2009 - %3, May

Quote of the Day

| Sun May 31, 2009 1:12 PM EDT

From Alex Knapp, who says that being imprisoned for a crime you didn't commit isn't the worst injustice you can suffer after all:

Now I’ve learned that there is something worse that can happen. You can be accused of a crime you didn’t commit, then have the government that imprisoned you acknowledge that yes, you are innocent — but they’re going to keep you in prison anyway.

He's talking about the 17 Uighurs who continue to be held at Guantanamo Bay despite the fact that they were clearly brought there in error and have never conspired against the United States in any way.  The Obama administration acknowledges this, but continues to argue in court that it has no obligation to release them anyway.  Not exactly a profile in courage.

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Mighty Suburbia

| Sun May 31, 2009 12:54 PM EDT

As a replacement for race-based affirmative action, Texas started a program ten years ago that guaranteed admission to the University of Texas to the top ten percent of all high school classes.  As a result, more kids from rural and inner city schools were admitted to UT Austin, the system's flagship campus.  Hooray!  But not everyone was thrilled by this:

For six years [] an odd coalition of lawmakers from the inner cities and rural towns had beaten back efforts to weaken the program....That coalition finally cracked this year under pressure from suburban factions in the Legislature and after heavy lobbying by university officials, who vowed to recruit minorities aggressively.

....Senator Rodney Ellis, a Houston Democrat, [] fought the change....The bill, Mr. Ellis said, was a victory for suburban students.

“The very people who make the most noise about this are the parents of kids who have had all the advantages in life,” he said. “They are the same people who don’t give a tinker’s damn about the people in the quote other schools unquote.”

But Senator Florence Shapiro, a Republican from Plano who sponsored the legislation in the Senate, said students from good suburban high schools had a legitimate complaint. Only class rank is taken into account, not extracurricular activities or other talents. Many students have been attending colleges out of state.

“The pressure for this bill,” Ms. Shapiro said, “really comes from the suburban counties where the youngsters do really well and many times are in the top 13 percent and cannot go to the university. They really go all over the country when they don’t have opportunity here.”

Never underestimate the power of suburban parents.  They never give up and they never surrender.

(Via Matt Yglesias.)

Extreme Charter

| Sun May 31, 2009 12:15 PM EDT

The LA Times has an interesting read today about the American Indian Public Charter schools in Oakland, which are some of the highest performing schools in the state of California:

Not many schools in California recruit teachers with language like this: "We are looking for hard working people who believe in free market capitalism. . . . Multicultural specialists, ultra liberal zealots and college-tainted oppression liberators need not apply."

....The Academic Performance Index, the central measuring tool for California schools, rates schools on a scale from zero to 1,000, based on standardized test scores. The state target is an API of 800....The oldest of the American Indian schools, the middle school known simply as American Indian Public Charter School, has an API of 967. Its two siblings — American Indian Public Charter School II (also a middle school) and American Indian Public High School — are not far behind.

....On Tuesday, American Indian's high school will graduate its first senior class. All 18 students plan to attend college in the fall, 10 at various UC campuses, one at MIT and one at Cornell.

....The school could not provide its students' elementary school test scores, so it is hard to say if they were [already above average when they were admitted]. Roberts did provide three years of middle school scores for all students who entered American Indian in 2004 (with names removed for privacy), showing their progress in math and English from sixth to eighth grade. Of the 51 students who entered American Indian's middle school that year, only six scored lower than "proficient" in both math and English at the end of sixth grade.

In a nutshell, this story explains pretty well why I like charter schools — and also why I doubt they're any kind of educational panacea.  Lefty-baiting aside, AIPC is a super-strict, teach-to-the-test, no goofing off kind of place that apparently gets good results.  So I say: fine.  If there are some parents who want their kids to go to schools like this, let 'em.

At the same time, AIPC is tiny: 51 students in middle school and 18 in its first graduating class.  It plainly attracts only parents and children who are academically motivated in the first place.  It requires middle school teachers to teach every subject and keeps them on a grueling pace, which means lots of turnover.  Cheerleaders to the contrary ("They really should be the model for public education in the state of California," says Debra England of the Koret Foundation), the odds that the AIPC formula is scalable to an entire school district is nil.

It makes sense to try out different kinds of schools for different kinds of kids and different kinds of neighborhoods.  With a few obvious caveats, I'm all for it.  But let's not pretend that any particular one of these charters is necessarily the model for everyone else on the basis of 18 cherry-picked graduates.  It ain't so.

Chart of the Day

| Sun May 31, 2009 11:27 AM EDT

As I've mentioned before, one of the big problems with reaching peak oil isn't just that oil prices will go up, but that they're likely to spike up and down fairly violently.  In 2006, for example, demand for oil pretty much bumped up against the total available supply, which meant that even a small amount of additional demand was enough to send oil prices spiraling up past $150 in little more than a year.  The ensuing recession reduced demand by only a modest amount, but that was enough to cause oil prices to plummet to under $50 in the same timespan.  And this isn't just a demand-side problem: a small glitch in supply could easily have caused the same kinds of violent price spikes.

As a general rule, the world can handle high oil prices.  In fact, to the extent that high prices get us off our butts and looking for cleaner, more sustainable sources of energy, high oil prices are a good thing.  But what the world economy can't handle is constant, huge gyrations in oil prices: nearly all of our recessions since 1973 have been jump started by a sudden spike in oil prices.

So what happens next?  Via Ryan Avent, Paul Kedrosky points us to this projection from McKinsey, which shows that demand will once again bump up against supply very shortly: probably within a couple of years, but almost certainly within four years at the outside.  And when that happens, prices will once again rise unpredictably.  A strike in Venezuela could cause oil prices to double in less than a month.  A rumor of new supergiant field or a small recession could cause a subsequent collapse.  Price changes of 100% in short periods will become common.

You can probably already figure out where this post is going, can't you?  Wild spikes in oil prices are very bad news for the global economy, and the only way to avoid them is to permanently reduce global demand for oil so that we once again have enough spare pumping capacity to keep prices relatively steady — high and rising, perhaps, but at least rising fairly predictably.  That means we need higher mileage cars (global warming isn't the only reason for stronger CAFE standards), electrification of transportation, better conservation and efficiency measures, and more investment in solar, wind, and biofuels.  And all this needs to be done fairly quickly if we want to avoid an economy permanently at the mercy of OPEC oil.  Even 2013 isn't that far away.

Quote of the Day

| Sat May 30, 2009 12:10 PM EDT

From Michael O'Hare, professor of public policy at UC Berkeley:

So, for the record: I am not the Zodiac killer, had absolutely nothing to do with those (or any other) murders. As far as I know, I wasn’t even in California when any of them happened.

I had lunch with Mike once.  He didn't seem like a serial killer.  But then, they never do, do they?

The Battle for the Soul of Conservatism

| Sat May 30, 2009 11:28 AM EDT

The nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court raises a question: Who will win the battle for the conservative soul?  In the red corner, we have the insane wingnuts:

Newt Gingrich: "White man racist nominee would be forced to withdraw. Latina woman racist should also withdraw."  Rush Limbaugh: "How can a party get behind such a candidate? That's what would be asked if somebody were foolish enough to nominate David Duke or pick somebody even less offensive." Tom Tancredo: "She’s a member! She’s a member of La Raza!" Matthew J. Franck: "Is she still, and how much of La Raza's politics does she make her own?" Michael Goldfarb: "Does anyone dispute that Sotomayor has been the recipient of preferential treatment for most of her life?"  Bill Bennett: "Did she get into Princeton on affirmative action, one wonders." G. Gordon Liddy: "Let's hope that the key conferences aren't when she's menstruating or something, or just before she's going to menstruate."

And in the other red corner, we have an improbable band of rebels trying to urge conservatives to act like grownups:

Peggy Noonan: "Newt Gingrich twitters that Judge Sotomayor is a racist. Does anyone believe that? He should rest his dancing thumbs, stop trying to position himself as the choice and voice of the base in 2012, and think." Jon Cornyn: "This is not the kind of tone that any of us want to set when it comes to performing our constitutional responsibilities of advise and consent." Julian Sanchez: "What we’re seeing here [] is people clinging to the belief that Sotomayor has to be some mediocrity who struck the ethnic jackpot, that whatever benefit she got from affirmative action must be vastly more significant than her own qualities, that she’s got to be a harpy boiling with hatred for whitey, however overwhelming the evidence against all these propositions is.  This is really profoundly ugly." Michael Steele: "I know that a lot of folks want to do the knee jerk you know let's start slammin' and rammin', but I think we really need to take a step back from this." Charles Krauthammer: "What should a principled conservative do?....Nothing ad hominem. The argument should be elevated, respectful and entirely about judicial philosophy."

Who will win?  I guess we won't know until Sarah Palin weighs in, will we?

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Corn on "Hardball": Cheney vs. Levin on Torture Docs

| Sat May 30, 2009 10:15 AM EDT

Ex-veep Dick Cheney has claimed that there are two classified documents showing that the enhanced interrogation techniques (a.k.a. torture) used on US-held detainees were effective and helped his administration prevent terrorist attacks. Senator Carl Levin, the Democratic chair of the Senate armed services committee, this past week said these documents do not support Cheney's argument. On Hardball, conservative commentator Terry Jeffrey and I try to sort it out. Guess whose side Jeffrey was on. Guest host David Shuster was on fire, going after Jeffrey on the use of torture. But we did find consensus on a critical point: President Obama should declassify those two documents--and other material--so that the public can determine if Cheney is telling the truth or not. You can follow my postings and media appearances via Twitter by clicking here.

Best in Blog: 29 May 2009

| Fri May 29, 2009 7:24 PM EDT

Little green monkey podcasts, National Fist Bump Day celebrations, and Liz Cheney's epic FAIL: Yep! Friday frolicking won the day here at MoJo. But of course it can't all be fun and gay marriage. This week's torture puzzler: If American brass soldiers* raped detainees, why aren't we prosecuting? Why does Grover Norquist like Judge Sotomayor so much, anyway? And when can we move into Tom Friedman's special world?

One question we can answer? Where your Snuggie will be in 10 years.

Plus: Mary Roach's TEDTalk on '10 Things You Didn't Know About Orgasms' is mad excellent, our DC crew explains how America's anti-piracy point man is battling Somali scallywags, and hey look! Border patrol's fun for kids, too!

*Corrected. Thanks, Shane.

Vietnam's Wildlife Farms a Cruel Hoax

| Fri May 29, 2009 5:15 PM EDT

The livestock in Southeast Asia’s commercial wildlife farms are rare snakes, turtles, crocodiles, monkeys, tigers, bears, and other threatened wildlife. The "farms" are supposed to be places where rare species are bred in captivity for the purpose of producing meat and wildlife products.

Okay, even from far away, the premise smells bad.

Apparently the farms aren't alleviating pressures on wild populations only making them worse. This according to the Wildlife Conservation Society and Vietnam’s Forest Protection Department, who found commercial wildlife farms depleting wildlife and contributing to illegal trade. Worst affected are tigers and bears whose body parts or secretions are valued in traditional medicine.

About 4,000 bears in Vietnam and 7,600 in China are kept inhumanely in crush cages, their bile extracted twice a day through surgically implanted catheters. The bears moan in pain and bite their own paws. The photo tells a thousand grunts.

Why are the bears tortured like this? Because the bile is used as a traditional Chinese medicine—touted as an anti-inflammatory and fever reducer,  eyesight improver, protection for the liver and gallstone fixer. 

Can't we sell them some aspirin? Seriously, it's gotta be cheaper. Not to mention actually effective.


The farms are supposed to protect wild populations. Instead they're laundering products from animals killed in the wild. Of 78 farms surveyed in Vietnam, 42 percent were regularly bringing in animals from the wild. Half reported their founder populations were taken from the wild or produced from a combination of wild animals and farm stock. Farm owners also admitted transporting wildlife to the Chinese border for export to China. Some farm owners illegally purchase farm stock from commercial hunters and then transported and imported wildlife without a license.

The report concluded the farms don't supply food for local rural communities. Instead most of the unfortunate wildlife victims ends up as luxury items for urban consumers.

What to do about it? The WCS authors recommend prohibiting farms from holding nationally protected and globally threatened species, penalizing farm owners who violate wildlife protection laws, and requiring farm owners to document the source of the animals they keep.

I'm still favoring the aspirin trade.

TEDTalk: Orgasm Trivia

| Fri May 29, 2009 4:03 PM EDT

If Mary Roach's books on sex, death, and the afterlife make science writing look like the most fascinating gig on the planet, her recently released TEDTalk video proves it. Roach's talk, "10 Things You Didn't Know About Orgasm," is wonky, hilarious, and prurient in equal measure. Like this part, for example (video and transcript excerpt below):