Palin vs. Palin

The New York Times takes a look at Sarah Palin's post-campaign life up in Alaska:

Almost as soon as she returned home, the once-popular governor was isolated from an increasingly critical Legislature. Lawmakers who had supported her signature effort to develop a natural gas pipeline turned into uncooperative critics.

.... Her growing list of detractors quickly signaled that they were not impressed with her celebrity status. “We had business to do,” said State Representative Nancy Dahlstrom, a Republican who had worked on Ms. Palin’s 2006 race for governor. “It’s not all about adoration.”

....Democrats who had been crucial to her governing coalition now saw her as a foe. Republican leaders who had previously lost fights with her smelled weakness. An abortion bill she supported requiring parental consent stalled, the Legislature rejected her choice for attorney general and lawmakers became skeptical of the natural gas pipeline effort.

There was a lot more than just this, of course.  Among other things, there were money issues, personal issues, organizational issues, and an almost pathological inability to avoid a feud no matter how small or trivial.  But the fact that she found it almost impossible to govern Alaska after she returned obviously played a big role in Palin's decision to quit too.

Which got me to thinking: when was the last time someone ran for national office, lost, and then had to go back to being governor?  Answer: in the past 50 years it's happened only once, to Michael Dukakis after he lost in 1988.  And as you may recall, things didn't go swimmingly for Dukakis either when he returned to the statehouse — despite the fact that he was an experienced governor, didn't have any money problems, didn't participate in endless personal feuding, didn't try to position himself for another run four years later, didn't have tabloid magazines staked out in front of his house 24/7, was famously well organized, and had no problem discussing issues intelligently when called upon to do so.

In other words, maybe returning to run a state after participating in a brutal presidential campaign is just a tough assignment for anyone in today's media-saturated environment.  But Sarah Palin never figured that out, and if the Times is to be believed she refused to listen to anyone who tried to tell her.  As always, Sarah Palin's worst enemy was — Sarah Palin.

UPDATE: More here from the LA Times: "What is remarkable is the contempt Palin has engendered within her own party and the fact that so many of her GOP detractors are willing, even eager, to express it publicly."

Slaves to Farming

Dave Schuler laments:

As best as I can tell I’m one of the very few in the American political blogosphere who comments on trade negotiations — you can check back through my archives for my many posts posts on the subject. It doesn’t seem to be a subject that captures the imagination, possibly because there’s not a great deal of partisan hay to be made from the subject. I’d still like to know the answer to a question I posed nearly a year ago to Candidate Obama: how would he revive the Doha trade talks?

I sort of feel his pain.  But I'm not sure that lack of partisan venom is the reason for this.  More likely it's because everyone has just given up.  To me, writing about the Doha round is sort of like griping about how big states should have better representation in the Senate or musing about how we ought to eliminate the Defense Department.  I mean, if that's what floats your boat, fine.  The blogosphere is deep.  But we all know this stuff is never going to happen, so it's sort of a waste of time, isn't it?

Trade talks aren't quite that bad.  But they're close.  The Doha round in particular lives or dies based on the willingness of rich nations to substantially reduce tariffs and subsidies on agricultural products, and seriously, what are the odds of that?  We can't even have a serious discussion about reducing subsidies on corn ethanol, possibly the stupidest use of taxpayer dollars in the past century, let alone reducing farm support payments to ConAgra and Archer Daniels Midland.  Meanwhile, the European attitude toward farming makes ours look positively levelheaded and beneficient.  Paris would probably go up in flames if EU farm payments were ever rationalized.

So: what are the odds of making progress on agricultural issues?  Especially these days, you'd need scientific notation to express it properly.  Might as well wish for a pony instead.

Wagging the Dog

Here's an interesting little tidbit from yesterday's inspector general report on the various domestic spying programs known collectively during the Bush/Cheney era as the President's Surveillance Program.  The way it worked was this: the CIA at first, and later the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, produced a threat assessment every 45 days that was known internally as the "scary memo."  That memo was the basis for periodic renewal of the PSP.  If the memo wasn't scary enough, then no PSP:

CIA Office of General Counsel (OGC) attorneys reviewed the draft threat assessment memoranda to determine whether they contained sufficient threat information and a compelling case for reauthorization of the PSP.  If either was lacking, an OGC attorney would request that the analysts provide additional threat information or make revisions to the draft memoranda.

....During interviews, ODNI personnel said they were aware the threat assessments were relied upon by DOJ and White House personnel as the basis for continuing the PSP, and understood that if a threat assessment identified a threat against the United States the PSP was likely to be renewed.

Italics mine.  Now, the report dutifully goes on to say that the ODNI inspector general found the threat assessment process "straightforward, reasonable, and consistent," and that counterterrorism analysts believed the al-Qaeda threat to the United States was "overwhelming."

And yet — if that's the case, why would the scary memo ever lack "sufficient threat information" and need to be beefed up at the request of a CIA attorney?  And why would the IG's report go out of its way to mention, without comment, that the drafters of the memo were well aware that it needed to be sufficiently scary to justify the PSP?

Beats me.  I just work here.  But without saying so directly, the IGs who wrote the report sure seem to be going out of their way to suggest that sometimes the surveillance program was driving the threat assessment rather than the other way around.  Does that ring any bells?

Paying for the Times

The New York Times is considering charging half a sawbuck per month for online access, and Michael Crowley approves:

Given that some people spend $5 per day on coffee, paying that much per month for online access the best newspaper in the world strikes me as an absolute no-brainer. I myself would pay twice as much. I hope the idea catches on, and I hope this marks a shift from the days of newspapers panicking to the start of successful new business models.

I'm a little torn here.  I don't have any problem with paying for the Times.  I already pay for the Wall Street Journal online, for example, and I figure that's just part of the job.  But if the Times does go this route, I hope they provide some mechanism for providing short-term public links to individual articles.  I generally try not to link to pieces that readers can't click through to read themselves, partly as bloggy courtesy and partly because it's one of the things that keeps bloggers honest.  If the Times blocked off online access completely to nonsubscribers, I'd link to them way less and would therefore find them way less useful.

As for the broader question of whether this will work, it's hard to say.  On the one thand, we're rapidly entering an era in which the Times is almost literally the only top notch general purpose newspaper in the country, now that the LA Times and Washington Post seem to be in death spirals.  That means less competition, which in turn means that if you really care about serious news, you don't have much choice except to pony up.

On the other hand — well, the Post and the LAT aren't that bad, and McClatchy and AP and the Guardian and the BBC and NPR and all the cable nets are still around.  The Times has them beat on a number of scores, but you still have to be a real news junkie before you're going to be unsatisfied with the flood of news from other outlets.  And I'm just not sure how many serious news junkies there are out there who don't already subscribe to the print edition.

But on the third hand, online advertising seems to have collapsed so completely that it's hard to see the downside of charging for access.  Even if it only brought in a few million dollars a year, that's probably more than they make from online ads these days.  So what's the harm in trying?

If we need more stimulus, what form should it take?  Matt Yglesias comments:

In an ideal world at this point what I’d like to see is more aid to state and local governments. Probably this should just be done in a very crude way — some flat per capita disbursement that could be implemented very rapidly at the federal level and kick specific decisions to someone else. Some of the money would be wasted or used in bad ways, but it wouldn’t be congress or the executive branch doing the wasting, so it’d be someone else’s problem. That kind of thing would work quickly, would be highly stimulative, and would allow structural shifts in the private sector to proceed apace.

Well, one quick way to do this might be to stop dinking around with alterations to the Medicaid funding formula (as the first stimulus bill did) and simply turn Medicaid into a purely federal program funded entirely with federal dollars.  This would instantly save states something on the order of $100 billion or so.  Here in California, we'd save a little over $10 billion, which would be $10 billion less in demand-destroying budget cuts we'd have to make.  Eventually this might lead to Medicaid becoming more standardized throughout the country, rather than being a hodgepodge of 50 different plans, but that's probably OK.  I'm not sure Medicaid has really been a great poster child for states as laboratories of democracy anyway.  Maybe it's time to turn the entire program over to the feds so it's not constantly a procyclical drain on the economy and be done with it.

In a major victory for solar advocates in the state, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer today signed SB 1403 into law.

The bill extends tax credits and other incentives to manufactures of renewable energy equipment (mainly solar) if they locate in Arizona and meet other criteria.

Proponents of the legislation, which passed the AZ Senate on June 15th and the House June 26th, have claimed that such a bill was a missing "third leg" on a stool that would support Arizona's bid to be the "solar capital" of the nation.

(The other two legs are a large market for consuming solar electricity and enough incoming solar radiation to produce large quantities of power.)

The bill was sponsored by Senator Barbara Leff (R-Paradise Valley) and Representative Michele Reagan (R-Scottsdale).

Several solar manufacturers have been watching the bill's progress since it was introduced in March.

"We are happy to be one of the first companies to claim a home there," Drew Zogby, president and CEO of Alpha Technologies Inc., told the Arizona Republic after the bill was sent from the legislature to the Governor's office. Even without Brewer's signature, Zogby seemed confident that the legislation would become law.

According to the Greater Phoenix Economic Council (GPEC), a main supporter of the bill, several businesses were waiting for the incentives package to become law before they, too, would announce plans for relocating to Arizona.

In a statement released last week, the GPEC said it would be meeting with officials from 25 major solar companies at the Intersolar North American conference in San Francisco July 14-16.

According to Barry Broome, president of GPEC, “Major players in the global solar industry will be at this conference...There just isn’t a better venue to show these companies what Arizona can offer this industry and to promote the Quality Jobs Through Renewable Industries bill."

Tonight, GPEC tweeted this message, "Thanks to Gov, Sen Leff, AZ legislators & GPEC stakeholders for the will & leadership to improve AZ's economy!"

Listen to Kevin and David talk today about Sarah Palin's next move, the shrinking list of Republican presidential candidates for 2012, the debate over whether to legalize marijuana, and Michael Jackson's memorial.

Gotta say, I'm with Kevin on the King of Pop.

For more free Mother Jones podcasts, subscribe here, or in our iTunes store.

Laura McClure hosts podcasts, writes the MoJo Mix, and is the new media editor at Mother Jones. Read her investigative feature on lifehacking gurus in the latest issue of Mother Jones.

It's hard for a Republican to compete with Mark Sanford and Sarah Palin in the weirdness sweepstakes these days, but Sen. John Ensign is working hard to grab the spotlight back.

Yesterday, I thought that Ensign was doing pretty well on the comic relief front when his pal Sen. Tom Coburn, who has apparently been counseling him about how to handle his messy private life, informed reporters that he would refuse to testify about what he told Ensign.  "I was counseling him as a physician and as an ordained deacon," he said.  "That is privileged communication that I will never reveal to anybody." Coburn, of course, is an Ob/Gyn.

But then it got better — and less comic.  As we all know, Ensign was having an affair with Cindy Hampton, the wife of one of his former aides, and yesterday we learned that Ensign got his parents to pay $96,000 in hush money to the Hamptons.  Why $96,000?  According to Ensign's lawyer, his mother and father gave $12,000 apiece to Cindy Hampton, her husband, Doug, and two of their children in the form of a single check.  Hilzoy piles on:

$96,000 is a lot of money. Interestingly, it is precisely the amount you can give as a gift without having to report it to the IRS, multiplied by eight: one gift of $12,000 from each parent to Ensign's lover, her husband, and two of their children. I wonder what the IRS will make of that? I certainly hope that neither of the parents has made use of their children's money, or done anything else to suggest that this was all one big gift split up to avoid paying gift tax, or (more likely) having to report the gift. It's bad enough asking your parents to cough up $96,000 to cover up your indiscretions; asking them to violate the tax code and risk prison is a whole lot worse.

On the other hand, if the $96,000 was all one big gift, then I don't have to feel so bad for the one Hampton child who mysteriously got no gift at all. (There are three. I believe the oldest is 19.) If the gifts were genuine, it might be hard to explain to that third child why his or her siblings just got $24,000 from Mommy's lover's parents while s/he got nothing at all, not to mention why Mommy's lover's parents suddenly started feeling so generous.

Obviously Sarah Palin is now going to have to do something even more bizarre than last week's lakeside press conference if she wants people to start paying attention to her again.  I wonder what she'll dream up?

As my mamma in Texas might say, T. Boone Pickens is trying to throw a wide loop with a short rope. The man who funded the swift-boating of Sen. John Kerry is blogging on the liberal Huffington Post, where he's gone into full folksy mode to urge us "to pull the trigger" on "an energy plan this country needs and deserves" (one that would also line his pockets). The NAT GAS Act, sponsored by Senators Harry Reid (D-NV) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT), would provide massive federal subsidies to natural gas vehicles, which Pickens is heavily invested in. Nevermind that those vehicles emit only 10 to 20 percent less greenhouse gas than diesel ones, or that Pickens and company spent more than $3.7 million promoting the same idea in California only to see it mocked and voted down. If only Pickens was as commited to building his vaunted wind farm on the Texas panhandle, which was supposed to be the largest in the world before he abandoned the idea last week. As they also say in Texas, the man is as full of wind as a corn-eating horse.

One of the main watchdogs over the government's $13 billion financial bailout, the Congressional Oversight Panel, released its monthly report for July today, bringing some much needed scrutiny to the repayment of TARP funds and the Treasury Department's questionable oversight of that process. The COP highlighted the sale of government-held warrants (options to buy stock for a set price over a predetermined time period) back to bailout recipients exiting TARP, who, according to Treasury's guidelines, get the first crack at repurchasing their own warrants. This repurchasing process began earlier this spring, when the first bailed-out banks bought their stocks and warrants to extricate themselves from the taxpayer-funded TARP; since then, the process has been dogged by numerous reports showing that the Treasury sold warrants for much less than they could have. By one estimate, taxpayers were shortchanged in those early transactions by millions of dollars.

The COP's latest report puts a number to what many suspected: The Treasury, the panel estimates, sold warrants back to the 11 small banks who've so far completely exited the bailout for only 66 percent of their value. If the Treasury had sold them for closer to market value, taxpayers could’ve recouped $10 million more—a small sum compared to the entire bailout, but nothing to scoff at. And though the warrant-repurchasing process will differ for megabanks like JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and several others currently trying to buy back their warrants, applying that 66-percent rate to all government-held warrants could result in a loss of $2.7 billion.

If you've closely followed the COP's reports, you'll notice a troubling similarity to previous reports in this latest finding. The panel's widely cited February report (PDF), which analyzed the Treasury's 10 largest TARP investments in 2008, found that the Treasury had received, on average, only $66 for every $100 spent, resulting in a $78 billion shortfall. (This while Berkshire Hathaway received $110 assets for every $100 when it invested in Goldman Sachs, and Mitsubishi received $91 in assets for every $100 invested in Morgan Stanley.) Which means that the Treasury received a 34-percent markdown on assets it bought (with taxpayer money) last year with its early TARP investments, and received only a 34-percent markdown for its early warrant sales back to banks.

Coincidence? Hardly.