2011 - %3, February

"They Were Purposefully Trying to Deceive Everyone"

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 3:27 PM EST

As BP's well gushed into the Gulf of Mexico last year, the question of exactly how much oil it was spewing was hotly contested. BP first estimated that only 1,000 barrels of oil were leaking from the well each day; only months later would a team of scientists organized by the federal government conclude that it was actually more like 53,000 barrels per day.

It wasn't that BP couldn't come up with a better figure even in the early days of the spill. In fact, in 2008 the company had touted its advanced technology for measuring flow rate. And in an interview with Project Gulf Impact posted today, Dr. Ira Leifer, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of California-Santa Barbara, explains how BP misled the scientists they tapped to produce flow rate estimates.

"The data we had was abdominable," says Leifer, describing footage that they were supposed to use to estimate the flow rate as "worse than the quality you typically see on YouTube." Rather than giving them the original footage of the spill site to evaluate, it appeared as if BP had taken a video of a computer monitor showing the actually footage and given them the blurry, jerky copy. "They were purposefully trying to deceive everyone," says Leifer.

Here's the full video:

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The Week in Sharia: Obama's Extremely Covert Plan

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 3:26 PM EST

One thing led to another:

  • New Hampshire heard arguments from citizens about a bill to ban gay marriage. Concerned citizen Howard Kaufman took to the floor of the state house to float the second-wackiest conspiracy theory of the week: Gay marriage is a secret gateway to Islamic law.
  • The wackiest conspiracy of the week? That belongs Avi Lipkin, an American-born Israeli who revealed (scoop!) that President Obama is pushing for amnesty for undocumented residents as part of a secret plot to flood the nation with 100 million Muslims. As MoJo's David Corn explains, the plan is to "turn this country into an Islamic nation by the end of his second term." And the United Nations is in on it!
  • The American Bar Association is in on it, too.
  • At a town hall meeting in Pompano Beach, Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) was asked by the director of CAIR's South Florida chapter why he thinks Islam is so horrible. West, who's been floated as a vice presidential candidate, responded: "I've been on the battlefield, my friend. Don't try to blow sunshine up my butt and tell me it's warm and fuzzy." Which is gross.
  • West appeared on Fox and Friends to explain what he meant on Wednesday, and, after first labeling Muslims "an enemy,"warned that he would not tolerate being portrayed as an "enemy of Islam." Because seriously, where did anyone get that idea?
  • A Texas man who set fire to the playground of an Arlington Islamic center last July pled guilty to federal hate crime charges.
  • Tennessee has already banned Islamic law. But just in case they missed something the first time around, Volunteer State lawmakers are going to try to do it again. A proposed bill before the state legislature would make "material support" for Islamic law punishable by 15 years in prison. Per the bill, "The knowing adherence to sharia and to foreign sharia authorities is prima facie evidence of an act in support of the overthrow of the United States government." Among the ways you can show adherence to Sharia: getting married, not robbing banks.

Friday Cat Blogging - 25 February 2011

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 3:06 PM EST

So here's the latest craze here at the homestead: piling on top of Kevin right after dinner time. Dinner for the cats is always at 5 pm and takes about two minutes to scarf down, and in the past they just meandered around the house for a while afterward. Lately, though, they track me down and they both want to flop down on top of me. This picture shows a typical scene of postprandial domestic bliss.

And what am I doing with that glazed expression on my face? I dunno. It must be 5:05, so I'm probably channel surfing between O'Reilly and O'Donnell and whoever's on CNN at 5 pm. Or maybe watching the local news. Who knows? Whatever it is, I'm trapped until I finally get tired and toss the cats onto the couch, where they maneuver to see who can claim the spot I was just sitting on. Usually Inkblot wins.

The Union Thuggery Lie

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 2:50 PM EST

Conservatives are going all in on the meme that "union thugs" are rampaging through Madison and turning the streets of the capital into a bloody nightmare. It's a pretty effective meme, too, since lots of people are predisposed to believe that union members tend to be violent folks. (Historically, it was management that was largely responsible for the most famous violent encounters of the past, but never mind that. The legend is better than the facts in this case.) However, Dave Weigel is in Wisconsin and says the whole thing is baloney: "I just spent four days in Madison and the state Capitol, reporting, and saw absolutely no violence. There were no arrests on Saturday....There were no arrests last night....There are no arrests, so far, in Madison."

Dave's initial post is here, and a followup is here. Bottom line: this has been an amazingly peaceful protest. There's been virtually no violence to speak of, no matter how hard Michelle Malkin and Fox News try to pretend otherwise.

What’s Happening With China’s Jasmine Revolution?

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 2:30 PM EST

Since an anonymous tweet called for peaceful public gatherings in more than a dozen cities across China on February 20, many in and outside the country are offering their two cents about what to make of last Sunday's events, dubbing them the Jasmine Revolution or Jasmine Rallies. The so-called protests didn't escalate beyond the large roaming crowd that formed in front of a McDonald's in Beijing's Wangfujing, a major retail shopping district. But whatever started on Sunday isn't over yet. So, if you've been preoccupied with the protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and even Wisconsin, read on to get up to speed about what's happening in China. And stay tuned for further updates.

Why is it called the Jasmine Revolution/Rallies? The term borrows from the pro-democracy protests that broke out in Tunisia last month, which some called the Jasmine Revolution, a play on the "color revolutions" that took hold in Eastern Europe in the early 2000s.

How did it begin? The first tweet calling for protests in China seems to have been posted around February 15. According to the Beijing-based technology blogger Jason Ng, the tweet came from the username Shudong, and said that at 2:00 p.m. CET on February 20, "every large city in China would be conducting a Jasmine Revolution, the details of which would later be posted on a certain website." (This anonymous account has since been deleted. China Digital Times has the full post translated into English.) Early Saturday morning, the US-based Chinese news portal Boxun.com received an anonymous report detailing where the protests would take place the next day and published the information. By 9:00 a.m., the site was attacked. Later that night in China tweets with the hashtag #cn220 reposted the Boxun report, alerting journalists and policemen alike.

What actually happened on Sunday in China? Was there a protest? It's hard to say. In Beijing, by most accounts, many people who showed up for the protest were foreign journalists along with uniformed and plainclothes Chinese police. If protesters were present, it was almost impossible to discern them from the usual throng of pedestrians strolling through Wangfujing. (See photos taken from the scene here and here.) Blogger Charles Custer of ChinaGeeks, who arrived at the scene around 1:40 p.m. to see what was happening, noted the ambiguous "revolutionary" atmosphere because even though a dense crowd formed, no one seemed to actually be protesting. Peter Foster's account in The Telegraph largely agrees with this. The crowd grew denser after busloads of police showed up. One video shows Jon Huntsman, the soon-to-resign US ambassador to China, in the masses donning sunglasses. Wall Street Journal reporters at the scene recounted his cameo. (An embassy spokesman later stated that his family happened to be strolling through the area at the time.) Sinocentric and Transpacifica (h/t Alex Pasternack) translated two different accounts by two young Chinese witnesses: In the first account it's clear that some were there to protest but pretended otherwise, and that some even had prepared banners but did not unfurl them; the second one is less explicit. Still, as the New York Times and Time reported over the weekend, a handful of protesters were in fact present, albeit quiet. One person who tried to place a jasmine flower in front of McDonald's was immediately stopped by the police. In the end, at least four suspected protesters were arrested, but there wasn't any violence besides some shoving and pushing. Media also cited heavy police presence in the southern coastal cities of Shanghai, Hangzhou, and other cities, in which smaller crowds gathered.

Maine "Little Beards" Gov LePage Hired Pro-BPA Lobbyists

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 2:10 PM EST

Earlier this week I blogged about Maine governor Paul LePage's recent weird comments about the chemical BPA. "The only thing that I've heard is if you take a plastic bottle and put it in the microwave and you heat it up, it gives off a chemical similar to estrogen," remarked LePage, scientifically. "So the worst case is some women may have little beards." Uh-huh.

Tempting though it may be to blame a comment this embarrassing on temprorary insanity, a great piece in the Boston Phoenix suggests otherwise. Turns out LePage has hired some lobbyists for out-of-state drug and toy industry groups to help him form his opinions on environmental and kid-safety legislation.

Shortly after he was elected last year, LePage released a "wish-list" of environmental and health regulations he hoped to roll back. LePage said the ideas in the document came from small business owners in Maine. But it turns out that the wish list was actually the work of Ann Robinson, head of the corporate lobbying group Preti Flaherty Beliveau & Pachios. Robinson's clients have included PhRMA and Merck. Also the Toy Industry Association of America, which fought Maine's proposed BPA ban in baby bottles and sippy cups last year. Robinson served as co-chair of LePage's transition team and is currently his head advisor on regulatory reform.

In addition to Robinson, LePage also hired Patricia Aho, a lobbyist with the law firm Pierce Atwood, as his deputy commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection.

Robinson and Aho are not exactly unbiased when it comes to regulations:

Lobbying disclosures on file with the state Ethics Commission show both PhRMA and Merck paid Robinson to defeat the KID-SAFE PRODUCTS ACT, a 2008 law that phased out toxic chemicals in toys, car seats, baby clothes, and other children's products. The AMERICAN PETROLEUM INSTITUTE and drug maker ASTRAZENECA paid Aho to do the same. The governor's wish list calls for "revisions to prohibitions of chemicals and materials in products" saying that "if the state is going to regulate consumer products at all, it should only do so when clearly justified on risk-benefit or cost benefit basis." 

Meanwhile, the Lewiston Sun-Journal reports on questions surrounding LePage's recent dismissal of Dr. Dora Anne Mills, the former the head of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention who testified last year that BPA should be banned from kids' products. A spokesman for LePage insists that her firing wasn't because of her support for the BPA ban, but, understandably, some people are not convinced.

For more on LePage's efforts to undo decades of environmental legislation (including his attempt at making sure corporations don't have to go to the trouble of recycling) read the full pieces in the Boston Phoenix and the Lewiston Sun-Journal.

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Chart of the Day: Waiting for Your Doctor

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 1:34 PM EST

Aaron Carroll has had it with people insisting that it's OK for the United States to spend so much on healthcare because, after all, we have the best healthcare in the world. You get what you pay for, and at least we don't have to wait forever to see a doctor, like they do in other countries, right?

Actually, no. As the chart on the right shows, we have longer wait times than most:

Let’s own something right up front. We beat Canada. Let me say that again: WE BEAT CANADA. There’s a reason people always cherry pick Canada to talk about wait times. But many, many other countries do better in terms of getting people in to see the doctor when they are sick.

....People in the US feel like their doctors don’t know them. Why could that be? One reason is that more people feel like they don’t get enough time with the doctor. Since we’re so obsessed with wait times (even though we don’t do very well in winning that battle), doctors are forced to see more patients every day in order to avoid them. So, yes, you might not wait as long to see your doctor, but when you get there, he or she won’t have much time for you.

One of the reasons for this is that we have so few doctors in this country....And that’s after spending way, way, way more money than anyone else. How is this defensible? We’re failing. We really are. I have no problem with disagreement on how to fix the system, but it’s hard to believe so many of you want to defend the status quo.

As someone who just waited six weeks to see my doctor, I get this. It's not that I had to wait six weeks. I could have gotten in sooner if I'd been willing to see someone else in my doctor's practice. But that's not much better. If I see doctors randomly, none of them ever get to know me, and experts are forever telling us how important it is to build a long-term relationship with your doctor.

Of course, one of the reasons I like my doctor is that she doesn't routinely hustle me out of her office as if she's late for a golf date, the way my previous doctor did. The downside is that she's always running late and it's hard to get in to see her. This in turn is almost certainly because she has a high patient load, so her only options are to either run late or make sure appointments are never more than five minutes long. That's not exactly a great set of options.

And yes, I have good insurance. This isn't something that just happens to Medicaid patients. The fact is that we just don't have a very good healthcare system in the United States. You might be able to get a hip replacement here faster than you can in Canada, but there's a lot more to healthcare than that. And on most metrics, we do pretty poorly.

Questions for Diane Ravitch?

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 1:00 PM EST
Diane Ravitch, education historian

Do you have a question for Diane Ravitch? If you care about the future of public education or teacher unions, you probably should. In addition to being a prolific education historian, Ravitch is most well-known as a conservative who supports teacher unions, and opposes charters and No Child Left Behind. What makes her perspectives especially fascinating, no matter where you stand on these issues, is that less than seven years ago she was on the opposite side of the fight. Ravitch used to serve in George H.W. Bush's administration championing No Child Left Behind accountability measures, charters, and teacher merit pay among other controversial reforms before she changed her mind, somewhere around 2004.

I am thrilled to interview Ravitch for Mother Jones Monday, and hope you'll share your questions for her in the comment section below this blog post. Please post them by Monday, Feb. 28, 6am PST. To kick it off, here are some questions in my notebook:

What does your education reform agenda look like?

You believe that the testing and standards in NCLB have been extremely damaging to schools. What other external measures can we use to make sure that students across the country are proficient in the basic subjects?

What will happen, if teachers in Wisconsin lose their collective bargaining rights?

Evolution of the Crazy

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 12:28 PM EST

Mild mannered Ron Brownstein writes today that Barack Obama faces a Republican Party more united, more right wing, and less compromising than at any time in the past:

In Washington, Obama is already colliding with a conservative GOP House majority determined to slash spending and regulation. But the president also faces multiplying conflicts with Republican governors. The breadth and intensity of these confrontations dwarfs the level of tension between Bill Clinton and a previous generation of conservative GOP governors in the 1990s. Indeed, it’s difficult to think of another president who faced as much resistance on as many fronts from governors in the opposite party as Obama is encountering today.

....Republican governors came out swinging against many of Obama’s initiatives at the opening bell....2009 economic-stimulus package....high-speed rail....carbon emissions....health care. Twenty-seven states—all but two of them boasting Republican governors and all but four GOP attorneys general—are suing to dismantle the law’s foundation....Put it together and it’s fair to say, without drawing any moral equivalence, that health care reform is facing more-extensive resistance from conservative states than any federal initiative since Brown v. Board of Education.

....American politics increasingly resembles a kind of total war in which each party mobilizes every conceivable asset at its disposal against the other. Most governors were once conscientious objectors in that struggle. No more.

Even after writing about this for most of the past decade, it's hard to fathom. When Ronald Reagan was elected, it seemed at the time like the ultimate triumph of hardcore right-wing politics. It was the Reagan Revolution! He was going to slash taxes, institute supply-side economics, bust the unions, appoint uncompromising judges, give the Christian right a seat at the table, and declare war on the welfare queens.

It couldn't get any worse, could it? Well, yes, it could: in the 90s we got the Republican Party of Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist, and they made Reagan look like the jolly old man he's since been mythologized as. Taxes? They wanted a blood oath against ever raising them for any reason whatsoever. Gingrich gleefully led an assault on a Democratic Speaker of the House that destroyed his career, something no previous leader of either party had ever tried to do. The GOP flatly refused to negotiate on healthcare reform, they shut down the government in 1995, and then did their best to impeach Bill Clinton over a blow job. This was a take-no-prisoners party like we'd never seen.

But the Newt Gingrich of 1995 was, as Clinton said, still somebody you could deal with. He may have been right wing, but he cared about policy and he cared about getting things done. Today even that's gone. Obama got virtually zero support for a stimulus bill designed to help get us out of the worst recession since World War II, he got no support for rescuing GM and Chrysler, he got no support for healthcare reform, and he got no support for financial reform even after a decade in which big banks were so far out of control they nearly wrecked the entire global economy. He's been attacked from Day 1 as non-American, non-Christian, and non-patriotic. The filibuster became not just a tool of intense opposition to big legislation, but an everyday tool of obstruction. Tea partiers and Glenn Beck accused him of being a socialist for sure, maybe a Muslim too, and quite possibly a fifth columnist as well. Rush Limbaugh mocks his wife and prominent GOP leaders make jokes about whether he was born in Kenya. A government shutdown isn't just something that might happen if Obama and Congress can't find a workable compromise on the budget, it's actively viewed as a positive goal. And, as Brownstein says, governors are no longer on the sidelines, sometimes working with the president and sometimes not depending on what's best for their state. They're fully enrolled in the war against Obama.

I don't know how this turns out. A parliamentary system of government can operate this way, but not a presidential system. Somewhere, somehow, this wave has to crest and then break. But when? And how?

Gov. Scott Walker's Flip-Flops on Late-Night Votes

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 11:33 AM EST
Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker. Andy Kroll.

It took a sneak attack in the early morning hours on Friday for Republicans in the Wisconsin Assembly to pass Gov. Scott Walker's controversial budget bill, the one that would eliminate collective bargaining rights for most public-sector unions. Assembly Democrats savaged their counterparts for ramming the bill through at just past 1 a.m., screaming "shame!" and branding them "cowards." But if anyone asks Walker about the GOP's late-night tactic, he'll find himself in a tough spot: he's blatantly flip-flopped on the issue throughout his career.

On the campaign trail in 2010, Walker, then a gubernatorial candidate, disavowed late-night votes by Wisconsin lawmakers. At the time, the Assembly was pulling all-nighters in order to finish its two-year legislative session, a common occurrence that's angered government watchdogs who don't approve of state business conducted when most people are asleep. In April 2010, Walker pledged to outlaw any votes in the legislature after 10 p.m. and before 9 a.m. "I have two teenagers and I tell them that nothing good happens after midnight. That’s even more true in politics," he said in a statement. "The people of Wisconsin deserve to know what their elected leaders are voting on."

A decade or so earlier, however, Walker took the exact opposite position. As an Assembly member representing Wauwatosa, a suburb of Milwaukee, Walker voted to eliminate an 8 p.m. legislative cutoff for the Assembly's 1997 session, the Associated Press reported. He also opposed an amendment offered by Democrats to reinstate the 8 p.m. cutoff.