Thursday, April 24, 2014

Close Races in 4 Southern States Could Tip Senate Power Balance

Four Senate races in the South that will most likely determine control of Congress appear very close, with Republicans benefiting from more partisan intensity but a Democratic incumbent, seen as highly vulnerable, holding a surprising edge, according to a New York Times Upshot/Kaiser Family Foundation poll.
The survey underscores a favorable political environment over all for Republicans in Kentucky, North Carolina, Louisiana and Arkansas — states President Obama lost in 2012 and where his disapproval rating runs as high as 60 percent. But it also shows how circumstances in each state are keeping them in play for the Democrats a little more than six months before the midterm elections.
Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas, a two-term incumbent who has been considered perhaps the most imperiled Democratic senator in the country, holds a 10-point lead over his Republican opponent, Representative Tom Cotton. Mr. Pryor, the son of a former senator, has an approval rating of 47 percent, with 38 percent of Arkansas voters disapproving of him.
Senator Kay Hagan, Democrat of North Carolina, appears more endangered as she seeks a second term. She has the support of 42 percent of voters, and Thom Tillis, the Republican state House speaker and front-runner for his party’s nomination, is at 40 percent. Unlike Mr. Pryor, however, Ms. Hagan’s approval rating, 44 percent, is the same as her disapproval number. In Kentucky, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, is also effectively tied with his Democratic rival, Alison Lundergan Grimes, a race that may be close because Mr. McConnell, first elected to the Senate in 1984, has the approval of only 40 percent of voters, while 52 percent disapprove. But Ms. Grimes must overcome Mr. Obama’s deep unpopularity in the state, where only 32 percent of voters approve of his performance.

(More here.)

A Defiant Rancher Savors the Audience That Rallied to His Side

BUNKERVILLE, Nev. — Cliven Bundy stood by the Virgin River up the road from the armed checkpoint at the driveway of his ranch, signing autographs and posing for pictures. For 55 minutes, Mr. Bundy held forth to a clutch of supporters about his views on the troubled state of America — the overreaching federal government, the harassment of Western ranchers, the societal upheaval caused by abortion, even musing about whether slavery was so bad.
Most of all, Mr. Bundy, 67, who was wearing a broad-brimmed white cowboy hat against the hot afternoon sun, recounted the success of “we the people” — gesturing to the 50 supporters, some armed with handguns and rifles, standing in a semicircle before him — at chasing away Bureau of Land Management rangers who, acting on a court order, tried to confiscate 500 cattle owned by Mr. Bundy, who has been illegally grazing his herd on public land since 1993.
“They don’t have the guts enough to try to start that again for a few years,” Mr. Bundy said in an interview.
Protesters claiming government overreach in Nevada paused to observe the national anthem. Credit Jason Bean/Las Vegas Review-Journal, via Associated Press
Mr. Bundy’s standoff with federal rangers — propelled into the national spotlight in part by steady coverage by Fox News — has highlighted sharp divisions over the power of the federal government and the rights of landowners in places like this desert stretch of Nevada, where resentment of Washington and its sprawling ownership of Western land has long run deep.

(More here.)

Southerners Don’t Like Obamacare ...

They Also Don’t Want to Repeal It

APRIL 23, 2014

Despite strong dislike of President Obama’s handling of health care, a majority of people in three Southern states – Kentucky, Louisiana and North Carolina – would rather that Congress improve his signature health care law than repeal and replace it, according to a New York Times Upshot/Kaiser Family Foundation poll.

The poll also found that a majority of Kentucky residents – and a plurality in a fourth state, Arkansas — said they thought the health care marketplace in their state was working well, even as they expressed strong disapproval of the health care law. More than twice as many Kentuckians say their state exchange is working well than say it is not.

The findings in the four states — all with political races that could tip the balance of power in the Senate — underscore the complex and often contradictory views of Mr. Obama’s principal domestic legislation four years after it became law.

Most people still loathe the law. Questions about it may evoke associations with an unpopular president, the remoteness of Washington from ordinary Americans and extra costs in family budgets. But majorities say they do not want it taken away, even in states that lean Republican in presidential elections.

(More here.)

F.B.I. Informant Is Tied to Cyberattacks Abroad

APRIL 23, 2014

WASHINGTON — An informant working for the F.B.I. coordinated a 2012 campaign of hundreds of cyberattacks on foreign websites, including some operated by the governments of Iran, Syria, Brazil and Pakistan, according to documents and interviews with people involved in the attacks.

Exploiting a vulnerability in a popular web hosting software, the informant directed at least one hacker to extract vast amounts of data — from bank records to login information — from the government servers of a number of countries and upload it to a server monitored by the F.B.I., according to court statements.

The details of the 2012 episode have, until now, been kept largely a secret in closed sessions of a federal court in New York and heavily redacted documents. While the documents do not indicate whether the F.B.I. directly ordered the attacks, they suggest that the government may have used hackers to gather intelligence overseas even as investigators were trying to dismantle hacking groups like Anonymous and send computer activists away for lengthy prison terms.

The attacks were coordinated by Hector Xavier Monsegur, who used the Internet alias Sabu and became a prominent hacker within Anonymous for a string of attacks on high-profile targets, including PayPal and MasterCard. By early 2012, Mr. Monsegur of New York had been arrested by the F.B.I. and had already spent months working to help the bureau identify other members of Anonymous, according to previously disclosed court papers.

(More here.)

At Northwestern, a Blitz to Defeat an Effort to Unionize


EVANSTON, Ill. — A National Labor Relations Board official took a historic step last month in ruling that Northwestern’s scholarship football players should be considered employees of the university and therefore had the right to unionize like other workers.

And then, almost immediately, Northwestern began a wide-ranging campaign to defeat a unionization vote, which is scheduled for Friday.

The president emeritus publicly said that a vote for the union could mean the end of Division I sports at Northwestern. A former quarterback visited the team to encourage players to vote no. Coach Pat Fitzgerald, a former football star who is revered on campus, has framed a vote for the union as a personal betrayal.

“Understand that by voting to have a union, you would be transferring your trust from those you know — me, your coaches and the administrators here — to what you don’t know — a third party who may or may not have the team’s best interests in mind,” Fitzgerald wrote to the team in an email.

(More here.)

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Study questions Obamacare impact on canceled plans

By: Sarah Wheaton,
April 23, 2014 07:16 PM EDT

Millions of the plans that were canceled because they did not meet Affordable Care Act requirements probably would have been canceled anyway — by the policyholders, a new study suggests.

Last fall, as cancellation letters arrived in mailboxes around the country, opponents of the law cited them as evidence that President Barack Obama had lied to Americans when he promised, “If you like your health care plan, you can keep it.”

But most individuals who lost plans probably would not have continued them even without the law, according to the study, which was published online Wednesday in Health Affairs. Its author questions whether those cancellations contributed much to the nation’s ranks of short-term uninsured.

The study looked at people who bought non-group, or individual, insurance plans — a market that was relatively unstable even before Obamacare took effect. Between 2008 and 2011, fewer than half the people who started out with such coverage still had it after a year. And 80 percent of those who changed policies had a new plan within a year, usually through an employer, the study found.

(More here.)

The Pay Gap Is Because of Gender, Not Jobs

Claire Cain Miller, NYT
APRIL 23, 2014

Do women get paid less than men because they choose to, by gravitating to lower-paying jobs like teaching and social work?

That is what some Republicans who voted down the equal pay bill this month would have you believe. “There’s a disparity not because female engineers are making less than male engineers at the same company with comparable experience,” the Republican National Committee said this month. “The disparity exists because a female social worker makes less than a male engineer.”

But a majority of the pay gap between men and women actually comes from differences within occupations, not between them — and widens in the highest-paying ones like business, law and medicine, according to data from Claudia Goldin, a Harvard University labor economist and a leading scholar on women and the economy.

“There is a belief, which is just not true, that women are just in bad occupations and if we just put them in better occupations, we would solve the gender gap problem,” Dr. Goldin said.

(More here.)

Palestinian Factions Announce Deal on Unity Government

APRIL 23, 2014

JERUSALEM — The two main Palestinian factions announced an agreement on Wednesday to heal a seven-year schism and form a unity government within five weeks that would prepare for Palestinian elections six months later.

The two groups — the Palestine Liberation Organization, which runs the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and Hamas, the militant Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip — have reached similar accords before that were never carried out. But the latest deal comes as the fragile American-brokered peace efforts between the Palestinians and Israel are approaching an April 29 deadline without a resolution in sight. People familiar with the discussions have said the Israeli and Palestinian sides were far apart even on how to extend the talks past the deadline.

Ismail Haniya, the prime minister of the Hamas government in Gaza, said at a news conference here, “I announce to our people the news that the years of split are over.”

Israel responded to the announcement by canceling a meeting among the peace negotiators that was scheduled for Wednesday night. An Israeli with knowledge of the talks said that though it was not yet clear how the reconciliation would ultimately affect the talks, “it introduces a huge complication” at a critical juncture and “takes the winds out of the sails.”

(More here.)

Does race motivate some Obama critics?

By Leonard Pitts Jr. Miami Herald

I have a question for George Will.

If he can’t answer it, maybe Brit Hume can. Both men were recently part of a panel on Fox News Sunday to which moderator Chris Wallace posed this question: Has race played a role in the often-harsh treatment of President Obama and Attorney General Holder? Wallace was reacting to a clip of Holder strongly hinting that a testy encounter with House Republicans was part of a pattern of race-based abuse of himself and the president.

Some of the panelists framed their answers in political dimensions, i.e., what does this mean for the midterms? But Hume and Will responded directly.

Has race played a part? Heck no.

Said Hume: “This strikes me as kind of crybaby stuff from Holder. My sense about this is that both Eric Holder and Barack Obama have benefited politically enormously from the fact that they are African-American and the first to hold the jobs that they hold.”

“Look,” added Will, “liberalism has a kind of Tourette's syndrome these days. It's just constantly saying the word ‘racism’ and ‘racist.’ It’s an old saying in the law: If you have the law on your side, argue the law, if you have the facts on your side, argue the facts. If you have neither, pound the table. This is pounding the table.”

(More here.)

IRS Has Targeted Progressive Groups More Than Tea Party

By Josh Israel and Adam Peck, ThinkProgress, on April 23, 2014 at 12:56 pm

A series of IRS documents, provided to ThinkProgress under the Freedom of Information Act, appears to contradict the claims by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and his House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that only Tea Party organizations applying for tax-exempt status “received systematic scrutiny because of their political beliefs.” The 22 “Be On the Look Out” keywords lists, distributed to staff reviewing applications between August 12, 2010 and April 19, 2013, included more explicit references to progressive groups, ACORN successors, and medical marijuana organizations than to Tea Party entities.

The IRS provided the heavily-redacted lists to ThinkProgress, after nearly a year-long search. From the earliest lists through 2012, the “historical” section of the lists encouraged reviewers to watch out for “progressive” groups with names like “blue,” as their requests for 501(c)(3) charitable status might be inappropriate. Their inclusion in this section suggests that the concern predates the initial 2010 list.

(More here.)

Rand Paul's Gibberish

By: Roger Simon,
April 22, 2014 07:44 PM EDT

CHICAGO — Let some candidates seek the middle. Rand Paul is comfortable in the muddle.

Some have said the junior senator from Kentucky is the most “intriguing” of the possible Republican presidential candidates for 2016.

But if he is the most intriguing, it is not because he is the most interesting. It is because it’s so hard to figure out just what he is saying.

Abortion? That ought to be easy for a conservative like Paul, right?

Not so fast there.

(More here.)

Tony Blair: West must take sides against growing threat of radical Islam

In keynote speech on Middle East, former PM blames Islamic extremism for failures of western intervention in region

Patrick Wintour, political editor, Wednesday 23 April 2014

Western military intervention in the Middle East has so far failed due to the distorting impact of an Islamic extremism so opposed to modernity that it could yet engender global catastrophe, Tony Blair warned on Wednesday in a keynote speech on the state of politics in the Middle East.

With support for intervention ebbing fast, especially in Britain, Blair urged a wilfully blind west to realise it must take sides and if necessary make common cause with Russia and China in the G20 to counter the Islamic extremism that lies at the root of all failures of western intervention.

He admitted there was now a desire across the west to steer clear at all costs following the bloody outcomes in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan, but said the extremism still represents the biggest threat to global security in the 21st century, saying it is holding back development across Africa and the Far East.

In a speech to Bloomberg in London on Wednesday, the former Labour prime minister claimed the west was reluctant to look unflinchingly at Islamic extremism because the world of politics is uncomfortable talking about religion.

(More here.)

Scandals Republicans Like

Thomas B. Edsall, NYT
APRIL 22, 2014

The decision by the I.R.S. to flag for special review applications for tax-exempt status from organizations with “Tea Party” or “patriot” in their names has provoked sustained outrage on the right for nearly a year.

Take the following American Thinker article by Karin McQuillan, which was published on March 7: “Democrats Unleash the I.R.S. Tyrant.”

“Democrats don’t actually want a free country any more, where others can disagree and sometimes win,” McQuillan writes. “Opposition is an outrage to these new Democrats. They think the first black president has the right to rule unopposed.”

“This is fascism,” McQuillan concluded. “Democrats want it.”

Even Peggy Noonan, writing in The Wall Street Journal, knows a conspiracy when she sees one: “We know we haven’t gotten near the bottom of the political corruption of that agency. We do not know who ordered the targeting of conservative groups and individuals, or why, or exactly when it began. We don’t know who executed the orders or directives. We do not know the full scope or extent of the scandal.”

(More here.)

Chemical weapons removal from Syria nearly complete

Monitors say the government of President Bashar Assad has shipped almost 90% of its chemical weapons materials out of Syria

By Patrick J. McDonnell, LA Times
9:06 PM PDT, April 22, 2014

BEIRUT — With its latest deadline days away, Syria is close to eliminating its stockpile of chemical weapons, monitors said Tuesday, an improbable accomplishment in the midst of civil war that is likely to diminish further the possibility of international intervention.

After a slow start that prompted U.S. accusations of stalling, the government of President Bashar Assad has shipped almost 90% of its chemical weapons materials out of the country, raising hope that it can finish the job by Sunday.

A United Nations plan that averted punitive U.S. airstrikes last year sets June 30 as the deadline for all of Syria's chemical weapons materials to be destroyed. But the first and hardest task has been shipping it out of the country through the Mediterranean port of Latakia.

The destruction of the weapons would be one of the few positive developments in three years of war that has left tens of thousands of Syrians dead and forced millions from their homes. And it would allow the Obama administration to claim a success in its response to the use of chemical weapons in suburbs of Damascus, the Syrian capital, last August.

(More here.)

Why Care About McCutcheon?

Mark Bittman, NYT
APRIL 22, 2014

In the food world, change from the ground up is all well and good. We desperately need cooks, gardeners, farmers and teachers. But we also need legislation. The recently passed and almost uniformly abysmal Farm Bill is a lesson in how legislation affects those of us working to change the chaotic so-called food “system.” Pittances were tossed at supporters of local and organic food, fortunes’ worth of agribusiness subsidies were maintained, and much-needed support for the country’s least well-off was slashed.

That’s a Republican-led Congress at work, but when it comes to supporting Big Ag and Big Food, most of the Democratic representatives from states where farm income matters most are not much better: While the majority of Big Ag’s financial support for candidates goes to Republicans, Democrats are close behind. For big-time change on a national scale, we need representatives who put the needs of a sustainable food system and all that goes with it ahead of those of the chemical and processed food manufacturers who are currently running the show.

The Republican-appointed majority of the Supreme Court probably doesn’t consider these issues when making decisions that affect the election system, but there’s nothing about that majority that indicates that it believes elections should be decided on a one-person-one-vote basis. The first indication of this was Citizens United, in which the court ruled that when it comes to campaign contributions, corporations can act as people. More recently, we’ve seen the Shelby v. Holder case, which gutted the Voting Rights Act and is allowing Republican-dominated states to try to restrict the ability of African-Americans, Latinos, students and the poor — most of whom vote Democratic — to access and vote at the polls.

Then there’s the McCutcheon decision of three weeks ago, another setback for campaign reform at a time when we need it most. In case you missed it: Shaun McCutcheon is a wealthy Alabamian who made his money in coal and spends some of it in support of political candidates. He felt it unfair that he could spend only $123,000 per two-year election cycle and, with the Republican National Committee, sued the Federal Election Commission to change that, claiming it was a violation of his First Amendment (free speech) rights.

(More here.)

It’s All About May 25

Thomas L. Friedman, NYT
APRIL 22, 2014

KIEV, Ukraine — The word “maidan” means “square” in Ukrainian and in Arabic. And the “Independence Maidan” of Kiev, like the “Tahrir Maidan” of Cairo, has been the scene of an awe-inspiring burst of democratic aspirations. The barricades of piled cobblestones, tires, wood beams and burned cars erected by Ukrainian revolutionaries are still there — indeed, it looks as if it could be the set of “Les Misérables” — and people still lay fresh flowers at the makeshift shrines for the more than 100 people killed in the Maidan by the old and now deposed regime here. Walking through it, though, I tried to explain to my host that, while I was incredibly impressed, a lot of Americans today have “Maidan fatigue” — too many dashed hopes for democracy in too many squares — from Afghanistan to Iran, Iraq to Egypt, Syria to Libya.

Get over it, Ukrainians tell me. Our revolution is different. There are real democratic roots here, real civil society institutions and the magnet of the European Union next door. With a little help, we can do this.

The more I learn here, the more I think they’re right. Something very consequential has happened here. In fact, I think the future of Ukraine is one of the most consequential foreign policy challenges of the Obama presidency because it will not only determine the future of Ukraine but of Russia.

It would have been nice if we could have forged a compromise with President Vladimir Putin of Russia that would have allowed Ukraine to gradually join the European Union and not threaten him. President Obama tried to find such a win-win formula. But Putin is not into win-win here. He is into win-lose. So he must lose, for the sake of Ukraine and Russia.

(More here.)

A Saint, He Ain’t

Maureen Dowd, NYT
APRIL 22, 2014

WASHINGTON — There were some disturbing elements to the Easter Mass I attended at Nativity, my childhood church.

The choral director sang “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “Danny Boy.” The pews were half-empty on the church’s most sacred day.

My sister reminisced about my christening, when the elderly Monsignor Coady turned away while he was dedicating me to the Blessed Virgin and I started rolling off the altar, propelling my gasping mother to rush up and catch me.

But it was most upsetting as a prelude to next Sunday. In an unprecedented double pontiff canonization, Pope John Paul II will be enshrined as a saint in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Basilica.

(More here.)

Putin and the Exile

by David Remnick, The New Yorker
April 28, 2014

In 1987, Joseph Brodsky, the singular Russian poet of his generation, delivered a lecture in Vienna entitled “The Condition We Call ‘Exile.’ ” He began with a gesture of humility. Brodsky had been forced to leave the Soviet Union in 1972, but it was his good fortune to reside in the Russian language no less than he did in his apartment on Morton Street. Working for the dictionary, he called it. He got academic jobs, won prizes, made new friends. Cruel fate, soft berth. So when he began his talk in Vienna it was with an overture to the “uncountable” exiles: the Turks in Germany, the Mexicans in Southern California, and the Pakistanis in Saudi Arabia searching for menial work; the Vietnamese boat people, “bobbing on high seas or already settled somewhere in the Australian outback.”

A week ago, as agents of Vladimir Putin’s regime made every crude effort to provoke civil war in eastern Ukraine, Sergei Guriev, a leading Russian economist, who had felt compelled to flee Moscow for Paris last year, made a similarly humble gesture. He was in a privileged exile of his own—April in Paris—stirring a café crème at Les Deux Magots, the pleasant redoubt of intellectual ghosts and museum-weary tourists, on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. He has secured a tenured position at the esteemed Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris––the Sciences Po—and taken an apartment in town. His wife, Ekaterina Zhuravskaya, who is also an economist, and his two young kids are thriving. Before fleeing, he wrote to a friend, “Better Paris than Krasnokamensk,” the site of a notorious Russian prison. “If you are going to be an exile,” he said at Les Deux Magots, “this is a very pleasant place to do it.”

Guriev left Russia after being subjected to a series of interrogations, search warrants, and dark warnings concerning his person. Before that, he led one of the most prestigious academic institutes in Moscow, served on numerous corporate boards, and gave frequent counsel to the Russian leadership, including Putin. He was a member of the credentialled, globalized Moscow élite. But he put it all at risk by giving his support to leaders of the anti-Kremlin marches of 2011 and 2012; by speaking up for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oligarch who spent a decade in prison; and by praising the anti-corruption crusades of Alexei Navalny, who is now under house arrest in Moscow.

(Continued here.)

Tom Steyer: I’m not the Koch brothers

By: Andrew Restuccia,
April 22, 2014 06:40 PM EDT

Liberal billionaire Tom Steyer insisted Tuesday that he’s not the left’s version of the Koch brothers.

“That is not something I embrace. I think there are real distinctions between the Koch brothers and us,” Steyer said in an interview with POLITICO and The Washington Post taped for C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers,” which will air on Sunday.

Steyer, who hopes to use his vast personal fortune to make climate change a top priority in the upcoming midterm elections, said he’s not entering politics for personal gain.

Charles and David Koch’s priorities “line up perfectly with their pocketbooks — and that’s not true for us,” Steyer said.

(More here.)

Implants as Thin as Tattoos and Devices That Dissolve in the Body

Bionics to Track Your Health

By Robert Lee Hotz, WSJ
April 21, 2014 5:46 p.m. ET

At laboratories in the U.S., Switzerland, and Korea, bioengineers are developing unusually flexible ultrathin electronics that promise to free medical diagnostics from the clinical tethers of cables and power cords, to make the mechanics of measuring vital signs more intimate. Robert Lee Hotz reports.

Imagine a digital tattoo that transmits skin temperature; a transparent sensor on a contact lens that tests for glaucoma; a pliable pacemaker wrapped around a beating heart; and an implant that controls pain after surgery, then dissolves harmlessly when it is no longer needed.

Each one is an experiment under way today in the biophysics of personal medicine.

At laboratories in the U.S., Switzerland, and Korea, bioengineers are developing unusually flexible ultrathin electronics that promise to free medical diagnostics from the clinical tethers of cables and power cords, to make measuring vital signs more intimate and effective. Unlike today's rigid computer semiconductor chips, these bionics are designed to stretch, fold and bend without breaking. They are curvy and soft like much of the body itself.

"It is such a different way of thinking about electronics, making things stretchy," said material scientist John A. Rogers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who helped pioneer the technology. "There are a lot of things in human health care that we could do with these that are impossible today."

(More here.)

The American Middle Class Is No Longer the World’s Richest

By David Leonhardt and Kevin Quealy, NYT
APRIL 22, 2014

The American middle class, long the most affluent in the world, has lost that distinction.

While the wealthiest Americans are outpacing many of their global peers, a New York Times analysis shows that across the lower- and middle-income tiers, citizens of other advanced countries have received considerably larger raises over the last three decades.

After-tax middle-class incomes in Canada — substantially behind in 2000 — now appear to be higher than in the United States. The poor in much of Europe earn more than poor Americans.

The numbers, based on surveys conducted over the past 35 years, offer some of the most detailed publicly available comparisons for different income groups in different countries over time. They suggest that most American families are paying a steep price for high and rising income inequality.

(More here.)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Government = Protection Racket for the 1 Percent

Bill Moyers, HufPost

Updated: 04/22/2014 4:59 pm EDT

The evidence of income inequality just keeps mounting. According to "Working for the Few," a recent briefing paper from Oxfam, "In the US, the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer."

Our now infamous one percent own more than 35 percent of the nation's wealth. Meanwhile, the bottom 40 percent of the country is in debt. Just this past Tuesday, the 15th of April -- Tax Day -- the AFL-CIO reported that last year the chief executive officers of 350 top American corporations were paid 331 times more money than the average US worker. Those executives made an average of $11.7 million dollars compared to the average worker who earned $35,239 dollars.As that analysis circulated on Tax Day, the economic analyst Robert Reich reminded us that in addition to getting the largest percent of total national income in nearly a century, many in the one percent are paying a lower federal tax rate than a lot of people in the middle class. You may remember that an obliging Congress, of both parties, allows high rollers of finance the privilege of "carried interest," a tax rate below that of their secretaries and clerks.

And at state and local levels, while the poorest fifth of Americans pay an average tax rate of over 11 percent, the richest one percent of the country pay -- are you ready for this? -- half that rate. Now, neither Nature nor Nature's God drew up our tax codes; that's the work of legislators -- politicians -- and it's one way they have, as Chief Justice John Roberts might put it, of expressing gratitude to their donors: "Oh, Mr. Adelson, we so appreciate your generosity that we cut your estate taxes so you can give $8 billion as a tax-free payment to your heirs, even though down the road the public will have to put up $2.8 billion to compensate for the loss in tax revenue."

(More here.)

Cliven Bundy's militiamen are neither terrorists nor patriots

By David Horsey, LA Times
5:00 AM PDT, April 22, 2014

Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy is a scofflaw with screwy ideas about the Constitution, and the armed oddballs who have joined his skirmish with the Bureau of Land Management are a nutty vanguard of the deluded conspiracy-mongers who dominate the far right wing in American politics. Given their actions, they do not deserve to be called patriots, but neither are they terrorists.

They have been characterized as both. Appearing together on a TV news show, Nevada’s two U.S. senators disagreed about the nature of the armed men who scared off federal agents as they attempted to confiscate Bundy’s cattle. Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, the majority leader, called them “domestic terrorists.” In response, Republican Sen. Dean Heller said, “What Sen. Reid may call domestic terrorists, I call patriots.”

Reid went too far. The two brothers who bombed the Boston Marathon were terrorists. The anti-government militants who blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City were terrorists. The neo-Confederates itching for a fight with the BLM are just amped-up rednecks with visions of glory and too much talk radio in their brains.

But Heller is wrong too. The guys with guns are not patriots. They, like Bundy, are lawbreakers. In most parts of the country — particularly in non-white neighborhoods — anyone pointing an automatic weapon at a policeman will quickly find himself in jail, if he isn’t shot down first. Bundy’s so-called militia set up a picket line on a freeway overpass and aimed AR-15s and AK-47s at federal agents. They got away with it and are now gloating about their “victory.”

(More here.)

On climate change, follow the science

by Leigh Pomeroy and Christopher Ruhland

Dr. Christopher Ruhland teaches and researches plant physiology and terrestrial ecology, especially in relation to climate change, at Minnesota State University Mankato. Leigh Pomeroy teaches film at Minnesota State University Mankato, is president of the Mankato Area Environmentalists and sits on the Region Nine Renewable Energy Task Force.

Within the past year our local newspaper, the Mankato Free Press, has published several op-eds on climate change containing statements that are scientifically inaccurate. This is unfortunate for readers who are interested in finding the truth on this most pressing issue.

This is especially made significant by the just-released report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body that puts together, evaluates and represents the peer-reviewed climate change research performed by climate scientists across the planet.

In short, that report reiterates even more strongly than previous reports the consensus of climate scientists that:
  • The earth's climate is changing in ways that cannot be explained by natural fluctuations alone.
  • Overall the planet is warming.
  • The oceans are warming and becoming more acidic.
  • Severe weather events are becoming more frequent.
The reason for these aberrations, according to the climate scientists, can only be attributed to humankind's impact on the atmosphere through the transfer primarily of carbon but also compounds like methane and nitrous oxide from the earth to the atmosphere.

Human effect on the environment is not new. Civilizations have risen and fallen due to human intervention in natural processes. Local weather (even climate) has been affected by humans draining bodies of water (like the Aral Sea in Russia) and the burning of prairies (as in the western U.S.). But only since the onset of the industrial revolution, which has brought about the wholesale transfer of carbon from natural resources like coal and oil to the atmosphere, have we seen mankind's effect on worldwide climate.

This research has been verified and acknowledged by such U.S. agencies as the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

It has also been confirmed by nearly 200 scientific organizations worldwide, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society, the American Geophysical Union, the National Geographic Society, the American Meteorological Society, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Science Foundation.

Because of the stress that climate change puts on the world's water systems, such highly regarded research institutions as the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution have expressed grave concerns about the future of our oceans and the life therein.

Further, many U.S. and worldwide health organizations have called for action on climate change, including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization.

Business interests, which have historically been conservative, have taken climate change into account in their future planning and called for government action. These include the International Monetary Fund, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the Reinsurance Association of America, and the World Bank.

Thus, those saying that climate change is not occurring or that, if it is, mankind does not have a part in causing it are a tiny minority.

Of course, scientific denial is not new. Galileo was imprisoned for asserting that the earth rotated around the sun instead of vice versa. And there are still those today who claim that the earth is only 6,000 years old or that evolution does not exist.

Because the consensus on anthropogenic climate change is so recent — that is, within the last couple of decades — can we thus blame the denialists for attempting to mislead the general public? Some we certainly can, for example:
  • Business interests whose profit motive exceeds their concern for the planet's future.
  • Politicians whose election depends upon donations from those business interests.
  • "Think tanks" whose funding likewise comes from those interests.
  • Pundits and authors whose income depends upon their writing or broadcasting climate change denialism.
The Free Press might assert that by publishing "both sides of the issue" the newspaper is only being fair. But there is a fine line between being fair and being accurate. Part of the media's job is to verify the accuracy of their contributors' sources. Unfortunately, in the world of today's media circus, accuracy has too often fallen by the wayside.

This battle will continually be fought as long as we have media. But at least one major newspaper has taken a stand on the climate change issue. Paul Thornton, the opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times, recently clarified his paper's policy: "Saying ‘there's no sign humans have caused climate change’ is not stating an opinion, it's asserting a factual inaccuracy."

To this we very much agree.

(A slightly edited version of this piece was published in the Mankato Free Press on Tuesday, April 22.)

Verizon Data Breach Report: Payment-Card Theft Can Be Avoided at Little Cost

By Danny Yadron, WSJ

There were nearly 200 hacks last year of the payment systems used by retailers, hotels and restaurants. Most of them could have been prevented without spending much money, according to a new report from Verizon’s cybersecurity team.

The theft of 40 million credit and debit card numbers from Target last year raised new questions about whether companies that handle personal information spend enough on cybersecurity. Information protection has turned into a $70 billion market with a slew of new firms offering new security gadgets and services.

But in its annual report on the scope of cybercrime, Verizon suggests basic hygiene at major retailers could go a long way in protecting payment systems.

Some of the suggestions seem pretty basic.

(Continued here.)

The mentality of J Edgar Hoover’s FBI undergirds today’s surveillance state

People forget that the FBI is the NSA's primary partner in domestic spying, which allows them to work in secret

Trevor Timm, The Guardian

The new docmentary 1971, about the formerly anonymous FBI burglars who exposed the crimes of former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, debuted to a rapt audience at the Tribeca film festival last night. As the filmmakers noted in an interview with the AP, the parallels between Nixon-era FBI whistleblowers and Edward Snowden's NSA revelations are almost eerie in their similarity.

But while the NSA connection seems obvious, the movie will actually shed light on the domestic intelligence agency with far more power over ordinary Americans: the modern FBI.

Everyone seems to forget that the FBI is the NSA's primary partner in the latter's domestic spying operations and that, in fact, the NSA's job would be impossible without them. Whenever you see a company deny giving any data to the NSA remember: It's because it's not the NSA asking (or demanding) the information of them, it's the FBI. They use the same Patriot Act authorities that the NSA does, and yet we have almost no idea what they do with it.

In fact, the FBI has gone to extreme lengths to just keep their surveillance methods a secret from the public, just like the NSA. And the more we learn, the scarier it gets.

(More here.)

Autism and the Agitator

Frank Bruni, NYT
APRIL 21, 2014

What do you call someone who sows misinformation, stokes fear, abets behavior that endangers people’s health, extracts enormous visibility from doing so and then says the equivalent of “Who? Me?”

I’m not aware of any common noun for a bad actor of this sort. But there’s a proper noun: Jenny McCarthy.

For much of the past decade, McCarthy has been the panicked face and intemperate voice of a movement that posits a link between autism and childhood vaccinations and that badmouths vaccines in general, saying that they have toxins in them and that children get too many of them at once.

Because she posed nude for Playboy, dated Jim Carrey and is blond and bellicose, she has received platforms for this message that her fellow nonsense peddlers might not have. She has spread the twisted word more efficiently than the rest.

(More here.)

A Putin affiliate evokes Hitler

The West should be worried

By Richard Cohen, WashPost, Published: April 21

Is Andranik Migranyan right?

The head of a think tank associated with Vladimir Putin wrote the following in response to critics who liken the Russian president to Adolf Hitler and what he did so long ago: “One must distinguish between Hitler before 1939 and Hitler after 1939. The thing is that Hitler collected [German] lands. If he had become famous only for uniting without a drop of blood Germany with Austria, Sudetenland and Memel, in fact completing what Bismarck failed to do, and if he had stopped there, then he would have remained a politician of the highest class.”

Migranyan’s comment, published in a Russian newspaper, has received quite a bit of attention, both because of his position and for its chilling content. There is no doubt that Hitler crossed a line in September 1939 when he invaded Poland, finally forcing Britain and France to go to war. (Maybe Migranyan remembers that the Soviet Union also invaded Poland.) Up to then, Hitler had mostly satisfied himself with collecting the lands of German-speaking peoples — Austria, the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia, etc. — although Poland also had a substantial German minority.

If something like this is what Putin has in mind — gathering Russian-speaking people under his rule — then Migranyan seems to be saying: What’s the big deal? What he does not mention, though, is that by 1939 Hitler was already engaged in killing Jews, dissidents, communists, homosexuals and, that year, the mentally and physically feeble. Kristallnacht, a government-sanctioned pogrom, occurred in 1938; the Nuremberg laws, depriving Jews of their civil rights, were promulgated in 1935; and Germany was rapidly re-arming, in violation of its treaty obligations. It was, way before 1939, an outlaw state vigorously engaged in murder.

(More here.)

Wage Theft Across the Board

APRIL 21, 2014

When labor advocates and law enforcement officials talk about wage theft, they are usually referring to situations in which low-wage service-sector employees are forced to work off the clock, paid subminimum wages, cheated out of overtime pay or denied their tips. It is a huge and underpoliced problem. It is also, it turns out, not confined to low-wage workers.

In the days ahead, a settlement is expected in the antitrust lawsuit pitting 64,613 software engineers against Google, Apple, Intel and Adobe. The engineers say they lost up to $3 billion in wages from 2005-9, when the companies colluded in a scheme not to solicit one another’s employees. The collusion, according to the engineers, kept their pay lower than it would have been had the companies actually competed for talent.

The suit, brought after the Justice Department investigated the anti-recruiting scheme in 2010, has many riveting aspects, including emails and other documents that tarnish the reputation of Silicon Valley as competitive and of technology executives as a new breed of “don’t-be-evil” bosses, to cite Google’s informal motto.

The case essentially alleges white-collar wage theft. The engineers were not victimized by the usual violations of labor law, but by improper hiring practices against their interests. The result, however, was the same: Money that would have flowed to workers in the form of wages went instead into corporate coffers and from there to executives and shareholders.

(More here.)

Justice Stevens Suggests Solution for ‘Giant Step in the Wrong Direction’

APRIL 21, 2014

WASHINGTON — Justice John Paul Stevens, who turned 94 on Sunday, is a mild man with an even temperament. He has a reverence for the Supreme Court, on which he served for almost 35 years until his retirement in 2010, and he is fond of his former colleagues.

But there was a hint of anger in some of his remarks when I went to see him last week in his Supreme Court chambers. He said the court had made a disastrous wrong turn in its recent string of campaign finance rulings.

“The voter is less important than the man who provides money to the candidate,” he said. “It’s really wrong.”

He talked about what he called a telling flaw in the opening sentence of last month’s big campaign finance ruling. He filled in some new details about the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that led to the Citizens United decision. And he called for a constitutional amendment to address what he said was the grave threat to American democracy caused by the torrent of money in politics.

Last month’s decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission struck down aggregate contribution limits, allowing rich people to make donations to an unlimited number of federal candidates.

(More here.)

The death of the Sunday shows

By: Dylan Byers,
April 21, 2014 07:03 PM EDT

The Sunday morning shows once occupied a sacred space in American politics.

Today, many influential Washington players can’t even remember the last time they watched.

The public affairs shows — “Meet the Press,” “Face the Nation” and “This Week” — used to set the agenda for the nation’s capital with their news-making interviews and immensely influential audience. Now the buzz around the shows is more likely to center on gossipy criticism about the hosts, notably “Meet the Press’s” David Gregory, whose fate has become an incessant subject of conversation, most recently in a Washington Post story on Monday. Meanwhile, fans complain about the recurrence of familiar guests — Sen. John McCain again? — who simply relay party talking points that often go unchallenged.

“For political junkies and those who just want to catch up, the Sunday shows still are relevant, but they’re not the signature events they once were,” Tom Brokaw, the NBC News veteran who briefly moderated “Meet the Press” in 2008, said in an interview. “I first appeared on ‘Meet the Press’ during Watergate, and it was a secular mass in Washington; the faithful never missed it.”

(More here. My wife still watches the Sunday morning news shows. The only time I watch them is when I bring my Sunday breakfast upstairs. What impresses — or depresses — me most is that the shows feature all the same players from a decade or more ago. No new faces, no new ideas, the same old shouting and interrupting. Then there's also the problem with the wholesale disregard of facts. Ho hum. It's just an old-fashioned circus with the clowns at center stage. — LP)

Russia Displays a New Military Prowess in Ukraine’s East

APRIL 21, 2014

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry has accused Russia of behaving in a “19th-century fashion” because of its annexation of Crimea.

But Western experts who have followed the success of Russian forces in carrying out President Vladimir V. Putin’s policy in Crimea and eastern Ukraine have come to a different conclusion about Russian military strategy. They see a military disparaged for its decline since the fall of the Soviet Union skillfully employing 21st-century tactics that combine cyberwarfare, an energetic information campaign and the use of highly trained special operation troops to seize the initiative from the West.

“It is a significant shift in how Russian ground forces approach a problem,” said James G. Stavridis, the retired admiral and former NATO commander. “They have played their hand of cards with finesse.”

The abilities the Russian military has displayed are not only important to the high-stakes drama in Ukraine, they also have implications for the security of Moldova, Georgia, Central Asian nations and even the Central Europe nations that are members of NATO.

(More here.)

The U.S. Military Is a Socialist Paradise

Jacob Siegal, the Daily Beast

It may come as an unwelcome surprise to conservatives, but America’s military has one of the only working models of collective living and social welfare the country has ever known.

Every day before dawn, brave men and women of different races and backgrounds rise as one, united by a common cause. They march together in formation, kept in step by their voices joined in song. These workers leave their communal housing arrangements and go toil together “in the field.” While they are out doing their day’s labor, their young are cared for in subsidized childcare programs. If they hurt themselves on the job, they can count on universal health care. Right under your nose, on the fenced-in bases you drive past on your way to work or see on the TV news, a successful experiment in collectivization has been going on for years.

In an era defined by 13 years of continuous war, most Americans still seem to regard the U.S. military as a mysterious and remote way of life. Then a tragedy involving a soldier or veteran happens, and reliably experts come forward to explain the strange customs of the folkloric troop in its native habitat. Shame that so many of the experts seem to have barely a clue what the military is really like. They’ve studied it from a distance without getting a real feel for the customs and characteristics of the culture they’re eager to explain.

(More here.)

Monday, April 21, 2014

Why the GOP Needs a Return to the Bush Leagues

Bob Shrum, The Daily Beast

Does anyone really believe Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, or Chris Christie can contend against Hillary Clinton? At least Jeb, the establishment’s establishmentarian, would put up a fight.

The GOP may have to return to the Bush leagues.

Here’s why.

In presidential nominating contests, the Republican establishment has always won out—from the first Bush, to the tried but tired Dole, to W., then McCain, and most recently Romney, who nonetheless had to labor mightily to emerge from the weakest field of candidates in either party, ever. Really, Rick Santorum? Although casino mogul Sheldon Adelson’s millions of misspent dollars propped him up, Romney, with even greater resources from the party’s long-reigning plutocrats, ground Santorum down over time and along the way dispatched the unthinkable Newt Gingrich. The journey was excruciatingly long for the establishmentarians and cost them more than they ever anticipated. But in the end, they had their way.

(More here.)

Panel Orders Release of Memo in Targeted Killing of Awlaki


A federal appeals panel in Manhattan ordered the release on Monday of key portions of a classified Justice Department memorandum that provided the legal justification for the targeted killing of a United States citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who had joined Al Qaeda and died in a 2011 drone strike in Yemen.

The unanimous three-judge panel, reversing a lower court decision, said the government had waived its right to keep the analysis secret in light of numerous public statements by administration officials and the Justice Department’s release of a “white paper” offering a detailed analysis of why targeted killings were legal.

“Whatever protection the legal analysis might once have had,” Judge Jon O. Newman wrote for the panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, “has been lost by virtue of public statements of public officials at the highest levels and official disclosure of the D.O.J. White Paper.”

The ruling stemmed from lawsuits filed under the Freedom of Information Act by The New York Times and two of its reporters, Charlie Savage and Scott Shane, and by the American Civil Liberties Union.

(More here.)

Yemen says strikes on al-Qaida base kill 55

By Associated Press, Updated: Monday, April 21, 3:56 PM

SANAA, Yemen — Yemeni forces, reportedly backed by U.S. drone strikes, hit al-Qaida militants for a second straight day Monday in what Yemen officials said was an assault on a major base of the terror group hidden in the remote southern mountains. The government said 55 militants were killed so far.

The sprawling base was a rare instance of a permanent infrastructure set up by al-Qaida’s branch in the country, Yemeni security officials said. Built over the past months, it includes a training ground, storehouses for weapons and food and vehicles used by the group to launch attacks, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release details to the press.

The assault appeared to be a significant escalation in the U.S. and Yemeni campaign against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the terror group’s powerful branch in the southern Arabian nation. The United States has been striking al-Qaida positions in the country heavily with drone strikes the past two years, trying to cripple the group after it was driven out of several southern cities it took over in 2011.

But the group has proven highly resilient, spreading around the country and working from mountain areas. In a show of the group’s boldness, a video recently posted on Islamic militant websites showed the group’s leader Nasser al-Wahishi meeting openly with a gathering of dozens of militants in the southern province of Abyan.

(More here.)