2011 - %3, June

A Twice as Fast Draw-Down in Afghanistan?

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 8:05 PM EDT

Get-out-now foes of the Afghanistan war will hardly be satisfied by President Barack Obama's announcement on Wednesday night that he is withdrawing 33,000 troops from that war-torn country on a gradual slope: 10,000 by the end of this year, the rest by the end of summer 2012. This glide path seems designed to thread the needle and allow Obama to credibly claim he is moving toward ending the war and to avoid sparking any rebellion in the Pentagon (or right-wing charges he is a soft-on-national-security wimp). But could he have adopted a steeper draw-down? Sen. Carl Levin, who chairs the Senate armed services committee, quickly sent out a statement saying that Obama should be calling back more troops on a faster pace. And Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank run by the Obama-friendly John Podesta, issued a statement that might well represent the position of Democrats who desire quicker-but-not-immediate war-ending from the president. It essentially calls for a twice-as-fast withdrawal:

President Obama took a step in the right direction this evening by announcing the start of U.S. troop reductions in Afghanistan. This follows ten years of U.S. and NATO investment, which has severely degraded Al Qaeda capabilities in the region, and led to the successful tracking and killing of Osama bin Laden. Yet many important questions about Afghanistan, including our core objectives, future costs, how military operations will support the political and military transition between now and 2014, and our relations with Pakistan, remain unanswered.

The Obama administration made an important move to shift resources from Iraq to Afghanistan in 2009. As a result, the United States military has achieved security gains in parts of Afghanistan, and the intelligence community has been relentless in its disruption of the Al Qaeda terror network. The resources were a key part of the successful mission to bring Osama bin Laden to justice.

It is from this position of strength that we can now rebalance our investment in Afghanistan. American military, intelligence and diplomatic personnel serving in the region have shouldered the burden for the past ten years. The United States still spends $10 billion a month in Afghanistan, at a time when it cannot invest in its own infrastructure at home. This expenditure – six times Afghanistan’s own GDP – has fostered a dysfunctional culture of dependency.

Completing the mission in Afghanistan must now shift to Afghan leadership. At this time, U.S. strategy must focus on balancing internal Afghan reconciliation, obtaining support from regional powers, and setting critical benchmarks that measure the civil and military transitions to Afghanistan and its government. If these benchmarks are not met, U.S. officials must prepare for a more accelerated drawdown. Fighting the insurgency on behalf of a government that is unwilling to reform will not work, and will not advance the security interests of the United States or of our allies.

The Center has argued that a significant drawdown of at least 15,000 troops this year is necessary to balance our priorities and send the message to Afghanistan’s leaders that they must take on greater responsibility for their country. This would allow us to withdraw 60,000 troops over the next 18 months, leaving 40,000 remaining in the country by the end of 2012. We believe that while the administration could be more aggressive in terms of troop reductions, the president’s announcement to move 33,000 troops out by September 2012 is wholly justified by America’s national security interests.

Serious challenges and significant questions remain on the transition of responsibility to the Afghan government. To honor the service and sacrifices of those serving in Afghanistan, the Obama administration needs to fill in these gaps in the current strategy.

With CAP adopting this stance, Democrats and others who want a more dramatic draw-down have plenty of cover, if they need it.

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90% of Americans Aren't Expecting a Raise

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 7:15 PM EDT

In keeping with MoJo's latest cover story, here's a new stat to piss you off: 9 out of 10 Americans aren't expecting a pay raise this year. So, with gas averaging $3.74 per gallon and skyrocketing food prices, that means 89.9% of you will essentially have to do more with less.

American Pulse recently asked 5,000 Americans about their best penny-pinching strategies to cope with the grim financial forecast, and here's what they said:

  • 70.5% will only buy the necessities
  • 63.4% will drive less
  • 58.9% will spend less on clothing
  • 53.1% will comparison shop
  • 50% will stick to a strict budget
  • 49.9% will opt for generic products
  • 42% will spend less on groceries
  • 6.6% will do nothing

That's not to say no one is getting pay raises; it's just that they're ending up in the wrong hands. Case in point: Miami's interim school superintendent will receive a $16,000 bump for three months of work despite a $170 million budget shortfall. And the incoming CEO of the Chicago Teachers Union is getting an extra $20,000 to round out his $250,000 salary, even though teachers there can't convince the school board to give them a 4% raise. Plus, five top county officials in Orange County have received a 33% pay raise in the past six months, while hundreds of lower level employees are being laid off.

These stories all too familiar, and consistent with the "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore" theme. What to do other than heed Peter Finch's advice and yell outside your window? Well, read more and find out.

Donations Dry Up for Planned Parenthood Indiana

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 7:13 PM EDT

Planned Parenthood may have been spared on the federal stage, but its state-level situation continues to deteriorate. Today, the majority of Planned Parenthood's clinics in Indiana are shuttered; the organization has been forced to take a one-day mandatory furlough in order to scrimp and save in the wake of brutal state funding cuts.

On May 10, Governor Mitch Daniels signed a law that stripped the state's Planned Parenthood clinics of any Medicaid funding (none of which, by the way, was ever used to pay for abortions), compromising the care of 93,000 Indianan Planned Parenthood patients who rely on it. Since then, private donations have funded patient care, but that well is about to run dry—as of Tuesday, Medicaid patients in the state need to come to Planned Parenthood armed with alternate funding.

"The one-day furlough should allow us to save enough money to keep our doors open during this brief window between now and the expected ruling," said Planned Parenthood Indiana (PPIN) President and CEO Betty Cockrum in a press release. "We know this is a personal hardship for our employees and our patients, and we had so hoped to avoid it."

The ruling Cockrum refers to is to be handed down by a federal judge by July 1. She is hearing Planned Parenthood’s challenge to the law, and will decide whether to suspend its enforcement during the case. The Obama administration voiced its support for PPIN, but a final resolution will still take time, so the provider is desperately trying to keep its funding in the interim. "If we receive a favorable ruling, we would be restored as a Medicaid provider as we continue to fight our lawsuit. At that point, we would not be facing center closures," PPIN spokesperson Chrystal Struben told me. "If we ultimately win the case—we are hopeful that we will—then there would be no need to look at closures."

Will the Feds Deport Jose Antonio Vargas?

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 6:50 PM EDT
Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer-prizewinning reporter who recently admitted being an undocumented immigrant, speaks to a group of student journalists.

What will happen to Jose Antonio Vargas, the journalist who has written a dramatic story outing himself as an undocumented immigrant? Some anti-immigrant conservatives have already called for him to be deported, but they may be out of luck. I talked to two immigration experts, both of whom concluded that the federal government is not likely to deport Vargas simply for coming to this country without papers as a child.

"I don’t think he'll be detained, and he's unlikely to be deported," concludes David Leopold, a Cleveland-based immigration attorney and president of the American Immigration Law Institute. "Under immigration law, he could be exposed to deportation and detention," Leopold notes. But in the past, federal authorities—facing limited resources—have used prosecutorial discretion, and the Obama administration has repeatedly emphasized that it prioritizes deporting those convicted of violent crimes.

Like Vargas, supporters of the DREAM Act—which would give legal status to some immigrant youth and students—have outed themselves as undocumented in the past year, and federal authorities haven't pursued deportation, notes Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress. "Vargas' very public profile helps inoculate him from that kind of retributive act." 

But, Leopold says, Vargas may have subjected himself to both civil and criminal prosecution due to some of the actions he's taken to conceal his immigration status. "Looking as an attorney, I see admissions as to very specific conduct that's troubling to me...The use of fraudulent documents, a fake passport, false Social Security Number, claiming citizenship I-9 form, falsified documents—some of these could lead to criminal investigations." And if Vargas' employers knowingly hired him as an undocumented immigrant, they would have violated federal law as well, he points out.

To be sure, prosecutorial discretion could be applied here as well. "A lot of people in this country came in on a false passport," says Leopold, yet ''the government will decline to prosecute in many cases." More likely is an extended period of uncertainy for Vargas, adds Fitz: "The exposure does put him in a potential legal limbo," he says. "It's uncharted territory."

New Act Prohibits Minors Traveling for Abortions

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 6:13 PM EDT

Teens crossing state lines to get an abortion are the target of a new bill introduced today. The Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act (CIANA) looks fairly comprehensive and serious so far, though full text of the bill (S.1241) has not yet been released. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), however, did provide a joint press release that outlined the bill's main points. To summarize, the bill would:

--"prohibit... knowingly taking a minor across state lines with the intent of obtaining an abortion if this action evades the parental notification law in her home state." This could significantly increase the cost of travel for teens seeking an abortion. If a girl lived near a state border, she would be forced to seek an abortion in her state, even if there was a major city just on the other side of the river. In some states without much abortion access, this could be a real hardship.

--"would require abortion providers to notify a parent of an out-of-state minor before performing an abortion." Again, this could cause hardship on the girl getting an abortion because of the time involved for the provider to find and contact her parent. Also, what if the teen had a judicial bypass in her home state? Would it be honored?

--"CIANA allows for punishment, in the form of fines or imprisonment, of physicians who knowingly perform an abortion on a minor who has traveled across state lines..." As RH Reality Check points out, this bill could make providers more leery of performing abortions on girls at all. And it makes it in the best interests of the girl to lie about her residency or about the circumstances of her pregnancy.

On a legal note, it doesn't seem to be fair to ask one state to enforce every other state's laws. For example, you can buy raw milk all over California but it's strictly controlled in Oregon. It is not the job of all California retailers to do background checks to make sure everyone buying raw milk in California lives in California, or that the raw milk an Oregonian is buying would be legal by Oregon's standards. California is governed by California's laws. What CIANA seems to want to do is make doctors adhere not only to their own state's laws, but become legal experts and adhere to every other state's laws on parental consent and notification, which by the way, are constantly changing. Sen. Rubio says that the bill helps guarantee "states have the ability to enforce their laws" but it seems like he wants states to enforce other states' laws as well and punish them if they don't.

Pigs: Man's New Best Friend?

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 5:13 PM EDT

Last week, Mother Jones' Hannah Levintova reported on breast milk-producing cows in Argentina. Now researchers in Japan believe human organ-growing pigs could prove biomedicine’s next big thing. A team at the University of Tokyo implanted a kind of adult stem cell from rats into the embryos of mice genetically bred to be unable to grow their own pancreas. Lo and behold, by the time the mice matured, they possessed fully-developed pancreases formed primarily from the transferred cells.

The researchers are confident that the same methods can be applied to pigs and humans, whose comparable scales and genomic similarities have long made porcine valves a leading option for heart disease sufferers. The techniques employed with the rats and mice, they believe, could yield an abundant new source of human donor organs. In that scenario, a patient's stem cells would be injected into a pig embryo. Once developed over the course of a pig's roughly 16-week gestation period, the organs could be transplanted back into the patient. As a bonus, using a patient's own cells would likely help reduce the risk of rejection.

 

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Quote of the Day: Bernanke Not On Board the Austerity Train

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 3:25 PM EDT

OK, maybe Ben Bernanke isn't willing to do much more to help out our anemic economy, but at least he did say this today:

I don't think that sharp, immediate cuts in the deficit would create more jobs. I think in the short run that we're seeing already a certain amount of fiscal drag coming from state and local governments from the withdrawal of previous federal stimulus, so I think in the short run, you know, the fiscal tightening is at best neutral and probably somewhat negative for job creation.

Am I wrong, or is this the bluntest he's been yet about the idiocy of his fellow Republicans and their austerity agenda?

Sea Levels Rising at Fastest Rate in 2000 Years

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 2:00 PM EDT

The science behind a new report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal is complicated, but the evidence is more precise than it has ever been: Sea levels are now rising at a faster rate than they were at any time in the past 2,000 years. For much of the two millenia measured in the study, sea levels were either stabilized or rising at .25 millimeters per year. But right around the end of the 19th century, sea levels started rising at a comparatively drastic 2.1 millimeters per year, and the trend has continued today.

The study marks a huge advancement in the science of measuring sea level changes because for the first time, scientists have recorded a precise and continuous record of sea level changes dating back over two millenia. This record, which the study based on salt marsh microfossil records from North Carolina's coast, shows that sea level changes for the past millenium have correspended to global temperatures. When the world started warming up, sea levels rose. When it cooled, they stabilized.

I talked with Ben Horton, one of the study's authors and an environmental scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, to put some of the science behind these findings into layman's terms:

Fed: The Economy Stinks, Our Work Is Done

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 1:42 PM EDT

Via the New York Times, the Federal Reserve announced today it's ending efforts to bolster the country's tepid economic recovery:

The nation’s central bank said Wednesday that it would complete the planned purchase of $600 billion in Treasury securities next week as scheduled, and then suspend its three-year-old economic rescue campaign, leaving in place the aid it already is providing but doing nothing more, for now, to bolster growth.

"The economic recovery is continuing at a moderate pace, though somewhat more slowly than the committee had expected," the Fed said in a statement. "The committee expects the pace of recovery to pick up over coming quarters and the unemployment rate to resume its gradual decline."

[...]

The statement offered hope that the pace of growth would increase, noting that many factors restraining the economy are likely to be temporary, including the impact of higher energy prices and the disruptions to manufacturing caused by the Japanese earthquake. Automakers already are planning sharp increases in production to compensate for the lost volume.

So that's it. Apart from sticking with rock-bottom interest rates, the Fed is turning to a hope-and-wait strategy to see if economic growth, job creation, and consumer spending pick up in the coming months. Thanks a lot, Ben Bernanke.

Remember, front and center in the Fed's mission is crafting monetary policy "in pursuit of maximum employment." Right now, twenty-five million Americans can't find full-time jobs. Fourteen million Americans can't find any work. The Fed knows this: "Recent labor market indicators have been weaker than anticipated," the organization said today.

Ezra Klein nailed it this morning on the Fed's failure to fulfill its mission and spark a stronger, faster economic recovery:

[The Fed's efforts have had] a modest impact on the worst economy since the Great Depression. The anger at the Fed isn't coming because people have suddenly developed strong and nuanced views on quantitative easing. It's coming because people are angry about the state of the economy, and the Fed is one of the major forces in the economy. The way to have avoided it wouldn't have been to do less, but to do better, which would've meant doing more.

A growing number of economic policymakers—former Fed vice chairman Alan Blinder, former CEA chair Christina Romer, former associate director for the Fed's monetary affairs division Joseph Gagnon—believe that would've been, and in many cases, still is, possible. They argue that the bank's underwhelming impact on the recovery is evidence not of the Fed's inability to more effectively fight the recession, but its unwillingness to do what was needed to fight the recession. Larger and more aggressive asset purchases, price-level targeting, and various other dips into unconventional measures were and are needed. But all that would've been economically more effective and politically easier a year ago, or even two years ago, than it is today. Today, the Fed is under intense criticism, which limits its freedom of action. Having not done enough, they're now unable to do more.

Dirty Water: It's a State's Right!

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 1:22 PM EDT

From the Department of Orwellian bill titles, today we have the "Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act of 2011." Cooperation! What a nice word. But in the case of the bill being considered today in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, what that actually means is taking away federal oversight when it comes to the Clean Water Act, one of the nation's landmark environmental laws.

The bill's text is here. The committee described the bill like this in a press release:

The bill amends the Clean Water Act (CWA) to restore the long-standing balance between federal and state partners in regulating the nation’s waters, and to preserve the system of cooperative federalism established under the CWA in which the primary responsibilities for water pollution control are allocated to the states. The bill restricts EPA’s ability to second-guess or delay a state's permitting and water quality certification decisions under the CWA after the federal agency has already approved a state's program.

Translated, that means that the bill would give states, not the federal government, the ultimate control over upholding the Clean Water Act on a number of permitting issues. In practice this would mean each individual state gets oversight over water policy, taking us back to the days of the Cuyahoga River fire and Love Canal, before Congress passed a federal law in 1972.

The bill is bipartisan, sponsored by Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), and 32 others. Mica is hot and bothered about the Environmental Protection Agency's efforts to address nutrient pollution in Florida's waterways. Rahall is mad that the EPA rejected an application to dump strip mining waste from a mountaintop removal site in West Virginia. At least we can get representatives from both sides of the aisle to agree  on undermining the nation's foundational environmental laws!