AmEx Woes

Apparently some American Express customers are being told they have to send in copies of their tax returns if they want to keep their credit cards.  Gotta be a scam, right?  No one in their right mind would do that.

Nope.  It's for real.  AmEx must be in a world of hurt these days.

Kathleen Sebelius

Matt Yglesias ruminates on the meaning of yesterday's vote to (finally) confirm a Secretary of Health and Human Services:

It seems to me that if you can only get 65 votes for what should be an uncontroversial HHS appointment, then the odds of a broad bipartisan coalition for big picture health care reform are not so good.

....The prevailing spirit within the GOP is clearly that Obama is a very bad president and so they should vote “no” on his initiatives. Which is fine. But it means that if Obama wants to deliver on his campaign pledges, he needs to use every legal means at his disposal to just pass things over the objections of the minority that opposes him.

I had sort of the same thought yesterday.  I mean, I understand the political/fundraising motivations for voting no on Sebelius as a sop to the pro-life contingent in the GOP, but everyone knew there was no way it would ever make a difference.  It's not as if Obama would have turned around and nominated a pro-lifer to HHS, after all.  It's ridiculous.  But nearly the entire Republican caucus voted against her anyway, which means that their desire to work with Obama even at the most basic level of allowing a president to choose his own cabinet is less important than their desire to prove their absolute fealty to the conservative base.

Not a good sign — although I suppose there's an alternate reading that's less dire: if you know that Sebelius is going to be confirmed anyway, voting no is something of a freebie.  So maybe this doesn't really mean too much after all.  On balance, though, I think I'm with Matt.

Economic Update

So how's the economy doing?  Let's take a look!

New York Times: U.S. GDP shrank by 6.1% in the first quarter, far worse than the "consensus" prediction of 4.7%.

Bloomberg: A full third of the country's biggest banks need additional capital, according to leaked preliminary results of the Treasury's stress tests.

RGE Monitor: According to a government report leaked to Sueddeutsche Zeitung, bad assets in the German banking system total slightly over a trillion dollars.  Over half of bad assets worldwide are in the European banking system, which has done much less to recognize them than we have in the U.S.

Wall Street Journal: Business fixed investment in the U.S. was down a whopping 37.8% last quarter.

Want some good news to go with that?  Sorry!  Apparently personal consumption was up 2.2%, which is probably a mixed blessing, and home prices were down 18% compared to last year, but didn't quite fall at a record rate.  That's the best I can do.  Ed Yardeni tries to do better, but one of the green shoots on his list of reasons to feel optimistic is the fact that Portfolio magazine has shut down.  Put me down as unconvinced.

This just came over the AP wire:

Spain's top investigative magistrate has opened an investigation into the Bush administration over alleged torture of terror suspects at the Guantanamo prison.

The new investigation by Judge Baltasar Garzon (whom Mother Jones profiled in 2004 and discussed again this January) comes after he was instructed earlier not to open an inquiry into six former Bush administration officials, including former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Garzon's latest ruling does not name specific individuals, but will "investigate both those who carried out torture and those who ordered or cooperated with it," according to Reuters. When David Corn, Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief, asked White House press secretary Robert Gibbs about Garzon's plans two weeks ago, Gibbs joked about it. David pointed out that "If an investigation proceeds, Obama could well have to decide whether or not to comply with Spanish requests for US government documents--that is, to help or hinder the investigation." Now that Garzon is going forward with an investigation—this time without the names—will the Obama administration take it seriously, or keep kidding around?

Michael Steele and the RNC sent out an email to supporters late last night trying to raise funds on Specter's switch. "His defection to the Democrat Party puts the Democrats in an almost unstoppable position to pass Obama's destructive agenda," he wrote. "Join me in this fight by making a secure online contribution of $25, $50, $100, $500 or $1,000 right now." For good measure, he calls Specter "craven" and Obama backers a "band of radical leftists."

My favorite bit, though, is when he follows up that name-calling by comparing the RNC and its supporters to America's greatest statesman.

Some will use Specter's defection as an excuse to fold the tent and give up. I believe that you are not one of those people. When Benedict Arnold defected to the British, George Washington didn't fold the tent and give up either.

What's a little self-flattery among friends? Steele also said yesterday that Specter, who is basically a moderate conservative, has a "left-wing" voting record. Which is a pretty clear signal that, oh, 70 percent of Americans and their political views aren't welcome in today's GOP. Nice work, Chairman Steele!

Update: Uh oh. Looks like Steele is facing dissent in-house.

Swine Flu Gives Pork a Bad Name

Fewer little piggies are going to market, and farmers are scrambling. News of the now-ubiquitous swine flu fills the headlines (what recession?), everyone's either got it, has symptoms, or can't get the virus off their RSS feeds (sorry). Even the "swine" in swine flu is presenting some with opportunities. The advocacy group Farm Sanctuary has taken the swine flu's 15 minutes and released an advisory on the ills of factory farmed pork. True, the pandemic may represent a policy window for proposed legislation to better regulate mass production of pork, but officials are now saying that the flu's name is misleading.

Also called the North American flu or the catchy "H1N1" virus, swine flu is the name that's stuck (except in Israel where they've pulled the swine reference since no one eats pork in that Jewish/Muslim mess-of-a-state and apparently therefore no one would care?). Earlier today Ag secretary Tom Vilsack practically begged people to stop using "swine flu" and to start referring to the illness by its scientific name HIN1. Too bad the science didn't work out to C3PO.

Q&A: Adam Freeland

While he may not be a household name, Adam Freeland is a legend in the world of electronic music. He's one of a handful of producers who can legitimately be credited with, if not wholly inventing, at least bringing to the foreground an entirely new genre: a darker, smarter strain of breakbeat music called "nu skool breaks." Moreover, his music has often been politically outspoken, and with his eponymous band, he bridges the gap between rock and dance. I talked with him backstage at the Coachella festival about the changing political scene as well as his upcoming album.

Green Shoots

Tapped glosses an EPI report on green jobs:

Most notable is its pronouncement that a "green" investment is one of the most stimulative forms of government spending, providing a 1.6:1 return-to-investment ratio. This is greater than generic infrastructure investment (1.59), temporary tax cuts (1.03), and corporate tax cuts (0.3)....Now for the less-than-rosy projection: men would be disproportionately advantaged by this spending, accounting for 75 percent of the total employment gains.

Actually, that's not as bad as it sounds — at least in the short run.  As CAP's Heather Boushey points out, men have absorbed 75% of all job losses during the current recession, so a stimulus program that targets them disproportionately makes some sense.  After all, it's either that or let them stay home grinding their teeth and taking cues from Fox News about who to blame for all this.  And we don't want that, do we?

Overall, EPI's model projects that $100 billion in green investments would generate 750,000 jobs and raise wages of non-college educated workers by about half a percent per year.  Plus it would help prevent us from turning the planet into a cinder.  So that would be another bonus.  The whole paper is here.

Specter and EFCA

A few weeks ago Arlen Specter announced that he would oppose the Employee Free Choice Act (aka "card check"), labor's top legislative priority.  But now that he's a Democrat, what will he do?  Jon Chait speculates:

Specter says he’ll still oppose EFCA, but I have trouble seeing him really maintain that stance. He has to make it through a Democratic primary now. That’s very hard to do in Pennsylvania when the AFL-CIO is out for your blood.

Specter’s most likely play is to stay formally opposed to EFCA, but support a compromise along the lines of what some moderate Democrats might favor. He certainly can’t risk being the decisive anti-EFCA vote. Democrats in the Senate may be offering him institutional support in the primary, but primaries tend to be low-turnout operations, and Specter is going to have to work his way into the favor of the partisan Democratic base.

I think that's probably right.  Specter won't completely flip-flop, but there was some wiggle room in his statement announcing opposition to EFCA.  Even without changing his position on secret ballots, then, I could see him working with a few conservative Dems and moderate Republicans to construct a compromise bill that pretty effectively boosts his labor bona fides.  After all, the current version of EFCA is almost certainly dead in the water (and was likely dead before Specter announced his oppostion), so gaining support for even a watered down version would allow him to position himself as the guy who rescued EFCA and got half a loaf where there was nothing previously.

It might not work, of course, but it's probably worth a try for him.  I wouldn't be surprised to see him give it a go.

Is Luce's "American Century" Finally Over?

Via TomDispatch, Andrew J. Bacevich has an interesting take today on how to drive a stake through the heart of Hank Luce's "American century." A snippet, plus video:

When the Time-Life publisher coined his famous phrase, his intent was to prod his fellow citizens into action. Appearing in the February 7, 1941 issue of Life, his essay, "The American Century," hit the newsstands at a moment when the world was in the throes of a vast crisis. A war in Europe had gone disastrously awry. A second almost equally dangerous conflict was unfolding in the Far East. Aggressors were on the march...