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Sunday, June 6, 2010

Obama's Katrina?

The most important aspect of the oil spill in the Gulf is... all that oil being spilled into the Gulf, and the enormous environmental and economic impact it will have. So I don't want to diminish that by looking at it from a purely political angle, but of course it is also a political issue now, so it's worth addressing.

The notion of this being "Obama's Katrina" seems to have taken hold, at least in the punditocracy. I'm guessing Obama wasn't thrilled by Laura Bush's "defense" of their response to the spill:

"I think they're doing everything they can do. Absolutely. Just like we did with Katrina. You know, it's not one person's responsibility. The president can't do every single thing there is to do."

Thanks, Laura.

Beyond the surface similarities (an ongoing disaster being broadcast live on television, with the gov't unable to fix the problem) this USA Today from about 10 days ago that makes the case the Federal Gov't hasn't responded well the crisis. Click the link if you want to read the whole thing, but I'll just quickly summarize the basic points:
  • Chain of command... who's in charge? BP? Gov't? Some argue response should be Federalized. Some say the Coast Guard should be put in charge. (more recently R.Reich argued BP should be put in 'receivership,' in which the Fed Gov't would essentially temporarily take charge of the company)
  • Slow getting enough boom out there (LA has asked for 5 million feet worth)
  • Allowed oil to reach delicate marshland
  • Slow to approve sand berm plan (has since been approved)
This quote seems to sum up the overall sentiment:

Arthur Bradberry, owner of Artie's Sports Bar, says his business has dropped more than half since the spill began.

"They're all running around here and no one seems to know what's going on," he says of the federal and BP officials. "They should've done more from the start. They waited too late. Now, of course, they all want to blame each other."

The WaPo reports on what the WH has actually been doing:

The new normal at the Obama White House has required that a whole new schedule be laid on top of the old one. There is a daily oil-spill conference call for Cabinet officers, one for their deputies, yet another with the governors of affected states, and sometimes as many as three briefings a day that include the president himself.

"It's not as herky-jerky as it may come across," said Carol Browner, Obama's energy and climate adviser. "It's much more systematic."

But bureaucracies being what they are, it is also far from seamless. Though every day is jammed with interagency conference calls and a river of e-mails in between, some officials complain that at times they still feel like they are talking past each other.

In his radio address Saturday, Obama enumerated the scope of his endeavor to contain the damage, including 17,500 National Guard troops; 20,000 personnel protecting the waters and coasts; 1,900 vessels; 4.3 million feet of boom.

Obama has also called in some of the many scientists on the federal payroll, led by Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. Chu at one point pushed the unusual idea of using gamma rays to peer into the blowout preventer to determine if its valves were closed, a technique he experimented with in graduate school while studying radioactive decay.

The suggestion at first elicited snickering and "Incredible Hulk" jokes. Then they tried it, and it worked. "They weren't hot on his ideas," a senior White House official said of BP's initial reaction to Chu's suggestions. "Now they are."

The president has pressured other oil companies to step up. At a May 3 dinner at the White House with business executives, says one official who was there, Obama bluntly told Exxon Mobil Chairman Rex Tillerson that he expected the entire petroleum industry to dedicate its engineering talent to fixing the spill and preventing others. It is a question of duty, Obama told him -- and also of the industry's own financial interest.

But Obama and his team are still feeling their way, and it is not at all clear what this vast marshaling of resources will accomplish. Despite all its efforts, the government is still depending on BP to plug the leak. That is not likely to happen until August at the earliest.

The administration is focusing many of its resources on the cleanup operation, which will continue for years, and on mitigating the effects on the environment, which could be felt for decades. The Coast Guard has taken over the enormous effort to restore oil-blackened beaches.

"There's the acute, and there's the chronic," Browner said. "We have moved very much into 'How do you manage this, a difficult situation, over an extended period of time?' "

Obama has at times expressed frustration that the government continues to rely on BP for basic information about the spill. He has insisted that Washington develop its own, more accurate estimates of how much oil is flowing out of the hole.

BP spokeswoman Anne Kolton said the company has tried to "give our best estimate" and to be "open and honest and transparent." Yet whatever trust there was between the administration and BP has seemingly all but disappeared.

The White House has worked to keep the focus of public anger on the company -- and with it, give reassurance that there will be consequences and restitution. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has launched criminal and civil investigations, and the government has presented BP with a first bill for $69 million in cleanup costs. On his visit to the region Friday, Obama warned the firm against "nickel-and-diming" people and businesses harmed by the spill.

Kolton said the company's relationship with the federal government remains one of "coordination and cooperation." Yet she acknowledged: "The frustration is growing on their part. It's growing on our part. It's growing on the part of the people in the gulf."

White House officials complain, with some justification, that they are caught between contradictory narratives about their handling of the crisis: that the president is not engaged enough in the details of the response, or that he is getting bogged down in them; that he should spend more time in the gulf making common cause with its residents, or that his repeated trips down there are merely publicity stunts.

And there remains the question of whether, for all its efforts, the administration can really gain control, or even the illusion of it. BP did indeed shear the riser and put the cap on it as planned. But days later, everyone at the White House was still waiting to see if it had succeeded. And how would they know? When they got the word from BP.

Michael Tomasky on the politics of the spill:

The independent, middle-of-the-road voters who chose Obama over John McCain weren't crying: "Give us liberalism." They were pleading: "Give us competence."

The verdict so far? As Obama's poll numbers suggest, not terrible, but not so hot. The administration's biggest accomplishment, the passage of the health bill, was seen by all but liberals as the Democrats choosing ideology over competence, and thus wasn't and isn't very popular. On the plus side, the economy is picking up, the employment figures are improving, and there are signs that consumers are aware. There has been progress, however unspectacular, in Afghanistan and Iraq. And while the administration has not yet produced any diplomatic breakthroughs of note, neither has it precipitated any major crisis. The record has been good enough – barely – so that continued economic improvement and a diplomatic accomplishment or two will show voters that the guy is doing what they elected him to do.

But this oil spill, especially if it lingers until August, could change everything. This is not the moral equivalent of the Katrina catastrophe – in which, let us recall, some 1,500 Americans died. Most Americans seem to grasp this. However, people are desperate for action as more and more of the Gulf coastline comes under threat. And since surely no more than 2% of them even know who Tony Hayward – BP's chief executive – is, they quite understandably turn to the guy they do know: the president. Do … something.

Much discussed in recent days here in Washington is Obama's inability to "connect" with the frustrations and concerns of Joe Sixpack. It's a valid criticism. Obama appears to see himself as a mediator and conciliator, who vacuums up all (non-crazy) viewpoints and tries to express a consensus. This is a valuable skill, and at his best moments, he's put it to use either publicly or behind the scenes to nudge public opinion or get legislation passed. It's a style of leadership that has its place.

The spill requires a different style of leadership. It requires a leader who can give voice to what regular people are feeling in their bones. Obama has little instinct for that. His instinct is. "let's keep our heads here". There are times, though, when outrage is needed.

But even more than executive outrage, what we really need here is a solution of some kind. If BP's new attempt to cap the leak doesn't work, and if oil starts washing up on beaches and properties in a dramatic way – that is, if this disaster takes on a more urgent, more human dimension – then it really could become Obama's Katrina. Especially, let's face it, if the ooze and the calamity spread to the electorally pivotal state of Florida, which is just on the precipice of happening.

People are also looking for BP to be punished. Late this week, demonstrations began emerging outside BP petrol station-convenience stores across the country. But Washington has to do more. Congress is considering a bill raising BP's liability cap from the current $75m (£51m) to $10bn, but it's debating and dithering as usual. Earlier this week the US attorney general, Eric Holder, surveyed the damage, met with state law-enforcement types in the region and launched a criminal investigation aimed at BP. This marks a much tougher posture from the government, which, for public relations purposes, is much needed. And yet, at the same time, the government still needs to work closely with BP on fixing the problem. Ratcheting up the rhetoric and launching a federal investigation in that context are delicate matters, though not impossible ones.

Anyone who doesn't hate him has to feel a little badly for Obama. First, he got smacked with the financial crisis, leaving him to spend his first two years in office (if not more) cleaning up somebody else's mess. Then this, a uniquely perverse situation so lacking in precedent that there doesn't even exist a federal agency designed to deal with it.

But hey – he ran for the job, and he asked for it. He can still be the kind of transformative president he wants to be. But first things first. Show competence. Gain voters' trust. There's an old American saying in urban politics that there's not a Democratic or Republican way to pick up the garbage. Nor to clean up an oil spill. Just get it done.

But there is a Democratic and Republican way to regulate industries (to do it, or not to do it, respectively). Tim Fernholz argues this was ultimately a regulatory failure (and that Obama's team dropped the ball):

The real failure here was in prevention. It was clear when Obama took office in 2009 that the Mineral Management Service, which regulates offshore oil drilling, was in desperate need of reform. At the time, I wrote a column about how the new administration could succeed at governing; one chief example was reforming the MMS, which had recently been exposed for a "culture of ethical failure." An influential transition briefing book prepared by the Center for American Progress discussed the need for reform of offshore drilling regulation. And though the president appointed Liz Birnbaum, a former congressional staffer, to head the agency, it's clear that she lacked the mandate, resources, and ability to change it. Birnbaum resigned last Thursday.

We know that BP told the government in 2008 that it could handle a spill 10 times larger than the current spill, a claim that was most certainly wrong and was alarmingly lacking in details about responding to a deep-water spill. We know that the MMS cut regulatory corners to meet a 30-day response deadline on a BP request that it could have delayed. Perhaps most damning, we know that in the weeks before the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, the MMS approved a number of changes to the well, including a redesign that might have made the well more vulnerable. One of the requests was approved five minutes after it was submitted.

To liberals who hoped that, whatever the success of Obama's legislative agenda, his appointees would at least provide good governance, Deepwater Horizon is a devastating blow. Obama has already promised redoubled attention to offshore drilling: a moratorium on drilling while inspections continue, new rules separating the officials who permit drilling and those who supervise it, and legislation to ensure that BP covers the full cost of the cleanup. But despite regulatory successes in other areas -- notably, at the Department of Labor -- the liberal project of crafting an effective state has another hurdle to jump.

Looking at the issue from this angle, this particular bit of information (from Frank Rich's most recent column) is particularly damning:

The Times reported last week that at the administration meetings leading to this new drilling policy the subject of the vast dysfunction at the Minerals Management Service, the agency charged with regulating the drilling, never even came up.

It would seem absolutely plausible to me to say "hey, we were working on the economy, Afghanistan and heath care... doing an internal review of the MMS just didn't come up." But they did devise a new drilling policy. This was on their agenda. But the MMS didn't come up?
That was a major f--k up.

But then again the disfunctionality of the MMS, while it should have been Obama's radar, was not his doing. It was his predecessor's. Andrew Potter brings us back to the "Katrina" notion:

What made Katrina such a perfect symbol of Bush’s legacy was not that he was slow off the mark in taking charge. Rather, it was his cheerful indulgence of cronyism and you’re-doing-a-heckuva-job incompetence, which revealed the entire ideological thrust of his administration, namely that the federal government could never serve as a positive force in American life.

That essential point was made last week by Fox News commentator and former Mike Huckabee adviser Jim Pinkerton, who wrote on his blog that Obama has “finally confronted the reality that the federal government doesn’t work very well. Uncle Sam doesn’t have core competencies, he has core incompetencies.” This is, of course, just the latest version of the long-standing Republican gambit of denouncing the inadequacy of the very government they’ve been in charge of for most of the past 40 years. The strategy is always the same: once in power, start stuffing the most important agencies with partisan hacks who are either complete boneheads or actively hostile to the institution they serve. This ensures either regulatory failure or regulatory capture, which is subsequently used as proof that government is useless.

This is pretty much what happened with the Minerals Management Service, the agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior responsible for regulation of offshore oil drilling. As is now well known, the agency became thoroughly corrupted during the Bush years, to the point where dozens of MMS staff were caught doing drugs and sleeping with their counterparts from the energy industry—and that’s when they weren’t accepting free gifts and holidays from the companies they were supposed to be overseeing. Meanwhile, MMS scientists who raised concerns over the safety and environmental impact of proposed drilling projects were repeatedly muzzled by their bosses, even as energy companies were routinely permitted to more or less write their own inspection reports.
Occasionally, the Republican inclination to tweak the nose of their most loathed institutions results in pure comedy, as when Bush sent John Bolton to Turtle Bay to piss on all the rugs at the United Nations. But more often the result is nothing short of tragic.

While it has largely fallen out of the public’s interest, the methane explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 is in many ways even more scandalous than what is happening in the Gulf. The company responsible, Massey, had been repeatedly cited over the past few years for methane-related safety violations. Yet even though it was widely known to be running multiple unsafe operations, had one of the worst safety records in the country, had paid over US$4 million in criminal and civil fines for safety violations after a fire at another mine that killed two people in 2006, and had millions more in outstanding unpaid citations, the company was allowed to keep operating, and keep killing its workers.

Like the BP spill, the mine explosion happened under what was nominally Obama’s watch. But in both cases, the disasters were the inevitable failures of a regulatory apparatus that had been deliberately and systematically sabotaged under Bush’s two terms. That is why the BP spill is not even close to being “Obama’s Katrina.” If anything, it is George W. Bush’s Second Katrina—or, if you count the mine explosion, his Third Katrina. Or, if you count the regulatory capture of the SEC by Wall Street and the way permitting investment banks to self-regulate contributed to the mortgage crisis, his Fourth Katrina.

The question that should really be worrying Americans is just how many ticking time bombs the Republicans have left strewn throughout the federal regulatory infrastructure. Where will the next disaster strike? Which agency will be held responsible? The only certainty is that the longer the Democrats are in power, the easier it will be for Republicans to blame the President, or, ideally, blame the very idea of government.

This isn’t mere partisanship, it is nihilism. And it is pure poison in a democracy.

Matt Bai: doesn't see the issue in terms of 'competency' or regulation... instead he describes what he calls "political chaos theory:"

As much as we talk about ideology and competence, our judgment of presidents doesn’t hinge on either of these things in isolation. What matters is the perception — or perhaps the illusion — that one is shaping events, rather than being shaped by them. The modern presidency, like the old “Get Smart” series, is about chaos versus control.

Political chaos theory, if you want to call it that, has always been integral to the American presidency. It’s what Abraham Lincoln understood when, days after taking office, he sought to take charge of events at Fort Sumter, rather than heed the advice of those who thought he should simply let them play out. Franklin Roosevelt demonstrated the same essential insight in confronting the Great Depression — that people needed to know you would impose order, even if not every attempt at doing so worked. (Roosevelt and his intrepid New Dealers would probably be thinking about ways to drain the Gulf of Mexico right about now.)

Mr. Obama seems to find it particularly hard to adjust to this role, perhaps because he has always defined himself as an outsider to Washington and its governing apparatus — someone who would reform government, but not necessarily master its inner workings. This, after all, was the subtext of his entire debate with Hillary Rodham Clinton during the Democratic primaries in 2008; she was the insider who could competently work all the pulleys and levers of government, and he was the outsider looking to cast aside what he later called the “childish things” that dominated debate in Washington.

The problem here for Mr. Obama is that, almost 18 months after assuming office, he still seems to regard himself as something of an intellectual critic of government, when, in fact, what Americans expect from him now is markedly different. The transition is long behind us, which means the president embodies the government he once assailed and is held accountable, fairly or not, for its failures.

John Heilemann on some of the ways Obama could use this an opportunity to make big changes:

The primary demands on it [the White House] since the start of the spill have been two: that the administration do something, anything, to get the freaking hole plugged, and that Obama display some semblance of outrage, empathy, or both. But these twin demands have proved to be equally resistant to remedy. Both, it turns out, involve forces of nature—a volcanic undersea geyser, on the one hand, and Obama’s decidedly unvolcanic personality, on the other—apparently impervious to the world’s most advanced technology (in the case of the former) and the cacophonous braying of the punditocracy (in the case of the latter).

In his interview with Larry King last week, Obama tried to put to rest the emotion-free POTUS meme. “I am furious at this entire situation,” he said. “I would love to spend a lot of my time venting and yelling at people. But that’s not the job I was hired to do. My job is to solve this problem.”

A fair point, no doubt, and I suspect that most voters wouldn’t mind Obama’s lack of histrionics if they saw from his administration a response to the crisis commensurate with its scale. But they do not. Confronted with this criticism, defenders of the president have asked repeatedly, What precisely should Obama be doing that he isn’t doing? And the point underlying that question, too, is fair—but only insofar as it relates to jamming or capping the gash in the ocean floor, where BP’s prowess (such as it is) dwarfs the government’s. In the weeks ahead, however, there are at least three broad areas where the Obamans could and should fashion responses as great as the cataclysm at hand.

Legislative. In his speech last week at Carnegie Mellon University, Obama vowed to put his shoulder into passing the comprehensive energy/climate bill awaiting action in the Senate, noting that “the votes may not be there right now, but I intend to find them … we will get it done.” Obama’s words echoed what White House aides have been telling clean-energy advocates privately for weeks. Yet even as they made those assurances, Obama’s political and legislative strategists have been deliberating over how much capital to invest in what could well be a losing cause—for as Obama correctly noted, enacting the legislation will be an uphill push, and one made all the more daunting by the fact that the loosening of offshore-drilling restrictions that was a key to the bill’s passage is effectively off the table.

But now Obama has decided, I am told, to go all-in on bringing the measure home. The question is what the White House believes that going all-in entails. The temptation will be to try and pass it by cutting deals and scratching for votes one by one. But this is not (or not only) a moment for playing the inside game. This is a moment that screams for Obama to turn the bill into a crusade, to hammer home the connection between the BP spill and the need to end our addiction to oil, to shout from the rooftops his vision of a cleaner, greener energy future.

Corporate. The criminal and civil investigations—and, one hopes, prosecutions and ginormous fines—of BP and others are well and good. But they seem too small, pedestrian, and, you know, legalistic (especially since none of the company’s executives is likely to serve hard time) to provide rough-enough justice given the circumstances. The former Labor secretary Robert Reich got a ton of ink when he suggested that Obama place BP’s U.S. subsidiary into temporary receivership. Whatever the idea’s other merits, it would go a long way toward establishing that Obama is, in James Carville’s phrase, the oil titan’s “daddy.”

Even better would be penalties that force BP simultaneously to pay for its sins and contribute to a future where its profitability would be severely undermined. As readers of Daniel Gross’s column in Slate suggested, why not compel BP either to put a nontrivial percentage of its profits or an amount matching dollar for dollar the damages it has caused in the gulf into developing and making publicly available alternative-energy technologies?

Conservationist. The mitigation of the spill’s effects and the cleanup of the gulf—from the ocean itself to the wetlands and beaches of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, at a minimum—seem destined to be a Herculean task, requiring the work of many thousands of laborers. At a time when the unemployment rate is still hovering near double digits, and when the local economies hit most directly are likely to be decimated, Obama could transform the effort into a massive jobs program, funded not by the government but by BP. At the same time, he could create a new volunteer national-service organization dedicated to the cause. A Democratic operative of my acquaintance has already coined a name for this putative operation: the Gulf Recovery Corps.

Each of these suggestions has much to commend it on purely substantive grounds. America needs energy reform; BP needs to have its teeth kicked in; the gulf needs saving. But these proposals would also help Obama attend to the political imperatives the crisis has thrust upon him. They would pull him out of his defensive crouch and put him firmly on offense. Executed well, they’d quash the questions being raised by his opponents about his competence. And they would help restore the perception of Obama as a man of big talents and big ambitions ideally suited to a time in history full of big, even epochal challenges.

More from Frank Rich, who thinks Obama is too trusting of other 'elites' as being essentially good people, but nevertheless shares Heilemann's hope that Obama could use this moment outline an overarching narrative to convince Americans for the need for reform on many fronts:

Americans are still seething at the bonus-grabbing titans of the bubble and at the public and private institutions that failed to police them. But rather than embrace a unifying vision that could ignite his presidency, Obama shies away from connecting the dots as forcefully and relentlessly as the facts and Americans’ anger demand.

BP’s recklessness is just the latest variation on a story we know by heart. The company’s heedless disregard of risk and lack of safeguards at Deepwater Horizon are all too reminiscent of the failures at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and A.I.G., where the richly rewarded top executives often didn’t even understand the toxic financial products that would pollute and nearly topple the nation’s economy. BP’s reliance on bought-off politicians and lax, industry-captured regulators at the M.M.S. mirrors Wall Street’s cozy relationship with its indulgent overseers at the S.E.C., Federal Reserve and New York Fed — not to mention Massey Energy’s dependence on somnolent supervision from the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Given Toyota’s recent game of Russian roulette with Americans’ safety and Anthem Blue Cross’s unconscionable insurance-rate increases in California, Obama shouldn’t have any problem riveting the country’s attention to this sorry saga. He has the field to himself, thanks to a political opposition whose hottest new star, Rand Paul, and most beloved gulf-state governor, Haley Barbour of Mississippi, both leapt to BP’s defense right after the rig exploded. The Wall Street Journal editorial page perfectly set forth the conservative establishment’s party line on May 26: “There is zero evidence so far that this blowout resulted from lax regulation or shoddy practices.” Or as BP’s Hayward asked indignantly, “What the hell did we do to deserve this?”

If Obama is to have a truly transformative presidency, there could be no better catalyst than oil. Standard Oil jump-started Progressive Era trust-busting. Sinclair Oil’s kickback-induced leases of Wyoming’s Teapot Dome oilfields in the 1920s led to the first conviction and imprisonment of a presidential cabinet member (Harding’s interior secretary) for a crime committed while in the cabinet. The Arab oil embargo of the early 1970s and the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989 sped the conservation movement and search for alternative fuels. The Enron scandal prompted accounting reforms and (short-lived) scrutiny of corporate Ponzi schemes.

This all adds up to a Teddy Roosevelt pivot-point for Obama, who shares many of that president’s moral and intellectual convictions. But Obama can’t embrace his inner T.R. as long as he’s too in thrall to the supposed wisdom of the nation’s meritocracy, too willing to settle for incremental pragmatism as a goal, and too inhibited by the fine points of Washington policy debates to embrace bold words and bold action. If he is to wield the big stick of reform against BP and the other powerful interests that have ripped us off, he will have to tell the big story with no holds barred.

That doesn’t require a temper tantrum. Nor does it require him to plug the damn hole, which he can’t do anyway. What he does have the power to fix is his presidency. Should he do so, and soon, he’ll still have a real chance to mend a broken country as well.

So is it "Obama's Katrina?" To some extent we're talking about public perception here, rather than any objective reality. In that sense it may be his Katrina, although typically these things gain traction because they play into pre-established narratives (Dems being elite snobs, Republicans being corrupt, Dems having affairs, Republicans having gay affairs, etc.) I've seen Republicans say "can you imagine if this was happening under Bush?" And indeed the outrage would probably be greater, but that's also because Bush helped gut the MMS and was cozy with the oil industry, so would actually makes more sense to blame him. With Obama the narrative doesn't make as much sense (he believes in the role of government to help people, believes in regulation, isn't cozy with the oil industry). But if the spill leaves a lasting impression of incompetence, or that Obama is 'out of his depth' (pun intended) it could have a lasting impact on the rest of his presidency. On the other hand perhaps he will be able to use it as an "educational moment" for the nation and get us on the path to making some long overdue changes. One can HOPE(tm).

What do you guys think?

1 comment:

Jim said...

I guess I don't worry too much about narratives per se. It's my understanding that, in the end--that is, on election day--favorable/unfavorable narratives like the "Obama's Katrina" meme don't make much difference. But you started by saying what really matters are the environmental and economic effects of the spill. I agree of course, but I'd go further and say that those things are also what really matters for the politics. Because those things (especially the economic effects) go to the voters' bottom line, the fundamentals.

But I do wish Obama could somehow parlay this mess into, you know, saving our planet. I would have thought that politicians (congressional "moderates," both D and R) would be more responsive to the pressures of narrative--namely, by passing a comprehensive climate & energy bill instead of pushing meaningless efforts (the failed Murkowski bill) to block whatever meager action the EPA will take absent congressional instruction.

I mean, I get that politicians are always trying to get reelected, and that American conservatives don't like environmentalists, so it's hard to get reps for conservative regions to support cap & trade. But it's just so disheartening that no conservative opinion leaders are able or willing to sell even the conservative parts of climate and energy legislation (or health reform, for that matter). Politics is zero sum, and all that. But is there really no possibility of a shared victory anymore? There will always be plenty of stuff for the two parties to disagree about.

Oh well. I think I'm just answering my own questions now.