2011 - %3, September

The Price of Trying and Failing

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 1:42 PM EDT

Polls show repeatedly that people (a) approve of Obama's specific proposals to boost the economy, but (b) disapprove of Obama's handling of the economy. Weird! But then again, maybe not. Andrew Sprung points out that there's a reason Obama lost support after the debt ceiling deal even though the public largely supported his approach:

He wanted to cut spending and raise taxes, and so put the U.S., by his lights, on a firm financial footing for ten years and put the deficit wars behind him. That's what he told the American people, repeatedly, through the summer. They believed him. They supported him — polls showed strong backing for his "balanced" approach to deficit reduction. And he couldn't do it — not because he was happy to just cut spending, but because he lashed himself to the debt ceiling mast, notwithstanding the fact that Republicans were swearing their willingness to row him (and the country) over a cliff. He is being punished in the court of public opinion not for trying to compromise but for failing to get a compromise.

The difference is important.

Yes it is. And you know who understands this really, really well? The Republican leadership.

This is one of the reasons I've long been skeptical of the notion that Obama should have fought harder for progressive legislation even when it was likely to fail. "At least people would know where he stands," goes the usual mantra. And that's true. But what people would also know is that he didn't have the juice to get anything done. You can stand on a soapbox forever and tell people that this is all the fault of those obstructionist Republicans, but most of them aren't paying attention. They'll just vaguely hear that Obama failed yet again and start to think that the guy's a loser.

Nothing succeeds like success. And nothing helps a president more than an economy that's actually doing well. The details of failure just don't matter that much, unfortunately. And Republicans know it. For them, congressional dysfunction is a feature, not a bug.

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Salt is the New Death Panels

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 1:32 PM EDT

Fox News has apparently found a new way to scare America: The War on Salt.

"I know you know the war on terror is going on, and you've accepted that," said "Fox & Friends" co-host Brian Kilmeade, leading into the segment on Monday morning (via Media Matters). "Can you accept the war on salt? It's official."

"[T]here is an official war on salt, despite recent studies that show that salt really isn't that bad for you," he continued. Then his co-host Gretchen Carlson chimed in:

So the FDA has opened up now a formal inquiry into salt reduction, so what is that going to mean? Will we now see that you can't eat salt in your own home, potentially? I mean, you know, they've already done that with smoking, et cetera. Not really sure. The interesting thing is, some people are actually told to eat more salt -- like me. Eat more salt, your blood pressure is too low. So, you know, you can't really just apply this across the board for everyone.

The outrage was sparked by the Food and Drug Administration's announcement on September 15 that the agency is opening an inquiry into whether or not to set standards on sodium intake. Not actually setting standards mind you—just looking into whether to set them. The announcement called for the "establishment of dockets to obtain comments, data, and evidence relevant to the dietary intake of sodium as well as current and emerging approaches designed to promote sodium reduction." This comes after the Institute of Medicine issued a report more than a year ago that suggested that the FDA should set limits on the amount of salt in processed foods.

As a reminder, here's why the FDA says excessive salt intake is a health problem that IT might want to regulate:

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, affects one in three U.S. adults – nearly 75 million people aged 20 or older. An additional 50 million adults suffer from pre-hypertension. High blood pressure can increase the risk for heart attacks, strokes, heart failure, and kidney failure. Too much sodium in the daily diet is a major contributor to high blood pressure.

Keep in mind that even if the FDA came out with rules, it wouldn't be deploying salt cops to your local Big Boy to confiscate all the salt shakers. It would merely be setting guidelines about the amount of salt in processed, packaged foods—the kind of foods where people unknowingly consume all kinds of sodium currently.

Fox isn't alone in the fear-mongering about a federal anti-salt crusade. The Daily Caller has also been drumming up fears that the vast government conspiracy to make your meals bland. So has the Heritage Foundation.

Most interesting, perhaps, is Fox's use of the "science isn't settled argument" when it comes to salt. Sound familiar? In this case, the network managed to find one study that contradicts the vast majority of scientific research that indicates excessive salt intake is unhealthy, and then used it to create the impression that the conclusion is somehow controversial. It's something that Fox does regularly when the subject is climate change, too. And just like in that example, it's entirely false.

Housing vs. Fiscal Stimulus: Why Not Both?

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 12:11 PM EDT

I think Christina Romer is pulling a fast one in her op-ed defending President Obama's jobs plan. She takes on several arguments against his proposal, and this is one of them:

WE NEED A HOUSING PLAN, NOT MORE FISCAL STIMULUS The bubble and bust in house prices has left households burdened with too much debt. Until we deal with this problem — perhaps by providing principal relief to the 11 million households whose mortgages are larger than the current value of their homes — we’ll never get the economy going.

The premise of this argument is probably true....[But] recent research shows that government spending on infrastructure or other investments raises demand even in an economy beset by over-indebted consumers....In the recovery from the Great Depression, economic growth, which raised incomes and asset prices, played a big role in lowering debt burdens. I strongly suspect that fiscal stimulus will be more cost effective at speeding deleveraging and recovery than government-paid policies aimed directly at reducing debt.

Hmmm. Romer seems to be attacking a straw man. No one — at least no one arguing that we need a better housing plan — is claiming that fiscal stimulus won't spur economic growth, or that economic growth won't lower debt burdens. Of course they will! The argument is that fiscal stimulus isn't enough by itself, or, alternately, that it might not give us the biggest bang for our buck. Among state economies, there's a very strong correlation between deleveraging and unemployment, which suggests pretty strongly that programs aimed at targeting underwater mortgages would be extremely helpful.

But Romer's only real response is that she "strongly suspects" that fiscal stimulus is the best way of addressing this. As it happens, I'm willing to give a "strongly suspects" from Christina Romer a lot of weight. Still, the role of housing in driving the recession and its continuing role in keeping demand depressed is pretty clear cut, and this suggests that any effective jobs plan should include both fiscal stimulus and an aggressive mortgage forgiveness program. It's possible (likely, in fact) that an aggressive housing plan is politically infeasible, but still, from an economist I'd like to hear an economic argument either for or against. I don't think we have one here.

Should Heckling Be Illegal?

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 11:50 AM EDT

Heckling is nothing new; crowds in America have booed and otherwise interrupted speakers for centuries, whether they be international leaders, politicians, or even—as we saw last week—soldiers serving overseas. But the conviction of a group of students in a Southern California courtroom last week suggests that prosecutors will pursue some hecklers like criminals.

On Friday, a jury convicted 11 students from the University of California–Irvine and the University of California–Riverside of misdemeanor charges for disrupting a public meeting. The charges against the "Irvine 11" stemmed from their heckling of the Israeli Ambassador to the US during a speech in February 2010. After the verdict, an Orange County judge sentenced the students to three years probation and community service.

The conviction, which stirred up controversy nationwide, smacks of increased limits on free speech. Legal experts, however, are divided on the issue.

Throughout the trial, which lasted eight days, prosecutors alleged that the Irvine 11 conspired to "shut down" Oren's speech, infringing on his First Amendment rights. "Free speech is not absolute. It does not include the right to suppress or cancel another person's right to free speech. If it did, then no one would have the right to free speech," Dan Wagner, an assistant district attorney for Orange County, argued during the trial. According to the OC Weekly, Wagner pointed to the 10 defendants (one student will have charges dropped after he completes community service), and said, "Who is the censor in this case? Right there—10 of them." Predictably, the Irvine 11's defense team also invoked the First Amendment, saying the students were simply utilizing their First Amendment right to protest. "Protest is messy, but it's beautiful. This is how democracy survives," Jacqueline Goodman, an attorney for the students, told the jury

Will the South Rise Again?: Voting Rights Edition

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 11:30 AM EDT
Voters at their polling site in in Selma, Alabama, in 2008.

Last Wednesday, the district court of the District of Columbia threw out a challenge to Section Five of the Voting Rights Act. The plaintiffs, a coalition of conservative legal groups from Shelby County, Alabama, argued that Section Five, which requires a number of southern states to pre-clear changes to their electoral procedures with the Department of Justice, was illegal because it seeks to correct a problem—the mass disenfranchisement of minorities—that is supposedly nowhere near as pervasive as it was back in the glory days of Jim Crow. 

In its opinion, the court convincingly argued that Section Five provides a still-necessary bulwark against discrimination. But that hasn’t stopped the Project on Fair Representation—a Washington-based group that helped fund the Shelby County suit and similar efforts around the country—from pushing back.

In an interview with the Shelby County Reporter on Friday, Edward Blum, the group's director, all but vowed that Shelby County will appeal the decision and take its case to the Supreme Court. Blum praised the plaintiffs' states'-rights cajones, arguing that Shelby County has been forced to expend "significant taxpayer dollars, time and energy" to clear its election laws with the DOJ in accordance with Section Five. And that's just not fair:

"The County Commission and the officials of Shelby County were very judicious and far-sighted in recognizing that not only was Shelby County being punished for sins of their grandfathers or in some cases great-grandfathers, but the entire state of Alabama was being punished, as well as most of the Deep South," Blum said.

"Courageous? Perhaps," he continued. "But I think they were trendsetters in recognizing that this law was really no longer necessary for Shelby County and all of Alabama."

Things are better than they used to be, so ease up, in other words. Blum's got a point: Literacy tests and poll taxes are illegal and, you know, lynchings are less frequent than they once were. Compelling Alabama and other preclearance states to spend tens of millions of dollars over the past few years to comply with Section Five ignores whatever progress has been made on the racial front, potentially singling out states in the South. For Blum and his ilk, Section Five doesn’t deal in the here and now.

But here's something that does deal in the here and now: The spate of voter ID laws, Shelby County-esque pre-clearance cases, and Section Five challenges cropping up around the country, implicitly geared towards depriving minorities of the right to vote. If Blum is going to defend the Deep South on the basis that things are getting better all the time, he also needs to account for the fact that these very real, very-in-the-moment instances of targeted voter suppression aggressively undermine his case that we don't need laws like Section Five.

Unfortunately, the sins of the father endure. Luckily, we have laws to address that sort of thing.

Breaking: South Carolina Republicans Still Crazy

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 11:25 AM EDT

I know this is beating a dead horse, but fun is fun. Here are the results of the latest Winthrop poll of South Carolina Republicans. 75% think "socialist" describes Barack Obama pretty well, 30% think he's a Muslim, and 36% think it's likely he was born in another country. Note that releasing his long-form birth certificate barely moved the needle about his birthplace.

In other, more substantive news, the poll suggests that Rick Perry is only slightly ahead of Mitt Romney, sort of a surprising result for such a bedrock conservative state. And this was before last week's debate. I don't think Perry is a dead duck or anything, but I do think that his frontrunner status has always been thinner than it seemed, and it's way thinner now. Public Policy Polling confirms this: "Thursday night part of our Florida poll Romney led Perry by 2. Friday-Sunday part Romney led Perry by 10. Debate did matter." He better get cracking.

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What the Budget Impasse is Really About

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 10:58 AM EDT

The current impasse over keeping the lights on in Washington seems like small beer: Republicans want to offset increased disaster aid with cuts to green vehicle technology that amount to about $1.5 billion — a pittance in the grand scheme of things. But this is part of a much bigger fight. As the failure of last week's House budget bill showed, the tea party faction of the GOP still holds the whip hand in Congress and they've made it crystal clear that they have no intention of accepting any of the usual norms surrounding the federal budget, whether it's spending levels or anything else. Remember what Stan Collender told us a few days ago: there's really no reason to be voting on a short-term continuing resolution in the first place. After all, we've already agreed on budget levels for the year. But:

The commonly assumed but unstated reason for a short-term CR is that the House GOP wants to have increased political leverage on budget and other issues by being able to hold yet another potential government shutdown over the heads of Congressional Democrats and the White House. This time it supposedly will be policy riders — changes in authorizations — rather than spending levels that will be the biggest points of contention.

....This will sound quaint to some and unimaginable to others, but there was a time when doing what the GOP apparently is planning by authorizing on appropriations bills was considered by most Members of Congress to be as much a major legislative sin as usurping another committee’s jurisdiction....In fact, authorizing in an appropriations bill has been considered so taboo on Capitol Hill that Republicans and Democrats on the authorization committee that would be affected by the proposal typically have worked together to prevent it from happening.

The tea partiers want lower spending levels and they want to hijack the budget process to tack on their pet policy proposals. They don't care if the former has already been agreed to or that the latter is a violation of long-established understandings from both parties. Just like they don't care that emergency aid has never required budget offsets in the past.

So while those offsets might be minor on their own merits, they're basically a bellwether: if tea partiers can force Democrats to cave in on that, they can force them to cave in on every other violation of normal procedure too. Agreements will become meaningless and the budgeting process will become almost literally a free-for-all. That's what this is all about.

Florida Lt. Gov.: Jesus Is Under Attack (Video)

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 10:55 AM EDT
Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll

In all the hubbub over Hermain Cain's surprise victory at the Florida GOP jamboree last weekend, most national media missed a shocker from the festivities: Gov. Rick Scott's low-profile lieutenant came out of hiding to speechify against the persecution of Christians. Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll declared that "those who want to take God out of our country" have pushed The Da Vinci Code and acted like "dictators and socialist rulers," apparently referring to members of the media, politicians, or scientists, or all of the above.

Carroll made the fiery sermon-like pronouncements at a meet-and-greet for the Faith & Freedom Coalition, a religious conservative lobbying group that's the brainchild of Christian Coalition architect Ralph Reed. "Ladies and gentlemen, Christianity is in a fight, and it is one of the greatest trials we have seen in modern times," Carroll told the crowd (full video below). She continued:

Many in the media would like nothing better (than) to ridicule Christians. They promote The Da Vinci Code, they place doubt in the public's mind that Christ was not risen, and they condemn The Passion of Christ. Yet they sensationalize stories that call for the end of prayer in school and removing the name of God from our country's pledge.

60 Minutes Hearts NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 10:15 AM EDT

Sunday's 60 Minutes' profile of New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly's efforts to boost the NYPD's counterterrorism capabilities was a practically a promotional video for the department. A recent story by the Associated Press revealed both the NYPD's CIA-assisted surveillance of the city's Muslim community and the relative lack of oversight of the department in comparison to its federal counterparts. (The FBI was reportedly so concerned about the legality of the NYPD's program that it refused to accept information that came out of it.) But 60 Minutes didn't have a critical word to say about Kelly's efforts—nor did they even mention that the program existed.

That's not to say 60 Minutes didn't discuss the NYPD's relationship to the Muslim community: They did point out that the NYPD hosts cricket games for Muslim youths in the city. But they didn't mention that after the NYPD denied the existence of the surveillance program, the AP followed-up with documents showing that the department "maintained a list of 28 countries that, along with 'American Black Muslim,' it considered "ancestries of interest." Undercover agents "were then told to participate in social activities such as cricket matches and visit cafes and clubs," the AP explained. 

Likewise, 60 Minutes breathlessly reported that the NYPD has officers working in foreign countries gathering intelligence, but didn't note that those officers operate with close to zero oversight from the City Council or any other legislative body. Jeff Stein reported last year that the NYPD nearly caused an incident when, in the immediate aftermath of the 2005 subway bombings in London, NYPD officers forwarded the details to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Kelly, who then held a press conference on the subject:

The British, famously secretive about their investigations, were furious, Fuentes said. "They were going to kick everybody out, including the FBI. The American ambassador is calling the FBI—'What's the story? Who are these guys? Are they with you?' 'No, they're independent.'" Scotland Yard, Special Branch and other British officials, albeit furious, Fuentes said, held their tongues, because "they didn’t want to create a diplomatic incident with Kelly and Bloomberg and New York City."

Those weren't the only omissions—the entire 60 Minutes piece was practically an infomercial for Kelly. The segment marveled at the extent of the NYPD's ability to monitor most of lower Manhattan by video camera, uncritically documented the random train stops where NYPD officers walk up and down the train staring at people as though a potential terrorist will simply crack and throw themselves at the NYPD's mercy, and never questioned the wisdom of having thousands of officers carry around radiation detectors so sensitive they can tell when you've had chemo. The show wasn't the slightest bit interested in examining how much of what Kelly was doing actually deterred terrorism, or how much of it might violate people's basic individual rights. Reassuring everyone that not a single dollar spent on Keeping Us Safe is ever wasted or misused seemed to be the order of the day.

Most of the response to 60 Minutes' Kelly profile has focused on Kelly's statement that the NYPD has the capability to "take down an aircraft" if necessary—implying just how far Kelly is willing to go to prevent another 9/11—style attack from happening. In keeping with the general tone of the segment, 60 Minutes didn't seem to think "What who would possibly give the NYPD the authority to do that?" was a question even worth asking. Because taking down a plane—I mean how COOL is that?

Is Michele Bachmann Toast?

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 8:34 AM EDT
Rep. Michele Bachmann.

It was Herman Cain, Republican presidential long-shot, who stole the headlines this weekend when he won the Florida Straw Poll with 37 percent of the 2,700 people who voted. Cain trounced both Texas Gov. Rick Perry, with 15 percent, who pushed hard for a victory in Florida, and Mitt Romney, with 14 percent, who was much less of a presence at the event.

But more shocking than Cain's victory (and Perry's defeat) was the utter collapse of Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). Somehow, in a state chock full of tea party groups, Bachmann finished dead last, with 1.5 percent of the vote. Once a frontrunner in early GOP presidential polls, Bachmann has sunk so far, so fast that even moderate Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah, and former House speaker Newt Gingrich, whose campaign imploded months ago, placed higher than her. It's all unraveling for Michele.

Bachmann has been in free fall for weeks. She's barely registered in the past three presidential debates, outshone and outslugged by Perry and Romney. And when Bachmann did put points on the board by highlighting Perry's ties to pharmaceutical giant Merck as an underlying factor in his ill-fated human papilloma virus vaccination mandate, she overshadowed those remarks by suggesting soon after that the HPV vaccine causes mental retardation. (It absolutely does not.) The public and the pundits quickly forgot about Bachmann's Merck comments as she doubled down her vaccine-retardation claim. Later, a former campaign adviser ripped her for making the claim in the first place.

That adviser, veteran GOP strategist Ed Rollins, said Bachmann's chances of claiming the nomination are slim. Although she has a shot at winning the Iowa caucuses—she did, of course, win the Iowa Straw Poll in August—Rollins said Bachmann lacks the "resources or ability at this point in time" to challenge for the nomination after Iowa. Her last-place finish in Florida raises questions about whether even winning Iowa is realistic for Bachmann, especially given Rick Perry's support among the social conservatives who dominate the GOP in the Hawkeye State.

Before joining the Bachmann campaign full-time in June (he's since stepped down to an advisory role), Rollins' assessment of Bachmann was that he didn't consider her a legitimate candidate for the GOP nomination. "Michele Bachmann obviously is a member of Congress and a representative of the tea party," Rollins told CNN in January. "But at the end of the day, we have to get our serious players out front and talking about the things that matter to be the alternative to the president and Democrats." Despite the brief Bachmann craze this summer, it looks like Rollins was right all along.