2010 - %3, May

"Gringo Mask" Protects AZ Minorities

| Tue May 25, 2010 12:56 PM EDT

Our friends over at "This Week in Lady News," who pore over the right-wing blogs so you don't have to, stumbled upon a company in South Florida that has a novel idea for protecting brown people in Arizona: White yourself out with a downloadable mask! A Gringo Mask®!

"The objective of this effort is to protect, support, and dignify our Hispanic community, with the firm idea of getting out and standing up to the SB1070 law," say the creators of www.gringomask.com (the website is also available en espanol). They're offering "his" and "hers" versions of the cutout masks that will theoretically enable the wearers to blend in with their white co-nationalists.

As TWILN writes

The group's gringo mask is a lovely surrealist reminder that, in their words, "all Americans do not have blue-eyes and blonde hair...[and] Hispanics are not all the same either. Therefore nobody should be judged based on their appearance."

Amen! There is one catch, though: You'll need to provide your own rubber band to fasten the mask. Hopefully the Office Depot clerk won't ask for ID when you're buying them.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

High-Stakes Testing in San Antonio

| Tue May 25, 2010 12:52 PM EDT

A reader emails me regarding a story about Sam Houston High School in San Antonio, which has finally met state standards for academic achievement:

It's actually a very sad story about kids who are getting screwed by the system and by some educators, and perfectly encapsulates so much of what is wrong with education reporting. At least twice officials explain to the reporter (apparently without realizing they are doing so) why the results being touted are bogus, and yet the paper still presents this as good news about a success. And the school held a pep rally.

Let's take a look. Here's the first explanation:

“I think the main thing is we tested less kids,” English teacher Richard Acuña said. The school identified additional special-needs students who qualified to take tests that aren't counted when the state determines accountability ratings, he said.

And here's the second:

The state requires a 60 percent pass rate in math to reach the academically acceptable threshold. Though Sam scored lower than that, it is still set to receive the acceptable rating because last year the state introduced a new tool that allows schools to get credit for some students who did not pass the TAKS if they appear to be on target to pass in the future.

The formula, the Texas Projection Measure, uses a student's current test scores in several subjects as well as a previous year campus average score to project the student's future test performance. With the TPM, Sam's pass rate in math is 72 percent, enough to put it into academically acceptable territory.

For what it's worth, I'd add a third: the school's passing rate in science jumped from 38% to 62%. In one year. I mean, maybe that's legit, but if it is, they need to figure out how to bottle it and sell it. I'd usually be impressed by a five-point rise in a single year. A 24-point rise hardly seems believable.

As longtime readers know, I have pretty ambivalent feelings about high-stakes testing. I've heard too many horror stories, both in the press and from friends, to be a big fan, but at the same time it's not clear what better option we have. But even if you are a big fan, there's just too much anecdotal evidence that a lot of success in testing regimes comes from gaming the system and lowering the standards of the tests when necessary. Both seem to be in play in this story.

Porn, Meth, and Oil Company Parties

| Tue May 25, 2010 12:49 PM EDT

Instead of just inspecting offshore oil platforms, employees of the Minerals Management Service spent time trading links to Internet porn, shaking off crystal meth buzzes, and partying on the dime of the oil companies that they were supposed to be regulating, according to a new report released Monday by the Interior Department's Inspector General. The IG's investigation of MMS' Lake Charles office, in oil-ravaged Louisiana, found "a culture where the acceptance of gifts from oil and gas companies was widespread." Among IG findings:

  • Thirteen current and former MMS employees in the Lake Charles office used their MMS email accounts to forward links to Internet porn. Between 2005 and 2009, seven current MMS employees emailed porn 314 times.
  • Two MMS employees admitted to using crystal meth. In one instance, an MMS inspector admitted that he "might have been under the influence of the drug [at work] after using it the day before."
  • In 2005, two MMS inspectors and their families accepted tickets and a flight to the Peach Bowl in Atlanta, which were provided at a steep discount by Carlos Kibodeaux, the owner of Contract Operator Production Services, an offshore oil service company. "The 40 to 3 ass whupping LSU put on Miami was a lot more impressive in person," an inspector wrote the next day. "My daughter and I had a blast."

Awe-Inspiring China

| Tue May 25, 2010 11:55 AM EDT

I don't have any big point to make about this, but here's a comment from Matt Yglesias after taking a train trip from Shanghai to Yiwu:

At any rate, along the train route evidence of an enormous boom in construction was obvious. The scale of some of the new housing developments I saw was unbelievable, almost awe-inspiring.....But it really all does make you wonder how much of the Chinese economy consists of construction these days. The scale of everything in a country of 1.3 billion is just so enormous that it’s difficult to eyeball anything.

Italics mine. But seriously: is this true? China has a population of 1.3 billion. The United States has a population of 300 million. So they're about 4x our size. That's not really such an awe-inspiring scale, is it? We're about four times bigger than Germany, after all, and it's not as if German visitors come to America and routinely marvel at the enormous size of our country — and when they do, it's usually about our wide open spaces, not the fact that Los Angeles is overwhelming compared to Frankfurt. What's more, a city is a city. Shanghai is big, but not wildly bigger than New York City. And considerably less dense.

Like I said, I don't have any big point here except for one: China is big on a macro scale. It's big on a statistical scale. It's growing fast. But on a ground level scale? It's just a place. It's no bigger or denser or busier than lots of other places. So why is everyone always so awe-stricken about it?

(This is actually sort of a genuine question. I've never been there aside from a few days in Hong Kong a long time ago. Is there really something about China from a tourist perspective that makes it seem awe-inspiringly big? I mean, you can talk about how many cities with populations over 10 million it has, but that's only impressive as a statistical measure.1 Once you're actually in one of those cities, it's just one city.)

1Actually, China only has two, so it's not all that impressive even statistically. However, they've got more than two dozen cities with populations bigger than Chicago.)

UPDATE: The consensus in comments so far is, yes, you just have to experience it. The scale of the construction is just unlike anything you see in America or Europe. And two dozen Chicagos is impressive no matter how you slice it.

President Obama's Line Item Veto

| Tue May 25, 2010 11:25 AM EDT

President Obama wants a line-item veto. No surprise there: every president wants a line item veto, despite Peter Orszag's admission that "[this] alone is not enough to cut waste [or] streamline government operations." This is an understatement. Here in California the line item veto has been part of the governor's powers forever, and it hasn't had a noticeable impact on improving our fiscal rectitude. (Maybe you've noticed?)

Anyway: a true line item veto is unconstitutional. So instead the president is asking for "enhanced recission authority":

Under this new expedited procedure, the President would submit a package of rescissions shortly after a spending bill is passed. Congress is then required to consider these recommendations as a package, without amendment, and with a guaranteed up-or-down vote within a specified timeframe.

As Stan Collender explains, this is basically the same authority the president has today with one change: under current law, if Congress does nothing with the president's request then the spending stays intact. Under the new law, if Congress takes no action then the spending is halted. This allows Congress to avoid responsibility for spending cuts since they never have to take a vote to approve them. But would it be constitutional? Bruce Bartlett isn't so sure and has a different suggestion:

I think there really is a much simpler way of getting around the constitutional problem — just repeal the part of the Budget Act which prohibits impoundment.

In essence, impoundment means that if the president doesn't want to spend money appropriated by Congress he simply impounds it; i.e., doesn't spend it. It has exactly the same effect as a line-item veto and is unquestionably constitutional — every president up until Nixon had and routinely used impoundment to control spending.

But in 1973, Nixon became heavy-handed in his use of impoundment, which outraged members of Congress of both parties. Legislation was drafted to eliminate impoundment and force the president to spend every penny appropriated by Congress exactly as Congress intended....Therefore, it would seem to me that simply getting rid of or amending the section of the Budget Act relating to impoundment could give the president de facto line item veto power in a way that would be much more effective than enhanced rescission authority and would certainly be constitutional.

OK, fine. Impoundment isn't as elegent as enhanced recission, but it would almost certainly work. Unfortunately, Bruce's potted history suggests why it doesn't matter all that much: Congress doesn't mind the practice too much as long its use is fairly trivial. But if a president actually uses it in big enough chunks to make a difference, they go nuts — and there goes your faux line-item veto.

But look: if it's only used for occasional little doodaws and gimcracks, it's hardly worth the trouble. It might be worth having just as a PR tool, or as a way of giving the president a bit of bargaining power over the budget, but not much more. So I have a hard time understanding why this topic is such a perennial favorite in Washington. If anyone were really serious about this, we would have approved a constitutional amendment giving the president a real line-item veto long ago.

O'Reilly Joins Beck to Go After Weiner

| Tue May 25, 2010 11:22 AM EDT

Things got heated last night when Rep. Anthony Weiner went on the O'Reilly Factor to defend his claim that Glenn Beck and his sponsor Goldline are working "hand in hand to cheat consumers". (Video below.) Beck had appeared on the show Friday, hot dog in hand (hot dog=wiener, get it?), winning over Bill O'Reilly (who himself has promoted gold). O'Reilly told Weiner that his investigation of Goldline "smacks of a witch hunt" and that he was unfairly singling out the company because of its affiliation with Beck. Why, he wondered, if Goldline is so shady, does it get an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau?

For his part, Weiner gave as good as he got. He explained that he'd focused on Goldline because it's the biggest gold dealer and because it's using Beck to "gouge" consumers with overpriced investments. He also pointed out that BBB ratings are subject to grade inflation, which O'Reilly scoffed at. "Bill, you're being a shill for this company," Weiner snapped. "As long as they get an A+, I'm fine with it," O'Reilly replied.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The Tea Party Candidate With a Real Messiah Complex

| Tue May 25, 2010 9:47 AM EDT

Politicians aren't known for being the humblest bunch. But there's a Tea Party-backed candidate for Congress whose ego-boosting seems to have gone a step further than usual. Tim D'Annunzio, a Republican candidate in North Carolina's Eighth District, has actually claimed to be the Messiah, according to sources in court documents. The Associated Press reports:

In Hoke County divorce records, his wife said in 1995 that D'Annunzio had claimed to be the Messiah, had traveled to New Jersey to raise his stepfather from the dead, believed God would drop a 1,000-mile high pyramid as the New Jerusalem on Greenland and found the Ark of the Covenant in Arizona. A doctor's evaluation the following month said D'Annunzio used marijuana almost daily, had been living with another woman for several months, had once been in drug treatment for heroin dependence and was jailed a couple times as a teenager. The doctor concluded that his religious beliefs were not delusional.

A judge wrote in a child support ruling a few years later that D'Annunzio was a self-described "religious zealot" who believed the government was the "Antichrist."

The Republican Party has been circulating the papers in an attempt to cut down D'Annunzio's primary campaign. Running on an anti-government—if not pro-Messiah—platform, D'Annunzio has received significant backing from Tea Party activists and has managed to top his Republican rival Harold Johnson in individual donations. The winner of the June 22 primary will face incumbent Democratic Rep. Larry Kissell, a Blue Dog who wrested the seat, considered to be the most competitive in the state, from GOP control two years ago.

Republicans are rightfully terrified of D'Annunzio's ascendancy. But some Tea Partiers don't seem seemed fazed by their candidate's God complex. Ronnie Long, president of We the People NC, told the AP that he didn't approve of the GOP's personal attacks against D'Annunzio, adding: "He's not the kind of person the parties can rule over and manipulate.”

(h/t Slatest)

Live-Tweeting the #BPhearing on Liability

| Tue May 25, 2010 9:23 AM EDT

I'm at the Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on liability and the BP spill this morning, where senators are hearing testimony on how to ensure that the oil giant covers all the costs associated with the Gulf disaster.

Senate Democrats have put forward a bill to raise the liability cap to $10 billion. This would be significantly higher than the current cap of $75 million, set under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, though it still might be well below the estimated $14 billion in costs expected to accrue in the Gulf spill. Senate Democrats have tried twice to bring up the measure under unanimous consent, but were twice blocked -- first by Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and then by James Inhofe (R-Okla.).

I'll be live-tweeting the event below.

Dem Warfare on Derivatives Proposal

| Tue May 25, 2010 8:22 AM EDT

Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) can add a new group to her growing list of opponents in Washington and on Wall Street: House Democrats, led by Rep. Michael McMahon (D-NY). McMahon, Bloomberg reports, is leading a bloc of Democrats who want to kill the toughest of Lincoln's derivatives regulation proposals—namely, forcing big banks to break off their "swaps" desks. "The House bill is based on principles on how to reduce risk and make the system more transparent," McMahon said, "it’s not based on wiping out the system or destroying the system and that’s what the provision does."

The swaps trading desks that Lincoln wants to cut out of banks are highly profitable operations that trade complex financial products like derivatives, whose value depends on that of an underlying asset (wheat, oil, or a stock). Lincoln believes these trading desks are too risky to remain in taxpayer-backed banks. Her demand to make banks convert their swaps desks into separate subsidiaries or divest them altogether, and her fight to keep that provision in the Senate's financial reform bill, has earned her plenty of opponents in addition to McMahon—all of Wall Street, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, Senate banking committee chair Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, and a slew of others. Indeed, Dodd briefly flirted with the idea of killing Lincoln's provision while the Senate was still negotating its own bill earlier this month, but Lincoln demanded the provision remain—which it did.

Another House Democrat, Gary Ackerman of New York, wrote to top House leaders to warn them of the consequences of Lincoln's swaps desk proposal, Bloomberg noted. "We are deeply concerned by the very real possibility that, as a result of the Senate derivatives provision, America's largest financial institutions will move their $600 trillion derivatives businesses overseas, at the expense of both New York’s and the United States' economy," Ackerman wrote.

Complicating the debate on Lincoln's proposal is her midterm election this fall. Senate lawmakers had held off on fighting over the provision last week to avoid hurting Lincoln's chances in her Democratic primary race against progressive candidate Bill Halter. In the primary, though, neither Democratic candidate secured 50 percent of the vote, leading to a June 8 run-off and prolonging the uncertainty over whether Lincoln's rule would survive or not. There's no doubt that Lincoln will continue fighting for her swaps desk rule at least until that run-off to maintain her unrelenting stance toward regulating Wall Street. The question is whether Lincoln, now largely on her own, can withhold the barrage of criticism and opposition that grows by the day. 

Main US Rifle Not Effective Enough In Afghanistan

| Tue May 25, 2010 6:30 AM EDT

The US military's default infantry rifle, the M-4, is not well-suited to the long-range battles that often unfold in the hills of Afghanistan, the Associated Press noted on Friday. The M-4 (an updated version of the Vietnam-era M-16) has an effective range of around 1,000 feet. But many fights with Afghan insurgents involve distances two to three times as long—2,000-2,500 feet. Trying to kill enemies who are half a mile away with a gun that can generally only kill people who are 1/5 of a mile away isn't easy. So now the military is trying to give more troops in Afghanistan access to the M-110 semi-automatic sniper rifle, a weapon that fires a larger bullet and is accurate at 2,500 feet and sometimes beyond.

Despite the change, only nine soldiers in each infantry company—less than ten percent of the unit—are getting the new guns. That's okay in some areas—the M-4 worked well in Iraq because most of the fighting was in flat areas at short distances or in cities at even shorter distances. There are places like that in Afghanistan, too, and when the terrain is flat or there is house-to-house fighting, the M-4 usually performs admirably. Even in the hills, there are many engagements where using the M-4 doesn't prove problematic. Often, Afghan insurgents only have Soviet-made AK-47s, which they can rarely shoot effectively beyond 1,000 feet. Lt. Scott Doyle, a platoon commander in Zhari, told the AP that the Taliban are "spraying and praying" from beyond 1,000 feet with AK-47s. 

The real problem with M-4s arises when American troops face insurgents who are armed with older, often World War 2-era bolt-action rifles. These Taliban "snipers" aren't always particularly accurate, but their Lee-Enfields and Mosin-Nagants have much longer effective ranges than the Americans' M-4s. (Soviet troops faced a similar problem with their AK-47s when they invaded and occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s). In this video from the New York Times, Americans in Afghanistan confront a distant Taliban sniper—and have trouble dealing with him. In a follow-up post, the Times' CJ Chivers put the sniper incident in context:

From early last June through April 3 of this year, 478 American service members were struck by hostile gunfire in Afghanistan and 59 of them died of their wounds. This works out to a lethality rate of about 12.3 percent — a very low proportion by historical standards. (During much of the 20th century, roughly one in three American combatants struck by bullets in battle died.) In Afghanistan, the lethality rate of bullet wounds from 2001 through early last June was 15.6 percent. Since then, it has dropped. These lethality rates, both long-term and short, suggest that precision rifle fire from higher-powered rifles has not been a large-scale national phenomenon at any time during this war, and certainly not in the last several months.

So this isn't a large-scale problem by historical standards. But it's still a life-or-death issue. And troops will probably be grateful that the military is trying to make sure they have more options for dealing with different types of engagements. Folks who aren't getting the M-110 are going to get ammo upgrades: the Marine Corps is starting to distribute an enhanced 5.56mm round (the size the M-4 and M16A4 use) that is similar to sniper ammo and can easily go through windshields and other barriers without changing direction.