Wednesday, February 24, 2010

boehner vs. boehner

You might recall my previous account of Republicans leaders demanding that President Obama agree to the creation of a deficit reduction commission ... until President Obama agreed to it. Here is Senate Minority Leader McConnell:

As I have said many times before, the best way to address the [deficit] crisis is the Conrad-Gregg proposal. . . . It deserves support from both sides of the aisle. … So I urge the administration, once again, to support the Conrad-Gregg proposal. This proposal is our best hope for addressing the out-of-control spending and debt levels that are threatening our Nation's fiscal future.

So President Obama agreed to it. At which point Senate Republicans filibustered it. The Senate failed to overcome the filibuster by a 53 to 46 vote. It would have passed if seven Republican co-sponsors and McConnell had voted to break the filibuster. They didn't just vote against it. They voted to filibuster it -- a parliamentary maneuver that used to be reserved for extraordinary matters like denying civil rights to black people but now used to obstruct anything and everything that comes before the Senate. If they had only allowed it to come to a fair "up or down vote" they could have still voted against it and it would have passed. But they voted to filibuster the very same bill they co-sponsored and demanded that President Obama support.

Do you really have any doubt these guys are nihilists?

Then there is the increasingly common Republican practice of filibustering a bill ... until if it manages to survive their procedural attacks, then they turn around and vote for it ... because they really don't have a principled reason to oppose it. Like when Senate Republicans spent
several weeks obstructing a vote on a bill extending unemployment benefits, requiring that it survive three cloture votes to overcome their filibusters. But once it became clear they were eventually going to lose, Republicans all voted for the bill and it passed 98-0. Weeks of obstruction of a bill they voted for. Now common practice among Senate Republicans. Because they know most Americans generally don't follow all this procedural maneuvering and will blame Democrats for the failure to enact legislation to help the American people at a time of national distress. But they don't want to be held accountable for actually voting against it.

Which brings us to tomorrow's televised health care summit.

You might recall Congressional Republicans demanding that President Obama agree to televise negotiations over health care reform legislation.
Here is House Minority leader Boehner:

[E]very issue of national import should be debated by the people's elected representatives in full public view, but this is especially true with something as personal and important as health care. Clocking in at a combined 4,765 pages, the House and Senate health care bills propose drastic and expensive changes in the way Americans live. [RD note: Nice touch -- combining the page totals of both the House and Senate bills.] Dozens of differences between the two bills have been identified, including fundamental changes to the patient-doctor relationship.

Hard-working families won't stand for having the future of their health care decided behind closed doors. These secret deliberations are a breeding ground for more of the kickbacks, shady deals and special-interest provisions that have become business as usual in Washington. Too much is at stake to have a final bill built on payoffs and pork-barrel spending.

So ... you know where this is going. President Obama agrees to debate these issues in a televised forum in full view of the American people. Boehner is totally psyched, right?

Just kidding, of course.

Boehner equivocates over whether Republicans will even attend the health care summit.
Fox News' Greta Van Susteren asks Boehner what he thinks about the fact that it's going to be televised and she adds, "the American people are probably delighted that we're getting this televised:"

Boehner responded: "I think that's fine, but you know, is this a political event or is this going to be a real conversation?"

Van Susteren didn't let that slide: "Well, except that we've been hammering them about the transparency. The president said, you know, he was going to put everything on C-SPAN, so we can't criticize him now for when he finally does put it on C-SPAN."

Boehner said "well, that's fine," but he doesn't "want to walk into some set-up."

How dare President Obama televise the discussions we demanded that he televise.

Oh, and remember that bit above about the House and Senate bills combined "[c]locking in at a combined 4,765 pages"? Another big Republican theme: The health care bills are too long. Here is
Boehner again:

“The best way to get a sense of what Speaker Pelosi’s takeover of health care looks like is to actually look at it. Just shy of 2,000 pages, it runs more than 620 pages longer than the government-run plan Hillary Clinton proposed in 1993. This 1,990 pages of bureaucracy will centralize health care decision making in Washington, DC. "

So President Obama agrees to post on-line at least 72 hours prior to the televised bipartisan health care discussion his summary of the Democratic proposal. Republicans refuse to come up with any proposals of their own. And how does Boehner react to President Obama's public proposal? It's not long enough. Seriously. Here is
Boehner's spokesman:
The White House's 'plan' consists of an 11-page outline, which has not been scored by the Congressional Budget Office or posted online as legislative text. So they want to reorganize one-sixth of the United States' economy with a document shorter than a comic book ...

Goldilocks is easier to please than these guys.


They think they win if our government -- and the country -- fails. And they think we are stupid enough to blame it on President Obama.

I just hope they're not right about that.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


What can I add?

The Daily Show.

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Rage Within the Machine - Progressivism
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Thursday, February 18, 2010

stimulus success

It was a year ago this week that President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), also known as the “stimulus bill.” He had been in office for less than a month.

In late January of last year, President Obama took office facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression (and with two wars going badly and a trillion dollar deficit). He sought bipartisan support for legislation to help turn around the economy. Since interest rates were already at the “zero bound,” representing the limit of traditional monetary policies, primary reliance would have to be on fiscal policy. Despite analyses from his own Council of Economic Advisors that
a fiscal stimulus of roughly $1.2 trillion was necessary, President Obama cut it back to less than two-thirds of that size in an effort to accommodate Congressional Republicans. Over one-third of the stimulus ($288 billion) took the form of tax cuts for over 95% of all Americans. This was done to appeal to Republicans, despite warnings that those tax cuts would likely be saved rather than spent, diluting their stimulative effect. It constituted the largest two-year tax cut in US history. Despite those efforts at bipartisanship, not a single Republican in the House voted for the bill and only three Republican Senators voted for it (one of whom, Arlen Specter, later became a Democrat after being ostracized by his former party for that treasonous act of bipartisanship). Less than a month into the new administration, in the middle of a national crisis, Congressional Republicans had already settled on a strategy of total opposition and obstruction.

So despite the ARRA being too small and too tilted toward tax cuts – in the name of bipartisanship – how has the economy done during President Obama’s first year?

This chart provides a good summary of course of unemployment over the past two years. In the first three months of 2009, before the ARRA had begun to take effect, the US economy lost an average of over 750,000 jobs a month. A year later, we are pretty close to having stopped the job losses. We still have a very deep hole to climb out of, but you can’t get better until you stop getting worse.

[click on image to enlarge]

GDP numbers tell a similar story. During the fourth quarter of 2008,
GDP declined at a staggering rate of 6.3%. In the fourth quarter of 2009, it rose by an estimated 5.7%.

Yesterday, David Leonhardt (the New York Times’ best financial writer – you would be well advised to read any article with his byline) had
a good article on the effect of the Obama stimulus. Here is a bit of it:
Just look at the outside evaluations of the stimulus. Perhaps the best-known economic research firms are IHS Global Insight, Macroeconomic Advisers and Moody’s They all estimate that the bill has added 1.6 million to 1.8
million jobs so far and that its ultimate impact will be roughly 2.5 million jobs. The
Congressional Budget Office, an independent agency, considers these estimates to be conservative.

The reasons for the stimulus’s
middling popularity aren’t a mystery. The unemployment rate remains near 10 percent, and many families are struggling.
Saying that things could have been even worse doesn’t exactly inspire. Liberals
don’t like the stimulus because they wish it were bigger. Republicans don’t like
it because it’s a Democratic program. …

Of course, no one can be certain about what would have happened in an alternate universe without a $787 billion stimulus. But there are two main reasons to think the hard-core skeptics are misguided — above and beyond those complicated, independent economic analyses.

The first is the basic narrative that the data offer. Pick just about any area of the economy and you come across the stimulus bill’s footprints.

In the early months of last year, spending by state and local governments was falling rapidly, as was tax revenue. In the spring, tax revenue continued to drop, yet spending jumped — during the very time when state and local officials were finding out roughly how much stimulus money they would be receiving. This is the money that has kept teachers, police officers, health care workers and firefighters employed.
Then there is corporate spending. It surged in the final months of last year.
Mark Zandi of (who has advised the McCain campaign and Congressional Democrats) says that the Dec. 31 expiration of a tax credit for corporate investment, which was part of the stimulus, is a big reason.

The story isn’t quite as clear-cut with consumer spending, as skeptics note. Its sharp plunge stopped before President Obama signed the stimulus into law exactly one year ago. But the billions of dollars in tax cuts, food stamps and jobless benefits in the stimulus have still made a difference. Since February, aggregate wages and salaries have fallen, while consumer spending has risen. The difference between the two — some $100 billion — has essentially come from stimulus checks.

The second argument in the bill’s favor is the history of financial crises. They have wreaked terrible damage on economies. Indeed, the damage tended to be even worse than what we have suffered.

Around the world over the last century, the typical financial crisis caused the jobless rate to rise for almost five years, according to work by the economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff. On that timeline, our rate would still be rising in early 2012. Even that may be optimistic, given that the recent crisis was so bad. As Ben Bernanke, Henry Paulson (Republicans both) and many others warned in 2008, this recession had the potential to become a depression.

Yet the jobless rate is now expected to begin falling consistently by the end of this year.

For that, the stimulus package, flaws and all, deserves a big heaping of credit. “It prevented things from getting much worse than they otherwise would have been,” Nariman Behravesh, Global Insight’s chief economist, says. “I think everyone would have to acknowledge that’s a good thing.”

The article quotes HIS Global Insight, Macroeconomic Advisors and Moody’s The three forecasting firms represented are fully in the mainstream; the individual forecasters are regularly polled in the WSJ survey, among others. They each provide a counterfactual – comparing the likely course of GDP and employment with and without stimulus. Here is a graph from November that is still relevant:

[click on image to enlarge]

Leonhardt also quotes Mark Zandi, a
former economic advisor to John McCain’s presidential campaign. Here he is on the effect of the stimulus:

I think stimulus was key to the 4th quarter. It was really critical to business fixed investment because there was a tax bonus depreciation in the stimulus that expired in December and juiced up fixed investment. And also, it was very critical to housing and residential investment because of the housing tax credit. And the decline in government spending would have been measurably greater without the money from the stimulus. So the stimulus was very, very important in the 4th quarter.

Here’s an earlier comment from Zandi:

… “there was a considerable amount of hand-wringing that [the stimulus] was too small, and I sympathized with that argument,” said Mark Zandi, … Even so, “the
stimulus is doing what it was supposed to do — it is contributing to ending the
recession,” he added, citing the economy’s third-quarter expansion by a 3.5
percent seasonally adjusted annual rate. “In my view, without the stimulus, G.D.P. would still be negative and unemployment would be firmly over 11 percent. And there are a little over 1.1 million more jobs out there as of October than would have been out there without the stimulus.”

“The economy has shed some three million jobs over the past year, but it would
have lost closer to five million without stimulus. The economy is still struggling, but it would have been much worse without stimulus.”
Of course, Congressional Republicans continue to defend their obstructionism. House minority whip, Eric Cantor – their go-to guy on the economy – is claiming that the ARRA has been an “
utter failure” … while at the same time taking credit for the jobs it is creating in his district:

Mr. Obama also borrowed a line from Congressional Democrats, who have been criticizing Republicans like Mr. Cantor for voting against the measure but then rushing back home to scoop up stimulus dollars for projects in their districts.

Under the headline “Eric Cantor Is a Hypocrite,” the Democratic National Committee on Wednesday issued a news release about how Mr. Cantor supported a high-speed rail project financed by the stimulus bill, saying it would create 185,000 Virginia jobs.

Mr. Obama put it this way: “There are those, let’s face it, across the aisle who have tried to score political points by attacking what we did — even as many of them show up at ribbon-cutting ceremonies for projects in their districts.”
Cantor is not alone. The Center for American Progress has a
report showing at least 111 Republicans who voted against the stimulus bill but have since taken credit with their constituents for its successes.

I guess the jobs created by the ARRA are only real if they are in the district of a Congressional Republican.

Friday, February 12, 2010

an irrational climate

“Here's my conclusion: the only strong evidence we have that Oklahoma Senator James M. Inhofe isn't a clown is that his car isn't small enough."

That line came to mind this week as Inhofe, the leading Congressional climate science denier and possibly the craziest person in the Senate (no small distinction), drew attention to his cause by building an igloo with a cardboard sign calling it, “Al Gore’s New Home.”

Working to keep the crazy contest alive in the Senate and apparently reveling in the opportunity to exhibit his ignorance of climate science, South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint
tweeted, “It's going to keep snowing in DC until Al Gore cries 'uncle'.“

Not to be out done in the effort to portray this week’s East Coast blizzard as refutation of global warming,
FOX News (“We Manufacture Stupid”) planted a copy of Gore’s book, An Inconvenient Truth, outside and showed it being buried in snow as their commentator remarked, “Poor Al Gore. We should get a camera outside his house.” Sean Hannity joined the chorus at FOX: “[T]he most severe winter storm in years … would seem to contradict Al Gore’s hysterical global warming theories.” Yes, so it would seem … if you can’t distinguish “weather” from “climate”.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said the blizzards that shut down Congress this week have made it more difficult to argue that global warming is an imminent danger. To be fair to Sen. Bingaman, he was commenting on the
political reality in DC rather than the reality of global warming:

“Where’s Al Gore when we need him?” quipped Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who burst out laughing when asked about the prospect of passing cap-and-trade legislation Tuesday while the city was still digging out.

[Tom Toles]

This is the kind of stupid that makes my head hurt. If it has the same effect on you, take two Tylenol and watch this segment from the Colbert Report.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
We're Off to See the Blizzard
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joined in on the climate science denier logic, deeming it "simple observational research: whatever just happened is the only thing that is happening. Just ask any peek-a-boo-ologist.” Using the same rationale as Fox News, Colbert pointed out that, due to it being nighttime, the city was covered in darkness. "Based on this latest data, we can only assume that the sun has been destroyed."

The Daily Show picked up the same theme
in this clip:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Unusually Large Snowstorm
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Among many good bits, it has Aasif Mandvi in the snow at night in New York debating the reality of global warming with Samantha Bee in the Australian summer heat with each citing his or her own experiences at that moment as conclusive evidence. Sadly, it doesn’t take much exaggeration to satirize this stuff.

For fear of stating the obvious, there is no lack of cold temperatures in the Northeast US during winter. The thing that’s required to produce a large snow storm is an uncommon amount of moisture colliding with those cold temperatures. Global warming is resulting in more moisture in the atmosphere which also results in more frequent and more severe storms. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the rise of average global temperatures has led to a 5 percent increase of water vapor within the atmosphere over the past century. Cold Weather + Lots of Moisture = Big Snowstorm. (More here.) Not that the weather in DC has anything whatsoever to do with global warming as an actual meteorological phenomenon.

Just to be clear, if it happens to by sunny in Seattle on the same day that it is raining in Palm Springs that doesn’t mean Seattle has a drier climate than Palm Springs. Climate encompasses meteorological elements in a given region over long periods of time; weather is the present condition of those same elements over periods of days or weeks. Localized weather conditions tell you almost nothing about broader climate trends. One particular climate science denier of my acquaintance keeps citing the fact that 2008 was the coolest year of the past decade as definitive proof that global warming is a fraud. He just can’t seem to get his head around the concept that there is a great deal of annual and regional variability in temperature patterns. But at least he is looking at the average global temperature for a full year rather than an isolated local weather event as Congressional Republicans and their FOX News overlords have been doing this week.

I’m not going to belabor the details of climate science here other than to note that the decade that just ended was the warmest on record. The previous decade had been the warmest on record, beating out the decade prior to that. Here is part of the
NASA summary:

2009 was tied for the second warmest year in the modern record, a new NASA analysis of global surface temperature shows. The analysis, conducted by the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York City, also shows that in the Southern Hemisphere, 2009 was the warmest year since modern records began in 1880.

Although 2008 was the coolest year of the decade -- due to strong cooling of the tropical Pacific Ocean -- 2009 saw a return to near-record global temperatures. The past year was only a fraction of a degree cooler than 2005, the warmest year on record, and tied with a cluster of other years -- 1998, 2002, 2003, 2006 and 2007 -- as the second warmest year since recordkeeping began.

“There’s always an interest in the annual temperature numbers and on a given year’s ranking, but usually that misses the point,” said James Hansen, the director of GISS. “There’s substantial year-to-year variability of global temperature caused by the tropical El Niño-La Niña cycle. But when we average temperature over five or ten years to minimize that variability, we find that global warming is continuing unabated.”

January 2000 to December 2009 was the warmest decade on record. Throughout the last three decades, the GISS surface temperature record shows an upward trend of about 0.2°C (0.36°F) per decade. Since 1880, the year that modern scientific instrumentation became available to monitor temperatures precisely, a clear warming trend is present, though there was a leveling off between the 1940s and 1970s.

The point here is not that I am an expert on climate science or that you should agree with my opinions on that subject. The amount of data that I might cite in a blog post shouldn’t convince you that anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is real and is a big deal. What should persuade you is that the overwhelming consensus of the people who actually study this stuff agree that this is real and is a big deal. Climate science is extraordinarily complex and draws upon many disciplines and a vast amount of data. It’s tough to get 100% agreement on anything in any particular scientific discipline. But the consensus on this is about as close as you are going to get.

I’ve cited this anecdote
before. At the 2008 Future in Review Conference, Harvard professor James McCarthy, former co-chair of the IPCC, was asked how many of the world’s top 1000 climate experts would disagree with the basic scientific consensus that the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations over the last 50 years to levels not seen in 650,000 years is primarily anthropogenic and is the cause of an increase in global temperatures. He replied, “Five.” He told a story about a colleague being asked the same question at a conference and answering, “Ten.” McCarthy went up to him later and asked how he got to ten. The guy replied that he could only think of five – the same five as McCarthy – but doubled the number to provide a margin of error. That is about as solid a scientific consensus as you are ever likely to get for such a complex set of phenomena. Yet it is almost an article of faith in Republican circles these days that the threat from global warming is at best greatly exaggerated and at worst a “hoax.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t still legitimate questions about the science. Evolution is about as well settled a theory as gravity, but there are still gaps and contradictions in the evolutionary data. But the inherent imperfection of science isn’t a refutation of evolution – despite the claims of creationists. Similarly, it isn’t a refutation of global warming. What other basis do we have for formulating policy? Psychics?

My friend, the legendary science fiction writer and physicist David Brin has
an excellent blog post at Salon on the distinction between legitimate climate science skeptics and crazy climate science deniers. Perhaps the most salient distinction is the necessary humility of the former: “Skeptics first admit that they are non-experts, in the topic at hand. And that experts know more than they do.” Anyone who questions the overwhelming scientific consensus on the subject should begin by acknowledging the high likelihood that he is wrong. Yes, it is possible that the consensus is wrong – there have been instances in history when that has been the case. But they are rare in comparison with the instances when the scientific consensus has been correct.

And climate science has been progressing pretty dramatically in recent decades. As David notes:

[T]he Skeptic is keenly aware that, after 4,000 years of jokes about hapless weathermen who could not prophecy accurately beyond a few hours, we recently entered a whole new era. People now plan (tentatively) as far as 14 days ahead, based on a science that's grown spectacularly adept, faster than any other. Now, with countless lives and billions of dollars riding on the skill and honesty of several thousand brilliant experts, the Skeptic admits that these weather and climate guys are pretty damn smart.

The whole notion that the consensus behind AGW is some kind of a hoax is absurd on its face. As David points out:
[T]he Young Guns in any scientific field... the post-docs and recently-tenured junior professors... are always on the lookout for chinks and holes in the current paradigm, where they can go to topple Nobel Prize winners and make a rep for themselves, in very much the manner of Billy the Kid! (Try looking into the history of weather modeling, and see just how tough these guys really are.)

This is a crucial point. For the core Denier narrative is that every single young atmospheric scientist is a corrupt or gelded coward. Not a few, or some, or even most... but every last one of them! Only that can explain why none of them have "come out." (And note, Exxon and Fox have even offered lavish financial reward for any that do.)
Brin exaggerates the point only slightly. There may be isolated skeptics within the field – but they don’t amount to any major schism within the broader consensus. It is one thing to be uncertain about the science. It is another thing to be certain that the science is wrong. Indeed, it is fair to assume that anyone who dismisses the whole thing as some kind of fraud or conspiracy is blinded by ideology or partisanship.

It is unfortunate that ideology and partisanship have become so polarized that even science is increasingly viewed through those prisms. You would think that as the scientific consensus behind AGW has strengthened over the past decade that the public’s agreement with that consensus would also have increased. And that is, indeed, the case with Democrats. But it has been exactly the opposite with Republicans as the
issue has become more politicized:

When it comes to global warming, partisanship is a bigger predictor of a person’s views than is education. Back in 2008,

Pew undertook a poll that confirmed the idea that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to believe the science regarding AGW. And with Democrats, higher education levels correlated to an increased belief in the science, as one might expect. But inexplicably with Republicans the opposite was the case: Higher educations levels correlated to a decreased belief in that science:

The confounding part: among college-educated poll respondents, 19 percent of Republicans believe that human activities are causing global warming, compared to 75 percent of Democrats. But take that college education away and Republican believers rise to 31 percent while Democrats drop to 52 percent.

I’m not sure what the explanation for that might be. Perhaps it is the case that better educated Republicans are more likely to seek out and consume media that confirm their beliefs than their less educated co-partisans. It might also be the case that they are more confident in their views or feel more compelled to adhere to the orthodoxy of their party. In any event, it’s strange.

Of course, a majority of Republicans also
don’t believe in evolution:

Unfortunately, partisanship seems to be increasingly shaping people’s views on issues rather than the other way around. Partisanship is another form of tribalism which seems to cause adherents to conform their views on a range of issues to those of their tribe – including beliefs about factual issues:

“There’s no epistemologically sound reason why one’s opinion about, say, the effects of gun control should predict one’s opinion about whether humans have contributed to climate change or how well Mexican immigrants are assimilating — these things have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Yet the fact is that views on these and a host of other matters are indeed highly correlated with each other.”

These days, if you know someone’s partisan affiliation there is a very good chance you will know more or less their exact position on a wide range of issues – even if those issues are largely factual or otherwise not inherently related to each other in any kind of obvious way.

In the case of beliefs about global warming, you could say that Democrats are just as likely as Republicans to be influenced by partisanship. But there is a difference. You don’t need partisanship to explain adherence to the overwhelming scientific consensus. Indeed, one would assume that is the default position. What other basis do you have for forming an opinion about an essentially scientific question? You don’t need partisanship to explain it. It is only when beliefs diverge from the scientific consensus do you need some other explanation. Assuming most people do not have an in depth understanding of the underlying science, which is complex to say the least, it makes perfect sense for a lay person to accept the consensus of the experts in the field. There is much less basis – other than ideology or partisanship – for a lay person without a strong grounding in the science to reject that consensus. There is almost always some contradictory data or flaws in any area of science this complex. But that isn’t the same as disproving the consensus conclusions.

And it’s not like the theoretical underpinning of AGW is a radical new concept. It has been 150 years since John Tyndall discovered that CO2 traps heat. The physical relationship between CO2 molecules in the atmosphere and the trapping of heat is about as well-established as gravity. Tyndall’s discovery happened at about the same time that the first oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania. Since then humans have been pumping out carbon into the atmosphere at increasing rates to where today we are putting something like 90 million tons of it into the air every day. What do you think happens to all that carbon? What is the theory that would cause one to believe it isn’t warming the planet – in denial of the observable heating of the planet that one would predict?

Even if you assume a large stochastic element to the process, there should be some non-trivial probability that the consensus understates the magnitude of the problem. In other words, if there is a large element of randomness or uncertainly, the problem could actually be much worse than we think.

While brings me around to my final point. I’ve mentioned before the "
precautionary principle" which basically says: “If an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action."

Dick Cheney invoked a variation of the precautionary principle with his so-called "
One-Percent Doctrine:" "If there's a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response."

To state it in terms of the Cheney variation of the precautionary principle: If there is a one-percent chance that continuing to pump anthropogenic carbon dioxide into the atmosphere would cause catastrophic climate change, the burden of proof should fall on those who would continue to engage in those activities.

If it turns out that the scientific consensus is correct – or that it understates the actual extent of the problem – then the costs of measures we might take now to mitigate that harm would be vastly outweighed by the harms avoided.

But what if we are wrong and the problem is less severe than is currently thought? Well, we will have made our economy more energy efficient (like the huge reduction in our energy/GDP ratio in the decade or so after the oil shock of the early ‘70’s), saving money in the long term. We will be sending less money to the Saudi royal family, the thugs running Iran, Hugo Chavez, and ExxonMobil, among others (maybe even allowing us to reduce somewhat the $700 billion a year we spend on the military). We will be pumping fewer pollutants into our atmosphere. And we will be more competitive in many of the key technologies and industries of the 21st Century. In short, we will have somewhat accelerated the end of the Age of Petroleum (good riddance, I say).

Reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases, and carbon dioxide in particular (which also contributes to ocean acidification – another huge problem), seems to me like
Pascal’s Wager: The downside if we take those steps and they are unnecessary is a lot better than the downside if they are necessary and we don’t take them. This would be true even if the probability of each case was equal. But the probability isn’t equal: Our best science tells us that the probability of anthropogenic global warming is greater than the probability that it isn’t taking place.

If the minority of climate scientists who deny the consensus are right and we accelerate our transition from carbon-based fuels faster than we otherwise would have, what’s the downside? The conservative approach is to invest in the future and seek to scale back our radical experiment on the planet’s fragile atmosphere in the face of – at best, giving the skeptics the benefit of the doubt – our uncertain knowledge of its long term impacts.

IMHO, it is a better policy than … Al Gore jokes.

Friday, February 5, 2010

out of control

In a new historic benchmark of obstructionism, one Senator, Republican Shelby of Alabama, has put a “blanket hold” on all of President Obama’s appointees awaiting confirmation in the Senate unless he gets billions of dollars of pork for his state. More on that below.

The Senate is broken.

I’ve written about this before
here and here. But it has gotten worse.

As I
wrote back in December:

The inherently anti-Democratic features of the Senate (where the 500,000 residents of Wyoming have the same voting power as 36 million Californians) have been greatly exacerbated by the now routine invocation of the filibuster, preventing a bill from coming up for a vote. This is a relatively recent development. That would be bad enough if we had two functioning political parties. But the Republican Party has become essentially nihilistic, refusing altogether to engage in the formulation of policy or any other serious efforts at actual governance. When you combine these two developments – the need for 60 votes in the Senate for even the most routine matters along with party-line obstructionism by a caucus consisting of 40 Senators – you have come very close to producing the complete failure of governance that Republicans hope will further their electoral prospects – even if it prevents Congress from addressing the nation’s problems.

Yesterday, Scott Brown was sworn in as the 41st Republican Senator. So now if party-line Republican obstructionism continues governance will have become impossible. “Au contraire,” you might say. “Democrats just need to compromise with Republicans.” But Republicans are not interested in compromise. They want to obstruct any major legislative initiative that President Obama and Congressional Democrats might support. Even if it is one of their own initiatives.

Am I being unfair? Let me give you an example.

The federal budget deficit has become a big issue. I’ve
written about it before and hope to write another piece on the subject soon. Republicans oppose any and all tax increases despite the fact that federal revenue as a percentage of GDP last year was at its lowest level (14.8%) since 1950 – sixty years ago, before Medicare, Medicaid and many other elements of our modern government. (To put that in perspective, federal spending as a percentage of GDP averaged over 22% under Reagan. So even at Reagan’s spending levels we would have had trillion dollar deficits with our existing tax structure.) Indeed, Republicans continue to urge further tax cuts. They also want increases in military spending and recently have taken to opposing any attempts to reduce the growth in Medicare spending.

So what do Republicans actually want to do about the deficit? Their top budget guy in the Senate, Judd Gregg, along with budget committee chairman Kent Conrad,
proposed a bipartisan commission that would come up with a package of deficit reduction proposals that could be accepted or rejected by Congress but not amended. For reasons I won’t go into, I don’t think this proposal would be likely to accomplish much. But I also don’t see any particular harm in it. In any event, the Republican leadership rallied behind it. Here is what Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell had to say about it:

As I have said many times before, the best way to address the [deficit] crisis is the Conrad-Gregg proposal. . . . It deserves support from both sides of the aisle. … So I urge the administration, once again, to support the Conrad-Gregg proposal. This proposal is our best hope for addressing the out-of-control spending and debt levels that are threatening our Nation's fiscal future.

But then a funny thing happened. President Obama came out in support of it in his

State of the Union speech. It looked like it could actually get enacted.

So Republicans filibustered it. The Senate failed to overcome the filibuster by a
53 to 46 vote. But it would have passed with 60 votes if six Republican co-sponsors and McConnell had voted for it. That’s right. Six Republican Senators co-sponsored it – and then voted against it. Even worse – they didn’t actually vote against it, they voted against even allowing it to come up for a vote. Had it not been subjected to a filibuster, 53 votes would have been enough for it to pass. For the record, the six hypocritical co-sponsors were: Brownback (R-KS), Crapo (R-ID), Ensign (R-NV), Hutchison (R-TX), Inhofe (R-OK), and "Maverick" McCain (R-AZ).

As President Obama
said earlier this week in Nashua, NH:

“This failed by seven votes, when seven Republicans who had cosponsored the idea suddenly walked away from their own proposal after I endorsed it,’’ an exasperated Obama told the crowd. “I said, ‘Good idea.’ I turned around, they’re gone. What happened?’’
The editorial page editor of the Washington Post (who tends to echo the Republican party line) wrote:

No single vote by any single senator could possibly illustrate everything that is wrong with Washington today. No single vote could embody the full cynicism and cowardice of our political elite at its worst, or explain by itself why problems do not get solved.

But here's one that comes close.

President Obama has said he intends to create the commission by executive order but Republican leaders are now threatening not to cooperate, refusing to appoint members.

For more deficit hypocrisy (as I noted before), you have the recent Republican filibuster of the “pay-as-you-go” budget rules requiring that Congress actually pay for what it enacts. (These are the rules that helped produce record surpluses in the ‘90’s but that Republicans let lapse when Bush took office.) But for sheer reckless irresponsibility, it is hard to beat the Republican filibuster of the increase in the nation’s debt limit required to avoid a default on our national debt. What could be more non-partisan and uncontroversial than honoring the full faith and credit of the US government? Fortunately, both of those measures passed the Senate with 60 Democratic votes. But now Democrats only have 59 votes.

It used to be that a Senator might vote to break a filibuster – that is, to let a matter come up for a vote – but then vote against the actual bill. That is how Republicans passed the Medicare Part D bill (
a $9 trillion unfunded liability) back in 2003. They got 70 votes to proceed to a vote but only 55 votes on passage. That makes perfect sense. You might be against something but still not be willing to obstruct an “up-or-down vote”. But Republicans are now routinely doing the opposite – attempting to obstruct a vote but then voting for passage. For example, last fall, Senate Republicans spent several weeks obstructing a vote on a bill extending unemployment benefits, requiring that it survive three cloture votes. But once it became clear they were eventually going to lose, Republicans all voted for the bill and it passed 98-0. Weeks of obstruction of a bill they voted for. This is now becoming common.

Last year, Senate Republicans undertook more filibusters than in all of the 1950’s and 1960’s combined. Two decades worth of filibusters in one year.

As bad as all that stuff is, Senate Republicans have just established a new historical benchmark. One Senator, Richard Shelby (R-AL) has put a “blanket hold” on the confirmation of all of President Obama’s appointees (at least 70) pending in the Senate. And the Republican leadership is backing him. What’s at stake? Pork for Alabama. And not just any pork. Tens of billions of dollars for a French company, some of which would ooze into Alabama.

A bit of background. There is actually no such thing as a “hold” in the Senate’s rules. It’s just a threat to obstruct the business of the Senate, most of which proceeds by unanimous consent. If a Senator feels really strongly about something he can threaten to blow up the Senate if he doesn’t get his way. Usually the matter is something of great concern to one Senator but of little concern to the Senate as a whole and he gets his way. Sometimes it is an objection to a particular bill or appointee. But often the target of the hold is just an innocent bystander held hostage for unrelated reasons. But never in the history of the Senate has a single Senator held up all of a president’s pending appointees. This is taking obstruction to an entirely new level.

So what has Shelby willing to blow up the entire Senate? He wants the Air Force to award a contract for refueling tankers worth at least $40 billion to the French-based Airbus consortium instead of to its American competitor, Boeing. The aircraft would be assembled in Alabama. Coincidentally, the political action committee of Airbus’s US partner, Northrop Grumman, has contributed over $100,000 to Shelby (and that is
only part of the largesse Shelby has collected in connection with this project).

Surely, Shelby’s fellow Republicans are outraged by this behavior, right? Actually, no. In fact yesterday, for some reason, Shelby couldn’t personally make it to the Senate floor to impose his blanket hold, so Senate Republican leader
McConnell did it for him. So this has now become a Republican hold not just a Shelby hold. (Weren’t Republicans supposed to hate the French? And pork? But they are now blowing up the Senate in defense of Le Porc Français. I’m so confused.)

The Senate is broken. It has always operated by arcane rules that would shut the institution down if any single member actually insisted they be followed to the letter. (If you don’t believe me, just read
this explanation of what a “hold” really is from a procedural standpoint.) It has always operated on the basis of certain unwritten rules that assume it is some sort of club of gentlemen who will always find ways of working together in a collegial manner. Yes, the opposition party can filibuster, but only occasionally and only on matters of deep conviction (like denying civil rights to people of color). Yes, a single Senator can put a hold on a bill or a nomination, but that power is used sparingly. But if one entire party chooses to obstruct all the major business of the chamber, for no purpose other than to cause the party in power to fail, it simply can’t function. The exception has now become the rule.

What’s the solution? It’s time to get rid of the filibuster. That is a big, weighty topic that I’m not going to tackle at length here. And I have little hope that it will ever actually happen. But we should all be clamoring for it. This is not a radical step. The filibuster as we know it today is a
recent development.

The founders of this country debated the idea of requiring supermajority votes and decided against it except in limited cases specified in the Constitution like impeachment (a step not to be undertaken lightly) and ratifying treaties (the founders were skeptical of foreign entanglements). The problem with a supermajority requirement (which we effectively now have in the Senate) is that it puts the country in the position where no one can govern. That is what has brought California to its knees (where a two-thirds vote is of the legislature is required to pass a budget). You can have a 59-vote majority in the Senate and still not be able to pass legislation. So who do you hold accountable in that situation? No one is in charge. No organization can function with no one able to govern and no ultimate accountability.

Senate rules require a two-thirds vote to change its rules. But there is a twist. The Constitution says that each House of Congress can make its own rules. And the Supreme Court has consistently held over over the years that a legislature may not bind its successors. One Congress cannot make rules that control future Congresses.

Every two years, a new Congress convenes. The current Congress is the “111th Congress.” When the 112th Congress convenes in January of 2011, it can adopt its own rules by majority vote. As a matter of convention, the Senate acts as if it is a “continuing body” when it comes to the continuity of its rules. But as we are seeing now with things like abuse of the filibuster and holds, convention is just that – convention. If a future Senate decides to abandon that convention, as a Constitutional matter it can. The problem, of course, is that every Senator has an ego the size of a supernova and doesn’t want to surrender his or her own ability to obstruct the work of the Senate. And there is a “status quo bias” that causes people to defend existing things (like the Electoral College) that they would have trouble justifying as an initial matter.

The filibuster is not in the Constitution and it was never intended as a routine supermajority requirement. It has just evolved into one and only very recently. It has made it nearly impossible to tackle big problems. Indeed, when was the last time Congress successfully tackled a big problem? I would say the last time was dealing with the deficit in the ‘90’s. Since then? Immigration reform? Failed. Privatizing Social Security (however misguided)? Failed. Addressing global warming and energy? Unlikely. Reform of a broken health care system? Increasingly doubtful. In every case, the hang-up has been or is the Senate. During the Bush years, cutting taxes and creating a big new entitlement program, without paying for any of it, didn’t require any tough choices. And even the tax cuts were enacted by abusing the budget rules to allow them to pass by a bare majority.

The Senate is broken. And if we don’t fix it, it will break the country.


I am humbled. Gail Collins
said the same thing much better than me in less than 1000 words.