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Tales From City of Hope #1: The Buzzcut Has Landed

| Mon Apr. 20, 2015 7:24 PM EDT

Well, I'm here at City of Hope. On Tuesday at 7 am the final round of chemotherapy begins.

I'm staying in a little studio apartment in Parsons Village, which is on the grounds of the City of Hope campus. The picture on the right provides a glimpse of it. Also, as you can see, it provides a glimpse of the new me. As of yesterday I still had quite a bit of hair left, but it was falling out and I was shedding around the house like a Persian cat from hell. So I figured it was time to just shave it off. It's all coming out eventually anyway.

So what do I remind you of? Kiefer Sutherland in Stand By Me? One of the drones from Apple's 1984 commercial? Y'all can decide in comments.

I visited my sister and my mother yesterday, and I'm happy to report that Hilbert and Hopper are in fine fettle. I set up my sister with Skype on her iPad, so now she can call at night and show me the little furballs in real time. Technology FTW.

And don't forget our Spring fundraiser! I'm still hoping you guys contribute generously to the cause. Remember what they say: Every dollar you give helps one of my hairs grow back.

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We Didn't Learn Anything From Deepwater Horizon—And We're Going to Pay For It

| Mon Apr. 20, 2015 3:13 PM EDT
Oil stains a beach in Gulf Shores, Alabama, following the Deepwater Horizon explosion in April 2010.

Today is the fifth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, an event that triggered the nation's worst-ever oil spill. The well leaked for three months and dumped over 200 million gallons of oil into the sea. The explosion itself killed eleven men; the resulting pollution killed a stupefying amount of wildlife, including 800,000 some birds. And despite billions paid out by BP in fines and restoration costs, the economic impact of the disaster remains wide-reaching and ongoing.

But possibly even more outrageous than the spill itself is how little has been done by government to prevent a similar disaster. The oil and gas industry has stayed active in Washington, and managed to fend off serious efforts to curb drilling: Congress has passed zero new laws—not one—to restrict offshore drilling or force it to be safer. The Obama administration has approved over 1,500 offshore drilling permits since the spill. And back in January the administration announced a plan to open new areas in the Atlantic and Arctic for offshore drilling. As my colleague Tim Murphy noted today, Louisiana's oversight of the oil industry is rife with ludicrous conflicts of interest that raise serious doubts about the state's ability to make drilling safer.

In other words, the wounds from BP are scarcely healed, but we're pushing deeper and deeper into offshore drilling.

In fact, well construction in the Gulf is literally pushing into deeper water, where the risks of a spill are even greater. From an AP investigation pegged to the anniversary:

A review of offshore well data by the AP shows the average ocean depth of all wells started since 2010 has increased to 1,757 feet, 40 percent deeper than the average well drilled in the five years before that...

Drillers are exploring a "golden zone" of oil and natural gas that lies roughly 20,000 feet beneath the sea floor, through a 10,000-foot thick layer of prehistoric salt...

Technology now allows engineers to see the huge reservoirs beneath the previously opaque salt, but the layer is still harder to see through than rock. And it's prone to hiding pockets of oil and gas that raise the potential for a blowout.

Drilling in the Gulf makes up less than one-fifth of US crude oil production, and an even smaller share of total oil production if you count unconventional oil from fracking. So it wouldn't be a crippling blow to our energy supply to consider putting the brakes on offshore drilling—if not forever, at least until we feel secure that we've done enough to prevent another Deepwater Horizon.

Meanwhile, our expansion into deeper and riskier drilling is happening even though there are still an average of two offshore drilling accidents every day.

Politician Tasked With Oil Industry Oversight Gets a Paycheck From Big Oil

| Mon Apr. 20, 2015 2:57 PM EDT

The BP oil spill turned five years old on Monday, and as my colleague Tim McDonnell reported, we're still paying the price: There's as much as 26 million gallons of crude oil still on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. But the story of the Deepwater Horizon wasn't just about environmental devastation—it was also a story about regulation.

In Louisiana, where many politicians rely on oil and gas companies to fill their campaign coffers (and keep their constituents employed), environmental consequences often take a back seat to business concerns. But sometimes, things go even further. Take the case of Republican state Sen. Robert Adley—the vice-chair of the committee on environmental quality and the chair of the transportation committee (which oversees levees)—who played a leading role in trying to stop a local levee board from suing oil companies for damages related to coastal erosion. As Tyler Bridges reported for the Louisiana investigative news site The Lens, Adley doesn't just go to bat for oil companies—he works for them as a paid consultant. He even launched his own oil company while serving as a state representative, and he didn't cut ties to the company until nine years into his stint in the senate:

"He has carried a lot of legislation for the oil and gas industry over the years," said Don Briggs, the industry association's president. "I've never seen him carry one that he didn't truly believe was the right thing to do."

Adley's numerous ties to the oil and gas industry have led critics to say he is the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse.

...

Adley said calls that he should recuse himself from the issue because of his industry ties are "un-American" and "outrageous."

"It's what I know," Adley said. "Is it wrong to have someone dealing with legislation they know?"

For the time being, at least, voters in northwest Louisiana have decided that the answer is no.

"Jurassic World" Is Apparently Not About Humans and Dinosaurs Teaming Up To Solve Crimes

| Mon Apr. 20, 2015 2:26 PM EDT

I was pretty sure the dinosaurs and the people were going to get along really well and maybe go around the country solving crimes together.

I was apparently incorrect.

If the scientists are making these dinosaurs from scratch why don't they just like take out their teeth or make them allergic to human flesh or something? I'm no big city scientist, but I feel like the whole "they keep eating us!" thing could be bred out of them.

Who Subsidizes Restaurant Workers' Pitiful Wages? You Do

| Mon Apr. 20, 2015 8:45 AM EDT

For Americans who like to eat out occasionally, the full-service restaurant industry is full of relatively affordable options—think Olive Garden, Applebees, or Chili's. But these spots aren't exactly a bargain once a hefty hidden cost is factored in: The amount of taxpayer assistance that goes to workers earning little pay.

Food service workers have more than twice the poverty rate of the overall workforce, and thus more often seek out public benefits. A new report published last week by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), a restaurant workers' advocacy and assistance group, calculated the tab and found that from 2009 to 2013, regular Americans subsidized the industry's low wages with nearly $9.5 billion in tax money each year. That number includes spending from roughly 10 different assistance programs, including Medicaid, food stamps, and low-income housing programs like Section 8.

Here's the breakdown per program:

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United

The amounts were calculated by combining Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics figures on the programs' cost and enrollments with the number of Americans working in full-service restaurants.

ROC also found that employees at the five largest full-service restaurant companies alone cost taxpayers about $1.4 billion per year. According to the report, these five companies employ more than half a million of the sector's more than 4 million workers.

Here's another striking statistic: If you add up these five companies' profits, CEO pay, distributed dividends, and stock buy-backs, the total comes to a bit more than $1.48 billion—almost exactly what taxpayers spend on these five companies' workers, $1.42 billion.

ROC's report notes another key point: Polling shows that most Americans want a tax system that requires Corporate America to pull its weight. If customers start realizing that their meal costs a lot more than the check says, they just might lose their appetite.

There's a Place That's Nearly Perfect for Growing Food. It's Not California.

| Mon Apr. 20, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
A cotton field in Georgia.

California is by far the dominant US produce-growing state—source of (large PDF) 81 percent of US-grown carrots, 95 percent of broccoli, 86 percent of cauliflower, 74 percent of raspberries, 91 percent of strawberries, etc.

But all three of its main veggie growing regions—the Imperial Valley, the Central Valley, and the Salinas Valley—face serious short- and long-term water challenges. As I recently argued in a New York Times debate, it's time to "de-Californify" the nation's supply of fruits and vegetable supply, to make it more diversified, resilient, and ready for a changing climate.

Here are maps of US fruit and vegetable production:

USDA

 

USDA

Now check out this map depicting average annual precipitation. The data are old—1961 to 1990—and weather patterns have changed since then as the climate has warmed over the decades. But the overall trends depicted still hold sway: The West tends to be arid, the East tends to get plenty of rain and snow, and the Midwest lands, well, somewhere in the middle. So the map remains a good proxy for understanding where water tends to fall and where it doesn't, though the precipitation levels depicted for California look downright Londonesque compared to the state's current parched condition.

 

 

Not only is California gripped in its worst drought in at least 1,200 years, but climate models and the fossil record suggest that its 21st-century precipitation levels could be significantly lower than the 20th-century norm, when California emerged as a fruit-and-vegetable behemoth.

So here's an idea that could take pressure off California. In my Times piece, I looked to the Corn Belt states of the Midwest as a prime candidate for a veggie revival: Just about a quarter million acres (a veritable rounding error in that region's base of farmland) from corn and soy to veggies could have a huge impact on regional supply, a 2010 Iowa State University study found.

Now my gaze is heading south and east, to acres now occupied by cotton—a crop burdened by a brutal past in the South (slavery, sharecropping) and a troubled present (a plague of herbicide-tolerant weeds):

 

Let's leave aside all of the cotton growing on the arid side of the map. (The drought is already squeezing out production of the fluffy fiber in California; as for the Texas panhandle, cotton production there relies heavily on water from the fast-depleting Ogallala Aquifer—not a great long-term strategy.)

Small-scale fruit and vegetable farms are "already gearing up down there," said one expert.

What I'm eyeing are those cotton acres on the water-rich right side of the map—the Mississippi Delta states Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, and Louisiana, along with the Carolinas, Alabama, and Georgia to the east. According to the USDA, mid-Southern and Southeastern states planted more than 4 million acres of cotton in 2014. This is what's left of the old—and let's face it, infamous—Cotton Belt that stocked the globe's textile factories during the 19th-century boom that delivered the Industrial Revolution (a story told in Sven Beckert's fantastic 2014 book Empire of Cotton).

Decades of low prices have already put a squeeze on Southern cotton acres, and the fiber has recently slumped anew in global trading. Why not transition at least some acres into crops with a robust domestic market? I bounced my idea of a Cotton Belt fruit-and-vegetable renaissance off a few experts to see if it was nuts. Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, called it "noncrazy." He pointed out that, as in most other parts of the United States, small-scale farms that sell directly to consumers are "already gearing up down there," and added that the region "seems ripe for entrepreneurial companies to come in, buy land, grow farmers, introduce a whole new vegetable supply chain on a bigger scale, especially with California's woes."

I'm not talking about a fantasy in which everyone eats from within 20 miles (although such locavore networks, which have thrived nationwide over the last two decades, certainly add diversification and resilience to the overall food system). I'm simply pushing a more regionalized, widely distributed scheme for filling our salad and fruit bowls, one less dependent on California and its overtaxed water resources.

Scott Marlow, executive director of North Carolina-based RAFI USA, a farmer advocacy organization, also said the idea make sense—with caveats. One is credit. Marlow says that most farmers who still plant cotton are large enough that they rely on loans to start the growing season—and bankers understand and are used to cotton, but may find vegetables too exotic and risky. For such farmers, "if the banker won't lend for it, [they] are not doing it," he said. Reforms in the latest farm bill made it easier for "specialty crop" (i.e., fruit and vegetable) farmers to get good crop insurance, and that, in turn, made it easier to get loans, he said. But those changes take time to sink in.

He added that the South's high levels of precipitation can actually be a liability compared to California's aridity, because "rain spreads diseases through splash erosion, ruins product, screws up harvest, reduces product quality." California farmers, who meet their watering needs through controlled irrigation, don't have those problems.

But rain troubles can be addressed through low-tech means like high tunnels, which are already being adapted by Southern produce farmers to extend the growing season, but also to protect sensitive crops from rain, Marlow said. Black plastic mulch, another widely adapted practice, also helps keep crops healthy in rainy periods, he added. The South's farmers have demonstrated the ability to innovate, he said, but "there have to be markets, there has to be risk management, and there has to be access to credit."

Converting swaths of Dixie country to vegetables won't be a fast or easy process. But if California's water troubles drag on, as it appears they will, broccoli may yet emerge as the heir apparent to doddering King Cotton.

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Speedy Ortiz's "Foil Deer" Makes Second Albums Look Easy

| Mon Apr. 20, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Speedy Ortiz
Foil Deer
Carpark

Second albums are supposed to be difficult, but Speedy Ortiz makes it look easy on the terrific Foil Deer. After a striking debut (Major Arcana) and memorable follow-up EP (Real Hair), charismatic Sadie Dupuis and company have polished their distinctive sound without abandoning the anything-goes sensibility that's made them so intriguing. The quartet long ago absorbed the basics of brainy early '90s guitar bands (Pavement, Pixies et al.) and has fashioned its own language. Like Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner, Dupuis unleashes a torrent of words, seemingly inspired by rap artists to put her idiosyncrasies front and center; like Bettie Serveert's Carol van Dijk, she's a deceptively authoritative singer who has mastered the art of appearing poised and anxious at once, hinting at deep reserves of barely controlled emotion. With songs ranging from sludge ("Zig") to brisk pop ("Swell Content") to mutant funk ("Puffer"), Dupuis' often-oblique lyrics touch on longing, loss, and the difficulty of genuine interaction, creating the sensation of eavesdropping on free-form musings. Whether exclaiming, "I was the best at being second place but now I'm just the runner-up" in "The Graduates," or reflecting on "a heartache that numbs you even when it coats you" in the hushed "Dvrk Wvrld," Dupuis is an endlessly intriguing presence.

It's Spring Fundraising Time!

| Sat Apr. 18, 2015 1:22 PM EDT

Our annual Spring Fundraising Drive is wrapping up at the end of the month, but as you all know, I'll be recuperating from my final round of chemotherapy in lovely Duarte, California, right about then. But I didn't want to be left out, so I asked if I could post my note a little earlier than I usually do.

I figure if there's ever been a time when I'm allowed to get slightly more maudlin than usual, this is it. (But just slightly. I have a reputation, after all.) I've been writing for Mother Jones since 2008, and it's been such a great job that it's almost getting hard to remember ever working for anyone else. They've provided me with more freedom to write whatever I want than anyone could hope for. That's been great for me, and I hope for all of you too.

Writing for the print magazine has been a huge gift as well, and it's something I dearly hope to return to when all the chemotherapy is over and my strength is back to normal. It's been a privilege to share pages with such an amazingly talented bunch of journalists.

Truthfully, I've been blessed to have such a great editorial team over the past few months, as well as such a great readership. You guys are truly the best to go through something like this with.

So here's the ask: Mother Jones has done a lot for me and a lot for you over the past few years, and when I get back they're going to keep right on doing it. That makes this fundraising request a little more personal than usual, but if there's ever been a time for you to show your appreciation, this is it. If you can afford five dollars, that's plenty. If you can afford a thousand, then pony up, because you're pretty lucky, aren't you? Either way, when I get back I sure hope to see that my readers have really stepped up to the plate.

Readers like you are a big part of what makes Mother Jones such a unique place. Your support allows me to write about what’s truly important, rather than obsessing over whatever generates the most clicks and advertising revenue. And it's not just me. It gives all of us the independence to write about issues that other places won't touch. It means that we ultimately answer to you, our readers, and not a corporate parent company or shareholders (and you've never been shy about letting us know what you think!).

Thanks for helping make Mother Jones what it is, and for making the last seven years some of the best of my life. And thanks in advance for whatever you can give to keep both me and Mother Jones going strong. Here are the links for donations:

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Welfare Reform and the Decline of Work

| Sat Apr. 18, 2015 11:55 AM EDT

A recent paper suggests that over the past two decades there's been a decline in the desire of people outside the labor force to ever get jobs. Why?

We conjecture that two mechanisms could explain these results. First, the EITC expansion raised family income and reduced secondary earners's (typically women) incentives to work. Second, the strong work requirements introduced by the AFDC/TANF reform would have, through a kind of “sink or swim” experience, left the “weaker” welfare recipients without welfare and pushed them away from the labor force and possibly into disability insurance.

This comes via Tyler Cowen, who attended an NBER session this morning conducted by the authors of this study. He came away thinking they probably hadn't made a strong case. Still, an interesting hypothesis that probably deserves followup.

Are Republicans Finally Giving Up on Killing Obamacare?

| Sat Apr. 18, 2015 11:44 AM EDT

Let me say right up front that I'm skeptical of the following report. But then, maybe I'm blinded by partisanship. Who knows? In any case, here is Noam Levey writing in the LA Times today:

After five years and more than 50 votes in Congress, the Republican campaign to repeal the Affordable Care Act is essentially over. GOP congressional leaders, unable to roll back the law while President Obama remains in office and unwilling to again threaten a government shutdown to pressure him, are focused on other issues, including trade and tax reform.

Less noted, senior Republican lawmakers have quietly incorporated many of the law's key protections into their own proposals, including guaranteeing coverage and providing government assistance to help consumers purchase insurance.

....At the same time, the presumed Republican presidential front-runner, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, has shown little enthusiasm for a new healthcare fight. Last year, he even criticized the repeal effort...."Only 18% of Americans want to go back to the system we had before because they do not want to go back to some of the problems we had," Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster [said]...."Smart Republicans in this area get that," he added.

Well, maybe. Levey concedes that there will still be plenty of calls to repeal Obamacare during the 2016 presidential campaign, but he believes that in practice, Republicans will be unwilling to seriously gut a program that's now providing health coverage for 20 million Americans, a number that will only increase over the next two years.

This is an argument I've made myself on multiple occasions, so I ought to be sympathetic to it. And I guess I am. On the other hand, I've been repeatedly astonished at the relentlessness of the GOP base's hatred of Obamacare. Over and over, I thought it would fade out. Maybe when the Supreme Court ruled it was constitutional. Maybe when Obama won in 2012. Maybe when the law finally took full effect in 2014. But like the Energizer bunny, their unholy enmity toward the law just kept going and going and going.

So is Obamacare Derangement Syndrome finally burning itself out? I guess I'll believe it when I see it. But maybe.