2012 - %3, April

Sonia Sotomayor Is Our Country's First Disabled Supreme Court Justice

| Mon Apr. 9, 2012 10:47 AM EDT

Over at the Plum Line, Jonathan Bernstein riffs off a White House infographic on judicial appointments to remind us that although the Senate has been pretty obstructionist when it comes to confirming judges, it's also the case that Obama hasn't exactly been a house afire when it comes to nominating judges in the first place. Point taken! But when I clicked the link to take a look at the White House's latest graphic wizardry, I was surprised to learn that one of Obama's Supreme Court nominees was the first ever with a disability to win confirmation. I had no idea. But Google, as always, is my friend, and after first coming up dry on Elena Kagan, I discovered that Sonia Sotomayor has diabetes.

Did I already know this? Maybe. My memory is so bad that I couldn't tell you whether I once knew this and have forgotten, or whether I had never heard this before. In any case, I guess I've added two new bits of knowledge to my brain pan today: (1) Sonia Sotomayor has diabetes, and (2) diabetes is considered a disability. Live and learn.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 9, 2012

Mon Apr. 9, 2012 10:45 AM EDT

A UH-60 Black Hawk Helicopter flys to Forward Operating Base Torkham, March 28, 2012, in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan. Photo by the US Army.

Don't Blame Teachers Unions for School Problems in Texas

| Mon Apr. 9, 2012 10:01 AM EDT

Paul Krugman is exasperated:

A good article in the Times about the terrible state of Texas schools — followed by a truly awful comment thread, in which many readers rush to blame, you guessed it, teachers’ unions.

Folks, this isn’t an article about New York, where three-quarters of public-sector workers are unionized. It’s about Texas, where only one in five public workers belongs to a union. Blaming unions for the problems of Texas is like, well, blaming Jews for the problems of Japan: there aren’t enough of them to matter.

Actually, it's worse than that. If these guys are to be believed — and they're trying to make look unions look as bad as possible, so I suppose they are — the unionization rate of Texas teachers is 1.8%. Don't any of the folks commenting on this piece remember the boomlet last year in articles comparing California to Texas, all of them claiming that the "Texas miracle" was largely due to its red-blooded, non-unionized workforce?

If you want to have problems with teachers unions, go ahead. They're hardly above criticism. But our educational system isn't any better in states with weak or nonexistent teachers unions. In a lot of cases, it's worse.

America's Most Anti-Gay Congresswoman Also a Birther

| Mon Apr. 9, 2012 9:46 AM EDT

Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) won election to the House in 2010 in part by arguing that the longtime Democratic incumbent she was challenging was insufficiently anti-gay. (Never mind that her opponent, Ike Skelton, was the architect of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.) In Congress, she's distinguished herself mainly by comparing gay marriage to handing out drivers' licenses to third-graders (she's against it), and proposing to modify Don't Ask, Don't Tell by forcing gay soldiers to live in segregated barracks.

Now we know she's also a birther. At a townhall in her district on Thursday, Hartzler was asked for her thoughts on the President Obama's birth certificate, in light of Maricopa County (Ariz.) Sheriff Joe Arpaio's investigation into the Commander-in-Chief's citizenship. Hertlzer's response:

I don't know, I haven't seen it. I'm just at the same place you are on that. You read this, you read that. But I don't understand why he didn't show that right away. I mean, if someone asked for my birth certificate, I'd get my baby book and hand it out and say 'Here it is,' so I don't know. 

I have doubts that it is really his real birth certificate, and I think a lot of Americans do, but they claim it is, so we are just going to go with that.

That's a real quote.

A little over a year ago, my colleague Adam Serwer unveiled what he called the "birther lexicon," which split the field of conspiracy theorizing about the president into seven distinct categories, such as "ironic birther" and "post-birther." I think Hartzler actually falls into an eighth, and previously unidentified category: slacker birther. As in, "someone who has serious concerns that the President worked with the state of Hawaii in a vast conspiracy to fabricate his birth certificate to hide the fact that he was not born in the United States, and is thus constitutionally unqualified to be President—but never took 10 seconds to Google the thing for herself (here's a quick link) and doesn't feel like doing anything about it." Say what you will about Joe Arpaio (really, go ahead) but when he thinks he's uncovered a massive conspiracy to defraud the public, he takes action.

Bear in Heaven: I Love You, It's Cool

| Mon Apr. 9, 2012 9:08 AM EDT

These days, there's no shortage of Brooklyn-based bands playing music in a familiar vein of gauzy, techno-inflected indie (not to mention plenty of bands with the word "bear" in the name), but Bear in Heaven's work nevertheless makes an impression. The band has gone through several iterations since frontman Jon Philpot released a collection of solo recordings as Tunes Nextdoor to Songs in 2003, and the current lineup features Philpot on guitar and vocals, Adam Wills on guitar and bass, and Joe Stickney on drums. After releasing 2010's Beast Rest Forth Mouth to widespread acclaim, the band took a couple of years to make their third full-length, I Love You, It's Cool—but the time paid off in a rich album that explores various configurations of electronic sound within the structure of carefully arranged songs.

The spacey swirls of "Idle Heart," for example, might get lost in themselves if not for the brisk beat and rhythmic bass that they loop around. "The Reflection of You" starts with a burst of distorted sound and flutteringly high synths that give way to deeper, more sustained tones as Philpot sings "if you could get next to me I would have nothing left to prove"; towards the end, his high, echoing voice gets deeper and ominously distorted as he repeats "dance with me." "Sinful Nature" is another song that starts out dance-y—though lines like "you're let down by God/you're let down by boring strangers" don't exactly connote a night out at the club. On "Kiss Me Crazy," a similar combination of staccato electro beats and sustained undertones makes Philpot's longing palpable as he sings "so go ahead and kiss me crazy."

Ultimately, Bear in Heaven's problem is less sounding like someone else than sounding like themselves: Though there are a few standout tracks, songs run into one another at times, and the album's cohesion occasionally crosses into simple sameness. But with repeat listens, of what initially seems like a 44-minute block of swirling, stuttering synths with occasional anthemic bursts start to emerge. (If you prefer your electronic music monotonous, though, Bear in Heaven's got something for you, too: in March, the band previewed the new album by slowing it down 400,000 percnt to produce over 2,700 hours of drone—112 days worth—and putting the whole thing online.) They're on tour through the spring and summer across the US and Europe; check them out if you're looking for electropop that's more measured and thoughtful than most.

Click here for more music coverage from Mother Jones.

Review: "Sweetheart," by M. Ward

| Mon Apr. 9, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

TRACK 4

"Sweetheart"

From M. Ward's A Wasteland Companion

MERGE

Liner notes: Campy yet heartfelt, "Sweetheart," a charming departure from M. Ward's usual brooding folk rock, features actress-singer Zooey Deschanel in a soaring duet blending '50s teen pop, Beatlesesque guitars, and grand production flourishes à la Phil Spector.

Behind the music: Matthew Stephen Ward of Portland, Oregon, has been a busy lad over the last decade, playing with Deschanel as half of She & Him and joining My Morning Jacket's Jim James and Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst in Monsters of Folk.

Check it out if you like: John Vanderslice, Bon Iver, and other old-school-style troubadours for modern times.

"Sweetheart" isn't online yet, but here's "Primitive Girl," another song from A Wasteland Companion.

 

 

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Dr. Seuss, Pesticide Shill?

| Mon Apr. 9, 2012 5:00 AM EDT
A Dr. Seuss illustration for Flit bug spray

Dr. Seuss is best known for his allegorical children's books on themes like protecting the environment, shunning materialism, and embracing multiculturalism. But many people don't realize that before writing those children's books, Seuss also worked on commercial art for a pesticide company.

As farmer and author Will Allen noted in his 2007 book The War on Bugs, Seuss also created illustrations for pesticides in the late 1920s. The book's publisher, Chelsea Green, has made the full chapter of the book available online for a limited time.

A cartoon Seuss created for Standard's Flit ad campaign.: The War on BugsSeuss created this cartoon for Flit bug spray.Back when Theodor Seuss Geisel was a young cartoonist, Standard Oil—a major player in the petroleum industry that had branched out into making bug sprays—noticed that he'd used their Flit spray guns in several illustrations. Standard decided to hire Seuss to make funny cartoon advertisements, which appeared in national magazines and newspapers. He did work for the company between 1928 and 1943, and "is generally acknowledged to be responsible for greatly popularizing the use of household poisons," writes Allen.

Certainly no fan of chemicals, he continues:

Seuss helped America become friendly with poisons; we could laugh at ourselves while we went about poisoning things. In the process, the public grew comfortable with the myth that pesticides were absolutely necessary.

That work also helped Seuss, who was then working for a national humor magazine, pay the bills and work on the beloved books he would later become famous for writing. But anyone who's seen Seuss' books warning about the dangers of industrialism might wonder what the heck happened. Allen offers a possible explanation:

Perhaps Dr. Seuss realized his earlier mistakes and indiscretions with Standard Oil's Flit and tried to make amends with The Lorax. Geisel must have known that Flit's cartoons and his World War II cartoons for DDT had an enormous impact on the public's use of pesticides and acceptance of DDT.

A Seuss cartoon in which he used Standard Oil’s bug spray Flit as a prop. Because of this, Standard offered him a job.After Seuss used Flit as a prop in this cartoon, Standard offered him a job.

Another Seuss Flit cartoon ad.: The War on BugsAnother cartoon Seuss drew for Standard's Flit ad campaign.

Emotionalism in Lawmaking: A Primer From the NRA

| Sun Apr. 8, 2012 11:33 AM EDT

The Washington Post has a front-page story today about the dramatic rise in justifiable homicides in Florida since they passed the nation's first Stand Your Ground law in 2005. In the first half of the decade Florida averaged 12 per year; in the second half of the decade it tripled to 36 per year. "It’s almost like we now have to prove a negative," said Steven Jansen, an official with a national association of prosecuting attorneys, "that a person was not acting in self-defense, often on the basis of only one witness, the shooter."

But mostly I was amused by this juxtaposition in the piece, which I think was unintentional:

Florida has been at the forefront of expanding gun rights for decades, ever since an NRA lobbyist named Marion Hammer, the NRA’s first female president, became a force in the state capitol in Tallahassee.

....In Florida, where looters appeared in the wake of Hurricane Ivan in 2004, Hammer launched her drive for the new law based on the case of James Workman, a 77-year-old Pensacola man who fatally shot an intruder who entered the trailer Workman was living in after the storm damaged his house....Hammer told legislators her bill would protect citizens who simply defended themselves: “You can’t expect a victim to wait before taking action to protect herself and say, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Criminal, did you drag me into this alley to rape and kill me, or do you just want to beat me up and steal my purse?’ ”

....Asked about the Martin case last week, former governor Jeb Bush, initially an enthusiastic backer of the legislation, said, “Stand your ground means stand your ground. It doesn’t mean chase after somebody who’s turned their back.”

Hammer sees no cause to refine or backtrack. Neither she nor NRA officials responded to requests for comment, but Hammer told the Palm Beach Post that officials should not be “stampeded by emotionalism. . . . This law is not about one incident. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the law.”

So when it's time to pass pro-gun laws, emotionalism over a single incident is the order of the day. But when those laws go awry, we need to put on our Spock ears and soberly weigh all the facts and evidence in the cold light of day. That's good to know.

Michigan Republicans Blowing Up Yet Another Norm of Politics

| Sat Apr. 7, 2012 12:05 PM EDT

A couple of days ago Rachel Maddow highlighted an outrageous abuse of power from Michigan Republicans. Normally, it takes several months for new state laws to take effect, but a two-thirds "immediate effect" vote can cause laws to take effect right away. Lately, however, Republicans have been jamming through every law this way without bothering to actually get a two-thirds majority. They pass the bill, then do a voice vote on immediate effect and quickly announce that it's been approved. Voila. The bill is law as soon as the governor signs it.

When I first heard this, my BS meter tingled pretty hard. Maddow characterized her story as a scoop, but that made no sense. I mean, Michigan still has a Democratic Party. If this were a huge abuse of power, they'd be yelling about it, right? So what's really going on?

Well, Democrats are yelling about it. They've filed suit to halt the practice and demand roll call votes on immediate effect. But that was just recently, and Republicans have been doing this for over a year. Why weren't Democrats screaming about this a year ago?

I'm not sure what's really going on here, and what we really need is for some longtime Michigan reporter to weigh in. None of them seem to have done that yet, though, so here's a crack at figuring this out. It's not definitive by any stretch, and it's long. Sorry about that. But here goes.

First off, here's a paragraph from a Detroit Free Press article on Thursday:

Over the years, as majority control shifted back and forth, both political parties in the state House have ordered immediate effect for legislation without recording a roll call vote. Because immediate effect requires a two-thirds vote majority the practice has often frustrated efforts by the minority party to slow down legislation they oppose.

Hmmm. Let's keep going back in time. Here's the Michigan Citizen last May, back when Michigan Republicans passed a controversial emergency manager bill. It suggests that Democrats opposed immediate effect, but didn't really oppose it all that hard:

“When their own rules say they have a chance, they didn’t try hard enough,” said Henry Teusch, a member of Hood Research....House Democrats say, however, they didn’t have a chance against the Republican-led House and Senate.

....According to House legislators, there is no written rule mandating a roll call vote on immediate effect of bills. The Speaker chairing the session can “gavel through” immediate effect, ignoring a roll call vote. “We yelled against immediate effect and the Republicans put it through,” said Rep. Harvey Santana, District 10. “House rule is the decision of the Speaker to grant or give the vote ... if you control the gavel you control the outcome.”

Let's keep going. This is from an editorial in the Michigan Citizen a few months after the vote:

It is time to kick the donkey.

....Earlier this year, Rep. [John] Olumba recorded his vote against Public Act 4, the Emergency Manager law, in the House Journal. He also opposed the immediate effect of the EM law and requested a roll call vote. Although Democrats voted "no" on PA4, they did not at that time support Olumba's roll call request nor his suggestion to place their "no" vote in the House Journal. They were saving their lack of political might to oppose an issue that would, so far, affect Black cities and school districts.

This makes it sound increasingly like this really is a tradition and Democrats simply didn't object to it very strongly. But wait! Here are a couple of articles from 2007. (From ProQuest, so no links.) The first is a Detroit News piece about a difficult tax bill that passed only because of a deal that required several Democrats and Republicans in swing districts to vote for it:

And then there's Sen. Glenn Anderson of Westland, one of two Senate Democrats voting against both tax proposals — the other was Dennis Olshove of Warren. Republicans insisted he vote to give the service tax immediate effect — a motion separate from the actual tax increase itself. That took 90 extra minutes early Monday. 

Anderson, who said he genuinely opposes tax increases because his constituents loath them, finally voted immediate effect for the tax, but only after Republican Sen. Roger Kahn of Saginaw had done the same. Both are in Senate districts where the split between political parties is narrow and an unpopular vote on a big issue could be costly — "vulnerable for vulnerable," he said Tuesday of his vote strategy.

In this case there was no quick gaveling of the question. Several legislators had to be arm-twisted into voting for immediate effect. Here's another Detroit News piece about Democratic efforts to move up their primary date:

With a dozen members absent on an unusual Monday session day — the first work day after the Thanksgiving holiday and deer-hunting break — the House could muster just 61 votes to give the bill immediate effect. That's 13 votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed...."I think we'll get that (immediate effect) when the bill comes back to us again from the Senate," said House Speaker Andy Dillon, D-Redford Township, who decided over the weekend to hold Monday's vote.

Again, no quick gaveling of the immediate effect vote.

So what's the story here? If I had to guess, I'd say that gaveling through immediate effect is hardly unprecedented, and Democrats obviously didn't scream very loudly about this when the emergency manager law was passed last year. At the same time, it's also not automatic. Big, controversial bills often require a roll call vote for immediate effect, but Michigan Republicans, imbued with tea party spirit, have decided to ignore this and use it for every bill they pass.

So in some sense this is similar to Republican abuse of the filibuster in the U.S. Senate. It's not outrageous in the sense that Republicans are doing something unprecedented and anti-democratic. It's outrageous in the sense that they're playing Calvinball: breaking a norm of governance by taking a tradition that was used occasionally in the past and turning it into a routine part of party politics. That's something they're pretty good at.

UPDATE: Here's another take from Eric Baerren of Michigan Liberal, a blog about politics "from a vaguely leftish point of view." If I'm reading him correctly, he says that (a) "immediate effect" is nothing new; (b) Democrats used it a lot in the previous session; (c) but that was because they negotiated compromise bills with Republicans and actually had two-thirds majorities to gavel them through. Also this:

There isn't much that can be done about the laws passed last year, when the House Democrats should have complained loudly and bitterly about the misuse of Immediate Effect. They didn't, and there's not much to be done about it since the official record makes it look like a proper tally was taken. Now, however, they're doing the right thing and pressing for actual vote tallies, which is what I frankly thought this was all about in the first place (Democrats denied the right to roll call votes, not some new and breathless conspiracy).

If this is correct, then gaveling through approval of immediate effect is no new thing, but roll call votes have always been taken if the minority party demands it. That's not happening this time, and that's what Democrats are complaining about.

UPDATE 2: Jeff Irwin, a Democratic representative from Michigan's 53rd district, responds to a question about whether Democrats did this back when they controlled the legislature:

Has this been done before? Yes. Violating the clear terms of the Constitution has become commonplace in the Michigan House of Representatives. The big difference now is that since the Senate follows the Constitution, there was always one chamber where immediate effect votes would be counted and extremely divisive bills would not earn immediate effect in the Senate.

Today, Michigan Republicans have a 2/3rds majority in the Senate as well as a simple majority in the House. Therefore, House procedure has a real impact on important issues.

Hmmm.

The Price of Gas Still Isn't High Enough to Make You Mad

| Sat Apr. 7, 2012 9:49 AM EDT

The LA Times reports today that gasoline prices have hit nearly $4 lately but consumers aren't really getting all that exercised about it. They suggest several reasons for this: the increase hasn't been as steep as it was in 2008; prices aren't all that high when you adjust for inflation; and people have more fuel-efficient cars these days, so they're using less gas. Also this:

"I think we all have adjusted," said Lara Clayton of Los Alamitos as she spent nearly $60 recently to fill up her 2008 Lincoln Town Car at a Seal Beach 76 station. "We just don't drive as much and we are careful to combine errands."....Having already seen prices cross the $4 barrier, motorists are less likely to become outraged when they see it happen again, said Michael Sivak, who heads the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute.

This rings true to me because it's similar to an observation from economist James Hamilton, your go-to guy for all questions about the effect of oil prices on the economy:

One very well-established observation is that although oil price increases were often associated with economic recessions, oil price decreases did not bring about corresponding economic booms....An oil price increase that just reverses a recent price decrease does not seem to have the same economic effects as a price move that establishes new highs....When oil prices are making new highs, we expect slower growth.

Rising oil prices on their own don't cause huge amounts of economic distress. It's only when they break through a previous high and keep on going that we get a substantial reaction. This suggests that there's a fair amount of psychology going on here, not just a pure macroeconomic response to the higher cost of energy inputs.

So what does this tell us? I think that Hamilton is talking about inflation-adjusted highs here, and our previous high (all grades/all formulations) was $4.16 in July 2008. That's equivalent to a price of $4.35 today. Right now we're at $3.99. This suggests (maybe!) that consumer reaction will continue to be "meh" unless the price of gas hits $4.35 and keeps right on going. Until then, it's just another routine headache.