Kevin Drum

Quote of the Day - 5.6.09

| Wed May 6, 2009 1:38 PM EDT

From Governor John Baldacci of Maine, after signing a law allowing same-sex marriage:

"In the past, I opposed gay marriage while supporting the idea of civil unions.  I have come to believe that this is a question of fairness and of equal protection under the law, and that a civil union is not equal to civil marriage."

Good for him.  But I wonder if this is an example of how gay marriage opponents are going to end up losing this battle entirely when they could have won at least a partial victory if they'd been less strident in their opposition.  If they had actively supported civil unions, that could have become the de facto standard across the country, accepted by courts and legislatures alike.  But the ferocity of their opposition to any form of marriage equality might have been instrumental in convincing a lot of people like Baldacci that half measures are impossible.  And if half measures are impossible, then full marriage rights are the only alternative.

In the long run, maybe none of this matters.  But in the medium term, marriage opponents have adopted an attitude of such extreme intolerance that fewer and fewer people want anything to do with them.  And with that, the cultural battle was lost.

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Who Ran the Memory Hole?

| Wed May 6, 2009 12:56 PM EDT

Back in 2005, when he was counselor to the secretary of state, Philip Zelikow wrote a memo suggesting that the legal basis for torturing terror suspects was pretty shaky.  It didn't go over well: "The White House attempted to collect and destroy all copies of my memo," he wrote a few days ago over at FP's Shadow Government blog.

Fine.  But who tried to send Zelikow's memo down the memory hole?  Can you guess?

Zelikow tells Mother Jones that he doesn't know for sure who in the White House ordered the suppression of his memo, but he says that his "supposition at the time" was that the office of Vice President Dick Cheney was behind the cover-up. In an email exchange with Mother Jones, Zelikow notes that Cheney's office did not have the authority to request that his memo be deep-sixed: "They didn't run the interagency process. Such a request would more likely have come from the White House Counsel's office or from NSC staff." But that request did not reach him in written form. "It was conveyed to me, and I ignored it," Zelikow recalls. But he suspected that Team Cheney was probably behind it.

Democrats in Congress want to try to find a copy of Zelikow's memo, and they also want to try to find any record of who ordered the memo destroyed.  Stay tuned.

Chart of the Day - 5.6.2009

| Wed May 6, 2009 12:30 PM EDT

Via Alex Tabarrok, this comes from Catherine Rampell over at Economix.  It's either (a) genuinely fascinating or (b) a horrible abuse of crude chartmaking based on minimal data.

I think I'll vote for (a).  Due to an intestinal ailment in my 20s, I used to have to eat very slowly.  The result was just what you'd expect: I'd feel full pretty quickly and therefore didn't eat very much.

Around age 25, however, some clever doctor finally figured out what was wrong with me, prescribed a proton pump inhibitor (which sounded pretty space agey until my high school chemistry came back to me and I realized that "proton" is just another word for "acid"), and I've been fine ever since.  I can wolf down food as fast as the next guy.  Result: I eat dinner in about 20 minutes and I'm 30 or 40 pounds overweight.

Of course, I'm also 25 years older, and you might think that has something to do with my weight gain too.  Probably so.  But it still makes sense to me that slower eating habits lead to lower food intake.  That doesn't mean I'm eager to adopt the Italian habit of spending four hours over dinner, a practice that drove me nuts whenever I visited Italy on business, but it might not hurt.

Still, what's with the Turks?  They make the French and Italians look like pikers.  Are they just congenitally bored over there, or what?

Sonia Sotomayor

| Wed May 6, 2009 11:19 AM EDT

For some reason, Sonia Sotomayor has become the early frontrunner to be Obama's nominee to replace Justice David Souter on the Supreme Court.  I'm not quite sure how she became the consensus favorite so quickly, but in any case the all-too-familiar result has been an immediate outpouring of anguish that her choice would be little more than an act of craven obeisance to the PC crowd, who make it all but impossible for white guys to make it to the Supreme Court these days.  Considering that even Democrats have nominated four white guys out of six appointments in the past half century, this is a little rich, but that hasn't stopped the kvetching.

Over at TNR the other day, Jeffery Rosen piled on, pointing out that New York's senators, "in a burst of demographic enthusiasm," favored her appointment, and then retailing a long list of complaints from anonymous law clerks about how she wasn't really very bright and had a bad temper.  Just your typical affirmative action hire, in other words.

Now, unlike most of Rosen's critics, I didn't have a big problem with the fact that most of his sources were anonymous.  This is actually one of those cases where it's probably the only way to write the story, since former law clerks aren't likely to risk their careers by dishing publicly about their former colleagues, especially ones who might be sitting on the Supreme Court a couple of months from now.

No, the problem with Rosen's piece is that it was so relentlessly unfair: a long string of complaints despite the fact that Sotomayor's own clerks, who presumably know her best, had nothing but praise for her.  And they were speaking anonymously too.  Mark Kleiman, after noting that Sotomayor won the Pyne Prize as the top undergraduate in her senior year at Princeton and then reading a persuasive bit of praise for Sotomayor by one of her former clerks, Robin Kar, tries to push back:

I find Kar's piece utterly convincing. Not every judge attracts this sort of passion from her clerks. And Kar does more than gush: he makes a strongly-argued case that Sotomayor has exactly the sort of intelligence you'd like to see on the Supreme Bench. Better yet, in response to a question, he identifies two pieces of Sotomayor's legal writing as exemplifying her talents of analysis and legal writing her dissents (thus reflecting her views alone, not aided or burdened by those of her colleagues) in Croll v. Croll and Hankins v. Lyght.

I read the Croll case first....I'd give it very high marks; having read first the controlling opinion and then the dissent, I found the dissent compelling.

....Hankyns v. Light involves a bit of law I know something about: the Religious Freedom Restoration Act....My first-blush analysis was to liken a forced retirement to a job-site injury, something that involved secular questions only. But Sotomayor's argument made it clear to me that clergy hiring (as distinguished from the hiring of a math teacher in a religious school involved in one of the precedent cases) was inextricably a religious matter.

....So, insofar as a non-expert can judge, Kar's two examples are both on point: Sotomayor writes much more clearly and persuasively than the average appellate judge.

As plenty of people have already pointed out, for a job like Supreme Court justice there's no such thing as a "best qualified person."  There are, rather, maybe a hundred equally highly qualified people, and it's silly to pretend that white guys have a hard time getting considered.  Just the opposite, in fact, since every time a non-white guy gets nominated, they have to put up with a barrage of innuendo that they're not really very bright, not the best pick, just a sop to identity politics (unlike the Catholic white guys), and would basically be a taint to the good name of the court.  It's disgraceful.

BAC Watch

| Wed May 6, 2009 10:09 AM EDT

I give up.  Apparently Bank of America's need for $34 billion in new capital is somehow being spun as good news, and as of 11 am BAC is actually up a point or so.  WTF?

King Corn

| Wed May 6, 2009 12:31 AM EDT

Via the LA Times, this is the best news I've heard all day:

The Obama administration on Tuesday proposed renewable fuel standards that could reduce the $3 billion a year in federal tax breaks given to producers of corn-based ethanol. The move sets the stage for a major battle between Midwest grain producers and environmentalists who say the gasoline additive actually worsens global warming.

....While biofuels as a whole — including grasses and even algae — are considered promising alternatives to petroleum, some researchers have begun challenging the use of corn for this purpose.

In particular, they point to the "indirect land-use" effects of pulling corn out of the world food supply, which could force farmers in developing nations to clear rain forests — and release massive amounts of carbon dioxide in the process — in order to plant corn.

Please dump the corn ethanol subsidies.  Please, please, please.  Dollar for dollar, it might well be the stupidest use of taxpayer cash in the entire federal budget.

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Stress Test Update

| Tue May 5, 2009 11:16 PM EDT

The New York Times reports that the Treasury's stress test has determined that Bank of America needs $33.9 billion in new capital.  That's nearly half the current value of the entire company, which has a market cap of about $70 billion.

If BofA can't raise this money itself, it means either (a) more TARP money or (b) conversion of the Treasury's current $45 billion in preferred shares into common shares.  I continue to think that (b) is little more than a shell game, but better minds than mine have suggested that it would have some genuine value.  If that's what happens, conversion at Tuesday's closing price would give the government a one-third stake in BofA.  But if their stock plummets and conversion happens at a lower price, Treasury could end up with a majority stake.

On the other hand, BofA's chief administrative officer bravely says they have plenty of options for raising the money themselves before they have to strike a deal with the feds.  For example, BofA could decide to quickly sell a third of its stake in China Construction Bank, which would bring in about $8 billion.  The sale of First Republic and Columbia Management could generate about $4 billion.

Maybe.  It's hard to say at this point.  But $33.9 billion is a lot higher than anyone's been talking about so far.  Any way you slice it, it's bad news for Ken Lewis.

Watching the Banks

| Tue May 5, 2009 8:01 PM EDT

I approve of this:

Banks that want to return Troubled Asset Relief Program funds will have to demonstrate their ability to wean themselves off another major federal program, according to senior government officials, making it less attractive for some banks to return the money.

The other program, a guarantee of debt issuance offered by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., allows firms to borrow money relatively inexpensively. Banks have $332.5 billion of debt outstanding under this program, which began last fall.

If a bank is healthy and solvent and able to lend money freely, then it should be allowed to turn down extraordinary government aid and operate without extraordinary government oversight.  But there's more to the federal bailout program than just TARP, and if a bank is really healthy it doesn't need to take advantage of any of the other extraordinary programs either.  Until and unless that happens, however, Treasury should insist that they keep their TARP money and stay under TARP rules.  No stealth bailouts, please.

Taxing Carbon

| Tue May 5, 2009 6:19 PM EDT

Should environmentalists concerned about global warming support a quick, simple carbon tax rather than a complicated, long-term cap-and-trade plan?  James Hansen thinks so, but Joe Romm explains the facts of life to him:

1. A carbon tax, particularly one capable of deep emissions reductions quickly, is a political dead end....

2. A carbon tax that could pass Congress would not be simple. Advocates of a tax argue that simplicity is one of its biggest benefits.  Again, those advocates seem bizarrely unfamiliar with the tax code in spite of the fact that they pay taxes every year....

3. A carbon tax is woefully inadequate and incomplete as a climate strategy.  Why?  Well, for one, it doesn’t have mandatory targets and timetables.  Thus it doesn’t guarantee specific emissions results and thus doesn’t guarantee specific climate benefits.  Perhaps more important, it doesn’t allow us to join the other nations of the world in setting science-based targets and timetables.  Also, a tax lacks all of the key complementary measures — many of which are in Waxman-Markey — that are essential to any rational climate policy, but which inherently complicate any comprehensive energy and climate bill.

It's true that in some pure economic sense a tax is a more efficient way of pricing carbon than a cap-and-trade plan.  But that's only if you get exactly the tax you want (you won't) and only if you accept a very specific sense of the word "efficient" (which you shouldn't).  And even if you magically got the simple, efficient tax you wanted, a tax lacks the one critical thing that cap-and-trade provides: a cap.  End of story.  If you want to reduce greenhouse gases, the best way to do it is to cap them.  This is something the public can easily understand.  The trading scheme that comes along with it is, admittedly, complex, but it's only there to allow us to go after the low hanging fruit first and reduce the cost of complying with the cap.  It's the cap itself that's key.

Like Romm, I don't really understand how it is that smart people don't get this.  Politically, cap-and-trade is the only climate plan that has even a remote chance of getting through Congress, it's the only plan that institutes a firm limit on greenhouse gases, and it's the only plan on the table.  Is it really worth giving all that up for the chimera of a tax that has some esoteric technical advantages on a whiteboard, but in the real world can't pass and wouldn't solve the carbon problem even if it did?  It's hard to see why anyone serious about real-world change would buy into this.

Bloggers on the Bus

| Tue May 5, 2009 3:54 PM EDT

If you're interested in the political blogosphere and the netroots in general, Eric Boehlert's Bloggers on the Bus is a great read.  It's built around potted sketches of some of the best known liberal bloggers (Atrios, Digby, Jane Hamsher, John Amato, Arianna Huffington, Glenn Greenwald, and others) and some of the blogosphere's greatest campaign hits during 2008 (the Obama MySpace debacle, the John Hagee meltdown, the Sarah Palin eruption, the great sexism debate), and Boehlert really does a terrific job of diving in and explaining how everything unfolded.  I followed almost all of this stuff pretty obsessively in real time, but I still learned lots of details I'd never heard of before.

It's a very fast, entertaining read, and since it focuses (almost) exclusively on the liberal blogosphere it mostly avoids the sense of triumphalism you might get in a more partisan book.  Which is a good thing since it ends with this:

The bad news for liberal bloggers was that as the Obama campaign unfolded, as his new commuhity-based coalition was being built and celebrated, it became obvious that bloggers were never really invited to the party.  Liberal bloggers simply never became active partners with Obama in the way they had been with the Dean insurgency four years earlier, and the way they had been with scores of Democratic politicians in skirmishes throughout the Bush years.  Why?  Mostly because Obama didn't seem to want the bloggers around.

That's true, isn't it?  For all the hype, the liberal blogosphere in 2008 had its biggest impact in state and local races, just as it did in 2004.  It's true that it was much more successful in pushing stories into the mainstream media than it was four years ago, but in terms of being active in the Obama campaign itself, it wasn't.  And that was primarily a choice made by Obama himself, who apparently felt that the raw partisanship of the blogosphere was something he wanted to keep at arm's length.

There were a couple of things missing from the book that struck me.  The first is specific: the Jeremiah Wright firestorm, which begged to be included in any book about the 2008 campaign, but which Boehlert inexplicably never mentions.  The second is more general: Boehlert does a good job of showing how the blogosphere managed to gain attention for stories that might otherwise have gone unnoticed, but at times his account feels too blinkered.  The mainstream media played a pretty big role in all this too, and even in a book about the blogosphere this deserves a little more attention.  At the very least, there should have been a chapter devoted to the relationship between blogs and the MSM.

But these are nits.  If you're looking for a blog's eye view of Campaign '08, Bloggers on the Bus is a terrifically readable and carefully reported book.  Highly recommended.