Kevin Drum

Obama and Climate Change

| Fri Jul. 23, 2010 10:18 AM EDT

Tim Dickinson has a long piece in Rolling Stone that largely blames the Obama administration for the collapse of climate legislation. The basic story is that the House passed a bill last year, but Obama decided to put his energy into healthcare reform instead, lost his 60-vote Senate majority a few months later, and then screwed the pooch by playing an insider game and blowing it:

Once again, however, the administration applied the same backroom approach it took to health care reform. Instead of waging a public debate to pit the American people against the corporate polluters, Obama gave the polluters a seat at the negotiating table....At first, climate advocates were resigned to the backroom deals, figuring they were necessary to achieve a greater good. "It looked like the only way to pass a bill," says a Senate staffer familiar with the negotiations, "was to make all of these horrendous compromises." But then the strategy backfired. "What that bill did was essentially write nuclear and coal into U.S. energy production for the next 10 to 20 years, instead of phasing them out," says Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth. "And it didn't pick up any Republicans whatsoever."

....The disaster in the Gulf should have been a critical turning point for global warming....But the Obama administration let the opportunity slip away. On June 15th, the president — a communicator whom even top Republican operatives rank above Reagan — sat at his desk to deliver his first address to the nation from the Oval Office. It was a terrible, teachable moment, one in which he could have connected the dots between the oil spewing into the Gulf and the planet-killing CO2 we spew every day into the atmosphere. But Obama never even mentioned the words "carbon" or "emissions" or "greenhouse" — not even the word "pollution."

In a technical sense, I just don't buy this. I thought Obama's Gulf speech was lousy too, but there's no way it was ever going to be some kind of "turning point" in the fight for climate legislation. This has been a pure vote whipping exercise from the start, and the votes were never there. Aside from common sense, there are two big pieces of evidence for this. First, the House climate bill, even after massive compromises, passed by only 219-212. That is, it won by one vote in a chamber where Democrats hold a 35-vote majority. Second, when Lisa Murkowski's bill to prohibit the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases came before the Senate, the vote against it was only 53-47. As Dickinson notes, six Democrats voted for it: Evan Bayh, Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln, Mark Pryor, Ben Nelson, and Jay Rockefeller.

Aside from Lindsey Graham, there were never going to be any Republican votes for a climate bill. If we in the liberal community still haven't figured that out, we have rocks in our skulls. And it's almost certain that three or four of those six Democrats were simply unpersuadable too. Even a watered-down climate bill never had more than about 55 votes in the Senate, and even that's probably optimistic.

Still, Dickinson is right that Obama should have done more. Even if the bill lost anyway, he should have done more. It's his job, after all, to rally public opinion. But his unwillingness to do this is a mistake that goes back more than two years, not just a few months. Here's me back in 2008:

Make no mistake. Barack Obama's cap-and-trade plan to reduce carbon emissions may be technically one of the best we've ever seen, but it will raise energy prices. That's the whole point. So once the public understands that there's more to Obama's plan than green-collar jobs and serried ranks of windmills on the Great Plains, they're going to have second thoughts. And those congressional majorities, who face election in another couple of years, are going to have second thoughts too.

The right way to address this won't be found in any of Obama's white papers. There's a story there, if you dig deep enough, but it's long and complicated and relies on things like increased efficiency, consumer rebates, and R&D funding that pays off in another decade or so. In the short term someone is going to have to tell the public that, yes, there's some sacrifice required here, but it's worth it. Someone needs to come up with a garden-hose analogy to convince a financially stressed public that doing something for the common good is worth a small price.

That someone, of course, is Barack Obama, but it's not clear yet if he gets this. His speeches soar, but they rarely seem designed to move the nation in a specific direction. Is he pushing the public to support cap and trade even though it might cost them a few dollars? Or merely to vote for "change"? It's sometimes hard to tell.

The bully pulpit may be overrated, but even if it's not, it's a long game. FDR built up support for American intervention in Europe over years and years, and even at that it took the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor to finally rally the country behind him. Obama's in the same situation. His problem isn't that he worked an inside game on Capitol Hill or gave a weak speech after the Gulf spill, the problem is that he's barely talked about climate change for years. Even if he had, the spark that it takes to get something done might still not have come. But without it, it will never come.

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Lame Duck Hysteria

| Fri Jul. 23, 2010 12:48 AM EDT

Charles Krauthammer writes today about the latest fever dream making the rounds among conservatives: the possibility that even after taking a drubbing in the midterm elections, Democrats will use their existing majority for one last hurrah in a lame duck session during December:

Assuming the elections go as currently projected, Obama's follow-on reforms are dead. Except for the fact that a lame-duck session, freezing in place the lopsided Democratic majorities of November 2008, would be populated by dozens of Democratic members who had lost reelection (in addition to those retiring). They could then vote for anything — including measures they today shun as the midterms approach and their seats are threatened — because they would have nothing to lose. They would be unemployed. And playing along with Obama might even brighten the prospects for, say, an ambassadorship to a sunny Caribbean isle.

....Card check, which effectively abolishes the secret ballot in the workplace, is the fondest wish of a union movement to which Obama is highly beholden. Major tax hikes, possibly including a value-added tax, will undoubtedly be included in the recommendations of the president's debt commission, which conveniently reports by Dec. 1. And carbon taxes would be the newest version of the cap-and-trade legislation that has repeatedly failed to pass the current Congress — but enough dead men walking in a lame-duck session might switch and vote to put it over the top.

I'm just stonkered here. Don't get me wrong: I'd be cheering from the sidelines if I thought Democrats could do any of this stuff. But the last time I looked, legislation still has to be passed by both the House and the Senate. And the Senate has only 59 Democrats, many of whom aren't reliable votes in any kind of session, lame duck or otherwise. So as long as Republicans stick together — and they will — and continue to filibuster everything — and they will — nothing of any consequence will pass.

This could be different if Democrats had passed a budget resolution this year and included reconciliation instructions in it. In theory, they'd then be able to pass spending-related measures with only 51 votes. But they didn't do that, so they can't. They need 60. And they don't have it.

So here's my question: who's crazy here? All the conservatives yammering on about this? Or me? Am I missing something here? Are last year's reconciliation instructions still valid until the end of the congressional session? Help me out, Stan Collender. What's going on?

Week in Review, Boring Stuff Edition

| Thu Jul. 22, 2010 7:27 PM EDT

Although the political world has been consumed with Shirley Sherrod, JournoList, the Ground Zero mosque, and the New Black Panthers, it turns out a few other things happened this week too:

Just thought I'd mention it in case anyone is still paying attention.

Chart of the Day #2: Small Business Fears

| Thu Jul. 22, 2010 2:21 PM EDT

Via Ezra Klein here's a survey of small businesses that's been conducted by the National Federation of Independent Businesses for the past few decades. The question is: What's your single most important problem? (It's broken up into two charts so you can see all the trends clearly.) In the early 90s it's taxes. In the mid-90s it's regulation. In the aughts it's insurance. And today? It's poor sales.

It's true that fear of the regulatory environment has gone up slightly over the past year, but the problem driving lack of hiring and investment is still crystal clear: lack of demand. If people were buying more stuff, businesses would be expanding.

This is just one data point, but it's a telling one. Even with the massive propaganda campaign that's been underway ever since Obama took office, small businesses still mostly don't seem very concerned about the changing regulatory environment. Mainly they're concerned about the economy sucking. If we want them to start expanding and hiring, that's what needs to be tackled.

Quote of the Day: Spending Cuts and Elections

| Thu Jul. 22, 2010 1:50 PM EDT

From Rep. Paul Ryan (R–Wisc.), on why Republicans are so reluctant to endorse the spending cuts in his Roadmap for America:

They're talking to their pollsters and their pollsters are saying, "Stay away from this, we're going to win an election."

Points for honesty. But what really makes this reticence remarkable is that even Ryan doesn't really propose much in the way of spending cuts in his roadmap. He continues to get lots of praise for being one of the few conservatives to put his money where his mouth is, but the truth is that his plan mostly just sets spending caps. With some minor exceptions, it doesn't go the critical next step and propose the actual cuts that would allow us to meet his caps.

But most Republicans won't even endorse that. They figure that might endanger their election chances. I imagine they figure right.

Fixing California

| Thu Jul. 22, 2010 1:28 PM EDT

Conor Friedersdorf asks a tough one:

I’ve got a question for Kevin Drum. You and I presumably agree that California Republicans and Democrats are both exceptionally awful, so much so that it’s hard to even think about this state’s politics without despairing. Indeed, I’ll bet that despite our differences in political philosophy, we could hammer out some mutually agreed upon changes that would result in a 600 percent improvement in public policy.

But I also bet we’ll wind up voting differently come November. The last time Democrats controlled the statehouse and the governor’s mansion, Gray Davis and the legislature incurred some egregiously unsustainable costs related to state employees, whose unions are such a powerful interest group here. I’ll be the first to acknowledge the utter dysfunction of California Republicans, our current governor very much included, but I’m terrified to death that the end of divided government is going to maximize the chance that more catastrophic craziness passes into law. And I find it very hard to believe that unified government under Jerry Brown and the current legislature is going to bring about any significant reforms.

Am I wrong?

Wrong? The word hardly has any meaning in this context. A choice between imperious zillionaire Republican Meg Whitman and Democratic retread Jerry Brown is like being asked to choose between dog food and cat food for dinner tonight. Since I'm a cat person, I guess I'd choose cat food because I get to watch my cats lap it up adoringly every night. But that's not much of a reason, is it?

I have no idea what to do. California is broken and there's no political will to fix it. And by "political will," I don't mean that politicians are unwilling to fix it (though they are). I mean that the people of California are unwilling to fix it. Blaming things on our politicians feels good, but we the people are every bit as fractured.

And look: it's not just Sacramento. I live in Orange County, ground zero for conservatism in the Golden State. In 2001, right after 9/11, the county board of supervisors unanimously voted to increase pensions for public safety workers by over 50% in a single stroke. Sure, the authorization for the increase was contained in a bill passed by the legislature and signed by Gray Davis. But guess what? Everyone bellied up to the bar, including the supposed fiscal hawks of The OC.

So would things be any better if the former CEO of eBay became our governor? It's hard to see how. Whitman apparently doesn't have the leadership chops to even risk talking to the press, let alone the leadership chops to bring some semblance of order to a legislature that's (a) hopelessly divided and (b) governed by insane rules that practically guarantee deadlock. Would Jerry Brown do any better? I doubt it. But on non-budget issues at least he's more likely to be on my side of things. So there's that.

Bottom line: I don't know what to do. If Arnold is to be believed, our shiny new redistricting and open primary laws will change things starting in 2012. I can't wait.

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Help Me Understand the Right. Really.

| Thu Jul. 22, 2010 12:33 PM EDT

The fantastic outpouring of conservative resentment following the Shirley Sherrod case (miscellaneous example, one of many, here) is remarkable. In one sense, it's nothing new. We all know that conservatives have felt for a long time that an omnipresent liberal media is stacked against them; that race hustlers have made an industry out of accusing them of bigotry; that coastal elites sneer at them; that Hollywood forces its liberal social agenda on them; that their kids are indoctrinated every day with liberal shibboleths by politically correct schoolteachers and university professors; that global warming is a hoax designed to give liberal technocrats control over the economy; that multicultural cabals hate heartland Christians; and that, just in general, liberals operate in a relentlessly bullying, thuggish manner and conservatives just sit there and take it.

On an intellectual level, I can sort of get this. If I were a conservative Christian I'd be unhappy with the increasing secularization of society and the 60s-era Supreme Court decisions that largely removed religion from the public square. If I were a white guy stuck in a sucky job and heard stories of blacks being given preference in promotions and school placements, I'd be pissed. If I were socially traditional and my school district insisted on a curriculum that endorsed tolerance of gay lifestyles, I'd be horrified. If I only heard the Fox News version of Climategate, it would seem like truly terrifying proof of a massive global conspiracy and fraud.

But on an emotional level, it just seems nuts. So I wish that I could figure out a way to feel it. To understand it. I wish I could somehow do the "Black Like Me" thing. (Explanation here if you're too young to remember this.) But how? What would it take to somehow enter this world and actually try to feel what so many conservatives apparently feel? Since I almost totally lack empathy I probably couldn't do it in any case, but could anyone? What would it take to truly understand what's going on here? Because, if anything, it seems to be getting even more virulent and I find myself increasingly unable to understand it.

I don't know why I'm writing this. I'm just feeling increasingly estranged from the political world these days, as if it's some kind of nightmare that's taken over our national psyche and refuses to let go — and I'm forced to participate and can't wake up no matter how hard I try.

I dunno. I'm burbling. Just getting something off my chest that I can't really explain. Sorry. Maybe I just need a vacation. Anyone know of any nice spots?

Bell Update

| Thu Jul. 22, 2010 10:51 AM EDT

I know you want to keep up with the latest news from the fabulous city of Bell, so here it is: 

[City manager Robert] Rizzo, whose forced-resignation could come as early as Thursday, would be entitled to a pension of at least $600,000 a year for the rest of his life, according to retirement calculations made by The Times and reviewed by pension experts....Not far behind would be Randy Adams, the man Rizzo hired as Bell police chief last July. If Adams steps down, his pension would be worth an estimated $411,300.

....Cristina Garcia, who grew up in Bell and is part of a newly formed citizen's group, said fat pensions are another insult to city residents. "It's unethical and immoral, that's obvious," she said. "What's amazing is that it is all legal."

Legal, baby, legal! Pensions, of course, depend heavily on just a small number of your highest paid years in the system, and Adams's pension, which was about $200,000 after serving in Glendale for 37 years, has doubled in just the single year he's been at Bell.

The Bell city council, which presumably set these salaries in the first place, and which pays itself outrageous salaries as well, will meet tonight in closed session to figure out what to do about this. Something tells me we can all guess the outcome.

How the Economy is Affecting Us

| Thu Jul. 22, 2010 10:21 AM EDT

Via Jon Cohn, a group of scholars at the Rockefeller Center, led by Jacob Hacker, have created a new measure called the Economic Security Index to complement the more traditional measures of poverty. Basically, it measures the number of people who have experienced a major loss in income (25% or more) — either due to a decline in income or large out-of-pocket medical expenses or both — and who lack adequate financial wealth to buffer the drop. By their projection, the number of Americans in this category is now over 20%, far higher than in any previous recession.

If you go to the ESI site, you can also play around with the index. How many people have lost a third of their income? Half? How are high school dropouts doing? How are different age groups doing? Different ethnic groups? It's grim reading.

Gloomy Wednesday

| Wed Jul. 21, 2010 10:39 PM EDT

Scott Sumner is evidently in about the same mood as me today, but his motivation for doom and gloom isn't the apparently final collapse of the Enlightenment project after a pretty good run. No, his concerns are a little more prosaic: he's gobsmacked that Ben Bernanke continues to fiddle while the economy burns. After noting that current monetary policy is quite likely contractionary even with near-zero interest rates — and that Bernanke seems none too concerned about it — he surveys the Fed's possible responses:

There are three things the Fed could do with minimal price risk; lower the interest rate on reserves, set a price level target, and do several trillion in QE [quantitative easing] with T-bills and short term T-notes.

....Here’s how to tell if the Fed is serious, if and when it moves. If they take one of those three steps, it will merely be a desultory action aimed at mollifying the markets. If they are serious, and really want to turn around market sentiment, then they will use the multi-pronged approach I recommended last year; eliminate interest on reserves, major QE, and some sort of quasi-inflation targeting language. As Bernanke indicated, the best we could probably hope for regarding inflation targeting is a vague mention that rates would be left low until some collection of macro indicators rise much more substantially — i.e. no early exit. Those three steps might not be enough for a fast recovery, but it would almost certainly get things moving again.

....Today fills me with gloom. It will be interesting to hear what you commenters think. How about it JimP? Did Bernanke exhibit the sort of “Rooseveltian Resolve” that (in 1998) he insisted the Japanese needed in order to get out of their Great Recession? Did he show the “yes we can” spirit? The Rooseveltian/Kennedyesque/Reaganesque determination that we won’t put up with high unemployment for as far as the eye can see? Or did he blink? 

I dunno. I wish I had something smart to say, but it's all been said a thousand times before. The economy is in the doldrums; it's not likely to get out of the doldrums any time soon; there's a marked risk that an economy in the doldrums might fall back into recession; millions of people are going to suffer needlessly because of this; and an unholy alliance of partisan Republicans, cowardly Democrats, and Fed members in hock to ancient superstitions is preventing us from doing anything about it. So I'm full of gloom too.