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By This Logic, Any East Coast Mayor Could Be John McCain's VP

| Fri Sep. 12, 2008 12:04 PM EDT

If you've read any coverage of Sarah Palin's interview with ABC, you know that she is continuing to insist she has foreign policy credibility because you can "see" Russia from her state. Mike Tomasky takes the idea for a test run.

"Russia," as a political entity, isn't a bunch of rocks in Siberia. It's Moscow. We don't dispute that, right? Right.
So let's do a little experiment. How close is Juneau, Alaska's capital, to Moscow? It's 4,559.6 miles. Meanwhile, how close is, say, Boston, the capital of Massachusetts, to Moscow? It's 4,498.8 miles. (Distances calculated using this site.)
So there you have it. Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick is more geographically qualified to speak of matters Russian than Palin is. I wish someone would make this into a commercial. They'd never trot this argument out again.

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Adjusting for (De)flation

| Fri Sep. 12, 2008 11:53 AM EDT

ADJUSTING FOR (DE)FLATION....The New York Times reports on consumer activity:

The price index for finished goods, a measure of the change in prices businesses pay, fell 0.9 percent in August after a 1.2 percent increase in July, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Consumers' spending on retail and food decreased 0.3 percent in August after a 0.5 monthly drop in July, according to the Census Bureau. Economists had been expecting an increase of 0.2 percent.

Does this mean that actual sales of goods and services were down 0.3 percent? Or, if you adjust for inflation, does it mean that retail sales were actually up?

I have no idea, and nowhere in the NYT piece do they tell you. Nor do the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal. The only way to find out is to go to the Census Bureau press release itself, which says:

The U.S. Census Bureau announced today that advance estimates of U.S. retail and food services sales for August, adjusted for seasonal variation and holiday and trading-day differences, but not for price changes, were $381.2 billion, a decrease of 0.3 percent (±0.5%)* from the previous month, but 1.6 percent (±0.7%) above August 2007.

So the reported drop is from July to August, not from last year. And it's not adjusted for inflation. Actual, inflation-adjusted sales were probably up a bit compared to last month, but down about 4% from last year.

This is all a bit murky since we don't have final inflation/deflation numbers yet for August, and overall I don't know if this is good or bad news anyway. But that's the news. Why can't the financial press report it?

Obama Goes on Offense: McCain Is "Out of Touch"

| Fri Sep. 12, 2008 10:58 AM EDT

With his supporters increasingly grumbling about what feels like a campaign perpetually fighting back against John McCain's attacks, Barack Obama began an offensive assault today.

The Obama campaign is seizing on a statement by McCain Thursday night on CNN in which the Republican senator said, "It's easy for me to go to Washington and, frankly, be somewhat divorced from the day-to-day challenges people have."

In a conference call with reporters Friday morning, top Obama surrogates hammered McCain for the statement. Dick Durbin, senator from Illinois, said, "[McCain] wants to continue with George Bush have failed. If he would, you know, be in the real world of American families in New York, Illinois or Florida, he would understand that."

Rahm Emanuel, a representative from Illinois and part of the Democratic House leadership, added, "[McCain is] removed from the day-to-day challenges people have faced in their lives. And you see it manifest itself in the thing when he says, you know, I don't use a computer. I don't use e-mail. There's a whole economic revolution going on. And it fundamentally changed the economy, and fundamentally changed people's lives, and he is removed from it."

An unnamed Obama campaign official told Politico that the campaign's message is simple: "Out of touch, out of touch, out of touch."

New McCain Ad: Racist or No?

| Fri Sep. 12, 2008 10:47 AM EDT

The McCain campaign has a new 30-second spot out, hitting Obama and Biden for mistreating Sarah Palin. It's below. Near the end, Obama's face is shown with the words "HOW DISRESPECTFUL." "Disrespectful" is actually the title of the ad.

Some are questioning whether that's racist. Here's TPM's David Kurtz: "Doesn't it just drip with contempt? The sort of old-fashioned contempt that whites often held blacks in (and obviously still do)."

I'm not sure I agree. I think "how disrespectful" could be effective if paired with an image of a white politician, too, as long as that white politician's calling card was civility and positivity. Tarnishing such a reputation doesn't depend on the politician's color.

Anyway, it's not often when an ad is obviously racist or obviously sexist. Ads are almost always in a gray area, as this one is. Each viewer can decide how he or she feels.

The First Interview

| Fri Sep. 12, 2008 2:20 AM EDT

THE FIRST INTERVIEW....Honest, I'm trying not to write endlessly about Sarah Palin. I really am. But this interview with Charlie Gibson is just embarrassing. Is the Republican Party really serious about this?

Over at The Corner, though, Lisa Schiffren thinks the problem isn't Palin, it's Gibson having the gall to ask substantive questions: "For the record, it just looks condescending and inappropriate for one of the great minds of the national media to sit, notebook in hand, quizzing this younger woman, as someone said, as if she were a grad student." Goodness yes. Holding a reporter's notebook and asking questions. Charlie should have known better than to do that while interviewing a 44-year-old woman running for vice president of the United States.

Jon Chait has more here. Yglesias here. M.J. Rosenberg highlights another part of the interview here.

Meanwhile, non-insane conservative foreign policy guy Dan Drezner reports on the private reaction of GOP foreign policy heavyweights to Palin's nomination: "Having chatted with a few members of this mandarin class, I would describe the range of opinion about Palin's foreign policy bona fides as varying from 'underwhelmed' to 'you gotta be f#$%ing kidding me?'"

But none of that matters. She didn't leap up from her chair and demand that we nuke Moscow unless Russia withdraws from Georgia by tomorrow, so I guess her appearance with Gibson counts as a win for McCain. Those seem to be the current rules, anyway.

Service

| Fri Sep. 12, 2008 12:54 AM EDT

SERVICE....I don't have any lengthy comments to make about CNN's McCain-Obama show tonight, but I will say two things. First, listening to McCain bleat unctuously about the corrosive tone of the campaign almost made me ill. Second, Obama really does need to sharpen up his answers. Make your point and move on, Senator.

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Sarah Palin's Wasilla Emails: Did She Violate State Law?

| Thu Sep. 11, 2008 11:45 PM EDT

Sarah Palin made her bones as a self-proclaimed Republican reformer in Alaska when she turned on a Republican Party state chairman who had had been accused of wrongdoing. In 2003, that GOP leader, Randy Ruedrich, was one of three members of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission; Palin chaired the commission and served as its ethics officer. After the news broke that Ruedrich had hosted a Republican fundraiser with several oil company executives and had sent out an email notice for a different Republican fundraising event, critics demanded he resign.

Leading the anti-Ruedrich pack was Palin. She threatened to quit the commission unless Ruedrich resolved his conflicts. "It was a very simple issue," she said at the time. "It was black and white." And after Ruedrich was forced out, Palin, acting at the behest of state investigators, examined his computer files and found emails and documents showing that Ruedrich had used his state office to conduct partisan work for the Republican Party. The records Palin unearthed became evidence in a state investigation that led to a settlement under which Ruedrich paid a $12,000 fine.

Thanks to this episode, Palin became known as a Republican willing to take on a fellow Republican who had abused his office and misused state resources. But what was not known at the time was that a year earlier, Palin had used official resources for her own partisan purposes. In doing so, Palin, now the governor of Alaska and the Republican vice presidential nominee, might have run afoul of state law and the municipal code of Wasilla.

According to emails obtained by Andrée McLeod, a self-described independent government watchdog in Alaska, and shared with Mother Jones, in 2002, when Palin was in her last year as mayor of Wasilla and running for lieutenant governor in a Republican primary, she used her official city email account for campaign purposes. In a June 11, 2002 email to Randy Ruedrich--sent from her sarah@ci.wasilla.ak.us account--Palin asked if the state Republican Party would disseminate notices for her fundraisers. "I have a heckuva' lot of notices I would love to be distributed to all the [state party] lists because I'm not networked into all the valuable distribution lists that other candidates may be networked into," she wrote. "Can you do that for me?"

Walkability

| Thu Sep. 11, 2008 9:49 PM EDT

WALKABILITY....Responding to my post yesterday about walkability in Irvine (actually, just the Woodbridge area of Irvine, but whatever), Matt Yglesias brings up a key point: at low densities you can have a nice suburb and at high densities you can have a walkable neighborhood, but there's no happy medium where you have both.

This gives me the opportunity, just for the hell of it, to post an excerpt from Joel Garreau's Edge City, a book that's dated but still one of my all-time favorites. An edge city is basically just a suburb that also has lots of office space (like Irvine, for example, or Tyson's Corner), and its density is measured in FAR, or Floor-to-Area-Ratio. For example, 10,000 square feet of office space on 100,000 square feet of land gives you a FAR of 0.1. Developers think of FAR like this: "The fundamental unit of density, from which all calculations spring — parking, hence profitability, hence human behavior, hence civilization." Here are the basic, inviolate laws of FAR:
  • The level of density at which automobile congestion starts becoming noticeable in edge city: 0.25 FAR.

  • The level of density at which it is necessary to construct parking garages instead of parking lots because you have run out of land: 0.4 FAR.

  • The level of density at which traffic jams become a major political issue in edge city: 1.0 FAR.

  • The level of density beyond which few edge cities ever get: 1.5 FAR.

  • The level of density at which light rail transit starts making economic sense: 2.0 FAR.

  • The level of density of a typical old downtown: 5.0 FAR.

  • The density-gap corollary to the laws of density: Edge cities always develop to the point where they become dense enough to make people crazy with the traffic, but rarely, if ever, do they get dense enough to support the rail alternative to automobile traffic.

This comes from "The Laws," which is the appendix to Edge City and its most entertaining part. Highly recommended, even though it's now nearly two decades old.

Other worthwhile responses to my walkability post are here, here, and here. I also think the "tipping point" concept is probably useful here. One of the points I didn't make clearly yesterday but should have is that I don't think walkability is one of those things where you can hope to make incremental changes in order to get incremental improvements. (Outside of dense urban cores, that is.) Woodbridge, as suburbs go, is pretty walkable: probably about 70% as good as you're likely to realistically get. But this has not produced a neighborhood that's gone from 100% car-centric to 90% car-centric. At best, it's produced a neighborhood that's gone from 100% car-centric to 99.9% car centric.

The problem, I think, is that walkability comprises a lot of things and you have to have all of them in full measure. You need high density and street level retail and scarce and expensive parking and good transit and a wide variety of easily accessible shops and restaurants. And a few other things as well. If you have four out of five it's not good enough. If you have medium density but not high density it's not good enough. If shops are 20 minutes away instead of 5 minutes away, it's not good enough. Improving any one of these things has virtually no impact until all of them are good enough. And that's why genuine walkability is really, really hard to get outside of urban cores.

Plus Americans are lazy. Here's another one of The Laws: "In either a downtown or an Edge City, if you do everything you can to make casual use of the automobile inconvenient at the same time you make walking pleasant and attractive, you maybe, just maybe, can up the distance an American will willingly walk to fifteen-hundred feet. A quarter of a mile. And this at the substantial risk of everybody saying forget it and choosing not to patronize your highly contrived environment at all." And if you don't do this? Then the maximum distance an American will willingly walk is 600 feet.

Exclusive: More on the Interior Department's Sex and Oil Scandal

| Thu Sep. 11, 2008 9:00 PM EDT

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Chances are you've heard about the bacchanal known as the Minerals Management Service. The arm of the Interior Department charged with collecting some $10 billion a year in royalties from oil and gas companies, it has been caught up in scandal after scandal, including this week's revelations that top employees were in bed (and not just figuratively) with the oil officials they were supposed to regulate. In between glacially slow-to-arrive FOIA requests, I've been looking into MMS and its weird party culture off and on for more than a year. Here's a few juicy details that you won't read in the Inspector General's report.

The IG tells us about two MMS oil marketers, Stacy Leyshon and Crystel Edler, who became known among oil executives as the "MMS Chicks." Between 2002 and 2006, each received more than $2,700 in gifts on more than 60 occasions from oil companies, including meals, booze, lodging, and golf outings. Leyshon, who slept with two oil company employees, operated a sex toys side business known as "Passion Parties" (think Tupperware parties, but with dildos) and bragged that it paid more than her day job at MMS. She told the IG that nobody in the oil industry had purchased sex products from her (though three subordinates at MMS had). However, that account is contradicted by former MMS Deputy Junius Walker, a high-ranking employee who worked in Leyshon's Denver office before retiring. "She's selling that stuff to oil and gas companies," he told me last year. "I mean, that's what she was doing. She was going around, going down to the oil and gas companies, putting on presentations. . .They were having a really, really good time."

Mathematical Model Predicts Obama Win by Ten Points

| Thu Sep. 11, 2008 8:14 PM EDT

Emory political science professor Alan Abramowitz seems to have a mathematical election model that works. Abramowitz's system has correctly predicted the popular vote winner within two percentage points for every presidential election since 1988. This year, it's predicting an Obama win: 54.3 percent, versus McCain's 45.7 percent.

The model isn't perfect, of course, but it does factor in a wide range of variables such as GDP, a party's time in office, and recent polls. "While factors outside of the model, such as rising partisan polarization and resistance to an African American candidate by some white voters may result in a somewhat smaller popular vote margin for the Democratic nominee," Abramowitz writes, "the combination of an unpopular Republican incumbent in the White House, a weak economy, and a second-term election make a Democratic victory in November all but certain."

If you're skeptical of models, check out the Iowa Electronic Market's trading index for the presidential election. For decades, it's been a much better predictor of presidential wins than Gallup polls. As of today, the market's predicting a 54 percent win for the Democrats, versus 45 percent for the Republicans. it could be a coincidence that those numbers are so close to Abramowitz's, or it could be that investors are reacting to his model's predictions. A third option: it could be that Obama actually is going to win by ten points.