• The Public’s Right to Know


    Today Adam Liptak gives us yet another reason to lament the financial meltdown in the newspaper industry.  In the past, it was most often newspapers that filed lawsuits demanding access to information that had been placed off limits for one reason or another.  But as their finances dwindle they can’t afford to file these kinds of suits as often, and other types of publishers don’t want to:

    Consider the aftermath of a recent settlement in a lawsuit against Amtrak….As part of the settlement, the parties asked Judge Lawrence F. Stengel of Federal District Court in Philadelphia not only to vacate eight of his decisions in the case but also to “direct LexisNexis and Westlaw to remove the decisions” from “their respective legal research services/databases.”

    The judge agreed, and the database companies complied.

    “In the infrequent event that we are ordered by the court to remove a decision from Westlaw,” explained John Shaughnessy, a spokesman for the service, which is owned by ThomsonReuters, “we will comply with the order, deleting the text of the decision but keeping the title of the case and its docket number. We also publish the court’s order to remove so there’s a clear record of the action.”

    In cases like this, newspapers have traditionally refused to cooperate.  What’s more, they filed suits to keep this kind of information public not just out of concern for their business, but because their owners were genuinely obsessed with First Amendment rights.  Newer businesses, conversely, tend to either have reason to cooperate with the government, or else think of these suits strictly from a perspective of whether they’re economically worth it.  We’ve still got the ACLU, of course, but they can’t pick up all the slack.  In the great power struggle between government secrecy and the public’s right to know, the demise of the newspaper industry is a victory for the bad guys.

  • The Coming War Over Climate


    Joe Romm is pretty unhappy with today’s WaPo story about the fight over the climate bill, but I’m not sure he’s right to be.  Here’s the gist of David Fahrenthold’s piece:

    Next month, the Senate is expected to take up legislation that would cap greenhouse-gas emissions. That fight began in blazing earnest last week, with a blitz of TV ads and public events in the Midwest and Mountain West.

    It seems that environmentalists are struggling in a fight they have spent years setting up. They are making slow progress adapting a movement built for other goals — building alarm over climate change, encouraging people to “green” their lives — into a political hammer, pushing a complex proposal the last mile through a skeptical Senate.

    Even now, these groups differ on whether to scare the public with predictions of heat waves or woo it with promises of green jobs. And they are facing an opposition with tycoon money and a gift for political stagecraft.

    Joe points to polls showing that there’s still majority support for climate legislation, and he’s right about that.  But they aren’t big majorities, and they can get whittled away pretty quickly if — as Fahrenthold suggests — opponents start treating climate change the way they have healthcare reform.

    Which they will.  There are two basic parts to their opposition.  The first is the big picture, and everyone knows what that’s going to be.  Just as warnings of a “government takeover” were the core of the anti-healthcare pitch, “cap-and-tax” is the core of the anti-climate pitch.  It’s simple and effective, and it works because there’s a kernel of truth to it.  Cap-and-trade will increase energy prices modestly, and that means electric bills and gasoline prices will go up for some people1.  And as the poll accompanying Fahrenthold’s piece shows, electric bills don’t have to go up much for majority support to crumble.  At $10 per month nearly 60% favor cap-and-trade.  At $25 per month, 60% oppose it.

    Now, do you think the same people who were responsible for all those townhall shoutfests this month will have any trouble convincing people that $25 is the right number?  Or $100?  I didn’t think so.

    Are we ready for that?  I’m not sure.  But we’d better be, because the second part of the opposition’s message will be the little picture.  In healthcare that turned out to be death panels and abortion funding and illegal immigrants.  For the climate bill it will be — who knows?  But it’s a long bill and there’s plenty to choose from.  Maybe it will be scare talk about Wall Street getting rich by trading emission permits.  Maybe it will be scare talk about China taking over the world because they get to keep polluting as much as they want.  Maybe it will be culture war talk about how Midwesterners are paying a bigger price to clean up the atmosphere than all those chi chi Californians.

    I don’t know.  But there will be plenty of it, and it’s going to flow through the same Fox/Drudge/talk radio channels as the healthcare stuff did.  Are we ready for the street brawl to come on this?

    1Yes, it’s complicated, because some people will get rebates and see their net energy costs go down.  But that’s the whole problem: it’s complicated.  Fox and Drudge and Rush aren’t likely to dwell on these nuances, are they?

  • The News and Us


    Paul Krugman muses about why news outlets tend to cover the politics and horserace aspects of things like healthcare far more than they cover the policy substance:

    The WaPo ombudsman hits on a pet peeve of mine from way back: reporting that focuses on how policy proposals are supposedly playing, rather than what’s actually in them. Back in 2004 I looked at TV reports on health care plans, and found not a single segment actually explaining the candidates’ plans. This time the WaPo ombud looks at his own paper’s reporting, and it’s not much better.

    Why does this happen? I suspect several reasons.

    1. It’s easier to research horse-race stuff….2. It’s easier to write horse-race stuff….3. It’s safer to cover the race.

    I suspect there at least two other reasons as well.  First, news operations, by definition, report news.  And horserace stuff changes all the time.  There’s always something new to report.

    But that’s not so for the policy stuff.  You can write a big piece comparing the various healthcare proposals out there, and once you’ve done it, you’re done.  You’re not going to run another piece a week later covering the exact same ground.  You need to find a new angle.  But policy doesn’t change all that much, and there are only just so many fresh angles on this stuff.  So if you’re dedicated to reporting on new stuff, you’re going to have a tough time writing lots of policy primers.

    Second, let’s face it: most people fall asleep when they come across stuff like this.  Even here in the blogosphere most readers have only a limited appetite for wonkery, and as Krugman mentions, trying to make this stuff interesting is next to impossible.  “I’ve spent years trying to learn the craft,” he says, “and it still often comes out way too dry.”  And that’s despite the fact that he has the advantage of writing for the most educated, politically engaged audience you can imagine.

    This is only going to get worse.  I don’t think mainstream news outlets have ever been all that good at explaining policy, but they’ve probably gotten worse over the years as attention spans have shortened and the media environment has gotten ever louder and more ubiquitous.  You really can’t explain healthcare reform in two minutes, but fewer and fewer people are willing to sit around for much longer than that.

    The fault, in other words, lies not in the media, but in ourselves.  The mainstream media may have written ten times as much about the townhalls as they did about the actual substance of the healthcare proposals on the table, but the blogosphere only did a little better.  Even here in wonkland, the outrage of the day is a much more tempting blog topic than reimbursement rates for Medicare.

  • Checking in on the Bailout


    Good news!  We’re making money so far on our bank bailouts:

    The profits, collected from eight of the biggest banks that have fully repaid their obligations to the government, come to about $4 billion, or the equivalent of about 15 percent annually, according to calculations compiled for The New York Times.

    This is good news, but I’m not sure it’s worth blaring all over the front page just yet.  Here’s the fourth paragraph of the story:

    The government still faces potentially huge long-term losses from its bailouts of the insurance giant American International Group, the mortgage finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the automakers General Motors and Chrysler. The Treasury Department could also take a hit from its guarantees on billions of dollars of toxic mortgages.

    The money that’s being paid back first comes from the very strongest banks — mostly the ones that really didn’t need capital injections in the first place.  They were always the ones who were likely to cash out first, cash out completely, and therefore provide the government with its highest rate of return.  In other words, looking at the results of TARP so far is as distorted as if you tried to get a sense of how an election was going by polling only your own guy’s strongest precincts.  You’d just be kidding yourself.

    TARP won’t end up costing $700 billion.  But these early paybacks account for only about 10% of the total and really don’t provide a very good sense of how the program as a whole is likely to turn out.  It’s more like an absolute upper bound.

  • Metrics for Afghanistan


    From the LA Times:

    The Obama administration is racing to demonstrate visible headway in the faltering war in Afghanistan, convinced it has only until next summer to slow a hemorrhage in U.S. support and win more time for the military and diplomatic strategy it hopes can rescue the 8-year-old effort.

    ….”We need a fundamental new approach,” said one officer, a senior advisor to Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the newly appointed top commander in Afghanistan….Officers in Afghanistan consider much of the effort of the last eight years wasted, with too few troops deployed, many in the wrong regions and given the wrong orders.

    And how are we going to know if this fundamental new approach is working? Metrics!

    Both the House and Senate versions of the pending 2010 defense spending bill include metrics and reporting requirements for the administration. Obama’s strategy is “still a work in progress,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who co-sponsored an amendment in the legislation setting conditions on aid to Pakistan.

    In the absence of strict guidelines from the administration, Menendez said in an interview, “we are definitely moving to a set of metrics that can give us benchmarks as to how we are proceeding” and whether Obama’s strategy “is pursuing our national security interests.”

    The White House hopes to preempt Congress with its own metrics. The document currently being fine-tuned, called the Strategic Implementation Plan, will include separate “indicators” of progress under nine broad “objectives” to be measured quarterly, according to an administration official involved in the process. Some of the about 50 indicators will apply to U.S. performance, but most will measure Afghan and Pakistani efforts.

    I’ve got nothing against metrics, but 50 sounds like about 45 too many.  Internally, they can have a thousand metrics if they need them — and they probably do — but for public consumption four or five key things are enough to tell us whether things are turning around.  I’d much rather have that than a long laundry list that leaves the military with enough scope to conclude just about anything it feels like concluding.

    In any case, September 24 is when we get to hear about our new Afghanistan strategy.  In Iraq, we took advantage of a few indigenous movements and then dumped a ton of soldiers into Baghdad, working on the assumption that Baghdad was so crucial that if it could be stabilized the rest of the country would follow.  In Afghanistan, we don’t really have anything local to take advantage of, and Kabul doesn’t have anywhere near the importance that Baghdad does in Iraq (and besides, it’s practically the only place in Afghanistan that isn’t a problem).  So our experience in Iraq really won’t help us much — which means this new strategy is pretty much starting from scratch.  I can’t wait to see it.

    POSTSCRIPT: Plus, as Matt says, I’d like to know what the plan is if the metrics look bad a year from now.  Will we withdraw?  Create new metrics?  Fire the old commanders and put new ones in again?  Or what?

  • The Recession Doldrums


    The Wall Street Journal asks a question today:

    Can Rally Run Without Revenue?
    Investors Wonder Whether Profits Based on Cost Cutting Can Long Endure

    No, they can’t.  Beyond the very shortest of short terms, you need rising revenue to generate rising earnings, and for that you need higher consumer spending.

    But there’s no sign of that.  This isn’t an ordinary inventory cycle recession, which goes away when inventories tighten back up, or a Fed-induced inflation-fighting recession, which goes away when the Fed eases up on interest rates.  It’s a massive deleveraging recession, and it won’t go away until consumers and businesses pay down their crushing debt loads and start spending money again.

    But how?  There are only a few ways for consumers to spend more money, and none of them are anywhere on the horizon.  Wages aren’t going up, employment isn’t going up, the glory days of credit card debt and home equity loans are over, and no one is drawing down their savings to buy bedroom sets these days.  Just the opposite, in fact.

    So with consumers actively reducing their consumption in order to pay off debt, what’s going to keep this recovery going?  A few hundred billion dollars in stimulus money?  Not likely.  Unfortunately, with no second stimulus likely to get serious consideration, we’re stuck in the doldrums until deleveraging has run its course.  That’s probably going to take another couple of years.

  • The Lesson of the Town Halls


    Is there any reason for optimism on healthcare reform?  In a weird sort of way there is.

    Think about this: It turns out that heathcare reform is so fundamentally popular that the only way Republicans have been able to have any impact at all on the debate is via a campaign of demagoguery so egregious and brazen that Huey Long himself probably would have hesitated a moment or two before jumping in.  For the first six months of the year nothing else had made a dent, so finally they had to resort to a full month of silly season frenzy about death panels and secret White House enemies lists and “healthcare racism” and benefits for illegal immigrants.  The only thing missing was sharks with laser beams attached to their heads.

    It’s been a helluva show.  But here’s the weird fact: despite all this, public support for healthcare reform has declined only modestly.  In fact, less than you’d expect even without the August freak show we’ve just gone through.  Generally speaking, people still approve of Obama, still approve of his healthcare plan, still prefer Democrats to Republicans on the issue, and still support giving people the choice of being covered by either a public or a private plan. Fox News and FreedomWorks have managed to spin their audiences into a hysterical lather about fascism and socialism and pulling the plug on grandma, but in the end the shrieking crowds who showed up at the townhalls were tiny in number.

    So that’s the optimistic view: the Fox/FreedomWorks crowd has created some great political theater, but underneath it all not a lot has changed.  If Democrats can just take a deep breath after the trauma of being yelled at all summer, they’ll realize that the loons at their townhalls represented about one percent of their constituency; that the public still wants reform and will reward success; that the plans currently on the table are already pretty modest affairs; and then they’ll stick together as a caucus and vote for them.  And that will be that.

    Unfortunately, that’s also the reason for pessimism: can Democrats still think straight about all this?  When Chuck Grassley announces dolefully that maybe healthcare needs to be rethought now that the people have spoken, he says it like he really means it.  And even some Dems fall for it.  So success depends on the Democratic caucus seeing through the “heartland uprising” charade and showing some backbone.  The odds might not be so great on that.

  • Back to Basics


    Let’s recap: the United States spends about twice as much on healthcare as any other developed nation in the world and in return receives just about the worst care.  Can someone remind me again why there’s even a debate about whether we should put up with this?

  • Friday Cat Vlogging – 28 August 2009


    Today you get more than boring old catblogging.  You get a cat movie.  Or a short feature, anyway.

    OK, fine: it’s 26 seconds long.

    Its star is Domino as she plonked down the stairs this morning to check out the kibble situation.  You’ll notice that she has sort of a weird gait coming down the stairs, not at all like the panther-esque stride that a normal cat would display.  (Like, say, Inkblot.)  (No, really.  When he comes down the stairs you better get out of the way.)  We’re not sure why this is, but she’s been this way ever since we got her, and it seems to be due to some kind of abnormality in her front legs.  Nothing serious, and she gets around just fine.  She’s just not very lithe about it.

    Anyway, as the ending shows, this dramatic production is clearly a tragedy: there’s no food in the food bowl after Domino makes the long trek downstairs.  But worry not: as soon as the cameraman was done, he filled up the bowl and Domino was there at the head of the line.  Everyone walked away happy from this movie.

  • Chart of the Day


    OK, it’s not really a chart.  It’s a table.  But it comes from CBPP and it takes a closer look at the recent headlines screaming that deficit projections have risen from $7 trillion to $9 trillion.  Long story short, it’s not true.

    Here’s why.  The lower number is from the CBO and relies on its “baseline” budget calculation.  This is an estimate of what would happen if current law remains unchanged forever, and as such it bears little resemblance to reality.  In reality, the Bush tax cuts aren’t going to disappear in 2011, Medicare reimbursements aren’t going to be suddenly slashed, and the Alternative Minimum Tax won’t be left alone to gobble up ever more income.  As usual, the law will be changed to take care of all these things, just like it is every year.

    So if you take a look at what the deficit would be under current real-life policies, and compare it to estimates under Obama’s proposed policies, what do you get?  As the table below shows, the real-life deficit isn’t $7 trillion, it’s more like $11 trillion.  And the Obama deficit isn’t $9 trillion, it’s about $10.5 trillion once adjustments are made so that it can be compared to CBO estimates on an apples-to-apples basis.  So the bottom line is simple: properly accounted for, the deficit actually goes down when you compare Obama’s budget proposals to current policy, not up.

    All the grisly details are here.  Warning: not for the faint of heart.

  • Quote of the Day


    From Steve Benen, responding to Steven Pearlstein’s column today about a possible compromise healthcare plan:

    If there’s “a deal to be had here,” who is the deal with?

    In theory, a deal should be fairly easy.  Keep the insurance reform stuff and the increased subsidies, dump the public option, add in a few other goodies here and there for both sides, and voila.  Dinner is served.

    But who’s going to join us at the table?  Are there any Republicans left who will vote for any healthcare plan at all, regardless of what is or isn’t in it?  Who are they?  As Michael Kinsley says morosely about a healthcare deal elsewhere in the paper: “I’d like to think that if it goes down this time — when even the insurance companies are on board, promising to eliminate their odious policies about preexisting conditions — Republicans will pay for having killed it, if indeed they do kill it. But they didn’t pay the last time.”

  • The Rationing Canard


    Ezra Klein takes a bat to Charles Krauthammer’s claim that national healthcare inevitably leads to rationing:

    A 2001 survey by the policy journal Health Affairs found that 38 percent of Britons and 27 percent of Canadians reported waiting four months or more for elective surgery. Among Americans, that number was only 5 percent….There is, however, a flip side to that. The very same survey also looked at cost problems among residents of different countries: 24 percent of Americans reported that they did not get medical care because of cost. Twenty-six percent said they didn’t fill a prescription. And 22 percent said they didn’t get a test or treatment. In Britain and Canada, only about 6 percent of respondents reported that costs had limited their access to care.

    The problem, of course, is that the U.S. rations by denying healthcare to poor people, and the Krauthammers of the world don’t really care much about that.  What’s more, for all that we like to think of ourselves as nice people, most middle class Americans don’t care much about it either.

    In any case, Krauthammer also violates two of my standard rules for figuring out when someone is completely full of it when they talk about healthcare.  #1: the old hip replacement canard.  Run for the hills when you hear it.  Krauthammer, as Ezra points out, is implicitly talking about elective surgeries like hip replacements, but there’s a reason these procedures are called “elective”: it’s because these are the procedures that can be most effectively triaged.  We do the same thing in emergency rooms all the time, and we do it every time you have to wait a few weeks for a doctor’s appointment because you’re not keeling over on the street.  Every system triages something, and in some countries that something is hip replacements that can be easily monitored and scheduled.  In others — like ours — it’s things like basic dental care.

    #2: Krauthammer is careful to name check only Britain and Canada, which have more problems than most other national healthcare systems — and are conveniently English-speaking, which makes it easy to lazily Google complaints about care.  But he couldn’t make his rationing statement at all if he’d chosen France and Germany (or Sweden or Japan) instead.  The plain fact is that universal care doesn’t inevitably mean longer waits for care than in the U.S.  As any honest observer knows, plenty of actual, existing countries have proven just that.  We should emulate them.

  • Af/Pak Dominos


    According to Mike Crowley, Bruce Riedel said this at a Brookings event earlier this week:

    The triumph of jihadism or the jihadism of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in driving NATO out of Afghanistan would resonate throughout the Islamic World. This would be a victory on par with the destruction of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. And, those moderates in the Islamic World who would say, no, we have to be moderate, we have to engage, would find themselves facing a real example. No, we just need to kill them, and we will drive them out. So I think the stakes are enormous.

    Riedel was chair of a White House team that reviewed U.S. policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan earlier this year, so his opinion isn’t one you can easily dismiss.

    But how reasonable is it?  It’s probably true that Pakistani moderates are skeptical about our willingness to stick things out for the long haul, so they often hedge their bets by trying to stay on our good side while they strike deals with the Taliban on the side.  After all, Americans are a wee bit unpopular in Pakistan these days, so why not?  What’s more, it’s a pretty safe game since these same moderates know perfectly well that we don’t have enough leverage to ever really call them out on this tap dancing.

    At the same time, neither Pakistani moderates nor, more importantly, the Pakistani army, would ever put up with any serious effort by the Taliban to mount a coup.  The army plays a sometimes dangerous game, trying to use these terrorist groups as useful foot soldiers in its forever war with India, but other than that they’ve never had any real use for them.  The more important question, then, is what would happen if Islamist elements in the Pakistani army gained more control than they have now and started cooperating with Islamist groups more seriously?  If the U.S. withdrew from the region and radicals claimed victory, would all this stop being a game and start becoming all too real?

    Nothing is impossible, but at its core this is just a sophisticated version of the same domino theory that dominated U.S. thinking in Southeast Asia in the 50s and 60s.  That led us into a disastrous war then, and it could do the same now if the Obama administration starts getting too wrapped up in febrile thinking like this.  After all, if you assume enough dominos, you can come to just about any conclusion you want.  I sure hope they’re not taking this more seriously than it deserves.

    More in the same vein from Michael Cohen here.

  • Headline of the Day


    From the Los Angeles Times this morning:

    L.A. Targets Illegal Cheese

    It’s all about unpasteurized Mexican cheese, of course, which is “spirited into the country in suitcases and is then sold door to door to residents or restaurants and at open air markets out of coolers.”  The foodies love it:

    Many people know its provenance is illegal but think it tastes better. Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning L.A. Weekly food critic, said he prefers it.  “I will admit that there are some groceries . . . where you do kind of buy cheese under the table, and it tastes better,” Gold said. “If you’re the sort of person who believes milk has a soul to it, which I guess I am, then pasteurizing is taking something away.” As for the potential danger posed by unpasteurized cheese, Gold added: “Life is filled with risks.”

    I guess the LAT’s own food critic wasn’t willing to own up to buying illegal cheese under the table.  Coward.

  • Secrecy and Executive Power


    Today we get some bad news on the executive power front:

    The Obama administration will largely preserve Bush-era procedures allowing the government to search — without suspicion of wrongdoing — the contents of a traveler’s laptop computer, cellphone or other electronic device, although officials said new policies would expand oversight of such inspections.

    ….”It’s a disappointing ratification of the suspicionless search policy put in place by the Bush administration,” said Catherine Crump, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. “It provides a lot of procedural safeguards, but it doesn’t deal with the fundamental problem, which is that under the policy, government officials are free to search people’s laptops and cellphones for any reason whatsoever.”

    And also a bit of good news, from a ruling in a lawsuit brought against the CIA by a DEA agent, Richard Horn, and his lawyer, Brian Leighton:

    In a highly unusual legal step, a federal judge has ordered the government to grant an attorney a security clearance so he can represent a disgruntled former narcotics officer in a lawsuit against a former CIA officer….”The deference generally granted the executive branch in matters of classification and national security must yield when the executive attempts to exert control over the courtroom,” U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth wrote in an order issued late Wednesday.

    ….”It is fabulous for many reasons, not the least of which is the judge doesn’t believe anything the government is saying,” Leighton said Thursday of the new ruling.

    ….In his July ruling, Lamberth denounced certain CIA and Justice Department officials for having “handcuffed the court” with delay tactics and inaccurate statements. His latest ruling similarly chastises Justice Department attorneys for “continued obstinance” and “diminished credibility.”

    The Horn/Leighton lawsuit has been going on since 1994.

  • Yet More Sports Blogging


    As long as I’m writing about British sporting clubs today, how about some cricket blogging?  A few weeks ago I was emailing with Alex Massie about something or other, and along the way suggested that he should write more about cricket.  “I’m pretty much agog,” I wrote “at the idea that you have a sport that frequently ends in a draw even though it takes five days to play.”

    That’s not the only reason I find myself intermittently bewitched by cricket, of course.  All sports have their own weird jargon, but cricket writing is so deliciously, Britishly impenetrable that it’s mesmerizing, sort of like those contests to write parody pomo paragraphs.  Like this: “Ian Bell, back at No3 and under the microscope, survived a torrid start to make 72 good runs, worth more than they appear, before dragging his first ball after the tea interval on to his off-stump, while Andrew Strauss batted superbly, hitting 11 fours in his 55, on the way protecting Bell from a Mitchell Johnson bombardment while he settled in.”

    And the rules!  Every year or two, when some big test series comes along, I read up on the rules again and then immediately forget them.  It’s sort of like quantum mechanics: no matter how often I read about it, my brain refuses to accept that anything so eccentric can possibly be true, and promptly expels it.

    So there’s that.  But back to the five-day draws.  I wrote that email to Alex after England had, via some pact with the devil or something, managed to force a draw in the first test of the Ashes last month even though Australia was clearly the better team by several light years.  But Alex says it’s the draw that makes the game what it is:

    This is [] an aspect of cricket that mystifies many people, by no means all of them American. But of the three most common results — a win, a loss and a draw — it is not an overstatement to say that the draw is the most important. Because it is the draw, or more accurately the possibility of the draw, that gives the game its texture and much of its near-endless variety.

    Then he starts quoting Clausewitz.  Someday, I suppose, I need to actually go watch some cricket in person with a knowledgable fan.  Only then, like Schrödinger’s cat, will I truly understand what it’s all about.

  • Cash 4 Clunkers Wrapup


    Joe Romm says that although the Cash for Clunkers program was never meant to be a cost-effective way to reduce carbon emissions, in the end it turned out to be very effective indeed:

    In the real world, the public has mostly turned in gas-guzzlers in exchange for fuel-efficient cars — which perhaps should not have been a total surprise since oil prices are rising, gas guzzlers remain a tough resell in the used car market, and most fuel-efficient cars are much cheaper than SUVs.  So as a stimulus that saves oil while cutting CO2 for free — it has turned out to be a slam dunk, far better than I had expected.

    ….Let’s assume the new cars are driven nearly 20% more over the next 5 years [compared to the old cars they replace], and that the average price of gasoline over the next five years is $3.50.  Then we’re “only” saving 140 million gallons a year or roughly $500 million a year.  The $3 billion program “pays for itself” in oil savings in 6 years.  And most of that oil savings is money that would have left the country, so it is a (small) secondary stimulus.

    Using a rough estimate of 25 pounds of CO2 per gallon of gas (full lifecycle emissions), then we’re saving over 1.5 million metric tons of CO2 per year — and all of the ancillary urban air pollutants from those clunkers — for free.

    I wouldn’t make a habit out of supporting targeted industry programs like C4C, but it was wildly popular, provided a modest but noticeable amount of economic stimulus, and helps reduce U.S. oil consumption.  Not bad for $3 billion.

  • Breakfast of Champions


    England will be sending four clubs to compete in the European Champions League tournament, which begins group play next month.  Matchups were announced today, and apparently the topic on everybody’s mind is whether they have to play anyone more than 90 minutes away:

    Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez: “The important thing as always is that the travelling isn’t too bad. We don’t have too far to go for any of the games.”

    Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon: “There isn’t a lot of travel, though, so we have to be reasonably pleased with the draw.”

    Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis: “It is good to have relatively short travel times, that’s something that Arsene (Wenger) thinks about a lot.”

    Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson: “These are difficult ties, especially the trips to Russia and Turkey.”

    Seriously?  Anything more than a 2-hour plane ride is supposed to be a major drain on these guys?  Are they flying RyanAir or something?

  • Obama and the Kennedys


    Conservative historian Michael Knox Beran writes about Barack Obama and the Kennedy family:

    President Obama may in time find it to his — and to his country’s — benefit to fix his gaze not on Ted, but on Jack. For in addition to his more superficial graces, President Kennedy possessed a degree of wisdom, which might be defined as grace of judgment. John Kennedy’s sentiments were liberal, but he knew that a wise president must have the country in his bones, must feel, as by instinct, the temper of the people, and must know what they will bear and what they will not. He was annoyed by those who, like Arthur Schlesinger Jr., urged him to be another FDR. Schlesinger, he said, wanted him to act as if it were 1932. But three decades had passed since 1932; the mood of the people, President Kennedy knew, had changed.

    President Obama, if he reverences the memory of Ted Kennedy, would do well to eschew his politics. In joining the battle for health-care reform, Obama has entered on what promises to be the climacteric of his presidency. At so critical a juncture he needs to emulate, not the intoxicated extravagances of the late senator, but the sober moderation of his older brother, who knew that the world has indeed changed since 1932.

    Actually, that’s what I’m afraid of.  Like Obama, JFK had a charming manner, good judgment, a cool temperament, and liberal instincts.  What’s more, as the Cuban Missile Crisis showed, he wasn’t afraid to stand up to his advisors.  Obama has all these qualities too, which is why he so often seems like JFK’s political heir.

    But JFK was also famously cautious, dangerously mainstream on military and national security issues, better able to deliver inspiring speeches than to genuinely move public opinion, and had little sense of how to bend Congress to his will.  In the end, he left behind few accomplishments — a fate Obama risks sharing if JFK becomes too much a role model and too little a warning beacon.  Sober moderation may have its virtues, but worshipping at its altar isn’t the stuff of great presidencies.

  • Intelligence and Secrecy


    Chris Hayes writes that after the torture and surveillance abuses of the past eight years, we need a new Church Committee to thoroughly examine the role and proper function of the intelligence community and the executive branch.  But we shouldn’t do it with Frank Church’s model in mind:

    At one point Church referred to the CIA as a “rogue elephant,” causing a media firestorm. But the final committee report shows that to the degree the agency and other parts of the secret government were operating with limited control from the White House, it was by design. Walter Mondale came around to the view that the problem wasn’t the agencies themselves but the accretion of secret executive power: “the grant of powers to the CIA and to these other agencies,” he said during a committee hearing, “is, above all, a grant of power to the president.”

    A contemporary Church Committee would do well to follow Mondale’s approach and not Church’s. It must comprehensively evaluate the secret government, its activities and its relationship to Congress stretching back through several decades of Democratic and Republican administrations. Such a broad scope would insulate the committee from charges that it was simply pursuing a partisan vendetta against a discredited Republican administration, but it is also necessary to understand the systemic problems and necessary reforms.

    Yes.  The problem isn’t with the CIA or the NSA per se, it’s with the instructions they got from the president.  For the most part, they’ve been doing precisely what he wanted done, and they were provided with exhaustive legal opinions telling them it was OK.  Their fear is that an investigation is likely to turn exclusively into an agency witch hunt, and that’s a legitimate concern if they end up bearing the brunt of the criticism when it’s their political masters who should be bearing it instead.

    Beyond those legitimate misgivings, though, lies something larger. As Chris notes, conservatives have built up a mythology in the years since the original Church Report was released that blames it for hobbling U.S. intelligence capability for decades.  There’s little to back up such a view, though, and Richard Clarke in particular has no time for it:

    “What bothers me,” he says, “is the CIA’s tendency whenever they’re criticized to say, If you do your job, if you do oversight seriously — which Congress almost never does — then we’ll pout. Some of us, many, will not just pout; we’ll retire early. Our morale will be hurt.” And if morale is hurt and the agencies are gutted, they argue, the country will be exposed to attack. In other words: “If you, Congress, do oversight, then we’ll all die. Can you imagine FEMA or the agricultural department saying we’re all going to retire if you conduct oversight?” Clarke asks in disbelief.

    The principle of oversight aside, the right-wing story about the committee ruining intelligence capabilities for a generation posits a golden age of über-competent intelligence-gathering that simply never existed. The activities described in the committee report, more often than not, have a kind of Keystone Kops flavor to them. “From its beginning,” says Clarke, “when [the CIA] does covert action as opposed to clandestine activity…it regularly fucks up. I remember sitting with [Defense Secretary] Bob Gates when he was deputy national security adviser, and he said, I don’t think CIA should do covert action; CIA ought to be an intelligence collection and analysis [agency].”

    I like the idea of a latter day Church Committee, but mainly I like it if it has a strong focus not just on the intelligence community itself, but on the entire apparatus of oversight and executive branch secrecy.  Even the interrogators brandishing the power drills and death threats, revolting as they are, don’t deserve condemnation if the guys at the top who were quite plainly cheering them on get off without so much as a slap on the wrist.  We need to investigate the entire system, not just the hands that carried out the orders.