2011 - %3, January

Jared Lee Loughner: Meet Rep. Giffords' Alleged Shooter

| Sat Jan. 8, 2011 5:51 PM EST

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was shot in the head Saturday morning at a "Congress on Your Corner" event outside a supermarket in Tucson. After initial reports that Giffords had died, the hospital has confirmed she remains in critical condition though she is "expected to pull through," according to MSNBC. Six people were killed in the shooting—including federal judge Bill Roll, Giffords' district director, and a nine-year-old child—and at least 12 people were injured.

The alleged assailant has been identified as 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, an Arizona resident described by one eyewitness as a white, clean-cut man who reportedly called out the names of some of his victims as he began shooting. (The Associated Press identified the suspect, who's now in police custody, as Jared Laughner, but the Arizona Daily Star, Politico, and other outlets have ID'd him as "Loughner.") The suspect appears to have posted YouTube videos under the handle "Classitup10" that rail against the government and talk of revolution and terrorism. The user, identified as "Jared Lee Loughner," says in a rage-filled, rambling, and incoherent post accompanying one video:

We need a drum roll for those front runners in the election; those illegal teachers, pigs, and politicians of yours are under illegal authority of their constitution. Those dirty pigs think they know the damn year. Thirdly, tell them mother fuckers to count from 0 to whenever they feel a threat to stop their count…Those illegal military personal are able to sign into a country that they can't find with an impossible date! How did you trust your child with them fraud teachers and front runners, listener? Did you now know that the teachers, pigs, and front runners are treasonous!

In another video, the same user accuses the government of imposing "mind control and brainwash on the people by controlling grammar." Loughner continues: "You don't have to accept hte [SIC] federalist laws…A terrorist is a person who employs terror or terrorism, especially as a political weapon. If you call me a terrorist then the argument to call me a terrorist is Ad hominem."

Giffords, a moderate Democrat, had been threatened in the recent past. Shortly after the health care vote, Giffords' district office was vandalized, and extremists subsequently encouraged the public to throw bricks through the windows of lawmakers, as my colleague James Ridgeway has reported. (Other Democratic supporters were also subject to violent threats and attacks on their offices.) In the summer of 2009, Giffords' aides called the police after an attendee at a public event dropped a gun. The 40-year-old Arizona Democrat barely squeaked by her opponent in 2010, winning by less than one percentage point against the tea party-backed Jesse Kelly. The Tucson event was her first public appearance since her re-election.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, another Arizona Democrat, was also recently threatened with violence: in July, a bullet was fired through the window of his district office in Yuma, and an envelope with a toxic powder was sent to his Tucson office.

Read our exclusive interview with a friend who describes Loughner's family, bizarre dream journal, and his obsession with Rep. Giffords. Full coverage of the shooting and its aftermath is here.

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Giffords's Office Was Vandalized by Followers of Former Militia Leader

| Sat Jan. 8, 2011 4:30 PM EST

Mike Vanderboegh, a former 1990s militia leader from Alabama, enouraged readers of his blog to throw bricks through the windows of Democratic offices during the debate over President Obama's health care bill last spring. One of the offices attacked was that of Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot at a rally in a Tucson supermarket today.

Police have said the unidentified gunman, who shot Giffords at in the head at close range, along with several other people at the event, is in custody. (My colleague Suzy Khimm reports on his history of antigovernment rantings here.) He has not been identified or linked to any movement or group. According to the Tucson Citizen, police have arrested a second suspect and are seeking a third.

The Washington Post reported on the vandalism at Giffords's office on March 25, 2010:

"In the days that followed [Vanderboegh's post], glass windows and doors were shattered at local Democratic Party offices and the district offices of House Democrats from Arizona to Kansas to New York. At least 10 Democratic lawmakers reported death threats, incidents of harassment or vandalism at their offices over the past week, and the FBI and Capitol Police are offering lawmakers increased protection.

Local Democratic Party officials in New York have called for Vanderboegh's arrest, believing he is implicated in the vandalism in Rochester, but Vanderboegh said he has not yet been questioned by any law enforcement authorities.

Vanderboegh was unapologetic in a 45-minute telephone interview with The Washington Post early Thursday. He said he believes throwing bricks through windows sends a warning to Democratic lawmakers that the health-care reform legislation they passed Sunday has caused so much unrest that it could result in a civil war.

"The federal government should not have the ability to command us to buy something that it decides we should buy," Vanderboegh said. The government, he added, has "absolutely no idea the number of alienated who feel that their backs are to the wall are out here . . . who are not only willing to resist this law to the very end of their lives, but are armed and are capable of making such resistance possible and perhaps even initiating a civil war."... He said his call for people to throw bricks is "both good manners and it's also a moral duty to try to warn people."


ADDENDUM, 11:55 p.m.:  In an email to me this evening, Vanderboegh wrote the following:

Kindly go over my call to break the windows of LOCAL DEMOCRAT PARTY HEADQUARTERS and find just once where I called for anybody to break the windows of Congresscritters. 

(I had originally written that he called for followers to break the windows of Democratic members of Congress who supported the healthcare bill.) Readers can make up their own minds about Vanderboegh's call to action by reading his original blog post here:

So, if you wish to send a message that Pelosi and her party cannot fail to hear, break their windows.

Break them NOW.

Break them and run to break again. Break them under cover of night. Break them in broad daylight. Break them and await arrest in willful, principled civil disobedience. Break them with rocks. Break them with slingshots. Break them with baseball bats. But BREAK THEM.

Read our exclusive interview with a friend who describes Loughner's family, bizarre dream journal, and his obsession with Rep. Giffords. Full coverage of the shooting and its aftermath is here.

A Wee Question — Answered!

| Sat Jan. 8, 2011 1:32 PM EST

Yesterday I asked a question about money. Nobody in comments guessed why I asked it, but before I tell you the answer I'll repeat the question. Here it is: Suppose that you lead a comfortable middle-class life. Let's say that you're in your 30s, married, two children, and you make $100,000 per year. I offer you a fair coin flip with the following possible outcomes:

  • Heads: You will be stripped of most of your assets and will earn $30,000 per year for the rest of your life. That's all you get, and neither friends nor family can top it up for you.
  • Tails: You will earn $1 million per year for the rest of your life.

Would you take me up on my offer to flip the coin?

Before I explain further, a caveat: this isn't meant to be a scientific experiment. It doesn't prove anything. There are dozens of reasons why the results are meaningless. But there's no need to dwell too much on that. This is just a (possibly) provocative data point to mull over.

So here's why I asked: I'm writing a piece about income inequality and other things for the next issue of the magazine, and in an email conversation with my editor she suggested that one point worth making is that in America today, "someone making $100K has a lot more in common with someone making $30K than someone making $100 million." Now, there's an obvious sense in which that's true, but I suspect that there's a more important sense in which it's not. Yes, the zillionaire jets around the world and owns a bunch of mansions and has a staff of aides and servants to take care of things. That's really, really nice. But our $100K wage slave also has a comfortable house, gets to fly around the world now and again, probably employs a gardener and cleaning service, has a pretty stable life, etc. etc. Also nice. On the other hand, a household earning $30,000 — which is well above the poverty line — lives a pretty precarious life on a variety of measures.

So how to get at the difference? Well, I figured one possible way is this: if you really were a fairly ordinary upper middle class wage earner making $100K per year, and you had a 50-50 chance of either joining the ranks of the elite or falling down to the bottom of the working class, which seems further away to you? The answer from comments was loud and clear: the bottom of the working class. I didn't count, but I'd say only about 10% of commenters were willing to take the coin flip. The other 90% would stick with their $100K lifestyle.1

So what does this mean? Probably not much. But it's suggestive that in terms of lifestyle, if not political goals, a $100K wage earner actually feels somewhat closer to the zillionaires than to someone barely scraping by. We intuit, correctly I think, that life at the bottom of the working class is pretty damn tough, while life at the tippy top is more exciting, but perhaps not fundamentally different from life in the upper middle class.

So that's that. Politically, I think it's quite possible that our $100K earner has more in common with the $30K earner than the millionaire — though they often don't know it. But in terms of lifestyle, I'm not so sure. How many gold plated bathroom sinks do you need, after all?

1Quite a few people thought that I asked my question in order to make a Kahneman-esque point about loss aversion. Not really. It's true, as Kahneman and Tversky discovered several decades ago, that people generally value losses more strongly than gains. Outside of artificial environments like casinos, if you offer people a fair coin flip where they win or lose $100, they won't take the flip. The fear of losing $100 outweighs the possible pleasure of gaining $100.

But here's the thing: Kahneman and Tversky found that the effect of loss aversion is about 2:1. That is, if you offer people a fair coin flip where they lose $100 on heads but win $200 on tails, they'll take the flip. In my question, however, we're way, way past that: you lose $70,000 on heads but gain $900,000 on tails. That's a ratio of more than 10:1. Obviously it matters that the relative loss is large in my question (70% of your income), but on conventional risk aversion grounds the ratio still should have been high enough to get at least half of you to take the chance. The fact that you didn't suggests to me the marginal utility of money really does decline quite rapidly once you get into upper middle class territory. On a variety of levels, this has a big impact on questions of political economy.

BP and the Missing Methane

| Fri Jan. 7, 2011 7:16 PM EST

Nine months after BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster, a new report in the preeminent journal Science weighs in on the missing methane. The fate of this gas comprises one of the more intriguing scientific riddles surrounding the blowout.

So how much methane blew along with 4.1 to 4.4 million gallons of oil? A lot more. Somewhere between 9.14 billion and 10 billion moles (molecular weight expressed in grams)—about as much as is naturally released annually from the Black Sea, a very gassy place.

Concerns about BP's ginormous methane belch were twofold:

  1. What would it do to the marine ecology of the Gulf?
  2. What would happen if all that methane—a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide—escaped into the atmosphere?

The answer suggested in this paper could be hugely significant. And not just for the future of the Gulf, but globally too, since our warming world pretty much guarantees we'll see more methane released from thawing clathrates under the seafloor and in permafrost.

As I wrote in The BP Cover-Up, the Deepwater Horizon disaster was one of the biggest baddest field experiments of all time. So here's some of what we've learned so far, highlights of the Science paper:

  • Methane measurements from the sea air around the spill site (a survey area roughly 25 kilometers/15.5 miles in diameter centered on the wellhead) found that even on windy days the amount of methane that escaped to the atmosphere was less than one one-hundredth of one percent of the total methane release. Clearly the gas stayed in the water.
  • So where did it go? Well, based on the quantity of methane measured underwater in June 2010, the researchers expected Deepwater Horizon methane to persist for years.
  • But their August to October surveys found no elevated methane—just normal ambient Gulf levels.
  • Other anomalous measurements (of fluorescence and dissolved oxygen) strongly suggest the team didn't simply miss the methane plumes.
  • Faced with the apparent disappearance of methane, the team hypothesizes that methane-eating bacteria had, by August, gobbled it all.

If these results holds true—still an "if"—then this is unusually encouraging news for our warming world:

We suggest that a vigorous deepwater bacterial bloom respired nearly all the released methane within this time... Our work suggests by analogy that large-scale [methane] release to the deep ocean from gas hydrates or other natural sources may foster a rapid methanotrophic response leading to complete oxidation of [methane] to [carbon dioxide] within a matter of months. Thus, aerobic methanotrophic bacterial communities may act as a dynamic biofilter that responds rapidly to large-scale methane inputs into the deep ocean. 

Thanks, bacteria!

The paper:

  • John D. Kessler, David L. Valentine, Molly C. Redmond, Mengran Du, Eric W. Chan, Stephanie D. Mendes, Erik W. Quiroz, Christie J. Villanueva, Stephani S. Shusta, Lindsay M. Werra, Shari A. Yvon-Lewis, and Thomas C. Weber. A Persistent Oxygen Anomaly Reveals the Fate of Spilled Methane in the Deep Gulf of Mexico. Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.1199697.

 

Corn on "Hardball": Who Gets Credit For Drop in Jobless Rate?

Fri Jan. 7, 2011 7:13 PM EST

David Corn and CNBC's Maria Bartiromo joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss the new labor statistics showing a small drop in the unemployment rate and what it will take from Obama to get big business hiring again.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter and Facebook. Get David Corn's RSS feed.

The Scott Sisters' "Debt to Society" and the New Jim Crow

| Fri Jan. 7, 2011 5:49 PM EST

Jamie and Gladys Scott walked out of prison today into the free world. As reported here in March of last year, the sisters were convicted, on dubious grounds, of an $11 armed robbery, and sentenced to life in prison. Both sisters lost 17 years of their lives behind bars before Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour suspended the remainder of their draconian sentences; Jamie also forfeited her health, and is now suffering from end-stage renal disease. Yet the sisters’ “debt to society” is still far from paid.

First and foremost, the conditions of their release stipulate that Gladys Scott must give Jamie Scott a kidney. From the very beginning of this medical scandal, in which Jamie’s health was further compromised by inadequate prison health care, Gladys offered her kidney for transplant to her sister. For the governor to mandate this donation is both unprecedented and unconscionable. As others have pointed out, releasing Jamie Scott before she has this costly life-saving surgery could also stand to save the state a considerable amount of money; a donation from her sister could save even more, and is apparently part of the price of their freedom.

At the same time, the Scott sisters will have to pay out money to maintain their freedom. Rather than pardoning Jamie and Gladys, Barbour suspended their sentences. According to Nancy Lockhart, a legal advocate who played an instrumental role in the sisters’ release, each will have to pay $52 a month for the administration of their parole in Florida, where their mother lives and where they plan to reside. Since they were serving life sentences, that means $624 a year for the rest of their lives. Both women are now in their thirties; if they live 40 more years, each will have paid the state $24,960. Of course, Jamie, in particular, will be lucky to live so long.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 7 January 2011

| Fri Jan. 7, 2011 4:05 PM EST

The first week of the new decade is finally over. Hooray! And that means the first Friday catblogging of the new decade is here. Hooray again! To start off the new year, Domino is back up on the fence and obviously keeping a keen eye out for an inattentive bird. Sadly for her, birds around here are plenty attentive, and she has no front claws to hunt them down with in any case. On the right, Inkblot, well aware that birds are out of his weight class, is protecting the house from malevolent laser pointers instead. All for the best, I think.

Creeping Tyranny

| Fri Jan. 7, 2011 3:49 PM EST

Go read this Glenn Greenwald post and this followup from Nick Baumann about Gulet Mohamed, an American citizen who was recently arrested in Kuwait, brutally tortured (I think it's OK to use the word since it's someone else's police we're talking about), and then put on a no-fly list so he can't return to America. This is not the first time this has happened, and if you're really worried about an increasingly tyrannical government, this is the kind of thing to worry about. If a crime has been committed, then let him come home and charge him. If not, then he's an American citizen, and no American government should be allowed to unilaterally strand its own citizens overseas. This whole affair is revolting.

Quote of the Day: Cutting Government

| Fri Jan. 7, 2011 3:39 PM EST

From Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, asked by NBC's Brian Williams to name a federal program that could be cut:

I don't think I have one off the top of my head.

Roger that. After 20 years in Congress, and after waging a brutal midterm campaign focused almost solely on the need to slash government spending, Boehner can't come up with a single program cut off the top of his head. He's a real profile in courage, isn't he?

Simple Taxes for Thee, But Not For Me

| Fri Jan. 7, 2011 3:22 PM EST

Via Megan McArdle, Howard Gleckman at TaxVox summarizes the #1 tax problem identified this year by Nina Olsen, the National Taxpayer Advocate at the Internal Revenue Service: complexity.

Olsen estimates that individuals and businesses spend 6.1 billion hours preparing their returns. That equal to a year’s labor by three million full-time workers. Individual taxpayers are so befuddled by the Code that she reports 89 percent either pay a preparer or buy commercial software to help with the paperwork. The total cost of compliance in 2008, Olsen estimates, was $163 billion, or more than 11 percent of total income tax collections. The average out-of-pocket cost per taxpayer: $258. Something is very wrong when we have to pay a vendor $258 just to perform the most basic of civic duties.

....More troublingly, all this complexity is driving people to cheat. More than 60 percent of self-employed workers (whose income tax is not withheld) either under-report income or over-report deductions. Olsen attributes at least some of this behavior to taxpayers’ belief that they are paying more than their fair share while others are avoiding tax. Nobody, she says, wants to be a “tax chump.”

I don't disagree with this. I would love to create a simpler tax code, and on the business side I'd be willing to do away with the corporate income tax entirely. As a confirmed bleeding heart liberal, of course, I'd like to do this in return for a code that's more progressive and raises more revenue. But also as a confirmed bleeding heart liberal, I'd like to point out a few things about tax code complexity that our conservative aristocracy doesn't often acknowledge:

  • That $258 number is an average, and most likely includes a whole lot of people paying $29.95 for a copy of TurboTax and a rather smaller number of people paying their Park Avenue accountants $100,000 per year. The average schmo doesn't spend anything like $258 on tax preparation. And keep in mind that a fair number of low-income filers use tax preparers like H&R Block not because they need help, but because they offer "refund anticipation loans" that allow people to get their refund checks faster. (At the cost of a fat fee, of course.)
  • But aside from these kinds of loans, why do low and middle-income filers use any tax preparation at all? Most of them have only wage income and very simple filing requirements. The reason varies, of course, but a lot of it is due to the complexity and auditing requirements associated with the Earned Income Tax Credit. And why is the EITC audited so vigorously? Because Republicans insist on it. We don't want poor people gaming the system for a few hundred extra dollars, after all. This might not be so bad (there really is a certain amount of fraud associated with EITC claims) except that.....
  • The vast bulk of tax avoidance is done by the rich, not the poor. David Cay Johnston reported on some of the most baroque tax avoidance schemes for us last year, and he estimates that in total this costs us something like $300 billion per year. And to make things even worse, Republicans have waged a decade-long war to reduce audits of the rich by the "jackbooted thugs" of the IRS. Just to take the most recent example, Johnston reported in 2006, "The federal government is moving to eliminate the jobs of nearly half of the lawyers at the Internal Revenue Service who audit tax returns of some of the wealthiest Americans, specifically those who are subject to gift and estate taxes when they transfer parts of their fortunes to their children and others."

This post isn't a disagreement that we ought to have a simpler tax code. It's just a reminder that a big part of the reason for that complexity is that rich people want it that way. A simple tax code is hard to game, after all. If we really, truly tried to create a simpler tax code that removed all the common ways that high-income taxpayers fleeced the system, the loudest cries of anguish would come from conservatives, not liberals.