2012 - %3, April

George Zimmerman and the "Great Bodily Harm" Doctrine

| Tue Apr. 3, 2012 12:52 PM EDT

I think David Kopel made this point over at the Volokh Conspiracy a few days ago, but today he takes to the Washington Times to argue that Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law isn't really an issue in the Trayvon Martin case:

The assertion that Florida law allows shooting whenever someone believes it to be necessary is a flat-out lie. The actual law of Florida is that “a person is justified in the use of deadly force” if “(1) He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself...."

Florida’s rule that deadly force may be used to prevent “imminent death or great bodily harm” or “the imminent commission of a forcible felony” is the norm throughout the United States.

Like the majority of American states, Florida does not mandate that victims of a violent crime attempt to retreat before they defend themselves. The retreat rule is irrelevant, regardless of whether you believe Trayvon’s advocates or Mr. Zimmerman’s advocates....Even among the more restrictive states, such as New York, retreat is not required before using deadly force in the home - to prevent a burglary, robbery, kidnapping, rape or other forcible criminal sexual attack. Thus, whether you are in Lake Placid, N.Y., or Lake Placid, Fla., and someone attempts to rob you when you are walking down the street, you have no duty to retreat before using deadly force to thwart the robbery.

I've deliberately commented sparingly on the Trayvon Martin case because the actual facts of the matter are in such turmoil. So I apologize if this question has been answered elsewhere and I just haven't seen it. 

But here's the part I've never quite gotten. Even if you accept Zimmerman's side of the story entirely, Zimmerman was an armed man tracking Martin and obviously scaring the hell out of him. In Zimmerman's account, Martin then jumped him and started beating him up. But even if this is the whole story, is that grounds to shoot someone? Just how much bodily harm do you have to reasonably expect before you're allowed to kill someone? After all, this wasn't in someone's home, and Martin wasn't trying to rob Zimmerman. He was a guy that Zimmerman was trailing. Surely "great" bodily harm has to mean more than just wrestling someone to the ground and throwing some punches, even in Florida? What does Florida law say about that?

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Survey: Jewish Voters Still Heart Obama

| Tue Apr. 3, 2012 12:10 PM EDT
President Obama at the White House Seder in 2010.

The Public Religion Research Institute released the results of its comprehensive survey of American Jews on Tuesday. The group found that President Barack Obama retains "nearly identical to levels of support...among Jewish registered voters" to "a comparable point in the 2008 campaign." That's despite incessant, unending, shrieking speculation that Obama's fumbled attempts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would cause American Jews—one of the most liberal demographics in the country—to suddenly decide they're anti-abortion rights or want to see Social Security privatized.

Did Tax Cuts Cause the 2008 Financial Crisis?

| Tue Apr. 3, 2012 11:22 AM EDT

Andrew Sullivan links today to a post by David Glasner arguing that low marginal tax rates might actually be bad for the economy:

Our current overblown financial sector is largely built on people hunting, scrounging, doing whatever they possibly can, to obtain any scrap of useful information — useful, that is for anticipating a price movement that can be traded on. But the net value to society from all the resources expended on that feverish, obsessive, compulsive, all-consuming search for information is close to zero (not exactly zero, but close to zero).

....So I am inclined to conjecture that over the last 30 years, reductions in top marginal tax rates may have provided a huge incentive to expand the financial services industry. The increasing importance of finance also seems to have been a significant factor in the increasing inequality in income distribution observed over the same period. But the net gain to society from an expanding financial sector has been minimal, resources devoted to finance being resources denied to activities that produce positive net returns to society. So if my conjecture is right — and I am not at all confident that it is, but if it is — then raising marginal tax rates could actually increase economic growth by inducing the financial sector and its evil twin the gaming sector — to release resources now being employed without generating any net social benefit.

Count me in! I'm totally ready to believe this.

Except that I don't get it. It's certainly true that marginal tax rates have declined dramatically since 1980. It's also true that the financial sector has expanded dramatically since 1980. But what evidence is there that low tax rates caused that expansion? Does finance benefit from lower taxes more than other industries, thanks to the sheer number of transactions it engages in? Or what? There's a huge missing step here. Can anyone fill it in?

GSA Administrator Resigns Over Hiring a Clown, Other Excesses

| Tue Apr. 3, 2012 11:09 AM EDT

This actually happened:

The chief of the General Services Administration is resigning and two of her top deputies have been fired amid reports of excessive spending at a training conference at a luxury hotel that featured a mind reader, a clown and a comedian.

(To see the collective Obama administration reaction to this behavior, click here.)

One of the main reasons the GSA exists is to develop government-wide cost-minimizing policies. Clearly, something went wrong.

Around 300 GSA employees attended the training conference, which took place at the four-star M Resort Spa Casino hotel outside Las Vegas in late 2010. Organizers blew $835,000 on the event, including nearly $150,000 in plane tickets and lodging for six "planning trips" made by the organizers. According to the Washington Post, some other expenses included "$3,200 for a mind reader; $6,300 on commemorative coin set displayed in velvet boxes and $75,000 on a training exercise to build a bicycle."

Over the years, conservatives have made it their thing to portray government as a bloated organ of inefficiency and reckless spending. Hell, they popularized the myth of the Obama Justice Department's "$16 muffin" to make the point about unelected bureaucrats blowing your hard-earned tax dollars on frivolous luxury items. But not even Matt Drudge's wildest fantasies ever rose to the level of government officials hiring Vegas mindreaders and juggling jesters. It won't take long for this humiliation to emerge as the next big meme on the anti-government right.

Ryan J. Reilly at Talking Points Memo has a solid rundown of some other "over the top" gems from the Vegas trip. Here's the GSA inspector general's report on the scandal:

Final Management Deficiency Report_WRC_2012 April 2 (508 Compliant)

Stay Away From the 1940 Census!

| Tue Apr. 3, 2012 11:03 AM EDT

I see that the 1940 census is now online, though only if you have a fair amount of patience:

"In the first three hours, we had 22.5 million hits on the site," said National Archives and Records Administration spokeswoman Susan Cooper. "We're a victim of our own success." Cooper said the archives had anticipated significant interest in the public release of the census, the first time such information has been available online, but not quite as much as materialized.

"It’s frustrating and we share that frustration with the public," Cooper said. She said some people are getting through on the website, but many are not. "We’re working as fast as we can to fix the problem."

I used to use the census records a lot, first in microfilm form at my local branch of the archives, then later online when Ancestry.com got them scanned in. But it was mainly the older records that interested me. By 1940, there's nothing much left to find out. I pretty much know where all my ancestors were and what they were doing. Of course, you never know! Maybe I'll discover some strange, dark secret that no one had ever mentioned before. You never know.

But I guess I'll wait a week or two before I try to find out.

Mitt Romney and Trees: The Continuing Saga

| Tue Apr. 3, 2012 10:45 AM EDT
GOP presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney thinks about trees while holding a doughnut.

Politico's Mike Allen and Evan Thomas are out with the latest installment of their behind-the-scenes account of the 2012 race, and I'd encourage you to check it out if you're into that kind of thing. By now you may have already heard the book's biggest revelation—that Texas Gov. Rick Perry was heavily dosed with painkillers prior to the October Bloomberg debate in New Hampshire, prompting him to do things like walk into the men's room whistling "I've Been Working on the Railroad" and then stand at a urinal "companionably close by" a rival campaign manager. Which, honestly, explains a lot.

There's also this stirring defense of Mitt Romney, by his son, Tagg:

"In his spare time, he wants to solve problems," Tagg Romney said in an interview. "He wants to figure out, when he comes over to your house, he wants to figure out, 'Well, your boiler's not working. How are we going to fix the boiler?' and 'Have you noticed that some of your trees are dying out there? Why are your trees dying? What's causing that? Can we figure that out, and can we go down to the hardware store and see if they've got something to fix that?' And all of a sudden you see him driving a tractor in your backyard, and he's pulling stuff up.

He's like, 'Oh, these rocks were doing that.' I mean, that's just who he is."

[Emphasis added.] There are a couple ways of looking at this. The high-brow take is that Romney, as Ben Wallace-Wells put it in New York Magazine, is a consultant to the core, forever looking for ways to make things—like the health care system—work better. (This is either the best or worst thing about Romney, depending on where you stand.)

The low-brow take is that Mitt Romney's fixation with trees goes even deeper than previously thought. Consider:

  • His bizarre habit of attempting to identify the various species of trees when speaking at outdoor campaign events. From a piece I filed in South Carolina:  "'Gosh, it's great to be in South Carolina. What kind of tree is that?,' he says. It's a laurel oak. A few people shout from the audience, and Mitt apparently finds the answer that makes the least amount of sense and rolls with it: 'It's a Mitt Romney tree. Okay!'"
  • His repeated insistence that in Michigan "the trees are the right height" (this turns out to be factually correct).

He is our generation's John Muir.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Corn on "Hardball": Obama's Rise In Swing State Polls

Tue Apr. 3, 2012 10:41 AM EDT

On Monday, MoJo DC bureau chief David Corn chatted with guest host Michael Smerconish on MSNBC's Hardball about Obama's recent uptick in swing state polls.

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

This Is Your Brain on the Department of Defense

| Tue Apr. 3, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
an MRI brain scan

Science and the military have historically made creepy bedfellows, with military curiosity about neuroscience leading the pack. Yet it's no secret that since the early 1950s, the US military has had a vested interest in harnessing cutting-edge developments in neuroscience to get a leg up on national defense (a la well-publicized failures like Project MK-ULTRA). In 2011, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon's research arm credited with, among other things, spearheading the invention of the internet, had a budget of over $240 million devoted to cognitive neuroscience research alone. From brain-scan-based lie detection to memory-erasure pills, some of the technologies are, at first glance, simply the stuff of sci-fi. But an essay published in the March issue of PLoS Biology tells a cautionary tale of high-tech neuroscience developments on the horizon that "could be deployed before sufficiently validated."

The Truth About the Individual Mandate

| Mon Apr. 2, 2012 7:16 PM EDT

Over the weekend Ross Douthat wrote a column saying that the individual mandate was a "political marvel":

In the negotiations over health care reform, it protected the Democratic bill on two fronts at once: buying off some of the most influential interest groups even as it hid the true cost of universal coverage.

I sort of shrugged when I read this. It wasn't really right, but on the other hand, it's certainly true that Obamacare succeeded politically by buying off a whole bunch of interest groups. And if you stretch things a bit, it's also true that forcing people to buy health insurance is a way of getting everyone insured without having to directly raise a lot of taxes and then have the government buy insurance for them.

But I shouldn't have shrugged. Ezra Klein, who I suspect may be holding back on a growing sense of outrage over the conservative assault on the mandate, fires off a spread of tactical nukes in Ross's general direction:

I can’t help feeling like Ross is forgetting something. There was some other reason Democrats adopted this policy. I’m almost sure of it. If you give me a second, I’m sure it’ll come to me. Ah, right! Because Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, was saying things like “I believe that there is a bipartisan consensus to have individual mandates,” and “individual mandates are more apt to be accepted by a majority of the people in Congress than an employer mandate.”

And it wasn’t just Grassley.....The Healthy Americans Act, meanwhile, had been cosponsored by a bevy of heavy-hitting Senate Republicans, including Lamar Alexander, Mike Crapo, Bob Corker, Judd Gregg, Norm Coleman and Trent Lott.

....Avik Roy points out that many liberals — including candidate Barack Obama — were historically skeptical of the individual mandate. And that’s true....Roy tries to use this to draw some equivalence between the two parties. Both Democrats and Republicans changed their mind on the individual mandate, he argues. But there’s a key difference: The Democrats changed their mind in order to secure a bipartisan compromise on health-care reform. Republicans changed their mind in order to prevent one.

....That’s politics, I guess. But ask yourself: If Obamacare is overturned, and Obama is defeated, who will win the Democratic Party’s next fight over health care? Probably not the folks counseling compromise. Too many Democrats have seen how that goes. How much easier to propose a bill that expands Medicaid eligibility to 300 percent of the poverty line, covers every child through the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and makes Medicare availability to every American over age 50. Add in some high-risk pools, pay for the bill by slapping a surtax on rich Americans — indisputably constitutional, as even Randy Barnett will tell you — and you’ve covered most of the country’s uninsured. Oh, and you can pass the whole thing through the budget reconciliation process.

I don’t think that’s a particularly good future for the health-care system. And I doubt that bill will pass anytime soon. But, if Obamacare goes down, something like it will eventually be passed. And what will Republicans have to say about it? That no, this time, they really would have worked with the Democrats to reform America’s health-care system? Who will believe them?

Ezra has them dead to rights on this. It's one thing to always push for the most conservative feasible policy — that's what I'd do if I were a conservative — but it's quite another to actively lobby for that policy and then, when you get it, immediately turn around and insist that the whole thing is just a slimy piece of political graft that deserves to be blown up by a politicized Supreme Court using a brand new constitutional distinction that no one had ever heard of before last year. Maybe all's fair in love and politics, but the eventual result of this kind of duplicity isn't likely to be either the most conservative possible healthcare plan or the most liberal possible plan. It's likely to be the crappiest possible plan.

Romney Adviser Blasts Government Investigation, Says Bring It On

| Mon Apr. 2, 2012 6:45 PM EDT
MEK rally on August 26.

Last December, Mitt Romney claimed that he had never heard of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, an Iranian dissident group that's drawn prominent American defenders despite being labeled by the State Department as a terrorist organization.

Romney's ignorance was surprising: Mitchell Reiss, his foreign policy adviser and a known Mujahedin-e-Khalq supporter, had spoken at a MEK rally just the previous weekend.  Now it's another adviser to his campaign, Michael Mukasey, who's voicing his support for the MEK. At an event in Paris last week, the former Attorney General spoke passionately against a recent Treasury Department investigation into the terrorist group.

Last month, Treasury delivered subpoenas to speaking agencies that count several high-profile figures and MEK advocates as clients, including former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, former FBI director Louis Freeh, former Department of Homeland Security head Tom Ridge, and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Hugh Shelton. The subpoenas demand payment records from speeches given by the figures—records which might detail MEK payments to its backers.