2011 - %3, August

Perry Campaign Touts Book Calling For Conversion of Muslims

| Mon Aug. 29, 2011 11:51 AM EDT
Texas Gov. Rick Perry is currently leading in the polls in Iowa.

When I contacted Rick Perry's campaign (and the Texas governor's office) last week for a story about the presidential candidate's favorite books, I never heard back. But in an effort to quell notions that Perry is "dumb"—it's a theory that's out there—the campaign gave Jonathan Martin a glimpse at what's currently on the governor's reading list. It doesn't really prove or disprove the "dumb" thesis, but it's interesting in its own right:

In an illustration that Perry knows what he needs to know, his spokesman said the governor is currently reading Henry Kissinger’s recent China book – "On China."

And that's not the only practical guide the governor is thumbing through.

Mark Miner, the spokesman, said Perry is also reading Charles Stanley's "Turning the Tide," a Baptist pastor’s how-to for Christian conservatives who want to change the country’s direction, and the Bible. Perry also carries an Apple laptop as well as an iPad with him on the road, said Miner, who called his boss "an avid reader."

Emphasis mine. Stanley's an interesting choice here. Like Perry, Stanley believes America is a Christian nation founded on Biblical principles, and that the further the nation gets from those precepts, the worse things will get. (The "tide" he mentions in the title is actually a "tsunami" of death and depravity that we're running out of time to thwart.) Part of the problem, Stanley explains, stems from the nation's march toward socialism, which challenges the primacy of religion as a moral code, and incentivizes laziness. That's pretty standard fare on the religious right, and helps explain how tea party economics can mesh so easily with evangelical precepts; as it happens, Michele Bachmann's favorite theologian, Francis Schaeffer, blamed government handouts for the fall of Rome. As Stanley writes, "Because there is no reward for working harder—and there are also no consequences for poor performance—people do the least they can do to get by."

His arguments on the will of the Founders and the Biblical basis of the Constitution dovetail very neatly with those of Mormon historian W. Cleon Skousen, whom Perry has also cited as a must-read. Actually, they dovetail very nicely with what Perry himself has said: "natural law, God's law, is the basis of our nation's laws." And then there's this: In a section on terrorism, he urges readers to "Pray for God's protection against terrorism and ask that Muslims throughout the world will come to know Jesus as their Savior." (You'll remember that Perry's prayer rally in Houston, The Response, came under fire when organizers stated that their goal was to convert people of other faiths.)

Anyway, here's an interview with Stanley explaining how "we will experience a political, a social, and a religious tsunami in America," and what that will look like exactly:

Perry has been hit pretty hard because he associates with some fairly radical members of the religious right. This latest revelation is a sign that 1) those criticisms were pretty much spot-on and 2) he doesn't really care.

h/t Ryan Lizza.

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The Return of Alan Krueger

| Mon Aug. 29, 2011 11:11 AM EDT

President Obama plans to nominate Alan Krueger to be chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors today, taking over from Christina Romer, who held the position for the first two years of his presidency, and Austan Goolsbee, who held it until last month. Krueger is most famous for his research suggesting that it's possible to raise the minimum wage modestly without hurting employment levels, research that makes conservatives literally apoplectic if you mention it. Think I'm exaggerating? Krueger did the research with UC Berkeley's David Card, and Card shortly decided to abandon the subject because of the furious response it provoked. Here's his explanation for never wanting to do research on the minimum wage again:

It cost me a lot of friends. People that I had known for many years, for instance, some of the ones I met at my first job at the University of Chicago, became very angry or disappointed. They thought that in publishing our work we were being traitors to the cause of economics as a whole.

Now, who knows? Maybe Card is just unusually thin-skinned. But I don't think so. This is the kind of thing that happens when you suggest that there's more to life than simple Econ 101 models. The right hasn't had time to respond to Krueger's appointment yet, and maybe they'll decide to give this a pass since (a) CEA chair isn't exactly a high profile appointment among their tea party base, and (b) they already had their shots at him back when he worked at Treasury. But I imagine we'll start hearing about it soon. Probably ferocious denunciations of Krueger as an ivory tower professor who denies the common sense operation of supply and demand, has no ground level experience in the business world (where he would have learned first-hand the crippling effects of raising the minimum wage), and is intent on, um — debasing the dollar. Yeah. Debasing the dollar.

Or something. Anyway, it should start soon. Should be fun in a B-list kind of way.

The Chamber's New Lobbyist: Michael Mukasey

| Mon Aug. 29, 2011 10:34 AM EDT
Michael Mukasey

The Chamber of Commerce has a new secret weapon for pushing back against federal anti-bribery laws: former Bush-era Attorney General Michael Mukasey. Politico reports that the business lobby has hired Mukasey to lead the charge to peel back enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), which makes it illegal for US companies to pay bribes or offer any "thing of value" to foreign officials to promote a corporation’s interests.

The Chamber paid Mukasey's law firm, Debevoise & Plimpton some $120,000 in the first half of 2011 to lobby on FCPA and other matters affecting US corporations. Business groups argue that FCPA enforcement under the Obama administration has been too stringent, stymying their ability to maintain profitability in a crowded global marketplace.

Mukasey, whose hiring by the Chamber was first reported by Main Justice, told Politico that the business community is mostly asking for the DOJ to clarify the law's wording:

"In some countries, enterprises are state-owned, so everybody's a foreign official. You take somebody out to dinner that's intended to get you a competitive benefit and, boom: You get an investigation."

"That said, nobody is looking to slacken in cases involving real bribery of public officials," Mukasey added.

For its part, the Justice Department doesn't see its enforcement of the FCPA as particularly onerous. But theren's no question that there's been an uptick in FCPA cases. During President Obama's first two years in office, the DOJ pursued 74 prosecutions under the FCPA; that's in contrast to the 38 during the last two years of the Bush administration. And the $1 billion recovered by the agency in corruption-related penalties in 2010 amounts to the largest in the history of FCPA enforcement.

Critics of the FCPA—including a small bipartisan group of lawmakers—say that these numbers put the law at odds with President Obama's goal of doubling US exports by 2015. Meaning that if Congressional pressure ramps up, the Chamber's efforts to dull the law could have legs.

Rick Perry: Transparency Is Good—Except When I'm in Charge

| Mon Aug. 29, 2011 9:55 AM EDT
Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

In a visit to New Hampshire earlier this month, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, now the frontrunner in the GOP presidential field, urged the Federal Reserve to open up its books to the public and "be transparent so that the people of the United States know what they are doing and how they are doing." If only Perry would do the same for his decade as the governor of Texas.

Despite paying lip service to transparency and open government, Perry has gone out of his way to mask his activities in the Texas governor's office. As the Houston Chronicle reported, Perry is unlikely to hand over the kind of information—travel and meeting records, schedules, donor contacts, and more—that George W. Bush provided, more than 3,000 pages in all, when he left the Texas governor's mansion for the White House. "He has been governor longer than anyone in Texas history," the Chronicle said, "but there is a lot the public does not know about Rick Perry."

Perry and his administration have withheld information in 100 public-records requests during his time in Austin, and on occasion failed to respond on time to other records requests as required by state law. His administration has also refused to hand over notes and records about how the state's two honeypots for economic growth, the Emerging Technology Fund and the Texas Enterprise Fund, decided to dole out grant money, including on one occasion to a company owned by a Perry donor. The Chronicle went so far as to sue the Perry administration for refusing to hand over notes on its decision not to grant clemency to Cameron Todd Willingham, a man who was executed in 2004 after being convicted of multiple murders on the basis of flawed arson pseudoscience.

Perry also closely guards records of his own travel as governor:

In contrast to Bush's extensive appointments records, Perry has left the country without it being reflected on his public schedule. Reporters learned that he took a 2004 trip to the Bahamas with San Antonio businessman James Leininger, a Perry campaign donor, and anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist after being spotted scuba-diving by a tourist. The trip did not appear on his schedule released under the state Public Information Act. At the time, press secretary Kathy Walt acknowledged that Perry had begun releasing a far less complete report of his time after hiring a new scheduler. She also noted that "the Open Meetings Act and the Public Information Act have certain exemptions."

Most of Perry's travel is paid by campaign funds and detailed reports are not required to be disclosed. After the Bahamas trip, newspapers requested and got copies of the expenses paid for Perry's Department of Public Safety security detail—and noted that the state picked up the tab for scuba equipment to accompany the governor. Since then, Perry has blocked public viewing of his security detail's travel expense reports.

The Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News have sued for the records. Two lower court rulings favored the newspapers, but the Texas Supreme Court in June agreed with Perry that his personal safety concerns were grounds for withholding the information.

Before that ruling was announced, proposed legislation keeping the governor's travel security expenses private drew controversy in the Texas Legislature. The bill died in a Senate committee after lawmakers objected that the public should know if a state official misused a travel security detail.

Perry leaned on lawmakers to include language in a school finance bill passed in the Legislature's special session that would keep secret for 18 months the travel vouchers of his security team. Until then, the public would be able to view only summary reports that disclose a trip's destination, but not specific businesses visited or the names of family members accompanying the governor.

A Rick Perry presidency, it appears, could deal an even harsher blow to transparency and openness in federal government than seen under President George W. Bush and, to some extent, under President Obama. In March, Ellen Miller, the director of the Sunlight Foundation, a DC-based organization committed to more open government, blasted Obama's record on transparency, saying his administration was "tremendously disappointing" in 2010 and that 2011 wasn't looking any better. Transparency and openness, Miller worried, had tumbled far down the priority list for President Obama. For Rick Perry, it appears transparency was never particularly important from the start.

Bachmann: Hurricane Irene Was Message From God

| Mon Aug. 29, 2011 9:13 AM EDT
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) says last week's natural disasters were a response from above to out-of-control spending.

As a general rule, if you're a candidate for higher office and you've previously bragged about attending conferences devoted to Biblical prophecy, you should avoid saying things like this:

[Bachmann] hailed the tea party as being common-sense Americans who understand government shouldn't spend more than it takes in, know they're taxed enough already and want government to abide by the Constitution.

"I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We've had an earthquake; we've had a hurricane. He said, 'Are you going to start listening to me here?' Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now. They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we've got to rein in the spending."

Bachmann's remarks came at a tea party rally in Sarasota, Florida on Sunday. Hurricane Irene was thankfully not as bad as it could have been (and the earthquake wasn't very bad at all), but it still took an enormous economic toll on the East Coast and has caused serious flooding in upstate New York and Vermont, which are not part of Washington. The wisdom of using it as a political bludgeon is questionable to say the least.

But it's also kind of an odd point to make. Congress is in recess for the month of August, and about a fifth of the chamber is actually in Israel right now. President Obama was out of town as well. The "politicians," of which Bachamnn is one, were for the most part not affected by the storm. Which isn't to say God's not infallible—but maybe Michele Bachmann isn't.

Update: Spokeswoman says Bachmann's comments were "clearly in jest." I think the point stands, though, that this is kind of a risk for a politician who has publicly dabbled in Biblical prophecy before.

After the Sting

| Mon Aug. 29, 2011 6:00 AM EDT
Mohamed Osman Mohamud.

As I fact-checked Trevor Aaronson's feature on FBI informants infiltrating Muslim American communities, things got personal. One of the defendants, who was given access to explosives by FBI agents during a nearly yearlong sting, prayed at the same Corvallis, Oregon, mosque that I went to as a child. Back then, the Salman al-Farisi mosque catered to a close-knit community of Muslim families. It still does. But the feeling in the town is much different now, and I can't help but think the FBI's spying program has something to do with that.

As a kid in the early 1990s, I attended Salman al-Farisi with my family. The two-story mosque could fill with more than 100 people on major holidays, but it was, like many mosques in America, a simple, unremarkable building. Back then, being a Muslim American was just weird—imagine explaining why you're not eating lunch during Ramadan to your fellow third-graders. For me, visiting the mosque meant an opportunity to fit in. Everyone looked like me. Nobody called me HAM(yes, like the meat product)-ed. As an adult, I recognize that the mosque gave me, and others in attendance, a sense of community. But that was 15 years ago, and today, the mosque's reality has changed.

That's because in the years since I went to Salman al-Farisi in Corvallis, two major events rocked this small, agricultural college town. The first was 9/11. After 9/11, being Muslim in America meant more than just being weird: You were now also a potential threat. But it wasn't till the evening of November 26, 2010, that the war on terror hit close to home for Corvallis. That night, Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a 19-year-old Somalian American, attempted to blow up what he thought was a van filled with explosives at the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony in downtown Portland. But instead of an explosion, Mohamud and the nation learned that he had been the target of an FBI sting. As national media descended upon Oregon, details about Mohamud's background quickly became public. Mohamud was attending classes at Oregon State University in Corvallis and had prayed at the Salman al-Farisi mosque—the same mosque my family had attended more than a decade earlier. Days after Mohamud’s arrest, someone lit the mosque on fire, causing extensive damage. Many in Corvallis delivered flowers to the mosque and held a rally in support of the Muslim community immediately following the attack. Last week, authorities arrested Cody Seth Crawford, a 24-year-old man who lived near to the mosque, for the arson.

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Laying Down the (Immigration) Law: Alabama vs. Arizona

| Mon Aug. 29, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Now that the Justice Department has battled the state of Alabama in court to block implementation of HB 56, the immigration bill that mirrors Arizona's controversial SB 1070 (PDF), it seems like as good a time as any to look at how the two measures, well, measure up. Which Republican-proposed legislation out-hypes, out-muscles, and out-bans the other?

 

Restrictions: Passed in April 2010, SB 1070 was the first in a series of tough state laws that sought to deal with illegal immigration in the absence of federal immigration reform. The bill's key components included making it a crime not to carry one's immigration documents and giving police wide-reaching power to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally—both of which were blocked by federal Judge Susan Bolton just months after the legislation's passage. (SB 1070 also made it a state crime to be in the United States illegally.)

HB 56 was signed into law by Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley on June 9. Like SB 1070, it requires police to try to determine a suspect's immigration status during the course of a lawful "stop, detention, or arrest"—given a "reasonable suspicion" that the person is an immigrant. But that's just the beginning: The legislation also bans undocumented immigrants from receiving state or local public benefits; keeps them from enrolling in public colleges; bars them from applying for or soliticing work; outlaws harboring and transporting undocumented immigrants; forbids renting them property or "knowingly" employing them within Alabama; calls for a citizenship check during voter registration; requires all state businesses to use the federal E-Verify system when hiring; and, if that wasn't enough, asks officials at public K-12 schools to determine the immigration status of their students.

Edge: SB 1070 set the precedent, but HB 56 far surpassed it. 1-0, Alabama.
 

Number of People Affected: According to a February report from the Pew Hispanic Center (PDF), in 2010 there were an estimated 400,000 undocumented immigrants living in Arizona, which shares a 370-mile border with Mexico and is a key crossing site for would-be migrants. (That's about 6 percent of the state's population.) Alabama, on the other hand, was home to an estimated 120,000 undocumented immigrants—nearly 100,000 more than in 2000 but still just 2.5 percent of all state residents.

But these laws don't just affect the undocumented—racial profiling is a real risk. Whereas 67 percent of Alabamians identified themselves as non-Hispanic whites in the 2010 census, 57.8 percent of Arizonans did so. Nearly 30 percent of Arizona census respondents self-identified as Hispanic or Latino.

Edge: The South has become a popular destination for Latin American immigrants in recent years, but this one ain't close. We're even at 1.
 

Legislative Sponsors: Where to begin with Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce? The first Arizona legislator to be recalled has a bit of a track record: In 2006, he called for the renewal of a '50s-era deportation program known as Operation Wetback; last year, he tried to roll back birthright citizenship.

His Alabama counterpart, state Sen. Scott Beason, also has a way with words. Not only has he taken heat for saying that politicians should "empty the clip" on immigration issues, but the Birmingham NAACP has called for Beason's resignation after some choice comments about African Americans (he called them "aborigines") were played in a bingo corruption trial.

Edge: There's crazy, and then there's Russell Pearce. 2-1, Arizona.
 

Final Verdict: While HB 56 might have a longer list of restrictions—and while this isn't the first United States v. Alabama—Arizona is Arizona. The intangibles—from "Los Suns" jerseys and border fence pledge drives to Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Tent City jail and southern Arizona's secession plan—matter. Arizona is the real immigration wedge state.

 

UPDATE, 1:04 p.m. PST: Federal Judge Sharon L. Blackburn has decided that she needs more time to rule on HB 56 and has pushed back implementation of the bill until September 29. The legislation was originally set to go into effect on September 1. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley had this to say in a statement: "I look forward to the Judge ruling on the merits. We have long needed a tough law against illegal immigration in this state, and we now have one. I will continue to fight at every turn to defend this law against any and all challenges."

Can You Nuke a Hurricane?

| Mon Aug. 29, 2011 6:00 AM EDT
Hurricane Floyd barrels in on Florida in 1999.

Could a "controlled" nuclear explosion disrupt a violent storm like Irene? Seems every time the United States is threatened by a big cyclonic system, somebody suggests lighting it up with a Fat Man or Little Boy; this week's Irene-mania has been no exception. The Huffington Post takes notes of the suggestion that "dropping a nuke into the eye of the storm would heat the cool air and disrupt the convection current, thus subsiding the storm." Okay, then.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 29, 2011

Mon Aug. 29, 2011 5:57 AM EDT

Air Force Basic Military Training trainees low crawl through an obstacle course during the Creating Leaders, Airmen and Warriors course July 27, 2011, at Medina Annex in San Antonio, Texas. US Air Force photo by senior airman Marleah Miller.

Is the Soap Lobby Right That Anti-Bacterials Are Safe?

| Mon Aug. 29, 2011 5:30 AM EDT

Update: Read about the right-wing groups who argue that an EPA ban on anti-bacterials would bring us one step closer to a "nanny state" here.

By now, you've probably heard of triclosan, an anti-microbial agent present in all kinds of personal hygiene products, from soap to deodorant to toothpaste. The New York Times recently reported on the raging debate between public health advocates and the soap industry over the product's safety.

If you're waiting for the FDA to weigh in with a final verdict on triclosan, don't hold your breath: The agency has been dragging its feet on the subject for 37 years. In 2010, it finally promised to release the results of its scientific review of triclosan by spring 2011. But spring came and went with no word, and as Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Mae Wu noted on her blog, the agency quietly extended its own deadline to winter 2012 on its website, without publicly announcing the delay. When I asked FDA spokeswoman Shelly Burgess about the silence on the delay, she told me, simply, "FDA doesn't normally make public announcements on the status of its rule-makings." So why'd you promise spring 2011 in the first place? 

But far be it from the soap industry to sit idly by while the FDA deliberates. In April, the trade group American Cleaning Institute (ACI) launched Fight Germs Now, a site that claims to be "the official source on anti-bacterial hygiene products." Fight Germs Now's FAQ page assures consumers that despite the rumors they may have heard, triclosan and other anti-bacterial agents are safe, effective, and completely necessary in the fight against germs.

I was curious as to whether the ACI's claims could withstand scientific scrutiny, so I checked in with Wu and her colleague Sarah Janssen, a senior scientist at the NRDC. They handily debunked a few of the major points that Fight Germs Now tries to make:

1. "Sometimes plain soap and water is not good enough."

Actually, says Janssen, there's plenty of evidence that triclosan is no more effective than soap and water: See this study and this review of several studies for starters. (The one exception is toothpaste; there's some evidence that triclosan helps fight gingivitis.) Fight Germs Now likes to tout a study from 2007 that found that people who washed their hands with triclosan carried less bacteria onto their food than those who used soap and water, but Janssen points out that before you buy this line, you might want to consider the fact that the study was performed by Henkel, makers of Dial anti-microbial soap.

2. "Triclosan does not accumulate in food chains because it is excreted by animals and man by their metabolism."

While it's true that we do excrete triclosan, that doesn't mean it disappears from the environment. A 2008 study found that earthworms take up triclosan from the soil, showing that organisms "can be contaminated with these chemicals and raising concerns that this will make its way up the food chain," Janssen says. More worrisome, a 2010 study found that soy beans grown in greenhouses also absorb triclosan from the soil, which, considering the vast amounts of soy that we feed livestock, has major implications for our food supply. 

3. "Credible scientific data indicates that triclosan does not disrupt hormonal activity."

Au contraire, say Janssen and Wu. There's mounting evidence that triclosan and its close relative triclocarban do interfere with our thyroid hormone and sex hormones in both females and males. This 2008 study showed that triclosan disrupted puberty in rats, and this one found that male rats' sex organs got bigger when triclocarban was added to their food. Industry likes to claim that rats and people aren't comparable, but "the hormone systems in lab animals are actually extremely similar to our hormone systems," Janssen says.

4. "Insufficient evidence exists to demonstrate that the use of antiseptic drug products harms human health."

A number of recent studies have shown that anti-bacterial products might be contributing to antibiotic resistance (here are a few to start with).  Then there's the fact that triclosan is known to be completely ineffective against "gram negative" bacteria like pseudomonas and serratia, both of which cause major infections in hospitals. In fact, notes Janssen, a hospital outbreak of serratia was traced back to anti-bacterial soap dispensers.

For a good list of which products contain triclosan, check out this fact sheet from Beyond Pesticides.