2013 - %3, February

Ding Dong (Some) Anti-Evolution Bills Are Dead

| Wed Feb. 27, 2013 9:55 AM PST

It looks like Charles Darwin can stop turning over in his grave, or at least, slow his roll: Three bills that take aim at widely accepted scientific theories like evolution and climate change died this week, in Indiana, the Oklahoma state Senate, and Arizona, following the earlier demise of similar legislation in Montana and Colorado, the National Center for Science Education reports. But two other anti-evolution bills—one in Missouri and another in Oklahoma's House of Representatives—are still kicking, and they have more explicit pro-creationist language than the bills that have already been scrapped.

As Mother Jones reported last week, the House bill in Oklahoma, introduced by Republican state representative Rep. Gus Blackwell in February, forbids teachers from penalizing kids for writing papers attempting to debunk the theory of evolution or global warming. That bill squeaked through the Oklahoma Common Education committee on February 19, and is still alive. So is a House bill in Missouri, introduced by Republican state representative Rick Brattin in January, that would require that teachers and textbooks devote equal space to the teaching of intelligent design, "destiny" and any other theories of origin. Brattin's bill has been referred to the Missouri Elementary and Secondary Education committee, but a hearing still hasn't been scheduled. Even the Discovery Institute, which supports intelligent design research, is opposing the Missouri bill, saying it goes too far in pushing intelligent design in schools.

In contrast, the dead bills in Indiana and Oklahoma don't even mention evolution. Instead the Indiana bill merely says "some subjects, including, but not limited to, science, history, and health, have produced differing conclusions," and both the Indiana and Oklahoma bills say teachers should be allowed to teach the "strengths and weaknesses" of different theories. This is similar to language used in the now-dead Arizona bill—except that Arizona actually names those controversial theories: "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming and human cloning." Kathy Trundle, president of the Association for Science Teacher Education, tells Mother Jones that "these types of legislation represent a thinly veiled attack on biological evolution.... Theories are not speculation."

In Indiana, a spokesman for Rep. Robert Behning, House Education Committee chairman, told The Indiana Star on February 3 that the bill wasn't going to get a hearing "due to the volume of bills and limited time." But that doesn't mean that the bill's sponsor is giving up. "It might be one of those things that I may file for several years," Republican state Representative Jeff Thompson told the paper. "My thought process hasn't changed."

Trundle says this kind of thinking is exactly the problem: "Legislation that conflates science, religion and politics is confusing and works against efforts to achieve scientific literacy."

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Supreme Court: You Can't Challenge Secret Law Because It's Secret

| Wed Feb. 27, 2013 9:46 AM PST

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that they're not after you. But you'll never be able to prove it.

That's the gist of the Supreme Court's Tuesday ruling in Amnesty v. Clapper, the challenge to the Bush administration's 2008 warrantless wiretapping law filed by human rights activists, attorneys and journalists who say the law makes it likely they will be unlawfully surveilled. The vote was 5-4, with the conservative justices backing up the Obama administration and the Democratic appointees dissenting. At issue was not the law itself, but whether the plaintiffs had "standing"—the legal requirement that plaintiffs prove that the law they're suing about would actually affect them. The Supreme Court said these plaintiffs couldn't prove the government would spy on them.

"It's a disturbing decision," Jameel Jaffer, the American Civil Liberties Union attorney who argued the case on behalf of the plaintiffs, said in a statement. "This ruling insulates the statute from meaningful judicial review and leaves Americans' privacy rights to the mercy of the political branches."

In 2008, Congress amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which made the government seek warrants from a secret court in order to spy on suspected foreign agents, in order to retroactively legalize the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance program. The law, which allows the government to intercept communications without a warrant as long as it believes one party to the communication is overseas, passed with the support of then-Senator Barack Obama, who made a since-broken promise to reform the law. Civil liberties groups sought to have the law overturned, but the Supreme Court decided Tuesday that because the plaintiffs couldn't prove they had been spied on by the government, they can't challenge the law.

Conservative Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, told the plaintiffs that any harm done to them was merely "speculative" and "hypothetical," which meant that they could not prove a concrete harm that would justify allowing them to challenge the law. "Respondents have no actual knowledge of the Government's targeting practices," Alito wrote.

Well, of course they don't. Whom the law targets is a secret!

Alito's argument relies on an obvious paradox: He writes that the plaintiffs can't prove they were harmed and so can't challenge the law. But the reason the plaintiffs can't prove they were harmed is that the US government doesn't tell people when it's eavesdropping on them. Under Alito's reasoning, as long as the US government engages in unconstitutional activities behind a cloak of secrecy, there's no problem, because no one could ever possibly prove that they were actually affected. 

The plaintiffs had argued that because their work brought them into contact with people the US government would be interested in keeping tabs on—some of them represent detainees at Guantanamo Bay, for example—they had a reasonable expectation that the government would violate their constitutional rights by subjecting them to warrantless surveillance. Simply believing that they might be spied on by the US government, they said, had forced them to drastically alter their behavior. Although the law technically forbids "targeting" of American citizens, it allows collection of communications where one point of contact is in the US and another is abroad. 

Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the four Democratic-appointed dissenters, agreed that the plaintiffs had reason to worry. In fact, he said the government wouldn't be doing its job if it weren't interested in some of the people the plaintiffs were in contact with.

"We need only assume that the government is doing its job (to find out about, and combat, terror­ism) in order to conclude that there is a high probability that the government will intercept at least some electronic communication to which at least some of the plaintiffs are parties," Breyer wrote.

Alito defended his ruling by noting in the opinion that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court evaluates the government's spying operations. (Civil libertarians counter that the FISA court operates in secret.) Furthermore, Alito argues, "if the Government were to prosecute one of respondent-attorney's foreign clients using [evidence gathered from warrantless wiretapping law], the Government would be required to make a disclosure."

But there's no reason for the government to do that, says Julian Sanchez, a research fellow at the Cato Institute, precisely because it could result in court scrutiny. And even if the government ever did introduce evidence gathered through warrantless surveillance in court, it would mean of the potentially thousands of innocent people subjected to warrantless wiretapping (the government won't say how many Americans have had their communications intercepted) who were never prosecuted would never know their rights had been violated.

But assuming there's no harm done just because you can't know you've been spied on misses the point. "If the watchman is invisible," Sanchez says, "then everyone has to act as though they're being watched all the time."

 

 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 27, 2013

Wed Feb. 27, 2013 9:40 AM PST

Marine veteran Cpl. Sebastion Gallegos, a San Antonio native, warms up for the shot put with a medicine ball during practice at the 2013 Marine Corps Trials at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., Feb. 26, 2013. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Daniel Wetzel.

 

Recession? What Recession?

| Wed Feb. 27, 2013 8:46 AM PST

Regular readers of this blog will find this no surprise, but it's nice to see it on the front page of a daily newspaper:

The federal government, the nation’s largest consumer and investor, is cutting back at a pace exceeded in the last half-century only by the military demobilizations after the Vietnam War and the cold war....Federal, state and local governments now employ 500,000 fewer workers than they did on the eve of the recession in 2007, the longest and deepest decline in total government employment since the aftermath of World War II.

....The spending cutbacks and actions to raise taxes could reduce growth by roughly 1.5 percentage points this year, according to the Congressional Budget Office, leaving the sluggish economy operating well below capacity.

The basic chart is below. If the recession of 2007-08 had been a normal one, the cutbacks we're seeing now might have been justified after the initial round of stimulus. But it wasn't a normal one. It was the deepest economic slowdown since the Great Depression. It's suicidal that we pulled back so soon.

Watch Live: How the US Navy Is Leading the Charge on Clean Energy and Climate Change

Wed Feb. 27, 2013 6:11 AM PST

Event live stream to start 02/27/13 around 9:30 a.m. EST:

The US Navy is now leading the charge towards clean energy—which is big news for national security and even climate change. Through investments in biofuels, construction of a more energy-efficient fleet, forward thinking about issues like rising sea levels and a melting Arctic, and commitments to reduce consumption and reliance on foreign oil, the Navy is poised to "change the way the US military sails, flies, marches, and thinks."

Please join host Chris Mooney for the next installment of Climate Desk Live on Wednesday February 27 at 9:30 a.m, where he'll discuss the Navy's charge towards energy independence with Dr. David W. Titley, retired naval officer who led the US Navy's Task Force on Climate Change; Capt. James C. Goudreau, Director, Navy Energy Coordination Office; Dr. D. James Baker, Director of the Global Carbon Measurement Program of the William J. Clinton Foundation and Former Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) under the Clinton Administration; and Julia Whitty, environmental correspondent for Mother Jones whose cover story on this topic appears in latest issue of the magazine.

9 Surprising Facts About Junk Food

| Wed Feb. 27, 2013 4:01 AM PST
Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here.

Riffing on his new book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, ace New York Times investigative reporter Michael Moss is suddenly everywhere—he's out with a blockbuster article in the Times Magazine and just appeared on Fresh Air.

I haven't had a chance to read the book yet, but I've skimmed it, and it looks excellent. Here are nine quick takeaways:

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Presidential Non-Power

| Tue Feb. 26, 2013 10:58 PM PST

In his column today, David Ignatius is pretty good about blaming our recent string of fiscal standoffs on the recklessness of congressional Republicans. But then he ends with this:

So how can we get these incapacitated drivers to stop before they do any more damage? If this were really a case of chronic drinkers, the answer would be an intervention to keep them off the road. In politics, the public gets to intervene through elections. We just had one, and the Republicans lost, big time. Yet it didn’t seem to make much difference. The House Republicans are still grabbing for the wheel, and the car is rumbling toward trouble.

Obama tries everything to gain control — except a clear, firm presidential statement that speaks to everyone onboard, those who voted for him and those who didn’t — that could get the country where it needs to go.

A "firm presidential statement"? Seriously? Where do people come up with this stuff? Obama has made dozens of firm presidential statements, and it's had precisely zero effect. Republicans couldn't care less about his firm presidential statements.

There's a lot of this going around these days, the idea that presidents can magically work their will on a hostile Congress if they're simply strong enough. This has never really been true, and it's certainly not true of the 113th Congress, the most hostile in living memory. It's weird that so many people seem to think otherwise.

"It Seems Like Yesterday That Trayvon Was Here"

| Tue Feb. 26, 2013 10:18 PM PST
Trayvon's mother Sybrina Fulton
From left: Trayvon Martin's father, Tracy Martin; his mother, Sybrina Fulton; and Benjamin Crump, the family's lawyer. James West

A few hundred demonstrators chanted "Hoodies up! Hoodies up!" in New York City's Union Square earlier tonight to mark the exact minute that Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old, was shot and killed by Florida neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman one year ago. Zimmerman was ultimately charged with second-degree murder in the case, which sparked a national debate over racial profiling.

Dark hoodies drawn over their heads in remembrance of what their son was wearing that night, Trayvon's parents stood with their lawyer, Benjamin Crump, and Oscar-winning actor Jamie Foxx to lead a candlelight vigil that doubled as a call to action against profiling, gun violence, and the proliferation of so-called Stand Your Ground laws.

"This is a somber day for us," said Trayvon's father, Tracy Martin, with the help of a bullhorn. "This is a day that won't be forgotten. It seems like yesterday that Trayvon was here."

Foxx spoke briefly and quietly: "We had a moment together," he said of his meeting with Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon's mother. "I want you to know this is a personal thing." He promised to use his fame to help push for justice in Trayvon's case. Crump told demonstrators that Foxx had flown in from Los Angeles especially to meet with the family on the one-year anniversary. Foxx sang a short tune, "No weapon formed against you shall prosper," before concluding, "We love you." He hugged the pair.

As the hour approached, Crump prepared the audience: "People in Sanford get ready…People in Tucson, Arizona, get ready. People in Aurora, Colorado, get ready. People all over the world get ready," he said. "Let Tracy and Sybrina know that even though Trayvon may have been alone last year at 7:17, he is not alone this year at 7:17."

Tracy Martin
Martin thanks the crowd in Manhattan's Union Square. James West

Trayvon's parents led the crowd in a minute of silence. People bowed their heads and closed their eyes. It was the only moment Fulton looked unruffled by the horde of reporters, leaning close to Crump.

As the clock struck 7:17, the moment the killing took place, Fulton and Martin spoke a short prayer in unison over the bullhorn: "We remember Trayvon Martin. Gone but never forgotten." The words were repeated several times by the crowd, a mix of activists. protesters, and New Yorkers on their way home from work.

Fulton then began to count, "One… two…" As the minute came to a close, and rain began to fall, she said, "three," and everyone blew out their candles and cheered.

A candle is lit
A participant holds a candle at the Trayvon Martin vigil. James West

It Was Eric Cantor Who Killed the Debt Ceiling Deal

| Tue Feb. 26, 2013 4:59 PM PST

Everyone and his brother has already blogged about Ryan Lizza's profile of Eric Cantor in the New Yorker this week, but it's only just now that its real meaning has struck me. Maybe I'm just slow. The subject at hand is the debt ceiling talks in July 2011, and before we get to Lizza, here's the basic timeline:

July 17: Cantor and John Boehner meet in the White House to talk with Tim Geithner about how a tax reform package could raise $800 billion as part of a "grand bargain" deficit reduction plan.

July 19: The Gang of Six in the Senate releases a bipartisan plan that includes over $1 trillion in tax increases.

July 20: Congressional Democrats start to revolt. They figure that if a bunch of Republicans can sign on to a plan with over $1 trillion in tax increases, why is Obama settling for only $800 billion?

July 21: Obama calls Boehner and asks him for $400 billion in additional revenue.

Lizza tells us what happened next:

As Obama waited by the phone for a response from the Speaker, Cantor struck. Cantor told me that it was a “fair assessment” that he talked Boehner out of accepting Obama’s deal. He said he told Boehner that it would be better, instead, to take the issues of taxes and spending to the voters and “have it out” with the Democrats in the election. Why give Obama an enormous political victory, and potentially help him win reëlection, when they might be able to negotiate a more favorable deal with a new Republican President? Boehner told Obama there was no deal. Instead of a Grand Bargain, Cantor and the House Republicans made a grand bet.

Here's why this timeline is important. It's been an article of faith among conservatives that the grand bargain collapsed because Obama got greedy and asked for more revenue. And there's certainly a kernel of truth to that: a $1.2 trillion revenue increase was obviously a tougher lift for Boehner than an $800 billion increase.

But based on Cantor's own testimony to Lizza, that wasn't really what killed the deal. Regardless of the size of the revenue increase, Cantor just flatly didn't want to reach an agreement. He didn't want to give Obama a political win, and figured that a failed deal would hurt Obama enough that Republicans could win the presidency and then write their own bill. He persuaded Boehner to go along, and the deal was dead.

Bottom line: It wasn't Obama's $400 billion that killed the deal. It was Eric Cantor who killed the deal. We now have that straight from the horse's mouth.

Salazar: On Energy, Expect Four More Years of the Same

| Tue Feb. 26, 2013 4:12 PM PST
Ken Salazar confers with the heads of Cape Wind, which he predicts will this year become the US's first offshore wind farm to break ground.

If you aren't happy with President Obama's plan for powering the US, don't hold your breath for any changes in his second term.

Speaking today to a conference of leaders of the offshore wind industry in Boston, outgoing Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar hinted at the nation's energy future. "It's going to be very much a continuation agenda," Salazar said of Sally Jewell, Obama's pick to succeed him.

Salazar noted with pride how in Obama's first term, the equivalent of 30 fossil-fuel-fired power plants worth of renewable energy projects have been approved for public lands, a trend he's confident will continue into the future. But stashed away in his remarks was also a renewed commitment to growing fracking nationwide and oil drilling in the Alaskan arctic, two key aspects of Obama's "all-of-the-above" energy policy that have drawn fire from environmentalists, and which Salazar equated with renewables as "very important" components of America's energy plan going forward.

Salazar: Obama's second term is "going to be very much a continuation agenda."

Salazar, making a rare public appearance without his signature Stetson hat, closed his speech with an excerpt from Obama's recent State of the Union address, wherein the president called on America to be a leader on renewables. But later, speaking to reporters, Salazar expressed ambivalence about the Keystone XL pipeline, saying only that he supported the president's review process and he trusted incoming State Secretary John Kerry, with whom the ultimate call on Keystone XL rests, to make the right decision. He also sidestepped a question about the risks of fracking, saying that "shale gas has a lot of promise for energy security in the US. We will be implementing an agenda that takes advantage of it all."

During his time in Obama's cabinet, Salazar embraced climate change as an issue, overseeing the granting of the US' first two offshore wind permits and helping to draft a regulatory structure for building solar farms, wind turbines, and other renewable energy projects on the 250 million acres of public land managed by his Bureau of Land Management. But Salazar also signed off last year on permits for Shell to drill for oil off Alaska, and has indicated that more Arctic drilling is likely, despite Shell's comedy of errors there this winter.