Saturday, September 7, 2013

10 Things that Could Go Very Wrong if We Attack Syria

1) Our strikes could result in heavy civilian casualties. It would be the bitterest of ironies if we struck Syria to punish Assad’s barbarism only to end up killing thousands of innocent civilians ourselves. The Pentagon is working up a target list with the express intent of limiting Syrian casualties. But the intelligence behind that list could be wrong — remember when we bombed the pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, or the Chinese embassy in Belgrade? — and we could hit a building full of civilians. Or a missile could malfunction. Or Assad could move civilians into the way of our strikes expressly to secure a propaganda coup.

2) Our strikes could result in Assad killing more civilians. Secretary of State John Kerry was clear before the Senate that he expects our strikes to weaken Assad’s position in the civil war. David Ignatius interviewed a rebel leader who said that the strikes “could change the balance of the civil war in Syria.”

We know that civilian casualties rise when civil wars turn against the regime. So if Assad feels more threatened after the strikes, and his forces begin massacring more innocents in an attempt to break the will of the opposition, what will we do then? Stand by, as long as they use conventional weapons? This is how escalation happens.

3) Our strikes could result in Assad killing more civilians with chemical weapons. If the regime is truly desperate and Assad (correctly) believes that the torturous congressional debate and low public support signal a limited appetite for engaging in Syria, Assad might respond to the bombs by doubling down on the attacks. The thinking here could be to telegraph defiance of the United States to his supporters and implacable, unstoppable ruthlessness to the opposition. Is it likely? Probably not. But it could happen. And then what will we do? The arguments being made before Congress certainly suggest that having committed ourselves to defending the ban on chemical weapons once, we have to keep defending it.

4) The attacks are so slight that Assad survives them easily and appears strengthened before the world. Sen. James Risch worried about this Tuesday. What “if we go in with a limited strike and, the day after or the week after or the month after, Assad crawls out of his rat hole and says, ‘Look, I stood up to the strongest power on the face of this Earth and I won?’ ” He asked.

Kerry replied that “Assad may be able to crawl out of the hole and say, look, I survived, but there’s no way that with reality and other assessments he’s going to be able to say he’s better off.” But perhaps reality and independent assessments don’t matter as much as the perception inside Syria. And predicting perceptions of the aftermath of airstrikes that haven’t happened yet is difficult at best.

5) “You bombed it, you own it.” The “Pottery Barn Rule” —- “you break it, you buy it” — became famous during the Iraq war. “You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people,” Colin Powell told President Bush before the invasion of Iraq. “You will own all their hopes, aspirations and problems. You’ll own it all.” (As it happens, that’s not the Pottery Barn’s rule. They simply write off broken merchandise as a loss.)


Syria isn’t Iraq. But a congressional force authorization followed by a bombing campaign will firmly involve us in Syria. It will make it much harder for us to say that what happens in Syria isn’t our problem. It will mean many more members of the Syrian opposition have contacts with Washington journalists and defense policymakers. The Obama administration believes it can send some missiles and be done with it. That may not prove true.

6) Reprisal. The Syrian army, Syrian army sympathizers, Syrian army allies like Hezbollah, or some other pro-Syrian — or at least anti-American — element could decide to exact revenge for our strikes in Syria by launching a terrorist attack against Americans somewhere else in the world. If 12 American tourists die after a Syria-related terrorist attack on an international hotel in the Middle East, what happens next? Do we mourn? Escalate? Is that a cost we’re willing to pay?

7) Assad falls and the chemical weapons end up in the wrong hands. Maybe our strikes do tip the balance against Assad, either by directly degrading his military strength or by emboldening the opposition. What happens to his chemical weapons then? The opposition almost certainly doesn’t know where they are. But Assad’s top loyalists do. And they’ll need to make some money fast …

8) Assad falls and is replaced by chaos. One reason the United States has been so careful to plan a limited strike is that though Assad is a monster, we’re not sure that he’ll be replaced by anyone better. Maybe our strikes unexpectedly tip the balance against Assad, but what comes next is chaotic jockeying between moderate and jihadist elements of the opposition, with a dose of revenge killings for good measure.

9) Assad falls and is replaced by something worse. Maybe our strikes unexpectedly tip the balance against Assad and the Al Nusra Front, which claims allegiance to al Qaeda, wins the resulting power struggle, or has a major role in the coalition. At Tuesday’s hearings, Kerry said he believes that unlikely. He said that recent data show that the number of “extremists” in the opposition is “lower than former expectations.” He also argued that “Syria historically has been secular, and the vast majority of Syrians, I believe, want to remain secular.”

But what if he’s wrong? The United States has officially designated Al Nusra a terrorist organization. Are we really going to be complicit in permitting them, or anyone like them, to take over Syria?

10) Escalation. Almost everything that could go wrong points towards the same ultimate response: Escalation. That could mean more bombing, or actual ground troops, or some combination. But the key fear behind intervening in Syria is that even constrained missions can unexpectedly break free of their limits.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Henry Rollins to Ann Coulter

Friday, June 21, 2013

Navy to Eliminate Approximately 750 Civilian Positions

According to an article in The Stars and Stripes, the US Navy plans to cut 745 civilian jobs due to budget cuts. The Navy could face as much as a $14 billion funding shortfall next fiscal year unless Congress removes automatic budget caps.

The cuts will affect bases in 20 states, the District of Columbia and Guam, as well as Italy, Greece and Cuba.

The exact nature of these cuts is unclear. Some employees may be offered an incentive package or early retirement, while some may be moved to vacant positions not scheduled for elimination.

(Read Article)

Syria’s World Heritage Sites Placed on ‘Danger’ List (via Environment News Service)
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia, June 20, 2013 (ENS) – The UNESCO World Heritage Committee has decided to place the six World Heritage sites of the Syrian Arab Republic on the List of World Heritage in Danger to draw attention to the risks posed by the conflict raging in the country. The danger listing is intended…

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Birmingham Music News (BFP style): FRIDAY QUICK LINKS: #musicalbham #CALENDAR #Birmin...

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Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Incarceration Epidemic

About one-fourth of all incarcerated people on Earth is in the U.S. That constitutes a public health problem.

The U.S. incarceration rate has more than quadrupled since 1980. It's now the highest in the world, just ahead of Russia and Rwanda. It is estimated that approximately 2.3 million Americans are now behind bars. This is about one-fourth of all the incarcerated people on Earth, though the U.S. represents only one-twentieth of the world's population. When the figures for those under probation and parole are added, about 1 in 18 U.S. men is under some form of monitoring or control. The figure for blacks is 1 in 11.

From a medical point of view, the number 2.3 million is huge. It is double the number of Americans infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. People in prison are much more likely to carry and contract a variety of communicable diseases, including tuberculosis, syphilis, and hepatitis B and C. Recent articles in The Atlantic have detailed horrible prison conditions and egregious abuses of mentally ill prisoners. From a medical perspective, putting someone in prison is putting them in harm's way.

Why have U.S. incarceration rates skyrocketed? The answer is not rising crime rates. In fact, crime rates have actually dropped by more than a quarter over the past 40 years. Some look at these statistics and find confirmation of their view that expanding prison populations reduces crime rates. In fact, however, these same decreases have occurred even in places where incarceration rates have remained unchanged.

New sentencing guidelines have been a key factor. They have reduced judges' discretion in determining who goes to jail and increased the amount of time convicts sentenced to jail spend there. A notable example is the so-called "three-strikes" law, which mandates sentences ranging from 25 years to life for many repeat offenders. Though championed as protecting the public, such sentences have resulted in long confinements for many non-violent offenders, who constitute half of all inmates.

Perhaps the single greatest contributor has been the so-called "war on drugs," which has precipitated a 12-fold increase in the number of incarcerated drug offenders. About 1.5 million Americans are arrested each year for drug offenses, one-third of whom end up in prison. Many are repeat offenders caught with small quantities of relatively innocuous drugs, such as marijuana, a type of criminal activity often referred to as "victimless."

Some sentencing laws seem little less than perverse. For example, in the 1980s, crack cocaine received a great deal of public attention. In response, the U.S. Congress passed legislation imposing a 100 to 1 sentencing ratio for possession of crack cocaine, as compared to its powdered form. That is, someone carrying 5 grams of crack cocaine would get the same sentence as someone carrying 500 grams of powdered cocaine. From a medical point of view, this makes little sense.

The costs of incarceration are high. For example, the state of California spends approximately $9,000 per year for each public school student it educates but over $50,000 per year for each inmate it keeps incarcerated. The proportion of the state budget devoted to imprisonment has been increasing at a rate much faster than that for education. Moreover, despite California's huge prison expenditures, its prisons recently held 140,000 prisoners in facilities designed for only 80,000.

Does prison do any good? This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Incarceration certainly works to prevent criminals from committing repeat offenses by removing them from contact with the public. It also provides retribution, satisfying some members of the public that the incarcerated are paying for their crimes. Anyone who visits a prison would be hard pressed to say that it does not represent a powerful form of punishment.

Yet it is difficult to make the case that so-called correctional institutions do much in the way of correcting, reforming, or rehabilitating inmates. The recidivism rate at 3 years post-release is about two-thirds, of which over half end up back in prison. The most important factor in preventing recidivism is not the amount of time people serve in prison, but the age at which they are set free. The older inmates are at the time of their release, the less likely they are to return.

Even the U.S. Congress admits that prison is ineffective at correcting and rehabilitating those convicted of crimes, and it has directed federal judges to avoid sending people to prison with this objective in mind. If we are the product of our environment, then prison, which puts people convicted of crimes in close daily contact with other criminals, might well cause more problems than it solves. Far from correcting and rehabilitating, prison itself may serve as a school for crime.

Perhaps some people do need to be incarcerated. However, it is difficult to argue that the numbers of such people has increased rapidly over the past 40 years, at the same time that the crime rate has fallen. In fact, there are good reasons to suppose that in many cases incarceration does more harm than good, and that those suffering this damage include not only criminals themselves but their families, their communities, and society as a whole.

The toll on families is clear. Incarceration converts two-parent families to one-parent families and one-parent families to no-parent families. Husbands are taken away from wives, and in many cases (over 100,000 inmates are juveniles) children are taken away from their parents. Incarceration itself causes suffering for families, who must do without their loved ones for long periods of time. The penumbra of its stigma can prove especially burdensome for children.

Incarceration also takes a big toll on communities. Its costs, both direct and indirect, are high, and it draws resources away from other equally or more worthy needs, such as education and healthcare. Some communities, particularly in inner cities, are devastated by incarceration. For example, blacks are incarcerated at nearly 6 times the rate of whites, and if current trends continue, nearly 1 in 3 black males born today can expect to be incarcerated at some point in life.

America likes to think of itself as the land of the free. In the mid-1800s, Alexis de Tocqueville, perhaps the greatest student of America, came here to study the U.S. prison system. Instead, he left enlightened and elevated by the American conception of freedom, and in response, he wrote Democracy in America. Were Tocqueville to visit again today, he might well complete his prison report, shaking his head that the land of the free has become the home of the jailed.

U.S. Naval Academy Charges Midshipmen with Sexual Assault

The U.S. Naval Academy preferred charges against three male midshipmen for sexual assault and making false statements. The accused are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — The U.S. Naval Academy on Wednesday charged three midshipmen — all current or former football players — with sexually assaulting a female student at an off-campus house in Annapolis more than a year ago.

The news release stated that the midshipmen are being charged with two violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice including rape, sexual assault or other sexual misconduct and making false official statements.

The academy did not identify the students. Although it is known that two of the students were football players this past season, though no longer on the team. Another, still on the team, but suspended pending the outcome of this case.

According to the accuser's attorney, the woman who reported the allegations was disciplined for drinking. She remains a student in good standing, however.

The athletes were allowed to continue playing.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

America's Private Prison System is a National Disgrace

An ACLU lawsuit against a prison in Mississippi is the latest to detail flagrant abuses at a private correctional facility.

The privatization of traditional government functions – and big government payments to private contractors – isn't limited to international intelligence operations like the National Security Agency. It's happening with little oversight in dozens of areas once the province of government, from schools to airports to the military. The shifting of government responsibilities to private actors isn't without consequence, as privatization often comes with a lack of oversight and a series of abuses. One particularly stunning example is the American prison system, the realities of which should be a national disgrace.

Some of those realities are highlighted in a recent lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of prisoners at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility (EMCF). EMCF houses severely mentally ill prisoners, with the supposed intent of providing both incarceration and treatment. Instead, the ACLU contends, the facility, which is operated by private contractors, is rife with horrific abuses. As the ACLU states, it is

"an extremely dangerous facility operating in a perpetual state of crisis, where prisoners live in barbaric and horrific conditions and their basic human rights are violated daily."

The complaint lists a litany of such horrors, but here are a few highlights: rampant rapes. Placing prisoners in solitary confinement for weeks, months or even years at a time, where the only way to get a guard's attention in an emergency is to set a fire. Rat infestations so bad that vermin crawl over prisoners; sometimes, the rats are captured, put on leashes and sold as pets to the most severely mentally ill inmates. Many suicide attempts, some successful. The untreated mentally ill throw feces, scream, start fires, electrocute themselves and self-mutilate. Denying or delaying treatment for infections and even cancer. Stabbings, beatings and other acts of violence. Juveniles being housed with adults, including one 16-year-old who was sexually assaulted by his adult cell mate. Malnourishment and chronic hunger. Officers who deal with prisoners by using physical violence.

One prisoner allegedly attempted to hang himself. He was cut down by guards, given oxygen and put on supervision, but wasn't taken to an emergency room, let alone given psychiatric care during the suicide watch. Without seeing a psychiatrist, his medication dosage was increased.

A severely ill 16-year-old with "a long history of being physically and sexually abused in addition to suffering from a traumatic brain injury, limited intellectual functioning, self-harm, and psychosis" was moved to EMCF from a juvenile detention center. His cell allegedly had a broken lock, and so other prisoners were able to enter. Five or six of them beat him. He was moved to a solitary confinement unit and, when he voiced his suicidal ideations and asked to see a psychiatrist, was deemed "manipulating to be moved".

Another told prison mental health staff that he was depressed and thinking about about suicide. The treatment plan from the prison psychologist was reportedly three words: "encourage behavioral compliance". After being asked to provide a urine specimen, which he could not give because of a health condition, the ACLU reports:

Mr. Roe began banging on his door, smeared blood on the cell door window, threatened to commit suicide, and tied a rope around his neck. Officers sprayed excessive amounts of Mace in his cell. According to witnesses, officers waited approximately 20 minutes before pulling Mr. Roe out of his cell. By that time, he was non-responsive and cyanotic. He was taken, his hands and feet bound by zip-ties, to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.

For several days after Mr. Roe's death, medical staff continued to 'document' in the daily segregation log that Mr. Roe appeared to be 'in good health and mood.'"

These kinds of abuses are not relegated to a single prison, but they also aren't inherent in any detention system. In the United States, though, they're business as usual. Our prison system is increasingly built and run by for-profit corporations, who have a financial interest in increasing the number of people in prison while decreasing the amount of money it costs to house them.

Since 1980, the US prison population has grown by 790%. We have the largest prison population of any nation in the history of the world. One in three African-American men will go to jail at some point in his life. Imprisoning that many people, most of them for non-violent offenses, doesn't come cheap, especially when you're paying private contractors. The United States now spends $50bn on our corrections system every year.

Much of that money goes to private contractors, who are doing quite well living off of American corporate welfare – at the expense of the American taxpayer, whose dollars are funding this mass incarceration project. Large-scale imprisonment isn't making us any safer, either. But it is putting small-time non-violent individuals – drug users and dealers – in close contact with more hardened criminals and making it significantly more difficult for them to find decent work after their release. That's a perfect recipe for recidivism, not rehabilitation.

Prisons, as demonstrated by the ACLU case, have also become de facto mass institutions for the mentally ill, except without the oversight that pure psychiatric facilities face. With states tightening their budgets, mental health care is being cut even further. While the mentally ill are more likely to be victims of crimes than victimizers, they are imprisoned at disproportionate rates, and often lack meaningful mental healthcare in prison and even face conditions that exacerbate their diseases, like solitary confinement and total squalor. We're effectively taking some of the most vulnerable members of society and subjecting them to ongoing torture.

We have so demonized criminals in the United States that there's widespread acceptance of the fact that jail in modern day America means rapes, beatings, vermin, filth and abuse. But to what end? "Criminals" are punished, yes – brutally, and in ways that should repel and shame us. But rehabilitation isn't happening in these facilities. Crime isn't being deterred; if anything, it's being fostered.

The American public is losing out. The only winners are the private companies who are still awarded contracts to build and maintain more prisons, and who throw their weight behind politicians who promote the supposedly "tough on crime" measures that ensure those prisons are full.

There are many ways to punish crime and protect the public. Ceding our humanity doesn't have to be one of them.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Most Dishonest Words in American Politics: 'Right to Work'

“Right to work” is the most dishonest phrase in American political discourse. It sounds like it’s defending people’s right to earn a living. But as used by its supporters, it means making it impossible for workers to form an effective union, couched in the language of “freedom” and “choice.”

Specifically, it means laws banning “union shops,” in which everyone in a workplace has to join the union or pay a fee to cover the cost of union representation. Twenty-four states have such laws. All were in the South and West until last year, when Indiana and Michigan enacted them. Michigan’s law was rammed through the Republican-dominated legislature in a lame-duck session last December.

The Michigan law was “pretty devastating for the labor movement,” says Erin Johansson of American Rights at Work. It came in the state where the United Auto Workers’ six-week occupation of General Motors plants in Flint in 1937 won the victory that opened the doors for unions throughout American industry, the state whose union labor defined the working-class prosperity of World War II to the 1970s.

Both Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Dick DeVos, the heir to the multibillion-dollar Amway fortune who bankrolled the campaign for the law, stuck to the party line about “freedom.” Snyder said the law would give workers “the freedom to choose” and unions “an opportunity to be more responsible to their workers,” because instead of automatically collecting dues, they’d have to show workers “a value proposition.”

“Absolute horseshit,” responds Ed Ott, former head of the New York City Central Labor Council. “This is a total offensive against workers. They don’t want workers to have any say. After workers vote for a union, they don’t want them to maintain membership.”

This year, “right to work” measures were introduced in 17 states, according to Peggy Shorey, director of state government relations at the AFL-CIO. Ten were defeated, including those in Missouri, Kentucky, and New Hampshire, where Gov. John Lynch vetoed one in 2011. Republicans in the Ohio legislature introduced one in early May, but the state senate president said he didn’t want to give Democrats an issue to raise funds on. (Ohio voters overwhelmingly overturned draconian limits on unions in 2011.) Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced one in January, but it hasn’t gotten a committee hearing.

“It’s striking that they were not successful in passing it in Missouri,” says Shorey. The most significant measures still pending, she says, are in North Carolina and Pennsylvania. In North Carolina, House Speaker Thom Tillis proposed making the state’s “right to work” law and a ban on public-worker unions an amendment to its constitution, after declaring that he wanted to keep North Carolina “the least unionized state in the United States.” In Pennsylvania, the sponsor is Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, chair of the State Government committee, who also sponsored the state’s voter-ID law and fulminates against “illegal alien invaders.”

Neither measure has made it out of committee, but “after Michigan, anything could happen,” warns Ott.

• •

The Michigan and Indiana laws came as part of the 2011–'12 offensive against worker rights in the upper Midwest, but the concept emerged after the great union victories of the late 1930s. The phrase “right to work” was coined in 1941 by William B. Ruggles, an editorial writer at the Dallas Morning News who didn’t want to join a union. His bosses feared that federal laws and regulations backing union rights were forcing unions down the throats of employers and socializing industry. Ruggles proposed a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to work with or without union membership.

Lobbyist Vance Muse, founder of an organization called the Christian Americans, picked up the campaign—but realized that it would be much easier to win state laws than a constitutional amendment. Without such a law, he argued. “white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.” He also said the law would help “good niggers, not these communist niggers.”

He won support from business groups, and Texas outlawed the union shop in 1943. Arkansas followed in 1944. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which restricted strikes and banned communists from being union officials, specifically allowed states to pass such laws, in its Section 14(b). By 1960, 18 states had done so, and Wyoming, Louisiana, Idaho, and Oklahoma trickled in over the next few decades.

In 1961, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “right to work” a “fraud,” saying that it “provides no ‘rights’ and no ‘works.’ ...Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining.” In 1965, the high-water mark of liberal power in Congress in the last 70 years, the House voted to repeal Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act, but a filibuster in the Senate preserved the provision.

In today’s network of anti-union think tanks and lobbying groups, the two most concerned with right to work are the National Right to Work Committee and its offshoots, based in Washington’s Virginia suburbs, and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, in Michigan.

The National Right to Work Committee, founded in 1955, has grown to include a legal offshoot, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, and the National Institute for Labor Relations Research. Reed Larson, who headed NRTWC for 45 years, touts the Foundation, established in 1968, as the nation’s first conservative litigating organization.

The committee proclaims that it is “dedicated to the principle that all Americans must have the right to join a union if they choose to,” but its masthead motto is “No one should have to be forced to pay tribute to a union boss to get or keep a job.”

Asked what these organizations have done to support the right to join a union, spokesperson Patrick T. Semmens says that there’s no risk that union membership will be outlawed, but “the right not to join or associate with a not currently the law and therefore is our focus.”

In practice, responds Erin Johansson, if a worker complains to the National Labor Relations Board that she was illegally fired for union activity, it can take eight or nine years to get her job back. “We have nothing now. We don’t have a functioning NLRB,” she adds.

Republicans in the Senate have filibustered President Obama’s nominees to the NLRB for years, to prevent if from having a majority that recognizes workers’ legal rights. If the vacant seats are not filled by August, the board won’t have a quorum. In January, a federal court said Obama’s recess appointments were unconstitutional, and voided rulings they participated in. The National Right to Work Foundation filed an amicus brief in that case, the result of a lawsuit filed by the Chamber of Commerce-backed Coalition for a Democratic Workplace.

The Foundation has won several Supreme Court decisions banning unions from using dues collected from nonmembers for activities not directly related to collective bargaining—that is, supporting pro-union candidates or legislation. It’s also represented people who don’t want to join unions or pay dues, and calls strikebreakers “courageous individuals.”

The Foundation’s list of “Big Labor’s Top Ten Special Privileges” includes just about anything that would make a union effective.

It claims that union “monopoly bargaining” is “depriving employees of the right to make their own employment contracts.” In other words, it denies them their right to ask for a raise on their own and not get one—or to undercut the union by agreeing to work for less.

It claims that unions have the privilege to “strong-arm employers into negotiations,” because “unlike all other parties in the economic marketplace, union officials can compel employers to bargain with them.” As opposed to employers’ right to ignore workers or tell them, “you’re fired, don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.”

It claims that union workers have the privilege to “refuse to work while keeping their job,” because they can’t be fired for going on strike. This isn’t exactly true. Employers can’t fire workers striking against unfair labor practices, but they can legally “replace” workers striking for more money. The union movement of the mid-20th century was strong enough so employers rarely did that until after 1981, when President Ronald Reagan fired striking air-traffic controllers. And if employers can fire striking workers, that makes it next to impossible to have a successful strike.

Semmens disagrees. “There were strikes before this special legal power was granted to organized labor,” he says. “Also, it wouldn’t be on that list if the same applied to nonunion workplaces, but currently it only applies to unions...hence it’s a special privilege.”

In reality, before federal law recognized union rights in 1935, many strikes ended with the workers being fired and blacklisted. One of the few that was partially successful was the “uprising of the 20,000,” a 10-week walkout by garment workers in New York in 1909–'10. Their employers refused to recognize the union, but gave the workers a raise and shorter hours.

On the other hand, the workers weren’t able to win stronger safety standards. One of the factories they struck was the Triangle Shirtwaist Company.

Since Reagan’s action, strikes have almost evaporated. In 1981, there were 145 major strikes, involving 729,000 workers, and that was one of the lowest numbers of the post-World War II era. Last year, there were 19 major strikes, by a total of 148,000 workers, and in 2009, there were five, by a mere 13,000 workers—the fewest since the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics started keeping records in 1947.

The Mackinac Center, a key backer of the Michigan right-to-work law, also denies that it’s anti-union, claiming that such laws don’t reduce unions’ bargaining leverage. On the other hand, its main complaint about union shops is that when workers can’t opt out of paying dues, “this gives unions a stronger voice at the bargaining table.”

Mackinac also supports eliminating government workers’ right to collective bargaining and opposes “prevailing wage” laws that require government-hired construction companies to pay union wages.

If one wants proof of the union slogan that “right to work” really means “right to work for less,” it’s in a book excerpt posted on the National Right to Work Committee’s Web site. In Stranglehold: How Union Bosses Have Hijacked Our Government, Reed Larson blames the New Deal for establishing the plague of “compulsory unionism.” He writes that the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, by setting minimum wages in various industries, “trampled the rights of workers” by denying them the freedom to make a contract to work for less money.

The Supreme Court, then profoundly anti-labor, agreed. In 1935, it held that the NIRA’s minimum wage was “an intolerable and unconstitutional interference with personal liberty and private property” because its effect, “in respect to wages and hours, is to subject the dissenting the will of the stated majority.”

For many on today’s far right, that decision represents a lost golden age of American jurisprudence. The dominant labor-law decision of the pre-1937 era was 1905’s Lochner v. New York, in which the Supreme Court ruled that a New York state law banning bakers from working more than 10 hours a day or 60 hours a week unconstitutionally infringed freedom of contract. It set a precedent used to rule against other wage-and-hour legislation and bans on “yellow-dog” contracts in which workers had to agree not to join unions. The Court also struck down laws against child labor.

The Court more or less overruled Lochner in 1937, when it upheld Washington state’s minimum-wage law in West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish. Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes wrote that the freedom to contract was not absolute, and that the law covered “a class of workers who are in an unequal position with respect to bargaining power, and are thus relatively defenseless against the denial of a living wage.” The “recent economic experience” of the Depression provided “an additional and compelling consideration,” Hughes added.

Current federal Judge Janice Rogers Brown, a George W. Bush appointee to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, told the Federalist Society in 2000 that this decision “marks the triumph of our own socialist revolution,” because it gave property rights “a second-class status.”

The National Right to Work Foundation fits well into this movement. Of its 15 staff lawyers, 11 are members of the Federalist Society, five either got their law degrees or have taught at the religious-right law schools of Regent University and Ave Maria, and three have worked or interned at Charles Koch organizations.

• • •

National Right to Work, the Mackinac Center, the Center for Union Facts, and the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, says Erin Johansson, are all “part of the web” of groups funded by the five main far-right foundations—the Waltons of Walmart’s Walton Family Foundation, the Coors family’s Castle Rock Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, and the John M. Olin Foundation.

“They’re an arm of companies,” she says. “Their intent is to destroy unions.”

Other major backers include Charles and David Koch, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the Chamber of Commerce, which has become “much more militant, committed to eradicating the New Deal” since the Reagan era, says Ed Ott.

The Michigan law resulted from an array of local circumstances, says John Armelagos, vice president of the Michigan Nurses Association. Tea Party Republicans gained control of the legislature and governorship in 2010. Last November’s defeat of a union-backed ballot initiative to make it a constitutional right for workers to join unions encouraged “right to work” forces, and the bill had to be passed before the incoming legislature took office, because Democrats had gained enough seats to defeat it. But it wouldn’t have gotten through if the union movement was politically stronger, says Ott. The loss of union blue-collar jobs—only 7 percent of private-sector workers are union members—isolates public-sector workers politically, he explains. Nonunion low-wage workers “don’t get that they’re the only ones without benefits.” 

The far right is good at “manipulating language” to get middle-class people to go against their interests, says Armelagos. “It’s not about the right to have a job. It drives down wages and increases income inequalities.”

The state AFL-CIO, the Michigan Education Association teachers’ union, and the state American Civil Liberties Union are challenging the law in court because it was passed without a public hearing, he adds. In the meantime, several unions, including the MEA and the Michigan Nurses Association, have gotten their contracts extended by five or six years in the hope that the law will be repealed by then.

The “right to work” network’s other main argument is that weakening unions stimulates job growth, that jobs are increasing in states with right-to-work laws. As companies often prefer to move to places with the lowest wages and the weakest safety regulations—witness the garment industry’s migration from the Triangle Shirtwaist Company to the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh over the last century—this makes sense, although Armelagos says, “companies are still moving out of Indiana.”

It’s harder to sell low wages to the public. In 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median weekly wage for union workers was $943 a week, compared to $742 for nonunion workers. To get around this, they argue that per capita income in “right to work” states, adjusted for the cost of living, is equal to, almost equal to, or more than it is in “forced union” states.

Texas has one of the highest per capita incomes in the nation once costs are factored in, the National Institute for Labor Relations Research claimed in April. However, that ignores how income is distributed, the difference between a billionaire in Dallas and a teacher in Austin or a convenience-store clerk in Waco. In the beginning of the Great Recession, seven of the 10 states with the worst gaps between the top and middle classes had “right to work” laws, and five of the 10 with the biggest gaps between rich and poor did, according to a 2012 study by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute. On the Gini coefficient of economic inequality, six of the 10 most extreme states in 2012 were “right to work.”

Texas made all three of those top 10s.

“There’s a wing of the conservative business community that will accept no opposition,” says Ed Ott. “They’re not committed to democratic forms. It’ all about profit and privilege.” Still, he warns that employers should be careful what they wish for. The labor laws of the 1930s, he says, were passed to ensure smooth production, giving workers rights and better pay in order to prevent disruptions—but “in the absence of legal protection, direct action’s what you learn to do.” The great sitdown strikes of 1937 would be illegal today.

However, he laments that “we have not developed an effective political opposition.”

Shorey is more optimistic. “Our members’ understanding of this issue has gotten really clear,” she says. “It’s really about going after everyone in the middle class, driving down wages, creating unsafe working conditions.”

“This fight ain’t over,” says John Armelagos.

Five Myths about Legalizing Marijuana

With 16 states having decriminalized or legalized cannabis for non-medical use and eight more heading toward some kind of legalization, federal prohibition’s days seem numbered. You might wonder what America will look like when marijuana is in the corner store and at the farmers market. In three years spent researching that question, I found some ideas about the plant that just don’t hold up.

1. If pot is legal, more people will use it.

As drug policy undergoes big changes, I’ve been watching rates of youth cannabis use with interest. As it is for most fathers, the well-being of my family is the most important thing in my life. Whether you like the plant or not, as with alcohol, only adults should be allowed to partake of intoxicating substances. But youth cannabis use is near its highest level ever in the United States. When I spoke at a California high school recently and asked, “Who thinks cannabis is easier to obtain than alcohol?,” nearly every hand shot up.

In Portugal, by contrast, youth rates fell from 2002 to 2006, after all drugs were legalized there in 2001. Similarly, a 2011 Brown University-led study of middle and high school students in Rhode Island found no increases in adolescent use after the state legalized medical marijuana in 2006.

As for adult use, the numbers are mixed. A 2011 University of California at Berkeley study, for example, showed a slight increase in adult use with de facto legalization in the Netherlands (though the rate was still lower than in the United States). Yet that study and one in 2009 found Dutch rates to be slightly lower than the European average. When the United States’ 40-year-long war on marijuana ends, the country is not going to turn into a Cheech and Chong movie. It is, however, going to see the transfer of as much as 50 percent of cartel profits to the taxable economy.

2. Law enforcement officials oppose legalization.

It is true that many law enforcement lobby groups don’t want to end America’s most expensive war (which has cost $1 trillion and counting), but that’s because they’re the reason it’s so expensive. In 2010, two-thirds of federal spending on the drug war, $10 billion, went toward law enforcement and interdiction.

But law enforcement rank and file know the truth about the drug war’s profligate and ineffective spending, says former Los Angeles deputy police chief Stephen Downing, one of 5,000 public safety professionals who make up the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. “Most law enforcers find it difficult not to recognize the many harms caused by our current drug laws,” he wrote to me in an e-mail. Those harms include, according to a new ACLU report, marijuana-possession arrests that are skewed heavily toward minorities.

Since marijuana prohibition drives the drug war, these huge costs would end when federal cannabis law changes. Sheriff Tom Allman in Mendocino County, Calif., helped permit, inspect and protect local cannabis farmers in 2010 and 2011. When I asked him why, he said: “This county has problems: domestic violence, meth, poverty. Marijuana isn’t even in the top 10. I want it off the front pages so I can deal with the real issues.”

3. Getting high would be the top revenue generator for the cannabis plant.

I called both of my U.S. senators’ offices to support inserting a provision into this year’s farm bill to legalize hemp for domestic cultivation. Based on my research on industrial cannabis, commonly called hemp, I’m staggered by the potential of this plant, which is not the variety you smoke.

In Canada, where 90 percent of the crop is bought by U.S. consumers, the government researches the best varieties for its hemp farmers, rather than refusing to issue them permits, as the United States tends to do. In a research facility in Manitoba, I saw a tractor whose body was made entirely of hemp fiber and binding. BMW and Dodgeuse hemp fibers in their door panels, and homes whose insulation and wall paneling are made partially of hemp represent a fast-growing trend in the European construction industry.

Jack Noel, who co-authored a 2012 industrial hemp task force report for the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, says that “within 10 years of the end of the war on drugs, we’ll see a $50 billion domestic hemp industry.” That’s bigger than the $40 billion some economists predict smoked cannabis would bring in.

Foods such as cereal and salad dressing are the biggest U.S. markets for hemp today, but industrial cannabis has the brightest future in the energy sector, where a Kentucky utility is planning to grow hemp for biomass energy.

4. Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol would control the legal cannabis industry.

In 1978, the Carter administration changed alcohol regulations to allow for microbreweries. Today the craft-beer market is worth $10.2 billion annually. The top-shelf cannabis farmers in California’s Emerald Triangle realize this potential. “We’re creating an international brand, like champagne and Parmigiano cheese,” says Tomas Balogh, co-founder of the Emerald Growers Association in Humboldt, Calif. Get ready for the bud and breakfast.

When America’s 100 million cannabis aficionados (17 million regular partakers) are freed from dealers, some are going to pick up a six-pack of joints at the corner store before heading to a barbecue, and others are going to seek out organically grown heirloom strains for their vegetable dip.

As Balogh puts it: “When people ask me if the small farmer or the big corporation will benefit from the end of prohibition, I say, ‘Both.’ The cannabis industry is already decentralized and farmer-owned. It’s up to consumers to keep it that way.” So Big Alcohol might control the corner store, but not the fine-wine shop or the farmers’ market.

5. In the heartland, legalization is a political nonstarter.

President Obama, in an interview last December, for the first time took seriously a question about the legalization of cannabis. He said that he didn’t yet support it but that he had “bigger fish to fry” than harassing Colorado and Washington.

In Colorado in 2012, 40 percent of Republican voters chose to legalize cannabis, and a greater share of Coloradans voted for legalization than voted for Obama.

In Arizona, a pretty conservative and silver state, 56 percent of those in a poll last month supported regulating cannabis for personal use. Maybe fiscal conservatives know about the $35 billion in annual nationwide tax savings that ending prohibition would bring. In Illinois, 63 percent of voters support medicinal marijuana, and they’re likely to get it. Even 60 percent of Kentuckians favor medical cannabis.

I’m not surprised. I live in a conservative valley in New Mexico. Yet as a woman in line at the post office recently told me: “It’s pills that killed my cousin. Fightin’ pot just keeps those dang cartels in business.”

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The End of the Solid South

The region's emerging majority is progressive. Its capitols are more conservative than ever. Something's got to give.

The final rally of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign took place on symbolically charged ground: the rolling fields of Manassas, site of the first major battle of the Civil War. It was the last stop on an election eve spent entirely in the South: Jacksonville, Charlotte, and finally Northern Virginia. In the autumn chill, an estimated 90,000 people spread out across the county fairgrounds and waited for hours to cheer a new president—and a new South.

By this point, Virginians knew Obama well. In February, he had beaten Hillary Clinton 2 to 1 in the state’s Democratic primary, a blow to her floundering bid. After clinching the nomination, he’d kicked off his general-election campaign in rural Virginia and been a frequent visitor since. Bucking conventional wisdom, Obama’s team had invested heavily in three Southern states: not just perennial battleground Florida but also Virginia and North Carolina, which had not voted Democratic for president since 1964 and 1976, respectively. No Democrat—not even Bill Clinton—had made a serious attempt to win North Carolina or Virginia since Ronald Reagan claimed it in 1980. But Obama was gambling on an emerging South—one that is younger than the rest of the country, far more ethnically diverse than the old black-and-white paradigm, and more liberal-leaning than any Southern generation to precede it.

That emerging South was arrayed in the dark hills around Obama as he flashed into the spotlight. On soil where whites once fought to the death for the right to enslave blacks, this throng had gathered to hail the soon-to-be first black man to be elected president. The next day, Obama carried all three of his Southern targets—55 electoral votes for the party. For Southerners, the message was unmistakable: The future has arrived. The Solid South is dead.

When Americans talk about the South, they tend to be talking about the past. When they talk about Southern politics, they tend to be talking about the old, stereotyped “Solid South”—that uniformly conservative, racist, anti-union, snake-handling cluster of former Confederate states that voted en masse for Democrats from the pre–Civil War through civil rights, then switched their allegiance to the former “party of Lincoln” beginning in the 1970s. Once LBJ and the Democrats betrayed the cause of white supremacy and Richard Nixon cooked up the “Southern Strategy,” the region became as solidly Republican as it once was Democratic. End of story.

Southern politics has never been quite so uncomplicated as that. It took decades for Republicans to outnumber Democrats, and Republican control of the region has never matched the Democrats’ former hegemony. The South has been contested ground for 40 years, with the GOP dominating federal elections and gradually cutting into the Democrats’ hold on state and local offices—culminating in 2012, when Arkansas’s legislature became the last to go Republican. (Virginia’s Senate has a partisan split.)

Over the next two decades, it will become clear to even the most clueless Yankee that the Solid South is long gone. The politics of the region’s five most populous states—Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Texas—will be defined by the emerging majority that gave Obama his winning margins. The under-30 voters in these states are ethnically diverse, they lean heavily Democratic, and they are just beginning to vote. The white population percentage is steadily declining; in Georgia, just 52 percent of those under 18 are white, a number so low it would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.

By the 2020s, more than two-thirds of the South’s electoral votes could be up for grabs. (The South is defined here as the 11 states of the former Confederacy.) If all five big states went blue, with their 111 electoral votes, only 49 votes would be left for Republicans. (That’s based on the current electoral-vote count; after the next census, the fast-growing states will have more.) Win or lose, simply making Southern states competitive is a boon to Democrats. If Republicans are forced to spend time and resources to defend Texas and Georgia, they’ll have less for traditional battlegrounds like Ohio and Pennsylvania. Even if Democrats aren’t competitive in those states for another decade, they will benefit from connecting with millions of nonvoters who haven’t heard their message. They are building for a demographic future that Republicans dread: the time when overwhelming white support will no longer be enough to win a statewide election in Texas and Georgia.

Republicans will not give up easily. Their counter-insurgency began soon after Obama’s three Southern victories. It was propitious timing. The Tea Party, a mostly Southern phenomenon, was turning Obamaphobia into a political movement. Big conservative donors, their money freed up by Citizens United and other court decisions, were ready to spend unprecedented amounts on obscure state assembly races and judgeships (to elect those fired-up Tea Partiers, in many cases). Republicans recognized that 2010 might be their last great chance to expand their gains in the South. They made the most of it.

In a bad year for Democrats nationwide, it was a disaster in the South. Two years after North Carolina voted for Obama, both chambers of the general assembly went Republican for the first time in 120 years. In Florida, the Tea Party launched Marco Rubio into the U.S. Senate. The year before, in Virginia’s off-year elections, right-wing Republicans had been elected governor and attorney general. Republicans now controlled all but four legislative chambers in the region.

With those statehouse majorities, the GOP had won the larger prize it sought: control of legislative and congressional redistricting. The party redrew the maps with gusto, giving it favorable districts for the next decade. The trick is watering down the impact of minority voters by moving them from competitive districts into those that are already minority-held. That way, the blacker and browner districts get blacker and browner, and 60 percent Democratic districts become 70 percent Democratic. The white districts, in turn, get whiter—and more Republican. In North Carolina, which ended up with the South’s most egregiously misshapen map, half of the state’s black population of 2.2 million was drawn into one-fifth of its legislative and congressional districts.

Civil-rights and civil-liberties groups argued that Republicans were using race illegally as the primary basis of redistricting. But the courts mostly upheld the maps, and the results were startling. In 2012, Republicans won legislative majorities in every former Confederate state for the first time. (In Virginia, the Senate is evenly split by party, 20-20.) Overall, the South had now elected 222 more Republican legislators than it had in 2008. Georgia’s Democrats made up 47 percent of the statewide vote in 2008 and 2010, but after redistricting they could only elect a maximum of 31 percent of statehouse members. The gerrymandering was just as effective in congressional elections. In Virginia, Obama won by 4 percent statewide, but Republicans captured 10 of 13 seats in the U.S. House.


Southern politics is more fractured than it’s ever been. Obama threw down the gauntlet in 2008, and Republicans answered in 2010 and 2012. The voters are moving left, while the state governments are lurching right. The only safe prediction is that after 150 years of being largely ignored in national elections, the South is about to become the most fiercely contested, and unpredictable, political battleground in America.

It’s been almost four decades since journalist and historian John Egerton famously declared the South “just about over as a separate and distinct place.” He was writing about a newly integrated 1970s South that was suddenly teeming with suburban tracts and office parks, urbanizing so rapidly that it could hardly be recognized. To this day, Americans still think “rural” when they think “Southern.” But there’s nothing very rural about the South anymore. Florida is 91 percent urban, Georgia and Virginia 75 percent, and in probably the biggest surprise, Texas is 85 percent urban.

With the suburbs and office parks came new Southerners. At first it was mostly Northern professionals, who began moving down in the 1950s and 1960s for low taxes, affordable homes, and jobs in banking (Charlotte), energy (Houston and Dallas), technology (the Research Triangle Park and Austin), and government-contract work (Northern Virginia). Many of the “relocated Yankees,” as they were sometimes fondly called, were registered Republicans—but they were more moderate than their Southern partymates, especially on culture-war issues. Those transplants became swing votes, and they haven’t stopped coming.

The demographic big bang didn’t begin in earnest, however, until the 1990s. Large numbers of African Americans had begun moving South in what would become known as the “great remigration.” From the early 20th century until the 1960s, more than seven million blacks fled the Jim Crow South in the Great Migration to pursue a better life, mostly in the industrial North. It was the largest domestic migration in American history. Now hundreds of thousands are returning. Last decade, 75 percent of the growth in America’s black population was in the South. Atlanta and its endless suburbs gained 491,000 African Americans in the past decade, more than any other city. Some are middle-class blacks whose families once relied on government jobs up North that are now disappearing. Some are caring for older relatives left behind in the Great Migration. Some are simply coming home to reunite with their families, finding a region that has undergone seismic changes since the South’s segregated “way of life” finally came to a merciful end.

While blacks were remigrating, Latino populations were expanding rapidly. Birth statistics tell the story: By 2010, 49 percent of newborns in Texas were Latino. Among the big five Southern states, Virginia has the lowest rate at 12 percent. Hundreds of thousands of young Latinos become eligible to vote in the South every year, and that number will be climbing for decades. At least for now, this strongly favors Democrats, who win Latino votes by large margins. Florida used to be the exception, because first-generation (and often second-generation) Cuban Americans were staunch, anti-communist Republicans. But younger Cuban Americans have joined a new immigrant population in Central Florida to help flip the state in the Democrats’ favor.

The key is getting Latinos to the polls—and it’s been a challenge in most Southern states. In 2010, for instance, Latinos were 38 percent of Texas’s population. But just 16 percent of eligible Latinos voted as Republicans won historically big margins in both legislative chambers. The poor turnout is partly a factor of youth. Latinos are, on average, a decade younger than Anglos. Most are not in the habit of voting. If they live in a state like Texas or Georgia, it’s likely that nobody has ever courted their vote.

Once Latinos begin to vote in proportion to their population, the change that they will bring to Southern (and American) politics won’t be limited to a shift in party loyalties. It will be manifested in a new progressivism as well.

Republicans like to talk about how Latinos are “hardworking, religious, family-oriented,” as if those qualities automatically made people conservative. In fact, an exit poll from 2012 showed the opposite: Latino voters are not only more liberal than Republicans; they’re sometimes more liberal than Democrats. On same-sex marriage, 59 percent said yes, against 48 percent of all voters. Should abortion be legal? Sixty-six percent said yes, against 59 percent overall. On economic issues, Latinos’ liberalism tends to be even more pronounced (the same is true for African Americans). Fifty-five percent said last year that they have a negative view of capitalism. They want more spending on public schools. They want universal, public-run health care. They want government to take a strong hand in the economy. Taxes? Raise them, if it means better social services. The same goes for every part of the South’s emerging majority—African Americans, Asian Americans, and under-30 whites who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Given the progressive tilt of the South’s coming majority, it’s no wonder that Scott Keeter, head pollster at the Pew Research Center, calls the region “a ticking time bomb for Republicans.” The Southern GOP is 88 percent white, and the white population is aging. Republicans will buy some time with their friendly legislative districts buffering any losses. They’ll continue to try to make it harder for minorities and young people to vote—and if the Supreme Court strikes down Section Five of the Voting Rights Act this year, it will be easier to suppress votes in the South.

There’s a cost to the time Republicans are buying. The Tea Party legislators who brought Republicans to power in 2010 are moving the party further right on practically every issue—at the same time that voters are tilting back toward the center. That’s creating the kind of situation that unfolded last year in Virginia. Republican lawmakers pushed a bill requiring every woman who requests an abortion to have an invasive sonogram procedure. In an election year, in a battleground state that is trending Democratic, what sense does such sure-to-be-divisive legislation make? None at all, unless you’re in a state—or a region—that is smack in the middle of a demographic revolution that is fueling a political one. It is a confusing business.

In the South’s new battlegrounds, 2020 shapes up as a pivotal year. If Democrats have gathered enough strength by then to send majorities to Richmond, Raleigh, Atlanta, Tallahassee, and/or Austin, they can tear up the Republican maps from 2011 and make it dauntingly difficult for the GOP to regain its majorities. That’s likeliest to happen in Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina; Democratic majorities could take longer in Texas and Georgia, where Republicans are more deeply entrenched.

But the politics of the big Southern states are all betwixt and between, as natives like to say. If Republicans can find a way to hold on to their majorities through 2020, they will stay competitive, on the state level at least, for another decade. Ultimately, they won’t be able to keep winning unless they can convince Latinos and African Americans to vote Republican. If they do, Southern Republicans could become a model for the national GOP—the states that figured out how to persuade Latinos to vote Republican.

But it will be no quick or easy matter for the Southern Republican Party—built on a Chamber of Commerce foundation and lifted to victory by evangelical Christians—to find a message that can appeal to the South’s new electorate. How do you build bridges to voters whose views would sound, to your average Southern Republican, socialistic and downright un-American?

More likely, destiny will follow demography. The South’s big states could soon be undergirding a durable national Democratic majority that’s capable of lasting as long as the New Deal consensus. Liberalism would have a chance to flourish anew—not just in state capitols but in Washington, D.C., as well. This would be an emphatic break from history. From Teddy Roosevelt’s Square Deal to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to Barack Obama’s stimulus and heath-care overhaul, the biggest obstacle has always been Congress’s solid white wall of Southern conservatism. That wall is crumbling. In the future, if you can be progressive and win Texas or Georgia, the American political order will transform in ways we can barely comprehend.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Republican Hearings Backfire as IRS Testifies that More Groups Need to be Investigated

The lesson Republicans should have taken from Monday’s IRS hearings is “be careful what you wish for.” One of the recommendations based on the audit is “to conduct a review to assess how the IRS monitors I.R.C. sections 501(c)(4)(6) organizations to ensure that political campaign intervention does not constitute their primary activity.” On top of that, the audit revealed that there were many groups whose political intervention in campaigns should have flagged them for a review.

The Honorable J. Russell George, Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, testified Monday in a House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government hearing on the IRS “scandal”. George based his testimony on an audit in which they found a few things that don’t bode well for conservatives’ “social welfare groups”, since they outspent liberals 34-1 via nonprofits on political issues. Namely, the IRS needs to investigate more of these groups that are “intervening” in political campaigns, not less.

The audit “determined that the majority of the 296 potential political cases we reviewed included indications of significant political campaign intervention.” This means that the majority reviewed were engaging in activities that warranted a review under the law.

George explained that of the 296 cases singled out for review, the majority had indications of significant political campaign intervention. 91 cases did not (31%). Of those 91, only 17 involved Tea Party, Patriots, or 9/12 groups.

The rest were “targeted” but were not Tea Party/Patriot/9/12 groups.

“In addition, while we determined that the majority of the 296 potential political cases we reviewed included indications of significant political campaign intervention, 91 cases (31 percent) did not. Of the 91 cases, 17 involved Tea Party, Patriots, or 9/12 organizations. The IRS disagreed with this finding that the cases did not include indications of significant political campaign intervention.” The IRS did not document why they thought these 91 signaled political intervention, which is one thing the auditors recommend that they fix.

But also, they found that more groups should have been investigated for their political intervention, “We determined that the Determinations Unit specialists did not identify all applications with indications of significant political campaign intervention. As a result, these cases were not referred to the team of specialists for further review.”

They estimate that 175 were not sent for review but should have been, “We estimate that more than 175 organizations with indications of significant political campaign intervention were not referred to the team of specialists for further review.”

Furthermore, nearly three-quarters of the groups “targeted” for inspection were not identified as opponents of the White House, so that blows the idea of being targeted for being a political enemy out of the water.

It was also pointed out that 3,357 applications were made in 2012 compared with 1,735 in 2010, before Citizens United.

George mentioned that inappropriate criteria were used by agents in Ohio, due to a lack of oversight, which was attributable to human challenges (read: lack of funding, and thank a Republican).

The recommendations make the gist of the issue clear. This is not a political scandal, this is a government agency that is understaffed and underfunded, tasked with dealing with a huge influx of “social welfare” groups seeking tax exempt status post Citizens United. These groups were often intervening in political campaigns. The IRS workers were unclear as to how much political work these groups could be doing and still qualify as non profits. That’s the “scandal”. They were, perhaps, not trained properly or overseen enough as they dipped into unchartered waters post Citizens United.

One of the recommendations is that in the future, they are going to make sure that political activity does not constitute the primary activity of these organizations. This is most assuredly not what Republicans had in mind when they started this witch hunt. George testified, “Furthermore, we plan to conduct a review to assess how the IRS monitors I.R.C. sections 501(c)(4)(6) organizations to ensure that political campaign intervention does not constitute their primary activity.” This means that they will want to review more, not less, of these organizations.


Native American Student Denied High School Diploma for Wearing Tribal Feather

A high school graduate in Alabama is being denied her diploma after being fined $1,000 for wearing a feather reflecting her Native American heritage.


“I don’t think it’s fair at all,” 17-year-old Chelsey Ramer told WPMI-TV. “I feel like its discrimination.”

Ramer, a member of the Poarch Creek Band of Indians, wore the feather while taking part in the graduation ceremony at Escambia Academy High School in defiance of school policy forbidding “extraneous items” from being worn without school permission.

The school sent a contract for graduating seniors to sign before the May 23 event, but Ramer told the station she never signed it. Escambia is now withholding her diploma until she pays the fine.

“About two months ago, me and the other Indian seniors from the graduating class asked our headmaster if we could wear the feathers on our caps,” Ramer told Indian Country Today Media Network. “She told us ‘no’ and that if we did, she would pull us off the field.”

However, Ramer attended and walked in the ceremony without incident. Indian Country Today reported that the headmaster who denied Ramer’s request, Betty Warren, has been replaced by David Walker, who coaches Escambia’s girl’s basketball team.

“He said if it was up to him, he would give me my diploma,” Ramer said to Indian Country Today. “But he had to go through the board to get it approved.”

Saturday, June 1, 2013

A Lawsuit Alleges Horrors at a Rat-Infested Mississippi Prison

Rapes, stabbings, and beatings are rampant, according to the complaint, and frequent fires cause some prisoners to "expel black mucous from their noses."

The boy, 16, was in jail. He suffered from serious psychosis, traumatic brain injury and a history of being sexually abused. On August 29, 2011, he "obeyed the voices in his head and stuck a wire into his penis," according to a history of his treatment compiled by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The state of Mississippi then transferred him to a prison for mentally ill inmates.

Conditions there are the subject of a class action lawsuit the ACLU has filed against corrections officials. On the boy's arrival, a mental health worker noted that he was small for his age, appearing to be no older than 14. He was nevertheless housed, at various times, with adult prisoners, and once while being held in a cell behind a door with a broken lock, "five or six older prisoners entered his cell and beat him," according to the complaint. His subsequent time in solitary confinement drove him to the brink of suicide, a status that isn't uncommon among inmates.

Little wonder if the complaint is accurate. The allegations against the facility include all of the following:
  • "Rats climb over prisoners' beds in the dark and mice crawl out of broken toilets."
  • "Rapes, stabbings, beatings, and other acts of violence are rampant."
  • "The air is so contaminated from frequent fires that some prisoners expel black mucous from their noses."
  • "Medical staff has ignored gangrenous wounds. One prisoner's scrotum swelled to the size of a softball before revealing a hard knot on his testicle. he was denied timely proper care for weeks and was later diagnosed with testicular cancer that had spread to his abdomen."
  • "Suicide attempts are frequent; some are successful. Other prisoners engage in gross acts of self-mutilation, including electrocution, swallowing shards of glass and razors, and tearing into their flesh with sharp objects. Defendants deny prisoners even rudimentary mental health treatment and, last year, reduced access to psychiatric care."
  • "Because there is insufficient officer staffing, prisoners are frequently left in the grime-covered shower stalls, wet, naked and cold for hours at a time."
  • "Many cells lack functioning toilets; prisoners defecate into Styrofoam trays or plastic trash bags and have no way of ridding their cells of the waste other than tossing it onto the housing unit through the slots in their cell doors, where it remains."
The full complaint can be read here. And Gabriel B. Eber, staff counsel for the ACLU's prison project, has put out a powerful statement: "I've been in prisons all around the country, and this is the worst I've ever seen." Imagine having a parent, child or sibling with serious mental health problems who committed a crime, and knowing that they were locked up inside that facility. According to Reuters, which reached a spokesperson, "The Mississippi Department of Corrections, whose top officials were named as defendants, declined to comment on the allegations in the lawsuit."

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Republicans get Three Times More ‘False’ Ratings from PolitiFact than Democrats

An analysis of PolitiFact ratings suggests Republicans are significantly less credible than Democrats.

The Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University found Republican’s had made three times as many false statements as Democrats this year.

PolitiFact examines a variety of political statements and assigns a “Truth-O-Meter” rating to each one. For their analysis, the researchers examined 100 “Truth-O-Meter” ratings of Republican and Democratic statements between January 20 through May 22.

PolitiFact rated 32 percent of Republican statements as “false” or “pants on fire,” compared to 11 percent of Democratic claims, according to a news release.

“While Republicans see a credibility gap in the Obama administration, PolitiFact rates Republicans as the less credible party,” CMPA President Dr Robert Lichter said.

A similar analysis published by the Center for Media and Public Affairs last year looked at election-related statements and found similar results. PolitiFact rated Republican statements as false roughly twice as often as Democratic statements between June 1, 2012 to September 11, 2012.

Yet another analysis of PolitiFact’s ratings by the University of Minnesota’s Smart Politics blog in 2011 also found Republicans were more likely to have false statements. Examining ratings between January 2010 to January 2011, the Smart Politics blog found Republicans were rated as false about three times more often than Democrats.

Bible Belt Unbuckled: Deep South Towns Top List of Porn Site Visitors

Well, now we know why it seems like average Alabama citizens pay little attention to Legislative antics: they're too busy paging through the Bible with one hand while the other, ahem, pages through Internet porn sites. Who has time to pay attention to the "Marsh Does Montgomery Show" or similar antics on Goat Hill?
According to Buzzfeed, the website "PornHub" (which we will not link to) matched Gallup's annual survey of the "most religious cities" with its own list of regular porn consumers. The result? Alabama and Utah cities led the pack.
America’s most religious cities ranked by per capita visits to Pornhub between December 1, 2012 and April 30, 2013 (in order from least to most porn-loving):
12.  Odgen, UT
11.  Hickory, NC
10.  Provo, UT
 9.  Greenville, SC
 8.  Holland, MI
 7.  Birmingham, AL - Birmingham had 12.1 Pornhub pageviews per capita, and 56% of its residents say they’re very religious.
 6.  Jackson, MS
 5.  Augusta, GA
 4.  Baton Rouge, LA
 3.  Little Rock, AR
 2.  Montgomery, AL  - Alabama’s capital had 21.9 Pornhub views per capita. It’s also highly religious, with 64% saying they take religion very seriously.
 1.  Huntsville, AL - Alabama’s “Rocket City” takes first place, with 23.8 Pornhub views per capita. 55% of its residents are very religious. Oh, and remember that we have the nation's first drive-through sex shop. Coincidence? I think not!

Monday, May 27, 2013

Bob Dole: GOP Should be ‘Closed for Repairs’

The Republican Party has changed so drastically in recent years, the current GOP wouldn’t welcome the likes of Ronald Reagan, former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole said Sunday.

The current GOP ought to be “closed for repairs” because it lacks a vision and is unable to strike deals with Democrats, Dole said during an appearance on “Fox News Sunday”.

The Kansas Republican said he was disturbed by his party’s obstructionist behavior on Capitol Hill.  “It seems almost unreal that we can’t get together on a budget or legislation,” he said.

President Obama also deserves blame for failing to reach out to Republicans in his first term and cultivate better relationships across party lines, Dole said.

Asked whether he would be welcomed by the Republican Party today, Dole said, “I doubt it. Reagan wouldn’t have made it, certainly Nixon wouldn’t have made it, because he had ideas. We might have made it, but I doubt it.”

Dole said his party needs stronger leadership. “Somebody has to stand up and say, ‘We’re not going to do this,’” he said.

The comments from the one-time presidential candidate reflect broad dissatisfaction with the state of the Republican Party, even among rank and file supporters. Nearly half of self-identified Republicans in an April Washington Post-ABC News poll said their party is “out of touch” with the concerns of most Americans, while barely one in five Democrats said their own party was out of sync. And in a January Post-ABC poll, 67 percent of all Americans said Republicans in Congress were not doing enough to compromise with Obama on important issues, compared with 48 percent who saw Obama as too stubborn.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Latest Cannabis Discoveries That the Federal Government Doesn’t Want You to Know About

Despite issuing a highly publicized memorandum in 2009 stating, "Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration," it remains clear that federal lawmakers and the White House continue to willfully ignore science in regards to the cannabis plant and the federal policies which condemn it to the same prohibitive legal status as heroin. In fact, in 2011 the Obama administration went so far as to reject an administrative petition that called for hearings to reevaluate pot’s safety and efficacy, pronouncing in the Federal Register, “Marijuana does not have a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States or a currently accepted medical use with severe restrictions. At this time, the known risks of marijuana use have not been shown to be outweighed by specific benefits in well-controlled clinical trials that scientifically evaluate safety and efficacy.” (The Administration’s flat-Earth position was upheld in January by a three-judge panel for the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.)
Nevertheless, scientific evaluations of cannabis and the health of its consumers have never been more prevalent. Studies are now published almost daily rebuking the federal government’s allegations that the marijuana plant is a highly dangerous substance lacking any therapeutic utility. Yet, virtually all of these studies – and, more importantly, their implications for public policy – continue to be ignored by lawmakers. Here are just a few examples of the latest cannabis science that your federal government doesn’t want you to know about.

Frequent cannabis smokers possess no greater lung cancer risk than do either occasional pot smokers or non-smokers

Subjects who regularly inhale cannabis smoke do not possess an increased risk of lung cancer compared to those who either consume it occasionally or not at all, according to data presented in April at the annual meeting of the American Academy for Cancer Research.
Investigators from the University of California, Los Angeles analyzed data from six case-control studies, conducted between 1999 and 2012, involving over 5,000 subjects (2,159 cases and 2,985 controls) from around the world.
They reported, “Our pooled results showed no significant association between the intensity, duration, or cumulative consumption of cannabis smoke and the risk of lung cancer overall or in never smokers.”
Previous case-control studies have also failed to find an association between cannabis smoking and head and neck cancers or cancers of the upper aerodigestive tract.

Nevertheless, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration continues to maintain, “Marijuana smokers increase their risk of cancer of the head, neck, lungs and respiratory track.”
Consistent use of cannabis associated is associated with reduced risk factors for Type 2 diabetes

Will the pot plant one day play a role in staving the ongoing epidemic of Type 2 diabetes? Emerging science indicates that it just might.
According to trial data published this month in the American Journal of Medicine, subjects who regularly consume cannabis possess favorable indices related to diabetic control compared to occasional consumers or non-consumers. 
Investigators at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre in Boston, assessed self-report data from some 5,000 adult onset diabetics patients regarding whether they smoked or had ever smoked marijuana. Researchers reported that those who were current, regular marijuana smokers possessed 16 percent lower fasting insulin levels and reduced insulin resistance compared to those who had never used pot. By contrast, non-users possessed larger waistlines and lower levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL or ‘good’) cholesterol – both of which are risk factors for type 2 diabetes.
Similar benefits were reported in occasional cannabis consumers, though these changes were less pronounced, “suggesting that the impact of marijuana use on insulin and insulin resistance exists during periods of recent use,” researchers reported.
The recent findings are supportive of the findings of 2012 study by a team of UCLA researchers, published in the British Medical Journal, which reported that adults with a history of marijuana use had a lower prevalence of type 2 diabetes and possess a lower risk of contracting the disease than did those with no history of cannabis consumption, even after researchers adjusted for social variables (ethnicity, level of physical activity, etc.) Concluded the study, “[This] analysis of adults aged 20-59 years … showed that participants who used marijuana had a lower prevalence of DM (Diabetes Mellitus) and lower odds of DM relative to non-marijuana users.”
Diabetes is the third leading cause of death in the United States after heart disease and cancer. 

Inhaling cannabis dramatically mitigates symptoms of Crohn’sdisease

Smoking cannabis twice daily significantly reduces symptoms of Crohn’s disease, a type of inflammatory bowel disorder that is estimated to impact about half a million Americans. So say the results of the first-ever placebo-controlled trial assessing the use of cannabis for Crohn’s – published online this month in the scientific journal Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology.
Researchers at the Meir Medical Center, Department of Gastroenterology and Hepatology in Israel assessed the safety and efficacy of inhaled cannabis versus placebo in 21 subjects with Crohn’s disease who were nonresponsive to conventional treatment regimens. Eleven participants smoked standardized cannabis cigarettes containing 23 percent THC and 0.5 percent cannabidiol – a nonpsychotropic cannabinoid known to possess anti-inflammatory properties -- twice daily over a period of eight weeks. The other ten subjects smoked placebo cigarettes containing no active cannabinoids.
Investigators reported, “Our data show that 8-weeks treatment with THC-rich cannabis, but not placebo, was associated with a significant decrease of 100 points in CDAI (Crohn’s Disease and activity index) scores.”  Five of the eleven patients in the study group reported achieving disease remission (defined as a reduction in patient’s CDAI score by more than 150 points). Participants who smoked marijuana reported decreased pain, improved appetite, and better sleep compared to control subjects. Researchers reported that “no significant side effects” were associated with cannabis inhalation. 
The clinical results substantiate decades of anecdotal reports from Crohn’s patients, some one-half of which acknowledge having used cannabis to mitigate symptoms of the disease.

Marijuana-like substances halt HIV infection in white blood cells

The administration of THC has been associated with decreased mortality and ameliorated disease progression in monkeys with simian immunodeficiency virus, a primate model of HIV disease. So could cannabinoids produce similar outcomes in humans? The findings of a newly published preclinical trial indicate that the answer may be ‘yes’ and they reveal the substance’s likely mechanism of action in combating the disease.
Writing in the May edition of the Journal of Leukocyte Biology, investigators at the Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia reported that the administration of cannabinoid agonists limits HIV infection in macrophages (white blood cells that aid in the body's immune response). Researchers assessed the impact of three commercially available synthetic cannabis agonists (non-organic compounds that act on the same endogenous receptor sites as do plant cannabinoids) on HIV-infected macrophage cells. Following administration, researchers sampled the cells periodically to measure the activity of an enzyme called reverse transcriptase, which is essential for HIV replication. By day 7, investigators reported that the administration of all three compounds was associated with a significant decrease in HIV replication.
“The results suggest that selective CB2 (cannabinoid 2 receptor) agonists could potentially be used in tandem with existing antiretroviral drugs, opening the door to the generation of new drug therapies for HIV/AIDS,” researchers summarized in a Temple University news release. “The data also support the idea that the human immune system could be leveraged to fight HIV infection."
Cannabinoids offer a likely treatment therapy for PTSD

Post-traumatic stress syndrome is estimated to impact some eight millions American annually and effective treatments for the condition are few and far between. Yet just published research in the May issue of the journal Molecular Psychiatry indicates that cannabinoids hold the potential to successfully treat the condition.
Researchers at the New York School of Medicine reported that subjects diagnosed with PTSD possess elevated quantities of endogenous cannabinoid receptors in regions of the brain associated with fear and anxiety. In addition, authors also reported that these subjects suffer from the decreased production of anandamide, an endogenous cannabinoid neurotransmitter, resulting in an imbalanced endocannibinoid system. (The endogenous cannabinoid receptor system is a regulatory system that is present in living organisms for the purpose of promoting homeostasis).
Authors speculated that increasing the body’s production of cannabinoids would likely restore the body’s natural brain chemistry and psychological balance. They affirmed, “[Our] findings substantiate, at least in part, emerging evidence that … plant-derived cannabinoids such as marijuana may possess some benefits in individuals with PTSD by helping relieve haunting nightmares and other symptoms of PTSD.”
The researchers concluded: “The data reported herein are the first of which we are aware of to demonstrate the critical role of CB1 (cannabinoid) receptors and endocannabinoids in the etiology of PTSD in humans. As such, they provide a foundation upon which to develop and validate informative biomarkers of PTSD vulnerability, as well as to guide the rational development of the next generation of evidence-based treatments for PTSD.”
But don’t expect federal officials to help move this process forward. In 2011 federal administrators blocked investigators at the University of Arizona at Phoenix from conducting an FDA-approved, placebo-controlled clinical trial to evaluate the use of cannabis in 50 patients with PTSD. 
Scientific integrity? Not when it comes to marijuana. Not by a long shot.