2011 - %3, January

Glenn Beck's World

| Mon Jan. 31, 2011 10:55 PM EST

Me, a few minutes after 3 pm today: "Beck is really bringing it today. Finally his theory of the world is complete." And just what is that theory of the world? Behold:

Here's Egypt, Libya, Tunisia. What's next to Tunisia? Algeria, also on fire now, the riots are starting here. Morocco is on fire. What's across from Morocco? Spain. Connected to France, and Germany, and Italy, also on fire. And Greece, also on fire. Which brings you right back here to Turkey. The entire Mediterranean is on fire.

Also Russia, Britain, and Ireland. And who's responsible for all this? Muslims, radicals, progressives, Marxists, socialists, and communists. (Seriously.) "This is not just happenstance, this is not just poor people mad at rich people. This. Is. Coordinated." And nobody but Glenn Beck is willing to tell you the truth about it. Plus there was talk of the coming Muslim caliphate, which brought back fond memories of Steven Den Beste-era warblogging. Great stuff, truly the Full Beale today.

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What If Healthcare Reform is Struck Down?

| Mon Jan. 31, 2011 9:00 PM EST

A federal district court judge declared the individual mandate provision of the healthcare reform law unconstitutional today. He also ruled that because Democrats forgot to include a severability clause,1 the entire law is invalid. Ezra Klein thinks that conservatives might come to regret it if the Supreme Court decides he's right:

I think it's vanishingly unlikely that the Supreme Court will side with Judge Vinson and strike down the whole of the law. But in the event that it did somehow undermine the whole of the law and restore the status quo ex ante, Democrats would start organizing around a solution based off of Medicare, Medicaid, and the budget reconciliation process — as that would sidestep both legal attacks and the supermajority requirement.

The resulting policy isn't too hard to imagine. Think something like opening Medicare to all Americans over age 45, raising Medicaid up to 300 percent of the poverty line, opening S-CHIP to all children, and paying for the necessary subsidies and spending with a surtax on the wealthy.

In the long run, I'm sure Ezra is right. But we all remember what Keynes said about the long run, right? And the short run, unfortunately, doesn't look very promising. Democrats aren't likely to control the House anytime soon, and even if they do, they won't have effective liberal control. Ditto for the Senate, where Democrats are defending a lot of swing seats in 2012. And in 2016, it's pretty likely that a Republican will win the presidency. In other words, if PPACA is struck down, the soonest that some kind of single-payerish semi-universal healthcare scheme could pass is probably around 2024.

That's just a guess. Who knows what will happen between now and 2024? But Republicans and conservative Democrats don't seem likely to support anything further to the left of PPACA anytime soon, and they're probably going to control things for the next 14 years at least. So be careful what you wish for.

1Do Democrats need to take a remedial legislation class? They also screwed up the food safety act last year by forgetting to append it to a House bill, as required by the Constitution. What's going on?

Mubarak Watch

| Mon Jan. 31, 2011 8:29 PM EST

Here is my Egypt post for the day:

Q: Is Hosni Mubarak toast?

A: Nobody knows, and anyone who pretends otherwise is just guessing.

There. I've just saved you from hours and hours of cable blather. You can thank me later.

The Hook Up: Relationship Advice For the Gases

| Mon Jan. 31, 2011 7:59 PM EST

Have you been wondering how to help a girlfriend who has a gas problem or what to do when your partner treats you like her child? Look no further than my latest AfterEllen advice column. Excerpt:

I don’t know how to put this delicately, so I’ll just say it: My girlfriend has a gas problem. Her diet is great (she’s a chef even!) and she’s not like obnoxious about it or anything. She leaves the room when she can, but man, sometimes it smells so foul that I want to fumigate her entire gastrointestinal tract. I know in the long run, this is not a big deal, but it’s still gross and I don’t really know how to deal with it! Help! — Bean There, Done That

Anna says: Finally, a serious question! Happy New Year to me. I will help your wind-breaker transform into the beautiful firework that Katy Perry intended us all to be, minus the explosions I guess. So maybe one of those sparklers or ashy snake things.

According to The Mayo Clinic, which has devoted several web pages to the topic, but is probably useless for Trivial Pursuit nights, the leading cause of gas is bad digestion. The big dietary offenders are: beans, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, radishes, peanuts, raw apples, dairy and foods heavy in preservatives. So if she’s eating any of those with regularity, tell her to drop that faster than a straight-to-DVD Olsen Twins movie. Another biggie is soy, which is heavily processed and hence harder for us to digest. As someone who has dated my fair share of vegans, I can personally attest to the havoc that tofu has wreaked on the conjugal bed! Less common, but no less poignant, causes for gas involve eating too quickly, drinking from a straw, and listening to too much Taylor Swift....

Read the rest at AfterEllen

Corn on "Hardball": Birthers Touch Down in Arizona

Mon Jan. 31, 2011 7:24 PM EST

David Corn and Howard Fineman joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss the latest birther tactics, this time a birther bill in the Arizona State House of Representatives that would require "an original long form birth certificate that includes the date and place of birth, the names of the hospital and the attending physician and signatures of the witnesses in attendance."

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

In Egypt and Beyond, Democracy Through...Soccer?

| Mon Jan. 31, 2011 7:20 PM EST

At Sports Illustrated, Dave Zirin analyzes the role of Egypt's "most organized, militant" soccer clubs in organizing opposition to the Mubarak government. He quotes Egyptian  blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah, who told Al-Jazeera that the clubs "have played a more significant role than any political group on the ground at this moment." Explains Zirin:

The critical role of Egypt's soccer clubs may surprise us, but only if we don't know the history that soccer clubs have played in the country. For more than a century, the clubs have been a place where cheering and anti-government organizing have walked together in comfort. Egypt's most prominent team, Al Ahly,  started its club in 1907 as a place to organize national resistance against British colonial rule. The word Al Ahly translated into English means "the national," to mark their unapologetically political stance against colonialism. Al Ahly has always been the team with the most political fans. It's also a team that's allowed its players to make political statements on the pitch even though this is in direct violation of FIFA dictates. It's no coincidence that  it was Al Ahly's star player Mohamed Aboutrika, aka "the Smiling Assassin," who in 2008 famously raised his jersey revealing the T-shirt, which read  "Sympathize with Gaza."

Soccer fans are notorious troublemakers. Egyptians are prime offenders: In 2009 things got ugly after a heated match against nearby Algeria. Here are some other examples of the sport's political side in the region:

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Should Health Reform Supporters Worry about the Vinson Ruling?

| Mon Jan. 31, 2011 6:40 PM EST

Florida Federal Judge Roger Vinson has ruled that the federal health reform law is unconstitutional, as many observers had expected. The Ronald Reagan appointee ruled that the law's individual mandate violated the Constitution's commerce clause, much as Virginia Federal Judge Henry Hudson argued in December. But Vinson went significantly farther than Hudson by saying striking down the entire law—not just the individual mandate—arguing that the provision couldn't be "severed" from the rest of the law. (Talking Points Memo's Brian Beutler explains why a legal omission on the Democrats' part opened the way for this "severability" argument, potentially imperiling the entire law by way of the mandate.)

What does this really mean for the fate of reform? I'll leave the legal intricacies of Vinson's ruling to others, but I'd sum it up by saying: it's not a great development for the supporters of reform and could render the entire law more vulnerable, but it doesn't really do much to change the state of play. Vinson didn't stop the implementation of reform, which will continue to proceed as planned. As The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn points out, the score is now even in terms of rulings on the federal law—with two federal judges ruling against it and two other judges ruling in favor of it—"while about a dozen more have dismissed lawsuits without even hearing it."

The final word still lies with the Supreme Court, just as before. Vinson's ruling could convince the court to take up the case sooner than later, but it could still be well after 2012 before the Justices do so. The Republican attorneys general who brought the lawsuit wanted an unabashedly right-wing judge to rule on the case, so they deliberately filed in a very conservative jurisdiction of the state. Vinson delivered. In his ruling, he embraced tea party-style arguments that the mandate could create a slippery slope that would allow Congress to "require that people buy and consume broccoli at regular intervals," and he even cited the Boston Tea Party in his ruling.

Such a legal precedent could give the conservative justices more motivation to tear down the entire law, not just the individual mandate, using the same "severability" argument. But in the end, the fate of reform still lies in the hands of Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court's key swing vote, who hasn't given many hints about which way he might be leaning. And the Florida ruling hasn't done much to change that equation.

African Refugees in Egypt Sit Out the Protests

| Mon Jan. 31, 2011 6:38 PM EST

As millions of protesters from diverse political and socio-economic backgrounds take to the Egyptian streets, African migrants from Sudan and elsewhere are holing up inside their homes. I called a few of them to find out why.

"I don't know any Sudanese who are participating," said Abdel Raheem, a 28-year-old Sudanese Cairo resident. "I saw on the news that people are being arrested. For someone who's not Egyptian, this would be really bad."

S.H., a Somali refugee in Cairo who asked that only his initials be used, agreed. "I'm not in a position to speak for the whole Somali community, but I have called some of my close friends, and everyone is staying home and watching the situation closely," he told me. "They wouldn't be safe."

An estimated 2-3 million migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers now live in Egypt—and they have good reason to fear the Egyptian authorities. The last time they banded together to gain greater freedoms, they were rewarded with lethal suppression.

In late September 2005, approximately 3,000 mostly Sudanese migrants and their supporters set up a makeshift tent camp outside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees building in Cairo. For three months, they called on the UNHCR to resettle them in other countries. They also protested their frequent harassment and imprisonment by the Egyptian police, and demanded access to public schools and health care, as well as the right to work legally in Egypt.

On December 30, 2005, the Mubarak government crushed this peaceful sit-in demonstration. About 4,000 Egyptian police encircled the camp, fired water cannons into the crowd, dragged women by their hair, and beat people indiscriminately, according to media reports. More than 2,000 protesters were arrested and at least 27 migrants, including one toddler, were killed in what the Egyptian Interior Ministry alleged was a "stampede." Only after the aggressive intervention of the UNHCR and human rights organizations did the Mubarak government rescind its plans to deport 645 of the detained people as "illegal immigrants."

The Mubarak government's repression of African migrants has escalated ever since. According to a 2008 Human Rights Watch report, Egyptian border authorities implemented a policy of "shoot-to-stop" in the remote border zones. In a two-year period, thirty-three Israel-bound migrants—including young children—were shot and killed by Egyptian security forces.

In addition to their well-founded fears of being killed, arrested, or deported, migrants are also avoiding participation in this week's pro-democracy demonstrations because they feel no sense of "Egyptian" identity.  Egyptian civilians have ostracized them with racist names like "samara" meaning black, "funga monga" meaning monkey, or "abit" meaning slave.

"The protests are a sacrifice for the Egyptian people—it's not for us. It's not our nation." Abdel Raheem said.

While refugees hope that the protests will bring a new government that is more sympathetic to their plight, they harbor grave concerns that, in the short term, Egypt will descend into chaos.

"I think the refugees are not excited about the protests," said S.H., a Somali refugee who cautiously ventured outside on Sunday to watch the demonstrations from a safe distance. "Refugees are running from turmoil and unrest. They came here for protection."

He added sadly, "[Refugees] know what can happen when things get out of control."

Underwater Mortgages and You

| Mon Jan. 31, 2011 5:41 PM EST

Homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages are a drain on the economy because high mortgage payments reduce their demand for other goods and services. So how do we fix this? Mike Konczal reviews a couple of proposals to help out distressed homeowners and doesn't like them:

These two plans sound like really complicated programs, large-enough in scale to be inefficient. Which is a waste, since we already have this great system for writing down and managing burdensome debt, and it’s this marvelous thing called our bankruptcy laws. Sadly there’s a defect in it that prevents bankruptcy courts from writing down single-family principle residence mortgage....[But] we could easily pass a streamlined, modified version of bankruptcy just for this crisis.

I think bankruptcy "cramdown" is a good idea, but there's a problem with it: lots of homeowners who are stuck with mortgages they can't afford — mortgages that, in aggregate, are a massive drag on the economy — nonetheless aren't in such desperate straits that they can declare bankruptcy. In addition, there are others who could, but don't want to. Bankruptcy is a big deal, after all.

So I'm a little more sympathetic toward those broader plans than Mike is, because they might help a broader swath of homeowners and get the economy moving more quickly. Unfortunately, as much as people hate bailing out banks, they hate bailing out their profligate neighbors even more. I think we can safely expect nothing to happen on this front, and that means the economy will continue to underperform and unemployment will stay high. Thanks, tea partiers!

Barrasso's EPA Assault

| Mon Jan. 31, 2011 4:25 PM EST

That the vast majority of Republicans in Congress as well as some Democrats are hoping to squash the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate planet-warming gases is certainly no secret. (See here, here, here, and here for starters.) On Monday, Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming introduced a new bill that would go even farther, making it impossible for the federal government to do anything about climate change under any of the nation's existing environmental laws.

Barrasso's bill, "Defending America’s Affordable Energy and Jobs Act," would block federal regulations under the Clean Air Act, but also the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. In case you're keeping track, that's just about all of the most important environmental laws currently on the books.

Barrasso's bill would also take away the EPA's ability to act on auto emissions, handing that power over to the Department of Transportation. EPA was essential in the landmark deal reached on greenhouse gas emissions with automakers and states last year, a deal that has already resulted in more efficient vehicles.

From Barrasso's statement:

It's time for the Administration to face the facts: Americans rejected cap and trade because they know it means higher energy prices and lost jobs," said Barrasso. "Washington agencies are now trying a backdoor approach to regulate our climate by abusing existing laws. Congress must step in and stand up for the American people. My bill will shrink Washington’s job crushing agenda and grow America’s economy. I will do whatever it takes to ensure that Washington doesn’t impose cap and trade policies in any form.

What's particularly ironic about the statement is that cap and trade was a Republican idea created as a business-friendly alternative to command-and-control regulations. Cap and trade was promoted as the legislative alternative to EPA regulations, but it never went anywhere in the Senate last year. So the idea that Congress—particularly, Barrasso and his seven cosponsors—would now start caring about the issue is humorous, at least if you have a sick sense of humor. We're in this situation because Congress did nothing for the past four years.

Even worse: Barrasso is one of the three medical doctors in the Senate, and the EPA's decision to act on emissions under the Clean Air Act is based on the 2007 Supreme Court directive and the finding that greenhouse endanger human health. Barrasso says though, that he only wants regulations for greenhouse gases that pose a "direct threat to human health because of direct exposure to that gas" –implying, of course, that he doesn't think that most of them actually pose a threat.

Republicans have, for the most part, been competing to outdo each other in cracking down on the EPA. Last week we had Newt Gingrich calling for the abolition of the EPA entirely.