Kevin Drum

What's the Deal With Nukes?

| Fri Nov. 6, 2009 2:47 PM EST

I've long wondered just why conservatives are so obsessed with nuclear power.  If nukes had the potential to do away with our climate change problem entirely, then I could see it.  Hooray, no new regulations!  But even cheerleaders for nuclear power don't suggest that it could produce more than a small fraction of our electricity in the next 20 or 30 years.  So why has it become such a hobbyhorse?

Brad Plumer investigates today and basically says he's not sure either.  But it seems to boil down to yet another culture war issue: since hippy lefty types are against 'em, all right-thinking patriots are apparently for 'em.  Dreary stuff.  But it is what it is, and if it might serve as the basis for a bipartisan compromise on a climate change bill, maybe it's worth playing along.  But will it?  Here's Brad with the bottom line:

There's little point in acceding to the GOP's nuclear demands without getting anything in return. [Lamar] Alexander, for one, recently admitted that, even though he's taking part in talks over new nuclear provisions, nothing will persuade him to support a cap on carbon — which is the crux of any climate bill. "That's something to watch out for," grumbles one observer. "Is [the Nuclear Energy Institute] actually going to work to bring new votes to the table?" Perhaps it's finally time to see just how much this love affair is worth.

I have a guess about that, but I'll keep quiet about it for now.  There's no need for puerile cynicism while more optimistic negotiators are still taking a crack at getting a nonnegative answer, after all.  There'll be plenty of time for that later.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Bring Back the WPA?

| Fri Nov. 6, 2009 2:11 PM EST

Channeling Paul Krugman, Matt Yglesias wonders why we don't fight unemployment by essentially bringing back the WPA:

Instead of saying to people whose UI benefits are about to expire “just kidding, here’s an extension” we could say “you’ll keep getting checks but you need to show up at such-and-such a place and pick up trash in parks.” This would be somewhat more expensive than a UI extension — you’d need to pay for garbage bags and supervisors — but it would have less of a disemployment effect than UI extensions and we’d also get cleaner parks in the bargain. It’s a little bit perverse to be paying people to do nothing when there’s work that could use doing.

I think this is more difficult than it sounds.  Matt admits later that public sector unions would — with good reason — oppose the idea of bringing in unemployed workers to do their jobs, but the problems go way beyond that.  The WPA didn't just send people to parks to pick up trash.  It was a huge bureacracy.  It was a program set up to last for years.  After all, there was a Depression on.

But that's not what we have today.  Nobody thinks the current recession will last for five years, and by the time a government bureacracy was up and running to provide jobs it probably wouldn't be needed anymore.  Like it or not, hiring people takes longer than it used to, building roads and post offices requires years of design and preparation, and there just isn't that much easy makework available.  It's a different era.

I might be missing something obvious here, but unemployment insurance can be extended instantly (barring Republican game playing, of course) and the money gets out to workers and then into the economy almost instantly too.  Conversely, creating useful jobs of some kind would take, I imagine, an absolute minimum of six months, and probably more like a year or more.  By then they wouldn't be needed.

It really does seem more efficient to write checks to the private sector, as well as to state and local governments, and let them hire people.  The federal government is good at writing checks!  But, at least in the 21st century, not so good at creating nationwide jobs programs, I suspect.

Quote of the Day

| Fri Nov. 6, 2009 1:00 PM EST

From Securities and Exchange Commission enforcement chief Robert Khuzami, describing the way that Galleon Group's Zvi Goffer tried to keep his insider trading a secret:

If you find yourself chewing the memory card in your cellphone to destroy any record of your misconduct, something has gone terribly wrong with your character.

Roger that.  As an added bonus, the linked article also interviews "an eavesdropping-detection specialist" who says he's turned down three separate firms recently who were all desperate to know if the government was bugging them.  Hooray for Wall Street!

Don't Get Sick in Texas

| Fri Nov. 6, 2009 12:33 PM EST

The governor of Texas has an op-ed in the Washington Post today explaining why his state is a great model for healthcare reform?  Seriously?  That's like "letting Dick Fuld testify on the adequacy of self-regulation on Wall Street," says Ezra Klein.  I think he's being too kind.  Holy cow.

Letter From Fort Hood

| Fri Nov. 6, 2009 12:19 PM EST

A former reader emails today to pass along a firsthand account of the shooting at Fort Hood on Thursday. It's unedited except for paragraph breaks:

I was walking into the medical SRP building when he started firing (he never made it to the main SRP building....the media accounts are understandably pretty off right now).  He was calmly and methodically shooting everyone.  Like every non-deployed military post, no one was armed.  For the first time in my life I really wish I had a weapon.  I don't know how to explain what it feels like to have someone shoot at you while you're unarmed.  He missed me but didn't miss a lot of others.  Just pure random luck.  It's a very compressed area, thus the numbers.

I saw a lot of heroism.  So many more would have died if this wasn't an Army post.  We're almost all CLS trained and it made a huge difference. Cause the EMTs didn't get there for almost an hour (they thought there was a second shooter).  I just can't believe one of our own shot us.  When I saw his ID card I couldn't believe it.  After he shot the female police officer he was fumbling his reload and I saw the other police officer around the corner and yelled at him to come shoot the shooter.  He did.   Then I used my belt as a tourniquet on the female officer.

I hate to tell you this but in the course of the day it became clear that it was another Akbar incident.1  (Once they convinced them the blood drenching my clothes wasn't mine I spent the day being interviewed by the alphabet.) Akbar again.  God help us.  He was very planned.  I counted three full mags around him (I secured his weapon for a while).  Found out later that his car was filled with more ammo.

This was premeditated.  This wasn't VBC again.  That guy snapped, not this one.  He was so damn calm when he was shooting.  Methodical.  And he was moving tactically.  The Army really is diverse and we really do love all our own.  We signed up to be shot at but not at home.  Not unarmed.  No one should ever see what the inside of that medical SRP building looked like.  I suppose that's what VA Tech looked like.  Except they didn't have soldiers coming from everywhere to tourniquet and compress and talk to the wounded while rounds are still coming out.

No one touched him...the shooter that is...other than to treat him.  Though I told the medic (and I'm not proud of this) that was giving him plasma that there better not be anyone else who needed it because he should be the last one to be treated.  But I had just finished holding a soldier who was critical (I counted three entry wounds) and talking to him about his children....  If the shooter had a grievance he should have taken it out on those responsible; he wasn't shooting people he knew (media reports to the contrary).  He was just shooting anybody who happened to be present for SRP medical processing, mainly lower enlisted.

But please, no one use this politically!   The Army is not "broken", PTSD doesn't turn people into killers, most Muslims aren't evil, and whether we should stay or go in Afghanistan has nothing to do with this.  I'm babbling...sorry.

1Hasan Akbar was an Army sergeant who killed two soldiers and wounded 14 others in a grenade attack in Kuwait in 2003.  He's currently under a sentence of death.

There have been several media reports that the Fort Hood shooter yelled "Allahu Akbar!" during his rampage, but my correspondent says, "He was silent in my presence."

Taking Governance Seriously

| Fri Nov. 6, 2009 2:32 AM EST

Congress passed something today.  Hooray!

Congress gave final approval Thursday for an additional $24 billion to help the jobless and support the housing market as climbing unemployment poses a growing liability for elected officials.

The bill, passed overwhelmingly by the House and headed to President Obama for his signature Friday, extends unemployment nsurance benefits that were due to expire and renews an $8,000 tax credit for first-time home buyers, while also expanding it to cover many other home purchases.

And Democrats only had to break three separate filibusters in the Senate to get this passed!  The first filibuster was broken by a vote of 87-13, the second by a vote of 85-2, and the third by a vote of 97-1.  The fourth and final vote, the one to actually pass the bill, was 98-0.  Elapsed time: five weeks for a bill that everyone ended up voting for.

Why?  Because even though Republicans were allowed to tack on a tax cut to the bill as the price of getting it passed, they decided to filibuster anyway unless they were also allowed to include an anti-ACORN amendment.  Seriously.  A bit of ACORN blustering to satisfy the Palin-Beck crowd is the reason they held up a bill designed to help people who are out of work in the deepest recession since World War II.  Details here and here.  That's called taking governing seriously, my friends.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Ft. Hood Massacre

| Thu Nov. 5, 2009 6:55 PM EST

Mass murder at Ft. Hood:

Twelve people have been killed and 31 wounded in a shooting spree at a Texas military base by what officials believe was possibly carried out by an Army officer. The suspected gunman was identified by ABC News as Major Malik Nadal Hasan.

The shooter was killed and two other suspects, who are also soldiers, have been apprehended, Lt. Gen. Robert W. Cone said.

Oh Lord.  This is very, very bad.  And it's going to get worse.

State Secrets

| Thu Nov. 5, 2009 6:30 PM EST

Here's an interesting little story.  Way back in 1993 a couple of CIA agents wiretapped a DEA agent in Burma named Richard Horn, and when Horn found out he sued both the agents and the CIA for violating his civil rights.  The case muddled along for years, and a couple of days ago the government agreed to a settlement.

So far, so boring.  But why, after 15 years, did the government finally cave?  Turns out it's because they were lying to the judge and got caught:

Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth suggested that the past and present CIA men may have perpetrated a "fraud on the court" through inaccurate declarations....Until Lamberth's angrily worded July decision, government attorneys had successfully argued that the lawsuit, first filed in August 1994, must be sealed to protect state secrets.

....Tellingly, Lamberth further hinted in September that the government could be on a losing course if the case went to trial, as he suggested that "the only secret the government might have left to preserve is the fact they did what Horn alleges."

The CIA had invoked the state secrets privilege, insisting that the case against one of its agents be dropped because he was working covertly and his identity couldn't be revealed.  And they kept insisting that even after his cover had been lifted.  When Lamberth found out, he was not a happy judge.

More here.  This is yet another data point that restates the obvious: just because the government invokes the state secrets privilege doesn't mean there really are state secrets involved.  Congress and the courts, who know this perfectly well, would be wise to demand a wee bit more judicial oversight in these cases instead of allowing the executive absolute discretion.  Pat Leahy's State Secrets Protection Act would be a good place to start.

Sanctioning Iran

| Thu Nov. 5, 2009 3:12 PM EST

Dave Schuler thinks it's time to crack down on Iran:

We should implement consequences for Iran as stern as we can make them, non-violent in nature but punitive in quality. We should muster all of the permanent members of the Security Council to participate in these measures but be prepared to proceed without them. A peaceful, prosperous, and just Iran is in Russian and Chinese interests as it is in ours and, if they elect to support tyranny in Iran, Russia and China should be made aware that this latest tyranny in Iran will eventually end and the Iranian people will know who supported the tyrants and who opposed them.

Setting aside the question of whether this is wise or not, I don't quite get what the sanctions crowd is after.  We have no diplomatic relations with Iran.  Trade is embargoed and imports are prohibited.  (Except for Persian rugs!)  We sanction foreign companies who do business with Iran.  Investment in Iran is prohibited.  The Treasury Departments forbids banks from processing even indirect financial transactions with Iran.  There's a little more we could do, but not much.

As for Russia and China, sure, the current U.S. sanctions would have a lot more bite if the rest of the world joined in.  But what leverage do we have to make that happen?  Hell, even Europe isn't on board with our sanctions regime, let alone China and Russia.  There's just not a lot we can do on that front.

Is there anything more of any real consequence that the U.S. could do unilaterally?  Is there anything serious the U.S. could do to get the rest of the world to support us?  I don't really see it.  What am I missing here? 

Winners and Losers

| Thu Nov. 5, 2009 1:43 PM EST

Felix Salmon is back from vacation and he's tanned, rested, and ready.  Today he notes that Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo made big money on interest rate swaps last quarter and asks:

And there’s another question, too: if the likes of Wells Fargo and Goldman Sachs are making billions on these swaps, who’s on the other side of the trade? Who lost billions of dollars by swapping floating into fixed? Call it the Summers trade, after Larry’s disastrous foray into the rates market when he was at Harvard. It didn’t work then, and it clearly isn’t working now, either.

That's a good question.  In fact, I've long wondered about this more broadly: lots of derivatives bets are zero sum deals where winners are always matched up with losers.  So if the financial sector is making boatloads of money betting on derivatives,1 which sectors of the economy are the losers?

To be honest, my main interest in this is polemical.  It's not that I really care all that much about precisely who the winners are losers are, but I do think that public wrath against Wall Street might be very usefully stoked by learning who's paying off on all these bets.  In the case of about $13 billion in CDS winnings from Goldman Sachs, for example, the loser was AIG — and then the taxpayers graciously covered that bet when AIG went bust.  But it's not just banks and hedge funds on the other side of these bets, is it?  It's also pension funds, corporations, and state and local governments.  It would be illuminating, I think, if someone could track the flow of wins and losses in a way that made them a little more concrete for people.  Especially the losses.

1Aside from the late unpleasantness, of course.  But you know what I mean.