2011 - %3, November

Map: Is Adultery Illegal?

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 5:20 PM EST
Herman Cain's alleged extramarital affair with Ginger White lasted more than twice as long as Newt Gingrich's affair with Callista Bisek.

Monday's report that Herman Cain recently ended a 13-year affair with a Georgia woman is, according to the experts, bad news for his crumbling presidential campaign. Iowa talk radio host Steve Deace, a barometer of conservative wisdom in the state, called the former National Restaurant Association lobbyist "toast." Mike Huckabee told Fox News' Greta Van Susteren that the news would likely steer Republican voters to a candidate "with less trouble, with less controversy"—such as Newt Gingrich. Herman Cain is reportedly so concerned about the report that he is "reassessing" whether Herman Cain will stay in the race.

But there's one question about Cain's alleged conduct that conservative commentators aren't asking: Is it against the law?

According to title 16, chapter 9, section 9 of the Georgia code of criminal conduct, "A married person commits the offense of adultery when he voluntarily has sexual intercourse with a person other than his spouse and, upon conviction thereof, shall be punished as for a misdemeanor." At least Georgia adulterers are in good company; adultery is a criminal offense in 23 states, with punishments ranging from a $10 fine in Maryland to life imprisonment in Michigan (at least according to one judge). It's also prohibited by the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Here's a state-by-state guide, courtesy of my colleague Tasneem Raja:

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Ringling Bros. Circus Hit With Largest Fine Ever

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 4:24 PM EST

Following a yearlong Mother Jones investigation of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's elephant abuse, the USDA fined Ringling Bros. $270,000 for alleged Animal Welfare Act (AWA) violations from June 2007 to August 2011. It's the largest civil penalty against an exhibitor in the AWA's four-decade history. For each violation after June 2008, the USDA can fine up to $10,000. That means the USDA is most likely charging Ringling Bros. with more than 27 violations. 

In our November/December 2011 issue, Pulitzer Prize winner Deborah Nelson uncovered the big top on the circus's potential Animal Welfare Act (AWA) violations: elephants whipped with bullhooks, trapped in train cars filled with their own feces, and chained in place for a good part of their lives. Now, that could change. As part of the USDA's agreement with Feld Entertainment, Ringling Bros.' corporate parent, the company will start yearly AWA compliance trainings beginning March 31, 2012 for all new employees who work with animals. That would be a stark contrast to their past cooperation with the USDA. In Nelson's investigations, Ringling Bros. handlers were shown trying to postpone USDA investigations of their elephant training sites.

Feld Entertainment waived the opportunity for a hearing. In a press release, the company explained that "Feld Entertainment made a business decision to resolve its differences with the USDA." The company claimed it was more important to focus on the future of their animal care "instead of engaging in costly and protracted litigation." Feld still denies any wrongdoing or violation of USDA regulations, despite agreeing to pay the $270,000 USDA fine.

Here is the agreement, signed the Wednesday before Thanksgiving:

 
 

Minding the Gigaton Gap

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 3:58 PM EST

2010's Cancun agreement on climate change called for periodic review of whether member countries were doing enough to prevent catastrophic climate change. We already know that the stated commitments on cutting emissions aren't enough to reach the goal of keeping warming under 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), but at least countries agreed to reevaluate down the line.

How far are we from the goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees? Still pretty far. Even if countries make good on the emissions cuts they promised last year (which isn't likely), we're still only 60 percent of the way toward staving off the worst impacts of climate change. The United Nations Environment Program and the World Resources Institute released a report on this problem last year. It's called the "Gigaton Gap." The two groups found that even if countries meet the more ambitious end of their pledges, they'll have to find a way to cut another five gigatons of emissions if we're to keep global warming at 2 degrees.

That said, there's still a heated (sorry) debate about whether 2 degrees, the goal previously agreed to, is even strong enough. The nations that will be most impacted by climate changes have called for a 1.5 degree goal (see my coverage of the issue from 2009 and 2010). Those countries argue the lower goal is necessary to avoid major impacts in small island nations and equatorial countries—an issue that is bound to be contentious once again this year in Durban. But if we're not going to make the 2 degree goal, we're certainly not anywhere near making the 1.5 degree mark.

Negotiators finessed this issue last year by including the "Review" section in the Cancun agreement, which calls for an "assessment of the overall aggregated effect of the steps" that countries have taken. It also calls for "consideration of strengthening the long term global goal," using the latest science to determine whether a 1.5 degree goal is necessary. The first review period is supposed to begin in 2013, which is right around the corner. But exactly what that process will entail is another detail that will be up for discussion in Durban over the next two weeks.

North Carolina Senate Set to Repeal Racial Justice Act

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 3:50 PM EST
Supporters of Troy Davis gather in Jackson, Georgia, in September.

The North Carolina state senate voted to gut a law on Monday that allows death row inmates to argue that racial bias influenced their sentencing. Enacted in 2009, the Racial Justice Act requires judges in North Carolina to commute death row inmates' sentences to life in prison if they find race played a "significant" role in the initial sentence.

State Republicans have long set their sights on undoing the law, the Wall Street Journal reports. The GOP-controlled North Carolina state house weakened the original law in June, changing its language to require that courts prove that prosecutors acted "with discriminatory purpose" when selecting juries and seeking the death penalty. But proving intent, as one attorney told the Raleigh News & Observer, is exceedingly difficult. And Colorlines' Jamillah King reports that the new language "represented a meaningful undermining of the point: The law had moved courts to a focus on racially disparate outcomes, rather than a racist intent."

The law's opponents say it is sloppily written, and could give inmates the ability to use statistics on racial bias from other jurisdictions in their appeals. Also at stake for Republicans: the future of capital punishment in North Carolina. They view the Racial Justice Act as a Trojan horse for ending the death penalty, pointing out that the state hasn't ordered up an execution since 2006 (three years before the law was enacted). Just a few weeks ago, 43 of North Carolina's 44 district attorneys wrote a letter to the state Senate asking legislators to repeal the Racial Justice Act for that very reason.

It's a fair point—if you're into executing people. Another fair point: according to a widely cited presentation at Michigan State University law school in 2010, defendants who killed a white person in North Carolina were more than twice as likely to receive the death penalty than when their victims were black. And the Raleigh News & Observer reports that African-American jury pool members who weren't rejected for cause were rejected at about twice the rate as potential white jurors.

But as Georgia's controversial execution of Troy Davis earlier this year affirmed, the trend towards disproportionately executing poor black men isn't confined to North Carolina. Here's Colorlines' King again:

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977, 56 percent of inmates killed by the state [of Georgia] have been black. . . .

Nationally, 48 percent— that’s nearly 70,000 people—of those who’ve been sentenced to life in prison are black, despite the fact that the black inmates make up 38 percent of the total prison population.

North Carolina is one of 34 states in the U.S. that currently executes prisoners. The Death Penalty Information Center lists it as having the country’s sixth largest death row. The majority of people on it—86 out of a total of 157 inmates—are African American.

What's at issue here isn't the sanctity of capital punishment. It's the fact that it has been wielded unjustly.

Tom Philpott Debates Freakonomics on Local Food

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 3:23 PM EST

Yesterday, MoJo food and ag blogger Tom Philpott went head to head with Freakonomics' Steve Sexton on LA public radio station KPCC. If you've been reading Tom's blog, you know that the two have sparred before, most recently on the topic of whether the local food movement is good for the environment. That was the topic of yesterday's debate. Listen here:

Why Businesses Love Illegal Immigration

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 3:13 PM EST

Tod Kelly tells a story about a commercial nursery that hired his firm a few years ago to help get their workers compensation claims under control. After examining the nursery's operations, they made several recommendations about buying some new equipment and updating their training:

As we were wrapping up, as an aside, we noted that one of their larger ongoing back injury claimants was an illegal alien. We could close that claim out quickly, we told them, by letting the injured worker know that we would have light duty work for him were he able to legally work for the nursery. Since he wasn’t able, he could be terminated and all future indemnity costs would disappear. As soon as we explained this, the brothers began looking at each other, wide eyed and smiling. I cringed inwardly. I knew we had just made a mistake.

The updated equipment was never purchased, of course. And taking the time to train or stretch was seen as a waste of the company’s time and money. The claims continued to flood in, but now with each claim came notification from the employer that they had “reason to suspect” the claimant was an illegal worker, along with a request to send the light-duty letter so we could avoid making indemnity payments. Over the course of the next year the number of employee injuries increased 20%. But without indemnity costs their annual claims cost decreased 55% — and their insurance premiums went down as a result. They were able to terminate our services the next year with a glowing letter of recommendation.

Today they have moved from being one of a top-100 nursery to being a top-15, and by all accounts are going strong.

If this reminds you a lot of The Jungle, you aren't the only one. The rest of the piece is worth a read too.

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Should Fair Trade Certify Giants Like Nestle and Folgers?

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 2:37 PM EST

Just before Thanksgiving, the New York Times' William Neuman published an interesting piece on an emerging rift within the US fair-trade community.

Fair Trade USA, the main US fair-trade certifying entity, has announced plans to essentially lower its standards in the new year, Neuman reports. The group announced it would sever ties with Fairtrade International, "which coordinates fair trade marketing activities in close to two dozen countries," Neuman writes. And large coffee plantations will be eligible for certification—before, only small cooperatives could receive the seal—as will "products with as little as 10 percent fair trade ingredients, compared with a minimum of 20 percent required in other countries."

The plans have enraged the people behind Massachusetts-based Equal Exchange, a stalwart purveyor of fair-trade products. "It's a betrayal," Equal Exchange president Rink Dickinson told Neuman. "They've lost their integrity."

Fair Trade USA, of course, defended the changes. Here's Neuman:

Paul Rice, chief executive of Fair Trade USA, said the fair trade movement was dominated by hard-liners who resisted needed changes. "We're all debating what do we want fair trade to be as it grows up," Mr. Rice said. "Do we want it to be small and pure or do we want it to be fair trade for all?"

He dismissed criticism that his group was seeking to increase revenue for its own sake. "The more we grow volume, the more we can increase the impact" of fair trade, he said.

Who's right? To think it through, it helps to remember why fair trade exists in the first place. The idea behind the movement is pretty simple: International trade in tropical commodities like coffee, chocolate, and bananas may sound like a great deal for workers and small producers in the Global South, but it really isn't.

The Shadow Banking System and the Hearts of Men

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 2:13 PM EST

Conventional wisdom watch, bond market edition:

James Carville on the bond market, circa 1993: "I used to think if there was reincarnation, I wanted to come back as the president or the pope or a .400 baseball hitter. But now I want to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everybody."

Karl Smith on the bond market, circa 2011: "I used to think if there was reincarnation, I wanted to come back as the bond market. But now I want to come back as the repo market. The repo market even intimidates the bond market."

Karl didn't actually say that, of course. But acting as his PR agent, I'm making his view a little more user friendly. In any case, he's right. Sovereign bonds are the backbone of the repo market, and the repo market is the backbone of the shadow banking system. So when sovereign bonds fail, the shadow banking system fails and there's a run. And as we all know, there's no FDIC insurance for the shadow banking system.

At a guess, the shadow banking system makes up about half of the entire banking system these days, and right now the shadow banking system is looking distinctly wobbly in Europe. Somebody needs to prop it up to stop a run, and that somebody is the European Central Bank. So far, though, they aren't stepping up to the plate. The best case scenario is that Noah Millman is right, and they're just playing a very high-stakes game of chicken in order to advance German interests:

One way of looking at the sequence of events is to say that the ECB was willing to permit contagion in order to wring out inflation. I think a better way of looking at it is to say that the ECB was willing to threaten Italy with insolvency in order to give Germany more formal control over Italy’s finances. That’s incredibly hard-ball politics, but if you are not accountable to anybody (which the ECB, basically, is not) then you can play really, really hard-ball politics.

When somebody eventually makes a movie about this, perhaps it will be called Seven Days in December. I hope it has as happy an ending as the original.

Healthcare's Unlucky Duckies

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 1:57 PM EST

Via Stephanie Mencimer, Christopher Conover at the conservative American Enterprise Institute recently highlighted a well-known fact: in any given year, 1% of the population accounts for a fifth of all healthcare spending and 5% accounts for nearly half of all spending:

We have become so accustomed to health coverage that functions as prepaid healthcare rather than as insurance against unknown risks that this distinction escapes many people (including policymakers). In a perfect world, we would have universal coverage against the risk of landing in the health spending 1 percent. Most people would gladly pay $1,161 to avoid facing bills of $116,000. But not everyone can afford to do so. ...[This is] why one Republican presidential candidate observed, a half decade ago, that "Health is about 30 times more difficult than national security." Perhaps it’s worth having a Republican presidential candidate debate on this issue alone.

Yes, perhaps it is.

Okay, Maybe The ACLU Is Running The CIA

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 1:45 PM EST
Obama meets with his national security team in 2010.

Sure, Rep. Michele Bachmann's repeated fact-free insinuations that the Obama national security apparatus is being run by civil libertarians are completely false, but this week law enforcement and intelligence professionals and the American Civil Liberties Union are on the same page, at least when it comes to militarizing domestic counterterrorism.

The defense funding bill authorizing domestic indefinite military detention for American citizens suspected of terrorism has come under fire from almost every leading national security official in the administration. All of them have argued that the detention provisions would harm national security:

  • Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the bill would "needlessly complicate efforts by frontline law enforcement professionals to collect critical intelligence concerning operations and activities within the United States."
  • Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that the provisions would "deny our nation the ability to respond flexibly and appropriately to unfolding events—including the capture of terrorism suspects."
  • FBI Director Robert Mueller has warned that the "fixes" introduced by the Senate Armed Services Committee "fail to recognize the reality of a counterterrorism investigation."

Now, the convergence between the ACLU and the Obama administration's national security apparatus has little to do with the ACLU's influence, it's just one of those moments where national security officials and civil libertarians happen to see eye-to-eye on something, and not even necessarily for the same reasons. The ACLU doesn't want the military investigating domestic crimes, and national security officials don't want to worry about asking permission to continue every time law enforcement starts investigating a suspect. Civil libertarian blogger Marcy Wheeler, however, sees the ACLU as possibly being "in cahoots" with a plan "to give sanction to a broad expansion of Executive war and surveillance powers the likes of which the CIA loves to exploit."

The key to this supposed plan is an amendment proposed by Senator Mark Udall (D-Colo.) that would strip the offending provisions and force the administration to describe the legal powers it thinks it has when it comes to detaining and prose terrorists. Wheeler argues the Udall amendment "unilaterally reasserts the application of the AUMFs (plural) and other vaguely defined legal bases to detention" and "dictates that detention authority apply to a far broader group of people" than the detention provisions currently in the bill.