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Civil Disobedience on Tar Sands Continues, Amid Ominous Signs From Administration

A prolonged civil disobedience campaign outside the White House that opposes a major oil pipeline from the “tar sands” of Canada is now in its sixth day, and 322 people have been arrested.

The Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico would carry 900,000 barrels per day of crude oil refined from bitumen in the Canadian soil. Aside from the ravaging impacts of extraction, the process contributes anywhere from twice to three times as much greenhouse gases as normal crude refining, and there’s serious potential for leaks in the transcontinental pipeline.

The State Department, which is now conducting an environmental review, will then decide by the end of the year whether to issue a “certificate of national interest,” which would allow the pipeline project to go forward.

 As the arrests build, so too does the movement’s support. Yesterday, every major environmental group in the country came out in opposition to the pipeline in a joint letter. The groups, ranging from the Sierra Club to Greenpeace, have often clashed on climate strategy in the Obama era, so the support is particularly notable. “On an issue as complicated as climate, there will often be disagreements over tactics and goals—just recall the differences over the Senate climate bill this time last year,” environmentalist and protest organizer Bill McKibben, said. “But there are some projects so obviously dangerous that they unify everyone, and the Keystone XL pipeline is the best example yet.”

The protests have brought a fair amount of mainstream media coverage to the issue, culminating in a strong New York Times editorial earlier this week, urging the State Department to “acknowledge the environmental risk of the pipeline and the larger damage caused by tar sands production.”

(The media coverage was far less than what it could be, however, given the import of the issue—NASA’s James Hansen has said that if tar sand oil makes a massive entry into the market, it’s “game over” for efforts to stop catastrophic climate change. And as Mother Jones environmental reporter Kate Sheppard mused on Twitter today, “Can you imagine how much more coverage this would get if 272 tea partiers had been arrested?”)

Nevertheless, the industry has taken note of the protests. The American Petroleum Institute has repeatedly bashed the Times editorial, and ThinkProgress’ dogged Chamber of Commerce chronicler Lee Fang noticed the Chamber hitting back too.

Unfortunately, the administration has not yet acknowledged the mass civil disobedience. And more troublingly, reports suggest and approval of the pipeline is likely.

A State Department spokesperson told The Nation when asked about the protests that “The State Department continues to assess the proposal for the Keystone XL pipeline project. We consider the input and feedback from the publican important part of the determination process.” The White House would similarly not acknowledge the action outside the gates, telling The Nation only that “The State Department is assessing the project on behalf of the federal government. That process is ongoing, including receiving important input from the public and stakeholders.”

The State Department may be trying to throw some cold water on the movement, however—according to a curiously timed leak to the Washington Post yesterday, the State Department’s environmental review, scheduled to be released by the end of the month, “will remove a major roadblock to construction” of the Keystone XL pipeline.

According to the source, the review is expected to affirm the State Department’s earlier finding that the project will have “limited adverse environmental impacts.” (A University of Nebraska study has found this evaluation to be deeply flawed).

But there’s still nine days of civil disobedience left—and many more willing to be arrested.  

Republican Presidential Candidates Refuse to Credit Obama on Libya

When news emerged from Tripoli on Sunday night that rebels were closing in on the capital city and Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi was soon to be deposed, it should have been a cause for celebration, even among those of us who opposed American military involvement as ill-advised foreign policy adventurism. Although the future remains uncertain, Qaddafi’s departure should and the opportunity it creates should, in and of itself, be noteworthy to anyone aspiring to lead the free world. Republican presidential aspirants did not need to say much to rise to the occasion: a simple statement of praise for the good news, or hope that Libyans will build a better future, or that the aftermath won’t follow the chaos and mayhem of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, or that the US will be supportive without extending unwise military involvement. But that was asking too much. In many cases, Republicans who want to be president failed to act presidential.

The highest marks go, as usual, to Jon Huntsman. Huntsman had opposed US involvement in the Libyan conflict because we are too over-extended, especially financially, to afford another war. But nonetheless he said on Monday: “Gaddafi has been a longtime opponent of freedom, and I am hopeful—as the whole world should be—that his defeat is a step toward openness, democracy and human rights for a people who greatly deserve it."

Rick Perry, not known for his sober commentary, issued a similar statement. But Perry pretended that Qaddafi’s regime had just spontaneously combusted, instead of acknowledging the role that the US and its allies played, much less—heaven forbid—praising Obama. “The crumbling of Muammar Ghadafi’s reign, a violent, repressive dictatorship with a history of terrorism, is cause for cautious celebration,” Mr. Perry said in a statement. “The lasting impact of events in Libya will depend on ensuring rebel factions form a unified, civil government that guarantees personal freedoms, and builds a new relationship with the West where we are allies instead of adversaries.”

Not everyone followed their lead. Mitt Romney issued a strange statement demanding that the not yet formed Libyan government extradite Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, who was convicted for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. The Scottish government released Megrahi in 2009. Romney’s demand is politically clever, as it positions him as a more forthright defender of American interests than Obama. But it is wildly unsound on policy grounds. For one thing, al-Megrahi has already been tried, convicted, served time and released. To try him again would violate the constitutional principle of double jeopardy. And the US has more pressing concerns in Libya than further punishing al-Megrahi. Our first demand of the new Libyan government should be that it set up a system of constitutional liberty that safeguards individual freedom using an independent judiciary, free press and free religion. Secondarily they will need to hold elections so as to be democratically governed. Then we can perhaps we can work with them on our own strategic interests in the region. Romney’s focus on al Megrahi is an unhelpful diversion.

Remarkably enough, Michele Bachmann actually made more sense in her response to the Libyan events than did Romney. Bachmann hit similar notes to Huntsman and Perry but prefaced them by reiterating her opposition to the US role in Qaddafi’s ouster. “I opposed US military involvement in Libya and I am hopeful that our intervention there is about to end,” said Bachmann in a statement. “I also hope the progress of events in Libya will ultimately lead to a government that honors the rule of law, respects the people of Libya and their yearning for freedom, and one that will be a good partner to the United States and the international community.”

Bachmann’s comment should not, unfortunately, be taken as a sign that she holds surprisingly realist or dovish views on foreign policy. Rather, as Eli Lake explains in The New Republic, she belongs to the racist school of thought among anti-Muslim bigots on the right who believe Muslims are not capable of democratic self-governance. As Lake writes, “Such ideas almost certainly explain why Bachmann showed little interest in backing the Arab protesters earlier this year. Many neocons attacked President Obama for not doing enough to support the protesters in Egypt, but Bachmann criticized the president from the opposite side.”

Rick Santorum churlishly tried to deny Obama credit for the victory our military support just assisted. ”Ridding the world of the likes of Gadhafi is a good thing, but this indecisive President had little to do with this triumph,” he said in a statement.

But give credit to those candidates for at least addressing a NATO-backed rebellion in the Middle East overthrowing a longtime US adversary. Half of the GOP field has simply ignored the event, since it is difficult to fit into their partisan framework.

Of course, foreign policy is also a soft spot for most Republican candidates. All Republicans must wrestle with President Bush’s failures to pacify Afghanistan, catch Osama bin Laden, spread democracy in the Middle East, enhance American popularity or prestige abroad, or manage the Iraqi occupation. Obama, by contrast, killed bin Laden, has seen the Arab Spring rise on his watch, drawn down troops in Iraq without disaster unfolding, and more successfully combated Al Qaeda than Bush did. All that makes this a hard time to criticize Obama, particularly on the grounds that he is soft on national security. Qaddafi’s departure will make it no easier.

Moreover, the GOP field right now is a group with virtually no foreign policy expertise. Composed primarily of former governors and House backbenchers, only Huntsman can claim any significant foreign policy experience. And several candidates have shown themselves to be especially incoherent or ignorant on the Middle East.

Back in March Newt Gingrich made a series of contradictory and controversial statements on US involvement in Libya. On March 7, he called for a no-fly zone “this evening,” explaining, “All we have to say is that we think that slaughtering your own citizens is unacceptable and that we’re intervening.” But on March 23, after the no-fly zone had begun, he said he opposed it. “We are not in a position to go around the world every time there’s a local problem and intervene.” Having taken two diametrically opposed positions, anything he says now will counter one of them, so he is probably reluctant to contradict himself yet again.

Pizza magnate Herman Cain made his biggest gaffe of the campaign when he made a statement in May that exposed his total unfamiliarity with the issue of the Palestinian right of return, so he may be wary of weighing in on foreign policy as well.

Foreign policy divides the Republican candidates as no other issue does. The only interesting part of the last debate was seeing Rick Santorum and Ron Paul debate US policy towards Iran. Paul had also opposed the Libyan intervention, but has been surprisingly quiet on Qaddafi’s downfall.

It seems, though, that there is one thing the Republicans can always agree upon: never to credit Barack Obama for anything, even an outcome they sought.

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Cognitive Dissonance: Conservative Media Respond to Libya's Liberation

The success of the Libyan revolution and toppling of Muammar Qaddafi has put conservative commentators in an awfully tough position. President Reagan had unsuccessfully bombed Libya in order to kill Qaddaffi, and had failed at exacting any revenge for Libya’s murder of hundreds of American civilians on Pan Am flight 103. President Bush had worked to normalize relations with Libya and claimed Qaddafi’s willingness to give up weapons programs as evidence of the Iraq invasion’s success at scaring the bad guys straight.

But Qaddafi remained a dictator and a routine violator of human rights. Conservatives say the United States has an obligation to intervene militarily to depose hostile regimes such as Qaddafi’s. But it’s awfully embarrassing for them when it turns out that it is a Democrat who does so, and at considerably lower cost than we paid in Iraq. So how did the conservative media respond on Monday?

One approach is to avoid the subject. Visitors to Townhall.com this afternoon were treated to sizable headlines about Vice President Biden’s comments on China’s one-child policy and Representative Maxine Waters’s distaste for the Tea Party, but could be forgiven for not realizing anything had happened at Libya at all. An Associated Press story relegated to a small side box was the extent of their Libya coverage.

Human Events was practically a stereotype of itself. Its first story in the site lead box asked, “How Long Will Sarah Palin Keep us in Suspense?” followed by an attack on Obama as anti–free trade, a story complaining that Obama is on vacation and an apparent attempt at humor arguing that placing hand sanitizer in the voting booth will help Republicans win next fall. The word “Libya” was nowhere to be found on the homepage.

Influential blog Red State did not weigh in on Libya all day Monday.

The neoconservative Weekly Standard, which exists primarily to editorialize in favor of militarily toppling Middle Eastern regimes, became suddenly demure. They dutifully reported statements from Obama and leading Republicans on the events without offering any analysis.

Other conservative outlets took it upon themselves to finesse the fact that Barack Obama just helped overthrow a terrorism-sponsoring tyrant into their preconceived notions about foreign policy. It wasn’t easy.

On Fox News Sean Hannity cracked that the Libya operation shows that Obama “agrees with President Bush’s doctrine of pre-emptive” military action. This makes no sense, unless Hannity is under the bizarre false impression that the United States supported the Libyan rebels to preempt some imagined attack on the United States’s using imaginary weapons of mass destruction. Otherwise, there is no meaningful analogy to Iraq. Hannity also took multiple shots at Obama for being “on the golf course” during these events.

“So Qaddafi has been toppled, but only after a notably weak and unnecessarily prolonged campaign,” Stanley Kurtz writes in National Review. Rather than seeing our strategic objective achieved without a single American casualty as a good thing, he complains of “a reluctance to see American casualties.” Aside from lives lost and dollars spent (cost being a factor that supposed fiscal conservatives never mention when exhorting the United States to invade foreign countries), the other cost of the Iraq War we have been spared thus far in Libya is the wave of anti-Americanism stirred up by a unilateral invasion. That also disappoints Kurtz, who writes disapprovingly that “Obama was determined that Libya should stand as a precedent for multilateral interventions under United Nations auspices, fought according to UN rules of war.” Most preposterously, Kurtz claims that Obama’s success at working with allies to do what Ronald Reagan could not is evidence that our defense has gone soft. “We may have narrowly escaped the disaster of a failed intervention but Iran, Russia, China, North Korea, and other potential adversaries have taken note of the West’s weakness.”

The Wall Street Journal editorial page made the now-moot criticism that Obama took too long to get behind the insurgency. “We and many others had urged the State Department to engage with the rebels from the earliest days of the revolt, but the U.S. was slow to do so.” Compared to, say, the American Revolution victory has come pretty quickly for the Libyan rebels, but not fast enough for the keyboard commandos on Rupert Murdoch’s payroll.

With these kinds of responses to an operation’s success, it’s hard to imagine what criticisms conservatives would come up with if the Libya mission had actually failed. But they’d figure out something, because that’s what partisan hacks do. 

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Civil Disobedience on Tar Sands Begins Outside the White House

The largest act of civil disobedience by environmentalists in decades began outside the White House this morning, as more than seventy activists were arrested at the north gates during a protest against the Keystone XL pipeline, which if approved by the administration would carry 900,000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

The activists, who sat down at the gates at 11 am holding large banners reading “Climate change is not in our national interest,” were warned three times by US Park Police to move along, and were handcuffed and removed after they refused. More than 2,000 people have pledged to be arrested outside the White House every day until September 3, in daily installments of seventy-five to 100 people.

The Keystone Pipeline would carry oil gouged from the “tar sands” of Alberta—areas where soil is thick with bitumen, which can be refined into synthetic crude oil. The process is environmentally devastating. Parts of Alberta have already been ravaged by the extraction, and the refining process involved creates twice the greenhouse gases as producing a normal barrel of crude.

Since the pipeline would cross an international border, the State Department has jurisdiction and is completing an environmental assessment of the project, which could be released this week. The White House will have ninety days to decide whether to grant a permit for the pipeline. The grassroots group 350.org, which includes many Nation writers, has called for a campaign of nonviolent direct action aimed at persuading the administration to deny the permit.

The Alberta tar sands represent the second-largest repository of oil in the world, and climate scientists are horrified with the prospect of pumping that much carbon into the atmosphere. Environmentalist Bill McKibben, who led today’s action, noted that if all of the oil were extracted overnight it would increase the carbon in the earth’s atmosphere from 393 parts per million to 550 parts per million—a devastating increase. NASA climate scientist James Hansen recently wrote that since phasing existing carbon emissions out is already an enormous task, “if the tar sands are thrown into the mix, it is essentially game over.”

Beyond the climate concerns, there’s the issue of pipeline safety—Keystone XL would traverse the entire country, from Montana to the Gulf of Mexico. Anyone unconcerned with potential pipeline failures should note the recent incident underneath the Yellowstone River, where an Exxon pipeline ruptured and spilled over 1,000 barrels of crude into the river.

There are, of course, massive financial interests behind the construction of Keystone XL. Tar sands commercials are ubiquitous on television, particularly during news programming. The industry, led by the American Petroleum Institute, has launched an enormous advertising and lobbying push.

McKibben rallied the activists in Lafayette Park moments before the action began, and noted the enormous amount of money on the other side of the fight.

“There is enormous pressure coming down on the White House from the fossil fuels industry. These are the richest people. They are the most powerful people on our planet. They usually win,” McKibben said. “We have to find a different currency to work in. Our currency today and for the next two weeks is our bodies and our creativity and our spirit. And that’s all we’ve got to put up against all that money, and we will find out if it’s enough.”

Since Congress is not involved in this decision, the White House is the decisive chokepoint for the Keystone XL project—Obama doesn’t have to tangle with industry-friendly members of Congress. McKibben told reporters in Lafayette Park that “it is really the environmental test for Barack Obama, really in the course of his first term.”

Many of the activists wore buttons from the Obama 2008 presidential campaign, which climaxed in Denver at the Democratic National Convention, where Obama famously marked the moment “when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” McKibben predicted that “if Barack Obama mans up and says ‘no’ to this thing, it will send a surge of electricity through all of the people who voted for him three years ago. It’ll be the reminder of why we were so enamored with this guy in 2008.”

When the arrests began, the activists—including McKibben, FireDogLake founder Jane Hamsher, Lt. Dan Choi, and Vermont Law School professor Gus Speth—repeated chants of “Hey hey, ho ho, Keystone XL’s got to go” and “Ain’t no power like the power of the sun, because the power of the sun don’t stop.”

They were handcuffed with zip ties, led one-by-one into a tent set up by the US Park Police, processed and loaded into the back of a large van as tourists watched. The arresting officers gave the activists water over the course of the two-hour process, which took place in the sweltering late-summer heat of Washington. Several activists noted that if Keystone XL isn’t stopped, the hottest weather is surely yet to come.

A Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week for Standard & Poor's

It’s been a really rough week for Standard & Poor’s. As we noted Wednesday, the Securities and Exchange Commission is “reviewing” the rating agencies’ recent decision to downgrade the federal government’s credit rating, which is totally inconsistent with actual economic indicators of the country’s ability to pay its debt. The Senate Banking Committee is “gathering information” into that decision as well.

Yesterday, the New York Times reported that the Department of Justice has been probing Standard & Poor’s for its role in blessing toxic mortgage-backed securities in the years leading to the financial crisis those instruments ultimately caused. The investigation could “accelerate the shift away from the traditional ratings system,” the Times notes.

The Justice probe focuses on whether managers at Standard & Poor’s deliberately kept high ratings for mortgage-backed securities, despite the advice of some of the company’s analysts, in order to preserve income from the very trading firms that trafficked in the dangerous tranches. According to the Times, investigators are questioning witnesses who might have heard Standard & Poor’s managing director David Tesher warned employees: “Don’t kill the golden goose.”

Senator Al Franken wrote an opinion piece for CNN today highlighting another bit of evidence: a 2006 e-mail from a Standard & Poor’s official, which said: “Let's hope we are all wealthy and retired by the time this house of cards falters.”

As experts are trying to piece together why Standard & Poor’s made a clearly political, and clearly not economic, decision to downgrade the federal debt, it’s crucially important to include the context of these ongoing investigations.

While nobody else knows what is driving Standard & Poor’s to act, it is easy to see how it might believe the downgrade helps them—first, because while under attack for being blind to the mortgage-backed securities, they can now appear tough-minded about a debt crisis, which while again isn’t economically present, is taken seriously by many DC policymakers.

Moreover, by issuing the downgrade and striking a blow against the administration, Standard & Poor’s may be hoping to paint any ongoing investigations as retribution. If that’s the strategy, it’s starting to work. The lead of an ABC News story on the Justice investigation, for example, asks if the downgrade has made Standard & Poor’s “a lightning rod for critics and regulators.” The Washington Post similarly characterizes the investigation as “likely to add to the political firestorm created by the downgrade.”

But the house of cards is faltering outside of Washington, too. Municipalities across the country are abandoning Standard & Poor’s after being downgraded themselves, often unfairly. Municipalities have been asking Standard & Poor's and other agencies to rate their finances since around 1994, essentially as a public relations move following a major financial crisis in Orange County, California.  

In just the past week, the City of Los Angeles; Manatee County, Florida; and San Mateo County, California, have all dropped Standard & Poor’s after being downgraded. “We found the whole process of the downgrade flawed,” the treasurer of San Mateo County told the Wall Street Journal. The county will save $20,000 annually by not paying Standard & Poor's, and won't sign up with another rating agency in the near future.

Standard & Poor's downgraded those municipalities because they held US Treasury bonds, so it flowed from the original flawed federal downgrade. But some recent downgrades have been even more unfounded—for example, Standard & Poor’s issued a recent downgrade report on the county of Manassas Park, Virginia, citing in part increased salaries for public employees.

There are two small problems: Manassas Park is a city, not a county, and they haven’t increased salaries in two years. Local officials pointed this out, but the downgrade was not retracted. (City officials told the Wall Street Journal they are not dropping Standard & Poor’s, however).

In any case, it’s particularly galling for some local officials who saw their municipality downgraded by Standard & Poor’s, even if the assessment is technically fair. Local finances are often in trouble precisely because they are still holding toxic mortgage-backed securities that Standard & Poor’s dubbed safe earlier in the decade. For example, Manatee County is still holding about $1 million in toxic debt—something Standard & Poor’s cited in its recent decision to downgrade the county’s rating. 

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Conservative Criticism of Rick Perry's Corporate Cronyism

We recently reported on how Texas Governor Rick Perry has raked in remarkably large donations from business executives in exchange for governmental appointments and policy favors. Now even conservatives are criticizing Perry for putting the interests of corporations ahead of the public interest.

The conservative Washington Examiner lambasted Perry on Wednesday as a “cowboy corporatist.” Timothy Carney, who covers the intersection of corporate and political power for the Examiner, detailed how Perry created and ran the Texas Enterprise Fund and the Texas Emerging Technology Fund to hand over taxpayer money to private businesses. The nominal purpose is helping businesses expand in Texas or relocate there. Being a Perry donor is the surest route to winning a grant from one of these slush funds. Half of Perry’s “mega-donors” have gotten money. Examples include a $4.5 million grant to $80,000 Perry donor David Nance and poultry mogul Joe Sanderson, who gave Perry’s campaign $165,000, receiving $500,000 from the state government.

Carney concludes that “Perry made government a venture capital fund.” The truth is much worse. Venture capital funds can make a profit for their investors. In this case, government was, in the words of Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice (TPJ), “providing direct grants to profitable corporations.” Perry turned Texas into a corporate welfare agency.

What did Texas get in return? Not much, according to a “Phantom Jobs,” a 2009 study by TPJ, which found that 66 percent of Texas Enterprise Fund (TEF) grant recipients failed to deliver on their job creation promises. Looking at the compliance reports of fifty TEF grants that cost a total $368 million, TPJ found that thirty-three recipients failed to meet or amended their job creation or maintenance projections. Collectively they delivered 30,381 jobs instead of the promised 49,581. At more than $10,000 per job created, Perry would certainly deride any federal program with similar results as wasteful socialism.

“He’s an exuberant corporate Republican,” says former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower. “He’s fully embraced the corporate plutocracy.”

Another boondoggle for contributors was Perry’s dream of creating a “Trans-Texas Corridor” (TTC). The mega-highway would have taken land through eminent domain to build a privately owned toll road. Eager to grab their share of the impending road-paving bonanza, construction companies stepped up their donation and lobbying expenditures. As TPJ reported in 2009, “Since the state solicited its first bids for a leg of the TTC project in 2003, private companies that have landed lucrative TTC contracts have contributed $3.4 million to Texas candidates and political committees—a significant increase in their political activity. TTC contractors also have spent up to $6.1 million on Texas lobbyists since the state solicited their respective bids.”

The construction industry is a major source of Perry’s campaign cash. According to TPJ, “From mid-1997 to mid-2001, TxDOT [Texas Department of Transportation] contractors contributed $239,750 to Perry. During Perry’s first nine months in the Governor’s Mansion his administration awarded almost $1 billion in contracts to these same TxDOT contributors.” Between July 2003 and July 2008 Perry received $354,450 from contractors for the Trans-Texas Corridor.

The project has caused headaches for Perry among many different conservative constituencies. Concerns about eminent domain abuse cost Perry the endorsement of the Texas Farm Bureau in his 2006 re-election campaign. Conspiracy-minded paranoids think the Trans-Texas Corridor was part of a planned “NAFTA superhighway.” The right-wing website Townhall ran an article last week called “Rick Perry’s NAFTA Superhighway Problem.” And the plan to lease the highway to a foreign corporation raised hackles on the nativist right.

Perry’s favors for other foreign corporations could pose problems for him with hawkish conservatives. Neoconservative Eli Lake reports in The New Republic that Perry enticed Citgo, owned by the Venezualan government, to move its headquarters to Houston and expand a refinery in Texas with a grant and low-interest loan package worth $35 million. Perry also has cozy relations with Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei.

The most notorious misstep Perry made among conservatives was signing legislation that would require vaccination among Texas schoolgirls for HPV. HPV vaccination happens to be a good idea. But given Perry’s opposition to most other good ideas, it’s just as likely that he was swayed by the $6,000 dollars that Merck, the maker of the vaccine, gave to Perry’s re-election campaign, as by the merits of the issue. Perry has recently reversed himself on the subject, but his right-wing critics, such as blogger Michele Malkin, remain unmollified. After eight years of crony capitalism under another recent Governor of Texas, it’s not only conservatives that Perry will have to worry about.

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Don't Give the Miami Hurricanes the Death Penalty: Give It to the NCAA

Thursday morning’s cover of USA Today blared the two words on everyone's lips: “the death penalty.” No, this isn’t because Texas Governor Rick Perry—who just loves executin’ innocent and guilty alike—is now running for president.  It’s the fate that most people believe awaits the storied football team at the University of Miami. The death penalty means that the NCAA will for an indeterminate time shut down the entire Hurricanes program. It’s a brutal, financially crippling fate that many believe Miami has more than earned, following a Yahoo Sports exposé by Charles Robinson that detailed eight years of amateur violations that would make Dennis Rodman blush. A mini-Madoff financial criminal named Nevin Shapiro, currently serving twenty years behind bars, offered prostitutes, payola, jewelry, yacht parties and every possible South Beach excess for the Hurricane players. While corrupting the athletic program, he was simultaneously being feted by the school's president, former Clinton cabinet member Donna Shalala, and Hurricanes athletic director Paul Dee. They even let him on two occasions lead the team out of the tunnel on game day.

This bombshell has the moral majority of sports journalists in full froth, rushing to the barricades to defend amateur sports. We have people like Sporting News columnist David Whitley, to use merely one example writing,” The only way to make Miami behave is a long timeout. No more football, smoke and parties for a couple of years. Nothing else has a chance of ending the culture of corruption that is The U.” He even calls Miami "the Ben Tre of college football," writing, “American forces wiped out the village to get rid of the Viet Cong, prompting a timeless explanation from the US commander: ‘It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.’ The only way to save Miami is to destroy it, stripper pole and all.” But like the war in Vietnam, not to mention the actual death penalty, the call for the NCAA to shut down the program is dead wrong. As with capital punishment, eliminating the Hurricanes is an exercise in hypocrisy that does nothing but ensure that these scandals will happen again and again.

What this scandal should produce, instead of the isolation and destruction of one program, is a serious reflection on the gutter economy that is college athletics. Players cannot be paid openly and legally, so instead we get the amoral wampum of “amateur sports.” Reading the Yahoo Sports story, it’s difficult to not be chilled by the casual misogyny detailed as strippers, “escorts” and hookers were purchased and handed to players like party favors. You wonder why more than 80 percent of NFL players get divorced after retirement. It’s because as teenagers they are mentored by parasites like Nevin Shapiro who show them that women are the exchange value for their lucrative labor. This kind of gutter economy also has an ugly echo in old slave plantations, as the prized sports specimens in the antebellum South were handed women by the masters in return for their athletic prowess. Or as David Steele wrote earlier this week, ”Of course, America’s tender little feelings will be bruised if this is equated to slavery, or a plantation economy, or a plantation mentality. Fine. Maybe it can live with a metaphor like sharecropping. You do all the work, we take all the profits, we compensate you with the bare necessities of life, and tough break if you don’t like it."

The metaphor works because once you wave away the smoke and hot air, this is about jock-sniffing criminals and corrupted college presidents taking advantage of primarily poor African-Americans from the South, who see everyone getting paid but them. One anonymous University of Miami player told Yahoo Sports about University running back Tyrone Moss, who took $1,000 from Shapiro. “The guy had a kid while he was in college, a little Tyrone Jr.,” the player said. “He comes in poor as [expletive] from Pompano and he’s got a little kid to feed. I could barely feed myself. I can’t imagine having to feed a kid, too. Of course he’s going to take it when someone offers him $1,000. Who wouldn’t in that situation?”

The solution lies in paying the players but it also lies in driving a stake through the heart of the NCAA as an instrument of enforcement. Having the NCAA shut down the program only reinforces the illusion that they are the motor of morality, compliance and justice, when in fact they are the corrupters of these concepts. Already, NCAA President Mark Emmert, he of the seven-figure salary, has been across the national media, preaching about protecting, “The integrity of intercollegiate athletics.” Emmert and his fourteen assistants, each who make at least $400,000 a year, will stand on their soapbox and quarantine the bad boys of Miami just in time to save the Golden Goose: the billion-dollar television contracts, and the $135 million from the Bowl Championship Series used to crown a fake national champion.

They defend amateurism as an end unto itself, but this is also complete nonsense. As Patrick Hruby wrote at espn.com last year, “Philosophically speaking, amateurism is malarkey, about as credible as the Tooth Fairy. The Victorian-era English aristocrats who came up with the concept ascribed it to the ancient Greeks, who supposedly competed for nothing more than glory, honor and olive wreaths. The only problem? History and the legend don't match. Modern archeology suggests that the ancient Olympics were rife with spoils. Think prize money, prime amphitheater seats, generous pensions and civic appointments. According to Olympic historian Tony Perottet, one Games winner even parlayed his victory into a senatorial seat in Athens. Indeed, the ancient Greeks didn't even have a word for amateur, and the closest term—idiotes—needs no translation."

Let what has happened at Miami be a wakeup call: the NCAA has about as much moral authority to give “the death penalty” as Rick Perry. If this ends with the NCAA giving Miami the death penalty, then the “gutter economy” survives and we are all the worse for it. If you listen closely, you can hear King Leopold’s chains rattling in the NCAA’s halls, haunting and guiding the daily maneuvers of this “nonprofit” that enriches itself by paying its laborers nothing. Shut it down and end the culture of corruption once and for all.

Rick Perry's Polluter Cronies

One of Texas Governor Rick Perry’s oft-touted strengths in the Republican primary is his demonstrated prowess at fundraising. Less widely known is how he has raised that money and what he has done in return for it. According to Texas good government and environmental watchdogs, Perry has raised much of his campaign funds from business executives who have financial interests in state government decisions. Often Perry’s supporters come from the energy sector and Perry’s help for them has come at the expense of the environment.

Over his three campaigns for governor Perry raised a remarkable $102 million. Perry’s predecessor, George W. Bush, who was no slouch at fundraising himself, brought in $41 million over two campaigns.

Half of Perry’s haul, $51 million, has come from just 204 sources. Some are political action committees, but most are wealthy individuals. “He relies on a relatively small network of very big hitters, wealthy businessmen and their spouses who want something out of Texas government,” says Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a nonprofit research group that tracks the influence of money in Texas politics. As the Dallas Morning News reported during Perry’s re-election bid last year, “Perry tapped scores of big-dollar donors—including some who have business before the state or have benefited from taxpayer subsidies,” to vastly outraise his Democratic opponent, Bill White.

As McDonald explains, “Texas is a pay-to-play state.” That means Perry has generously rewarded his contributors with appointments and political favors. Perry has appointed 921 people, who have donated to his campaigns, for a total of $17.1 million, to various jobs and boards. These are not always disinterested public servants. McDonald says, “There are lots of people who have business interests who got appointed to positions with regulatory power over them.”

Perry has also shown an eagerness to do the bidding of his major supporters. Most notably, his second-biggest all-time donor, Harold Simmons, owns a nuclear waste dump. Perry led the charge in 2010, while Simmons gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to Perry’s re-election campaign, to allow Simmons to import nuclear waste from thirty-eight states. On June 27 of this year, ten days after Perry signed the legislation, Simmons gave $100,000 to Americans for Rick Perry. Tom Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office, estimates that the rule change will bring upward of $2 billion for Simmons. “If you put money in Perry’s purse, he’ll create policies you need,” says Smith.

Perry has been similarly accommodating of various other energy interests in the state. Texas has violated the Clean Air Act by allowing industrial plants such as oil refineries to reduce emissions overall rather than at each emissions point. When the Environmental Protection Agency informed Texas that they would have to take over Clean Air Act implementation in the state, Perry complained. “Perry’s on the cutting edge of this whole ‘job-killing EPA’ strategy that Republicans have used,” says Smith. There’s a saying Texas, according to Smith that “it’s cheaper to invest in politicians than in pollution controls.” Perry has been similarly critical of the EPA’s efforts to regulate greenhouse gases nationally.

Perry has been carrying water for environmentally destructive industries since his days in the Texas legislature. Back then, in the late 1980s, he led efforts to prevent species such as the golden cheek warbler from being listed as endangered, because their habitats in West Texas were threatened by suburban sprawl. Developers feared that they would be unable to pave over sensitive lands. Perry’s all-time biggest donor is home builder Bob Perry (no relation).

Most infamously, when liberal Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower sought to require farmers to meet some basic safety requirements for use of pesticides, Perry led the opposition. Hightower merely sought to require public posting of when pesticides would be used and what dangerous chemicals they contain, so that farm workers and neighbors could take precautions. Farm workers would also have been not allowed into fields for a time after spraying. The chemical industry was not pleased. Perry, as chair of the relevant subcommittee in the legislature, tried to revoke the Agriculture Commissioner’s rule-making authority and to make the position appointed rather than elected. When that failed, Perry switched parties to run against Hightower, winning his first statewide election in 1990.

“Perry had been recruited by Karl Rove to switch parties and run against me on behalf of the chemical lobbies,” recalls Hightower. “He is a complete whore to polluter interests in our state. He’s avid practitioner of crony politics.”

But just in case you were worried that Perry has enriched polluters while having to live on a public servant’s salary, rest assured that Perry has become a multimillionaire while in public office. In 2001 Perry bought a house from a friend who had bought it from Doug Jaffe, a member of a family with prominent ties in Texas business and political circles, for $300,000, less than two-thirds of its market value. Six years later he sold it to another associate of Jaffe’s for $1.3 million, pocketing an impressive profit.

Why Mitt Romney's Lack of Character Matters

Last week Politico reported that, facing falling approval ratings and high unemployment, President Obama’s re-election campaign would go negative on his Republican opponent. Currently that means training their fire on Mitt Romney, the national front runner. “Obama’s re-elect will portray the public Romney as inauthentic, unprincipled and, in a word used repeatedly by Obama’s advisers in about a dozen interviews, “weird,” write Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin.

The inevitable high-minded hand-wringing about the “moral cost” to the Obama campaign ensued, and by Friday morning Obama adviser David Axelrod was disavowing the story, saying he would fire anyone who calls Romney weird.

Hopefully that’s just spin from Axelrod, because the strategy Politico describes is a good one. The same exact line of attack against John Kerry—that he’s an out-of-touch flip-flopper—worked well for George W. Bush in 2004. That’s how Bush managed to win re-election with only a 48 percent approval rating.

Of course, the attack against Kerry was silly. Anyone who has spent a long enough time in politics will have what at least appear to be shifts in position. George W. Bush could have just as fairly been described as a flip-flopping elite as Kerry, but that was hardly the main reason Bush was a bad president.

So what makes Romney’s flip-flopping different? The fact that it exposes not just changes in specific position but rather Romney’s total lack of identity or purpose in politics.

Most politicians adhere to a broad political orientation, such as liberal Democrat or conservative Republican, and shift positions over time as the nature of what it means to hold that place on the spectrum changes. For example, if you are a liberal on social issues you may have flip-flopped over the last decade from opposing to supporting gay marriage, as the realm of what is politically possible has shifted. But there is an underlying constancy in that you are always pushing for social progress.

Romney, on the other hand, has no such identity. In Massachusetts he ran to the left; now he runs far to the right. There is no overarching purpose—whether it be fighting for social justice or defending traditional family values—to his political career.

It is perfectly normal for candidates to recalibrate their stance on a complicated issue such as a war over time, but Romney changes his position on issues like abortion on which there is no change of facts on the ground, only in the office he seeks. And when he makes a reversal he adopts the most extreme iteration of his new stance. So he says the Affordable Care Act, modeled on his own law in Massachusetts, is not only a step too far for the federal government it is “a government takeover of healthcare.” (Politifact labels that claim “flatly incorrect.”)

In 2002 he boasted that “there’s not a paper’s width worth of difference” between his and Democrat Shannon O’Brien’s position on abortion, now he adheres to Republican antiabortion rights orthodoxy and wants a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. In 1996 he was so opposed to a flat tax that he took out an ad in the Boston Globe calling it “a tax cut for fat cats.” On Monday he said he wants only one tax bracket.

Romney obviously doesn’t really believe what he now says and it’s not clear if he believed his initial position either. That’s especially true because he does not even bother to come up with a plausible explanation—other than political expediency—as to why he has so radically changed his position.

What one comes away with from watching Romney is that he lacks any core convictions whatsoever. That’s preferable to the ignorance and extremism of his primary opponents. But it is not a positive characteristic. People who got into politics with no sense of what they wish to accomplish other than attaining status and power strike many voters as untrustworthy, and with good reason.

There is nothing underhanded or unfair about Obama’s campaign or supporters pointing this out. It is the flip side of how he would run against Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann, where he would presumably attack their outlandish, if honestly held, positions.

Every election is, or at least should be, a “choice” election rather than a referendum on the incumbent. Voters who went to the polls in 2010 to register their displeasure with deficit spending and slow economic growth by voting Republican acted stupidly. They returned to power the Republicans’ austerity regime and refusal to make a fair deal to reduce the deficit. If they had realized that they were choosing the greater of two evils they might have voted differently. It is not only fair for the Obama campaign to make this choice explicit, it is their democratic duty.

If you want to see just how far Mitt Romney has come from 2002, watch this video his gubernatorial debate with O’Brien.

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Standard & Poor's Getting Heat for Downgrade Decision

According to a Reuters report this morning, the Securities and Exchange Commission is “reviewing” the decision of rating agency Standard & Poor’s to downgrade the federal government’s credit rating.

The decision to issue a downgrade—despite the fact that interest rates for US Treasury bonds remain at near-historic lows, and a lack of any evidence the country won’t be able to honor its obligations—has already been criticized by several powerful Washington players. Senator Tim Johnson, chairman of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, blasted the decision last week in a statement. “In the minds of serious, reasonable, and informed individuals there is no doubt that the US will meet its debt,” he said. “I am deeply disappointed in S&P’s decision to enter into the game of political punditry.”

An aide told me the Banking Committee is “looking into the issue and gathering information.”

The SEC’s review is made possible by the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, which gave the agency expanded power to review the actions of rating agencies like Standard & Poor’s. The SEC cannot second-guess a rating decision outright, but can, however, make sure the issuing agency followed its own guidelines.

The current review into the downgrade decision is focused on Standard & Poor’s transparency rules, according to one Reuter’s source—whether, for example, the Standard & Poor’s committee held the necessary meetings on the decision. Given the very curious nature of the downgrade, it will be interesting to see if Standard & Poor’s complied with transparency rules in making it.

The SEC is also already undergoing a broader examination of all rating agencies, as required by the Dodd-Frank reforms. The agency will issue that report sometime in December. It has already removed references to the opinion of private rating agencies from federal guidelines, and created a separate metric for evaluating investments that could be used as an alternative to the current rating agencies.

If Standard & Poor’s was motivated to issue their downgrade as an assertion of power against increasing regulation, the SEC review would indicate the government is not cowed.

An alternate, or perhaps complimentary, theory of Standard & Poor’s downgrade decision is that the agency was trying to appear tough after having endorsed the mortgage-backed securities that eventually destroyed the economy. Last week, University of Massachusetts professor Robert Pollin told me that perhaps Standard & Poor’s was trying to create the impression that “they’re hard nosed, they’re courageous; this is their best objective analysis. All of a sudden, after being shill for the financial bubble, they’re going to be hard-nosed.” He added that perhaps Standard & Poor’s was trying to appear more decisive than the other two rating agencies, Fitch and Moody’s.

If that was indeed the strategy, it too may be backfiring. Amidst SEC and Senate “reviews,” and harsh comments from other prominent politicians about Standard & Poor’s, the rival agency Fitch announced this morning it is reaffirming the United States's AAA rating and said it doesn’t anticipate downgrade.

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