2012 - %3, September

Duckworth Blasts GOP as AWOL on Afghanistan

| Wed Sep. 5, 2012 6:42 PM EDT

Four years ago, the Republican party was celebrating the military service and foreign policy credentials of its presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain. But last week in Tampa, the United States' overseas excursions were that which must not be named. Mitt Romney made no mention of Iraq or Afghanistan, and with the exception of an appearance on stage by a group of disabled veterans, there was virtually no mention of the hundreds and thousands of veterans of post-9/11 conflicts. That has Illinois House candidate Tammy Duckworth (D) fired up.

"This is about a party that wants to lead this country, and Mitt Romney who wants to be the commander in chief and yet he couldn't even remember to talk about military men or women or our veterans," said the Iraq War veteran—and double amputee—in an interview with Mother Jones on Wednesday. "And this is the same guy who during the Republican presidential primaries called for an invasion of Iran. So it's very typical to sit there and say you're gonna use military forces, but then you don't actually acknowledge the men and women who have to bleed for this nation? The least he could have done is talk about Afghanistan and the work that needs to be done. He could have at least confirmed the covenant that we have to keep with our veterans, and he didn't do any of that."

"They say they support our veterans, and yet I don't see the actions that back up what they're saying," she added. "Instead they talk about everything else and we have men and women dying right now."

Duckworth, who narrowly lost her first House bid in 2006, has reason to be on edge: Her Republican opponent, tea party Rep. Joe Walsh, recently criticized her for discussing her military service on the stump, charging that a "true hero" wouldn't need to talk up her record.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Explicitly Fake Science Book Banned in Texas School District

| Wed Sep. 5, 2012 3:59 PM EDT

Texas has a bad reputation for pushing bogus claims and avoiding inconvenient science in its text books. But now it's getting attention for actively trying to ban a Daily Show-esque book about fake science from a Houston school.

Phil Edwards is the author of Fake Science 101. The book, released on August 15, came out of a Tumblr account that Edwards created two years ago. He dubs it "a less-than-factual guide to our amazing world," and says it was inspired by his realization that he didn't actually know how many things in the world worked—why we get scabs, for example, or how a cell phone tower works. A writer who studied English and history in college, he told Mother Jones he started the blog because he "thought it would be interesting to explain some of that stuff without the burden of the facts."

It has chapters like "Chemistry: Blowing Things Up With Science." Among other things, it claims that decaffeinated coffee is made from the dirt the actual coffee plant is grown in and includes cave drawings of the "first cave talk show." Edwards says he was a bit surprised to learn that some teachers have been using stuff from his blog to start class lessons about the scientific method and critical thinking. "Teachers will frequently use it as a lame teacher joke to start the conversation," he said.

But apparently the Houston School District doesn't get the joke. The Houston Press reported recently that a teacher requested a copy of the book for class, but was rebuked by the district. "A book like that may be intended humorously, but it is mocking the quality of education in our district," said a memo sent to teachers. "We cannot have our district ridiculed as a non-scientific one."

This is extra-funny, given the loose grasp on science in the state of Texas. But I guess I can see why the Houston district might be a little touchy about the whole thing. Edwards says the book wasn't intended to be political in any way. "It's mostly silly," he said. "That's the main message of the book."

The flap in Texas (which made Huffington Post and Gawker) has helped him sell more copies of the book, Edwards reports.

Fake Science 101Fake Science 101

Fewer Former Gitmo Detainees "Returning to Terrorism" Under Obama

| Wed Sep. 5, 2012 3:54 PM EDT
A US National Guard member guards the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

The number of former Guantanamo detainees suspected of involvement in terrorist activity following their release from the detention camp has plummeted since President Obama took office, according to a new report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The report notes that, since 2002, 15.8 percent of former Gitmo detainees are "confirmed" as having "returned to terrorist activity," while 12.1 percent are "suspected" of engaging in terrorism. During the Bush administration, the confirmed and suspected numbers were 17.3 and 13.5 percent, respectively. The Gitmo "reengagement" rate fell dramatically under the Obama administration, with only 4.3 percent confirmed and 1.4 percent suspected of "reengaging" in terrorism-related activities.

Source: Mother Jones

There are two factors that may explain the drop: When Obama took office, his administration discovered that its predecessor lacked "comprehensive case files" on the detainees held at Gitmo. The administration convened a task force to examine all the detainee cases at Gitmo shortly after the president took office, so the government may now have a better idea of who the detainees are and what their connection to terrorism might be (if any). Congressional restrictions on detainee transfers, imposed since the 2010 lame duck session, have also made it increaslngly difficult to release or transfer detainees out of Gitmo under any conditions. More than 500 detainees were transferred (but not necessarily released) out of Gitmo under the Bush administration, compared to 70 under Obama. The "reengagement rate" reported by the DNI is far lower than the one established in controversial report by the House Armed Services Committee last year, which pegged the rate at 27 percent. That report, which House Democrats criticized as flawed, conflated "suspected" and "confirmed" cases. 

Source: Mother Jones

The numbers are already fairly low when you consider that US prisons have close to a two-thirds recidivism rate. But the government's definitions of "confirmed" and "suspected" are somewhat loose as well. Ex-detainees are "confirmed" of involvement in terrorist activity based on whether the government deems that "a preponderance of information" shows they were "directly involved in terrorist or insurgent activity." To make the "suspected" list, all the government requires is "plausible but unverified or single-source reporting." The definition of "reengagement" is itself problematic, since very few detainees at Gitmo have been convicted of a crime in any venue, military or civilian. 

Democrats reiterated their intention to close Gitmo in their 2012 platform, but they currently don't have the votes to do it (and they didn't take action when they did have the votes). Republicans have successfully leveraged the fear of terrorists escaping from domestic prisons, making the politics of closing Gitmo toxic. So even in an age of austerity, with a low "reengagement" rate, Gtimo, which costs $800,000 a year per detainee, will almost certainly remain open. 

Attack of the Brain-Eating Amoebas!

| Wed Sep. 5, 2012 3:10 PM EDT

If hantavirus wasn't enough to freak you out, the Associated Press reported on Tuesday that the autopsy report for a 30-year-old man in southwestern Indiana indicates that a brain-eating amoeba was responsible for his death. If confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this would be the fourth death this year from primary amebic meningoencephalitis, which is caused by a parasite known as Naegleria fowleri

Naegleria fowleri is a single-celled living organism that lives in warm, fresh water, according to the CDC. (It's not actually an amoeba, despite the colloquial term for it.) It can travel up your nose while swimming in a lake or stream, multiply, and proceed to eat your brain. It has a 99 percent fatality rate, since only one person in the United States has ever been documented surviving the infection. (There have also been several incidents in the US in recent years of people getting the parasite from using a neti pot.) 

Still, it's a rare occurrence—between 2002 and 2011, there were only 32 infections in the US. Four deaths in a year is well within the recent average.

But as the CDC points out, the organism "grows best at higher temperatures." That might be a good reason to worry about whether higher temperatures caused by climate change will make it worse, as a CDC scientist warned a few years ago:

"This is definitely something we need to track," said Michael Beach, a specialist in recreational waterborne illnesses for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"This is a heat-loving amoeba. As water temperatures go up, it does better," Beach said. "In future decades, as temperatures rise, we'd expect to see more cases."

The CDC notes that "assessing the potential for climate-related changes to the geographical range of the organism and associated infections" is one of the areas the agency is working on.

CDC CDC 

A Tennessee Case Study in Defunding Planned Parenthood

| Wed Sep. 5, 2012 1:39 PM EDT

In November 2011, officials in Shelby County, Tennessee decided to defund its local Planned Parenthood, taking away the $397,000 in state funding to the Memphis chapter. The Obama administration responded in July 2012 by awarding family planning funds directly to Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis, but it's worth noting what happened to all that state money that didn't go to Planned Parenthood in the meantime.

Local officials decided that instead of giving that Title X money to Planned Parenthood for health screenings, STD tests, and birth control, they'd instead give it to Christ Community Health Services, a religious organization that refuses to provide abortions or refer women to others who would provide them. The organization also does not offer emergency contraception, and is reportedly looking to expand to create more "crisis pregnancy clinics" that offer "counselors who can discuss adoption and other life-affirming options" with women.

But it turns out that Christ Community Health Services has not been nearly as efficient at using Title X funds to provide family planning services, reports the Memphis Flyer (via Women's Health News). Between July 2011 and June 2012, more than $500,000 of the $1.3 million grant the county received was not used at all. Hannah Sayle reports that Christ Community Health Services was averaging just 51 Title X visits per month in early 2012, compared to Planned Parenthood's 841 visits in August 2011.

Here's how the county health department tried to explain the issue:

Last year, in what Yvonne Madlock, director of the county health department, has called "a year of essentially transition," Title X funding was diverted from longtime Title X family-planning provider Planned Parenthood to Christ Community Health Services.
The result was a drastically reduced number of Title X patient visits in Shelby County. Christ Community, which Madlock says was busy transitioning to its new role as the Title X service provider, did not sign the Title X contract until March, five months after the contract was awarded. In the meantime, the number of Title X patient visits to Christ Community dropped, while the health department maintained its usual number of Title X visits.
"I think all of us had some gearing up to do in order to be able to create the level of staff available to provide the services and communication with the community as to where services are available," Madlock said. "Change takes time. Systems have to ramp up."

As Women's Health News points out, this is becoming a great case study in what happens when governments decide to reallocate family planning funds to groups that aren't really all that interested in family planning.

Deval Patrick Tells Liberals Obama's Been a Pretty Damn Good President

| Wed Sep. 5, 2012 1:23 PM EDT

I didn't catch Deval Patrick's speech last night, but I'm reliably informed that it was a barnburner. And like Michelle Obama, he very directly addressed liberals who feel disappointed in Obama's first term and unmotivated to work hard for his reelection:

If we want to win elections in November and keep our country moving forward, if we want to earn the privilege to lead, my message is this: it's time for Democrats to grow a backbone and stand up for what we believe. Quit waiting for pundits or polls or super PACs to tell us who the next president or senator or congressman is going to be. We're Americans. We shape our own future.

Let's all start by standing up for President Barack Obama. This is the president who delivered the security of affordable health care to every single American in every corner of this country after 90 years of trying. This is the president who brought Osama bin Laden to justice, who ended the war in Iraq, and is ending the war in Afghanistan. This is the president who ended "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" so that love of country, not love of another, determines fitness for service. Who made equal pay for equal work the law of the land. This is the president who saved the American auto industry from extinction, the American financial industry from self-destruction, the American economy from full-blown depression. Who added 4.5 million private sector jobs in the last two-and-a-half years, more than in George Bush's eight years in office.

The list of accomplishments is long, impressive and barely told—and even more impressive when you consider that congressional Republicans have made obstruction itself the centerpiece of their governing strategy. With a record like that and a vision that hopeful and powerful, I for one will not stand by and let him be bullied out of office—and neither should you.

It's true: by ordinary human standards, as opposed to the weird celestial standards some liberals measure him by, Obama has had a damn impressive presidency. Frankly, Republicans whose heads have exploded over Obama's supposed radicalism are probably closer to the truth than disaffected liberals who think it's all been a bunch of meh and that a second term will just be more meh. What's more, there's the flip side of this: even if you think a second Obama term wouldn't accomplish much, a first Romney term almost certainly would. Here are a few examples:

  • Obamacare will be effectively repealed.
  • Tax rates will be lowered. Offsetting closure of loopholes will probably never happen, which means the deficit will increase.
  • A fifth conservative might very well be appointed to the Supreme Court, dooming Roe v. Wade at exactly the time that Republican-dominated states have become feverishly committed to banning abortion completely.
  • National security policy probably won't change much. Romney will continue Obama's policies just as Obama continued Bush's.
  • Social spending will be cut substantially. This can be done via reconciliation, so all it requires is 50 votes in the Senate, which Romney has a good chance of getting.
  • "Drill, baby, drill" will become the official energy policy of the United States.

If DADT repeal, passage of ACA, financial reform, killing Osama, saving the auto industry, and all the rest aren't enough to get liberals excited — and if they're still not enough in the face of what a Romney presidency would almost certainly bring us — then I'm stumped. You're living in some fantasy world of wishes and ponies that I'm not familiar with. Here in the real world, that's a helluva record and a helluva contrast.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

VIDEO: The 5 Most Comically Bad Anti-Gay Ads, Ever

| Wed Sep. 5, 2012 1:17 PM EDT

There are political ads that attack candidates. There are ads that attack candidates' policies. There are even ads that attack candidates' health problems. But beneath that subterranean level is another class of ads: those that throw lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender voters under the bus. And regardless of how you feel about gay marriage, these kinds of ads hit rock bottom for an entirely different reason. They flunk acting, screenwriting, stage direction, and costume design 101. Here are five of the worst offenders:

1. "That's Not the Change I Voted For"

          

Sponsor: Campaign for American Values PAC (2012)

The Fail: The ominous jars of animal crackers, the old-timey "I just lost my job in a Lucille Ball comedy" music, the furrowed brows, the mysteriously awkward sentence cadences, and the completely false premise that these people actually voted for President Obama in 2008. 

2. "I'm Confused"

          

Sponsor: National Organization for Marriage (2009)

The Fail: Using small children to spout political views, excess blush, the fact that something or someone (the director?) has managed to inspire real, tangible terror in the smallest children, and saying "Our kids will be taught a new way of thinking!" like it's a bad thing.

3. "Boys Beware"

          

Sponsor: The Inglewood, California, Police Department and School District (1961) 

The Fail: Comparing homosexuality to smallpox, equating it with pedophilia, general fear-mongering, creepy facial hair, and the fact that our main character (Jimmy) vanishes at the end of the film, never to be seen or heard from again. 

4. "War on Religion"

          

Sponsor: Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas) (2011)

The Fail: Since when can't kids openly celebrate Christmas? And what does this have to do with Don't Ask Don't Tell? Also, someone has to say it: The rough-and-ready governor's Carhartt-style wardrobe is straight off the set of Brokeback Mountain.

5. "A Storm is Coming"

          

Sponsor: National Organization for Marriage (2009) 

Fail: What NOM had in quantity, it lacked in quality: special effects stolen from a Final Cut Pro tutorial, people photoshopped in front of said special effects, costumes from the J. Crew bargain bin, fake-sounding foreign accents, and a complete and total inversion of logic. Oh, and spiky-hair lady: How does gay marriage affect the way you live, anyway?

On the plus side, though, that NOM effort led to this great Futurama spoof ad:

6. BONUS: "Vote NO on robosexual marriage"

Blame Germany for European Austerity Measures, Not Mario Draghi

| Wed Sep. 5, 2012 12:28 PM EDT

Mario Draghi, head of the European Central Bank, has apparently decided to shore up Europe's weak peripheral economies (Italy, Spain, Portugal) via large-scale purchases of their bonds. This should help to restore investor confidence, prevent interest rates from spiraling out of control, and keep debt service levels tolerable in the affected countries. Dylan Matthews explains more:

Draghi is announcing his next move tomorrow, and sources inside the ECB say he’ll buy up unlimited amounts of Spanish and Italian debt. But there are catches....The biggest catch [] is that Draghi won’t buy up debt from countries that don’t abide by the euro zone’s new budget rules, which limit deficits to 3 percent of GDP, and “structural” deficits (that is, those not caused by lackluster growth) to 0.5 percent, or 1 percent for countries with a small debt burden. If states don’t meet those standards after he’s bought their debt, he’ll sell it. To be blunt: Spain is not going to meet those standards. This year, it’s on track for a 6.3 percent of GDP deficit, almost double the target. It must either start growing much faster, or institute draconian austerity measures that will cripple growth.

Matt Yglesias is not amused:

What the ECB is doing, in essence, is setting itself up as the shadow government of Italy, Spain, Portugal, and perhaps Ireland. If the governments of those countries do what Draghi wants, Draghi will provide them with generous subsidy. If the governments of those countries don't do what Draghi wants, he'll use a monetary laser to destroy their budgets. Fear will keep the peripheral states in line.

True enough. My only disagreement here is with the assumption that this is Draghi's doing. The ECB is nominally independent, but in reality everyone knows that it lives and dies on sufferance of the German government. Draghi's policy came about only after a great deal of backroom horsetrading, with the Germans eventually agreeing to it — or at least agreeing not to oppose it too strongly — only on condition that the target countries meet their austerity targets. This is indeed self-destructive, but if I had to guess, the real people to blame for this are Angela Merkel and Jens Weidmann, not Mario Draghi.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 5, 2012

Wed Sep. 5, 2012 12:02 PM EDT

Marines with Scout Sniper Platoon, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, Regimental Combat Team 6 exit a compound in Agha Ahmad, Afghanistan, Aug. 27, 2012.
U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Ed Galo.

Making Money the Old-Fashioned Way: By Looting It

| Wed Sep. 5, 2012 10:53 AM EDT

Matt Taibbi has a big cover story in the current issue of Rolling Stone that's all about the Bain Capital business model. As you might guess, Taibbi is a wee bit critical. Dan Primack offers an assessment of Taibbi's piece here, and spends a few words responding to Taibbi's disgust with "dividend recaps":

TAIBBI: In the Bain model, the actual turnaround isn't necessary. It's just a cover story. It's nice for the private equity firm if it happens, because it makes the acquired company more attractive for resale or an IPO. But it's mostly irrelevant to the success of the takeover model, where huge cash returns are extracted whether the captured firm thrives or not.

PRIMACK: This just isn't true. The reference here is to dividend recaps, a noxious private equity practice through which firms can actually generate profits off of investments in portfolio companies that later go bankrupt. But the reality is that, for the most part, dividend recaps alone do not generate the types of returns that bring limited partners back for follow-on funds. Moreover, too many post-recap failures and banks are unlikely to make new loans to fund a private equity firm's future deals (original LBOs or recaps). In other words, the more legitimate wins matter, so long as the private equity firm wants to stick around.

I would very much like for someone to devote an entire deep dive to this specific issue. Dividend recaps, which Primack agrees are "noxious," are basically a way for private equity firms to suck money out of a company long before they're turned it around. Basically, they force the target firm to take on a huge debt load (sometimes more than once) and then use a chunk of the borrowed money to pay dividends back to the private equity investors. Bain Capital did this fairly aggressively in at least a few cases, which allowed them to avoid big losses even on companies that eventually failed.

I think that Primack's criticism of Taibbi is basically right: dividend recaps aren't the primary way that PE firms make money from the companies they take over. The bulk of their profits come from successful turnarounds. At the same time, I suspect that Primack is underplaying the important of dividend recaps. What they do is limit losses on failed acquisitions. If you buy ten companies, and end up with five successes and five failures, you'll make money, but perhaps not spectacular amounts of money. However, if you buy ten companies and end up with five successes and five breakevens, thanks to the dividends you extracted from the target firms, your rate of return will be a lot higher. It might be the difference between a 10% rate of return and a 30% rate of return.

At least, that's my sense of things. But I'd love for someone to write a really detailed piece about this, with particular attention to how aggressively Bain Capital engaged in dividend recaps and how critical they've been to its success. This Reuters piece from January is a start, but it's only about one particular deal. It would be interesting to know just how widespread this practice was and how big a difference it made to Bain's bottom line.