The much-debated war spending bill made it through the House last night. Altogether, the bill asked for $106 billion, including the orginal $75.5 billion that Bush requested for 2009. The bill included a little side project that might help solve one of Obama's biggest problems: how to save the car industry and the environment, simultaneously.

The "Cash for Clunkers" program sponsored by Rep. Betty Sutton (D-Ohio) intends to hand out $4,500 vouchers to people who bought cars that got 10 more miles-per-gallon than their old ones. Vouchers for $3,500 will go to consumers who made a 4 mpg improvement. Experts estimate that the program could create up to $1.5 million in car sales per year, but it's unclear how much it will do for the environment. "Light truck" owners will only be required to make a 5 mpg change to earn a voucher, even if their new car is a 16 mpg Hummer by GM. Cash for Clunkers is a good idea in theory, but we're not going to get anywhere if the government rewards people driving unapologetic gas-guzzlers for becoming only slightly more responsible.

Some Republicans opposed the program because it appears to be another handout to the failing auto industry, while Democrats such as Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) say it doesn't go far enough. Sound familiar?

American chestnut trees had always thrived in forests, towns, and farmland in the eastern US—until the early part of the last century, when a chestnut blight, thought to have come from the far east, all but obliterated the species.

But the tree still looms large in the American imagination, and for good reason: It's beautiful, towering and leafy. It also grows quickly, and its durable wood makes good floors, tables, and fences. For years, groups like American Chestnut Cooperators' Foundation have been working to revive the American chestnut. Now, it looks like a research team at Purdue University might have done it by creating a hybrid:

New efforts to hybridize remaining American chestnuts with blight-resistant Chinese chestnuts have resulted in a species that is about 94 percent American chestnut with the protection found in the Chinese species. Jacobs said those new trees could be ready to plant in the next decade, either in existing forests or former agricultural fields that are being returned to forested land.

Beyond the obvious ecological and aesthetic benefits of the new chestnut, researchers point out that the tree could also help mitigate the effects of global warming by removing carbon from the atmosphere. All trees do that of course, but the American chestnut would be particularly good at it, since it grows big quickly, explained a researcher:

"Each tree has about the same percentage of its biomass made up of carbon, but the fact that the American chestnut grows faster and larger means it stores more carbon in a shorter amount of time," Jacobs said.

No word yet on how the hybrid's chestnuts taste roasted, you know, over an open fire...

 

Sport hunters in the US and Africa are depleting lion and cougar populations. Why? Because wildlife managers respond to demands to control predators they believe threaten livestock and humans—rather than respond to demands to conserve the big cats.

The new study in PLoS ONE looked at lions and cougars killed by hunters over the past 15 to 25 years in Africa and the western US. The data suggest that management agencies routinely adjust quotas to control rather than conserve the big cats in areas where humans or livestock are believed threatened.

The reason sport hunting takes a significant toll on large felines is because replacement males routinely kill their predecessors' cubs, forcing female lions into estrus to improve their own mating opportunities.

The researchers confirmed this effect by comparing the impact of hunting on lions, cougars, leopards, and black bear populations. Male black bears don't routinely kill cubs of other males.

The results show that lion and cougar populations have suffered the greatest decline in places that sport hunting has been most intense in the last 25 years. Leopards are not as badly affected as lions and cougars, perhaps because they benefit from reduced numbers of lions. Black bears, by contrast, appear to be thriving despite thousands of bears killed by hunters.

The study results point to the need for new approaches to protect humans and livestock and to manage sport hunting without endangering vulnerable species. One possibility would be to restrict sport hunting to older males whose offspring have matured.

Or—radical thought—no hunting at all.

Combine this study with another recent investigation in PNAS showing that, in stark contrast with most predators, humans now exploit high proportions of prey populations and target large reproductive-aged adults. As a result, species hunted and fished by humans show particularly rapid and dramatic changes in phenotype (what an organism looks like as a consequence of the interaction of genetics and environment).

Average phenotypic changes in 40 human-harvested species were found to be much more rapid than changes in natural systems—outpacing them by more than 300 percent.

In fact species hunted or fished by humans now show some of the most abrupt trait changes ever observed in wild populations—rewriting the book on how fast phenotypes are capable of changing. The authors conclude that these changes (typically in the size of the animals and age of adulthood) can and do imperil populations, industries, and ecosystems.

Keep in mind we can't conserve ecosystems without their big predators, something I wrote about in GONE.
 

Torture opponents are hoping to see two reports—one by the CIA's inspector general, and one by the Department of Justice's Office of Professional Responsibility—sometime soon. On Wednesday, there was good news and bad news for those calling for transparency on torture. The bad news, via the Washington Post, is that the CIA is (shocker!) opposing the release of the full IG report. Jameel Jaffer, Director of the ACLU National Security Project, issued a response to that story Wednesday afternoon:

It's not surprising that the CIA is fighting for the suppression of documents that would provide further evidence that its torture program was both ineffective and illegal. Over the last few weeks, the agency has also suppressed cables relating to illegal interrogation methods and transcripts in which prisoners explain the torture that was inflicted upon them in the CIA's secret prisons. President Obama should not allow the CIA to determine whether evidence of its own unlawful conduct should be made available to the public. The president has rightly recognized the importance of restoring the rule of law at home and the moral authority of the United States abroad, but neither of those things will be possible as long as the CIA is permitted to conceal evidence of its crimes. The public has a right to know what took place in the CIA's secret prisons, and on whose authority.

The good news is that the Justice Department's OPR report is on its way out, perhaps without too many redactions. Attorney General Eric Holder told the Senate judiciary committee today that his "hope" is "to share as much of that report as I can with members of Congress and the public," and he "wouldn’t want to put an incomplete report in the public." He promised to release the report within "a matter of weeks."

Obama's Weak Tea

Matt Yglesias argues that the Obama administration has done the right thing by proposing that increased systemic risk authority be given to the Fed, which is insulated from the blowing of the political winds.  But I think this is backward.  If you're going to create some kind of systemic risk regulator at all — about which I'm sort of agnostic in the first place — you want to give the authority to an agency that's institutionally dedicated to reducing risk and considers it a primary task.  That ain't the Fed.  It's just going to get buried in the bureaucracy and forgotten there.

Matt also points to a couple of things Obama got right in his new financial regulation proposal:

Their regulatory package is reasonably strong on two ideas that I think could work. On the one hand, they have this consumer protection business.....It [] continues to be somewhat unclear exactly how much of the bad lending activity was truly fraudulent, but it’s at least possible that stronger consumer protections will help keep things under control. Last and most important of all, I think, is the idea of creating a clear legal process for the “resolution” of large, complicated financial firms. This is the one aspect of the crisis where I think you really can say that policymakers did want to do something different and better than what they did (ad hoc bailouts and bankrupties) and really were restrained by a lack of statutory and regulatory authority.

These are both potentially good things — assuming Congress doesn't water them down into useless swill.  But I think it's wildly unlikely that a consumer protection agency would have prevented the housing bubble.  After all, plenty of agencies knew about the fraud in the home loan market.  They just didn't do anything about it.  And the resolution authority, although it's important, only addresses what do to after a bubble has burst.  What's more important is trying to keep bubbles from inflating quite so high in the first place.

So color me still discouraged.  There's a legitimate concern that we not go crazy and overregulate the finance sector in response to the events of the past year.  But frankly, we're not within light years of that yet, and reckless overuse of leverage is still the key issue that needs to be addressed.  Obama's plan is weak on that score, and it will probably get even weaker after Dodd and Schumer and K Street are done with it.  For more on that, read George Soros's brief column in yesterday's Financial Times.  It seems on target to me.

This time over the Bush administration's refusal to release then-Vice President Dick Cheney's interview with the FBI regarding his role in the Valerie Plame leak. At the time, Bush and his attorney general, Michael Mukasey, cited executive privilege. They also floated the idea that future officials would be unwilling to cooperate with criminal investigations if they knew their interviews could be made public. Except special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald never offered Cheney confidentiality. But the Obama administration—citing arguments similar to Bush's—has refused to make the interview public.

So Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington sued the Justice Department under the Freedom of Information Act, whose guidelines Attorney General Eric Holder altered in March "to favor disclosure and transparency." They argue their case in U.S. District court on Thursday, and it appears they will base their argument partially on Holder's own loosening of Ashcroft-era FOIA restrictions. In an April letter to the Justice Department, CREW's attorney David Sobel wrote:

As the Attorney General has directed, echoing the words of President Obama, information should not be withheld “merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, [or] because errors and failures might be revealed.”

That certainly hurts the Justice Department's case, though perhaps not enough to compel the court to side with CREW. The Justice Department is also basing its case partly on certain exemptions from FOIA, one being Exemption 7a, which authorizes:

[T]he withholding of "records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes, but only to the extent that production of such law enforcement records or information . . . could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings."

Determining the applicability of this Exemption 7 subsection thus requires a two-step analysis focusing on (1) whether a law enforcement proceeding is pending or prospective, and (2) whether release of information about it could reasonably be expected to cause some articulable harm.

So the DOJ is reasonably expecting the release of Cheney's testimony to interfere with enforcement proceedings. How? The proceedings are over. The jury convicted Scooter Libby. Obama has not so much as hinted he wants to prosecute Cheney. In fact, he has said the opposite, all while promising transparency. What articulable harm could result in releasing Cheney's interview?

Housekeeping News

Quick note: I've gotten lots of email this morning asking me what happened to the Washington Monthly site.  Answer: it got hacked last night and their tech gremlins are busily rebuilding it.  With luck it should be back up sometime this afternoon.

UPDATE: They're back up now.

Conventional wisdom says that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's main base of support was in Iran's small towns and rural villages while Mir-Hossein Mousavi's support came mainly from young people and urban areas.  Eric Hooglund, an expert in rural Iran, casts some doubt on this:

Take Bagh-e Iman, for example. It is a village of 850 households in the Zagros Mountains near the southwestern Iranian city of Shiraz. According to longtime, close friends who live there, the village is seething with moral outrage because at least two-thirds of all people over 18 years of age believe that the recent presidential election was stolen by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

....Carloads of villagers actually drove to Shiraz to participate in the massive pro-Mousavi rallies that were held on the three nights prior to the balloting. And election-day itself was like a party in Bagh-e Iman. Many people openly announced their intentions to vote for Mousavi as they cheerfully stood in line chatting with neighbors, and local election monitors estimated that at least 65 percent of them actually did so. “Although some probably really voted for [Ayatollah Mehdi] Karubi, who also is a man of the people,” said election monitor Jalal.

....By Saturday evening, the shock and disbelief had given way to anger that slowly turned into palpable moral outrage over what came to be believed as the theft of their election. The proof was right in the village: “Interior Ministry officials came from Shiraz, sealed the ballot boxes, and took then away even before the end of voting at 9 pm,” said Jalal. In all previous elections, a committee comprised of representative from each political faction had counted and certified the results right in the village. The unexpected change in procedures caught village monitors off guard, as it did everywhere else in the country.

Read the whole thing.

Yesterday the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations decided to investigate the practice of recission.  This is when you pay your premiums for years to a healthcare insurer, then get sick, and then have your insurance cancelled.  The insurance industry executives at the hearing did not exactly cover themselves with glory:

A Texas nurse said she lost her coverage, after she was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer, for failing to disclose a visit to a dermatologist for acne.

The sister of an Illinois man who died of lymphoma said his policy was rescinded for the failure to report a possible aneurysm and gallstones that his physician noted in his chart but did not discuss with him.

....Late in the hearing, [Bart] Stupak, the committee chairman, put the executives on the spot. Stupak asked each of them whether he would at least commit his company to immediately stop rescissions except where they could show "intentional fraud."

The answer from all three executives: "No."

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) said that a public insurance plan should be a part of any overhaul because it would force private companies to treat consumers fairly or risk losing them. "This is precisely why we need a public option," Dingell said.

Even the Republicans on the committee couldn't defend the insurance company position.  A few more hearings like this and getting a public option into healthcare reform is suddenly going to look like a real possibility.  Nice going, guys.

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama released his proposal (PDF) for new regulation of financial instruments, including derivative products like credit default swaps that many believe contributed to the financial meltdown. But separate sets of rules for two types of derivatives could undermine the effectiveness of the administration's regulatory reform. Obama's Derivatives Loophole.