2011 - %3, June

Science for Hire

| Tue Jun. 28, 2011 1:40 PM EDT

My piece this morning about fossil fuel interests continuing to pay scientists to produce "studies" raising questions about the human influence on global warming fails to mention my favorite element in the story of Willie Soon. Not only has the Harvard aerospace engineer benefited from the largess of fossil fuel companies over the past decade; he's also managed to style himself as an "expert" on a whole lot of things he doesn't appear to have any qualifications to write about.

There was, of course, the 2007 paper claiming that polar bears weren't actually harmed by climate change. That paper was backed by ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute, and the Charles G. Koch Foundation, which should have raised some questions about what exactly an astrophysicist knows about polar bears. Also dubious was Soon's op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal last month claiming that mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants aren't actually bad for people. This is supposedly because we have "proteins and antioxidants" in our bodies, he wrote, that "help protect us." The EPA just made up the health concerns about mercury pollution to "punish hydrocarbon use," he wrote.

The Journal touted Soon as "a natural scientist at Harvard" who is "an expert on mercury and public health issues"—a questionable claim at best. He also has a long history of working with groups that deny climate change. Paul Driessen, of the climate denial group Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, coauthored the piece. Soon also has a number of affiliations with groups that sow climate doubts: he has served as the chief science advisor for the Science and Public Policy Institute, a scientific adviser to the Greening Earth Society, and an expert with the George C. Marshall Institute, a conservative think-tank. And it's not hard to see why he's become one of the go-to scientists for industry and conservative groups.

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Gun Control Survives The Supreme Court

| Tue Jun. 28, 2011 1:19 PM EDT

In 2008, the US Supreme Court overturned a DC law banning city residents from owning handguns. The decision in District of Columbia v Heller was unprecedented because the sharply divided court found—for the first time—that Americans have an individual right to own guns outside of the "well regulated militia" described in the Second Amendment.

Critics warned that the decision amounted to a death blow for all sorts of reasonable laws regulating gun ownership, and the National Rifle Association seemed to agree with them. The gun group's vice president, Wayne LaPierre, said at the time that the Heller ruling would be "the opening salvo in a step-by-step process" to kill off most of the nation's gun control laws.

Well, three years later, gun control is alive and well despite more than 400 legal challenges based on Heller, according to a new report (PDF) by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The NRA as well as dozens of criminals have attempted to invoke Heller in court to challenge everything from bans on carrying concealed weapons in public to restrictions on gun ownership by people involved in domestic violence. Almost all of those challenges have failed, according to the Brady Center, including a second lawsuit filed by Dick Heller, the plaintiff in the original Supreme Court case, who sued again to try to invalidate restrictions on semi-automatic weapons in the nation's capital.

The failed lawsuits have also produced some surprisingly strong language from judges who don't want to use Heller to implement the NRA's vision of "any gun, any person, anywhere." For instance, in finding that there is no constitutional right to carry a gun in a car or national park, the 4th Circuit court of appeals, one of the most conservative courts in the country, declared: "This is serious business. We do not wish to be even minutely responsible for some unspeakably tragic act of mayhem because in the peace of our judicial chambers we miscalculated as to Second Amendment rights."

The gun lobby's initial failure to use the Supreme Court's ruling to kill off gun control hasn't stopped it from trying. The Brady Center notes that many Heller-based legal challenges are still pending. One, for instance, takes aim at a North Carolina law that would prevent people from carrying weapons into a riot.

Another lawsuit attempts to allow teenagers in Texas to carry concealed weapons in public. The original plaintiff in that case was this kid, who filled his Facebook page with photos of himself dressed up like John Dillinger, holding assault weapons. He posted status updates like "After hunting men, nothing can compare," and "There is no redemption, There is no forgiveness. I will stare into your eyes as I pull the trigger and laugh as you hit the ground with your last, pathetic breath." After his rantings were publicized, he eventually dropped out of the case, but the NRA is still pushing the lawsuit. The Brady Center calls on the courts to make sure that these cases, like the 400 before them, are dead in the water. 

Ex-Bachmann Chief of Staff: Michele's Not Cut Out for White House

| Tue Jun. 28, 2011 12:54 PM EDT

Ron Carey, a former chief of staff to Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), has a message for the American public: Bachmann is not presidential material.

In an op-ed in Tuesday's Des Moines Register, Carey writes that Bachmann lacks the experience, savvy, and coordination to run the country. When he joined Bachmann's team in 2010, he writes, her congressional office was a disaster, and his tenure working for the Minnesota Republican and tea party darling convinced him that she's nowhere near the type of leader who can run the United States—not like former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, whom Carey worked with while serving as chair of the Minnesota GOP:

Having seen [Bachmann and Pawlenty] up close and over a long period of time, it is clear to me that while Tim Pawlenty possesses the judgment, the demeanor, and the readiness to serve as president, Michele Bachmann decidedly does not.

The Bachmann campaign and congressional offices I inherited were wildly out of control. Stacks upon stacks of unopened contributions filled the campaign office while thousands of communications from citizens waited for an answer. If she is unable, or unwilling, to handle the basic duties of a campaign or congressional office, how could she possibly manage the magnitude of the presidency?

Carey concludes his op-ed with this offering:

I know Tim Pawlenty very well. He is a family man filled with faith and conservative convictions proven in action. He will make a great president. I know Michele Bachmann very well. She is a faithful conservative with great oratory skills, but without any leadership experience or real results from her years in office. She is not prepared to assume the White House in 2013.

This isn't the first time Carey has publicly questioned Bachmann's presidential credentials, saying in February that "she's not going to be an electable candidate for us."

That message sounds an awful lot like what long-time GOP campaign guru Ed Rollins was saying earlier this year. As I reported, Rollins said Bachmann wasn't a "serious player" in the national Republican Party and publicly doubted her ability to win the GOP presidential nomination. Rollins has since changed his tune—because the Bachmann campaign hired him.

Kevin is on vacation, so Nick Baumann and I are filling in this week.

National Review: Legalize Pot!

| Tue Jun. 28, 2011 11:04 AM EDT

This month marks the 40th year of the War on Drugs, but the Republican love affair with pot prohibition certainly isn't experiencing a ruby anniversary. On Monday, the editors of the National Review called the federal drug war a "colossal failure":

It has curtailed personal freedom, created a violent black market, and filled our prisons. It has also trampled on states' rights: Sixteen states have legalized "medical marijuana"—which is, admittedly, often code for legalizing pot in general—only to clash with federal laws that ban weed throughout the land.

That last sin is not the War on Drugs’ greatest, but it is not insignificant, either. A bill introduced by Reps. Barney Frank (D., Mass.) and Ron Paul (R., Texas) would remove the federal roadblock to state marijuana reform, and though the Republican House seems almost certain to reject it, the proposal deserves support from across the political spectrum.

Though the National Review has argued for legalizing marijuana off and on since the 1970s, it has a lot more friends on the Right these days. As I noted last year, pot-friendly Republicans now include everyone from Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Tancredo to Sarah Palin and Rick Perry. There's even a Tea Pot Party informally led by the Red State stoner-in-chief, Willie Nelson. His new pro-legalization video for NORML is below. . .

Chart of the Day: The Idiocy of GOP Cut-and-Grow

| Tue Jun. 28, 2011 10:57 AM EDT

I keep hammering away at the GOP's preposterous cut-and-grow plan—that the economy will really begin to grow and create jobs only after slashing spending to the bone—but that's because people are still buying what the Republicans are peddling.

The following analysis, however, should once more put to rest any ideas that cut-and-grow is the right course for this country. Using a nifty chart, Adam Hersh, an economist at the Center for American Progress, plots out states that have slashed spending and states that have increased it, and then shows how well their respective economies have fared.

Via Adam Hirsch, Center for American ProgressVia Adam Hersh, Center for American ProgressAs Hersh notes in this accompanying post, states that boosted spending saw decreasing unemployment and increasing economic growth. Those who cut back saw the opposite happen.

It's one thing for governors such as Florida's Rick Scott, Wisconsin's Scott Walker, and Ohio's John Kasich to enact publicly unpopular policies that ultimately help their states. (And boy are they unpopular.) It's quite another to do so when the data shows that you're only shooting yourself in the foot. The question is, when will Republicans in Washington figure this out?

Afghanistan: Here's a Real Confidence Builder

| Tue Jun. 28, 2011 10:23 AM EDT

That headline is facetious. But here's a question: can the Afghan government function and assume security responsibilities if it can't even run a bank?

From the AfPak Channel's Daily Brief:

The governor of Afghanistan's Central Bank, Abdul Qadeer Fitrat, announced his resignation Monday from the United States, saying that his life "was completely in danger" in Kabul due to his investigation into the Kabul Bank scandal, where nearly $900 million was allegedly given out in bad loans, including to senior officials and relatives of Afghan president Hamid Karzai (NYT, Reuters, WSJ, FT, BBC, AJE, AFP, Tel, Bloomberg). In his resignation letter and comments Fitrat blamed officials for interfering in his investigation into the Kabul Bank, while a presidential spokesman called his departure "treason" and said Fitrat would be prosecuted as part of the investigation (Reuters, Bloomberg).

No matter who's right, this is a situation with much wrong—and another reason for Americans to be rather skeptical of any endeavor that depends on a partnership with Karzai and his crew.

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'Wasting Money Making Money': The Fed's $1-Coin Boondoggle

| Tue Jun. 28, 2011 9:47 AM EDT

Picture this: Collecting dust in high-security vaults, unwanted by Congress and the American public, are more than a billion golden coins bearing the likenesses of famous politicians. Current lawmakers won't discuss them. But if revealed to the public, the treasure trove could prove scandalous.

Sound like an airport pulp thriller? Nope—it's just the latest embarrassing boondoggle to surface in Washington, exposed by the sharp folks at NPR.

They report today that more than a billion dollars in $1 coins—you know, those hefty golden coins that were meant to replace the dollar bill—are sitting around in Federal Reserve vaults doing, well, nothing of value. At a cost of $300 million to manufacture, the unused coins are the result of Congress' repeated failures to wean American consumers off of paper dollar bills, which, according to the Government Accountability Office, would benefit the government to the tune of roughly $5.5 billion over three decades.

Vast quantities of these coins are in storage "with no perceivable benefit to the taxpayer," the Fed told Congress in a report last year. Not only are these new coins wasting money, the Fed noted in the same report, but officials "have no reason to expect demand to improve." Turns out we Americans like our crisp dollar bills just fine, thank you very much.

Here's one scene I enjoyed, when NPR reporters visited a Fed vault storing these abandoned coins:

Inside one basementlike Federal Reserve vault in Baltimore, NPR was able to see 45 million $1 coins of various types. The coins were overflow from vaults elsewhere.

And despite a national indifference to the coins, they were heavily guarded.

A group of journalists from NPR passed through a metal detector and special secure doorway before reaching the inner entrance to the vault, a fence gate secured by two common Master padlocks.

[...]

Inside the vault, dollar coins languished in clear plastic bags piled high on sturdy metal pallets that looked like baby cribs.

You should listen to/read the story yourself. Then file it away in the Department of Destroying Confidence in Our Government.

Did ExxonMobil Break Its Promise To Stop Funding Climate Change Deniers?

| Tue Jun. 28, 2011 8:00 AM EDT

Back in 2008, ExxonMobil pledged to quit funding climate change deniers. But according to new documents released through a Greenpeace Freedom of Information Act request, the oil giant was still forking over cash to climate skeptics as recently as last year, to the tune of $76,000 for one scientist skeptical of humankind's role in global warming. This—and much more—came to light in a new report about the funding of Wei Hock "Willie" Soon, an astrophysicist with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Soon has been a favorite among climate skeptics for years, since coauthoring a paper back in 2003 that claimed that the 20th century was probably not the warmest, nor was it unique. That paper, published in the journal Climate Research, was widely criticized by climate scientists for its content, not to mention the funding it received from the American Petroleum Institute. An astrophysicist by training, Soon has also claimed that solar variability—i.e., changes in the amount of radiation coming from the sun—are to likely to blame for warming temperatures.

In 2007, Soon coauthored a paper challenging the claim that climate change harms polar bears. The paper drew plenty of criticism, as it was funded in part by the American Petroleum Institute, The Charles G. Koch Foundation, and ExxonMobil—groups with a clear interest in the debate over whether the bears merited endangered species protections.

Given that Soon had previously disclosed some of his corporate funding, in December 2009 Greenpeace submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Smithsonian Institution asking for information about Soon's funders and any conflict of interest forms he may have submitted. In response, Smithsonian produced a list of his major bankrollers, which included more than $800,000 from major energy interests. According to the document, Exxon provided $55,000 for a study on Arctic climate change in 2007 and 2008, and another $76,106 for research into solar variability between 2008 and 2010.

ExxonMobil spokesman Alan Jeffers accused Greenpeace of "peddling this discredited conspiracy theory" about its support for climate deniers. He maintained that the company stopped funding Soon in 2009. "We made a decision to discontinue funding groups whose positions on climate change weren't very constructive. It was distracting," said Jeffers. "The issue of climate change is so important, it shouldn't be distracted by the type of things Greenpeace does," Jeffers said.

Even if Greenpeace and Smithsonian are wrong and ExxonMobil has stopped funding his work, Soon still appears to be getting significant backing from other fossil fuel companies, with the coal giant Southern Company providing $120,000 to look at "solar variability and climate change signals from temperature" in 2008 and 2009, and the Koch Foundation providing Soon another $65,000 last year.

"Dr. Soon needs to make clear what exactly these corporations expected from him," said Kert Davies, research director at Greenpeace. "There's been a long-term campaign of climate denial for over 20 years, organized by big coal and big oil. This is evidence that it continues to this day."

Are Republicans Ready for Pentagon Cuts?

| Tue Jun. 28, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Eager to avoid being pegged as the party that made America default on its debt, congressional Republicans are hinting that they'll offer a compromise first proposed by the tea partiers in their ranks: deep cuts in military spending. But as Senate leaders meet with President Obama to tackle the debt limit, disagreements among conservatives and a lack of specifics make it unclear just how committed the GOP really is to shrinking the defense budget.

Republicans and Democrats have been at loggerheads over lifting the national debt ceiling and preventing a government default. House Republicans insist they won't approve any settlement that raises taxes, and they've struggled to offer budget cuts that could seal a bipartisan deal. But outspoken conservatives and sympathetic pundits say there's a growing willingness to entertain the idea of cutting the Pentagon's budget. "Would you support dramatic decreases in military spending as a way to cut the deficit, or would you rather support the spending with tax increases?" asked Mackenzie Eaglen, a national security fellow at the Heritage Foundation, as he spoke with Southern California Public Radio host Pat Morrison yesterday.

My Sister The Squatter

| Tue Jun. 28, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Editors' note: Mac is spending a month in her home state of Ohio, reporting on the Wisconsin-style showdown involving Republican Governor John Kasich, public employees, unions, teachers, students, and struggling middle-class families.

When I called my sister Jessica on Friday afternoon, she told me to look for the rusted-out couch frame on the front porch; I couldn't find her house, which I'd never been to before. And by "her house," I mean a house that has been foreclosed on and abandoned and in which she squats with three other people.

"There's not much to see," she said of the spacious two-story after she let me in the back door. The previous owners ripped up the kitchen walls for remodeling. In lieu of furniture, the family room has piles of discarded crap along the walls and in the corners. Upstairs in the bedrooms there are mattresses from the attic on the floor, marker on the walls (NIETZSCHE SUCKS), clothes hanging from a pull-up bar jerry-rigged out of wood and bolted to the ceiling. One of the downstairs rooms has a couch in it, and that's where my sister's boyfriend, Randall, was sitting.

This house used to belong to his parents. They bought it 10 years ago. Now, though it's big and has nice (albeit filthy) wood floors, it's valued at $40,000, which is less than they still owed on it, so they packed up and moved out last year. By that time, Randall had been looking for jobs as a line cook for months with no luck. Some of the positions he applied for had 150 other applicants. Eventually he gave up on the prospect of using his skills and shot for low-paying jobs like being a dishwasher. He applied all over town, but gave up on that, too, shortly after he asked the person in charge of hiring for a $7-an-hour job if they'd gotten a lot of applicants and the guy said, "Oh yeah. Seventy."

Jess and Randall, 35 and 33 respectively, have been living here since September. During the day, she puts on a nice white shirt and serves people $20 appetizers at a restaurant in Shaker Heights, one of the wealthiest Cleveland suburbs and once the wealthiest city in the country. At night, she goes back home a few miles away to Cleveland Cleveland, to a neighborhood she calls "the 'hood." Crime statistics seem to support this description; Cleveland's currently ranked one of the most dangerous cities in America.

While we were sitting around chatting, the back door slammed and footsteps approached. "Is someone HERE?" my sister asked, and between the squatting and the state of the neighborhood there's so much edge in her voice that I instinctively braced myself and we both started to get to our feet. There's a pet pit bull in the house, but he's a pussycat. A 23-year-old unemployed buff Navy vet who was discharged for depression and anxiety also lives here in the house, but he was very, very high. Anyway, it was just Randall's sister stopping by to say hello. "Do you want to see my gun?" my sister asked me, and she took me upstairs to show me where she keeps it in her room and explains she's got fucking throwing knives in her car.

Before this, they were renting half of a duplex at a pretty reasonable $400 a month. But Randall's been out of work for a long time now, and there's not much point in paying rent when this house is just standing here empty. It's something of a trend to occupy abandoned homes in the post-housing-crash world, and Randall's kind of a pro at this point. His grandmother also lost her house a little while back. She was disabled—when she worked at an auto plant in her 30s, a piece of sheet metal that flew off a rack sliced off both her feet; she took out a mortgage on her paid-for house after her husband died; she couldn't keep up with the payments and had to leave. When it was foreclosed on and empty, Randall moved in.

For the bulk of the time I spent at my sister's, she and Randall and the vet all talked about getting out of town, moving somewhere where there might be opportunities—West, Oregon. But they imagine they could probably get away with inhabiting this place for quite a while. "They probably won't get around to coming and throwing anybody out for a long time," says Randall, who knows from experience. "At the rate houses foreclose around here, they can't keep up."