2011 - %3, September

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 30, 2011

Fri Sep. 30, 2011 2:57 AM PDT

Tech. Sgt. Andrew Briggs protects his head from the intense heat generated by the engines of a C-130 Hercules engine running during an aeromedical evacuation mission Sept. 7, 2011, at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq. Briggs is a loadmaster assigned to the 737th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron. US Air Force photo by Master Sgt Jeffrey Allen.

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Why You Shouldn't Take Notes on Terrorist Plots

| Thu Sep. 29, 2011 5:05 PM PDT

On Wednesday the FBI announced that it had arrested Rezwan Ferdaus, a Northeastern University graduate in physics, for allegedly plotting to fly model planes packed with explosives into government buildings in Washington, DC, and elsewhere. As with previous sting operations, the actual plot, reliant on equipment provided by undercover FBI agents, was never going to take place. Unlike previous sting operations, the FBI got the target to outline the entire thing in writing. 

"It seems like the FBI intentionally trying to ensure the entrapment defense couldn't be mounted," says Karen Greenberg of the Fordham Center on National Security. 

According to the criminal complaint, Ferdaus handed the FBI agents a thumb drive with a plan described as "extremely detailed, well written, and annotated with numerous pictures." Ferdaus doesn't appear to have found anything suspicious about two supposed Al Qaeda operatives asking for what sounds, essentially, like a grant proposal.

As Trevor Aaronson reported in the September/October issue of Mother Jones, the FBI has relied increasingly on these kinds of sting operations as they try to shift focus from "professional" terrorists to "lone wolf" types who haven't received any kind of formal training. The government has come under criticism from civil liberties advocates who say that the government is using agent provocateurs to manufacture terror plots involving people who might not otherwise have committed crimes.

Coal Baron Hosts Perry Party

| Thu Sep. 29, 2011 3:06 PM PDT

Coal executive Robert Murray is hosting a fundraiser on Thursday night for the climate deniers' favorite GOP presidential candidate, Rick Perry. Murray is the CEO of the Ohio-based Murray Energy Corporation and will be hosting the event at the White Palace Ballroom of Wheeling, West Virginia.

It's not hard to see why Perry and Murray would like each other. Both Murray and Perry are both vocal (and often colorful) climate change deniers. Murray called global warming an "elitists' ill-conceived 'global goofiness' campaigns" in a 2007 speech to the New York Coal Trade Association. Murray also used a horrific collapse at a Utah mine that his company owned as yet another occasion to rail against attempts to regulate global warming.

Murray has personally lobbied against coal ash and air quality rules. Via the Washington Post, here's what Murray wrote to Congress about EPA Clean Air Act rules earlier this year:

"Jobs and lives are being destroyed by Mr. Obama and his out-of-control, radical U.S. EPA and his appointees to it," chairman and chief executive Robert E. Murray wrote. He concluded: "America, our industry and jobs, are under siege by Mr. Obama and his U.S. EPA."

Meanwhile, Murray's company has had at least seven coal slurry spills in the past decade from a single site. The company also wracked up 7,747 "significant" health and safety violations at their mines between 2000 and 2009, totaling more than $18 million in fines.

As Politico reported earlier this month, Murray is asking for contributions of $2,500 per guest for Perry's campaign chest.

Bachmann, Plunging in Polls, Touts Iowa Momentum

| Thu Sep. 29, 2011 2:48 PM PDT

Rep. Michele Bachmann has plunged in the polls since Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the GOP presidential race in July. Prior to that, polls had consistently shown the Minnesota congresswoman in the lead in the critical early primary state of Iowa. More recently she received just 40 votes in the Florida straw poll, earning her dead last. All of which made her fundraising pitch this morning all the more off-key:

Our campaign's rising poll numbers have not gone unnoticed. The latest Iowa poll has our campaign in second place, just behind Mitt Romney and ahead of Rick Perry.

As you saw yesterday in our campaign's strategy video- Iowa is what it all comes down to. Iowa is where our campaign began, and it is where we will win next year. We have our boots on the ground in Iowa, and I know we are in a position to win, but Tim, we cannot do so without your support.

OK, so it's not as big a deal as repeating dangerous and debunked claims about vaccines, but it's worth noting that this is sort of the opposite of the current state of play. Bachmann is in second place in Iowa according to one poll released this week. But the overall trend lines are pretty bad. For instance, here's a (somewhat difficult to read) chart from Real Clear Politics averaging the national tracking polls. The black line is Michele Bachmann, and, as you can see, it's plummeting faster than [insert Red Sox joke here]. Rick Perry is in blue; Mitt Romney's purple:

12-month polling average of GOP field: Courtesy of Real Clear Politics12-month polling average of GOP field: Courtesy of Real Clear Politics

Maybe Bachmann was referring to Romney?

Mexico's Happy, Russia's Sad: Using Twitter to Gauge the World's Mood

| Thu Sep. 29, 2011 2:00 PM PDT

Twitter is great for staying up-to-date on, well, pretty much everything: the news, celebrity gossip, your roommate's best-friend's breakfast. But a new paper out today in the journal Science suggests that Twitter can also be used to track peoples' moods. The researchers found that, across the globe, tweets are predictably upbeat or cranky based on the local time of day.

Cornell University sociologists Scott Golder and Michael Macy spent two years collecting 509 million tweets from 2.4 million users in 84 different countries (albeit with a notable dearth of representation from Africa). Using a well-established text analysis tool, they scored tweets based on their use of hundreds of positive words (like "happy" or "enthusiastic") or negative words (like "sad" or "anxious"). When Macy and Golder plotted these scores against the tweet's time stamp, they found what should come as no surprise to anyone who works a nine-to-five: peoples' moods are best early in the morning, slowly deteriorate as the day wears on, then finally pick up in the evening (read: after happy hour). And, cultural differences be damned, the same was true worldwide, suggesting mood is hard-wired in the human psyche.

"Twitter is a goldmine for being able to observe human behavior," Macy said. "We all have basically the same biology, and the pattern we found was very robust."

Independent, Kick-Ass Journalism—Now More than Ever

| Thu Sep. 29, 2011 1:42 PM PDT

The political divide in Washington is as nasty as I've ever seen it. The tea party-pandering Republican Party has brought the nation's capital to a standstill—and nearly pushed the nation into another financial crisis. With the nation facing a series of challenges—a stalled economy, flat (or falling) incomes for those in the middle or the bottom, a troubled education system, out-of-date infrastructure—there seems little chance the political system can produce policies that address these serious problems. But the tea party types and their conservative corporate backers don't mind. They're rooting for gridlock that gums up and discredits the government.

And, as ugly as things are right now, they could get worse. In this coming election year, special interests will be flooding the political system with anonymous contributions to make sure their allies gain even more power in Washington. And what we—those of us who do the kick-ass journalism at Mother Jones and those of you who read it, support it, and pass it on—have to do is expose these naked attempts to hijack the nation's politics and government.

We need to raise $75,000 to pay for investigative reporters in our DC bureau who will expose these corrupt politicians and their anonymous corporate backers. Will you help us out? Even $5 or $10 will make a big difference. Please donate today.

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Dammit, There Is No $16 Muffin

| Thu Sep. 29, 2011 1:30 PM PDT

On the Daily Show last night, Bill O'Reilly was griping about the great $16 muffin affair and Jon Stewart had no idea what he was talking about. So the whole thing passed without any pushback, and now millions more people think Uncle Sam is paying $16 for hotel muffins.

Once again, then: it's a myth. There were no $16 muffins. It's just an artifact of the way hotels aggregate costs for events and bill them all to a few line items instead of breaking down every charge separately. In fact, for the event in question, DOJ came in exactly on budget. All the details are here.

Now, can we please hear no more about this?

Chart of the Day #2: Child Poverty in the Great Recession

| Thu Sep. 29, 2011 12:38 PM PDT

Pew Research has a good report up this week on child poverty during the great recession, based on data from the 2010 Census we wrote about previously. The takeaway is that, as you'd expect, poverty rates are increasing among all ethnic groups—but no group's numbers are moving in the wrong direction at a greater clip than Latinos'. Here's a chart:

Latino child poverty has skyrocketed during the recession.: Courtesy of Pew ResearchLatino child poverty has skyrocketed during the recession: Courtesy of Pew ResearchThere are a couple things going on here. One is that Latinos are making up an ever-increasing share of the population, especially among younger generations, so these numbers are bound to rise in the short-term. Another is that the Latino unemployment rate is significantly higher than the natonal average (it's 11.3 percent as of August), and that number correlates to less income.

It's worth noting that poverty rates are still higher overall among black children, at 39.1 percent (compared to 35 percent for Latinos and 12.4 percent for whites). That's about on par with the poverty rate for Latino children with immigrant parents (39 percent).  The full report is here.

Obama, Rule Of Law Guy

| Thu Sep. 29, 2011 12:07 PM PDT

The Los Angeles Times published an op-ed Thursday from Law Professor Jonathan Turley blasting the Obama administration's record on civil liberties and declaring that "the election of Barack Obama may stand as one of the single most devastating events in our history for civil liberties." Turley's op-ed focuses on the Obama administration's undeniable policy continuity with the Bush administration on national security matters. Issues that might generally fall under the umbrella of "civil liberties" like gay rights or voting rights aren't included. Turley writes:

Obama failed to close Guantanamo Bay as promised. He continued warrantless surveillance and military tribunals that denied defendants basic rights. He asserted the right to kill U.S. citizens he views as terrorists. His administration has fought to block dozens of public-interest lawsuits challenging privacy violations and presidential abuses.

But perhaps the biggest blow to civil liberties is what he has done to the movement itself. It has quieted to a whisper, muted by the power of Obama's personality and his symbolic importance as the first black president as well as the liberal who replaced Bush. Indeed, only a few days after he took office, the Nobel committee awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize without his having a single accomplishment to his credit beyond being elected. Many Democrats were, and remain, enraptured.

Turley's political analysis is overstated, but his policy analysis is not. There's nothing particularly unusual about Democrats' silence on matters of civil liberties and national security, which is easily attributable to mere partisanship. Declaring it the function of a kind of mental affirmative action is silly. The same civil libertarian groups who were fighting Bush, like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights, are doing so now. What they lack is the support or amplification provided by prominent Democrats in Congress when the president was a Republican. Turley also lets the GOP entirely off the hook, as though there's nothing unusual about a party whose mantra is "small government" offering no opposition whatsoever to the expansion of the national security state. Perhaps it's just that Turley's expectations for Republicans are so low that he doesn't even see the contradiction as worth noting. 

Chart of the Day: Recession-Induced Homelessness About To Skyrocket

| Thu Sep. 29, 2011 11:55 AM PDT

There's more dismal news on the economic front. Earlier this month, the US Census Bureau released the latest poverty data, revealing that the poverty rate is at a record high and the number of Americans living in deep poverty has been steadily increasing. (The Census Bureau defines deep poverty as living below half the annual federal poverty line, or about $11,000 for a family of four. About 7 percent of the country now falls into this category.)

Now comes the news that as larger numbers of people fall into deep poverty, they're increasingly landing on the streets. The National Alliance to End Homelessness projects that the number of homeless Americans will increase by five percent over the next three years. That would mean an additional 74,000 people homeless people, pushing the national total towards 1.7 million. Homeless numbers tend to lag behind unemployment and poverty indicators, but the Alliance notes that all the warning signs for increased homelessness are there—most notably an 11 percent increase in the number of people who are "doubling up" and living with relatives or other people. That's often just one step from landing in a shelter. Here's the depressing chart of the day: 

Chart courtesy of the National Alliance to End Homelessness