2010 - %3, July

Selma's Bridge to Nowhere

| Wed Jul. 28, 2010 8:38 AM EDT

Getting there: The bridge in Selma (Photo: Tim MurphyGetting there: The bridge in Selma (Photo: Tim Murphy).Burnt Corn, Alabama—The irony of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma is that it's the rare bridge, literal or metaphorical, that doesn't deliver you to a more desirable place than the one you've left behind. The Brooklyn Bridge takes you to Brooklyn (or Manhattan, if that's how you feel about things). The Golden Gate Bridge takes you to San Francisco. The Pettus Bridge, site of the 1965 Blood Sunday attack on Civil Rights marchers, takes you…nowhere.

What you find when you walk across is instead, and somewhat improbably, more depressing than the decaying downtown Selma you've left behind: There's the National Voting Rights Museum, which you'll probably never find, because while it relocated recently, no one's gotten around to replacing the road signs pointing you to the old site; there's a monument of rocks with a verse from Joshua: "When your children shall ask you in time to come saying 'What mean these stones,' then you shall tell them how you made it over"; and there's the Civil Rights Memorial Park, overgrown and out of sorts, strewn with litter, broken glass, weeds, and a defined by general lack of maintenance or interest—or basically what you'd expect from a memorial built underneath a highway overpass.*

Unfinished Business: Selma's Civil Right Memorial Park, overgrown and out of sight.Unfinished business: Selma's Civil Right Memorial Park, overgrown and out of sight.The passage from scripture, next to plaques honoring Hosea Williams and John Lewis, is kind of beautiful, but other than that, the greatest metaphor in recent American history is immediately followed by shuttered retail and then miles of farmland. On a Sunday afternoon, we see only two other group walking the bridge. But maybe that's kind of the point: Crossing a bridge out of Selma really shouldn't mean that much—it shouldn't require three separate attempts, a National Guard escort, and heavy doses of prayer; just stick to the right, hold onto the railing, and you'll be just fine.

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GOP Blocks Campaign Finance Bill

| Wed Jul. 28, 2010 7:37 AM EDT

Campaign finance reform collapsed in the Senate yesterday after Democrats failed to muster a single Republican vote for the DISCLOSE Act, a bill that would have limited corporate spending on political ads. The defeat leaves the Supreme Court's unpopular Citizens United ruling the de facto law of the land, giving big business a big stick to wield against its foes during the 2010 elections. Moderate Republicans, some of whom have condemned the Supreme Court ruling and sponsored similar campaign finance reform legislation in the past, characterized the DISCLOSE act as discriminatory. Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) told the Christian Science Monitor that the bill "carves our certain favored groups, and that's just not fair."

Collins' complaint is ironic given that the bill's main carve-out, an exemption for grassroots political groups, was created to pacify the National Rifle Association, a staunch ally of Republicans. But the bill wouldn't have exempted groups such the US Chamber of Commerce. And there's the rub. The Chamber, which commands the nation's largest lobbying budget, has emerged as the attack dog of choice for PR-conscious corporations that are too afraid to play political hardball in public. And not coincidentally, it has announced a fatwa against Democrats this election season. Forcing the Chamber to disclose the funders of its political ads, as DISCLOSE would have done, might have hobbled one of the GOP's biggest allies.

Not surprisingly, Chamber CEO Tom Donohue called the DISCLOSE Act "nothing more than a brazen attempt to tilt the playing field in favor of the incumbent party in this fall's elections, silence constitutionally protected speech, and abridge First Amendment rights." But how does a political system that pits wealthy corporations against average citizens create a level playing field? And where does the Constitution specify that concealing the corporate money behind a political attack is an inalienable right? Those are questions that Democrats would be wise to ask voters—assuming they can cut through the all the noise of this season's corporate-funded political ads.

America's Top Mediator Heads to the Gulf

| Wed Jul. 28, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Somewhere along the line, Kenneth Feinberg became the go-to mediator for the country. Most recently, he took a turn as executive pay czar, tapped by the Obama administration to oversee the compensation of executives at companies which received federal bailout money. He's officially done with that job at the end of this month. Then, he'll move into the job of Gulf oil fund czar full time, a role in which he'll be charged with making sure those hurt by the spill are properly compensated.

Add these two roles to an already lengthy list of high-profile mediations. After serving as special master of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, dispensing $7 billion to the more than 5,000 survivors and relatives of those lost in those attacks, Feinberg administrated the fund established in the wake of the April 2007 Virginia Tech shootings. In June, he was called in to help mediate disputes with Maricopa County, Ariz.'s infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio. All of this leads to an obvious question: Why him?

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 28, 2010

Wed Jul. 28, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

 

A Soldier with A Battery, Regimental Fires Squadron, 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment, 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary), walks the tarmac of the Mosul Airfield June 9 at Contingency Operating Base Diamondback, Iraq. Photo via the US Army.

The View From My Windshield: We Ain't Afraid

| Tue Jul. 27, 2010 8:40 PM EDT

States Rights: Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Alabama  (Photo: Tim Murphy).States Rights: America at its best and worst: Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Alabama (Photo: Tim Murphy)Birmingham, Alabama—Forget teachable moments; if you want a break from the national conversation on reverse racism, head to Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham. Just across the street from the late Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth's 16th Street Baptist Church (bombed by the Klan in 1963), the park was the launching point for the student marches in 1963, which broke the back of the city’s segregation regime—but not before Birmingham police broke out the fire hoses, handcuffs, and un-muzzled German Sheppards.

On a programming note, I'm finishing up a longer post on my Civil Rights swing through the South and America's greatest living metaphor, but while the world waits, take a minute to a.) watch this somewhat related clip from MLK’s "How Long, Not Long!" speech, on the steps of the old Confederate capitol in Montgomery, because it's worth watching every three or four months, and 2.) try to come to grips with the fact that the drummer from the Spin Doctors once released a song (with corresponding music video!) about the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Go Spin Doctors!

(Special bonus photo below the jump)

 

No-Growth Economics and You

| Tue Jul. 27, 2010 8:35 PM EDT

Clive Thompson investigates the renewed interest in "no-growth economics" — that is, economics that assumes the total output of the world stops growing and just stays the same. Peter Victor and Herman Daly have tried to model what such a world would look like:

Some of their conclusions are surprisingly pleasant. For example, to move away from growth, we'll all have to work a lot less....Handled correctly, this could bring about an explosion of free time that could utterly transform the way we live, no-growth economists say. It could lead to a renaissance in the arts and sciences, as well as a reconnection with the natural world. Parents with lighter workloads could home-school their children if they liked, or look after sick relatives....Viewed this way, a nongrowing economy could have broad political appeal, ushering in the sort of togetherness and family values that social conservatives celebrate. Liberals might appreciate the concept of work sharing, which could help narrow the income gap between rich and poor.

....The hard part is that we would be consuming less — probably far less. What does that mean, exactly? Daly has suggested that Americans would need to scale back our energy consumption to 1960s levels....Western consumption rates would need to shrink disproportionately so that citizens of countries like India and El Salvador could enjoy a lifestyle upgrade. Why? The no-growthers argue that a world with fewer yawning inequities between the rich and poor would be more stable; but quite apart from that, their models require stabilizing world population, and raising the economic lot of the poor is a proven way to do that.

Given the shift in wealth needed to accomplish this, Americans would need to turn back the clock to well before 1983; in fact, we'd be pretty lucky even to find ourselves where we were in 1960....People might need to develop a renewed appreciation for durable goods that require lots of labor to make but ultimately use fewer resources than their throwaway counterparts.

This is....a wee bit rosy. If we all worked two days a week, I suspect the real result would be more time spent playing video games and drinking beer, not a renaissance in the arts and sciences. And more time to look after sick relatives? I'm not sure everyone would consider this a boon.

And that's the surprisingly pleasant part! Let's put a few numbers to the less pleasant part. Right now, per capita GDP for the entire world is about $10,000. If the plan is to stop growing, but redistribute global wealth so that we're all equally well off, that means America would need to cut back its per capita GDP to the global average. A per capita GDP of $10,000 implies a median income of about $7,000 or so, which basically means that well over half the country would be living at what's now considered poverty level. In other words, not only wouldn't we get a renaissance in the arts and sciences, we probably couldn't afford video games or beer either.

It's possible that things will come to that if we destroy the planet. But it sure isn't going to happen short of that. I mean, we just saw a climate bill go down to crushing defeat because it would have raised the average energy bill of the average American by a hundred bucks or so. So count me as skeptical that no-growth economics is really gaining much of a following.

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When Summer Is Torture

| Tue Jul. 27, 2010 6:13 PM EDT

As heatwaves swept the Northeast earlier this month, 30 inmates in solitary confinement at New Hampshire State Prison went on hunger strike to protest stifling temperatures inside the prison's Special Housing Unit. According to the Concord Monitor, "Inmates in SHU cannot open windows and must remain in their cells, usually alone, for 23 hours a day. Unlike inmates in the prison's general population, they also can't go outside." One visitor to the prison said that inmates were "sitting in pure sweat," and had begun flooding their cells with a few inches of water in order to cool off.

A Department of Corrections spokesperson told the Monitor that inmates were refusing to eat until fans were installed, whether in cells or in nearby hallways. According to the paper, fans had recently been removed due to "safety concerns": Many prisoners, the DOC claimed, "were tearing them apart and fashioning them into weapons." Yet the prison also refused to place fans in the unit's hallways, where they might have benefitted both staff and inmates.

It's Spill Bill Time

| Tue Jul. 27, 2010 5:00 PM EDT

It was spill bill day in Washington, as both House and Senate Democrats rolled out a suite of measures in response to the Gulf disaster.

The House bill, unveiled this morning, seeks to create better oversight of offshore oil and gas development, ensure that companies that cause spills are held accountable, and force drillers to pay royalties on the resources they extract. That bill combines the work of three committees—Transportation, Energy and Commerce, and Natural Resources—into one bill. Their package:

  • Eliminates the $75 million liability cap for offshore oil spills.
  • Amends the Death on High Seas Act to eliminate the cap on liability for workers who die at sea.
  • Repeals the Limitation of Shipowner's Liability Act of 1851, which Deepwater Horizon owner Transocean tried to use to curb its liability for the incident.
  • Holds oil company CEOs accountable for safety failures on rigs and drilling operations.
  • Sets tougher standards for inspection of blowout preventers and other equipment intended to shut off wells in the event of an emergency, and require independent certification by a third party.
  • Requires more layers of redundancy on safety equipment to close wells in case of an accident.
  • Sets new standards for the cementing and casing of wells.
  • Raises penalties for safety violations.
  • Requires all companies drilling in the outer continental shelf to pay royalties on oil and gas, a measure that sponsors say would bring in $53 billion dollars in lost revenue over 25 years.
  • Ends the practice of granting categorical exclusions to detailed environmental analysis for offshore operations.
  • Adds protections for whistleblowers who call attention to safety violations in oil and gas operations.
  • Bars companies with poor safety record from obtaining new leases.

"This is a game changer in the way we manage America's offshore energy resources," said Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Natural Resources Committee. "This will ensure that oil and gas development on federal waters is done in a safe, fiscal, and environmentally sound manner."

The measure that would bar oil companies with a history of safety violations from bidding on new leases is among the most aggressive; the measure, sponsored by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), would essentially block BP from new drilling in the US for the foreseeable future. Any company that racks up more than $10 million in fines for air or water violations within seven years, has at least five times the industry average on worker safety violations, or more than 10 fatalities at an individual facility would be barred from bidding. This, of course, is very bad news for BP. "Their record on safety is egregious," said Miller. "We need to assure American people we're only allowing responsible bidders."

The Senate bill, rolled out this afternoon, includes several of the same provisions. It, too, would eliminate the liability cap on incidents, and would amend the Death on the High Seas Act and the Limitation of Shipowners Liabitlity Act. The bill also increases the amount of money oil companies have to pay into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund (currently set at 8 cents per barrel), and raises the amount that the government can use for a single incident from $1 billion to $5 billion. It also mandates that companies spend more on oil spill response technologies, puts into law proposed reforms at the Department of Interior department charged with overseeing offshore oil and gas development.

The Senate bill also has a grab-bag of energy incentive programs, including roughly $6 billion in rebates and incentives for natural gas vehicles, $400 million for electric vehicle programs, and $5 billion for the HomeStar program to create a rebate program to retrofit houses. There's also $5 billion for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Responding to questions about why the Senate bill is not as aggressive on the energy front as some might have hoped, Majority Leader Harry Reid's spokesman blamed Republicans while acknowledging that the Democrats aren't all on board for certain measures. "The fact is he had to make some tough decisions working with the caucus," said spokesman Jim Manley. "In light of the Republican stalling tactics, this bill has the best chance possible of getting out of the Senate."

The bills will probably be voted on next week. The American Petroleum Institute, the main trade group of the oil industry, is already on the attack, accusing congressional Democrats of "malpractice" in instating the reforms while investigation into the Deepwater disaster continues. "We're going into surgery without a diagnosis," said API President Jack Gerard.

A Second Look at WikiLeaks

| Tue Jul. 27, 2010 2:49 PM EDT

The most common reaction to the WikiLeaks release of 92,000 classified cables and other documents from Afghanistan has been a collective yawn: they don't really tell us anything new, so it's not much of a story. Glenn Greenwald, among others, has been pushing back against this. Here's a sampling of his recent Twitter posts:

So this is all boring old news that tells us nothing - or WikiLeaks has Endangered Us All & the source should be killed. Can someone choose

These are the kinds of stories the WikiLeaks documents enable - decide for yourself if they're worthwhile: http://is.gd/dLcp5

James Fallows on the "nothing-new-here" dismissals of WikiLeaks from war supporters: http://is.gd/dMn1I

Old news - nothing new - boring, yawn, move along: http://is.gd/dMHIt

When I first read the Guardian and New York Times writeups about the WikiLeaks release, I mostly yawned too. But I pretty quickly felt kind of guilty about that. Not because I was wrong in a technical sense — most of the WikiLeaks stuff really has been common knowledge for a long time — but because everyone was saying it. And as my colleague David Corn points out, that really doesn't seem right. Even if the news is old, the leaked documents do provide a different look at familiar events and are likely to capture public attention in a way that the original news reports didn't. That's pretty worthwhile. Plus, as Glenn points out in the fourth tweet above, some of the leaked documents really do seem to be newsworthy in their own right:

Buried among the 92,000 classified documents released Sunday by WikiLeaks is some intriguing evidence that the U.S. military in Afghanistan has adopted a PR strategy that got it into trouble in Iraq: paying local media outlets to run friendly stories.

....In one of the WikiLeaks documents, a PRT [provincial reconstruction team] member reports delivering "12 hours of PSYOP Radio Content Programming" to two radio stations in the province of Ghazni in 2008, and paying one of them "$3,900 for Radio Content Programming air time for the month of October"....Two other messages seem to show U.S. soldiers referring to local Afghan media as extensions of their own units rather than independent reporters.

I don't have a lot more to add to this. I guess this is just sort of a weasely semi-apology for semi-dismissing the WikiLeaks documents. I really hate the idea of enabling a conventional wisdom that suggests there's nothing to worry our little heads over here. The WikiLeaks dump isn't Pentagon Papers II because it doesn't show the same level of official lying that the original Pentagon Papers did, but it's still important because it helps focus our attention on something worth focusing on. And God knows that after two weeks of the New Black Panthers and Shirley Sherrod and the Ground Zero mosque, we could stand to shift our attention to something a wee bit more worthwhile.

Coal's New Focus on California

| Tue Jul. 27, 2010 2:42 PM EDT

Appalachian coal-mining interests have donated more than $60,000 to the US Senate campaign of Republican Carly Fiorina, the former HP chief executive who's said she's "not sure" that climate change is occurring. First reported by California Watch, the donations are the latest indication that California is a key battleground in the political war over climate change. While coal interests have virtually no business future in California (where existing laws are phasing out coal), they see the state's groundbreaking cap and trade law as key to their future. The successful implementation of the California law, which goes into effect later this year, could breathe new life into the US Senate's failed efforts to put a cap on carbon. As I've noted, Big Coal is bankrolling a ballot initiative that would suspend the California law, known as AB 32. Its donations to Fiorina go hand-in-hand with that effort: Unseating Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer, the powerful chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, would drive another nail in cap and trade's coffin.