2012 - %3, July

Mitt Romney Praises Socialized Health Care, As Long As It's Not American

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 12:31 PM EDT

Over the weekend, as I was watching Mitt Romney extol the virtues of Israel's entrepreneurial spirit, I tweeted sarcastically, "Wikipedia tells me that top marginal Israeli tax rate is 48% on income over $125,000. I wonder if Romney knows that?" Apparently not. Here's Romney at a fundraiser in Jerusalem on Monday:

Do you realize what health care spending is as a percentage of the G.D.P. in Israel? Eight percent. You spend eight percent of G.D.P. on health care. You’re a pretty healthy nation. We spend 18 percent of our G.D.P. on health care, 10 percentage points more…We have to find ways—not just to provide health care to more people, but to find ways to fund and manage our health care costs.

It kind of makes you wonder if Romney actually knows anything about Israel aside from the fact that they fight Arabs and Persians now and again. I mean, he does know that Israel has historically been a socialist state, right? And they have universal health care. ThinkProgress tweaks Romney by suggesting that he was praising a system that includes an individual mandate, but really, they're giving him too much credit. Yeah, there's a mandate, but it's a mandate to choose which of four free systems you want to sign up with. What Israel has isn't really a mandate in the same way Obamacare has a mandate, it's the full-blown lefty dream of free, universal healthcare funded through the tax system. Properly speaking, Romney ought to be appalled with their health care system.

And wouldn't that have been great? After visiting London and questioning whether they'd manage to pull off their Olympics, maybe he should have gone to Israel and chastised them for their socialist health care system. I'm not sure what that would leave for Poland, but I'm sure something will present itself. Maybe he could attend a concert and then muse afterward about how he's always thought Chopin was overrated.

POSTSCRIPT: By the way, speaking of Israel and health care, I heard an interesting story a few weeks ago. It turns out that among end-of-life patients in hospitals, CPR is essentially useless. In America, we don't care. When a patient goes into cardiac arrest, we call a code and rush to their bedside anyway. In Israel, they don't. They deliberately respond slowly, essentially letting the patient die if he or she is near death anyway. In other words, in Israel they really do have death panels.

I wonder if Romney knows that? Probably not. Also: I'd love to hear either confirmation or otherwise about this policy. Is this really common practice in Israeli hospitals? Or did I hear some kind of garbled old wives' tale?

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Berkeley Earth Project Says Carbon Dioxide is Cause of Global Warming

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 11:55 AM EDT

I promised to link to Richard Muller's latest climate change paper from the Berkeley BEST group when it was posted on Monday, and it's now Monday. So here it is. Previous BEST papers have confirmed dramatic global warming over the past century, and the new paper is mostly an attempt to figure out what caused the warming. The answer, unsurprisngly to most of us, is human activity:

Many of the changes in land-surface temperature follow a simple linear combination of volcanic forcing (based on estimates of stratospheric sulfate injection) and an anthropogenic term represented here by the logarithm of the CO2  concentration....When we included solar forcing we found that the solar variability record assumed by the IPCC did not contribute significantly to the fit of historic temperature.

....After accounting for volcanic and anthropogenic effects, the residual variability in land-surface temperature is observed to closely mirror and for slower changes slightly lead variations in the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation Index. This is consistent with both the land and North Atlantic responding [to] the same unknown process....Though non-trivial, this number is small compared to the anthropogenic changes that appear to have occurred during the last century.

In English, this means that (a) volcanoes cause short-term spikes in the climate record, (b) changes in solar activity have virtually no effect, and (c) periodic oscillation in North Atlantic sea temperatures accounts for some of the variability we see in the temperature record. However, the primary cause of warming since 1800 is anthropogenic. That is to say: humans did it. Carbon dioxide has produced virtually all of the warming that we see around us today, at the rate of about 3.1 degrees C for every doubling of atmospheric CO2. The chart below shows the close match between CO2 levels, volcanic activity, and surface temperature.

This is pretty much the same result produced by the IPCC and the consensus of every climate scientist working today. The skeptics dived into the data, crunched it in an entirely different way, and came up with the same result: Global warming is real and human activity causes it.

Why Hasn't Romney Moved More to the Center?

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 11:16 AM EDT

It's an old story. Republican presidential candidates move rightward to win the GOP primary (and Democrats move left). After securing the nomination, both Republicans and Democrats move back towards the center to appeal to the broader electorate. "Everything changes" in the general election, Eric Fehrnstrom, a top Romney adviser, said in March. "It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again." Yet so far, Romney's actual policy ideas haven't changed much at all. Sure, he's softened his tone on immigration. But he hasn't edged away from his previous proposals.

Perhaps the reason it seems that Romney hasn't moved more to the center is that he hasn't been particularly specific about what he would do as president. It's hard to be seen as changing your position if no one knows what your position is. But on some issues, at least, there seems to be some potential for Romney to pick up votes by moving towards the center. A recent survey by Public Policy Polling found that picking Condoleeza Rice, who has a reputation as a moderate on domestic policy and has described herself as "mildly pro-choice," as his running mate would be a "huge game changer," creating a tie in Pennsylvania and dramatically narrowing President Barack Obama's lead in Michigan. But Romney has run away from his moderate, pro-abortion rights, pro-health care reform record as governor of Massachusetts, and there is not yet a single significant domestic policy position that Romney has staked out in the general election that is significantly more centrist than the proposals he advocated in the Republican primary. How can that be?

There's no doubt that Romney has a reputation as someone who radically shifts his positions based on the political climate. His campaign may be wagering that tacking center will only reinforce that image. They also probably want to illustrate as large of a contrast with Obama as they can. But money might have something to do with it, too. Never before has a presidential candidate been so indebted to just a few major donors. Just seven families gave the pro-Romney super-PAC Restore Our Future $15 million of the $21 million it raised in June. Gambling billionaire Sheldon Adelson has already given eight figures to pro-Romney groups. Conservative millionaires and billionaires certainly want Romney to win, but they also want to keep him on the straight and narrow. Presidential nominees have always had to answer to party machers and big money donors. But campaign donations on this huge, post-Citizens United scale carries even larger obligations.

Has Aid to Afghanistan Been Wasted?

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 10:57 AM EDT

Rajiv Chandrasekaran reports on the latest from Afghanistan:

A U.S. initiative to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on construction projects in Afghanistan, originally pitched as a vital tool in the military campaign against the Taliban, is running so far behind schedule that it will not yield benefits until most U.S. combat forces have departed the country, according to a government inspection report to be released Monday.

The report, by the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, also concludes that the Afghan government will not have the money or skill to maintain many of the projects, creating an “expectations gap” among the population that could harm overall stabilization efforts.

....The latest report adds new weight to the argument — voiced by independent development specialists and even a few government officials — that the United States attempted to build too much in a country with limited means to assume responsibility for those projects.

I'm genuinely puzzled here. I thought this was a lesson we had learned by the 70s. Giant infrastructure projects that can't be maintained by the local workforce are not only useless, they're counterproductive. Aid needs to be provided on a scale that's sustainable locally. How is it that we seem to have forgotten this?

Notorious Astroturf Firm Nabbed Sending Forged Letters Has a New Name

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 10:51 AM EDT

Remember Bonner & Associates, the "grassroots" consulting firm that got busted in 2009 for sending forged letters to members of Congress claiming to be from local minority and senior citizen groups? Apparently they're back, with a new corporate identity.

The notorious astroturf shop has either rebranded or launched an offshoot: Advocacy to Win (A2W). Its website doesn't mention the Bonner connection, but the domain for A2W is registered to Jack Bonner, the president and namesake of Bonner & Associates. No one answered the phones at the numbers provided for Bonner or A2W on Friday, nor did anyone respond to emails sent to addresses at both organizations. A tipster, who used to work for Bonner, alerted us to A2W in an email: "The infamous Bonner & Associates has quietly changed their name—must be trying to hide from Google searches on your articles!"

The outfit, launched in 1984 by Jack Bonner, a former GOP senate aide, has good reason to want to wipe the slate clean. The group drew congressional scrutiny after it got caught sending forged faxes to the office of former Rep. Tom Perriello, a Democrat representing central Virginia, while the House was debating a climate change bill. The letters claimed to be from the Charlottesville branch of the NAACP and the Latino group Creciendo Juntos, but were signed with fake names. Later, two other members of Congress discovered that they, too, had received forged letters. At least 13 letters urging the lawmakers to vote against the climate bill were determined to be forgeries, claiming to come from groups like the American Association of University Women and the Erie Center on Health & Aging. It was soon revealed that the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), a coal industry front group, had contracted with a strategic communications firm known as the Hawthorn Group, which had in turn hired Bonner to generate "grassroots" opposition to the climate bill.

When the forgeries came to light, Bonner blamed a rogue temporary employee. But as documents released in the course of the ensuing congressional investigation and interviews with former staffers demonstrated, the firm's standard procedures relied on misleading people about the corporate interests behind Bonner's campaigns and hiring a fleet of temp workers who were paid according to the number of letters they generated. Back in 1997—well before the forged letter controversy—a Mother Jones investigation deemed Bonner & Associates "a leader in the growing field of fake grassroots." Perhaps A2W will one day earn such Astroturf acclaim.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 30, 2012

Mon Jul. 30, 2012 10:30 AM EDT

Canadian Army Warrant Officer Robby Fraser, a platoon warrant officer with Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, directs machine gun fire at a support by fire position during a platoon-size live-fire assault as part of Rim of the Pacific 2012. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Robert Bush.

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Scalia Take 2: The American Public is Pretty Smart After All -- Unless We're Talking About Supreme Court Hearings

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 9:39 AM EDT

A few days ago I scolded Antonin Scalia for his belief that Supreme Court hearings shouldn't be televised because the media would just play short snippets of the proceedings and Americans couldn't be trusted to figure out what was really going on. Here's Scalia:

If I really thought it would educate the American people, I would be all for it. If the American people sat down and watched our proceedings gavel to gavel [...] they would be educated. But they wouldn't see all of that. [C-SPAN] would carry it all, to be sure, but what most of the American people would see would be 30-second, 15-second takeouts from our argument, and those takeouts would not be characteristic of what we do. They would be uncharacteristic.

At the end of the post I wondered aloud whether Scalia was equally pessimistic about the public's ability to discern the truth in any other context. As it turns out, I didn't have to wonder for long. Reader JB sent me a clip from a different part of the same interview that answers this exact question. In this clip, Brian Lamb asks Scalia about campaign finance:

As a person, do you worry at all that there's too much money in politics?

No, I really don't....

But what about — people are worried that corporations now can buy....

If you believe that, we ought to go back to monarchy. That the people are such sheep, that they just swallow whatever they see on television or read in the newspapers? No. The premise of democracy is that people are intelligent and can discern the true from the false.

Italics mine. So that's that. When it comes to judging the policies of the legislative and executive branches, the public should be assumed intelligent enough to see through all the clamor and commotion and figure out what's going on. No paternalism here! But when it comes to the judicial branch, we should assume no such thing. Instead, we should carefully decide exactly what kind of access to give the public, lest the media and special interests appeal unfairly to their collective passions and leave the wrong impression of what the court is doing.

Personally, I'd say the case for a modest amount of paternalism is quite a bit stronger in the campaign finance arena than it is in the Supreme Court hearing arena, which is naturally insulated already from political and special interest influence. But apparently Scalia doesn't see it that way.

POSTSCRIPT: As long as I'm on the subject, I was surprised at how much pushback I got against the idea of televising Supreme Court hearings in the original Scalia thread. I know that we're in the middle of a presidential campaign, and in particular we're in the middle of a campaign in which Mitt Romney is rather spectacularly using 15-second TV clips to misrepresent his opponent. So it's natural to be disturbed about the misuse of televised snippets at the moment.

But as I said in comments, limiting exposure to public proceedings just because you don't like what the media will do with it is a very, very bad precedent. Transparency and access should be core liberal values even if we don't always like the results. It's one thing to restrict access because you think judges and lawyers will play to the cameras if they're on TV. That has some merit, even if, in the end, I don't find it compelling. But limiting access because you don't trust the media or the public with the information? Count me out.

Expert: Conservatives' Favorite Study on Same-Sex Parents Is "Bullshit"

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 8:55 AM EDT

Marriage equality opponents were overjoyed by a study released in June that purported to show that the children of same-sex parents end up worse off than those of straight parents.

Anti-gay rights conservatives claimed the study, which was funded by anti-gay rights groups and conducted by Mark Regnerus, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas-Austin, offered scientific backing for their argument that the government has a valid non-religious reason to prevent gays and lesbians from getting married. But Darren E. Sherkat, the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale sociology professor who audited the study on behalf of the academic journal Social Science Research, has bad news for marriage equality foes: The UT study is "bullshit." From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The peer-review process failed to identify significant, disqualifying problems with a controversial and widely publicized study that seemed to raise doubts about the parenting abilities of gay couples, according to an internal audit scheduled to appear in the November issue of the journal, Social Science Research, that published the study.

The highly critical audit, a draft of which was provided to The Chronicle by the journal’s editor, also cites conflicts of interest among the reviewers, and states that "scholars who should have known better failed to recuse themselves from the review process."

Among the significant problems cited in the Chronicle: "[O]nly two respondents lived with a lesbian couple for their entire childhoods, and most did not live with lesbian or gay parents for long periods, if at all." This flimsy methodology was the basis on which Regnerus concluded, defying decades of social science to the contrary, that being gay or lesbian makes you a worse parent. 

The UT study was never going to be a silver bullet anyway, since it would not be constitutional to say, ban marriage among poor people just because a study showed that they turned out less successful than the children of rich parents. But opponents of marriage equality who were hoping this study might provide a stong, non-religious argument against same-sex marriage ought to realize it doesn't.

Folk Singer Chris Smither's "Basic Simplicity"

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Chris Smither performs at New York's Highline Ballroom on Thursday, July 12.

Inside New York City's Highline Ballroom, a gaggle of musicians and techies throng around a folding table stacked with cold beer and sandwiches. Most wear loose-fitting traveling clothes; they've just gotten off the road from home base in Boston, finishing the first leg of a tour that will stretch well into next year. A tall figure in black pushes back his mane of hair, more grey than the room's average, and cuts a path through the crowd to a side room. 

"Usually I play solo, so I'm not used to taking care of everybody," he says, closing the door behind us.

Chris Smither has been in and out of rooms like this for nearly half a century, but he's still getting used to bringing a band this size along with him. A singer-songwriter who points to the stripped-down styles of Lightnin' Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt as major influences, Smither says it's taken until recently to feel comfortable touring with a full backing band like the one on his twelfth studio album, last month's Hundred Dollar Valentine.

Smither, now 68, rose to prominence in the early '70s as a solo artist with an ear for a unique interweaving of Cambridge folk sensibilities with Delta blues technique, thumping bass lines on the low strings while plucking melodies on the high strings, tapping time with his foot, and singing in a voice with a low end that cuts like the edge of a broken whiskey bottle. He was never one to shun a little good sonic company, forging lifelong partnerships with the likes of Bonnie Raitt and Dr. John, but the arrangements on Hundred Dollar Valentine are thicker than usual, with a full complement of electric guitar, backing vocals, harmonica, bass, and drums on nearly every tune.

"I've found sympathetic ears" in this band, he says. "People who like my music for the right reasons, by which I mean my reasons." He laughs, as he does between nearly every sentence, and the creases in his face seem to make his eyes sink even farther back in his head. He's relaxed and comfortable, and still is an hour later in the spotlight. On stage he seems hardly to notice the musicians behind him. There's no conducting; they can keep up with the train or fall off. Smither's foot will still be tapping either way.

Is the Natural Gas Industry Buying Academics?

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Last week the University of Texas provost announced he would reexamine a report by a UT professor that said fracking was safe for groundwater after the revelation that the professor pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars from a Texas natural gas developer. It's the latest fusillade in the ongoing battle over the basic facts of fracking in America.

Texans aren't the only ones having their fracking conversations shaped by industry-funded research. Ohioans got their first taste last week of the latest public-relations campaign by the energy policy wing of the US Chamber of Commerce. It's called "Shale Works for US," and it aims to spend millions on advertising and public events to sell Ohioans on the idea that fracking is a surefire way to yank the state out of recession.

The campaign is loaded with rosy employment statistics, which can be traced to an April report authored by professors at three major Ohio universities and funded by, you guessed it, the natural gas industry. The report paints a bright future for fracking in Ohio as a job creator.

One coauthor of the study, Robert Chase, is prominent enough within the state's natural gas universe that his case was recently taken up by the Ohio Ethics Commission, whose chairman called Chase "more than a passing participant in the operations of the Ohio oil and gas industry" and questioned his potential conflicts of interest. As landowners in natural-gas-rich states like Texas and Ohio struggle to decipher conflicting reports about the safety of fracking, Chase is a piece in what environmental and academic watchdogs call a growing puzzle of industry-funded fracking research with poor disclosure and dubious objectivity.

"It's hard to find someone who's truly independent and doesn't have at least one iron in the fire," said Ohio oil and gas lease attorney Mark F. Okey. "It's a good ol' boys network and they like to take care of their own." 

"It's a good ol' boys network and they like to take care of their own."

Chase got his petroleum engineering Ph.D. from Penn State University. In 2009, long after Chase left the university, it came under fire for a fracking report, widely cited by state politicians as evidence for opening up the fracking market, which an in-house investigator said "crossed the line between policy analysis and policy advocacy." Early in his career, Chase worked as a consultant for many of the nation's biggest oil and gas developers, including Halliburton, Cabot, and EQT. In 1978 he began teaching petroleum engineering at Marietta College, the small Ohio liberal arts school where he remains on faculty today. In 2008, Ohio's then-Gov. Ted Strickland appointed him to the Ohio Oil & Gas Commission, an independent judiciary board that hears complaints from landowners and developers against the state's Division of Mineral Resources Management. And last year, he founded his own consultancy, Chaseland LLC, that helps connect landowners with gas companies seeking drilling rights, for which Chase collects a commission.