2011 - %3, September

And Now, a Brief Word From the ACLU

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 1:17 PM EDT

Glenn Greenwald calls our attention to the ACLU's ten-year commemoration of 9/11. It's a little different from most of the others hitting the news stands this week. No pictures of the twin towers falling, no touching paeans about how we all came together as a nation for a brief shining moment, no photo spreads of exhausted firefighters or grieving relatives. In fact, no pictures at all. It's just plain, sober text about what's happened to our civil liberties over the past decade. Here are a few excerpts:

Torture: Just as the public debate over the legality, morality, and efficacy of torture was warped by fabrication and evasion, so, too, were the legal and political debates about the consequences of the Bush administration’s lawbreaking. Apart from the token prosecutions of Abu Ghraib’s “bad apples,” virtually every individual with any involvement in the torture program was able to deflect responsibility elsewhere. The military and intelligence officials who carried out the torture were simply following orders; the high government officials who authorized the torture were relying on the advice of lawyers; the lawyers were “only lawyers,” not policymakers. This had been the aim of the conspiracy: to create an impenetrable circle of impunity, with everyone culpable but no one accountable.

Indefinite detainment: President Obama’s pledge to close Guantanamo was undermined by his own May 2009 announcement of a policy enshrining at Guantanamo the principle of indefinite military detention without charge or trial....The real danger of the Guantanamo indefinite detention principle is that its underlying rationale has no definable limits.

Targeted assassinations: No national security policy raises a graver threat to human rights and the international rule of law than targeted killing....Under the targeted killing program begun by the Bush administration and vastly expanded by the Obama administration, the government now compiles secret “kill lists” of its targets, and at least some of those targets remain on those lists for months at a time.

Surveillance: The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, has used excessive secrecy to hide possibly unconstitutional surveillance....Hobbled by executive claims of secrecy, Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall have nevertheless warned their colleagues that the government is operating under a “reinterpretation” of the Patriot Act that is so broad that the public will be stunned and angered by its scope, and that the executive branch is engaging in dragnet surveillance in which “innocent Americans are getting swept up.”

Profiling: No area of American Muslim civil society was left untouched by discriminatory and illegitimate government action during the Bush years....To an alarming extent, the Obama administration has continued to embrace profiling as official government policy....There are increasing reports that the FBI is using Attorney General Ashcroft’s loosened profiling standards, together with broader authority to use paid informants, to conduct surveillance of American Muslims in case they might engage in wrongdoing.

Data mining: Nothing exemplifies the risks our national surveillance society poses to our privacy rights better than government “data mining.”....The range and number of these programs is breathtaking and their names Orwellian. Programs such as eGuardian, “Eagle Eyes,” “Patriot Reports,” and “See Something, Say Something” are now run by agencies including the Director of National Intelligence, the FBI, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security....Without effective oversight, security agencies are now also engaged in a “land grab,” rushing into the legal vacuum to expand their monitoring powers far beyond anything seen in our history. Each of the over 300 million cell phones in the United States, for example, reveals its lcation to the mobile network carrier with ever-increasing accuracy, whenever it is turned on, and the Justice Department is aggressively using cell phones to monitor people’s location, claiming that it does not need a warrant.

But hey, it's just the ACLU. So serious! And such party poopers too. Anyway, aren't they the guys who hate America? I'm pretty sure they are. There's really no need to pay attention to all their tedious whining. Please carry on.

UPDATE: A few moments after I wrote this, I turned on the TV and found myself watching Time managing editor Richard Stengel intone the banal conventional wisdom that the lesson of 9/11 ten years later is that "we've recovered, we've moved on."

God no. Just no. I don't care how many people say this, or how many times they repeat it. It isn't true. Just yesterday we declared ourselves thrilled by the news that maybe someday in the future we'll be able to board a plane without first taking off our shoes. Thrilled! Listen to the ACLU. We haven't even come close to moving on.

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Unmasking Dark Money Is Good for Democracy—and for the Bottom Line

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 12:35 PM EDT

It's one of the most overlooked pieces of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy's now-famous opinion in last year's Citizens United decision: While Kennedy and the court's majority backed unlimited political spending by corporations, they also stressed the importance of disclosure; that, in part thanks to the Internet, companies should disclose how much they spent and who they supported or attacked. Shareholders could then use those disclosures to determine the value of particular ads and gauge whether corporate political spending was in their best interests.

That that disclosure hasn't happened. Nearly half of the money spent by outside political groups in the 2010 elections was "dark money," meaning that the fundraisers themselves remained anonymous.

But if that corporate spending helped clinch elections around the country, it also took something of a toll on the corporations themselves, according to a new report by Public Citizen and Harvard Law School. Looking at the political activity and market value of big, publicly-traded companies on the S&P 500, researchers found that companies that were more involved in politics had weaker price/book ratios than less politically active companies. The study suggests that stock prices for politically active companies are lower than they would be if the same companies were less politically active.

John Coates, a Harvard law and economics professor, found that, in every election cycle between 1998 and 2004, corporations who had more active political action committees (PACs) and more aggressive lobbying efforts had lower price/book ratios. Coates discovered an even stronger connection in the 2010 elections: in that cycle, politically active firms were 24 percent more undervalued than their peers. Even taking into account a number of variables—recent profits, sales growth, size, leverage—Coates spotted a correlation between political activity and lower company value.

The report's authors also looked at the effect of disclosure: How does the market value of big, politically active companies with policies for disclosing political spending compare to active companies without them? Looking at 80 S&P 500 corporations, the Public Citizen and Harvard team found that companies pledging to disclose their political spending had, on average, 7.5 percent higher price/book ratios than those keeping their spending in the dark. The takeaway here: Disclosing corporate spending doesn't hurt shareholders, and in fact might boost a company's market capitalization.

There are, of course, plenty of caveats. For starters, the authors stress that they're not claiming a cause-and-effect here—that either less political spending or more disclosure directly causes higher company value. They're just pointing out what they believe is an important connection. They also list off previous academic studies suggesting that corporate lobbying (and, to an extent, PAC giving) reaps benefits in the form of tax breaks, more favorable trade policy, and more.

That in mind, this new research could allay fears that shining some sunlight on corporate spending will damage business. "Many people would agree that disclosing political activities is the right thing for publicly-traded companies to do," Harvard's Coates said in a statement on Wednesday. "Our study provides new evidence that it is also the thing that smart companies do."

This post was edited for clarity after publication.

Republicans are Crazy and Nobody Cares, Part 754

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 12:16 PM EDT

Jared Bernstein notes that if he's elected president, Mitt Romney has promised to "immediately move to cut spending and cap it at 20 percent of GDP." That's crazy with the economy so sluggish, but in fact, it's even crazier than that. Here are budget projections for 2013 from the OMB:

  • Medicare: $534 billion
  • Social Security: $807 billion
  • Other mandatory: $858 billion
  • Interest: $320 billion
  • Defense: $675 billion
  • Total: $3,194 billion

The first four items are mandatory and Romney can't do anything about them, and I think he's made it pretty clear that he doesn't plan to cut defense spending. These five items collectively amount to 19.06% of projected GDP in 2013.

In other words, Romney is proposing that everything else in the budget be immediately cut to 0.94% of GDP. That's all he has left to fund the FAA, the border patrol, the FBI, overseas embassies, highways, disaster relief, the SEC, the court system, NASA, prisons, national parks, school lunches, flood control, medical research, and everything else in the domestic discretionary budget. That's an 87% cut in those programs.

This is the guy who used to run Bain Consulting? It doesn't look to me like he can even read a balance sheet.

Nobel Winners Call on Obama to Reject Keystone XL

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 11:53 AM EDT

Remember back two years ago when President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize just a few months after taking office? Most people—Obama included—were like "maybe he should earn it first." In his acceptance speech, Obama listed climate change as one of the things he would "confront," along with other world leaders. Now a bunch of other Nobel laureates want to make sure Obama follows through on that promise—and they are calling on the president to block the Keystone XL pipeline to demonstrate his seriousness about the issue.

Nine Nobel Peace Prize winners—including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama—wrote to Obama on Wednesday asking him to reject the pipeline, which has attracted a lot of attention of late. The proposed 1,661-mile pipeline would carry oil from Canada's tar sands to refineries in Texas. The State Department seems likely to approve the pipeline before the end of 2011, though Obama could still intercede and reject the proposal.

"Your rejection of the pipeline provides a tremendous opportunity to begin transition away from our dependence on oil, coal and gas and instead increase investments in renewable energies and energy efficiency," they wrote. The full letter is below the fold:

This Is What Global Warming Looks Like

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 11:31 AM EDT

Dr. Alun Hubbard, a researcher at Aberystwyth University's Centre for Glaciology in Wales, recently returned from Greenland's Petermann Glacier. Polar scientists last photographed the glacier, located in the northwest corner of the country, in the summer of 2009. They went back this summer to see how much ice it has lost in just the last two years, and the results were dramatic.

"Although I knew what to expect in terms of ice loss from satellite imagery, I was still completely unprepared for the gob-smacking scale of the breakup, which rendered me speechless," Hubbard said in response to the images. Below, you can see the original shots from 2009 beside those taken this summer:

(h/t Wales Online)

Fox News' Paranoid Alternate Universe

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 11:27 AM EDT

Two-thirds of viewers who say Fox News is the news source they trust most believe discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against minority groups, according to a study released Tuesday by the Brookings Institution and the Public Religion Research Institute. The number, 68 percent, is an exact reversal of the percentage of black people in the same poll who say that discrimination against whites is not as big a problem as discrimination against minorities. The study was based on polling conducted by PRRI.*

The Brookings/PRRI study uses "reverse discrimination"—an unfortunate term that suggests a difference in kind, not in degree—to describe anti-white discrimination. Nevertheless, the revelations about the views of consumers who most trust Fox News are disturbing:

Among Americans who say they most trust Fox News, 26 percent say reverse discrimination is a critical issue, nearly twice as many as say discrimination against minority groups is a critical issue (14 percent). At the other end of the spectrum, only 8 percent of Americans who most trust public television say reverse discrimination is a critical issue, compared to 27 percent who say discrimination against minorities is a critical issue.

The financial crisis wiped out 20 years of minority wealth gains, and minority incarceration and unemployment rates are far higher than those of whites, but white Americans have nevertheless become more receptive to the idea that whites face as much discrimination as minorities. While the numbers for those who trust Fox News are much higher, a majority of whites in the study, 51 percent, also say they believe discrimination against whites is as big of a problem as discrimination against minorities. That's despite relatively low levels of interaction between whites and minorities. According to the study, "More than 8-in-10 Americans report having a conversation with an African-American person at least once a day (43 percent) or occasionally (40 percent)." Most of these exchanges, apparently, involve black people callously turning down whites applying for jobs or home loans. Nevertheless, while opinions of Muslims and immigrants vary by age and political perspective, demographic groups surveyed expressed positive impressions of African Americans across the board. (Otherwise, they might be racist or something.)

When it comes to Muslims, the study shows that the funders of the more than $40 million Shariah panic industry are getting their money's worth. Although two-thirds of Americans say that Muslims are not trying to establish Shariah law in the US, "[o]ver the last 8 months agreement with this question has increased by 7 points, from 23 percent in February 2011 to 30 percent today." The number of Republicans who buy that Muslims are trying to establish Shariah law in the US is up 14 points since August 2011, from 31 percent to 45 percent. 

Fox News is a crucial outlet for fomenting Shariah panic. According to the study, "There is a strong correlation between trusting Fox News and negative views of Islam and Muslims," as "[n]early 6-in-10 Republicans who most trust Fox News believe that American Muslims are trying to establish Shari'a law in the U.S.," and 72 percent of "Fox News Republicans" agree that Islam is "at odds with American values." If you're a Republican, you're more likely to think that white people are as discriminated against as minorities and that American Muslims represent a fifth column trying to subvert the Constitution. But if you're a Republican who watches Fox News, then you're far more likely to believe those things, thanks to a steady media diet of racial resentment and Muslim-baiting paranoia.

*Updated to reflect the fact that the poll was done by PRRI, and that the study was a joint venture.

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The Upside of Being a Lunatic

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 11:10 AM EDT

Sen. Richard Shelby (R–Fuhgeddaboutit) says he's mighty impressed by Richard Cordray, President Obama's pick to head up the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Jon Cohn explains what this means in real life:

So is Cordray on track for confirmation? Of course not. As Shelby made crystal clear, he and his fellow Republicans really don't care about Cordray's qualifications right now. They care about the board itself. They don't like it. Until Obama and the Democrats agree to modify it to suit conservative tastes, the Republicans won't confirm anybody to run it.

....Brookings scholar and historian Thomas Mann has called this practice a "modern-day form of nullification." I agree — and I think it's worth pondering just what that means.

The consumer protection agency exists because one year ago a majority of democratically elected lawmakers passed a law and a democratically elected president signed it. Now a minority of Senators representing a minority of the country are exploiting their procedural powers (i.e., using the filibuster) to prevent that law from taking effect.

That's undemocratic. And I mean that with a small "d."

Republicans can get away with this because (a) nobody cares about presidential appointments below the cabinet level, and (b) as I mentioned a few days ago, Republicans are expected to hold lunatic views and reporters simply give them a pass on it. At its core, the press doesn't really consider this stuff spiteful or petty or partisan or dangerous or anything like that. Sure, we're being treated to the spectacle of a bunch of constitutional conservatives explicitly abandoning their black letter constitutional duty to advise and consent, but hey. It's just Republicans being Republicans, and it's considered completely sincere no matter how crazy it is.

Democrats, of course, could do the same thing to the next Republican president, but it wouldn't work. Conservatives have a huge megaphone that's able to whip its audience into a wee bit more of a frenzy than the New York Times editorial page, and the mainstream press would play along by reporting the Democratic actions as pure political payback. Which would be true, of course. But that's not how they report Republican obstructionism, when they bother reporting it at all. Democrats don't get the benefit of being thought sincerely crazy. Republicans do.

I guess you can run a country this way. Not well, of course, but then, that's what they said about the dancing bear too.

As Drought Worsened, Rick Perry Slashed Fire-Fighting Spending

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 11:09 AM EDT
Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed off on massive cuts to fire-fighting services in 2011.

Wildfires are burning across central Texas right now, the product of an historic drought and high winds from Tropical Storm Lee. An estimated 3.6 million acres have been scorched since November, with the flames approaching the city limits of Austin; damage is expected to exceed $5 billion. In the macro-sense, this is climate change-caused problem, with Texas' climate set to become dryer and dryer over the ensuing decades, making extended droughts the new norm. But it's also a crisis of emergency management. Although Texas Governor Rick Perry has called his state "a model for the nation in disaster preparedness and response," he has taken steps over the last year that would dramatically change that.

Specifically, as Raw Story notes, Perry's most recent budget slashed spending for volunteer fire departments—who handle much of the fire-fighting duties in rural areas—by 75 percent, from $30 million to $7 million. The cuts meant that cash-strapped municipalities would then be forced to either pick up the slack funding-wise, or deal with reduced services and put off upgrading outdated equipment. As Reuters noted in May, volunteer fire-fighters "are first responders to roughly 90 percent of wildfires in Texas."

The Washington Post today frames Texas' fires as an opportunity for Perry—who is currently leading the GOP presidential field—to demonstrate his leadership skills during a crisis. Optics are fine, hands-on management is well and good, but the policy matters here: Texas' climate is going to become increasingly vulnerable to drought and fire, while its governor insists that climate change doesn't exist, and cuts funding for the agency tasked with responding to it. Perry and Texas Republicans contend that tough choices were necessary to close the state's budget gap—but the decision to close that gap by cuts rather than revenue increases was itself a choice, and the priorities on what and how much to cut were choices as well.

Update: Over at The Economist, Erica Greider has some more thoughts:

Obviously Mr Perry didn't cause the fires. But over the past year, the hallmarks of his response to the drought have been calls for prayer and for federal emergency assistance. The first measure doesn't hurt, I suppose, but I'm not aware of any data that supports its efficacy, and prayer is not a good substitute for, say, a more prudent policy about water management, which has long been known to be a looming challenge in Texas and the southwest.

Revolving Door: Still Swinging Between USDA and Meat Industry

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 10:05 AM EDT
Don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.

Old job: chief of staff at the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service, the agency charged with overseeing the meat industry's food-safety practices.

New job: vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the the National Turkey Federation, the group charged with promoting the interests of the few companies that dominate US turkey production, including Cargill (which just a month ago sent out 36 million pounds of turkey tainted with antibiotic-resistant salmonella), Butterball, and Sara Lee.

Job she had before launching her career as meat industry watchdog/flack (random factoid): national director of public relations for Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Lisa Wallenda Picard, former meat-industry watchdog, current meat-industry flack, and seasoned circus-industry professional. 

 

 

Christie for President?

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 6:45 AM EDT
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

No matter how many times he insists he isn't running for president, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie invariably ends up back in the 2012 conversation. As Part 2 of our report on the ultra-secret Koch brothers retreat in late June indicates, Christie isn't lacking for supporters in high places, including among the elite right-wing donors and influence peddlers who lapped up his keynote address at the Ritz-Carlton outside Vail. He demurred when pressed by an audience member to reconsider his decision not to run, but Christie sure sounded like he had ambitions beyond the Garden State; he waxed poetic on themes of American greatness and proposed deep cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Indeed, Christie bookended his secret appearance before the Koch audience that Sunday night with national television cameos on Meet the Press that morning and on Morning Joe, Fox & Friends, and Imus in the Morning the next.

Though Christie continues to deny that he has any intention of seeking the Republican nomination, the speculation won't die. In part, that's due to a steady drumbeat from conservatives dissatisfied with the current crop of candidates. A few weeks ago, conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote that "the looming Romney-Perry showdown throws Christie's strengths into sharp relief." Formerly rumored presidential aspirant Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) also told CNN last week he'd like to see Christie get in the race. And we know that Christie has an unabashed admirer in at least one of the country's most influential Republican kingmakers, David Koch, who labeled Christie "a true political hero" at the Colorado event.

But Christie hasn't exactly been a passive bystander to the buzz surrounding his possible candidacy. On Sunday, former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson told ABC's Christiane Amanpour that Christie was in Chicago just last week for "two meetings with serious Republican groups from the Midwest." Gerson added, "He’s actively, I think, considering getting in this race, which would throw things open once more." 

Should Christie decide to get in, it would be quite the about-face for a man who complained to reporters last year in exasperation, "Short of suicide, I don't really know what I'd have to do to convince you people that I'm not running. I'm not running!" And as The New Republic's Jonathan Chait argues, it is highly improbable Christie will emerge as the GOP's knight in shining armor. But with Republican nomination fight increasingly shaping up as a two-horse race between Mitt Romney, whose entreaties to the tea party have failed to win many converts, and Rick Perry, whose baggage as a 1980s Democrat (an Al Gore-supporting one at that) and penchant for saying crazy things are worrying many establishment Republicans, Christie may be tempted to jump into the fray. If neither Romney nor Perry does enough to ease conservative angst in this month's three GOP debates, that temptation is only likely to grow—as no doubt will the speculation.