2011 - %3, November

Pro Tips From the Blogosphere

| Mon Nov. 7, 2011 12:22 PM EST

Would you like to know the secret of successful political blogging? Tanni Haas, a journalism professor at CUNY, asked a bunch of bloggers and then put all the interviews together into a book. Here's my deathless advice:

You have to enjoy writing. You really have to enjoy sitting down at a keyboard and typing words. If you don't, then you might as well forget about it.

This thought is not original to me. In my first real job out of college I was a technical writer for a computer hardware company. When I interviewed for the job, the department manager made something like this comment to me. At first it sounded kind of dumb, but it stuck with me for a long time. Because he was right: if a job requires a fairly high volume of writing — as both blogging and technical writing do — you're not going to be happy at it unless you're the kind of person who just constitutionally enjoys the act of putting your fingers on a keyboard and making words come out. If you don't, you might do it anyway because you have to put food on the table, but you won't enjoy it and you'll likely never be all that good at it. And if you don't have to do it in order to put food on the table, you won't stick with it for long.

Pretty profound, huh? And I suppose that actually knowing something helps too, though that theory hasn't really been seriously tested yet in the blogosphere. (Or in human history, some cynics might say. Though not me, of course.) In any event, Haas also interviewed lots of smarter people than me, including Tyler Cowen, Digby, Juan Cole, Jane Hamsher, and quite a few others. So there's probably some smart stuff in the book too. Amazon, of course, will let you dip into the book a little bit for free if you want to test this assumption. Enjoy.

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Are Republicans Deliberately Sabotaging the Economy?

| Mon Nov. 7, 2011 11:47 AM EST

On Thursday I wrote about a poll in Florida in which half the respondents agreed that "Republicans are intentionally stalling efforts to jumpstart the economy to insure that Barack Obama is not re-elected." Remarkably, even a lot of Republicans and conservatives agreed with that statement.

But how about nationally? None of the big polling outfits has asked the question quite that pointedly yet, but the Washington Post recently asked a Statement A/Statement B question in which half of all respondents agreed with Statement A: "President Obama is making a good faith effort to deal with the country’s economic problems, but the Republicans in Congress are playing politics by blocking his proposals and programs." Not quite the same, but in the same ballpark.

But is that mostly just Democrats and Dem-leaning indies who agree with that? Greg Sargent took a look at the internals and found that moderates and independents poll a bit higher than 50%, but Republicans are bringing down the average: "The overall number is lower, at 50 percent, because a hilarously meager nine percent of Republicans believe this to be the case." I can think of two ways to interpret this:

  • The Post question was more partisan than the Florida poll question because it starts out with "President Obama is making a good faith effort...." Lots of Republicans are going to choke on that even if they agree that congressional GOP leaders are indeed trying to sabotage Obama. This explains why the Post numbers are lower than in the Florida poll.
  • The Post question was tamer than the one in the Florida poll, since it only suggests Republicans are "playing politics," not "intentionally stalling" efforts to revive the economy. But even at that, most Republicans in the Post weren't buying it. This suggests that the Florida poll is an outlier.

For now, I'm going with the second explanation. But I'd still be interested in seeing some more national-level polling on this with the question worded more directly. If I see one, I'll let you know.

Poll: Mississippi Personhood Amendment May Pass

| Mon Nov. 7, 2011 11:47 AM EST

Mississippi's "Personhood" amendment, which would redefine life as beginning at fertilization, may well pass when it goes to a vote on Tuesday. Public Policy Polling finds that 45 percent of voters in the state support the amendment, while 44 percent are opposed.

The poll found that men (48 percent), whites (54 percent), and Republicans (65 percent) show the strongest support for the proposal. The measure has received backing from Mississippi politicians on both sides of the aisle, including both the Republican and Democratic candidates for governor. The state's current governor, Republican Haley Barbour, first expressed some apprehension about the measure, but then voted for it when he sent in his absentee ballot last week (he'll be out of town on Election Day).

This is by far the most extreme anti-abortion law under consideration in the US. It would not only ban all abortions, even in cases of rape or incest, but would also outlaw many forms of birth control and in-vitro fertilization.

Les Riley, the director of Personhood Mississippi, says the measure's not just about redefining the very concept of when human life begins. He also hopes it may help convert more Mississippians to Christianity—even those who vote against it. Riley is certainly correct, however, in his statement that, if it's approved, this "will be the first time in history that a state has recognized the humanity of the unborn and their God-given right to life." When similar measure was on the ballot in Colorado for (for a second time) last year, voters rejected it by a 3 to 1 margin.

Supreme Court Declines to Halt Execution of Texas Inmate Duane Buck

| Mon Nov. 7, 2011 11:29 AM EST

On Monday, the US Supreme Court rejected a writ of certiorari to reconsider the case of Texas death row inmate Duane Buck, meaning that unless the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles intervenes (it hasn't in the past) Buck's execution will continue as planned.

Buck was sentenced to death in 1997 for the murder of his ex-girlfriend and a male acquaintance, but while he freely admits to his guilt, the point of contention is how his death sentence was obtained. The prosecutor in the case relied in part on the testimony of a defense-summoned psychologist who argued that Buck's race (he's black) made him more likely to commit violent acts in the future. Which is to say, he would be a threat if allowed to live in prison, or if he were ever given the chance of parole. Sen. John Cornyn (R), then Texas' attorney general, included Buck's in a list of cases that had been improperly decided—but Buck's case was the only one that didn't result in a re-trial. The Supreme Court granted a temporary injunction in October to give themselves time to decide whether to review the case.

Watchdog Group Asks IRS to Investigate Cain Aide's Charity

| Mon Nov. 7, 2011 11:28 AM EST
Herman Cain's chief of staff, Mark Block.

On Monday, uber-attorney Gloria Allred announced that she is representing a fourth woman allegedly harassed by GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain, thereby ensuring that controversy will continue to grab DC headlines for at least another week. But ultimately, it's items like this that could cause things to get real ugly, real fast for the Cain campaign:

Today, the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) filed a letter requesting that the Internal Revenue Service investigate a charity operated by Wisconsin political veteran Mark Block that spent over $40,000 of tax-exempt donations to pay for private jets, travel, and computers for Herman Cain’s presidential bid. CMD also requested an examination of other Mark Block-related groups sharing the same address or other commonalities. Mr. Cain, who has denied knowing who paid for his various travels, is not the target of these requests to the IRS.

CMD joins Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington in raising official concerns about the role Block's non-profit, Prosperity USA, played in getting Cain's campaign off the ground. As the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel first reported, Prosperity USA appears to have advanced tens of thousands of dollars to the Cain campaign, footing the bill for trips to Vegas, flights, and iPads. But those debts do not show in Cain's Federal Elections Commission filings. As a non-profit, CMD is legally prohibited from making either direct or in-kind contributions to a campaign. As we noted previously, Block has a history of playing fast and loose with the tax code; he was suspended from working on elections in Wisconsin for three years in the early 2000s after turning a non-profit voter registration outfit into a campaign organ during a judicial election.

Quote of the Day: Europe's Bellwether

| Mon Nov. 7, 2011 10:57 AM EST

From Dan Drezner, commenting on the latest twists and turns in the eurozone saga:

I've said it before and I'll say it again: any time the global economy is counting on Silvio Berlusconi to do the right thing is not a good time.

I think Berlusconi is an object lesson for America. This is what could happen if we actually elected someone like Sarah Palin or Herman Cain president. It's just a bad dream for us, but the Italians actually did it.

More here from Gavyn Davies via Paul Krugman, who says the best way to think about the eurozone mess is that it's fundamentally a trade deficit problem and nobody is even pretending to know what to do about it.

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That Honey in Your Bear Might Not Be Honey

| Mon Nov. 7, 2011 10:33 AM EST

Honey Bear: National Honey BoardHoney Bear: National Honey Board

If you've been feeding your kids spoonfuls of honey for their coughs this fall, you might want to think again about where that honey comes from. Food Safety News, a site set up by food safety lawyer Bill Marler, reports today that lab tests show that most honey sold on supermarket and drug store shelves today isn't really honey, according to safety requirements set by the Food and Drug Administration.

That's because it's been so ultra-filtered that it's largely pollen-free. Pollen is a key ingredient in real honey, and thought by some people to have medicinal and allergy-fighting properties.

But according to Food Safety News, you won't find much pollen it in American store-bought honey. Their tests found that:

• 76 percent of samples bought at groceries had all the pollen removed, These were stores like TOP Food, Safeway, Giant Eagle, QFC, Kroger, Metro Market, Harris Teeter, A&P, Stop & Shop and King Soopers.

• 100 percent of the honey sampled from drugstores like Walgreens, Rite-Aid and CVS Pharmacy had no pollen.

• 77 percent of the honey sampled from big box stores like Costco, Sam's Club, Walmart, Target and H-E-B had the pollen filtered out.

• 100 percent of the honey packaged in the small individual service portions from Smucker, McDonald's and KFC had the pollen removed.

According to FSN, most US distributors are selling pollen-free honey because it's likely coming from China, a country that's gotten into trouble for dumping large quantites of antibiotic-laden, dirt-cheap honey onto the US market and putting American bee keepers out of business. In 2001, the US slapped tarriffs on Chinese honey to prevent it from flooding the market. To get around the tarrifs, China is reportedly laundering its honey through other countries. Ultra-filtering the pollen ensures the honey that ends up in the US can't be traced back to its country of origin.

If you're looking for real honey, FSN recommends buying organic from places like Trader Joe's or farmer's markets, where the honey has plenty of pollen.

Poll: Ohio Gov. John Kasich's Anti-Union Law Headed for Whopping Defeat

| Mon Nov. 7, 2011 9:56 AM EST

On the eve of Ohio's ballot referendum on Tuesday, a new poll by Public Policy Polling suggests GOP Gov. John Kasich's anti-union law is set for a trouncing.

PPP found that 59 percent of voters supported repealing SB 5, as Kasich's law is known, while only 36 percent wanted to uphold it. That's bad news for Kasich allies, as it reinforces previous polls showing SB 5 heading for a resounding defeat. In fact, the 23-point gap in PPP's latest survey is identical to the result of a March PPP poll. "Voters were furious then and that anger has continued all the way to November," Tom Jensen, PPP's director, said in a statement.

Although Democrats voice near-unanimous support for repealing SB 5, that same cohesion isn't there among Ohio Republicans, PPP found. Sixty-six percent of Republicans polled said they'd vote to keep the law on the books, but 30 percent said they'd vote for repeal. And among independents, that crucial swath of voters in this swing state, the split was 54 percent to 39 percent in favor of repeal.

As I reported Sunday, the divide among Republicans over SB 5's fate was on display even in House Speaker John Boehner's deep red Congressional district, where a Democrat hasn't been elected to Congress since 1933. As AJ Smith, a city council member in Middletown, the second-largest city in Boehner's district, put it, "This is not about Democrats; this is not about Republicans. This is about right and wrong."

PPP's Jensen said the disgust with SB 5 illustrated Ohioans' broader dislike of Kasich, whose approval rating has slumped to 33 percent. "If Ohio voters could do it over again they'd reelect Ted Strickland by a 55-37 margin over Kasich," Jensen said, "and although they don't have an opportunity for a redo on the gubernatorial election, the likely results of the Senate Bill 5 referendum on Tuesday can be seen as a proxy for it."

For their part, unions and progressives have tried to tamp down expectations of a big, double-digit win Tuesday. As Greg Sargent reported last month, an internal labor memo warned against reading too much into polls on the SB 5 referendum, calling a slam-dunk win not even "remotely possible." The memo, circulated by the group Progress Ohio, noted that no poll up to that point had tested the actual ballot language for the SB 5 repeal. However, this latest PPP poll did just that. The result: 59 percent of those polled wanted SB 5 to go down.

We Interrupt This Blog…

| Mon Nov. 7, 2011 9:30 AM EST

It's time for my next assignment! Unfortunately, we can't tell you what it is. Nor can I blog about it, nor explain why I can't blog about it at just this moment. So I'll be virtually disappearing, to return in a few weeks when we drop the pieces of the reportage serialized-style, if all goes according to plan.

The last time I didn't post anything for such a long time, it was because for security purposes I couldn't talk about this story about a Congolese warlord until it was finished. Check it out while I'm gone. And don't worry, the subject I'm reporting this time isn't so dangerous (I think!).

White House: Intergalactic War With Aliens Is Totally Not Imminent

| Mon Nov. 7, 2011 9:10 AM EST
The Obama administration insists that this won't be your dark reality any time soon.

News from the past week failed to bring much comfort: The economy is still growing too sluggishly, the Pakistanis are getting even more reckless with their nuclear arsenal, Greece is in turmoil, and true love is dying. But at least the White House can guarantee that we're safe from imminent war with bellicose Martians.

Well, for now, at least:

The White House says there is no evidence of life beyond Earth -- and no cover-up by the government -- but scientists are still searching...Phil Larson, who works on space policy and communications at the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy [OSTP], also [notes] that "there is no credible information to suggest that any evidence is being hidden from the public's eye."

No, this wasn't from a scene in Invasion of the Pod People; last week, Larson, a research assistant in the OSTP, responded to two open petitions to the president, one demanding that federal authorities "formally acknowledge an extraterrestrial presence engaging the human race" and one calling for "open Congressional hearings to allow the people to become aware of [government interactions with extraterrestrial beings] through those whose voices have been silenced by unconstitutional secrecy oaths."

This pair of "We the People" petitions were signed by thousands of concerned citizens—12,078 unique signatures for the former, 5,387 for the latter—deeply anxious over the prospect of something along the lines of this happening:

Under the White House's "We the People" guidelines, any petition that meets the signature threshold (then 5,000) within 30 days of submission "will be reviewed by the Administration and an official response will be issued." (The review process, though, can easily result in the non-response of a rejection, as seen with multiple petitions regarding drug laws.) In the White House's official response, titled "Searching for ET, But No Evidence Yet," Larson wrote:

The U.S. government has no evidence that any life exists outside our planet, or that an extraterrestrial presence has contacted or engaged any member of the human race...However, that doesn't mean the subject of life outside our planet isn't being discussed or explored. In fact, there are a number of projects working toward the goal of understanding if life can or does exist off Earth...

Many scientists and mathematicians have looked with a statistical mindset at the question of whether life likely exists beyond Earth and have come to the conclusion that the odds are pretty high that somewhere among...the universe there is a planet other than ours that is home to life...[T]he odds of us making contact with any of them—especially any intelligent ones—are extremely small, given the distances involved. But that's all statistics and speculation.

The real mystery is why the White House would choose to acknowledge, let alone reply, to these particular petitions. The issue isn't that there are way more topical petitions out there, or even that there'd be zero political consequences to ignoring a petition about aliens; it's also that there is absolutely no way—short of having Jay Carney confirm the existence of secret intergalactic peace talks between Barack Obama and Mikhail Sergeyevich Alien-achev—to respond in a manner that would pacify the true believers. For instance, Paradigm Research Group (PRG), an advocacy group pushing for UFO-related "politics of disclosure," issued an update stating that the White House's response, authored by some "low level staffer," was insufficient and "unacceptable." (PRG is working to promote a follow-up petition and vows to keep "the Disclosure issue front and center within this attempt at participatory democracy...")

Considering Larson's ET-themed assignment, it's hard not to believe that the OSTP is hazing their research assistants with fool's errands. However, Larson's response could also be interpreted as the White House's snide, symbolic response to another recent online petition—the one requesting the Obama administration actually take these petitions seriously.