2012 - %3, December

Free-Market Group Fights to Save California Oyster Farm

| Fri Dec. 7, 2012 6:03 AM EST

Last week, the Interior Department announced its decision to let a historic Northern California oyster farm's permit expire to make way for the West Coast's first marine wilderness. In response, the Drakes Bay Oyster Company's owner, Kevin Lunny, filed suit this week in hopes of saving his company. That's not a big surprise: Lunny told the San Francisco Chronicle that the news had left him in "disbelief and excruciating sorrow." Here's the twist: As the East Bay Express reported, Lunny is being represented by a low-key, free-market advocacy group—a somewhat strange bedfellow for a company that bills itself as a environmentally sustainable operation and has enjoyed strong support from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

The group representing Drakes Bay Oyster Company, Cause of Action, is run by Dan Epstein, a former GOP counsel on the House's Committee on Oversight and Government Reform under California Republican Darrell Issa. Epstein is also a veteran employee of billionaires Charles and David Koch; he used to work at the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation and for a Koch Industries lawyer. Epstein supports Lunny's lawsuit against the National Park Service and the Interior Department, he said in a statement, because "we refuse to let the NPS and Secretary Salazar get away with exerting power that destroys a business and a community under the guise of authorized discretion."

Cause of Action alleges that the government failed to fulfill its obligation to conduct a proper environmental review and relied on flawed science showing that the oyster farm harmed the environment in its decision not to renew its permit. But in reality, according to interior secretary Ken Salazar, the decision was made to avoid setting a precedent that would threaten longstanding National Park Service policy to let permits expire on public land chosen by Congress to become wilderness. (Congress flagged Drakes Estero, where the oyster farm has operated since the 1930s, as a "potential wilderness" site in 1976.)

Epstein's advocacy work, in any case, hasn't always been so noble as coming to the rescue of a family business. After congressional conservatives slipped a measure into a recent spending bill that banned federal grants from going to 501(c)(4) non-profits engaged in lobbying, Cause of Action sent letters to at least 20 groups using federal money to fight obesity and tobacco use, warning them they might be sued. The group said it sent the letters "only as a convenience," but critics contended it was an attempt to intimidate the non-profits.

This time, no one can claim that Esptein is hiding his free-market, Koch-esque motive for helping Drakes Bay Oyster Company: "Cause of Action is committed to ensuring that federal agency decision-making that can affect economic prosperity in the United States is held to the scrutiny of public accountability," his statement also read.

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Report: IPCC Is Underestimating Climate Threat

| Fri Dec. 7, 2012 6:03 AM EST

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, is a favorite punching bag for climate deniers. The panel, made up of scientists from around the world who evaluate and coalesce the best and latest science on climate change, issues new reports every five to six years; the fifth report is will begin rolling out in 2013. But while deniers love to cry that the IPCC is "alarmist," the comparison between what the panel has predicted over the last 20 years and what actually panned out in the real world shows that the IPCC has "consistently underestimated" the impacts, according to a new report highlighted by the Daily Climate.

The piece draws from new research from Naomi Oreskes, a history and science professor at University of California—San Diego, and Michael Oppenheimer, a geoscientist at Princeton University. Among the examples of the panel's conservative predictions:

The drastic decline of summer Arctic sea ice is one recent example: In the 2007 report, the IPCC concluded the Arctic would not lose its summer ice before 2070 at the earliest. But the ice pack has shrunk far faster than any scenario scientists felt policymakers should consider; now researchers say the region could see ice-free summers within 20 years.
Sea-level rise is another. In its 2001 report, the IPCC predicted an annual sea-level rise of less than 2 millimeters per year. But from 1993 through 2006, the oceans actually rose 3.3 millimeters per year, more than 50 percent above that projection.

Among the challenges for the panel are the fact that, as IPCC Vice-Chair Jean-Pascal van Ypersele describes, the authors work to "achieve consensus" and include the "full diversity of views that are scientifically valid."

See the full piece on the report here.

US Muslims to GOP: If You're Trying to Lose Our Votes, You're Doing a Good Job

| Fri Dec. 7, 2012 6:03 AM EST

This week, 11 Muslim American civil rights organizations issued a plea to the GOP: stop alienating us.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), along with 10 other groups, took out a full-page ad in the conservative Washington Times on Wednesday, offering "an open invitation to reassess your party's current relationship with American Muslims." Pointing out that while in the past the Muslim community largely voted Republican, the letter argues that "government-sanctioned discrimination against Muslims" and "despicable Islamophobic remarks" have driven away Muslim voters in recent years.

According to James Zogby, the Arab American Institute's (AAI) president, the GOP should have an opening with the Muslim American community because of its conservative values. CAIR National Legislative Director Corey Saylor agrees: "Muslims follow a conservative traditional religion and many of those values are reflected in the Republican party." But the Party hasn't tried very hard to capitalize on this; an August poll from the AAI found that 47 percent of Republicans viewed Muslim Americans unfavorably.

And it hurt them come November. A post-election poll released by CAIR (where I formerly interned) indicated that in a national survey of more than 650 American Muslim voters, 7 percent identified as Republicans, and only 4 percent voted for Romney. By contrast, in 2000, the American Muslim Political Coordination Counsel endorsed the Republican ticket and over 70 percent of Muslims voted for George W. Bush.

83 Seconds Of Cuteness About Our Scary Climate Screwups

| Fri Dec. 7, 2012 6:03 AM EST

Here we are again: around the international negotiating table, this time in Doha, Qatar, taking miniscule steps towards tackling climate change. "Has it always been this way?" I hear you ask. Why, yes. It has. And these invaluable 83 seconds—produced by the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research, Oslo—will help you understand why.

New Test Shows Severe Shortcomings in Nation's Press Corps

| Fri Dec. 7, 2012 2:00 AM EST

I swear, sometimes I just want to cry. Here's a story in the Wall Street Journal today:

Students Fall Flat in Vocabulary Test

U.S. students knew only about half of what they were expected to on a new vocabulary section of a national exam, in the latest evidence of severe shortcomings in the nation's reading education. Eighth-graders scored an average of 265 out of 500 in vocabulary on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the results of which were made public Thursday. Fourth-graders averaged a score of 218 out of 500.

I'm not crying for the students. I'm crying for the reporter, who apparently believes that students "knew only about half of what they were expected to" because they scored in the vicinity of 250 out of 500. And since 250 is half of 500, that must mean students only knew half of what they should.

This is wrong on so many levels I don't even know where to start. First, these are scale scores, not percentages of correct answers. Second, they're normed scores. Third, this is the same way all the NAEP tests are done, and they all produce scores in the same vicinity. The current eighth grade math average is 284. The reading average is 265. The history average is 266. Etc. And since the scores are scaled so that ten points roughly equals a grade level, fourth graders scored a little more than 40 points lower by definition.

In other words, these numbers in isolation don't tell us anything at all about whether the vocabulary skills of our children are weak or strong. It's like saying someone who scored 100 out of 200 on an IQ test must be a moron. Unfortunately, the reporter was flatly ignorant of all this, so she simply hauled out standard hysterical template No. 4 and decided that the test results represented "severe shortcomings in the nation's reading education" even though they show no such thing.

This stuff just never ends. I wish our nation's reporters were required to take an NAEP test of their own every year. I think that's probably the only thing that might motivate them to figure out what these scores actually tell us.

Test results are here, if you want to know more.

4 Ways Obama Might Win the Debt Ceiling Brawl

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 6:01 PM EST

What happens after we get a deal on the fiscal cliff? If Republicans are to be believed, we'll just sail right into a second crisis, this time over raising the debt ceiling. They're insisting that, once again, they'll refuse to raise the ceiling unless President Obama agrees to massive spending cuts.

We'll see. But it's worth pondering what Obama's options are for simply ignoring the debt ceiling and continuing to spend money regardless of whether Republicans agree to raise it. Several theories have been floating around since the first debt ceiling crisis last year. Here they are:

  • The 14th Amendment: Under this theory, the president would simply invoke the 14th Amendment, which says, "The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law […] shall not be questioned." Bill Clinton thinks this would work, but it strikes me as unlikely. Even if the debt ceiling isn't raised, the public debt is still valid and the Treasury can continue to pay it. Lots of other spending would have to be cut, but not debt payments.
  • The platinum coin: There's an obscure statute that authorizes the Treasury to mint platinum coins "in accordance with such specifications, designs, varieties, quantities, denominations, and inscriptions as the Secretary, in the Secretary’s discretion, may prescribe from time to time." Jack Balkin suggests that the secretary of the Treasury could simply mint a $1 trillion platinum coin, deposit it at the Federal Reserve, and then write checks on it. I don't buy this one either. It's just too outré. It's the kind of thing that sounds cute to a blogger tapping away on his laptop, but there's no way an actual president would ever try anything so obviously childish.
  • Priority of legislation: In general, recent legislation overrides older legislation when there's a conflict. The president could argue that the last debt ceiling increase was passed in August 2011, and that any spending legislation passed since then implies Congress' consent to raise the debt ceiling. They knew we were running a deficit when they approved the spending, after all. Obama would just have to make sure to fund mandatory programs first (Social Security, Medicare, etc.), since they were authorized decades ago, and then issue new debt only to fund discretionary spending.
  • You and whose army? This is the most important argument of all. Regardless of the legal justification, the real question is whether a court would interfere. Many people think the filibuster is unconstitutional, for example, but everyone agrees that it doesn't matter because no court will ever touch the subject. It's an internal matter for Congress to decide. This is similar: the debt ceiling is a political argument between two branches of government, not a legal one. Jonathan Zasloff adds a little meat to this argument, suggesting that there's literally no one with proper standing to sue in the first place.

During the last debt ceiling fight, Obama never suggested he'd resort to unilateral action like this. Partly that's because he genuinely wanted to make a "grand bargain" on spending, and the debt ceiling fight was pretty good political cover for that. This time he doesn't, so he might be more likely to try it. However, one interesting question about this is whether he's ever asked the Office of Legal Counsel for an opinion about any of these theories. If he has, and it was negative, that would probably restrain him. If he hasn't, he'd probably need to in order to maintain his credibility on the issue. That's a risk, of course, since there's no telling what OLC's lawyers would come up with. There's a political risk too: Congressional Republicans could go ballistic and become even more obstreperous than they are now. Fun times.

UPDATE: Via Twitter, Brian Beutler reminds me that OLC has given guidance to Obama on the 14th Amendment question. We just don't know what they said. However, given Obama's comments at the time, they probably told him no dice.

UPDATE 2: Several people have pushed back on my dismissal of the platinum coin ploy. I'm not a lawyer, but my sense is that this is so wildly contrary to the intent of the law, which was to allow the Treasury to issue commemorative and bullion coins, that a court probably would intervene if the president tried to pull this off. The other ploys are at at least minimally plausible, but this one is banana republic territory.

UPDATE 3: For what it's worth, I agree that the president's best option is to simply start shutting down chunks of the government if Congress refuses to raise the debt ceiling. Republicans seem to have convinced themselves that the lessons of 1995 no longer apply, but I think they do. This would be a PR disaster for them. They'd cave before long.

The thing they don't understand is that Obama wasn't playing hardball in 2011. He actually wanted a deal, and they were nuts not to take him up on it. This time he doesn't, and he has the power and the credibility to make sure that Republicans take the blame when national parks get closed and passports stop getting issued.

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Is Your Baby Sleeping in Carcinogens?

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 5:07 PM EST

UPDATE: Walmart announced Thursday evening that it will remove unlabeled items from its California stores.

The Oakland-based Center for Environmental Health announced on Thursday that it is taking legal action against a group of retailers selling products—many of them designed for infants and toddlers—that are made with a carcinogen. That includes changing pads, crib mattress pads, nap mats, and baby seats.

The chemical TDCPP, also known as chlorinated Tris, was removed from clothing for babies back in the 1970s. But it can still be found in a number of products that contain flame retardant-laced foam. Since October, California has included the chemical on its list of carcinogens and required products that carry it to bear a warning label. (California is generally the most aggressive in forcing companies to remove or at least label harmful chemicals, and since manufacturers only tend to make one model of their product, the California labels usually appear everywhere in the US.)

But despite the fact that there have been concerns about this chemical for 40 years, it's still showing up in products at major retailers in California. CEH had products purchased at Target, Babies R Us, Walmart, and Kmart tested, and found the chemical in many products that weren't labeled as containing it. 

The CEH study found the chemical in products like the Sweet Beginnings Bassinet Pad, Dexbaby Safety Changing Pad, Peerless Plastics KinderMat, Baby Delight Snuggle Nest Portable Infact Sleeper, and the Nap Nanny Portable Infant Recliner (which the Consumer Product Safety Commission has already filed a complaint against, after five infants died while using the product), among others.

CEH has issued legal notices to the companies selling these products, asking them to recall products sold since the new labeling rule was put in place at the end of October, and to either remove the chemical from new products or label them appropriately if they include the chemical. If the legal notice is not addressed in 60 days, the group has signaled it will move ahead with a lawsuit.

A spokeswoman for Target told the San Francisco Chronicle that the company "is committed to abiding by state and federal laws and regulations, and we expect our vendors to do the same."

Hillary Clinton Is Not the Favorite for 2016

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 4:42 PM EST

I don't want to go all Andy Rooneyish on y'all, but can everyone please stop with the nonsense about Hillary Clinton being the heavy favorite for the 2016 Democratic nomination? She's not. She's just the best known Democrat at this moment in time. There's a world of difference. 

The Real War on Christmas: Climate Change

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 4:08 PM EST

Every year we hear about some new front in the "War on Christmas" that liberals are supposedly waging against this most important of all Christian holidays. But an actual war on Christmas is coming—and it's spurred by climate change. It's a liberal conspiracy!

The summer drought caused many Christmas holiday tree seedlings in Tennessee to die this year, The Tennessean reports:

Record heat and abnormally dry conditions conspired to cause significant losses, especially among seedlings and saplings, local growers say. That could result in higher prices in the future, when those trees would have been hitting the market.
"The drought sure made it rough this year," said Wayne Pressler, owner of Kirkwood Tree Farm in Clarksville, who estimated he lost about half of his roughly 400 trees.
Other growers reported losing up to 80 percent of trees that were planted in the past year, and as much as 20 percent of older trees, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture said.

The Department of Agriculture notes that this won't really affect the trees people are buying this Christmas, since it takes trees six to seven years to get to an average height for holiday festivity status. But it will likely have an impact in a few years, when we're all fighting over a few statuesque firs or stuffing presents under some puny Charlie Brown pine.

Stephen Colbert to America: I'm "Honored" and Ready to Serve in the US Senate

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 3:41 PM EST

Stephen Colbert has his opening. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), the tea party icon, announced Thursday that he will retire from the US Senate in January, leaving Republican Gov. Nikki Haley the task of handpicking DeMint's immediate successor. A Colbert for Senate Twitter account, @ColbertforSC, sprung up almost immediately, and fans have called for Colbert, the author of such classics as I Am America (And So Can You!) and America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren't, to replace DeMint in the hallowed halls of Congress.

Brace yourselves, Colbert Report fans: Colbert, who has made no secret of his desire to hold higher office, says through his publicist that he's ready and willing to step up for his home state. "Stephen is honored by the groundswell of support from the Palmetto State and looks forward to Governor Haley's call," his personal publicist, Carrie Byalick, writes in an email to Mother Jones.

Colbert first tried to run for president in 2007, and then again in 2012, when he boisterously announced his candidacy for the "United States of South Carolina." In between those failed campaigns, Colbert started his own super-PAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and his own dark-money nonprofit, Colbert Super-PAC SHH!. In all seriousness, his money-in-politics skits lampooned the ragged state of campaign finance regulation better than anyone. He bagged a Peabody award for his skewering of the state of political money today.