2011 - %3, May

Paul Ryan's Healthcare Boondoggle

| Wed May 25, 2011 10:49 AM EDT

Peter Orszag may be an ex-Obama aide, but his cost control bona fides are pretty widely acknowledged. And he says that last month's CBO is right: Paul Ryan's plan to voucherize Medicare wouldn't reduce healthcare spending, it would raise it:

On the critical metric of whether the Ryan plan would reduce total health-care costs [] the CBO conclusion is shocking: The plan would not only fail to decrease health-care costs per beneficiary, it would increase them — by an astonishingly large amount that grows over time. By 2030, health spending on the typical beneficiary would be more than 40 percent higher under the Ryan plan than under existing Medicare, according to the CBO report.

....How could this possibly be, when the point of reform is to reduce costs? The CBO points to two factors: Private plans have higher administrative costs than the federal Medicare program, and less negotiating leverage with providers.

Everything in life is relative. The CBO’s analysis of the health-reform act that was passed last year was, well, lukewarm on its potential to reduce costs. Compared with the Ryan plan, though, the health reform act comes across as an efficient cost- containment machine.

The main goal of Medicare reform isn't to reduce federal healthcare spending. That's only a side effect. The main goal is to reduce healthcare spending, full stop. If, instead, your plan increases the cost of healthcare but reduces the federal share of that spending, all you're doing is making things worse. The cost of healthcare goes up and more and more patients no longer have the means to pay for it. There's literally no upside to a plan that does this.

In other words, there's no upside to Paul Ryan's Medicare plan. It's bad news across the board. What we need isn't ideological nostrums, it's actual ideas for controlling costs. Paul Ryan is entirely silent on that.

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House GOPer Blasted for Calling Elizabeth Warren a Liar

| Wed May 25, 2011 10:46 AM EDT

You won't find more of a spectacle on Capitol Hill than what happened in a House hearing Tuesday featuring consumer watchdog Elizabeth Warren, the White House aide building the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

At the hearing, House Republicans, and Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) in particular, accused Warren of lying to Congress about her role in the settlement negotiations between mortgage servicing companies and state attorneys general. Warren has repeatedly described her role as an advisory one: "We gave advice when asked." House GOPers, however, continue to claim that she has unduly influenced the settlement talks, and then lied to Congress about the extent of her role in previous testimony.

Then the hearing got really ugly. At around 2:15 p.m., Warren said her time was up and she had to go, based on what McHenry's staff had told her staff. McHenry said that wasn't the case, and then accused Warren of lying again, this time about the hearing schedule.

Here's the exchange:

It's worth noting that Patrick McHenry questioning someone else's integrity is as hypocritical as it gets. This is, after all, the guy who created a phony realty company before his initial run for Congress so that he could later say he was the "one small businessman in the race," as the Washington Monthly reported.

Now McHenry's facing some blowback for his specious attacks on Warren. Just take a look at his official Facebook page. You'll find comment after comment demanding McHenry apologize and ripping him for calling Warren a liar. Here are just a few:

"Mr. McHenry, you should be ashamed for your behavior. You are a disgrace to NC, the House of Representatives, and human kind in general."

"Just because you don't agree with someone politically, does not allow you to treat them disrespect. Ms. Warren carried herself with dignity and showed you respect. You, on the other hand, treated her with hostility and disrespect."

"Your treatment of an incredibly smart and strong woman was reprehensible. Ms. Warren represents the interests and people of this country better than you do. I despise that I had to "like" your page so I could tell you off. I'll be happy to financially contribute to your opponent this cycle."

"This is your 'macaca' moment, Congressman. Enjoy!"

WorldNet Daily Can't Take A Joke

| Wed May 25, 2011 10:16 AM EDT

The folks at WorldNet Daily take their birther conspiracies very seriously. The right-wing publication has been the leading purveyor of rumors that President Obama is not a natural born American citizen, and thus, ineligible to serve as president. Its publisher, Joseph Farah, has paid for billboards blaring, "Where's the birth certificate?" and recently his outfit published Jerome Corsi's book of the same name. Corsi, though, had the misfortune of publishing the book at just about the exact moment Obama decided to release his "long form" birth certificate, settling once again and for all time the issue of where he was born.

Last week, Esquire magazine posted a little satire piece suggesting that in response to Obama's birth certificate production, Farah was recalling Where's the Birth Certificate?, pulping all 200,000 copies and offering refunds to anyone who'd bought the book. Esquire editor Mark Warren wrote:

A source at WND, who requested that his name be withheld, said that Farah was "rip-shit" when, on April 27, President Obama took the extraordinary step of personally releasing his "long-form" birth certificate, thus resolving the matter of Obama's legitimacy for "anybody with a brain."

"He called up Corsi and really tore him a new one," says the source. "I mean, we'll do anything to hurt Obama, and erase his memory, but we don't want to look like fucking idiots, you know? Look, at the end of the day, bullshit is bullshit."

Apparently lots of people believed that Farah could be so sensible and called up WND and asked for their money back. Farah was not amused. For the past few days, he has been blasting out emails suggesting that he might sue Esquire for libel. Of course, he hasn't just gone ahead and sued the publication. That would deprive him of a tremendous opportunity to fundraise off the whole episode. In an email Wednesday entitled, "To Sue or Not to Sue?" Farah writes:

I believe Warren, Esquire and the Hearst Corporation may have committed something other than satire. I think they committed libel.

And that's why I have decided to pursue every possible legal recourse for justice in this matter – not so much out of a personal sense of vengeance, but because my profession needs a good kick in the rear end.

I'm sick and tired of spoiled little twits like Warren, perched in their comfortable offices in New York, firing salvoes on tireless, hard-working, committed journalists like Jerome Corsi and the rest of my team at WND without any accountability to standards of professionalism.

Farah also manages to find another conspiracy in the Esquire satire: the possibility that the White House put Warren up to the spoof. Farah notes:

Who is Mark Warren? He's Harry Reid's collaborator. In other words, he's a liberal Democratic hack, not a newsman. Who else is he? His professional bio posted at Esquire says he has worked there since 1988. That's 23 years in the insular world of a New York girlie mag. And he is in charge of Esquire's political coverage. He's also an acolyte of Dennis Kucinich and Christopher Hitchens. Maybe you wonder where a guy like this cut his journalistic teeth? Actually, he has no journalistic teeth. He worked in local Democratic Party political campaigns and staff positions until plucked out of obscurity by Esquire in 1988.

And some actually scoffed when I suggested the distinct possibility that the White House may have been behind this dirty trick!

Naturally, he finishes his rant with an appeal for financial contributions to wage his legal war on Warren, Esquire and its parent corporation, Hearst. You can make a donation through the same WND "superstore" that still sells Corsi's book. 

New Sarah Palin Hagiography: Springboard for 2012 Presidential Run?

| Wed May 25, 2011 10:02 AM EDT

Coming soon to a theater near you (if you happen to live in a key GOP primary state) is The Undefeated, a glowing documentary on Sarah Palin that chronicles her years as governor of Alaska. The filmmaker behind the pro-Palin film is Stephen Bannon, a former banker at Goldman Sachs and a Navy officer, who self-financed the $1 million project. The roll-out for Bannon's film has a distinctly political flavor—and, by the looks of it, is a potential springboard for a Palin 2012 presidential run: After its late June debut in Iowa, home to the curtain-raising presidential caucuses, The Undefeated will screen in New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina—all battleground states in the presidential primary season.

Bannon didn't come up with the idea on his own. In fact, it was Palin herself, along with aide Rebecca Mansour, who contacted the ex-banker and asked him to make a series of shorter videos praising Palin's record, as RealClearPolitics reported. If she ever hoped to run for president, Palin needed something to patch up her image after resigning as Alaska governor with 18 months left in her term.

And boy did Bannon deliver. RCP's Scott Conroy, who screened a rough cut of the film, described it as "a two-hour-long, sweeping epic" that "is poised to serve as a galvanizing prelude to Palin's prospective presidential campaign." Here's more from RCP:

Divided into three acts, the film makes the case that despite the now cliched label, Palin was indeed a maverick who confronted the powerful forces lined up against her to achieve wide-ranging success in a short period of time. The second part of the film's message is just as clear, if more subjective: that Sarah Palin is the only conservative leader who can both build on the legacy of the Reagan Revolution and bring the ideals of the tea party movement to the Oval Office.

Rife with religious metaphor and unmistakable allusions to Palin as a Joan of Arc-like figure, "The Undefeated" echoes Palin's "Going Rogue" in its tidy division of the world between the heroes who are on her side and the villains who seek to thwart her at every turn.

To convey Bannon's view of the pathology behind Palin-hatred, the film begins with a fast-paced sequence of clips showing some of the prominent celebrities who have used sexist, derogatory and generally vicious language to describe her.

Rosie O'Donnell, Matt Damon, Bill Maher, David Letterman, and Howard Stern all have brief cameos before comedian Louis C.K. goes off on a particularly ugly anti-Palin riff.

You could think of Bannon's piece of political hagiography as a trial balloon for Palin. If the film catches fire in key primary states like Iowa and South Carolina, that could be the nudge Palin needs to enter the 2012 presidential race. She is, after all, a favorite of social conservatives, and while the current crop of GOP hopefuls includes red-meat right wingers like Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum, none have Palin's pull.

Yet Palin's standing among independents and moderate Republicans is hardly inspiring, which is likely one reason she hasn't made up her mind about 2012. And should Bannon's Palin paean tank, then that might be a sign the country isn't ready for a Palin presidential bid, and that she should sit this one out.

Either way, the reaction to, and media coverage of, The Undefeated will be interesting to watch. Palin's name has slipped out of the news more than usual lately, but you can bet that will change as the buzz around this film starts to build.

Osama Bin Laden: The Nigerian Email Scam

| Wed May 25, 2011 9:42 AM EDT

I received this email today:

My name is Captain Dan Nardiello of the US Marine corps (special) stationed in Pakistan, I found some money after the death of OBL I need someone to help me move it to a safer place, please have it in mind that there is no danger involved. You may contact me on usmc.12@blumail.org so that I can provide you with details.

That Capt. Nardiello sure is a lucky fellow. It turns out that the same thing happened when he was on patrol in Iraq. Two weeks ago, he sent out this email

I am Capt Dan Nardiello with the United States Marine Corps here in Iraq,I need your assistance in moving a huge amount of money I found while on patrol out of the country (Iraq). Please do respond only to my private email usmc12@blumail.org indicating your willingness to assist me.

How dumb do those Nigerian scammers think folks are? Then again, maybe it's the Pakistani ISI that's behind this one.

Shareholders Put the Heat on Chevron

| Wed May 25, 2011 9:05 AM EDT
Members of the Rainforest Action Network rappel off the Richmond Bridge Monday morning in Northern California to string up a banner that reads "Chevron Guilty: Clean Up Amazon."

Anti-Chevron activism has been at a fever pitch this week in advance of the oil giant’s annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday morning. Yesterday saw the release of Global Exchange's third annual alternative "The True Cost of Chevron" report, which highlights the company's bad behavior in the past year. Other environmental groups are taking their usual public condemnation of the divisive company to new heights (check out that photo of the Richmond Bridge in Northern California), and working to hit Chevron where it hurts—in the moneymaker. And Chevron's shareholders appear to be listening.

Much of the controversy surrounding Chevron stems from its knock-down, drag-out legal battle in Ecuador. Eighteen years ago, a lawsuit brought against the oil conglomerate by a group of Ecuadorian citizens alleged that Texaco Inc. (which was owned by Chevron at the time) spent decades dumping chemical-laden waste into the Amazon, causing major environmental damage and widespread health problems. This February, an Ecuadorian court ordered Chevron to pay up to $18 billion in damages—a sum comparable in size only to BP's promised $20 billion. The ruling is currently under appeal.

Despite the upheavel, in its newly-released annual report, Chevron gives itself glowing reviews for a job well done. But Trillium, a watchdog company dedicated to sustainable investment, sees things differently—it released a letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on Friday requesting an investigation into Chevron’s report and asserting that Chevron's shareholders are being misled about the company's finances. Chevron, the letter says, tells its investors that the lawsuit is "fraudulent" and of no consequence, but then refers to the "irreparable damage" such legal conflict will have on its company. "This is not the first time that we have felt that the confidence of [Chevron] may be overstated," says Trillium’s Shelley Alpern.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 25, 2011

Wed May 25, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Army Sgt. 1st Class Kyle Silvernale yells commands to his troops during air assault training in Alaskaís Chugach Mountain Range on May 12, 2011. Silvernale is assigned to Company C, 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment. DoD photo by Senior Airman Christopher Gross, U.S. Air Force.

Cornering the Oil Market is Easier Than You Think

| Wed May 25, 2011 1:36 AM EDT

On Tuesday, the CFTC accused a couple of obscure traders of trying to illegally manipulate the oil market in 2008. Here's the gist:

In a matter of a few weeks in January 2008, the defendants built up large positions in the oil futures market on exchanges in New York and London, according to the suit, filed in the Federal Court in the Southern District of New York.

At the same time, they bought millions of barrels of physical crude oil at Cushing, Okla., one of the main delivery sites for West Texas Intermediate, the benchmark for American oil, the suit says. They bought the oil even though they had no commercial need for it, giving the market the impression of a shortage, the complaint says.

At one point they had such a dominant position that they owned about 4.6 million barrels of crude oil, estimating that this represented two-thirds of the seven million barrels of excess oil then available at Cushing, according to lawsuits.

That's it? The excess capacity at Cushing is only 7 million barrels? So all you have to do to corner the market is use a bunch of subsidiaries to buy up about 5 million barrels of crude? That's nothing. It's $500 million or so. There must be thousands of hedge funds, investment banks, PE funds, or private investors who could pull off something like that. And the operation itself wasn't exactly rocket science. I had no idea that manipulation of something the size of the oil market was so easy.

Warmer Ocean Fueling Tornadoes

| Tue May 24, 2011 9:25 PM EDT

Tornado.: NOAA/WikimediaTornado. NOAA/Wikimedia


The stats on tornadoes so far this year are horrifying. A record-breaking 482 people (and ABC News reports 1,500 are unaccounted for in Joplin, Missouri) have been confirmed killed as of 24 May.

We know that spring's a bad season for tornadoes. We know that La Niña years fuel stormy Aprils. But 2011 is redefining even those parameters.
 

Preliminary map of April 2011 tornado tracks.: National Weather ServicePreliminary map of April 2011 tornado tracks. National Weather Service


Here's what NOAA has to say about last month alone:

  • April 2011 set anew record with a total of 875 tornadoes.
  • The previous April record was set in 1974 with 267 tornadoes.
  • The average number of tornadoes for the month of April during the past decade was 161.
  • The previous record number of tornadoes duringany month was 542 tornadoes set in May 2003.
  • NWS [National Weather Service] records indicate 321 people were killed during the April 25-28 tornado outbreak.
  • NWS records indicate 361 people were killed during the entire month of April 2011.
     

April 14, 2011 tornado over Tushka, Oklahoma.: Credit: Gabe Garfield and Marc Austin, NOAA, via Wikimedia Commons.April 14, 2011 tornado over Tushka, Oklahoma. Gabe Garfield and Marc Austin/NOAA


Leading up to April's extreme tornadoes were some extreme temperatures, noted Stu Ostro, Senior Meteorologist at the Weather Channel:

The temperature in Laredo reached 111 degrees the day prior to the peak [April] outbreak, the hottest on record at that location for so early in the season. Precipitation extremes have been extreme even by extreme precipitation standards, with April rainfall upwards of 20" in Arkansas and record levels on some rivers in the central US, juxtaposed with an exceptionally large amount of Texas being classified in extreme or exceptional drought.
 

May 22 storm moments before the Joplin tornado formed. : NOAAMay 22 storm moments before the Joplin tornado formed. NOAA


Now May is racing to catch up to and maybe even pass April. Here's what NOAA finds so far:

  • The National Weather Service's preliminary estimate is more than 100 tornadoes have occurred during the month of May 2011.
  • The record number of tornadoes during the month of May was 542 tornadoes set in May 2003.
  • The average number of tornadoes for the month of May during the past decade is 298.
  • May is historically the most active month for tornadoes.

As I write, reports are rolling in about a new round of tornadoes—and deaths—in Oklahoma.
 

The 1965 Elkhart, Indiana double tornado.: Credit: NOAA via Wikimedia Commons.The 1965 Elkhart, Indiana double tornado. NOAA

 

Sunday's horrific twister at Joplin, Missouri, was likely a multiple vortex tornado, says Thomas Schwein, deputy director of the National Weather Service’s Central Region, reports the Kansas City Star.

Jeff Masters' WunderBlog describes the Joplin tornado's nine-minute path thus:

A violent high-end EF-4* [Enhanced Fujita Scale] tornado [initial assessment] with winds of 190-198 mph carved a 7-mile long, 3/4 to one mile-wide path of near-total destruction through Joplin beginning at 5:41pm CDT Sunday evening.

*UPDATE: After surveying the Joplin tornado track, the NWS announced that its winds exceeded 200 miles per hour. This makes it the fourth EF-5 tornado this year, according to WonderBlog—and the most costly ever. Initial estimates: $1-3 billion.
 


You can get a sense of what that monster was like from this video—which due to darkness is mostly only audio. It's honestly one of the scariest things I've ever listened to.

You can hear the tornado rolling in about 01:20 into the video (perhaps the first of the multiple vortices?), then really winding up at 01:59. But that's nothing. At 03:00 all hell breaks lose.
 

An F5 tornado. Credit: Justin Hobson (Justin1569 at en.wikipedia), via Wikimedia Commons.: An F5 tornado. Credit: Justin Hobson (Justin1569 at en.wikipedia), via Wikimedia Commons.An F5 tornado. Justin Hobson/Wikimedia.


So what's fueling this year's record-breaking tornado season? There are the usual suspects, which the Cliff Mass Weather Blog lists as:

  • Strong Instability
  • Large Vertical Wind Shear
  • Low Level Moisture
  • Lift

His blog does a great job of explaining those in detail.
 

Sea surface temperature contours in the Gulf of Mexico between May 20 and May 22, 2011.: NOAASea surface temperature contours in the Gulf of Mexico between May 20 and May 22, 2011. NOAA
And then there are sea surface temperatures.

Unusually warm surface waters in the Gulf of Mexico—about 2 degrees Fahrenheit/3.6 degrees Celsius warmer than normal—may be a factor in this season's tornado frequency and strength, according to National Weather Service director Jack Hayes. Add that to an uncommonly southward jet stream track, reports Scientific American, and you've got a recipe for the kinds of disasters we've been seeing so far this year.
 

Hurricane Isabel.: NASAHurricane Isabel. NASA/Wikimedia


Warmer sea surface temperatures are also one of three reasons NOAA is forecasting a 65 percent chance of an above normal season—characterized as 13 or more named storms, 7 or more hurricanes, and 3 or more major hurricanes—in the Atlantic this year.

Crossposted from Deep Blue Home.

Watching Benjamin Netanyahu

| Tue May 24, 2011 8:44 PM EDT

This is from Benjamin Netanyahu's speech before Congress today:

Two years ago I publicly committed to a solution of two states for two peoples: A Palestinian state alongside a Jewish state.

I am willing to make painful compromises to achieve this historic peace. As the leader of Israel, it's my responsibility to lead my people to peace. Now, this is not easy for me. It's not easy. Because I recognize that in a genuine peace, we'll be required to give up parts of the ancestral Jewish homeland. And you have to understand this, in Judea and Samaria, the Jewish people are not foreign occupiers.

So that's it? The "painful compromise" Netanyahu is willing to make is an agreement not to keep the entire West Bank forever? Wow.

(For those not in the know, to Likud politicians "Judea and Samaria" = Israel plus the entire West Bank, aka "Greater Israel.")

I really don't follow Middle East politics closely enough to say this with any confidence, but things feel very different to me today than they have in the past. The Israeli prime minister, for the first time ever, now feels free to publicly dress down an American president in the secure knowledge that Republicans consider him a firm partisan ally and Democrats will go along uncomplainingly. Then he goes in front of Congress and says he won't negotiate the right of return, he won't negotiate Jerusalem, he insists on a permanent military presence all the way to the Jordan River, and his only concession is that he won't annex the entire West Bank. And he gets 20 standing ovations for it. Netanyahu's visit has been practically a triumphal procession.

It's hard to know what to think of this. My instinctive reaction is revulsion over being treated this way, and that's despite the fact that I've always fundamentally blamed Arabs for the lack of a peace agreement. They've started and lost three wars against Israel, they've turned down every peace agreement offered to them, and they've adopted terrorist tactics against Israel that no country in the world would tolerate. Israel, obviously, bears a considerable share of blame for this state of affairs too, but it's a distinctly minority share.

At least, that's how I've always seen it. But now? After watching Netanyahu in action; after watching his orchestrated attack on an American president who quite plainly is on Israel's side and proposed nothing new in the way of negotiating parameters; after watching the almost fawning reception he got from Congress; after watching him make it belligerently clear that he will concede nothing for peace; and after watching his almost smug recognition that he can singlehandedly direct American foreign policy — after watching all that, I just don't know anymore. Rationally, I still think that Palestinians are the ones who need the bigger reality check, but in my gut it's now a much closer call than it's been in the past. The last few days have been pretty sobering ones.