Kevin Drum

Court Rules EPA Must Consider Cost in Regulation of Power Plants

| Mon Jun. 29, 2015 11:51 AM EDT

In today's EPA case, the question at hand was whether EPA has to consider both costs and benefits when it makes the decision to regulate power plants. EPA says it has to consider only benefits during the initial decision, and can consider costs later when it writes the actual regulations themselves.

The conservative majority on the Supreme Court disagreed. Although the Clean Air Act generally requires EPA to regulate sources that  “presen[t] a threat of adverse effects to human health or the environment," the requirements for regulating power plants are different. EPA can only regulate power plants if it finds regulation "appropriate and necessary."

So what does that mean? "There are undoubtedly settings in which the phrase 'appropriate and necessary' does not encompass cost," the majority opinion says, "But this is not one of them." Then this:

EPA points out that other parts of the Clean Air Act expressly mention cost, while [the power plant clause] does not. But this observation shows only that [the power plant clause's] broad reference to appropriateness encompasses multiple relevant factors (which include but are not limited to cost); other provisions’ specific references to cost encompass just cost. It is unreasonable to infer that, by expressly making cost relevant to other decisions, the Act implicitly makes cost irrelevant to the appropriateness of regulating power plants....Other parts of the Clean Air Act also expressly mention environmental effects, while [the power plant clause] does not. Yet that did not stop EPA from deeming environmental effects relevant to the appropriateness of regulating power plants.

As it happens, this is not entirely clear. The origin of the phrase "the exception proves the rule" applies to this. If I say that parking is not allowed on 4th Avenue on weekdays, this implicitly means that parking is allowed on weekends. The fact that I made a specific rule and deliberately failed to include certain cases in that rule, means that the rule doesn't apply to the excepted cases.

In this case, cost is specifically mentioned elsewhere in the Clean Air Act, but not here. So power plants appear to be an exception to the general rule that cost has to be considered from the very start. This means that the question is whether "appropriate and necessary" encompasses cost, or whether Congress would have specifically mentioned cost if it wanted it considered.

The conservative majority decided cost was inherently part of that phrase. The liberal dissenters disagreed. The conservatives won.

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This Will Probably Not Be a Very Fun Week

| Mon Jun. 29, 2015 10:41 AM EDT

This week's news to watch for:

  • Greek talks have broken down and they might be about to leave the euro, causing chaos.
  • Negotiations with the Iranians have hit a pretty rough patch. There may be no nuclear deal after all.
  • Puerto Rico has effectively declared bankruptcy.
  • China's stock markets, which have been falling already, are off a cliff today. "China’s main stock index entered bear-market territory Monday," says the Wall Street Journal, "as a surprise interest-rate cut over the weekend failed to lift the market amid concerns over investors’ debt levels, while uncertainty about Greece shook sentiment elsewhere in the region."
  • And in non-financial bad news, the Supreme Court has a couple of important cases coming up this week. The smart money suggests that the liberal run of good luck in the high court may be over. Fasten your seat belts.

POSTSCRIPT: It's already happening. The Court has just upheld lethal injection procedures for executing death-row inmates and has struck down EPA rules on toxic emissions. On the brighter side, they ruled that independent commissions can draw district lines. So liberals are 1-2 so far this week.

Greece Now Has to Decide Whether to Leave the Euro

| Mon Jun. 29, 2015 10:01 AM EDT
A man passes by anti-euro graffiti in Athens.

Today's news is all about Greece. To make a long story short, the Greeks last week presented the Europeans with an austerity proposal that was pretty much what they had been asking for. But it turned out that "pretty much" wasn't good enough. The Europeans wanted exactly what they had been asking for and sent the Greeks packing. Talks broke down completely, and the Greek prime minister has called for a referendum later this week. The question: whether to accept the humiliating European terms and stay in the euro, or to reject the terms and exit the euro. Paul Krugman offers his opinion:

I would vote no, for two reasons. First, much as the prospect of euro exit frightens everyone—me included—the troika is now effectively demanding that the policy regime of the past five years be continued indefinitely. Where is the hope in that? Maybe, just maybe, the willingness to leave will inspire a rethink, although probably not. But even so, devaluation couldn’t create that much more chaos than already exists, and would pave the way for eventual recovery, just as it has in many other times and places. Greece is not that different.

Second, the political implications of a yes vote would be deeply troubling. The troika clearly did a reverse Corleone—they made Tsipras an offer he can’t accept, and presumably did this knowingly. So the ultimatum was, in effect, a move to replace the Greek government. And even if you don’t like Syriza, that has to be disturbing for anyone who believes in European ideals.

It's worth unpacking this a bit, and doing it in the simplest possible way. If Greeks vote no on the European proposal, it's basically a vote to abandon the euro and recreate a new version of their old currency. Call it the New Drachma. They would then devalue the ND, making Greek exports more competitive in the international market. That would mean more tourists, more olive exports, and more fish exports. At least, that's what it would mean in the long term.

In the short term it would mean chaos. Banks would close, and capital controls would be put in place until the new currency could be put in circulation. Imports would skyrocket in price, and this would effectively mean pay cuts for everyone. Savings would be lost, and pensions would be effectively slashed.

In other words, Greece would almost certainly suffer more short-term austerity by leaving the euro than by staying within in it. The payoff, hopefully, would be control of their own currency, which would allow them to rebalance their economy in the long run and begin a true economic recovery. In the meantime, however, I'd be skeptical of Krugman's belief that leaving the euro would cause a bit of chaos, but not much more than Greece is already suffering. Here's Barry Eichengreen:

Nearly a decade ago, I analyzed scenarios for a country leaving the eurozone.…The costs, I concluded, would be severe and heavily front-loaded.…a bank run…shutter[ing] the financial system.…losing access to not just their savings but also imported petrol, medicines and foodstuffs.…Not only would any subsequent benefits, by comparison, be delayed, but they would be disappointingly small.…Any improvement in export competitiveness due to depreciation of the newly reintroduced national currency would prove ephemeral.…Greece’s.…leading export, refined petroleum, is priced in dollars and relies on imported oil.…Agricultural exports.…will take several harvests to ramp up. And attracting more tourists won’t be easy against a drumbeat of political unrest.

A lot of people think it's a no-brainer for Greece to leave the euro at this point. This is why it's not. Make no mistake: it will cause a lot of pain. Greek incomes will effectively be slashed, and it will take years to recover on the backs of improved exports. It's quite possible that this is the only good long-term solution for Greece, which has been treated badly by its European creditors—for which you should mostly read "German creditors"— but it is no easy decision. There will be a lot of suffering for a lot of years if Greece goes down this road.

This is why the Greek prime minister has called for a referendum on the European proposal. If Greeks vote no, they're accepting his proposal to exit the euro and accepting the inevitable austerity that will follow. That allows him to keep governing. If they vote yes, he will accept the European proposal and presumably step down from government. The people will have spoken, and effectively they will be saying that they were bluffing all along, and now that their bluff has been called they're willing to fold.

For Europe, the problem is different. If Greece leaves the euro, it probably won't affect them very much. The Greek economy is simply too small to matter, and most Greek debt is now held in public hands. However, the political implication are potentially huge: It means the currency union is not forever and ever, as promised. If the pain of using a currency whose value is basically dictated by the needs of Germany becomes too severe, countries will leave. Perhaps later they will be let back in. Instead of a currency union, it will become more of a currency board, with countries coming in and out as they need to. This will be especially true if observers like Krugman are right, and the short-term pain of Greece leaving is mild and long-term recovery is strong. That would send a strong lesson to any future country stuck in the web of German monetary policy and finding itself in a deep and long economic depression.

Stay tuned.

And Now For Something Completely Different

| Fri Jun. 26, 2015 3:00 PM EDT

A new1 study from Swift, Stone, and Parker has identified the top four components of a successful online fundraising appeal. Here they are:

  • The end of a quarterly fundraising cycle.
  • Clear comparisons to the opposition's fundraising results.
  • Over the top doomsaying.
  • Cats.

Lucky for me, I've got all those things, so I figured I'd take a crack at it.

Check out National Review's current fundraising drive. One reader just gave $250! This guy coughed up $100! They've even got a wine club to suck in new contributors. And a cruise!

These guys are killing us. Without your help, the heirs of William F. Buckley will dominate the political magazine market for years to come. And you know what that means: More articles about how the only real racism is anti-white racism. More pseudo-science about how the globe is probably cooling, not warming. More hagiographies of Marco Rubio. More whining about how white people can't use the N-word. More blog posts about Jonah Goldberg's dog.

Maybe you think this doesn't matter to you? Think again. This week features "Reagan's Supply-Side Genius," and it doesn't matter if you try to ignore it. Your crazy uncle is going to be regaling you about it for hours this Thanksgiving unless you figure out how to fight back.

This blog is your ticket. We need contributions to help us fight back against the avalanche of right wing babble. Right. Now.

This is our final push. My cats are down to their last bowl of kibble. The fell hordes of NR are already cackling at their imminent victory. Soon we won't be able to afford the very pixels that make up this blog. I know you don't want that. So please, make a generous contribution today. The first $10 will go to cat food.2 The rest will go to fighting the dark hordes. And Jonah's dog.

OK, I'm joking around here. But we really are closing out our fiscal year next week and Mother Jones can use all the help we can get. If you can afford to pitch in, please do—so I never have to write a fundraising appeal like this and actually mean it.

Make a tax-deductible gift by credit card here.

Or via PayPal here.

1: See the Annals of Improbably Convenient Results, v. 83, p. 101.
2: Just kidding. The cats already have a bottomless supply. Your full donation will go towards MoJo’s hard-hitting journalism that gets people talking.
Like our groundbreaking package, "The True Costs of Gun Violence in America," that President Obama alluded to in the wake of Charleston. 

Friday Cat Blogging - 26 June 2015

| Fri Jun. 26, 2015 2:00 PM EDT

This is a bird's eye view of cat TV. Sort of like breaking the fourth wall, feline style. But how did Kevin get on TV? He was in here just a minute ago. Very fishy, no?

In a Few Years, Gay Marriage Will Be About as Threatening as Cell Phones

| Fri Jun. 26, 2015 1:30 PM EDT

Jonathan Bernstein gets it right on same-sex marriage:

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Supreme Court’s decision today in Obergefell, which recognizes marriage as a basic right, is that it’s not going to be very controversial.

....How do I know? Because we’ve seen it in state after state in which marriage equality was enacted. There’s no controversy remaining in Massachusetts; for that matter, there’s little or no controversy remaining in Iowa, which had court-imposed marriage equality in 2009. On a related issue, conflict over gays and lesbians serving in the military ended immediately after “don’t ask don’t tell” was replaced four years ago. In practice, extending full citizenship and human rights to all regardless of sexual orientation and identity is actually not all that controversial — at least not after the fact.

I get the fact that gay marriage seems creepy and unnatural to some people. I don't like this attitude, and I don't feel it myself, but I get it.

But you know what? Bernstein is right. For a while it will continue to be a political football, but not for long. Even the opponents will quickly realize that same-sex marriage changes....nothing. Life goes on normally. The gay couples in town still live and hang out together just like they always have, and a few marriage ceremonies didn't change that. In their own houses, everything stays the same. The actual impact is zero. No one is trying to recruit their kids to the cause. Their churches continue to marry whoever they want to marry. After a few months or a few years, they just forget about it. After all, the lawn needs mowing and the kids have to get ferried to soccer practice and Chinese sounds good for dinner—and that gay couple who run the Jade Palace over on 4th sure make a mean Kung Pao Chicken. And that's it.

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Are We Still Yammering About Whether the Civil War Was About Slavery? Really?

| Fri Jun. 26, 2015 12:56 PM EDT

Are we still arguing about whether the Civil War was really fought over slavery? Seriously? What's next? The Holocaust was really about Jews overstaying their tourist visas? The Inquisition was a scientific exploration of the limits of the human body? The Romans were genuinely curious about whether a man could kill a hungry lion? The Bataan death march was a controlled trial of different brands of army boots?

WTF?

Canada Warns: "Goldfish the Size of Dinner Plates Are Multiplying Like Bunnies"

| Fri Jun. 26, 2015 12:29 PM EDT

A Fish Out of Water was one of my favorite childhood books. A boy buys a goldfish and is warned not to feed him too much. But he does, and the goldfish outgrows his tank. Then he outgrows a flower vase. Then he outgrows the bathtub. Then he outgrows the swimming pool. Finally, the owner of the shop comes to the rescue and gets the fish back to its normal size. The boy promises never to overfeed his fish again. Lesson learned: listen to your elders. The End.

Except....what if this was more than just a charming kids' book? Could it actually have been a premonition of 21st century ecological disaster? What if there really were gigantic goldfish out there rampaging through our lakes and ponds?

If you have a goldfish, and you are kind of over that goldfish, to the point where you are now wondering whether it might be best to set that goldfish free, please rethink that decision. That's the request from the Alberta government, which is trying to get Canadians to refrain from dumping out their fish tanks into ponds. Because those ponds are filling up with those discarded goldfish, which are getting really, really big in the wild.

Or, as the CBC notes: "Goldfish the size of dinner plates are multiplying like bunnies."

If it can happen in Canada, it can happen in America. You have been warned.

Obamacare Still Isn't Safe, and Liberals Better Not Forget It

| Fri Jun. 26, 2015 12:07 PM EDT

Greg Sargent warns Democrats not to get complacent about Obamacare:

House Republicans are still forging ahead with a separate lawsuit against Obama over the law (though it may not be resolved for years). Conservatives like Ted Cruz are still calling for holding spending bills hostage to roll back the ACA. GOP presidential hopefuls Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, and Cruz are all pledging to keep up the fight to repeal Obamacare — “every single word,” as Cruz puts it.

....Democrats should take continued GOP opposition to Obamacare very seriously. It has serious real-world consequences. As long as states hold out against the Medicaid expansion, it could slow the law’s efforts to realize its goal of expanding coverage. One thing this means is that Democrats should redouble their efforts to regain electoral ground on the level of the states, where future decisions about the Medicaid expansion will be made.

When Obama won the 2012 election, I figured Obamacare was finally safe. Except....there was still the Supreme Court. But they mostly upheld Obamacare, and once again I thought it was finally safe. Whew. Still, Republicans kept fighting. And things remained dicey as long as Obamacare was still vaporware. Then it finally went into effect in 2014, and disastrous rollout or not, I figured that was it. Once it's actually helping millions of people, it's safe. But wait! Then there was another Supreme Court case. But that dropped this week, and Obamacare was once again upheld.

So now Obamacare is finally safe, right? You'd think so, wouldn't you? But Republicans are obsessed with Obamacare like no other law that's been passed in decades. It's kind of scary, the same way it was scary watching the unhinged Captain Ahab stumping around the Pequod. So no, Obamacare is still not safe. Not unless Democrats win at least the White House, and maybe both the White House and the Senate, in 2016. At that point, Republicans will finally have to give up. They'd have no plausible path to repeal, and by 2020 the law would have been in place for seven years; it would be covering upwards of 25 million people; and the health care industry would  be so plugged into Obamacare's rules that it would literally take years to extricate them if the law was repealed.

It sounds bizarre—not least of all to me, who badly underestimated how long Republicans could stay maniacally fixated on Obamacare—but it won't truly be safe until and unless Democrats win in 2016. I sure hope Democrats figure this out. If you want to know what we're up against, use Kevin's Quick Zeitgeist Test. Type "Obamacare" into Google and then go to image view. Here's the URL:

https://www.google.com/search?lr=&cr=&safe=images&gws_rd=ssl&um=1&ie=UTF-8&hl=en&tbm=isch&source=og&q=obamacare&sa=N&tab=wi&ei=-HSNVfnbNMLFggSu7YbIAw

Now do a quick count of pro vs. anti Obamacare images in, say, the top 50 results. Not counting neutral photos, I put it at about 10:1 for the haters. These guys aren't giving up. Those of us who support Obamacare had better show a similar level of passion for keeping it around.

Supreme Court: Gay Marriage Now Legal in all 50 States

| Fri Jun. 26, 2015 11:14 AM EDT

Jeez, sleep in a few minutes and you miss out. This has turned out to be lefty week at the Supreme Court:

In a long-sought victory for the gay rights movement, the Supreme Court ruled on Friday that the Constitution guarantees a nationwide right to same-sex marriage.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in the 5 to 4 decision. He was joined by the court’s four more liberal justices.

No surprises here: it was the four liberal justices in the majority plus Anthony Kennedy, who has long been sympathetic to gay causes. And the timing was about right. It's one thing to say that marriage is quintessentially a state issue, but common sense dictates that states should (a) have roughly the same rules, and (b) should respect each other's marriages. Gay marriage has now been approved in enough states that it was time to set a nationwide standard. It's one thing for different states to have different waiting times or different medical requirements, but not fundamentally different rules on who can get married in the first place.

And for those who think the Supreme Court is locked away in a bubble, take a look at the chart on the right. 57 percent of all Americans now approve of same-sex marriage and 70 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 34. This was a freight train, and obviously Kennedy thought it was time to get off the tracks and get on board.

So hooray for the Supreme Court this week. They saved Obamacare; they saved non-discrimination requirements in low-income housing; they saved same-sex marriage; and they ruled that the government has to pay for any raisins it seizes. All in all, not a bad way to end their term.