2011 - %3, July

Brownback Taps Lawyer for Anti-Abortion Activists for State Medical Board

| Thu Jul. 7, 2011 12:52 PM EDT
Sam Brownback, the current governor of Kansas, speaks to supporters during his 2008 campaign for president.

It's certainly no secret that Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) is a staunch opponent of abortion. It was his signature issue in the US Senate, a major campaign issue for him when he ran for the GOP presidential nomination three years ago, and he has already signed a number of anti-abortion bills into law—including one setting strict new standards for abortion clinics that threatened to close two out of the three providers in the state before a judge blocked them last week. On Thursday, Brownback again riled reproductive rights supporters by appointing the lawyer who has represented one of the country's most extreme anti-abortion groups to a state health board that oversees abortion providers.

Brownback has tapped Rick Macias, a lawyer that has represented the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, to serve on the Kansas Board of Healing Arts. Operation Rescue is a national group that moved its offices to Kansas in 2007. The group moved in order to focus their opposition work on Dr. George Tiller, who provided late-term abortion services in his Wichita clinic until an anti-abortion extremist murdered him in his church in May 2009.

The 15-member Board of Healing Arts handles licensing for medical doctors, physical therapists, and other health care providers. Macias would serve on the board through June 2014.

Macias has represented anti-abortion activists in cases dating back to the early '90s in which they were accused of trespassing at Tiller's clinic to protest. He has also represented Kansans for Life in court. Macias has a private firm specializing in adoption services, and his website includes the tag line, "Your Baby, Your Choices!" He has also supported anti-abortion electoral candidates through the Kansans for Life Political Action Committee. His brother, Archie Macias, currently serves as the treasurer of the PAC. 

Several national abortion rights group condemned Brownback's selection of Macias in a statement Wednesday. "This is just another example of Brownback's obsession with restricting access to women’s reproductive health in Kansas," said Julie Burkhart, executive director of the Trust Women PAC.

"This is yet another play in a full-on war against abortion in Kansas," said Bonnie Scott Jones, deputy director of the US legal program at the Center for Reproductive Rights and the lead attorney representing the two abortion clinics who have challenged the state's new regulations. "Nominating an Operation Rescue lawyer to this board is like hiring a fox to guard a henhouse."

Operation Rescue president Troy Newman was, as one might expect, not as opposed to the appointment, telling the Kansas City Star that Macias is a "level-headed, well-rounded attorney."

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Money Gets Even Tighter in Europe

| Thu Jul. 7, 2011 12:29 PM EDT

The European Central Bank has raised interest rates yet again, despite the persistence of very high unemployment outside the core EU countries. Why? Because continued low interest rates might run the risk of overheating things in Germany, where the economy is fairly strong. Matt Yglesias argues that this would be fine:

If you think about the problem of divergence between the low unemployment German-led “core” block and the high unemployment periphery, it seems to me that persistent labor shortages in the “core” are exactly what’s needed. That should either induce migration from Spain, Portugal, etc. northward to where the jobs are or else induce core-based firms to find ways to shift some production to the periphery. Obviously, that’s not an ideal strategy....

He's right, of course, but "not ideal" is a considerable understatement. The German public, which is already being asked to bail out the Greeks and Irish and the Portuguese, would go berserk if the ECB deliberately followed a policy that encouraged either outsourcing of German business or migration into Germany from countries on the periphery. The ECB knows this perfectly well, despite its supposedly nonpolitical mandate, and it also knows perfectly well that German support is still critical to the success of the euro project going forward. So monetary policy will continue to be made with Europe's core countries in mind, and the rest of the euro area will just have to live with it.

Whether that works out in the long run is a very good question. We'll see.

Unions Launch New Legal Fight Against Wisconsin Anti-Union Bill

| Thu Jul. 7, 2011 12:09 PM EDT

A group of labor unions including the AFL-CIO filed a second lawsuit in federal court on Wednesday challenging Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker's anti-union budget bill that curbed collective bargaining rights for most public-sector unions.

The unions behind this latest suit, which represent 2,700 employees in state capitol Madison and surrounding Dane County, say Walker's law violates the US Constitution because it exempts certain public employees—among them cops and firefighters—from the bargaining ban. "There is not a constitutionally reasonable basis to justify such unequal treatment under the law," the suit reads, "and [the provisions in Walker's bill] are in derogation of the rights secured at the XIVth Amendment to the United States Constitution."

The lawsuit mirrors one filed by Wisconsin's main teachers union in June that also challenges Walker's bill on same constitutional grounds.

It also comes after a state-level effort to overturn Walker's bill fell short. In March, the Dane County district attorney sought to throw out Walker's bill, alleging that Republicans in the Wisconsin legislature violated the state's open meeting law by failing to give proper disclosure of a meeting where Senate Republicans voted to approve the bill. A county judge agreed with the DA, and in May struck down the bill. However, a bitterly divided Wisconsin Supreme Court last month reversed the lower judge's ruling and upheld Walker's bill. In mid-June, the legislation went into full effect.

Read the AFL-CIO's new suit here:

July 6 Suit Against Walker Bill

The Benefits of Medicaid

| Thu Jul. 7, 2011 11:45 AM EDT

When education researchers study charter schools, the gold standard is to compare kids who won a lottery to get in with kids who lost the lottery. That way you can be pretty sure that the kids themselves are pretty similar, and any differences are really, truly due to the school itself.

It would be nice to do the same thing for healthcare, but that's a dicier matter. What are you going to do, hold a lottery and give only the winners medical coverage? Of course not. Unless you're Oregon, which in 2008 decided to expand Medicaid but didn't have enough money to expand it to everyone who wanted it. So they held a lottery, and the lucky winners received Medicaid coverage.

Reearchers have now completed a study comparing the winners to the losers, and Jon Cohn reports on the results: on the positive side, winners got more health care and reported better health outcomes. On the negative side, emergency room use didn't go down and overall spending increased. And then there was this:

But the study demonstrates clearly, and persuasively, a different benefit of Medicaid: It provides beneficiaries with economic security. The Medicaid population was 40 percent less likely to borrow money or avoid paying other bills because of high medical expenses. The likelihood that unpaid medical bills ended up with a collection agency was also 25 percent lower. Not coincidentally, people on Medicaid were 55 percent more likely to report having a doctor they see regularly and 70 percent more likely to report they had an office or clinic for care.

I think both sides sometimes go overboard on Medicaid. Reformers often claim that overall costs will go down if you insure everyone because providing health coverage makes people healthier. Maybe, but I think there's little evidence of this. The fact is that if you add people to the Medicaid rolls, we're going to have to pay for it. Conversely, opponents of Medicaid like to claim that it doesn't actually improve outcomes. But this is true only if you look narrowly at things like life expectancies. You may not live much longer if you have health coverage, but guess what? Your life is going to be a lot better. You're less likely to lose your teeth, less likely to be in pain, less likely to be incapacitated with chronic illness, and more likely to receive treatments that demonstrably improve your quality of life. That's well worth it, even if you still end up dying at age 74.6.

And the economic peace of mind that even a modest program like Medicaid provides? That's yet another bonus. It's the least — literally the least — that a rich country can provide for its poorest residents.

Flashback: Bachmann Praises Huck's Birther Ally

| Thu Jul. 7, 2011 9:37 AM EDT

Two months back, I reported on Mike Huckabee's ties to Janet Porter, a social conservative crusader who has suggested that President Obama is a Soviet mole, that Haitians are "dedicated to Satan," and that gay marriage caused Noah's flood. Now Kyle Mantyla points out that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), floated by some as Mike Huckabee 2.0, also has ties to Porter; Bachmann spoke at her conference in September, 2009—six months after Porter accused the President of being a spy:

Of course, the radical views held by Porter and the others in no way dissuaded Bachmann from attending. In fact, Bachmann appeared on Porter's radio program ahead of the event and used it as an opportunity to [praise] her and endorse the May Day at the Lincoln Memorial prayer event Porter was planning for the following spring.

That May Day event ended up being so infused with Seven Mountains Dominion Theology that Porter lost her radio program and almost ended her career at a Religious Right activist, until she showed up in Ohio earlier this year where she began scheduling fetuses to "testify" on behalf of her extremist anti-choice "Heartbeat Bill."  In her downtime, she was busy praying for God to give Christians control over the media and every level of government.

Seven Mountains Dominion Theology, for the uninitiated, posits that Christians have an obligation to fill the ranks of government and other key areas—mountains—of life ahead of the second coming. Bachmann's relationship with Porter isn't as deep as Huckabee's (who called her a "prophetic voice"). But it does underscore a problem she'll face as she looks to establish her credibility with mainstream Republicans: Bachmann has made it in politics by forging alliances with folks whose ideologies make her own conspiratorial views and anti-gay positions seem downright pedestrian.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 7, 2011

Thu Jul. 7, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

U.S. Army Soldiers assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division, wait to perform personnel airdrops during a the Joint Operations Access Exercise, (JOAX), June 25, 2011, Fort Bragg, N.C. JOAX is a two-week exercise to prepare Air Force and Army to respond to worldwide crisis and contingences. U.S. Air Force Photo by Senior Airman Asha Harris

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Could Going Green Actually Help Mitt Romney?

| Thu Jul. 7, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Mitt Romney's confession several weeks back that he believes humans contribute to global warming led some pundits to prophesize doom for his presidential prospects. For Rush Limbaugh, it was "bye bye nomination." Indeed, almost the entire Republican field seems to have concluded that the only viable political option is to sneer at climate change science, previous statements to the contrary be damned.

But according to a new study (PDF) out of Stanford, Romney might just be onto something. Not only do Americans overwhelmingly believe that addressing global warming should be a federal government priority, candidates risk alienating voters more when they deny climate change than when they take a green position on the issue.

For the study, researchers polled potential voters' likelihood of supporting a hypothetical Senate candidate based on a series of policy-related quotes attributed to him or her. In some calls, one of the quotes attributed to the "candidate" indicated a green position on climate change (belief in global warming, support for investments in renewable energy). In others, the candidate was attributed a non-green position ("climate science is junk science," "cap and trade is a job killer"). In still others, the topic was never mentioned.

Obama Ready to Go Big on Budget Deal?

| Thu Jul. 7, 2011 2:51 AM EDT

Every major newspaper is reporting tonight that Barack Obama has been holding secret post-golf meetings with John Boehner and is now pushing for a much larger budget deal than anyone has been talking about so far. Here's the Washington Post:

At a meeting with top House and Senate leaders set for Thursday morning, Obama plans to argue that a rare consensus has emerged about the size and scope of the nation’s budget problems and that policymakers should seize the moment to take dramatic action.

As part of his pitch, Obama is proposing significant reductions in Medicare spending and for the first time is offering to tackle the rising cost of Social Security, according to people in both parties with knowledge of the proposal. The move marks a major shift for the White House and could present a direct challenge to Democratic lawmakers who have vowed to protect health and retirement benefits from the assault on government spending.

....Rather than roughly $2 trillion in savings, the White House is now seeking a plan that would slash more than $4 trillion from annual budget deficits over the next decade, stabilize borrowing, and defuse the biggest budgetary time bombs that are set to explode as the cost of health care rises and the nation’s population ages.

The Wall Street Journal reports that means testing of Medicare is one proposal on the table, while the New York Times reports that Boehner might agree to $1 trillion in revenue increases in return for the bigger deal, possibly including an end to the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. A few comments:

  • Unlike a lot of liberals, I'm open to deals on Medicare and Social Security. Obviously the details matter, but means testing of Medicare has always been a reasonable policy option, while small changes to Social Security's inflation calculations have a lot of support from both liberal and conservative analysts. This isn't necessarily a disaster.
  • I think it's now finally time to stop pretending that Obama has miscalculated, or blundered, or been out-negotiated, or somehow forced into a bad position. Rather, everything he's done for at least the past six months is consistent with the idea that he considers the long-term deficit a problem, he wants to address it, and he views the debt ceiling talks as an ideal opportunity to do so with bipartisan cover. Obama isn't doing this because he has to. He's doing it because he wants to.
  • Jon Chait argues that Obama would be a fool to allow the Bush tax cuts to be part of this deal. Instead, "If Obama wins election, he needs the ability to use the GOP's opposition to any middle class tax cut extension without an extension for the rich as leverage to let Republicans kill the whole thing for him." But this assumes that Obama secretly wants to kill the whole thing. I don't think he does. He's said all along that he wants to let the high-end tax cuts expire but keep the middle-class cuts, and it's time to take him at his word. That's what he wants to do.

A friend emails a question about all this: "Obama can survive 2012 without my vote and even with my working actively for his GOP opponent, which I will do if he does this, suicidal as it may be. But do you think he can survive, can the Democratic Party survive, if he actually does this?"

Answer: yes I do. This isn't what I want, and it's not what the progressive wing of the party wants. But the plain fact is that deficit cutting is pretty popular across the board, modest reductions in Social Security and Medicare will probably go over fine with independents, and anyway, liberals have nowhere else to go. A few might actually do what my friend threatens to do, but in the end it won't be many — especially after the Republican Party settles on a candidate and we've all had a year or so to get to hate him (or her). And Obama will raise a fantastic amount of money from wealthy donors who are OK with this kind of dealmaking regardless of whether the progressive blogosphere is happy with him. Like it or not, the sad fact is that Obama doesn't need us. We're mostly going to vote for him regardless of what he does, and he's going to get all the money and organization he needs without us. Lefties simply don't have much leverage these days.

So not only can the Democratic Party survive if Obama does this, it will probably flourish, electorally speaking. That's not a happy conclusion, but I think it's likely an accurate one.

But needless to say (again), details matter. So before we get too hot under the collar in either direction, let's wait and see what kind of deal Obama and Boehner really make.

Paul Broun's Budget

| Wed Jul. 6, 2011 8:52 PM EDT

Republican congressman Paul Broun — the same Paul Broun who doesn't know if Barack Obama is a U.S. citizen but does know that he's a socialist — the same Paul Broun who believes the federal government plans to force us all to eat more fruits and vegetables — yes, that Paul Broun — serves up some outside-the-box thinking today:

Today, I introduced a unique bill that goes in a completely different direction than everything else we’ve been hearing out of Washington. It would force politicians to start practicing what they’ve been preaching by lowering the debt ceiling from $14.3 trillion back down to $13 trillion.

I'm increasingly convinced that there's some kind of gigantic practical joke being played on all of us. But by whom? Who has the power to orchestrate such a thing? I think someone needs to waterboard Glenn Beck to find out.

But back to Broun. Oddly enough, he concedes that "to be realistic, we can’t lower the debt limit today, but if we set a deadline, the beginning of FY 2012, it would force politicians to make those decisions in the months to come." My back-of-the-envelope guess — and I'm not willing to do anything more than that — is that this would force federal spending down to about $1.3 trillion in FY2012. Slice off interest on the debt and you'd have about a trillion bucks left over. That's enough to fund, say, the Pentagon plus half of Social Security and nothing more. That's outside the box all right.

You might reasonably ask, who cares? So Paul Broun is an insane wingnut. There are always a few of them around. Answer: because this proposal is currently being hosted by the fine folks at National Review. They don't endorse it, of course, but presumably they think it's sane enough to deserve a wider audience. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the flagship of mainstream conservatism. Revel in it.

Scary Maps of the New Climate Normal

| Wed Jul. 6, 2011 6:31 PM EDT

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration just updated its Climate Normals for the United States. Per agreement of the World Meteorological Organization, "normals" are calculated per decade, rather than per year. NOAA's latest update is crunched from weather data compiled from 1981 to 2010. 

The new annual normal temperatures for the US strongly reflect a warming world. July Maximums, 1981–2010 compared to 1971–2000. July Maximums, 1981–2010 compared to 1971–2000.

January Minimums, 1981–2010 compared to 1971–2000. January Minimums, 1981–2010 compared to 1971–2000. Credit: NOAA.

In the two images above you can see the differences between the old normals (1971 to 2000) and the new normals. The top image shows changes in July maximum temperatures. The bottom shows changes in January minimum temperatures. Warmer temperature changes are orange and red. Cooler temperature changes are blue.

A few notables:

  • On average, the contiguous US experienced the lowest temperatures on January nights and the highest temperatures on July days.
  • Both January minimum temps and July maximum temps changed in the past three decades—though not equally.
  • Parts of the Great Plains, the Mississippi Valley, and the Northeast experienced slightly cooler July maximums from 1981–2010 compared to 1971–2000 (top map).
  • Far more striking are the January minimums (bottom map). Nighttime January temps were higher everywhere except the Southeast. Warmer nights were most pronounced in the northern plains and northern Rocky Mountains.
  • In some places the new normal were several degrees warmer than the old normal.

 

On a state-by-state basis, the annual average minimum (left) and maximum (right) temperatures across the United States are warmer in the 1981-2010 Climate Normals than in the 1971-2000 version. Credit: NOAA.On a state-by-state basis, the annual average minimum (left) and maximum (right) temperatures across the United States are warmer in the 1981-2010 Climate Normals than in the 1971-2000 version. Credit: NOAA. 

As you can see in the maps above, based on average year-round temperatures, every state experienced warmer temperatures in 1981–2010 compared to 1971–2000.

A few pros and cons of a warming US:

  • Fire season is now longer due to warmer nights.
  • Pollination patterns are changing, with flowering plants blooming an average of one day earlier each decade.
  • Warmer nights and later onset of freezing days also means plants are shifting farther north.
  • Warmer temperatures pose hazards to plants by enabling pests (pine bark beetle and wooly adelgid) to thrive in places where cold winters previously froze them.

 

Standing dead trees—pine beetle damage—in a patch of forest in the mountains near Granby, Colorado. Warmer winters are allowing the destructive insect to thrive. The pine beetle has infested 1.5 million acres of lodgepole pine in Colorado. Credit: NOAA.Standing dead trees from pine beetle damage, seen in a patch of forest in the Rocky Mountains. Warmer winters are allowing the destructive insects to thrive, infesting 1.5 million acres of lodgepole pine in Colorado. Credit: NOAA.

Eastern hemlocks killed by an infestation of woolly adelgids. Credit: William M. Ciesla, via NOAA.Eastern hemlocks killed by an infestation of woolly adelgids. Credit: William M. Ciesla, via NOAA.