2011 - %3, December

Facebook Goes Green?

| Sun Dec. 18, 2011 3:00 PM EST

Green-minded procrastinators everywhere rejoiced last week when Facebook agreed to move away from coal towards clean energy-powered data centers. The announcement came on the heels of a two-year Greenpeace campaign that mobilized a reported 700,000 supporters to exhort the company to "Unfriend Coal." 

On the surface, this seems like great news. As internet use has exploded in recent years, it's been accompanied by huge growth in energy consumption and carbon emissions (though it's not quite as bad as you might expect). But details on how exactly Facebook plans to shrink its environmental footprint are hard to come by. Tzeporah Berman, co-Director of Greenpeace's International Climate and Energy Program, told me that the coal-reduction strategy would focus on the areas where Facebook's data centers are located, in Prineville, Oregon and Rutherford County, North Carolina, where Facebook and Greenpeace will work with local utilities to improve the data centers' supply of clean energy. Michael Kirkland, a communications manager at Facebook, also said that a preference for clean energy sources would be a part of the company's policy in finding sites for new data centers going forward, but wouldn't say whether Facebook is willing to actually, you know, spend more money to achieve it, or how long it will take.

In its statement on the Greenpeace agreement Facebook also promised "ongoing research into energy efficiency," but it didn't go into much detail on that, either, though Kirkland did tell me that much of Facebook's research is aimed at finding and implementing more efficient practices within the company—not necessarily at reducing the company's overall energy consumption.

Until Facebook and Greenpeace hammer out some more specific plans, which Berman says they'll start to do early next year, it's hard to know how much impact Facebook's promises will have. And actually, we probably won't know the full story of Facebook's energy use until after the company's long-awaited IPO. (This lack of transparency is particularly frustrating considering how much information Facebook asks its users to pony up.) So while I'd like feel great about the time I spend staying up-to-date on the latest adventures of my high school friend's cat, I guess I won't rationalize away the hours I spend on Facebook as clean and green just yet.

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Kids Just Want to Have Junk Food

| Sun Dec. 18, 2011 1:20 PM EST

A little while ago the LA Unified School District embarked on an ambitious plan to get rid of junk food in its schools and replace it with healthier fare. Kids participated in tasting sessions, and only stuff that passed teenage muster was added to the menu. So how's that working out?

For many students, L.A. Unified's trailblazing introduction of healthful school lunches has been a flop. Earlier this year, the district got rid of chocolate and strawberry milk, chicken nuggets, corn dogs, nachos and other food high in fat, sugar and sodium. Instead, district chefs concocted such healthful alternatives as vegetarian curries and tamales, quinoa salads and pad Thai noodles.

There's just one problem: Many of the meals are being rejected en masse. Participation in the school lunch program has dropped by thousands of students. Principals report massive waste, with unopened milk cartons and uneaten entrees being thrown away. Students are ditching lunch, and some say they're suffering from headaches, stomach pains and even anemia. At many campuses, an underground market for chips, candy, fast-food burgers and other taboo fare is thriving.

The experiment is only a few months old, so maybe with a bit of tweaking everything will turn out OK. So far, though, it looks like kids don't react any better to having their habits forcibly changed than any of the rest of us.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio: Calling Me Names Violates My Civil Rights

| Sun Dec. 18, 2011 10:35 AM EST
Sheriff Joe Arpaio at the 2011 Veteran's Day Parade in Phoenix, Arizona.

Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was accused by the Justice Department of presiding over a culture of anti-Latino discrimination in the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office last week, offers his take on what violating someone's civil rights looks like:

Likewise, the sheriff denied unlawfully targeting critics for arrest during political protests. "We don't go after anybody," he said. "Actually, they go after me. They're demonstrating in front of my building, calling me every kind of name. If you want to talk about civil-rights violations, what about that?"

Has a statement more symbolic of runaway right-wing victimhood ever been uttered? It's all there, the lack of empathy, the narrative of persecution, the ludicrous sense of self-pity, even the comically distorted understanding of the law. Naturally, the statement also actually helps confirm what Arpaio's critics are accusing him of—any sheriff thin skinned-enough to think it's illegal to call him a name is probably also enough of a megalomaniac to arrest people for criticizing him.

Just to reiterate though: This is a man whose most celebrated public gestures included forcing inmates to wear pink underwear so as to humiliate them. The Justice Department's report describes his office as systematically discriminating against Latinos as part of a crusade against illegal immigration, even at the cost of investigating serious crimes; running a jail where Latino inmates were punished by being denied basic services if they could not speak English; and retaliating against his critics using the powers of his office. But when it comes to himself, Arpaio sees name-calling as a violation of his civil rights.

How the Euro Summit Failed

| Sat Dec. 17, 2011 10:58 PM EST

This is the damnedest thing. The Financial Times reports today on why the recent EU summit to save the euro collapsed into a debacle, with Britain opting out entirely and forcing the rest of Europe to go ahead without them. The basic story, of course, is that British prime minister David Cameron demanded special protections for London's financial sector and neither Germany nor France was willing to go along. But what's striking to me is how incompetent the negotiation process was on all sides.

The FT reports that Cameron met with Angela Merkel in November and got the impression she was willing to deal. So he went home to work on a proposal, but he and William Hague kept their cards close to their vests until the very last moment:

They wanted the bid to be kept secret from two potential adversaries. The first was Mr Cameron’s hardline eurosceptics, who want an EU referendum and repatriation of powers....The second was France....Moreover, the British position was not settled till late. On Tuesday December 6, Mr Cameron assembled his chief foreign policy advisers.

[Note: the summit was due to take place December 9th.]

....It is unclear whether Mr Cameron was aware of the warning lights flashing in the Whitehall machine....From Paris, too, came warnings that Mr Sarkozy was intent on a weaker, intergovernmental pact....Berlin, meanwhile, was warning London not to overdo it in pushing Germany. Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut, Ms Merkel’s Europe adviser, was given early sight of the City protocol and said it went too far. When asked what was acceptable, German officials made clear it was not their place to draft UK demands. After a flurry of Franco-German diplomacy, a common position took shape: if the British did not temper their demands, a deal would be done without them. Days before the summit, German officials said their “pessimism was more pronounced” – words intended as a clear signal to London.

You can read the rest of the piece for more details, but what's most striking is how little communication there was here. My sense of these kinds of summits is that they're always preceded by weeks of frenzied activity among mid-level negotiators so that the top level folks just have to work out a few well-defined issues before they appear smiling before the cameras when the summit ends. But no. As near as I can tell, Merkel's advisor, Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut, got a look at Britain's demands on December 7 and refused to engage with them beyond saying they went too far. On the morning of December 8 Merkel and Sarkozy met privately. On the evening of the 8th, the FT reports, they invited Cameron to a pre-summit meeting and "ambushed" him by flatly turning down his demands. And that was that.

What the hell kind of way is that to run a railroad? It's crazy.

Now, I'll confess that this whole affair puzzles me on another level. The main point of the summit was to gain agreement for some level of European control over national budgets, with automatic sanctions for countries that run budget deficits that are too big. I can understand Spain and Greece and the other periphery countries agreeing to this under pressure. But was Britain also willing to agree to this if only they got a special deal for their financial industry? I find that frankly hard to imagine. And yet, it doesn't seem to have been a sticking point.

But why on earth would Britain, which isn't part of the euro, agree to fiscal oversight like that? What's in it for them?

In any case, it's too bad Cameron didn't figure out a way to scuttle the whole noxious mess and force Merkozy — that's what everyone calls Merkel and Sarkozy, sort of like Brangelina but without the charisma — to deal with Europe's actual problem instead of obsessing over budget deficits and idiotically unenforceable "binding" sanctions. Until they deal with the root of the problem, this is all just so much gum flapping.

VIDEO: Mass Arrests Of Occupiers At Duarte Square

| Sat Dec. 17, 2011 6:01 PM EST

Updated December 18th at 9:00 a.m.

For weeks, Occupy Wall Street has been talking about occupying a vacant lot next to Duarte Square in SoHo. On Saturday, it walked the talk. At about 3:30 p.m, several hundred marchers left the square along with two large wooden ladders concealed beneath banners. They circled the block and converged at the lot's northwest corner, where they hoisted one of the ladders up to a tall chain-link fence. The first person over was retired Bishop George Packard, who writes at Occupied Bishop. Here's a video of him entering the lot:

After Packard tumbled over the fence, he climbed onto a wooden bench and waved for the crowd to follow. Other priests mounted the ladder while the the crowd yanked up the base of the fence to make a large opening. Someone cut the lock on a gate, and dozens of people streamed inside, talking, dancing to rap music from a boom box, and urging the rest of the crowd to join them. But the party couldn't last. The police, taken off guard at first, came pouring through the gate with flex cuffs and arrested everyone who didn't flee, including Packard.  The New York Daily News reported that about 30 occupiers were loaded into police vans. Here's my video of the first arrests:

Here's Packard discussing it all with fellow occupiers while riding to jail in a paddy wagon:

That morning, things had gotten off to an ominous start when police detained and arrested Zach, one of the organizers, while he was walking across a nearby public park. Witnesses said that Zach has just delivered some t-shirts to the park and wasn't doing anything illegal, or even protesting. Police told a Democracy Now reporter that Zach was arrested on a warrant, suggesting that they're targeting key organizers for their role in planning new occupations.

Occupy Wall Street had a variety of motivations for occupying the lot, which is owned by Trinity Church but not currently being used for anything. Many occupiers desperately want to establish another physical occupation, believing that it will give them a better platform for outreach and organizing. The Trinity lot is one of the few unused parcels remotely near Wall Street, and the occupiers hoped that letters of support from prominent clergymen such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu might sway the church to their side. They've also leaned on the church by highlighting its ties to Wall Street interests.

Organizers chose December 17th to move on the lot because it marks the one-year anniversary of the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi--the Tunisian fruit vendor who is credited with sparking the Arab Spring--and the three-month anniversary of OWS. Organizers told me that it's likely to be their last major occupation attempt until the spring, and the whole thing felt nostalgic even before it was over. "I left my heart in Zuccotti Park," one sign said. After marching through the streets to Times Square--and getting kettled along the way--some organizers gathered at a popular OWS meeting spot in TriBeCa to watch video clips from the movement's early days.

"It was really incredibly optimistic of us to think that we were going to take that space and hold it," tactical team member George Machado told me afterwards. But for a moment it seemed possible: "We got the clergy in first, and we had that space, and I thought for a second that we might be able to do it."

Quote of the Day: Herman Cain for Defense!

| Sat Dec. 17, 2011 2:04 PM EST

From Rick Perry, explaining to an Iowa crowd that Herman Cain would make a good Secretary of Defense:

He has all the characteristics of the type of person I would bring forward.

Yes indeed, in much the same way that, say, Hannibal Lecter has all the characteristics that would make him a good food critic for the Times. I smell a Twitter meme coming on here. #allthecharacteristics

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The Other Christopher Hitchens

| Sat Dec. 17, 2011 1:56 PM EST

So, Christopher Hitchens. I've never read any of his books, only his columns and magazine essays, but am I the only one who's feeling a strong need for a bit of perspective on the guy?

Politically, he spent the 80s as a Trotskyite, the 90s in transition as a lunatic Bill Clinton hater, and the aughts as a cheerleader for the Iraq war. This is not exactly an enviable track record of considered judgment. 

As a writer, he was all over the map. His prodigious memory was, indeed, prodigious, and he was capable of brilliance. And yet, quite aside from his subject material, I never much warmed to him. His writing contained provocation aplenty, but far too much of it, I thought, was tediously bloated, a few hundred words of dashed off substance wrapped around many more hundred words of tired reminiscences, random bile, and frustratingly circuitous filler. It certainly wasn't unreadable, and sometimes it produced a charm of sorts, but mostly it neither persuaded nor even really entertained on any kind of sustained basis.

So....I guess I've never quite gotten the cult of Hitchens. He had an impressively wide-ranging intellect, he was prolific almost beyond belief, and he was (I gather) personally gregarious and a good friend to thousands. But after half an hour of rereading old columns of his, most of them in carefully curated lists of "personal favorites," I was mostly just reminded of why I never much cared for him. There just wasn't much there there.

De gustibus non est disputandum. I have the mind of an engineer, so maybe his style was just never going to appeal to me. But his personal charisma aside, he sure seems to have combined almost appallingly poor political judgment with a rambling writing style that too often used its considerable (and genuine) erudition as a mask for its lack of a really sharp, well argued point. I never had anything much against the guy, but really, the hagiography is getting a little too thick to bear.

UPDATE: For what it's worth, I should make it clear that I'm talking here solely about Hitchens' writing on politics and current affairs, not his writing about culture and literature, which I'm not qualified to judge.

Corn on Hardball: Why Doesn't the GOP Want Newt to Win the Nomination?

Fri Dec. 16, 2011 9:35 PM EST

David Corn and John Feehery appeared on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss why the Republican establishment—especially the conservative elite—don't want Newt Gingrich to win the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.

The Defense Bill Passed. So What Does It Do?

| Fri Dec. 16, 2011 6:34 PM EST

Following the Obama administration's withdrawal of its veto threat Wednesday, the National Defense Authorization Act passed both houses of Congress easily and is now headed to the president's desk. 

So what exactly does the bill do? It says that the president has to hold a foreign Al Qaeda suspect captured on US soil in military detention—except it leaves enough procedural loopholes that someone like convicted underwear bomber and Nigerian citizen Umar Abdulmutallab could actually go from capture to trial without ever being held by the military. It does not, contrary to what many media outlets have reported, authorize the president to indefinitely detain without trial an American citizen suspected of terrorism who is captured in the US. A last minute compromise amendment adopted in the Senate, whose language was retained in the final bill, leaves it up to the courts to decide if the president has that power, should a future president try to exercise it. But if a future president does try to assert the authority to detain an American citizen without charge or trial, it won't be based on the authority in this bill. 

So it's simply not true, as the Guardian wrote yesterday, that the the bill "allows the military to indefinitely detain without trial American terrorism suspects arrested on US soil who could then be shipped to Guantánamo Bay." When the New York Times editorial page writes that the bill would "strip the F.B.I., federal prosecutors and federal courts of all or most of their power to arrest and prosecute terrorists and hand it off to the military," or that the "legislation could also give future presidents the authority to throw American citizens into prison for life without charges or a trial," they're simply wrong. 

The language in the bill that relates to the detention authority as far as US citizens and permanent residents are concerned is, "Nothing in this section shall be construed to affect existing law or authorities relating to the detention of United States citizens, lawful resident aliens of the United States, or any other persons who are captured or arrested in the United States."

As I've written before, this is cop-out language. It allows people who think the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks gives the president the authority to detain US citizens without charge or trial to say that, but it also allows people who can read the Constitution of the United States to argue something else. That's why Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has proposed legislation to make it clear that indefinite detention authority does not apply to US citizens arrested in the US—which at the very least, should force Congress to go on record about who exactly is opposed to detention without trial at the whim of the executive branch. 

Does the defense bill change the status quo? Yes. Though detention of non-citizen Al Qaeda suspects captured in the US is now mandatory in name only, because of procedural loopholes that allow the president to avoid placing such a suspect in military custody, the bill nevertheless writes into law an assumed role for the military in domestic counterterrorism that did not exist before. This is not a power this president is likely to use, because neither he nor his top national security officials seem to think they even need it. A future US president, even one more enamored of executive power, might still not use it for similar reasons: Because his non-political advisers tell him it's a bad idea. 

Still, the reason supporters like Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are happy with this bill is that it codifies into law a role for the military where there was none before. It is the first concrete gesture Congress has made towards turning the homeland into the battlefield, even if the impact in the near term is more symbolic and political than concrete. 

But "symbolic" and "political" doesn't mean "meaningless." Codifying indefinite detention on American soil is a very dangerous step, and politicians who believe the military should have an even larger domestic counterterrorism role simply aren't going to be satisfied with this. In fact, if there is another attack, it's all but certain they will hammer the president should he choose not to place the suspect in military detention.

There really is no telling where inertia brings us from here. Graham and his colleagues have made no secret of the fact that they believe the president should (and does) have the ability to detain American terrorism suspects captured in the US indefinitely, and they may even have enough votes in Congress to make it happen some day. At that point, the only defense for Americans will be the Constitution and a Supreme Court willing to read what it says. 

UPDATE: In case it's not clear, I still think the president should veto the bill. What it does is bad enough. It just doesn't do what a lot of people are saying it does. 

GOP Plays Chicken With Obama on Keystone XL

| Fri Dec. 16, 2011 5:18 PM EST

UPDATE: The Senate approved the payroll tax cut bill on Saturday morning, including the Keystone XL rider. It looks like President Obama will not follow through on the veto threat, but a White House official said that the GOP's insistence on fast-tracking the project is likely to lead to it being rejected.

ORIGINAL POST: Congressional Republicans are going all in for the Keystone XL pipeline—even if it means blocking an extension of the payroll tax cut. I was a bit checked out on this while in Durban covering the climate talks, but Republicans in the House and Senate have decided to demand approval of the pipeline as their fee.

The move would override the White House delay on deciding whether to approve the 1,600-mile pipeline. Instead, the "North American Energy Security Act" they've proposed would require that a decision be made within 60 days.

Senate co-sponsor Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) is also touting support for the pipeline that a handful of Senate Democrats have offered (none of which has ever been particularly strong on environmental concerns), though it's not clear how many of them would side with Republicans against the White House on this. Obama has made it pretty clear that he would veto a bill that included the pipeline directive. At the heart of the pro-pipeline argument is the (thoroughly debunked) claim that the Keystone XL would create tens of thousands of jobs.

So far, Republicans are insistent that there's no deal without Keystone. TPM's Brian Beutler reported Friday afternoon:

Regarding that legislation, Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell emails me with the following statement: "The Leader will not support any bill without the Keystone XL language as part of the agreement."
House Speaker John Boehner is also insisting that he’ll amend any Senate-passed payroll tax cut bill to add the Keystone provision to it, if it’s not already in there. So Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Obama now have a choice: stick to their guns and object to the provision — at the risk of allowing the payroll tax cut (and unemployment insurance and the Medicare “doc fix”) to expire? Or give in to the GOP.

Now, the thing is, even if the Democrats in Congress and the White House do give in, that doesn’t mean Obama has to approve the pipeline. He just has to make a decision, one way or the other, which is something he's trying to postpone until after the election. Obama could just go ahead and reject it, which is what his supporters in the environmental community want to see. It's pretty amazing, however, that the GOP is willing to gum up the works on a totally unrelated bill over the pipeline, even though it could ultimately work against the pipeline.