In the course of fact-checking Anna Lenzer's excellent piece on Fiji Water, and in writing my own sidebars to the piece, I drank a lot of water. And truthfully, I liked the taste of the stuff coming out my San Francisco tap better than the Dasani or Arrowhead I bought from the bodega. So I got to wondering: Can all these bottled waters on the shelf really taste that differently from one another? Are they better than tap? Could I even tell the difference between Volvic and Voss? To find out, I bought eight bottles of water at my local Whole Foods and had a blind taste test in the Mother Jones office with several editors, interns, fellows, and art staff. For a good measure, we also included filtered and unfiltered San Francisco tap in the test.

The results: Fiji Water, for all its claims of purity, tasted okay to our staff. One or two people out of about ten said it was their favorite. "I actually liked Fiji best," said one staffer, who will remain anonymous.

Over at Politics Daily, MoJo's DC bureau chief, David Corn, points out that all the fuss over death panels and granny-killing government health care has overshadowed some very disturbing economic news. The congressional oversight panel monitoring the bank bailout, or Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), released a report Tuesday on the toxic assets that helped suck the country into an economic vortex. And, as David writes, the panel found that "the Treasury Department has not used its TARP billions to purchase this junk—which includes both lousy commercial and residential mortgages and securities based on lousy mortgages—and that billions of dollars of toxic assets remain on the books, threatening the security of numerous financial institutions."

So far, David observes, the news that TARP's billions have not been used as intended, and that the economy remains at real risk, has barely registered on the media's radar. Read the rest of the column here.

 

It’s looking increasingly likely that the pharmaceutical industry will escape price regulation under any new health care reform. For its part, the drug makers have promised $30 million in special price reductions to support Medicare recipients--a move that, as I've written before, is really a backdoor method of keeping seniors hooked on brand-name drugs.

Brand-name drugs are required by federal law to be safe and efficacious. We often rely on independent medical journals to provide important information and analysis to make the case for their use. We trust the editors of these journals and the experts who write the articles for expertise and sound judgement. And it’s not just the general public who relies on these respected sources. Doctors also use these articles in deciding whether or not to prescribe a drug.

So it comes as something of a shock to many people to learn that these articles aren’t always written by the people who sign them. Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that ghostwriters employed by drug company Wyeth produced 26 articles in medical journals to promote Premarin and Prempro, two controversial estrogen-replacement therapy drugs later linked to serious health problems in menopausal women. Dr. Adriane Fugh Berman, a doctor at Georgetown University and a colleague of mine in a publically funded project called Pharmedout.org, is making public some of these internal documents.

Staff Sgt. Greg Talley prepares to hook up electronic blasting caps to a control box that he will use to destroy a cache of weapons, including discarded Soviet munitions from the 1970s, Aug. 2 at an ordnance disposal site near Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Sergeant Talley is an explosive ordnance disposal technician with the 755th Air Expeditionary Group, and deployed from Dyess Air Force Base, Texas. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. John Jung)

Ch-Ch-Changes: More from Kevin Drum on healthcare.

Graphic Content: A new map shows which congressional aides have turned healthcare lobbyists.

Cruisin': The electric Chevy Volt will get 230 miles per gallon, says GM. [Wall Street Journal]

Bird Flu Discovery: New research shows a link between bird flu and Parkinson's. [AAAS]

Greening China: China's dire pollution is pushing it toward green solutions. [Christian Science Monitor]

 

 

Some must-reads from around the web:

Surprise, surprise: Judiciary Committee document dump reveals that Karl Rove was more involved in the US Attorney firings than has previously been acknowledged.

US general says Bagram needs less Popeyes, more cultural outreach.

Are the tea-baggers ripping a page from the Saul Alinsky playbook?

Extreme makeovers, Wall Street Journal style.

America's last late-term abortion doctor.

The families of three hikers detained by Iran, one of whom is Mother Jones contributor Shane Bauer, issued a statement on Tuesday. Here is Bauer's new MoJo piece, an investigation of the Pentagon's "make-a-sheikh" program; editors-in-chief Clara Jeffrey and Monika Bauerlein provide further context here.

David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, is on twitter, and so are my colleagues Daniel Schulman, Nick Baumann, and our editor, Clara Jeffery. You can follow me here. The magazine's main account is @motherjones.

Just a few days into her reporting trip to Fiji to check out the source of America’s No. 1 imported bottled water, MoJo freelancer Anna Lenzer was arrested, hauled to police headquarters, and threatened with imprisonment... or worse. She stuck it out, and the results of her investigation cast a sharp light on a celebrity-beloved brand. Fiji Water,  her MoJo cover story points out, is produced under a military dictatorship, processed in a diesel-fueled plant and shipped across thousands of miles of ocean in bottles that use twice as much plastic as many competitors (yes, our intrepid factcheckers weighed them--and calculated how far some other brands travel to US store shelves. And then they sacrificed themselves and did a bottled water taste test.). Yet it’s focused its marketing on winning huge credibility with eco-conscious consumers, even claiming that to drink Fiji Water is to fight global warming. Lenzer’s story, “Spin the Bottle,” captures the contradictions and dilemmas of a “green” business. Check it out and let us know what you think in the comments!

Speaking of comments, we suspect this piece will kick off plenty of discussion, so we're pulling together bottled water experts, industry reps, and critics, together for a live discussion/online forum, likely August 17. Stay tuned for the details--we'll promote it on the home page and also post the info here in the blog.

U.S. Attorney Finale

The Washington Post reports on the release of internal White House documents from the Bush era related to the mass firings of U.S. Attorneys:

The dismissal of U.S. Attorney David C. Iglesias of New Mexico in December 2006 followed extensive communication among lawyers and political aides in the White House who hashed over complaints about his work on public corruption cases against Democrats, according to newly released e-mails and transcripts of closed-door House testimony by former Bush counsel Harriet Miers and political chief Karl Rove.

A campaign to oust Iglesias intensified after state GOP officials and Republican members of the congressional delegation apparently concluded that he was not pursuing the cases against Democrats in a way that could help then-Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R) in a tight reelection race in New Mexico, according to interviews and Bush White House e-mails released Tuesday by congressional investigators.

....Miers told investigators that Rove called her in September 2006, "agitated" about the slow pace of public corruption cases against Democrats and weak efforts to pursue voter-fraud cases in the state. In the call, Miers said, Rove described Iglesias as a "serious problem" and said he wanted "something done" about it.

Just to give you a taste, here's one of the emails in question.  The chairman of the New Mexico GOP, after attending an RNC meeting, emails the White House to say that Iglesias has been unhelpful in ginning up voter fraud cases against Democrats.  "To be perfectly candid, he was 'missing in action' during the last election," he says.  Rove's response? "Talk to the counsel's office."  After all, if a U.S. Attorney can't be counted on to help out during the election cycle, what good is he?

For their latest cover—sell line: Slim Down *Your* Way—the editors of Self basically created a new (and of course, much thinner) body for Kelly Clarkson. (That was their way.) Called to the carpet by Jezebel (and for god's sake, Entertainment Tonight), the Self editors then issued the most disgusting, enraging explanation possible, namely that covers shouldn't reflect reality, but "inspire women to want to be their best." At which point, Jezebel issued a seriously awesome and funny takedown. Read it.

 

Speaking in Las Vegas on Monday, former President Bill Clinton challenged Americans to change how the energy/climate debate has been framed by extremists on the right.

The debate so far has been dominated by a need to prove that:

1) Global warming is real.
2) Global warming is caused by human activity.
3) Global warming is bad.
4) Measures to stop global warming won’t destroy our economy and way of life.

In other words, supporters of the energy status quo and their loony mercenary mobs have rational people playing defense at every turn. That framework is reason #1 why the wimpy Waxman-Markey bill barely squeaked by in the House.

In a single phrase, uttered six minutes into his remarks and repeated throughout his one-hour address, Clinton supplied the winning frame for progress on a host of interconnected issues, including global warming, a tanking economy (particularly noticeable in a massive loss of jobs), and a series of disastrous oil wars.

Clinton’s new frame was: "We are still piddling with this." And by this he clearly meant all of these interconnected issues of jobs, energy, the environment.

Now, I don’t expect to see signs going up across the nation proclaiming, "No more piddling!" But it’s just the kind of phrasing that connects with a huge number of "ordinary" Americans.

Clinton, whose mojo was always about connecting heart and head (or sense and sensibility), went on to discuss in the pure wonk language of numbers, the challenges facing us and the benefits of specific actions. But he always tagged up with a variation of the "piddling" theme.

================================

Want more? Check out:

Tweeting Las Vegas

NCES & National Security
================================

Low-hanging fruit

Clinton said we need to focus policy – and money – on the low-hanging fruit of energy efficiency. Retrofitting older building to make them energy efficient, for example, would provide the most bang for the buck, in terms of lowering GHG emissions and in job growth. Constructing a new coal-fired power plant generates 870 jobs for every $1 billion invested, said Clinton. The same money used to make existing buildings energy efficient would create 6,000 jobs.

A report issued on Monday by the Center for American Progress (a host of the summit), underscored Clinton’s message. According to the study, 40 percent of GHG emissions comes from energy used in building. "Deep building retrofits can cut energy use by 20 to 40 percent with proven techniques and off-the-shelf technologies," the report continued. "Best of all, they can pay for themselves from the energy they save."

The report recommends a $500 billion public-private investment to retrofit forty percent of our existing building stock by the year 2020. Such a program would, according to the study, employ over a half million workers and save consumers $32 billion to $64 billion annually in reduced energy costs.

For at least part of that money, Clinton advocated creating a program along the lines of the Small Business Administration. Banks, which Clinton said are sitting on $900 billion that could be available for loans, should be encouraged to make that money available for energy efficiency by government backing of the loans.

"You’ve got to get the banks involved," he said, "if you’re going to stop piddling around."

Sec. of Energy Steven ChuSec. of Energy Steven Chu


In a small press conference earlier in the day, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu had called energy efficiency "the fruit on the ground" ready to be picked up, even more accessible than "low-hanging" fruit.

The Green Bank

Clinton’s idea is in addition to a so-called Green Bank which was mentioned throughout the day as another avenue routing funding for a new energy economy. One plan for a Green Bank claims that at a funding level of $50 billion, it could:

·    Generate enough clean electricity to power 22.9 million cars a year.
·    Decrease gasoline consumption by 12.6 billion gallons a year.
·    Decrease oil consumption by 642 million barrels a year.

Former oilman turned wind baron turned natural gas proponent T. Boone Pickens, offered another idea:

Mandate that all diesel fleet vehicles including 18-wheel trucks be run on natural gas. Pickens pointed out that natural gas is far less polluting than diesel fuel and that it could provide a bridge to an all clean electric transportation society. Former Vice President Al Gore agreed with Pickens that electric battery technology is not yet ready to replace diesel engines and supported the idea of switching to natural gas.

Such a costly conversion program may be unnecessary, however, even in the short run, after last week’s announcement that the DOE was releasing $2.4 billion to develop electric cars (EVs) and an EV charging infrastructure. $1.5 billion targets improvements in battery technology.

Another Clinton idea is to take the best part of the Cash for Clunkers program and adapt it for EVs. Providing buyers of new EVs with a $10,000 incentive, could, he said, put more clean cars on the road and drive the industry which is still gearing up, to get more efficient, better-designed EVs to market sooner.

The day-long event produced many other ideas for moving to a clean energy economy, creating jobs and making the US the world leader in cutting GHG emissions.

These include:
 

  • Funding community colleges to train workers (from all backgrounds) in new technology jobs.
  • Doing more to create a national smart grid that can efficiently handle power generated from new sources.
  • Sensible deregulation to allow energy efficient and environmentally sound project to scale up more quickly.
  • Open public land in the Southwest to development of large scale solar power facilities.


I cringed when I heard that last goal. Not because I disagree with its premise. I’m a proponent of solar power, including the large-scale form known as Concentrating Solar Power (CSP). It was the language used at the summit that had me thinking, "here we go again."

One speaker used the phrase "unlimited potential" to describe the desert’s use for electric power generation. In discussions about natural resources, "unlimited" has typically meant only that the speaker refuses to recognize limits and abide by them until what was once unlimited is destroyed. Then it’s time to move on to the next new thing with "unlimited potential."

John Podesta, Center for American Progress (Photo by OGD)John Podesta, Center for American Progress (Photo by OGD)

After a final press conference, I told John Podesta, head of the Center for American Progress, about my concerns and he did his best to reassure me that "they all" understood the environmental values of the Southwestern deserts. "Look," he said, "in the Clinton administration [where Podesta was Chief of Staff] we preserved more desert lands than any previous administration. We can do CSP in the desert in a thoughtful, environmental way."
 

The day ended in the late afternoon on an upbeat note. I overheard one woman leaving the area say to her companion, "I learned so much; I just don’t want to forget it!"

That enthusiasm is important. A large part of the summit was designed to get momentum rolling for passage of a Senate clean energy bill that does not "just piddle around." That actually improves the House bill.

The only way that can happen is if proponents seize the Clinton frame and get the questions back on track. If the national discussion (or shouting match in recent days) remains fixed on defending the extent and culpability of global warming, we all lose. What we need now, coming out of the summit, is a nation asking its elected officials "When, in God’s name, are you going to stop piddling around on issues that decide whether or not I have a job, about my ability to provide for my family, my kids’ future, our national security, and a changing climate that could devastate large regions of America, and the world?"

And the answer better be: “Now.”

L-to-R, T. Boone Pickes, Senator Harry Reid, John Podesta (OGD)L-to-R, T. Boone Pickes, Senator Harry Reid, John Podesta (OGD)


Final thoughts:

One of the most striking features of yesterday's clean energy summit was the successful combination of two seemingly opposing worlds. There were lengthy exchanges about the nittiest and grittiest details of energy policy (new standards to prevent air leakage in ductwork, for example).

It should have been boring. It wasn't.

The audience was intrigued and engaged and even, at times, euphoric. The summit was like an old timey tent revival meeting -- but for clean energy wonks. True, the panelists were wonks. The audience, however, seemed pretty normal (by Las Vegas standards, of course). The exchanges became so technically detailed yet fervent at points that I thought some panel members had begun speaking in tongues.

Why is this important? Because progressives have such a bodaciously miserable record in this regard.

Major policy shifts live or die based largely on the passions of the day. And a major policy shift is definitely what's called for when you are faced with a rapidly heating planet, a crumbling energy infrastructure and an economy that sucks like a Hoover (in either sense of the name).

Republican leaders and the fossil fool industries understand this all too well. They spend millions to gin up the fear factor on behalf of the status quo. They're playing with fire and they know it. But they don't care.

The progressive challenge is to stir passions for positive change without resorting to lies, demagoguery or forgery. The National Clean Energy Summit may have been an historic advance in that mission.

The task now is to spread those ideas—and those passions—to a much larger audience.

Slot Machine, hotel lobby, 2009Slot Machine, hotel lobby, 2009

One favorite remark from the summit provoked lots of laughs from the audience (me included). But it was also one of the most open, honest and significant unscripted observations made at the gathering.

During a panel discussion, the always quotable T. Boone Pickens mentioned an exchange he had with a foreign pooh-bah. "What does the rest of the world think about our energy dependence on foreign oil?" (That's the gist of the question.) The man demurred, but Boone pressed him. Finally, the man said, "we think you look stupid."

Ouch!

Which begs the question: Are Americans stupid?

I don't think so, and here's why. Years ago I was a graduate student at University of Arizona in American Indian Studies, studying with, among others, the late, great Vine Deloria. The topic one days was language and how it both shapes and reflects our world. The prof (I think it was Vine, but it could have been someone else) gave a powerful example.

"In [some Native American language], there's no way to say an individual person is stupid. You can't say they're smart, either. Or brave or a coward," he said. "You can say a rock is hard or a very tall tree is noble." He explained the difference: Rocks and trees aren't capable of change. They are what they are. Humans have the potential to change.

You can say a person is acting stupidly or bravely in that language, but embedded in the syntax is the belief that a person can change her or his behavior. People aren't rocks or trees.

My point being that Americans are not stupid. Not collectively or individually. We sure as hell are acting stupidly, however. Change is possible, but that doesn't mean it's inevitable.

We can act to change course. On the other hand, we can continue acting stupidly and pumping out CO2 as if there are no consequences to our actions, as if the piper will never demand payment. We can do that until we no longer have the capacity for change. Because by cooking our planet and destroying the ecosystems we are part of and depend on, we will become as dead as rocks.