2012 - %3, November

The Growing Costs of Natural Disasters

| Fri Nov. 16, 2012 7:13 AM EST

This story first appeared on the Atlantic website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

As thousands of survivors of Superstorm Sandy still are unable to return to their homes and others remain without power, debate over public response is growing. Does the Federal flood insurance program need reform? Will a multibillion-dollar swinging gate, like one in Rotterdam, shield Manhattan at the cost of additional flooding in Brooklyn and Staten Island neighborhoods?

Historical geography helps. When I was starting to write about unintended consequences in the early 1990s, one of the most valuable books I found about risk was the second edition (1993) of Ian Burton, Robert W. Kates (who now has an indispensable website), and Gilbert F. White, The Environment as Hazard. The death toll from natural hazards is far lower in industrial than in developing countries; in the United States, deaths from hurricanes, floods, and other calamities have generally been reduced over the last hundred years—the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 probably took five times as many lives as Katrina in 2005—while property damage has continued to climb. Material losses in Galveston were $30 million or about $600 million today; Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York says his state's damages from Sandy could equal $33 billion.

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Business Leaders to Washington: Tax The Rich!

| Thu Nov. 15, 2012 11:23 PM EST

Not to be outdone by the pack of millionaires who swept through the nation's capital this week demanding higher taxes on the rich, two groups of business leaders are asking lawmakers for the same—because they didn't build that.

The American Sustainable Business Council and Business for Shared Prosperity, which represent hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs, investors, and managers—people John Boehner had claimed would be hurt by higher individual tax rates—made their case to Congress in a letter. They are urging Congress to let the Bush tax cuts expire on incomes exceeding $250,000 and to "put that money toward programs that help the economy and business."

Corn on MSNBC: Romney Still Thinks Obama Supporters Are Moochers

Thu Nov. 15, 2012 8:48 PM EST

If you had any lingering doubts about whether Romney believes what he said in the 47% video, cast them aside. In a post-election call to his donors, Romney says Obama won because he promised "big gifts" to his supporters, such as healthcare and the Dream Act. So basically, in the words of Kevin Drum, Obama won by doing things people liked.

DC bureau chief David Corn, who unearthed the 47% video, talks to MSNBC's Al Sharpton about Romney's sour grapes.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

Timeline: How the Benghazi Controversy Unfolded

| Thu Nov. 15, 2012 8:00 PM EST
President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at Andrews Air Force Base on September 14 during the return of the remains of four Americans killed in Benghazi three days earlier.

Today, the House and Senate intelligence committees are starting hearings on the September 11 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans including Ambassador Chris Stevens. At the heart of the issue is the allegation, embraced by conservative pundits and echoed by Republicans including Mitt Romney, that Obama adminstration has covered up what they knew about the true nature of the assault and when they knew it.

Here's a blow-by-blow look at how the events and statements under scrutiny unfolded. Kevin Drum has more on why the Benghazi controversy has been overblown. And for a more extensive, detailed timeline, visit FactCheck.org.

September 11

  • A protest breaks out at the US embassy in Cairo in response to Innocence of Muslims, an anti-Muslim film advertised on YouTube that was created by a real estate developer in California. The film's trailer was first posted in July.
  • The US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, is attacked by "unidentified Libyan extremists," who kill US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other American officials.
  • Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issues a statement acknowledging the death of one State Department official during Benghazi attack. The statement references the anti-Muslim video, condemning "any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others," but stops short of blaming it for the attack.

September 12

  • Clinton confirms that four US officials were killed in the Benghazi attack.
  • During a morning speech at the Rose Garden, President Obama condemns the attack, saying, "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation." He also echoes Clinton's acknowledgment of the anti-Muslim video, saying, "We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others."
  • Obama is asked during a 60 Minutes interview whether terrorists were behind the attack and replies that "it's too early to know exactly how this came about." Reporters later ask White House press secretary Jay Carney if the attack had been preplanned. Carney replies, "It's too early for us to make that judgment."
  • The BBC talks to Ahmad Jibril, Libya's deputy ambassador to London, who says that the militant group Ansar al-Sharia launched the Benghazi attack.
  • Citing anonymous government officials, Reuters reports that the attack may have been preplanned and Ansar al-Sharia may be to blame.

September 13

  • At a State Department function, Libyan Ambassador to the United States Ali Suleiman Aujali speaks to Clinton, apologizing for "this terrorist attack which took place against the American consulate in Libya." Clinton again condemns the anti-Muslim video but does not refer to the attack as an act of terror. (Clinton later meets with Moroccan Foreign Minister Saad-Eddine al-Othmani, saying much the same thing.)
  • During a Colorado stump speech, Obama says, "To all those who would do us harm, no act of terror will go unpunished."
  • Citing anonymous State Department officials, CNN reports that the Benghazi attack was a "clearly planned military-type attack" and not related to the anti-Muslim video.

September 14

  • At an Andrews Air Force Base ceremony honoring the officials killed in Benghazi, Clinton quotes from a letter that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sent her, in which she says he praised Stevens and called the attack "an act of ugly terror."
  • At a White House press briefing, Carney says the CNN report that the US government has evidence the attack was preplanned "is false."
  • Roll Call reports that during a Senate Armed Services Committee meeting, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta leaves committee members with the impression that the attack was a premeditated act of terror.

September 15

  • In his weekly address, Obama mentions the Benghazi attack. He does not refer to it as an act of terror, but mentions "every angry mob" that had reacted to the anti-Muslim video.

September 16

  • Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, speaking to Bob Schieffer on CBS's Face the Nation, suggests that the attack began "spontaneously" in reaction to the Cairo embassy protest that was "sparked by this hateful video."
  • Libya President Mohamed Magariaf, also speaking to Schieffer, says the attack "was planned by foreigners…who entered the country a few months ago." He later tells NPR that Rice's suggestion that the protest began spontaneously "is completely unfounded and preposterous."

September 17

September 18

  • Obama tells David Letterman that extremists used the anti-Muslim video "as an excuse" for several attacks including the one in Benghazi.
  • Carney tells reporters that the video "precipitated some of the unrest in Benghazi and elsewhere." Later, Clinton says she was told that "we had no actionable intelligence that an attack…was planned or imminent."

September 19

  • National Counterterrorism Center Director Matt Olsen, speaking to a Senate subcommittee, says that the American officials in Benghazi "were killed in the course of a terrorist attack on our embassy" but that there was "no specific evidence of significant advanced planning." Olsen is the first administration official on record using the phrase "terrorist attack."
  • Nuland tells reporters that she stands by Olsen's words, but Carney balks, just repeating that "we do not yet have indication that [the attack] was preplanned or premeditated."

September 20

  • Carney refers to the Benghazi incident as a "terrorist attack" for the first time. Asked about Carney's remarks on the stump, Obama says only that extremists had taken advantage of "natural protests" that arose from the anti-Muslim video.

September 21

September 24

  • Asked on The View if the Benghazi incident was a terrorist attack, Obama replies, "We're still doing an investigation." At a UN address the next day, Obama condemns the anti-Muslim video but doesn't refer to a terrorist attack.

September 27

  • Panetta tells reporters that Benghazi "was a terrorist attack" and that it "took a while to really get some of the feedback from what exactly happened at that location."
  • Carney tells reporters, "The president's position [is] that this was a terrorist attack."

October 9

October 10

  • Asked about discrepancies in the various responses to the attack, Carney replies, "Again, from the beginning, we have provided information based on the facts that we knew as they became available."

October 15

October 16

October 24

October 26

  • A conspiracy theory begins to circulate that General Carter Ham, the head of the US command in Africa, was "relieved of his command" after refusing orders to stand down as he attempted to dispatch a rescue unit to the Benghazi consulate.

November 9

November 14

  • Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who both sit on the Senate Armed Services Committee, announce that they would oppose a nomination of Susan Rice to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. Graham justifies his position, saying that "either [Rice] didn't know the truth about Benghazi—so she shouldn't have been on TV—or she was spinning it."

November 15

  • The House and Senate Intelligence Committees begin holding hearings on the Benghazi attack. Petraeus, scheduled to testify on November 16, says his resignation had nothing to do with Benghazi.

This article has been revised.

Target, Walmart, and Other Big-Box Stores Abolish Thanksgiving

| Thu Nov. 15, 2012 6:25 PM EST

People who work in America's big-box stores don't have much to be thankful for, so maybe it's for the best that many of them can no longer celebrate Thanksgiving.

At Walmart, Target, and numerous other large retailers, Black Friday has become Black Thursday—a day that's much darker because it puts corporate profits ahead of, well, pretty much everything else that our country is supposed to care about.

This sad trend began last year at (where else?) Walmart, which announced that it would begin offering Black Friday specials at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving night. Not to be outdone this year, Target announced a 9 p.m. Thanksgiving opening. But Walmart responded by pushing up the start of this year's Black Thursday to 8 p.m.

You don't have to be a marketing expert to see where our labor standards are going: retro. Like pre-1621 retro.

Thanksgiving is "one of the three days us retail workers get off a year: a day most of us spend with family we only get to see on that day," says Renee C, the author of a widely circulated petition to get Target to say no to "Thanksgiving Creep."

Target spokesperson Molly Snyder defended the company's decision to open on the holiday. "Target's opening time was carefully evaluated with our guests, team, and the business in mind," she told me in an email. "Thanksgiving weekend is one of the busiest of the year, and we appreciete our Target team's flexibility on this weekend and throughout the holiday season."

Of course, many big-box workers have no choice to but to be flexible. The compliant get rewarded with more hours; the rigid quickly get downgraded to part-timers, union leaders say. Take the example of Greg Fletcher, a member of the overnight crew at a Walmart in East LA. On the night before Thanksgiving he will work a 12-hour shift, from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. His wife, who also works at the store, must be there from 3 p.m. on Thanksgiving day until midnight. "For families like the Fletchers, there really won't be a Thanksgiving this year," said Dawn Le, a spokeswoman for Making Change at Walmart, a campaign working to unionize this and other Walmart stores. Yet Greg feels like he can't say no. Normally, Walmart only gives him about 30 hours of work a week.

The thankless jobs aren't just at Target and Walmart: Sears, Toys R Us, Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy, and Kmart all will stay open on Thanksgiving too.

Broadly speaking, Thanksgiving Creep represents another example of "speedup"—or employers demanding more from their workers without offering them much of anything in return. In a sluggish economy, this is how they gin up profits.

"Just because there are millions of unemployed people does not mean that people who do have jobs should be denied a holiday off to spend with their families," said a poster on Reddit who drew attention to Thanksgiving Creep yesterday. "It may sound naive, but I think treating each other well is a much better ethos for our society than 'suck it up and be miserable.'"

Republicans Just Lost a Class War—and They'll Lose Again if the Tea Party Gets Its Way

| Thu Nov. 15, 2012 6:10 PM EST
Tea Party economics help Fox News more than the Republican Party.

Here's something both liberals and conservatives can agree on: Obama just paved his way to a second term by focusing on taxing the rich and portraying his rival as a heartless businessman more interested in preserving tax cuts than helping ordinary working families. This was the same strategy many of Romney's primary rivals utilized, but Obama's arguments resonated with the general public more than the GOP base.

As Jonathan Chait notes:

Obama ignored vast swaths of his agenda, barely mentioning climate change or education reform, but by God did he hammer home the fact that his winning would bring higher taxes on the rich. He raised it so relentlessly that at times it seemed out of proportion even to me, and I wrote a book on the topic. But polls consistently showed the public was on his side.

The old adage is as true as ever: It's the economy, stupid. And Republicans have not been so out of touch with the American electorate on economic issues since the disastrous Goldwater campaign. Paul Ryan's economic agenda may have made him the darling of Fox News pundits and the Tea Party, but a solid majority of Americans saw it as class warfare directed squarely at the poor, elderly, and the middle class.

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Is the BP Criminal Settlement Enough?

| Thu Nov. 15, 2012 4:55 PM EST

BP and the Department of Justice announced on Thursday that they had reached an agreement on a record fine stemming from criminal charges related to the 2009 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

BP pleaded guilty to 11 felony counts of misconduct and neglect related to the deaths of 11 workers on the oil rig, as well as one felony count of obstruction of justice for lying to Congress about the size of the spill. They also pled guilty to misdemeanor counts for violating the Clean Water Act and Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

But in exchange for the record fine, they won't face any criminal penalties. The SEC charges deal with complaints that the company lied to investors about the size of the spill in its filings as well. (The US federal court still needs to approve the settlement.)

DOJ has also charged the company and two BP supervisors with manslaughter related to the deaths. CBS News explains:

A federal indictment unsealed in New Orleans claims BP well site leaders Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine acted negligently in their supervision of key safety tests performed on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig before the explosion killed 11 workers in April 2010. The indictment says Kaluza and Vidrine failed to phone engineers onshore to alert them of problems in the drilling operation.
Another indictment charges David Rainey, who was BP's vice president of exploration for the Gulf of Mexico, on charges of obstruction of Congress and false statements. The indictment claims the former executive lied to federal investigators when they asked him how he calculated a flow rate estimate for BP's blown-out well in the days after the April 2010 disaster.

Regarding the $4.5 billion settlement agreement, some are wondering if it goes far enough in penalizing BP. The public interest group Public Citizen argues that the fine announced today is little more than a "slap on the wrist" for the company, since it does not include any penalties for the criminal charges beyond the fines. Tyson Slocum, energy program director at Public Citizen, says that the agreement should have included sanctions on the company—like barring it from future government contracts or from obtaining new leases.

As the Wall Street Journal reported during the spill, BP is "the single biggest supplier of fuel to the Department of Defense, with Pentagon contracts worth $2.2 billion a year." That means that in two years, the US government pays BP just about as much money as the company has agreed to pay to settle the criminal complaint. In its announcement of the agreement, BP said it has not been advised of any intent to block the company from future contracts.

This is far from the first time BP has found itself in trouble with the law. The company previously paid record-breaking fines related to a March 2005 explosion at its Texas City refinery that killed 15 employees. And just a few days ago a subsidiary of the company was forced to pay compensation to Alaska for two 2006 oil spills on the North Slope.

"This is a habitual corporate criminal and this settlement will do absolutely nothing to deter corporate crime," Slocum said.

In a press conference in New Orleans on Thursday, Attorney General Eric Holder said that the "criminal investigation remains ongoing," leaving the door open for additional charges. He also indicated that he believes the settlement is significant. "This is unprecedented, both in terms of the amount of money, and that a company has been charged, and individuals have been charged as well," Holder said. "I hope this sends a message to companies that would engage in this kind of wanton conduct that there is a price to pay."

To be clear, this isn't the grand total of what BP will have to pay out. The company still faces civil fines based on the number of barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf under the Clean Water Act, which alone could run it another $21 billion if the company is accused of "gross negligence" (which comes with a higher fine than regular "negligence" under the law). BP also faces fines based on the damage to natural resources—like the birds and turtles killed and the impact on fisheries. The company also faces separate lawsuits from cleanup workers and local residents impacted by the spill, as well as suits from several of its investors. That also does not include the money that BP agreed to pony up for a victim compensation fund shortly after the spill.

"This is a good down payment on the massive restoration needed for the Gulf’s ecosystems and the people and communities that depend on them."

Holder indicated that DOJ and BP have been in negotiations but have not reached an agreement regarding the civil penalties. "We have not reached a number I consider satisfactory in order to resolve those civil claims," he said. DOJ and BP will be back in court over those civil penalties in February 2013, he said. In his statement, BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg said the company "will continue to vigorously defend itself against all remaining civil claims and to contest allegations of gross negligence in those cases."

The $4.5 billion fine will be paid out over 5 years. Of that money, $2.4 billion will go to the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, and another $350 million will go to the National Academy of Sciences. Affected states will also receive a portion of the funds, according to the DOJ.

Conservation groups said Thursday that they hope the record fine is a good signal of what will come in the civil case. "This is a good down payment on the massive restoration needed for the Gulf’s ecosystems and the people and communities that depend on them," said Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation, in a statement. "There’s still a lot of work to be done when it comes to penalizing the parties responsible for the Gulf oil disaster through the civil provisions of the Oil Pollution Act and the Clean Water Act, but this criminal settlement marks important progress and devotes much-needed resources toward restoration."

Republicans Desperately Need a Scandal

| Thu Nov. 15, 2012 3:56 PM EST

Paul Waldman explains why Republicans have gone batshit crazy over Benghazi:

So what's going on here? I can sum it up in two words: scandal envy. Republicans are indescribably frustrated by the fact that Barack Obama, whom they regard as both illegitimate and corrupt, went through an entire term without a major scandal. They tried with "Fast and Furious," but that turned out to be small potatoes. They tried with Solyndra, but that didn't produce the criminality they hoped for either. Obama even managed to dole out three-quarters of a trillion dollars in stimulus money without any graft or double-dealing to be found. Nixon had Watergate, Reagan had Iran-Contra, Clinton had Lewinsky, [and don't forget that Bush had the Plame affair and the Abramoff scandal! ed] and Barack Obama has gotten off scott-free. This is making them absolutely livid, and they're going to keep trying to gin up a scandal, even if there's no there there. Benghazi may not be an actual scandal, but it's all they have handy.

Yep. They're just convinced that Obama runs a gang of Chicago thugs who are lying and cheating behind the scenes at every opportunity. It's a foundational story on the tea-party right. Unfortunately, the reality is that whatever else you think of Obama, he's one of the straightest arrows we've had in the White House since....forever. He runs a tight ship organizationally, and on a personal level he's so intolerant of personal peccadilloes that he sometimes seems almost inhuman. It would be astonishing if he could actually avoid a serious scandal for an entire eight-year term, but if anyone can do it, it's probably Obama.

And yes, it's driving Republicans crazy. Even the ones who don't want to impeach him at least want to bring him down to earth a bit. So they latch onto anything they can.  It's all starting to seem kind of desperate, but I doubt they're going to let that stop them. After all, it eventually worked against Clinton.

We Are All Fixated on the Wrong Deficit Number

| Thu Nov. 15, 2012 2:16 PM EST

Over at CAP, Sarah Ayres and Michael Linden have a post about how much the Simpson-Bowles plan proposes to increase revenues (i.e. taxes). The press usually reports it as $1.2 trillion, they say, but the real number is $2.7 trillion. Why the difference? It depends on what timeframe you use (eight years vs. ten years), your baseline (current law vs. current policy), and a few other things. In other words, it's complicated.

I think this is a good reason why we should all stop talking about changes in revenue and spending compared to current levels. There are just too many games you can play with that. Instead, we should simply pick a year, and then describe what happens that year under the plan in question. So we might pick, say, 2017, and report what the budget will look like under various proposals. That's much harder to fudge.

Simpson-Bowles, for example, says that in 2017 their plan produces about $3.6 trillion in revenue and $4 trillion in spending, for a deficit of $421 billion, or 2.3 percent of GDP. (It's Figure 16 in this report.) Those are the three numbers we should want to see. Obviously we're also interested in the details of how they raise revenue and cut spending, and those details might continue to be tricky to describe. But the basic figures we should be interested in aren't how much spending and taxes go up or down, which are too easy to manipulate, but simply what spending and taxes will be.

I don't imagine this is going to happen anytime soon, but I thought I'd toss it out there.

Watchdog: Rove-Founded Group Broke the Law By Not Disclosing Certain Donors

| Thu Nov. 15, 2012 1:45 PM EST
Karl Rove.

The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) claims that Crossroads GPS, the dark-money nonprofit co-founded by GOP political gurus Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, broke the law by not disclosing certain donors.

In complaints filed with the Federal Election Commission and the FBI, CREW says that Crossroads GPS—which spent more than $70 million on the 2012 elections—violated election law by not naming who funded Crossroads' ads in Ohio's Senate race between Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown and Republican Josh Mandel. Under current law, groups like Crossroads don't have to disclose who funds their ads if their donors don't earmark their money for a specific purpose—say, for an ad to run on Monday, November 6 attacking Sherrod Brown on the auto bailout. Of course, donors rarely give these kinds of instructions—they mostly fork over their money and let the experts do the work.

But CREW says some of Crossroads' Ohio Senate bankrollers should be revealed because they did earmark their donations. At an August fundraiser in Tampa, Rove told attendees that an anonymous out-of-state donor had pledged $3 million in matching money specifically to defeat Sherrod Brown. All Rove had to do was raise the other $3 million. "Bob Castellini, owner of the Cincinnati Reds, is helping raise the other $3 million for that one," Rove said, according to the Bloomberg Businessweek editor who attended the private fundraiser.

That unnamed $3 million donor should be revealed because he or she donated specifically to influence Ohio's Senate race, CREW contends. "Karl Rove and Crossroads GPS didn't just skirt around the edges of the law; this time it appears they jumped headlong into a criminal conspiracy," Melanie Sloan, CREW's executive director, said in a statement.

Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio dismissed CREW's claims as politically-motivated nonsense. "CREW is a hyper-partisan, labor-funded front group that files frivolous complaints like this as part of its mission," Collegio wrote in an email. "Crossroads is aware of the laws governing the groups and follows all of them closely."

As a nonprofit, Crossroads GPS does not disclose any of its donors. The group was among the biggest-spending dark-money group of the 2012 election cycle. In all, $208 million in dark money was spent during the 2012 elections, according to the Sunlight Foundation. Eight out of every $10 in dark money went to benefit Republicans.