Kevin Drum - May 2010

The Sestak Quid Pro Quo

| Fri May 28, 2010 10:27 AM EDT

Peter Baker provides some further information about what kind of job was offered to Joe Sestak last year:

Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, asked [Bill] Clinton to explore the possibilities last summer, according to the briefed individuals, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the politically charged situation. Mr. Sestak said no and went on to win last week’s Pennsylvania Democratic primary against Senator Arlen Specter.

The White House did not offer Mr. Sestak a full-time paid position because Mr. Emanuel wanted him to stay in the House rather than risk losing his seat. Among the positions explored by the White House was an appointment to the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, which provides independent oversight and advice the president. But White House officials discovered it would not work because Mr. Sestak could not serve on the board while still serving in Congress.

....The office of Robert F. Bauer, the White House counsel, has concluded that Mr. Emanuel’s proposal did not violate laws prohibiting government employees from promising employment as a reward for political activity because the position being offered was unpaid. The office also found other examples of presidents offering positions to political allies to achieve political aims.

This explains a lot. The job offer really was a quid pro quo because an unpaid appointment would have been an additional position, not a replacement for his current job, and it was contingent on Sestak dropping out of the primary. And since Bill Clinton was involved, this ends up indirectly involving Hillary Clinton too.

This still strikes me as big nothingburger: presidents engage in political horsetrading all the time. At the same time, it's starting to make a little more sense why everyone has been so reticent to talk about it. Regardless, I still think this is a 2-day story once the White House and Sestak produce more details. A week tops. There's just nothing serious here.

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Twenty-Somethings on Elena Kagan

| Fri May 28, 2010 12:25 AM EDT

Hey, remember Elena Kagan? Dean of Harvard Law, Solicitor General for Barack Obama, nominated to the Supreme Court a few weeks ago? Yeah, that Elena Kagan. The one who's been the subject of endless speculation about her wardrobe, sexual identity, and judicial philosophy. Well, Dahlia Lithwick says that nobody under 30 gives a fig about two-thirds of that:

Young people reading Robin Givhan's article on Kagan's scandalously open knees think they're reading something hilarious from their grandparents' stack of dating magazines from the 1950s. When they hear us yelping about racial diversity at the court, they think about the fact that their classrooms are already incredibly diverse and their Facebook friendships span continents. When they hear us shrieking over women's softball, they shake their Title IX heads and figure we're just idiots for thinking straight women don't play sports. And when they hear us whispering behind our hands about whether someone is gay, most of them tell me they think we're just freaking idiots. Just as they embody Barack Obama's post-racial America, they identify almost completely with Kagan's post-gender America — in which womanhood simply isn't defined by skirts, babies, or boyfriends anymore.

Good job, young people! But we still have that whole judicial philosophy thing to hash out. It would sure be nice if we knew a little more about that.

Why BP is the Anti-Katrina

| Thu May 27, 2010 4:15 PM EDT

Yuval Levin today:

I think it’s actually right to say that the BP oil spill is something like Obama’s Katrina, but not in the sense in which most critics seem to mean it.

It’s like Katrina in that many people's attitudes regarding the response to it reveal completely unreasonable expectations of government. The fact is, accidents (not to mention storms) happen. We can work to prepare for them, we can have various preventive rules and measures in place. We can build the capacity for response and recovery in advance. But these things happen, and sometimes they happen on a scale that is just too great to be easily addressed. It is totally unreasonable to expect the government to be able to easily address them — and the kind of government that would be capable of that is not the kind of government that we should want.

This conflates two very different things. Katrina was an example of the type of disaster that the federal government is specifically tasked with handling. And for most of the 90s, it was very good at handling them. But when George Bush became president and Joe Allbaugh became director of FEMA, everything changed. Allbaugh neither knew nor cared about disaster preparedness. For ideological reasons, FEMA was downsized and much of its work outsourced. When Allbaugh left after less than two years on the job, he was replaced by the hapless Michael Brown and the agency was downgraded and broken up yet again. By the time Katrina hit, the upper levels of FEMA were populated largely with political appointees with no disaster preparedness experience and the agency was simply not up to the job of dealing with a huge storm anymore.

The Deepwater Horizon explosion is almost the exact opposite. There is no federal expertise in capping oil blowouts. There is no federal agency tasked specifically with repairing broken well pipes. There is no expectation that the federal government should be able to respond instantly to a disaster like this. There never has been. For better or worse, it's simply not something that's ever been considered the responsibility of the federal government.1

In the case of Katrina, you have the kind of disaster that, contra Levin, can be addressed by the federal government. In the case of the BP spill, we're faced with a technological challenge that can't be. They could hardly be more different.

But there is one way in which they're similar. As Levin says, Katrina would have been an immense disaster no matter what. But it was far worse than it had to be because a conservative administration, one that fundamentally disdained the mechanics of government for ideological reasons, decided that FEMA wasn't very important. Likewise, the BP blowout was made more likely because that same administration decided that government regulation of private industry wasn't very important and turned the relevant agency into a joke. If you believe that government is the problem, not the solution, and if you actually run the country that way for eight years, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But we shouldn't pretend it's inevitable.

1Just to be clear: I'm talking here only about capping the leak itself. As T.R. Donoghue points out, the feds do have an overall plan for responding to and cleaning up spills.

UPDATE: I was only talking about the post-Katrina response by FEMA in this post, but John McQuaid usefully points out that none of the major damage would have happened in the first place if the federal government had done a decent job building the hurricane levee system in New Orleans. If you believe that this is just another example of why you shouldn't trust the government to do anything right, then that's a point in Levin's favor. If you believe that it's another example of why we should make sure government works better, then it's a point in mine.

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Oil Spill Kabuki

| Thu May 27, 2010 2:15 PM EDT

I feel like I should say something about the big press conference Obama just held. It's not like he does a whole lot of them. But it seemed pretty soporific to me. On the one hand, it's true that when he said he was "angry and frustrated" about the BP oil spill, he sure didn't seem very angry or frustrated. On the other hand, watching the CNN dimwits after the conference solemnly advising us one after one that Obama really needed to be more emotional because that's what the American people want — well, screw that. I have no idea what the American people want, and neither do they.

Honestly, this is just one of those lose-lose situations where Obama's long view of politics will hopefully serve him well. It's pretty plain, after all, that there really isn't much the federal government can do. All the expertise for dealing with stuff like this lies with the big oil companies. And every big oil company is working on it already. The problem isn't a lack of effort on their part or on the part of the government.

But Major Garrett wants to know if Obama really has his "boot on BP's neck," and everyone else seems to be nodding along. I guess it's the kabuki of our times. The president has to be In Charge whether he can actually do anything or not.

Of course, what everyone should be asking is not what the feds are going to do about capping the leak, but what they're going to do to make sure all the oil is cleaned up afterward. That's finally starting to get some attention now that oil is onshore, but the story is much bigger than that. There's 20 million or more gallons of oil sitting in a huge underwater plume off the shore of Louisiana right now, and the big question is what BP is going to do about that. And what we're going to do to make deepwater platforms safer in the future. If the "top kill" effort to stop the spill works, the dramatic part of this story will finally be over. The real part will just be starting.

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New York Has Country's Dumbest Drivers

| Thu May 27, 2010 1:36 PM EDT

The results of the GMAC National Drivers Test are out, and this year the most knowledgable drivers in the country come from.....Kansas! Hooray for Kansas. Oregon, South Dakota, and Minnesota get honorable mentions. The least knowledgable come from New York. Boo New York. New Jersey, DC, and California have nothing to brag about either. Click here to see how your state did.

Thirsting for more? The GMAC test has 20 questions, and nearly 20% of Americans failed by getting a score of less than 14. Older drivers did better than younger ones. Men did better than women. Toughest question: what should you do at a yellow light? 85% of drivers got it wrong.

(Full disclosure: I got it correct, but only by sussing out the "right" answer. My typical behavior is much more in line with the 85%. I think you can guess what I'm talking about here.)

Anyway, more details here. You can take the test here. I got 19 out of 20 correct. If you know what a diamond-shaped sign means, you have a chance of beating my score.

Does Privacy Have a Future?

| Thu May 27, 2010 12:37 PM EDT

The London Times recently announced that they would be putting their entire paper behind a paywall. Their view is pretty simple: giving away their news for free cuts into subscription revenue but produces almost nothing back in the way of ad revenue because advertisers aren't willing to pay much for the "useless tourists" who drop by new sites occasionally but aren't serious about either the news itself or the advertising. Paying customers, conversely, tend to be demographically more desirable and they spend more quality time looking at both the news and the accompanying ads. So charging for access should be a net benefit. Felix Salmon comments:

The logic here has existed in print publications for years: newspapers with a cover price tend to have higher ad rates than free sheets, because their readership is more affluent and is also more likely to actually read the paper (and see its ads).

....But the fact is that online there are much more useful and granular ways for an advertiser to work out who they're targeting, beyond just saying “we want people who are willing to pay to read this publication”....The fact is that if I sign in to a free site using my Twitter login, I'm actually more valuable to advertisers than if I paid to enter that site. That's because the list of people I follow on Twitter says a huge amount about me, and a smart media-buying organization can target ads at me which are much more narrowly focused than if all they knew about me was that I was paying to read the Times.

We're not quite there yet. But it seems to me that online publications are making a big mistake if they make subscribers go through a dedicated registration and login process, because the demographic information they can get from that will be less useful and less accurate than if they outsource the reader-identification procedure to Twitter or LinkedIn or Facebook. And people will definitely enjoy an automatically personalized reading experience, where they can see what their Facebook friends are reading and what the people they follow on Twitter are reading.

I have an abiding fear that Felix is right. There's an analogy here to the world of supermarkets. In the past, supermarkets charged everyone the same price and made a small profit margin doing it. Then came loyalty cards. And they were popular! So once one supermarket started offering them, everyone else did as well. Eventually they were ubiquitous.

Today, overall supermarket prices are still the same as they've always been, they're just tiered differently: those with cards pay less and those without cards pay more. So on average, consumers haven't benefited. What's more, competition is generally fierce in the supermarket biz, which means that overall profit margins are also the same as they've always been. So supermarkets haven't benefited.

So who has benefited? Well, as near as I can tell, the answer is: marketing firms. Loyalty cards generate mountains of purchasing data that allow third parties to target advertising more effectively. This is great news for marketing companies and their clients. Whether it's great news for the rest of us is a little harder to determine.

But this might be the news model of the future. Basically, you'll be able to get access to the Times two ways: either by paying for a subscription or by registering with your Facebook/Twitter/LinkedIn ID and agreeing to give the Times access to your online life. This is roughly the same trade that we've made in the supermarket biz: pay more and maintain your privacy, or pay less in return for giving it up.

The big difference, of course, is that supermarkets had a perfectly viable business model before loyalty programs started up. Newspapers don't. This might actually be the only way they can save themselves. But it might also be a sign of much broader things to come. In the future, the poor and middle class will essentially have no privacy in their day-to-day life. They will have sold it away, because in practical terms the poor and the middle class simply can't afford to give up a 5-10% discount on everything they buy. Only the better off, who can, will have the option of maintaining their privacy.

Maybe this is OK. I don't like it, but plenty of people seem fine with the idea. But there's a reason that all this information is so valuable, and it's not because marketing firms and consumer goods companies are genuinely interested in your welfare. This is a brave new world we're stumbling into.

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The Curious Case of Joe Sestak

| Thu May 27, 2010 11:14 AM EDT

Back in February, Joe Sestak told reporters that the White House had once offered him a federal job as an inducement not to run against Arlen Specter in the Democratic primary race for Pennsylvania's senate seat. Since then Sestak has refused to talk further about the matter and so has the White House. Republicans have tried to make hay out of this, but Stan Brand, a Washington lawyer who specializes in ethics matters, tells David Corn today that it's virtually certain that nothing illegal took place:

Though he dismisses Issa's pursuit of Sestakgate, Brand says that White House actions are keeping the scandal alive: "Gibbs dissembling doesn't help them. Don't be defensive about it. Just say this is what goes on. They're looking guilty over something that isn't illegal." He adds: "That's not the first time that this has happened."

This is surely one of the weirder pseudo-scandals of the year. It's not weird that Republicans would try to get some mileage out of it. That's politics. What's weird is two things: (1) How could Sestak possibly have been stupid enough to mention this in the first place? and (2) Why don't he and the White House just tell us about it?

As to #1, I have no idea. But #2 is murkier. Republicans are trying to pretend that the job offer was made "in return" for Sestak not running against Specter, but that's ridiculous. A job offer is just a job offer. If Sestak accepted, he automatically wouldn't be running for office. It's like saying that I offered a cashier some money in return for not having me arrested when I walk out the door with a Blu-Ray player under my arm. It's implicit in the whole thing.

So the White House either offered Sestak a job or they didn't. If they didn't, they would have said so. So presumably they did. If they and Sestak just fessed up to this, wouldn't the story go away almost instantly? If the White House announced, say, that Sestak had indeed been under consideration for a position in the Navy Department last summer, but Sestak turned them down, then that's the end of it. It's not even good campaign fodder. All Sestak has to do is confess that in the heat of the campaign he got a little carried away and characterized it badly.

What the hell am I missing here? I just see no downside to this.

Healthcare Costs Going Up, Up, Up

| Thu May 27, 2010 10:50 AM EDT

The Los Angeles Times reports today on enormous rate hikes for small businesses in the health insurance market:

Five major insurers in California's small-business market are raising rates 12% to 23% for firms with fewer than 50 employees, according to a survey by The Times.

...."We don't have that money," said Ann Terranova, a San Francisco financial planner who is dropping Blue Shield for herself and two employees after learning that their annual premium would jump to more than $19,000 a year from $11,000. 

....California insurers defend their rate hikes as sound and fair, saying they struggle to balance affordable rates with the need to remain competitive and turn a modest profit. Blue Shield, for example, said hospital charges rose nearly 20% last year, while physician costs and pharmaceutical fees increased almost as much. Anthem Blue Cross also cited the cost of medical care in explaining its average rate hikes of 13% this year.

If conservatives want to avoid the specter of federally funded single-payer healthcare in the United States, this is what they need to come to terms with. Canada provides high quality healthcare for everyone — including small businesses and the elderly — for a cost per person of about $4,000 per year. Ditto for France and the Netherlands. Britain and Japan do it for about $3,000. Ann Terranova is being asked to pay more than $6,000 per person — and that's for three working-age employees.

One way or another we have to deal with this. This year's healthcare reform bill takes some small strides toward reining in costs, but they're not nearly enough. We need to do far more, and if the private market won't do it then eventually public opinion will force us to adopt a European-style system. If conservatives really understood this, they'd take the problem more seriously. But they don't seem to.

Gulf Spill Apparently Stopped

| Thu May 27, 2010 10:07 AM EDT

It's nice to occasionally wake up to some good news:

Engineers have stopped the flow of oil and gas into the Gulf of Mexico from a gushing BP well, the federal government's top oil-spill commander, U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, said Thursday morning.

The "top kill" effort, launched Wednesday afternoon by industry and government engineers, had pumped enough drilling fluid to block oil and gas spewing from the well, Allen said. The pressure from the well was very low, he said, but persisting.

The well hasn't been cemented yet, and this whole thing could yet fail. But keep your fingers crossed.

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Why Did North Korea Do It? cont'd

| Wed May 26, 2010 6:11 PM EDT

Fred Kaplan, after noting that North Korea has engaged in a number of naval skirmishes with South Korea over the past decade, takes a crack at explaining why they upped the ante and torpedoed a South Korean vessel two months ago:

Some speculate that Kim Jong-il may have planned the March 2010 attack as a show of strength, both to the Seoul government and to his own military commanders. South Korean president Lee Myung-bak had already — for good reasons — abandoned his predecessors' "sunshine policy" of outreach toward the North. Kim is also believed to be caught up in succession concerns — he is thought to be ailing and wants his youngest son, Jong Un, to be installed as his successor (just as he succeeded his own father, Kim Il-Sung) — and he may have felt a need to toughen up his image after the humiliation of last November.

....Who knows how this latest gamble will play out. Some speculate that Kim made the move, hoping that it would frighten the South Korean people into voting out Seoul's current anti-détente government in next month's elections. However, some observers think that Kim has been spoiled by the excess indulgence of the previous two administrations — not realizing that the last few years of northern belligerence have strained the patience of many southerners.

Maybe. As Kaplan says, though, "You may notice the phrases believed to be, thought to be, and may have in the previous sentence." Nobody really has anything more than a guess at this point.