Romney and the Florida Primary: Live Blogging Arrogance and Hubris

Romney’s disdain for the electorate is one of his more deeply rooted traits. During his father’s 1968 presidential campaign, Romney wrote, “how can the American public like such muttonheads?”
I find that contempt pretty well-founded, and it is a relief that Romney does not believe the nonsense he spouts during the campaign. But the persistent awkwardness of Romney’s campaign style reflects this basic tension. It’s easy to try to persuade somebody for whom you have basic respect. It’s persuading somebody whom you consider stupid — while you must conceal any trace of your disdain — that’s excruciatingly difficult. Romney’s awkward manner on the trail is the agony of suppressed contempt.

Jonathan Chait in  New York Magazine

Romney appears to have the momentum and the early voting lead in the Florida Primary.  Newt vows to go on.  What will their speeches tonight reveal to us about their character or lack thereof?

It’s primary day in the Sunshine State, but more than 600,000 people have already voted in Florida’s Republican presidential contest. And a new public opinion poll indicates that the ballots already cast may help former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney take the 50 delegates up for grabs in Florida’s winner take all primary.

Early voting began statewide ten days ago, and according to figures released Monday afternoon by the Florida Department of State, which runs the division of elections, 293,760 people had already cast ballots. And according to the state, more than 531,000 people requested and were sent absentee ballots, and 338,753 were returned and received by Florida officials.

Add it all together and more than 632,000 votes were already cast before primary day. To put it in perspective, that’s more than the 601,577 who voted in the South Carolina primary, and far outpaces the combined 360,000 that took part in the New Hampshire primary and the Iowa caucuses.

And according to an American Research Group survey released Tuesday morning, 36% of people questioned said they already voted, and among those, Romney led former House Speaker Newt Gingrich 51% to 29%, with former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania at 12% and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas at 10%.

Things have been getting uglier.  It’s hard to think that could be possible by the Romney campaign has been using its immense campaign chest to hammer at Newt.  Could that start to backfire? Of course, Zombie Reagan figures prominantly.

“For as long as I’ve been in politics, 14 years, journalists call me and ask if this is the most negative election ad atmosphere I’ve ever seen,” says Kenneth Goldstein, president of Kantar Media CMAG, which tracks content and targeting of political advertising. “And every year I say, ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’”

“But this year it’s true. This primary season is the most negative it’s ever been,” asserts Goldstein. “I have absolutely never seen television advertising so negative in a Republican presidential primary.”

This tsunami of sleaze is being propelled by unprecedented advertising buys. The Romney campaign and its associated super PAC, Restore Our Future, have spent $15.3 million in Florida over the past month alone, according to Maggie Haberman of Politico. To put this in perspective, John McCain spent $11 million on ads during his entire 2008 primary campaign. Back on this side of Citizens United, Newt Gingrich and his billionaire-backed super PAC have spent “only” an estimated $3 million—giving Romney a 5–1 spending advantage in the Sunshine State.

Turn on the TV or radio in Florida these past few days and you’ll soon be subjected to the avalanche of negative ads, most of them purchased courtesy of Romney Co. The attacks come in a bewildering variety—from accusations that Newt worked with Nancy Pelosi “to support China’s brutal one-child policy” to Spanish-language ads that say Newt called Spanish “the language of the ghetto.” Fannie and Freddie have become household names. Both candidates are accusing the other of being insufficiently conservative and secretly pro-abortion. There has been public wrestling for a photo op with Ronald Reagan’s ghost, trying to claim closer association. Even Romney’s Get Out the Vote mailers are anti-Newt.

Axlerove must be doing jigs.

Guess we’ll see what comes out of the wash tonight.


The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Fast on the heels of giving the US Military props for their funding, R&D and real-time application of alternative energy sources, I’m reminded that in all things involving humans, the good, the bad and the ugly principle applies.  Chalk this up to a gentle knock on the noggin, a serious reminder that our military’s purpose is to defend the country, develop defense and wartime strategies [alternative energy works into this] and support all things weapon-related with gusto.

In this case, the subject is drones, aka UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles], a new generation that is sure to amaze.  And disturb.

An article I recently read made my jaw drop with awe and an undeniable sense of foreboding.  We could call this the nascent I Robot stage of drone development.   I’ve written to the subject of drones before.  The science is incredible but I find the use of drones, war and peace applications alike, incredibly creepy.

The X47B, however, a fully-automated drone being tested by the Navy is in a class of its own.

Fully automated.  Meaning no one in Omaha is joy-sticking the X47B remotely, guiding its maneuvers, reconnaissance or defensive/offensive usage.  This drone will be dependent on onboard computers, perceiving threats through highly attuned sensors, and then acting, accordingly.

How sophisticated is this drone?  X47B has been designed to land on an aircraft carrier at sea.  My husband served in the Navy and lived on a carrier [a floating city] of approximately 5000 personnel.  Though not a pilot, he’d be the first to say that landing an aircraft on any carrier is incredibly challenging.

X47B is that advanced, that sophisticated.

The speed with which robotic aircraft is developing is frankly . . . stunning.  On 9/11, the US military had few drones in its arsenal.  Reportedly, 1 in 3 US aircraft are now robotic, primarily because of the cost effectiveness in comparison to traditional planes and reduced casualties to military personnel.  As aerospace pioneer Simon Ramo stated in his book “Let Robots Do the Dying:”

More aggressive robotry development could lead to deploying far fewer U.S. military personnel to other countries, achieving greater national security at a much lower cost and most importantly, greatly reduced casualties.

But as has been pointed out in numerous articles, we aren’t fighting Robot against Robot wars.  At least not yet.  Israel’s R&D drone technology is said to have started as early as 1992. Russia, Pakistan, even Iran are funding and developing their own drone programs. In fact, according to ABI Research, 65 countries are utilizing or developing drone programs. We’ve seen and read of the carnage when drones miss their target or targets are just plain wrong.  We’re talking Robots vs. Humans and the question of accountability cannot be dismissed.

X47B is a new generation, a next step.  As startling as its capabilities sound, the X47B will not be alone in the expanding robotic landscape.  We have robotic ground vehicles, mapping robots, IED detecting devices [that look like oversized Tonka toys] in the field, as well as robotic submarines and tanks to small, insect-like drones, complete with micro-cameras, in development.Small Fry Drones Utilizing Micro-Cameras

Ready or not, we’re approaching a Brave New World of robotics and weapon development.  The US military sees robotic vehicles, surveillance equipment and weapon systems replacing manned missions to handle the Three Big D’s—dull, dirty and dangerous. Defenders of autonomous systems insist that on-ground personnel will have the ability to abort missions and on-board computer-driven directives.  Still, the question lingers–if on-board computers are making split second computations would a manual ‘abort’ order have any relevance?

But what sets the X47B apart from its predecessors?

The GPS-based navigation and landing system is state-of-the-art, making the carrier landings feasible for this fighter-sized vehicle.  In addition, the program will allow the drone to conduct aerial refueling.  Missions would be preprogrammed, making remote guidance unnecessary. The X47B provides a far larger payload, allowing it to attack larger targets and perform multiple back-to-back missions, many of which would be beyond human endurance.  And it has stealth capabilities.

Robotic technology is racing forward.  What has not proceeded with equal speed or ease is the conversation about the ethics and morality involved in using these systems, particularly as relates to the chain of accountability.

As Noel Sharkey, computer scientist and robotics expert, recently stated in the LA Times:

Lethal actions should have a clear chain of accountability. This is difficult with a robot weapon. The robot cannot be held accountable. So is it the commander who used it? The politician who authorized it? The military’s acquisition process? The manufacturer, for faulty equipment?

The LA Times further states:

Sharkey and others believe that autonomous armed robots should force the kind of dialogue that followed the introduction of mustard gas in World War I and the development of atomic weapons in World War II. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the group tasked by the Geneva Conventions to protect victims in armed conflict, is already examining the issue.

There is no denying that we’re entering a far different world in the way wars, international tensions, border protection, even domestic policing will be handled in the near future.  Let’s hope the right questions are asked and adequate answers provided before we slide down a very slippery slope.

Is there oversight? you may ask.  If the Congressional Unmanned Vehicle Caucus is an example, not much.  Though the caucus likes to advertise itself as a watchdog it has become little more than a booster club for all things drone.  For instance, instead of questioning the enormous amount of money, the cost-effectiveness of domestic drones used for border surveillance—illegal drug smuggling and illegal immigration—or even the success rate of the domestic drone fleet [which is anything but spectacular], the Department of Homeland Security actively supports the acquisition of ever-expanding systems.  As is so often the case, it’s a ‘follow the money’ love affair. Alternet reports that:

In the 2010 election cycle, political action committees associated with companies that produce drones donated more than $1.7 million to 42 congressional members who were members of the congressional drone caucus.

Yup, it’s always the same formula, working the cheap seats with suitcases of ready cash.

X47B will be testing its carrier landing capabilities in 2013, aerial refueling in 2014, and if all goes as planned the drone will be operational by 2016-17.

There’s still time for Americans to demand a serious Q&A.  But not much time.


Tuesday Reads

Good Morning!! Tonight is the Florida Republican primary, and we’ll be live blogging it later on. This post is going to be a quickie, because I worked way too long on the one I put up last night. Still, I do have some interesting reads to recommend.

A couple of days ago, I read a fascinating piece by Emily Yoffe at Slate about the difficulty of adopting pets these days. It seems that if you want to adopt a pet from a rescue place, you have to fill out endless forms and go to great lengths to prove you’re worthy before you can be granted the privilege of taking home a cat or dog–or even a bird or hamster!

The article is really interesting and funny, so check it out. You won’t regret it. One of the most surprising facts Yoffe reveals is that 25% of people who are identified as animal hoarders are either past or present rescue workers!

I’m sure you’ve heard that Mitt Romney has been using a scorched earth policy against Newt Gingrich in Florida. The NYT had an interesting article on the reasons for Romney’s change in strategy.

In a call last Sunday morning, just hours after Mr. Romney’s double-digit loss to Mr. Gingrich in the South Carolina primary, the Romney team outlined the new approach to the candidate. Put aside the more acute focus on President Obama and narrow in on Mr. Gingrich.

Find lines of attack that could goad Mr. Gingrich into angry responses and rally mainstream Republicans. Swarm Gingrich campaign events to rattle him. Have Mr. Romney drop his above-the-fray persona and carry the fight directly to his opponent, especially in two critical debates scheduled for the week.

The results of that strategy, carried out by a veteran squad of strategists and operatives assembled by Mr. Romney to deal with just this kind of moment, have been on striking display here.

By this weekend, Mr. Romney’s aides were on the offensive and increasingly confident, with some combination of their strategy and Mr. Gingrich’s own performance swinging polls in Mr. Romney’s direction. Even as it acknowledged the damage inflicted on Mr. Romney by the past several weeks, his team suggested that it had learned a lesson about never letting up on rivals, especially if Mr. Romney wins the nomination and confronts Mr. Obama in the general election.

Some conservatives are really upset about what Romney is doing to Gingrich. They say he may win the Florida primary, but he’s hurting the GOP and probably making himself a weaker candidate against Obama. Here’s an excerpt from a post by William Jacobson at Legal Insurrection:

If you asked me even a couple of weeks ago whether the Republican Party could heal from the wounds of this election cycle in time to unite against Obama, I would have said ”Yes.”

I’m not so sure anymore. After the South Carolina primary the Republican establishment, and media supporters like Matt Drudge, launched Scorched Earth II on Newt, while pro-Romney pundits like Ann Coulter heaped scorn on the conservative and Tea Party voters who sided with Newt.

It may just be “not-beanbag” to the Romney campaign and its supporters, but people hear them loud and clear.

Two lines of attack have exposed a schism between the Republican political haves and have nots which will not easily heal: The attempt to rewrite the history of the Reagan revolution and the embrace of Nancy Pelosi’s partisan ethics attack and blackmail.

Another conservative writer and talk show host, John Batchelor says Romney and Gingrich are “setting the GOP on a path to destruction.”

The primary campaign nastiness between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich is exhausting Republican loyalists. What in Iowa was a feisty contest between the haughty Mr. Romney and the operatic Mr. Gingrich turned hollow in New Hampshire and harsh in South Carolina. By the close of the Florida scramble, with the Herman Cain Express back from the repair yard to hitch onto the Newt baggage car, what remains of the Republican dialogue does not appear likely to be of much worth for the fall campaign.

The solution to the puzzle may be to admit that the GOP has forfeited 2012 before the general election even starts. How did this happen so suddenly?

“That’s the great mystery of 2012,” a senior Republican journalist told me while watching the brouhaha in Florida. “We have the weakest incumbent president in 32 years, running on the weakest record in 32 years… and who’s taking the stage in South Carolina and Florida? It has to be the weakest field I can remember. Each of these candidates has in his character, in his history, in his idea set—never mind disqualifying—a guarantee for self-destruction. If Newt is the candidate, he’ll lose badly. If Mitt is the candidate, he’ll lose slightly less badly … So what you have is an almost complete guarantee that if these are the candidates, Barack Obama will be reelected.”

It seems to me that the GOP is experiencing a major schism like the one that spit the Democratic party in 2008. This will be interesting to watch.

Mitt Romney appeared on the Today Show yesterday to defend his new campaign strategy. I can’t embed the NBC video here, but you can watch it at this Atlantic Wire link. I think Romney comes off as both arrogant and passive aggressive. He also addresses (but doesn’t really deal with) Tom Brokaw’s objections to being used in a Romney attack ad.

“We’ll sit down with the lawyers, talk to the folks at NBC, and make a decision on that front,” Romney told the Today show’s Matt Lauer when asked if he would pull the TV spot heavily featuring a 1997 Tom Brokaw newscast about Newt Gingrich. What Romney said on Today sounded a bit more unsure than the Romney staffer who over the weekend said the campaign would not be taking down the ad.

Last night, Romney continued to “ridicule” Gingrich, according to Reuters.

A confident Mitt Romney solidified his lead in Florida polls and ridiculed Republican rival Newt Gingrich on Monday, calling his opponent’s attacks “sad” and “painfully revealing” the day before the state’s crucial presidential primary.

Romney’s self-assuredness was on full display during a campaign tour that felt at times like a victory lap, with the front-runner telling a crowd of 2,000 in Dunedin, Florida: “With a turnout like this I got a feeling we might win tomorrow.”

I can’t help but wish that Florida voters would wipe that self-satisfied smile off Romney’s face tonight. Amazingly, Andrew Sullivan shares my feelings.

I didn’t watch 60 Minutes on Sunday night, but Glenn Greenwald did: Leon Panetta’s explicitly authoritarian decree. Read it and weep.

That’s about all I’ve got. I’ll end with Charlie Pierce’s latest: Romney, Basking in a Ray of Reality, Faces Real Test It’s his take on the NYT piece.

I am supposed to write now about how Willard Romney, the only presidential candidate in history to run as his own animatronic double, got his swerve on, his mojo back, and his engorged pen… no, wait, let me start again. I am supposed to write about how Willard Romney, a man with the charisma of grass seed and the political principles of a moray eel, became a newly formidable candidate after his thumping by Newt Gingrich among the holy-rolling swamp-runners in South Carolina. I read in yesterday’s New York Times that, after failing the ultimate test of his Gooberhood, Willard fled to one of his several Fortresses of Solitude, only to emerge in Florida as a lean, mean pompadoured war beast:

It was a call to arms employing all the visible and invisible tactics of political warfare.

(Ed. Note: Did they paint their faces blue and eat the still-beating hearts out of live elk?)

Now you can go read the rest at Charlie’s blog, and then come back and share what you’re reading and blogging about.


The LeRoy High School Outbreak: “Conversion Disorder” or Environmental Contaminants?

Aerial view of LeRoy Junior/Senior High School

I know everyone has already heard about the outbreak of tics and verbal outbursts (described in the media as “Tourette’s-like symptoms”) in the small town of LeRoy, New York. I thought I’d pull together some information on the case anyway. I have been skeptical about the diagnoses that have been publicized (“conversion disorder” and “mass hysteria”) since I first heard about it.

The media descriptions of conversion disorder haven’t been particularly accurate or helpful, and now that school and county officials are trying to limit investigations into environmental causes for the outbreak, I’m even more suspicious that these symptoms may be caused by exposure to toxins in the environment.

The LeRoy students began having symptoms in September of last year, meaning they have continued for about four months. Here’s a description of the symptoms from CBS News:

Last fall, 12 teenage girls from LeRoy Junior-Senior High School – located in a town about an hour outside of Buffalo, N.Y. – began to show symptoms similar to those of Tourette’s syndrome, including painful shaking and jerking their necks….

The condition was so bad for at least one of the girls that she has yet to return to school. School and state officials investigated the outbreak and school building for several months, and concluded no known environmental substances or infectious agents were found that could have caused the symptoms in the teens.

Dr. Laszlo Mechtler of the Dent Neurologic Institute in Amherst, NY, has seen a number of the girls and has diagnosed them with “conversion disorder,” which is really just more politically correct name for what Sigmund Freud called hysteria. The term is drawn from the Greek word for “uterus,” and of course mostly females receive the diagnosis. Mechler is claiming the symptoms are a result of stress and the students who are affected may have are unconsciously acting out their anxieties through physical symptoms. He’s calling it “mass hysteria,” because a number of girls reported similar symptoms.

Mechtler said today that the media hype is just making the symptoms worse and that students who have kept to themselves have improved while those who went to the media got worse; and now that the national media is focused on the situation, those who had improved are now having increased symptoms. 

So I guess we should all STFU and leave poor little LeRoy alone, then?

Lots more after the jump. Read the rest of this entry »


It’s Time to End Tax Exemptions for Churches That Insist on Politicking from the Pulpit

American Catholic Bishops Conference

My apologies if this post is a little incoherent. I’m hopping mad right now! We don’t yet live in a theocracy–although that danger clearly exists. As of today, the U.S. Constitution still requires the separation of church and state. Priests, ministers, bishops, and other church leaders are not supposed to be advocating for and against political candidates from the pulpit. In their roles as private citizens, they can hold whatever political beliefs they want and they can donate to political candidates. But they need to stop forcing their political views on church audiences.

Yesterday, in Catholic churches all over the U.S., parishioners heard a letter from their bishop denouncing the Obama administration for the January 20th HHS decision to require health plans to cover birth control services without requiring “a co-pay, co-insurance, or a deductible.” HHS Secretary Katherine Sibelius stated that the reason for this requirement is that access to contraception is important to women’s health.

Scientists have abundant evidence that birth control has significant health benefits for women and their families, it is documented to significantly reduce health costs, and is the most commonly taken drug in America by young and middle-aged women. This rule will provide women with greater access to contraception by requiring coverage and by prohibiting cost sharing.

Sibelius explained that this requirement applies to religion-based institutions that employ or serve people who don’t belong to their religion. Therefore, churches per se would be except from the rule, but universities and other religious-based organizations would have to abide by the rule.

Via Business Insider, here is the full text of letter that was read in churches in the Diocese of Marquette (Michigan):

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

I write to you concerning an alarming and serious matter that negatively impacts the Church in the United States directly, and that strikes at the fundamental right to religious liberty for all citizens of any faith. The federal government, which claims to be “of, by, and for the people,” has just been dealt a heavy blow to almost a quarter of those people — the Catholic population — and to the millions more who are served by the Catholic faithful.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced last week that almost all employers,
including Catholic employers, will be forced to offer their employees’ health coverage that includes sterilization, abortion-inducing drugs, and contraception. Almost all health insurers will be forced to include those “services” in the health policies they write. And almost all individuals will be forced to buy that coverage as a part of their policies.

In so ruling, the Obama Administration has cast aside the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, denying to Catholics our Nation’s first and most fundamental freedom, that of religious liberty. And as a result, unless the rule is overturned, we Catholics will be compelled to either violate our consciences, or to drop health coverage for our employees (and suffer the penalties for doing so). The Obama Administration’s sole concession was to give our institutions one year to comply.

We cannot—we will not—comply with this unjust law. People of faith cannot be made second class citizens. We are already joined by our brothers and sisters of all faiths and many others of good will in this important effort to regain our religious freedom. Our parents and grandparents did not come to these shores to help build America’s cities and towns, its infrastructure and institutions, its enterprise and culture,
only to have their posterity stripped of their God given rights. In generations past, the Church has always been able to count on the faithful to stand up and protect her sacred rights and duties. I hope and trust she can count on this generation of Catholics to do the same. Our children and grandchildren deserve nothing less.

And therefore, I would ask of you two things. First, as a community of faith we must commit ourselves to prayer and fasting that wisdom and justice may prevail, and religious liberty may be restored. Without God, we can do nothing; with God, nothing is impossible. Second, I would also recommend visiting http://www.usccb.org/conscience,to learn more about this severe assault on religious liberty, and how to contact Congress in support of legislation that would reverse the Obama Administration’s decision.

Sincerely yours in Christ,
+Alexander K. Sample
Most Reverend Alexander K. Sample
Bishop of Marquette

The author of the Business Insider article, Michael Brendan Dougherty, uses a flawed analogy to defend the bishops for their action and their decision to flout the law.

it would be like the government mandating that all delis, even Kosher delis, serve pork products and then justifying it by saying that protein is healthy, and many Jews who don’t follow Kosher laws and many non-Jews go to those delis. The law wouldn’t technically ban Jews from owning delis, but it would effectively ban their ability to run them according to their conscience.

WTF?! Jewish delis do not receive federal funds to subsidize the selling of pork, and scientists have not found pork to be vital to the health of more than half of the U.S. population. For Dougherty’s information, unwanted pregnancies can be dangerous to women’s physical and mental health. Furthermore, the more unwanted pregnancies there are, the more abortions there will be. The rule will therefore reduce the number of abortions in this country. And BTW, no individual is required to use birth control. The Catholic bishops know that most Catholics used it, and they are simply trying to intimidate people. If an individual Catholic wants to follow the church’s ludicrous (IMO) rules against birth control, she is free to do so. An editorial by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune says it much better than I could:

The Obama administration…made the right decision. Birth control access is critical for women and children’s health, ensuring that kids are born to parents ready for this responsibility. Lost in all the heated rhetoric over this milestone public health measure are several important points.

This policy does not require anyone to use birth control. In addition, courts have already rejected claims by Catholic organizations that requiring contraceptive coverage in employee health plans violates their religious freedom.

Requiring these religiously affiliated institutions to cover birth control in their plans is nothing new. Twenty-eight states (Minnesota isn’t one) already have “contraceptive equity” laws requiring birth control coverage for many plans covering prescription drugs.

In 2004, the California Supreme Court, noting that many of these organizations’ employees are not Catholic, soundly rejected a challenge to the state’s contraceptive equity law. It concluded that the state can enact employment laws to protect workers, even if these laws conflict with the employers’ religious beliefs.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Catholic Charities’ appeal. New York’s highest court rejected a similar claim by Catholic Charities on grounds that the law didn’t target religious beliefs and that a broad public interest is served by addressing gender disparities in medical costs.

The U.S. Supreme Court has also decided on multiple occasions that religious beliefs do not protect discriminatory practices, such as failing to comply with civil rights laws.

Denise Grady, in an article published in The New York Times and The Herald Tribune writes:

About half of pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, and about four out of 10 of those end in abortion, according to the Institute of Medicine report, which was released last July. It noted that providing birth control could lower both pregnancy and abortion rates. It also cited studies showing that women with unintended pregnancies are more likely to be depressed and to smoke, drink and delay or skip prenatal care, potentially harming fetuses and putting babies at increased risk of being born prematurely and having low birth weight.

Grady provides a number of real-life examples. Here’s just one:

One recent Georgetown law graduate, who asked not to be identified for reasons of medical privacy, said she had polycystic ovary syndrome, a condition for which her doctor prescribed birth control pills. She is gay and had no other reason to take the pills. Georgetown does not cover birth control for students, so she made sure her doctor noted the diagnosis on her prescription. Even so, coverage was denied several times. She finally gave up and paid out of pocket, more than $100 a month. After a few months she could no longer afford the pills. Within months she developed a large ovarian cyst that had to be removed surgically — along with her ovary.

“If I want children, I’ll need a fertility specialist because I have only one working ovary,” she said.

A spokeswoman for Georgetown, Stacy Kerr, said that problems like this were rare and that doctors at the health service knew how to help students get coverage for contraceptives needed for medical reasons.

Really? Then why was this woman “denied” coverage “several times?” Give me a break!

Even supposed “liberal” E.J. Dionne weighed in on the side of the church:

In its interim rules in August, HHS excluded from this requirement only those “religious employers” who primarily serve and employ members of their own faith traditions. This exempted churches from the rule, but not Catholic universities or social-service agencies and hospitals that help tens of thousands of non-Catholics.

As a general matter, it made perfect sense to cover contraception. Many see doing so as protecting women’s rights, and expanded contraception coverage will likely reduce the number of abortions. While the Catholic Church formally opposes contraception, this teaching is widely ignored by the faithful. One does not see many Catholic families of six or 10 or twelve that were quite common in the 1950s. Contraception might have something to do with this.

Speaking as a Catholic, I wish the Church would be more open on the contraception question. But speaking as an American liberal who believes that religious pluralism imposes certain obligations on government, I think the Church’s leaders had a right to ask for broader relief from a contraception mandate that would require it to act against its own teachings. The administration should have done more to balance the competing liberty interests here.

I am sick and tired of this sh*t! We’re talking about the rights and the health of more than half of the population! Does Dionne realize that 98% of Catholics have used birth control at one time or another? It’s time to take away the tax exempt status of churches who use the power of the pulpit to try to intimidate their parishioners into voting for or against a candidate based on ridiculous (IMO) religious rules that hurt women. If religious universities and charities wish to ignore the law, then they too should lose their government subsidies and/or tax exemptions.


Monday Reads

Good Morning!

Nobel Prize winning economists continue to warn against “Destructive Austerity”. Here’s Paul Krugman on a Jared Bernstein post.

That is, we’re sacrificing the future as well as the present. Oh, and the cuts that aren’t falling on investment in physical capital are largely falling on human capital, that is, education.

It’s hard to overstate just how wrong all this is. We have a situation in which resources are sitting idle looking for uses — massive unemployment of workers, especially construction workers, capital so bereft of good investment opportunities that it’s available to the federal government at negative real interest rates. Never mind multipliers and all that (although they exist too); this is a time when government investment should be pushed very hard. Instead, it’s being slashed.

From Davos, we have this from Joseph Stiglitz on the austerity forced on Irleand.

NOBEL PRIZE-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has described the continued payments by the Government to unsecured bondholders as “unconscionable”.

Ireland’s chances of cutting its way back to health were negligible he said, and its prospects were being compounded by German chancellor Angela Merkel’s austerity rhetoric.

“Why should Irish taxpayers have to give up health and education to make good on a loan from a private bank when the previous government failed to do an adequate job of regulation?” asked Prof Stiglitz in an interview with The Irish Times .

There were cases where austerity programmes led to quick recovery, he said, but there were so few and in circumstances so different to Ireland’s that they weren’t applicable.

“The only instances in which they worked tended to be when there was a weak country with a strong trading partner and typically with a flexible exchange rate. You have a fixed exchange rate and a Europe in recession.”

In the complexity of the discussion over bondholders, Prof Stiglitz said simple facts were being overlooked: the unsecured bondholders were paid a normal interest rate for bearing a risk by investing in Irish banks, which was and is the nature of the market economy.

In addition the process of internal devaluation – a drop in salaries and other costs– would, he said, only fan the flames of recession.

“Your ability to make mortgage and other debt payments is diminished and you already have a problem in your real estate market,” he said. “In that sense the suffering, the bankruptcies and the foreclosures are going to only increase.”

David Cay Johnston says austerity  has a “siren call”.

This message of austerity is like the call of the ancient Sirens, whose music lured sailors to shipwreck.
We should take a lesson from Odysseus, who poured wax into the ears of his crew and had himself lashed to the mast of his ship to resist the Siren call.

Austerity supporters are selling the idea that governments, like families, must cut back when income shrinks. But economically, governments are not like families.

Firing teachers, cops and government clerks will, for sure, reduce public spending. But budgets, like the song of the Sirens, are only part of the story. Listen only to the alluring lyrics and, like the many voyagers before Odysseus, we will suffer disastrous consequences – in our case falling incomes and worsening economies.

The full economic story begins with this principle taught to every economics student: spending equals income and income equals spending. Cut spending and incomes must fall; cut incomes and spending must fall.

Those who disagree with this say that only private spending can create wealth and that government spending is inefficient. I think the first argument is wrong, but the second is often true, which is why citizens need to pay close attention to their government.

When private spending shrinks, then either government spending must grow to make up for it or the other side of the equation, income, must shrink.

If we increase spending today by borrowing, we create a claim on future income. Families with debt must divert part of their future income to interest and principal to service that debt or go bankrupt. Governments are different, provided they have monopoly control of their currency. By definition, no sovereign government can ever go broke in its own currency.

Krugman’s NYT editorial today calls the entire austerity agenda a “debacle”.

True, the federal government has avoided all-out austerity. But state and local governments, which must run more or less balanced budgets, have slashed spending and employment as federal aid runs out — and this has been a major drag on the overall economy. Without those spending cuts, we might already have been on the road to self-sustaining growth; as it is, recovery still hangs in the balance.

And we may get tipped in the wrong direction by Continental Europe, where austerity policies are having the same effect as in Britain, with many signs pointing to recession this year.

The infuriating thing about this tragedy is that it was completely unnecessary. Half a century ago, any economist — or for that matter any undergraduate who had read Paul Samuelson’s textbook “Economics” — could have told you that austerity in the face of depression was a very bad idea. But policy makers, pundits and, I’m sorry to say, many economists decided, largely for political reasons, to forget what they used to know. And millions of workers are paying the price for their willful amnesia.

The Florida Primary is tomorrow and Romney is regaining the lead in polls.

Mitt Romney may be on his way to a decisive victory in the Florida GOP primary Tuesday, according to a new NBC/Marist poll.

Romney leads Newt Gingrich by 15 points, 42 percent to 27 percent in the crucial state. Rick Santorum is third with 16 percent, followed by Ron Paul with 11 percent. Just 4 percent said they were undecided.

“The bottom line in all this is Romney’s sitting in the driver’s seat going into Tuesday,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion at Marist College, who conducted the poll.

If Romney pulls off a victory of that magnitude, he could be on a glide path to the nomination. But there are warning signs for the Republican Party that the primary has taken a toll on Romney and the rest of the GOP field. Each of the candidates struggles in a general-election matchup with President Barack Obama in this swing state, especially with independents.

Goerge Monbiot suggests that the UK and other countries consider a “maximum wage”.

The successful bank robber no longer covers his face and leaps over the counter with a sawn-off shotgun. He arrives in a chauffeur-driven car, glides into the lift then saunters into an office at the top of the building. No one stops him. No one, even when the scale of the heist is revealed, issues a warrant for his arrest. The modern robber obtains prior approval from the institution he is fleecing.

The income of corporate executives, which the business secretary Vince Cable has just failed to address(1), is a form of institutionalised theft, arranged by a kleptocratic class for the benefit of its members. The wealth which was once spread more evenly among the staff of a company, or distributed as lower prices or higher taxes, is now siphoned off by people who have neither earned nor generated it.

Over the past ten years, chief executives’ pay has risen nine times faster than that of the median earner(2). Some bosses (British Gas, Xstrata and Barclays for example) are now being paid over 1000 times the national median wage(3). The share of national income captured by the top 0.1% rose from 1.3% in 1979 to 6.5% by 2007(4).

These rewards bear no relationship to risk. The bosses of big companies, though they call themselves risk-takers, are 13 times less likely to be sacked than the lowest paid workers(5). Even if they lose their jobs and never work again, they will have invested so much and secured such generous pensions and severance packages that they’ll live in luxury for the rest of their lives(6). The risks are carried by other people.

The problem of executive pay is characterised by Cable and many others as a gap between reward and performance. But it runs deeper than that, for three reasons.

As the writer Dan Pink has shown, high pay actually reduces performance(7). Material rewards incentivise simple mechanistic jobs, such as working on an assembly line. But they lead to the poorer execution of tasks which require problem solving and cognitive skills. As studies for the US Federal Reserve and other such bolsheviks show(8), cash incentives narrow people’s focus and restrict the range of their thinking. By contrast, intrinsic motivators — such as a sense of autonomy, of enhancing your skills and pursuing a higher purpose — tend to improve performance.

Even the 0.1% concede that money is not what drives them. Bernie Ecclestone says “I doubt if any successful business person works for money … money is a by-product of success. It’s not the main aim.”(9) Jeroen van der Veer, formerly the chief executive of Shell, recalls, “if I had been paid 50 per cent more, I would not have done it better. If I had been paid 50 per cent less, then I would not have done it worse”(10). High pay is both counterproductive and unnecessary.

The second reason is that, as the psychologist Daniel Kahneman has shown, performance in the financial sector is random, and the belief of traders and fund managers that they are using skill to beat the market is a cognitive illusion(11). A link between pay and results is a reward for blind luck.

Most importantly, the wider consequences of grotesque inequality bear no relationship to entitlement. Obscene rewards for success are as socially corrosive as obscene rewards for failure. They reduce social mobility, enhance plutocratic power and allow the elite to inflict astonishing levels of damage on the environment(12). They create resentment and reduce the motivation of other workers, who see the greedy bosses as the personification of the company(13).

Interesting idea isn’t it?  What’s on your reading and blogging list today?


Late Night Open Thread: A collection of missing links….

Evening everyone, I just wanted to post a quick Late Night thread, and thought it would be neat to focus on some links that I have saved, intending to use them in my Sunday Reads post.

There was a story a little while back about looking into the mind of a Neanderthal.

What would have made them laugh? Or cry? Did they love home more than we do? Meet the real Neanderthals…

A new study released by Kristin O’Brien, a biologist at University of Alaska Fairbanks, has found the family of fishes, called icefishes that live only in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica have a strange biological trait in common.

Blood on the left is from a red-blooded Antarctic fish. Blood on the right is from a white-blooded Antarctic icefish. Image Credit: Kristin O’Brien

An icefish off the coast of Antarctica. Its body and blood is translucent. This image has been identified as one of the best pictures on Wikipedia. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

They are unique because they are the only vertebrates in the world that lack the oxygen-binding protein hemoglobin, which is the protein that transports oxygen throughout the body and gives blood its red color. In other words, the blood of an icefish isn’t red. Instead, its blood runs a cloudy white. “I think these animals are among the most fascinating creatures on Earth,” Dr. O’Brien said.

In Treblinka, a Nazi death camp in Poland, a large number of hidden graves have been revealed using new technology.

When the Nazis left Treblinka in 1943 they thought they had destroyed it. They had knocked down the buildings and levelled the earth. They had built a farmhouse and installed a Ukrainian “farmer”. They had planted trees, and – contemporary reports suggest – lupins.

But if they thought they had removed all evidence of their crime, they hadn’t. For a forensic archaeologist, there is a vast amount to study.

The destruction of buildings rarely results in the complete removal of all traces of them. And even on the surface there are still artefacts and other subtle clues that point to the real purpose of the site.

An study by archaeologist Caroline Sturdy Colls in 2010 has revealed some of those graves and hidden clues that lie quietly underneath the earth.

The existence of mass graves was known about from witness testimony, but the failure to provide persuasive physical evidence led some to question whether it could really be true that hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed here.

Although they lasted only a few days, those post-war investigations remained the most complete studies of the camp until I began my work at Treblinka in 2010.

This revealed the existence of a number of pits across the site.

Th

Map of Treblinka shown by investigations of Caroline Sturdy CollsAbout 800,000 Jews – almost one in six victims of the Holocaust – were slaughtered at Treblinka between spring 1942 and August 1943

Here is the above map overlayed on an aerial photograph from late 1943.


Photo of Treblinka taken 30 November, 1943 (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration, College Park)Victims arrived at a fake railway station, and were made to undress and walk naked to the gas chambers along the “Road to Heaven”

In Africa, there are real pink elephants on parade…what is believed to be an albino African elephant was photographed in a herd of elephants in Botswanna. These animals are extremely rare in Africa, and many do not live long because of the harsh sun and extreme conditions the delicate albino skin is exposed to in most of Africa.

Pink baby elephant in Botswana (Mike Holding)

The little pink calf was spotted in amongst an 80-strong elephant herd

…there might be a ray of hope for the pink calf as it already seemed to be learning to adapt to its condition.

Dr Chase explained: “Because this elephant calf was sighted in the Okavango Delta, he may have a greater chance of survival. He can seek refuge under the large trees and cake himself in a thick mud, which will protect him from the Sun.

“Already the two-to-three-month-old calf seems to be walking in the shade of its mother.

“This behaviour suggests it is aware of its susceptibility to the harsh African sun, and adapted a unique behaviour to improve its chances of survival.”

He added: “I have learned that elephants are highly adaptable, intelligent and masters of survival.”

This next link was one I picked and saved specifically for Dakinikat…I thought she would appreciate the use of Hollywood technology to unlock the secret’s of pianist’s sounds.

University of Southampton academics are pioneering a new way of using motion capture technology to examine the way pianists play the piano.

By using a unique kinematic measurement technique, known as HAWK (Hand And Wrist Kinematics), researchers will be able to look at individual pianists’ playing technique — giving an insight into the posture of their hands on the keys and the movements they use — hopefully showing how this translates into the unique sound they create.
The research will also provide new information on musicians’ hand health, to combat wrist injury (for example, repetitive strain injury — a common problem for pianists).

Have any of you seen the movie Zoolander?

This next link proves that the collection called Derelicte designed by Mugatu is really not that far fetched.

The bold and the beautiful: most daring fashion design ever…

<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
Who is Patrick Mohr designing this for – circus freaks?! ” /></a></p>
<p class=Who is Patrick Mohr designing this for – circus freaks?!

<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
… while Nida Mahmood goes for a more, er, boxy look.” /></a></span></p>
<p class=… while Nida Mahmood goes for a more, er, boxy look.

<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
Animal balloons or haute couture? With Japanese designers Ayumi Mitsukane and Rie Hosokai’s creations, you don’t have to decide!” /></a></span></p>
<p class=Animal balloons or haute couture? With Japanese designers Ayumi Mitsukane and Rie Hosokai’s creations, you don’t have to decide!

That is just a sample of the 111 photos at that link.

And lastly,  something from the literary field…Adonis: a life in writing ‘There is a tendency for poets and painters in the Arab world to be politically engaged’

Adonis, the greatest living poet of the Arab world, ushers me down a labyrinthine corridor in a stately building in Paris, near the Champs Elysées. The plush offices belong to a benefactor, a Syrian-born businessman funding the poet’s latest venture – a cultural journal in Arabic, which he edits. Fetching a bulky manuscript of the imminent third issue of the Other, Adonis hefts it excitedly on to a coffee table, listing the contributors “from west and east”, many of them of his grandchildren’s generation. He turned 82 this month. His eyes spark: “We want new talents with new ideas.”

That is just the first paragraph…enjoy.

This is an open thread…