2012 - %3, April

Corn on Hardball: Is It Wrong for Obama to Take Credit for Osama Bin Laden's Death?

Mon Apr. 30, 2012 7:32 PM EDT

Mother Jones Washington bureau chief David Corn and political analyst Ron Reagan joined host Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss why the GOP is outraged at Obama for taking credit, one year later, for the death of Osama bin Laden. Would Republicans be so upset if one of their own was doing something similar? Hint: Just recall George W. Bush's presidency.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. Follow him on Twitter.

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We're Spending Down Our Savings to Prop Up Our Economy

| Mon Apr. 30, 2012 5:44 PM EDT

Consumer spending can increase if (a) wages go up, (b) borrowing goes up, or (c) savings are spent down. Jed Graham reports that last quarter it was Option C that saved the day:

U.S. households saved just 3.9% of disposable income in Q1, the lowest since the last cycle’s peak in Q4 2007. In fact, the decline in saving from 4.5% in Q4 financed half of all personal consumption gains in Q1, adding one full percentage point to real GDP growth.

Needless to say, saving rates can't decline forever, and borrowing isn't likely to increase much either. That leaves disposable income as our main hope for future economic prosperity, and with job growth picking up, so should disposable income. So why isn't it?

This time, government policy is the main culprit. Real disposable income growth has trailed real private wage growth by nearly 3% the past two quarters as fiscal stabilizers have gone into reverse....The drag on disposable income comes, in large part, from three factors: flat total wages for government workers; roughly flat government social benefits; and a normal cyclical boost in income and payroll tax payments (up a combined $151 billion from Q1 2011).

....The bottom line is that fiscal policy is leaning too hard against recovery based on present conditions. The question is whether such austerity is avoidable right now amid trillion-dollar deficits and pressure from the ratings agencies.

Oh, I think it's avoidable. The problem isn't either short-term deficits or Standard & Poor's. It's an excess of politicians who don't really care much about the real-world economy. There's no point in trying to blame anyone else.

New Poll: Most Americans Want Climate Action!

| Mon Apr. 30, 2012 5:32 PM EDT

With right-wing commentators like Rush Limbaugh selling climate change as a vast left-wing conspiracy you might imagine that Americans couldn't be bothered to try and stop our planet from boiling. Thankfully, that's not true, according to a Yale/George Mason University poll released yesterday.

The poll finds that a majority of Americans—63 percent—think the US should act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions now. That's even if other countries don't take any action. Surveying some 1,000 Americans, the poll found that only five percent of respondents believe there's no need to reduce emissions at all (see chart below). "Clearly, reports of the death of public support for action on global warming are overblown," wrote Ruy Teixeira at the Center for American Progress, in response to the poll. 

What's more, the survey found, 65 percent of Americans support cutting greenhouse gas emission levels by 90 percent by 2050. That's huge. Sixty-three percent of those polled also said they wouldn't mind a utility bill price hike if it meant companies would be forced to source a portion of their energy from renewables.

It's too bad the talking heads are so out of touch with the rest of us.

Mitt Romney and the OBL Raid: He Needs To Read "Showdown"

| Mon Apr. 30, 2012 2:33 PM EDT

Mitt Romney today demonstrated that he doesn't understand presidential decision-making—and that he should read my book, Showdown: The Inside Story of How Obama Fought Back against Boehner, Cantor, and the Tea Party, or at least Chapter 10.

While campaigning in New Hampshire Monday—a day before the one-year anniversary of the Osama bin Laden raid—Romney was asked whether he would have ordered that operation. "Of course," he huffed. He then added, "Even Jimmy Carter would have given that order."

Romney made it seem that this had been a slam-dunk, no-brainer decision. But it wasn't.

As I recount in the book—and an article adapted from it and posted at The Daily Beast makes this point—Obama's decision to launch the raid was a case study in tough presidential decision-making. It was not a simple go/no-go order. The few national security advisers who knew about the potential mission were divided on what to do. Vice President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Bob Gates urged Obama to wait for more definitive intelligence. Several advisers favored a missile strike. Only a handful supported a unilateral secret US raid. There was so much that could wrong with such a mission, and Obama's presidency would probably be over if a commando raid went bad. A majority of his national security team members did not back a commando assault.

Obama had to choose first between a missile strike and a raid (and doing nothing until more intelligence came in). He rejected the missile strike due to concerns over collateral damage and the possibility that it would be difficult (if not impossible) to determine if Bin Laden had been killed in this attack. (David Frum understands the importance of this decision.) Then Obama raised crucial questions about the helicopter raid that shaped the mission in a way that contributed to its success. (For details, see the aforementioned extract.) Finally, Obama had to issue the green light, knowing that he was placing his presidency on the line.

This was an episode in which Obama acted deliberately and decisively. It was a test of presidential leadership, as Kevin Drum notes. And Obama's performance in this instance is highly relevant when it comes to determining whether he ought to keep the job for another four years—just as Romney's experiences building (or destroying) businesses is relevant. Republicans who accuse the White House of politicizing this decision have little ground on which to stand, particularly after GOPers have long claimed Ds are weak on terrorism (and after W. put on a flight suit and cockily strode across a flight deck underneath a "Mission Accomplished" banner). More important, Romney's dismissal of this decision as no-big-deal indicates he hasn't thought much about one of the most crucial decisions that had to be made in the Oval Office—and that he may not be ready for the job himself.

Suppressing the Vote is Harder Than it Looks

| Mon Apr. 30, 2012 2:26 PM EDT

In the New York Times, Michael Shear explains how the Obama campaign is working to limit the damage from a wave of Republican laws that restrict voting rights:

In Wisconsin, where a new state law requires those registering voters to be deputized in whichever of the state’s 1,800 municipalities they are assigned to, the campaign sent a team of trainers armed with instructions for complying with the new regulations.

In Florida, the campaign’s voter registration aides traveled across the state to train volunteers on a new requirement that voter registration signatures be handed in to state officials within 48 hours after they are collected.

And in Ohio, Mr. Obama’s staff members have begun reaching out to let voters know about new laws that discourage precinct workers from telling voters where to go if they show up at the wrong precinct.

The political motive behind these laws is pretty obvious: most of them have a disproportionate effect on minorities, students, and the poor, who vote for Democrats in large numbers. From a Republican point of view, the fewer of these folks who vote, the better.

As contemptible as this is, especially given the mountains of evidence that voter fraud is a minuscule problem in America, this article exposes the flip side of all this: more than likely, the Republican plan to suppress voter turnout won't work in the long run. The effect of these laws is fairly small in the first place, and even that small effect will probably melt away as Democrats change their voter registration tactics. In states that require photo ID, Democrats will get aggressive about making sure potential voters have ID. In states with new restrictions on early voting, Democrats will change their tactics and concentrate more on election day. Etc.

None of this lets Republicans off the hook for their frankly loathsome efforts to suppress the votes of groups they don't like. But it does mean they're probably wasting their time. In the end, the impact is likely to be pretty small.

Faux Outrage Claims Another Victim

| Mon Apr. 30, 2012 2:02 PM EDT

I see that our latest outburst of faux outrage has ended yet another career:

The Obama administration's top environmental official in the oil-rich South and Southwest region has resigned after Republicans targeted him over remarks made two years ago when he used the word "crucify" to describe how he would go after companies violating environmental laws. In a letter to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson sent Sunday, Al Armendariz says he regrets his words and stresses that they do not reflect his work as administrator of the five-state region.

Dave Weigel is properly acerbic:

Critics will go on claiming that "crucify" was something other than an analogy for making examples out of crooks. (Imagine if a district attorney had used the analogy to describe a crack-down on car thieves, or something similar.) After all, how can you expect government to work efficiently if people are allowed to make analogies that some other people find offensive?

Needless to say, no one really cared all that much about Armendariz's comment. It was just a convenient excuse to go after a guy who had annoyed oil and gas interests in the state of Texas. And it worked. Pretending to be mortally offended by some ancient remark or another continues to be an excellent strategy for getting people fired.

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Screaming Females Get Ugly

| Mon Apr. 30, 2012 2:00 PM EDT

The New Jersey punk band Screaming Females got its start in 2005, playing underground house shows and the all-ages venues in its hometown of New Brunswick. The band gradually built a rep for energetic live shows and a distinctive sound, and have since played more than 700 self-booked shows, including tours with the likes of the Dead Weather, Dinosaur Jr., Titus Andronicus, and Ted Leo. The trio consists of bassist "King Mike" Abbate, drummer Jarrett Dougherty, and front woman Marissa Paternoster, who plays guitar. "A lot of people take our band name literally, which is kind of funny because I don't know if that really happens to most bands," says Paternoster. "Like, when people talk about Echo and the Bunnymen do they get ticked off because when they go to the show there's no half-man-half-rabbit playing on the stage?"

They're not particularly scream-y, either: The musicians have an ear for melody, and Paternoster unleashes her shrieks judiciously as part of an expressive style that builds off throaty alt-rock vocals with a clear, ringing vibrato and guttural yowls. Screaming Females fifth album, Ugly, released earlier this month on Don Giovanni Records, represents a continuation of their slow but steady growth. "Every time we put out a record, more and more people pay attention," says drummer Dougherty.

The Media's Real Social Security Problem

| Mon Apr. 30, 2012 1:11 PM EDT

Last week the annual report of the Social Security trustees was released, and the news was bad. Thanks mostly to a weak economy, they now project that the Social Security trust fund will be depleted three years earlier than they thought before. If we don't do anything about this, it means that promised benefits will be abruptly cut by 25% in 2033 (or 2035 if you merge the OASI and DI trust funds into a single projection). Trudy Lieberman says the media botched the story:

The public got plenty of doomsday headlines: “Social Security (is) heading for insolvency even faster,” as The State Journal, a weekly newspaper in Charleston, West Virginia, proclaimed; and “Social Security is slipping closer to insolvency,” as the Chicago Tribune told all of Chicagoland; and “Social Security fund cash (will be) gone in 2033,” according to The Christian Science Monitor; and that Social Security’s trust funds “will run dry in 2033,” as the New York Daily News shouted to New Yorkers. Other outlets added to the journalistic drama. Bloomberg.com reported “Social Security Fund to Run Out in 2035,” noting “the giant retirement programs are straining the U.S. government’s finances.” Bloomberg TV’s Inside Track with Scarlet Fu was outside reality. A government report “confirmed what we all suspected. Social Security is a train wreck just waiting to happen,” Fu practically screamed. “The Social Security trust is now expected to run out of money in 2035, three years earlier than projected.” How’s that for accurate reporting?

Hmmm. The Daily News says the trust fund will run dry in 2033. The Tribune says Social Security is slipping closer to insolvency. The Christian Science Monitor says "fund cash" will be gone in 2033. I fail to see anything wrong with any of these explanations. I won't defend Scarlet Fu's idiotic "train wreck" comment, but the rest of them strike me as OK.

I said last week that liberals should get off their fainting couches and stop complaining every time someone reports that Social Security funding is in trouble. Unsurprisingly, not many liberals agreed with me -- and I'm willing to give some ground on my defense of the "bankruptcy" formulation, which is probably suitable only for polemics. Still, the trust fund is running out of money. Social Security is heading toward insolvency. What else would you call a program that can only pay out 75% of its promised benefits?

The place where the media falls down, I think, isn't in its description of Social Security's financial problems. The media's real weakness lies in its almost total lack of interest in explaining how those problems can be fixed. The answer is: pretty easily. The only thing stopping a simple, no-drama resolution of Social Security's long-term funding problems is the Republican Party's jihad against taxes. That's it. You could pretty easily put together a Democratic coalition that would support a combination of small, phased-in benefit cuts and small, phased-in tax increases that would fix Social Security forever. If you think Social Security is already too stingy, you might not like the idea of doing this. But it's still a fact that you could get plenty of Democrats to sign up for such a plan, and President Obama has sent plenty of signals that he'd favor it too.

The only thing stopping it is that Republicans simply aren't willing to back such a compromise. Their only solutions are either unfunded privatization schemes, which everyone knows will never happen, or balancing Social Security's books solely by slashing benefits, which is equally unlikely. The truth is that, financially, Social Security isn't a hard problem to solve. It's only hard because the modern Republican Party, which is happy to scaremonger the problem relentlessly, flatly refuses to engage with real-world solutions. That's what the media needs to report more often.

How We're Held Hostage by the Medical-Industrial Complex

| Mon Apr. 30, 2012 11:42 AM EDT

Stephanie Mencimer doesn't much like her annual ob-gyn exam. And medical research increasingly suggests that these annual rituals don't really do much good. So she asked her doctor if she could just skip it this year. Answer: no. If you want your birth control pills, you have to come in for the exam whether you like it or not:

The doctor had me over a barrel. As it turns out, my experience isn't unique. Doctors regularly hold women’s birth control prescriptions hostage like this, forcing them to come in for exams that research is increasingly showing are too frequent and often unnecessary and ineffective. A 2010 study published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology found that 33 percent of doctors always require a pelvic exam and Pap smear for a hormonal contraception prescription, and 44 percent regularly do so, even though there's no medical reason for linking the two.

Indeed, there's a growing body of evidence that the entire annual ob-gyn exam, with the mandatory and miserable pelvic exam where doctors poke around one's uterus and ovaries with their fingers, is largely obsolete. For instance, there's no evidence that doctors can diagnose ovarian cancer with a pelvic exam in women showing no symptoms. A clinical trial found that doctors were unable to identify any cancers in test subjects by pelvic exams alone, and the National Cancer Institute no longer recommends the tests for postmenopausal women. Even chlamydia screenings, which are recommended for women under 26 and those at higher risk for the sexually transmitted disease, can be done by simply having women pee in a cup, and don't require an invasive and expensive exam.

The scientific basis for much of the traditional well-woman ob-gyn annual check-up is so slim that "the routine pelvic examination may be an example of more service leading to worse outcomes," Dr. Carolyn Westhoff, an ob-gyn at Columbia University, wrote in the Journal of Women's Health last year.

It's worth reading the whole thing. And when you're done, maybe it's time once again to revisit the evidence that we should sidestep the whole problem by making contraceptives available over the counter. Plenty of other countries do.

Paul Ryan, Washington Charmer

| Mon Apr. 30, 2012 10:35 AM EDT

I've written so much about the hagiography of Paul Ryan among the Beltway media that I'm sick of it. You're probably sick of it too. It's been clear for years that no matter how wonky and mild-mannered an image Ryan projects, in reality he's a garden-variety hard-right ideologue who has no interest in compromise and cares only about cutting taxes on the wealthy and slashing programs for the poor. I'm sure he thinks that cutting the deficit would be great too, but it's very plainly a distant third out of three goals.

Normally, I wouldn't bother writing about this yet again, but today Jon Chait has such a mind-blowing example of Ryan's hypnotic hold over DC reporters and pundits that you really have to read it to believe it. Here it is:

New York Times business columnist James Stewart, for instance, recently opined that Ryan’s plan would usher in an overhaul of the tax code that would raise taxes on the rich, by eliminating special treatment for capital-gains income.

It is certainly true, as Stewart argues, that one could reduce tax rates to the levels advocated by Ryan without shifting the burden onto the poor and middle class if you eliminated the lower rate enjoyed by capital-gains income. But Ryan has been crystal clear throughout his career in his opposition to raising capital-gains taxes....I asked Stewart why he believed so strongly that Ryan actually supported such a reform, despite the explicit opposition of his budget. “Maybe he’s being boxed in” by right-wing colleagues, Stewart suggested.

After Obama assailed Ryan’s budget, Stewart wrote a second column insisting that Ryan’s plans were just the sort of goals liberals shared. He quoted Ryan as writing, in his manifesto, “The social safety net is failing society’s most vulnerable citizens.” Stewart is flabbergasted that Democrats could be so partisan as to attack a figure who believes something so uncontroversial. “Does anyone,” Stewart wrote in his follow-up, “Democrat or Republican, seriously disagree?”

The disagreement, I suggested to Stewart, is that Ryan believes the social safety net is failing society’s most vulnerable citizens by spending too much money on them....Stewart waves away the distinction. “I was pointing out that, at least rhetorically, you can find some common ground,” he says. Stewart, explaining his evaluation of Ryan to me, repeatedly cited the missing details in his plan as a hopeful sign of Ryan’s accommodating aims. “He seems very straightforward,” he tells me. “He doesn’t seem cunning. He seems very genuine.”

Go ahead and read the whole thing if you have the stomach for it. It's pretty flabbergasting. Ryan's uncompromising hard-right bona fides have been obvious throughout his entire career, but somehow the fact that he quotes budget numbers off the top of his head and refrains from bellowing in public has turned him into a teddy bear in the eyes of much of Washington. Go figure.