Blogs

Obama Plans to Close Guantanamo Whether Congress Likes It Or Not

| Thu Oct. 9, 2014 8:26 PM EDT

From the Wall Street Journal:

The White House is drafting options that would allow President Barack Obama to close the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by overriding a congressional ban on bringing detainees to the U.S., senior administration officials said.

Such a move would be the latest and potentially most dramatic use of executive power by the president in his second term. It would likely provoke a sharp reaction from lawmakers, who have repeatedly barred the transfer of detainees to the U.S.

Ya think? I'd say that "sharp" might be an all-time understatement. And where would all the prisoners go?

Officials, who declined to say where detainees might be housed if taken to the mainland, said the U.S. has ample space in its prisons for several dozen high-security prisoners. The administration has reviewed several facilities that could house the remaining detainees, with the military brig at Charleston, S.C., considered the most likely.

Take that, Lindsey Graham!

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Sen. Inhofe Blocks Funds for Ebola Intervention

| Thu Oct. 9, 2014 8:17 PM EDT

Update: On Friday, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in a statement that "after careful consideration," he would be lifting his hold on $750 million in emergency Ebola funds.

House legislators have approved the transfer of $750 million toward the fight to contain Ebola, which continues to rapidly spread across West Africa. The figure is still below the $1 billion request from the Department of Defense—and the budget battle is not over. It is currently holed up in the Senate dependent on Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to give his approval.

After Sen. Inhofe and Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee initially raised concerns, a limit of $50 million was put on the transfer until the DoD provided details on how the money would be spent to address the crisis. Now, with plans to deploy 4,000 troops to the region, $750 million to fund a six-month mission has been approved by both the House Armed Services Committee and the Appropriations subcommittee. According to The Hill, however, a spokesperson from Inhofe's office confirmed the Senator would not change his mind even in light of approval from other committees because the expense "would add demands on a defense budget already stretched thin." The money would come from an account currently funding the war in Afghanistan.

There has already been one fatality from the virus in the US, heightening concerns that more could follow, and health officials are saying the epidemic in Africa is spiraling out of control. Last week a top US health official said the Ebola epidemic could have been contained and suggested sequester budget cuts disabled early response efforts. This week ranking members of the Congressional Subcommittee that oversees the budgets for the National Institutes of Health and The Centers for Control Disease and Prevention called for a hearing into the matter.

A statement from Appropriations subcommittee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J) confirms that Congress understands the urgency required:

“The world is facing a severe global health crisis emanating from West Africa. The United States is stepping up to lead the international response to the Ebola outbreak and Congress will ensure that the President’s request is fully and quickly funded," Appropriations subcommittee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) said in a statement.

Committemembers are hoping to convince Inhofe to change his mind:

"We understand that the administration has provided information to answer some questions that Sen. Inhofe had, and that they are hoping he will sign off soon so that they can go forward," said a member of the Senate Armed Service Committee staff.

Did Obama Just Signal That the FCC Will Preserve Net Neutrality?

| Thu Oct. 9, 2014 7:54 PM EDT
Obama speaks at Cross Campus in Santa Monica, California.

Did President Obama just signal that the Federal Communication Commission will preserve net neutrality? Speaking this afternoon at Cross Campus, a tech incubator in Santa Monica's Silicon Beach, he had this to say (emphasis mine) about the FCC's proposed changes to net neutrality rules:

I made a commitment very early on that I am unequivocally committed to net neutrality. I think that it is what has unleashed the power of the internet and we don't want to lose that or clog up the pipes...I know one of the things that people are most concerned about is paid prioritization, the notion that some folks can pay a little more money and get better service, more exclusive access to customers though the internet. That's something I am opposed to. I was opposed to it when I ran, I continue to be opposed to it now. Now, the FCC is an independent agency. They came out with some preliminary rules that I think the netroots and a lot of the folks in favor of net neutrality were concerned with. My appointee [to the FCC], Tom Wheeler, knows my position. I can't...call him up and tell him exactly what to do. But what I've been clear about, what the White House has been clear about, is that we expect whatever final rules to emerge to make sure that we're not creating two or three or four tiers of internet. That ends up being a big priority of mine.

Expecting the preservation of net neutrality is not the same as guaranteeing it. But this is the strongest indication yet that Obama won't allow the FCC to push through its deeply unpopular plan to limit open access to the internet.

How Monsanto Crashed SXSW—and Brought the Drama to My Panel [UPDATED]

| Thu Oct. 9, 2014 6:36 PM EDT

UPDATE: In an emailed statement, SXSW Eco director Scott Wilcox wrote that Monsanto had openly submitted, via Panel Picker, another panel, "Bees: What the Buzz is All About," which the organizers accepted "because we thought it had merit." Monsanto's sponsorship was not noted in the program, but the session did include a panelist, Jerry Hayes, who is identified as a Monsanto employee. As for the "Farming to Feed 9 Billion" panel, the organizers "were as surprised as our attendees when the moderator/organizer ... announced at the beginning of the session that Monsanto had paid all the participants' travel expenses to speak on the panel." He added: "Ultimately, it is lack of transparency on the part of Monsanto and the panel's moderator that is the biggest issue for our team. It is essential to our conference that the origins of the viewpoints that will be presented are fully disclosed to maintain the trust that is so valued within our SXSW Eco community."

Let's face it: While panels at conferences can be fun, interesting, even provocative, rarely do they provide drama, intrigue, or surprise. On Wednesday at South by Southwest Eco in Austin, my colleague Kiera Butler and I sat on a panel that counts as a genuine exception. And it had nothing to do with our own oratorical skills or those of our excellent co-panelists, author and agriculture researcher Raj Patel and Texas A&M cotton breeder Jane Dever.

So here's what happened: Our session, titled, "GMOs Real Talk: The Hype, the Hope, the Science," proceeded as you might expect. I thought we had a pretty robust discussion of the potential and pitfalls of biotechnology in contributing to global food security going forward. Then, at the very end of the hour, during the Q&A session, a SXSW Eco staffer took the mic and dropped a bombshell: She alleged that the GMO seed/pesticide giant Monsanto had sponsored several earlier panels—paying the travel expenses of  the participants—without disclosing it to the organizers.

Monsanto had sponsored several panels—paying the travel expenses of  the participants—without disclosing it to the organizers, alleged a conference staffer.

The standing-room-only crowd—which had greeted our biotech-skeptical discussion warmly—erupted in guffaws and gasps. Soon after, Monsanto online-engagement specialist Janice Person bravely took the mic. The room took on the electric charge of a public confrontation in the mythical Old West: the accused party straining to calm a pitchfork-bearing mob. She assured the highly skeptical room that the company had no intention to mislead the organizers and just wanted to participate in the discussion. And thus our panel ended, in glorious chaos. "Once again, Monsanto gets the last word," Patel quipped. As far as I know, no Monsanto employees were physically harmed in the process. Later, Person expanded her thoughts into this blog post and told me via email that "we regret if there was a misunderstanding," and "it was certainly not something we tried to hide."

But I, too, was surprised. While we were preparing our SXSW Eco panel, we had a participant drop out late in the process. I wanted to find a replacement who would cogently defend the industry—I like to be on panels with the frisson of controversy, the energy of open debate. If I had known the Eco conference would be chockfull of Monsanto people, I would have tried to snag one to join us on stage. But when I glanced over the program, the "Farming to Feed 9 Billion" certainly didn't catch my eye. Moderated by Tim McDonald, former director of community at Huffington Post, it featured three farmers, none of whom listed any Monsanto affiliation.

In a later email, McDonald described for me how the panel came to be: "A friend of mine...who works for Monsanto asked me if I would be interested" in pitching an SXSW Eco panel, he wrote. "I told her if they would cover my travel and work on getting the panelists, I would be happy to organize and moderate the panel."

As it happens, I attended that panel, which took place Monday. At the start, the moderator, McDonald, announced that Monsanto had paid for his and the other panelists travel expenses, but promised an open dialogue all the same. I somehow missed his saying that, but I did note on Twitter that several Monsanto-affiliated folks were enthusiastically live-tweeting the discussion, which I frankly found rather vague and diffuse. Apparently, McDonald's disclosure from the stage was the first indication of Monsanto's involvement that the conference's organizers got. And judging from the SXSW Eco staffer's announcement at our panel, they were none too pleased with the lack of transparency. (I've reached out to SXSW Eco for comment; I'll update when I hear back.)

In the end, Monsanto's SXSW Eco kerfuffle takes its place in the annals of awkward corporate PR maneuvers, alongside the company's ill-starred attempt to pay experts to participate in an "an exciting video series" on the "topics of food, food chains and sustainability" as part of sponsored content for the publisher Condé Nast.

Walmart Is the Biggest Corporate Solar User. Why Are Its Owners Funding Groups That Oppose Solar?

| Thu Oct. 9, 2014 5:57 PM EDT
Solar panels adorn the roof of a Walmart store in Arizona.

Walmart loves solar power—as long as it's on their roof, and not yours.

That's the takeaway from a report released today by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which found that between 2010 and 2013 the Walton Family Foundation has donated just under $4.5 million to groups like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, which have worked to impede state-level policies that promote clean energy.

The list of groups that have received funding from the Walton Foundation reads like a who's who of "the groups who are leading the charge against rooftop solar," said Stacy Mitchell, who authored the report. Rob Walton, who sits on the Foundation board, is also the chair of Walmart's board; his family are majority shareholders of Walmart and some of the richest people in America.

The funny thing is that Walmart, the world's biggest company, is also the world's biggest commercial solar user. Indeed, solar power is a key aspect of its much-touted green makeover. According to data released last year from the Solar Energy Industries Association, Walmart has 89 megawatts of installed solar capacity on its retail rooftops. That's twice the capacity of second-ranked Costco and more than the total capacity of 37 individual states. Of course, those figures are less impressive when looked at in a light that better reflects the company's mind-boggling size: Less than 3 percent of the company's total power comes from renewables—including solar, wind, and biogas—according to EPA data.

Here's the list of groups receiving funding from the Walton Foundation that have taken positions against state-level clean energy policies, according to the report:

walton chart
Courtesy Institute for Local Self-Reliance

The dollar figures in the chart above come from the Walton Family Foundation's last four annual reports. All the groups listed, Mitchell said, have opposed state-level clean energy policies like renewable portfolio standards or net-metering, both of which are key tools in helping more households go solar.

Clearly the groups listed here are involved in a host of conservative and free-market issues beyond energy, so there's no direct evidence that the Waltons' foundation donated to these groups because of their opposition to policies promoting renewables. Indeed, a foundation spokesperson said that the report is misleading because it ignores the foundation's donations to environmental groups and instead "chooses to focus on a handful of grants none of which were designated for renewable energy-related issues."

But backing groups like this has a direct impact on the growth of clean energy, Mitchell said.

The upshot, she said, is "not that their vision of the future doesn't include some solar power. It's just solar power they own and control."

Walmart declined to comment on the report.

Radio Station Lays Off All 47 of Its Journalists, Will Play Beyoncé All Day Everyday Instead

| Thu Oct. 9, 2014 5:35 PM EDT

Houston's one and only 24-hour news station is closing up shop and replacing all its journalists with the perfect homage to the very best thing Houston has ever produced, yes, Beyonce.

We’d like to thank the News92 staff for their outstanding service, our advertisers and each of you our listeners and web visitors for your support. This difficult decision is a result of sustained poor ratings performance and significant financial losses over the past three years despite the substantial financial and human resources we invested. Unfortunately, the market hasn’t shown a sustainable appetite for news radio, but each of you motivated us daily to produce a high-quality news program. Together, we made history.

Yes! History has been made. The world is truly a better place with the addition of an all encompassing destination dedicated to unrelenting Beyonce consumption. To say otherwise would be blasphemous, annoyingly contrarian.

But also considering 47 people just lost their jobs, this is sad news. It's even more pathetic for radio and journalism as a whole! But when the same day also presents to you a Chevron-funded newspaper in the same town where a Chevron refinery sparked a massive fire, we'll take all day, everyday Beyonce any day.

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This Is What the Most Powerful Storm of the Year Looks Like From Space

| Thu Oct. 9, 2014 5:13 PM EDT

Super Typhoon Vongfang is mercifully expected to weaken before making landfall in Japan Monday, but at its peak it has reached wind speeds up to 180 mph, making it the most powerful storm of 2014 (so far).

Thursday morning, NASA astronaut Reid Weissman showed the world just what that type of storm looks like from, well, above the world.

(via Wired)

Millennials Love Hillary Clinton Now

| Thu Oct. 9, 2014 3:56 PM EDT

The young'uns just love Hillary Clinton these days. A new poll from television network Fusion found that, should Clinton run for president, she's already got the support of 58 percent of 18-24 year-old Democrats. Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren trail far behind, garnering 13 and 9 percent, respectively.

If Hillary makes it to the general election, 50 percent of 18-24 year-olds say they would support her. Just 33 percent would back a hypothetical Republican nominee. White millennials split 41-41 percent on backing Hillary in a 2016 general election, but she crushes that hypothetical Republican among minority voters: 72 percent among black voters and 63 percent from Hispanics prefer the former secretary of state.

Clinton struggled with college-aged and other young voters when she last ran for president in 2008. But as I explained in April, Ready for Hillary, the super PAC paving the way for her eventual run, has been busy this year recruiting volunteers on college campuses across the country to beef up the Clinton machine and avoid the mistakes she made last time:

The group brought in former Obama campaign youth vote coordinator Rachel Schneider to oversee outreach to voters ages 16 to 30, with a particular focus on those still in school. Schneider has spent the last few months traveling around the country to set up satellite organizations on college campuses with the goal of attracting all of the best student organizers to Clinton's side before any other Democrat launches a presidential campaign.

...

"I've been focused on identifying students on campuses who are interested in being part of this movement from the ground floor," Schneider says. For Democratic-leaning students interested in a career in politics it's a no-brainer: leading a Students for Hillary group will position them as prime contenders for low-level jobs in Clinton's actual campaign.

Ready for Hillary has continued to ramp up its college efforts since the spring, sending the Hillary Bus crisscrossing the country. Over the course of three weeks in late August and early September, the group sent the bus of staffers to about a dozen schools in the south and west, including Clemson, South Carolina State, Claflin University, the University of Arkansas, UNLV, and the University of Colorado–Boulder, to setup pro-Clinton campus groups.

The Alternate Ending to "Titanic" Proves Once and for All That Rose Is a Monster

| Thu Oct. 9, 2014 1:52 PM EDT

Titanic is a deeply flawed film. The dialogue is atrocious. The characterizations are thin. The plot ain't anything we haven't seen before. Even the visuals—once heralded as revolutionary—look sort of pedestrian now. (Of course, that's the trouble with being revolutionary. You look like everybody else that comes after you.) Still, I love it. It's a jaunt. It's a ride. It's a song and a grand, immense emotional experience. It's what Hollywood does best, really.

But for me, the most unforgivable bit of Titanic has always been the end. Refresher: We're back in the framing device with the old lady and her granddaughter aboard Bill Paxton's ship. It is revealed that the old lady has had the jewel the entire time and has really only come aboard the treasure hunting ship so that she can throw it off the bow and lay it to rest down with Jack. This is stupid. That jewel is worth a fortune! Throwing it into the ocean is like setting money on fire. Even if you don't want to live in luxury because of some Titanic-related guilt, you should still sell the jewel and give the proceeds to some worthy cause: charity! Your children's education! Whatever! Throwing the jewel in the water is an act of selfish self-aggrandizement that puts old lady Rose firmly in the inconsiderate jerk camp. (Youthful Rose has long been a resident.) Homeless people are going hungry because Rose wanted some meaningless moment with the sea.

So, I was eager to watch the newly unearthed "alternate ending." (It was apparently an extra on a 2005 DVD release of the film but millennials don't watch DVDs and the internet only now became aware of its existence.) Does she sell the diamond and go to Beverly Hills and have a Pretty Women moment? Maybe she funds some orphanage for Dickensian youth? Maybe she created a scholarship fund in Leonardo DiCaprio's name and blah blah blah. She does none of those things. Instead, this ending actually makes it worse.

No longer is Rose solely responsible for this little act of wealth destruction, but she makes complicit Bill Paxton, a treasure hunter. Bill Paxton, who has convinced investors to fund his expedition to find this stupid diamond. Bill Paxton, who lives in the world as it exists and not some Technicolor fantasy. In the new ending, Paxton has the chance to stop her from throwing the thing overboard. She puts it in his hand. He holds it. He becomes ensorcelled by the romance and lets her toss it off the boat and into the sea while one of his shocked minions runs around like an extra with his head cut off.

Where does Bill Paxton go from here? After the stone sinks to the ocean floor, he looks to Rose's granddaughter and hints that maybe they should date, but he's going to have a rough go of it finding time to wine and dine her once his backers learn about what he's done and hit him with a bill for many millions of dollars. Titanic 2 is a courtroom drama set around Bill Paxton's bankruptcy hearing. Bill Paxton's life is now ruined. Let's go further. Rose's granddaughter's life is also ruined. Her granddaughter and Bill seemed to really be hitting it off at the end and one of the rules of Hollywood movies is that if two people are flirting and hitting it off at the end of a film then the audience can assume that they immediately get married after the credits roll and are happy for the rest of time and laugh together and eat brunch together and sip champagne and feed each other strawberries together and die within minutes of each other decades later in one another's arms because a life without the other isn't a life worth living. That future—that destiny, the right of every romance film character—is not in the cards for Rose's granddaughter if Bill throws that jewel into the sea. Rose sacrifices her granddaughter's future bliss for some stupid romantic nonsense.

Rose is a monster.

Chart of the Day: Kansas Successfully Reduces Voting Rate of Blacks, Young People

| Thu Oct. 9, 2014 12:55 PM EDT

Hey, guess what? If you pass a photo ID law, you reduce voter turnout. The nonpartisan GAO studied the effect of photo ID laws and, after applying all the usual demographic controls, came up with this chart for Kansas and Tennessee compared to similar states without photo ID laws:

Voter turnout was reduced by 2-3 percentage points in both states. But of course there's more to the story. Some groups were more strongly affected than others. Here are the results for Kansas:

Age. In Kansas, the turnout effect among registrants who were 18 years old in 2008 was 7.1 percentage points larger in size than the turnout effect among registrants between the ages of 44 and 53.

....Race or ethnicity. We estimate that turnout was reduced among African-American registrants by 3.7 percentage points more than among Whites in Kansas.

....Length of registration. In Kansas, the reduction in turnout for people registered to vote within 1 year prior to Election Day 2008 was 5.2 percentage points larger in size than for people registered to vote for 20 years or longer prior to Election Day 2008.

Victory! Turnout plummeted among blacks, young people, and college students. What more could an enterprising Republican legislature want?

Oh, and, um, maybe voter fraud was reduced. The Kansas Secretary of State responded to a draft of the GAO report by explaining that "if lower overall turnout occurs after implementation of a photo ID law, some of the decrease may be attributable to the prevention of fraudulent votes." You betcha.