2010 - %3, February

More Question Time?

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 6:21 PM EST

Last week, President Barack Obama and the House Republican caucus held a riveting, televised question-and-answer session at the GOP's retreat. Now a bunch of lefty and righty bloggers, academics, and media figures (including Mother Jones' David Corn, who drafted the petition) have formed a coalition to demand more events along the same lines. Alex Balk thinks this is a bad idea:

It's a good idea unless you've seen how Question Times actually work in parliamentary democracies, where members of the governing parties ask self-serving softballs (e.g., "Do you agree with me that the American worker is the hardest worker in the world?") designed to run out the clock, while the opposition party tosses up as many cheap shots as it can in hopes that something will stick. And even were the process to be modified so that it was simply the President and Republicans, what does it benefit the President to reward the opposition with a continuing platform from which they can repeatedly voice their disagreements without offering credible, concrete alternatives? I mean, doesn't he already do that enough with the Senate's Democratic caucus? Nobody wants to watch that.

David actually addresses this concern fairly well in his piece announcing the coalition:

None of us are naive and believe that implementing Question Time will cure what ails our country and our political process. We do realize that if QT does become a Washington routine, politicians and their aides will do what they can to game it to their advantage.... There may well be attempts to institutionalize Question Time in a fashion that renders it nothing more than a canned replay of pre-existing spin. But even though there are problems with the presidential debates—which have been taken over by the political parties and a corporate-sponsored commission—those events still have value.

At Wednesday's White House press conference, when David asked Bill Burton whether the administration would commit to more Question Time-type events, Burton essentially said no, arguing that last week's event worked because of its "spontaneity." Burton and Balk have a point. Even if Question Time happens again, it probably won't be as good as it was last week. But I think David actually comes out on top here. No one thinks that a few question-and-answer sessions will fix America's problems. But QT could make things a little bit better. How can that be bad?

(FWIW Kevin thinks last week marked the "first and last" Question Time. Despite all this, he could very well be right.)

Kevin is traveling today and tomorrow.

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Books: The Devil and Mr. Casement: One Man's Battle for Human Rights in South America's Heart of Darkness

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 6:17 PM EST

In 1910, a British diplomat named Roger Casement traveled to a remote corner of the Peruvian Amazon to investigate reports that the local Indians were being enslaved as rubber tappers, and tortured and murdered if they resisted. The assignment was similar to one he'd carried out a few years earlier in the Congo, which, as readers of Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost may recall, helped expose the atrocities inside the Belgian monarch's private colony. In Peru, Casement found horrors that rivaled those in the heart of Africa (see "Blood and Treasure"), but this time, the crimes weren't being carried out in the name of a foreign ruler, but a public company based in London.

The outlines of this story are all too familiar: A firm enriches itself with the sweat and blood of people half a world away, far from consumers' consciences or the prying eyes of watchdogs. The Devil and Mr. Casement presents a fast-paced account of this groundbreaking effort to hold corporations accountable for their misdeeds, as well as a detailed portrait of Casement, a closet Irish revolutionary (and even more deeply closeted gay man) who becomes obsessed with beating "the devil" of the book's title, a ruthless Peruvian rubber baron.

It's not giving away the ending to say there's no happy one to this story. However, author Jordan Goodman buries a fascinating, disturbing detail that establishes his drama's continued relevance: The Putumayo Indians who were rubber slaves a century ago are the ancestors of the indigenous people in the recent documentary Crude, which follows their ongoing struggle to get American oil companies to take responsibility for polluting their rainforest home.

At the Intersection of Climate Science and Voluptuous Breasts ...

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 6:16 PM EST

Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has a scintillating new piece of writing. No, I'm not talking about the latest climate assessment report. In January Pachauri released his first novel, Return to Almora, which details the life and sexual conquests of Sanjay Nath, an academic in his 60s who frets over how politicians have "endangered the fragile ecosystem."

The Telegraph has a copy and printed excerpts that might be too racy to repeat here on Blue Marble. Let's just say it includes phrases like "caressing her voluptuous breasts" and "the excitement got the better of him, before he could even get started."

It's no Political Economy of Global Energy or Dynamics of Electrical Energy Supply and Demand: An Economic Analysis of course. While his climate and energy work helped win him a Nobel Peace Prize, the Telegraph posits that this work is "unlikely to win awards other than the Bad Sex in Fiction prize."

Even without reading the whole book, I'd venture to say that Pachauri maybe should have spent more time analyzing glacial data and less time describing how Sanjay fondles heaving and/or voluptuous breasts.

White House Takes Question About Question Time

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 5:22 PM EST

At today's White House press briefing, David Corn asked Bill Burton whether Obama would commit to holding regular Q&A sessions with Republicans, following the riveting exchange last week at the GOP's issues retreat. Burton basically said no, arguing that the first session worked because of its "spontaneity." This is a pretty weak excuse. If you've ever checked out the British parliament's question time sessions, in which rowdy MPs grill the prime minister at length about the issues of the day, you'll see that they've managed to retain plenty of spontaneity over the years (sometimes a little too much.) In any case, the White House evidently still needs some convincing. Here's how you can help.

David Brooks Goes After Greedy Geezers

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 4:51 PM EST

David Brooks wants to pull the plug on us greedy, grasping old folks. Or more accurately, he wants us to pull the plug on ourselves, by giving up our generous “entitlements” and submitting to Social Security and Medicare cuts. We should be more than happy to do this, he says, out of an altruistic urge to rescue younger generations from penury. Too bad Brooks fails to mention that what really needs rescuing is the nation’s system of social inequality and corporate greed.

In his Monday New York Times column, called “The Geezer’s Crusade,” Brooks zeros in on one of the increasingly popular straw men of our times–that enemy of the people known as the Greedy Geezer.

Dripping with condescension, Brooks runs through a list of all the wonderful things that come with old age in the 21st century. Instead of sinking into dimwitted oblivion, the modern geezer--lo and behold--is actually able to think and function. “Older people retain their ability to remember emotionally nuanced events. They are able to integrate memories from their left and right hemispheres. Their brains reorganize to help compensate for the effects of aging.” Brooks even has scientific proof for his claims: “A series of longitudinal studies, begun decades ago, are producing a rosier portrait of life after retirement,” he writes. According to these studies, old people “become more outgoing, self-confident and warm with age.” We “pay less attention to negative emotional stimuli,” and are just plain happier than the middle-aged.

Yet despite all these bountiful gifts (which undoubtedly offset such minor inconveniences as not being able to walk, see, screw, or control our bladders), we old coots just can’t shake the selfish idea that we ought to get a little help from society in our golden years. After working, raising and educating our kids, and paying taxes all our lives, we Greedy Geezers now want to sit back and rake in our “entitlements”–Social Security and Medicare. Can’t we see that in doing so, we are actually stealing  from the young, denying them a future, and worse, driving the nation into bankruptcy? Brooks writes:

Far from serving the young, the old are now taking from them. First, they are taking money. According to Julia Isaacs of the Brookings Institution, the federal government now spends $7 on the elderly for each $1 it spends on children.

Interrogating Abdulmutallab

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 4:47 PM EST

Flickr/Mike Licht (Creative Commons).Flickr/Mike Licht (Creative Commons).On Tuesday, Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and Jim Webb (D-Va.) joined Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and a bunch of Republicans to slam the Obama administration's plan to try the alleged 9/11 co-conspirators in federal court. Graham announced that he planned to introduce a bill—with Lincoln and Webb's support—to prohibit funding for civilian trials for Khalid Sheikh Mohamed and the other accused planners of the 9/11 attacks. The Senate rejected a similar bill, 55-45, back in November, but Graham and many of his allies pointed to the failed Christmas attack allegedly carried out by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as evidence that the Obama adminstration's strategy for fighting terrorism isn't working.

Many of the critics of the Obama administration's response seem to be claiming that Abdulmutallab should not have been arrested or read his Miranda rights. They seem to believe he should have been turned over to military custody so he could face the same military tribunals that they want KSM et. al. to face. (TPM's Justin Elliott has a good piece on why tribunals might not be the most effective way to try and convict terrorists.) And some of the critics are suggesting that Abdulmutallab should have faced "harsher" interrogation—an argument-by-euphemism for using techniques that have been banned as torture.

On Tuesday night, the Obama adminstration fought back at the criticism with a barrage of leaks to the press. Abdulmutallab is cooperating with investigators, sources told the New York Times. Gaining his trust by involving his family was supposedly key to getting him to provide information on Al Qaeda. So the Obama administration is defending its way of dealing with terrorist suspects by claiming that its way works. (The Obama administration's way is also the way it was almost always done before 9/11, and sometimes after—shoe-bomber Richard Reid was Mirandized, too, and no one raised a fuss.)

But in some ways, using the "it works" defense is too weak. Attorney General Eric Holder has a better idea: defend the Obama administration because, when it comes to Abdulmutallab, it's following precedent, the Constitution, and the law. In a letter to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate minority leader, Holder writes:

The practice of the U.S. government, followed by prior and current Administrations without a single exception, has been to arrest and detain under federal criminal law all terrorist suspects who are apprehended inside the United States... Some have argued that had Abdulmutallab been declared an enemy combatant, the government could have held him indefinitely without providing him access to an attorney. But the government's legal authority to do so is far from clear. In fact, when the Bush administration attempted to deny Jose Padilla access to an attorney, a federal judge in New York rejected that position, ruling that Padilla must be allowed to meet with his lawyer. Notably, the judge in that case was Michael Mukasey, my predecessor as Attorney General. In fact, there is no court-approved system currently in place in which suspected terrorists captured inside the United States can be detained and held without access to an attorney; nor is there any known mechanism to persuade an uncooperative individual to talk to the government that has been proven more effective than the criminal justice system.

Adam Serwer, who first wrote about the Holder letter, has a good list of the ways in which Abdulmutallab's successful interrogation "explodes" key torture myths. But I also especially enjoyed the take of "M.S." at The Economist (although I know Kevin hates their semi-anonymous blogs):

THERE are apparently a significant number of people in America who don't think that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab should have been arrested, read his rights, and interrogated by FBI officers, with a view to ultimate prosecution in a court of law for the crime of attempted murder. I don't really understand what it is that these people do think.... Eventually, one assumes, such people want Mr Abdulmutallab tried by some other parallel system of justice, a military tribunal perhaps, so that he gets less of an opportunity to defend himself than he would have in the normal criminal-justice system. As Scott Brown says, "In dealing with terrorists, our tax dollars should pay for weapons to stop them, not lawyers to defend them." I have no idea what Mr Brown is afraid might happen to Mr Abdulmutallab in court: that, with a clever lawyer, he might beat the rap? The man's underpants burst into flame in full view of an airplane full of passengers.

This is a really important point. The criminal justice system is how America has traditionally dealt with terrorists. It has so far proven more effective at actually convicting them than military tribunals have. The burden of proof should fall on those who advocate using a different system.

Kevin is traveling today and tomorrow.

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Cute Endangered Animal: Axolotl Salamander

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 4:40 PM EST

The folks over at Change.org have rightly pointed out that cute endangered animals get more attention than the ugly ones. So I'll meet them halfway: this week we have a truly "uglorable" guest, the Axolotl Salamander. (Uglorable, for those of you not fluent in Lolcat, is an animal both ugly and adorable.) The Axolotl is a great example of uglorability, combining skinny, sea monkey-like limbs, a big ol' noggin shaped like a certain part of the male anatomy, and red fuzzies where his ears should be. He seems pretty cheerful, being that he's on the brink of extinction. Just look at that tiny smile. That's the spirit, Axolotl!

The Axolotl (pronounced ACK-suh-LAH-tuhl) salamander only lives (in the wild) in one spot on Earth, in Lake Xochimilco near Mexico City. Unlike other salamanders, the Axolotl don't fully go through metamorphosis. They do grow legs, but retain their gills (see red fuzzies, above) and dorsal fin, which other salamanders lose as they mature. As a result, the Axolotl is fully aquatic and lives only in the water.

Although often sold as pets and common in captivity, Axolotls are critically endangered in the wild. Their lake habitat has been drained to provide water to Mexico City, and has suffered from the introduction of invasive species like carp and tilapia that eat Axolotl and their offspring. Roasted Axolotl is also considered a delicacy in Mexico, something which can't possibly help the species's survival in the wild. The Axolotl's ability to regenerate many parts of its body has made it an experiment subject in medical labs. For example, the Department of Defense recently issued a $6.25 million grant for scientists to study the Axolotl's limb regeneration in hopes it will lead to medical advances for humans.

Only around 1,000 Axolotls remain in the wild, down from about 6,000 in the late 90s. There are many Axolotls in captivity, but they are often albinos (as seen above), not the greyish or brown varieties more common in the wild. But at least one biologist, Dr. Luis Zambrano of Mexico City's National Autonomous University, is making their preservation a priority by trying to set up protected natural habitat for the creatures. "If the axolotl disappears, it would not only be a great loss to biodiversity but to Mexican culture, and would reflect the degeneration of a once-great lake system," Zambrano told the Dallas Morning News.

 

 

MoJo Staffers Get LOST: A Weekly Chat

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 4:13 PM EST

Last night, LOST kicked off its final season with a bang. Below, five Mother Jones staffers chat about Sayid's resurrection, Hugo's leadership abilities, Kate's line-jumping, and what they hope the show's enigmatic creators have in store for viewers.

Ben Buchwalter, Editorial Fellow: I'm in the chat room, reporting from 1974.
Nikki Gloudeman, New Media Fellow: Nice gchat entrance, Ben.
Jen Phillips, Assistant Editor: So what did you guys think? Did the first episode answer questions, or just frustrate you?
Nikki: I think they wanted to let fans know that they are going to give answers, by doing things like answering the smoke monster question right off the bat.
Ben: Yeah, this is a much better role for the actor formerly known as Locke.
Jen: I couldn't take any more of Locke feeling sorry for himself. Terry O’Quinn makes an excellent badass. And he's still got his knife!

Nikki: Favorite scene of the show? Mine was Jack and Locke rehashing their philosophical debate in the airport waiting room.
Ben: Hugo taking control and being a prophet.
Jen: Kate trying to steal a cab from Frogurt.

Jen: What do you think about Aaron? If he's raised by someone else, will it mess things up? The psychic said Claire had to raise Aaron.
Nikki: Yes, he couldn’t be raised by "another" (or "an other"?) but why?!
Samantha Schaberg, Administrative Assistant: Isn't Aaron the only child to be born on the island?
Nikki: What’s up with Aaron? Is he infant Jacob? He kinda looks like it. That’s my ridiculous theory of the chat!
 

News from the Hill

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 4:00 PM EST

Kevin Drum is traveling today and tomorrow, so I'm covering for him over on his blog. Here's the latest politics news:

Decision "Next Week" On Health Care Strategy

The Democrats will soon have a strategy to pass health care reform, Harry Reid said Tuesday night. We've heard that before.

Chris Dodd vs. the Volcker Rule

The chair of the Senate banking committee thinks Obama's financial regulatory reforms, which were dreamed up by former Fed Chair Paul Volcker, may be excessively ambitious. What exactly does that mean?

More Health Care Questions

Now that Scott Brown's in town, there's really only one workable path to pass health care reform. So why are the Democrats saying they're still trying to figure out a strategy? Answer: there's something else going on.

I'll have more later in the day at Kevin's place.

Decision "Next Week" On Health Care Strategy

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 3:39 PM EST

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said last night that he hopes Democrats will settle on a strategy for moving forward on health care reform by sometime next week. That's good news of a sort, but take it with a few grains of salt. 

The way forward is already pretty clear. If the Democrats are going to do this, the Senate needs to use the filibuster-proof reconciliation process to pass some fixes to its health care reform bill. Then the House needs to pass the "fixed" Senate bill. That's the only remotely realistic path that anyone has suggested that gets to comprehensive reform. Every other plan is either politically unworkable (e.g., having the House pass the Senate bill unchanged) or doesn't lead to comprehensive reform (e.g., breaking the bill up). If the Democrats want to pass reform, the path is obvious. Reid is sort of beating around the bush here. When he talks about settling on a strategy, what he means is agreeing on potential "fixes," figuring out workarounds to potential procedural roadblocks, and, most important, figuring out whether he and Pelosi have the votes to proceed.

It's worth remembering that some Democrats, including Steny Hoyer, the House Majority Leader, said last week that this week would be the week that Dems would settle on a strategy for getting health care reform done. When confronted with that fact at his weekly press briefing on Tuesday, Hoyer said, "Did I say that? I was in error." He added that he anticipates making a decision "just as soon as the way forward is clear."

Democrats would also do well to think about another thing Hoyer said on Tuesday. He told the story of a woman with an "orange-sized tumor" and no insurance who called his home, explaining that she didn't know what she was going to do. She couldn't go to the emergency room, because she wasn't gushing blood, she wasn't poor enough to qualify for Medicaid, and she wasn't old enough to qualify for Medicare. But she didn't have the $12,500 she needed to have the tumor removed. "That's what this health care debate is about," Hoyer said. "We talk a lot about this complication, that complication, this that and the other thing. But what this debate is about is really that woman who called and left me a message and said 'what do I do?'"

Kevin is traveling today and tomorrow.