2011 - %3, November

Big-Money GOP Bundlers Stay on the Sidelines

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 6:18 AM PST

Bundlers are a presidential candidate's best friend. They're the super-fundraisers who not only give thousands of their own money to political candidates, but also round up hundreds of thousands more from other deep-pocketed donors. The Republican Party's most dependable bundlers, 46 individuals in all, raised a total of $24 million for George W. Bush in the 2000 and 2004 elections and John McCain in 2008. But as iWatch News reports, almost half of those rainmakers from the last three elections are still on the sidelines for the 2012 presidential race.

Among the GOP bundlers who have backed a candidate, 16 of them are fundraising for Mitt Romney, the presumed frontrunner in the fight for his party's nomination. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has raked in cash from eight of the bundlers, and three have given to Jon Huntsman. But 22 GOP bundlers have yet to pick a candidate—and their reasons range from waiting until the nominee is chosen to concentrating their efforts on House and Senate races:

Munr Kazmir, chief executive officer of Direct Meds, a pharmacy company in New Jersey, said he had hoped New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie would enter the race. But when that didn’t happen, he was left without a favored candidate and has been pondering whom to back ever since.

"I'm still debating. I didn’t make a decision yet," he said. Kazmir said he has heard from dozens of other George W. Bush bundlers from the 2000 and 2004 elections and many, like him, have yet to commit to anyone for 2012. "They haven't decided yet," he said.

Fred Zeidman, a Houston-based private equity investor who backs Romney, said, "Many of the big bundlers I've spoken to have a familiarity with the major candidates. They all feel like the goal is to beat Obama and a number are waiting" until there is a nominee.

[…]

"It's a game that requires a lot of energy and effort. It takes an enormous amount of time," said David F. Girard-diCarlo, a Philadelphia lawyer and super bundler, who is now supporting Huntsman.

While he's in his "seventh presidential go round," Girard-diCarlo, who served as ambassador to Austria near the end of Bush's second term, said some of his fundraising peers "may not be willing to expend the time and effort because of where they are in their lives."

The biggest recipient of bundler money, of course, is President Obama. So far in the 2012 election cycle, Obama's campaign has pulled in $56 million from 358 bunders that include Dreamworks executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, Comcast executive David Cohen, and former New Jersey governor and financier Jon Corzine, whose brokerage firm MF Global recently went belly up.

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In Grover Norquist's World, Ronald Reagan Is a "Rat Head in a Coke Bottle"

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 5:00 AM PST

On Sunday night, 60 Minutes' Steve Kroft profiled the man who's done more than anyone to ensure that Congress' budget-slashing supercommittee goes down in flames: anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist.

Norquist, who runs the group Americans for Tax Reform, is best known for his "Taxpayer Protection Pledge." Those who sign the pledge, usually Republican members of Congress, vow to oppose all tax increases. "Pledge" signers include 270 members of Congress, among them House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), as well as every GOP presidential candidate except for Jon Huntsman. Indeed, the refusal of any notable Republican in Congress to stomach tax increases as part of this summer's debt ceiling deal or the supercommittee's plan to cut $1.2 trillion from the national deficit is owes largely to Norquist's "Pledge." Those who break it face Norquist's wrath when re-election time rolls around. Norquist told Kroft his organization will fund ads opposing that candidate "to encourage them to go into another line of work, like shoplifting or bank robbing, where they have to do their own stealing."

But perhaps the most curious moment of the interview came when Norquist described his role as simply protecting the Republican brand, just as Coca-Cola ensures the quality of its signature product:

Norquist: 'Cause let's say you take that Coke bottle home, and you get home, and you're two thirds of the way through the Coke bottle. And you look down at what's left in your Coke bottle is a rat head there. You wonder whether you'd buy Coke ever again. You go on TV, and you show 'em the rat head in the Coke bottle. You call your friends, and tell them about it. And Coke's in trouble.

Republicans who vote for a tax increase are rat heads in a Coke bottle. They damage the brand for everyone else.

Norquist belongs to a group of conservative stalwarts who idolize Ronald Reagan and his economic policies. A bust of Reagan sits on Norquist's desk. The irony, of course, is that Reagan himself would've repeatedly violated Norquist's "Pledge" (had he even signed it) during his presidency. Reagan closed business tax loopholes in 1984. He raised corporate taxes in 1986. He hiked capital gains taxes by 40 percent. In all, Reagan raised taxes 11 times in eight years. In Norquist's world, Reagan was just another "rat head in a Coke bottle."

The full 60 Minutes profile of Norquist is worth watching, if only to better understand the man behind the fiscal gridlock in Washington. It's here:

From Rock Musician to Anti-Slavery Activist

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 4:00 AM PST
Justin Dillon with Tremolo in 2007.

You've probably never heard of Justin Dillon or his band, Tremolo. After all, until fairly recently, his career was pretty unremarkable: By 2003, Tremolo had developed a following playing the usual tour circuits. They'd even landed tracks on a few films and television shows, including How to Deal, a romantic comedy starring Mandy Moore, and were awaiting an offer from Capitol Records to cut their first album.

"It was a weird phase where Capitol had a hold on us and we were all excited," Dillon recalls earlier this month as we sit in his sun-basked office in Oakland, California's iconic Tribune Tower. Wispy haired with hazel eyes, Dillon sports a militaristic look: khaki-green Mao cap, dark-washed jeans, black boots, 10 o'clock shadow.

Not wanting to sit around stressing about the record deal—which never materialized—the band accepted an invitation from a nonprofit to spend a week performing in a remote corner of Eastern Europe. Soon, Tremolo was in a town in Kalmykia, a Russian territory bordering the Black Sea. "Like, way the hell out there," Dillon says. "It wasn't hard to impress people because there was nothing to compare us to."

2-Stepping With the Blind Boys of Alabama

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 4:00 AM PST

After seven decades, you wouldn't expect the Blind Boys of Alabama to be dabbling in reinvention. After all, with five Grammys, more than 60 albums, and a spot in the Gospel Music Hall of Fame under its belt, this legendary group has quite clearly cracked the elusive code to stardom.

And yet, the Blind Boys are always shaking something up: Their classic songs of praise have backed everything from cuddly Disney movies to gritty TV dramas like The Wire and Lost. Bucking partisanship, they've performed at both the Bush and Obama White Houses. These seven men—four blind, three sighted—have taken their sound far beyond religious settings, sharing a stage with Prince, sampling styles from rock to reggae, and even treading the late-night circuitLeno, Conan, Letterman—with unflappable poise. Now on tour for Take the High Road, their first ever country-gospel record, their quiet rebelliousness is alive and well.

But if you ask what drives their medley of achievements, the answer is streamlined and unequivocal: "It all has to be centered around gospel," says vocalist Jimmy Carter. "We don’t deviate from that."

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 21, 2011

Mon Nov. 21, 2011 3:57 AM PST

Senior Airman Eric Humphrey, an 82nd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron pararescueman, throws a colored smoke grenade to mark his team's position during a training scenario in the Grand Bara Desert, Djibouti, October 21, 2011. Using a colored smoke signal is one way pararescuemen designate their position to an air evacuation team. (US Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Renae Saylock)

How Green Is Your Thanksgiving Menu?

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 3:30 AM PST

So you've got your free-range turkey. Your potatoes are strictly heirloom varieties. The cranberries for your sauce come from the local organic bog. Feeling pretty good about your Thanksgiving dinner, are you? Not so fast: The environmental footprint of food isn't always what you'd expect. Last Thanksgiving, PBS Need to Know took a hard look at the subject, from a diverse range of perspectives. In its podcast, which is definitely worth another listen, we hear from geophysicist Gidon Eshel, NASA agronomist Cynthia Rosenzweig, best-selling author Anna Lappé, agricultural analyst Philip Thornton, and animal rights activist Tara Oresick.

By now, most of us are aware of the outsized environmental footprint of meat. As Lappé, author of Diet for a Hot Planet: The Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It, points out, the production of one pound of beef can require as much as 16 pounds of livestock feed. And that's to say nothing of all the waste associated with raising livestock, the methane and nitrous oxide emissions generated by the cattle, and the carbon dioxide created by trucks and tractors that transport feed and animals.

Of course, not all meat is as resource intensive as beef. Similarly, not all vegetables are as innocent as you might think. Eshel, whom I interviewed for my piece on whether or not vegetarianism is always greener than eating meat, says that in order to lessen the environmental impact of our diets, we should look at the efficiency of foods: How much energy is required to produce them, and how many calories do we gain? From this perspective, labels like "organic" and "local" aren't always the most planet-friendly choices. In colder climates, local spinach and mesclun, for example, are frighteningly inefficient because they have to be grown in greenhouses.

And the efficiency of foods can vary dramatically depending on where and how you live. Thornton, a livestock expert, argues that Americans use cattle very differently from people in other parts of the world. In Kenya, families often depend on one or two cows for income: The animals provide not only milk and/or meat, but also fertilizer, so their overall energy yield is much greater. In some climates, raising livestock can actually require fewer resources than growing crops.

So how efficient are the foods on your Thanksgiving plate? The answer may surprise you. (Hint: Turkey is not as bad as you might think. Phew!) For the answer (plus an inside look at an Adopt-a-Turkey program in upstate New York, and more) listen to the podcast:


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Why the Supercommittee Was Actually a Dazzling Success

| Sun Nov. 20, 2011 8:50 PM PST

The supercommittee has apparently officially declared failure, and all Washington is in despair. But I think Atrios has the right response to this:

So there's this bipartisan group of elected officials known as "Congress" that passed $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions into law. They also designated a random group of wankers to come up with some alternative $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions as a substitute. They didn't come up with a substitute. So we have the original path to deficit reduction as opposed to the potential substitute.

Why the press has mostly taken the position that some unspecified substitute would be better, or that cuts are implicitly good…

Right. We already have a plan to cut the budget by $1.2 trillion over 10 years. So who really cares whether there's a different plan to cut $1.2 trillion from the budget? Why isn't the existing plan good enough?

In any case, this should basically be viewed as a total victory for Republicans. Any alternative plan would have included some tax increases, so failure to come up with an alternative means that we get a big deficit reduction that's 100 percent spending cuts, just like they wanted. And the 50-50 split between domestic and defense cuts was always sort of a joke. Republicans never had any intention of allowing the Pentagon's half of the cuts to materialize, and the domestic spending half of the cuts was about as big as they wanted them to be. Big talk aside, they know bigger cuts would run the risk of seriously pissing off voters.

So Republicans got domestic spending cuts that were about as big as they really wanted. They know they'll never have to implement most of the defense cuts. And there are no tax increases.

Given all that, why is anyone surprised that they were unwilling to seriously consider any alternative? Why should they when they already had what they wanted?

Raw Data II: Student Achievement Over the Past 20 Years

| Sun Nov. 20, 2011 3:41 PM PST

In my post earlier today about NAEP test score trends, I said I was pessimistic about recent educational reforms because big gains among 9-year-olds mostly seem to wash away by the time students graduate from high school. However, several commenters complained that this was unfair: high school students in 2008 had spent only a few years in the post-NCLB "reform" environment. What we really want to look at are cohort effects. How do kids who have spent their entire lives in the new environment do?

First, some background. In my initial post I used data from the NAEP long-term assessment. This has two big advantages. First, the data goes back further. Second, the long-term test has stayed more stable over time, which makes it a better standard for trend comparisons. In contrast, the main NAEP test gets rewritten every decade or so.

However, the main test still has a pretty good reputation, and it also has the advantage of providing more recent data. We don't have 2011 scores for high school students yet, but we do have 2011 reading and math scores for 4th and 8th graders. So here are test score improvements on the main test from 1992 through 2011:

As usual, keep in mind the rule of thumb that a 10-point change on NAEP scores is about equal to one grade level.

This only goes through middle school, but it's obviously more promising than the long-term data I posted earlier. The 4th grade gains in reading are considerably more modest than on the long-term assessment, but they persist through 8th grade. The gains in math are better than on the long-term assessment, and although some of the gains are lost by 8th grade, the dropoff isn't huge. Note that the 1992 cohort of 8th graders is almost entirely pre-reform, even if you count state reforms that predate NCLB, while the 2011 cohort of 8th graders began first grade in 2003, so these are kids who have spent their entire school lives in post-reform schools. That makes this a pretty good comparison group.  

Now, there are several caveats here:

  • We still don't know how high-school students are doing. We'll need to wait until 2015 before we have a cohort of 12th graders who have spent their entire lives in post-reform schools.
  • The data is from the main NAEP assessment. For longitudinal studies, I think the long-term assessment is probably superior.
  • As usual, you have to decide for yourself if you think scores on standardized tests are really a good measure of student achievement.

Still, caveats aside, this data clearly supports a fairly optimistic view of how our schools are doing. Keep it in mind whenever you read a mournful op-ed about our failing educational system.

Are You Left-Eared or Right-Eared?

| Sun Nov. 20, 2011 11:57 AM PST

Here is today's weird question. When I talk on the telephone, I always hold the handpiece up to my left ear. I do this because it sounds better that way.

A few minutes ago I was on the phone, and because my arm was sore I switched over to my right ear. I haven't done this for years, but this time I got curious and started switching back and forth, trying to isolate just what it was that was different. Conclusion: when I'm listening through my left ear, the sound is pretty well modulated. When I listen through my right ear, (a) the overall sound quality seems tinnier and (b) louder sounds — just slightly louder, still perfectly normal for spoken voice — seem distorted and unpleasant.

This seems sort of odd. Obviously the telephone speaker is the same all the time, and sounds are either distorted or they're not. If they are, why don't I hear the distortion through my left ear? And if they're not, why do I think I hear distortion in my right ear? What's going on?

UPDATE: Via Twitter, Hassan Khan passes along a Wired article about a research study showing that Italians in dance clubs are more likely to give you a cigarette if you ask them in their right ear:

It’s the latest in a series of studies that show that sound from both human ears is processed differently within the brain. Researchers have noted that humans tend to have a preference for listening to verbal input with their right ears and that given stimulus in both ears, they’ll privilege the syllables that went into the right ear. Brain scientists hypothesize that the right ear auditory stream receives precedence in the left hemisphere of the brain, where the bulk of linguistic processing is carried out.

I don't know which ear I'm most likely to respond to, only that I much prefer the quality of telephonic voices in my left ear. One way or another, though, apparently there's some kind of cognitively linked difference between your left and right ears.

All told, I'm right-handed, right-footed, left-eyed, and left-eared. I haven't checked my nostrils lately.

Tom's Kitchen: 2 Quick and Easy Sides to Spice Up the Thanksgiving Table

| Sun Nov. 20, 2011 11:00 AM PST

Thanksgiving is upon us; that means it's time to spend hours in the kitchen grinding through really, really elaborate recipes.

Or not. Our national feast day is a time to enjoy food with a large table of friends and family. And for me, enjoying cooking for a crowd means keeping everything simple and low-key—leaving plenty of time to relax, hang out, and enjoy adult beverages. (Or, if you want to go dysfunctional-family-traditional, plenty of time to plunge into a snarling family meltdown … and enjoy adult beverages.)

But staying simple doesn't mean sacrificing flavor. What I advise is to focus on getting the best ingredients you can find—and farmers markets will be brimming with great stuff this time of year—and let them speak for themselves, with just a little tweak to push them over the edge.