2012 - %3, July

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 31, 2012

Tue Jul. 31, 2012 7:21 AM PDT

Airman Chris Pichardo cleans the canopy of an F/A-18C Hornet assigned to the Vigilantes of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 151 on the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72). US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Tim D. Godbee.

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Does Climate Change Mean More Polar-Grizzly Bear Hybrids?

| Tue Jul. 31, 2012 3:00 AM PDT
Polar bear

It's been a rough half-million years for the polar bear, so it sure doesn't help that man-made climate change is driving them toward extinction

According to a model published recently in PNAS, polar bears prospered during cool periods but struggled during warm ones, and their numbers have been declining since an exceptionally balmy period starting 420,000 years ago. That's bad news (bears) with climate change now melting Arctic ice at unprecedented rates. 

As polar bears become rarer, they may also be forced to mate with brown bears, which this new study suggests has happened before in the distant past. Modern polar and brown bears can and do produce fertile offspring, but biologists classify them separate species because geographical distance usually prevents the two from ever meeting. In zoos that keep bears in the same enclosure, distance is not a problem. A handful of hybrid polar-grizzly bears (grizzlies are a subspecies of brown bears) have been born in zoos in the Czech Republic, Germany, Israel, Poland, Russia, and Spain, according to the BBC.

In the wild, climate change is erasing the distance between the two species, too. Brown bears are moving north into polar bear territory, and polar bears are being forced off melting ice to spend more time on land, where they're more likely to encounter brown bears. In 2006, a hunter in Canada shot a white bear with patches of brown fur and the humped back and long claws of a grizzly—DNA tests confirmed this first modern report of a hybrid. In 2010, another hunter in Canada shot a bear that turned out to be a second generation polar-grizzly hybrid. Although exact data is scant, the study's lead author Charlotte Lindqvist of SUNY-Buffalo says, "It certainly seems that hybrids are becoming more common."

Obama Administration Ducks for Cover on UN Arms Trade Treaty

| Tue Jul. 31, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

Last Friday, the Obama administration ditched negotiations on the Arms Trade Treaty, the potential UN deal aimed at tightening regulations on the estimated $60 billion global trade in conventional weapons. The past four weeks of negotiations were focused on stemming the flow of arms and ammo into the hands of regimes and actors responsible for perpetrating mass murder and war crimes.

The breakdown occurred on the eve of the Friday deadline, with several countries with large stakes in the international trade (Russia, China, etc.) raising objections to the working text. But major human rights groups including Oxfam and Amnesty International reserved some of their harshest criticism for the Obama administration. "The White House walked away at a critical moment," Scott Stedjan, Oxfam America's senior policy advisor, wrote in a statement. "In the United States we already have tough regulations governing the trade of weapons—and this Treaty is about leveling the playing field with the many countries around the world that have weak or ineffective regulations, if any at all."

Why did the US bail? As the New York Times reported, political pressure came, unsurprisingly, from the NRA and other gun-rights advocates. They claimed that the UN was trying to dismantle the Second Amendment:

Treaty supporters [and activists] expressed anger at the failure after early bouts of optimism that a draft of the treaty circulated this week would satisfy American concerns, notably its possible infringement on the...right to bear arms — an especially delicate issue during a presidential election year in the United States. The supporters contended the treaty’s language specified that it would have no impact on such rights. But gun rights groups like the National Rifle Association said the treaty remained "seriously flawed."

...

Fifty-one senators had urged the administration not to sign it in a letter sent Thursday. That letter sent an important signal of defeat because ratification requires 67 Senate votes.

There is a long-running, baseless conservative meme that the United Nations is hell-bent on confiscating firearms from unsuspecting, law-abiding Americans. Folks including Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), the National Association for Gun Rights, and even veteran political analyst Chuck Norris have all fervently warned about the coming "Small Arms Treaty" as a tool of confiscation. (Just for the record, the Small Arms Treaty does not actually exist in any form.) And just recently, the far-right Gun Owners of America pushed the novel theory that the massacre at a theater in Aurora, Colo., was engineered by big-government agents and the UN. (Did they engineer these 55 other massacres too?)

As for the Arms Trade Treaty, diplomats told reporters that negotiations are expected to reboot at some indefinite time in the future, with a UN General Assembly vote hopefully to be held within a few months.

Can We All Please Stop Whining About the Olympics Being Tape Delayed? Thank You.

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 8:37 PM PDT

Apologies in advance for the rant, but I just have to ask: am I the only one who's well and truly sick of the endless whinging about the fact that NBC is tape delaying their Olympics coverage so that it mostly appears in prime time? Seriously, folks: this is how the Olympics have been televised for — what? 20 years or so now? It's time to get over it. This particular complaint isn't cutting edge or original or even very interesting anymore.

Besides, we all know why this is done: because NBC pays a ton of money for television rights, and the only way to make back their investment is by getting people to watch during prime time. That's life. We also know that the vast majority of people couldn't watch any of the events live anyway. They're at work, and since the games last two weeks, it's not like they can just take a day off if they're Olympics junkies. Most people prefer that the games be tape delayed so they can actually see them.

In fact, here's my guess: most of the griping comes from self-absorbed journalists, with the balance coming from people who are either students or else lucky enough to have jobs that allow them to watch TV whenever they want — and haven't quite figured out that this doesn't describe everyone in the country. I say: get over yourselves. Try an 8-to-5 factory job that gets you home at 6 and done with dinner by 7. Then tell me if you still think it's ridiculous that the Olympics are tape delayed.

UPDATE: If you want to whine about the editing or the commentary or NBC's promo mistakes, feel free. I won't get in your way. But I've seen a lot of whining about the mere fact of tape delay, and I think it's time to get over that.

In comments and Twitter, the most common response to my whining about the whining has been: why not both? Why not stream/televise live and do a prime time show? Answer: I don't know. But when questions like this come up, my usual starting point is that the people involved probably aren't idiots. They might be wrong, of course. Anyone can be wrong. But they're not idiots, and they know their business. They also know all about social media and smartphones and the fact that many of you know all the results in real time. So there's probably a reason NBC doesn't do both. Most likely it's because it would be a money loser, but there might be other reasons too. In any case, I'll bet there's a pretty sensible reason. It's not just sheer ignorant cussedness.

UPDATE 2: OK, hold on a second. I didn't realize that NBC is live streaming every event. But they are. So now I really want to know what all the whining is about.

If You Want to Reform Social Security, Your Target Should be Republicans

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 5:59 PM PDT

Bill Keller wants Democrats to stop "recoiling" from entitlement reform and instead start endorsing some common sense ways of bringing Social Security into balance. He specifically mentions three proposals:

They include (1) gradually raising the retirement age to compensate for the fact that we now live, on average, 14 years longer than when F.D.R. signed Social Security into law. They include (2) obliging those of us who can really afford it to pay a larger share. They also include (3) technical fixes like aligning the automatic cost-of-living formula with reality.

If Bill Keller wants to reduce Social Security payouts, fine. But let's at least get our facts straight:

  1. For the purposes of Social Security, it doesn't matter how much overall life expectancy has changed since 1940. What matters is how much life expectancy has increased for those who turn 65. Answer: for men, it's gone up from 12.7 years to 17 years. That's an increase of 4.3 years. However, the retirement age has also gone up, from 65 to 67. That's an increase of two years. The truth is that retirement age has very nearly kept up with the increase in life expectancy since FDR's time.
  2. I'm not sure what this one means. If Keller means raising the cap on Social Security taxes, that would probably help. The share of earnings covered by Social Security used to be about 90%. Today it's fallen to 83%. If this were raised back to its old level, it would solve somewhere between a sixth and a third of Social Security's shortfall, depending on how and when it was phased in. However, Republicans are opposed to this since it would raise tax rates on the well-off.
  3. This is no mere "technical" fix. If you reduce Social Security's inflation calculation, then you're reducing Social Security payouts. It's exactly the same as just cutting benefits. Matt Yglesias explains this well here. It's also worth noting that if we truly think that "chained CPI" is a better measure of inflation than the one we use currently, then we should use chained CPI for all our inflation calculations. However, conservatives are opposed to this because it would it would affect the way tax brackets are calculated, which would effectively raise taxes on the rich. It's Republicans who are the problem here, not Democrats.

I don't want to pretend that Democrats are saints when it comes to entitlements. Generally speaking, though, there are a lot of Democrats who are open to the idea of a balanced set of Social Security reforms that cut benefits modestly and raise revenues. It's Republicans who are dead set against this: they want privatization or nothing. And they especially don't want anything that raises taxes on the rich. But without any hope of compromise, Democrats have little incentive to support unpopular entitlement changes on their own. They did this with Obamacare's Medicare reforms and got buried in Republican attack ads in 2010.

There's simply no real equivalency here. Sure, maybe Democrats should be a little more courageous about this stuff. But the real problem is Republicans. They just flatly reject compromise and promise to relentlessly attack Democrats if they do anything on their own. If you really want entitlement reform, it's not Democrats that should be your target. It's the GOP.

Corn on "Hardball": Romney's "Moonwalking Tour"

Mon Jul. 30, 2012 5:53 PM PDT

Mother Jones' David Corn and the Huffington Post's Howard Fineman join Chris Matthews on MSNBC's "Hardball" to discuss Mitt Romney's blunders in Israel and what they say about his skills as a foreign diplomat.

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

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Judge Upholds Arizona's Extreme Abortion Law

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 1:11 PM PDT

UPDATE: The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals granted the request for an emergency stay on Wednesday, blocking the law from going into effect for at least two months.

ORIGINAL POST: A judge in Arizona rejected a challenge to the state's new law banning abortions after the first 20 weeks of a pregnancy on Monday. The ruling is a setback for abortion rights groups who argued that the law was the most extreme new limit on women's access to abortion in the United States.

Over the past two years, eight states, including Arizona, have passed similar laws banning abortions after 20 weeks. But Arizona's law was the first that big, national reproductive rights groups like the Center for Reproductive Rights and the ACLU challenged in court. The groups argued on behalf of three Arizona doctors that the law stands counter to the previous US Supreme Court rulings that found that abortion should be legal until viability, which is typically sometime around 24 weeks into a pregnancy. Lawyers for the groups also pointed out that the Arizona law includes a very narrow exception, only allowing an abortion if the mother's life is in immediate danger.

The judge in the case, James Teilborg, argued that the law is not an outright ban on all abortions after 20 weeks, since it includes some exceptions. Teilborg ruled that the plaintiffs could not challenge the 20-week ban before it takes effect, but did not rule out a future challenge based on how the law ends up affecting specific women or doctors.

The plaintiffs say waiting until after the law in being enforced would essentially put the courts in charge of determining what medical care is necessary, rather than women or their doctors. "We will do everything we can to stop this law from going into effect," Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, told Mother Jones. The groups said they will file an appeal with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and seek an emergency stay to prevent the law from taking effect on August 2.

Afghan War Games: Computer Scientists Accurately Predict Attacks

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 12:35 PM PDT
A soldier wounded by a roadside bomb is evacuated from the Kandahar province

A military analyst hunches over a laptop. His screen flashes with real-time data of the war unfolding on the sands outside his base. The machine hums and then quickly spits out a color-coded map forecasting impending violence. Eyeing the contours, he radios a caravan of humvees and informs the soldiers that, according to the calculations, they will be ambushed in roughly twelve hours. The unit veers onto a bushwhacked road, lies in wait, and at the crack of dawn captures its would-be attackers without taking any injuries.

A sci-fi writer's napkin scribblings? Or a peek at the future? Well, according to research published earlier this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, such a scene might not be far off.

Drawing from the 77,000 confidential US military logs released in Wikileaks' Afghan War Diary, researchers compiled data tracking the activity of armed opposition groups (AOG) in Afghanistan between 2004 and 2009. They then used "spatiotemporal" statistics to model the intensity and location of future violence, down to the provincial level, through the end of 2010 (a year after the leaked data ends). A comparison of the results with safety reports from the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office showed that their predictions were strikingly accurate:    

"Personhood" Group Wants SCOTUS to Approve Oklahoma Ballot Measure

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 11:25 AM PDT

Personhood USA, the group behind multiple state-level measures to define life as beginning at conception, tried earlier this year to get a measure on the Oklahoma ballot that would grant fertilized eggs the same rights as adult humans. In April, the Oklahoma Supreme Court rejected the measure as "clearly unconstitutional." Now Personhood USA is asking the US Supreme Court to step in and allow its measure to appear on the ballot this November.

Keith Mason, President of Personhood USA, announced on Monday that his group is appealing to the Supreme Court. The group is "fighting for the rights of preborn children," said Mason, and believes that the Oklahoma Supreme Court unjustly denied their attempt to get a measure on the ballot.

So-called "personhood" measures are the most extreme form of anti-abortion legislation, as they would outlaw abortion at any point in a pregnancy for any reason and potentially ban the use of in-vitro fertilization and many types of contraception. "Personhood" measures failed in Colorado in 2008 and 2010, and in Mississippi last November. But the group has been busy working to get similar measures on the ballot in a number of other states around the country.

In its decision, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled the personhood ballot measure unconstitutional because it would deprive women of access to abortions the Supreme Court had previously found to be protected by the Constitution. The court sided with the Center for Reproductive Rights and the ACLU, which had challenged the ballot measure. But Steve Crampton, the general counsel for Liberty Counsel, which is representing Personhood USA in their appeal, argued in a call with reporters on Monday that the Oklahoma court ruled prematurely. He believes the justices should not have weighed in on the constitutionality of such a measure until after it passed. By blocking the ballot measure, the court denied the people of Oklahoma the right "to decide what the laws in their state should be," Crampton said.

An attempt to pass a personhood measure through the Oklahoma legislature failed in April. But anti-abortion lawmakers in the state are hoping that the public will be more enthusiastic about personhood—assuming they can get it on the ballot. "It's shocking the court would rule this way, and in particular because of the importance of protecting unborn children," Republican Rep. Mike Reynolds told reporters on Monday's conference call. "We believe children were created by God and they should have the opportunity to be born into a healthy, safe environment. That's what we intend on pursuing in Oklahoma."

Real Obama vs. Fantasy Obama

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 10:26 AM PDT

I've long had my issues with Drew Westen, and they're on striking display in an op-ed he wrote a few days ago for the Washington Post. He says Barack Obama made "three crucial errors" after he took office:

Obama’s first mistake was inviting the Republicans to the table. The GOP had just decimated the economy and had been repudiated by voters to such an extent that few Americans wanted to admit that they were registered Republicans. Yet Obama, with his penchant for unilateral bipartisanship, refused to speak ill of what they had done.

....The second mistake was squandering the goodwill that Americans felt toward the new president and their anxiety about an economy hemorrhaging three-quarters of a million jobs a month....Instead of designing a stimulus that reflected the thinking of the country’s best economic minds, he cut their recommended numbers by a third and turned another third into inert tax cuts designed to appease Republican legislators.

....The third way the administration created opportunities for Republican obstructionism will someday become a business-school case study: It let a popular idea — a family doctor for every family — be recast as a losing ideological battle between intrusive government and freedom. In the 2008 election, the American people were convinced that families should never have to choose between putting food on the table and taking the kids to the doctor. They were adamant that neither they nor their aging parents should have to choose between their medicine and their mortgage.

This kind of thing is intensely frustrating. I actually agree with Westen's broad point that Obama should have been more aggressive than he was. And yet, these three "errors" are so ahistorical that they make me crazy. First: Obama had to invite Republicans to the table. When he took office Democrats didn't have a filibuster-proof majority. Second: Obama couldn't get a bigger stimulus. The evidence on this score is voluminous. Whether he wanted a bigger stimulus is an open question, but it's also moot. He just didn't have the votes. Third: universal healthcare wasn't an especially popular idea and the American public was far from adamant that they wanted it. Oh, it polls decently in the abstract, getting roughly 60% support over the past decade, but that's nothing special. It's the worst kind of poll literalism to think this represents a genuine, intensely-held groundswell of support for national healthcare. In reality, it's a tenuous majority.

I really don't understand why people like Westen can't make their critiques of Obama's leadership in a way that takes into account obvious political realities. Not that it would be an easy critique. If you look at past presidents who made big changes, they were mostly surfing on waves that were already cresting: FDR and the New Deal, LBJ and civil rights, Reagan and taxes. Obama just didn't have that kind of wave to ride. It's an open question why he didn't have that — one that I tried to tackle here — but one way or another, he didn't. And while I think Obama has done a poor job as leader of his party, I say that tentatively. The fact is that modern presidents simply don't have the party leverage that some past presidents have had, and Obama in particular simply didn't have a big enough majority to get his way.

As it happens, I think Obama could have done better, and in particular he should have continued pushing for more stimulus in 2009 and 2010 in the form of jobs bills, housing legislation, and less pivoting to the deficit. Still, life in the White House is pretty difficult when you have to constantly concern yourself with getting a couple of Republican votes, or, at best, the 60th most liberal Democrat — especially when the 60th most liberal Democrat is a self-righteous showboat like Joe Lieberman or a Nebraska pol like Ben Nelson. Obama probably had leverage he could have used better, but if that's your criticism, then you need to explain exactly what he did wrong dealing with Congress, not whether he gave precisely the right kind of speeches.