2011 - %3, March

GOP Strategy: Cut Medicaid, Leave Social Security Alone?

| Fri Mar. 4, 2011 12:10 PM EST

House Speaker John Boehner has promised that GOP will tackle entitlement reform in the near future, despite the political perils of doing so. "I think it's incumbent on us, if we are serious about dealing with the big challenges, that we go out and help Americans understand how big the problem is that faces us," he told the Wall Street Journal. In the meantime, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) has also been banging the drum on the issue once again, vowing to pursue his plan to "voucherize" Medicare and privatize the system. 

But will the GOP really follow through on its pledge to go after Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, given the widespread popularity of such programs? Despite talking up the issue on Thursday, Boehner has also privately pushed President Obama to go first in putting a reform proposal forward. Boehner assured the White House that he'll stop House Republicans from attacking any Obama entitlement reform proposal—and that "he will stand-by-side with him to weather the strong political backlash," according to The Hill. While the words may seem welcoming, Boehner is also pressuring Obama to go first on entitlement reform. But since the White House has promised not to touch Social Security or gut Medicare, Boehner's remarks could also be a political ploy to make it seem like the GOP is serious about entitlement reform—without having to commit to a serious proposal.

That being said, there's one entitlement program that's far more vulnerable than the others: Medicaid. While Social Security and Medicare have long been untouchable, given the political perils of going after older Americans' benefits, Republicans have already indicated that they're eager to undermine the government's health care program for the poor. As I reported this week, Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (R-Wash.)—the fourth-ranking House Republican—is already working on a proposal to make it easier for states to slash Medicaid spending. 

Politically speaking, it's easier for the GOP, especially, to go after Medicaid, as the program predominantly serves poor, minority voters, as opposed to senior citizens, a key demographic for Republicans. What's more, Republicans have a chorus of governors from both parties to back them up, given the widespread complaints about Medicaid's burden on strapped state budgets. And while the public opposes entitlement cuts overall, Medicaid is the least popular of the big three. While 70 to 25 percent oppose cutting Social Security and 72 to 25 percent oppose cutting Medicare, a smaller 59 to 37 percent oppose cutting Medicaid, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll

Bottom line: while the GOP may hold off going after Social Security and Medicare, they have a real opportunity to go after Medicaid—and they've already placed the program in their sights.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Bernanke Betrays the GOP

| Fri Mar. 4, 2011 12:07 PM EST

Bloomberg reports that the Republican whip in the House is sad:

U.S. Representative Kevin McCarthy thought he had an ally in Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke on the impact that Republican budget cuts will have on jobs.

McCarthy, of California, the third-ranking House Republican, said this week the spending cuts won’t cost the nation jobs, pointing to Bernanke for support. Within hours, Bernanke testified on Capitol Hill that the budget reductions may lead to the loss of 200,000 jobs.

The Fed chief said the House Republican plan to slash $61 billion from 2011 government spending could also subtract “a couple of tenths” of a percentage point from U.S. economic growth over several years.

So did McCarthy change his views once Bernanke set him straight? I know you can't wait to find out, so click the link to learn the exciting answer!

Texas Birther Rep. Sponsors Secession Rally

| Fri Mar. 4, 2011 10:48 AM EST

Courtesy of the Texas Nationalist MovementCourtesy of the Texas Nationalist MovementIf you can't make it to SXSW, here's the next best thing: The Texas Nationalist Movement, which is exactly what it sounds like, will be holding a rally tomorrow in front of the state capitiol in Austin to push for a referendum on secession from the United States.

As with any half-decent declaration of independence, the group's resolution has a list of grievances: Specifically, the federal government has failed the protect its borders, and "implemented thousands of laws, mandates and agencies in violation of the United States Constitution that have invaded the sovereignty of the State of Texas."

But wait: This story actually gets stranger. As the Houston Press reported, the Texas Nationalist Movement's secession rally is being sponsored by none other than state Rep. Leo Berman. You may remember Berman as the man who introduced a bill to force the President of the United States to prove his citizenship (again), and, when asked for proof, cited YouTube videos he'd seen because, "YouTubes are infallible." He's also sponsoring a bill to save state courts from the scourge of Islamic Sharia law.

So why is a state legislator promoting a secession rally? The Press caught up with Berman, who explained that while he "very strongly" does not support secession (statehouse rallies need a legislative sponsor), he doesn't think it's such a terrible idea either:

He says he has "no qualms" about supporting a secession rally. Is there any group out there whose message is so far out, so radical and dangerous that he would refuse to be a legislative sponsor for them?

"I'm very, very, very strongly pro-life," he says. "So I would not support an abortion-type rally."

Man's got to stand for something.

Support for secession has a long and rich history in the Lone Star State. According to a 2009 poll, 48 percent of Texas Republicans agreed that the state "would be better off as an independent nation." That came after GOP Governor Rick Perry told reporters at a tea party in Austin that if the federal government didn't change its ways, secession might be an option. And in 2009, a Kerr County resident was arrested for claiming to be a sheriff's deputy for the "Republic of Texas." For more, check out our interactive map on US secession movements.

Also of note: Although the group's poster features a severely mutton-chopped Sam Houston calling for Texas independence, the real Sam Houston famously took an unpopular stand against Texas secession on the eve of the Civil War. As he put it: "The Union is worth more than Mr. Lincoln. I was denounced then. I am denounced now. Be it so!"

Kevin Drum's Education Manifesto: Open Thread

| Fri Mar. 4, 2011 9:00 AM EST

Kevin Drum's fiery missive this morning has me thinking about evidence-based education reform. Is it true, as he writes, that we'd likely get more bang for the buck by spending $50 billion less on K-12 education and $50 billion more on early intervention programs? Here's Kevin on a rather depressing chart linking maternal/child education levels for life:

[James] Heckman argues that these achievement gaps—between black and white, between rich and poor—are today less the result of overt discrimination than they are of skill gaps that open up very early in life and persist in the face of a wide variety of both good and bad schools. What's more, these gaps aren't purely, or even mainly, the result of differences in cognitive ability. At least equally important are soft skills: "motivation, sociability (the ability to work with and cooperate with others), attention, self regulation, self esteem, the ability to defer gratification and the like."

In the face of this evidence, Heckman recommends that we abandon a scattershot approach toward education and instead focus far more of our resources on intensive, early interventions.

I dunno. Wouldn't it be far preferable to take $50 billion from, say, the defense budget, and turn it over to early intervention programs, rather than weakening existing K-12 reforms that might help kids like Pedro, Eman, and Natalie—but aren't scalable? Or lack good metrics to measure success?

What does a truly effective early intervention program look like, anyway?

Brilliant readers, over to you.

Eco-News Roundup: Friday March 4

| Fri Mar. 4, 2011 8:57 AM EST

Opting Out: States could opt out of health care reform as early as 2014.

End of Life: Huckabee admits if he gets really sick later, he won't be able to pay for it.

Come Together: DoD and VA could cut costs by consolidating drug programs.

Killer Plan: The gentleman from Wyoming has a climate plan: do nothing.

Billion Dollar Babies: Pa. law cuts health care for the poor, benefits big businesses.

Q&A, Hold the A: Pro-life organization refuses interview, then blasts journalists.

Funding Gap: GOP proposes no federal funding for abortions, even though there's none presently.

Big Band: Elphants play drums and percussion, displaying intelligence and rhythm.

BP's Back: BP's just been approved to start deep-water drilling again.

 

In Arctic, Warmer Climate Means More "Beavers Defecating" And Disease

| Fri Mar. 4, 2011 8:00 AM EST
Kivalina, Alaska.

Two new studies by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium report that warmer climates are threatening the Northwest Arctic's food-cooling and water-treatment systems, and posing various food- and waterborne health risks to nearby communities.

According to the studies, two small communities in the region, Kivalina and Point Hope, are experiencing longer warm seasons that cause sanitary water systems to flood, damage "washaterias" (places where people can get clean water to bathe or wash clothes), and worsen algae blooms. In 2004, Kivalina had to close its washateria after the belated freeze-up damaged its leach field system for the winter; during the shut down, the village reported a rise in respiratory and skin diseases. In Point Hope, algae blooms between 2007 and 2008 became so frequent and large in the nearby lake that the village's water that technicians had to clean filters more than a dozen times daily.

Worse, warmer temperatures have meant longer growing seasons, triggering a spike in the number of wood-chewing beavers, which are suspected of contaminating local riverways with solid waste and elevating the risk of giardia, a stomach infection commonly known as "beaver feaver."

"In general, people could drink from [the creeks and rivers] freely," Michael Brubaker, director of the health consortium's Center for Climate and Health, told the Arctic Sounder. "Now they have beavers defecating into the river."

Longer warm seasons also mean shorter periods in which villagers can dry caribou, fish, and seal meat before rotting, the studies say, along with melting ice cellars that usually store raw meat. That can lead to more stomach infections from botulism, salmonella, and E. coli, not to mention the more immediate threat of attracting polar bears close to town as milder temperatures expose the odor of raw meat.

The Arctic's problems are not entirely isolated: Warmer temperatures have resulted in some 10,000 cases of food poisoning in the United Kingdom (PDF) as warmer weather breeds bacteria and other pathogens in meats. And both food regulators and scientists in the US are increasingly concerned about food contamination caused by germs that like heat. In the remote corners of the Arctic, however, where temperature swings can be more dramatic than other regions, the research is only getting started, and funding for adaptation projects has been slow to come. "We can't wait around for 15 or 20 years to make sure people have adequate water and sanitation," Brubaker said.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 4, 2011

Fri Mar. 4, 2011 6:30 AM EST

U.S. Army Sgt. Cullen Wurzer scans a nearby mountain range during a search of the Qual-e Jala village, in Afghanistan, Feb. 21, 2011. Wurzer is assigned to the 34th Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Squadron, 113th Cavalry Regiment, Task Force Redhorse. U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Ashlee Lolkus

Building Better Kids

| Fri Mar. 4, 2011 4:01 AM EST

We are obsessed with education in America. We are obsessed, in particular, with the notion that our schools are failing and have to be fixed. We need to test kids. We need to identify and fire bad teachers. We need merit pay. We need charter schools. We are all waiting for Superman. Philanthropists and the federal government spend billions of dollars per year on programs to promote better schools.

James Heckman doesn't quite say that this is all a waste of money. But he comes close. In a new essay summarizing his recent work on skill formation in children, he says the chart below tells you most of what you need to know about educating our kids:

The chart shows achievement test scores for children of mothers with different levels of education. Children of college graduates score about one standard deviation above the mean by the time they're three, and that never changes. Children of mothers with less than a high school education score about half a standard deviation below the mean by the time they're three, and that never changes either. Roughly speaking, nothing we do after age three has much effect:

[These] gaps arise early and persist. Schools do little to budge these gaps even though the quality of schooling attended varies greatly across social classes. Much evidence tells the same story as Figure 1. Gaps in test scores classified by social and economic status of the family emerge at early ages, before schooling starts, and they persist. Similar gaps emerge and persist in indices of soft skills classified by social and economic status. Again, schooling does little to widen or narrow these gaps.

Heckman argues that these achievement gaps—between black and white, between rich and poor—are today less the result of overt discrimination than they are of skill gaps that open up very early in life and persist in the face of a wide variety of both good and bad schools. What's more, these gaps aren't purely, or even mainly, the result of differences in cognitive ability. At least equally important are soft skills: "motivation, sociability (the ability to work with and cooperate with others), attention, self regulation, self esteem, the ability to defer gratification and the like."

Monitor Group and Qaddafi: Still Spinning?

| Thu Mar. 3, 2011 6:38 PM EST

Earlier today, Siddhartha Mahanta and I broke the story that the Monitor Group, a Harvard-tied consulting firm in Boston, recruited (and on some occasions) paid prominent academics to visit Libya in 2006 and 2007 and meet with dictator Muammar Qaddafi as part of a campaign to rehabilitate the autocrat's image. (At the time, Qaddafi was signaling he might be interested in reforming his rogue-ish ways.) The Monitor's $3 million project, as we reported, yielded pro-Qaddafi stories in The New Republic, The Guardian, Newsweek International, The Washington Post, and other publications. (The firm also proposed writing a pro-Qaddafi book for a $1.65 million fee.)

We also reported several days ago that Monitor conducted research for a PhD dissetation written for the London School of Economics by Saif Qaddafi, a son of the Libyan autocrat. Initially, Monitor would not discuss the specifics of its work for Libya, and it released a brief statement saying, "Our work was focused on helping the Libyan people work towards an improved economy and more open governmental institutions."

After our latest Monitor story was published this morning, the firm sent out a more elaborate statement:

Our work was aimed at two primary outcomes—substantive improvement of the country's economic performance in the global economy, and therefore the prosperity of its citizens; and accelerated modernization and increased openness of government institutions and governance models.

The vast majority of our paid work related to the provision of two main services. First, a detailed and comprehensive analysis of the Libyan economy and identification of and plans for potential sources of competitive and comparative advantage for the country's future. Second, in-depth training in management and leadershp for several hundred high-potential leaders, drawn from many sectors. We undertook these efforts in good conscience within the then climate of optimisim for the country's future, and firmly believe that this was responsible and appropriate activity at that time.

During the same period Monitor also accessed its extensive network of political and social thought leaders representing a broad array of perspectives (some of them well known figures whose names have been mentioned in multiple media sources recently) and oversaw their introduction to the leaders of Libya, including Muammar Gaddafi.

The purpose of these visits and conversations was to facilitate, inform and speed up the processes of reform and modernization which were so clearly required—and, we believed at the time, possible. We also believed that these visits could boost global receptivity for Mr. Gaddafi's stated intention to move the country more towards the West and open up to the rest of the world. Sadly, it is now clear that we, along with many others, misjudged that possibility.

In the course of our work in Libya, and in the spirit of enabling the country's reintegration with the global community, we at one point proposed to help write a book representing the views of Mr. Gaddafi. During subsequent discussions regarding this proposal it became clear to us that it was a serious mistake on our part, and the work did not proceed. We sincerely regret having initiated this suggestion, and readily acknowledge it was a poor decision.

As acknowledged in his final thesis, Monitor also provided research support to Saif Gaddafi in the production of his London School of Economics PhD dissertation. We now regret our involvement in this work which we acknowledge was ill-considered.

The statement does contain what appears to be genuine regret. But it sidesteps a key part of the story: the group's PR campaign for Qaddafi. The consulting firm may well have devoted much time to economic-related projects in Libya, but it also mounted projects specifically designed to clean up Qaddafi's image. As we reported, the firm's goal, according to its own internal documents, was

to produce a makeover for Libya and to introduce Qaddafi "as a thinker and intellectual, independent of his more widely-known and very public persona as the Leader of the Revolution in Libya." In a July 3, 2006, letter to its contact in the Libyan government, Mark Fuller, the CEO of Monitor, and Rajeev Singh-Molares, a director of the firm, wrote,

Libya has suffered from a deficit of positive public relations and adequate contact with a wide range of opnion-leaders and contemporary thinkers. This program aims to redress the balance in Libya's favor.

The key strategy for achieving these aims, the operation summary said, "involves introducing to Libya important international figures that will influence other nations' policies towards the country."...[O]ne primary outcome of Monitor's pro-Qaddafi endeavors, the operation summary said, was an increase in media coverage "broadly positive and increasingly sensitive to the Libyan point of view."

Monitor's mea culpa is limited, with the group trying to depict its Libyan endeavor as geared toward economic development and reform. Its latest statement says, "Monitor believes that the vast majority of our work in and for Libya was appropriate and responsible; but we did make mistakes." Perhaps another one is not fully acknowledging that it pocketed millions of dollars for selling Qaddafi to the West.

Browner's Out at White House

| Thu Mar. 3, 2011 6:17 PM EST

The White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy is no more. Carol Browner, who served as the special adviser to President Obama on the subject, has officially departed a little more than a month after announcing her resignation. And on Wednesday, the White House announced that the climate and energy work would move under the umbrella of the Domestic Policy Council.

Melody Barnes, the director of the Domestic Policy Council, will officially oversee Browner's former team.

Heather Zichal, who served as Browner's deputy in the climate office, will continue as deputy assistant to the president and take the lead on climate and energy policy work. Zichal was Obama's top campaign adviser on climate and energy and has a background of working as an adviser to key congressional leaders on this issue, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

All this news answers the lingering question about what would happen after Browner's departure. It's not really a huge shift. Including the climate office in the larger domestic portfolio makes substantive sense—particularly when a comprehensive climate and energy bill isn't going to happen in the next two years, anyway. Republicans maligned Browner as an unappointed "czar" and attempted to defund her position. Merging the climate office into the DPC should shield Zichal and the rest of the climate policy team from some of that type of criticism.

What really matters is the degree to which climate issues remain a priority for the administration. It doesn't necessarily require a separate office to make that happen—and overcoming the Senate's reluctance to address the issue proved impossible even when the climate folks had their own turf. Verdict: not great news for climate hawks, but far from the end of the world.