Stimulus Pills

STIMULUS PILLS?....Conservatives are pretty good at picking tiny pieces out of big bills and making hay with them (remember midnight basketball?), and it was in that spirit that John Boehner spent the weekend complaining that the $800 billion stimulus bill includes $200 million in spending on contraceptives. Today Steve Benen provides the details of what's really in the bill, and concludes:

It's likely that Boehner, Drudge, and others hope that they can simply say, "Democrats want to spend $200 million of your money on contraceptives" and the howls will be so loud, the money will be stripped from the spending bill. As is too often the case, they're assuming the public won't hear, or care about, the details.

True, but I suspect this is mostly just a base play. Most of the public probably won't ever hear about this, but you can bet that every religious right newsletter in the country will get the news out to their readers. And they'll know that John Boehner is working to keep family values safe.

Whatever. But here's the funny thing: culture war issues aside, this is probably pretty good stimulus. If you eliminate the requirement for states to get Medicaid waivers in order to fund family planning, lots of low-income women will take advantage of it, and they'll probably take advantage of it pretty quickly. That's a boon for the contraceptive industry and all the fine people who work in it. Just be sure to buy American!

The SAG Awards ("The Award Show Where Only Actors Vote") were held last night in Los Angeles, and begged to differ ever so slightly from the Golden Globes. While Slumdog Millionaire took, as expected, the award for best cast, both major acting nods were sort-of upsets: Meryl Streep won best actress for Doubt, and Sean Penn won best actor for Milk. Many have remarked on Penn's sensitive, fully-realized portrayal of the gay San Francisco supervisor, but his acceptance speech last night kind of rubbed me the wrong way. He approached the microphone to a tumultuous round of applause, and then tried a little comedy:

Thank you and good evening comrades. (Laughs) That was for O'Reilly. Something happened to me during the making of this movie. I noticed it tonight, where I noticed that the statues have rather healthy packages ... As actors we don't play gay, straight ...we play human beings. I'm so appreciative of this acknowledgment. This is a story of equal rights for all human beings.

Okay, yes, it's a standard line to reference the genitalia on those statues and awards, and forgive me for being a wet blanket, but the idea that it would take researching and playing a gay role to even see the bulge on a giant statue seems to play into the stereotype of gay men as being "all about sex." It's particularly bothersome since it's this idea, of the lascivious sexual deviant, that has led to a wide variety of discrimination, particularly when it comes to gay men as teachers or parents. I'm as much for a good chuckle as the next guy, and obviously Mr. Penn feels himself to be such a clear and honest supporter of gay rights that he can make those jokes from the "inside." But context is everything, and I'd just like to point out that he's not on the inside.

On the other hand, other gay journalists like AfterElton.com didn't seem bothered, so maybe I'm just a curmudgeon. Riffers, thoughts? And does it even matter, since Mickey Rourke is the Oscar lock?

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Wikipedia, the world's largest online encyclopedia, has grown organically over the years, the product of the collective wisdom of its users. Until now, virtually anyone with an Internet connection has been allowed to contribute new topics and edit preexisting ones. For all that, at least in my experience, Wikipedia is a useful—and surprisingly accurate—source of information. But Jimmy Wales, the site's founder (who famously broke up with his girlfriend by making a change to his own Wikipedia page), has had it with what he calls the "nonsense" that sometimes appears on the site.

In particular, he's referring to an incident last week in which users made changes to the pages for senators Robert Byrd and Edward Kennedy, saying that both had died at a Capitol Hill luncheon following Barack Obama's inauguration; the two men sought medical treatment, but both remain very much among the living.

Wales has proposed to the Wikimedia Foundation that all new editorial additions by new or unknown users be flagged for review by proven users as a means of avoiding future shananigans. As you might guess, the Wiki faithful allege Wiki treason and have begun a flame war against Wales. They claim that reviewing posts will be too time-consuming, slowing the flow of information. And indeed, the German version of Wikipedia, which adopted the flagged-revision system last year, did slow significantly. It can now take days or weeks for changes to be posted, say critics. But perhaps accuracy is more important than speed? Maybe it's the journalist in me, but I tend to think so.


Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Joi.

Obama is working overtime to get Republicans on the Hill behind his stimulus package, which is driving him to excessive tax cuts and other questionable decisions. But if bipartisan support is his goal, he's already got it. The American voting populace, including Democrats, Republicans, and independents, is behind a progressive stimulus package that sees infrastructure investment, not tax cuts, as the primary vehicle for restarting the American economy. Here's top dog Republican pollster Frank Luntz, via David Sirota:

Last month, I conducted a national survey of 800 registered voters on their attitudes toward infrastructure investment...The survey's findings were unlike any other issue I have polled in more than a decade...A near unanimous 94% of Americans are concerned about our nation's infrastructure. And this concern cuts across all regions of the country and across urban, suburban and rural communities. Fully 84% of the public wants more money spent by the federal government -- and 83% wants more spent by state governments -- to improve America's infrastructure. And here's the kicker: 81% of Americans are personally prepared to pay 1% more in taxes for the cause.
This isn't "soft" support for infrastructure either. It stretches from Maine to Montana, from California to Connecticut. Democrats (87%) and Republicans (74%) are prepared to, in Barack Obama's words, put skin in the game, which tells you just how wide and deep the support is...

I hope Obama takes heed of this. Instead of bending to the will of an obstructionist minority, he should show that minority that the American people are on-board with a progressive stimulus, and it can do the same or risk getting left behind.

And speaking of getting on-board, can we get some mass transit in this sucker?

Regulating Carbon

REGULATING CARBON....Noah Millman writes today about the best way to regulate greenhouse gases without having the regulations fatally undermined by special interest lobbying:

Well, let's look at the alternatives from the perspective of which is most likely to be deformed by special interests. It's pretty easy to see how a big government investment in alternative energy could become a boondoggle giveaway to connected business interests that does nothing to reduce carbon emissions. Meanwhile, a cap-and-trade scheme is often marketed as being preferable to a tax on carbon because of the additional business associated with the "trade" side of the scheme, and because the existence of a market in emission permits and offsets would ensure the most efficient allocation of the "resource" of net carbon emission.

....I suspect that a small-government egalitarian would say that the best solution, from the triple perspective of trying to avoid regulatory capture by special interests, maximize personal freedom and autonomy, and actually reduce carbon emissions, is to slap a tax on carbon and return 100% of the revenue raised to the people, ideally in the form of a per-capita birthright dividend, something I speculated about here by analogy with Alaska's Permanent Fund.

Noah goes on to say that libertarians are more open to this idea because of their natural distrust of big government. Liberals, who lack that distrust, end up promoting other ideas because they don't take regulatory capture seriously.

In general, maybe there's something to that, but it's wrong in this specific case. In fact, ten or fifteen years ago liberals widely believed a carbon tax was by far the best way to implement some kind of carbon pricing scheme. Many of them still do, and most liberal economists believe that a tax is fundamentally more efficient than cap-and-trade. So why is cap-and-trade so popular on the left these days?

Technically, cap-and-trade has one1 big advantage over a tax: it's a cap. With a tax, you have to set a rate and then hope that carbon emissions go down as much as you think they will. With cap-and-trade, you set a firm cap, and as long as enforcement is adequate you know you'll meet that cap. The "trade" part is merely there to get back some of the efficiencies that you would have gotten automatically from a tax in the first place.

But that's not why cap-and-trade has become so popular among liberals. The reason it's become so popular is that conservatives and libertarians have teamed up to make the word "tax" so toxic that there isn't an environmentalist in the country who thinks we can get a carbon tax through Congress. Remember Al Gore's BTU tax in 1993? It went down in flames and took the Democratic Party down with it. And since then things have only gotten worse.

So: you want a carbon tax? No problem. You can get liberals on board pretty easily: all you have to do is promise them that conservatives and libertarians will climb on board too. And you want a rebate to taxpayers? Again, no problem. Every single liberal carbon pricing plan includes at least a partial rebate, and many include a 100% rebate. If the conservative/libertarian axis decided to give up on its 30-year anti-tax jihad, we could pretty easily end up with a compromise somewhere in the middle.

But that won't happen. And that's why cap-and-trade is the future of carbon pricing. It's conservatives and libertarians who got us here, not liberals.

1There are other differences too. But this is the main one.

pillory_stocks.jpg Word is out that Citigroup is finalizing the purchase of a $50 million corporate jet, complete with a luxury interior that includes leather seats, sofas, and a customizable entertainment center. The new jet will be managed by CitiFlight Inc., a Citi subsidiary that manages Citigroup's entire fleet of corporate jets.

Why is this all so outrageous? (1) Because Citigroup has received $45 billion in taxpayers funds as part of the bailout program, money earned by hard-working American men and women who have never so much as sniffed first class. (2) Commercial air travel still exists in this country! Citigroup executives don't even have to fly coach! They could fly business or first and still save money!

There is only one solution here. Please see the photo at right. President Obama, make it happen.

Update: Opprobrium works! Citigroup is backing down.

DESPERATELY SEEKING CONSERVATIVES....I see that today's Bill Kristol column in the New York Times will be his last. Good. He was boring.

But who should the Times replace him with? It shouldn't be a "liberal's conservative," it should be a genuine, dedicated, smart, reality-grounded, conservative's conservative — someone who will drive liberals crazy. Who best fits that bill?

UPDATE: I was going to add something to this post and then decided not to bother. But I guess I should have. So, in response to Matt's criticism, what I meant is: a conservative who drives liberals crazy because he makes such compelling and hard-to-refute arguments for conservative ideas.

DennisBlair.jpg Over-classification and pseudo-classification are largely unknown but very serious problems in this country, ones that were made drastically worse during the Bush years. For additional information, see Chapter C in this report [pdf] from the 21st Century Right to Know project. We're lucky that the man slated to become the next Director of National Intelligence, Adm. Dennis C. Blair, apparently agrees. Not only that, Blair understands that the Bush Administration's use of over-classification and pseudo-classification was a product of both incompetence and, as Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse describes, an effort "to mislead the public and to frame, or more particularly, mis-frame, an outside political debate." Blair's committed to changing all of that, and I have to say, I'm happily surprised.

GETTING SERIOUS ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE....Barack Obama says he will direct the EPA today to take another look at its refusal to allow California to set stricter tailpipe CO2 standards than the feds:

President Obama will direct federal regulators on Monday to move swiftly on an application by California and 13 other states to set strict automobile emission and fuel efficiency standards, two administration officials said Sunday.

....Beyond acting on the California emissions law, officials said, Mr. Obama will direct the Transportation Department to quickly finalize interim nationwide regulations requiring the automobile industry to increase fuel efficiency standards to comply with a 2007 law, rules that the Bush administration decided at the last minute not to issue.

To avoid losing another year, Mr. Obama will order temporary regulations to be completed by March so automakers have enough time to retool for vehicles sold in 2011.

This shouldn't come as a surprise: during the campaign Obama said he would change course on California's application, and now he has.

For my money, though, it's the second part of this that's the most impressive. EPA was pretty much bound by court order to reconsider its CO2 position anyway, but ordering a temporary fuel efficiency regulation right away so that changes could take place in 2011 instead of 2012 shows a refreshing sense of urgency about energy and climate change policy. By itself it doesn't have an enormous impact, but then, almost nothing has an enormous impact by itself. Nonetheless, tighter mileage standards are one of the best tools we have for reducing the growth of greenhouse gases, and the fact that Obama is serious about this suggests that — as promised — he's serious about the rest of his energy package too. Happy days.

I want to build on the point that Adam Green, writing at Open Left, makes about the need for more liberals in the mainstream media. Watch the clip below from the "Roundtable" segment on yesterday's This Week with George Stephanopoulos. Aside from Krugman, there are no liberal voices. The others on the panel either spout tendentious re-imaginings of political and economic history (George Will) or half-baked solutions that are grounded in little to no schooling or expertise (Sam Donaldson).

Green asks, "What would this segment be like if Krugman wasn't there?" I totally agree, but not just because Krugman reps the lefty point of view. In the absence of expertise, conventional wisdom fills the void. You see that from Will, Donaldson, and Cokie Roberts. Krugman pairs a liberal perspective with actual knowledge, and it's that combo that makes him the most effective member of the panel. We need more liberals in the media, but we really more liberal experts in the media. So go out and nab those Nobel prizes, folks. There's an idea war to be won.