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.

 Charlotte, North Carolina, has found a silver lining in the housing crisis:

Charlotte's Habitat is among the first in the nation to start buying up houses in troubled neighborhoods where up to a third of the homes are vacant due to foreclosure. Average cost: $38,000 to $55,000, less than half the original price.

"We're getting them as low as $30,000, knowing we'll put in $10,000 of repairs," said Meg Robertson, an associate director with Habitat. "To build a new one is over $60,000 … we're $20,000 to $30,000 cheaper per home."

So what about Habitat's commitment to sweat equity? To having energetic volunteers "build houses together in partnership with families in need?" Robertson told the Charlotte Observer that she thought it was more important to house as many people as possible.

Besides, subdivisions built in the boom are already falling apart on their own or at the hands of vandals, so there should be plenty of sweat required to restore and maintain them.

Despite the smiles and promises of change, the G8 accomplished little to nothing but soft targets on serious climate goals, which will hereafter be easily ignored by all who pretend to endorse them.

This business of holding out for economic equality between all nations in the emissions fight is laughable when you consider that economic mayhem is hot on the heels of do-nothing climate change.

So how can we break the climate impasse? According to a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it's easy.

Since half the planet's climate-warming emissions come from less than a billion of its wealthiest people, the fairest strategy is to base each nation's emission targets on its number of wealthy individuals—not on the basis of whether the country itself is developing or developed. In other words, we should distribute emissions reductions based on the proportion of the population in the country doing the most damage.

At the moment, the world average is about 5 tons per person. But each European produces around 10 tons and each North American and Australian some 20 tons.

By focusing on rich people everywhere, rather than on rich countries and poor countries, the proposed system would ease developing countries into any new climate change framework.

Except it doesn't look like any one is interested in easing anyone else's way. It's still the godawful tragedy of the commons here... Leaders? Barack Obama ain't no Abraham Lincoln.
 

National Public Radio's been getting some serious flak for its policy of not using the word "torture" to describe when the United States uses—well, how to be polite about this?—torture. As Kevin Drum noted the other day, the explanations and clarifications coming from NPR's ombudsman, Alicia C. Shepard, have been pretty weak. The crux of her argument, as detailed here and here, is that the word "torture" is too loaded for a fair-minded news organization to use. Plus, she adds, the word's very meaning is debatable, so NPR can't take sides; after all, what if Dick Cheney et al. really are right that the waterboarding they authorized wasn't torture? It's kind of like the ongoing debate over those loaded, subjective terms "climate change" and "global warming." Oh wait—it looks like NPR sided with the crazy enviros on that one.

Now the ombudsman has waded into another thorny semantic debate: What words should responsible journalists use to describe parents beating their kids? Child abuse? Or perhaps the more neutral-sounding "enhanced parenting techniques"? What about "vigorous love taps"? Let the debate begin. (Preemptive parody warning.) 

 

 Love Taps (parody)