Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Last Call

We're not the only country who has to worry about the oil disaster.
Cuba's civil defense chief said Tuesday that authorities are preparing coastal residents for the oil spill fouling the Gulf of Mexico, and a top military official said its possible arrival would be "a disaster."

It still is unclear whether some of the millions of gallons of spilled crude will reach Cuba, though government scientists appeared on state television within days of the April 20 rig explosion that touched off the spill to say the island was not immediately at risk.

So far there has been no apparent impact on tourism to the island's breathtaking north coast beaches.

"In Cuba we have had small spills involving tankers on our coasts, but we've never had to confront anything of this magnitude," Gen. Ramon Espinosa, vice minister of the armed forces, said at a government meeting on natural disaster preparedness. "Nonetheless we are documenting and studying. We are preparing with everything in our power."
Yeah, if I were them, I wouldn't count on say, help from the US or anything.

Cutting Their Own Throats

The Democrats just tanked their own jobs bill in the Senate.  At this point, the Dems are in serious, serious trouble in November.
Lurking beneath deficit concerns, for both Republicans and even some Democrats, is the suspicion that extended unemployment benefits discourage job-seeking. Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.) said last Thursday, for instance, that extended unemployment benefits are "too much of an allure" for people to look for work. Even Senate Democrats who voted in favor of the bill, such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), are starting to look toward winding down the programs.

"We have 99 weeks of unemployment insurance," Feinstein said. "The question comes, how long do you continue before people just don't want to go back to work at all?"

Needless to say, no help is forthcoming from Congress for the 99ers, the several million people who will have exhausted all available benefits by the end of the year.

Judy Conti, a lobbyist for the National Employment Law Project, pointed out that a NELP-commissioned poll showed that 74 percent of registered voters think preserving jobless aid is more important than reducing the deficit at this time (a view shared by many economists).

"I fail to see how eviscerating a bill that is designed to create and save jobs, and support the unemployed, is going to do anything but increase our overall deficit problems," said Conti. "This approach is penny-wise and pound-foolish, and those who are not out there actively supporting job creation and the unemployed should be ashamed of themselves."

Republicans are expected to offer a version of the extenders bill with funding offsets from the stimulus bill, and Democrats may then offer a more scaled-down version that is less burdensome on the deficit. Part of that scaling-down will involve cutting $25 per week from unemployment checks and shortening the amount of time Medicare doctors are protected from the 21 percent pay cut. 
And people actually wonder why the number of enthusiastic Democratic voters has dropped like a stone.  Good luck in 2010 Dems, you're going to need it.  As BooMan reminds us:
Democratic Sens. Bayh, Begich, Feingold, Kohl, Landrieu, Lieberman, McCaskill, Menendez, both Nelsons, Pryor, and Webb voting 'no.' Blanche Lincoln didn't vote. 
Funny, there are a lot of Democrats who think that not voting is looking better and better.

Captializing On Mistakes

Obama definitely has an optics problem on this oil spill.  Luckily for him, the Republicans are even worse and can't help themselves in a situation like this, and Obama keeps catching breaks like this.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) is emerging as a fierce critic of the Obama administration's proposed escrow fund to handle damage claims against BP.

The Minnesota Independent reports that Bachmann spoke Tuesday to the Heritage Foundation, and badmouthed the idea. "The president just called for creating a fund that would be administered by outsiders, which would be more of a redistribution-of-wealth fund," said Bachmann. "And now it appears like we'll be looking at one more gateway for more government control, more money to government."

Also, David Weigel reports that Bachmann also said: "They have to lift the liability cap. But if I was the head of BP, I would let the signal get out there -- 'We're not going to be chumps, and we're not going to be fleeced.' And they shouldn't be. They shouldn't have to be fleeced and make chumps to have to pay for perpetual unemployment and all the rest -- they've got to be legitimate claims."
Clinton felt your pain, Obama knows about your pain and is taking steps, Bachmanniac could give a damn about your pain and wants to make sure you're not gaming the system.  Every time Obama gets into a fair amount of trouble, Republicans like Bachmann so helpfully serve to remind America that the GOP alternative is always going to be far, far worse.

Just because Obama's got problems doesn't magically mean the Republicans have solutions.

World Cupdate

Group G was the focus today as we completed the first set of games in this World Cup.  A meeting of rivals as Honduras took on Chile was a pretty decent match, but it was dominated completely by La Roja.  Chile's 1-0 score indicated the score was much closer than the match really was as Chile had 19 shots to Honduras's 7.  Jean Beausejour's goal at 34' should have been accompanied by 2 or possibly 3 more throughout the match.  the only difference between Chile's domination and Germany's earlier this week is that Germany converted those goals.  Still, Chile are looking like one of the best squads in this Cup.

That match was completely overshadowed however by our first geniune upset as the Swiss clocked heavily favored Spain 1-0.  The first half was a turf war where neither side yielded much of anything, reminding me the most of yesterday's North Korea/Brazil match.  But unlike that match, it was the underdog Swiss that broke La Furia Roja as Gelson Fernandes ignored a clear red card by frustrated keeper Casillas (who knew he was beat and went for the cheap shot) and plunked the ball in anyway.  The Spaniards panicked and the Swiss kept their cool and held them off for the rest of the second half, and suddenly Group G really is the Group of Death with four surprisingly solid teams and Spain -- arguably second only to Brazil coming in -- are now in serious trouble of not advancing.  If they do advance, they could immediately face the Canarinhos in the round of 16...

Back to Group A as South Africa and Uruguay tangled, with both teams badly needing a win to advance out of the double draw that opened group play.  Uruguay's 2-1-3-4 setup with Diego Forlan as the swing man in the middle versus South Africa's 1-5-4 with Katlego Mphela on point meant something was going to give early, and that was South Africa's defense as Forlan slammed one home at 24' clipping off defender Mokoena and past the keeper.  The second halfwas more of the same, with La Celeste ratcheting up the pressure on the host country until the Bafana ran out of time when Forlan put his second goal in on a penalty kick at 80' after keeper Khune was red carded for blatantly wiping out Suarez with a brutal blow, and Pereira adds one in extra time to break South Africa's back.  It will be a long week for the host country.

King Of The Beach

As lousy as Obama's speech was, it doesn't compare to the awful reality of BP's "clean-up operation" out in Louisiana. MoJo's Mac McClelland:
First, the workers: The men on Elmer's Island don't wear respirators since BP and OSHA have thrown precaution to the wind and deemed them unnecessary. But the only type of air-monitoring equipment Elmer's ever seen on the island are little multigas meters that are not up to the job: They're designed for indoor use, clog easily, and only measure limited types of pollutants. And despite the known dangers of dispersants and the toxic chemicals in crude (I can attest that contact with the stuff washing up on the beach can burn), workers aren't even wearing protective Tyvek suits anymore. Of course, there are medics on hand to treat anyone who gets hurt or sick. Unfortunately, any worker who asks for a medic's help is automatically drug tested, which, for some, can be a powerful incentive to not report injuries. (Not that keeping a cleanup job necessarily equals getting paid: Elmer says the contractors continue to lose workers' paychecks, a problem he told me about the last time we talked and that has since been confirmed by the local papers.)

Cleanup workers on these South Louisiana beaches aren't the only ones who could use more protections. What Elmer told me echoed the reports that BP isn't exactly doing everything in its power to keep track of the toll the spill is taking on wildlife. In nearby Port Fourchon, where he has also worked, there are markers to denote wildlife nesting areas, but they aren't clearly labeled and no one knows what they mean, so workers drive and trample over sensitive habitats. One day last week, Elmer and his coworkers came upon eight oiled pelicans, but though they called the official number to report their findings, no one had come to collect the birds by the time his shift ended many hours later. (A representative from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has yet to respond to my request for comment.) Workers on Elmer's have not been instructed to report dead animals for collection or autopsy. Elmer said he'd recently come upon a dead crab and, knowing no one was going to come to examine it, decided to slice it open himself. Black oil poured out.
And as horrible and nasty as this all is, contractors not getting paid to work in pretty hideous conditions with no safety equipment for as low a labor price as BP can get away with, here's the best part from Mac's mole in BP:
"They've brought in prostitutes." No one knows who the "they" that brought in the pack of hookers is, but the gals have definitely arrived, and you can buy time with one for $200. It only took someone a whole month even to figure out that it would be lucrative to sell sex to guys earning 44 hours of overtime a week and living in camps and converted 18-wheelers.
The hand (job) of the free market.  Gotta love it.  What's even better is that Obama looks worse and worse with each passing day.

Gimme That Old Time Religion

In South Carolina it's hard to see which candidate for governor has a potentially bigger problem with religion among voters, converted Sikh and now Episcopalian Nikki Haley, or proud Catholic Vincent Sheheen.
Still, some voters were confused by Haley’s campaign Web site, thinking she may be both Sikh and Methodist and were unclear which “Almighty God” Haley was referencing on the site. (Sikhs, like Christians, believe in one omnipotent God, but not the same God.)

Haley’s campaign changed her Web site two months ago to read, “My faith in Christ has a profound impact on my daily life and I look to Him for guidance with every decision I make. ... Being a Christian is not about words, but about living for Christ every day.”

Haley and her opponent in Tuesday’s GOP runoff for governor, U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett of Westminster, also have aired television ads that include references to their Christianity.

Barrett, a nondenominational Christian who was raised a Southern Baptist, said Tuesday that Haley could best answer questions about her faith and voters will decide what they think.

“Faith is very personal for everybody … but whether it’s Nikki or Vincent, I’ll let them talk for themselves.”
Democrat Sheheen said Friday that he has been spared attacks based on his faith. His family attends a Catholic church in Kershaw County, where his great-grandfather was a founding member in the late 1800s.

Sheheen said his one brief encounter with voter angst over his faith came during his 2004 state Senate race when he stopped by a sporting-goods store in rural Kershaw County to buy a shotgun. Sheheen said the store owner pulled him aside and said a group of people recently had been in and expressed concern about Sheheen’s Catholicism, doubting his Christian credentials.

“Unquestionably, people care about the character of their elected officials and they care about their core beliefs,” Sheheen said. But, he added, voters seemingly are becoming more tolerant of differing religious views.

“It was more of an issue when my uncle (former S.C. Speaker of the House Bob Sheheen) ran in the ’70s and ’80s,” Sheheen said. “He spent a lot of time explaining to folks that he was a Christian and our family had been forever.”
It's an interesting prospect, having to explain to people that "I'm a Christian too" to people in 2010. I understand that for South Carolina the election of either as Governor would be a huge step, and I understand equally that there's a very good chance that neither candidate will make religion an issue, that too being a large step forward.

It would be nice to see other religions tolerated more freely, as well as atheists.  (There are more than you think out there.)  Sadly, politics is still a Baptist/Episcopalian/Methodist game in this country.  Yes, there are plenty of Roman Catholics, Jews, and increasingly Muslims and Buddists in politics in 2010 and that's a great thing.  But tolerance on religion in politics has lagged far behind gender and race in this country and still does.

When we get an avowed atheist, Wiccan, or Unitarian in the White House or even in a Governor's mansion, we'll have gotten somewhere.  And even that will only be another step forward, not the end of the race.

Holding A Gun Lobby To Their Heads

The Dems are trying to fix the ragged, gaping hole in campaign finance reform left by the Roberts Court, and the only way the DISCLOSE Act will get the political coalition to pass is if the Dems in turn exclude one of the biggest campaign lobbying groups out there:  the NRA.
While calling it distasteful, some open-government advocates said that the NRA exemption was the only way that Democrats could remove NRA opposition to the so-called DISCLOSE Act and get the bill to the floor of the House for a vote as early as this week.

"The reality is that NRA controls a goodly number of members of Congress and they're not going to vote for a bill it's against," said Sarah Dufendach, the vice president for legislative affairs for Common Cause, a non-profit government watchdog group. "You have to balance what you get in the disclosure bill versus what the NRA gets. You don't want to kill a good bill because of one provision."

The NRA, in a statement, endorsed the deal.

"One June 14, 2010, Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives pledged that (the DISCLOSE Act) would be amended to exempt groups like the NRA that meet certain criteria, from its onerous restrictions on free political speech," the statement said. "As a result, and as long as that remains the case, the NRA will not be involved in final consideration of the House bill."

The NRA initially opposed the bill largely because it doesn't want to reveal its donor list.

Under the deal, organizations that have more than a million dues-paying members, are active in all 50 states, derive no more than 15 percent of their funds from corporations, and have existed for more than 10 years would be exempt from the disclosure requirements.
It's an ugly, ugly piece of work and that simply means these grandfathered groups like the NRA will have even more clout on the Hill.  I would automatically want to know what other advocacy groups would fall under this exception as well.  Fifteen percent from corporations still means all they have to do is shuffle the money around, and all of a sudden the NRA is just a cutout for unlimited corporate donations.

I don't like it one bit.  I understand that it's better than no DISCLOSE Act at all, but not by much.  Corporations will find ways around it, or simply challenge the act in court and tie up enforcing the laws for years.

Capping The Failure

This morning the reaction to the President's speech last night is lukewarm at best.  Olbermann blew a gasket, Kevin Drum hated it, but NBC News liked it (as did I, Mark Murray's read on this is similar to mine) but I can't help but think that this was the wrong speech at the wrong time.

It was, as The Atlantic's Josh green said, small.
I'm all in favor of the moratorium on drilling, a national commission to understand the causes of this disaster, and the idea that we need to move toward developing sources of clean energy. But I thought Obama reached for some pretty cheap platitudes on the latter point. "Seizing the moment," invoking World War II vets and the moon landing are all well and good, but it rang pretty hollow to me. What stood out was that for all his praise of the House climate bill and talk about the "consequences of inaction" and so forth, not once did he utter the phrase, "It's time to put a price on carbon." And that suggests to me that this speech was primarily about containing the damage to his administration, and was not the pivot point in the energy debate that many people were hoping for.
Obama clearly threw the idea of climate legislation under the bus.  He stuck to his stated goals, which was "We'll make BP pay" and "We need new energy sources."

The problem is this morning, the "Make BP pay" part has already fallen to pieces.
BP Plc and the Obama administration have failed to agree on an escrow fund covering cleanup costs and claims stemming from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, people familiar with the negotiations said.

The lack of an agreement raises the stakes for a scheduled meeting of President Barack Obama with BP Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward and Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg at the White House today.

The two sides continue to negotiate over issues including the size of the fund, who would administer it and whether BP shareholders would have to approve the transfer of money required for the account, according to the people, who asked not to be identified describing the private talks. 
In other words, who knows if there's going to even be an escrow deal...and Obama can't even renewable energy legislation going because of the moratorium on drilling.

Frankly, it's looking like Obama's holding zero cards right now. Given the chance to swing for the fences on climate, he bunted.  This isn't the guy I voted for, not by a long shot.

House Of Cards

Housing starts are down big in May, and the residential real estate depression continues.
U.S. housing starts fell more than expected in May to their lowest level in five months, a government report showed on Wednesday, as a popular homebuyer tax credit that had buoyed construction activity over the past two months expired.

The Commerce Department said housing starts dropped 10 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 593,000 units, the lowest level since December. The percentage decline was the biggest in 14 months. April's housing starts were revised down to show a 3.9 percent increase, which was previously reported as a 5.8 percent rise.

Analysts polled by Reuters had expected housing starts to fall to 650,000 units. Compared to May last year, starts were up 7.8 percent. 

New building permits, which give a sense of future home construction, dropped 5.9 percent to a 574,000-unit pace in May, the lowest in a year. That followed a 10.9 percent drop in April and compared to analysts' forecasts for a rise to 630,000 units. 
In other words, the housing market in many parts of the country is still dismal, and the glut of housing that people can't afford is still high.  People are building new houses and they are sitting there.  The prices will have to come down, because the houses people are living in can't be sold at the price they were at even two or three years ago.  Classic liquidity trap situation.  nearly all of the wealth your average American homeowner has is tied up in the worth of their home, and that has dropped some 25% or more in some places.

It will continue to drop.  Housing starts have to continue to plummet to work out the housing glut.  Problem is, that puts homebuilders out of business.  The tax credit helped some, but now that it's gone, the game is pretty much up.  2010 will continue to be a miserable year.

Blackwater Runs Still, Runs Deep Part 3

...runs still, runs deep, but as The Nation's Jeremy Scahill reports, Blackwater founder Erik Prince is only concerned with the "run" part.
Sources close to Blackwater and its secretive owner Erik Prince claim that the embattled head of the world's most infamous mercenary firm is planning to move to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Middle Eastern nation, a major hub for the US war industry, has no extradition treaty with the United States. In April, five of Prince's top deputies were hit with a fifteen-count indictment by a federal grand jury on conspiracy, weapons and obstruction of justice charges. Among those indicted were Prince's longtime number-two man, former Blackwater president Gary Jackson, former vice presidents William Matthews and Ana Bundy and Prince's former legal counsel Andrew Howell. 

The Blackwater/Erik Prince saga took yet another dramatic turn last week, when Prince abruptly announced that he was putting his company up for sale.

While Prince has not personally been charged with any crimes, federal investigators and several Congressional committees clearly have his company and inner circle in their sights. The Nation learned of Prince's alleged plans to move to the UAE from three separate sources. One Blackwater source told The Nation that Prince intends to sell his company quickly, saying the "sale is going to be a fast move within a couple of months."

Mark Corallo, a trusted Prince advisor and Blackwater spokesperson would neither confirm nor deny the allegation that Prince is planning to move to the United Arab Emirates. "I have a policy on not discussing my client’s personal lives—especially when that client is a private citizen," Corallo, who runs his own crisis management and PR firm, said in an e-mail to The Nation. "It is nobody’s business where Mr. Prince (or anyone else) chooses to live. So I’m afraid I will not be able to confirm any rumors."
I've talked about Scahill's reporting on Erik Prince before, and it's fascinating stuff.  Prince really does strut around like a James Bond villain with his own army, talking about how he makes and unmakes history.  Or he did anyway.  He's had to put Blackwater on the market, and now the other shoe is falling:  Prince is getting the hell out of dodge before justice catches up with him.

A mercenary businessman whose company possibly defrauded the government for billions, running a private army accountable to no one, now about to take flight away from the law.  Where's Sam Fisher when you need the guy, anyway?

In all seriousness, if Eric Holder's guys have anything on Prince, they're going to have to move before Prince does.


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