Political MoJo

Taking Global Warming Seriously

| Fri Apr. 21, 2006 4:32 PM EDT

Over at TomPaine.com, Chris Mooney argues that the fallout from Hurricane Katrina might well act as the catalyst that gets everyone thinking seriously about how to prevent global warming. Here's hoping he's right. This bit was interesting, though:

Recently the attorneys general of several progressive-leaning states brought a lawsuit against a group of U.S. electric power companies, trying to hold them responsible for the current and future impacts of global warming on their respective states. The lawsuit has stalled, but it's just the opening salvo in what could be a flurry of global warming litigation. And as the impacts of climate change become more pronounced, plaintiffs should have an easier time gaining standing in court. "You can't be contributing to the destruction of the planet's climate with millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions and not be committing some kind of a tort," global warming litigator Matt Pawa told me last year. "It's just impossible."
That reminds me of the story of Tuvalu, a small island nation in the South Pacific that could literally get washed away and disappear completely if melting ice caps continue to raise the sea levels. Steven Milloy, a "CATO analyst," had a good chuckle over this bit of litigation in a Fox column last year. But who is Steven Milloy? Why, as Mooney himself reported for Mother Jones last year, he's a famous global warming "skeptic" who regularly receives money from Exxon for scoffing at the science behind climate change. So this post has come full circle—that's exciting.

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What's So Great About STAR*D?

Fri Apr. 21, 2006 3:51 PM EDT

Treatment for depression costs the United States a staggering $83 billion each year. Part of this is due to the fact that the treatments themselves involve so much trial and error; there's very little reliable information out on the effectiveness of various drugs and forms of therapy.

So it's good news that today Slate is reporting on a new study called STAR*D, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health, that compares and contrasts the twenty options for prescription antidepressants, their dosages, and even the effects of psychotherapy -- something no other study has ever done. For the 19 million Americans who suffer from depression, this is a major step forward. The pharmaceutical industry usually doesn't produce any comparative data on depression, a state of affairs that has previously left most patients and their doctors guessing which treatment will be the best fit.

Comparative, independent trials will also enable doctors to rely less on collected by the pharmaceutical industry. Mark Gibson, deputy director of the Center for Evidence-Based Policy at Oregon Health and Science University, adds that in regards to data provided by drug firms, "it's not unusual for less than 10 percent of studies to meet our standards of quality." And according to Jerry Avorn, professor of medicine at Harvard, comparative studies could motivate drug companies to develop more advanced versions of current drugs, improving on what we already have.

Punishing Whistleblowers

| Thu Apr. 20, 2006 3:58 PM EDT

Jason Vest has a profile in Government Executive about Torin Nelson, a military interrogator who was one of the whistleblowers alerting officials to the abuses at Abu Ghraib. And where is he now? Struggling to find contract work with the military. "They're saying there's no blacklisting policy, but there's clearly a blacklist." It sure seems that way. Here's what someone who does the right thing can look forward to these days:

All Nelson did was pass on what little he had heard and had been able to document. And as far as he was concerned, he'd already paid a fair price for doing the right thing. It was bad enough that word of his meeting with investigators leaked almost immediately at Abu Ghraib. The ostracization that followed was far from pleasant. Worse were the thinly veiled death threats that convinced even as formidable a man as Nelson that he had no choice but to flee not just Abu Ghraib, but Iraq.

Comparatively speaking, Nelson hasn't had the worst of it. Darby [the main whistleblower at Abu Ghraib] and his family, for example, had to be taken into protective custody after receiving death threats. After Provance [yet another whistleblower] spoke to the media about Abu Ghraib and the Fay investigation, his superiors ordered him to cease contact with the press, and subsequently suspended his security clearance, reassigned him and demoted him. Through the graces of Provance's home state senator, torture opponent Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Provance did address a congressional subcommittee on whistleblower protection in February.Nelson, by the way, is now running for congress in Utah.

Shifting of Chairs in Iraq

| Thu Apr. 20, 2006 2:28 PM EDT

I guess it's good news that Ibrahim al-Jaaferi is withdrawing his candidacy for another term as prime minister of Iraq. The Sunnis, Kurds, and the Bush administration all wanted him gone, and on the surface this seems like a) it will mollify some of the minorities in Iraq and hopefully be a step on the path to national reconciliation or whatever people are hoping for, and b) it points to the idea that the United States and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad still have leverage over Iraq and can put pressure on various parties for the better.

That's the surface view. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine that this solves much of anything in Iraq. The Kurds, reportedly, don't like Jaafari because they want a Shiite leader more committed to the breakup of the country into autonomous provinces—something that could create a lot of chaos down the road. The Sunnis presumably don't like Jaafari because he backs Shiite death squads, but his preferred replacement, Abdel Mahdi, is a member of SCIRI, the party running the death squads.

So it's hard to imagine that a change of face will alter any of the fundamental dynamics driving the ongoing civil war in Iraq, or that the U.S. can prevent a crack-up by engineering the ouster of this or that individual. Saleh al-Mutlak, a Sunni politician, recently said of the various Shiite candidates for prime minister, "All of them are the same. They are not qualified to run the country. But nobody listens to us." That's not a good sign.

Should the Sierra Club Endorse Chaffee?

| Thu Apr. 20, 2006 1:49 PM EDT

Kos is pissed off at the Sierra Club for endorsing Lincoln Chaffee's re-election in Rhode Island, despite the Republican senator's "20 percent" environmental rating in 2004. (Presumably it was the local chapter, and not the national organization, that's endorsing him.) So here we go again; a rehash of the old NARAL-endorses-Chaffee debates. Should liberal interest groups support Republicans who are good for their causes, even at the expense of the Democratic party?

Let's just point out, first off, that I have no idea where that 20 percent rating that Kos cites comes from: the League of Conservation Voters gave Chaffee a 90 percent score in 2005 and a 72 percent score in 2004. He's quite good on environmental issues. More to the point, he's used his perch on the environmental committee to single-handedly hold up the Bush administration's Orwellian-titled Clear Skies Act, and has helped slow Rep. Richard Pombo's attacks on the Endangered Species Act. It's not necessarily an exaggeration to say that thanks to his rather unique position, Lincoln Chaffee has been able to do more for the environment than most Democrats.

Business leaders join civil rights groups in lawsuit to stop wiretaps

| Thu Apr. 20, 2006 1:07 PM EDT

A group of business leaders and civil rights organizations have joined together to support a lawsuit filed against George W. Bush to stop the Natonal Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping of citizens, according to Raw Story. The suit, filed in U.S. District court in the Eastern District of Michigan, seeks a declaration that the wiretapping is illegal, and seeks a permanent halt to the wiretapping program.

The American Civil Liberties Union is joined by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, United for Peace and Justice, and the Japanese Americans Citizens League in an amicus brief filed with the court.

In a separate brief, members of the business community accused the NSA of engaging in wholesale data mining and obstructing economic growth by damaging trust in democratic values. This group includes Michael Kieschnick, President, COO, and a co-founder of Working Assets Funding Service, Inc., Mal Warwick, founder and Chairman of Mal Warwick & Associates, Ronald Algrant, Senior Vice President of HarperCollins Publishers, Adam Kanzer of Domini Social Investments, Peter Strugatz, President of Strugatz Ventures, Inc., Joe Sibilia, President and CEO of Meadowbrook Lane Capital.

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Rape Victims Denied Abortions in Mexico

Wed Apr. 19, 2006 9:42 PM EDT

Human Rights Watch has issued a new report, The Second Assault, outlining the harsh realities facing rape victims in Mexico. And they take place well after the actual rape. Despite the fact that abortions are technically legal in the case of rape in Mexico, women face a myriad of obstacles that usually thwart any attempt at a legal and safe abortion. According to Human Rights Watch:

A number of agencies in various Mexican states – particularly the state attorney general's office, public hospitals and family services – employ aggressive tactics to discourage and delay rape victims' access to legal abortion. A social worker in Jalisco, for example, showed scientifically inaccurate anti-abortion videos to a 13-year-old girl who had been raped and impregnated by a family member. Some public prosecutors threatened rape victims with jail for procuring a legal abortion, and many doctors told women and girls, without cause, that an abortion would kill them. As a result, many rape victims seek to resolve their situation by resorting to back-alley abortions that endanger their lives and health. Underage girls raped by their fathers or other family members often find themselves with no other alternative than to carry the imposed pregnancy to term.
Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, adds "state laws on domestic and sexual violence fall significantly short of Mexico's international human rights obligations. The definition of incest as voluntary sex is an insult to the thousands of girls who suffer abuse daily. No one, and least of all girls raped and impregnated by their fathers or brothers, should be forced to carry a pregnancy to term."

It's estimated that approximately one million women are raped in Mexico each year. And it wasn't until November, 2005, that the Mexican Supreme Court overturned a law that stated that rape in a married union was legal (so long as reproduction was the goal). Human Rights Watch couldn't be more accurate in declaring that these victims are being assaulted twice—once by the rapist, and then by the public officials who deny them adequate rights.

Welcome to Rumsfeld's fantasyland

| Wed Apr. 19, 2006 7:38 PM EDT

Last week, Donald Rumsfeld brushed off questions about Iran war-planning by saying that it's "just not useful to get into fantasyland." But as I note in this column for MotherJones.com, it's Rumsfeld who dwells in a fantasyland, based on what happened in the war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq. Here's how he likely imagined the New York Times would write up his successes by now:


Three years later, Iraq's success confounds critics, wins praise.
Stable, prosperous Iraq affirms new DOD strategy.

By Michael Gordon
News Analysis

WASHINGTON, April 19, 2006 - A little more than three years after the invasion of Iraq, which went forward amid a chorus of criticism, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is riding a new wave of respect and praise from both inside and outside the Pentagon. As the retired Mideast commander, Marine Corps Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, the former head of the United States Central Command, said on Meet the Press recently, "You've got to admire him for sticking to his guns. Rumsfeld ignored the nay-sayers who said it couldn't be done his way, and he turned out to be right."

In Baghdad, Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi presides over a national unity government where the once-fractious Sunni, Shia and Kurdish religious groups are working together in a prosperous post-Saddam Iraq, with oil production soaring more than 300% over pre-war levels. In fact, the war and reconstruction effort, which the then-White House economic adviser Lawrence Lindsay famously speculated might cost as much as an astounding $200 billion, has largely been self-financed through Iraqi oil revenues since the bulk of U.S troops left in September, 2003. "There's a lot of money to pay for this that doesn't have to be U.S. taxpayer money," Mr. Rumsfeld's then-deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, the World Bank president who won last year's Nobel Peace Prize for his work promoting democracy in the Mideast, presciently told Congress in 2003. And to the surprise of some Congressional critics who direly forecasted a Vietnam-style "quagmire," under Mr. Rumsfeld's direction the departing U.S. military left behind only a token force to offer support and technical assistance to a well-regarded 400,000-man Iraqi Army.

Colonel Accused of Corruption in Iraq

| Wed Apr. 19, 2006 4:53 PM EDT

The Los Angeles Times has a story today about Kimberly D. Olson, an Air Force colonel now accused of using her high position in the Coalitional Provisional Authority in Iraq for financial gain (she's the highest-ranking officer to be accused of wrongdoing in connection with reconstruction):

One of the first female pilots in the Air Force, she was a hard-charger with an unblemished reputation for honesty, a high profile in the Pentagon and a commitment to the U.S. goal of creating a democracy in the Middle East.

Today, Olson is at the center of accusations of audacious impropriety in the corruption-plagued reconstruction of Iraq….

Pentagon investigators allege that while on active duty as one of the most powerful figures in Iraq, Olson established a U.S. branch of a South African security firm after helping it win more than $3 million in contracts to provide protection for senior U.S. and British officials, as well as for KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton Co.Disgusting, I guess, although you sort of have to strain to find any meaningful difference between what Olson did and what passed for "business of usual" throughout the reconstruction. Basically, an American-run administration was installed in Iraq and tasked with privatizing the country's industries and handing off reconstruction contracts to whoever had the slickest and best-connected lobbyists. In early 2005, government watchdogs reported that $9 billion worth of reconstruction funds had somehow up and vanished. Without excusing Olson, the invasion created the perfect atmosphere for looting and corruption; stories like these are the inevitable result.

The Tax Credit Trap

| Wed Apr. 19, 2006 4:33 PM EDT

Tax fraud by the poor amounts to some $9 billion a year. Corporations and the very wealthy, meanwhile, manage to avoid taxes to the tune of some $340 billion a year.

Nevertheless, the IRS spends a disproportionate amount of time and resources hunting down the former set of taxpayers—partly because they don't have high-priced lawyers to argue their case, and partly because it's just easier to determine fraud for the former group. A person claiming undue credits under the EITC isn't going to be resorting to fancy loopholes or ultra-complex financial schemes. In fact, the agency was recently found freezing tax refunds for hundreds of thousands of poor Americans deemed "fraudulent"—most of whom were owed all of the money they claimed.

But here's the thing. Part of the problem with low-income tax credits is that they're unreasonably complex, as Dorothy Brown pointed out in the New York Times yesterday. The EITC's instruction book runs to 50 pages, and even seasoned tax preparers often make mistakes calculating it. Nevertheless, low-income families are supposed to have this stuff down cold—and if they don't, they risk being labeled "fraudulent" and persecution by the IRS. (Another problem, Brown might've noted, is that a whopping 40 percent of low-income taxpayers have never even heard of the EITC.)

As Brown says, the entire system is perverse, and instead of wasting money prosecuting low-income workers, Congress could simplify the tax credit and spend its time going after the corporations robbing the country of $340 billion a year—an amount, keep in mind, that could essentially close the federal budget deficit. Not that the Republicans in Congress are planning anything of the sort, but still.