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.

White House Will Just Bail Out Detroit Itself, Without Help From You Jerks in Congress

| Fri Dec. 12, 2008 11:52 AM EST

With Senate Republicans intent on doing nothing, the White House (which supported the auto industry bailout so strongly that Dick Cheney actually went to Senate Republicans on Wednesday and said, "If we don't do this, we will be known as the party of Herbert Hoover forever") is considering using a portion of October's $700 billion bailout package intended for Wall Street to save the automakers. Here's a press release from Press Secretary Dana Perino:

It is disappointing that while appropriate and effective legislation to assist and restructure troubled automakers received majority support in both houses, Congress nevertheless failed to pass final legislation. The approach in that legislation provided an opportunity to use funds already appropriated for automakers, and presented the best chance to avoid a disorderly bankruptcy while ensuring taxpayer funds go only to firms whose stakeholders were prepared to make the difficult decisions to become viable, competitive firms in the future.
Under normal economic conditions we would prefer that markets determine the ultimate fate of private firms. 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. A precipitous collapse of this industry would have a severe impact on our economy, and it would be irresponsible to further weaken and destabilize our economy at this time.

That's how off-the-deep-end congressional Republicans have become. They're making the Bush White House look sane.

Update: Speaking of off-the-deep-end, one conservative blogger is now claiming that benefits to gay partners are sinking automakers.

More Substantive Update: Treasury is telling the press it will only do enough to keep the Big 3 afloat until January, when the new Congress (which will have larger Democratic majorities) can decide on a more permanent course of action.

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Michigan Will Not Vote Republican For a Generation

| Fri Dec. 12, 2008 11:02 AM EST

When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, he reportedly turned to his press secretary, the now well-known journalist Bill Moyers, and said, "We have lost the South for a generation."

I think it's safe to say we've seen something similar this week. Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans blocked a bailout for the auto industry late Thursday night, leaving the Big 3 and the hundreds of thousands who rely on them for their daily wages in the lurch. Here's the key point: McConnell and company didn't decide that ruining Christmas for thousands of families was worth it because they felt Detroit needs to be retrofitted for a 21st century economy and that that fundamental realignment can only happen by scrapping the whole operation and starting over under new management. That would be a legitimate reason for opposing the bailout. I'm not sure I agree with it — if we have hundreds of billions for the financial industry, I'm sure we can find some for the automakers that the government can tie to innovation benchmarks and new management quotas. But it's a reasonable position to take.

No, the GOP decided that they would block the auto industry bailout because they couldn't take a big enough jab at the United Auto Workers union. Both Democrats and the UAW agreed that Detroit's workers should lower their wages and reduce their benefits to match those of Toyota, Nissan, and Honda workers in the United States. They wanted to do it by 2011. The Republicans wanted it done by 2009. And because that difference couldn't be resolved, the GOP blocked the bailout and likely cratered a massive segment of the Michigan economy and a significant segment of the American economy.

And that's why I say Michigan — as recently as November a crucial presidential swing state — won't vote Republican for a generation, or more. Republicans can crow all they want about how they are letting the "free market" reign, but the free market doesn't vote. Everyday people, who understand the Republican Party opposed a bailout of their industry because the screws being twisted on them weren't being twisted enough, well, they do vote. And they'll likely do anything they can to vote against McConnell and his pals.

Update: There are two possibilities for saving the auto industry at this point. (1) If the Big 3 can find a way to limp through the holidays, the enlarged Democratic majorities that will take office on January 6 will find a way to pass a bailout, which the White House will then sign. (2) Treasury can bail out the auto industry using TARP funds. There are already hints that this will happen.

Photo from flickr user donbuciak used under a Creative Commons license.

No Bailout

| Fri Dec. 12, 2008 2:18 AM EST

NO BAILOUT....Senate Republicans have scuttled the auto bailout bill. Apparently Democrats and the UAW had agreed to deep wage cuts and work rule changes, but it still wasn't enough:

The automakers would [] have been required to cut wages and benefits to match the average hourly wage and benefits of Nissan, Toyota and Honda employees based in the United States, and the companies would have to impose equivalent work rules.

It was over this proposal that the talks ultimately deadlocked with Republicans demanding that the automakers meet that goal by a certain date in 2009 and Democrats and the union urging that the deadline wait until 2011 when the U.A.W. contract expires.

This is nuts. If you're just flatly against the bailout, fine. Vote against it. But if the wage cuts, along with the debt-for-equity swap that was also part of the bill, were enough to bring you around, why would you cavil at the cuts happening in 2011 instead of the end of 2009? It's only about an 18 month difference, and cutting wages makes a lot more sense in 2011 than it does in the middle of a massive recession anyway.

Another shining moment in the history of the modern GOP. Ideology uber alles.

Saving Detroit

| Thu Dec. 11, 2008 9:06 PM EST

SAVING DETROIT....Earlier this morning the auto bailout bill seemed destined for failure, but later in the day Harry Reid and Sen. Bob Corker (R–Tenn.) were busy trying to patch together one final effort at compromise:

As Reid spoke, a bipartisan group of senators and representatives from Detroit's Big Three automakers and the United Auto Workers union were meeting one floor below in the ceremonial Foreign Relations Committee Room, trying to broker an 11th-hour deal to save the rescue package.

....Corker today put forward a plan that would impose far more stringent auto industry restructuring standards than the House bill. It would reduce the wages and benefits of union workers at domestic car manufacturers by requiring the total labor costs of GM and Chrysler to be "on par" with those in non-union U.S. plants of foreign automakers such as Toyota and Honda.

OK, but I have one question: Is Corker also insisting that the total labor costs of GM's white collar management staff be on on par with those of Toyota and Honda? Just curious.

ProPublica: Bush's Presidency, Harper's Index-style

| Thu Dec. 11, 2008 8:14 PM EST

From ProPublica:

Number of Illegal immigrants deported in 2001: 110,000. In 2008: 350,000.

Number of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in 2000: 2.2 million. In 2007: 21.8 million

Number of personnel who process FOIA requests in 2000: 5,378. In 2007: 5,367

It's pretty grim reading. But it confirms that we were right to throw that particular bum out.

[Also, speaking of ProPublica, check out their nifty 'Degrees of Hank Paulson' interactive game while you're there.]