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Friday Cat Blogging - 12 December 2008

| Fri Dec. 12, 2008 4:05 PM EST

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....Like Rod Blagojevich until Patrick Fitzgerald got his mitts into him, Domino sees nothing but sunshine hanging over her. I'm pretty sure Fitz doesn't have her phones tapped — and in any case we all know that cats have interdimensional ways of communicating anyway — so I imagine her life will remain sunny and indictment free. Inkblot, on the other hand, apparently thinks someone is trying to watch us from behind our bathroom mirror, so maybe there's more going on here than I think.

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Q&A: Mercury Rev

| Fri Dec. 12, 2008 3:15 PM EST

mojo-photo-mercuryrev.jpgWhat do you do if you're making experimental films in Buffalo and you need a cool soundtrack? Well, you grab some friends and start making music, and eventually you become Mercury Rev, a band whose combination of psychedelic experimentation and melodic purity have made them longtime critical favorites. While the combo has had a famously rotating lineup, the current core group of singer Jonathan Donahue, guitarist Sean "Grasshopper" Mackowiak and drummer/keyboardist Jeff Mercel has been intact since 1998's Deserter's Songs. The band released two albums in September: Snowflake Midnight and a free-to-download bonus album of instrumentals called Strange Attractor. They're currently in the midst of a US tour, and I managed to catch Mercel on the phone before a sound check in Chicago.

Two Quick Auto Bailout Links

| Fri Dec. 12, 2008 2:59 PM EST

For your viewing pleasure:

(1) A list of the 18 Republican Senators who voted for the $700 billion bailout for America's banks but against $14 billion to save America's automakers. (Cutting wages and benefits, which was of crucial importance when it came to the Detroit, didn't seem to matter all that much when it came to Wall Street.)

(2) A well-reasoned case by Nobel Laureate (and Mother Jones contributor/interviewee) Joe Stiglitz in favor of letting American automakers go into Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The Bailout Deal

| Fri Dec. 12, 2008 2:34 PM EST

THE BAILOUT DEAL....Here's the White House's response to the failure of the auto bailout bill last night:

"Under normal economic conditions we would prefer that markets determine the ultimate fate of private firms," Dana Perino, Mr. Bush's spokeswoman, said in a carefully nuanced statement released minutes before the financial markets opened in New York. "However, given the current weakened state of the U.S. economy, we will consider other options if necessary — including use of the TARP program — to prevent a collapse of troubled automakers."

The Treasury Department promptly indicated that it would provide short-term relief to the automakers. "Because Congress failed to act, we will stand ready to prevent an imminent failure until Congress reconvenes and acts to address the long-term viability of the industry," a Treasury spokeswoman, Brookly McLaughlin, said.

This whole thing just gets stranger and stranger. Bush sent a handpicked squad of West Wing bigfeet to Capitol Hill a couple of days ago to press Republicans to pass the bill, and they failed miserably. In one sense, of course, this is just more of the same: Bush is a lame duck, even his own party sneers at him these days, and this is yet another demonstration that they couldn't care less about what he does or doesn't want.

Fine. But did he tell the reluctant Republicans that the Senate bill was their best chance for genuine industry restructuring? That if they didn't pass it, he'd be forced to use TARP funds and both the UAW and the car companies would probably end up getting a better deal? And then they'd get a way better deal next month after Democrats took over?

If he didn't tell them that, why not? And if he did, did the Senate Republicans really decide they didn't care that they were giving up what little leverage they had? That they just wanted to make their point, and reality be damned? Are they really that nuts?

I guess so. I wonder if their constituents will ever figure this out?

Finnish Education

| Fri Dec. 12, 2008 2:16 PM EST

FINNISH EDUCATION....Matt Yglesias, no doubt after knocking back a few shots of vodka in a Helsinki sauna during his "educational" junket to Finland, reports that teaching programs are much more competitive in Finland than in the U.S.:

It's a bit hard to say what accounts for the strong level of interest in a teaching career in Finland. Finnish teacher compensation seems about average for the US [but] the relative salary is higher because other professionals such as lawyers and doctors earn less in Finland than do their US equivalents. And the subjective quality of the job experience seems better in Finland since the kids have many fewer discipline issues.

I guess it's not so hard to say after all. This seems like a pretty adequate explanation to me, and unfortunately it also demonstrates why international comparisons are so often unhelpful. We're not going to slash the pay of lawyers and doctors, after all (though Wall Street brokers better watch their Armani-clad backs), and there's no way that teacher salaries will ever rise high enough to be competitive with current salaries in those professions. And "discipline issues," which covers a very wide territory indeed, is only partly amenable to work in the classroom itself. Inner city poverty and the bane of broken families have to be largely addressed elsewhere.

Still, it reminds me of this story from earlier in the year about a school in Washington Heights that plans to pay teachers $125,000 or more as a way of recruiting a top notch faculty and turning it loose in a poor school. I remain uncertain what this will prove, since even if it works it's not really replicable on a wide scale, but it's still interesting. Perhaps we'll create a little slice of Finland in the middle of New York City.

Will Obama's Agriculture Pick be a Stinker?

| Fri Dec. 12, 2008 1:58 PM EST

Nicholas Kristof's Times column on Obama's potential Secretary of Agriculture picks has generated a manure storm in the blogosphere. At issue is the fact that he may pick a typical agribusiness guy like Georgia Rep. Sanford Bishop. This is ironic, and perhaps a bit duplicitous, given that Obama recently professed to reading, and being down with, Michael Pollan's sun-food agenda piece in the Times Magazine. Many liberals have not protested Obama's other less-than-progressive cabinet picks in part because they believe that Obama himself will balance them. But the problem with applying that theory to agriculture is that the Democratic Party is not really much more progressive on ag than Republicans. Indeed, opposition to the most recent farm bill was an odd coalition of California progressives and the Bush Administration. There will be so much institutional inertia to overcome on agriculture within the Democratic Party that it's hard to see how the system will ever change without a secretary who is truly committed to shaking it up. Obama might have the will, but he certainly won't have the time or energy.

Update: More on potential Obama picks. And this petition to encourage Obama to make a progressive Secretary of Agriculture pick has been gaining steam.

Update II: The names of possible Ag Secretary contenders keep shifting, indicating that the criticism might be having an effect. According to the AP, as of Monday December 15th the contenders are:

Dennis Wolf (PA Secretary of Agriculture)
Tom Buis (President of the National Farmers Union)
Charles Stenholm (Former West Texas Congressman and ranking member of Ag Comittee)
Stephanie Sandlin (Congresswoman from South Dakota and Ag Committee member)
Jill Long Thompson (Former Undersecretary of Ag under Clinton)

Still, none of these names are picks that have been circulated by activists in the Food Democracy petition.

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Can California's Global Warming Plan Survive its Economic Crisis?

| Fri Dec. 12, 2008 1:41 PM EST

Yesterday California approved a landmark global warming plan that would cut greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, a 30 percent reduction. Meanwhile, the state is suffering through a fiscal crisis that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who supports the global warming plan, describes as "financial Armageddon." The same day that California approved the climate measure, the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle ran a giant Schwarzenegger block quote:

Every second, the state is losing $470, every minute, $28,000, and every hour $1.7 million and every day $40 million. That is approximately more than $1 billion a month if legislators don't act [to pass a new budget].

The California Air Resources Board, which approved the global warming plan, estimates that it would actually have "an overall positive effect on the economy" by spurring energy efficiency and technological innovation. However, the state's nonpartisan Legislative Analysis Office questioned that estimate, saying that the evaluation of some costs and benefits was "inconsistent and incomplete." As U.S. Congress prepares to debate its own climate bill in the near future, expect Republicans to argue that the California climate plan is a financial sink hole; in response, Democrats should note that the benefits of energy efficiency and technology investment will take awhile to materialize. The same could be said of bailing out Wall Street and the automakers, and, so far, that hasn't stopped us.

Czar Update

| Fri Dec. 12, 2008 1:36 PM EST

CZAR UPDATE....It looks like Congress might not appoint a "car czar" after all, but here's an update on where this whole czar business seems to have come from in the first place.

The word has been used for a long time as a generic term of abuse for someone who acts autocratically, but the "_____ czar" usage is more recent. Mark Kleiman traces it back to 1920, when Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was appointed the first baseball commissioner after the Black Sox scandal, and was given such wide ranging powers that he was known as the "czar of baseball." Apparently it caught on, and in 1926 the Milk Chamber of Commerce in New York appointed a "milk czar," while in 1933 New York Governer Herbert Lehman appointed New York City police commissioner Edward Mulrooney the state's "beer czar."

However, the modern day version, referring to a federal government appointee with supposedly vast powers, appears to date from World War II. In comments, Walsh provides us with this paragraph from the Washington Post in 1942:

Executive orders creating new czars to control various aspects of our wartime economy have come so thick and fast in the last week that it is difficult for the public to remember all of them. In rapid succession we have acquired a petroleum czar, a manpower czar, and a food czar. These, of course, were added to a long list of other super-executives directing war production, economic stabilization, price fixing, transportation, and so forth. So far as we can determine, the galaxy of czars is now complete, unless the President should decide to appoint a czar over the czars.

In particular, Donald Nelson was pretty well known as the "war production czar," and in 1943 Time magazine echoed the Post with this:

Czars were now a dime a dozen: the U.S. had Economic Czar James F. Byrnes, Production Czar Donald Nelson, Manpower Czar Paul McNutt, Food Czar Claude Wickard, Rubber Czar William Jeffers. But they were more like Grand Dukes than Czars: under their high-sounding titles, divided authority and lack of direction left them still snarled in invisible red tape.

Rubber Czar Jeffers, trying to do his job, had got all fouled up with the Army & Navy. Economic Czar Byrnes had stepped in to cut away the tangle — but no one was sure last week who would enforce the compromise he had laid down. Manpower Czar McNutt began stretching his muscles with a new work-or-fight order — and Congress promptly raised a howl. Czar Wickard was apparently frozen with fright at the horrible food prospects ahead.

Things then stayed relatively quiet on the czar front until 1973, when Richard Nixon appointed John Love as "energy czar," followed by William Simon in the same post. Since then, they've multiplied like flies. If Barack Obama puts a stop to it, I'm sure he'll have the thanks of a grateful nation.

FEMA Ratchets Up the Warnings on... Social Networks?

| Fri Dec. 12, 2008 1:14 PM EST

A press release dropped in my email box this morning that was titled:

FEMA Warns: We Are At War With An Enemy That Wants To Destroy Our Way of Life

"Oh, neat," I thought to myself. A couple years after Hurricane Katrina, FEMA is finally waking up to the very real danger of global warming. This "we are at war" angle is their hip, cool way to raise awareness.

Whoops. Here's what the press release is actually about.

Ira Grossman, Chief Architect of FEMA, warned architects and security executives in his keynote address at the GTRA Symposium, about the risks associated with collaboration tools, stating that "as we move to a Web 2.0 collaborative environment, we are at war with an enemy that wants to destroy our way of life and society through coordinated terrorist attacks followed by cyber attacks."

That's right. The danger FEMA wants us to be aware of is Facebook, not climate change. Or more accurately, federal employees potentially making government information vulnerable by using Facebook, MySpace, and other social networks. As in, "Federal employees are now using social networking tools on the job, raising new challenges that executives need to deal with immediately." That "we are at war with an enemy that wants to destroy our way of life" language is 100 percent earnest.

Please rest easy. FEMA is on the job. Or a job, anyway.

November Sales

| Fri Dec. 12, 2008 12:44 PM EST

NOVEMBER SALES....Retail sales were bad last month, but not terrible:

Retail sales dropped by 1.8% last month, the Commerce Department said Friday....The 1.8% drop was mildly better than expected. Economists expected a 2.2% decline in sales during November, traditionally a busy shopping time as the holidays approach.

....Stripping away sales at gas stations, demand at all other retailers fell 0.2% in November. Sales are falling because of dropping prices for gas.

"Lower" demand for gasoline is meaningless, since it's based solely on the fact that gasoline prices are dropping like a rock. It's actually good news.

Inflation in the rest of the economy is hard to guess, but it was probably up a small amount. In real dollars, then, seasonally adjusted retail sales in November were probably still down compared to October, but perhaps only by 0.3% or so. Could be worse.

And year-over-year, of course, it was worse. Compared to this time last year, retail sales are way, way down. Everyone's credit cards are maxed out, and for the first time since records have been kept people are paying them off instead of running them up. This had to happen eventually, but it's bad news for the economy while it's going on. Bottom line: it's time for Uncle Credit Card to step up to the plate.