2011 - %3, February

Family Feud Goes to Pot

| Wed Feb. 9, 2011 2:17 PM EST

This Family Feud segment has been spreading across the internet faster than wild weed on Kentucky highway median:

The laughs, of course, come from acknowledging the pervasiveness of pot in the kind of mainstream "family friendly" environment that dares not speak its name. As far as pothead culture goes, it's a major breakthrough. It kind of reminds me of what happened when I was visiting my conservative extended family in Texas over the Christmas holidays, having just published a few marijuana-related stories in Mother Jones. An aunt of mine who'd read them not only confessed that she was a pot smoker; she pulled out a giant bag of weed and asked if I wanted some. Go figure. Sometimes the battle lines of the culture wars are only in our heads.

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NARAL Chief Worried About Abortion Bills in Senate

| Wed Feb. 9, 2011 2:10 PM EST

Controversial bills pushed by opponents of abortion rights will sail through the House and have a serious chance in the Democrat-controlled Senate, Nancy Keenan, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, told Mother Jones Wednesday. Keenan, whose organization is one of the largest abortion rights groups in the country, made the comments in advance of a House hearing on the "Protect Life Act," one of three bills that opponents of abortion rights have prioritized this legislative session. According to Keenan, NARAL believes only 40 senators are solidly on their side—barely enough to sustain a filibuster in the upper chamber.

If the Republican leadership attaches a limited version of any of the three anti-abortion rights bills to must-pass legislation such as a continuing resolution to fund the government, abortion rights supporters could have trouble holding their allies in place. (The most ambitious anti-abortion legislation, which included controversial "forcible rape" language, is seen as a non-starter.) The Senate, Keenan says, is her group's "first line of defense." Although House supporters of abortion rights—including Democratic Reps. Diana DeGette (Colo.), Louise Slaughter (N.Y.), Eliot Engel (N.Y.), Lois Capps (Calif.), Jan Schakowsy (Ill.), and Anthony Weiner (N.Y.)1—put on a good show at a well-attended press conference Wednesday morning, they're hugely outnumbered in the lower chamber.

The real fight will be in the Senate, where abortion rights supporters including Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and especially Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) are readying to try to stop whatever the GOP-led House throws the upper chamber's way. But that battle could conceivably be lost, too. At Wednesday morning's press conference, House Dems and their allies repeatedly referenced President Barack Obama's veto pen. And Keenan tacitly acknowledged that she knows the looming Senate fight isn't a sure thing for her side: their last line of defense, she said, is in the Oval Office. The Obama administration has yet to explain what it might do if forced to choose between, for example, must-pass legislation funding the government or repealing controversial 1099 tax provisions and protecting the goals of groups like NARAL and Planned Parenthood.


1Weiner, in particular, did an excellent job of explaining why the abortion fight has become so contentious, so quickly. Basically, abortion rights supporters believe their rivals have broken the "treaty" represented by the Hyde Amendment, which bans the use of Medicaid funds to pay for abortions except in very limited circumstances. Abortion rights supporters say that by trying to extend the "ban" to the tax code, opponents are pushing past the generally agreed-upon line laid out by Hyde. Groups that oppose abortion rights, of course, see it differently: they think that by offering tax credits to people who buy health insurance and letting those people pay for abortion insurance with separate checks, the other side broke the "treaty" first.

The Power of Single-Mindedness

| Wed Feb. 9, 2011 2:03 PM EST

Via Tyler Cowen, Inc. magazine has a piece in its current issue about how entrepreneurs think. It's based on research from Saras Sarasvathy, a professor at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business, and here's one bit:

That is not to say entrepreneurs don’t have goals, only that those goals are broad and—like luggage—may shift during flight. Rather than meticulously segment customers according to potential return, they itch to get to market as quickly and cheaply as possible, a principle Sarasvathy calls affordable loss. Repeatedly, the entrepreneurs in her study expressed impatience with anything that smacked of extensive planning, particularly traditional market research. (Inc.’s own research backs this up. One survey of Inc. 500 CEOs found that 60 percent had not written business plans before launching their companies. Just 12 percent had done market research.)

....Sarasvathy explains that entrepreneurs’ aversion to market research is symptomatic of a larger lesson they have learned: They do not believe in prediction of any kind. “If you give them data that has to do with the future, they just dismiss it,” she says. “They don’t believe the future is predictable…or they don’t want to be in a space that is very predictable.”

This reminds me of a study that I read about years ago. (No link, unfortunately, since I don't remember where I saw it.) The gist of it was that a team of researchers tried to figure out what made entrepreneurs different from ordinary corporate executives. Were they less risk averse? It turned out they weren't. Did they have different kinds of social and/or analytic skills? Not really. Were they more energetic? More visionary? Better able to understand new markets? No, no, and no.

So what was it? They discovered there was one metric on which entrepreneurs scored far higher than other executives: self confidence. Entrepreneurs, it turned out, weren't right about things any more often than other executives. But they were convinced of their rightness far more, and this fits pretty well with Sarasvathy's conclusions. Why bother with market research if you know you're right? Why bother with a business plan? Why wait to get to market? Why listen to other people's predictions? There's just no point in any of this stuff if you know you're right.

I don't think this is a hugely surprising result. And it certainly explains a lot about entrepreneurial success and failure. If you're right, and you're absolutely convinced you're right, it's a big advantage. You'll go full bore all the time, ignore distractions, and just generally take the most aggressive possible actions whenever you can. And if you're wrong? You'll do the same thing and flame out spectacularly. The power of single-mindedness is not to be underestimated.

On 9/11, Rumsfeld Fiddled While Cheney Ran the Country

| Wed Feb. 9, 2011 1:47 PM EST

In her interview last night with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, author of a new autobiography, Diane Sawyer asked him about a tough decision he had to make on the morning of 9/11. Was it not difficult, she asked, to order military pilots to shoot down passenger jets that the government believed to be hijacked and headed toward targets in Washington–maybe the White House, maybe the Capitol. For a moment, Rumsfeld dropped his generally arrogant stance, and instead looked as if he were about to cry as he recalled the agony he went through in making the decision.

It might have been a poignant moment, were it not for the fact that Rumsfeld didn’t make the decision. It was Vice President Dick Cheney who made it. And it was Cheney who was running the country that morning, with a confused Rumfeld watching from the sidelines.

When the nation is threatened, it is the President, the  Commander-in-Chief who must make the decision to engage the military. Under the law, he orders the Secretary of Defense to implement his commands down through the military chain of command.  While President Bush was being shuttled around from bunker to bunker on the morning of September 11, 2001, supposedly out of cell phone contact at times, Rumsfeld was next in line. But Rumsfeld’s role on 9/11 has always been a mystery. In his new book, on page 339, the former secretary of Defense casts a little light on what he did that morning .

Santorum: '06 Smackdown Bodes Well for 2012

| Wed Feb. 9, 2011 1:38 PM EST

Rick Santorum, the former US Senator from Pennsylvania, is probably best-known for the uproar he caused in 2003 when he likened homosexuality to beastiality. (He famously said the "definition of marriage" did not include "man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be.") In his reelection bid three years later, Santorum, who has embraced hard-right positions on social issues like abortion rights, was trounced by Democrat Bob Casey by 18 percentage points, the widest margin of defeat for a sitting senator in 23 years.

Now, Santorum is mulling a presidential bid for the 2012 elections. And he's using his defeat in 2006 as evidence of his conservative credentials, according to the AP:

Santorum said there still could be an opening for someone with his strong social and fiscal conservative views.

"I can look at it and say, 'I was there doing the things everybody says we should be doing, and I was doing them when they weren't necessarily the most popular thing to do,'" he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Santorum hopes the same conservative streak that helped sink his re-election bid in the swing state of Pennsylvania could prove to be an asset in GOP primaries.

"What you're proposing matters, No. 1, and your authenticity matters," he said.

But first, Santorum will need an image makeover. As Mother Jones' Stephanie Mencimer reported, Santorum has a major online image problem. After Santorum made his inflammatory remarks on homosexuality in 2003, gay columnist Dan Savage held a contest to "memorialize the scandal." The result: SpreadingSantorum.com, a website that defines "Santorum" as "the frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex." Sickening. And effective. When you search "Rick Santorum" in Google, Savage's site is the third hit. (Number two is the Wikipedia entry "Santorum (sexual neologism).") Ouch.

Let's Tax Abortions!

| Wed Feb. 9, 2011 1:19 PM EST

Nick Baumann, who broke the story last week about the Republican anti-abortion bill that would have limited the definition of "rape," explains today what else is in the bill. Aside from making the Hyde Amendment permanent (currently it has to be renewed every year), there's this:

Another part of the law is a sweeping attack on tax benefits and deductions that affect abortion. It would, for example, forbid self-employed people from deducting abortion costs as medical expenses and would outlaw the use of funds from tax-exempt Health Savings Accounts to pay for abortions. In effect, this would raise the taxes of nearly anyone who had an abortion or purchased insurance that covered abortion. "Going after the tax subsidies that affect abortion" would represent a "substantial victory for the pro-life movement in America," Timothy Jost, an opponent of abortion rights and an expert on health law at Washington and Lee University, told Mother Jones last year.

Finally, a tax increase conservatives can love! But do Republicans have any chance of actually passing this bill? In the House, sure. But in the Senate, it would be immediately filibustered and there's nothing close to 60 votes in favor of passing it. However, Nick suggests that a more moderate version of the bill might have a chance if Republicans manage to attach it to some kind of "must pass" legislation.

But this leaves me confused: amendments can be filibustered too, can't they? The Senate considers must-pass legislation all the time, and if the minority party could attach amendments like this willy nilly, we'd see a helluva lot of minority amendments attached to must-pass legislation. But we don't. So something's wrong here. Can anyone explain to me whether this danger is real or not?

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Obamacare vs. PPACA

| Wed Feb. 9, 2011 1:03 PM EST

Jon Cohn defends the term "Obamacare":

I get what the polls are saying. This is still not a particularly popular piece of legislation. People may not want to repeal it, but they're not about to celebrate it, either. I imagine the White House and the Democrats have strategists who have run surveys on this and concluded the term is not particularly helpful.

Even so, I like the term. I think this bill will be popular someday and, in the meantime, I think it's a reminder that this administration did something that will help millions of Americans while starting to put our health care system in order. Maybe I'm wrong — I've certainly been wrong about this before — but I think that within a few years, and maybe even by 2012, association with the health care plan will be a net plus.

I'd say that 2012 is pretty optimistic, but I certainly agree that eventually Obamacare will be a popular program. My question is whether this is ever likely to catch on. Social Security isn't RooseveltSecurity and Medicare isn't JohnsonCare. Presidents really don't get their names associated like this very often except with broad world views like Bush Doctrine, Reaganomics, etc. And even that's not very common.

The real problem here is that Democrats, once again, failed Legislation 101. This was their bill. They could name it anything they wanted. So what did they choose? PPACA. That's very memorable, isn't it? What's wrong with these guys?

Malpractice Bill Sponsor Target of Many Suits Himself

| Wed Feb. 9, 2011 11:51 AM EST

Republicans in Congress have offered up little in the way of new health care proposals. After retaking control of the House this year, they revived an old failed measure that would severely limit lawsuits against negligent doctors, drug companies that kill people, and companies that make defective pacemakers and other medical devices. The Republicans claim that curbing such suits would significantly reduce health care spending, a claim that's been disproven many times over. What the bill would do is protect doctors and other health care providers who harm people through bad medicine.

Case in point is one of the very congressmen sponsoring the bill, Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.). In 2007, the New York Times reports, Gingrey, who is a doctor, settled a lawsuit for $500,000 in a case involving a pregnant woman whose appendicitis Gingrey and others failed to diagnose. Her appendix burst, causing a massive infection that left her unborn child dead and the woman partially disabled after she suffered a stroke as a result.

That wasn't the only time Gingrey has been sued. The Times writes:

In a pretrial deposition, Dr. Gingrey testified that he had been sued at least three other times over malpractice during his long career. In one case, a jury found against him; in another case, there was a settlement; and in another case, the patient dropped the action, he testified.

It's no suprise that the doctors who get sued a lot are the ones who complain the loudest about "frivolous" lawsuits. But the case against Gingrey seems anything but frivolous. But it's just those sorts of serious cases that Gingrey's bill would restrict. And far from saving money, the bill would simply shift the cost of negligent medicine from the doctors and their insurance companies to the taxpayers through Medicaid and other disability programs. Private health insurers also can often recoup their costs for covering malpractice injuries through those lawsuits. Catastrophic injuries like the one suffered by Gingrey's patient profiled in the Times tend to bankrupt people, leaving them reliant on government health care, and the costs can be significant.

In 2004, the state of Nevada was considering a measure similar to Gingrey's bill that would have capped pain and suffering awards at $350,000 and made it harder for plaintiffs to collect on court judgments against doctors. Evidence provided to the state supreme court showed that malpractice lawsuits had returned more than $6 million to the state Medicaid program in the previous five years, and that the state program for indigent health care would have been entitled to more than $4 million in a single case that was pending at the time. None of that money would have returned to the taxpayers if the lawsuit restrictions had been in place at the time. Despite what Republicans want to believe, making malpractice lawsuits disappear doesn't make the health care costs of medical errors go away. It simply means that it's just not the wrongdoers who pay for them.

Oh, and as a side note: Gingrey doesn't seem to be paying much attention to the affairs in his home state. In 2005, Georgia passed a cap on malpractice damages much like the one Gingrey would like to impose on the whole country. Last year, in a 7-0 decision, the Georgia Supreme Court threw out the law, calling it a huge violation to the constitutional right to a jury trial, and one that infringed on the separation of powers. Not only is Gingrey's bill bad health care policy, it's likely to be bad law, too.

Mansions, Fine Dining, Cronyism: The RNC's Spending Splurge

| Wed Feb. 9, 2011 11:37 AM EST

Consider it Michael Steele's parting gift to his replacement, new Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus. The RNC's latest financial filings with the Federal Election Commission reveal the lavish lifestyle enjoyed by the committee's planning team for the 2012 convention in Tampa. Led by Steele personal assistant Belinda Cook, the six-person crew spent more than $1 million of a federally-backed line of credit on things like renting a waterfront mansion on Florida's Treasure Island and meals at swanky restaurants, the Tampa Tribune reports. Cook also used that money to put friends and family on the RNC's payroll, including Cook's sister, her son, and her son's friend. Cook's niece also pocketed nearly $3,000 as a member of the planning team.

The RNC's convention debacle, of course, isn't the first time controversial spending has left the commitee with egg on its face. Last spring, an RNC staffer named Erik Brown threw a fundraiser for young GOPers at a bondage-themed club in Los Angeles called Voyeur West Hollywood, spending nearly $2,000 of the RNC's money at the event. Many Republicans demanded Steele resign after the stripper incident, but ultimately it was the RNC's top fundraiser, Sam Fox, who stepped down. According to Politico, Fox was "deeply troubled by the pattern of self-inflicted wounds and missteps" at the committee under Steele's leadership.

Conspicuous spending, even during a deep recession, seemed to the norm at the RNC under Steele. Committee financial filings showed charges of $17,000 for private jet travel, $13,000 for limos, and $9,000 for a jaunt out to the Beverly Hills Hotel. It's not surprising, then, that new RNC chairman Priebus took over a committee with $23 million in debt and only $1 million in cash on hand at the end of 2010. Priebus pledged during his campaign for RNC chair to bring some belt-tightening and restraint to the free-wheeling committee. As the Tribune reports,

Last week, Priebus announced he has chosen Georgia businessman and GOP activist Alec Poitevint to take over the convention in Tampa and "clean up" the planning work.

"Obviously there were some concerns with what had been going on in Tampa," Priebus said at a press conference in Tampa. "Our committee had had enough with some of the questionable expenditures."

"We've been involved and our lawyers have been involved with the preliminary work that's gone on," he added.

Qaddafi's Summer Reading List

| Wed Feb. 9, 2011 11:00 AM EST

When Libyan Leader Muammar al-Qaddafi is not palling around with a "voluptuous blonde" Ukrainian nurse, he likes to read. Not breezy novels but policy volumes—written by Americans. Well, at least summaries of such books.

A classified 2008 cable sent by the US embassy in Tripoli to the State Department (and released by WikiLeaks) reveals how the embassy came to uncover what it dubbed "Colonel al-Qaddafi's Summer Reading List."

In October 2008, an embassy officer met at the foreign affairs ministry with a senior official named Ahmed Fituri, and Fituri pointed out a stack of English-language books on his desk. He explained that he had been ordered by Qaddafi to read "significant" English-language book on American politics, policy, history, and current affairs, and then produce four- to seven-page summaries in Arabic for the Libyan leader. Fituri, who had received a PhD from the University of Michigan, said that he had been handling this task for several years—translating and summarizing six to eight books a year—though Qaddafi's demand for these reports had diminished in the previous year.

Fituri told the US embassy officer that he was currently summarizing Fareed Zakaria's The Post-American World. And next up was Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat 3.0. He noted he had recently translated for Qaddafi an article Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had written for Foreign Affairs. And in the past year, he had summarized for Qaddafi Zakaria's The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope, and George Soros' The Age of Fallibility: Consequences of the War on Terror.

Fituri noted that Qaddafi truly enjoyed Zakaria's The Future of Freedom—that is, the summary of it. But more so than Obama's book?

Fituri also said that Qadaffi had asked him six months earlier to undertake a similar program for his son, Muatassim Qaddafi, who was the national security adviser. So far, Fituri had merely sent the son copies of the summaries he had prepared for the Libyan leader. But Fituri told the US embassy officer that the head of the External Security Organization, Musa Kusa, had complained to him that Muatassim was "not an avid reader" and had to be prodded to peruse even summaries. Fituri added that many senior government officials did not consider Muatassim to be as intellectually curious as his father or his old brother, who was then pursuing a PhD at the London School of Economics.

So was this useful intelligence for the United States? The cable notes that the downturn in Qaddafi's reading coincided with a period in which he had reportedly suffered a series of minor strokes. Perhaps here was confirmation of Qaddafi's diminished health. Moreover, Fituri's description of Muatassim reinforced the embassy's view of him: "Fituri's characterization of Muatassim's less than enthusiastic embrace of the reading program is no surprise, given what we've heard from other contacts, who describe him as a traditional strongman who has focused on consolidating his power-base and pursuing his business interests and social life."

There was no word on what the Ukrainian nurse liked to read.