By now, the Twilight marketing team has made it clear that "creepy protectionist vampire stalker" is a winning theme that can apply to all sorts of products.

Twihards can cuddle up under a cozy Edward duvet cover emblazoned with the romantic line: "What choice have I? I can not be without you, but I will not destroy your soul."

They can wear the rather worrisome bracelet inscribed, "I'd rather die than be with anyone but you." (Luckily, it's rubber, so the words will rub off about the time you move on to your next cultural obsession.)

Or they can buy the unofficial (but officially paternalist) life-size Edward wall decal to loom over them with the reminder to "Be Safe."

But Stephenie Meyer didn't need a marketing team to flood the market. She managed to make the Twilight series itself a product placement extravaganza. And thanks to the Cullens' centuries of compound interest and their obsession with automobiles, it was only a matter of time until we graduated to high ticket items, which means Volvos are now cool.

Volvos? Yes, Volvos. And not in the "I'm packing up the family wagon that I've converted to bio-diesel so I can drive it to the Ivy League to major in Environmental Sciences with a minor in Folklore" kind of cool. Suddenly Volvo is marketing station wagons to the swooning teenage masses—or maybe their parents.

The tag line (mysteriously absent of capitalization) manages to turn what has long been the standard of sensible automobile reliability into full on Shakespearean romantic protectionism:

"there's more to life than a Volvo. there's having the power to keep safe what you hold most dear. that's why you drive one."

Of course you have to have a valid driver's license and be a legal adult to win the super studly station-wagon, so there is hope that this may actually be aimed at the parents of fans, or those fans of parenting age, which makes the campaign a little less cringe-worthy. After all, we hope all parents want to keep their kids safe. Which is far better than making sure that fans who want to get closer to their favorite sparkly vampire by endangering themselves (let's hope that's not the only thing readers take away from New Moon) will be doing so in a car with a high safety rating.

But that leaves this 30-year-old reader with one question: How long will it be until the marketing division starts to capitalize on the characters that try to instill some agency in our heroine, and Porsche gives away Alice's 911 Turbo?

Today, there are three elections being watched by the politerati: governor's contests in New Jersey and Virginia and a special election to fill an upstate New York congressional seat that was vacated by a Republican. It looks as if the Republicans—who have widely been regarded as hapless in recent months—are poised to win two, if not three, of these races. (New Jersey is the Democrats' best bet, with incumbent governor Jon Corzine holding a narrow lead over his GOP challenger in the latest polls.) So be prepared for plenty of cable chatter tonight and tomorrow about a Republican resurgence, whether justified or not.

Anticipating this possible onslaught of punditry, the Democratic Party this morning emailed reporters an analysis from MSNBC's political unit that essentially issues a pre-postmortem whoa:

*** A Referendum On Obama? Deep down, a political reporter’s first instinct is to nationalize off-year and special elections. Why? It’s the best way to try to make sense -- at least initially -- of a handful of races across the country. It’s also the best way to sell a local race’s importance to editors and producers. We all do it. So it shouldn’t be surprising that almost everyone is nationalizing today’s gubernatorial contests in New Jersey and Virginia, and even the NY-23 special congressional election. And the chief question they’re asking is: Are they referendums on President Obama’s first year in office? Yesterday, the New York Times wrote that the New Jersey race was "one of several [contests] likely to be viewed as a barometer of the president’s popularity." And here was the AP: "A Corzine loss would be seen as a political embarrassment for the White House."

*** Remember That Candidates Matter: If Democrats lose in New Jersey and Virginia, that certainly would be a shot in the arm for a Republican Party that hasn’t fared well in the in the past two election cycles (losing control of Congress and the White House). That outcome also could give Democrats pause that the voter coalition that propelled Obama to victory last year (liberals, young voters, minorities, independents) appears dormant or is no longer intact. But is that a referendum on Obama? Not so much. For starters, how much does Creigh Deeds losing in Virginia say about Obama, when the president’s approval rating in the state is at 57% among registered voters and 54% among likely voters, according to the most recent Washington Post poll? And if Jon Corzine’s favorable rating in the Quinnipiac poll was at 38% back in March (near the height of Obama’s honeymoon), and it’s at 39% now, how does that say much about Obama and his popularity/presidency? Likewise, if Democrats are able to split the races by winning in New Jersey or even pull off the upset in Virginia, does that mean Obama’s presidency is on easy street? Absolutely not. In short, these races say much more about Deeds/McConnell or Corzine/Christie than they do about Obama.

You can see why the Democrats fancy this view; they obviously are fretting that losses in these elections will reflect poorly on Obama, who campaigned for the Democrats in Viginia and New Jersey. But for the D's, the MSNBC take does have the added benefit of probably being accurate. Sure, the GOP will have bragging rights if its candidates win in these three races. But such triumphs won't necessarily mark a significant trend—other than within the insta-analysis that emerges from the commentariat.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

Amidst criticism from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that too many colleges of education are "cash cows" that send unprepared, ineffective instructors into the nation's classrooms, Texas has become one of the first states to strengthen its standards for teacher training programs, the Houston Chronicle reports.

Last month, Texas' State Board for Educator Certification gave initial approval of a new rating system that will hold training programs accountable for their graduates' job performance. Programs whose teachers chronically fail to help students excel academically could risk having their accreditation revoked. The Board is expected to finalize its approval in February.

Though the Houston Independent School District has been using student test scores to calculate teacher bonuses for a few years, linking student achievement to teacher training is uncharted territory for Texas' largest school district and most other public school districts across the country. But the sheer number of different paths one can take to gain teacher certification in Texas begs for more oversight.

Texas has 177 accredited educator training programs. Some are run by universities and community colleges while others are run by school districts or for-profit companies. In one program a student can become a teacher after just a few months of course work, while other programs require at least a year of rigorous training.

News from our other blogs on health, the environment, and climate.

Two-Faced: Did the White House ever really want a bipartisan healthcare bill?

Bluffing or Boasting?: Republicans threaten to boycott the climate bill's markup.

Trick Knee: Medical device manufacturers face a big tax, but they're not going down easy.

Welcome Visitor: ExxonMobil CEO has been a frequent visitor to the White House... why?

Facebook Foes: Chamber of Commerce gets slammed for climate stance on Facebook.

Dems Call Bluff: Sen. Boxer says climate bill will move, with or without GOP.

WWLBJD?: On healthcare reform, Jim Ridgeway wonders what would LBJ have done?

Rush Tactic: Repubs argue they're not against reform, Dems are just "rushing it."

Sympathy for the Devil: Pediatrics association cuts deal with Coca-Cola. 'Nuff said.

From left, President Barack Obama, US Army Maj. Gen. Daniel V. Wright and Army Brig. Gen. Michael S. Repass salute as a team of soldiers carry the remains of Army Sgt. Dale R. Griffin during a dignified transfer ceremony on Dover Air Force Base, Del., Oct. 29, 2009. (US Air Force photo by Jason Minto.)

Need To Read: November 3, 2009

Today's must-reads:

Get more stuff like this: Follow me on twitter! David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, also tweets, as does MoJo blogger Kate Sheppard. So do my colleagues Daniel Schulman and Rachel Morris and our editors-in-chief, Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein. Follow them, too! (The magazine's main account is @motherjones.)

Retiring in Style

Just in case you didn't already hate corporate executives enough, here's the Wall Street Jounal on how the boys and girls on mahogany row have responded to tough economic times:

Pensions for top executives rose an average of 19% in 2008, with more than 200 executives seeing pensions increase more than 50%, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis.

....Executive pensions rose even as the share prices at the companies declined an average of 37% in 2008 and many firms froze employee pensions and suspended retirement-plan contributions.

My friends, that's what we call shareholder value.

Paying for Prayer

From the Los Angeles Times, here's the latest on the healthcare front:

Backed by some of the most powerful members of the Senate, a little-noticed provision in the healthcare overhaul bill would require insurers to consider covering Christian Science prayer treatments as medical expenses.

The provision was inserted by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R- Utah) with the support of Democratic Sens. John F. Kerry and the late Edward M. Kennedy — both of Massachusetts, home to the headquarters of the Church of Christ, Scientist....The spiritual healing provision was introduced in the House by Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), whose district includes a Christian Science school, Principia College.

I have a conflict of interest here since I come from a Christian Science background, but holy cow does this seem like a bad idea. Just a really, stupendously bad idea.  It's true that not everything that seems like a slippery slope really is one, but this really is one.  If it passes, can you imagine how this would play out among the Colorado Springs set within a few years?  The mind reels.

The Next Bubble

A year ago, the implosion of the global economy prompted a huge flight to quality.  Nobody wanted risky assets anymore.  All they wanted was nice, safe, United States Treasury bonds.

The economy has stabilized since then, and that means that investors with access to lots of cheap money are once again becoming eager to invest in risky assets.  Pimco's Paul McCulley suggests that this makes perfect sense as long as everyone is convinced that the Fed will hold interest rates at zero for a long time, but then he admits that it's all a bit of a paradox.  After all, the Fed will only hold down interest rates if the economy continues to suck, in which case rising asset prices are just a big bubble.  But if the economy recovers, thus justifying the high current prices of risky assets, then the Fed will raise interest rates and the whole thing will come crashing down.  It's a quandary.  In the end, though, he advises a bit half-heartedly that "the time has come to begin paring exposure to risk assets, and if their prices continue to rise, paring at an accelerated pace."

And Nouriel Roubini?  Well, Roubini doesn't do anything half-heartedly.  He says in no uncertain terms that we are completely and irrevocably fucked:

The US dollar has become the major funding currency of carry trades as the Fed has kept interest rates on hold and is expected to do so for a long time. Investors who are shorting the US dollar to buy on a highly leveraged basis higher-yielding assets and other global assets are not just borrowing at zero interest rates in dollar terms; they are borrowing at very negative interest rates — as low as negative 10 or 20 per cent annualised — as the fall in the US dollar leads to massive capital gains on short dollar positions.

....Yet, at the same time, the perceived riskiness of individual asset classes is declining as volatility is diminished due to the Fed’s policy of buying everything in sight....So the combined effect of the Fed policy of a zero Fed funds rate, quantitative easing and massive purchase of long-term debt instruments is seemingly making the world safe — for now — for the mother of all carry trades and mother of all highly leveraged global asset bubbles.

....But one day this bubble will burst, leading to the biggest co-ordinated asset bust ever....A stampede will occur as closing long leveraged risky asset positions across all asset classes funded by dollar shorts triggers a co-ordinated collapse of all those risky assets — equities, commodities, emerging market asset classes and credit instruments.

....This unraveling may not occur for a while, as easy money and excessive global liquidity can push asset prices higher for a while. But the longer and bigger the carry trades and the larger the asset bubble, the bigger will be the ensuing asset bubble crash. The Fed and other policymakers seem unaware of the monster bubble they are creating. The longer they remain blind, the harder the markets will fall.

Now that's a cheery thought, isn't it?  Monstrous amounts of leverage are going to be employed bidding up assets of all kinds, and monstrous amounts of money are going to be made.  As usual, everyone will assume they'll be able to get out in time, and about 99% of those people will be wrong.  Then: kaboom.  The yen carry trade took down Iceland and a few hedge funds, but the dollar carry trade is going to take us down.

Well, maybe, maybe not.  Roubini does seem to have some pretty sizable financial mood swings.  But I have to admit that the stock market sure looks overvalued to me too.  Corporate profits may be up for the moment, but belt tightening will only work for just so long.  Eventually revenues need to rise, and it's a little hard to see where that's going to come from in the short term.

But I'm a pessimist.  Even in good times I'm a pessimist.  So who cares what I think?

Climate change is forecast to burn Yosemite National Park violently in coming years. A new study in the International Journal of Wildland Fire finds the dwindling spring snowpack in the Sierra Nevada will exponentially increase the number of lightning-ignited fires.

The increase has two causes:

  • Increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere appear to be leading to more lightning strikes.
  • Decreasing winter snowpack—conservative climate models predict a 17-percent fall by 2050—will allow more lightning strikes  to ignite fires in the park.

The BBC quotes lead author James Lutz of the U of Washington Seattle:

"People already expect more ignitions from hotter summers. But this research suggests that declines in snowpack will have an additional effect."

In other words, a warming climate is setting up a nasty positive feedback loop, making a bad situation worse.

Come on, world leaders, lead already.