2011 - %3, November

Figuring Out Who The "Moderate" Islamists Are

| Mon Nov. 7, 2011 6:39 PM EST

Tablet's Lee Smith thinks "moderate Islamist" is an oxymoron, and that the "moderates" are "more dangerous than the extremists by a matter of magnitude."

Indeed, “moderate” is a word that gets thrown around recklessly when it comes to the Islamist groups that comprise this new Muslim Brotherhood crescent. Consider the leader of al-Nahda, Rashid Ghannoushi, who, after many years of exile, may well be Tunisia’s next prime minister. He is routinely described as a moderate, even though he has praised the mothers of suicide bombers and believes that the “region will get rid of the germ of Israel.”

Perhaps to better understand the term “moderate” we might consider Islamist parties in the context of how they exercise power in their local environments. Where Osama Bin Laden spoke of a revived caliphate that would unite the umma, Islamists like Ghannoushi, Erdogan, and the Muslim Brotherhood are focused on their own national projects. Extremist Islamist outfits like Bin Laden’s original al-Qaida live in caves and rely on the support of Middle Eastern governments in order to accomplish operations like blowing up planes. So-called moderate Islamist parties, on the other hand, win electoral contests that leave them in charge of Middle Eastern governments, security services, and militaries with artillery, tanks, air forces, and navies.

It's not all that useful to use fuzzy feelings towards Israel as a way to discern the "moderation" of Islamists.

Unfortunately, everyone in the region pretty much hates Israel, Islamist or otherwise. A 2010 Zogby International poll found that 70 percent of citizens in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco sympathized with both Hamas and Fatah "to some extent." Seventeen percent of responsdents cited Hamas leader Khalid Meshaal when asked which Palestinian leader they "admire most." (Current Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas got just 15 percent.) This is despite the fact that Hamas has used suicide terrorism as a tactic against Israel.

It seems almost too obvious to write, but people in the Middle East see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a very different light than people in the US, and as a result it's a poor way to evaluate ideological moderation on other issues. 

A more useful gauge of the "moderation" of Islamists would be their willingness to accept democratic institutions and checks on government power that allow minorities and women to be secure in their rights. Tunisia's Ennahada appears moderate in that respect so far, having pledged not to seek a greater role for religion in Tunisia's new constitution. That makes them more moderate than say, Egyptian Salafists knifing Christians in the street. Although the degree to which new governments will actually be in control of the military in countries like Egypt remains a really open question, Islamist parties that win elections that leave them in charge of modern militaries will nevertheless also be accountable to their voters for how they use them.

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Alabama Immigrants Organize to Fight HB 56

| Mon Nov. 7, 2011 6:25 PM EST

Undocumented immigrants in Alabama are fighting back against the state's harsh immigration law—by getting organized.

Last weekend, pro-immigrant activists from the South and beyond headed to the poultry-processing hub of Albertville, located some 75 miles northeast of Birmingham, for a workshop meant to help Alabama's immigrant communities deal with HB 56, the restrictive law that has drawn comparisons to (and in some ways surpassed) Arizona's SB 1070. Albertville, home to many undocumented Latino immigrants who work at local Tyson, Pilgrim's Pride, and Wayne Farms plants, has become a hotspot for immigrant organizing.

The workshop, sponsored by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and the Southeast Immigrants Rights Network (SEIRN), was based on the Barrio Defense Committee model first introduced in Arizona last year. The idea is simple: train communities to communicate better, know their rights, and have a plan in place should an immigration raid occur. According to NDLON's Marisa Franco, the trainings are all about "lifting up these people's courage." "These laws unleash the ugliest part of this country," she said. "It really opens the door for people to treat each other in a really horrible way. We want to create a space for people to find each other and know 1) we're not alone and 2) we actually have some ways to defend ourselves."

Inspector General to Review Keystone XL Process

| Mon Nov. 7, 2011 5:13 PM EST

The State Department's Inspector General has agreed to investigate the department's handling of the Keystone XL review, after members of Congress and environmental groups have raised concerns about conflicts of interest.

In a Nov. 4 memo that went public on Monday, IG Harold W. Geisel says he will review whether State and other agencies followed federal laws and regulations in their consideration of TransCanada's request to build the 1,661-mile pipeline.

Last week, President Obama said he will make the final determination about whether the pipeline is approved. But the allegations that State mishandled the consideration have made an already contentious debate even more so. On Sunday, thousands came to the White House to protest the pipeline. After a rally in Lafayette Park, the protesters locked arms and formed a circle around the White House. Here are some photos from the event:

Maine Governor Pushes Drug Testing for Welfare Recipients

| Mon Nov. 7, 2011 4:20 PM EST

Earlier this year, Maine's legislature passed a law that requires drug testing for welfare recipients who have felony drug convictions. But now first-term Republican Gov. Paul LePage wants to amp that law up further by mandating random drug testing for all welfare recipients, Maine Today reports:

"I'm going to ask the Legislature to allow us to do what every truck driver in the United States of America has to do, take a random test," he said. "I think if we're going to take our own limited resources, we ought to be able to test 'em on occasion."

The comments came at a business chamber breakfast in Jay, where LePage gave an overview of accomplishments from the last legislative session and previewed some of his goals for the new year.

Never mind that random drug testing might be illegal:

Robyn Merrill of Maine Equal Justice, which provides legal services for the poor, said random drug-testing programs in other states have been found to be unconstitutional. She said that's why a bill that would have required random drug testing for MaineCare recipients did not pass earlier this year.

"Random drug testing is very questionable legally with respect to constitutional issues," she said. "If the government has the right to drug-test people based on receipt of aid from public assistance programs, what is to stop the government from requiring drug testing for anyone who receives a student loan or any other government benefit?"

The Graphic Anti-Abortion Film That's Rocking the Vote in Mississippi

| Mon Nov. 7, 2011 4:05 PM EST
A still from "180," an anti-abortion film that compares reproductive rights to the Holocaust.

On Tuesday, Mississippi voters will weigh in on ballot question 26, aka the Personhood Amendment, which would change the state Constitution to say that fertilized human eggs are legal persons. The measure, if enacted, would make many kinds of birth control illegal (its supporters call the morning-after-pill "a human pesticide"), and ban abortion in all cases—even in instances of rape (supporters organized a "Conceived in Rape" tour earlier this year to promote the amendment). A Public Policy Polling survey released on Monday said the electorate is almost evenly split on the measure.

So how are supporters getting out the vote? By blasting out emails promoting a film that equates support for reproductive rights with support for the Holocaust. 180 is a documentary by Australian New Zealand filmmaker Ray Comfort, and features graphic images from concentration camps. Per a press release, Personhood USA has sent out a link to the film to 600,000 eligible voters in Mississippi. Here's the film:

The film, billed as "33 minutes that will rock your world!," attempts to make the case that abortion is similar to the Holocaust. Incidentally, this isn't the only movie being promoted by Personhood supporters ahead of the vote. Yes on 26, the main outfit supporting the Personhood Amendment, has also been promoting October Baby, which the Huntsville Times describes as "a coming-of-age love story that follows college freshman Hannah, who learns she’s not only adopted, but an abortion survivor."

Report: World May Face New Nuclear Arms Race

| Mon Nov. 7, 2011 4:03 PM EST
An ICBM loaded into a solo at the Titan Missile Museum in Tucson, Arizona.

Fear of new American military capabilities is spurring nuclear powers like Russia and China to modernize their atomic arsenals and evade disarmament, according to a new report from a US-British think tank.

Even though Barack Obama has pledged to work for global disarmament and the United States negotiated a new nuclear arms treaty with Russia, the world's nine global states still possess 22,400 warheads and are moving swiftly to "modernize" their stockpiles, according to the study "Beyond the United Kingdom: Trends in Other Nuclear States" (PDF), by researchers at the British-American Security Information Council. "There is little sign in any of these nuclear armed states that a future without nuclear weapons is seriously being contemplated," the authors conclude.

The report is part of a major push in Great Britain to reassess that country's nuclear weapons program, but it's chock full of data and analyses that show how the Nuclear Nine are expanding their capabilities, exploiting treaty loopholes, and heading for a possible 21st-century arms race.

Much of that effort is being spurred by US policy, the report notes: "[A]lthough the Obama administration deserves huge credit for kick-starting multilateral nuclear disarmament talks with Russia, it also appears true that the United States continues to view nuclear weapons as essential to national security and is planning, and spending, to ensure it has robust nuclear forces for many decades to come."

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A New Look at Poverty Statistics

| Mon Nov. 7, 2011 3:36 PM EST

A few weeks ago I mentioned that the Census Bureau planned to release a new report that would assess poverty using a newer and more comprehensive measure. The "official" poverty threshold dates back to 1964 and was very simple: it was calculated as the cost of a minimally adequate diet multiplied by three. The new measure is more complex and takes into account both government benefits (EITC, SNAP, housing subsidies, etc.) and higher costs in some areas (payroll taxes, medical bills, etc.).

The bottom line is simple: using the new formula, more people are in poverty than we thought. By age, there are fewer kids living in poverty, more adults living in poverty, and a lot more seniors living in poverty. Unfortunately, this is only moderately interesting. You can always make the threshold go up or down by fiddling with the formula a bit, so this doesn't actually tell us that much. But assuming the new formula is a good one, what would be interesting is to see the trend over time. Has poverty gone up or down over the past 40 years? Over the last decade? Since the start of the Great Recession?

We don't know because the report doesn't tell us. Instead, I'll leave you with this chart, which explains fairly well how the new formula works. It shows the effect of various elements of the formula on the poverty rate. For example, on the far left, when you account for the Earned Income Tax Credit the poverty rate goes down by two points. Accounting for SNAP (food stamps) lowers the poverty rate about 1.5 points. On the far right, when you account for the rise in Medical Out of Pocket costs, the poverty rate goes up by more than three points. (Since seniors have high medical bills and kids tend to have low ones, this goes a long way toward explaining why fewer kids are in poverty and more seniors are in poverty under the new formula.)

One other note: if you take this report seriously, it's a pretty good argument against reducing Social Security benefits by fiddling with the official inflation calculation. Rising out-of-pocket costs are hitting seniors harder than most of us, which suggests that the official inflation rate understates the actual inflation rate faced by the elderly. Reducing it even further would be a substantial blow.

If you're interested in diving into this in more detail, the whole report is here.

Architect of Arizona's Anti-Immigration Law May Lose His Seat

| Mon Nov. 7, 2011 3:32 PM EST
Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce (R).

Republican Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce, the architect of the state's draconian anti-immigrantion law, may lose his seat in tomorrow's recall election. According to a poll by a local ABC affiliate, Pearce is running neck-and-neck with his Republican challenger Jerry Lewis:

Lewis holds a 46-43 percent lead over Pearce in the historic recall contest, but the edge is within the poll’s margin of error.

"Statistically here, what we’ve got is a dead heat," said Jeremy Moreland, a Valley pollster who conducted the survey. "Both Lewis and Pearce are within the margin of error of one another."

Pearce has a considerable financial advantage. According to the ABC affiliate, Pearce "raised an eye-popping $230,000—including donations from more than 40 states—compared to Lewis’ $69,000." Yet despite that advantage, and the fact that his campaign managed to get a sham candidate, Olivia Cortes, on the ballot, Pearce may still lose.

Pearce's opponents challenged Cortes' candidacy in court and Maricopa County Judge Edward Burke wrote in his ruling that that Cortes was recruited by Pearce allies "to siphon Hispanic votes from Lewis to advance Pearce's recall-election bid." Nevertheless, Burke ruled that Cortes could stay on the ballot, because "he could find no wrongdoing by Cortes herself." According to the ABC-15 poll, Cortes is still polling at about 2.5 percent, which in an election this close could mean the difference between Pearce keeping or losing his seat. In one last desperate attempt to swing the election in Pearce's favor, his allies are behind a misleading robocall in an effort to manipulate voters into casting a ballot for Cortes. 

Pearce, who drafted the 2010 law after meeting with officials from the American Legislative Exchange Council and Corrections Corporation of America, the private prison company, became state Senate president following Republican gains in the 2010 elections. But despite his rise in political stature, his anti-immigrant agenda met with more resistance than expected, and he was recently implicated by an investigation that showed him and other Arizona lawmakers illegally accepting Fiesta Bowl tickets. 

While Pearce's odd ability to "accidentally" associate with white supremacists didn't stop him from rising to state senate president in Arizona, his Republican opponent has taken a moderate stance on immigration, saying during their debate a few weeks ago that "we need to make sure we address this issue in a humane way." So it's not just that Pearce might lose. It's that the state's most anti-immigrant politician might be defeated by the kind of Republican moderate on immigration that, back in 2010, seemed almost extinct.

Honey Laundering

| Mon Nov. 7, 2011 3:21 PM EST
Laundered honey: either grin and bear it, or buy the real article from farmers markets.

Peruse the sweetener shelf of a US supermarket, and you'll find an array of bear-shaped jars glistening with golden honey, all of it priced to move.

Ever wonder why the ongoing collapse of US honeybee populations hasn't caused a scarcity of honey or a spike in prices? I think the ace investigative reporter Andrew Schneider of Food Safety News might have the answer. In an August investigation, Schneider revealed:

A third or more of all the honey consumed in the U.S. is likely to have been smuggled in from China and may be tainted with illegal antibiotics and heavy metals. A Food Safety News investigation has documented that millions of pounds of honey banned as unsafe in dozens of countries are being imported and sold here in record quantities.

Today, Schneider is back with a new report, already highlighted by my colleague Stephanie Mencimer but worth delving into more.

Schneider rounded up more than 60 samples of honey from retailers in 10 states and the District of Columbia and had them analyzed at a Texas A&M University lab. The result: Three-quarters of the samples were "ultra-filtered"—a process in which honey is "heated, sometimes watered down and then forced at high pressure through extremely small filters to remove pollen, which is the only foolproof sign identifying the source of the honey."

In Healthcare, It's Public/Private vs. Private/Public

| Mon Nov. 7, 2011 2:44 PM EST

Consider two healthcare plans sponsored by the federal government:

  • Plan A depends on private insurers. Liberals think a public option should be added to the mix in order to discipline the private market. Conservatives oppose a public option.
  • Plan B is already a public insurance scheme. Conservatives think private insurers should be added to the mix in order to discipline the public sector. Liberals aren't especially keen on the idea.

Question: is there anything odd or hypocritical about this? I don't see why. In broad terms, liberals prefer the public allocation of healthcare, and given any particular starting point they'll argue for greater public participation. Conservatives are just the opposite: they prefer the private allocation of healthcare, and given any particular starting point they'll argue for greater private participation.

Why bring this up? Because Plan A is Obamacare. Plan B is Medicare. When Obamacare was being debated, liberals argued in favor of a public option to discipline the private market. Plan B is Mitt Romney's proposal for Medicare, which conservatives favor as a way of disciplining the current public plan.

This all comes from Austin Frakt, who also points out that liberals sometimes argue that Medicare would experience adverse selection (i.e., all the really sick people being shunted into the public plan) if private plans were allowed to compete. Conservatives ignore this argument. It's pretty much the opposite when the subject is Obamacare: conservatives occasionally bring up adverse selection concerns and liberals mostly ignore them.

Again: is this hypocritical? I guess so. But on a scale of 1 to 10, I'd rate it about a 3. Liberals mostly prefer an entirely public plan, similar to the national healthcare plans in Europe, so they highlight arguments in favor of it while soft-pedaling possible issues during the transition. Conservatives do the opposite. Diogenes would be more meticulous about this kind of thing, I suppose, but most of the rest of us aren't quite ready to adopt his rigorous standards yet.

And it's worth noting that this really is a transition problem. A fully public system has no adverse selection issues, and neither does a fully private system. What's more, in a mixed system, adverse selection problems can actually accelerate the transition to a fully public or private system, which means that proponents might welcome them as politically useful. That's not something you can actually say in public, though.

Anyway: Mitt Romney wants private insurers to compete with Medicare. I'm actually OK with that in principle: as Austin reminded me last week, there's evidence that competitive bidding for Medicare contracts could lower costs by around 8% in urban areas that have lots of providers. That won't save the republic, but it's nothing to sneeze at either.

At the same time, private insurers already compete with Medicare. It's called Medicare Advantage, and so MA has mostly fallen flat: it costs more than traditional Medicare and provides only slightly better benefits. Romney hasn't yet explained how his version of MA is going to be better than the current version of MA, and until he does I don't see much reason to be interested in his proposal as anything more than boilerplate rhetoric to demonstrate that he's a free market kind of guy.