2013 - %3, January

After Nebraska Setback, Greens Regroup on Keystone XL

| Fri Jan. 25, 2013 6:11 AM EST

Environmentalists waging an ongoing fight against the Keystone XL pipeline were dealt a major setback this week when Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman signed off on the pipe's route through his state. Now all that stands between TransCanada, the company behind the pipeline, and broken ground is a signature from the State Department, the final decision about which is expected this spring.

Between now and then, the sprawling unofficial coalition of green individuals and groups that have bonded in the last two years over opposition to the pipeline is gearing up for a final push. It's certain to be an uphill battle: Yesterday a letter signed by 53 senators put renewed pressure on Obama to say yes, and other than the rare rhetorical nod to climate action there are few clues that he'll nix the project*. So the rhetoric of the next couple months could make or break the pipeline.

Opposition to the Keystone XL has tended to coalesce around two different arguments, the tools in the anti-Keystone toolbelt: The first is that the pipe could deal a deadly blow to the global climate by raising the floodgates for oil from Canada's tar sands, believed by scientists to be one of Earth's dirtiest fuel sources; the second is that the pipe could pose a slew of localized threats on its path from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico, from potential leaks contaminating groundwater to careless work crews plowing through fragile dinosaur fossil beds. Governor Heineman's decision seems to close the book on the state-level fight and steal some thunder from the localized argument, but leading Nebraska activist Jane Kleeb says local landowners aren't ready to cede their home turf quite yet.

"Oh yeah, it's far from over. We have landowners asking us to train them in civil disobedience," Kleeb said. "These folks are not joking around. They homesteaded this land. They don't trust this company. And they don't want [the pipeline]. So they're going to do everything they can to keep it from crossing their lines."

keystone route
Nebraska DEQ; Tim McDonnell

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Quinoa: Good, Evil, or Just Really Complicated?

| Fri Jan. 25, 2013 6:11 AM EST

"Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?," thunders the headline of a recent Guardian piece. Hard to say, but reality check: It isn't just vegans who enjoy quinoa. Like many occasional meat eaters I know, I've been eating it for years. Quinoa is also big among gluten-intolerant omnivores. So quinoa's truth—unpalatable or not—isn't just for its vegan fans to bear.

So what is going on with this long-time staple of the Andes and newly emerged favorite of health-minded US eaters?

The FAO has declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa and even runs a Facebook fan page for it.

First, the good. Quinoa is the grain-like seed of a plant in the goosefoot family (other members include spinach, chard, and the wonderful edible weed lambs quarters), and its appeal is immense. Twenty years ago, NASA researchers sung its praises as potential astronaut chow, mainly for its superior nutrient density. No less an authority than the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization hails it as "the only plant food that contains all the essential amino acids, trace elements and vitamins and contains no gluten." The FAO is almost breathlessly enthusiastic about quinoa—it has declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa and even runs a Facebook fan page for it.

And quinoa has generally been a success for the people who grow it. Unlike other southern-hemisphere commodities prized in the global north, like coffee and cocoa, quinoa, for the most part, isn't grown on big plantations owned by a powerful elite. A 2003 Rodale article describes its cultural place in the Andean highlands, an area that encompasses parts of Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador:

Shocker: NRA Survey Finds Its Members Love Its Extreme Policies

| Thu Jan. 24, 2013 8:19 PM EST

A new survey conducted by the National Rifle Association finds that—surprise!—NRA members really, really like the NRA and its policies. More specifically, it found that 98 percent have a favorable view of the gun-rights organization and its absolutist stance. On the flip side, 93 percent have an unfavorable view of President Barack Obama; New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg squeaks by with an 80 percent disapproval rating. Moreover, the NRA finds its members overwhelmingly reject gun-control measures that nobody in Washington is seriously proposing.

Beyond the Saddam-like approval ratings, the survey of 1,000 NRA (PDF) members shows that the vast majority "are united in their desire for Washington to focus on keeping firearms from the mentally ill and to reject unconstitutional gun control measures that infringe on Second Amendment rights." More than 90 percent support keeping firearms away from the mentally ill, 89 percent oppose an assault-rifle ban, 83 percent oppose a ban on high-capacity clips, and 82 percent back the NRA's proposal to put "armed security professionals" in every public school.

And the one-sided responses keep coming as the survey tosses out some wacky hypothetical gun laws: 92 percent of NRA members say they oppose "government confiscation of certain semi-automatic firearms…through a mandatory buy-back program," and 92 percent also oppose "a new federal law banning the sale of firearms between private citizens." When presented with Obama's claims that "a balanced approach" toward reducing gun violence is needed, 79 percent say they still suspect "his real goal is to pass sweeping gun control regulation that will take away our 2nd Amendment rights." (Related: New research shows that the more informed political conservatives are, the more likely they are to believe in conspiracy theories.)

The organization says the survey is "the only legitimate survey of NRA members in existence," suggesting that external surveys, such as this one conducted for Bloomberg's Mayors Against Illegal Guns—by longtime Republican pollster Frank Luntz—are bunk. That survey found that 74 percent of NRA members support requiring criminal background for all gun purchasers. (Currently, around 40 percent of gun sales are conducted without background checks due to an NRA-backed loophole.)

Republicans Care About Taxes and Spending, Not Deficits

| Thu Jan. 24, 2013 5:28 PM EST

Tim Geithner says, correctly, that we're actually pretty close to fixing our long-term deficit problems. He then suggests that since there's only a little more to be done, "it should be relatively easy to reach an agreement." Paul Krugman is not amused:

To say what should be obvious: Republicans don’t care about the deficit. They care about exploiting the deficit to pursue their goal of dismantling the social insurance system. They want a fiscal crisis; they need it; they’re enjoying it. I mean, how is “starve the beast” supposed to work? Precisely by creating a fiscal crisis, giving you an excuse to slash Social Security and Medicare.

The idea that they’re going to cheerfully accept a deal that will take the current deficit off the table as a scare story without doing major damage to the key social insurance programs, and then have a philosophical discussion about how we might change those programs over the longer term, is pure fantasy. That would amount to an admission of defeat on their part.

Now, maybe we will get that admission of defeat. But that’s what it will be — not a Grand Bargain between the parties, acting together in the nation’s interest.

Yep. Republicans haven't cared about the deficit for decades. They got a bit worried about it when Ronald Reagan's 1981 tax cut didn't pay for itself the way he promised, and this prompted them to reluctantly pass Reagan's 1982 tax increase. But they very quickly sent that 1982 bill down the memory hole, pretending to this day that Saint Ronnie never increased taxes. Since then, they've cared about deficits only when Democrats were in office.

As it happens, I don't think there's anything nefarious about this. Republicans don't like Democratic spending priorities, and yelling about the deficit is a very effective way of objecting to all of them without having to waste time arguing about each one separately. It's an effective strategy with the press corps, which for some reason is deficit-phobic, and it's effective with the public, which generally retains its belief that government finances are similar to household finances. If I were a Republican, I'd latch onto deficits as an anti-spending tactic too. It works pretty well.

That said, it's still worth keeping the truth in mind. What frustrates me isn't so much that Republicans do this—that's just politics—but that the press so routinely lets them get away with it. I understand the constraints they work under, but still. The difference between actual Republican priorities and claimed Republican priorities is so obvious that it hardly counts as editorializing to point it out.

Pentagon's Top General: Women in Combat Help Cut Down on Military Sexual Assaults

| Thu Jan. 24, 2013 3:03 PM EST

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey

If the United States had previously allowed women to serve officially in military combat roles, including special operations forces, there might be fewer sexual assaults in the armed services, the Pentagon's top general told reporters Thursday.

Having studied the issue of rampant sexual misconduct in the ranks, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted that he has concluded that the phenomenon exists partly because women have been subordinated to men in military culture: "It's because we've had separate classes of military personnel." 

Driverless Cars Will Change Our Lives. Soon.

| Thu Jan. 24, 2013 2:32 PM EST

Felix Salmon is no fan of cars, but after attending a panel on smart cars he's rethinking things. Driverless cars are making impressive strides, he says correctly, and that could be a bigger deal than we think. Big enough, in fact, that it might make cars superior to rail in already developed areas:

If and when self-driving cars really start taking off, it’s easy to see where the road leads. Firstly, they probably won’t be operated on the owner-occupier model that we use for cars today....Given driverless cars’ ability to come pick you up whenever you need one, it makes much more sense to just join a network of such things....therefore the freeing up of lots of space currently given over to parking spots.

What’s more, the capacity of all that freed-up space will be much greater than the capacity of our current roads. Put enough [] self-driving cars onto the road, and it’s entirely conceivable that the number of vehicle-miles driven per hour, on any given stretch of road, could double from its current level, even without any increase in the speed limit. Then, take account of the fact that vehicle mileage will continue to improve. The result is that with existing dumb roads, we could wind up moving more people more miles for less total energy expenditure in cars — even when most of those cars continue to have just one person in them — than by forcing those people to cluster together and take huge, heavy trains instead.

This vision creates a dilemma, when we start facing choices about building rail lines or new suburbs. We’re not in a self-driving-car utopia yet, and the transportation problems we have are both real and solvable using rail. So do we use the tools we have, or do we wait and hope that future technology will solve our problems in a more efficient way?

I don't really need any convincing on this front. I think that genuine self-driving cars will be available within a decade and that they'll be big game changers. Even bigger than Felix suggests. When you're not actually driving a car yourself, for example, you don't care much about how powerful it is. So you'll be happy to chug along in a super-efficient car, reading a book or playing on your phone. You'll be more willing to share a car, since automated systems will be able to quickly put together carpools with guaranteed maximums on wait time. And of course, driverless cars will be fundamentally more fuel-efficient since computers can drive cars better than humans can.

There's much more, and while I'll happily concede that it's all speculative, I really don't think it's that speculative any more. The technology is coming, and it has some pretty obvious implications. It will affect some things (commuting, event transportation) more than others (long-distance driving, short hops), but in the end it's going to affect everything. How many people will even bother owning cars if they can buy a share in a car service for a quarter of the price with a guaranteed wait maximum of five minutes, or for a tenth of the price with a maximum wait of 15 minutes? Not too many.

This stuff is coming. I honestly have no idea why so many people are still convinced that, for some reason, true driverless cars can't possibly ever happen. Sure they can. And we don't have much longer to wait, either.

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Dianne Feinstein Tries to Unsuck the Assault Weapons Ban

| Thu Jan. 24, 2013 1:07 PM EST

The problems with the 1994 assault weapons ban, according to its supporters, were twofold. The first was that gunmakers could—and did—simply modify their semiautomatic weapons to fit the law by eliminating cosmetic features. An AR-15 without a bayonet mount is still an AR-15; it's just marginally less effective in hand-to-hand combat with Redcoats. That second problem with the ban was that it ended, sunsetting in 2004.

At a Capitol Hill press conference on Thursday to introduce new legislation banning assault weapons, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) promised that she and her colleagues had learned from their mistakes. "One criticism of the '94 law was that it was a two-characteristic test that defined [an assault weapon]," Feinstein said. "And that was too easy to work around. Manufacturers could simply remove one of the characteristics, and the firearm was legal. The bill we are introducting today will make it much more difficult to work around by moving a one-characteristic test."

And unlike AWB 1.0, Feinstein explained, this one wouldn't expire in 10 years: "No weapon is taken from anyone," she said, but "the purpose of this bill is to dry up the supply of these weapons overtime, therefore there is no sunset on this bill."

Feinstein's bill, like the original version, includes a ban on the manufacture and importation of high-capacity magazines, defined as any feeding container holding more than 10 bullets—something gun-control advocates point to as one of the success stories in the 1994 law. It would also close a loophole that legalized the slide iron stock, which as my colleague Dana Liebelson reported, allows gun-owners to convert their firearms into fully-automatics weapons—legally.

But the package faces stiff opposition, including from some Democrats. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) recently lamented "one-size-fits-all directives from Washington," and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), who initially seemed receptive to limits on assault weapons and high-capacity clips, has since clammed up.

Even if Feinstein's bill does make it through Congress, though, there's still an open question as to what it would actually accomplish. Although Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) suggested on Thursday that the ban might have saved "hundreds of thousands" of lives had it never gone away, a 2004 University of Pennsylvania study commissioned by Department of Justice was much more reserved: "We cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation's recent drop in gun violence. And, indeed, there has been no discernible reduction in the lethality and injuriousness of gun violence."

Are Robo-Pollers Cheating?

| Thu Jan. 24, 2013 12:47 PM EST

Are robo-polls as good as live-interviewer polls? Maybe! Some people have even suggested they're better.

But wait. Gary Langer reports on an academic study of robo-polls during last year's Republican primary that finds something strange: if the robo-polls are done after human polls have been done, they're just as good as the human polls. But if they're done in states where no human polls were done—that's the red oval in the chart below—they do significantly worse.

So what's going on? The researchers make two suggestions. First, the poor results in the red oval are based on a small number of polls in just five states, so "it’s possible that what’s going on is something goofy in those five states." Alternatively, the folks doing the robo-polls might be massaging their results. The researchers say their analysis "suggests, but certainly does not prove, that at least some IVR polls may use earlier human polls to adjust their results to ensure that they are not notably different from existing polls and beliefs."

The full paper is here. Stay tuned for further research.

New Mexico GOP Rep. Wins Prize for Abortion Trolling

| Thu Jan. 24, 2013 12:42 PM EST

You might think the 2012 election taught Republicans that talking about rape and abortion is just a bad idea. But apparently Cathrynn Brown, a GOP state representative in New Mexico, didn't get that message, because on Wednesday she introduced a new law that would bar raped women from getting abortions because doing so would be "tampering with evidence."

Brown's bill, HB206, would make obtaining an abortion after a rape a felony punishable by up to three years in prison. Here's what the bill says:

Tampering with evidence consists of destroying, changing, hiding, placing or fabricating any physical evidence with intent to prevent the apprehension, prosecution or conviction of any person or to throw suspicion of the commission of a crime upon another.
Tampering with evidence shall include procuring or facilitating an abortion, or compelling or coercing another to obtain an abortion, of a fetus that is the result of criminal sexual penetration or incest with the intent to destroy evidence of the crime.

As Huffington Post notes, the bill isn't likely to pass: Democrats control both chambers of the legislature. But it is some world-class trolling that this is even being introduced.

UPDATE: After the bill got national attention, Brown issued a statement saying that her bill had been misinterpreted, the Albuquerque Journal reports. "House Bill 206 was never intended to punish or criminalize rape victims," Brown said. "Its intent is solely to deter rape and cases of incest. The rapist—not the victim—would be charged with tampering of evidence." 

Real Filibuster Reform Appears to Be Dead in the Senate

| Thu Jan. 24, 2013 12:26 PM EST
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

The fight to rewrite the filibuster, that pesky blocking maneuver used by senators to quietly kill a bill before it even arrives on the Senate floor, appears to be over. As the Huffington Post reports, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have cut a compromise deal that will make it easier for the Senate to begin debating new legislation, while also speeding up the process of voting to confirm the president's judicial nominations. But the deal does not include the major reform liberals wanted: the so-called "talking filibuster," which would force senators to remain speaking on the Senate floor for as long as they wanted to filibuster.

Here's more from HuffPost:

[Reid and McConnell] also agreed that they will make some changes in how the Senate carries out filibusters under the existing rules, reminiscent of the handshake agreement last term, which quickly fell apart. First, senators who wish to object or threaten a filibuster must actually come to the floor to do so. And second, the two leaders will make sure that debate time post-cloture is actually used in debate. If senators seeking to slow down business simply put in quorum calls to delay action, the Senate will go live, force votes to produce a quorum, and otherwise work to make sure senators actually show up and debate.

The arrangement between Reid and McConnell means that the majority leader will not resort to his controversial threat, known as the "nuclear option," to change the rules via 51 votes on the first day of the congressional session. Reid may have been able to get greater reforms that way, but several members of his own party were uncomfortable with the precedent it would have set. And Reid himself, an institutionalist, wanted a bipartisan deal for the longterm health of the institution. Reid presented McConnell with two offers—one bipartisan accord consisting of weaker reforms, and a stronger package Reid was willing to ram through on a partisan vote. McConnell chose the bipartisan route.

The Reid-McConnell deal is nothing to dismiss. It should accelerate the pace of bringing new bills to the floor and confirming nominations in the Senate. But it is a stinging defeat for progressive senators Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who fought hardest for the talking filibuster.

Merkley and Udall's proposal makes perfect sense when you stop and think about it. If you want to stymie a piece of legislation, or deny a vote on a judicial nominee of the president's, then stand up and explain why and don't stop until you're done blocking whatever it is you don't agree with. The way it works now, senators can filibuster in absentia, meaning they don't need to be on the Senate floor—or even in Washington, DC!—to block a bill. Senators now filibuster more than ever, objecting to even the most routine bills and nominations. As Merkley recently noted, there was just one vote to try to break a filibuster during Lyndon Johnson's time as Senate leader in the late 1950s; under Harry Reid, there are have been 391 such votes.

But even some Democrats in the Senate didn't like the talking filibuster idea. They still believe the filibuster will be useful when, inevitably, they're the minority party in the Senate, and they feel complelled to block the GOP's agenda. 

The Reid-McConnell compromise is also a blow to the Democracy Initiative, a coalition of labor unions, enviros, voting rights groups, and other progressive outfits that had embraced filibuster reform as its new cause célèbre. That coalition lobbied hard in the Senate this month and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads to promote the talking filibuster. Now they're left empty-handed. A related filibuster reform group, Fix the Senate, blasted out this statement Thursday morning: "If the agreement proceeds as expected, Senator Reid and the entire chamber will have missed an opportunity to restore accountability and deliberation to the Senate, while not raising the costs of obstruction."