Mojo - February 2011

Malcolm Gladwell Tackles Egypt, Twitter

| Wed Feb. 2, 2011 7:29 PM EST

I don't say this very often, or at all, but Malcolm Gladwell is totally on the money today. Twitter bears about as much responsibility for the Egyptian uprising as George Soros, Mrs. O'Leary's cow, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Yet in their determination to find a story line—an overarching narrative—to the Mideast's tumult, too many journalists and pedants are overstating the role of the 140-Character Canon in shaping human events. In doing so, they sound as navel-gazingly and lazily conspiratorial as a horde of Glenn Beck evangelists. Anyone who lived through 1989 or the civil rights era or 1967 or 1956 knows that media technology is not a motive force for civil disobedience. Arguing otherwise is not just silly; it's a distraction from the real human forces at play here.

But no one can say it better than Gladwell:

Right now there are protests in Egypt that look like they might bring down the government. There are a thousand important things that can be said about their origins and implications: as I wrote last summer in The New Yorker, "high risk" social activism requires deep roots and strong ties. But surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along. Barely anyone in East Germany in the nineteen-eighties had a phone—and they ended up with hundreds of thousands of people in central Leipzig and brought down a regime that we all thought would last another hundred years—and in the French Revolution the crowd in the streets spoke to one another with that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as the human voice. People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.

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As Go Egypt and Tunisia, So Goes America?

| Wed Feb. 2, 2011 2:56 PM EST

One cause of the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt is popular outrage over the monopolization of wealth by a small cadre of elites. The grievances of the Middle East's dispossessed probably seem justified to most Americans, who view the the region as a relic of feudalism and stomping ground for despots. But what about America itself? As has been widely noted over the past few days, income inequality in the United States is actually much worse than in Egypt, Tunisia, or Pakistan. Could the US government feel the push of inequality's domino effect?

The too-simple answer is that the US is immunized to unrest by its comparative prosperity. Over at Economix, Catherine Rampell presents a fascinating graph that illustrates how America's poor are, as a group, about as wealthy as India's richest. Yet those arguments neglect some of the major disadvantages of being modestly middle class in a wealthy country: A much higher cost of living and a perceived need to keep up with the Joneses, which fueled the explosion of subprime home loans that caused the recession.

"Global unemployment remains at record highs, with widening income inequality adding to social strains," Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the chief of the IMF, said this week during a speech in Singapore, citing turmoil in North Africa as a prelude to what may happen elsewhere. "We could see rising social and political instability within nations—even war."

He wasn't just talking about banana republics. While India and China have mostly bounced back from the recession, the recovery in the United States has been more uneven, with corporate profits skyrocketing despite entrenched joblessness. "The recovery that is underway is not the recovery we wanted. It is a recovery beset by tensions and strains—which could even sow the seeds of the next crisis,"Strauss-Kahn said. A recent paper (pdf) by two IMF economists warned of "disastrous consequences" if developed economies continue to neglect their eroding middle classes.

While certainly no solution to inequality, the tea party, with its seething anti-establishment resentments, is clearly a product of it. Time will tell whether its quixotic brand of populism gives way to a fiercer kind of class warfare.

Newt's Unpopular Anti-EPA Crusade

| Wed Feb. 2, 2011 1:05 PM EST

Newt Gingrich has made abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency a central theme in what many believe to be the early days of a presidential bid. He first referenced the idea in a speech last week in Iowa, then elaborated on the plan in an email to his supporters. But if Gingrich is serious about the White House, he may went to throttle back on the EPA bashing. Doing away with the EPA is pretty unpopular with Americans—even with Republicans, according to a poll released Wednesday

The poll was conducted by Opinion Research Center International and commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Health Care Without Harm. It found that 67 percent of Americans—including 61 percent of Republicans—opposed the idea of abolishing the agency.

The poll also asked about efforts to strip the EPA's authority to act on greenhouse gases, the more realistic threat to the agency's mission right now, as both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have floated plans that would strip that authority to varying degrees. Yet another bill is expected on Wednesday from Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) that would eliminate that authority.

According to the poll, 77 percent of Americans oppose efforts to restrict the EPA's efforts on air pollution, including 61 percent of Republicans. "Democrats, Republicans, and Independents want politicians to protect the health of children and adults rather than protecting polluters," said Pete Altman, climate campaign director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Only 25 percent of Republicans they polled actually supported Gingrich's call to abolish the agency outright—by far the more extreme example of EPA-bashing we've seen in recent weeks.

Not to be outdone, Gingrich's group American Solutions for Winning the Future released its own polling data in the midst of the NRDC's call with reporters. There was just one problem. Its data was from a 2007 survey that asked vague questions about whether America can have both economic growth and environmental protection, and whether innovation is a good thing. Not a single question dealt with extinguishing the EPA.

Sen. Inouye Announces Earmark Moratorium

| Wed Feb. 2, 2011 10:47 AM EST

Senate appropriations committee chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) announced that his committee will implement an earmark moratorium for the remainder of the current session of Congress.

From his statement:

The President has stated unequivocally that he will veto any legislation containing earmarks, and the House will not pass any bills that contain them...The Appropriations Committee will thoroughly review its earmark policy to ensure that every member has a precise definition of what constitutes an earmark. To that end, we will send each member a letter with the interpretation of Rule XLIV (44) that will be used by the Committee. If any member submits a request that is an earmark as defined by that rule, we will respectfully return the request.

Next year, when the consequences of this decision are fully understood by the members of this body, we will most certainly revisit this issue and explore ways to improve the earmarking process.

Inouye's point: earmarked legislation, either in the House or on the president's desk, has no shot, so what's the point? But this represents a serious about-face for the eight-term senator. Back in fiscal year 2009, Inouye pulled in almost $220 million for projects in Hawaii. Translation: he could be looking at a tough two years.

Hatch: Huntsman's a "Moderate" and the Tea Party Has No Veto

| Wed Feb. 2, 2011 8:40 AM EST

When Republican Jon Huntsman announced that he'd be resigning as Obama's China ambassador, it spurred talk that he is prepping for a 2012 presidential bid. But with the conventional wisdom holding that the Republican primary electorate will be looking for a die-hard conservative in 2012, Huntsman, the former Utah governor who spent the last two years working for (not opposing) Barack Obama, could have a tough time establishing his right-wing credentials. And it doesn't help that a prominent GOP fan labels him a moderate. On Tuesday, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), while talking up Huntsman as a potential presidential candidate, told reporters, "He would be more moderate than most Republicans running for president, and I think he would probably admit that."

Having embraced a regional cap-and-trade system, civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, and Obama's much-loathed stimulus package, Huntsman has drawn steady fire from the right flank of the party. Some observers have already written off a 2012 Huntsman bid as a "crazy gambit," arguing that there's no way a centrist former Obama administration official could capture the Republican nomination.

But Hatch dismissed the notion that the tea-party right would automatically quash Huntsman's chances. The Utah Senator told Mother Jones:

It isn't the tea party right that is really—they're not the only people involved. The independents are tremendously involved, a lot of Democrats are involved. That's why independents went for Republicans in large measure in this last election. Even Democrats are voting for Republicans because they recognize this is an overwhelming Democrat central government bill that they really don't they like.

Hatch even denied that Huntsman's diplomatic post in the Obama administration would be much of a liability. He noted that Huntsman can say, "Look, I left the most important diplomatic post in the country because I disagree with the government. That shows some spunk." (Huntsman, though, did not announce he was leaving due to a disagreement with Obama.)

Hatch's dismissal of the tea party wing was curious. After all, tea partiers have discussed opposing him next year during the GOP primaries—in the same way they successfully went after and defeated Sen. Bob Bennett in Utah last year. (Like Bennett, Hatch has a history of occasionally reaching across the aisle, though he is a unmistakably a conservative.) Though one of the tea party's top 2012 primary targets, Hatch was downplaying the party's right flank. Does that mean he's not worried about the tea partiers—or that he's so worried that he's trying to deny their influence? In any event, when Hatch claimed that Huntsman could triumph despite tea party opposition, perhaps he was projecting his own fate as well.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 2, 2011

Wed Feb. 2, 2011 5:30 AM EST

Sgt. Heather Blake, who serves as a medic with Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force – Afghanistan, listens to the heartbeat of a small boy at the free clinic at Bagram Airfield’s Korean Hospital Jan. 29. The event included medical personnel from Afghanistan, Korea, United Arab Emirates, the U.S. Army and Army Reserve and U.S. Navy who treated more than 200 patients. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Katryn McCalment)

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CREW Wants IRS Probe of GOP Outside Group

| Tue Feb. 1, 2011 1:03 PM EST

On Friday, I reported here that Democrats in Congress and campaign finance reform groups were plotting a strategy to legally challenge the tax-exempt status of powerful right-wing outside groups, including Crossroads GPS, American Action Network, and the American Future Fund. Earlier today, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington did just that, formally requesting that the Internal Revenue Service investigate the American Future Fund to determine whether the Iowa-based group violated its tax-exempt status, which allows AFF to hide the identity of its donors.

As I explained, challenges to 501(c)4 outside groups' tax status hinge upon one particular clause in the tax law. According to the IRS, 501(c)4 groups, otherwise known as social welfare organizations, must be primarily issue-driven outfits. A group like American Future Fund can engage in political advocacy, running ads that attack or express support for a particular candidate, so long as that political advocacy "is not its primary activity." In a letter sent to the IRS on Tuesday, CREW alleges that AFF in fact made politicking its primary purpose.

AFF's initial filings with the IRS claim the group's dealings were "strictly issue based and non-partisan" and that AFF "does not support or oppose any candidate for public office." In the 2010 midterm elections, however, AFF spent upwards of $7.3 million expressly backing a particular candidate or calling for the defeat of another candidate. Another $2.2 million was spent on what are called "electioneering communications," or election-time ads name-dropping a particular candidate. This evidence, CREW says, is reason to believe that AFF might have violated its IRS status. And if the IRS agrees, AFF would be forced to register as a political action committee and open up its books to the public. "Given the amount of money the American Future Fund spent on ads in the 2010 congressional elections, it seems clear the primary—if not only—goal of the group is to elect Republicans to Congress," Melanie Sloan, CREW's executive director, said in a statement.

A request for comment with the American Future Fund wasn't immediately returned on Tuesday.

Here's more from CREW:

The list of AFF's officers reads like a who's who of Iowa Republican politics. Nicole Schlinger, AFF's sole board member when it was organized, is the former finance director for the Republican Party of Iowa. The current president, Sandra Greiner, served as a Republican in the Iowa House of Representatives from 1992-2008, was elected to the state Senate in 2010. AFF reportedly got its initial seed money from Bruce Rastetter, CEO of Hawkeye Energy Holdings, who has been described by Iowa newspapers as a "long-time power broker in Iowa politics." ...

"How can an organization that has a sitting Republican legislator as its chief executive claim to be non-partisan?" said Ms. Sloan. "It is clear the American Future Fund is a front for wealthy Republicans to anonymously spend millions electing Republicans to Congress."

And here's CREW's complete letter to the IRS:

2-1-2011 AFF IRS Letter

Did Democrats Unwittingly Sabotage Health Reform?

| Tue Feb. 1, 2011 10:18 AM EST

A closer look at Florida Judge Vinson's ruling against federal health care reform shows that he relied on the Obama administration's own defense of the law to justify his decision. As Reason's Peter Suderman points out, the Florida judge cites the White House's own defense that the mandate is absolutely "essential" for the rest of the law to work:

The defendants have acknowledged that the individual mandate and the Act’s health insurance reforms, including the guaranteed issue and community rating, will rise or fall together as these reforms "cannot be severed from the [individual mandate]." As explained in my order on the motion to dismiss: "the defendants concede that [the individual mandate] is absolutely necessary for the Act’s insurance market reforms to work as intended. In fact, they refer to it as an 'essential' part of the Act at least fourteen times in their motion to dismiss." [Emphasis added.]

In fact, in recent weeks, Democratic defenders of health reform have only become more vocal about the catastrophic consequences of removing the mandate as conservatives have zeroed in on the provision. Independent analysts have confirmed as much, explaining that premiums would skyrocket and the insurance market would descend into chaos if the mandate were removed while the other provisions were kept in place. "Essentially, the administration's lawyers argued that the health care law wouldn’t work without the mandate, and Vinson took them at their word," Suderman sums up.

Vinson seems to be taking the Obama administration's argument at face value—and refusing to go any further. In the wake of the first federal ruling against the law in December, reform's supporters argued that there were, in fact, ways to salvage the rest of the legislation without the individual mandate. As I reported at the time, "One would be an opt-out rule that would allow people to forgo insurance, but which would offer the benefits under health reform to those who chose to be covered—including government subsidies to buy insurance and regulations that would prevent them from being denied coverage." Such fixes wouldn't be easy, but they aren't out of the question. And while most Democrats haven't focused on such fixes in hopes of gaining support for the mandate itself, moderates like Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) have been more vocal about such alternatives. Vinson, by contrast, has chosen the most fatalistic interpretation of the Democrats' remarks on the mandate to bolster his case for tearing the whole law down.

That being said, when it comes to Vinson's fundamental reason for knocking down the entire law, there's little question that the Democrats unwittingly handed him a key piece of ammunition. A year ago, when Sen. Scott Brown's election in Massachusetts imperiled the entire reform bill, with a key vote lost in the Senate, Democrats resorted to a rushed reconciliation process to salvage it. In doing so, they ended up forgoing some key steps in mistake-proofing the legislation—and forgot to put in a "severability" clause that would allow any single provision to be removed without imperiling the rest of the law. The omission has now given a potent legal weapon to tear down the entire law—one that Vinson readily employed. Read Slate's Dave Weigel for more details about the Democrats' potentially fatal flaw.

Egypt's Mobile Service Outage Appears to Target Activists

| Tue Feb. 1, 2011 7:00 AM EST

On January 25, Egyptian human rights activist Hossam Bahgat stood in protest with some 15,000 others in Cairo's Tahrir Square (get MoJo's up-to-date coverage on this here). Mobile phone reception was intermittent until around midnight, when the lines were largely restored. That is, except for Bahgat's phone. "Since then my SIM card has been basically dead, not even getting any signal," he says. Reports as early as Wednesday mentioned that the government may have shut down access to Twitter and Facebook, and disabled mobile phone towers. Around 4 a.m. on Friday, Egypt underwent a nationwide internet and telecommunications blackout. An interview with Bahgat, however, reveals that Vodafone, and potentially Egypt's other mobile network operators , may have selectively severed phone access for human rights defenders, lawyers, and political activists starting on Tuesday and continuing into the present. "That's certainly a reason for concern," he says.

According to Bahgat, the founder and director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, what happened to his phone service also happened to at least four other human rights activists and lawyers. "People trying to reach us have been getting the message that this number is incorrect," he told me. There seemed to be only one quick way around the blockage: Shortly after noticing their mobile service was cut off, Bahgat and his colleagues purchased new phone lines.

Bahgat notes that Egyptian law gives government agencies the right to interfere with the work of private providers for the purposes of national security. "But as for the decision to suspend the phone lines selectively and the phone lines of human rights defenders, this is morally unjustifiable," he says. Vodafone, which serves Bahgat along with 43% of Egypt's mobile phone users, announced Saturday that they "had to comply with the demands of authorities." But Bahgat plans to file a lawsuit against the company for breaching consumer protections, overriding activists' right to communicate, and arbitrary interference with activists' right to privacy.

Of course, in order to file the suit, Bahgat will have to wait until the local political situation stabilizes: With the on-going leadership overhaul and curfew intact since Friday, the courts "have shut down indefinitely." "We're not sure when the courts will reopen and what type of situation we will find ourselves in," says Bahgat. If and when the courts do reopen, he is prepared for action. "This is something that I plan to pursue as soon as possible," he says. "We don't want this to become a precedent where some individuals are targeted and have their phone lines suspended because of their activism."

West Virginia Legislator Hatches Plan to Secede

| Tue Feb. 1, 2011 6:00 AM EST

First Tunisia, then Egypt, now...West Virginia? Well, no, not exactly. But delegate Larry Kump has had it up to here with his state's government. "I take pride in being a Mountaineer," says the freshman legislator—but he'd rather break his beloved state apart than see it suffer on as an economic backwater.

"Our per capita income in West Virginia is 47th in the United States; it's one of the few things we're not 50th in," Kump says. "We've lost 10,000 manufacturing jobs over the past three years. Gross Domestic Product is 49th in the nation."

"One of my favorite sayings here in West Virginia is 'Thank God for Mississippi,' because if it wasn't for Mississippi, we'd be fiftieth in everything."

He adds, "I'd prefer West Virginians stay together and just get their act together—but if they don't, I think it's a good idea to go elsewhere."

Elsewhere, in this case, means moving back in with the ex. Last week, Kump, a self-identified "libertarian grassroots populist" with tea party ties, introduced a bill in the state legislature calling for a non-binding referendum on secession. Specifically, Kump suggests that the three counties of the state's eastern panhandle break away from the mother ship and become a part of Virginia (as they were prior to 1863). His reason is simple: Kump believes the state government has created an economic climate that's holding its citizens back. West Virginia's almost heaven, in other words, but it's an awful big "almost."

"One of my favorite sayings here in West Virginia is 'Thank God for Mississippi,'* because if it wasn't for Mississippi, we'd be fiftieth in everything," says Kump (who clearly hasn't seen this map). "All you need to do is cross the border in any of the surrounding states and they're all doing much better than we are."

Kump's hardly the first person to contemplate leaving West Virginia, but his grievances are noteworthy in part because of what inspired him: Unleashing Capitalism, a 2007 pro-business manifesto edited by West Virginia University economist Russell Sobel. The book, supported by funding from the energy conglomerate Koch Industries, has become a must-read for the state's reform-minded conservatives, who tout it as a blueprint for economic growth. The state's GOP chairman called the book "our party platform" when it was first released; it's spawned a sequel (about South Carolina), and been honored by the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, a Washington-based think tank backed by Exxon-Mobil.