Jim Webb is not at all happy that Barack Obama plans to travel to Copenhagen next week and pledge that the US will act to halt climate change. In a letter to Obama, Webb argues that the president does not have "unilateral power" to promise anything to the rest of the world. Instead, Webb contends, Obama should sit around and wait for the Senate to do something about the problem.

"I would like to express my concern regarding reports that the Administration may believe it has the unilateral power to commit the government of the United States to certain standards that may be agreed upon at the upcoming United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties 15 in Copenhagen, Denmark," wrote Webb. "The phrase 'politically binding' has been used."

"As you well know from your time in the Senate, only specific legislation agreed upon in the Congress, or a treaty ratified by the Senate, could actually create such a commitment on behalf of our country," Webb continued. "I would very much appreciate having this matter clarified in advance of the Copenhagen meetings."

While Webb is right that the Senate needs to ratify any international treaties, the administration also has the authority to negotiate with other nations in drafting accords.

Webb has never been particularly vocal about environmental issues. A moderate, coal-state Democrat, he's supported energy legislation but balked at capping emissions—I included basically everything he'd ever said on the subject in this short profile in July.

But in recent weeks, Webb has emerged as a major pain in the ass for Democratic leaders on climate issues. He recently announced that he is partnering with Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) on an alternative climate bill that, instead of curbing emissions, would pour massive sums into nuclear power. Cap-and-trade legislation, he said, is too "enormously complex," and, in its present form, he "would not vote for it."

So, even though he has signaled he has no plans to support a bill to cap emissions any time soon, he wants Obama to wait around for him.

Think of it as Extreme Makeover: China Edition. This week CNN aired a China-produced commercial intended to repair the country's image after a slew of PR disasters. In the past half-decade, Chinese cough syrup, children's toys, and milk (among other products) have caused sickness and even death in consumers around the world. The new ad brushes these concerns aside, showing quick shots of clothes made in China but designed in France and an iPod made in China but using US software. An American voice concludes, "When it says 'Made in China,' it really means 'Made in China, made with the world.'" See the ad here:

Let's take a minute to keep the Chinese propaganda machine in check. Chinese labor is known for more than the toxic side effects of its products. The country's production industry is also notorious for its toxic work environment—fueled by underage employees—that underpays workers and tries to cover up factory injuries. So despite what this ad claims, when the tag says 'Made in China,' it still means 'made with exploited labor.'

How much money will the rich world muster to help poorer countries adapt to the devastating effects of climate change and curb their emissions? That's one of the essential elements that negotiators must tackle at the Copenhagen climate summit next week. And the biggest question mark in the equation is the US, which has not yet specified exactly how much cash it's prepared to kick in. Now John Kerry, the key senator in the climate debate, is urging the Obama administration to be more generous.

The proposed 2010 budget from the Obama administration would devote $1.2 billion per year to international climate funds. The Waxman-Markey bill that passed the House would direct about 7 percent of the revenues of a cap-and-trade plan to international adaptation and technology funding in the initial years, which could total around $5 billion per year by 2020, according to an analysis by Resources for the Future. The proposed Senate bill offers similar levels of funding.

Obviously, there's a big difference between the numbers coming out of the White House and Capitol Hill. On Tuesday, Senate Foreign Relations committee chair John Kerry (D-Mass.) wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking the administration to address the "large gap" between the Congressional figures and the budget. Kerry wants the US should kick much more than the amount forecast in the 2010 budget, in order to demonstrate its commitment to addressing the problem of climate change. He suggested $3 billion for 2011, routed through agencies like the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

"[A]s we approach the Copenhagen climate change negotiations, the global community has agreed that $10 billion is required annually in fast-start financing to support immediate international climate change priorities," wrote Kerry. "The United States must be prepared to contribute its fair share of this obligation."

As we noted yesterday, the European Union is under fire for plans to redirect existing aid money to climate rather than finding new funds. The US, too, will be under pressure to commit significant amounts of new money to help the world's most vulnerable nations. But in the middle of a lingering recession, this will be a tough political sell.

From John McCain, explaining his undying opposition to proposed reductions in the growth of Medicare spending:

All of these are cuts in the obligations that we have assumed and are the rightful benefits that people have earned... I will eagerly look forward to hearing from the authors of this legislation as to how they can possibly achieve half a trillion dollars in cuts without impacting existing Medicare programs negatively and eventually lead to rationing of health care in this country.

On the big list of political sins, I generally think hypocrisy is overrated.  It's great gotcha material for Sunday morning talk shows, but in the end it's usually pretty trivial stuff.

But the Republican switcheroo on Medicare is really in a league of its own.  Here's a party that opposed Medicare viciously in the first place, routinely spoke out against it in the years that followed, was dedicated to gutting it in the 1990s, voted for major cuts in 1997, and has been using it as a cudgel ever since to get its base riled up over the future bankruptcy of America.  McCain himself proposed over a trillion dollars in Medicare cuts just 12 months ago.  But now?  Well, now it's 2003 all over again and there are elections to think of.  So now they're righteously opposed to cutting so much of a nickel out of Medicare spending, even if the cuts are aimed at waste, fraud, inefficient programs, and bad incentives.  It's just jaw droppingly mendacious.  More at the link.

The Democratic National Committee is hammering John McCain today for supporting stripping all Medicare cuts from the health care bill. The charge is hypocrisy, and it's sticky: the health care reform McCain proposed during his run for the presidency was going to be paid for with massive Medicare cuts. A lot of the cuts in the Democrats' bill would be to Medicare Advantage "overpayments" to insurers, which is presumably why Harry Reid's spokesman, Jim Manley, told TPM's Brian Beutler that "[McCain,] the self-described foe of all earmarks is with one single amendment providing a big fat wet kiss for his friends in the insurance industry."

Over at The New Republic, Jon Cohn emphasizes that it's not just McCain who looks hypocritical here:

McCain has plenty of company in his hypocrisy. As Volsky goes on to note, many of the Republicans likely to vote in favor of McCain's amendment voted for the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, whichalso called for substantial Medicare cuts. Sam Brownback, Charles Grassley, Jon Kyl... the list goes on..... The reductions in Medicare Republicans are now decrying are more equitable, better targeted, and not even half as large as the ones many of those same Republicans endorsed in the '90s.

Of course, most seniors won't know that Republican Senators have voted to cut nearly $1.6 trillion from Medicare during their tenure. The problem, as Cohn points out, is that "seniors on Medicare don't really care about who's being intellectually consistent and who's being hypocritical. They want to know what's going to happen to their Medicare, period." That's one reason the Republicans are demagoguing on this issue. But the other reason is that they see the writing on the wall. Older Americans are already much more conservative than younger Americans, and they are much more likely to vote. It's fertile recruiting ground. The GOP has had little success reaching out to young people and non-white people. If they can improve their margins among seniors, that might not matter—at least for a while. It's a lifeline. And in this case, it's one that, conveniently enough, makes the insurance companies happy.

Credit Card Hell

Why are credit card companies so unwilling to transfer obviously distressed customers into programs that cancel their accounts and provide them a fixed period of time to pay off their balance?  Mike Konczal crunches the numbers and comes up with the answer: banks don't really care if you pay off your entire balance.  They can make more money by squeezing late fees and high interest rates out of you for even a short period than they can by having you pay off your whole balance at a moderate interest rate.  Details here.

A New WPA?

Megan McArdle writes about why a WPA-style jobs program would be unlikely to work in 21st century America:

My father was the head of a trade association for the heavy construction industry, and most of my closest relatives either work for the government, or have done so in the past.  As you can imagine, over my lifetime I've had a lot of conversations about government procedure and government projects.  Every so often I'll read some description of a project out of the olden days — the battle against malaria in Panama, the handling of the Great Mississippi Flood, or the creation of the WPA — and just marvel at how fast everything used to be.  The WPA was authorized in April of 1935.  By December, it was employing 3.5 million people.   The Hoover Dam took 16 years from the time it was first proposed, to completion; eight years, if you start counting from the time it passed Congress. 

Contrast this with a current, comparatively trivial project: it has been seventeen years since the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor was established by USDOT, and we should have a Record of Decision on the Tier II environmental impact statement no later than 2010.  This for something that runs along existing rail rights of way, and in fact, uses currently operating track in many places.

....Many of the procedural hurdles involve court rulings, concerning law which Congress cannot overturn in some cases (due process), or isn't going to (civil rights legislation, civil service protections).  The obstacles arise out of things that individually, people, specifically Democrats, like: transparency, due process, environmental care, civil rights, unionism.  Cumulatively, they are devastating to federal productivity.  But it's hard to get much support for repealing or altering them individually — which is what you would have to do.

I think there's a lot of truth to this.  In fact, the last time I wrote on this subject, I got into an email exchange with a guy who thought I was wrong and explained in detail exactly how big infrastructure projects could be ramped up more quickly.  But it was one of those "assume a can opener" moments.  Sure, there are ways that projects could be speeded up, but first you'd have to pass a whole bunch of laws preempting current regulations and then win a bunch of court fights over them.  Even if you could do it, it would take years.

But anyway, here's a question: where can we find a reasonably trustworthy list of "shovel ready" infrastructure projects?  At a bare minimum this means projects that have been approved by local authorities and have already gone through the environmental impact process.  Is there such a thing?

Alternatively, how about non-construction jobs?  Building jobs are sort of a talisman in these kinds of programs, but there's no reason that has to be the case.  So what other areas can you think of that could absorb, say, a million unskilled and semiskilled workers quickly and without impossible political pushback from a hundred different interest groups?  Let's hear it.

Six months after he engineered the defeat of the LTTE (Tamil Tigers), Sri Lanka's former top general announced plans Sunday to headline a broad opposition ticket in his country's special elections in January. His bid—on the heels of one of the bloodiest and longest-lived civil conflicts in modern history—is not without international controversy.   

Sri Lanka came under heavy international criticism beginning last September, when it evicted the UN and all foreign NGOs from contested northern territories. Observers speculated that the military was gearing up for an endgame with the rebel Tamil Tigers—a separatist group from the island's ethnic Tamil minority that fought the Sinhalese majority for close to a quarter century. According to official estimates, as many as 20,000 Sri Lankan Tamil civilians were killed between January and May of this year. Six months later, 280,000 of them still languish in Displaced Persons (DP) camps; today, for the first time, 130,000 were given clearance to leave what observers have described as an "open-air prison". A recent US State Department report implied that both the president and the general (among others) may be responsible for war crimes. And yet, between Sri Lanka's president and its army chief, the battle is more about who deserves the glory than who should take the blame. 

Sunday's announcement comes after weeks of political infighting between the sitting President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and ex-Army General Sarath Fonseka. The president accused the general of hogging the spotlight, and 'promoted'  him to a largely ceremonial post, from which the general promptly resigned. Now, with early elections looming, Fonseka's lobbing criticism at the government, which he says continues to impinge freedom of the press (foreign reporters were barred from the country in the final weeks of fighting and access to DP camps is still severely restricted) and has done too little to resettle refugees. 

I'm as intrigued by an unusual bit of contrarianism as the next guy, but Tyler Cowen seriously jumps the shark here:

Another example of misleading good vs. evil thinking stems from the budget.  Many people believe:

3. "If the Republicans win, they will irresponsibly cut taxes and do nothing real to control spending."  You may have even seen this view in the blogosphere.

One response to this is 4. "We should ensure that the Republicans do not win and criticize them every chance possible."

An alternative response is 5. "Sooner or later the Republicans will in fact win and I cannot prevent that.  Right now the Democrats should spend less money, given the truth of #3.  In this regard the Republicans, although evil, are in fact correct in asking the Democrats to spend less money, if only to counterbalance their own depravity."

I do not see many people entertaining #5.

No, I suppose not.  "I think we should rein in social spending in order to create some budget room for more tax cuts for the rich in 2017" really doesn't seem like a very politically savvy suggestion.

Anyway, this is hardly something that we liberals haven't thought about.  Just the opposite, actually: liberals are very keenly aware of Republican efforts to wreck the budget in order to prevent Democrats from ever spending money on their own priorities.  In fact, "keenly" understates things.  So this time around we've quite consciously decided not to let this stand in our way.  We'll do our best to keep things like healthcare reform deficit neutral, and we'll try to honor PAYGO rules, but beyond that we're at least going to try to enact some liberal social policies.  The days of scrimping on food because Dad is threatening to blow a wad in Vegas the first time we let him out of our sight are over.

And if America eventually elects Dad to the White House anyway even though he hasn't yet cleaned up his act?  Then America's in big trouble.  But at least America will have better healthcare.

In recent months, Trita Parsi, the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, has been the target of conservative attacks. The Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb implied that Parsi works for the Iranian regime. In a controversial piece for the Washington Times, Eli Lake suggested that Parsi potentially broke federal lobbying laws. Parsi and his defenders point out that there's no evidence for the first charge and say that the second charge stems from a broad campaign against him by right-wing activists who oppose President Obama's policies.

In any case, none of that controversy stopped Parsi from winning the 2010 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for "Ideas Improving World Order," which is worth $200,000. In fact, the attacks on Parsi may even have helped his cause. "We are aware of the political controversy around us, and we are expecting to get some heat as well as opening some light," Rodger Payne, the political science professor who administers the awards, told the Louisville Courier-Journal. If Payne is thinking that all publicity is good publicity, he got his wish. Over at the American Thinker, a conservative website, Ed Lasky slams the prize as an award from an "anti-Israel" group. "This is a disgrace," Lasky writes:

Rodger Payne, a University of Louisville political science professor, directs the award. He has left-wing views which is not a surprise. He thought George Bush's foreign policy was Orwellian. And he is a big believer in climate change (at least before Climate Gate).

He also is a big fan of the Israeli left and wants a one-state solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians that would inevitably lead to the destruction of Israel as millions of Palestinians who live in Gaza and the West Bank are joined by millions of refugees.

He was a research fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and at the University of Chicago. Is it a coincidence that the two men most responsible for promoting the conspiracy theory regarding Jewish control of American foreign policy (Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer) both teach at these universities?

Working at Harvard and the University of Chicago, opposing Bush's foreign policy, believing in climate change, and supporting the Israeli left? Rodger Payne truly is history's greatest monster.