Three Seattle Starbucks locations are getting a homey makeover, the Seattle Times reports:

The ubiquitous coffee-shop giant is dropping the household name from its 15th Avenue East store on Capitol Hill, a shop that was slated to close at one point last year but is being remodeled in Starbucks' new rustic, eco-friendly style.

It will open next week, the first of at least three remodeled Seattle-area stores that will bear the names of their neighborhoods rather than the 16,000-store chain to which they belong.

The new stores will eschew anything that smacks of corporate branding—even their coffee bags will bear the name of the shop instead of the Starbucks logo. And the folksiness doesn't stop there, folks: Amenities will include beer and wine, hand-pulled espresso shots, live music, and poetry readings.

In order to figure out what makes neighborhood cafés tick, Starbucks HQ sent observation teams out to do some authenticity recon. Stealth missions these were not: One local coffeehouse owner told the Seattle Times, "They spent the last 12 months in our store up on 15th [Avenue] with these obnoxious folders that said, 'Observation.'"

Creepiness of rebranded coffee bags and synthetic hominess aside, there's actually something encouraging about this: Starbucks' attempt to emulate the little guys suggests local coffee joints are weathering the recession better than I thought. I had assumed mom-and-pop cafés woudn't be able to compete with the chains. Maybe I was wrong. Cool. But can the real little guys compete with the fake little guys? Man, oh man. Would that DFW were around to tackle that one.

HT J-Walk Blog.

This shouldn't come as any surprise at this point, but Democrats have decided to drop card check from the Employee Free Choice Act.  It never had unanimous support within the Democratic caucus and Republicans were sure to filibuster it, so it had no chance of passing.

But without card check, what's left?  Nathan Newman says "quite a lot":

Let's rename the bill, the "Prevention of Illegal Firings Act" (PIFA) and it's still important labor law reform....Majority signup provisions would be dropped, but elections would be held within five days, employees could not be forced into mandatory meetings, and unions could campaign on company property during the election period.

....This is worlds away from the present situation where elections take well over a month at minimum and often far longer, while mandatory meetings and firings destroy union support and any penalties come in months and even years later for employer actions — and the costs to the employer from those penalties are so minimal that they act as no deterrence.

If anyone wants a frame for this new labor law, it's simple — cracking down on illegal corporate behavior during union elections. The bill becomes a "tough on crime" bill, pure and simple. It's not everything labor wants and it's a dramatic compromise to placate conservative Democrats, but it would be a major improvement for workers rights if it passed in this form.

Centrist Dems have gotten what they wanted.  So will they support the bill now?  Stay tuned.

In a speech in Chicago today, Defense Secretary Robert Gates (again) called on Congress to resist the urge to pack the defense budget full of pork. And because certain lawmakers have been digging in their heels this week, Gates wasn't mincing words. The best bits (emphases mine):

We must also get control of what is called “requirements creep”—where more features and capabilities are added to a given piece of equipment, often to the point of absurdity. The most flamboyant example of this phenomenon is the new presidential helicopter...Once the analysis and requirements were done, we ended up with choppers that cost nearly half a billion dollars each and enabled the president to, among other things, cook dinner while in flight under nuclear attack...

The F-22, to be blunt, does not make much sense anyplace else in the spectrum of conflict. Nonetheless, supporters of the F-22 lately have promoted its use for an ever expanding list of potential missions. These range from protecting the homeland from seaborne cruise missiles to, as one retired general recommended on TV, using F-22s to go after Somali pirates who in many cases are teenagers with AK-47sa job we know is better done by three Navy SEALs. These are examples of how far-fetched some of the arguments have become for a program that has cost $65 billion—and countingto produce 187 aircraft, not to mention the thousands of uniformed Air Force positions that were sacrificed to help pay for it.

h/t: Danger Room.

We haven't heard much about the former President Bush lately, but this week, the Globe is reporting the delicious (if dubious) news that former President Bush is suffering from suicidal depression "since leaving his office with his legacy in tatters." Making matters worse, Laura supposedly thinks he's come down with Alzheimer's because he keeps forgetting to call Dick Cheney. According to the ever-reputable Globe, Laura, described as loyal and long-suffering, had moved to Dallas without him, repulsed by his "out-of-control boozing." But she's now sticking by his side through this latest drama. Says the Globe:

"She's actually afraid he's going to wander off into the fields on the ranch and forget how to get back to the house."

Meanwhile, the National Enquirer is reporting that the REAL reason Sarah Palin quit her job as governor is that she's afraid of the coming firestorm promised by, yes, Levi Johnston's tell-all book. "She's bracing for what Levi may write about her," declares the Enquirer. And updates on the John Edwards-Rielle Hunter scandal: "Could their lovemaking have been videotaped?" Inquiring minds want to know. But you'll have to buy a copy for the inside dish. No links! The tabs are strictly a paper product.

Monday marks the 40th anniversary of the first walk on the moon. But before getting all nostalgic about Neil Armstrong and his small step, let's examine one dark side of the moon landing: lunar litter. As I was geeking out and reading the official Apollo radio transcripts, I was intrigued to find that six minutes before stepping onto the moon for the first time, Armstrong took a "jettison bag" and dropped it onto the surface. The bag, NASA explains, contained "empty food bags and other things [the astronuauts] no longer need and don't want to have to use fuel to take back to orbit"—including bodily waste collected inside their space suits. In other words, garbage. The big white trash bag was even documented by the very first photo Armstrong took on his moonwalk:

 

Funny how that shot never makes it into the Apollo 11 retrospectives. It's unclear what happened to the historic trash bag—was it incinerated when the astronauts took off again, or has it remained sitting beneath the left-behind section of the lander, frozen in time? Perhaps we'll get the answer from the NASA orbiter that's currently taking detailed photos of Tranquility Base, trying to check on the condition of artifacts such as the American flag planted there. I wonder if the resolution will be good enough to spot the first sack of lunar litter, still awaiting pick-up, 40 years later.

I miss Max Sawicky. But he's back temporarily this week, and today's sermon is about the origins of bubbles and other economic catastrophes.  Is fundamental irrationality the wellspring of financial chaos?  Nope:

What's missing from the meliorist framework of my fellow bloggers is the concept of Power. We're getting progressivism when we need populism.

....Let's recapitulate. Big finance ('BF') systematically dismantles regulation of its activities. BF takes taxpayer money and lobbies against the interests of taxpayers. BF shovels money to politicians. BF offers the sunny side of the revolving door to high-level officials in public agencies. BF provides a haven for its minions to make one-way/heads-I-win-tails-you-lose bets with other peoples' money. BF alumni construct new policies, in the wake of the meltdown, to make new one-way bets, with taxpayer money. BF luminaries walk away from this debacle with personal fortunes intact, if not larger, as well as high public office, followed by further personal enrichment. Even the former chief economist of the IMF thinks that government policy has been captured by the bad guys.

I won't pretend to have settled views about whether the financial industry owns the United States government lock stock and barrel or merely has a controlling interest.  It's at least the latter, and after the events of the past year it wouldn't take much to convince me of the former.  But whichever it is, I agree that irrationality just isn't a key factor in what happened — at least, no more than it normally is for any kind of organized human activity.  At every step of the way during the Bush-era bubble, virtually everything that financial actors did was either (a) outright fraudulent or (b) cold-bloodedly rational in the short run even if it was disastrous for the rest of us in the long run.  Where are the pitchforks and torches when you need them?

Libertarian hedge funder Cliff Asness, who we last saw thinking it was a good idea to pick a fight with union workers over their pensions, has returned to grace us with another screed. This time, he's mad about health care. His incredibly long essay can be boiled way, way down:

  1. We pay more for health care now than we did in the past because it's better.
  2. The reason other countries pay less for health care than we do is because health care companies charge Americans more to cover the fixed costs of developing, say, Viagra, but only charge Canadians et. al. based on the costs of each individual pill.
  3. Follows directly from (2): Our health care system provides all the innovation in the world. "Even the successes you gin up for [other countries' systems] would not be possible without the last best hope of humankind (the US) on the front lines again making the miracles for the world."
  4. By its very nature, the public option will cheat and force the private insurance companies out of business.
  5. We have to ration health care.
  6. Health care is not a right because only negative rights (i.e., freedom of speech) are valid rights.
  7. Liberals are rushing to expand health care because they "know they're wrong" and they want to expand their own power.
  8. Regulation, taxes, and trial lawyers are the real problems with health care.

None of these points are original, of course, and Asness admits as much: "Much, or even all, of what I’m saying has been said elsewhere." But it's worth responding to (some) of these points on their merits:

  1. Just because something is new and we're buying it doesn't mean we need it or it makes us healthier. We're actually overtreated (and rich people like Asness often suffer the most from that), and your health outcomes don't actually have much to do with how much you spend.
  2. A lot of those "development" costs include bribing doctors to prescribe pharmaceutical companies' brand-name drugs. Moreover, seventy percent of the drugs developed in the US represent no improvement over existing drugs. And actually, the main reason that drugs are so expensive is because the government grants patent monopolies to drug companies. Economist Dean Baker: "The country is projected to spend almost $250 billion for prescription drugs this year (more than $800 per person). In the absence of government patent monopolies, we would spend close to one-tenth of this amount. Those generic drugs that Wal-Mart can profitably sell for $4 a prescription are not chemically distinct from the brand name drugs that can cost several hundred dollars." Bottom line: "[P]atents are simply one option for financing research, not essential at all."
  3. Baker: "The story he's trying to tell makes no sense. Under trade law, if I do the innovations in Zimbabwe, I receive the exact same protection in the United States, Europe and Canada as if I did them in Washington, DC. Yeah, a disproportionate share of the research goes on here. Guess why? Because of socialism: the National Institutes of Health spends $30 billion a year subsidizing research."
  4. Baker: "If he wants to say private plans can't compete, I won't quarrel: public plans tend to be more efficient, for obvious reasons. They don't pay their CEOs tens of millions of dollars, they don't have to establish themselves through advertising. There are lots of reasons why they're cheaper... so they will tend to dominate. But if you look to other countries where they do have public systems and private systems side-by-side, [private plans] continue to exist. If he wants to argue that most people would opt for the public plan—yeah, I think that's probably true."
  5. Well, yes.
  6. Baker: "The fact is most people will say that when they see someone dying and we have the means to help them they think we should. Whether you want to call it a right or not, polls show that people behave that way. If it makes him feel better to say it's not a right, he can say that, but the fact is the overwhelming majority of people feel the need to help people who are in need of help."
  7. Asness thinks Chris Dodd, Rahm Emanuel, Barack Obama, and Barney Frank know "they will lose if freedom wins." Seriously? How about a little presumption of your opponents' good faith?
  8. Baker: "Insurance companies make money by avoiding insuring sick people. That's an easy thing to show because a relatively small minority of people account for the vast majority of health care expenses. If you deregulate the insurance market, that would mean the insurance market would find ways not to insure sick people, which isn't that hard to do." Baker agrees with Asness about the tax treatment of health care plans, but says it "doesn't have much to do with" the problems for health care in America today. He also points out that states like Texas that have limited malpractice awards haven't seen major decreases in health care costs.

The broader point is that we've heard a lot of these arguments before, and they're pretty easy to refute. But the libertarian argument about health care has one, broader, more fundamental problem. If we have, as they argue, the most "free" health care system in the world, and "freer" systems are better, why is our standard of care lower and our costs higher than other, "less free" systems? They want to move away from models that seem to work and towards new, untested free-market utopian systems. The burden of proof should be on them. Because what we have now ain't working.

Supreme Court Kabuki

David Savage sums up Sonia Sotomayor's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee:

Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor maneuvered through three days of an often-antagonistic confirmation hearing by portraying herself as a legal mechanic who would stick to precedent and never "make law." But in doing so she revealed almost nothing about the philosophy that would guide her on the high court.

It is not clear whether this play-it-safe strategy was a political calculation, perhaps dictated by the White House, or an accurate reflection of her background as a lower court judge who has not formed broader views on the law.

"It is not clear"?  Spare me.  It's crystal clear.  Back in the pre-culture war era, senators asked nominees questions and nominees more or less answered them.  And then, unless someone produced incriminating photos with a sheep, the nominee was confirmed.  A mere 20 years ago, Antonin Scalia, now a bête noire of the left, was confirmed unanimously after Ronald Reagan nominated him to the court in 1986.

But then things changed.  Robert Bork got borked in 1987.  David Souter and Anthony Kennedy turned out not to be as conservative as conservatives had hoped.  Clarence Thomas blasted his nomination hearings as a "high-tech lynching" and was only barely confirmed.  And everybody learned their lesson from this: nominate candidates whose views are clear (no more Souters!) and then make sure they say absolutely nothing about those views (no more Borks!).  Ginsburg and Breyer invented the technique, Roberts and Alito honed it, and as near as I can tell, Sotomayor has taken it to its reductio ad absurdum apex.  If it's something that might come before the court in the future (and everything comes before the Supreme Court eventually), tell 'em it would be inappropriate to answer.  If someone asks a more general question, say that you can't really answer in the abstract.  If more details are provided, switch gears and say that you can't engage in hypotheticals.  As near as I can tell, Sotomayor was barely willing to admit that she had a law degree, let alone that she had any opinions whatsoever regarding the law.

But look — that's the way the game is played these days.  Of course it was a political calculation.  Does anyone really seriously doubt this?

It's not just an Illinois thing. Politico has a scoop revealing that the American Conservative Union, a prominent rightwing player in Washington, tried to sell its influence for big bucks:

The American Conservative Union asked FedEx for a check for $2 million to $3 million in return for the group’s endorsement in a bitter legislative dispute, then flipped and sided with UPS after FedEx refused to pay.

For the $2 million plus, ACU offered a range of services that included: “Producing op-eds and articles written by ACU’s Chairman David Keene and/or other members of the ACU’s board of directors. (Note that Mr. Keene writes a weekly column that appears in The Hill.)”

The conservative group’s remarkable demand — black-and-white proof of the longtime Washington practice known as “pay for play” — was contained in a private letter to FedEx , which was provided to POLITICO.

The letter exposes the practice by some political interest groups of taking stands not for reasons of pure principle, as their members and supporters might assume, but also in part because a sponsor is paying big money.

This is a big deal. The ACU mounts the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, a signficant gathering of thousands of conservative activists in Washington, where GOP presidential wannabes often work the crowd. And Keene is a go-to pundit of the right—and a much-used source for political journalists seeking guidance on what's going on within conservative circles. He has always sold himself as a conservative first, a Republican second. But now it seems that he is just selling himself, period.

Conservative blogger Ed Morrissey is not happy about this. In an item titled "ACU puts conservatism up for sale," he huffs,

When we said that conservatives needed to do a better job selling the philosophy of limited government and fiscal responsibility, this isn’t exactly what we meant

He continues:

The range of services offered [by ACU] calls into question the integrity of the entire organization. Does the ACU normally offer its public commentary for rent?  Who else has paid for endorsements in David Keene’s columns, or those of the ACU board members? It would be also fair to ask Keene or the board knew of [this] proposal before it went out, although it would be difficult to imagine that Whitfield could have offered so much in services for that much compensation without having approval from Keene and/or the board in the first place.  The ACU’s about-face on the issue right after FedEx’s refusal would be difficult to explain as well.

Though the ACU has put out a response to the Politico story (kudos to Mike Allen for breaking it), Morrissey still is not satisfied. Leave it to the ACU to make the Washington Post look good.

And another thing: Politico notes that with this exposé it has uncovered evidence of the longtime Washington practice of pay to play. But it should be noted that the pay-to-players of this sort usually are on the right side of the fence. Remember Armstrong Williams? The ideological advocates of the right in Washington tend to be tied more to lobbying and influence-peddling than those of the left. Jack Abramoff, for instance, used several conservative policy groups to launder his ill-gotten treasure.

Is anyone at the Campaign for America's Future, which runs the liberal counterpart to CPAC, selling his or her access and influence for millions of bucks to corporations? Don't make me laugh. True, there are plenty of former Democratic officials and staffers who have left public service for private profit as lobbyists, and some simultaneously associate with policy shops. But there has long been a tighter nexus on the right between for-profit influence-wielders and for-ideology policy advocates. ACU is proof of that.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

Card Check RIP?

The New York Times reports that Democrats seem to be giving up on card check, the part of the Employee Free Choice Act that would allow unions to be certified if a majority of workers sign a card attesting to their desire to join. The Times explains "moderate" Democrats'  opposition to the provision:

Several moderate Democrats, including Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, have voiced opposition to card check, convinced that elections were a fairer way for workers to unionize. They were swayed partly by business’s vigorous campaign, arguing that card check would remove confidentiality from unionization drives and enable union organizers to bully workers into signing union cards.

The Times could have better informed its readers by exploring how much money "moderate" Democrats like Blanche Lincoln received from anti-union forces, and how much money pro-card check Democrats received from unions. For example, Sen. Tom Harkin, who introduced EFCA in the Senate, has received $1.7 million from the labor sector—more than any other senator—since 1989. Sen. Lincoln, for her part, has received $5.5 million from business PACs over the course of her career. If the Times didn't want to get into the purchase prices of individual senators, something like this paragraph, via OpenSecrets, would have done just fine:

Members of Congress who voted in favor of the Employee Free Choice Act in 2007, when the bill wasn't passed, had collected 10 times more on average from union PACs during their careers ($862,065) than those who didn't ($86,538), and those who opposed the bill had collected more on average from business PACs ($2.5 million), than those who supported the legislation ($1.7 million).