2011 - %3, August

Raise the Gas Tax!

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

No one in Congress wants to raise the gas tax even though our transportation infrastructure is crumbling and revenue from the tax has been falling. Brad Plumer rounds up some substitute ideas:

One idea is a vehicle-miles traveled tax, which would track driver habits via GPS and charge per mile driven....Another is to charge some sort of congestion fee on overclogged highways....Mica, for his part, has suggested extending the Build America Bonds program....A bipartisan team affiliated with the Carnegie Endowment has proposed an upstream tax on oil combined with a variable gas tax that shrinks when oil prices rise and expands when oil prices plummet.

Uh huh. Or we could, you know, just raise the gas tax. We are ruled by idiots.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Chris Christie Shoots Down Anti-Shariah Activists

| Thu Aug. 4, 2011 10:07 AM EDT

Via Adam Serwer, New Jersey Republican governor Chris Christie delivered some much-needed real talk on Islamophobia on Wednesday. For months, he's been taking heat from conservative groups over his appointment of a Muslim, Sohail Mohammed, to the state superior court (here's Pamela Geller's characteristically calm reaction). With no factual evidence to support their claims, many conservatives fear that Muslims are stealthily forcing a radical strain of Islamic Shariah law on unsuspecting Americans—and Mohammed's appointment, in such a key position, would no doubt speed up the process.

But Christie, who has been known to speak his mind from time to time, has had enough of it:

Shariah law has nothing to do with this at all. It's crazy. It's crazy. The guy's an American citizen who has been an admitted lawyer to practice in the state of New Jersey, swearing an oath to uphold the laws of New Jersey, the constitution of the state of New Jersey, and the Constitution of the United States of America…this shariah law business is crap. It's just crazy. And I'm tired of dealing with the crazies. It's just unnecessary to be accusing this guy of things just because of his religious backround.

Here's the video:

Quote of the Day: Rick Perry's Texas-Sized Problem

| Thu Aug. 4, 2011 10:00 AM EDT

From Paul Waldman, after noting Rick Perry's aggressively maintained more-Texas-than-thou persona:

It's true that voters in the Northeast, Midwest, and West may have an irrational, kneejerk reaction against his voice or even just his home state, without actually knowing whether that reaction is justified. But the truth is, in his case, it pretty much is.

For the record, I don't think Perry can win the Republican nomination, and I know that he can't beat Obama in a general election. I'd love to see him try, though.

Why Bachmann's Allies Hate International Baccalaureate

| Thu Aug. 4, 2011 8:50 AM EDT
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R–Minn.)

It's a reasonable bet that International Baccalaureate, the international advanced placement system for high school students, will not be much of an issue in the Republican presidential race. But you never know.

As I reported this morning, International Baccalaureate actually plays a supporting role in a conspiracy theory hawked by Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and many of her boosters back in Minnesota—one that helped kick-start her career when she was a home-school parent in Stillwater. Bachmann got her start in politics in the late 1990s by partnering with a group called the the Maple River Education Coalition to warn Minnesotans about the imminent "state-planned economy" that would turn the state into a mini-Soviet Union. MREC believed, absolutely, that the federal government was in league with the United Nations to create a new global order built on an ideology of radical environmentalism (which is what led then-Gov. Jesse Ventura, no stranger to conspiracy theories, to jest that they "think UFOs are landing next month"). As these conservatives saw it, "sustainability," and more specifically a little-known United Nations agreement called Agenda 21, was the catalyst for a globalist takeover.

What does this have to do with International Baccalaureate? Well, if your goal is to bring the world together under one banner, it obviously helps to indoctrinate the children. These right-wing critics argued that IBO was quietly weaning kids off the antiquated notion of national sovereignty and American ideals and pushing them to become world citizens. (This, among other reasons, is why conservatives were so irked by Obama's statement that he considers himself a "citizen of the world"). IBO students would be taught to revere the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and embrace a doctrine of moral relativsm that values gay rights, redistribution of wealth, and the notion that the earth itself is a living organism (think Avatar, I guess).

Bachmann has been silent on the International Baccalaureate part of the conspriacy. But in 2006, then-EdWatch president Julie Quist did testify before Bachmann's state senate education committee to urge the body to strip all funding for IBO programs. As she explained:

Dr. Ian Hill, Deputy Director of IBO, has said that the goal of IBO is the promotion of world citizenship. [http:/www.ibo.org] Either United States citizenship or world citizenship must have priority in our education program. Which will it be?  IB gives priority to world citizenship...

Amendment X of our Bill of Rights assumes that the rights in our Bill of Rights are inherent and inalienable, as is directly stated in the Declaration of Independence. For that reason, IBO is contrary to Amendment X of our Bill of Rights, and therefore undermines all ten amendments that make up our Bill of Rights.

All ten amendments—even the Third! World citizenship, anyhow, is not literally a thing that's in competition with national citizenship, inasmuch as it is impossible to get a "world passport" or pay "world taxes" or vote for a "world president" or compete on the world Olympic team. But a few weeks later, Quist and EdWatch showed up at the GOP nominating convention for the Sixth Congressional District. Bachmann won the nomination with their help, but there was another order of business for the group: They also pushed through a resolution formally opposing IBO. (Minnesota's governor, Tim Pawlenty, supported the program.) Quist and another EdWatch alum, Renee Doyle, went on to take jobs in Bachann's congressional office.

Bachmann frames her education activism and work with Maple River Education Coalition as that of a concerned parent who was worried schools were dumbing down her kids. But the actual fears that she and her allies outlined at the time went much, much deeper than that. For some more thoughts on Bachmann's early career—and why conservatives don't seem to care—read Noah Kristula-Green.

What if Obama's Debt Compromise Doesn't Impress Independents?

| Thu Aug. 4, 2011 8:25 AM EDT

President Barack Obama won in 2008 with independent voters (and, of course, a hyper-active base of Democrats). But after a year of the Obama presidency, independents were souring on him, and by the 2010 mid-term elections, they seemed to be quite skeptical of the former candidate of hope and change. Thus, one important component of Obama's reelection strategy is obvious: win the independents back. One way to revive their affections, the thinking goes, is for Obama to rise above Washington's increasingly bitter fray and produce compromises that demonstrate his ability to make the divided capital function for the American people. Last December's tax-cut deal fit this strategy. Obama was able to show independents he could forge a compromise with obdurate Republicans—plus, he produced a mini-stimulus for the sputtering economy.

As for this week's debt ceiling compromise—that seems to be another story. The deal yielded no immediate results that will bolster the economy (though it did prevent GOPers from blowing up the economy), and independents seem to be unimpressed. As Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post and others note, the most interesting aspect of the initial polls taken after the denouement of Debtageddon is that indies are not keen on the compromise. A USA Today/Gallup survey found that 50 percent of self-identified independents disapprove of the compromise; one-third approve. CNN's survey found that 62 percent of independents are thumb's-down on the deal. (The deal does better with the whole population—39 percent approve, and 46 disapprove in the Gallup poll—because Democrats (far more than Republicans) considered it a positive outcome.

So if the independents don't like this deal, does that mean Obama won't accrue the political bennies he might expect to rack up among this slice of the electorate? In polling during the weeks running up to the final deal, Obama consistently polled more favorably than the congressional Republicans, suggesting his I'm-the-reasonable-guy strategy was paying off political dividends. But if at the end of all this independents think the deal is a stinker, maybe there won't be any long-lasting political gain for the president. He certainly won't be able to cite the deal when courting the middle.

Cillizza reports,

Curt Anderson, a Republican media consultant, called compromise a "media fascination" and dismissed polling conducted in the run-up to the deal that suggested people wanted a deal done. "That will always test well, and it is a complete misread and not at all instructive of anything," said Anderson.

Anderson...insisted that independents (and voters more generally) "want results more than they want compromise."

And this result was to no one's liking. Perhaps the political lesson for the White House is that the president is going to have deliver better packages to renew his bond with independents. But given who he has to negotiate with on Capitol Hill, that's going to be a tough deal to pull off.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 4, 2011

Thu Aug. 4, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

Spc. Gareth Warner drops a 120mm mortar round into the tube while Spc. Ricky Olivo keeps the gun on target during a fire mission on Combat Outpost Zurok in Paktika province, Afghanistan. The soldiers are deployed with the 3rd Battalion, 509th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division. Photo by Staff Sgt. Andrew Smith.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Europe Still Falling Into the Abyss

| Thu Aug. 4, 2011 1:51 AM EDT

So what's the latest in Europe? Here's the New York Times explaining their latest problems:

Now, another type of contagion is causing concern: the risk of problems spreading to big banks, especially in Italy and Spain....The banks own so many bonds issued by their home countries that they are being weakened as the value of those bonds falls, amid concerns that the cost of government borrowing could become too expensive for Italy and Spain to bear. Now there are signs that these concerns are, in turn, starting to make it harder and costlier for the banks to borrow money to finance their day-to-day operations, a troubling trend that, at the worst, could lead to liquidity problems.

Hmmm. Banks are having trouble funding themselves. Here's the Wall Street Journal:

In Italy, one of the country's biggest banks, UniCredit SpA, faced numerous questions from analysts about the bank's short-term loans and whether disruptions in the funding market pose a threat. Executives acknowledged the market turmoil was having an impact, but downplayed its severity. "Liquidity…is available in the market. It's very, very short [term], but available," one senior executive said.

"Very, very" short term funding is all that's available to UniCredit. When that happened to Lehman Brothers, it had about a week left to live. The overnight market can dry up — well, overnight if a bank's solvency comes into question. The Washington Post tries to put this all into perspective:

The deepening woes raised the prospect of a crisis that would be almost as calamitous for the global economy as the one just avoided in Washington.

No no no. Europe is facing the prospect of a crisis that could be much more calamitous than our little debt ceiling kerfuffle. It might not happen in a week, but it's sure starting to look like it might happen in a month or two. As usual, I hope I'm just being an underinformed worrywart, but one way or another, this shoe sure looks like it's going to drop in pretty short order. Buckle up.

For more details, the Journal article is the best of the bunch. However, the Post has the best quote about Italy's travails: "Berlusconi is more interested in his bunga-bunga parties than his bond market," said Louise Cooper, a markets analyst at BGC Partners in London. And the Times has the best overall advice: "I don't think anyone wants to be long European banks right now,” said Simon White, an analyst and partner at Variant Perception, a London-based research firm. Probably not.

"The Moment I Took a Life Was Painfully Routine"

| Wed Aug. 3, 2011 11:42 PM EDT
Chris Cannon.

I first met Chris Cannon 13 years ago—Jesus, 13 years!—when we were undergraduate transfer students at Columbia. We were members of a small motley fraternity at that institution, military vets looking for some purpose in the liberal academy. Both of us found it. Both of us took a circuitous route getting there.

For Chris, a former White House Marine (and roadie for Willie Nelson), that road took him to graduate study in anthropology, which better prepared him to dissect pop culture—and his own experiences as a killer angel for the US government—in writing.

The result of his anthropological study—a three-part memoir, "Little Sins"—is online at The Tyee, a kickass Vancouver-based magazine run by former MoJo editor David Beers. In the stories, Chris explores his military service, his later dedication to saving a life with a bone-marrow donation, and his thick, salty Gen X-ness. I highly recommend the series, but if you have time for just one excerpt, make it this one:

There is no training for the aftermath, the spiritual reckoning that comes with killing someone who looks, in flashbacks, suspiciously like you.

I've written it down a dozen times, recycling the memory with each attempt. Sometimes it's the palm trees that stick out, fat and round and rough at the base. Sometimes it's the smell of my own sweat, so thick it soaked through a quarter-inch of Kevlar. But the event, the moment I took a life, was painfully routine. We surprised them, two men at an intersection of footpaths. They raised their weapons and fired into our ranks. I dropped to the ground and rolled through the sand, just as I was trained, so I would pop back up in a different location. The words of my instructors even echoed through my head: "I'm up, he sees me, I'm down." My canteens and spare ammunition dug into my bony hips, just like they had always done in training. My helmet dropped forward, covering my eyes, just like always. I drew back the bolt, thumbed the selector switch to fire, squinted behind the rear sight, and, like always, jerked the trigger when I should have squeezed it. Three hasty shots, and a quick glance at the target in time to see him fall.

When I play the memory, I tend to invent details, grasping for adjectives to make it seem like more than it was -- perhaps there was an entire squad nearby, perhaps we prevented an attack on civilians. Perhaps they were not simply two men, poorly trained and poorly armed, smoking cigarettes and talking of home. If he had tried to run, or simply dropped to the ground, I might have lost my nerve -- motion is life. But he just stood there, firing his weapon, otherwise still as paper.

New Report: CO2 Emissions Cost Way More Than You Think

| Wed Aug. 3, 2011 7:04 PM EDT

Since the Bush years, government agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, Council on Economic Advisers, and Department of Transportation have been calculating the economic costs of the damage caused by carbon dioxide emissions and the resulting climate change. Depending on who's running the calculation and their methodology (economic modeling based on projected growth, climate behavior, and related physical damages), these estimates currently range from $5.50 and $72 per ton of CO2. A new report, however, says that these estimates are way too low.

In 2010, one ton of CO2 in the atmosphere cost up to $893 in economic damage—more than 12 times the government's highest estimate.

After running an independent analysis, Economics for Equity and Environment (E3), the network of economists that published the report (PDF), found that in 2010, one ton of CO2 in the atmosphere did up to $893 in economic damage—more than 12 times the government's highest estimate. By 2050, the group says, these costs could rise up to $1,550 per ton of CO2 emitted. (A ton of CO2 is approximately what you release into the atmosphere by driving a car for two-and-a-half months.) While the government agencies acknowledge that their estimates are "imperfect and incomplete," E3 says they also omit "many of the biggest risks associated with climate change" and downplay "the impact of our current emissions on future generations."

Presidential Power

| Wed Aug. 3, 2011 5:49 PM EDT

I apologize in advance for indulging in a wonky process post yet again today ("more boy talk," as Twitter follower Stella calls it), but I want to repeat a point that I haven't made for a while. It got kicked off by this tweet from Dave Roberts:

My answer: No, he just has the easiest job. McConnell's sole goal for the past two years has been obstruction, something that Senate rules make easy. And the debt ceiling deal was a dog's breakfast of ideas from various sources. McConnell took credit for its final form, but he could do that mainly because, unlike John Boehner, he didn't have to put up with a big tea party contingent and was able to compromise without fear of losing his job.

More broadly, though, is it true that Republicans are just more ruthless and better strategists than President Obama? Matt Yglesias, after noting that the House is refusing to adjourn in order to prevent Obama from making recess appointments (they'll hold a pro forma session every few days), goes there:

I find that my mood around this fluctuates. Mondays and Wednesdays I’m frustrated by lefties who seem to see the unprecedented Republican obstruction the President is dealing with as part of an 11-dimensional chess game through which Obama “really” wants his progressive initiatives to be frustrated at every [turn]. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I think this is the most damning critique of all. In the face of an opposition that’s been relentlessly innovative, the White House has been staggeringly uncreative. Rather than a game of tit-for-tat, the Republicans seem to be inside the administration’s decision loop, heading off their retaliatory options before the President has even exercised them.

Has the White House really been staggeringly uncreative compared to Republicans? We don't have to guess about this. We recently had a Republican president in office for eight years and we can see just what he did. Keep in mind that George Bush was a very partisan animal and was advised by Karl Rove, a man with a major-league reputation for political ruthlessness. So what did Bush do to whip Democrats in line when they opposed him? Let's roll the tape:

  • 2001 tax cuts: passed by reconciliation so no Democratic votes were needed.
  • No Child Left Behind: No arm twisting here. This was a bipartisan bill cosponsored by Ted Kennedy. Bush got Democratic votes by agreeing to give Kennedy a lot of what he wanted.
  • War resolution: No arm twisting here either. After 9/11 Democrats were gung ho to invade Afghanistan and kick some al-Qaeda butt.
  • PATRIOT Act: Ditto.
  • Sarbanes-Oxley: This was basically a Democratic bill. Not only was there no arm twisting, Bush signed it reluctantly.
  • McCain-Feingold: Ditto.
  • Iraq war resolution: No arm twisting again. Lots of Democrats favored this and so did the public.
  • Homeland Security Department: Let's see. Oh yeah, I remember: Bush got his way here by winning the 2002 election and regaining his majority in Congress.
  • 2003 tax cuts: Again, passed via reconciliation. No Democratic votes needed.
  • Medicare Part D: Lots of arm twisting here, but mainly by Tom DeLay against his fellow Republicans. Several Democrats voted for it in the Senate, but let's be honest about this: details aside, it got some Dem votes because it was a piece of liberal social welfare legislation of the kind that Dems have long favored.
  • Social Security privatization: This failed. Bush was unable to get support from his own party, let alone coerce any support from Democrats.
  • Immigration reform: Ditto, more or less.

Contrary to his reputation, Bush mostly succeeded by pressing a moderate, and sometimes even liberal, agenda. Tax cuts aside, which he passed solely primarily with Republican support, the only real ruthlessness he showed toward Democrats on behalf of a conservative priority was the campaign hardball he played to add a union-busting provision to the Homeland Security bill. That was about it for presidential toughness. Ironically, the biggest show of ruthlessness during the Bush years was in the appointment of judges, but the ruthlessness there was wielded by Orrin Hatch, who made it easier to confirm conservative judges by peremptorily changing the blue slip rule in a remarkably cynical display of naked power politics. Democrats responded by filibustering a bunch of judges, which was also pretty unprecedented, and the whole thing eventually got resolved by a group of centrist senators called the Gang of 12. In this case, both sides displayed some ruthlessness, but not President Bush. He was just about the only person not really involved.

I'm not trying to make it sound like presidents are powerless. They can set agendas, they have control of executive orders, they have a pretty free hand in foreign policy, they can sway public opinion, they can lead their own party, and they can bargain with the other party.1 But Richard Neustadt taught us a long time ago that, especially on domestic issues, presidential power is distinctly limited. There's just not that much in the way of ruthless arm-twisting that they can do these days, and while Obama may not be as creative on this score as he ought to be, neither was Bush. That's more a reflection of political reality than it is of the character of either one of them.

1On the specific issue of the debt ceiling, the obvious thing Obama could have done differently was to insist that it be included as part of the lame duck deal last year. But for all the grief he's gotten over this, it's worth keeping in mind that Obama got a helluva lot out of that deal. In the end, he got a food safety bill, passage of the START treaty, a stimulus package, repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, and a 9/11 first responders bill. Maybe it would have been worth risking all that over inclusion of a debt ceiling increase, but that's hardly an open-and-shut case.

What's more, Obama also won passage during his first two years of a stimulus bill, a landmark healthcare bill that Democrats had been trying to pass for the better part of a century, a financial reform bill, and much needed reform of student loans. And more: a firm end to the Bush torture regime, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a hate crimes bill, a successful rescue of the American car industry, and resuscitation of the NLRB. Oh, and he killed Osama bin Laden too.

Sure, we all could have wished for more. Everyone has different hot buttons, and I particularly wish that financial reform had been stronger and that Obama had somehow managed to get cap-and-trade across the finish line. I'm also unhappy with the extension of the Afghanistan war and Obama's Bush-like policies regarding national security and civil liberties. Still and all, in two years Obama has done more to enact a liberal agenda than George Bush did for the conservative agenda in eight. That's not bad, folks. All things considered, I'd say Obama is the most effective politician of the Obama era. And the Bush era too.