Kevin Drum

Yet More Rahm

| Mon Mar. 8, 2010 12:13 PM EST

Another big Rahm Emanuel article? Crikey. But anyway, here's an excerpt from Peter Baker's upcoming piece in the New York Times magazine:

Emanuel, who declined to talk to me on the record for this article....

Isn't this basically a big trumpet that says Emanuel did talk to Baker, but only off the record? Is that kosher?

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Quote of the Day: The Oscars

| Mon Mar. 8, 2010 11:33 AM EST

From Ezra Klein, who couldn't make it to the end of the Oscar — excuse me, Oscar® — telecast last night:

Anyway, the Oscars certainly won the Oscar for most overlong television program I watched this year. This is their umpteenth award in that category. 

There's a weird backstory here. For years and years, the Oscars were scheduled to go from 6 pm to 9pm, but in reality they always ran until nearly 9:30. This was plainly deliberate, but for some reason the Academy never admitted this and everyone else went along with the gag. I've never understood the reasoning behind this, but it led to endless jokes about how long the show was.

A few years ago this changed. The telecast is now scheduled to go from 5:30 to 9:001, and guess what? The producers hit their mark every time. It's a 3½-hour show, it's always been a 3½-hour show, and it doesn't run long. It runs exactly as long as they intend it to.

But they still make jokes about how long it is. Steve Martin's version last night was "The show went so long that Avatar is now set in the past." But other awards shows go for 3 hours, so it's not as if 3½ is really all that spectacularly different. Strange stuff. I've always figured there must be an interesting explanation for all this, but I've never seen it. 

In other Oscar news, the presenters are back to announcing "And the winner is," which went out of style some time ago because, you know, everyone's a winner and we don't want to deflate anyone's self esteem by suggesting that all the non-winners might actually be losers. But now it's OK again. I wonder what the story behind that was?

However, presenters still haven't figured out that they don't have to hunch down to speak into the mike in order to be heard. Some of them, anyway. Given that they're all acting professionals, you'd think they'd know stuff like this.

On a more substantive note, I was happy to see the The Hurt Locker win. It was flawed in some ways, I thought, but basically a pretty good movie. The griping about it that suddenly reached a fever pitch before the show seemed pretty ridiculous all around. On the other hand, I would have given the Best Actress award to Meryl Streep. I don't normally like the award going to actors who play a real-life character, which seems more like mimicry than a real acting challenge, but I'd make an exception this time. She was great as Julia Child. And please, next year can we go back to five Best Picture nominees instead of ten?

1Sloppy journalism! Sorry about that. Actually, the telecast was scheduled to go from 5:30 to 8:30, so they're still propagating the official fiction that it's a 3-hour show. Apologies. But it's still a 3½-hour show and it always has been. The purpose behind the fiction remains unclear.

How Healthcare Got Its Mojo Back

| Sun Mar. 7, 2010 12:57 PM EST

On the day after Scott Brown's election victory in Massachussetts, healthcare reform looked dead. Republicans were crowing, public opinion was turning, and Democrats were scurrying for cover like rats in a sewer. So what turned things around? In the LA Times today, Mark Barabak and Duke Helfand argue that Anthem Blue Cross was a big part of it:

Unwittingly, Anthem helped revive Democratic efforts. Every letter it sent out was a political gift for Obama. The only thing missing was a shiny red bow.

....On Super Bowl Sunday, the president appeared on CBS, chatting with Katie Couric...."One of the major insurers in California just announced that in the individual market they're increasing their premiums by 39%," Obama said, three days after the story broke. "That's a portrait of the future if we don't do something now."

....For months, Obama had been on the defensive, facing electoral setbacks, declining poll numbers, dissident Democrats and stories that highlighted the deal-making often needed to grind out legislation. Finally, the administration felt it was on offense. "BIG insurance rate increases and MORE coming," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs wrote on his new Twitter account, linking to coverage of the Anthem story. Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and Human Services, sent a letter to WellPoint challenging the increases, and summoned industry executives to the White House to explain themselves. Obama paid a surprise visit to the meeting, bearing a letter from an Ohio cancer survivor complaining that her premium was rising more than 40% this year. Obama said he planned to carry the letter to public events to remind people of the stakes in the healthcare overhaul.

Well, Anthem certainly didn't hurt the cause of healthcare reform, that's for sure. Whether it was really a big bellwether in the other direction is a different question, and one I'm not so sure of. I guess, as in most things, I tend to believe that the turnaround on healthcare was driven mostly by fundamentals: panic subsided, as it usually does; Democrats realized that passing nothing and looking hapless was political suicide; and a plan came together for passage that looked doable — and that had strong backing from the entire party leadership. That probably accounts for 80% of what happened.

But who knows? Maybe 80% wouldn't have been enough. So thanks, Anthem Blue Cross! Your timing couldn't have been better if we'd been paying you.

Governing American, GOP Style

| Sat Mar. 6, 2010 6:35 PM EST

I think cartoonist David Fitzsimmons captures the Republican midterm strategy pretty well here. Any questions?

Finally, an Opera I Like

| Sat Mar. 6, 2010 12:54 PM EST

Well, Chrome didn't work out. My nonnegotiable bare minimum for any browser is that it has to play well with MoJo's Drupal-based blog software, and Chrome didn't. This is almost certainly not Chrome's fault, since our software is....is....what's the right word? Finicky. Yeah. Anyway, Drupal didn't like Chrome, and our tech team confirmed that they knew about this and no fixes were forthcoming. So Chrome was out.

But it all worked out in the end. One of my regular readers suggested I give Opera a try, and I have to say that Opera rocks. It's always possible that I'm going to find some weird problem with it over the next few days, but so far it's been flawless. It's blazingly fast, it's got all the features of Firefox plus a few additional nice ones, it's highly configurable, and — hooray! — it works with Drupal with only a single minor glitch that I can live with pretty easily. Ad blocking was a little trickier than just installing AdBlock on Firefox, but a combination of a couple of tools got that working, which sped up page loading even more. The Wall Street Journal front page loads quickly and without randomly freezing up my system, and since I installed the ad-blocking tools I haven't run across any page that's gone into infinite freewheel mode as pages frequently did with Firefox. I'll keep my fingers crossed on that front.

This all makes me surprisingly happy. This is a testament to Opera, of course, but mainly, I think, a testament to my routinely bleak expectations for software these days. Finding something that actually works well, isn't larded up with mountains of intrusive crap I don't need,1 and isn't full of weird glitches,2 now counts as something of a miracle.3

Next up: a new email client to replace Thunderbird. I want something with a better, faster search of email archives. Ideally, I'd also like something that allows me to connect remotely through my home computer so that I can send email without resorting to my ISP's crappy web-based client. (My ISP, like many, only allows you to send mail if you're directly connected to their domain. If you're connected through some hotel's WiFi network, you're out of luck.) Should I check out Opera's email client? Probably. Any other suggestions?

And after that? A new computer. I'm so not looking forward to that, but my current box is just too old and slow. The good news on this front is that new PCs are, apparently, about 20x faster than my current one. The bad news is — well, everything else is bad news, probably. There was a time in my life when transferring everything over from one PC to another was sort of a cool challenge, and well worth it. But now? Not so much. But it's time to bite the bullet anyway. First step: figuring out to transfer an Opera installation. Progress!

1Actually, Opera does have mountains of weird features. That is, they're weird until I find some use for them, as I already have for a few of them. But they aren't intrusive and they don't slow things down. They do, however, sometimes require slightly more technical acumen than just downloading Firefox and using it straight out of the box.

2Though it does seem odd that you can't right-click on links in the "personal bar" at the top of the window. You can right-click on any other link, so why not those? And speaking of little glitches, why is it that all browsers allow you to set up a default page that comes up when you start the browser, but don't allow you to set up a default page for new tabs? Not a big deal, but it seems sort of strange.

3And speaking of miracles, what the heck is Opera's business model, anyway? I guess they must sell other stuff while giving away the browser for free? Or is it some other clever Norwegian trick?

Friday Cat Blogging - 5 March 2010

| Fri Mar. 5, 2010 2:55 PM EST

Today we have twin cats. On the left, Domino found a patch of sunshine this morning, fell asleep, and then discovered that it was half gone when she woke up. On the right, Inkblot, instead of chasing Domino away and usurping her sunny patch, ambled upstairs to find his own piece of sunshine. But the same thing happened to him. The sun gods are fickle that way.

And now a request from the cat gods. As some of you know, MoJo emails out a weekly newsletter that includes the best of this blog for the week plus a brand new post exclusive to the newsletter plus a cat of the week from one of my readers. (You can sign up for it over on the right, a little ways down the page.) However, our stock of cat photos has run dry. So if you'd like to show off your favorite feline to the world, email a picture of your cat(s) to motherjonescats@gmail.com. Be sure to include names, ages, and whatever other tidbits strike your fancy. It'll show up in a newsletter soon. Thanks!

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Quote of the Day: Overdraft Follies

| Fri Mar. 5, 2010 1:55 PM EST

Here is reason #1 from an OCC letter explaining why it approved a bank's request to adopt a routine policy of largest-to-smallest check posting:

Projections showing that revenue is likely to increase as a result of adopting a high-to-low order of check posting.

Can't argue with that! If I have $50 in my checking account, and I buy lunch for $5 followed by a new pair of shoes for $70, I'll incur an overdraft fee for the shoes. But if the bank posts the shoe purchase first, then my account is immediately overdrawn and lunch triggers a second overdraft fee. Ka-ching!

But why does a bank regulator consider that a reason to favor the practice? Answer: because bank regulators aren't tasked with caring about consumers, they're tasked with ensuring bank soundness. And if a bank makes money, that makes it sound. This is why we need an independent CFPA that is tasked with caring about consumers.

And as long as we're on the topic, here's reason #4 for allowing banks to post checks and debit card transactions in whichever order is most lucrative:

The Bank states its belief that a high-to-low order of posting is consistent with the majority of its customers' preferences. The Bank surmises that the intended order, which will result in a customer's largest bills being paid first, will have the consequence of the customer's most important bills (such as mortgage payments) being paid first. The Bank thus concludes that a high-to-low order is aligned with the majority of its customers' priorities and preferences.

This is all via Felix Salmon, who notes that while "surmising" is all well and good, nobody ever bothers to actually ask customers if they prefer this. But it's even more ludicrous than that. The whole point of overdraft protection is that all your overdrafts get paid. Your largest bills are going to get paid regardless of what order they go in. The only exceptions are the very rare occasions when your cumulative spending goes beyond your overdraft limit and the bank really does have to choose which checks to honor. But the vast, vast bulk of overdrafts are small, so this is rarely a genuine issue and could be easily solved with a phone call. Unfortunately, that would halt the gravy train for the 99% of transactions that don't go over the limit and are being reordered solely to rip off consumers.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is your bank regulators at work. Any questions?

Working for Uncle Sam

| Fri Mar. 5, 2010 1:22 PM EST

A few weeks ago I wondered how the pay of government workers compares to that of comparable workers in the private sector these days. It's a hard question to answer, but USA Today weighs in today with its own analysis:

Overall, federal workers earned an average salary of $67,691 in 2008 for occupations that exist both in government and the private sector, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The average pay for the same mix of jobs in the private sector was $60,046 in 2008, the most recent data available. These salary figures do not include the value of health, pension and other benefits, which averaged $40,785 per federal employee in 2008 vs. $9,882 per private worker, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

....But National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley says the comparison is faulty because it "compares apples and oranges." Federal accountants, for example, perform work that has more complexity and requires more skill than accounting work in the private sector, she says. "When you look at the actual duties, you see that very few federal jobs align with those in the private sector," she says. She says federal employees are paid an average of 26% less than non-federal workers doing comparable work.

This doesn't end the debate, it just adds another data point, and a fairly crude one at that. For one thing, this is just a straight comparison of job titles with no attempt to figure out whether the job requirements are genuinely comparable, and there's no adjustment for things like age and experience. Unsurprisingly, there's also a fair amount of difference between job categories: high-skill occupations (IT workers, lawyers, doctors) tended to be higher paid in the private sector while low-skill jobs (janitors, cooks, PR flacks1) were higher paid in the public sector. And since this is a survey of federal jobs, it means that teachers, the biggest category of public workers, aren't included at all.

So take this with a grain of salt. Still $108 thousand vs. $70 thousand is a pretty big difference, and it would take a lot of data massaging to get rid of it, let alone put private workers 26% ahead. This is a topic that deserves some rigorous study. Via Alex Tabarrok.

1OK, including PR folks in this category was just a joke. Still, they account for the biggest single difference between federal and private workers: $132 thousand vs. $88 thousand. Apparently government agencies really value their flacks highly.

Outrage O' the Day

| Fri Mar. 5, 2010 12:46 PM EST

A Los Angeles elementary school principal has apologized for “questionable decisions” about who to honor during Black History Month:

Lorraine Abner’s letter did not name the individuals. But her apology came after three teachers at Wadsworth Avenue Elementary School were suspended while the Los Angeles Unified School District investigates allegations that they had their first-, second- and fourth-grade students carry pictures of O.J. Simpson, Dennis Rodman and RuPaul at last Friday’s event.

“Unfortunately, questionable decisions were made in the selection of noteworthy African American role models,” the letter said. “As the principal, I offer my apology for these errors in judgment.”

Where's Jon Stewart when you need him?

More Bad News on Climate Change

| Fri Mar. 5, 2010 12:24 PM EST

One of the most dangerous aspects of global warming is the existence of positive feedback loops.  It's the same thing that causes a high-pitched screech when you set up speakers right behind a microphone: you speak into the mike, your voice is amplified by the speakers, your amplified voice is fed back into the mike, back into the speakers, etc. It gets louder with each loop, until eventually the whole system goes haywire.

The same kind of feedback loops are present in the climate, and one of the worst is the melting of the permafrost. Permafrost locks up huge amounts of methane, an especially potent greenhouse gas, and the danger is that as the globe warms, the permafrost will melt and release its methane. This will cause the globe to warm even more, which will melt the permafrost even more, and the loop will continue explosively until the permafrost is gone and tremendous amounts of methane have been released.

Well, it's starting to happen. Julia Whitty passes along the news from a new research report:

Arctic seabed stores of methane are now destabilizing and venting vast stores of frozen methane — a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The paper, in the prestigious journal Science, reports the permafrost under the East Siberian Arctic Shelf — long thought to be an impermeable barrier sealing in methane — is instead perforated and leaking large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Melting of even a fraction of the clathrates stored in that shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming.

If this continues, there might soon be no way to stop it. As Joe Romm warns, "It is increasingly clear that if the world strays significantly above 450 ppm atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide for any length of time, we will find it unimaginably difficult to stop short of 800 to 1000 ppm." And if that happens, warming of 5°C or more is inevitable, a catastrophe almost beyond imagining.

But the Republican Party continues to believe that if they just deny it's happening, then it's not happening. And since they, along with a small cadre of "centrist" Democrats, control the U.S. Senate, we remain unable to take even modest steps to address this. I'll probably be dead before the suffering starts in earnest, but lots of you have kids and grandkids who won't be. Even some of you Republicans. Just food for thought.