2012 - %3, March

In the Everglades, Taxpayers Foot the Bill for Industry's Mess

| Thu Mar. 29, 2012 5:00 AM EDT
Florida's Everglades National Park

The fragile wetlands of the Everglades have long been choked by pollution, especially phosphorus from fertilizers used in industrial agriculture. Sugar cane in particular makes up the largest share of the crop land that drains directly into the national park. But a new study shows that despite the fact that the preponderance of gunk feeding into the Everglades comes from agriculture, it is the taxpayers, not the industry, who fork over for clean up.

The study, which was commissioned by the Everglades Foundation, a nonprofit that seeks to protect the complex ecosystem, finds that although the agricultural industry is responsible for 76 percent of phosphorus contamination in the Everglades (the rest being urban runoff and wastewater), it pays only 24 percent of the cost of dealing with it. Even though Florida's "polluter pays" amendment requires those who sully the wetlands to be "primarily responsible" for its cleanup, legislators have declined to enforce the law, sticking taxpayers with 66 percent of the bill.

Why this state of affairs? "It's a little secret that the sugar industry is one of the most generous political donors on every level of government," says Kirk Fordham, CEO of the Everglades Foundation. The US Sugar Corporation spent $907,000 to lobby the Florida legislature in 2011 alone, and its rival Florida Crystals wasn't far behind, doling out $570,000.

The sugar daddies quickly issued a statement calling the study "hocus pocus." Gov. Scott's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Last year the governor cut funds for Everglades water clean up, and the Sunshine State has been fighting a legal battle with the feds for years over its responsibility to pay for pollution abatement in federally-managed areas of the Glades. Gov. Scott is currently in negotiations with the Obama administration to draft a new version of a decade-old state and federal restoration project

Could the study shift the balance of payments? Fordham thinks so. "Rick Scott ran on a platform of protecting the taxpayer, and there would be no better way to follow through on that commitment than to demand that polluters pay more than taxpayers."

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House GOP: Rape Prevention Measures an Unreasonable Luxury

| Thu Mar. 29, 2012 5:00 AM EDT
The Karnes County (Texas) ICE detention center, as imagined by Rep. Lamar Smith.

On Wednesday, as most of official Washington was fixing its gaze squarely on the Supreme Court, the House Committee on the Judiciary convened a hearing on another issue: the supposedly posh conditions at the Department of Homeland Security's immigrant detention centers. The hearing, dubbed "Holiday on ICE" by chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), focused on the idea that Obama administration rules intended to prevent sexual abuse and inhumane conditions at Immigrations and Customs Enforcement facilities made detention too fancy. "War on Women," meet "War on Immigrant Women."

In 2008, the Washington Post published an in-depth investigation of inhumane conditions at ICE detention centers. As Bob Libal at Texas Prison Bid'ness points out, ICE was forced to cancel its contract with a detention center in Texas' Willacy County after it was "rocked by allegations of sexual assaults, immigrant smuggling, spoiled food, and protests." Those conditions, detailed in a 2011 Frontline report, were exacerbated by Obama administration policies exempting immigration detention centers from the Prison Rape Elimination Act. As far as accommodations go, Willacy was more Hostel than Holiday Inn.

It's the Supreme Court's Job to Solve the Broccoli Test

| Wed Mar. 28, 2012 8:22 PM EDT

One of TPM's readers wrote in today with a comment about the arguments in the Supreme Court healthcare case. It happens to be about something that's been bouncing around in the back of my head for several days, so here it is:

The only problem that Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy expressed with the mandate is the lack of limiting principle on Congress’s ability to mandate the purchase of privately-made/issued products. If that’s really the concern of each Justice, and it sure seemed that it was, neither man is lacking in the self-regard and intellect necessary to craft such a limiting principle. And that’s where my money remains. The Government didn’t make their jobs easier, but it’s one thing to fault the Government for failing to articulate a limiting principle and quite another to overturn momentous legislation on that basis. Because to do the latter is to say that the Justices can’t craft such a principle either. Here’s betting both can, and Roberts will.

This is related to the "broccoli question." If Congress can force you to buy health insurance, can they force you to buy broccoli too? In fact, if they can force you to buy health insurance, are there any limits at all on what Congress can do? Lots of smart observers think the conservative justices simply won't accept the idea that Congress can essentially do anything, which means that if they're going to uphold the individual mandate they'll need some kind of "limiting principle" that explains why the mandate is OK but, say, broccoli isn't.

But it strikes me that the government's job isn't to craft such a principle. The government's job is to argue that the mandate is already within existing limits on Congress's power. And given how extraordinarily broad Wickard is, that never seemed very hard to me. If Congress can stop you from growing wheat for private consumption, something that has only the most tenuous connection to interstate commerce, mandating the purchase of health insurance seems like a no-brainer.

But even if it's not, it's still not the government's job to articulate a limiting principle. It's the court's job. That's what they do. They write opinions that — in theory, anyway — provide guidance to lower courts about how to apply the law. Supreme Court opinions are chockablock with three-prong tests, significant nexus tests, balancing tests, and a million other kinds of tests. As long as Kennedy or Roberts or Breyer or Kagan or any of the others can come up with something that gets five votes, then we have our limiting principle. There's no reason it has to come from the Obama administration. In fact, all things considered, it's probably best if it doesn't. The justices will all feel a whole lot smarter and a whole lot more decisive if they do it themselves.

Expect More Crazy Weather, Says UN Climate Change Panel

| Wed Mar. 28, 2012 6:30 PM EDT

Wondering whether the heat wave that's been shattering temperature records across the Midwest has anything to do with climate change? A report on extreme weather events released today by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) offers strong evidence that global warming makes heat waves and record highs more likely. While there have been many studies on the link between climate and extreme weather, and plenty of speculation, this report, which synthesizes over a thousand studies on climate, weather, and disasters, offers an "unprecedented level of detail" on observed and expected changes in weather and climate extremes, says the IPCC. This is the first time the panel has taken a comprehensive look specifically at extreme weather, as well as the first IPCC report to consult social scientists in seeking to understand how communities are affected by climate change.

The IPCC warns that extreme temperatures and heavy precipitation have been on the rise since 1950, and that those trends are likely to continue throughout the 21st century. The heat impacts are particularly worrisome: The report says it's "virtually certain" that we'll see more daily temperature extremes at the high end of the scale going forward, and "very likely"—scientific lingo for 90-100 percent certain—that heat waves will increase in length, frequency, and intensity. Droughts are also likely to intensify in many areas, including central North America, central and southern Europe, and northeast Brazil. So while we'll probably never know whether this particular heat wave can be chalked up to climate change, we can be pretty sure that we'll be seeing more like it in the future. And there's a lot more to worry about (and some suggestions for how we can cope, like improving land-use planning and enforcing building codes) in the full 592 pages of the report, which you can read here

 

Will the Supreme Court Create Zombie Obamacare?

| Wed Mar. 28, 2012 5:45 PM EDT

The first question before the Supreme Court on Wednesday, the last of three days of oral argument about the constitutionality of President Barack Obama's health care law, was whether the individual mandate—the requirement that certain uncovered Americans purchase health insurance or pay a fine—was the "heart" of Obamacare. In other words, if that beating heart is ripped out by a majority of the nine black-robed justices, should the Affordable Care Act be allowed to stumble along or be put down with a double-barrel shot to the head?

Former Solicitor General Paul Clement, representing 26 states challenging the law, said that without the individual mandate the rest of the bill would not work and Zobamacare should not be allowed to rise from the remains.

"What you end up with at the end of that process is just sort of a hollow shell," Clement said. "You can't possibly think that Congress would have passed that hollow shell without the heart of the Act." Justice Antonin Scalia later asked Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler that particular question: "Can you take out the heart of the act and leave everything else in place?"

Kneedler had a tough position to defend. The Obama administration's stance is that if the individual mandate is struck down, popular provisions like the ban on insurance companies discriminating due to preexisting conditions must also go. Kneedler was telling the court that if a majority chooses to rip out the heart of the bill, they will have to tear out the entire circulatory system, too. The reason: Without the individual mandate to push healthy individuals to buy insurance, the insurance industry would go bankrupt trying to cover those with serious, expensive health problems. Yet Kneedler also argued that the Affordable Care Act created a "sharp dividing line" between those popular reforms and the rest of the law. The legal concept in play here is "severability": whether or not the law can remain if one piece is stricken.

Quote of the Day: The Big Solyndra Nothingburger

| Wed Mar. 28, 2012 5:31 PM EDT

From Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, on the Solyndra investigation he's been flogging for the past six months:

Is there a criminal activity? Perhaps not. Is there a political influence and connections? Perhaps not. Did they bend the rules for an agenda, an agenda not covered within the statute? Absolutely.

They bent the rules! Translation: The Obama administration really wanted the domestic solar industry to succeed, so they might have given Solyndra slightly more support than it deserved. That's the big scandal. Yeesh.

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Massive Gas Leak Could Be the North Sea's Deepwater Horizon

| Wed Mar. 28, 2012 2:20 PM EDT

 North Sea platforms: tjodolv via Flickr.North Sea platforms: tjodolv via Flickr. 

A natural gas well in the North Sea 150 miles off Aberdeen, Scotland, sprung a massive methane leak on March 25. The 238 workers were all safely evacuated. But the situation is so explosive that an exclusion zone for ships and aircraft has been set up around the rig, reports the Mail Online. And nearby rigs have been evacuated, reports the New York Times:

Royal Dutch Shell said it closed its Shearwater field, about four miles away, withdrawing 52 of the 90 workers there; it also suspended work and evacuated 68 workers from a drilling rig working nearby, the Hans Deul.

But that's not the worst of it. The platform lies less than 100 yards/meters from a flare that workers left burning as crew evacuated. The French super-major oil company owner of the rig, Total, dismissed the risk, while the British government claimed the flame needs to burn to prevent gas pressure from building up. But Reuters reports:

[O]ne energy industry consultant said Elgin could become "an explosion waiting to happen" if the oil major did not rapidly stop the leak which is above the water at the wellhead.

Elgin Field.:  Adapted from map by NordNordWest via Wikimedia Commons.Elgin Field: Adapted from map by NordNordWest via Wikimedia Commons.And that may not be the worst of it either. The leak is not in the well apparently but in the chalky seabed around it. No one really knows how reparable that will be—especially with the risk of explosion so high for any workers on site

Plus, the field produces sour gas: a potent mix of natural gas, hydrogen sulfide, and carbon dioxide. Twenty years ago the cost of extracting energy from such messy stuff would have been prohibitively expensive. Now, not so much. But the true cost could be brutal, reports the BBC :

The major threat to the local ecosystem is the hydrogen sulphide, which is toxic to virtually all animal life. "You might as well put Agent Orange in the ocean," says [Simon Boxall of the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, UK]. Because the leak is below the water's surface, the hydrogen sulphide is bubbling through the sea water. This is the worst-case scenario, says Boxall, because it could lead to mass animal and plant deaths. Boxall says Total needs to monitor the water quality to see if this is happening.

 

Taking Race Seriously

| Wed Mar. 28, 2012 1:41 PM EDT

Conservative Josh Barro tells his fellow conservatives why they get attacked on racial issues so often:

Why do conservatives catch such heat? It’s probably because there is still so much racism on the Right to go alongside valid arguments on issues relating to race and ethnicity. Conservatives so often get unfairly pounded on race because, so often, conservatives get fairly pounded on race.

And this is the Right’s own fault, because conservatives are not serious about draining the swamp. In recent months, both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have gotten questions at public events that referred to President Obama being a Muslim. Neither candidate corrected the questioner. Santorum later told a reporter that’s “not his job.” PPP polls in Mississippi and Alabama have found that about half of Republican voters believe Obama is a Muslim, and others aren’t sure.

....There has been a clear strategic calculation here among Republican elites. Better to leverage or at least accept the racism of much of the Republican base than try to clean it up....My challenge to conservatives who feel they get a bum rap on race is this. Stand up for yourself and your colleagues when you feel that a criticism is unfair. At the same time, criticize other conservatives who say racist things, cynically tolerate racism in the Republican base, or deny the mere existence of racial issues in America today. The conservative movement desperately needs self-policing on racial issues, if it ever hopes to have credibility on them.

I think it's fair to suggest that liberals use race as a cudgel more often and more crudely than we should. The problem conservatives have is that this is pretty much the sum total of their take on racial issues: that liberals bring it up too often. When they write about race there's usually a pro forma "to be sure" somewhere, but I can't remember the last time I saw a conservative take seriously — either generally or in a specific case — the idea that racism against ethnic minorities is still a genuine and important issue in America. If you inhaled nothing but conservative media, you'd think that African-Americans are endlessly pampered; that racial animosity is simply an invention of the "victim industry" these days; and that the white working class is the real object of oppression.

Barro is right: if conservatives want nothing more than to appeal to the racial resentment voting bloc, they're doing the right thing. But if they want to be taken seriously on racial issues, they need to take them seriously themselves. If they did, their criticisms would have a lot more force.

(Via Andrew Sullivan.)

Explaining the Mandate in Language Conservatives Can Understand

| Wed Mar. 28, 2012 12:14 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias points today to former White House spokesman Reid Cherlin, who says "Take It From Me: Defending Obamacare is Super-Hard." Matt thinks it's not as hard as all that, but in general, I think I'm on Cherlin's side here. Taken as a whole, Obamacare is really hard to explain to people.

However, I do agree that defending the individual mandate isn't that hard. In fact, the best explanation I've heard recently came in January from none other than Mitt Romney, explaining why a mandate is part of the healthcare reform bill he championed in Massachusetts:

ROMNEY: For the 8 percent of people who didn't have insurance, we said to them, if you can afford insurance, buy it yourself, any one of the plans out there, you can choose any plan. There's no government plan.

And if you don't want to buy insurance, then you have to help pay for the cost of the state picking up your bill, because under federal law if someone doesn't have insurance, then we have to care for them in the hospitals, give them free care. So we said, no more, no more free riders. We are insisting on personal responsibility. Either get the insurance or help pay for your care. And that was the conclusion that we reached.

SANTORUM: Does everybody in Massachusetts have a requirement to buy health care?

ROMNEY: Everyone has a requirement to either buy it or pay the state for the cost of providing them free care. Because the idea of people getting something for free when they could afford to care for themselves is something that we decided in our state was not a good idea.

Not bad! No more free riders. "The idea of people getting something for free when they could afford to care for themselves is something that we decided in our state was not a good idea." And guess what? It's not such a good idea in the other 49 states either.

How Did Evangelicals Hijack the Word "Christian"?

| Wed Mar. 28, 2012 11:56 AM EDT

With my language cop duties out of the way, let's go ahead and talk about misuse of the word Christian. I'm going to quote Ed Kilgore on this rather than Tim Noah himself:

TNR's Tim Noah wrote yesterday about one of my all-time biggest pet peeves: the constant appropriation of the word "Christian" by conservative evangelicals as exclusive to their distinctive and hardly uncontested point of view. What sent Noah off was an NPR story on "Christian films," which, of course, turned out to be films by a very particular and not at all representative type of Christians.

....Noah figures secular media go along with this theft of Christianity in all its diverse glory because they've been intimidated into doing so by the endless whining of the Christian Right about "persecution." That's clearly a factor, but I suspect secular media ignorance contributes as well: a lot of media types simply don't know much about religion, which they find faintly ridiculous and embarrassing.

This is mostly a guessing game, of course, but this doesn't sound quite right to me. I don't think the media has been intimidated, and I also don't think they're that ignorant. Most of them might not be aware of the various sub-strains of charismatic/Pentecostal/evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity, but they're well aware that Catholics and mainstream Protestants also exist. They aren't quite as dumb as all that, are they?

Rather, I suspect this is a case where, like it or not, we've developed a sort of tacit agreement among all Christian persuasions about this. I think media folks are willing to use "Christian" as a descriptive phrase not just for Christian right films and music and books, but for anything where overt Christianity is a key theme, not merely a subtext and not merely present by allusion. The problem is that the vast bulk of films and music and books that have overt Christianity as a key theme are, in fact, aimed at the Christian right. Mainstream Protestants have pretty much ceded the market.

What's worse, this actually seems to work for everybody. We all want labels that tell us whether we might be interested in something. Marketers want them and consumers want them. It saves time. So the use of "Christian" as a marketing term for "Christian right" works for marketers because it lets them target an audience. It also works for evangelical consumers, who want to make sure they're spending their entertainment dollars on the kind of Christianity they like. And in a way, even though there's a price to be paid for this, I have a feeling it works for mainstream Protestants as well, who'd just as soon be warned off that stuff.

But I'm genuinely curious about this. I know that mainstream Christians have long been annoyed in general at the fact that so many people automatically associate "Christian" with "Christian right" these days, but I wonder how many of them are also annoyed by, say, the existence of "Christian rock" that's almost exclusively evangelical Christian? The comment section of this blog is, for a variety of obvious reasons, a really poor place to get a representative read on this, but go ahead anyway. Is the modern marketing use of "Christian" as a way of targeting evangelicals a huge annoyance? Or just a shrug-your-shoulders kind of thing?