Blogs

Your Winter Vegetables: Brought to You by California's Very Last Drops of Water

| Wed May 6, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

California's drought-plagued Central Valley hogs the headlines, but two-thirds of your winter vegetables come from a different part of the state. Occupying a land mass a mere eighth the size of metro Los Angeles, the Imperial Valley churns out about two-thirds of the vegetables eaten by Americans during the winter. Major crops include broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, and, most famously, lettuce and salad mix.

Two-thirds of winter broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, lettuce, and salad mix come from the desperately dry Imperial Valley.

And those aren't even the region's biggest moneymakers. Nestled in the state's southeastern corner, the Imperial Valley also produces massive amounts of alfalfa, a cattle feed, and its teeming feedlots finish some 350,000 beef cows per year.

In terms of native aquatic resources, the Imperial makes the Central Valley look like Waterworld. At least the Central Valley is bound by mountain ranges to the east that, in good years (not the last several), deliver abundant snowmelt for irrigation. The Imperial sits in the middle of the blazing-hot Sonoran Dessert, with no water-trapping mountains anywhere nearby. It receives a whopping 3 inches of precipitation per year on average; even the more arid half of the Central Valley gets 15 inches.

The sole source of water in the Imperial Valley is the Colorado River, which originates hundreds of miles northeast, in the snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains. As it winds down from its source in the snow-capped peaks of northern Colorado down to Mexico, it delivers a total of 16.5 million acre-feet of water to the farmers and 40 million consumers in seven US states and northern Mexico who rely on it. (An acre-foot is the amount it takes to flood an acre of land with 12 inches of water—about 326,000 gallons.)

Of that total, the Imperial Valley's farms gets 3.1 million acre-feet annually—more than half of California's total allotment and more than any other state draws from the river besides Colorado. It's an amount of water equivalent to more than four times what Los Angeles uses in a year, according to figures from the Pacific Institute.

 

The Colorado Rivers waters are so in demand that they rarely reach their endpoint in Mexico's Sea of Cortez. Map: Shannon/Wikimedia Commons

 

Because it owns senior water rights based on a 1931 pact, the Imperial gets its allotments during low-flow years even when other regions see reductions. Currently, the Rocky Mountain snowpack that feeds the Colorado stands at about 44 percent of its average for this time of year, triggering fears of an impending shortfall—but not for the Imperial. "Nevada, southern Arizona and Mexico will be cut back before the Imperial district loses a drop," The Los Angeles Times recently reported. Whereas Central Valley farmers, reliant on vanishing snowmelt from the Sierras, have seen their irrigation allotments curtailed the last two years, growers in the Imperial Valley haven't lost any water (though the Imperial Valley District did agree to sell as much as 0.2 million acre-feet of water by 2021, of its 3.1 million acre-foot allotment, to fast-growing San Diego in a 2003 deal).

The Imperial gets its allotments during low-flow years even when other regions see reductions.

Already, decades of intensive desert farming have had severe ecological effects, epitomized by that beleaguered inland body of water known as the Salton Sea, which sits uneasily at the Imperial's northern edge. Before the big irrigation projects that made the valley bloom, what's now the Salton periodically captured flood waters from the then-mighty Colorado River. Now it's fed solely from Imperial Valley farm runoff, and as Dana Goodyear shows in a superb recent New Yorker piece, it's slowly decaying into a toxic mess—one that could "emit as much as a hundred tons of fine, caustic dust a day, leading to respiratory illness in the healthy and representing an acute hazard for people with compromised immune systems."

Meanwhile, the Colorado's flow has proven inadequate to supply the broader region's needs. In a paper last year (my account of it here), University of California-Irvine and NASA researchers found that farmers, landowners, and municipalities are supplementing their river allocations by drawing water from underground aquifers at a much faster rate than had been known. Between December 2004 and November 2013, the Colorado Basin lost almost 53 million acre-feet of underground water, an enormous fossil resource siphoned away in less than a decade.

A desert in bloom: the Imperial Valley as seen from space, from a photo taken by NASA astronauts in 2002. Photo: NASA

Consider also that the Southwest's population is on pace to expand by a third by 2030—and that the river's annual average flow is expected to decrease by anywhere from 5 percent to 18 percent by 2050, compared to 20th century averages, according to the National Climate Assessment, throttled by rising temperatures and declining precipitation.

Thus the Imperial's titanic water allotment is looking increasingly vulnerable to challenge. Just as we probably need to get used to sourcing more of our summer fruits and vegetables from places beyond California's Central and Salinas valleys, the Colorado River situation makes me wonder if we shouldn't rethink those bountiful supermarket produce aisles in February, as well.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The Woman Behind Texas' Muhammad Cartoon Contest Compares Herself to Rosa Parks

| Tue May 5, 2015 3:59 PM EDT

After two gunmen opened fire at a Muhammad drawing contest in Texas over the weekend, the head of the group that organized the controversial event has appeared on several television programs explaining the legitimacy of the contest.  Today, Pamela Geller's defense reached a new height of tone-deafness when she compared herself to civil rights activist Rosa Parks.

Fox News host Martha MacCallum asked Geller how she felt about criticism from conservatives including Donald Trump, who condemned Sunday's contest as a "taunting" tactic solely used to incite Muslims. Geller dismissed Trump's comments, saying, "He sure flaps his tongue and uses free speech and wishes to silence others. What would he have said about Rosa Parks? Rosa Parks should never have gone to the front of the bus. She’s taunting people."

Shocked, MacCallum responded, "No, no, no. How do you make the Rosa Parks comparison?"

Geller refused to back down, and in fact seemed to be gaining steam, pledging she would not "abridge" her freedom for the sake of "savages"—a description she has used in past anti-Islam campaigns.

Insulting Donald Trump, Muslims, and the memory of Rosa Parks in one brief segment does demonstrate the unusual range of Geller's ability to be downright offensive. Who needs the Southern Poverty Law Center when there's material like this?

 

Tales From City of Hope #13: Badass Blogger Edition

| Tue May 5, 2015 1:18 PM EDT

My white blood count is now up to 2.4. More importantly, my ANC level is up to 2000. ANC is the front line of my immune system, and any number above 1000 means it's working adequately. So if you're sick and you sneeze on me, you are no longer likely to kill me. You'll just give me a cold.

So I'm basically out of the woods. But not entirely. I have months of recuperation ahead, and complete success won't be confirmed until a follow-up biopsy in 60 days. And then I have a difficult decision about whether I should enter maintenance therapy.

In the meantime, one of my sister's graphic arts pals whipped up the image on the right. It is titled "Kevin the Badass Blogger" and available in a limited edition to those savvy enough to copy stuff from the internet. For extra credit: can you figure out whose body I've been shopped onto?

And speaking of images, last night I thought I'd try to improve things around here by downloading Photoshop Express to replace the crappy freeware image editing app I've been using. So I did. But apparently PE works only with a keyboard and mouse. It has no touch support. In 2015. WTF?

Jessica Williams Expertly Trolls Gay Marriage Opponents With Tribute to "Hate Class of 2015"

| Tue May 5, 2015 11:30 AM EDT

Though divided in oral arguments, in the coming weeks, the Supreme Court is expected to rule in favor of gay marriage in the landmark case, Obergefell v. Hodges. This could signal the death knell for same-sex marriage opponents, who may soon be forced to accept a new gay-friendly law of the land.

Realizing it may be her last chance to rub elbows with the "Hate Class of 2015," The Daily Show correspondent Jessica Williams recently met up with opponents outside the Supreme Court to bid a fond farewell—a "wrong side of history" yearbook signing and A-plus trolling included.

Watch below:

 

Today Is the 151st Birthday of All-Around Feminist Badass Nellie Bly

| Tue May 5, 2015 10:27 AM EDT

Today would be the 151st birthday of Elizabeth Cochran—the groundbreaking journalist better known as Nellie Bly. In 1885, Bly wrote a furious letter to a Pittsburgh newspaper denouncing a column titled "What Girls Are Good For" that described the working woman as a "monstrosity" and said that women were best suited for domestic chores.

Impressed by Bly's letter, Pittsburgh Dispatch editor George Madden hired her as a full-time reporter under the pen name Nellie Bly. She was a trailblazing journalist, an unwavering champion for women and the working poor, and a brilliant muckracker. One of her most famous assignments was for the the New York World where she posed as a mentally ill woman and exposed the horrors of a women's asylum on Blackwell's Island.

Bly also achieved worldwide fame with her 1889 trip around the world, which was inspired by Jules Verne's novel "Around the World in Eighty Days." She completed her journey in seventy-two days. Below is the front page of the New York World from January 26, 1890 and the lead article was about her record-setting trip:

AP

To celebrate Bly's birthday today, Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeah's has written a song in her honor, which is featured in a lovely Google Doodle created by artist Katy Wu. 

Google

"We gotta speak up for the ones who've been told to shut up," the lyrics go. "Oh Nellie, take us all around the world and break those rules cause you're our girl."

To check out the song and animation, skip to Google's homepage here.

Obamacare Is a Boon for the Working Poor, and That's Probably Good for All of Us

| Tue May 5, 2015 9:00 AM EDT

While Kevin Drum is focused on getting better, we've invited some of the remarkable writers and thinkers who have traded links and ideas with him from Blogosphere 1.0 to this day to contribute posts and keep the conversation going. Today we're honored to present a post from Andrew Sprung.

One thing I've always appreciated about Kevin is that his commitment to economic justice is grounded in political realism. That balance was on display in his postmortem on the Democrats' drubbing in November:

[W]hen the economy stagnates and life gets harder, people get meaner. That's just human nature. And the economy has been stagnating for the working class for well over a decade—and then practically collapsing ever since 2008.

So who does the WWC [white working class] take out its anger on? Largely, the answer is the poor. In particular, the undeserving poor. Liberals may hate this distinction, but it doesn't matter if we hate it. Lots of ordinary people make this distinction as a matter of simple common sense, and the WWC makes it more than any. That's because they're closer to it. For them, the poor aren't merely a set of statistics or a cause to be championed. They're the folks next door who don't do a lick of work but somehow keep getting government checks paid for by their tax dollars. For a lot of members of the WWC, this is personal in a way it just isn't for the kind of people who read this blog.

And who is it that's responsible for this infuriating flow of government money to the shiftless? Democrats. We fight to save food stamps. We fight for WIC. We fight for Medicaid expansion. We fight for Obamacare. We fight to move poor families into nearby housing.

This is a big problem because these are all things that benefit the poor but barely touch the working class.

As Kevin acknowledges, this is an age-old problem for Democrats. It's "unfair" in that there's overwhelming evidence that safety-net programs like food stamps, Medicaid and the Earned Income Tax Credit "have positive effects on health, educational attainment, earnings and employment years later," as Jared Bernstein recently wrote.

There's no denying the perception that Kevin fingers is a political force, and it's one partly grounded in reality, in that safety net programs (for the non-elderly at least) do most directly benefit those at the bottom of the income distribution.

The Affordable Care Act is a really stark exemplar of this good policy/tough politics conundrum. For almost its entire life its approval ratings have been underwater, pulled down in part by low marks from working class Americans. Most of the Affordable Care Act 's supporters assume that the law has remained unpopular because, as Jonathan Chait put it, "[Republicans'] lies got halfway around the world before the truth could get its pants on." And that's largely true. But it's also true that its impact on Americans' incomes look something like this:

That chart is a very simplified takeaway from a study by Brookings economists Henry Aaron and Gary Burtless, one that starkly illustrates whom the ACA spends money on via premium subsidies and Medicaid benefits. It's the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution.

Recent ACA enrollment data bears this out. Of the 11.7 million buyers of private health plans on the ACA exchanges, over 60 percent have incomes under 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The 11 million beneficiaries of the Medicaid expansion all have incomes under 138 percent FPL. Taken together, those numbers mean about 80 percent of the law's direct beneficiaries have incomes below 200 percent FPL.

Sliced another way, about half (48 percent) of private plan buyers in the 37 states using healthcare.gov had incomes ranging from 150 to 300 percent FPL, a more or less working class range. But more than half of those were at the lower end, 150 to 200 percent FPL.

The truth is, the ACA private plan market works best for people with incomes under 200 percent FPL. That's the cutoff point for the beefy if little-known cost-sharing subsidies that reduce deductibles and copays and make the coverage comparable to (or, for those under 150 percent FPL, better than) that offered by high-quality employer-sponsored policies. A recent study by Avalere Health showed that people with lower-incomes who qualify for such subsidies are snatching up private plans from ACA exchanges—but uninsured buyers at higher income levels haven't been nearly as enthusiastic. It would be great if more generous subsidies could make the exchange plans more attractive to those relatively better-off Americans on the upper end of the scale, but Democrats allocated what the political traffic would bear.

A genuine long-term bend in the healthcare cost curve would be worth all the Bowles-Simpson-type spending cut/tax hike plans ever conceived.

So how do the ACA's offerings to the uninsured benefit the working class, white or otherwise? For starters, 200 percent of FPL, the upper end of the sweet spot for ACA benefits, is a working class income; it's just under $40,000 for a family of three, and about two-thirds of median income. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 34 percent of Americans have incomes below that threshold.

But income in the U.S. is volatile. According to the economist Stephen J. Rose, in 2010, 7 to 8 percent of working-age U.S. adults were below the poverty line, but in the five years prior, about 18 percent spent at least one year in poverty. The same ratio may not hold for the 200 percent FPL level, but it seems fair to assume that half of U.S. households will fall below it at some point.

Pre-ACA, health insurance status was also highly volatile. A 2008 study by Mathematica Policy Research found that while nearly 18 percent of non-elderly adults were uninsured as of January 2001, 35 percent had been uninsured at some point over the three years prior. Of those, 60 percent went without coverage for at least a year. Extend the volatility caused by our employer-based health insurance system over a lifetime, and a very large percentage of Americans who don't always live in poverty are likely to need an affordable fallback at some point.

There's much more to be said (and studied) about how the ACA may benefit the working class and indeed all of us. The law will have multiple positive and negative impacts on employer-sponsored insurance, on the way care is organized and paid for, on hospital consolidation, Medicare, and so on.

Meanwhile, Republicans will continue to hammer Democrats over every real and perceived negative effect. (Watch out for that in 2018, when the most generous employer plans will be subject to the so-called Cadillac Tax, which could spur cuts to some workers' coverage). And it's not at all clear that Democrats will get much credit for some of the law's biggest upsides.

In the longest view, if the ACA really is contributing to a long-term slowdown in the growth of US healthcare spending—admittedly a big 'if,' though the data is promising—it could secure the nation's fiscal future and be a boon to everyone, poor or not. As Peter Orzag kept telling us back in 2009, "healthcare reform is entitlement reform." A genuine long-term bend in the healthcare cost curve would be worth all the Bowles-Simpson-type spending cut/tax hike plans ever conceived.

At the same time, the ACA has already cut the ranks of the uninsured by 15 million, reducing the uninsured rate among non-elderly adults from 17.6 percent to 10.1 percent, as estimated in a just-published Urban Institute study. In states that accepted the Medicaid expansion, it's cut the uninsured rate of the poor in half. For the middle class—very broadly defined by Urban as those in households between 138 percent and 400 percent FPL—it's raised the insured rate by 7.6 percentage points.

That's a monumental accomplishment, and Democrats paid for it in political blood. We should honor them for that.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Just When You Thought Fox News' Baltimore Coverage Couldn't Get Worse, It Made This Mistake

| Mon May 4, 2015 5:21 PM EDT

On Monday afternoon, Fox News alarmed social media with a dramatic news report of a man being shot by police in Baltimore. It might have been news to some that Fox was breaking a story on a police shooting—rather than discrediting such an account. But the network, eager to claim a scoop, quickly promoted this story. On-the-scene reporter Mike Tobin reported the supposed shooting and his reporting was quickly tweeted to a large audience by one of Fox News' biggest stars, Greta Van Susteren: 

"About 2:45 we saw a guy running from the cops right at the intersection of North and Pennsylvania where the epicenter of the unrest here," Tobin described on a phone call for a breaking news segment on Fox. "As he was running away, that officer drew his weapon and fired and struck the individual who was running away. He was a young black male and what we saw on the sidewalk as the crime scene unfolded over there, there was a revolver on the ground."

Note that Toobin said "we saw" the shooting. But there was one problem. The incident did not happen. There was not a shooting for him to see.

Moments after the story was published, Fox's Shepard Smith was forced to issue an apology for the network's sloppy work:

Of course, this is yet another cautionary tale about recklessly reporting possibly incendiary events. It's also noteworthy that it was Fox News, which typically discounts such stories, that rushed out this embarrassing and potentially dangerous report. Will there be an internal review? Shep, let us know.

Tales From City of Hope #12: I Am Bursting With White Blood Cells

| Mon May 4, 2015 12:12 PM EDT

Yesterday's white blood count was 0.2. Today's is 1.1. That's super duper exponential. Go, little stem cells, go!

Surely this deserves a bit of bonus catblogging. Of course it does.

America's Big Trade Deals and the Case of the 4 Fishy Phone Calls

| Mon May 4, 2015 12:00 PM EDT

While Kevin Drum is focused on getting better, we've invited some of the remarkable writers and thinkers who have traded links and ideas with him from Blogosphere 1.0 to this day to contribute posts and keep the conversation going. Today we're honored to present a post from David Dayen, a veteran blogger and currently a regular contributor to Salon and The Fiscal Times, among other publications.

I was planning on commandeering Kevin's site to finally shape this place up and do some dogblogging, but management was, shall we say, unreceptive. So let's use this space to do what all great blogging is known for: pointless speculation!

I did a story for The New Republic looking back at the 1993 CNN debate between Al Gore and Ross Perot, showing how Gore's messages on selling NAFTA mirror Barack Obama's messages on selling the Trans-Pacific Partnership today. Both men claim that their progressive trade agreements differ from the raw deals of the past; that opponents were isolationist Luddites who want to return to some unrealistic pre-globalized world; and that this new deal would create a benchmark for global trade, which some Asian power (Japan or China, depending on the era) would take control of were their plan defeated.

But the debate itself is amazing for several reasons, not the least of which being that a sitting Vice President had to go on Larry King and take phone calls. Everyone remembers Perot saying "Can I finish" incessantly, so much so that it became a Dana Carvey tag line.  And maybe you remember Gore pulling out a picture of Smoot and Hawley and giving it to Perot as a present ("You can put it on your wall"). But come with me through this Internet rabbit hole and look at something else.

Ross Perot gets asked four questions from the phone lines. I have no knowledge about how they were screened. But these don't sound like regular people to me; they sound like plants. You can listen yourself:

43:45 The caller is from "Washington, DC." And he says, and I quote, "How can the US expect to compete on a long-term basis in an increasingly interdependent economic world, while Europe and the PacRim nations unite on their own respective trade alliance?" Who in the world talks like that? It reads like it came out of a Brookings Institution paper.

54:30 A expat caller from Zagreb, Croatia (!) asks Perot for specific answers on what he would do as an alternative to NAFTA. This happens to be a question Gore asked repeatedly throughout the debate.

1:01:35 This call comes from McLean, Virginia, the Washington suburb populated mostly by lobbyists. The caller coincidentally has statistics at the ready on electronic exports to Mexico ("nearly tripled" over the past five years, "worth about $6 billion), and demands that Perot agree that removing tariffs on these products will produce "high-tech, good-paying jobs" in America.

1:06:35 This is perhaps the weirdest call. An American woman "who has been living in Mexico City for many years" calls in, following up on Gore's claim that the Japanese would "take over" a free trade agreement with Mexico if NAFTA is defeated. "There are thousands of Japanese here. They are waiting. They are lurking! What are you people doing? Why-" At this point she gets cut off, but Gore repeats the question and adds a line the caller never said: "Why don't you wake up?"

This is weird. The questions not only sound way too hyper-informed and scripted, they dovetail with every talking point Gore used in the debate, from how passing NAFTA was critical to setting a benchmark for trade with the world, to how NAFTA would create jobs at home through rising exports to Mexico, to how Japan loomed to take advantage of any potential failure, to how Perot was just carping from the sidelines without his own plan.

It's a strong accusation to suggest these questions were planted, and honestly I have no idea. However, I did find an article from 1994 in some left-wing rag called Mother Jones, detailing a host of dirty tricks the Clinton Administration engaged in to blunt the influence of Ross Perot:

Last September 2, the day Perot was to appear on Jay Leno's "Tonight Show," a White House adviser got on the horn to L.A. After chatting with a "Tonight Show" writer, he faxed some questions to Leno […]

(Perot co-author) Pat Choate claims the administration sent people to UWS rallies to "take notes" and "heckle" Perot. He also accuses the administration of manipulating the press: "Journalists are getting anti-Perot stuff in the mail," he says. "Most of it has no return address." (Several reporters who cover Perot say they have no knowledge of this, and the White House denies both charges.) […]

Last April 22, Perot appeared before the Senate Banking Committee to testify on NAFTA. The White House didn't like him testifying, and it liked even less the idea of C-Span televising his appearance. So, Choate claims, a White House aide called Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, who called Brian Lamb, the chairman of C-Span. Some sort of deal was struck, and Perot's testimony never graced the airwaves.

Because Mother Jones is a responsible publication, the author added that the rumor about C-SPAN could be false, but that it showed how the Clinton White House seized on Perot's natural paranoia to undermine him in the trade debate. Throwing in suspicious-sounding questions on CNN could serve the same purpose.

We're 22 years on from this event, and investigating the provenance of these fishy phone calls would be somewhat irrelevant. Four phone calls were not the reason NAFTA passed; there's no "NAFTA-ghazi" conspiracy theory to be had. But I nevertheless find it fascinating. Has anyone ever studied this? Does it just sound odd to my modern ears, or is there more there? When Kevin Drum ends blog posts with a series of questions, is it a clever device or does he genuinely want to ask his audience for answers?

John Oliver Perfectly Describes the "Woman-Battering Human Landfill" That Is Floyd Mayweather

| Mon May 4, 2015 11:01 AM EDT

While issuing a takedown of Bud Light's awful new #UpForWhatever tagline last night, which included a clip of a woman calling the campaign a tad "rapey," John Oliver snuck in quite the perfect description of another awful subject, Floyd Mayweather.

"That's true, but it would be great if you could use a slightly more serious word than 'rapey'," Oliver said. "It's somewhat diminishing—It's like saying Floyd Mayweather is a smidge assaulty. It's technically correct but it'd be more appropriate to say he's a woman-battering, human landfill. That'd be more on the money."

Watch below: