2011 - %3, September

Well, Rick Perry, Since You Brought Up Galileo...

| Thu Sep. 8, 2011 11:52 AM EDT

Rick Perry was more than happy to embrace the anti-science title in Wednesday's GOP debate, repeating the claim that the "science isn't settled" on the question of whether human activity is causing the planet to heat up. Of course, this was nothing new: Perry has been pretty open about the fact that he thinks scientists invented climate change to keep those big research bucks rolling in.

When Perry couldn't name a single scientist he actually agrees with on climate change, he deferred, instead, to the ghost of Galileo Galilei. "Galileo got out-voted for a spell," said Perry, intending to demonstrate that just because the majority of scientists have reached a conclusion, that doesn't make it true.

The problem with that, of course, is that it wasn't a cabal of scientists who were out-voting Mr. Galilei. True, he did catch flack for breaking with the scientific establishment at the time. But it was the Catholic church that interrogated the Italian scientist, accused him of heresy, and put him under house arrest for the rest of his life. Sadly, I think the irony of the comment is lost on Perry and his fans.

So, really, it wasn't all that much different than what's going on with climate change, today. Establishment forces—the fossil fuel industry, anti-regulation conservatives, and religious fundamentalists—have waged a relentless campaign to malign, persecute, and marginalize climate scientists. And Rick Perry has been the favorite presidential candidate of climate deniers because he has been a zealous participant in those attacks.

Of course, we all know how the Galileo story ends. Turns out, he was right about that whole earth revolving around the sun thing. But it certainly wasn't the Rick Perrys of the world that ushered that into common acceptance.

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Terrorists and Airplanes

| Thu Sep. 8, 2011 11:14 AM EDT

I just finished writing a column about our insane post-9/11 security apparatus, so I can hardly believe I'm about to say what I'm about to say. But here's Matt Yglesias on airport security:

One question I always have when I go through airport security is exactly how many planes the relevant authorities think al-Qaeda would be blowing up if planes were no better secured than an intercity bus. My experience of intercity bus travel is that there’s absolutely nothing stopping a person from bringing a bomb onto a bus. And yet, over the past ten years exactly zero buses have been exploded by terrorists. A person with the means and inclination to blow up an airplane, who finds himself stymied by tight airline security, could just go blow up a bus instead. But nobody does this. So my baseline assumption is that approximately zero airplane detonations have been prevented by airline security screening, since were screening preventing suicide bombers from blowing up planes we’d see bomb-displacement onto other transportation segments.

Matt goes on to admit that "terrorists do seem to have a unique fascination with planes," but that only increases his estimate to one saved plane.

And hell, I can't prove him wrong. But seriously? Given everything we know about terrorist attempts to bring down airplanes — the 1995 Bojinka plot, 9/11 itself, Richard Reid, the British plot to blow up 10 airplanes using liquid explosives, the underwear bomber, the cargo plane plot — do we really think terrorists wouldn't have blown up a helluva lot of planes if doing so didn't require a ton of planning and secrecy, but instead was as easy as packing a couple of kilos of C4 into your carry-on luggage and strolling on board? Common sense suggests that most bombing plots never get very far precisely because they have to be carefully planned to evade airport security, something that makes it hard to pack enough punch to do any serious damage. But if getting on a plane were really as easy as boarding a bus, the evidence of the past decade warns us that airplanes would be dropping out of the sky with alarming frequency.

It's worth asking whether the fantastic amount of additional post-9/11 airline security has made air travel much safer. That's a lot harder to say. But Cuban hijackers ended the era of boarding planes like buses. We've all been standing in line at airport security checkpoints since the 70s, and even the pre-9/11 security routine was enough to prevent most airline bombings. Given al-Qaeda's obvious fascination with air travel, it's hard to imagine that any of us would feel especially safe boarding a plane if there were no security at all.

Mitt Romney Airbrushes His Bain Capital Record

| Thu Sep. 8, 2011 11:11 AM EDT
Mitt Romney

It didn't take long—just six minutes into the 98-minute debate—for the moderators at Wednesday night's Republican presidential debate to take aim at Mitt Romney's record at Bain Capital, the powerful private equity firm Romney helped start. Here's that exchange:

NBC's Brian Williams: "Bain Capital, a company you helped to form, among other things, often buys up companies, strips 'em down, gets 'em ready, and resells them at a net job loss to American workers."

Mitt Romney: "That might be how some people might want to characterize what we did, but in fact we started businesses at Bain Capital, and when we acquired businesses, in each case we tried to make 'em bigger, make 'em more successful and grow.

"The idea that somehow you can strip things down and [that] makes them more valuable is not a real effective investment strategy. We tried to make these businesses more successful. By the way, they didn't all work. When it was all said and done, we added tens of thousands of jobs to the businesses we helped support."

Some quick background: Private equity firms like Bain are known for raising money from outside investors; using that money to buy up struggling companies; restructuring the companies (think layoffs, slashing worker benefits, and selling off pieces of the business); and finally selling the (supposedly) leaner, meaner businesses for a profit. One particularly infamous type of private equity deal is the leveraged buyout, in which a private equity firm will borrow a huge amount of money to buy a company, thereby weighing down the purchased company with debt.

USDA: Texas Citizens are Nation's Second-Hungriest

| Thu Sep. 8, 2011 9:51 AM EDT

The USDA had a new report up on Wednesday breaking down the percentage of residents in each state who lack secure sources of food—which is to say, the number of people for whom going hungry is an everyday concern. Here's the thrust of it:

An estimated 85.5 percent of American households were food secure throughout the entire year in 2010, meaning that they had access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members. The remaining households (14.5 percent) were food insecure at least some time during the year, including 5.4 percent with very low food security—meaning that the food intake of one or more household members was reduced and their eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year because the household lacked money and other resources for food.

That's not good, and the bad news is that the general trend is in the wrong direction. Only a handful of places (DC, New Mexico) have seen their food security numbers improve over the last decade. The Great Recession contributes to this, but the trend is clear without it, too. It also brings with it some long-term issues; food insecurity makes it harder to plan nutritionally sound meals, which in turn opens the door to a range of potential health consequences.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 8, 2011

Thu Sep. 8, 2011 5:57 AM EDT

"Howitzer Blast"

Pfc. Erik Park, 3rd Platoon, Alpha Battery, 1st Battalion, 77th Field Artillery Regiment, 172nd Infantry Brigade, fires his M-777 155mm howitzer, Sep. 3, 2011. US Army photo by Spc. Ken Scar, 7th MPAD.

Quote of the Day: We Are All Non-Keynesians Now

| Thu Sep. 8, 2011 12:42 AM EDT

From Rick Perry, riffing on the Obama presidency:

The other thing this president's done, he has proven for once and for all that government spending will not create one job. Keynesian policy and Keynesian theory is now done. We'll never have to have that experiment on America again.

The sad thing is that he's mostly right. Through a combination of Republican truculence and Democratic timidity, pretty much nobody believes any more in the government's ability to stimulate the economy. And why should they? If Republicans keep saying it doesn't work, and in response Democrats sort of shuffle around looking embarrassed, why would anyone doubt that it's a completely discredited theory?

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6 Hot-Button Issues the GOP Presidential Hopefuls Dodged in the Debate

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 11:56 PM EDT

In Wednesday night's Republican presidential debate, moderators Brian Williams of NBC and John Harris of Politico grilled the candidates a range of hot-button issues, lingering longer on some—immigration, for instance—than others. But plenty more issues got neglected altogether, including the GOP candidates' positions on the growing power of money in politics and red-hot social issues such as abortion and gay rights.

Here's a rundown of key issues left untouched in Wednesday's debate:

  1. Campaign finance: In this post-Citizens United political landscape, outside spending and independent groups such as super-PACs are playing an increasingly influential role. What do the candidates, many of whom benefit from affiliated super-PACs, think about the rise of independent and dark-money outfits such as Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS? Would they support new regulation demanding disclosure of political spending?


  2. Abortion: Still the most divisive social issue in the land. What are the candidates' positions on the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision? Do they support efforts at the state level, as seen in Virginia, South Dakota, Kansas, and elsewhere, curbing abortion rights or targeting the doctors who provide them?


  3. Evolution: Only former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman mentioned evolution, which he said philosophy and science support. How many of the other GOPers, in a show of hands, believe in evolution? If not, why?


  4. Gay Rights: There's was no mention of Don't Ask, Don't Tell; the Defense of Marriage Act; benefits for same-sex partners; or any other contentious gay rights issues. Where do the candidates stand on these issues? How many would reinstate Don't Ask, Don't Tell? (Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum have previously said they would.)


  5. Gun rights: Not much debate, if any, on the Second Amendment on Wednesday night. Where do the candidates stand on an individual's right to bear arms? (Rick Perry once shot a coyote with a laser-sighted pistol while on a job, so you can imagine where his head's at.)


  6. Shariah law: It's the religious issue that whips hard-line right-wingers into such a frenzy, the (misplaced and overblown) fear that Islamic law is creeping its way into America's legal system. Newt Gingrich has warned that jihadists are pushing "to replace Western civilization with a radical imposition of Shariah." Herman Cain has raised the specter of Shariah law in America too. Do the other candidates feel the same way? Do they see Shariah law as a threat, and if so, why?

On Economic Forecasting

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 11:20 PM EDT

From David Leonhardt, wondering whether the economy is headed back into recession:

Perhaps the best sign of how difficult it is to know the economy’s direction is that, as a group, the nation’s professional forecasters have failed to predict all the recessions since the 1970s, according to data kept by the Philadelphia Fed. In the last 30 years, the average probability they put on the economy lapsing into recession has never risen above 50 percent — until the economy was already in a recession.

Not to keep you in suspense, but Leonhardt concludes that the odds of a double-dip recession are now pretty good. I think he's right.

What Rick Perry Wasn't Asked About the Death Penalty

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 11:08 PM EDT

When NBC's Brian Williams asked Texas Governor Rick Perry on Wednesday night about his state's record on the death penalty—234 executions and counting—the crowd at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California broke into spontaneous applause. It was an instantly memorable moment in a debate with few of them:

By this point, it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that conservatives, particularly those who wait in long lines to attend Republican primary debates at the Reagan library 14 months before the election, are big fans of the death penalty. Perry's 234 executions are a modern-day record for a governor, breaking the one held by his predecessor—George W. Bush. But on a night where Williams and his co-moderator, Politico's John Harris, were for the most part on their game, it was something of a missed opportunity to get the Texas Governor on the record about a story he's been reluctant to talk about: The execution of a man who was probably innocent, based on evidence that was proven to be false.

Williams asked Perry, "Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?" Perry was unequivocal: "No sir, I've never struggled with that at all. The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place of which when someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you're involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas and that is you will be executed."

Williams followed up by asking Perry what he thought about the fact that his recitation of the death penalty statistic was an applause line.

"I think Americans understand justice. I think Americans are clearly, in the vast majority of cases, supportive of capital punishment. When you have committed heinous crimes against our citizens—and it's a state-by-state issue, but in the state of Texas, our citizens have made that decision, and they made it clear, and they don’t want you to commit those crimes against our citizens. And if you do, you will face the ultimate justice."

Perry knows his base, and he played to them perfectly with his answer. But there's no need for hypotheticals here. 

Perry has been repeatedly presented with evidence that should have challenged these sweeping assertions—and he's repeatedly brushed them aside. When, in 2004, new advances in arson science seemed to prove that death row inmate Cameron Todd Willingham had not, in fact, murdered his three children via arson, Perry denied a stay of execution. And when the Texas Forensic Science Commission, after taking the unprecedented step of reexamining the case, seemed on the verge of posthumously exonerating Willingham, Perry took the also unprecedented step of replacing three members of the commission. Just like that. Last year, meanwhile, when Texas Monthly helped spring an innocent man, Anthony Graves, from death, Perry pointed to the case as proof that the system works. Which is true—if your definition of a functioning criminal justice system is one in which courts wrongly sentence an innocent man to death, only for an intrepid journalist to swoop in and, after countless hours of work, help secure his release.

GOP Rivals Give Perry a Pass on Crony Capitalism

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 10:09 PM EDT

On Saturday, not-yet-a-presidential-candidate Sarah Palin previewed an enticing line of attack against Texas Governor Rick Perry: "crony capitalism." Although she didn't mention the latest Republican frontrunner by name, Palin warned Iowa tea partiers that when candidates accept million-dollar donations, you should expect a few strings to be attached. On that front, the numbers seemingly speak for themselves. A full 20 percent of Rick Perry's $100 million fundraising tally as governor has come from Perry appointees, and on everything from toll roads to nuclear waste dumps to private prisons to lawsuit reform, Perry's policies have dovetailed neatly with the interests of his biggest donors.

Yet when NBC's Brian Williams gave Perry's rivals for the GOP nomination a chance to nail the governor at Wednesday night's debate, they all took a pass. The question was about Perry's controversial 2007 decision to mandate the HPV vaccine to innoculate adolescent girls against cervical cancer. Williams wanted to know if Perry made the right call. Reps. Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul both seized on the idea that the executive order was a decidedly Big Government move. Mitt Romney noted that, as Perry himself has said, it was a well-intentioned mistake that Perry would handle differently if he had a do-over.

What went unsaid by his rivals, though, was the full context: Perry's decision came at the end of a massive lobbying effort by the pharmaceutical giant Merck—an effort helmed in Austin by Perry's former chief of staff and longtime friend, Mike Toomey. (Toomey currently chairs a pro-Perry Super PAC with the stated goal of raising $55 million during the primary race to finance a shadow campaign for Perry.) On the day he signed the executive order, Perry received a $5,000 donation from Merck's political action committee, which came on the heels of a $6,000 donation during his reelection campaign. Even his supporters would agree that the HPV decision was an uncharacteristic one for the conservative governor; questions about Perry's motivations are natural.

Why did his opponents take a pass? It could just be that in 2012, GOP candidates—Palin excepted—know better than to bite the big business hand that feeds many of them.