2011 - %3, September

Chris Christie Will Not Be Our Next President

| Tue Sep. 27, 2011 12:34 PM EDT

The constant drumbeat of attention being paid to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is really starting to grate. The guy says he's not going to run. Why not take him at his word and just let him govern New Jersey until 2016?

Answer: because Republicans are in a panic. They don't trust Romney, they're increasingly worried that Perry is unelectable, they think Bachmann is a nutcase, and the rest of their field are just fill-ins. So Christie is their once and future saviour. He yells at constituents! He killed a tunnel that liberals loved! He yells at teachers! He cut budgets! He yells at Democratic legislators! What's not to like?

Lots, it turns out, and Dan Amira finally tallies up Christie's weak points with the Republican base in a convincing fashion. Christie does like to yell at people, but unfortunately, he likes to yell at crazy conservatives too. In particular, he's taken very loud, very public positions on illegal immigration, gun control, climate change, education, and Sharia law that are precisely the opposite of the tea party positions. Any one of them would probably be enough to doom his chances, but five? Fuhgeddaboutit. He'd crash and burn before he even had his first chance to yell at a debate moderator for asking him a stupid question.

Note to Republicans: your field is set. Your choice is between an apparently inept Rick Perry and a transparently insincere Mitt Romney. Them's the breaks. Make the best of it.

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Money and Medicine

| Tue Sep. 27, 2011 12:09 PM EDT

Via Aaron Carroll, a new survey of doctors reports that 42% of them think they're overtreating their patients. But why are they overtreating their patients? The top answers were fear of malpractice suits, mandated performance measures, and too little time with patients. Aaron finds all three unlikely and then adds this:

Notice what’s not in the top reasons? Money. Could it be that doctors might practice more aggressively because when they do, they make more? Well, only 3% believed that financial considerations could influence their own practice. Most, however, thought that other physicians would be affected by such things.

I'm sure doctors aren't alone here. We're all pretty sure that other people are motivated by grubby concerns like money and status and power, but we're equally sure that our own motivations are always pure and humanitarian. See, for example, both sides of every political fight ever in the history of the world.

Anyway, Aaron says in a followup post that more than a few doctors were pissed off about his suggestion that money influences their decisons. I don't blame them. Still, the rest of us should probably assume that money does indeed influence them, just like it influences every other human being on the planet. As usual, doctors are pretty good at diagnosing others, but not so good at diagnosing themselves.

Pakistan Doesn't Need Haqqani Help to Kill Americans

| Tue Sep. 27, 2011 11:40 AM EDT
Pakistani Army Chief Staff Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani meets with soldiers in Chitral, Pakistan.

Speaking before members of Senate last Thursday, Mike Mullen, the outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, accused Pakistani intelligence of working alongside the Pakistan-based Haqqani terrorist network. The Taliban, it appears, felt slighted:

The Taliban took the unusual step Tuesday of insisting that it, not Pakistan, controls the Haqqani network, with Islamabad under growing US pressure to cut alleged ties with the group.

The militia advised Pakistan to prioritise “Islamic and national” interests and stand firm in the face of “America’s two-faced and implacable politics”.

"Neither are our bases in Pakistan nor do we need residence outside of our country," said the English-language statement in the name of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan—the Taliban’s name for itself—on its Voice of Jihad website. . . .The respected Maulawi Jalaluddin Haqqani . . . is (one of the) Islamic Emirate’s honourable and dignified personalities and receives all guidance for operations from the leader of the Islamic Emirate."

But as The New York Times' Carlotta Gall reports, it's clear that Pakistan doesn't need Haqqani or the Taliban to act on its interests. In 2007, Pakistani soldiers killed one American major and wounded three others, along with their Afghan interpreter, during a "complex, calculated assault." The ambush apparently spun out of (what seemed like) a successful meeting to resolve a border dispute that resulted in Pakistani casualties. When Gall first reported the attack, Pakistani officials pinned the blame on "unknown assailants." But, perhaps in the wake of Mullen's allegations, people-in-the-know are speaking out:

The attack...was kept quiet by Washington, which for much of a decade has seemed to play down or ignore signals that Pakistan would pursue its own interests, or even sometimes behave as an enemy.  . . .

Pakistani officials first attributed the attack to militants, then, when pressed to investigate, to a single rogue soldier from the Frontier Corps, the poorly controlled tribal militia that guards the border region. To this day, none of the governments have publicly clarified what happened, hoping to limit damage to relations. Both the American and Pakistani military investigations remain classified.

"The official line covered over the details in the interests of keeping the relationship with Pakistan intact," said a former United Nations official who served in eastern Afghanistan and was briefed on the events immediately after they occurred.

The attack involved multiple gunmen and intelligence agents who were seemingly intent on kidnapping or drawing away senior American and Afghan officials—you know, like they do:

American officials familiar with Pakistan say that the attack fit a pattern. The Pakistanis often seemed to retaliate for losses they had suffered in an accidental attack by United States forces with a deliberate assault on American troops, most probably to maintain morale among their own troops or to make a point to the Americans that they could not be pushed around, said a former American military officer who served in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The US accepts that Pakistan is an unreliable partner. For years now, it has put up with the fact that its interests are often best-served through risky alliances with the Mullah Omars and Jalaluddin Haqqanis of the world. It's an explosive marriage for both partners, with diminishing returns.

But now, Mullen has made it safe for Af-Pak truth-tellers to come out of the closet. With that, you have to wonder how many more pieces like Gall's original 2007 dispatch will have to be updated to reflect the fact that it's not at all unusual for Pakistanis to be killing Americans.   

The Only State Dept. Employee Who May Be Fired Because of WikiLeaks

| Tue Sep. 27, 2011 11:35 AM EDT

One morning earlier this month, a man named Peter Van Buren was seated inside a drab, windowless interrogation room at the State Department and grilled for an hour and a half by agents from the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, the department's internal enforcers. The agents told Van Buren that he was under investigation for exposing classified government data, and they wanted him to come clean. "Name names!" the agents demanded.

Sounds like yet another grim episode of this country's never-ending war on terror, right? Not quite.

Peter Van Buren is no insurgent. Quite the opposite: For 23 years he's worked as a foreign service officer at the State Department, and a damn good one from the looks of it. He speaks Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, and Korean; served his country from Seoul to Sydney, Tokyo to Baghdad; and has won multiple awards for his disaster relief work. So why was Van Buren treated like a terror suspect by his own employer? For linking to a single leaked cable dumped online by WikiLeaks earlier this month.

But as Van Buren describes in a rare and fascinating glimpse inside the workings of the State Department, his interrogation more likely resulted from his new book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. It's a shocking, Catch-22-like tale of Van Buren's year running a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Iraq. The stories he recounts—a $171 million hospital "opened" by Laura Bush in 2004 that didn't see a single patient in the next six years, a $2.5 million chicken processing plant that Iraqis didn't want and never got used unless US goverment officials came to visit—should make the most rabid foreign policy hawk question the wisdom of America's nation-building efforts. (You can find some of those stories on Van Buren's blog, also titled We Meant Well.)

Here's an excerpt from Van Buren's story, with him back in the interrogation room for a second go-round:

Back in that windowless room for a second time, I faced the two DS agents clumsily trying to play semi-bad and altogether-bad cop. They once again reminded me of my obligation to protect classified information, and studiously ignored my response—that I indeed do take that obligation seriously, enough in fact to distinguish between actual disclosure and a witch-hunt.

As they raised their voices and made uncomfortable eye contact just like it says to do in any Interrogation 101 manual, you could almost imagine the hundreds of thousands of unredacted cables physically spinning through the air around us, heading—splat, splot, splat—for the web. Despite the Hollywood-style theatrics and the grim surroundings, the interrogation-style was less police state or 1984-style nightmare than a Brazil-like dark comedy.

In the end, though, it's no joke. I've been a blogger since April, but my meeting with the DS agents somehow took place only a week before the publication date of my book. Days after my second interrogation, the Principal Deputy Secretary of State wrote my publisher demanding small redactions in my book—already shipped to the bookstores—to avoid "harm to US security." One demand: to cut a vignette based on a scene from the movie version of Black Hawk Down.

The link to Wikileaks is still on my blog. The Bureau of Diplomatic Security declined my written offer to remove it, certainly an indication that however much my punishment mattered to them, the actual link mattered little. I may lose my job in State’s attempt to turn us all into mini-Bradley Mannings and so make America safe.

The full piece itself is worth a read for a rare chance to see your government hard at work.

Huckabee Shills for Measure to Ban Abortions in Cases of Rape

| Tue Sep. 27, 2011 11:08 AM EDT

Once upon a time former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was considered a serious presidential candidate with a long train of admirers on both the left and the right; as Jon Stewart took pains to note whenever Huckabee stopped by his show (which was frequently), Huckabee was the kind of guy you could agree with without being disagreeable. You might even consider voting for him for uncle.

But if you looked past the bass guitar and the PG-but-still-half-decent sense of humor, there was another side of Huckabee that's easy to forget about: He's really, really conservative. And that explains why, two weeks ago, he traveled to Jackson, Mississippi to raise money for the Yes on 26 campaign, in support of the Mississippi Personhood amendment, a referendum on the November ballot that would ban abortions in the state. All abortions. Even in cases of rape or incest. And that's by design: the amendment's sponsors barnstormed the state this spring on something called the "Conceived in Rape Tour," designed to show Mississippians that being forced to carry a forced pregnancy to term is actually quite rewarding.

Huckabee's message at the Yes on 26 fundraiser was simple: Give early and give often:

"I do not assume that you full comprehend the battle that you are going to face over the next couple of months in this fight for Amendment 26," Huckabee said. "You have no idea how many millions of dollars are likely to be poured into your state. And it's not stimulus money and economic development and job creation. It is hard-core political money that is designed to preserve the abortion industry, which is a multi-million-dollar industry specifically designed in order to terminate life and make people rich. Let's not kid ourselves. This is not about elevating women, this is about elevating wealth on behalf of those who profit from the sale of death."

You could make a good case that an amendment that would force women who have been raped to have the rapist's baby does not really elevate women, nor does banning certain forms of contraception like the morning-after pill (which supporters of the amendment call a "human pesticide"). Moreover, as I noted in my piece today, Mississippi only has one abortion clinic in the entire state, so there's not much of an abortion "industry" to speak of.

The larger takeway here, at least as far as Huckabee is concerned, is that this side of him has always been there. When he ran for president in 2008, reporters tended to focus on the underdog narrative and look past some of his wilder affiliations and controversial views. Whether that would have continued in 2012 is unknowable, but now it's all out in the open.

Study: As Companies Spend More on Politics, They Disclose Less

| Tue Sep. 27, 2011 10:06 AM EDT

The rise of dark-money political groups has made it much harder to tell which big companies are throwing money at elections. Often, all we know is what corporations voluntarily disclose—a big reason why transparency is becoming one of the most important aspects of corporate citizenship. With that idea in mind, the Robert Zicklin Center for Corporate Integrity at Baruch College has ranked Fortune 100 companies based on how well they disclose their political activities. The results may surprise you. Highly transparent companies include hard-knuckled lobbying powerhouses such as Pfizer and Goldman Sachs. Highly opaque ones: Corporate do-gooders such as Berkshire Hathaway, Nike, and Google (though the authors hadn't seen this Google page). 

If you're wondering what to make of this, the study found some fascinating trends. At the low end of corporate political engagement, companies tend to disclose more as they become more politically active. But as companies go from moderate to heavy involvement in politics, the trend reverses and politically active companies become increasingly opaque. Here's what this looks like on a graph, where the Baruch Index measures transparency (100=most transparent).

Robert Zicklin Center for Corporate IntegrityRobert Zicklin Center for Corporate Integrity

Okay, the graph isn't too transparent either. But here's what I think is going on: Companies that aren't involved in politics can seem opaque because they have nothing to disclose. Those with moderate political engagement disclose more on average because they want to let shareholders know that they're fighting for their interests. But those engaged in major political battles know that their heavy spending could tarnish their brands, so they find ways to hide what they're doing. In other words, political transparency comes with its own cost/benefit curve, which is basically what you see above. 

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The "Sanctity" Of Marriage: Priceless

| Tue Sep. 27, 2011 9:15 AM EDT

Last Spring Maryland was poised to extend marriage rights to gays and lesbians before state Democrats withdrew the bill over fears that it would not pass. 

One of the dramatic developments in the fight over the law came when one of the bill's co-sponsors, Prince George's Delegate Tiffany Alston, decided she couldn't support it.

Alston first missed the committee vote, then voted against her own bill when she got the chance. At the time, she explained her decision with quite a bit of anxious handwringing:

"I had no idea what to do," said Alston (D-Prince George's). "I feel really strongly that people who love each other should be able to get married, no matter what their gender. But I also realize that that's not my function here. I'm here to represent the 110,000 people back home, many of whom had called and e-mailed and said, 'We don't want that bill.'

So the freshman lawmaker took a respite, in the form of a 15-minute ride around the picturesque State House with her chief of staff and longtime best friend, Nefetari Smith, and another state delegate, Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore), who was also holding out. The break helped her come to terms with her conflict, and she returned to her office determined to vote no, as her constituents had demanded. The problem was that by the time she returned, the voting session had been postponed and the halls of the House were abuzz.

This is not a bad example of why fundamental rights shouldn't be subject to a popularity contest, although Alston's troubles with marriage weren't over. Last week she was indicted for theft after allegedly misappropriating campaign funds to...pay for her wedding.

Prosecutors say Alston, a Prince George’s County Democrat who took office in January and then played a focal role in the General Assembly’s debate over gay marriage, issued two campaign account checks totaling $3,560 to cover her wedding expenses last year. She also used her campaign account to make payments of $660 to a law firm employee, and also withdrew $1,250 in cash for personal use last December, prosecutors say. The checks for her wedding expenses were returned to the bank for insufficient funds.

Having trouble paying for a wedding is the kind of problem I'm sure many of Alston's gay constituents would have been happy to have. Of course, thanks to Alston and others, they can't get married at all.

San Francisco Takes on Crisis Pregnancy Centers

| Tue Sep. 27, 2011 7:00 AM EDT
A "crisis pregnancy center" in St. Paul, Minnesota.

San Francisco may be the next city to attempt to force so-called "crisis pregnancy centers" to disclose the fact that they don't actually offer abortion services. The point of a new ordinance, introduced last month by city Supervisor Malia Cohen, is to stop these largely religiously-affiliated clinics designed to deter women from having an abortion from luring in women with false claims about the services they offer.

Even though their staff may wear white lab coats and use ultrasound equipment, many of these clinics actually employ no medical professionals. They have also been found to provide medically inaccurate information in the interest of changing a woman's mind about getting an abortion. Many of them advertise as if they do offer abortion services, or are located near actual abortion providers—which can be confusing for women seeking services. The ordinance doesn't say that anti-abortion groups can't set up CPCs—just that they need to be honest in their advertising and other public information about what they actually do.

The ordinance outlines why these facilities should be more clearly marked:

When a woman is misled into believing that a clinic offers services that it does not in fact offer, she loses time crucial to the decision whether to terminate a pregnancy. Under these same circumstances a client may also lose the option to choose a particular procedure, or to terminate the pregnancy at all.

The fact that CPCs do often mislead women has been pretty well documented. Jezebel published a personal account from one young woman last week that summed up the concerns very well. Or you can take a look at the website of San Francisco-based CPC First Resort, which features cartoons of doctors and a whole "Ask the Doctor" section. That same section contains medically inaccurate information about how they can determine whether or not a woman is going to miscarry so they might not need an abortion after all. And the whole website hides the fact that the clinic doesn't actually provide abortions.

Earlier this year, New York City passed a similar law that would force CPCs to display signs about the type of services they offer. A judge struck down that law, however, deeming it "unconstitutionally vague." The worry, according to the judge, was that because the New York law "relates to the provision of emergency contraception and abortion—among the most controversial issues in our public discourse—the risk of discriminatory enforcement is high." The San Francisco version is different, in that it doesn't force CPCs to put up any particular signs; it just asks that the information that they do put out is accurate. I would guess that anti-abortion groups would also contest San Francisco's if it does pass, however.

Meanwhile, South Dakota passed a law this year that would force women seeking abortions to visit one of these centers, but a judge blocked it. The Argus-Leader reported on Monday that the state expects to spend as much as $4.15 million to defend the law in court. South Dakota readers: Behold your tax dollars at work!

Some Sea Lice With That Farmed Salmon?

| Tue Sep. 27, 2011 6:03 AM EDT
Sea lice devour a a farmed salmon in New Brunswick, Canada.

I've written a lot about "superbugs" from factory-farmed meat, as well as "superweeds" and "superinsencts" from genetically modified crops. Turns out, industrial agriculture is wreaking similar havoc in the sea. What do I mean? Consider the salmon, that noble family of fish, which has evolved over the millennia alongside an ignoble parasite: the sea louse.

Often less than a centimeter long, the sea louse operates like the land louse that bedevil humans: by attaching itself to the skin of the host and then chomping down and sipping its blood. Happily, wild salmon and sea lice populations achieved a rough balance over their time on the planet—wild salmon developed resistance to the point that sea lice can do their thing without causing significant harm.

That was the state of things, anyway, until the emergence of industrial-scale salmon farming in Norway in the 1970s. In industrial salmon production, the fish are stuffed together by the hundreds of thousands in pens open to the coastal sea. These conditions provide a veritable banquet for sea lice—rather than having to scour the sea for their hosts, the parasites find their targets wriggling around en masse in one place. Left to their own devices, the industry discovered, the age-old parasite-host balance is upset, and farm salmon populations succumb to sea lice.

Is #OccupyWallStreet Working?

| Tue Sep. 27, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

In July, Adbusters, the Canadian anti-consumerist magazine, announced an ambitious protest against corporate greed, inviting 20,000 "redeemers, rebels, and revolutionaries" to Occupy Wall Street in mid-September. "Are you ready for a Tahrir moment?" it asked, name-dropping Cairo's Tahrir Square to suggest that this would be the beginning of the American version of the Arab Spring. In response to the call to "occupy Wall Street," 500-750 fed-up Americans descended on Manhattan's Zuccotti Park last week to shake the foundations of market capitalism. Since then, 100 activists have been arrested, police have pepper-sprayed peaceful protesters, and Yahoo barred users from spreading the #occupywallstreet message via email. Yet as it enters its second week, the campaign's presence in the streets has dropped to just a few hundred supporters and its goal of kickstarting a popular movement feels a long way off.

What gives? There are plenty of reasons to be pissed off at the superrich and Wall Street. So why is a campaign that says it stands for the 99 percent of us lacking traction? Here are four more reasons why Zuccotti Park hasn't yet become the next Tahrir Square:

1. The kitchen-sink approach: Occupy Wall Street's lack of focus is embodied by this Adbusters post titled, "Hey President Obama, get ready for our one demand!" Here's the opening sentence: "On Saturday thousands of us will occupy Wall Street. We will wave our signs, unfurl our banners, beat our drums, chant our slogans…and then we'll get down to business and hold several people's assemblies to decide what our 'one demand' will be." First make noise, then decide what the noise is all about?