2009 - %3, December

Death Threats Remain Steady

| Fri Dec. 4, 2009 2:04 PM EST

Secret Service director Mark Sullivan testified before Congress yesterday about PartyCrasherGate (or whatever they're calling it), and it's only at the very end of today's LA Times account that we actually learn something interesting:

[Sullivan] pushed back Thursday when Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D–D.C.) suggested that the event may not have been properly staffed given reports of a rise in threats against President Obama.

Sullivan said that the number of threats against the nation's first black president was now "at the same level it was" during the two previous administrations.

Same level as always, eh?  So why is the belief so widespread that death threats are up?  Bob Somerby speculates here.  (Warning: as usual, not for the faint of heart or easily pissed off.)

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Watching Cable News

| Fri Dec. 4, 2009 1:50 PM EST

Over at The Monkey Cage, Joshua Tucker wonders about the actual size of the daytime cable news audience: "When people say that cable news audiences are only in the hundreds of thousands, does that mean the same hundred of thousands? Or are lots of people watching infrequently?"  His colleague Markus Prior answers:

We don’t know for sure how the average audiences add up over the course of a day or a week because [cumulative] audiences are rarely reported by Nielsen. But it’s a good guess that concentration is pretty heavy.

I think that's a good guess too.  This is just anecdotal, but I recently received an email from a reader that began like this:

I just finished a two week visit by a family member of sorts who is about as standard issue Fox conservative as they come.  He's 68, retired (since 49) and his daily regimen consisted of waking up and turning on Fox News / CNBC all day — with friggin 2 and 5 year olds running around.  (News is not for children and Fox News in particular).  At the end of the day, when I get home, he's armed with the talking points and diverts every conversation back to venting and victimization.

And this one from another reader who is temporarily living in his mother's home, where Fox News is "blaring off two TV sets in the house virtually 24/7":

Watching my mother go into a spin cycle with every new "revelation", it occurred to me that it is not even necessary for Fox to spin anything — their job is "rinse and repeat". The FNC watchers let their fevered imagination fill in the gaps, going way beyond FNC's feeble reporting when they describe the issue to their friends and relatives. Because FNC is always on, it is not necessary to actually watch and listen — one can pass in front of a TV, catch a glimpse and a few words of the topic du jour and just make up the rest.

Like I said, this is just anecdotal.  But I suspect that Fox watchers (and perhaps other daytime cable news watchers) tend to be people who basically turn it on and listen all day as sort of background noise.  If that's true, it means that Fox's daytime audience is (a) really, really small, and (b) almost purely made up of fever swampers.  Plus, of course, a few hundred DC political junkies who don't realize how limited its reach is.  I'd welcome any actual data that either confirms or contradicts this.

Dubai, AIG, and the Ports

| Fri Dec. 4, 2009 1:35 PM EST

We learned last month that Dubai, the Gulf microstate, needs more time to pay off its debt. Adam Maxwell Jenkins, a college roommate of mine, has a great letter in today's Financial Times explaining one especially interesting way that affects us:

It was only a little more than three years ago that the teetering Middle East state conglomerate was barely beaten back from taking control of 22 US ports after its DP World subsidiary agreed to purchase the British owner-operator P&O. Congressional opposition, voiced at first by Senator Charles Schumer, soon flowered into bipartisan outcry, attacking the deal as dangerously undermining US homeland security by placing a vulnerable component of our border infrastructure in the hands of a foreign company.

Dubai ended up agreeing to sell the ports to another conglomerate in order to calm the controversy. The punchline is that company's name: AIG Global Investment Group. "Truly, one cannot make this stuff up," Jenkins writes:

If only cooler heads had prevailed, taxpaying investors in the US might now be well positioned to capitalise on Dubai World's distress as it gears up to dispose of purchases made in better times.

Sad stuff. For what it's worth, Mother Jones was on the right side of this: we posted an article in 2006 explaining why not selling the ports to Dubai was a bad idea.

ACORNorama

| Fri Dec. 4, 2009 1:14 PM EST

Ed Kilgore on ACORN mania among conservatives:

Regular readers of this site know the narrative by now: engorged with federal grants, ACORN engineered the housing and financial crises by intimidating lenders into offering mortgages to poor and minority families with no means or intentions of making their payments, and then when the chickens came home to roost, gambled everything on an illegal effort to secure bailouts and a general "socialist" takeover of the country by stealing the White House for its long-time associate and radical community organizer, Barack Obama.

....Any narrative this powerful has to be fed continuously, which is why the recent congressional vote stripping ACORN of nearly all access to federal grants was a pyrrhic victory for conservatives. How could they keep fear of ACORN alive?

That necessity led to yesterday's strange event in the U.S. House, a partisan "forum" on ACORN that was sort of a parody of a congressional hearing, based on the circular reasoning that the refusal of the House itself to launch an wide-ranging investigation of ACORN was proof of the conspiracy's power.

You can read Dave Weigel's detailed account of the "forum" by following the link above, but the main claim yesterday (specifically by Rep. Darrell Issa of CA) was that the White House serves as a "war room" for ACORN, as "proved" by Obama's tangential relationship with ACORN years ago in Chicago, and more recently, by the hiring of Democratic election law wizard Bob Bauer as White House Counsel. Bauer's smoking gun, it seems, is that he once wrote a memo dismissing broad-based GOP election fraud claims, and warning (accurately) that they would be retailed by the McCain-Palin campaign. Anyone denying the conspiracy, you see, is obviously a party to it.

In the same way that ClimateGate, though relatively trivial from the standpoint of science, is helping keep the faith among climate deniers, the ACORN videotapes, which have nothing to do with voter registration, are keeping the faith among the election fraud conspiracy theorists.  It would be loads of fun to watch if only it were happening in someone else's country.

Palin, Birther

| Fri Dec. 4, 2009 12:58 PM EST

Sarah Palin called the "birther" issue a "fair question" in an interview with right-wing radio host Rusty Humphries on Thursday. Via Ben Smith:

"Would you make the birth certificate an issue if you ran?" she was asked.

"I think the public rightfully is still making it an issue. I don't have a problem with that. I don't know if I would have to bother to make it an issue, because I think that members of the electorate still want answers," she replied.

"Do you think it's a fair question to be looking at?" Humphries persisted.

"I think it's a fair question, just like I think past association and past voting records -- all of that is fair game," Palin said. "The McCain-Palin campaign didn't do a good enough job in that area."

Smith notes that the McCain campaign did look at the birth certificate issue, and, "like every other serious examination, dismissed it." Perhaps the most interesting part of this story is Palin's justification for going birther. She cited "the weird conspiracy theory freaky thing that people talk about that Trig isn't my real son" as a similar situation. Or, in the words of Marc Ambinder: "Palin On Her Birtherism: It's Andrew Sullivan's Fault."

Herding Cats

| Fri Dec. 4, 2009 12:54 PM EST

A friend emails to recommend this statement of the obvious from First Read:

Was Will Rogers right about the Democratic Party? With multiple reports today (in the NYT and National Journal) about how liberals are upset with Obama’s policies (on Afghanistan and other issues), it makes us wonder if it’s much easier to be a Republican president rather than a Democratic one. Consider: Because there are more self-described conservatives than liberals, GOP presidents are freer to play to their base and not rely as much on the middle to win national elections. In addition, Republican presidents typically don’t face much dissent from GOP members of Congress. Even as the Iraq war became an albatross for Republicans, almost all of them followed George W. Bush off that political cliff in 2006 and 2008. And on issues that Republicans now say they disagreed with Bush — the spending, the deficits, No Child Left Behind — the criticism was barely audible while he was office. By comparison, a Democrat has been in the White House for just 10 months, and the left is freely criticizing Obama over Afghanistan, health care, the economy, judicial nominations, you name it. Many liberals and Democrats would probably pat themselves on the back for this kind of independence. Then again, maybe there’s a reason why Republicans have controlled the White House more times than Democrats have over the past 40 years...

Sometimes it's worthwhile to repeat the obvious, just in case anyone has forgotten.  Which they seem to do with stunning regularity.  So yes, Virginia, the Republican Party really is different....

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On the Jobs Front

| Fri Dec. 4, 2009 12:35 PM EST

Finally, some "good" news for President Barack Obama: only 11,000 jobs were lost in November. That's still too many—we need employment growth—but economists had been expecting over 100,000 job losses, so the numbers dramatically beat expectations. The New York Times' David Leonhardt calls this "some very good news" but warns, "It’s probably best to be conservative," and notes that he'd be "surprised if this rate of progress continues in coming months." Paul Krugman is even less sunny, arguing that the "good" news is actually bad news, because it will reduce pressure on politicians to do more to combat unemployment. Floyd Norris, also at the Times, isn't so counterintuitive:

In my Off the Charts column in Saturday’s newspaper, I will cite one economic indicator that shows the unemployment rate has peaked. Whether or not that turns out to be the case, I think the bad days for jobs are very close to being over, and that this will not be a jobless recovery.

Why?

One reason is the sheer abruptness of the decline in employment during the recent recession. (Yes, I think it is over.) After Lehman Brothers failed, the unemployment rate rose at a faster clip than at any time since 1975. There was something approaching panic among employers. They feared sales would collapse and that credit would be unavailable. In that spirit, they cut every cost they could. Imports plunged because no one wanted to add inventory. Ad spending collapsed. And people were fired.

That has left many companies in a position where they may need to add workers quickly for even a small increase in business.

Call me the optimist.

At least we found one! The president will be visiting Allentown, Pennsylvania today and plans a major jobs speech on Tuesday. This news should make giving that speech a little bit easier.

Shiny Toys

| Fri Dec. 4, 2009 12:22 PM EST

Yesterday, as I was watching the idiocy unfolding around the case of the couple who crashed the White House state dinner a few days ago, I started getting uncomfortably reminded of the Clinton era.  I guess I'm not the only one:

The scandal over the state dinner breach by a Virginia couple hardly evokes the weight of Watergate or 9/11. But that has not stopped some in Congress from demanding an in-person explanation from social secretary Desirée Rogers, who was in charge of the dinner.

....A drawn-out standoff over the issue seemed very unlikely Thursday as efforts by Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) to subpoena Rogers were ruled out of order by the Democratic chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

It may not evoke the weight of Whitewater to Post reporter Michael Shear, but apparently it does to Peter King.  Given that the press has already gone cuckoo over this story, can you imagine the storm it would be causing if Republicans controlled Congress and decided to hold 87 days of hearings over it?  It would be like the White House Christmas card list all over again.

Note to media: it's time to put this one to bed before you fall into the fever swamp all over again.  Or do we need to give you some other shiny new toy to distract your attention first?

World's Wackiest Prison Riots

| Fri Dec. 4, 2009 8:00 AM EST

When most people think of prison riots, revolts like Attica or MacAlester spring to mind—violent uprisings sparked by racial tension, overcrowding, or abysmal conditions. But as I recently learned while fact-checking a story about a Mock Prison Riot (yes, such a thing exists), not all prison rebellions have such, ahem, sober causes.

Here's a brief list of some of the more kooky revolts to rock a lockup:

Cause of mutiny: Booze

The HMP Ashwell prison in England has an inmate sobriety problem. In 2003, four inmates smashed computers and caused more than $15,000 in damage after one of them was admonished for being drunk in their cell. Six years later, an inebriated prisoner led a violent protest that included stealing, arson, and looting.

Outcome: HMP learned a valuable lesson: Alcohol and angry inmates are not a good mix.

Cause of mutiny: Pancakes too small

At the Kamloops Regional Correctional Centre in Canada, inmates started a fire and destroyed property, causing $80,000 in damage. Why? As the court document put it, they were ticked about the "size and number of pancakes" served at brunch.

Outcome: Offenders charged with disorderly conduct. No word on whether pancake size or quantity changed.

Cause of mutiny: Improper toilet use 

Racial tension came to a head at the Pitchess Detention Center in Los Angeles when, according to the LA Times, an inmate "breached bathroom etiquette" and caused a gang fight. Perhaps for our benefit, the Times provided no further details about said breach.

Outcome: Some of the 102 inmates involved suffered knife injuries. Said the sheriff deputy: "When you're in jail, little things mean a lot, I guess."

Cause of mutiny: Prisoners want to move to higher security prison

At a penitentiary in Montreal, two prisoners demanded a transfer from their medium security prison to a maximum security one. When that didn't work, they held a guard hostage.

Outcome: Success! Prisoners get their wish, are transferred to max-security jail.

Eco-News Roundup: Friday, December 4

| Fri Dec. 4, 2009 8:00 AM EST

USA Ranger: Chuck Norris worries Obama will destroy our way of life at Copenhagen.

Xmas Cheer: Made in China still means made with exploited labor.

Going, Gone: Warming is causing species decline even in the isolated Galapagos. [MongaBay]

High Voltage: Chevy's electric hybrid Volt on its way to consumers.

Change of Mind: Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va) has a change of heart on coal.

Angry Young Men: New study shows who the angriest Americans are. [LiveScience]

Sound Bite: Sen. Inhofe says Europeans are "dumb" on climate. Ahem.

Windy Day: GE puts $117 million into wind power. [Wall Street Journal]

ClimateGate: Conservatives try to use scientist's leaked emails to derail climate progress.

The Decider: Sen. Jim Webb thinks Obama should step back and let Congress handle climate.

Cost of Rx: Under healthcare bill, some premiums may go up, but many won't.

Pay to Play: Kerry thinks the US should pay more for international climate programs.

Flip-Flopper: McCain's taking heat for his new, post-campaign stance on Medicare cuts.