers," he wrote. 

Byrd also hit back at the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce's attempt to get him to block health care legislation until the Obama administration eases regulations on the coal industry. "I believe that the notion of holding the health care of over 300 million Americans hostage in exchange for a handful of coal permits is beyond foolish; it is morally indefensible," he wrote. "It is a non-starter, and puts the entire state of West Virginia and the coal industry in a terrible light."

This is a major change of heart for Byrd, who just last year was the only Democrat to vote against even proceeding to debate a climate bill. In the past, he's opposed most climate legislation, usually out of concern for coal interests. While he still sees a major role for coal, he's recognizes that it's  not going to be as abundant or as cheap as it has been in the past. "West Virginians can choose to anticipate change and adapt to it, or resist and be overrun by it," he concluded. "The time has arrived for the people of the Mountain State to think long and hard about which course they want to choose."

Recent college graduates with dreams of post-degree grandeur are being pummelled by the recession and forced to live with the reality of how much their degrees cost and how difficult it is to use them right now.

A report released this week by The Project on Student Debt shows that 2008 college graduates owe and average of $23,200 on their educations, a figure 25 percent higher than what their older brothers and sisters owed when they graduated from college in 2004. On top of double-digit debt, the report also cites unpublished numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that show how seriously college graduates are being affected by unemployment. In the third quarter of 2008, the unemployment rate for graduates ages 20 to 24 was 7.6 percent. One year later, the rate has jumped to an all-time high of 10.6 percent.

The report also breaks down average student debt by state on a user-friendly map which shows a concentration of high averages in the Northeast and a concentration of low averages in the West. The District of Columbia ($29,793), Iowa ($28,174) and Connecticut ($26,138) have the highest averages while Utah ($13,041), Hawaii ($15,156) and Kentucky ($15,951) have the lowest. Though the report deals in averages, there are many students who owe much more than their state's average, and the number of students who owe twice the national average has been creeping up over the past few years.

From Felix Salmon:

When you have a progressive tax system, especially when there are surcharges on people making seven-figure incomes, you also have a system where for any given level of national income, the greater the inequality, the greater the government's tax revenues. And indeed federal revenues have been rising faster than median wages for decades now, thanks to the rich getting ever richer.

Given the government's insatiable appetite for cash, it's only natural that it would prefer to tax plutocrats, spending some of that money on poorer Americans, rather than move to a world where poorer Americans earn more (but still don't pay that much in taxes), and the plutocrats earn less, depriving the national fisc of untold billions in revenue.

The government's interests, then, are naturally aligned with those of the plutocrats — and when that happens, the chances of change naturally drop to zero.

This is true.  But it's not very true.  To see why, take a look at how progressive the federal tax system is.  The chart on the right is from a 2004 paper by Piketty and Saez, and it shows the total federal tax rate (income tax, payroll tax, etc.) for various income groups.1  As you can see, it's progressive, but it's not that progressive.  And that makes a difference.

Here's why: although the top 1% (the four richest groups in the chart) has a lot of income, the 60-80th percentile has about the same amount.  That's because although their incomes are a lot lower, there are a lot more of them.  So what happens if that group loses, say, 10% of its income and it goes instead to the very tippy-top earners?  Answer: total revenue to the government goes up about 1%.  The same is roughly true for the other income groups as well.

In other words, the federal government doesn't have much of an incentive to maintain lots of income inequality.  Not much fiscal incentive anyway.  For the most part, the political incentives swamp the fiscal ones, and unfortunately they aren't very closely balanced.  Pursue policies that raise middle class wages, and the effect is so diffuse and so slow that hardly anyone notices.  Pursue policies that benefit the rich and you get immediately showered with oceans of campaign contributions.  That's mostly what motivates our political economy, I think, not tiny changes in the total tax take based on changes in income inequality.2

1The chart starts at the 60th percentile because, basically, there's hardly any income to tax below that.  This is mostly an argument about the middle class vs. the rich.

2Plus, of course, the fact that the rich basically control the country and have an entire political party dedicated to their interests.  But that's a whole different post.

Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), the chair of the House Agriculture committee, is sponsoring an amendment to his own legislation that's supposed to regulate derivatives, the often-complex financial products that many people believe bear some of the blame for the financial crisis. Well, the guy who's regulating derivatives knows best how to improve that regulation, right? Not according to the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington watchdog group, which has written a damning letter to Peterson arguing that his amendment would actually blow a big loophole in the rules. Here's an excerpt:

The consequences of acquiescing to an unregulated and secretive over-the-counter (OTC) derivatives market became painfully clear last fall, when AIG nearly went under after it was suddenly forced to post collateral on its credit default swaps, and had to be bailed out with billions of dollars in government assistance.

We recognize that legislation approved by your Committee would begin to address these concerns by, for instance, creating new rules for margin and capital requirements. Unfortunately, the definition of an "alternative swap execution facility" described in Chairman Peterson's amendment creates a wholly unjustified loophole in the regulation of OTC derivatives, effectively undermining the spirit of your legislation and representing a giant step backwards for transparency and accountability.

Journalist Andrew Cockburn has provided a clear and concise analysis showing how Chairman Peterson's amendment creates this dangerous loophole. Under this amendment—which was adopted by voice vote with little debate—an "alternative swap execution facility" is simply defined as anything that "facilitates" swap trades. Such a facility would not be subject to the requirements of an actual exchange, thereby avoiding the new requirements for increased transparency and accountability. The specific authorization of voice brokerages is singularly troubling since it permits dealers to set prices that are not publicly disclosed.

We believe that the creation of this loophole is contrary to the avowed purpose of the bill. It will inevitably lead to the same kind of trading that created the financial crisis; it will undermine the transparency requirements that are needed to protect the public from fraud and manipulation; and it is inconsistent with confining financial trading, to the greatest extent possible, to well-regulated clearing houses.

A House committee using an unrecorded voice vote to approve an industry-supported amendment that guts its own—already weak—legislation: just another day on Capitol Hill.

Politico's Michael Calderone has an interesting story today about the members of the rarified White House press pool whining about the recent inclusion of Talking Points Memo and Huffington Post in their exclusive club. The press pool, as Matt Yglesias ably explains, is "basically a mutually agreed upon plaigiarism pact" in which a large group of news organizations agree to pool their resources. Instead of having 20 reporters follow the president to his golf game on Sunday, the pool sends just one to cover the president's activities for the day. The pool reporter of the day (the responsibility rotates among the members of the pool) files detailed just-the-facts updates that the rest of the pool organizations rely on when putting together their own stories. Apparently some White House reporters are worried that the presence of TPM and HuffPo in the pool will make people doubt other pool members' credibility:

White House reporters have privately discussed and debated the recent addition of sites like Talking Points Memo and Huffington Post into the White House in-town press pool. It’s not that reporters are criticizing the work of either Christina Bellantoni or Sam Stein, but some have expressed concerns about pool reports coming from left or right-leaning news organizations that will then be used by the rest of the press corps.

"This is really troubling," said New York Times reporter Peter Baker in an email to POLITICO. "We’re blurring the line between news and punditry even further and opening ourselves to legitimate questions among readers about where the White House press corps gets its information."

Baker said he has no problem with outlets like Huffington Post, which he described "an important part of the marketplace of ideas." But the site, he said, has a mission "to produce pieces with strongly argued points of view" and that puts the Times—or other non-partisan news organizations—"in a position of relying on overtly ideological or opinionated organizations as our surrogate news gatherers."

Critics of including HuffPo and TPM in the pool claim that they're not accusing Stein or Bellantoni of being unprofessional or misleading, they're just worried about the appearance of bias. But this really stems from something else: the belief by the so-called "mainstream media" that their reporters (and only their reporters) are somehow magically endowed with the ability to write and report without making any subjective judgments. The bit in Baker's email about "overtly ideological" organizations is especially revealing. Is it better that news outlets are covertly ideological? The Washington Times is part of the in-town press pool—and Bellantoni previously wrote pool reports when she was that paper's White House reporter. Fox News is part of the television pool. Does anyone really think the Washington Times is non-ideological? What's the disqualifying difference between the Washington Times and TPM? TPM's not on paper? TPM's leans left instead of right? Peter Baker used to work for the Washington Times but not for TPM?

In any case, if the inclusion of TPM and Huffington Post in the press pool hastens the public's realization that all reporting involves points of view, that would be a good thing. Reporters are not robots. We make decisions all the time that affect the way our stories come out. Reporters' decisions about who to talk to, how to describe events, and what kind of credibility to give to different sources (Judy Miller, anyone?) all affect the final product. Does anyone seriously argue that opinion judgments never appear in New York Times stories? What about the paper's judgment to avoid using the term "torture"? What about this or this or this or this or this or this or this? Good journalists do their best to report the truth. And even New York Times reporters make judgments about what, exactly, that is.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) paid a surprise visit to the Heritage Foundation Thursday, dropping in for a panel discussion on his favorite subject: climate change. The Senate's most virulent global warming denier, Inhofe was greeted with cheers of "our hero!" at the conservative think tank. After launching in to his usual spiel about climate change as the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people, Inhofe went on to criticize President Obama's decision to address the upcoming climate treaty negotiations in Copenhagen next week. He said he thought the Europeans must believe Obama is some sort of king considering the way they are gushing over his promise to commit the US to reducing greenhouse gasses. "You would be shocked about how dumb some of these guys over there are," he said.

Inhofe said he's been making the rounds of Danish radio shows to explain that just because Obama says the US will commit to greenhouse gas reductions doesn't mean it actually will cut emissions. Observing that Obama doesn't have the votes for a cap and trade bill, he said he was appalled about how little the Europeans understood the critical importance of the American Congress. Inhofe reiterated his plans to attend the meeting in Copenhagen as a "one-man truth squad," (though he admitted his squad will actually have three other people on it). With a few more snappy one-liners about how global warming hysteria is a pretext for population control and some digs at George Soros, Inhofe dismissed talk that he would be the Richard Pombo of 2010, and then took off for a vote on the Hill.

 

 

Obama's plan for Afghanistan has some serious contradictions: How can you do deescalate by escalating or exit by entering?

Watch satirist Mark Fiore's take on the prez's least-worst plan of terribleness below:
 

Republicans in Congress are trying to use the recent release of hacked emails written by UK climate scientists to delay government action on climate change—despite the fact that nothing in the emails challenges the science of global warming. A group of GOPers wrote to the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday asking it to "conduct a thorough and transparent investigation into the questions raised by the disclosure of emails from Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia" and to halt all work the agency is doing to address greenhouse gas emissions.

The letter comes from GOP Reps. Darrell Issa (Calif.) and James Sensenbrenner (Wisc.), and Senators John Barrasso (Wy.) David Vitter, all well-known climate-change skeptics. They want the EPA to withdraw a finding that greenhouse gases are a threat to human health, new emissions and fuel economy standards for automobiles, and a proposed rule on the scope of greenhouse gas regulations "until the Agency can demonstrate that the science underlying these regulatory decisions has not been compromised."

And because scientists involved in the leaked emails contributed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the preeminent scientific panel assessing global climate change—the Republicans want a reassessment of the entire body of climate science. They're also demanding that the EPA turn over "all documents and records related to the communications or other interactions" with the Climate Research Unit dating back to March 2007.

In an excellent post on the email incident (now being called ClimateGate or Swifthack, depending on where you stand) Kevin Drum makes the essential points: the emails don't challenge climate science, and skeptics are getting way more mileage out of this affair than it merits. And with the topic surfacing in both Senate and House climate hearings yesterday, ClimateGate isn't going away anytime soon.

One of my frustrations with Barack Obama's Afghanistan speech was that he didn't explain what the strategy for deploying all those new troops was going to be.  Luckily, Joe Klein asked him that question:

I asked him what instructions he had given the military to make the next 30,000 troops more effective than the 21,000 troops he sent last March, whose presence didn't seem to improve the situation on the ground at all. "Look, the fact that there were increased casualties this year I think is to be expected from increased engagement by our forces." True enough, but the NATO coalition lost ground to the Taliban this year, by Obama's own admission. And the President could only come up with speed of deployment and a clearer sense of mission as strategic game changers. Later, when I asked him about what changes he had ordered for the training of the Afghan army and police — a frustrating proposition, so far — he deferred to his commanders in the field but said the new order of battle would include "a partnering situation, a one-to-one match between Afghan troops and U.S. troops" in combat, which "produces much stronger results."

That's pretty discouraging, especially since Klein says that (unsurprisingly) Obama was well briefed and obviously understood the problems at hand.  But Klein's question is clearly the central question, and surely one that Obama must have anticipated.  If, after months of planning, he still couldn't come up with a decent answer, that's bad news.

It's not clear that the surge in Iraq is a good model for success in Afghanistan in the first place, but to the extent that it is, you have to at least understand the model.  Petraeus didn't just send in a bunch of extra troops.  He had a plan for how to use them in an inventive way.  The vast bulk were sent to Baghdad, where they represented a doubling of the American presence.  Separation walls were constructed all over the city.  Counterinsurgency tactics were implemented up and down the line.  Sunni tribes were bribed coopted into supporting us.  Even at that the jury is still out on whether it will ultimately succeed, but at least it provided some additional security and gave the Maliki government a shot at making things work.

But I still haven't heard anything like this for Afghanistan.  There are plenty of people out there with ideas, but I have no idea which of those ideas Gen. McChrystal is planning to try out.  Unfortunately, it looks an awful lot like Obama doesn't know either.

Why They Hate Us

Stephen Walt pushes back on Tom Friedman's view that Muslims ought to realize that over the past couple of decades "U.S. foreign policy has been largely dedicated to rescuing Muslims or trying to help free them from tyranny."  After estimating the fatalities in various conflicts, he figures that since 1983 Muslims have killed about 10,000 Americans while Americans have killed about 300,000 Muslims:

I have deliberately selected "low-end" estimates for Muslim fatalities, so these figures present the "best case" for the United States. Even so, the United States has killed nearly 30 Muslims for every American lost. The real ratio is probably much higher, and a reasonable upper bound for Muslim fatalities (based mostly on higher estimates of "excess deaths" in Iraq due to the sanctions regime and the post-2003 occupation) is well over one million, equivalent to over 100 Muslim fatalities for every American lost.

[Several paragraphs of caveats.]

....If you really want to know "why they hate us," the numbers presented above cannot be ignored. Even if we view these figures with skepticism and discount the numbers a lot, the fact remains that the United States has killed a very large number of Arab or Muslim individuals over the past three decades. Even though we had just cause and the right intentions in some cases (as in the first Gulf War), our actions were indefensible (maybe even criminal) in others.

....Some degree of anti-Americanism may reflect ideology, distorted history, or a foreign government's attempt to shift blame onto others (a practice that all governments indulge in), but a lot of it is the inevitable result of policies that the American people have supported in the past. When you kill tens of thousands of people in other countries — and sometimes for no good reason — you shouldn't be surprised when people in those countries are enraged by this behavior and interested in revenge. After all, how did we react after September 11? 

Raw numbers like this obviously aren't the whole story.  On the other hand, when you get beyond the raw numbers it's not as if the scales suddenly tip overwhelmingly in our favor.  So whole story or not, it's a data point worth keeping sharply in mind.  Click the link for Walt's entire list.