Mojo - December 2010

Does Creative Writing Help Kids Succeed?

| Fri Dec. 17, 2010 7:00 AM EST

Editors' Note: This education dispatch is part of a new ongoing series reported from Mission High School, where youth issues writer Kristina Rizga is known to students as "Miss K." Click here to see all of MoJo's recent education coverage, or follow The Miss K Files on Twitter or with this RSS Feed.

If you want a sneak preview of mainstream California in about 30 years, just visit any classroom at Mission High School in San Francisco and look around. It's like a mini-UN in there. There are 18 students in Tadd Scott's English class on the morning I sit in; only six were born in the US. During introductions, the students tell me where they're from: El Salvador, Mexico, Sudan, Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Panama, China, Ukraine, and Russia.

I ask students what makes them want to come to school every day. Sports get the most votes. "Nice people, baseball, my best friend Jasmin, wrestling, football, my history class, English, soccer, basketball..."

One kid, who just transfered to Mission High three days ago, likes that Mission "doesn't have video cameras everywhere like my old school did."

Their English teacher, Mr. Scott, is dressed in a white shirt, tie, and a dark green jacket topped with a purple hat. He tells students in a congested, raspy voice that he is recovering from "something between a cold and an pneumonia." Meg Day, a resident artist from the local WritersCorps chapter, is here to help him lead the class in some writing exercises while he recovers. Day, who has an MFA in poetry from Mills College, writes down these rules on the whiteboard:

"There are no wrong answers."
"The standard is yourself."
"Don't talk, don't stop."

Day warms up the students with two "freewrites." Today's freewrite prompt is "When I grow up..." "Go!" she prompts the students. "Five minutes. Don't talk, don't stop." She claps her hands. The sound of pencil scribbling fills the room.

Meanwhile, Scott shows us the "student portfolio" of a girl I'll call Tina. Tina's thick, black binder is filled with essays, drawings, poems, and research papers. On the portfolio's first page, Scott has written the question: "Tell me one thing you want me to know about you?" Tina's written response: "I hope Harvard will accept me one day." But in today's test-driven education system, are these portfolios really likely to contribute to that goal's achievement?

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Tea Party: Shut The Government Down!

| Fri Dec. 17, 2010 7:00 AM EST

Tea party activists have had much be angry about in recent weeks, after discovering their success in the midterm elections wasn't yielding them any immediate power on Capitol Hill. They've lost every fight they've weighed in on during the lame duck session of Congress, including GOP elections for key committee posts, the passage of a food safety bill, and most likely, the Obama tax cut plan. Undaunted, they are now getting fired up for one last battle before hunkering down to wrap Christmas presents, and this one is a whopper. Tea partiers want to end the year with a government shutdown.

As Congress this week attempts to pass an omnibus spending bill that would fund the federal government for another year, tea partiers are demanding that the GOP refuse to vote for the bill until it is stripped of earmarks, even if that means closing the Washington Monument and infuriating millions of seniors reliant on Social Security. The spending bill is loaded up with 6,000 earmarks, totaling about $8 billion. This is only .72 percent of the $1.1 trillion measure, but these earmarks send gobs of federal money to various members of Congress's home districts for such things as harbor dredging, grape virus research, and infrastructure repairs.

Earmarks are anathema to tea partiers. When leading tea partiers drafted a "Contract from America" this summer in an attempt to get members of Congress to pledge fealty to their agenda, an earmark ban was high on the list. The tea partiers were somewhat shocked that Republicans who claimed to be tea party supporters refused to sign the contract, primarily because of the earmark measure. That's when these conservative activists seemed to discover for the first time that Republicans love earmarks as much as the average Democrat. Since then, some Republicans have come around and disavowed earmarks, even if they haven't actually withdrawn their requests in the omnibus bill. But that's not enough for the tea partiers. They want a show of force over the issue, and they don't care if that means the federal government grinds to a halt until the issue is resolved.

So far, as of 1 p.m. on Thursday, more than 1,000 people had signed an online petition that says:

We, the undersigned grass roots activists from across America, do hereby support and encourage the immediate shut down of the United States Government until:

1. All earmarks are removed from the Omnibus Bill or
2. A continuing resolution, excluding any earmarks or other business, is signed through the month of February.

In support thereof we submit the following:

The will of The People is not reflected in the Omnibus Bill.

It is in the best interest of The United States of America that the terminated Congress members be barred from voting on future policy or laws.

Shutting down the government did not work out well for Republicans the last time they tried such a gamble, back in 1995. That's when then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich blocked passage of a spending bill and ended up closing the federal government for 21 days because President Bill Clinton refused to give in to GOP demands for big spending cuts in social service programs including Medicaid. The showdown is credited with boosting Clinton's approval rating and it was widely viewed as securing his reelection the following year.

As it turns out, there's nothing like shutting down the government to remind people exactly what it does do for them. Dick Armey was part of the House GOP leadership when it tried to win the shutdown fight. Now, he's a tea party hero as the chairman of the advocacy group FreedomWorks. And Armey isn't exactly champing at the bit to do it all over again. As he explained in 2006 to author Ryan Sager:

Newt’s position was, presidents get blamed for shutdowns, and he cited Ronald Reagan. My position was, Republicans get blamed for shutdowns. I argued that it is counterintuitive to the average American to think that the Democrat wants to shut down the government. They’re the advocates of the government. It is perfectly logical to them that Republicans would shut it down, because we’re seen as antithetical to government. I said if there’s a shutdown, we’re going to get the blame.

While Armey might have seen the light about shutting down the government as a negotiating gambit, Gingrich has not. He's in a small camp of conservatives that includes Dick Morris, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), Rep. Louie "terror babies" Gohmert (R-Texas), and well, Joe Miller, who really isn't going to be in the Senate next year. Even incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has retreated from the shutdown option publicly, angering many tea partiers in the process.

While there may be many comparisons between 1995 and 2010, there's one big difference today: the economy. The dire financial straits of the country and many of its residents may have helped fuel the tea party movement, yet shutting down the federal government in the middle of a huge recession and nearly 10 percent unemployment would probably be far more grave and destabilizing than it was in 1995, when the unemployment rate was half that. Cutting off food stamp benefits alone would result in 40 million people potentially going hungry. (The number of Americans on food stamps in 1995 was 26 million and falling.) Combined with the nearly 60 million people who receive Social Security, nearly a third of the country depends on regular government checks—and that doesn't include the nearly 10 million people on unemployment.

If tens of millions of people wake up one day and discover that they aren't going to be able feed their families thanks to GOP quibbles over what amounts to less than 1 percent of the spending bill, the tea party and their GOP allies could be in for one hell of a blame-game. The economy makes the tea party demand for a government shutdown a dangerous gamble; it's also one reason why it's not likely to happen.

UPDATE: Tea partiers have been quickly disappointed that the government will not, in fact, get shut down. Late Thursday night, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) pulled the omnibus spending bill from consideration in the face of Republican opposition, and instead will move forward with a continuing resolution that would do little more than fund the government until the new Congress can take up the spending measures again.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 17, 2010

Fri Dec. 17, 2010 6:30 AM EST

Soldiers of 1st Squadron 61st Cavalry 101st Airborne Division listen to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates while he visits Field Operating Base(FOB) Connolly, Afghanistan, Dec. 7, 2010. Secretary Gates is in Afghanistan receiving operational updates and thanking the troops for their service. DoD photo by Air Force Master Sgt. Jerry Morrison

The World's Cutest Religious Cops [PHOTOS]

| Thu Dec. 16, 2010 5:07 PM EST

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Sadly, we've had to take Mehr News Agency's photos down from this post, but read the story and click through the links to see the amazing imagery.]

In Shi'a Islam, Thursday was one of the most important dates of the year: the Day of Ashura, when the faithful remember the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, a grandson of the prophet Muhammad and the cornerstone of the Shi'a lineage of religious imams. It's a day dedicated to pilgrimages, penitence, and social justice. But in Iran, where the government claims a mandate from Allah and his messenger, it's a strange amalgam of Islam and state worship. And this year, it comes on the heels of a shocking announcement by the Islamic Republic about its babies.

Another Terrorist Convicted in Civilian Court; No One Notices

| Thu Dec. 16, 2010 2:34 PM EST

On Wednesday, a federal judge in Brooklyn sent a terrorist to prison for the rest of his life. Abdul Kadir, a former politician from the South American country of Guyana, was convicted in August of conspiring to blow up huge fuel tanks at JFK airport. The New York Times covered Kadir's sentencing, but I'll forgive you for missing it: it was on page A29 of the print edition, above a story about the Korean community in Palisades Park, New Jersey.

This type of media treatment is a big problem for supporters of civilian trials for terrorist suspects. Kadir was involved in an actual terrorist plot—one he hoped would "dwarf 9/11." He isn't an American, he wasn't arrested in America, and he is allegedly connected to a militant Muslim group that has been characterized as one of "Al Qaeda's Inroads in the Caribbean." In other words, he has a lot in common with the Gitmo detainees that civil libertarians so desperately want tried in civilian court. (The difference, of course, is that since he was captured by law enforcement in 2007, he was never subjected to "enhanced interrogation.")

But because Kadir was tried, convicted, and sentenced in the civilian system, the resolution of his case has received little media attention—and the federal justice system gets almost no credit for its success in dealing with him. If advocates of civilian trials for Gitmo detainees like Ahmed Ghailani want to win the argument, they're going to have to be more aggressive about drawing attention to every single example of the civilian system's success in dealing with terrorism cases. This is one of those successes.

United States v. Assange

| Thu Dec. 16, 2010 1:25 PM EST

The US government is preparing a case against Wikileaks supremo Julian Assange, the New York Times' Charlie Savage reported Wednesday night:

Justice Department officials are trying to find out whether Mr. Assange encouraged or even helped the analyst, Pfc. Bradley Manning, to extract classified military and State Department files from a government computer system. If he did so, they believe they could charge him as a conspirator in the leak, not just as a passive recipient of the documents who then published them.

Among materials prosecutors are studying is an online chat log in which Private Manning is said to claim that he had been directly communicating with Mr. Assange using an encrypted Internet conferencing service as the soldier was downloading government files.

Wired published the "online chat log" in June. Kevin Poulsen, an editor at Wired who has been covering the Wikileaks story for months, says the section in question begins with "preferably openssl the file with aes-256." Check it out.

This isn't necessarily an easy win for prosecutors. The government's case requires proving Assange was in contact with Manning during the time Manning had access to the military network containing the classified information he later leaked. It's not clear that the government can meet that burden. But if the government moves forward with the prosecution, it's not just Assange who will have reason to worry. American Prospect blogger Adam Serwer and former Bush Justice department official Jack Goldsmith, who don't often agree, both think prosecuting Assange for allegedly "helping" Manning leak documents would have a chilling effect on press freedom and national security reporting. Here's Goldsmith:

Charging Assange as a conspirator to Manning’s leak might distinguish the Times [from Assange] in the wikileaks case. But it would not distinguish the Times and scores of other media outlets in the many cases in which reporters successfully solicit and arrange to receive classified information and documents directly from government officials. Prosecution of Assange on this theory would therefore raise awkward questions about why DOJ does not bring charges against the American media for soliciting classified information on a regular basis. It would be a fateful step for traditional press freedoms in the United States. Indeed, unless I am missing something, it seems that a successful prosecution of Assange for conspiracy to leak would have broader and more corrosive implications for press freedoms than a successful prosecution under the ambiguity-riddled Espionage Act. In any event, I do not see how going the "conspiracy to leak" route is a press-protecting move.

As Savage notes in his story, the threat of a US prosecution is already having a chilling affect on Wikileaks, as the site is backing away from claims that it solicits classified information. Of course, mainstream American journalists implicitly and explicitly solicit classified information all the time. It's becoming increasingly clear that, when it comes to leak-related prosecutions, Wikileaks' problems are the American press' problems, too. 

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Hillary Clinton's State Department Wish List

| Thu Dec. 16, 2010 1:11 PM EST

If Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah have their way, the United States diplomatic corps might get a major boost in power and personnel. Realistically? They probably won't.

On Wednesday, Clinton, Shah, and other top officials announced the release of the first-ever Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR). Modeled after the Defense Department's own quadrennial assessment, the QDDR represents the culmination of a two-year effort to consolidate and bolster "civilian power"—a concept Clinton defines as the "combined force" of government officials working on diplomacy, development, and crisis and conflict-related projects. "The QDDR is a blueprint for how we can make the State Department and USAID more nimble, more effective, and more accountable," Clinton said. What will more civilian power look like in practice? Clinton and Shah hope to hire 5,500 new foreign and civil service personnel, and hand more autonomy to ambassadors and chiefs of mission.

To the lay-ear, that sounds great. Right? Not necessarily. The audience, made up mostly of NGO officials and development experts, expressed concern that the expansion would bring in a host of inexperienced newbies and undermine veteran foreign service officers. Clinton did her best to ease those concerns, but made it clear that her priority is finding the right people. "[O]ur first preference is, of course, to take advantage of Foreign Service experience. And we will look at ways of reaching out and attempting to do so. But we will not stop there if we cannot find the experience.…at the end of the day, I’m responsible for making decisions that are in the best interests of the United States of America, and that’s what I will do."

There's also the small matter of money for development projects, and the power to dole it out appropriately and expediently. During the Bush administration, the State Department lost considerable appropriation authority, thanks to what Clinton views as an emphasis on strong power in Afghanistan and Iraq. "[I]t just was easier, quicker for the military to do a lot of things," she said. "And so you found the military doing development. You had young captains and colonels with discretionary funds…that they were literally able to call on $50- or $100,000 to repair a school outside of Mosul or help build a road in Afghanistan without any of the bureaucratic checks and balances that we go through at AID and State." In a post-QDDR world, Clinton wants to restore the power of the purse to the relevant agencies.

But there's a slight contradiction between Clinton's vision of a leaner, meaner, diplomatic machine, and her goal of controlling more personnel and more money. And it's a contradiction she'll have to explain to the House Foreign Services Committee's new chair, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), whose hard line approach includes deep cuts to the State department's budget and tougher sanctions.

Tea Party-fueled fiscal rectitude aside, Ros-Lehtinen could be simply trying to pick a fight with the White House. Back in September, the administration released the first-ever Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development, which lays out a vision similar to what Clinton and Shah advocate in the QDDR. If she gets her way, Ros-Lehtinen could hamper Obama and Clinton's plans to elevate diplomacy and development, and make it tough for State to take more responsibility in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

The State Department and USAID hope that the QDDR leads to a tangible overhaul in US foreign policy. But this review is the result of a long, drawn-out two-year process. Deadlines were missed, and key personnel—including former Deputy Secretary of State and recently confirmed OMB director Jack Lew—jumped ship along the way. Meanwhile, former government officials and development economists have told Mother Jones to expect little in the way of tangible results from the QDDR. The problems with its roll-out, they say, suggest a certain amount of bureaucratic wrangling between State and USAID. And those problems only add weight to Ros-Lehtinen's argument that the agents charged with the tools of diplomacy should be on a much tighter leash.

Palin: The More You See....

| Thu Dec. 16, 2010 11:31 AM EST

Politico's big scoop today is that Sarah Palin has decided to try to charm the "lamestream media." Perhaps that's because she can read the polls. The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey shows that her negatives are...growing. After her TLC reality show, after Bristol's appearance on DWTS, after releasing yet another book, after all her tweets and Facebook notes attacking all sorts of foes, the former-half-term Alaskan governor is slipping in the polls. From MSNBC.com's First Read:

In potential 2012 match-ups, [Obama] bests Romney by seven points (47%-40%), Palin by 22 points (55%-33%), and a relatively generic candidate like John Thune by 20 points (47%-27%). Of course, Thune and Romney both hold him under 50%....The other chief headline in the NBC/WSJ poll is Sarah Palin’s starting position for 2012, if she decides to run. In addition to Obama leading her by a whopping 22 points -- compared with Romney’s seven-point deficit, and a generic GOP candidate’s three-point deficit in the poll -- Palin’s negative rating has climbed to 50%. That’s the highest negative rating for anyone measured in this poll (and it’s two points lower than Nancy Pelosi’s negative rating from last month). And get this: The only major subgroups that Palin wins in a head-to-head match-up with Obama are Republicans, conservatives, and FOX viewers. That’s it, folks. NBC/WSJ co-pollster Bill McInturff (R) says that this is “a sobering starting point” for Palin if she decides to run for president.

Sober? It might be cause for a drink. No wonder Palin is making nice with the political media—such as Time magazine, ABC News, and, yes, even The New York Times. It seems her in-your-face-on-cable-Twitter-Facebook-and-every-other-imaginable-platform is not quite working. So Palin is now using the mainstreamers to rehab her image. It's possible, though, the problem has not been Palin's media strategy, but the product itself.

Congress Puts Some Liquified Coal in Our Stockings

| Thu Dec. 16, 2010 10:52 AM EST

The Senate approved the controversial tax package on Wednesday, kicking the bill back to the House for a final vote. President Obama has asked the House to approve it without making any changes. The vote on the $860 billion tax package has proven controversial in green circles as well. The renewable-energy industry is cheering passage, while a coalition of the big environmental groups have united against it, arguing that the little good it does on energy is outweighed by major incentives for dirty power sources.

The green groups argue that the energy provisions of the bill "would, as a whole, take us backwards not forward on moving to a clean energy economy." In a letter to representatives, the groups point to two portions—an extension of the incentive for turning coal into liquid fuel and the credit for corn ethanol. The former would provide a $0.50 tax credit for every gallon of liquid coal sold or used in the US—and liquid coal creates almost twice as much greenhouse gas pollution as regular old gasoline.

And, though corn-based ethanol is of dubious environmental benefit, the credit would cost more than $31 billion over the next five years. "Not only is the corn ethanol tax credit wasteful, but continuing to use scarce taxpayer dollars to support a mature, mainstream and polluting technology like corn ethanol will impede our ability to transition to the new, better-performing advanced biofuels we need," wrote the groups, which included 1Sky, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace USA, National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council and Sierra Club.

Meanwhile, the renewables lobby is cheering the inclusion of at least a few of the tax programs it was looking for to boost its industries. The package included a one-year extension of the Department of Treasury grant program for renewables, which gives businesses a cash grant for new projects, rather than making them wait for the 30 percent investment tax credit.

The Solar Energy Industries Association and the American Wind Energy Association both put out statements today praising the extension. SEIA noted that the program, which was originally created under the stimulus bill in 2009, has so far supported 1,100 solar projects in 42 states, leading to $18 billion in investment.

Does the grant program outweigh some of the not-so-great portions of the bill when it comes to renewable power? Not really. But at least there's something worthwhile on energy in the package.

The iPhone's Trade Deficit Problem

| Thu Dec. 16, 2010 9:05 AM EST

Pundits love to claim that America's job market will come roaring back as soon as everyone learns to "embrace the innovation economy" and churn out more high-tech gadgets. Well, maybe they should think different. Two academic researchers at the Asian Development Bank Institute in Tokyo recently found that the most iconic American gadget of all—Apple's iPhone—last year added $1.9 billion to the US trade deficit.

The explanation is fairly simple: iPhone parts manufactured in the United States account for a mere 6 percent of its estimated $179 wholesale cost.  The rest of the iPhone's cost comes from components made in Japan and Germany and their final assembly in China. "High-tech products such as iPhones in this context do not help increase US exports," conclude the researchers, Yuqing Xing and Neal Detert, "but instead contribute to the US trade deficit."

As the chart makes obvious, it's unfair to blame the entire trade deficit on China, which accounts for just 3.6 percent of the phone's wholesale cost. Citing some of the figures yesterday, the Wall Street Journal argued that "the practice of assuming every product shipped from one country is entirely produced in that country no longer reflects the complex reality of global commerce." That's certainly true.

Yet the Journal neglected a more important point: There's nothing forcing Apple to manufacture the iPhone abroad. The ADBI researchers estimate that Apple's gross profit margin on iPhones in 2009 was a whopping 64 percent. This leads them to conclude that "profit maximization behavior," and not competition, is what's driving Apple to China. In other words, Apple would rather make a little bit more money than employ more Americans.

If all iPhones were assembled in the US, it would have added $5.7 billion to US exports last year. When are we gonna get an app for that