2010 - %3, March

The Future of Politics?

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 11:44 PM EDT

The Guardian almost had me going with this piece about Gordon Brown's upcoming election campaign:

Following months of allegations about Brown's explosive outbursts and bullying, Downing Street will seize the initiative this week with a national billboard campaign portraying him as "a sort of Dirty Harry figure", in the words of a senior aide. One poster shows a glowering Brown alongside the caption "Step outside, posh boy," while another asks "Do you want some of this?"

Brown aides had worried that his reputation for volatility might torpedo Labour's hopes of re-election, but recent internal polls suggest that, on the contrary, stories of Brown's testosterone-fuelled eruptions have been almost entirely responsible for a recent recovery in the party's popularity.

Unfortunately, it got silly enough after that to ruin the joke. But those two paragraphs actually sounded disturbingly plausible.

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Stand and Deliver Teacher Jaime Escalante Dies at 79

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 7:55 PM EDT

Influential American public-school teacher Jaime Escalante proved to everyone that all students, no matter the odds, are capable of mastering hard-core subjects. He proved it by helping hundreds of students pass the rigorous Advanced Placement calculus exam during his tenure at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. Escalante died on Tuesday of bladder cancer at the age of 79.

Escalante "was a reformer before it was cool to be one," as Eduwonk blogger Andrew Rotherman simply states, and the Washington Post's Jay Matthews credits Escalante for changing his life and inspiring his desire "to write about schools forever." Escalante gained national prominence in the wake of a 1982 scandal when 14 of his students were accused of cheating on the A.P. calculus exam. "The story of their eventual triumph—and of Escalante's battle to raise standards at a struggling campus of working-class, largely Mexican American students—became the subject of the movie, which turned the balding, middle-aged Bolivian immigrant into the most famous teacher in America," the LA Times reports in his obituary. The popular 80s film Stand and Deliver is based on Escalante and his students.

How To Talk About Healthcare

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 5:23 PM EDT

The individual mandate may be an essential part of healthcare reform, but it's also the part that's easiest to hate. After all, the government is forcing you to spend money to buy something that you might not want. Andy Sabl suggests some better framing:

Here is another way of describing ACA that’s completely accurate but explains the point much better:

“If you or your family aren’t getting health insurance through your job, the government will pay to get you private insurance coverage, just as an employer would. You’ll have to contribute something — but the law guarantees, with specific numbers, that it will be no more than you can afford. It’ll be less than three percent of your paycheck if your family makes $33,000 a year, less than ten percent if you make as much as $88,000. Pre-existing conditions won’t matter. The government will still pay for your insurance, with the same affordable contribution from you.”

That sounds fine. Unfortunately, I have (as usual) some doubts about whether there's any chance of this working. A few comments:

  • For better or worse, the term "individual mandate" has been commonly accepted for years. Trying to change it now isn't likely to be any more successful than Republican attempts to cynically change "private accounts" to "personal accounts" when the former started polling badly.
  • We still have a problem: what do we actually call the policy formerly known as an individual mandate? Andy has provided an explanation for how the overall program works, but not a name for that specific piece of the puzzle. People are going to write about the fact that everyone is required to get coverage whether we like it or not, so there has to be something to call it.
  • In real life, how would this work? Once we reel off Andy's paragraph, the next question from the Fox News anchor interviewing you is still going to be, "But it's not voluntary, is it? You have to get insurance whether you like it or not, right?" What's the answer?

Am I being too gloomy here? It just seems like these attempts at precision framing don't usually survive contact with the real world. Comments?

Quote of the Day: Corker on Healthcare

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 4:59 PM EDT

From Sen. Bob Corker (R–Tenn.) on Republican promises to repeal healthcare reform if they take over Congress:

“The fact is that’s not going to happen, OK?” 

Reality based! On the other hand, as Andy Kroll reports, Corker is now firmly toeing the party line on financial reform: "I couldn't support the bill in its current form," he says. "I have no plans to support the current legislation." And that's about a bill already so watered down that the stock market has barely even yawned at the possibility of its passage. Corker may, relatively speaking, be one of the more accomodating Republicans we have left in Congress, but that's not saying much.

Tee Purtiers Knead Spelchek

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 4:55 PM EDT

Our friends over at BoingBoing turned us on to this wonderful Flickr slideshow of misspelled Tea Party signs. (Catchy headline, too: Teabonics!)

As MoJo intern Tim Murphy learned in Searchlight, Nevada, recently, the Tea Partiers are folksy enough—and I'm sure that plenty of them can spell well enough, too. But if you truly care about your cause, and your cause is that Americans should speak English only, then get it right, for Chrissake!

 

 

Census Data Used to Model Disease

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 4:46 PM EDT

The 2000 Census data were used to create a synthetic (virtual) US population that helped simulate the spread of infectious outbreaks, including H1N1. The 2010 Census data will do more of the same. And more.

The project is part of the Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study at the NIH. It took the country's 2000 population of 281 million people and 116 million households to create a synthetic population, which doesn't exactly reproduce your hometown, but comes close.

Since the census protects individual privacy, the synthetic population is anonymous too—though it does provide population, household sizes, family incomes, and residents' ages and ethnicities for every town, county, and state in the nation. Plugging all this information into computers, the researchers created a mirror image of the country with the same demographics as the real one.

Disease modelers can now manipulate all or selected parts of the ready-made synthetic population—the entire country, for instance, or just one town. They can also program virtual citizens to behave in certain ways: some choose vaccination, others don't.

The synthetic population will also enable modelers to study the impact of social networks on disease spread. Researchers can track where synthetic individuals work or go to school, who they live with, and who they're likely to meet running errands. Since people get sick when they come into contact with others who've been infected, studying social patterns in models should help in understanding the real world.

Next up: international synthetic populations. RTI International in North Carolina has already finished a synthetic population for the 110 million people of Mexico. They're currently working on India. These will eventually help to model the spread of disease globally.
 

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Judge: Warrantless Wiretaps Were Illegal

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 4:25 PM EDT

The National Security Agency's program to spy on Americans without warrants was illegal, a federal judge ruled Wednesday. The ruling by Judge Vaughn Walker (PDF) was a win for civil libertarians, and a major victory for the plaintiffs in this case, Al-Haramain, an Islamic charity that was wiretapped, along with its lawyers, in 2004.

Groups like the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have tried out numerous legal strategies in a years-long effort to challenge the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program. The Al-Haramain case represents the first time that plaintiffs who claim they were wiretapped have been able to get around the so-called "state secrets" clause, which acts as a sort of "get-out-of-court-free" card for the government in many national security cases. Al-Haramain's win could be temporary, though: the Obama administration will almost certainly appeal the decision. (Update: Marcy Wheeler disagrees.)

In 2006, Al-Haramain sued then-President George W. Bush and other top officials after the government mistakenly provided the charity with classified documents that supposedly prove it had been illegally surveilled. A district court judge initially ruled that Al-Haramain could use those documents in its case. Eventually, however, the courts decided that the "state secrets" clause precluded the charity from using the classified documents at trial—a defeat that some observers thought would be fatal to the lawsuit.

Instead of giving up, Al-Haramain and its lawyers tried a different tack, gathering ten times as much unclassified evidence as they had previously submitted. The government, in a tiff, refused to submit evidence contradicting the plaintiffs' claims, and even tried to claim that it didn't have to. Walker didn't like that argument too much: Because the government refused to submit any evidence calling the plaintiffs' case into question, he simply granted summary judgment—a sort of TKO.

Count this round for the civil libertarians.

PolitiFact Schools Lindsey Graham on Student Loan Reform

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 4:22 PM EDT

Last week, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham appeared on Greta Van Susteren's On the Record to lambaste student loan reform as a measure that will force students to pay more for their college loans in the long run. But PolitiFact's Truth-O-Meter has deemed the Republican senator's claim totally false.

The legislation signed into law yesterday eliminates subsidies to private lenders in lieu of a federal lending program that requires participation from colleges and borrowers. The law stands to save taxpayers $61 billion over a decade, with a majority of that money going toward an expansion of the federal Pell Grant program for low-income students. But Graham told Van Susteren that average students would spend "$1,700 to $1,800 more during the life of their loan" because of a mysterious student loan "surcharge" inserted into the law.

At the heart of the surcharge issue, he also claimed, is an interest rate problem—and because of the health care bill that student loan reform was tied to, the government will now make a greater profit on student loan interest than it did before. Got that?

PolitiFact didn't. So they looked into it:

We called and e-mailed Graham's office repeatedly for sourcing on his claim, but our inquiries were unanswered. Apparently Graham's numbers come from an amendment offered by Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander during the Senate's debate over a package of fixes. His amendment would have forced the chamber to send the bill back to committee and amend it to reduce interest rates on student loans by 1.5 percent, from 6.8 percent to 5.3 percent. That interest rate reduction would have saved students in Tennessee upwards of $1,700 to $1,800 in interest over 10 years, according to Alexander. 

Offshore Outrage

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 3:46 PM EDT

Throwing open vast swaths of the outer continental shelf to offshore drilling is the latest effort by the Obama administration to grease the way forward on comprehensive energy and climate reform. But the administration's conciliatory approach—which has largely entailed the administration giving and its congressional opponents taking—is looking increasingly like a gamble that's going to backfire. Meanwhile, as the president extends olive branches to his critics, he's alienating allies in the environmental community, who say his policies are reminding them more and more of those of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Some enviros are even likening Obama to Alaska's oil-loving ex-governor, Sarah Palin.

"Is this President Obama's clean energy plan or Palin's drill baby drill campaign?" quipped Greenpeace Executive Director Phil Radford in a statement on Wednesday.

Under the administration's plan, hundreds of thousands of acres of virgin territory along the eastern seaboard, the Gulf Coast, and within the Arctic Ocean will soon be available. Obama has framed offshore drilling as a sweetener to draw more support for his other energy plans, such as expanding the use of renewable energy resources and putting a cap on carbon pollution. But on Wednesday Obama announced a major drilling expansion with no promise in return that opponents of his energy plans would relent in their efforts to block them.

Beginning on the campaign trail, Obama signaled that he would be willing to include drilling as part of a deal to pass comprehensive energy and climate legislation. He reaffirmed that idea in his State of the Union address this year, declaring a the clean energy future will require "making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development."

But so far the deal-making has been largely one-sided. The Senate remains at an impasse over climate and energy legislation. And even if Congress passes anything this year to address climate change--a big if--it’s not going to be as aggressive as Obama and his environmental supporters originally envisioned. In the pursuit of the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster, the senators hammering out the legislation have been heavily courting industry and fossil-fuel friendly senators, but to date there has been little payoff in terms of support. The administration's announcement is just the latest concession to woo votes, say enviros. "He’s hoping it jars loose some Republican votes and quiets some of 'drill, baby, drill' crazies," said Athan Manuel, director of the lands protection program at Sierra Club. "I don't know how this helps. This isn’t the magic wand to get to 60 votes."

Tea Partier Appears on Letterman

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 2:53 PM EDT

More proof the Tea Party movement is going mainstream: Last night, a member appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman.

The TV host decided to invite Pam Stout to his show after reading about her in a New York Times article, which described the president of the Sandpoint, Idaho Tea Party Patriots as an unlikely revolutionary with ties to the controversial Oath Keepers movement.

On stage, though, Stout seemed more like a matronly schoolteacher than an angry crackpot. In a mild-mannered voice, she recounted her work helping low-income residents get on their feet and owning her own business, and expressed a simple desire to "go back to the old ideals." She even got the New York audience to erupt into applause a few times, as she questioned the government's overspending and anti-business mentality.