2012 - %3, July

Editing Ben Bernanke

| Thu Jul. 19, 2012 11:20 AM EDT

I blanked out yesterday on Ben Bernanke's congressional testimony because it didn't seem like anything interesting had happened. Just the usual "ready and able to step in if needed" stuff that he says every time. But today's New York Times summary has a fine little tidbit that I'm sorry I missed. Republicans, as usual, pounded the table and insisted that Bernanke not so much as consider the possibility of easier monetary policy:

Democrats made no similar effort to convince Mr. Bernanke that he should take additional action. They congratulated the Fed chairman in the manner of people confident that they are speaking with an ally. “I want to thank you for your steadfast commitment to taking action as you deem appropriate,” said Representative Michael E. Capuano, Democrat of Massachusetts. “Thank you for not giving up.”

Representative John Carney, Democrat of Delaware, went one step further. “The Fed is doing everything it can to address the unemployment part of your mandate, is that correct?” he asked Mr. Bernanke.

Mr. Bernanke, momentarily startled, responded that the Fed could do more, and was considering whether it should.

Oh, wait. That's from Scott Sumner's blog. However, an editor at the Times apparently couldn't handle the truth, and that last line now reads:

Mr. Bernanke paused a moment before responding that the Fed “certainly” could do more, and was considering whether it should.

I liked the original better, and I'll bet it's more accurate. Bernanke knows perfectly well that he's doing nowhere near all he could. It must indeed be startling to him that an awful lot of Democrats don't seem to understand that.

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Headline of the Day

| Thu Jul. 19, 2012 10:45 AM EDT

I love this headline in the LA Times today. I think we should plate it in bronze and make it our new national motto.

Scalia Disagrees With Republicans on Disclosure

| Thu Jul. 19, 2012 10:06 AM EDT

Justice Antonin Scalia told CNN's Piers Morgan in an interview Wednesday night that there's nothing to fear from unlimited political spending in elections—as long as the American people know where its coming from. 

Defending his role in the Citizens United decision that struck down limits on political spending by corporations and labor unions, Scalia told Morgan that "Thomas Jefferson would have said the more speech, the better. That's what the First Amendment is all about. So long as the people know where the speech is coming from."

Scalia has expressed similar sentiments before, most notably in a 2010 case where anti-gay rights advocates in Washington State were attempting to block disclosure of signatories to a petition on the grounds that compelling them to do so violated their First Amendment rights. The Supreme Court disagreed, and in a concurring opinion Scalia wrote that "There are laws against threats and intimidation; and harsh criticism, short of unlawful action, is a price our people have traditionally been willing to pay for self-governance."

Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed. For my part, I do not look forward to a society which, thanks to the Supreme Court, campaigns anonymously and even exercises the direct democracy of initiative and referendum hidden from public scrutiny and protected from the accountability of criticism. This does not resemble the Home of the Brave.

Nevertheless, Republicans are looking forward to that society. Once in favor of disclosure in political spending, post-Citizens United GOP elected officials have fought tooth and nail to protect the identity of secret donors trying to influence American elections, most recently by blocking the DISCLOSE Act. They have embraced the Sarah Palin interpretation of the First Amendment: that the Constitution envisions not just freedom of speech but freedom from criticism. 

Still, Scalia has experienced convenient changes of heart before that have brought him in line with mainstream GOP positions. But it doesn't seem like he's had one here yet.

GOP Shamelessness Reaches New Heights

| Thu Jul. 19, 2012 10:02 AM EDT

There's a category of political quarreling that I tend to ignore at first, but then slowly get sucked into as the full scale of the hypocrisy at issue becomes apparent. Today we have a fine example: the Republican outrage over waivers recently granted to certain states for their welfare programs. Sure, the waivers were largely requested by Republican governors, and giving states more authority over block-grant funds is usually something Republicans approve of, but it still seemed like a bit of a yawn. Just the usual political nonsense.

But Dylan Matthews of Wonkbook has gotten hold of a letter from HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to Utah Senator Orrin Hatch that makes clear just how stunning this particular piece of hypocrisy really is. Republicans are screaming that the waivers will water down the work requirements of the 1995 welfare reform bill, but it turns out that as recently as 2005 a whole bunch of Republican governors not only supported these kinds of waivers, but signed a letter requesting waivers more expansive than the ones Sebelius just granted. As a public service, I've included an excerpt from Sebelius's letter below, with the names of various Republican notables highlighted — including one Willard Mitt Romney, who I believe was governor of Massachusetts at the time.

I don't doubt that Republicans will invent some reason that the 2005 waivers were entirely different from the waivers Sebelius just granted. That's politics. But it does demonstrate that GOP shamelessness continues to reach new heights. They really just don't care anymore, do they?

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

Thu Jul. 19, 2012 9:39 AM EDT

Staff Sgt. Casey Spang inspects one of the tilt-rotors on a CV-22 Osprey prior to takeoff on the flightline at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. The 20th Special Operations Squadron conducted a routine training flight over Melrose Air Force Range, N.M. Spang is a 20th SOS flight engineer. US Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alexxis Pons Abascal.

Why Scott Walker Is Wrong About Noah's Ark

| Thu Jul. 19, 2012 9:32 AM EDT

Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker, fresh off a landslide recall victory, took to Twitter on Wednesday evening to ponder the conservative equivalent of "What if we're all colorblind, and the people we thought were colorblind are the ones with normal vision?" In what appeared to be a response to President Obama's recent riff on the importance of public institutions, Walker wondered: "Imagine if Noah had needed help from the government to build the Ark. It might have never been built." 

That's quite the thought experiment. In Walker's scenario, the government is so inept it would have scuttled the construction of the Ark, bringing about the end of mankind. (As it was, the Ark managed to only save eight people out of the entire global population so it wasn't exactly a huge victory for the private sector.)

But the real story behind Noah's Ark isn't dependency, it's red tape. GAO reports from the pre-Flood era are understandably hard to come by, so the best records we have come from Genesis. In that telling, risk-takers like Noah were saddled (by Job's creator, no less) with cumbersome restrictions on everything from the kind of wood they could use to the size and breadth of the vessel—and who would be allowed on:

Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch.

And this is the fashion which thou shalt make it of: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits.

A window shalt thou make to the ark, and in a cubit shalt thou finish it above; and the door of the ark shalt thou set in the side thereof; with lower, second, and third stories shalt thou make it.

...

And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shalt thou bring into the ark, to keep them alive with thee; they shall be male and female.

Of fowls after their kind, and of cattle after their kind, of every creeping thing of the earth after his kind; two of every sort shall come unto thee, to keep them alive.

And take thou unto thee of all food that is eaten, and thou shalt gather it to thee; and it shall be for food for thee, and for them.

Given the tight regulations, it's no wonder Noah only built one.

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GOP Budget Slashes Planned Parenthood Funding

| Thu Jul. 19, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

The Planned Parenthood wars are back on in Congress. On Tuesday, Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) released a Labor, Health & Human Services and Education appropriations bill that would slash funding for Planned Parenthood and any other abortion providers.

The bill is a grab-bag of nearly everything Republicans want on reproductive issues. In addition to cutting off funds needed to implement President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, it eliminates Title X family planning funds, allows employers to opt-out of covering contraception or pretty much any other medical care on the basis of "religious beliefs or moral convictions," and creates $20 million in "abstinence education" grants.

The bill states that Planned Parenthood could continue to get federal funds—if it stops offering abortions.

Markups on the bill were held Wednesday morning, and it's likely going to be used as a "starting point" for budget negotiations with the Democrat-controlled Senate, the Huffington Post reports.

Beyond Foxconn: More Dirt on the Factories Making Your iPhone

| Thu Jul. 19, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Troubling new findings from a labor watchdog group are casting doubt on Apple's highly publicized promise to improve working conditions in its overseas factories. Using a combination of surveys, onsite visits, undercover investigations, and face-to-face interviews, China Labor Watch evaluated 10 factories on Apple's supply chain. (The investigation was not limited to factories run by Foxconn, Apple's largest supplier, which came under media scrutiny after a series of worker suicides but whose factories, as the Fair Labor Association previously noted, "are way, way above average.") CLW's results hone in on an issue that prior media coverage and a much-hyped FLA report on Foxconn hadn't touched upon: the fact that dispatch labor workers, who don't appear on Apple's books, make up a significant percentage of Apple's factory workers.

Dispatch laborers are hired through third-party companies (like temping agencies in the United States) and have no formal agreement with a factory. Factories use dispatch labor because it is enormously profitable: It lets them get away with no severance pay, no responsibility for occupational hazards or work-related injury, no collective bargaining, and no limit on overtime. It's the same ruthless exploitation of unregulated laborers that our Andy Kroll found in subcontracted "shadow factories" in China, and a massive loophole in Apple's pledge to protect worker's rights in its factories.

CLW found that all but one of the Apple factories they investigated relied heavily on dispatch labor. The exception to the rule? Factories belonging to Foxconn, which, after finding itself in the glare of the Western media, transferred all the dispatch laborers in their Shenzhen factories to "direct hire" status in 2011, according to CLW's report. In a different factory in the same region, CLW found that almost 90 percent of the workers were dispatch laborers.

Take that number with a grain of salt, though. CLW admits that it doesn't have the access or the data to do a thorough investigation, and critics will be quick to point out the flaws in CLW's statistics; in factories that employ tens of thousands of laborers, the highest number of surveys returned was 94. In most cases, CLW was prevented from collecting data and conducting interviews. In Shanghai, 150 surveys were seized by local police, who arrested CLW investigators and bought them bus tickets out of the province.

PHOTOS: 90 Percent of Lemurs Are Threatened

| Thu Jul. 19, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Lemurs are arguably the world's most adorable vertebrates. They're also the most endangered, according to a recent study by Conservation International. A team of researchers found that an astonishing 90 percent of the 103 species of lemurs, native to Madagascar, are nearing extinction due to hunting and habitat loss caused by illegal logging on the island—the only place in the world that they live. Here's the breakdown:

23 are now considered 'Critically Endangered', 52 are 'Endangered, 19 are 'Vulnerable' and two are 'Near Threatened'. Just three lemur species are listed as 'Least Concern'.

If the internet has never shown you a picture of lemurs—which look kind of like monkeys but are actually more closely related to the slow loris—I don't know what you've been doing with your time. But here are a few from Conservation International to catch you up to speed:

Weighing in at about five pounds, the greater bamboo lemur is the biggest of all the lemur species.  © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierAt five pounds, the greater bamboo lemur is one of the biggest of all the lemur species. © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe red-ruffed lemur © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe red-ruffed lemur © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe diademed sifaka, a colorful species of lemur © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe diademed sifaka, a colorful species of lemur © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe blue-eyed black lemur is the only primate species (besides humans) with blue eyes © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe critically endangered blue-eyed black lemur is the only primate species (besides humans) with blue eyes. © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierAt only an ounce, Madame Berthe's mouse lemur is the smallest primate in the world.  © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierAlso critically endangered is the Madame Berthe's mouse lemur. Weighing just an ounce,  it's the smallest primate in the world. © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe indri, the largest species of lemur © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe indri, the largest species of lemur, is among those listed as critically endangered.  © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe diademed sifaka hangs out. © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe diademed sifaka hangs out. © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe black-and-white ruffed lemur © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe black-and-white ruffed lemur © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. Mittermeier

Do Swing Voters Care About Mitt Romney's Tax Returns?

| Wed Jul. 18, 2012 7:17 PM EDT

Ezra Klein takes to Twitter to write a blog post about Mitt Romney's tax returns:

The Republicans telling Mitt Romney to release his tax returns appear to me to be giving him very bad advice. Consider: 

1) Mitt Romney has much more information than they do about his tax returns. And he doesn't think it's worth it to release them.

2) Most Americans are probably vaguely aware, at best, of the controversy over Romney's tax returns.

3) Folks in the Beltway have spent a lot of time speculating about what could be in the returns, and so, to them, the damage is being done. But that's not true for people in the country.

4) This campaign is really showing the difference between Beltway opinion and campaigns with actual info on voters. See also Obama and Bain.  

5) This campaign has persuaded me that pundits -- myself included -- are the last people we should be asking "what moves swing voters?" The key facts about swing voters are they don't pay much attention to politics and/or don't have strong opinions already. Horserace-obsessed pundits are about as far from the mindset of swing voters as it is possible to get. They are literally the opposite.

I think points 4 and 5 are well taken. However, this cuts both ways: Republicans calling for Romney to release his tax returns might very well be thinking that he's better off doing it now precisely because swing voters aren't paying much attention. But they'll be paying attention in a couple of months, and if Obama can hammer away at Romney's tax returns during the debates, it might very well influence them then. Conversely, if Romney's taxes are "old news" by the time October rolls around, they might have lost their power to influence voters.

Now, obviously, point 1 is true: Romney knows what's in his tax returns and we don't. But consider this too: Romney turned over 23 years of tax returns to John McCain in 2008. He knew that some of them would become public if McCain tapped him, and apparently he didn't think that was a big problem. He seems to be digging in his heels this time around partly out of sheer stubbornness, and it's quite possible that he was thinking more clearly in 2008 than he is now.

Alternatively, of course, maybe his 2009 return has some really nasty stuff in it and it's better to keep it secret and just take the hits. That's for him to decide. But I wouldn't take the calls for him to release his returns as a belief that secrecy is hurting him with swing voters right now. I'd take it as a belief that it will hurt him with swing voters in October.

NOTE: So do I think Romney will release his tax returns? Nope. At this point, he's taken such a strong stand against it that he'd look like he was caving in to the liberal media if he changed course. Standing up to the lefty establishment is a key part of his Mitt 3.0 persona, and he can't afford to damage it.