Blogs

This Is the Best Correction You'll Read All Week

| Tue Jul. 8, 2014 8:16 AM EDT

On June 1, the Sun called Marcus Stead "Britain's biggest whinger." Mr. Stead took issue with the article's accuracy. The resulting correction is an instant classic.

It reads:

In a story 'Britain's biggest whinger' {1 June] we stated that Marcus Stead, who appeard in the Channel 4 documentary The Complainers, 'moans to the council every day for a year.' Mr Stead says that, in fact, the number of complaints is closer to one or two per week. We are happy to put his position on record.

(via Neal Mann)

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The Great Barrier Reef Will Be Ravaged By El Niño

| Tue Jul. 8, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
The Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia.

This story originally appeared in the Guardian and is republished here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The Great Barrier Reef is set to be ravaged by the expected El Niño weather phenomenon and scientists warn that similar warming events have significantly impacted upon the reef’s coral.

Research by the University of Queensland studied large Porites coral colonies, a type of coral considered more resistant than others to changes in the environment.

By analysing and dating coral samples, researchers found there was a significant correlation between mass coral mortality events and spikes in sea surface temperature over the past 150 years.

Yet Another Chuckleheaded Covert Op in the US-Cuba Relationship

| Tue Jul. 8, 2014 12:24 AM EDT

Remember that story a couple of years ago about Sen. Robert Menendez supposedly cavorting with teenage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic? Well....

According to a former U.S. official with firsthand knowledge of government intelligence, the CIA had obtained credible evidence, including Internet protocol addresses, linking Cuban agents to the prostitution claims and to efforts to plant the story in U.S. and Latin American media.

....The intelligence information indicated that operatives from Cuba’s Directorate of Intelligence helped create a fake tipster using the name “Pete Williams,” according to the former official. The tipster told FBI agents and others he had information about Menendez participating in poolside sex parties with underage prostitutes while vacationing at the Dominican Republic home of Salomon Melgen, a wealthy eye doctor, donor and friend of the senator.

....The allegations against Menendez erupted in public in November 2012, when the Daily Caller, a conservative Web site, quoted two Dominican women claiming Menendez had paid them for sex....Last year, three Dominican women who had initially claimed to reporters that they had been paid to have sex with Menendez recanted their story.

Is there any other pair of countries in the world responsible for launching more stupid covert ops against each other than Cuba and the United States? Apparently the brains of intelligence operatives in both Havana and Washington DC turn to tapioca at the mere mention of the other country. It's just astounding.

Murder Is Down 63% in San Francisco. Lead Probably Isn't the Reason.

| Mon Jul. 7, 2014 7:21 PM EDT

Every time a city reports a big drop in crime, someone sends me a link to a story about it. San Francisco is the latest:

During the first half of the year, the city saw 14 killings — a 36 percent drop from the 22 recorded at the midpoint last year and a 63 percent decrease from the 38 in 2012.

...."The best guess one can make is that they're associated with a national trend of lowered homicide rates over the last 20 years," said Robert Weisberg, a law professor who co-directs the Stanford Criminal Justice Center. "They have settled a bit, but they have gone down in some places."

Weisberg said one big factor in the national drop in killings is "just smarter policing, which requires more police and smarter police, and that includes the use of technology, the targeting of hot spots and CompStat-style policing and gang intervention."

I know what you're wondering: is it lead, Kevin? What about this "smarter policing" stuff? Here are a few things that should help you think about this stuff:

  • The long-term trend in San Francisco is pretty familiar, and pretty similar to other mid-size cities. Over the past 20 years, a big part of San Francisco's drop in violent crime is probably due to the phaseout of leaded gasoline between 1975 and 1995.
  • However, lead isn't responsible for short-term changes. It has nothing to do with the 63 percent drop in homicides since 2012.
  • Generally speaking, you have to be careful with homicide numbers. Overall violent crime statistics are based on a large number of incidents, so they're fairly reliable. But even big cities don't have that many murders, which means the numbers can bounce around a lot from year to year just by random chance.
  • A drop in crime can create a virtuous circle, because it allows police to spend more time on the crime that remains. So lead might well have acted as a sort of tailwind here, producing a drop in violent crime that allowed systems like CompStat to be more effective, thus producing further drops even after the impact of lead has flattened out.

The phaseout of leaded gasoline did its job in San Francisco, but at this point any further drops will most likely have to come from other sources. More effective policing strategies are certainly one of the things that can make a difference.

In Defense of Optics

| Mon Jul. 7, 2014 5:57 PM EDT

Here's a Twitter conversation this afternoon between Jamison Foser and me:

Foser: Dumbest words in politics: “Optics,” “Gaffe,” “Hypocrisy.” (That latter one is a real thing, but misused to the point of meaninglessness.)

Drum: But “optics” is just short for “how this will look to others.” Nothing really wrong with that.

Foser: “Optics” = “I cannot articulate a substantive problem with this, so I’ll just suggest others won’t like it.” It’s a house of cards.

Drum: But don't politicians routinely consider the optics of their actions? I mean really, genuinely, think about it. It's a real thing.

Foser: Not sure why that means anyone should care, or how that validates 99% of use of word by reporters/operatives/pundits....And I’ve really, genuinely thought about it for a couple decades.

Drum: What word would you suggest instead? The concept itself is pretty ordinary.

Foser: I don’t think we need a word for “people might not like the Congressman’s cheesesteak order.” I think we need to shut up about it.

Drum: Hmmm. It's a slow day. Maybe I'll blog about this since I think my disagreement is more than 140 characters long.

Foser: Then here’s another angle: To the extent “optics” claims are about “analyzing” rather than sneakily influencing reactions, I find that pointless as well. “Here’s what I think people will think” is generally dull & unimportant.

Here's the thing: like most anything, there are good uses of the word optics and dumb uses of the word optics. To the extent that it becomes an excuse for fatuous preoccupations with Al Gore's earth tones or Hillary Clinton's speaking fees, then yes, it's dumb. The world would be a better place if campaign beat reporters spent a lot less time on this kind of soul-crushing imbecility.

But that's not the only use of the word. As I mentioned in my first tweet—though see the note below for more about this—it's also used as a shortcut for a specifically political meaning of "how something will look to other people." And if you object to that, then you're just railing against human nature. Unless you're clinically autistic, obsessing with how our actions will appear to others is fundamental to the human condition. Ditto for obsessing with other people's appearances.

That's especially true for anyone in the sales and marketing business, where appearances are literally what the job is all about. And who's more in the sales and marketing business than a politician? Sure, they have actual products—universal pre-K, cutting tax rates, whatever—but most people don't buy their products based on a Brookings white paper outlining the pros and cons. They buy it based on how it fits into their worldview, and that in turn owes more to how it's sold than to what's actually being sold.

So when you try to figure out why, say, Marco Rubio's immigration reform plan crashed and burned, you're missing half the story if you only look at the details of his plan. If you're covering a campaign, you're missing half the story if you don't report about how the campaign is trying to mold public perceptions. If you're writing a history of the Iraq War, you're missing half the story if you don't spend time explaining the marketing campaign behind the whole thing. For better or worse, politicians spend a lot of time thinking about how various audiences—supporters, opponents, undecideds, pundits, members of Congress, the media—will react to their proposals, and they shape their messages accordingly. If you're reporting on politics, you have to include that as part of the story, and optics is as good a word as any to describe it.

That said, we'd be better off if there were fewer dumb appeals to optics. If you're going to talk about optics, it should be based on either (a) ground-level reporting about what someone's political operation is actually doing, or (b) empirical data like poll numbers about how people react to things. If all you're doing is inventing stuff that no one on the planet would have noticed if you hadn't been hard up for column material, then you're responsible for making us collectively stupider and giving optics a bad name. Knock it off.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I've defended the word optics against critics before, which suggests that in my mind I really do think it's OK to use it:

When someone says "optics," for example, I know that they're talking not just about general appearances, but about how something plays in the media and how it plays with public opinion. Using the word optics also suggests that you're referring to a highly-planned operation managed by media pros, not just some random event on the street.

On the other hand, I don't actually use the word very much myself, which suggests that in my heart I agree with Foser more than I'm letting on.

Being an Oakland Raiders Cheerleader Just Got a Little Less Awful

| Mon Jul. 7, 2014 5:34 PM EDT

In January, an Oakland Raiders cheerleader named Lacy T. filed a class-action lawsuit against the team with a laundry list of embarrassing allegations: Raiderettes were paid well below minimum wage, fined for things like forgetting to bring their pom-poms to practice or gaining five pounds, prohibited from talking to the press about their working conditions, and required to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars out of pocket for hair appointments, tanning sessions, and other beauty supplies. Similar lawsuits quickly followed from four other NFL cheer squads: the Ben-Gals (Cincinnati Bengals), the Flight Crew (New York Jets), the Jills (Buffalo Bills), and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' cheerleaders. (Read Mother Jones' roundup of NFL cheerleaders' allegations here.)

An ad for Raiderette auditions stated that this year's cheerleaders will earn $9 per hour, making the Raiders the first of the sued NFL teams to give their squads a raise.

But last week, the Raiderettes had a small but real victory: In audition flyers that have since been taken off the team's website, the Raiders stated that this year's cheerleaders will earn $9 per hour, California's minimum wage. This makes the Raiders the first of the sued NFL teams to give their cheerleaders a raise. Furthermore, Caitlin Y., a cheerleader waging a separate class-action lawsuit against the Raiders, was invited back to the team after auditions this past weekend, making her the first active cheerleader to have spoken openly to the press against the team's working conditions.

The battle isn't over yet for the Raiderettes: Arbitration in mid-July will address other allegations from the January lawsuit, like the requirement that cheerleaders pay out of pocket for beauty expenses, and will discuss the potential for veterans to receive back pay to make up for lost wages. The lawsuit that Caitlin Y. and teammate Jenny C. filed against both the Raiders and the NFL is still under way. In addition to claims about low pay, it alleges that cheerleaders are ridiculed for the size of their breasts, called "Oompa Loompas" if their skin is too tan, and routinely required to work events where they are subject to the inappropriate comments and groping hands of drunken fans.

Notably, this degrading treatment echoes claims made in other squads' lawsuits: Buffalo Bills cheerleaders allege that they are subject to routine "jiggle tests" to make sure that their stomachs and thighs aren't too bouncy, and that at the team's annual golf tournament the bikini-clad cheerleaders are dunked into pools of water and "auctioned off" to the highest bidder.

The cheerleaders have a long road ahead, but, just maybe, a pay raise for the Raiderettes could be the first step toward NFL teams treating their cheerleaders with some semblance of dignity. If professional cheerleaders can't keep their hopes up, who can?

Advertise on MotherJones.com

John Boehner May Plan to Sue Obama Over Immigration

| Mon Jul. 7, 2014 1:44 PM EDT

Fine. Washington is consumed with trivia. So let's talk trivia. A couple of weeks ago, when John Boehner announced he would sue President Obama over his refusal to "faithfully execute the laws of our country," he listed several issues of particular concern:

On matters ranging from health care and energy to foreign policy and education, President Obama has repeatedly run an end-around on the American people and their elected legislators, straining the boundaries of the solemn oath he took on Inauguration Day. 

At the time, I wrote that I was surprised Boehner didn't include immigration in this list, since this is one of the tea party's biggest hot buttons. Was this just an oversight, or was it deliberate? Well, on Sunday, Boehner wrote an op-ed for CNN that said this:

The President's habit of ignoring the law as written hurts our economy and jobs even more. Washington taxes and regulations always make it harder for private sector employers to meet payrolls, invest in new initiatives and create jobs — but how can those employers plan, invest and grow when the laws are changing on the President's whim at any moment?

I don't take the House legal action against the President lightly. We've passed legislation to address this problem (twice), but Senate Democrats, characteristically, have ignored it.

Wait a second. Which problem? What is Boehner talking about here? Brian Beutler, who apparently reads tea leaves better than I do, suspected Boehner may have been signaling an interest in immigration, so he called Boehner's office to ask about that:

Boehner didn't name the two bills in the article. But his staff confirms that they are the ENFORCE the Law Act and the Faithful Execution of the Law Act, both of which were drafted with an eye toward reversing DACA. The former would expedite House and Senate lawsuits against the executive branch for failing to enforce the law. The latter would compel government officials to justify instances of non-enforcement.

DACA is the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals directive, which Obama signed in 2012. It instructs immigration officials to stop trying to deport children who arrived in the United States at an early age and are still undocumented.

This is potentially interesting. If you'd asked me, I would have said that Boehner's best bet for the first couple of lawsuits would be Obama's unilateral extension of both the employer mandate and the individual mandate in Obamacare. Politically it's a winner because it's Obamacare, and the tea party hates Obamacare. Legally, it's a winner because Boehner has a pretty good case that Obama overstepped his authority.

But if Beutler is right, he may instead be targeting DACA, the so-called mini-DREAM Act. This is peculiar. True, the tea party hates it, so it has that going for it. However, it was a very popular action with the rest of the country. It was also, needless to say, very popular with Hispanics, a demographic group that Republicans covet. And legally, this puts Boehner on tricky ground too. Presidents have pretty broad authority to decide federal law-enforcement and prosecutorial priorities, so Obama will be able to make a pretty good case for himself. It's not a slam-dunk case, and it's certainly possible he could lose. But he sure seems to be on more solid ground than with the Obamacare mandate delays.

We'll see. ENFORCE and FELA both cover more ground than just DACA, so we're still in the dark about what exactly Boehner plans to sue Obama over. Mini-DREAM sure seems like a loser to me, though. Do Republicans really want to put a final nail in the coffin of their efforts to expand their reach in the Hispanic community? This would do it.

Gitmo Detainees Cite Hobby Lobby in New Court Filing. Read It Here.

| Mon Jul. 7, 2014 12:27 PM EDT

In a new court filing, attorneys for two Guantanamo Bay detainees have invoked the Supreme Court's controversial decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which allowed certain corporations to ignore the Obamacare contraception mandate if their owners object to it on religious grounds. The motions, filed with a Washington, DC, district court on behalf of Ahmed Rabbani of Pakistan and Emad Hassan of Yemen, ask the court to bar military officials from preventing Gitmo inmates from participating in communal prayer during Ramadan.

"Hobby Lobby makes clear that all persons—human and corporate, citizen and foreigner, resident and alien—enjoy the special religious free exercise protections of the [Religious Freedom Restoration Act]," the lawyers argue.

A spokesman for the Department of Defense told Al Jazeera America on Friday that the "Defense Department is aware of the filing," and that the "government will respond through the legal system."

Read the emergency motion for a temporary restraining order below:

 

Will TSA Soon Have Bins Full of Dead Smartphones?

| Mon Jul. 7, 2014 11:56 AM EDT

Security screening at airports for certain flights to the United States is about to get even more annoying:

As the traveling public knows, all electronic devices are screened by security officers. During the security examination, officers may also ask that owners power up some devices, including cell phones. Powerless devices will not be permitted onboard the aircraft. The traveler may also undergo additional screening.

Two comments. First: this is new? I remember being asked to turn on laptops and such before business flights in 2002-03. In fact, I distinctly remember one flight where some poor guy was running around in a panic asking everyone if they had a charger for an IBM Thinkpad because TSA wanted him to power it up. I happened to be using a Thinkpad in those days and came to his rescue. But I haven't traveled on business for a long time, so maybe TSA gave up on this years ago.

Second: lots of us have had the experience of having to toss out a bottle of liquid or a pocket knife at a TSA checkpoint. But a cell phone? That's a whole different animal. If TSA starts forcing people to toss their $500 smartphones into a bin, never to be seen again, there's going to be some serious public outrage. Is that really going to start happening?

All That's Left Are Fights Over Trivia

| Mon Jul. 7, 2014 11:25 AM EDT

Here's the latest political news:

Political Battle Over Export Bank Heats Up

Lawmakers at a recent House hearing on the future of the Export-Import Bank were given an extra piece of reading material: a personalized index card laying out exactly which companies in their districts benefit from the financing agency and how many people they employ.

The cards, which supporters of the bank plan to give to every member of Congress in coming weeks, are part of a lobbying push by corporations such as Boeing Co. and General Electric Co., and business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers. Their goal is to combat the most serious threat yet to the survival of the agency, which is under assault by new House leadership and conservative groups that say it amounts to corporate welfare.

What does this say about us?  As near as I can tell, this is the most important domestic political battle in the country right now. That's right: reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank. Can you think of anything more trivial? This is a government agency that costs taxpayers nothing—in fact, it's recorded a profit over the past decade—and, at worst, will cost us no more than a tiny amount in the future. On the flip side, although reliable figures are hard to come by, its impact on our export business is probably pretty minuscule.

So it costs nothing and has a tiny impact on the economy. And that's what we're fighting over this month. Why? Because there's not much point in fighting over anything that's actually important. Welcome to America in 2014.