2012 - %3, January

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 25, 2012

Wed Jan. 25, 2012 3:57 AM PST

Master Sgt. Chris Skierski sweeps the flightline for foreign objects and debris on January 15, 2012, at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Skierski is an F-16C Fighting Falcon engine mechanic assigned to the 455th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. (US Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Matt Hecht)

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Gabby Giffords Returns—and More Female Democrats Get Threatened

| Tue Jan. 24, 2012 11:26 PM PST

There was overwhelming bipartisan agreement on Tuesday night that Gabrielle Giffords' arrival for President Obama's State of the Union address was the most compelling moment of the evening. Watch the footage and there's simply no arguing with that—the Arizona congresswoman looked terrific. Her incredible comeback from a near-fatal shooting one year ago seems all the more remarkable each time she appears in public. (Not that she doesn't face challenges ahead; a video she released over the weekend, in which she announced that she's stepping down from her congressional seat to focus on her further recovery, is equally moving.) Her story is as potent a mix of painful and inspirational as there is, and you'd hope that it could stand as something of an antidote to the poisonous politics of the era.

Which is why some news out of Missouri on Tuesday was particularly stomach-churning: Just hours before Giffords made her way into the nation's Capitol, an unknown provocateur was stalking the halls of the Missouri Capitol, tagging the doors of lawmakers—most of them Democratic women—with images of rifle crosshairs. From the Columbia Daily Tribune:

Orange stickers with an image of rifle crosshairs were found Tuesday on the office doors of several Democratic state senators, prompting an investigation by Missouri Capitol Police, Senate Administrator Jim Howerton said. The stickers were on the doors of all four Democratic women in the Senate—Jolie Justus and Kiki Curls, both of Kansas City, and Maria Chapelle-Nadal and Robin Wright-Jones, both of St. Louis, Justus said. One similar sticker was found on the nameplate outside the door of state Rep. Scott Dieckhaus, R-Washington.

"If anyone thinks this was a prank, it is not a prank," Justus said after discussing the discovery of the stickers on the Senate floor. "You don't joke about someone's personal safety." A sticker also was found on the door of Sen. Victor Callahan, D-Kansas City and the Democrats' floor leader.

Columbia-based reporter Sherman Fabes posted photos of the stickers that showed up at the lawmakers' offices:

Sen. Chapelle-Nadal herself weighed in on Twitter and didn't mince words, emphasizing her disapproval with "#DisgracefulCowards." (Her tweets are "protected" but one was posted by St. Louis Activist Hub.)

It's an apt moment to recall that Giffords once criticized Sarah Palin for using a map that literally put political enemies in the crosshairs. "We need to realize that the rhetoric…for example, we're on Sarah Palin's 'targeted' list, but the thing is, the way she has it depicted, we're in the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district," Giffords said in an interview with MSNBC in spring 2010. "When people do that, they've gotta realize that there are consequences to that action."

We all know what followed.

Palin and other conservatives strongly rejected the notion that their imagery and rhetoric had anything to do with the bloodbath in Arizona a year ago. And no one can know what was truly in the deranged mind of Jared Loughner. But common sense says that when enough targeted political vitriol mixes with enough guns, bad things will eventually happen.

Mitt Romney's Kids Pay an Even Lower Tax Rate Than He Does

| Tue Jan. 24, 2012 10:43 PM PST

As we all know, much of Mitt Romney's wealth is derived from "carried interest," a share of the profits from investments that Bain Capital made while he was CEO. This income is taxed at the same 15 percent rate as ordinary capital gains, which is why Romney's tax rate is so low.

But it turns out there's another interesting tidbit about carried interest that I've never heard of before: It's a great way of passing along a huge inheritance to your kids without paying any taxes. David Cay Johnston explains:

Johnston: The Romneys gave $100 million to their sons and paid not one penny of gift tax. They were able to take assets they have that are producing enormous income and, under the law, give that money to their children and not pay any taxes on it.

Sambolin: Is that something you specifically found in what has been released to you?

Johnston: Yes. I have suspected this and written about it in my column that this is what happened, and last night, Brad Malt, the attorney for the Romneys, confirmed to Reuters that we were correct. They have not paid a penny of gift tax. That's because Congress allows a very tiny group of people—the Romneys by their income are in the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent—to not count as having any value the real source of their income, something called carried interest, if they give it to their children.

Welcome to the wonderful world of estate planning for the super wealthy. The Romney kids will have to pay taxes when they start taking income from the trust their father set up for them—at the usual 15 percent rate paid by millionaires, of course—but the inheritance itself is blissfully tax free. It's just another of the many benefits of running a private equity firm.

Obama Goes for the Easy Applause in Tonight's SOTU

| Tue Jan. 24, 2012 9:45 PM PST

I know it's a cliche to say that an election-year State of the Union address is a campaign speech on steroids, but tonight's State of the Union address was.....a campaign speech on steroids. At one point or another, I think I heard a shout out to virtually every conceivable voting bloc in the nation. We need to double work study jobs, double our exports, double tax deductions for domestic jobs, double our trade complaints against China, and double down on clean energy. We need an all-of-the-above energy policy and an all-options-on-the-table policy against Iran. We salute the million soldiers who served in Iraq, we're going to train two million Americans with new job skills, and we're planning to develop enough clean energy to power three million homes. We're going to save $10 billion in regulatory costs and $100 billion in energy costs. We're going to cut the deficit by $2 trillion.

There was even a shout out to process wonks:

Some of what’s broken has to do with the way Congress does its business these days. A simple majority is no longer enough to get anything — even routine business — passed through the Senate. Neither party has been blameless in these tactics. Now both parties should put an end to it. For starters, I ask the Senate to pass a rule that all judicial and public service nominations receive a simple up or down vote within 90 days.

That's not going to happen, but even a couple of sentences in the SOTU is more attention than this usually gets. Still, I wish Obama had explicitly stated that the Senate now requires 60 votes instead of 50 to pass legislation. If he's going to pander to us process wonks, he should at least do it right.

I'm a Democrat and a fan of the president, but even I found this speech formulaic, devoid of interesting ideas, and built almost solely for applause lines. Presumably this means that it's going to poll through the roof. Joe and Jane Sixpack will love it. And with that, Campaign 2012 has officially gotten underway.

Google Decides Evil Not So Bad After All

| Tue Jan. 24, 2012 8:56 PM PST

Here's the latest from the cyberlords who now rule our existence:

Google will soon know far more about who you are and what you do on the Web. The Web giant announced Tuesday that it plans to follow the activities of users across nearly all of its ubiquitous sites, including YouTube, Gmail and its leading search engine.

....Consumers won’t be able to opt out of the changes, which take effect March 1.

Luckily I've mostly resisted the siren call of the Googleverse aside from their search engine. But I guess I'm starting to think that I should be more careful even there. Am I just being paranoid? Or should I start using some kind of add-on to prevent Google from tracking my activity? What says the hive mind?

Mitt Romney's Version of "Self-Deportation" Is Not the Only One

| Tue Jan. 24, 2012 4:18 PM PST

Last night, asked if he favored rounding up illegal immigrants and deporting them, Mitt Romney said no. Instead, he replied, "The answer is self-deportation." This produced a steady stream of jokes on Twitter, but in fact this is a term of art that's long been used by anti-immigration activists. Adam Serwer describes what it means:

What "self-deportation"—the favored approach to immigration of the GOP's right-wing—actually means is making life so miserable for unauthorized immigrants that they "voluntarily" leave. Here's Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies (the anti-immigrant think tank that tried to mainstream the "terror baby" conspiracy theory) explaining the concept in 2005:

The solution is to create "virtual choke points"—events that are necessary for life in a modern society but are infrequent enough not to bog down everyone's daily business....The objective is not mainly to identify illegal aliens for arrest (though that will always be a possibility) but rather to make it as difficult as possible for illegal aliens to live a normal life here.

....When Romney is discussing "self-deportation," he's talking about creating a United States where parents are afraid to register their kids for school or get them immunized because they might be asked for proof of citizenship. He's talking about the type of country where local police can demand your immigration status based on mere suspicion that you don't belong around here. "Self-deportation" is just a cleaner, less cruel-sounding way of endorsing harsh, coercive government polices in order to make life for unauthorized immigrants so unbearable that they have no choice but to find some way to leave.

Well, that's what it means on the extreme right, anyway. But the truth is that many on the left, including both Barack Obama and me, support the same idea in a more humane version. Here's me six years ago, for example:

I'm basically in favor of a market-style approach that tweaks incentives to increase the cost of immigrating illegally while decreasing the cost of immigrating legally. At some point, if you can enact the right basket of policies to get the costs right, you'll reduce illegal immigration to a point we can live with.

So: crack down on employers because that's probably the the cheapest and easiest way of discouraging illegal immigration. If it's hard to get a job, you're less likely to cross the border. At the same time, make it easier to immigrate legally with a reasonable path to citizenship. This makes "getting in line" more attractive. Do these things right and there just aren't very many people left who find the illegal route more attractive than coming over legally.

I don't want mass roundups of illegal immigrants (or people who look like they might be illegal immigrants) and I don't want their kids to go without education or healthcare. But I do support the idea of making E-Verify more accurate and more widespread, something that would make it more difficult for illegal immigrants to get jobs and probably lead more of them to leave the country. Like most supporters of comprehensive immigration reform, however, I only support this if it's paired with efforts to make it easier to immigrate legally and to provide current immigrants with a path toward permanent residence. If simple human decency isn't reason enough for this, common sense and self-interest both point in the same direction.  It's simply not plausible that stricter enforcement all by itself will ever work given our country's obvious appetite for the services that immigrants provide. Supply and demand are flip sides of the same coin, and if we want a program that actually works over the long term, we have to address both.

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Solar Storms Ramping Up

| Tue Jan. 24, 2012 2:20 PM PST

 Solar flares minutes apart on 23 January: NASA images courtesy Solar Dynamics Observatory

Solar flares on 23 January 2012: NASA images courtesy Solar Dynamics Observatory.

After the quietest solar activity in a century, our star is flaring up towards a predicted solar maximum in February 2013.

The photos above, taken only minutes part yesterday, show a flare of superheated and magnetically supercharged gas. In the third image (right), taken 45 minutes after the first (left), you can see the coronal mass ejection of a stream of solar plasma flowing into space towards Earth.

From NASA's Earth Observatory page: 

The high-latitude solar flare was measured as M8.7 in intensity, just below the most intense “X class” of flares. The eruption sent a stream of fast-moving, highly energetic protons toward Earth, provoking the most intense solar energetic particle storm—an S3 on NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center’s scale—since 2005.

 Northern light over Lappland, Sweden: Jerry MagnuM Porsbjer via Wikimedia Commons.

Northern light over Lapland, Sweden: Jerry MagnuM Porsbjer via Wikimedia Commons.

All that fiery activity on the Sun translates into the most Earth's most ethereal light show. In 1859 the largest solar superstorm in recorded history, the Carrington Super Flare, gave an unbelievable worldwide performance. From Wikipedia:

On September 1–2, 1859, the largest recorded geomagnetic storm occurred. Aurorae were seen around the world, most notably over the Caribbean; also noteworthy were those over the Rocky Mountains;that were so bright that their glow awoke gold miners, who began preparing breakfast because they thought it was morning. According to professor Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado' Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, "people in the northeastern US could read newspaper print just from the light of the aurora."

Solar flares and coronal mass ejections can disrupt radio signals and electronics and satellite transmissions.

But it gets weirder than that. Given exactly the right circumstances, they can facilitate enough geomagnetically induced current from the electromagnetic field to allow telegraph transmissions even when the power is switched off.

This conversation was between telegraph operators in Boston and Portland, Maine on the superstorm night of 2 September 1859. From Wikipedia:

Boston operator (to Portland operator): "Please cut off your battery [power source] entirely for fifteen minutes."
Portland operator: "Will do so. It is now disconnected."
Boston: "Mine is disconnected, and we are working with the auroral current. How do you receive my writing?"
Portland: "Better than with our batteries on. Current comes and goes gradually."
Boston: "My current is very strong at times, and we can work better without the batteries, as the aurora seems to neutralize and augment our batteries alternately, making current too strong at times for our relay magnets. Suppose we work without batteries while we are affected by this trouble."
Portland: "Very well. Shall I go ahead with business?"
Boston: "Yes. Go ahead."


This plot shows the current extent and position of the auroral oval in the northern hemisphere, extrapolated from measurements taken during the most recent polar pass of the NOAA POES satellite: NOAA.Here's where you might see an aurora. Current extent and position of the auroral oval in the northern hemisphere, extrapolated from the most recent polar pass of the NOAA POES satellite: NOAA.

The current solar maximum is not expected to be anywhere near as strong as the Carrington Super Flare, a 1-in-500-year superstorm. However it's already causing disruptions. Delta Airlines announced today that it's rerouted polar flights between Detroit and Asia. From Reuters:

"We are undergoing a series of solar bursts in the sky that are impacting the northern side of the world," said Delta spokesman Anthony Black on Tuesday. "It can impact your ability to communicate... So, basically, the polar routes are being flown further south than normal."

For those not fortunate enough to live in the high latitudes to witness aurorae for themselves, there are now loads of great video timeplapses online. This one has some particularly cool looking ribbon aurorae. 

 AURORA ISLANDICA - a Northern Lights Timelapse from Agust Ingvarsson on Vimeo.

And here's a dry but informative video explainer, if you're wondering exactly how it works. 


 The Aurora Borealis from Per Byhring on Vimeo.

 

More Specialists Are in Your Medical Future

| Tue Jan. 24, 2012 1:13 PM PST

According to a new study, doctor visits that result in a referral to a specialist have grown by 159% over the past decade. Suzy Khimm summarizes the reasons for us:

The big question is why doctors have become more likely to send their patients to specialists. Part of the answer, Landon finds, has to do with health care becoming more complex, with new technology that demands more speciality care. Physicians have also found themselves with more preventive tests and screenings to handle, which may cut into time to deal with other issues. And, part of it likely has to do with the economics of referrals: Doctors who have an ownership stake in their practice are 50 percent more likely to refer to a specialist, which would increase the total revenue generated by a given patient.

There's not much we can do about the fact that medicine is becoming increasingly complex. That's likely to just get worse. But the financial incentives for referrals sure seem ripe for reform. Obamacare makes a stab in this direction with its pilot program for accountable care organizations, but there's no telling yet if it will have a significant impact. Stay tuned.

Newt Gingrich Not as Good a Debater as Newt Gingrich Thinks He Is

| Tue Jan. 24, 2012 11:44 AM PST

Jonathan Bernstein analyzes Newt's performance in last night's debate and says one thing I agree with and one thing I don't. First, here's the part I think is wrong:

If people were looking for ammunition against Newt Gingrich, he supplied plenty of it Monday during an early and extended exchange with Romney, in which Newt floundered badly on the subject of Freddie Mac, his ethics scandal when he was speaker, and other weaknesses.

I had exactly the opposite reaction. If you already know the facts about the ethics scandal, then you'll think Newt floundered. If you don't — and I think this describes about 95% of the audience — Newt's explanation either (a) sounded OK or (b) muddied the waters enough that you came away thinking it was just routine campaign sniping. Besides, it was 15 years ago. Romney really needs to have a clearer, sharper attack on the ethics charges if he expects this to stick.

And here's the part I think is right:

What Monday demonstrated [] is that Newt’s reputation as a brilliant debater is actually a fraud. What Newt has done well isn’t debating the other candidates; what he’s done well is attacking the moderators, and it works especially well when there’s a partisan Republican audience ready to cheer any shots at the liberal media. That’s not going to happen in general election debates. More broadly, he’s quite good at using language designed to appeal especially well to Rush Limbaugh listeners: Chicago-style politics, Saul Alinsky, teleprompters, and more. Terrific, again, for provoking a big reaction from a partisan audience of intense, highly-informed conservatives. Utterly useless in general election debates.

Yep. Newt's sneering, condescending tone is pitch perfect for the tea party crowd, but extremely off-putting for the less partisan folks who will determine November's results. And without that, Newt's got nothing. He doesn't really do any better on substance than Romney or any of the others, and he certainly doesn't have any native charm. If he tries to take his sneer on the road in a general election, he'll be no more successful than Rick Perry was at trying to transplant his Texas-style campaigning to a national audience.

Egypt's Revolution, 1 Year Later

| Tue Jan. 24, 2012 11:01 AM PST

One year ago, as plans for a mass demonstration against Hosni Mubarak's regime circulated on the internet, Egyptians speculated about what might happen on January 25. Would it be yet another futile effort, easily quashed by security forces, or a legitimate challenge to the octogenarian kleptocrat's rule? No one could've predicted, of course, what came next: an 18-day uprising culminating in the overthrow of one of the most powerful strongmen of the Middle East. Now, after a rocky year of military rule, marked by the country's freest and fairest parliamentary elections in decades and frequent spasms of street violence, uncertainty is once again in the air. Here are five key things to watch for as massive crowds flood Egypt's streets and squares on Wednesday:

1. How will the military respond?

Over the past year, the military—in particular, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces—has gone from respected to reviled among many revolutionaries. After promising to midwife a swift transition to civilian democracy, it has earned the ire of many Egyptians with its brutal crackdowns on dissent and glacial pace of reform. In Cairo and other major cities, anti-SCAF graffiti is plastered on alley walls and facades of government buildings. Even so, SCAF has announced plans for grandiose celebrations on the 25th to commemorate its role in the revolution, replete with martial displays, concerts, and ceremonies to honor officers. After a deadly showdown between military police and protesters killed at least a dozen civilians in December, the military has kept a low profile. An ostentatious return to the spotlight could trigger renewed violence.

2. Celebration, demonstration, instigation

The throngs in the streets will be driven by various agendas. Some will simply wish to celebrate the anniversary. But activist groups—many of whom are calling for a "second revolution"—plan to use the 25th to press their demands for an expedited transition to civilian rule. (As of now, the military leadership is slated to cede executive power by July 1, following the presidential election in June.) To draw any momentum from the day, they'll have to walk a fine line—on the one hand preventing the day from becoming a military pageant show, on the other, suppressing the militant urges within their own ranks. Violent clashes in November and December cast a bad light on the revolutionary crowd for many Egyptians, who view its continued agitation as unnecessarily destabilizing. They risk losing support if things get ugly.