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House and Senate Republicans have rallied around the notion of a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution as a solution to the country’s dire fiscal straits. But over the weekend, the head of Standard & Poor’s sovereign ratings division dismissed the idea, arguing that it would be more harmful than helpful to the country’s creditworthiness.
“In general, we think that fiscal rules like these just diminish the flexibility of the government to respond” to crises, S&P managing director John Chambers told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Saturday when asked whether it’s important that Congress send a balanced budget amendment to the states in order to restore the country’s AAA credit rating.
Chambers made the remarks one day after S&P downgraded the U.S. credit rating from AAA to AA+ for the first time in the country’s history. […]
Some Democrats, too, have backed the idea, and a group of moderate Senate Democrats led by Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) is preparing to release its own version of a balanced budget amendment in the fall. In March, 11 members of the Senate Democratic caucus joined all Republicans in expressing the “sense of the Senate” in support of a balanced budget amendment.
The plan put forward by congressional Republicans would require a balanced budget for each fiscal year and would cap spending at 18 percent of GDP, down from the current 25 percent.
Supporters of such an amendment argue that it is the best way to prevent future Congresses from running up massive deficits. They contend that if most states are forced to balance their budgets, the federal government should be, too.
Opponents point out that not all balanced budget amendments are created equal, and that the version currently proposed by House and Senate Republicans would restrict the government’s ability to raise revenue — and thus increase the likelihood of default — by requiring a two-thirds majority in both chambers to increase taxes or run a deficit in a particular year and a three-fifths majority to raise the debt ceiling.
Chambers did not comment specifically Saturday on the proposal put forward by congressional Republicans but argued more broadly that a balanced budget measure “would just reduce your flexibility in a crisis.”
He also said that Congress “has a long track record of trying to bind itself with various rules,” but that “when push comes to shove, [the rules] don’t bind very much.”
It seems that a “very small” contingent of consumers and right-wing bloggers simply preferred to throw an apoplectic fit. Thus, in apparent genuflection to this bloc, Whole Foods sent an email to all its U.S. stores specifically telling the franchises not to promote Ramadan this year. The Houston Press obtained a copy of the email:
“It is probably best that we don’t specifically call out or ‘promote’ Ramadan,” reads a portion of that email. “We should not highlight Ramadan in signage in our stores as that could be considered ‘Celebrating or promoting’ Ramadan.”
This reversal marks “a significant departure from years past, when Whole Foods has promoted its halal items during Ramadan with small signs that displayed a crescent moon, the symbol of Islam.” What’s more, the move is hardly likely to placate the small number of fringe bloggerswho are already boycotting the chain for “pimping and promoting–’Canaan Fair Trade’ and ‘Palestinian Fair Trade’ Olive Oil.” But given the conservative credentials of Whole Foods owner John Mackey, perhaps its surprising the company even considered recognizing Islam in the first place.
Whole Foods responded that the company has not stopped the campaign. It states it is stillhighlighting halal but also maintained it is still “not specifically [promoting] #Ramadan after some negative comments.” In any event, as Gawker notes, the whole episode does serve as a kind of flow chart for future faux-controversies: “Are you a racist xenophobe who dislikes anything at all for any arbitrary reason? Simply complain loudly on your blog, and Whole Foods will obsequiously cater to your every last prejudice.”
The Federal Reservesaid Tuesday that it would hold short-term interest rates near zero through mid-2013 to support the faltering economy, but it announced no new measures to further reduce long-term interest rates or otherwise stimulate renewed growth.
The Fed’s policy-making board said in a statement that growth “has been considerably slower” than it had expected, and that it saw little prospect for rapid improvement, prompting the change in policy. It had previously said that it would maintain rates near zero “for an extended period.”
“The committee now expects a somewhat slower pace of recovery over the coming quarters,” the Fed’s statement said. “The unemployment rate will decline only gradually.”
Many economists and outside analysts argue that the Fed should act more aggressively in response to rising unemployment and faltering growth. But internal divisions are limiting the central bank’s ability to pursue additional steps.
Even the modest commitment announced Tuesday was passed only by a vote of 7 to 3. The central bank prefers to act unanimously whenever possible.
The dissenters included Richard W. Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas; Narayana Kocherlakota, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis; and Charles Plosser, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.
The three men regard inflation as a more serious threat to the economy than unemployment.
The Fed’s announcement was eagerly awaited by investors who have responded to grim economic tidings in recent weeks by driving down global markets.
The economy grew only 0.8 percent during the first half of the year. The work force is shrinking. State and local governments are cutting back. And fiscal policy is immobilized by partisanship, leading Standard & Poor’s to remove the United States from its list of risk-free borrowers.
That has left investors to hope that the Fed would consider new steps to help the economy.
The central bank has held its benchmark short-term interest rate near zero since December 2008, flooding the financial system with the nearest thing to free money. It has promised after each of its meetings since late 2008 to keep interest rates near zero “for an extended period,” which Mr. Bernanke defined earlier this year as meaning a period of at least several months.
The central bank also has amassed more than $2.5 trillion in Treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities, putting downward pressure on long-term interest rates. The purchases have pushed investors into the stock market and other riskier investments, and reduced the value of the dollar, helping American exporters. The Fed has said that selling off these assets would be its first step when the economy begins to improve, but it has avoided setting any timetable for a wind-down.
Mr. Bernanke said last month that the Fed was “prepared to take further steps if needed,” but he made clear that the central bank was reluctant to do so. He said the Fed would act only if growth continued to falter and, importantly, only if price increases slowed, stopped or reversed.
The inflation of prices and wages is the Fed’s primary concern. By law the Fed is responsible for keeping prices steady and unemployment as low as possible. But Mr. Bernanke, like his predecessors, places greater emphasis on prices, in part because the Fed has concluded that slow, steady inflation — about 2 percent a year — is the best atmosphere for enduring job growth.
The Fed projected in June that inflation could reach 2.5 percent this year, a crucial reason it has shown little interest in taking additional steps to help the 25 million Americans who can’t find full-time work.
There are signs that inflation is abating, as a temporary spike in commodity prices earlier this year works through the economy, and as growth weakens. But conservative members of the policy-making board remain focused on the risk that inflation will sneak up on the Fed.
The Fed’s policy-making committee next meets Sept. 20.
There two things in the near term the government can do to keep unemployment from getting worse. And Republicans are on record as opposing both of them.
Recently, Obama suggested extending unemployment insurance and the payroll tax cut. While neither is likely to spur rapid growth, both could keep the unemployment crisis from getting worse.
Republicans, who seem committed to ensuring the economy gets worse in the near term in order to hurt Obama’s reelection chances, have come up with paltry excuses for doing nothing on either front. House Majority Whip Eric Cantor said that he was opposed to extending unemployment insurance because those people on unemployment benefits “would rather have a job.”
The cumulative effect of unemployment insurance, however, is that it boosts demand because those collecting benefits are likely to spend the money immediately — which means, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, that local businesses are “less apt to lay off workers and cut back on orders from their suppliers during a downturn; and in the early stages of a recovery, they are more apt to hire additional workers and step up their orders.” It’s one of these areas where economic ignorance makes for persuasive talking points but terrible policy.
Meanwhile, as Jonathan Chait noted yesterday, Rep. Paul Ryan said he was opposed to extending the payroll tax cut because it would “exacerbate the debt.” Given Ryan’s support for budget-busting tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, the real problem seems to be that it would exacerbate the debt without the added benefit of cutting taxes on rich people.
This may just be Republicans doing what they do best — driving a hard bargain. But given the state of the economy, it’s frustrating to watch Republicans play games with the unemployed, particulatly since they seem to be doing it in part because it might help them win the White House.
The awful truth:
But of course we should continue to give major corporations huge tax breaks at the peril of the economy. Someone explain how this is going to help when it hasn’t helped in at least 10 years. Tax cuts have coincided with record deficits, record debt, lower worker wages, stagnant middle class incomes, high unemployment, the loss of eight million jobs, a housing crisis, a massively deep recession, corporate scandals, and the possibility of another recession.
Tell me how tax cuts for the rich and corporations “work” again. Go ahead.
Nearly a decade after it was enacted, a growing number of schools are having trouble meeting the law’s benchmarks. States had been required to achieve 100 percent proficiency in reading and math by 2014.
But, today, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the president would sign an executive order to allow schools who are still falling short to circumvent the law.
SECRETARY OF EDUCATION ARNE DUNCAN: The law No Child Left Behind as it currently stands is four years overdue for being rewritten. It is far too punitive. It’s far too prescriptive, led to a dumbing-down of standards, led to a narrowing of the curriculum.
At a time when we have to get better, faster education than we ever have, we can’t afford to have the law of the land be one that has so many perverse incentives or disincentives to the kind of progress we want to see. […]
Arne Duncan said today that we should be tight on goals, but loose on the means of achieving them. Why is an executive order needed to achieve these goals?
JUSTIN SNIDER, The Hechinger Report: Well, I would say it’s because we have tried the other way around. And we have tried to be tight on how to do it. And it hasn’t worked.
We have been under NCLB for nine years now, and the progress that everybody wanted to see, everybody expected to see — well, actually, realists probably realized we’re not going to — we’re not going to see it — hasn’t happened.
And so we have got to try something different this time.
GWEN IFILL: And you’re referring — when you say the progress that people — realists wanted to see was for Congress to act. And you say that is not going to happen.
So, explain to me what exactly this waiver would mean. Who gets it? Who decides who gets it? Exactly what do you have to do to get a waiver?
JUSTIN SNIDER: Well, Duncan has made it clear that all 50 states are eligible to apply for a waiver.
Unlike in Race to the Top, where it was clear from the beginning only some states would actually succeed, all 50 could succeed. But it is an application process. So a state will apply, and there will be an outside — not just the Department of Education — committee judging the state’s application and deciding whether to issue the waiver.
Whether it’s issued or not will depend on: one, whether the state has adopted standards that make it look like students will graduate from high school college- and career-ready; and, two, whether states are doing anything to evaluate their teachers’ effectiveness; and, three, whether they’re trying to turn around failing schools; and, four, whether they’re doing anything — or whether they have any plans to implement new accountability provisions.
Instead of the top-down way that is currently in place, they need to come up with local — local methods to enforce accountability.
GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about accountability.
We just heard John Tulenko’s report that talked about the — the cheating scandal in the Atlanta schools, and how people, some people there, feel that that was because of the pressure to teach to the test, and that you had to raise test scores in order to keep your job.
Is — did the administration cite that or those — those incidents at all as a reason for trying to move on this now?
JUSTIN SNIDER: Well, I think Obama and Duncan and other people have been saying over and over again that what we have in Atlanta and elsewhere is a case of a few bad apples.
But I think, more and more, there’s reason to question that. We have seen similar scandals in Philadelphia, in D.C., and elsewhere that have been noted. And it’s interesting who is discovering those scandals. In many cases, it’s journalists.
And, in Atlanta, it was a very, very deep investigation, unlike in Washington, D.C. So, the closer you look, it appears the more widespread cheating is. But that’s not something that we’re hearing from the top.
GWEN IFILL: Arne Duncan said today that there was a universal clamor for this — for something to be done, even if Congress didn’t act.
Is that so? Is there — or is every state in the union saying, I want to do something about this now, or are there people who are fairly happy with the way the situation is now?
JUSTIN SNIDER: I would say most states are, in fact, clamoring. And it’s because they realize 2014 is no longer far away.
Of course, when NCLB was first passed under Bush in 2002, it was easy to think, well, who really cares? It’s 12 years away and we don’t have to worry about that now.
And, in fact, when states were allowed to set the goals year by year, how — how many — what percentage of proficiency they will have every given year, they basically pushed off into the distant future when they would get anywhere near 100 percent proficiency.
Now we’re in 2011 — 2014 is not far away anymore. And so the realization is, yes, that’s a completely unrealistic goal, and we need to do something about that, or else what we will have is, we won’t have high standards.
GWEN IFILL: But the goal…
JUSTIN SNIDER: And there’s been…
GWEN IFILL: The goal — pardon me — was to increase high standards and to increase accountability. Secretary Duncan said today that there would still be accountability.
How do you know that, if you’re basically letting people off the hook with these waivers?
JUSTIN SNIDER: Well, one thing that the waiver will require states to do is to have high standards and to have assessments that measure whether students are actually meeting those standards.
So, for instance, last year, there was an attempt — and a successful attempt — to introduce something called the Common Core Standards. And over 40 states and Washington, D.C., have now adopted them. And they’re thought to be a lot higher than most states have previously had.
So take a state like Tennessee. In the past, when Tennessee was defining its own standards and saying what percentage of their students were proficient, they were reporting back in mathematics that 91 percent of their students were proficient. Well, you introduce higher standards, and, suddenly, that percentage drops to 34 percent.
And so it really makes you think, well, these students aren’t really any different. It’s the same students. They’re just — and they’re performing the same. It’s just how you’re defining proficiency.
And so we see, once you raise the bar, proficiency levels drop. And, therefore, the state superintendents of instruction are all very concerned about this.
GWEN IFILL: Justin Snider of The Hechinger Report, thank you so much.
JUSTIN SNIDER: Thank you.
President Obama today will announce new fuel efficiency standards that will save American businesses that operate and own commercial vehicles approximately $50 billion in fuel costs over the life of the program. These work trucks, buses, and other medium- and heavy duty vehicleswill be required to meet fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas emission standards for the first time ever beginning in 2014.
The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed the standards in close coordination with the companies that met with the President today as well as other stakeholders, following requests from companies to develop this program.
“While we were working to improve the efficiency of cars and light-duty trucks, something interesting happened,” said President Obama. “We started getting letters asking that we do the same for medium and heavy-duty trucks. They were from the people who build, buy, and drive these trucks. And today, I’m proud to have the support of these companies as we announce the first-ever national policy to increase fuel efficiency and decrease greenhouse gas pollution from medium-and heavy-duty trucks.”
Under the comprehensive new national program, trucks and buses built in 2014 through 2018 will reduce oil consumption by a projected 530 million barrels and greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution by approximately 270 million metric tons. Like the Administration’s historic car standards, this program – which relies heavily on off-the-shelf technologies – was developed in coordination with truck and engine manufacturers, fleet owners, the State of California, environmental groups and other stakeholders.
The joint DOT/EPA program will include a range of targets which are specific to the vehicle types and purposes. Vehicles are divided into three major categories: combination tractors (semi-trucks), heavy-duty pickup trucks and vans, and vocational vehicles (like transit buses and refuse trucks). Within each of those categories, even more specific targets are laid out based on the design and purpose of the vehicle. This flexible structure allows serious but achievable fuel efficiency improvement goals charted for each year and for each vehicle category and type.
The standards are expected to result in significant long-terms savings for vehicle owners and operators. A semi-truck operator could pay for the technology upgrades in under a year and realize net savings of $73,000 through reduced fuel costs over the truck’s useful life. These cost saving standards will also reduce emissions of harmful air pollutants that can lead to asthma, heart attacks and premature death.
Beyond the direct benefits to businesses that own and operate these vehicles, the program will also benefit consumers and businesses by reducing costs for transporting goods, and spur growth in the clean energy sector by fostering innovative technologies and providing regulatory certainty for manufacturers.
Over the next 25 years, the U.S. population will grow by 70 million—and dense, walkable urban areas will be essential
[…] We were and remain right to uphold nature and the rural landscape as places critical to celebrate and preserve. But what we realize now, many of us anyway, is that cities and towns – the communities where for millennia people have aggregated in search of more efficient commerce and sharing of resources and social networks – are really the environmental solution, not the problem: the best way to save wilderness is through strong, compact, beautiful communities that are more, not less, urban and do not encroach on places of significant natural value. As my friend who works long and hard for a wildlife advocacy organization puts it, to save wildlife habitat we need people to stay in “people habitat.” […]
As it turns out, compact living – in communities of streets, homes, shops, workplaces, schools, and the like assembled at a walkable scale – not only helps to save the landscape; it also reduces pollution and consumption of resources. We don’t drive as far or as often; we share infrastructure. While recent authors such as Edward Glaeser andDavid Owen are sometimes excessive in extolling the virtues of urban density without giving attention to the other things that make cities attractive and successful, they are absolutely right that city living reduces energy consumption, carbon emissions, and other environmental impacts.
A lot of my professional friends are committed urbanists as well as committed environmentalists. We understand the environmental advantages of urban living so thoroughly that we take it for granted that other people do, too. But we make that mistake at our – and the planet’s – peril. The increased development and maintenance of strong, sustainable cities and towns will not happen without a concerted effort.
A lot is riding on the outcome: 83 percent of America’s population – some 259 million people – live in cities and their surrounding metropolitan areas. Somewhat astoundingly (and as I have written previously), 37 of the world’s 100 largest economies are U.S. metros. New York, for example, ranks 13th, with a $1.8 trillion economy equivalent to that of Switzerland and the Netherlands combined; Los Angeles (18th) has an economy that is bigger than Turkey’s; Chicago’s (21st) is larger than Switzerland’s, Poland’s, or Belgium’s.
With so much population and economic activity, it can be no wonder that our working and living patterns in cities and suburbs have enormous environmental consequences, both for community residents and for the planet. And the implications are going to intensify: over the next 25 years, America’s population will increase by 70 million people and 50 million households, the equivalent of adding France or Germany to the U.S. With a combination of building new homes, workplaces, shops, and schools and replacing those that will reach the end of their functional lives, fully half the built environment that we will have on the ground in 25 years does not now exist.
These circumstances provide not just a formidable challenge but also a tremendous opportunity to get things right. Unfortunately, past practices have done a lot of damage, particularly in the latter half of the 20th century, when America severely disinvested our inner cities and traditional towns while population, investment and tax base fled for (quite literally) greener pastures. The result, as we now know all too well, has been desecration of the natural and rural landscape while leaving behind decaying infrastructure, polluted air and waterways, and distressed populations. […]
This, I believe, leads to some imperatives: where cities have been disinvested, we must rebuild them; where populations have been neglected, we must provide them with opportunity; where suburbs have been allowed to sprawl nonsensically, we must retrofit them and make them better. These are not just economic and social matters. These are environmental issues, every bit as deserving of the environmental community’s attention as the preservation of nature.
In an unusual break with the White House, the Democratic leaders of Congress told the Supreme Court on Monday that President Obama was pursuing a misguided interpretation of federalMedicaid law that made it more difficult for low-income people to obtain health care.
The Democratic leaders said Medicaid beneficiaries must be allowed to file suit to enforce their right to care — and to challenge Medicaid cuts being made by states around the country.
The Obama administration maintains that beneficiaries and health care providers cannot sue state officials to challenge cuts in Medicaid payment rates, even if such cuts compromise access to care for the poor.
In a friend-of-the-court brief, the lawmakers said the administration’s position “would undermine the effectiveness of Medicaid.” In addition, they said, it conflicts with more than a century of court precedents that allow people to sue to block state actions that are inconsistent with federal law.
The brief was filed by seven influential Democrats, including Representative Henry A. Waxman of California, an architect of Medicaid; Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House minority leader; Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate majority leader; and Senator Max Baucus of Montana, the chairman of the Finance Committee.
Similar arguments were made in a separate brief filed by a dozen former federal health officials, including Donna E. Shalala, the secretary of health and human services under President Bill Clinton; Joseph A. Califano Jr., who was health secretary under President Jimmy Carter; and Bruce C. Vladeck, who was in charge of Medicaid and Medicare in the Clinton administration.
The issue, of immense importance to poor people and states, comes to the Supreme Court in a set of cases consolidated under the name Douglas v. Independent Living Center of Southern California, No. 09-958. The court plans to hear oral arguments in October, with a decision expected by the spring. The original plaintiffs in the case, Medicaid beneficiaries and providers, say they were harmed by California’s decision to cut payment rates that were already among the lowest in the country.
The federal Medicaid law does not explicitly allow such suits. But the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, said beneficiaries and providers could sue under the Constitution’s supremacy clause, which makes federal law “the supreme law of the land.”
Medicaid, the fastest-growing item in many state budgets, provides health insurance to more than 55 million people, including children, people with disabilities and nursing home residents.
Faced with severe budget problems, many states have reduced Medicaid payment rates for doctors, dentists, hospitals, pharmacies, nursing homes and other providers. In many parts of the country, payment rates are so low that Medicaid recipients have difficulty finding doctors to take them. When states cut reimbursement rates, they save money, and so does the federal government, which pays 50 percent to 75 percent of the costs.
Federal law says Medicaid rates must be “sufficient to enlist enough providers” so that Medicaid beneficiaries have access to care to the same extent as the general population in an area.
The Justice Department, siding with California, told the court in May that no federal law allowed individuals to sue states to enforce this standard. The Democratic leaders said Congress intended to allow such lawsuits.
“California has been accepting more than $20 billion in federal Medicaid funds per year in exchange for its promise, among other things, to ensure that needy patients had access to health care,” their brief said, adding, “California has failed to adhere to its obligations.”
“Impoverished Medicaid patients and the medical providers who serve them” must be allowed to challenge state violations of federal law by invoking the supremacy clause, the Congressional leaders said.
The Justice Department says federal health officials have “exclusive responsibility” for ensuring state compliance and can cut off Medicaid money for a state that does not comply.
However, the former federal officials told the Supreme Court that exclusive enforcement by the Department of Health and Human Services was “logistically, practically, legally and politically unfeasible.” The department, they said, does not have enough employees or money to enforce the guarantee of equal access to care for Medicaid patients.
In previous administrations, they said, the department “supported and embraced” lawsuits by beneficiaries as a way to help achieve Medicaid’s goals.
AARP, the American Hospital Association, the American Medical Association, civil rights groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also weighed in with Supreme Court briefs supporting the beneficiaries and providers. “Judicial enforcement is the only viable means to remedy states’ noncompliance with the Medicaid Act,” the A.M.A. said.
The National Governors Association endorsed California’s position that Medicaid recipients had no right to sue.
The Obama administration said it will spend $28.8 million on grants to create new community health center sites in 23 U.S. states and Puerto Rico.
The grants, announced on Tuesday, are part of $11 billion promised for new and existing health care centers over the next five years. The money, which was promised in last year’s law which overhauled the U.S. healthcare system, is intended to help pay for new sites where people can get medical services regardless of their ability to pay.
Such healthcare centers serve 19.5 million patients, about 40 percent of whom have no health insurance.
The centers often include clinics in rural and urban areas and treat people who live far from hospitals, as well as poor people, who pay varying fees depending on how much money they make. Ethnic and minority groups make up almost two-thirds of the centers’ patients.
The centers play a big role in public health by taking stress off emergency rooms in big state-funded hospitals that many people see as a last resort for the uninsured.
“They are providing care that is good or better than the rest of the healthcare system, while keeping down the costs,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
The $28.8 million grant will expand the centers’ outreach to about 286,000 patients.
Community health centers suffered a blow earlier this year when Congress slashed their funding 27.5 percent as part of the budget deal.
Accounting for those cuts, 2011 fiscal year funding surpasses last year’s, running up to $2.5 billion, said Health Resources and Services administrator Mary Wakefield.
Of that, about $1 billion comes from the healthcare overhaul funding and another $1.5 billion from regular appropriations, she said.
The HHS received 810 applications for the grants announced on Tuesday. Of the 67 winners, 10 applicants plan to establish new community centers, while others plan to add new service sites to existing centers.
In October 2010, the Obama administration allocated the first $727 million to help fix up community health centers across the country. The money was to go to 143 centers.
Last week, ThinkProgress reported that President Obama nominated David Barlow, the chief legal adviser to Tea Party Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), to be the next U.S. attorney in Utah. As we explained then, Barlow’s close association with Lee raises very serious questions about whether he can be trusted to fill this important job unless he firmly and unambiguously disavows many of his boss’ most radical views. Lee believes that federal child labor laws, FEMA, food stamps, the FDA,Medicaid, income assistance for the poor, and even Medicare and Social Security violate the Constitution.
There are plausible reasons why an attorney who does not believe that the Constitution gives the middle finger to seniors and working Americans could come to work for someone like Lee — it is even possible that Barlow sought the U.S. attorney nomination because he wanted a face-saving way to leave a job that forces him to push a dangerous and radical interpretation of the Constitution. Nevertheless, Barlow appears to be a very early supporter of Lee’s senate candidacy. He made the maximum legal contribution to Lee’s campaign as early as January of 2010 — long before many political observers realized that Lee could exploit Utah’s arcane GOP nominations process to take out a three term incumbent Republican senator:
Lee used to work at Barlow’s former law firm, so it is possible that the men developed a personal relationship that inspired Barlow to contribute so generously to the radical tenther’scampaign. Moreover, a White House spokesperson assures ThinkProgress that “the President is confident that Mr. Barlow will exercise his discretion to further the priorities and needs of citizens of Utah in a manner consistent with this Administration’s priorities.” It would be unfair to assume that Barlow must believe everything that his boss believes about the Constitution.
Nevertheless, Barlow’s close association with Lee — both as a close adviser and as a top donor — does need to be explained. If Barlow disagrees with Lee that child labor laws, Social Security, and Medicare are unconstitutional, then he should publicly say as much before he receives a confirmation vote in the Senate.
Federal regulators have taken more interest in for-profit colleges since GW Bush left office. Until recently, regulations have been lax or poorly enforced. Meanwhile, a growing number of these for-profit institutions of higher learning have served as giant conduits for sucking federal financial aid money out of the public trust and into the hands of the private investors who own the colleges. Most of the money is student loan dollars, which are non-dischargeable debt owed by the student.
Until this week, the highest profile action against a for-profit school was the U.S. Department of Education’s lawsuit against the University of Phoenix, which settled in 2007 for $9.8 million. Now the New York Times reports that:
The Department of Justice and four states on Monday filed a multibillion-dollar fraud suit against the Education Management Corporation, the nation’s second-largest for-profit college company, charging that it was not eligible for the $11 billion in state and federal financial aid it had received from July 2003 through June 2011.
The most interesting thing about this lawsuit (aside from the potential $33 billion in damages) is that the ownership of Education Management Corporation includes some names you might recognize: Goldman Sachs, and Maine senator Olympia Snowe.
At first, the early-morning death of James C. Anderson, 49, appeared to be a hit-and-run accident.
Mr. Anderson, an African-American who worked at a local automobile plant, was near his car in a motel parking lot in Jackson, Miss., on an early June morning when he was hit by a pickup truck.
But Robert Shuler Smith, the Hinds County district attorney, believes he was beaten and killed by a group of white teenagers from a predominantly white town who had been at an all-night party and drove 16 miles to Jackson looking for African-Americans to, in the words of one witness, “mess with.”
A motel worker who saw the assault said one of the teenagers yelled “white power” after beating Mr. Anderson. Other witnesses told the police that one of the suspects laughed and bragged about the beating and running down Mr. Anderson.
A grainy video of the incident, recorded by a motel security camera, is being used as evidence. It was posted on CNN Sunday, opening new interest in a case that has had many residents in Jackson and the towns that surround it questioning just how far race relations have come.
“This does not happen very often, and I am not saying it reflects the overall feelings in the different communities here,” Mr. Smith said. Still, parts of the area “are very polarized, he said. “It’s still highly segregated in most ways.”
And racial tension remains high among some groups, he said.
“There’s no way to get around it,” Mr. Smith said. “It is what it is.”
The district attorney said Mr. Anderson was standing near his car at a Jackson motel about 5 a.m. Sunday, June 26, when two carloads of teenagers pulled off the Interstate and into the motel parking lot. Several jumped from the vehicles and beat Mr. Anderson. A white sport utility vehicle drove away. As Mr. Anderson stumbled along the edge of the parking lot, the police said, the driver of a green Ford F250 pickup truck, Deryl Dedmon, accelerated and drove over him. Mr. Anderson was pronounced dead at a local hospital.
“This is the first business that you get to coming off the highway, and so that was the first person that was out here and vulnerable,” Mr. Smith, the district attorney, told CNN.
Mr. Dedmon, a slight, blond 18-year-old, was charged with murder and remains in jail on $800,000 bond. Two teenage girls who were in the truck were not charged, the police said.
John A. Rice, 18, was originally charged with murder, but a judge in Hinds County, William Barnett, dropped the charges to simple assault.
The case is headed this month for a grand jury, where prosecutors will argue that it was both a hate crime and a murder and that both men should be indicted.
“These teenagers have a history of harassing white teens who had black friends or gay teens,” Mr. Smith said.
Neither man has entered a plea. Their lawyers did not respond to requests for an interview. But Mr. Dedmon’s lawyer, Lee Agnew, had said in an early hearing that he had not seen evidence to support the accusations that the episode was racially motivated.
Mr. Dedmon’s uncle, Ray Dedmon, said in a telephone interview that he frequently went fishing with his nephew, and described him as “a good boy” who comes from a “happy and go-lucky” family.
“He probably got with the wrong crowd,” he said.
On a Facebook page set up by Mr. Rice’s supporters, friends argued his innocence, maintaining he was not driving the truck or even in it.
“He is not a racist or a murderer,” Lisa Smith Seale Erwin, his great-aunt, posted on the page. “If anything, he is being tried by the media, suffering from reverse racism and placed in jail without bond. I am sick of the race card.”
Mr. Rice has since been released on bail.
That such a crime might have happened in a state whose history is laced with racially motivated crimes does not surprise Winston Thompson III, a lawyer who is working with Mr. Anderson’s family. Both Mr. Thompson and prosecutors are interviewing other teenagers and studying Facebook and other social media sites, trying to determine if the case is an isolated incident or part of a more deliberate effort to single out African-Americans for violence.
“This is almost like a culture with these teens,” he said. “It’s evidently a little network. To see it manifest in the way it did it was shocking.”
WHY WON’T TEAM OBAMA FIGHT! OBAMA IS PICKING ON ROMNEY!
And, it starts. Ben Smith and JMart have a gossipy piece (go figure!) in the Politico saying that the Obama campaign plans to destroy Romney:
A senior Obama adviser was even more cutting, suggesting that the Republican’s personal awkwardness will turn off voters.
“There’s a weirdness factor with Romney, and it remains to be seen how he wears with the public,” the adviser said, noting that the contrasts they’d drive between the president and the former Massachusetts governor would be “based on character to a great extent.”
The second aspect of the campaign to define Romney is his record as CEO of Bain Capital, a venture capital firm that was responsible for both creating and eliminating jobs. Obama officials intend to frame Romney as the very picture of greed in the great recession — a sort of political Gordon Gekko.
“He was very, very good at making a profit for himself and his partners but not nearly as good [at] saving jobs for communities,” said David Axelrod, the president’s chief strategist. “His is very much the profile of what we’ve seen in the last decade on Wall Street. He was about making money. And that’s fine. But often times, he made it at the expense of jobs in communities.”
That all seems fine and good to me. In fact, that kind of seems what the point of campaigns is- to point out the opposition’s flaws and make people less comfortable with the candidate so they don’t vote for him. I think strapping a dog to the roof of a car is weird. I think flip-flopping on everything is weird and a character issue. I think using the death of a relative to demonstrate your support for abortion and then deciding, when it is politically expedient, then becoming an anti-abortion zealot is weird and a sign of bad character. I think screaming about auto bailouts and socialism then claiming you rescued the auto industry is weird. And so on.
Not content to chum the water with several pages of unsourced crap, Smith and JMart add their own opinion:
None of the Obama advisers interviewed made any suggestion that Romney’s personal qualities would be connected to his minority Mormon faith, but the step from casting Romney as a bit off to raising questions about religion may not be a large step for some of the incumbent’s supporters.
So pointing out that he is a phony who does weird shit like pretend women pinched him on the ass and strapping a dog to a roof MIGHT MAYBE POSSIBLY COULD SORT EVENTUALLY LEAD TO ATTACKS ON HIS RELIGION. Even though none of the anonymous people even so much as suggested as much. But it could!
Enter the professional left:
Come on. These guys ran the entire 2008 campaign fighting dog whistle racism. They know how this works. Stop with the innocent virgin bit. You can’t run around the world preaching “religious tolerance” and defending the “inalienable rights” of people to freely practice religion, and then turn around and help people connect the dots between freaky Mitt Romney and freaky Mormonism.
But going negative may be the only path available to Obama right now. He can’t hope to activate true grassroots support and deliver what Wall Street oligarchs want at the same time. So he is appealing to the people who stand to benefit — wealthy donors — and asking for their support to impose austerity measures on the country.
You see! Even though NO ONE BUT BEN SMITH AND JMART mentioned religion, it is obvious that this is all about Mormonism. Note too, that, we have now adopted the McCain campaign rhetoric about Team Obama using race. Lemme guess- HE DEALT THE RELIGION CARD, AND HE DEALT IT FROM THE BOTTOM OF THE DECK!
Here’s the Raw Story, which is usually much better than this:
President Barack Obama’s advisers consider former governor Mitt Romney (R-MA) their most likely opponent in 2012, according to Ben Smith and Johnathan Martin of Politico. And so, in the words of one anonymous Democratic strategist, they are going to try to “kill” him by borrowing the tactics used by then-President George W. Bush® against Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) in 2004: portray him as waffling and “inauthentic” and, in an oft-used word, “weird.”
Why weird? Martin and Smith offer one explanation:
None of the Obama advisers interviewed made any suggestion that Romney’s personal qualities would be connected to his minority Mormon faith, but the step from casting Romney as a bit off to raising questions about religion may not be a large step for some of the incumbent’s supporters.
It’s not the first time Romney has faced questions about his faith from his political opponents: during the last presidential campaign, Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) staff was wont to make mention of it particularly often. It became a big enough issue that Romney himself addressed his religious beliefs in a speech in late 2007 that tied his own difficulties to those faced by then-Sen. John F. Kennedy during his own Presidential run.
Actually, no they didn’t mull any such thing. In fact, the very quote you based this whole story on says exactly the opposite. For Megan Carpentier, the fact that none of Obama’s advisers mentioned religion is ALL THE PROOF YOU NEED THAT THIS IS ALL ABOUT RELIGION.
I fully expect by the end of the week to hear Halperin and the other bobbleheads decrying this outrageous attack on Romney’s religion. If any of you were wondering what the upcoming election was going to be like, this should be a healthy primer for you. In order to win the WH in 2012, we are going to have to beat back the wingnuts and the GOP, Wall Street and the Banksters, the Chamber of Commerce, a worthless media, and our progressive betters.
*** Update ***
In response to a story that President Obama’s re-election campaign is prepping a “ferocious personal assault on Mitt Romney’s character and business background,” the Romney campaign sent CBS News a blistering statement from campaign manager Matt Rhoades deeming such a strategy “disgraceful” and “despicable.”
“It is disgraceful that President Obama’s campaign has launched his re-election with the stated goal to ‘kill’ his opponent with an onslaught of negative and personal attacks,” said Rhoades. “President Obama will say and do desperate things to hold onto power because he knows he has failed. Neither despicable threats, nor President Obama’s billion dollar negative campaign, will put Americans back to work, save their homes, or restore their hopes. On November 6, 2012, this will change.”
This is just pathetic. ABCNews has hit a new low. In a puff-piece about the new found wonders of dumpster diving for food titled “Freeganism: Dumpster Diving to Buck the Spending Trend ABCNews is risking the health of the public by pushing an absurd notion that eating food retrieved from a dumpster is a legitimate alternative for people living in America. Eating out of a dumpster is DANGEROUS.
But that doesn’t stop ABCNews from offering dumpster diving for food, or “Freeganism”, a term George Carlin would have torn to shreds, as a viable alternative to “spending”.
Freeganism, which popped up in the early 90s, rejects the idea of overspending as a “national addiction,” according to New York City freeganist, Madline Nelson. The movement goes beyond veganism’s rejection of animal products and bucks consumerism for sustainability. It has spread worldwide, with Freeganist websites in French, Norwegian and Portuguese.
Freeganists practice dumpster diving for food, composting and recycling. They also walk or bike instead of driving, “squat” in abandoned buildings, eat local and “work less,” according to the freegan.info website.
This is absurd. Where writer Reshma Karpalani of ABCNews is trying to make it seem that eating out of a dumpster isn’t that bad by pointing to ONE person, Madline Nelson of New York City, whose agenda conveniently dovetails with the beltway village idiocy of the idea that somehow “spending” is too blame for our woes, and anyone can fend for themselves without adding to the “spending”, just look at Madline Nelson!
As millions and millions of Americans have been thrust out of the middle class and into poverty because the banks have shipped their jobs overseas and stolen their homes ABCNews is trying to subtly make the case that you don’t need a social safety net or food stamps or welfare, not when you can figure it out for yourself. Hell, lose your home? I’m sure ABCNews will run a puff piece on the wonders of moving into a tent in Central Park as a way to avoid nasty “spending” on things like rent in this new, jobless plutonomy.
Seriously, do not listen to these irresponsible CLOWNS at ABCNews. Even their own cited expert says that eating out of a dumpster is NOT safe. It saddens me that Americans are being reduced to this, this is not a reasonable alternative. Ending our insane wars so we can invest in America is a sane alternative. Taxing the rich and profitable corporations so we can keep Americans from having to face poverty is a sane alternative. Suggesting that people who are struggling might find help at the bottom of a dumpster is fucknuts insane. If you needed a better example of how out of touch our media is with reality, nothing says it better than suggesting in all seriousness that a real solution to poverty in America is having the children of the poor and struggling eating out of a dumpster.
But what if your country is slowly devolving into a third world hellhole for the forgotten and exploited working class with a very safe and super wealthy Oligarchy? Well, that is where intrepid reporters like the people at ABCNews have stepped in to fill your head with bullshit. Much as eating garbage is like an alternative to “spending”, in the eyes of ABCNews eating shit is the new thinking. […]
Does ABCNews bother to explain why people can’t afford food? (Hint: a dying middle class, rampant poverty, which strangely coincides with record corporate profits and the largest gap in income inequality in the western world.) Does ABCNews explain why we need a strong safety net in America so we can prevent people from being left with no alternatives other than having to pick through trash? No. Instead dumpster diving for food is presented as a viable alternative to living in a country that gives a shit about anyone but the super rich. This is “Trickle Down” in all of it’s horrifying reality, rich guys buy more food than they can eat, and you are welcome to fight the rest of the peasants off for whatever crumbs remain. […]
Does ABCNews report on the pile of cash corporations are hoarding? Does ABCNews report on the need to create jobs through spending on infrastructure in this country, so people can earn a living and a good wage instead of being reduced to looking for their next meal in someone else’s garbage can so they can keep up in an America where food prices, health care prices and other costs keep going up as the average wage of the average American stays stagnant? No. ABCNews is simply saying “Let them eat trash”.
Because gods forbid someone tells the peasants that if we taxed corporations and the rich we could ensure that every single American citizen will be fed out of something other than a dumpster.
This is your “Free Market” brain on drugs. Any questions?
Class War, it’s what’s for dinner.
Philip Tetlock is one of my favorite social scientists. I often joke that every cable news show should be forced to display a disclaimer, streaming in a loop at the bottom of the screen. The disclaimer would read: “These talking heads have been scientifically proven to not know what they are talking about. Their blather is for entertainment purposes only.” The viewer would then be referred to Tetlock’s most famous research project, which began in 1984. At the time, the cold war was flaring up again⎯Reagan was talking tough to the “Evil Empire”⎯and political pundits were sharply divided on the wisdom of American foreign policy. The “doves” thought Reagan was needlessly antagonizing the Soviets, while the “hawks” were convinced that the USSR needed to be aggressively contained. Tetlock was curious which group of pundits would turn out to be right, and so he began monitoring their predictions.
A few years later, after Reagan left office, Tetlock revisited the opinions of the pundits. His conclusion was sobering: everyone was wrong. The doves assumed that Reagan’s bellicose stance would exacerbate Cold War tensions. They predicted a breakdown in diplomacy, as the USSR hardened its geopolitical stance. The reality, of course, was that the exact opposite happened. By 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev was in power. The Soviet Union began implementing a stunning series of internal reforms. The “evil empire” was undergoing glasnost.
But the hawks didn’t do much better. Even after Gorbachev began the liberalizing process, hawks tended to disparage changes to the Soviet system. They said the evil empire was still evil; Gorbachev was just a tool of the Politurbo. Hawks couldn’t imagine that a sincere reformer might actually emerge from a totalitarian state.
The dismal performance of these pundits inspired Tetlock to turn his small case study into an epic experimental project. He picked a few hundred political experts – people who made their living “commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends” – and began asking them to make predictions about future events. He had a long list of pertinent questions. Would George Bush be re-elected? Would there be a peaceful end to apartheid in South Africa? Would Quebec secede from Canada? Would the dot-com bubble burst? In each case, the pundits were asked to rate the probability of several possible outcomes. Tetlock then interrogated the pundits about their thought process, so that he could better understand how they made up their minds.
After Tetlock tallied up the data, the predictive failures of the pundits became obvious. Although they were paid for their keen insights into world affairs, they often performed worse than random chance. Most of Tetlock’s questions had three possible answers; the pundits, on average, selected the right answer less than 33 percent of the time. In other words, a dart-throwing chimp would have beaten the vast majority of professionals. These results are summarized in his excellent Expert Political Judgment.
Tetlock is currently embarking on an even more ambitious project. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about experts, hedgehogs and his future research.
Lehrer: You’ve been observing real world political experts for the last several decades. Could you tell me about some of the different styles you’ve observed among these experts?
Tetlock: My 2005 book, Expert Political Judgment, summarized a 20-year program of research in which we scored the accuracy of experts on a wide range of political and economic variables. We also explored experts’ styles of thinking–and we found striking variation across individuals.
Some experts displayed a top-down style of reasoning: politics as a deductive art. They started with a big-idea premise about human nature, society, or economics and applied it to the specifics of the case. They tended to reach more confident conclusions about the future. And the positions they reached were easier to classify ideologically: that is the Keynesian prediction and that is the free-market fundamentalist prediction and that is the worst-case environmentalist prediction and that is the best case technology-driven growth prediction etc. Other experts displayed a bottom-up style of reasoning: politics as a much messier inductive art. They reached less confident conclusions and they are more likely to draw on a seemingly contradictory mix of ideas in reaching those conclusions (sometimes from the left, sometimes from the right).
We called the big-idea experts “hedgehogs” (they know one big thing) and the more eclectic experts “foxes” (they know many, not so big things).
Lehrer: Do these different styles correlate with levels of accuracy?
Tetlock: In assessing accuracy, it is crucial to make the “law of large numbers” work for you. Any fool can be lucky a few times. The key is consistency. So, in the first round of our studies, we assessed the accuracy of almost 30,000 predictions from almost 300 experts. We tested a lot of different hypotheses about the correlates of consistency and accuracy. Is ideology the key factor? Having a PhD? Having past access to classified information? And a lot of hypotheses bit the dust. The most consistent predictor of consistently more accurate forecasts was “style of reasoning”: experts with the more eclectic, self-critical, and modest cognitive styles tended to outperform the big-idea people (foxes tended to outperform hedgehogs).
Lehrer: Your latest project aims to expand on this earlier research. Could you describe the project?
Tetlock: The current project is supported by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency of the US government — and it is the most systematic effort, to date, at testing the effectiveness of competing approaches to improving forecasting accuracy in the domain of politics and national security. Multiple teams are participating — and we are recruiting people who, ideally, have three characteristics: a deep interest in thinking about how they think (and correcting blind spots and errors); a deep interest in world affairs; a willingness to translate those deep interests into hard work (it will take time and energy to master some of the tools that we will be giving various subgroups of forecasters).
Lehrer: One of the things you’ve long been interested in is whether or not it’s possible to improve the accuracy of expert predictions. (Given that our policy debates are heavily influenced by these experts, it’s a rather pressing question.) Do you have a sense of whether or not improvement is possible? Or are we destined to always have experts that underperform random chance, if only because reality is so unpredictable?
Tetlock: I think it is useful to distinguish between radical and moderate skeptics on the question of how much room there is for improvement. Radical skeptics believe that there is zero predictability in the world — and that there is no such thing as good forecasting judgment (good judgment essentially equals good luck; that judgment equals bad luck).
Warren Buffets are flukes: if you toss enough coins enough times, a few of them are bound to land “heads” 10 or 15 times in a row. Similarly, if you have enough forecasters making enough judgment calls, a few of them are bound to look spectacularly prescient.
As a moderate skeptic, I don’t go that far. I don’t rule out the possibility that there are individuals who can consistently outperform chance or simple extrapolation algorithms over long stretches of time (and these individuals are more likely to be foxes and hedgehogs). But these individuals are still hard to spot before the fact. And even these individuals often experience regression toward the mean in their performance (which means that their current performance is often already deteriorating toward “just average” by the time their previously superior performance comes to public attention).
Balancing these arguments, my current gut instinct is that there is room for improvement but it may often be fairly small. That said, even fairly small improvements may be enormously valuable to society. When you’re talking about multi-trillion dollar decisions, you don’t have to improve the accuracy of probabilistic forecasts by much to justify multi-million-dollar investments. A 10 or 20% improvement in accuracy could quite quickly translate into savings of many billions of dollars.
Lehrer: Can non-experts do anything to encourage a more effective punditocracy? Should I feel bad about watching Meet the Press?
Tetlock: Yes, non-experts can encourage more accountability in the punditocracy. Pundits are remarkably skillful at appearing to go out on a limb in their claims about the future, without actually going out on one. For instance, they often “predict” continued instability and turmoil in the Middle East (predicting the present) but they virtually never get around to telling you exactly what would have to happen to disconfirm their expectations. They are essentially impossible to pin down.
If pundits felt that their public credibility hinged on participating in level playing field forecasting exercises in which they must pit their wits against an extremely difficult-to-predict world, I suspect they would be learn, quite quickly, to be more flexible and foxlike in their policy pronouncements.
Lehrer: What sort of subjects are you looking for in this study? And how can qualified people volunteer?
Tetlock: As I mentioned earlier, we are recruiting people who, ideally, have three characteristics: a deep interest in thinking about how they think (and correcting blind spots and errors); a deep interest in world affairs; a willingness to translate those deep interests into hard work (it will take time and energy to master some of the tools that we will be giving various subgroups of forecasters). I estimate that the total amount of work over the course of the year will be about 10 hours (we can pay a token honorary of $150 for participating for the entire year). We were required also to set a minimum educational requirement for participating (at least a baccalaureate degree — which is the minimum educational requirement for intelligence analysts).
The registration website is www.goodjudgment.info
MILITARY AND FOREIGN RELATIONS
The Obama administration is preparing to explicitly demand the departure of Syrian President Bashar Assad and hit his regime with tough new sanctions, U.S. officials said Tuesday as the State Department signaled for the first time that American efforts to engage the government are finally over.
One of the common misperceptions of American politics is that a great speech or a rhetorical call to arms can shape domestic policy.
In fact, the Founding Fathers established a system of governance — with separation of powers, and checks and balances — that makes it very difficult to get things done. The exceptions often have come after national tragedies (see: the Great Society after JFK’s assassination) or when one party holds the White House and a supermajority in Congress (see: the New Deal under FDR, when Democrats once held a 75-17 majority in the Senate).
As presidential scholar Richard Neustadt once observed, the White House is actually a weak office when it comes to domestic affairs, and that successful presidents — in terms of getting things done — use their powers to persuade and bargain. Neustadt wrote:
A President, these days, is an invaluable clerk. His services are in demand all over Washington. His influence, however, is a very different matter.
But Drew Westen’s harsh critique — from the left — of Barack Obama’s presidency so far misses this understanding of separation of powers, checks and balances, and the difficulty of achieving major reform.
Westen’s chief complaint of Obama in his much-discussed New York Times opinion piece: The president has failed to deliver a morality tale about who and what had caused the nation’s economic woes, and who was going to fix them. “That story would have made clear that the president understood that the American people had given Democrats the presidency and majorities in both houses of Congress to fix the mess the Republicans and Wall Street had made of the country, and that this would not be a power-sharing arrangement.”
In his article, Westen goes on to criticize Obama’s economic stimulus (“he backed away from his advisers who proposed a big stimulus, and then diluted it with tax cuts that had already been shown to be inert”) and the health-care law (Obama, Westen argues, failed to state what it would accomplish other than it would “‘bend the cost curve'”).
But would a morality tale — in which Obama cast the Republicans as the bad guys — have helped convince the three Republican senators Obama needed to break the GOP filibuster (Susan Collins,Olympia Snowe, and Arlen Specter) to vote for the legislation? In fact, those GOP senators demanded the extra tax cuts as a concession for their votes.
Would an us-vs.-them narrative have persuaded the Republicans it took to pass financial reform, repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and ratification of New START? (Remember: Democrats enjoyed a filibuster-proof Senate majority for only six months, from July ’09 to Jan. ’10.)
And would it have galvanized the conservative Dem senators from GOP-leaning states (likeBen Nelson, Mary Landrieu, and Max Baucus) to pass the health-care law.
It’s cliché, but it’s also true: Politics is the art of the possible. And in a political system that favors inaction over action, it’s extraordinary when major legislation is passed by Congress and signed into law, no matter the legislation’s merits or the compromises therein. As presidential historian Robert Dallek — who taught this reporter — wrote in Dec. 2009 after the Senate passed health-care (before Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts):
FDR had an economic crisis of unprecedented proportions in 1933 when he drove 15 major bills through the Congress, and super majorities in the House and the Senate in 1935 when he won passage of Social Security.
Johnson’s mastery of the Congress in getting a revolutionary civil rights bill passed in 1964 partly rested on his use of President Kennedy’s martyrdom…
Mr. Obama had a much higher mountain to climb in passing national health insurance. True, he won a convincing majority in 2008, and his party has a solid majority in the House and the 60 Senate votes needed to defeat any Republican filibuster. But these are pseudo-advantages: The conservative House Democrats and his dependence on unreliable Senate allies like Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman and Nebraska’s Ben Nelson forced compromises on the public option and abortion that made his liberal backers grudging supporters.
A stand by Wisconsin Republicans against a massive effort to oust them from power could reverberate across the country as the battle over union rights and the conservative revolution heads toward the 2012 presidential race.
Democrats succeeded in taking two Wisconsin state Senate seats away from Republican incumbents on Tuesday but fell one short of what they needed to seize majority control of the chamber.
Republicans saw it as a big win for Gov. Scott Walker and a confirmation of his conservative agenda, the hallmark of which was a polarizing proposal taking away most collective bargaining rights from public workers.
“Republicans are going to continue doing what we promised the people of Wisconsin – improve the economy and get Wisconsin moving back in the right direction,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said in a prepared statement after the victory.
Walker attempted to strike a bipartisan tone in victory, saying that he reached out to leaders in both parties.
“In the days ahead I look forward to working with legislators of all parties to grow jobs for Wisconsin and move our state forward,” Walker said in a prepared statement.
Democrats and union leaders tried to make the best of the historic GOP wins. There had been only 13 other successful recalls of state-level office holders nationwide since 1913.
“The fact of the matter remains that, fighting on Republican turf, we have begun the work of stopping the Scott Walker agenda,” said Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate.
Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, said voters sent a message that there is a growing movement to reclaim the middle class.
“Let’s be clear, anyway you slice it, this is an unprecedented victory,” he said.
Still, it was far less than what Democrats set out to achieve. And while they still plan to move ahead with recalling Walker, maintaining momentum for that effort which can’t start until November will be difficult.
Sen. Luther Olsen, one of the four Republicans who won, said he hoped the victories would “take the wind out of the recall for Walker, but I’m not sure.”
Two Democratic senators face recall elections next week, but even if they prevail, Republicans would still hold a narrow 17-16 majority.
Four Republican senators held on to their seats Tuesday. They were Olsen and Sens. Sheila Harsdorf of River Falls, Rob Cowles of Allouez, and Alberta Darling of River Hills. Two Republicans – Randy Hopper of Fond du Lac and Dan Kapanke of La Crosse – were defeated. Former deputy mayor of Oshkosh Jessica King beat Hopper and Democratic state Rep. Jennifer Shilling beat Kapanke.
A ninth senator, Democrat Dave Hansen of Green Bay, won his recall election last month.
Collectively, more than $31 million has been spent on the recalls, largely from outside conservative groups, unions and others.
Republican and Democratic strategists were leery of reading too much into the results heading into next year’s campaign in which Wisconsin is expected to be a key swing state.
Democratic strategist Chris Lehane said the results could provide “some early radar warnings” about the 2012 races.
“At a minimum, we already know that the conservatives are providing energy for progressive to fight back like an angry badger that otherwise may not have existed,” he said.
Lehane said Wisconsin’s tumultuous year since November’s elections has been a microcosm of the current “rollercoaster” era of U.S. politics.
Wisconsin voters had mixed emotions about the necessity of the recalls.
Wayne Boland, 41, a Whitefish Bay man who works in marketing for a medical equipment maker, said he voted for the Republican Darling “not because I entirely agree with everything the Republican Party has done or the governor” but because they’re working toward addressing the state’s problems.
Republicans won control of both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office in the 2010 election just nine months ago.
Democrats had hoped enough wins in the recalls would have allowed them to block the Republican agenda, but the GOP will hold on to their majorities that have allowed them to rapidly pass bills through the Legislature.
The elections were also closely watched in other states undergoing similar partisan battles.
A coalition of unions and labor-friendly groups fighting a Wisconsin-style collective bargaining overhaul in Ohio said the outcome of the recall elections will have little bearing on whether Ohio’s law is repealed this fall.
The effort in Wisconsin was about recalling specific Republicans who voted for the anti-union bill while the push in Ohio is about repealing the law itself. That makes it difficult to compare the two states, said We Are Ohio spokeswoman Melissa Fazekas.
Supporters of the Ohio law also are distancing their state from the fight in Wisconsin.
“We’re not focused on Wisconsin, and Ohioans aren’t looking to another state to tell them where they should stand,” said Jason Mauk, spokesman for Building a Better Ohio, a group defending the collective bargaining law.
Ohioans will vote Nov. 8 on whether to accept or reject the union-limiting law signed by Republican Gov. John Kasich in March that limits bargaining rights for more than 350,000 police, firefighters, teachers and other government employees.
Unlike Wisconsin, Ohio’s Constitution makes no provision for recalling elected officials.
Thousands of Wisconsin voters are going to the polls today to cast ballots in recall elections for six state senators.
Campaigning in these elections has been expensive and, in some cases, downright dirty. Sadly, we’ve come to expect false and misleading advertising, much of it from third-party groups that slither under the full-disclosure rules that candidates and political parties must follow.
We’ve endorsed rules in the past that would require everyone who wants to have a say in political campaigns to disclose the names of those who donate money to support their effort. Unfortunately, this hasn’t happened.
Another disturbing practice that has occurred in the recall elections is the mailing of fliers telling people how they can obtain absentee ballots. But these mailers, which usually also back one candidate or another, sometimes contain false or misleading information that can effectively disenfranchise the person casting the absentee ballot.
Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board, the agency that oversees elections, said it received several reports in recent weeks of unofficial absentee ballot applications potentially causing confusion among voters.
In some cases, there have been incorrect addresses for where to send the application, or an incorrect date that the ballot must be returned by in order to be counted. The board said it also has received complaints about automated phone calls that have contained incorrect dates and other election information.
If the voter doesn’t catch the mistake, he or she may never get the absentee ballot, or find that their legally cast vote didn’t get counted because the ballot arrived too late.
When confronted about the false information, the group sponsoring the mailer or robo-call has claimed it was an “honest mistake” or typographical error.
Funny, but these errors usually involve critical information about the casting of a ballot and can easily nullify a legitimately cast vote.
We’ve just gone through a very trying and sometimes bitter debate about the need to protect the integrity of elections by requiring voters to produce a photo ID at before casting a ballot. This despite the finding of only a tiny percentage of double voting or otherwise illegally cast ballots.
But the dirty tricks of deliberately misleading voters in oder to disenfranchise them is no less fraudulent than someone casting two votes. And giving the number of complaints that have been made in the recalls and most recent presidential elections, we think that this kind of fraud is far more prevalent and even more insidious than the fraud that resulted in photo ID.
Perhaps the lawmakers who were so insistent on photo ID can find a way to rid the state of this new kind of fraud.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has announced that Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), Patty Murray (D-WA), and Max Baucus (D-MT) will serve a new deficit Super Committee. Murray will be the Democrats’ top member.
“I have great faith in Senator Murray as the co-chair of the committee,” Reid said in a statement. “Her years of experience on the Senate Budget and Appropriations committees have given her a depth of knowledge on budget issues, and demonstrated her ability to work across party lines. Senators Baucus and Kerry are two of the Senate’s most respected and experienced legislators. Their legislative accomplishments are matched only by their records of forging strong bonds with their Republican colleagues.”
Entitlement defenders were hoping for a more progressive bunch than this. But the key on the Democratic side of the new committee isn’t so much whether members will agree in principle to some entitlement cuts — most say they will — it’s whether they’ll require as a concession that Republicans agree to increase tax revenues.
And through that prism, there’s some reason for optimism.
Murray is a senior member of the Budget Committee, a proponent of balancing spending cuts and tax increases in a deficit deal, and, importantly, chairwoman off the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. That has Republicans crying foul already, and here’s why: A hidden reason for the GOP’s ongoing deficit push has been to force Democrats to cut entitlement benefits on a bipartisan basis, to neutralize the GOP’s vote to phase out Medicare earlier this year. As the person in charge of electing Democrats to the Senate in 2012, Murray will have a powerful incentive to steer clear of policies that blur the sharp contrast between the parties on that issue.
Baucus is chair of the Finance Committee, and thus highly territorial about tax and entitlement issues. He’s also famous for having spent months seeking bipartisan consensus on universal health care legislation in 2009, only to have Republicans walk away. And as budget negotiations led by Vice President Joe Biden broke down earlier this year, Baucus, a member of that discussion group, agreed in principle to Medicare provider cuts — somewhat distinct from Medicare benefit cuts — but only if they were commensurate with new tax revenues. Republicans will never agree to that. As a member of President Obama’s fiscal committee, he voted against a proposal authored by chairs Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson on the grounds that it wasn’t sufficiently balanced.
Kerry’s the surprise here. He’s a senior member of both the Senate and of the Finance Committee. On Meet the Press Sunday, he advocated for cuts and reforms to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security but acknowledged the need for “some revenue.” He has a military background and chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, which means he in particular will have an incentive to reach agreement with Republicans. If the Committee gridlocks it will trigger a penalty that includes a broad $500 billion cuts to military and defense spending over 10 years — something neither he, nor Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, nor President Obama want to see.
So the good news is the Democrats on the committee have all demanded balance in the past, and will have an incentive to stick to that demand. The bad news is balance has no agreed-upon definition, and if Republicans put up a trivial amount of new revenue, Democrats might be tempted to call it a win and cave.
We’ll have more of a sense of how likely that is when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announces his selections in the next few days. He, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) have until August 16 to name their picks.
* Liberals and unions didn’t want Reid to appoint Kent Conrad and Dick Durbin, because both of them voted for the Simpson-Bowles deficit plan, so in this sense they may have dodged a bullet.
[…] Labor unions and liberal groups lobbied Reid vigorously not to appoint members of the Senate’s Gang of Six to the panel because they unveiled a framework last month calling for significant cuts to Medicare and Social Security.
Those liberal groups were leery of Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), members of the Gang of Six, because they also voted for a deficit-reduction proposal from the Simpson-Bowles commission. That plan would have raised the Social Security retirement age from 67 to 69 years old.
A senior Senate Republican aide said it was unbelievable that Reid would appoint Murray, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, to the supercommittee. The GOP aide said the head of a partisan political committee should not sit on the special debt-reduction panel that will work on reaching a bipartisan compromise by Thanksgiving.
Sen. Michael Enzi (R-WY)
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)
Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK)
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV)
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS)
Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID)
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL)
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS)
All Is Fair in Love and Class Warfare (H/T Khirad)
The American Prospect:
The Wisconsin recall elections will show whether a populist message works for Democrats.
[…] These elections (and two next week) will determine whether Governor Scott Walker will retain a Republican state senate majority, and will also gauge the likelihood that he’ll face his own ouster in January. They’ll also provide a rare test case for a brand of populist, anti-corporate campaigning that activists often call for but many Democrats shy away from. These Democrats are using a class-based message in six districts red enough to have elected Republican state senators on the same day Barack Obama was elected president.
In the 2008 election cycle, candidates campaigned on who planned to lower taxes the most. Three years later, a victor from that year, state Senator Alberta Darling, is seeing her opponent, Sandy Pasch, argue against lowering taxes. Pasch’s ads accuseDarling of “cutting education and health care to give tax breaks to big corporations” and “supporting the end of Medicare as we know it while giving the richest a massive tax cut.”
Pasch’s fellow Democratic challengers are taking a similar tack against their opponents: “Dan Kapanke gave tax breaks to the rich and big corporations while raising middle-class taxes” (Jennifer Shilling); “Politicians like Randy Hopper have been fighting for wealthy people like himself” (Jessica King). “I see the very basic things that allow people just to eke out a life being taken away at the same time I see the wealthiest wealthy people being benefited,” Democratic challenger Nancy Nussbaum told the local Post-Crescent last week.
Progressive groups are driving home the same message—that incumbent Republicans are siding with the wealthy against working people. One adfrom We Are Wisconsin (WAW), the largest coalition of labor and other progressive groups working the recalls, shows nurses, firefighters, and teachers putting money into a jar and then rich people in suits and gowns pocketing the cash. Another shows an actor in a suit playing Alberta Darling as she turns her back on a middle-class couple and an elderly woman. A child reaches out to get Darling’s attention as Darling taps away on her smart phone, and Darling yanks her arm away and walks off.
The same populist message is being used in phone calls and door-to-door canvassing. WAW spokesperson Kelly Steele says that the coalition’s message to voters has been about “this war that Scott Walker started in February when he unabashedly attacked working families in this state” and that the Republicans’ agenda “is being driven by these powerful corporate-backed interests.” Last week, the WAW announced it had knocked on more than 300,000 doors and made more than 700,000 phone calls.
SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin Vice President Bruce Colburn says that whereas in most elections Democrats “try to abstain” from “class warfare” rhetoric, right now in Wisconsin “both sides see this in those terms.”
It’s not unusual to see Democrats dabble in populism, but they don’t often go full-throttle. Too much rhetoric dividing the rich from everyone else, we’re told, will alienate the majority of Americans who want to become rich themselves. Conservatives are quick to insist we focus on how to grow the pie for everyone, yet right-wingers have shown themselves all too savvy at stoking class resentments. The anti-elite rhetoric of the Tea Party is the latest example of a long tradition that includes attacks on “elitist” judges for imposing a gay agenda on an unwilling populace and on unions for sustaining benefits most Americans are denied. When We Are Wisconsin aired an ad with students decrying Darling’s support for Walker’s education cuts, Darling fired back with a press release charging that one of them was a well-heeled “Daughter of [a] Union Boss.” Conservatives may chide Democrats that people aspiring for better lives will be turned off by class rhetoric—but conservative successes suggest otherwise.
Democracy for America spokesperson Levana Layendecker credits the Tea Party’s ascendance to “a populist message” about “government bought out by corporate interests—and I agree with them.” She and other activists expressed excitement about the chance to take a clear, class-conscious message to voters in red districts and to send a message not just to austerity-happy Republicans but to national Democrats as well.
“If we can pull this off,” says Democracy Addicts’ Ed Knutson, “we have a blueprint that can be adapted to other situations.” He says Wisconsin Democratic politicians this year “have very publicly come out on the side of people and against the corporate interest, and I don’t think people looking at D.C. Democrats see the same thing.”
Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary-treasurer of the Wisconsin state AFL-CIO, says the left is using “the kind of message you haven’t seen much in past decades.” She predicts that tomorrow’s results “will determine how we do these kinds of populist messages in other states across the country.”
Several factors have brought us to this moment in Wisconsin: recall laws, a persistently poor economy, a unified and emboldened right-wing state government, an unprecedented protest movement, and the willingness of progressive activists and Democrats to make common cause. Tomorrow, if Democrats take back the three seats necessary (along with defending two of their own incumbents against recall next week) to flip the Wisconsin Senate, it will be a victory for a movement and a party but also for a way of approaching other citizens and doing progressive politics.
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
At a New York political event last week, Republican and Democratic office-holders were all bemoaning President Obama’s handling of the debt-ceiling crisis when someone said, “Hillary would have been a better president.”
“Every single person nodded, including the Republicans,” reported one observer.
At a luncheon in the members’ dining room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Saturday, a 64-year-old African-American from the Bronx was complaining about Obama’s ineffectiveness in dealing with the implacable hostility of congressional Republicans when an 80-year-old lawyer chimed in about the president’s unwillingness to stand up to his opponents.
“I want to see blood on the floor,” she said grimly. A 61-year-old white woman at the table nodded. “He never understood about the ‘vast right-wing conspiracy,'” she said.
Looking as if she were about to cry, an 83-year-old Obama supporter shook her head. “I’m so disappointed in him,” she said. “It’s true: Hillary is tougher.”
She is “tougher.” A nebulous existence in the fever dreams of frustrated liberals tends to do that to you. Everybody’s “tougher” before they’re in the actual knife fight. I could just as easily see an alternative fever dream–one launched by President Hillary Clinton political failings, which she surely would have had, in which another camp of liberals look fondly back on how the Obama of hope and change would have altered the political calculus via magic.
The handsome gentleman at the office with whom you share no bathrooms is also “sexier” than your husband. We’re all sexy to someone until the years find us explaining how, precisely, we allowed Junior to have Oreos and potato chips for dinner.
President Barack Obama says there’s some good news from the bitterly partisan debt debate – it made people so frustrated with Washington that Democrats will be able to draw a clear divide with Republicans heading into the 2012 election.
The president said Monday that the public thought divided government might make some sense – but not dysfunctional government. And he said he thinks they’re not persuaded by what he described as the Republican strategy of slashing spending on social programs.
“They’re not buying that bill of goods,” Obama said at a campaign event.
“The good news is that I think there has been enough frustration at Washington, sort of reached a fevered pitch last week, that we’re now looking at 16 months in which there’s going to be a clear contrast and a clear choice,” he said.
He described the upcoming election as even more consequential than the 2008 contest that catapulted him into the White House, saying that more is at stake, and “The alternative visions being presented are even starker now than I think they were before.” […]
“We’ve had a couple of very difficult days in the stock market, but the truth of the matter is, is that the challenges go beyond the stock market,” he said.
Obama also expressed some pessimism about whether Congress would be able to get anything done to create jobs or improve the economy.
“Whether we’re going to see any progress out of this Congress right now – because so far we haven’t seen much when it comes to innovative ideas to actually put people to work and grow the economy – remains to be seen,” the president said.
“Everyone’s got their spin on it — there’s no consensus,” says former congressman Tom Davis (R-Va.). “The parties are very dug in.”
For instance, even if everyone agreed that the United States desperately needed help to revive its economy in the short term, it would simply reinforce the GOP’s line against the Democrats, Davis asserts. Most Democratic proposals for short-term help have centered on injecting immediate spending into the economy, the underlying argument being that the stimulus dropped off too early and didn’t go far enough. For Republicans, however, “the narrative is: ‘We tried your way, we’re worse off. Now you’re going to waste more and draw up the deficit more?’ ” Davis says.
Further drop-offs in the economy may only deepen this seemingly irreconcilable split on the Hill. “What sort of stimulus would simultaneously win a majority of the Republican caucus in the House and win enough support of Democrats and Republicans in the Senate to overcome a filibuster? I don’t know,” says John Sides, a political science professor at George Washington University.
Even a deeply disappointing jobs report could make it harder to build any new momentum in Congress. “The feeling is for both sides, it always supports their position,” says a senior Democratic aide. What’s more, if the economy worsens as President Obama comes closer to the 2012 election, it will be harder for him to convince congressional Republicans to throw him a life raft in terms of immediate action.
To be sure, in the past Congress has managed to overcome partisan gridlock under the threat of a singular economic crisis — when the nation’s biggest banks were about to fail in 2008, for instance, or last Tuesday, when the country nearly defaulted. But the absence of any single catastrophic threat may make it more difficult for a new, short-term economic plan to achieve liftoff in Congress. That’s why last week’s events, as bad as they were — with the stock market’s plunge on Thursday, a tepid jobs report and the S&P downgrade — haven’t created any new optimism for action on Capitol Hill.
“Even though the economy isn’t good and the threat of a double dip seems greater, I don’t feel the same sense of urgency that there was in the fall of 2008, when the stock market drop seemed to spur the passage of TARP,” Sides says. Like the health-care system, the United States has always been better at fixing acute, immediate problems than chronic maladies. And the constant stream of pretty bad, but not totally disastrous, news will make it that much harder to break the political logjam and pull the economy out of its quagmire.
Complicating matters is Obama’s 2012 reelection bid. Though the White House wants to seem proactive on jobs, advisers know that voters will judge the president on the state of the economy, and they want to dispel the notion that the country is imminently headed toward a cliff. “Indeed, the White House seems to want to tamp down the sense of urgency, given Jay Carney’s statement that they do not believe a double-dip recession is imminent,” Sides notes, referring to the White House press secretary’s comments last week. “If people are panicking, they’re only going to go with the other guy,” adds the Democratic aide. But Obama’s efforts to soothe fears about the economy may also make it more difficult for his Democratic allies to urge immediate, short-term action on the Hill. If there’s no need to panic, then what’s the rush?
To be sure, there’s a glint of hope that the most modest proposals have a chance, given how unhappy voters are with the economy. Extending the payroll tax holiday, for instance, could garner bipartisan support, since it wouldn’t force the GOP to relent on raising taxes. Some are still holding out hope that the congressional super-committee on the deficit will be able to break from the partisan stranglehold. But for the most part, as the economy looks worse, the prospects of immediate action in Congress aren’t looking better. “Just getting the regular work for the year done is going to be difficult,” said Davis, the former congressman.
I thoroughly enjoy watching keyboard warriors talk about how weak Obama is on this, and how terrible he is at that, when the biggest decision these folks have to make is “do you want fries with that?” You think you’ve got the resolve, you think you’re a better decision-maker than he is, and you think you know so much more than he does because you read Krugman or Greenwald or that totally underrated super-hipster political website that hasn’t hit the mainstream yet. Guess what? There’s a reason why he’s president and you’re not. If you think you’ve got what it takes to do a better job, then run for President! I’d love to see how you do to fix the entire free world’s every little problem in three years.
I think I’ve figured out what the anti-Obama crowd wants. You want a George Bush. Not the “Obama = Bush” bullshit, but a ruthless bloodthirsty president who will kill and character-assassinate his way to fulfill political goals. You want a liberal president who uses the same tactics to get what he wants that you complained about for eight years when the other guy did it.
You want Obama to raise taxes on the rich. You want him to focus on jobs. You want him to pass a robust stimulus plan. I would love that too. Okay, we all want it, but how does he do that in the House? He can talk a good game and say “tax increases!” three times and click his heels together, but it doesn’t amount to diddlysquat unless 218 teadrones in the House of Representatives vote for it. President Obama can talk until his mouth goes dry, but it won’t do a lick of difference unless you work to elect over 218 Democratic votes in the House.
If you need to hear him talk angrily to a wall, that’s fine. Whatever makes you feel better. But the reality is that the Republicans in Congress want him to lose. They’re not going to help him at all no matter how sternly he words a speech.
If you want to make a change, go fix the damn House. Obama can’t do it all on his own (in case you’ve forgotten).
Oh, and by the way, Barack Obama is the Commander in Chief. Not the Capitulater/Whiner/Weakling/Caver-in-Chief. I know a lot of the never-happy-with-the-president stems from the need to hate authority or make him seem like a lesser being, but Barack Obama is the President — regardless of what you think of his policies, afford him the respect he deserves.
3:19 PM PT: A commenter below noted that most hyper-partisans can’t admit when they’re wrong, or apologize when they did something wrong. I’m not going to let that happen with me. The “do you want fries with that” comment was over the line, and I apologize to everyone who’s read this. I debated taking it out, but made the wrong decision not to get rid of it. I should have, since a few have taken great offense to it and it’s taken away from other points of the diary. Again…sorry for that line. I stand by the rest of the diary without sway.
Everyone wants Barack Obama to get off his ass and do something:
Dana Milbank, on today’s stock market plunge: “It’s not exactly fair to blame Obama for the rout: Almost certainly, the markets ignored him. And that’s the problem: The most powerful man in the world seems strangely powerless, and irresolute, as larger forces bring down the country and his presidency.”
Michael Tomasky: “In [Alan] Brinkley’s words, Obama’s presidency ‘is failing, and in danger of collapsing.’ Lacerating battles await him on the budget (surprise: the debt deal didn’t solve everything!). The economy is grounded. Obama needs to quit trying to transform politics and just focus on winning fights on behalf of a careworn middle class. Otherwise, politics is going to transform him into a nicely intentioned one-term president.”
Paul Krugman: “Earlier this week, the word was that the Obama administration would ‘pivot’ to jobs now that the debt ceiling has been raised. But what that pivot would mean, as far as I can tell, was proposing some minor measures that would be more symbolic than substantive. And, at this point, that kind of proposal would just make President Obama look ridiculous.”
Matt Yglesias, asking what the White House plans to do that’s comparable to FDR’s executive order devaluing the dollar by raising the price of gold: “Where’s your Executive Order 6102? Serious people acknowledge the existence of big political constraints. But leaders who feel constrained look for ways forward.”
All of this criticism might be well taken. Let’s just stipulate that it is. Here’s the question: what is it that you think Obama should do?
We can all name things we think he should have done in the past. But that’s water under the bridge. Right now, the economy is what it is, and the Republicans who control the House flatly won’t allow Obama to do anything about it. It hardly matters why. Maybe it’s because of legitimate ideological differences. Maybe it’s because it’s not in their interest for the economy to get better before next November. Maybe they’re just nuts. Regardless, they aren’t going to allow any action that might improve the economy in the short term. End of story.
So: what’s the answer? Do you think a bunch of hard-hitting speeches would make a difference? Do you think there are executive actions he could take? Do you think there are pressure points he could bring to bear to pull some Republicans over to his side?
This is a real question. I’m not trying to defend Obama or score debating points. I really want to know. What should Obama do?
The People’s View:
[…] In a way, investors responded to Standard and Poor’s rating just the way it deserves. Of course, the story is not that hard to explain. The rating, and other economic worries, sent the stock market tumbling, and investors turned to safer investments, that is, US treasury bonds. So rather than driving the government’s borrowing costs up, as more people rushed to lend more money to the government, the government’s borrowing costs actually went down.
No one should take any comfort in the fact that stock market is nose-diving, of course. But if the intention for credit rating downgrade was to make it harder for the government to borrow money, it appears to be having the exact opposite effect.
The problem with the stock market is multifold, and most of it has to do with the economy. Not just the US economy but the global economy. Economic stress in Europe and Asia are affecting us as much as our stress is affecting them. But the common thread running through both the downgrade and the economic weakness? The hostage taking of the US economy by the Tea Party Republicans. And the American people are rightfully sick of it. News comes on the heels of family-members-and-paid-staffers level approval rating for a Congress held hostage by Teabagging nutjobs, it gets worse for them, according to a just-released USA Today/Gallup poll:
If congressional elections were held today, Americans by 49%-45% say they would vote for the Democratic candidate over the Republican.
Let this serve as a warning. Should the Tea Party continue to hold America hostage, this will only get worse. People. Hate. Congress. Pure and simple. If the Republicans in Congress are going to keep playing games instead of taking responsibility for the country, and doing what is right to move the country forward, voters are going to make them pay a price. Mitch McConnell might have as his primary goal the demise of the Obama presidency rather than the advancement of the American economy, but voters have other plans. If the Tea Party continues on its current political hostage-taking trajectory, the stock market will not have the only free-falling numbers.
Hey, I got an idea. How about Congress cuts its summer vacation a little short and gets back to work, let’s say, tomorrow? What the F are we paying you for?
Yes, the poll from USA Today/Gallup also has some pretty tough news for President Obama. His still beats out the generic Republican, but his numbers are below the 50% threshold. Is it cause for concern? You betcha. In a tough environment, the President always gets blamed. And we have no help in this situation from the Professional whiners on the Left. But ultimately in a presidential race, people will have to decide whether they want to hire someone who has been working day in and day out (and we must do more to get that message out) to help people or someone who wants to sell the country wholesale to their corporate benefactors. On that count, I am very confident that the president will come out on top.
Congress, on the other hand, is another matter entirely. Candidates for Congress are much-less well known and people tend to punish the party more than the person. And the Tea Party’s credibility, message, and popularity has been devastated by the way they have been screwing with governing – both at state and national levels. Speaking of which, there are recall elections coming up in Wisconsin tomorrow. Democrats need a net gain of just 3 seats (out of the six Republicans up for recall) to recapture the WI Senate and stop Scott Walker’s radical agenda. Can you chip in, volunteer or make some calls? Head over to WisDems.org and help out!
[…] We’re reminded about Americans’ contempt for Congress all the time. There’s no shortage of data to back up the assertion. One passage fromUSA Today’s analysis of new Gallup data from Monday stuck out:
Only 24% of those surveyed say most members of Congress deserve re-election, the lowest percentage since Gallup began asking the question in 1991. Fifty-six percent say their own representative deserves another term, similar to the levels just before tumultuous elections in 1994, 2006 and 2010 that changed control of the House or Senate.
But despite the electoral consequences those numbers threaten, three quarters of Congress is almost certainly not going to be defeated in November 2012.
Previous elections have shown that it’s very likely over 90% of Congress will remain in office. And that’s because it’s not just about how a snapshot of Americans feel about the fractious debate at any given moment in Washington. The power of incumbency is real: the ability to maintain a media presence in local markets, higher name recognition, and the chance to endear yourself through community everts and constituent services. But by far the best advantage is the ability to fundraise with party backing, building up a war chest that effectively insulates members of Congress from challengers: why go after someone who already has $1.5 million in the bank before you’ve even made one call?
Congressional reelection rates are high, and always have been, even in wave years. They are also poor indicators of who actually made gains in Congress, if the rates taken are by themselves. The reelection rate for the House in 2006 was 94%, despite a swing of 31 seats and the Democrats taking the majority. Two years later there was again a 94% reelection rate, and the opposite result occurred: the Democrats expanded their majority from the previous cycle by 20 seats. The Senate is a bit different, that body has had reelection rates as high as 96% (2004) and low as 55% (1980). First, it’s a smaller sample size, as there’s only 33 races in an election year, even before there are any retirements. Statewide races are also a different animal, and one could make a solid argument that they are much more affected by the national political picture.
Back in the days of civility, June 2006, Democrats had a mere 55% disapproval rating to the Republicans’ 60%, according to Gallup polling at the time (PDF). Then, a little over two years later, Americans turned their ire toward Congress again, as it registered a 75% disapproval to a 14% approval in July of 2008. But that fall, President Obama ushered in a wave that brought 252 Democratic house members with him.
Last year something notable happened: the reelection rate for the House slipped to 85%, the lowest since 1970. The House swung and the Tea Party-infused GOP majority established itself. The only common theme was that Congress had again hit a new low in the Gallup Congressional Approval index: 13% this time.
Gallup has tracked Congressional approval since 1974, and there actually have been some times where a plurality or majority approved of their job: a few short periods in the 80’s, another spot in the good economic times of the mid to late 90’s, and post September 11th to 2003. But in general, if a pollster asks a question about Congress, Americans are very likely to disapprove. If they ask a question about a specific party in Congress, Americans are less likely to disapprove, but not much less. And when it comes to elections, voters could very easily hate a Congress controlled by one party, love the presidential candidate from that party, and reelect that party en mass. Or they could hate Congress, and overwhelming vote to elect the other party, like in 2010. Congressional approval may be a factor in elections, but it’s no indicator.
The rub here is just how little it matters. Yes, it’s American politics, so of course anything can and does happen. But the fact that two completely different results can come from the same scenario is not just confounding, its counter-intuitive.
The president sought to calm markets and voters after S&P’s U.S. debt downgrade triggered turmoil, but Eleanor Clift says his call for common sense was a far cry from his 2008 message of hope.
The president’s pitch Monday—all that’s needed is a little “common sense and compromise”—was a far cry from the soaring rhetoric and optimism of his candidacy three years ago. And the first voters after Monday’s statement—Wall Street investors—weren’t entirely sold. The Dow Jones average fell 634 points Monday, with Obama’s words doing little to stop the downward momentum.
Still, Obama declined to join the chorus of critics assailing the Standard & Poor’s rating agency as misguided in its assessment, instead expressing the hope that the U.S. going from triple-A to double-A would motivate Congress to find a “grand bargain” that would reform both entitlement programs and taxes. And that optimism could spell a political benefit in the long term.
“He was reassuring—that was the aim,” says Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster.
The economy will have an outsized impact on next year’s election, but the real question, most analysts agree, is not whether it’s good or bad, but whether people feel it’s getting better or worse. More than a year from now, when voters go to the polls in November 2012, if they see light at the end of the tunnel, Obama will be in relatively good shape. “If there isn’t, then it becomes a pitched battle, hand-to-hand combat, trench warfare,” Mellman says.
A reelection campaign is typically a referendum on the incumbent, but it doesn’t have to be, says Mellman. He’s speaking from experience. He just went through one of the most bruising campaigns in the country with Democrat Harry Reid in Nevada facing Tea Party challenger Sharron Angle. “We turned that from a referendum into not just a choice but into a referendum on the other candidate,” Mellman says.
Right now, Obama is facing his toughest challenger, and that is the Obama of 2008 who inspired a nation with his call for “change you can believe in.”
Disappointed liberals are among Obama’s harshest critics. They feel he has given away too much to conservatives, and they don’t understand where his gifts of intellect and oratory are now that the country is looking to him for a bold plan forward that can take the economy out of the doldrums.
The dimming enthusiasm for Obama could have serious repercussions for his reelection if disappointed liberals, young people, and minorities don’t come out in the numbers they did in 2008. The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, hosted a discussion Monday on “The African American Vote in 2012 and Beyond.” Among the panelists was Jamal Simmons with the Raben Group, a public-relations firm that advocates for progressive policies. He said that right now Obama is being compared against the ideal progressive president imagined by his soaring rhetoric and promises of change, but once the campaign gets underway, “He’ll be compared against Mitt Romney, or Michele Bachmann, and that’s a very different conversation.”
One of the questions before the panel: With persistently high unemployment and continuing economic woes within the black community, is there room for the right to make inroads? The general consensus was that there is “no savior on the Republican side,” and that Obama could be confident of the support of more than 90 percent of African-Americans.
African Americans, together with liberals and young people, won’t desert Obama, but unless the president finds a better way to connect with their hopes and dreams, and still their fears, he could come up short on Election Day. Karl Rove has already penned an analysis in The Wall Street Journal saying even a 1 percent drop in black turnout in North Carolina, a state that Obama carried in 2008, would wipe out the president’s margin of victory two-and-a-half times over.
With Congress in recess until after Labor Day, the proposals Obama is relying on to spur the recovery continue to languish, uncertain to get a vote despite his calls for urgency. They include an infrastructure bank, an extension of the payroll-holiday tax cut for working people, and three trade deals that are hung up over labor rights. All are worthy proposals but far from enough to capture a weary nation’s imagination. Given the scope of the jobs crisis, there is a dearth of ideas. “We’re working on it,” says Jared Bernstein, an economist who until recently was at the White House advising Vice President Joe Biden.
Now with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Bernstein is circulating a proposal dubbed FAST: Fix America’s Schools Today. The average public school building is 40 years old, with many much older, and repairs have been deferred by cash-strapped local governments. Bringing nearly 100,000 schools up to standard and “greening them up” would create some 10,000 jobs for every billion dollars spent.
Democrats are searching for the Big Idea that can carry an election. School construction, says one skeptic, “might appeal to some editorial writers, but nobody’s going to say, ‘Wow, I’m going to the barricades for that.’ It’s not an automatic bell ringer.” If that’s the standard, it could be a very long election year.
Speaker continues to side with CEO’s and big corporations of middle class families
After the fighting for a debt deal that will create more job losses, House Speaker John Boehner will face political backlash in his home district, a cold reception for the 20-year suburban Cincinnati representative.
Protesters plan to picket Boehner listening sessions at community centers and government offices across his district.
Facing almost 9% unemployment in Ohio, Speaker Boehner’s constituents will demand action on job creation. Poll after poll shows that Americans believe job creation is the most important political issue of the day, yet it’s been ignored by the echo chamber in Washington. The crowds will demand he take action on behalf of the middle class, instead of continuing protecting tax breaks and loopholes for big corporations and CEO’s.
Rep. Jeff Denham, a Fresno Republican, saw hundreds in his district making similar demands Friday, another example of the frustration that will continue to boil over during the August Congressional recess. Click here for video of the Fresno protest.
In the latest actions by the American Dream movement, a campaign launched by more than 70 partner organizations, Americans across the country will be standing up to their representatives throughout the August recess on Washington’s failure to create jobs.
Oh, if you ask John Boehner where are the jobs, you’ll have to track him down to the nearest golf course:
The protesters were told that Boehner was playing golf, so they loaded up and headed to the golf course, only to be told by security that they couldn’t see him.
That’s right. Go on vacation, play golf, while your district suffers.
Amid hand-wringing from Democrats and blustering from Republicans over President Obama’s weak approval numbers, there is a bit of hope for the president, according to the National Journal: “another president who suffered a recession early in his first term also had, at the same point in his first term, an approval rating hovering in the low 40 percent range — and President Reagan went on to win a landslide reelection victory the following year.”
It still won’t be a 1984 cakewalk: “Of course, Reagan benefited from the economy taking off and a weak challenger, Walter Mondale. For his part, Obama can’t count on the unemployment rate getting much better or be certain he’ll have a weak GOP nominee — though, so far, the field lacks a commanding front-runner.”
Need more evidence that Americans are extremely angry at Congress?
Well, here you go: According to a new national survey, for the first time ever most Americans don’t believe their own member of Congress deserves re-election.
Read full results (pdf).
And the CNN/ORC International Poll released Tuesday also indicates that while Republicans may have had the upper hand in the recent battle over raising the debt ceiling, they appear to have lost a lot of ground with the public and the party’s unfavorable rating is now at an all time high.
Only 41 percent of people questioned say the lawmaker in their district in the U.S. House of Representatives deserves to be re-elected – the first time ever in CNN polling that that figure has dropped below 50 percent. Forty-nine percent say their representative doesn’t deserve to be re-elected in 2012. And with ten percent unsure, it’s the first time that a majority has indicated that they would boot their representative out of office if they had the chance today.
“That 41 percent, in the polling world, is an amazing figure. Throughout the past two decades, in good times and bad, Americans have always liked their own member of Congress despite abysmal ratings for Congress in general,” says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. “Now anti-incumbent sentiment is so strong that most Americans are no longer willing to give their own representative the benefit of the doubt. If that holds up, it could be an early warning of an electorate that is angrier than any time in living memory.”
As for all members of Congress, the poll indicates only a quarter of the public says most members of Congress deserve to be re-elected.
A lot of that anger seems directed toward the GOP. According to the survey, favorable views of the Republican party dropped eight points over the past month, to 33 percent. Fifty-nine percent say they have an unfavorable view of the Republican party, an all-time high dating back to 1992 when the question was first asked.
The poll indicates that views of the Democratic party, by contrast, have remained fairly steady, with 47 percent saying they have a favorable view of the Democrats and an equal amount saying they hold an unfavorable view.
“The Democratic party, which had a favorable rating just a couple of points higher than the GOP in July, now has a 14-point advantage over the Republican party,” adds Holland.
The same pattern holds for the parties’ leaders in Congress. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the top Democrat in the chamber, have never had great numbers, but the public’s view of them have remained essentially unchanged in the wake of the debt ceiling debate. But House Speaker John Boehner’s favorable rating has dropped 10 points, and his unfavorable rating is up to 40 percent, a new high for him. On the Senate side, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell isn’t faring much better – his unfavorable rating is 39 percent, a seven-point increase since July.
The poll indicates that Americans’ views of the tea party movement have also turned more negative, with 51 percent saying they have a negative view of the two-year-old limited government and anti-tax grassroots movement, with favorable ratings dropping from 37 percent down to 31 percent. Freshman House Republicans elected with major support from tea party activists were instrumental in keeping any tax increases out of the agreement to raise the nation’s debt ceiling.
The CNN poll was conducted by ORC International on August 5-7, with 1,008 adult Americans questioned by telephone. The survey was conducted both before and after Friday night’s downgrading of the country’s credit rating by Standard and Poor’s. The poll’s overall sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points.
Predatory dragonflies the size of modern seagulls ruled the air 300 million years ago, and it’s long been a mystery how these and other bugs grew so huge.
The leading theory is that ancient bugs got big because they benefited from a surplus of oxygen in Earth‘s atmosphere. But a new study suggests it’s possible to get too much of a good thing: Young insects had to grow larger to avoid oxygen poisoning.
“We think it’s not just because oxygen affects the adults but because oxygen has a bigger effect on larvae,” said study co-author Wilco Verberk of Plymouth University in the U.K.
“So a larval perspective might lead to a better understanding of why these animals existed in the first place, and maybe why they disappeared.”
Baby Bugs Can’t Control Their Gases
During this time, the rise of vast lowland swamp forests led to atmospheric oxygen levels of around 30 percent—close to 50 percent higher than current levels.
According to previous theories about insect gigantism, this rich oxygen environment allowed adult bugs to grow to ever larger sizes while still meeting their energy needs. (Related: “Did Rising Oxygen Levels Fuel Mammal Evolution?”)
For the new study, Verberk and colleague David Bilton instead focused on how varying oxygen levels affect stonefly larvae, which, like dragonflies, live in water before becoming terrestrial adults. Higher concentrations of oxygen in air would have meant higher concentrations dissolved in water.
The results showed that juvenile stoneflies are more sensitive to oxygen fluctuations than their adult counterparts living on land.
This may be because insect larvae typically absorb oxygen directly through their skin, so they have little or no control over exactly how much of the gas they take in. By contrast, adult insects can regulate their oxygen intake by opening or closing valve-like holes in their bodies called spiracles.
While crucial for life, oxygen can be poisonous in large quantities: Humans exposed to excess oxygen can suffer cell damage leading to vision problems, difficulty breathing, nausea, and convulsions.
It’s likely the larvae of many ancient insects also passively absorbed oxygen from water and were not able to regulate their oxygen intake very well—a big danger when oxygen levels were so high.
One way to decrease the risk of oxygen toxicity would have been to grow bigger, since large larvae would absorb lower percentages of the gas, relative to their body sizes, than small larvae.
“If you grow larger, your surface area decreases relative to your volume,” Verberk explained.
Lower Oxygen Led to Poor Bug Performance?
The new theory could also explain why giant insects continued to exist even after Earth’s atmospheric oxygen levels began decreasing, he said.
“If oxygen actively drove increases in body mass to avoid toxicity, lower levels would not be immediately fatal, although in time, they will probably diminish performance of the larger insects,” since adults would have evolved to require more oxygen and would get sluggish in air with lower levels, Verberk said.
“Such reduced performance will eventually have made it possible for other species to outcompete the giants.”
AND IN OTHER NEWS…
If you’re like us, you’re more than envious of Anthony Bourdain’s life of exploring fascinating cultures and people of the world while tracking down the most delicious, authentic food on Earth—and getting paid to do it. But the jealousy doesn’t prevent groupie-like devotion to his Emmy-winning TV show No Reservations, now in its seventh season on the Travel Channel (Mondays at 9 p.m. EST). The fact that his strong, sometimes eviscerating opinions do not always flatter his fellow celebrity chefs—as expressed, in part, in his latest memoir Medium Raw (a sequel to Kitchen Confidential)—just makes us trust his travel advice even more. Bourdain is really telling it straight. And he has the travel chops to sift the extraordinary stories and places from the merely great.
We tapped Bourdain for some world-wander culinary wisdom and insights from the current season of No Reservations, his most adventurous yet, featuring Cuba, Iraq, the Brazilian Amazon, the American Southwest, and even one of the last sittings at Spain’s El Bulli, once the best restaurant in the world. Of course, there were some surprises too, such as thoughts on the importance of being a good guest, swapping Viagra for rhino horns in traditional Chinese medicine, and the idea that eating yourself to death is fine, just don’t use stuffed-crust pizza and other fast food to do it. If all goes according to plan, Bourdain will dine in Libya this year. In next week’s episode he’ll dive into California’s Mojave Desert with Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme. —Mary Anne Potts
Did you have breakfast this morning?
Anthony Bourdain: Ah, no. I never eat breakfast. Maybe coffee, but that’s it.
What are some adventurous things you’ve done to score something good to eat?
A.B.: I don’t know that that’s been my prime motivation. I travel for travel’s sake at this point. I do it in a food-centric way, but I’m not going to go into a war zone just for food, you know? But I have gone into war zones.
I did go into the Amazonian region of Brazil. They have prehistoric river fish that weigh in at around 600 pounds, which you don’t see anywhere else. And foods that cannot be exported or even found in other parts of Brazil. This region was described to me by Ferran Adria [chef of El Bulli] as the last frontier of food. So that’s where people do extraordinary things to get food.
Do you find food more satisfying when you see where it comes from?
A.B.: It’s really exciting to see food in context, where it comes from. I was just on the Amalfi Coast. To see a chef dive into the water himself, in a wetsuit, and come up with a sea urchin, crack it open, and scoop it out for you, right there, is thrilling. It’s also envy-inspiring to see people who live in a place where amazing ingredients are just a few feet away.
How did you pick the destinations for the current season of No Reservations?
A.B.: This season we were deliberately looking for something outside of the usual comfort zone. With the exception of the El Bulli show, which we filmed because the place closed its restaurant forever in July, so we wanted to capture that bit of history, for sure. But we were really looking to go to places that were a little less comfortable, a little more off the beaten path—certainly the Kurdish areas in Iraq and Turkey, the Amazon, Cuba, and Haiti. These were a little more difficult to shoot and a little more complicated histories to tackle. They forced us to think of new ways to tell the story.
At this point in your career you could sit back and coast on your successes. Why do you seek the more difficult, hard-to-access stories?
A.B.: We want to change the game, as much as possible. I’m just not interested in doing whatever we did last year, even if what we did last year was good and well received. I don’t want to do that year after year. We are hoping to shoot in Libya over the next couple months. We are working very closely with some interesting guides who can handle our security in some of the hotter zones. We know some really interesting people, and they are really good with restaurant tips in Kabul and Yemen. They have made it possible to shoot in places that we would not have been able to a couple years ago.
You clearly seek out places where the political scene is tumultuous.
A.B.: It started as a food show with a very predictable arc. And I think we have all changed over the years. And the content has changed as well. It’s always going to be a food-centric show. But we are pushing ourselves more every year.
Considering both culinary quality and culture, what’s your favorite travel destination?
A.B.: You have an impeccable argument if you said that Singapore, Hong Kong, and Tokyo are food capitals. They have a maximum amount of great stuff to eat in the smallest areas. Those would be very hard arguments to go against. I am really passionate about San Sebastián, Catalonia, in Spain. But for sheer variety and for ingredients and culture, those Asian cities are all really interesting places.
After more than a decade of intense travel, what place has the most unusual food, as compared to Western cuisine?
A.B.: The easy answer is China. The joke is that they cook everything, and if you look hard enough in China, you’ll find that to be true. They are also some of the best cooks in the world. I love the masochistic aspect of eating seething, real Sichuan food in Sichuan Province.
Some advice: Let’s say you arrive in an unfamiliar town. How do you find the best meal?
A.B.: It helps to be a chef. There is an international chef mafia that helps. We use the Internet a lot; we look to local bloggers. We spend a lot of time looking for local bloggers who have been documenting street food or indigenous specialties around the city or town for a while. There’s always somebody and they are often very, very good.
So you would say do your research, don’t just arrive and hope for the best.
A.B.: I think you should do research first, as much as one can. And there’s a lot of material out there. Find that one blogger who has been eating in Saigon or Hong Kong for the last year or two or three years, taking pictures, and writing about his or her noodle or dumpling experience. That is a rich vein to tap into.
You’ve eaten some outrageous things by Western standards, such as a raw seal eyeball with the Inuit and cobra with a still-beating heart in Vietnam. What’s the most outrageous thing you have eaten?
A.B.: There’s really nothing more outrageous or appalling than what we do in America. I mean, really. Some of the stuff … the KFC Double Down, the Cinnabun, the deep-fried macaroni and cheese. We are really the only people who enthusiastically celebrate how quickly we are killing ourselves. You know, I’m not getting fat fast enough; I need stuffed-crust pizza.
But there’s some American food that’s worth eating? What about the American Southwest episode coming up?
A.B.: Oh yes, there’s lots of great food in America. But the fast food is about as destructive and evil as it gets. It celebrates a mentality of sloth, convenience, and a cheerful embrace of food we know is hurting us. I’m all for killing yourself with food—if it’s actually delicious. But it’s not. We are lowering our standards, in general. There’s nothing wrong with a curly fry or meat on a stick or macaroni and cheese. I just prefer for it to be good, and I like to give my money to a locally owned and operated small business than some massive corporation. That’s a personal preference.
Is there anywhere you want to go but haven’t gotten access to?
A.B.: We haven’t been into Congo. We’ve been trying to do a trip going up the Congo River, but there have been safety and security concerns that have prevented it. And Iran I would very much like to do, but the government is so unpleasant. I don’t want to be going there now. Burma, I’d love to go to Myanmar, but again, the government is a problem.
What was it like to be shooting in Beirut in 2006 when the Israel-Lebanon conflict started?
The resulting show won an Emmy.
A.B.: We didn’t even know we were shooting a show. We were just snapping off footage, documenting it for ourselves. We put it together afterwards with the very limited footage that we had. I don’t think any of us or the crew had any idea what we were doing. We never saw ourselves as journalists or combat correspondents. We just shot what we saw, just because we were sitting around, largely confined to a secure location, and there was not much else to do. It turned out to be one of our proudest accomplishments, but that’s not what we were thinking at the time.
You write best-selling books and Emmy-winning TV show scripts. At this point do you think of yourself more as a writer/journalist or a chef?
A.B.: I don’t know. I’m a former chef-essayist, perhaps. I don’t claim to have the sort of impartiality that presumably a journalist has. I have too many personal likes and dislikes. I prefer essayist.
Kitchen Confidential, published in 2000, tracks your life before the celebrity chef and food TV culture we know today, that you helped create, even existed. Do you watch any of the shows?
A.B.: I try to keep up with Top Chef. I watch Avec Eric, my friend Eric Ripert’s show. Not much else. A lot of it is ridiculously freakish and deliberately sub-mental.
Do you think there are people who are your imitators out there?
A.B.: So few Americans have passports. The more chefs who travel and the more they celebrate traveling and eating…the more the merrier. As long as they are not out there sneering at the locals and laughing at their weird food and behaving like boobs, then I’m all for it. Anyone with an open heart and an open mind and who shows Americans and other people any kind of culture elsewhere around the world…I think that’s a good thing. Really, unless you are going to be an asshole about it. But some clown chef traveling around the world mocking the locals who are trying to please him or her…obviously I have a less charitable view of that.
Overfishing, sustainable harvesting, bushmeat. How much do these kinds of issues influence your decisions?
A.B.: First I’m a good guest. If I’m the guest of someone very poor or in a tribal area of Africa, and they are feeding me something that is, in fact, something that’s ordinary for them but it’s cruel or destructive to the environment or animal population, I will probably eat it in that case, but then avoid it from that point on. I think being a gracious guest is the most important thing. But I do change my behaviors depending on what I hear about…I try to avoid sword fish and I don’t eat shark fin soup, if I can at all avoid it. I go out of my way to avoid those things. But these are things I think about and talk about when possible. There are a lot of moral decisions that poor people are not free to make, let’s put it that way.
Why do you chose not to eat shark fin soup?
A.B.: Shark fin soup is a bad example because it is a luxury anywhere. That’s rich people food. I choose not to eat it. But bushmeat…basically in areas of Africa, they will completely depopulate the jungle killing everything in sight because they don’t have any choice. That’s all they are going to get. And they can hardly be faulted.
We are so far removed from the problems of people who do not eat friend mac and cheese….
A.B.: But when you move past food to say, the argument against traditional Chinese medicines…rhino horn and tiger paw…that’s an easier one to make because so much of them are related to male impotency. I think if we just started giving out free viagra across of Asia we make a huge dent in the problem.
If you were a college kid today with the curiosity and rebellious tendencies you wrote about in Kitchen Confidential, do you think you would have chosen the same path that you did?
A.B.: If I were in college today…I have no idea what that would be like. But I can say, knowing what I know now, all of the mistakes that I’ve made, if I had the opportunity to live my life over again, I would do exactly the same things. It all worked out pretty well.
You are now a dad and no longer a chain smoker. Have you lost some of your edge over the years?
A.B.: Definitely. Being a guest with so many people around the world who were so generous and wonderful is life changing. And there’s nothing more life changing than being a father.
What’s your next frontier?
A.B.: Libya. We are seeing history being made—and rarely is it so clear who the bad guy is. Benghazi is a beautiful Italian city full of hopeful young people fighting Gaddafi. The whole world is changing, in big ways. The whole balance is changing before our eyes. I want to see history being made in this wonderful, exciting place.
QUOTE OF THE DAY:
“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”
— Robert Frost