Obama Sets off GOP Civil War

Here's a real political diss. Speaking to The Washington Times, Republican Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who has said he's happy to accept the stimulus funds for his state, had some choice words for his fellow GOPers on Capitol Hill:

The Republican governor of Utah on Monday said his party is blighted by leaders in Congress whose lack of new ideas renders them so "inconsequential" that he doesn't even bother to talk to them.

"I don't even know the congressional leadership," Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. told editors and reporters at The Washington Times, shrugging off questions about top congressional Republicans, including House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. "I have not met them. I don't listen or read whatever it is they say because it is inconsequential - completely."

Just a week or so ago, Congressional Republicans were crowing that their lockstep opposition to President Obama's stimulus bill had brought them back from irrelevance and marginalization. Perhaps. But it has also sparked a civil war within the party between practical, give-me-the-money governors (such as Charlie Crist and Arnold Schwarzenegger) and ideological conservatives who are talking about eschewing some of the stimulus funds (notably, Bobby Jindal, Mark Sanford and Haley Barbour) and a clash between those pragmatic governors and the GOP's leaders on Capitol Hill. Good work, everyone. Obama's stimulus has become a wedge issue within the Republican Party.

On Monday night, I discussed this on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show:

Carbon Fail

This is a huge disappointment.  The Orbiting Carbon Observatory, which was designed to fill in missing gaps in our understanding of greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere, failed to reach orbit:

Three minutes [after liftoff], during the burning of the third stage, the payload fairing — a clamshell nose cone that protects the satellite as it rises through the atmosphere — failed to separate as commanded.

....“The fairing has considerable weight relative to the portion of the vehicle that’s flying,” said John Brunschwyler, manager of the Taurus rocket program for Orbital Sciences of Virginia, which built both the rocket and the satellite.

“So when it separates off, you get a jump in acceleration,” said Mr. Brunschwyler. “We did not have that jump in acceleration. As a direct result of carrying that extra weight, we could not make orbit.”  The satellite fell back to Earth, landing in the ocean just short of Antarctica.

More here from Jonathan Hiskes at Gristmill about what the OCO was supposed to do.

Bush's Last-Minute Gift to Crappy Nursing Homes

That Bush-Cheney legacy is going to be a mean one for years. And there's likely to de a drip-drip-drip disclosure of all the damage done. For instance, on Tuesday there was news that the Bush administration screwed nursing homes residents. Bloomberg reports:

The Bush administration shut off a source of information last fall about abuse and neglect in long- term care facilities that people suing nursing homes consider crucial to their cases.

The change that affects the $144 billion nursing-home industry occurred with no public notice or attention, perhaps because of the array of last-minute rules that President George W. Bush’s appointees rushed out before leaving Washington last month.

“This is pretty stunning,” said Mark Kosieradzki, a plaintiff attorney in Plymouth, Minnesota. “Nobody was told. It was just done.”

The rule designates state inspectors and Medicare and Medicaid contractors as federal employees, a group usually shielded from providing evidence for either side in private litigation.

The restrictions affect about 16,000 nursing facilities in the U.S. and 3 million residents. The practical effect is to force litigants to go to greater lengths, including seeking court orders, to get inspection reports or depositions for cases they are pursuing or defending.

Wonder who asked for this rule change? Could it have been...the nursing home industry? This was truly a harsh move, making it harder for abused nursing home residents to gather information on the institutions in which they live. Big hat tip to Bloomberg for a fine piece of investigative reporting that uncovered a telling example of the Bush administration's compassionate conservatism.

More Trouble on Wall Street

Even the relatively healthy banks are starting to bulk up in anticipation of Timothy Geithner's stress tests:

J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. cut its quarterly dividend by 87% to a nickel a share, a surprise move aimed at beefing up the bank's capital cushion as the economy deteriorates and putting it in a position to potentially repay funds received from the government more quickly.

....[CEO James] Dimon said the decision, which came as the government is preparing to test whether banks' portfolios can hold up under a severe economic stress, was voluntary and doesn't reflect any unexpected problems in the bank's results. In fact, he said the bank remains profitable more or less in line with Wall Street's expectations.

....The reduction in the dividend will let J.P. Morgan hang on to an extra $5 billion a year — enough, Mr. Dimon said, to help the bank weather a scenario in which the recession drags on for two years, unemployment tops 10% and home prices ultimately drop 40% from their peak.

JP Morgan has been widely viewed as the strongest of the big money center banks, so the fact that even they're feeling nervous about their ability to pass Geithner's test doesn't bode well for the rest of them.  It's a smart thing to do, but it's still a little unnerving that they feel like they have to do it.

The Best Grilled Cheese Money Can't Buy

The problem with food festivals is that it is always little unclear if the judges are there because they are interested in truly rendering an objective decision or because they're just, well, hungry.  

This becomes particularly obvious if the food in question is a grilled cheese sandwich. Um yeah I'm a "judge," feed me lunch.

"We believe these numbers include most subcontractors and service contractors hired by prime contractors under DoD contracts," reads the fine print of the latest Pentagon report (.doc) on the number of armed private contractors currently working in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the rest of the Central Command's area of responsibility. This should give us at least some pause about the sort of exact numbers presented in the report.

According to the Pentagon's fuzzy math, as of December 31, 2008, it had 8,701 armed security contractors in Iraq, of which 727 were Americans, 6,909 were Third Country Nationals, and 1,065 were Iraqis. This represented a 12 percent decrease as compared with the same time last year. Afghanistan, on the other hand, saw a 1 percent increase in armed contractors over the same period to... about 3,184. It will be interesting to see how this number skyrockets over the coming year as the Pentagon steps up its presence there.

One thing to note: the numbers reflect only those armed security contractors working on Pentagon contracts. Blackwater's gun-toating coterie is therefore absent from the figures. Very shortly, of course, they'll be absent altogether thanks to the State Department's decision not to renew Blackwater's contract.

Their parents seem to think so. The mother of Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail—the 10-year-old who plays the lead character's brother, Salim, in the Oscar-sweeping film—still lives lives with her son in a hovel made of tarps and blankets in Mumbai's Behrampada shanty, where rats roam and sewage runs untreated. "He's supposed to be the hero in the movie, but look how he's living," she told Australia's Herald Sun. "We need money and help now. It is hard living like this. I am worried that after the Oscars are over they will forget us."

And then there's the movie's other slum star:

Rubina Ali, 9, who plays the young version of Latika, the film's heroine, lives nearby. Her shack is brightly coloured but an open sewer runs close by.
Her father, Rafiq Ali Kureshi, a carpenter, broke his leg during filming and has been out of work since.

"I am very happy the movie is doing so well but it is making so much money and so much fame, and the money they paid us is nothing. They should pay more," he said.

But British director Danny Boyle says he's trying to be smart about how he pays the child actors:

They said they paid painstaking attention to how Azharuddin and Rubina's involvement in the film could be of lasting benefit over and above the payment for their work.
The children, who have never received formal eduction, have been enrolled in school since last June at the production company's expense until they are 18.
Azharuddin and Rubina will receive a lump sum when they finish their education, and Boyle said money was in place to cover health care and emergencies.
They decided not to shower the children with cash because they could not handle it psychologically and practically.

For the most part, Boyle's approach sounds wise. But in addition, why not give the parents just enough money to move out of the slums into a half-decent apartment somewhere? They certainly deserve it now that the film has grossed $155 million. And even if the adults blow the cash, it's hard to see how that kind of modest aid would skew the kids' priorities.

UPDATE from the Daily Mail:

The filmmakers also claim they have now agreed to buy apartments for the two children and allow the families to move in, with the stipulation that they will not own the property unless the youngsters complete their education.
Tonight, however, a spokesman for the film was unable to provide further details about the apartment plans.

UPDATE #2: The Hindu reports that the Oscars have apparently shamed the Indian government into giving flats to the families.

The New York Delegation Gets Snarky

New York state's two senators want the president to know that they can take a handout graciously, unlike some people. From a press release sent out by their offices:

New York Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles E. Schumer are asking President Obama to direct unwanted funds from the economic recovery package to New York. A number of Republican Governors have recently stated that they planned to refuse money from the Economic Recovery plan for their state.

"New York receives 78 cents from the federal government for every dollar we send to Washington," wrote the senators [in a letter to the president]. "If other states are willingly refusing federal support in this time of economic crisis, New York should benefit given our 'donor state' status."

Here's Barack Obama in 1999:

"I was a main sponsor of a bill that would have put an immediate moratorium on the death penalty. We need to put more resources into the Public Defender's office, so they can do things like DNA testing and take other means to make sure you've got the right person before you consider the death penalty."

And here he is in 2004:

"I support capital punishment for heinous crimes. I cannot, however, support the current system which is rife with error and lacks sufficient safeguards against wrongful convictions."

He said similar things in same during the campaign. And yet, when invited by an anti-death penalty group to begin changing the way capital punishment cases are tried in this country, Obama's Justice Department decided instead to fight for the status quo.

The solicitor general's office has turned down a request by the Innocence Project to disavow a Bush Administration stance on prisoners' access to DNA evidence in postconviction proceedings. As a result, on March 2, Neal Katyal will make his debut as deputy solicitor general by arguing before the Supreme Court in support of the state of Alaska's view that prisoners have no constitutional right to obtain DNA evidence that might help them prove their innocence -- even if the prisoners pay for the DNA testing themselves.

I share Brian's disappointment on this. What an inexplicable and confusing shame. (Final note: For an enlightening story on lethal injection's bizarre history, click here.)

Cap and Trade

Hey, guess what?  I've got a piece on cap-and-trade in the latest issue of Mother Jones.  You should go read it.  It's designed to explain cap-and-trade for people who kinda sorta know what it is but are still a little vague on the details.  The basic structure is "Ten Things You Should Know About Cap-and-Trade," and here's #10:

10. It's not a panacea. "Cap and trade is just a tool," says the NRDC's [Dale] Bryk. It might be the backbone of any effective long-term carbon reduction policy, but it's not the only tool we need. Or even necessarily the best. If you want to improve vehicle mileage, for example, raising federal fuel-efficiency standards is "much cheaper for consumers than raising the price of gas," she says. Michael O'Hare, a public-policy professor at UC-Berkeley, emphasizes the need for the government to take a more active role than just setting carbon prices. Sure, higher energy prices might motivate people to change their behavior. "But," he points out, "even if I want to take the tram, I can't do it if there's no tram."

In other words, command and control will remain absolutely necessary. As will taxes. Even with a well-designed cap-and-trade plan in place, we'll need tougher efficiency standards, higher fuel taxes, more sensible land-use policies, green research programs, and plenty more. But in the same way that cutting calories is the core of any weight loss no matter which fad diet you follow, raising the price of carbon is the core of any climate plan. With luck, this could be the year we finally figure that out.

Bottom line: cap-and-trade is just one piece of an overall energy/environment policy.  But it's a good piece!  And it helps make all the other pieces work better.  Read the whole thing for more.

On an inside-baseball note, I wrote this article back in October, but thanks to the miracle of print magazine lead times it's only now hitting the stands.  My hope was that this would be good timing, because Barack Obama would be introducing his cap-and-trade plan in March and everyone would be eager to learn what it all meant.  In the event, the stimulus bill and budget have pushed everything else off the stage for the moment, but with any luck cap-and-trade will still make its debut sometime soon. So be prepared!  Read all about it now!

(But stay away from the comments.  Yeesh.  Some wingnut organization has apparently already gotten wind of the piece and sent its slathering hordes over to let us all know that GLOBAL WARMING IS A HOAX!  You have been warned.)