Kevin Drum

Fiji Water's Treats for Tweets

| Fri Sep. 18, 2009 5:00 AM EDT

It's Laura. Happy Friday! To celebrate, Fiji Water would like to give you a beach towel. Or some free junta-fueling water. Anything, really, if you'll just promise to tweet nicely about them—something people aren't doing after reading the MoJo Fiji Water investigation. Plus: 3 MoJo stories today you might like:

1) Why is GOP pit bull Darrell Issa modeling himself after the Dems' fiercest watchdog, Henry Waxman?

2) What happens when Enron-schooled ex-lobbyists become top energy regulators?

3) Can the drug ecstasy help post-traumatic stress patients confront their fears?

Laura McClure hosts weekly podcasts and is a writer and editor for Mother Jones. Read her recent investigative feature on lifehacking gurus here.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

"Both Parties"

| Fri Sep. 18, 2009 2:14 AM EDT

Here's the fascinating lead in today's Washington Post story about healthcare reform:

Lawmakers in both parties raised concerns Thursday that the health-care reform bill offered by Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus a day earlier would impose too high a cost on middle-class Americans and said they will seek to change the legislation to ease that potential burden.

Italics mine.  Technically, this is true: apparently Olympia Snowe would like to increase subsidies to middle-income families above the level in Baucus's draft bill.  So that's one.  But the only other Republican even mentioned in this story is Chuck Grassley, who is suggesting "government assistance to insurance companies" to help them lower premium costs.

That's evidently the basis of the claim that "both parties" are concerned about the cost of healthcare insurance to middle class workers.  One Republican senator.  And a second who thinks insurance companies could use a little extra help.  Somebody shoot me now.

Truthers, Birthers, Tenthers

| Fri Sep. 18, 2009 1:47 AM EDT

Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano, after citing a case in which the Supreme Court struck down a law that prohibited possession of guns in school zones, has this to say:

Applying these principles to President Barack Obama's health-care proposal, it's clear that his plan is unconstitutional at its core. The practice of medicine consists of the delivery of intimate services to the human body. In almost all instances, the delivery of medical services occurs in one place and does not move across interstate lines. One goes to a physician not to engage in commercial activity, as the Framers of the Constitution understood, but to improve one's health. And the practice of medicine, much like public school safety, has been regulated by states for the past century.

Orin Kerr, not exactly a screaming lefty, is fascinated by the sheer volume of obvious inanity in just this one paragraph.  "How many errors, misstatements, and plainly weak claims can you count?" he asks?

Sadly, I'm not a lawyer, so I can't really play.  But let's rewrite this a bit:

Applying these principles to President Johnson's civil rights proposal, it's clear that his plan is unconstitutional at its core. Running a restaurant consists of the delivery of vital nutrients to the human body. In almost all instances, the delivery of food occurs in one place and does not move across interstate lines. One goes to a restaurant not to engage in commercial activity, as the Framers of the Constitution understood, but to eat. And the licensing of eating establishments, much like public school safety, has been regulated by states for the past century.

To the dismay of people like George Wallace and Robert Welch, that didn't fly back in 1965 and it won't fly today.  Taking money for the delivery of services, intimate or not, is plainly commerce.  (In the case of medical services, about $2 trillion worth of commerce every year.)  Virtually everything in a doctor's office has crossed state lines to get there.  Thousands of insurance companies, medical groups, hospital chains, and medical suppliers are nationwide corporations.  The federal government has regulated the sale and distribution of pharmaceuticals for over 70 years.  Doctors are routinely employed by out-of-state corporations.  If the medical industry isn't interstate commerce, then nothing is.

Napolitano's reasoning wouldn't pass muster in a first-year con law class.  Like all the other "tenthers" trying to claim that Congress has no constitutional authority to regulate healthcare, he may really, really wish that his arguments were true.  But they aren't.  The guy's a clown.

Fill the Seat!

| Fri Sep. 18, 2009 12:32 AM EDT

Back in 2004, when Mitt Romney was governor of Massachusetts and John Kerry looked like he had a chance of winning the presidency, the Democratic state legislature passed a bill to prevent Romney from appointing a replacement.  They didn't want him naming a Republican to take over Kerry's seat, after all.  So the new rules called for empty Senate seats to be filled by a special election instead.

But now it's 2009, a Democrat is governor, and the legislature is thinking they should change the rules back and allow the governor to name a quick replacement for Ted Kennedy. Apparently they're halfway there:

After hours of testy debate, the Massachusetts House of Representatives on Thursday approved legislation allowing Gov. Deval Patrick to appoint an interim successor to Senator Edward M. Kennedy.

The House voted 95 to 58; the measure now goes to the State Senate, which could take up the proposal on Friday....Therese Murray, a Democrat and president of the State Senate, has remained publicly noncommittal on the proposal despite calls from the Obama administration and from Victoria Reggie Kennedy, Mr. Kennedy’s widow. The Senate, which like the House is overwhelmingly Democratic, is said to be split on the issue.

Well, look, I sympathize with Sen. Murray and the mixed feelings of her fellow Dems.  This is obviously Calvinball, after all.  But seriously, ask yourselves this: do you think the Texas legislature would hesitate even a few hours to do the same thing in reverse?  Or any other Republican state legislature?

I didn't think so.  Now go change the law and let Deval Patrick fill that Senate seat.  Don't be chumps.

Quote of the Day

| Thu Sep. 17, 2009 4:48 PM EDT

From Marion Maneker's profile in Slate of finance blogger Felix Salmon:

The first time I met Salmon late last year, he appeared at lunch on a second-hand bicycle having pedaled over from the East Village wearing a puffy powder-blue jacket made from wispy fibers that gave him the air of a costumed-animal character at a theme park.

Ouch.  I sure hope Maneker never decides to write a profile of me.

Watching the Henhouse

| Thu Sep. 17, 2009 2:18 PM EDT

By law, two of the five commissioners of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission can't be from the president's party.  To fill those two slots, the president normally defers to senior leaders of the opposition party.  In the senate that would be Mitch McConnell, and for one of the two GOP positions McConnell has recommended one of his own former staffers: Scott O'Malia, the Republican clerk of the Senate Energy and Water Development subcommittee.

But before he worked for the Senate, O'Malia was a lobbyist.  And not just any lobbyist: back in the early 2000s he worked for Mirant, a company engaged in Enron-like misconduct that pushed relentlessly for deregulation of energy trading. Now, though, O'Malia says the Enron debacle opened his eyes to the problems caused by exactly the kind of deregulation his former employer championed.

Maybe so.  But surely the Republican Party can find someone who's been a little more dedicated to regulation all along?  David Corn and Daniel Schulman have the full story here.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Metrics for Afghanistan

| Thu Sep. 17, 2009 1:54 PM EDT

Well, we finally have our metrics for winning the war Afghanistan.  All 46 of them.  Or, more accurately, 46+, since there an undefined number of classified metrics as well.  Call it 50 in round numbers.

Some of them are ridiculously vague.  For example, "Status of relations between Afghanistan and its other neighbors," whatever that means.  Some are at least theoretically measurable: "Volume and value of narcotics."  Some have already been missed: "Afghan Government's... ability to hold credible elections in 2009 and 2010."  Some are darkly humorous: "Development of an enduring, strategic partnership between the U.S. and Pakistan."

I don't know what to think about this.  I just don't know.  It's not like I'm against the idea of setting out specific goals and trying to measure how well we're achieving them.  On the other hand, if you wanted to resurrect the ghost of Robert McNamara and convince everyone that Afghanistan is Vietnam 2.0, you could hardly do a better job than this list.  I don't doubt for a second that McNamara had something exactly like it in 1965 when he was meeting with LBJ and the Joint Chiefs in the Oval Office.

Still, if I had to pick out the one thing that bothers me most about this plan, it's how implicitly utopian it is.  We're not just trying to kill some terrorists here, we're apparently trying to turn both Pakistan and Afghanistan into thriving, peaceful, incorruptible, Westernized democracies.  But that's a hundred-year project, and it's not something we've ever demonstrated much skill at.  So what, exactly, makes us think we're going to be good at it this time around?

Tough Times

| Thu Sep. 17, 2009 1:10 PM EDT

In a widely read column on Tuesday, David Leonhardt said that although unemployment is high, there's good news for those who still have jobs.  Instead of falling, as they normally would during a recession, real wages have risen at a steady clip this year.  Now, there's no question this was true in the second half of 2008, when nominal wages rose modestly but plummeting prices (especially energy prices) meant that in real terms wages skyrocketed.  Unfortunately, Dean Baker says those days are long gone:

The story then reversed in 2009. Inflation has advanced at close to a 3.5 percent annual rate thus far this year. Nominal wage growth has fallen sharply....For 2009, real wages have unambiguously been falling and are likely to continue to fall as modest increases in commodity prices are not offset by nominal wage growth.

So how does Leonhardt get the story so wrong? Most importantly he uses year over year data. This includes the large fall in prices at the end of last year, which still outweighs the impact of falling real wages through 2009. Using year over year data, we can say that real wages have risen in the last year. We will not be able to say that four months from now.

Italics mine.  Real wages have gone up if you compare August to August, which includes the big deflation in the Fall of last year.  But that's a one-off.  If you look at January to August instead, inflation is up, wage growth is anemic, and real wage growth is negative.  That's the path we're currently on, not one of rising incomes.

Chart of the Day

| Thu Sep. 17, 2009 12:28 PM EDT

Miller-McCune magazine points out today that we'll soon have new CAFE fuel standards.  EPA and the Department of Transportation announced their proposed new rules on Tuesday, and in an effort to find something interesting to say about them I present you with this chart.

Normally, CAFE is a DOT program.  But the Supreme Court recently ruled that EPA was required to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, so now it's a two-agency operation.  EPA's part isn't to directly regulate fuel economy, it's to regulate CO2 — though this largely amounts to the same thing.  Basically, it works like this: you multiply a car's track width by its wheelbase to come up with its "footprint" in square feet.  Then you go to this chart, which tells you how much CO2 it's allowed to emit.  A subcompact, for example, will be allowed to emit no more than 204 grams of CO2 per mile in 2016.  (That's what the technical appendix says, anyway.  The chart seems to be offset slightly high along its entire length.)

The Ninth Circuit Court has had problems with the whole "footprint" idea in the past, but EPA and DOT apparently hope that these new regs will pass judicial muster.  They also hope that car companies won't just build bigger cars, thus doing an end run around the standards.  In fact, here's what they hope the new rules will accomplish:

  • Increase fuel economy by approximately five percent every year
  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 950 million metric tons
  • Save the average car buyer more than $3000 in fuel costs
  • Conserve 1.8 billion barrels of oil

If the fooprint approach works the way it's supposed to, we'll reach a fleet average of 35 mpg by 2016 instead of 2020.  Time will tell.

Downsizing Missile Defense

| Thu Sep. 17, 2009 12:37 AM EDT

Interesting news on the missile defense front:

The White House will shelve Bush administration plans to build a missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, according to people familiar with the matter, a move likely to cheer Moscow and roil the security debate in Europe.

....The Obama administration's assessment concludes that U.S. allies in Europe, including members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, face a more immediate threat from Iran's short- and medium-range missiles and will order a shift towards the development of regional missile defenses for the Continent, according to people familiar with the matter. Such systems would be far less controversial.

Will this buy us some goodwill from Russia?  Will it send the Bill Kristol wing of the conservative movement into Munich/striped pants/appeasement hysterics?  I'd say maybe to the first but definitely yes to the second, which all by itself probably makes it worth doing.