2012 - %3, October

5 Debate Questions for Obama on Libya

| Wed Oct. 3, 2012 8:47 AM EDT
A US honor guard accompanies the remains of the four Americans slain in Benghazi on 9/11/2012.

In the weeks since an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killed four Americans, including US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, the explanation for what happened has shifted. Initially, the Obama administration said the incident was a spontaneous protest reacting to an anti-Muslim video to referring to the incident as preplanned. On October 2, however, the Daily Beast's Eli Lake reported on a letter from Republicans on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that claimed the US consulate had been bombed twice prior to the September 11 attack, and that US officials had requested more security but had been denied. Here are a few questions debate moderators should consider asking the president as he faces off with Republican candidate Mitt Romney in the first 2012 presidential debate in Denver on Wednesday. 

1. Did US officials in Benghazi request increased security prior to the September 11 attack on the consulate, as Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif) and Mike Chaffetz (R-Utah) allege in their letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton? If so, was it refused and why?

2. Why did your administration initially believe the attack had been spontaneous rather than pre-planned?

3. Your administration has applied the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force to justify strikes against groups affiliated with Al Qaeda that did not exist on 9/11. Does the AUMF and its "reaffirmation" in the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act apply to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or any of the militant groups operating in Libya? If so, does this mean we are again at war in Libya?

4. If the United States discovers who was involved in the attack, will the US military act unilaterally to kill or capture them? If so, does your administration fear that unilateral US action will sap the goodwill towards the United States and antipathy towards the militias expressed by Libyan citizens since the attack?

5. If the perpetrators of the Benghazi attack are captured during your presidency, either by Libyan or US forces, will they be tried in federal court in the United States?

I wouldn't be surprised if Libya comes up during the debates. But given the serious issues involved, the moderators should ask substantive questions rather than relying on unverifiable nonsense about "projecting weakness."

Update: Yes, I understand that the first debate is meant to be focused on domestic policy. However, the moderator, PBS Newshour's Jim Lehrer, stated in September that the topics were "Subject to possible changes because of news developments."

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VIDEO: What's Inside Your iPhone 5?

| Wed Oct. 3, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

The iPhone has become one of the developed world's most ubiquitous consumer products; the new iPhone 5 sold more than 5 million units in its first week. But the vast majority of iPhone users have no clue what goes into the guts of their coveted toy. That's no accident, since the phone's internal design and chemical content are closely guarded trade secrets and Apple deliberately makes it difficult for consumers to open up the device.

Enter Kyle Wiens, whose company, iFixit, aims to help users penetrate their gadgets' dark secrets, from how much toxic mercury they contain to how to change the damn battery. Last week, Climate Desk found shelter from a torrential rainstorm near one of New York City's Apple stores and watched Wiens go to work (see video above). Today, iFixit released the results of its chemical analysis of the iPhone 5 and a suite of other popular cellphones, conducted by the environmental nonprofit Ecology Center.

The good news: The iPhone 5 is far less toxic than the early models. The bad news: There's no such thing as a "green" phone.

First the good news: The iPhone 5 is leagues ahead of its more toxic predecessors—especially the original, 2G model. (The worst overall performers—most toxic first—were the iPhone 2G, Palm m125, Motorola MOTO W233 Renew, Nokia M95, BlackBerry Storm 9530, and Palm Treo 750.) The latest iPhone performed better on the toxins front than most rival models, including Samsung's Galaxy S III, and was only narrowly beaten out by the least-toxic phone examined, the Motorola Citrus.

Now the bad news: The iPhone 5 still tests high for mercury and chlorine, both of which can present serious health hazards if they leach into local water supplies from a dump somewhere—typically in a poor area of China, Ghana, or India. It also contained trace amounts of bromine, which has been linked to thyroid cancer and lung disease. "There's no such thing as a 'green' phone," Wiens points out. "There's no such thing as a phone that has no toxic chemicals."

iFixit.comiFixit.comStill, the new iPhone looks great compared with its original progenitor, which contained an astonishing 1,020 times more bromine and 97 times more mercury than the current model, according to iFixit. But the point of all of this is less about any one phone's chemical components, and more about the need to curb our addiction to throwing away phones that could be fixed rather than dumped. "It's critically important to consume as few phones as possible, to conserve the resources we have," Wiens says.

To see how iFixit helps make that happen, Mother Jones contributor Dashka Slater visited the company bat cave and came back with this great new profile.

 

59 Members of Congress Get An "F" on First-Ever Inequality Report Card

| Wed Oct. 3, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Forty eight representatives and 11 senators earn an "F" on a new report card that ranks lawmakers based on how well they address income inequality. All of the failing grades went to Republicans.

The "Inequality Report Card," published today by the Institute for Policy Studies, looks at how lawmakers voted on dozens of bills that would, among other things, raise taxes on the wealthy, restrict the use of offshore tax havens, increase the minimum wage, and strengthen labor unions. The report gives the worst combined grade to Arkansas' congressional delegation and the best to Vermont's. Too bad Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist, isn't as exportable as Bill Clinton.

None of the senators earning an "F" grade come from the nation's five most equal states.

Lawmakers' scores on the report card correlate loosely with how much income inequality exists in their home states. California and New York rank among the highest for income inequality but employ lawmakers that earn, on average, a B- for their friendliness to the middle class. None of the senators earning an "F" grade come from the nation's five most equal states.

The report also looked at whether rich members of Congress tend to favor the 1 percent, but it seems that their votes depend more on party than pocketbook. The 10 wealthiest Democrats earned grades ranging from a "B" to "A." The best grade earned by a wealthy Republican was a C-minus.

How GMOs Unleashed a Pesticide Gusher

| Wed Oct. 3, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

For years, proponents of genetically modified crops have hailed them as a critical tool for weaning farmers from reliance on toxic pesticides. On its website, the GMO-seed-and-agrichemical giant Monsanto makes the green case for its Roundup Ready crops, engineered to withstand the company's own blockbuster herbicide, Roundup:

Roundup agricultural herbicides and other products are used to sustainably an [sic] effectively control weeds on the farm. Their use on Roundup Ready crops has allowed farmers to conserve fuel, reduce tillage and decrease the overall use of herbicides. [Emphasis added.]

But in a just-released paper published in the peer-reviewed Environmental Sciences Europe, Chuck Benbrook, research professor at Washington State University's Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, shreds that claim. He found that Monsanto's Roundup Ready technology, which dominates corn, soy, and cotton farming, has called forth a veritable monsoon of herbicides, both in terms of higher application rates for Roundup, and, in recent years, growing use of other, more-toxic herbicides.

America's Most Ineffectual Billionaire

| Tue Oct. 2, 2012 11:22 PM EDT

Michael Hiltzik writes today about who's really the most important moneybags in contemporary American politics:

The most influential billionaire in America is Peter G. Peterson. The son of Greek immigrants, Peterson, 86, served as Commerce secretary under President Nixon, then became chairman and chief executive of Lehman Bros. Subsequently, he made his big money as co-founder of the Wall Street private equity firm Blackstone Group.

....Peterson's views are subtly infiltrating the Washington debate — which is why Americans should start getting worried about him. He isn't content merely to express concern about the federal deficit. His particular targets are Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which he calls "entitlement" programs and which he wants to cut back in a manner that would strike deeply at the middle class.

Actually, I'd offer a different perspective on this, one that I'm reminded of because a few days ago I happened to receive a copy of Robert Ball's book about the Greenspan Social Security Commission. The year is 1983, and here's an excerpt from a section about the PR aspect of his job on the commission:

I encouraged Alicia Munnell [...] to write on what to do about Social Security and what not to do, particularly to rebut Wall Street banker Peter G. Peterson, then as now a strident critic of the program and an unrelenting prophet of demographic doom.

In other words, Peterson has been a prophet of doom for 30 years now, and so far his actual influence on Social Security has been approximately....zero. The 1983 commission didn't pay any attention to him, Bill Clinton didn't pay any attention to him, and the 2005 attempt to privatize Social Security failed utterly. His influence on the federal deficit has likewise been approximately zero, and his influence on Medicare has been, if anything, even less. He wears nicer clothes, but he's basically had about as much impact as your average curmudgeon holding forth on a soapbox in Hyde Park Corner.

There are, of course, plenty of people who say they hate the deficit and plenty of people who have it in for Social Security and Medicare. It's just that most of them are tea party Republicans who adopt these positions when they're politically convenient and drop them when they aren't. Pete Peterson had almost nothing to do with it, and his influence within the tea party movement is pretty much nonexistent. He's had a bit more influence with the centrist Washington Post-ish crowd, but frankly, even there it's not at all clear to me that their opinions owe much to Peterson. This stuff is in their DNA.

I could be wrong, I suppose. Certainly Peterson has kept up a steady drumbeat of background noise about entitlement programs, and that kind of thing always sinks in at least a little bit. But he's never built up a serious political constituency, the way that folks like Grover Norquist and Karl Rove have, and the Beltway elites who take his money and cite his white papers are mostly people who already agree with him anyway.

Still, maybe this is his moment. Maybe after 30 years of futile effort, the current political atmosphere is finally providing him with a willing audience for his message. Maybe he's finally going to make a difference. But I kinda doubt it. Despite his money, he's just not a player. In fact, far from being America's most influential billionaire, Pete Peterson might well be the guy who's wasted more money on political causes than any other billionaire in history.

News Coverage of Debates Matters More Than the Debates Themselves

| Tue Oct. 2, 2012 8:05 PM EDT

John Sides passes along this chart from a piece of research that Kim Fridkin did after one of the 2004 debates between John Kerry and George Bush. I've reconstructed it to make it prettier (we're all about the aesthetics here), but the results are the same no matter what the chart looks like. Test subjects who just watched the debate itself thought Kerry won in a landslide. Test subjects who watched the debate plus 20 minutes of analysis on NBC thought Bush won in a landslide. And test subjects who watched the debate plus 20 minutes of CNN commentary were more likely to think that neither candidate won. Obviously public perception of a debate can depend pretty heavily on the spin given to it afterward by the news coverage.

Likewise, as Sides says, Gerald Ford's famous "Poland gaffe" didn't even register with viewers until the next day, after the media had gotten hold of it. And Al Gore handily won his first 2000 debate with George Bush in every single overnight poll. His famous sighing only became a cause célèbre after the talking heads started talking about it nonstop.

This is why I always try to write up my thoughts on debates and speeches without listening to any commentary first. If I don't, it's nearly impossible to disentangle my own thoughts from those I've heard from the TV commentators. That way lies groupthink.

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Mitt Romney's Math Becomes Even Harder

| Tue Oct. 2, 2012 4:34 PM EDT

A few days ago I suggested that if Mitt Romney wasn't willing to tell us which tax deductions he'd eliminate to make up for his across-the-board tax rate cuts, somebody should at least ask him if there were any deductions that were off the table. Today, Paul Ryan answered exactly that question after a woman at a town hall event told him she was frustrated by his lack of specifics:

RYAN: If you subject more of their income to taxation — more of their income is taxed — and that allows us to lower revenues for everybody across the board. That means middle class taxpayers have lower tax rates, and there’s plenty of fiscal room to keep these important preferences for middle class taxpayers — you know, like charitable donations, or buying a home, or health care. Every time we’ve done this, we’ve created economic growth.”

Hoo boy. Now I really want to see that famous math that Ryan said he didn't have time to go through on Sunday. Greg Sargent comments:

By seeming to take some middle class deductions off the table, Ryan made the math even more hallucinatory. This might be good politics — Ryan is getting more specific in promising not to raise middle class taxes — but it further confirms that Romney and Ryan have completely jettisoned deficit neutrality as a goal of their plan, and that they are selling people a fiscal bill of goods that doesn’t pass the laugh test.

It's worth noting that Ryan didn't categorically promise never to touch the tax deductions he mentioned above. But he sure did come close, and he's plainly opened himself up to legitimate questions about whether these deductions are off the table in a Romney administration. If they are, Romney's plan becomes simply impossible to take seriously. After all, those three deductions, along with the tax preference for capital gains, account for about a third of all tax expenditures — and if those aren't going to be touched you have to somehow pay for the rate cuts out of the remaining two-thirds. At that point Romney's plan becomes not merely garden-variety impossible, but one of the all-time most laughable political panders of all time.

Marine Ecologist Featured in MoJo Cover Stories Wins MacArthur "Genius" Award

| Tue Oct. 2, 2012 2:51 PM EDT

Nancy Rabalais: Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.Nancy Rabalais: Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.I was very happy to hear that one of this year's MacArthur's Fellows is Nancy Rabalais, executive director and professor at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON). I profiled Nancy's work in my MoJo cover story "The Fate of the Ocean" after her research facility in Chauvin, Louisiana, had been hammered by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and again in my MoJo piece "The BP Cover-Up" when her facility was slammed by an oil spill and oil-dispersant catastrophe, and this year in my profile of Keystone Ladies in science and conservation. I've also blogged regular updates on her pioneering work on dead zones and on her receipt of a prestigious Heinz Award last year.  I honestly can't think of anyone more deserving of a MacArthur Fellowship in light of her constant efforts against the odds in the near-war zone of the Gulf of Mexico.

Here's what the MacArthur Foundation has to say about her career so far:

Nancy Rabalais is a marine ecologist who is dedicated to documenting and mitigating the effects of hypoxic zones—aquatic areas with low dissolved oxygen levels commonly known as "dead zones—that have expanded dramatically in the Gulf of Mexico and many other coastal systems around the globe. Since the mid-1980s, she has led a long-term monitoring program to study the size, intensity, and seasonal occurrence of dead zones in the waters off the Louisiana continental shelf; she has also analyzed the relationship between the extent of hypoxia and the increasing quantities of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus flowing into the Gulf from the Mississippi River watershed. When concentrated in coastal waters, the nutrients from farmland fertilizer and other sources spur the growth of an overabundance of algae, the decomposition of which consumes oxygen vital to sustaining an enormous spectrum of aquatic species. Over the past three decades, Rabalais's studies have evolved to include collaborations with researchers from many different disciplines and have used methods from physical oceanography, hydrology, geochemistry, and paleoecology to make ever more precise assessments of hypoxia dynamics and their impact on a range of fragile, interconnected ecosystems. In addition to her scientific contributions, Rabalais has played a prominent role in informing strategies to restore the degraded waters of the Gulf by reducing nutrient pollution from urban and agricultural runoff upstream and has focused national attention on the environmental and economic consequences of large-scale eutrophication. Her outreach efforts have included lecturing throughout the United States about the effects of hypoxia on those far from its waters, testifying before Congress, and working with federal, state, and tribal agencies on an action plan for improving water quality in the Mississippi River basin. While weathering the destruction of her research facility in catastrophic hurricanes and treacherous diving conditions due to oil spills, Rabalais continues to deepen our understanding of this profound oceanographic problem that threatens the well-being of the entire Gulf region.

  

 

Congratulations, Nancy!

Please Stop Asking Senate Candidates About the Red Sox

| Tue Oct. 2, 2012 2:12 PM EDT
Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) greets a supporter outside Fenway Park.

Technically, Elizabeth Warren whiffed and Scott Brown punted. With five minutes to spare in Monday night's Massachusetts Senate debate, moderator David Gregory, host of NBC's Meet the Press, concluded he'd spent enough time grilling the candidates on Afghanistan (about two-and-half minutes), and on the ethnic background of Elizabeth Warren's mother (about seven minutes), and decided to use his last question on a matter he considered to be of great importance.

"I saved the most contentious for last," Gregory said, a smile creeping across his face. "The worst Red Sox season in decades, I hate to tell you. So, Ms. Warren, does Bobby Valentine deserve another year, or should he be fired?"

Valentine is objectively terrible and should be fired. But at a debate for a race that could determine which party controls the Senate it shouldn't have even been asked.

"I had such hopes for Bobby Valentine," Warren said, referring to the franchise's beleaguered manager. "I'm still just in wounded mode on that one."

Gregory followed up: "Stick around? Should he be given another chance or should he be fired?"

"Oh..."

"This is the back page of the Boston Herald we're talking tomorrow morning, come on you've got to commit!" Gregory said.

"Then I'd give him another year," Warren said. "Let him build it, yeah, let's see if he can do it."

"Give him another year!" Gregory turned the question on Brown. "Senator?"

"Well, I remember at the beginning of the season that Professor Warren said they were gonna win 90 games and obviously that hasn't happened," he said. "It's been very disappointing, but I'll leave that up to the Red Sox management. But certainly we need to do better next year."

Gregory, incredulous again: "You're not gonna commit, one way or the other?"

"No, there's a lot of problems and they need to work it out for themselves."

So there you have it. Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren have officially weighed in on whether the manager of the local baseball team during the 2012 season should return as manager for the start of the 2013 season. All because of a pretty simple misconception—namely, that Democratic attorney general Martha Coakley's off-key comments about Fenway Park in 2010 caused her to lose her special election to Brown. Brown didn't beat Coakley in 2010 because Coakley was insufficiently enamored with the home team. If that were the case, Sen. John Kerry (whose professed favorite player, "Manny Ortez," is actually a made-up person), would have been thrown out of office long ago. Coakley's famed dismissal of the notion of shaking hands outside Fenway Park, in the cold, mattered because it reflected a voter outreach strategy that seemed to write off a large part of the population. (It wasn't Red Sox fans Coakley had spurned at Fenway; it was Bruins fans, who were there for a hockey game.)

Neither Brown nor Warren gave the correct answer on Monday night in Lowell. Valentine is objectively terrible and should be fired. But at a debate for a race that could determine which party controls the Senate—and the very real public policy implications it entails—it shouldn't have even been asked. Massachusetts isn't the only state where residents have a rooting interest in the local sports team; it's just the only state where out-of-town political journalists believe they have a responsibility to ask about it.

Mitt Romney's Outsourcing History Highlighted In New Obama Ad

| Tue Oct. 2, 2012 1:59 PM EDT

In July, Mother Jones broke the story that Mitt Romney, when he was running Bain Capital, had invested in Global-Tech Appliances, a Chinese manufacturing company that profited from US outsourcing. This revelation came as the Romney campaign tried to portray the candidate as a private-sector jobs creator and the Obama team tried to portray Romney as a vulture capitalist who put profits ahead of people and never cared about creating jobs while at Bain.

Now, Global-Tech is again part of the campaign story. The Obama campaign is out with a new ad, seen above, challenging Romney's tough-on-China stance that zeroes in on his Global-Tech investment. Also, a labor rights group has published a report hitting Romney for investing in Global-Tech and detailing the long hours, low wages, and poor working conditions at Global-Tech's Chinese factory. The report, issued by the Pittsburgh-based Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights, calls Global-Tech a "brutal sweatshop." (In the "47 percent" secret fundraiser video revealed by Mother Jones, Romney appears to mention Global-Tech—or a Chinese factory like it. "When I was back in my private sector days, we went to China to buy a factory there," Romney said. "It employed about 20,000 people. And they were almost all young women between the ages of about 18 and 22 or 23. They were saving for potentially becoming married, and they work at these huge factories.")

First, the Obama ad. It claims that Romney and Bain believed Global-Tech was a good investment despite "knowing that the firm promoted its practice of exploiting low-wage labor to its investors." The ad ends with the message: "Mitt Romney, tough on China? Since when?" The Obama campaign says the ad will air in New Hampshire, Virginia, Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Colorado, and Nevada—all battleground states.

The Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights highlights the dismal working conditions at Global Tech while asking what, if anything, Romney or Bain did to improve those conditions. "If Mr. Romney had spoken up, conditions at Global-Tech might be far better today," the report contends. "Sadly, in 2012 Global-Tech remains a brutal sweatshop where workers are paid starvation wages of $1.00 an hour and have no rights whatsoever."

The Global-Tech revelation wasn't the only Romney investment story first reported by Mother Jones. In July, David Corn also revealed how Romney and Bain invested in firms that pioneered high-tech, or "stealth," outsourcing. Will these deals be in the next Obama ad?