As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Saturday, July 04, 2009

And On A Lighter Note

...So I'm out to eat burgers and dogs and cole slaw with pineapple (our contribution), have a good holiday.

Here's a nice sing-along for your barbeques.

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Happy Torture Of July

I have pulled back from writing about the torture debate of late because it's just too painful. There can be no question that this country used taxpayer-funded federal agencies like the CIA and the Department of Defense to enact cruel, degrading and illegal techniques on terrorism suspects as young as twelve, pushing them into false confessions and generally making it impossible to separate the guilty from the innocent, in a mad search for evidence, including confessions linking Iraq and Saddam Hussein with Al Qaeda and 9-11. These acts of torture, which we reversed engineered from the Chinese Communists (who also used them to extract false confessions) were far from benign or even ephemeral; indeed, at least 100 prisoners in custody died from torture, both at secret prisons abroad, in Iraq and in Afghanistan, where the very same base of operations for the torture of prisoners, Bagram, continues to house hundreds of suspects without charges. When civil liberties groups and ordinary Americans learned of these acts of torture, authorized and directed at the highest levels right out of the White House, those in power sought to destroy the evidence, and even to this day, the Administration that succeeded them has done everything in its power to cover up much of the worst abuses and ensure no accountability for these actions. To this day, some of the people directly involved in the torture regime continue to work in their positions under the Obama Administration.

Some would consider this a terrible subject to write about on the Fourth of July. I think it's the perfect time. I believe that the founding of the nation rings hollow when we can no longer say without laughing that here, the people rule, that no man is king and nobody is above the law, that we have a government of, by and for the people. The difficulties of passing legislation that moves us forward into the future were in many ways baked into the checks and balances of the system. Those processes can change. But the stain of torture, combined with the complete lack of accountability for it, must not get swept out with the old Administration like a bad policy. Indeed, the spectacle of watching the Democratic President essentially follow the Republican President in enshrining civil liberties abuses into law , gaining support on both sides, is deeply distasteful and distressing to me as an American.

I guess I'm supposed to be cheered by the fact that the President won't sign an executive order bringing the concept of preventive detention, the idea of indefinitely holding prisoners without charges, into this American experiment. And I should take solace that some in the Justice Department believe that detainees in our custody do have protections in the legal system against being charged using evidence gained through torture or coercion. But none of this is really good enough. Torture is a bright line that should separate civilized societies from the uncivilized. It is true that the courts and even some of the internal Justice Department mechanisms at the Office of Legal Counsel have resisted this headlong push into codifying some of the worst abuses of the Bush Administration. And yet those tactics and actions seen as wrong, as illegal, as the cause of hundreds if not thousands of deaths, have no sanction. And we live with this moral rot. And it's a rot which almost necessarily leads to other abuses, as we get swept up in almost a fever dream, where security trumps liberty and fear overpowers reason.

Donald Rumsfeld has finally said he's sorry. Sort of.

In an interview with biographer Bradley Graham, the former secretary of defense says he has regrets about the administration's controversial detainee policy.

The twist is that Rumsfeld doesn't regret the policy itself -- specifically the abandoning of the Geneva Conventions for detainees picked up in Afghanistan. Rather, he regrets how the policy was formulated.

Here's the relevant section from Graham's book:

With the passage of time, Rumsfeld has come to recognize that he made a mistake, although he sees the error as one of process, not basic judgment. He faults himself for taking too legalistic an approach initially, saying it would have been better if senior Pentagon officials responsible for policy and management matters had been brought in earlier to play more of a role and provide a broader perspective. As he explained in an interview in late 2008, policies were developing so fast in the weeks after the September 11 attacks that he did not follow his own normal procedures. "All of a sudden, it was just all happening, and the general counsel's office in the Pentagon had the lead," he said. "It never registered in my mind in this particular instance--it did in almost every other case--that these issues ought to be in a policy development or management posture. Looking back at it now, I have a feeling that was a mistake. In retrospect, it would have been better to take all of those issues and put them in the hands of policy or management."

Further, Rumsfeld conceded, more should have been done to engage Congress in drafting the new policies on detainees--something he said that White House officials had opposed. Although Congress did eventually get involved, he noted that this occurred "in duress" after the Supreme Court ruled in 2006 against the administration's original approach.

"All of a sudden, it was all just happening." Rumsfeld doesn't really take responsibility for the deaths of people in custody, but he recognizes the environment that leads to such mistakes and lapses, a groupthink that eventually consumes the policymakers. It makes a mockery of deliberative democracy to think this could ever happen.

It's not the most festive message on this day, but if we celebrate these United States on the day of its founding, then we must also strive for that union to live up to the founding principles. All men are created equal reads like a punchline in light of the past eight years and even these last several months. And there is no better time to ruminate on how we can be worthy of the sacrifices of those who started a revolution to bring self-government to this colonized collection of states.

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Actor/Senator Fred Thompson can't believe America would elect a former celebrity to the Senate.

I find this historical amnesia to be all too prevalent.

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Dueling Threats

A strange bit of stories coming out of Joe Biden's trip to Iraq yesterday. In the first, the Vice President warned that US troops would bug out if sectarian violence increased.

In meetings with senior Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Biden stressed that the United States would remain engaged in Iraq, even as its military role diminishes in a withdrawal that is expected to dramatically gather pace after parliamentary elections in January.

But a senior administration official briefing journalists said Biden made that support contingent on Iraqi progress in resolving long-standing conflicts, some that bedeviled Iraq even before the United States invaded in March 2003.

If "Iraq were to revert to sectarian violence or engage in ethnic violence, then that's not something that would make it likely that we would remain engaged because, one, the American people would have no interest in doing that, and, as he put it, neither would he nor the president," the official said.

He added that there "wasn't any appetite to put Humpty Dumpty back together again if, by the action of people in Iraq, it fell apart."

I would argue that there's no ability to put Humpty Dumpty back together again is it falls apart. The decisions on sectarian violence and reconciliation will be made by Iraqis. Despite our firepower we have had little ability to control events over there.

At the same time, another report suggests that the US sought a greater diplomatic role in pushing reconciliation, and the Prime Minister rebuffed him:

Biden's meeting with Maliki was a reminder that although the U.S. maintains about 130,000 troops in Iraq, its influence is waning rapidly now that the clock is ticking on the timetable for the departure of all American combat troops next year.

Days earlier, Iraqis had celebrated the withdrawal of U.S. forces from their cities as a "day of national sovereignty." And though Biden's visit was welcomed as evidence that the United States doesn't plan to completely disengage from Iraq, Maliki made it clear that he does not want U.S. officials to be as closely involved in Iraqi politics as they have been.

Maliki told Biden that "the reconciliation issue is a purely Iraqi issue and any non-Iraqi involvement might have a negative effect," said Maliki's spokesman, Ali Dabbagh. "We don't want the Americans to come and get involved."

Biden "received the message well, and he said he is ready to help whenever the Iraqi government asks," Dabbagh said.

I'm trying to piece together the narrative here. It goes something like this:

Biden: We want to help you reconcile.
Maliki: You can't help us reconcile.
Biden: Well, if you don't reconcile, we will leave.
Maliki: We want you to leave.
Biden: Then we're in agreement!

All indications are that Maliki has successfully used the leverage of US military might to crush his internal enemies, and now wants to govern as a potentate without interference from the US. And yet Arab-Kurdish violence does actually threaten to break apart the country, though I wonder if everyone - particularly Biden - would see that as a bad thing.

The Arab-Kurdish divide in Iraq is extremely unfortunate and economically irrational. If Iraq can ever reestablish security and develop the southern oil fields, which are enormous, Kurds will be drawn down south as workers in large numbers, and get spread around the country. The Kirkuk fields are old, water-logged and on the way to being worked out. Iraq's future probably lies elsewhere and therefore probably so does the future of Kurdish citizens of Iraq. Kurds would be wiser to forget about trying to control territory in the 19th century way and surrender to the messiness, ethnic mixing and multiple identities, and uprootedness of postmodern life. And nothing better exemplifies such postmodernism than the polyglot hydrocarbon states of the Gulf. If Kurds aren't careful they'll be stuck landlocked, with small resources, and surrounded by powerful local enemies fearful of their separatism, while Nepalis, Pakistanis and Sri Lankans get rich working in the oil economy of the Arab Shiite south of Iraq.

I think the view of the Administration, at least on Iraq, is that they don't want to get sucked into some other country's internal civil conflict. Maliki obviously believes he can come out on top in such a struggle because he has the numbers behind him. Lots of parts of the world are dangerous, and we don't sit 130,000 American troops in them to babysit. If we cannot affect spasmodic violence - and we can't - we shouldn't sit around waiting.

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Something's Up

I tried to sit down and read Sarah Palin's resignation speech. Sometimes when you say something like "the politician clearly wrote the speech themselves" that's a compliment. Not in this case. As Ezra notes, this is just a bizarre thing to allow into a TelePrompTer.

I've read a lot of speech transcripts. They tend to have fewer words in all capital letters. And fewer things in quotation marks that aren't actually, you know, quotes. And I've never seen an official speech transcript, written by an actual speechwriter, that contains this:

*((Gotta put First Things First))*

And that's not even getting into the self-pitying shots at the press, the fact that she mocked those who take "the quitter's way out" in a speech dedicated to quitting, or this agonizing sports metaphor:

"A good point guard drives through a full court press, protecting the ball, keeping her eye on the basket… and she knows exactly when to pass the ball so that the team can WIN. And I’m doing that – keeping our eye on the ball that represents sound priorities – smaller government, energy independence, national security, freedom! And I know when it’s time to pass the ball – for victory."

This had the quality of a written-the-night-before book report. At the least, it was not the product of carefully crafted deliberation.

This is a reactive document based on some new information about to come to light.

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Change Happens From The Bottom Up

Ceci Connolly overheard the President telling Senate leaders that he would prefer the progressive hits on Democratic members of Congress to stop.

President Obama, strategizing yesterday with congressional leaders about health-care reform, complained that liberal advocacy groups ought to drop their attacks on Democratic lawmakers and devote their energy to promoting passage of comprehensive legislation.

In a pre-holiday call with half a dozen top House and Senate Democrats, Obama expressed his concern over advertisements and online campaigns targeting moderate Democrats, whom they criticize for not being fully devoted to "true" health-care reform.

"We shouldn't be focusing resources on each other," Obama opined in the call, according to three sources who participated in or listened to the conversation. "We ought to be focused on winning this debate."

Specifically, Obama said he is hoping left-leaning organizations that worked on his behalf in the presidential campaign will now rally support for "advancing legislation" that fulfills his goal of expanding coverage, controlling rising costs and modernizing the health system.

I'm wondering how Connolly knows this much about what appears to be a closed strategy call. My assumption is she knows what the White House wants her to know. So going on the assumption that it's true, I'll say this:

Of course this is what Obama would tell Democratic leaders in the Senate about attacks on Democrats in the Senate. He doesn't want those attacks to have his direct sanction, these are lawmakers he has to work with now and in the future, and so it makes perfect sense for him to play good cop. He can take the pose of just wishing these attacks would stop, without intervening directly in the activities of outside organizations (which would be illegal, I believe). It's a classic Obama middle path.

At the same time, this is also nothing new. He essentially drained progressive groups of funding during the 2008 campaign. So that past set of actions is part of this statement, too. It's one thing to make the idle "I wish they'd jump in with the home team for the big victory" comment, it's another to make it secure in the knowledge that he could move it from "I wish" to "do this or some of your biggest fundraisers might get a phone call."

Obama wants to control message and have all these outside groups pushing alongside him for "reform." But his vision of that reform includes a broad set of principles and a glaring lack of specifics. The Presidential candidate who said "change begins from the bottom up" should be the last one as President to expect his supporters to follow him blindly.

What's more, progressive pressure has worked.

But there is no question that these hard-hitting campaigns representing breast cancer survivors and others have been successful, and they have been instrumental in backing Ben Nelson and Kay Hagan off their opposition to a public plan. The memberships of these organizations are in clear support of their efforts, and with 76% of the country in support of a public plan, the President seems to be one of the unhappy few who oppose their tactics.

I could probably find about 1,000 quotes from candidate Obama about how it's time for Americans to once again participate in their government, and how we are the change we've been waiting for, etc. You cannot empower people for months and months to take action and then try to stage-manage that action. Activism doesn't have an on/off switch.

I was actually at this event where Maxine Waters expressed admiration for the DFA ad against Mary Landrieu ("I'm going to be in New Orleans this weekend, telling everyone about it") and said, "Let me just say to all of our friends out there, that a sustained effort, directed at public officials, demanding no less than a public option, can be very successful. So go to work." I believe this work will continue, even if it makes the President uncomfortable. He didn't create this monster, but he certainly drafted off it during 2008. People want to be actively engaged in politics again. It's a shame for anyone to try and cut them out. expected, progressive groups won't be stopping their ad buys anytime soon. Via email, DFA's Charles Chamberlain said that his group hasn't received any calls from the White House to pull back, nor will they be doing so, and he thinks that "this article is a very good sign that what we are doing is working. If Senators and Reps weren't afraid of us, they wouldn't be asking for us to stop."

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Friday, July 03, 2009

Sarah's Exit

I was away all day. Anything happen?

Just a couple words on this Palin thing. It could very well be, and probably is, a realization that an elected official in Alaska can't maintain the schedule necessary to run a Presidential campaign, and that these things begin earlier and earlier and she needed to be on the road as soon as possible. I think she could have stayed governor until 2010 and still made the campaign appearances necessary, but obviously she and her handlers didn't.

But the timing of the announcement just doesn't make any sense. The Friday afternoon of a holiday weekend is when you dump news you don't want anyone to know about. There's also the matter of that virulently negative Vanity Fair article, the consequent backbiting between some of the peripheral players, and then those leaked internal campaign emails depicting Palin in a bad light. You can argue that this pushed Palin to resign because she needed to get control of that story, and only a road tour would do it. But you could also view the leaked emails as a shot across the bow. Clearly the McCain people, who obviously hate her, have a wealth of material on her, and if she stayed perched up in Alaska they could control the spigot and destroy her drip by drip.

There's also the matter of the $500,000 in debt from legal defenses, which can easily be made on the lecture circuit, with the added benefit of raising name recognition. But I cannot help but think that this hastily arranged resignation got her out of Alaska before something very damaging hit her, and Palin must think that she can avoid harm by resigning first and then depicting the matter as inherently partisan and political, with no need for an independent investigation because she's no longer Governor. Max Blumenthal hints at something here.

Many political observers in Alaska are fixated on rumors that federal investigators have been seizing paperwork from SBS in recent months, searching for evidence that Palin and her husband Todd steered lucrative contracts to the well-connected company in exchange for gifts like the construction of their home on pristine Lake Lucille in 2002. The home was built just two months before Palin began campaigning for governor, a job which would have provided her enhanced power to grant building contracts in the wide-open state.

Seems like a small chink in the armor, but this is almost precisely what brought down Ted Stevens in Alaska, so it probably has more resonance there.

From a political perspective, this hurts, but not too much. Expect a couple months of Palin's supporters in full victimization mode, claiming that everyone from the mainstream media to David Letterman forced her out of her job. She thrives on the politics of resentment, and this just seems like a "you won't have Nixon to kick around anymore" moment.

...I finally watched that press conference, and she may as well have been speaking in German. I have no idea what she just said. I do appreciate David Kurtz' three-word assessment: Real winners quit.

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Get Yer Souvenir IOUs Today!

Bloomberg reports that people are lining up for those souvenir Arnoldbucks.

Controller Chiang said the warrants can be transferred between individuals, setting up the possibility that a secondary market for the IOUs may develop. Already ads are appearing on Web sites such as Craigslist offering cash for the IOUs at below face value.

In such a transaction, the person who gets the IOU would get most of the cash they were due the state, while the person buying the IOU might then hold onto it until maturity and earn the face value plus the 3.75 percent interest.

At least one person offered to buy an IOU at more than face value as a keepsake.

“I am interested in purchasing a ‘State of California IOU’ as a souvenir,” the ad reads. “I figure it would be an interesting thing to have around when my grandchildren are fighting over my stuff after I’m dead and gone. I will pay two times face value (up to $100, or $50 face value) for a warrant/IOU.”

Of course, after July 10, the deadline that banks like BofA and Wells have given for exchanging these IOUs for cash, souvenirs may be the only value for these IOUs for a few months. Maybe Arnold will go to a baseball card convention and sign them himself!

Here's another FAQ about who receives IOUs and who does not. The unemployed, SSI/SSP recipients, state employees and retirees, IHSS and Medi-Cal providers will NOT receive IOUs. Welfare recipients, contractors with the state, local governments, and income tax refund recipients WILL get them. Felix Salmon made a handy chart that suggest the haves will keep getting paid and the have-nots won't, and that's somewhat true, but some have-nots who have the benefit of their services being partially provided by the Feds will get paid as well. In general, where you stand does depend on where you sit, in this crisis. This again makes clear that the idea of California debtholders, who get priority of payment in the state constitution over everything but education, getting stiffed by the state is a ridiculous one that pretty much cannot happen, and lowering bond ratings should be rightly seen as Wall Street gouging.

And I'll allow Karen Bass to explain exactly who's responsible for this particular outcome of IOUs and lowered bond ratings.

Small businesses, students, seniors, and taxpayers will all start receiving IOUS. This shameful day didn't have to arrive. In fact, Governor Schwarzenegger had several opportunities to prevent it.

On June 12 Governor Schwarzenegger unilaterally blocked the Controller's authority to secure short-term loans to avoid the cash crisis. He said, "let them have a taste of what it is like when the state comes to a shutdown -- grinding halt."

On June 25 after the governor called Senate Republicans to his office for private meetings, $4 billion in immediate cash solutions that had been passed on an overwhelming bipartisan majority in the Assembly were killed in the Senate.

Most recently, the governor vetoed a comprehensive package of budget solutions supported by majorities in both houses of the legislature that would have resolved the $19.5 billion deficit, left a $4.0 billion reserve, avoided the cash crisis and prevented IOUs [...]

We did offer, as a sign of good faith, to begin work immediately on reforms regarding restructuring Medi-Cal and eliminating fraud in the IHSS program. We also committed to working with the governor on other reform legislation for him to sign. But the governor wouldn't take "yes" for an answer. So California businesses, taxpayers and students will be receiving IOUs simply because Governor Schwarzenegger thought it was more important to immediately force last minute changes such as reducing future employee pensions, fingerprinting elderly and disabled Californians who receive services, and denying kids food stamps if their families can't access a computer to sign them up for the program.

See Noreen Evans for more.

The budget gap grows by $25 million a day and we have wasted billions of taxpayer dollars because the Governor wants to teach everyone a lesson. I hope that IOU secondary market is bigger than eBay, because those suffering with the consequences of dysfunction are going to need the help.

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Falling Behind

The value of a planned economy: no need for debates that can be hijacked by the forces of regress.

As the United States takes its first steps toward mandating that power companies generate more electricity from renewable sources, China already has a similar requirement and is investing billions to remake itself into a green energy superpower.

Through a combination of carrots and sticks, Beijing is starting to change how this country generates energy. Although coal remains the biggest energy source and is almost certain to stay that way, the rise of renewable energy, especially wind power, is helping to slow China’s steep growth in emissions of global warming gases [...]

This year China is on track to pass the United States as the world’s largest market for wind turbines — after doubling wind power capacity in each of the last four years. State-owned power companies are competing to see which can build solar plants fastest, though these projects are much smaller than the wind projects. And other green energy projects, like burning farm waste to generate electricity, are sprouting up.

To be clear, I don't SUPPORT the kind of totalitarianism evident in China, easier though it may make the transition to renewable energy. I wish that Republicans in this country would figure out that our value to the global economy lies in innovation and entrepreneurship, which is far more flexible here than in China, and if they would only allow it to flourish, America could easily become a world leader on this front. As it is, China uses its buying power and the relative alacrity with which they can turn the ship of state to crush us.

The article contains good news for the planet, and that supersedes the depressing news it augurs for this country's role in the post-American world, but it's frustrating to watch.

...meanwhile, in exceptional America, it takes months of browbeating for the EPA to reveal all the sites where coal ash can get into drinking water, rivers and streams.

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He Used To Be The Minority Whip

Harry Reid explains why, I'm guessing, that was a bad fit for him:

Reid says he expects the tactic of gentle persuasion to work best, given the size of his Senate Democratic flock and the political divergences within it. “I don’t dictate how people vote,” he said in an interview this month. “If it’s an important vote, I try to tell them how important it is to the Senate, the country, the president ... But I’m not very good at twisting arms. I try to be more verbal and non-threatening. So there are going to be — I’m sure — a number of opportunities for people who have different opinions not to vote the way that I think they should. But that’s the way it is. I hold no grudges.”

I'm sure that other Senate Democrats would say that this style works well - for them. They don't get pestered into votes they don't like to take, they don't have any consequences for their actions on the floor of the Senate.

But Lyndon Johnson just came back from the dead, read this profile, and stabbed himself in the heart.

Democratic politicians of this age like to speak about raw numbers and votes and lament the lack of the same. Even in this age of 60 Democratic votes, Reid in particular has worked overtime to downplay the significance, in that gentle, not arm-twisting manner of his. Of course, the facts are that 60 votes are only required to end debate, not for every particular bill. And participation in the caucus should mean, almost by definition, not joining in filibusters from the other side.

If I'm not mistaken, there was at one time at least some power in the office of Majority Leader of the Senate, after all. There are committee assignments to dole out, and decisions on funding vulnerable incumbents, or appearing in their states, and legislation that wayward members might need to get to the floor, among other things. There are a whole set of incentives that can work in both directions - carrots and sticks, in the vernacular. Harry Reid's a carrot man in a stick world. And the carrots haven't exactly been enough.

The only person who seems to understand the power of the office of Majority Leader is someone who isn't even in the party, Bernie Sanders, who gets that you can demand the caucus not to participate in Republican filibusters, which would necessarily end them. As soon as we get 40 or so more social democratic-leaning independents in the Senate, I nominate Sanders for Majority Leader. He seems to know what to do with the job.

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The Degrees Of Seriousness

Democrats and liberals are wrestling with whether or not to pass the Waxman-Markey climate and energy bill, whether the benefits outweigh the costs, whether the arm-twisting by the Speaker of the House was too unseemly - in other words, the typical sturm und drang exhibited often on the left, the crisis of conscience, the Hamlet-like paralysis of analysis, the desperate attempt to do the right thing.

On the right, they just lie about the bill and try to turn the side-work of a crank into a scandal worthy of a -gate suffix:

Conservatives are jumping up and down over a report by an EPA analyst expressing skepticism about climate change, which, they claim, was suppressed by agency brass because it didn't conform to Obama administration orthodoxy on global warming. The story has sparked explosive claims, on Fox News and other right-wing outlets, that the EPA censored scientific data for political reasons. And Monday, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) called for an outright criminal investigation into the matter.

But it's hard to blame EPA for not paying much attention to the study. And it's more than a little ironic that DC Republicans have chosen its author as their new standard-bearer in the defense of pure science against politics. Because the author, EPA veteran Al Carlin, is an economist, not a climate scientist. EPA says no one at the agency solicited the report. And Carlin appears to have taken up the global warming topic largely as a hobby on his own time. In fact, a NASA climatologist has called the report -- whose existence was first publicized last week by the industry-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) -- "a ragbag collection of un-peer reviewed web pages, an unhealthy dose of sunstroke, a dash of astrology and more cherries than you can poke a cocktail stick at."

I'm not saying that liberals should learn something from the "Big Lie" tactics of the right. But clearly when you have one responsible party and one who doesn't care about the truth, the latter will sound clearer, more direct and more palatable to the uninformed. It's just easier not to be serious about any of this.

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Such A Thing As Too Late

That was a line that Barack Obama used as a justification for running in the 2008 Presidential campaign, but he hasn't applied it yet to Afghanistan:

The mood of the Afghan people has tipped into a popular revolt in some parts of southern Afghanistan, presenting incoming American forces with an even harder job than expected in reversing military losses to the Taliban and winning over the population.

Villagers in some districts have taken up arms against foreign troops to protect their homes or in anger after losing relatives in airstrikes, several community representatives interviewed said. Others have been moved to join the insurgents out of poverty or simply because the Taliban’s influence is so pervasive here.

On Thursday morning, 4,000 American Marines began a major offensive to try to take back the region from the strongest Taliban insurgency in the country. The Marines are part of a larger deployment of additional troops being ordered by the new American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, to concentrate not just on killing Taliban fighters but on protecting the population.

Yet Taliban control of the countryside is so extensive in provinces like Kandahar and Helmand that winning districts back will involve tough fighting and may ignite further tensions, residents and local officials warn. The government has no presence in 5 of Helmand’s 13 districts, and in several others, like Nawa, it holds only the district town, where troops and officials live virtually under siege.

The Taliban’s influence is so strong in rural areas that much of the local population has accepted their rule and is watching the United States troop buildup with trepidation. Villagers interviewed in late June said that they preferred to be left alone under Taliban rule and complained about artillery fire and airstrikes by foreign forces.

“We Muslims don’t like them — they are the source of danger,” said a local villager, Hajji Taj Muhammad, of the foreign forces. His house in Marja, a town west of this provincial capital that has been a major opium trading post and Taliban base, was bombed two months ago, he said.

The current strategy of "clear, hold and build" might have worked in 2002 or 2003. Instead, the Bush Administration neglected the country, broke every single one of its promises to develop it, and used deadly airstrikes when it did try to maintain order, in most cases just leaving the villages to the predations of the Taliban. Now the Taliban is deeply embedded in the Pashtun areas in the south, and those in the villages correctly perceive the only trouble coming when US forces try to enter. This Taliban insurgency has less connection to the Wahhabist Islam sect and more a connection to the response of revenge. Lots of fighters have had their houses bombed and relatives killed and are acting to deny the occupiers, if they're not simply being paid by the Taliban enough to take up their cause.

The result is essentially a stalemate; the US cannot penetrate the Pashtun areas, and for that matter, the Taliban cannot penetrate the non-Pashtun areas, owing mainly to ethnic disparities and memories of past civil wars. I'm happy to be proven wrong by this latest offensive into Helmand Province, but I think it can only work if we adopt a "we had to destroy the village in order to save it" approach. And that will accomplish nothing.

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Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Inevitable Tax Drop

You can almost set your watch by it. The state budget picture is a mess, Democrats ask for a balanced solution, Republicans hold their ground and say no, Democrats don't have the vote so they let it go. It happens practically every single year, and it's happening again, according to CapAlert:

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said separately Thursday that they are optimistic a budget deal can be struck within several days.

The tone of their comments marked a stark contrast to Capitol fighting over the last few weeks between Democrats and Republicans over bridging the state's $26.3 billion budget gap.

Steinberg also said Democrats had given up any attempt to increase taxes on tobacco or establish an oil severance tax [...]

The Senate president said that Democrats no longer are pushing for a 9.9 percent tax on oil extraction or for hiking the state's tobacco tax by $1.50 per pack.

"We would like to see an increase in the tobacco tax and the oil severance tax as a solution, but in this chapter that's not realistic and it's not what we're holding out for," Steinberg said.

It's never going to be realistic in ANY CHAPTER. Republicans know exactly how to play this game. Their votes are needed for tax increases, so if they hang together they cannot lose. The Democrats haven't figured out how to shame the Yacht Party or make them pay for their votes, giving them no reason to do anything but hijack the process. You'll notice that as a result of this horrific experiment in governance, California is operating worse than practically every other state in the union.

We've seen this kind of "it's almost over" trial balloon on many occasions, so I wouldn't put on the party hats just yet. But somehow at the end of this process, somebody will step up to a microphone and claim how reaching agreement is a sign of success. No. It's a sign of failure. A failure to responsibly manage the state's finances, reflected by the worst economy in 70 years. The only lesson that can be learned from this process is that it's fundamentally broken.

P.S. You'll be thrilled to know that Schwarzenegger still sleeps well at night.

Schwarzenegger and I then repaired to a tent that he had put up in a courtyard next to his office, which allows him to smoke cigars legally at work (no smoking is allowed inside the Capitol). The tent is about 15 square feet, carpeted with artificial turf and outfitted with stylish furniture, an iPod, a video-conferencing terminal, trays of almonds, a chess table, a refrigerator and a large photo of the governor. Schwarzenegger reclined deeply in his chair, lighted an eight-inch cigar and declared himself “perfectly fine,” despite the fiscal debacle and personal heartsickness all around him. “Someone else might walk out of here every day depressed, but I don’t walk out of here depressed,” Schwarzenegger said. Whatever happens, “I will sit down in my Jacuzzi tonight,” he said. “I’m going to lay back with a stogie.”

This is the guy who dares to chide others for not doing their job.

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It's Good To Be The King

The loss of 467,000 jobs last month and the loss of practically every single job created this decade aside, at least some employees are back in business.

Business is back on Wall Street. If the good times continue to roll, lofty pay packages may be set for a comeback as well.

Based on analysts' earnings forecasts for 2009, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. is on track to pay out as much as $20 billion this year, or about $700,000 per employee. That would be nearly double the firm's $363,000 average last year, and slightly higher than the $661,000 for the average Goldman employee in fiscal 2007, according to analyst estimates reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Well, that was a close one! For a second I thought the banksters would have to SUFFER for the damage they caused blowing a hole in the global economy. Thankfully, that task will fall only to the rest of the population.

By the way, you really shouldn't miss Matt Taibbi's epic takedown of Goldman Sachs, arguably the most devious actor in this whole mess, in the latest issue of Rolling Stone. They haven't put it on their website yet, but Zero Hedge has a very hard-to-read copy. It's a comprehensive look at Goldman's increasing ubiquity throughout practically all of modern life, and their role in manipulating Wall Street and K Street to get favorable outcomes. Goldman is like the Borg, and the ruling class has been assimilated. Needless to say, Goldman's none too happy about having their agenda exposed. Taibbi responds here. He's one of the only journalists who would dare to write this story, and he should be credited for that.

...Taibbi's article is on the Rolling Stone site. But I agree with those in comments, anything that can be done to support Taibbi's work in this matter ought to be encouraged. Also, he appears to have stumbled upon a very serious issue about Goldman Sachs front-running its clients, which is basically buying a stock before executing a large trade for its clients and taking the profit.

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Most Dangerous Trouble Spot In The World Update

The Pakistani government should actually be commended for this recent move against their indigenous Taliban, now threatening to become a two-front war:

A militant commander in northwest Pakistan tore up a peace deal with the Pakistani government Tuesday, dealing a major blow to the government's campaign against Islamist insurgents in the extremist-controlled Waziristan region.

The commander, Gul Bahadur, who heads the Pakistani Taliban in North Waziristan, ended his pact with Islamabad and threatened more attacks on the army after an assault on a military convoy in his area Sunday claimed the lives of at least 16 soldiers.

Pakistan's military had sought to confine the battle in Waziristan to warlord Baitullah Mehsud, a rival of Bahadur and an ally of al Qaida who's led the militant takeovers of several other regions in northwest Pakistan, but now it finds itself facing both Baitullah Mehsud and Bahadur, as well as a third Taliban commander in the region bordering Afghanistan. Maulvi Nazir, an ally of Bahadur, also announced the end of a peace agreement with Pakistan in recent days.

The government is moving against this home-grown Taliban, not to be confused with the Afghan Taliban (which the military apparently supports), because it's good politics. Pakistan, contrary to popular belief, believes in civil society. The biggest demonstration in recent years there was a protest of the sacking of the chief justice of the Supreme Court. The images of Taliban members stoning a young girl inspired rage throughout the country and the scales feel from the eyes of those who formerly looked the other way at extremism.

A new poll by has found that the Pakistani public has turned against the Taliban in a big way, with 81% now seeing the Taliban in the Northwest of Pakistan as a critical threat to the country. This is up from 34% in September, 2007. And some two-thirds of Pakistanis view all religious militant groups in the country as a whole as a critical threat to it. This proportion is up from 38% in September of 2007, and it is a significant shift, since a lot of Pakistanis had view the religious militants as freedom fighters for the cause of Kashmir or the liberation of Afghanistan from Western occupation.

The bad news for President Obama is that the Pakistani public's souring on the Taliban has not resulted in higher favorability ratings for the United States. A majority does not trust Obama to do the right thing. Overwhelming majorities believe the US wants to divide and weaken the Muslim world, and 82% reject Obama's predator drone strikes on Pakistani soil. Some 79% want the war in Afghanistan ended now.

We can cheer a waning of religious nationalism in Pakistan, but must be mindful of the continuance of anti-imperialism. And the US engaging in surveillance flights over Pakistan and dropping Predator drone strikes won't help out self-image. We need to be happy about Pakistan's contribution to fighting extremist Islam, but we also need to get out of their way.

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Arnold Owes You

The IOUs are on the verge of being distributed. The Pooled Money Investment Board met today to hash out the terms for the IOUs, and surprise, there were some differences. The Governor wants a paltry 1.5% interest rate for the IOUs, and flexibility on repayment until as late as June 2010. That would be worse than a 1-year CD. Controller Chiang supports the staff recommendation of 3.75% interest rates and repayment in October. Chiang won. The board approved his terms.

The reason to offer a more attractive interest rate is to ensure that banks will actually cash them. Wells Fargo and Bank of America announced they will accept them, but only until July 10; after that, it's anybody's guess. Golden 1 Credit Union and Tri Counties bank of Chico also agreed to accept the warrants. This article gives a good rundown of how the IOUs will work. If your bank won't cash them, you're basically stuck with a piece of paper until October.

The most important question, of course, is why we're going down this costly route at all, when the Assembly and Senate Democrats fashioned a solution to avoid this. The answer is that the Governor wanted some leverage, the people be damned.

If the stigma of issuing IOUs triggers a budget deal in the coming days, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger might find redemption in his strategy of quashing a stopgap solution that would have avoided those non-cash payments.

But if no budget deal emerges soon, Schwarzenegger will have helped saddle the state with a lower credit rating and have nothing to show for it.

As a negotiating strategy, Schwarzenegger is counting on public pressure to mount against the Legislature as California issues IOUs today for only the second time since the Great Depression. The Republican governor could have backed legislation to avert IOUs this week, but he demanded that lawmakers solve the entire budget problem, which grew Wednesday to $26.3 billion [...]

Schwarzenegger wanted a full budget deal, and part of his calculation was likely that IOUs ramp up the stakes and force lawmakers to reach that goal sooner. Without IOUs, he figured lawmakers might have delayed compromise on the rest of the package, costing the state in a different way.

"If he had signed the stopgap measures, the Legislature would have gone home for Fourth of July weekend and come back when the threat of IOUs came up again," said Tim Hodson, executive director of the Center for California Studies at California State University, Sacramento. "I'm sure the governor went over this and thought: Are the consequences of the delay worse, and would he have lost the leverage that he has now?"

Well, this is a game played with people's lives. If banks won't cash IOUs, you can be sure Rite-Aid won't accept them. Or landlords. Or health care providers. In addition, this little power play cost taxpayers between $2 and $7 billion dollars, which I don't see Schwarzenegger going into his wallet to cover.

Rather than shock doctrine the legislature into making major policy changes as a condition of passing a budget, a more likely scenario is that this train wreck will spark reform efforts to finally get off this perpetual track of hijacking and stubbornness.

If California has become ungovernable, and teeters now on the brink of bankruptcy, it is due less to excessive spending than a deficit in democracy - the very essence of which is majority rule. A simply worded, one-paragraph initiative to restore majority rule in the Legislature might well prove resoundingly successful with a crisis-weary electorate. And while it may not be sufficient in itself to repair the state's balance sheet and fix its broken governance, restoring majority rule is the necessary first step toward ending gridlock, renewing public confidence, and preventing extremists of whatever stripe from holding future legislatures hostage to their own narrow agendas.

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All Of A Sudden, 25 Years In Afghanistan?

The US military has begun essentially its first large-scale mission in Afghanistan in many years, an effort to retake Helmand province from Taliban insurgents and remain in the area to "clear, hold and build".

Almost 4,000 United States Marines, backed by helicopter gunships, pushed into the volatile Helmand River valley in southwestern Afghanistan early Thursday morning to try to take back the region from Taliban fighters whose control of poppy harvests and opium smuggling in Helmand provides major financing for the Afghan insurgency.

The Marine Expeditionary Brigade leading the operation represents a large number of the 21,000 additional troops that President Obama ordered to Afghanistan earlier this year amid rising violence and the Taliban’s increasing domination in much of the country. The operation is described as the first major push in southern Afghanistan by the newly bolstered American force [...]

The Marines say their new mission, called Operation Khanjar, will include more troops and resources than ever before, as well as a commitment by the troops to live and patrol near population centers to ensure that residents are protected. More than 600 Afghan soldiers and police officers are also involved.

“What makes Operation Khanjar different from those that have occurred before is the massive size of the force introduced, the speed at which it will insert, and the fact that where we go we will stay, and where we stay, we will hold, build and work toward transition of all security responsibilities to Afghan forces,” the Marine commander in Helmand Province, Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, said in a statement released after the operation began.

Whatever you think of this strategy, it should be mentioned that it's different from the stated goal of the President from back in March, which was more a decapitation strategy to capture and kill Taliban and deny Al Qaeda safe havens. This is a counter-insurgency strategy to "drink lots of tea," "eat lots of goat", and win the hearts and minds of the population. I understand how denying the Taliban freedom to operate in Helmand and denying them safe havens dovetail. But this sounds a lot like nation-building to me:

“Our focus is not the Taliban,” Nicholson told his officers. “Our focus must be on getting this government back up on its feet.”

I keep hearing that economic development is the key to success in Afghanistan, and not the military. But a COIN strategy in this fractured country that has practically never known a central government seems really flimsy. Especially when the civilian surge hasn't materialized, meaning that troops are being turned into psychologists and economic development experts.

Counter-insurgency operations are long-term and take large numbers of troops. Shouldn't we have a public debate about such a change in strategy rather than springing it on the public without discussion? I don't want to keep adding troops into a black hole, and the White House has appeared to draw the line on that, but their new strategy cuts against that policy. It's another version of war on the cheap to make it politically palatable.

Meanwhile, a Marine has been captured by the Taliban, and let's hope he can be returned safely.

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The Change We Need?

The President held a health care town hall yesterday, and reporters are cooing about the staged nature of the questions, but the President was asked why we can't have a single-payer system, why Congress wants to "tax health care benefits," why the whole thing isn't just about tort reform, and a pretty broad cross-section of the full debate. I didn't rally see the press corps get much deeper than that in all of their queries on this subject.

On the single-payer question, the President basically announced the triumph of politics over policy in the health care debate.

THE PRESIDENT: Sure. Well, it's a terrific question. I'm not sure if everybody could hear it, but the gist of the question is, why have we not been looking at a single-payer plan as the way to go?

As many of you know, in many countries, most industrialized advanced countries, they have some version of what's called a single-payer plan. And what that means is essentially that the government is the insurer. The government may not necessarily hire the doctors or the hospitals -- a lot of those may still be privately operated -- but the government is the insurer for everybody. And Medicare is actually a single-payer plan that we have in place, but we only have it in place for our older Americans.

Now, in a lot of those countries, a single-payer plan works pretty well and you eliminate, as Scott, I think it was, said, you eliminate private insurers, you don't have the administrative costs and the bureaucracy and so forth.

Here's the problem, is that the way our health care system evolved in the United States, it evolved based on employers providing health insurance to their employees through private insurers. And so that's still the way that the vast majority of you get your insurance. And for us to transition completely from an employer-based system of private insurance to a single-payer system could be hugely disruptive. And my attitude has been that we should be able to find a way to create a uniquely American solution to this problem that controls costs but preserves the innovation that is introduced in part with a free market system.

I think that we can regulate the insurance companies effectively; make sure that they're not playing games with people because of preexisting conditions; that they're not charging wildly different rates to people based on where they live or what their age is; that they're not dropping people for coverage unnecessarily; that we have a public option that's available to provide competition and choice to the American people, and to keep the insurers honest; and that we can provide a system in which we are, over the long term, driving down administrative costs, and making sure that people are getting the best possible care at a lower price.

But I recognize that there are lot of people who are passionate -- they look at France or some of these other systems and they say, well, why can't we just do that? Well, the answer is, is that this is one-sixth of our economy, and we're not suddenly just going to completely upend the system. We want to build on what works about the system and fix what's broken about the system. And that's what I think Congress is committed to doing, and I'm committed to working with them to make it happen. Okay?

I'm not saying that the President is wrong - except about France, where 86% of the public actually has supplementary insurance, mostly through employers. But it's true that upending the employer-based system would be disruptive and politically unpalatable, and firing everyone in the insurance industry en masse would be chaotic, and so on. The problem is that this further entrenches a fairly inefficient way of delivering health care, namely the employer-based system. In fact the goal of a reform with an employer mandate would be to get more people covered by their employers. So we move forward with a comprehensive incrementalism, building on the historical accident that is the present system, and trying to plug every leak in it, by encouraging employers to cover their workers, providing a health insurance exchange for those who don't, adding an individual mandate, forcing insurers to accept everyone, using a public plan to bring down costs, instituting reforms to Medicare and Medicaid, trying to get doctors to stop ordering up so much treatments that are unnecessary, etc. You're doing forty things at once to band-aid the current system instead of adopting a new one.

I agree, that approach IS uniquely American. But that doesn't make it terribly bright. I do understand the rationale - large majorities like the health care they get, so they perpetuate the system, and it's easy to demonize reform by saying "you'll get kicked off your current coverage." But the politics and the policy are not well-aligned. And the result is an uneasy compromise.

I do think that the President and the DNC are doing the right thing on the politics - highlighting the health care horror stories that bring this home and make it real, and demanding change. It's just a question of whether the change that ultimately will result is significant enough.

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Going after Blanche Lincoln on the public option

The HELP Committee's release of a more affordable health care reform that covers more people and includes a public option highlights the essential truth of this issue, that more reform actually lowers the cost and increases the effectiveness. Kay Hagan, once thought to be the lone holdout in the Committee on the public option, reportedly supports the final bill. Perhaps she wanted to avoid the spectacle of breast cancer survivors coming to her office and demanding that she not stand in the way of real health care reform. Other moderate Dems, like Mary Landrieu, are feeling the pressure from their constituents.

Now it's time to take on Blanche Lincoln (D-AR).

Like other so-called moderates, Lincoln has so far rejected the public plan option for health care, preferring the pale alternative of state-run co-ops. She fears that consumers would have better choices, lower premiums and better care, for all intents and purposes.

“One of our biggest concerns is that it doesn’t need to be a government plan that usurps that ability to compete in the marketplace, which I’m concerned that a totally government-run option would do,” she said.

Blanche Lincoln is one of the few Democrats wavering on this element of health care reform who faces re-election in 2010. Unlike some of the others, she is more directly accountable to the voters. But she probably feels more accountable to insurance companies - she's taken hundreds of thousands in campaign contributions from them over the years, and in those years Arkansas has practically become a one-horse town when it comes to insurance:

The Justice Department considers an industry to be “highly concentrated” if one company has 42 percent of the market. In Arkansas — Senator Lincoln should take note — Blue Cross Blue Shield has 75 percent of the market. If you take government self-insurance plans out of the equation, it's higher. The state ranks as the ninth most concentrated in the country. Is it any wonder that insurance premiums have risen five times as fast as wages?

If we can highlight this inequity and bring Lincoln around, we can win this debate. Blue America PAC, which includes progressive bloggers like John Amato (Crooks and Liars), Jane Hamsher (Firedoglake), Howie Klein (Down With Tyranny) and Digby, decided to launch the Campaign for Health Care Choice, raising money for ads targeting Lincoln in her own state over health care reform and the public option.

I was pleased to help in this effort. Digby wrote the spots. Amato provided the location. I directed them and edited them. Brave New Films supplied logistics and equipment. And as a result, we created 3 HD spots that force Sen. Lincoln to make a choice between insurers or the people.

Now, Blue America wants you to choose the best spot that we will run in Arkansas starting next week.

We aren't standing still while the fat cats get fatter. So here's the thing. We've produced three different commercials with the help of BNF's to run in Lincoln's state of Arkansas and we need your help.

We've already raised over $18,000 so far and that's awesome, but what we want you to do next is it to vote for the ad that you think we should run first and you'll be letting us know by adding one, two, or three cents at the end of your donation on our Blue America's Campaign For Health Care page. Here's how it will go.

#1 Blue America Health Care Campaign - Blanche Lincoln: "I Thought We Had Insurance" Add one cent to your contribution if you want to vote for this spot.

#2 Blue America Health Care Campaign - Blanche Lincoln: "Bonuses" Add two cents to your contribution if you want to vote for this spot.

#3 Blue America Health Care Campaign - Blanche Lincoln: "Bailout" Add three cents to your contribution if you want to vote for this spot.

The deadline is Friday at noon. The spot that earns the most money by then will get run in Arkansas. Go to this Act Blue page to cast your vote.

More broadly, progressive action on this debate is crucial to letting lawmakers know about the consequences of a bad reform. Even the HELP Committee option on the public plan and health insurance exchanges is not necessarily sufficient to alter the perverse incentives in the system. Designing a large insurance exchange that is national in scope can break the local monopolies that insurers have in their states, and adding a public plan to that exchange will force them to compete on price and quality instead of on how many people they can deny coverage. The House bill improves upon the HELP bill, which improves upon the Senate Finance Committee bill. We need to get the dynamic for lawmakers moving in the right direction. And so grassroots action and pressure can go a long way to having Senators like Blanche Lincoln afraid to vote against a popular policy that is also more fiscally responsible. If the reform gets whittled down to nothing, Democrats will own a bad reform, face a massive backlash, and will lose their advantage on domestic issues generally. We must implement legislation that works.

So contribute to this campaign if you can, and vote for your favorite spot to run in Arkansas.


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A Win For Repression In Iran

The Iranian protests are, it's fair to say, at a low ebb. The media has largely moved on, and the lack of bearing witness has emboldened the ruling regime to crack down further against demonstrations. There's even a report that some Mousavi supporters were hanged in the city of Mashhad. Worst, leading cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, thought to be controlling the protests behind the scenes, is now deferring to the Supreme Leader:

Rafsanjani referred to the recent incidents after the results of the presidential elections, saying: "The incidents were the results of complicated plots by obscure sources with the aim of creating separation and differences between the people and the system. And with the aim of making the people distrust the Islamic system."

He said Ayatollah Khamene'i's expedience in extending the deadline by the Guardian Council for a better study of the issues and providing convincing explanations and clearing any doubts was a very valuable measure. He added: "In my opinion, the recent order by the leadership was one of the very valuable decisions he made. That is he asked the Guardian Council to extend the legal time, which was over, to study the complaints. And a group was appointed to help the Guardian Council with this regard."

Rafsanjani said: "We should all make a step with cooperation and solidarity to remove the obstacles and solve the problems." He also said: "We should always end the election results with solidarity. If every election would result in discord - we have an election once a year - and there would be hatred and fighting, then there will be nothing left."

Rafsanjani, a billionaire and a member of the establishment, has gamed this out, presumably, and realized that the reformers could not currently win. So he's backing off. Mir Hossein Mousavi is not, and he's probably in line for jail time shortly. The regime is too repressive and too in control to really radically break through right now. It took the 1979 revolution a year or more of planning, so this entire situation is in the early stages. But the ruling regime has clearly won the first battle.

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I don't care about any of this, Nico Pitney is still such a dick:

For $25,000 to $250,000, The Washington Post has offered lobbyists and association executives off-the-record, nonconfrontational access to "those powerful few": Obama administration officials, members of Congress, and — at first — even the paper’s own reporters and editors.

The astonishing offer was detailed in a flier circulated Wednesday to a health care lobbyist, who provided it to a reporter because the lobbyist said he felt it was a conflict for the paper to charge for access to, as the flier says, its “health care reporting and editorial staff."

With the newsroom in an uproar after POLITICO reported the solicitation, Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli said in a staffwide e-mail that the newsroom would not participate in the first of the planned events — a dinner scheduled July 21 at the home of Publisher and Chief Executive Officer Katharine Weymouth.

The offer — which essentially turns a news organization into a facilitator for private lobbyist-official encounters — was a new sign of the lengths to which news organizations will go to find revenue at a time when most newspapers are struggling for survival.

I know that newspapers are having cash-flow problems, but this is absolutely beyond the pale. For all the stories about blogger ethics, I don't have access to anyone at the highest levels of government that I can sell.

Their explanation for this is pretty weasel-worded: "The flier circulated this morning came out of a business division for conferences and events, and the newsroom was unaware of such communication. It went out before it was properly vetted, and this draft does not represent what the company’s vision for these dinners are, which is meant to be an independent, policy-oriented event for newsmakers. As written, the newsroom could not participate in an event like this."

First of all, "the newsroom" members were not the only ones involved in this. Second, the "as written" addendum renders this explanation meaningless. A tweak here, a tweak there, and everyone's right back in business. But I'm sure the elites will tell us how this is perfectly normal, nothing to see here, etc.

There's a petition asking the Washington Post to publish a full list of all lobbyists who participate in these salons and trade dollars for access.

These "salons" have already been cancelled, and look what the Publisher says was the real problem:

"Absolutely, I'm disappointed," Weymouth, the chief executive of Washington Post Media, said in an interview. "This should never have happened. The fliers got out and weren't vetted. They didn't represent at all what we were attempting to do. We're not going to do any dinners that would impugn the integrity of the newsroom."

Translation: "And I would have got away with it, too, if it weren't for you meddling kids."

Well, I'm glad that whole mess is over. Now the Post can go back to being influenced by lobbyists and setting conventional wisdom in Washington without all that dirty money changing hands.

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CA-45: Bono Mack Being Hunted

Mary Bono Mack has in her career adeptly threaded the needle, voting mostly with the right but surprising on just enough bills every year to appear moderate to her district, which went for Barack Obama in 2008 and has a PVI of only R+3. But her yes vote on the Waxman-Markey climate and energy bill has incensed conservatives, so much so that they are waging jihad against not only Bono Mack but her Congressman husband, who by the way voted against Waxman-Markey.

So it was probably a bit of a shock to her when she saw the headline above that I captured in a screen shot from the Republican Party blog, Red State: Mary Bono Mack Should Be Burned In Effigy And Voted out Of Office. It was written by Georgia Republican Party operative Erick Erickson and something tells me Erickson isn't about to endorse Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet, who's not just gay, but married (to another man) and happily raising their two children! Too far a stretch for Republicans who seem to always be involved with "opposite marriages," or whatever they call the degrading situations traditional marriage sanctity defenders like Mark Sanford, David Diapers Vitter, Larry Craig and John Ensign are in.

Erickson and the fringe loons on the furthest reaches of the non-criminal right are so upset with Bono Mack that they are threatening to not just defeat her but to go after the right-wing extremist husband to boot! He demands that she vote against health care reform and against the energy bill when it comes back from the Senate-- where it will probably be watered down and look more acceptable to mainstream conservatives!!!-- or face the consequences.

"Otherwise, we beat her and her husband at the polls.

Yes, you heard me. We can get at Mary Bono Mack in two ways-- her district and that of her husband. He should feel the heat just as much as her."

Now, Erickson is a silly person. And his frothing at the mouth is unlikely to result in any change in CA-45. However, I wonder if they can entice some far-right activist to run in the primary. Gary Jeandron, who lost to Manuel Perez convincingly in 2008, is supposedly preparing for a rematch. But AD-80 is far less cordial to Republicans than CA-45 is. And maybe enough foot-stomping tea partiers can persuade him - or some other teabagger - to challenge Bono Mack in the primary. As one of only 8 Republicans to vote for the Waxman-Markey bill (and one of them, John McHugh, is about to become Barack Obama's Secretary of the Army), the wingnuts don't have many targets. Bono Mack may have poked her head up on the wrong bill.

This could be a good time to check out Steve Pougnet.

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I Don't See That Curve Bending

We're still in uncharted economic territory:

Employers cut a larger-than-expected 467,000 jobs in June, driving the unemployment rate up to a 26-year high of 9.5 percent, suggesting that the economy's road to recovery will be bumpy.

The Labor Department report, released Thursday, showed that even as the recession flashes signs of easing, companies likely will want to keep a lid on costs and be wary of hiring until they feel certain the economy is on solid ground.

June's payroll reductions were deeper than the 363,000 that economists expected and average weekly earnings dropped to the lowest level in nearly a year.

However, the rise in the unemployment rate from 9.4 percent in May wasn't as sharp as the expected 9.6 percent. Still, many economists predict the jobless rate will hit 10 percent this year, and keep rising into next year, before falling back.

All told, 14.7 million people were unemployed in June.

Here's the latest chart showing job losses, from Calculated Risk:

We have two problems threatening economic recovery: joblessness and foreclosures. The stimulus is supposed to at least mitigate the former, and the Obama Administration is expanding their program to mitigate the latter, including homeowners that owe up to 125% of the value of their homes on their mortgages into their modification plans.

Neither look to be sufficient for the scale of the problem. It's almost unfair what the President has had to deal with since coming into office, but I fear we're in something of a death spiral.

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HELP Committee Gets A Good Score

Reformers in the health care debate have a right to be pleased by the latest release of the CBO score for the bill coming out of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. The baseline numbers are that 97% of the population would be covered for a total cost of $611 billion over 10 years. That sounds too good to be true! A better plan than the Senate Finance Committee's, including a public option, at a fraction of the cost! Only this number, like the previous HELP Committee score, is a bit incomplete. The news remains good, however.

The short version is this: CBO estimates that by 2019 the bill will cover 21 million people at a cost of $597 billion. But -- and this is important -- the HELP Committee's bill doesn't include the Medicaid expansion, because Medicaid is under the sole jurisdiction of the Finance Committee. But if Medicaid is expanded to 150 percent, it will cover an additional 20 million at a cost of about $1 trillion. Add in the savings that Finance is expected to get from reforming Medicare and you're looking at a bill that will cost $1 trillion to $1.3 trillion and cover 42 million people (which would mean 97 percent of the legal population in 2019 would have health insurance) by 2019.

Jon Cohn has a fuller explanation. But this gets us back to basically where reformers expected the score to be in the first place - a successful plan with a cost that remains a fraction of overall health care spending and, if offset properly, would not raise the deficit at all. The "down payment" of funding that the President put down previously would get you 50%-65% of the way there, which is much better than expected considering that this covers practically everyone.

The question then becomes, why did the HELP Committee write such a better bill? I think the working assumption has always been that the HELP Committee is more liberal than the Finance Committee, and that health care is one of those issues where more reform aligns with cheaper overall costs and better effectiveness. Think Progress attributes the new score to the inclusion of a public option, but Ezra says it's because of the employer mandate:

The June 15th proposal didn't include an employer mandate. And without one, the news was grim: Employers would drop coverage for 15 million employees and send them to the Health Insurance Exchange where they would need government subsidies to afford health insurance. That meant costs exploded and coverage contracted. Health reform looked like a bum deal.

But oh, what a difference a mandate makes: The new version of the HELP bill includes an employer mandate for firms with more than 25 workers. Every full-time worker who isn't given health-care coverage triggers a penalty of $750. Every part-time employee not given coverage costs $375. Doesn't seem like very much, does it? But it's enough. In Massachusetts, the employer mandate has been a success with a piddling $295 penalty. Indeed, the evidence we have suggests that the small penalty creates a massive change in behavior.

And you see the result in CBO's latest score. The June 15 report estimated that 15 million Americans would lose their employer-based coverage under HELP's bill. Today's report estimates that a mere 150,000 will lose their coverage. That's nothing. And it means that a lot more Americans end up insured and the government spends a lot less in subsidies.

The HELP Committee document highlights both the public insurance option and the employer mandate, so they obviously feel comfortable that both elements explain the more favorable score.

I personally think the employer-based system has flaws (and I'd think employers would want out of it), but a mandate combined with generous subsidies for those who have no job could combine to jury-rig a decent system, especially with cost controls.

For a few reasons, this really helps those supporting a public plan in the debate. Even if you understand the CBO scoring mechanism, it's a cheaper solution that covers more people than the Finance Committee's. And the baseline numbers will be distorted IN THE DIRECTION of reform, rather than away from it, which happened with the first HELP Committee bill. The point is that we now know what a comprehensive health care reform would look like and cost, based on best estimates. And since this public plan is more akin to Chuck Schumer's and somewhat weaker than, say, the House Tri-Committee version, potentially even more savings could arise from THAT CBO score. At that point, the public option becomes the fiscally responsible option. And while that hasn't stopped the fiscal scolds before, the momentum for inclusion would be hard to stop.

...This, from a WaPo chat with Ezra, sums up my feelings:

Ezra Klein: I think the real problem with a system built around an employer mandate is that it's still a system built around employers, which means that it's still crazily inefficient and patchwork. What you're basically seeing here is tension between the politics and policy of health reform. The politics say leave what everyone has alone. The policy says change everything because what we have now doesn't work. And the politics are winning.

...worth posting the President's reaction:

For decades, Washington has failed to act as health care costs continued to rise, crushing businesses, families and placing an unsustainable burden on governments. Today the Senate HELP committee has produced legislation that lowers costs, protects choice of doctors and plans and assures quality and affordable health care for Americans. The Congressional Budget Office has now issued a more complete review of this bill, concluding that it will cost less and cover more Americans than originally estimated. It also contains provisions that will protect the coverage Americans get at work. When merged with the Senate Finance Committee’s companion pieces, the Senate will be prepared to vote for health reform legislation that does not add to the deficit, reduces health care costs and covers 97% of Americans.

The HELP Committee legislation reflects many of the principles I’ve laid out, such as reforms that will prohibit insurance companies from refusing coverage for people with pre-existing conditions and the concept of insurance exchanges where individuals can find affordable coverage if they lose their jobs, move or get sick. Such a marketplace would allow families and some small businesses the benefit of one-stop-shopping for their health care coverage and enable them to compare price and quality and pick the plan that best suits their needs.

Among the choices that would be available in the exchange would be a public health insurance option. The public option would make health care affordable by increasing competition, providing more choices and keeping the insurance companies honest.

The legislation also improves the quality of patient care, improves safety for patients and strengthens the commitment to preventive health care – preventing people from getting sick in the first place.

I thank chairman Kennedy, Senator Dodd, and all the members of the HELP Committee for their hard work on health reform.

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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Scalia Throws A Curve

While there's no question the Supreme Court has tilted significantly to the right, in one case at the end of this session, they squeaked through a very damaging policy for the banking lobby. And believe it or not, it took Antonin Scalia to do it - I guess he's the new "swing vote":

In a rebuke of the Bush administration, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that a federal bank regulator erred in quashing efforts by New York state to combat the kind of predatory mortgage lending that triggered the nation's financial crisis.

The 5-4 ruling by the high court was unusual. Justice Antonin Scalia, arguably the most conservative jurist, wrote the majority's opinion and was joined by the court's four liberal judges.

The five justices held that contrary to what the Bush administration had argued, states can enforce their own laws on matters such as discrimination and predatory lending, even if that crosses into areas under federal regulation [...]

The ruling angered many in the financial sector, who fear it'll lead to a patchwork of state laws that'll make it harder for banks and other financial firms to take a national approach to the marketplace.

"We are worried about the effect that this ruling could have on the markets," said Rich Whiting, general counsel for the Financial Services Roundtable, a trade group representing the nation's 100 largest financial firms, in a statement. The decision "hinders the ability of financial services firms from conducting business in the United States. Even worse, it will cause confusion for consumers, especially those who move from state to state."

If there's one thing I love seeing in print, it's the words "the ruling angered many in the financial sector."

The near-term practical effect of this is that the states can resume looking into the lending practices of the banks in their regions, and potentially take them to court. Andrew Cuomo, the winner in this lawsuit, has been doing some of the best work in the country fighting the banks, and now he's empowered to continue.

These kinds of rules preventing pre-emption of the state laws when it comes to financial services are one key element of the creation of the new Consumer Financial Protection Agency, which the banks also can't stand, because it would consolidate consumer protection laws and enforce rigid standards for mortgages, credit cards, payday lending and consumer credit. Cue the whining:

"We have the view that the market, left to its own devices, isn't always going to lead to an optimal outcome for consumers," Michael Barr, the assistant treasury secretary for financial institutions, said in a news briefing.

Financial institutions said the move went beyond a step back to regulation.

"This is going in headfirst," said Scott Talbott, the senior vice president of government affairs for the Financial Services Roundtable, the lobby for the nation's biggest financial firms. "This could take us back to the 1950s."

While denying that the legislation is heavy-handed, Barr acknowledged that it would open a new era of financial regulation.

"I don't think it's a surprise that big banks and institutions that benefited from the status quo want to keep it that way. It's unacceptable to us," he said.

Now, if we actually can get this modern-day Pecora Commission off the ground, we'll at least have a multi-pronged approach to going after those who caused the financial crisis and continue to rip off their customers. I'm not all that optimistic, given the fact that the banksters own the place. But at least we have a chance.

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Too Wingnutty For The Wingnuts

Michelle Bachmann is so out of her mind that the guy who called Barack Obama uppity and the Billy Zabka of the GOP are telling here to pipe down a bit:

Three Republican congressman have publicly chastised fellow Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) for declaring that she would not fill out her census form.

"Boycotting the constitutionally mandated Census is illogical, illegal and not in the best interest of our country," said Reps. Patrick McHenry (N.C.), Lynn Westmoreland (Ga.) and John Mica (Fla.), members of the Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census, and National Archives in a statement Wednesday.

Even conspiracy-theorist Fox News host Glenn Beck found Bachmann's anti-census stance baffling.

They apparently tried to approach Bachmann privately, and she wouldn't budge, so they decided to publicly embarrass her.

If the rightward drift of the Republican Party continues, I think she's a leading 2012 candidate now.

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A Sad, Pathetic Man

Arnold Schwarzenegger thinks he's got a "hook" for the budget crisis. It's so stupid it'll probably work.

In between vetoing acceptable solutions for the budget crisis, Schwarzenegger directed his staff to create a YouTube video of a Senate hearing held today on SB 135, which would ban animal cruelty and the practice of tail docking of dairy cows. Simply because it's mildly annoying to have a tail in their faces while working, farmers chop them off of cows, for no material benefit to hygeine or anything else, and to the potential detriment of milk production by increasing stress. It's illegal in much of Europe and opposed by the American Veterinary Medical Association. There's an article here.

Apparently the 63% of the voters who passed Prop. 2 last November were wrong - animal cruelty is a secondary issue to the very important work of wasting billions of dollars through stubbornness.

So in the YouTube video Schwarzenegger cuts back and forth from the hearing to his schoolmarmish denunciation in his press conference to create the impression that "in the midst of the budget crisis, the Senate is debating cow tails."

Hey Arnold, this is something called "governing." I know you know nothing about it, since you spent a month dithering with different budget solutions while the legislature was holding a month's worth of public sessions on the budget. But lawmakers actually can do more than one thing at a time. Some have standing committees, while others, in the leadership, can run into the brick wall that is the California budget process over and over, a brick wall you just applied with a new coat of paint by vetoing real solutions that would have stopped $7 billion dollars in additional cuts and the issuance of IOUs. For anyone who has been this much of a failure to say one word about how OTHER people govern is absurd.

By the way, Darrell Steinberg has already cancelled all future policy committee hearings to focus on the budget, which I think is a silly and unnecessary reaction to the rantings of a dullard Governor. But as long as we're going down this road, here are a few tweets I contributed exposing the Governor's horrible inattention in the midst of a budget crisis:

Right now, in the midst of a budget crisis @Schwarzenegger actually slept for EIGHT HOURS! That's not leadership #cabudget
19 minutes ago from web

Right now, in the midst of a budget crisis @Schwarzenegger had dinner... at a restaurant! That's not leadership #cabudget
19 minutes ago from web

Right now, in the midst of a budget crisis @Schwarzenegger excused himself to go to the bathroom! That's not leadership #cabudget
19 minutes ago from web

Right now, in the midst of a budget crisis @Schwarzenegger breathed both in and out! That's not leadership #cabudget
18 minutes ago from web

Join in with your own if you want.

This is just idiotic grandstanding from the Governor, who appears to know nothing about public policy or the American system of government. Any reporter who runs with this should be ashamed of themselves.

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