2012 - %3, February

Why We All Hate Jury Duty

| Mon Feb. 27, 2012 11:59 AM EST

Matt Yglesias doesn't understand the widespread dislike of jury duty:

I struggle to understand America's disdain for jury duty. I've been called twice, and both times was happy to go. All things considered, I'd much rather do my regular job day-in and day-out that do jury duty, but I do my regular job every day. I find that taking a day or two or three off every few years to go do something different is pretty fun.

....Is everyone else's job really so amazing that they can't bear the thought of a few days off to listen to testimony and pronounce on a verdict? I don't buy it. I feel like as a society we've coordinated on a pointless anti-social norm that you're some kind of sucker if you're willing to just smile and do what the judge wants even though there are no really good self-interested reasons to want out. For salaried professionals, jury duty is a paid vacation. What's not to like?

In the past, one legitimate beef was the way jury duty was run: calling in for days at a time over the course of a month, never knowing if you could make plans or if you'd get called in. Here in my neck of the woods things are now much better: you call in once, or at most three or four days in a row, and you're either called in or not. That's not nearly so bad.

Beyond that, there's the problem of long trials. Getting called into muni court isn't so bad. Trials rarely last more than a few days. Superior court is a different story. These are bigger cases, with trials lasting weeks at a time. That can be a real grind, and on the occasions I've been called downtown I usually do whatever I can to avoid getting called for a case.

What else? It's pretty boring. For someone like me, it's really tedious stuff waiting around, then waiting around some more while the lawyers play their voir dire games, then sitting around while they present their endless cases. I suppose the lawyers in my audience will disagree, but to a lot of us these trials seem like they should take about three or four hours, not three or four days (or weeks). And while trials are tedious in one direction for those of us with interesting jobs, I suspect they're tedious in a different direction for people who aren't used to sitting all day and thinking about evidence.

And of course, some people don't get paid for jury duty. That sucks. Plus the hours are inflexible, which might cause problems that your regular job doesn't. Or maybe you don't work at all, and jury duty means needing to scrounge up daycare that you don't normally need. Or maybe your job is one where the work will pile up and have to get done when you get back, which means facing a gigantic in-basket once the trial is over.

And speaking solely for myself, the one jury I've ever been on went a long way toward wrecking my faith in the criminal justice system. It was a case that shouldn't even have gone to trial, let alone sucked up four days of my time, the judge's time, and the bailiff's time. I suppose that's a lousy attitude, but I hated the idea that so many of us were having so much of our time wasted over a case that was only in court because some rich dude could afford a fancy lawyer to take a flier on weaseling out of a pretty obvious violation of the law.

Anything I've missed? Any reason I should love jury duty? You know where to tell me.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 27, 2012

Mon Feb. 27, 2012 11:46 AM EST

US Army Pvt. Alex Hernandez (front) and Spec. Justin Huser, both from Ghost Company, 3rd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, Vilseck, Germany, fire their M240 machine gun during a Fire Team and Squad level Situational Training Exercise focused on reaction to contact, attack, and break contact in the Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany, on February 23, 2012. (US Army photo by Visual Information Specialist Markus Rauchenberger/Released)

Does Dry Cleaning Cause Cancer?

| Mon Feb. 27, 2012 7:00 AM EST
A shuttered dry cleaner

Rarely do I darken the doorstep of a dry cleaner. That's mainly because I am too cheap and lazy; I admit to having inflicted some verboten wash cycles on my few dry-clean-only dresses, followed by a sheepish line dry. The result is usually wrinkly but passable. I'm lucky: As you probably could have guessed, freshly pressed suits are not the prevailing style at MoJo HQ. But I know plenty of people, especially men, who have to haul their collared shirts to the dry cleaner every week.

Unfortunately, all that dry cleaning takes a toll on the environment. The main reason is the chemical solvent that the vast majority of the nation's 34,000 dry cleaners use: tetrachloroethylene, or "perc" (short for another one of its names, perchloroethylene), which has found its way into soil, streams, and even drinking water. This month, in its first update on perc since 1988, the EPA officially identified it as a "likely human carcinogen." It also changed the chemical's reference dose—the amount of a substance considered to safe to ingest every day—from 0.01 miligrams per kilogram of body mass a day to 0.006 mg/kg, a decrease of 40 percent.

Review: Carolina Chocolate Drops' "Leaving Eden"

| Mon Feb. 27, 2012 7:00 AM EST
From left: Matta, Flemons, Giddens, Jenkins

Carolina Chocolate Drops
Leaving Eden
Nonesuch

The Carolina Chocolate Drops third album, Leaving Eden, begins with a bang, a rousing fiddle tune ("Riro's House") whose driving beat promptly had me bobbing my head and squinching up my face and generally looking rather stupid. But I didn't care. After a brief instrumental chillout—a sparse minor traditional called "Kerr's Negro Jig"—it regains momentum with a percussive rendition of an old Cousin Emmy tune, "Ruby, Are You Mad At Your Man," a fine platform for the soulful, classically trained Rhiannon Giddens to let loose a bit with her powerful pipes.

In case you're not yet familiar with the Chocolate Drops, much of their repertoire harks back to a time early in the last century when there were quite a number of uncelebrated black string bands—including their namesake, the Tennessee Chocolate Drops—playing and composing this type of music. When I checked in with her a while back, Giddens talked a bit about being inspired by the TCD's leading man, Howard Armstrong. Fiddler Joe Thompson, who died on February 20, at age 93, was a personal mentor for the band, according to the Drop' official bio

Should Wyoming Build an Aircraft Carrier? (Updated)

| Mon Feb. 27, 2012 7:00 AM EST
The USS John C. Stennis, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, patrols the dangerous West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake.

Update: A little Internet scrutiny goes a long way, apparently: The Wyoming Tribune Eagle reports that the aircraft provision has been scrapped. We take full credit. Details are here.

On Friday, the Wyoming House of Representatives advanced a bill to set up a task force to prepare for the total economic and political collapse of the United States. Per the bill, the panel would investigate things like food storage options and metals-based currencies, to be implemented in the event of a major catastrophe.

Then it goes three steps further. An amendment by GOP state Rep. Kermit Brown*, calls on the task force to examine "Conditions under which the state of Wyoming should implement a draft, raise a standing army, marine corps, navy and air force and acquire strike aircraft and an aircraft carrier." As the bill's GOP sponsor, state Rep. David Miller, explained to the Casper Star-Tribune, "Things happen quickly sometimes."

Buying an aircraft carrier is, as a rule, a great idea, but there are a few hiccups, not the least of which is that Wyoming is currently landlocked. Its largest body of water, Yellowstone Lake, is frozen from December through June and sits in the middle of a giant volcano that stands about as good a chance as anything else at triggering the aforementioned societal collapse. In that sense, Wyoming has a lot in common with another mineral-rich, landlocked, mountainous territory—Bolivia. Bolivians, who have a national holiday honoring the day in 1904 they lost their coastline to Chile, have made the best of their situation by maintaining a small flotilla on Lake Titicaca. No aircraft carrier, though.

Real Time With Built to Spill's Doug Martsch

| Mon Feb. 27, 2012 7:00 AM EST
Martsch is the one with the hat.

Doug Martsch doesn’t like to make much of his band, a "little-known" outfit called Built to Spill that since the early 1990s has spawned an entire subgenre of idyllic-yet-grungy indie rock (think no-longer-just-a-college-band bigwigs Modest Mouse). Since 1994's There's Nothing Wrong With Love (ranked #24 on Pitchfork's "Top 100 Albums of the 1990s") the band's unique mix of intricate guitar solos, stringy vocals, and starkly simple but hard-hitting lyrics have earned them a devoted, though never very huge, following. This week, they are headed down the Pacific coast from Boise for a small tour before getting started on recording a new album, the band's first since 2009's There is No Enemy. Last week, Martsch, Built to Spill's famously reticent front man, regaled me with his thoughts on festival crowds, interview hazards, and the unexpected rewards of judging a record by its cover. (For the initiated, I tossed in clips of a few BTS favorites.)

Mother Jones: Any idea what the new album is going to sound like?

Doug MartschNah, not really. Whenever we start a record it's pretty much just a batch of things we've stumbled across from jamming or playing guitar. It's pretty much just a hodgepodge right now.

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Tonight's Oscar Thread

| Sun Feb. 26, 2012 9:30 PM EST

My take on the Oscars: 2011 was not a great year for movies. The Academy's decision to increase the number of Best Picture nominees from five to ten has never looked more pathetic. Especially since they could only come up with nine this year.

That said, I thought The Artist was clever, but ultimately little more than a bon bon. I'm hard-pressed to understand the lavish praise it got. Tree of Life was ambitious and had some sparks of brilliance, but in the end it didn't work. The Descendants was good; mainstream but good. However, it was a little too overtly manipulative for my taste. Midnight in Paris was a cute trifle, but just a trifle. Moneyball was very good, but just a little too ordinary to play in the big leagues. I didn't see The Help, War Horse, or Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.

By process of elimination, that means my pick for Best Picture this year is.....Hugo. I didn't like all of Hugo, but I liked a lot of it, and if the Academy is going to give the big prize to a valentine to Hollywood, I'd pick Hugo over The Artist. Needless to say, I expect to be pretty disappointed this evening.

The Metaphysics of Citizens United and Campaign Finance Law

| Sun Feb. 26, 2012 3:09 PM EST

Did the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United produce the recent explosion of Super PACs and their flood of independent money from rich donors into the 2012 campaign? There's been a bit of a cottage industry lately claiming that this is a myth, followed by a bit of a counter-cottage industry insisting that it's true after all. In a nutshell, the mythbusters claim (correctly) that Citizens United affected only the ability of corporations and unions to make independent campaign expenditures, but most of the money flowing into Super PACs has comes from private individuals, who have been able to spend unlimited sums for years. The counterclaim is that Citizens United really did unleash expenditures from individuals, but did it indirectly. Legally, the chain goes from Citizens United to SpeechNow, which was the case that removed all previous limitations on private expenditures. Andrew Sprung has a pretty good summary of the arguments here.

So which is it? In the end, I think the argument is inherently a little metaphysical. Remember 527s? Prior to Citizens United, rich people who wanted to spend lots of money on campaign ads either did it themselves or contributed to 527 groups. That's how the Swift Boat folks were organized, for example. But here's the thing: legally, 527s were allowed to raise money for "issue advocacy," but not to explicitly advocate for or against a federal candidate. This was, needless to say, a crock: 527s routinely ran ads that viciously attacked and supported candidates. They just stopped (barely) short of expressly saying, "On Tuesday, vote for John Doe."

So what impact have Super PACs had? On the one hand, you can argue that they really haven't changed anything on the ground. They run pretty much the same kinds of attack ads as the 527s used to, and the only change is that they don't have to worry about legal challenges anymore. On the other hand, you can argue that the added freedom is genuinely important. Being able to explicitly raise money for candidates, instead of pretending to be an issue advocacy group, makes a real difference.

So which is it? Obviously there's a bit of truth to both sides, and which argument you give the most weight to is mainly a matter of temperament and attitude. For myself, I think it's fair to say that Citizens United really did have an impact on individual expenditures, but probably didn't empower rich people quite as much as popular legend has it.

That said, there are also a couple of other points to make. First, Citizens United obviously did unleash spending by corporations and unions. In the 2010 election it seemed as though the impact of Citizens United on corporate spending had turned out to be a bit of a dud, but this year it looks as though it's finally taking off. Second, one of the commonest complaints about Super PACs is that they're allowed to hide the sources of their contributions. But this has nothing to do with Citizens United. It has to do with the legal requirements of 501(c)(4) groups, which have become major funding sources for Super PACs. The FEC has declined to force 501(c)(4)s to disclose their donors, and the IRS has declined to enforce the law that says they can't have electoral politics as their primary purpose. Both of these problems could be fixed tomorrow by legislative means if Congress wanted to. Rick Hasen has a pretty good summary of the current state of play here.

UPDATE: Fred Wertheimer of Democracy21 emails to point out that, in fact, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was fined $300,000 by the FEC for violating campaign rules. Likewise, America Coming Together, which got substantial funding from George Soros, was fined $775,000.

These are fairly modest sums compared to the amounts raised (nearly $7 million for the Swift Boat group and $137 million for ACT). So again, you'll have to decide for yourself if these fines mean (a) 527 groups really did operate under meaningful legal constraints or (b) they were a joke and had no real impact.

Regardless, I had forgotten about these fines, and they do suggest that there was at least a little bit more oversight on the old 527 groups than I originally suggested.

There is More Cynicism Than Hypocrisy in Washington

| Sat Feb. 25, 2012 6:29 PM EST

There is unquestionably a sort of kabuki-like level of hypocrisy that's routine in Washington DC. The party in the majority routinely rails against the obstructionism of the minority, but flips around and extols the filibuster as a cornerstone of democracy when they're in the minority themselves. The president's party always votes for debt limit increases, but flips around and attacks them as signs of fiscal malfeasance when the other guys occupy the White House. We can argue about which party abuses this more, but basically both of them do it. It's genuine hypocrisy, but as these things go it's also fairly harmless.

But there's a different kind of supposed hypocrisy that's not so genuine: changes of position that are based on changing sets of alternatives. If you give me a choice between a carrot and a radish, I'll tell you that carrots are wonderful. If you give me a choice between a carrot and a chocolate bar, suddenly I don't care for carrots so much. I've changed my mind, but only because my options have changed.

This kind of faux hypocrisy is common in politics too. In 1993, when Clintoncare was polling well and seemed like it might well become law, Republicans were big fans of a less statist solution that incorporated private healthcare and an individual mandate. In 2009, when defeating healthcare reform entirely seemed like a feasible alternative, suddenly the mandate became a tool of Satan. But this isn't hypocrisy. The individual mandate was always a second-best option for conservatives, and when their first-best option seemed attainable, they ditched it.

Ditto for cap-and-trade. In 2006, when Al Gore was flying high and EPA regulation of carbon seemed like a real possibility, cap-and-trade was appealing to conservatives as a more efficient, less statist solution. By 2010, when it was clear that the EPA was unlikely to take more than modest action, they ditched their support for cap-and-trade. From their point of view, it was a good idea compared to the EPA, but a bad idea compared to doing nothing. Likewise, Medicare cuts that help pay for universal healthcare strike liberals as a good trade (hooray Obamacare!). Medicare cuts that pay for tax cuts on the rich seem like a lousy trade (boo Ryancare!). 

Circumstances can change in other ways too. During the Bush administration Democrats mostly criticized the big budget deficits he ran. In 2009, suddenly they suddenly became big fans of deficits. But circumstances had changed: orthodox liberal economic theory suggests that you try to balance the budget over the course of an economic cycle. That means you should run surpluses during an economic expansion (2002-08) and deficits during a downturn (2009-present). Democrats weren't hypocrites, they were just taking their own models seriously.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that I think Ezra Klein goes too far when he charges both parties with routine hypocrisy over issues like this. I think it's fair to call Republicans cynical over their abandonment of cap-and-trade and the individual mandate: even though their early support was halfhearted at best, they milked it in order to persuade the public that they weren't just pure obstructionists. There's a lot of political calculation there, but not really a lot of hypocrisy. Likewise, you might doubt that Democrats are really all that dedicated to running budget surpluses during good economic times. But again, that's not a sign of hypocrisy. It's just normal human weakness.

LA Times Joins the Paywall Brigade

| Sat Feb. 25, 2012 2:33 PM EST

I see that the LA Times will soon be putting in place a paywall — oops, I mean a "membership program" — for its online readers:

Starting March 5, online readers will be asked to buy a digital subscription at an initial rate of 99 cents for four weeks. Readers who do not subscribe will be able to read 15 stories in a 30-day period for free. There will be no digital access charge for subscribers of the printed newspaper.

....Other news outlets that have begun charging for online journalism include the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Dallas Morning News. Gannett, the nation's largest newspaper company, this week announced plans to launch a similar program at 80 publications, saying it could boost earnings by $100 million in 2013.

After the first month, the price goes up to $3.99 per week, which seems a wee bit steep to me. The New York Times charges me $2.60 per week and the Wall Street Journal charges me $3.99 per week, and meaning no offense, those are much better papers with far more content. It doesn't really matter to me, of course, since I already subscribe to the print edition, but I have my doubts that there are thousands of new subscribers itching to pay that kind of money for the LAT.

As it happens, the trend toward paywalls is a particular problem for me, since I'm a blogger and rely on access to lots of news sources on a regular basis. But I already subscribe to the Times and the Journal, since they provide content that's genuinely unique/valuable, and also to the LA Times, mostly out of habit and residual loyalty. But that's about all I can afford. I'd like to read the Financial Times more regularly too, but $700 per year in newspaper subscriptions has me tapped out. As other papers start erecting paywalls, it's going to make my job ever harder.

At the same time, although I think the LA Times is overpriced, I don't really blame them or anyone else for putting up a paywall. The conventional wisdom among the digerati, as near as I can tell, is that paywalls are always and forever bad things, but why is that? I'd say just the opposite: I've never entirely understood why most newspapers offer online editions at all. I've heard dozens of strained arguments about how online editions don't cannibalize sales of the paper edition, but come on. Of course they do. There's always been a strong whiff of special pleading to these arguments: we don't want to pay for news, therefore it must be bad to charge for news. Online editions are good PR! They draw in new readers! Etc. We heard the same arguments for years in the music biz, and guess what? Online piracy/sales cannibalized the hell out of existing channels.

The same thing is almost certainly true of newspapers, and as the digital generation grows up cannibalization will increase. But what do do? Even after more than a decade of dotcom experience, online advertising still doesn't cover the cost of producing your average metro daily. Not even close. I'm not sure online advertising even covers the marginal cost of running a website. So you either charge or die.

Of course, "die" is going to be the choice for a lot of news outlets. Most of them do a crappy job of reporting national and international news, and sports and gossip are available from a million places. That leaves purely local news, which is a pretty tiny niche.

But they might as well try. It's not like there's some cosmic law that says news outlets are required to give away their products for free. The advertising model isn't working, and maybe no other model will either, but they might as well start experimenting. It's either that or give up.