2011 - %3, July

PLZ Text For H20

| Wed Jul. 6, 2011 1:08 PM EDT

Despite my utter dependence on an iPhone to find even my own apartment, I still would rank water above technology on a list of priorities. Still, in some developing countries, communication flows more steadily than water. The numbers can be staggering. In Afghanistan, cellphone subscriptions boomed from zero in 2000 to 13 million in 2010. For every 100 people worldwide in 2010, 78 owned a cellphone. That's up from a mere 12 in 2000. By contrast, the statistics for basics like food and water can be hard to swallow. In rural Ethiopia, 74 percent of the population still relies on unimproved water, which includes surface water and wells unprotected from bird droppings.

Social entrepreneur Anu Sridharan sums it up: "There are more cellphones than toilets on the planet," she said. "If you look at emerging economies like Mexico and Brazil, technology we have, but basic resources we don't. And it's a problem."

Recently, entrepreneurs such as Sridharan have tried to bridge the uneven boom between utilities and technology. Just last month, the Knight News Challenge funded her potential solution to at least one aspect of the problem by granting $375,000 to NextDrop, Sridharan's crowdsourcing project that notifies residents of Hubli-Dharwad, Karnataka, India, when one of their local water valves begins to flow. The idea emerged out of a UC—Berkeley civil engineering project. The NextDrop team's plan for distinction is simple: collaborate with local governments rather than running strictly as a business.

"We're not trying to recreate the wheel here," Sridharan says. "We want to affect the most people, and to make the most change happen, you have to work with governments and utilities."

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"Deficit Reduction" in Plain English

| Wed Jul. 6, 2011 12:28 PM EDT

David Leonhardt complains that the business community likes to talk big about how damaging the deficit is, but in practice lobbies extensively for policies that would increase the deficit. Even the Business Roundtable, a supposedly moderate business group, lobbies for lower tax rates, more loopholes, and increased spending on stuff it cares about:

It’s easy to look at the squabbling politicians in Washington and decide that they are the cause of the country’s huge looming budget deficit. Certainly, they deserve some blame. The larger problem, though, is what you might call roundtable syndrome.

In short, there isn’t much of a constituency for deficit reduction. Sure, plenty of people and special-interest groups say that they are deeply worried about the deficit. But they are not lobbying for specific spending cuts or tax increases. They aren’t marshaling their resources to defend politicians who take tough stands, like President Obama’s 2009 Medicare cuts or Rand Paul’s proposed military cuts.

Well, look: business groups learned long ago that they no longer had to compromise. In 1986 they managed — barely — to support an agreement to remove lots of tax loopholes in return for lower corporate tax rates, but that was the last gasp of a dying era. Since then, the Republican Party, with an ever-growing assist from a newly corporatized Democratic Party, has made it clear that this kind of deal is no longer necessary. The business community can get lower rates and more loopholes, and once they get them they'll never have to give them back.

It's hardly a revelation that people prefer to raise taxes and reduce spending only on other people. Take taxes off the table, as they have been, and that leaves only spending cuts on others. In our current political environment, "others" means not businesses and not the elderly and not the middle class. By elimination, it means spending cuts on programs for the young and the poor, which is exactly what the Republican base has bent all its energies toward for the past 40 years. Here it is in terms everyone can understand:

"Deficit reduction" = spending cuts on social programs for the young and the poor.

Republicans don't want to cut the deficit. They want to cut liberal social programs. Anyone who continues not to understand this is simply being willfully ignorant.

Gambling On Armageddon (No, Seriously)

| Wed Jul. 6, 2011 11:17 AM EDT

The debt ceiling fight is sucking up all the wonk blogging oxygen these days, but I'm struggling to think of anything new to say about it. Republicans are great negotiators, Obama left himself wide open to lose this battle, Republicans are crazy, Democrats have no consistent position on offer, Republicans may benefit if the economy tanks, Democrats may benefit if independents conclude that Republicans are reckless and crazy, etc. etc. I guess it's worth repeating this stuff to make sure the point gets across, but there are only so many synonyms for "insane."

So instead, let's have a pool. Answer the following three questions:

  1. When will we finally reach a debt ceiling agreement? (The drop-dead date is supposedly July 22, with a second really-for-sure drop-dead date of August 2.)
  2. How much will the debt ceiling be increased? A lot (the full $2 trillion or so) or will it just be a stopgap ($400 billion or so)?
  3. Will it include any net revenue increases? How much?

I know, I know, I'm asking you to bet on the end of the world. And I'm not even offering any prizes. But the winner gains much commenting-fu in the coming year. Here's my entry: (1) August 7, (2) $1.7 trillion, (3) Yes, $200 billion.

Michele Bachmann’s Marcus Bachmann Problem

| Wed Jul. 6, 2011 10:04 AM EDT
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and her husband, Marcus Bachmann, greet the crowd at a campaign stop in South Carolina.

Politico's James Hohmann published a story Tuesday on the unique role of Rep. Michele Bachmann's husband, Marcus, on the campaign trail. Aside from the obvious points about how he's had to pick up the slack on the home front since his wife left for Washington, the piece notes a few of the recent controversies that could become "liabilities" on the campaign trail—namely, the fact that his family farm received subsidies, and that his Christian therapy practice accepted Medicaid funding.

That might be a stretch. The fact that Marcus Bachmann received farm subsidies is bad because they're the kind of government handout the candidate loves to hate, but it's really not the kind of thing that sways voters—especially when you consider that a lot of Republican primary voters also receive farm subsidies. There is one part of the Marcus Bachmann story, though, that is already becoming an issue for the Bachmann campaign.

Mitt Romney Crushes GOP Field in Latest Cash Haul

| Wed Jul. 6, 2011 9:49 AM EDT

Mitt Romney's repeated flip-flopping may have cast doubt on his frontrunner status in the GOP presidential field, but when it comes to raking in campaign cash, he's way, way ahead of the pack.

According to his campaign, Romney raised $18.25 million in April, May, and June—more than all the other GOP presidential contenders combined. (Rep. Michele Bachmann has not yet disclosed her fundraising haul for the 2011 second quarter.) More than half of Romney's contributions came from a single national phone fundraiser in May. Unlike former Utah governor Jon Huntsman and tea party favorite Herman Cain, Romney's campaign says he didn't contribute a dime to his latest fundraising total. In a statement, Romney's campaign said his haul is evidence that voters are buying his more moderate, jobs-centric message.

While Romney's numbers easily trump his competitors', he trails his own fundraising totals from his first presidential bid four years ago. In the first three months of 2007, Romney had already raked in $23.5 million, $2.5 million of which was his own money.

This time around, it's not just Romney's campaign that's pulling in big bucks. A super PAC run by former aides to Romney, called Restore Our Future, announced recently that it had bagged $12 million in the first half of 2011. Groups like this one can accept unlimited donations from individuals, unions, and corporations, but must disclose their donors to the Federal Election Commission. The only other presidential candidate with a similarly aligned super PAC is President Obama; earlier this year, former Obama White House aides Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney started Priorities USA Action, which is devoted to pushing back against Republican outside spending groups and supporting the president.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 6, 2011

Wed Jul. 6, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

The U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps marches on the parade field at the Armed Forces Farewell Tribute held in honor of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates at the Pentagon, June 30, 2011. DoD photo by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jacob N. Bailey

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Life After the Death of Collective Bargaining

| Wed Jul. 6, 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 Gov. John Kasich, public employees, unions, teachers, students, and struggling middle-class families.

It's always something in Ohio. Last week, it became legal to bring concealed weapons into bars. A labor protest shut down a busy street in downtown Columbus. And the hotly contested, penny-pinching budget was signed into law by Gov. John Kasich.

For the friends I've been staying with, the impending budget has been wreaking havoc on domestic tranquility. First, Anthony got laid off because the budget was slated to cut so much from his employer, the Ohio Consumers' Counsel. Then, the family got the news that the OCC cut wasn't going to be quite as bad as anticipated. So now, though many of his coworkers are still out of a job, Anthony's is safe. The concern has shifted mostly onto Erin, a public school teacher.

Here's what's troublesome for her in the budget: a requirement that schools receiving federal Race to the Top grants ditch their longstanding experience- and education-based pay system in favor of an alternative, like merit-based pay. Erin's school is a Race to the Top school. While she signed on to her job with the impression that her future salary level would be guaranteed by a predetermined schedule, this provision means cash-strapped school administrators could decide that, based on some as-yet-to-be-determined criteria, her salary should be $10,000 or $20,000 less than it currently is. Normally, Erin's union could likely prevent any arbitrary salary changes or advocate on her behalf. But the Ohio legislature recently passed Senate Bill 5, a Wisconsin-y anti-collective-bargaining law that will render her union effectively powerless.

That was the subject of last week's protest. Almost as soon as SB 5 passed, opponents started gathering signatures to get a repeal measure on the November ballot. Last Wednesday, huge crowds gathered in downtown Columbus to march to the secretary of state's office and deliver those signatures. Shirts and flags identified them as firefighters, transit workers, teachers, electricians, bikers, state troopers; residents of Columbus, Cleveland, Findlay, Toledo; members of the SEIU, UAW, AFL-CIO. There was a professional drumline. There was the mayor, whom Erin nearly ran down with her unwieldy stroller when she veered toward him to shake his hand.

The organizers needed about 230,000 to get the SB 5 repeal on the ballot. They got 1,298,301. "We can't guarantee anything," said a spokeswoman for We Are Ohio, the campaign driving the effort, "but we're confident with the amount of signatures we've collected that we have a lot of support on our side."

Erin hopes they're right. She's nervous about it, though. So is Lindsey, another gal who lived in our dorm when we all went to Ohio State 10 years ago. Lindsey teaches middle-school English in rural Logan, about an hour outside Columbus. She stopped by for a visit the other day, bringing one of her kids, her two-month-old, to meet Erin's eleven-month-old. Most of the talk that wasn't about breast-feeding was about SB 5. Though Lindsey doesn't teach at a Race to the Top school, under the new legislation her district can opt out of its established pay schedule. And with union protections in jeopardy, she's not taking any chances.

"My husband wants to buy a new couch," she said. But—she cocked her head and winced hard—she doesn't want to take any money out of their savings until the repeal passes (or not) this fall. "We don't know what's gonna happen."

Front page image by ProgressOhio/Flickr

The American Public Hates Stimulus Spending

| Tue Jul. 5, 2011 11:34 PM EDT

"Given a choice," says McClatchy's Steven Thomma, "59 percent of Americans prefer reducing debt even if that slows the economic recovery." Thomma wouldn't lie about his own poll, but that's still a pretty gobsmacking result. So I had to go look for myself. And luckily for my sanity, I don't believe the poll says quite what Thomma thinks it does. Here's the detail:

It turns out only that most people want to reduce the national debt "even if the economy is slow to recover." That's quite a bit different from wanting to reduce the national debt "even if it causes the economy to be slow to recover." There's a little bit of association between spending and strength of recovery when you read both of the poll's options to people, but it's pretty thin.

At the same time, whether we like it or not, this poll does pretty clearly tell us two things: (a) most people probably don't link stimulus spending with helping the economy to recover faster, and (b) large majorities are pretty obsessed about cutting the national debt — and those large majorities cut across practically every demographic subgroup. If you want to know why President Obama is willing to cut a deal with Republicans to drastically cut federal spending, this is it. We liberals have miserably failed to make the case for stimulus spending, and as a result conservatives have spectacularly succeeded in reverting the American public to its default state of believing that the federal books should always be balanced, the same as household books. On this score, we've just been flatly outplayed over the past couple of years.

Brooks: Republicans No Longer Normal

| Tue Jul. 5, 2011 6:44 PM EDT

David Brooks is getting lots of hosannas today for a column that forthrightly calls the Republican Party nuts for its unwillingness to accept a debt ceiling compromise that's weighted something like 5:1 in favor of spending cuts and doesn't raise marginal tax rates a dime in order to generate its modest revenue increases. The GOP, he says, should grab a deal like this with both hands:

But we can have no confidence that the Republicans will seize this opportunity. That’s because the Republican Party may no longer be a normal party. Over the past few years, it has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative.

The members of this movement do not accept the logic of compromise....The members of this movement do not accept the legitimacy of scholars and intellectual authorities....The members of this movement have no sense of moral decency....The members of this movement have no economic theory worthy of the name.

....If the debt ceiling talks fail, independents voters will see that Democrats were willing to compromise but Republicans were not. If responsible Republicans don’t take control, independents will conclude that Republican fanaticism caused this default. They will conclude that Republicans are not fit to govern.

And they will be right.

I've avoided commenting on this today because I didn't want to seem churlish. But on second thought, there's nothing wrong with some occasional churl, is there?

So here's my churlishness for the day: I'll believe that Brooks has seen the light when he actually keeps this up for a few consecutive weeks. I've never been a Brooks hater, but the fact is that he occasionally writes columns like this. Normally, though, having done it, he then devotes his next five or six columns to nitpicking at Democrats and pretending that they are, when all's said and done, just as bad as Republicans after all.

They aren't, of course. They're just a normal party with all the virtues and all the pathologies of any broad-based political party. That means it's easy to find a laundry list of things to criticize and then add them up to make it seem as if everyone's equally to blame for the insanity of our current political impasses. But it's not true, and it's long past time for non-insane conservatives to give up on this kind of faux Olympianism. As Brooks says, the GOP is no longer a normal political party and they are not fit to govern. The question is, will Brooks still believe that in a couple of weeks when — and it's bound to happen — Democrats do something he dislikes? I'll wait and see.

Exxon Spills 42,000 Gallons in MT

| Tue Jul. 5, 2011 5:35 PM EDT

It's not news anyone wants to see over a long holiday weekend: on Friday night, a pipeline ruptured in Montana, dumping thousands of gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River. The pipeline, owned by ExxonMobil, ruptured 20 miles upstream from Billings, spilling up to 42,000 gallons of oil into the water.

The Environmental Protection Agency is posting updates on the clean up. As the New York Times reported over the weekend:

The pipeline is 12 inches wide and runs from Silver Tip, Mont., to Billings, an area with three refineries, ExxonMobil said. All three were shut down after the spill. ExxonMobil said it had summoned its North American Regional Response Team to help clean up the spill, and a fire spokesman in Laurel said more than 100 people, including officials with the Environmental Protection Agency, were expected to arrive at the scene by Sunday morning.
In a statement, the company said it “deeply regrets this release and is working hard with local emergency authorities to mitigate the impacts of this release on the surrounding communities and to the environment.”

Officials still don't know what caused the rupture on the line. The extent of the damage is also unclear at this point, but needless to say, local residents aren't very happy.

The rupture also isn't likely to help the case for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would also cross the Yellowstone. That project has already met a good deal of protest as the State Department considers whether to grant it approval.