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Republicans Got Greedy With Gerrymandering. Now It’s Coming Back To Haunt Them. “It just was so nakedly partisan.”

When Thomas Hofeller travelled across the country at the beginning of the decade to talk to lawmakers about the redistricting process, he brought a warning: “Don’t get cute.”

Republicans were fresh off a remarkably successful effort to take control of state legislatures so they could control the redistricting process ― a significant victory, because redistricting is only done every 10 years. Hofeller, a veteran Republican redistricting consultant and mapmaker, cautioned lawmakers against drawing “stupid irregularities” in boundaries obviously contorted to include voters likely to support them, The Atlantic reported.

But in 2011, Republicans were focused on maximizing every possible advantage they could squeeze out of the redistricting project, and saw an opportunity to entrench their control of at least 20 seats in the U.S. House. They took it.

Republicans have since enjoyed considerable advantage from those maps. According to an estimate by the Brennan Center for Justice, Republican gerrymandering accounts for 16 or 17 GOP seats in the current Congress that the party may not otherwise control.

But now, that gerrymandering greed of Republicans is coming back to haunt them.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court in January struck down the congressional map state Republicans drew, saying it was so partisan that it violated the state constitution. That same month, a panel of three federal judges struck down North Carolina’s congressional map. In October, the U.S. Supreme Court heard argument in a Wisconsin case may set a standard for defining unconstitutional gerrymandering on partisan grounds. (The court also will consider a case challenging a Democratic gerrymander in Maryland at the end of March.)

As these legal contests settle out, it’s worth looking back on how the GOP got here.

The reckoning Republicans are seeing now is one that could have been avoided, lawyers and redistricting experts say, had the GOP not been so ruthless.

Both Democrats and Republicans have gerrymandered in the past to their advantage, but Republicans took it to a new level in 2011. In an amicus brief to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, political science professors Keith Gaddie and Bernard Grofman wrote that there was as much as three times more partisan bias in congressional maps this decade than in ones drawn in 2000. Nicholas Stephanopoulos, a law professor at the University of Chicago helping challenge a Wisconsin map, said a “dramatic number” of the worst gerrymanders of the last half-century have occurred since 2010.

Until the courts began stepping in, Republican gerrymandering paid off. From 2012 to 2016, the GOP won 13 of Pennsylvania’s 18 congressional seats, even though the party’s candidates only got around half of the vote. In Ohio, the party consistently won 12 of 16 congressional seats, but 50 percent of the statewide vote. In Wisconsin, they won at least 60 of 99 state assembly seats, with about half of the popular vote.

As a lawyer, Stephanopoulos said the clear egregiousness of the Republican redistricting made it easier to show something was amiss. It would have been harder to make a case, he said, if Republicans had only been winning slim majorities.

“In Wisconsin, if Republicans had been winning a narrow majority of the statehouse with roughly a tied election, Democrats would have been upset by that, but it probably wouldn’t have risen to a major constitutional challenge,” Stephanopoulos said.

Republican mapmakers in 2011 may have been emboldened by a 2004 U.S. Supreme Court case in which justices declined to strike down Pennsylvania’s congressional plan on partisan grounds.

Republicans could have been cautious. They could have drawn maps that benefitted their party, but at the same time were fairer, compact and contiguous, said Jeffrey Wice, a Washington lawyer who has worked with Democrats on redistricting issues. The Constitution gives state lawmakers the broad responsibility of drawing electoral districts, and the GOP maps would have stood up better against judicial scrutiny had lawmakers offered public justification in their legislatures for the boundaries, Wice added.

“You can draw a plan to benefit a party, but do so in a fair way through a more transparent, objective process that follows criteria,” Wice said. “If politicians weren’t as greedy and secretive, then we wouldn’t be seeing as many challenges to plans for the egregious overreaching in the last round.”

In many cases, Republicans didn’t offer a defensible justification. In North Carolina, a Republican said his party’s lawmakers drew a map that gave Republicans a 10-3 advantage because he didn’t see a way to draw one that was 11-2. In Wisconsin, GOP lawmakers sought to avoid scrutiny by hiring a law firm to draw the maps, hoping the work would be hidden by attorney-client privilege.

Without a public explanation for the redrawn boundaries, it’s easier for those challenging the maps to claim Republicans intended to dilute Democratic votes.

Michael Li, redistricting counsel at the Brennan Center, pointed to the GOP-drawn congressional map in Pennsylvania as a good example of a brazen Republican attempt to maximize control. The districts were clearly contorted into odd-looking shapes, and there was no attempt to explain why ― other than partisan advantage.

“The 2011 map in Pennsylvania resulted in such contorted districts, it was hard to explain away as product of neutral decisions, such as about keeping towns or counties together. It just was so nakedly partisan,” Li said in an email. ”That’s not to say a map that was less contorted couldn’t have been challenged if it also produced durable bias in favor of a party. But at least there would be a colorable defense that a court would have to take seriously.”

Such strong evidence also could make it more palatable for courts to wade into political redistricting ― a topic the judiciary had long avoided.

“The courts are going to police outlier cases, rather than trying to wade into each and every one,” said Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “The same principle’s true in any kind of discrimination: The more blatant, the easier it is to establish, and the more likely the courts are to call it out.”

Even if the Supreme Court does decide Republicans went too far with gerrymandering, its anticipated ruling in the spring would likely come too late to affect this year’s congressional elections, and wouldn’t have an impact on maps until at least 2020. Even if Republicans lose the ability to gerrymander in the future, their ruthlessness will have helped them for nearly an entire decade.

Ed Gillespie, the former Republican National Committee chair who oversaw the party’s effort to target state legislatures, envisioned that kind of success. In 2011 talking points, obtained by journalist David Daley, Gillespie thanked donors who had given to the party’s effort to make gains in state legislatures. He said Republicans hadn’t waste a “drop” of their money on state races, and had made “maximum impact.”

By Sam Levine/HuffPost

Posted by The NON-Conformist


Without Toys R Us, 30,000 jobs, a black hole for toy makers

The demise of Toys R Us will have a ripple effect on everything from toy makers to consumers to landlords.

The 70-year-old retailer is headed toward shuttering its U.S. operations, jeopardizing the jobs of some 30,000 employees while spelling the end for a chain known to generations of children and parents for its sprawling stores and Geoffrey the giraffe mascot.

The closing of the company’s 740 U.S. stores over the coming months will finalize the downfall of the chain that succumbed to heavy debt and relentless trends that undercut its business, from online shopping to mobile games.

And it will force toy makers and landlords who depended on the chain to scramble for alternatives.

CEO David Brandon told employees Wednesday the company’s plan is to liquidate all of its U.S. stores, according to an audio recording of the meeting obtained by The Associated Press.

More from Google News

Posted by Libergirl


Stormy Daniels’ Mother Hopes Scandal Doesn’t Hurt Trump: I Hope ‘He Runs Four More Times’

Amid the $130,000 of “hush money” and the alleged 2006 scandal with Donald Trump, the estranged mother of pornstar Stormy Daniels said she hopes her child’s supposed affair with the president doesn’t hurt his future re-election hopes.

In a profile with The Dallas Morning News, 64-year-old Shiela Gregorytold the outlet the following:

“If Mr. Trump runs four more times, I would vote for him every time. I like him. I like the way he handles things. It’s time this country is put back where it belongs — taking care of the people here instead of the people who don’t belong here.”

The mother of Daniels, whose name offstage is Stephanie Clifford, also said she hopes the alleged sexual encounter from 12 years ago does not negatively impact the president’s reputation.

Additionally, Gregory explained that while she does not approve of Daniels’ current and past occupations as an adult actress and performer, she does understand the need to make money and even admitted she might pursue such a career had she known it paid so well.

More from Mediate

Posted by Libergirl

School Segregation Is Not a Myth Skeptics claim that concerns over racially divided schools are false alarms—but they’re missing the full picture.

Black students are escorted through the front door of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., Sept. 26, 1957. AP

Is school segregation getting worse?

Plenty of people say yes, including scholars, journalists, and civil-rights advocates. For the first time in years, there’s something approximating a consensus: Racially divided schools are a major and intensifying problem for American education—maybe even a crisis.

There’s seemingly compelling numerical evidence, too. According to my analysis of data from the National Center on Education Statistics, the number of segregated schools (defined in this analysis as those schools where less than 40 percent of students are white), has approximately doubled between 1996 and 2016. In that same span, the percentage of children of color attending such a school rose from 59 to 66 percent. For black students, the percentage in segregated schools rose even faster, from 59 to 71 percent.

But not everyone is on board. In the eyes of some writers, the warning signs of segregation are all a false alarm—little more than a statistical mirage. The National Review writer Robert VerBruggen recently made this case, attacking what he called the “resegregation myth.” VerBruggen and other skeptics contend that methods meant to identify school segregation are instead detecting something much more benign: The growing diversity of the American population.

This is possible because many measures of school segregation are narrow, focusing only on a single symptom. For instance, one common research technique is to count the number of schools above a certain demographic cutoff (for instance, more than 90 percent nonwhite). Another is to focus on “exposure,” or how common it is for white and nonwhite students to encounter each other in the education system.

Doubters like VerBruggen argue that people using these metrics have been fooled by demographic change. The past several decades have seen a precipitous increase in the racial diversity of U.S. schoolchildren. For example, since 1996, the share of Hispanic and Asian students in public schools has grown from 17 to 31 percent. As a result, across the board, schools have tended to become less white.

When diversity increases, some measures of segregation are likely to get worse, more or less by default. For instance, if an integrated school is growing, but most of the new students are Hispanic, at some point, it’ll tip over and become segregated. If white students become a smaller share of the American population overall, all else equal, “exposure” to white students will probably decline.

VerBruggen claims that this shift, and little else, is responsible for the perceived crisis. “The rise in ‘segregation’ disappears when one measures segregation properly,” he asserts. He and others say that, with slim evidence of increasing segregation, policies designed to proactively integrate schools are an obsolete form of social engineering.

It’s a simple case. Too simple: There is plenty of evidence that resegregation is urgently real.

School segregation seems like it would be easy to gauge: Just add up the number of segregated schools, and see whether that number is going up or down over time. But the reality, unfortunately, is a lot more complicated.

The core problem is that the nation’s schools are evolving in many ways at once. Student populations undergo slow shifts; new schools are constantly opening and closing; attendance boundaries are drawn and redrawn. As a result, the effects of large-scale demographic change and those of local school policy get tangled up with one another. It can be hard for researchers to separate one factor from the other.

Making things even tougher, increased national diversity tends to generate mixed signals about whether segregation is happening. As skeptics like Verbruggen point out, some measures of segregation, especially those that focus on the prevalence of white students, tend to look worse when student diversity increases. But other measures tend to look better. For example, one statistic known as a “dissimilarity index” calculates how many people would have to swap places to achieve demographic balance. When diversity increases evenly, dissimilarity indexes will improve—because the share of minority students in the least-integrated schools will grow, making fewer swaps necessary.

Contrary to the assertions of VerBruggen and others, there is broad statistical evidence of new racial stratification in schools. A recent (and helpfully illustrated) piece in Vox runs through some of that evidence, focusing on the changing role of attendance boundaries. The short version: Entire school districts are becoming more racially distinct from each other, even while racial diversity within those districts may be increasing.

In addition, while sweeping statistical indices have their uses, they tend to overlook some lower-level trends, like school openings and closures. That’s a major blind spot when talking about the causes of new segregation. According to my analysis of the most recently available federal data, closures are about three times as common among segregated schools, and new schools account for a substantial share of current segregation. In 2016, 38 percent of all segregated schools had opened within the last two decades, compared to 20 percent of predominantly white and integrated schools. In at least this sense, nearly four-tenths of educational segregation is the result of students being shuffled into newly opened schools.

And there are other numbers that suggest a worsening trend. Almost everybody agrees that economic segregation is growing in schools, and many of those dubious about racial segregation like to advance this idea as a competing, alternative theory for educational inequality. But while income segregation can be simpler to measure than race, race and income are closely interwoven. The poorest schoolchildren are very disproportionately nonwhite; the poorest schools are usually racially segregated. The existence of economic segregation does not contradict evidence of racial segregation—it helps confirm it. It shows that, underneath the confounding effects of growing diversity, American schoolchildren are still being divided on the basis of social caste.

While resegregation skeptics are relying on oversimplified statistical evidence, there are even larger holes in their argument. One major reason civil-rights advocates fear resegregation is because they’ve directly observed changes to school policy that seem likely to contribute to racial isolation. Changes like this won’t necessarily show up in statistical measures of student demographics—at least, not right away—but they’re still important.

For example, most researchers believe that court-ordered integration plans, maintained by many school districts throughout the 1970s and 80s, were effective at reducing segregation. But since the turn of the century, hundreds of court orders have been terminated, and virtually no new ones have been created.

In places where segregation is already firmly established, government action can have the effect of “locking in” those racial lines. Here, an analogy might help: Imagine a housing subdivision where almost everyone is white, surrounded by neighborhoods that are heavily nonwhite. Now, imagine that the subdivision builds a large wall, hires a security guard for the entrance, and refuses to sell houses to anyone new. You’d be hard-pressed to argue these changes weren’t segregative, even if, for the time being, everyone continues to live in the same place.

In American schools, metaphorical walls are going up all over the place. For instance, school districts in the south are traditionally larger than elsewhere in the country, often including entire counties. As a practical matter, this makes southern districts easier to integrate: Their wide expanse means they contain many white and nonwhite students alike. But in recent years, southern districts have begun to fragment. Sometimes this is caused by white neighborhoods and cities that attempt to “secede” and form their own, all-white districts. In other places, fragmentation is driven by statewide political forces, such as in North Carolina, where a conservative legislature is currently weighing breaking up large districts. No matter the cause, the ongoing splintering of districts places integration further out of reach.

In Memphis, Tennessee, for example, new racial lines are being drawn around the area’s schools. In 2013 the majority-black Memphis city school district merged with the schools of the surrounding county, which were majority-white. At first blush, this was a move that promised integration. That is, until the next year, when six cities seceded from the merged district. Five of the six new districts are even whiter than the original county district had been—a new geography of segregation, freshly imposed.

And there are other ways to raise barriers to integration. In many big-city school districts, policymakers have spurred the growth of new charter schools to compete with traditional public schools. But because charters usually operate independently of the district they’re in, students transferring into them can’t be as easily included in a district’s integration plans. This is another form of fragmentation, with charters acting as islands, administratively detached from the district around them. Perhaps not coincidentally, charters are also usually highly segregated, with students often sorted into distinct racial groups. Legal barriers are still barriers; this, too, is resegregation.

Underneath all of this is a deeper question: How much does the cause of segregation matter?

Imagine if a landlord, confronted with a leaking roof, responded by saying that the real problem is just too much rain. It’s true that, in some sense, rain causes leaks—but only because there was something wrong with the roof in the first place. And at the end of the day, the leaks are still a problem that needs to be fixed.

Likewise, it’s true that diversity in schools is increasing. But it’s only making segregation worse because of flaws that already existed in the education system. The fundamental defect in American schools—the hole in the roof, if you will—is that they have long exhibited patterns of racial concentration, mostly due to housing segregation and decades of discriminatory education policy. If schools were already integrated to begin with, you’d expect increasing diversity to raise all boats relatively evenly. Most schools would get less white, but few would find themselves truly segregated. Instead, in a long-segregated system, the effects of increased diversity are inevitably lopsided. Schools already suffering from a relatively high degree of segregation have found themselves completely isolated.

Because of this, demographic changes are not experienced evenly. Because black students were already overrepresented in segregated schools, they often bear the brunt of an increase in racial isolation, whatever the proximate cause of those increases. That’s why the share of black students in segregated schools has increased by 11 percent nationwide in the last two decades, faster than the share of either white students or nonwhite students overall, both of which have risen by about 6 percent, according to my analysis.

And, ultimately, there’s just not much reason to think that identifying the exact cause of resegregation will ameliorate its harms. The vast majority of research into school segregation does not focus on its causes, but rather on the costs of attending a racially isolated school. There are many. They include reduced academic achievement, increased exposure to the criminal justice system, and significantly worsened professional and educational outcomes. Children in integrated schools find it easier to live and work in diverse environments; children in segregated schools are more prone to hold racially prejudiced views later in life. Racial isolation also tends to deprive children of color of what are sometimes obliquely called “networks of opportunity”—in plain language, the day-to-day connections most people rely on to get a job or get into college.

And of course, there’s another reason to worry about school segregation, regardless of its cause: the problem of second-class citizenship. Ironically, this problem generates less discussion than wonky, technocratic concerns about test scores and income mobility. But it was pivotal in propelling the school-integration push of the 1960s and 70s, and for good reason. Civil-rights advocates are not wrong to worry that, beyond any set of individual outcomes, it is not healthy nor sustainable for a society to effectively consign most children of color to an alternative system of schools. Doing so helps construct or reinforce ideas about racial caste in the minds of Americans—and, worst of all, in the minds of the children themselves.

None of these ills will heal themselves so long as segregated schools exist, or grow in number. And right now, such schools are growing in number, for reasons ranging from the benign to the nefarious. Dedicated advocates and smart policymakers can thwart school resegregation, and eventually reverse it. But it will not reverse itself.

By Will Stancil/TheAtlantic

Posted by The NON-Conformist

Robert Mueller Is Not a Superhero

Robert Mueller, testifying before Congress in 2013. Credit Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call, via Getty Images

For many people, it’s up to Robert Mueller, the special counsel, to settle the question of “collusion” in the 2016 election. A clean, clear, nonpartisan legal finding would be the most acceptable possible outcome. If he uncovers a crime by the president, Congress would be justified in pursuing an impeachment inquiry.

So it should not matter that the House Intelligence Committee has abruptly ended its “investigation,” declining to compel testimony from key uncooperative witnesses or subpoena relevant records. In the words of one commentator, we need only “wait for Mueller.”

But this view is wrong, a confusion of constitutional roles and responsibilities. Mr. Mueller has one job, and Congress has another. The potential offense that each is investigating might go by the same shorthand — “collusion” — but it is not the same.

What counts as evidence, and how it is weighed and debated, is by necessity different in the two proceedings. Confusion over this point has major practical consequences for how long the nation must await a full and clear resolution of the question of Russian interference in the election, and any role Mr. Trump and his campaign played in it.

The problem seems to start with anxiety about impeachment as too “political” a process — especially in a hyperpartisan environment. That it is political in character is undeniable, but the founders thought of the politics of impeachment as being of the highest order, concerned with the protection of the constitutional system from serious executive misconduct. As James Madison told the Congress, a powerful presidency carried with it a high danger of abuse of office, and the remedy of impeachment was available “at all times.”

Legal and constitutional concerns require clarity about the nature and relevant evidence of misconduct. On the legal side, Mr. Mueller may be headed toward a theory of collusion, potentially implicating the president and others, in the form of a “conspiracy to defraud the United States.”
There are particular requirements for making such a case, as well as predictable defenses. Lawyers will disagree, for example, over the legal import of what the president, as candidate or president, has publicly said about Russia — his open appeal to the Russian government to locate and publish the emails of Hillary Clinton or his repeated references to the fact of Russian electoral intervention as a “hoax.”
Do these actions constitute affirmative acts in furtherance of a criminal conspiracy, subjecting Mr. Trump to “accomplice liability”? The courts would decide.

But these actions are undoubtedly relevant to any potential impeachment inquiry. What the president publicly stated and tweeted takes on greater significance in light of the revelation that his campaign representatives — as we learned in the memo from Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee — were told that Russians could disseminate emails stolen from Mrs. Clinton. In addressing collusion with Russia, Congress must decide whether this president should retain office if the facts establish that he entered into some form of political alliance with Russia and then came to office in debt to a foreign power while determined to obstruct a public accounting. Congress has the obligation to make this determination regardless of whether Mr. Trump may be guilty of aiding and abetting a criminal conspiracy.

That requires a constitutional judgment. Answering strictly legal questions in a potential trial does not resolve the issue of the president’s accountability under the Constitution. Congress’s inquiry can and should be informed by an unfettered special counsel investigation, but it cannot depend on it.

Furthermore, narrowing impeachable offenses to include only violations of law may lead to a constitutional dead end. In opinions issued in 1973 and 2000, the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel has taken the position that a sitting president cannot be indicted while in office. If Mr. Mueller concludes that the president engaged in criminal conduct but follows O.L.C. opinions in declining to indict him, the president’s legal responsibility will not be adjudicated as long as he occupies the White House. On what basis would Congress then proceed to oust him from office under the legalistic conception of the impeachment power?

Many people assume that the special counsel will report to Congress on the evidence against the president. But the special counsel regulations, unlike the now defunct independent counsel statute, do not clearly mandate or authorize any such report from either the counsel or the deputy attorney general. Congress may be more likely to learn about Mr. Mueller’s work from publicly filed indictments and plea agreements.

And Congress cannot rely on the Mueller record alone. Even if Congress made impeachment a legal rather than political process, a president will be quick to argue that he is entitled to a fair adjudication of any criminal charge.

Moreover, the timetables for the two processes are not the same. Congress cannot responsibly defer its task for as long as it may take for lawyers to clash and courts to rule.

A Congress that was serious about meeting its responsibility would neither shirk nor rush a judgment about a president’s impeachable offenses. The House would structure an investigative and deliberative process that it would explain in clear terms to the public. As in 1974 in the Nixon impeachment process, the House Judiciary Committee would review and publish the best constitutional learning on what presidential misconduct rises to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” It would proceed in the same spirit as its predecessor did when the 1974 committee said that “what is said here does not reflect any prejudgment” of the allegations but is “intended to be a review of the precedents and available interpretive materials, seeking general principles to guide the committee.” The Committee would then move to the investigative phase.

As in the Watergate case, the congressional inquiry would run parallel to the legal process, each benefiting from the other even as Congress took steps as necessary to avoid compromising the criminal investigation. It’s not difficult to imagine a new Mueller indictment spurring the Congress to action. While the special counsel may conclude that he cannot indict the president, the nature of charges against close aides and relatives could support the initiation of an impeachment inquiry. Even in this case, Congress’s task is to carry on its own investigation and to arrive at an independent judgment about whether the president should remain in officeIn the end, some may hope that delegating Congress’s responsibility to the legal process will unite the public around the outcome. They will be disappointed. The independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s investigation of Bill Clinton rallied Democrats against impeachment as much as any other aspect of his defense. Mr. Mueller has already had strong tastes of these attacks.

When the Trump-Russia matters comes to a conclusion, we will learn how well “the system” addressed an extraordinary challenge. A crucial measure of its success or failure will be its adherence to constitutional process on a correct understanding of institutional responsibility. It is up to Congress — evidently not this one, maybe the next — to show that it can rise to the occasion.

By Bob Bauer/NYTimes

Posted by The NON-Conformist

Bottled Water, Brought to You by Fracking? The link between fracking and the bottled water industry is one more reason to take back the tap.

The new Food & Water Watch report Take Back the Tap: The Big Business Hustle of Bottled Water details the deceit and trickery of the bottled water industry. Here’s one more angle to consider: The bottled water business is closely tied to fracking.

The report reveals that the majority of bottled water is municipal tap water, a common resource captured in plastic bottles and re-sold at an astonishing markup—as much as 2,000 times the price of tap, and even four times the price of gasoline. Besides being a rip-off, there is plenty more to loathe about the corporate water scam: The environmental impacts from pumping groundwater (especially in drought-prone areas), the plastic junk fouling up our waterways and oceans, and the air pollution created as petrochemical plants manufacture the materials necessary for making those plastic bottles filled with overpriced tap water.

There is a growing international awareness that plastic is a serious problem. In 2016, about 4 billion pounds of plastic were used in the bottled water business, and most of those bottles are not recycled—meaning they often end up in landfills or as litter. There’s also the matter of whether we should be putting our drinking water in those bottles in the first place: The most common packaging (polyethylene terephthalate, or PET) includes compounds like benzene, and the bottles can leach toxins like formaldehyde and acetaldehyde.

But perhaps the biggest problem is where we get all this plastic in the first place. Many of the raw materials used to create those plastic bottles come from fracking. In addition to air and water pollution, the fracking boom has delivered an abundant supply of the hydrocarbon ethane, which is used in petrochemical manufacturing to create ethylene, which is turned into plastic.

One of the global powerhouses in this industry is a company called Ineos, which needs to expand fracking in order to keep profiting from plastics. To do this, massive “dragon ships” carry ethane from the United States to its facilities in Europe. The company wants even more of this raw material, which is one of the big reasons that Sunoco/Energy Transfer Partners is building the Mariner East 2, a dangerous pipeline that will travel across hundreds of miles of the state of Pennsylvania. Getting more ethane means Ineos can turn more of those hydrocarbons into plastic, with the accompanying industrial pollution and carbon emissions we have come to expect from a company that has amassed a horrendous environmental record.

The corporate water business is a costly scam that affects our air, water, and climate. It robs communities of a resource that is a public good and must be treated as one, and it relies heavily on dirty fossil fuels to produce and transport a product that it sells at an extravagant markup. It rakes in billions of dollars while our public tap water infrastructure—that these companies benefit from—remains in desperate need of federal funding to provide all Americans with access to clean, affordable drinking water.

By Wenonah Hauter / AlterNet

Posted by The NON-Conformist

Scientists Have Established a Link Between Brain Damage and Religious Fundamentalism This explains a lot about our current political situation.

study published in the journal Neuropsychologia has shown that religious fundamentalism is, in part, the result of a functional impairment in a brain region known as the prefrontal cortex. The findings suggest that damage to particular areas of the prefrontal cortex indirectly promotes religious fundamentalism by diminishing cognitive flexibility and openness—a psychology term that describes a personality trait which involves dimensions like curiosity, creativity, and open-mindedness.

Religious beliefs can be thought of as socially transmitted mental representations that consist of supernatural events and entities assumed to be real. Religious beliefs differ from empirical beliefs, which are based on how the world appears to be and are updated as new evidence accumulates or when new theories with better predictive power emerge. On the other hand, religious beliefs are not usually updated in response to new evidence or scientific explanations, and are therefore strongly associated with conservatism. They are fixed and rigid, which helps promote predictability and coherence to the rules of society among individuals within the group.

 Religious fundamentalism refers to an ideology that emphasizes traditional religious texts and rituals and discourages progressive thinking about religion and social issues. Fundamentalist groups generally oppose anything that questions or challenges their beliefs or way of life. For this reason, they are often aggressive towards anyone who does not share their specific set of supernatural beliefs, and towards science, as these things are seen as existential threats to their entire worldview.

Since religious beliefs play a massive role in driving and influencing human behavior throughout the world, it is important to understand the phenomenon of religious fundamentalism from a psychological and neurological perspective.

To investigate the cognitive and neural systems involved in religious fundamentalism, a team of researchers—led by Jordan Grafman of Northwestern University—conducted a study that utilized data from Vietnam War veterans that had been gathered previously. The vets were specifically chosen because a large number of them had damage to brain areas suspected of playing a critical role in functions related to religious fundamentalism. CT scans were analyzed comparing 119 vets with brain trauma to 30 healthy vets with no damage, and a survey that assessed religious fundamentalism was administered. While the majority of participants were Christians of some kind, 32.5% did not specify a particular religion.

Based on previous research, the experimenters predicted that the prefrontal cortex would play a role in religious fundamentalism, since this region is known to be associated with something called ‘cognitive flexibility’. This term refers to the brain’s ability to easily switch from thinking about one concept to another, and to think about multiple things simultaneously. Cognitive flexibility allows organisms to update beliefs in light of new evidence, and this trait likely emerged because of the obvious survival advantage such a skill provides. It is a crucial mental characteristic for adapting to new environments because it allows individuals to make more accurate predictions about the world under new and changing conditions.

Brain imaging research has shown that a major neural region associated with cognitive flexibility is the prefrontal cortex—specifically two areas known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). Additionally, the vmPFC was of interest to the researchers because past studies have revealed its connection to fundamentalist-type beliefs. For example, one study showed individuals with vmPFC lesions rated radical political statements as more moderate than people with normal brains, while another showed a direct connection between vmPFC damage and religious fundamentalism. For these reasons, in the present study, researchers looked at patients with lesions in both the vmPFC and the dlPFC, and searched for correlations between damage in these areas and responses to religious fundamentalism questionnaires.

According to Dr. Grafman and his team, since religious fundamentalism involves a strict adherence to a rigid set of beliefs, cognitive flexibility and open-mindedness present a challenge for fundamentalists. As such, they predicted that participants with lesions to either the vmPFC or the dlPFC would score low on measures of cognitive flexibility and trait openness and high on measures of religious fundamentalism.

The results showed that, as expected, damage to the vmPFC and dlPFC was associated with religious fundamentalism. Further tests revealed that this increase in religious fundamentalism was caused by a reduction in cognitive flexibility and openness resulting from the prefrontal cortex impairment. Cognitive flexibility was assessed using a standard psychological card sorting test that involved categorizing cards with words and images according to rules. Openness was measured using a widely-used personality survey known as the NEO Personality Inventory. The data suggests that damage to the vmPFC indirectly promotes religious fundamentalism by suppressing both cognitive flexibility and openness.

These findings are important because they suggest that impaired functioning in the prefrontal cortex—whether from brain trauma, a psychological disorder, a drug or alcohol addiction, or simply a particular genetic profile—can make an individual susceptible to religious fundamentalism. And perhaps in other cases, extreme religious indoctrination harms the development or proper functioning of the prefrontal regions in a way that hinders cognitive flexibility and openness.

The authors emphasize that cognitive flexibility and openness aren’t the only things that make brains vulnerable to religious fundamentalism. In fact, their analyses showed that these factors only accounted for a fifth of the variation in fundamentalism scores. Uncovering those additional causes, which could be anything from genetic predispositions to social influences, is a future research project that the researchers believe will occupy investigators for many decades to come, given how complex and widespread religious fundamentalism is and will likely continue to be for some time.

By investigating the cognitive and neural underpinnings of religious fundamentalism, we can better understand how the phenomenon is represented in the connectivity of the brain, which could allow us to someday inoculate against rigid or radical belief systems through various kinds of mental and cognitive exercises.

By Bobby Azarian / Raw Story

Posted by The NON-Conformist