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"Economic Man" = Boring Old White Man

| Tue Feb. 6, 2007 3:30 PM PST

In another last-one-to-say-"Not me"-when-somebody-farts move, George Bush announced last week that income inequality was a problem in the United States. (Mother Jones has reported on the problem here, here, and here to take but a few examples.) Today, the Washington Post reports, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke also acknowledged the income-inequality problem. Like Bush, he blamed the increasing value of education.

Bush and his Fed chief don't want to admit that tax breaks for the wealthy might have something to do with the increasing income gap. But the education claim is not just an excuse; it's a big fat lie. It's false even if all kinds of education are lumped together; breaking education down by field (i.e., business or science vs. anything in the humanities) reveals even more clearly that education itself is no passkey into the upper, upper class to which the concept of "income inequality" refers.

Bernanke's proposed solutions are fascinating, because they suggest that the Fed chief knows that a true free market screws the poor. He concedes that

the U.S. economy "creates painful dislocations," such as factory closings and layoffs of workers with obsolete skills. "If we did not place some limits on the downside risks to individuals affected by economic change, the public at large might become less willing to accept the dynamism that is so essential to economic progress."

There have been some very revealing articles lately about the assumptions that economists make to be able to argue that the free market is best for everyone. Bascially, they assume everyone is the same. They call that everyone "Economic Man," and assume that he is informed and rational in all of his economic decisions. Nobel-winning economist George A. Akerlof argued recently that Friedman's free market approach, which champions Economic Man, rather oversimplifies human behavior. As Louis Uchitelle reported in the NYT:

For example, [Akerlof] says, people don't automatically insist on raises that keep their pay on par with inflation. They often are happy with smaller raises, considering them a compliment from the boss for valued work. That makes pressure for higher pay less inflationary than the Friedman approach would assume.

Has there ever been a better example of how a bunch of affluent white men sitting around pontificating will completely block out what real life is like for real people?

Last week, Salon's Andrew Leonard profiled the emerging field of neuroeconomics, which, it turns out, explores the same oversights Akerlof is talking about by way of brain scan. Leonard worries that brain scans, too, will become standardized. On the up side, maybe they'll have to use poor people as guinea pigs and the assumptions will begin favor the needy.

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Specter Remorseful About Role in U.S. Attorney Purge

| Tue Feb. 6, 2007 9:47 AM PST

We've written in the past about the Bush Administration's purge of trouble-making U.S. Attorneys nationwide. In you don't know the story, read up, because it is some legitimately scary stuff. Talking Points Memo, who has been following the story more closely than anyone, uncovered the fact that Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) enabled the purge by slipping a small provision into the Patriot Act reauthorization at the Bush Administration's request that gave the administration increased control over Attorney hirings and firings.

Democrats have pressed the White House on this and in a hearing on the subject today, Specter defended his action as having reasonable intentions and unintended results. From TPM:

According to the original law, the Attorney General could appoint interim U.S. Attorneys, but if they were not nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate within 120 days of being appointed, the federal district court would appoint a replacement. Justice Department officials apparently didn't like that judges were able to appoint U.S. Attorneys, members of the executive branch, so the new language removed the court's involvement in the process. But in doing that, the change also allowed the administration to handpick replacements and keep them there in perpetuity.

Specter, who has been one of only a few Republicans to regularly challenge the administration's overreach of power in the past, said today that he hopes to change the law back to its original version.

Bush Continues Pattern of False Promises on Education

| Tue Feb. 6, 2007 8:46 AM PST

Spotted on ThinkProgress:

"Bush's proposal to increase the maximum Pell Grant for lower-income undergraduate students was greeted with fanfare when it was announced last week. But his FY08 budget released Monday contains no new money to pay for it," CongressDaily reports.

This is hardly the first time President Bush has made a promise on education and then failed to follow through come budget time. He eliminated funding for Even Start after calling the program "incredibly important" in 2002, he underfunded No Child Left Behind by $30 billion, and screwed a whole series of educational programs after making education reform a major domestic priority.

More details? Sure. At an elementary school in Maryland in 2003, the president said [pdf], "We want Head Start to set higher ambitions for the millions of children it serves.... There needs to be a guarantee that the federal money spent on Head Start, only go to Head Start." The White House then attempted to hand control of Head Start over to state governments by blocking federal funding. States could use a portion of their Head Start funds for other state needs.

In September 2003, President Bush said [pdf] "Our economy demands new and different skills. We are a changing economy. And therefore, we must constantly educate workers to be able to fill the jobs of the 21st century. And so, therefore, I went to Congress and asked for increased funding for Pell Grants for higher education scholarships." Later that year, Bush revised the information used to determine financial aid eligibility, leading to 84,000 students losing their right to a Pell Grant. Additionally, Bush's FY2004 budget cut minimum Pell Grant awards.

It's a matter of priorities, not fiscal discipline. If Bush tried to balance the budget every year and cutting benefits to education was the only way to do so, he could make the case that it is all part of the conservative credo. But Bush has created and maintained massive deficits, mainly because he insists on tax cuts for the wealthy and huge defense expenditures. The rich and the armed come before the nation's children.

Good Intelligence Reporting Making a Comeback

| Tue Feb. 6, 2007 7:20 AM PST

As everyone knows by now, good journalism was late to the party on the Iraq War. Many very, very good books have come out in the last two years that detail how intelligence was twisted, how reconstruction was bungled, how sectarian violence was inflamed instead of dampened, and on and on, but all of them came several years too late to nip support for the war in the bud or to end it in its early stages. There was some serious work done before the invasion that examined the Bush Administration's justifications for war, often finding -- like in the case of the aluminum tubes that Iraq allegedly was using for a nuclear program -- that the evidence was flimsy, but stories of that nature were frequently overshadowed by front-page reporting by people like Judy Miller that put incorrect evidence into the public realm and helped the administration make its case.

Journalists know this sordid history, and one of the positive consequences of it has been a robust skepticism on their part about the Bush Administration's claims about Iran. A good example comes from Newsweek, where Mark Hosenball is asking difficult questions and his sources, more so than before the Iraq invasion I would wager, are willing to answer. Hosenball looked at the administration's claim that Iran is inflaming violence in Iraq, and then at the recent NIE's claim that foreign actors are actually playing a relatively small role in the Iraq turmoil, and went to some people in the know to see who was telling the truth. The results:

...three U.S. officials familiar with unpublished intel (unnamed when discussing sensitive info) said evidence of official Tehran involvement is "ambiguous," in the words of one of the officials. For example, U.S. troops have been attacked by homemade bombs triggered by infrared sensors (like ones used on American burglar alarms). U.S. agencies know Iranian purchasers have made bulk orders for the sensors—which cost as little as $1 each—from manufacturers in the Far East. Some analysts think most of the sensors are used for innocent purposes: they note that the devices are so widely available that would-be supporters of Iraqi militants could simply buy them in an Iranian store and smuggle them to Iraq; high-level government involvement wouldn't be necessary.
Last week U.S. military officials in Baghdad were set to brief reporters about evidence American forces had assembled about Iran's interference in Iraq. But the briefing was canceled; one of the U.S. officials suggested it had been put off because intel officials couldn't agree about the info.

The simple fact that the press is reporting skepticism as a major story in itself is a big improvement from the pre-Iraq period. And the Christian Science Monitor reports today that even the White House realizes it has to back down on the tough talk with Iran. As we wrote in the Iraq War Timeline, truth was a casualty of war long before we invaded Iraq. Looks like it's making a comeback.

How Many Politicians Does it Take to Outlaw a Lightbulb?

| Mon Feb. 5, 2007 10:40 PM PST

Read my post on The Blue Marble for the answer, and for more about California's "How Many Legislators Does it Take to Change A Light Bulb Act," which, if passed, would ban the sale of conventional light bulbs in the state by 2012.

—Koshlan Mayer-Blackwell

How Many Legislators Does it Take to Outlaw a Lightbulb?

| Mon Feb. 5, 2007 10:20 PM PST

In the quest to stave off cataclysmic climate change, the compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL) seems to be garnering messianic status. (Wal-Mart, for one, hopes to green its image by selling 100 million of the energy efficient, cost saving bulbs by the end of next year). Politicians are behind them too, and no state is doing more than California to encourage consumers to give up their old incandescent bulbs.

California utility giant PG&E already heavily subsidizes CFLs, making them almost as cheap as incandescent, despite the fact they nip at the company's bottom line, using 2/3 less electricity. And last week, CFLs got some additional buzz as California Assemblyman, Lloyd Levine, promised legislation dubbed the "How Many Legislators Does it Take to Change A Light Bulb Act." If passed, it would ban the sale of conventional light bulbs in the state by 2012.

Despite the prospect that the law would spur a booming black market in incandescent bulbs smuggled from neighboring, loose-lawed Nevada, it should help California meet its goal of cutting 25% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 (the typical CFL saves 640 pounds of CO2 emissions over its life cycle; California emits more than 380 million metric tons of carbon annually).

But truth be told, CFLs are not all sunshine for the environment, especially in the hands of the wasteful. CFLs contain mercury, and, to date, there is no way to make them without using at least a small amount of the toxic substance. "If you are going to make a massive switch over to compact fluorescents, which would be good for energy conservation, it makes sense to accompany it with the appropriate take-back and recycling provisions," notes Elizabeth Grossman, author of High Tech Trash.

Without a real commitment to recycling, mercury filled CFLs will end up with household garbage, land-filled and incinerated en mass. Which is a shame because assuming proper disposal, CFLs actually reduce the amount of mercury escaping into the environment. According to the EPA Energy Star program, "coal-fired power plants emit 13.6 milligrams of mercury to produce the electricity required to use an incandescent light bulb, compared to 3.3 milligrams for a CFL."

Now that's a lightbulb worth changing.

—Koshlan Mayer-Blackwell

 lightbulb130x140.jpg

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Pole Dancing, Margaret Cho, the Whitney: Julie Atlas Muz's Got It All

| Mon Feb. 5, 2007 6:13 PM PST

In an age when anyone living in a metropolitan area can sign up for pole dancing classes at a local gym or be coached in the art of burlesque, it might seem unlikely that sex work-inspired performance art could gain the artistic prestige of Marcel DuChamp and Man Ray. But a review in today's New York Times compares the work of Julie Atlas Muz to both these heavyweights of modern art. The performance artist and burlesque star who has performed at the Whitney Biennial and the Miss Exotic World Pageant (and is touring with this year's Sex Workers' Art Show that Mother Jones reviewed here) celebrated the opening of her first solo show, "Divine Comedy of an Exquisite Corpse" this Saturday. "Exquisite Corpse," as the Times reports, is a commentary on "suicide, terrorism, and fear," laden with undercurrents about feminine power and aging. This sounds like the present wave of feminism at its most diva-like. You have social commentary about sex and politics all wrapped up in glitter with a lot of skin showing. But Muz says it's just "good old Vaudeville." It sounds like a lot more than old Vaudeville to me. While Vaudeville and Muz' work may be about stylized performance and glamour, the latter is about reclaiming and elevating both low art and feminine sexuality.

--Rose Miller

Congressional Republicans Polled On Global Warming, Slam Al Gore

| Mon Feb. 5, 2007 4:18 PM PST

Via Think Progress, we find out that the National Journal has just released a "Congressional Insiders Poll," which surveyed Congress' position on global warming. Think Progress thinks the results are startling. Unfortunately, I think they are fairly predictable. Just 13 percent of Republicans in Congress say they "believe that human activity is causing global warming." Some of the comments that follow though, are fairly amusing, like this choice one zinging Gore:

"The only Inconvenient Truth is that anyone can be a movie star, even someone as boring as Al Gore."

Ha. So that's some really pertinent insight. Thank you, Congressmen and women. The thing is, global warming is most definitely a product of human behavior and apparently, it's just the beginning of an even larger problem. According to Julia Whitty, writing today on our new environmental blog, The Blue Marble, "climate change is only one symptom of a greater disease scientists call global environmental change (GEC). Global warming is the rash. GEC is the bubonic plague."

New, Improved Environmental Destruction!

| Mon Feb. 5, 2007 3:54 PM PST

BP and the University of California Berkeley announced on Thursday a public-private partnership agreement to establish the Energy Biosciences Institute. The Institute will focus on developing biofuels.

Besides just firming up BP's reputation as the most earth-friendly of the oil companies (an honor no greater than being the most Jew-friendly member of the SS) and Berkeley's reputation as a hotbed of liberalism, the announcement marked biofuels' entry into the mainstream.

I should be dancing, but I'm not. First of all, public-private partnerships: Ick. Secondly, biofuels advocates keep missing the point. Prime example: Ethanol--at least the corn-based ethanol Bush is pushing--requires an absurd amount of fossil fuel to produce. The European Union recently made a similar gaffe when it required that biodiesel be used as an additive. The Houston Chronicle reported in September that production of soy in Argentina is so rapidly that environmental groups fear deforestation and anti-poverty groups fear the food supply will be jeopardized.

Meanwhile, Craig Venter, formerly of Celera Genomics—the company that wanted to patent the human genome—is trying to manufacture, as in from scratch, an organism that would break down crops such as switchgrass that could provide ethanol more sustainably if they could be processed more efficiently.

These approaches miss the forest for the trees. Nature has its own very functional system, of which we are but a part. We do not fully understand that system, or else we would have no more need for science. We have to learn how to respect it and stay out of its way.

New, Improved Environmental Destruction!

| Mon Feb. 5, 2007 3:48 PM PST

BP and the University of California Berkeley announced on Thursday a public-private partnership agreement to establish the Energy Biosciences Institute. The Institute will focus on developing biofuels.

Besides just firming up BP's reputation as the most earth-friendly of the oil companies (an honor no greater than being the most Jew-friendly member of the SS) and Berkeley's reputation as a hotbed of liberalism, the announcement marked biofuels' entry into the mainstream.

I should be dancing, but I'm not. First of all, public-private partnerships: Ick. Secondly, biofuels advocates keep missing the point. Prime example: Ethanol--at least the corn-based ethanol Bush is pushing--requires an absurd amount of fossil fuel to produce. The European Union recently made a similar gaffe when it required that biodiesel be used as an additive. The Houston Chronicle reported in September that production of soy in Argentina is expanding so rapidly that environmental groups fear deforestation and anti-poverty groups fear the food supply will be jeopardized.

Meanwhile, Craig Venter, formerly of Celera Genomics—the company that wanted to patent the human genome—is trying to manufacture, as in from scratch, an organism that would break down crops such as switchgrass that could provide ethanol more sustainably if they could be processed more efficiently.

These approaches miss the forest for the trees. Nature has its own very functional system, of which we are but a part. We do not fully understand that system, or else we would have no more need for science. We have to learn how to respect it and stay out of its way.