Mojo - March 2010

Stand and Deliver Teacher Jaime Escalante Dies at 79

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 7:55 PM EDT

Influential American public-school teacher Jaime Escalante proved to everyone that all students, no matter the odds, are capable of mastering hard-core subjects. He proved it by helping hundreds of students pass the rigorous Advanced Placement calculus exam during his tenure at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. Escalante died on Tuesday of bladder cancer at the age of 79.

Escalante "was a reformer before it was cool to be one," as Eduwonk blogger Andrew Rotherman simply states, and the Washington Post's Jay Matthews credits Escalante for changing his life and inspiring his desire "to write about schools forever." Escalante gained national prominence in the wake of a 1982 scandal when 14 of his students were accused of cheating on the A.P. calculus exam. "The story of their eventual triumph—and of Escalante's battle to raise standards at a struggling campus of working-class, largely Mexican American students—became the subject of the movie, which turned the balding, middle-aged Bolivian immigrant into the most famous teacher in America," the LA Times reports in his obituary. The popular 80s film Stand and Deliver is based on Escalante and his students.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Tee Purtiers Knead Spelchek

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 4:55 PM EDT

Our friends over at BoingBoing turned us on to this wonderful Flickr slideshow of misspelled Tea Party signs. (Catchy headline, too: Teabonics!)

As MoJo intern Tim Murphy learned in Searchlight, Nevada, recently, the Tea Partiers are folksy enough—and I'm sure that plenty of them can spell well enough, too. But if you truly care about your cause, and your cause is that Americans should speak English only, then get it right, for Chrissake!

 

 

Judge: Warrantless Wiretaps Were Illegal

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 4:25 PM EDT

The National Security Agency's program to spy on Americans without warrants was illegal, a federal judge ruled Wednesday. The ruling by Judge Vaughn Walker (PDF) was a win for civil libertarians, and a major victory for the plaintiffs in this case, Al-Haramain, an Islamic charity that was wiretapped, along with its lawyers, in 2004.

Groups like the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have tried out numerous legal strategies in a years-long effort to challenge the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program. The Al-Haramain case represents the first time that plaintiffs who claim they were wiretapped have been able to get around the so-called "state secrets" clause, which acts as a sort of "get-out-of-court-free" card for the government in many national security cases. Al-Haramain's win could be temporary, though: the Obama administration will almost certainly appeal the decision. (Update: Marcy Wheeler disagrees.)

In 2006, Al-Haramain sued then-President George W. Bush and other top officials after the government mistakenly provided the charity with classified documents that supposedly prove it had been illegally surveilled. A district court judge initially ruled that Al-Haramain could use those documents in its case. Eventually, however, the courts decided that the "state secrets" clause precluded the charity from using the classified documents at trial—a defeat that some observers thought would be fatal to the lawsuit.

Instead of giving up, Al-Haramain and its lawyers tried a different tack, gathering ten times as much unclassified evidence as they had previously submitted. The government, in a tiff, refused to submit evidence contradicting the plaintiffs' claims, and even tried to claim that it didn't have to. Walker didn't like that argument too much: Because the government refused to submit any evidence calling the plaintiffs' case into question, he simply granted summary judgment—a sort of TKO.

Count this round for the civil libertarians.

PolitiFact Schools Lindsey Graham on Student Loan Reform

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 4:22 PM EDT

Last week, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham appeared on Greta Van Susteren's On the Record to lambaste student loan reform as a measure that will force students to pay more for their college loans in the long run. But PolitiFact's Truth-O-Meter has deemed the Republican senator's claim totally false.

The legislation signed into law yesterday eliminates subsidies to private lenders in lieu of a federal lending program that requires participation from colleges and borrowers. The law stands to save taxpayers $61 billion over a decade, with a majority of that money going toward an expansion of the federal Pell Grant program for low-income students. But Graham told Van Susteren that average students would spend "$1,700 to $1,800 more during the life of their loan" because of a mysterious student loan "surcharge" inserted into the law.

At the heart of the surcharge issue, he also claimed, is an interest rate problem—and because of the health care bill that student loan reform was tied to, the government will now make a greater profit on student loan interest than it did before. Got that?

PolitiFact didn't. So they looked into it:

We called and e-mailed Graham's office repeatedly for sourcing on his claim, but our inquiries were unanswered. Apparently Graham's numbers come from an amendment offered by Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander during the Senate's debate over a package of fixes. His amendment would have forced the chamber to send the bill back to committee and amend it to reduce interest rates on student loans by 1.5 percent, from 6.8 percent to 5.3 percent. That interest rate reduction would have saved students in Tennessee upwards of $1,700 to $1,800 in interest over 10 years, according to Alexander. 

Climate Hacking 101

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 1:05 PM EDT

Can the climate be hacked to keep the Earth's surface temperatures manageable? Can we get away with hijacking natural cycles (emulating volcanoes, pumping nutrients into the oceans, tinkering with the solar reflectivity of clouds) without radically screwing up weather patterns—or starting a war? Or is it a cop-out even to talk about this, rather than focus on kicking ass and taking names on the carbon emissions front?

Huh? Did he say "war"? Well, since climate heeds no human boundaries, any serious intervention by scientists could require a level of global cooperation that makes Copenhagen look like a cakewalk—and we all know how that turned out. If any country were to start testing this stuff unilaterally on a big scale, let's just say it would not be terribly popular.

But all the technical, cultural, and political roadblocks didn't dissuade leading geoengineering researchers from attending last week's big powwow at the Asilomar Conference Center—a longtime science haven and site of a similar meeting on genetic engineering back in 1975. Like that historic meeting, this one's ostensible purpose (activists envision something more nefarious) was for the scientists to discuss possible ground rules for future experimentation and for navigating, well, the technical, cultural, and political roadblocks. And like that meeting, this one has been criticized as an attempt to legitimize a potentially dangerous area of science.

Not to say the attendees were all gung-ho to put their ideas into practice. As climate scientists deeply concerned about human contributions to global warming, most were somewhat wary about the implications of climate hacking. That's one thing reporter Jim Rendon learned when we sent him to Asilomar to check out the scene. His dispatches below, and their links to our past geoengineering coverage, will give you a sort of Climate Hacking 101. Considering the world's inaction on addressing the most pressing problem of our time, you'll need it. We're all going to be hearing a lot more about human volcanoes and so on in the not too distant future.

Dispatch 1: Geoengineering Bad Fixes for Worse Problems
As climate-intervention scientists meet, fans see a Plan B where critics see a delay tactic.
Dispatch 2: Who Eats Geoengineering Risk?
Any large-scale test would require true international cooperation.
Dispatch 3: Do We Test Geoengineering?
Any meaningful field run would be a contentious, high-risk venture.
Dispatch 4: Geoengineering for Fun and Profit
Should scientists—or anyone—be allowed to cash in on high-risk climate fixes?

Obama: The "First Gay President"?

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 12:47 PM EDT

Judging from the Family Research Council's official bio of its vice president Tom McClusky, you'd think the guy was a pretty mild-mannered, if conservative, politico. He's worked for Bush the Elder, Jack Kemp, and George Allen, among others—not your typical Tea Party rabble—and he's written lots of anti-tax policy papers. He appears like the sort of staid, quiet guy who'd say something like this to Fox News: "It seems like for only six months, every two years—right around election time—that we're even noticed."

Fortunately for the good-humored progressive, McClusky fills that down time with highly entertaining ramble on a blog for the right-wing, "family values"-oriented FRC. It's called the Cloakroom—not to be confused with a closet, for it is here that McClusky details the evils of homosexuality...as well as women's rights, homeland security (when it's Democratic-run), and the like. And few of his Cloakroom rambles are as fun as the one he posted yesterday calling Barack Obama gay. The First Gay, in fact. Wrote McClusky:

Advertise on MotherJones.com

A Long War: Did Bush Mislead US into Iraq?

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 11:28 AM EDT

Last week I noted that Karl Rove, Ross Douthat, and Peter Wehner had so far declined my challenge to a duel—that is, to respond to an article I had written (in response to their claims that George W. Bush had not misled the American public into the Iraq war) that listed a sampling of false Bush administration statements that went far beyond good-faith reliance on faulty intelligence. But a day later, Wehner, a PoliticsDaily.com columnist who worked in the W. White House, took a stab at it in an article addressing the false assertions I had highlighted. One problem: Wehner ignored several of the extreme and significant Bush misrepresentations I had listed. Thus, regrettably, I had to reply to his reply:

Let me remind readers -- those who are not weary of all this -- about the statements Wehner declines to confront. In August 2002, as the Bush White House was ramping up its sales campaign for war in Iraq, Cheney delivered a high-profile speech in which he declared that there was "no doubt" that Saddam Hussein was "amassing" WMDs "to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us." Yet a few months earlier, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency had testified to Congress that Saddam was only maintaining "residual" amounts of WMDs (which, as it turned out, was itself an overstatement). Perhaps more important, at the time of Cheney's speech, there was no intelligence indicating that Hussein intended to use WMDs against the United States, which would have been suicidal. In fact, intelligence reports suggested he was not interested in a WMD showdown with Washington. That is, there was no factual basis for Cheney's dramatic statement. No wonder Wehner avoids dealing with it.

Wehner also ducks addressing Bush's pre-war attempt to link Hussein to al-Qaeda. That was a key part of the administration's pitch for war. On Nov. 7, 2002, Bush proclaimed that Hussein "is a threat because he's dealing with al-Qaeda." Yet as the 9/11 Commission later noted, there was no intelligence confirming an operational relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda. Nevertheless, in March 2003, Cheney insisted that Hussein had a "long-standing relationship" with al-Qaeda. Moreover, Cheney again and again tried to tie Hussein to al-Qaeda by referring to an unconfirmed intelligence report indicating that 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta had met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague. The CIA and FBI, though, had discounted this report, and the 9/11 Commission later said that it was indeed bogus. So here was the vice president of the United States pushing phony information, after his government's own intelligence experts had said there was no confirmation for it. How reckless was that? It's not surprising that Wehner ignored this part of the challenge.

And Wehner overlooks one of Bush's biggest whoppers. At a Dec. 31, 2002, press conference, Bush maintained, "We don't know whether or not [Hussein] has a nuclear weapon." This comment suggested that Hussein -- oh my God! -- might already possess these dangerous weapons. The faulty intelligence available at the time had errantly declared that Iraq was "reconstituting" its nuclear weapons program, but it had also concluded Iraq would not be able to produce a nuclear weapon for years. There was no basis for Bush to say that Hussein already could be nuclear-armed. Clearly, Bush was doing so to rile up the public. Wehner is silent on this point.

So Wehner has nothing to say about (1) Cheney hurling an intelligence-free claim that Saddam was developing WMDs so he could attack the United States; (2) Bush and Cheney hyping the connection between Saddam and the mass murderers of 9/11; or (3) Bush resorting to scare-'em rhetoric about a nuclear Iraq that had no foundation in the available intelligence. On these fronts, Bush, Cheney, and their aides exhibited a reckless disregard of the facts as they tried to whip up public support for their war. But none of that is on Wehner's radar screen. Which calls into question his entire attempt to beat back the proposition that Bush bamboozled the public.

As for those statements Wehner does attempt to address, he mostly ends up defending Bush-Cheney spin. That's not surprising. If you care about the back and forth, I unwind all this spin here. And I note that Wehner side-steps a fundamental point:

I closed my [original] column with a question:

Can Wehner, Rove and Douthat state that Bush carefully reviewed the intelligence in order to present to the public an accurate depiction of what was known and not known about the WMD threat possibly posed by Saddam?

It's telling that Wehner does not attempt to concoct a response to that query.

...The bottom line is undeniable: Bush and Cheney repeatedly issued false statements to guide the nation to war, and they made no concerted efforts to guarantee that they were providing the public with the most realistic depiction of the threat. They were not interested in an honest debate; they wanted war.

The Bush gang will wage this battle for years to come—until their dying days, I presume. But no matter how hard they try to explain away all of the false assertions Bush made to sell this war, they simply cannot argue that he met his first obligation as commander in chief: to take great care in assessing a potential threat to the United States before sending Americans overseas to kill and die for their country.

Michele Bachmann, Wrong Again

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 10:43 AM EDT

The indispensable PolitiFact.com has a great story about how Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) tried to claim that an unscientific email survey conducted by "the Medicus Firm, a physicians recruiting service" was actually "released" by the prominent and well-regarded New England Journal of Medicine. The survey (remember, it was unscientific) found that 22 percent of respondents "would try to retire early" and 8 percent "would try to leave medical practice even if not near retirement age" if health care reform without a public option was passed. Bachmann characterized that as a survey "released" by NEJM that found that  "over 30 percent of American physicians would leave the profession if the government took over health care." NEJM, of course, doesn't publish or peer-review unscientific email surveys:

[Medicus] wrote an article about the survey results, which was first published on the firm's Web site. The article was later reprinted in Recruiting Physicians Today, an advertising newsletter put out on the NEJM's Career Center Web site. The Medicus Firm neither paid to have the article published, nor was it paid for the article.

It was never published in the actual New England Journal of Medicine.

But it's easy to see how someone might have been confused. Although the small print explains that the survey was done by the Medicus Firm, the article prominently states at the top, "From the publishers of the New England Journal of Medicine" and carries the NEJM seal.

There are two lessons here. One is that the all publications have to be very careful about how they attach their names to advertising supplements and promotional inserts. Readers need to be able to easily distinguish advertising from actual editorial content.

The second lesson is that no matter how careful you are, someone will probably find a way to misrepresent the truth. Bachmann's spokesman told PolitiFact that all this is really NEJM's fault, but that's a bit too precious. The NEJM put a disclaimer on its website explaining that the survey didn't represent its views a full 10 days before Bachmann made her claim to the contrary. Even if you accept Bachmann's explanation that the confusion about the survey's source is NEJM's fault, that's not the only problem with her statement. As PolitiFact emphasized, Bachmann didn't simply get the source of the survey wrong. She also "sensationalize[d]" the results. Some people just can't handle the truth.

Top GOPer Disavows Wall St. Bill

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 9:41 AM EDT

Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), a top GOP negotiator in the Senate's financial reform battle, told the Wall Street Journal that he "absolutely cannot support" the Senate's Wall Street overhaul, a thousand-plus-page bill largely crafted by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT). Dodd is the chairman of the banking committee, which recently passed a financial reform bill on a 13-10 party-line vote; Corker is a member of the committee as well, who'd closely negotiated with Dodd for weeks on the bill. "I couldn't support the bill in its current form," Corker told the Journal. "I am absolutely not throwing in the towel. I have no plans to support the current legislation. I hope we'll get back to the negotiating table."

Corker had more recently made headlines as a potential defector from the Republican camp to side with Democrats on financial reform. (The Huffington Post exclaimed, in a blaring headline, that Corker was "going rogue.") In remarks at the US Chamber of Commerce last week, Corker criticized the GOP's decision to not negotiate financial reform in committee, instead saving the inevitable battle for the Senate floor. The Tennessee senator called this decision "a major strategic error" by Republicans.

Now, however, top GOP brass appear to have reined Corker back in with a party that largely opposes the financial reform bill as it stands. The Republicans have clashed with Democrats on a number of issues in the bill, including an independent consumer protection agency, the creation of a council to guard against too-big-to-fail, and greater shareholder input on executive compensation. The potential loss of Corker could be a blow to Democrats, who need at least one Republican vote to pass the bill. The Senate plans to begin negotiations on financial reform when they return from recess in mid-April.

Obama Sells Out College's Working Class

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 9:15 AM EDT

President Obama took a huge step yesterday toward expanding access to higher education. By cutting out private student loan lenders, he's saving a projected $61 billion, which will go toward beefing up the Pell Grant program; annual loan payments are now capped at 10 percent of income, so students aren't deterred from enrolling by the specter of crippling debt; and a host of other funding programs will now support minority-oriented institutions and other colleges. Yet conspicuously absent from HR 4872, the Health Care and Education Affordability Reconciliation Act, was much-touted effort called the American Graduation Initiative (AGI).

The AGI was the most ambitious presidential plan since Truman to bolster community colleges, the nearly 1,200 schools that cater to students who can't afford a traditional university, want to work and go to school at the same time, want to use community colleges as a stepping stone to a four-year school, or want job re-training when looking to change careers. (Full disclosure: My dad's an English professor at a community college.) These colleges enroll anywhere from 35 to 50 percent of undergraduates nationwide. They enroll more low-income and minority students than four-year schools. 95 percent of community colleges are open admission—in other words, everyone's welcome here.

The AGI recognized the role of community colleges—increasingly so in light of the economic recession, when fewer people can afford skyrocketing tuition costs. Most importantly, the initiative proposed spending $12 billion over ten years to increase community college graduates by 5 million over the next decade.

But when higher ed reform got grafted on the health care bill, and a melee ensued to pass that package, the AGI somehow died. Apparently the community college "lobby" couldn't keep the AGI in the reconciliation bill signed by Obama. What these two-year schools did get out of the final bill was $2 billion to fund existing programs, mostly for disabled workers—nothing to scoff at, but a far cry from what Obama envisioned last summer, when he unveiled the AGI to much fanfare. "I know the colleges are grateful for the money that's in there, but it's for the status quo," Sara Goldrick-Rab, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin, told NPR. "The money for focusing on college completion might have been transformative."

Losing the AGI is, in short, a major loss for working class students. The initiative specifically targeted them and sought to offer the upward mobility of a college degree to millions of new students. So much for that idea. And considering how much political capital Obama expended to pass health care and student loan reform, it's unlikely we'll see future transformative initiatives for community colleges anytime soon. In the meantime, community colleges are increasingly cutting back on class offerings and are unable to hire enough qualified instructors—full time or part time—to meet a growing demand. Thanks to Obama's new bill, access to four-year colleges—a nice spot if you can afford it—may be increasing, but working class students will find themselves again shut out.