2012 - %3, February

Film Review: The Eerie Dance Drama of "Pina"

| Fri Feb. 3, 2012 7:00 AM EST

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.

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Conservative Super-PACs Make It Rain

| Fri Feb. 3, 2012 7:00 AM EST

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.

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

Fri Feb. 3, 2012 6:57 AM EST

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

| Fri Feb. 3, 2012 2:04 AM EST

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 9:21 PM EST

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.

Making Sense Out of the New York Times

| Thu Feb. 2, 2012 7:59 PM EST

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.

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

| Thu Feb. 2, 2012 6:30 PM EST
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 4:56 PM EST

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 3:46 PM EST

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.

Nation-Building vs. Al-Qaeda-Crushing in Afghanistan

| Thu Feb. 2, 2012 3:12 PM EST

Matt Steinglass on our decade-long nation-building mission in Afghanistan:

Nothing in my life has made me as pessimistic about development aid as the course of the American intervention in Afghanistan…I think I've seen figures showing that foreign aid was actually greater than the country's entire GDP in 2011. That sounds impossible, but I'd imagine it reflects the fact that foreign aid is often spent on salaries for Western consultants and equipment from donor countries, so it never really enters Afghanistan at all.

…The romantic vision of the transformation of Afghanistan involved passionate Westerners with graduate degrees donning local garb and riding on donkeys to dirt-poor villages to educate their girls and extend their agriculture. But Westerners with graduate degrees don't much want to sit around on donkeys in dirt-poor villages, particularly not when the Taliban will kill them for doing so. They want to ride out to the village in an SUV, train some locals to teach the girls (or better yet, train some local trainers), drive back to the city, hit the gym and turn on the laptop. Besides which, they have to turn on the laptop, because the congressional subcommittee has told USAID to mandate that they report monthly on progress in 37 different categories of target indicators in exchange for their NGO getting the grant.

Et cetera. I saw this last night, but couldn't think of anything really worthwhile to add to it. I wanted to link it up to the lessons we supposedly all learned from E. F. Schumacher several decades ago about the appropriate scale of foreign aid projects in Third World countries, but I just don't have the chops for that. I also wanted to link to an article I read a few years ago about the immense delicacy of interfering with local economic patterns, which runs the risk of wrecking key incentives and cultural practices built up over centuries, but I couldn't remember where I'd seen it or what country it was about. Which is too bad, because it was a great piece of eye-opening writing.

So that's a great big fail from me on the foreign aid front. Instead, I'll leave you with this observation from Andrew Sullivan:

Yesterday, I get a text from one of my friends, a former Special Ops guy who was one of the first to learn how to ride a horse, grow a beard and disappear into the mountains of Afghanistan in 2001. It read:

Are we leaving afghanistan. No way we are that is awesome.

The facts have persuaded me that this war needs to come to an end. But the most persuasive arguments I have heard have come from my friends who have served there. Every single one described "nation-building" there to be about as insane as, well, a 51st state on the moon. All of them wanted to find and kill the men who attacked the US a decade ago—and go home. Since Obama took office, they have been granted their wish: almost all the al Qaeda leadership dead, and bin Laden's bones being picked dry by fishes.

Our exit from Afghanistan is going to be messy and bloody. Republicans are going to have a field day no matter what. But our only other option is, almost literally, to stay there forever. The idea that the United States was ever going to remake Afghanistan in a few years or even a few decades was a ridiculous pipe dream, and it still is. We've now accomplished our military mission there about as well as it ever could have been accomplished, and it's time to leave.

It was endless jingoism from the right combined with cravenness from the left that turned our presence in Vietnam into a fiasco of world historical proportions. LBJ was simply unwilling to stand up to insinuations that he was soft on communism, and the end result was 60,000 Americans dead and, eventually, the exact same takeover of South Vietnam that would have happened in 1954 if we had let it. There was simply no way that even a massive military presence was ever going to change Vietnamese nationalism or reform Vietnamese corruption in a few years—or a few decades.

Thankfully, President Obama now seems to understand this. The jingoism from the right may be different this time—today's Democratic president is accused of being soft on terrorism, not communism—but if history isn't exactly repeating itself, it's certainly rhyming. Obama succumbed to this conservative braying a couple of years ago when he doubled down on Afghanistan, but apparently he's smart enough to realize that it's better to weather the inevitable right-wing jeremiads about appeasement than it is to turn into another LBJ.

I don't think that escalating in Afghanistan was ever the right call, and I doubt that an extra few years of war has made a serious dent in the Taliban, in Afghanistan's culture, or in the politico-tribal realities that have always governed the country. But if that was even a little bit unclear a few years ago, it's simply indisputable now. We've done enough damage to Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden is dead, Al Qaeda is all but destroyed, and the Taliban is as weakened as it's ever going to get. It's long past time to come home.