2011 - %3, December

Friday Cat Blogging - 23 December 2011

| Fri Dec. 23, 2011 3:02 PM EST

This is what Christmas is like in Southern California. It's about 70 degrees and the cats are frolicking in the backyard. Inkblot is up on his favorite fence, entranced by the sight of birds he'll never catch. Domino is down in the garden, rolling around on a spot that used to have a catnip plant and perhaps still retains a bit of feline allure.

Need more cats? BuzzFeed has 'em: The 30 Most Important Cats of 2011. It's obviously missing a couple of pretty important cats, but I guess even superstars have to make way once in a while.

Still looking for some last-minute gift ideas? Here's a couple of thoughts. Click here and you'll get a list of MoJo's favorite books of the year. There's bound to be something there for that hard-to-shop-for loved one on your list. Or click here and give someone a gift subscription to Mother Jones. It's only $9.95 for six issues. At that price, nobody needs to be a grinch this year.

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Yes Virginia, Ron Paul is a Kook

| Fri Dec. 23, 2011 2:06 PM EST

Ha ha. I was just kidding in the last post. It got cut off because, um, my cat knocked over a power line and my neighborhood lost electricity for a bit. But we're all good now! And I'd just like to say that Barack Obama is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful president a country could ever hope to have.

Anyway. As we all know, President Obama's most dangerous enemy is Ron Paul, and it's now my duty to tear him down so that his siren call of freedom will never reach the American people. So here you go: a fundraising letter "written" by Ron Paul in, I guess, 1991 or so. Question: what the hell is he talking about here? He's scared, he says, by the government's announcement of "New Money," which could wipe you out and leave your family destitute.

Answer: as near as I can tell, he's babbling about the introduction in 1991 of new currency designed to be harder to counterfeit. It made his skin crawl! The bills were tinted pink and blue! And they were being printed in — a nondescript building that has security measures and three-color printing presses!

There's also some stuff about new federal rules requiring you to report cash transactions over $10,000, and I can at least understand a guy like Ron Paul having nightmares about that.

But new currency designed to be hard to counterfeit? That's a totalitarian nightmare? You know, even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and the fact that Ron Paul has a few good ideas doesn't mean he's not a lunatic kook. He is. He's a lunatic kook who's learned to speak in complete sentences1 and whose kookiness occasionally overlaps with the pet ideas of both left and right.

But he's still a kook.

1In fairness, a lot of kooks have learned this trick recently.

UPDATE: More here. Much more.

Bo-Gate: The Coverup Starts to Unravel

| Fri Dec. 23, 2011 12:34 PM EST

I know that you've all been holding your breath over the unfolding scandal known as Bo-gate, so here's the latest:

Scott Miscovich, who lives down the street from the Obama vacation rental home on Kailuana Place told the Star-Advertiser Sunday, "My wife saw Michelle and the kids passing by and we've seen Bo (the Obamas' dog) walking."

A White House spokesman told the Star-Advertiser that Bo did not travel to Hawaii with the first lady and daughters Malia and Sasha.

This afternoon, Miscovich released the following statement: "It is now clear my wife saw another black dog walking our neighborhood. We would like to apologize to Bo and the Obama family for any inconvenience this may have caused them. We would also like to wish them a peaceful and Merry Christmas."

So apparently the White House is doubling down on its coverup. They say Bo didn't go to Hawaii. They say Bo didn't fly back to Virginia the next day in order to stage a photo op with President Obama. They say Bo doesn't have his own private 747 to ferry him around the country. And they obviously used their well-honed Chicago thug tactics to force Scott Miscovich to recant. It's just like Darkness at Noon.

This is not over. Oh no. It's not even close. Maybe the Obamas can get Scott Miscovich to back down, but they'll never get to me. This blog will bring you the truth about Bo until their jackbooted thugs drag me away from my computer kicking and screa

New Mercury Rules Even Better Than You Thought

| Fri Dec. 23, 2011 12:21 PM EST

Earlier this morning I wrote that even with estimated benefits of $90 billion per year, the EPA may be selling short its new rules limiting emissions of mercury and other airborne toxins. (Most of that $90 billion estimate is due to reductions in particulate matter, not mercury.) After all, mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin, and the cost of cognitive and social defects, negative autoimmune effects, genetic effects, and heart attacks goes beyond just the EPA's estimate of lost earnings due to lower IQs.

All true. But Matt Yglesias says that even I'm underestimating the benefits of the new rules:

The EPA's official analysis of the impact of mercury on kids' brains is limited to the impact on wages of children born to families that catch freshwater fish for their own consumption. The impact they find is, not surprisingly, pretty small since most families don't each much self-caught freshwater fish. But the entire analysis simply skips the impact of mercury toxins ingested through commercial fishing which, obviously, is the vast majority of the fish that people eat.

They did it this way because it's extremely difficult to trace oceanic mercury to specific power plants and because the rule (easily) passes cost-benefit scrutiny for separate reasons so there was no need for the EPA to produce a guesstimate about it. But a 2005 study that attempted to quantify this estimated $8.7 billion per year in lost wages wages due to mercury-related IQ loss. There is huge potential low-hanging fruit here to build an entire better next generation of Americans, but this entire subject was completely excluded from the EPA's analysis which is overwhelmingly focused on the respiratory impact of particulate inhalation. That's a big deal. It means less asthma, thousands fewer premature deaths from older people, etc. But the main channel through which mercury does neurological damage to infants and fetuses is basically neglected for technical reasons.

So there you go. President Obama's early Christmas present was even better than you thought. Ho ho ho.

Does Cutting the Payroll Tax Endanger Social Security?

| Fri Dec. 23, 2011 11:31 AM EST

Does the recently extended payroll tax cut harm the solvency of the Social Security trust fund? Answer: no it doesn't. The shortfall is made up with payments from the general fund, so the trust fund suffers no loss of income at all.

But wait! There's another, subtler argument about why it's a bad idea to reduce the payroll tax. Here is conservative Michael Walsh:

Democrats have undermined their own arguments about the true nature of the Social Security program (turns out it really is a tax-based welfare program, not a dedicated, contribution-based retirement program), and [] Republicans either ought to take them up on it, or flip the thing one more time and pose as the principled champions of Keeping Social Security Solvent.

The complaint here is that Social Security is generally sold as a program that's funded solely by money that you've paid into the system during your working life, which means you have an ironclad claim to Social Security benefits when you retire. As FDR put it: "We put those payroll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral, and political right to collect their pensions and unemployment benefits. With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program."

Walsh's objection is one that several liberals have also made about the payroll tax holiday. Echoing FDR, they say that if Social Security is funded out of ordinary tax revenues, then the historical "legal, moral, and political right" to Social Security benefits is broken. Social Security is just another social welfare program.

I don't buy this for two reasons. First, I just don't believe that a small, temporary cut in the payroll tax has any effect on how people view Social Security. But second, I doubt that even a permanent switch to general fund support would have any serious effect on the program. In 1935, when Social Security was brand new, FDR might have had a point. But today? With Social Security as firmly a part of the American political system as anything this side of the Army or the Treasury? I don't think so. I just don't believe that the funding source matters any longer. Social Security is safe because millions of the elderly count on it and more millions of the non-elderly expect it to be there when they retire. It's safe because it's an enormously popular program, not because payroll taxes mean that you "deserve" your benefits when you retire. It's safe because any politician who tries to cut it finds himself very quickly on the business end of a million postcards from AARP members.

So the payroll tax holiday doesn't bother me. Anyone who's "paid taxes all my life" is going to feel that they deserve their Social Security, and it won't matter a bit what taxes they've paid all their life. Hell, most people don't even know what taxes they pay, and "FICA" might as well refer to a newly found gene for why men won't ask for directions as it does to a funding stream for Social Security. So cutting the payroll tax is fine. Technically it doesn't make any difference, and morally I very much doubt that it changes anyone's view of what they deserve when they turn 65. This is just not something to worry about.

Letter Reveals How Ron Paul Cashed in on Paranoia

| Fri Dec. 23, 2011 10:01 AM EST
Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas)

Even as he's climbed to the top of the polls in Iowa and gone so far as to preemptively claim victory in New Hampshire, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) has spent much of the last week distancing himself from racist and homophobic articles that appeared in his eponymous newsletter in the 1980s and early 1990s. In part, that's because anxious conservatives have decided to make an issue of it—last week, the Weekly Standard dispatched James Kirchik to rehash his original 2008 bombshell on the newsletters. It's also because, as Dave Weigel explains, Paul has failed to put together a coherent response. On Wednesday, Paul walked out of an interview with CNN's Gloria Borger when she pressed him on his role in publishing them.

The story hasn't gone away, and now Reuters has the latest: A newly unearthed subscription pitch circa 1993, this time bearing the signature of Paul himself. It reads like a caricature of the conspiratorial, unhinged, early '90s militia movement, the kind of thing that would make the John Birch Society blush. Written in the first person, it warns of threats from the "demonic fraternity" we know of as Yale's Skull and Bones society, the Trilateral Commission, the "perverted, pagan" rituals at Bohemian Grove, a global government, "the coming race war," the Council on Foreign Relation, and FEMA. Paul (or his ghostwriter, at least) carefully explains that you can trust his view that the federal government is behind AIDS, because he's a doctor:

 

 

It's plausible enough that Paul didn't write the newsletters he published, and that he doesn't agree with all of the opinions expressed therein, and that he was lying in 1996 (when he endorsed the opinions contained therein) and not in 2001 (when he first claimed ignorance). That's the case Weigel and Julian Sanchez made, anyway.

But even setting all of that aside, there's another element to the story.

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South Dakota Spends Big Taxpayer Bucks to Defend Anti-Abortion Laws

| Fri Dec. 23, 2011 7:00 AM EST

Anti-abortion lawmakers in South Dakota have been busy in the past few years passing bills that limit access to abortion, most of which end up in protracted legal battles. And all of that effort comes at a cost to taxpayers in the state: $750,000 in the first half of next year alone.

The state has also been in a lengthy legal battle over a 2005 law that required doctors to read women a specific script before performing an abortion. The script included a host of factually and legally questionable lines, which Planned Parenthood—the only abortion provider in the state—challenged in court. Part of the script was thrown out, but the case is back in the circuit court next month.

In order to foot the legal bills, Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard 2012 budget proposal includes a little over $1 million for the "Extraordinary Litigation Fund," the Rapid City Journal reports. The biggest portion of that, $750,000, is to cover the costs related to the Planned Parenthood case through June. And if the state loses, it will also have to pay Planned Parenthood's legal fees.

Earlier this year, the legislature also passed a new law requiring women to visit crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs)—facilities that are most often run by anti-abortion groups—before obtaining an abortion. Under the law, a woman would need to first consult with the doctor providing the abortion, then visit a CPC, then wait 72 hours before undergoing the actual procedure. A judge granted a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of that law back in June, and it's probably going to be thrown out entirely. The governor's office says they aren't expecting any more legal fees associated with that case.

The Rapid City Journal also notes that the state has set up an additional "Life Protection Fund" to defend its abortion-related laws, using private donations. The fund had $63,387 at last tally. Most interesting, however, is that the state's voters rejected abortion bans at the polls in both 2006 and 2008, by a 12-point margin both times. But the state keeps fighting for draconian anti-choice laws—and spending taxpayer dollars to do it.

Your Daily Newt: Boycotting Banks to Defend Nude Photos

| Fri Dec. 23, 2011 6:00 AM EST
Hipster Newt Gingrich was into protesting banks before it was cool.

As a service to our readers, every day we are delivering a classic moment from the political life of Newt Gingrich—until he either clinches the nomination or bows out.

Newt Gingrich won the gratitude of the tech world—and smut-loving Americans everywhere—when he fought against an Internet censorship provision in the 1996 Communications Decency Act. But his career as a free speech activist actually began some 28 years earlier, when the former speaker launched a campus occupation in defense of the student newspaper's right to publish nude photos.

Although he had refrained from partaking in the counter-culture movements of the time, young Gingrich, while a graduate student at Tulane, became a rabble-rousing activist when the school administration censored two sexually explicit photos from a student newspaper. (One image depicted a nude male art professor standing in front of a sculpture of two figures engaged in intercourse). Gingrich denounced the administration for unfairly censoring materials that had been produced by students and funded by student activity fees. To correct the injustice, he formed a new activist organization, Mobilization of Responsible Tulane Students, to force the powers that be to step back.

With MORTS, which included members of the more radical Students for a Democratic Society, Gingrich led a march of 700 students to the school president's house—where, according to Tim Wise's account, Tulane president Howard Longenecker was hanged in effigy. He followed it up by leading boycotts against a number of local businesses whose executives sat on the Tulane board of trustees, among them Merrill Lynch and another local bank. When he secured a meeting with Longenecker, Gingrich played hardball:

He threatened the university president with disrupting campus life for weeks if he did not relent. "It is now a question of power," the brash young man told university president Herbert Longenecker, according to minutes of the meeting that NEWSWEEK discovered in Tulane archives. "We are down to a clash of wills."

As Gingrich explained to the alumni magazine Tulanian in 1995, "Our argument was that it ought to have intellectual freedom because it was a student newspaper...I told [the school president] that we were paying for it and had a right not to be censored by the people who were not paying for it." MORTS' agenda extended beyond nude photography. As Steve Gillon reported in The Pact, Gingrich's followers later occupied the student center, demanding that (among other things) the administration turn the school's swimming pool into a public bath. Gingrich also pushed to give students a role in the hiring and firing (and promoting) of faculty and all major university decisions—an assault on the Ivory Tower that's echoed in his more recent broadsides.

Despite his feverish protests, the nude photos were ultimately not published, and Gingrich's taste for activism was short-lived. After leaving Tulane, his views on student activists have changed considerably. In a 1984 book, Window of Opportunity, he blamed the "social decay and disorder" of the 1970s and 1980s on the Free Speech Movement. By November, he'd descended into outright hippie punching. Asked about the Wall Street Occupiers at a forum in Des Moines, he had a simple message for th 99-Percenters: "get a job, right after you take a bath."

President Obama's Christmas Present to America

| Fri Dec. 23, 2011 6:00 AM EST
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama pretend to sing with an a cappella group in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House during a holiday reception.

Christmas is only a couple of days away, and this week the Obama administration delivered a last-minute Christmas present to all of us, one that's been 20 years in the making. On Wednesday, following a tortured history, the EPA finally released new standards that sharply reduce the emissions of mercury and other airborne toxins from power plants. David Roberts is jubilant: 

This one is a Big Deal. It's worth lifting our heads out of the news cycle and taking a moment to appreciate that history is being made. Finally controlling mercury and toxics will be an advance on par with getting lead out of gasoline. It will save save tens of thousands of lives every year and prevent birth defects, learning disabilities, and respiratory diseases. It will make America a more decent, just, and humane place to live.

The new standards for airborne toxins are expensive: they'll cost upwards of $10 billion annually and will require dozens of old coal-fired power plants to shut down. The power industry, aided and abetted by the conservative press, has spent years retailing horror stories about blackouts all along the Eastern seaboard as the new rules take effect, but this is, unsurprisingly, little more than the usual doom-mongering. Brad Plumer provides the reality:

[An AP] survey found that the coal plants set to be mothballed are mostly ancient — the average age was 51 — and largely run without modern-day pollution controls, as many of them were grandfathered in under the Clean Air Act. What’s more, many of these plants were slated for retirement in the coming years regardless of what the EPA did, thanks to state air-quality rules, rising coal prices, and the influx of cheap natural gas. “In the AP’s survey,” she writes, “not a single plant operator said the EPA rules were solely to blame for a closure, although some said it left them with no other choice.”

Crucially, none of the operators contacted by the AP seemed to think that huge swaths of America were on the verge of losing power, as Jon Huntsman claimed. An official from the North American Reliability Corporation put it this way: “We know there will be some challenges. But we don’t think the lights are going to turn off because of this issue.” This jibes with an Edison Electric Institute study, as well as a Department of Energy study (which focused on worst-case scenarios), a study from M.J. Bradley & Associates, and the EPA’s own modeling (PDF). Utilities will manage to keep the power running, in part by switching to natural gas, as plenty of gas plants currently operate well below capacity.

So that's the downside: $10 billion annually in costs and a difficult but manageable shutdown of obsolete power plants. And the upsides are enormous. Here's the EPA's estimate:

The total health and economic benefits of this standard are estimated to be as much as $90 billion annually....Combined, the two rules are estimated to prevent up to 46,000 premature deaths, 540,000 asthma attacks among children, 24,500 emergency room visits and hospital admissions. The two programs are an investment in public health that will provide a total of up to $380 billion in return to American families in the form of longer, healthier lives and reduced health care costs.

Much of this is due to reductions in particulate matter, not mercury, which suggests that, if anything, the EPA may be underestimating the benefits of the new rules. As Michael Livermore points out, mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin for small children, and the EPA's analysis of that danger is limited to quantifying lost future earnings due to lower IQs. But even a grinch wouldn't pretend that the cost of this kind of neurological damage is limited to lower wages. "There are," says Livermore, "also risks of cognitive and social defects, negative autoimmune effects, genetic effects, and heart attacks that are not quantified."

Those of us on the left have had plenty of opportunity to be disappointed with politics in general and with President Obama in particular over the past year. But although I think Dave Roberts exaggerates a bit comparing this rule to getting rid of lead in gasoline, he's right that it's a huge positive step for our country's health, and one that's long, long overdue. Merry Christmas, everyone.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 23, 2011

Fri Dec. 23, 2011 5:57 AM EST

US Army Spc. Jason Bruno secures an area during an assessment of the local bazaar in the Shah Joy district of Zabul province, Afghanistan, on December 7, 2011. Bruno is a rifleman assigned to Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul. DoD photo by Senior Airman Grovert Fuentes-Contreras, US Air Force.