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LA’s Eric Garcetti, Mayor of Instagram

| Wed Dec. 10, 2014 1:38 PM EST
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and a constituent enjoy a selfie.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is a busy guy. But even the mayor of America's second-largest city—and potential Senate candidate—is not immune to the relaxing, time-wasting powers of social media: he's a prolific Instagrammer.

Unlike the social media accounts of most politicians, Garcetti's Instagram clearly belongs to a real human being—one with a hobby interest in photography. Compare that to the Instagram of New York City's Bill de Blasio, whose feed is clogged with press conferences—no filters to be found. No wonder, then, that Garcetti boasts nearly 12,000 followers, easily topping de Blasio's 7,800. With artsy shots like these, it's not hard to see why:

 

A photo posted by Eric Garcetti (@ericgarcetti) on

 

 

A photo posted by Eric Garcetti (@ericgarcetti) on

 

Really, though. This is just great composition:

 

A photo posted by Eric Garcetti (@ericgarcetti) on

 

Beyond showcasing his artistic eye, Garcetti's not afraid to broadcast himself hobnobbing in Hollywood:

 

#MerryGrinchmas #HappyWhoYear #MayorAugustusMaywho

A photo posted by Eric Garcetti (@ericgarcetti) on

 

Like many LA residents, he admires an appealing coffee menu:

 

@primerataza great stop during @ciclavia

A photo posted by Eric Garcetti (@ericgarcetti) on

 

He can't resist the appeal of a photogenic dog. (The dog in question belongs to California Governor Jerry Brown.)

 

California's First Dog, @SutterBrown

A photo posted by Eric Garcetti (@ericgarcetti) on

 

He puts his frequent helicopter and plane rides to good use:

 

A photo posted by Eric Garcetti (@ericgarcetti) on

 

 

A photo posted by Eric Garcetti (@ericgarcetti) on

 

Dude knows how to use some borders.

 

A photo posted by Eric Garcetti (@ericgarcetti) on

 

While some take to Garcetti's posts to complain (mostly about helicopter use), the comments on his posts are overwhelmingly positive. Representing most, one user wrote, "Mr. Mayor, I've been increasingly surprised by your photographic eye. You have a great perspective for light and color. Respect." Respect, indeed.

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Here's a Bipartisan Victory For Better Health Care

| Wed Dec. 10, 2014 1:17 PM EST

One of the biggest problems with modern medical research is the way that clinical studies are publicly reported by pharmaceutical companies. Basically, if a study shows a positive result, they publish it. If it shows a null or negative result, they often just file it away and no one ever hears about it.

Here's what this means. If, say, a pharmaceutical company publishes two clinical studies showing that its new drug works better than any previous drug, no one has any idea what this means. Did they do two studies, and they were both positive? Or did they do ten studies, and two were positive compared to eight that were negative? If it's the latter, then the new drug is probably not so great. But you have no way to know. No one knows.

This is not merely a bug in the system. It's pretty much flat out corruption and scientific malpractice. Nor is it purely an academic concern. A few years ago, Irving Kirsch of Hull University used the Freedom of Information Act to demand full trial data about antidepressants from the FDA. This gave him access to all the relevant clinical studies, not just the ones that pharmaceutical companies had chosen to make public. And when his team examined them all, it turned out that the average effectiveness of several popular antidepressants was close to zero. For patients with moderate depression, the drugs were essentially no better than a placebo.

So I was delighted to learn this weekend about one doctor's campaign to change this. And even more delighted to learn from Vox's Julia Belluz that Deborah Zarin's efforts are finally bearing fruit:

For over a decade, Dr. Zarin, a Harvard-trained MD, [...] has earned a reputation as a crusader for open data, quietly presiding over the world's largest database of clinical trials, ClinicalTrials.gov. Established in 2000, and operated by the NIH, it now holds information from more than 180,000 studies in humans in over 180 countries.

The idea underlying ClinicalTrials.gov's creation was a public record about which trials are going on as soon as they are started. That should, in theory, make it more difficult for researchers to hide trials that didn't produce the results they wanted. The database also makes it easier for patients to know about studies being done, should they require access to an experimental drug, for example.

But there was still a problem: ClinicalTrials.gov, up until now, hasn't required researchers to report the outcomes of their trials — only the fact they're happening. Under a new plan, proposed by Health and Human Services last month, researchers who run clinical trials would be made to not only register them on the database within three weeks of signing up the first study participant, but also report a summary of results — no matter the outcome. This will vastly expand the trove of data on the site.

It turns out there are some exceptions in the new rules, so there are still some studies that won't be reported. But this is nonetheless a huge step forward and should go a long way toward improving the quality of pharmaceutical research. It's the kind of regulatory change that doesn't get as much attention as it deserves, and for fans of functional government, it's also an example of the kind of bipartisan cooperation that's become rarer and rarer these days. The new rules were authorized by the Food and Drug Administration Amendments Act of 2007, which was passed nearly unanimously in both the House and Senate and signed into law by George Bush. It was then implemented by the Obama administration.

And it's good news for all of us. Don't you wish we could do more stuff like this?

Is It Only Torture When Other People Do It?

| Wed Dec. 10, 2014 11:22 AM EST

I know I shouldn't spend my time responding to stuff like this. I know it. But I just can't stand it. Here is torture advocate Andrew McCarthy writing at National Review:

Here is a thought experiment I have been using for many years as we’ve debated this topic....If you take everyone in America who is serving a minor jail sentence of say, 6 to 18 months, and you [ask] them whether they’d rather serve the rest of their time or be waterboarded....how many would choose waterboarding? I am guessing, conservatively, that over 95 percent would choose waterboarding.

....So ignore the blather about how enhanced interrogation is “not who we are.”

Give him credit: there's no legalistic blather here. Just straight up advocacy of torturing enemy combatants. Full stop.

But here's a thought experiment for McCarthy. Suppose any other country in the world did what we did. Waterboarding. Sleep deprivation. Physical abuse. Stress positions. Rectal feeding. Nudity. Extreme heat and cold. All for months or years in an effort to turn prisoners into broken husks. Let's say that it was Putin's Russia or Khamenei's Iran, and the victims were American captives. What would you call it then? Enhanced interrogation?

I doubt it. You'd call it torture, and you'd loudly insist that it was barbaric and an act of war. And you'd be right. Or am I missing something?

Rich People Cheer As Republicans Cut IRS Budget

| Wed Dec. 10, 2014 10:11 AM EST

Steve Benen points me to the last paragraph of today's Washington Post story about our shiny new $1 trillion spending package:

At domestic agencies, the EPA’s budget would be cut by $60 million, and the IRS would lose $345.6 million. The nation’s tax agency also would be banned from targeting organizations seeking tax-exempt status based on their ideological beliefs.

Isn't that great? Republicans loathe the EPA as an engine of economic destruction that's dedicated to destroying the coal industry, shredding the Fifth Amendment, and regulating American corporations into bankruptcy. But even at that, they only lost $60 million. The IRS, by contrast, lost six times as much.

I'm sure the public justification is punishment for the IRS's supposed targeting of conservative tea party organizations. But in fact, this is business as usual. After being decimated for years following the Roth hearing witch hunts of the 90s, the IRS managed to slowly but steadily rebuild its enforcement staff during the aughts. Things had gotten bad enough that even George Bush was on board. Then Republicans took over Congress after the 2010 elections, and enforcement was once again targeted for cuts. In every year since then, the IRS budget has declined, enforcement staff has been cut, and audit coverage has gone down.

Why? It's simple: If the IRS budget gets cut, it means fewer audits of corporations and rich people. Any other questions?

The MPAA Says Teens Can't See a Film About Edward Snowden. This Theater Is Going to Let Them in Anyway.

| Wed Dec. 10, 2014 9:26 AM EST

"Citizenfour," a documentary about Edward Snowden, was given an R rating by members of the Motion Picture Association of America. Their rationale for doing so was apparently due to the occasional swearing that takes place in the hotel room where Snowden, director Laura Poitras, and journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill conduct their conversation.

For all teenagers who think they can handle a bit of naughty cuss words and are interested in learning more about shocking global surveillance practices carried out by their government, head over to the IFC theater in New York City, where they're overriding the MPAA's suggested rating. Their rationale? "Not only do we feel the film is suitable for teens, we feel it is essential viewing for anyone who may vote in the next election."

(h/t Boing Boing)

The Horrifying Reason Why Your Fruit Is Unblemished

| Wed Dec. 10, 2014 6:00 AM EST

Back in 2010, I visited a labor camp that houses some of the migrant workers who grow America's fruit and vegetables. I found people living densely in shantylike structures made of scrap metal and cinder block, surrounded by vast fields and long rows of greenhouses. Strangers in a strange land who didn't speak the language, hundreds of miles from home, they lived at the mercy of labor contractors who, they claimed, made false promises and paid rock-bottom wages. Like all Big Ag-dominated areas, the place had a feeling of desolation: all monocropped fields, mostly devoid of people, and lots of billboards hawking the products of agrichemical giants Monsanto and Syngenta.

Laborers are required to use hand sanitizer and keep their nails trimmed so that they don't damage the fruit.

You might think I had made my way to Florida's infamous tomato fields, or somewhere in the depths of the California's migrant-dependent Central Valley. Those places remain obscure to most Americans, but the gross human exploitation they represent has at least been documented in a spate of excellent recent books, like Barry Estabrook's Tomatoland, Tracy McMillan's The American Way of Eating, and Seth Holmes Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies. But I was somewhere yet more remote and less well-known: Sinaloa, a largely rural state in Mexico's northwestern hinterland.

If most Americans have heard of Sinaloa at all, it's because of the state's well-earned reputation as a center of Mexico's bloody drug trade. But in addition to the eponymous drug cartel, Sinaloa also houses vast-scale, export-oriented agriculture: farms that churn out the tomatoes, melons, peppers, and other fresh produce that help fill US supermarket shelves. And the people who do the planting, tending, and harvesting tend to be from the indigenous regions of Mexico's southern states, Oaxaca and Chiapas, where smallholder farming has been ground down by decades of free-trade policies pursued by the Mexican government, which left millions in search of gainful work to the north.

In my brief time there, I found Sinaloa overwhelming: a scary cauldron of labor exploitation, industrial agriculture, and drug violence. Now, Los Angeles Times reporter Richard Marosi and photographer Don Bartletti have documented the grim conditions faced by workers on Mexico's export-focused megafarms in a long-form investigation, after 18 months of reporting in nine Mexican states, including, most prominently, Sinaloa. The Times plans to publish it in four parts; the first, here, is stunning.

Marosi found that Mexico's megafarms adhere to the strictest standards when it comes to food safety and cleanliness, driven by the demands of big US buyers. "In immaculate greenhouses, laborers are ordered to use hand sanitizers and schooled in how to pamper the produce," Marosi writes. "They're required to keep their fingernails carefully trimmed so the fruit will arrive unblemished in US supermarkets."

While the produce is coddled, the workers face a different reality. Pay languishes at the equivalent of $8 to $12 a day. Marosi summarizes conditions that often approach slavery:

  • Many farm laborers are essentially trapped for months at a time in rat-infested camps, often without beds and sometimes without functioning toilets or a reliable water supply.
  • Some camp bosses illegally withhold wages to prevent workers from leaving during peak harvest periods.
  • Laborers often go deep in debt paying inflated prices for necessities at company stores. Some are reduced to scavenging for food when their credit is cut off. It's common for laborers to head home penniless at the end of a harvest.
  • Those who seek to escape their debts and miserable living conditions have to contend with guards, barbed-wire fences, and sometimes threats of violence from camp supervisors.
  • Major US companies have done little to enforce social responsibility guidelines that call for basic worker protections such as clean housing and fair pay practices.

The piece includes excellent photography and is chockfull of stories straight from the mouths of farmworkers. And it shines a bright light on a hugely important source of our food. The US now imports nearly a third of the fruit and vegetables we consume, and Mexico accounts for 36 percent of that foreign-grown cornucopia, far more than any other country. And we're only growing more reliant on our southern neighbor—imports of Mexico-grown fresh produce have increased by an average of 11 percent per year between 2001 and 2011, the USDA reports, and now amount to around $8 billion. The Times investigations demonstrates, with an accumulation of detail that can't be denied or ignored, that our easy bounty bobs on a sea of misery and exploitation.

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It's Only Taken Us 5 Years to Forget the Single Biggest Lesson of the Financial Meltdown

| Tue Dec. 9, 2014 7:24 PM EST

Yesterday the Federal Housing Finance Agency issued new underwriting guidelines that allow some home buyers to take out mortgages with down payments as small as 3 percent. Dean Baker brings down the hammer:

The NYT misled readers about the relative risk from low down payment loans in an article on the decision by the government to allow Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to purchase loans with just 3 percent down payments. The piece cited several commentators saying that the risk of defaults would not increase substantially by lowering down payment requirements.

A study by the Center for Responsible Lending found that the default rate for loans with down payments of between 3 to 10 percent was nearly 9 percent [correction: 6.8 percent]. This is more than 80 percent [45 percent] higher than the default rate it found for mortgages with down payments of 10 percent or more.

....It is dubious housing policy to encourage moderate income people to take out mortgages on which they are likely to default....I think it's great to help low and moderate income people get good housing. But this policy is about helping banks get their bad mortgages insured by taxpayers.

This decision by the FHFA is almost criminally myopic. After all, the go-go years that produced a towering housing bubble and then ended in an epic global financial meltdown are less than a decade in the past. Have we really forgotten so soon the primary lesson of these years?

For the record, here it is: If there was a single primary culprit in the collapse of the global economy, it was excessive leverage. It was embedded in exotic financial instruments. It was encouraged by weak banking regulations. It was exploited by traders and executives who all knew they could make a quick buck as long as the music kept playing. In the end, though, it turned Wall Street into a house of cards that didn't have the strength to withstand meaningful losses. When those losses finally, inevitably, materialized, the financial system collapsed.

But it's not just bank leverage that's a problem. Wall Street's most dangerous debt all originated with consumers, who had been relentlessly encouraged to take on ever more debt and ever more leverage for nearly a decade—mostly in the form of risky mortgages that were almost designed for failure thanks to down payment requirements that got steadily weaker as the housing bubble steadily inflated. If you make a 20 percent down payment, your leverage is 4:1. That's fine. If things go south, your house can lose a lot of value and you're still OK. (And so is your bank.) With a 10 percent down payment, your leverage is 9:1. That's more dangerous. But a 3 percent down payment? Now we're talking about leverage of 32:1. That's crazytown territory. Even a moderate setback can wipe you out completely. Put enough loans like that together and then lash them into leverage-soaked financial derivatives that no one truly understands, and a moderate setback can wipe out the entire financial system.

The FHFA's justification, of course, is that this 3 percent deal is only being offered to people with strong credit histories. But that's always how it starts, isn't it? The question is, where does it end?

Nowhere good. The single biggest lesson of the 2008 meltdown is that a strong financial system is built on a foundation of limited leverage. Limited leverage for everyone. Anything else is a foundation of sand. How can we have forgotten that so soon?

This Is the Predictably Awful Way Fox News Reacted to the CIA Torture Report

| Tue Dec. 9, 2014 6:26 PM EST

On Tuesday the Senate released a long-awaited, scathing report condemning CIA torture methods during the George W. Bush administration. The report outlines horrible abuses including "rectal feeding" and "ice-water baths," but only the geniuses over at Fox News could see what it was truly about: Obamacare.

The hosts of Fox News' Outnumbered were convinced the report was made public in order to distract from Jonathan Gruber's testimony on Obamacare this morning. Jesse Watters, who says he would have rather remained in the dark, because after all people do "nasty things in the dark" all the time, said he found the timing of the report's release "ironic," which it is not.

Watters then went on to compare the torture report to Rolling Stone's botched sexual assault reporting at the University of Virginia, because why the hell not?

"They didn't even interview any of the CIA interrogators who do the report," Watters explained. "It's kind of like how Rolling Stone does their stories—they only get one side. And to say this is about transparency at the CIA, the Democrats didn't care about transparency when they were destroying hard drives at the IRS."

(h/t Media Matters)

Senate Report: We Tortured Prisoners, It Didn't Work, and We Lied About It

| Tue Dec. 9, 2014 1:31 PM EST

Via the Washington Post, here are the top 10 key findings of the Senate torture report:

In plain English: The torture was far more brutal than we thought, and the CIA lied about that. It didn't work, and they lied about that too. It produced so much bad intel that it most likely impaired our national security, and of course they lied about that as well. They lied to Congress, they lied to the president, and they lied to the media. Despite this, they are still defending their actions.

The rest of the report is just 600 pages of supporting evidence. But the core narrative that describes a barbarous, calculated, and sustained corruption of both our national values and our most fundamental moral principles is simple. We tortured prisoners, and then we lied about it. That's it.

Quote of the Day: Questions About Torture Are "Not Helpful"

| Tue Dec. 9, 2014 11:38 AM EST

From Jose Rodriguez, the head of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center in 2002, after field agents began questioning both the utility and legality of extended waterboarding sessions:

Strongly urge that any speculative language as to the legality of given activities or, more precisely, judgment calls as to their legality vis-à-vis operational guidelines for this activity agreed upon and vetted at the most senior levels of the agency, be refrained from in written traffic (email or cable traffic). Such language is not helpful.

This is, I suppose, not just the banality of evil, but its prolixity as well. Rodriguez, of course, is the guy who would eventually destroy videotapes of CIA torture sessions on the pretense of "protecting" the people who worked for him.

There's more at the link from the New York Times, which got an advance copy of the Senate torture report and is now releasing it. Along with everyone else in the world, I'll be posting bits and pieces that stand out as I read them. As much as I have the stomach for, anyway.