2011 - %3, November

Florida Rep. Loses It Over Reporter's Chuckle

| Wed Nov. 30, 2011 10:13 AM PST
It's displays of rude advocacy like this that Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart finds so heinous.

On Tuesday, Miami Herald political reporter Marc Caputo asked Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) what he thought about President Obama's foreign policy accomplishments, such as the killing of Osama bin Laden and the NATO Libya mission. The Cuban-American congressman—who had just thrown Mitt Romney his glowing endorsement—responded with the following: "I applaud President Obama for doing two things: for keeping the policies of the Bush administration..."

And that's as far as he got before Caputo started chuckling. The Republican congressman wasn't terribly pleased with that, thus commencing a weird philosophical debate between the two over the nature of political "advocacy."

The laugh, Caputo writes, came out of his "surprise [that] Diaz-Balart wasn't giving any credit to Obama without strings attached." Caputo has since posted audio of the spat online. After reading the transcript of their lively disagreement, it's exceedingly difficult not to imagine it as a long-lost Abbott and Costello routine:

Diaz-Balart: "You laugh, are you a reporter or a debater?...It's funny because—and I'm not giving you a hard time here, but usually reporters are reporters, not advocates."

Caputo: "I am not."

Diaz-Balart: "Oh, yes, you are."

Caputo: "Give me an example of advocacy."

Diaz-Balart: "Right now! You're laughing about my position...You're an advocate! By the way, you have the right to be. I love advocacy."

Caputo: "I disagree with your characterization of advocacy."

Diaz-Balart: "You're in advocacy. You're an advocate."

Caputo: "I completely disagree."

Diaz-Balart: "And I completely respect your advocacy, I do. I respect your advocacy."

Caputo: "I respect your right to get it wrong that I'm advocating."

Diaz-Balart: "Okay, that's fine."

Caputo: "We'll agree to disagree."

Diaz-Balart: "And I respect you when I give a point of view that you disagree with, laughing about it."

Caputo: "I don't know why you think I disagree with it."

Diaz-Balart: "You laughed about it."

The allegation that Caputo was basically doing George Soros' dirty work is a tad much. He let out a mild giggle over a pretty ridiculous statement.

It is strange, though, that Caputo was so "surprised" by the congressman's answer. It's common nowadays for conservatives—whether they're presidential candidates or talking heads on Fox—to dismiss Obama's foreign policy successes as flukes or simply products of the previous administration. It'd be wishful thinking to expect any more from a GOP congressman, especially on the same day that he announced his endorsement of the president's likely rival in the 2012 election.

As for Diaz-Balart's claim that Obama preserved the Bush-era policies, it's much harder to laugh that one off: When it comes to the Obama White House's position on warrantless wiretaps, the stunning lack of transparency, the hefty price-tag of the administration's clampdown on state secrets, and the aggressiveness and expansion of international counterterrorism measures, there's solid basis for that bit of the Florida Republican's argument.

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Some Tax Cuts Are More Equal Than Others

| Wed Nov. 30, 2011 9:02 AM PST

I see that Republicans have finally caved in on the idea of extending the existing payroll tax cut:

"In all likelihood we will agree to continue the current payroll tax relief for another year," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said after a closed-door meeting of his colleagues....Trying to get ahead of the game, McConnell proclaimed Republican support for the payroll tax cut extension and told reporters his party would soon propose its own ideas for covering the cost of the tax cut.

....Among the ways to potentially cover the cost of renewing the payroll tax cuts are: cutting federal farm subsidies, selling some government assets, reducing federal pensions and administrative savings in the Medicare healthcare program for the elderly. All these ideas have been discussed in past budget negotiations.

When it comes to a modest tax cut that mainly benefits middle-class workers, Republicans had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the table, and even now insist that any extension has to be fully paid for. But when it comes to the Bush tax cuts, which are huge and primarily benefit the well-off, they fight for them passionately and bristle at the very idea of paying for them. Funny, that. It's almost as if the only tax cuts they really care about are ones for the rich.

I'm sure there's a more innocent explanation, though, and it is only my bitter liberal embrace of endless class warfare that has led me astray here.

Abortion in the Defense Authorization Bill

| Wed Nov. 30, 2011 7:07 AM PST

Women in the military have volunteered to serve the nation—but, if they're the victims of rape or incest, current US policy does not permit them to obtain an abortion under military medical insurance. Now, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) is leading an effort to change this policy through an amendment to the pending National Defense Authorization Act.

Under the Hyde Amendment, passed in 1976, no federal money can be used to provide abortion services. The rule provides an exception in cases of rape, incest, or to save a mother's life—an exception that other federal policies, including the Affordable Care Act, also include. But, under current policy, the 400,000 women in the service covered under the DOD's Military Health System can only use their insurance for an abortion if their lives are at risk.

According to the DOD, there were 3,158 military sexual assaults reported in 2010—and outside studies have estimated that as many as 75 percent of are raped do not report it. Without coverage through military insurance, those women are often forced to pay out of pocket and seek services off base.

The ACLU is pushing for the passage of the Shaheen amendment, along with a number of retired military officers. That includes retired Lieutenant General Claudia Jean Kennedy, who served for 31 years and was the first female three-star general in the Army. The abortion restrictions are particularly hard on women who lack seniority and are paid less, Kennedy told Mother Jones. "It is not fair. It's not about whether you think she should have this choice," she said. "You give this choice to everyone but her—her civilian counterparts have this choice."

"This woman is mature enough to be recruited into the military, trained, and deployed," Kennedy continued. "This is the minimum, to give women the medical care they ask for."

Score One for a 96-Year-Old Victim of the Mortgage Predators

| Wed Nov. 30, 2011 4:00 AM PST
Lillie Mae Washington

Lillie Mae Washington, the 96-year-old woman whose foreclosure nightmare Mother Jones covered in August, has won a crucial battle in her multiyear court fight. Last week, a federal judge granted Washington's request for a temporary restraining order preventing a mortgage servicer, Ocwen Loan Servicing, from foreclosing on her home in Los Angeles.

Washington and her Alzheimer's-afflicted son, Hobert (now deceased), signed mortgage papers in late 2006 only to learn afterward that the monthly payment and fees were far larger than they had understood. Washington claims that the people who sold her the loan purposely deceived her about the costs and that their deception constituted predatory lending and fraud.

By November 2008, Home Loans Direct, the company that originated Washington's mortgage, surrendered its license during a state investigation. A California Department of Real Estate document (PDF) obtained by Mother Jones explains that Home Loans Direct did so after choosing not to contest allegations that it knowingly used loan practices that were "false, misleading, or deceptive."

But the company's loss of its license didn't mean that Washington's house was no longer in jeopardy. Ever since September 2008, when she first sued her mortgage servicer, lender, escrow agent, and others for fraud, she has been trapped in a legal hell. She has represented herself, been represented pro bono, and now pays a lawyer to handle her case. The suit has been handled by at least seven judges and the docket runs over 100 documents long in federal court alone.

Now, federal Judge Dolly M. Gee has forbidden Ocwen from foreclosing on Washington before December 13 and has ordered the mortgage servicer and the other defendants to file a brief explaining why she shouldn't forbid them from foreclosing on Washington for the duration of the legal fight.

Perhaps most important, though, is the judge's ruling that Washington's suit "raises serious questions" about whether her loan was in violation of a California predatory lending law. That means Washington's case won't be summarily thrown out of court and can move forward. And that raises the incentive for the defendants in the case to settle. 

Here's the ruling:

 

Washington isn't the first person to avoid losing her home after being featured in a Mother Jones story. Last year, Army Capt. Michael Clauer got his home back after a MoJo report about his family's plight (his homeowners' association illegally foreclosed on him while he was serving in Iraq) attracted national attention.

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

Wed Nov. 30, 2011 3:57 AM PST

It's raining flares, hallelujah!

A C-17 Globemaster III performs evasive counter measures by launching flares during a Mobility Air Forces Exercise November 16, 2011, over the Nevada Test and Training Range. The US Air Force Weapons School holds MAFEX twice a year to test the ability of C-17A Globemaster III and C-130 Hercules aircrews from Air Force bases around the world. (US Air Force photo/Senior Airman Brett Clashman)

Breaking: America Still a Huge Importer of Energy

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 9:43 PM PST

The Wall Street Journal reports exciting news:

U.S. exports of gasoline, diesel and other oil-based fuels are soaring, putting the nation on track to be a net exporter of petroleum products in 2011 for the first time in 62 years.

....That the U.S. is shipping out more fuel than it brings in is significant because the nation has for decades been a voracious energy consumer. It took in huge quantities of not only crude oil from the Middle East but also refined fuels from Europe, Latin America and elsewhere to help run its factories and cars.

...."It looks like a trend that could stay in place for the rest of the decade," said Dave Ernsberger, global director of oil at Platts, which tracks energy markets. "The conventional wisdom is that U.S. is this giant black hole sucking in energy from around the world. This changes that dynamic."

Before you get too excited about this, you should know that it's completely ridiculous. It's true that the United States has recently been importing lower volumes of refined petroleum products and exporting higher volumes. It's even true that shale oil and fracking have increased U.S. production of crude oil and gas in recent years, and that, combined with the Great Recession, means that net imports of all petroleum products have declined sinced 2005. Nonetheless, as the EIA chart below shows, when you add up both crude oil and refined products, the United States continues to import a net of 9.4 million barrels per day. That's 3.4 billion barrels per year.

You'd only know this if you read the Journal article pretty carefully (it's a single sentence in the 7th paragraph) but the United States is still a giant black hole sucking in energy from around the world. What's more, that dynamic is not going to change anytime soon. Sorry to be such a killjoy.

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Biggest Marine Park Proposal Makes No One Happy

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 3:52 PM PST
 

Part of the Coral Sea off the Queensland coast of Australia.: Credit: NASA.Part of the Coral Sea off the Queensland coast of Australia. Credit: NASA.The Australian government announced last week a proposal to create the world's largest marine protected area in the phenomenally biodiverse richness of the Coral Sea.

Too bad no one's happy with it. Of course, it's in the nature of protected areas to make people unhappy for a good long while before there's any hope of making them happy.

Yellowstone National Park.: Credit: Daniel Mayer via Wikimedia Commons.  Yellowstone National Park. Credit: Daniel Mayer via Wikimedia Commons.

Yellowstone, the world's first national park, might have triggered part two of the Civil War if there had been more people living in the West at the time. Here's what Senator Cornelius Cole of California had to say about it during legislative debate:

I have grave doubts about the propriety of passing this bill. The natural curiosities there cannot be interfered with by anything that man can do.... I cannot see how [they] can be interfered with if settlers are allowed to appropriate them....  I do not see the reason or propriety of setting apart a large tract of land of that kind in the Territories of the United States for a public park. There is abundance of public park ground in the Rocky Mountains that will never be occupied. It is all one great park, and never can be anything else.... There are some places, perhaps this is one, where persons can and would go and settle and improve and cultivate the grounds, if there be ground fit for cultivation.


Australia's Coral Sea draft marine reserve covers 989,842 square kilometers (382,180 square miles).: Courtesy Commonwealth of Australia.Australia's Coral Sea draft marine reserve covers 989,842 square kilometers (382,180 square miles). Courtesy Commonwealth of Australia.

In Australia, some fishers are mad as hell about the proposed new park. For brevity in reporting, nothing beats this article, in its entirety, from the Queensland ABC:

Commercial fishers in the Coral Sea claim they are being made scapegoats despite a long history of sustainable fishing. Rob Louden is a licence and quota holder in the Coral Sea and East Coast sea cucumber fishery. He says the proposed Commonwealth marine park will put valuable and productive fishing grounds off limits for no apparent ecological or biological reason.


Man, sea cucumber.: Credit: Fritz Geller-Grimm via Wikimedia Commons.Man, sea cucumber. Credit: Fritz Geller-Grimm via Wikimedia Commons.

Scientists and conservationists are equally unhappy with the Coral Sea proposal. From Nature News:

Hugh Possingham, director of the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions at the University of Queensland, points out that little more than half... of the Coral Sea reserve is proposed as a 'no take' area, in which all fishing would be banned. The world’s largest existing marine reserve, established last year by the British government around the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean, spans 544,000 [square kilometers] and is a no-take zone throughout. An alliance of campaigning conservation groups, including the WWF and the Pew Environment Group, argues that more of the Coral Sea should receive this level of protection.


Credit: Richard Ling via Wikimedia Commons.Credit: Richard Ling via Wikimedia Commons.

The fight is fierce—and important. Australia is struggling to create meaningful protection for much of its waters. 

But its weak draft proposal last May for a southwestern Australian marine park prompted 173 scientists to write an open letter to the government in protest. One of the co-signers, CJA Bradshaw, wrote at his blog Conservation Bites:

Basically, the proposed parks are merely a settlement between government and industry where nothing of importance is really being protected. The parks are just the leftovers industry doesn’t want. No way to ensure the long-term viability of our seas.

Barry Wrasse is a stakeholder too. Here's what he has to say.


Finally, It's the Crazies vs. the Noncrazies

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 2:44 PM PST

So let's suppose that Herman Cain pulls out of the presidential race. Right now, RCP has the poll numbers looking like this:

  • Gingrich 23.8 percent
  • Romney: 21.3 percent
  • Cain: 15.5 percent

The evidence suggests that Cain's supporters will break to Gingrich by about a 2:1 margin, which would put Gingrich ahead of Romney by roughly 34 to 26 percent. Is that game over for Romney?

Maybe, but not so fast. At that point, the race finally fulfills its manifest destiny: It becomes the crazies vs. the noncrazies. And then the question is who the 15 percent of undecided voters are going to break for. My guess: about 2:1 for Romney, which puts them in roughly a dead heat again.

What happens then? My belief all along has been that the noncrazies still outnumber the crazies among the Republican rank and file. Not by a lot, maybe, but by enough. And the noncrazies will carry the day for Romney. However, Intrade suggests this is rapidly becoming a bad bet.

Of course, I've also believed for a long time that eventually European leaders will come to their senses and keep their continent from imploding. That's not looking like such a good bet either.

Bottom line: My deep-seated belief in the eventual triumph of noninsanity, which has already taken some big hits lately, is about to be decisively marked to market very soon in two very high profile contests. Tick tick tick.

Rick Perry's Freudian Slip on the Voting Age

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 2:30 PM PST

America had a good laugh at Rick Perry's expense on Tuesday after the Texas Governor told students at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire to vote for him next November—but only if they're over 21. Zut alors! Le gaffe! The federal voting age is 18, not 21; 21 is the legal drinking age. Perry also managed to get the date of the election wrong.

But maybe he had a point. In Perry's Texas, as in various states across the country, Republicans have made a concerted push over the last half decade to make it harder and harder for certain Democratic-leaning constituencies—namely young people, senior citizens, and minorities—to vote. It's an attempt to suppress voter turnout in the name of cracking down on voter fraud (Ari Berman can explain it all for you).

Texas' new voter I.D. law, signed into law by Perry this summer, is a great example of that strategy. The law accepts concealed handgun license permits as a valid form of identification, but not student identification cards issued by state universities. The Department of Justice has blocked implementation of the law out of concerns that it discriminates against specific groups:

Democrats countered that there is no evidence of voter impersonation in Texas and that the bill simply was an effort to make voting more difficult for low-income Texas, students and the elderly, who typically vote for Democrats.

The new law would require voters to show a Texas driver's license, a Texas concealed handgun license, a U.S. passport, citizenship papers, or a military identification card before they could cast a ballot.

Student ID cards issued by state universities, out-of-state driver's licenses, or ID cards issued to state employees would not be accepted.

Really, Perry's gaffe was that he asked college students to vote.

Is Laptop Wi-Fi Murdering Your Semen?

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 2:27 PM PST
Ride on, buddy. Ride on.

According to a new study by Argentinian scientists, published in the bluntly named journal Fertility and Sterility, the electromagnetic radiation generated during wireless web-surfing might be completely bulldozing your mojo.

Here's an excerpt from the (actually pretty awkward) Reuters Health report:

The digital age has left men's nether parts in a squeeze, if you believe the latest science on semen, laptops and wireless connections. In a report...scientists describe how they got semen samples from 29 healthy men, placed a few drops under a laptop connected to the Internet via Wi-Fi and then hit download.

Four hours later, the semen was, eh, well-done.

A quarter of the sperm were no longer swimming around, for instance, compared to just 14 percent from semen samples stored at the same temperature away from the computer. And nine percent of the sperm showed DNA damage, three-fold more than the comparison samples..."Our data suggest that the use of a laptop computer wirelessly connected to the internet and positioned near the male reproductive organs may decrease human sperm quality," [Dr. Conrado Avendaño of Nascentis Medicina Reproductiva and his colleagues] write in their report. "At present we do not know whether this effect is induced by all laptop computers connected by Wi-Fi to the internet or what use conditions heighten this effect."

A separate test with a laptop that was on, but not wirelessly connected, found negligible EM radiation from the machine alone.

The study makes it clear early on that none of this—even when taken together with past scientific reports—is conclusive; these cases of MacBook-cooked spermatozoa shouldn't lead avid tech-users to prematurely freak out as if we were talking about cell phones and brain tumors. And although male infertility has been linked to things as diverse as hormone imbalance, some types of medicine, heavy smoking, and conditions that cause abnormally high temparature of the testicles, leading experts in the field are hesitant to embrace the "wireless Internet is frying your junk" narrative.

"This is not real-life biology, this is a completely artificial setting," Dr. Robert Oates, president of the Society for Male Reproduction and Urology, told Reuters. "It is scientifically interesting, but to me it doesn't have any human biological relevance...[A]ll of this angst is created for real-life actual persons that doesn't have to be."

Moreover, there has yet to be a comprehensive study that examines whether laptop use—wireless or Ethernet—has any effect whatsoever on fertility or pregnancy. So rest assured: there's still a good chance watching season four of Parks and Recreation on Hulu with your Dell resting on your lap won't make you sterile.