FEMA's Ups and Downs

The New York Times on FEMA's response to the tornadoes that ripped through the South last week:

It has been the deadliest natural disaster on American soil since Hurricane Katrina. But the government response to the tornadoes that devastated the South last week has, at least in the first few days, drawn little of the searing criticism aimed at federal agencies back in 2005.

....FEMA officials contacted the White House about the need for a federal emergency declaration even before Alabama had submitted a formal request that evening, said Art Faulkner, the state’s emergency management director. It was quickly granted....In Alabama, as in other affected states, the Democratic White House was winning early praise from state, local and Congressional leaders of both parties.

Shall we roll the tape? Under Bush Sr., FEMA sucked. Under Clinton, FEMA was rehabilitated and turned into a superstar agency. Under Bush Jr., FEMA sucked again. Under Obama, FEMA's doing great and responding quickly.

I know, I know, we're not supposed to politicize natural disasters. Not when that politicization makes Republicans look bad, anyway. So I'll just let you draw your own conclusions from these four data points. I report, you decide.

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 Zero Profit World

Matt Yglesias:

In a fully competitive market, products should be sold for the marginal cost of producing a unit. And in the software world, the marginal cost of producing a unit is zero. Therefore, in the long run software should be free and nobody should make a profit.

This is an odd use of the word "should," I think. And rather than being an argument for free software1, it's really more of an argument that either (a) economic "efficiency" is overrated or (b) fully competitive markets are overrated. If nobody ever got to make a profit, after all, the world would be a pretty dreary and backward place.

But then, I suppose I'm biased. The marginal cost of producing blog posts is indistinguishable from zero, and I'd just as soon make more than zero dollars producing them. So I'm not really a fan of long run profits trending to zero, even in the nonprofit world.

1For reasons that escape me, this argument is almost always employed as a criticism of industries like software and music that have very low marginal costs. I suspect ulterior motives.

On Tuesday, New Jersey mother Trisha Fraser announced she's suing anti-choice groups that used images of her 6-year-old daughter for a race-baiting ad campaign. "The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb" proclaimed billboards in New York and Florida that featured a then-4-year-old Anissa Fraser. Controversy over the ad erupted late last year when a billboard first went up near Manhattan's high-traffic Holland Tunnel. The ad was by the Holland Tunnel for four months before it was taken down following complaints by city officials, Al Sharpton, and Trisha Fraser. But in February 2011, the billboard went up again, this time near a busy intersection in Jacksonville, Florida.

The ad with the the larger-than-life photo of Fraser was paid for by Majella Cares aka Heroic Media and its affiliate Life Always, both Texas organizations dedicated to discouraging reproductive freedom. The agencies use large ads to drive site traffic and spread their message, like many other organizations do. But it's the content of the ad that's making it so controversial. "I would never endorse something like that," Fraser told the Associated Press. "Especially with my child's image." Fraser's lawsuit against both companies claims that her daughter’s picture was used for "defamatory, unauthorized, and offensive" purposes.

The picture of Fraser's daughter seen on the billboards comes from ImageSource, a stock image broker, and its parent company, Getty Images. To purchase stock photos from Getty Images, advertisers like Heroic Media are required to sign an agreement stating the photos won’t be used "in connection with a subject that would be unflattering or unduly controversial to a reasonable person." The agreement also says the images can't be used in a defamatory way. If the image is used for something controversial, like anti-choice messages directed toward black women, advertisers are required to get clearance from the model or indicate somewhere on the billboard that the model is not affiliated with the message. According to Fraser's complaint, this didn't happen.

"The billboard was defamatory of Anissa and/or her mother in that it gave the false suggestion, impression, and implication that they approved of the racist and offensive message contained therein," reads Fraser's claim. Fraser's lawyer Andrew Celli says "the issue isn't [Life Always and Heroic Media's] position on abortion. It's the statement that children of color are at risk because African-American women are exercising their right. That's the racist part, that African American women are dangerous to their children."

Fraser’s complaint says Anissa has booked fewer modeling jobs as a result of her image being associated with the campaign. Fraser was also forced to discuss reproductive choice issues with her six-year-old daughter to explain the attention she received from the media and people who know her family. Mother Jones contacted Life Always, a group led by tea party darling and FOX Nation commentator Stephen Broden. Here's a portion of its statement:

Life Always did not violate its contractual obligations but rather properly exercised its constitutional rights to engage in free speech on a matter of significant public interest. Life Always will continue placing advertisements across the country to educate and raise public awareness of confrontational truths about abortion. The billboard, which read, "The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb," was erected to draw attention to the New York City Health and Mental Services statistics report that in 2009, 60% of African American babies in New York City never made it out of the womb.

For the record, about 47 percent (not 60 percent) of black women in New York City reported abortions in 2009. Mother Jones has covered the "abortion equals black genocide" debate before. At its core, the rhetoric is less about care for black people's well-being, and more about controlling all women's reproductive choices, regardless of race.

On Monday, Andrew Breitbart's Big Government site posted "exclusive, explosive" video of what it described as "Thuggery 101"—a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a union official advocating "violence and industrial sabotage" to a classroom of college students. This led to instant hyperventilation about "taxpayer-funded courses in union violence". Now, like many a sensational video linked to Breitbart, this latest scoop has disintegrated in the bright light of day. Crooks and Liars has the definitive takedown, which shows how the supposedly inflammatory soundbites posted on Big Government were intentionally edited to strip them of their context and twist their intended meanings. In other words, yet another "classic Breitbarting."

On the positive side, the original video did not get much traction beyond right-wing sites, which may suggest that the rest of the media has wised up to the Breitbart/James O'Keefe M.O. Or maybe it was just too distracted by the birthers to be bothered.

So you think the royal wedding has been overexposed? Don't be silly. The overexposure has only barely begun! And today, the cats and I do our part to keep the royal media extravaganza going, with a tsotchke assist from my sister.

On the left, Inkblot is celebrating the great day — and demonstrating his serene confidence in his own masculinity — by wearing a lovely royal tiara. Majestic looking, isn't he? And aside from being made out of plastic, it's just like Kate's! Except for all the parts that aren't. On the right, Domino is royalty percatified, surrounded by my sister's treasures. Unlike Inkblot, who's generally willing to plonk down wherever you put him (for a while, anyway), Domino doesn't really like being told what to do. This meant that her picture took a little while longer to set up. Basically, I had to wait for her to go to sleep somewhere and then start piling stuff up around her. That only worked for a few minutes, but a few minutes was all I needed.

So anyway, happy royal wedding day! It's a bank holiday in Britain, and I declare the rest of the day a cat holiday in America. Go pet a cat!

A cute baby goat munches hay.

A round-up of news on health, the environment, and energy published on our other blogs this week.

Devil's in the Details: Americans like Ryan's overall health care plan, but not the deets.

Unen-forcible: The FBI's 82-year-old rape definition still requires force to be involved.

Fetal Felony: A proposed bill gives women a 15-year sentence for having an abortion.

Say Cheese: Bill proposes giving women ultrasound pic (for free!) with abortions.

Hell No: NJ residents are outraged—outraged!—at solar panels on telephone poles.

Upward Spiral: US healthcare costs are skyrocketing; other countries not so much.

No Money, Mo' Problems: Medicare users need to pay more because of inflation.




After reviewing a few of the latest follies on Capitol Hill, Jon Chait concludes that the Beltway chattering classes have become obsessed with the federal deficit because, as far as they're concerned, the economy is fine and we don't really have to worry about it anymore:

The view that the deficit represents a uniquely high priority, and that we should prioritize it over economic growth even during the greatest economic crisis since the Depression, has been deeply embraced by economic and political elites in both parties. And it's hard to disconnect this from the fact that, for those elites, the economic crisis is over.

Moments later, Catherine Rampell posts this result from a recent Gallup Poll:

Sure enough, where you stand depends on where you sit. If you have a job and you're earning good money, the economy doesn't look great, but it doesn't look that bad either. If you don't have a job and/or you're not earning much, the economy continues to look pretty sucky.

And the Beltway folks? They all have jobs and they all earn considerably more than $75,000. To them, the economy probably looks almost peachy. It's no wonder they can afford to focus all their attention on what the federal deficit is going to look like in the year 2030.1

1Plus, this focus is politically useful for Republicans. That always helps with the chattering classes too.

The Limits of Nostalgia

Megan McArdle responds to bouts of childhood nostalgia from Jim Manzi and Paul Krugman:

Maybe it's because I grew up later than either Manzi or Krugman; maybe it's because I grew up in Manhattan; or maybe it's because I'm a woman. Whatever the reason, what I notice about their idyll is how dependent it was on women being home. Home production looks very similar no matter who is doing it; one family may be having meatloaf, and another filet mignon, but the family meals still have the same basic rhythm of Mom in the kitchen for hours until the family comes to dinner. Families only need one car because Mom, who doesn't herself work, is available to drive Dad to work every morning before she heads to the grocery store. And the kids can play unsupervised because, of course, in this neighborhood--in all neighborhoods--there is a network of constantly watching eyes. Meanwhile, the poor people and minorities are somewhere comfortably distant, allowing young Paul and Jim to experience a world without want. I can tell you where all the inequality and fear and crime was; it was in the neighborhood where I grew up, and the neighborhoods elsewhere in the city that were much poorer and more dangerous.

I don't mean to sneer; I'm sure it was idyllic. And the income gains of the 1950s and 1960s were real. But the suburbs of the era were not created simply by the rise of the middle class. Their existence, in the way that Manzi and Krugman remember, was also completely dependent on other forms of inequality: of the ability to move away from social problems, which is harder now; of generations of women whose sole destiny was the kitchen. This produced a world in which most homes were, from the point of view of kids, basically the same: all of them contained a mom who spent most of her time cleaning the place or feeding its occupants, and the size and contents were naturally limited to the amount of stuff that Mom was personally willing to care for. It was a great world for kids. But not everyone was so lucky.

My childhood was largely similary to Manzi's and Krugman's, so I know what they're talking about. And I don't begrudge them their nostalgia at all. It's not necessary to insert a thousand-word caveat about racism and sexism and suburbanization every time you write affectionately about your childhood.

Still, Megan's caveat can hardly be repeated too often. It's buzzkill for sure, but whenever we talk about whether we'd prefer the past to the present if we had lots more money to make up for the lack of flat screen TVs (or whatnot), it's worth remembering that it's not just technological differences that made the past the past. It was also social differences, and for an awful lot of people those social differences are far more important. If you're black or gay or Hispanic or female, all the money in the world wouldn't make the 50s a great place to live your life.

A pair of Democratic strategists have launched what they're billing as the left's answer to the flood of outside spending by Karl Rove's Crossroads groups and the Koch brothers' money machine. The group Priorities USA, run by former White House aides Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney, opened for business today, as did as the outfit's affiliated political action committee, Priorities USA Action. Sweeney described the groups in a statement as "an effort to level the playing field. Americans deserve an honest debate about job creation, the economy, national security, and education. That debate will never happen if only right wing extremists are engaged on the battlefield."

Burton and Sweeney join Media Matters founder David Brock and his team at American Bridge 21st Century, another liberal independent expenditure group, in building up the left's firepower in the outside spending wars. The need for such a response was painfully clear after the GOP's trouncing in the 2010 midterms, a landslide made possible by the efforts of American Crossroads, Crossroads GPS, and others like them, including American Action Network and Americans for Job Security. Democrats quickly realized they'd have to fight fire with fire to be competitive in 2012, given that right-leaning groups including the Chamber of Commerce are expected to raise more than $500 million to help elect Republican candidates in 2012. The Koch brothers alone are planning to raise $88 million.

Brock's group, whose donors include a bevy of deep-pocketed supporters, is in the process of hiring staffers and raising cash to build up the group's war chest. Susan McCue, a former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, will serve on the group's board of directors, as will former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Former Reid staffer Rodell Mollineau will also work for the group.

Diving headlong into the shadow spending wars, as I reported back in November, puts the left in something of a bind. It's Democrats, after all, who loudly decried the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates to huge amounts of outside spending, and who demanded new safeguards to staunch the flow of shadow cash pouring into American elections. Now they find themselves with a foot in both camps: Still demanding new campaign finance regulations and mimicking the GOP's tactics from 2010. As one prominent Democratic donor told me in November, "The Chamber and Crossroads and all them are going to be coming in full bore. So I think you will see donors engaged, and I'm not going to sit here and say we won't need to create some new groups...It's not that I don't want to see a meaningful legislative response to Citizens United, but I'm also not going to unilaterally disarm."

Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for American Crossroads, responded to Priorities USA's unveiling today with a sharply worded statement bashing Obama for his "brazen hypocrisy" which "shows how cynical this President can be when it comes to perpetuating his own power." He added, "This move may cause the biggest ordeal for the so-called 'good government' groups who publicly called for IRS and FEC investigations of conservative groups last year. To maintain their own 'nonpartisan' tax exempt status, will these groups call for investigations of the new non-disclosing liberal efforts?"

One watchdog group, however, said today there was nothing hypocritical about Priorities USA's plans. "There will be those who call the establishment of Priorities USA hypocritical," said David Donnelly, national campaigns director for the Public Campaign Action Fund. "They are either trying to score political points against President Obama or are unfortunately out of touch with what it takes to make political change in this country. In order to change the rules of the game, we need to engage in the rules as they are, not as we wish they were. To act otherwise after Citizens United is to take a knife to a gunfight."