Kevin Drum

Kurdistan

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 2:28 PM EST
The recent provincial elections in Iraq excluded the four provinces of Kurdistan but did include the mixed border province of Nineveh, which was won by Al Hadbaa, an Arab nationalist party. McClatchy's Leila Fadel reports:

Along a 300-mile strip of disputed territory that stretches across northern Iraq [] the elections have rekindled the longstanding hostility between Sunni Muslim Arabs and Sunni Kurds, and there are growing fears that war could erupt.

....Because Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki ran on a strong central government platform and America's restraining influence will wane as U.S. troops draw down during the next three years, there may be nothing to stop a Kurdish-Arab war.

"They will actually try to draw a new green line," said Joost Hiltermann, the deputy program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group. "Kurds have been strong since 2003, and now they're not as strong and they've somewhat overreached. The question is: Are they going to concede some things or are they going to fight over this?"

"Violence could happen for sure," Hiltermann said. "Eventually, the strongest is going to win. The question is, who is the strongest? The Kurds have pushed the bridge too far, and they don't have the power to realize it."

The good news, I suppose, is that a Kurdish-Arab war has been right around the corner for years, but it never happens.  So maybe it won't this time either.  But this is still the soft underbelly of Iraqi federalism and worth keeping an eye on.

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Oscar Time

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 1:58 PM EST
It occurred to me last week that I don't care about the Academy Awards this year.  Not a big deal, of course — lots of people don't care about them — but this is sort of unusual for me.  I'm not a huge film junkie or anything, but I probably see 30 or 40 movies a year and I always love watching the Oscars.  It's the only awards show I like.

But this year?  Eh.  If I miss it I won't care much.  It's the movies themselves, I guess.  The odds-on favorite for Best Picture is Slumdog Millionaire, a movie that was entertaining enough to watch but that wore badly on me the more I thought about it.  The game show schtick began to fray about halfway through, and the rest of the plot contrivances were worthy of a mediocre cable drama series.  If this had been an American movie made in Hollywood, it wouldn't have gotten a second look from anybody.

And the rest?  I enjoyed Benjamin Button, but it's an inch deep.  Frost/Nixon was OK but never really did much for me.  The Reader left me entirely cold.  By process of elimination, I guess that means my favorite is Milk, which had a great performance from Sean Penn but was otherwise pretty flat.

And the Best Actress category?  What a travesty.  Melissa Leo gave the best performance of the year, but Nate Silver says she has a 0% chance of winning, and who am I to argue with Nate Silver?  The two top picks, Kate Winslet and Meryl Streep, gave performances that I thought were grotesquely bad, and I can hardly stand the thought of seeing one of them take home the statue.

On the other hand, I'm OK with Heath Ledger winning for his Joker portrayal, and both Mickey Rourke and Sean Penn are good picks for Best Actor.  So it's not all bad.  More broadly, though, I can't remember the last time there wasn't even a single movie whose chances I cared much about.  How about you?

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?

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.

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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.

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.