2010 - %3, November

Chart of the Day: Conservative Economists

| Thu Nov. 18, 2010 12:47 PM PST

I'm not sure what to say about this one. Mike Konczal recently surveyed a random selection of conservative economists who had signed a Cato letter opposing the stimulus bill in early 2009 to find out what they were thinking these days. It was totally unscientific and he ended up getting 29 responses. But unscientific or not, it's enlightening. According to these economists, neither low consumer demand nor an overvalued dollar really has much to do with our economic woes. By far the biggest problem, in their view, was regulatory uncertainty, closely followed by concerns over the budget deficit and Barack Obama's hostility toward the business community. Seriously. That's what they think. The mind reels.

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Putin's Animal Love

| Thu Nov. 18, 2010 12:25 PM PST

What could be better than the Russian President, shirtless, frolicking with dolphins? That's right, nothing. More pics of Putin-animal-love from Buzzfeed here. You're welcome.

 

Islam Still a Religion, Tennessee Judge Rules

| Thu Nov. 18, 2010 12:18 PM PST

Wednesday was judgment day in the Tennessee legal battle over a proposed Islamic community center in Murfreesboro. As I've noted before, the trial had been something of a circus, with the plaintiff's attorney, Joe Brandon Jr., asking local officials their views on pedophilia and spousal abuse, and warning that area Muslims are planning to, essentially, transform Middle Tennessee into Helmand Province. Here's his characteristically passionate closing argument:

"If this has been a circus, it's because they pitched a tent and brought the clowns," Brandon said. Brandon warned the court if they did not step in and stop the mosque that we might have another Waco on our hands. "Look at David Koresh. He had a religious institution until the government decided to load up their missile and blowed it up and killed everybody."

Terrifying. But also, ultimately, unpersuasive: after three months of testimony, chancellor Robert Corlew ruled that construction of the mosque could continue as planned, and that the city had acted properly in approving the project in the first place. Mischief managed! Or maybe not.

NPR's Nazis

| Thu Nov. 18, 2010 11:49 AM PST

Fox News chief Roger Ailes goes off the reservation about NPR executives:

They are, of course, Nazis. They have a kind of Nazi attitude. They are the left wing of Nazism.

Come on, Roger. Sure, NPR executives are Nazis. That goes without saying. But the left wing of Nazism? Don't you know that Jonah Goldberg long ago demonstrated that Nazis were actually liberals? This means that NPR executives are the Nazi wing of Nazism. Please clear this up with your staff ASAP before something like this gets on the air.

Ahmed Ghailani and Omar Khadr: A Tale of Two Detainees

| Thu Nov. 18, 2010 11:45 AM PST

People who want to put terrorists in prison—or execute them—(and I think most of us want one or the other) should ask themselves one thing: would they rather be Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani or Omar Khadr?

Last month, Khadr, a Canadian-born Guantanamo detainee who was captured in Afghanistan as a teenager, agreed to a plea deal under the military commissions process. A military jury subsequently sentenced him to 40 years in prison for a number of crimes, including throwing the grenade that killed Army Sgt. Christopher Speer in 2002. The 40-year sentence was just for show: Khadr is likely to be released soon after he is returned to Canada next year. Ghailani's fate will be quite different. On Wednesday, a federal jury in New York convicted him of conspiracy for his role in the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in Africa. While Khadr will be out of prison by 2012, Ghailani will almost certainly spend at least the next two decades—and possibly the rest of his life—in federal prison.

Most reasonable people would rather serve Khadr's year-or-so in Gitmo than Ghailani's 20 years to life. But because the jury acquitted Ghailani of 280 other counts of conspiracy and murder, conservatives and major media outlets are united today in suggesting that the outcome of the trial—the first of a Gitmo detainee in civilian courts—casts doubt on the prospect of future civilian trials. The current conventional wisdom seems to hold that the outcome of the Ghailani trial proves that military commissions are a superior method of punishing terrorists. The record shows the opposite is true.

Khadr is not the only person to pass through the military commissions only to face a sentence that's light compared to Ghailani's. Australian David Hicks and Salim Hamdam, Osama bin Laden's driver, have both already been released after being convicted in military commissions of providing material support for terrorism. John Walker Lindh—an American who was convicted of similar material support charges in federal court—is currently serving a 20-year sentence. In total, the military commissions have convicted just five people since 9/11. Only one of them is serving a sentence longer than Ghailani's.*

A federal trial provides far more effective closure than a military commissions proceeding. "The federal court trial has provided final resolution for this particular case," says Dixon Osburn, the Law and Security director for Human Rights First. "It gives the verdict a level of legit that no verdict in commission system has." In other words, the idea of human rights protestors standing outside of the SuperMax facility in Florence, Colorado (or wherever Ghailani ends up) to protest Ghailani's imprisonment seems unlikely, to say the least. Ghailani has been convicted in a fair and open court: now he will go away for a long, long time.

A Closer Look at Domenici-Rivlin

| Thu Nov. 18, 2010 11:24 AM PST

I got pretty burned out on deficit blogging after spending nearly a week writing about the Simpson-Bowles plan, which I continue to think is a poor starting point for a serious discussion of deficit reduction. So when the Domenici-Rivlin plan (henceforth D&R) came out, I only wrote one post based on their Washington Post op-ed and then couldn't work up the energy to say much more.

Which is too bad. To the extent that long-term deficit reduction is something we should try to address now, D&R is really a much better starting point. So here are some selected bullet points and comments about their plan:

  • One-year payroll tax holiday in 2011 to stimulate the economy. In one sense, this has nothing to do with deficit reduction. In fact, it increases the deficit. But as with tax reform, the argument here is that near-term stimulus is good for long-term growth, and long-term growth is good for deficit reduction. In any case, it's a good compromise idea for trying to get our stagnant economy moving again.
  • NOTE: Throughout the rest of this, keep in mind that my comments are strictly academic. I don't expect Republicans to even pretend to take any of this stuff seriously. In that spirit, a payroll tax holiday is a "good compromise idea" in a theoretical sense, but since in the real world Republicans are solely interested in tax cuts that permanently benefit rich people, there's no actual chance that this will gain bipartisan support. With that caveat out of the way, onward.
  • Cut tax rates, eliminate most deductions and credits. This is similar in spirit to Simpson-Bowles. One oddity of D&R is their endorsement of a reduction in the number of tax brackets to two (15% and 27%). I've never understood the infatuation with this idea. The complexity of the tax code has nothing to do with how many brackets we have, it has to do with how income is calculated and how many different loopholes there are for reducing your taxes. So the whole thing is pointless. What's more, although the D&R tax plan is more progressive than Simpson-Bowles, I suspect that it still gives a considerable break to the very highest earners. For that reason, I'd propose, at a minimum, a third bracket of 40% that kicks in at some very high level. Perhaps $1 million and above.
  • Add a VAT. For some reason D&R call their new tax a Debt Reduction Sales Tax instead of just calling it a VAT. I'm not sure why, but basically it's a 6.5% VAT. I don't have any big problem with this, though I'd probably prefer a carbon tax, which accomplishes much the same thing and helps reduce energy use. In any case, the DRST is basically an acknowledgment that an aging population is going to require higher spending levels than we're used to, so we can't pretend to cap spending forever at 21% of GDP. It's a welcome concession to reality.
  • Rein in the growth of Medicare. D&R do this by phasing out the employer tax break on health benefits, raising Medicare premiums, reducing prices paid to drug companies, bundling payments, medmal reform, and — of course — capping benefit growth to GDP + 1%. I'm beginning to think that this last provision has become the equivalent of "And may God bless America" at the end of presidential speeches: sort of a rhetorical flourish that everyone expects and you can't leave out. And who knows: maybe something like this will actually work. I have my doubts, though. If you say you're going to cut something, I want to hear concretely how you're going to cut it. Telling me instead that you're going to artificially cap growth is a cop-out. That said, D&R do have some useful ideas on Medicare, though they're just a starting point. We'll need much more before this is all done.
  • Fix Social Security. This part of their plan is almost eerily identical to Simpson-Bowles, but it doesn't raise the retirement age. I've already commented favorably on the Simpson-Bowles Social Security plan, and I think D&R is even better. I'd still tweak it a bit, but it's a perfectly fine starting point.
  • Freeze discretionary spending starting in 2012. I'm not a big fan of across-the-board freezes, and I doubt you can make something like this stick in any case. I'd rather see concrete proposals for program cuts, if that's what you think needs to be done. (D&R do make a few specific proposals, but they don't add up to much.) As I've said before, discretionary spending is pretty clearly not a big part of our long-term deficit problem; cuts would almost certainly come from weak claimants, not weak claims; and the political fight it would take to save a small amount of money just isn't worth it. Frankly, I'd jettison this part of the plan entirely, though I realize that by Beltway definitions of "serious," you have to have something like this to be taken seriously as a deficit cutter. Too bad.

That's the nickel version of D&R. As these things go, it's not bad, and unlike Simpson-Bowles it's fairly balanced between spending cuts and tax increases. It also doesn't assume a fundamentally conservative frame from the start by pretending we can limit federal spending to 21% of GDP forever. And the full plan includes a lot more serious detail than Simpson-Bowles, which should make it easier for tax experts to score.

For these reasons, of course, this means that it's a nonstarter with conservatives. It really is pretty balanced, and because of that I expect it to be pretty roundly denounced by all the same righties who denounced liberals for not loving a fundamentally conservative deficit plan.

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Cholera and Conspiracy Theories in Haiti

| Thu Nov. 18, 2010 11:20 AM PST

More than a thousand people have died of cholera in Haiti over the last few weeks. Now, a couple more have been shot dead by the UN peacekeeping force, MINUSTAH, during protests that erupted earlier this week. Rumors that the disease, never present in the country before, was brought in by Nepalese UN troops were exacerbated by a CDC announcement that the strain resembles South Asian cholera. The protests the peacekeepers are trying to keep under control are against the peacekeepers themselves. 

Or are they? Here's what the UN says: "The way in which the events unfolded leads to the belief that the incidents had a political motivation, aimed at creating a climate of insecurity on the eve of the elections."

Well, here's what a lot of Haitians, who don't have the benefit of using CNN as an outlet for their message, will tell you: They are honestly not wild about having 12,000 foreigners with guns walking around their country like they own the place and on occasion shooting unarmed civilians, or threatening to shoot unarmed civilians in the face, which many people feel may not be the best use of a lot of international money when their standard of living remains abysmally low. 

So far, the bulk of the violence and people setting up burning tires and barricades has been concentrated in Cap-Hatien, a city way north of Port-au-Prince. When I told one of my friends in the capital to please not get shot againhe took a bullet to the head in a robbery some years backhe said there's no trouble whatsoever there: "My wife is out buying shoes." But just like the quiet in Cap-Hatien this morning, the peace in Port-au-Prince, my friend expects, may not last. This is the guy who told me to calm down and quit overreacting when a hurricane was barreling toward the country. And he is, unlike the UN, not easily given to conspiracy theories. But in the face of the growing anger at MINUSTAH, the climbing cholera death toll, the oncoming elections? "Right now, we are fucked," he says. "Shit is going to hit the fan."

Outgoing GOPer Slams Climate Denying Colleagues

| Thu Nov. 18, 2010 10:51 AM PST

For its final hearing of this legislative session, the House Science and Technology Committee chose an appropriate topic. Dubbed "A Rational Discussion of Climate Change: the Science, the Evidence, the Response," Wednesday's hearing likely marked the last time a congressional committee convenes a "rational" dialogue on global warming for the next two years—or however long the GOP controls the House. It was the swan song for subcommittee chair Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), who is retiring this year. And it was also the last hurrah for Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC), who lost his primary bid to a tea party candidate last spring. (See David Corn's eye-opening interview with him here.)

Unburdened by the prospect of another campaign, Inglis, in this final hearing, spared no scorn for climate change deniers in his own party and beyond, suggesting that they continue to ignore global warming at their own peril. "I would also suggest to my free enterprise colleagues—especially conservatives here—whether you think it’s all a bunch of hooey, what we've talked about in this committee, the Chinese don’t," the South Carolina Republican said in his opening remarks. "And they plan on eating our lunch in this next century." (ClimateWire covered the comments here.)

He continued lobbing criticism at climate skeptics:

There are people who make a lot of money on talk radio and talk TV saying a lot of things. They slept at a Holiday Inn Express last night, and they’re experts on climate change. They substitute their judgment for people who have Ph.D.s and work tirelessly.

Inglis is referring, of course, to the series of commercials for the hotel chain in which a white guy magically develops the ability to rap, another guy ends up on Jeopardy, and a clown gives advice to a bull rider—all because they got smarter due to a good night's rest at the Holiday Inn Express.

The difference on the subject between Inglis and Rep. Ralph Hall, the 87-year-old Texas Republican expected to take up the chairmanship of the committee next year, couldn't be more drastic. In his opening statement, Hall said that "reasonable people have serious questions about our knowledge of the state of the science." He also accused the scientific community of having a "dishonest undercurrent."

Accordingly, Inglis warned scientists of what to expect in the next two years:

I'd encourage scientists who are listening out there to get ready for the hearings that are coming up in the next Congress. Those will be difficult hearings for climate scientists. But, I would encourage you to welcome those as fabulous opportunities to teach. Don’t come here defensively.

Probably decent advice. Half of the incoming GOP House members flatly deny that the planet is warming. Only four remaining House Republicans have openly accepted the science of climate change, after more moderate members like Inglis were sent packing.

California, Bellwether for the Nation

| Thu Nov. 18, 2010 9:47 AM PST

This comes from the LA Times, but I think it could be the lead story in pretty much any newspaper in the country:

Californians object to increasing taxes in order to pare the state's massive budget deficit, and instead favor closing the breach through spending cuts. But they oppose cuts — and even prefer more spending — on programs that make up 85% of the state's general fund obligations, a new Los Angeles Times/USC Poll has found.

That paradox rests on Californians' firm belief that the state's deficit — estimated last week at nearly $25 billion over the next 18 months — can be squared through trimming waste and inefficiencies rather than cutting the programs they hold dear. Despite tens of billions that have been cut from the state budget in recent years, just a quarter of California voters believed that state services would have to be curtailed to close the deficit.

Well, there you have it. This is America in a nutshell.

Of course, one might well wonder just why voters are so convinced that nearly a quarter of the state budget is waste and inefficiency. Certainly some of the budget falls into that category, but a quarter? Where could voters have gotten that idea? Any guesses?

2012's Senate Battle Begins...Today

| Thu Nov. 18, 2010 9:30 AM PST

The 2010 midterms are barely in the rear-view, the 111th Congress' lame-duck session just begun, but already the handicapping for the 2012 congressional races is underway. As Politico reports today, senators up for re-election in 2012 are drumming up cash, laying the groundwork for their campaigns, mulling their party affiliations, or weighing whether to even bother running again.

For instance, a pair of longtime Senate Democrats, North Dakota's Kent Conrad and New Mexico's Jeff Bingaman, are considering hanging up their spurs and retiring, Politico reports. Then there are Senators Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, both of whom face questions about which party they'll run with in 2012. McCaskill's re-election challenge is a steep one, simply because she's a Democrat in a state that didn't back Obama in 2008 and voted in a Republican senator in the midterms. Now, McCaskill has made no statements suggesting she'd run as an independent in 2012, but she's definitely been playing up her independent streak. "I think that’s the message that I got to make sure that Missourians understand: that I haven’t been afraid to differ from Harry Reid; I have not been afraid to take on Nancy Pelosi; I have not been afraid to tell the president he is wrong," McCaskill said. "And that I have been the independent that I think most Missourians want."

Meanwhile, Lieberman's affiliation is always up in the air. Currently an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, Lieberman said three different scenarios—a GOP candidacy, Democratic candidacy, or even retirement—"are still alive."

The stakes for 2012 are, of course, especially high with the GOP angling to win back the Senate, and thus control the entire Congress. Here's more from Politico:

Leaders from both parties are urging a more aggressive strategy for senators to be more visible back home and calling on senators to tout the benefits of bills they’ve pushed. They’ve also been warned not to take any challenger—whether in a primary or general election—for granted.

Democrats clearly have the more challenging playing field, defending 21 incumbents, along with two independents who caucus with them. The GOP only has nine seats to worry about...

Republicans, who watched incumbents Lisa Murkowski and Bob Bennett lose primaries, seem more concerned about intraparty challenges going into 2012. Texas Sen. John Cornyn is already warning his nine incumbents to begin preparing for an influx of candidates who may challenge them in primaries.

Already, tea party activists are making noise about taking down moderate Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe in her 2012 primary.