2013 - %3, February

Today We Have Bipartisan Support for Raising the Minimum Wage!

| Fri Feb. 15, 2013 2:31 PM EST

Over at NRO, Kevin Williamson says that he likes the idea of indexing the minimum wage to inflation and being done with it for good, but Democrats are simply too treacherous to negotiate with:

The problem is that in the current political climate, a deal is never a deal. Republicans might agree to a small increase in the minimum wage in return for indexing it to CPI and then leaving it alone — if not forever, then at least for some meaningful period of time. Once the long-term rule is established, markets can adjust, and investments can be made. In theory, that would be a pretty good deal, but there is nothing to stop Democrats from advocating further increases to the indexed minimum wage every time they feel the need to trot out a little class-warfare artillery, which is about once a week, apparently.

Well, I guess there's never any guarantee that some Democrat or another won't "trot out" a proposal to increase the minimum wage whenever the mood hits them, but will "Democrats" do this? Let's take a look at an analogous situation. For the first three decades of its existence, Social Security benefits were increased sporadically, whenever Congress had a collective mind to do so. Then, in 1975, benefits were indexed to inflation.

So what happened after that? Have Democrats been pressing for benefit hikes every week or so? I'm not an expert on the legislative history of Social Security over the past 38 years, but I'm pretty sure the answer is no. In 1983, Dems agreed to a small benefit cut as part of the Greenspan Commission deal. In 1993, Bill Clinton effectively cut benefits again by approving a measure that raised taxes on Social Security payouts for higher income beneficiaries. In 2012, Barack Obama expressed a willingness to cut benefits yet again by changing the way CPI is calculated.

But higher benefits? That's never really been on the table. What has been on the table, of course, are relentless efforts from Republicans to slash benefits in various ways, which Democrats have almost uniformly opposed. If Republicans do the same for a minimum wage indexed to inflation, they can probably expect the same.

But my guess is that an increase to nine bucks, along with indexing the minimum wage to CPI, would satisfy most Democrats for quite a while. It wouldn't satisfy all lefties, but that's a rather different thing. It's congressional Democrats who have to stick to the deal, and there's really no good reason to think they wouldn't.

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Georgia Legislators Propose Ending Direct Election of Senators—Why Not Just Get Rid of the Senate?

| Fri Feb. 15, 2013 1:45 PM EST
Atlanta skyline at dusk.

It is a matter of public record that the United States Senate is a terrible place where serious policy issues are ignored; routine votes are occasionally delayed over concerns about non-existent terrorist groups; and proverbial cans are proverbially kicked down the proverbial road of sadness, gridlock, and despair.

What's less clear is why the Senate is such a congress of louts. Is it the endless pressure to raise money? The never-ending campaign? The fact that Americans hold lots of substantive disagreements on important things and are themselves—it's been said—somewhat dysfunctional?

Actually, according to Georgia state Rep. Buzz Brockaway, the biggest problem with the Senate is that it's democratically elected. Brockaway, a Republican, has introduced a bill in the state legislature to repeal the 17th Amendment, which provides for the direct election of senators, and instead restore the responsibility of choosing members to state legislatures (as was the process until 1913).

The bill, HR 273, laments that "the Seventeenth Amendment has resulted in a large federal government with power and control that cannot be checked by the states," and suggests that "the original purpose of the United States Senate was to protect the sovereignty of the states from the federal government and to give each individual state government representation in the federal legislative branch of government."

If the bill passed, Georgia would be the first state to endorse repealing the 17th Amendment, but the idea has gained traction among conservatives over the last few decades. Texas Gov. Rick Perry supports it; so do GOP Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Jeff Flake of Arizona. (Republican Indiana Sen. candidate Richard Mourdock endorsed the idea during his campaign last year, before, in an ironic twist, losing the popular vote.) As Salon's Alex Seitz-Wald noted in 2012, conservatives blame the 17th Amendment for trampling over the rights of states by changing the constituency to which senators are accountable.

Of course, introducing a bill is the easy part. Getting voters to agree to give up their right to vote will probably be a tough sell.

When it Comes to Chuck Hagel, It's Not Business, It's Personal

| Fri Feb. 15, 2013 1:39 PM EST

I haven't seen a lot of acknowledgment of this in the blogosphere, so it's probably worth passing along this piece about Chuck Hagel in today's LA Times:

The persistent opposition by Senate Republicans to Chuck Hagel's nomination as Defense secretary isn't just about his national security views. It's also deeply personal.

President Obama's choice of the former Republican senator, whose nomination received another setback Thursday, looked, on the surface, like a gesture of bipartisanship. But to many of his former colleagues, it's anything but.

Hagel was seen as a tacit supporter of Obama in 2008 rather than Republican nominee John McCain — one of the senators key to his chances of confirmation. Just last year, Hagel endorsed the Democratic candidate for Senate in his home state of Nebraska against Deb Fischer, who went on to win and is now a vote against him.

In Washington's highly polarized environment, the Hagel nomination has become an object lesson in the dangers of crossing the partisan divide. Hagel "was anti his own party and people. People don't forget that," McCain said in a Fox News interview. "You can disagree, but if you're disagreeable, people don't forget that."

"In the name of bipartisanship, the president selected a nominee who really stuck a finger in the eyes of a number of Republicans," said William Galston, a Brookings Institution scholar and former aide to President Clinton. "If you're seen as a turncoat or an apostate or a traitor, then that's bound to have an effect on the mood of the proceedings."

I bow to no one in my belief that Republicans have gone off the rails in their opposition to Hagel. I don't buy for a second the argument that, hey, maybe Republicans have some legitimate questions about Hagel's role in drone warfare. There might be legitimate questions about his role, but the actual Senate hearings have made crystal clear that among Republican ranks, they couldn't care less about that. They love drones. They've asked no substantive questions about that at all. It's all Israel, Benghazi, Israel, Iran, Israel, "Friends of Hamas," and Israel.

At the same time, I've read a few too many people claiming that the real craziness here is that Republicans are objecting to a fellow Republican! But they're not. Hagel is an apostate, which makes him even worse than a Democrat. As near as I can tell, most Rs feel about Hagel roughly the same way Dems feel about Joe Lieberman.

So yeah, this is personal. It's crazy and off the rails, but it's also personal.

Fear is Getting a Bad Rap These Days

| Fri Feb. 15, 2013 12:55 PM EST

Today in MoJo, Chris Mooney passes along some of the latest research about how personality traits affect political affiliations:

In the American Journal of Political Science, a team of researchers including Peter Hatemi of Penn State and Rose McDermott of Brown University studied the relationship between our deep-seated tendencies to experience fear—tendencies which vary from person to person, partly for reasons that seem rooted in our genes--and our political beliefs. What they found is that people who have more fearful disposition also tend to be more politically conservative, and less tolerant of immigrants and people of races different from their own. As McDermott carefully emphasizes, that does not mean that every conservative has a high fear disposition. "It's not that conservative people are more fearful, it's that fearful people are more conservative," as she puts it.

Just for the sake of discussion, let's stipulate that this is true. We still have a wee bit of a messaging problem here: No conservative will ever, ever, ever accept any of this research as long as it insists that conservatives are just a bunch of wailing fraidy cats. And I don't blame them.

There has got to a more neutral, less pejorative way of describing this. I'm not sure what it is, though, because it needs to be technically accurate too. I could throw out a bunch of suggestions, but I wouldn't have a good sense if they really fit the evidence well.

Still, this is a widespread trait and it's one that's obviously useful to society. Being cautious is often appropriate. In-group loyalty—the root cause of xenophobia—is valuable in any group based on social ties. Wariness of others can save your life or keep you from being cheated. Skepticism toward change is often called for. Etc.

I don't know if any of these words are appropriate substitutes for "fear." But one way or another, the brain scientists and social scientists who study this stuff need to figure something out. Right now, this research too often boils down to fear bad, openness good, and that's not only wrong and simplistic, it's wildly counterproductive. If liberals were routinely described as, say, gullible and naive, we wouldn't like it much either.

So that's my question of the day. What should we say instead?

FreedomWorks Is "Freaking Out" Over the Giant-Panda-Hillary-Clinton-Sex Video

| Fri Feb. 15, 2013 12:33 PM EST

The story revealing that FreedomWorks produced a video with an obscene scene featuring a giant panda, Hillary Clinton, and oral sex created quite a stir and, according to former officials of the influential tea party group, had staffers at the conservative advocacy group and super-PAC "freaking out," as one put it. That was to be expected, especially since FreedomWorks is the target of an internal investigation mounted by its board of trustees after board members received "allegations of wrongdoing by the organization or its employees," according to a letter the board sent in December to Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks. That probe is being conducted by two lawyers: Alfred Regnery, long a prominent figure in the conservative movement, and David Martin.

Readers of Thursday's article may have noticed that Kibbe, Adam Brandon, the executive vice president of the group (who appeared in the obscene video), and Jackie Bodnar, the director of communications for FreedomWorks, did not respond to repeated requests from Mother Jones for comments (and an explanation) regarding the bizarre video. James Burnley IV, one of the two trustees who initiated the internal inquiry, did offer a comment that suggested he might not have known of the video and that the investigation might have not yet learned of it. (Former FreedomWorks officials note that the production of the video could have entailed sexual harassment, given that two female interns were asked to play the roles of the giant panda and Hillary Clinton and act out a pretend sex scene.)

After the story was posted, the FreedomWorks gang was still officially keeping mum about the giant-panda-Hillary-Clinton-sex video. I did send Burnley this query, which referred to C. Boyden Gray, another board of trustees member:

Now that the allegations regarding the video are public, do you and C. Boyden Gray intend to ask Alfred Regnery and David Martin to investigate them?

So far, no response from Burnley. Yet two former FreedomWorks officials say that they believe Regnery and Martin will have no choice but to add the panda-Clinton-sex video to their to-do list.

Why Russians Are in Love With Dashboard Cameras

| Fri Feb. 15, 2013 12:07 PM EST

As you all know by now, a meteor streaked across the Siberian sky last night, injuring hundreds of people. Not by hitting anyone, mind you, but because its sonic boom shattered windows. As you also probably know, there's lots and lots of video of the meteor. Is that because Russians are especially vigilant about watching the sky? No. It's because Russian drivers are really into dashboard cameras. And why is that?

The dashboard camera craze has really taken off in the past couple of years, but for the dullest of reasons: Insurance.

According to Radio Free Europe, the craze began as the cost of cameras dipped and citizens began fighting back against corrupt traffic cops. They quickly also proved their use in proving fault in an accident and capturing viral videos.

Animal New York also notes that the cameras are excellent in catching other drivers involved in hit-and-run accidents. As with everything else, though, what started as a personal safety fad began to produce local celebrities. There are now television shows and entire websites dedicated to capturing the best — and even reviewing — dashboard cam videos from across the country.

So there you have it.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 15, 2013

Fri Feb. 15, 2013 12:00 PM EST

U.S. soldiers patrol down a mountain after visiting an Afghan border police observation point in Kunar province, Afghanistan, Jan. 28, 2013. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Jon Heinrich.

Under Obama, Feds Holster Gun Cases

| Fri Feb. 15, 2013 7:01 AM EST

Despite the amped-up claims that President Obama is just waiting to crack down on gun owners, a new report reveals that his administration has been pursuing significantly fewer gun crimes than the predeceeding one. Under Obama, federal weapons prosecutions have declined to their lowest levels nearly a decade, according to a new report from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research group associated with Syracuse University.

After 9/11, the Bush administration's firearms prosecutions shot up, peaking at about 11,000 cases in 2004. In 2012, the feds prosecuted fewer than 8,000 gun cases:

TRAC

The prosecutions' most common target are felons who illegally possess or sell weapons—not legal owners or sellers who run afoul of the law. And, TRAC notes, counting on federal prosecutions misses the majority of gun cases: "Because of the very different number of the enforcers and prosecutors working at the two levels, state and local gun prosecutions almost certainly dwarf anything that is done by the federal government."

It's not entirely clear how the gun lobby's efforts to hamstring the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives's ability to enforce weapons laws has influenced the decline in gun cases. But of the 3,741 weapons cases referred to federal attorneys in 2012 that weren't investigated, about 40 percent were determined to lack sufficient evidence to pursue. And since 2005, the number of cases referred by the ATF has exceeded the number of weapons crimes prosecuted by federal authorities.

TRAC

Universal Preschool? Not So Fast

| Fri Feb. 15, 2013 7:01 AM EST

On Tuesday, President Obama first proposed to "make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America." Like many ideas that get floated during the State of the Union, the plan could've withered from there. As Gail Collins described in the New York Times, one of the earliest victories of the new right was destroying a preschool proposal that made it through Congress in 1971. No president has seriously tried to pitch universal preschool, or a similarly ambitious plan for early education, since.

But the president promoted universal pre-K again during a visit to an early childhood center in Decatur, Georgia, on Thursday, as the White House rolled out an ambitious plan to give states money to expand preschool access for kids from low- and middle-income families, and grow several federal programs that focus on health and early education for infants, toddlers, and pregnant moms.

Mounting research indicates that preschool pays off for kids from low-income families, not just in terms of better grades and academics in school but also, as Kevin Drum noted, in important life gains. The kids who who attended the HighScope Perry pre-K program in Ypsilanti, Michigan—which Obama was likely referencing during SOTU when he threw out that early education provides a $7 return on the dollar—were as adults more likely to be employed, less likely to have committed crimes, and made more money than a control group. The idea that pre-K is a good public investment, even "a better investment than the stock market," as the Washington Post argued yesterday, is becoming increasingly popular in Washington. But some experts argue that there are better ways to improve pre-K for kids from low-income families than the White House's new strategy.

Your Longreads Guide to Guns

| Fri Feb. 15, 2013 7:01 AM EST
longreads logo

"I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence," President Obama said in his State of the Union address on Tuesday. "But this time is different." In light of the national debate set off by the massacre in Newtown, here are six stories about guns that will take you from the annals of the NRA to the Vietnam war to the US-Mexico border.

For more MoJo staffers' long-form favorites, visit our longreads.com page. Take a look at some of our own reporters' longreads here and follow @longreads and @motherjones on Twitter for the latest. And for additional in-depth reporting on gun laws and mass shootings in America, check out Mother Jones' yearlong investigation.


"The NRA vs. America" | Tim Dickinson | Rolling Stone | January 2013

While the National Rifle Association claims to represent more than 4 million "marksmen, hunters, and responsible gun owners," recent polls show its politics are out of whack with those of most Americans, gun owners included. Some observers believe that the NRA and its lightning rod of a front man, Wayne LaPierre, essentially acts as a lobbying outfit for the powerful firearms industry.

In more than three decades of service to the NRA, Wayne LaPierre has done more than any other man alive to make America safe for crazed gunmen to build warlike arsenals and unleash terror on innocents at movie theaters and elementary schools. In the 1980s, he helped craft legislation to roll back gun control passed in the wake of the Kennedy and King assassinations. And since the late 1990s, twice he has destroyed political deals that might have made it hugely difficult for accused killers like Holmes and Lanza to get their hands on their weapons.