2012 - %3, February

Conservative Super-PACs Make It Rain

| Fri Feb. 3, 2012 4:00 AM PST

With the Federal Election Commission filings in, it's clear that conservatives are decisively winning the 2012 super-PAC race—at least so far. Republican-leaning super-PACs focused on the presidential race or backing a particular candidate raised more than seven times what Democratic-leaning super-PAC's raised, more than $60 million to the Democrats’ $8 million.

What’s the reason for the disparity?

Attorney Neil Reiff, an expert in campaign finance law with the firm Reiff, Young & Lamb, said President Obama "discouraging the formation of super-PACs" might have something to do with the numbers, adding that "presidential fundraising might be sucking all the wind out of the fundraising out of the super-PACs." Obama's campaign has raised $140 million so far.

A Democrat involved in fundraising for super-PACs pointed to the ongoing Republican primary as a major reason, arguing that Democratic donors would open their wallets as the general election approached. "Is anyone really that surprised that oil companies and private equity billionaires are enthusiastic about beating president Obama?" the Democratic operative said.

Source: ProPublica PAC Track

Note: The numbers here reflect fundraising through December 2011, Gingrich's large donations from casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson came in January 2012.

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Soaking the Poor, State by State

| Fri Feb. 3, 2012 4:00 AM PST

You have heard, perhaps, that rich people in America are egregiously overtaxed. And the poor? They're the lucky duckies! Why, 47 percent of Americans pay no taxes at all!

(This is not true, of course. Many poor and elderly Americans pay no federal income tax, but they pay plenty of other taxes.)

Still and all, it's true that the federal income tax is indeed progressive. Conservatives are right about that—though it's not as progressive as it used to be, back before top marginal rates were lowered and capital gains taxes were slashed in half. But conservatives are a little less excited to talk about other kinds of taxes. Payroll taxes aren't progressive, for example. In fact, they're actively regressive, with the poor and middle classes paying higher rates than the rich.

And then there are state taxes. Those include state income taxes, property taxes, sales taxes, and fees of various kinds. How progressive are state taxes?

Answer: They aren't. The Corporation for Enterprise Development recently released a scorecard for all 50 states, and it has boatloads of useful information. That includes overall tax rates, where data from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy shows that in the median state (Mississippi, as it turns out) the poorest 20 percent pay twice the tax rate of the top 1 percent. In the worst states, the poorest 20 percent pay five to six times the rate of the richest 1 percent. Lucky duckies indeed. There's not one single state with a tax system that's progressive. Check the table below to see how your state scores.

Film Review: The Eerie Dance Drama of "Pina"

| Fri Feb. 3, 2012 4:00 AM PST

Pina

HANWAY FILMS

103 minutes

Pina, nominated for this year's Documentary Feature Academy Award, is a 3-D tribute to famed post-Expressionist German choreographer Pina Bausch. The film teeters somewhere between a documentary and a performance, structured by interpretations of four of Bausch’s most famous dances. I went into the film knowing nothing about the choreographer, and barely anything about dance, but somehow that didn't matter—it hooked me straight away.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 3, 2012

Fri Feb. 3, 2012 3:57 AM PST

Gun one, occupied by a gun line team from 2nd platoon, Alpha Battery, 2nd Battalion, 32nd Field Artillery, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, fires a 155mm M777 Lightweight Howitzer during a live fire exercise at training range 52 on Fort Riley, Kan., on January 23, 2012. The 2-32 FA is the first battalion in the 1st Infantry Division to fire the M777 on Fort Riley. US Army photo by Sgt. Gene A. Arnold, 4IBCT PAO.

Report: Military Warns Israel Against Iran Strike

| Thu Feb. 2, 2012 11:04 PM PST

File this dispatch from Gareth Porter under "interesting if true":

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey told Israeli leaders Jan. 20 that the United States would not participate in a war against Iran begun by Israel without prior agreement from Washington, according to accounts from well-placed senior military officers.

....Dempsey's trip was highly unusual, in that there was neither a press conference by the chairman nor any public statement by either side about the substance of his meetings with Israeli leaders. Even more remarkable, no leak about what he said to the Israelis has appeared in either U.S. or Israeli news media, indicating that both sides have regarded what Dempsey said as extremely sensitive.

The substance of Dempsey's warning to the Israelis has become known, however, to active and retired senior flag officers with connections to the JCS, according to a military source who got it from those officers.

Hmmm. So a "military source" heard this from "active and retired senior flag officers with connections to the JCS" who in turn learned about this from....someone. I'm not going to pretend that this is the most confidence-inspiring sourcing I've ever run into, but that doesn't mean it isn't true. It might be!

Quote of the Day: "Democrats Piss Me Off"

| Thu Feb. 2, 2012 6:21 PM PST

From Kent, a Republican caucusgoer in Nevada, explaining to Dave Weigel why he hates Democrats:

If you're a Democrat, you are my enemy. Democrats piss me off. They've gotten extremely socialistic. Every time they get in, they raise taxes. They screw things up. I've got a jeep I've had for ten years; I pay $100 a year on the license plate. We just got a new Dodge; $600 to license it. You pay your money, they pass it on to the Mexicans, the colored people. Free education, handouts, all of that.

So there you go.

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Making Sense Out of the New York Times

| Thu Feb. 2, 2012 4:59 PM PST

Felix Salmon is puzzled. So am I. Here is Ken Doctor reporting on the success of the New York Times paywall, which was put in place last year and has since attracted 390,000 subscribers:

It took about 12 seconds for Times’ readers to figure out the new subscription math, when the company when digital-paid last year. When they did the math and saw they could get the four-pound Sunday paper and “all-digital-access” for $60 less than “all-digital-access” by itself, they took the newsprint. Which stabilized Sunday sales, and the Sunday ad base. Then the Times was able to announce a near-historic fact in October: Sunday home delivery subscriptions had actually increased year-over-year, a positive point in an industry used to parsing negatives. Now, Sunday is emerging a key point of strategic planning.

And here is Felix:

This is great news for the Sunday newspaper, which is highly profitable for the NYT. But it also raises the obvious question: why are 390,000 NYT readers eschewing a Sunday paper they could get for less than nothing? Some are IHT subscribers who don’t have that option; others are naturally peripatetic. And the cheapest digital subscription is actually still cheaper than the Sunday-only delivery.

Huh? Feeling a bit outraged when I read this, I went over to the NYT site to see how much I was paying for my digital-only subscription. The Times doesn't make it especially easy to figure this out, but according to my billing history the answer turns out to be $11.25 every four weeks, or $146 per year. This gets me the Times-online plus their smartphone app. (But not the tablet app, since I don't own a tablet.)

And what's the cost of Sunday home delivery? Well, that's not easy to figure out either. In fact, it's so hard to figure out that I think the Times is about a hair's breadth away from fraudulent advertising. However, in my zip code the answer is $3.90 per week, or $203 per year. So that's quite a bit more than digital-only. What's more, this is an introductory rate, and although it's close to impossible to find out what the rate is once the introductory period is over, after heroic effort I discovered that it would cost me $7.80 per week, or $405 per year. That's way, way more than my digital subscription.

Now, I'm not sure what kind of deal the Times was offering last year when the paywall was first launched, but I also tried this after typing in a New York City zip code, which offered me only a Saturday-Sunday option, not a Sunday-only option. It's a little less expensive than getting the paper out here in Irvine, but it still comes to $343 per year.

Now, having said all that, I still don't know what's going on. According to the NYT website, a digital+smartphone subscription costs $3.75 per week. So why am I getting it for $2.81 per week? It is a mystery.

Another mystery: the NYT digital pricing makes no sense. It's supposedly $15 for digital+smartphone, $20 for digital+tablet, and $35 for digital+smartphone+tablet. Some crude linear algebra demonstrates that the digital portion of these subscriptions costs.....zero. WTF?

Bottom line: New York Times pricing is mysterious. However, Felix's passing mention that "the cheapest digital subscription is actually still cheaper than the Sunday-only delivery" explains everything. Basically, the "cheapest" digital subscription gets you everything except their tablet app. So unless you want that — and I imagine lots of people don't — digital pricing is considerably cheaper than home delivery no matter how you slice it. So the one thing there's no mystery about is why there are 390,000 digital-only subscribers. It's because that's the cheapest way to get unlimited access to the Times.

Komen's Planned Parenthood Decision: It Sure Seems Like It's About Abortion

| Thu Feb. 2, 2012 3:30 PM PST
Nancy Brinker, CEO of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, at a 2008 event.

Nancy Brinker, the CEO of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, appeared on MSNBC on Thursday afternoon to deny that Komen's decision to end grants to Planned Parenthood had anything to do with politics.

"I'm troubled that it's been labeled as political," Brinker told host Andrea Mitchell. "This is not a political decision."

In the appearance, Brinker gave a revised set of reasons for why they are stopping the grants for breast cancer screenings. Komen initially claimed that it was ending the grant because a congressional investigation of Planned Parenthood launched by an anti-abortion lawmaker triggered a new internal rule against funding any program that is under investigation by federal, state, or local government. Now Brinker says the decision was less about the investigation and more about Komen's revised grant standards.

"Our issue is grant excellence. They do pass-through grants with their screening grants, they send people to other facilities," Brinker said. "We want to do more direct service grants." She made a similar claim in a call with reporters later on Wednesday, arguing that the grants have been terminated because Planned Parenthood doesn't generally provide mammograms directly. 

Brinker also denied that Karen Handel, Komen's top lobbyist and an anti-abortion Republican who was elected secretary of state in Georgia, had anything to do with the decision. She even denied that abortion had anything to do with the decision at all. But there are several reasons to believe that this may have more to do with abortion politics than the group wants to admit publicly:

  • Anti-abortion groups leading the campaign against Komen's Planned Parenthood funding may have been tipped off to the decision well before it was public.
  • The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg reported that the decision was about abortion and that Handel was involved. The story has not been corrected or retracted.
  • Komen did not cancel a grant to Pennsylvania State University despite the university being the target of a federal investigation, which was the original reason Komen cited for ending the Planned Parenthood grant.
  • Anti-abortion groups are also declaring victory in their parallel attempts to pressure Komen on embryonic stem cell research, another hot-button issue. Anti-abortion groups have targeted Komen for providing funding to any medical institution that also conducts that type of research (even if Komen isn't directly funding it). A few weeks ago, Texas Right to Life flagged a Komen press release from late November explicitly stating that they don't support research that involves "destroying a human embryo" and have never funded that type of research. Both Life News and the National Catholic Register noted the Komen release on Wednesday evening, and Life News reported further that Komen appears to have also ended grants to institutions that conducts embryonic stem cell research. The link to the press release on the Komen site is dead now, and the press release is no longer posted in their media section. The organization did not respond immediately to a request for comment on whether they've changed their policy on this topic as well.

Meanwhile, Brinker's criticism of Planned Parenthood for acting as a referrer to other service providers is a bit of a red herring. It is true that women who come to Planned Parenthood for an initial screening may have to go elsewhere for additional care. But that's true for any woman who needs additional attention from a specialist for a mammogram, biopsy, or lumpectomy. It's often a health care provider like Planned Parenthood that detects cause for concern in the first place, which is why the National Cancer Institute states that screenings conducted by a health care provider "on a regular basis are the most effective ways to detect breast cancer early." If you have health insurance and a primary care physician or gynecologist, that is generally the person who will refer you for additional care if they find reason for concern after an initial screening. But if a woman doesn't have insurance or a regular doctor, clinics like Planned Parenthood are her point of entry. Just walking into a radiography clinic and asking for a mammogram usually isn't possible, and if it were, it would be both extremely expensive and ill-advised.

Komen's $7.5 Million Grant to Penn State Appears to Violate New Policy

| Thu Feb. 2, 2012 1:56 PM PST

Susan G. Komen for the Cure, which recently announced that it is ending grants to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screening because of a controversial investigation launched by an anti-abortion Republican congressman, currently funds cancer research at the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center to the tune of $7.5 million. Like Planned Parenthood, Penn State is currently the subject of a federal government investigation, and like the Planned Parenthood grant, the Penn State grant appears to violate a new internal rule at Komen that bans grants to organizations that are under investigation by federal, state, or local governments. But so far, only the Planned Parenthood grants appear to have been cancelled.

An internal Komen memo written by President Elizabeth Thompson and obtained by Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic states that if "an applicant or its affiliates" is under investigation "for financial or administrative improprieties by local, state or federal authorities," then "the applicant will be ineligible to receive a grant." Penn State, the Pennsylvania university that the Hershey center is affiliated with, is currently under investigation by the federal government over the sexual assault scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, who has been indicted on multiple counts of sexual abuse of children. In 2008, the Komen foundation awarded a five-year, $7.5 million grant to the Hershey center to study treatments that could reduce the risk of breast cancer.

Under the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, university officials are required to "issue a timely warning if a reported crime represents a threat to the campus community." The Department of Education announced that it was investigating Penn State over possible Clery Act violations last November, and a Penn State spokesperson told Mother Jones that the investigation is ongoing. The Komen foundation has not yet responded to a request for comment. 

Komen's founder, Nancy Brinker, is a former Bush administration official who has given almost $200,000 to Republican officials over the years, and Karen Handel, Komen's top lobbyist, is a pro-life Republican who was elected secretary of state in Georgia. Komen officials have insisted that Brinker and Handel's right-leaning politics weren't a factor in the decision to cut off funding, but Goldberg reported that the new grant standards were written as a pretext for denying funds to Planned Parenthood, and that the decision was "driven" by Handel.

Brinker, appearing on MSNBC Thursday afternoon, denied the decision had anything to do with politics.  "I'm troubled that it's been labeled as political. This is not a political decision," Brinker said.

Super PACs Are Already Yesterday's News

| Thu Feb. 2, 2012 12:46 PM PST

A couple of days ago I linked to Adam Skaggs asking Congress to change the ridiculous campaign fundraising rules that allow Super PACs to coordinate with campaigns even though it's supposedly strictly forbidden. Today, Rick Hasen says that Super PACs are yesterday's news:

Right after Citizens United was decided, there was a great debate within the campaign finance world over whether the case would change campaign finance patterns. Some pointed to the fact that in the 2010 election, we saw barely any independent spending directly by corporations. My view had always been that most (for profit) corporations would not want to stick their necks out and risk alienating customers by putting their names on independent ads. For corporate money to really matter, there would have to be a way to filter it through committees and sometimes to hide the money entirely. Thanks to Super PACs and the transformation of 501c4′s, both of these are now possible and we are witnessing the corporate money coming in....We don’t know how much corporate money is coming in now (and as to 501c4s, because of lack of disclosure we likely will never have the full picture). But it seems a safe bet that there is lot more corporate money coming into the system than was (barely) allowed in the pre-Citizens United world.

....My big concern before yesterday was that we would see a lot of transfers of money from 501c4s to affiliated Super PACs to shield the identity of donors to Super PACs. I’m still trying to get a handle on how much of this took place (apparently less than I thought). But the reason these transfers are not taking place is that it appears the 501c4s are engaging in much more direct election-related activity than they have in the past.  That is, we are seeing some 501c4s becoming pure election vehicles. The relation of 501c4s to super pacs is now like the past relation between 527s and pacs—these are now the vehicles of questionable legality to influence elections. While Adam Skaggs is rightly focused on fixing the coordination rules for Super PACs, this seems to be fighting yesterday’s war already. The key is to stop 501c4s from becoming shadow super PACs. Yes, campaign finance reform community, it has become this bad: I want more super PACs, because the 501c4 alternative is worse!

Well, yes, we could rein in 501c(4) spending by requiring that they disclose their donors, and the DISCLOSE Act would have done just that. Needless to say, it failed even in 2010, when Democrats controlled the House and had a huge majority in the Senate. It received, if I recall correctly, two Republican votes in the House and zero Republican votes in the Senate.

So there's not really much chance that a revived and amended DISCLOSE Act is going to pass now. We are doomed.