Colbert argues for end-of-the-world sex. Bill McKibben argues that chemistry and physics don't haggle. In the end, Colbert plugs the date: October 24th, the 350 International Day of Action on Climate Change, planned for more than 1,500 locations, including the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, and the Great Barrier Reef, where people will unite in a common call to lower carbon levels to 350 parts per million.

McKibben wrote persuasively about the need for this in last November's MoJo. How CO2 levels have already reached 390 ppm. How we need deeper and more rapid cuts than politicians have so far embraced. October 24th is a way to join voices before the global treaty talks in Copenhagen in December.

 

Armando, in his usual restrained way, asks why I think Republicans can filibuster a healthcare bill:

Republicans alone can not filibuster anything. So tell me Kevin, who are the Dem senators who are going to join a GOP filibuster of health care reform? Let's stick to the facts please. Even when you are shilling for a Dem capitulation on health care reform.

Well, it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster, and unless someone gets Teddy Kennedy back on the floor of the Senate, Democrats only have 59 votes right now.  As for the Democratic senators who might join a filibuster if the bill contains a public option, who knows?  But Ben Nelson is certainly a candidate.  So are Evan Bayh, Blanche Lincoln, Mark Pryor and Mary Landrieu.

On the other hand, it's possible that Harry Reid could hold the entire Democratic caucus together and then add a senator or two from Maine to successfully break a Republican filibuster.  Maybe.  Not many people seem to think this is likely, but your guess is as good as mine.

Okay, so I watched the McSteamy sex tape.

For work.

Since I got a tip that Fiji Water made an appearance. You see, our next issue's cover story is on the ubiquity of the fashionable water that may be the epitome of cool, but is also imported from a military dictatorship and is far from eco anything.

From what I can tell, and I'm not really a sex-tape connoisseur, this particular three-minutes-I'll-never-get-back offers up naked C- and D-list actors (Grey's Anatomy's Eric Dane and his wife of Noxema fame, Rebecca Gayheart) hanging out with a whiny lady (and apparently former Miss USA, how those pageants embolden) who makes phone calls half-naked for the camera and complains about the staying power of lighted rubber duckies. (Since this is a family channel I am not embedding the video here, but you can head over to Gawker at your own risk for the link.)

They just talk about getting it on; there is no real action. And we only care, apparently, because there are lots of boob shots. And talk about how sexy and cool they are. ("You're the prettiest girls this side of Mulholland;" not a great boast when your competition stops at the ocean.) And would it be the talk of the entertainment news shows proclaiming the glory of "Dane's Anatomy" if it were two dudes and a girl? Maybe, but Dane's career might head in a different direction. Not to mention, the last sex tape that was actually a "tape" was probably something George Michael was involved in in the early 90s. Enter the sex MP3!

But back to my work mission.

Last year the Iraqi parliament approved a Status of Forces Agreement that called for U.S. troops to withdraw from cities by June 2009 and to leave the country completely by December 2011.  At the time, there was a plan to submit the SOFA to a referendum, but that never happened.

Now, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has apparently decided to revive the idea:

If Iraqi lawmakers sign off on Maliki's initiative to hold a referendum in January on the withdrawal timeline, a majority of voters could annul a standing U.S.-Iraqi security agreement, forcing the military to pull out completely by January 2011 under the terms of a previous law.

It is unclear whether parliament, which is in recess until next month, would approve the referendum. Lawmakers have yet to pass a measure laying the basic ground rules for the Jan. 16 national election, their top legislative priority for the remainder of 2009.

If the SOFA is voted down, American troops have to leave within a year.  That means January 16, 2011 instead of December 31, 2011.  It's not at all clear why Maliki is doing this, but Juan Cole takes a guess:

I am just speculating, but I wonder if this measure was pushed by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which is close to the ayatollahs in Tehran, who in turn may want to speed up the US withdrawal because they have become afraid of a 'color revolution' in Iran promoted by the US. Staging such things from neighboring Iraq would be easier than doing it from a greater distance...

Meanwhile, there's this:

In an effort to defuse mounting Arab-Kurdish tensions, the U.S. military is proposing to deploy troops for the first time in a strip of disputed territory in northern Iraq, the top American general in Iraq said Monday.

....Though the plan is still not finalized, Odierno said that he had discussed it recently with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and with Massoud Barzani, the president of the regional government, and that both had been receptive to the idea.

So on the one hand Maliki is supporting a referendum that might force a faster troop withdrawal, while on the other hand he's supporting renewed U.S. patrols even though the SOFA banned them starting last month.  The fig leaf is that the patrols will be in "mostly rural" areas, but that's a fairly thin excuse.

Anyway, I'm not sure what to make of all this.  But it wouldn't bother me at all if the Iraqi public voted down the SOFA and we ended up withdrawing a year earlier than planned.

Ethicurean's Marc R. has extracted some interesting tidbits from this recent GAO report on American food spending and agriculture. Through a few neat bar graphs, he elegantly makes a series of points. In summary: While total spending on food increased by 16 percent between 1982 and 2007, the share of our incomes that we spend on food decreased by 20 percent during that same time period. Calorie availability increased from from 2,200 calories per person per day in 1982 to 2,679 in 2007.

So basically, Americans have spent less money on more calories in recent years than they did back in the eighties. It's probably no coincidence that high fructose corn syrup, which is less expensive than sugar, really took off in the '80s and '90s.

Another important point: Prices of "healthy" food skyrocketed at the beginning of the current recession:

Eggs cost 25 percent more in February [2008] than they did a year ago, according to the USDA. Milk and other dairy products jumped 13 percent, chicken and other poultry nearly 7 percent.

I couldn't find numbers on junk food inflation, but I don't remember the price of a bag of chips changing all that much during that time. A 2007 University of Washington study suggests I'm right: Researchers found that junk food is not only typically much cheaper than "healthy" food; its price is also less subject to inflation:

The survey found that higher-calorie, energy-dense foods are the better bargain for cash-strapped shoppers. Energy-dense munchies cost on average $1.76 per 1,000 calories, compared with $18.16 per 1,000 calories for low-energy but nutritious foods.

The survey also showed that low-calorie foods were more likely to increase in price, surging 19.5 percent over the two-year study period. High-calorie foods remained a relative bargain, dropping in price by 1.8 percent.

 

 

 

Rep. Ed Markey's Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming has released a new batch of bogus letters sent to members of Congress by Bonner & Associates, including one the DC-based PR and lobbying firm previously told the committee was genuine but admitted on Monday was also a fake. The letters claim to be from representatives of local senior citizens groups concerned that climate change legislation will drive up energy costs for the elderly in an already "volatile economy."  

Founded in 1984 by Jack Bonner, a former GOP Senate aide and Republican National Committee staffer, the company specializes in Astroturf campaigns—efforts to create the illusion of grassroots support around the positions of its corporate clients. The firm accomplishes this by, among other things, convincing citizens, nonprofits, and others to sign letters to lawmakers in support or opposition to various issues.

Bonner's astroturfing techniques are dodgy in their own right, but the company took them to an even shadier level as the climate change bill authored by Markey and Henry Waxman neared a vote in the House. Bonner's role in crafting the phony letters first emerged in July,   after the legislation had already passed, when a local paper reported that the firm had sent forged letters to Virginia Democrat Tom Perriello purporting to be from minority groups opposed to the climate change bill. It was later revealed that Bonner, working on behalf of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, had targeted two other congressional Democrats, Kathy Dahlkemper and Christopher Carney, with this deceptive campaign. Both of the lawmakers, who represent districts in Pennsylvania, ultimately voted against the Waxman-Markey bill.

Jack Bonner has claimed that the letters were the work of a rogue "temporary employee" whom the firm fired when his or her actions came to light. ACCCE, meanwhile, has expressed "outrage" over the letters, even raising the possibility of taking legal action against Bonner.
 

As we approach the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we're sure to start seeing some brief nods toward the event in the mainstream media: photos of people stranded on rooftops and bridges, maybe some re-runs of Anderson Cooper's on-air breakdown, along with a few heartwarming stories of survival and rescue to keep us from feeling too guilty about having abandoned an entire city of poor people to their fate.

What's less likely to receive much coverage is the aftermath of the storm--the years of neglect, the government-approved corporate ripoffs, and the ongoing suffering that persists to this day. A concise reminder appeared today in the form of a "Katrina Pain Index" compiled by Davida Finger and Bill Quigley. (Now at the Center for Constitutional Rights, Quigley formerly ran the Loyola Law School legal clinic in New Orleans, and provided powerful reports from the disaster.) I'm quoting some highlights, but the list is well worth reading in full on Counterpunch:

0. Number of renters in Louisiana who have received financial assistance from the $10 billion federal post-Katrina rebuilding program Road Home Community Development Block Grant – compared to 116,708 homeowners....

1.  Rank of New Orleans among U.S. cities in murders per capita for 2008.

1.  Rank of New Orleans among U.S. cities in percentage of vacant residences.  

2.  Number of Katrina cottages completed in Louisiana as of beginning of 2009 hurricane season under $74 million dollar federal program.

33.  Percent of 134,000 FEMA trailers in which Katrina and Rita storm survivors were housed after the storms which are estimated by federal government to have had formaldehyde problems....

50.  Ranking of Louisiana among states for overall healthcare....

27,279. Number of Louisiana homeowners who have applied for federal assistance in repair and rebuilding after Katrina who have been determined eligible for assistance but who have still not received any money.

30,396. Number of children who have not returned to public school in New Orleans since Katrina.  This reduction leaves the New Orleans public school population just over half of what it was pre-Katrina.

63,799. Number of Medicaid recipients who have not returned to New Orleans since Katrina....

143,193. Fewer people in New Orleans than before Katrina, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center estimate of 311,853, the most recent population estimate in Orleans.  

9.5 Million.  Dollar amount of federal Medicaid stimulus rejected outright by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal which would have expanded temporary Medicaid coverage for families who leave welfare and get a job.  

98 million:  Dollar amount of unemployment federal stimulus dollars rejected by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal that was available to bolster the unemployment compensation funds to assist 25,000 families in Louisiana.

900 Million:  Dollar amount paid to ICF International, the company that was hired by the State of Louisiana to distribute federal Road Home rebuilding dollars....

On Monday, as bruising battles over health care, financial regulation, and climate change dominate the news cycle, the Obama administration's ambitious—yet often troubling—public education agenda made a rare A1 appearance in the New York Times. The story concerned the Department of Education's "Race to the Top Fund," a multi-billion-dollar initiative that doles out stimulus funds to encourage innovation, boost student and teacher performance, and close acheivement gaps among different student populations. At first glance, the initiative—usually a second-fiddle subject to sexier topics—seems a laudable, sorely needed program.

Yet just how the Education Department and its secretary, long-time Obama buddy Arne Duncan, plan to use those billions raises some serious questions about their vision for U.S. public schools. Indeed, the Obama administration's education-related announcements to date, which emphasize test-focused and charter-heavy reforms, is painfully reminiscent of the Bush administration's top-down, data-driven approach to education reform. It is exactly what a good many educators and administrators did not want to see from Duncan and Co.

Big Bang Healthcare

I know, I know, healthcare can get tiresome.  But as part of the great debate over whether we need revolutionary change all at once vs. something "good enough" that we can build on, I think it's worth pointing out that most of the great universal healthcare systems of Western Europe took the latter route.  The French, for example, began covering lost wages from illness in the late 20s, and then began constructing a genuine national healthcare system shortly after World War II.  But that was just a start.  It took nearly 50 years before it became truly universal.  Here's the timeline from Wikipedia:

1947: extended social security to government workers.

1948: established three retiree insurance programs for non-salaried, non-farm employees (artisians, industrial and commercial workers, and among the liberal professions).

1952: established mandatory retiree insurance program for farmers, managed by the mutualité sociale agricole (MSA).

1961: established mandatory health insurance for farmers, allowing them choice among providers.

1966: established maternity health insurance for non-salaired, non-farm workers, managed by the CANAM.

1966: established mandatory insurance programs for farm-related accidents, non-work related accidents, and work-related sicknesses with free-choice of provider.

1972: protection enforcement of salaried farm-workers against work-related accidents, written into law.

1975: universalized retiree insurance mandatory for working population.

1978: establishment of unique program for ministers, religious congregation members, and personal insurance other non-covered persons.

1999: the complete institutionalization of universal health care.

2001: additional assistance provided for families who need help with daily tasks.

2002: compensation established for all medical-related accidents whether fault is found or not.

Even now, not everything is covered.  Above the lowest income levels, patients are required to pay 20-30% of the costs of care up to a certain amount, and private insurance is widely used to cover this gap.  There's a similar story in most other countries.  You can find a brief summary of Germany's evolution here, for example.

This is just some food for thought.  All countries are constrained in what they can do by past experience, existing institutions, and powerful interest groups.  But the important thing, I think, is to pass a law that makes the principle of universal coverage the law of the land.  Once that's in place, there's no going back even if the first pass is highly imperfect.

David Roberts says that Netroots Nation was more subdued this year than last.  That's hardly a surprise.  But it's not just the fact that 2008 was an election year and 2009 isn't:

The sense, rather, is that we are witnessing a tsunami of progressive enthusiasm, organizing, and, um, Hope crash on the shoals of the status quo ... and the status quo isn’t budging. Bit by bit, the giddy high of those days following Obama’s election is dissipating. It’s dispiriting.

For what it's worth, this isn't just a liberal problem.  9/11 and the Iraq war masked a lot of this during George Bush's first term, but conservatives ended up feeling the same way before long.  They wanted a revolution, but instead they got NCLB.  And a wimpy stem cell compromise.  And Sarbanes-Oxley.  And McCain-Feingold.  And a huge Medicare expansion. And complete gridlock on Social Security.

Not exactly what they signed up for.  The tax cuts were great, of course, but what about abortion and gay marriage and entitlement reform and slashing the size of government and ANWR and the Endangered Species Act and everything else on the conservative wish list?  They got most of what they wanted on the national security front (missile defense, big Pentagon budget increases, a couple of nice wars), but on the domestic front most of them felt like Bush ended up delivering almost nothing.

It wasn't quite that bad, of course.  They did get the tax cuts, after all.  And they got a new bankruptcy law and a bunch of right-wing judges.  But for the most part, their domestic agenda crashed on the shoals of the status quo too.  Washington DC is a tough place to get anything done.