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Today's Winner in Washington: The Filibuster

| Tue Nov. 18, 2014 8:24 PM EST

Today, Democrats blocked action to approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. A few minutes later, Republicans blocked a bill to regulate the bulk collection of phone records by the NSA.

Both bills had majority support. Both failed thanks to filibusters. It's good to see that life is back to normal in Washington DC.

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Today's Math You Can Use: Marijuana + Big Corporations = A Lot More Marijuana

| Tue Nov. 18, 2014 4:51 PM EST

Here's a good example of how cavalier snark can get the better of you. This is Kevin Williamson writing at National Review:

From the annals of issues that only intellectuals are capable of misunderstanding: Mark A. R. Kleiman, a professor of public policy at UCLA, is worried that the drug trade might end up being dominated by people who care about making money. My experience with drug dealers suggests very strongly that they are a profit-seeking, entrepreneurial lot as it is.

Har har. Mark is a friend of mine, so I guess I'd be expected to defend him, but I'm pretty sure he didn't mean his short piece about the commercialization of pot to be an attack on the free market. Quite the contrary. In fact, he has a powerful appreciation of the efficiency of the market, and knows very well that drug gangs are actually pitifully incompetent at the basics of modern distribution and logistics. Put them in competition with Philip Morris or RJ Reynolds and they'd go out of business in a few months. At the same time, with a truly modern, efficient multinational corporation at the helm, sales and consumption of marijuana would most likely skyrocket.

Remember what happened to all those mom-and-pop stores when Walmart came into town? It would be about like that.

I don't even know that I agree with Mark about trying to keep pot away from the commercial sector. My guess is that it's not really workable. Still, his argument is simple: The free market is powerful. Big corporations are far, far more efficient than a bunch of hoodlums. So if big corporations start selling drugs, then drug use (and abuse) is going to increase. Maybe a lot. You might still favor complete legalization, and that's fine. But you should at least recognize that it comes with a likely cost, just as it did with cigarettes and alcohol.

Neil deGrasse Tyson Has Some Pretty Great Advice For This First Grader

| Tue Nov. 18, 2014 3:55 PM EST

A 6-year-old girl wearing a badass Albert Einstein t-shirt recently had the rare chance to ask everyone's favorite cosmologist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, what first graders like her can do to help the Earth. 

Tyson's response? Keep banging those pots, keep stomping in those muddy puddles.

"You are making a splash crater," Tyson explained. "These are experiments. Just tell your parents they're experiments and you want to become a scientist and they won't stop you from doing anything you want."

Basically, don't let the grown-ups squash your curiosity! Watch his heartwarming advice in full below:

 

 

Watch This Adorable Hamster Celebrate Thanksgiving Dinner Wearing a Pilgrim Hat

| Tue Nov. 18, 2014 2:48 PM EST

Adding to our collection of adorable creatures delightfully feasting away on autumnal foods, is a magical clip featuring a hamster nibbling away at Thanksgiving dinner with his closest furry friends. They all wear tiny Pilgrim hats and dine on equally tiny portions of pie and turkey, thanks to the folks at HelloDenizen, the creators of the video.

Just look at those cheeks.

(h/t Buzzfeed)

Public Evenly Split on Immigration Action

| Tue Nov. 18, 2014 1:30 PM EST

So how does the public feel about President Obama changing immigration rules via executive action? Pretty evenly split, it turns out. According to a USA Today poll, Democrats want action now; Republicans want him to wait; independents are split down the middle; and the overall result is slightly in favor of waiting, by 46-42 percent.

In other words, pretty much what you'd expect. Politically, then, this probably holds little risk for Obama or the Democratic Party. Especially in light of this:

On one more issue, Americans are in agreement: The elections two weeks ago aren't going to make Washington work better. Just 15% predict Obama and the new Congress, now under solid Republican control, will work together more closely to reach bipartisan compromises.

The American public is pretty politically astute, I'd say. They may not be up to speed on all the details of policymaking, but when it comes to the big picture, they know a lot more than the Beltway pundits seem to.

Isn't It About Time to Ask Republicans to Start Acting Like Adults?

| Tue Nov. 18, 2014 11:53 AM EST

David Brooks is unhappy that President Obama continues to be a liberal even though Democrats lost in this year's midterm election:

The White House has not privately engaged with Congress on the legislative areas where there could be agreement. Instead, the president has been superaggressive on the one topic sure to blow everything up: the executive order to rewrite the nation’s immigration laws.

....I sympathize with what Obama is trying to do substantively, but the process of how it’s being done is ruinous. Republicans would rightly take it as a calculated insult and yet more political ineptitude. Everybody would go into warfare mode. We’ll get two more years of dysfunction that will further arouse public disgust and antigovernment fervor (making a Republican presidency more likely).

This move would also make it much less likely that we’ll have immigration reform anytime soon. White House officials are often misinformed on what Republicans are privately discussing, so they don’t understand that many in the Republican Party are trying to find a way to get immigration reform out of the way. This executive order would destroy their efforts.

I continue to not get this train of thought. In 2006, Republicans lost. President Bush's first action was to order a surge in Iraq, which infuriated Democrats. In 2008, Republicans lost. They responded by adopting a policy of obstructing every possible action by Democrats—including even a modest stimulus package during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. In 2012, Republicans lost. They responded with brinkmanship over the fiscal cliff, a flat refusal to fill open judicial positions on the DC circuit court, and an endless bellowing rage over Benghazi and other manufactured outrages.

By comparison, all Obama is doing is something he's been saying he'll do for nearly a year. It's not even all that big a deal if you step back for a moment and think about it. Several million undocumented immigrants are going to be told they're officially free of the threat of deportation for a temporary period, as opposed to the status quo, in which they're effectively free of the threat of deportation. Don't get me wrong: it's a big deal for the immigrants affected. But in terms of actual impact on immigration policy writ large? It doesn't really do much.

And yet, this single action is apparently enough to—rightly!—put Republicans into warfare mode. If that's true, I can only conclude that literally anything Republicans don't like is enough to justify going into warfare mode. That's certainly been how it's worked in the past, anyway.

Look: Republicans can decide for themselves if they want to go to war. If they want to pass yet another bill repealing Obamacare, that's fine. If they want to sue the president over the EPA or immigration, that's fine. If they want to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, that's fine. I assume Obama will win some of these battles and lose others, but in any case will treat them as the ordinary cut and thrust of politics instead of declaring them calculated insults that have infuriated him so much he can't possibly ever engage with the GOP again. In other words, he'll act like an adult, not a five-year-old.

This is what we expect from presidents. Why don't we expect the same from congressional Republicans? Why are they allowed to stamp and scream whenever something doesn't go their way, and everyone just shrugs? Once and for all, why don't we demand that they act like adults too?

POSTSCRIPT: I didn't bother with Brooks' claim that Republicans are "privately" discussing real, honest-to-goodness immigration reform, but color me skeptical. If they want to engage on this subject, they need to discuss it with Obama, not between themselves. They've had plenty of time for that, and have never been willing to buck the tea party to get something done. Why would it be any different now? For more, I think Ed Kilgore has about the right take on this.

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Here's an Interesting Twist on Social Security That Might Be Worth Trying

| Tue Nov. 18, 2014 10:29 AM EST

Via Matt Yglesias, here's a fascinating little study in behavioral economics. It involves Social Security, which currently allows you to retire at age 62, but offers you a higher monthly payment if you retire later. For example, if you retire at 62, your monthly benefit might be $1,500, but if you delay a year, your monthly benefit might go up to $1,600. Given average lifespans, the total payout works out the same in both scenarios.

But what if you offered retirees a different deal? What if, instead of a higher monthly benefit, you offered them a lump sum payout if they delayed retirement? In the example above, if you delay retirement to 63, you'll still get $1,500 per month, but you'd also get a $20,000 lump sum payout. Delay to age 70 and you'd get a lump sum of nearly $200,000. How do people respond to that?

It turns out that they delay retirement—or they say they would on a survey, anyway. Under the current scenario, people say they'd retire at 45 months past age 62, or 65 years and 9 months. Under the lump sum scenario, the average retirement age is about five months later. (A third scenario with a delayed lump sum payout motivates people to retire even later.)

Would people do this in real life if they were offered these options? Maybe. And it would probably be a good thing, as Yglesias explains:

Since the benefits would be actuarially fair, this would not save the government any money. But since people would be working longer, the overall size of the economy and the tax base would be larger. That extends the life of the Social Security Trust Fund, and helps delay the moment at which benefit cuts or tax increases are necessary. The overall scale of the change is not enormous, but it's distinctly positive and it's hard to see what the downside would be.

This is hardly the highest priority on anybody's wish list, but it's an intriguing study. And it would certainly be easy to implement. Maybe it's worth a try.

Backstabbing in Hillaryland: Here We Go Again

| Tue Nov. 18, 2014 6:00 AM EST

We've seen this movie before, and it doesn't end well.

On Friday, ABC News published a story about a email listserv maintained by two Democratic operatives: Robby Mook, a former Howard Dean and Hillary Clinton campaign aide, and Marlon Marshall, an Obama White House staffer. The story's title—"EXCLUSIVE: Read the Secret Emails of the Men Who May Run Hillary Clinton's Campaign"—promised a juicy exposé. In reality, the substance of what members posted on this 150-member "secret" listserv, dubbed the "Mook Mafia," was far from explosive. The phrases "smite Republicans mafia-style" and "punish those voters" read badly out of context. But then, who hasn't dashed off a snarky email to friends that you wished you could take back and touch up a little?

The real news isn't that Mook and Marshall had a listserv for fellow Democratic operatives. It's that someone on the listserv leaked its contents in an effort to hurt Mook's chances of becoming the manager of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. In other words, the Clinton '16 effort has yet to officially launch and already the backstabbing and infighting has begun.

It's shades of Hillary '08 all over again.

Internal battles notoriously plagued Clinton's first presidential run. A Washington Post story in March 2008 described the "combustible environment within the Clinton campaign, an operation where internal strife and warring camps have undercut a candidate once seemingly destined for the Democratic nomination."

The story went on:

Many of her advisers are waging a two-front war, one against Sen. Barack Obama and the second against one another, but their most pressing challenge is figuring out why Clinton won in Ohio and Texas and trying to duplicate it. While [chief strategist Mark] Penn sees his strategy as a reason for the victories that have kept her candidacy alive, other advisers attribute the wins to her perseverance, favorable demographics, and a new campaign manager. Clinton won "despite us, not because of us," one said.

The Post published this story after Clinton had won the crucial Ohio and Texas primaries. That is, even in victory, the Clinton camp was divided, its top aides in conflict with one another.

In response to the Post story, Clinton adviser Bob Barnett wrote an email that was later published by The Atlantic:

STOP IT!!!! I have [held] my tongue for weeks. After this morning's WP story, no longer. This makes me sick. This circular firing squad that is occurring is unattractive, unprofessional, unconscionable, and unacceptable…It must stop.

Neither Mark Penn nor Clinton's first choice of campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, lasted the entire campaign. Penn left the campaign after the Wall Street Journal reported that he had lobbied in support of a trade deal with Colombia that Clinton opposed. Solis Doyle was once so close to Clinton that she liked to say, "When I speak, Hillary is speaking." But by the time of her firing, Solis Doyle and Clinton were on such bad terms that Clinton let her go by email.

Even after Penn's departure, as the Atlantic story illustrated, the acrimony continued:

Geoff Garin, the new leader, soon encountered the old problems. Obama remained the front-runner, and Clinton's communications staff disagreed on how to turn back the tide of tough stories. Garin was appalled at the open feuding and leaking. "I don't mean to be an asshole," he wrote in an e-mail to the senior staff. "But…Senator Clinton has given Howard Wolfson both the responsibility and the authority to make final decisions about how this campaign delivers its message." On the strategic front, Garin sided with the coalition opposed to Penn's call to confront Obama, and he had numbers to support his reasoning. Polls showed that a majority of voters now distrusted Clinton.

The strategic leaking of Mook's and Marshall's listserv emails wouldn't have been at all out of place during Clinton's '08 campaign, as her aides bickered and backstabbed their way to defeat against a more cohesive—or at least functional—Obama campaign.

Over the past few years, I have interviewed a number of folks who have worked on various campaigns with Mook, dating back to Howard Dean's 2004 presidential bid. I heard nothing but admiration and respect for someone routinely described to me as a smart and honest operative who kept his head down and disliked publicity. He and Obama organizing guru Jeremy Bird helped create Dean's pioneering volunteer-powered ground game in New Hampshire—a model Mook took with him to Clinton's '08 bid and Bird applied to Obama's first presidential run. And in 2013, Mook, using part of the Obama playbook, helped longtime Democratic fundraiser Terry McAuliffe win a tough fight for governor in Virginia. This victory, which impressed the Democratic political class, got people talking about Mook helming a Clinton campaign. But obviously not everyone is keen on that.

It's not known who was behind the Mook email dump. But for Democrats this prankish move raises a troubling question: Is it possible to avoid conflict within Hillaryland? In 2008, Clinton demonstrated she could not head a cohesive, effective, and drama-free operation. Democrats who yearn for her to do better this time might be forgiven for looking at this episode and wondering, here we go again?

Congressional Democrats Back Obama on Immigration Reform

| Mon Nov. 17, 2014 6:00 PM EST

With the election safely over, congressional Democrats have regained their courage on immigration and are now urging President Obama to go ahead with an executive action on immigration reform. Here's an excerpt from a letter that several Democratic leaders in the Senate sent today:

The principle behind most of what Obama plans to do falls under the category of "prosecutorial discretion," which means he can decide where best to use the government's limited law enforcement resources. Just like previous presidents, he can decide that resources should be directed in a certain way, which effectively means that certain immigrants will be free to stay in the country simply because no one will be targeting them for deportation.

We can argue about just how far presidents should be allowed to go down this road, but basically it's something with a fair amount of precedent. This is clearly the focus of the letter from Senate Democrats, and although I'm not a lawyer, I'm pretty confident that the Justice Department will produce an adequate legal defense of Obama's constitutional authority in this area.

But what's probably most important goes unsaid—or perhaps merely implied—in the Senate letter: if you qualify for "deferred action," you can also get a work permit and a Social Security number. I don't quite understand the legal authority for this, but it's part of the mini-DREAM executive action Obama signed in 2012, so apparently it's on firm legal ground.

In any case, it now looks like Obama is not just firmly committed to this, but has the public support of key congressional Democrats as well. It's coming whether Republicans like it or not.

Elizabeth Warren's Next Target: Walmart

| Mon Nov. 17, 2014 5:22 PM EST

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has it out for Walmart. On Tuesday, the freshman senator will hold an event on Capitol Hill calling out the retail giant for its low wages and terrible employment practices. The briefing will be held a week ahead of the nationwide anti-Walmart protests planned for Black Friday.

Warren will be joined by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.); members of OUR Walmart, a union-backed group helping organize Walmart workers; and representatives from other labor groups. Warren and her colleagues also plan to discuss legislation that could help Walmart employees and other low-wage workers around the country, including measures that would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, forbid unpredictable irregular work schedules for part-time workers, and help prevent employers from retaliating against workers who share wage information.

Roughly 825,000 of Walmart's hourly store employees earn less than $25,000 a year. About 600,000 Walmart workers are part-time, and many rely on food stamps and Medicaid. Walmart, the largest private employer in the US, says its average full-time hourly wage is $12.83, though OUR Walmart has calculated it as closer to $9 an hour.

Walmart has retaliated against employees who have protested these low wages. In January, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the company illegally fired, threatened, or disciplined more than 60 workers in 14 states for publicly complaining about wages and working conditions.

OUR Walmart is planning on holding a wave of protests at 1,600 Walmart stores the day after Thanksgiving to call for a $15 minimum wage and more opportunities for full-time hours. Last year, the group held demonstrations at more than 1,200 stores.

"The Walmart economy—a business model where a few profit significantly on the backs of the working poor and a diminishing middle class—perpetuates the income inequality problems that are devastating our country," OUR Walmart and the United Food and Commercial Workers union said in a statement Monday.