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

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Teach The Controversy

Ceci Connolly, well-known around these parts, has a "teach the controversy" article out today about the utter B.S. flung about on talk radio and promoted by serial liar Betsy McCaughey that the Democratic health care plan surreptitiously seeks to send roving verbal hit squads out to the sticks to talk the elderly into suicide. Connolly, in her role as a stenographer, dutifully transcribes the claims from all sides of the "debate". In the second paragraph she gets close to actually explaining the language in the bill:

The controversy stems from a proposal to pay physicians who counsel elderly or terminally ill patients about what medical interventions they would prefer near the end of life and how to prepare instructions such as living wills. Under the plan, Medicare would reimburse doctors for one session every five years to confer with a patient about his or her wishes and how to ensure those preferences are followed. The counseling sessions would be voluntary.

That's not even totally correct, I wouldn't call Medicare covering end of life counseling a proposal to "pay physicians." Unless you want to call Medicare covering hip surgery as a proposal to pay physicians to take out people's hips.

You can read the provision right here. And the story could have ended there. But Connolly and her editors find it more exciting to give lots of space to those distorting the bill, without really coming down on one side or the other. The heading over Connolly's articles on this subject say "Tracking the Health Care Debate." I guess it's someone else's job to track the truth.

You know what would have been an interesting wrinkle in the article? Besides actually saying who's right and who's wrong, I mean. The tidbit that Sen. Susan Collins actually introduced this language back in the spring.

On May 22nd, Senators Collins and Jay Rockefeller introduced the “Advance Planning and Compassionate Care Act,” according to a press release sent over by a source. The measure provides Medicare funding “for advance care planning so that patients can routinely talk to their physicians about their wishes for end-of-life care,” the release says.

Collins praised the measure, which may be included in the Senate health care bill, in the release. “Our legislation will improve the way our health care system care for patients at the end of their lives,” she said, “and it will also facilitate appropriate discussions and individual autonomy in making decisions about end-of-life care.”

Maybe someone should ask Senator Collins whether she’s concerned that Federal funding for end of life consultations could result in “government-encouraged euthanasia,” as we keep hearing. Come to think of it, maybe I’ll ask her.

What a reporter like this would say is that they have a fact-check department, and they write articles about their fact-checking, and the point of this article is to highlight the "debate". I don't really understand how that illuminates much of anything. An article with the opening line "A campaign on late-night radio promoting theories that the Earth is flat and sailors fall off the side of the world just past the horizon have sparked fear among seafaring families" wouldn't be particularly helpful to anyone. I do think Democrats have shown a basic unwillingness to decide whether to ignore B.S. like this and let it fester or attack it and give it more attention, but a journalist writing about it should probably make pretty clear that only one side is telling the truth. There is actually no convention of balance in journalism, that's a recently invented altar upon which the modern press corps bends and prays.

Labels: , , , , , , ,


Still Lots Of Pork In The Defense Bill

I still consider it a big victory for Obama and those who want to eventually see the military-industrial complex neutered to see additional funding for the F-22 fighter struck from the defense appropriations bill. I'm glad the Pentagon took a stand. But the final House version of the bill still includes numerous weapons systems that the White House never called for.

The House approved a $636 billion defense spending bill Thursday after voting to strip money for the controversial F-22 fighter. However, it left funding in place for several other military programs that the Obama administration said it does not want [...]

The White House also hinted that a veto might occur if the bill included funding for the VH-71 presidential helicopter and for an alternative engine program for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. But money for both programs remained, as did funding for other items the Pentagon does not want -- extra C-17 transport planes and F-18 jets, as well as the Kinetic Energy Interceptor, a missile defense program.

(Good for the House, by the way, getting all of their appropriations bills done by the end of July. Majoritarian government is efficient government!)

This unwanted equipment totals almost $7 billion dollars at a time when we need to beg and scrape for $2 billion more for the wildly successful cash for clunkers program (just a side note on that, this Economist writer is relying on theory of the program offering little environmental benefit, and not the practice that fuel efficiency has shot up 69% in the cars traded in, saving consumers $187 million in gasoline and reducing carbon emissions by 655,000 metric tons).

Congress will be Congress, as they say. It's just difficult to get things out of the system once they become entrenched. And for every F-22 victory, there are billions of dollars in lesser-known projects that are just as useless and constrain our budgets. We still have a long way to go.

Labels: , , , ,


Under The Wire

The House Energy and Commerce Committee passed out their health care bill by a bare margin, 31-28, as the Blue Dog deal held and the set of amended amendments that progressives demanded return to the bill got put in place as well.

In an unusual move before the final vote, Waxman halted the markup to have a closed-door meeting with Democrats on his panel – presumably to make sure he had the votes to pass the bill.

The final vote was 31-28, with five Democrats opposing the measure. Democrats who voted no were Reps. Rick Boucher (Va.), Bart Stupak (Mich.), Jim Matheson (Utah), John Barrow (Ga.) and Charles Melancon (La.). All Republicans rejected the bill [...]

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) indicated on Friday that some of the most hard-fought provisions of the healthcare bill -- including parts meant to appease conservative Democrats -- could change by the time the final measure reaches the House floor.

"I have three chairmen to deal with," Pelosi said. "We have three committees that have to look at it."

As it turns out, the committee has about 60 or so amendments left to deal with, but they couldn't eat one day into their summer break, so they'll clean that up when they get back, apparently. How the Speaker can merge the bills together while 60 amendments sit in one committee before a vote is tricky, but fortunately nobody understands the details of this stuff anyway. The best practice would actually be for one large committee, perhaps an ad hoc committee, to deal with legislation of this type, even if it's big.

Anyway, it looks like progress, and I have no doubts that the House will vote on a decent enough bill when they get back from the recess. The success of it will be determined by the resolve of the Democratic caucus and the success of efforts to convince lawmakers when they are home in their districts.

...Amendments and roll call votes available here.

Labels: , , , ,


Friday, July 31, 2009

Friday Random Ten

OK, I'll have a special announcement for everyone in a few days, but for today, I'm kicking back early. Just added some new music to the iPod, so let's spin the wheel and see what comes up:

1 2 3 4 - Feist
Pow - The Beastie Boys
Happiness Is A Warm Gun - The Breeders
Three O'Clock Blues - B.B. King
Fine - The Cardigans
Not Even Jail - Interpol
Bingo Bango - Basement Jaxx
The Message - NAS
The Further I Slide - Badly Drawn Boy
Soft Serve (Live) - Soul Coughing

Labels: ,


One Ha'penny, Please

Since the New York Times' story dropped last week about high-frequency trading, lots of people have been trying to wrap their heads around it. To me it just sounds like straight-up theft. Information is currency in the market, and Goldman Sachs and the other high-frequency traders are simply buying information low and cashing in high. It's a money machine, as K-Drum notes.

Fortunately, there's a simple and elegant fix that would allow Goldman or whoever to keep with their HFT while improving the federal budget situation and maybe, just maybe, voluntarily curbing the practice. Just tax individual financial transactions.

Dean Baker is probably the most aggressive advocate of this approach. But Larry Summers has promoted it in the past. And Britain actually has a version of it on the books. At base, it's simply a microtax on financial transactions. Say, one-half of one percent on stock transactions. The average investor would hardly notice it. Most investors would hardly notice it. But high-volume traders would notice it quite a bit. Baker estimates that the tax could raise more than $100 billion annually, even taking into account the resulting drop-off in high-volume trading. That's money the federal treasury desperately needs.

And it's money that's coming from something that the financial sector does not particularly need. I've not heard many analysts say that the problem with the financial market is that it's just too slow. Rather the opposite, in fact. If high-frequency trading is really worth something to these firms, they can pay the transactions tax, and the rest of us can have the guarantee that this financial innovation is actually helping the country. If it's not even worth a half of one percent, it's probably not something the market -- or the rest of us -- need all that much.

'Xactly. Free market in action and all that. We can try to site mainframe computers and come up with all sorts of regulatory hoops that HFTs can jump through (and over), or we can take half a penny on every trade. If the stock market is oh-so-valuable and important to our economic future, then they can gladly afford half a penny.

I even like this better than restricting CEO compensation, because the latter smacks of intervention in the marketplace and can also be easily subverted, while a simple tax on transactions, which are widely available as data, just cannot. To put this in context, a half-penny on every trade would, over the course of ten years, pay for the entire health care bill. If giant investment firms are going to gamble with our money, they can at least ensure that some of it returns to the taxpayer.

Labels: , , , ,


Revenge Against Rove

I don't necessarily want to see a bunch of Republicans chosen for positions in a Democratic Administration, but I think there's value to choosing a select amount. Particularly in the case of US Attorneys who have shown their willingness to buck partisanship and follow the evidence. This is a great move by the President.

Today, President Obama nominated four individuals to serve as U.S. attorneys — most notably Daniel Bogden in Nevada [...] Bogden has actually already served as a U.S. attorney, but he was ousted in the Bush administration’s political purge. Even Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) said that the case had been “completely mishandled” by then-attorney general Alberto Gonzales.

Apparently Harry Reid played a big role in this.

David Iglesias would be a nice choice for US Attorney in New Mexico, too.

Labels: , , , ,


The Return Of Fighting Franken

T. Boone Pickens has no business being at Democratic policy luncheons, and while the rest of the caucus just sits there politely, proud of their elite brothers and sisters, the newest member takes a look around and sees nothing but madness.

Five years after he put his money behind the Swift Boat ads that helped tank John Kerry’s presidential campaign, Senate Democrats gave T. Boone Pickens a warm welcome at their weekly policy lunch Thursday.

Or at least most of them did [...]

According to a source, the wealthy oil and gas magnate and author of “The First Billion Is the Hardest” stepped up to introduce himself to (Sen. Al) Franken in a room just off the Senate Floor after the lunch ended.

Franken, who was seated talking to someone else, did not stand when Pickens said hello. Instead, Franken began to berate him about the billionaire’s financing of the Swift Boat ads in 2004.

According to a source, the confrontation grew heated.

Said Franken spokeswoman Jess McIntosh: “It was a lively conversation.”

Good. Maybe Pickens will get pissed off and never come back again.

The saddest part of this is how Franken's the only Senator to even find a luncheon between Democrats and T. Boone Pickens to be weird.

Labels: , , ,


SacBee Agrees On Ending Tough On Crime And Passing Sane Prison Policy

The Sacramento Bee comes out for sensible, workable prison policy solutions, including an independent sentencing commission, that would reduce our prison budget and actually make the state safer.

That leaves the biggest issue that legislators need to tackle: California's jumble of complicated, inconsistent and confusing sentencing laws. Other states have resolved the mess by creating an independent, professional, nonpartisan sentencing commission. The time is ripe for California to do the same.

In other states, successful sentencing commissions collect past and current sentencing information and analyze the impact of sentencing changes on prison populations, budgets and crime rates. They recommend an organizing framework for sentencing. Details on who makes appointments and who serves (judges, district attorneys, law enforcement, etc.) get worked out on a bipartisan basis.

Assembly Speaker Karen Bass and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg have shown interest in getting a bill passed. Assembly Bill 1376, which passed the Assembly and is now in the Senate, is the vehicle.

These prison solutions have been discussed for three decades; it's time to act.

It's about time this was recognized. As General Barry McCaffrey has written, we have an addiction to prison in this country, and in particular in this state. An all-too-prevalent "out of sight, out of mind" attitude has blinded the political leadership to the consequences of warehousing prisoners without giving them the tools to pay their debt to society and move on in a positive, successful fashion. The sentencing commission bill has languished for years; it's time to ignore fear and get this done.

Labels: , , , ,


Baucus Caucus Has An End Date

Max Baucus has been setting deadlines on his committee's work on the health care bill for years now, so until we get to September 15 I'm going to go ahead and call B.S. on this.

Senate Finance negotiators have agreed to try to reach a bipartisan accord on health care reform by Sept. 15, a senior Senate source said Friday.

Baucus has told his Senate colleagues that at that point he will move forward with a markup of a health care bill, whether he has a bipartisan agreement to work from.

That said, this has always been the plan. Give Republicans a choice - they can have input and be part of the process, or Democrats will have to go it alone, because failure is simply not an option.

What would a Democrats-only bill in the Senate look like? Well, it should be a simple task, with 60 Democratic Senators voting in solidarity to move the process forward, then voting their consciences on the final bill.

With the health care bill languishing in the Senate and under fire in the House, Democratic leaders are quietly preparing for Plan B.

Under the scenario now being discussed, bi-partisan talks would be aborted and parliamentary maneuvers used to force the bill through with a party-line vote.

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., still has time to try to work out a deal with his Republican counterpart Chuck Grassley, but fellow Democrats are growing restless.

"There's rising disgruntlement with how Baucus has handled this," a senior Democratic aide tells ABC News. "We have to look at other options."

But of course, you have the Ben Nelsons and Mary Landrieus of the world, so it could call for more evasive tactics. And that would be reconciliation. That has a hard deadline of October 15, so this September 15 deadline for Finance Committee talks would give the bill one month to pass a Finance Committee markup, get merged with the HELP committee bill, and make it to the full Senate. Contrary to popular opinion reconciliation doesn't HAVE to turn any bill into Swiss cheese; the worst thing about it is the 5-year sunset provision, which would not be good at all (most of these new procedures wouldn't start for four years).

Interesting that Baucus came up with a way to get the bill out of his committee and put pressure on Republicans just a day after seeing his committee chairmanship threatened, isn't it?

Labels: , , , ,


Democrats Behaving Badly - For Good, Not Evil!

It's so rare when Democrats push back and show some sturdiness, that it's worth noting when it happens. First, here's Jello Jay Rockefeller eviscerating the "co-op" idea floated by Kent Conrad:

Ed: It's not going to work. There's really no successful model out there to support the basis of signing on to a co-op. Would you sign on to a co-op or is that unacceptable?

Rockefeller: That's unacceptable and I can almost prove it. We've been in touch with all the folks that oversee, represent all the co-ops in the country on all subjects and they point out that there are probably less than twenty health co-ops in the country. There are only two that really work that well. One in Puget Sound, one in Minnesota, except for those two, they are all unlicensed. All present health co-ops are all unlicensed, they're unregulated. Nobody knows anything about them, nobody has any control over them and nobody has ever said, which is stunning to me, no government organization or private organization has ever done a study to what effect they might have in terms of bringing down the insurance prices.

They are untested, they are unlicensed, they are unregulated, they are unstudied. Why would we even think about putting them in as a control on this massive insurance industry instead of the public option?

Rockefeller actually knows what he's talking about because he's been studying the issue for decades, unlike Conrad, who threw a dart at a board and hit the magical Broderist middle with the co-op brainstorm. Rockefeller does not seem like he'll play along on this bait and switch.

Then there's Anthony Weiner forcing the "no government takeover of health care" Republicans to be as good as their word.

Yesterday, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) decided that it was “put-up or shut-up time for the phonies who deride the so-called ‘public option.’” He offered an amendment that would eliminate government-run Medicare:

Not a single member of Congress voted for the amendment, and Republicans were blasting it as a “political farce.” Last night, Weiner went on MSNBC and explained the GOP’s hypocrisy:

WEINER: Well, for some reason, I guess Republicans don’t like publicly funded, publicly administered health plans except for Medicare, and, I guess, except for the Veterans Administration and except for the health care that our military gets from the Department of Defense. The fact of the matter is, what we’ve learned is that government administered health care works pretty darn well. It’s got lower overhead and people like it.

So, when my Republican colleagues pound the drum and pound the podium about how they hate government-run health care, I guess they haven’t looked at what they get.

Sometimes this spine-stiffening happens for about a week, but I like this week's Democrats.

Labels: , , , , , ,


Finding The Target

As I said in the last post, astroturf groups are going to be out in force in August, creating mini-Brooks Brothers riots all over the country, harassing members of Congress, doing whatever they can to be the squeakiest wheel in the hopes of drowning out support for health care reform. So how will Democrats respond?

With polls suggesting that public support is sagging for President Obama's push to overhaul health care, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said the party will use the August break to make a strong sales pitch to middle-class voters.

"We're going to be on the air. We're going to be in the neighborhoods," said Hoyer, D-Md. "Our members are going to now have the opportunity to go home ... and say to their constituents, 'Look, this is what we're doing. This is why it's good for you and your family.' " [...]

A House Democratic memo obtained by USA TODAY shows the steps the party is taking to coordinate its message over the break. Lawmakers are encouraged to hold town-hall-style meetings, post videos on the Internet and find small-business owners "whose testimony can provide a powerful narrative," the memo states.

And it looks like Democrats have settled on a message, one that I guess works as well as any other - bash the hell out of insurance companies.

"Remove them from between you and your doctor. No discrimination for pre-existing conditions. No dropping your coverage because you get sick. No more job or life decisions made based on loss of coverage. No need to change doctors or plans. No co-pays for preventive care. No excessive out-of-pocket expenses, deductibles, or co-pays. No yearly or lifetime cost caps on what insurance companies cover."

According to the memo, they've coordinated this strategy with the Obama administration and a number of sympathetic groups. "The Leadership is working in close coordination with the White House and outside groups (including but not limited to HCAN, Families USA, AFSCME, SEIU, AARP, etc.) to ensure complementary efforts during August."

Those groups have literally hundreds if not thousands of events planned in August, and they're digging in against opponents of reform, Republican or Democrats. You already hear the fruits of this rhetorical shift, from health care reform to health insurance reform. Nancy Pelosi called insurance companies "the villains" in this debate. The President has also shifted the debate toward insurers versus consumers, a "people versus the powerful" maneuver.

President Obama has framed the health-care debate in Washington as a campaign against insurance companies whose irresponsible actions, he repeatedly says, must be reined in to control costs and improve patient care. In North Carolina this week, he told an audience that the existing system "works well for the insurance industry, but it doesn't always work well for you."

The message is no accident, as the president's chief pollster made clear in a rare public speech last month. Joel Benenson told the Economic Club of Canada that extensive polling revealed to the White House what many there had guessed: People hate insurance companies.

"Take the public plan, for example," Benenson said. "Initial reaction to it wasn't as positive as it is now. . . . But we figured out that people like the idea of competition versus the insurance company, and that's why you get a number like 72 percent supporting it."

Hitting insurance companies must poll off the charts. And it's certainly better than having to discuss the intracacies of the employer deduction or MedPAC. Obama said in his interview with Karen Tumulty that he's struggled with relating the urgency of reform to the public in clear, simple terms. He's decided to go with a battle with the insurance industry, something that appeals to both the base and has resonance for most people. It's probably the right choice, even if it is shorthand. Scaling back and targeting the rhetoric can actually move forward the policy.

Obviously we have to keep this up for the next month.

Labels: , , , , , , ,



Creating fake grassroots organizations to show presumed local support for typically corporate initiatives is known as astroturfing. Corporate lobbies forging letters from local groups to show that same fake support should be called... I don't know, astroforging?

As U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello was considering how to vote on an important piece of climate change legislation in June, the freshman congressman’s office received at least six letters from two Charlottesville-based minority organizations voicing opposition to the measure.

The letters, as it turns out, were forgeries.

“They stole our name. They stole our logo. They created a position title and made up the name of someone to fill it. They forged a letter and sent it to our congressman without our authorization,” said Tim Freilich, who sits on the executive committee of Creciendo Juntos, a nonprofit network that tackles issues related to Charlottesville’s Hispanic community. “It’s this type of activity that undermines Americans’ faith in democracy.”

The faked letter from Creciendo Juntos was signed by “Marisse K. Acevado, Asst Member Coordinator,” an identity and position at Creciendo Juntos that do not exist.

The person who sent the letter has not been identified, but he or she was employed by a Washington lobbying firm called Bonner & Associates.

Staffers found five forged letters of this type, including one from the local chapter of the NAACP, just in Perriello's correspondence. So you know there are lots more. This seems like the uncovering of a scam that's been going on for years. Ed Markey wants an investigation from his perch in the Global Warming subcommittee.

Obviously the power of lobbyists has grown so much to become completely divorced from the Constitutional mission of petitioning government for redress of grievances. Lobby shops have funded and supported the teabaggers, and they're offering training sessions on how to approach town hall meetings during the August recess. They are busing people around the country to different town halls. Members of Congress somehow still think these meetings reflect the considered opinions of constituents. They should look at Tom Perriello's mail.

Labels: , , , , , ,


Crazy Dana

Probably because it's so unsuccessful, the Washington Post has kept throwing money at this horrific "Mouthpiece Theater" gossip show they do with Dana Milbank and Chris Cillizza while having to massively cut costs to return to profitability. Their investment in Milbank's comedy stylings yielded this gem today.

If I were on the board of directors of the Kaplan test prep company, and discovered that the people running a money-losing Kaplan subsidiary (better known as the Washington Post) had greenlighted a feature called "Mouthpiece Theater," I would demand that either they be fired, or that the Post itself be liquidated.

In today's episode, Dana Milbank suggests Hillary Clinton should drink "Mad Bitch" beer.

The episode starts with an ad for BP. So, is it time to boycott them and tell them the reason?

I've seen open mike nights with more comedy talent than Mouthpiece Theater.

...And WaPo takes down the clip. You can see it here.

Labels: , , , ,


Wildly Successful Government Program

Americans have been conditioned by wingnut rhetoric into believing that government cannot possibly work well. I think that ought to be contradicted by the success of the Cash For Clunkers program, which leveraged $4-5 billion into the economy in seven days, got consumers spending again on big-ticket items, and improved fuel efficiency on 250,000 cars well above expectations (preliminary Congressional reports show a 69% increase in fuel efficiency - most people are trading in SUVs with 100,000 miles or more on them for solid passenger cars). The program is working so well that Congress wants to continue it.

Congress is moving quickly to save the depleted cash-for-clunkers program, as the House passed a $2 billion spending measure Friday afternoon that would keep alive a program that has encouraged American car owners to trade in their old gas guzzlers for more fuel efficient vehicles.

Despite some criticism from Republicans who called the legislation another bailout for another industry, the bill easily passed on a 316-109 bipartisan vote.

Under the fast-track bill, Democratic leaders will use funds from a renewable energy loan guarantee included in the stimulus. The bill would extend the program through Sept. 30, 2010. Democrats have portrayed the run on cash for clunkers cash as a great success for the $1 billion program, which allows car owners to turn in older, less fuel efficient cars for a $4,500 rebate to purchase higher gas mileage vehicles.

These are the same Republican stooges who complained that GM and Chrysler were shutting down too many auto dealers. Now the government designs a program that massively helps dealers, achieves fuel efficiency and with a small investment gets a lot of economic activity going, and they scream "bailout." Hypocrites. There's also the fact that this is not even new money, but money already in the stimulus package. They're also whining that the dealers haven't been paid yet, even though the program kicked off a WEEK ago. Apparently they all receive their paychecks instantly for all work they perform.

Sadly, too many people see a government program run out of money and think it failed. No, that means demand was so high that it fulfilled its purpose in a matter of days. I see Claire McCaskill rejecting the idea of "subsidizing auto purchases forever." Apparently "forever"=anything more than one week.

We still have a tough economy. The recession has leveled off into something approaching stagnation. And there is compelling evidence that the stimulus package is responsible for even getting us back to the stagnation point. Consumers still aren't spending and a lot of people still have no job. Until businesses start hiring again government needs to drive economic activity, which is why you're seeing second stimulus packages proposed in the form of extending measures from the initial stimulus.

Except lots of those extensions revolve around corporate tax breaks and not things that put money into the economy. Things like Cash for Clunkers. And Democrats ought to tell the story that this successful government program, going deliberately and directly to Main Street, represents our best hope for economic recovery.

UPDATE: Obama said this today:

Now, one of the steps we've taken to boost our economy is an initiative known as "Cash for Clunkers." Basically, this allows folks to trade in their older, less fuel-efficient cars for credits that go towards buying fewer, more -- newer, more fuel-efficient cars. This gives consumers a break, reduces dangerous carbon pollution and our dependence on foreign oil, and strengthens the American auto industry. Not more than a few weeks ago, there were skeptics who weren't sure that this "Cash for Clunkers" program would work. But I'm happy to report that it has succeeded well beyond our expectations and all expectations, and we're already seeing a dramatic increase in showroom traffic at local car dealers.

It's working so well that there are legitimate concerns that the funds in this program might soon be exhausted. So we're now working with Congress on a bipartisan solution to ensure that the program can continue for everyone out there who's still looking to make a trade. And I'm encouraged that Republicans and Democrats in the House are working to pass legislation today that would use some Recovery Act funding to keep this program going -- funding that we would work to replace down the road. Thanks to quick bipartisan responses, we're doing everything possible to continue this program and to continue helping consumers and the auto industry contribute to our recovery.

So I'm very pleased with the progress that's been made in the House today on the "Cash for Clunkers" program. I am guardedly optimistic about the direction that our economy is going. But we've got a lot more work to do. And I want to make sure that all the Americans out there who are still struggling because they're out of work or not having enough work know that this administration will not rest until the movement that we're seeing on the business side starts translating into jobs for those people and their families.

Absolutely true. Democrats don't accentuate enough positives.

UPDATE: McCaskill backtracks, says she would consider using existing fund for C4C, wants to study program's effectiveness.

UPDATE: Enviro-blogger Adam Siegel, a critic of the C4C program initially, has some thoughts, conceding that the program is working very well but suggesting some tweaks. The best critique of the program is that it props up the car culture, which I don't doubt, but people with 140,000 miles on their Hyundai SUVs probably aren't candidates for biking or the subway, and what's more, this is a successful economic program with definable environmental benefits, not vice-versa.

Labels: , , , , , ,


Go Into Debt And Spend Conservatives

Before you sign on to the theory that California just spends too much and cannot afford the generous services it used to provide, take a look at this excellent work from OC Progressive. These kinds of fiscally maddening deals are a dime a dozen in the failed Schwarzenegger era, because he refused to talk straight with Californians and make them understand that ponying up at the beginning would save tens of billions in the long run.

When the state decided to borrow 1.935 billion from local governments, the local governments were pretty damn skeptical that the state would have the money to pay them back in four years. So the legislature passed a bill, ABX4 15, that authorized bonds with the state's highest rating, and agreed to pay the fees and interest to issue the bonds so the cities and counties wouldn't have to try to borrow the money individually.

I was sure I misheard the terms when Noreen Evans was introducing the bill to securitize the borrowing from local government. It just couldn't be possible that the state was authorizing 340 million in issuance fees on 1.935 billion in four year bonds and authorizing up to 8% in interest.

That would be almost a billion dollars in interest to borrow 1.9 billion for four years. That's just batshit crazy.

Holy Shit. I heard right, and I calculated it right.

Those are rates that would make a loan shark blush. And it's not the first time. You can go back further, but reducing the vehicle license fee in 2003 (remember Arnold's campaign events where he would smash up a car) led to an orgy of borrowing, with interest payments piling up on the back end. Over time, as credit becomes harder and harder to access and people become less and less trusting of the state's fiscal structure, they have to design elaborate deals like this that just give away billions at a time for no reason. Servicing debt is the fastest-growing segment of the budget, along with prisons.

And these stupid schemes get forced on the public by a process where radical "go into debt and spend" conservatives hold a minority veto over sensible revenue solutions. They refuse to be honest with the public, and tell them "we're saving your money" while wasting a billion dollars in interest without blinking. This is why we desperately need reform and the restoration of representative democracy where the legislature can reflect the will of the people.

Labels: , , ,


Best To Chris Dodd

Sen. Dodd has been diagnosed with early-stage prostate cancer. My dad had this, and my grandfather too. It's very common and eminently treatable in this day and age, and hopefully Dodd will be able to beat it as quickly and painlessly as possible. He still plans to run for re-election and be back at work after the August recess. Here's part of his letter to supporters:

I want to assure you that I'm feeling fine. As you know, we've been working hard to pass health care legislation and reform our nation's financial system to protect consumers, and that hard work will continue.

After the Senate adjourns at the end of next week, I'll have surgery to remove the cancer. After a week or two of recuperation, I expect to be right back to work.

After all, as a Member of Congress, I have great health insurance. I was able to get screened, seek the opinions of highly skilled doctors, consider all the available options, and choose the treatment that was right for me.

And I know you'll agree that every American deserves the same ability.

We have health care legislation to pass - and an election to win. And I can't thank you enough for your support.

I had the opportunity to meet and talk with Sen. Dodd when he ran for President last year. I found him smart, engaging and focused on the right issues. He's been hammered back home for being the fall guy in the AIG bonus scandal - falsely, I might add - and for this alleged sweetheart deal on his mortgage from Countrywide, which his hometown paper states in two editorials today were not at all sweetheart deals but widely available mortgage terms.

I hope he's back on his feet soon.

Labels: , , , , ,


A Compromise In The Other Direction

While the deal reached between Henry Waxman and a core group of Blue Dog Democrats on the health care bill in the House Energy and Commerce Committee was reported as offering modest concessions, in truth the subsidies would have really dried up for families making between 300-400% of federal poverty level. Progressives revolted, mainly because the subsidy climb-downs attack the larger idea of offering affordable health insurance for everyone, the central goal of the program. So they revolted, and Waxman had to re-bargain with everyone to get a decent compromise of the compromise.

Liberals and a small core of conservative Democrats set aside long-standing ideological differences early Friday to cut a deal that should allow the House Energy and Commerce Committee to approve a sweeping health care bill, breaking a two-week deadlock that threatened President Barack Obama’s top domestic priority.

Blue Dog Democrats on the committee, who are the linchpin in the House health care debate, agreed to allow their liberal colleagues to cut billions from existing government-funded health care programs in order to restore some $50 billion to $65 billion in subsidies set aside in the bill to help middle-income families purchase coverage.

This final agreement should clear the way for committee passage later today. Energy and Commerce is the last of the three House committees to consider the bill, so passage will put the package in the hands of party leaders for a titanic fight when Congress returns in the fall over the government's role in health care [...]

The Blue Dogs preserved one of their main objectives: de-coupling the so-called public plans from Medicare, a change that gives health care providers the right to negotiate payments with the government.

Those rates were only scheduled for the first three years anyhow. My guess is that will be returned when the House bills get merged from all three committees in September, especially if progressives keep up the pressure. What's important now is to get the Energy and Commerce bill out of committee.

Let's understand how this happened. Blue Dogs held out for a deal. Progressives, instead of taking it to get the larger goal, revolted and got 57 names on a letter vowing not to support any Blue Dog compromise. The Blue Dogs, who came into this wanting to kill the public plan option, ending up voting it out of committee in Energy and Commerce and allowing for expanded subsidies. And progressives are STILL not satisfied, as it should be, because Medicare rates and providers should be tied to the public plan over its entire lifespan, and the plan (and the insurance exchange) should be available to everyone regardless of employer.

Moreover, the liberals also expressed a political concern, saying House leaders had compromised too early. “Under the agreement, private insurers are coming off unscathed,” said Representative Peter Welch, Democrat of Vermont.

He added, “They do quite well — too well, frankly.”

Representative Eliot L. Engel, Democrat of New York, said, “The public plan was eviscerated” under the deal announced Wednesday to get the bill moving again in the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Mr. Engel was less than enthusiastic about the resulting legislation. “It’s not a terrible bill,” he said, “but it’s not what I had hoped for.”

There was an abortion policy amendment in the committee that tries to split the difference by affirming that insurers "would not be required or forbidden to cover abortion." I'd prefer that the public plan be accorded the same benefits toward the most widely used outpatient procedure in America that 90% of all private plans cover, and we'll see where that debate goes.

Also hurting the Blue Dogs' cause is this WaPo front-pager, almost unquestionably meant to coincide with progressive discontent over the compromise, showing the amount of health industry money these so-called fiscal conservatives are swimming in.

The roiling debate about health-care reform has been a boon to the political fortunes of Ross and 51 other members of the Blue Dog Coalition, who have become key brokers in shaping legislation in the House. Objections from the group resulted in a compromise bill announced this week that includes higher payments for rural providers and softens a public insurance option that industry groups object to. The deal also would allow states to set up nonprofit cooperatives to offer coverage, a Republican-generated idea that insurers favor as an alternative to a public insurance option.

At the same time, the group has set a record pace for fundraising this year through its political action committee, surpassing other congressional leadership PACs in collecting more than $1.1 million through June. More than half the money came from the health-care, insurance and financial services industries, marking a notable surge in donations from those sectors compared with earlier years, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity.

A look at career contribution patterns also shows that typical Blue Dogs receive significantly more money -- about 25 percent -- from the health-care and insurance sectors than other Democrats, putting them closer to Republicans in attracting industry support.

Most of the major corporations and trade groups in those sectors are regular contributors to the Blue Dog PAC. They include drugmakers such as Pfizer and Novartis; insurers such as WellPoint and Northwestern Mutual Life; and industry organizations such as America's Health Insurance Plans. The American Medical Association also has been one of the top contributors to individual Blue Dog members over the past 20 years.

Progressives are running the absolute right game in the House, forcing compromises in their direction and making sure they will be heard in this debate. Unfortunately, on the other side of the Capitol, you have health care policy literally in the hands of Chuck Grassley, who is promising his party he won't strike a deal on any bill with Democrats while SITTING IN ON MEETINGS AIMED AT STRIKING A DEAL in the Senate Finance Committee. The unicameral legislature concept is looking better and better every day.

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,


Rove Tries To Wiggle Off The Hook

So you have the Washington Post headlining that E-Mails Show Larger White House Role in Prosecutor Firings and the New York Times stating Rove Says His Role in Prosecutor Firings Was Small. Somehow, I assume they're both right, and it all depends on your angle. I mean, I'm sure Rove said he had just a small role in the US Attorney firings. Rove says a lot of things, most of them untrue. I'd prefer to do as WaPo did, and look at the documentary evidence:

The e-mails and new interviews with key participants reflect contacts among Rove, aides in the Bush political affairs office and White House lawyers about the dismissal of three of the nine U.S. attorneys fired in 2006: New Mexico's David C. Iglesias, the focus of ire from GOP lawmakers; Missouri's Todd Graves, who had clashed with one of Rove's former clients; and Arkansas's Bud Cummins, who was pushed out to make way for a Rove protégé [...]

Complaints about Iglesias began at least a year before he was relieved of his job, according to documents reviewed by The Post. Then- Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), his chief of staff, Steve Bell, and GOP lawyers in the state lobbied aggressively to oust the prosecutor. But the activity accelerated in fall 2006.

Responding to questions about another little-understood event, Rove told reporters in the interview this month that he had not seen a letter that Justice Department officials prepared and sent to the Senate on Feb. 23, 2007. The letter stated that "the department is not aware of Karl Rove playing any role in the decision to appoint [protégé] Mr. Griffin" to a top job in Little Rock.

The Justice Department later retracted the statement, which the inspector general concluded was "misleading." [...]

But internal White House correspondence dating to two years earlier suggests that job prospects for Timothy Griffin, who had worked for Rove in the administration, were a hot topic of conversation. In a Feb. 11, 2005, e-mail, Rove wrote to deputy Sara Taylor: "Give him options. Keep pushing for Justice and let him decide. I want him on the team."

Then-White House counsel Miers e-mailed Taylor a month later, writing, "Sara, Karl asked me to forward you a list of locations where we may consider replacing the USAs."

Rove suggested Little Rock, where Cummins was U.S. attorney, as a post for Griffin, reminding Miers in March 2005 that "that's where he's from." The next day, Sara Taylor forwarded communications about Griffin to then-Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, who wrote, "let me know his reaction," according to the e-mails.

It's interesting that we're just learning that Rove held an interview with the Times and the Post this month, where he tried to spin them both about his role in the scandal.

In an interview with The Post and the New York Times this month, Rove described himself as a "conduit" of grievances from lawmakers and others about the performance of home-state prosecutors. The e-mails and interview were provided on the condition that they not be released until Rove's House testimony concluded. He said he did not recall several events because of his busy job and asserted that he had done nothing to influence criminal cases, an allegation by Democrats that has dogged him for years. Luskin, Rove's attorney, asserted that "there was never any point where Karl was trying to get a particular prosecution advanced or retarded."

"Yes, I was a recipient of complaints, and I passed them on to the counsel's office to be passed onto Justice," Rove said. The complaints about weak enforcement of voter fraud laws and public corruption "had the sound of authenticity to me. If what I'm told is accurate, it's really troublesome."

The NYT article suggests that Rove selectively leaked emails to put himself in a peripheral role in the firings. I don't know how someone peripheral writes something like “Give me a report on what U.S. attorneys slots are vacant or expected to be open soon,” as Rove did in an email in November 2006.

This is classic Rove - pre-empting whatever leaks come out of the House Judiciary Committee with incriminating but less damaging material that he handpicks to send to the press, who dutifully writes it all up. But Rove appears to be so deep in the US Attorney purges that he cannot credibly spin this away.

Labels: , , , , ,


Eye Off The Ball

I've heard for seven years that George W. Bush had the chance to capture Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda in the mountains of Tora Bora, and we pulled out to focus on the invasion of Iraq. John Kerry ran on that point. Barack Obama ran on it. The whole idea was that Iraq was the bad, unnecessary war, and Afghanistan was the good war, and we needed to move our focus back on Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda was, to disrupt their safe havens.

Turns out the commander in Afghanistan thinks we have focused too much on Al Qaeda in the war ostensibly designed to dismantle al Qaeda.

U.S. military leaders have concluded that their war effort in Afghanistan has been too focused on hunting Al Qaeda, and have begun to shift Predator drone aircraft to the fight against the Taliban and other militants in order to prevent the country from slipping deeper into anarchy.

The move, described by government and Defense Department officials, represents a major change in the military's use of one of its most precious intelligence assets. It also illustrates the hard choices that must be made because the drones are in short supply [...]

"We have been overly counter-terrorism-focused and not counter-insurgency-focused," said one U.S. official.

Senior government officials said Bin Laden remained a prime target but that they needed to focus on fighting the Taliban.

"We might still be too focused on Bin Laden," the official said. "We should probably reassess our priorities."

I think the proper response is that we've been counter-terrorism-focused because OUR MISSION IS SUPPOSED TO BE COUNTER-TERRORISM. Or at least it was, until the new Pentagon kewl kids decided you could hug the ones you bomb and make them love you.

Without consultation with the country, the military completely transferred the mission in Afghanistan. They are less concerned with dismantling Al Qaeda and more concerned with a counter-insurgency bank shot. Gen. McChrystal, a real white-whale chaser, described his strategy in the Washington Post today. And surprise, it'll take more personnel.

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan is preparing a new strategy that calls for major changes in the way U.S. and other NATO troops there operate, a vast increase in the size of Afghan security forces and an intensified military effort to root out corruption among local government officials, according to several people familiar with the contents of an assessment report that outlines his approach to the war.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who took charge of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan last month, appears inclined to request an increase in American troops to implement the new strategy, which aims to use more unconventional methods to combat the growing Taliban insurgency, according to members of an advisory group he convened to work on the assessment. Such a request could receive a chilly reception at the White House, where some members of President Obama's national security team have expressed reluctance about authorizing any more deployments.

Senior military officials said McChrystal is waiting for a recommendation from a team of military planners in Kabul before reaching a final decision on a troop request. Several members of the advisory group, who spoke about the issue of force levels on the condition of anonymity, said that they think more U.S. troops are needed but that it was not clear how large an increase McChrystal would seek.

"There was a very broad consensus on the part of the assessment team that the effort is under-resourced and will require additional resources to get the job done," a senior military official in Kabul said.

This is flat-out mission creep. We entered Afghanistan to deny a staging ground for attacks against America. And now we're there to nation-build. One isn't necessarily unrelated to the other, but we're admittedly nation-building only in the areas where the Taliban isn't already dug in, meaning we are allowing various safe havens and staging grounds. To the extent that we're trying to split the Taliban, counter-insurgency methods have their role; but this sounds really more advanced than that. Spencer writes:

But there's a big difference between that and a counterinsurgency strategy for a nation-building objective, and a still greater one between that and a counterinsurgency strategy for a prophylactic objective. The American people have never approved sending 68,000 troops to suffer for Hamid Karzai, and certainly never approved sending them to keep Pakistan from falling to the Taliban. (Which, by the way, seems like a distinctly unrealistic scenario, especially now that the Pakistani military moved into Swat. The Taliban-led insurgency is a threat to Pakistan. It's not going to rule the country. Westerners have a tendency of predicting the imminent fall of Pakistan every five years or so.)

Perhaps I'm misreading what it is the people around McChrystal are saying, but it seems fair to say that the balance of evidence favors an interpretation that Afghanistan strategy is coming unmoored from the actual objectives of the war, and the actual interests at stake, and the White House is being either deluded or outright dishonest about what's happening. "Our goal is to deal with the terrorist elements that are in that country and are making life for Afghans and potentially life for millions throughout the world more dangerous through their activities," Robert Gibbs said from the White House podium today. That is simply not what's coming from McChrystal's circle.

The White House either has to rein in this effort, or own it. And if they own it, they must explain their deception to the public, and why the policy became hijacked by a clique in the Pentagon.

Labels: , , , , , , ,


Thursday, July 30, 2009

Cash For Clunkers Looks To Be Success

So the government inaugurated that cash for clunkers program this week. How's it going? Well...

The U.S. government will suspend the popular cash-for-clunkers program after less than four days in business, telling Congress that the plan would burn through its $950-million budget by midnight, several sources told the Free Press [...]

The decision to suspend the plan came after auto dealers warned the government today that it was in danger of losing track of how many trades had actually been made.

The plan offering owners of old cars and trucks $3,500 or $4,500 toward a new, more efficient vehicle has proven wildly popular, with 22,782 trades certified by federal officials since Monday. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration told dealers Wednesday that a vast majority of transactions submitted were being rejected for incomplete or illegible paperwork.

A survey of 2,000 dealers by the National Automobile Dealers Association, the results of which were obtained by the Free Press, found about 25,000 deals not yet approved by NHTSA, or about 13 trades per store. With 23,005 dealers asking to be part of the program, auto dealers may have already arranged the sale of more than the 250,000 vehicles that federal officials expected the plan to generate.

OK, so some problems with implementation. But in general, you're talking about a wildly popular program. I think that the speed of the deals shocked those carrying out the rebates, but I expect that to get ironed out soon enough. And you're basically talking about $1 billion dollars leveraging about $4-$5 billion dollars through the economy within four days and saving an unspecified amount of oil through the sale of almost a quarter of a million more fuel-efficient cars. The fuel efficiency standards could have been higher, no doubt, but taking out a quarter of a million crappy gas guzzlers is great, and $5 billion in economic activity where none would otherwise exist is an excellent mini-stimulus.

I also like DiFi's stand, after Michigan lawmakers vowed to seek additional funds for the program, that she would block anything unless the fuel economy gains were boosted. The taste has been offered to Detroit, and now they'd be hard pressed to say no.

Now, let's offer money to people to paint their roofs white.

Labels: , , , , ,


Crowley The Cop

Sgt. Crowley's two-minute press conference was apparently enough to send the entire cable news universe into a tizzy, with several of them announcing that the policeman has a bright future in politics.

Can we for once take a look at what someone believes before anointing them the Second Coming?

I think the best part was Roger Simon's semiotic study of the distance of the chairs between Crowley and Henry Louis Gates.

Fucking theater critics.

...1979 Carter, Begin, Sadat.

2009 Obama, Biden, two guys involved in a disorderly conduct dispute.

And people wonder why we don't get anything done in this country?

Labels: , ,


The Fate Of Healthy Families

One of the better tangible policy changes during the first 6 months of the Obama Administration is the expansion of SCHIP, the State Children's Health Insurance Program. Starting from the premise that all children deserve access to health insurance, SCHIP is a state/federal partnership that seeks to cover children who fall between the gaps, whose families make too much money to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough money to afford health insurance. The program has been wildly successful since its introduction under the Clinton Administration, and virtually every state has expanded their state-based SCHIP budgets to cover the maximum amounts of children.

Every state except California, that is. As part of the budget revision, the Legislature cut Healthy Families, causing between a $128 and $144 million shortfall in the program's current budget. With his veto pen, the Governor (illegally?) slashed $50 million more. The total, as much as a $194 million shortfall, is over 50% of its budget. This has led to the only waitlisting in the country for an SCHIP program.

The program already froze enrollment earlier this month, quickly amassing a waiting list of some 22,000 kids in need of health care, and swapped its application payment assistance program for $4.6 million in savings. Now, to cope with the cuts, it's expecting to disenroll hundreds of thousands of participants starting later this fall [...]

No talk of preserving a safety net for the neediest here. Disenrollment will be based on when participants entered the program. Children who hit their one-year coverage anniversary will not be eligible to renew their enrollment, and will instead be moved to that growing waiting list.

"At this point, it is strictly based on eligibility renewal dates," Puddefoot said. "Those children who were enrolled in July or August, and those children who were first enrolled in September will be the first to be disenrolled.

This could impact as many as 900,000 children.

Officials with the Managed Risk Medical Insurance Board met in Sacramento today to figure out the policy for waitlisting or disenrollment, and to explore additional avenues of support to fill the program gap. Many have speculated that First Five, the successful voter-approved program to support young children, could provide some funding, but they cannot cover a $194 million dollar hole, and their mandate allows them only to support children between 0-5. At the meeting, the board basically punted.

The task of shedding hundreds of thousands of children from the public Healthy Families health insurance program - or finding ways to keep some enrolled - was put off Thursday until Aug. 13 by the board managing the program.

The Managed Risk Medical Insurance Board must come up with a plan to respond to deep cuts in California's budget, including Healthy Families [...]

Disenrolling children from Healthy Families "is something we do not relish doing," said Cliff Allenby, the board's chairman, as members listened to a number of speakers anticipating harm that will come from cutting so many children from insurance. Allenby said the board "may have no choice," but is looking at ways to restructure the program to reduce costs and raise money for premiums from other sources.

Among the options under consideration: eliminating vision benefits, increasing co-pays and changing reimbursement schedules.

First Five committed to help with some money, but failed to delineate the amount.

I know one way to instantly restore $50 million in funding for poor children - by overriding Arnold's possibly illegal vetoes.

Labels: , , , , , ,


Stories Of Government Working

After a minor stumble, the House today passed the Food Safety Enhancement Act, which would bolster the Food and Drug Administration's efforts to ensure food that's not contaminated and vomit-inducing. La Vida Locavore has more. Basically, the bill would properly fund the FDA to carry out their mission, paid for by the food producers, and would enact stringent performance standards for food producers, with mandatory trace-back systems and frequent inspections of facilities. And it would apply the standards for domestic food safety to imported food as well.

Given how pretty much almost everyone in America eats food, and given the high profile of food outbreaks during the age of e.coli conservatism, if this gets through the Senate I would hope that somebody would let the public know. It ain't health care reform, but it's an important measure with a tangible effect on people's lives. I'll give you a couple others. The stimulus package provided $100 million dollars for the nation's food banks to make sure the truly needy could find food this year during these economic struggles. Food assistance is up about 30% this year over last year, and so providing some stimulus funds to feed people has a real human benefit, in addition to allowing the hungry some breathing space to get back on their feet. And the House pumped in some more money for highway and unemployment funds, so that people who are jobless can continue to access benefits and construction projects in the states can continue.

We have a problem with the conservative demonization of government, mainly because too few people are out there telling the story of government when it works. It makes it easier to lift the heavy policy objects when you restore a little bit of trust that when government is properly organized and managed it can actually help people.

This is another failure that liberals would be wise to counteract.

UPDATE: The roll call. The food safety bill passed 283-142. A few House liberals voted against it, I'd be interested to hear their thoughts.

UPDATE: The President:

"Today the House of Representatives passed H.R. 2749, the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009, legislation that will raise food safety standards, allow the FDA to issue mandatory recalls of harmful products, and enhance our oversight of imported food.

This action represents a major step forward in modernizing our food safety system and protecting Americans from foodborne illness. Those are the goals of the Food Safety Working Group I convened in March and charged with making recommendations to improve our food safety system. And that is why we announced a new rule to control Salmonella contamination in eggs and are working to reduce the presence of harmful pathogens such as E. coli in meat and produce; strengthen our capacity to trace the source of outbreaks; and update our emergency operations procedures.

I commend the House of Representatives for its action today and look forward to working with the Senate to enact critical food safety legislation."

This stuff matters too.

Labels: , , , , , , ,


The Rise Of The Commodity Futures Trading Commission

Back in the days before George W. Bush, we had these things called "regulators," who independently sought to enforce the nation's laws and protect the public from waste, fraud, abuse and outright criminal activity. The regulatory agencies have been so gutted that it's going to take a while for them to regain their institutional memory and recall their core mission. In particular, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission is making some serious noise. They are out-and-out blaming the speculators for spiking oil prices in 2008 for their personal benefit. That's a shocking admission for a regulator to make.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission plans to issue a report next month suggesting speculators played a significant role in driving wild swings in oil prices -- a reversal of an earlier CFTC position that augurs intensifying scrutiny on investors.

In a contentious report last year, the main U.S. futures-market regulator pinned oil-price swings primarily on supply and demand. But that analysis was based on "deeply flawed data," Bart Chilton, one of four CFTC commissioners, said in an interview Monday.

The CFTC's new review, due to be released in August, adds fuel to a growing debate over financial investors who bet on the direction of commodities prices by buying contracts tied to indexes. These speculators have invested hundreds of billions of dollars in contracts that were once dominated by producers and consumers who sought to hedge against oil-market volatility.

The review also reflects shifting political winds. Under Chairman Gary Gensler, appointed by President Barack Obama, the CFTC is departing from the more hands-off approach it took under its previous head, a George W. Bush appointee. The agency is widely expected to adopt new rules to limit the amount of investments in commodities by big institutions betting on their direction purely for financial gain.

Gensler was savaged by liberals when he was nominated by the President, particularly because of his history as a Goldman Sachs partner and a Rubinite crony. Releasing a report like this will not fit the profile. What's more, the CFTC is talking about severely limiting trades in energy futures.

The country’s top regulator of commodity markets said Tuesday that the government should “seriously consider” strict limits on the trading of purely financial investors in the futures markets for oil, natural gas and other energy products.

Opening the first of three hearings on proposals to curb “speculative” trading and reduce volatile price swings in oil and gas, the chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission made it clear that he favored tighter volume limits on “non-commercial” traders — banks, hedge funds and other financial institutions — that account for a big share of trading in energy contracts.

“The C.F.T.C. is in the best position to apply limits across different exchanges, and we are most able to strike a balance between competing interests and the responsibility to protect the American public,” the commission chairman, Gary Gensler, said. “I believe we must seriously consider setting strict position limits in the energy markets.”

Mr. Gensler, who was nominated by President Obama, made it clear that he was sympathetic to complaints from Democratic lawmakers and some industry analysts that purely financial traders, who usually never take delivery of a product, have aggravated the violent swings in energy prices in recent years.

We absolutely need this kind of sensible regulation to end the skimming of wealth off the top of the consumer and into the pockets of financial traders. A robust regulatory apparatus is simply vital to the future of the nation and protecting the middle class.

Labels: , , , , , , ,


The Demographic Futility Of The Birther Argument

It's true that Republicans have circled the wagons on the Birthers, and have begun to smack down on those questioning the authenticity of Obama's birth certificate and the whereabouts of his birth. But that doesn't really matter by now. It's "out there" and it's a powerful tool to designate the President as alien, the other, somehow unfit for the office of the Presidency, without the credentials to serve. That's the undercurrent to this, and I can quote The Poor Man Institute on this:

Lee Atwater on the crushing weight of political correctness and how it put a crimp in Republican Party messaging efforts:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.

As always, necessity is the mother of invention. And hate springs eternal. And so on.

So in 2009, you say stuff like “where’s your birth certificate”? to the black guy with the funny name – no surprise that Andrew “Bell Curve” Sullivan and Lou “Dirty Meckscuns” Dobbs* are all over it. Pure coincidence, I’m sure. Though to be fair to Andy, he usually shows the same zeal if there’s misogyny* to partake in.

That's really it. And it is really done to reinforce this notion that the alien and the other are taking your money and using it for themselves. Conservatives think this is the way they can win the day, through tribal identification. And it works in the short-term. But the long-term demographic trends cut hard against their success in this matter. Right now we have an economic problem which will determine the course for Democrats in the near term. In the long-term, tribal appeals to racial solidarity will fall flat on their face.

...for those who want to believe that the fact we elected a biracial man to the Presidency means that racism has ended as a concern in the United States, I submit:

IT MAY BE the ultimate indignity.

Lawrence "Lonnie" Powell, 58, a semiskilled laborer at the city's Northwest Transfer Station, in Roxborough, said that since he began working at the trash-handling plant in 2003 he has had to seek the superintendent's permission to go to the bathroom — then descend five flights of stairs to use it.

Powell, who is black, said that white employees have been permitted to use a bathroom just 25 feet from his work station.

"On several occasions I've actually defecated on myself, trying to get down to the bathroom," said Powell, who operates a machine that packs trash into tractor-trailers to be taken to landfills.

Powell is one of five current and former employees, all in their 50s, who allege, in legal documents and interviews with the Daily News, that the station's white superintendent has discriminated against them because they are black.

This is in the same city where black children were asked to leave a white country club swimming pool a few weeks back.

Labels: , , ,


Why Can't We Have A Better Media?

MSNBC has a "beer summit" ticker running right now, and just broke into live coverage to capture President Obama's remarks on the upcoming beer summit. Obama is not obliging by actually talking about the economy, unemployment and housing figures.

I'm sure somebody in the MSNBC control room is thinking, "crap, he's talking about issues that matter to people and not the beer summit!"

Labels: , , , ,


We're Here, We're Progressive, Get Used To It

House progressives have really tried to throw their weight around on the deal put together between Henry Waxman and the Blue Dogs. They probably should get the full list of co-signers before releasing it, but still, this represents a rare step for the Progressive Caucus in taking a stand against compromise after compromise with the conservative wing of the party. I hear they got 53 members to add their names to this:

We write to voice our opposition to the negotiated health care reform agreement under consideration in the Energy and Commerce Committee.

We regard the agreement reached by Chairman Waxman and several Blue Dog members of the Committee as fundamentally unacceptable. This agreement is not a step forward toward a good health care bill, but a large step backwards. Any bill that does not provide, at a minimum, for a public option with reimbursement rates based on Medicare rates - not negotiated rates - is unacceptable. It would ensure higher costs for the public plan, and would do nothing to achieve the goal of "keeping insurance companies honest," and their rates down.

To offset the increased costs incurred by adopting the provisions advocated by the Blue Dog members of the Committee, the agreement would reduce subsidies to low- and middle-income families, requiring them to pay a larger portion of their income for insurance premiums, and would impose an unfunded mandate on the states to pay for what were to have been Federal costs.

In short, this agreement will result in the public, both as insurance purchasers and as taxpayers, paying ever higher rates to insurance companies.

We simply cannot vote for such a proposal.

At issue seems to be the reimbursement rates for the public option, which seems odd to me, because the Medicare +5% rates in the House Tri-Committee bill only exist for the first three years, and the negotiated rates from the Health and Human Services Secretary will presumably be improved over that of private industry. I agree about the lower coverage subsidies, but again, we're talking about 1% on those between 300 and 400% of the federal poverty level, which is not determinative. Finally, looping back to the public option, I agree that bargaining rates are important, but even if they are restored, the fact that relatively few people can access it because it's firewalled for people who get health insurance from their employers seems to be a MUCH bigger problem.

If you're interested in covering people, the primary questions are the subsidies, the employer mandate and the individual mandate. If you're interested in reforming the system, the primary question is the strength of the Health Insurance Exchanges. And if you're interested in the public plan? It's the Health Insurance Exchanges. Again.

In all the bills we've seen, the public option is on the exchange. It is only available to those who are able to buy into the exchange. But most Americans can't buy into the exchange. They're not allowed. To make this very clear, imagine that the House and the Senate both pass Henry Waxman's proposal tomorrow. Liberals would celebrate. That's got a good, strong public plan. And I can't use it. Not even if I want to pay for it out-of-pocket. I work at a large employer and thus I am not allowed to buy into the exchange.

A strong public plan on a weak exchange will fail because it won't attain sufficient market share. It's as simple as that. Conversely, even a weak public plan on a strong exchange could thrive, because it would have access to a lot of customers. Focusing on the public plan and ignoring the rules of the exchange is like focusing on engine power but ignoring whether people can buy the car.

And the one remedy for this problem, the Free Choice Act, which would give employees the choice to take employer coverage or use that money on the insurance exchange, is being pushed by Ron Wyden but virtually nobody else, certainly not House progressives or the larger progressive activist community.

(Now, I will say that Matt Yglesias' contention that the exchanges aren't the most important part of reform, but the insurance regulations are, when things like rescission and pre-existing conditions don't apply to the employer market either, is a little weird. An exchange that has all of those consumer protections on the insurance industry AND is available to anyone who wants to buy in would be a game-changer, particularly with a public plan providing competition inside the exchange.)

So, if progressives are vowing not to vote for deals that don't even contain the kinds of reforms they'd want, what's going on here? I think Ezra Klein has it right.

House liberals are afraid of the dynamic in which good bills face Blue Dog opposition in the final mile and are aggressively watered down. Senate liberals are afraid of the same. And throwing this final compromise with the Blue Dogs into doubt is a show of strength. After all, House liberals feel they've already compromised plenty: Coming down from single-payer is a compromise. Cordoning the public plan off on the Health Insurance Exchange is a compromise. The whole bill is one big compromise, and every subsequent iteration is a compromise stacked atop a compromise placed upon a compromise. At some point, the compromises have to stop. Or, better yet, they have to go in the other direction.

Yep. This is not about the specifics of the bill as much as it is about changing the general dynamic. It shows me that progressive lawmakers are learning from the mood of the grassroots, who have been demanding this for a while. Furthermore, they can add that, if health care goes down, the people on the front lines will be the ones who wouldn't deliver what the people wanted and are in the kind of districts most likely to flip to Republicans. I'm sure that progressives are mindful that a half a loaf bill will open them up to challenges from the left, too.

Labels: , , , , , , ,


Holding Our Elected Officials Accountable

California's system of government is designed to produce bad outcomes, no question about it. But that does not let Democratic lawmakers off the hook for their actions. The process denies the ability to budget in a sane manner, but nobody put a gun to their head and forced them to sign on to a budget that rips the social safety net to shreds. If progressive Democrats in the legislature were willing to say no a little more, they might gain a measure of respectability and have at least some of their demands met.

The problem is that it's very difficult to get a bead on who votes for and against a budget, given the state's process. There were 26 different budget trailer bills, and lawmakers had the opportunity to pick and choose where to take stands. Progressive activists need that information of who voted on what in order to make choices about their representatives. It's not the sum total of the equation - leadership can cut deals with individual lawmakers to vote no on trailer bills where their vote is not needed for passage and yes on others, and there's all manner of horse-trading that goes on. But in the end, all we have are the votes. And so we can judge our elected officials based on what votes they made.

Marty Omoto has helpfully strung together all the votes on the main budget bill and key trailer bills, and he will follow this up in subsequent posts. Have a look. Hone in on your representative. Did they vote in your interests? Did they take any notable stands? Or did they go along with the leadership? If so, is there any need for them to participate in the Legislature, or couldn't a lever pulled by the leadership work just as well?

I'm going to look at my two lawmakers, below. By the way, I also have a list of all Assembly votes on all budget trailer bills, ping me if you want a copy.

For the time being, I live in the 41st Assembly District and the 23rd Senate District. My lawmakers are Julia Brownley and Fran Pavley. How'd they vote?

Brownley voted yes on every single budget bill except for four based on my records: AB X4 7, AB X4 8, AB X4 19 and AB X4 23. AB 7 (for short) privatized the social services enrollment process. AB 8 instituted so-called "anti-fraud" provisions to CalWorks to reduce or limit eligibility, and eliminated cost of living adjustments to the welfare program. AB 19 dealt with in-home support services (IHSS) in a similar way as CalWorks, adding fingerprinting and background checks and other anti-fraud measures. AB23 was the Tranquillon Ridge offshore drilling deal.

So basically, Brownley objected to the policy changes made to human services programs but voted with the leadership on pretty much all the program cuts.

As for Pavley, she voted against AB 7 (privatizing social services enrollment), AB 8 (anti-fraud changes to CalWorks), AB X4 9 (cuts on spending to developmental services like Early Start), AB 19 (the aforementioned IHSS bill) and AB23 (Tranquillon Ridge). She also voted against AB27, the use of redevelopment funds by the state. Everything else was a yes.

I think if you go through the votes, with rare exceptions you will see this as the norm for Democratic legislators - picking a few issues, usually on issues where their votes were not needed, to draw a line in the sand, but being generally not too troublesome and following leadership.

In general I think Julia and Fran are solid legislators, but I think it's reasonable to ask whether that's good enough.

Labels: , , ,


Waves Of Dissent

Today was the 40th day since Neda Agha-Soltan was murdered by Iranian militia in Teheran, and in Shiite culture, that date is important for mourning. So thousands of opposition protestors appeared on the streets of Teheran to mark to occasion, and were beaten back by security forces.

Iranian police fired teargas and wielded batons to disperse thousands of anti-government protesters attending a graveside memorial today for victims of a government crackdown in the wake of the disputed presidential election.

Witnesses said plainclothes forces charged at the crowd in the latest unrest following June's disputed presidential election, some of them chanting, "Death to those who are against the supreme leader."

Earlier, hundreds of police surrounded Mir Hossein Mousavi, the defeated reformist candidate, as he and hundreds of his supporters tried to reach the graveside of Neda Soltan, the young woman whose death was captured on video, turning her into a symbol of the protest movement. Witnesses said police forced Mousavi to leave Behesht-e Zahra cemetery, on the capital's southern outskirts.

"Neda is alive, Ahmadinejad is dead," chanted some of those at the ceremony, referring to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who the opposition claims won the election fraudulently.

The police charge came when an ally of Mousavi, Mahdi Karroubi, who was also a candidate in the June 12 election, tried to give a speech. Even after the clash, thousands of supporters continued to visit Soltan's grave.

Eventually, during one of these mourning events, someone else will die. And the protestors will engage in a 40-day cycle of mourning for them. Or some other major event like Rafsanjani speaking at Friday prayers will lead to massive protests. This cycle will not end, I don't think, until the opposition receives a measure of justice. And the hardliners know it. That's why they've intensified their own infighting, with talk of Ahmadinejad being deposed now coming to the fore. This will continue to simmer for at least the rest of the year.

...I think you're going to see mourning over abuse in Iranian prisons get the 40-day cycle as well.

Labels: , , , ,


The Real Problem With Obama's Poll Numbers

My big takeaway today is supposed to be that Barack Obama is fading in selling his health care plan, as eroding poll numbers, both on health care and his job approval rating, threaten legislation in the coming year. As references to "Obamacare" rise, some blame the President for a poor sales job with health care legislation. I fault the President, but for different reasons.

Right now Obama is simply a captive to Congressional process. That process is messy, it's easy to view it as negative, and people are in general reacting to the ups and downs that wound the possibility of passing a bill. The President has no bill to go out and hawk because the Congress is deep into negotiations, so he's selling nothing, a difficult task for anyone. You could say that Obama should have just stepped in and laid down the law, but not only has that proven to fail in the 1993-94 Clinton health care plan, but I don't necessarily want executive dictates to trump Congressional process. I think there's a lot of unnecessary bottlenecks in Congressional process, like the undemocratic filibuster and the seniority system for Committee chairs (particularly in the Senate) and the anti-majoritarian nature of the Senate itself. But in general, we don't elect emperors, and checks and balances are by and large healthy, and I'm OK with Congress performing their task of coming up with legislation and the President performing his task of executing it. Obviously he has some input, but I don't want an executive dominating the process. The paradox of this is that, since people generally believe that a President can just walk in and magically implement his policies, his personal approval is getting dragged down by the slog of health care bills in Congress.

The other wall that Obama is running into has been described for years as the Two Santa Claus theory. For 30 years and more, the American people have been sold on the idea that they can have unlimited services and endlessly low taxes. Somehow the lower taxes generate enough revenue to cover all the services they desire. This was part of a Republican ideological project begun by Reagan aides to basically force Democrats into wearing the black hats, and it has turned into doctrine from then on.

By 1974, Jude Wanniski had had enough. The Democrats got to play Santa Claus when they passed out Social Security and Unemployment checks – both programs of the New Deal – as well as when their "big government" projects like roads, bridges, and highways were built giving a healthy union paycheck to construction workers. They kept raising taxes on businesses and rich people to pay for things, which didn't seem to have much effect at all on working people (wages were steadily going up, in fact), and that made them seem like a party of Robin Hoods, taking from the rich to fund programs for the poor and the working class. Americans loved it. And every time Republicans railed against these programs, they lost elections [...]

Wanniski decided to turn the classical world of economics – which had operated on this simple demand-driven equation for seven thousand years – on its head. In 1974 he invented a new phrase – "supply side economics" – and suggested that the reason economies grew wasn't because people had money and wanted to buy things with it but, instead, because things were available for sale, thus tantalizing people to part with their money. The more things there were, the faster the economy would grow.

At the same time, Arthur Laffer was taking that equation a step further. Not only was supply-side a rational concept, Laffer suggested, but as taxes went down, revenue to the government would go up!

Neither concept made any sense – and time has proven both to be colossal idiocies – but together they offered the Republican Party a way out of the wilderness [...]

Democrats, (Wanniski) said, had been able to be "Santa Clauses" by giving people things from the largesse of the federal government. Republicans could do that, too – spending could actually increase. Plus, Republicans could be double Santa Clauses by cutting people's taxes! For working people it would only be a small token – a few hundred dollars a year on average – but would be heavily marketed. And for the rich it would amount to hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts. The rich, in turn, would use that money to import or build more stuff to market, thus increasing supply and stimulating the economy. And that growth in the economy would mean that the people still paying taxes would pay more because they were earning more.

There was no way, Wanniski said, that the Democrats could ever win again. They'd have to be anti-Santas by raising taxes, or anti-Santas by cutting spending. Either one would lose them elections.

The most important numbers in these collections of polls this week are this. People generally still want health care reform and they believe the system is broken. But they also believe that Congress should cut the deficit without raising taxes or cutting spending. With the caveat that we're talking about aggregate data and cannot make specific conclusions about individual beliefs on the deficit, taxes, and spending, this is not the result of one poll but pretty much the standard poll result over many decades, particularly when Democrats are in power and the deficit-industrial complex ramps up their rhetoric. Simply put, Republican fantasy projections have given the country an out to refuse to accept the normal choices that must be made to deal with reality.

If you don't have the time or inclination to obsessively pay attention to issues, I don't see why you wouldn't decide that we should just pay down the deficit but get good services like comprehensive health care reform but do it without raising taxes. It's very untroubling and simple, and if I'm working two jobs or busy with other things in my life it sure sounds like a good deal to me.

I agree that the President needs to do better in selling his plans to the public. A speech in prime-time, not a press conference but an actual speech, complete with Ross Perot graphs if necessary, as Nate Silver advocates, sounds like a good idea. But his problem is more about American political ideology than the ins and outs of this bill. America elected a Democrat because they didn't like George Bush. But they didn't elect a liberal ideology, even if they may agree with it on many points, because a liberal ideology wasn't on offer. Nobody in the Democratic Party has pushed back against the Two Santa Claus theory, or offered up a competing theory of their own, in the thirty-plus years since it was invented. Obama spent the first few months, when he had a honeymoon and his approval ratings were high, assuring everyone that 95% of Americans will see a tax cut, that he was pragmatic and will only go with "what works," and so on. And so when you get to an issue like health care, which does have moral overtones, which does speak to the fundamental rights of a society to ensure care for their sick and bleeding, there's no ideological foundation to fall back upon, no belief that America is worth paying for and those who use the commons to a disproportionate degree need to give a little bit to maintain the societal fabric. So we have an overhaul of health reform to expand coverage to everyone who needs it couched in the terms of cost curves and long term budget projections and constrained by the obsessive desire of deficit neutrality. This does not inspire activists and partisans to action. It does not force any thinking from those susceptible to attacks on "government-run health care" from the other side. And it does not break the underlying principles of the Two Santa Claus Theory. Nobody has fought the dominant wisdom, inside the Beltway and even in the country, and stated plainly that conservatives have lied to the country about economic issues for 30-plus years. The epic collapse of the economy under the Bush Administration provided an opportunity that nobody took.

Unless and until we start challenging conservative ideology and not conservative candidates, we will always have trouble making major changes because the public has swallowed a notion of government that makes no logical or coherent sense.

Labels: , , , , , , ,