2011 - %3, December

LA's Civic Action Against Dark Money

| Mon Dec. 5, 2011 3:40 PM PST
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) at the Supreme Court following arguments in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, on January 21, 2010.

The Los Angeles city council wants to restore some semblance of sanity to the wacky, post-Citizens United world of campaign finance. A 2010 Supreme Court decision that's become synonymous with dark money's pull on elections, Citizens United allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts on political campaigns through (allegedly) unaffiliated outside spending groups. From the Wall Street Journal:

The L.A. City Council is set vote on a resolution Tuesday that calls on Congress to topple [the Citizens United decision] with an amendment to the U.S. Constitution establishing that only living persons, not corporations, are endowed with constitutional rights and that money is not the same as free speech, according to a statement from the group MoveToAmend.org, which, as its name suggests, is geared to that aim.

The resolution before the council cites Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black’s 1938 dissenting opinion in Connecticut General Life Insurance Company v. Johnson, in which he stated "I do not believe the word 'person' in the Fourteenth Amendment includes corporations."

The resolution also states that the Citizens United decision "supersedes state and local efforts to regulate corporate activity in their elections."

As the Journal reportsdefenders of the Citizens United decision often cite the first amendment in the face of criticism. According to the libertarian-leaning New American, attacks on the decision are attacks on the free speech of "small business and citizens groups," which seek to participate in the political process.

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The American Heritage Dictionary's "Anchor Baby" Fail

| Mon Dec. 5, 2011 2:47 PM PST

Houghton Mifflin's latest version of the American Heritage Dictionary includes the derogatory term "anchor baby" as one of its newest words. That's not really the problem. The problem is that it regarded (at least initially) the term as value-neutral, rather than as a slur used to dehumanize the children of undocumented immigrants as little more than a strategy for getting a green card. 

The term "anchor baby" was defined as "a child born to a non-citizen mother in a country that grants automatic citizenship to children born on its soil; especially such a child born to parents seeking to secure eventual citizenship for themselves, and often other members of their family." As Colorlines' Jorge Rivas pointed out, the dictionary's editor, Steve Kleinedler, went on NPR two weeks ago and said that this was an example of the American Heritage Dictionary defining a term "objectively without taking sides and just presenting what it is." This would be like defining "broad" as "a member of the female sex." Unsurprisingly, however, the American Heritage Dictionary shuns "objectivity" on this point and appropriately refers to the use of the term "broad" in this fashion as "offensive slang."

"Anchor baby" is used almost exclusively to delegitimize the claims of citizenship granted to the children of undocumented immigrants under the Constitution. The "anchor baby" slur relies on two particular myths, the idea that having an American citizen child is an automatic shield against deportation and the notion that people come here just to have children. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 91 percent of unauthorized immigrants in the US who had children in 2009-2010 came her before 2007. Having a child who is a citizen is hardly a certain path to citizenship either—the parent would have to wait till the child was 21 to sponsor them. 

To Kleinedler's credit, following a post by the Immigration Policy Center's Mary Giovagnioli explaining the origins of "anchor baby," he said that "we will be adding a label to the term, either derogatory or offensive, which I acknowledge should have been done in the first place." Now maybe the American Heritage Dictionary can get started on "waterboarding." In a move reminiscent of the New York Times, which ceased to describe waterboarding as torture after the US started employing it as an interrogation method, the dictionary refers to this practice as being "widely considered a form of torture." And you thought false objectivity that blurs more than it clarifies was just a mainstream media thing. 

CO2 Skyrockets Despite Economy

| Mon Dec. 5, 2011 2:05 PM PST

Nature Climate Change published a new science paper yesterday showing that the 2008-2009 economic crisis barely dented the global rise in greenhouse gas emissions.

Unlike other recessions, where emissions dipped for years, the last one offered only a year of respite from accelerating emissions, and only a paltry 1.4 percent in total.

By 2010, CO2 emissions skyrocketed 6 percent higher, for a world record 10 billion tons, with 2011 following suit.

Looks like all sides of the political bickering are to blame. From the paper:

Global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel combustion and cement production grew 5.9% in 2010, surpassed 9 Pg of carbon for the first time, and more than offset the 1.4% decrease in 2009. The impact of the 2008–2009 global financial crisis on emissions has been short-lived owing to strong emissions growth in emerging economies, a return to emissions growth in developed economies, and an increase in the fossil-fuel intensity of the world economy.

This level of emissions now puts the world firmly on course for the 'worst case' global-warming scenario, where worldwide temperatures would rise between 7.2°F and 10.8°F (4°C and 6°C) by 2100. 

Where Have All the GOP Donors Gone?

| Mon Dec. 5, 2011 1:33 PM PST

Paul Waldman summarizes a Washington Post piece today that I didn't link to when it first came out. But I should have:

Everyone knows that campaigns get more expensive every cycle; that is, we knew it until this year. As The Washington Post detailed last week, this has been the cheapest primary campaign in over a decade. Four years ago, the Republican candidates spent a total of $132 million through the September before voting began; this year they spent a mere $53 million. That combined total is less than one candidate, Mitt Romney, spent during that period four years ago. This year he spent a mere $18 million through September, compared with the nearly $54 million he spent through September 2007. Political observers swooned over Rick Perry's dramatic fundraising during the 12 minutes or so he spent at the front of the pack. But even if Perry sank $100 million into Iowa, it wouldn't help him now. Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich became the front-runner without his campaign having two nickels to rub together. That isn't to say the ads won't fill the airwaves in Iowa and New Hampshire soon enough, but to this point things have been awfully quiet.

I've been mulling this over ever since I first saw it, but I'm no closer to figuring out what's going on. In theory, this should be a big money year for Republicans since President Obama looks genuinely vulnerable and the conservative base is practically in a frenzy of anti-Obama venom. But it hasn't been so far. I can think of a few reasons why this might be:

  • Despite the happy talk, GOP donors don't actually believe that Obama is that vulnerable. They don't want to waste their money on a lost cause, so they're reluctant to open their pocketbooks.
  • The media landscape has changed more than we think, especially for conservatives. Over the past few years, they've discovered that they can run very effective campaigns by using free media (Fox News, talk radio, etc.) rather than paid ad buys on mainstream media. This is especially true in primary campaigns, where their sole audience is the conservative base.
  • Big money donors don't have much of a dog in the race this year. This is because either (a) they like all the candidates and don't have a strong preference for any of them, (b) they dislike all the candidates and don't want to be associated with any of them, or (c) they just don't think it matters much because they're all pretty much saying the same things.
  • These days, all the right-wing money is going into super PACs, which seem like a more effective force for promoting conservative goals than individual campaigns do.

All of these are partly true, but I'm not sure I believe that even taken together they add up to the real answer. It's especially perplexing because Obama, who has problems with his liberal base that most of the GOP candidates don't, is nonetheless having no trouble raising enormous sums of money. So it's not because donors in general are sick of politics or because the recession has depleted everyone's bank accounts. But what is it?

Why "Doomsday" Budget Cuts Could Be Good for US Nukes

| Mon Dec. 5, 2011 12:06 PM PST

If Congress doesn't fix its budget mess, and the government faces automatic cuts, how badly would it really hit the military complex? Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said budget sequestration could have "devastating effects" on the US's ability to protect itself. But Jeffrey Lewis, a nonproliferation expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and the lead blogger at Arms Control Wonk, has crunched the numbers and come up with a decidedly different take—at least where America's nuclear arsenal is concerned.

Chart of the Day: The Death of AAA Assets

| Mon Dec. 5, 2011 11:34 AM PST

Alphaville's Cardiff Garcia calls this the most important chart in the world, and maybe it is. (Though there are lots of competitors for that title these days.) It shows the precipitous drop in the stock of safe, AAA-rated assets from its 2007 peak of about $20 trillion to roughly $12 trillion this year. In one sense, you could say this is a good thing: at least we're no longer pretending that risky assets aren't, in fact, risky assets. Unfortunately, the availability of safe assets is pretty important to the smooth functioning of modern finance because they're necessary as collateral in the repo market:

When you hear concerns that the ECB has lost some control over monetary policy because of a liquidity-starved credit channel — or indeed when you hear Draghi himself say that he’s cognizant of the “scarcity of eligible collateral” — this is why.

....A somewhat obvious and related point here, but the loss of “safe” status for so much debt contributes to the deleveraging burden of European banks and their American subsidiaries; by definition it means higher risk weightings for these assets.

Declining asset quality is surely also one reason that European banks had trouble funding themselves in US repo markets, and the resulting stress in the currency basis swap markets as banks sought dollars elsewhere led to last week’s intervention.

This is bad for Europe, of course, and as we discussed a couple of weeks ago, there's reason to think that deleveraging among European banks could have a pretty serious impact on American credit markets too. We may or may not like much of what the shadow banking system does, but there's no question that it plays a key role in sustaining bank lending, and the repo market is its backbone.

In other words, just another thing to worry about. I wouldn't want this morning's semi-optimistic post about Europe to get you too excited or anything.

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Hillary's Hopes for Burma

| Mon Dec. 5, 2011 10:57 AM PST
A poster of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi

This past month, I was on a sort of sneaky assignment and then out of the country, and in my absence there have been some huge developments in US-Burma relations. For the first time in 50 years, an American secretary of state dropped in on the nation that generally receives little more high-level American acknowledgment beyond passing negs about tyranny in presidential speeches. As Mother Jones' resident Burmaphile, I got an email from one of the editors last week asking the all-important question about Hillary Clinton's making nice and supposedly making headway with the intractable regime: "Is this for real?"

If Washington is assuming that Burma's recent (bullshit) elections and the release of its most famous political prisoner means that we can lead the country into a future awash in democracy and rainbows, that would be a little too lovely to be believed. But that the Obama administration is cautiously optimistic, or that it senses wee little steps toward progress, and that there's an opportunity for the United States to get involved and nudge it along? Yeah. Maybe.

For decades, our policy has been to sanction Burma and wag our finger at it. I've long been a proponent of more engagement with the country. Though nobody wants to look like they're befriending bad guys, and there's no proof that getting more involved with Burma will work, there is proof of one thing: That the policy we've been pursuing so far does not work. Our sanctions are meaningless, because a) lots of other countries are happy to buy the Burmese resources we won't; b) the goods we sanction can still make it to us via roads like smuggling; and c) there are loopholes in our sanctions that still allow Chevron to operate there and make the regime big money.

We're not lifting the sanctions yet—and, for the aforementioned reasons, I kind of doubt Burma really cares—but we are starting assistance to programs that deliver health care, microlending, English instruction, and help for land mine victims. Regardless of whether you're of the school of thought that aid to corrupt/underdeveloped nations is enabling/infantilizing, this aid at least has the possibility of creating leverage, like the kind the United States and Germany wielded against Uganda when it proposed killing gay people. It's a long, long road to reconciling of Burma's problems, like, say, the systematic government-perpetrated rape and torture and ethnic cleansing going on its borderlands, issues Clinton says she "raised directly with the government" on her trip. That mention over lunch is unlikely to save lives. But what past administrations have said to Burma is, "Hey, not that there's any reason for you to listen, because we give you/cooperate with you on absolutely nothing, and you're dead to us. But: In our opinion, you should stop slaughtering people." Moving forward, the conversation might be a little more compelling when it sounds like, "Hey, stop slaughtering people. We give you money."

Burma has long been run by assholes. It remains to be seen whether the president and parliamentarians put in power by the elections are as big of assholes as the assholes who led before them. And at the very least, the Burmese people will be getting the chance for more medicine and education and microloans. It can't hurt for trying to befriend Burma and empower the population. The former has a shot, and let's definitely hear it for the latter. I'm not necessarily given to bouts of optimism, even the cautious kind, but if there's anything we were reminded of this year, it's that an empowered population is the the best tool of all against repressive regimes.

Quote of the Day: "Ads are Agitprop"

| Mon Dec. 5, 2011 10:19 AM PST

A couple of weeks ago Mitt Romney ran an ad in which Barack Obama was heard telling an audience, "If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose." The obvious implication was that Obama was desperate to avoid talking about his own dismal handling of the economy. But that was untrue. It was actually a clip from the 2008 campaign in which Obama said "Senator McCain's campaign actually said, and I quote, 'If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.' "

Today, Thomas Edsall gets the following defense of this lie from a "top operative" in the Romney campaign:

First of all, ads are propaganda by definition. We are in the persuasion business, the propaganda business....Ads are agitprop....Ads are about hyperbole, they are about editing. It’s ludicrous for them to say that an ad is taking something out of context....All ads do that. They are manipulative pieces of persuasive art.

I wonder if this guy actually believes what he's saying? He didn't have to talk to Edsall in the first place if he didn't want to, so I assume he does. He's genuinely aggrieved that anyone holds this against Team Romney.

Edsall's conclusion is that this spot is "the latest step in the transgression by political operatives of formerly agreed-upon ethical boundaries. What was once considered sleazy becomes the norm." The rest of his column is a history of such transgressions, and it's interesting reading. But this sort of thing strikes me as different from the changes in campaign financing and lobbying that he devotes his piece to, and it would have been even more interesting to read a column about the history of changing norms in how baldly you can lie on the campaign trail.

(My guess is that a real history of this would be U-shaped. Flat-out lies were quite common throughout the entire history of the nation but started to decline after World War II in favor of more subtle distortions. Then, over the last few decades, they've risen again as candidates began to learn that they could manipulate — or ignore — the mainstream media in ever more brazen ways without penalty.)

In any case, it would be nice to think that this episode has wakened the media a bit from its nonjudgmental stupor. It's true that campaigns engage in artful distortion and simplifications all the time. So do bloggers. I don't pretend to be writing austerely evenhanded and neutral posts here, and I'm certainly guilty of cherry picking my topics and my evidence on occasion. At the same time, I'm well aware of some boundaries here. It's one thing to present evidence in a way that helps me make my point, but it's quite another thing to flatly lie about what the evidence says or to flatly ignore evidence that I know perfectly well undermines my point entirely. Likewise, I might highlight a damaging quote from someone I dislike, but there's a bright line there: the quote has to be accurate and it has to be offered in its proper context. If it's still damaging, great! That's legitimate blog fodder. If it's not, then it's not.

The same is surely true of political campaigns, even if the stakes are massively higher than the integrity of someone's blog. If Romney and his people genuinely don't get that, or if they get it but they don't care, they shouldn't be allowed to pretend that this is just part of some normal evolution of political norms. It's not.

Republicans Go After...Obama's Ambassador to Belgium?

| Mon Dec. 5, 2011 9:15 AM PST
US Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman.

GOP presidential candidates are demanding President Obama fire his ambassador to Belgium over remarks suggesting that Muslim anti-Semitism is related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Ambassador Howard Gutman argued in a speech delivered last week at a meeting of the European Jewish Union in Brussels that there is a distinction between "classic" anti-Semitism, that is general hatred of Jews, and "hatred and indeed sometimes and all too growing intimidation and violence directed at Jews generally as a result of the continuing tensions between Israel and the Palestinian territories and other Arab neighbors in the Middle East." Gutman also said that "every new settlement announced in Israel, every rocket shot over a border or suicide bomber on a bus, and every retaliatory military strike exacerbates the problem and provides a setback here in Europe for those fighting hatred and bigotry here in Europe."

The Romney campaign Sunday, sent out a statement demanding that Obama fire Gutman "for rationalizing and downplaying anti-Semitism and linking it to Israeli policy toward the Palestinians," while rival Newt Gingrich tweeted to his roughly 1.3. million Twitter followers that "Pres Obama should fire his ambassador to Brussels for being so wrong about anti-semitism." Conservative media pounced on Gutman's remarks (frequently and conveniently failing to mention that Gutman himself is a Jew and the son of a Holocaust survivor), while seeking to link his comments to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's Friday speech urging Israel to end its "isolation from its traditional security partners in the region" and to renew efforts to reach a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

Gutman's remarks were clumsy—it's true that the impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process inflames anti-Semitism; it's also true that anti-Semitism frequently borrows concepts from what Gutman calls "classic" anti-Semitism. It's one thing to protest Israeli government policies, such as settlement expansion in the West Bank and military incursions that kill civilians, it's another to react to them by collectively blaming Jews. That said, Gutman's suggestion that anti-Semitism would subside if a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be reached isn't the same as saying Israelis or Jews are "responsible" for anti-Semitism. 

The conservative reaction has two purposes: The first is to bolster a narrative that Obama has thrown Israel "under the bus," as Romney likes to say, a view not shared either by a majority of Israelis or the Israeli national security establishment.  The other is to enable the self-destructive trajectory of Israel's current right-wing government, which has abandoned sincere efforts at reconciliation, by conflating any criticism of Israeli government policy with anti-Semitism.

The irony is that the Obama administration has been so on the defensive when it comes to Israel that it has failed to pressure the Israeli government into taking the necessary steps to reach a two-state solution, which given demographic realities in the region is the only way to ensure Israel's future.

Finally, a Ray of Hope in Europe

| Mon Dec. 5, 2011 9:06 AM PST

It has — understandably — taken quite a bit of time to persuade the German public that it should bail out the periphery of Europe, but apparently German chancellor Angela Merkel thinks the time is finally right to propose changes to EU treaties that would trade fiscal consolidation (i.e., binding budget controls on every country) in return for more fiscal support (i.e., more money to rescue troubled countries). Here's the deal in a nutshell:

Under growing pressure from nervous financial markets, the leaders of France and Germany reached a compromise agreement Monday to seek mandatory limits on budget deficits among debt-laden European governments.

The limits--a “golden rule” of 3 percent of Gross Domestic Product--would be enforced by leaders of the European Community, according to explanations provided by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a joint news conference here.

Governments whose debts exceeded three percent of their GDP would be cited by the European Court of Justice, after which a super-majority of 85 percent of European governments would have to agree to impose some sort of sanction against the offending country.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, a more reliable backstop mechanism is important to stop runs on weak countries (and their banks), and it's hardly reasonable for the eurozone's core countries to agree to fund this without some say over the budgets of the countries they're guaranteeing. As it happens, this deal doesn't actually appear to be an awful lot more binding than the current rules, but still, it's probably a good first step if this is what it takes to get nervous Germans on board.

On the other hand, budget deficits have never been at the core of the eurozone's problems. Capital flows have. This deal doesn't appear to do much about that, so it's not clear to me that it's really a long-term solution.

Still, a medium-term solution will do the job for now, and perhaps the longer term will find its own solutions in the future. This is at least moderately promising progress, assuming that the necessary treaty changes can be approved in a fairly short time. It's the first time in a while that I've felt anything but gloom over Europe.