Kevin Drum - June 2010

Shooting the Messengers

| Wed Jun. 16, 2010 1:29 AM EDT

You think science has been politicized in the United States? Just feel lucky you're not an Italian seismologist. A geologist friend of mine emails to let me know about an open letter the science community has written to the president of Italy. It starts like this:

Two weeks ago in Italy, the L’Aquila Prosecutor’s office indicted scientists, some of them members of the “Commissione Grandi Rischi” (Commission for High Risks), and civil protection officials for manslaughter. The basis for the indictment is that these people did not provide a short-term alarm to the population after a meeting of the Commission held in L’Aquila six days before the Mw 6.3 earthquake that struck that city and the surrounding area.

300 people died in the L'Aquila earthquake in 2009. The Independent reports:

L'Aquila's public prosecutor Alfredo Rossini said yesterday: "Those responsible are people who should have given different answers to the public. We're not talking about the lack of an alarm, the alarm came with the movements of the ground. We're talking about the lack of advice telling people to leave their homes."

The president of the Italian National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, Enzo Boschi, and the director of the National Earthquake Center, Giulio Selvaggi, are among those under investigation. I have a feeling that Italian geologists may be very reluctant to serve on the Commission for High Risks in the future.

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Obama's Oil Spill Speech: Running On Empty

| Tue Jun. 15, 2010 9:34 PM EDT

On Twitter, here was my insta-reaction to Obama's oil spill address from the Oval Office:

What a terrible speech.

Unfair? Maybe! I mean, compared to Sarah Palin's (literally) incomprehensible burbling on Bill O'Reilly's show afterward it was a model of straight talk and reassurance. But that's a pretty low bar.

So let's unpack this a bit. The whole point of a prime time Oval Office speech (transcript here) is that it announces something big. On that score, Obama failed right from the start. He told us that lots of people are already working the cleanup. Yawn. That Ray Mabus is going to develop a long-term Gulf Coast Restoration Plan as soon as possible. A plan! Hurrah! That we're gonna make BP pay for everything. Roger that. And then this: "I have established a National Commission to understand the causes of this disaster and offer recommendations on what additional safety and environmental standards we need to put in place." A commission! So much for "going big."

Look, maybe I'm just feeling cranky tonight. There's nothing wrong with an investigating commission, after all. And I happen to think that Obama's reaction to the spill has been substantively pretty reasonable. But if you're going to give a big Oval Office speech and that's the best you have to offer, then let's face it: you don't have much to offer.

But that wasn't the worst of it. So far we've covered three of the four points Obama promised us at the beginning of his speech, and the fourth point was a call to action on clean energy. I still had some hope that maybe he'd redeem himself there. But here, for the edification of future generations, are my contemporaneous notes during this part of his speech:

now is the moment for this generation to embark on a mission.

lots of flowery language.....must rally etc. etc.

house bill is great. but happy to look at other approaches. yeesh.

great nation, we can do anything, blah blah blah

Unfair again? Maybe! After all, I'm the one who thinks the votes for a serious energy bill just flatly aren't there in the Senate, and maybe it's unfair to expect Obama to engage in a political suicide mission. Still, take a gander at what he said:

Last year, the House of Representatives [passed] a strong and comprehensive energy and climate bill — a bill that finally makes clean energy the profitable kind of energy for America’s businesses. Now, there are costs associated with this transition. And some believe we can’t afford those costs right now. I say we can’t afford not to change how we produce and use energy — because the long-term costs to our economy, our national security, and our environment are far greater.

So I am happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party — as long they seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels. Some have suggested raising efficiency standards in our buildings like we did in our cars and trucks. Some believe we should set standards to ensure that more of our electricity comes from wind and solar power. Others wonder why the energy industry only spends a fraction of what the high-tech industry does on research and development — and want to rapidly boost our investments in such research and development.

All of these approaches have merit, and deserve a fear hearing in the months ahead. But the one approach I will not accept is inaction....What has defined us as a nation since our founding is our capacity to shape our destiny — our determination to fight for the America we want for our children. Even if we’re unsure exactly what that looks like. Even if we don’t yet know precisely how to get there. We know we’ll get there.

This gives pablum a bad name. Obama wants a bill. Pretty much any bill will do. But he didn't say a single word about what he himself wanted. A carbon tax? Cap-and-trade? Nuclear subsidies? Electric cars? Who knows? And as Kate Sheppard notes, he didn't breathe so much as a word about climate change.

I dunno. This speech felt entirely by-the-numbers to me. He told us about the spill. He told us the best minds in the country were working on it. He told us BP would pay for it. He told us he was setting up some commissions. He said he wanted an energy bill of some kind. Then he told us all to pray. It felt like he was reading off a PowerPoint deck.

This is, by a long way, the most negative reaction I've ever had to an Obama speech. Even on Afghanistan, where I was dubious of his strategy and felt his address at West Point was technocratic and unconvincing, I thought his speech had at least a few redeeming features. But this one? There was just nothing there. I felt better about Obama's response to the spill before the speech than I do now.

Too negative? Tell me in comments.

Psychoanalyzing the Tea Partiers

| Tue Jun. 15, 2010 5:07 PM EDT

Andrew Sullivan, like many of us, is confused about just what exactly motivates the tea party crowd. Today, he recommends a New York Times essay by J.M. Bernstein, who suggests that tea party anger is, at its core, almost metaphysical:

My hypothesis is that what all the events precipitating the Tea Party movement share is that they demonstrated, emphatically and unconditionally, the depths of the absolute dependence of us all on government action, and in so doing they undermined the deeply held fiction of individual autonomy and self-sufficiency that are intrinsic parts of Americans’ collective self-understanding.

....This is the rage and anger I hear in the Tea Party movement; it is the sound of jilted lovers furious that the other — the anonymous blob called simply “government” — has suddenly let them down, suddenly made clear that they are dependent and limited beings, suddenly revealed them as vulnerable.

This sounds nice, but it just doesn't jibe with the basic facts and known demographics of the tea party movement. Here are the results from a New York Times poll a couple of months ago:

Tea Party supporters are wealthier and more well-educated than the general public, and are no more or less afraid of falling into a lower socioeconomic class, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll. The 18 percent of Americans who identify themselves as Tea Party supporters tend to be Republican, white, male, married and older than 45. They hold more conservative views on a range of issues than Republicans generally....Tea Party supporters over all are more likely than the general public to say their personal financial situation is fairly good or very good.

And here are the results from a more recent ABC News poll:

Tea Party supporters [are] no more or less apt to be college graduates, to have incomes over $75,000 or to be either among the youngest or oldest age groups. (“Strong” supporters of the Tea Party, however, are somewhat more apt to be in upper-
middle income categories, and to be age 50 or older.)

Look: if anything, tea partiers might be a little less dependent on the federal government than the rest of the country. They're mostly married, middle aged, have slightly above-average incomes, and have the same education level as the rest of the country. They haven't been hit by the recession any worse than anyone else. Maybe a little less, in fact, especially for the older contingent that's covered by Social Security and Medicare.

Trying to analyze the tea party mentality in a vacuum is a mug's game. If you want to get anywhere, you have to understand both the historical context and the media context behind them. And that context is pretty simple: if you elect a liberal Democratic president, you get this kind of reaction from middle class conservatives. In FDR's day you got the Liberty League. JFK inspired the growth of the John Birch Society. Clinton got the conspiracy-minded talk radio crowd. And Obama has the tea parties. This is nothing new.

The other context is the media-political complex. Does anyone seriously think that the tea party movement would exist in anything close to its present form if it weren't for Fox News and Glenn Beck and FreedomWorks and Sarah Palin? It feels silly just to ask the question, doesn't it? Of course it wouldn't.

So then: why have tea partiers gone off the rails about the federal deficit? It's not because of something unique in their psyches. And it's not because they're suddenly worried that America is going to go the way of Greece. (The polls I linked to above show that tea partiers care more about cutting taxes than reducing the size of government.) It's because they're the usual reactionary crowd that goes nuts whenever there's a Democrat in the White House and they're looking for something to be outraged about. And right-wing media and the Republican Party have decided (correctly, I think) that banging on about the deficit is a handy way to gin up opposition to pretty much everything Democrats want to do.

The previous tea party incarnations worked the same way, but their leaders chose topics suited to their time and circumstances. In the 30s it was opposition to the New Deal. For the Birchers it was communism. For the Clinton-haters it was the culture wars. Those were the most obvious and convenient stalking horses of their day for broad-spectrum outrage at Democrats, while today's is the deficits/socialism message. There's really nothing mysterious here. It's just ordinary partisan politics.

So please please please: trying to figure out what's behind the tea parties is fine. But psychoanalysis isn't the right tool. History and politics are.

Yes, Virginia, Electric Cars Exist

| Tue Jun. 15, 2010 12:32 PM EDT

Jonah Goldberg today on the wonders of oil:

As for wind and solar, even if such technologies were wildly more successful than they have been, so what? You could quintuple and then quintuple again the output of wind and solar and it wouldn't reduce our dependence on oil. Why? Because we use oil for transportation, not for electricity.

Can conservatives please stop pretending that the electrification of our transportation infrastructure is some arcane topic that only a few wild-eyed eggheads have ever discussed publicly? Please.

On the other hand, the bulk of Goldberg's column is about the idiocy of ethanol subsidies, so I'll hold down the snark. Strange bedfellows and all that. In fact, what he really ought to be asking is this: given that liberals, conservatives, and libertarians all agree almost unanimously that ethanol subsidies are completely indefensible, how is it that they exist anyway? So here's my proposal: let's make getting rid of ethanol subsidies a destruction test for the whole concept of bipartisanship and the American system of government. If, in the end, left and right can't even work together well enough to get Congress to eliminate ethanol subsidies that we all hate, let's just pack up, rewrite the constitution to turn ourselves into a parliamentary democracy, and be done with it.

Soccer: The Sport of the Future

| Tue Jun. 15, 2010 11:59 AM EDT

Dan Drezner tries to figure out when soccer will finally become popular in the United States:

The fact is, there are plenty of sports in the United States that occasionally capture the intermittent attention of the casual sports fan, but won't "break through" the sports zeitgeist until and unless the United States fields a successful national team. This is how it tends to work with the Olympic team sports, and it's how it will work with the World Cup. If the United States can advance far in this tournament, Americans will become more interested; if not, they'll switch back to baseball and the NFL draft.

Surely this is backwards? What matters isn't a successful national team, it's a successful domestic league. If MLS ever attracts lots of fans and a big TV contract, then Americans will become as passionate about the World Cup as anyone else. If not, not. After all, football and NASCAR are wildly popular without any Olympic representation at all, while beach volleyball remains a niche despite consistent American success at the international level.

Clearly, the key is to make soccer a non-nerd sport among the young. As long as the best athletes continue to focus on other sports, while soccer mostly has to make do with the offspring of PhD-wielding yuppie sophisticates, well, it's just not going anywhere. But give it time. I predict it will take over the American sporting world about the same time that Unix takes over our desktops.

Alternatively, maybe we just need more plays like this one from Saturday's outing to show Americans just how satisfying the game can be. Thanks, England! You definitely helped the cause. We can work our way up to a more refined appreciation for the game later.

Oil Execs: Don't Blame Us, Blame BP!

| Tue Jun. 15, 2010 11:54 AM EDT

The heads of four of the country's largest oil companies told a House panel Tuesday morning that the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon and subsequent oil disaster was merely a fluke—their companies operate safely and are adequately prepared to deal with any accidents that may occur.

"This incident represents a dramatic departure from the industry norm in deepwater drilling," ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson told a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce panel.

When proper procedures, redundancy, inspections, maintenance, and training are in place, "tragic incidents like this one in the Gulf today should not occur," said Tillerson. He called the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989 a "low-point" in the company's history and said it had "launched a full-scale, top-to-bottom review of our operations." Now, he said, "we do not proceed with operations if we cannot do so safely."

The other executives, representing Shell, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips, offered similar claims—the Gulf disaster was an aberration, one created by BP's lack of oversight. John Watson, chairman of Chevron, testified that his company's "drilling and control practices for deepwater wells are safe and environmentally sound" and that a commitment to safety is fundamental to who we are."

While Watson called the Gulf disaster "humbling," he argued that it should not be an impediment to future drilling. "We strongly believe that responsible deepwater development must continue: America needs the energy," said Watson. "And we can produce that energy safely, including in the deepwater."

James Mulva, CEO of ConocoPhillips, made a similar plea: "The business of offshore exploration will and must continue. It will continue because we can and will do it safely and responsibly. And it must continue, not only for what it yields for our nation, but also because that's what America does. We learn new lessons and move forward to higher levels of progress and achievement."

But as the executives testified about their safety and preparation, congressional Democrats pointed out that their companies' plans for a similar disaster were basically "cookie cutter" copies of BP's spill plan, all prepared by the same group, the Response Group. The plans include an assessment of the impact of a possible spill on walruses (which don't live in the Gulf) and the phone number of an expert who died in 2005 (well before the plans were submitted). "ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Shell are as unprepared as BP," said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

"The only technology you seem to be relying on is the Xerox machine," echoed Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

The hearings are still going; we'll have more later.

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Quiz of the Day:Who's Your Daddy?

| Tue Jun. 15, 2010 11:19 AM EDT

Via Ezra Klein, Politico's John Bresnahan reports that the Democratic bill to require greater disclosure on the part of groups that fund political advocacy will have an exception for "organizations that have more than 1 million members, have been in existence for more than 10 years, have members in all 50 states and raise 15 percent or less of their funds from corporations." Turns out there's only one such organization in the country. Before you click the link, can you guess which one?

Hint: it's not the AFL-CIO. And speaking of that, here's Ezra: "Thought experiment: If Democrats wrote this bill and created an exemption that only applied to the AFL-CIO, how would that play in the media? And why would it be substantively any different?"

Obama's Speech: Will He "Go Big"?

| Tue Jun. 15, 2010 1:30 AM EDT

So what's Obama going to say in his big oil spill speech tomorrow? Something narrow and technocratic, or will he toss a long bomb into the end zone? Marc Ambinder:

A senior administration official to whom I put the question this morning responded that Obama recognizes that the moment to assert his command over the disaster that is the BP oil spill has passed. Another official said Obama will use the time to "go Big. That's where he does best."

....If Obama goes big, there is really only one way he can attempt it: he must call on Congress to put a price on carbon by the end of the year. The pivot from gushing oil to climate change is at once harder than it seems and blindingly obvious. Oil is polluting the Gulf; it's not raising temperatures. The transition to a more ecologically friendly economy will require carbon creation. It will also require economic sacrifice.

....If Obama went big, the political ramifications would be serious and unpredictable. The Senate and House campaign committees would plotz....But, at times, the President has different equities than members of his party. This is one of them. Figuring out how to solve this existential problem is on Obama's shoulders, not Congress's, really. Climate change denialism is rising, and no one on the President's level is fighting back. The chances of building a consensus for climate change legislation will not be helped by the addition of a few Republican senators. More vulnerable Democrats are up for re-election in 2012 than in 2010. If now isn't the right moment, there may never be a better one.

I don't know if Obama is going to do this, but I have to admit it would fit his usual MO: wait a while for everyone else to talk themselves out, and then, when the chaos seems at its maximum, step in to make sense of things for everyone. If he does it right, his proposals (whatever they are) will seem eerily inevitable once we finally hear them. We'll go from unstructured turmoil one day to a unified narrative the next. It won't last long, and the political realities will still probably prevent any serious action, but for a short while his plan will seem not just right, but blindingly obvious. It's a neat trick.

A Modest Tax Proposal

| Mon Jun. 14, 2010 7:44 PM EDT

I figure Mark Halperin is useful for letting us know what the current DC conventional wisdom is, and today he says that the business community's love affair with Barack Obama is over. To be honest, I thought it was over sometime around January 21st of last year, but what do I know? In any case, Halperin writes that not only do the nation's CEOs hate the White House, but things are still going downhill:

The President's current priorities are all liable to make a now bad relationship that much worse. The financial regulation bill is viewed as a typically ignorant Washington overreach. The ongoing efforts to deal with the BP spill are seen as proof that Obama is an incompetent manager and serial scapegoater of large corporate interests. And the attempt to use the Gulf crisis to revive the stalled effort to get Congress to pass major energy legislation appears to many business types as a backdoor gambit to raise taxes on corporations, mom-and-pop enterprises and consumers.

Even by bizarro standards I don't get the "scapegoater of large corporate interests" thing at all. Is the business community upset that Obama is blaming BP for a blowout at BP's oil platform? Or what?

But forget that. The other two items suggest a way to take those business lemons and make lemonade out of them. Here's my idea: Obama should propose that the corporate income tax be abolished completely, to be replaced by a carbon tax and a financial services tax. And then sit back and see what happens.

Here's the pitch: corporate income taxes are a drag on businesses and are ultimately paid by consumers anyway. That's bad. Conversely, a tax on carbon would reduce our oil use and spur energy efficiency. That's good! Likewise, a tax on financial transactions would reduce speculative volatility and help stabilize the financial sector. Also good! So we'd trade one bad tax for two good Pigovian taxes.

What's more, although receipts from the corporate income tax are down right now thanks to the recession, within a couple of years they should be back up to around $400 billion a year. A financial services tax is probably worth around $100 billion a year, give or take, and that means we'd need a carbon tax of around $300 billion to keep everything revenue neutral. This is far higher than anything we could dream of without the grand corporate income tax bargain and holds out hope of being big enough to actually make a difference.

Am I serious about this? Why not? Everyone should love it. Taxing carbon and financial speculation is a lot more useful than taxing business activity, and I imagine the boffins on the appropriate committees could figure out ways to keep the distributional impacts fairly small. And getting rid of the corporate income tax would not only make business owners deliriously happy (or should, anyway), but it would remove forever Congress's ability to provide quiet subsidies and corporate welfare handouts for their buddies. Conventional wisdom says that the corporate tax code needs to be seriously overhauled every few decades, but why bother? Why not get rid of it altogether instead?

Angela Merkel in Trouble

| Mon Jun. 14, 2010 2:56 PM EDT

I'm not sure quite what to make of this, but.....

German chancellor Angela Merkel's centre-right coalition government looked to be close to collapse today, weakened by a string of disagreements and intense infighting over austerity cuts, policy reform and the departure of senior conservatives.

....Merkel called at the weekend for the government partners to bury the hatchet over their disagreements after a week when relations reached such a low that members of her government had variously referred to each other as "wild pigs" and "gherkin troops" (rank amateurs).

But much of the mistrust and anger is being directed at Merkel herself. This week's Spiegel magazine called her the Trummerfrau, a reference to German women who cleared away the rubble after second world war bombings. It painted a picture of a woman presiding over a government in ruins and used its title page to request the government in one word to "Aufhören!", or stop.

Apparently Merkel's budget cuts and unwillingness to raise tax rates on the rich are her current headache. "The package has also stoked the anger of Merkel's French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy, who has accused the Germans of creating an atmosphere that will stifle growth in Europe at a time when it should be stimulated." Sarkozy's an odd duck, for sure, but when he's right he's right.