Mojo - August 2011

Report: Muslim Americans Are Incredibly Normal

| Wed Aug. 31, 2011 4:56 PM EDT

The Pew Center has a new 136-page report out about Muslim Americans. The report's title, "Muslim Americans: No Signs of Growth in Alienation or Support for Extremism" makes Pew's perspective clear, and seems directed at some conservatives who suggest that all Muslims and Muslim Americans are potential terrorists. Or professors and physicists. But mostly terrorists.

The survey shows Muslim Americans as being distinctly anti-terror, with 48% of them saying U.S. Muslim leaders "have not done enough" to speak out against Islamic extremists. Only 1% of those surveyed said there was "often" a justifiable excuse for using violence to defend Islam, and only 5% had a favorable view of Al Qaeda. The majority of Muslim Americans (60%) were concerned about rising Islamic extremism in the US, and they have good reason: 55% of them say life in America has become "more difficult" since 9/11, 25% say that mosques and Islamic centers where they live have been targeted, and 43% say they've been treated with suspicion or called names in the past year. Six percent were physically attacked or threatened because of their religion.

Despite the harassment some Muslim Americans face, they are actually more satisfied with life than the average U.S. citizen. As Gawker points out, Muslim Americans are more American in some ways: They're more likely to watch college football than the average American, more likely to believe that that people can get ahead in life with hard work, and are more likely to attend weekly worship services.

Another way that Muslim Americans are just like non-Muslim Americans is that some of them belive Obama is a Muslim. About 10% of American Muslims falsely believe the president shares their faith, as compared to 18% of the general public. One important difference: for the general public, people who dislike Obama's performance are three times as likely to believe he's Muslim. For Muslim Americans, things were reversed. Eleven percent of Muslim Americans who approve of Obama's job performance think he's Muslim, and only 3% of those who dislike his performance believed he was. Seems that Americans of all faiths could be a wee bit guilty of letting their beliefs influence their facts rather than the other way around.

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Feds Move to Block AT&T-T-Mobile Merger

| Wed Aug. 31, 2011 12:50 PM EDT

On Wednesday, the Department of Justice filed a suit to block the proposed $39 billion merger between AT&T and T-Mobile. The deal would combine the powers of the second- and fourth-largest mobile phone carriers, dwarfing the current no. 3, Sprint Nextel. The hypothetical telecom juggernaut would have a 43% market share in the US, making it the biggest carrier in the country.

Back in July, AT&T—which has spent millions in lobbying and campaign contributions in support of the deal—filed a report with the Federal Communications Commission claiming that the merger would result in lower prices, increased service in metropolitan areas, and 5,000 new, "in-sourced" jobs, Bloomberg News reports. But the DOJ begs to differ, alleging that the merger violates anti-trust law. Removing a low-cost carrier like T-Mobile from the market would result in drastically reduced competition, less choice, and higher prices for wireless customers, the Justice Department argues.

AT&T has plenty at stake if regulators strike down the deal. AT&T shares fell by 5 percent after the suit was announced. And if regulators reject the merger, the company would have to cough up $3 billion in cash to T-Mobile's Germany-based parent company. It would also have to hand over wireless spectrum, among other things, to T-Mobile, in a package valued at $7 billion.

Reform advocates praise the suit. "It's encouraging to see the federal regulators have not been snowed by AT&T's promises and bluster," Craig Aaron, the head of the media watchdog group Free Press, said in a press release. "This was a bad idea from the start, and no amount of corporate spin [could] overcome that reality."

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said the suit is a big win for consumers in a struggling economy: "[T]he Department took an important step to ensure that consumers have continued access to affordable mobile services and new technologies. The action will protect American consumers and American jobs, the very purpose of our antitrust laws."

But what about the unions? The Communication Workers of America supports the deal, which it believes would create jobs. The left, it appears, is split. As Matt Yglesias reminds us, these sorts of political debates are often more complicated than they initially appear:

It also highlights the fact that many practical political issues in the United States don’t pit "workers" against "owners" or "managers" but rather pit firm against firm or sector against sector. There are some issues on which the interests of the Communications Workers of America differ from the interests of the owners and managers of AT&T, but there are also many issues on which their interests are perfectly aligned.

It's important for progressives to remember they can't take labor for granted. What opponents of the merger can and should do, though, is illustrate that those 5,000 jobs AT&T is advertising might be deceiving. Any such short-term growth would likely be dwarfed by the long-term consequences of losing smaller, nimbler, more innovative companies like T-Mobile. The merger would set a precedent for fewer consumer options, stymied growth, and, ultimately, fewer jobs.

UPDATE: Participants on a conference call with representatives from several media interest groups praised the suit. At its core, they said, the merger is about AT&T's underinvestment in its own communications network. Merging with T-Mobile—which pours several billion dollars a year into refurbishing its network—would allow AT&T to sidestep improving its own infrastructure.

And a merger of this size certainly wouldn't help the economy. If AT&T and T-Mobile were to join forces, duplicative service towers would be dismantled and redundant retail stores shuttered, resulting in massive job losses. Harold Feld, the legal director of Public Knowledge, said that T-Mobile had been in the process of preparing layoff notices for up to 20,000 employees in anticipation of the merger. "In the past couple months, it's become clear that AT&T, like a used car salesman, will say anything to close a deal," Feld said.

While the call participants stressed their ties with labor, they were clearly skeptical of the CWA's support for the deal. "At the end of the day, a few thousand new union jobs in these times don’t offset the loss of up to 20,000 jobs in total," said Derek Turner, the research director at Free Press. Turner added that the deal would result in reduced investment in capital expenditures by $10 billion in the years immediately following its passage, resulting in further layoffs.

The suit will now move on to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which will refer the case to an administrative law judge. Regardless of whether the news is good or bad for AT&T, it can appeal to a full commission, which could then either accept, reject, or modify the judge's decision.

"Only then would there be a final resolution by the FCC that the parties would have to live with or take to the courts," Howard Feld said. But, historically, a full commission hearing is considered the kiss of death for mergers like these.

Weiner Seat in Jeopardy for Dems?

| Wed Aug. 31, 2011 11:00 AM EDT
David Weprin.

The House seat vacated by disgraced former Rep. Anthony Weiner suddenly doesn't look so safe for Democrats. That's thanks in part to a series of untimely gaffes by Democratic candidate David Weprin, who will face off against Republican Bob Turner in a special election on September 13.

Here's TPM:

The influential New York Daily News savaged Weprin over the weekend after he belly flopped on a simple question from their editors: what is the national debt? With a reported "deer in headlights" look, he twice guessed $4 trillion, about $10 trillion off from the correct answer. As cringe-worthy a moment as it was on its own, its impact is much worse in Weprin's case: he's been selling himself as a fiscal Mr. Fix-it, touting his eight years as chair of the City Council's finance committee as his top qualification.

The next day Weprin dropped out of a debate with Turner at the last minute, citing logistical problems caused by the hurricane. But the storm had already passed and the move prompted speculation—fanned by [Republican candidate Bob] Turner's camp—that Weprin had dropped out to avoid taking heat for his debt screw-up the day before.

A little bad press will not sink a campaign. But one poll showed Weprin leading Turner by just six points before the gaffe machine went into overdrive. Democratic strategists still think Weprin's going to win. But he'll have to lean even more heavily on union support, milk a plum endorsement from The New York Times for all it's worth, and go full-on negative. So far, that's meant trying (and mostly failing) to link the apparently moderate Turner to the tea party. It's a tough sell.

For his part, Turner has had no problem taking cheap shots at Weprin, using TV ads to tie him to the Cordoba House "controversy" and insinuating that Democrats are prepared to sell out Israel (Weprin is an Orthodox Jew). With the election's close proximity to the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, the candidates are expected to dial back the vitriol in their campaigns' closing days.

Weiner's district is considered a Dem stronghold. If Weprin loses, expect liberal pundits to sound the death knell for the party in 2012. Which, of course, would be a totally kneejerk, exaggerated reaction. But don't forget: although it takes a team of dedicated, tireless strategists to win an election, it takes just one ill-prepared candidate to blow it. 

One-Third of Wartime Contracting Funds Wasted

| Wed Aug. 31, 2011 9:28 AM EDT

Hey, members of the Super-Duper Committee looking to cut a grand deficit-reduction deal, if you're looking for wasteful spending to remove from the federal budget, give Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) a call. This just in from her office:

KANSAS CITY – U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill will discuss the findings today of a two-year inquiry into wartime contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. McCaskill will make the announcement via phone at 11:15 a.m. ET / 10:15 a.m. CT from her offices in Kansas City.

The U.S. Commission on Wartime Contracting, created by McCaskill and inspired by President Harry Truman’s commission on war profiteering in World War II, discovered rampant waste, fraud, and abuse throughout the contracting apparatus. The Commission found that at least $31 billion and as much as $60 billion has been wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan to date and that much more will be wasted in the future without significant changes to the way the government plans, awards, and oversees contracts.

The new report provides a blueprint for addressing these failures of contracting including specific recommendations. McCaskill intends to develop legislation based upon these recommendations. The Commission was created through legislation spearheaded by McCaskill and U.S. Senator Jim Webb (Va.); it passed with broad bipartisan support.

Instead of slicing funding for, say, food safety programs, weather satellites, medical research, health care, or education, perhaps the SDC can squeeze tens of billions of dollars in waste out of this sloppy system. It's just a thought.

North Carolina GOP Trying to Ban Gay Marriage Twice

| Wed Aug. 31, 2011 7:56 AM EDT
North Carolina Republicans are hoping to put a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage on the 2012 ballot.

North Carolina has already banned gay marriage once, via statute, in 1996. Now, driven by concerns that a court might strike down the law, the state legislature is looking to do it again just to be on the safe side—this time by putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November 2012. House Majority Leader Paul Stam, a Republican, held a press conference on Tuesday to announce that the legislature would try to green-light the ballot initiative during September's special session.

But that wasn't the only thing he said. Via our friends at On Top, Stam attempted to justify his body's focus on the issue by comparing gay marriage to incest and polygamy:

When asked by a reporter whether the amendment was "a reach of government into the individuals' lives?" Stam answered: "Well 90 percent of all laws affect people's lives, so that's an argument without any content to it... We prohibit adult incest, we prohibit polygamy. What would be their answer to that? We're involved in people's lives. That's a slogan without analysis."

"What I'm saying is," Stam went on to explain, "you cannot construct an argument for same sex-marriage that would not also justify philosophically the legalization of polygamy and adult incest."

If the bill passes, North Carolina won't be the only state to put gay rights on the ballot next November. Minnesota will vote on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage next fall—due, in no small part, to the efforts of Michele Bachmann's allies at the Minnesota Family Council. The push comes at a precarious moment for both gay rights opponents and, more specifically, North Carolina. Gay rights activists scored a major victory this summer when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a law legalizing gay marriage in his state, and recent polls have shown a majority of Americans—and large numbers of Republicans—are supportive of gay marriage and civil unions. Even Focus on the Family president Jim Daly has had to concede that, at least demographically, the battle has been lost.

According to a February poll from Elon University, a majority of voters in North Carolina support at least some legal rights for gay couples. With Tobacco Road tilting increasingly into the blue column, 2012 might be conservatives' last best chance to push through such a measure before liberal-leaning millenials and northeastern transplants implement Shariah. The fact that it might also help get out the vote for opponents of President Obama's re-election campaign likely hasn't gone unnoticed by the state GOP either.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 31, 2011

Wed Aug. 31, 2011 4:57 AM EDT

Staff Sgt. Frankie Berdecia of Alpha Company 2nd battalion 27th infantry (the Wolfhounds), operates a TOW missile system at Observation Post Mace in eastern Afghanistan's Kunar province near the border with Pakistan on August 28, 2011. Photo by the US Army.

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Rights Group Slams Obama Over Warrantless Wiretapping

| Tue Aug. 30, 2011 2:43 PM EDT

If you thought the fight over the warrantless wiretapping program that thrived under President Bush was over, think again. On Monday, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a brief in federal appeals court in an attempt to reopen a years-old case over the surveillance program.

CCR's original lawsuit, CCR v. Bush, was filed in 2006. It sought an injunction ordering the government to terminate the NSA's illegal surveillance program. The government claims to have discontinued the program in 2007. But in the final stages of the 2006 case, CCR asked the court to order the immediate destruction of any surveillance records it had on the plaintiffs (some lawyers were concerned that their attorney-client emails and phone calls had been monitored during the legal process).

The lower court ultimately denied CCR's request, noting that before the group could sue the government, it first needed to provide evidence that its staff had been surveilled. (Such evidence is considered a state secret and would probably be instantly thrown out of court if it was ever uncovered in the first place.) CCR's appeal is aimed at finally obtaining a court order for the destruction of any records the government might still possess.

In a statement released on Tuesday, Shayana Kadidal, a senior attorney at CCR, took aim at the Obama administration for helping to hide the Bush administration's alleged misdeeds:

"The Obama administration has never taken a position – in this or any of the other related cases – on whether the Bush administration's NSA surveillance program was legal. Instead, it fought to keep this case out of court..." said...Kadidal. "Despite considerable public evidence that attorneys were targeted by the program, the court refused to even order...that the government destroy any records of this illegal surveillance that it...retains. It is astonishing that President Obama's administration continues to fight to hold on to the fruits of a patently illegal surveillance program..."

Civil libertarians have been trying for years to outflank President Obama's efforts to guard the previous administration's law-flaunting surveillance structure. Naturally, the president's soft approach to addressing civil liberties violations didn't win him much praise from his liberal base, nor did it console organizations like the ACLU, whose executive director said last year that he was "disgusted" by Obama's policy decisions. Mother Jones has covered the Obama White House's position on these issues for years: we wrote about the possible "wiretapping" of the Internet, the stunning lack of transparency, and the hefty price-tag of Obama's clampdown on state secrets.

CCR's ongoing fight over records of warrantless wiretapping is another indicator that the national-security-on-steroids apparatus of the Bush era continues to inform key decisions of the current administration.

Self-Defeating Health Care Reform

| Tue Aug. 30, 2011 1:20 PM EDT

It seemed like a good idea at the time: a key piece of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), known as the medical loss ratio (MLR), would require insurance companies to spend 80-85 percent of their customers' premium payments on medical costs.

If insurance companies spent more on quality care and less on administrative and overhead costs, the thinking went, patients would stand to benefit. Insurers that didn't meet the MLR would have to pay out rebates to customers.

But insurance agents argued that the MLR will put a crimp on business. And a recent analysis by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) seems to bear that out. The report finds that some insurers are lowering premiums or leaving rates unchanged to help them comply with the MLR rules. Most directly affected are insurance agents and brokers, The Hill explains:

Commissions to agents and brokers fall into the 15 or 20 percent of revenues that insurance companies can use for administrative expenses and profit. Brokers are worried that insurance companies will cut commissions and redirect that money toward their own bottom lines.

The GAO said "almost all" of the insurers it interviewed are cutting commissions. Those cuts enabled the plans to change their premiums.

While the MLR may push down premiums for customers, it could also limit their coverage choices, according to the GAO report:

One insurer said that they have considered exiting the individual market in some states in which they did not expect to meet the PPACA MLR requirements, while several other insurers said that the PPACA MLR requirements will not affect where they do business.

So even as health care becomes more affordable, consumers could potentially find a less diverse marketplace.

Some health policy analysts anticipate more conflicts like this as implementation of the ACA moves along (or doesn't). Micah Weinberg, a senior policy advisor at the Bay Are Council and a proponent of the ACA, points out that the law was crafted to help change the financial incentives of the health care industry—to, in essence, make it more profitable to cover sicker people. In theory, insurers that comply with the ACA's provisions and keep their customers healthy stand to reap major profits.

But if those same insurers exceed the MLR's 15% limit on administrative costs—a not-altogether-implausible result of expanding coverage—the ratio penalizes them. By fixing insurers to the MLR, in other words, the ACA penalizes insurers for following the law, according to Weinberg.

Health care reform represented "1,000 of the best ideas that people have had about health care policy over the past thirty years, all rolled into one big burrito," he says. "Though any of them would be fine in isolation, some of those are pretty directly contradictory...the medical loss ratio negates a lot of what we're trying to do through the bill."

Watch: National Guard Needs an Irene Rescue (Video)

| Tue Aug. 30, 2011 10:29 AM EDT

You'd like to think that the National Guard is there to help in a natural disaster. But not everyone who wears the uniform is cut out for such work. Via Mark Thompson at Time's Battleland blog, here's an incredible amateur video of what appear to be two New Jersey National Guard heavy cargo trucks crossing the flooded JFK Boulevard in Manville, N.J., getting swamped, bailing, and calling the state troopers for a bailout:

They look like they just might make it at first, plodding on with gusto in this suburban burg a half-hour south of New York. "How is that possible?" one bystander asks. A friend replies, "It's the Army, bro."

Except that it isn't possible. Note to Guard motor-pool trainers: Tell future recruits that, when in doubt, you don't plow your government-issue cargo truck through 10-foot floodwater. Especially if you can't swim.

The absolute highlight: After the four soldiers flee their flooded cabs and reach safety atop their vehicles—the soft laughter of civilian bystanders is audible in the foreground—one soaked service member carefully shouts out a number for the others to call. It's the dispatch line for the New Jersey State Police headquarters on Route 22 in Bridgewater. Hopefully, the troopers had access to a boat.

Are Virginia's New Abortion Rules the Worst Yet?

| Tue Aug. 30, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

On Friday evening, Virginia's Department of Health issued a strict new set of rules for abortion clinics—and women's health advocates fear that facilities that can't comply could be shuttered. 

The regulations require Virginia's 22 clinics to meet strict new physical standards; pre-op rooms, for example, must measure at least 80 square feet, and operating rooms must measure 250 square feet. Hallways must be at least five feet wide. The requirements are based on the state's 2010 guidelines for new outpatient surgical facilities.

Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, told Mother Jones on Monday that the new rules may actually be the most strict regulations in the United States. "It would be challenging for the majority of our facilities to continue offering first-trimester care," Keene said. "These are designed to really cease first-trimester abortion services in the Commonwealth of Virginia."

The president of Washington, D.C.'s Planned Parenthood chapter has already told the Washington Post that she doesn't believe that a clinic in Falls Church, Virginia, will be able to meet all of those requirements. Keene said that many other clinics in the state won't be able to meet them, either—which she thinks is exactly the reason the Department of Health wrote them that way. "There's no doubt in my mind that this is an attack on Roe," said Keene. "You can ban abortion by making it inaccessible."

Virginia isn't the first to release a set of rules like this. Abortion rights advocates often refer to them as TRAP ("targeted regulation of abortion providers") laws. Kansas got a got a good deal of attention in June when it released new rules that would have shut down all but one clinic in the state. A judge blocked those rules from taking effect, but the court battle over them continues.

Abortion rights advocates argue that the rules aren't necessary; first-trimester abortions can and are performed safely in doctors' offices like other outpatient services (for example, vasectomies). "These laws have nothing to do with improving patient outcomes and everything to do with making it more difficult to provide abortion services," said Elizabeth Nash, a public policy associate with the Guttmacher Institute.

The Virginia rules come after the state legislature passed a law back in February that reclassified abortion clinics as hospitals. The law directed the state board of health to establish new rules specifically for abortion clinics, and because it was passed as "emergency" legislation, the state was expected to have them put in place within 280 days.

The rules released on Friday are the draft version; the board is slated to vote on the rules at a public meeting on September 15. After that, Gov. Bob McDonnell must sign them into law, which he is expected to do before the end of the year. Since these are emergency regulations, the board would then have to draft the permanent regulations, a process expected to take 12 to 18 months. Abortion rights advocates worry, though, that the emergency regulations could force clinics to shut down in the interim.