2011 - %3, August

One-Third of Wartime Contracting Funds Wasted

| Wed Aug. 31, 2011 7:28 AM PDT

Hey, members of the Super-Duper Committee looking to cut a grand deficit-reduction deal, if you're looking for wasteful spending to remove from the federal budget, give Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) a call. This just in from her office:

KANSAS CITY – U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill will discuss the findings today of a two-year inquiry into wartime contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. McCaskill will make the announcement via phone at 11:15 a.m. ET / 10:15 a.m. CT from her offices in Kansas City.

The U.S. Commission on Wartime Contracting, created by McCaskill and inspired by President Harry Truman’s commission on war profiteering in World War II, discovered rampant waste, fraud, and abuse throughout the contracting apparatus. The Commission found that at least $31 billion and as much as $60 billion has been wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan to date and that much more will be wasted in the future without significant changes to the way the government plans, awards, and oversees contracts.

The new report provides a blueprint for addressing these failures of contracting including specific recommendations. McCaskill intends to develop legislation based upon these recommendations. The Commission was created through legislation spearheaded by McCaskill and U.S. Senator Jim Webb (Va.); it passed with broad bipartisan support.

Instead of slicing funding for, say, food safety programs, weather satellites, medical research, health care, or education, perhaps the SDC can squeeze tens of billions of dollars in waste out of this sloppy system. It's just a thought.

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North Carolina GOP Trying to Ban Gay Marriage Twice

| Wed Aug. 31, 2011 5:56 AM PDT
North Carolina Republicans are hoping to put a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage on the 2012 ballot.

North Carolina has already banned gay marriage once, via statute, in 1996. Now, driven by concerns that a court might strike down the law, the state legislature is looking to do it again just to be on the safe side—this time by putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November 2012. House Majority Leader Paul Stam, a Republican, held a press conference on Tuesday to announce that the legislature would try to green-light the ballot initiative during September's special session.

But that wasn't the only thing he said. Via our friends at On Top, Stam attempted to justify his body's focus on the issue by comparing gay marriage to incest and polygamy:

When asked by a reporter whether the amendment was "a reach of government into the individuals' lives?" Stam answered: "Well 90 percent of all laws affect people's lives, so that's an argument without any content to it... We prohibit adult incest, we prohibit polygamy. What would be their answer to that? We're involved in people's lives. That's a slogan without analysis."

"What I'm saying is," Stam went on to explain, "you cannot construct an argument for same sex-marriage that would not also justify philosophically the legalization of polygamy and adult incest."

If the bill passes, North Carolina won't be the only state to put gay rights on the ballot next November. Minnesota will vote on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage next fall—due, in no small part, to the efforts of Michele Bachmann's allies at the Minnesota Family Council. The push comes at a precarious moment for both gay rights opponents and, more specifically, North Carolina. Gay rights activists scored a major victory this summer when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a law legalizing gay marriage in his state, and recent polls have shown a majority of Americans—and large numbers of Republicans—are supportive of gay marriage and civil unions. Even Focus on the Family president Jim Daly has had to concede that, at least demographically, the battle has been lost.

According to a February poll from Elon University, a majority of voters in North Carolina support at least some legal rights for gay couples. With Tobacco Road tilting increasingly into the blue column, 2012 might be conservatives' last best chance to push through such a measure before liberal-leaning millenials and northeastern transplants implement Shariah. The fact that it might also help get out the vote for opponents of President Obama's re-election campaign likely hasn't gone unnoticed by the state GOP either.

South Africa's Wine Woes

| Wed Aug. 31, 2011 3:00 AM PDT
A squatter camp sits against backdrop of vineyards and mountains in South Africa's wine country.

I've seen it: People who are extremely fussy about the food they put in their mouths—shopping at farmers markets for veggies and meat and looking for Fair Trade labels on tropical goods—nevertheless choose wine based on whatever has the quirkiest label at the price point they're comfortable with.

But just as much as tomatoes or pork chops, wine is an agricultural product. Grapes are grown on real land and tended by real people—and marketed by corporate flacks who know how to paint a lovely picture.

Here's a passage from one such marketing professional's proposal for pitching the (increasingly fashionable) wines of South Africa to US consumers:

"Think of how people see most of the wine producing regions of the world. California and France are old hat. Australia and New Zealand are boring little colonies. Germany's wine region isn't that interesting from the consumer's perspective either. But Africa has everything: immaculate vineyards, sunshine, a diverse people, jazz, great food and a laid-back lifestyle. The place is beautiful, absolutely beautiful. No other continent triggers the imagination the way Africa does." Indeed, local exporters are now using images of alluring African models, sipping red wine, to sell their product—creating an enviable market profile of ethnic spice overlaid against the nation's claim on 350 years of winemaking.

And here's Human Rights Watch with a rather more sober depiction of South Africa's vineyards, from its new report, Ripe with Abuse: Human Rights Conditions in South Africa's Fruit and Wine Industries (PDF).

Every year, millions of consumers around the world enjoy South African fruits and the renowned wines that come from its vineyards. Yet the farmworkers who produce these goods for domestic consumption and international export are among the most vulnerable people in South African society: working long hours in harsh weather conditions, often without access to toilets or drinking water, they are exposed to toxic pesticides that are sprayed on crops. For this physically grueling work, they earn among the lowest wages in South Africa, and are often denied benefits to which they are legally entitled. Many farmworkers confront obstacles to union formation, which remains at negligible levels in the Western Cape agricultural sector. Farmworkers and others who live on farms often have insecure land tenure rights, rendering them and their families vulnerable to evictions or displacement—in some cases, from the land on which they were born.

According to Human Rights Watch, the minimum wage for farm workers in South Africa amounts to about $46 per week—less even than the minimum for the other worst-paid workers in the nation, domestic maids. Housing conditions are deplorable—workers and their families are often shunted into temporary structures, abandoned pigsties, even former outhouses—and tenure is uncertain. Union participation is minimal, and vigorously fought by the farm bosses. Pesticides are used widely—and workers are routinely denied sufficient protection from them.

Image-of-the-Week: Rider on the Storm

| Wed Aug. 31, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus). Credit: Mdf  at Wikimedia Commons.Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus). Credit: Mdf at Wikimedia Commons.

A whimbrel named Chinquapin left his breeding grounds on Southampton Island in the Canadian Arctic on 22 August, passed over New England and was far out to sea when he found himself up against Hurricane Irene's strongest Category 3 winds last Wednesday. Shortly thereafter his satellite transmitter went dead and the researchers following his migration feared the worst. Whimbrels are capable of flying 3,500mi/5,633kms without stopping—but not in 130mph/209kph winds. As usual, in August, Chinquapin was en route to his wintering grounds on beaches near the mouth of the Amazon River in Brazil to feed on small invertebrates captured in the sand with the help of his own specialized bill—the angle of which exactly matches the burrow curve of a fiddler crab (Uca spp.). Long-lived (≥19 yrs) whimbrels encounter many dangers in the course of their travels. Yet apparently crossing Irene only slowed Chinquapin in his tracks. On Friday last week his satellite began to transmit again—from Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas. Sweet spot to probe the sand.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 31, 2011

Wed Aug. 31, 2011 2:57 AM PDT

Staff Sgt. Frankie Berdecia of Alpha Company 2nd battalion 27th infantry (the Wolfhounds), operates a TOW missile system at Observation Post Mace in eastern Afghanistan's Kunar province near the border with Pakistan on August 28, 2011. Photo by the US Army.

Egghead Predicts: Obama a Shoo-in For 2012

| Tue Aug. 30, 2011 8:26 PM PDT

Remember all those models that say presidential elections are won or lost based on the economy? The ones that increasingly make Barack Obama look like a doomed one-termer? Well, here's some good news for the Obama camp: a different model, from American University professor Allan Lichtman, "whose election formula has correctly called every president since Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election," says Obama is a shoo-in.

So how does that work? Well, Lichtman's model is based on 13 binary keys, and although Obama loses both of the keys that are based on economic performance, he wins nine others. Since any score of seven or more means the incumbent party wins reelection, Obama should prevail easily no matter who the Republicans nominate.

Is this right? Beats me. But you can't argue with seven successful predictions in a row, can you? Here are the nine keys that go in Obama's favor: (1) no primary challenge, (2) he's a sitting president, (3) no third-party challenge, (4) major policy changes enacted (healthcare and stimulus), (5) no social unrest, (6) no scandal, (7) no foreign policy debacles, (8) at least one big foreign policy success (killing bin Laden), and (9) no opponent with lots of charisma.

For what it's worth, you might plausibly argue with #4 on the grounds that both of these policy changes have been unpopular; possibly with #8 on the grounds that this isn't a big, lasting success (something that Lichtman has apparently changed his mind about over the past month); and possibly with #9 on the grounds that Rick Perry could turn out to be a pretty charismatic candidate. And you might argue that the economy is now looking so bad that it deserves more than one point.

Still, Lichtman is the expert, and he says, "Even if I am being conservative, I don’t see how Obama can lose." So there you go.

POSTSCRIPT: A bit of googling shows that Lichtman has been forecasting an Obama win since March of last year. So I guess this is nothing new. Still interesting, though.

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The Hypocrisy Trope, Yet Again

| Tue Aug. 30, 2011 5:25 PM PDT

Earlier today, after noting that the federal government can borrow money at negative interest rates, I wrote that only an idiot turns down free money. The Washington Examiner's Kevin Glass tweets a response:

That reminds me: the hypocrisy allegations lobbed at Republican governors who accept money from federal programs they oppose are pretty shoddy. As I said last year about the stimulus act, "Once the bill has been passed and the money is going to be spent whether you like it or not, there's nothing wrong with getting your fair share of the pie." And then, again, a few months ago:

The point of laws is to provide a level playing field, and no one is a hypocrite for following existing law even if they think it should be changed. That goes for congressmen who accept earmarks even though they think earmarks should be banned, it goes for drivers who park for free on city streets even though they think parking meters should be installed, and it goes for rich people who pay taxes at the current rate even though they think that rate is too low.

But I guess you can't say this too often! So today I'll go even further. You can fight tooth and nail against legislation that provides some benefit or another, but once the bill is passed and taxpayers from your state are funding it whether they like it or not, it would be serious malfeasance not to make sure your state gets its share of the goodies. What's more, this remains true even if you continue to oppose the program. Republican governors who refuse to set up healthcare exchanges because they oppose the Affordable Care Act, for example, aren't being principled, they're being negligent. They owe it to their state's residents to provide them with the services they're paying taxes for, even if they didn't want those services created in the first place.

There are exceptions, of course. If you believe that some federal program isn't just a bad idea, but a moral wrong, or that it imposes unreasonable requirements on your state, then you might be justified in turning down a few specific kinds of federal handout. But those are pretty rare occurrences.

The Death of Watermelon

| Tue Aug. 30, 2011 2:21 PM PDT

My mother was just on the phone complaining that it's impossible to find anything other than seedless watermelons these days. Is this true? As a summertime public service to her and all the rest of my melon-loving readers, here is Jane Black's investigative reporting on this vital issue in the Washington Post last year:

According to the National Watermelon Promotion Board, only 16 percent of watermelons sold in grocery stores have seeds, down from 42 percent in 2003. In California and the mid-South, home to the country's biggest watermelon farms, the latest figures are 8 and 13 percent, respectively. The numbers seem destined to tumble. Recently developed hybrids do not need seeded melons for pollination — more on that later — which liberates farmers from growing melons with spit-worthy seeds.

....I decided to do a side-by-side comparison of seeded, seedless, yellow and the newly popular "personal" watermelons from Melissa's Produce and one seeded melon from a local farmers market. The local melon was the runaway favorite....The runner-up was a seedless personal melon, which was sweet and refreshing but lacked the concentrated flavor of the local melon. Next came the seedless red and yellow melons, which were inoffensive but whose primary asset was being cold on an August afternoon. Bringing up the rear was the California seeded melon, which was mealy and tasteless with more seeds than flesh, though in this case that wasn't a bad thing.

So there you have it. Not only is seeded watermelon hard to find, but it's hardest to find here in California. My mother is right. On the other hand, if the California seeded melons are as bad as Black says, maybe that's not such a bad thing. Still, that just leads to another question: why are California seeded watermelons so terrible?

I don't know, and since I don't like watermelon in the first place, I don't have much incentive to find out. But my mother will thank you if you provide an answer in comments.

Rights Group Slams Obama Over Warrantless Wiretapping

| Tue Aug. 30, 2011 12:43 PM PDT

If you thought the fight over the warrantless wiretapping program that thrived under President Bush was over, think again. On Monday, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a brief in federal appeals court in an attempt to reopen a years-old case over the surveillance program.

CCR's original lawsuit, CCR v. Bush, was filed in 2006. It sought an injunction ordering the government to terminate the NSA's illegal surveillance program. The government claims to have discontinued the program in 2007. But in the final stages of the 2006 case, CCR asked the court to order the immediate destruction of any surveillance records it had on the plaintiffs (some lawyers were concerned that their attorney-client emails and phone calls had been monitored during the legal process).

The lower court ultimately denied CCR's request, noting that before the group could sue the government, it first needed to provide evidence that its staff had been surveilled. (Such evidence is considered a state secret and would probably be instantly thrown out of court if it was ever uncovered in the first place.) CCR's appeal is aimed at finally obtaining a court order for the destruction of any records the government might still possess.

In a statement released on Tuesday, Shayana Kadidal, a senior attorney at CCR, took aim at the Obama administration for helping to hide the Bush administration's alleged misdeeds:

"The Obama administration has never taken a position – in this or any of the other related cases – on whether the Bush administration's NSA surveillance program was legal. Instead, it fought to keep this case out of court..." said...Kadidal. "Despite considerable public evidence that attorneys were targeted by the program, the court refused to even order...that the government destroy any records of this illegal surveillance that it...retains. It is astonishing that President Obama's administration continues to fight to hold on to the fruits of a patently illegal surveillance program..."

Civil libertarians have been trying for years to outflank President Obama's efforts to guard the previous administration's law-flaunting surveillance structure. Naturally, the president's soft approach to addressing civil liberties violations didn't win him much praise from his liberal base, nor did it console organizations like the ACLU, whose executive director said last year that he was "disgusted" by Obama's policy decisions. Mother Jones has covered the Obama White House's position on these issues for years: we wrote about the possible "wiretapping" of the Internet, the stunning lack of transparency, and the hefty price-tag of Obama's clampdown on state secrets.

CCR's ongoing fight over records of warrantless wiretapping is another indicator that the national-security-on-steroids apparatus of the Bush era continues to inform key decisions of the current administration.

Public Works Are a Better Idea Than a Payroll Tax Holiday

| Tue Aug. 30, 2011 11:48 AM PDT

Bruce Bartlett lists several reasons why a payroll tax holiday might not be such a great idea. Here are the first two:

First, the tax cut only helps those with jobs. While many have low wages and undoubtedly are spending all their additional cash flow, those with the greatest need and most likely to spend any additional income are the unemployed.

Second, the payroll tax cut helps many workers who have no need for it and will only pocket the tax savings.

Yep. I've never had a problem with payroll tax cuts being used to pay off debt instead of being used to buy more stuff. After all, weak demand isn't our only economic problem. Debt overhang is a big problem too, and reducing it is helpful for our long-term recovery. The problem is that a payroll tax cut is weakly targeted for both spending and debt reduction. Poor people, who are the most likely to spend the money, pay little or no payroll tax in the first place. And richer people, who are the most likely to save it, don't usually have any big debt problems. Most of the benefit of a payroll tax cut, therefore, is limited to a smallish segment of the public that's (a) rich enough to get a significant amount from a payroll tax holiday but (b) poor enough to either spend it all or use it to pay down debt. I don't know how big that segment is, but probably not more than a quarter or a third of the population. Much the same is true of other tax cuts.

So what to do? Bartlett again:

In my view, the $110 billion cost of the one-year Social Security tax cut would have been far better spent on measures that would actively raise spending in the economy. Public works would be the best way of doing that. Under current economic conditions, all tax cuts are essentially passive and do almost nothing to increase aggregate demand or economic output.

Sign me up! The only question is, can we get any Republicans to sign up too?