If you believe the folks at NASA—and really, why shouldn't you?—it's only a matter of when, not if, we need someone like Dr. Bong Wie to save the human race from a civilization-destroying catastrophe.
Wie is the director of the Asteroid Deflection Research Center at Iowa State University, the only institution in the United States dedicated to the deflection of what NASA calls Near-Earth Objects (NEOs)—"asteroids" to the rest of us. He's been busy lately. On Friday, Americans woke up to reports and videos of the largest meteorite in more than a century crashing into Siberia. In the late afternoon, 600,000 people watched online as the DA14 asteroid passed just 17,000 miles from Earth. In response to all of this, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, announced he would hold a hearing "to develop contingencies" in the event of an imminent threat from outer space.
Scientists have been calling on the government to wake up to the NEO threat for decades, "but nothing happened," Wie says. "We are very lucky to have today's events."
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.
This is what a political wave looks like. In 2011, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Col.), who had previously sought to repeal a portion of the Voting Rights Act mandating that ballots be printed in multiple languages, went on a local talk radio station and warned that President Barack Obama planned to steal the 2012 election by granting blanket amnesty to some 12 million undocumented residents. On Sunday, Coffman, who succeeded Rep. Tom Tancredo, a notorious opponent of illegal immigration, in Congress in 2008, endorsed a path to citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants—and legal status for everyone else. That announcement came just two weeks after Coffman introduced a new bill to allow Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals (i.e. formerly undocumented residents who were brought to the United States as kids)to serve in the military legally and be put on the path to citizenship.
So what's eating Mike Coffman? It's pretty simple, really: He heard footsteps. The reconfigured sixth congressional district is now 20-percent Latino (it was previously9-percent Latino before dicennial redistricting). It went to Obama by five points in November.The Democratic House Majority PAC hasput Coffman as one of its top-10 targets for 2014. And the Dems have secured a top recruit, former state speaker of the house Andrew Romanoff, to run against him.
Whether the immigration evolution will be enough for Coffman to keep his seat is unclear. Coffman is still a bit cagey as to whether he'd support a path to citizenship for non-DACAs, which, as Washington Post's Greg Sargent points out, still puts him at odds with the majority of voters. But for immigration reform advocates wary of another hardliner insurrection, it's an encouraging sign.
Prison overcrowding at the California Institution for Men in 2006
It sounded like a throwaway line. Toward the end of a four-hour Senate hearing on gun violence last week, Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association’s executive vice president of over two decades, took a break from extolling the virtues of assault rifles and waded briefly into new territory: criminal justice reform. "We've supported prison building," LaPierre said. Then he hammered California for releasing tens of thousands of nonviolent offenders per a Supreme Court order—what he'd previously termed "the largest prison break in American history."
But California's overflowing prisons, which the Supreme Court had deemed "cruel and unusual punishment" in 2011 because of squalid conditions, were partly a product of the NRA's creation. Starting in 1992, as part of a now-defunct program called CrimeStrike, the NRA spent millions of dollars pushing a slate of supposedly anti-crime measures across the country that kept America's prisons full—and built new ones to meet the demand. CrimeStrike's legacy is everywhere these days.
CrimeStrike arose out of necessity. The NRA had come into its own as a political power during the Reagan era, but by the early 1990s, it was strapped for cash. The organization ran up a $9 million deficit in 1991 and was on pace for a $30 million shortfall in 1992, even as it was preparing to go to the mattresses over assault weapons and background checks. The NRA needed a shot in the arm.
The first wagon trains left in January. There were just a few in the beginning, and they proceeded with caution, fording the San Joaquin River, navigating the canyons and switchbacks of the high Sierras, and traversing the salt flats and creosote scrub of the Great Basin before descending, at last, over the rocky peaks and into the the fertile loam of the southern plains. What they couldn't carry with them—ocean-going yachts, car elevators, labradoodles—they'd simply discarded. Someday, maybe, when the time was right, they would return to the California they'd fled, to the Ocean-front estates and climate-controlled wine cellars they'd left behind. But for now, their sights were set on a new homeland where men, and sometimes even women, were free. Texas.
Or something like that, anyway. Earlier this week, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) ratcheted up his longstanding feud with California by purchasing radio ads in the Golden State urging businesses to pack up their things and come to Texas. "Building a business is tough, but I hear building a business in California is next to impossible," Perry said. "I have a message for California businesses: Come check out Texas." California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) responded as well as you might expect from someone who had just been trolled by Rick Perry. The ad was "barely a fart," Brown said at a press conference, while working in a dig at "Lubbock, or whatever those places are that make up that state."
And now the New York Times has entered the fray with the provocative headline, "Millionaires Consider Leaving California Over Taxes." But the article mentions just one Californian, golfer Phil Mickelson, who has recently considered leaving over taxes, and Mickelson later apologized for even talking about the idea. There's also this, from Stanford sociology professor Cristobal Young:
"I suspect the accountants are busier this year, but I don’t think the moving companies are getting a boost," Mr. Young said. "Moving out of state is actually one of the most costly responses they could make. California's high-income earners are clustered in coastal cities far from state borders. Moving to Nevada or Texas or Florida is a very big life change, and means leaving behind family, friends, colleagues and business connections."
Reuters highlighted Young's research in a similar piece last fall, concluding that tax hikes had no impact on where millionaires chose to live:
In fact, more millionaires came to the state than left after California's so-called Millionaire's Tax was introduced in 2005 - adding 1 percentage point of tax to incomes over $1 million. A 1996 cut to taxes for those earning $110,000 and up did not spur migration into the state, either.
The number of millionaires has risen or fallen by about 10,000 a year, but that change has been almost entirely due to the state economy, not wealthy people coming into or leaving the state. Such migration accounted for about 47 people, net, on average.
That's because, high taxes notwithstanding, California still has many things going for it, including science classes that teach science, the ability to drink at a bar without being hauled off in handcuffs, and—this can't be overstated—proximity to California.