2011 - %3, December

Perry Slams Obama For Supporting Human Rights For Gays

| Wed Dec. 7, 2011 12:22 PM EST
Texas Governor Rick Perry

On Wednesday, the Obama administration announced it would be conditioning international aid based on the treatment of gays and lesbians. That didn't sit well with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who, as my colleague Tim Murphy writes, is banking on an escalation in culture war rhetoric to rescue his flagging campaign. Responding to the move, Perry said:

Just when you thought Barack Obama couldn't get any more out of touch with America's values, AP reports his administration wants to make foreign aid decisions based on gay rights. This administration's war on traditional American values must stop. Promoting special rights for gays in foreign countries is not in America's interests and not worth a dime of taxpayers' money.

It's unclear whether Perry actually understands the context of the Obama administration's decision. While in the United States, most conversations about LGBT rights center around discrimination in employment and equal marriage rights, in many countries gays and lesbians can be executed for merely existing. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it clear that this was what she was referring to in her speech yesterday.

It is violation of human rights when people are beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation, or because they do not conform to cultural norms about how men and women should look or behave. It is a violation of human rights when governments declare it illegal to be gay, or allow those who harm gay people to go unpunished. It is a violation of human rights when lesbian or transgendered women are subjected to so-called corrective rape, or forcibly subjected to hormone treatments, or when people are murdered after public calls for violence toward gays, or when they are forced to flee their nations and seek asylum in other lands to save their lives. And it is a violation of human rights when life-saving care is withheld from people because they are gay, or equal access to justice is denied to people because they are gay, or public spaces are out of bounds to people because they are gay. No matter what we look like, where we come from, or who we are, we are all equally entitled to our human rights and dignity.

Now perhaps Perry thinks that the right not to be "beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation" or not being "subject to so-called corrective rape" are "special rights." But I suspect that if Perry thought it was appropriate to execute people based on sexual orientation, we probably would have known that by now. On the other hand, Perry supports criminalizing gay sex here in the US so maybe he's frustrated America isn't quite as up on its "traditional values" as say, Iran, where being gay is punishable by death. 

There is of course, a contradiction between Obama's support for gay rights generally and the fact that he doesn't support equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians himself. But that alone should have been a tip-off that the new policy was about something other than a "war on traditional American values." Whether Perry's intended audience understands the implications of Perry's argument, and that we're discussing people literally being slaughtered for being gay, is an open question. 

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OWS Takes the Fight to GOP Donors at Cantor Fundraiser

| Wed Dec. 7, 2011 11:46 AM EST

Photo by Stephanie MencimerPhoto by Stephanie MencimerOccupy Wall Street and other protesters in DC for a big "Take Back the Capitol" action Tuesday took their fight for the "99 percent" right to the Republican power base: expensive lobbyists-fueled fundraisers. On Tuesday night, about 100 mostly unemployed activists rallied outside the swank Lincoln restaurant downtown, where House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) was holding a $2,500 a plate fundraiser for his leadership PAC.

In no small bit of irony, Cantor had themed the fundraiser a "Festivus" event. Seinfeld fans may recall that Festivus is a fictional holiday created for the show. It involves an undecorated aluminum "Festivus" pole and rituals including the "airing of grievances." (On the Seinfeld episode, Frank Costanza declares, "The tradition of Festivus begins with the Airing of Grievances. I got a lot of problems with you people! And now, you're gonna hear about it.")

The invitation to Cantor's fundraiser asked attendees to come and "air your grievances." So the protesters did. In between heckling donors and GOP members of Congress and chanting for millionaires to pay their fair share, the protesters stopped for the occasional "mic check," in which they had an unemployed person step forward to tell his or her tale of woe. ("I used to be a science teacher...") Many of the people in the crowd had been flown in from Idaho by the Service Employees International Union, which helped organize the protest.

You can watch the video footage of Tuesday night's Cantor protest below, including a scene where a Cantor staff member talks to a Channel 4 reporter with her back turned before having him tossed out:

Rick Perry: Kids Can't Even Celebrate Christmas Anymore

| Wed Dec. 7, 2011 11:38 AM EST

How do you know you're lagging in the polls and running out of time in Iowa? When you start cutting ads like this, accusing President Obama of waging a "war on religion":

What is this war on religion, anyway? Did Congress authorize it? How is it being paid for? If Rick Perry is a Christian and President Obama is at war with Christians, can Obama detain Perry indefinitely without trial?

Perry doesn't say. Instead, he leaves us with this: "I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a Christian. But you don't need to be in the pew every Sunday to know that there's something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military, but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school." (Note: Kids are still allowed to celebrate Christmas.) This comes just one day after the Texas governor blasted President Obama for supporting human rights for gay people, warning that it was "not in America's interests." Perry has purchased $1 million worth of air time in Iowa in a last-ditch effort to turn around his campaign; he's looking pretty desperate at this point.

Report: NY State Voting Machines Really Suck

| Wed Dec. 7, 2011 10:30 AM EST

All is not well with the state of New York's voting machines, according to a recent study by New York University's Brennan Center for Justice:

As many as 60,000 of the votes cast in New York State elections last year were voided because people unintentionally cast their ballots for more than one candidate…The excess-voting was highest in predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods, including two Bronx election districts where 40 percent of the votes for governor were disqualified.

The study…blamed software used with new electronic optical-scan voting machines as well as ambiguous instructions for disenfranchising tens of thousands of voters. The old mechanical lever-operated machines did not allow votes for more than one candidate for the same office... [T]he authors estimate that more than 100,000 votes could be disqualified in next year’s presidential balloting, since more people will vote in the national election.

As the Brennan Center, NAACP New York State Conference, and other civil rights and good government groups argue, the New York machines failed to meet the protection standards put in place by 2002's Help America Vote Act that include providing voters with clear instructions on how to make sure their vote was processed. The state board of elections plans to fix whatever went wrong. Hopefully in time for the the 2012 elections.

Last week, I reported on a GOP-backed bill to eliminate the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), a four-member bipartisan body that tests electronic voting equipment for states and localities, and offers helpful guidance on proofing ballots for some 4,600 voting jurisdictions. Republicans slammed the commission as a costly bureaucratic exercise, and argued that its remaining responsibilities can be assigned to the Federal Election Commission, which oversees campaign spending. Their bill sailed through the House on a 235-190, mostly party-line vote.

Republicans have pushed a slew of voter ID and voter registration laws on the state level, all of which are designed to limit the allegedly widespread crime of voter fraud. But as numerous election security experts and civil rights advocates have found, such measures have a disproportionate impact on low-income and minority communities, frequently discouraging turnout in these places.

Supporters of the EAC (also created through the Help America Vote Act) don't think the commission is fault-free. But instead of killing it, it should be strengthened and given the power to draw up enforceable standards for conducting elections, they argue. That's a position you'd think Republicans could get on board with. The idea that they'd want to legislate the death of a relatively inexpensive body (at the cost of $33 million over the next five years) that offers free guidance to local voting jurisdictions seems somewhat at odds with their stated goal of cleaning up elections.

The implications of the Brennan Center report should be clear: fixing this problem—and preserving the integrity of elections—means more votes get counted. That shouldn't be controversial for anyone, of any party (unless you're worried that those votes are going for the other guy). Sounds like a job for the EAC, no?

The 10 Most Sugary Kids' Cereals

| Wed Dec. 7, 2011 7:00 AM EST
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Cap'n Crunch's OOPS! All Berries is one of the 10 most sugary kids' cereals on the market, according to the Environmental Working Group.

As a kid, I once begged my mom for a product called Ice Cream Cones cereal. That name really tickled Mom, the sheer audacity of it. It wasn't even trying to sound healthy! Needless to say, Ice Cream Cones never made it into our shopping cart. Apparently, it didn't make it into very many other shopping carts either: According to Wikipedia, it lasted for only a few months in 1987.

I'd always kind of thought that the demise of Ice Cream Cones Cereal proved that even stressed-out parents wouldn't go for such an unapologetic nutritional disaster. But boy was I wrong! In perusing a new report on sugar cereals from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), I learned about many modern cereals my seven-year-old self would have been clamoring for, including Smorz, Froot Loops Marshmallows, and Cap'n Crunch's OOPS! All Berries.

In case you couldn't tell from their names, those cereals pack in a lot of sugar (or corn syrup, but as I've said before, basically same diff). And they aren't the only ones: EWG found that three of the most popular kids' cereals (Kellogg's Honey Smacks, Post Golden Crisp, and General Mills Wheaties Fuel) contain more sugar per serving by weight than a Twinkie, and 44 others have as much sugar as three Chips Ahoy cookies.

The top 10 worst, ranked by percent sugar by weight:

1 Kellogg's Honey Smacks 55.6%
2 Post Golden Crisp 51.9%
3 Kellogg's Froot Loops Marshmallow 48.3%
4 Quaker Oats Cap'n Crunch's OOPS! All Berries 46.9%
5 Quaker Oats Cap'n Crunch Original 44.4%
6 Quaker Oats Oh!s 44.4%
7 Kellogg's Smorz 43.3%
8 Kellogg's Apple Jacks 42.9%
9 Quaker Oats Cap'n Crunch's Crunch Berries 42.3%
10 Kellogg's Froot Loops Original 41.4%

EWG points out that the sugar content in these dessert-like cereals is much greater than federal guidelines recommend:

More than three-quarters of children’s cereals do not meet the federal Interagency Working Group's proposed nutrition guidelines for 2016. Far more meet the industry’s standards for foods nutritious enough to be marketed to children.

Eighty-two percent of General Mills children's cereals don't meet the federal guidelines, but only 5 percent fail to meet the industry's standards. Not surprisingly, General Mills has joined other food, media, and entertainment companies in calling to replace the government proposal with industry's more lenient guidelines.

But major cereal makers don't even take their own industry's targets seriously; one-fourth of children's cereals contain too much sugar.

So what's a parent to do? In my house growing up, my folks were partial to a rather dreary cereal called Amaranth Flakes. If you prefer your cereal a bit less austere, these major brands are good choices, says EWG

  • Kellogg's Mini-Wheats:
    Unfrosted Bite- Size,
    Frosted Big Bite,
    Frosted Bite-Size,
    Frosted Little Bite
  • General Mills Cheerios Original
  • General Mills Kix Original

Even cheaper, and hardly any sugar at all: a bowl of oatmeal.

The EWG has more breakfast factoids and suggestions here.

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

Wed Dec. 7, 2011 6:57 AM EST

US Army Spc. Edwarde Loeup (right), an automatic rifleman with Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul, moves to high ground during a dismounted patrol on the way to a key leader engagement at a hospital in Shah Joy, Afghanistan, on November 21, 2011. DoD photo by Senior Airman Grovert Fuentes-Contreras, US Air Force.

Can the US Live Up to Its Climate Pledge?

| Wed Dec. 7, 2011 6:54 AM EST

I'm in Durban, South Africa, this week for the 17th Conference of the Parties, the annual meeting through the United Nations on climate change. It's been calm here, with little of the tension and chaos of previous COPs. But that's largely because no one thinks that much is going to happen here.

The US position in the Durban climate talks remains, much like it's been for the past three years, that there's no big rush on climate change. A legally binding climate agreement, the US negotiating team has maintained, isn't as important as countries simply making good on the emission-cutting targets they've already laid out.

Of course, this soft stance is largely because our negotiators (and the rest of the world) know that the US is going to be a hard sell on a treaty. No one needs to be reminded that there's still no domestic climate policy in the US. The US agreed, first under the political agreement in Copenhagen and the official UN Framework Convention on Climate Change processes in Cancun, to cut emissions. But compared to other nations, that goal is pretty pathetic—an emissions cut of 17 percent below 2005 levels, when most other developed countries are working from a baseline of much lower 1990 emissions.

Even with that small of a goal, we're not that far along in meeting it. In a press conference on Monday, US Climate Envoy Todd Stern was asked about progress in the US on meeting that goal. That answer isn't exactly clear. Stern gave an unofficial estimate that the US has cut emissions 6 percent from 2005 levels so far, and pushed back on the idea that the US hasn't done anything. "I think that a good deal has been done by the US already, more than has ever been done before," said Stern. He cited several of the Obama administration's early actions, like increasing vehicle emission standards and investing in clean technology through the 2009 stimulus.

"It's 2011 now," he said. "We've got more than eight years to go with respect to the 2020 target."

Of course, it's not really that simple. The US can't just wake up in January 2019 and say, hey, let's cut our emissions another 11 percent in 12 months (and probably won't, if Newt Gingrich is president then). Moreover, the US will have to start, at some point, reporting on how much progress it's made on that goal formally to the rest of the world. Transparency about emissions has been, after all, the US negotiators' top priority in an agreement, and a top source of tension with other big players like China. The US will, at some point, have to be transparent about just how much it is doing at home.

Still, the US has been pretty reluctant to even have a conversation about turning the pledges into a new, legally binding treaty. Instead, the US negotiating team argues, that the current goals are firm enough under the Cancun agreement, and countries will live up to them. Stern decried "an excess of focus" on a legal agreement "as the be all and end all." That, however, is unlikely to be enough for other countries, who want to make sure that the US (and everyone else) is actually living up to the promises they've made on paper.

No, the Payroll Tax Cut Doesn't Hurt the Trust Fund

| Tue Dec. 6, 2011 10:43 PM EST

Senator Mark Kirk explains his opposition to extending the payroll tax cut that was originally passed last year:

The White House has redefined this as the payroll tax deduction. It's not the payroll tax deduction — it's contributions to Social Security. And when the American people hear that we have legislation moving forward to cut contributions to Social Security and drive the trust fund into the red, I think opposition would be fairly overwhelming.

Everybody gets to put their own spin on things, and this has become a common Republican meme over the past week or two. Unfortunately, it's just factually false. Normally, a reduction in the payroll tax would indeed reduce contributions to the Social Security trust fund, but last year's bill specifically made up for this loss from the general fund. The trust fund got every penny it normally would have, and all the proposals on the table this year do the same.

What changes here isn't the solvency of the trust fund. What changes is where the money comes from. Payroll taxes mainly come from the middle and working classes. The general fund is supported by income taxes, which mainly come from the well-off and the rich. So, generally speaking, a payroll tax cut that's compensated for by transfers from the general fund reduces the taxes of the middle and working classes and raises the taxes of the well-off and the rich.

If Republicans object to this — and they do — they should say so. But it's long past time to stop pretending that this has anything to do with the trust fund, and long past time for the media to stop passing along this claim unchallenged.

Squatting in the USA

| Tue Dec. 6, 2011 9:20 PM EST
A sign outside C-Squat, now a legally occupied, resident-owned building in New York's Lower East Side

As Josh Harkinson reported today, squatters groups and housing rights activists are teaming up with Occupy movements across the country to help evicted tenants stay in their foreclosed homes.

Occupy Our Homes, as the movement is called, isn’t the first time evicted homeowners and squatters have mobilized under a political banner in this country. Here are a few examples of landmark occupations going back to the Great Depression.

Lower East Side squats
From 1989 to 1999, Giuliani spent millions attempting to oust groups squatting in eleven abandoned buildings in New York City's East Village and Lower East Side, at one point dispatching sharpshooters and a tank to 13th street to remove squatters who had welded themselves inside four buildings. When the city was successful in clearing one building of squatters, others would come and take their place. For many squatters, the action was as much about the practical necessities of finding shelter as about sending a political message about housing inequality and rising rents in once-affordable New York neighborhoods.