Mojo - December 2009

Robert Byrd: Tough on...Coal?

| Thu Dec. 3, 2009 7:00 PM EST

Throughout his long political career, 92-year-old Robert Byrd has been one of the coal industry's staunchest defenders. But in a significant shift, he's now arguing that the industry needs to face facts and "embrace the future."

"[T]he time has come to have an open and honest dialogue about coal’s future in West Virginia," Byrd wrote in an op-ed on Thursday. Byrd acknowledged that coal-industry jobs had been declining in the state, that mountaintop removal mining comes with environmental and health problems, and that some regulation of carbon dioxide emissions is inevitable.

Byrd took aim at the industry's denial of climate change. "To be part of any solution, one must first acknowledge a problem. To deny the mounting science of climate change is to stick our heads in the sand and say 'deal me out,'" he wrote. "West Virginia would be much smarter to stay at the table." Coal-producing states "hold some powerful political cards," he continued, and can play a part in shaping policy—but only if they are "honest brokers," he wrote. 

Byrd also hit back at the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce's attempt to get him to block health care legislation until the Obama administration eases regulations on the coal industry. "I believe that the notion of holding the health care of over 300 million Americans hostage in exchange for a handful of coal permits is beyond foolish; it is morally indefensible," he wrote. "It is a non-starter, and puts the entire state of West Virginia and the coal industry in a terrible light."

This is a major change of heart for Byrd, who just last year was the only Democrat to vote against even proceeding to debate a climate bill. In the past, he's opposed most climate legislation, usually out of concern for coal interests. While he still sees a major role for coal, he's recognizes that it's  not going to be as abundant or as cheap as it has been in the past. "West Virginians can choose to anticipate change and adapt to it, or resist and be overrun by it," he concluded. "The time has arrived for the people of the Mountain State to think long and hard about which course they want to choose."

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College Grads Owe an Average $23,200 in Student Debt

| Thu Dec. 3, 2009 6:47 PM EST

Recent college graduates with dreams of post-degree grandeur are being pummelled by the recession and forced to live with the reality of how much their degrees cost and how difficult it is to use them right now.

A report released this week by The Project on Student Debt shows that 2008 college graduates owe and average of $23,200 on their educations, a figure 25 percent higher than what their older brothers and sisters owed when they graduated from college in 2004. On top of double-digit debt, the report also cites unpublished numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that show how seriously college graduates are being affected by unemployment. In the third quarter of 2008, the unemployment rate for graduates ages 20 to 24 was 7.6 percent. One year later, the rate has jumped to an all-time high of 10.6 percent.

The report also breaks down average student debt by state on a user-friendly map which shows a concentration of high averages in the Northeast and a concentration of low averages in the West. The District of Columbia ($29,793), Iowa ($28,174) and Connecticut ($26,138) have the highest averages while Utah ($13,041), Hawaii ($15,156) and Kentucky ($15,951) have the lowest. Though the report deals in averages, there are many students who owe much more than their state's average, and the number of students who owe twice the national average has been creeping up over the past few years.

A Big Derivatives Loophole?

| Thu Dec. 3, 2009 6:14 PM EST

Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), the chair of the House Agriculture committee, is sponsoring an amendment to his own legislation that's supposed to regulate derivatives, the often-complex financial products that many people believe bear some of the blame for the financial crisis. Well, the guy who's regulating derivatives knows best how to improve that regulation, right? Not according to the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington watchdog group, which has written a damning letter to Peterson arguing that his amendment would actually blow a big loophole in the rules. Here's an excerpt:

The consequences of acquiescing to an unregulated and secretive over-the-counter (OTC) derivatives market became painfully clear last fall, when AIG nearly went under after it was suddenly forced to post collateral on its credit default swaps, and had to be bailed out with billions of dollars in government assistance.

We recognize that legislation approved by your Committee would begin to address these concerns by, for instance, creating new rules for margin and capital requirements. Unfortunately, the definition of an "alternative swap execution facility" described in Chairman Peterson's amendment creates a wholly unjustified loophole in the regulation of OTC derivatives, effectively undermining the spirit of your legislation and representing a giant step backwards for transparency and accountability.

Journalist Andrew Cockburn has provided a clear and concise analysis showing how Chairman Peterson's amendment creates this dangerous loophole. Under this amendment—which was adopted by voice vote with little debate—an "alternative swap execution facility" is simply defined as anything that "facilitates" swap trades. Such a facility would not be subject to the requirements of an actual exchange, thereby avoiding the new requirements for increased transparency and accountability. The specific authorization of voice brokerages is singularly troubling since it permits dealers to set prices that are not publicly disclosed.

We believe that the creation of this loophole is contrary to the avowed purpose of the bill. It will inevitably lead to the same kind of trading that created the financial crisis; it will undermine the transparency requirements that are needed to protect the public from fraud and manipulation; and it is inconsistent with confining financial trading, to the greatest extent possible, to well-regulated clearing houses.

A House committee using an unrecorded voice vote to approve an industry-supported amendment that guts its own—already weak—legislation: just another day on Capitol Hill.

The White House Print Pool

| Thu Dec. 3, 2009 5:42 PM EST

Politico's Michael Calderone has an interesting story today about the members of the rarified White House press pool whining about the recent inclusion of Talking Points Memo and Huffington Post in their exclusive club. The press pool, as Matt Yglesias ably explains, is "basically a mutually agreed upon plaigiarism pact" in which a large group of news organizations agree to pool their resources. Instead of having 20 reporters follow the president to his golf game on Sunday, the pool sends just one to cover the president's activities for the day. The pool reporter of the day (the responsibility rotates among the members of the pool) files detailed just-the-facts updates that the rest of the pool organizations rely on when putting together their own stories. Apparently some White House reporters are worried that the presence of TPM and HuffPo in the pool will make people doubt other pool members' credibility:

White House reporters have privately discussed and debated the recent addition of sites like Talking Points Memo and Huffington Post into the White House in-town press pool. It’s not that reporters are criticizing the work of either Christina Bellantoni or Sam Stein, but some have expressed concerns about pool reports coming from left or right-leaning news organizations that will then be used by the rest of the press corps.

"This is really troubling," said New York Times reporter Peter Baker in an email to POLITICO. "We’re blurring the line between news and punditry even further and opening ourselves to legitimate questions among readers about where the White House press corps gets its information."

Baker said he has no problem with outlets like Huffington Post, which he described "an important part of the marketplace of ideas." But the site, he said, has a mission "to produce pieces with strongly argued points of view" and that puts the Times—or other non-partisan news organizations—"in a position of relying on overtly ideological or opinionated organizations as our surrogate news gatherers."

Critics of including HuffPo and TPM in the pool claim that they're not accusing Stein or Bellantoni of being unprofessional or misleading, they're just worried about the appearance of bias. But this really stems from something else: the belief by the so-called "mainstream media" that their reporters (and only their reporters) are somehow magically endowed with the ability to write and report without making any subjective judgments. The bit in Baker's email about "overtly ideological" organizations is especially revealing. Is it better that news outlets are covertly ideological? The Washington Times is part of the in-town press pool—and Bellantoni previously wrote pool reports when she was that paper's White House reporter. Fox News is part of the television pool. Does anyone really think the Washington Times is non-ideological? What's the disqualifying difference between the Washington Times and TPM? TPM's not on paper? TPM's leans left instead of right? Peter Baker used to work for the Washington Times but not for TPM?

In any case, if the inclusion of TPM and Huffington Post in the press pool hastens the public's realization that all reporting involves points of view, that would be a good thing. Reporters are not robots. We make decisions all the time that affect the way our stories come out. Reporters' decisions about who to talk to, how to describe events, and what kind of credibility to give to different sources (Judy Miller, anyone?) all affect the final product. Does anyone seriously argue that opinion judgments never appear in New York Times stories? What about the paper's judgment to avoid using the term "torture"? What about this or this or this or this or this or this or this? Good journalists do their best to report the truth. And even New York Times reporters make judgments about what, exactly, that is.

Inhofe Calls Europeans "Dumb"

| Thu Dec. 3, 2009 4:54 PM EST

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) paid a surprise visit to the Heritage Foundation Thursday, dropping in for a panel discussion on his favorite subject: climate change. The Senate's most virulent global warming denier, Inhofe was greeted with cheers of "our hero!" at the conservative think tank. After launching in to his usual spiel about climate change as the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people, Inhofe went on to criticize President Obama's decision to address the upcoming climate treaty negotiations in Copenhagen next week. He said he thought the Europeans must believe Obama is some sort of king considering the way they are gushing over his promise to commit the US to reducing greenhouse gasses. "You would be shocked about how dumb some of these guys over there are," he said.

Inhofe said he's been making the rounds of Danish radio shows to explain that just because Obama says the US will commit to greenhouse gas reductions doesn't mean it actually will cut emissions. Observing that Obama doesn't have the votes for a cap and trade bill, he said he was appalled about how little the Europeans understood the critical importance of the American Congress. Inhofe reiterated his plans to attend the meeting in Copenhagen as a "one-man truth squad," (though he admitted his squad will actually have three other people on it). With a few more snappy one-liners about how global warming hysteria is a pretext for population control and some digs at George Soros, Inhofe dismissed talk that he would be the Richard Pombo of 2010, and then took off for a vote on the Hill.

 

 

Fiore Cartoon: Obama's Afghan Surge

Thu Dec. 3, 2009 4:16 PM EST

Obama's plan for Afghanistan has some serious contradictions: How can you do deescalate by escalating or exit by entering?

Watch satirist Mark Fiore's take on the prez's least-worst plan of terribleness below:
 

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GOP Exploits ClimateGate

| Thu Dec. 3, 2009 3:00 PM EST

Republicans in Congress are trying to use the recent release of hacked emails written by UK climate scientists to delay government action on climate change—despite the fact that nothing in the emails challenges the science of global warming. A group of GOPers wrote to the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday asking it to "conduct a thorough and transparent investigation into the questions raised by the disclosure of emails from Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia" and to halt all work the agency is doing to address greenhouse gas emissions.

The letter comes from GOP Reps. Darrell Issa (Calif.) and James Sensenbrenner (Wisc.), and Senators John Barrasso (Wy.) David Vitter, all well-known climate-change skeptics. They want the EPA to withdraw a finding that greenhouse gases are a threat to human health, new emissions and fuel economy standards for automobiles, and a proposed rule on the scope of greenhouse gas regulations "until the Agency can demonstrate that the science underlying these regulatory decisions has not been compromised."

And because scientists involved in the leaked emails contributed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the preeminent scientific panel assessing global climate change—the Republicans want a reassessment of the entire body of climate science. They're also demanding that the EPA turn over "all documents and records related to the communications or other interactions" with the Climate Research Unit dating back to March 2007.

In an excellent post on the email incident (now being called ClimateGate or Swifthack, depending on where you stand) Kevin Drum makes the essential points: the emails don't challenge climate science, and skeptics are getting way more mileage out of this affair than it merits. And with the topic surfacing in both Senate and House climate hearings yesterday, ClimateGate isn't going away anytime soon.

Haitian Thug Leader Toto Constant Liable for Rape, Torture, Murder

| Thu Dec. 3, 2009 1:51 PM EST

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a $19 million judgment Tuesday against Emmanuel “Toto” Constant, a former Haitian paramilitary leader who had been found liable for crimes against humanity committed under his watch—including torture, and rape as a mode of torture. As noted in “Constant Sorrow,” Bernice Yeung’s account of her jailhouse interactions with the disgraced (and deluded) thug boss, Constant had been sued by Haitian refugees after fleeing to the United States. The three women said they had suffered gang rapes and other atrocities at the hands of Constant's minions. Here are more details from the Center for Justice and Accountability, the human rights group that brought the original lawsuit:

How Do You Say "Astroturf" In Danish?

| Thu Dec. 3, 2009 12:02 PM EST

Americans for Prosperity, a "grassroots" group funded by a dirty energy conglomerate, has been travelling around the US this year to protest cap and trade legislation. Next week, it's taking its show to Copenhagen.

AFP President Tim Phillips and policy director Phil Kerpen will be broadcasting live from the United Nations Climate Change Conference on the day that Barack Obama plans to attend the summit. They worry that the US is bowing to "international 'green' pressure," said Phillips in a press release, and intend to call attention to "international global warming alarmism."

AFP's "Hot Air Tour" has made 75 stops in the US to date, complete with an actual hot air balloon. But this is the group's first foray into an international forum. Christopher Monckton, one of the world's more zany climate change deniers, will be joining Phillips and Kerpen. (See also this piece I wrote about Monckton's appearances before Congress earlier this year.) And for those back home in the US, AFP is also planning "grassroots" viewing events around the country.

But there's nothing particularly "grassroots" about AFP. It's funded largely by Koch Industries, the oil and gas industry giant. Back when the organization was known as Citizens for a Sound Economy Foundation it also received money from ExxonMobil, before changing its name in 2003.

Birther/Swiftboater Denied Copenhagen Press Credentials

Thu Dec. 3, 2009 11:46 AM EST

This year, the far-right news site WorldNetDaily has been consumed with "investigating" Barack Obama's eligibility to be president. But with the climate summit in Copenhagen approaching, WorldNetDaily has found some time to chase another big scandal: the coming era of one-world government, to be engineered by a secretive gaggle of world leaders using climate change as a cover. In order to report on this unfolding conspiracy, WND sought media credentials for its staff writer, Jerome Corsi. But the United Nations denied the request—and now WorldNetDaily is threatening to sue.

According to WND, a media co-ordinator named Axel Wuestenhagen turned down the website's request on the grounds that "advocacy publications of non-governmental or non-profit organizations do not qualify for media accreditation." WND's editor, Joseph Farah, counters that WND is an independent for-profit media corporation (the site also claims to be "the largest English-language independent Internet news agency.")

The UN announced earlier this week that it was suspending credential applications after receiving 5,000 requests, more than the venue at Copenhagen can hold. But it's possible that WND's journalistic track record didn't help its case, either. This year, WND published a document circulated by the queen bee of the birther movement, Orly Taitz, who claimed it was Barack Obama's Kenyan birth certificate. It was quickly shown to be a fake. Corsi, the staff writer that WND wanted to dispatch to Copenhagen, is the author of Unfit for Command, the book that fueled the swiftboating of John Kerry during the 2004 election. His second book, Obama Nation, was packed with so many errors that FactCheck.org said it would take a separate book to list them all. Last month, he wrote a piece that falsely claimed that Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, had advised the Obama transition team on homeland security matters.

WND's coverage of climate change has been similarly disingenuous. The site has published pieces—including some by Corsi—stating that the Earth is cooling, not warming, that science does not prove the existence of climate change, and that Obama's science czar, John Holdren, advocated forced abortions. Another piece observed that a British campaign to make children aware of energy efficiency was reminiscent of the Hitler Youth in Nazi Germany. WND has also sought to profit from its climate denialist stance. Its online store sells DVDs such as Global Warming or Global Governance? —just $14.99—which shows "how global governance puts global institutions that are not accountable to the American people in control of every aspect of our economy." Or, as WND editor Farah puts it: "These guys are essentially trying to take over the world." He's threatening to "aggressively" pursue all legal avenues should Corsi be denied access to the summit.