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How the US Chamber of Commerce Is Helping Big Tobacco Poison the Rest of the World

| Tue Jul. 21, 2015 6:05 AM EDT

The US Chamber of Commerce hasn't just worked to thwart climate change legislation, obstruct health care reform, and pooh-pooh Wall Street regulations. The nation's most powerful business lobby recently turned its attention to promoting cigarettes overseas, apparently using a rationale that corporations are, well, people:

"The Chamber regularly reaches out to governments around the world to urge them to avoid measures that discriminate against particular companies or industries," the Chamber said in a short statement responding to a recent New York Times piece on its tobacco lobbying. Since 2011, according to the Times, the US Chamber intervened in at least nine countries and the European Union—either directly or through one of its many foreign affiliates—to oppose regulations designed to prevent smoking.

Moreover, according to a report released last week by anti-smoking groups, including the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and Action on Smoking and Health, tobacco companies have joined US Chamber affiliates in 56 countries. Those companies also sit on Chamber affiliates' boards or advisory councils in 14 countries—most of which happen to be places where people smoke a lot: Albania, Armenia, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Kosovo, Lithuania, Macedonia, Malaysia, Morocco, Poland, Serbia, the Slovak Republic, and Taiwan.

The report also highlighted previously unreported cases in which the US Chamber has gone to bat for its tobacco company members:

  • Burkina Faso: In January 2014, the US Chamber sent a letter to Prime Minister Luc Adolphe Tiao warning that the country's plan to implement graphic warning labels on cigarette packages violated international property rights and trade agreements. The threat of costly trade litigation delayed implementation of the law, according to government officials.
  • Philippines: In 2012, the US Chamber and its local affiliate fought an effort to raise taxes on cigarettes, claiming it would create a black market. The commissioner of the Filipino Bureau of Internal Revenue recently told the local press that those fears have proved unfounded.
  • United Kingdom: In 2014, the US Chamber released a joint statement with business groups and sent letters opposing a bill that would create standardized packaging for tobacco products. The bill "sends a negative message to the United Kingdom's trading partners," one letter said, "and undermines its reputation for the rule of law." The bill passed in March 2015.

US Chamber CEO Tom Donohue's most striking innovation has been to allow controversial industries to use the Chamber as a means of anonymously pursuing their political ends. The same politicians who might ignore a complaint from a tobacco company may listen when that complaint comes from a group that claims (albeit disingenuously) to represent 3 million businesses.

But the strategy comes with a risk in terms of its corporate clientele. Apple and Nike quit the Chamber over its stance on climate change, and CVS just parted ways with the group over its tobacco lobbying.

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Trump Takes Big GOP Lead, But Plummets After McCain Remarks

| Mon Jul. 20, 2015 5:42 PM EDT

Today brings the latest presidential poll from the fine folks at ABC News and the Washington Post. The big news is that Hillary Clinton has maintained her 63-14 percent lead over Bernie Sanders.

Just kidding! I know you don't care about that. You want to know what's going on over in GOP-ville. Your answer is in the chart on the right. Walker and Bush have both gained slightly over the last month, but nearly every other candidate has lost support. And where has that support gone? To Donald Trump, of course. But then there's this:

How long the Trump surge lasts is an open question; this poll was conducted Thursday through Sunday, mostly before his controversial criticism Saturday of Sen. John McCain’s status as a war hero. And Trump’s support was conspicuously lower Sunday than in the three previous days.

In a hypothetical three-way matchup between Clinton, Bush, and Trump, Trump's support was 21 percent from Thursday to Saturday, vs. 13 percent in Sunday interviews.

There's no telling how this plays out. If Trump implodes—and he will eventually, even if his McCain comments don't do the trick—it's likely that his supporters will shift to tea-party conservatives: Huckabee, Cruz, Perry, maybe Rubio, and probably Walker. But not Bush.

Or....well, who knows? ABC News tells us that Trump's support dropped in Sunday interviews, but they don't tell us who that support shifted to. We'll have to wait and see. Maybe Bush will come out of this better than I think.

California Just Fined Some Farmers $1.5 Million for Using Too Much Water

| Mon Jul. 20, 2015 5:25 PM EDT

California's Water Resources Control Board proposed a $1.5 million fine today for a farming district's unauthorized use of water—the first such fine in the state's four-year drought. The Board alleged that the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District, a region serving 160 farmers just east of San Francisco, illegally diverted nearly 700 million gallons of water over the course of two weeks in June.

Byron-Bethany is one of about 5,000 water-rights holders notified this year that there isn't enough water to pump from lakes and rivers, and it's illegal to divert water after receiving such notifications. In response, several water users, including Byron-Bethany, have sued the state for cutting off its water supply.

"We will vigorously defend our rights," said Rick Gilmore, general manager of the district, to the San Jose Mercury News last month. "All our sweet corn and tomatoesthey won't make it to harvest. Almonds and cherries will suffer damage," he said. "They'll lose the water they need for July and August."

The proposed fine, which the district will likely contest in a coming hearing, is the first fine sought by the Board under a new structure in which water rights holders can be penalized for past unauthorized use of water, even if they have stopped diverting since. But Byron-Bethany probably isn't alone; Andrew Tauriainen, a lawyer for the state's Division of Water Rights, says, "It's highly likely that additional enforcement actions will follow in weeks and months ahead."

Rachel Dolezal Is Now a Weave-Specializing Hairstylist

| Mon Jul. 20, 2015 4:13 PM EDT

On the off chance you were wondering what Rachel Dolezal has been up to since allegations surfaced she has been lying for years about being a black woman, the former president of Spokane's NAACP chapter recently sat down for an interview to let you know that she's still making a living off of black culture. Vanity Fair has the scoop:

At Eastern Washington University, she lectured on the politics and history of black hair, and she says she developed a passion for taking care of and styling black hair while in college in Mississippi. That passion is now what brings in income in the home she shares with Franklin [her 13-year-old son]. She says she has appointments for braids and weaves about three times a week.

In the new interview, which comes weeks after Dolezal was forced to resign as the NAACP's local leader and dropped as a professor in Africana studies, she also appeared impervious to her critics, even emboldened by the media firestorm that quickly grew after her birth parents claimed she had been lying about her race.

"I wouldn't say I'm African-American, but I would say 'I'm black, and there's a difference in those terms," she tells Vanity Fair.

"It's not a costume," she continued. "I don’t know spiritually and metaphysically how this goes, but I do know that from my earliest memories I have awareness and connection with the black experience, and that's never left me. It's not something that I can put on and take off anymore."

Has Dolezal's latest defense left you even more puzzled? Stay tuned, she plans on publishing a book to explain it all.

Fox News Has Some Very Stupid Thoughts About Sharks

| Mon Jul. 20, 2015 3:02 PM EDT

A surfer in South Africa was attacked by a shark during a competition on TV over the weekend. Fox and Friends discussed this event this morning. It was very, very dumb.

Here is the transcript, courtesy of Raw Story:

I think that the most shocking thing is that after you hear about the six attacks in North Carolina, okay, these are just swimmers,” Kilmeade noted on Monday’s edition of Fox & Friends. “But then when you see a champion surfer and you have a three camera shoot and an overhead shot, [you] say, ‘Oh my goodness, it could happen anywhere.'”

“You would think that they would have a way of clearing the waters before a competition of this level,” he opined. “But I guess they don’t.”

“Sure,” co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck agreed. “If a three-time world champion surfer isn’t safe, who is?”

“The shark should be afraid of him,” she added. "That was a tough punch he gave there."

"Clearing the waters" is so hilarious. Why didn't they just do that in Jaws?

(via Wonkette)

Big Banks Get Their New Marching Orders From the Fed

| Mon Jul. 20, 2015 2:20 PM EDT

Seven years after the great banking meltdown of 2008, and five years after the passage of Dodd-Frank, the Fed has finally announced new capital requirements for large, systemically important banks that could devastate the financial system if they failed. These new requirements can be met only with common equity, the safest form of capital, and are in addition to the 7 percent common equity level already required of all banks:

J.P. Morgan would face a capital “surcharge” of 4.5% of its risk-weighted assets under the final rule. The other seven firms must maintain an additional capital buffer of between 1% and 3.5%....The size of each bank’s additional capital requirement is tailored to the firm’s relative riskiness, as measured by a formula created by international regulators and the Fed. A bank’s surcharge can grow or shrink depending on changes such as size, complexity and entanglements with other big firms.

....“A key purpose of the capital surcharge is to require the firms themselves to bear the costs that their failure would impose on others,” Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen said in a written statement prepared for this afternoon’s open meeting. “They must either hold substantially more capital, reducing the likelihood that they will fail, or else they must shrink their systemic footprint, reducing the harm that their failure would do to our financial system.”

Leverage, leverage, leverage. That's the big lesson we should have learned from the Great Meltdown. And the cleanest and easiest way to reduce leverage is to increase capital requirements. This is a good move in the right direction, though it probably doesn't go far enough.

It also applies only to ordinary banks, not to the shadow banking sector—which, in retrospect, appears to have been at least as big a contributor to the financial collapse as conventional banks. But that's a tougher nut to crack. It will probably be a while before we see how the Fed plans to handle that.

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What's Next For Black Lives Matter?

| Mon Jul. 20, 2015 12:58 PM EDT

As you may have heard already, the Netroots Nation gathering in Phoenix this weekend turned into quite the mess. Already suffering from a boycott for choosing the immigrant-unfriendly state of Arizona for this year's gathering, its session with presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley was taken over completely by protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement. They chanted, they heckled, they came up on the stage, and both Sanders and O'Malley reacted like deer in headlights. David Dayen has a pretty thorough rundown of what happened here.

I won't pretend to know very much about either the movement itself or how Sanders and O'Malley should have responded. But it did get me curious: What exactly are their demands? Luckily they have a convenient website, and if you scroll down a bit you come to a button labeled "Learn About Our Demands." Perfect. So here they are:

  • We demand an end to all forms of discrimination and the full recognition of our human rights.
  • We demand an immediate end to police brutality and the murder of Black people and all oppressed people.
  • We demand full, living wage employment for our people.
  • We demand decent housing fit for the shelter of human beings and an end to gentrification.
  • We demand an end to the school to prison pipeline & quality education for all.
  • We demand freedom from mass incarceration and an end to the prison industrial complex.
  • We demand a racial justice agenda from the White House that is inclusive of our shared fate as Black men, women, trans and gender-nonconforming people. Not My Brother’s Keeper, but Our Children’s Keeper.
  • We demand access to affordable healthy food for our neighborhoods.
  • We demand an aggressive attack against all laws, policies, and entities that disenfranchise any community from expressing themselves at the ballot.
  • We demand a public education system that teaches the rich history of Black people and celebrates the contributions we have made to this country and the world.
  • We demand the release of all U.S. political prisoners.
  • We demand an end to the military industrial complex that incentivizes private corporations to profit off of the death and destruction of Black and Brown communities across the globe.

At the risk of being yet another clueless white guy, I'd be curious to know how this translates into concrete initiatives. In the case of presidential candidates, the options are legislation, executive actions, more active enforcement of existing laws, and the bully pulpit. In the third bullet point, for example, are they literally asking for a full-employment bill? Or something else?

Anyway, I was curious about their specific demands, so I figured others might be too. Now that I've seen them, I'm still curious about how they expect this to play out. The protest at Netroots Nation probably did little except to benefit Hillary Clinton, who didn't attend and therefore couldn't be caught flatfooted. In addition, all of the Democratic candidates are likely to at least give more frequent shout-outs to racial issues over the next few days and weeks.

But what's next after that?

Uber vs. Taxis: Who Does Better in Low-Income Neighborhoods?

| Mon Jul. 20, 2015 11:45 AM EDT

Does Uber routinely pick up riders in good neighborhoods but avoid those who call in from poor neighborhoods? A new study suggests it doesn't. Mark Kleiman, who played a small role in the study, explains what it found:

The design could hardly have been simpler; we sent pairs of riders to call for taxi service or use an app to summon UberX for travel along pre-planned routes. The riders recorded how long it took....After each ride, the riders switched off; whoever took a taxi last time took an Uber next time. Our riders didn’t know that Uber had paid for the study.

The answer was clear-cut, and consistent across neighborhoods and days: summoning an UberX took less than half as long as calling for a taxi, and the trip cost less than half as much. UberX was also more reliable, with no very long wait times.

Even though Uber had no control over our data analysis or interpretation, the fact that Uber paid for the study makes some skepticism about our results natural and proper. We will happily share our data and methods with other research teams for re-analysis and replication.

It was not possible for a single study in a single city to answer all the relevant questions about ridesharing. Would the same relationship hold in other cities? Would it hold in the small number of very-high-crime neighborhoods we excluded in order to protect our riders? Would it hold after dark?....So this study ought to be the beginning of the scientific effort rather than the end.

This is tentatively good news for Uber. As Mark says, it's a beginning, not the final word in how Uber compares to taxis. They didn't test in high-crime neighborhoods, and obviously Uber's requirement for a smartphone and a credit card automatically precludes the very poor from using their service at all.

Still, an interesting first cut, and it's basically fairly cheap research to carry out. The full report is here.

John Oliver Wants Americans to Stop Throwing Out So Much Food

| Mon Jul. 20, 2015 9:46 AM EDT

Americans waste a ton of food. According to a study cited in Sunday's Last Week Tonight, the country throws out nearly $165 billion worth of food every year, amounting to 730 football stadiums full of trash.

"Watching all that food go from farm-to-not-a-table is awful for a bunch of reasons," Oliver said. "First and most obviously, there are many people in this country who need that food. In 2013, nearly 50 million Americans lived in food insecure households meaning that at some point in the year they struggled to put enough food on the table."

All that waste also decomposes in overwhelmingly crowded landfills that produce staggering levels of methane gas.

"If you're thinking, 'But hold on, John, what if I'm an asshole who couldn’t give a shit about America's hungry families or the long-term viability of life on earth?' Well, first let me say, 'Mr. Trump, thank you so much for taking the time to watch this show tonight. It's lovely to have you with us.'"

If being compared to the likes of the Donald isn't enough to move you, Oliver explains food waste is gutting your personal finances way more than you think as well.

Watch below:

 

California Drinking Water: Not Just Vanishing, But Also Widely Contaminated

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

In normal years, California residents get about 30 percent of their drinking water from underground aquifers. And in droughts like the current one—with sources like snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada mountains virtually non-existent—groundwater supplies two-thirds of our most populous state's water needs. So it's sobering news that about 20 percent of the groundwater that Californians rely on to keep their taps flowing carries high concentrations of contaminants like arsenic, uranium, and nitrate.

When farms sprouted up, they mobilized the once-stable uranium naturally present in the soil, and the toxic element leached into groundwater.

That's the conclusion of a ten-year US Geological Survey study of 11,000 public-water wells across the state. The researchers tested the wells for a variety of contaminants, looking for levels above thresholds set by the Environmental Protection Agency and/or the California State Water Resources Board.

Interestingly, naturally occurring trace elements like arsenic, manganese, and uranium turned up at high levels much more commonly than did agriculture-related chemicals like nitrate.

In the ag-heavy San Joaquin Valley (the Central Valley's Southern half), for example, you might expect plenty of nitrate in the water, because of heavy reliance on nitrogen fertilizers. Over the limit of 10 parts per million in water, nitrate can impede the blood's ability to carry oxygen and has been linked to elevated rates of birth defects and cancers of the ovaries and thyroid. But while 4.9 percent of wells in the San Joaquin turned up over legal nitrate thresholds, arsenic (over legal limits in 11.2 percent of wells) and uranium (7.4 percent)—neither of which are used in farming—were more common.

But in the case of uranium—which heightens the risk of kidney trouble and cancer when consumed in water over long periods—agriculture isn't off the hook. Kenneth Belitz, the study's lead author and chief of the USGS's National Water Quality Assessment Program, explains that before irrigation, the arid San Joaquin landscape supported very little vegetation, and the naturally occurring uranium in the landscape was relatively stable. But as farms sprouted up, irrigation water reacted with carbon dioxide from now-abundant plant roots to "mobilize" the uranium, pushing it downward at the rate of 5 to ten feet per year and eventually into the water table.

Conversely, some of the regions with highest nitrate levels are former ag areas that are now suburban, Belitz says: northern California's Livermore Valley and southern California's Santa Ana basin. That's because nitrates, too, move through the soil strata at a rate of five to ten feet per year, and take years to accumulate in underground aquifers.

And that means that today's ag-centric areas, including the San Joaquin Valley, could be slowly building up nitrate levels year by year that could lead to much higher nitrate levels in well water in coming decades, Belitz says.

For California residents and policymakers, the reports adds another distressing data point to the current water crisis. The fossil record and climate models suggest that precipitation levels will likely drop significantly compared to 20th century norms going forward, according to UC Berkeley paleoclimatologist B. Lynn Ingram—meaning an ever-growing reliance on groundwater for both farms and residents. Meanwhile, NASA research shows that this increasingly important resource is being drawn down at a much faster pace than it's being replenished. And this latest USGS study suggests that the state's precious, vanishing groundwater supply is widely contaminated. It's enough to make you want to open a bottle of the state's famous wine.