2012 - %3, March

Newt Gingrich Demands President Obama Apologize for Robert DeNiro

| Tue Mar. 20, 2012 12:10 PM EDT

Last Wednesday, GOP presidential candidate and aspiring sloth-watcher Newt Gingrich lamented the inability to have a "serious discussion" about America's future because the news media and his opponents "can't comprehend" the enormity of his ideas.

On Tuesday, he demanded President Obama apologize for Robert DeNiro. Via Benjy Sarlin:

Newt Gingrich is incensed about a joke by actor Robert DeNiro at a fundraiser attended by Michelle Obama for the president’s re-election, in which the Academy Award-winning star used the word “white” to describe the Republican field’s spouses.

"Callista Gingrich. Karen Santorum. Ann Romney. Now do you really think our country is ready for a white first lady?" DeNiro said. "Too soon, right?"

...

"What DeNiro said last night was inexcusable and the president should apologize for him. It was at an Obama fundraiser, it is exactly wrong, it divides the country," [Gingrich] said. "If people on the left want to talk about talk show hosts, then everybody in the country should hold the president accountable when someone at his event says something that is utterly and terribly unacceptable as what Robert DeNiro said."

No word yet on whether Gingrich thinks Obama should apologize for Little Fockers.

Meanwhile, in more serious Newt Gingrich news, Jonathan Martin and Ginger Gibson report that the former speaker's campaign is actually kind of a wreck, and is "slowly expiring in all the usual ways of terminal campaigns at the end-stage: Cash is running low, supporters are griping about not getting paid and aides are valiantly trying to convince themselves as much as the press that, really, there is a path forward."

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Today's Good News: Finally, a Limit to the Patent Follies

| Tue Mar. 20, 2012 11:49 AM EDT

The Supreme Court ruled today against a Nestle patent on a test that helps doctors set drug dosages:

The high court, in a 9-0 ruling by Justice Stephen Breyer, said the patents were invalid because they made claims on laws of nature, which aren't patentable.

OK then. We've finally set an outside boundary: you can't patent God's inventions. That's a good start! Now how about if Congress eliminates all software and business process patents too? That would make the world a much better place.

Paul Ryan's Path to Penury

| Tue Mar. 20, 2012 11:30 AM EDT
Paul Ryan.

As a blogger, there are days you know you're doomed. Today, for example. Paul Ryan has released the latest Republican budget, and it's a blizzard of numbers, gimmicks, weird comparisons, and obfuscation. It's no more serious than any of Ryan's other budget proposals, no matter how many PowerPoint slides he includes, and yet, this is what everyone will be talking about. I'm pretty bored with Ryan, but I feel like I need to say something too anyway.

Other people with more fortitude than me will eventually pick through his numbers and deliver more precision about his proposals. As near as I can tell from a quick scan, though, it's not a lot different from his previous plans. He makes modest cuts in Medicare and Social Security over the next ten years, zeroes out Obamacare, keeps defense spending high, and then takes huge whacks at everything else.

The single most important number in Ryan's plan, as usual, is his top line limit on spending: 19% of GDP. He will, of course, justify this with a chart showing that this is about the average over the past 50 years, so it's perfectly reasonable that we should be able to stick with this for the next 50. But it's not. For starters, average expenditures over the past 30 years have been more like 20-21% of GDP, with the exception of a few years in the late 90s during the Clinton boom era. What's more, the country is aging. Nothing can stop that, and this means that spending on the elderly is going to go up no matter how good a job of reining in healthcare costs we do. This means that spending over the next 20-30 years is going to be in the range of 23-24%.

This is just pure demographics. There's really not much we can do about it. In fact, it's actually a best-case scenario.

So if we cut spending to 19%, it means that the entire budget outside of Social Security, Medicare, and Defense (which Ryan also doesn't want to cut much) has to be cut by half or more. Ryan will do his best to cover this up, but there's no way around the numbers. The country is aging. We're going to spend more on the elderly. If we cut spending levels at the same time, everything non-elderly gets whacked hard. That's the basic story. It's not a path to prosperity, it's a path to penury.

More later on some of the details of Ryan's plan.

UPDATE: So what does "whacked hard" really mean? It means hard. Details here.

A Stupid, Costly Regulation Obama Should Kill

| Tue Mar. 20, 2012 10:15 AM EDT

Barack Obama is on the hunt for stupid, unnecessary regulations that the government should get rid of, Politico's Playbook reported Tuesday morning. I have a suggestion: kill the rule that is forcing everyone, including the government (and, by extension, taxpayers), to pay way more for life-saving asthma inhalers than we did ten years ago.

In 2009, at the urging of the drug lobby, the EPA started banning asthma inhalers that run on ozone-depleting CFC aerosols. As a result, inhaler prices jumped from as little as $5 to as much as $60. The drug companies were thrilled—they got a new round of patent protection (and got to charge higher prices) for non-CFC inhalers that dispense exactly the same medicine as their CFC-based predecessors. But everyone else got screwed. By 2017, the switch to the new inhalers will cost consumers, taxpayers, and the government some $8 billion, according to the EPA's own estimates, just to avoid a tiny amount of CFC emissions.

Asthma is a big deal—it's responsible for one quarter of all emergency room visits in the United States"It's just absurd to think that this is anything that could have a measurable impact," Dean Baker, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy research, told me for an article on this subject last year. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a law that raised costs so much for such a nonexistent benefit to the environment."

The EPA will probably argue that it's not as simple as scrapping the rule—the US has treaty obligations that are forcing us to do this. That's not good enough. The Obama administration should renegotiate the Montreal Protocol, the international treaty on the use of ozone-depleting CFCs, to include a common-sense exception for CFC-based medical inhalers. Even that can't possibly cost more than the $8 billion-plus that is being sucked out of taxpayers' pockets and into the coffers of the pharmaceutical industry for an almost negligible environmental benefit.

*Update, 7:45 p.m. EST: A reader writes to say that I should probably note, as I did in tweets about this story, that I have asthma, and so this affects me personally. Of course, it affects you, too. Medicaid and Medicare, which you pay for in your taxes, pay more for inhalers than they did prior to this rule.

The New York Times Really Wants Your Money

| Tue Mar. 20, 2012 10:03 AM EDT

The New York Times is tightening the noose:

There are enough back doors through the NYT paywall that this may not matter for a lot of people. But this move suggests that those back doors may start to disappear over time, just like the number of free articles is likely to decline. It looks like the Times is dead serious about making sure you pay them if you want to read their content.

Bret Baier's #Fail in Challenging Obama on "Showdown"

| Tue Mar. 20, 2012 9:53 AM EDT
Bret Baier.

Bret Baier is wrong.

My new book, Showdown: The Inside Story of How Obama Fought Back Against Boehner, Cantor, and the Tea Party, has stirred up a spat. Many media outfits focused on a nugget in the book reporting that, during a December 2010 meeting with labor officials, President Barack Obama complained that he was "losing white males," partly due to cultural issues (gun rights, gay rights, and race), and noted, "Fed by Fox News, they hear Obama is a Muslim 24/7, and it begins to seep in."

Baier, a Fox News anchor, took exception to this. On air he proclaimed, "For the record, we found no examples of a host saying President Obama is a Muslim."

Note the sly use of the word "host." Whether or not he or any other "host" has uttered the direct statement "Obama is a Muslim," his network has advanced that notion repeatedly.

Look at this August 19, 2010 video of Sean Hannity interviewing Brigitte Gabriel, a regular guest on Fox. She clearly defends the view that Obama is a secret Muslim. And Hannity does not challenge her.




That same month—after a poll showed that 18 percent of Americans believed Obama was a Muslim—Fox regular Charles Krauthammer, appearing on Baier's show, Special Report, claimed that "the emphasis Obama placed on Muslim outreach might incline people to conclude he's not a Christian." This is known as fueling flames. Baier, too, blamed Obama for creating the Muslim misperception, noting that the president "has talked openly about his—the Muslim heritage in his family." Rather that dismiss the Obama-is-a-Muslim nonsense, they sought to validate reasons for this misguided belief.

The previous year, Special Report had questioned Obama's faith, asking "Islam or Isn't He?" Just posing such a query reinforces the notion that the president might be a Muslim. And the network has regularly featured anti-Islam activist Pamela Geller, who has referred to Obama as the "Muslim president."

Let's not forget Glenn Beck—who was a Fox News host. In an August 23 show, Beck said Obama was—yikes!—sympathetic to Muslims. He criticized Obama for having stated at the inauguration that "we are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers." Beck then referred to this piece of "evidence": Michelle Obama had visited the "Alhambra Palace mosque" in Spain, a well-known tourist attraction. Beck discerned something dark and sinister in this outing. "Are they sending messages?" he asked. "I don't know. I don't know. I've never had to look for messages before." Messages? What sort of messages? Beck seemed to be suggesting the Obamas were part of a secret Muslim conspiracy.

During his show the next day, Beck tried to have it both ways. He said, "Obama is not a Muslim. I'm taking his word that he is a Christian." But then he implied that Obama was not truly a Christian:

[W]here your father is a Muslim, an atheist, your mother at least is not practicing any religion, your stepfather is non-practicing Muslim, your grandparents in frequent something called the "Little Red Church," I don't even — I mean, is there any wonder why so many Americans are confused by him? They don't recognize him as a Christian. No.

There's more (as Media Matters has documented). Donald Trump, appearing on Bill O'Reilly's show in March 2011, speculated that Obama was hiding his birth certificate because it declared he was born a Muslim. On April 26, 2011, controversial pastor Robert Jeffress on Fox & Friends said, "why do 20 percent of Americans think the president is a Muslim? We'll, as my kids would say, duh." Last year, conservative radio talk show host, Lars Larson, echoing a familiar right-wing trope, said on Fox that the president shows "a whole lot of deference to Muslims and seems to forget Christians." Fox folks, of course, have gone wild over Obama's bowing before the Saudi king, and the network in 2008 pushed the false story that Obama attended an Islamic school in Indonesia.

Obama was correct in what he said to those labor officials. He wasn't blaming Fox News for all his political troubles, but he was pointing out that it was shaping a political culture in which the most foul anti-Obama assertions could breed. Fox News has indeed provided a platform for those who question Obama's faith, for those who defend the view he is a Muslim, for those who explain that belief in a manner that lends this false notion credence, and for those who hint that Obama is not really a Christian and that there may be something a little Muslim-y about the guy. Baier is often a fine journalist—remember his interview with Mitt Romney—but now he is defending what should be indefensible.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 20, 2012

Tue Mar. 20, 2012 9:32 AM EDT

Lance Cpl. Alejandro Carbajal, scout swimmer and rifleman with Company A, Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, scouts ahead before the primary raid force lands on the shoreline during a small boat raid here, March 17, 2012. The raid was conducted during the MEU's Certification Exercise, which upon completion certifies that the MEU is capable to respond to any scenario that may arise. The 31st MEU is the only continuously forward-deployed MEU and is the nation's force in readiness in the Asia-Pacific region. Photo by Lance Cpl. Michael S. Oxton.

Knit Your Congressman a Vagina

| Tue Mar. 20, 2012 5:30 AM EDT
Hey, a womb is just as good.

America's elected leaders, particularly those of the Republican male variety, have not done too well by women lately. In Congress, GOP legislators have sought to exempt religious orgs from having to offer health insurance that covers contraceptives. Mitt Romney replied lamely when confronted with Rush Limbaugh's Slutgate, and GOP lawmakers didn't exactly, ahem, rush to challenge their kingmaker. In Arizona and Kansas, Republican state legislators pushed bills allowing a doctor to lie about the health status of your fetus for fear you might opt to get an abortion. And should you make that harrowing choice, Virginia Republicans, following in the footsteps of their colleagues in a number of other states, passed a law requiring that you have an ultrasound first. They wanted it to be the kind where the doctor sticks a paddle into your vagina, but public outcry forced them to scale it back to the abdominal kind. Now, for good measure, GOP legislators are blocking the Violence Against Women Act.

We've already told you about these (pretty awesome) new laws proposed by Democratic legislators simply to mock their rivals' misogyny.

But the women behind Government Free VJJ have a different approach:

"Follow these simple steps," the website beckons...

1. Knit or crochet a vagina or uterus.
2.
Print a message to enclose.
3. Mail it to your male Senator or Congressional Representative [links provided]
4. We're in the process of arranging hand delivery to congressional offices in Washington, until then, go ahead and mail yours in!
5. Record your items in this spreadsheet so we can track which representatives still need to receive a "gift"!
6. Don't forget to thank your representative if he respects women and supports our rights.

The crochet patterns available so far include uterus and "happy uterus." For knitters, there's a vulva, a womb (pictured), felt cervixes, and (hey, why not?)—a "snatchel."

Wondering If Your "Jihadist" Friend Is With the FBI?

| Tue Mar. 20, 2012 5:30 AM EDT
Shahed Hussain in an FBI surveillance video

Shahed Hussain, a long-time FBI terrorism informant Mother Jones profiled last year, has surfaced again—but this time, Google appears to have foiled his effort to identify a new target. Khalifah al-Akili, a 34-year-old Pittsburgh man, says he was approached by Hussain and another informant in January. Al Akili told the Albany Times-Union that after Hussain "repeatedly made attempts to get close" to him, he googled them. He found Trevor Aaronson's August 2011 Mother Jones expose about the FBI's massive network of undercover terrorism informants and confronted Hussain on the phone. After al-Akili explicitly asked if he was an informant, Hussain hung up the phone. Now al-Akili awaits trial on a gun charge (but no terrorism charges).

Al-Akili says became suspicious of Hussain because he was friendly, dropping in at al-Akili's house and, after al-Akili lied that he had a sick family member, dropping off a get-well card.

Hussain's involvement in two previous FBI counterterrorism cases led to convictions: James Cromitie, a 45-year-old former Walmart stocker from Newburgh, New York, was sentenced to 25 years in the headline-making Bronx synagogue plot. Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain of Albany, New York, an imam and pizza shop owner respectively, were each sentenced to 15 years for, among other charges, conspiracy to provide support to a terrorist organization with which Hussain claimed to have connections.

Haunting Tunes for the Hunger Games

| Tue Mar. 20, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Various Artists
The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond
Universal Republic 

The soundtrack to the highly anticipated film version of The Hunger Games (opening Friday) draws inspiration from the futuristic Appalachia that's home to Katniss, our young protagonist. Funny, then, how it sounds much like a playlist one might create from some of this era's hottest indie, roots, and pop stars. Featuring tunes from the likes of The Decemberists, Taylor Swift, Arcade Fire, and Punch Brothers, the star-studded roster didn't exactly transport me into author Suzanne Collins' post-apocalyptic world. But The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond has its moments. Its piercing lullabies, for instance, ring true to the story's emotional angst and loss of innocence, and...District 12 makes for good listening, even if its intended identity is never fully clear.

Set in a future Dark Ages, Collins' dystopic young-adult trilogy reimagines America as a feudalistic society controlled by a decadent Capitol where reality TV, plastic surgery, and brutal repression reign supreme. Katniss lives in one of 13 zones under the Capitol's control, a mining province called District 12. The plot surrounds a morbid annual competition forced on the impoverished districts, each of which—in a distant echo of Shirley Jackson's classic short story "The Lottery"—must select two of its teenagers to battle to the death in the Capitol's surrealistic amphitheater until one champion remains. The battle is broadcast as entertainment for the citizens of the Capitol, whose hunger for melodrama rivals the literal hunger of the combants and their families back home. Katniss is a scrappy and fearless heroine (weapon of choice: bow and arrow). The story centers on her struggles to protect her younger sister and mother, choose between love interests, and, oh, yeah, dodge her bloodthirsty opponents.