2013 - %3, February

Montana Still Trying to Legalize Gay Sex

| Wed Feb. 20, 2013 5:26 PM EST

On Wednesday, by a 38 to 11 vote*, the Montana state Senate passed SB 107, a bill to "generally revise deviate sexual conduct laws." Put another way: They voted to decriminalize homosexuality.

Although the 2002 Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas ruled that state laws prohibiting sodomy are unconstitutional, the effect has been slow to sink in. Montana is one of four states, along with Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, that still have laws on the books specifically outlawing gay sex. Ten more states—Idaho, Utah, Michigan, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and (obviously) Florida—maintain a blanket prohibition on sodomy for persons of all sexual orientations.

The laws have stayed on the books partly because of institutional inertia; culling unenforceable laws isn't exactly the most urgent issue facing cash-strapped states. But when advocates have generated legislative momentum to repeal the sodomy statutes, they've invariably been thwarted. As I reported in 2011, lawmakers in Texas have repeatedly sought to purge the state's anti-sodomy law from the books without success. (It likely doesn't help matters that GOP Gov. Rick Perry believes Lawrence was wrongly decided.) In 2012, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, also a Republican, formed an Office of the Repealer to delete unnecessary laws from the state books, but pointedly left out his state's invalidated ban on sodomy.

This isn't the only notable LGBT legislation up for consideration. Another bill before the legislature would extend the state's anti-discrimination protections to gays and lesbians for the first time—a more substantive reform that advocates hope would serve as a bulwark against bullying.

But neither proposal stands much chance of becoming law in 2013. As the Billings Gazette notes, a bill to eliminate the sodomy statute passed the Senate in 2011 only to fail in the house. "We are expecting this bill to go to House judiciary, which is a very ideologically driven committee, and we expect it to die in that committee," says Jamee Greer, a lobbyist for the Montana Human Rights Network, an LGBT equality group. "They're not showing a lot of respect to the LGBT community and I don't expect them to pass 107."

*Among the 10 Republicans voting against it: This guy.

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Want to Tackle Income Inequality? You Need to Go After Capital Gains.

| Wed Feb. 20, 2013 3:57 PM EST

Greg Sargent calls our attention to a new study on rising income inequality today. The question at hand isn't how much inequality has increased over the past couple of decades, it's where the increase has come from. The study is from Thomas Hungerford, an analyst with the Congressional Research Service, and the chart on the right tells the story:

  • Wages, interest, and taxes have contributed to a lowering of income inequality.
  • Business income and retirement income have contributed to an increase in income inequality.
  • Capital gains and dividends have contributed more to the rise of income inequality than everything else put together.

As Hungerford put it in an interview, "The reason income inequality has been increasing has been the rising income going to the top one percent. Most of that has come in capital gains and dividends." Sargent relates this to the current sequester talks:

This finding is directly relevant to the current debate, because Obama and Democrats want to offset the sequester in part by closing loopholes enjoyed by the wealthy, such as the one that keeps tax rates on capital gains and dividends low. Dems want to do this in order to prevent a scenario where the sequester is averted only by deep spending cuts to social programs that could hurt a whole lot of poor and middle class Americans. Republicans oppose closing any such loopholes and want to avert the sequester with only deep spending cuts.

If higher rates on capital gains were bad for growth, Obama's proposal might be a bad idea. Maybe higher inequality is just the price we pay for a vibrant economy. The problem is that there's very little evidence that low rates on capital gains have any effect on economic growth at all. In fact, you can make an argument that current rates are too low. It's possible that higher rates might benefit the economy.

Bottom line: If you care about rising income inequality, you should care about capital gains because that's mostly where the skyrocketing income increases of the past couple of decades have come from. And while the fiscal cliff deal raised rates on capital gains and dividends slightly, there's still plenty of room for them to go up more. Done within reason, this is very unlikely to have a negative impact on economic growth, and it would be about the fairest possible way to increase revenues.

Hungerford's full paper is here.

Can Sustainable Food Feed the Whole US?

| Wed Feb. 20, 2013 3:23 PM EST

In the early 20th century, political ads for then-presidential candidate Herbert Hoover promised Americans continued prosperity, or a "chicken in every pot." But today, in a new era of ecological crises, does our ability to feed ourselves in the future hinge on a chicken in every backyard?

This was one of the ideas explored at last night's panel of food journalists, moderated by New York Times contributing columnist Allison Arieff and co-sponsored by Mother Jones and the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR). Addressing a room of 70-90 modern farmer types, urban-planners, and Bay Area locals, Mother JonesTom Philpott, Earth Island Journal's Jason Mark, and former Grist.org editor Twilight Greenaway discussed issues taking up the most space on their plates, along with their vision for the future of the sustainable food movement. You can listen to their conversation here:

"The implication that we can vote with our fork will only get us so far," said Philpott, who went on to critique the idea that consumer choice and a backyard crop alone can reverse an entrenched trend of industrialized and consolidated control of the food supply. "The infrastructure for [small] farms doesn't exist," he said. "The only policy solution is federal policy."

One way to legislate change would be through anti-trust laws that dismantle Big Ag's grasp on production, Philpott explained, but even so, the sustainable food movement is dealing with its own internal struggles in attempting to expand. "What's the sweet spot for scale for the sustainable food movement?" asked Jason Mark. While organic farmers are still negotiating the balance between quality and affordability of their products, "It's a rational choice to buy junk food instead of healthy food," Mark added.

But as stubborn as the status quo may be, panelists also shared stories about small, ecology-minded innovation in the age of engineered shmeat ("meat grown on a sheet," Twilight Greenaway explained). Greenaway also discussed polyculture experiments in the Long Island Sound, and panelists bounced insights off one another about the challenges and promises of biotech in the sustainability movement. "We've got this beautiful niche happening," Philpott said of efforts to de-industrialize food production in the last decade. "But staying away from self-satisfaction," he added, "is paramount."

Watch Out, GOP: Obama Super-PAC Is Coming for You in 2014

| Wed Feb. 20, 2013 2:41 PM EST
A screenshot of the Priorities USA Action ad "Donnie."

Priorities USA Action, the powerful pro-Obama super-PAC, unloaded $65 million in the 2012 presidential race, battering Republican Mitt Romney with attack ads that depicted him as a profit-chasing, cold-hearted plutocrat with a history of screwing over the middle class. Priorities was the counterexample to the Republican outside groups that spent hundreds of millions with little impact: Its ads were deemed hugely effective, and Priorities played a decisive part in Obama's narrow victory in Ohio last November.

But Priorities isn't shutting down now that Obama is safely ensconced for a second term. Instead, it will raise and spend big money to help the Democrats in the 2014 midterm elections and the 2016 presidential election, a Priorities fundraiser tells Mother Jones. The fundraiser says it is too early to comment on the group's strategy for next year's midterms or the upcoming presidential race, but he confirms that Priorities will remain a fixture in Democratic politics. The super-PAC currently has $3.4 million in the bank.

In Tweets, Axelrod Agrees with Romney on Blowing Up Political Money Limits

| Wed Feb. 20, 2013 2:12 PM EST
Former Obama adviser David Axelrod.

David Axelrod, the long-time adviser to President Barack Obama, turned to Twitter on Wednesday morning to fume about the state of money in politics today. In doing so, Axelrod revealed himself to be of the same mind on how to fix our political system as Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell, Newt Gingrich, Republican super-attorney Jim Bopp (who brought the Citizens United case), and many movement conservatives.

Here's what Axelrod tweeted:

To be clear, what Axelrod is suggesting is a campaign finance system in which donors rich and not-so-rich can give without limit to the candidates they support. All those unlimited donations, though, would be fully disclosed soon after the donation is made. This is the no-limits-full-disclosure brand of reform, and it is straight out of the Republican/conservative playbook.

Consider this statement made by Mitt Romney in December 2011 on the issue of money in politics:

[W]hat we have right now is unlimited political contributions, but they’re not controlled by the campaigns. They're controlled by unaffiliated or uncoordinated entities, which, in my opinion, is the worst of both worlds. It means that large contributions have a big impact, and it means that the campaign can't control them, so if we're going to have big contributors, wouldn't it be nice to have the campaigns responsible for what those contributors say?

Romney told the Portsmouth Herald editorial board that "the best way" to fix our campaign finance system is "to let people make whatever contributions they want and have it instantly reported and know what conflicts exist so we know where the money is coming from."

Those who favor more regulation of money in politics—banning super-PACs, say, or greater disclosure of dark-money nonprofits—hate this idea. They think it will corrupt the political process, and there's plenty of historical evidence to bolster that claim. Which is why it's surprising to see Axelrod, a dyed-in-the-wool progressive Democrat, essentially endorse the no-limits-full-disclosure approach.

David Donnelly, an advocate for taxpayer-funded public financing of elections and less big money in politics, tweeted back at Axe:

The Best Plan for the Sequester: Just Kill It

| Wed Feb. 20, 2013 1:28 PM EST

Just in case I've never been clear about this, let me sign up with Paul Waldman on how Congress ought to handle the sequester fight:

For the record, there is a simple solution to the problem of the sequester: Congress should pass a law eliminating it. Not replacing it with a bunch of other budget cuts, not engaging in a new game of chicken, not putting it off for a month or two, not having a bunch of proposals and counter-proposals, just cancelling it, period. Then once that's done, you can start the budget process for real, not because there's a disaster of Congress' own making looming in a week, but through the ordinary legislative process. If you're holding a gun to the American economy's head, the first thing to do is put down the gun.

Yep. There shouldn't be any budget cuts this year. We should be spending more. Ditto for next year, probably. The deficit conversation should be entirely about setting goals for long-term deficit reduction. Obviously that's not trivial, since it's hard to bind the hand of future Congresses, but it's not impossible to make serious progress. Changes in formulas for mandatory programs, for example, will stay in place unless they get repealed by both the House and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. That's not inconceivable, but it's pretty damn unlikely. Ditto for taxes. Discretionary spending is harder to nail down, but then, discretionary spending really isn't much of a problem anyway.

Pretty plainly, then, this is what we should do. Even Beltway centrists mostly agree, though they're loath to come right out and admit it. Unfortunately, precisely because it actually makes sense, it will never happen.

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Today's Big Fight: Centrist Opinion vs. Centrist Opinion

| Wed Feb. 20, 2013 12:44 PM EST

Jonathan Chait is annoyed with the Washington Post editorial board, which says today that "neither party has staked out anything like a serious negotiating position" in the sequester talks. For some reason, though, they seem to have forgotten entirely that President Obama has, in fact, staked out a serious position. This is from the Post's own news pages a few weeks ago:

During the negotiations between Obama and Boehner, the president offered about $900 billion in spending cuts....At the same time, Obama insists tax revenue must be further increased in exchange for spending cuts. The bill approved by Congress this week raised slightly more than $600 billion of revenue over 10 years by raising tax rates. Obama now wants to raise about $600 billion more by limiting tax breaks.

This sounds perfectly serious, unless you consider the very idea of closing loopholes to raise revenue to be self-evidently unserious. And yet, as Chait points out, the Post editorial board doesn't consider the idea unserious. In fact, they're basically on board with the idea:

When you hear that “neither party” is addressing an issue, you probably think that one of the parties is the president....In fact, as such places as the Washington Post have reported, Obama is offering to replace the sequester with $600 billion in increased tax revenue plus $900 billion in spending cuts. The Post does not argue that this offer amounts to dangerous, high-tax liberalism. It does not argue that it’s a fair proposal but Obama should go further for the sake of placating Republicans. It doesn’t say Obama’s offer is great but couldn’t pass Congress, or that Obama should instead be making his offer in person, or by handwritten letter, or while gently massaging John Boehner’s bunions. The editorial says nothing at all. It accuses Obama of seeming content to blame Republicans.

"We're done with revenue," say the Republicans. They seem to believe that agreeing to extend the Bush tax cuts permanently for everyone except a tiny sliver of rich people just flat-out exhausts any further potential for raising revenue. Obama obviously disagrees, and standard Beltway centrist opinion—for example, the Washington Post editorial board—is basically on Obama's side. For some reason, though, standard centrist outlets—for example, the Washington Post editorial board—are unwilling to come right out and say so. Why is this? Obama's position is basically the same as theirs with only the change of a few minor details. Why expend so much effort to pretend otherwise?

"Friends of Hamas" Even Stupider Than You Thought

| Wed Feb. 20, 2013 12:00 PM EST

Karl Marx remarked that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Apparently this is still true. The conservative demagoguery that took down Susan Rice was a tragedy. The demagoguery attempting to take down Chuck Hagel is now officially a farce.

Remember "Friends of Hamas," the absurd terrorist front group that Hagel supposedly received funding from? Turns out it's even more absurd than we thought. New York Daily News reporter Dan Friedman says he unwittingly made up the whole thing:

Here’s what happened: When rumors swirled that Hagel received speaking fees from controversial organizations, I attempted to check them out. On Feb. 6, I called a Republican aide on Capitol Hill with a question: Did Hagel’s Senate critics know of controversial groups that he had addressed?

Hagel was in hot water for alleged hostility to Israel. So, I asked my source, had Hagel given a speech to, say, the “Junior League of Hezbollah, in France”? And: What about “Friends of Hamas”? The names were so over-the-top, so linked to terrorism in the Middle East, that it was clear I was talking hypothetically and hyperbolically. No one could take seriously the idea that organizations with those names existed — let alone that a former senator would speak to them.

Read the whole thing for more. Apparently the aide somehow mentioned this to someone else, who mentioned it to Ben Shapiro at Breitbart.com, who swallowed it whole, and from there it caught fire with the entire conservative movement. That's all it took.

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

Wed Feb. 20, 2013 11:37 AM EST

Gunnery Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson monitors radio transmissions and receives updates from the mobile combat operations center about the progress of the Afghan National Army's clearing operation in Trek Nawa, Afghanistan, Feb. 9, 2013. Johnson is a member of a Camp Pendleton-based Security Forces Assistance Advisor Team, which is mentoring the 1st Brigade, 215 Corps during the two-day operation in southern Helmand Province. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Bobby J. Yarbrough.

 

Obama's Immigration Plan Is Far Harsher Than Reagan's

| Wed Feb. 20, 2013 10:29 AM EST

Draft immigration legislation being hammered out by the White House was leaked to USA Today over the weekend, and the paper had no trouble finding Republicans who balked at the president's plan. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), one of the members of the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" who recently cooperated on a proposal for comprehensive immigration reform, called the White House draft "dead on arrival."

Opponents of immigration reform however, see the exchange as theater—"the point of leaking the bill is to enable Rubio to say that his amnesty plan is waaay different from the dastardly Obama plan," wrote the Center for Immigration Studies' Mark Krikorian at National Review. As a policy matter, Krikorian isn't entirely wrong: Rubio's hometown paper, the Miami Herald, also got ahold of the White House's drafts and concluded that they "closely resemble many of the reforms advanced in 2011 by Obama and, more recently, by Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio." (If you've been reading Mother Jones, that's hardly surprising.)

What may be surprising however, is that Obama's bill sets out a very long road to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. As Suzy Khimm writes at the Washington Post, under Obama's proposal, those undocumented immigrants who are eligible for legalization would likely have to wait around 13 years for full citizenship—eight years of temporary legal status before acquiring a green card, then, as is standard under US law, about another five for citizenship. (If a backlog of existing visa applications is cleared before that initial eight years, the total wait could be shorter.) Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of the pro-reform group America's Voice, tells Khimm that Obama's proposal would "delay citizenship another generation."

Compare that with the Immigration Control and Reform Act of 1986 that was signed by President Ronald Reagan, which allowed undocumented immigrants to apply for green cards after a temporary legal status of just 18 months. Add in the standard five years green-card holders have to wait before seeking citizenship, and under the bill Reagan signed the path to citizenship was half as long as Obama's would be.

So if you're looking for an indication of where America's immigration debate stands in 2013, note that Obama's liberal proposal would be significantly harsher than the law put in place by the patron saint of American conservatism more than 25 years ago.