Political MoJo

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 6, 2014

Mon Oct. 6, 2014 12:40 PM EDT

A US Marine emerges from the cockpit of a F/A-18 Hornet. (US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Tyler Ngiraswei)

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The Supreme Court Just Saved Gay Marriage in Five States

| Mon Oct. 6, 2014 9:12 AM EDT

On Monday, the Supreme Court turned down same-sex marriage appeals from five states—Indiana, Utah, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

From Reuters:

By rejecting appeals in cases involving Virginia, Oklahoma, Utah, Wisconsin and Indiana, the court left intact lower-court rulings that struck down bans in those states.

Other states under the jurisdiction of appeals courts that struck down the bans will also be affected, meaning the number of states with gay marriage is likely to quickly jump from 19 to 30.

The decision to decline the cases, which will allow gay marriages to continue, comes as a surprise, as SCOTUS was expected to hear at least one of the cases.

The justices did not explain their rejection to review the appeals. But by declining to hear them, 30 states and the District of Columbia will soon have gay marriage and effectively ends the argument over same-sex marriage both nationally and within the Supreme Court itself.

Since the announcement Monday morning, same-sex couples in the states have already begun marrying.

As Mother Jones previously reported, the appeals asked "SCOTUS to consider whether a state law limiting marriage to a union between a man and a woman violates the 14th Amendment. Six of the seven cases also [raised] the question of whether states must recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states."

Hong Kong Protesters Give Ground—For Now

| Sun Oct. 5, 2014 6:32 PM EDT

Pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong have begun partially removing barricades blocking entrance to key government offices ahead of a government-issued deadline on Monday morning mandating demonstrators clear the way for normal business to resume.

But according to reports, protestors remain divided, with many still rejecting plans to concede.

Late into the night, about 200 protestors were still present in front of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's office. Some cars were allowed through, including one ambulance that was inspected to ensure no tear-gas cannisters were being carried inside.

Protestors, who are demanding for Leung to step down and to be allowed free elections in 2017, are largely hoping to avoid violent confrontations with police come Monday morning.

"If the government uses force to clear away protesters, there will be no room for dialogue," Lester Shum told reporters, according to the AP.

But Leung warned he was ready to "take all necessary actions to restore social order" and allow roughly 3,000 civil servants return to work.

Watch more below:

Update: By Monday, most of the city returned to work with only a few schools remaining closed. However, barricades and protestors were still present and traffic was snarled throughout. It is unclear if concrete negotiations with the government have been solidified. On achieving their primary goals, one student leader said, "I think it was possible, but now I don't think so because they (the Hong Kong government) don't give any response and China is also very much against this."

Obama Plan Will Cut Out Grueling Journey for a Small Number of Central American Refugees

| Thu Oct. 2, 2014 8:06 PM EDT
A boy steps out of a bus full of families deported from Mexico back to Honduras in July of this year.

Escaping rampant violence in parts of Central America, tens of thousands of child migrants made a treacherous journey up to the United States border this year. To help dissuade such a vulnerable population from taking such risky treks in the first place, Obama announced Tuesday that he plans to roll out a new program to allow children to apply for refugee status from their home countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

The program is still in the planning stages, and it remains unclear how old the kids must be and what circumstances they must be caught in to successfully apply for asylum. But at least it's a move in the right direction, says Michelle Brané of the Women's Refugee Commission. "They are laying the groundwork and designating an avenue—it's a good starting off point," she says.

"That's not even close to enough. We saw 60,000 kids arrive from Central America this year."

White House spokesperson Shawn Turner told the New York Times that the initiative is meant to "provide a safe, legal, and orderly alternative to the dangerous journey children are currently taking to join relatives in the United States." The point made in the last part of this statement has caught the attention of human rights advocates including Brané, as it suggests that only children who already have a relative in the US will qualify for asylum under this new program, leaving out thousands who are trying to escape newly developing unrest and gang violence.

Advocates also worry about the number of applicants that will be granted asylum. The White House's announcement projects that 4,000 people total from Latin America and the Caribbean could be granted refugee visas in fiscal year 2015. (Let's not forget that region includes troubled countries like Cuba, Venezuela, and Haiti). The children who would be allowed to apply for refugee status from their home countries appear to be a subcategory of that 4,000. "That's not even close to enough," says Brané. "We saw 60,000 kids arrive from Central America this year."

"Kids have a threat against their lives. They don't have time to stand in line, file an application, come back later, stand in line again. They have to leave immediately."

One study by the UN High Commissioner of Refugees revealed that 60 percent of recent child migrants interviewed expressed a targeted fear, like a death threat, which is the type of experience that can qualify you for asylum. If you use that statistic, that means 36,000 of the kids who crossed the border this year should qualify for refugee visas—nine times the total number Obama is promising.

But Brané says an even bigger concern with the program is its potential to eclipse or replace protections given to targeted migrants who arrive at the Mexico/US border. "A program like this is fine as a complementary approach," she says, "but it cannot replace protection at the border; it should not impede access to asylum in the US." Ironically, it's the children whose lives are most threatened that could have the hardest time applying for refugee status from their home countries. "In some of these cases, kids have a threat against their lives," says Brané. "They don't have time to stand in line, file an application, come back later, stand in line again. They have to leave immediately."

Chart: The Typical White Family Is 20 Times Wealthier Than the Typical Black Family

| Thu Oct. 2, 2014 5:00 AM EDT

We're still posting a new chart on the current state of income inequality every day over the next week. Yesterday's looked at how top tax rates dropped as top incomes rose.

Today, a closer look at how income inequality splits along racial lines. Whites' average household income is 56 percent larger than that of African Americans and 39 percent larger than that of Hispanics. But the discrepancy is even greater when it comes to wealth: The median white family holds nearly 20 times more assets than he median black family and 74 times more assets than the median Hispanic family.

Source: Income by race: US Census; wealth by race: Edward N. Wolff 

Illustrations and infographic design by Mattias Mackler​

How Kansas Is Selling Sam Brownback's Failed Trickle-Down Tax Cuts

| Wed Oct. 1, 2014 3:38 PM EDT

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback's reelection campaign is in serious trouble. The latest poll has the incumbent Republican losing to his Democratic opponent by 4 percentage points.

As I explained in our November/December issue, Brownback's woes can largely be traced back to the drastic tax cuts for the wealthy that he pushed through the state legislature. Kansas' tax rate for top earners dropped from 6.45 to 4.9 percent, with further future cuts baked in. The cuts were even more generous for business owners, entirely wiping away their tax burden for pass-through income.

Brownback sold his tax cuts on supply-side promises of unbounded future growth, but the results have been less than stellar: While the state's unemployment rate, like the national jobless rate, has dropped over the past few years, Kansas' economic growth has lagged behind its neighbors'.

Despite these disappointing results, the state has settled on enticing out-of-state businesses with its low tax rate. Check out this full-page ad from the Kansas Department of Commerce, scanned from an issue of the US Small Business Administration's magazine Small Business Resource by a reader:

That ad's pitch—"one of the most pro-growth tax policies in the country" leads to "a perfect state"—lines up with the theories of free-market economist Arthur Laffer, the grand poobah of Ronald Reagan's trickle-down economics. Brownback cited Laffer's work to justify his cuts. During the thick of the legislative debate, he flew Laffer in for a three-day sales pitch, costing the state $75,000.

When I called Laffer in August, he excitedly proclaimed that Brownback's cuts would prove a resounding success. "I'll make you a very large bet that Kansas will improve its relative position to the US over, let's say, eight years, hands down. I'll bet you with great odds," he told me. "I feel very confident that what Sam Brownback has done is and will be extraordinarily beneficial for the state of Kansas."

As Laffer saw it, low tax rates would entice out-of-state residents and businesses to relocate. Laffer himself had moved to Tennessee sight unseen nine years ago, fleeing from California because of the Volunteer State's lack of income tax. "In someplace like Kansas, I don't think the income tax makes any sense whatsoever," Laffer said. "That's what we're trying to move toward in Kansas. The income tax is a killer."

Except that magical migration hasn't developed yet. In August, the state added just 900 jobs, with a tepid growth rate of just half a percent for the full year. Maybe I should have made that bet with Laffer.

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Chart: As Top Tax Rates Dropped, Top Incomes Soared

| Wed Oct. 1, 2014 5:00 AM EDT

We're still posting a new chart on the current state of income inequality every day over the next week. Yesterday's looked at how the top 1 percent of Americans have captured half of all income.

Today, let's talk taxes. In the past few years, we've heard a lot about overtaxed "job creators" and freeloading "takers." But consider this: As the income rates for the wealthiest have plunged, their incomes have shot up.

Source: Tax rates: The Tax Foundation; top incomes: Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty (Excel

Illustrations and infographic design by Mattias Mackler​

Second Healthcare Worker in Texas Tests Positive for Ebola

| Tue Sep. 30, 2014 4:24 PM EDT

Update 7, October 15, 8:20 a.m. EDT: A second hospital worker who treated the Dallas Ebola patient has tested positive for the disease.

Update 6, October 12, 2:50 p.m. EDT: A hospital worker who treated the Dallas Ebola patient has contracted the disease.

Update 5, October 8, 11:25 a.m. EDT: According to Texas Health Services, the Dallas Ebola patient, Thomas Eric Duncan, has died.

Update 4, October 3, 12:57 p.m. EDT: Howard University Hospital in Washington, DC, has a patient in isolation with symptoms "that could be associated with Ebola," a hospital spokeswoman said in a statement. The patient, who is in stable condition, recently returned from Nigeria, the spokeswoman said.

Update 3, October 1, 6:50 p.m. EDT: Liberian officials identified the first person diagnosed with the Ebola virus in the United States as Thomas Duncan, a Monrovia resident in his mid-forties. Duncan had tried to help a woman sick with the virus find treatment two weeks ago, according to the New York Times. Unable to find a place in a local hospital, the woman's family took her back to her home, where she died a few hours later.

The story follows a pattern which the World Health Organization had warned of in a September 8 statement, which described how cars, sometimes packed with entire families, could cross Liberian cities in search of a place at a local hospital, only to return home for lack of space. "When patients are turned away at Ebola treatment centers, they have no choice but to return to their communities and homes, where they inevitably infect others, perpetuating constantly higher flare-ups in the number of cases," the organization said in the statement.

Update 2, October 1, 2:20 p.m. EDT: With the first Ebola patient to be diagnosed in the United States isolated in a Dallas hospital and in serious condition, officials are closely monitoring the people he came into contact with—including several children. The unidentified patient, who arrived in the United States from Liberia on September 20, fell ill and went to the hospital on September 26, but was released with a prescription for antibiotics. On Wednesday, the AP reported that the patient told the hospital he had come from Liberia before his release.

This is not the first time a commercial airliner has become a carrier for the virus. On July 20, a Liberian-American arrived in Nigeria's largest city, Lagos, and infected several people. The disease spread to another city, Port Harcourt, via one of the physicians involved in that patient's treatment. As of September 29, the CDC and World Health Organization reported 19 confirmed cases of Ebola in Nigeria, but said the virus was contained there.

Update, September 30, 6:15 p.m. EDT: According to officials from the Centers for Disease Control, the patient, a male, arrived in the United States from Liberia on September 20. He planned to visit with family members in Texas. He initially sought treatment at a hospital on September 26 but was sent home, and then was readmitted on September 28. Texas public health officials believe that the patient had contact with "a handful" of people while he was infectious, including family members. The officials are currently in the process of tracing those contacts. CDC officials do not believe that anyone on the flight with him has any risk of contracting Ebola.

During a press conference, CDC officials reiterated that Ebola is not transmitted through the air, nor is it possible to catch it from someone who has been exposed but is not yet displaying symptoms.

"Ebola is a scary disease," said CDC's Dr. Thomas Frieden. "At the same time, we are stopping it in its tracks in this country."

***

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed a case of Ebola in Dallas. While other patients have been flown back to the United States for treatment, this is the first time that a patient has been diagnosed stateside.

The patient is being kept in "strict isolation" at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital. While hospital officials are not currently discussing which countries the patient has visited, no doubt US officials will be looking very closely at where he's traveled in the recent past, especially within the United States. The CDC will be holding a press conference on this at 5:30 p.m. Eastern. You can see it live here

Ebola has already infected more than 6,000 people—and killed more than 3,000—in West Africa. Quick action prevented the disease from spreading in Senegal and Nigeria, but the disease continues to wreak havoc in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.

More Than 80 Percent of Teens Are Using the Wrong Birth Control

| Tue Sep. 30, 2014 3:32 PM EDT

For the first time, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended long-acting reversible contraception, like IUDs and contraceptive implants, as "first-line contraceptive choices for adolescents." The guidelines, published in the journal Pediatrics on Monday, encourage pediatricians to discuss these long-acting options, known as LARC methods, before other contraceptive choices for adolescents because of the products' "efficacy, safety, and ease of use."

It's no secret that a lot of teens have sex; according to the report, nearly half of US high school students report having had sexual intercourse. Each year, 750,000 teenagers become pregnant, with over 80 percent of the pregnancies unplanned.

But the recommended AAP guidelines are a huge step away from the current practices of the 3.2 million teenage women using contraceptives; in fact, it seems that the frequencies with which teens use contraceptives are inversely related to their efficacy. Here's a breakdown of contraceptive use among today's teenagers:

  • Male condoms are by far the most frequent choice of contraception, with over half of teenage women reporting condom use the last time they had sex. According to the Centers for Disease Control, condoms have an 18 percent failure rate.
  • The pill, used by 53 percent of teenage girls using contraceptives, has a 9 percent failure rate.
  • Contraceptive implants are small rods that, when inserted under the skin of the upper arm, release steroid hormones, preventing pregnancy for up to three years with a .05 percent failure rate. According to the Guttmacher Institute, implants and other hormonal methods, like hormonal patches or rings, are used by 16 percent of teens using contraceptives.
  • Intrauterine devices, or IUDs, are small, T-shaped devices that, once implanted in the uterus, can prevent pregnancy for up to 10 years with a failure rate of less than 1 percent. IUDs are one of the most popular contraceptive methods in other developed countries, but, largely due to misconceptions that developed in the 70s, they're used far less frequently in the US. Only 3 percent of teens using contraceptives rely on IUDs.

Following similar guidelines published in 2012 by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the AAP report makes clear that teenagers using LARC methods should still use condoms to prevent STIs, and doctors should still talk to their patients about all contraceptive methods, tailoring "counseling and recommendations to each patient." The Affordable Care Act requires insurance plans to cover LARCs, including progestin implants and IUDs.

New Mexico AG Opens Criminal Investigation Into Missing Susana Martinez Emails

| Tue Sep. 30, 2014 11:57 AM EDT
New Mexico AG Gary King, who is running for governor against Republican Susana Martinez.

The New Mexico Attorney General's office is opening a criminal investigation into missing and/or destroyed emails covering part of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez's tenure as a district attorney and also the tenure of Martinez's successor, Amy Orlando, a close friend of the governor. Complicating the investigation is the fact that New Mexico's AG, Democrat Gary King, is Martinez's opponent in this year's gubernatorial race. 

The investigation was triggered by an internal report released last week by the district attorney in New Mexico's Third Judicial District. As I reported, it found that many emails sent and received by staff members inside the Third Judicial District office were apparently "deleted and/or removed" during the period when Martinez and later Orlando headed the office. Those missing emails—which are state property—likely include messages to and from Martinez herself, who served as DA until she became governor in 2011.

Martinez handpicked Orlando as her successor, but her term was shortlived. In 2012, Orlando lost her DA election to a former FBI agent and federal prosecutor named Mark D'Antonio, who is a Democrat. It was D'Antonio who forwarded his office's findings to the AG for further investigation.

At a Monday afternoon press conference, King, the state AG, made a brief appearance in which he said that the disappearance of the emails in question "appears not to be the result of an inadvertent clerical error or policy but rather the planned intentional destruction of vital government records." Dave Pederson, the general counsel in the AG's office, downplayed the potential conflict of interest posed by King's gubernatorial run and said this case "goes way beyond simply pressing the delete button on certain emails or electronic files." According to the Santa Fe Reporter, Pederson declined to tell reporters which statutes may have been violated to avoid alerting potential targets.

Orlando is currently the general counsel at the state's Department of Public Safety (DPS). Her boss, DPS Secretary Greg Fouratt, dismissed the AG's investigation as "nothing more than a clumsy and amateur political stunt coordinated between a DA with what appears to be a personal vendetta and a gubernatorial candidate who's just a few weeks away from an election." Orlando herself slammed last week's report on the missing emails as an "amateurish political stunt on the eve of an election" that was filled with "baseless innuendos."