Political MoJo

Confirm or Reject?

Legal Affairs is running an interesting debate between Mark Tushnet and Cass Sunstein on whether Senate Democrats should vote to...

| Tue Sep. 13, 2005 3:48 PM EDT

Legal Affairs is running an interesting debate between Mark Tushnet and Cass Sunstein on whether Senate Democrats should vote to confirm John Roberts. Both make good arguments, though Sunstein brings up the rather provocative point that if Democrats voted en masse against Roberts—who does not, from outward appearances, look overly radical—then it would just set a bad precedent that "contribute[d] to a political atmosphere in which justices identify with the ideological extremes of the country." Perhaps, although all of these admonitions to preserve comity and bipartisanship in the Senate seem a bit quaint these days, don't they?

Meanwhile, Ezra Klein offers the semi-optimistic view on Roberts: namely, he's not offering up the code words many conservatives would presumably want, and a bunch of liberals (male liberals) seem to like him. Well, maybe. At any rate, the prediction that he'll do a lot of very conservative things on the Court seems like a safe one, the question is whether he'll do it in leaps and bounds or take his time. Either way, he's a conservative. What matters from a Democratic point of view is not how they'll stop him—they can't and won't, and killing his nomination wouldn't lead to anyone "better" getting put up—but figuring out how they can start wining elections again in order to prevent more justices like Roberts from sitting on the courts.

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The Roberts Charade

I managed to listen to a half-hour of the Roberts' hearings this morning before shutting it off. What's the point?...

| Tue Sep. 13, 2005 2:19 PM EDT

I managed to listen to a half-hour of the Roberts' hearings this morning before shutting it off. What's the point? The man will quite obviously vote to overturn both Roe and Casey—anyone believing otherwise, or failing to catch the significance of his comparing Roe to the Court's pro-segregation decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, is engaging in wishful thinking here. As Bruce Ackerman pointed out way back in February, Antonin Scalia also told the court: "I assure you I have no agenda. My only agenda is to be a good judge." Blah blah.

So I'm not quite sure what the whole point of dancing around this issue is, with Arlen Specter trying to find ever more clever ways to get Roberts to signal his views on Roe and Roberts finding ever more clever ways to avoid it. Are we all really supposed to pretend to be fooled here? Meanwhile, I don't quite see why Roberts even bothers with this dance: why not just say, "Yes, I pretty much think Roe is settled law?" and then overturn it (or narrow it considerably) when he gets a seat on the Supreme Court? It's not like anyone will impeach him for misleading people at the confirmation hearings. At any rate, William Stuntz had the right idea last week when he argued that hearings for Supreme Court nomination should just be abolished. They won't, of course—Senators need someplace to grandstand—but going through a process defined by how telegenic the nominee looks and how well he or she can avoid giving any useful information whatsoever seems pretty pointless. The only information gleaned from these hearings is that Roberts is articulate, and seems to be an even-tempered guy, two qualities which are totally irrelevant to working as a Supreme Court Justice.

Filing insurance claims--the next New Orleans crisis?

The key insurance question looming in New Orleans may be whether flooding caused by the breach in the 17th Street...

| Mon Sep. 12, 2005 8:09 PM EDT

The key insurance question looming in New Orleans may be whether flooding caused by the breach in the 17th Street Canal should be covered by flood insurance or homeowners insurance. Many people in New Orleans do not have flood insurance because they do not live in flood zones. However, when the levee broke, those people saw the water rise in their houses.

Louisiana legislators want homeowners insurance policies, which are tied to the valies of houses, to cover the damage caused by flooding from the breached levee. If homeowners insurance policies will not cover the damage, state lawmakers want the federal government to create a special fund to cover the difference. In the past, FEMA has not closed the gap if house owners were uninsured.

According to Former State Representative Chuck McMains Jr., who now represents the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, the insurance industry wants to set up a mediation process that would deal with cases on an individual basis.

Then there is the matter of mold and mildew, which McCMains says also falls under flood insurance coverage.

The matter is expected to wind up in court.

Blame Welfare?

Here we go. John McWhorter blames New Orleans' problems, and the inability of people to evacuate the city, on? welfare:...

| Mon Sep. 12, 2005 4:54 PM EDT

Here we go. John McWhorter blames New Orleans' problems, and the inability of people to evacuate the city, on… welfare:

The poor black America that welfare expansion created in 1966 is still with us. Poor young blacks have never known anything else. People as old as 50 have only vague memories of life before it. For 30 years this was a world within a world, as is made clear from how often the Katrina refugees mention it is the first time they have ever left New Orleans.

Welfare recipients, he says, lack "survival skills." Okay… question. How many New Orleans residents are actually on welfare these days? Poking around on this state government site, we find that in the Orleans area, 9 percent of residents received some form of cash welfare in 2003. That amounts to some 42,000 people—far fewer than the total number of New Orleans residents stranded after the flood, I believe, which was estimated in the hundreds of thousands. (In fact, even that 42,000 number seems high; according to the Department of Health and Human Services, only 60,000 people received TANF funds in the entire state in 2002, and only ten percent of Louisiana's population resides in New Orleans.) Meanwhile, the U.S. census counts 27 percent of people in the city sitting below the poverty line. A distinct minority of the poor in New Orleans, then, was receiving welfare, and one would assume not all of those recipients were black. Fixing the blame for post-Katrina problems squarely on cash assistance (and white leftists!) seems like a bit of a stretch, unless you want to argue that the people who were once on welfare rolls and now aren't somehow have lingering social problems that made them incapable of evacuating. (Rather than, you know, the fact that most people lacked the physical means to leave the city.) Perhaps that's what McWhorter's arguing. But it might help if he could actually point to examples of this sort of thing rather than just speculating.

On what is no doubt an entirely unrelated note, read this post from Digby.

Locked Up Down Under

An American peace activist has been detained by the Australian government, with all signs pointing to his imminent deportation. Texan...

Mon Sep. 12, 2005 3:39 PM EDT

An American peace activist has been detained by the Australian government, with all signs pointing to his imminent deportation. Texan Scott Parkin has been in the country since June on a six-month visitor's visa. According to Houston IndyMedia, he spent some of his time in Australia hiking and camping.

But that's not likely to be the reason he caught the eye of Aussie authorities. Parkin, a community college professor, recently organized a protest at the Forbes Global CEO Conference, held in Sydney, which resulted in at least ten arrests. He's also been hosting workshops and speaking at activist conferences. The government has yet to give a clear reason for his detention—an Immigration Department spokesperson said that he'd been collared on "character grounds."

So far this hasn't broken in the U.S. press—Parkin's hometown paper is pretty busy these days. But it's big news in Australia, where Prime Minister John Howard's government is under fire for its new proposals to weaken civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism.

100-Seat Challenge

Ruy Teixeira had an interesting post last week, noting that the Democrats may challenge as many as 100 congressional seats...

| Mon Sep. 12, 2005 2:30 PM EDT

Ruy Teixeira had an interesting post last week, noting that the Democrats may challenge as many as 100 congressional seats in the 2006 midterm elections. Makes sense—especially with the minority party now polling well above Republicans, 50-38 according to Newsweek—and armchair strategists have been calling for this sort of tactic for ages. More interestingly, though, Teixeira argues that a 100-seat strategy is almost always preferable, since new research shows that spending any more than $1 million on a single race leads to diminishing returns. In other words, spreading around campaign cash far and wide will very likely garner more votes than pouring in lots of dollars into just a few races. It would be nice if we could get past the point where 99 percent of the House sails to re-election every two years, but now it seems, happily, that perhaps that state of affairs has only persisted because campaign strategists have an irrational belief in the power of money to win elections.

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New at Mother Jones

Memory's Revenge By JoAnn Wypijewski The planners of Operation Iraqi Freedom forgot another thing on the road to Baghdad: how...

| Mon Sep. 12, 2005 1:29 PM EDT

Memory's Revenge
By JoAnn Wypijewski
The planners of Operation Iraqi Freedom forgot another thing on the road to Baghdad: how veterans would affect their ability to get new boots on the ground.

A Moral Moment
By Al Gore
The Bible says, "Where there is no vision, the people perish." The Bush administration has no vision. So the people perish.

Government is Good for You
By Steven Hill
Hundreds of thousands of people on the Gulf Coast must be wishing they had more, not less, government.

The Mosquito and the Hammer
Interview by Tom Engelhardt
Columnist and author James Carroll on our post 9/11 world

Analysis Time

This short item by Mark Hosenball in Newsweek seems encouraging: Analysts at the Defense Intelligence Agency have begun war-gaming scenarios...

| Mon Sep. 12, 2005 1:21 PM EDT

This short item by Mark Hosenball in Newsweek seems encouraging:

Analysts at the Defense Intelligence Agency have begun war-gaming scenarios for what might happen in Iraq if U.S. force levels were cut back or eliminated, say counterterrorism and defense sources. The officials, who asked not to be named because of the sensitive subject matter, declined to discuss specifics of the DIA analyses, which they indicate are in the preliminary stages.

Some officials say that people in the intelligence community are leery about engaging in speculative exercises for fear of being accused by conservatives of undermining George W. Bush's administration policy. However, others say that this analysis could support staying the course in Iraq if a U.S. pullout would result in greater insurgent violence or a religious civil war.

Of course, figuring out what would happen if the United States pulled out of Iraq or not is only one half of what people need to know to make the relevant policy choices. The second half is whether the U.S. remaining in Iraq would help to avert "greater insurgent violence" or "a religious civil war." (And yes, a minor civil war in Iraq does seem to be carrying on at the moment, but it could get so much worse: think Lebanon in the 1970s and 80s.) But if the worst case scenarios will happen no matter what the U.S. military does, then it's time to beat a hasty retreat. If not, then not. Also, this sort of intelligence report seems ripe for politicizing—especially if "people in the intelligence community are leery about engaging in speculative exercises"—but it's hard to think of a situation more in need of sober analysis at the moment.

Thank you, Bill Clinton and Congress

Via Stone Court, I visited Happening-Here? for a review of how the Defense of Marriage Act affects the relationship between...

| Fri Sep. 9, 2005 5:37 PM EDT

Via Stone Court, I visited Happening-Here? for a review of how the Defense of Marriage Act affects the relationship between the government and American citizens who are victims of Hurricane Katrina.

It's a relationship that saves the government a lot of money. Under the Defense of Marriage Act, all benefits are denied--FEMA, Social Security, and state benefits. Parental rights and burial decisions are also removed from surving partners. The situation is made worse by the fact that Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama have laws that deny legal status to same-gender partners.

During the aftermath of this horrific tragedy, we will hear a lot about compassionate conservatism. But we will also hear about the "real" compassion of the Democratic Party, and about how Americans take care of their own. Americans take care of their own, all right--if they are white, heterosexual, and not poor. It also helps to be able-bodied, male, and adult. The political and idealogical garbage washed up by the storm surges of Katrina is nothing new. But no matter how high it piles up, Americans will keep stepping over it, eyes closed, noses held, and hearts frozen.

Gouge and Counter-Gouge

First we had the conventional wisdom that price gouging of gasoline during national emergencies was a bad thing. Hence, twenty...

| Fri Sep. 9, 2005 4:59 PM EDT

First we had the conventional wisdom that price gouging of gasoline during national emergencies was a bad thing. Hence, twenty states have anti-gouging laws on the book. Then along came the counter-wisdom that, no, no, raising gasoline prices during supply shortages was actually a good thing, as it reduces demand and helps avoid rationing (which can hurt the poor even more than long lines do). But now Dave Hoffman brings us the counter-counter-wisdom, suggesting that those twenty states actually do have the right idea in passing anti-gouging laws:

In civil emergencies, markets don't work to clear information in rational ways. Even high prices will not serve to reduce demand for, say, water and gasoline, over the short term if folks think their lives are going to depend on having such commodities nearby. Price gouging regulations do two things to reduce panic and regulate demand. First, they increase trust in market transactions (an SEC-like role) and thus will act to reduce "panic demand" in emergencies without increasing price. Second, the regulations - when publicized appropriately - have the same information forcing effect as higher prices themselves, teaching people that there are supply interruptions and they should change their use patterns until conditions improve. In both ways, price gouging regulations use norms and soft-economics to accomplish market stabilization in a more satisfactory way than the market would, if left to its own devices.

Interesting argument, if true. On a related note, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights has put out a new study trying to figure out the rise in gas prices, although "gouging" is obviously difficult to prove. In California, for example, the price of gasoline rose 65 cents between January and April of this year, while profits from refining operations rose 61 cents. Refinery profits seem to be outpacing the rise in price of crude oil, and "no public evidence exists" that the cost of a) refining oil, or b) transporting refined products has jumped over the past four years for these refineries. The steady uptick in the cost of California gas appears to be explained primarily by increased refinery exports of motor fuel abroad, which reduces domestic supply at a time of heightened demand. The state of California, of course, levies a 7.25 percent sales tax on every gallon of gas sold at the pump—a tax that brings in considerable revenue—so the legislature has every incentive to maintain high gas prices. (In Slate, Daniel Gross points out that refining industry has also benefited massively from various regulations, as well as the under-supply of refineries, and will reap big fat profits from Katrina.)

Moving right along, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities argues that most states shouldn't suspend their gas tax right now—taxes that are usually a fixed amount, rather than a percentage sales tax as in California—since that tax cut will likely be passed on to refiners rather than consumers. Plus, states need the revenue right now, especially since the high price of gas is hurting local governments as well, and there are more effective ways of easing the strain on consumers' pocketbooks (such as low-income heating assistance).