2011 - %3, March

Quote of the Day: No More Whining For Sarah

| Thu Mar. 24, 2011 11:27 AM EDT

From Sarah Palin, promising to turn over a new leaf:

I'm through whining about a liberal press that holds conservative women to a different standard, because it doesn't do any good to whine about it.

Well, OK. But what does she have left to talk about if whining about the media is now off her plate?

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Tennessee Scraps Sharia References From Anti-Sharia Bill

| Thu Mar. 24, 2011 11:05 AM EDT

A few weeks back we told you about an extreme new bill proposed in Tennessee that defined Islamic law as prima facie treasonous, and made "material support" for Sharia punishable by 15 years in prison. That's a pretty harsh sentence for a constitutionally protected freedom, to be sure, but that was kind of the point. The bill, drafted by an Arizona-based attorney who'd once called for all Muslim non-citizens to be deported, went beyond warnings about some future invasion of Islamic extremists, and instead took on a core tenet of the religion itself.

In this case, at least, massive public pressure seems to have had an effect. After meeting with Muslim leaders, the bill's co-sponsor, Republican State Sen. Bill Ketron, submitted new language that sort of addresses the problem. From The Tennessean:

The new version removes language that described Shariah—the Islamic legal codes that cover everything from the rules of warfare to prayer and diet—as advocating violence and a threat to the United States and Tennessee constitutions. The change makes clear that peaceful religious practices would not be considered a violation, the bill's sponsors said in a statement.

The Council on American–Islamic Relations had promised to file a lawsuit to block the implementation if the bill became law, but now that the overt religious references have been removed, that becomes a lot less likely. Basically, the bill has been converted into a fairly straightforward law concerning material support for terrorism. Of course, the federal government already has a material support for terrorism law—and a quite expansive one at that—so it's not entirely clear why Tennessee needs its own. Stay tuned next week when the Tennessee state legislature authorizes a no-fly zone over Libya.

GOP Deficit Reduction Plan: Cut Food Stamps

| Thu Mar. 24, 2011 11:00 AM EDT

Republicans are ramping up their push to reduce the deficit on the backs of the poor. The Republican Study Committee, the House GOP's conservative caucus, is lobbying party leaders to include big cuts to food stamps, Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and other welfare programs for the poor. The proposal could "save as much as $1.4 trillion over a decade," the Hill reports:

The RSC bill would set back overall welfare spending for most poverty programs to 2007 levels, plus inflation. The proposal includes food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Medicaid, but does not include unemployment insurance or Social Security disability payments. 

The proposal also includes welfare reform that would make food stamps contingent on even tougher work requirements:

Currently, adults without dependents working less than 80 hours per month are limited to three months of food stamps in any three-year period. The bill would require heads of families to work 120 hours per month to receive benefits, among other changes.

Never mind that the country remains stuck in a recession and that finding work is still a struggle for millions of Americans, despite a superficial decline in the unemployment rate. Having vowed against any tax increases, Republicans must look elsewhere for money if they want to fulfill their promise to reduce the deficit. How about reducing corporate welfare by lowering subsidies for agribusiness? Nah. It's easier to go after poor constituents who don't fund your campaigns and aren't likely to vote for you anyway.

Stimulus vs. Anti-Stimulus

| Thu Mar. 24, 2011 10:58 AM EDT

See update below.

Matt Yglesias reminds me of something this morning. He says:

Federal spending cuts shrink the federal budget deficit and constitute a negative shock to aggregate demand. States have to balance their budgets, so the alternative to a lower level of spending would be a higher level of taxes. In [aggregate demand] terms, it’s basically going to be a wash either way. It's the failure of congress to enact some kind of state/local bailout appropriation that’s forcing the anti-stimulative state level stuff.

This is based on the basic GDP formula: GDP = Consumption + Investment + Government Spending - Taxes + Net Exports. If state spending goes up, that represents an increase in GDP, but if it's matched dollar for dollar with increased taxes, then it's a wash. Ditto for spending cuts. It's different for the federal government, of course, because the feds can raise spending without raising taxes. States can't.

This comes up because I posted a chart a couple of days ago showing reductions in state spending over the past four years and commented that these reductions "wiped out nearly the entire effect of the federal stimulus package." A reader emailed to say this was wrong, that they were actually neutral if they were accompanied by reductions in tax revenue. I realized he had a point, though this depends a lot on details, especially on whether state spending reductions have outpaced declines in tax revenue; whether states can increase their bond issues instead of raising taxes; and whether states have been dipping into their rainy day funds sufficiently. Still, it's a good point, and I'd like to hear a response from some of the economists who have said otherwise. Is there something missing here that complicates the picture?

In any case, it's true that the real failure is the federal government's failure to bail out the states temporarily, which would have been one of the most effective stimulus measures possible. Surely states deserve a bailout at least as much as AIG and Citigroup did?

UPDATE: Robert Waldmann writes in comments that I'm wrong. Taxes don't show up in the GDP identity. He's right. So this whole post is screwed up and you should ignore it.

But.....there's still something off here. Increasing federal spending is stimulative because you can do it without raising taxes. Likewise, decreasing it is anti-stimulative if taxes stay the same. But state spending generally has to match taxes, so raising or lowering state spending has no stimulative or anti-stimulative effect except at the margins. Right?

Or not right? Somebody help! It's true that states have a certain amount of borrowing capacity (bond issues, spending down rainy-day funds, etc.), and also true that higher spending balanced by taxes on the rich might be mildly stimulative. But that's a fairly small effect.

Anyway, for now, ignore all this. If someone provides some kind of definitive answer, I'll link to it.

Bachmann in 2012: "I'm In," Will Soon Form an Exploratory Committee

| Thu Mar. 24, 2011 10:52 AM EDT
Flickr/theqspeaks

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), the tea party darling with a seemingly endless supply of colorful quotes (health care reform, she once said, was like "reaching down the throat and ripping the guts out of freedom"), is looking more and more like a 2012 presidential candidate. She's paid multiple visits to Iowa, courting the state's conservative kingmakers. And she's earned the praise of fellow GOP hopefuls like former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who announced this week he was taking the first official step toward entering the race by forming a presidential exploratory committee.

The latest Bachmann news suggests more than ever that she's planning a 2012 bid. Asked about her 2012 plans in an interview with ABC News, she responded, "I'm in." In the race? "I'm in for 2012 in that I want to be a part of the conversation in making sure that President Obama only serves one term, not two," she explained.

But if Bachmann sounded like she was hedging her bets with ABC, a new revelation, reported by CNN, makes it look like a Bachmann candidacy is a foregone conclusion:

CNN has exclusively learned that Rep. Michele Bachmann will form a presidential exploratory committee. The Minnesota Republican plans to file papers for the committee in early June, with an announcement likely around that same time.

But a source close to the congresswoman said that Bachmann could form the exploratory committee even earlier than June so that she could participate in early Republican presidential debates.

"She's been telling everyone early summer," the source told CNN regarding Bachmann's planned June filing and announcement. But the source said that nothing is static.

"If you [debate sponsors] come to us and say, 'To be in our debates, you have to have an exploratory committee,' then we'll say, 'Okay, fine...I'll go file the forms.'"

Could Bachmann be the candidate to energize an otherwise unexciting Republican field in 2012? She would bring to the race a massive amount of support from the far right and the tea party, but she's almost as polarizing as Sarah Palin, once approvingly called the "second most hated Republican woman" by Fox News host Sean Hannity. That will play well in the Republican primaries, where hardline conservatives like Mike Huckabee tend to have more success, but in a general election, it's difficult to see Bachmann mounting anything like a serious challenge to President Obama.

Indeed, you have to imagine that Democrats are giddy at the prospect of a Bachmann 2012 candidacy. This is, after all, the lawmaker who thought the Revolutionary-era battles of Lexington and Concord took place in New Hampshire, not Massachusetts; who believes in intelligent design and says evolution has never been proven; and who wants to privatize social security. Somewhere, probably Chicago, David Axelrod is smiling.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 24, 2011

Thu Mar. 24, 2011 5:30 AM EDT

Soldiers assigned to 2nd Battalion, 11th Brigade, 3rd Iraqi Army Division, assault an objective during a live fire exercise at Ghuzlani Warrior Training Center, Feb. 24, 2011. Soldiers assigned to Troop A, 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, 4th Advise and Assist Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, conducted collective training at GWTC to enhance Iraqi soldiers’ light infantry skills during Tadreeb al Shamil, Arabic for All Inclusive Training. U.S. forces in northern Iraq led individual and collective infantry training for Iraqi soldiers and units from squad to battalion-level tasks during the 25-day Iraqi military training program at GWTC. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Angel Washington, 4th AAB PAO, 1st Cav. Div., USD-N)

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Libya's Thousand-Man Rebellion

| Thu Mar. 24, 2011 1:52 AM EDT

The New York Times reports on what an insider says about the state of the rebellion in Libya:

After the uprising, the rebels stumbled as they tried to organize. They did a poor job of defining themselves when Libyans and the outside world tried to figure out what they stood for. And now, as they try to defeat Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s armed forces and militias, they will have to rely on allied airstrikes and young men with guns because the army that rebel military leaders bragged about consists of only about 1,000 trained men.

A thousand men? If that's true, then there's virtually no chance of Qaddafi losing this war. For this and other reasons, Adam Garfinkle believes it's almost a certainty that the French and British will have to send in ground troops if they're genuinely committed to expelling Qaddafi, and this in turn could spell trouble for us:

So what happens if the French and British try but do not succeed in a reasonably expeditious way? What happens is about as obvious as it gets: not Suez happens. The Americans come and save the day, as they demurred from doing in October 1956. The French and British know in their heart of hearts that we cannot let them fail miserably at this, or that’s what they suppose. I suppose they’re right.

What this means is that the President may before very long be forced to make the most excruciating decision of his life: to send American soldiers into harm’s way to save the Western alliance—even from an operation that is not explicitly a NATO mission!—in a contingency that has no strategic rationale to begin with; or not, leaving the alliance in ruins and Qaddafi bursting with plans to exact revenge.

What's worse, even if Garfinkle is being unduly pessimistic and we manage to oust Qaddafi successfully, we still don't seem to have any idea whether the rebellious tribes are really any better for Libya or for us than the tribes currently aligned with Qaddafi. Helluva war we have going here.

More on New Gulf Drilling Permits

| Wed Mar. 23, 2011 6:07 PM EDT

As reported, the Gulf Coast has recently reopened for new drilling business. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, you can expect more of that in the very near future:

Mr. Bromwich, who heads the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, said more permits to drill for oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico's deep water would be issued "within the next week."

Even though:

Bromwich, the top U.S. offshore-drilling regulator, said Tuesday that the speed with which some oil and gas companies are shrugging off last year's deadly Deepwater Horizon disaster as an aberration is disturbing.

And if you like disturbing, check out these pictures of the latest spill, taken by photographer Julie Dermansky this weekend. And read Yahoo's Brett Michael Dykes' article on how little oversight there is of this and future pollution in the Gulf. 

How Many Birds?

| Wed Mar. 23, 2011 5:49 PM EDT

OK, so how big is our bird predation problem? Did I get an answer to my question from last night?

Probably. But first a few related items that multiple people pointed out in comments. First, habitat destruction is a way bigger problem than cats, so if you want to worry about the fate of North American birds, that's #1 on your list. Second, overall numbers are only part of the story. Even if cats aren't responsible for wholesale decimation of the bird population, they might still be responsible for serious damage to specific species in specific places. Third, although it's true that it's natural for cats to kill birds, the cat population in the United States is artificially high thanks to all of us cat lovers who keep them as pets. So the total amount of feline bird hunting is higher than it would be in a state of nature. There's more in the comment thread if you're interested.

Still: how many damn birds are there in the United States? John Trapp rounds up the literature here and figures the best guess is around 10 billion birds in spring and 20 billion in the fall. Meanwhile, the aptly named book, "How Many Birds Are There?" estimates 200-400 billion birds for the entire world, which is pretty consistent with 10-20 billion in the U.S.

So, assuming once again that cats really do kill 500 million birds a year, as the American Bird Conservancy claims, it means they kill something like 3% of the total bird population of the country. The error bars are probably fairly large on this number, but at least it provides the right ballpark. So now you know.

Tattoos and Bribes in the Name of No Child Left Behind

| Wed Mar. 23, 2011 3:00 PM EDT

A few years ago, many Latino students at Mission High school failed to correctly answer this standardized test question: "Do you chop, mince, slice, or grind the ingredients of salsa?" Well, depending on which culture you come from, you might do one or all of the above. "I've seen it made in the blender, minced, and sliced," Principal Eric Guthertz told me this week. Another test question described teacups with saucers. "Culturally, most of our students don't drink tea with saucers," he says.

These are the kinds of reading-related questions high school students are about to ponder on the California Standardized Tests, which are coming up in a few weeks. To be fair: Guthertz notes that these are extreme examples, and that some kind of education accountability measures are needed. But "who is writing these tests and for whom?" Guthertz wonders aloud, as we sit in his office one recent rainy day and talk about how President Obama might revamp the No Child Left Behind Act. According to current measurements, four out of five schools could be labeled as failures, which implies that either the current scales are broken, or kids are. "The way this law is currently written just doesn't measure the intelligence and achievement of our students," Guthertz tells me.

Civil rights groups and community based organizations like the NAACP and the Advancement Project claim that failed measurement policies have actually pushed more students of color and low-income students into prisons than colleges. In a recent report (PDF), these groups argue that some schools are "increasing" their test scores by "punishing" failing students through suspensions, expulsions, and school-based arrests. Over 150 organizations have endorsed the report, urging federal policy makers to fix NCLB. President Obama announced last week that he wants to improve the quality of testing and give more control over the testing to local and state governments.

Given how much policymaker handwringing there is over low standardized test scores, it's shocking to discover how little most high school students actually care about correctly answering questions on the standardized tests. Why? Because good test scores won't help them get into college, they tell me. Test scores won't help them get scholarships either. Students know that college admissions judges will look at their grades, essays, and community engagement. So why should they care about NCLB? Here's how Principal Guthertz and teachers at Mission High are improvising to turn the school funding "sticks" of NCLB into student "carrots."