2012 - %3, November

Farewell, CIA Climate Center. We Hardly Knew Ye.

| Tue Nov. 20, 2012 2:42 PM EST

Last year I reported on the CIA's Center on Climate Change and National Security, which opened in September 2009 to gather and analyze information about the effects of climate change on national security. The center had been a target of Republican ire, which is perhaps part of the reason that the CIA didn't want to talk about what they actually did over there when I tried to interview them for my article.

Apparently the CIA scrapped the Center earlier this year without telling anyone, Greenwire reports:

Multiple sources with knowledge of the center said it closed its doors earlier this year, with its staff and analysis continuing under other auspices.
CIA spokesman Todd Ebitz confirmed the change.
"The CIA for several years has studied the national security implications of climate change," Ebitz said in a statement to Greenwire. "This work is now performed by a dedicated team in an office that looks at a variety of economic and energy security issues affecting the United States."

Former CIA director Leon Panetta launched the center, but the piece notes that it did not receive as much love from David Petraeus when he took over in 2011. (I'll leave it to you to make jokes about that.) There's also speculation that the center was a preemptive cut, as Congress is expected to make further cuts to the intelligence budget in the next few years.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Liberals and the 2-Parent Family

| Tue Nov. 20, 2012 2:13 PM EST

I'm reluctant to weigh in on topics I haven't studied much and don't know a lot about. And yet, the sheer unlikelihood of agreeing with Jonah Goldberg prompts me to say that I think conservatives have a point when they lament the breakdown of the traditional two-parent family, a trend far more noticeable among the poor than the upper middle class:

Although it's certainly true that the kids of some single parents can do very well, particularly if those solo parents have the financial or social resources to carry the load (just look at Obama's own childhood), it is also the case that as a generalization, kids from single-parent homes do worse. In other words, it may be better to have one good parent than two bad parents, but it's indisputably better to have two good parents.

....The decline of marriage among low- and middle-income Americans is a crisis afflicting all ethnicities. But among prosperous whites, marriage is doing pretty well. And the evidence has steadily mounted that marriage is a big source of that prosperity. Fewer than 1 in 10 births to college-educated women happen outside of wedlock, according to the group Child Trends, while for women with high school degrees or less, the number is close to 6 out of 10.

As Richard Ralph Banks demonstrates in "Is Marriage for White People?," the same cannot be said of blacks. Contrary to widespread perceptions, marriage is not all that popular among middle- and upper-class blacks either. Black women, Banks reports, long for traditional family structures, but black men — even college-educated black men — for a variety of complex reasons are more ambivalent about it.

I don't think that conservatives have diagnosed this problem correctly, usually blaming it on welfare-state dependency or some other kind of related liberal folly. Nor do I have much faith that a federal "family policy" is a good idea. I just don't think this problem is likely to respond more than a hair to the kinds of incentives the federal government could plausibly put in place.

At the same time, I'm uncomfortable with the notion that this is no big deal. Paul Krugman summed up this genre of response the other day: "In Sweden, more than half of children are born out of wedlock — but they don’t seem to suffer much as a result, perhaps because the welfare state is so strong. Maybe we’ll go that way too. So?"

Honestly, I just don't know how big a problem this really is, and I don't know what kinds of solutions are feasible. So consider this an open thread for discussion. But I will say that this is a case where I feel like the liberal pundit class—college educated, upper middle class, mostly white—protests too much. For ourselves, we've voted with our feet and we plainly believe that traditional families are a good thing. But we sure spend a lot of time making up reasons why this thing we obviously value so highly isn't really of much value for other people. I'm really not sure I buy it.

Let's All Stop Talking About the Base-Closing Commissions

| Tue Nov. 20, 2012 1:40 PM EST

Peter Diamond thinks we should set up a bunch of expert committees to solve our fiscal problems, with Congress agreeing beforehand to an up-or-down vote on their recommendations. It worked for the base-closing committees, after all. Atrios pushes back:

The base closing commission was a unique thing for a unique situation. Everybody wanted to close some bases, but no politician wanted to be responsible for closing bases in their states. Nothing else is similar to that.

Stop advocating for politicians to find ways to remove democratic accountability. In our system they already have enough ways of doing that.

Yep. The very fact that the base-closing committees are unique should tell you something. Just like the fact that the 1986 tax reform law was unique. When something has only ever worked once, that's not primarily evidence that it's possible, it's primarily evidence that it's really, really hard to pull it off.

Enough with paeans to the base-closing commissions. Let's never mention them again. They were a unique solution to a unique problem, not an all-purpose cure-all for every difficult political disagreement. I'm tired of hearing about them. One way or another, we have to make politics work. There are no magical shortcuts.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 20, 2012

Tue Nov. 20, 2012 1:17 PM EST

U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Ryan Schulte, platoon leader for the Provincial Reconstruction Team security force, returns to his vehicle after a key leader engagement in Pusht-e Rod district in Farah province, Nov. 19, 2012. U.S. Navy photo by Lt. j.g. Matthew Stroup.

How the GOP Nearly Won the DJ Vote

| Tue Nov. 20, 2012 1:05 PM EST

Update: Ars Technica reports on December 6 that the GOP staffer behind the progressive memo has been fired. 

The Republican Study Committee, whose members form the conservative wing of the House GOP caucus, released a report on Friday that took a remarkably progressive stance on copyright law. It argued that current copyright laws are "seen by many as a form of corporate welfare that hurts innovation and hurts the consumer" and argued for a wide-ranging overhaul of the system. But the triumph for tech activists—and DJs—was short lived. Over the weekend, the paper mysteriously vanished from the committee's website, leaving a blank web page in its wake. 

Brian Straessle, a spokesman for the Committee, told The Hill that the policy paper was pulled because it hadn't been properly vetted. "Due to an oversight in our review process, [the paper] did not account for the full range of perspectives among our members... It was removed from the website to address that concern."

But skeptics say that the GOP simply bowed to industry pressure.

"As soon as it was published, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) apparently went ballistic and hit the phones hard, demanding that the RSC take down the report," wrote Mike Masnick of TechDirt. 

A spokesman for RIAA, contacted by The Hill, denied that the organization asked the Committee to deep-six the paper"We understand that a decision was made to do so to allow for the appropriate process that would have otherwise taken place before issuing," he said. 

You can still view a copy of the paper here. It's worth reading solely for the part that says that copyright law is hurting the US DJ/Remix industry. "Many other countries have a robust culture of DJ’s and remixing, but the United States, quite perplexingly as the creator of a large portion of the world’s content, is far behind," the paper notes.

Who knew that a stodgy GOP study committee could be so cool? Oh wait. 

Study: Hairless, Middle-Aged Apes Still Middle-Aged Apes

| Tue Nov. 20, 2012 1:05 PM EST

Why is happiness U-shaped? In countries around the world, people tend to get less happy up through about age 50 or so, and then rebound and get happier as they age. The Los Angeles Times provides us with the usual explanation:

By midlife, youth's hot-blooded drive to mastery has driven off. Responsibilities abound. Decades of striving — to raise a family, to establish oneself in the community, to climb the professional ziggurat — have shown us the mountaintop and, with it, the limits of our reach and usefulness. A recognition of our mortality settles in. In the years after midlife, the theory goes, humans shoulder fewer burdens for the care of others. Their time horizons are shorter, prompting them to focus on people and activities that give pleasure and meaning to their lives. They regret less.

That's a very convincing narrative, and we humans love narratives, don't we? But guess what? It turns out that great apes, who feel none of these things, also experience U-shaped happiness:

When the composite well-being score for each ape was plotted according to his or her age, the result was the same distinctive U-shaped curve seen universally in humans. Around the ages of 28 and 35 — roughly the midpoint of the chimpanzees' and orangutans' expected life spans — moods sagged, animals became less socially engaged and they were less likely to persist in attaining the things they desired.

....For social scientists who saw shifts in happiness in strictly human terms, the findings were a forceful reminder that people have not evolved as far as we may think beyond the great apes, said Stacey Wood, a neuropsychologist at Scripps College in Claremont who wasn't involved in the study.

...."It pushes more toward the possibility that this is biological," added Arthur Stone, a professor of psychiatry at Stony Brook University in New York who was not involved with the study. Whether it's hormones, brain structure, neurochemicals or some other factor that causes the middle-aged psyche to power down will require further research, Stone said. But from now on, he said, social explanations alone will not suffice.

So free will takes another hit. But then, I would say that, wouldn't I?

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Presidential Incumbency Mostly Benefits Parties, Not People

| Tue Nov. 20, 2012 12:12 PM EST

Matthew Dickinson points out that in the postwar era, incumbent presidents who have the chance normally serve two terms:

Why is it so difficult to defeat an incumbent president in the modern era? One likely reason is that the office is much more visible, so that presidents simply by virtue of carrying out their duties in a non-partisan way, such as providing disaster relief, can score political points. It may also be the case that in an era of nuclear weapons and other WMD’s, the presidents’ foreign policy role enhances their political standing. That is, as national security issues loom larger in voters’ calculations, the incumbent president’s foreign policy role is magnified. Moreover, despite the criticisms his comments entailed, Romney was right when noted — albeit perhaps not in the most diplomatic manner — that Presidents are relatively well situated to influence policies in ways that reward key voting blocs. All this is somewhat speculative, of course, but I am persuaded, in the absence of countervailing evidence, that modern incumbents generally run for reelection with advantages that their premodern forebears did not possess.

I'd push back on this. Ever since our current two-party system congealed after the Civil War, the key to American presidential politics is that parties normally get to serve at least two terms as president. Only after that do they lose. This goes back well before FDR to Harding/Coolidge/Hoover in the 20s, Wilson in the teens, McKinley/TR/Taft, in the aughts, and Grant/Hayes/Garfield/Arthur in the 1870s. Aside from Jimmy Carter, the only exception to this rule in the past 140 years has been the oddball Cleveland/Harrison/Cleveland years.

So there's nothing especially modern about this. Generally speaking, Americans are willing to give political parties two terms in the White House before they kick them out. Sometimes more. But almost never less than two.

The Media's Remarkably Credulous Reaction to the GOP's New "Moderation"

| Tue Nov. 20, 2012 11:37 AM EST

Last night I was emailing with a friend about the post-election shadow dancing going on within the Republican Party. Practically every ambitious politician in the party is making soothing noises about being nicer to Hispanics, lightening up on social issues, and compromising on the fiscal cliff, but the thing is, it's all just talk. With only a couple of exceptions from some of the few actual moderates still left in the party, the Jindals and Walkers and Rubios are pretty transparently unwilling to change any actual policies. They're as hardnosed as ever on abortion and taxes and amnesty. They just think the party should sound a little less hardnosed.

This doesn't surprise me. What does surprise me—because I guess I never learn—is that a fair number of mainstream reporters seem to be taking these various statements at face value. Ed Kilgore brings the sarcasm:

Yes, years from now conservatives will sit around campfires and sing songs about the legendary internecine battles of late 2012, when father fought son and brother fought brother across a chasm of controversy as to whether 98% or 99% of abortions should be banned; whether undocumented workers should be branded and utilized as "guest workers," loaded onto cattle cars and shipped home, or simply immiserated; whether the New Deal/Great Society programs should be abolished in order to cut upper-income taxes or abolished in order to boost Pentagon spending. There's also a vicious, take-no-prisons fight over how quickly to return the role of the federal government in the economy to its pre-1930s role as handmaiden to industry. Blood will flow in the streets as Republicans battle over how to deal with health care after Obamacare is repealed and 50 million or people lose health insurance. Tax credits and risk pools or just "personal responsibility?"

As Ed says, "They are entitled to fight with each other all day long about how many zygotes could fit on the head of a pin, and how deeply the 47% have been corrupted into permanent serfdom. But the MSM really, really needs to show it understands this isn't a fight about any kind of fundamentals." No it's not. If the GOP endures another few years of losses, they'll start to moderate out of self-defense, but that's still a few years off. If they lose in 2016, my guess is that it will happen sometime around 2017. If they win in 2016, then God only knows.

Will Peru Extradite Billionaire Lead Magnate Ira Rennert?

| Tue Nov. 20, 2012 7:03 AM EST
Ira Rennert owns the nation's largest inhabited residence.

A Peruvian judge has threatened to extradite bad-boy industrialist and private-equity bigwig Ira Rennert, according to a recent story in Peru's La Republica. Since January, the American billionaire has repeatedly refused to travel to Peru to respond to charges of defrauding the Peruvian government in connection with his management of Doe Run Peru, a lead smelter in the Andes that has poisoned a surrounding town.

According to La Republica, Rennert has claimed that he is "too occupied with his business" to address the charges in person. He asked Peruvian judge Martha Flores Gallardo to travel to New York instead.

John McCain: Stand-Up Guy or Total Jerk?

| Tue Nov. 20, 2012 7:03 AM EST

"You know, I've been called a maverick; someone who marches to the beat of his own drum," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) boasted during his speech at the 2008 Republican convention. But for every instance of McCain bucking party orthodoxy or straddling the partisan divide, there's one of him being an obstinate, angry jerk. (The current example of this being his attempt to turn the Benghazi controversy into a Watergate-sized scandal.) This duality recalls Goofus and Gallant, the twin brothers who have long entertained Highlights for Children readers with their contrasting antics:

Goofus McCain

Gallant McCain

Tells this joke: "Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly? Because her father is Janet Reno." Later befriends Sen. Hillary Clinton and calls her "one of the guys."
Unapologetically calls his Vietnamese captors "gooks"—in 2000. Says that torture is "unworthy and injurious to our country."
Freaks out over the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Says the Swift Boat ads about John Kerry's war record were "dishonest and dishonorable."
Votes against more disclosure for dark-money donors. Bashes Citizens United as "one of the worst decisions" ever.
Praises "spectacular" running mate Sarah Palin's "incredible résumé." Criticizes the "agents of intolerance" in the Christian right.
Says he'd be okay with US troops staying in Iraq for "maybe 100 years." Corrects a supporter who insists Obama is "an Arab."
Goes from backing climate legislation to saying climate science may be "flawed." Criticizes congressional tea partiers for their "bizarro" debt ceiling demands.
Says Susan Rice is "not qualified" to be the next secretary of state due to "not being very bright" and her comments about the Benghazi attacks. Defends Hillary Clinton adviser Huma Abedin from Rep. Michele Bachmann's "specious and degrading attacks."