Monthly Archives: February 2014

Did Greg Abbott sell out the Tenth Amendment?

poker cartoonEarly last month, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott contradicted his core values by doing something that just didn’t make sense unless you’re one of those cynics who believes money corrupts politics. Abbott, a fan of states’ rights and a foe of casinos, did a favor for Sheldon Adelson that appears to help casinos at the expense of the Tenth Amendment. In return, Abbott got almost $100,000 in political cash. Not everyone loses at the casinos.

All this started back in 1961 with the Wire Act that banned interstate gambling. After Al Gore invented the Internet, the Justice Department interpreted the law as banning online poker until 2011, when it said the Wire Act only applied to online sports betting. And when the Justice Department changed its mind, Sheldon Adelson, the CEO of the Las Vegas Sands casino, lost his mind.

People playing poker online meant fewer poker players in his casinos. Thanks to the 2011 DOJ ruling, Nevada and Delaware were able to sign an interstate online poker pact, and other states reportedly expressed interest in joining. Adelson needed Congress to shut down this states’ rights online poker uprising, so he asked state attorneys general to help by signing a letter, prompting a counter-offensive by the Poker Players Alliance.

Only 15 AGs signed the letter dated Feb. 4, 2014 that warned Congress how the new Wire Act interpretation “opens the door to the spread of Internet gambling.” So far, Congress has done nothing with the letter, but then again Congress has done nothing on pretty much anything else for that matter. The only remarkable thing about the letter—which warned Congress that the states were exercising their rights—was the fact that Abbott signed it.

Abbott loves the Tenth Amendment more than my niece loves One Direction. He brags about the 29 lawsuits he filed against the federal government “to protect Texas’ sovereignty.” He calls James Madison a “visionary” for imagining the “signals of alarm that would be raised … if a centrally empowered federal government intrudes too far into the liberties guaranteed to individuals under the Constitution and the powers delegated to the states.” And yes, this is really the way he talks.

The website for his gubernatorial campaign doesn’t have anything about education, but it’s got a whole section about the Tenth Amendment that begins, “Texas’ greatest freedom enumerated in our Constitution is the Tenth Amendment.” We can all agree that it’s more important than the Third Amendment banning soldiers from sleeping on your couch during peacetime, but this is Texas. Abbott thinks states’ rights are more important than guns. He’s obsessed.

Why a states’ rights fanboy would offer this slice of Texas sovereignty up on a silver platter—or in this case, on a fairly meaningless letter—to Congress might have an answer in, of all places, money.

Here’s the money trail: In 2011-12, the Las Vegas Sands gave the Republican State Leadership Committee (the campaign organization for down-ballot state candidates) $150,000. In that same election cycle, the RSLC gave Abbott $91,377, the second-most they gave to any candidate. The odd thing is that Abbott wasn’t even on the ballot in 2012.

Of course, it’s possible that Adelson was not incentivizing Abbott. It’s possible that Abbott hates the idea of Texans playing poker on the Internet more than he loves the Tenth Amendment. It’s possible that Adelson’s contributions to the RSLC and the RSLC’s contributions to Abbott are entirely coincidental. It’s possible the RSLC thought the best use of almost $100,000 was not to help candidates facing elections but to give it to Abbott for no particular reason. Anything is possible, even in politics where no one ever got lost following the money.

What’s more likely is that Abbott decided that compromising his most deeply held conviction was worth the price, especially with an expensive gubernatorial campaign coming up. The only risk was that he would have to explain it later, in which case he could say he was shocked, shocked that there was corruption in this casino. Either way, he comes away a winner, which is better than most people do in Vegas.

Defining deviancy all the way down the Texas ballot

140387_600Hide your wallets and shield the children, because they’re voting down in Texas. Texas Republicans will be testing the strength of the Tea Party as they pick their first post-Perry slate of statewide candidates since the 1980s. But Texas Democrats might end up missing Rick Perry, as there is a decent shot that Republicans will nominate not their best-qualified, most-electable candidates but an entire clown car full of crazypants.

Let’s start at the top of the ticket, where incumbent Sen. John Cornyn, rated the second-most conservative senator in 2012, was apparently not conservative enough to escape a primary challenge. Into that breach leapt Steve Stockman, the congressman who once Tweeted, “If babies had guns, they wouldn’t be aborted.” This race should have been great fun, but Stockman has campaigned mostly by hiding from public view and skipping votes in congress. Going into the candidate protection program is working. One poll shows Stockman could force Cornyn into a runoff.

Below Greg Abbott on the ballot is a quartet of candidates for lieutenant governor, the most reasonable of whom advocates changing the 14th Amendment to prevent anchor babies from attaining citizenship. All of the Republicans seeking this office oppose abortion exceptions for rape and incest and supported keeping a dead woman on life support because she was pregnant. Even on this stage, state Sen. Dan Patrick, who faces good odds to advance to the next round, stands out for calling undocumented immigrants an “illegal invasion.” What’s smart in a Texas Republican primary can be politically fatal in a state that’s 40% Hispanic.

We lower ourselves in more ways than one when we go down the ballot to the Algonquin Round Table known as the primary to succeed Abbott as attorney general. The candidates make a point of agreeing that their main job is to continue legally fruitless and patently political lawsuits against the Obama administration. They differ only in emphasis: The frontrunner touts his support for school prayer, damn the constitution. Another claims the allegiance of Ted Cruz. And the last, Barry Smitherman, is on the air with an ad that looks more like a declaration of war against Mexico to protect Texans “from cartels and crimes like human trafficking.”

In almost any other state, Smitherman would occupy an unelectable outpost in the political boondocks. But this is Texas, where his sort of yee-haw radicalism is mainstreamed. Already elected to a different statewide office, Smitherman has spent this campaign claiming that most aborted fetuses “would have voted Republican,” that Texas has “made great progress in becoming an independent nation, an ‘island nation’ if you will,” and that the United Nations Small Arms Treaty endangers 2nd Amendment rights in Texas. He has raised millions of dollars and is polling in the double digits. Pray for us, America.

Smitherman, Patrick, and Stockman are hardly exceptions. Elsewhere on the Republican primary ballot you’ll find a 9/11 Truther, the legislator who mandated that doctors perform sonograms on women seeking abortions to give them the shocking news of their pregnancy, and another state lawmaker who is running to protect, he says, “the gift of oil and gas God has given us.” And if they win their primaries, these walking affronts to logic and reason would be favorites to rule over the second-biggest state in the union. Some days I think Lincoln should have let the Confederacy go.

The nuthouse radicalism these candidates espouse has a significant constituency among the Texas Republican voters, 35% of whom support secession. Highlighting the lunatic fringe does not legitimize them. The voters who support them in statistically significant numbers do. To treat these credible candidates as outliers undersells the danger. Texas Republicans have redefined normal so far to the right as to make Genghis Khan look like a squishy moderate.

Rick Perry earned a few attaboys when he condemned Ted Nugent for calling Barack Obama a “subhuman mongrel,” a phrase the Nazis used to justify the mass-murder of Jews. Texas Republicans have defined deviancy so far down that criticizing a phrase Joseph Goebbels coined comes across as refreshing candor. When the votes come in on March 4, we’ll see just how far down that is.

Opposition research: “More mundane than you’d expect”

So one guy running for lieutenant governor hired a private investigator to dig up dirt on another guy running for lieutenant governor. Standard operating procedure for politics, right? Not so much. Usually they don’t hire a private investigator but someone like me, an opposition researcher.

Yesterday I talked with Ben Philpott of KUT about a dark art that “sounds a lot more mundane then you’d expect,” he said.

One thing I want to clarify: After we do all the online research, then the real research starts: courthouses, legislative libraries, archives, etc. The more you know…

Can anything stop Hillary?

Let’s start with a tangent: Getting to debate Dan Neil on Fox 7 means we all get to talk football before the cameras roll. Neil was a two-time All-American lineman at the University of Texas at Austin and won two Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos. I am a lifelong Seahawks fan, and since this was the first time we got to debate since the Super Bowl, I was looking forward to ribbing him. He is so nice that he immediately congratulated me on how my team played even though I had as much to do with the Seahawks success as your dead cat did, or does.

That brought up a discussion about how hard it must be to lose a Super Bowl, to which Dan smiled at me and said, “I wouldn’t know.” It was suggested by a Fox 7 employee that professional football players don’t care because they’re getting paid so much money. I disagreed, saying that winning the Super Bowl seems like the only thing they care about. Dan, resplendent with his two Super Bowl rings, backed me up. At which point I was all:

drunk dancing

But we were not there to debate football on TV. We were there to wonder in amazement whether anyone, or anything, can stop Hillary Clinton now that Chris Christie has jumped off the political bridge. Two months ago, he was tied. Now he’s 10 points down to her, and she’s well over 50% against all comers, according to this CNN poll.

I think Hillary will run, and if she runs I think she’ll win, but if she doesn’t I continue to tout my dark horse Democrat, Naval Secretary Ray Mabus. Here’s the show:

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Follow the fracking money

Screen Shot 2014-02-17 at 11.03.05 AMWe’ve all seen the clip from the documentary about hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” in which a guy in Parker County ignited the methane coming out of his garden hose. Boy howdy, does that look bad. Surely we can all agree that anything that turns our drinking water into something you don’t want our kids playing with is a bad thing, right?

There’s just one problem. The flaming hose trick, like so many of the accusations made against fracking, does not hold up to scrutiny. A Parker County judge found that the hose was attached to a gas line, not a water spigot, “to provide local and national news media a deceptive video, calculated to alarm the public into believing the water was burning.”

Opposition to hydraulic fracking has become an act of faith and not reason, distracting us from the real fight we need to have. There is no question that the fracking boom has grown our economy, created thousands of jobs, and boosted our state treasury. But the question remains why taxpayers still have to subsidize fracking with billions of dollars a year when the state doesn’t have enough money for schools.

The belief that fracking is no worse than other methods of extracting fossil fuels constitutes heresy among many on the left, which presents a problem for those who want to fix the problems we actually have.

“I am not persuaded by our friends in the environmental and foundation community that fracking should be banned,” said David Weinberg, the executive director of the Texas League of Conservation Voters. “I think there’s a lot of hysteria and list-building that is being done on this issue.

Many of the problems with anti-fracking hysteria are due to a reliance upon modeling in lieu of observable data, comparing short-term samples to long-term thresholds (which is scientifically invalid), and making obvious and perhaps intentional omissions in their studies, such as ignoring a nearby interstate highway when analyzing the air around the Barnett Shale.

We’re told that fracking poisons the air and cause cancer, something disproven by a recent study of the Barnett Shale region. A peer-reviewed study in Pennsylvania found “no evidence that childhood leukemia was elevated in any county after [hydraulic fracturing] commenced.” Government studies in Colorado, North Dakota, Texas, and West Virginia have reached similar conclusions about air quality. And because natural gas usually replaces coal, an environmental think tank found that gas-fired power plants “have dramatically reduced emissions across Pennsylvania.”

In The Republican Brain; The Science of Why They Deny Science, Chris Mooney debunked the worry that the fracking wastewater polluted groundwater.

“It’s not that gas companies haven’t polluted water supplies. They clearly have—and deserve much of the anger directed at them. But in the cases where they’ve done so, there often appears to be [a] much more mundane cause than fracking—like, for instance, drilling the hole in the ground in the first place,” Mooney wrote.

Mooney has since softened his criticism of fractivists due to his concern that the practice has been linked to earthquakes, a worry Weinberg shares. But as Mark Zoback, a Stanford University geophysicist who recently served on a Department of Energy natural gas subcommittee, has said, the energy released from fracking is “equivalent to the energy of a gallon of milk hitting the floor after falling off a kitchen counter.”

The environmental danger posed by fracking primarily stems from the fact that we’re drilling holes in the earth and sucking out dinosaur gas. On its best day, fossil fuel extraction releases tolerable pollution into the world. On its worst day, we get the BP oil spill.

“There’s nothing totally squeaky clean about any fossil fuel industry,” said Weinberg.

The real problem with fracking is that taxpayers are subsidizing this energy boom. We only charge $255 a year for each truck tearing up our roads that taxpayers pay to fix. And thanks to a severance tax break, Texas taxpayers gave the natural gas industry $5.4 billion for wells drilled in 2011*, the same year we cut school funding by the same amount.

A few of us still remember the 1980s bumper sticker: “Dear God, give us another oil boom and, this time, we promise we won’t piss it away.” It’s booming, and more than a few of us are wasting it. Junk science and scare tactics aren’t going to make the energy sector pay its fair share for the schools and roads that come with boom times. Follow the money, not the flaming hose.

On Feb. 16, 2014, The Austin American-Statesman published this column on its website. On the following day, it appeared in the newspaper.  

* Caught a fair question about this number. According to the Legislative Budget Board, wells drilled in 2011 would have cost taxpayers $5.4 billion over a decade. I counted them for one year because we drill wells every year. Here’s the section of the LBB report:

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Cashing In On Pre-K Testing

rotten coreSandy Kress, the controversial testing lobbyist, is leading a new raid on our school taxes. This month he registered to lobby for Amplify, the company that wants to replace textbooks with tablet computers, positioning him to grab some of the hundreds of millions of dollars Education Sec. Arne Duncan is offering to create pre-K tests. Despite a nationwide backlash against high-stakes testing, your tax dollars are now going to developing standardized tests for 4-year-olds, and Kress is ready to cash in.

Kress was the architect of No Child Left Behind who then lobbyied for Pearson Education while simultaneously serving on several state advisory boards. Kress became so unpopular amid an anti-testing rebellion in Texas that the legislature made it illegal for him or any other testing lobbyist to make campaign contributions. Even registered sex offenders can give politicians money in Texas.

But now the Obama administration is pushing a new and (pardon the pun) untested theory that we can use student scores to measure teacher effectiveness. To compete for Race to the Top funds, states have to figure out how to use standardized test scores to measure the effectiveness of teachers, something education historian Diane Ravitch has called “junk science”.

There are basic problems with using student scores to judge teachers. The tests don’t measure classroom learning, school funding is unequal. Stress caused by high-stakes testing impairs thinking. Using test scores to judge teachers encourages teaching to the test. But for Duncan, the real problem was that there is no way to determine the effectiveness of a kindergarten teacher if that’s the first year students take standardized tests.

That’s why the second round of Race to the Top encouraged states to develop programs for early-childhood education to compete for a share of the $500 million pot. Education researchers agree that pre-K is a good investment with real returns in the classroom, but one of Duncan’s criteria for the funding is not what they had in mind: “Develop and administer kindergarten-readiness tests.”

Enter Amplify, the $540 million education arm of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Because Obama’s Common Core has standardized the federal curriculum across 45 states, companies can now foist one-size-fits-all products on taxpayers without worrying about each state’s standards. And as Apple’s $30 million contract to put iPads into Los Angeles schools shows, there’s a lot of money in selling the hardware, too.

But if Kress can help Amplify update his snake oil to the next generation, then Murdoch can cash in on $1.7 billion a year that states spend on standardized testing every year. That’s why Amplify offers early childhood assessment software called C-PALLS for kids who still use safety scissors.

“The earlier, the better,” reads the website. “Better prepare children for kindergarten and beyond by combining C-PALLS pre-K assessments with grouping, reporting and targeted activities that help monitor ongoing social, emotional, early literacy, science and math development.” We could have teachers do that, but Wall Street hasn’t figured out how to make money from teachers yet.

In his last State of the Union address, Obama called on “Congress to help states make high-quality pre-K available to every 4-year-old.” This is an unimpeachably good idea. We wouldn’t leave any child behind if poorer children didn’t start school behind their wealthier peers. Universal pre-K would do more to create equal opportunity in America than every single standardized test ever mandated by Kress’ No Child Left Behind law.

But the idea falls apart when politicians and businessmen don’t trust educators to educate our children and insist upon standardized tests to hold schools accountable. Using tablet computers to measure a 4-year-old’s social and emotional development—and then applying those scientifically untested results to a teacher’s job security—is an invitation to corrupt the entire public school experience.

Making a 4-year-old take a high-stakes test at an age when it’s hard to make them take a nap sounds like heaping child abuse on top of a failed educational theory. But at least we can all rest assured that Kress has figured out a way to get his cut of the early-education bonanza. It’s time we saw schools as a place to create opportunities for children, not profiteers.

On Feb. 13, 2014, The Huffington Post education blog published this column. On Feb. 17, 2014, Cagle Cartoons syndicated it.

This is the Russia I know

As I mentioned in my Sochi column, I majored in Russian in college and lived in Moscow for almost two years as a journalist. There’s a lot to love about the country, but I had a hard time getting past the kind of attitudes that The Daily Show put on full display last night. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything that captured what it was like for me in Moscow as much as Jason Jones’ report about the country’s anti-gay laws.


Is Ted Cruz king of all Republicans?

Republicans continue to insist that Ted Cruz is serious, that we should not underestimate him, that he has “what it takes,” and that he is not just playing politics with our country’s solvency.

laughing guys

I try to take them seriously, I do, I really do. After all, he has unprecedented influence among the ultra-super-oh crap-conservative wing of the Republican Party, but the bigger role Sen. Cruz plays in Washington, the better Democrats seem to do. That’s what I said last night on Fox 7 after he failed to stop congress from passing a clean debt bill.

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It was an honor just to be nominated

Fans of this blog know that I’m always happy to go on The Drive with Steve Jaxon on 1350 KSRO in Sonoma County, California. His show is always fun, and frankly it’s a relief to talk to a liberal radio talk show host. So I don’t need an engraved invitation to go on his show, but last night when they played theme music, I knew something was up.

big deal alertIn case you missed it, I was inducted last night into the Drive Hall of Fame.  There’s no actual hall, of course. I don’t even think this Hall of Fame is recorded on any wall at the radio station. And apparently I have to frame the certificate I’m promised to get myself.

But don’t think that I am not unexcited. It feels good to be recognized for being able to carry on an entertaining conversation with someone I’ve never met. It feels good to be asked back onto a show over and over again not because I have any particular expertise, knowledge, or wisdom, but because people in cars think I’m amiable company.

In fact, though I handled the award with the appropriate cynicism, this is how I felt inside:



You would all be ashamed of me if you knew how long it took to choose that gif. Give the show a listen here if you like. It was a fun segment in which we discussed exactly zero politics.

BUY THIS: South African slow cooker

Check out this story about the South African slow cooker I found on Amazon:

Sarah Collins couldn’t sleep. It was 2008, and rolling blackouts had darkened the city of Johannesburg. There were severe, ongoing energy shortages throughout South Africa, and everyone was affected. Cities and towns, hospitals and schools—all had power only once every several days, and then only for a few hours. It was during one of these blackouts that Sarah leapt out of bed at two in the morning and woke up her roommate. “I’ve got it!” she said. “I know how I’m going to change the world.”

Sarah had devoted her entire life to searching for ways to empower people in rural Africa, especially women. She worked in AIDS orphans clinics. She did environmental conservation work. She started community-based businesses to help rural women generate an income. She even created a political party and ran for government.

But the night of the blackout, Sarah flashed back to her childhood. Growing up on a farm in a remote part of the country, she had watched her grandmother bundle blankets and cushions around a hot pot of stew to keep it cooking and conserve her limited fuel. “Why wouldn’t that work,” she thought. Then she remembered watching bushmen bury food in the ground while they were cooking. “I thought to myself, ‘This is the oldest technology in the world.’”

The next day, Sarah created the prototype for her heat-retention cooker, the Wonderbag. After food is brought to a boil, the pot is placed in the heavily-lined bag where it slow-cooks for up to 12 hours. “Finding firewood for cooking takes a huge amount of rural women’s time,” explains Sarah, “and gathering it is very dangerous. The wood fires used to cook then cause indoor pollution, a leading cause of death worldwide in children under five. Having the Wonderbag would empower the women to feed their families, generate an income, and save them time.”

“Right away I knew it would work,” says Sarah, “I just knew it. I called my brother and said, ‘I’ve found it! I’ve found my life, I’ve found my destiny, I found the way I can help make a difference.’ And I described the idea, and he joked, ‘Sarah, for years the family has been looking for an excuse to have you institutionalized, and I think I just found it.’”

Sarah brought her first bag to a grandmother she knew who cared for nine orphans. The woman earned a meager living selling food that she cooked all day over a wood fire, but still struggled to meet her family’s basic needs. The tarpaulin where they lived was always full of smoke. The kids weren’t in school, because they had to spend their days gathering firewood. “I said to her, ‘I’ll live with you while we see whether this works.’ But she got the idea right away,” says Sarah. “Their lives were completely changed. Within three months, the children only needed to gather firewood once a week, and they were all in school. They had money for shoes. It was a catalyst out of poverty for them.”

Four years later, Sarah has sold or donated more than 600,000 Wonderbags throughout Africa.

The Wonderbag is now available in the U.S., through Amazon, and Sarah’s new goal is to sell one million to people worldwide. For every bag sold, one is donated to a family in need. “I chose Amazon because I loved the idea of combining the oldest technology in the world with the most high-tech, efficient, environmentally-friendly way of doing your shopping,” says Sarah.

“Having the Wonderbag on Amazon brings healthy, wholesome, slow-cooked portable food into mainstream kitchens. Just as important,” says Sarah, “it empowers consumers, by giving them innovative ways to be part of the solutions that the world is looking for.”