2012 - %3, May

West Virginia Funds Pro-Coal Attack on Obama Admin.

| Thu May 17, 2012 11:24 AM EDT

A group called The Coal Forum is hosting a slate of events in Charleston, West Virginia next week focused on criticizing President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency's "War on Coal."

The events will feature Reps. Shelley Moore Capito (R), Nick Rahall (D), and David McKinley (R), as well as United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts. But some in the state might be surprised to learn that they, the taxpayers, are paying for the anti-Obama events, as Ken Ward Jr. reports:

You see, the Coal Forum is kind of a creature of state statute. Check out W.Va. Code 22A-6-7. Generally, this is a section of law concerning state mine safety boards and technical committees related to those boards. But it includes a little bit of language that charges the State Coal Mine Safety and Technical Review Committee with this duty:
Provide a forum for the resolution of technical issues encountered by the board, safety education and coal advocacy programs.
Over the last two years, the state Legislature (and the governor) have specifically earmarked nearly $60,000 for the "Coal Forum" (see here and here).

It's not surprising that the coal industry is down on Obama. But there aren't many states where the industry would have direct state support in advancing that agenda.

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FLASHBACK: Bobby Jindal's Exorcism Problem

| Thu May 17, 2012 10:38 AM EDT
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

In an op-ed for Politico on Wednesday, anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist called on presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney to select Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal as his running mate. That came just a week after former Bush speechwriter David Frum penned a piece for CNN entitled "Bobby Jindal for Vice President." Scott Conroy captured the emeging zeitgeist with a profile of Jindal for Real Clear Politics in which he reported that, after "private conversations with people close to both Romney and Jindal," there were plenty of reasons to believe" that Jindal could be our next vice president. Phil Klein at the Washington Examiner says Jindal is "hands down" the best to be Romney's running mate. Jindal Fever: catch it!

Criticism of Jindal—aside from his dodgy health care privatization scheme, support for an Arizona-style immigration law, and fierce opposition to reproductive rights—tends to center on an awkward State of Union repsonse he delivered three years ago. This is dumb because most people didn't watch it, and anyway, there's basically no dignified way to rebut a State of the Union. (For one thing, unlike the President's speech, there's no one there to applaud.)

A much bigger reason why Jindal won't be Romney's running mate is the exorcism he conducted.

No, really. Jindal himself wrote about the experience in 1994 for the New Oxford Review, in an article entitled "Beating a Demon: Physical Dimensions of Spiritual Warfare." The short of it is that, while Jindal was an undergraduate, his close friend, Susan, with whom he had maintained a wholly non-romantic relationship, began acting strange. One might attribute this to the fact that she was undergoing treatment for cancer. Jindal assumed she had been possessed. A sample:

Maybe she sensed our weariness; whether by plan or coincidence, Susan chose the perfect opportunity to attempt an escape. She suddenly leapt up and ran for the door, despite the many hands holding her down. This burst of action served to revive the tired group of students and they soon had her restrained once again, this time half kneeling and half standing. Alice, a student leader in Campus Crusade for Christ, entered the room for the first time, brandishing a crucifix. Running out of options, UCF had turned to a rival campus Christian group for spiritual tactics. The preacher had denied our request for assistance and recommended that we not confront the demon; his suggestion was a little late. I still wonder if the good preacher was too settled to be roused from bed, or if this supposed expert doubted his own ability to confront whatever harassed Susan.

...

The crucifix had a calming effect on Susan, and her sister was soon brave enough to bring a Bible to her face. At first, Susan responded to biblical passages with curses and profanities. Mixed in with her vile attacks were short and desperate pleas for help. In the same breath that she attacked Christ, the Bible's authenticity, and everyone assembled in prayer, Susan would suddenly urge us to rescue her. It appeared as if we were observing a tremendous battle between the Susan we knew and loved and some strange evil force. But the momentum had shifted and we now sensed that victory was at hand.

College, right?

The problem for Jindal going forward is that the absolute last thing that Romney wants, as the first-ever Mormon presidential nominee from a major party, is to spend even more time talking about a religious tradition that many Americans view with suspicion.

And now, back to not writing about the veepstakes.

Judge Blocks Enforcement of National Defense Authorization Act

| Thu May 17, 2012 9:59 AM EDT

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin Drum is on vacation.

On Wednesday, Obama-appointed(!) Judge Katherine B. Forrest blocked the section of last year's National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that purported to "reaffirm" the 2001 authorization to use military force against Al Qaeda. A group of activists and journalists had argued that the vague wording of the law could subject them to indefinite military detention because their work brings them into contact with people whom the US considers to be terrorists, and in doing so violated their First Amendment rights. 

Forrest agreed with the plaintiffs that the relevant section of the law was "not merely an 'affirmation'" of the 2001 authorization for use of military force (AUMF). "Basic principles of legislative interpretation," she wrote, "require Congressional enactments to be given independent meaning"—judges can't simply assume a law does nothing. None of this brings the war on terror to a halt, mind you, because Forrest says there are "a variety of other statutes which can be utilized to detain those engaged in various levels of support of terrorists," so her injunction "does not divest the Government of its many other tools."

Forrest's logic is pretty sound: After all, there would have been no point to "reaffirming" the AUMF if doing so didn't expand the government's powers. Hawks in Congress wanted a "reaffirmation" to ensure groups like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which didn't exist on 9/11, were covered under the 2001 law. The NDAA states in the "reaffirmation" section that people eligible for detention are those who have "substantially" supported Al Qaeda or any of its associated groups. The plaintiffs argued that section represented an expansion of existing governmental authority that could result in their detention.

Judge Forrest's decision, however, has to be read in the context of what happened in court: When Forrest asked the government lawyer charged with defending the statute whether the journalists, who said their work has brought them into contact with groups like Hamas or the Taliban, could be indefinitely detained, the government's lawyer wouldn't say:

JUDGE: Assume you were just an American citizen and you're reading the statute and you wanted to make sure you do not run afoul of it because you are a diligent U.S. citizen wanting to stay on the right side of [the law], and you read the phrase 'directly supported'. What does that mean to you?

GOVERNMENT: Again it has to be taken in the context of armed conflict informed by the laws of war.

JUDGE: That’s fine. Tell me what that means?

GOVERNMENT: I cannot offer a specific example. I don't have a specific example.

When asked again whether one of the journalists' activities would qualify as "substantial" support for a terrorist group, the government attorney said, "I don't know what she has been up to."

Asked direct questions about what might subject someone who wasn't actively engaging in hostilities to indefinite military detention, the official representative of the government responded with creepy Orwellianisms.

Congress had ample warning that the vagueness of "substantially supported" might make the NDAA vulnerable in court. Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson told the House Armed Services Committee in March that the language related to "substantial support" of terrorist groups "would give us litigation risk, without a doubt."

And what do you know? It did.

Jeremiah Wright Is Not a Silver Bullet

| Thu May 17, 2012 9:54 AM EDT
Jeremiah Wright at the Press Club in 2008.

There's a group of Republicans who are convinced that if Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) had simply run Jeremiah Wright ads twenty-four hours a day during the 2008 election, Barack Obama would not be in the White House. This time around, the New York Times reports, (in what sounds suspiciously like a fundraising bid) a Republican Super-PAC called the Ending Spending Fund, bankrolled in part by TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, is planning to drive the Wright stake into Obama's vampire heart and leave him out for the sun:

The $10 million plan, one of several being studied by Mr. Ricketts, includes preparations for how to respond to the charges of race-baiting it envisions if it highlights Mr. Obama's former ties to Mr. Wright, who espouses what is known as "black liberation theology."

The group suggested hiring as a spokesman an "extremely literate conservative African-American" who can argue that Mr. Obama misled the nation by presenting himself as what the proposal calls a "metrosexual, black Abe Lincoln."

Conservative attempts to deflect charges of race baiting by using minority spokespeople are really obvious, but it's still funny to see this kind of cynicism expressed so frankly. (You can read more on the Ricketts plan from my colleague Tim Murphy.)

The 2012 election was always going to be ugly, with Republicans looking to maximize their share of a shrinking white electorate and the Democrats increasingly dependent on their coalition of young urban whites and minorities. But the idea that, if not for McCain's honorable restraint, Americans would have voted against Obama is mostly a figment of the conservative imagination. A Pew study in 2008 found that a majority of Americans (including 50 percent of Republicans!) felt the media overcovered the Jeremiah Wright story. If that didn't destroy Obama in 2008, when he was still something of a unknown quantity, it won't work after four years of getting to know him. Everyone who could be convinced that Wright is the key to Obama's soul has already been convinced. 

The storyboards for the Wright ad, though, implicitly accept this. Instead of merely highlighting Wright, the ad actually adopts the Rush Limbaugh black revenge fantasy theory of the Obama presidency, namely that America's ongoing economic stagnation is not the result of an incorrect or inadequate response to the recession, but that it was deliberately engineered by Obama as payback against white people. Under this theory, Obama has deliberately nurtered the economic malaise—one that threatens his chances at a second term, led to higher levels of unemployment among non-whites than whites, and resulted in the evaporation of minority wealth gains—just to get back at whitey. Like the idea of Obama being an amalgamation of President Jimmy Carter and the Black Panther Party's Huey Newton, this deranged explanation collapses under the crushing weight of its own contradictions.  

Although the Internet will be forever grateful for the introduction of the term "black metrosexual Abraham Lincoln," the term really says everything about the twisted lens through which this group of Republican strategists understands race and masculinity. Put simply, the group is going to try to convince voters that Obama is the type of black man they cross the street to avoid. That didn't work in 2008, it's hard to see how anyone who wasn't already working from the same distorted understanding of race is going to buy it now. For all of America's lingering problems with race, racism just isn't the silver bullet. 

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin Drum is on vacation.

Joe Ricketts, Government Handout Hypocrite

| Thu May 17, 2012 9:16 AM EDT

The New York Times won the morning on Thursday with an A1 story on a new anti-Obama super-PAC, Character Matters, that's planning on spending $10 million on an ad campaign linking President Obama—a "metrosexual, black Abraham Lincoln"—to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Character Matters is hoping to get either Jon Voight or an "extremely literate conservative African-American" to narrate the spots, which would be produced by GOP ad guru Fred Davis (of "Demon Sheep" fame).

The money for all of this comes from Joe Ricketts, the TD Ameritrade founder, Bison Burgers baron, and, with his family, owner of the Chicago Cubs. Ricketts solidified his status as a campaign finance heavyweight when spent $600,000 in the last month of the election to try to take down Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in 2010. Since then, he's launched a campaign to eliminate earmarks, given $500,000 to the anti-incumbent Campaign for Primary Accountability, and, earlier this month, spent $200,000 helping state Sen. Deb Fischer win the GOP Senate primary in his home state of Nebraska. (Ricketts' son, Peter, is a former US Senate candidate and a member of the Republican National Committee.) Ricketts is sick and tired of wasteful spending—so much so that the briefing book outlining the Wright ad is actually entitled "The Ricketts Plan to End His Spending for Good."

But Ricketts' time with the Chicago Cubs tells a different story. Since the Ricketts Family Trust acquired the team two years ago, they have actively sought to use taxpayer money to expand their own business operations. As CBS Chicago reported in April:

The Cubs want to use $200 million in public funds to construct the long-planned Triangle Building along Clark Street in front of the ballpark. The Triangle Building would house team offices, a restaurant and parking, and would feature a Chicago Cubs Hall of Fame, a Cubs Pro Shop, and new ticket windows.

The only structure on the "triangle" site, the former Yum-Yum Donuts building, was torn down two years ago. Part of the site is now used as an ice rink during the winter months.

The Ricketts family also wants to use amusement tax revenue to fund the renovation, but Mayor Emanuel has not said whether he supports that plan.

In addition to using local amusement tax funds that might otherwise be spent shoring up actual public services, the Ricketts family is seeking a large federal subsidy to pay for a renovation of Wrigley Field. As the Chicago Sun-Times reported:

Ricketts also is seeking another public subsidy that is often overlooked in debates about publicly financed sports stadiums, according to economists. That's the federal subsidy that arises when a stadium is financed with tax-exempt bonds...

The exemption can result in a large subsidy. The municipal-bond market has been a mess lately, but let's assume a 2 percentage-point differential between tax-exempt and market interest rates. A $225 million stadium renovation financed 100 percent with 30-year tax-exempt bonds, assuming an equal portion of the principal is retired every year, would result in interest savings of $37.7 million, according to Dennis Zimmerman, a retired economist who studied the economics of stadiums at the Congressional Budget Office.

In fairness, "End the Spending—But Only When That Money is Being Spent on Other People" would be a terrible name for a super-PAC.

Update: Ricketts has released a statement calling the spot "merely a proposal—one of several submitted to the Ending Spending Action Fund by third-party vendors," and disavowing its contents.

Update II: You can read my colleague Adam Serwer's take on the l'affaire d'Ricketts here.

Brooklynites: Don't Frack Our Beer!

| Thu May 17, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Does worrying about fracking make you thirst for a drink? Before you raise that pint of ale to your lips, consider the source.

The brewmeister of Brooklyn Brewery says toxic fracking chemicals like methanol, benzene, and ethylene glycol (found in anti-freeze) could contaminate his beer by leaking into New York's water supply. Unlike neighboring Pennsylvania, New York state has promised to ban high-volume fracking from the city's watershed. But environmentalists say the draft fracking regulations are weak and leave the largest unfiltered water supply in the United States—not to mention the beer that is made from it—vulnerable.

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WATCH: The Gay Marriage Attack on Biblical Interpretation [Fiore Cartoon]

| Thu May 17, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Mark Fiore is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist and animator whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Examiner, and dozens of other publications. He is an active member of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists, and has a website featuring his work.

The Charts TED Doesn't Want to Share

| Wed May 16, 2012 8:16 PM EDT

If you want to learn about topics like climate change, sex slavery, global poverty, or solving the world's problems with video games, there's a TED talk for you. But income inequality in the United States? Keep looking. National Journal's Jim Tankersley reported today that the wonkfest's organizers decided not to post the video of a TED presentation by a venture capitalist named Nick Hanauer, who'd spoken about how the American middle class has been left behind:

"We've had it backward for the last 30 years," [Hanauer] said. "Rich businesspeople like me don't create jobs. Rather they are a consequence of an ecosystemic feedback loop animated by middle-class consumers, and when they thrive, businesses grow and hire, and owners profit. That's why taxing the rich to pay for investments that benefit all is a great deal for both the middle class and the rich."

You can't find that speech online. TED officials told Hanauer initially they were eager to distribute it. "I want to put this talk out into the world!" one of them wrote him in an e-mail in late April. But early this month they changed course, telling Hanauer that his remarks were too "political" and too controversial for posting.

TED curator Chris Anderson* emailed Hanauer that while "I personally share your disgust at the growth in inequality in the US," he felt that posting the talk would lead to "a tedious partisan rehash of all the arguments we hear every day in the mainstream media."

Tankersley has posted the text and slides from Hanauer's talk. A couple of his charts will be familiar to MoJo readers—we originally published them as part of our packages on income inequality and the workplace speed-up.

 

Want to borrow our charts for your own alternative TED talk? Go for it—we've posted downloadable versions of the most popular ones here. Let the tedious partisan rehash begin!

Updates, 5/17/12: On his blog, TED's Chris Anderson has responded to what he calls the "non-story" about Hanauer's talk. He says it was not posted on the TED home page because it didn't meet its standards: "It framed the issue in a way that was explicitly partisan. And it included a number of arguments that were unconvincing, even to those of us who supported his overall stance. The audience at TED who heard it live (and who are often accused of being overly enthusiastic about left-leaning ideas) gave it, on average, mediocre ratings."

Here's the actual talk, which Hanauer put on YouTube. You'll see that some audience members gave him a standing ovation.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Chris Anderson is also Wired's editor-in-chief. The sentence has been corrected.

Carl Levin Wants to Preserve Indefinite Detention of US Citizens As an Option

| Wed May 16, 2012 3:51 PM EDT
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin at the Center for American Progress.

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation.

Reps. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Justin Amash's (R-Mich.) attempt to prevent suspected terrorists captured on US soil from being shunted into indefinite military detention is running into opposition from Senate hawks, including Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.):

"They don't have to exercise it, but I'm not so sure that they want the authority removed to arrest or to capture, because we're talking about war here — somebody who’s declared war against the United States, just because we capture them on U.S. soil," Levin said.

"We can hold them on U.S. soil, but I don't think we want to eliminate the authority of the Executive Branch to hold someone who’s declared war on the United States as an enemy combatant," he said.

Left unexplained is why mandatory military detention is needed at all. Umar Abdulmutallab, who inspired the mandatory military custody provision after he set himself on fire trying to blow up a plane, would not have been granted bail in a federal court. If the evidence is that strong that someone is a terrorist, there's no need to put them in military custody. Levin fails to offer even a single argument for why military custody would be preferable to civilian custody. Instead, his argument is a moral one: We're at war with these people, so we'll treat them like warriors.

In Levin's preferred world, the part of the process where the government proves that suspected terrorists are who the government says they are is no longer a necessary prerequisite to locking them up for the rest of their lives. But this isn't the Civil War, and Union and Confederate soldiers aren't lining up in uniform to fire rifles and cannons across corpse littered battlefields. The reason why due process is so crucial is that identifying who actually is a terrorist isn't a simple matter—but it's also not as though the process is taking place amidst the chaos of an active theater of military combat.

The new defense bill is scheduled for a vote in the House on Thursday, but even if Smith and Amash get their proposal through the lower chamber, there's a bipartisan group of Senators who want to protect the president's authority to imprison American citizens without proving they're guilty of anything at all. Barack Obama, for his part, hasn't weighed in on either side—but given that the president has promised never to attempt to use this power, it's a mystery why he wouldn't vocally oppose it.  If Obama and his advisers believe this kind of indefinite detention is an anathema to due process, why not support a bipartisan effort to ensure that Americans' constitutional rights aren't dependent on the whim of whichever president is in office?

At least the battle lines here are clearly drawn in a way they weren't over last year's defense bill. One group of legislators thinks Americans can be deprived of their liberty in their own home country without a trial. The other thinks the government has to actually prove you're guilty of something first.

George R.R. Martin Trolls His Trolls

| Wed May 16, 2012 3:46 PM EDT

Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin started his A Song of Ice And Fire series in 1996, and it isn't anywhere close to finished. Some fans are so obsessed with the series, however, that they've taken to constantly berating him for working on other projects instead. Some fans openly worry Martin, like fellow fantasy author Robert Jordan, will die before finishing his flagship series. In a recent blog post, Martin mocks his trolls:

Reading. I just finished THE KING'S BLOOD, the second volume of Daniel Abraham's "Dagger and Coin" series. Books like this remind me why I love epic fantasy. Yes, I'm prejudiced, Daniel is a friend and sometime collaborator... but damn, that was a good book. Great world, great characters, thoroughly engrossing story. The only problem was, it ended too soon. I want more. I want to know what happens to Cithrin, and Marcus, and Geder, and Clara. And I want to know NOW. God damn you, Daniel Abraham. I know for a fact that you are writing more Expanse books with Ty, and more urban fantasies as M.L.N. Hanover, and doing short stories for some hack anthologist, and scripting some goddamn COMIC BOOK, and even sleeping with your wife and playing with your daughter. STOP ALL THAT AT ONCE, and get to writing on the next Dagger and Coin. I refuse to wait.

Well played. Also, I like the series too, but give the guy a break. Tide yourself over with the HBO series in the meantime.