Thursday, April 29, 2010


The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which is five times larger than originally estimated, and is visible from space, has created a state of emergency in Louisiana.  Those who continue to advocate more offshore drilling as a solution to our energy problems need to recognize that this "solution" comes at a very heavy price.  

(click on photos for sources)

Friday, April 23, 2010

Obama and Wall Street

The President chose historic Cooper Union to make a speech this week aimed at Wall Street executives and political opponents of financial regulatory reform.  As usual, some who are sympathetic to the cause of reform (especially those who want stronger reforms) were disappointed in the tone of the speech, wishing that Obama would sound more like Franklin Roosevelt. Obama tells Wall Street executives:
I urge all of you to join me, to join those who are seeking to pass these commonsense reforms. And for those of you in the financial industry, I urge you to join me not only because it is in the interest of your industry, but also because it's in the interest of your country.
while Roosevelt, in 1936, sounded a bit more belligerent:
We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace — business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering . . . . They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today.

They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.
We already know that it is just not Obama's style to be confrontational.  We saw that repeatedly during the presidential campaign.  He truly seems to believe in consensus-building.  And that frustrates people who would rather see the President act more like a fighter.

But aside from questions of personal style, the more important question is whether it would be more helpful to the cause of financial reform for the president to attack Wall Street as if it were the enemy of the people.  Perhaps that kind of speech would make a lot of people feel better, as if the president were rallying the people against a common enemy--Wall Street profiteers.  But would making an enemy of Wall Street serve a larger purpose? Did Roosevelt even treat Wall Street as an enemy? Let's look at some historical comparisons.

When Roosevelt came to office in 1933, the country was already stuck in the worst depression in its history, for more than three years.  Roosevelt had an overwhelming mandate to make change, and overwhelming majorities in Congress.  Most people would probably have accepted it if he had assumed emergency, dictatorial powers, and there was a lot of talk of the possible need to do that.  Both fascism and socialism were massive, popular forces around the world.  Nevertheless, despite his mandate, the first thing Roosevelt did on entering office, just like Obama, was to save the banks.  He saved the tough talk from the speech quoted above for closer to re-election time three years later.  At the beginning of his first term, Roosevelt was more interested in reassuring the people and the financial system, that we would weather the crisis.  So Roosevelt did not actually have to go on a rampage against Wall Street to get the Securities Acts of 1933 and 1934 passed.  Neither should Obama.

Unlike Roosevelt, however, Obama does not have overwhelming majorities in Congress.  Instead, he must deal with virtually united Republican opposition to his plans.  He must also deal with a fairly noisy, seemingly grassroots movement of people who still have faith in the market, and who still think government is the enemy--even after watching the market collapse in 2008, and even after watching the government rescue the economy from that collapse.  These forces may represent a much more powerful opposition than the opposition to Roosevelt's plans.  To deal with that kind of opposition, President Obama does not need to create enemies, or welcome anybody's hatred.  There is already more than enough hatred to go around.  Also, Wall Street executives may be (I emphasize may be) more supportive of reform than they were in the 1930's.  We have been living with the SEC since the 1930's, and nobody would suggest that we abolish regulation of the stock market.  The value of the SEC is pretty universally accepted.  The more thoughtful players on Wall Street should recognize that we need similar regulation of newer financial markets.

Before suggesting that the President adopt a more belligerent tone, let's also remember that the President's approach has been working so far in other areas.  While a lot of people would have liked to see him push for a larger stimulus and more comprehensive health care reform, the fact of the matter is that his conciliatory, middle of the road, consensus-building approach got both these programs enacted, and nobody can say for sure that a more aggressive approach would have had more success.

So it makes logical sense to reach out to the forces of rationality on Wall Street and urge them to support reform.  It does not make sense for President Obama to be welcoming anybody's hatred.  Financial regulation looks like it is on track to pass, and the latest news suggests that it will pass with some Republican support.  It will not go as far as a lot of people would wish, but the bill now making its way through the Senate should still stand as yet another landmark accomplishment.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Partisanship on the Supreme Court

The branch of government that should be the least consumed with party labels is the judiciary.  Once appointed to their lifetime tenured appointments, federal judges should hold themselves above politics.  I recognize that judges take office with well-established ideological orientations that will influence their decisions, but judges, unlike say, members of Congress, cannot be directly influenced by party politics.  In addition, federal judges are supposed to stay out of electoral politics while in office.  And most importantly, judges are bound to decide cases according to the law, not according to their political preferences.  (Again recognizing of course that the higher the judge's level, the more opportunity there is for legal decisions to be influenced by philosophical and political considerations.  The statutory and constitutional questions accepted by the Supreme Court tend to leave a lot of room for interpretation.)

When Barack Obama came into office, there were seven Republicans and two Democrats on the Supreme Court.  But these party labels were not seen as terribly significant because, while tilted in a fairly conservative direction, the nine justices still represented a spectrum of views, and two of the Republicans tended to side with the more "liberal" side of the Court.  With the retirement of first Justice Souter, then Justice Stevens, we see further evidence of the extinction of such Republican moderates.  And unfortunately, with the appointment of a replacement for Justice Stevens, even if he were to be replaced by a Democrat who is more conservative than he is, which is quite possible, the Supreme Court is likely to be perceived in a more partisan manner.  That is because we are soon likely to have four Democrats and five Republicans on the Supreme Court, and we are likely to see quite a few 5-4 decisions breaking down on partisan lines in politically sensitive cases.  (One might wish for the appointment of a liberal Republican to avoid this result, but it is difficult to think of anyone who fits the bill.)  Thus, while the ideological balance of the Court will not be changed dramatically by President Obama's first two appointments, the Court may take on the appearance of a more partisan body than previously.  It would probably take a concerted effort by most or all of the nine justices to avoid that appearance of partisanship, and it would probably be in the interest of the Court's reputation for all of the justices to make such an effort.  Otherwise we are likely to see a real political firestorm if President Obama ever has the opportunity to appoint a replacement for any of the remaining five Republicans on the Court.

On the other hand, a good argument can be made that what is really needed on the Court at this time is a fiercely liberal voice, in the tradition of a Brennan or Marshall or Douglas, something the Court has not had for some time.  Ideally, the Court probably should contain at least one Justice as far to the left as respectable legal opinion allows, to counter-balance the strong voices on the right that we already have, and to keep all of the Justices intellectually honest by forcing them to consider arguments on both the left and right ends of the spectrum.  Since Senate Republicans have already signaled that they might attempt to filibuster whomever the President appoints, now might be a good time to challenge the Senate to consider a powerful liberal voice, reserving a more moderate candidate for a potential third appointment.   Since the Senate will likely respond to his appointment in a partisan manner, and the Court will probably take on a more partisan appearance no matter who is appointed, the President should have a great deal of freedom to appoint the candidate he feels would be best for the Court in the long run.

(retiring Justice John Paul Stevens)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Rush Limbaugh Talks to God!

This week Rush Limbaugh responded to the President's jokes about how the passage of health care reform has not led to the apocalypse, as some of reform's most hysterical opponents predicted.   Maybe the volcanic eruption  in Iceland, Rush points out, which has caused massive disruption of air travel around the world, is a sign of God's displeasure.  If so, it is interesting that God would have chosen to spew ash across the skies of Europe, most of which has had socialized health care for decades, to punish America for deciding to extend coverage to more of its citizens.  Of course it could be that it has taken God decades to show his wrath toward Europe.  But, even if we were to assume that God is unhappy about more recent events in America, how do we know that the volcanic eruption was not a demonstration of God's anger that the health insurance reform bill did not go far enough?  Would we not expect God to be concerned that the United States spends more on health care per capita than other countries, but generally has worse life expectancy, infant mortality and other measures of healthiness than comparable countries?  Maybe God is angry that we did not enact a single payer system for all, or that many of the reforms in the current bill do not take effect until 2014. 

In fairness to Rush, I doubt he intended his remarks to be taken seriously, and I don't know that he has made any claim to understand the mind of God.  And if President Obama is entitled to suggest that health care reform is not likely to produce Armageddon, it is certainly fair for others to point out that maybe Armageddon is really on the way.  Let's suppose instead that all this talk is just good fun.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Goodwin Liu

Goodwin Liu, nominated for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, received his bachelor's degree from Stanford University, was a Rhodes Scholar, and obtained his law degree from Yale. He has clerked on the U.S. Supreme Court for Justice Ginsburg, worked at O'Melveny & Myers, served in the Department of Education, and been on the faculty of Boalt Hall School of Law since 2003.  In 2009, Professor Liu won the UC Berkeley Distinguished Teaching Award.

Liu received the ABA's highest recommendation for appointment to the Court of Appeals.  His nomination is supported by Pepperdine Dean and Clinton prosecutor Kenneth Starr, Berkeley Professor and torture memo author John Yoo, and other conservative scholars, as well as a large array of law professors, education policy leaders, and others representing a range of ideological views.

Liu's confirmation hearing was postponed twice at the behest of Republican members of the Judiciary Committee, and finally took place on April 16.

Here he sets Senator Sessions straight on how to interpret the Constitution.  It should not be controversial at all to assert that the Constitution must be interpreted in a way that meets the challenges of every generation.  That is after all the way the drafters of the Constitution expected that it should be interpreted.  That does not mean that you ignore or misconstrue the text.  All it means is that you have to apply the words of an 18th Century document to circumstances that did not even exist in the 18th Century.

Armageddon Not Imminent

Now we know the real purpose of the President's visit to NASA this week.  He needed to confirm, in light of all the alarmist rhetoric and rallies around the country about health care reform and taxes, etc., that we don't need to send Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck into space to protect us from asteroid attack.  The good news is that top scientists reassured him that "America is going to be ok."

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Bring Back Slavery!

There is something fundamentally wrong with calling yourself a Republican while trivializing the history of slavery, which Governor Bob McDonnell did (though to his credit later apologized and changed his position).  Which Governor Haley Barbour did. Which former Congressmen J.C. Watts did.  Which Pat Buchanan did.  These people need to recall that the whole purpose of founding the Republican Party was in opposition to the spread of slavery to new territories, and that any attempt to minimize the importance of that issue tarnishes the founders of their own political party.  They need to re-read the history of the decades leading up to the Civil War, in which the only political debate of any consequence was about slavery.  And they need to recognize that the only reason the southern states attempted to secede was because of slavery.  (The only significant difference between the Confederate Constitution and the Federal Constitution was its protection of slavery.)  The Confederacy was not founded in opposition to federal power or in support of states' rights.  If the Confederates had a problem with federal power, they would never have endorsed the vast federal powers of the Fugitive Slave Act, but they were always supportive of federal efforts to retrieve their property from states that did not recognize the legitimacy of that property interest. 

Current attempts to commemorate Confederate history without recognizing that the entire purpose of the Confederacy was to protect the despicable institution of slavery amount to a re-writing of history.  Current loose talk about states' rights and secession and disobedience to federal authority amounts to ignorance of history and the Constitution.  You simply cannot raise these issues without implicitly  supporting the revival of a racist, anti-democratic vision of America.  And that is why it should never be surprising to see white supremacist, hate-filled slogans appearing at Tea Party rallies.  These sentiments represent the true face of the movement, which its leaders cannot seem to succeed in suppressing.

If the current apologists for the Confederacy really want to get people to understand the original intent of the Constitution and the philosophical basis for their movement, they might as well come right out and say they support the re-enslavement of black people.  Otherwise, they are not quite being honest about the implications of their own rhetoric.

(photo from Huffington Post)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Politics of Financial Regulation

If there is one thing almost everyone seems to be agreed upon in the wake of the severe recession of 2008, it is that we need to put some curbs on Wall Street speculators to try to prevent such events from occurring again, similar to the way financial regulations like the securities acts of 1933 and 1934 were put in place to curb the abuses of the 1920's that led to the Great Depression.  So you would think that financial regulation of some sort should sail through Congress on a bi-partisan basis, since everybody is for it.  You would think that anyone opposing such a bill would easily be tarred as taking the side of the credit default swapping, mortgage securitizing, bonus-paying, foreclosing fat cats who played such a large part in getting us into this mess, against the ordinary citizens who have lost their jobs and their homes to the financial collapse.

Not so fast!  Give the Republicans credit for coming up with a plausible way of explaining their opposition to Senator Dodd's financial regulation bill.  After their near success tapping into popular fear of government intervention to justify their defense of the none-too-popular health insurance industry, now they are playing on popular disgust with financial bailouts to justify taking the side of none-too-popular bankers and speculators.  No matter that the bailout policy was established by the Bush administration, and that many Republican senators supported the AIG bailout and the TARP program that were enacted in the wake of Lehman Brothers' collapse in the fall of 2008. 

It is of course legitimate for the opposition, minority party to raise objections to the governing party's plans, even at the cost of consistency or coherence.  But would it not be more responsible to try to incorporate some Republican philosophical ideas into the financial reform bill, rather than simply obstructing and opposing it?  And if we continue to see nothing but obstructionism, is it not legitimate to keep pointing out that the opposition has no program of its own to offer?  Not only would the Republican leadership suggest doing nothing to avert the next financial collapse, they also advocate doing nothing to keep the economy afloat after another collapse.  Are the short term potential political gains of this strategy really worth its potential long term political and economic dangers?

In other news, the Dow Jones Industrial Average passed 11,000 this week, up more than 50% from its low point a little over a year ago.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Money and Politics

TPM reports that politicians returning to their districts this break have for the most part been spared the angry crowds that drew so much attention last summer.  One factor that may account for the diminished size of these protests is the lack of financial support for protest organizers.  Now that Congress passed health care reform, organizers may see less reason to create the appearance of widespread popular opposition.  Thus, while the media last year largely accepted grass roots anger at face value, what went under-reported was the amount of corporate sponsorship that brought these protesters to Congressional Town Halls. (This is not to say that some genuine anger about the Obama administration's proposed reforms did not exist; only that some powerful monied interests had an interest in fanning the flames of that anger.)

It makes you wonder:  How much of what we see on TV is real, and how much is a made-for-TV movie?  How much is public opinion influenced by carefully-orchestrated events?  How much apparently grassroots activity is actually astroturf?  Will news shows stop falling for this stuff, or does their need for ratings compel them to inflate the importance of small numbers of noisy protesters?  And when will people learn to distrust pretty much everything they see on the news?

In other news, Meg Whitman just contributed another $20 million from her own personal fortune to her gubernatorial campaign.  She is leading by large margins in the polls against other Republican candidates, and neck-and-neck with presumed Democratic opponent Jerry Brown.

(Frank Morgan plays the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz.)

Monday, April 5, 2010

Sex and Politics

Sometimes I regret that I rarely have time to do real journalism on this site.  This week, for example, I shirked my duty to investigate Voyeur, the West Hollywood bondage-themed nightclub that has been in the news so much, after Voyeur was revealed to be a site where Republican Party funds were used to entertain contributors.  Someone really should be asking club management the important questions, such as whether the club has always been popular with Republicans, or whether all this publicity has been good for business, or what drinks do Republicans typically order.  Unfortunately, I did not have time for a personal visit, so these critical questions, which continue to be ignored by the mainstream media, may continue to go unanswered.

Do I think this story is important? No, but I heard that if you use the word "sex" in the title of your blog posts, you can drive some extra traffic to your site.

Actually, I think the whole scandal was probably a plot engineered by the Democrats to distract the public from the Obama administration's latest outrages.  For while the media has been consumed with concern about where the Republican Party wines and dines its contributors, the administration has quietly been formulating major changes in nuclear policy, concluding a major treaty with Russia, and about to announce a significant review of nuclear posture, for the first time making it clear that the United States will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear countries in compliance with their treaty obligations, and that we will not develop new nuclear weapons.  The New York Times says Obama's new strategy represents "a sharp shift from those of his predecessors and seeks to revamp the nation’s nuclear posture for a new age in which rogue states and terrorist organizations are greater threats than traditional powers like Russia and China."

What all this means is that the public is free to continue its preoccupation with sex clubs, or whatever other kinds of entertainment strike people's fancy, because the danger of nuclear annihilation just receded a tiny bit further. 

(photo from Voyeur club website)

Friday, April 2, 2010

March job numbers

There is something beautiful about the shape of a bell curve.  In this curve, the bottom-most point represents Inauguration Day 2009.

The numbers are courtesy of the Department of Labor.  The chart was drawn by Nancy Pelosi's office, which I know makes it suspect for a few of my readers.  Those readers can draw their own jobs chart.