2011 - %3, June

Big Government's Biggest Friend

| Mon Jun. 6, 2011 11:29 AM EDT

Grover Norquist is best known as the right's most fervent enforcer of anti-tax ideology, but that's actually not quite what he is. Norquist, whose most famous quote is the one about shrinking government until it's small enough to drown in a bathtub, is actually opposed to anything that raises government revenue. That's a subtle difference but a real one, because taxes in the classic sense aren't the only way to raise revenue. You can also close tax loopholes, for example. Norquist is against that. Or you could fund Medicare using my idea of running up a bill for Medicare services while you're alive and then having the government settle accounts with your estate after you're dead. This has much to recommend it from a conservative perspective (personal responsibility, skin in the game, long-term budget balancing, etc.), and it's not a tax in the usual sense. It's a deferred charge for services rendered. But Norquist would oppose that too since it raises revenue.

None of this would matter except that Norquist exercises an almost cultish power over Republican members of Congress. And as Matt Yglesias says, this is probably the biggest impediment around to a compromise agreement that would rein in the long-term budget deficit:

Follow the logic here. According to the Norquistian theology, a good small-government conservative can’t agree to close a tax loophole that’s bad public policy in order to entice Democrats into agreeing to spending cuts. You can’t achieve efficiency enhancing reforms to the tax code by using the prospect of enhanced revenue as a sweetener, and you can’t broaden the coalition for spending cuts by using enhanced revenue as a sweetener. So the tax code stays inefficient and the spending level stays high, all so the members of the True Faith can be unsullied in the purity of their complaints about the inefficiency of the tax code and the high level of spending.

That's about it. There are compromises to be had in this arena, where liberals would agree to some spending cuts and conservatives would agree to reducing tax expenditures and tax subsidies. But there's no real compromise to be had for a deal that's pure spending cuts forever and ever, and that's the only deal Republicans will accept. So government won't shrink at all, let alone to bathtub size. And yet, Grover Norquist somehow keeps his reputation as the Beltway's greatest friend of small government. Isn't politics grand?

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C'mon, Give Me a Tough One

| Mon Jun. 6, 2011 10:31 AM EDT

The normally mild-mannered Felix Salmon wakes up, rubs the sleep out of his eyes, and starts out the week by noting that the rejection of Elizabeth Warren to regulate consumer finance is entirely indefensible while the rejection of Peter Diamond for a seat on the Fed is just plain batshit crazy. Then he asks:

Is it even possible, at this point, for the Obama administration to nominate someone who the Republicans won’t automatically oppose on the grounds that he or she is an Obama nominee? And if it’s not possible, does the whole stalemate just become a shouting match?

Me! Me! Call on me! I can answer those questions! The answers are (a) No and (b) Yes. Any other questions?

Rick Santorum: Paul Ryan's Budget Doesn't Cut Deep Enough

| Mon Jun. 6, 2011 10:00 AM EDT

Like Tim Pawlenty and Newt Gingrich before him, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum announced this morning on ABC's Good Morning America that later today he'll officially announce his presidential candidacy in the rural Pennsylvania town where his immigrant grandfather once worked.

Santorum is arguably the most hard-line, far-right social conservative in the GOP presidential field, neck and neck with Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who's expected to jump into the race later this month. (That right-wing intransigence has earned Santorum a serious Google problem.) But on GMA, Santorum sought to burnish his right-wing fiscal credibility, too, saying Rep. Paul Ryan's unpopular budget plan doesn't cut deep enough. "Not even Paul Ryan and his budget now has the temerity to go after Social Security," Santorum said.

Ryan's plan, which claims to slash $4 trillion over the next decade, has become a political lightning rod. In the recent special election in New York's 26th district, Democrats used the Ryan plan as a political bludgeon, bashing the Republican candidate Jane Corwin for calling it "a terrific first step." An early favorite, Corwin went on to lose to Democrat Kathy Hochul. According to a June poll from CNN, just 35 percent of respondents said they backed Ryan's plan, while 58 percent opposed it. Even among conservatives, 53 percent of respondents said they disagreed with Ryan's plan. In a matter of months, the plan has become too politically toxic to touch—a dilemma that pollsters had warned of in early discussions with GOP lawmakers.

As it stands, Santorum's presidential bid is a long-shot, Hail Mary pass for a politician once described by a former aide as a "a Catholic missionary who happens to be in the Senate." By embracing both far-right social and economic policies, Santorum is only steering his campaign farther into the margin—and away from any chance, however slim, of succeeding in the presidential race.

Giuliani Rips Mitt for Not Backing Down on RomneyCare

| Mon Jun. 6, 2011 9:52 AM EDT

Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, isn't letting his disastrous presidential bid in 2008 prevent him from giving the GOP's 2012 presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney a serious tongue-lashing.

In a recent interview with the New Hampshire Union Leader, Giuliani singled out Mitt Romney, who officially unveiled his presidential campaign last week, and bashed the former Massachusetts governor for his 2006 health care reform plan that brought universal health care coverage to the Bay State. Giuliani described RomneyCare and ObamaCare—loathed by the GOP—as "exactly the same," and accused Romney of "telling us something that just isn't correct: that 'RomneyCare' and 'ObamaCare' are significantly different."

Giuliani went on to tell the Union Leader that Romney has done a dismal job of distancing himself from RomneyCare, and that "the best way for Mitt Romney to deal with it is to admit it's true and to say that it's a terrible mistake." (In a May speech in Michigan, Romney defended his health care reform plan, calling it "a state solution to a state problem.")

As for Giuliani's own presidential aspirations in 2012, the Union Leader reports,

While Giuliani has been making frequent visits to New Hampshire and speaking to small groups, he said he does not plan to make a decision on whether to make a second bid for President until late summer. He finished fourth in the 2008 New Hampshire primary; Romney finished second behind John McCain.

Giuliani said he will first determine whether he has the ability to put together grassroots organizations in New Hampshire and elsewhere and "decide whether you have a good chance of winning the nomination and whether you have the best chance of beating Barack Obama, which is the biggest question."

Giuliani declined an invitation to the June 13 presidential debate co-sponsored by the New Hampshire Union Leader, WMUR, and CNN, saying, "I won't debate until and unless I become a candidate."

Rick Perry to Host Hate Group-Funded Prayer Summit

| Mon Jun. 6, 2011 9:04 AM EDT

Texas Governor Rick Perry has a plan to bring down unemployment, pay off the national debt, stop natural disasters, and smoke the terrorists out of their spider holes: He's hosting a prayer summit. The possible GOP presidential candidate has invited the nation's other 49 governors to join him at Houston's Reliant Stadium in early August for "The Response," a day of non-denominational Christian prayer and fasting (the latter is recommended but non-compulsory). Per the official site:

As a nation, we must come together, call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles, and thank Him for the blessings of freedom we so richly enjoy according to His grace, mercy, and kindness towards us. A historic crisis facing our nation and threatening our future demands a historic response from the church. We must, as a people, return to the faith and hope of our fathers. The ancient paths of great men were blazed in prayer – the humility of the truly great men of history was revealed in their recognition of the power and might of Jesus to save all who call on His great name.

"There is hope for America," the site explains. "It lies in heaven, and we will find it on our knees."

This shouldn't come as too much of a surprise from Perry, who just six weeks ago issued a proclamation calling on residents to pray for rain for 72 hours, in response to historic wildfires. It's also similar in nature to the Texas Restoration Project, his 2006 outreach effort to pastors like Rod Parsley, the Ohio evangelist who has said Islam must be destroyed. The Houston event is being funded by the American Family Association, a conservative Christian organization that's been classified as a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its incessant promotion of false, anti-gay propaganda. 

The AFA's issues director, Bryan Fischer, has alleged that gays caused the Holocaust—and are planning on doing it again; that gays should be banned from holding public office; that homosexuality should be criminalized; that foreign Muslims should either be exterminated converted to Christianity or subjected to lethal force*; that American Muslims should be deported; that there should be a permanent ban on mosque construction in the United States; and that Muslims should be prohibited from serving in the armed forces.

This all sounds pretty extreme (and it is pretty extreme), but it's worth noting that Rick Perry believes some of that stuff too. He has repeatedly asserted, for instance, that Texas' homosexual conduct statute, which criminalized gay sex, was a good law that should not have overturned by the Supreme Court.

*Note: After re-reading the offending quote, Fischer is more vague about how this will work, so I've tone down the language a bit.

Sleigh Bells' Postmodern Punk

| Mon Jun. 6, 2011 7:30 AM EDT
Sleigh Bells in Manchester.

Last Monday night, in a packed, fogged-up space in San Francisco, the mosh pit of young Sleigh Bells fans got a little rowdy. They shoved each other relentlessly, shot their fists in the air, and tossed their hair around. Up on stage, vocalist Alexis Krauss and guitarist/producer Derek Miller delivered a head-banging, punk-meets-hip-hop performance, riling up the crowd so much that by about the 10th song and Krauss' fourth crowd-surf, security struggled a bit to retrieve her from the clenches of the fans. "I think our music can be cathartic for kids," Krauss told me later, as Sleigh Bells' tour bus passed through the hills of Utah. "You can just go out and get really sweaty, and lose their shit, and it feels good."

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Sondre Lerche: An Auditory Antidote

| Mon Jun. 6, 2011 6:30 AM EDT

Sondre Lerche
Self-titled
Mona

God knows there are too many damned singer-songwriters about. Or, rather, too many who try to make a go of it beyond the open-mic circuit. So whenever someone truly outstanding comes along, it's like, Thank You! As it happens, two singer-songwriters very much worth your while are releasing new albums tomorrow.

Exhibit A is the new self-titled CD by Sondre Lerche, a Norwegian-born Brooklynite with an impressive vocal range, whose earnest, intelligent lyrics and mellifluous voice feel like an antidote to our jaded and skeptical culture.

This young gent has been putting out music for some time. This is his sixth album to date, and he features prominently on the soundtrack for the 2007 Steve Carell film, Dan in Real Life. He's performed on Letterman (see below). He collaborates with members of Animal Collective and Spoon, and the likes of Regina Spektor (who collaborates with a wide variety of people, but still).

Lerche has a keen melodic sense and is careful to avoid clichés—or perhaps he just does it without thinking. Classically trained and schooled in Bossa Nova (among other things) he varies his rhythyms and instrumentation (guitar, strings, piano, percussion, vocal choruses) between songs and within, always keeping things interesting. His sound, alternately upbeat and brooding on this album, is nonetheless suffused with his happy-go-lucky Beatles-y vibe, and psychedelic hints of, say, a band like Sunny Day Real Estate.

The new songs are, as we say in Oakland, hella catchy—like "Private Caller," whose opening evokes early REM, and the uber-poppy "Go Right Ahead." Other standouts include "Domino" and "Living Dangerously." But there are numerous others. This is an album I will listen to over and over.

I'll leave you now with this 2007 clip of Lerche playing the Letterman show. Don't forget to check out Exhibit B: England Keep My Bones, by the talented young Brit, Frank Turner.

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Intriguing Subject: Frank Turner

| Mon Jun. 6, 2011 6:30 AM EDT

Frank Turner
England Keep My Bones
Epitaph

England Keep My Bones is Frank Turner's fourth album, and I'm surprised he's escaped my attention this long. Then again, it can take some time—even for a talented, fast-rising European artist—to catch on in the States. Turner, like the British rock icon PJ Harvey (Let England Shake), has recently turned his thoughts to his homeland. The result is an introspective-yet-accessible body of work obsessed with the country's landscape, history, and meaning as a backdrop for modern life.

Call him the love child of Billy Bragg, Bruce Springsteen, and the hard-rocker of your choosing: Turner has been kicking ass across the pond, recently vying for a "best solo artist" NME award. But who cares about all that stuff, when what you really want to know is whether his album rocks. Yes, it does. Unequivocally.

In "One Foot Before the Other," which showcases Turner's punk-rock past as front man for early-aughts hardcore band Million Dead, he fantasizes that his ashes get poured into the water supply and enter the bodies of seven million Londoners. "Rivers" is an ode to the country's waterways and their connectedness with the people. In "I Am Disappeared" (parts of which strongly reminded me of Harvey's latest) Turner sings "We are blood cells alive in the beating heart of the country." Then there's "England's Curse," his a cappella recounting of King William's dark deeds.

The Billy Bragg comparison is apt so far as it goes, particularly in folk-laden numbers like "If I Ever Stray," "Wessex Boy," and the hopeful "I Still Believe," but Turner pushes the envelope rather harder on the rock-and-roll front. He had me hooked from the very first track, "Eulogy," a short, simple, heartfelt anthem that, beyond hinting at the populist vibe and dynamic range of what's to come, made me thirsty for a pint. In short, this is music you want to share with old friends—music to drink to, think to, and feel to.

I'll leave you with the video for "I Still Believe."

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What Not To Do In Iowa

| Mon Jun. 6, 2011 6:11 AM EDT

Is speaking Chinese on the campaign trail a plus? Former Utah governor, ex-ambassador to China, and current GOP presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman is about to find out. On Friday, Huntsman appeared before a national audience of evangelical activists convened by former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed. Introducing Huntsman, Reed ran through the candidate's resume, which included long stints of living abroad, both in Taiwan and later in China as President Obama's ambassador. He noted that Huntsman speaks fluent Mandarin, but promised his speech would definitely be in English.

Huntsman had other plans apparently, launching into his speech with a demonstration of his Chinese fluency. As his first introduction to the foot soldiers of the Republican Party, it didn't go over very well. As languages go, Chinese is not the most elegant to the English-speaking ear, and it seemed to be especially jarring to the nearly all-white crowd of evangelicals, who listened with shock. You could almost see the elderly Christians from Wisconsin thinking "Manchurian Candidate."

Huntsman's Chinese-speaking on the stump might be even worse for his prospects than John Kerry speaking French in 2004. Americans think even less of the Chinese than they do of the French, and more importantly, they view China as a serious threat to American prosperity, unlike those lazy French people who have a protest every time someone suggests they work past 50. Polls going back decades show that many Americans, especially Republicans, take a dim view of the Chinese, a phenomenon that some researchers attribute to 19th Century anti-Chinese immigration laws. In 1999, a survey conducted by the Anti-Defamation League found that 34 percent of those who responded admitted they wouldn't want to see a Chinese-American person elected president, a figure the group had never encountered in similar surveys of attitudes towards blacks or Jews.

Americans really don't like the country of China, either, which they view as a currency-manipulating thief of good American jobs. A January Pew survey found that 36 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of China, and the percentage of Americans who see China as the country posing the greatest threat to the US nearly doubled over the past two years, eclipsing North Korea, Iran, and Afghanistan. Views of China are even bleaker among Republicans, especially those who are tea party sympathizers. More than 70 percent of Republicans Pew surveyed believed that China is an adversary or a serious problem for the US.

Huntsman's Chinese connection clearly triggered many of these feelings among the members of the religious right listening to his speech Friday in DC. The candidate earned some polite applause when he spoke about adopting children from China. But the more Huntsman talked about his life in China, the more it sounded like he'd been fraternizing with the enemy—and doing so on behalf of the Obama administration, a role that many GOP voters believe makes him an honorary Democrat. Huntsman's global perspective and linguistic abilities might have endeared him to some Wall Street Democrats, but after Friday's performance, it was hard to imagine that the governor-turned-ambassador was going to win over a lot of Iowa GOP caucus goers by showing up at their barbecues and exclaiming, "Ni hao ma?"

Acting Locally, Riffing Globally

| Mon Jun. 6, 2011 6:00 AM EDT
Students at Tintale Village Teaching Center, Nepal.

Not many New Orleans buskers who've been working the streets as long as Grandpa Elliott has (60 years) will ever perform for a crowd of 15,000—in Morocco no less. But film producer Mark Johnson and his Playing For Change Foundation has been making such unlikely events happen. For the past decade, Johnson has been globetrotting with recording equipment and a vision: to bring far-flung musicians together, sometimes through technology, sometimes face-to-face. Out last week, his second CD/DVD release, entitled Playing for Change: Songs Around the World Part 2 (PFC2), is part of his ongoing quest to re-create world music, as Johnson told Mother Jones in a 2009 interview

PFC2, like it’s 2010 predecessor, features 150 musicians from 25 countries collaborating on a variety of classics like Bob Marley’s "Three Little Birds," John Lennon’s "Imagine," and Stevie Wonder’s "Higher Ground." Johnson records and films the musicians playing outdoors on their home turf—a washpan player on a New Orleans' sidewalk, a drum circle of Zuni Indians. But each records his tracks to complement ones already recorded by fellow musicians hundreds or thousands of miles away.