2011 - %3, February

Feral Pig Diaries Day 2: Do Hogs Like Supermarket Danishes?

| Wed Feb. 9, 2011 10:15 AM EST

This week, I'm reporting from outside Savannah, Georgia, on my first-ever hunting trip. We're after invasive feral pigs, which have proliferated over the last decade in much of the southeastern US, competing with native species for food and wreaking havoc on land with their rooting. I'm hanging out with Jackson Landers, who aims to whet American appetites for invasive species like hogs, lionfish, geese, deer, and even spiny iguanas by working with wholesalers, chefs, and restaurateurs to promote these aliens as menu items. Read "Feral Pig Diaries Day 1: Moonshine and Teen Swine" here, and my post from Day 3, "OK, but How Does Wild Hog Taste?" here. My introductory post (wherein MoJo takes a field trip to the shooting range) is here.

It was still dark when we got to Baker's property yesterday morning, but we wasted no time, since many mammals are particularly active around dawn. Jackson and I hiked a muddy road to the bottomland around a tidal creek. Along the way, we kneeled to inspect pig scat and hoof prints:

In this print, the grass the pig had trod on hadn't sprung back up, so Jackson guessed it was less than a half-hour old. We climbed into the hunting stand and loaded the gun just as it was just getting light and sat in silence, listening to the wind shaking the loblolly pines. We scanned the ground. We cocked our ears. We shivered. After less than an hour, we were both freezing and itching to go do some stalking by foot, and besides, we could hear this kind of distant yelping noise. We decided to go follow it. Jackson thought it sounded canine—a coyote or (boring, boring, boring) someone's dog, but I convinced myself that I was hearing the squealing of piglets. After the jump: Watch a video where I make a fool of myself.

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A Senate Showdown Over GOP's New Abortion Agenda?

| Wed Feb. 9, 2011 7:55 AM EST

Late last month, Mother Jones reported that language in a controversial GOP-backed bill would have limited the definition of rape for the purposes of abortion law. After a New York Times editorial, multiple follow-up articles, a Twitter and blogging activism campaign, and a Daily Show mention, the bill's backers caved, and promised to pull the language from the bill. But the proposed law—the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act," sponsored by New Jersey GOPer Chris Smith—is still chock full of other provisions that supporters of abortion rights loathe. And abortion rights advocates fear that those measures, unlike the apparently defunct rape language, stand a chance of actually passing the Democrat-controlled Senate.

So far, the part of the bill that has received the most attention is the section highlighted in the Mother Jones article last week. But for abortion rights advocates, the problem is that the rape provision isn't the only problem. At the law's heart is a permanent, government-wide extension of the Hyde Amendment, which prevents the use of federal funds to pay for abortions via Medicaid. Currently, pro- and anti-abortion rights forces have to battle every year over which areas of the federal budget are subject to Hyde-like restrictions. This would end that fight, for good—and represent a significant win for opponents of abortion rights.

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.

Ultimately, opponents of abortion rights may face a choice. The current bill is a great "message" bill—ideologically rigid and ambitious. That makes sense—it was written when Republicans were out of power, when it had absolutely no chance of passing in a Nancy-Pelosi-led House. Anti-abortion rights groups like the Susan B. Anthony List have been furiously raising money off of it. Some of that money will almost certainly be spent to target Democrats—including some who oppose abortion rights—next cycle. 

If the anti-abortion forces' main goal is to raise funds and beat Democrats, they'll do just fine continuing what they're doing. But if they want to actually pass legislation, they could force Senate Democrats to make some tough choices—and take some tough votes—by stripping the tax provisions from the bill. If they press forward with a version of the bill that includes just the government-wide, permanent extension of the Hyde amendment, they might actually get something done. Would Senate Democrats really be able to muster the votes to filibuster a bill that codified Hyde?

Abortion rights supporters fear that the current version of the Smith bill could easily pass the Republican-controlled House of Representatives—even if the the rape language was reinstated. Abortion rights opponents basically have one way to get the bill past that point: attaching it to "must-pass" legislation. This could include the planned repeal of one of health care reform's tax provisions (which has bipartisan support), a bill raising the federal debt ceiling, or a "continuing resolution" extending the funding of the government. Abortion rights supporters think that's just what their opponents will try to do.

Education Roundup: Where Are All The Black Male Teachers?

| Wed Feb. 9, 2011 7:00 AM EST
  • Despite delusions of past academic grandeur, it turns out that the United States was never that great at math, reports Education Week. "The United States never led the world," states a new report by the Brookings Institute. "It was never number one and has never been close to number one on international math tests. Or on science tests for that matter." Brookings then delivers this crushing blow: In the First International Math Study, conducted in 1964, we ranked 11th. Out of 12.
  • Speaking of history, on Monday a South Dakota legislative panel endorsed a plan that would ban the state from using national standards for teaching the subject, reports The Daily Republic. "History is one area of study that is most subject to interpretation and debate," says the bill's main sponsor, Rep. Jim Bolin, R-Canton. "What is taught and what is left out in history is crucial."
  • Thought that was scary? Only 28 percent of teachers teach evolution in biology classes. And now a New Mexico bill wants to protect public school educators who teach evolution or climate change as "controversial scientific topics," Wired reports.
  • Spike Lee and Education Secretary Arne Duncan joined forces at the historically black Morehouse College to call for more black men to do the right thing by going into teaching, HuffPo reports. GOOD's Liz Dwyer asks where this pool of qualified black males is supposed to come from, considering the achievement gap.
  • Worse, less than half of the students graduating from New York public high schools are ready for college or jobs, The New York Times reported Monday. But firing NY high school principals doesn't solve that problem; apparently there aren't enough replacements. Nor are charter schools the solution, writes MoJo's Kevin Drum: New stats show that they're not magic, either. 
  • Meanwhile, if Louisiana's Gov. Bobby Jindal gets his way, businesses in that state will start their own charter schools where they'll get to be on the school board and reserve 50 percent of the space in the classrooms to the children of their employees, Shreveport Times reports. Think Citizens United: School Edition. Yikes!
  • And remember the Pennsylvania school that’s experimenting with segregation to boost test scores for black students? NewsOne took to Harlem to ask black people how they felt about the issue.
  • So, what would the Founding Fathers say about the tea party desire to kick the federal government out of public education? HuffPo Education's Jack Jennings provides a primer on the feds' role in public ed.
  • Speaking of the DREAM Act, only an estimated 20 percent of undocumented students enroll in college. MoJo’s education reporter Kristina Rizga covers what happens when one of those students gets an invitation to fly out to Harvard University for a college interview. 
  • In other news,  Harvard University just dropped this bomb: Four year colleges aren’t for everybody. Or as, Rishawn Biddle at Dropout Nation put it: "Harvard Ed Profs to Poor and Minority Kids: You Don't Deserve College Prep Education."
  •  Former US Education Secretary Rod Paige argues Texas public school teachers should be paid based on their performance not their seniority, reports The Houston Chronicle. Edutopia agrees.
  •  Dana Goldstein covers news of Wisconsin teachers' union battle with GOP Gov. Scott Walker over tying teacher tenure and performance ratings to student test scores.
  • Meanwhile, the entire GOP has set its sights on eliminating or at least scaling back teacher tenure, Slate reports.
  • Rizga reports on the difference one star student's absence makes in a classroom. 
  • The religious right is taking aim at anti-bullying efforts in California schools (Minnesota's already been hit) by labeling events like "No Name-Calling Week" as "homosexual propaganda," Right Wing Watch reports.
  • And a Pennsylvania mother was jailed for not paying truancy fines for her son’s school attendance problems, CBS Pittsburgh reports. 
  • Finally: want President Obama to speak at your public high school? Here’s how.

Hanging with the Robber Barons of Haiti

| Wed Feb. 9, 2011 7:00 AM EST

For a guy who feels he needs to be armed at absolutely all times, Mike says he's feeling "perfect" surprisingly often. Like this morning, when he picks me up in a cushy silver truck from my Port-au-Prince hotel, early on a muggy Saturday: "How are you doing?" "Perfect." And there are two extra ammunition clips on the cup holder between us and a loaded .45 in the driver's-side door. "You never know," he says, smiling, when I express skepticism that all this is really necessary; we are just going to the beach. "I wished I'd had extra ammunition when we were firing and firing a few weeks ago." The half-Haitian, half-Puerto Rican, American-born 34-year-old stops smiling and shakes his head slightly when he says, "You don't know what it takes to do what I do."Mike's Texaco station in Martissant.: Photos by Mark MurrmanMike's Texaco station in Martissant. Photos by Mark Murrman

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 9, 2011

Wed Feb. 9, 2011 6:30 AM EST

Paratroopers help their battle buddy climb from an artillery piece after hooking it up to a UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter during a field exercise between the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team and its Combat Aviation Brigade Feb. 2, 2011, at Fort Bragg, N.C. Paratroopers will retreat to the woodline before the helicopter lifts the howitzer into the air. U.S. Army photo by Michael J. MacLeod

WikiLeaks: Saudi Oil May Have Peaked Already

| Wed Feb. 9, 2011 1:36 AM EST

The Guardian reports today on another WikiLeaks cable, this time about oil production in Saudi Arabia. Based on conversations with Sadad al-Husseini, a geologist and former head of exploration at Aramco, the Saudi state oil company, the U.S. consul general thinks the Saudis have been significantly overstating both the size of their reserves and their production capacity:

The cables, released by WikiLeaks, urge Washington to take seriously a warning from a senior Saudi government oil executive that the kingdom's crude oil reserves may have been overstated by as much as 300bn barrels — nearly 40%....According to the cables, which date between 2007-09, Husseini said Saudi Arabia might reach an output of 12m barrels a day in 10 years but before then — possibly as early as 2012 — global oil production would have hit its highest point. This crunch point is known as "peak oil".

....The US consul then told Washington: "While al-Husseini fundamentally contradicts the Aramco company line, he is no doomsday theorist. His pedigree, experience and outlook demand that his predictions be thoughtfully considered."....While fears of premature "peak oil" and Saudi production problems had been expressed before, no US official has come close to saying this in public.

This won't come as a surprise to anyone who's been following the oil industry over the past few years. Matthew Simmons' Twilight in the Desert, which I reviewed six years ago, made a detailed case that Saudi Arabia's production capacity had pretty much maxed out already, and Business Week published an article three years ago based on internal Saudi documents that said much the same: the Saudis could pump 12 million barrels a day in short spurts but only 10 million barrels on a steady basis — and that's all there is. Production capacity just isn't going up.

There's always Iraq, of course, which certainly has more production capacity if it can develop it, but Saudi Arabia increasingly looks like it's peaked already. And if that's true, it probably means that the global peak in production, which was delayed a few years by the 2008 recession, is most likely not too far away. Our future is going to be increasingly oil free whether we like it or not.

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Corn on "Hardball": Is Rumsfeld Rewriting History?

Tue Feb. 8, 2011 7:34 PM EST

David Corn and Joan Walsh joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss Donald Rumsfeld's new revelations on the Iraq War and the Bush administration.

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

Bush EPA Recognized Global Warming Threat

| Tue Feb. 8, 2011 7:20 PM EST

Pop quiz: Which administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency sent a missive to the president informing him that the agency is "compelled to act" under existing law in response to "the latest science of climate change"?

Hint: It wasn't the Obama administration's EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson (though, during her tenure, the agency would make that same determination). It was her predecessor, Stephen Johnson, the EPA administrator under George W. Bush, who was certainly no big friend to environmentalists during his time at the agency.

In recent months, the EPA's power to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions has become a prime target for Republicans (and some Democrats) in Congress who raise the specter of a government bureaucracy gone wild under the Obama administration. Foes of the regulations have gone so far as to propose throwing out the very scientific finding that greenhouse gases threaten human health. But a letter released Tuesday once again makes it clear that even the Bush administration knew it needed to act on global warming—it just chose not to.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) released a letter from Johnson to Bush dated January 31, 2008, in which Johnson informs the president that the agency has determined that "the latest science of climate change requires the Agency to propose a positive endangerment finding."

In the letter, Johnson outlined a plan that he argues is "prudent and cautious yet forward thinking," one that "creates a framework for responsible, cost-effective and practical actions." This is the first time this particular letter has been made public, though it was pretty well known that the EPA had made an endangerment determination but was blocked by the White House from following through on it. The White House reportedly went so far as to refuse to open an email that contained the endangerment finding and related materials so that it wouldn't have to act.

Johnson concluded in his letter to Bush:

After careful and sometime difficult deliberation, I have concluded that it is in the Administration's best interest to move forward with this plan in the next few weeks. I appreciate the senior-level discussions that have enabled me to develop this approach, and I look forward to working with other members of your team to discuss details and a rollout.

Of course, that rollout never happened. Instead, the Bush administration let the clock run down and left the final endangerment determination to the next administration. The Obama administration followed through with that finding in April 2009, an action that triggered the EPA's regulation of greenhouse gases that began phasing in this year.

Waxman circulated Johnson's letter Tuesday evening, ahead of a hearing tomorrow on a bill by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House energy and commerce committee, that would overturn the EPA's finding and permanently bar the agency from taking action to regulate emissions. Waxman sent a letter to Upton as well, highlighting Johnson's letter:

As Administrator Johnson’s letter makes clear, both Republican and Democratic Administrations have had the same view of the science: carbon emissions are a serious threat to our nation’s welfare. I urge you to leave the science to scientists and drop your effort to use legislation to overturn EPA’s endangerment finding.

Occupational Licensing: Should We Care?

| Tue Feb. 8, 2011 7:18 PM EST

Should states require that interior designers be licensed? How about manicurists? Hair stylists? Florists? Why not let people do these things without bothering to put hurdles in their way that, in the end, mostly just protect existing manicurists/hair stylists/florists from competition? It's not as if a bad manicure is really that big a deal, after all. Today, Felix Salmon takes a crack at making the progressive case for licensing:

Broadly speaking, the more constraints you have on a profession, the less likely you are to see massive inequality within that profession. If you got rid of licensing for profession X, you’d see many more low-paid Xs than you do right now, and you’d also see a significant uptick in earnings at the very top of the X profession. It’s a second-order effect, to be sure, but I’m pretty sure that at the margin, licensing helps to reduce inequality.

I’m in favor of reducing the number of gratuitous licensing laws; I’m also a fan of motherhood and apple pie. But at the same time I think they are, in a sense, a form of worker protection which is acceptable to Republicans — think of them as unions for people who hate unions. And that’s not entirely a bad thing.

Hmmm. Putting aside the question of whether this is a good justification for licensing regimes, is it actually true? Does licensing really reduce income inequality within professions? Felix links to an article about growing inequality at the tops of big law firms, but I'm not sure how that supports his case. Law, after all, is one of the most strongly licensed fields we have. If three years of law school plus a bar exam plus large amounts of professional regulation aren't enough to keep income inequality in check in the legal field, I'm not sure that nine months of barbering instruction would have much effect at all in the barbering field.

Beyond that, though, I'd like to have some idea of the raw numbers here. Take a look at this page, for example, which lists the licensed occupations in the state of New Jersey. Barbers are there, of course, and maybe they shouldn't be. I'm not sure. But the majority of the occupations are in the healthcare industry, where I think we can widely agree that some kind of certification is a good idea. And even some of the others look pretty justifiable if you think about them a bit. Plumbers and electrical contractors? The state probably has a legitimate interest in making sure that nitwits don't damage public property (sewer systems) or cause neighborhood fires because they don't know what they're doing. Locksmiths and burglar alarm installers? That might be a crime control thing. Landscape architects? I'm not sure about that one. But maybe drainage issues are important for more than just the house getting the landscaping?

Still, it's mostly healthcare. The last time I had some blood drawn I asked how one gets to be a blood drawer. The answer, first of all, is that the proper term is phlebotomist. And second, you take a six week class in order to get certified. (In California, anyway.) During the first few weeks of this class the aspiring phlebotomists learn the basics by drawing each other's blood many times each day. Sounds grim, doesn't it? My phlebotomist assured me it was. Still, she did a pretty good job of drawing my blood, for which I'm grateful. So has every other phlebotomist who's ever drawn my blood. That sounds like a win for phlebotomy certification.

In any case, my question is this: sure, you can find silly cases like Louisiana's florist licensing requirement. And the hairdressing/manicuring industry is a big one where licensing requirements are at least questionable. But overall, what percentage of licensed professionals are in sectors where the requirement is genuinely dubious? Once you take out the healthcare folks, where licensing seems pretty reasonable, as well as the other areas where licensing seems justifiable, how much is left outside the barbering/manicuring industry? Are the funny examples of stupid licensing requirements really widespread, or are they just the kind of rare horror stories that all human endeavors inevitably produce? In other words, is runaway occupational licensing really a big deal? Or just a minor issue that deserves a minor bit of attention? It would be nice to see some actual facts and figures on this.

UPDATE: Adam Ozimek has a useful response here. It doesn't have all the figures I'd like to see, but it does have a few comparative numbers of interest.

How To Tell Time In Germany

| Tue Feb. 8, 2011 5:27 PM EST

Like those apocryphal Eskimos with their endless names for snow, Frank Jacobs reports that the famously punctual Germans have four different ways to tell time:

In a large part of north-western Germany, from the Danish to the French border, the preferred option is viertel nach zehn ('quarter after ten')....In what used to be East Germany, the same clock time is referenced as viertel elf ('quarter eleven')....An option limited to German-speaking Switzerland is to call this particular time viertel ab zehn ('quarter from ten')....Another national Option is viertel über zehn ('quarter over ten'), used only in central parts of Austria.

Wait a second. Shouldn't there be five ways to say this? What about the German version of "ten fifteen"? Doesn't anyone use that? After all, what do they do when it's 10:12 and there's no handy "quarter" or "half" shortcut to use?