2011 - %3, November

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 22, 2011

Tue Nov. 22, 2011 5:57 AM EST

US Army Spc. Lester Aldana, Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team security force provides security during a dismounted patrol in Sub-District 10 of Kandahar City November 16, 2011. The Kandahar PRT SECFOR is from the Rhode Island National Guard 1st Platoon, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion of the 182nd Infantry Regiment. The PRT works with government officials at the district and provincial levels to build sustainable infrastructure capacity. (US Air Force photo/Senior Airman Sean Martin, Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team)

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Newt Gingrich and the Treachery of the Budget Wonks

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 11:24 PM EST

It's hard to keep up with conservatives. One day the center of liberal treachery is the NAFTA superhighway, the next it's the Tides Foundation. Fast forward a few months and Agenda 21 is ruining the country, then a few weeks later it's the Fed. Trying to keep score at home is exhausting. Luckily, we have Newt Gingrich to clue us into the next conservative jihad:

The Congressional Budget Office is a reactionary socialist institution which does not believe in economic growth, does not believe in innovation, and does not believe in data that it has not internally generated.

The Congressional Budget Office! That's the shadowy cabal behind the decline of America! It's been the budget wonks all along!

So what's their sin? Beats me. At a guess, though, it's their general unwillingness to apply "dynamic scoring" to the fantasy-based budget plans concocted by Republicans. You know, the ones where a gazillion dollar tax cut supercharges the economy and generates ponies and surpluses as far as the eye can see. But the stodgy old CBO won't hear of it. They'll account for deadweight losses and other well-grounded economic effects that offset revenue losses from tax cuts a little bit, but that's all. No magic and no free lunches.

So Newt, the great conservative philosopher king, is mad at them. But there's not really any point in pretending to take this seriously. It just deserves a solid dose of mockery. So that's what it gets from Dan Drezner's Twitter feed. Enjoy.

The Supercommittee Fails—and That's Good for Obama

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 7:54 PM EST

Okay, remember when Democrats and progressives during the debt ceiling showdown last summer were bitching that President Barack Obama was triangulating and wimping out by negotiating (and yielding much) with the tea-party-controlled Republicans? Well, that was then. In the latest twist of this never-ending saga, Obama is both calling out the Republicans and holding what appears to be a position of strength. That may all shift suddenly. This is politics. But Obama's Democratic fans should savor the moment.

After the supercommittee failed today—announcing that it could not even come up with a proposal for $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction, per August's debt ceiling compromise—Obama quickly hit the podium at the White House briefing room. He did not blame a dysfunctional Congress, as many commentators rushed to do. He did not adopt the above-the-fray stance he has often attempted to strike (to please those hard-to-please independent voters). Instead, he pointed an accusatory finger at congressional GOPers:

In addition to my [deficit-reduction] plan, there were a number of other bipartisan plans for them to consider from both Democrats and Republicans, all of which promoted a balanced approach. This kind of balanced approach to reducing our deficit—an approach where everybody gives a little bit, and everyone does their fair share—is supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans—Democrats, independents, and Republicans. It's supported by experts and economists from all across the political spectrum. And to their credit, many Democrats in Congress were willing to put politics aside and commit to reasonable adjustments that would have reduced the cost of Medicare, as long as they were part of a balanced approach. 

But despite the broad agreement that exists for such an approach, there's still too many Republicans in Congress who have refused to listen to the voices of reason and compromise that are coming from outside of Washington. They continue to insist on protecting $100 billion worth of tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans at any cost, even if it means reducing the deficit with deep cuts to things like education and medical research. Even if it means deep cuts in Medicare. 

This is the direct approach: Were it not for the extremists of the House Republican conference, there would be a multitrillion-dollar deficit-reduction compromise. This spin has the benefit of being true. Obama, don't forget, put major entitlement reductions on the table during the debt ceiling negotiations, notably a slight hike in the eligibility age for Medicare and a readjustment in the cost-of-living allowance for Social Security. It's unclear whether the Democrats would have, at the end of the day, backed him up on this had Speaker John Boehner kicked in sufficient revenue increases to seal the deal. But Obama was at the time leaning on his party's congressional leaders to support such a compromise—and there were signs he might win them over. Boehner did no such thing with his party. Instead, he walked away from the so-called grand bargain—twice. So when the punditerati push the easy pox-on-both-houses analysis, they're forgetting this recent history. But Obama, to his credit, is not.

This moment also undercuts a familiar meme: Obama is a lousy negotiator. True, he couldn't find a way to escape the debt ceiling tar pit created by the hostage-taking Republicans. (I know, hostage takers don't waste their time creating tar pits.) And he was sucked into an endless series of negotiations that reaffirmed the GOP mantra that deficit-reduction was the top economic priority and that made all participants look ineffectual. But within that context, Obama and his aides might have pulled a fast one on the Republicans. In negotiating the trigger—the mechanism that would kick in if the supercommittee did not produce another round of deficit reduction—they succeeded in getting the Republicans to agree to a potential automatic cut in national security funds of about half a trillion dollars. At the time, Democratic staffers were stunned that GOPers accepted this, for it was obvious that it would drive Republican hawks crazy. (Pushed by Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, the White House made sure the trigger did not include cuts to Medicaid or the beneficiaries of Social Security and Medicare.) 

Without a supercommittee proposal, these autocuts are on the horizon—and they discomfort Republicans far more than Democrats. In his statement tonight, Obama vowed to veto any congressional attempt to undo these national security cuts, which are scheduled to start in January 2013. This places him in the position of Washington's fiscal enforcer. He will not let Republicans squirm their way out of a hard-and-fast commitment they made to blot up Washington's red ink.

Even with the supercommittee failure, $1.2 trillion in additional deficit reduction is still scheduled to kick in. Of course, Pentagon-protecting Republicans will try to find a clever escape route, devising, say, legislation they can sell as protection of funding for the troops. But Obama will be in a place where he can say, "A deal's a deal"—and also offer the Republicans a way out only if they're willing to raise revenues (or dump the Bush tax cuts for the rich) to cover the military funds they wish to defend.

Republicans are now griping that the supercommittee fizzled because Obama didn't lead it to the promised land. That's absurd. He tried hard—perhaps too hard—last summer. And he's willing to live by the deal he cut with Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. (He's also willing to revive the grand bargain.) He was smart to keep his distance from this destined-to-fail endeavor. It would have been just another sink hole for him, for the Republicans would never have granted significant concessions on revenues. There was no reason for Obama to associate himself closely with another doomed effort. At this point, he can continue to push his balanced approach to deficit reduction (cuts and revenues), which polls rather well; stand with his fellow Democrats, citing their willingness to compromise; and champion a simple principle: sticking to the tough-love deal that he and the Republicans painfully hammered out this summer.

The failure of the supercommittee ain't so bad for the president.

The Human Mic: Not Just for Occupy

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 7:54 PM EST

You've probably seen video of the "human microphone" technique used at Occupy Wall Street's general assembly meetings to amplify speakers' voices without the aid of a sound system. New York City doesn't permit amplified sound in public spaces, so protesters started repeating en mass ("REPEATING EN MASS") every few words a speaker says ("EVERY FEW WORDS A SPEAKER SAYS") so everyone can hear ("SO EVERYONE CAN HEAR!").

It's an invention of necessity that nicely reinforces the protesters' messages of community, horizontalism, and strength in numbers. Also, it can't be confiscated by police.

Lately, the human mic has been turning up at non-Occupy protests, disrupting a hydrofracking panel at Ohio State, a Bachmann address in South Carolina, and a Scott Walker speech in Chicago. I've seen lots of Internet videos in which guerilla protest groups like Code Pink crash official events and interrupt with signs, songs, and gimmicks. They often seem kind of pointless. The breathless shouts of a lone disruptor or a few scattered people usually can't get the message across to a whole room before being cut off and whisked away by security. But the human microphone is a force multiplier; when tens and even hundreds of people echo the same speech at a rapid clip, they suddenly outnumber the powers-that-be in the room—and their message can actually be heard. 

Here are some recent videos of human-mic disruptions at all sorts of public protests (h/t nettime):

At the Panel for Education Policy in New York on October 26:

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker at the Chicago's Union League Club on November 3:

Republican presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann in Charleston, SC on November 10: video here.

And at a natural gas industry panel at Ohio State, students protesting hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. fracking) managed to get their message across last Friday (November 18):

We have yet to see what the next step for Occupy Wall Street will be. But the movement's lasting legacy may include a handy lo-fi trick that future protesters can use to turn the tables anywhere, anytime, no equipment necessary.

VIDEO: Even the Tiny Town of Littleton, N.H., Is Occupied

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 7:43 PM EST

On Saturday, I almost swerved off the main street of Littleton, New Hampshire (pop. 6,000), when I saw this group of 15 or so protesters occupying the pavement outside the town's historic post office. I was there on other business, but I grabbed my camera to document this #OWS microcosm.

Flailing Rick Perry Pledges to Combat Pornography

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 6:38 PM EST
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R).

In the 2012 GOP presidential race, the quickest way to the top of the polls is to just stop campaigning. Maybe go on a book tour, sail around the Aegean for a bit, or teleconference with your friends in Norway. Live a little! No one has passed that bit of advice on to Rick Perry, however. On Monday, desperate for the support of social conservatives in Iowa, the Texas Governor signed the Family Leader's Marriage Vow—a controversial pledge that Mitt Romney previously called "undignified and inappropriate for a presidential campaign." The pledge commits signatories to a range of positions—including support for a federal marriage amendment, the appointment of "constitutionalist" judges," and marital fidelity.

But it also extends beyond standard-issue talking points to some more fringey positions. In signing the Marriage Vow, Perry has also promised to reject Islamic Shariah law (first they came for the turkeys!), save women from the corrupting influence of pornography, and promote "robust childbearing and reproduction." Shariah is defined in the document as a form of "totalitarian control," which, while not approaching Herman Cain territory, is sort of an odd way to talk about the customs of one of the world's major religions.

The marriage pledge is best known, though, for the slavery provision. The document originally noted that "a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA’s first African-American President." That language has since been stricken from the vow, but only after an outcry from prominent GOPers like Romney turned the pledge into something of a toxic asset.

Perry has previously signed the National Organization for Marriage's pledge to "appoint a presidential commission to investigate harassment of traditional marriage supporters."

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Please Give Me a Chance to Laugh at You

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 6:27 PM EST

Just a quick note: Every pundit who laments the fact that President Obama didn't "do more" to get some kind of budget agreement through the supercommittee should be required to:

  • Explain exactly what Obama should have done.
  • Explain whether they think Republicans would ever, under any circumstances, have accepted a deal with a net tax increase.
  • If yes, provide details.
  • If no, explain why their hypothetical deal is any better, or more politically feasible, than the default trigger deal.

That's not so much to ask, is it? I should warn everyone ahead of time, though, that I mainly want answers to these questions so that I can laugh at you.

How Bad Is Pepper Spray?

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 6:23 PM EST

This horrifying video of UC Davis police indiscriminately pepper-spraying peaceful student protesters has gone viral. Two officers have been placed on leave. But for anyone who's never been pepper sprayed, it's hard to imagine exactly what it feels like. Over at Scientific American, Deborah Blum makes a valiant attempt to explain.

Using a scale of intensity developed 100 years ago by Wilbur Scoville, Blum notes that commercial-grade pepper spray is 1,000 times "hotter" than a jalapeño pepper. Most sprays are between 2 million and 5.3 million Scoville units—and the higher-end figure is the type police use. Here's the chart:

As Blum notes, getting sprayed in the face isn't at all like putting too much hot sauce on your burrito:

The reason pepper-spray ends up on the Scoville chart is that – you probably guessed this - it’s literally derived from pepper chemistry, the compounds that make habaneros so much more formidable than the comparatively wimpy bells. Those compounds are called capsaicins and – in fact – pepper spray is more formally called Oleoresin Capsicum or OC Spray.

But we’ve taken to calling it pepper spray, I think, because that makes it sound so much more benign than it really is, like something just a grade or so above what we might mix up in a home kitchen. The description hints maybe at that eye-stinging effect that the cook occasionally experiences when making something like a jalapeno-based salsa, a little burn, nothing too serious.

Until you look it up on the Scoville scale and remember, as toxicologists love to point out, that the dose makes the poison. That we’re not talking about cookery but a potent blast of chemistry.

Blum looks at research linking pepper spray to cardiac, respiratory, and neurological problems and even sudden death. It's scary stuff.

Ominous Chevron Oil Spill Off Brazil

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 5:01 PM EST

 

The Brazilian environmental agency announced it will fine Chevron nearly $28 million—the most allowable under Brazilian law—for the spill underway off the Brazilian coast since 7 November.

Chevron accepts responsibility for the leak, which it says was caused by an underestimation of the pressure in the oil reservoir, plus an overestimation of the strength of the rock containing the reservoir. Chevron's drill operator is Transocean, Ltd, the same driller for BP's Deepwater Horizon rig. Chevron's version of how the problem unfolded, via AP:

The drilling fluid that is pumped down the center of the drill as it works, lubricating and stabilizing the pressure of the bore hole, was not heavy enough to counter the pressure coming from the oil reservoir... That caused crude to rush upward and eventually escape through a breach in the bore hole and leak into the surrounding seabed. The oil then made its way to the ocean floor and has since leaked through at least seven narrow fissures, all within 160 feet (50 meters) of the well head on the ocean floor.

Reuters reports the leak occurred so far from the drilling platform that Chevron originally thought the spill was from a platform or pipeline owned by Brazil's state-controlled oil company, Petrobras. Chevron was eventually informed of its own leak by Petrobras.

The deep reservoir that Chevron and others are working may hold 100 billion barrels of oil or more, enough to supply the whole US, the world's largest oil consumer, for 14 or more years. However the reservoir is buried under waters 2 miles deep and under (weak?) rock another 2.5 miles below that—in Chevron's case, at least, too deep for safe engineering.

The combination of the high-pressure reservoir, weak rock, and a leaking seabed sounds ominous for any hope of quick containment.

No More BRAC!

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 4:04 PM EST

Stan Collender takes on one of my favorite pet peeves today, so I'll just turn the mike over to him:

For years I have been asked why we don't just set up a budget commission with rules like the base realignment and closure commissions of the past that have always been taken as the model for a successful commission. For the record, we had that here and it didn't work. Had the hardly-super committee actually recommended a deficit reduction plan, it would have used a BRAC-like process: the bill could not have been amended by Congress and would have been considered in both Houses on a simple up-or-down vote. No filibusters allowed.

BRAC was created to do something very different from the super committee: it was designed to determine which military facilities should be closed after Congress decided that some weren't needed. By contrast, the super committee had to do the equivalent of determining whether any bases should be closed at all. That was a far more open-ended and considerably more difficult task than anything any BRAC was ever asked to do.

I am so tired of BRAC I could scream. As near as I can tell, every hard problem of the past 20 years has produced suggestions that we need "something like BRAC." But guess what? The BRAC concept has only ever worked for one thing: closing military bases. If there's a silver lining to the failure of the supercommittee to do anything, maybe, just maybe, it will be the death knell of calls for another BRAC.

We don't need another BRAC. What we need is two political parties that are able to act in at least tolerably sensible ways on at least sporadic occasions. So far we only have one.