Quote of the Day

“Conservatives — to the catacombs!”

– John Derbyshire, conservative, realizing that either Clinton or Obama will probably destroy the Republicans in November.

Take heart, Derb. The political wilderness is actually a pretty refreshing place to be for a while. All you have to do is lob grenades at the other party, free of accountability.

Actually… come to think of it, that was Rove’s strategy for governing, too. Didn’t work out so well, did it?

How That “Twofer” Works

I just got done telling somehow how if Hillary were elected, Bill Clinton would be one of the greatest ambassadors the Oval Office ever had:

Late on Sept. 6, 2005, a private plane carrying the Canadian mining financier Frank Giustra touched down in Almaty, a ruggedly picturesque city in southeast Kazakhstan. Several hundred miles to the west a fortune awaited: highly coveted deposits of uranium that could fuel nuclear reactors around the world. And Mr. Giustra was in hot pursuit of an exclusive deal to tap them.

Unlike more established competitors, Mr. Giustra was a newcomer to uranium mining in Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic. But what his fledgling company lacked in experience, it made up for in connections. Accompanying Mr. Giustra on his luxuriously appointed MD-87 jet that day was a former president of the United States, Bill Clinton.

Upon landing on the first stop of a three-country philanthropic tour, the two men were whisked off to share a sumptuous midnight banquet with Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, whose 19-year stranglehold on the country has all but quashed political dissent.

Mr. Nazarbayev walked away from the table with a propaganda coup, after Mr. Clinton expressed enthusiastic support for the Kazakh leader’s bid to head an international organization that monitors elections and supports democracy. Mr. Clinton’s public declaration undercut both American foreign policy and sharp criticism of Kazakhstan’s poor human rights record by, among others, Mr. Clinton’s wife, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

Within two days, corporate records show that Mr. Giustra also came up a winner when his company signed preliminary agreements giving it the right to buy into three uranium projects controlled by Kazakhstan’s state-owned uranium agency, Kazatomprom.

The monster deal stunned the mining industry, turning an unknown shell company into one of the world’s largest uranium producers in a transaction ultimately worth tens of millions of dollars to Mr. Giustra, analysts said.

Just months after the Kazakh pact was finalized, Mr. Clinton’s charitable foundation received its own windfall: a $31.3 million donation from Mr. Giustra that had remained a secret until he acknowledged it last month. The gift, combined with Mr. Giustra’s more recent and public pledge to give the William J. Clinton Foundation an additional $100 million, secured Mr. Giustra a place in Mr. Clinton’s inner circle, an exclusive club of wealthy entrepreneurs in which friendship with the former president has its privileges.

. . .

Mr. Clinton’s Kazakhstan visit, the only one of his post-presidency, appears to have been arranged hastily. The United States Embassy got last-minute notice that the president would be making “a private visit,” said a State Department official, who said he was not authorized to speak on the record.

The publicly stated reason for the visit was to announce a Clinton Foundation agreement that enabled the government to buy discounted AIDS drugs. But during a news conference, Mr. Clinton wandered into delicate territory by commending Mr. Nazarbayev for “opening up the social and political life of your country.”

In a statement Kazakhstan would highlight in news releases, Mr. Clinton declared that he hoped it would achieve a top objective: leading the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which would confer legitimacy on Mr. Nazarbayev’s government.

“I think it’s time for that to happen, it’s an important step, and I’m glad you’re willing to undertake it,” Mr. Clinton said.

Mr. Clinton’s praise was odd, given that the United States did not support Mr. Nazarbayev’s bid. (Late last year, Kazakhstan finally won the chance to lead the security organization for one year, despite concerns raised by the Bush administration.) Moreover, Mr. Clinton’s wife, who sits on a Congressional commission with oversight of such matters, had also voiced skepticism.

GOP Debate

I can’t really watch the whole GOP debate, because it’s at the Reagan Library and the Reagan worshipping is too out of control.

But I did flip to it and see the four remaining candidates — Huckabee, Paul, Romney, and McCain — sitting next to each other. And it struck me… what an odd group of characters. But, of course, they do represent the four food groups of the modern conservative party: the religious wing, the crazy libertarian wing, the business wing, and the McCain wing. Whichever wing can grab 30% of the primary electorate is going to definte the shape of the party.

Or Maybe it Was a Design Flaw

Yesterday I linked to a Bob Herbert column that argued for more federal funding for infrastructure, and used Minneapolis’ collapsed I-35W bridge as its central example.

Well, this article in today’s NYT says the bridge died of a design flaw, not neglect:

The conventional wisdom is that the Interstate 35W bridge, aged and due for major maintenance, collapsed because of neglect. Surely inspectors had missed something, or their higher-ups had delayed needed repairs until the 40-year-old span plunged into the Mississippi, the popular belief goes.

State officials and engineering executives all over the country have joined in the chorus, arguing that the collapse, in which 13 people died and more than 100 were injured, demonstrates a need for expanded maintenance budgets. On Tuesday, the treasurer of Massachusetts said his state should spend $600 million on bridges to “avoid a future Minnesota incident.”

But the safety board, in issuing interim recommendations related to the collapse, said on Jan. 15 that the problem had not been age or money. The design of the bridge that failed was no good from the day the span opened, the board said: an engineer in the mid-1960s had specified gusset plates, the big sheets of steel that tie girders together, of half-inch thickness when they should have been an inch thick.

Of course, Herbert’s larger point still holds. Seattle alone has two big bridges that are toast in the next earthquake. We need to fix this stuff.

Just Walk Away

Here’s a good sign the housing market isn’t coming back anytime soon.

The real irony here is that the banks shot themselves in the foot with this one. If they hadn’t pushed through the Bankruptcy Bill in 2005 — which made it harder to delcare bankruptcy and walk away from credit cards — home owners wouldn’t have shifted all their debt into their houses, resulting in so much negative equity.


Land Use and Climate Change, II

Following up on this post from last week, an article in the San Francisco Chronicle highlights some efforts underway in CA to combat climate change via smart growth:

In Oakland, Fruitvale Village demonstrates how infill development, where new land uses are created on sites previously used for another purpose such as manufacturing, can encourage economic revitalization and the use of mass transit. Built on former Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) parking lots next to the Fruitvale BART station, the transit village combines dozens of mixed-income homes, shops and restaurants, office space and community services such as a library, clinic and senior center. The resulting neighborhood allows residents to walk or use public transit for their regular recreation-, work- or school-related commutes. Ultimately, that creates less reliance on automobiles and reduces greenhouse-gas emissions.

It seems logical, but the bureaucratic impediiments are incredibly strong. There’s also a huge asymmetry invloved: the effects of climate change are felt globally, but land use is usually done hyper-locally. I’m not sure how you get these to line up. Federal incentives for communities that adopt smart growth plans, maybe? More federal funding for infill and transit?


Good Bob Herbert column today:

We appear to have forgotten the lessons of history. Time and again an economic boom has followed periods of sustained infrastructure improvement. It’s impossible to calculate all of the benefits from (to mention just a few) the Erie Canal, which connected the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean and helped make New York America’s premier city; the rural electrification program and other capital improvements of the New Deal; the interstate highway program of the Eisenhower administration.

The tremendous costs and vast reach of today’s infrastructure requirements means that the federal government has to take a leadership role. It’s inevitable. The only question is when.

The Dodd-Hagel infrastructure bank is a solid proposal. More of that, please.