Welcome to the 1990s Version 2.0

| Wed Sep. 30, 2015 12:45 PM EDT

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the pride of Bakersfield and most likely our next Speaker of the House, was on Sean Hannity's show last night. He assured Hannity that he would be a conservative speaker with a strategy to fight and win:

“And let me give you one example. Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee. A select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have known that any of that had happened had we not fought to make that happen.”

That appears to be a reference to Clinton’s private server email woes.

Ya think? Benghazi is the modern version of Whitewater. I think everyone knows perfectly well that there's nothing there and never has been, but it gives Republicans an institutional base to issue subpoenas and basically poke into anything that might hurt Hillary. Just as Whitewater led to Filegate led to the blue dress, Benghazi has led to emailgate, and from there, who knows? But obviously Republicans are hoping that if they just keep the investigation going, eventually they'll get their blue dress.

It's worth remembering just how much of the Whitewater investigation was aimed at Hillary back in the day. There were times when she took more hits than Bill. The press played along then, and they're playing along now. In both cases, there was genuine news that justified a certain amount of coverage. But also in both cases, the amount of coverage was insanely out of sync with the actual evidence of serious wrongdoing. Welcome to the 1990s version 2.0.

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Here's What You Need to Know About the Big Storm Coming for the East Coast

| Wed Sep. 30, 2015 12:40 PM EDT
Hurricane Joaquin is currently passing the Bahamas and heading for the East Coast. This image is from Wednesday at noon ET.

The Northeast is in for a good soaking over the next few days from Hurricane Joaquin, which continues to gather strength as it makes a beeline for Washington, DC.

Here's the current trajectory of the storm. The blue shaded area is where scientists at the National Hurricane Center think the storm will go over the next one to three days:


There's still plenty of uncertainty about where Joaquin could wind up, according to the latest forecast from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. There's a chance it could veer out to sea and not make landfall at all; either way, it seems certain to gain strength over the next several days. As of late this morning, the NHC director was hesitant to make specific predictions about what Northeasterners should expect to face:

Still, he advised that authorities remain on high alert:

No matter which direction the storm goes, one thing is for sure: You're going to need an umbrella. And a jacket. And rubber boots.

Elizabeth Warren Is Not a White Knight for Democrats

| Wed Sep. 30, 2015 11:56 AM EDT

As Hillary Clinton's poll numbers drop, Matt Yglesias talks up Elizabeth Warren's chances today:

The basic bargain of the Clinton campaign is breaking down: Democrats increasingly feel they need other options in case Clinton turns out to be much less electable than they thought. So far, that search has manifested in an odd yearning for a third Joe Biden presidential campaign.

But it's always been Warren—not Biden—who seemed like the person who could actually beat Clinton in a primary, who is a more charismatic campaigner than Clinton, who is better than Clinton at garnering positive media coverage, and whose record is more in touch with the populist mood of the electorate. And it's Warren—not Sanders—whom the left wing of the party wanted to recruit as its champion.

I don't see it. Warren's obvious problem is that it's too late: She just doesn't have time to set up a serious campaign with serious fundraising anymore. It's probably too late for Biden too, but at least he has decades of political experience and a big base of supporters that he could call on if he decides to run.

But Warren has an even bigger problem: Her background is just too narrow. This is a problem for Sanders too, but at least he has a well-established record on a wide range of domestic issues and is campaigning on a broad platform of tackling income inequality. Warren, by contrast, is focused like a laser on one thing: Wall Street. I'm sure she has fairly conventional Democratic views on everything else, but she rarely talks about them because she wants to stay focused on financial abuse. This is probably smart on her part, but it makes her a poor choice as a presidential candidate.

A few years down the road this may change. But right now she looks attractive mostly because no one has gone after her yet. She'd look a whole lot less shiny if she threw her hat into the ring this year, and I think she knows it. That's why she's not running. She understands this stuff a lot better than many of her supporters do.

Is Donald Trump the Victim of a Fickle Media?

| Wed Sep. 30, 2015 11:20 AM EDT

Donald Trump's poll numbers are falling, and political scientist John Sides says it's because the media is covering him less. The chart on the right tells his tale. When the media started covering Trump heavily, he surged in the polls. When they tapered off, he began to drop.

I don't doubt that there's some truth in this, but really, how can you tell? When there's an earthquake somewhere, news coverage spikes, but no one thinks news coverage caused the earthquake. News coverage spiked because something happened. Likewise, news coverage of Trump increased because something happened: He officially entered the Republican race and started racking up a lot of support.

I'm not quite sure how you disentangle the two. Sides acknowledges that this is probably a "self-reinforcing cycle," but how much is coverage driving polling versus polling driving coverage? There's no way to tell.

But there is a further bit of evidence that would be helpful: What does this chart look like for other candidates? In particular, people like Fiorina, Carson, and Sanders, who have surged, as well as folks like Walker and Bush, who have declined. Do those candidates follow a curve that matches the coverage they got? The data is all there, so it should be easy to take a look.

For what it's worth, I think that Trump is just following the usual path of pop culture stardom: a fast rise when he does something to gain attention, followed by decline as people get bored with him and turn to something new. This cycle normally takes months or even years, but in the hothouse environment of a political campaign it's more like weeks. Unlike, say, Hillary Clinton, Trump doesn't have a solid base of support built up over years. He's purely a fad, so his rise and fall are especially fast and spectacular. The media surely plays its role in this, but so does real life.

No, GMOs Didn't Create India's Farmer Suicide Problem, But…

| Wed Sep. 30, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
An Indian cotton field, ready for the harvest

Since the mid-1990s, around 300,000 Indian farmers have killed themselves—a rate of about one every 30 minutes, which is 47 percent higher than the national average. The tragedy has become entangled in the rhetorical war around genetically modified seeds.

Some anti-GMO activists, including Indian scientist and organic-farming champion Vandana Shiva, have blamed the high suicide rates directly on biotech seeds—specifically, cotton tweaked by Monsanto to contain the Bt pesticide, now used on more than 90 percent of India's cotton acreage. Shiva has gone so far as to declare them "seeds of suicide," because, she claims, "suicides increased after Bt cotton was introduced."

GMO enthusiasts, by contrast, counter that Monsanto's patented seeds are a boon to India's cotton farmers: They've boosted crop yields, driven down pesticide use, and alleviated rural poverty, a 2010 paper by the pro-industry International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) argued.

India's shift to industrial farming left the majority of the nation's cotton farmers increasingly reliant on loans to purchase pricey fertilizers, pesticides, and eventually high-tech seeds.

So which is it? According to a recent peer-reviewed paper from a team led by Andrew Gutierrez, a professor emeritus at the University of California-Berkeley's department of environmental policy, science, and management, the situation is way too complicated to be aptly described by sound bites in a rhetorical war.

For their analysis, the team looked closely at yields, pesticide use, farmer incomes, and suicide rates in India's cotton regions, both before and after the debut of Bt seeds in 2002.

They found that on large farms with access to irrigation water, genetically modified cotton makes economic sense—paying up for the more expensive seeds helps control a voracious pest called the pink bollworm in a cost-effective way.  

But 65 percent of India's cotton crop comes from farmers who rely on rain, not irrigation pumps. For them, the situation is the opposite—reliance on pesticides and the higher cost of the seeds increase the risk of bankruptcy and thus suicide, the study finds. The smaller and more Bt-reliant the farm in these rain-fed cotton areas, the authors found, the higher the suicide rate. (An analysis that largely jibes with Shiva's, apart from her heated rhetoric.)

Even so, the paper does not present Bt cotton as the trigger for India's farmer-suicide crisis. Rather, it provides crucial background for understanding how India's shift to industrial farming techniques starting in the 1960s left the majority of the nation's cotton farmers increasingly reliant on loans to purchase pricey fertilizers, pesticides, and hybrid seeds, and eventually GM seeds, making them vulnerable to bankruptcy when the vagaries of rain and global cotton markets turned against them.  

The authors note that cotton has been cultivated in India for 5,000 years, and until the emergence of the slavery-dependent cotton empire in the southern United States in the early 1800s, "India was the center of world cotton innovation." In the 1970s, Indian cotton farmers turned to hybrid seeds that delivered higher yields as long as they were doused with sufficient fertilizer. Until then, the pink bollworm—the pest now targeted by Bt seeds—"was not a major pest in Indian cotton," they write. But higher-yielding plants draw more insect pests, and so the new hybrid seeds also triggered an increasing reliance on insecticides. Bollworms evolved to resist the chemical onslaught and many of their natural predators (other insects) saw their populations decline, giving the bollworms a niche. Hence when Monsanto's bollworm-targeting Bt seeds hit the market in the early 2000s, they were essentially an industrial-ag solution to a problem that had been caused by industrial agriculture.

As an alternative to Bt seeds, the paper shows, small-scale farmers can successfully plant varieties of cotton that ripen quickly, before bollworm populations emerge. As for the irrigated cotton farms that are now successfully using the Bt trait, the authors note that India's large farms, like many of California's, are tapping underground water that's "unregulated and unpriced," at rates much higher than natural recharge. They're courting a problem that may make the feared bollworm look tame by comparison: "the impending collapse of ground water levels for irrigated cotton."

Rumor of the Day: Gay Marriage Martyr Kim Davis Met With the Pope Last Week

| Wed Sep. 30, 2015 12:38 AM EDT

Here's your spine-tingling rumor of the day, straight from Robert Moynihan of Inside the Vatican. He claims that gay marriage martyr Kim Davis met with Pope Francis last Thursday at the Vatican embassy in Washington DC, just before he left for New York City:

“The Pope spoke in English,” she told me. “There was no interpreter. ‘Thank you for your courage,’ Pope Francis said to me. I said, ‘Thank you, Holy Father.’ I had asked a monsignor earlier what was the proper way to greet the Pope, and whether it would be appropriate for me to embrace him, and I had been told it would be okay to hug him. So I hugged him, and he hugged me back. It was an extraordinary moment. ‘Stay strong,’ he said to me. Then he gave me a rosary as a gift, and he gave one also to my husband, Joe. I broke into tears. I was deeply moved.”

....Vatican sources have confirmed to me that this meeting did occur; the occurrence of this meeting is not in doubt.

Davis's lawyers also say the meeting took place, and told WDRB News that although they don't have photos of the meeting yet, they'll release them as soon as they get them. Davis herself, though, is silent about all this—which seems a little odd since she hasn't been shy about talking to the media before. So far there's neither confirmation nor denial from the Vatican.

Did this actually happen, or is it a truly bizarre hoax? I cannot tell you. But I figured you'd want to know.

WEDNESDAY MORNING UPDATE: It actually happened. From the New York Times: "On Wednesday, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, confirmed the meeting, but he declined to elaborate. 'I do not deny that the meeting took place, but I have no other comments to add,' he said."

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Chart of the Day: Intriguing New Data on Getting Kids to Eat Their Vegetables

| Tue Sep. 29, 2015 10:57 PM EDT

Over at Wonkblog, Roberto Ferdman passes along some fascinating new research on the frustrating problem of getting kids to eat their vegetables in school lunches:

It turns out there might be an ingenious solution hiding beneath everyone's nose.

Researchers at Texas A&M University [found] there's at least one variable that tends to affect whether kids eat their broccoli, spinach or green beans more than anything: what else is on the plate. Kids, in short, are much more likely to eat their vegetable portion when it's paired with a food that isn't so delicious it gets all the attention. When chicken nuggets and burgers, the most popular items among schoolchildren, are on the menu, for instance, vegetable waste tends to rise significantly. When other less-beloved foods, like deli sliders or baked potatoes, are served, the opposite seems to happen.

So let me get this straight. The way to get kids to eat vegetables is to serve them crappy-tasting food that makes the vegetables seem good by comparison? That's the ingenious solution?

Yes indeed. So if we just starve the little buggers and then give them a choice of steamed broccoli or vegemite on wheat, they might go ahead and force down the broccoli. And since you are all sophisticated consumers of the latest research, I'm sure you want to see this in chart form. So here it is for veggie dippers (notably, a "vegetable" already disguised with mounds of ranch dressing). As you can see, when paired with yummy Chef Boyardee ravioli, the kids turn up their noses at the dippers. But when the entree is a yucky sunbutter sandwich, kids cave in and sullenly eat more than half of the little devils.

This all comes from "Investigating the Relationship between Food Pairings and Plate Waste from Elementary School Lunches." However, if you click the link and read the report, you will almost certainly find yourself tormented with yet more questions. I'm here to help:

Q: What the hell is a sunbutter sandwich?

A: According to an exhaustive search of the entire internet, it's a peanut-free peanut butter sandwich made out of sunflower seed spread.

Q: What vegetable do kids hate the most?

A: Sweet potato fries, which barely edge out green peas. Oddly, sweet potato fries are far more loathed than raw sweet potato sticks. I suppose it's because the raw sticks are served with some kind of horrific dipping sauce.

Q: What's the most popular vegetable?

A: Tater tots.

Q: Knock it off. What's the most popular real vegetable?

A: It's a little hard to say, but the garden salad with ranch dressing seems to do relatively well.

Q: Is a cheese-stuffed bread stick really considered a proper entree?

A: Apparently so. And as loathsome as it sounds, I suppose it's not really all that different from a slice of cheese pizza.

Q: Is a whole dill pickle really a "vegetable"?

A: In west Texas, where this study was done, it is.

Q: How about mashed potatoes?

A: Yep.

Q: French fries?

A: Yes indeed.

Q: Seriously?

A: It appears so.

Q: Is one of the authors really from the Alliance for Potato Research and Education?

A: That's what it says. In fact, they're the ones who financed this study. I can't tell if they got their money's worth or not.

Lemony Snicket Explains Why He Ponied Up $1 Million to Planned Parenthood

| Tue Sep. 29, 2015 6:23 PM EDT

Daniel Handler, better known as Lemony Snicket and the author of the Series of Unfortunate Events children's books, announced yesterday that he and his wife, the illustrator Lisa Brown, would donate $1 million to Planned Parenthood.

The women's health care provider, which has been the target of multiple suspected arsons this summer, is currently facing potential funding cuts from Congress. We spoke to Handler and Brown about their decision to support the organization.

"Arson and propaganda, not to mention the umpteenth threat of defunding, seemed to demand some counterbalancing."

Mother Jones: Why did you decide to give such a large sum to Planned Parenthood?

Daniel Handler and Lisa Brown: We've been enthusiastic supporters of Planned Parenthood for a long time, and watching their recent deceitful pummelling was frankly more than we could take.

MJ: What's your connection to the organization?

DH & LB: We're Americans and human beings.  We believe in people making their own reproductive choices.  Planned Parenthood has been essential in the lives of many, many people around us.

MJ: Why do you think your donation is needed right now?

DH & LB: Arson and propaganda, not to mention the umpteenth threat of defunding, seemed to demand some counterbalancing.

MJ: Where do you think reproductive rights are headed in the US?

DH & LB: Truth and justice will prevail, but we ought to make it happen sooner rather than later.

Planned Parenthood tweeted back at the couple:


Whose Tax Plan Is Best For Millionaires?

| Tue Sep. 29, 2015 6:03 PM EDT

So here's where we stand. Marco Rubio has a tax plan with a top rate of 35 percent that promises to boost our economic growth rate to 3.5 percent per year. Jeb Bush then came out with his plan, which has a top rate of 28 percent and a growth rate of 4 percent per year. Then Donald Trump announced his plan, which has a top rate of 25 percent and a growth rate of 6 percent per year.

Who's next? Carly? I advise her to announce a plan that has a top rate of 20 percent and promises growth of 8 percent per year. Ridiculous? Sure, but who's going to call her on it? I mean, what's Bush going to do? Get into an argument about whose supply-side growth assumptions are the most out of touch with reality?

Besides, she has to compete with Ben Carson, who doesn't have an official tax plan but has vaguely said he likes the idea of a flat 10 percent tax based on the Biblical practice of tithing—though he's been a little wobbly on whether his tax rate would really be exactly 10 percent. I guess even God can be improved on.

In case you're curious, here are the top tax rates on the rich from each of the leading candidates. The most dynamic defenders of free enterprise are at the top, while the losers are at the bottom:

  • Carson: 10-15 percent
  • Paul: 14.5 percent
  • Huckabee: ~17 percent (23 percent FairTax that eliminates the payroll tax)
  • Trump: 25 percent
  • Bush: 28 percent
  • Christie: 28 percent
  • Rubio: 35 percent
  • Fiorina: ?
  • Cruz: ?

Watch These Dudes in Congress Tell Planned Parenthood How to Protect Women's Health

| Tue Sep. 29, 2015 5:45 PM EDT

Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards appeared today before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, in the most recent congressional hearing examining the use of taxpayer funds by the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. This was Richards' first appearance before Congress. She had not been invited to participate in either of the two hearings conducted by the House Judiciary Committee earlier in the month, in the wake of the heavily edited and controversial videos released by anti-abortion activist David Daleiden.

Planned Parenthood receives approximately $450 million annually in federal funds, nearly all of which are reimbursements for women's health services from programs administered by the Department of Health and Human Services. According to Planned Parenthood, last year 41 percent ($528.4 million) of its revenue came from government health services grants and reimbursements.

"The question before us is: Does this organization—does Planned Parenthood—really need a federal subsidy?" said House Oversight chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). "Every time we spend a federal dollar, what we're doing is pulling money out of somebody's pocket and we're giving it to somebody else. What I don't like, what I don't want to tolerate, what I don't want to become numb to is wasting those taxpayer dollars."

Here are some of the recurring themes from the hearing that attempted to answer his question.

1. Her salary is too high: Chaffetz spent much of his allotted time interrogating Richards about her $590,000 annual salary, which he characterized as "exorbitant." She corrected him, saying her annual salary is actually $520,000. (Female nonprofit CEOs still make markedly less than male CEOs. In 2013, for example, Laurance Hoagland Jr., chief investment officer of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, made $2.5 million, and John Seffrin, CEO of the American Cancer Society, made $2.1 million.) Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) responded angrily to this inquisition. "The entire time I've been in Congress, I've never seen a witness beaten up and questioned about their salary," she said. "Ms. Richards heads a distinguished organization providing health care services to millions of Americans. I find it totally inappropriate and discriminatory."

2. Her apology was self-incriminating: Several times, Richards was subjected to loud, often aggressive mansplaining about when it is and is not appropriate to issue an apology. Members were referring to a video that PPFA released days after the first sting video in which Richards said, "Our top priority is the compassionate care that we provide. In the [sting] video, one of our staff members speaks in a way that does not reflect that compassion. This is unacceptable, and I personally apologize for the staff member’s tone and statements." Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) repeatedly asked Richards to justify this. "Why did you apologize?" he asked over and over again. "You can't have it both ways. If nothing was done wrong, why did you apologize? You don’t apologize if she didn’t say anything that was wrong."

Richards explained that her apology was more about the setting of the discussion. "I spoke with Dr. Nucatola, and it was inappropriate to have a clinical discussion in a nonconfidential, nonclinical setting," Richards said. "It was that she used bad judgment to have a clinical discussion in a nonclinical setting." The conversation in the sting video was over lunch and wine.

3. Planned Parenthood doesn't provide mammograms: Republican critics of PPFA were also upset that Planned Parenthood clinics don't provide mammogram services, despite the fact that radiology centers usually offer them because Medicaid reimbursements can't come close to covering their operational costs. This point seemed to be lost on committee members who considered the lack of mammography as evidence that Planned Parenthood did not really provide women's health services. Richards explained that when she goes to see her general practitioner and she gets a breast exam, she is referred to a radiologist to get a mammogram. Centers that depend on Medicaid reimbursement are often unable to pay for the equipment and radiologists' salaries. New 3-D mammography technology is even more expensive. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) saw this as evidence that Planned Parenthood fell short in providing acceptable women's health services: "Do you acknowledge that community health centers offer a broader range of services, including mammograms?" To this, Richards replied, "I’m not an expert on what all community health centers provide."

4. Taxpayer dollars are paying for abortions: The repeated expressions of outrage by Republicans over "taxpayer dollars" being used for abortion services was, according to committee member Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), "exhausting." 

"I know my colleagues are more intelligent than this," Lawrence said. "This is not a lump sum we give Planned Parenthood. It is a reimbursement."

Under federal law, no taxpayer dollars are allocated to abortion services. PPFA has submitted its tax filings and reimbursement records, and so far there has been no evidence that it violated this law. That did not stop Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) from expressing concern that "taxpayer dollars are being used to free up services that you provide that are aberrant services in the view of many taxpayers."

5) Planned Parenthood provides too many abortions: Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) does not understand how the 327,000 abortions Planned Parenthood performed in 2014 amount to only 3 percent of Planned Parenthood's services. Meadows claimed it was more like 12 percent. But as Richards explained, some patients visit more than once, and for multiple services, bringing the percentage down substantially.

And as my colleague Kevin Drum reported, Chaffetz used a chart from anti-abortion group Americans United for Life that incorrectly claimed that Planned Parenthood's breast examinations have trended radically downward in recent years, while abortion services have substantially risen. In fact, cancer screenings have declined because, as Richards said, "some of the services, like pap smears, dropped in frequency because of changing medical standards about who should be screened and how often." Abortion rates for Planned Parenthood have only increased about 2 percent per year since 2006.

6) Planned Parenthood is in cahoots with President Barack Obama: Toward the end of the nearly six-hour hearing, Jordan asked Richards about the internal workings of her staff. "Since the videos, has anyone from HHS, CMS contacted you?" Richards replied that because she has a big staff, she can't answer that with 100 percent confidence. "Has the Attorney General of the United States Loretta Lynch contacted Planned Parenthood?" Jordan persisted. "Has anyone from the Justice Department contacted Planned Parenthood since the videos surfaced? There are potentially four federal crimes committed here, and all I'm asking is, has the Justice Department contacted you?" Richards repeated that she could not answer his questions with any certainty.

Jordan then escalated his attack. "Have you had any conversations with the president of the United States?" he asked. "Since the videos have surfaced, how many times have you been to the White House? How many times have you been to the White House since Mr. Obama's been president?" Richards again said she couldn't be sure, but Jordan was ready with an answer. "Our count shows that you, your board members, and senior staff have been to the White House 151 times in six and a half years."

Investigations are also ongoing in the House Energy and Commerce Committee and in the House Judiciary Committee. So far, no wrongdoing has been found. Six state investigations that were triggered by the videos have also been closed after finding no evidence that Planned Parenthood violated law.

A subpoena has been issued to anti-abortion activist Daleiden for his investigative materials, and according to Chaffetz, they have been received but not yet opened or examined.