• Replacing Tim Geithner


    Bloomberg is reporting that Tim Geithner might resign as Treasury Secretary after the debt ceiling fight wraps up. Ezra Klein thinks he’s going to be almost impossible to replace:

    I’m not saying that because he’s done such a bang-up job, or because he’s got such a winning personality. I’ll leave those questions for a future article. It’s because the confirmation process is broken. As Slate’s Dave Weigel reported, “the time between nomination and confirmation votes has nearly doubled since the Reagan era, when the sclerosis really started. It took Reagan 114 days for nominees to get confirmed; it takes Obama closer to 200 days. By the White House’s own count, more than 200 nominees are in limbo.”

    Many of those nominees are non-controversial. The Treasury Secretary won’t be. The economy is the central political issue right now, 2012 is an election year, and Republicans have sufficient votes in the Senate to mount a filibuster. Under those circumstances, it’s very difficult to imagine them permitting the confirmation of any Treasury Secretary.

    I think there are two reasons that this is probably not right:

    • Treasury Secretary isn’t a controversial appointment. Think about this from the perspective of Republican senators: it’s not a lifetime appointment; Obama is almost certain to nominate a sober, moderately liberal, establishment-approved kind of personality; and in any case, the truth is that the Treasury Secretary has only modest power that’s independent of Congress’s authority. Geithner’s successor would be very unlikely to seriously affect deficit negotiations, spending priorities, budget battles, or Obama’s reelection chances.
    • Our nomination process is indeed broken, but it’s broken only for the less visible class of appointments. This is important: Republicans have routinely held up circuit court judges, ambassadors to medium sized countries, agency heads, deputy and assistant cabinet positions, and so on. But they haven’t held up Supreme Court appointments, cabinet secretaries, or other highly visible appointments such as Fed chairman, head of the CIA, or chairman of the Joint Chiefs. These kinds of nominations get too much attention, and that’s exactly what Republicans don’t want. They want their obstructionism to fly below the radar. Holding up a Treasury Secretary for anything other than a slam dunk reason would make their obstructionism far too public and would risk engaging the normally jaded DC press corps, which treats the obstruction of lesser appointments as just garden variety partisan politics.

    I know this seems counterintuitive, but just take a look at the record: all of Obama’s major appointments — the kind that get front page treatment — have been approved without all that much fuss. Republicans just don’t want to practice their usual brand of obstructionism when the spotlight is shining. It’s only the lesser lights that get filibustered for months on end.

  • Rick Perry Stakes His Claim


    It is, obviously, perfectly OK for Christians to hold prayer rallies. Just as obviously, Christian prayer rallies will feature Christian speakers, not Muslims or Jews or Buddhists. That’s the nature of the beast, and it’s hardly unusual for an American politician to attend such events.

    But Tim Murphy reports that “The Response,” a Houston prayer rally funded by the American Family Association and supported by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, is a wee bit more muscular than that:

    With this prayerfest, Perry is associating himself with rather radical folks. The American Family Association’s issues director, for instance, has said that gays are “Nazis” and that Muslims should be converted to Christianity. Another organizer, Doug Stringer, has said that 9/11 was God’s punishment for the nation’s creeping secularism. And then there’s Jay Swallow, whose endorsement is trumpeted on The Response’s website, and who runs “A Christian Military Training Camp for the purpose of dealing with the occult and territorial enemy strong holds in America” (his description). Consequently, it’s not much of a mystery why only one of the nation’s other 49 governors has so far accepted Perry’s invitation to attend the event (Perry invited all of them)—arch-conservative Sam Brownback of Kansas.

    So does this mean that Perry is running for president? Maybe! Tim explains more at the link.

  • Winners and Losers From the Great Recession


    So who’s benefited and who hasn’t from the current recovery following the Great Recession? I think you know the answer already, but just to make it official, here’s a report from researchers at Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies:

    Between the second quarter of 2009 and the fourth quarter of 2010, real national income in the U.S. increased by $528 billion. Pre-tax corporate profits by themselves had increased by $464 billion while aggregate real wages and salaries rose by only $7 billion or only .1%. Over this six quarter period, corporate profits captured 88% of the growth in real national income while aggregate wages and salaries accounted for only slightly more than 1% of the growth in real national income. The extraordinarily high share of national income (88%) received by corporate profits was by far the highest in the past five recoveries from national recessions.

    Here it is in table format, in case you want to see comparisons to previous recessions and recoveries:

    Plainly, what’s needed to address this crisis is tax cuts for corporations and reduced federal spending on workers. But who will speak up for our downtrodden corporate sector? It is a vexing problem.

    Via Economix.

  • Is the Debt Ceiling Unconstitutional?


    The Constitution states that “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law….shall not be questioned.” Bruce Bartlett suggests that this trumps the debt ceiling, which means the president can simply ignore Congress if he wishes and keep spending money even after the debt ceiling has been reached. To back this up, he quotes George Washington University law professor Michael Abramowicz:

    A requirement that the government not question a debt’s validity does not kick in only once the time comes for the government to make a payment on the debt. Rather, the duty not to question is a continuous one. If as a result of government actions, a debt will not be paid absent future governmental action, that debt is effectively invalid. The high level of generality recognizes that instead of referring to payment of debts, the Clause bans government action at any time that affects the validity of debt instruments.

    Maybe I’m missing something here, but it strikes me that this doesn’t come close to implying that the debt ceiling is unconstitutional. What it really suggests is merely that the public debt is the only untouchable part of the federal budget. The government is required to dedicate its tax revenue first to paying off any debt that’s due, but once that’s done the Constitution is silent. If the debt ceiling has been reached, and there’s not enough money left to issue Social Security checks or buy more aircraft carriers after current debts have been paid, then Social Security checks get reduced and aircraft carriers get put on hold. The constitutional argument for ignoring the debt ceiling would only come into play if for some reason things got to the point where it literally interfered with paying off current bondholders. We’re not even within light years of that happening.
     

    I don’t really like this conclusion, and I’d like to see the statutory debt ceiling go away entirely. It’s an archaic budgetary vestige that makes no sense at all anymore. Still, it exists whether I like it or not, and I don’t really see how it offends the Constitution as long as creditors keep getting paid.

  • Our Sadly Lowered Standards for Dickitude


    Mark Halperin is one of my least-favorite political analysts, a reliably unimaginative weathervane of conventional wisdom. Today, on Morning Joe, he gave his considered opinion of Barack Obama’s press conference performance on Wednesday: “I thought he was kind of a dick yesterday.”

    Halperin didn’t quite realize he was on the air when he said this, and when he did he immediately apologized and was later suspended by MSNBC. However, this is of zero interest to me. If Halperin thinks Obama is a dick, it’s fine with me if he says it publicly. In fact, I’d rather he say it publicly. A mild reproach from MSNBC management for offending the delicate sensibilities of Morning Joe viewers would have been sufficient apology.

    Needless to say, what’s actually interesting here is that Halperin, in fact, thinks Obama is a dick for getting slightly combative yesterday. And this is interesting precisely because Halperin is an unimaginative weathervane of conventional wisdom. It presumably means that a fair-sized chunk of the DC press corps also thinks Obama was a bit of a dick yesterday.

    If this is the case, all I can say is that the standards for dickitude have become alarmingly low in Washington, DC, these days. I mean, Republicans have spent several consecutive months holding the country hostage to their tea-party base, pretending to negotiate a budget deal when they obviously had no intention of ever agreeing to any kind of compromise, all but chortling publicly at their own cleverness, and dressing down Obama in front of the TV cameras at every opportunity. But after putting up with this for months, it’s Obama who’s a dick for finally pushing back a bit against these guys? Seriously?

    As I was writing this, I knew I’d shortly hear from one of my regular readers who’s a close student of Halperin. His comment just popped into my inbox:

    In many ways, Obama really is in a box with the Republicans and the media right now. Part of it, I’m sure, is his press operation’s lack of messaging. But by far the most significant part of it is the right’s mastery of the media. It’s not just John Boehner vs. Obama, by which the playing field would be more fair, but it’s virtually every conservative senator, congressman, pundit or voter who cares to spout something outrageous or inciteful vs. Obama. Not vs. the Democrats. Obama.

    ….If Obama cannot get past this, if provocation of the right is forbidden, then Obama has no option other than to deal — and according to Halperin, that means cave and move on. If this really is the view, then Obama’s re-election is doomed as are those of liberal Democrats.

    Yes indeedy. And Republicans are keenly aware of this. Whatever else you can say about Obama’s performance or lack thereof over the past few months, it would be nice if his Democratic colleagues in Congress figured this out and started to fight back too.

  • Chart of the Day: Republicans Reject Republican Plan


    The chart below represents Republican nirvana as of March 2011. According to their own JEC report, the best research suggests that successful “fiscal consolidation” efforts (i.e., deficit reductions) have historically been heavily weighted toward spending cuts. The sweet spot is 85% spending cuts, 15% tax increases:

    The research touted here by Republicans is almost certainly wrong because it uses cherry-picked data from countries that weren’t trying to fight off high unemployment and a stagnant economy. But as Mike Konczal points out, that doesn’t matter. Right or wrong, this is what Republicans were touting as recently as three months ago.

    So what happens when the president proposes a plan that’s almost exactly 85% spending cuts and 15% tax increases? They summarily reject it, and continue to insist that if they don’t get their way they’ll happily burn down the country by refusing to increase the debt ceiling. This should surprise no one, of course. This is how it usually goes when you negotiate with terrorists.

  • Is Barack Obama a Lefty?


    While I was in New York I met up with one of my longtime readers (and a fellow cat lover — see Coco at the very bottom of 2009’s Holiday Catblogging Extravaganza) and we were joined by Stuart Zechman, who you may recognize as a regular guest on Jay Ackroyd’s Virtually Speaking. We got to talking about Barack Obama and ended up in some very airy, meta, navel-gazing territory that I thought I might toss out for comment. This isn’t usually my thing, and it might not be yours either. If it isn’t, don’t stress out about it. Just skip it and scroll down to the next post.

    Anyway. Obama. At some point in our conversation one thing led to another and I offered up the conventional view that Obama is a center leftist. Stuart disagreed: Obama, he thinks, is a pure centrist, full stop. Now, I’m convinced that by every normal measure of these things, I’m right. Obama is, plainly, to the left of —

    Well, what? This is where things broke down a bit. How do you measure this?

    There’s Obama’s Senate voting record, of course, which by multiple measures put him in the leftmost quarter of the Senate. But that’s the Senate. It doesn’t say anything about his performance as president.

    Or there’s Obama compared to some mythical median voter. But that’s almost undefinable. Obama pushed to repeal DADT, but by the time he did, repeal was supported by more than half the country. So you could say that repeal was actually a centrist position. By that definition, however, pretty much everything supported by a majority of the country is “centrist.” Tax cuts are centrist. The Iraq War was centrist. FDR was centrist. This gets you nowhere.

    Or there’s conventional wisdom. Keynesian stimulus is leftist, national healthcare is leftist, and financial reform is leftist. So if you do moderate versions of those three things than you’re a moderate leftist. President McCain wouldn’t have done any of them, after all.

    I’ll stop now. Like I said, this is the kind of airy metapolitical discussion that I usually don’t have a lot of patience for, and I think that by almost any measure Obama is obviously left of center. Still, it brings up a good question: it’s relatively easy to look at a legislator and get a fairly rigorous, quantitative read on how far left or right they are. But how about presidents? Aside from gut instinct and conventional wisdom, what’s the best measure of their political leanings? Anyone want to take a stab at this?

  • Back From the Big Apple


    So the Dodgers declared bankruptcy while I was gone, and I hear that President Obama grew a pair at his press conference this morning. Anything else happen that I should know about? Has the country followed the Dodgers into bankruptcy yet?

    Big, big thanks to Nick Baumann and Andy Kroll for filling in for me while I was gone. I hope you liked their stuff. Regular blogging will resume tomorrow. In the meantime, in keeping with the Southern California sunset theme from last week, here’s a picture of sunset over the Hudson, taken from the High Line Park last Saturday. Enjoy.

  • Scott Walker: Collective Bargaining Is An ‘Expensive Entitlement.’ Um, No.

    WisPolitics.com/Flickr


    In an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker, the man who lit the fuse of 2011’s nationwide union protests, made the not-so-shocking admission that his administration “had not built enough of the case” to slash collective bargaining rights for public workers. Talk about an understatement.

    Walker’s anti-union bill, which goes into effect today, was met with massive opposition, including more than 100,000 pro-union protesters who flooded the streets of Madison, the state capital. But the statement that really jumped out from Walker’s interview is his own perception of the bargaining fight:

    “They defined it as a rights issue. It’s not a rights issue. It’s an expensive entitlement.”

    Hmm. I’m pretty sure the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed by the UN after World War II (and drafted and adopted by the US), says that collective bargaining is in fact a human right. Oh, yes, there it is, in Article 23 of the Universal Declaration:

    4. Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

    Then there’s the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) here in the US, which “explicitly grants employees the right to collectively bargain and join trade unions,” according to the scholars at Cornell University Law School. Or as the National Labor Relations Board’s website puts it, the NLRA “protects employees’ rights to act together, with or without a union, to improve working terms and conditions, including wages and benefits.”

    Memo to Scott Walker: Before launching an assault on a right like collective bargaining for workers, you’d be wise to fully understanding what exactly it is you are trying to eliminate. Wisconsin citizens deserve at least that much.

  • Fighting Outside Money With Outside Money

    Flickr/Beverly & Pack


    So begins the 2012 presidential campaign’s outside spending money war.

    Priorities USA Action, a super PAC run by two former Obama White House aides, has launched a new ad pushing back against a multi-million-dollar attack campaign targeting President Obama’s economic record by Karl Rove’s American Crossroads. Priorities’ $750,000 ad buy was significantly less than Crossroads’, but the spots will air in states—Colorado, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, and Virginia—that are all crucial to Obama’s re-election.

    Titled “Portraits,” the add calls Crossroads’ most recent offering—blaming President Obama for the lagging economic recovery—”politics at its worst.” Set against a montage of purportedly ordinary Americans, the ad’s narrator hews closely to Democratic talking points, criticizing Republicans for opposing “economic reform,” wanting to “end Medicare,” and cutting education funding, all the while supporting subsidies for big oil companies and tax breaks for the wealthy.

    Here’s the ad:

    Like American Crossroads, Priorities USA Action is a 527 organization, or super PAC, which means it has to report its donors to the Federal Election Commission. The public will eventually know who funded this ad and others from the Democrat-led group.

    The takeaway here is this: Democrats got shellacked in the 2010 midterms, in part because they didn’t have the outside spending firepower to counter the barrage of ads from Crossroads and other like-minded groups. Not anymore. November 2012 is still almost a year and a half out, but already we’re getting an early glimpse at the outside money wars sure to dominate the airwaves the closer we get to election day.

  • Ex-Bachmann Chief of Staff: Michele’s Not Cut Out for White House

    Flickr/theqspeaks


    Ron Carey, a former chief of staff to Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), has a message for the American public: Bachmann is not presidential material.

    In an op-ed in Tuesday’s Des Moines Register, Carey writes that Bachmann lacks the experience, savvy, and coordination to run the country. When he joined Bachmann’s team in 2010, he writes, her congressional office was a disaster, and his tenure working for the Minnesota Republican and tea party darling convinced him that she’s nowhere near the type of leader who can run the United States—not like former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, whom Carey worked with while serving as chair of the Minnesota GOP:

    Having seen [Bachmann and Pawlenty] up close and over a long period of time, it is clear to me that while Tim Pawlenty possesses the judgment, the demeanor, and the readiness to serve as president, Michele Bachmann decidedly does not.

    The Bachmann campaign and congressional offices I inherited were wildly out of control. Stacks upon stacks of unopened contributions filled the campaign office while thousands of communications from citizens waited for an answer. If she is unable, or unwilling, to handle the basic duties of a campaign or congressional office, how could she possibly manage the magnitude of the presidency?

    Carey concludes his op-ed with this offering:

    I know Tim Pawlenty very well. He is a family man filled with faith and conservative convictions proven in action. He will make a great president. I know Michele Bachmann very well. She is a faithful conservative with great oratory skills, but without any leadership experience or real results from her years in office. She is not prepared to assume the White House in 2013.

    This isn’t the first time Carey has publicly questioned Bachmann’s presidential credentials, saying in February that “she’s not going to be an electable candidate for us.”

    That message sounds an awful lot like what long-time GOP campaign guru Ed Rollins was saying earlier this year. As I reported, Rollins said Bachmann wasn’t a “serious player” in the national Republican Party and publicly doubted her ability to win the GOP presidential nomination. Rollins has since changed his tune—because the Bachmann campaign hired him.

    Kevin is on vacation, so Nick Baumann and I are filling in this week.

  • Chart of the Day: The Idiocy of GOP Cut-and-Grow


    I keep hammering away at the GOP’s preposterous cut-and-grow plan—that the economy will really begin to grow and create jobs only after slashing spending to the bone—but that’s because people are still buying what the Republicans are peddling.

    The following analysis, however, should once more put to rest any ideas that cut-and-grow is the right course for this country. Using a nifty chart, Adam Hersh, an economist at the Center for American Progress, plots out states that have slashed spending and states that have increased it, and then shows how well their respective economies have fared.

    Via Adam Hirsch, Center for American ProgressVia Adam Hersh, Center for American ProgressAs Hersh notes in this accompanying post, states that boosted spending saw decreasing unemployment and increasing economic growth. Those who cut back saw the opposite happen.

    It’s one thing for governors such as Florida’s Rick Scott, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, and Ohio’s John Kasich to enact publicly unpopular policies that ultimately help their states. (And boy are they unpopular.) It’s quite another to do so when the data shows that you’re only shooting yourself in the foot. The question is, when will Republicans in Washington figure this out?

  • ‘Wasting Money Making Money’: The Fed’s $1-Coin Boondoggle

    Flickr/<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/matthiasxc/3600938818/sizes/m/in/photostream/">Matthiasxc</a>


    Picture this: Collecting dust in high-security vaults, unwanted by Congress and the American public, are more than a billion golden coins bearing the likenesses of famous politicians. Current lawmakers won’t discuss them. But if revealed to the public, the treasure trove could prove scandalous.

    Sound like an airport pulp thriller? Nope—it’s just the latest embarrassing boondoggle to surface in Washington, exposed by the sharp folks at NPR.

    They report today that more than a billion dollars in $1 coins—you know, those hefty golden coins that were meant to replace the dollar bill—are sitting around in Federal Reserve vaults doing, well, nothing of value. At a cost of $300 million to manufacture, the unused coins are the result of Congress’ repeated failures to wean American consumers off of paper dollar bills, which, according to the Government Accountability Office, would benefit the government to the tune of roughly $5.5 billion over three decades.

    Vast quantities of these coins are in storage “with no perceivable benefit to the taxpayer,” the Fed told Congress in a report last year. Not only are these new coins wasting money, the Fed noted in the same report, but officials “have no reason to expect demand to improve.” Turns out we Americans like our crisp dollar bills just fine, thank you very much.

    Here’s one scene I enjoyed, when NPR reporters visited a Fed vault storing these abandoned coins:

    Inside one basementlike Federal Reserve vault in Baltimore, NPR was able to see 45 million $1 coins of various types. The coins were overflow from vaults elsewhere.

    And despite a national indifference to the coins, they were heavily guarded.

    A group of journalists from NPR passed through a metal detector and special secure doorway before reaching the inner entrance to the vault, a fence gate secured by two common Master padlocks.

    […]

    Inside the vault, dollar coins languished in clear plastic bags piled high on sturdy metal pallets that looked like baby cribs.

    You should listen to/read the story yourself. Then file it away in the Department of Destroying Confidence in Our Government.

  • Breaking: Breathing In Misty, Mushed-Up Pig Brains Is Bad for Your Health

    <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/photowu/209198714/sizes/m/in/photostream/">The Wu's Photo Land</a>/Flickr


    Hormel, the company that makes SPAM, has outsourced the difficult work of pig slaughtering to Quality Pork Processors (QPP), an affilliated company. Since Hormel likes to use every part of the animal, some of the people at QPP have jobs that revolve around turning pig brains into a pink slurry that somewhat resembles a strawberry milkshake in appearance. (Yum!) From reading Ted Genoways’ fascinating, sad story on QPP and Hormel in the latest issue of the magazine, I can tell you the workers do this by inserting a nozzle into the pig skull’s brain cavity and firing away with a burst of compressed air. I’ll let Genoways take it from here:

    The line had been set at 900 heads per hour when the brain harvesting first began in 1996—meaning that the rate had increased a full 50 percent over the decade, whereas the number of workers had hardly risen…Second, to match the pace, the company switched from a foot-operated trigger to an automatic system tripped by inserting the nozzle into the brain cavity, but sometimes the blower would misfire and spatter. Complaints about this had led to the installation of the plexiglass shield between the worker manning the brain machine and the rest of the head table. Third, the increased speed had caused pig heads to pile up at the opening in the shield. At some point in late 2006, the jammed skulls, pressed forward by the conveyor belt, had actually cracked the plastic, allowing more [brain slurry] mist to drift over the head table. Pablo Ruiz, the process-control auditor, had attempted to patch the fracture with plastic bags.

    As you might imagine, breathing in pig brain slurry mist is probably not great for your health, and some of the workers at the QPP factory developed a mysterious nerve ailment. Most of them, as you can see from this chart, worked near the brain-harvesting operation:

    pig brains operation at qpp

    Some of the workers who got sick were undocumented immigrants working with fake papers, because, I assume, “manufacturing pig-brain slurry” is one of those “jobs that Americans don’t want” you always hear about. I don’t want to ruin the ending, but you can probably guess that being an undocumented immigrant is not an advantage when you’re trying to get your employer to compensate you for the health problems you developed while working in the brain-harvesting factory.

    Genoways has written a great story chock full of really impressive investigative reporting. You should really read the whole piece. You can also support more of this kind of reporting in Mother Jones by sharing Genoways’ piece on Facebook and Twitter (free), signing up for our emails (free), subscribing (cheap!), or making a tax-deductible donation. Thanks.

    Kevin is on vacation this week. Andy Kroll and I are filling in for him.

  • Cold Water on Bachmann’s Big Weekend

    Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).Flickr/theqspeaks


    Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has had quite a run lately. She had strong showings at the June 13 CNN debate and the Republican Leadership Conference 10 days ago. Then came this weekend’s shocking Des Moines Register poll putting Bachmann in second place with 22 percent, a single percentage point behind front-runner Mitt Romney.

    Today a buoyant Bachmann unveiled (again) her presidential campaign, this time in her hometown of Waterloo, Iowa. But Nate Silver warns against getting too excited amidst all the Michele mania and buzz surrounding her campaign:

    Consider Jonathan Bernstein’s reminder about the first Iowa Poll in the last election cycle, which was published in May, 2007. In that survey, Mitt Romney—who eventually finished second in Iowa—had 30 percent of the vote. In second and third place were John McCain (with 18 percent) and Rudy Giuliani (17 percent), who flopped there. The winner of the caucuses, Mike Huckabee, had 4 percent of the vote at this point in time—behind the likes of Tommy Thompson and Sam Brownback.

    In other words, the horse race numbers need to be interpreted cautiously. Instead, I’d pay just as much attention to the impression that voters have of each candidate.

    You have to dig down to find those numbers, but they are much better for Mr. Pawlenty: some 58 pecent of voters view him favorably, versus 13 percent unfavorably. The figures for Mr. Romney, by contrast, are 52 percent favorable but 38 percent unfavorable.

    Put simply, there is considerable upside in Mr. Pawlenty’s numbers—and some downside for Mr. Romney, who is effectively competing for the votes of perhaps only 50 or 60 percent of the voters in the state because of his relatively moderate positions.

    Election Day 2012 is 17 months away. The Iowa caucuses are six months out. No poll is all that important right now.

  • Chevy Volt vs. Zurich

    Flickr/<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/davepinter/3241653322/sizes/m/in/photostream/">Dave Pinter</a>


    Leading off the New York Times‘ reimagined “Sunday Review” section (no more Letterman jokes?!) was a 2,380-word, mostly fawning essay by columnist Joe Nocera on the promise of the electric hybrid Chevy Volt, General Motors’ great hope for the green car era. Nocera test-drove the car, talked with the sharpest auto analysts and executives, and ultimately declared the car a winner (despite its eye-popping $41,000 price tag).

    Nocera contends that the Volt’s success is simply a matter of time and getting drivers behind the wheel. (Fewer than 2,500 have been sold so far.) Here he is driving a Volt around Southampton, New York:

    Before I knew it, my miles per gallon for that tankful of gas had hit 80. By the next day it had topped 100. I soon found myself obsessed with increasing my miles per gallon—and avoiding having to buy more gas. Whenever I got home from an errand, I would recharge it, even for a few hours, just to grab a few more miles of range. I was actually in control of how much gas I consumed, and it was a powerful feeling. By the time I gave the car back to General Motors, I had driven 300 miles, without using another drop of gas beyond the original two gallons. I’m not what you’d call a Sierra Club kind of guy, but I have to tell you: I was kind of proud of myself.

    When I began to describe for [former GM executive Bob] Lutz the psychological effect the Volt had had on me, he chuckled. “Yeah,” he said, “it’s like playing a video game that is constantly giving you back your score.”

    Or as Nocera puts it later on, “The psychological grip it held me in, the smugness I felt as I drove past gas stations, the way it implicitly encouraged me to stick with battery power as much as I could—others are going to feel that as well.” In other words, it’s the “enviro-guilt” (his words) brought on by the Volt that will wean American consumers off of gas-guzzling SUVs and, ideally, off of gasoline-powered cars in general.

    I don’t buy the video-game/enviro-guilt theory. Neither, it seems, do the Swiss.

    Today, the Times’ Elizabeth Rosenthal reports on how big European cities aren’t just demanding more energy efficient cars, but in fact making driving “expensive and just plain miserable” in cities such as Zurich, Munich, and Copenhagen. Their tactics are many: far less street parking, congestion tolls to simply enter cities, more frequent red lights to frustrate drivers, and even outright banning cars on certain city blocks. Said Zurich’s chief traffic planner, “Our goal is to reconquer public space for pedestrians, not to make it easy for drivers.”

    I’m sure many readers—save, perhaps, those hippy-loving liberals out in San Francisco—recoiled in disgust from Rosenthal’s article. Force us off the road? That’s un-American! It’s big government socialism!

    But after reading Nocera’s column and the today’s story, I can’t help but think it’s the Swiss, the Germans, and the Danes who’ve got it right. They’re not waiting for the pangs of enviro-guilt to kick in; they’re pushing consumers in the right direction, like it or not.

    Of course, if big US cities took a cue from Zurich and began making commuters’ lives even more miserable, the growing pains would be huge. Many cities don’t have nearly enough buses, subways, light-rails, trams, etc., to handle a massive influx of riders; some big cities’ public transit is downright dismal. (Looking at you, Atlanta.) But you know what would spur rapid expansion of public transportation? Thousands of new users pressuring city officials and lawmakers in Washington for better mass transit as if their livelihood depended on it.

    Grappling with climate change—and the extreme weather that comes with it—means serious action, and fast. Waiting and hoping for more efficient lithium batteries and cheaper electric cars isn’t enough.

  • Friday Catblogging – 24 June 2011


    By the time you see this I should be flying across the country, ready for some R&R in New York City. The cats, of course, are ready for R&R at all times, especially on warm summer days like these. As always, let them be your guide to a successfully stress-free weekend.

  • Meet the ‘Christie Democrats’

    Flickr/Bob Jagendorf


    The New Jersey legislature on Thursday joined Wisconsin, Ohio, and a handful of other states by drastically scaling back pension and health-care benefits for government workers and curbing collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions. All told, 750,000 public-sector workers will end up forking over thousands of dollars more each year to fund their pension and health-care benefits—in part to plug a $52 billion hole in New Jersey’s state pension fund.

    But there’s a key distinction between New Jersey and the other states that passed similar bills: Democrats control the legislature.

    Unlike Wisconsin and Ohio, where newly elected Republican majorities in the legislature and new Republican governors rammed through unpopular bills curbing bargaining and benefits, in New Jersey, Democrats gave a Republican governor, Chris Christie, the votes he needed. The state Senate passed the bill 24 to 15, with 8 Democrats bolting from their party to support Christie. In the Assembly, the vote was 46 to 32 in favor of the measure, and 14 Democrats sided with Republicans.

    So what happened? After all, this is New Jersey we’re talking about, where public-sector unions are traditionally a pillar of support for Dems in fundraising, get-out-the-vote, and at the ballot box. According to the New York Times, Christie was able to cobble together support for his bill, which he called a model for other state legislatures, by taking advantage of the Garden State’s old-school, city-centric political system:

    In his campaign to rein in the unions and shrink government, Mr. Christie has often been helped by New Jersey’s unique political culture, where local political machines still dominate some areas, and many state legislators also hold local government jobs. That gives striking influence in Trenton to mayors, county executives, and local party bosses who struggle with rising labor costs and have repeatedly sided with the governor’s push to cut benefits and wages.

    There’s another intriguing narrative here—namely, how the state Democratic Party functions effectively after a handful of its members backed a bill hugely unpopular with the Democratic base. What we’ll likely see, per the Newark Star-Ledger, is a growing schism among New Jersey Democrats:

    Today’s union protest, like other recent demonstrations, did nothing to stop the bill. But it did highlight the growing fissures in the state Democratic Party. While Sweeney and Oliver were pushing the bill, the chairman of the state party, Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), was rallying protesters with two-dozen other Democrats. “I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” he said. Bob Master, a leader in the Communications Workers of America, said Democrats should not be “collaborating” with Christie.

    Opponents of Christie’s bill have a nickname for those Democratic “collaborators”: Christie Democrats. That will be a damning label to hang around a Democrat’s neck when re-election rolls around.

  • Bombing the Moon

    Flickr/<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/jurvetson/97214206/sizes/m/in/photostream/">jurvetson</a>


    Following up on my GOP mind games post, Ezra Klein makes a smart observation in this morning’s Wonkbook on how the GOP transformed tax increases from an important, necessary option in the deficit debate into something evil and extremist. To prove his point, Ezra uses a clever rhetorical trick: he swaps “bomb the moon” for any mention of taxes in Republican statements made after yesterday’s deficit talks drama:

    “We’ve known from the beginning that bombing the moon would be a poison pill to any debt-reduction proposal,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a speech on the Senate floor. See? Or: “President Obama needs to decide between his goal of bombing the moon, or a bipartisan plan to address our deficit,” said McConnell and Sen. Jon Kyl in a joint statement. Or: “First of all, bombing the moon is going to destroy jobs,” said Speaker John Boehner. “Second, bombing the moon cannot pass the US House of Representatives—it’s not just a bad idea, it doesn’t have the votes and it can’t happen. And third, the American people don’t want us to bomb the moon.”

    “Bombing the moon” would actually make these statements more accurate. A bipartisan deficit-reduction proposal, almost by definition, includes revenue increases. That, along with the spending cuts, is what makes it bipartisan. And unpopular? Tax increases, particularly if targeted at the wealthy, show themselves again and again to be among the most popular ways to reduce the budget deficit. The most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 57 percent of Americans though the best way to reduce the deficit was “a combination” of tax hikes and spending cuts, and polls that have tested specific policies have found vastly more support for raising taxes on the rich than for GOP mainstays like cutting Medicare and Social Security and discretionary funding that goes to programs like education.

    The quotes Ezra uses come after Rep. Eric Cantor and Sen. Jon Kyl, the number two GOPers in their respective chambers, bailed on the bipartisan deficit reduction talks led by Vice President Joe Biden. Cantor went first, saying he wouldn’t continue negotiating if any form of a tax increase was on the table, including cutting $21 billion in subsidies for big oil companies. “Regardless of the progress that has been made, the tax issue must be resolved before discussions can continue,” Cantor said in a statement. Kyl followed Cantor out the door soon after.

    Apparently, Cantor forgot that the US is not under one-party rule, and that his constituents elected him to do what’s expected of all politicians: compromise. The Biden-led deficit negotiations are intentionally bipartisan, and to claim that Democrat-backed tax increases are non-negotiable, as Cantor believes, defies logic. It’s not negotiating if one side refuses to give any ground whatsoever. Either Cantor is more intransigent and bound to conservative orthodoxy than we thought, or he’s setting up House Speaker John Boehner to be the fall guy who cuts a deal with the Democrats on a short-term deficit reduction plan. Or both.

    What’s clear is that any deficit reduction plan must include new revenue of some kind. After all, it was partly the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 that got us into this mess in the first place. Not filling that $2.6-trillion hole with new revenue would be madness.

  • The New Civil Liberties Fight

    Gulet Mohamed, a 19-year-old Virginian, behind bars in a Kuwaiti deportation facility. His family and lawyer allege that he was detained and beaten at the behest of the United States government—a charge the government denies.Photo by Mohed Mohamed.


    Kevin is on vacation this week, so Andy Kroll and I will be filling in.

    During the Bush years, America’s chattering classes were engaged in a grand argument: should the people we had captured in the war on terror be handled by the courts, or by some other process? Civil libertarians argued that terrorist suspects who were not US citizens should have meaningful access to trials in federal courts.

    Civil libertarians have lost that argument. The defeat is total: in the White House, on Capitol Hill, in the courts, and, crucially, in the court of public opinion. Indefinite detention of non-citizen terrorist suspects without charge or trial remains the official policy of the United States, and none of the most infamous non-citizen terrorist suspects will be tried in federal court.

    President Barack Obama’s administration hasn’t added any new prisoners to Guantanamo, but as things stand, it’s only a matter of time before that happens. Eventually, there will be another Republican president, and the GOP’s position is clear: Mitch McConnell, the party’s leader in the Senate, took to the Washington Post op-ed page on Tuesday to call for two Iraqi nationals captured in his home state of Kentucky to be transferred to Gitmo. “Guantanamo is the place to try terrorists,” the headline blared.

    Some liberals defend the Obama administration’s record on civil liberties by arguing that standing up for the rights of terrorist suspects would be political poison for the White House. Perhaps they’re right. But it would be foolish to assume that the battle lines on this issue are static, or that hardliners see a bright line between how we should treat non-citizen terrorist suspects and how we should treat terrorist suspects who are American citizens.

    The Joe Liebermans of the world see no such bright line. If we as a society have decided that non-citizen terrorist suspects shouldn’t have the right to a real trial before we lock them away indefinitely, it’s only a short leap to the idea that all terrorist suspects should have fewer rights.

    Why shouldn’t we be consistent? Why are non-citizen terrorist suspects captured abroad “unprivileged belligerents” while those captured in the US are simply criminals? Why are American-born terrorists criminals and not unprivileged belligerents? Does the difference between committing a crime and being illegally at war with the United States really just depend on where you are captured or where you are born? The Obama administration does not have compelling answers to these questions. Its compromises and cave-ins on civil liberties have left its counterterrorism policy an inconsistent mishmash of Miranda warnings for foreigners and proxy detention and Hellfire missiles for Americans.

    But forget foreigners—they’re screwed. The rights of US citizens are at the heart of today’s fight over civil liberties in the war on terror. And, not coincidentally, the rights of US citizens suspected of terrorism are on retreat on a whole host of fronts.

    The family of Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen who is reportedly on a list of people the military is authorized to kill without charge or trial, lost their court case to force the government to explain why it believes it has the legal right to order his death. Young Muslim American men travel overseas only to discover that they’re on the no-fly list when they try to return—and that they can’t go home unless they answer the FBI’s questions. Americans with dark skin tones and “suspicious” names find US-government-owned GPS devices on their cars. The PATRIOT Act gets renewed while everyone is busy talking about how great it is that the SEALS killed Osama bin Laden. And senior members of Congress call for US citizens suspected of terrorism to be stripped of their citizenship and sent to—where else—Guantanamo.

    The rights of all people accused of terrorism have been dramatically rolled back over the past ten years. So don’t expect that American citizenship will protect you when the government decides that you might be a terrorist, too.