2010 - %3, January

God and Man at Angola Prison

| Thu Jan. 7, 2010 4:38 PM EST

The Associated Press today put out a laudatory piece on Warden Burl Cain’s program of Christian education at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. The article, which was picked up by the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and dozens of other publications, is sure to advance Cain’s reputation as a great prison reformer.

The AP piece depicts Angola as a onetime den of violence and despair that has been transformed by Cain into a safe and orderly community where “everyone has a job” and where “students crowd into classrooms to study toward a college degree.” The prison’s bloody past, Cain tells the AP, was “all because of a lack of hope”–a situation the warden has treated with the dual remedy of education and redemption, in part through a degree program in Christian Ministry.  

There’s another side to this story, of course, and it’s a whole lot grimmer than the AP piece would suggest. More than 90 percent of the 5,200 men Angola will die there, thanks to the states harsh sentencing policies. Much of the work on the 18,000-acre former slave plantation consists of backbreaking labor in the cotton, corn, and soybean fields, presided over by armed guards on horseback. Some inmates do not work at all because they are kept in isolation in their cells, in the prison’s notorious Camp J disciplinary unit or in long-term solitary confinement. (Among Angola’s most widely known prisoners are former Black Panthers Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, members of the Angola 3, who have been in solitary for more than 37 years.)

An inmate’s fate at Angola depends upon how he measures up to the warden’s standards, which are rooted firmly in his personal religious dogma. Cain believes that there is only one path toward rehabilitation, and it runs through Christian redemption. (According to Herman Wallace, Cain has at least once offered to release him from solitary if he renounced his political beliefs and accepted Jesus Christ as his savior.)

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Why Richard Blumenthal is Popular

| Thu Jan. 7, 2010 3:43 PM EST

Flickr/kellynigro (Creative Commons).Richard Blumenthal | Flickr/kellynigro (Creative Commons).Sen. Chris Dodd announced his retirement on Wednesday. Later that day, Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut's attorney general, announced he would run for Dodd's seat. Democrats are psyched because they know they have a better chance to hold on to the seat with the very popular Blumenthal on the ticket as opposed to the unpopular and scandal-tainted Dodd. But who is this Dick Blumenthal? And why is he so popular?

Back in 2000, David Plotz wrote a great piece for Slate about Blumenthal, who was about to enter his second decade as Connecticut's attorney general:

Blumenthal was supposed to be "the Jewish Kennedy." Now the 54-year-old finds himself in the autumn of his career fighting for Joe Lieberman's sloppy seconds. Blumenthal is blessed with every political virtue except recklessness and luck. His résumé makes Gore's look like a high-school dropout's....

What Lieberman had begun [as Connecticut attorney general before him], Blumenthal perfected. He turned consumer advocacy into high art and helped lead the nationwide trend of AG activism. According to Yale legal scholar Akhil Reed Amar, Reagan-era deregulation and congressional gridlock left a power vacuum, especially in antitrust law and consumer protection. AGs, always trolling for power and press, rushed to fill it. Blumenthal proved a master. Ambitious, independent, and fiercely committed to progressive activism, he was creative in finding causes related (however tenuously) to the well-being of Connecticut. He joined the anti-tobacco posse early then led the AGs as they piled on the Justice Department's Microsoft suit. Blumenthal spearheaded the national campaign against deceptive sweepstakes mailings and has taken a prominent role in negotiating with gun manufacturers.

In 2007, Mother Jones' own Stephanie Mencimer wrote about Blumenthal's No. 1 foes: big business lobbies like the US Chamber of Commerce and the Competitive Enterprise Institute:

[T]he Competitive Enterprise Institute issued a "study" on the nation's "Top Ten Worst State Attorneys General." CEI has been heavily funded by tobacco, auto, and utility companies and has been active in fighting off attempts to mitigate global warming. Public enemy No. 1 for CEI is Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal.

In all this is a clue to Blumenthal's popularity. He's visible—he's always in the news, taking on "bad guys" and suing corporate villains. And he has a job in which it's really easy to be on the side of "the people."

I grew up in Connecticut. When people had a problem with a company, they seemed just as likely to go straight to the AG's office as they were to call the Better Business Bureau or their state representative. And when you complain to the AG's office about a problem and they end up doing something about it, you remember it. Blumenthal has two decades worth of individuals who his office helped, and two decades worth of suing companies like Countrywide that were the focus of populist rage. Those companies hate him for it, of course, but ordinary people tend to like him—a lot.

This is part of why liberals shouldn't shed too many tears for Dodd. Blumenthal's a better candidate, but he also has a chance to eventually become a better senator. He doesn't have Dodd's ties to Washington or Wall Street. He has all the right enemies. And he has lots of experience fighting the same interests that Dodd was seen as too cozy with. Blumenthal pioneered the concept of the modern state AG—Eliot Spitzer (first AG, then governor of New York) and Sheldon Whitehouse (first AG, then senator from Rhode Island) were just following in his footsteps. Now it's finally Blumenthal's turn.

Kevin is traveling today.

Warren Buffett: Climate Killer?

| Thu Jan. 7, 2010 3:28 PM EST

Over at Rolling Stone, Tim Dickinson has published a list of 17 "polluters and deniers who are derailing efforts to curb global warming." Topping his list is a rather unconventional choice: Obama advisor and Oracle of Omaha Warren Buffett. Dickinson points out that Buffett has poo-pooed the climate bill as a "huge tax" that would mean "very poor people are going to pay a lot more for their electricity." Moreover, he's poured money into some of America's dirtiest companies, recently purchasing 1.28 million shares of ExxonMobil and buying the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad--the nation's top hauler of coal--for $26 billion, his largest purchase ever. "As a savvy investor," Dickinson writes, "Buffett would only buy a coal-shipping railroad if he felt certain that Congress would fail to crack down on coal pollution."

Dickinson's list of 17 "climate killers" is a good read for anyone who wants to get up to speed on the right wing's hit squad. And for a more targeted rundown of people who are pusing climate change skepticism, check out our Dirty Dozen of Climate Change Denial.

Chuck Lane Annoys Liberals

| Thu Jan. 7, 2010 2:41 PM EST

Peter Sarsgaard as Chuck Lane in the movie Shattered Glass. When they make Bureau of the Corn, I hope to be played by Zac Efron. (Promotional photo.)Peter Sarsgaard as Chuck Lane in the movie Shattered Glass. When they make Bureau of the Corn, I hope to be played by Zac Efron. (Promotional photo.)The real-life version of ex-TNR editor Chuck Lane (as opposed to the Shattered Glass version most of us are more familiar with) seems to have a habit of feuding with liberals. Last month he accused his fellow Washington Post writer Ezra Klein of promoting a "venomous smear" of Joe Lieberman, and a minor blogwar ensued. Now Lane's getting on liberals' nerves by hyping a study (also pimped by Fox News) that says the minimum wage kills jobs. The study is by longtime minimum wage opponent, and, as ThinkProgress notes, "almost all of the economic research on the subject shows that the minimum wage has little to no effect on employment," but Lane doesn't mention that. (He also doesn't mention Paul Krugman's detailed explanation of why reducing minimum wages could be counterproductive during a recession.) Here's the point, from DougJ at Balloon Juice:

The point here is not that Lane is an asshole for suggesting we lower minimum wage. Nor is to cast aspersion on the work of David Neumark, the economist whose work he cites.

The point here is that Neumark is an economist, who (rightly or wrongly) has made a career of criticizing minimum wage laws (his conclusions, based on my skim, are not simplistic). It’s simply nuts to hold up his work as the consensus of the entire field, especially since critics of Lane’s original article held up a large body of work by various authors who hold different positions on the issue.

I'm going to go to a somewhat unlikely source to try to resolve this dispute: The Economist. Even the libertarians from the other side of the pond acknowledged (paywall), in 2006, that the Democrats' plan to raise the minimum wage would probably not have significant negative effects on employment. They referred to Lane's source, Neumark, as "perhaps the leading sceptic about the minimum wage." But they also offered a suggestion I think a lot of people will be able to get behind:

[A] better tool exists for helping the working poor: the earned-income tax credit (EITC). This tax subsidy, a "negative income tax" that tops up the earnings of the low-paid, was introduced in the 1970s and has been expanded four times since.

Lane should do more to acknowlege that Neumark's research does not represent the consensus of economists. But there's room to work towards a resolution here: like The Economist, Lane supports increasing the EITC. That's great, because while economists do disagree (despite Lane's protestations) about the economic impact of increasing the minimum wage, they largely agree that increasing and broadening the EITC is a better option. Can't we all just get along?

Kevin is traveling today.

Fiore Cartoon: 100% Safe Airlines

Thu Jan. 7, 2010 2:17 PM EST

Thanks to the underwear bomber scare, Obama and the airline industry are tightening air security. Could that soon include the use of head belts, microwave bomb detonation chambers, and detention center lounges?

So ponders satirist Mark Fiore in the cartoon below:

New Smog Rules Good for Public, Bad for API

| Thu Jan. 7, 2010 2:12 PM EST

The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday announced what may be the biggest news for a long time on air pollution: the agency is significantly tightening the rules on smog. The move might prevent thousands of deaths each year, but polluters are already up in arms.

The proposed rule is a reversal of one of the Bush administration's most controversial environmental moves, one that has been on the top of the list of improvements that environmental and public health experts sought from the Obama team.

The new proposed rule would require that smog, also known as ground-level ozone, be limited to at a level between 60 and 70 parts per billion over an eight-hour period. This is a significant update from the Bush administration rules proposed in March 2008 that, against the advice of EPA experts, set the upper limit at 75 parts per billion. Up to 186 million people in the United States are breathing unhealthy levels of smog today because of this weaker standard, said Janice Nolen, director of national policy and advocacy at the American Lung Association.

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GOP Populists: Stealing a Page From the Progressive Playbook

| Thu Jan. 7, 2010 1:39 PM EST

In his piece "Thank You, Wall Street. May We Have Another?" published online this morning, David Corn notes that "populist fury aimed at the one-time masters of the universe has yet to materialize in any targeted manner." Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), who must have read David's article when the magazine hit newsstands late last month, is trying to change that.

Paul Ryan, Grand Old PopulistPaul Ryan, Grand Old PopulistRyan recently wrote a piece for Forbes with the provocative title "Down With Big Business." In a column hammering Wall Street and the financial industry—many of whom are, oddly enough, Ryan's biggest donors—the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee addresses most of the points David suggests are inhibiting a "mass movement demanding fundamental change," including the confusion and fear many feel as a result of the dire economic situation Wall Street malfeasance has gotten us into. However, the reforms Ryan advocates to mobilize the masses and save the economy will seem strange to all but his lobbyists friends: more deregulation.

"If this sounds twisted and counter-intuitive, that's because it is," writes Thomas Frank, the token liberal on Wall Street Journal editorial page, in a column about Ryan. Warning of the return of Reagan Revolution-styled GOP populism, Frank remarks, "This is an argument that might have sounded good in 1979 but for it to make sense today one has to disregard the wreckage all around us courtesy of three decades of regulatory rollback." But it's an argument that very well might work. "Democrats, for their part, will find it difficult to respond in kind, especially after having spent their first year delivering regal gifts to the insurance industry and dithering over the urgent matter of new financial regulation," Frank notes.

The Tea Partiers, town hall protesters, and dismal political approval ratings all attest to the anger coursing through out the American electorate. Ryan is attempting to rally the rightwing and the swing voters behind his impassioned-if-incoherent financial reform plan. If the Democratic majority is to last long past the 2010 midterms, they will have to come up with a more compelling response to public outrage than "don't blame us." Progressives should follow Ryan's lead and take a look at David's story.

Ditching the Death Penalty

| Thu Jan. 7, 2010 1:07 PM EST

Good news: The legitimacy of the death penalty was served a major blow this week. The brains behind the modern capital justice system renounced it as a failure, according to Adam Liptak's column in Monday's New York Times. The American Law Institute which is comprised of 4,000 judges, lawyers, and law professors outlined the reasons why the system it created in 1962, which has resulted in the executions of more than 1,100 people in the U.S., is fatally flawed. But don't expect to see state sanctioned killing end next week. "Capital Punishment is going to be around for awhile," Roger S. Clark, a professor at Rutgers School of Law in Camden, N.J., says in Liptak's piece. "What [the institute's findings] does is pull the plug on the whole intellectual underpinnings for it." So the question remains: When will legislation catch up with the facts? Here's a break down of some news coverage from MoJo and beyond that bolster the ALI's reported reasons for ditching the death penalty, and why the justice system should follow suit:

It's exorbitantly expensive: See James Ridgeway's The Death Penalty's Big Tab for a rundown of the monetary incentive to end a practice that doesn't even deter crime.

Defense lawyers are underpaid and incompetent: See Celia Perry's Dying for a Lawyer which examines the lack of effective legal representation for death row inmates in Alabama.   

It risks executing innocent people: In Texas, 11 innocent people have been released from death row so far. In Georgia, five innocent people have been released, but probably the most infamous exoneration involved Illinois' Anthony Porter who, after 16 years on death row, walked out of prison 48 hours before his scheduled execution thanks to Northwestern journalism students who proved his innocence. Texas' Cameron Todd Mitchell wasn't as fortunate. A forensic group proved he was innocent of setting a house fire that killed his children five years after his execution, David Grann reported

Capital punishment is racist: Ten years ago, MOJO covered Amnesty International's findings on racial disparities rife in the imposition of capital punishment. Amnesty stated, "Racial discrimination, while more subtle than in the past, continues to play an equally deadly role in the U.S. legal system. Of the 500 prisoners executed between 1977 and the end of 1998, more than 81 percent were convicted of the murder of a white, even though blacks and whites are the victims of homicide in almost equal numbers nationwide." The report also found that a disproportionate number of death sentences were handed out to poor people.

Feel free to add to my list by including links to other death penalty reports from news services or human rights organizations in the comments section below.


 

Conservatives vs. Executing Gay People

| Thu Jan. 7, 2010 12:41 PM EST

Yesterday, Andrew Sullivan linked to this blog post by John Mark Reynolds, who blogs for First Things, the conservative ("theoconservative," according to some) Catholic magazine founded by the late Richard John Neuhaus. Sullivan praised Reynolds' "brilliant evisceration" of Uganda's proposed "execute gay people" law "from both a Christian and secular perspective." Here's how Reynolds launches his attack: 

Uganda may pass a law that could lead to the death penalty for homosexual behavior.

The proposed law is odious.

Due to the legacy of colonialism, Western people should be sensitive about interfering in sub-Saharan African politics and modest in making moral pronouncements regarding Africa, but this law deserves universal condemnation. Uganda experienced many evils under colonialism, including the loss of basic liberties.

Experiencing evil does not give a free pass to do evil and this bill is wicked.

It is not a close call.

No good can come of this bill and great harm will be done if it is passed.

The rest is here. I want to draw your attention to the comments section of Reynolds' post, which is pretty unique. It's not full of idiots or trolls, per se. The commenters make long, often well-reasoned arguments and show basic respect for each other. But the subjects they're arguing about are well outside mainstream political discourse. For example:

I have a friend who defends slavery on the grounds that the Bible does. No amount of quoting texts like Titus have helped. I have tried to show him the changing standards of morality that God holds us to while remaining faithful to the idea. I have hit a brick wall with him, but fell any time spent trying to talk someone out of ever saying in public that Christianity is okay with slavery is time well spent. Have you expounded on these ideas elsewhere in a fuller form that I might hopefully change his mind. Oh one other thing, what is the best introductory work on the Orthodox church, though I am Reformed, and not likely to change. I do feel there is a gap in my knowledge when I don’t know anything about a 1/3 of Christendom.

Reynolds responds—not to say that slavery is obviously wrong but instead to point to his work on the Bible's approach to slavery in a new Christian apologetic.

It's all well and good, I suppose, to offer lengthy attacks on the Ugandan law. But at this point in human history, given the experience of the twentieth century, some things should really be part of a broad moral consensus. The immorality of slavery or of executing minorities shouldn't really require long arguments.

I suspect this is why it's been hard for Sullivan to find examples of the National Review or the Weekly Standard or the American Conservative or Commentary denouncing the Ugandan law. The writers at those magazines may disagree with Sullivan on a lot of things, but I suspect they think it's pretty obvious to most Americans that executing gay people is wrong. The problem for conservatives is that it's inconvenient for them to defend any sort of gay rights—even the right not to be executed—because doing so brings up awkward questions about why conservatives want to deny other rights to gay people.

When you have to make long arguments to convince your audience to accept the basic moral consensus—slavery is wrong, executing gay people is abhorrent—it makes you (and your audience) look radical. After all, how many of us have friends who argue that slavery is okay? How many of us hang around with folks who think it would be great if gay people were executed for their "crimes"? It's fine that John Mark Reynolds spent hundreds of words attacking the murder of minorities and a chapter explaining why slavery is wrong. But he shouldn't have to do it. A quick note of opposition ("executing gay people is obviously wrong") should suffice. If that's not more than enough to convince you, you had better be ready to explain your position. When it comes to easy moral questions like enslaving people or slaughtering homosexuals, the burden of proof falls overwhelmingly on those who would buck the modern consensus.

Kevin is traveling today.

Sarah Palin Meets Frozen Gore

| Thu Jan. 7, 2010 12:11 PM EST

A two-ton ice sculpture of Al Gore has been erected in front of a liquor store in Fairbanks, Alaska, as an homage to climate change skepticism. Via Treehugger, we learn that this will be the second giant frozen Gore head displayed in the state; the first, displayed last year at this time, even drew a visit from Sarah Palin.

While Palin's public embrace of Frozen Gore and climate change denialism isn't unexpected, it is fun to take a look at her evolution on the issue over the past few years, from tepid skeptic to full-blown denier. A brief history:

During her 2006 campaign for governor: "I will not pretend to have all the answers." She also cautioned against "overreaction" on climate change. Later, a spokesperson told a reporter, "She's not totally convinced one way or the other. Science will tell us. ... She thinks the jury's still out."

August 29, 2008: "A changing environment will affect Alaska more than any other state, because of our location ... I'm not one, though, who would attribute it to being man-made."

September 11, 2008: "Show me where I have ever said that there's absolute proof that nothing that man has ever conducted or engaged in has had any effect, or no effect, on climate change."

October 2, 2008: "There is something to be said also for man's activities, but also for the cyclical temperature changes on our planet." She added, "I don't want to argue about the causes."

And finally, her op-ed in the Washington Post last month: The op-ed focuses on how climate change has been "politicized" – but of course, not by her. Here acknowledges "the impact of changing weather patterns" in her state, but implys that they are "natural, cyclical environmental trends" and "we can't say with assurance that man's activities cause weather changes." Thus, she concludes, "any potential benefits of proposed emissions reduction policies are far outweighed by their economic costs."

The kicker to this most recent story on Frozen Gore and Palin, though, is the final paragraph in the Associated Press piece on the sculpture:

Climate change scientists say Alaska has warmed by 3 degrees Fahrenheit during the past 50 years. The average temperature for 2009 was 27.8 degrees in Fairbanks, about one degree warmer than normal, said Rick Thoman, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Well, guess it doesn't matter as much now that she's not looking to be elected in-state. The lofty goal of seeking national office as a Republican basically requires one to shed any realism on climate.

More photos of Frozen Gore here.