2010 - %3, November

Missing Figures in Indian Country

| Mon Nov. 22, 2010 7:00 AM EST

Native American crime statistics are notoriously scattered or simply non-existent, so luckily for me, Mac McClelland, a former fact-checker, neatly annotated her investigative steps behind this issue's "A Fistful of Dollars." The stirring piece highlights Indian Country's fragmented justice system and the services offered by a Pawnee man, who is routinely hired to avenge crimes that have gone unpunished. Melissa Tatum, research law professor and associate director of the University of Arizona Indigenous Peoples Law & Policy Program, explained to me that many available stats are based on national surveys, which fail to carve out the realities of the Indian demographics.

Currently, tribes have little penalizing authority, and most crimes just go unpunished. And though Tatum confirms the federal government's efforts to make culturally sensitive legislation (as seen in the recently penned Tribal Law and Order Act (TLOA) [PDF], she foresees a problem in trying to make a one-size-fits-all policy for Indian nations. She explains that tribes vary in geography, history and culture, and therefore, crime problems. To complicate matters, she says there are varying degrees of cultural retention among tribes which affects their justice systems similarly.

"The federal government needs to look to each tribe and each geographic area [and let them] decide for themselves what is appropriate," Tatum explains. "It's listening to each tribe and each culture about what would work for them. And realizing that there's not going to be an ability to find one nationwide solution, but there's going to have to [be] flexibility." Tatum believes the TLOA has potential to fill some of the data gaps and could work to prove Indians' competence to maintain law and order in their own communities, because it seeks to standardize crime-gathering in Indian Country, and encourages data-sharing within the tangled maze of bureaucracies that oversee tribal lands [pdf]. So, if nothing else, at least it could create some reliable data set so tribal, and federal, authorities know what they're dealing with.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 22, 2010

Mon Nov. 22, 2010 6:30 AM EST

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Danielle Robles, from the Paktia Provincial Reconstruction Team, provides security during an engineering mission in Rabat, Afghanistan, on Nov. 7, 2010. The team facilitates the Afghan government’s ability to provide public services and development projects with the goal of weakening insurgent influence. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Barry Loo, U.S. Air Force. (Released)

Is Kombucha Really Good for You?

| Mon Nov. 22, 2010 6:30 AM EST

As an occasional kombucha drinker, I enjoy the strange, sour aftertaste of the trendy fermented beverage. But after spending as much as five bucks for a 16-ounce bottle of the stuff, I decided to see if I could successfully—and safely—brew my own batch. I also wondered whether the claims about kombucha's health-enhancing properties had any merit.

Often mistaken for a mushroom, the culture used to make kombucha is actually a collection of yeast and bacteria. After 10 days of natural fermentation, the amalgam forms a thin pancake-looking colony referred to as a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) surrounded by a fizzy, vinegar-like tonic—the stuff you drink. Remnants of the living mass make their way into bottled kombucha, which creeps some people out. "But really, it's no more frightful than when yogurt first reared its head in health stores across America in the 1970s," states one Whole Foods website. Kombucha has been consumed for thousands of years—some say it originated in Manchuria in 220 B.C.; others trace its roots to Russia—and enthusiasts prize the drink for its beneficial probiotics, organic acids, vitamins and antioxidants.

Because the fermentation happens naturally, I needed no special equipment besides a one-gallon mason jar to get the project bubbling. Brad Koester, a local kombucha brewer who also sells pickled beans and onions to San Francisco restaurants, presented me with my very own "mother" SCOBY; a gelatinous mass that resembled a small jellyfish asleep in amniotic fluid. I brewed about a gallon of green tea, added eight tablespoons of sugar, and poured all the liquid that would fit into the gallon jar with the SCOBY, making sure to cover the top of the mason jar with a thin cloth to prevent fruit fly infestation.

Maybe because kombucha brewers refer to this mass as the "mother," I couldn't help feeling like I was caring for a pet. Would I kill my SCOBY if I shook it? Would my SCOBY wither and die in my chilly Victorian house? I voiced my anxieties to Brad, who shot me back a text that said: "Patience grasshopper." I could do nothing but wait and see if the "mother" would work her magic, and I'd have little control over the results.

Blood in the Streets

| Mon Nov. 22, 2010 2:47 AM EST

Paul Krugman writes today about Alan Simpson's eagerness for a "bloodbath" when Republicans try to shut down the government next year:

How does this end? Mr. Obama is still talking about bipartisan outreach, and maybe if he caves in sufficiently he can avoid a federal shutdown this spring. But any respite would be only temporary; again, the G.O.P. is just not interested in helping a Democrat govern.

My sense is that most Americans still don’t understand this reality. They still imagine that when push comes to shove, our politicians will come together to do what’s necessary. But that was another country.

It’s hard to see how this situation is resolved without a major crisis of some kind. Mr. Simpson may or may not get the blood bath he craves this April, but there will be blood sooner or later. And we can only hope that the nation that emerges from that blood bath is still one we recognize.

Great Moments in Foresight (Andrew Johnson edition)

| Sun Nov. 21, 2010 1:31 PM EST

Over the weekend I was reading up on Andrew Johnson (don't ask) and stumbled upon what might be the least prescient editorial the New York Times has ever published. Context: Johnson has just taken the oath of office as Vice President visibly drunk, prompting critics to suggest that this might be indicitive of, say, a total lack of preparedness for the enormous challenges facing the nation. At one point during his address, he blanked on the name of the Secretary of the Navy and asked the audience; the man he replaced, Hannibal Hamlin, literally tugged on his coattails to get him to stop. When Johnson finally finished, he tried swearing-in the incoming class of senators, but "became so confused that he had to turn the job over to a Senate clerk." Cue The Times:

No man in this country has rendered, within his sphere, more substantial service to the Union cause, or earned more thoroughly the gratitude of the Union party than ANDREW JOHNSON; and we venture to predict that...he will abundantly vindicate himself from the slanders of his enemies, and the ungenerous misconstruction of some who have claimed to be his friends.

I demand a retraction.

Forecasting 2012

| Sun Nov. 21, 2010 1:00 PM EST

Good news for Barack Obama today! Um, sort of. Ray Fair has released a forecast of the 2012 presidential race based on his well-known political/econometric model, and he says Obama will win in a landslide.

That is, he'll win in a landslide if Ray Fair is also good at forecasting future economic growth:

It thus comes down to what the economy will be in the next two years, which is, of course, what the equations are all about. If the recovery is robust, which my economic model predicts will begin to happen in the middle of 2011, Obama wins easily. If the recovery is only modest, the election will be close, with an edge for the Republicans. If there is a double dip recession, Obama loses by a fairly large amount.

His topline forecast is that Obama wins 55.88% of the popular vote, which sounds reasonable for an incumbent president presiding over a robust economy. But if recovery is fairly flat, which is hardly out of the question, suddenly Republicans are favored to win the White House.

With that in mind, then, what was it we were saying yesterday about Republican incentives relative to the economy? Mitch McConnell made their priorities clear a few weeks ago, after all: "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." If Ray Fair is to be believed, there's only one way for that to happen.

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Seething Over the Economy

| Sat Nov. 20, 2010 7:03 PM EST

Dean Baker writes today about "several center-left blogger/columnists" — that's me! — who have suggested that "progressives should be happy to cut a deal now on Social Security and other issues related to the budget." But he says that's wrong. The real problem is that we need to rescue the economy today:

More than 25 million people are unemployed, underemployed, or have given up looking for work altogether. For most of these people, every day is a struggle to support their family and hold onto their home. The projections do not show any substantial improvement in this situation for years.

The priority for policy must be getting people back to work....Remember, these people are unemployed not because they did anything wrong, but because people like Alan Greenspan, Ben Bernanke and others in policymaking positions messed up on their jobs.

Following directly off this point, it is amazing how right in front of our own eyes, the Wall Street gang has managed to divert the public's attention from the wreckage caused by their greed and incompetence to the "entitlement problem" (i.e. Social Security and Medicare). This is the moment where we should be looking to restructure and downsize the financial industry.

I agree almost entirely. My main disagreement is over Social Security, where I wish I could persuade progressives that a deal to shore up its finances now — while privatization is largely off the table — would be good both for Social Security itself and for the liberal project more generally. But in today's atmosphere I can understand why that's a hard sell.

But here's the thing on Dean's broader point. I've been a registered Democrat since I was 18. And I completely agree that our economic priority right now ought to be a huge dose of fiscal stimulus. Unfortunately, it seems pointless to waste my breath on that argument. We have a Democrat in the White House and he's not making that argument. The Democratic leadership in Congress isn't making it either. If they were, the Blue Dogs in my party wouldn't support higher spending anyway and it would die. And even if the Blue Dogs came around, Republicans would block it.

So should I keep screaming into the void about fiscal stimulus even though it's obviously not going to happen? Probably. But without help from anyone in the party I call home, it's pretty hard to maintain the energy for endless amounts of quixotic blogging.

In other words, I'm frustrated. No. That's not nearly strong enough. I spend most of my time just seething whenever I think about this. Especially because of what Dean says in the final paragraph I quoted: we're where we are because Republicans put us here. But no one cares. We're still letting them call the shots.

The facts of the past decade are pretty clear, after all. George Bush inherited an uncommonly vigorous economy from Bill Clinton: growth was high, business was booming, wages were growing, and the federal government was running a surplus. This ended in 2001, but it ended with one of the mildest and shortest recessions on record and provided Bush with a chance to fully apply Republican orthodoxy to the economy: multiple rounds of tax cuts, light regulation, and the most business friendly atmosphere from the White House imaginable. The result was catastrophic. The Republican expansion from 2001 through 2007 was the weakest since World War II: productivity and GDP gains were mediocre, employment growth was weak, and wages were stagnant. Only corporate profits prospered. And this period of historically weak growth was ended by a financial disaster worse than any since the Great Depression. That's the Republican legacy of the aughts: a strong economy turned first anemic and then completely crippled. Welcome to Washington, President Obama.

It simply beggars imagination that Republicans and the business community have managed to make everyone forget this so soon. But they have. And so instead of talking about how big a stimulus package we should pass, we're talking about cutting off unemployment benefits, reducing federal spending, insisting that states tighten their belts, retaining tax cuts for the rich, and halting the scourge of "regulatory uncertainty." It's just mind boggling.

And yet, that's where we are. And I'm really not sure what to do about it.

The Liberal Noise Machine

| Sat Nov. 20, 2010 3:12 PM EST

Back in August, Stan Collender said that for cynical electoral reasons Republicans were likely to oppose any action to improve the economy:

It’s not at all clear [] whether Bernanke realizes that the same political pressure that has brought fiscal policy to a standstill in Washington is very likely to be applied to the Fed if it decides to move forward. With Republican policymakers seeing economic hardship as the path to election glory this November, there is every reason to expect that the GOP will be equally as opposed to any actions taken by the Federal Reserve that would make the economy better.

On Monday, Matt Yglesias chimed in, suggesting that the White House needed to be prepared for "deliberate economic sabotage" from Republicans. On Friday, after taking note of recent Republican attacks on the Fed's quantitative easing program, Paul Krugman agreed:

The core reason for the attack on the Fed is self-interest, pure and simple. China and Germany want America to stay uncompetitive; Republicans want the economy to stay weak as long as there’s a Democrat in the White House.

Steve Benen collected these quotes today and added his concurrence: "We're talking about a major political party," he said, "possibly undermining the strength of the country — on purpose, in public, without apology or shame — for no other reason than to give themselves a campaign advantage in 2012."

Strong statements! But here's what's really remarkable: virtually no one in any position of authority has picked up on this since Collender first suggested it. On the Republican side, practically everyone from the party leaders on down is thoroughly convinced that Barack Obama is one or more of: a socialist, an appeaser, a Chicago thug, a racist, a would-be killer of grandmas, and a president who wants to undermine everything that makes America great because he's ashamed of his country. This is just standard rhetoric from Fox News pundits, radio show hosts, rank-and-file members of Congress, and party poobahs. It's hardly even noteworthy anymore.

But the mirror image of that — Democrats saying that Republicans are deliberately sabotaging economic recovery — is virtually invisible. Krugman finally said it yesterday, but that's it among high-profile liberal leaders. For the most part they're just not willing to go there. This, in a nutshell, is the difference between the conservative noise machine and the liberal noise machine. One is noisy, the other is....restrained. We'll see if that changes now that Krugman has brought his cannons to bear.

POSTSCRIPT: For what it's worth, my own view isn't that Republicans are consciously trying to sabotage the economy. Rather, I think it's really easy to convince yourself of things that are in your own self-interest, and that's mostly what they've done. A bad economy is in their self-interest, so they've convinced themselves that every possible policy to improve things is a bad idea.

Of course, excuses like that from mushballs like me are the reason the liberal noise machine is sort of anemic in the first place.

From Reykjavik with Love

| Sat Nov. 20, 2010 9:01 AM EST

On the afternoon of October 11, 1986 in Reykjavik, Iceland, nuclear weapons negotiations between Ronald Reagan and Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev over the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) reached an impasse. Reagan insisted on being able to develop and test SDI, his space-based missile defense system commonly referred to as Star Wars. But Gorbachev refused to give in. He couldn’t return to Moscow saying he agreed to let the Americans pursue such a weapons project. Reagan countered that SDI was strictly for defense and that the US would share its technology with the Soviets. At this point, as Reagan adviser Jack Matlock recalled to historian Richard Rhodes, Gorbachev "exploded":

"'Excuse me Mr. President," he said, "but I cannot take your idea of sharing SDI seriously. You are not willing to share with us oil well equipment, digitally guided machine tools, or even milking machines. Sharing SDI would provoke a second American revolution! Let’s be realistic and pragmatic."

As it turns out, Star Wars was anything but realistic. The $44 billion project was effectively abandoned in the 90s with its feasibility never firmly established. Russia probably assumed that if the US had Reykjavik to do over again, it would jump on the chance to push a treaty through. But as the current debate drags on in Washington over ratification of New START—a treaty that would reduce Russian and US deployed strategic warheads by 30 percent—the situation is beginning feel eerily similar to Reykjavik.

Ron Paul: Abolish the TSA

| Fri Nov. 19, 2010 8:30 PM EST

Kevin Drum and Nick Baumann have already weighed in on the great-TSA-junk-groping-and-porn-scanner-freakout of 2010. Now, Texas Rep. Ron Paul has introduced legislation to fix the problem. Or simply fix one problem by creating a whole host of other problems; it's unclear, really. Thankfully, the bill is only 106 words long, which means that 1.) its opponents won't be able to dramatically wave a copy of the legislation on the House floor, and 2.) I can just copy and paste the bill below, in its entirety:

No law of the United States shall be construed to confer any immunity for a Federal employee or agency or any individual or entity that receives Federal funds, who subjects an individual to any physical contact (including contact with any clothing the individual is wearing), x-rays, or millimeter waves, or aids in the creation of or views a representation of any part of a individual's body covered by clothing as a condition for such individual to be in an airport or to fly in an aircraft. The preceding sentence shall apply even if the individual or the individual's parent, guardian, or any other individual gives consent.

Paul might oppose physical violations of our civil liberties, but other liberties are fair game—which, as Adam Serwer notes, has sort of been the big elephino in the room during this whole debate. For instance, Paul told Fox News' Neil Cavuto afterwards that he supports profiling—so long as it's the privately owned airlines, and not the government employees doing the sorting. I wouldn't bet on the bill passing, but it should, if nothing else, make for a great campaign ad the next time he runs for president.

And if you haven't already, check out Nick's five-step plan for a saner TSA.