2011 - %3, December

Human Rights Gets a Hollywood Anthem

| Tue Dec. 6, 2011 7:29 PM EST
Hans Zimmer probably didn't get his this star for his work on "Muppet Treasure Island."

First, international human rights got an official logo (with a little help from Qaddafi's old PR firm). Now the universal yearning for freedom has its own anthem, written by Oscar-winning Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer.

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Amnesty International, the man who's scored everything from Gladiator and Rain Main to The Lion King and Kung Fu Panda 2, has bestowed the group with what it calls "a deeply moving composition that pays tribute to generations of human rights activists whose achievements have meant the difference between life and death, freedom and terror, justice or repression for people around the world." And all that in a little more than two minutes.

Here's a version of the anthem released earlier this year:

That's pretty much standard Zimmer fare: A not too subtle attempt to wring tears from your eyes via a barrage of etherial vocals and relentless percussion. But there's more: Amnesty's just announced a contest to remix the official (and as yet unshareable) version of "One More Voice for Freedom" (the winner gets $1,000).

You really have to hear it—it's somewhere between airplane boarding music and the most stereotypically inspiring movie montage ever. Still, it was very nice of Zimmer to contribute a fraction of his output to Amnesty on its golden jubilee. Now, if you'll excuse him, he has to get back to putting the finishing touches on his soundtrack for Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted, the first animated 3-D movie about the International Criminal Court.

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Fukushima Fallout

| Tue Dec. 6, 2011 6:09 PM EST
Cesium-137 deposition maps.

There's been a flurry of troubling news from Fukushima's crippled nuclear power plant. Here's a recap:

  1. The Tokyo Electric Power Company estimates that of 45 tons of radioactive wastewater that leaked from the plant, some 40 gallons (150 liters)  leaked into the Pacific Ocean in recent days, reports the New Zealand Herald.

  2. The Japanese milk-powder company Meiji, whose factory lies within 200 miles (320 kilometers) of the Fukushima plant, recalled 400,000 cans of baby formula after discovering 30.8 becquerels of radioactive cesium per kilo in the product, reports the BBC. This level is considered within the safety range, though infants and children are more susceptible than adults to lower levels of exposure, and eating radiation is worse than external exposure. Until now, Meiji had been checking waterborne but not airborne radioactivity levels near their factory, reports the New York Times—hence the "new" findings.

  3. A new paper (open access) in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) reports that two episodes of rain in the days following the disaster dispersed most of the radioactive iodine, tellurium, and cesium now found in Japan's surface soils. The first rain on 15 March spread the contamination around Fukushima prefecture. The second rain on 21 March transported and deposited radiation on Ibaraki, Tochigi, Saitama, and Chiba prefectures, as well as in Tokyo.

  4. Another new paper (open access) in PNAS reports on the distribution of Cesium-137. With its half-life of 30.1 years—meaning it will lose only half its radioactivity in the next three decades—cesium-137 is the most dangerous of all fallout for livestock and hence human life in the area for decades to come. The researchers found Cesium-137 strongly contaminated soils in large areas of eastern and northeastern Japan, whereas western Japan was sheltered by its mountain ranges. Soils and ocean waters between 130–150 °E and 30–46 °N were estimated to contaminated by 5.6 and 1.0 petabecquerels, respectively.

  5. The Telegraph reports that Japan's Environment Ministry has finally granted permission to animal welfare groups to enter the no-go zone around Fukushima and rescue abandoned cats, dogs, and other pets. Many are believed to have starved to death, though several hundred are thought to be alive and running wild. Only animals whose owners have requested rescue, and who can prove they can provide shelter, will be allowed a pick up. (Somehow I imagine the rescuers will find a kinder solution than that.)

 

Doctors in America

| Tue Dec. 6, 2011 6:06 PM EST

Aaron Carroll thinks that retail health clinics fill a useful niche. "There are times when you need to see a health care professional early in the morning, or later at night," he says. "Have you tried to get an appointment lately when you’re sick? It’s hard!" The chart on the right, which has made an appearance before on this blog, tells the story. Upwards of 20% of people who are sick have to wait a week to get an appointment to see a doctor. Matt Yglesias comments:

A lot of health care professionals in the United States seem to me to be slightly in denial about the level of service they're providing. Somehow we have the most expensive health care system in the world, with the highest paid doctors, and yet it's strangely difficult to actually get an appointment to see one.

My guess is that they're not in denial at all. The reason it takes a long time to see a doctor is because they're booked solid with appointments. They see 20 or 30 patients a day, every day, so most of them really have no particular incentive to make it any easier to make an appointment. Why would they when they're already working at capacity?

And why are they working at capacity? Part of the reason is that we just don't have all that many doctors in America:

These two charts are surprisingly uncorrelated, which presumably has something to do with how healthcare is run in various countries and something to do with cultural mores about how often we like to see doctors. Still, the overall picture is clear: we have relatively few doctors, they're all really busy, and they get paid a lot more than in other countries. That may not be so hot from a patient's point of view, but from a doctor's standpoint, what's not to like?

Obama Meets Occupy Wall Street

| Tue Dec. 6, 2011 3:52 PM EST

In a speech delivered at Osawatomie, Kansas, today, President Obama debunked trickle-down economics, punctured the myth of the unregulated paradise, and slammed a Republican party fixated on making life better for the top 1 percent.

Calling for new investments in education and technology, Obama took it right to Republicans, defending his efforts to reform Wall Street, protect consumers through the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and craft a more progressive tax code as part of a larger project to rebuild the Middle class. And his data points jibed with the income inequailty compliants that have been raised by Occupy Wall Streeters:

In the last few decades, the average income of the top one percent has gone up by more than 250%, to $1.2 million per year. For the top one hundredth of one percent, the average income is now $27 million per year. The typical CEO who used to earn about 30 times more than his or her workers now earns 110 times more. And yet, over the last decade, the incomes of most Americans have actually fallen by about six percent. 

This kind of inequality—a level we haven’t seen since the Great Depression—hurts us all. When middle-class families can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that businesses are selling, it drags down the entire economy, from top to bottom…Inequality also distorts our democracy. It gives an outsized voice to the few who can afford high-priced lobbyists and unlimited campaign contributions, and runs the risk of selling out our democracy to the highest bidder. And it leaves everyone else rightly suspicious that the system in Washington is rigged against them—that our elected representatives aren’t looking out for the interests of most Americans.

More fundamentally, this kind of gaping inequality gives lie to the promise at the very heart of America: that this is the place where you can make it if you try. We tell people that in this country, even if you’re born with nothing, hard work can get you into the middle class; and that your children will have the chance to do even better than you. That’s why immigrants from around the world flocked to our shores…

It’s heartbreaking enough that there are millions of working families in this country who are now forced to take their children to food banks for a decent meal. But the idea that those children might not have a chance to climb out of that situation and back into the middle class, no matter how hard they work? That’s inexcusable. It’s wrong. It flies in the face of everything we stand for.

Fortunately, that’s not a future we have to accept. Because there’s another view about how we build a strong middle class in this country—a view that’s truer to our history; a vision that’s been embraced by people of both parties for more than two hundred years…

This isn’t about class warfare. This is about the nation’s welfare. It’s about making choices that benefit not just the people who’ve done fantastically well over the last few decades, but that benefits the middle class, and those fighting to get to the middle class, and the economy as a whole.

"We still have a stake in each other’s success," Obama thundered at the end of his speech. "We still believe that this should be a place where you can make it if you try. The fundamental rule in our national life— the rule which underlies all others—is that, on the whole, and in the long run, we shall go up or down together."

Tweeting during the speech, The Nation's Ari Berman put it into context: "Three months ago Obama's speeches were about the deficit. Now they're about income inequality, basic fairness & jobs #OWS." Consider the national conversation officially shifted—and Obama's campaign for 2012 officially begun.

Want the numbers behind the speech? Check out our income inequality charts.

Liberals and Fraud

| Tue Dec. 6, 2011 3:17 PM EST

The Obama administration has announced plans to crack down on food stamp fraud among both retailers and users. Atrios comments:

Cracking down on thieving retailers is of course a good idea, but, really? Going after SNAP beneficiaries who try to convert their meager benefits to an even more meager amount of cash? I imagine some people who do this are using the money for Things We Officially Frown Upon, but some are probably trying to pay their damn bills.

My guess is that this crackdown is hardly a huge program, so it's not as if loads of resources are being diverted to make life more difficult for the poor. Beyond that, though, Obama seems to instinctively get something that the rest of us lefties probably ought to appreciate more: like it or not, if you want the public to support government programs, you need to make sure they're administered effectively. That's doubly or triply true of social welfare programs, which are easily demagogued even in the best of times. If anything, liberals who support these programs ought to be more concerned about rooting out fraud and improving efficiency than conservatives, who'd be just as happy to see them simply go away.

This is fundamentally a Charlie Peters-ish neoliberal insight, and neoliberalism has obviously taken a lot of lumps over the past decade. Some of them were deserved, some weren't. Either way, this particular insight is one worth holding onto.

Video: Ron Paul Is Your New Pickup Truck

| Tue Dec. 6, 2011 2:17 PM EST

Libertarian presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) is taking to the airwaves with a "fun and energetic" new ad that's heavy on graphic animation...and gumption. The spot—titled "Big Dog"—is laden with so much lush, manly word salad that NPR's calling it one of the "coolest commercials" of the season. "What's up with these sorry politicians?" the ad's gravely narrator growls. "Lots of bark, but when it's showtime? Whimpering like little shih tzus. You want BIG CUTS? Ron Paul's been screaming it FOR YEARS!"

Take a look:

Original, no? Actually, no. If you've watched any football on TV since the middle of 2008 NFL season, you've seen something like this:

That's Denis "No Cure For Cancer" Leary doing a voiceover for Ford pickup trucks. Seems like Paul's campaign is trying to appeal to the same demographic targeted by Ford when it went after "core truckers" who are into "football, NASCAR, pro bull riding, or country music." Bloomberg Businessweek ID'd those consumers less flatteringly as "'image' buyers…folks who are weekend warriors/Home Depot shoppers who liked the idea of a pickup when gas was $1.50 per gallon." The political analog for Ford's "image" buyer, I suppose, are folks who occasionally follow politics and liked the idea of Atlas Shrugged when their college tuition was being covered by government loans. If you're male, youngish, into proving that you're male and youngish, and a sucker for ads that suggest you'd never be a sucker for ads, then Ford wants to be your truck, and Ron Paul wants to be your candidate.

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The Mystery of Darrell Issa's Low Profile

| Tue Dec. 6, 2011 2:11 PM EST

When Darrell Issa took over the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, everyone expected a tsunami of scandal investigations. But it hasn't really happened. Why? Jonathan Bernstein says it might be because Obama just runs a really clean shop, but he doesn't find that convincing. Or maybe Issa is just incompetent. But that's not very convincing either. That leaves this:

Totally, totally, speculative, but here goes. Perhaps the reason that the House isn't manufacturing scandals is because the changed media environment has changed the incentives. In the old days, opposite-party Congresses had to work hard to manufacture scandals good enough to get the neutral press to notice. Now, why bother? Most partisans, and especially the primary voters that Members of Congress are increasingly most worried about, get most of their news from the partisan press, and they don't need any Congressional stamp of authority to consider something a legitimate scandal worthy of devoting hours of programming to.

Maybe! But there's another possible explanation: maybe Dave Weigel was right all along. It's true that Issa promised lots and lots of investigations ("I want seven hearings a week, times 40 weeks"), but there was also this:

“As Clint Eastwood says, a man needs to know his limitations,” Issa said....While he promises an ambitious — and some say confrontational — agenda, Issa is making overtures to the Obama administration: He already has a meeting scheduled with Vice President Joe Biden to discuss stimulus oversight.

....Issa is also pointedly looking to avoid probing what he seems to view as peripheral issues — like Waxman and former Chairman Tom Davis’s foray into hearings on steroids in baseball. “This is important, in contrast to hearings on steroids in baseball, where I felt that it was inherently wrong to get Roger Clemens to lie to Congress,” Issa said. “The American people really want us to shrink government.”

Issa also wants to avoid the sometimes petty controversies that enmeshed Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) as committee chairman during the Clinton presidency and sometimes made him the issue.

It pains me to say anything nice about Issa, the man who bequeathed us Arnold Schwarzenegger, but maybe he takes this stuff more seriously than his critics ever gave him credit for. Obviously he's going to focus his attention on conservative causes and he's going to focus his oversight on the Obama administration — both perfectly reasonable things to do — but perhaps he was sincere about avoiding petty nonsense. Stranger things have happened.

Aborted Fetus Campaign Ads Hit the Airwaves in Iowa

| Tue Dec. 6, 2011 2:00 PM EST
Anti-abortion activist Randall Terry.

If you're a resident of Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Missouri, or Minnesota, you're on notice. Starting this week, Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry, who is currently challenging President Obama in the Democratic presidential primary, will begin airing graphic campaign ads featuring what purport to be aborted fetuses, during local news broadcasts.

As I reported last month, the ad buy is part of Terry's nationwide strategy to take advantage of an FCC loophole barring censorship of campaign ads. Although networks and their local affiliates have the authority—and a legal imperative, in some cases—to block "indecent" material from the airwaves, there's an exception when it comes to political spots, so long as they're within 45 days of a primary or caucus.

Per a release:

The ad has multiple graphic images of babies murdered by abortion, and makes the argument that to vote for Obama knowing that Obama supports the murder of babies is a betrayal of the Catholic Faith.

The ad will run on every TV station in Iowa and the five state regions that surrounds Iowa (Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Missouri, and Minnesota). The ad will run on at least one news broadcast per station.

Last year, following a successful trial run in a Washington, D.C. congressional race (for the non-voting "delegate" position), Terry announced plans to field single-issue congressional candidates in the nation's 25 biggest media markets, for the sole purpose of running graphic anti-abortion spots that would otherwise never make it onto the airwaves. Terry's already recruited candidates in Cincinnati, the Twin Cities, and St. Louis—and he himself is taking on Obama.

It sort of puts that controversy over Herman Cain's smoking ad in perspective.

Next Year's Big Bout: Real Obama vs. Fantasy Obama

| Tue Dec. 6, 2011 1:31 PM EST

In the LA Times today, Spike Dolomite Ward lays out Barack Obama's essential political problem for all the world to see. The recession hit her family hard, she lost her health insurance, and then she got cancer:

Fortunately for me, I've been saved by the federal government's Pre-existing Condition Insurance Plan, something I had never heard of before needing it. It's part of President Obama's healthcare plan, one of the things that has already kicked in, and it guarantees access to insurance for U.S. citizens with preexisting conditions who have been uninsured for at least six months.

…Which brings me to my apology. I was pretty mad at Obama before I learned about this new insurance plan. I had changed my registration from Democrat to Independent, and I had blacked out the top of the "h" on my Obama bumper sticker, so that it read, "Got nope" instead of "got hope." I felt like he had let down the struggling middle class. My son and I had campaigned for him, but since he took office, we felt he had let us down.

So this is my public apology. I'm sorry I didn't do enough of my own research to find out what promises the president has made good on. I'm sorry I didn't realize that he really has stood up for me and my family, and for so many others like us. I'm getting a new bumper sticker to cover the one that says "Got nope." It will say "ObamaCares."

And there you have it: Obama's core problem with his supporters from 2008, the ones who listened to his soaring rhetoric and believed he really was going to transform Washington—and have since been bitterly disappointed. This has always been something I could understand only intellectually, since I never for a second paid any attention to his stump speeches. Of course they soared! Of course they promised a new era! That's what politicians always promise. Why on earth would anyone take this seriously, when every single other piece of evidence showed him to be a cautious, pragmatic, mainsteam, center-left Democratic candidate?

Beats me. But lots of people did take it seriously, and now Obama is stuck trying to convince them in very practical, non-soaring terms that he really has done a lot for them. That list is pretty long and includes a big stimulus bill, a landmark healthcare reform bill, student loan reform, an end to the Bush torture regime, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a hate crimes bill, a successful rescue of the American car industry, resuscitation of the NLRB, passage of New START, the death of Osama bin Laden, withdrawal from Iraq, a decent start on rationalizing Pentagon procurement, repeal of DADT, credit card reforms, unprecedented gas mileage improvements, a second stimulus in 2010, and passage of financial reform legislation.

Were there disappointments too? Sure. Obama badly mishandled cap-and-trade, has a weak record on civil liberties, escalated the war in Afghanistan, has been unaccountably sluggish on appointments, treated the financial industry too gingerly, and failed to seriously address underwater mortgages, among other things.

But that's to be expected. This is the real world, not utopia, and Obama is a cautious, pragmatic, mainsteam, center-left Democratic president. So how do you win back the people who believed the soaring rhetoric and either don't know or don't care about Obama's impressively long list of concrete achievements? It's his essential dilemma. Maybe Spike Dolomite Ward can give him some suggestions.

Former Bush Officials Slam Mandatory Military Detention Bill

| Tue Dec. 6, 2011 1:04 PM EST
Former State Department Legal Adviser John Bellinger

It's official: Just about the only people who think the mandatory military detention provisions in the defense spending bill are a good idea are the congressional legislators trying to show everyone how tough on terror they are. 

Former Bush-era State Department legal adviser John Bellinger and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs Matthew Waxman have joined Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and FBI Director Robert Mueller in warning Congress that mandating military detention for non-citizen terror suspects apprehended in the US will harm national security.  

The detainee provisions are apparently intended by their drafters to provide tough counterterrorism powers, but in practice they could have a detrimental impact on U.S. counterterrorism operations. Indeed, while originally drafted by Senate Republicans, these legislative encroachments on the president's authorities would likely have been as strongly opposed by the Bush administration as by the Obama administration. Any president—Democrat or Republican—would object to legislation that interferes this way with his flexibility in conducting the war against al-Qaeda.

[...]

Mandating military detention for categories of suspected terrorists could also jeopardize the ability of the United States to seek extradition of al-Qaeda suspects from other countries and hamper vital intelligence-sharing and law-enforcement cooperation by U.S. allies, who would be concerned that information they shared might be used to place individuals into military detention. Likewise, extending the legislative restrictions related to Guantanamo detainees would limit the president's ability to transfer detainees to other countries in appropriate cases, as the Bush administration did with respect to more than five-hundred individuals. It is important that the United States develop a sustainable terrorist detention policy, and these restrictions could undermine diplomatic efforts critical to that effort and impede sound decision-making with regard to future captures in this ongoing war.

This isn't the first time former Bush officials have spoken out. Waxman told me in October that the provisions "curtail [the] necessary flexibility" the executive branch needs to respond to terrorist threats. His successor at DoD Charles Stimson, without referring directly to the defense bill, wrote in defense of trying underwear bomber and Nigerian citizen Umar Abdulmutallab in civilian court saying that the president "must have the flexibility to use the most appropriate tool at any given time." It may be for very different reasons, but try to remember the last time former Bush administration officials, Obama national security officials, and the American Civil Liberties Union were on the same side of an issue. The next time this happens, the world is likely to implode. 

Republicans have invested so much rhetoric in convincing their base that FBI interrogations involve propping up a few pillows and hand feeding grapes to terror suspects in their custody that they may not be able to change course without causing a backlash. Thus far, the Republicans and Democrats who joined together to add the mandatory military detention provisions to the defense bill have also ignored the combined expertise of the entire Obama administration national security team. Perhaps they'll listen more carefully to former officials from a Republican administration whose responsibility it was to actually handle such matters—and perhaps it'll stiffen the spine of the Obama administration if and when it comes time to follow through on that veto threat.

UPDATE: I missed the latest from Stimson, who is now a Senior Legal Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. In a policy memo on Heritage's website, he criticizes the mandatory military defense provisions directly, saying that "[t]o win this long war against terrorists, the President must have the maximum flexibility to use all tools of national power. "