2011 - %3, March

Education Roundup: DC Cheaters Sometimes Win?

| Tue Mar. 29, 2011 12:00 PM EDT
  • Meanwhile, Philadelphia Inquirer investigates violence in the The City of Brotherly Love's school district; 4,541 assaults were recorded during the 2009-2010 school year alone (that's 25 violent assaults a day). With video.
  • Naturally, Obama thinks standardized tests need to change. Not so naturally, one teacher made a catchy song about it. Chorus: "Test teacher/test teacher/ teaching to the test. Work on math and English and forget about the rest."
  • Last, check out GOOD's story on the California principal currently selling her entire collection of shoes to stave off the Golden State's school lay-offs.

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Obama's Speech

| Tue Mar. 29, 2011 11:45 AM EDT

I've been under the weather for the past few days, so I missed Obama's big Libya speech yesterday. I meant to watch it, but then I fell asleep on the couch and by the time I woke up it was over. But I've since read the text of the speech, and I basically agree with Fred Kaplan: it was "about as shrewd and sensible as any such address could have been." A little messy, perhaps, but we live in a messy world:

Obama's main point was this: When, as he put it, "our interests and values are at stake," and when taking military action a) carries few risks, b) costs little, and c) may reap huge benefits, both political and humanitarian, then such action is worth taking even if the interests involved aren't quite vital.

This formulation is unsatisfying, both to the Realists (who shy from using force except in pursuit of vital interests and, even then, only when the outcome is fairly certain and preponderant force is mustered) and to the neoconservatives (who leap to use force anywhere and everywhere in the cause of universal moral values). But it reflects a sense of realism with a small r.

Clive Crook seems to find this likewise a bit unsatisfying, but suggests that, like democracy, Obama's approach produced the worst possible policy except for all the others:

If you doubt it, don't just list the policy's all too obvious dangers: test it against the alternatives — something I have not seen Obama's critics do. One option would have been to do nothing. In other words, abstain with China and Russia on the UNSC resolution. What a splendid message to the world that would have sent. Or maybe vote for the resolution, then commit no resources to enforcing it--the usual European approach to global leadership. Thankfully, the US is better than that. Alternatively, go all in, make regime change the goal, and target Gaddafi--but now without international backing. That would have been a heavier burden and an even bigger gamble. The course of action Obama chose is risky, to be sure, but when you think them through the alternatives look worse.

In the end, Obama will be judged on whether his approach works. If U.S. involvement really stays limited; if Qaddafi finds himself out of a job within a few weeks; and if the aftermath of the war isn't too disastrous, then Obama will be vindicated, congressional approval or not. If any of these things doesn't happen — and I'd pay particular attention to the last of them — he'll be in trouble. As with all things, success justifies nearly anything.

Does Rick Scott's Drug-Testing Policy Violate the 4th Amendment?

| Tue Mar. 29, 2011 11:04 AM EDT

Last week, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed off on an executive order that requires that many state employees and job applicants submit to mandatory drug tests. He's also pushing state legislators to pass a bill that would subject welfare recipients to drug testing as well. But legal experts warn that Scott's heavy-handed measures may be unconstitutional. The Miami Herald reports:

[F]ederal courts generally have ruled that such policies violate the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches, say attorneys and legal scholars.

"You can’t do blanket tests like that. They’re facially unconstitutional," said Ephraim Hess, a Davie attorney who prevailed over the City of Hollywood in April 2000 when U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth L. Ryskamp ruled that governments cannot require prospective employees to take drug tests unless there is a "special need," such as safety. 

Another federal court supported the ACLU in 2004, ruling that Florida had violated the Fourth Amendment by ordering random drug testing of all the agency's employees. The ACLU now says that it's prepared to represent any state employee who wants to challenge Scott's new policy:

"The state of Florida cannot force people to surrender their constitutional rights in order to work for the state. Absent any evidence of illegal drug use, or assigned a safety-sensitive job, people have a right to be left alone,"" said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. Simon said the ACLU would represent any state employee who would like to challenge the policy.

There's one stakeholder, though, that could benefit from the governor's new drug-testing push. As I reported last week, Scott's own company, Solantic, conducts drug-testing for employers and employees alike and stands to profit from this proposal—among many others.

Prominent Tea Partier: Whites Are Going Extinct

| Tue Mar. 29, 2011 10:54 AM EDT

The Tennessee-based conservative group Tea Party Nation is most famous for planning the 2010 Tea Party convention in Nashville, at which Sarah Palin was caught reading off her hand. But since then, the for-profit organization has more or less fallen flat. A second planned convention was cancelled for lack of interest, and its leader, Judson Phillips, has been spurned by his fellow conservative activists. But even as his standing continues to slide, Phillips is ratcheting up his rhetoric. In recent months, for instance, he's called for voting rights to be granted only to people who own property, and stated that he has "a real problem with Islam."

Now, the Phillips group wants to raise awareness about a potentially existential threat to the United States: White people are going extinct. Via Right Wing Watch, here's an email sent out by Tea Party Nation today:

Child bearing has become something distasteful to many women, an unwanted and painful experience to be avoided rather than embraced.

All of these programs, ideals and ideologies are doing one thing and one thing only - reducing America core TFR [total fertility rate] to the point of no return. The White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) population in America is headed for extinction and with it our economy, well-being and survival as a uniquely America culture.

This county is dying not because it is aging, it is dying because of infertility as public policy.

A year ago, Tea Party Express leader Mark Williams was forced to step down from his position after writing a racist letter to the NAACP, as part of a somewhat misguided attempt to prove he wasn't a racist. Phillips probably won't fire himself, but he's certainly not making his path back to relevance any easier.

The War in Wisconsin=Big $ Cash for Democrats

| Tue Mar. 29, 2011 10:32 AM EDT
Flickr/Vince_Lamb

The fight pitting Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker against labor unions and their supporters continues to rumble on, with a state bureau publishing the controversial "budget repair bill" in apparent defiance of a county judge's temporary restraining order against doing so. If you're the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, you want to overturn Walker's bill as soon as possible—but you also want the drawn-out fight surrounding the controversial legislation to stretch as long as possible.

Here's why: The state Democratic Party raised $1.4 million in less than two months, from February 1 through March 21, according to a new fundraising filing. As Milwaukee Public Radio reports, that's $250,000 more than the party raised in all of 2010, a hotly contested election year in which Democrats fought desperately to stem the tide of Republican victories sweeping the country. (They failed, and both legislative chambers as well as the governor's seat flipped from blue to red.)

The Democratic Party has capitalized on every twist and turn in the fight in Madison to hit up their base for cash. After the 14 Democrats in the state Senate fled Wisconsin to block a vote on Walker's bill, the State Senate Democratic Committee used the self-imposed exile of the "Wisconsin 14" to raise $785,000 on the back of the Democrats' departure. Those Democrats returned to Wisconsin on March 12 after Senate Republicans used a constitutional end-run to pass Walker's bill without the Democrats present.

Since the return of the "Wisconsin 14," Deomcrats have fundraised around the recall of the eight Republican state Senators who voted for Walker's bill and who are eligible for recall. (Efforts by Republican activists are also underway to recall eight senate Democrats who opposed Walker's bill.) Democrats hope to have enough signatures to trigger a recall by May.

Governor Cuomo to New York's Poor and Middle Class: Drop Dead

| Tue Mar. 29, 2011 9:15 AM EDT

There is no country in the industrial world with as great an income disparity between the rich and poor as the United States. And within the US, there is no state where the disparity is more pronounced than New York. New York City was the center of the Great Recession, and today unemployment there stands at 9 percent and is not expected to drop any time soon. At the same time, the financial sector that caused it all has recovered nicely, and the executives are pulling down salaries and perks larger than they did before the recession.

In the midst of all this gross inequality, New York’s millionaires are getting a tax break, thanks to the state's new Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo. Son of liberal ex-governor Mario Cuomo, inheritor of some of the enthusiasm that once surrounded Eliot Spitzer’s campaign, and successor to the weak stand-in David Paterson, Cuomo was elected on a wave of optimism. He even ran on the line of the Working Families Party, an increasingly important progressive player in state politics. Yet Andrew Cuomo has turned out to be just another craven neoliberal. In his most meaningful action to date, he has embraced a budget that would make any Bushite salivate.

In a deal this past weekend, the governor and legislative leaders agreed upon a $132.5 million budget that cuts state spending by 2 percent, largely on the backs of the poor and the sick, women, children, the elderly, and other beneficiaries of state services. It offers next to nothing to the struggling middle class. But for the well-heeled denizens of Wall Street and beyond, there's a promised end to the so-called millionaire's tax passed at the height of the recession. This privileged group has already received a massive boost from the federal government in the form of the financial industry bailout, followed by the extension of the Bush tax cuts. Now they'll receive an extra gift from the state.

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Ohio's "Heartbeat" Abortion Bill Moves Forward

| Tue Mar. 29, 2011 7:26 AM EDT

As our own Kate Sheppard has reported, Ohio is considering an abortion bill that would be one of the most restrictive in the nation. The law, HB 125, would outlaw all abortions (except in medical emergency) after a heartbeat could be detected: roughly 6 to 8 weeks after conception. This is so early in pregnancy that many women would not even know they were pregnant before the chance for abortion had passed... which is undoubtedly the point. Attacking first-trimester pregnancies is important for anti-abortion activists because 88% of all abortions occur before 12 weeks gestation.

HB 125 is a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, and that's exactly what supporters like the Ohio pro-life group Faith2Action are hoping. But state legislators and some supporters aren't so sure now's the time. Ohio's House Health and Aging Committee delayed the vote on HB 125 last week, with Committee chair and sponsor Lynn Wachtmann saying the bill "wasn't quite ready." (One could argue that just because the bill isn't quite ready doesn't mean it shouldn't be considered the same as one that is, kind of like how an embryo at 8 weeks should be considered just as viable as a fetus at 40 weeks, but that would be silly.) Ohio Right to Life director Mike Gonidakis told the Springfield News-Sun that while he agrees with the sentiments of the bill, he fears it could be struck down as unconstitutional and would thus become precedent for later anti-abortion laws. "(It’s) going to be another precedent setting decision by the Supreme Court we’re going to have to overcome in the future," Gonidakis said.  A vote is expected on the bill this Wednesday.

Does Energy Efficiency Matter?

| Tue Mar. 29, 2011 7:00 AM EDT

It's a reversal of the old fallacy, "spend more and you'll save more." When it comes to household energy use, we're saving more and then using our savings to buy more stuff. At least that's one way to interpret the latest figures from the Energy Information Administration's Residential Energy Consumption Survey.  

Since 1978, household appliances have gotten way better. Most notablly, heating used to account for 66 percent of our collective residential energy use. Nowadays, thanks to cleaner-burning furnaces and energy-efficient construction and window design, that number is closer to 40 percent. Not only that, the total energy devoted to heating houses has dropped by 38 percent, even though we have 45 percent more houses to heat. Hey, impressive!

Yeeeeah, but the thing is, we're now buying so many of these very-efficient appliances that we suck up as much power as we used to. In other words, we're channeling all that efficiency into better lifestyles. Behold some EIA stats...

  • The number of US households grew by 34.5 million from 1978 to 2009
  • The share of households with central air conditioning nearly tripled, from 23 percent in 1978 to 61 percent in 2009
  • The share of households with clothes washers increased from 74 percent to 82 percent
  • The share of households with dishwashers increased from 35 percent to 59 percent

Here's a chart illustrating the trend. (Being a clunky government agency, the EIA is still using 2005 data, but it's close enough.)

Not that I would begrudge anyone a washer. But unless you've been living in a Faraday cage for the past decade, you're aware that rechargable gadgets and big-screen TVs have proliferated as well—and I might actually begrudge you a few of those. The EIA breaks it down...

  • In 1978, personal computers were expensive and not typically used by US households. In 2009, 76 percent of US homes had at least one computer, eight percentage points more than just four years prior, and 35 percent had multiple computers.
  • In 1978, most households had only one television. In 2009, the average household had 2.5 televisions. Over 45 percent of homes have at least one television with a screen size of 37 inches or larger. Screen size and average energy consumption per television have continued to grow over time.
  • DVD players and Digital Video Recorders (DVRs), which did not exist 15 years ago, are now widespread. As of 2009, 79 percent of homes had a DVD player, and 43 percent had a DVR. Nearly a third of all households also had at least four electronic devices, such as cell phones, plugged in and charging at home.

Hey, I want five-plus televisions, too! (One for the cat!) Now children, don't forget to tweet this item from your smartphones as you stream The Social Network via your Wii consoles to your personal Sony wide-screens.

Bernie Sanders' Top 10 Tax Avoiders

| Tue Mar. 29, 2011 6:30 AM EDT

In a Sunday press release calling on wealthy individuals and corporations to pay their share, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont offered a list of what he calls "some of the 10 worst corporate income tax avoiders."

Sanders, you'll recall, made headlines for his epic 8.5-hour speech/filibuster this past December, dealing with how Obama's pending tax-cut deal with the GOP would be bad for America. The speech—published this month as a paperback simply titled The Speech—was in vain: Congress passed the deal, extending tax breaks not merely to the poor and middle-class, but to America's richest people.

It also slashed the estate tax from 55 percent to 35 percent and exempted the first $5 million of an estate's value ($10 million for a couple)—up from $1 million pre-Bush. In his speech, Sanders warned against this change, noting, "Let us be very clear: This tax applies only—only—to the top three-tenths of 1 percent of American families; 99.7 percent of American families will not pay one nickel in an estate tax. This is not a tax on the rich, this is a tax on the very, very, very rich. (Click here for our blockbuster charts showing just how rich the very, very, very rich actually are.)

If the estate tax—which Republicans have cleverly rebranded the "death tax"—were to be eliminated entirely (another GOP goal), Sanders says it would cost US taxpayers $1 trillion over 10 years. "Families such as the Walton family, of Walmart fame, would have received, just this one family, about a $30 billion tax break," he said in the speech.

What Happens To A Facebook Page When Someone Dies?

| Tue Mar. 29, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

I recently had a college friend pass away and I found out through Facebook (weird) wrote on the memorial's Facebook event page (weirder) and subsequently received more than 10 new friend requests from people we mutually knew but with whom I had no contact. To be honest, I want to delete the dead guy's profile. I don't want to be tempted to stare at my dead friend's photos every time I'm feeling like an emotional prune. Same thing happened with a MySpace friend of mine back in the day, except someone took over said dead friend's account and would occasionally post weird shit from it, so it was like having a dumb internet ghost speak to you from the beyond. Dead friend would be all, "Hey guys! Miss you!" Creep deep. What should I do with dead Facebook friends? Leave them, delete them, report them as deceased, etc. I seriously have no idea what the etiquette is.

~Friends Till The End

Super creep deep. MySpace had such a problem with deceased users that sites like MyDeathSpace.com were created to try to match obituaries with neglected user profiles. Thankfully, MySpace has mostly gone the way of the dinosaurs and Friendster. Dealing with the digital footprint of the deceased is a sensitive issue, to be sure, but there are a few routes you can take. One is to turn the deceased person's profile into a memorial page. Here's the form to do that. Facebook will memorialize the profile of a deceased user no matter who sends the request, and proof of death, while helpful, is not required.There's not an option to request that a deceased user's account remain active. However, since nobody's profile is ever removed for inactivity, if no one notifies FB, then their account will stay as it is until someone takes action.

If you turn someone's FB profile into a memorial page, it removes their wall posts, contact information, and status updates, so no one has to be reminded about how often you shared that "Total Eclipse of the Heart: Literal Video Version" video. (Since I'm only dead inside, here it is again!)

Read the rest of my online etiquette column at SF Weekly