Newt Saddles Up with Cantor

I recently pegged Newt Gingrich as the lead ideas-man in the GOP. And on Tuesday, House minority whip leader Eric Cantor announced that Gingrich was joining his National Council for a New America. Cantor set up the NCNA so congressional Republicans can "listen" to the American people, cook up fresh notions for the GOP, and repair the image of the Republican Party. As Cantor put it, "The NCNA will be a dynamic, forward-looking organization that will amplify the common-sense and wisdom of our fellow citizens through a grassroots dialogue with Republican leaders."

But on the same day as Gingrich saddled up with Cantor, Michael Steele, the GOP chairman, said it was time for the GOP to turn the page and look ahead. But isn't Gingrich another one of those GOPers of the past? The former House speaker does spew a lot of ideas. As his onetime aide Rich Galen told me, Gingrich can come up with 15 ideas a day, realizing that only one is any good and that "over the course of a month, maybe one of them is actionable and you can build a project on it. The biggest sin in Newt-world is the sin of inaction."

So perhaps Gingrich can indeed assist Cantor with his "listening" project. But he sure doesn't help Cantor when it comes to putting a fresh face on an old and discredited party.

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Card Check

Tom Hamburger writes today about the dim prospects for the Employee Free Choice Act:

The legislation has produced one of the biggest surprises in Washington since Democrats swept the White House and Congress: The nation's labor unions, which organized so effectively last year to help elect President Obama, have been outmaneuvered so far on their top priority by their opponents in the business community.

....Business groups [...] started work well before the election and did not stop. They feared that card check would lead to new unions and higher labor costs. Opponents included retailers, such as Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart, as well as restaurant chains, construction firms and hotels.

More than 500 business and conservative organizations had formed the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace to coordinate an array of trade associations and other groups fighting card check....Half a dozen other groups backed by corporate, GOP or conservative ideological interests have also joined the fray.

Before labor groups had fully engaged this winter, the allied business groups successfully cast the legislation as undemocratic: How could Congress oppose secret-ballot elections?

Here's what I want to know: is this really a big surprise?  Here's what I wrote just a few days after the election last year:

The prospect of unionization rouses panic among Main Street conservatives more than any other single issue — more than taxes, more than deregulation — and whether James Dobson likes it or not, the GOP is a business party first and a social conservative party second.

[From another post]: On a related note, here's a prediction: Obama will need a few votes from Senate Republicans to pass his legislative program. I'll bet he'll get it on global warming controls, healthcare reform, economic stimulus, and financial regulation. But on EFCA, he'll have trouble getting even a single Republican vote. That will be considered the make-or-break vote from the business community. Just wait and see.

Not only would I not consider that an insightful observation, I'd say it's downright banal.  It was never impossible that card check might pass, but it was always the case that it was going to produce more energy, more solidarity, and more pressure on both Republicans and moderate Dems than any other legislation.  Anyone who didn't understand this on November 5th really has no business pretending they know anything about American politics.

Heard About Any Great Student Activism Lately?

The prospect of giant classes and fewer teachers has LA highschoolers up in arms—so in protest of proposed school budget cuts and teacher layoffs, hundreds of them have been skipping out on class. The most recent protest took place yesterday outside the Santee Education Complex near downtown LA.

California isn't the only state battling an education budget crisis—Washington, Minnesota, and Ohio are all planning to lay off teachers as well.

How are students across the country reacting to the cuts? We want to know—and in fact, MoJo, Campus Progress, and WireTap would like to hear about all feats of student activism (the more creatieve the better) from the past school year in time for the Hellraisers, our first annual student activism awards.

Here's how it works: You tell us about your favorite activism antics. Selected nominees will be featured in the September/October 2009 issue of Mother Jones.

Anyone can nominate any current student activists (and we're not just talking college here! High schoolers, grad students, kindergartners—all okay).

Nominating is quick and easy. Do it here.

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit

David Brooks glosses a recent study by three researchers about what traits make a good CEO:

They found that strong people skills correlate loosely or not at all with being a good C.E.O. Traits like being a good listener, a good team builder, an enthusiastic colleague, a great communicator do not seem to be very important when it comes to leading successful companies.

What mattered, it turned out, were execution and organizational skills. The traits that correlated most powerfully with success were attention to detail, persistence, efficiency, analytic thoroughness and the ability to work long hours.

In other words, warm, flexible, team-oriented and empathetic people are less likely to thrive as C.E.O.’s. Organized, dogged, anal-retentive and slightly boring people are more likely to thrive.

Oh yeah?  Then how come I'm not a CEO?  I have lousy people skills and I excel at attention to detail, persistence, efficiency, analytic thoroughness and the ability to work long hours. I'd be perfect.

Ah, well, I had my chance and turned it down.  I'm more the executive officer type.  For what it's worth, though, I think the three researchers are right.  Obviously CEOs vary considerably in their people skills, and being charismatic and sociable doesn't hurt.  But figuring out what needs to be done and then having the persistence to keep hounding everyone to do it is the real key, and it's harder than it sounds.  Vision may be important, but execution is essential.

POSTSCRIPT: But what rock did Brooks' closing paragraph come out from under?  CEOs.... people skills....persistence....yada yada yada....BANG!  America is about to go to hell because Washington is forcing CEOs to become more charismatic.  Or something.  WTF?

A Roadmap for Canada's Tar Sands

With the price of oil in the bucket, environentalists have been acting as if Canada's speculative tar sands boom is all but dead. They shouldn't. A report released today by the energy consultancy IHS CERA predicts a nearly 80 percent increase in tar sands production by 2035, and that's assuming strong environmental regulation, weak growth, and low oil prices. Should things work out better for Big Oil, the tar sands will pump out five times the crude they do now and account for a staggering 37 percent of U.S. oil imports.

CERA suggests that this might not be such a bad thing. In an analysis of 11 previous studies, it found that "well-to-wheels" greenhouse gas production from the tar sands is only 5 to 15 percent higher than the average crude oil processed in the United States. Last year, I reported that a team of UC Berkeley researchers had calculated a 30 percent well-to-wheels difference. Either figure is significant when multiplied a potential tar sands output of 6.3 million barrels per day.

Factor in devastation to Canada's boreal forests, streams, and native communities, and the swap of climate security for energy security seems even more faustian. Once we exhaust the tar sands, we'll move on to liquefied coal, which emits 80 percent more greenhouse gasses than regular oil, and then oil shale, which spews twice as much. When will it all end? And more important, what will the weather look like?

Obama and Abortion

Ramesh Ponnuru provides his take on Obama's graduation speech on Sunday in South Bend:

President Obama's speech at Notre Dame yesterday is another sign that pro-lifers are slowly winning the political battles over abortion. It was not the speech of a man who is confident that his position is right and popular....He didn't try to make the case for his views on abortion and related issues. He just plead for mutual understanding, civility, and the search for common ground.

....Pro-lifers often get annoyed when they see politicians with hard-line records in favor of legal and subsidized abortion talk, as Obama did, about how much he wants to reduce abortion. But that type of rhetoric, however little follow-through it generates, is itself a concession to the moral and political force of the pro-life case. The more politicians who favor unrestricted, subsidized abortion talk about what a tragedy it is, the more they undermine their own premises. If it's such a terrible thing, why fund it? Why not allow states to try different methods of discouraging it, including restrictions?

On one point, I think Ponnuru is right: some liberal politicians do have a habit of overdoing the "tragic, heartbreaking decision" rhetoric.  To the extent that this is a reflection of reality for the way some women feel, it's fine.  But it also shapes reality, and when it gets repeated too often it suggests that abortion should be a tragic, heartbreaking decision.  As Ponnuru says, that's inevitably a concession to the pro-life worldview.

The rest of his argument is flimsier, though.  Did Obama fail to make a positive case for reproductive rights?  Sure, but that's not a sign of weakness, just a sign of common sense and basic civility.  He was at Notre Dame, after all.  He wouldn't deliver a stemwinder about abortion rights on the steps of the Vatican either.

As for Obama's rhetoric about wanting to reduce abortion, that's been practically the party line in Democratic politics at least since Bill Clinton codified it as "safe, legal, and rare."  Dems have been talking that way for years and years now, and regardless of what you think about it, there's little evidence that it's a defensive reaction to long-term change in public opinion on abortion.  That's because there hasn't been any noticeable long-term change in public opinion on abortion.  Rather, it's a standard piece of political positioning designed to appeal to one group while not inflaming too many others.  There's really nothing very unusual about this.

Obama obviously feels that he (and the Democratic Party) can benefit by turning down the volume on the culture wars and marginalizing the extremist wing of the conservative movement.  Time will tell if he can do it.  But that's an aggressive pitch to broaden the Democratic tent, not a defensive crouch.

Obama, Netanyahu, and Israel's Bomb

The daily White House press briefing on Monday was dominated by questions about President Obama's meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Did Obama squeeze any concessions out of Bibi on settlements and a two-state solution? Who got more out of the encounter? Is there any reason for Obama to be hopeful about the Middle East other than that he's a hopeful guy? Was it significant that Obama talked tough about Iran after the session?

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, per his job description, said nothing in response to any of this that could be deemed newsworthy. He offered no details about the talks, other than to say they were "warm" and "constructive." He did say that the one-on-one portion of the meeting ran about half an hour longer than had been scheduled.

But here's one question Gibbs didn't have to field: Given President Obama's stated commitment to nuclear nonproliferation, did he talk to the Israeli prime minister about Israel's nuclear arsenal and about its refusal to join the Nonproliferation Treaty? Does Obama believe this is an important matter that warrants his direct involvement?

That topic just didn't come up in the press room. I was there, but. alas, Gibbs didn't call on me. And the Israeli bomb seemed to be on nobody else's mind.

New Evolution: 100 Proofs

Genes have long been considered the only way biological traits are passed down through generations of organisms. Now we know that non-genetic variations acquired during the lifespan of a plant or animal can be passed along to its offspring.

The phenomenon is known as epigenetic inheritance. We don't yet know how prolific this mechanism is. But a new study in The Quarterly Review of Biology lists more than 100 well-documented cases of epigenetic inheritance between generations of organisms.

In other words, non-DNA inheritance happens a lot more than we thought. For example:

  • Fruit flies exposed to certain chemicals transmit changes—bristly outgrowths on their eyes—down at least 13 generations.
  • Exposing a pregnant rat to a chemical that alters reproductive hormones leads to generations of sick offspring.


In these and 97 other cases the changes in subsequent generations were not from changes in DNA but from epigenetics.

There are four known mechanisms for epigenetic inheritance. The best known involves on-off switches (sort of) that render genes active or inactive—without actually changing the DNA. The revelations of epigenetics are rewriting the study of evolution. And no, epigentics does not make creationism right.

The rewrite is a vindication of sorts for 18th-century naturalist Jean Baptiste Lamarck, whose writings predated Charles Darwin's and who believed that evolution was driven in part by the inheritance of acquired traits.

His wonkiest supposition: Giraffe ancestors reached with their necks to munch leaves high in trees, stretching their necks to become slightly longer—a trait passed on to descendants.
 

More accurate: All the stuff we're synthesizing and creating from plastics to nanomaterials is going to live in our bodies and take its toll down the generations for a long, long time.

In this quickie video, Media Matters for America asks whether Nancy Pelosi's attackers would be talking this way about a man. They've got a point.

The SAT's (Not-for-Profit) Revenue Machine

The Big Money's Chadwick Matlin has a great look in to the not-for-profit, yet very flush, world of the College Board, the group that administers the SAT. Read the entire thing if you have the time, but here's the money quote in case you don't:

To keep its nonprofit status, an organization must pass an IRS review every five years, which means it needs to execute its charitable mission appropriately. The College Board's charitable mission was summed up by its president in 2006: "to connect students to access and opportunity, to prepare more and more students to be ready to go to college and succeed." The quote's logic is circular. In order "to go to college and succeed," you have to get into college. And to do that, you have to prepare for and take the SAT. Certainly, the College Board can help you do that. But if the College Board didn't exist, there would be no need for it to happen in the first place.

Emphasis mine. I wouldn't say the College Board doesn't have an economic monopoly over the college testing business (service?), though they have something close to it considering they only have one major competitor in ACT, Inc., which administers the ACT.

What the College Board does have is something I'd call a psycho-cultural monopoly on college testing: The SAT has become synonymous with getting in to college, even though dozens, maybe hundreds, of schools, including my alma mater, don't require it for admission. But I took it anyway, along with millions of other students, probably because so many of us have come to think of it as a prerequisite for college. I actually took the SAT twice, which is very common, except that the first time I took the test I was in middle school. Our school district administered the SAT to a few dozen students in gifted programs. I still can't remember why they did it, but I remember it made me and my friends—many of whom did not take the test then—associate taking the SAT with an achievement rather than an afternoon of basic trigonometry and speed reading.

I can remember a thought similar to the one I emphasized above crossing my mind when I began applying to law schools last winter. Every ABA-approved law school requires the LSAT ($132), which is administered by the not-for-profit Law School Admissions Council. I don't think it's ridiculous for prospective law students to take an admissions test, but what I did find ridiculous were the other fees LSAC charged for their other services: $117 for the Law School Data Assembly Service (something else required by virtually every law school), which collected my transcripts, letters of recommendation, and other academic information in to a candidate report. Then, every time I applied to a law school, LSAC charged me $12 to send that report to the law school to which I applied.

I'll concede charging someone for a service like assembling an applicants' credentials is not outrageous per se; it's the amount of the fee. I doubt it even cost LSAC $2 to fax or email my report to each law school. But, thanks to the nature of a monopoly, I had no other choice but to pay the fee.