Mojo - May 2009

Clara Jeffery Debates Debra Saunders

| Tue May. 19, 2009 2:50 PM PDT

MoJo editor Clara Jeffery and conservative San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders went head to head yesterday on KQED's ForumCould Pelosi have prevented detainee torture? Are small cars safer than big ones? Does the Gallup poll finding that more Americans are pro-life than pro-choice signify a real change?

Listen to these leading journalists do battle over these questions and more, here:

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Supreme Court Upholds the Pension Gender Gap

| Tue May. 19, 2009 1:43 PM PDT

Even at a time when most old people have taken a hit to their retirement income, far more older women than older men are living on the edge of survival. A case before the Supreme Court would have helped a few women to slightly narrow the substantial gap between women and men’s retirement earnings. But the Court, in a  7-2 vote on Monday, decided to let the disparity stand.

Until 1978, it was legal for employers to discriminate on the  basis of preganancy. So women who took pregnancy leaves were in some cases given less credit toward their pensions than people who took leaves for other medical conditions. In the case before the Supreme Court, a group of women who formerly worked for AT&T were suing to have  maternity leaves taken before passage of the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) calculated fully into retirement benefits. While a lower court ruled in their favor, the majority on the Supreme Court decided that the law was not meant to be applied retroactively.

But since the pensions in question are being calculated now, long after passage of the PDA, dissenting Justices Ginsberg and Breyer argued that the discrimination is, effectively, taking place now as well. Ginsberg wrote in her dissent that “attitudes about pregnancy and childbirth …have sustained pervasive, often law-sanctioned, restrictions on a woman’s place among paid workers and active citizens.” The women workers, she said:

Are Obama's Fuel Efficiency Standards Strict Enough?

| Tue May. 19, 2009 11:52 AM PDT

President Obama really is a nice guy. When he announced Tuesday that federal and state governments and environmental groups had come to a "historic agreement" with the auto industry to increase average fuel economy to 35.5 MPG by 2016, he granted the automakers a huge PR favor: The industry has been fighting these rules for years; they only capitulated now because they had a gun to their heads.

"The new administration was in a position to say [to the auto companies] 'you have to accept this,'" Dan Becker of the Safe Climate Campaign told me. "They realized that and they caved. This is auto mechanics, not rocket science, and they can do that."

Even as the news leaked that Obama would announce tougher fuel efficiency standards, the auto industry was still embroiled in lawsuits, most notably with the State of California, over states' efforts to cut greenhouse gasses. But these days, Detroit doesn't have the same political sway in Washington that it used to, even compared to just a few years ago, when the Bush administration denied California's attempt to implement its strict MPG rules.

Obama's new rules effectively end that litigation, and are a "huge stick in the eye to polluters, who "did everything they could to stop this from happening," says Greenpeace's Kert Davies. The auto industry had argued that individual states like California do not have the power to govern fuel economy, but Obama mooted that argument by directing the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation to write regulations, which they will have the power to enforce.

Becker told me the rules themselves don't go far enough, but are "a good first step" and leave an opportunity for improvement in 2017, when they are set to expire. (Becker also says he expects officials in California to take the lead on drafting post-2016 standards and release their plan within a year.) By then, the White House says we will have saved 900 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere—the equivalent of "taking 177 million cars off the road."

Davies says hasn't yet run any calculations accounting for the new 35.5 MPG standard, but he told me he thinks "we're still behind the curve" in comparison to other nations when it comes to curbing tailpipe emissions: "Even China has better fuel economy targets than we do."

GAO: Schools Abuse Disabled Kids

| Tue May. 19, 2009 11:07 AM PDT

A new GAO report shows that the Judge Rotenberg Center in Massachusetts isn't the only place where developmentally disabled and emotionally troubled kids have been physically punished and restrained. The report, which came out today, details cases at public and private schools across the nation where children as young as five have been sat on, lashed to chairs, isolated for hours, starved, and humiliated as punishment for actions like "slouching and hand waving." In dozens of cases, these punitive measures resulted in students' deaths.

Though much of the report details specific cases of abuse, there is also some revealing analysis. For example, the GAO found "no federal laws restricting the use of seclusion and restraints in public and private schools and widely divergent laws at the state level." In addition to the lack of legal guidance, teachers and aides are often insufficiently trained in how to apply restraints to children. Many of the student deaths occurred because staff were sitting on them, restraining them face-down, or putting them in a "stranglehold" and didn't notice when the child became unresponsive or ignored children's pleas that they couldn't breathe.

While the government obviously cannot monitor every use of child restraint, the GAO found that it could, at least, gather information. "GAO could not find a single Web site, federal agency, or other entity that collects information on the use of these methods or the extent of their alleged abuse," the report said.

The private Judge Rotenberg Center, which we investigated in 2007, may be the only school that uses electric shocks to discipline children. But sadly, as this new report graphically illustrates, it's far from being alone in using severe physical punishment on its special needs students.

 

Will Congress Torpedo Defense Reform?

| Tue May. 19, 2009 10:28 AM PDT

Wasteful spending at the Pentagon is one of the most overanalyzed problems in Washington. The past thirty years have seen dozens of special taskforces and blue-ribbon commissions and congressional panels devoted to eliminating fraud and budget blowouts, and yet nothing ever seems to change. If Obama wants to prevent his own attempt at Pentagon reform from being relegated to the historical dumpster, he should be nervous about the acquisition legislation moving through Congress right now.

Both the House and Senate have passed acquisition reform bills unanimously, already an ominous sign. The bills contain some sensible ideas, such as ensuring that technology is fully developed before it's put into production, and requiring independent cost estimates for weapons systems. But like so many previous "reforms," these changes will only make a difference if the Pentagon and Congress opt to enforce them. Some of the more promising measures in the Senate bill—including the independent cost assessments—have already been watered down.

Newt Saddles Up with Cantor

| Tue May. 19, 2009 9:15 AM PDT

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.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter by clicking here.

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Heard About Any Great Student Activism Lately?

| Tue May. 19, 2009 5:00 AM PDT

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.

Obama, Netanyahu, and Israel's Bomb

| Mon May. 18, 2009 2:17 PM PDT

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.

Nancy Pelosi's Attackers Now Going After… Her Looks?

| Mon May. 18, 2009 1:43 PM PDT

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

| Mon May. 18, 2009 1:34 PM PDT

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.