Chicago/Illinois Corruption Numbers, Cont'd.

| Wed Dec. 10, 2008 2:50 PM EST

Yesterday I noted that three of the last five Illinois governors (including Blagojevich) have been charged with some kind of major wrongdoing. Today, Slate points out that it isn't just the governors; politicians across the state are caught with their hands in the cookie jar with a stunning frequency. the last three decades, at least 79 local elected officials have been convicted of a crime, including three governors, one mayor, and a whopping 27 aldermen from the Windy City. What makes Chicago so corrupt? some degree because the city never had the benefit of a reformist mayor like New York City's Fiorello LaGuardia, who had political ties to FDR. Instead, Chicago moved towards a one-party system that made it even more vulnerable to corruption: The city's last Republican mayor left office in 1931. Today, not even the Democratic primaries are competitive—for the most part, once you're in office, you stay there. The weak campaign finance laws in Illinois probably helped to stave off competition in recent years....
How do we know that Chicago's so corrupt? The most straightforward way to measure corruption is to check the number of convicted local officials. Between 1995 and 2004, 469 politicians from the federal district of Northern Illinois were found guilty of corruption. The only districts with higher tallies were central California (which includes L.A.), and southern Florida (which includes Miami).

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Candidate #5

| Wed Dec. 10, 2008 1:07 PM EST

CANDIDATE #5....Brian Ross reports the latest on Blago:

Chicago Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-IL) is the anonymous "Senate Candidate #5" whose emissaries Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich reportedly claimed offered up to a million dollars to name him to the U.S. Senate, federal law enforcement sources tell ABC News.

An awful lot rides on just who the "emissaries" were and whether anyone has any evidence that they were acting with Jackson's knowledge. Needless to say, Jackson denies any involvement.

Bad Pundits

| Wed Dec. 10, 2008 12:30 PM EST

BAD PUNDITS....Foreign Policy rounds up the top ten worst predictions of 2008 today. Bill Kristol tops the list, and while I can't argue with that in a cosmic, karmic kind of sense, I have to confess that predicting Hillary Clinton would beat Barack Obama hardly qualifies as uniquely idiotic. Surely he's said something dumber than that recently?

Personally, I would have given the #1 spot to Don Luskin, who claimed, on the day before Bear Stearns collapsed, that it was ridiculous to say we were in a recession. That's an epic fail.

However, if I were Walter Wagner I'd sue for crystal ball malpractice. He's the guy who predicted that the Large Hadron Collider would destroy the earth, and FP says, "The LHC was turned on in September, and it appears that we are still here." But the truth is that the LHC never reached its full operational capacity before a malfunction shut it down. It might yet suck the planet into a black hole, and won't the FP editors have egg on their faces if that happens.

So Where Does the Blago Situation Go From Here?

| Wed Dec. 10, 2008 11:53 AM EST

Rod Blagojevich woke up today as the head of the Illinois government, fully vested with the ability to appoint someone to fill Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat. It's unlikely, of course, that the Senate would allow a Blago-appointee to actually take office, but the fact remains that Illinois still has a crazy man in power. Worse, he's a crazy man with a clear history of audacious actions and nothing to lose.

So what can be done to get the midwestern Tony Soprano out of power? Progress Illinois runs down the options. At current, it looks like Blago can resign, the General Assembly can impeach him, and the Supreme Court can use a little-known state judiciary rule to boot him from office. Click the link for a full explanation. Also note that the legislature in Illinois has made noises about passing a bill instituting a special election for the Senate seat, but such a bill would have to be signed by Blago himself.

Matt Cooper Sends Blago Some Advice About Patrick Fitzgerald

| Wed Dec. 10, 2008 11:02 AM EST

Journalist Matt Cooper, who almost got put in jail during Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation of the Valerie Plame leak, has some suggestions for disgraced Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. Here's Cooper, writing in Portfolio:

[Fitzgerald's] a hard ass, but a reasonable one and I think, if you believe you are guilty and are going to lose at trial, you might get a decent deal out of this. Sure, you'll have to do time but you're a relatively young guy. Fitz will deal....
You wanna deal with Fitzgerald directly, you and him. When I became a government witness, he interviewed me alone and knew the details of my case better than I did....

Bailing Out Detroit

| Wed Dec. 10, 2008 1:55 AM EST

BAILING OUT DETROIT....David Leonhardt uses this graphic in the New York Times today to illustrate the labor costs of the Big Three auto makers vs. the Japanese companies who manufacture cars in nonunion plants. As he says, the $70+ per hour figure that gets tossed around so often is badly misleading: a big chunk of that figure comes from legacy retiree costs, and retiree costs are high not because retiree benefits are wildly stupendous, but simply because the Big Three are old companies and therefore have a lot of retirees. But even so:

[Defenders of the Big Three] are not right to suggest, as many have, that Detroit has solved its wage problem. General Motors, Ford and Chrysler workers make significantly more than their counterparts at Toyota, Honda and Nissan plants in this country. Last year's concessions by the United Automobile Workers, which mostly apply to new workers, will not change that anytime soon.

He's right. Even under the new contracts signed last year with the UAW, it will take years for Detroit's costs to come down to Japanese levels. But worker paychecks aren't Detroit's primary problem anyway:

Imagine that a Congressional bailout effectively pays for $10 an hour of the retiree benefits. That's roughly the gap between the Big Three's retiree costs and those of the Japanese-owned plants in this country. Imagine, also, that the U.A.W. agrees to reduce pay and benefits for current workers to $45 an hour — the same as at Honda and Toyota.

Do you know how much that would reduce the cost of producing a Big Three vehicle? Only about $800.

That's because labor costs, for all the attention they have been receiving, make up only about 10 percent of the cost of making a vehicle. An extra $800 per vehicle would certainly help Detroit, but the Big Three already often sell their cars for about $2,500 less than equivalent cars from Japanese companies, analysts at the International Motor Vehicle Program say. Even so, many Americans no longer want to own the cars being made by General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.

....It's a sad story, in many ways. But it can't really be undone at this point. If we had wanted to preserve the Big Three, we would have bought more of their cars.

Obviously I have mixed feelings about all this. No one wants to see hundreds of thousands of auto workers collecting unemployment, especially now, but at the same time it just doesn't make sense to keep GM and Chrysler alive as zombie companies for the next couple of years. And the idea of a "car czar" doesn't appeal much either. It's only systemic restructuring that's going to make a difference here, and the deal we've struck so far doesn't seem to really accomplish that. Like so many other things these days, there aren't any good solutions here. Just bad and slightly less bad.

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| Wed Dec. 10, 2008 1:24 AM EST

BLIMPS!....Julian Barnes of the LA Times reports that Bob Gates's decision to stay on as Secretary of Defense will mean some procurement changes at the Pentagon:

The decision to keep Gates could spell the end of the Army's $160-billion Future Combat Systems program, and dim Air Force hopes for large numbers of new high-tech F-22 fighter jets. At the same time, smaller projects — perhaps blimps or light planes useful for ongoing conflicts — are likely to find new support.

Blimps? Seriously?

Some Army officials are pushing development of a small blimp equipped with an automated high-powered sniper rifle that could provide a form of inexpensive but effective air support for platoons in Afghanistan.

Can laser-equipped sharks be far behind?

Get Paid, Lose Weight

| Tue Dec. 9, 2008 10:54 PM EST

800px-United_States_one_dollar_bill%2C_obverse.jpg The power of money. Obese people offered a financial reward for every pound lost shed more weight during a 16 week trial than those given diet advice. That's not all. Previous studies show that smokers and cocaine addicts can be weaned off their habits by paying them to stay drug-free. Kids in developing countries actually attend school more when their parents are paid for it. A study currently underway in New York is assessing whether cash incentives motivate parents to send their kids for regular health check ups.

The diet study from U Penn found that many participants put weight on again after the program ended. The authors suggest long lasting results need long lasting payments. The paper appears in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

So what would thinner people buy for the planet? How about fewer greenhouse gas emissions. And what else might we buy for the common good? Peace? Rational thinking? If all it takes is money and we're already running the presses overtime, why not print some more?

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the PEN USA Literary Award, the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal.

Multiple Choice

| Tue Dec. 9, 2008 10:13 PM EST

MULTIPLE CHOICE....Robert Waldmann, who is currently residing in Rome, says he's happy that U.S. students are performing well in the TIMSS test of math and science, but then adds this:

However, I do have to note that the TIMSS test is mostly a multiple choice. Students in the USA have practice with the format. I teach in Italy and I can assure you that Italian students just don't know how to deal with multiple choice questions. It is a specific skill and not really related to knowledge about or understanding of math and science.

It's the italicized part that I'm interested in, not the part about whether multiple choice tests are fundamentally any good. Do Italian students really never take multiple choice tests? How about their equivalent of the SAT? (Do they have such a thing?) Also: Are multiple choice tests rare in the rest of Europe as well? (Perhaps. Here is a professor in London saying that "there is a British antipathy to multiple choice.") Why? And why then did they become so popular in the U.S.? (Don't say NCLB. We've been using them for a lot longer than that.)

Anyway, this is a curious little factoid that I didn't know before, so I thought I'd pass it along.


| Tue Dec. 9, 2008 8:26 PM EST

INFRASTRUCTURE....What kind of infrastructure program is Barack Obama likely to support once he gets into office? Well, Obama's choice to head up the OMB is Peter Orszag, so Alex Tabarrok suggests looking at Orszag's previous statements on infrastructure when he was head of the Congressional Budget Office.

With that in mind, then, here's a chart from testimony he gave to Congress last May. For a range of activity, it shows that the infrastructure budget ought to be increased $20 billion to maintain current service levels, but that nearly $80 billion more could be economically justified. However, here's what he says about the highway portion:

[A]ccording to a detailed analysis that the FHWA provided to CBO, over the next five years, investments required to maintain current levels of highway service would represent 58 percent of the total spending for all economically justifiable investments for highways, but they would provide 83 percent of the net benefits.

More than likely, then, Orszag won't be pushing for lots of additional spending on roads and bridges, since he believes the net benefit is pretty small once you get past the initial boost needed just to maintain the current system.

Alex suggests that Obama should instead focus on congestion pricing and electricity infrastructure (the famous "smart grid" that everyone talks about but no one ever seems to make any progress on). Here at Mother Jones, in a piece that just went online today, James K. Galbraith proposes a long-term investment program (not just a "stimulus") that includes aid to states, increased Social Security benefits, a payroll tax holiday, and this:

Finally, we must change how we produce energy, how we consume it, and above all how much greenhouse gas we emit. That's a long-term proposition that will require research and reconstruction on a grand scale: support for universities, for national labs, for federal and state planning agencies, a new Department of Energy and Climate. It's the project around which the economy of the next generation must be designed. It's the key to future employment and future growth — and to our physical survival.

Obama's radio speech this weekend outlining his stimulus-related spending plans had some decent points but wasn't exactly a barnburner. After he rolls out his environment team later this week, hopefully green energy development and smart grids will get a little more attention.