2011 - %3, September

Ex-Perry Aide Jay Kimbrough Sacked, Waves Pocket Knife, Apologizes

| Thu Sep. 22, 2011 2:45 PM PDT

Gov. Rick Perry's chief of staff, Jay Kimbrough, was fired on Wednesday from his position as deputy chancellor of the Texas A&M University, the governor's alma mater. The stated reason? Kimbrough wasn't needed anymore—at least not at the cost of $300,000 a year.

The firing, which came on Kimbrough's 64th birthday, surprised him. But he appears to have been prepared, in a Boy Scouts sort of way. Here's the Texas Tribune:

In the process of discussing his termination with Ray Bonilla, the system's general counsel, and Scott Kelly, the deputy general counsel, Kimbrough, a Marine Corps veteran who nearly died in Vietnam and speaks often of his military history, mentioned—he says in jest—that he always carries a knife.

"I was just joking," said Kimbrough, who acknowledged that he revealed the pocketknife during the discussion. "I was just saying I was not going to be intimidated." About an hour later, while he was making phone calls from his office, he said, university police officers arrived and told him he needed to leave.

Kimbrough said it's not unusual for security to be called in when someone is terminated involuntarily, and that he didn't think it had to do with the knife. "Sure I displayed it, yes," he said. "But I do that 20 times a week. I do it when someone needs to cut a watermelon."

He said he did not threaten anyone: "Absolutely not."

The A&M system's spokesman, Jason Cook, told the Tribune that it is standard procedure to have police on stand-by in such a situation. He said no police action was taken and that no police reports have been filed "at this time."

Later Wednesday night, Bonilla emailed Kimbrough to say the security presence was “done as a routine precaution in employment matters of this nature,” but said Kimbrough should not try to return to the building.

Perry, for his part, maintains close ties with A&M. With Kimbrough? Not so much, it would appear. Anyway you slice it, getting fired on your birthday sucks.

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Expanding The Drone War In Somalia

| Thu Sep. 22, 2011 2:30 PM PDT
The answer to all our problems?

Responding to the news that the Obama administration intends to increase its use of drone strikes in Somalia, my colleague Kevin Drum shrugged "endless war becomes more endless." It's worth remembering though, how Somalia became such an prominent part of America's global battlefield. 

Al Shabab, the Somali-based al Qaeda affiliate whose remarkable success in recruiting American citizens has frustated law enforcement officials, emerged in its current form only after 2006, in the aftermath of a Bush administration-backed Ethiopian invasion meant to displace the Islamic Courts Union. That intervention merely destabilized Somalia further and empowered Al Shabab. The government that succeeded the relatively stable ICU ended up being run by a former ICU member anyway, and Al Shabab ended up controlling much of the country. So all the Bush-backed intervention did was make things exponentially worse. 

As Jeremy Scahill reported in August, however, that wasn't even the beginning of the cycle. The ICU, which was displaced because the Bush administration feared that their Islamism would align them with al Qaeda, emerged as a response to American-backed warlords who were targeting and killing suspected Islamic militants for money in the hopes of ever-more lucrative American sponsorship.

Somalia is being devastated by a terrible famine afflicting the region, but the expansion of the drone war suggests that US policymakers still see the country much as it did five years ago—as little more than a security problem that can be solved by the targeted application of violence. History suggests otherwise, and not just in Somalia. 

WikiLeaks: Chevron Sought US Help in Ecuador

| Thu Sep. 22, 2011 2:15 PM PDT

In February, an Ecuadorian court ordered the oil company Chevron to compensate indigenous communities for environmental damage caused by oil drilling. The case started in 2003, so the $18.2 billion decision was a long time coming. Now Chevron is trying to block enforcement of the decision, arguing that it was "fraudulent."

There's a lot at stake for Chevron, which is why the company is trying so hard to block it. It's not just about the billions of dollars. It's also about the precedent the case would set if an oil company is forced to pay for past environmental harms. Now, several new cables that WikiLeaks has released shed additional light on how the company tried to get help from the US Embassy in Ecuador to have the case dismissed over the years. While some cables show that embassy officials seemed willing to help, it's not clear exactly how much they may have done to intervene on Chevron's behalf. Still, the cables are pretty interesting.

This from a March 2006 cable written by US officials in Quito:

In previous meetings, Chevron reps have suggested that the [US government] pressure the [Government of Ecuador] to assume responsibility for the environmental damage in the areas once operated by Chevron. Given the complex legal questions and the questions of fact disputed in the case, it does not seem likely that any available inducements would convince the [government of Ecuador] to assume what may amount to billions of dollars of environmental liability.

Another cable from April 2008 also provides insight into Chevron's attempts to get the government of Ecuador to help them get rid of the case:

Meanwhile, Chevron had begun to quietly explore with senior [government of Ecuador] officials whether it could implement a series of social projects in the concession area in exchange for GOE support for ending the case, but now that the expert has released a huge estimate for alleged damage, it might be hard for the GOE to go that route, even if it has the ability to bring the case to a close.

More cables about Chevron and Ecuador here, here, here, and here.

The plaintiffs in the case argue that the cables raise concerns that the US may have intervened on behalf of Chevron. "Chevron lawyers clearly felt that embassy officials were part of their team," said Karen Hinton, the spokeswoman for the plaintiffs, in a statement. "We find it disturbing that US embassy officials in Ecuador were willing to do the bidding of an American oil company that committed environmental crimes that have literally decimated the lives of thousands of people."

UPDATE: Chevron spokesman Justin Higgs sent this statement:

Chevron has indeed had discussions with U.S. Embassy officials and the [United States government] more broadly to secure its support in ensuring that Chevron's contractual and treaty based-rights in Ecuador are protected. Chevron consistently has communicated with the governments of Ecuador and the U.S. to try both to ensure that Ecuador honors its binding legal and contractual obligations reflected in the settlement and release agreements it entered into after Texaco Petroleum Company fully remediated its share of environmental impacts in Ecuador and to ensure that Chevron's ability to secure fair and neutral international arbitration is safeguarded.

Bill Clinton Knocks Rick Perry on Israel Comments, Forgets His Own Past

| Thu Sep. 22, 2011 1:41 PM PDT
Bill Clinton's 2004 autobiography "My Life" in Hebrew.

Texas Governor Rick Perry attracted plenty of criticism for his statements this week regarding President Obama's stance on the Palestinian Authority's push for UN statehood recognition. Among the critics was Bill Clinton, who accused the Republican presidential hopeful on Thursday of cynically practicing "good politics" by siding with "militant subgroups in Israel" and pandering to pro-Israel Jewish voters. The former president had this to say on MSNBC's Morning Joe:

There's an enormous reservoir of support for Israel in the Christian evangelical community, and a lot of them believe — as some of the more militant subgroups do—that God meant for all Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] to be in the hands of Israel...I'm sure there are hundreds of thousands of people that have never missed church on Sunday in Texas who believe it.

Clinton also lambasted Perry and Republicans for caving in to the Israeli leadership, allowing them to "do whatever [they] want" and to "keep the West Bank."

However accurate an assessment that may be, there is, unfortunately, a hypocrisy to Clinton's critique that was left unacknowledged. During his 1992 presidential campaign, the man from Hope wasn't shy about playing the same kind of "good politics" when it came to locking down the "pro-Israel" vote. Clinton outflanked George H.W. Bush on the right by vehemently opposing Bush's plan to have settlement freezes as a condition for $10 billion in loan guarantees to resettle Soviet Jewry. Oh, and he also declared to an audience of New York Jewish leaders in March 1992 that Bush was "ever so subtly" undoing "the taboo against overt anti-Semitism."

In other words, Clinton slamming Perry on this issue would be akin to Clinton weighing in on the Troy Davis debacle and forgetting about the execution of Ricky Ray Rector he oversaw as governor of Arkansas (which is actually something Clinton had the gall to do on Thursday, too).

Perry's condemnation of Obama's foreign policy and Clinton's rebuttal both show that exercising these "good politics" on Israel is one of the few things both sides of the aisle can still agree on.

Arizona AG: We Love Latinos! Can't Get Enough of 'Em!

| Thu Sep. 22, 2011 1:00 PM PDT
Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne

On Wednesday, the US District Court for the District of Columbia threw out a challenge to the Voting Rights Act (VRA) mounted by a coalition of conservative legal groups from Shelby County, Alabama. The group sought to render unconstitutional Section 5 of the VRA, which requires states with ugly racial histories—like Alabama—to pre-clear any proposed changes to their election laws with the Department of Justice in order to assure that minority voting rights aren’t being trampled. Pre-clearance, Shelby County argued, amounts to a violation of states' rights. The court didn't agree.

The Shelby County decision, authored by George W. Bush appointee John Bates, doesn't bode well for a similar suit filed by Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne in August. The Grand Canyon state was inducted into the pre-clearance gang in 1975 for failing to publish ballots in Spanish.

In an interview with Capitol Media Services on Wednesday, Horne admitted the odds are against Arizona. His suit draws on many of the same arguments presented by the plaintiffs in the Shelby County case; moreover, the same judge, Bates, will be presiding over the Arizona case. But Horne believes that his case has a shot in front of the Supreme Court, and doesn’t think that Arizona's current voting laws discriminate against minorities, telling Capitol Media Services that "there is no evidence of ongoing problems" in Arizona.

To back up his point, Horne argues that the percentage of Latinos registered to vote isn't "significantly different than their share of the voting-age population." But according to a 2008 study by the William C. Velazquez Institute, 19 percent of the state's eligible voters are Latino, while only 14 percent of its registered voters are Latino. That means Latinos are under-registered relative to their share of the voting-age population. Whites don't have that problem: 88 percent of the state's eligible voters are white, and 88 percent of its registered voters are white.

Only a little over half of all eligible Latinos were registered in 2008. Maybe the others were scared off by imposing white men sporting black t-shirts emblazoned with this logo and demanding proof of citizenship from Latinos waiting in line to vote. Yes, that really happened.

As for other shining moments in Arizona racial history, Horne decided to dredge up an oldie-but-a-goodie:

[T]he approval by lawmakers last year of SB 1070 is not a sign of ongoing racism in Arizona. Instead, he said, it is designed solely to give state and local police more power to enforce laws against illegal immigration.

Horne said one of the best pieces of evidence he has that Arizona does not discriminate against Hispanics is the fact that voters here elected Raul Castro as governor in 1974. Anyway, he said, including Arizona in the preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act is a form of discrimination itself.

"There is data that show that Arizona has as perfectly as good a record as lots of state that are not covered" by [Section 5 of the VRA].

It's not clear what data Horne is referring to. Nor is it clear why he didn't let a sleeping dog like SB 1070 lie. Also notable: Raul Castro (not that one), whose term as Arizona governor expired almost 35 years ago, was elected six months before the state was ordered into the pre-clearance club because of its Spanish-language ballot problem. (Latinos, theoretically, could've pretty ably voted for a guy with a name like Raul Castro whether or not a Spanish-language ballot was available.) The state has not had a Latino governor since.

Raw Data: Who Pays Federal Taxes?

| Thu Sep. 22, 2011 12:32 PM PDT

A reader writes:

I'm writing regarding an often repeated refrain that the top 10% of income earners pay 70% of all income tax. This looks big when compared to their 50% share of total income, but I know this ignores payroll taxes. I have not been able to find a good online breakdown of how payroll taxes paid by individuals changes this. Could you refer me to some sources if you know?

Well, why not? The Congressional Budget Office has a nice page here that provides lots of useful tax and income share data. The table below is combined from their income share document and their tax share document, and it shows the share of all federal taxes paid by different income groups (their latest data is for 2006). Their definition of "income" is quite broad, including healthcare benefits and federal welfare benefits. As you can see, the top 10% receive 41% of total income and pay 55% of total taxes. In other words, the federal tax system as a whole is progressive, but it's not very progressive.

Add in state and local taxes and things get even less progressive. But for federal taxes only, this is the basic story.

UPDATE: Via Citizens for Tax Justice, here's a similar chart that accounts for all taxes — federal, state, and local. The income groups at the high end are arranged a bit differently than CBO's, but the basic comparisons are the same. As you can see, the total tax system in America is only very slightly progressive.

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The Revolving Door, Keystone XL Edition

| Thu Sep. 22, 2011 12:25 PM PDT

Environmental groups have been asking questions about the relationship between the top lobbyist for TransCanada and the State Department, which is currently evaluating the company's proposal to build a 1,660-mile pipeline from Alberta, Canada, to Texas. Paul Elliott is now the director of government relations for the energy company TransCanada, but previously served as the national deputy director for Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign.

Friends of the Earth filed a Freedom of Information Act request several months ago to access communication between Elliot and State Department officials, which State denied. So FOE sued, and State eventually provided some of the documents, which the group released on Thursday. The Washington Post broke the story on what the email records contained:

Elliott — who served as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's national deputy campaign manager in 2008 — sought to broker multiple meetings between senior State Department officials and TransCanada executives. He offered to enlist TransCanada officials’ aid in helping State officials forge an international climate agreement. And he deluged administration officials with letters testifying to the virtues of the Keystone XL expansion project, which would ship crude oil from Canada’s oil sands region to American refiners.

See the whole piece for more insight on the back-and-forth between the lobbyist and federal officials. One thing that also struck me is the role of David L. Goldwyn, who was the US special envoy on energy until last January. In the emails, he seems to be coaching TransCanada about how to deal with various requests and questions. Now, Goldwyn says he didn't have a role in drafting the environmental impact statement at State. But he would have had a role in decision about whether to approve the pipeline. Emphasis there is on the "would have," though, because he left the department earlier this year for a private energy consulting firm. In that role, he has testified to Congress about the "importance of Canadian oil for US energy and national security" and advocated for the pipeline's approval.

The second notable element is Elliot offering State his help in talking to the Canadian government about climate change, ahead of the 2009 UN meeting in Copenhagen. "TransCanada can be an asset for the state department and I hope you might see us as such," he wrote in one email to a Clinton staffer.

Now, is this concrete evidence of ethical impropriety at the State Department when it comes to the Keystone XL consideration? I think the sad truth is that it probably isn't. The revolving door between agencies and the oil industry is par for the course it seems.

European Economy Hits the Skids

| Thu Sep. 22, 2011 11:11 AM PDT

A single month of data is never cause for panic, but this particular piece of data sure isn't good news. The advance release of the composite PMI index for Europe fell below 50 in September, which suggests the European economy is now contracting. Outside of France and Germany the news is even worse, and in the service sector both current activity and expectations of future activity are down. There's just no silver lining here.

The Ominous Arctic Sea Ice Minumum of 2011

| Thu Sep. 22, 2011 10:34 AM PDT

 

 

This animation is compiled from satellite still images of the Arctic sea ice acquired between 7 March and 9 September 2011. The last image records 2011's lowest sea-ice extent, give or take a day or two. The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) calculates 2011 to have lost more ice than any year since record keeping began other than 2007. Though the University of Bremen calculates that 2011 beat out 2007 for the lowest ever sea ice extent.

The NASA's Earth Observatory page explains why the 2011 melt is more ominous than 2007, regardless of where it falls in the final record keeping:

2011 proved to be a year of extreme melt. By early September, the area covered by sea ice in the Arctic Ocean was approaching a record low... In 2007—the last time sea ice reached similarly low levels—conditions were ideal for melt. Skies were clear, wind patterns thinned the ice, and warm air temperatures melted the ice. Weather patterns in 2011, by contrast, were typical. This means, say NSIDC scientists, that the ice was thin and spread out before the melting even started in the summer of 2011. It is a sign that Arctic sea ice is thinning. Indeed the last five years include the five lowest sea ice extents since records began in 1979, and much of that trend has been caused by global warming, says NASA Cryosphere Program manager Tom Wagner in his video interpretation of the 2011 sea ice record.

 

the 2011 Arctic sea ice minimum. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.The 2011 Arctic sea ice minimum. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Chart: How the Climate Change Deniers Won

| Thu Sep. 22, 2011 10:24 AM PDT

Remember when Republicans still cared about climate change? Four years ago, GOP presidential candidate John McCain was proudly proclaiming that he'd cosponsored a bill to cap carbon emissions. But at this month's Republican debate in California, every presidential wannabe except Jon Huntsman denied that man-made climate change was a problem. And in another depressing sign of how far global warming has fallen off the political radar, hardly anyone on either side of the Solyndra tempest has argued that betting on the company was important for non-economic reasons. What happened here? In short, the climate change deniers won. Here's a handy chart of how they pulled it off.

Other must reads:
Josh Harkinson on "
The Dirty Dozen of Climate Change Denial"
Kate Sheppard on "Climategate: What Really Happened"
Chris Mooney on "The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science"

Bonus reading: Inside the top-secret seminar that raises millions for the "Kochtopus"