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Why Has Maine Turned Into Crackpot Central?

| Fri Jul. 31, 2015 9:48 AM EDT

Yesterday, Steve Benen got me up to date on the latest lunacy from Maine Gov. Paul LePage. A few weeks ago, LePage decided to ignore a bunch of bills he didn't like, figuring he would "pocket veto" them by simply withholding his signature. Unfortunately, he didn't understand how the Maine constitution works, which means that all the bills became law. So now he says he just won't enforce any of them. Uh huh.

Next, a private school hired Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves, a man LePage especially loathes, so he told the school to either fire Eves or else they'd lose their state money. Unless Maine law is truly extraordinary, this is so blatantly illegal that only someone completely out of control would even try it. Unsurprisingly, Eves is suing LePage, and this is LePage's defense:

The Tea Party governor hasn’t actually denied the allegations, and neither have LePage’s allies. The Maine Republican did argue this morning, however, that when he threatened the school it was comparable to LePage intervening in a domestic-violence dispute.

“It’s just like one time when I stepped in … when a man was beating his wife,” the governor said. “Should have I stepped in? Legally, no. But I did. And I’m not embarrassed about doing it.”

Um, what? This is Sarah-Palin quality gibberish. And it's hardly the first sign that LePage isn't playing with a full deck. (You can find much, much more like this with any old Google search.) So here's what I don't get. It's one thing to elect the guy once. But how did he manage to get reelected last year? It's not because it was a 3-way race. He won 48 percent of the vote and probably would have won even without a third-party spoiler. But by then his lunacy should have been obvious to all. Are Maine residents really that attracted to kooks? Did the Democratic candidate threaten to outlaw lobster rolls? Or what? What the hell is going on up in Maine?

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Fumes From Iowa Hog-Manure Pit Kill Father and Son

| Thu Jul. 30, 2015 6:56 PM EDT
Hogs in a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO). Note the slatted floor.

Here's another reason why Americans should think twice about how the United States is emerging as the globe's hog farm: concentrating thousands of hogs in one place means concentrating huge amounts of their shit, too; and that shit puts off gases that are so noxious that they can kill people who work near them. Think I'm exaggerating? Get this, from the Des Moines Register:

A father and his son who were so close that they were “like glue” were killed Saturday by noxious fumes from a northwest Iowa hog manure pit—the second father and son in the Midwest to die of poisonous manure pit gases this month.

These large, indoor facilities confine hogs above their own waste on a slatted floor—the waste falls through the slats and collects in a pit below. An incredibly putrid aroma—I've smelled it—shrouds these facilities. The air contains hydrogen sulfide, methane, ammonia, carbon dioxide, and volatile organic compounds. Hogs can live above these poison-gas cesspools because giant fans keep the air moving. But when something goes wrong beneath the slats, workers have to venture into places where there is no effective ventilation. And that's what happened on this Iowa hog farm, to heartbreaking effect.

The two were repairing a pump at a hog confinement when a piece of equipment they were using fell into the manure pit, Wempen [a relative] said. Austin Opheim went into the pit first to retrieve the equipment, and his father followed him after realizing his son had been overcome by gases, Wempen said. ...  “(Gene) was carrying Austin on his back and bringing him up and he got almost to the top and he got overcome, and down they went,” she said.

An eerily similar father-son tragedy occurred in Wisconsin earlier in July.

Such disasters can usually be averted by donning proper breathing equipment when venturing beneath the slats. But in recent years, Midwestern hog facilities have been beset by a mysterious foam that settles at the surface of manure pits, which creates a buildup of volatile gases that that has caused many explosions. Back in June, two workers at a Minnesota hog farm died in a fire that erupted after they had been cleaning the slats of an empty hog facility—apparently the result of "power-washing activities bursting the foam bubbles in the manure pit" below. And last year, reports the trade journal Pork Network, a "similar fire in Iowa severely burned Leon Sheets, a past president of the Iowa Pork Producers Association, as he power-washed one of his hog barns."

For a Week, Walter Palmer Is the Worst Human Being Ever in History

| Thu Jul. 30, 2015 5:11 PM EDT

Max Fisher argues that the social media jihad against Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist who killed Cecil the lion, is wildly out of control:

Web users uncovered Palmer's personal information, including about his family, and published it online. They went after his business, a private dental practice, posting thousands of negative reviews on Yelp and other sites. The practice has since shut down. Users also went after professional websites that host his profile, leading the sites to remove his information. On Twitter and on his practice's public Facebook page, people made threats of physical violence.

....Maybe you loved Cecil the lion, and believe that Palmer deserves all of this suffering. Maybe you believe that his family and employees also deserve to have their livelihoods threatened. But even if you believe that this particular mob made the correct decision in both identifying the targets and meting out punishments, the way its members reached these decisions — arbitrarily, based on what they thought would feel good to punish — should worry you.

Social media is, famously, decentralized. With a few exceptions, this means that every individual blast at Palmer is just that: one person getting something off their chest. The problem is that there's no governor on a decentralized attack like this, no one leading the charge. That means it can easily spiral into a lynch mob regardless of whether anyone meant it to in the first place.

But mob justice, Fisher says perceptively, "is not primarily about punishing the crime or the criminal, but rather about indulging the outrage of the mob and its thirst for vengeance. Sometimes that leads the mob to target people who perhaps legitimately deserve punishment, but typically it does not. And there is no reason to expect it to. That's not what mobs are about." That's right. Too often, mob justice is flatly misdirected, and even when it's not, it's frequently far out of proportion to the offense.

Before the internet, for example, if a university student said something stupid, it would cause a few days of distress among a smallish group of people. Lesson learned. Young people say dumb things all the time. Today, if the student is unlucky, it becomes a social media virus. Within a few days the entire world knows about it and the student is a pariah. This is far out of proportion to the offense. And it's even worse, as Fisher says, when the outrage is misdirected completely, as in the case of Sunil Tripathi's family, which was terrorized for weeks after the Boston bombing by a mob convinced he had been a part of the plot—which supposedly explained why he had gone missing. But it turned out that his absence was actually explained by something else: he had committed suicide.

Maybe Walter Palmer deserves what he's gotten, maybe he doesn't. But I doubt the internet mob actually cares. It's just a spectacle, and when they get bored they'll train their sights on whatever the next shiny object is. Maybe it's somebody or something that deserves the spotlight. Maybe it's not. Who cares, right? I mean, have you seen the asshole in that video?

In the end, I suppose this is yet another plea to tone down the volume on outrage culture, which has lately defined the internet more than either porn or cat videos. It's what I used to jokingly call the "death penalty for parking tickets" problem. Unfortunately, it's not so much of a joke anymore, because it turns out that Andy Warhol was wrong. Everybody doesn't get 15 minutes of fame these days. Instead, each week some randomly chosen schmo gets an onslaught of withering, life-destroying shame—whether they deserve it or not. It's not really an improvement.

Watch Activists Dangle Off a Portland Bridge to Block Shell's Arctic-Bound Ship

| Thu Jul. 30, 2015 2:59 PM EDT
Greenpeace activists watch Shell's MSV Fennica return to dock after apparently impeding it from returning to the Arctic Thursday morning.

Update 7/31/15: Thursday evening, Shell's MSV Fennica made another attempt to pass through protestors on Portland's Willamette River. This time, the icebreaker was successful; the Fennica is now on its way back up to the Arctic. The video below shows the dramatic confrontation between the ship and the environmental activists:

Environmental activists have taken to kayak, chain, and even rocking chair to slow down Royal Dutch Shell's plans to drill for oil in the Arctic this summer. For the past two days, they took their protest to a new extreme. Early Wednesday morning, around a dozen Greenpeace activists rappelled off a bridge over the Willamette River in Portland, Ore. to stop a Shell ship stationed there for repairs from returning to the Arctic. This morning, it appears they caused the ship to turn around after it tried to rejoin Shell's fleet in the Arctic's Chukchi Sea.

The ship, called the MSV Fennica, went all the way up to the Arctic only to find a 39-inch-long gash in its side. The damage was so serious, the ship had to travel all the way back to Portland for repairs. The Fennica is an icebreaker, but also carries Shell's capping stack, needed to stop an underwater well leak; Shell can't begin its exploring until the Fennica and its equipment is back and functioning in the Arctic.

In an effort to stop it from rejoining Shell's fleet in the Chukchi Sea, and delay the oil giant's drilling plans there, Greenpeace organized protestors to dangle from Portland's St. John's bridge and physically stop the ship from traveling down the Willamette River and back out to the Pacific. We reached out to Shell to confirm if the protestors have affected the Fennica's schedule, but have not heard back.

Below, we collected some Twitter photos of the dramatic protest:

Here Are Some Photos of Rep. John Lewis Holding Some Adorable Puppies

| Thu Jul. 30, 2015 2:42 PM EDT

Shortly after commemorating the 50th anniversary of the landmark Voting Rights Act on Thursday, Rep. John Lewis stopped by the ASPCA's Paws for Celebration event on Capitol Hill to meet some adorable puppies. Fortunately for the rest of us, cameras were present:

 

It was good to spend a little time with the wonderful puppies that the ASPCA brought to Capitol Hill.

Posted by John Lewis on Thursday, July 30, 2015

That's right. It doesn't get much better than everyone's favorite congressman and iconic civil rights leader holding puppies.

Will the Tea Party Shoot Itself in the Foot Yet Again?

| Thu Jul. 30, 2015 1:21 PM EDT

Paul Waldman notes today that although Jeb Bush is substantively pretty conservative, his tone on the campaign trail has remained resolutely moderate and affable. Waldman explains how this leads to Bush winning the nomination:

If you’re Bush, your path to victory looks like this: Trump soaks up all the attention for a while, but eventually gets bored (and hasn’t bothered to mount an actual campaign that can deliver votes), and either fades or just packs it in. Meanwhile, the conservative vote is split. Once the voting starts, the failing candidates will begin to fall away one by one. But by the time most of them are gone and their supporters have coalesced around a single candidate like Scott Walker, it’s too late — Jeb has built his lead and is piling up delegates, has all the money in the world, and can vanquish that last opponent on his way to the convention in Cleveland.

In other words, a repeat of 2012, when all the hard-core conservatives split the tea party vote ten ways while Mitt Romney quietly vacuumed up the entire moderate vote. By the time Rick Santorum was the last tea partier standing, it was too late. Romney coasted to victory.

This is the great conundrum of the tea-party wing of the Republican Party. What they should do is coalesce immediately around Scott Walker. He's the most plausible winner among the tea partiers, and if the race was basically between him and Bush from the start, there's a pretty good chance he could win. On the other hand, if he has to fight off a dozen challengers for months on end, it'll just be a rerun of 2012. He'll get a share of the tea party vote, but it won't be nearly enough to fend off Bush, who will have his own share of the tea partiers plus the vast majority of the moderate wing of the GOP, which is disgusted that their party has been taken over by loons. There are still quite a few of those folks around.

I guess this is where a smoke-filled room would come in handy. This is a classic collective action problem, but without party bosses who can step in and take charge, there's really no answer to it. The tea-party candidates keep thinking that they can run and win because there are so many tea partiers among the Republican primary electorate. Unfortunately, there are too many of them who think so. The end result is that they tear each other to shreds and end up with John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Jeb Bush. And then they whine and complain about how "the party" has betrayed the conservative cause yet again.

This isn't inevitable, of course. It's possible that Walker or one of the other mean-boy candidates will break out and become the de facto tea party standard bearer. It's just not as likely as it should be. It's a shame the tea partiers can't get their act together, isn't it?

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ISIS Is Losing the War, But That Doesn't Mean We're Winning It

| Thu Jul. 30, 2015 12:05 PM EDT

Zack Beauchamp says that ISIS is losing the war. His evidence is the map on the right. ISIS may have taken over Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria, but overall they've lost about 9 percent of the territory they controlled at the beginning of the year:

This points to one of ISIS's most fundamental problems: It has too many enemies....ISIS's fighters might be skilled, but they can't fight everyone at once.

True enough. What may be more interesting, though, is who they lost that territory to. Here are the numbers for territorial gains:

  • +11% — Syrian rebels
  • +10% — Kurdish forces
  • +4.5% — Iraqi government

In other words, Iraqi forces were responsible for less than a fifth of the total gains from ISIS. Add to that their humiliating loss in Ramadi, about an hour's drive from Baghdad, and there's still not much evidence that the Iraqi government has a clue about how to fight ISIS. It remains unclear how and when that will change.

Today's Trivia Quiz

| Thu Jul. 30, 2015 11:18 AM EDT

Quick trivia question: When was the last time one of the two major parties nominated a candidate for president who was neither a politician nor a former general?

The prize for the winner is that they get to relax about the possibility of Donald Trump becoming the 45th president of the United States.

UPDATE: Such smart commenters! The answer is Wendell Wilkie, 75 years ago. He lost, of course.

So who was the last person to win the presidency with no previous political or military experience? Answer: no one. The closest call is probably Herbert Hoover, whose only political experience before 1928 was eight years as the appointed Secretary of Commerce. And look what happened to him.

Chart of the Day: The Economy Continues to Plod Along

| Thu Jul. 30, 2015 10:51 AM EDT

GDP was up in the second quarter, but our economy is still not exactly a house afire. Preliminary results indicate an increase of 2.3 percent:

The BEA explains where last quarter's growth came from:

The acceleration in real GDP growth in the second quarter reflected an upturn in exports, an acceleration in PCE, a deceleration in imports, and an upturn in state and local government spending that were partly offset by downturns in private inventory investment, in nonresidential fixed investment, and in federal government spending and a deceleration in residential fixed investment....Real personal consumption expenditures increased 2.9 percent in the second quarter, compared with an increase of 1.8 percent in the first.

Really, the chart tells the whole story. As you can see, 2.3 percent growth is about....average since the recession ended. Not great, not horrible. Every time we manage to get into third gear for a little while, we hit a bump and end up back in second. It's now been eight years since the economy imploded, and we're still just muddling along. It's not clear what it will take to improve things.

This Map Shows What San Francisco Will Look Like After Sea Levels Rise

| Wed Jul. 29, 2015 7:24 PM EDT

Developers in the booming San Francisco Bay Area are busy planning everything from much-needed new housing to sports stadiums and gleaming tech campuses.

But according to a new report just published by the San Francisco Public Press, many of these construction projects sit on land susceptible to rising waters due to climate change. And regulators and local governments are not doing much to prepare. 

The Public Press found 27 major commercial and residential developments that will be vulnerable to flooding if San Francisco Bay sea levels rise as much as climate researchers like the National Research Council project in the next century. These developments include a new stadium for the Golden State Warriors, campuses being built by Google and Facebook, and revamped public spaces like San Francisco's iconic ferry terminal and Jack London Square in Oakland.

To make its maps, the Public Press partnered with the University of California-Berkeley Cartography and Geographic Information System Education Lab and used flooding and sea level projections from the US Geological Survey and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission predicts that in the next hundred years, water levels in the Bay could rise as much as 8 feet over high tide at current levels, including storm surge:

Despite the fact that more than $21 billion of new development is at stake, the report found that very little is being done to prepare for potential waterfront flooding risk. While most cities and counties around the Bay Area have begun studying the effects of sea level rise, none have actually enacted climate adaptation plans, like updating flood plain ordinances and buildings codes. Only one county (Santa Clara) has revised its local flooding maps.

We've seen before in other major urban areas that such short-sightedness can lead to staggering costs. Many scientists and environmental advocates believe the Bay Area could experience similar devastation if more is not done to adapt to climate change.

Brian Beveridge, co-director of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, told the Public Press, "It's going to fall down along lines of class and political power—who will be protected and who will be thrown to the dogs."