Mojo - July 2011

Languishing in Solitary, Pelican Bay Inmates Launch Hunger Strike

| Fri Jul. 1, 2011 1:00 PM PDT
The X-shaped building cluster is Pelican Bay's special housing unit.

As Americans gear up to celebrate Independence Day, several dozen inmates languishing in solitary confinement at California's Pelican Bay State Prison are standing up for their rights the only way they can think of—by refusing to eat. The prisoners, who are being held in long-term or sometimes permanent isolation, launched a hunger strike Friday and have sworn to continue it until prison authorities improve conditions in Pelican Bay's special housing unit (SHU).

Built in 1989, Pelican Bay is the nation's first supermax prison built for that purpose, and remains one of its most notorious. About a third of its roughly 3,100 inmates live in the X-shaped cluster of buildings known as the SHU. NPR's Laura Sullivan, one of few reporters granted entry to Pelican Bay, described the unit in a 2006 report:

Everything is gray concrete: the bed, the walls, the unmovable stool. Everything except the combination stainless-steel sink and toilet. You can't move more than eight feet in one direction...The cell is one of eight in a long hallway. From inside, you can't see anyone or any of the other cells. This is where the inmate eats, sleeps and exists for 22 1/2 hours a day. He spends the other 1 1/2 hours alone in a small concrete yard...Twice a day, officers push plastic food trays through the small portals in the metal doors...

Those doors are solid metal, with little nickel-sized holes punched throughout. One inmate known as Wino is standing just behind the door of his cell. It's difficult to make eye contact, because you can only see one eye at a time. "The only contact that you have with individuals is what they call a pinky shake," he says, sticking his pinky through one of the little holes in the door. That's the only personal contact Wino has had in six years.

When conditions at Pelican Bay were challenged in a 1995 lawsuit, the judge in the case found that life in the SHU "may press the outer borders of what most humans can psychologically tolerate," while placing mentally ill or psychologically vulnerable people in such conditions "is the equivalent of putting an asthmatic in a place with little air to breathe." Yet since that time, the number of inmates in the SHU has grown, and their sentences have lengthened from months to years to decades. Hugo Pinell, a former associate of George Jackson who is considered by some a political prisoner, has been in Pelican Bay's SHU for more than 20 years.

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Tim Pawlenty's Weak Fundraising Haul

| Fri Jul. 1, 2011 12:57 PM PDT

In the 2012 presidential money race, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty's second quarter haul was disappointing, to say the least. His campaign reeled in just $4.2 million, a disappointing sum compared to the $20 million that Mitt Romney, seen by many as the GOP frontrunner, is thought to have raised in the past three months. (Romney is due to announce his fundraising numbers after the holiday weekend.)

Here's the Washington Post's "Fix" blog on Pawlenty's numbers:

Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant confirmed the number, adding that the governor "begins the third quarter with more available cash-on-hand than the Republicans who won the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary had in July 2007." Conant offered no specifics about Pawlenty’s cash on hand total. He did note that Pawlenty’s fundraising total did include general election money that he would not be able to spend unless and until he becomes the party’s nominee.

At the end of June 2007, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee had $437,000 in the bank while Arizona Sen. John McCain had $3.2 million on hand as well as $1.8 million in debt. Huckabee won Iowa, McCain New Hampshire. McCain went on to be the party’s presidential nominee in 2008.

Spin aside, the number is somewhat disappointing for Pawlenty who had been hoping to emerge as the clear pick for people not enamored with Romney by posting a strong number in the second fundraising quarter.

A Pawlenty aide said the number was "slightly off" the campaign’s goal of raising $4.5 million for the quarter but added: "There are a lot of people waiting on the field to prove themselves."

McKinsey Backpedals on Health Care Reform Study

| Fri Jul. 1, 2011 9:10 AM PDT

Last week, global consulting giant McKinsey & Company released a study suggesting that 30 percent of businesses currently offering health care to their employees would probably stop doing so once President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act goes into full effect. Conservative foes of health care reform eagerly lapped this up, asserting that the study clearly debunked Obama's promise that Americans would be able to keep their current health care coverage under his new law if they so desired. But health economists and supporters of the law quickly voiced skepticism of the study, asking the most basic of questions: what was the methodology?

McKinsey's explanation, via National Journal's Julie Rovner:

McKinsey conceded that its survey "was not intended as a predictive economic analysis of the impact of the Affordable Care Act." . . . [T]he survey was more of a point-in-time reading of employer opinion. "As noted, the survey only captured current attitudes," the firm explained.

"Employers’ future actions will be determined by many considerations. Among them: medical-cost inflation; the details of new state health insurance exchanges; employee attitudes toward compensation and benefits; a company’s ability to attract and retain talent; actions taken by competitors; and the state of the economy."

Eventually, McKinsey released its methodology—albeit, in incomplete form. And it only disclosed the survey's questions in response to a letter of inquiry from Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.). Apparently, there was a reason for the firm's reluctance, Rovner reports: 

[E]mployers were asked leading questions that made it seem logical for them to stop offering insurance. Respondents were told that the new health insurance exchanges would become "an easy, affordable way for individuals to obtain health insurance." Then they were given examples of how little their low- and moderate-income workers might have to pay for insurance, thanks to new federal subsidies. Only then were they asked how likely they would be to stop offering health insurance.

McKinsey stands behind its work. And its exalted, apolitical, professional reputation within corporate and policy circles isn't likely to suffer too much as a result of this episode. Yet the lesson is clear: given the never-ending controversies surrounding the ACA, lawmakers should tread carefully before blindly accepting declarative predictions predicated on less-than-transparent data. The same is true for bloggers and partisan food-fighters.

Tim Pawlenty: I Wish I'd Shut Down My State Even Longer

| Fri Jul. 1, 2011 6:56 AM PDT

At midnight last night, Minnesota's government officially shut down, save for essential services, after the Republican legislature and Democratic Governor Mark Dayton failed to reach an agreement on how to close the state's $6.2-billion budget deficit (Republicans want more spending cuts; Dayton wants to raise taxes in some areas). So how did Minnesota end up with a $6.2 billion budget deficit? Two words: Tim Pawlenty.

As I explained yesterday, the GOP presidential candidate and former governor spent his eight years in St. Paul turning in balanced budgets by using various accounting tricks (deferred payments, declining to take into account inflation when calculating future expenses), and shifting resources (local property taxes skyrocketed in order to offset shrinking state revenues). It looked good on paper, provided you didn't look too hard. But now, with Minnesota's shutdown making headlines, Pawlenty is doing damage control. Last night, he held a brief press conference at the Minneapolis–St. Paul Airport to offer his thoughts on the shutdown. The kicker: He thinks it's a good thing.

Via St. Paul's KSTP:

Former Governor and Presidential Candidate Tim Pawlenty says he wishes the brief shutdown he presided over in 2005 lasted longer.

He explains that had the shutdown continued the state might have been better off fiscally.

While Pawlenty refused to directly address the tens of thousands of state workers facing unemployment, he did suggest they should adopt longer term Republican goals based on fiscal responsibility.

This misses one key thing, which is that the actual shutdown itself has an economic impact. As Minnesota Public Radio reports, the shutdown could cost about $12 million per week in lost tourism revenue, $10 million in lost productivity, $2.3 million in lost lottery revenue, and a few million dollars more in lost productivity because workers were drawing up contingency plans for the shutdown rather than doing actual work. Beyond that, one direct consequence of laying off tens of thousands of state workers is that those people become unemployed, placing an even greater strain on the economy. Shutdowns are great if you're primarily concerned with slowly shrinking the size of government with no larger concern for the state's economic health—but that's about it.

Judge Blocks South Dakota's Abortion Counseling Law

| Fri Jul. 1, 2011 4:00 AM PDT

On Thursday, a federal judge blocked a South Dakota measure that would have forced women to visit a counseling center and wait 72 hours before obtaining an abortion.

The law, set to take effect on Friday, required women to visit a so-called "crisis pregnancy center"—which are often run by religious and anti-abortion groups—before having an abortion. It also imposed the longest mandatory waiting period in the country. Judge Karen Schreier of the US District Court in South Dakota granted a preliminary injunction sought by Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union, ruling that the law is likely be found unconstitutional.

The law inspired outrage from abortion rights advocates, who note that crisis pregnancy centers are unregulated, frequently staffed by unqualified volunteers, have been found to provide false information, and often exist for the sole purpose of discouraging women from going forward with an abortion. The text of the law passed in South Dakota didn't really hide that goal, stating that the aim of the measure was to help women "maintain and keep their relationship with their unborn children."

Schreier wrote in the decision:

Forcing a woman to divulge to a stranger at a pregnancy help center the fact that she has chosen to undergo an abortion humiliates and degrades her as a human being. The woman will feel degraded by the compulsive nature of the Pregnancy Help Center requirements, which suggest that she has made the 'wrong' decision, has not really 'thought' about her decision to undergo an abortion, or is 'not intelligent enough' to make the decision with the advice of a physician. Furthermore, these women are forced into a hostile environment.

In a state like South Dakota, the 72-hour waiting period would have presented an even bigger logistical barrier. There's only one abortion provider in the state, and a woman could have to drive up to six hours to reach the clinic.

Mimi Liu, a Planned Parenthood attorney who argued the case in court, said in a statement Thursday evening: "We are happy and relieved for our patients that the court's decision today means they will not have to suffer through these outrageous and demeaning requirements."

This Week in National Insecurity: July 4th Edition

| Fri Jul. 1, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

Happy (almost) birthday, America! Nothing says red, white, and blue firecrackin' love of country like a roundup of defense dementedness. Each Friday, we grab our lensatic compass, rucksack, and canteen, then mount out across the global media landscape for a quick national security recon. Whether you think our military is too damned busy—or not busy enough—here's all the ammunition you'll need, in a handy debrief.

In this installment: No to "toe shoes"! And no to tech support! But yes to ugly cars, loads of marijuana, $5 trillion wars, and coating your colleagues in "foreign substances."

The sitrep:

The government's national threat level is Elevated, or Yellow "at a heightened level of vigilance."

  • Bye bye, Bob Gates. Care for a Presidential Medal of Freedom on your way out? All outgoing defense secretaries get a medal now. (Stars & Stripes)
  • And what does the new secdef, Leon Panetta, get? A $5 trillion war on terror. A new study says that's the actual cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (not the $1 trillion the Pentagon estimated last week). The report also gives an "extremely conservative" estimate of 225,000 deaths and 365,000 injuries in the wars. (Time)
  • So what are we spending all that money on? Computer systems that don't work, apparently. The Army's $2.7 billion DCGS-A network is supposed to give commanders real-time battlefield data, but "was unable to perform simple analytical tasks" and has actually helped insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. "There's a lot of bugs in the workflow," says one officer. Lesson learned: Computers can make chocolate rain, but they can't rebuild failed nations. (Politico)
  • But here's something the Army's unwilling to spend money on: "toe shoes" for exercising soldiers. According to a new directive from the brass: "...only those shoes that accommodate all five toes in one compartment are authorized for wear. Those shoes that feature five separate, individual compartments for the toes, detract from a professional military image and are prohibited" during workouts. (Washington Post)

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 1, 2011

Fri Jul. 1, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

Soldiers from Company C, 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, Task Force Currahee, pull security from the top of a mountain in Paktika province during Operation Surak Basta III on June 23. Photo via US Army.