2011 - %3, July

Quote of the Day: Bill Clinton on Voter ID Laws

| Wed Jul. 6, 2011 4:38 PM EDT

From Bill Clinton, talking to a group of college students about the relentless two-decade Republican effort to restrict voting among minorities, the young, and felons who have done their time and finished their probation:

One of the most pervasive political movements going on outside Washington today is the disciplined, passionate, determined effort of Republican governors and legislators to keep most of you from voting next time....There has never been in my lifetime, since we got rid of the poll tax and all the Jim Crow burdens on voting, the determined effort to limit the franchise that we see today. Why should we disenfranchise people forever once they’ve paid their price? Because most of them in Florida were African Americans and Hispanics who tended to vote for Democrats. That’s why.

Good for him for saying this so directly. The Republican push for "voter ID" laws that address no actual problem and are plainly designed solely to reduce voting among Democratic-leaning constituencies is one of its most disgraceful projects. And it's not just the formal party apparatus either: the Supreme Court's refusal to overturn these laws is one of the clearest indications we have of the nakedly partisan turn the court has taken in recent years. It's shameful.

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Shocker: A Governor Scores a Big Victory for Workers' Rights

| Wed Jul. 6, 2011 4:25 PM EDT
Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy.

This year, we've been inundated with news of states stripping collective bargaining rights, slashing unemployment benefits, and generally reducing workers' rights. Connecticut, however, is bucking the trend.

Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy, a Democrat, announced on Tuesday that Connecticut will be the first state in the nation to mandate paid sick leave for employees. Malloy's bill says companies with 50 or more employees have to allow workers to accumulate an hour of sick leave per 40 hours worked, and the bill is expected to impact as many as 300,000 workers in Connecticut.

Here's more from the Washington Post:

Malloy made his support of paid sick leave a campaign issue last year, saying it was to safeguard public health. He persuaded wavering lawmakers to vote for it, Prague said. "He was the key factor, there’s no doubt about it," she said.

Backers have compared the legislation with workplace standards such as the minimum wage, which was enacted in the 1930s, and occupational safety and health standards, which were adopted in the 1970s.

"When we raise the minimum wage, it raises wages for everyone," said Jon Green of Connecticut Working Families, which lobbied for the legislation. "I think we’ll see paid sick time follow a similar trajectory over time."

The passage of Malloy's bill was a long time coming for workers' rights groups. Similar bills failed to make it through the Connecticut legislature on three previous tries. Here's the Women's Media Center on the backstory behind Malloy's bill:

The win is the result of years of work by Connecticut Working Families, a grassroots organization that spearheaded the Everybody Benefits Coalition, which brought together labor unions and business owners, school nurses and janitors, faith leaders and public health experts, waitresses and restaurant owners. All of them recognized that paid sick days are critical to promoting a healthier, more productive workforce and strengthening the economy.

Lawmakers heard moving testimony from workers like Cheryl Folston, a livery service driver who felt pain in her chest, but couldn’t miss a day’s work to see a doctor. Only after Cheryl was laid off and finally had time to see a doctor, did she learn she had a serious heart tumor—a tumor her doctors say that could’ve killed her if she had waited any longer for treatment.

Workers like Cheryl Folston were joined by business leaders like Louis Lista, owner of the Pond House Cafe in Elizabeth Park. He provides paid sick days because it wouldn’t be fair to his employees to make them work sick and would be bad business to put customers at risk of getting ill from sick workers. Louis told legislators he found that paid sick days saved money in the long run because of reduced turnover. He has dishwashers who’ve been on staff for more than five years—a rarity in the food service industry.

Personal stories like these moved lawmakers to defy the powerful Connecticut Business and Industry Association, which had made its opposition to paid sick days a centerpiece of its agenda. And amidst their lobbying against a few paid sick days, new research showed that the business community’s concerns about paid sick days legislation were unfounded.

The Biggest Cheating Scandal Ever

| Wed Jul. 6, 2011 3:00 PM EDT

Photo: Celine NadeauPhoto: Celine NadeauAtlanta's former school chief Beverly Hall will probably have to return her 2009 Superintendent of the Year award. Yesterday, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal released a report from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation that names 178 teachers and principals in Hall's former school district—including 82 who confessed—in what's likely to be the biggest cheating scandal in US history.

The report found that teachers and principals in 44 schools were consistently erasing and changing test answers after students submitted their sheets. As The Christian Science Monitor reports:

The 55,000-student Atlanta public school system rose in national prominence during the 2000s, as test scores steadily rose and the district received notice and funding from the Broad Foundation and the Gates Foundation. But behind that rise, the state found, were teachers and principals in 44 schools erasing and changing test answers.

One of the most troubling aspects of the Atlanta cheating scandal, says the report, is that the district repeatedly refused to properly investigate or take responsibility for the cheating. Moreover, the central office told some principals not to cooperate with investigators. In one case, an administrator instructed employees to tell investigators to "go to hell." When teachers tried to alert authorities, they were labeled "disgruntled." One principal opened an ethics investigation against a whistle-blower.


Robert Schaeffer, a spokesman for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, which advocates against high-stakes standardized testing, says that the number of reported cases of cheating has exploded in recent years. In just the past few months, the Center has received reports of cheating in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, Orlando, Washington, D.C., and many smaller communities.

Among the main causes behind cheating, the Georgia's Office of Special Investigators found unreasonable targets set by the district, and a widespread culture of fear and retaliation within the district. It's important to keep in mind that while states set the goals for what to teach and how to test, the federal government doles out rewards and punishments. So putting all of the blame on the district for a testing system in need of reform is not entirely fair. The district carries most of the responsibility of how they achieved those targets, though.

The good news is that Atlanta's case offers the first comprehensive view into this growing problem, which should lead to better state and federal anti-cheating policies. This matters even more now that 20 states are planning to use teacher evaluation systems that rely in some part on students' test scores.

Exxon's Pipeline Problem

| Wed Jul. 6, 2011 2:41 PM EDT

As we noted Tuesday, Montana is dealing with an oil spill in the Yellowstone River. But it looks like ExxonMobil hasn't been exactly honest about its response to the spill. The Associated Press reports that the company took almost twice as long to respond to the spill in the river as it initially claimed:

Details about the company's response to the Montana pipeline burst emerged late Tuesday as the Department of Transportation ordered the company bury the duct deeper beneath the riverbed, where it is buried 5 to 8 feet underground to deliver 40,000 barrels of oil a day to a refinery in Billings.

The federal agency's records indicate the pipeline was not fully shut down for 56 minutes after the break occurred Friday near Laurel. That's longer than the 30 minutes that company officials claimed Tuesday in a briefing with federal officials and Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

It also appears that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)—the division of the Department of Transportation that oversees pipelines—has found problems with the pipeline before, as Reuters reports:

After inspecting the pipeline in July 2009, PHMSA issued a warning letter to Exxon a year later about oil leaking from some of the valves on the pipeline.
The agency said the valves did not have a means for clearly indicating whether they were opened or closed. As a result "there was fresh crude oil on the soil immediately adjacent to the valves," PHMSA said in its warning letter.
It also faulted Exxon for not following up in a timely manner on atmospheric corrosion issues that were identified during three years of corrosion surveys on the pipeline.

 

Warming Up to Cool Light

| Wed Jul. 6, 2011 2:02 PM EDT

Farhad Manjoo writes in Slate today about the holy grail in indoor lighting: an energy-efficient bulb that's dimmable and produces nice warm light. It comes from a company called Switch, and it all sounds very nice. But I found this parenthetical pretty interesting:

(The 60- and 75-watt-alternative bulbs are also available in neutral white, which Sharenow says is a popular color in many different places around the world—people in Japan, India, and other Asian countries can't stand the yellow light we find comforting, Sharenow says.)

Obviously people don't like bulbs that flicker, can't be dimmed, and don't come on immediately. But the recent freakout over the end of incandescent bulbs has been at least equally driven by an insistence that a less yellowy light than Thomas Edison bequeathed to us is simply intolerable. This is, and always has been, nuts. It's a product of habit, not a law of human optics. The warm incandescent bulbs we use today are closer to candlelight than to sunlight, and I'll bet that every single person in America would very quickly get accustomed to a more neutral color in light bulbs if they'd just use them for a while and allow their old habits to die out.

In any case, if the Switch folks are on the level, they've got an LED bulb that doesn't flicker, comes on immediately, can be dimmed, and is available in old-school "warm" white or a more neutral white. So now you'll have your choice. But the neutral bulb puts out more light per watt, and it's almost certainly a better light source for anyone willing to give it a chance.

Tim Pawlenty's Small, Small World

| Wed Jul. 6, 2011 1:52 PM EDT

The Wall Street Journal has a piece today on former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty's "homespun tale"—looking at his roots as the son of a truck driver in South St. Paul that the Republican presidential candidate often cites. Most interesting, though, is a bit of presidential trivia: If elected, Pawlenty would be the first president to have spent his entire life in a single state.

That's right: Pawlenty has lived his whole life in Minnesota. Within the same 20 mile stretch of Minnesota, to be exact. Were he to win the election, his presumptive move to the White House would be his first extended stay in another state (well, if you want to call DC a state, but that's a different discussion entirely). Pawlenty attended the University of Minnesota as an undergraduate and later for law school, settled in the suburb of Eagan, and even when he resided in the governor's mansion, it was only about 10 miles from South St. Paul. Our Founding Fathers had to take ships and horses to travel about, but they still managed to survey other locales before their election. In the age of interstate highways and air travel, Pawlenty's story seems even more unusual. 

The only other president who could lay a similar claim was Grover Cleveland, the 22nd and 24th president of the US. While he was born in New Jersey, he moved to New York as a toddler and remained there his entire life until taking up residence in the White House. He, too, claimed his roots as part of his allure. "He was an outsider, and that was critical to his candidacy," Rick Shenkman, editor and founder of George Mason University's History News Network, tells Mother Jones. Cleveland's run for the presidency was notable, too, for his rapid rise to national prominence, jumping from sheriff of New York's Erie County, to mayor of Buffalo, to the presidency in just three years.

Pawlenty has lived his whole life within the same 20 mile stretch of Minnesota.

So will this little bit of trivia have any impact on Pawlenty's candidacy? In the last election, Sarah Palin was mocked for her lack of worldliness. But even she had lived in Idaho and Hawaii before settling in Alaska. By contrast, Republicans criticized Obama for being "rootless," because he'd lived in not just several states but also Indonesia (and had written a book about visiting Kenya) before his White House bid. Then again, while his sedentary lifestyle is exceptional for a presidential candidate, he's hardly an outlier among the American public; according to a 2008 Pew study, four in ten Americans have never lived outside their hometowns.

T-Paw, who likes to call himself a "Sam's Club Republican," is hoping his Minnesota roots will help him come across as folksy to Republican primary voters. But so far that charm doesn't appear to be working all that well.

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Rape in the Ranks

| Wed Jul. 6, 2011 1:47 PM EDT

Yesterday, Mother Jones' Tumblr posted a link to a jarring GOOD magazine infographic with the title "Female soldiers more likely to be raped by their own troops than killed by enemy fire." The response was huge: 800 people reblogged the link in less than 24 hours. "No one can tell me that feminism has reached its goal and is now obsolete," wrote one reblogger.

Servicewomen face twice the rape rate as civilians.

Yet few Americans seem interested in the armed forces' gender issues. To the extent that military affairs get any attention from networks or big news sites lately, the headlines are dominated by debates over the defense budget. (We've reported our share of such stories, too.) Beyond that, the occasional story about Afghanistan, Iraq, or killer drones gets through. And beyond that, when journalists do cover social problems in the uniformed services, Don't Ask Don't Tell gets the lion's share of the attention.

Beneath the surface, gender conflicts are roiling the ranks, and few commentators are taking notice.

Chart of the Day: Utah's Incredible Shrinking Tea Party

| Wed Jul. 6, 2011 1:20 PM EDT

For Utah tea partiers, the last several years have been aces.

On Tuesday, Politico published a story on the rising influence of freshman Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), calling him a "must-see for GOP candidates hoping to channel the energy of the tea party movement." And for months, the same groups that ousted three-term conservative Republican Sen. Bob Bennett in a state convention last year—paving the way for their favored candidate Lee—have had their crosshairs set on Sen. Orrin Hatch, with the thought of drafting tea party favorite Rep. Jason Chaffetz to take his place. Movement leaders have also talked of ousting Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, along with state legislators who supported a recently passed guest-worker law.

Life is good if you're a tea party Republican from Utah. With all that momentum, there's little reason to doubt the the movement's long-term viability in the Beehive State. Right?

Well, no. A recent poll conducted by Brigham Young University's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy shows that overall support for the tea party in Utah has dropped from 53 percent during last year's elections to 46 percent in April. A closer look at the numbers, though, shows that while overall and independent support for the movement has eroded, diehard Republicans are even more committed than before:

Among independent voters, support for the tea party has plummeted by nearly fifty percent, potentially helping moderate Democrats. But for "strong Republicans," support for the tea party climbed from 76 to 82 percent. The poll issues a clear warning for candidates like Chaffetz, Hatch—and, down the road, even Lee—who hope a hard push to the right will secure their political futures.

The takeaway: as the tea party continues to consolidate its support among Republicans, independents (i.e., the voters who end up deciding elections) are drifting away in increasing numbers. Whether this trend continues taking hold in Utah—the heart of the conservative heartland—could be a bellwether for its national viability.

No, Let's Not Slash the Minimum Wage

| Wed Jul. 6, 2011 1:11 PM EDT

Karl Smith agrees with Casey Mulligan that reducing the minimum wage would boost the job market:

I understand that there are sophisticated studies showing a limited impact of the minimum wage on employment. My judgment is impacted by those studies. Nonetheless, they are climbing a steep hill against intuition and a supply and demand paradigm that has proved incredibly powerful in the past.

It may not be the case that the minimum wage cut employment by 800K but I have a hard time swallowing that it does not impede recovery and exacerbate long term unemployment.

I can’t imagine that there are no workers at all in America whom it is profitable to hire at $4.75 an hour but unprofitable to hire at $7.25.

This kind of stuff bothers me on a bunch of different levels. Let's count the ways:

  • You either believe empirical studies or you don't. If you have reason not to believe them, then let's hear it.
  • Intuition about supply and demand just flatly won't work in this case. We're talking about a market with (probably) low elasticities and a huge number of confounding factors that could push it in multiple directions. It's easy to see that a small increase in the minimum wage could be overwhelmed by other factors and lead to either a very small or zero impact on employment levels.
  • Are there jobs where it's profitable to hire at $4.75 but not at $7.25? Well, there must be some, but we're talking about such low skill levels here that there very well might not be many. That's why empirical studies are so important. The effects are just too small to intuit.
  • Is this really what we've come to? That we should provide a (probably very small) boost to the job market by allowing businesses to hire people for $9,500 per year instead of $14,500? Seriously? I mean, this is the ultimate safety net program, aimed squarely at working people at the very bottom of the income ladder. If we're willing to throw them under the bus, who aren't we willing to throw under the bus?

There are, obviously, nuances here. Maybe you think we should do away with the minimum wage and instead beef up the EITC or something similar. Or maybe we should directly subsidize higher wages instead of making businesses pay them directly. For a variety of non-economic reasons I don't think that's a good idea, but reasonable people can differ. But what it's hard to differ about is that this is pie in the sky. If we reduce the minimum wage, nothing is going to take its place and we all know it. It would increase corporate profits and dramatically reduce the wages of the poorest workers, and that's about it. Employment would probably be affected only marginally, and nothing would take the place of that lost income. Welcome to America.

Bill Clinton: Debt Talks Missing One Big Point

| Wed Jul. 6, 2011 1:10 PM EDT

Talking to more than a thousand student activists gathered for a Campus Progress conference in Washington, DC, former President Bill Clinton on Wednesday commented on the ongoing negotiations on the debt ceiling. He complained that "nobody is talking about one of the central points." The conversation is focused so much on spending cuts, he explained, and not the vital fact that "we shouldn't do any of them until the economy is clearly in recovery."

Clinton also offered his analysis on why the Democrats received a worse-than-expected drubbing in November: the electorate wasn't aware of President Barack Obama and the Democrats' multiple accomplishments. He cited a list of examples: most people didn't know that Obama and the Democrats had given them a tax cut, had enacted a stimulus (insufficient, as it was) that had created or saved millions of jobs, had spurred significant innovation in green technology with a refundable tax credit, had passed reform legislation that would lessen the chances of a future Wall Street bailout, had rescued the auto industry, had taken hundreds of millions of dollars in Medicare savings and used these funds to send checks to seniors to help them plug the hole in their prescription medicine coverage, and had saved $60 billion in the student loan program and shared those savings with students in the form of lower-interest and more flexible loans.

"Nobody knew," Clinton said.

He was urging the students to become well-informed regarding policy debates in order to educate others. But was this also a critique of the Obama administration's communications operation? Clinton offered nothing but praise for Obama and his economic vision. But it was hard not to wonder whether Clinton was thinking, Oh, what I could have done, with a record like that.