2012 - %3, June

Quote of the Day: GOP Leader Says Obama Using the IRS to Punish His Enemies

| Tue Jun. 19, 2012 2:13 PM EDT

From Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, describing the Obama campaign on Fox News last Friday:

What they’re trying to do is intimidate donors to outside groups that are critical of the administration. The campaign has rifled through donors' divorce records. They’ve got the IRS, the SEC and other agencies going after contributors trying to frighten people and intimidate them out of exercising their rights to participate in the American political discourse....Of course, the temptation of anybody in power is to try to silence your critics.

If that were true, I'd be the first to call for Obama's impeachment. But it's not, of course. McConnell just figures he can say whatever he wants and no one will really call him on it. And he's right about that.

Michael Tomasky has more on the bigger picture here.

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The Fed's Own Forecasts Show That It Needs to Loosen Up

| Tue Jun. 19, 2012 1:59 PM EDT

Will the Fed finally decide to loosen up a bit and do something to prop up our fragile economy? Maybe! Brad Plumer points us to this chart compiled by the Council on Foreign Relations that explains why they might. Back in March, the Fed thought unemployment was falling nicely and would reach 6.5% by the end of next year. By May they were far more pessimistic, predicting that unemployment would be only barely below 8% by then. And, as Brad says, that's not all:

Of course, there’s more than the unemployment rate to consider. Jobless claims have been ticking upward of late. Retail and manufacturing is weakening. The housing market is still flailing along. Plus, Fed officials will have to consider whether Europe still poses a threat to the U.S. recovery. But the [CFR] graph lays the choice out starkly. If the rough patch in May wasn’t just a blip, then the Fed will be failing to achieve its own stated goals for unemployment.

It's past time for the Fed to do something about this, and it's not just Paul Krugman saying so. The Fed's own forecasts are saying it too.

Why the Microsoft Surface Tablet Will be Great Even if it Sucks

| Tue Jun. 19, 2012 1:09 PM EDT

Last night Microsoft announced that it will take on Apple directly in the tablet market by designing and selling its own device. Farhad Manjoo is excited:

For the first time in its history, Microsoft is taking PC hardware as seriously as it does software. The software giant is coming around to a maxim that archrival Steve Jobs always held dear—that the best technologies come about from the tight integration of code and manufacturing, and that no company can afford to focus on just one half of that equation.

....During the last couple years, the software company has been working to make its next version of Windows perform amazingly well on touchscreen tablets....But after investing so much to create a great tablet interface, Microsoft risked losing the battle on hardware. Many of its traditional PC partners—Samsung, Asus, Dell, and HP—have already tried to take on Apple with rushed, ill-considered, cheaply made tablets. Microsoft would have been foolish to rely on that gang of losers to create tablets that were worthy of the new Windows. With the Surface, the company is taking its future into its own hands.

On two different levels, I don't get this. First off, there doesn't really appear to be anything all that special about the hardware Microsoft announced. It seems perfectly competent, and maybe even a little better than competent. But it's basically a 10-inch tablet with a few ports, a kickstand to prop it up, and a nifty-looking integrated cover/keyboard. All in all, it's a nice package but, as near as I can tell, nothing revolutionary. And nothing in Microsoft's presentation suggested to me that Windows 8, the software that runs the Surface tablet, won't work just as well on Samsung and Asus hardware as it does on theirs.

But that's the least of my puzzlement. The main source is this: the most important aspect of the Surface tablet — by a mile — isn't that Microsoft is paying a bit more attention to hardware. It's the fact that the Pro version is both a tablet and a real computer. This is huge, and it's huge whether you're an Apple fan or a Windows fan.

Here's the thing: I have an iPad. I like it! Millions of other people like it. But let's be honest: it's a toy. It doesn't have a file system you can use. It doesn't run real apps. It can't exchange data with your Mac easily. It has a bunch of limitations on what you're allowed to do with it. (You can't upload files via a website, for example.) Put all this stuff together, and for most of us the iPad simply can't replace our main computer. In fact, it doesn't even play very well with our main computer.

In the Mac world, a tablet that actually ran Mac OS, made data exchange easy, and supported regular apps, would be great. But Apple doesn't appear to have any plans for such a device, and this is what really sets the Surface tablet apart. If you live in the Windows world, as millions of us do, the Surface concept is very, very seductive. As a tablet, the Metro interface offers the casual ease of use that you want in a tablet. Toss in the keyboard/trackpad add-on, plug in a bigger display, and the Windows interface allows you to use it as your primary computer. Or, if not quite that, at least as a full-powered secondary computer. That's huge.

Now, obviously, the devil is in the details, and there are lots of details Microsoft hasn't yet addressed publicly. How much will the Surface tablet cost? What's the battery life? Does Windows 8 suck? How about Bluetooth? GPS? 4G data support? Is Intel's Ivy Bridge chipset any good? How fast is it? Etc.

The answers to these questions might very well be disappointing. See George Ou's comment here for more on that. Put this all together, and I think it's quite possible that Microsoft might very well fail in its newfound dedication to hardware — which I suspect is far more about profit margins than about a sudden appreciation for the "tight integration of code and manufacturing" in any case. But even if Microsoft does fail, other hardware manufacturers are almost certain to step in with devices that make the right set of tradeoffs and allow Windows 8 tablets to perform genuine double duty as casual plaything and serious computer. Whether it comes from Microsoft or Apple, that's the future of the tablet.

ACA's Mandate is Nothing New, and the Supreme Court Knows It

| Tue Jun. 19, 2012 12:31 PM EDT

The primary legal argument against Obamacare's individual mandate turns on the distinction between activity and inactivity. Conservatives say that although the Commerce Clause gives Congress considerable power to prevent activity, it's never been interpreted to give Congress the power to penalize inactivity. But the Affordable Care Act forces private citizens to purchase a commercial product, and that's a bridge too far.

This has been debated endlessly, and since I'm not a lawyer or a constitutional scholar it hardly matters what I think about it. But from a layman's point of view, I've always had two big problems with this theory:

  • It's brand new. Prior to the passage of ACA, no one had ever seriously brought this up as a legal distinction. It was invented solely as a way of justifying a court decision to overturn ACA.
  • It's not even true except in the most hyperlegalistic sense.

The second point requires some explanation. So here it is: the truth is that the federal government forces you to buy commercial products or engage in commercial activity all the time. If you buy a car, you must buy airbags along with it because federal regulations require it. If you want to travel overseas, you must submit a pair of photos along with your passport application, and the only way to acquire these photos is by engaging in private commerce. Or take this, from Cato's Ilya Shapiro:

There is a qualitative difference between regulating or prohibiting existing economic activity and mandating that someone engage in such activity. When Randy Barnett [] first articulated that distinction and labeled the new assertion of federal power “unprecedented,” that’s what he meant: Congress has never forced people to engage in economic activity. Not during the New Deal — nobody had to become a farmer or buy wheat — nor during the Civil Rights Era — if you didn’t want to serve blacks, you could shut down your restaurant or hotel.

This is what I mean by hyperlegalistic. Did the Civil Rights Act force you to serve blacks in your diner? In every practical sense, yes, of course it did. The vast majority of motel and restaurant owners don't have the option of simply shutting down their businesses. Likewise, you don't have to buy a car and you don't have to travel overseas, but in practical terms in modern America, there are millions of people who don't really have that choice.

There are thousands of examples like this, where the federal government forces you to engage in a commercial transaction of some kind. In fact, it's so common that most people barely even realize it. But you would, literally, have to be a hermit to avoid them all. In the real world, these requirements are essentially mandates to engage in a particular type of commercial activity, enforced by the police power of the state.

What's more, the police power of the state is actually applied fairly sparingly in the case of ACA. If you're poor, you qualify for Medicaid. If you're a little less poor, the government provides generous subsidies to buy insurance. And if you decide not to buy insurance anyway, the penalty is pretty modest: $695 per adult or a maximum of 2.5% of income. That's way less than the penalty for refusing to serve blacks in your roadside diner.

This is why it would be such an outrage for the Supreme Court to overturn the mandate. It's simply not unprecedented, at least not in any practical sense. The federal government effectively forces us to buy lots of stuff, and it's done so for decades. If you dig deep enough, you can find a shard of difference between all these cases and the ACA mandate, but that's all it is: a shard. It's a million miles from the kind of deep constitutional principle that you should have if you want to overturn a piece of landmark legislation duly passed by Congress and signed into law by the president.

Chart of the Day: Civilian Drone Deaths

| Tue Jun. 19, 2012 11:26 AM EDT

The chart below comes from ProPublica reporters Justin Elliott, Cora Currier and Lena Groeger. (Click here for a larger, interactive version.) It shows the various claims about civilian drone deaths from administration sources over the years, varying from "a handful" in 2011 to 50 or 60 over the course of seven years. As Elliot shows in an accompanying piece, these claims haven't been consistent over time.

To be honest, my initial reaction to this is that I'm surprised at how consistent the claims have been, not how inconsistent. A few of them clearly don't add up, but with only a couple of exceptions they've pretty uniformly told reporters that there have been about 30 civilian deaths over the past two or three years and perhaps 50 or 60 over the life of the program.

But consistency is probably the least of the issues here. As the New York Times reported a couple of weeks ago, the Obama administration "counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants [...] unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent." Given that methodology, it's a miracle that the administration has fessed up to any civilian deaths. If there's a lesson from this, I'd say it's not that officials sometimes give differing estimates of civilian deaths. I'd say it's the fact that, in truth, they probably don't have the slightest idea how many civilian deaths they've caused.

From Sherwood Forest to Wall Street: The Robin Hood Tax Campaign Comes to America

| Tue Jun. 19, 2012 10:53 AM EDT

Robin Hood Tax activists, who are pushing for a financial transactions tax to generate revenue to invest in jobs, health care, housing and education, officially launched their United States campaign on Tuesday.

According to a press release from the campaign, a 50-cent tax on every $100 of stock trades could generate hundreds of billions of dollars annually. (The rate could be even lower on other financial transactions.) Over 1,000 leading economists have endorsed the idea of a financial transactions tax, including Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs and Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute.

The notion of a tax on stock trades and other financial transactions is not new—in the United States, the federal government taxed every sale or transfer of stock between 1914 and 1966. But in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the idea has gained new support—especially overseas. German chancellor Angela Merkel recently said a financial transactions tax would be "the right signal to show that we have understood that financial markets have to contribute their share to the recovery of economies."

Actor Mark Ruffalo, Coldplay's Chris Martin, and Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello worked with students, climate and AIDS activists, faith registered nurses from the nation's largest nurses union to produce a video promoting the Robin Hood campaign. You can watch it here:

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for June 19, 2012

Tue Jun. 19, 2012 10:01 AM EDT

Maj. Pete Reddan writes a song while leaning on the front tires of a C-17 Globemaster III at Joint Base Charleston, S.C. on June 13. Reddan's military inspired tune, "Off to War", was recently recorded by Nashville recording artist Brad Anderson. The song was inspired by his experiences during deployments as well as the experiences of the men and women Reddan serves with. Reddan is a 437th Airlift Wing pilot. US Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Ashlee Galloway.

UPDATE: You can learn more about Reddan's song and this photo here.

Meet the "Bald-Headed Bastard" Who Battles Dark Money

| Tue Jun. 19, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Watchdog Fred Wertheimer.

From his office just off Washington, DC's posh Dupont Circle, Fred Wertheimer goes to battle each day against the rising deluge of shadowy campaign spending in American politics. The walls of his office tell the tale of a career spent in the political money trenches: A photo of Wertheimer in the White House signed by President Obama is inscribed "Keep fighting the good fight." Says one framed news clip: "Ethics Watchdog Fred Wertheimer: When He Barks, Congress Listens." A 1995 Wall Street Journal editorial dubs him "The Man Who Ruined Politics." (Wertheimer is especially proud of that one.)

What few know is that Wertheimer's long war on dark money began with a phone call—and a napping Wertheimer almost slept through it.

As I report in "Follow the Dark Money," the cover story of Mother Jones' July/August issue, Wertheimer was snoozing away one afternoon in May 1971 when the ethics group Common Cause called and offered him a junior lobbyist job. His portfolio would include urging lawmakers to write new restrictions on campaign fundraising and spending. This was the Nixon era, when secret donations flooded the system and millionaires could launch a candidate's campaign with a single check. "Reform is not for the short-winded," John Gardner, Common Cause's founder, told him. Today, Wertheimer jokes, "He never told me it was 41 years and counting."

The story traces four decades' worth of scandals and secret cash drops, back-room deals and legislative battles, beginning with Watergate and arriving in the age of the super-PAC. Today, Wertheimer and his allies are on the ropes. Casino king Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers' donor network are set to pump tens of millions of dollars into outside groups to elect their favorite candidates, shadowy nonprofits spend tens of millions more on attack ads, and Republican forces prepare to spend as much as $1 billion to topple President Obama and claim control of Congress.

What prompted an enraged congressman to call Werthheimer a "bald-headed bastard" for his efforts to reform campaign finance? And how did we get to a place where billionaires are now injecting massive amounts of untraceable funds into our elections? Go ahead and click here to follow the long and winding dark money trail.

In Defense of Genetically Modified Crops

| Tue Jun. 19, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Cotton bolls in the field

Genetically modified Bt crops get a pretty bad rap. The pest-killing Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacteria protein these plants are bioengineered to make has been accused of harming monarch butterflies, honey bees, rats, and showing up in the blood of pregnant women.

Just one problem: None of that is true. (Click on any of those links to see a scientific refutation of each claim.) Seven independent experts in genetically modified crops I spoke to all confirmed that the science shows Bt crops to be safer than their alternative: noxious chemical insecticides. In Europe—where suspicions over GM crops run even deeper than in the United States—the European Food Safety Authority just rejected a French ban on Bt corn, saying "there is no specific scientific evidence, in terms of risk to human and animal health or the environment." A comprehensive report on 10 years of European Union-funded research, comprising 50 research projects, drew the same conclusions about Bt safety.

Can Exposure to Toxins Change Your DNA?

| Tue Jun. 19, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Let's face it, we're devoting enormous amounts of time and energy to minimize our exposures to toxins (think BPA, pesticides, and all the rest of the seemingly ubiquitous chemicals). But now an emerging body of research points to the disturbing possibility that such self-protective strategies might sometimes come decades, or even a century, too late.

If your great-grandmother experienced a brief toxic exposure, these studies suggest, you and your children could be at risk for reproductive illnesses and possibly other conditions. The presumed mechanism of this unfortunate inheritance is not a mutation in the DNA itself but rather changes in the biochemical on-off switches that determine whether or not specific genes get activated—a field of study known as epigenetics.

Most recently, researchers from Washington State University, led by biology professor Michael Skinner, reported last month that short-term exposure of pregnant rats to several kinds of chemicals caused ovarian disease not just in their daughters but also in two subsequent generations of females. Symptoms that paralleled those found in human polycystic ovarian disease and primary ovarian insufficiency, both of which can reduce fertility, were identified in the descendents of rats exposed to a fungicide, pesticides, dioxin, jet fuel, and a mixture of plastics, but not among descendents of controls.