2010 - %3, March

Climate Skeptics and Creationists Join Forces

| Thu Mar. 4, 2010 11:53 AM EST

With their powers combined, can climate change skeptics and creationists succeed in getting anti-science views into the country’s classrooms?

The New York Times today reports that there is a growing (evolving, perhaps?) movement to unite skepticism of both global warming and evolution in hopes of a creating a winning legal case for getting their agenda into schools. This move comes after a 2005 ruling in the United States District Court in Atlanta found that a school district that had placed stickers on textbooks telling students that evolution is just a theory violated the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. The Times reports:

The linkage of evolution and global warming is partly a legal strategy: courts have found that singling out evolution for criticism in public schools is a violation of the separation of church and state. By insisting that global warming also be debated, deniers of evolution can argue that they are simply championing academic freedom in general.

But Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist who directs the Origins Initiative at Arizona State University sums up what's really going on here: "Wherever there is a battle over evolution now," he said, "there is a secondary battle to diminish other hot-button issues like Big Bang and, increasingly, climate change. It is all about casting doubt on the veracity of science--to say it is just one view of the world, just another story, no better or more valid than fundamentalism."

The anti-science crowd has found success recently, at least in a few states. The Texas Board of Education last year mandated that teachers present "all sides" of the evidence on evolution and global warming and has lead efforts to overhaul textbooks. South Dakota approved a resolution to require public schools to teach climate skepticism last week, and similar efforts are underway in Kentucky to force schools to teach the "advantages and disadvantages of scientific theories."

Why stop at joining climate and evolution? Surely gravity and western medicine can’t be far behind in the firing line for the "teach the controversy" crowd.

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Moderates Warming to Climate Bill?

| Thu Mar. 4, 2010 10:55 AM EST

Word around Washington is that the triumvirate of senators working on climate and energy legislation may release more information about their bill as soon as Friday. And with expectations high, the senators are in a final push to convince fence-sitting Democrats and Republicans to sign on.

A spokesman for John Kerry said on Wednesday that the bill he is working on with Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman will be released sometime in the "coming weeks." Earlier this week, the senators indicated that their bill would take a hybrid approach, shunning the term "cap-and-trade" that has defined much of the congressional debate so far. The move aims to revive interest in legislation that many have assumed to be dead. The anticipation among bill-watchers is that they won’t release the legislation until they’ve got 60 senators signed on—so this final push is key.

The sponsors reportedly met with Republicans George Voinovich of Ohio and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, and Democrats Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin of Michigan, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Mark Warner of Virginia, Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, and Max Baucus of Montana on Tuesday evening. They’ve also been meeting extensively with Democrat Maria Cantwell of Washington, who has offered her own alternative measure with Republican Susan Collins of Maine.

So, what do these moderates think of the proposal? A few seem to be warming to the idea.

Senate "Very Close" on Financial Deal

| Thu Mar. 4, 2010 10:16 AM EST

The Senate banking committee is reportedly "very, very, very close" to reaching a deal on a consumer-protection agency, which in turn could lead to a breakthrough on a broader agreement on financial-reform legislation. The latest news from the Senate's grueling, ongoing talks is that several more Senate Republicans—Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), and Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH)—have joined the negotiations already being lead by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), chair of the banking committee, and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Dodd's main GOP negotiator, the Wall Street Journal reports. It's unclear why the additional Senate GOPers jumped on board, perhaps to help finish off the closed-door talks.

The WSJ also reported that a deal to house a consumer-protection agency within the Federal Reserve, an idea of Corker's, remained on the table. The Fed option has been roundly panned by consumer advocates—John Taylor, president and CEO of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, said he'd rather put the agency at the National Zoo than the Fed—and if passed, would be viewed as a win for the Big Finance. The Senate's financial-reform negotiations continue today, and a agreement within the banking committee could come as early as this week.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 4, 2010

Thu Mar. 4, 2010 7:30 AM EST

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US Army Capt. Carl Subler, right, a chaplain, celebrates Catholic Mass for soldiers at an abandoned compound during Operation Moshtarak in Badula Qulp in Helmand province, Afghanistan, on Feb. 21, 2010. Photo via the US Air Force by Tech. Sgt. Efren Lopez

Will Progressive Candidates Run on the Public Option?

| Thu Mar. 4, 2010 7:01 AM EST

Since launching his Senate primary campaign in Arkansas this week, Bill Halter has zeroed in on Senator Blanche Lincoln’s failure to support the public option. This has prompted some to wonder if other progressive candidates might follow suit as liberal legislators continue to push to keep the proposal alive. Over at the Daily Dish, Jonathan Bernstein was bullish about the public option’s campaign comeback:

In fact, I expect virtually every Democrat in contested primaries during this and (if still not enacted) the next campaign cycle to support the public option, at least in any district in which Democrats have a chance to win.

Rallying behind the public option—which would set up a government-run health plan in the planned insurance exchange—could certainly give liberal candidates the opportunity to tap into the extensive grassroots network that mobilized behind the proposal last year. It was the last time that the liberal base seemed visibly excited and unified behind a single proposal coming out of Washington. Most Democratic candidates—whether they are incumbents or challengers—will sorely need to close the enthusiasm gap, and having a built-in constituency (and donor base) could give them a significant boost. In Halter’s case, the progressive netroots has already used his support of the public option to headline their fundraising efforts.

Pay No Attention to the PowerPoint Behind the Curtain

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 7:55 PM EST

You know, when liberals claim that conservatives are rabid reactionaries motivated by fear, hatred, and greed, they say we're a bunch of coastal elitists who are out of touch with the feelings of real Americans living in the heartland. But guess what? In the privacy of their own fundraising PowerPoint presentations, it turns out that Republican Party honchos describe their base pretty much the same way:

The small donors who are the targets of direct marketing are described under the heading “Visceral Giving.” Their motivations are listed as “fear;” “Extreme negative feelings toward existing Administration;” and “Reactionary.”

Major donors, by contrast, are treated in a column headed “Calculated Giving.” Their motivations include: “Peer to Peer Pressure”; “access”; and “Ego-Driven.”

So who do you think should be more offended by this: small donors or major donors? I say major donors. The small givers are characterized as fearful and reactionary, and who knows? They might actually glory in that description. ("Reactionary? Hell yeah.") But the major donors who are supposedly motivated by peer pressure, access, ego, and greed? It's possible that their egos are so big they'll just assume this applies only to other major donors, not them, but probably not. If I were them, I'd be pretty pissed.

In any case, pay no attention to all this. "Chairman Steele did not attend" the presentation an RNC flack assures us. "Obviously, the Chairman disagrees with the language and finds the use of such imagery to be unacceptable. It will not be used by the Republican National Committee — in any capacity — in the future," he said. Click the link to see just what "imagery" he's talking about.

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Healthcare and Hard Votes

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 7:11 PM EST

One of the great tensions in the politics of healthcare reform is between what's good for the Democratic Party and what's good for individual members of Congress. On the former, I think you can make a pretty strong case that passing reform is a net benefit for the party as a whole: Dems are going to suffer the downsides of supporting healthcare reform no matter what happens, but if it passes at least they have an accomplishment to their credit that they can try to sell. Without that, they just look completely hapless.

Now, I think this is a pretty strong argument, but it's obviously a debatable one. In the case of individual members of Congress, however, there's just no question about it: there are certain Democrats in conservative districts who are going to suffer if they vote for reform. Maybe even lose a seat they might otherwise have won. That's what happened to Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky when she provided the 218th vote for Bill Clinton's tax-raising budget in 2003. Karen Tumulty catches up with her today:

Margolies insists that she did the right thing. What was wrong was with politics itself, she says. The bill was at least 80% grounded in Republican-backed ideas, and had been endorsed by Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan. The fighting over that last 20% was "heartbreakingly partisan to me, and I'm very much a centrist," she recalls. "It just infuriated me."

She thinks it has only gotten worse since she left Congress. "What has happened is the minority has taken over," Margolies insisted. "Democrats don't frame as well as Republicans do. [And for Democrats,] this is the vote that is going to get a tremendous amount of play in their districts."

Margolies thought that she could make her constituents understand why she had made the choice she did. But she underestimated the power of the sound bite. "I was really good at the four-minute explanation when I went back back to the district," she says. "But it's the Frank Luntz 30 seconds that kills you." She notes ruefully that her name has become shorthand in Washington for committing political suicide. "I was a terrible politician. It was a drive-by," she says. "I never thought I'd become a verb."

Now, you can take two lessons from this. The first is that Margolies did indeed commit political suicide with her vote. The other is that 1994 was a Republican tidal wave and she would have lost her seat regardless. But make no mistake: Margolies is the example that haunts a lot of fence-sitting Democratic congressmen today. In the end, I think healthcare reform will probably pass, but it's going to come down to a handful of individuals making very difficult, hardheaded decisions about their own personal futures. It won't be easy.

Don't Mess With Textbooks

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 7:08 PM EST

Last night's Texas Republican gubernatorial primary might get most of the attention (don't ever give up, Debra Medina!), but it was another primary result in the Lone Star State that may, in the long run, have a far greater impact: The end of Don McLeroy's tenure on the State Board of Education. McLeroy, you might recall, is the dentist who, as leader of the Board's conservative bloc, tried to rewrite public school textbooks to de-emphasize the civil rights movement and encourage the teaching of intelligent design, as well as global warming denialism. (He was the subject of that huge New York Times Magazine piece a few weeks back).

McLeroy didn't lose by muchand the other social conservative who faced a strong primary challenge, Ken Mercer, ended up winning big (the "weak on terror" whisper campaign paid off, apparently). Still, the result is significant. In the most likely scenario going forward, archconservatives go from seven seats on the board to just six. Beyond that, as the Texas Tribune points out, their traditional swing vote, a Democrat, is not running for re-election and will likely be replaced by someone with much more moderate views.

So, why should we care? Simple. Texas, as the nation's largest purchaser of textbooks, essentially sets the standards for the textbook market; other states are often stuck with whatever standards the Texas State Board of Education asks for. In that sense, McLeroy's loss was a local election with potentially significant ramifications for public schools nationwide. While far from ideal, Tuesday's result, is, if nothing else, at least a step in the right direction.

Killer Whales and Living Biblically

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 6:38 PM EST

Last week, Americans confronted a range of emotions on learning that Tillikum, a killer whale at Sea World in Orlando, seized its trainer in the middle of a live show and killed her in a violent underwater frenzy. Dawn Brancheau, 40, died doing what she loved: communing with animals who are awe-inspiring and, by nature, dangerously unpredictable. While postmortems and new precautions are understandable, decorum and a sense of compassion for the deceased would dictate that we refrain from misplaced rage and abject stupidity.

But not if you're the American Family Association, which in its faux-Christian zeal seems to have swapped out the Gospel's teachings of love, patience, and charity for old-school righteous fury. Bryan Fischer, the AFA's recently appointed "director of issue analysis for government and public policy," wrote a post on the organization's blog today titled "Bible ignored, trainer dies." In it, he called for the stoning death of Tillikum in alleged accordance with scriptural law, since he had killed before:

If the counsel of the Judeo-Christian tradition had been followed, Tillikum would have been put out of everyone's misery back in 1991 and would not have had the opportunity to claim two more human lives.

Says the ancient civil code of Israel, "When an ox gores a man or woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner shall not be liable." (Exodus 21:28)

But then Fischer went a step farther: If this were the old days, he wrote, Sea World curator Chuck Thompson would be stoned to death, too:

...the Scripture soberly warns, if one of your animals kills a second time because you didn't kill it after it claimed its first human victim, this time you die right along with your animal. To use the example from Exodus, if your ox kills a second time, "the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death." (Exodus 21:29)

Fischer—who moved to the AFA last year from the Idaho Values Alliance, and who is ironically dubbed a "friend of life" on his AFA bio—has never been the smartest parishioner in the pew, whether it's arguing that gay judges can't be fair or that the US military should ban Muslims.

But this is a new low, one that the AFA should probably distance itself from pretty quickly. The organization states one of its goals as "promoting the Christian ethic of decency." As a Christian—a subscriber to a rather rigorous and considered scriptural tradition—I find nothing decent in Bryan Fischer's tirade. Except that his position on killing animals fits pretty decently with this faux-faith organization's position on killing convicts, too.

Tom Friedman: Good or Evil?

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 5:57 PM EST

Tom Friedman devotes today's column to a "public service": bringing Intel CEO Paul Otellini's concerns about the federal tax code to the broader public:

“The things that are not conducive to investments here are [corporate] taxes and capital equipment credits,” he said....If the government just boosted the research and development tax credit by 5 percent and lowered corporate taxes, argued Otellini, and we “started one or two more projects in companies around the country that made them more productive and more competitive, the government’s tax revenues are going to grow.” With the generous research and development tax credits and lower corporate taxes they receive, Intel’s chief competitors in South Korea basically have “zero cost of money,” said Otellini.

Matt Yglesias is gobsmacked: "Read today’s Tom Friedman piece and watch in amazement as he doesn’t even consider the possibility that Paul Otellini’s ideas might be motivated by anything other than a disinterested concern for the welfare of the American people." In other words, it's Friedman being Friedman. Here's an exasperated excerpt from my review of The World is Flat a few years ago:

He reprints entire PR messages from eager CEOs without any apparent sense that of course these guys think their companies are doing world-shaking things. I spent the decade of the 90s as a marketing executive at a software company, and these kinds of breathless paeans are sadly familiar to me.

But Friedman remains resolutely credulous in the face of these gales of corporate spin, and in the end, his corporate triumphalism becomes an idée fixe....Every CEO he talks to is brilliant, insightful, and far seeing. Raising his own everyday experiences to the level of epiphany is yet another. He figures out one day that Southwest Airlines allows you to print a boarding pass on your computer, and it immediately becomes a strained metaphor for a global convergence of technology and human psychology. The chairman of Starbucks tells him they offer soy milk because their customers asked for it, and he presents this mundane act of satisfying customer demand as something new and visionary.

This is what makes Friedman so infuriating. His basic thesis, as it often is, is fine in today's column: Education is important, innovation and entrepreneurship are important, and American competitiveness is important. Even his tin-earred penchant for oversimplification is understandable. It might drive me nuts, but he's writing for a wider audience than just people like me. So that's fine. But then there's his actual narrative, which is so interwoven with almost childlike reverence toward the banal sayings of the rich and powerful that it's enough to make you throw his books across the room and swear off reading forever. If I want to immerse myself in breathless corporate spin, after all, I can always turn on CNBC.

But here's the question that always gnaws at me: on balance, does Friedman do more good than harm? I genuinely don't know. He really does have a huge audience, he really does explain things in a way that probably appeals to a lot of them, and for the most part his hobbyhorses are basically decent ones: clean energy, climate change, dealing with globalization, improving education, etc. He's mostly given up his cheerleading for endless war, too. So does that make up for his corporate shilldom and other assorted sins? I'm not sure.