Wednesday, February 29, 2012

R.I.P. Robert Moorman

Roman Colosseum lit to protest an execution
Arizona executed Robert Moorman on February 29, 2012, for the 1984 murder and dismemberment of his adoptive mother, Roberta Mormann, a woman who sexually abused Moorman throughout his childhood and into adulthood.

Moorman was born to a 15-year-old girl who drank heavily and engaged in prostitution. His father abandoned him and his mother died at age 17.  He then went to live with his maternal grandparents until he was put up for adoption because of his grandfather’s alcohol abuse.  The clemency board rejected the plea that it would be "unconscionable" to execute Moorman for killing his adoptive mother who subjected him to years of sexual abuse.

Also rejected was Moorman's claim that he should not be executed because of his mental disabilities.   Moorman was diagnosed with mental retardation and attended special education classes while in school.  His first stay at a mental institution occurred when he was 13. The state argued that that Moormann's mental capacity at the time of the killing was just above the legal requirement for mental impairment.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit allowed the execution to go forward despite expressing serious concerns about the state's execution procedures, which permitted last minute changes after it was discovered that one of the drugs to be used had expired and was no longer available. 

This is the fifth execution in the United States this year, the first in Arizona.

Apes And Taxes

"It's a mad house.  A mad house"  -- Planet of the Apes
There are times when the Daily Show lays bare the complete and utter absurdity of right wing positions that no amount of reasoned analysis, much less the pathologically balanced approach of the mainstream media, can do.  Case in point is Samantha Bee's interview of anti-tax crusader, Grover Norquist, who has gotten most Republicans to sign the "Taxpayer Protection Pledge," a commitment to oppose all tax increases.

Norquist, who admitted to Bee that he came up with the no tax pledge when he was twelve years old (causing Bee to mutter, "the entire federal government is paralyzed because of a document, written by a twelve year old, in 1968), could not imagine any scenario in which it would be appropriate to raise taxes -- not war, not natural disasters, not beard flu.  He would not even approve of a tax increase to combat the rise of the apes.  I bet even Charlton Heston would have gone for that one.

Capital Punishment Is A Dying Institution

The traditional arguments against the death penalty are familiar:  It is morally wrong; it is uncivilized and inhumane as reflected by its disuse by every other western nation; it is all too fallible resulting in the execution of the innocent; it is a legacy of the more shameful aspects of our nation's past (e.g., slavery and lynching); and it is applied in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner.

But what about the reasons for maintaining it?  As David Garland explains in his remarkable book, Peculiar Institution, capital punishment was initially seen as an essential instrument of state power by emerging, fragile governments and used ritualistically and brutally against perceived enemies of the state.  Once nations achieved more legitimacy and stability, executions were used primarily as a means of crime control due in large part to the absence of an established prison system or extensive police force.  With the development in the 19th Century and early 20th Century of a criminal justice apparatus, including police, courts and penitentiaries, the death penalty was no longer penalogically necessary either.

By the 1970s, it was clear, as Garland points out, that the death penalty was not an effective crime-fighting tool and its deterrent effect was uncertain at best.  (It has long been true that the states with capital punishment also have the most crimes of violence.)   Nevertheless, in 1976, when the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the death penalty, it cited deterrence as well as retribution as the penalty's two worthy social goals.  Whether these were ever legitimate bases for imposing the death penalty, however, they surely have become meaningless in today's system in which crime and ultimate punishment are so far removed from each other.

In California, there are over 720 men and women on death row.  No executions have taken place since 2006, and there have been a total of 13 executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977.  It takes over five years for a condemned inmate to get a lawyer to handle his appeal, and cases take up to thirty years to be resolved.  As the California Commission for the Fair Administration of Justice concluded after its extensive review in 2008 of the state's death penalty system, death sentences are unlikely ever to be carried out (with extremely rare exceptions) because of a process “plagued with excessive delay” in the appointment of post-conviction counsel and a “severe backlog” in the California Supreme Court's review of death judgments.  According to CCFAJ's report, the lapse of time from sentence of death to execution constitutes the longest delay of any death penalty state.

With such long delays plaguing a dysfunctional system, any retributive or deterrent effect certainly loses its force.  In a case the U.S. Supreme Court did not take up, involving the constitutionality of executing someone who had been on death row for 17 years, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote a memorandum in which he noted that "after such an extended time, the acceptable state interest in retribution has arguably been satisfied by the severe punishment already inflicted," and that "the additional deterrent effect from an actual execution now, on the one hand, as compared to 17 years on death row followed by the prisoner's continued incarceration for life, on the other, seems minimal." 

Democrats Must Take The Offensive On Women's Reproductive Rights

Democrats See Electoral Gold in Birth Control Fight, But Do They See Women's Health?

By Joan McCarter, cross-posted from Daily Kos

The Senate is going to be voting on Sen. Roy Blunt's amendment repealing the administration's birth control mandate and with it much of the health insurance coverage the Affordable Care Act extended. Though the primary focus of the Blunt amendment has been on birth control, the actual language of the bill would allow employers to dictate all kind of coverage exemptions for their employees, under the guise of "moral convictions." That's a proposal, by the way, which is hugely unpopular.

Which is why Democrats in the Senate are anxious to take the vote.
Democrats see the vote as a way to embarrass Republicans — especially those up for re-election in moderate states like Maine and Massachusetts — and believe that the battle may alienate women and moderates from the Republican Party. Republicans need to pick up a number of seats to take back the Senate. “They’ve gone way overboard in the mind of independents,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate, in a conference call with reporters, referring to Republicans generally. The fight over contraception, he said, “is going to do lasting damage” to the Republican Party.
Lasting damage to the Republicans is all well and good. The GOP's overreach on social issues has to come to an end at some point through a good electoral stomping, and it might as well be now.

But, Democrats, how about a little effort to take the bull by the horns and start making up for the huge ground lost to the zealots in the past few decades in women's reproductive health rights? Now that the nation has a crystal clear view of exactly what Republicans intend to do with the freedoms of 51 percent of the nation's population, it's the perfect time to be proactive with a coherent message to America's women that you'll start fighting for us again.

That goes for the White House, too, which seems a little hesitant to make this a real fight.
One White House official cautioned that should the debate devolve into shrill arguments, the net result would be the alienation of the independent or moderate voters whom Mr. Obama is trying to woo in his reelection bid. “Look, we don’t want to overplay this either, so we’ll be cautious,” another White House official said.
Just look, again, at the polling. There's no time like the present for getting just a little bit shrill. That's the least the nation's women deserve.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Ongoing Housing Crisis And The End Of An Era

By Robert Reich, cross-posted from his website

Economic cheerleaders on Wall Street and in the White House are taking heart. The US has had three straight months of faster job growth. The number of Americans each week filing new claims for unemployment benefits is down by more than 50,000 since early January. Corporate profits are healthy. The S&P 500 on Friday closed at a post-financial crisis high.

Has the American recovery finally entered the sweet virtuous cycle in which more spending generates more jobs, more jobs make consumers more confident, and the confidence creates more spending? > On the surface it would appear so.

American consumers in recent months have let loose their pent-up demand for cars and appliances. Businesses have been replacing low inventories and worn equipment. The richest 10 per cent, owners of approximately 90 per cent of the nation’s financial capital, have felt freer to splurge. Consumer confidence is at a one-year high, according to data released on Friday.

The U.S. government has not succumbed entirely to the lunacy of austerity. Republicans in Congress have just agreed to extend both a payroll tax cut and extra unemployment benefits, and the US Federal Reserve is resolutely keeping interest rates near zero.

Yet the US economy has been down so long that it needs substantial growth to get back on track – far faster than the 2.2 - 2.7 per cent projected by the Federal Reserve for this year (a projection which itself is likely to be far too optimistic).

A strong recovery can’t rely on pent-up demand for replacements or on the spending of the richest 10 per cent. Consumer spending is 70 per cent of the US economy, so a buoyant recovery must involve the vast middle class.

But America’s middle class is still hobbled by net job losses and shrinking wages and benefits. Although the US population is much larger than it was 10 years ago, the total number of jobs today is no more than it was then. A significant portion of the working population has been sidelined – many for good. And the median wage continues to drop, adjusted for inflation. On top of all that, rising gas prices are squeezing home budgets even more.

Yet the biggest continuing problem for most Americans is their homes.

Republican Means Never Having To Say You're Sorry

Being self reflective, expressing remorse, apologizing for causing harm.  These are characteristics of an evolved, mature person.  Right?  We certainly would want our political leaders to have the strength and confidence to be able to admit their own and the nation's mistakes, shoulder blame when warranted, and change course when necessary.  Wouldn't we?  Unfortunately, these qualities are not a part of the Republican DNA.  For them they are signs of weakness, hewing too close to what Jeanne Kirkpatrick criticized as the unforgivable sin of "blaming America first."

The last Republican Administration lied and manipulated us into a war based on grounds that proved illusory, approved torture and other human rights abuses, unnecessarily cost our country billions of dollars, caused untold numbers of casualties, and undermined their own avowed goal of thwarting the terrorist group responsible for the 9/11 attacks.  Did they ever admit their mistakes much less apologize for their monumentally destructive conduct?

On the contrary, since leaving office Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice have bragged and boasted about their policies, and have tried to take credit for whatever success President Obama has had.  And when they were still in power we were treated to this, um, awkward moment:

It doesn't get any better with the current crop of Republican leaders.  Mitt Romney's book is actually called "No Apology," in which he falsely accuses President Obama of going around the world apologizing for America, a dubious claim he repeats often on the campaign trail.  ("Never before in American history has its president gone before so many foreign audiences to apologize for so many American misdeeds, both real and imagined.")

President Obama did apologize for the burning of copies of the Koran by American personnel at a NATO military base in Afghanistan.  In the wake of increasing violence over the incident, Obama  expressed "deep regret," extended his "sincere apologies" to Hamid Karzai and the Afghan people, and promised "to take the appropriate steps to avoid any recurrence, to include holding accountable those responsible."

This was too much for the GOP. 

Newt Gingrich is not one to apologize for anything.  (Recall his rationalization for an extra-marital affair -- that it was due to his excessive patriotism.)  He said Obama's apology was an “outrage,” and  later gave this advice to the Afghans, “You know, you’re going to have to figure out how to live your own miserable life… Because you clearly don’t want to learn from me how to be unmiserable."

Mitt Romney was also troubled, saying that for many people the apology "sticks in their throat."  According to Romney, since we have done so much for the Afghan people in helping them "achieve freedom," to "apologize at a time like this is something which is very difficult for the American people to countenance."

And then there was Rick Santorum, spewing his typically illogical and sanctimonious claptrap
I don’t think the president should apologize for something that was clearly inadvertent. What you should lay out is the president saying this was inadvertent. This was a mistake and there was no deliberate act, there was no meant to disrespect. This was something that, that occurred that, that should not have occurred, but it was an accident and leave it at that. I think you highlight it when you, when you apologize for it. You, you make it sound like it was something that you should apologize for. And there is not—there was no act that needed an apology. It was an inadvertent act and it should be left at that and I think the response has—needs to be apologized for by, by Karzai and the Afghan people of, of attacking and killing our men and women in uniform and, and overreacting to this, to this inadvertent mistake. That, that is, that is the real crime here, not what our soldiers did.
I'll leave it to Amy Davidson to expound:
Maybe Santorum and his fellow-candidates have been trapped in the kindergarten-delinquent classroom of the Republican primaries for so long that they think the same rules, and illogic, that help decide who the not-Romney of the week is apply everywhere. But Afghanistan is a real and dangerous place; more than two dozen people have died in the violence, including two Americans, who were assassinated in the Interior Ministry. (The Afghan government reportedly did apologize for that.) The senselessness of the response does not take away from the necessity of an apology, or from its grace.
U.S. Commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, stated what should be obvious:  "We admit our mistake, we ask for forgiveness, we seek to move on."  And, as Amy Davidson concludes:  
In apologizing, we remind ourselves who we are. We also learn more about where we are, who we are talking to, and our circumstances. Having done so—done the right thing—we may reasonably conclude that we can make our apologies, and leave.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Can Corporations Violate Human Rights?

By John Knox, cross-posted from Center for Progressive Reform

On February 28, the Supreme Court will hear argument in Kiobel v Royal Dutch Petroleum, a case with far-reaching implications for efforts to hold corporations accountable when they commit or are complicit in abuses of human rights.

For over fifty years, Shell has extracted oil from Nigeria, causing great harm to the environment and people of the Niger delta.  The Ogoni people living in the delta protested Shell’s operations, and in response the Nigerian government harshly oppressed them.  Most infamously, in 1995 it executed the author Ken Saro-Wiwa, together with eight other leaders of the protests.  

Esther Kiobel, the widow of one of the executed men, as well as other affected Ogoni, sued Shell in U.S. federal court, claiming that it aided and abetted the Nigerian government in its violations of human rights law.  The plaintiffs relied on the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a law enacted by the First Congress, in 1789, which gives federal courts jurisdiction over claims by aliens arising from torts committed in violation of international law.  In 2004, in Sosa v Alvarez-Machain, the Supreme Court affirmed that the ATS still provides jurisdiction for international tort claims, but it cautioned federal courts not to recognize claims “for violations of any international law norm with less definite content and acceptance among civilized nations than the historical paradigms” familiar when the law was enacted.  As an example of such a historical paradigm, the Court cited the long-standing prohibition against piracy.

Foreign plaintiffs have used the ATS to accuse corporations of committing grave human rights abuses, including genocide, war crimes, and forced labor.  A few of the suits have resulted in payments, including a 2009 settlement by Shell of another claim arising from its Nigerian operations.  In 2010, however, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Esther Kiobel’s claim on the sweeping ground that corporations could never be liable for violations of customary international law, because customary international law never imposes any obligations on corporations.  In short order, the Seventh, Ninth, and D.C. Circuits rejected the Second Circuit decision, holding that plaintiffs can sue corporations under the Alien Tort Statute.

Last fall, the Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the Second Circuit decision.  Its ruling will be its first ATS decision since Sosa, and it will determine whether the many other pending ATS suits against corporations may continue.  It’s possible that the Court will decide the case on grounds that allow it to avoid addressing corporate duties under international law.  But if the Supreme Court does take on international law, as seems likely, what should it decide?  Is the Second Circuit correct that international norms do not prohibit corporate abuses of human rights?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Why We Know More About War Than Peace

I love stories about military exploits and am a sucker for war movies.  (See Celluloid Nazis.)  But Adam Hochschild makes an important point that in film and virtually every other aspects of our culture we are far better at celebrating those who fight wars than those who courageously oppose them. -- Lovechilde

Going Beyond the Tale of a Boy and His Horse

By Adam Hochschild, cross-posted from Tom Dispatch

Well in advance of the 2014 centennial of the beginning of “the war to end all wars,” the First World War is suddenly everywhere in our lives. Stephen Spielberg’s War Horse opened on 2,376 movie screens and has collected six Oscar nominations, while the hugely successful play it’s based on is still packing in the crowds in New York and a second production is being readied to tour the country.

In addition, the must-watch TV soap opera of the last two months, Downton Abbey, has just concluded its season on an unexpected kiss.  In seven episodes, its upstairs-downstairs world of forbidden love and dynastic troubles took American viewers from mid-war, 1916, beyond the Armistice, with the venerable Abbey itself turned into a convalescent hospital for wounded troops. Other dramas about the 1914-1918 war are on the way, among them an HBO-BBC miniseries based on Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End quartet of novels, and a TV adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s novel Birdsong from an NBC-backed production company.

In truth, there’s nothing new in this.  Filmmakers and novelists have long been fascinated by the way the optimistic, sunlit, pre-1914 Europe of emperors in plumed helmets and hussars on parade so quickly turned into a mass slaughterhouse on an unprecedented scale. And there are good reasons to look at the First World War carefully and closely.

After all, it was responsible for the deaths of some nine million soldiers and an even larger number of civilians.  It helped ignite the Armenian genocide and the Russian Revolution, left large swaths of Europe in smoldering ruins, and remade the world for the worse in almost every conceivable way -- above all, by laying the groundwork for a second and even more deadly, even more global war.

There are good reasons as well for us to be particularly haunted by what happened in those war years to the country that figures in all four of these film and TV productions: Britain. In 1914, that nation was at the apex of glory, the unquestioned global superpower, ruling over the largest empire the world had ever seen. Four and a half years later its national debt had increased tenfold, more than 720,000 British soldiers were dead, and hundreds of thousands more seriously wounded, many of them missing arms, legs, eyes, genitals.

The toll fell particularly heavily on the educated classes that supplied the young lieutenants and captains who led their troops out of the trenches and into murderous machine-gun fire. To give but a single stunning example, of the men who graduated from Oxford in 1913, 31% were killed.

“Swept Away in a Red Blast of Hate”

Yet curiously, for all the spectacle of boy and horse, thundering cavalry charges, muddy trenches, and wartime love and loss, the makers of War Horse, Downton Abbey and -- I have no doubt -- the similar productions we’ll soon be watching largely skip over the greatest moral drama of those years of conflict, one that continues to echo in our own time of costly and needless wars. They do so by leaving out part of the cast of characters of that moment.  The First World War was not just a battle between rival armies, but also a powerful, if one-sided, battle between those who assumed the war was a noble crusade and those who thought it absolute madness.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Roosting Republican Chickens

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when at least some of the more sane Republicans would engage in legitimate debate about policies issues.  One could disagree with their critique of more liberal approaches to governing, but at least there was a common language upon which to engage.  No longer.

 One only need listen to the collection of clowns seeking the Republican nomination for President to understand that what used to be considered the lunatic fringe of the GOP has completely taken over the Party. 

Jonathan Bernstein noted that while there are mainstream conservative arguments "against President Obama’s policies, whether it’s on national security or budget or health care or any other issue," the Republican faithful are not hearing any of it.  Rather, "they’re hearing third-rate slogans, misleading rhetoric and outright mistruths that would fit right in among the cheaper booths at a conservative convention."

Matt Taibbi describes this phenomenon as "the conservative chickens have come home to roost." 
It's as if all of the American public's bad habits and perverse obsessions are all coming back to haunt Republican voters in this race: The lack of attention span, the constant demand for instant gratification, the abject hunger for negativity, the utter lack of backbone or constancy (we change our loyalties at the drop of a hat, all it takes is a clever TV ad): these things are all major factors in the spiraling Republican disaster.
Taibbi believes, and it is hard to disagree, that "the conservative passion for divisive, partisan, bomb-tossing politics is threatening to permanently cripple the Republican party. They long ago became more about pointing fingers than about ideology, and it's finally ruining them."

After blaming "liberals, gays, Hispanic immigrants, atheists, Hollywood actors and/or musicians with political opinions, members of the media, members of congress, TSA officials, animal-lovers, union workers, state employees with pensions, Occupiers and other assorted unorthodox types," for the nation's "failure to return to good old American values," they have succumbed to the "last stage of paranoid illness" and turned on themselves.
This current race for the presidential nomination has therefore devolved into a kind of Freudian Agatha Christie story, in which the disturbed and highly paranoid voter base by turns tests the orthodoxy of each candidate, trying to figure out which one is the spy, which one is really Barack Obama bin Laden-Marx under the candidate mask!
The ever-annoying Tom Friedman finds the decaying state of the Republican Party lamentable.  Taibbi has a different take:
These people have run out of others to blame, run out of bystanders to suspect, run out of decent family people to dismiss as Godless, sex-crazed perverts. They’re turning the gun on themselves now. It might be justice, or it might just be sad. Whatever it is, it’s remarkable to watch.

40 Years After Monk

Thelonious Monk died forty years ago this week on February 17, 1982, at the age of 64.  Thelonious Monk is considered "one of the giants of American Music."  His music has been described as some of the "most original and challenging music of the 20th century. Whether it's his dissonant chords or his uncanny sense of space and syncopation, pianist and composer [his] sound is easily recognizable."

See and hear for yourself:

[Related posts: Jazz Interlude; Great Jazz Albums #11]

Friday, February 24, 2012

Birth Control Bishops

Rather than spend energy fighting contraception legislation, the Catholic Bishops should clean up their own backyard.

By Rose Aguilar, cross-posted from Al Jazeera

Forget child abuse. The Catholic Bishops would rather spend their time, money, and resources on birth control and women's sex lives. The main debate over the past few weeks in the United States has been about birth control. And guess who's dominating it? The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the country's official organisation of the Catholic hierarchy.

The bishops are up in arms over the Obama administration's rule that would have required health insurance plans, including Catholic-affiliated hospitals and universities, to offer free contraception. Once the bishops took to the airwaves to criticise the decision, the administration modified its policy so that insurance companies, not Catholic hospitals or universities, pay for contraception. But that didn't appease the bishops - or Republican extremists.

On February 16, House Republicans thought it was necessary, with all the economic problems the US is facing, to hold a hearing on the contraception rule. The panel was comprised of five men - five religious men who without any kind of health background (watch this video, towards the end).

Before walking out of the hearing, Democratic Representative Carolyn Maloney of New York said: "What I want to know is: where are the women?"

The next day, MSNBC's Morning Joe asked that very question. Ironically enough, Morning Joe's discussion about the all-male hearing on birth control was comprised of men. You really can't make this up.

This issue isn't going away anytime soon. According to Reuters, the bishops' conference plans to "battle" the administration on the contraception issue by running TV and radio ads, and asking pastors of every evangelical denomination across the country to read their congregations a letter protesting the mandate as an assault on religious liberty.

Wanted: Scientific Integrity On GMOs

By Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, cross-posted from PAN's website

As reported in this week's UK Guardian, Nina Federoff spoke about threats to science at a meeting of 8,000 professional scientists. The former Bush Administration official and GMO proponent described her "profound depression" at how difficult it is to “get a realistic conversation started on issues such as climate change or genetically modified organisms.” I too have agonized over our inability to talk seriously about climate change.

However — and this is no small matter — by conflating fringe climate-deniers with established scientists raising valid concerns about the effects of GMOs, Federoff undermines the scientific integrity that she purports to uphold. The hypocrisy is astonishing.

The reason we cannot get a reality-based conversation started on GMOs is because we have precious little independent science on their effectiveness or safety. We know so little about GMOs' safety or efficacy because global ag biotech firms like Monsanto, Dow and DuPont actively suppress science under the heading of protecting “confidential business information.” Companies routinely deny scientists’ research requests and suppress publication of research by threatening legal action, a practice one scientist describes as “chilling.”

In February 2009, 26 corn-pest scientists anonymously submitted a statement to U.S. EPA decrying industry’s prohibitive restrictions on independent research, especially as concerns ag biotech. They submitted the following statement anonymously for fear of being blacklisted:
Technology/stewardship agreements required for the purchase of genetically modified seed explicitly prohibit research. These agreements inhibit public scientists from pursuing their mandated role on behalf of the public good unless the research is approved by industry. As a result of restricted access, no truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions regarding the technology, its performance, its management implications, IRM, and its interactions with insect biology. Consequently, data flowing to an EPA Scientific Advisory Panel from the public sector is unduly limited.
The same year, the editors of Scientific American warned of the debilitating effects of the ag biotech industry’s attacks on science:
Unfortunately, it is impossible to verify that genetically modified crops perform as advertised. That is because agritech companies have given themselves veto power over the work of independent researchers.
When the world’s top scientists have been allowed to examine freely the available evidence, unfettered by corporate restrictions, the results stand in startling contrast to industry claims. Four years ago, the agricultural equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was completed, the World Bank and UN-led International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). I participated as a lead author in that rigorous 4-year process, in which over 400 scientist and development experts from more than 80 countries conducted the most comprehensive assessment of international agricultural technology to date. The IAASTD’s findings were clear:
  1. Genetically engineered crops have failed to deliver on industry promises of increased yields, nutritional value, salt or drought-tolerance.
  2. The unprecedented pace of corporate concentration in the pesticide and seed industry has enabled the ag biotech industry to exert undue influence over public policy and research institutions, funneling public resources towards products that have benefited their manufacturers without generating benefits for the world’s poor.
  3. The developing world’s best hopes for feeding itself, especially under conditions of climate change, lie not in GMOs, but rather in approaches such as agroecology—the integration of cutting-edge agroecological sciences with farmer innovation and locally appropriate, productive and profitable, ecological farming practices. The ability of agroecology to double food production within 10 years was recently re-affirmed by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.
So yes, let’s beat back the “anti-science lobby” and restore scientific integrity to public policy and independence and transparency to our research institutions. The future of our planet depends on it.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Global War On Terror: From Liberation To Assassination

By Andrew Bacevich, cross-posted from Tom Dispatch

With the United States now well into the second decade of what the Pentagon has styled an “era of persistent conflict,” the war formerly known as the global war on terrorism (unofficial acronym WFKATGWOT) appears increasingly fragmented and diffuse.  Without achieving victory, yet unwilling to acknowledge failure, the United States military has withdrawn from Iraq.  It is trying to leave Afghanistan, where events seem equally unlikely to yield a happy outcome.

Elsewhere -- in Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia, for example -- U.S. forces are busily opening up new fronts.  Published reports that the United States is establishing “a constellation of secret drone bases” in or near the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula suggest that the scope of operations will only widen further.  In a front-page story, the New York Times described plans for “thickening” the global presence of U.S. special operations forces.  Rushed Navy plans to convert an aging amphibious landing ship into an “afloat forward staging base” -- a mobile launch platform for either commando raids or minesweeping operations in the Persian Gulf -- only reinforces the point.

Yet as some fronts close down and others open up, the war’s narrative has become increasingly difficult to discern.  How much farther until we reach the WFKATGWOT’s equivalent of Berlin?  What exactly is the WFKATGWOT’s equivalent of Berlin?  In fact, is there a storyline here at all?

Viewed close-up, the “war” appears to have lost form and shape.  Yet by taking a couple of steps back, important patterns begin to appear.  What follows is a preliminary attempt to score the WFKATGWOT, dividing the conflict into a bout of three rounds.  Although there may be several additional rounds still to come, here’s what we’ve suffered through thus far.

Why Is Obama Proposing A Tax Cut For Corporations?

One step forward, two steps back.  Just when you think Obama just might ride the wave of the 99%, provide a contrast with his Republican opponents, and push for a more populist agenda he undercuts it by once again spouting conservative talking points, this time about how the current tax code is unfair to corporations.  Instead of arguing that corporations need to pay more -- or at least their fair share -- he proposes to cut their taxes while closing loopholes, a plan intended to be "revenue neutral."  There is nothing neutral about it.  --- Lovechilde 

By Robert Reich, cross-posted from his website

The Obama administration is proposing to lower corporate taxes from the current 35 percent to 28 percent for most companies and to 25 percent for manufacturers.

The move is supposed to be “revenue neutral” – meaning the Administration is also proposing to close assorted corporate tax loopholes to offset the lost revenues. One such loophole allows corporations to park their earnings overseas where taxes are lower.

Why isn’t the White House just proposing to close the loopholes without reducing overall corporate tax rates? That would generate more tax revenue that could be used for, say, public schools.

It’s not as if corporations are hurting. Quite the contrary. American companies are booking higher profits than ever. They’re sitting on $2 trillion of cash they don’t know what to do with.

And it’s not as if corporate taxes are high. In fact, corporate tax receipts as a share of profits is now at its lowest level in at least 40 years. According to the Congressional Budget Office, corporate federal taxes paid last year dropped to 12.1 percent of profits earned from activities within the United States. That’s a gigantic drop from the 25.6 percent, on average, that corporations paid from 1987 to 2008.

And it’s not that corporations are paying an inordinate share of federal tax revenues. Here again, the reality is just the opposite. Corporate taxes have plummeted as a share of total federal revenues. In 1953, under President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, corporate taxes accounted for 32 percent of total federal tax revenues. Now they’re only 10 percent.

But now the federal budget deficit is ballooning, and in less than a year major cuts are scheduled to slice everything from prenatal care to Medicare. So this would seem to be the ideal time to raise corporate taxes – or at the very least close corporate tax loopholes without lowering corporate rates.
The average American is not exactly enamored with American corporations. Polls show most of the public doesn’t trust them. (A recent national poll by the University of Massachusetts at Lowell found 71 percent with an unfavorable impression of big business – about the same as those expressing an unfavorable view of Washington.)
The Administration’s initiative doesn’t even make sense as a bargaining maneuver.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Hope Springs Eternal Redux

"I truly believe, in my heart, we’re going to surprise a lot of people. I’m not saying we’re going to win a championship. I’m just saying we’re going to be better than people think we’re going to be.”  -- Mets Manager Terry Collins
"The goal this year is to be competitive. … We expect primarily with internal improvements and the continued development of our young players and the return of Johan Santana, hopefully, we can finish much better than we did last year.”  -- Mets GM Sandy Alderson

Well, it was another brutally disappointing season for the Mets last year.  And the off season was not much better.  The Mets have major financial problems thanks to years of mismanagement and their long entanglement with Bernie Madoff.  They lost Jose Reyes, one of the most electrifying players in the game, to free agency.  They made no meaningful trades or signings, and have serious questions with regard to the health and performance of several key players, including Johan Santana, their erstwhile star pitcher, who missed all of last year with injuries.

But, hell, it's spring training, when hope springs eternal.

The Mets actually could field a pretty good team.  Maybe the move to bring the fences in will help David Wright, Jason Bay and the other players with heretofore warning track power hit a few more dingers.  Maybe Ike Davis can shake off his injury-plagued year and become the greatest Jewish Met since Art Shamsky.  Maybe Ruben Tejada will make us forget the deep and abiding pain of losing Jose Reyes.  Maybe Daniel Murphy can learn to play second base without hurting himself.  Maybe R.A. Dickey's climb this winter of Mt. Kilimanjaro won't prove to be the high point of his year.  Maybe Jon Niese's nose job will give him the breathing room to be a better pitcher.  Maybe Johan Santana will come back strong and take the pressure off anxiety-plagued Mike Pelfrey and the remainder of the anxiety-inducing pitching staff.

Just maybe, if everything goes right (and Wright), the Mets can put an exciting team on the field, win 90-plus games and make the playoffs.

Hmmm.  I wonder what I wrote last year?

Hope Springs Eternal
originally posted Feb. 14, 2011

 Cue the Ken Burns music.  Spring training, like spring itself, is a time of renewal and rebirth; a time when even the lowliest team has hope for the season ahead.  Critical trades over the winter have bolstered the team's weaknesses.  Players coming off injury-plagued seasons are returning in the best shape of their careers.  Hitters have corrected the flaws in their swing and pitchers have discovered devastating new pitches.  It may be hackneyed and trite, but I buy it every year.

That's why I eat up articles like the one in the Sunday Times, If The Stars Align, The Mets Could Surprise, Really.

The article concedes that "the 2006 club fell short of the World Series, the 2007 and 2008 teams had crushing September collapses, and the 2009 and 2010 squads succumbed to injuries and some remarkably poor play."  The Mets made no significant trades to make the team better for 2011, and their star pitcher, Johan Santana will not return from surgery until mid-season.  Nevertheless, the piece goes on to surmise, if the Mets' core players stay healthy and the younger players continue to improve, the team could be "formidable."

Yes, he said, "formidable."  Go ahead and laugh, but remember that last year at this time anyone who predicted the Giants would be formidable, much less World Series champs, would have been laughed at too.  So, at least until opening day, I'm feeling optimistic and excited about the Mets' new season.  Really.

Republican Gasbags

Rising gasoline prices are being viewed with glee by Republicans who see it as a vehicle to undermine the President's economic agenda, energy policies and political prospects.

Laura Clawson lays out the Republican perspective:   
First off, prices should be rock bottom at all times, because it is the God-given right of Americans to use the maximum possible quantity of fossil fuels, the retail cost of which should therefore not reflect their true costs. Second, the way to keep prices at rock bottom is through the aforementioned "drill, baby, drill" strategy. Third, President Obama is a wild-eyed environmentalist-socialist who is coming between Americans and their God-given right to more oil, and therefore everything is his fault.
Accordingly, Republicans plan to use the fear of rising gas and oil prices to support for their push for increased domestic production and to challenge Obama's blocking of construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

 Clawson points out that Republicans are conveniently ignoring that we have been "drilling, baby, drilling," with domestic crude production on the rise since 2009.  Indeed, "the number of rigs in U.S. oil fields has more than quad­rupled in the past three years."

And, as Robert Reich helpfully explains, rising gas prices have nothing to do with offshore drilling or the Keystone XL.  There are three causes of the increase.  First, "on the supply side, is Iran’s decision to cut oil exports to Britain and France in retaliation for sanctions put in place by the EU and United States." Second, "on the demand side, is rising hopes for a global economic recovery – which would mean increased oil consumption."

But, as Reich explains, neither of these would matter much if it weren't for the third cause:  "overwhelming bets of hedge funds and other money managers that oil prices will rise on the basis of the first two reasons."  

How come Republicans aren't railing against speculators.  Reich suggests it might have something to do with the fact that "hedge funds and money managers are bankrolling the GOP as never before."  

Could be.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Occupy Heads Into The Spring

Mad, Passionate Love -- And Violence.  Or Why The Media Loves The Violence Of Protestors And Not Of Banks.

By Rebecca Solnit, cross-posted from Tom Dispatch

Robbie Conal
When you fall in love, it’s all about what you have in common, and you can hardly imagine that there are differences, let alone that you will quarrel over them, or weep about them, or be torn apart by them -- or if all goes well, struggle, learn, and bond more strongly because of, rather than despite, them. The Occupy movement had its glorious honeymoon when old and young, liberal and radical, comfortable and desperate, homeless and tenured all found that what they had in common was so compelling the differences hardly seemed to matter.

Until they did.

Revolutions are always like this: at first all men are brothers and anything is possible, and then, if you’re lucky, the romance of that heady moment ripens into a relationship, instead of a breakup, an abusive marriage, or a murder-suicide. Occupy had its golden age, when those who never before imagined living side-by-side with homeless people found themselves in adjoining tents in public squares.

All sorts of other equalizing forces were present, not least the police brutality that battered the privileged the way that inner-city kids are used to being battered all the time. Part of what we had in common was what we were against: the current economy and the principle of insatiable greed that made it run, as well as the emotional and economic privatization that accompanied it.

This is a system that damages people, and its devastation was on display as never before in the early months of Occupy and related phenomena like the “We are the 99%” website. When it was people facing foreclosure, or who’d lost their jobs, or were thrashing around under avalanches of college or medical debt, they weren’t hard to accept as us, and not them.

And then came the people who’d been damaged far more, the psychologically fragile, the marginal, and the homeless -- some of them endlessly needy and with a huge capacity for disruption. People who had come to fight the power found themselves staying on to figure out available mental-health resources, while others who had wanted to experience a democratic society on a grand scale found themselves trying to solve sanitation problems.

And then there was the violence.

$4 Billion And 40 Years After People v. Anderson Struck Down California's Death Penalty

Chief Justice Wright swears in Gov. Brow
"We cannot assume that capital punishment is not so cruel as to offend contemporary standards of decency . . .  It degrades and dehumanizes all who participate in its processes. It is unnecessary to any legitimate goal of the state and is incompatible with the dignity of man and the judicial process."  -- People v. Anderson
Forty years ago, as my indefatigable colleague, Bob Bacon, has reminded me, the California Supreme Court struck down the death penalty.  On February 18, 1972, in People v. Anderson, the Court (by a 6‑1 vote) concluded that the death penalty was both cruel and unusual and violated the state constitution's  "cruel OR unusual" clause.   (Contrary to myth, Anderson was decided five years before Jerry Brown appointed Rose Bird to the Court.  The majority opinion was written by Chief Justice Donald Wright, who had been appointed by Governor Ronald Reagan.)

There were over 100 people on California's death row at the time of the Anderson decision, all of whom had their sentences commuted to life.  (There was no "life without parole" back then.)  A few months later the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Furman v. Georgia, which found all death penalty statutes then extant in the United States to be invalid under the federal constitution.  (A California case, Aikens v. California, was originally going to be decided along with Furman, but became moot when the California Supreme Court decided Anderson on state constitutional grounds.)

California's death penalty was quickly reinstated.  Attempting to comply with Furman, the new statute made the death penalty mandatory for certain first degree murders and other crimes.  But in 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down death penalty laws that provided for mandatory death sentences. The California Supreme Court, relying on the high court's ruling, once again found the state's statute to be unconstitutional.

Undeterred, the California legislature passed a new death penalty law in 1977.  This was followed in 1978 by a ballot proposition, known as the Briggs Amendment, which was similar but more expansive version that sought to encompass more -- virtually all -- categories of murder (including unintentional murders committed during certain felonies).  Briggs passed and it is the law we are living with, so to speak, today.   
Forty years after Anderson: $4 billion dollars, over a thousand death sentences, over 720 currently on death row, and 13 executions, none since January 2006.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Manufacturing Illusions

 By Robert Reich, cross-posted from his website

Suddenly, manufacturing is back – at least on the election trail. But don’t be fooled. The real issue isn’t how to get manufacturing back. It’s how to get good jobs and good wages back. They aren’t at all the same thing.

Republicans have become born-again champions of American manufacturing. This may have something to do with crucial primaries occurring next week in Michigan and the following week in Ohio, both of them former arsenals of American manufacturing.

Mitt Romney says he’ll “work to bring manufacturing back” to America by being tough on China, which he describes as “stealing jobs” by keeping value of its currency artificially low and thereby making its exports cheaper.

Rick Santorum promises to “fight for American manufacturing” by eliminating corporate income taxes on manufacturers and allowing corporations to bring their foreign profits back to American tax free as long as they use the money to build new factories.

President Obama has also been pushing a manufacturing agenda. Last month the President unveiled a six-point plan to eliminate tax incentives for companies to move offshore and create new lures for them to bring jobs home. “Our goal,” he says, is to “create opportunities for hard-working Americans to start making stuff again.”

Meanwhile, American consumers’ pent-up demand for appliances, cars, and trucks have created a small boomlet in American manufacturing – setting off a wave of hope, mixed with nostalgic patriotism, that American manufacturing could be coming back. Clint Eastwood’s Super Bowl “Halftime in America” hit the mood exactly.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Jeremy Lin And The Failure Of Sports' Racial Stereotypes

By Travis Waldron, cross-posted from ThinkProgress

Sports fans, the national media, and even National Basketball Association insiders are wondering how everyone missed out on Jeremy Lin, the where-did-he-come-from point guard for the New York Knicks who has set the sports world on fire over the last two weeks. Lin, after all, was barely recruited out of high school, undrafted out of Harvard, cut twice by NBA teams, sent to the NBA Development League, and nearly cut again, all before emerging to score more points in his first five starts than any player in NBA history.

The New York Times found what seems like at least part of the answer this week: Lin is of Taiwanese descent, and according to some coaches the Times talked to, “recruiters, in the age of who-does-he-remind-you-of evaluations, simply lacked a frame of reference for such an Asian-American talent.”

Racial stereotypes, taboo in virtually every other aspect of American society, still play a huge role in sports, particularly in how the media, analysts, and scouts evaluate talent and make comparisons. Analysts use adjectives like “crafty” and “intelligent” to describe how white athletes overcome their general lack of athleticism, while marveling at the sheer athletic ability of black players who supposedly lack the intangibles of their white peers. Whites are often touted as the tough-nosed, blue collar players; blacks, the ones who make it look easy.

The stereotypes then carry over to the comparisons we make between athletes. Analysts spent years looking for the “next Larry Bird,” putting the label on virtually every talented white player to reach the NBA. On a statistical level, though, the “next Larry Bird” was actually Kevin Garnett, a 6-foot-11 black forward who has been in the NBA since 1995, just three years after Bird retired. We ignore that black quarterback Donovan McNabb had a lot in common with white quarterback Mark Brunell, and that neither played much like white quarterback Dan Marino or black quarterback Warren Moon.

The same stereotypes are in play with Lin. Few other Asians have ever played in the NBA, and the majority have been tall centers like Yao Ming and Wang Zhizhi (Lin is 6-foot-3). The stereotype for Asian NBA players was easy, then: they’re tall, or they don’t exist. Now that Lin has proven that wrong, others persist. With no Asian to compare him to, analysts are matching Lin to the next closest thing — white point guards like Steve Nash who came out of nowhere to star in the NBA. That may be a compliment to Lin — Nash is a two-time MVP — but other than blossoming in similar systems and having lighter skin than most of the other players, Lin and Nash’s games bear little resemblance.

The stereotypes, many of which exist subconsciously, likely aren’t going anywhere. Which means whenever the next Jeremy Lin comes along, fans, the media, and even the biggest experts won’t see him coming.

Friday, February 17, 2012

R.I.P. Robert Waterhouse

Roman Colosseum lit to protest an execution
Florida executed Robert Waterhouse on February 15, 2012, for the rape-murder of Deborah Kammerer.

Waterhouse was 65 years old and had been on Florida’s death row since 1980.  His original death sentence was overturned in 1988 because of his trial lawyer's poor representation.  He was sentenced to death a second time in 1990.  His recent claim, based on testimony from a newly discovered witness who said he saw Waterhouse leaving a bar with two men and not the victim on the night she was killed and the state's destruction of evidence that made it impossible to perform DNA testing that might exonerate him, was rejected.

This is the fourth execution in the United States in 2012, the first in Florida.

More GOP Follies On Judicial Nominees

There are 84 vacancies on the federal courts -- almost double the rate of vacancies by this point in George W. Bush's first term.  To understand why we need look no further than the "long and obstruction filled road" of the newest judge, Adalberto Jose Jordán, who eventually was confirmed by a vote of 94-5 for a seat on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Jordán was hardly controversial.  He was rated unanimously well qualified by the American Bar Association and cleared the Judiciary Committee with unanimous support.  Nevertheless, his nomination was pending on the Senate floor since before the December recess, and the Senate opted not to schedule a vote on his nomination.  It was then that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid filed a motion to force a vote on his nomination, and an overwhelming majority of senators voted in favor of the motion.

As Nicole Flatow at American Constitution Society explains, here's what happened next:
Sen. Rand Paul, seeking to gain leverage for an unrelated proposal to cut off aid to Egypt until detainees are released, exploited a procedural rule and refused to consent to a vote before the permitted 30 hours for “debate” had lapsed.

While the Senate waited for the 30 hours to elapse, several other pieces of legislation were held up.

“Paul wants to send a message to his colleagues about Egypt and American foreign policy -- and he's doing it by adding one wrong on top of another,” wrote Andrew Cohen of The Atlantic.

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank said of the hold-up:

Congressional staffers I checked with couldn’t recall a similar instance of blocking a confirmation even after a filibuster had failed. This would seem to be a unique humiliation for a man hailed by the Hispanic National Bar Association because of “the positive message this nomination sends to the Latino community.

Two days later, the Senate confirmed Jordán just as overwhelmingly as they had voted to end the filibuster of his nomination, by a vote of 94-5.
Gail Collins provides a more facetious summary:
This week, the Senate confirmed Judge Adalberto Jose Jordan to a seat on the federal Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta. A visitor from another country might not have appreciated the proportions of this achievement, given the fact that Jordan, who was born in Cuba and who once clerked for Sandra Day O’Connor, had no discernible opposition.

But Americans ought to have a better grasp of how the Senate works. The nomination’s progress had long been thwarted by Mike Lee, a freshman Republican from Utah, who has decided to hold up every single White House appointment to anything out of pique over ... well, it doesn’t really matter. When you’re a senator, you get to do that kind of thing.

This forced the majority leader, Harry Reid, to get 60 votes to move Judge Jordan forward, which is never all that easy. Then there was further delay thanks to Rand Paul, a freshman from Kentucky, who stopped action for as long as possible because he was disturbed about foreign aid to Egypt.

All that is forgotten now. The nomination was approved, 94 to 5, only 125 days after it was unanimously O.K.’d by the Judiciary Committee. Whiners in the White House pointed out that when George W. Bush was president, circuit court nominations got to a floor vote in an average of 28 days.

No matter. Good work, Senate! Only 17 more long-pending judicial nominations to go!
This was the eighth time Reid was forced to take the extreme measure of filing a motion for cloture to force a vote on one of President Obama's judicial nominees.  He has just done it again, to force a vote on federal prosecutor Jesse Furman, another consensus nominee who was approved by the Judiciary Committee for a seat on the Southern District of New York without opposition.

Patrick Leahy, the Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman issued the following statement:
Like the needless delay in Judge Jordan’s confirmation, the Republican filibuster of Jesse Furman, who by any traditional measure is a consensus nominee, is another example of the tactics that have all but paralyzed the Senate confirmation process and are damaging our Federal courts.  It should not take five months and require a cloture motion for the Senate to proceed to vote on this nomination.  At a time when nearly one out of every 10 judgeships is vacant and we have over 20 judicial nominations reported favorably by the Committee, 16 of which have been stalled on the Senate calendar since last year, nearly all of them superbly-qualified consensus nominees, our Federal courts and the American people cannot afford more of these partisan tactics.
 As Kurt Vonnegut used to say, "and so it goes."

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Gary Carter (1954-2012)

Gary Carter died today at the age of 57.  I wrote the post below last summer after learning that he had been diagnosed with brain cancer. 

Gary Carter's Battle

"I wasn't making the last out of the ----ing World Series."  Gary Carter after starting the two-out rally in the epic 10th inning of Game #6 of the 1986 World Series.
One of the few Mets players I really liked during the dark days of the early 1980s was Hubie Brooks.  After so many dismal third basemen, Hubie was a breath of fresh air.  He wasn't a great fielder, but he played hard and was a pretty decent hitter.  Even with Hubie anchoring the hot corner, however, the Mets were lousy.  But by 1983, after another last place finish, there were some hopeful signs.  Darryl Strawberry, with his great name and incredible talent made his debut, and in mid-season the Mets acquired a star from the Cardinals, Keith Hernandez.  Then in 1984, after seven straight losing seasons, the Mets became a fun team to watch.  With a full year from Keith, and a youth movement led by Strawberry and phenomenal rookie sensation Dwight Gooden, the Mets won 90 games and finished in second place.  Things were finally, finally looking up.

Before the 1985 season, the Mets traded Hubie Brooks and a couple of other players for Montreal Expo catcher Gary Carter.  Carter succeeded Johnny Bench as the dominant National League catcher in his 11 years with the Expos.  He had been a 7-time All Star and won 2 Gold Gloves.  Still, I hated seeing Hubie go, and wasn't sure whether Carter had that much left at age 31, after so many years behind the plate.

Along with many other skeptical Met fans, my doubts about Carter evaporated on Opening Day, when in his debut as a Met he hit the game-winning home run in the 10th inning.  With Carter anchoring the pitching staff and solidifying the middle of the batting order, he helped transform the Mets from a good team to a great one.  In 1985 he led the team with 32 home runs, and led them in RBIs in 1985 and 1986.

Of course, in 1986, the Mets won the World Series, and it was Gary Carter, with the Mets down by two runs with two outs in the 10th inning of Game #6, who started the famous rally which culminated in Mookie Wilson's hit going through Bill Buckner's legs.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Carter made the All Star team as a Met four years running, from 1985 through 1988.  He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2003.

Ron Darling, a former teammate of Carter's and currently a Met announcer, said on a recent Met broadcast that Gary Carter was one of the "finest human beings" with whom he had ever played.

Gary Carter, only 57 years old, has been diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer.  His family says that "he's ready to battle."  No doubt.  No one had more determination on the field than Carter.  As he starts chemotherapy, he is sure to show the same fighting spirit.

You Really Want To Have A Culture War?

What is going on with the Republican Party?  Sure, the House is filled with Tea Party extremists, the base has supported (and continues to support) some pretty wacky presidential hopefuls, and its leaders are far more concerned with toppling Obama than governing.  But they used to be more politically astute in their choice of wedge issues.  Now it seems they've completely lost their moorings with their aggressive and quite unpopular assault on contraceptive coverage.

As I wrote about earlier (see Occupy the Bedroom), Republicans are pushing for an amendment to the Affordable Care Act that would allow employers to deny coverage not just for contraception but for any treatment or any condition they claimed was contrary to their religious beliefs.

They are enthusiastically, if transparently, framing their attack on women's health, the right to privacy and health care reform as an issue of religious freedom.  Hence, the hearing today before a House Committee on the following question:  “Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?”   The hearing, consisting of a panel of eight men, is skewed so that only those who agree with the Republican position will be heard from. But are they really fooling anyone?

It is one thing for the far right to be agitating for this kind of culture war, but purportedly moderate Republicans are being drawn in too.  Maybe, there just aren't any more moderates in the Republican Party.

As this piece in the New York Times suggests, it is all about firing up the base, which has been somewhat lackluster in the wake of their uninspiring presidential candidates, and once again going after Obamacare:
Major evangelical groups that openly opposed Mr. Obama and his health care plan in the past see this as a new affront and a new opportunity for attack.
The National Association of Evangelicals, which represents thousands of churches in 40 denominations, “will be working vigorously” against the mandate, said Galen Carey, the association’s vice president for government relations — lending substance to the statement last week by Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and a Baptist minister, that “we are all Catholics now.”
Evangelical leaders say they would be outraged by the mandate in any case, but many also believe that it will bring them political gains. [Ralph] Reed, the conservative strategist, said that even if a majority of Americans expressed general support for requiring contraceptive coverage — and even if, as he believes, the economy remained the primary issue — getting conservative and religious voters more fired up could make a difference.
Democrats, as always, should follow Elizabeth Warren's lead and take on the Republicans.  She unapologetically attacked her Senate opponent, Scott Brown, for supporting the proposed amendment which she framed as "an extreme attack on every one of us”:
It opens the door to outright discrimination. It would let insurance companies and corporations cut off pregnant women, overweight guys, older Americans, or anyone — because some executive claims it’s part of his moral code. Maybe that wouldn’t happen, but I don’t want to take the chance.
Warren, quite correctly, argues that this issue must be viewed through the prism of economics:
This election is about whose side you stand on.  Here’s an example of giving power to insurance companies and corporations to undercut basic health care coverage. I’m going to fight for families to keep that coverage. The economics around health care are huge for families.
It has long been conventional wisdom that the culture wars help Republicans and drive a wedge between so-called Independents and Democratic "elites."  If the Democrats fight back, it won't work this time.

The .0000063% Election

By Ari Berman, cross-posted from Tom Dispatch

At a time when it’s become a cliché to say that Occupy Wall Street has changed the nation’s political conversation -- drawing long overdue attention to the struggles of the 99% -- electoral politics and the 2012 presidential election have become almost exclusively defined by the 1%. Or, to be more precise, the .0000063%. Those are the 196 individual donors who have provided nearly 80% of the money raised by super PACs in 2011 by giving $100,000 or more each.

These political action committees, spawned by the Supreme Court’s 5-4 Citizens United decision in January 2010, can raise unlimited amounts of money from individuals, corporations, or unions for the purpose of supporting or opposing a political candidate. In theory, super PACs are legally prohibited from coordinating directly with a candidate, though in practice they’re just a murkier extension of political campaigns, performing all the functions of a traditional campaign without any of the corresponding accountability.

If 2008 was the year of the small donor, when many political pundits (myself included) predicted that the fusion of grassroots organizing and cyber-activism would transform how campaigns were run, then 2012 is "the year of the big donor," when a candidate is only as good as the amount of money in his super PAC. “In this campaign, every candidate needs his own billionaires,” wrote Jane Mayer of The New Yorker.

“This really is the selling of America,” claims former presidential candidate and Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean. “We’ve been sold out by five justices thanks to the Citizens United decision.” In truth, our democracy was sold to the highest bidder long ago, but in the 2012 election the explosion of super PACs has shifted the public’s focus to the staggering inequality in our political system, just as the Occupy movement shined a light on the gross inequity of the economy. The two, of course, go hand in hand.

“We’re going to beat money power with people power,” Newt Gingrich said after losing to Mitt Romney in Florida as January ended.  The walking embodiment of the lobbying-industrial complex, Gingrich made that statement even though his candidacy is being propped up by a super PAC funded by two $5 million donations from Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.  It might have been more amusing if the GOP presidential primary weren’t a case study of a contest long on money and short on participation.

The Wesleyan Media Project recently reported a 1600% increase in interest-group-sponsored TV ads in this cycle as compared to the 2008 primaries. Florida has proven the battle royal of the super PACs thus far.  There, the pro-Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future, outspent the pro-Gingrich super PAC, Winning Our Future, five to one.  In the last week of the campaign alone, Romney and his allies ran 13,000 TV ads in Florida, compared to only 200 for Gingrich. Ninety-two percent of the ads were negative in nature, with two-thirds attacking Gingrich, who, ironically enough, had been a fervent advocate of the Citizens United decision.

With the exception of Ron Paul’s underdog candidacy and Rick Santorum’s upset victory in Iowa -- where he spent almost no money but visited all of the state’s 99 counties -- the Republican candidates and their allied super PACs have all but abandoned retail campaigning and grassroots politicking.  They have chosen instead to spend their war chests on TV.

The results can already be seen in the first primaries and caucuses: an onslaught of money and a demobilized electorate. It’s undoubtedly no coincidence that, when compared with 2008, turnout was down 25% in Florida, and that, this time around, fewer Republicans have shown up in every state that’s voted so far, except for South Carolina. According to political scientists Stephen Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar, negative TV ads contribute to “a political implosion of apathy and withdrawal.” New York Times columnist Tim Egan has labeled the post-Citizens United era “your democracy on meth.”