2012 - %3, November

Why Social Security Reform Would Be Good For Liberals

| Mon Nov. 26, 2012 4:00 PM EST

As Atrios notes, he and I have disagreed about the merits of Social Security reform for many years. Today he explains why he doesn't think that fixing Social Security's finances would do any good:

Nothing will take Social Security off the table for decades. They could cut benefits in half and extend the expected solvency of the program for 12 trillion years, and the Washington Post would be back the next day informing us that this was a good down payment, but much more "reform" needs to happen blah blah blah.

They really do want to starve your granny.

This really is the heart of our disagreement. So here's my argument in super-condensed form.

If we extended the solvency of Social Security for the next century, it's true that the Cato Institute would be back the next day complaining that this wasn't enough. After all, they're ideologically opposed to the whole idea of Social Security. It might take the Heritage Foundation a little longer, but they'd get right back into the fight pretty quickly too.

But the Washington Post wouldn't. The Pete Peterson folks wouldn't. The truth is that all the earnest, centrist, Very Serious People who want to reform Social Security don't want to starve your granny. They don't have a problem with the concept of a guaranteed retirement program. They just want it to be properly funded.

So a deal would shut them up. The Post editorial board would be happy. The Pete Peterson fans would be happy. Everyone outside the hard right would be happy. And without the megaphone provided by the VSPs, the hard right simply has no traction on this issue. They could keep griping forever, but it would just be one of their many fringe issues that no one else cares about. Effectively, Social Security would be off the table for decades.

What I mean by this, of course, is that it would be as far off the table as anything ever is in real life. Nothing will make everyone happy. Nothing will fix Social Security forever. Nothing will shut up the Glenn Becks and the Birchers and the libertarian hard cases. But if the VSPs are on board, Social Security would, for all practical purposes, cease to be a subject of controversy for many, many years. I think that would be good for the country, good for seniors, good for the liberal project, and well worth doing. The problem is finding any negotiating partners on the other side who are serious about making a deal.

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The Department of Justice Censors MoJo

| Mon Nov. 26, 2012 3:50 PM EST

Mother Jones received word recently that our November/December issue had been banned by a Massachusetts prison facility. The issue's cover story was Shane Bauer's harrowing in-depth investigation into the overuse of solitary confinement in the US prison system—but that apparently wasn't the reason the magazine was rejected by Federal Medical Center Devens. It was censored because of a naked lady.

A couple of weeks ago, Mother Jones received a letter from the prison's warden, Jeffrey Grondolksy, informing us that our magazine, addressed to an inmate-subscriber, was being returned because it contained "sexually explicit information or material, or features nudity." The letter stated that, in accordance with federal regulations, no Bureau of Prisons funds could be used to distribute such material.

Immediately, speculation swirled at the MoJo hive about which racy image in the November/December issue was the culprit. (WARNING: naked ladies.)

Rape of the Sabine Women, by Giuseppe Cesari.  FotopediaThe Rape of the Sabine Women was featured in a pg. 10 sidebar called Mansplaining Rape. Fotopedia

 

Page 19 ad for a book about how "men are not capable of [a] new manner of thinking; however, the majority of women are." Athena BooksPg. 19 included this ad for a book about "human males' addiction to war...and his universal domination of women." Athena Books

 

Look at her!  p. 38Just look at her! pg. 38

 

From p. 26 of Bauer's story: Inside an inmate's isolation cell at Pelican Bay Prison. Need we say more?  Shane BauerFrom pg. 26 of Bauer's story: Inside an inmate's isolation cell at Pelican Bay Prison. #meta

  Ew! p. 34pg. 34

A call to Grondolsky to inquire about the offending image was directed to Todd Chapman, the supervisor of correctional systems at Devens, who revealed that the objectionable nakedness was the pg. 19 ad image featuring a depiction of Eve. Chapman explained that Grondolsky is pretty strict when it comes to enforcing the no smut rule. And for "certain types of offenders," he said, there is "zero tolerance. Our warden is pretty 100 percent. It could be something as small as a statue" or "even if a kid drew a nude picture." He did allow that the law gives leeway for anthropological or scientific content.

Indeed. The law says, "Publications containing nudity illustrative of medical, educational, or anthropological content may be excluded from this definition." Moreover: "The Warden may reject a publication only if it is determined detrimental to the security, good order, or discipline of the institution or if it might facilitate criminal activity. The Warden may not reject a publication solely because its content is religious, philosophical, political, social or sexual, or because its content is unpopular or repugnant."

Bauer's solitary confinement story details the petty offenses for which California prisoners get "validated" as gang associates, and consequently thrown into isolation for years. Among them: possession of black literature, left-wing material, and publications advocating for the abolition of prison isolation units.

But the magazine was not banned because Bauer's solitary story was "political" or "unpopular." It was censored because of an advertisement marketed to the geriatric set. And just like that, investigative journalism with pictures of flesh gets lumped into the no good list along with materials that describe how to make a bomb, show prisoners how to escape, instruct them on "brewing alcoholic beverages," or are "written in code."

Grondolsky's justification for rejecting the latest issue of Mother Jones may not even be covered within the bounds of the regulation he cites, which refers to publications that "feature" nudity. According to the statute, this means "the publication contains depictions of nudity or sexually explicit conduct on a routine or regular basis or promotes itself based upon such depictions in the case of individual one-time issues." 

It's not the first time MoJo has been trashed by a prison. Mailroom censors at a Texas prison banned the September/October 2007 issue because it contained a picture of a nude child…in a story on the dangers of mining. (Guess what did get past the Texas prison censors that year? Letters to Penthouse XXVIII.)

All is not lost though. Upon receipt of the censorship notice, Mother Jones' Sharzy Makaremi promptly cut out all possible offending breasts, etc. and sent the magazine to the inmate, along with a letter contesting the rejection. When I spoke to Chapman he said he had heard that "someone pulled the page out and sent it back, so the inmate should be receiving that today."

No, Andrew W.K. is Not the State Department's Cultural Ambassador to the Middle East

| Mon Nov. 26, 2012 3:00 PM EST

Over Thanksgiving weekend, hard-rock performing artist and self-declared "King of Partying" Andrew W.K. announced that he had just landed a new gig: America's "cultural ambassador of partying" to Bahrain. Here's an excerpt from his press release:

The US Department of State in partnership with the US Embassy in Manama, Bahrain, has invited Andrew to visit the Middle East to promote partying and positive power. In the tradition of the American Jazz Ambassadors who traveled the world in the mid 20th century as examples of American culture and spirit, Andrew has been invited by the State Department to travel to the Middle Eastern country of Bahrain and share his music and partying with the people there. Andrew will begin his journey sometime in December, 2012 and will visit elementary schools, the University of Bahrain, music venues, and more, all while promoting partying and world peace... For security reasons, the exact travel dates, details, and other specifics are being kept top secret at this time.

The US government appointing a rocker-diplomat—known for partying til he pukes, covering himself in blood, dabbling in the My Little Pony-based subculture of "bronies," and sing-screaming about the McLaughlin Group—to represent American interests in the Kingdom of Bahrain? That sounds totally plausible! Nevertheless, a host of media outlets ran with the news without bothering to check with State Department, including UPI, the Huffington Post, New York magazine's culture blog "Vulture," Pitchfork Media, Breitbart.com, Mediaite, DCist, NME, Gawker, and Russia Today.

A State Department spokesman confirmed to Mother Jones Monday that the man behind the 2001 party-rock album I Get Wet will not in fact be partying 'til he pukes in Bahrain—at least, not in any official capacity. While Andrew W.K. was invited by a US embassy "cultural speakers program" for a possible overseas trip to Bahrain, the embassy in Manama later determined that the program was "not appropriate" and canceled it promptly "some time ago." (As for why the recording artist is still hyping up his imaginary position online is anybody's guess.)

To anyone familiar with Andrew W.K.'s exploits, the singer-songwriter's story strained credulity from the get-go (Brooklyn web magazine Brokelyn expressed its doubts early on). If Hillary Clinton were to send a B-list celebrity on a goodwill mission to children's schools in a Persian Gulf Muslim country with a lousy human rights record, why would she send the guy who sang "Party Hard" or "Party Party Party" for Aqua Teen Hunger Force?

For the uninitiated, here's a clip of Andrew W.K. appearing on Fox News:

And here he is dancing on Conan O'Brien's old show:

So, no, this man will not be going to the Kingdom of Bahrain on the US government's dime in order to promote rock-star-style hedonism. That is a thing that is not happening.

 

UPDATE:

Tweeted at 2:37 p.m. EST on Monday:

And shortly after...

In response to this post, Andrew W.K. sent Mother Jones the following message:

I'm not legally allowed at this exact moment to go into too many details, but they invited me a year ago and then canceled this morning. They said they had changed their mind and decided I wasn't appropriate. I was scheduled to go there this weekend...The trip had been confirmed and developed over the past year—their cancellation only happened today, which is why it's so important to make that clear that after all the planning, they canceled it THIS MORNING, not 'some time ago.'"

The Republican Tap Dance on Entitlement Reform

| Mon Nov. 26, 2012 2:32 PM EST

It's a slow news day today, as everyone shakes off their tryptophan-induced comas, and this means that we have to invent things to talk about. Today's invention is about all the Republicans who have bravely suggested they might be willing to raise taxes ("a mob of three or four, at this point," says Ed Kilgore acidly) if Democrats, in turn, are willing to put entitlements on the chopping block.

There are several things to say about this. First, several of these Republicans have claimed an openness to tax increases in the past, so there's a lot less here than meets the eye. Second, none of this claimed openness has actually led to any tax increases in the past. And third, um, just what entitlement cuts are they talking about? Paul Waldman:

The problem with this is that while the Democrats' position is quite clear—the Bush tax cuts should expire for income over $250,000—the Republicans' position is extremely vague, on both the tax side and the entitlement side. Let's take taxes first. [Rate increases? Deduction caps? Or what?]

....Then we get to the price Republicans are going to want to exact for any agreement to stop the Austerity Trap, and this is where they're vague. They want "reform" of entitlements. And what is "reform," you ask? Well, nobody ever says. And the reason is that Republicans know perfectly well that the things they would like to do to Social Security and Medicare are unpopular. We can dispense with Social Security quickly: the program is basically fine, and you could eliminate future shortfalls in benefits with some minor tweaking of the financing, like raising the income cut-off for Social Security taxes, which is currently at $110,100. But the real budgetary challenge is Medicare.

Quite right. On Social Security, I continue to hold the unpopular view that liberals would be well served if they could make a deal. Raise the income cutoff to get more revenue, change the inflation formula to cut benefits a bit, toss in a few other smallish items that would be phased in over 20 years, and you're done. Social Security would be off the table for decades.

The problem, of course, is that this has nothing to do with the deficit over the next few decades, which means there's really no reason to make it a precondition for a deficit deal. So even though I'm in favor of a deal, I can't really think of any good reason to do it now.

But Medicare is different. It's funded partly out of the general fund and its growth projections are plenty scary. It has a lot to do with future deficits, so it makes sense to make it part of a medium-term deficit deal.

The problem is that, unlike Social Security, it's also insanely complicated. There isn't some easy basket of fixes that would restrain its growth, and the prospect of getting some kind of serious deal on Medicare over the next three weeks is laughable.

So we're stuck. Given the political will (unlikely, I admit), Social Security actually could be fixed in three weeks. But if it's the medium-term deficit you're worried about, there's not much point. Medicare and Medicaid, conversely, do have an effect on the medium-term deficit, but they couldn't be fixed in three months, let alone three weeks.

So what exactly are Republicans after? Do they just want the fig leaf of a supercommittee to study entitlements? Are they still obsessed with raising the retirement age and just want to get agreement on that? They can't seriously think that Paul Ryan's vouchercare is anywhere near being on the table, can they?

It's all very mysterious. Just what kind of entitlement reform do Republicans think they can get by December 21? It would be nice to hear at least a hint from them about what they're after.

Republicans Threaten Senate Meltdown If Filibuster Reform Passes

| Mon Nov. 26, 2012 1:35 PM EST

After noting that Senate Republicans are threatening dire revenge if Harry Reid succeeds in passing filibuster reform, Ed Kilgore asks:

This raises the rather obvious question of exactly what Republicans could do to make the Senate less functional than it already is under the de facto 60-vote requirement for all legislation that they have so recently introduced?

This is a good question. Seriously. I'd like to hear from some of our congressional gurus on this. The Senate, of course, is generally governed by the rule of unanimous consent, which means that nothing can happen if even a single Senator objects. In theory, this gives Republicans lots of non-filibuster avenues for gumming up the works, but as far as I know they're already using them. These days, unanimous consent is just a quaint echo of a bygone era, never granted for even the most routine business.

Now, maybe I'm wrong about that. Maybe unanimous consent could be withheld even more than it is now. And there are other avenues for gumming up the works by insisting on the letter of the rules for things like committee meeting times and so forth. But is there really very much of this kind of thing left? Help us, Sarah Binder and Thomas Mann! Can Republicans really obstruct the Senate even more than they do now if they put their minds to it?

UPDATE: Ian Millhiser provides a handy top-ten list of obstruction tactics here. The first four are basically variations on the filibuster, but the rest of the list demonstrates that there are plenty of other ways to gum up the works too.

Top Republicans Threaten to Ditch Grover Norquist's Anti-Tax Pledge

| Mon Nov. 26, 2012 1:24 PM EST
Grover Norquist.

Grover Norquist's anti-tax-increase pledge is beginning to show cracks.

Over the long holiday weekend, four top Republicans in Congress said they would not be bound by their signing of the conservative activist's pledge not to raise taxes on their constituents in any way, shape, or form. These lawmakers have broken with Norquist at a crucial moment: On Monday, members of Congress restart their effort to hammer out an agreement to avoid going off the so-called "fiscal cliff" on December 31.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), ranking member on the Senate select committee on intelligence, dismissed Norquist's pledge during a Thanksgiving Day interview with a Macon, Georgia, television station. "I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge," Chambliss said. "If we do it his way then we'll continue in debt, and I just have a disagreement with him about that."

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who chairs the House homeland security committee, said he agreed with Chambliss. Standing by an anti-tax pledge he signed decades ago, King argued on NBC’s Meet the Press, "is just bad economic policy. "A pledge you signed 20 years ago, 18 years ago, is for that Congress," King said. "For instance, if I were in Congress in 1941, I would have signed a declaration of war against Japan. I’m not going to attack Japan today. The world has changed, and the economic situation is different."

Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) said on ABC's This Week on Sunday that he agreed with Norquist on not raising tax rates, but believed—unlike Norquist—that other ways of raising tax revenue are fair game. "I think Grover is wrong when it comes to we can't cap deductions and buy down debt," Graham said. "What do you do with the money? I want to buy down debt and cut rates to create jobs, but I will violate the pledge, long story short, for the good of the country, only if Democrats will do entitlement reform."

And Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told CBS' Charlie Rose on Monday that he was "not obligated on the pledge."

Norquist, for his part, has fired back by saying that lawmakers are bound to their constituents, not him, on their promises to oppose tax increases in any form. As for King, Norquist told CNN's Soledad O'Brien on Monday that King "knows full well that the pledge that he signed, and others have, is for while you're in Congress. It's not for a two year period."

This is hardly the first time Republicans have made noises about wiggling out of Norquist's pledge. But could this time be different? Members of Congress are now staring down the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts and a potpourri of automatic spending cuts that could total more than $800 billion in 2013. That includes a $55 billion cut to defense spending and $55 billion more shaved off of domestic programs.

Republicans don't want these scheduled cuts to become a reality. The defense cuts and the expiration of the Bush-era tax breaks could be enough to nudge Republicans into ditching Norquist's pledge. If they do, it's Norquist, whose political currency depends on the pledge and its adherents, who stands to lose the most. 

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The Bizarre Apocalyptic Vision of Right-Wing Fundraisers

| Mon Nov. 26, 2012 1:05 PM EST

Over the years, I've ended up on mailing lists for a variety of liberal and conservative organizations. These are folks who want my money, and I've long been intrigued by the difference between the two.

There is, of course, hyperbole on both sides. Liberal pitches, for example, occasionally imply that Republicans want to forcibly impregnate every woman in America or allow Goldman Sachs to run the Treasury Department. But this is the exception, not the rule, and even where there is hyperbole, it's at least firmly grounded in a genuine, concrete issue of some kind. Republicans really would ban abortion if they had the power, and Wall Street really does have way too much influence on American economic policy.

But right-wing pitches are altogether different. I'll grant you that the stuff I get from official outlets like, say, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, tends to be (barely) on the sane side of things. But by far, most of the mail is from conservative groups that are just flat-out nuts. The United Nations is going to herd us all into urban concentration camps. George Soros plans to destroy the dollar. Obama is turning America into a slave state. The Army will be deputized to go house-to-house searching for guns as soon as Inauguration Day is safely past. Under Obamacare people with the wrong political attitudes will be denied the right to see a doctor. This stuff is simply endless.

Why? Andrew Sullivan links today to a Baffler piece by Rick Perlstein that I missed when it first came out, in which he walks us through the story of right-wing fundraising. It is, he says, a toxic blend of standard come-ons (get-rich-quick schemes, miracle cures suppressed by "the elites," etc.) and political come-ons (send money now to prevent the UN takeover of America):

The strategic alliance of snake-oil vendors and conservative true believers points up evidence of another successful long march, of tactics designed to corral fleeceable multitudes all in one place—and the formation of a cast of mind that makes it hard for either them or us to discern where the ideological con ended and the money con began.

…But the New Right's business model was dishonest in more than its revenue structure. Its very message—the alarmist vision of White Protestant Civilization Besieged that propelled fundraising pitch after fundraising pitch—was confabulatory too…And, in an intersection that is utterly crucial, this same theology of fear is how a certain sort of commercial appeal—a snake-oil-selling one—works as well. This is where the retail political lying practiced by Romney links up with the universe in which 23-cent miracle cures exist (absent the hero’s intervention) just out of reach, thanks to the conspiracy of some powerful cabal—a cabal that, wouldn’t you know it in these late-model hustles, perfectly resembles the ur-villain of the conservative mind: liberals.

In this respect, it’s not really useful, or possible, to specify a break point where the money game ends and the ideological one begins. They are two facets of the same coin—where the con selling 23-cent miracle cures for heart disease inches inexorably into the one selling miniscule marginal tax rates as the miracle cure for the nation itself. The proof is in the pitches—the come-ons in which the ideological and the transactional share the exact same vocabulary, moral claims, and cast of heroes and villains.

Rick is suggesting that rank-and-file conservatives simply have a cast of mind that makes them vulnerable to scary, conspiracy-minded sales pitches, and it doesn't matter much whether the sales pitch is for an investment opportunity to save you from the destruction of the dollar or a political opportunity to save America from the depradations of the UN. And this certainly fits what we know about brain science and ideology: People with a more fearful cast of mind tend to be political conservatives, while people with a more open cast of mind tend to be political liberals.

This explains the fear-based nature of most conservative appeals, but it still doesn't really explain why so many of those appeals are completely batty. Isn't it possible to scare people with (relatively speaking) plausible scenarios? The UN doesn't want to herd us all into cities, but liberals do want to make gasoline more expensive. (It's true! We do!) Likewise, nobody's going to confiscate your guns, but there are plenty of liberals who do want to pass an assault weapons ban.

So why the endlessly apocalyptic tone? Is the real stuff simply not scary enough to be effective? Or have conservatives gotten caught up in an arms race that long ago got out of control? What's the deal here?

Did the Head of the Israeli Military's Social Media Pose in Black Face?

| Mon Nov. 26, 2012 12:36 PM EST

Following reports that he posted a photo of himself in what appears to be black face, with the caption "Obama style," Sacha Dratwa, the 26-year-old lieutenant heading the Israel Defense Forces' social media campaign is shutting down public access to his Facebook profile, according to a statement he sent Mother Jones and posted online.

A screenshot of the photo, which was originally posted by Dratwa on September 29, was published Saturday by the website, Your Black World. The image appears to be of Dratwa at the Dead Sea with mud on his face. While that would not be an uncommon activity there, the "Obama style" caption drew scornful comments on his Facebook page. Mother Jones asked Dratwa for a comment, and he said:

There have been attempts to make use of private photos from my Facebook profile in order to publicly misrepresent my opinions. Due to the amount of public attention I've garnered in recent days I have decided to restrict access to my page, in order to protect my privacy and prevent further cynical use of the information therein.  I am, and have always been, completely candid about my beliefs and have nothing to hide – as reflected by my Facebook profile, which until recently was open to everyone. The aforementioned photos do not reflect my beliefs and have no bearing whatsoever on my position in the IDF.

ABC News, which says it has confirmed the photo is real, reports that Dratwa responded to a user on Twitter accusing him of racism by saying, “I’m not a racist, please stop [spreading] lies about me.”

In charge of the Israel Defense Forces' official Twitter account, @IDFSpokesperson, Dratwa became a high-profile figure during the recent Israel-Hamas conflict. According to a profile by Gizmodo, in his free time, Dratwa enjoys snowboarding, swimming, vodka, macchiatos, and hanging out with friends.

The IDF did not respond to a request for comment.

This post has been updated.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 26, 2012

Mon Nov. 26, 2012 11:54 AM EST

U.S. Army Spc. David White, a security force team member for Provincial Reconstruction Team Farah, stands guard during a key leader engagement in Farah City, Nov. 18, 2012. U.S. Navy photo by HMC Josh Ives/released.

It's a Great Time To Be a Banker in America

| Mon Nov. 26, 2012 11:41 AM EST

Matt Yglesias passes along this remarkable chart from Morgan Stanley's Adam Parker showing that 88 percent of all the profit growth in the S&P 500 this year has been concentrated in ten firms in a grand total of two industries: technology and finance. In particular, seven of the ten firms are financial companies. Keep this firmly in mind the next time some Wall Street titan complains yet again that Obama hates banks and is out to destroy them. This is not a sign that Obama has done anything serious to hurt the financial industry; it's a sign that America's bankers are comically thin-skinned whiners.