With the tenth anniversary of 9/11 upon us,Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee have released a video collage of WTC imagery that warns their Senate counterparts: Cut defense spending, and you'll be responsible for the next attack on America.
"Our No. 1 priority, I think, should be as a Congress to protect our nation," intones a black-and-white, professionally cropped House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) in the video, embedded below. "What if we're attacked in some other area? What is our military going to be able to do if we keep cutting them?"
You've got to hand it to the Taiwanese for doing whatever it takes to educate the masses about politics. Ok, so maybe Karl Rove didn't really have a snake shooting out of his mouth when he convinced Rick Perry to become a Republican, and maybe Slick Rick has never ridden an elephant or shot up the governor's mansion with lasers, but who cares? It's a metaphor, dude. If you still think those Carly Fiorina Demon Sheep clips are weird, you've obviously never seen this masterpiece from Next Media Animation:
When can you tax a business? If Amazon had its way, the answer would be never. In June, the online retail giant launched a $5 million petition drive against a new California law requiring online retailers with a physical presence in the state to collect sales tax. At stake: $200 million in revenue, on top of another $100 million for localities.
Amazon refused to enforce the law, arguing that since it's an online entity, it doesn't have a physically taxable presence (the company has been waging similar battles in South Carolina, Texas, Illinois, Tennessee, and New York). To drive its point home, Amazon cut off service to its California-located affiliates. If an affiliate could be plausibly be described as having a physical presence in California, Amazon didn't want anything to do with it, as The New York Times's David Streitfield explained. Meanwhile, the company barely broke a sweat collecting the 500,000 signatures needed to get a referendum on the measure on the ballot in next June's election. When you consider the fact that Amazon was asking Californians to pledge their vote to paying less when they buy stuff online, that should be no surprise.
The two sides could be approaching a deal. On Wednesday evening, the two sides reportedly agreed that Amazon won't have to collect sales taxes until September of next year. In return, it will abandon its referendum, clearing the way for state lawmakers to settle the issue of taxing online retailers for good. But plan could still fall through.
It might seem kind of insane that online businesses could avoid their tax obligations in this way. As Kevin Drum explained, it all dates back to a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that set the physical presence standard excusing online companies from their tax obligations. No one back in the baby-Internet, halcyon days of AOL and Netscape, predicted that online retailers would one day be raking in $150 billion a year. That's lots of potentially taxable cheddar that states have been leaving on the table.
Currently, there are a host of bills on the federal level aimed at helping corporations use Amazon's physical presence argument. These bills would hit crippled states where it hurts, at a time they can least afford it. So don’t expect this issue to die after next September. Next to the sheer convenience it offers, avoiding taxing purchases is Amazon's chief competitive advantage, as Kevin explained:
For all its talk of technology and convenience and selection, Amazon basically stays in business because it can charge slightly lower prices than brick-and-mortar stores. A level playing field might be good for state coffers and the schools and police officers they support, but to Amazon that doesn't matter. It's nothing personal, mind you. Just business.
With all that's at stake—for states and corporations alike—the battle has just begun.
CORRECTION: This post has been edited to reflect that the deal between Amazon and the Californa state house has not been officially agreed to.
Wednesday night at the Republican debate, Texas Governor Rick Perry turned the possibility that Texas had executed an innocent man during his tenure into an applause line.
The problem lies, in part, with the phrasing of the question. Rather than asking specifically about the circumstances of the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted of setting a fire that killed his three children, Moderator Brian Williams offered a more abstract query about innocence and the death penalty.
The U.S Sentencing Commission has released a new report detailing trends in federal sentencing over the past five years. There's a good deal to sort through, but one big takeaway is that for the first time ever, the majority of federal felony convictions involved Hispanics—even though they make up just 16 percent of the total population. Here's a chart showing the figures:
Data from U.S. Sentencing Commission. Chart by Tim Murphy
There's a pretty clear explanation for this. As the Associated Press notes:
The commission's statistics also reveal that sentences for felony immigration crimes — which include illegal crossing and other crimes such as alien smuggling — were responsible for most of the increase in the number of Hispanics sent to prison over the last decade.
On the other hand, we've seen a boom in the private corrections industry in response to the spike in immigration-related offenses. So don't expect anyone to actually do anything about this.
It didn't take long—just six minutes into the 98-minute debate—for the moderators at Wednesday night's Republican presidential debate to take aim at Mitt Romney's record at Bain Capital, the powerful private equity firm Romney helped start. Here's that exchange:
NBC's Brian Williams: "Bain Capital, a company you helped to form, among other things, often buys up companies, strips 'em down, gets 'em ready, and resells them at a net job loss to American workers."
Mitt Romney: "That might be how some people might want to characterize what we did, but in fact we started businesses at Bain Capital, and when we acquired businesses, in each case we tried to make 'em bigger, make 'em more successful and grow.
"The idea that somehow you can strip things down and [that] makes them more valuable is not a real effective investment strategy. We tried to make these businesses more successful. By the way, they didn't all work. When it was all said and done, we added tens of thousands of jobs to the businesses we helped support."
Some quick background: Private equity firms like Bain are known for raising money from outside investors; using that money to buy up struggling companies; restructuring the companies (think layoffs, slashing worker benefits, and selling off pieces of the business); and finally selling the (supposedly) leaner, meaner businesses for a profit. One particularly infamous type of private equity deal is the leveraged buyout, in which a private equity firm will borrow a huge amount of money to buy a company, thereby weighing down the purchased company with debt.
The USDA had a new report up on Wednesday breaking down the percentage of residents in each state who lack secure sources of food—which is to say, the number of people for whom going hungry is an everyday concern. Here's the thrust of it:
An estimated 85.5 percent of American households were food secure throughout the entire year in 2010, meaning that they had access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members. The remaining households (14.5 percent) were food insecure at least some time during the year, including 5.4 percent with very low food security—meaning that the food intake of one or more household members was reduced and their eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year because the household lacked money and other resources for food.
That's not good, and the bad news is that the general trend is in the wrong direction. Only a handful of places (DC, New Mexico) have seen their food security numbers improve over the last decade. The Great Recession contributes to this, but the trend is clear without it, too. It also brings with it some long-term issues; food insecurity makes it harder to plan nutritionally sound meals, which in turn opens the door to a range of potential health consequences.
Pfc. Erik Park, 3rd Platoon, Alpha Battery, 1st Battalion, 77th Field Artillery Regiment, 172nd Infantry Brigade, fires his M-777 155mm howitzer, Sep. 3, 2011. US Army photo by Spc. Ken Scar, 7th MPAD.
In Wednesday night's Republican presidential debate, moderators Brian Williams of NBC and John Harris of Politico grilled the candidates a range of hot-button issues, lingering longer on some—immigration, for instance—than others. But plenty more issues got neglected altogether, including the GOP candidates' positions on the growing power of money in politics and red-hot social issues such as abortion and gay rights.
Here's a rundown of key issues left untouched in Wednesday's debate:
Campaign finance: In this post-Citizens United political landscape, outside spending and independent groups such as super-PACs are playing an increasingly influential role. What do the candidates, many of whom benefit from affiliated super-PACs, think about the rise of independent and dark-money outfits such as Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS? Would they support new regulation demanding disclosure of political spending?
Abortion: Still the most divisive social issue in the land. What are the candidates' positions on the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision? Do they support efforts at the state level, as seen in Virginia, South Dakota, Kansas, and elsewhere, curbing abortion rights or targeting the doctors who provide them?
Evolution: Only former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman mentioned evolution, which he said philosophy and science support. How many of the other GOPers, in a show of hands, believe in evolution? If not, why?
Gay Rights: There's was no mention of Don't Ask, Don't Tell; the Defense of Marriage Act; benefits for same-sex partners; or any other contentious gay rights issues. Where do the candidates stand on these issues? How many would reinstate Don't Ask, Don't Tell? (Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum have previously said they would.)
Gun rights: Not much debate, if any, on the Second Amendment on Wednesday night. Where do the candidates stand on an individual's right to bear arms? (Rick Perry once shot a coyote with a laser-sighted pistol while on a job, so you can imagine where his head's at.)
Shariah law: It's the religious issue that whips hard-line right-wingers into such a frenzy, the (misplaced and overblown) fear that Islamic law is creeping its way into America's legal system. Newt Gingrich has warned that jihadists are pushing "to replace Western civilization with a radical imposition of Shariah." Herman Cain has raised the specter of Shariah law in America too. Do the other candidates feel the same way? Do they see Shariah law as a threat, and if so, why?
When NBC's Brian Williams asked Texas Governor Rick Perry on Wednesday night about his state's record on the death penalty—234 executions and counting—the crowd at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California broke into spontaneous applause. It was an instantly memorable moment in a debate with few of them:
By this point, it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that conservatives, particularly those who wait in long lines to attend Republican primary debates at the Reagan library 14 months before the election, are big fans of the death penalty. Perry's 234 executions are a modern-day record for a governor, breaking the one held by his predecessor—George W. Bush. But on a night where Williams and his co-moderator, Politico's John Harris, were for the most part on their game, it was something of a missed opportunity to get the Texas Governor on the record about a story he's been reluctant to talk about: The execution of a man who was probably innocent, based on evidence that was proven to be false.
Williams asked Perry, "Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?" Perry was unequivocal: "No sir, I've never struggled with that at all. The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place of which when someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you're involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas and that is you will be executed."
Williams followed up by asking Perry what he thought about the fact that his recitation of the death penalty statistic was an applause line.
"I think Americans understand justice. I think Americans are clearly, in the vast majority of cases, supportive of capital punishment. When you have committed heinous crimes against our citizens—and it's a state-by-state issue, but in the state of Texas, our citizens have made that decision, and they made it clear, and they don’t want you to commit those crimes against our citizens. And if you do, you will face the ultimate justice."
Perry knows his base, and he played to them perfectly with his answer. But there's no need for hypotheticals here.
Perry has been repeatedly presented with evidence that should have challenged these sweeping assertions—and he's repeatedly brushed them aside. When, in 2004, new advances in arson science seemed to prove that death row inmate Cameron Todd Willingham had not, in fact, murdered his three children via arson, Perry denied a stay of execution. And when the Texas Forensic Science Commission, after taking the unprecedented step of reexamining the case, seemed on the verge of posthumously exonerating Willingham, Perry took the also unprecedented step of replacing three members of the commission. Just like that. Last year, meanwhile, when Texas Monthly helped spring an innocent man, Anthony Graves, from death, Perry pointed to the case as proof that the system works. Which is true—if your definition of a functioning criminal justice system is one in which courts wrongly sentence an innocent man to death, only for an intrepid journalist to swoop in and, after countless hours of work, help secure his release.