Kevin Drum - March 2010

Governing American, GOP Style

| Sat Mar. 6, 2010 6:35 PM EST

I think cartoonist David Fitzsimmons captures the Republican midterm strategy pretty well here. Any questions?

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Finally, an Opera I Like

| Sat Mar. 6, 2010 12:54 PM EST

Well, Chrome didn't work out. My nonnegotiable bare minimum for any browser is that it has to play well with MoJo's Drupal-based blog software, and Chrome didn't. This is almost certainly not Chrome's fault, since our software is....is....what's the right word? Finicky. Yeah. Anyway, Drupal didn't like Chrome, and our tech team confirmed that they knew about this and no fixes were forthcoming. So Chrome was out.

But it all worked out in the end. One of my regular readers suggested I give Opera a try, and I have to say that Opera rocks. It's always possible that I'm going to find some weird problem with it over the next few days, but so far it's been flawless. It's blazingly fast, it's got all the features of Firefox plus a few additional nice ones, it's highly configurable, and — hooray! — it works with Drupal with only a single minor glitch that I can live with pretty easily. Ad blocking was a little trickier than just installing AdBlock on Firefox, but a combination of a couple of tools got that working, which sped up page loading even more. The Wall Street Journal front page loads quickly and without randomly freezing up my system, and since I installed the ad-blocking tools I haven't run across any page that's gone into infinite freewheel mode as pages frequently did with Firefox. I'll keep my fingers crossed on that front.

This all makes me surprisingly happy. This is a testament to Opera, of course, but mainly, I think, a testament to my routinely bleak expectations for software these days. Finding something that actually works well, isn't larded up with mountains of intrusive crap I don't need,1 and isn't full of weird glitches,2 now counts as something of a miracle.3

Next up: a new email client to replace Thunderbird. I want something with a better, faster search of email archives. Ideally, I'd also like something that allows me to connect remotely through my home computer so that I can send email without resorting to my ISP's crappy web-based client. (My ISP, like many, only allows you to send mail if you're directly connected to their domain. If you're connected through some hotel's WiFi network, you're out of luck.) Should I check out Opera's email client? Probably. Any other suggestions?

And after that? A new computer. I'm so not looking forward to that, but my current box is just too old and slow. The good news on this front is that new PCs are, apparently, about 20x faster than my current one. The bad news is — well, everything else is bad news, probably. There was a time in my life when transferring everything over from one PC to another was sort of a cool challenge, and well worth it. But now? Not so much. But it's time to bite the bullet anyway. First step: figuring out to transfer an Opera installation. Progress!

1Actually, Opera does have mountains of weird features. That is, they're weird until I find some use for them, as I already have for a few of them. But they aren't intrusive and they don't slow things down. They do, however, sometimes require slightly more technical acumen than just downloading Firefox and using it straight out of the box.

2Though it does seem odd that you can't right-click on links in the "personal bar" at the top of the window. You can right-click on any other link, so why not those? And speaking of little glitches, why is it that all browsers allow you to set up a default page that comes up when you start the browser, but don't allow you to set up a default page for new tabs? Not a big deal, but it seems sort of strange.

3And speaking of miracles, what the heck is Opera's business model, anyway? I guess they must sell other stuff while giving away the browser for free? Or is it some other clever Norwegian trick?

Friday Cat Blogging - 5 March 2010

| Fri Mar. 5, 2010 2:55 PM EST

Today we have twin cats. On the left, Domino found a patch of sunshine this morning, fell asleep, and then discovered that it was half gone when she woke up. On the right, Inkblot, instead of chasing Domino away and usurping her sunny patch, ambled upstairs to find his own piece of sunshine. But the same thing happened to him. The sun gods are fickle that way.

And now a request from the cat gods. As some of you know, MoJo emails out a weekly newsletter that includes the best of this blog for the week plus a brand new post exclusive to the newsletter plus a cat of the week from one of my readers. (You can sign up for it over on the right, a little ways down the page.) However, our stock of cat photos has run dry. So if you'd like to show off your favorite feline to the world, email a picture of your cat(s) to motherjonescats@gmail.com. Be sure to include names, ages, and whatever other tidbits strike your fancy. It'll show up in a newsletter soon. Thanks!

Quote of the Day: Overdraft Follies

| Fri Mar. 5, 2010 1:55 PM EST

Here is reason #1 from an OCC letter explaining why it approved a bank's request to adopt a routine policy of largest-to-smallest check posting:

Projections showing that revenue is likely to increase as a result of adopting a high-to-low order of check posting.

Can't argue with that! If I have $50 in my checking account, and I buy lunch for $5 followed by a new pair of shoes for $70, I'll incur an overdraft fee for the shoes. But if the bank posts the shoe purchase first, then my account is immediately overdrawn and lunch triggers a second overdraft fee. Ka-ching!

But why does a bank regulator consider that a reason to favor the practice? Answer: because bank regulators aren't tasked with caring about consumers, they're tasked with ensuring bank soundness. And if a bank makes money, that makes it sound. This is why we need an independent CFPA that is tasked with caring about consumers.

And as long as we're on the topic, here's reason #4 for allowing banks to post checks and debit card transactions in whichever order is most lucrative:

The Bank states its belief that a high-to-low order of posting is consistent with the majority of its customers' preferences. The Bank surmises that the intended order, which will result in a customer's largest bills being paid first, will have the consequence of the customer's most important bills (such as mortgage payments) being paid first. The Bank thus concludes that a high-to-low order is aligned with the majority of its customers' priorities and preferences.

This is all via Felix Salmon, who notes that while "surmising" is all well and good, nobody ever bothers to actually ask customers if they prefer this. But it's even more ludicrous than that. The whole point of overdraft protection is that all your overdrafts get paid. Your largest bills are going to get paid regardless of what order they go in. The only exceptions are the very rare occasions when your cumulative spending goes beyond your overdraft limit and the bank really does have to choose which checks to honor. But the vast, vast bulk of overdrafts are small, so this is rarely a genuine issue and could be easily solved with a phone call. Unfortunately, that would halt the gravy train for the 99% of transactions that don't go over the limit and are being reordered solely to rip off consumers.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is your bank regulators at work. Any questions?

Working for Uncle Sam

| Fri Mar. 5, 2010 1:22 PM EST

A few weeks ago I wondered how the pay of government workers compares to that of comparable workers in the private sector these days. It's a hard question to answer, but USA Today weighs in today with its own analysis:

Overall, federal workers earned an average salary of $67,691 in 2008 for occupations that exist both in government and the private sector, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The average pay for the same mix of jobs in the private sector was $60,046 in 2008, the most recent data available. These salary figures do not include the value of health, pension and other benefits, which averaged $40,785 per federal employee in 2008 vs. $9,882 per private worker, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

....But National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley says the comparison is faulty because it "compares apples and oranges." Federal accountants, for example, perform work that has more complexity and requires more skill than accounting work in the private sector, she says. "When you look at the actual duties, you see that very few federal jobs align with those in the private sector," she says. She says federal employees are paid an average of 26% less than non-federal workers doing comparable work.

This doesn't end the debate, it just adds another data point, and a fairly crude one at that. For one thing, this is just a straight comparison of job titles with no attempt to figure out whether the job requirements are genuinely comparable, and there's no adjustment for things like age and experience. Unsurprisingly, there's also a fair amount of difference between job categories: high-skill occupations (IT workers, lawyers, doctors) tended to be higher paid in the private sector while low-skill jobs (janitors, cooks, PR flacks1) were higher paid in the public sector. And since this is a survey of federal jobs, it means that teachers, the biggest category of public workers, aren't included at all.

So take this with a grain of salt. Still $108 thousand vs. $70 thousand is a pretty big difference, and it would take a lot of data massaging to get rid of it, let alone put private workers 26% ahead. This is a topic that deserves some rigorous study. Via Alex Tabarrok.

1OK, including PR folks in this category was just a joke. Still, they account for the biggest single difference between federal and private workers: $132 thousand vs. $88 thousand. Apparently government agencies really value their flacks highly.

Outrage O' the Day

| Fri Mar. 5, 2010 12:46 PM EST

A Los Angeles elementary school principal has apologized for “questionable decisions” about who to honor during Black History Month:

Lorraine Abner’s letter did not name the individuals. But her apology came after three teachers at Wadsworth Avenue Elementary School were suspended while the Los Angeles Unified School District investigates allegations that they had their first-, second- and fourth-grade students carry pictures of O.J. Simpson, Dennis Rodman and RuPaul at last Friday’s event.

“Unfortunately, questionable decisions were made in the selection of noteworthy African American role models,” the letter said. “As the principal, I offer my apology for these errors in judgment.”

Where's Jon Stewart when you need him?

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More Bad News on Climate Change

| Fri Mar. 5, 2010 12:24 PM EST

One of the most dangerous aspects of global warming is the existence of positive feedback loops.  It's the same thing that causes a high-pitched screech when you set up speakers right behind a microphone: you speak into the mike, your voice is amplified by the speakers, your amplified voice is fed back into the mike, back into the speakers, etc. It gets louder with each loop, until eventually the whole system goes haywire.

The same kind of feedback loops are present in the climate, and one of the worst is the melting of the permafrost. Permafrost locks up huge amounts of methane, an especially potent greenhouse gas, and the danger is that as the globe warms, the permafrost will melt and release its methane. This will cause the globe to warm even more, which will melt the permafrost even more, and the loop will continue explosively until the permafrost is gone and tremendous amounts of methane have been released.

Well, it's starting to happen. Julia Whitty passes along the news from a new research report:

Arctic seabed stores of methane are now destabilizing and venting vast stores of frozen methane — a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The paper, in the prestigious journal Science, reports the permafrost under the East Siberian Arctic Shelf — long thought to be an impermeable barrier sealing in methane — is instead perforated and leaking large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Melting of even a fraction of the clathrates stored in that shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming.

If this continues, there might soon be no way to stop it. As Joe Romm warns, "It is increasingly clear that if the world strays significantly above 450 ppm atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide for any length of time, we will find it unimaginably difficult to stop short of 800 to 1000 ppm." And if that happens, warming of 5°C or more is inevitable, a catastrophe almost beyond imagining.

But the Republican Party continues to believe that if they just deny it's happening, then it's not happening. And since they, along with a small cadre of "centrist" Democrats, control the U.S. Senate, we remain unable to take even modest steps to address this. I'll probably be dead before the suffering starts in earnest, but lots of you have kids and grandkids who won't be. Even some of you Republicans. Just food for thought.

Working the Refs

| Fri Mar. 5, 2010 11:34 AM EST

Over at Media Matters, Jamison Foser raps the media for hyperventilating over reconciliation now that Democrats are using it to pass some healthcare amendments, while ignoring it back when Republicans used it to pass huge tax cuts:

The Senate reconciliation vote occurred on May 23, 2003. In the month of May, only one New York Times article so much as mentioned the use of reconciliation for the tax cuts....And that's more attention than most news outlets gave to the use of reconciliation that month. The Washington Post didn't run a single article, column, editorial, or letter to the editor that used the words "reconciliation" and "senate." Not one. USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the Associated Press were similarly silent.

....The current hyperventilation about the use of reconciliation is completely inconsistent with the way the media covered reconciliation in 2003. Back then, they didn't treat reconciliation as an unusual or controversial tactic — in fact, they barely noticed it, even when Republicans made noises about firing the parliamentarian they elevated when they fired the previous parliamentarian. 

Point taken. In fairness, though, part of the problem here is the Democrats didn't complain about reconciliation back in 2003. There's no reason for the media to make a fuss if the opposition party hasn't bothered to bring it up, after all.

This doesn't excuse the fact that they keep getting basic facts wrong this time around, like the fact that Dems aren't planning to pass the entire healthcare package through reconciliation, only a small package of amendments. And it doesn't change the fact that the conservative noise machine is way more effective than anything liberals have. Even if congressional Democrats had tried to make an issue out of reconciliation in 2003, they probably wouldn't have gotten much traction.

Still, you have to try. Republicans figure they can get some attention for this kind of nonsense if they yell loud enough, and they're right. Democrats don't even think of it.

How It's Done

| Thu Mar. 4, 2010 9:08 PM EST

Speaking of right-wing derangement (it was few hours ago, but we were speaking of it), Glenn Greenwald has the latest over at his place. It's about the "Gitmo 9" smear, but what it's really about is how this stuff routinely gets mainstreamed via credulous treatment by cable news. It's the noise machine in a nutshell. But don't click unless you have a strong stomach.

Holds and Filibusters

| Thu Mar. 4, 2010 5:21 PM EST

Matt Yglesias is mad:

The Lord’s Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony, is one of the nastiest, most brutal and evil organizations on the planet....It’s little surprise that the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009 has widespread support in the Senate, including 63 Cosponsors. But because the Senate’s rules are dumb, and because Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) is a moral monster, guided by a poisonously misguided ethical compass and a callous disregard for human welfare, there’s been no vote on the bill thanks to Coburn’s hold.

Actually, this is probably unfair to Coburn, who simply has a standing objection to any legislation that isn't fully paid for. That makes him something of a jackass, but not a moral monster. (See Daniel Schulman's piece about more Coburn obstructionism here, for example.)

But what's this business of Coburn putting a "hold" on the bill in question? I always thought holds were for nominees and filibusters were for legislation. So I asked about this via Twitter and was referred to.....Tom Coburn's Senate website, which explains:

A “hold” is placed when the Leader’s office is notified that a Senator intends to object to a request for unanimous consent (UC) from the Senate to consider or pass a measure....Holds can be overcome, but require time consuming procedures such as filing cloture. Cloture is a motion to end debate that requires 60 votes.

I'm still a little confused about this. If you mount a filibuster, you're basically informing the Senate leader that you intend to withhold unanimous consent to pass a bill. This can be overcome with a cloture motion, which requires 60 votes. Likewise, according to Coburn, if you place a hold, you're informing the Senate leader that you intend to withhold unanimous consent to pass a bill. This can be overcome with a cloture motion, which requires 60 votes. So why are there two different names for the exact same process?

On a related note, if the Lord's Army bill has 63 cosponsors, why not just bring it to the floor, cut off debate, and pass it? Coburn's filibuster/hold can delay the bill for a while, but he can't stop it. So what's the holdup?

UPDATE: As I expected, the holdup has to do with the delays involved in breaking a filibuster. But what exactly are those delays? The first is "ripening," which means that cloture motions aren't voted on until two days after they're introduced. But during those two days the Senate proceeds with other business, so that doesn't really cause any calendar difficulties.

The second is that there's a 30-hour post-cloture debate rule. So once cloture is voted on, Coburn and his pals can, if they want, chew up 30 hours of floor time with debate, amendments, quorum calls, etc. But they actually have to do it. If they don't, then presumably the Senate proceeds with other business and there's no real impact.

So the question is: is Coburn really willing to spend 30 hours on the floor for every one of these bills he puts a hold on? And since each senator is limited to one hour of post-cloture debate, can he round up enough friends to take up the rest of the time? Once or twice, maybe he could. But I wonder how many bills he'd be able to do this on before he (and the rest of the Republican caucus) ran out of steam?

There's probably more to it than this. There are a million ways to obstruct business in the Senate, after all, and most bills have to be voted on more than once. But although breaking a filibuster when you don't have 60 votes really is nearly impossible, it seems at least possible that post-cloture obstruction could be reduced a lot if Coburn's bluff were called a few times. Anyone with parliamentary expertise, though, is welcome to chime in on this.