Kevin Drum

Down in the Hood

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 1:24 PM EST
The new chairman of the GOP really knows how connect with the youth of America:

Newly elected Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele plans an “off the hook” public relations offensive to attract younger voters, especially blacks and Hispanics, by applying the party's principles to “urban-suburban hip-hop settings.”

This is ridiculous.  I'm a 50-year-old white guy from Orange County, but even I've seen the nationally televised ad that makes clear just how antique that phrase is.  What's next?  A GOP initiative to attract all the hep cats from North Beach?

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Carbon Dioxide Followup

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 12:48 PM EST
My post last night about the EPA regulating carbon dioxide emissions was a quickie, just intended to pass along the news and note some of the political implications.  But David Roberts says I may be downplaying how important these new EPA regs could be:

This element of Obama's impending energy policy hasn't gotten nearly the attention it deserves. If he does it right, it could be the secret weapon that kills new coal plants for good — with far greater certainty than a middling cap-and-trade program. Obama has always said, to those who were listening closely, that he plans to prevent the construction of a new fleet of dirty coal plants, if not by carbon pricing then by other means. EPA regs are the other means. Beyond that, and perhaps even more importantly, EPA regs could hasten the demise of existing coal plants.

Read the whole thing for a more detailed understanding of what EPA may end up doing.  And for the wonks among you, David also has a more detailed explanation than I did of the difficulties with using the machinery of the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases.

New coal plants are already expensive and hard to build.  If EPA institutes even modest new CO2 regs they'll become so prohibitively expensive that we'll never build another one on U.S. soil.  Politically, this will cause (a) howls of protest from the midwest, which relies heavily on coal-fired electricity, and (b) enormous pressure to set up an alternative regulatory regime.  But any plausible alternative, even if it's weaker than the EPA regs, is likely to raise the price of building a coal-fired power plant beyond what anyone is willing to pay for it.  There's a pretty good chance that this is, finally, the beginning of the end for coal.

Pack Journalism

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 12:33 PM EST
Ezra sez:

I love Mike Allen's Playbook. Unabashedly. I wouldn't even deny that it's "the 4chan of political reporting." But it's the best guide to the morning news, and Allen mixes "drive the day" trivia — and there is a lot of that — with a good eye for the substance in stories.

Eh.  Count me out.  We all complain about pack journalism and the glorification of process over policy, but then we all start out our days with.....Playbook.  And The Note.  And The Page.  And Memeorandum.  And then we all spend the rest of the day writing about the exact same bunch of process trivia because Mike Allen woke up before us and that's what he told us to write about.

There's nothing to be done about this.  It's human nature.  But I don't have to like it, and I don't.

California Budget Watch

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 11:57 AM EST
California finally has a budget, and all it took was a cigar-filled arm twisting session with Arnold Schwarzenegger to procure the final required Republican vote.  The arm twisting, however, wasn't done by Arnie:

Under the arrangement, Sen. Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria provided the final Republican vote needed to pass a spending plan with billions of dollars in tax hikes. In exchange, Democrats agreed to rewrite election rules that Maldonado said had allowed the Capitol to become paralyzed by partisanship, leading the state to the brink of financial ruin.

....Democrats initially said Maldonado's call for "open" primaries, in which voters could cross party lines and candidates of all parties would compete in the same primary, followed by a runoff of the top two vote-getters, was too substantial to be pushed through in a budget deal. But Maldonado said the current budget stalemate proved that California could not return to fiscal sanity without fundamental changes in the way it elects its representatives.

Stay tuned.  We've already been through this twice, first in 1996, with an open primary initiative that passed but was later ruled unconstitutional, and then again in 2004 with a modified initiative that failed.  Maldonado will get his ballot measure, but there's no telling if he can get it past the voters.

Regulating Carbon Dioxide

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 2:27 AM EST
Last year the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA is required to decide if carbon dioxide is a pollutant as defined by the Clean Air Act.  The Bush White House basically just ignored the ruling, but now there's a new sheriff in town:

The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to act for the first time to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that scientists blame for the warming of the planet, according to top Obama administration officials.

....Lisa P. Jackson, the new E.P.A. administrator, said in an interview that she had asked her staff to review the latest scientific evidence and prepare the documentation for a so-called endangerment finding....If the environmental agency determines that carbon dioxide is a dangerous pollutant to be regulated under the Clean Air Act, it would set off one of the most extensive regulatory rule makings in history. Ms. Jackson knows that she would be stepping into a minefield of Congressional and industry opposition and said that she was trying to devise a program that allayed these worries.

This is sort of a good-news-bad-news situation.  The bad news is that the Clean Air Act probably isn't a very good vehicle for regulating greenhouse gases.  Its state-based machinery just wasn't built for something like this.  The good news is that this very fact might act as a spur for Congress to enact something better, such as a national carbon tax, cap-and-trade plan, or even simply some more appropriately designed regulation.  Of these, cap-and-trade seems to be the most likely candidate, since it has support both in Congress and the White House already, and it might pick up some Republican votes it wouldn't otherwise get if the alternative is to let the hated EPA start writing its own rules.

And if it doesn't act as a spur?  Then it's still good news, because it means at least we'll get something, even if it's not the most efficient regulatory regime we can imagine.  All things considered, I'm a fan of cap-and-trade myself, but I figure any port in a storm.  If I can't get what I want, I'll settle for the EPA at least getting the ball rolling.  Eventually the business community will scream hard enough to make Congress do something intelligent.

Sarah Palin Update

| Wed Feb. 18, 2009 4:33 PM EST
Sarah Palin is the crack cocaine of political celebrities.  I want to ignore her, but I just can't.  And you can't either.  Admit it. Michael Leahy of the Washington Post serves up the latest embarrassment:

A couple of weeks before the Alaska legislature began this year's session, a bipartisan group of state senators on a retreat a few hours from here invited Gov. Sarah Palin to join them. Accompanied by a retinue of advisers, she took a seat at one end of a conference table and listened passively as Gary Stevens, the president of the Alaska Senate, a former college history professor and a low-key Republican with a reputation for congeniality, expressed delight at her presence.

Would the governor, a smiling Stevens asked, like to share some of her plans and proposals for the coming legislative session?

Palin looked around the room and paused, according to several senators present. "I feel like you guys are always trying to put me on the spot," she said finally, as the room became silent.

Never forget: this is the person who John McCain thought was qualified to be a heartbeat away from the presidency.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

More Pork

| Wed Feb. 18, 2009 2:29 PM EST
A few days ago I noted that a Dan Eggen piece in the Washington Post about "pork" in the stimulus bill wasn't about pork at all.  The stuff he wrote about was just normal spending, not earmarks.

But I suppose one man's normal spending is another man's pork, and a couple of days later Eggen followed up with a piece that provided an actual number from Republican critics.  Bob Somerby glosses his report for us:

According to Eggen, Republicans had “identified $25 billion” in spending provisions which were “questionable or non-stimulative.” ....But readers! The price tag for the stimulus package as a whole came to $787 billion!

....That’s right! According to Republican allegations, only 3.2 percent of the bill constituted a spending spree involving larded-up pork! Only 3.2 percent — a rather minuscule amount. You’d almost think that this percentage might have appeared in Eggen’s report. But given the way this press corps works, numbers like that will appear in the Post about the time pigs, and related pork products, fly. Modern journalists don’t do policy, as Eric Boehlert noted last week.

So even if this stuff was pork — a debatable notion in the first place — it was only 3% of the total.  And presumably this was the best Republicans could come up with.  The bottom line, then, is that even according to its sharpest critics, the final stimulus bill was 97% muscle.  If that's true, this is probably one of the cleanest spending bills in the history of congress.  Nice work, Democrats!

The 6th Street Viaduct

| Wed Feb. 18, 2009 2:07 PM EST
The 6th Street Viaduct in Los Angeles has been slowly crumbling for years thanks to defects in the cement originally used to build it, and the city recently unveiled its plans for a replacement:

After a series of public meetings over the last two years, city engineers decided that replacing the bridge was the only viable option....A model of the proposed span shows two rectangular towers in the middle of the bridge, with cables down both sides.

....The cost of replacing the viaduct with the proposed structure is estimated to be about $345 million, officials said.

This is just idle musing, but I wonder why this bridge costs so much?  The original structure cost $2.3 million, which comes to about $36 million in today's dollars.  In real terms, then, the bridge costs ten times as much today as it did in 1932.

Why?  Labor costs are proportionately higher today, of course.  The old bridge has to be built around and then demolished.  LA is built up and we can't just build a cement factory on site, the way we did 75 years ago.  Earthquake standards and general permitting requirements are more stringent.

On the other hand, we also have 75 years of technology progression.  Labor costs may be higher, but we use less total labor and more machinery these days.  And computers help with most of the design work.

Like I said, just idle musing.  But it sure seems odd that after 75 years of fantastic technological progress, it not only costs more to build a bridge than it used to, but it costs ten times more.  That's a lot of dough.  I just hope it's shovel ready.

Comparative Effectiveness

| Wed Feb. 18, 2009 1:33 PM EST
Via Ezra, medblogger KevinMD writes in favor of federal funding for comparative effectiveness research:

Physicians need an authoritative source of unbiased data, untainted by the influence of drug companies and device manufacturers....The only way to tackle such a huge project is with money, and indeed, the Obama administration recognizes this fact by including $1.1 billion in comparative effectiveness research in the economic stimulus package.

Clearly, the pharmaceutical and device industry would like both the public and physicians to continue to assume that "newer means better." Not asking these questions allows them to continue promoting profit-making brand-name treatments.

Their motives in attempting to quash comparative effectiveness research could not be more obvious.

Indeed, their motives are obvious: They know perfectly well that a lot of their newest and priciest treatments aren't any better than the stuff going off patent next year, and they'd just as soon no one knew that fact.  But I'd like to know, and I'm positively delighted to kick in my share of that $1.1 billion to find out.  Anyone who's not a pharmaceutical executive ought to be pretty happy about it too.  Ezra has more on how the whole scam works.

GOP Meltdown Watch

| Wed Feb. 18, 2009 1:15 PM EST
The Republican leader in the California state senate is one of only two GOP senators who's agreed to back a budget compromise that includes both spending cuts and tax increases.  Last night, Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) taunted the holdouts, telling them, "You ought to follow your leader or choose a new one."  It turns out they agreed:

Around 11 p.m., a group of GOP senators, unhappy with the higher taxes that Senate leader Dave Cogdill of Modesto agreed to as part of a deal with the governor and Democrats, voted to replace him in a private caucus meeting in Cogdill's office.

They chose Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth, a staunchly antitax lawmaker from Murrieta, as their new leader.

....Hollingsworth said he does not want to see a tax increase passed, but he offered no plan for resolving the budget crisis.

So it's back to square one with the flat earthers determined to wreck the state.  A friend of mine emailed to say that my post the other day comparing California Republicans to lemmings and neanderthals was unfair to both lemmings and neanderthals, and I guess he had a point.  So what do we compare them to now?