Quote of the Day: Pawlenty on Cap-and-Trade

From Tim Pawlenty, possibly the most boring person ever to be considered a front runner for a presidential nomination:

Anybody who’s going to run for this office who’s been in an executive position, or may run, has got some clunkers in their record. Laura, mine I think are fewer and less severe than most. As to climate change, or more specifically cap-and-trade, I’ve just come out and admitted it — look, it was a mistake, it was stupid....Everybody in the race, well at least the big names in the race, embraced climate change or cap-and-trade at one point or another. Every one of us.

That's true. And then, suddenly, every one of them didn't. Why is that?

One possibility is that they just like taking stands that piss off liberals. But opposing cap-and-trade would have pissed off liberals four years ago and they didn't do it then. So what changed?

The answer isn't very complex. Four years ago, in the wake of Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth and growing public concern about global warming, corporate America felt that some kind of action on greenhouse gases was probably inevitable. And if it was inevitable, then cap-and-trade was their best bet. From their point of view it probably looked less threatening than a flat carbon tax, which is harder to game than cap-and-trade, and less costly than flat mandates from the EPA. So they got on board, and Republicans got on board with them.

But then a couple of years ago public concern over global warming started to wane and it became less obvious that action on greenhouse gases really was inevitable. So instead of settling for cap-and-trade as their least worst alternative, they decided to fight instead for their first best alternative: doing nothing. And once again, Republicans got on board with them.

All this was made easier by the fact that the conservative wing of the GOP was never a fan of regulating greenhouse gases in the first place, and when John McCain lost the 2008 election it was easy to demonize squishy stands like his support of cap-and-trade as evidence that America had no interest in Democrat-lite policies. If corporations had continued to support cap-and-trade, there could have been a real tug-of-war between the business wing of the party and the Obama-is-a-socialist wing of the party, but once the business community jumped ship it was no contest. They usually get what they pay for, after all.

Obama the Socialist

Fox News VP Bill Sammon told a conservative audience last year that he engaged in a wee bit of fabrication during the 2008 campaign:

At that time, I have to admit, that I went on TV on Fox News and publicly engaged in what I guess was some rather mischievous speculation about whether Barack Obama really advocated socialism, a premise that privately I found rather far-fetched.

Today he explains himself to Howard Kurtz:

He doesn’t regret repeatedly raising it on the air because, Sammon says, “it was a main point of discussion on all the channels, in all the media” — and by 2009 he was “astonished by how the needle had moved.”

Actually, no: I don't think it was a "main point of discussion" on all the channels. It was a main point of discussion on Fox News. On the other channels it was mainly treated as something ridiculous that Fox was promoting.

As for Sammon's moving needle, Greg Sargent sums things up: "Sammon is conceding that the idea did indeed strike him as far fetched in 2008, even though he and his network aggressively promoted it day in and day out throughout the campaign. And he’s defending this by pointing out that the idea ended up gaining traction, as if this somehow justifies the original act of dishonesty!"

Which, of course, it does. All Sammon was doing was creating a new reality, which the rest of us merely get to study judiciously. And while we're studying it (and mocking it), Fox will create another new reality. This is the way the empire works these days.

Obama's Speech

I've been under the weather for the past few days, so I missed Obama's big Libya speech yesterday. I meant to watch it, but then I fell asleep on the couch and by the time I woke up it was over. But I've since read the text of the speech, and I basically agree with Fred Kaplan: it was "about as shrewd and sensible as any such address could have been." A little messy, perhaps, but we live in a messy world:

Obama's main point was this: When, as he put it, "our interests and values are at stake," and when taking military action a) carries few risks, b) costs little, and c) may reap huge benefits, both political and humanitarian, then such action is worth taking even if the interests involved aren't quite vital.

This formulation is unsatisfying, both to the Realists (who shy from using force except in pursuit of vital interests and, even then, only when the outcome is fairly certain and preponderant force is mustered) and to the neoconservatives (who leap to use force anywhere and everywhere in the cause of universal moral values). But it reflects a sense of realism with a small r.

Clive Crook seems to find this likewise a bit unsatisfying, but suggests that, like democracy, Obama's approach produced the worst possible policy except for all the others:

If you doubt it, don't just list the policy's all too obvious dangers: test it against the alternatives — something I have not seen Obama's critics do. One option would have been to do nothing. In other words, abstain with China and Russia on the UNSC resolution. What a splendid message to the world that would have sent. Or maybe vote for the resolution, then commit no resources to enforcing it--the usual European approach to global leadership. Thankfully, the US is better than that. Alternatively, go all in, make regime change the goal, and target Gaddafi--but now without international backing. That would have been a heavier burden and an even bigger gamble. The course of action Obama chose is risky, to be sure, but when you think them through the alternatives look worse.

In the end, Obama will be judged on whether his approach works. If U.S. involvement really stays limited; if Qaddafi finds himself out of a job within a few weeks; and if the aftermath of the war isn't too disastrous, then Obama will be vindicated, congressional approval or not. If any of these things doesn't happen — and I'd pay particular attention to the last of them — he'll be in trouble. As with all things, success justifies nearly anything.

Avoiding the Conservative Rabbit Hole

Mike Konczal says that by now he understands pretty much all of the pro and con arguments related to the financial reform bill:

But at this point I simply no longer understand the hysterical, off-reality, arguments conservatives, especially the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, are making about the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Again, if they wanted to argue the meta-level, bring it on. If they think the problem is, a la Phil Gramm, predatory borrowers, say it. If they are freaked out about cost of capital going higher, make that case. I’ve written that the previous attempts to make that case are quite amateur, but I’d love to hear new ones. Anything, really, and I’ll give it a fair listen.

Don't hold your breath, Mike. The CFPB is opposed by banks because it will probably make them slightly less profitable, and conservatives, in turn, oppose it because banks oppose it. Looking any further is just a fool's errand.

Taking Aim at the Poor

This is an oddly fascinating quote from a GOP staffer:

Republicans are poised to reject a White House offer, TPM has learned, that would cut over $30 billion in current spending because of disagreements over whether the package should include cuts to mandatory spending programs. Democrats are pushing for such cuts, which include the big entitlement programs, though the specific cuts they're proposing remain unclear. In an ironic twist, Republicans oppose those cuts and want to limit the negotiations to non-defense discretionary spending, a smaller subset of the federal budget.

....Asked about the offer the White House has floated, a top Republican aide says, "This debate has always been about discretionary spending — not autopilot 'mandatory' spending or tax hikes."

This isn't a big surprise or anything, but I've never seen it put quite so baldly. This guy is literally saying that Republicans don't want to cut spending, they only want to cut nondefense discretionary spending. That's it. This, of course, is the one part of the budget that's (a) too small to really matter much, and (b) includes social welfare spending for poor people. Again, no big surprise, but at least it clears up what Republicans really care about cutting. And it's not the deficit.

Several years ago Arizona passed a clean elections law that provides state subsidies for candidates who follow certain rules. One provision of the law states that if a subsidized candidate is running against a self-funded candidate, and the self-funded candidate spends more than the subsidized candidate, then the subsidies increase. This is meant to prevent zillionaires from massively outspending everyone else, and needless to say, zillionaires and their allies don't like this much. Over at SCOTUSblog, Lyle Denniston summarizes the zillionaire side of the argument like this:

The only ways a self-financed candidate could prevent the state from helping to put out the message of the subsidized candidate — a “windfall” — would be to reduce the volume of his or her own speech, or at least to rearrange the timing of the speech, with negative effect. Either of those restraints, the petitions argued, would impose the campaigning burden that the Supreme Court had found unconstitutional in the Davis case.

The Davis case is Davis v. Federal Election Commission, in which Samuel Alito ruled against the "Millionaire's Amendment" of the 2002 campaign finance law. That amendment created different rules for candidates who abided by spending limits vs. those who didn't, and Alito ruled that Congress had no right to do that. Paul Waldman disagrees:

What is the "right" at issue here? It's not the right to free speech, since the self-financed candidate still can speak as much as he likes. It's the "right" to have the loudest voice if you have the most money, to drown out every other voice.

Which isn't a right at all. It's a privilege: the privilege of those with money to bend the political system to their will, to have the biggest megaphone, to make sure that their money gives them the ability to put a thumb on the electoral scale.

So how is the Court going to rule? If the Roberts Court has a guiding principle, it's that those with power should prevail. But as in all cases like this, the decision will likely come down to one man, Justice Anthony Kennedy. No one doubts that John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas will rule in favor of the candidates who want to gut the public-financing system so that those with the most money will always have the advantage. The four liberals on the Court will probably disagree. And Kennedy will decide, most likely in favor of the plaintiffs.

The Arizona law is now before the Supreme Court (in McComish v. Bennett), which heard oral arguments today. My guess is that Paul is right: the court will strike down the Arizona law, and this in turn will be the death knell for campaign finance reform. The Arizona law, and others like it, were very carefully crafted to remain within constitutional limits, and if a key provision is struck down it's difficult to envision any kind of effective limits on campaign financing that the court would uphold. It's taken them several decades, but combined with last year's ruling in Citizens United the zillionaires are on the brink of an almost complete victory. Not only does money talk, but soon it won't have to worry about anyone talking back either.

Our War in Libya

From the New York Times:

As rebel forces backed by allied warplanes pushed toward one of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s most crucial bastions of support, the American military warned on Monday that the insurgents’ rapid advances could quickly be reversed without continued coalition air support.

“The regime still vastly overmatches opposition forces militarily,” Gen. Carter F. Ham, the ranking American in the coalition operation, warned in an email message on Monday. “The regime possesses the capability to roll them back very quickly. Coalition air power is the major reason that has not happened.”

In case it wasn't already clear, the Western coalition is now providing close air support to one side in a civil war. I'm OK with that — though I'd be more OK if I knew more about the rebels we were supporting — but this is a very far cry from merely enforcing a no-fly zone. We're fighting a war in Libya, and anyone who tries to pretend otherwise is just trying to distract you from the truth.

Chart of the Day: Finance is Back!

Via Matt Yglesias, Kathleen Madigan reports that finance industry profits have recovered from their late unpleasantness and now account for over 30% of all corporate profits once again. Life is grand if you're a plutocrat, isn't it?

Have DC Schools Really Improved?

The DC school system under Michelle Rhee famously produced substantial gains on standardized test scores. But USA Today reports that one of the district's star performers, the Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus, may have cheated its way to success:

A USA TODAY investigation, based on documents and data secured under D.C.'s Freedom of Information Act, found that for the past three school years most of Noyes' classrooms had extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests. The consistent pattern was that wrong answers were erased and changed to right ones.

....On the 2009 reading test, for example, seventh-graders in one Noyes classroom averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures per student on answer sheets; the average for seventh-graders in all D.C. schools on that test was less than 1. The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance, according to statisticians consulted by USA TODAY.

....At Noyes, USA TODAY found several grades with wide swings in their proficiency rates from one year to the next. In 2008, 84% of fourth-grade math students were listed as proficient or advanced, up from 22% for the previous fourth-grade class.

Wow. Going from 22% to 84% in one year is suspiciously impressive. And it's not just Noyes:

In 2008, the office of the State Superintendent of Education recommended that the scores of many schools be investigated because of unusually high gains, but top D.C. public school officials balked and the recommendation was dropped.

After the 2009 tests, the school district hired an outside investigator to look at eight D.C. public schools — one of them was Noyes, USA TODAY learned — and to interview some teachers.

....School district officials would not release the reports Caveon compiled. Caveon has been hired again to investigate the results of 2010 tests in which 41 DCPS schools, including Noyes, had at least one classroom flagged for high erasure rates. USA TODAY could not determine which schools are being scrutinized

It's impossible to prove malfeasance based just on erasure rates. As the story notes, there are sometimes legitimate reasons for lots of erasures.1 But the pattern here sure seems to follow a pattern we've seen in other school districts that have reported startling test gains and later had to recant them for one reason or another. For more, read the whole piece, which is long but worth plowing through.

1For example, kids might be trained to carefully review their answers after they've finished the test. The problem here is that conventional wisdom in the ed community recommends that you never change an answer on a multiple choice test unless you're absolutely sure you got it wrong. More often than not, your first answer is the right one. So even with a careful review, it would be very unusual to see a high number of wrong-to-right erasures.

Friday Cat Blogging - 25 March 2011

On the left, we have a cat and his shadow. On the right, we have a cat and her garden. Who do you think has the better deal?