2013...mewhat-popular - %2

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 20, 2013

Fri Dec. 20, 2013 11:31 AM EST

An M1A2SEP Abrams Tank from Company C, 1st Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment ‘Desert Rogues’, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, sits ready while others complete the night portion of the Gunnery Table VI in the background at Red Cloud Range, Dec. 12. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Richard Wrigley, 2nd ABCT, 3rd ID, Public Affairs NCO)

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Why Is This Disgraced Prosecutor Still Allowed to Practice Law in Texas?

| Thu Dec. 19, 2013 7:24 PM EST

When I read Innocence Lost, Pamela Colloff's fabulous piece on the case of Anthony Graves, a man convicted of murder in Texas, I walked away convinced that Graves hadn't done anything wrong—indeed, he was exonerated in 2010 after 18 years behind bars—but that Charles Sebesta, the former Burleson County DA who pursued the case so zealously, had done something horrific.

The DA who put Anthony Graves on death row knowingly withheld key evidence and obtained false  statements from witnesses.

In 2006, the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling confirming that Sebesta had not only withheld powerful exonerating evidence in the Graves case, he also had obtained false statements from witnesses. In the past, Colloff has reported how Sebesta had allegedly used threats to scare Graves' alibi witness from testifying. He also bullied Charles Carter, a key witness, into testifying against Graves by threatening to prosecute Carter's wife. (Carter, who was prosecuted and convicted for the killings, had repeatedly insisted that Graves had nothing to do with the crimes.)

So how was it that an innocent man could be sentenced to die while the prosecutor who deliberately screwed him (to paraphrase the Fifth Circuit) suffered no legal consequences? One could imagine a world in which such egregious legal misconduct, given that it landed a man on death row, would qualify as attempted murder. At the very least, wouldn't Sebesta's actions be cause to take away his law license?

Not in Texas.

In a followup piece on Wednesday, Colloff asked the Texas Bar why it had failed to discipline Sebesta, and what she learns is surprising. Sebesta's website claims, among other things, that "the State Bar cleared Sebesta of any wrongdoing in the case" and that the Bar's grievance committee had determined that "there was no evidence to justify a formal hearing." In fact, as Colloff discovers, the Bar never actually reviewed his case.

Not that it would have punished Sebesta anyway. Colloff quotes from the Texas Tribune: "In ninety-one criminal cases in Texas since 2004, the courts decided that prosecutors committed misconduct, ranging from hiding evidence to making improper arguments to the jury. None of those prosecutors has ever been disciplined."

At the press conference announcing Graves' release, the special prosecutor called in to review Graves' case said Sebesta had handled it "in a way that would best be described as a criminal justice system's nightmare." Bill Parnam, who succeeded Sebesta as Burleson County DA, addressed the reporters next: "There's not a single thing that says Anthony Graves was involved in this case. There is nothing." 

Read Colloff's piece here.

Obamacare Enrollments Are Starting to Surge

| Thu Dec. 19, 2013 7:01 PM EST

Over the past 24 hours, I have managed to say not a single word about either Duck Dynasty or Pajama Boy. So what do I get for my reward? This:

HORSEBACK GUESSTIMATE WARNING: Unless it's hidden away somewhere, California hasn't released weekly enrollment numbers. But they've released numbers for October, and for the first two weeks of November, and then for October+November. Then today they released numbers for the first three days of this week: 13K on Monday, 19K on Tuesday, and 20K on Wednesday. If you put that all together and then take a reasonable swag at filling in the gaps, you get the chart above. It's not official or anything, but it's probably not too far off.

And what it shows is that with deadlines finally looming, all those people who have been shopping for the past month or two are finally enrolling at a furious pace. Other states are reporting a similar surge. Obamacare still has a long way to go, but things are definitely starting to perk up.

Pussy Riot and Arctic 30 "Hooligans" to be Released From Russian Prison

| Thu Dec. 19, 2013 5:30 PM EST

The two jailed members of the punk band Pussy Riot are set to be released from prison following an amnesty bill passed by the Russian parliament last night. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina were convicted of "hooliganism" and sentenced to two years in prison after they staged a protest against Putin and the Russian Orthodox church last year.

Also likely to be released are the members of the "Arctic 30," a group of Greenpeace activists who staged a protest against drilling in the Arctic by boarding a Russian oil rig in September. The activists have spent two months in jail under charges of hooliganism. Peter Wilcox, the American captain of the Greenpeace ship that was raided by Russian authorities, says that while he's happy to be going home, "I should never have been charged and jailed in the first place."

The passage of the amnesty bill comes amid growing scrutiny of the Putin administration's crack-down on gay rights. In June, Putin signed into law a bill banning the "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors." President Obama announced Tuesday that he and Michelle Obama will not be attending the 2014 Winter Olympics, which will be held in Russia this February. Instead, Obama will be sending delegates: tennis champion Billie Jean King and ice hockey medalist Caitlin Cahow, both of whom are openly gay.

Watch the "punk prayer" that got the Pussy Riot members locked in prison:

Pet Peeve Watch: I. Am. Not. A. Guest.

| Thu Dec. 19, 2013 3:53 PM EST

Yet another store has been hacked, losing data on millions of credit and debit cards. This time the victim was Target, but it could have been anyone. Once again, corporate America has demonstrated that it couldn't care less about customer security and privacy.

But you already knew that. Instead, I'm curious whether I'm alone in hating, hating, hating this particular euphemism from Target's CEO:

Target’s first priority is preserving the trust of our guests and we have moved swiftly to address this issue, so guests can shop with confidence. We regret any inconvenience this may cause.

I. Am. Not. A. Guest. A guest is someone I invite into my home and ply with free food and drink. Because, you know, they're my guest. Target doesn't do that. They sell me stuff. I pay for it. (Probably with cash from now on.) I can complain about poor service. I can return stuff I don't like. I can choose what I want to buy and what I don't. That makes me a customer. Not. A. Guest.

So knock it off.

Most Americans Have No Clue How Health Insurance Works in America

| Thu Dec. 19, 2013 3:29 PM EST

EBRI has released its annual workplace benefits survey, and for the most part it's a triumph of status quo bias. Most people are fairly satisfied with their benefits and not especially eager for change. But there's one particular question that produced a different response. Here it is:

I'm scratching my head a bit over this. The thing is, employer health insurance is the gold standard of American health insurance. Sure, every year employee cost sharing rises and copays go up, but it's still great compared to nearly all individual plans. Deductibles are small and out-of-pocket maxes are low. Plus it's nontaxable. If you have a choice between employer insurance and individual health insurance, about 99 percent of the time you'd be crazy not to take the employer plan.

And yet, 66 percent (!) of respondents wanted to go out and choose a plan on the open market and then get reimbursed in one way or another. The only thing I can figure is that this demonstrates just how little most people know about health insurance. They have no idea that the full value of employer health insurance is free of income tax, which makes it a great deal compared to spending your own money. Nor, as so many people are suddenly discovering about Obamacare, do they realize that individual plans usually have large deductibles and stratospheric out-of-pocket maxes. For those reasons, buying an individual plan on the open market and then getting reimbursed for it is almost certainly a losing proposition.

Maybe I'm missing something here, and people understood the question differently than me. But on the surface, this sure seems to indicate that most Americans simply have no clue about how health insurance works in this country.

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How Not to Report on Test Scores and Free Lunches

| Thu Dec. 19, 2013 2:16 PM EST

Bob Somerby is complaining today about numerical illiteracy among our nation's elite reporting class. Item 1: the New York Times describes a 10-point improvement among fourth graders on the NAEP test as "small." In fact, it's roughly a full grade level. If you think that improving by a full grade level in a single decade is small, you're either crazy or innumerate.

Item 2: M. Night Shyamalan talks about the fact that American test scores are pretty high in "districts in which the poverty rate was less than 10 percent." However, the only income data we have for most test takers is related to the National School Lunch Program. Shyamalan is using eligibility for free or reduced meals as a marker of poverty. But it's not. And since here at MoJo we're dedicated to lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness, here are the exact eligibility requirements for free and reduced-price lunches in 2013, courtesy of the Agriculture Department:

Obviously, folks eligible for reduced-price meals aren't exactly swimming in cash. Still, a family of three making $36,000 isn't anyone's idea of poverty, and it's misleading to say so. Eligibility for free meals would be a fairly decent proxy for poverty—they account for about a third of all NSLP meals—but unfortunately that data isn't collected separately. You either qualify for NSLP or you don't, and something like two-thirds of all schoolchildren qualify. It's a pretty broad brush, and there are damn few school districts in which fewer than 10 percent of kids qualify.

FWIW, this is why I've never bothered breaking down test scores by income. The only data available is eligibility for NSLP, and between the loose requirements and the virtual nonexistence of verification1, it simply doesn't mean very much. It can give you a very broad feel for how rich or poor a particular school or district is, but that's it.

1Which I'm all in favor of, by the way. This is a program that probably doesn't benefit from tighter scrutiny. Nonetheless, it makes it nearly useless as a proxy for poverty among test takers.

Even Doctors Believe in Obamacare's Death Panels

| Thu Dec. 19, 2013 1:19 PM EST

I learned something new this morning. Two things, actually. First, Sarah Kliff points us to a recent study telling us that even a lot of doctors believe that Obamacare institutionalizes death panels:

This is just a survey of head and neck doctors, so maybe they're just especially ignorant among the MD set. But probably not.

So what else did I learn? Well, Obamacare has never had death panels in the sense of the question above, but it does reimburse physicians for having end-of-life conversations with their patients. You know, so they can decide about things like DNR notices, how much extraordinary care they want, living wills, and so forth. All perfectly sensible, except that it's what prompted the death panel nonsense in the first place.

And it's gone. I didn't know that. Apparently, after the New York Times put it on the front page in 2011, this provision was eliminated. So the yahoos won another victory, and it didn't stop the death panel talk anyway. Hooray.

UPDATE: Thanks to a tweet from Austin Frakt, I did a little more digging and it turns out that a weakened version of end-of-life counseling remained in the bill and was implemented by a new regulation adopted in 2010:

The final version of the health care legislation, signed into law by President Obama in March, authorized Medicare coverage of yearly physical examinations, or wellness visits. The new rule says Medicare will cover “voluntary advance care planning,” to discuss end-of-life treatment, as part of the annual visit.

Under the rule, doctors can provide information to patients on how to prepare an “advance directive,” stating how aggressively they wish to be treated if they are so sick that they cannot make health care decisions for themselves.

So if a patient asks about end-of-life treatment, doctors are allowed to talk about it and bill the time as an office visit. Death panels!

UPDATE 2: Oh hell. It turns out that a couple of weeks after putting this rule in place, the Obama administration reversed itself. So I was right the first time: Reimbursements for end-of-life counseling have been eliminated after all. Thanks, yahoos.

Grand Old Pajama Party: Pictures of Conservatives in Their Jam-Jams

| Thu Dec. 19, 2013 1:15 PM EST

On Tuesday, Organizing for Action, a remnant of Barack Obama's re-election campaign that has been re-purposed to promote the president's agenda, asked its followers to sign up for health insurance over the holidays. The group's pitch featured a bespectacled twentysomething male in pajamas, drinking hot chocolate. On the right, "Pajama Boy" quickly became a meme. At last, conservatives had an opportunity to dismiss political opponents as jobless, lazy, unsexed hippies.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie demanded that the stock image get dressed and do some community service. Texas Rep. Steve Stockman chimed in, too. Pajama Boy is a "vaguely androgynous, student-glasses-wearing, Williamsburg hipster" and "the Obama machine's id" (National Review's Charles Cooke); an "insufferable man-child" and a consequence of the "breakdown of marriage and its drift into the 30s" (Politico Magazine's Rich Lowry); and a representative of "effete, cosmopolitan America" (The Daily Caller's Matt Lewis.) Holy stock photo, Batman!

But a Mother Jones investigation discovered something unsettling. Far from being a divisive cultural wedge issue, pajamas are a normal item of clothing that normal adults wear. Even Republican presidents. The pajamas are coming from inside the White House!

Former President Ronald Reagan:

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

 

Former president Gerald Ford:

Gerald Ford Presidential Library

 

Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas):

 

Former president George H.W. Bush:

 

Former President Abraham Lincoln:

David Gilmour Blythe

 

Former President Ronald Reagan (again):

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

 

Daily Caller editor in chief Tucker Carlson:

In their defense, pajamas are hella comfortable.

BREAKING: Voter Fraud Continues to Be a Non-Problem

| Thu Dec. 19, 2013 12:30 PM EST

Dave Weigel highlights the following from Fox News:

Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted announced Wednesday that his office found 17 non-citizens illegally cast ballots in the 2012 presidential election — and has referred the case for possible prosecution... Husted also found that 274 non-citizens remain on the voting rolls. President Obama beat Mitt Romney in Ohio by just 2 percentage points in November 2012.

Hmmm. So how does 17 citizens compare to Obama's 2 percent winning margin? Weigel does the math. That's 17 out of a winning victory of 166,272 votes. Not exactly a deal breaker.

Oh, and these 17 all had driver's licenses, so a photo ID law wouldn't have helped here. Nor was there any plot to steal votes. Just a minuscule thimbleful of random folks who cast votes they shouldn't have. Maybe by accident—in fact, maybe not at all, since how these cases often turn out—but in any case, an absolute maximum of 17. Weigel concludes by comparing this to the 200,000 votes that were spoiled in Ohio in the 2004 election:

The situation's improved since then, but there remain many, many more votes lost because of flawed ballots or attritition from long lines than votes canceled out out by the confirmed ballot of a non-citizen. And a great deal of legal work has come up dry in the hunt for the mythical "buses of illegal voters" being spirited in from cities or campuses to stuff the polls.

But if you just read Fox, you've learned that the voter fraud problem is very real.

Roger that.