2011 - %3, June

Mark Kelly: First Space, Next the US Senate?

| Fri Jun. 24, 2011 7:23 AM PDT

The rumor-mill has generated chatter this week that Mark Kelly—veteran, astronaut, and husband of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.)—could make a run for Senate. He announced his retirement from NASA earlier this week, and posted on Facebook that he "will look at new opportunities" to once again "serve our country."

With the coming retirement of Jon Kyl in 2012, there will be an open seat in Arizona available should Kelly decide to run. But this of course raises all kinds of questions about Giffords' status and whether she will be able to run for reelection to her House seat, or possibly—circumstances permitting—run for Senate herself. If she isn't able to run for reelection, Kelly could also run to fill her seat in the lower House.

In either case, he'd have a lot going for him. Spouses running to fill the seat of their partner have done pretty well in the past (usually when the partner dies, but in this case I think the sentiment would still transfer, given the tragic circumstances). Military vets also have a pretty good record, and astronauts have done pretty well for themselves, too. Before she was shot in January, Giffords' was considered a likely candidate to run for Kyl's seat, but since then, no other prime contender has really shaken out of the mix. Might Kelly be the next best choice?

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Bombing the Moon

| Fri Jun. 24, 2011 6:40 AM PDT

Following up on my GOP mind games post, Ezra Klein makes a smart observation in this morning's Wonkbook on how the GOP transformed tax increases from an important, necessary option in the deficit debate into something evil and extremist. To prove his point, Ezra uses a clever rhetorical trick: he swaps "bomb the moon" for any mention of taxes in Republican statements made after yesterday's deficit talks drama:

"We've known from the beginning that bombing the moon would be a poison pill to any debt-reduction proposal," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a speech on the Senate floor. See? Or: "President Obama needs to decide between his goal of bombing the moon, or a bipartisan plan to address our deficit," said McConnell and Sen. Jon Kyl in a joint statement. Or: "First of all, bombing the moon is going to destroy jobs," said Speaker John Boehner. "Second, bombing the moon cannot pass the US House of Representatives—it's not just a bad idea, it doesn’t have the votes and it can’t happen. And third, the American people don’t want us to bomb the moon."

"Bombing the moon" would actually make these statements more accurate. A bipartisan deficit-reduction proposal, almost by definition, includes revenue increases. That, along with the spending cuts, is what makes it bipartisan. And unpopular? Tax increases, particularly if targeted at the wealthy, show themselves again and again to be among the most popular ways to reduce the budget deficit. The most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 57 percent of Americans though the best way to reduce the deficit was "a combination" of tax hikes and spending cuts, and polls that have tested specific policies have found vastly more support for raising taxes on the rich than for GOP mainstays like cutting Medicare and Social Security and discretionary funding that goes to programs like education.

The quotes Ezra uses come after Rep. Eric Cantor and Sen. Jon Kyl, the number two GOPers in their respective chambers, bailed on the bipartisan deficit reduction talks led by Vice President Joe Biden. Cantor went first, saying he wouldn't continue negotiating if any form of a tax increase was on the table, including cutting $21 billion in subsidies for big oil companies. "Regardless of the progress that has been made, the tax issue must be resolved before discussions can continue," Cantor said in a statement. Kyl followed Cantor out the door soon after.

Apparently, Cantor forgot that the US is not under one-party rule, and that his constituents elected him to do what's expected of all politicians: compromise. The Biden-led deficit negotiations are intentionally bipartisan, and to claim that Democrat-backed tax increases are non-negotiable, as Cantor believes, defies logic. It's not negotiating if one side refuses to give any ground whatsoever. Either Cantor is more intransigent and bound to conservative orthodoxy than we thought, or he's setting up House Speaker John Boehner to be the fall guy who cuts a deal with the Democrats on a short-term deficit reduction plan. Or both.

What's clear is that any deficit reduction plan must include new revenue of some kind. After all, it was partly the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 that got us into this mess in the first place. Not filling that $2.6-trillion hole with new revenue would be madness.

If Georgia Drives Away Immigrant Workers, Will Its Economy Suffer?

| Fri Jun. 24, 2011 4:15 AM PDT

Georgia has been among a handful of states to crack down on immigration in recent months, passing "copycat" legislation similar to Arizona's sweeping law. Now Georgia's farms are complaining that they will soon face labor shortages because immigrants are now reluctant to come to the state for fear of reprisal. According to a recent survey conducted by the state's agricultural commissioner, farmers are expected to be short some 11,000 workers over the course of the season, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports.

Georgia farmers say that immigrant workers who normally migrate from Florida for the seasonal work are staying away this year because of the new law. The measure, which takes effect in July, requires police to check the immigration status of suspects stopped for other offenses. And so far, not enough documented laborers have stepped up to take undocumented immigrants' farm jobs, more than half of which pay an average of $8/hour and about a third of which pay from $9 to $11/hour. If the labor shortage continues, Georgia farmers will be "forced to leave millions of dollars’ worth of blueberries, onions, melons and other crops unharvested and rotting in the fields," says Jay Bookman, a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Republican Gov. Nathan Deal—who spearheaded the immigration crackdown and put the issue at the heart of his 2010 campaign—has put a few potential solutions on the table, including a dubious-sounding proposal that my colleague Lauren Ellis covered earlier this month in which farmers would hire 2,000 unemployed convicts who are free on probation to work on the farms instead.

The dilemma facing Georgia's largest industry makes it clear that state legislators didn't think through the serious ramifications of their sweeping new immigration law. Like it or not, immigrants are an integral part of the workforce in Georgia, as elsewhere, and simply trying to cast them out without making further adjustments to the labor market and economy can have unintended consequences. To that end, observers have admonished Georgia lawmakers for acting too hastily, per this editorial from the Valdosta Daily Times that Bookman quotes:

Maybe this should have been prepared for, with farmers’ input. Maybe the state should have discussed the ramifications with those directly affected. Maybe the immigration issue is not as easy as ’send them home,’ but is a far more complex one in that maybe Georgia needs them, relies on them, and cannot successfully support the state’s No. 1 economic engine without them.

What's the Coal Pollution Risk in Your Life?

| Fri Jun. 24, 2011 4:00 AM PDT

Chances are, you've heard coal pollution statistics before. Like how, in one year, the typical coal plant produces 3.7 million tons of carbon dioxide, 10,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, and 170 pounds of mercury. But you may still be asking, "How do these numbers actually affect me?" 

Enter the Sierra Club, which just released a quiz that answers that question. In three simple steps, Coal in Your Life shows the number of ashtma attacks and deaths tied to coal-fired plants in your zip code, your mercury intake from seafood, and the routines that make you vulnerable to poor air quality, such as exercising outdoors. To test my risks, I tried three different zip codes I've called home. In my current city—pollution-conscious San Francisco—about 17 ashtma attacks and two deaths in 2010 were linked to coal-fired power plants. In New York City, the numbers were even scarier: About 785 asthma attacks and 55 deaths could be linked to coal pollution last year.

Finally, I tried my childhood home, Palm Beach County, where I found that 186 asthma attacks and 17 deaths resulted from power-plant pollution. The good news is, my hometown has just taken steps to improve its air quality. On Sunday morning, two oil-powered smokestacks from the '60s were demolished in Riviera Beach. (On my way to high school, I used to drive past their thick black billows every morning.) They will be replaced in 2014 with natural-gas smokestacks that burn 33 percent less fuel per megawatt hours.

In order to encourage the rest of the country to follow suit, the Sierra Club includes an easy link to email the Environmental Protection Agency. As a result of my message, the EPA now knows that I scored a five out of 10 on my exposure to pollution. Granted, two of those points come from the six servings of fish I eat per month. Perhaps it's time to cut back on the canned tuna

 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for June 24, 2011

Fri Jun. 24, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

A U.S. Special Operations team member is hoisted into a UH-60 aircraft during a medical evacuation training evolution June 13, at Multinational Base Tarin Kowt in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan. Coalition Special Operations team members routinely conduct refresher training in medical evacuation evolutions to prepare for contingencies while operating in the field. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Ryan Whitney

The New Civil Liberties Fight

| Fri Jun. 24, 2011 2:30 AM PDT
Gulet Mohamed, a 19-year-old Virginian, behind bars in a Kuwaiti deportation facility. His family and lawyer allege that he was detained and beaten at the behest of the United States government—a charge the government denies.

Kevin is on vacation this week, so Andy Kroll and I will be filling in.

During the Bush years, America's chattering classes were engaged in a grand argument: should the people we had captured in the war on terror be handled by the courts, or by some other process? Civil libertarians argued that terrorist suspects who were not US citizens should have meaningful access to trials in federal courts.

Civil libertarians have lost that argument. The defeat is total: in the White House, on Capitol Hill, in the courts, and, crucially, in the court of public opinion. Indefinite detention of non-citizen terrorist suspects without charge or trial remains the official policy of the United States, and none of the most infamous non-citizen terrorist suspects will be tried in federal court.

President Barack Obama's administration hasn't added any new prisoners to Guantanamo, but as things stand, it's only a matter of time before that happens. Eventually, there will be another Republican president, and the GOP's position is clear: Mitch McConnell, the party's leader in the Senate, took to the Washington Post op-ed page on Tuesday to call for two Iraqi nationals captured in his home state of Kentucky to be transferred to Gitmo. "Guantanamo is the place to try terrorists," the headline blared.

Some liberals defend the Obama administration's record on civil liberties by arguing that standing up for the rights of terrorist suspects would be political poison for the White House. Perhaps they're right. But it would be foolish to assume that the battle lines on this issue are static, or that hardliners see a bright line between how we should treat non-citizen terrorist suspects and how we should treat terrorist suspects who are American citizens.

The Joe Liebermans of the world see no such bright line. If we as a society have decided that non-citizen terrorist suspects shouldn't have the right to a real trial before we lock them away indefinitely, it's only a short leap to the idea that all terrorist suspects should have fewer rights.

Why shouldn't we be consistent? Why are non-citizen terrorist suspects captured abroad "unprivileged belligerents" while those captured in the US are simply criminals? Why are American-born terrorists criminals and not unprivileged belligerents? Does the difference between committing a crime and being illegally at war with the United States really just depend on where you are captured or where you are born? The Obama administration does not have compelling answers to these questions. Its compromises and cave-ins on civil liberties have left its counterterrorism policy an inconsistent mishmash of Miranda warnings for foreigners and proxy detention and Hellfire missiles for Americans.

But forget foreigners—they're screwed. The rights of US citizens are at the heart of today's fight over civil liberties in the war on terror. And, not coincidentally, the rights of US citizens suspected of terrorism are on retreat on a whole host of fronts.

The family of Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen who is reportedly on a list of people the military is authorized to kill without charge or trial, lost their court case to force the government to explain why it believes it has the legal right to order his death. Young Muslim American men travel overseas only to discover that they're on the no-fly list when they try to return—and that they can't go home unless they answer the FBI's questions. Americans with dark skin tones and "suspicious" names find US-government-owned GPS devices on their cars. The PATRIOT Act gets renewed while everyone is busy talking about how great it is that the SEALS killed Osama bin Laden. And senior members of Congress call for US citizens suspected of terrorism to be stripped of their citizenship and sent to—where else—Guantanamo.

The rights of all people accused of terrorism have been dramatically rolled back over the past ten years. So don't expect that American citizenship will protect you when the government decides that you might be a terrorist, too.

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Yemen Is Not A Good Place To Imprison Terrorist Suspects

| Thu Jun. 23, 2011 8:56 PM PDT

Kevin is on vacation this week, so Andy Kroll and I are filling in a bit.

The Washington Post reports on a massive jailbreak of Islamic militants from one of Yemen's largest prisons:

Among the escapees Wednesday were members of an al-Qaeda cell that has killed foreign tourists and tried to attack the U.S. Embassy in Yemen and other Western targets, according to Yemeni officials. [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] was behind the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound commercial flight on Christmas Day 2009 and the mailing of bombs on cargo planes destined for the United States....

...The prison break Wednesday, though far from the first in Yemen, came at a moment of political crisis in the country and seemed likely to heighten fears among U.S. counterterrorism officials that AQAP is gathering strength as the authority of the central government weakens.

Even in the best of times, Yemen was not a great place to imprison radical Islamists. The prisons there have always been leaky at best, and the central government's authority didn't extend very far past the capital. Now the country is even more wracked by chaos and intranational violence than usual, and AQAP has scored some successes—the latest being this prison break. The Obama administration has apparently decided, in the wake of the Christmas Day and cargo bomb attacks, that this is a threat worthy of a semi-secret drone war but not, well, an "actual" war.

In a "real" war, we'd go in and detain these guys ourselves, rather than relying on incompetent and potentially backstabbing proxies. That doesn't, thankfully, seem to be on the table right now. (I don't think America can afford another land war in Asia.) But the war on terror does produce some odd paradoxes. In today's world, it's easier, politically and legally, for America to vaporize a foreigner it suspects of terrorism than it is to keep that person in prison. That's pretty weird.

Americans Only Work 4 Hours a Day? Context Please!

| Thu Jun. 23, 2011 2:22 PM PDT

I was flabbergasted when I saw an infographic in the Wall Street Journal online today that said Americans only work 4 hours a day on average. "Who are these Americans?" I asked myself. "And how do they pay their bills?" But there's more to the infographic than meets the eye.

On average, according the new statistics released by the Labor Department yesterday, Americans who had a job in 2010 worked 7.9 hours on a weekday, and/or 5.5 hours on a Saturday or Sunday. But the average American (which includes those who are employed, underemployed, and unemployed) only worked 3 hours and 58 minutes a day. While at first glance, the WSJ infographic could make someone think Americans are a bunch of lazy slackers who spend more time sleeping and watching TV and less time working than they used to, the actual data behind this graphic tells a different story.

In 2007, for example, 87% of workers (full-time and part-time) did some or all of their work at the office. In 2010, that figure dropped to 83%. This is probably at least partly because more people are working at home: 23% of the employed in 2010, as compared to 20% in 2007. And a lot of the people working from home were educated: 36% of those doing at least some work from home in 2010 had a bachelor's degree or higher, while in 2007 only 34.5% did.

There was one confounding finding though: The average workday for a full-time employed American has, indeed, dropped slightly: from 8.05 hours on an average weekday in 2007 compared with 8 hours in 2010. That could be because people are working when they're not technically "at work": checking work email from home while watching TV, for example, or reading emails on their Blackberry at 10 p.m. As our recent Speedup package has shown, people are indeed being asked to work harder, but for the same amount of pay. Whether that extra effort necessarily translates into billable, or reportable, hours is another statistic altogether.

 

The Tax Holiday Road to Ruin

| Thu Jun. 23, 2011 12:38 PM PDT

Is there a more terrible idea getting serious play in policy circles than a corporate "tax holiday"? That's when corporations that have put off paying American taxes get a one-shot chance to move that money into the US at the steeply discounted rate of 5 percent. Kevin has dismissed the proposal as a "scam," but I wanted to point out a new Center for Budget and Policy Priorities report thoroughly dismantling the idea.

Proponents—like the WIN America campaign, a group backed by major pharmaceutical, energy, and technology corporations—claim a new tax holiday will "strengthen our economy, pay down our debt, put people back to work, and invest up to $1 trillion in America." But the last tax holiday, in 2004, did nothing of the sort, CBPP says. "The evidence shows that firms mostly used the repatriated earnings not to invest in US jobs or growth but for purposes that Congress sought to prohibit, such as repurchasing their own stock and paying bigger dividends to their shareholders," the report's authors write. "Moreover, many firms actually laid off large numbers of US workers even as they reaped multi-billion-dollar benefits from the tax holiday and passed them on to shareholders."

Here are three more solid reasons why tax holidays are a dumb idea, per CBPP:

  • Repeating the tax holiday would increase incentives to shift income overseas. If Congress enacts a second tax holiday, rational corporate executives will conclude that more tax holidays are likely in the future. That will make corporations more inclined to shift income into tax havens and less likely to make investments in the United States.
  • The claim that a tax holiday would increase domestic investment by freeing multinationals from cash restraints is extremely dubious. U.S. non-financial corporations currently have $1.9 trillion in cash and other liquid assets, the highest level as a share of total corporate assets since 1959. The ten companies lobbying hardest for a new tax holiday alone have at least $47 billion in cash and other liquid assets that could be used for domestic investments—without triggering additional tax liability.
  • Some of the biggest beneficiaries of a tax holiday would be firms that have aggressively shifted income overseas. Companies in the technology and pharmaceutical industries have been particularly aggressive in shifting income abroad because they rely on intellectual property, which is relatively easy to shift to other countries as a tax avoidance strategy. Half of all repatriations from the 2004 tax holiday came from companies in these two sectors alone. The same corporations and sectors would stand to benefit disproportionately—and enormously—from a second tax holiday."

It seems that a tax holiday would have, in the long term, the opposite of its intended effect: it would encourage companies to shift cash out of the US. It's hard to see any upside whatsoever for American workers—or the American economy at all, really—from another tax holiday. That is, unless you're a member of Congress who depends on hefty campaign donations to stay in Washington. In that case, a tax holiday is exactly what the doctor ordered. I've even drafted a working title for such a piece of legislation: "The Keeping Corporations Happy and the Contributions Rolling In Act of 2011."

A mouthful, yes. Anyone else have a better name?

Climate Change Side-Effect: Overworked Doctors?

| Thu Jun. 23, 2011 12:34 PM PDT

A study published this week in science journal Climatic Change models how hospital admissions for things like diabetes, kidney stones, and suicide attempts will rise along with the temperature, something that's expected to happen as global warming increases the average yearly temperature and causes temperature swings. Those most at risk for climate-related hospital admittance (and resulting deaths) are the very young and the elderly, whose regulatory systems are less able to adapt to high temperatures. With a health care system that is already taxed, such an increase could overwhelm small hospitals or those with limited resources.

The authors of the study—from University of Wisconsin-Madison, Purdue University, and the National Center for Climatic Research—used 17 years of data from Milwaukee hospital admissions and found that hospital admissions for ailments involving the kidneys would increase 13% for every 2 degrees the mercury rose above 85 degrees Fahrenheit; endocrine disorders would increase by 9%. Accidents and suicide attempts would start increasing by about 3% for every 2 degrees over 81 degrees Fahrenheit. With temperatures projected to rise an average of 5 degrees in summer months, by 2059 this would mean hundreds of additional patients with heat-related renal and endocrine ailments in Milwaukee alone. Project that across the US, and that's a substantial increase in hospital traffic, and provider workloads, especially considering the aging Baby Boomer population.

The health effects of increasing temperatures would be especially felt by the elderly, who can't sweat as well as younger people, have weaker hearts, and may have other health problems that make them more susceptible to high or quickly changing temperatures. Children under age 5 would also be susceptible. The authors recommend that health care providers do what they can to prepare for these climate-related admissions. "Public health strategies should focus on prevention efforts by targeting groups at risk, especially the elderly" and those with pre-existing health conditions, they wrote.