Quote of the Day

From Marion Maneker's profile in Slate of finance blogger Felix Salmon:

The first time I met Salmon late last year, he appeared at lunch on a second-hand bicycle having pedaled over from the East Village wearing a puffy powder-blue jacket made from wispy fibers that gave him the air of a costumed-animal character at a theme park.

Ouch.  I sure hope Maneker never decides to write a profile of me.

Nation's Largest Solar Plant Credits "Big Government"

The announcement that an Arizona utility would build a solar power plant nearly twice as large as the current US record-holder barely made a blip on the national media radar yesterday. That's nuts. It's not quite as nutty as the word swirling around Washington that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is waffling on taking up a climate bill this year.

But, still, nutty. And ironic.

I talked with Joe Salkowski, a spokesman for Tucson Electric Power (TEP), the utility planning the 25-MW array outside of Tucson, Arizona. He says that state and federal policies like the ones contained in the House climate bill "make this project possible."

How?

First, a state requirement that by 2025 utilities generate 15% of their electricity from renewable sources like wind and solar power.

On the federal level, he points to a couple of programs. Investment tax credits for renewable plants were vital to the decision, and so were low interest loans made through the Department of Energy.

So, Senator Reid: quit listening to those whiners about Big Government taking over America, and start paying attention to what's actually happening on the American ground, thanks to the support of Bold Government.

For more, see here.

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Osha Gray Davidson is a contributing blogger at Mother Jones and publisher of The Phoenix Sun, an online news service reporting on solar energy. He tweets @thephoenixsun.

 

Another Pre-existing Condition? C-Sections

Denying medical insurance to victims of domestic violence isn't the only industry practice that discriminates mostly against women. As Amanda Terkel at Think Progress points out, "many insurers consider a Caesarean-section pregnancy a pre-existing condition and refuse to cover women who have had the procedure." 

Watching the Henhouse

By law, two of the five commissioners of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission can't be from the president's party.  To fill those two slots, the president normally defers to senior leaders of the opposition party.  In the senate that would be Mitch McConnell, and for one of the two GOP positions McConnell has recommended one of his own former staffers: Scott O'Malia, the Republican clerk of the Senate Energy and Water Development subcommittee.

But before he worked for the Senate, O'Malia was a lobbyist.  And not just any lobbyist: back in the early 2000s he worked for Mirant, a company engaged in Enron-like misconduct that pushed relentlessly for deregulation of energy trading. Now, though, O'Malia says the Enron debacle opened his eyes to the problems caused by exactly the kind of deregulation his former employer championed.

Maybe so.  But surely the Republican Party can find someone who's been a little more dedicated to regulation all along?  David Corn and Daniel Schulman have the full story here.

Banner Week for Big Insurance

This is turning out to be a very good week for the private health insurance companies (or as I like to think of them, the bloodsucking middle-men of the health care system).  Yesterday, AP/Forbes reported on the uptick in insurer stocks, which jumped from 3 to 6 percent in a single day:

Shares of health insurers jumped Wednesday after an key Democrat released a much anticipated Senate version of a health care reform bill that excluded a government-run insurance option.
 
The so-called public option had been a contentious issue with health insurers, with the industry viewing it as unfair competition. Instead, Sen. Max Baucus released a proposed bill that would require every American to obtain health insurance, which would be a financial boon for the health insurance industry.

It doesn’t take Einstein to figure out why the Baucus bill is great for the insurance industry: If there’s no public alternative to compete with private insurance companies, guess where all those people will have to go to buy their government-mandated insurance? As for the touted co-ops and exchanges, all they are ultimately likely to offer is better access to private insurance. And people of limited means will get government subsidies, mostly in the form of tax breaks, to buy private insurance--which means a transfer of funds from the taxpayers to private insurers. We might as well be writing our checks directly to United Healthcare, Wellpoint, and Humana, instead of the the IRS.
 
As Mark Karlin pointed out on Buzzflash yesterday, taxpayer subsidies are the only way to solve the ”issue of how for-profit insurance can co-exist with the goal of reducing medical costs.” Karlin continues:

This isn’t a ‘free market’ solution; it’s socialized support of “profits”--basically a shakedown. It’s the only way--under the myth of Big Insurance providing enhanced “value,” which it doesn’t--that for-profit insurance companies can survive, because they are…unnecessary (essentially, a expensive redundancy) except for the explicit purpose of enriching a select few: the executives and shareholders.

Metrics for Afghanistan

Well, we finally have our metrics for winning the war Afghanistan.  All 46 of them.  Or, more accurately, 46+, since there an undefined number of classified metrics as well.  Call it 50 in round numbers.

Some of them are ridiculously vague.  For example, "Status of relations between Afghanistan and its other neighbors," whatever that means.  Some are at least theoretically measurable: "Volume and value of narcotics."  Some have already been missed: "Afghan Government's... ability to hold credible elections in 2009 and 2010."  Some are darkly humorous: "Development of an enduring, strategic partnership between the U.S. and Pakistan."

I don't know what to think about this.  I just don't know.  It's not like I'm against the idea of setting out specific goals and trying to measure how well we're achieving them.  On the other hand, if you wanted to resurrect the ghost of Robert McNamara and convince everyone that Afghanistan is Vietnam 2.0, you could hardly do a better job than this list.  I don't doubt for a second that McNamara had something exactly like it in 1965 when he was meeting with LBJ and the Joint Chiefs in the Oval Office.

Still, if I had to pick out the one thing that bothers me most about this plan, it's how implicitly utopian it is.  We're not just trying to kill some terrorists here, we're apparently trying to turn both Pakistan and Afghanistan into thriving, peaceful, incorruptible, Westernized democracies.  But that's a hundred-year project, and it's not something we've ever demonstrated much skill at.  So what, exactly, makes us think we're going to be good at it this time around?

CNN's Off-Record Video: Obama Calls Kanye 'Jackass'

Okay folks, here it is. You know you want it! Too bad presidents can't always be this...human. Because Kanye West was indeed being a jackass. In case you've had your head buried in the sand the past week, Obama was referring to Kanye's stage-crashing at MTV's Video Music Awards, taking the mic from Taylor Swift, winner of the Best Video category, and saying that the award should have been Beyonce's. (The incident, an instant cultural meme, has triggered any number of spinoffs, like this one, and this!) Trouble was, the comment was off-the-record, but employees at ABC, which share a feed with CNN, saw the video and promptly tweeted it. But there's more to this story. You'll note that this video is branded Politico and TPM. Well, Politico, for one, apparently acquired and posted the video but then quickly pulled it out of respect, it explained, for a fellow news organization. But CNN decided Politico's could remain on YouTube. Moral: In the Twitter age, you can never put the toothpaste back in the tube.

Follow Michael Mechanic on Twitter.

Domestic Abuse: A Pre-existing Condition

Insurers in eight states consider domestic violence to be a pre-existing condition, as Ryan Grim of HuffPo reported in this excellent piece. One of them is Mississippi. So the Jackson Free Press spoke to the state's top regulator, Mike Chaney, to find out how this happened. Chaney blamed the legislature:

"Would I do something about it? Hell, yeah, I'd do something about it, but I'm a regulator, not a legislator. I have to come to terms with that every week," Chaney said. "The whole situation is bad. Let's say a woman works with a company that had Blue Cross/Blue Shield, and she gets beat up in her house and Blue Cross says 'we're not covering you because getting beat up is your pre-existing condition.' That's terrible."

 

Tough Times

In a widely read column on Tuesday, David Leonhardt said that although unemployment is high, there's good news for those who still have jobs.  Instead of falling, as they normally would during a recession, real wages have risen at a steady clip this year.  Now, there's no question this was true in the second half of 2008, when nominal wages rose modestly but plummeting prices (especially energy prices) meant that in real terms wages skyrocketed.  Unfortunately, Dean Baker says those days are long gone:

The story then reversed in 2009. Inflation has advanced at close to a 3.5 percent annual rate thus far this year. Nominal wage growth has fallen sharply....For 2009, real wages have unambiguously been falling and are likely to continue to fall as modest increases in commodity prices are not offset by nominal wage growth.

So how does Leonhardt get the story so wrong? Most importantly he uses year over year data. This includes the large fall in prices at the end of last year, which still outweighs the impact of falling real wages through 2009. Using year over year data, we can say that real wages have risen in the last year. We will not be able to say that four months from now.

Italics mine.  Real wages have gone up if you compare August to August, which includes the big deflation in the Fall of last year.  But that's a one-off.  If you look at January to August instead, inflation is up, wage growth is anemic, and real wage growth is negative.  That's the path we're currently on, not one of rising incomes.

This morning, at the second of two hearings in the House's Natural Resources Committee,  POGO director Danielle Brian applauded Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s elimination of the Royalty In Kind program that governs the extraction of resources like oil from government land  (you can read my post on the first hearing and the many problems with RIK here). But Brian said Salazar's move still “does not adequately drive a stake through the heart of the program.” RIK came about as a way of collecting royalties without placing the burden of auditing companies on the Interior department. However, as Brian pointed out, “What has happened is that we never know if we are making money and don’t know if royalties are enough. We must audit to determine this, which defeats the purpose of collecting royalties in kind.” Last week Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) introduced a bill to create a new agency in the Interior Department to oversee oil and gas leasing of federal lands. 

Not everyone is happy with that idea. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) grumbled that eliminating RIK would lead to more litigation and decrease royalties. “I hate to see that we keep making it harder to get at our resources. Keep in mind the poor single moms who have been hitting me up when gas prices get high.”

But the problem isn't just one of money. There's also the environmental cost that occurs when resources are extracted from public lands without proper oversight. Stephen Smith, mayor of Pinedale, Wyoming, testified about the environmental degradation his community has seen since the extraction of the town’s 35-trillion feet of natural gas. The House Natural Resources committee is currently considering legislation that could provide greater oversight over companies drilling or mining for natural resources from federal and Indian lands. With or without the CLEAR Act, will the west’s wilderness withstand the extraction of its vast, untapped, publicly owned natural gas reserves?