Kevin Drum

Too Fair

| Wed Jan. 21, 2009 5:25 PM EST

TOO FAIR....Abe Foxman on the mooted appointment of former senator George Mitchell to be Barack Obama's top diplomatic envoy to the Middle East:

"Sen. Mitchell is fair. He's been meticulously even-handed....So I'm concerned. I'm not sure the situation requires that kind of approach in the Middle East."

Quite so. But Abe: you're not supposed to say this in public.

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Carbon Pricing

| Wed Jan. 21, 2009 3:01 PM EST

CARBON PRICING....Over at Gristmill, Sean Casten reports on the latest energy boondoggle in his home state:

Tenaska, an independent power company, has been seeking to build a coal plant in Illinois. The problem being of course, that new, coal-fired power plants are really, really, really, really lousy investments....So how did the Illinois legislature respond? "Clean Coal Portfolio Standards." Seriously.

Tenaska gets a long-term power contract on what would otherwise be a massive economic boondoggle. Illinois gets to increase power rates and rates of fossil extraction....And the whole thing is dressed up in an environmental cloak. Methinks the impeachment proceedings shouldn't limit themselves to the executive branch.

Now, I'm one of those odd people who thinks that looking at the plain arithmetic of something like this actually makes it easier to comprehend. Luckily, Sean provides it for the project in question (the Taylorville Energy Center), which is getting approval for a rate increase in return for plans to sequester about half of its CO2 emissions. It's a 525 MW facility that will cost $3.5 billion, so here's how the costs break down:

  • $6,666 per kW

  • Delivered power costs on the order of 20 cents/kWh

  • Total CO2 emissions of 800-1,000 lbs/MWh

So how does this work out compared to the U.S. average? Here's the answer:

  • 300-500 lb/MWh reduction in CO2 emissions

  • Offset by a $0.11/kWh rate increase

  • Simple division shows that Illinois ratepayers will subsidize this plant to the tune of $400-700 per ton of CO2 reduction

This is the kind of thing to think about when people talk about carbon taxes or cap-and-trade programs. One of the problems with pricing carbon is whether we have the political will to price it high enough to really make a difference. For example, the European ETS program, a cap-and-trade system, currently prices carbon emissions at a meager $16 per ton of CO2. And that's after four years of operation.

But compare that to what the Illinois legislature just did: they put an effective price on carbon of more than $400 per ton of CO2. If they're willing to do that — if legislatures are willing to pay rates that high — then that's the market price of carbon. The only question is whether we're willing to charge that price openly, with the carbon charge going to the public, instead of being hidden inside a complex giveaway to a favored corporation. Count me on the side of the public on this one.

Get to Work!

| Wed Jan. 21, 2009 1:56 PM EST

GET TO WORK!....Former presidential speechwriter James Fallows notes that Barack Obama has made a lot of speeches that were instantly praised as hits. But:

In many other cases, especially late in the campaign, the red-hots among his supporters thought he had "underperformed" or been "just so-so" immediately after an event, only to see the days-later and weeks-later reaction to the performance turn much more positive. The clearest example was his first debate with John McCain, where supporters thought he had missed chances to go in for the kill — but over time it was clear that he had established his steady, gravitas-worthy persona.

I think his inaugural speech will be in this second category. Now that I have a chance to look at some blog-world commentary, I see that some is underwhelmed, as after the first debate. I think that the speech was in fact very well-pitched to this moment in history and the messages Obama wants and needs to send. That is, both artful and useful.

I wouldn't say that I was "underwhelmed" by Obama's speech, but even after a night's sleep I'll stick to my initial reaction that it was fine, but not really very memorable. Still, maybe that was the point. If I had to describe the speech in a word, I'd call it "workmanlike," and maybe that's exactly what Obama wanted it to be. After all, his steady theme, both yesterday and for the past couple of months, has been that his administration will be one that buckles down and gets to work from Day 1. Memorable would have just gotten in the way.

Quote of the Day - 01.21.09

| Wed Jan. 21, 2009 1:39 PM EST

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Tim Geithner, at his confirmation hearings today:

The tragic history of financial crises is a history of failures by governments to act with the speed and force commensurate with the severity of the crisis. If our policy response is tentative and incrementalist...then we risk greater damage to living standards, to the economy's productive potential, and to the fabric of our financial system....In a crisis of this magnitude, the most prudent course is the most forceful course.

Nationalization fans should rejoice at hearing this. More and more, that includes me, by the way. The news out of Britain is beyond grim right now, and throughout this financial crisis the U.S. has never been more than a couple of months behind the UK. If that stays the case, nationalization of at least a couple of big banks will hardly even be a debatable option a few weeks from now.

Union Organizing 101

| Wed Jan. 21, 2009 1:03 PM EST

UNION ORGANIZING 101....Over at the Washington Monthly, T.A. Frank tells the story of workers at a Rite-Aid distribution center in the Antelope Valley, about 70 miles north of Los Angeles. At first, things were great. Then new management came in, conditions went from bad to worse, and finally the center's workers decided to unionize:

The Rite Aid organizers filed their union authorization cards with the NLRB, setting the ground for an election. And then things got ugly—and illegal, too....Eventually, the NLRB racked up so many complaints that it planned to take Rite Aid to trial on forty-nine violations of federal labor law. In the summer of 2007, though, Rite Aid chose to settle instead, agreeing to rehire two fired union supporters with back pay and to post a notice in a common area promising not to engage in thirteen types of illegal anti-union activity.

....[ILWU] won the March election, becoming the sole bargaining representative of the warehouse employees. And yet, the day after, things got worse....By August, thirty-nine more employees had been dismissed....Today, nine months later, Rite Aid and the ILWU have not yet come up with a contract. At meetings, Rite Aid has been pushing aside contract negotiations in order to discuss other things. Legally, Rite Aid is supposed to bargain "in good faith," but such terms are highly subjective and difficult to litigate. Work conditions for the warehouse workers remain much as before, perhaps even worse. And that works to Rite Aid's advantage — for when a union fails to deliver, its members may lose faith in it and vote it out.

The whole thing is worth reading to get some insight into how unionization drives really work as opposed to the civics class version of how they work. In the end, Tom argues that "card check," which allows unions to organize merely by getting 50% of a site's workers to sign authorization cards, may be the least important of card check legislation. The more important parts of the Employee Free Choice Act, he says, are the provisions that simply put teeth into existing labor law, levying serious fines for misbehavior and demanding that management bargain in good faith once a union wins an election.

I'm not so sure about that, but as an anecdotal point, it's true that anti-EFCA attorney Peter Kirsanow, a former Bush appointee to the NLRB and now a frequent blogger at The Corner, usually seems more agitated about the forced bargaining provisions of EFCA than he does about the card check provisions per se. So maybe there's something to Tom's argument. Refusing to seriously bargain with a union even after they've won an election is a routine maneuver for anti-labor companies, and EFCA does away with that by allowing an arbitrator to set terms for a contract if management stalls for more than 120 days.

I still wouldn't give up on card check, myself, but it's true that aggressive enforcement of existing law, all by itself, would go a long way toward improving the lot of labor in America. Read the entire piece for more.

Military Commissions on Hold

| Wed Jan. 21, 2009 1:53 AM EST

MILITARY COMMISSIONS ON HOLD....I'm sure the usual executive orders changing our abortion policies will be signed on Wednesday, but for those keeping score at home it looks like Obama's first major act has already taken place:

In one of its first actions, the Obama administration instructed military prosecutors late Tuesday to seek a 120-day suspension of legal proceedings involving detainees at the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — a clear break with the approach of the outgoing Bush administration.

The instruction came in a motion filed late Tuesday with a military court handling the case of five defendants accused of organizing the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States....The legal maneuver appears designed to provide the Obama administration time to refashion the prosecution system and potentially treat detainees as criminal defendants in federal court or to have them face war-crimes charges in military courts-martial. It is also possible that the administration could re-form and relocate the military commissions before resuming trials.

This only gets two cheers until we see what the current procedure gets replaced with, but it's a good start.

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Joe-Mentum

| Wed Jan. 21, 2009 1:36 AM EST

JOE-MENTUM....Cornerite Yuval Levin passes along this tidbit from the inauguration:

This was, understandably, a very partisan crowd in which I was badly out of place. The loudest boos, to my surprise, were not for Bush and Cheney, who got plenty, but for Joe Lieberman when he was shown on the huge television screens — more than one voice could be heard shouting "traitor" around where I was standing....

Poor Joe. In certain enlightend precincts, anyway, he's more hated than even Dick Cheney. How many people can say that?

Google Woes

| Tue Jan. 20, 2009 10:33 PM EST

GOOGLE WOES....What's going on with Google? Anyone know? It used to be that the search page came up instantly when I clicked on it, but then a while back it suddenly slowed down. Not a lot, but enough to be annoying. Maybe a second or two.

And YouTube has slowed down too. I can't remember the last time I played a YouTube video all the way through without interruption. These days I'm lucky for videos to play 20 seconds before they stop to rebuffer.

And Google Alerts used to be great too. It was a perfect tool for getting notified whenever someone responded to a blog post I'd written. But now? About 80% of the alerts I get are for posts from blogs where I just happen to be on the blogroll.

All this stuff started a couple of months ago or so. Is it just me? Has anyone else noticed the same thing? What happened? And can Barack Obama fix it?

Inauguration 7

| Tue Jan. 20, 2009 7:03 PM EST

INAUGURATION 7....I'm pretty much aligned with conventional wisdom on Obama's inauguration speech: It was OK, but not great. The somberness wasn't the problem. For the most part, that was appropriate. But with a few exceptions, it struck me as a little bit too utilitarian and themeless, sort of a stripped down State of the Union, or even a campaign stump speech. There was nothing badly wrong with it, but neither was it very memorable.

The thing that struck me the most as I was listening to it, though, was the number of shout outs he gave to conservatives. The main thrust of the speech was liberal — building roads, providing healthcare, rejuvenating global alliances, etc. — but there were quite a few spots that seemed specifically crafted to appeal to conservative ears. For example:

For us, they fought and died in places Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works....Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched.

We will not apologize for our way of life nor will we waver in its defense. And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that, "Our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."

To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict or blame their society's ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.

To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

Those values upon which our success depends, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history.

I don't know how long it will last, but so far Obama has spared no opportunity to reach out to conservatives in ways cultural, rhetorical, and political — which shouldn't be a surprise. After all, it's exactly what he said he was going to do during the campaign. I wish him luck on this.

Then, after the speech, there was the inaugural poem: Elizabeth Alexander's "Praise Song for the Day." Adam Kirsch calls it a perfect specimen of "bureaucratic verse," and I can't argue with that. I thought it felt forced and self-conscious throughout. But even worse, it felt like a poem meant to be read, not spoken. The age of thunderous civic verse is long gone, of course, but still: an occasional poem is meant to be heard, not merely studied on a page. This one wasn't.

Auto Bailout Watch

| Tue Jan. 20, 2009 2:39 PM EST

AUTO BAILOUT WATCH....The French government plans to bail out Renault and Peugeot-Citroen to the tune of $7-8 billion or so. By the time this is all over, will there be a car company in the world that hasn't hoovered up a few billion taxpayer dollars?