The 2008 Zeitgeist

| Wed Dec. 10, 2008 2:17 PM EST

THE 2008 ZEITGEIST....According to Google, here are the search terms that increased the most since 2007. Pretty weird group, isn't it?

Obama and Palin? No surprise there. David Cook? He's the latest American Idol winner, so no surprise there either.

Beijing 2008, Facebook, and iPhone? I wouldn't have guessed them, but OK. Makes sense.

But Fox News? YouTube? Those seem like they would have been massively popular well before 2008. What happened?

And ATT? Huh? I assume this is a search for AT&T, the telecommunications giant. Why on earth did they suddenly get trainloads of Google fu?

And finally, there's Surf The Channel, clearly a Zeitgeist choice designed solely to make me feel old. I've never heard of it. Googling it, I find that it's a "website for TV enthusiasts. We go out into the internet, find the shows we love on other sites and then list them here on our paqes." And it is the tenth fastest growing Google search in the United States. We are all doomed.

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New EPA Fugitive List = Pretty Useless

| Wed Dec. 10, 2008 2:05 PM EST

The EPA today released a new, "America's Most Wanted"-style list of environmental fugitives. Many of the fugitives, who have been charged with everything from "illegal discharge of hazardous pollutants" to "illegal asbestos removal," are suspected to have fled to countries like Syria and Denmark. Grant Nakayama, an official in the EPA's enforcement division, said in a press release that "Putting this information on the EPA's website will increase the number of 'eyes' looking for environmental fugitives."

While portraying people who commit environmental crimes as serious criminals is definitely laudable, EPA enforcement has been almost completely toothless under the Bush administration. You gotta wonder if, even if they the EPA does get information on these fugitives, they'd actually try to convict them. According to the Associated Press, in 2008 the EPA opened 100 fewer criminal enforcement cases than they did in 2004. In 2006, it began shutting down its research libraries. As one senior EPA scientist, Wes Wilson, told us in the current issue, the EPA has moved far from its investigative past. "Now we sit around and basically do nothing," he said.

Not only is the EPA investigating fewer cases, it's getting political interference on the cases it has pursued. According to a recently retired EPA official, the DOJ may have improperly shut down an investigation of a huge 2006 BP oil spill. Maybe the EPA is just treading water waiting for an Obama-related reorganization, but I couldn't help but feel the list is a waste of resources without including more headshots of CEOs from oil and energy companies. Though CEOs aren't fugitives, when it comes down to it, their corporations are the ones doing the major damage, not guys like Alessandro Giordano who "illegally imported automobiles that did not meet the United States emission standards." For my taxpayer dollar, I'd prefer to see less energy spent looking for small-time criminals abroad, and more effort on catching those really big fish here at home.

On Hollywood's (Not-Always) Subtle Homophobia

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

The excellent Hollywood biopic, Milk, has unwittingly exposed a subtle form of homophobia--"a post-ironic, post-homophobic homophobia," as the Washington Post puts it--that remains a fixture of the Hollywood media circuit. Today the Post has compiled a disturbing account of interviews given by male actors who play gay men in the movies, and who are invariably asked by journalists and talk show hosts what it was like to kiss another man (with the obvious subtext: wasn't it kind of nasty?).

Exhibit A is a conversation between David Letterman and Milk's James Franco, in which Letterman asks him what he was thinking going into a minute-long kissing scene with Penn:

"I didn't want to screw it up," Franco told Letterman.
"See, if it's me, I kind of hope I do screw it up," Letterman shot back. "That's what you want, isn't it?"
"To screw it up?" Franco asked.
"I mean, do you really want to be good at kissing a guy?" Letterman said as his audience howled with delight.

Even worse was an interview Chris Potter, an actor in Showtime's Queer as Folk gave to MSNBC: "Soon as they say 'cut,' you spit," he sneered. "You want to go to a strip bar or touch the makeup girls. You feel dirty. It's a tough job."

Chicago/Illinois Corruption Numbers, Cont'd.

| Wed Dec. 10, 2008 1:50 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).

Candidate #5

| Wed Dec. 10, 2008 12:07 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 11:30 AM 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.

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So Where Does the Blago Situation Go From Here?

| Wed Dec. 10, 2008 10:53 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 10:02 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 12:55 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.


| Wed Dec. 10, 2008 12:24 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?