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With Just 40 Gun Murders In Australia In 2012, Sydney Hostage Crisis Looms Large

Huffingon Post Politics - Mon, 2014-12-15 20:13
Australia was rocked by a rare episode of gun violence on Tuesday, when a tense hostage siege in Sydney came to an end after police pushed into a downtown cafe and exchanged gunfire with the suspect. The gunman, reportedly armed with a pump-action shotgun, was killed by police, who entered the store after gunfire was heard inside. Two hostages also died, though it was unclear whether they were killed by the hostage-taker or by police who sought to free them.

The battle at the Lindt Chocolat Cafe in the heart of Sydney initially looked more complicated than a "damaged goods individual" with a gun, as the gunman's former lawyer recently described him. There were reports of possible explosives, an ominous display of a flag with an inscription of the Islamic declaration of faith, and rumors that the gunman may have ties to other terror suspects.

Some of the early suspicions appear to have been debunked. However, Australia is nevertheless reeling from something the country seldom sees: people killed by guns.

"We have lost some of our own in an attack we never thought we would see here in our own city," New South Wales Premier Mike Baird said at a news conference Tuesday.

In 2012, Australia saw 40 murders by firearm, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. This was a five-year high. Australia's gun homicide rate for the year was .20 per 100,000 residents, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, or UNODC.

Compare that to the United States, which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, saw 11,622 homicides by firearm in 2012. The U.S. gun homicide rate for the year was 2.2 per 100,000 residents, according to UNODC.

Australia and the U.S. have drastically different relationships with guns and gun control, and Australia has historically had substantially less gun violence. In 1996, a shooting spree claimed 35 lives in Port Arthur, Tasmania, leading to an ambitious package of gun control legislation. It banned all automatic and semi-automatic weapons, imposed strict licensing, background check and waiting-period rules for new purchases, and implemented a massive gun buyback program.

There hasn't been another mass shooting since. The number of homicides by firearm has fallen over the past 15 years. Still, recent reports suggest gun ownership is becoming more commonplace and the market for illegally imported or stolen weapons is growing, leading to disturbing outbreaks of gun violence -- though not necessarily deaths -- in certain areas.

Tuesday's hostage crisis in Sydney showed the two nations still respond to gun violence quite differently. Before full details of the siege had even been released, Australian politicians were rushing to make statements championing the nation's steadfast resolve in the face of the violence. Media in Australia and around the world blanketed the airwaves with minute-by-minute updates. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott called the ordeal "profoundly shocking." On Tuesday afternoon, flags at government buildings in Australia were flown at half mast and residents lay flowers near the cite of the standoff in a makeshift tribute to the victims.

Meanwhile, more than 9,000 miles away, in the Philadelphia suburbs, a manhunt was ongoing Monday night for a gunman accused of killing six people in a spree of three shootings. The motive appears personal, with authorities saying the suspect is related to all of the victims.

Still, the Pennsylvania violence has so far played out without much notice from elected officials or international media. Perhaps that's not surprising. If U.S. leaders and the world turned their attention to American gun violence every time people were shot to death, there would be little time to focus on much else.

Jeb Bush's Pros and Cons

Huffingon Post Politics - Mon, 2014-12-15 20:10

The 2014 midterms are over. The lame-duck Congress is wrapping things up and preparing to flee Washington. The holiday season is in the air. So, naturally, it is now time to turn our attention to the 2016 presidential contest.

I know, I know: It's still way too early for this stuff. We have over a year before the first primary will be held, and then almost another full year until the general election happens. Nonetheless, over the weekend a flurry of speculation broke out over Jeb Bush's possible candidacy. Bush made some moves that strongly indicate that he may indeed become the third Bush to make a run for the presidency.

If Jeb does run, he may face Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side. Now, a "Clinton vs. Bush" contest doesn't exactly thrill many people who are looking for perhaps a little more variety (and a little less dynasty) in our presidential choices, but it is indeed worth contemplating at this point, at least if Jeb is serious about running.

Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton are both somewhat tame and moderate politicians, driven more by political consultants and polls than by any burning personal ideology. Both are familiar with the concept of "triangulation" in politics. To put this another way, we might wind up with a 2016 race of "the bland leading the bland." Still, it's hard to see either one of them not instantly becoming the frontrunner in their respective party's field on name recognition alone. How good a candidate will either prove to be, though? It's worth taking a look at the pros and cons each will bring to the race, in an early look at what their campaigns will likely have to overcome. Today I'll be weighing Bush's pros and cons, and later in the week I'll do the same for Hillary Clinton.

Jeb Bush's Positives

The biggest positive Bush will bring to the table is a whole lot of money. The big Republican donors have made no secret of the fact that they're looking for a reasonable candidate and not a firebrand. The "electability factor" drives much of this money. (Who wants to bet millions on a losing candidate?) Bush could lock up the biggest donors fairly early and squeeze out any other moderates (from the establishment wing of the Republican Party) from even deciding to run.

The biggest positive Bush has as a Republican candidate is his family. No, not his father or his brother or even his mother but his more immediate family. Bush's voice within the Republican Party on the subject of immigration is pretty unique, because he married a Mexican woman (the mother of his three children) and speaks fluent Spanish. That right there could earn him millions of votes that other Republicans could never even hope to get. There are two prominent Latino Republicans who will also likely run, but both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz aren't exactly seen as prominent voices for the Latino community. Both Rubio and Cruz are of Cuban descent, which (because of Cubans' unique and favored immigration status) doesn't carry a whole lot of weight with Latinos outside Florida. This is before even touching upon their political positions. Bush actually lives up to his father's concept of "compassionate conservatism" when it comes to immigration (he married a foreigner who became an immigrant, so this is no surprise), while Cruz and Rubio are fighting to stake out the harshest possible position on the issue. Rubio tried being somewhat reasonable on immigration in the Senate, but when he heard the outcry from the base, he quickly denounced his own immigration bill and decided to take a more absolutist position. To put it another way, Cruz and Rubio aren't going to manage much in the way of Latino outreach in 2016, but Jeb Bush certainly could.

Bush presents himself as more of a "sunny optimist" than many Republicans these days. While the memory of Ronald Reagan has reached epic proportions among today's Republican Party, what most of them ignore in their sanctification of Reagan is how cheerful he always appeared. It's pretty hard to see many of the other possible 2016 Republican candidates as "cheerful" (with the possible exception of Mike Huckabee, who can indeed be cheerful when he tries). Bush might be able to offer voters a much more positive version of conservatism than other possible Republican candidates, most of whom appear downright angry, to one degree or another.

The final big positive in Jeb's column is where he hails from. Jeb was the governor of Florida, a state that will be absolutely crucial to any Republican's chance of winning the general election. Barack Obama won Florida twice and would have won the presidency even if Florida had gone Republican. On the Republican side, however, it is almost impossible to reasonably put together 270 votes in the Electoral College without Florida's 29 electors. Republicans may have more than one make-or-break state in 2016, but Florida will likely be the biggest. Bush would have a clear and obvious advantage in the Sunshine State, one only Marco Rubio could also possibly claim. Indeed, this may be Jeb's most convincing selling point to Republican voters at large.

Jeb Bush's Negatives

Bush is already aware of the tightrope he's going to have to attempt to walk if he seeks the Republican nomination. He was recently quoted saying that a winning Republican candidate would have to be willing to "lose the primary to win the general election." To some this seemed ridiculous (because how can a candidate even make it to the general if he loses all the primaries?). Many in the media reported it as Bush saying a candidate would "need" to lose the primaries, but what he accurately said was that a candidate would have to be willing to lose a primary to win the general election. That's a nuance that makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Republican candidates, to paraphrase Jeb, have to be willing to take stances that not every primary base will agree with, rather than pandering to the most rabid primary voters everywhere. To use another political metaphor, Bush is saying he won't be tacking too far to the right in the primaries, so that he won't have to tack too far back to the center in the general.

What he's really doing is preparing the ground for the expected backlash against his compassionate position on immigration. He cannot suddenly renounce his wife, after all. He cannot even attempt to outflank people like Ted Cruz on the right on immigration. Because he knows this, he's most likely softening people up now for how he's going to run. And immigration is not even the only issue where Bush has a stance that is not going to be appreciated by the far right. He's said nice things about undocumented immigrants, and he's also a fan of federal testing standards for education, for example, which is not very popular among the Republican base. So he's going to have to stand on a debate stage at some point and defend several positions against attacks from pretty much all the other Republican candidates. He'll be running on his authenticity instead: "This is my position, I think it's right, and I'm not going to change it to pander to the voters of Iowa (or any other state)." But if he does lose primary after primary as a result of these stances' unpopularity with the base, then he'll never make it to the general election.

Jeb faces a further problem with the base, because whether he uses the word or not, a large part of his candidacy is going to be based upon his electability. In early polling he is the only Republican -- out of a very wide field -- who would have any real chance against Hillary Clinton in the general election. This could always change, but it will be Bush's strongest argument: "Nominate me and have a chance at the Oval Office, or nominate some purist who will lose spectacularly." The only problem with this argument is its history within the Republican Party. Mitt Romney was supposed to be the electable one, and, to a certain degree, the same charge could be made against John McCain. The base is fed up with what they perceive as candidates who are insufficiently conservative, because they've been burned by that argument at least twice before. (Some even go back as far as Bob Dole on that list). Primary voters may be more inclined to elect a fire-breathing candidate this time around, even if he goes down in a Goldwateresque defeat in the general election. Maybe not, though; the tea party's rage seems to have died down somewhat, so it's impossible to tell at this point.

One minor negative for Bush is that he's been out of politics for quite a while. He hasn't been a candidate since 2002, and the Republican Party (especially the Republican Party outside Florida) has shifted considerably rightward since then. It remains to be seen whether he'll be rusty as a candidate, but he'll likely have enough money to see him through any early stumbles, so this probably won't be an issue by the time the primary season really heats up.

Jeb's biggest negative, however, is something it would be impossible for him to change: his last name. The country doesn't exactly have fond memories of either his father's presidency or his brother's. I seriously doubt you'd see George W. Bush stumping for his brother out on the hustings, to put this another way. Call it "Bush fatigue." Throughout the whole election many will be asking, "Isn't there another family out there worth electing?" But, like I said, there's nothing Jeb can do about this factor. He might already have to legally change his name to appear on the ballot as "Jeb Bush" (his full name is actually John Ellis Bush; "Jeb" is a nickname taken from his initials, not his first name), but I can't really see him changing his last name at the same time.

Chris Weigant blogs at:

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Economic Policy Myths of 2014: Dead and Enduring

Huffingon Post Politics - Mon, 2014-12-15 20:07
With the holiday season upon us, the time for end-of-year lists is fast approaching. To beat the rush, today I give my list of the top dead and enduring myths of 2014.

The good news is that two myths that caused great confusion over the last several years are now headed to the trash bin of history. While many prominent pundits may still repeat them to demonstrate that prominent pundits really don't have to care about reality, everyone in the reality-based community now knows them to be nonsense.

The first is the myth of the young invincibles and Obamacare. The story was that the success of Obamacare depended on getting healthy young people to sign up. Supposedly we needed the healthy young'uns to subsidize the rest of the population.

This led to endless stories about whether young people were signing up for insurance. The Obama administration made special outreach efforts to the young. In an effort to undermine the program, the right-wing group Freedom Works even sponsored Obamacare-card-burning rallies (there are no Obamacare cards, so they had to create them) in order to discourage young people from getting insurance.

The problem with the story is that we really didn't need the subsidy from healthy young people to make the program work. While healthy young people subsidize less-healthy people in the program, healthy older people subsidize them even more. The ratio of premiums of the people in the oldest age group (55 to 64) to premiums of the youngest is roughly 3 to 1. And plenty of older people, just like younger people, are in good health and have low medical bills.

This means that if the age distribution of the enrollees skewed toward older people, it really didn't matter much, as the Kaiser Family Foundation showed in a short study. It makes a much bigger difference if there is a skewing toward people in bad health.

The other big myth that got killed in 2014 was that we needed to fear deflation. This was not only silly -- sorry, folks, but there is no magic to crossing zero -- but it had important policy implications. The deflation-scare story implied that as long as inflation was positive, we didn't have to worry.

In fact, the problem of low inflation makes it difficult to boost the economy through monetary policy, since central banks can't have negative nominal interest rates. It also makes it harder for real wages to adjust, since workers rarely get cuts in nominal pay. This is true even at low positive inflation rates. The problem gets worse if the inflation turns negative, but that is because the inflation rate has gotten lower, not because there is any special importance to zero.

Some of us had been trying to make this point since the early days of the downturn, but the pundits and many economists who should know better kept expressing concerns about deflation. The good news in 2014 was that the IMF weighed in to point out that the problem is "lowflation," an inflation rate that is too low.

So now it is official. We all should be very worried about the low inflation rates in the Eurozone, Japan, the United States, and elsewhere. If the inflation rate falls further, that is worse news, but things don't just become bad when the inflation rate turns negative.

Unfortunately, many of our great national myths have survived 2014. We still have the story that the financial crisis, as opposed to the collapse of the housing bubble, caused the Great Recession. The point here should be straightforward. The financial sector is working again, but we are still far from having recovered. That's because we have nothing to replace the demand that had been generated by the housing bubble.

This matters both to understanding policy going forward and to assigning blame. Financial crises can get complicated. The housing bubble was pretty damn simple, and almost all our economists blew it.

Along the same lines, we continue to see the "second Great Depression" myth. This is very important for those in policy positions, because it allows them to say that no matter how bad things are, at least we avoided a second Great Depression.

Sorry, folks, but we know how to get out of a depression. It's called spending money. Even if the dominoes had been allowed to fall and all the Wall Street banks had collapsed, we still could have picked up the pieces and avoided a depression. And we would be freed of the albatross of a bloated financial sector.

Then we have the twin myths of the mystery of a weak recovery and slow wage growth. Every week or two we will get an in-depth story in a major news outlet asking why we still haven't recovered from the downturn or why wages aren't growing.

This one goes right back to the collapsed housing bubble. We need some source of demand to replace the $1 trillion or so in construction and consumption demand that we lost when the $8-trillion bubble burst.

Demand doesn't come from heaven. It comes from consumption, investment, government spending, or net exports. No one has a story as to why we should expect any of these components of demand to be higher than they currently are. Thus the only mystery is why anyone thinks there is a mystery.

And the story with wage growth is equally unmysterious. Wages will start growing when the labor market gets an awful lot tighter than it is now, given that we are still close to 7 million jobs below trend.

We should be glad that we put to death two very silly myths about the economy and economic policy in 2014. Let's see if we can kill these other four fantasies in 2015.

Terry Branstad Wants To Get Rid Of The Iowa Straw Poll

Huffingon Post Politics - Mon, 2014-12-15 19:43
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad is pushing to end the state's Republican straw poll, but the state party chairman says the event may still go on next year.

Branstad said Monday that the poll — traditionally held in Ames the summer before a contested presidential caucus — is a turnoff for many candidates and could diminish the power of the state's caucuses. "I believe that a number of candidates have chosen not to participate because they don't think it's necessarily representative," Branstad said. "The most important thing is to keep the Iowa precinct caucuses first in the nation and the first real test of strength of candidates."

But State Party Chairman Jeff Kaufmann said he thinks there's interest in continuing the tradition, provided it's permissible under Republican National Committee rules.

First held in 1979, the Iowa straw poll has grown from a county GOP fundraiser stop to a large event on the Iowa State University campus, where candidates spend heavily to entertain and bus in supporters. The poll, which draws a small percentage of would-be caucus attendees, is one early test of campaign organization.

The Republican Party of Iowa runs the poll. Kaufmann said the State Central Committee, which governs the party, will meet next month and he expects a vote on whether to hold a straw poll.

Kaufmann has sought a written opinion from the RNC in response to concerns that Iowa could jeopardize early voting status by holding a voting event before the caucuses.

"If we did not have this RNC issue, I have a strong hunch that the current State Central Committee is in favor of a straw poll," Kaufmann said.

The RNC is reviewing the issue, spokesman Michael Short said in a statement.

In 2011, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann won the straw poll and eventual GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney chose not to participate. About 17,000 turned out for that poll, far less than the roughly 120,000 who voted in the January 2012 caucus.

"My view is that the straw poll had its time and its purpose, but again it really doesn't provide a cross sample of primary voters in Iowa," said GOP strategist Phil Musser. "I suspect many candidates in 2016 will make the choice Romney made in 2012."

Musser served as an adviser to former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who dropped out of the 2012 race after a third-place finish in the poll.

Guantanamo Hearing For Alleged 9/11 Mastermind Canceled After Release Of Torture Report

Huffingon Post Politics - Mon, 2014-12-15 19:39

(Adds quotes, details, byline)

By Tom Ramstack

WASHINGTON, Dec 15 (Reuters) - The U.S. military on Monday canceled a pretrial hearing for the accused mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, an al Qaeda figure prominently mentioned in last week's Senate report on the CIA's harsh Bush-era interrogation program for terrorism suspects.

The military commission at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was supposed to discuss allegations the FBI tried to infiltrate legal defense teams, according to the court's docket.

No reason was given for canceling the hearing for Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who according to the Senate Intelligence Committee's report was subjected repeatedly by his U.S. interrogators to the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding.

But attorneys representing Guantanamo prisoners say evidence of torture mentioned in the Senate report means prosecuting suspected terrorists has suddenly become more difficult.

"The most significant revelation from the Senate report is the conclusion based on entries into the CIA record that many of the statements the CIA made are simply lies," said Jim Cohen, an attorney representing two Guantanamo detainees.

"That is going to be hard to resist by fact-finders in connection with the Guantanamo prosecutions," Cohen said.

CIA evidence that is potentially important to the prosecution could be thrown out, he added.

Defense lawyers raised issues of mistreatment of prisoners in previous Guantanamo hearings but the judges presiding over the hearings largely ignored them, saying they were irrelevant to the guilt or innocence of the defendants.

"If the prosecution tries to use evidence of statements that were gained through torture, then torture is relevant," said Martha Rayner, a law professor and attorney for Guantanamo detainee Sanad Al-Kazimi.

Lawyers for Mohammed and four other suspects had wanted this week's hearing to go forward so that Judge James Pohl, an Army colonel, could determine the extent of FBI contact with defense team members.

Pohl had ruled in July that no conflict of interest arose for defense attorneys from the FBI approaching a security officer for a defense team.

(Additional reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Scott Malone, Bill Trott and Tom Brown)

Republicans Are Mad At Ted Cruz For Doing Democrats A Big Favor

Huffingon Post Politics - Mon, 2014-12-15 19:38
WASHINGTON (AP) — Unhappy Republicans say Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has given President Barack Obama a present this holiday season — a gift certificate good for confirmation of 12 judicial appointments, not long after the voters had delivered the Democrats a lump of coal in midterm elections.

Cruz, a tea party favorite and potential 2016 presidential contender, disputed the claim through his spokesman on Monday. But there was no dissent that Democrats, who must turn over power to Republicans in January, were in position to confirm not only the judges, but 11 other appointees before the Senate wraps up work for the year.

Among them are nominees that Republicans have sought to block for two relatively high-profile posts. They are Vivek Murthy, confirmed late in the day as surgeon general, and Sarah Saldana to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that will oversee the new administration policy on immigration that Cruz wants to defund.

At the root of the dispute lay a combination of the Senate's all-but-indecipherable rules, Cruz's attempt to use their murky corners to his advantage, and a bipartisan desire of many lawmakers to finish work for the year and return home for the holidays.

"My concern about the strategy he employed is that it has a result he didn't intend," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said of Cruz' maneuverings on Friday night, when he sought to force a vote on Obama's immigration policy. Among the consequences, she said, would be confirmation of a number of appointees who are controversial, including some to "lifetime judicial" posts.

Some officials said Cruz was personally informed by GOP aides that Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid was primed to take advantage if he went ahead.

Under the Senate's rules, Cruz's maneuver allowed Reid to begin the time-consuming process of confirming nominations on Saturday at noon — when lawmakers had been scheduled to be home for the weekend.

Had Cruz not made his move when he did, according to officials in both parties, Reid would have had to wait until Monday night — more than 48 hours later. Disgruntled Republicans said they felt confident that Reid's rank and file would not have been willing to remain in Washington in that case, and only four or five nominees would be confirmed instead of 23.

Other Republican lawmakers were far more forceful than Collins in their judgment of Cruz on Monday. They declined to speak on the record, possibly feeling they had already done so enough during the unplanned, 12-hour Senate session on Saturday.

"You should have an end goal in sight if you're going to do these types of things, and I don't see an end goal other than irritating a lot of people," Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah said then.

Particularly galling to one Republican was that Reid was now in position to win confirmation even for judicial nominees who had been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee since the midterm elections in which Democrats lost power. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said Saturday evening that was a violation of precedent "and of course, I object."

Others said Cruz' maneuvering was reminiscent of his role in a showdown two years ago that led to a partial government shutdown that most Republicans warned him would be a mistake.

Cruz's stated goal this time was to force a vote on Obama's new immigration policy, which is removing the threat of deportation for an estimated 5 million immigrants living in the country illegally.

He made his move Friday evening, after senators already had been informed they were free to go until Monday without fear of missing any votes. In response to Cruz, Reid ordered a Saturday session. Some senators who had left for home drove back hastily to avoid black marks on their voting records.

Far more important, in the minds of Republicans, was that Reid responded by launching an immediate effort to confirm the judicial and agency appointees, some of them long stalled. One of them, Christopher Smith, has been awaiting Senate confirmation to an Energy Department post since January.

Cruz's office swiftly disputed the claim. "Everyone knows Harry Reid planned to jam forward as many nominees as he could," Phil Novack, a spokesman for Cruz, said by email. "Unfortunately, there are many on both sides of the aisle who would rather stoke stories about Ted Cruz to distract from the more important debate over the President's unilateral action to grant amnesty."

It wasn't the only surprise Cruz delivered to incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

In remarks on the Senate floor, he suggested the Republican leader and House Speaker John Boehner might not be entirely trustworthy when they promised to force a showdown with Obama over immigration early in the new year.

"We will learn soon enough if those statements are genuine and sincere. We will learn in just a few weeks," he said.

McConnell has yet to respond.

9 Absurd Justifications For Police Killings Of Unarmed Black Males

Huffingon Post Politics - Mon, 2014-12-15 19:37

In recent weeks, protests have spread across America in response to multiple grand juries declining to indict police officers responsible for the deaths of unarmed black men. Those decisions have led to an outpouring of grief, anger and anxiety over a criminal justice system that seems to operate with little accountability, especially where the deaths of people of color are concerned.

It's not clear exactly why grand juries rarely choose to indict police officers involved in the deaths of unarmed black men. But we do hear the excuses made on their behalf.

Here are some of the explanations and justifications we've been offered:

1. Health complications.

Eric Garner's July 17 death at the hands of NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo was captured on film and circulated on the Internet. Garner's last words, "I can't breathe," later became a rallying cry during demonstrations made in his name. Pantaleo, who placed Garner in a chokehold prohibited by the police department, was not indicted for the death. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said shortly after the grand jury's decision that Garner would have survived the fatal chokehold had he not been "obese."

2. Standing in a stairwell.

Akai Gurley, 28, was fatally shot by NYPD Officer Peter Liang in the Louis Pink housing projects in Brooklyn last month. New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton defended the shooting as an "accidental discharge" in a "dark" stairwell by a cop who had been on the force less than 18 months.

3. Resembling someone's idea of a "thug."

In August, 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot in Ferguson, Missouri, by Officer Darren Wilson following a daytime altercation in the street. During a recent segment on NewsMaxTV, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee insisted that Brown would still be alive "if he behaved like something other than a thug," an apparent reference to disputed witness testimony that Brown was reaching for Wilson's gun before he was shot. (Most of the witnesses who testified before the grand jury said that Brown had his hands raised when he was killed.)

4. Wearing a sweatshirt.

Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Florida teen whose death in February 2012 led to protests across America, was blamed for his own death for wearing a hooded sweatshirt. Trayvon, 17, was gunned down by George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watch volunteer. Shortly after Trayvon was killed, Fox News host Geraldo Rivera said, "I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was." (Zimmerman, it should be noted, was a civilian neighborhood watch officer, not a policeman.)

5. Being the child of someone with a troubled past.

Tamir Rice, 12, was gunned down by Cleveland police while holding a toy gun at a public park last month. The Northeast Ohio Media Group then ran a story about Tamir's father, Leonard Warner, and Warner's history of domestic violence -- because, author Brandon Blackwell explained, "people from across the region have been asking whether Rice grew up around violence."

Warner was not present when Tamir was killed. Blackwell's story on Warner offered no background information on Officer Timothy Loehmann, who was deemed unfit for policing two years before he shot Tamir.

6. Taking your medication.

A Phoenix police officer fatally shot 34-year-old Rumain Brisbon earlier this month after mistaking a pill bottle in Brisbon's pocket for the handle of a gun.

7. Asking for help after being in a car accident.

Jonathan Ferrell, 24, was shot in Charlotte, North Carolina, in September after surviving a car accident. Ferrell crawled through a window of his car and began banging on the door of a nearby home to get attention. When officers arrived at the scene in response to the homeowner's report of an attempted break-in, they shot Ferrell 10 times as he approached them with empty hands.

8. (Possibly) dressing up as a character from a TV series.

This is what Hunt was wearing when he was killed. Compare to the character from Samurai Champloo. Was he cosplaying? pic.twitter.com/TlFS49OTYJ

— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) September 15, 2014

Darrien Hunt, 22, was fatally shot in September when Utah officers responded to a call of someone walking around with a "samurai-type sword." Cops said that Hunt lunged at them with the toy sword, but witnesses claimed to have seen him running from the officers, and an independent autopsy showed that Hunt was shot in the back.

9. Complying with a police officer's command, immediately.

Levar Edward Jones was shot by South Carolina trooper Sean Groubert in September. As Jones stood next to the open door of his vehicle, Groubert asked him to retrieve his wallet. Jones reached into his car to do so. Groubert then demanded that Jones get out of the car, and opened fire as Jones complied. Jones asked: "Sir, why was I shot? All I did was reach for my license." Groubert responded: "Well, you dove headfirst back into your car."

Unlike the other black men and boys on this list, Jones survived his encounter with the police -- which was lucky, because more often than not, cops shoot to kill.

New app measures and rewards your transportation CO2 fitness

TreeHugger Science-Tech - Mon, 2014-12-15 13:56
This sustainable mobility app tracks your transport CO2 emissions and helps you balance your travel footprint, using a virtual green currency.

Rooftop solar could be just a spray away

TreeHugger Science-Tech - Mon, 2014-12-15 07:00
A new cheaper and simpler technique for spraying on solar cells could mean solar roofs for everyone.

Brennan Draws On Bond With Obama In Backing CIA

Huffingon Post Politics - Mon, 2014-12-15 03:15
Just hours before he publicly responded last week to the Senate Intelligence Committee report accusing the Central Intelligence Agency of torture and deceit, John O. Brennan, the C.I.A.’s director, stopped by the White House to meet with President Obama.

An 8-Point Guide to Discussions With People Who Support the CIA's Torture Program

Huffingon Post Politics - Sun, 2014-12-14 23:50
The Senate Intelligence Committee's recent release of their report on the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program (aka the CIA Torture Report) has caused quite a public and political stir. And while most reasonable people would agree that torture is categorically immoral, I have been repeatedly amazed (and disheartened) by the vehement support that still rushes to the defense of such a program.

I have decided to write this piece as a means of confronting various detracting arguments and show their empirical, logical or moral cruxes. I realize that in order to have the most constructive national conversation on this massively important issue, we must take these voices into consideration, even if it is only to better deconstruct and reject them.

1. The Program Helped Save American Lives/Fight Terror.

According to the Senate report, this assertion is greatly overstated, at best, and patently false, at worst. Still, there is substantial support for this claim in various political camps and within the CIA community. The extent to which it is true or not will never likely be settled but ultimately, it probably resides somewhere in the middle, although most evidence we have indicates that torture is most often quite ineffective. So to be diplomatic, perhaps we will just say that the jury is still out.

It is important to note that this point is ultimately irrelevant. Number of terror plots allegedly averted aside (which is quite few if we take the Senate report at its word), as a country of conscious and one that prides itself on moral values, we should never have allowed ourselves to be scared into violating such fundamental principles. Instead of walking ourselves down a Kantian or utilitarian morass of efficacy versus ethical responsibility, we can just stop this discussion at the gate by saying that, regardless of the results, torture is wrong. Period.

2. The Techniques Used Do Not Legally Constitute Torture.

The Bush administration was sure to create an extensive legal framework so that at least the semblance of legality (and freedom from indictment, no doubt) accompanied the torture program as it viciously visited itself upon the bodies and minds of detainees. [Note: the use of the word "detainee" versus "prisoner" is one of such legal consideration. "Detainees" are individuals who are being held but have not been convicted of a crime. "Prisoners", as in prisoners of war, are protected by the Geneva Convention]. This legal framework, however, was contrived and failed to follow international law -- a reality attested to by the number of independent investigations into different aspects of the program by Spain, France, the UN, and our own Department of Justice. So the simple technicality that, in fact, a legal umbrella existed in no way changes the nature of the abuses that occurred.

This is especially relevant when we look at the fact that in many cases, according to the CIA's own information contained within Senate report, CIA agents repeatedly exceeded the "acceptable limits" of the prescribed enhanced interrogation techniques (EIT). So even this facade of "legality" was ultimately violated, but without recourse.

3. Other Countries (Russia, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, etc.) Are Much Worse.

Personally, this argument is the most frustrating of all. We continually remind ourselves of our exalted status on the world stage, both as a political actor and a moral authority. It is in these moments of tragic moral failure, however, that we resort to measuring ourselves against the bar set by countries that make no claim to the ethical high-ground. I would agree that, in regards to human rights violations, countries such as Russia, Iran, North Korea and Saudi Arabia are far behind. And yet, when we make a point of condemning their abuses and ignoring our own, the resultant hypocrisy only cedes moral ground in any international efforts to bring them back within the realm of acceptable governance. If, as they say, we are to be measured by the company we keep, this argument does much more to spoil our moral standing than to justify our actions.

4. The CIA Employees Who Were Involved in This Program Were Patriots, Not Criminals.

Speaking to this point is tricky. Calling for those "patriots" to be held accountable is wholly taboo. It is hard to make headway against such popular norms without being labeled anti-American, but so it is. While I do not doubt the sincerity of the love that the CIA employees and directors have for their country, I submit that this does not at all exonerate them from responsibility and accountability for their actions.

This is a textbook example of the crimes that were prosecuted through the Nuremberg trials against former Nazis. [Disclaimer: I am not comparing complicit members of the CIA to Nazis, just using the analogy to the legal precedent set by the trials that preceded WWII]. These trials made it abundantly clear that "following orders" does not absolve one of responsibility. Patriots they may be, but according to the International Criminal Court (ICC), they are perpetrators of crimes against humanity as well -- the two are not mutually exclusive. They are responsible and should be held accountable both domestically and internationally.

5. The Senate Report on This CIA Program Is Just a Political Ploy.

The notion that the release of this report was made to coincide with the transition of power in the Senate or any other politically-charged events is simply juvenile. No matter when this report would have been released, the same challenge would have been raised by the report's detractors. The reality is, there was never a convenient time for us to re-infuse the national conversation with discussion of torture -- that it needed to happen sometime is without doubt.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), addresses the asserted partisanship of the report in his recent point-by-point rebuttal to an op-ed written by several former CIA directors who defend the EIT program. He reminds us that, "The Committee initiated this review [the torture report] on a bipartisan 14-1 vote. The Committee's report was approved on a bipartisan 9-6 vote, and the Committee voted to release it on a bipartisan 11-3 vote."

Additionally, and perhaps even more tellingly, the most damning evidence against the efficacy and ethics of the CIA's program comes from the CIA itself. The extensive internal communications of the CIA paint an explicitly grim and Orwellian picture of what amounts to a state-sanctioned torture program. A common rebuttal to this revelation is that the Senate Intelligence Committee never actually interviewed any of the CIA employees or directors involved in the program, despite the fact that many of them were on the record by means of internal documentation. The absence of their testimony, however, is not an issue of political gamesmanship, but of legality -- many of the program participants were unable or unwilling to go on the record due to prior or ongoing criminal investigations. The fact that these individuals were not interviewed is not evidence of a failure by the Senate committee but evidence of the truly comprehensive moral issues with this program.

6. We've Already Had This Conversation, No Need to Rehash Old Wounds.

This issue is not behind us. It is on the tips of the tongues of the international community, especially as we are faced, yet again, with the existential threat of radical fundamentalism in the new and gruesome form of ISIS. In other words, the War on Terror and its subsequent ethical pitfalls are far from over. Additionally, Guantanamo Bay remains alive and well, despite President Obama's campaign promises. It continues to house over a hundred detainees, many of whom have long since been approved for release and cleared of all charges, existing in a juridical limbo in which no other countries are willing to accept them. In other words, the EIT program might have ended in 2009, but our country is still committing crimes against humanity at this very moment.

7. At Least We Are Willing to Confront This Issue.

I am, admittedly, so thankful that we live in a country with the capacity and freedom to confront such issues in a public and political way. But as our political system is slowly hijacked by corporations, special-interest lobbyists, and the bottomless pockets of an increasingly edified elite, I worry that our ability to democratically affect the moral direction of our nation is simultaneously compromised.

This is a battle being fought and lost in the Supreme Court and on the streets every day, and it is preventing us from bringing necessary change to a vast array of important issues. Is it laudable that this debate is happening? Yes -- although most of these issues seemed rather settled after the 1949 Geneva Convention established prohibitions against torture in any circumstance. Does this debate mean that we will not commit the same egregious moral errors in the future? I worry that this depends more upon what is politically and financially expedient (endless war is incredibly profitable for some) than what we as a nation determine is ethically just.

8. America is AWESOME! Stop trying to make us not awesome :(

Such emotionally-charged and doubtlessly-genuine epithets are symptomatic of the moral problems we face as a country, not legitimate excuses for them. By creating an atmosphere in which any dissent is automatically dismissed as un-patriotic, anti-American, or otherwise, we simply reinforce the normative attitudes that undermine the power of plurality and diversity in our democratic process. The fervent belief in our own unconditional "awesomeness" is an expression of a dangerous ideology that feeds into notions of our own exceptionalism and unquestionable self-righteousness. Despite what FOX News might have us believe, such blind faith does not represent greater dedication, but instead the easy way out and the surest path to betray our rights and responsibilities as free citizens. It takes far greater virtue and courage, as a country and as individuals, to critically face our own shortcomings for what they are than to construct a self-reinforcing insulation from them.

The days after 9/11 were terrifying and confusing indeed. But it is not in moments of strength, but in those moments of vulnerability that our true resolve and values as a nation stand out. In the sense that such vulnerability led us to defy both international law and our own stated principles, we failed, and in no short order -- so let's try to stop downplaying this whole affair or attempting to justify it along legal or ideological lines. We did not just torture enemy combatants, we tortured fellow human beings, many of whom later proved innocent. That kind of a stain is hard to remove and rightly so. The longer we try to defend it, the longer it will take us to create meaningful change and move on as a country.

One of These Things Is Not Like the Others...

Huffingon Post Politics - Sun, 2014-12-14 23:21
Maybe DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson missed this episode of Sesame Street. His November 20, 2014 memo to ICE, CBP and USCIS specifies three tiered priorities for the "Apprehension, Detention and Removal of Undocumented Immigrants." At the top, Priority 1 (threats to national security, border security, and public safety) includes:

- aliens engaged in or suspected of terrorism or espionage, or who otherwise pose a danger to national security;

- aliens convicted of an offense for which an element was active participation in a criminal street gang;

- aliens convicted of an offense classified as a felony or an aggravated felony;

and...wait for it...

- aliens apprehended at the border or ports of entry while attempting to unlawfully enter the United States.

So, let me get this straight. Our top priority for immigration arrests lumps together terrorists, convicted felons, gang bangers and...drywallers, moms and kids?

To be fair, there is an out for the drywallers, moms and kids: "The removal of these aliens must be prioritized unless they qualify for asylum or another form of relief under our laws, or unless, in the judgment of an ICE Field Office Director, CBP Sector Chief or CBP Director of Field Operations, there are compelling and exceptional factors that clearly indicate the alien is not a threat to national security, border security, or public safety and should not therefore be an enforcement priority."

But seriously, what should the Border Patrol, or, for that matter, what should any of us, make of Priority 1? I think the inclusion of drywallers, moms and kids in Priority 1 is a sop to the 'border enforcement first' crowd, as reflected in the organization of the DHS web page announcing Executive Action, giving Border Security top billing.

But, in the end...

"One of these things is not like the others,
One of these things just doesn't belong,
Can you tell which thing is not like the others
By the time I finish my song?

Did you guess which thing was not like the others?
Did you guess which thing just doesn't belong?
If you guessed this one is not like the others,
Then you're absolutely...right!"

Why Are We Debating the Benefits of Torture?

Huffingon Post Politics - Sun, 2014-12-14 23:18
What if Bernie Madoff argued: "Sure I broke the law, but I and a lot of other people benefitted by it!" I am astonished by the amount of time spent and pages included in the recent Senate report on torture devoted to discrediting the CIA claims that their techniques identified terrorists, prevented attacks and saved lives, and that the directors of those practices continue to defend them on that basis. Since when do we test our moral principles, our laws, our Constitution and our international treaties by determining whether or not there is some benefit in violating them?

O.K. I recognize the Bernie Madoff analogy is not particularly apt, but for the government to engage in some kind of cost/benefit analysis to justify torture is ludicrous and embarrassing. Think of the precedent it would establish if benefits served to justify violations of the law. Illegal searches in violation of the Fourth Amendment could be justified by gaining evidence of crimes and prosecuting and convicting those who are guilty. Listening in on the content of all conversations could aid in learning of past and future acts of terrorism. The list is endless. We give up something by restricting the government in its fight against terrorism, but that is the price of freedom.

The basic furor is over whether or not torture ("enhanced interrogation") led to locating and killing Osama bin Laden. The answer should be: So what. Yes, there was great benefit and satisfaction in the demise of bin Laden, but it is totally irrelevant in the moral and legal debate over the use of torture. Many Americans, if asked, would probably say that torture would have been justified if it prevented the destruction of the Twin Towers and the deaths that followed. But in getting there we may have tortured persons who were totally innocent, without knowledge or furnished false information. That is the reality of a torture program. Furthermore, we have signed on to the U.N. Convention Against Torture. It is illegal no matter what the benefit. Calling it by any other name does not change its true character. If we engage in it, we have become no different than our enemies. They see some benefit in threatening and carrying out beheadings. Is that going to be next for us because we envision some benefit to us in doing so?

What's Left for America's Torture Apologists?

Huffingon Post Politics - Sun, 2014-12-14 23:07
For the past several years, America's torture apologists have been telling stories about the CIA's "enhanced interrogation" program. The stories go like this: Following the capture of high-value al Qaeda members, particularly Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the CIA found traditional interrogation techniques inadequate. Facing both the threat of imminent attacks and recalcitrant detainees known to have information about those attacks, the CIA turned to "enhanced interrogation." Agency interrogators prevented detainees from sleeping by keeping detainees in stress positions, swung detainees into walls, and, in only three cases, waterboarded detainees. These and other "enhanced" practices underwent rigorous legal review. They were employed with care by trained professionals, who immediately stopped using the techniques when detainees divulged the information that the Agency needed.

Former-President George W. Bush told this story in September 2006, when he publicly acknowledged the CIA's program. In Congress, some Republicans repeated versions of it. Lamar Smith, a Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, claimed during a December 2007 hearing that "Zubaydah refused to offer any actual intelligence until he was waterboarded for between 30 and 35 seconds" and Mohammed "stayed quiet for months until he was waterboarded for just 90 seconds." A colleague on the Committee, Trent Franks, made similar claims during a June 2008 hearing: "The CIA waterboarded 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaidah, and Abdul Rahim Nashiri for approximately 1 minute each. The result [sic] ... were of immeasurable benefits to the American people."

The release of the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on CIA interrogation program reveals how misleading these stories were. Abu Zubaydah's first waterboarding session took place over a "two-and-a-half hour period," during which he, "coughed, vomited, and had 'involuntary spasms of the torso and extremities.'" During a later session, Zubaydah "became completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth. ... [He] remained unresponsive until medical intervention, when he regained consciousness and expelled 'copious amounts of liquid.'"

Abu Zubaydah was the first detainee that the agency waterboarded. Perhaps, then, these difficulties occurred before the Agency perfected its interrogation program, as John Brennan, the Agency's current director, has implied of most of the problems that the Senate Intelligence report documented. We would expect, then, that CIA interrogators would have perfected waterboaring by the time that they interrogated Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the third detainee who we know suffered the practice. Instead, Mohammed's waterboarding devolved, according to a medic who oversaw it, into "a series of near drownings."

No matter a technique's alleged effectiveness, most Americans are reluctant to defend practices that conjure the dark images associated with torture. This explains, in part, the nearly universal condemnation of Abu Ghraib. The photographs were simply too much for most of us, and the tortures that occurred at Abu Ghraib were, rightly, disowned by virtually everyone, conservatives and liberals alike. For advocates of "enhanced interrogation," Abu Ghraib was especially useful. Disowning it, they could demonstrate that they, too, believe that there are lines that may not be crossed. "Enhanced interrogation" just happens to fall on one side, Abu Ghraib on the other. But now CIA interrogation is looking more and more like Abu Ghraib: unprofessional, unrestrained, dripping with cruelty, if not sadism.

So what's left for the country's torture apologists? Continue to claim that the program saved lives and discredit the report for relying too much on the CIA's own emails and cables, rather than interviews. Others will offer a bit of what Stanley Cohen, a South African sociologist who studied denial, called partial acknowledgment. They will recognize some problems with the CIA's program, but excuse these as mistakes or accidents that occurred, as Brennan said, early in the program's development. They may also, though they haven't yet, blame particularly unskilled, unprofessional, or even rogue interrogators for using unauthorized practices, much as the Department of Defense did to defuse Abu Ghraib. Doing so, they'll try to inoculate "enhanced interrogation" against its own excesses. What they likely won't do is admit and defend the version of waterboarding described by the Senate Intelligence Committee. Indeed, so much will depend on suppressing the image of Abu Zubaydah unconscious on the board, water bubbling out of his lungs or stomach.

Waterboarding cannot bear itself. It never could, which is likely why the CIA destroyed videotapes of the practice's use and supporters have described it in such a misleading way. Now, thanks to the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report, we finally know why.

Contrasting Cruz and Warren-Pelosi Budget Battles: Why Democrats Have High Political Ground in 2016

Huffingon Post Politics - Sun, 2014-12-14 22:22
Over the last week we have seen played out in the national political spotlight the fundamental reason why Democrats have the high political ground in 2016.

Senator Ted Cruz used every procedural move available to block Senate consideration of the "CRomnibus" appropriation bill that he demanded defund President Obama's Immigration Executive Actions.

Senator Warren and House Leader Nancy Pelosi led campaigns to prevent inclusion of a provision to once again allow a federal bailout of big Wall Street banks that engage in the same kinds of risky investment schemes that precipitated the 2008 financial meltdown and the Great Recession.

Neither side was successful in the legislative short run. At the same time, both sides engaged and motivated the bases of their respective parties with their stands.

But the similarities stop there. These two battles are powerful illustrations of a major emerging fact in American politics.

It is widely understood that the more GOP candidates for president adopt the priorities of the base of their party -- particularly hard-core opposition to immigration reform -- the more difficult it is for them to win general elections. That's because hard-core stances against immigration reform, women's reproductive rights, gay rights, etc. alienate huge sections of the electorate that are required to win presidential elections. That is especially true of socially moderate suburban women swing voters and elements of growing segments of the electorate like young people, single women, Hispanics, African Americans, Asian Americans and of course LGBT voters.

What is not so widely understood is that by adopting the populist positions championed by the progressive base of the Democratic Party -- especially when it comes to raising the wages of ordinary Americans, reigning in Wall Street, and ending the widening chasm of income inequality -- Democrats are more likely to win general elections at all levels.

Political consultant and former Senior Advisor to the President, David Axelrod, was asked Sunday on Meet the Press if the Democratic Party could accommodate both the Clintonites and the Warrenites. He answered absolutely -- if Hilary Clinton moves to adopt the more populist position of the Warren wing of the party -- because those are the positions that will also increase Democratic chances of winning general elections.

No one with an ounce of political sense would ever say that it makes Republican candidates more likely to win general elections if they adopt the radical positions of Ted Cruz.

But the fact is that the core positions of the base of the Democratic Party are widely popular in America: raising the minimum wage, eliminating loopholes that allow employers to escape paying overtime to employees, raising the wages of the middle class, making student loans more affordable, regulating -- and even breaking up big Wall Street banks.

Even positions that used to be wedge issues in the Democratic coalition -- universal background checks for all gun purchasers, women's reproductive rights, sanctioning gay marriage, civil and voting rights -- receive overwhelming support among Democratic voters and majority support among swing voters.

The more the Democratic Party reflects the values, priorities and policies of its progressive base the more likely it is to win. The more the Republican Party reflects values, priorities and polities of its Tea Party conservative base, the more likely it is to lose -- it's that simple.

This political reality reflects the basic underlying economic and social reality of 21st century American life. Most Americans have experienced stagnant incomes for over three decades. Our Gross Domestic Product and productivity per person have gone up about 80 percent, but average incomes didn't go up 80 percent. Instead nearly all of the increases went to the top two percent -- and especially to the speculators on Wall Street.

As a result today -- even after the shock of the Great Recession -- the stock market is at record highs, corporate profits are at record highs, and the share of national income going to wages is at a record low.

The party who speaks to that fact, will have the support of the American people -- and the populist, progressive base of the Democratic Party does just that.

There was a time, when many Americans understood that Republicans stood up for the rich and Democrats stood up for the average person. Now, it is true that many people in the middle class believe that -- where they are concerned -- there isn't much of a difference. Many understand that the Republicans stick up for the rich alright, but they also think Democrats only stick up for the very poor and their friends on Wall Street -- leaving them -- the people in the middle -- without a champion.

The fact is that the more the Democratic Party adopts the populist, progressive, anti-Wall Street positions of its base, the more it attracts the middle class swing voters whose votes are critical in a general election.

And, of course, these are exactly the same messages that motivate the party's progressive base to turn out in large numbers.

Unfortunately, the messages that motivate the Republican base to turn out in large numbers do not have that effect on swing voters at all. Sounding more like Ted Cruz might excite the GOP faithful, but it is frightening to soccer moms and sounds down right strange to young people.

And something else is important to remember. When swing voters don't believe that one of the two parties is their champion -- when they don't think there is a clear contrast when it comes to who is on their side -- they are much more likely to be open to try the opposition if they don't think things have been going so well for them under the current management.

If voters don't think there is any more difference between Republicans and Democrats than there is between American and United Airlines, they make a simple and seemingly rational calculation: if my income hasn't gone up much under a Democratic president, might as well try a Republican president.

But that calculation changes enormously when they become convinced that one party is truly their champion and the other party is not.

The populist economic message of Progressive Democrats is a huge winner when it comes to ordinary middle class voters who are just trying to live their lives and don't follow the ins and outs of politics every day. And it makes them tune in.

My wife, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, was approached as she was shopping by six ordinary customers at the Jewel Food Store -- and a sales clerk at Carson Pirie Scott Department store on Saturday after she voted with House Leader Pelosi to oppose the new Wall Street bailout that was included in last week's appropriation bill. All of them had been following the battle and thanked her for her vote. This is not at all what ordinarily happens after a vote in Congress.

Washington insiders and pundits can go on until they are blue in the face trying to convince us that there is an equivalency of those who advocate for the values of the Tea Party on the GOP side, and the populist values of the progressive base of the Democrats on the other. They would do well to get out more.

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com. He is a partner in Democracy Partners and a Senior Strategist for Americans United for Change. Follow him on Twitter @rbcreamer.

Climate Change Takes A Village <br><small>As The Planet Warms, A Remote Alaskan Town Shows Just How Unprepared We Are</small>

Huffingon Post Politics - Sun, 2014-12-14 22:02
The remote village of Shishmaref, Alaska, has been experiencing the effects of climate change first-hand. In the last decades, the island's shores have been eroding into the sea, falling off in giant chunks whenever a big storm hits. (Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images)

It's a Wednesday morning in late August, the first day of classes at the Shishmaref School. The doors of the pale blue building haven't opened yet, and the new principal is hurriedly buttering toast in the kitchen for the students’ breakfasts. Teachers are scrambling to make last-minute adjustments to their classrooms, while anxious kids, ranging from pre-K students through high schoolers, wait on the porch, their jackets zipped against the chill of the early-morning air. It's all so incredibly normal, you might not know that, just a few years ago, no one thought Shishmaref would be here anymore.

The remote village of 563 people is located 30 miles south of the Arctic Circle, flanked by the Chukchi Sea to the north and an inlet to the south, and it sits atop rapidly melting permafrost. In the last decades, the island's shores have been eroding into the sea, falling off in giant chunks whenever a big storm hits.

The residents of Shishmaref, most of whom are Alaska Native Inupiaq people, have tried to counter these problems, moving houses away from the cliffs and constructing barriers along the northern shore to try to turn back the waves. But in July 2002, looking at the long-term reality facing the island, they voted to pack up and move the town elsewhere.

Relocation has proven much more difficult than that single vote, however. And 12 years later, Shishmaref is still here, ready to begin another school year.

There are obvious signs that something is amiss, however. One of the first things you see as you arrive in Shishmaref is a small wooden building propped precariously on the edge of the beach. A back corner dangles over the edge of an incline, the water lapping just a few feet away.

The town is built on a narrow spit of fine, silt-like sand just three miles long and a quarter-mile wide, surrounded on all sides by water. The only way in or out is by boat or plane, an hour-long flight from Nome that costs around $400 round-trip. A single, short paved road on the island starts just outside of town and leads to the airport; the rest of Shishmaref’s streets are sand. Most people get around on ATVs and dirt bikes, or snowmobiles in the winter.

Looking at the long-term reality facing the island, Shishmaref’s residents voted to pack up and move the town elsewhere. Twelve years later, they’re still here.

Most houses don't have running water or plumbing, so the town captures rain and snow for reuse, and most residents shower and do their laundry at the public washeteria. Full-time jobs are rare, and even part-time employment is hard to come by. Given the shrinking size of the island, there's not much room for new housing or facilities. In some homes, multiple generations crowd into small, single-story wooden structures. Most families rely on subsistence hunting, fishing and berry-picking to get through the year. The town is known throughout the region for producing seal oil and carvings from bone and ivory, which are sold to visitors and at gift shops in Nome.

Everything else on the island -- vehicles, food, construction supplies for houses -- must be shipped in. As a result, fresh food, aside from what they can hunt or pick, is rare, and prices at the general store would be outrageous to anyone from the lower 48 states: $14.76 for a can of Lysol, $21.61 for a package of six Huggies diapers, $7.40 for a box of Raisin Bran. Gasoline and heating oil are also shipped in at a premium, with a year's supply arriving each summer on a barge. A gallon will run you north of $6, and when supplies run out here, there is nothing until the barge returns.

During my August visit, the island had exhausted the year's gasoline supply, and the next shipment wasn't expected for another week or two. Residents were forced to ration out what they used for their ATVs and motorboats.

The island’s original name in the native language was “Kigiktaq,” and archaeological evidence of habitation dates back to the 1600s. The island is surrounded by what is now the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, 2.7 million acres set aside as part of the National Park system to preserve the natural and archeological integrity of the entry point for North America’s first human residents. Russian explorers who arrived here in 1816 named the inlet “Shishmarev,” after the Russian navigator Glieb Semenovich Shishmarev, which would become the town’s name. The island opened a post office in 1901, according to local history, but the town wasn’t officially incorporated until 1969.

Older photos of the island show wide, sandy beaches. Village elders remember playing tag and "Eskimo baseball” on the beach until late into the night, since the sun still shines well past 11 p.m. at the height of summer.

"There was a real big beach down there," remembers Nora Kuzuguk, 67. "It was our playground."

Now, those beaches are rapidly disappearing.

Older photos of the island show wide, sandy beaches. Village elders remember playing tag and "Eskimo baseball” on the beach until late into the night. (Photos: Alaska State Library Historical Collections)

The island has dealt with erosion issues since at least the 1950s. But now climate change is exacerbating the problem considerably. Average temperatures are increasing faster in Alaska than they are in the rest of the United States, warming 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 50 years. The higher temperatures are causing the subsurface layer of permanently frozen soil typically found in the Arctic to thaw in some areas. This weaker permafrost is more vulnerable to storms and tidal activity, fueling the loss of Shishmaref's shores.

Warmer temperatures have also shortened the amount of time the Chukchi Sea stays frozen each year, leaving the coastline exposed to fall and early winter storms. Now, during storms, the sand will "just melt with the water," said Luci Eningowuk, 65. From 2004 to 2008 Eningowuk served as chair of the Shishmaref Erosion and Relocation Coalition, the group charged with developing and executing a plan for moving the town. "The waves would come and take a whole lot of the land."

Fourteen houses on Shishmaref’s north side had to be put on skids and dragged down to the opposite end of the island after a major storm in October 1997. Another big storm in October 2001 sloughed off huge chunks of the northern shoreline.

Based on a comparison of aerial photos, the Army Corps of Engineers estimates that the island is losing between 2.7 and 8.9 feet a year, on average. But measurements in years with big storms have documented land loss of up to 22.6 feet.

"The waves would come and take a whole lot of the land."

When its residents voted to relocate, Shishmaref became a poster child for the impact of climate change. A webpage for the Environmental Protection Agency describing climate change’s effects in Alaska includes a photo of one of the Shishmaref houses falling off a cliff. "Severe erosion has forced some Alaska Native Villages' populations to relocate in order to protect lives and property," the website notes. But while Shishmaref and several other villages have tried to move, they've found that the reality of doing so is much more complicated.

There’s a still too-prevalent idea in the United States that climate change is just a concept, an idea removed from us in time, distance or economic circumstance. It’s something that might affect future generations or other nations. Discussions about the current reality of climate change tend to focus on small island nations like Tuvalu, the Maldives or Kiribati, which are so threatened by rising seas that they’ve considered acquiring land on other continents so they can move their entire countries.

But you don’t have to look elsewhere. Native communities along Alaska’s coast have been trying to tell us for more than a decade that climate change’s effects are already here.

If you believe the grim predictions of the latest climate science, Shishmaref is just the beginning. Towns in low-lying coastal plains and flood-prone river basins in the lower 48 may be next. A study from the U.S. Geological Survey warns that 50 percent of the U.S. coastline is at high or very high risk of impacts due to sea level rise; according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 16.4 million Americans live in the coastal flood plain. If we can't figure out how to save a village with fewer than 600 people from falling into the sea, what hope is there for everyone else?

It's obvious that something is wrong in Shishmaref. One of the first things you see as you arrive is a small wooden building propped precariously on the edge of the beach. (Photo: Kate Sheppard/The Huffington Post)

The cockeyed wooden building visible upon landing in Shishmaref belongs to Tony Weyiouanna Sr., 55, who uses it to preserve fish and render seal oil. Weyiouanna is the president of the board of the Shishmaref Native Corporation, which manages the land and resources allocated to the community under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. When the village first voted to relocate, he was tasked with heading up the effort as the technical staff assistant for the relocation coalition, which included representatives from the city council, the native government and the native corporation. At the time, Weyiouanna was working as the transportation planner for Kawerak, the regional economic and social development association, where he dealt with roads and other public works projects.

Transportation planning is one thing. Planning to move a town is another. "I was like, 'How the heck am I going to do this?'" remembers Weyiouanna. We're sitting at his kitchen table drinking coffee as he recalls the relocation effort’s early days. He pauses occasionally to check a reindeer roast in the oven, and the smell, rich and earthy, fills the small house. One of his three children lounges on the couch in the adjoining living room, watching television.

The coalition put together a detailed action plan, laying out for the community and for state and federal agencies what an “orderly relocation” would entail. Step one was to identify high-potential relocation sites, sizeable enough to accommodate the town’s growing population, with access to land and water and the hunting and fishing grounds on which the residents’ ancestors had relied for generations. The geography, hydrology and environmental suitability of the sites would be studied. The town would determine infrastructure needs for the new community, like an airport, roads, a clinic and a school. Finally, they would salvage what they could from Shishmaref and clean up the island after they left.

All of this, of course, would require money. An Army Corps of Engineers study in 2004 estimated that relocating Shishmaref to the Alaska mainland would cost $179 million. Weyiouanna and other members of the coalition set about lobbying state and federal agencies for financial support. The town also created a website under the banner "We Are Worth Saving!" that pleaded for donations, technical assistance and grant-writing help from anyone willing to volunteer their time.

Their efforts were aided by a flood of press attention following the town’s decision to relocate. Weyiouanna estimates that around 65 different news crews visited the island in 2003 and 2004 alone, from all over the lower 48 and the world. “To me they were a major player,” he said. “It was a tool for me to convince somebody from D.C., Juneau, Anchorage, that we needed assistance.”

Tony Weyiouanna Sr. helped put the town's relocation plan together. "I was like, 'How the heck am I going to do this?'" he remembers. (Photo: Kate Sheppard/The Huffington Post)

The town identified 11 possible relocation sites on the mainland, and preliminary assessments conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service helped the town narrow the list down to two sites.

At a public meeting in December 2006, the village selected a site called Tin Creek, across the inlet from Shishmaref and less than 12 miles away, as their new home. The location was close enough that residents could still access their hunting and fishing sites by boat or snowmobile.

Within a couple of years, however, the plan to move to Tin Creek fell apart. Subsequent feasibility studies revealed problems with the site. It too sits on permafrost -- which, in a melting Arctic, likely means that its days as a suitable location are also numbered. The town had to select a different location.

Securing additional support from Washington was becoming more difficult, however. Ted Stevens, Alaska's powerful Republican senator and avid earmarker, had been a key player in getting the town money for its erosion and relocation studies. But Democrats and Republicans in Washington were turning against earmarks -- the village's main source of funding this type of work. And when Stevens lost his re-election bid in 2008 amid a federal corruption trial, Shishmaref lost its greatest champion.

"Stevens was our senator," said Weyiouanna. "He's the one that set all this funding up for us."

The residents of Shishmaref have moved houses away from the cliffs and constructed barriers, like this one, along the northern shore of the island to try to turn back the waves. (Photo: Kate Sheppard/The Huffington Post)

By this time, Shishmaref’s enthusiasm for relocation was flagging. The initial relocation plan had aimed to have the town moved by April 30, 2009, but early on it became clear that the process would likely take longer -- probably more like 10 or 15 years. To buy time, the town built a 200-foot-long sea wall to protect the island’s northern shore in 2004. Since then the wall has grown, with additional sections added in 2005 and 2007, extending it to 2,800 feet.

The sea wall covers only a portion of the island, however, leaving important infrastructure like the airport, dump and a large section of the main road exposed. But Weyiouanna says it has given residents a false sense of security. He says he tried to warn other community leaders that “once we start building these sea walls, the community is going to get real comfortable with the protection of the sea wall, and pretty soon you're going to think that we don't need to relocate.”

Even as it reinforced the northern shore, however, other parts of Shishmaref continued to wash away. And, having made the case for relocating, it became harder to acquire state or federal funding for projects on the island, like repairing the health clinic or building additional housing.

"It stopped all investment in this community," said Percy Nayokpuk, owner of the island's general store, of the relocation plan. “There's been a lot of projects lost because of the vote to move. That's about all that's resulted from that vote.”

City and tribal leaders say the relocation effort is largely dormant, for now. Residents who had been involved in the relocation plan said they just got busy with other things. One woman was diagnosed with cancer and had to take a break. Others said they became wrapped up with family or work, or just got frustrated with the insurmountable nature of the task.

Weyiouanna, too, stepped down from his official position with the relocation coalition toward the end of 2007. "There was a pretty strong faction of people who were against the relocation project,” he said, including community members and other local leaders. "So it just got miserable for me."

Shishmaref had tried to move before, and changed its mind then as well. Two storms in 1973 damaged the island, after which the community decided to relocate to the mainland. But the town later reconsidered, choosing instead to build a wall of sandbags along the northern coast to fortify it against the waves. Nayokpuk worked on the relocation effort the first time around, back when he was a young man just out of college. Marshalling the support and resources to move was a challenge then, too.

Today the residents of Shishmaref are largely split on whether to move. In 2002, only about 11 percent of the town’s residents voted against the relocation plan, according to local news accounts. Many of the "no" votes were village elders, who felt that staying was important to protecting their way of life. The island’s remoteness has kept it unique, preserving the Inupiaq language and culture. Now Weyiouanna estimates that only about half of the town’s residents want to move, and the other half would prefer to stay as long as they can.

"I voted to move," said Nora Kuzuguk, 67. "But now -- not really, I don’t want to move away from Shishmaref. It's unique."

Stanley Tocktoo, 53, the town’s former mayor and another advocate for relocation, says he thinks they could still convince residents to move if they had a destination. “They would, I think, but we don't know where would be a suitable place,” he replied. “We need to find a new site.”

When I met Kuzuguk’s son, Richard, he was in the mayor’s office, tendering his official resignation from the city council. In addition to serving on the council, Kuzuguk has been Shishmaref’s environmental coordinator for the last five years, leading recycling efforts from the basement of the church. He has also been involved in the ongoing campaign against Arctic drilling, and was part of the relocation planning committee in its early stages.

But now Kuzuguk, 51, and his family are packing up and moving out, bound for Nome, where he's been offered a job doing maintenance at the hospital. It's a full-time position, unlike his current post, and offers benefits.

For Kuzuguk, Nome is a place where he can see a future for his family. I'd met one of his six children, Lydia, on my first day in town. The gregarious 11-year-old introduced herself during movie night in the school gym, volunteering that she was moving to Nome in a few days.

"I have to consider my children's future," said Kuzuguk. "The best way I can do that right now is to move to Nome, get started there, introduce them to the Western lifestyle. They can always come back and learn the subsistence, traditional lifestyle."

It's just too complicated to move an entire town, Kuzuguk decided. "For us to teach Congress why we want to ... my opinion is that's an impossible, losing battle," he said.

"I voted to move," said Nora Kuzuguk, 67. "But now -- not really, I don’t want to move away from Shishmaref. It's unique." (Photo: Kate Sheppard/The Huffington Post)

If it were just Shishmaref, that would be one thing. But it's also Kivalina and Newtok, too, and nine other native villages that, facing the impacts of warmer temperatures and changing conditions as an immediate threat, have elected to relocate. The Government Accountability Office has found that most of the 200 Alaska Native villages are experiencing flooding and erosion related to climate change.

Of these villages, Newtok is the closest to actually moving. They were able to find and agree upon new land, and secure funding from state and federal agencies to start construction. Political disputes in the town, however, have put the actual move on indefinite hold there.

There's no playbook for moving a town. There’s no government agency, at either the state or federal level, that is in charge of such a process. There’s no pool of money set aside to help communities. There are no rules for picking another location, or packing lists for what to take. Each community has been left to come up with its own plan.

"They’re doing all they can on their own," said Robin Bronen, executive director of the Alaska Immigration Justice Project and perhaps the region's leading researcher of climate-related migration. Bronen has followed several of these communities as they try to navigate this seemingly impossible situation. "I don’t think that folks outside of Alaska understand how incredible it is that these communities with such limited resources have been taking on a Goliath effort to educate people in Congress, in the state about their needs."

Bronen worries that soon it won't be just Alaska Native villages that are looking to move -- it will be other coastal cities in the U.S. "My mantra is: we need to get a relocation institutional framework in place now," said Bronen. "This does not bode well for other places in the world that are going to be faced with this issue."

"I don’t think that folks outside of Alaska understand how incredible it is that these communities with such limited resources have been taking on a Goliath effort."

In November 2013, President Barack Obama announced a new executive order directing federal agencies to revise programs and policies that hinder climate adaptation, and created a Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience that brings together state, local and tribal leaders to collaborate on strategies for addressing the impacts of climate change.

Last month, that task force recommended that the administration "explore [the] Federal role in addressing climate change-related displacement," echoing Bronen’s concern that the plight of communities like Shishmaref will spread to “every region of the country and U.S. affiliated jurisdictions.” In short, the task force stated, we need to come up with a way to deal with this problem -- and fast.

Reggie Joule, the mayor of the Northwest Arctic Borough and a former Alaska state representative representing Shishmaref's district, was the sole Alaska Native representative on the task force. When asked about the task force’s recommendations, Joule acknowledged that simply "exploring" the federal government's role in relocation projects "doesn't go far enough, because our local communities don’t have the capacity to do anything." But he was, overall, grateful that Shishmaref and other Alaska Native villages finally seem to be on the federal government’s radar. To "be included in the recommendations the way that we are," said Joule, "is a huge step forward, because we had very little before."

"We're not talking about highly populated areas. So we're easy to overlook," said Joule. "To people who are 7,000 miles away from where the action is, what they know and what they understand are two different things. You can know that communities are eroding, but do we really understand what that means, the timeline and how vulnerable the communities are? … When you send the pictures and put together a proposal, we're just facts and figures on paper. And is there anybody back there [in Washington] who understands the urgency of the information in front of them?"

The Department of Interior has provided some support for the sea wall project in the past, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And it is working on an Integrated Arctic Management approach to bridge agency work on Arctic issues. But one of the biggest challenges at the federal level is that many of the programs that could provide assistance to a village like Shishmaref require matching local funds -- which are often nonexistent. Jessica Kershaw, press secretary for the Department of Interior, told HuffPost that the department “has been coordinating with other federal agencies to evaluate the efforts that should be undertaken in situations like those facing Shishmaref” and will "continue working with a broad coalition of stakeholders to identify a path forward.”

The Army Corps of Engineers, too, has played a key role in conducting early evaluations of relocation options, as well as funding and support for sea wall construction. But the Corps' work is limited to what Congress has authorized and funded, and that work also requires some level of cost-sharing from a local partner. Bruce Sexauer, chief of planning for the Army Corps' Alaska district office, said the corps is currently considering funding for additional relocation or reinforcement studies for Shishmaref as part of its budget request for next year -- but it’s unclear whether they will get it.

There are federal offices, like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but their role is mostly limited to providing support after disaster strikes. "If you look at the process, I think we're really good at reacting to things. That's why we have FEMA," said Joule. "But in order to address the things that FEMA may have to deal with, I'm not sure how good we are at planning."

The Obama administration has also taken strides to address climate change around the globe. In September, the president ordered all federal agencies to "factor climate resilience into the design of their international development programs and investments." And in November, the administration announced that it was contributing $3 billion to an international fund designed to help developing nations deal with climate change.

Officials from the Department of Interior and the White House Office of Management and Budget also traveled to Shishmaref last summer. But the continued lack of major action to help the village has prompted an outcry from Alaska's senior Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski. "At the same time your administration has been unwilling to commit the resources to help a community such as Shishmaref, it is prioritizing funding to assist Vietnam with climate adaptation," Murkowski wrote in a letter to Obama in January. "I ask that you put America first, especially the Alaskans who deal with this reality on a daily basis.”

Michael Boots, the acting chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, responded to Murkowski’s letter in May, saying that the office is “looking into how we can best address” the requests from Shishmaref. Boots noted that many of the programs that could provide assistance “may be challenging to access” for the community because of requirements for cost-sharing, but said that the administration is “committed to identifying available options” within existing executive authority.

Meanwhile in Alaska, villages are starting to wonder whether moving is even a realistic option. "We're working hard to move a community. That's what we're planning for," said Joule. "Is that even in the cards? Is that an option that somebody has the authority to say, 'Yes, we can do this' and is willing to do that?"

"We have taken temporary measures," he said, "but we're talking about people's lives here."

"I have to consider my children's future," said Richard Kuzuguk. "The best way I can do that right now is to move to Nome." (Photo: Kate Sheppard/The Huffington Post)

Shishmaref's current mayor, Howard Weyiouanna Sr., knows what it's like to move. His house was one of the ones dragged to the other end of the island after the 1997 storm destroyed the northern coast. He was in his house through the storm. "It was pretty loud," he remembered. "I could feel the ground shake." Now 17 years later, he said, "I miss hearing the ocean."

Howard is Tony's cousin, and Weyiouanna is one of the more common family names in town. When we met in the city council building, Howard expressed optimism about recent investments in the town. After years with little government funding, the town is finally getting new housing thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. They're putting the final touches on seven new houses, modest beige buildings with brown trim that, unlike most residences in town, will have running water and flush toilets. His adult daughter, Nellie, and his three grandkids are moving into one of them. The health clinic is also being remodeled, finally.

But a number of problems still require attention. For one, the city government building isn't up to fire code. And they need a bigger water storage system. Most of the town relies on the reservoir, which collects snow melt, but the population has grown and that's no longer enough. They also need a new washeteria, and larger, stronger bulk storage tanks for the fuel shipped to the island.

Such upgrades might be interpreted as signs that the community isn’t going anywhere -- at least not anytime soon. But one thing that worries the mayor is the road that leads to the dump, past the airport at the far western end of the island. The island's remoteness means that pretty much everything that comes in, stays in. The dump, located at the farthest end of the island, is filled with remnants of refrigerators, barrels, household trash, an old truck. And since most houses lack indoor plumbing, the dump is also where human waste is deposited in a large lagoon. A storm in November 2013 washed out several big chunks of the road, taking out 50 feet of earth in some places and making the dump nearly inaccessible.

The town rerouted the road around the washout. But everyone knows it's a temporary solution. "Apparently it is going to breach again," Weyiouanna said.

Losing the road to the dump alone would be bad enough, but of more concern is the sea’s encroachment on the end of the runway. More than a place to land planes, it's the town's lifeline, bringing in food, supplies and people. And it's the only way out if there's an evacuation. In previous storms, the water's high point has crept as close as 75 feet from the landing strip.

"With no protection on it, it's going to hit the runway," said Weyiouanna.

Climate change makes the prospect of a big storm and emergency evacuation more a matter of when, not if.

"Once they get evacuated," said Kuzuguk, "nobody's going to be allowed to come back to the island."

Ideally, he says, they'd find more money to extend the sea wall to protect the rest of the northern shore. "It would buy us some time," he said, "but I can't say for how long."

Indeed, climate change makes the prospect of a big, dangerous storm -- and emergency evacuation -- more a matter of when, not if. Such a disaster would likely mark the end of Shishmaref as an independent village, Kuzuguk said.

"Once they get evacuated, nobody's going to be allowed to come back to the island," he said. They would become refugees, in Nome, or Fairbanks or Anchorage.

That's the one thing many in Shishmaref would like to avoid. The whole point of kicking off a relocation plan, after all, was to ensure that Shishmaref could still be a village -- just somewhere else. By moving together, they hoped, they could safeguard the things that make them unique, like their subsistence lifestyle and customs.

Kuzuguk isn't optimistic on that point, not anymore. "I don't think there's enough reasonable people that know we have to relocate by choice, rather than being forced to by evacuation. By choice, we could still retain our identity, as a culture, as a community," he said. "But unless we're willing to do it ourselves, it's not going to happen."

Tony Weyiouanna Sr., despite his past frustrations with the relocation process, hasn’t given up. “I still believe in it. I still tell people I think we need to relocate,” he said. “I still think it's important to have some spokesperson to go out there, to keep telling the stories, to pass on your experiences, let people know that the assistance is still needed.”

He has a new idea, one he pitched to lawmakers, agency heads and White House officials during a trip to Washington earlier this year. Instead of moving the whole town, maybe they could try a pilot relocation project, he said, with "only the group who really wanted to move."

He’s still trying to figure out exactly how many people would need to volunteer in order to qualify for state and federal support to build a new health clinic and a new school. But a pilot move like this, he believes, would work out the complicated issues, like finding a viable location, and would provide a road map for other communities as they face the same challenge. And it would cost about half of what they projected a bigger move would cost.

"We just have to do the planning," he told me. "We just have to start over and do the planning."

He thinks they could make it work, maybe in a year or two years. "Everybody else will follow eventually."

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The Budget Deal and the Run-Up to 2016

Huffingon Post Politics - Sun, 2014-12-14 21:51
In principle, Saturday's vote to keep the government open should be the perfect curtain-raiser for the political debates between now and the 2016 election. As their price for averting a government shutdown, Republicans demanded and got a gutting of one of the most important provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act, preventing banks from speculating with government insured money.

Agencies hated by Republicans such as the Environmental Protection Agency took big cuts, and a rider was inserted permitting "mountaintop removal" coal mining once again. Another extraneous provision demanded by conservatives permits massive increase in individual campaign contributions.

The IRS enforcement budget lost $345.6 million. This will only increase public deficits, since most IRS enforcement is directed at upper-bracket tax cheats. The IRS collects about seven dollars for every dollar it spends on audits.

The bill also cuts Pell grants for lower income college students, diverting money to the for-profit companies that function as collection agencies for student loans. And it allows companies to cut pensions for current retirees, even those that are contractually guaranteed.

This deal was cut by the outgoing Congress, in which Democrats still controlled the Senate. Far worse will be directed at ordinary working families when the new Congress meets in January.

So a terrific debate is set in motion for the next two years, smoking out which side the Republicans are really on. Right?

Well, no.

If only. For in the great budget sellout of December 2014, fully 57 House Democrats voted with the Republicans to narrowly pass this deal. Key Senate Democrats close to Wall Street, such as Chuck Schumer of New York, were its enablers.

In the end game, President Obama, continuing his signature fighting style, blinked first. He evidently feared that another government shutdown would be blamed more on him than on the Republicans; or that even worse would be in store after January. The Republicans, once again, played chicken and prevailed.

So we were treated to a spectacle of the Democrats being split several ways, both on ideology and on tactics. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, a progressive, after sending mixed signals earlier in the week, decided that the bill had to be opposed. But President Obama, his chief of staff Denis McDonough, along with Pelosi's more conservative second-in-command, Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, actively lobbied Democrats to back the deal. So in the end the 57 House Democrats, about one-third of the Caucus, joined 162 Republicans to narrowly pass the budget.

Meanwhile, over on the Senate side, the Democrats split as well. Only six Democratic progressives led by Elizabeth Warren voted against cloture. Then, once the bill was assured of passing, several Wall Street-friendly Democrats from relatively liberal states cast a crocodile-tears record vote against, such as Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Cory Booker of New Jersey.

So, while the Democratic Party should be carrying the banner of working families, making it clear that the rules are rigged against regular people and that Republicans are the riggers-in-chief, the reality is far more blurred. The Democrats not only lost this vote on issues they allegedly care about; they lost their role as a credible opposition.

As George Orwell wrote in the famous ending of Animal Farm,"The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which."

Well, there is this comfort: At least the Democrats' likely nominee in 2016 stands four square with ordinary Americans against Wall Street... Uh, whoops. The greater likelihood, of course, is that the Clinton-Obama-Rubin dynasty will continue with another Clinton, and the blur will continue.

Meanwhile, the drumbeat urging Elizabeth Warren to run for president only grows louder.

I am often asked if I'd support a third party. I always respond that I'd be thrilled with a second party.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect, a visiting professor at Brandeis University's Heller School, and a senior Fellow at Demos. His latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.

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From Torturing to Killing Innocent People: This Is Who We Are

Huffingon Post Politics - Sun, 2014-12-14 21:50
Following the long awaited release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's "Committee Study of the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program," President Barack Obama proclaimed, "Throughout our history, the United States of America has done more than any other nation to stand up for freedom, democracy, and the inherent dignity and human rights of people around the world. At the same time, some of the actions that were taken were contrary to our values."

Obama would ultimately conclude, "No nation is perfect. But one of the strengths that makes America exceptional is our willingness to openly confront our past, face our imperfections, make changes and do better. Rather than another reason to refight old arguments, I hope that today's report can help us leave these techniques where they belong--in the past. Today is also a reminder that upholding the values we profess doesn't make us weaker, it makes us stronger and that the United States of America will remain the greatest force for freedom and human dignity that the world has ever known."

I include these lengthy remarks because this is not an analysis of the findings detailed in the torture report. There are plenty of articles that detail such analysis. Rather, this is a call for an end to the high-minded, sanctimonious rhetoric that we are constantly bombarded with. I am tired of listening to our officials say things that are simply and obviously in direct contradiction with what we actually do. Enough is enough. It is time to stop pretending we are something that we are not.

President Obama claimed that some of the actions that were taken (note past tense), were contrary to our values. What seems to be lost on the President is that values are not something one professes; values are established through one's actions. Under the Bush administration, torture was systematic, brutal, widespread, and patently illegal.

Morally, our professed values would require nothing less than the absolute banishment of every single individual responsible for the torture program. Those responsible should never again be allowed to appear on the Sunday morning political shows to tout their "expertise." No longer should these individuals be given a soapbox to stand on to profess that they did nothing wrong or that what they did was necessary.

The only box those responsible for torture should be given is the witness box. Our professed values and our legal obligations require that those responsible for the torture program be prosecuted and, if guilty, punished. The United Nations Convention against Torture requires the prosecution of individuals for torture when there is sufficient evidence for doing so. Clearly, there is no shortage of evidence.

While sitting before the UN Committee against Torture, Mary McLeod, Principal Deputy Legal Advisor at the Department of State, said, "As President Obama has acknowledged, we crossed the line and we take responsibility for that." I'm not sure where McLeod gets her definition of "responsibility." My understanding is that taking responsibility requires more than simply saying the word. Yet, consistent with his previous decision to "look forward, not backwards," Obama wants to leave all this immorality and criminality "in the past."

It is almost comical how President Obama pretends that the only actions taken since the tragic attacks on 9/11 that undermine our professed values occurred during President Bush's terms in office. Despite Obama's repeated claims that he "ended" torture, his administration continued to imprison individuals in Afghan detention facilities fully aware of the systematic torture that was taking place at the facilities. There is also the ongoing force-feeding of hunger strikers at Guantanamo Bay. Jon Eisenberg, a human rights attorney who defends one of the prisoners, believes that when combining the varied practices associated with the force-feeding of detainees, "it all adds up to torture." Obama simultaneously claims that force-feeding is humane and refuses to allow the video footage of force-feeding to be viewed by the public.

We know from the torture report, innocent people were detained and tortured. We also know that innocent people have been killed by President Obama's drone strike program. Perhaps it was overlooked or maybe it was simply ignored, but the UK-based human rights NGO Reprieve published a report at the end of November. Reprieve investigated the numerous attempts to kill individuals labeled high-value targets. Its findings demonstrate the moral depravity of President Obama's drone strike program.

According to the report, "In Pakistan, 24 men were reported as killed or targeted multiple times. Missed strikes on these men killed 874 people, including 142 children. In Yemen, 17 men were reported killed or targeted multiple times. Missile strikes on these men killed 273 others and accounted for almost half of all confirmed civilian casualties and 100% of all recorded child deaths. In targeting Ayman al Zawahiri, the CIA killed 76 children and 29 adults....It took the US six attempts to kill Qari Hussain, a Pakistani target. During these attempts, 128 people were killed, including 13 children."

It is not surprising that the drone strike program kills innocent people. Just as the interrogation methods (torture) used by the Bush administration were immoral and illegal, so too are the methods President Obama employs in his drone strike program. The Obama administration has repeatedly attacked first responders and rescuers when they converge on the scene of an initial attack. Those attending funerals have also been attacked. President Obama has personally authorized the use of "signature" strikes, which are strikes launched without first determining whether the person(s) "deserved" to die. In the process, President Obama has violated international humanitarian law and human rights law, and has arbitrarily killed hundreds, if not thousands, of innocents.

These are our values because our values are defined not by what we say, but by what we do. American exceptionalism, a favored claim of President Obama's, has nothing to do with our "willingness to openly confront our past." It is a catchall justification for our immoral and illegal actions around the world. We can either accept this reality and stop pretending we are something that we are not or we can be part of a movement that accepts nothing less than bringing our actions in line with our professed values.

The Detainee Abuse Photos Obama Didn't Want You To See - The Daily Beast

Huffingon Post Politics - Sun, 2014-12-14 21:49
The Obama administration is withholding hundreds, perhaps even thousands of photographs showing the U.S. government’s brutal treatment of detainees, meaning that revelations about detainee abuse could well continue, possibly compounding the outrage generated by the Senate “torture report” now in the public eye.

Sign of the Times: Local Governments Cross the Line With Signage Restrictions

Huffingon Post Politics - Sun, 2014-12-14 21:27
In the Chicago suburb of Downers Grove, all signs are limited in size and style.

They have to be -- unless they're political. Or government owned. Or highlight real estate, birthdays, or any village-sponsored or approved event or national holiday.

That's not by accident. In 2005, Downers Grove Village Council passed strict and specific requirements for anyone wishing to display signage within the village.

Content-based restrictions like the ones that exist in Downers Grove are at issue in the soon-to-be-heard Supreme Court case Reed v. Gilbert, a case out of Gilbert, Arizona, that also stems from city rules on signs.

Pastor Clyde Reed, the plaintiff in this case, presides over Good News Community Church, which rents temporary spaces for worship services. The church uses roadside signs to advertise service locations, but the town of Gilbert's sign regulations only allow the church to display notices up to 12 hours before, during and one hour after the service ends.

That's the rule for all "non-commercial event signs." Other signs are not treated the same way - for example, Gilbert's rules allow for political signs to go up 60 days before an election.

The plaintiffs in the case say the town's rules don't treat all people - and signs - equally.

The same inequitable treatment is present in Downers Grove, as well.

Robert Peterson owns Leibundguth Moving & Storage Inc., a business that has been headquartered in Downers Grove for about 80 years. For more than 70 years, the business has boasted a hand-painted sign on the back of its brick building.

This sign is important because it is visible from BNSF Metra trains, which haul thousands of commuters to and from Chicago each day. Peterson estimates this sign pulls in 12 to 15 customers each month, accounting for about $40,000 to $60,000 in business each year. Downers Grove's rules not only limit the size of signs Peterson is allowed to display, but also makes it illegal to have a sign facing the Metra tracks - the same would not be true if he wanted to display a sign advertising the sale of a property or a political campaign.

Essentially, the village has given Peterson and other business owners a ridiculous choice: acquiesce to strict advertising restrictions or face steep fines. Leibundguth alone could be hit with fines of $50-$750 daily for as long as its signs aren't in compliance with city law.

If these sign restrictions don't already strike you as arbitrary, consider this: Peterson's business is just one block away from a different zoning district in which his signs would be legal.

The gaping flaws in Gilbert and Downers Grove's sign laws don't mean local officials are bad people with malevolent aims -- presumably, they did this with the best intentions. Doug Kozlowski, Downers Grove's director of communications, noted that some of the goals of the ordinance include preserving the value of private property and enhancing the physical appearance of the village.

The problem is that this is simply not the village's business. These sign rules make local boards seem more like a busybody homeowner's association and less like a local government.

In Peterson's case, the effect of eliminating his historic sign would mean his mom-and-pop shop would suffer the loss of a huge business generator and therefore a large chunk of income. A handful of businesses, including Best Buy and Kohl's, petitioned to keep their signs. Interestingly, while Peterson's petition to keep his existing sign was denied by village officials, Art Van Furniture, a large Chicago chain, was granted an exemption from the rules. The village also gave the company hefty tax subsidies.

These inconsistent and burdensome sign rules are an example of local government grossly overstepping its bounds. Maintaining comely local signage is not a core government service -- it is a way for local officials to impose their tastes and values on the public.