Archive for June, 2009

Deep Stupid

June 29, 2009

Today’s winner is Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-MO.  McCaskill is one of the most active Twitterers on Capitol Hill, and today she tweeted:

I hope we can fix cap and trade so it doesn’t unfairly punish businesses and families in coal dependent states like Missouri.

Cap-and-trade is the system for reducing air pollution, contained in the energy bill the House passed on Friday.  Roughly speaking, you cap the total amount of pollution that can be emitted, divide that number by the number of polluters, and sell (or, in the House legislation, mostly give away) permits for equal shares of that pollution to each polluter.  They can then buy and sell permits amongst themselves — the “trade” part.

The more pollution you emit, the more permits you need to buy from other polluters, and therefore the more it costs you.

One of the beauties of a cap-and-trade system, then, is that those who pollute the most have to pay the most.  That’s how it should be.  It’s how a functioning free market would allocate costs.  Pollution is a cost of production, just like buying coal and building power plants.  In a functioning market, producers of goods pay their own costs of production and have to pass those costs on to the people who buy their goods; therefore, there is an incentive to reduce costs.  But, of course, we don’t have a functioning free market where pollution is concerned.  The producers do not pay their own production costs, and the people who buy their goods don’t have to pay fair market value for them.  They externalize their costs onto the rest of us.  In other words, we’re all subsidizing them, and have been for decades.

The whole point of a cap-and-trade system is to eliminate that problem; to make people pay their own way when they pollute.  This is a feature, not a bug, Senator McCaskill, so it does not need you to “fix” it.

Up to now, energy costs in coal-dependent Missouri have been artificially low because all the rest of us have been subsidizing the cost of producing the electricity you use. We’ve all been paying for a product we don’t receive.  There’s nothing “unfair” about stopping that, Senator, and it does not “punish” businesses and families in your state.

So stop with the self-pity.  You’ve chosen to build electric plants that have high production costs.  You’ve counted on being able to shift that cost onto the rest of us, rather than paying it yourselves.

Sorry, but we’re closing our wallets.  It’s your electricity.  You pay for it.

System vs. People II, Revenge of the People

June 27, 2009


At the end of the day, climate is just exactly the sort of issue where the American political system is well-designed to catastrophically screw up. The incentives are all horrible. Things will only happen if a certain number of people decide to step up, and behave in a statesmanlike manner. You don’t need 100 Senators to do that, but you do need more than zero.

He says the problem is the terrible design of the American political system.  He says the solution is having more than zero senators who aren’t total tools.  Note the mismatch.  If the problem were really the system, the solution would be a better system, not better people.

I don’t mean to set up a false dichotomy, here.  A system that didn’t work unless all the people in it behaved honorably 100% of the time would be a terrible, totally unworkable system.  But as Yglesias notes, ours isn’t such a system.  We just need a few people to behave honorably every now and then.  Otherwise, our system of pitting self-interest against self-interest works well.

Our problem is that we haven’t had any of those people in the past 10 years.  In fact, we haven’t even had much clash of self-interests.

That’s something the Founders never anticipated when they were setting up our political institutions.  They assumed everybody would act to protect their own power and self-interest.  Remarkably, the members of congress — of both parties — didn’t do that during the Bush administration.  They quite intentionally abandoned their constitutional powers of oversight, investigation, and even lawmaking.  Many GOP members also failed to act in their own self-interest; they lined up behind the president despite his enormous unpopularity in his second term; many of them even at the cost of their own careers.  Some Democrats shared their fate, thanks to primary challenges from the left.

That kind of self-immolating obeisance of one branch before another is something our system just does not anticipate, and cannot function under.

System vs. People

June 26, 2009

Ezra Klein shares his buddy Matt Yglesias’s low esteem for our system of government.  In response to a post saying Obama has taken the path of least resistance too often, Klein says:

On the other hand, you can say that taking the path of least resistance has left the administration with enough resistance to potentially kill health reform, cap-and-trade, and financial regulation. The least possible resistance, in other words, may still be enough to overwhelm the political system’s insanely poor tolerance for resistance. We have a political system that most observers can confidently predict will be completely unable to avert the fiscal or the climate crisis. That’s like a police force that can’t respond to emergency calls, or a fire department unable to put out fires.

I think that analytically honest political commentators right now should be struggling with a pretty hard choice: Do you try to maximize the possibility of good, if still insufficient, outcomes? Or do you admit what many people already know and say that our political process has gone into total system failure and the overriding priority is building the long-term case for structural reform of America’s lawmaking process? Put another way, can you really solve any of our policy problems until you solve our fundamental political problem?

As I’ve said before, it’s not at all clear to me that our inability to get big legislation passed is the fault of our system.  It looks very much more to me like a failure of the people currently in that system.

American history offers plenty of examples of our system producing huge legislation, sometimes by the fistful.  The system is the same, today.  What’s different is the people in it.

In short: the people from one party are political degenerates, and the people from the other party are inexplicably terrified of those degenerates. That’s why we aren’t seeing huge legislation passed, despite the Dems’ enormous political advantage right now.  The problem isn’t the system; it’s that the people populating the system, on both sides, are losers.

Furthermore, I’m pretty sure the reforms that Klein and Yglesias would like to see would not be beneficial to the country.  They would result in round 2 of America’s sectional strife.

This country has made huge progressive leaps exactly 3 times in its history.  The first one took the bloodiest war in the nation’s history.  The second took 25% unemployment simultaneous with a catastrophic environmental anomaly.  The third took protracted, direct, person-to-person involvement on a tremendous scale and at great personal risk.

I’m pretty sure we don’t want to repeat either of the first 2 methods.  But tinkering with the rules in the ways I’ve seen Klein, Yglesias, Hendrik Hertzberg, and others advocate will, I believe, inevitably lead to a repeat of the first; because all of the changes they advocate boil down to greatly reducing the political representation of the South, the Mountain West, and rural areas pretty much everywhere, while greatly expanding the political representation of the coasts and large cities.

Look at those dividing lines and tell me: how do you think the folks on the losing side will react to having those folks on the winning side effectively shut them out of the political process?


No, if we want to make another huge progressive leap, the path to take is the third.  Tinkering with the rules is quick and easy, by comparison, but the price is much too high.

In Which I Do Not Rant

June 26, 2009

The new, positive me sez Ezra Klein makes a good point, partially justifying the Dems’ weak-kneed approach to health care reform:

If President Obama had begun health reform with a speech aggressively laying out the case for single payer, the next morning’s newspapers would be filled with stories suggesting that 40 Republicans and 30 Democrats had pronounced Obama’s health reform effort dead on arrival. And when that got torn apart, Obama’s credibility on the issue would’ve been substantially shredded.

Sea Squirt of the Day

June 25, 2009

The sea squirt is a little critter that famously — well, semi-famously — finds itself a cozy spot, settles in, and eats its own brain.

Today, the news networks ate their own brains.

Wanna know the latest developments in Iran?  Tough.

Wanna know what happened with the various health care bills today?  Not gonna happen.

Wanna know if they’re still slaughtering folks in Darfur?  Maybe you could call the Sudanese embassy.

Wanna know what the Dow did?  Capitalist pig!

Michael Jackson died, and not only is that newsworthy, it’s the only important thing that has happened all day.  In the world.  It is imperative — imperative, I tell you! — that we discuss every song he ever recorded, talk to everyone who ever knew someone who knew him or might have been in the same county with him at the time of his demise, re-examine all the details of his colorful life, roll the file footage of every dance move he introduced, and discuss how much money “Thriller” made.  Right.  Now.

Nothing else matters.  In the entire world.

And these people don’t understand why everybody’s turning to The Daily Show and the internet for their news?

(I’ve been rather ranty of late.  I’ll try to get the reeform.  Broom and midget and whatnot.)

Deadpan Matt

June 25, 2009

Yglesias, cracking wise on the argument that 9/11 should have caused an increase in American defense spending, cracks me up:

It’s difficult to make the case that the 9/11 plot succeeded because the gap in [military] expenditures between the U.S. government and Osama bin Laden was not big enough.

Nixon to China

June 25, 2009

If the Iranian regime manages to remain in power, should the Obama administration go forward with diplomatic negotiations with them?

It’s an interesting question.  In my opinion, the answer is yes.

The issues we need to discuss with Iran — nuclear proliferation chief among them — are of the sort that you can’t just let drop, just because the government you’re negotiating with is in power only through violent repression of their people.  It’s why Nixon went to China to talk with Chairman Mao.  It’s why presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan engaged in talks with Soviet dictators.

People say it would be politically risky for Obama to negotiate with Khamenei and Ahmadinejad now.  True, there would be people who would explode in opposition to it.

Take Nixon, again.  Remember all the politicians who went apey over Nixon’s visit to China?

Me, neither.

Which is my point.  Those people were so terrifically wrong that history has forgotten them.  Negotiating with China was the right thing to do, despite the fact they were really, really bad guys.

How about Reagan.  Remember all those people who blew their stack when he went to Reykjavik to negotiate nukes with Gorbachev?

Me, neither.  History has completely forgotten them, too.

In both cases, it’s not that there weren’t politicians and groups who strenuously objected to negotiating with those regimes.  There were — hard-core anti-communists.  But they were wrong.  The judgment of history is so utterly against them that it’s not even worth remembering their names.  What we do remember is that Nixon made the world safer by opening relations with China, and that Reagan made the world safer by signing a nuclear reduction treaty with the Soviets.

Obama would do well to remember that.

Creeping Excuse-ism

June 25, 2009

In a previous post, I asked:

How long, you figure, before somebody in the GOP — probably Michele Bachmann — comes up with the following argument:  “No wonder we’ve had such a rash of infidelity among our politicians!  When President Clinton got away with it, everybody realized all the rules were off.”  GOP infidelities are Clinton’s fault.

As if on cue, Rush has taken the first step in that direction:

“This is almost like, ‘I don’t give a damn, the country’s going to Hell in a handbasket, I just want out of here,'” said Limbaugh. “He had just tried to fight the stimulus money coming to South Carolina. He didn’t want any part of it. He lost the battle. He said, ‘What the Hell. I mean, I’m — the federal government’s taking over — what the Hell, I want to enjoy life.'”

So, in under 24 hours, we’ve already gotten as far as blaming the Democrats for Sanford cheating on his wife.  Right now it’s Obama’s fault.  We should start a pool on when they’ll get to Clinton.

On a related note: just imagine how big a mess this country would be if conservatives weren’t standing up for personal responsibility.

Finally, A Good Idea

June 25, 2009

At the recent senate hearing on health care reform, NPR’s photographer (radio networks have photographers?) took pictures of the audience instead of the senators.

NPR is now asking readers for help identifying the lobbyists and other special interest representatives in the crowd.  Now that’s some old-media news reporting I can get behind.

How Bush Affects Iran

June 25, 2009

There’s a lot of discussion these days about what the Obama administration will do if the current Iranian regime manages to stay in power by violently suppressing its people.  Will Obama continue to press for diplomatic talks on nuclear weapons?

Spencer Ackerman puts it thus:

Does the administration and its allies then try to link human rights obligations to any nuclear deal, knowing that the regime won’t accept that, and thereby jeopardizing the prospect of keeping Iran free of nuclear weapons? (And that’s presuming that, say, China and Russia will accept that, which they probably won’t.) Or does it hold to its top priority of preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and implicitly grant the regime legitimacy? Right now, though, the administration’s construction at least buys it time to judge Iranian intentions — and decide whether a regime willing to so blatantly steal an election is really rational enough to hew to its international obligations.

Why should Iran “hew to its international obligations”?  We didn’t.  The Bush administration flagrantly violated the Geneva Conventions for several years, and continues to defend those violations.  The Obama administration is also violating our international treaty obligations by refusing to investigate those war crimes.

Is that an excuse for what Iran is doing?  Clearly not.  But it does leave us with little, if any, legitimacy to complain about Iran’s international compliance.

This is how high the price is when we act against the rule of law.