2011 - %3, April

Politics of the Rich, By the Rich, For the Rich

| Sat Apr. 2, 2011 11:38 PM EDT

Dan Eggen and Perry Bacon Jr. report on the start of Obama's fundraising campaign for 2012:

Facing an energized Republican Party and deep-pocketed conservative groups, President Obama is kicking off his 2012 reelection campaign with a concerted push for help from wealthy donors and liberal groups unbound by spending limits.

....Obama frequently points with pride to the role that smaller donors played in his 2008 election, when his campaign also openly discouraged spending by outside organizations. But now Obama finds himself seeking out the kind of big-money donations he has often criticized while encouraging independent groups to raise and spend unlimited money on his behalf.

Obama’s campaign manager-in-waiting, Jim Messina, has asked the party’s biggest supporters to raise $350,000 each this year, to be shared by Obama’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee, far higher than goals set during the 2008 cycle.

I suppose that soon we'll be able to do away with even the charade that anyone with a net worth of less than a million bucks matters in the slightest. Given Obama's obvious deference to the rich over the past two years, this was probably sadly inevitable.

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Obama, Libya, and Me: A Followup

| Sat Apr. 2, 2011 8:23 PM EDT

I tend not to respond very often to criticism of my blog posts because I usually figure justice has been done when I've had my say and everyone else has had theirs. Responding further usually just turns into a pissing match that accomplishes nothing.

But I guess I need to respond to some of the reactions to my post yesterday about Libya and Obama's judgment. I could pretty much ignore Brian Doherty and Doug Mataconis, who simply find it risible that I think well of Obama in the first place, but today Glenn Greenwald decided to jump in. After an apparent attempt to win a gold medal in the insult Olympics by comparing me to Britney Spears, he concedes that trust does play a role when you're deciding who to vote for:

But that's in a different universe than deciding that — once they're in power — you're going to relinquish your own critical faculties and judgment to them as a superior being, which is exactly what Drum (and Spears) announced they were doing...."[T]hinking" that way is an absolute abdication of the duties of citizenship, which compel holding leaders accountable and making informed judgment about their actions (it's a particularly bizarre mindset for someone who seeks out a platform and comments on politics for a living). It's also dangerous, as it creates a climate of unchecked leaders who bask in uncritical adoration. I honestly don't understand why someone who thinks like Drum — whose commentary I've usually found worthwhile — would even bother writing about politics; why not just turn over his blog to the White House to disseminate Obama's inherently superior commentary? And what basis does Drum have for demanding that Obama inform him or the nation of the rationale for his decisions, such as going to war in Libya; since Drum is going to trust Obama's decisions as intrinsically more worthwhile, wouldn't such presidential discussions be a superfluous act?

This strikes me as an appallingly hostile reading of what I wrote, especially for anyone who's followed my writing and knows perfectly well that I haven't reliquished my critical faculties to anyone. Still, I wrote yesterday's post hastily and maybe my intent wasn't as clear as it could have been. So let's take a second crack at it.

I think pretty highly of Barack Obama's judgment. But what does it mean to say that? Just this: that I think highly of his judgment even when I disagree with him. How could it be otherwise, after all? If, when you say that you trust somebody's judgment, what you really mean is that you trust their judgment only to the extent that they agree with you, that's hardly any trust at all. Just the opposite, in fact.

To make this more concrete, I also think highly of Glenn Greenwald's judgment on issues of civil liberties and the national security state. This means that when he takes a different position than mine, it makes me stop and think. After all, we're on roughly the same wavelength on these subjects, and they're subjects that he's often thought about longer and more deeply than me. This doesn't mean that I've outsourced my brain to Glenn, but it does mean that he influences my judgment, and that's especially true on issues that I'm unsure of.

Ditto for Obama. Unlike Glenn, perhaps, I'm unsure about the wisdom of our Libya intervention, and the fact that I'm unsure makes me more open to giving Obama's judgment a fair amount of weight in this matter. That's what it means to respect another person's judgment. On the other hand, as my post made clear, it doesn't mean that he's persuaded me. As I said twice, I think the Libya intervention was a mistake. I wouldn't have done it. But partly because a president I respect disagrees, I'm open to the possibility that I'm wrong. His position has made me stop and think.

The passage that I guess has caused me the most trouble is this one: "The reason I voted for Obama in 2008 is because I trust his judgment. And not in any merely abstract way, either: I mean that if he and I were in a room and disagreed about some issue on which I had any doubt at all, I'd literally trust his judgment over my own." That was phrased more strongly than it should have been, but I guess I took it for granted that "any doubt at all" means "enough doubt to make me unsure of myself." If I weren't unsure of myself, after all, I'd hardly be interested in Obama's views or anyone else's.

So: did I express myself poorly? Or were these responses unfairly hostile readings of what I meant? I guess you can decide. But considering that the whole point of my post was that my trust in Obama's judgment was being "sorely tested" and that it was only intact "for now, anyway" — well, it seems pretty clear to me that I'm hardly treating Obama with "uncritical adoration." Rather, I was talking out loud about the role that trust in someone else's judgment plays in my own.

In any case, for the record, this is the point I was trying to get across. You can make up your own mind whether I succeeded.

UPDATE: Glenn Greenwald responds here. (See update at the bottom.)

Books of the Zeitgeist

| Sat Apr. 2, 2011 1:23 PM EDT

One of Tyler Cowen's readers asks which books are the Great Gatsby of each decade since the 20s? I take this to mean books that both sold well and have come to represent their era. Sounds like fun. Here are Tyler's picks in bold, with alternates from me:

1930s: The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck. That would be my choice too, though I might add Gone With the Wind as the biggest escapist novel of a decade that really needed its escapism.

1940s: Farewell, My Lovely, by Raymond Chandler. This is a tough decade. How about The Naked and the Dead instead? — though it's true that it doesn't really represent the 40s as they were lived in America.

1950s: Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, with Kerouac’s On the Road as a runner-up. Both good choices. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit too, though it doesn't hold up well. And how about On the Beach?

1960s: Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, with The Bell Jar and Herzog as runners-up. Hmmm. Tough decade. Valley of the Dolls? Portnoy's Complaint?

1970s: This is tough. There is Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, Stephen King, and even Peter Benchley’s Jaws. I’ll opt for Benchley as a dark horse pick, note that these aren’t my favorites but rather they must be culturally central. Jonathan Livingston Seagull is another option, as this truly is an era of popular literature. I'd choose The Serial, though I don't think it was ever a bestseller.  Or maybe The World According to Garp or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintencance.

1980s: Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities. Good choice. The Hunt for Red October belongs here too.

1990s: The Firm, by John Grisham, or Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible. Maybe Brokeback Mountain. Perhaps I'm being too hard on the 90s, but I'd pick The Bridges of Madison County. Also, Primary Colors, though that might be my political bent talking.

2000s: Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point. Oh come on. Let's stick with fiction. Maybe the Harry Potter series? When I think of the aughts I think of terrorism and economic collapse, but I'm not sure there were any big novels that really captured either of those things.

UPDATE: One thing that occurred to me while I was writing this, and also occurred to a few commenters, is that sometimes books written in one decade are good representations of another decade. Among WWII novels, for example, I'd say that The Caine Mutiny is more iconic of the 40s than The Naked and the Dead. But Caine was written in the 50s.

But maybe that doesn't matter. Who cares when a novel was written? Maybe Caine Mutiny is iconic of the 40s and Lord of the Rings is iconic of the 60s, even if they were written in the wrong decades.

Fun Petrochemical-Accident Fact of the Day

| Sat Apr. 2, 2011 10:11 AM EDT

From fellow panelist Steve Lerner at the Future of the South Symposium: The Gulf Oil Spill After One Year conference this weekend:

Between 2005 and 2009 Louisiana's 17 oil refineries reported 2,607 chemical accidents to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. That's 10 per week. 

(Read the rest of the stats in the refinery-accident report that came from here.)

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week [9]

| Fri Apr. 1, 2011 9:59 PM EDT

Mother Jones guest blogger Mark Armstrong is the founder of Longreads, a site devoted to uncovering the best long-form nonfiction articles available online. And what better time to curl up with a great read than over the weekend? Below, a hand-picked bouquet of five interesting stories, including word count and approximate reading time. (Readers can also subscribe to The Top 5 Longreads of the Week by clicking here.)

The Reproductive Rights War Goes Global

| Fri Apr. 1, 2011 6:17 PM EDT
Hosea Motoro washing a condom. Image courtesy of IRIN.

Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) may have taken his anti-abortion message to Kenya last week, but the policies Smith and other Republicans in Congress are pushing here at home are actually quite likely to increase the need for abortions there. The GOP budget included a 32 percent cut in funding for international reproductive health and family planning programs. It would also stop US contributions to the UN Population Fund, which provides family planning supplies and services.

Seeking to restrict abortion access while at the same time cutting funds for contraception, sex education, and other programs that help prevent unwanted pregnancies is nothing new for conservatives. But as I was writing on Smith's trip to Kenya earlier this week, I came across this horrifying story about men in northern Kenya washing and recycling condoms. From IRIN:

Local TV channels recently showed images of men in Isiolo, in rural northern Kenya, washing condoms and hanging them out to dry; the men said the price of condoms meant they could not afford to use them just once. Other men in the village said when they had no access to condoms, they used polythene bags and even cloth rags when having sex.

What's distressing about this story is not that the men are doing this; indeed, that shows that education campaigns are working. IRIN talks to one man, Hosea Motoro, who is HIV positive and who walks 3 miles to the nearest health center to get condoms so he can avoid infecting and impregnating his wife. Sometimes, though, the health center doesn't have any to give him when he gets there. "When you go and you are lucky to get [condoms], you use, then you wash and use another time," says Motoro.

So while Smith was in Kenya pushing an anti-abortion agenda, back in the states he and his allies are trying to defund the very programs that could help prevent people like Motoro and his wife from needing an abortion in the first place.

Also among the anti-abortion inclusions in the House-passed budget bill is the reinstatement of the global gag rule, a policy that bars organizations that receive government funding from offering abortion services or even discussing abortion as an option. The gag rule, also known as the Mexico City Policy, has been in place under executive orders issued by every Republican president since Ronald Reagan first instituted it in 1984. Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama rescinded the rule as one of their first actions in office, but congressional Republicans now want to reinstate it through legislation.

The 1973 Helms amendment bans using foreign aid money to pay for abortion services. But the gag rule puts global health organizations in an even tougher spot: They can either offer abortion services and forgo federal funds, or they can take the money and not provide abortions. Since Obama repealed the order, international organizations that offer abortions can at least get funding for other vital services, like health care and family planning. But if House Republicans get their way, that will no longer be the case.

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What's So Special About the White Whale?

| Fri Apr. 1, 2011 5:19 PM EDT

This post courtesy BBC Earth. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous.

As two of the most unique and legendary members of the monodontidae family, the narwhal and beluga whales are as precious to our understanding of natural history as they are to our grasp of our planet's present condition. You could be mistaken for thinking that these white whales were not something to shout about with their medium length bodies (in comparison to their much greater kin!), short snouts, and absence of a true dorsal fin. However these oceanic stars have shining lights of their very own.

If you haven't come across the beluga whale before, you are in for treat... and not just a visual one. Refreshingly nicknamed the "Sea Canary" by early Arctic sailors, this sociable marine mammal uses a wide range of high pitched whistles, screeches, clicks, and squeaks to communicate. According to one Japanese researcher, it's not just to each other. It was claimed that it was possible to "talk" to the beluga by attributing three distinct sounds to three objects and then playing games in identifying which went with which. This not only exercised the whales' intelligence, but also gave hope that one day humans and sea mammals might be able to exchange more valuable information.

However, we must also remember that these unmistakable all-white whales (who can be heard through the hulls of ships) do just make noise for the fun of it, as this video of a beluga back scrubbing party quite notably shows.

However weird and wonderful this sea creature may be, it definitely is a contender for being better known in fiction rather than fact. Appearing alongside the beluga is another very vocal, cold water loving, deep sea diver: the narwhal. However with this sea mammal, it is definitely all about looks.

Most commonly accepted as having a feature similar in purpose to a lion's mane or a peacock's tail feather, the narwhal have a tusk which can be up to 10 feet long! And when compared with a body length similar to the belugas' at a medium-sized 16 feet, that’s quite a tooth!

Living year-round in the Arctic, but migrating seasonally to be closer to the coasts, the narwhal are unique in their ability to hunt more successfully in the deep-waters during the winter, than the shallows during the summer. Which begs the question: why do these mammals migrate at all? The answer. To mate and give birth. It's while in these coastal bays that the white whales will not only enjoy the open water, and a sea bottom of scratchy gravel and crushed stone (as seen in the moulting video above)... they'll also take advantage of the safer and gentler climate of the bays to give birth to their young.

After mating in the deep waters during the winter migration approximately 14 to 15 months prior, the beluga and the narwhal mothers will both split into their respective nursing pods and give birth usually around the summer months of June and July. Luckily (especially for the narwhal!) these marine mammals give birth to their young tail first, however neither will be born in the immediate likeness to their parents. The beluga calf takes on a greyish brown color, and the narwhal males don't develop any form of tusk until the first few years of life.

The calves will commonly return to these same estuaries when they are fully-grown, sometimes even meeting their mothers again. And the cycle of life continues.

Should Foodies Be Fasting?

| Fri Apr. 1, 2011 4:40 PM EDT

When fasting is in the news these days, it's usually accompanied by words like "cleanse" and "detox." You give up microwave burritos for a while, maybe hit a few yoga classes, and emerge on the other side simultaneously skinnier and more grounded. Or something.

But this week, some people are practicing a different kind of fast: They're hungerstriking to protest the cuts proposed in the house budget bill H.R.1, a brutal piece of legislation that would take food, medicine, and services away from the people who need it most—in order to provide tax breaks for wealthy individuals and corporations. For a side-by-side comparison of cuts to aid programs and tax breaks for rich people, check out this cool chart over at the Center for American Progress. 

The growing list of fasters includes leaders of religious organizations, NGOS, activists groups, and others. On Tuesday, Mark Bittman devoted his column to the topic. The whole thing is worth reading, but his basic point is this:

...we need to gather and insist that our collective resources be used for our collective welfare, not for the wealthiest thousand or even million Americans but for a vast majority of us in the United States and, indeed, for citizens of the world who have difficulty making ends meet. Or feeding their kids.

Bittman's stirring words led me to wonder what might happen if a critical mass of foodies all joined the fasting movement. Now, this is not a group known for its self-restraint. In fact, recently, foodies have been accused of not just gluttony, but devious gluttony: In a recent Atlantic article B.R. Myers lambasted them for using a facade of politically correct causes (the struggling farmers! The beakless chickens!) to dress up what is really just a desire to eat lots and lots of delicious fancy food.

Foodies, (and especially food writers and bloggers), I invite you to put your morals where your mouth is, prove Myers wrong, and lay off the locally cured bacon and hand-gathered chanterelles for as long as you see fit. I'll be fasting today, which is kind of cheating, since Bittman and others started fasting way back on Monday. But since I've never fasted before, I'm starting small. We'll see how it goes. First order of business: Get someone to remove the chocolate taunting me from my desk drawer. Help!

Unions vs. Rich Businessmen: Who Funds the Democrats?

| Fri Apr. 1, 2011 4:04 PM EDT

Kevin Drum's March/April cover story on the decline of labor unions as a political force in the United States and the corresponding rise of income inequality is a must-read as Republican governors across the country work to strip workers of collective bargaining rights. Kevin's conclusion—that if we don't want inequality and corporate/Wall Street rapacity to get out of hand, we have to find something to replace unions as a mass political force advocating for the interests of the middle class—was widely debated in the blogosphere. Kevin seemed to imply that the death of unions will mean the decline of the Democratic party, which relies on labor as a major source of campaign funds. But Matt Yglesias had another theory:

I think people should shy away from overestimating the partisan stakes here. It's true that in the very short term extirpating public sector unions will damage the finances of the Democratic Party. But the political system has a strong tendency toward equilibrium. Democrats will keep getting enough money to stay in business and will keep winning approximately half the elections. It's just that in post-union America, rich businessmen will be the only viable sources of political funding.

My friend (and former Mother Jones employee) Mike Beckel at the Center for Responsive Politics seems to have proven Yglesias' point. Mike crunched the data, and it turns out that as Democrats have become less dependent on unions, they've become ever-more-dependent on rich businessmen and corporations:

A decade ago, corporate PACs favored Republicans over Democrats by about a two-to-one ratio.

By the 2008 election cycle, however, when Democrats were poised to control both chambers of Congress and the White House, contributions from business PACs were split about evenly between Republican and Democratic candidates and groups. During the 2010 election cycle, that parity continued—almost down to the last dollar....

...All the while, labor union PAC contributions hovered between $59 million and $73 million, typically with 90 percent or more of those dollars supporting Democrats each election cycle, according to the Center's research.

While corporate PACs doled out 73 percent more money during the 2010 election cycle than they did during the 2000 election cycle, union PACs donated just 17 percent more.

Mike has charts, too. It's pretty clear, as Yglesias theorized, that as union donations fail to keep up with ever-increasing amounts of money from corporations and rich businessmen, the Democrats are forced to replace the union money with corporate dollars. And you can bet that money comes with strings attached.

Friday Cat Blogging - 1 April 2011

| Fri Apr. 1, 2011 3:03 PM EDT

We're having an early summer here in Southern California. Yesterday it was 90 degrees outside, and you know what that means: piles of cats snoozing in the afternoon warmth. As I write this they're in almost exactly the same positions, enjoying their midday siestas. After all, what else is there to do between breakfast and dinner?