2012 - %3, March

When the US Government Can Kill You, Explained

| Mon Mar. 5, 2012 5:07 PM EST
A US Air Force Reaper armed with hellfire missiles.

On Monday, the Obama administration explained when it's allowed to kill you.

Speaking to students and faculty at Northwestern University law school, Attorney General Eric Holder laid out in greater detail than ever before the legal theory behind the administration's belief that it can kill American citizens suspected of terrorism without charge or trial. In the 5,000-word speech, the nation's top law enforcement official directly confronted critics who allege that the targeted killing of American citizens violates the Constitution.

"'Due process' and 'judicial process' are not one and the same, particularly when it comes to national security." Holder said. "The Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process."

Who decides when an American citizen has had enough due process and the Hellfire missile fairy pays them a visit? Presumably the group of top national security officials—that, according to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, decides who is targetable and forwards its findings to the president, who gives final approval.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

VIDEO: Scott Walker Pledged to Negotiate with Unions—Then "Dropped the Bomb" on Them

| Mon Mar. 5, 2012 4:55 PM EST
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker ignited massive protests when, last February, he sprung a surprise attack on the public-sector unions in his state. Later, Walker claimed his anti-union "budget-repair bill" was no surprise at all, and that he'd campaigned on those controversial reforms, including eliminating collective bargaining rights for most public-sector workers. PolitiFact Wisconsin rated that claim "false."

Now, a new video unearthed by a liberal Wisconsin blogger shows Walker, then a gubernatorial candidate, saying he would negotiate with state employee unions over changes to their pension benefits. In an interview a week before the November 2010 election with the editorial board of the Oshkosh Northwestern, Walker was asked if he'd use collective bargaining to get unions to potentially pay more into their pension plans. "Yep," Walker said in response, nodding. Referring to changing pension benefits, he added, "You still have to negotiate it. I did that at the county as well."

Vacuum Before Entering Antarctica

| Mon Mar. 5, 2012 4:52 PM EST
Tourists in Antarctica.

Invasive species are considered one of the biggest threats to Antarctica—especially as the frozen continent melts and becomes fertile ground for species moving down from the north.

Now a new paper in PNAS quantifies for the first time just how many plant seeds came into Antarctica in 2007-2008 from tourists, scientists, and research-station crews.

The researchers arrived at these finding by vacuuming the clothes, boots, packs, and camera bags of more than 850 scientists, tourists, support personnel, and ships' crew. Here's what they found:

  • Each visitor carried an average of 9.5 seeds.
  • A total of 71,000 seeds were imported into Antarctica that year (calculated).

They also found that while many more tourists than scientists visit Antarctica annually (tourists: ∼33,054; science and crew: ∼7,085), yet more scientists and crews carried seeds:

  • 20% of tourists carried seeds
  • 40% of science crews carried seeds 

What can be done about it? Syd Perkins at Science Now writes of a few simple fixes:

Tourists can clean their equipment thoroughly, including vacuuming their gear bags and emptying the pockets of their outerwear, especially if they've recently visited arctic or alpine environments where they could have inadvertently picked up seeds of cold-adapted plants. Also, scientists can pay attention to where cargo destined for Antarctica is stored, especially if it's been stored outdoors. [Much equipment spends half the year in the Antarctic and the other half in the Arctic.] 

Maybe a clean-room shakedown at Antarctic launching ports to apprehend alien stowaways?

Limbaugh Not The Only Conservative Who Fails To Understand How Birth Control Works

| Mon Mar. 5, 2012 3:16 PM EST

Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown student, a "slut" for her public advocacy in support of the Obama administration's rule compelling employers and insurance companies to cover birth control in their health care plans. Fluke thought that kind of language was out of bounds, and said so. Over at National Review, Kathryn Jean-Lopez posts an "alternate perspective" from Angela Morabito, one of Fluke's classmates.

 

Like Rush Limbaugh, Morabito (and possibly Jean-Lopez) appears to believe the amount of birth control you need is related to how much sex you have:

No one forced Sandra to come to Georgetown. And now that she has, Sandra does not have to depend on the university health plan. She could walk down the street to CVS and get some contraception herself. Or, go to an off-campus, non-university doctor and pay for it out of pocket. (Or, you know . . . maybe not have so much sex that it puts her in financial peril?)

Limbaugh is apparently not the only person on the right who appears to be clueless about how birth control actually works. Except for the morning after pill, how much birth control you need has nothing to do with how often you have sex. Fluke's testimony is focused on alternative medical reasons for taking contraception, of which there are many, but like Limbaugh, Morabito spends a great deal of effort pontificating about Fluke's sex life and implying she is promiscuous. Instead of the word "slut," however, Morabito goes with the classier "When did Georgetown Law start admitting Kardashians?" and posits that "Sandra doesn’t even speak for all skanks! She only speaks for the skanks who don't want to take responsibility for their choices."

Fluke never mentions her own sex life in her testimony, so people attacking her for doing so lack even the flimsiest of pretenses. They're speculating about Fluke's sex life because they think the most effective way to silence her is through a sustained carpet bombing of sexist stereotypes.

Kathryn Jean-Lopez doesn't speak for everyone at National Review, however. Though her colleague Jason Lee Steorts does not endeavor to correct the misconceptions about birth control in Morabito's piece, he nevertheless responds that, "Maybe [Morabito] was trying to be funny, but instead she conveys arrogance, condescension, and a total lack of manners." Steorts argues that conservatives should stick to their arguments regarding religious freedom. I don't find those particularly persuasive either, but it says something that so many people can't seem to resist getting personal when it comes to Fluke.

Iran War Watch: The GOP Candidates React to Obama's AIPAC Speech

| Mon Mar. 5, 2012 2:40 PM EST
President Barack Obama at the 2012 AIPAC policy conference.

Are the United States and Iran on a collision course over the Middle Eastern country's controversial nuclear program? We'll be posting the latest news on Iran-war fever—the intel, the media frenzy, the rhetoric.

On Sunday, President Obama delivered his address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual policy conference in Washington, DC. Though he condemned the recent "loose talk of war," Obama used the 34-minute speech as an opportunity to talk tough on Iran and to reject containment policy:

I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And as I've made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests... And I know that Israeli leaders also know all too well the costs and consequences of war, even as they recognize their obligation to defend their country.

The president gave the much anticipated speech one day before his high-profile meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—a meeting during which the Israeli leader is expected to further pressure the White House on upping the war rhetoric. During the speech, Obama did not specify what lines the Iranian government would have to cross to provoke an American military operation. (Click here for a complete transcript.)

Living With a Nuclear Iran

| Mon Mar. 5, 2012 2:26 PM EST

In an important piece in the Washington Monthly today, Paul Pillar argues that we could live with a nuclear Iran. "An Iran with a bomb," he says, "would not be anywhere near as dangerous as most people assume, and a war to try to stop it from acquiring one would be less successful, and far more costly, than most people imagine."

Pillar's argument is basically twofold. First, he contends that both history and the bulk of the evidence suggest that Iranian leaders aren't suicidal or maniacal. They'd be deterred from launching an attack on Tel Aviv by the same thing that deters all the rest of us: fear of massive retaliation that would turn their country into a glassy plain. Second, he's skeptical that a nuclear Iran would "throw its weight around" any more than the current version of Iran. "A rich body of doctrine," he says, suggests that nukes are useful in deterring aggression — something that's probably much on Iran's mind these days — but "much less useful in 'shielding' aggressive behavior outside one’s borders."

I think he's right on both counts. But I was disappointed that he didn't spend more time on the argument that's always seemed most compelling to me: that a nuclear Iran would spark an arms race in one of the most unstable regions on the planet. Here's what he has to say about that:

To be sure, the world would be a better place without an Iranian nuclear weapon. An Iranian bomb would be a setback for the global nuclear nonproliferation regime, for example, and the arms control community is legitimately concerned about it. It would also raise the possibility that other regional states, such as Saudi Arabia or Egypt, might be more inclined to try to acquire nuclear weapons as well. But that raises the question of why these states have not already done so, despite decades of facing both Israel’s nuclear force and tensions with Iran.

....Indeed, the alarmists offer more inconsistent arguments when discussing the dynamics of a Middle East in which rivals of Iran acquire their own nuclear weapons. If, as the alarmists project, nuclear weapons would appreciably increase Iranian influence in the region, why wouldn’t further nuclear proliferation—which the alarmists also project—negate this effect by bestowing a comparable benefit on the rivals?

As a notable non-expert in nuclear proliferation theory, I don't have a lot to add to this. But it does seem like it deserves a little more than just a couple of paragraphs. Nuclear proliferation isn't necessarily driven by sober logic, and other states might acquire nukes just because they're scared. And while most governments, no matter how odious, are pretty rational about their own self-preservation, not all of them are all the time. More countries with more nukes would almost certainly increase the odds that someone, sometime, would do something crazy.

Now, if I had to guess, I'd say the main obstacle in the way of growing proliferation is simply that it's harder and more expensive than it looks. Saudi Arabia might be able to do it, but could Syria? Or Lebanon? Or even Egypt? Maybe, but it's far from a certainty.

In any case, I think this probably deserves more discussion, if for no other reason than the fact that it's Barack Obama's primary argument for preventing Iran from going nuclear. You might not need to convince me that it's a bad argument, but you sure need to convince him.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The Rich Are Rebounding Nicely, Thank You Very Much

| Mon Mar. 5, 2012 12:52 PM EST

The wealthy took a big hit during the Great Recession, but have they recovered since then? In a word, yes. Emmanuel Saez updates his statistics for income gains among the rich and the rest:

Top 1% incomes grew by 11.6% while bottom 99% incomes grew only by 0.2%. Hence, the top 1% captured 93% of the income gains in the first year of recovery...It is likely that this uneven recovery has continued in 2011 as the stock market has continued to recover...This suggests that the Great Recession will only depress top income shares temporarily and will not undo any of the dramatic increase in top income shares that has taken place since the 1970s.

The chart below shows income gains among top earners. Even there, recovery has been uneven. Income rebounded nicely for the top 1%, but that's about it. Even the merely well off, those with incomes over $100,000, gave back some of the small gains of the past couple of years. As with past recessions, the very richest took the steepest hit at first, but within a few years they'll probably bounce back to even higher peaks than before. Mike Konczal has more here.

Quote of the Day: Pay Attention to Target 2!

| Mon Mar. 5, 2012 11:39 AM EST

From Tyler Cowen:

As a general rule of thumb, any time you see an article about “Target 2,” it is important.

No, this is the not the next retail innovation following the invention of SuperTarget and Target Greatland. Target 2 is the clearing system for European banks, and for its first couple of years (it replaced the old system in 2007) it was every bit as boring as that sounds. But as you may recall, the core of the European financial crisis is a persistent imbalance in trade deficits, and the mirror image of a trade imbalance is a capital account imbalance. In other words, some countries are net exporters of money (Germany, France, the Netherlands) and some are net importers (Spain, Greece, Italy, etc.) During the boom years, commercial banks funded all these flows, but the music stopped playing on that game some time ago, and ever since then central banks have taken up the slack. In particular, the German central bank has become the funder of last resort to the ECB, which in turn is the funder of last resort to central banks in other countries.

And it turns out that the Germans are getting increasingly nervous about this. One solution — the one that would actually work — is to address the trade deficits at their root, which means also addressing Germany's trade surplus. That's not going to happen. Wolfgang Münchau picks up the story:

Instead, the Bundesbank prefers to solve the problem by addressing the funding side. [Jens Weidmann, president of the Bundesbank] proposed last week that Germany’s Target 2 claims should be securitised. Just think about this for a second. He demands contingent access to Greek and Spanish property and other assets to a value of €500bn in case the eurozone should collapse. He might as well have suggested sending in the Luftwaffe to solve the eurozone crisis. The proposal is unbelievably extreme.

It also tells us something else: by seeking insurance against a collapse of the euro, the Bundesbank tells us it no longer regards the demise of the euro as a zero-probability event. If the Bundesbank seeks insurance, so should everybody else.

Does this mean that Germany itself is no longer 100% committed to the euro, and in turn that the eurozone is eventually doomed? Maybe! Stay tuned, and keep your eyes peeled for further action on the Target 2 front.

Santorum Concedes That His Private Health Insurance Sucks

| Mon Mar. 5, 2012 11:30 AM EST
Rick Santorum.

Last week, we reported that over a two-year period, GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum had run up nearly $100,000 in medical bills beyond what his private insurance paid for to care for his disabled daughter, Bella, who was born with the usually fatal genetic disorder Trisomy 18. On Sunday, Santorum acknowledged his insurance plan's failings, and said that the bills were a huge burden for his family, though he did it in the context of explaining why his personal charitable contributions were so low. He told Fox News host Chris Wallace:

"I was in a situation where we have seven children, one disabled child who we take care of, and she's very, very expensive," he said. "We love her and cherish the opportunity to take care of her, but it's an additional expense. We have to have around-the-clock care for her, and our insurance company doesn't cover it, so I have to cover it."

Wallace continued to hammer Santorum about his charitable contributions, but it would have been a perfect time to ask Santorum a more relevant question, which is: Given your huge medical expenses that aren't covered by your good, private insurance plan, how, specifically, would the health care law you've vowed to repeal make your situation worse? And a follow-up: Isn't it possible that Obamacare might save you a lot of money and make your life better?

These are questions Santorum still hasn't answered, despite having told Glenn Beck recently that both he and his wife decided he should run for president specifically to kill President Obama's health care reform bill. It's unlikely that any of Santorum's Republican opponents are going to raise the issue, but there's another debate scheduled for March 19, sponsored by NPR, PBS and the Washington Times. Perhaps one of the moderators will take the opportunity to quiz Santorum about the huge disconnect between his own personal experience with the health care system and the policies he wants to push on the rest of us if he's elected.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 5, 2012

Mon Mar. 5, 2012 11:18 AM EST

Soldiers from the 44th Medical Brigade, XVIII Airborne Corps, are greeted by family and friends as they return from a yearlong deployment in Afghanistan to Fort Bragg on March 1, 2012. Photo by Sgt. Jessica M. Kuhn/XVIII Abn. Corps PAO.