Mojo - May 2013

Clarence Thomas Suggests "Elites" Like Obama Because He's What "They Expect From a Black Person"

| Fri May 3, 2013 11:54 AM EDT

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas says he always figured there'd be a black president, but that it would have to be someone "the elites" and "the media" approve of—an oblique shot at President Barack Obama.

"[T]he thing I always knew is that it would have to be a black president who was approved by the elites and the media because anybody that they didn’t agree with, they would take apart," Thomas said during a panel about his life and career at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh in early April. "You pick your person. Any black person who says something that is not the prescribed things that they expect from a black person will be picked apart."

The implication of Thomas' remarks is that President Obama was only elected because he fits with the "prescribed things that they expect from a black person." Thomas' statements were were also aired on C-SPAN and picked up by Fox Nation.

It is unusual for sitting Supreme Court Justices to make public criticisms of sitting presidents. "Clarence Thomas seems more interested in becoming a Fox commentator than preserving the integrity of the Court," says Adam Winkler, a professor at the University of California School of Law. "Justices should not take pot shots at the president. It's beneath the dignity of the court."

Thomas' perspective may stem in part from the difficult 1991 Supreme Court confirmation battle he faced after being accused of sexual harassment by former colleague Anita Hill. Indeed, they mirror remarks he made at the time, when he said that the confirmation process had become "a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the US Senate rather than hung from a tree." A narrow majority of the Senate ultimately voted to confirm Thomas' appointment. Reporters Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson later published a book providing compelling evidence that Hill had in fact told the truth.

President Barack Obama was twice elected by a majority of the American electorate. Indeed, while there is some wisdom in Thomas' remarks about race and social expectations, it's virtually inevitable that any presidential candidate will seek to earn the approval of elites, both financial and in the media itself. Supreme Court justices, on the other hand, serve for life and are by design insulated from popular sentiment.

"There's a great irony in that Thomas has his position because he was approved by elites in the Senate," says Winkler, "while Obama owes his position to the voters."

Here's the video:

Advertise on

Ted Cruz Sets His Sites on a New Target: Common Core

| Fri May 3, 2013 11:44 AM EDT

Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz might run for president. That's been apparent for a while, but it was confirmed most recently on Wednesday, when the National Review's Bob Costa cited Cruz confidantes who believe their guy could be "a Barry Goldwater type...but with better electoral results." The case for Cruz, according to Cruz, is that he is uniquely positioned to capture the kind of grassroots conservative activists who propelled him to victory in his 2012 Senate primary.

If nothing else, Cruz seems determined to hold onto those right-wing supporters. That might explain why, last week, he and and eight other Republican senators signed onto a letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan opposing the Common Core curriculum standards, which the Department of Education has been encouraging states to adopt. As I reported last month, Common Core has attracted criticism from all sides of the education debate, and for a variety of reasons. Some advocates decry the lack of flexibility it affords local school districts. Others, like Diane Ravitch, think it's a great idea but should be purely voluntary. And still others, specifically grassroots conservative activists, believe it is nothing less than back-door brainwashing—part of a global push to indoctrinate kids into a socialist worldview. That's the Glenn Beck view, anyway.

Cruz's letter is comparatively tame. Put simply: He wants the Department of Education to back off. But it's a move that's sure to please the conservative base in the weeks and months ahead. Here's the letter:



Meanwhile, here's a letter from Tuesday signed by 34 Republican congressmen, including Rand Paul acolytes Justin Amash (Mich.) and Thomas Massie (Ky.):



Unemployment Rate Hits a 4-Year Low, But Don't Get Too Excited

| Fri May 3, 2013 10:45 AM EDT

Unemployment hit a four-year low in April, according to new Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) numbers out Friday, and numbers for the first two months of the year were revised upward. But the situation is still difficult. Massive budget cuts have only just begun to take effect and could still drag on the recovery.

"While more work remains to be done, today’s employment report provides further evidence that the US economy is continuing to recover from the worst downturn since the Great Depression," Alan Krueger, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said in a statement Friday.

In April, American employers added 165,000 jobs, more than forecasters had projected, bumping the unemployment rate down from 7.6 to 7.5 percent. As my colleague Kevin Drum points out, "[A]bout 90,000 of those jobs were needed just to keep up with population growth, so net job growth clocked in at 75,000."

Friday's BLS report also revised up by 114,000 the jobs numbers for the prior two months, bringing average job growth for the last three months to 212,000. The news sent stocks soaring Friday morning.

Economist Dean Baker, cofounder of the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research, cautions against too much enthusiasm. "[T]he growth reported for April was unbalanced with 34,000, more than a fifth of the total, coming from employment services," he wrote in a statement Friday. "There was also a disturbing decline in the length of the average workweek of 0.2 hours…That is equal to the largest drop since the recovery back began in 2009. In short, this report is at best a mixed picture."

Plus, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has a points out, the current share of the population that is employed is still well below what it was before the recession:

Part of that is because of an aging population, CBPP says:

But the decline also reflects to an important extent an ongoing dearth of good job prospects. Some people retire earlier than they otherwise would or go on disability when they might be able, in a stronger job market, to find a job that accommodates their disability. Others become discouraged about their job prospects and stop looking until conditions improve. The unemployment rate doesn't reflect those decisions; to be counted as officially unemployed a person must be actively looking for work. But many of those people would start looking for work again if they thought jobs were available.

Sequestration, the across-the-board budget cuts that went into effect a couple months ago and hit everything from defense to Head Start programs, may also be hampering job growth. The budget cuts helped reduce government employment by 11,000 jobs in April. As the New York Times reports, "Economists have been warning that the economy—and job creation—will slow in the second-quarter, largely as a result of fiscal tightening in Washington…The mandated budget cuts, known as sequestration, officially went into effect in March, and if they continue, layoffs could increase."

Krueger echoed this, and called for Congress to take action to stanch the bleeding. "Now is not the time for Washington to impose self-inflicted wounds on the economy," he said in his statement. "The administration continues to urge Congress to replace the sequester with balanced deficit reduction, while working to put in place measures to create middle-class jobs, such as by rebuilding our roads and bridges and promoting American manufacturing."

Diane Swonk, chief economist for Mesirow Financial in Chicago, told the New York Times, "If the government simply did no harm, we could be at escape velocity."

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 3, 2013

Fri May 3, 2013 8:39 AM EDT

M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks, AAVP7 RAM/RS amphibious assault vehicles, and an M88A1 Hercules from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit train during an exercise in the 5th Fleet area of responsibility, April 23, 2013. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Edward Guevara.

Yes, People Are Giving Their Pets Medical Marijuana

| Fri May 3, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

Is it ever a good idea to get your dog or cat stoned? California veterinarian Doug Kramer says the answer depends on whether your pet could be classified as a medical marijuana patient.

"I do think there are therapeutic benefits to it," says Kramer, who some years ago found that his homemade pot tinctures helped his own dog, a husky named Nikita, fight pain and regain her appetite after she came down with cancer.

Despite the spread of medical pot laws around the country, marijuana still remains taboo within the veterinary establishment; its medical journals won't publish anything about it, and Kramer is one of the few veterinarians even willing to discuss using medical marijuana for pets. He points out that a slew of medical studies on the effects of pot have relied on rats and dogs as substitutes for humans, suggesting that "mammals have the same cannabinoid receptors as humans do" and "would benefit in the same ways."

Obama Administration Continues Blocking Access to Emergency Contraception

| Thu May 2, 2013 12:14 PM EDT

On Wednesday night, President Barack Obama's administration indicated that is challenging an April court decision that would make emergency contraception available to everyone without a prescription. The announcement means that, after a decade of fighting between reproductive rights advocates and the Food and Drug Administration over this issue, there's still no resolution.

In 2011, the FDA approved Plan B One-Step, one of the most common forms of emergency contraception, for purchase over-the-counter for all women. But the Department of Health and Human Services overruled the FDA, instead making it available without a prescription only to women ages 17 and older. Reproductive rights groups sued, and on April 5, Federal District Court Judge Edward R. Korman issued a scathing decision that said that the administration's policy was "was politically motivated, scientifically unjustified, and contrary to agency precedent." His ruling directed HHS and the FDA to make emergency contraception available to all by May 5.

On Wednesday evening, however, the Department of Justice announced that it is appealing Korman's ruling. "The Court's Order interferes with and thereby undermines the regulatory procedures governing FDA's drug approval process," said the DOJ in a statement.

The DOJ statement is misleading. The FDA actually approved Plan B for women of all ages in 2011. Then HHS interfered.

The appeal comes a day after the FDA announced that it has approved the sale of Plan B One-Step to women ages 15-and-over without a prescription. In its announcement, the FDA claimed that decision "is independent of" the lawsuit and "is not intended to address the judge's ruling." However, as Washington Post's Sarah Kliff reports, the DOJ's appeal uses the FDA's decision to make its case:

The Justice Department, in fact, relied on that new decision to argue that none of the federal case’s plaintiffs — who are 15 or older — would be harmed by a court decision to delay Korman’s ruling from taking effect.
"The approval has the effect of ensuring that all of the plaintiffs in this case (including the youngest of them) now have access without a prescription and without significant point-of-sale restrictions to at least one form of emergency contraceptive containing levonorgestrel," the Justice Department argued, referring to the active ingredient in Plan B.

The judge's ruling clearly stated that Plan B should be available to everyone without a prescription and without government-issued ID. The Obama administration is not complying with that order. This doesn't sound like the same Obama who, just last week, said in a speech to Planned Parenthood that he is a president "who is going to be right there with you, fighting every step of the way" on reproductive rights.

The administration's latest position seems to be that lowering the age to 15 is a compromise. Yes, it is two years younger than the previous limit, and the FDA's new guidelines would also mean Plan B is now available on the shelf and not only during pharmacy hours. But it still means that women will need to have some manner of government-issued ID to obtain it. Not every woman has that sort of ID—especially 15- and 16-year-olds that can't yet drive and don't have a passport, or simply don't want to have a cashier know their names.

The Center for Reproductive Rights, which filed the lawsuit challenging the restrictions, said on Thursday that they will continue to press for universal access. "We are deeply disappointed," CRR president Nancy Northup said in a call with reporters, pledging to "continue the battle in court to remove these arbitrary restrictions."

Advertise on

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 2, 2013

Thu May 2, 2013 10:52 AM EDT

Spc. Derrick Penninger, 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division fires his M240B machine gun during Operation Raider Pillage April 24 on Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. U.S. Army. photo by 1st Lt. Garrett Nash

Expert: Obama's Housing Agency Nomination Is Good News for Poor People

| Thu May 2, 2013 9:39 AM EDT
Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.).

On Wednesday, President Obama nominated Rep. Mel Watt, a Democrat from North Carolina, to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), the organization that oversees the mortgage financing giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Advocates for low-income borrowers are psyched.

The National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC), a group that promotes access to affordable housing, says the move means that the agency will finally be freed to assist struggling borrowers. For over a year, the current acting director of the FHFA, Ed DeMarco, has blocked efforts to allow borrowers to reduce their mortgage balances. Prominent economists say principal reduction is the single most important thing the administration could do to revive housing, and even though the Obama administration only recently began to heed this advice, DeMarco wasn't into it. He claimed that reducing Americans' mortgage debts would encourage people to fall behind on their mortgages. And he said a write-down program wasn't worth the cost, even though, according to his own agency, loan balance reduction could help up to half a million borrowers and save taxpayers some $1 billion.

All that would likely change if Watt gets confirmed. The congressman, who sits on the powerful House Financial Services Committee, is known for promoting lending to low-income and minority borrowers. As John Taylor, president and CEO of NCRC, told Mother Jones, "He has a real commitment to ensure that working class people have access to mortgage products... I think he will jump-start that process." Taylor adds that this could in turn give the sluggish housing rebound a bump. "Fannie and Freddie have been in shut-down mode when comes to working-class borrowers... DeMarco ignored the foreclosure crisis and the roll Fannie and Freddie could play in trying to prevent more foreclosures, which is critical to the housing recovery," he says.

Taylor thinks that despite Watt's progressive creds, he has a good chance of being confirmed. "I think he's built up a lot of good will as somebody who has demonstrated the ability to cross the aisle and not personalize disagreements with members of the other party. He has a genuine possibility of going forward." Plus, banks like Watt. Insurers and financial firms are some of his biggest donors.

Still, as Annie Lowrey and Peter Eavis write in the New York Times, "Watt’s nomination will most likely inflame long-running political battles over how much the government should do to make mortgages available and support homeowners." And Taylor cautions, "It may not have to do with him. It may just have to do with Republicans not wanting to support the president in any way." If Watt does fail to win Senate confirmation, the White House has a secret weapon: it could give Watt the job as a temporary recess appointment.

Here's How the Rifle That Just Killed a 2-Year-Old Girl Is Marketed for Kids

| Wed May 1, 2013 5:10 PM EDT

On Tuesday, inside a rural Kentucky home, a five-year-old boy accidentally shot and killed his two-year-old sister. The boy had been playing with a .22 caliber single-shot Crickett rifle made and marketed for kids. The children's mother was reportedly outside the house when the shooting took place, and apparently didn't know that the gun contained a shell.

"Just one of those crazy accidents," said the Cumberland County coroner, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Clearly the issue of parental responsibility is at the center of this tragedy. But against the backdrop of the Newtown massacre and ongoing national debate over regulating firearms, it also points back to the big business of guns—including how the industry profits from products aimed at children.

The Pennsylvania-based maker of Crickett rifles, Keystone Sporting Arms, markets its guns with the slogan "My First Rifle." They are available with different barrel and stock designs, including some made in hot pink to appeal to young girls.

Business has boomed since the company's inception in 1996, according to its website*. In its first year, it had four employees and produced 4,000 rifles for kids; by 2008 it had greatly expanded its operations, with 70 employees and an output of 60,000 rifles a year. KSA's site states that its goal is "to instill gun safety in the minds of youth shooters and encourage them to gain the knowledge and respect that hunting and shooting activities require and deserve."

But a visit to the "kids corner" page reveals a gallery of photos that some people might find unsettling:

Crickett rifles
Crickett rifles

Then again, KSA's approach to arming America's tykes may be no more disturbing than the post-Newtown boom in bulletproof backpacks and school clothes.

Update, May 3, 10:30amPT: Shortly after we published this story, the Crickett Firearms website was shut down, and it remains unavailable. This morning I called Keystone Sporting Arms and was referred to attorney John Renzulli, who spoke on behalf of the company: He said that the Crickett Firearms site had been "inundated and corrupted" by a surge of visitors and had been shut down by the hosting service. "We're working hard with the host to get the site up again," he said, though he declined to specify when it would be restored. (It's an intriguing explanation given that Crickett's accounts on Facebook and Twitter have also since disappeared.)

Renzulli acknowledged that the accidental death of the two-year-old girl in Kentucky has stirred strong emotions, but said that it was not an appropriate time to continue the debate about gun control. "This is not about Crickett Firearms," he said. "We need to respect the privacy of these people, this family is going through a lot. We're not going to analyze and evaluate what happened here until a full investigation has been conducted by law enforcement. At that point we'll comment."

Here are some additional screen shots I captured from the "kids corner" page of 

Will Andrew Cuomo Go the Distance on Post-Citizens United Campaign Reform?

| Wed May 1, 2013 11:40 AM EDT
Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

It's crunch time in New York State. For more than a year, reformers fighting to get big money out of politics have asked, nudged, and cajoled New York lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to pass new legislation enticing candidates to spurn big-dollar checks from wealthy donors in favor of lots of small donations from everyday voters. New York, for the reformers, is the front line in the post-Citizens United battle against big-money politics. Now, the reformers have just six to seven weeks to get the job done. A big question looking over their final blitz is this: Will Cuomo fully commit himself to their plan?

The coalition pushing for political money reform in New York State is led by Citizen Action of New York, the Brennan Center for Justice, Common Cause New York, the Working Families Party, and a handful of labor unions. They have the support of dozens more progressive stalwarts, not to mention an unlikely mix of donors, business types, and more. They want for New York State what New York City already has: A so-called public match system, in which small-dollar donations raised by candidates are matched six times over by public funds. So a candidate who raises, say, $50 from small donors receives $300 in matching funds. The more small donations a candidate reels in, the more matching money she gets. You get the point.

In Albany, the political calculus is straightforward enough. The Democratic-controlled New York State Assembly is already onboard with the reformers' plan: Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver recently introduced his own bill that includes the matching system the reformers want.

The state Senate is where things get tricky. A strange coalition of "independent" Democrats and Republicans controls the upper chamber, albeit tenuously. The leaders of that coalition are divided over their support for a public financing bill: Jeff Klein, the leader of the independent Democrats, has a public financing bill of his own, but the top Republicans oppose any new reforms. Reformers are confident they have the votes to pass good legislation, but getting to a Senate-wide vote is the biggest hurdle, says David Donnelly, executive director of the Public Campaign Action Fund. "The big question is: how do they get a bill to the floor?" he asks.

Donnelly says he and his allies are planning an all-hands-on-deck blitz to press the state Senate into action. Reformers will heavily lobby state senators and their staffers in the coming weeks, while also launching door-to-door canvassing efforts in key districts and hosting community forums on the need for public financing throughout New York. Organizing for Action, the rebooted version of President Obama's 2012 presidential campaign, will mobilize its 700,000-plus members in New York State on the public financing issue. Right now, the three senators in the reformers' crosshairs are Mark Grisanti of Buffalo and Lee Zeldin and Philip Boyle of Long Island. Reformers say they'll pressure additional senators before the legislature's session ends in June.

In a briefing with reporters, Jonathan Soros, one of the leading funders and advocates for public financing in New York, explained that reformers see the state's recent corruption scandals as a boon to their efforts. On April 1st, federal prosecutors announced that they'd caught State Sen. Malcolm Smith, one of those "independent" Democrats, trying to bribe his way onto the New York mayoral ballot (as a Republican, no less). The investigation ensnared not only Smith but also two New York City Republican officials who offered to help get Smith on the ballot. Instead, Smith and his buddies ended up as Albany's latest cautionary tale of political corruption. And with corruption in the headlines, Soros says, there may be no better time to make the case for political money reform.

But neither Soros nor Donnelly can say whether Cuomo will go the distance on reform. Publicly, Cuomo has said exactly what the reformers want to hear: He's stumped for it his "State of the State" speeches, crowed to the press about the need to clean up state politics, and held the first tele-town hall of his governorship with 1,350 activists pushing for a public financing bill. But the reformers say they're unsure if this is an issue on which Cuomo intends to get dirty, to twist the arms of wobbly lawmakers and do whatever it takes to pass a bill. That's what he did on gay marriage and gun control, two major legislative victories of his tenure.

Reformers intend to use a mix of "carrots and sticks," as Soros put it, to win Cuomo's full support. Soros, Donnelly, and the reformers know that Cuomo's involvement is crucial, but they say they won't shy away from calling him out if he fails to step up on this issue. "Our principal thesis," Soros says, "is that there are consequences for political inaction on this issue."