2011 - %3, August

Good Obama, Bad Obama

| Fri Aug. 5, 2011 10:28 AM EDT

A couple of days ago I said that Barack Obama had done more for the liberal agenda in two years than George Bush did for conservatives in eight. Today, Bruce Bartlett says that in practice Obama has "governed as a moderate conservative." So who's right?

Well, we both are. Let's review the Obama record:

He passed a big stimulus bill.....but was too timid to make it as big as it needed to be.

He continued the pullout from Iraq.....but sent 50,000 more troops to Afghanistan, amped up the drone attacks in Pakistan, and committed the United States to yet another foreign war in Libya.

He ended torture.....but kept up the NSA surveillance program and military tribunals for Guantanamo detainees.

He passed a historic healthcare law.....but based it on conservative principles and failed to fight for a public option.

He ended DADT.....but continues to merely "evolve" on the subject of gay marriage.

He pressed hard for financial reform.....but proposed legislation that was too weak to make a serious difference

He called out bankers as fat cats.....but caved to banking interests on foreclosure cramdown.

He beefed up the NLRB.....but declined to fight hard for EFCA.

He got agreement on a second stimulus in 2010.....but agreed to construct it nearly entirely of tax cuts.

He supported cap-and-trade legislation.....but handled it so lamely that even Republican supporters finally turned on him.

I could go on like this forever, and I'm sure my readers can add a thousand bullet items like this in comments. The plain fact is that Obama has presided over a historic amount of liberal reform, but it's also a plain fact that he's routinely acceded to conservative dogma and conservative demands — sometimes as part of a compromise to get half a loaf, sometimes because he genuinely seems to sympathize with those demands.

It's just not a simple record to characterize, and there's always going to be plenty of ammunition for critics and supporters on both sides. You just have to decide which half of the list above is most important to you and then open fire.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Tea Party: Liberals Want to "Break the Back of Conservatives" in Wisconsin

| Fri Aug. 5, 2011 9:41 AM EDT
A tea Party Express bus at a rally for Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).

The tea party arrives in Wisconsin today, kicking off a four-day tour to rouse conservative voters and help protect the six imperiled Republican state senators facing recall elections on August 9. Spearheaded by the Tea Party Express, the "Restoring Common Sense" tour brings together four different conservative groups—TPX, Tea Party Nation, FreedomWorks, and the Patriot Action Network—and plans to hit nine cities in what the groups see as a crucial battle to keep the GOP senators in office, and thus prevent Democrats from jamming up Republican Governor Scott Walker's agenda.

On Friday morning Tea Party Nation blasted out a life-or-death missive to its members on the importance of the recalls. TPN's leader, Judson Phillips, accused liberals and Democrats of wanting to "break the back of conservatives here in Wisconsin" via the recalls and drive the state into bankruptcy. Referencing the winter labor upheaval in Madison, the state capital, Phillips wrote: "Liberal mobs attacked the capitol building and at one point trapped at least one Republican lawmaker."

He goes on:

The left lost. So they are fighting back. They have filed recall papers against 6 Republican Senators. If three of them lose, it will flip control of the State Senate back to the Democrats and the fiscally conservative Governor Scott Walker will be hard pressed to do anything to cut spending.

This recall election is setting the stage for next January when the left is going to try and recall Scott Walker. By law, January is the earliest they can do this. Millions of dollars from radical left wing groups has flowed into Wisconsin along with millions of dollars from Unions.

[...]

As we tour Wisconsin the next few days, we need your help. If you can make it to Wisconsin, join us for the tour. If you cannot, spread the word about the tour to anyone you know. Details about the tour are on the front page of Tea Party Nation.

Phillips' plea, not to mention the uniting of four different tea party groups for the bus tour, can only be seen as a sign of serious concern about how the six GOP senators will fare in next week's elections. And if recent polls are any indication, they've got good reason to worry.

Steve King Wants to Enlist Your Uterus

| Fri Aug. 5, 2011 9:00 AM EDT

Last month, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies advised that health insurers should offer birth control without a copayment, one of a list of recommendations it made for preventative health care services for women. As Jen Quraishi reported earlier this week, the Obama administration has adopted the recommendation and will require insurance companies to cover birth control at no cost.

Anti-abortion groups have been flipping out over whether emergency contraception, or the morning after pill, will be covered, since they believe that this constitutes abortion. But Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) found something even more sinister to be worried about: free birth control will mean no more babies. EVER. Here's his tirade from earlier this week, via ThinkProgress:

KING: They’ve called it preventative medicine. Preventative medicine. Well if you applied that preventative medicine universally what you end up with is you’ve prevented a generation. Preventing babies from being born is not medicine. That’s not— that’s not constructive to our culture and our civilization. If we let our birth rate get down below replacement rate we’re a dying civilization.

That's right ladies: it's your patriotic duty to get knocked up indiscriminately, at least according to Steve King.

King also doesn't support making sure women get paid equitably, which might help more women afford birth control in the first place. And don't think about having an abortion should you become pregnant, because King doesn't like those either. And when you have that kid, don't even think about applying for public assistance programs, because King thinks that will make you lazy.

Don't worry about any of that, though! Lie back and think of America!

"The Devil's Double": Scarface in Mesopotamia?

| Fri Aug. 5, 2011 5:00 AM EDT
Dominic Cooper plays Uday Hussein in "The Devil's Double."

The Devil's Double

HERRICK ENTERTAINMENT

108 minutes

It's terribly difficult to resist the premise of The Devil's Double: The film is based on the true story of Latif Yahia, an Iraqi soldier conscripted into working as the fiday, or body double, for Uday Hussein, Saddam Hussein's eldest son. In his four years as Uday's decoy and double, Latif witnessed warfare, political repression, and family politics from within the walls of Saddam's sumptuous palace. He also had a front-row seat to Uday's voracious appetite for coerced sex, gore, and luxury.

With a story like that, a film brimming with pulpy violence, human drama, scenery-chomping acting, and jet-black humor (with a dash of Arab politics and war) is pretty much guaranteed, right? Not quite.

The movie does pack quite the wallop with its gritty content and some truly accomplished performances. At its best moments, The Devil's Double is a brutal, dizzying head-rush of a movie—a lusciously shot drama that stimulates and challenges the senses with its torrent of excess and unthinkable cruelty.

The debauched, nihilistic son of Saddam is portray as the spoiled "dark prince" of Iraq, riding high on a life in which he can party, butcher, and rape children with impunity. The movie sidesteps most of the political scenery (Shiite rebellion, Saddam's prison state, the consequences of the Gulf War), focusing largely on Uday's outrageous mafioso-like persona. "I love cunt more than I love God!" he screams as he abducts a trembling 14-year-old schoolgirl from the noisy streets of Baghdad in broad daylight.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 5, 2011

Fri Aug. 5, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

Marines from Sgt. Joe L. Wrightsman's squad embrace each other after paying tribute to the fallen marine's monument during a memorial service at Patrol Base Jaker, Afghanistan. Wrightsman died supporting combat operations. "He was like a dad to us," Lance Cpl. Michael A. Barnhouse said. "He'd take us under his wing and make sure we didn't mess up. If we did he wouldn't yell at us, but show us what we did wrong and how to correct it." (Regimental Combat Team-7, 1st Marine Division Public Affairs, photo by Sgt. Mark Fayloga)

Meet the Folks Behind Rick Perry's Prayer Festival

| Fri Aug. 5, 2011 5:00 AM EDT
Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas).

This post has been updated.

On Saturday morning, Texas Gov. Rick Perry joined Christian religious leaders at Reliant Stadium in Houston for a day of prayer and fasting for America. "With the economy in trouble, communities in crisis, and people adrift in a sea of moral relativism, we need God's help," Perry explained in a YouTube spot promoting the event. "That's why I'm calling on Americans to pray and fast, like Jesus did, and as God called the Israelites to do in the book of Joel."

Joel 2, the specific Old Testament chapter Perry is referring to, has a special meaning for many evangelical Christians—and more specifically among a small but growing movement called the New Apostolic Reformation. Its adherents believe the nation has become unmoored from its moral foundations, and that our present misfortunes are a direct consequence. They believe it will take a new push by modern-day apostles—messengers who've received their instructions directly from God—to put things back on course. And the apostles, as the Texas Observer's Forrest Wilder has detailed, believe Perry is one of them.

But things didn't go as planned. What was once seen as a dramatic coming-out party for a latter-day Moses, in which Perry would emerge as a bona fide leader of the Christian right against the big-government "Pharaoh" (to use Perry's Exodus metaphor), is looking more and more like a flop. Just 8,000 tickets were sold by Friday—not enough to fill a high school football stadium in Texas, let alone a 75,000-seat professional one. Of the 49 other governors Perry invited to attend, just one, Kansas Republican Sam Brownback, said he'd show up (a few others, like GOPers Paul LePage of Maine and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, issued proclamations). Texas Monthly's Paul Burka, the dean of Texas political analysts, is calling the event an "utter failure."

So where did it go wrong?

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Why Unions Matter: The Numbers

| Fri Aug. 5, 2011 4:55 AM EDT

A few months ago I wrote a piece for the magazine arguing that the decline in unionization over the past three decades has been a key factor in the decline of the American left over the same period. But it's a hard case to prove because there are so many moving parts to it. So I was intrigued earlier this week when my colleague Josh Harkinson linked to a new study that attempts to quantify the effects of unionization on income inequality using a rigorous regression analysis of census data.

The study comes from Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld and was published this month in the American Sociological Review. The authors use a model that accounts for both individual membership in unions as well as overall unionization rates in specific industries and regions. It also controls for education, age, race, ethnicity, and gender, which allows them to estimate the effect of unionization both between groups (e.g., the evolution of income inequality between high school dropouts and high school grads) and within groups (e.g., the evolution of income inequality within the entire subset of high school grads).

Once their model was in place, Western and Rosenfeld could manipulate their variables to estimate what income inequality would look like if union density had remained at its 1973 level. So what did they find? Answer: Among men, if you account only for the effect of individual membership in unions, it would be about a fifth lower, which agrees pretty well with previous estimates. But if you also account for the effect of unions on surrounding nonunion employers (who often raised wages to compete with union employers and to avert the threat of unionization in their own workplace), the effect is larger: Unionization at 1973 levels would decrease income inequality by a full third. You can see this in the chart below. For intragroup differences (which account for nearly the entire effect of unionization) the top line shows the actual rise of income inequality since 1973, while the red line is a prediction of what it would look like if union density were still at 1973 levels:

The effect of unionization on women is less dramatic because women were never unionized at the same rate as men. For them, increasing returns to education are a bigger factor in rising income inequality than deunionization. For men, however, deunionization has had a huge impact: "The decline of the US labor movement has added as much to men's wage inequality as has the relative increase in pay for college graduates," the authors say.

Western and Rosenfeld's explanation for this is similar to Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson's in Winner-Take-All Politics, last year's best book on modern political economy. Roughly speaking, there's a direct economic effect of unionization on wages, but there's also an effect of unions on the political system that indirectly affects wages. Western and Rosenfeld put it like this:

[Our] analysis suggests that unions helped shape the allocation of wages not just for their members, but across the labor market. The decline of US labor and the associated increase in wage inequality signaled the deterioration of the labor market as a political institution.…The de-politicization of the US labor market appears self-reinforcing: as organized labor’s political power dissipates, economic interests in the labor market are dispersed and policymakers have fewer incentives to strengthen unions or otherwise equalize economic rewards.

…[Prior to 1973,] unions offered an alternative to an unbridled market logic, and this institutional alternative employed over a third of all male private sector workers. The social experience of organized labor bled into nonunion sectors, contributing to greater equality overall. As unions declined, not only did the logic of the market encroach on what had been the union sector, but the logic of the market deepened in the nonunion sector, too, contributing to the rise in wage inequality.

In other words, deunionization has allowed income inequality to rise partly because unions are negotiating wages for fewer people than they used to, and partly because unions no longer have the power to force the political system to pay attention to the needs of the middle class. But if income inequality has to be reduced in order for middle class wages to grow—and it does—and if robust middle class wages are a key driver of the liberal project—and they are—then we're all in big trouble. Mass unionization is gone, and it's not coming back. This means we still need something to take its place, and we still don't have it. Until we do, the progressive movement will continue to tread water.

The Story of the Economy

| Thu Aug. 4, 2011 10:42 PM EDT

Just to make sure that everyone is still clear about this, here's the current trajectory of politics and the American economy stripped down to its bare essentials:

2001-2008: Republicans run economy into ditch.

2008: Obama elected.

2009-2011: Republicans respond by doing everything possible to prevent him from fixing things.

2012: Republicans use lousy economy as campaign cudgel against Obama.

2012: Republican candidate wins presidency (maybe).

Sure, sure, Obama deserves some blame for not being aggressive enough etc. etc. I get it. But that's a nit within the big picture. The basic story is the one above. It's still kind of hard to believe.

Oil Lobby Resorts to Twitter Astroturf to Promote Pipeline

| Thu Aug. 4, 2011 5:15 PM EDT

Someone in the oil industry appears to be resorting to astroturfing to bolster support for the controversial proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry tar sands oil from Alberta down to Texas if approved by the Obama administration. The Rainforest Action Network thinks the American Petroleum Institute and its oil lobby allies are behind a slew of fake Twitter accounts designed to prop up public opinion about the pipeline.

The final decision on the project lies with the State Department and is expected before the end of the year. The proposal has raised concerns among environmentalists, farmers, ranchers, and landowners in the region, however. Many tweeps following the debate have been using the hash tag "#tarsands" to discuss the pipeline. On Wednesday morning, RAN noticed a group of Twitter handles posting the same tweet, "#tarsands the truth is out!" followed by a link to the API webpage about the tar sands. Then those accounts sent out another link, this time to the Nebraska Energy Forum, a state-based group sponsored by API that has also been heavily involved in promoting tar sands development. I sent a request to API for comment about whether they are, in fact, behind the handles, but I have not yet received a response.

RAN's Brant Olson has compiled a bunch of the seemingly fake handles. It's pretty amusing that whoever is behind them bothered to make them sort of seem like real people. Take, for example, droidude7816, just a regular old Star Wars fan from Chicago who's "in a intimate relationship" with his girlfriend Sarah (um, ew). His short self-description also notes, "I own pretty much every starwar movie, action figure etc.," and "I'm also one who cares about the environment." It even has a little photo of some doughy white guy having a light-saber fight with Darth Vader! But then all of his 27 tweets are about the Keystone XL.

There's also SarahMama2, who claims to be just your average mother of a toddler who happens to tweet compulsively about the pipeline. And there's JennyJohnson10, "a single woman that works full time at a fitness center" and has "2 cats 1 dog and 1 snake" but only tweets about the tar sands. Or her Twitter friend kyleland1, who claims to be a Pizza Hut manager from Omaha who believes that "if you like pizza you should also like #keystonexl and the sweet #oilsands it benefits #nebraska."

Mmm, oil sands pizza! I'm sold. Thanks, oil lobby astroturfers!

The FAA Hobbles Back to Life

| Thu Aug. 4, 2011 4:35 PM EDT

Our hardworking members of Congress have finally agreed to keep the FAA running:

Under a deal Reid made with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), the Senate will pass the House bill that includes cuts to rural flight service to airports in Nevada, West Virginia and Montana. But Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood will use his authority to waive the airports from the cuts, ending a 13-day impasse.

....The House and Senate passed a 20th short-term extension of FAA funding in May when the chambers both passed versions of the longer-term bills that were drastically different. The House version included provisions that would undo changes to labor rules that were adopted by the National Mediation Board to make it easier for railroad and airline workers to unionize.

So this is now the 21st short-term funding bill, and it will pass only because its actual provisions are meaningless. Yay Congress. A real bill remains held up indefinitely because Republicans are more interested in union busting than in — well, than in almost anything.

There is nothing — absolutely nothing — that Republicans feel more strongly about than union busting. That includes taxes, abortion, welfare spending, overseas wars, gun rights, tort reform, oil drilling in Alaska, and every other alleged conservative hot button. In the world of actual action — as opposed to the world of rhetorical fireworks — the only thing that even comes close is keeping taxes on the rich low.

This should tell you something about the real-world power of organized labor in the broader political economy. It's something conservatives have understood well for a long time.