Kevin Drum

Voting on Cap-and-Trade

| Mon Nov. 9, 2009 1:04 PM EST

Ezra Klein writes today about Nancy Pelosi and the politics of voting in the House of Representatives:

On June 26, Pelosi passed cap and trade out of the House. Many considered it a huge, unforced error. The Senate wouldn't consider the bill for many months, if it ever took it up at all. Health-care reform was in full swing. And Pelosi had just forced her most vulnerable members to take an incredibly difficult vote.

....Talking to congressional Democrats over these past few months, Pelosi's decision to push cap and trade came up in almost every conversation. Coaxing support from vulnerable members who hadn't yet forgiven the leadership for cap and trade had, according to some of these sources, become one of the biggest obstacles to health-care reform.

I confess that I never understood the problem that swing-district House members had with this.  If I were a vulnerable congressman, I'd want this vote taken as far before the midterm elections as possible.  If it turns out to be a risky and ultimately wasted vote because the Senate doesn't act, well, at least it was a risky vote 17 months before next November.  That's an eternity.  A vote in June is a lot less likely to be a salient campaign issue than, say, a vote in December or January.

In any case, as Ezra says, Pelosi's early vote now looks very smart: "It's virtually impossible to imagine the House passing cap and trade in the coming months, not after the exhausting health-care reform battle and not as the midterm election draws closer."  The whole thing is now out of the way and largely forgotten unless the Senate passes a bill, and if that happens, at least House members will be voting next year on something real.  It's a lot easier to talk yourself into taking a risk for a real accomplishment than it is merely to make a quixotic point.

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Untangling California

| Mon Nov. 9, 2009 12:37 PM EST

For years, a shifting alliance of activists here in California has been pressing the idea of calling a constitutional convention to try and cut through the partisan tangle in Sacramento.  Unfortunately, since only the legislature can call a constitutional convention, the partisan tangle in Sacramento stands in the way of cutting through the partisan tangle in Sacramento.

But the effort has picked up steam lately, with a couple of ballot initiatives being filed that would (a) allow the people to call for a convention and (b) call a convention.  If backers can get a million signatures for these initiatives, they'll be on the ballot next November.  Unfortunately, the public isn't yet on their side:

Backers of an overhaul of California's government, who hope to leverage disgust with Sacramento into support for changing how the state raises taxes and spends money, have a difficult path ahead, according to a new poll of California voters.

....Voters don't want the tax code overhauled in the ways that many fiscal experts promise would tamp down the wild revenue swings that have led to a constant state of budget crisis in California. They don't want the Constitution changed to allow a simple majority of lawmakers to push a budget onto the governor's desk, as most other large states allow. And they don't want the state to touch Proposition 13 property tax restrictions, even if residential property taxes would remain strictly limited.

The problem is that the partisan tangle in Sacramento is basically a reflection of California itself. My fellow residents have no desire to pay higher taxes and no desire to cut services in any significant way, and they're apparently willing to destroy the state before finally admitting that they can't have both.  But we haven't quite reached that point yet, and the purpose of a constitutional convention is simply too clear to be covered up: backers want the legislature to have the power to raise taxes.  The anti forces will have absolutely no trouble making that clear, and that in turn means that these two initiatives are almost certainly doomed.

But we'll see. It's possible — unlikely but possible — that things will deteriorate enough in the next year to make Californians realize that they don't have many choices left.  There's not much left to be squeezed out of higher education without simply abandoning it completely; K-12 is inviolate; nobody seems willing to get rid of our insane sentencing laws and fantastic prison population; public employee unions have no intention of moderating their pension demands; and taxing marijuana isn't going to get the job done.  All those things have been true for years, though, and the battle lines are pretty much the same today as they were a decade ago.

So what's left?  Beats me.  But unless some kind of catastrophe drives home the scope of our problems to 50% + 1 of our citizens next November, it's hard to see how anything changes.  Maybe the initiative backers need to hire Roland Emmerich to produce a few ads for them.

Hungary and the Iron Curtain

| Mon Nov. 9, 2009 11:59 AM EST

This isn't exactly a forgotten part of history, but still, it's nice to see reporter Mitchell Koss reminding us today that although the fall of the Berlin Wall was the most dramatic aspect of the end of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, it wasn't the original trigger.  In the LA Times today, he writes about the changes in Hungary between a visit in 1987, "when it seemed as if the Soviet presence in Eastern Europe would last for a thousand years," and a visit two years later:

By 1989, when I returned, everything had changed. When I visited that same embassy the first week of March, a U.S. official talked openly to us — and presumably to the KGB eavesdroppers — about how, as the impending March 15 demonstration seemed to get bigger, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was not responding to pleas for instruction from Hungary's communist rulers. "We don't know what to make of it," he said.

....It all began to come into clearer focus two months later, when Hungary removed the barbed-wire fence along its border with Austria and told guards not to shoot those who wanted to cross. Months after that, the Berlin Wall fell, and two years later the Soviet Union dissolved, albeit with fewer memorable images. Before the decade was out, Viktor Orban, one of the mildly rebellious students whom we'd interviewed in 1986, had become prime minister of Hungary.

In retrospect, some things that seemed puzzling at the time now seem so clear. The embassy wondered why Gorbachev was ignoring the Hungarian leaders' plea for assistance. But as it turned out, his not responding was central to all that happened next. Months later, he also didn't take the calls from panicky East Germans seeking guidance for how to react when the wall was breached. He had decided to disengage, and that made all the difference.

By 1989, the Soviet Union was so far in hock to western banks that they basically had Gorbachev by the balls.  He couldn't afford a repeat of 1956 or 1968, and when that became clear the jig was up.  Hungary went first, Berlin followed, and within a few months the Iron Curtain was on the ash heap of history.  In the end, it was hard currency, not ICBMs, that brought down the empire.

The Vanishing GOP

| Mon Nov. 9, 2009 12:30 AM EST

Today, Fred Hiatt writes an entire column about the obstacles lying in the way of (a) reining in healthcare costs and (b) raising revenue to close the long-term deficit, without once mentioning the word "Republican."  Truly, it is an amazing performance.

Operation Orchard

| Sun Nov. 8, 2009 10:57 PM EST

Remember that Syrian nuclear plant that was destroyed by the Israeli air force in 2007?  I don't quite remember who pointed me to this, but I've had a tab open all weekend to a recent Spiegel article about the whole affair — and after finally getting around to reading it, it turned out to be pretty interesting stuff.  Here's the short version of how the plant was originally detected:

In the spring of 2004, the American National Security Agency (NSA) detected a suspiciously high number of telephone calls between Syria and North Korea, with a noticeably busy line of communication between the North Korean capital Pyongyang and a place in the northern Syrian desert called Al Kibar. The NSA dossier was sent to the Israeli military's "8200" unit, which is responsible for radio reconnaissance and has its antennas set up in the hills near Tel Aviv. Al-Kibar was "flagged," as they say in intelligence jargon.

....In late 2006...a senior Syrian government official checked into a hotel in the exclusive London neighborhood of Kensington. He was under Mossad surveillance and turned out to be incredibly careless, leaving his computer in his hotel room when he went out....The hard drive contained construction plans, letters and hundreds of photos. The photos, which were particularly revealing, showed the Al Kibar complex at various stages in its development....One of the photos showed an Asian in blue tracksuit trousers, standing next to an Arab. The Mossad quickly identified the two men as Chon Chibu and Ibrahim Othman. Chon is one of the leading members of the North Korean nuclear program, and experts believe that he is the chief engineer behind the Yongbyon plutonium reactor. Othman is the director of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission.

....February 2007....An Iranian general [] decided to switch sides....Ali-Reza Asgari, 63, a handsome man with a moustache, was the head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard in Lebanon in the 1980s and became Iran's deputy defense minister in the mid-1990s....According to Asgari, Tehran was building a second, secret plant in addition to the uranium enrichment plant in Natanz, which was already known to the West. Besides, he said, Iran was apparently funding a top-secret nuclear project in Syria, launched in cooperation with the North Koreans.

....On an overcast night in August 2007 [] Israeli elite units traveling in helicopters at low altitude crossed the border into Syria, where they unloaded their testing equipment in the desert near Deir el-Zor and took soil samples in the general vicinity of the Al Kibar plant. The group had to abort its daring mission prematurely when it was discovered by a patrol. The Israelis still lacked the definitive proof they needed. However those in Tel Aviv who favored quick action argued that the results of the samples "provided evidence of the existence of a nuclear program."

A month later, Israeli jets destroyed the Al Kibar facility.  The Israeli prime minister sent a message to the Syrians via Turkey that no further attacks were planned, and if they'd clam up about it, so would he.  They did.  Furthermore, Spiegel reports that Syrian President Bashar Assad has more recently "been considering taking a sensational political step. He is believed to have suggested to contacts in Pyongyang that he is considering the disclosure of his "national" nuclear program, but without divulging any details of cooperation with his North Korean and Iranian partners."  North Korea and Iran are decidedly not excited about this prospect.

The sourcing for that last bit is obscure, so there's no telling if it's really true.  But the whole piece is worth a read.  It's pretty good cloak and dagger stuff.

Abortion Politics

| Sun Nov. 8, 2009 2:51 PM EST

Ann Friedman quotes Pilgrim Soul on the passage last night of Bart Stupak's appalling amendment to prevent anyone receiving a federal subsidy from buying a health insurance plan that covers abortions:

Charmingly I expect that in the next few days all your liberal dude friends will be trying to explain to you that this is really no big deal, look, they had to get the Republicans/"Democrats" onboard SOMEHOW, this is just a battle but we won the war, etc etc.

God knows we liberal dudes can be clueless sometimes, but are any of us really saying that this is no big deal?  That's hard to believe.  What I can imagine us saying is that Bart Stupak had the votes and we didn't.  That's a huge problem.  But not a big deal?  Hardly.

On a related note, I wonder what the insurance industry thinks of this?  I know that if I were an insurance company, I'd sure rather cover an abortion (cost = $500 or so) than a pregnancy carried to term (cost = $10,000 or so).  But they're probably too scared to speak up.

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Precision Shooting

| Sun Nov. 8, 2009 2:29 PM EST

And now for something completely different, here is Matt Yglesias on three-point shooting in the NBA:

In general, there’s not enough three point shooting happening in the NBA. In the 2008-2009 NBA season the average possession resulted in 1.083 points. The league average on three point shooting, meanwhile, was .367 meaning that the expected value of a three point attempt was 1.101 points. Better than average. Indeed, last year only four teams scored at a more efficient rate than 1.101 points per possession.

My takeway from this is a little different: it's astonishing how close these two averages are.  If you assume that players generally attempt the best possible threes, then additional attempts are going to have a poorer success rate.  Probably much poorer, since I imagine that effectiveness falls off exponentially with distance and coverage.  In other words, if NBA players attempted even 1% more threes, the expected value of triples would probably fall below the average possession.

That's no big surprise, I suppose.  Professional basketball players, it turns out, have an extremely precise sense of how effective various plays are.  Still, the fact that they take threes at something like 99+% of the ideal rate is pretty remarkable.

Quote of the Day

| Sun Nov. 8, 2009 1:01 PM EST

From 2012 director Roland Emmerich, on whether real life slows down his moviemaking:

If I cannot destroy a big high-rise anymore, because terrorists blew up two of the most famous ones, the twin towers, what does this say about our world?

Quite so.  If you can't cinematically destroy New York and Los Angeles, then the terrorists have won.  Still, apparently there are limits.  Emmerich also reports that he avoided destroying Mecca in 2012 because his cowriter told him, "I’m not writing this to get a fatwa on my head."

As an aside, I was quite disappointed in Emmerich's last big disaster flick, The Day After Tomorrow.  Not for all the usual reasons, though.  There's a book by Allan Folsom also called The Day After Tomorrow, and I was hoping that it was the inspiration for the film.  It was quite a terrible book, but after 600 pages of terribleness its final sentence is one of the finest in popular literature: "The severed, deep-frozen head of Adolph Hitler."  How could you not make that into a movie?  But he didn't.  Instead, it was just another ice age.

Afghanistan Endgame

| Sun Nov. 8, 2009 12:30 PM EST

The gang at McClatchy say their sources tell them that Obama has made up his mind about Afghanistan. He plans to increase troop levels by 34,000:

As it now stands, the administration's plan calls for sending three Army brigades from the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky. and the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y. and a Marine brigade, for a total of as many as 23,000 additional combat and support troops.

Another 7,000 troops would man and support a new division headquarters for the international force's Regional Command (RC) South in Kandahar, the Taliban birthplace where the U.S. is due to take command in 2010. Some 4,000 additional U.S. trainers are likely to be sent as well, the officials said.

The first additional combat brigade probably would arrive in Afghanistan next March, the officials said, with the other three following at roughly three-month intervals, meaning that all the additional U.S. troops probably wouldn't be deployed until the end of next year. Army brigades number 3,500 to 5,000 soldiers; a Marine brigade has about 8,000 troops.

But apparently Team Obama wants some more time to work on their PR campaign before they announce this publicly.  "This is not going to be an easy sell, especially with the fight over health care and the (Democratic) party's losses" of the governors' mansions in New Jersey and Virginia last week, according to one unnamed source.  I'll buy that.

Healthcare Wins in the House

| Sat Nov. 7, 2009 11:51 PM EST

I decided to watch football today instead of following the healthcare debate in the House, and I think I stand by that decision.  It turned out to be a close call, though: USC almost gave me a heart attack against lowly Arizona State, but the Democrats would have nearly given me a heart attack against the lowly Republicans if I'd been watching them.

In the end, though, both eked out a win.  For some good background on the horrible last-minute abortion amendment, see Amy Sullivan here.  Sounds like some bad play calling there.  Still, congratulations to Nancy Pelosi.  She only won by a couple of votes, but a win is a win.  Now, on to the Senate.