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Jimmy Carter: Cancer Has Spread to My Brain

The former president announces he'll start radiation treatment for the melanoma detected on his brain.

| Thu Aug. 20, 2015 11:03 AM EDT

On Thursday morning, former President Jimmy Carter revealed he will begin radiation treatment for four spots of melanoma that were detected on his brain. He will start the first round of four radiation treatments this afternoon. 

Carter made the announcement at a scheduled news conference at the Carter Center in Atlanta. Speaking to reporters, he said that even though he initially thought he only had a few weeks left to live, he was "surprisingly at ease" with his diagnosis.

"I've had a wonderful life," Carter added. "I've had a wonderful life, thousands of friends. I've had an exciting and adventurous and gratifying existence. But now I feel that it's in the hands of the God, whom I worship."

Carter said doctors first discovered the lesions when he underwent surgery to remove a small mass in his liver earlier this month.

When asked if there was anything in his life he wish he could have done differently, Carter expressed regret over the Iran hostage crisis.

"I wish I had sent one more helicopter to get the hostages and we would have rescued them," he said. Then in a lighthearted joke, Carter added, "Maybe I would have been reelected."

The 90-year-old former president first revealed he had cancer last Wednesday.

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New Study Finds That Humans Should Kill Smaller, Younger Animals

Hunting too many adult animals has turned us into "super-predators," researchers say.

| Thu Aug. 20, 2015 11:00 AM EDT
Don't worry, some small animals should be kept around as clickbait.

When it comes to food, humans gravitate to the biggest item on the menu: overstuffed turkeys, 1,000-pound sturgeons, the fattest burger. But a new study in Science shows how our obsession with taking down the biggest prey is damaging the world's wildlife.

Looking at 282 marine species and 117 terrestrial mammals, researchers at the University of Victoria found that human hunters and fishers overwhelmingly target adult animals over juveniles. Driven by the prestige and financial payoff of a trophy kill or gargantuan catch—and an aversion to killing young animals that might be seen as cute—humans consume up to 14 times the amount of adult animal biomass as other predators. And that's contributing to the swift decline of populations of large fish and land carnivores, the researchers say.

Thanks to advanced hunting tactics and tools that allow us to kill without getting too close, humans have long been able to take down massive prey (e.g., the Ice Age mammoths). But with modern advancements such as guns and the automated dragnets of industrial-scale fishing, we've turned into "super-predators," the researchers write. That's just one reason, along with the ravages of climate change and habitat destruction, we're currently in the process of losing one in six species on Earth.

These findings go against the assumption that it's better to target mature animals and spare younger ones. "Harvesters typically are required by law to release so-called under-sized salmon, trout, or crabs, or to set their rifle scopes on the 6-point elk and not the calves," explained Chris Darimont, one of the study's authors, in a call with reporters. Those regulations are in line with the paradigm of "sustainable exploitation," the idea that killing off big adult animals that dominate a habitat will allow the young to flourish and reproduce.

Humans exploit large prey at far higher rates than other predators. P. Huey/ Science

The authors argue that this approach causes undesirable reverberations in the food web and, eventually, the gene pool. While the loss of the largest predators may be a boon to their prey in the short-term, ballooning populations of herbivores can devastate vegetation and have been linked to festering illnesses. While humans may raise increasingly large domesticated animals—whether by pumping cows with steroids or breeding only the fattest hogs—exploiting the largest animals in the wild can lead to tinier animals. For example, as bigger, stronger fish are plucked from the oceans, survival of the fittest undergoes a strange inversion: Smaller fish are more likely to reproduce in their absence, producing fewer, smaller offspring that are less resistant to further threats.

The authors suggest that human hunters start thinking small. In the case of fisheries, they suggest focusing on smaller catches—a process of narrowing entrances into traps and nets and using hooks to allow larger fish to evade capture. To preserve top carnivores on land, Darimont and coauthor Tom Reimchen say that tolerance—and a decreased emphasis on prized trophy kills—is the best way to bolster dwindling populations.

Obamacare Is Facing Yet Another Legal Challenge

| Thu Aug. 20, 2015 10:47 AM EDT

Do you remember John Boehner's House lawsuit against President Obama over some details of Obamacare? When it was finally unveiled, it turned out it had two parts. The first challenged a delay in implementing the employer mandate. That was a big meh. Even if the suit prevailed, it would be meaningless by the time it finished its trip through the court system.

But the second part was a surprise. It challenged the outlay of $175 billion as part of the Cost Sharing Reduction program, which pays out money to insurance companies and lowers premiums, primarily for the poor. Obama claims that CSR is like Medicare or Social Security: a mandatory payment that doesn't require yearly authorizations. Congress claims it does, and went to court to fight its case. So how is that going? David Savage of the LA Times gives us an update:

In May, U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer voiced exasperation when a Justice Department lawyer tried to explain why the Obama administration was entitled to spend the money without the approval of Congress. Why is that "not an insult to the Constitution?" Collyer asked.

But the more formidable barrier now facing the lawsuit is a procedural rule. Judges have repeatedly said lawmakers do not have standing to re-fight political battles in court....But in late June, the high court gave the House lawsuit an apparent boost when it ruled the Arizona Legislature had standing to sue in federal court to defend its power to draw election districts....Ginsburg in a footnote said the court was not deciding "the question of whether Congress has standing to bring a suit against the president." But administration supporters acknowledge the high court's opinion in the Arizona case increases the odds the suit will survive.

....Washington attorney Walter Dellinger, a former Clinton administration lawyer, believes the courts will not finally rule on the House lawsuit. "There has never been a lawsuit by a president against Congress or by Congress against the president over how to interpret a statute," he said.

If the courts open the door to such claims, lawmakers in the future will opt to sue whenever they lose a political battle, Dellinger said. "You'd see immediate litigation every time a law was passed," he said.

In other words, this is starting to look an awful lot like King v. Burwell: a case that initially seemed like an absurd Hail Mary by conservatives, but that eventually started to look more formidable. In the end, King still lost, but not before plenty of liberals lost a lot of sleep over it.

I think that's still the most likely outcome here. Allowing Congress to sue the president would be a huge reversal for the Supreme Court, and it's not clear that even the conservatives on the court want to open up that can of worms.

But there's more to this. If the Supreme Court rules that Congress has no standing to sue, but it looks like they might treat the case sympathetically on the merits, conservatives merely have to find someone who does have standing to sue. That probably won't be too hard. It may take years, but one way or another, this might end up being yet another legal thorn in the side of Obamacare.

Trumpmentum Has Been Losing Steam Ever Since the Debate

| Thu Aug. 20, 2015 10:04 AM EDT

I hopped over to RealClear Politics this morning to take a look at their latest poll averages, and it shows something interesting: Donald Trump may have hit his ceiling. On August 5, he hit a peak at 24.3 percent. He then plateaued for a few days and has been falling ever since. He now stands at 22.0 percent.

Not all poll averages show the same thing. I also took a look at Pollster, and they show Trump's climb starting to slow down, but not quite peaking yet. Even there, though, it looks like Trump is going to hit a ceiling soon.

At the risk of making a hard prediction that will soon look foolish, it looks to me like Trump has peaked at about 25 percent. Even among the Republican base, his blustery showmanship only gets him so far.

Iran Agreement Looks Like a Done Deal in Congress

| Thu Aug. 20, 2015 9:35 AM EDT

From the Guardian:

Barack Obama has enough votes to get the Iran deal through the House of Representatives, despite Republican efforts to block the historic nuclear accord, the minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, has said.

With a Senate vote looking increasingly secure for the president, Pelosi’s comments suggest it is now extremely unlikely that Congress will halt the deal.

Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, said on Thursday in an interview with the Associated Press that she was confident House Democrats would have the votes if necessary to see the Iran deal through.

Nancy Pelosi is a pretty shrewd vote counter. If she says there are enough House Democrats to see the deal through, I believe her. It probably doesn't matter, though: there are now 25 declared supporters of the deal in the Senate, and Obama only needs nine more to ensure passage of the deal. That shouldn't be too hard.

Investigations Prove the Planned Parenthood "Sting" Videos Were a Bust

South Carolina launches a probe, even though other states have found a whole lotta nuthin'.

| Thu Aug. 20, 2015 6:05 AM EDT

Since undercover videos that captured Planned Parenthood staff discussing fetal tissue donations were released last month, GOP officials in more than 10 states have clamored to launch investigations into the organization. On Tuesday, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley joined that group, ordering her state's health department to review the policies and practices of all abortion clinics in the state, including the three operated by Planned Parenthood.

"These practices are not consistent with the laws or character of our state," Haley wrote in her letter to the state agency tasked with regulating abortion clinics, adding that it "cannot allow an organization with broken internal oversight and a flawed corporate culture to behave the way Planned Parenthood has in other states."

In the videos, recorded surreptitiously and released by the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress, Planned Parenthood officials talk frankly about the organization's tissue donation program and the costs associated with donating fetal tissue from an abortion. Though fetal tissue donation is a long-standing and legal practice in the United States, and has contributed to medical advancements like the polio vaccine, conservatives have used the videos to attack the health care organization, saying they provide evidence that Planned Parenthood illegally profits from the sale of aborted fetuses. And they've pushed for investigations to unmask this purported criminal wrongdoing.

But so far, those investigations are falling flat. Completed probes in GeorgiaIndianaMassachusetts, and South Dakota have spent thousands in taxpayer money but turned up no evidence that Planned Parenthood is trafficking in the sale of fetal tissue. And in most of the other states that have launched investigations—including OhioArizonaTexas, and Kansas—Planned Parenthood affiliates don't even have fetal tissue donation programs, making it hard to believe the states will find any illegal activity related to the practice. In Louisiana, where Gov. Bobby Jindal ordered an investigation in mid-July, Planned Parenthood does not even operate a single abortion clinic.

"In every state where these investigations have concluded, officials have cleared Planned Parenthood of any wrongdoing," Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Federation, told the Huffington Post. "We've said all along that Planned Parenthood follows all laws and has very high medical standards, and that's what every one of these investigations has found."

Not every governor has taken the bait. Democratic governors in Minnesota and Virginia have rejected state legislators' pleas to look into the group, saying they won't waste time investigating programs that don't exist in their states.

"As far as I'm concerned, there's no basis for an investigation at taxpayer expense into a private nonprofit organization that has stated they don't engage in those practices," Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton told local reporters after he received a letter from GOP lawmakers asking him to take action.

Other states have taken another approach since the release of the videos: Governors in Alabama and Arkansas, along with Louisiana's Jindal, have moved to block Medicaid funding for Planned Parenthood, which they may not be able to do under federal law. Meanwhile, public opinion of the organization remains high. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that despite weeks of bad news, Planned Parenthood is still more popular than every major 2016 presidential contender, the NRA, and the Supreme Court.

This article has been revised.

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There Might Be Fracking Wastewater on Your Organic Fruits and Veggies

Federal organic standards ban synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, but cancer-causing fracking chemicals are totally fine.

| Thu Aug. 20, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
Irrigation water appears to be a major loophole in the USDA's organic food safety program.

The US Department of Agriculture's organics standards, written 15 years ago, strictly ban petroleum-derived fertilizers commonly used in conventional agriculture. But the same rules do not prohibit farmers from irrigating their crops with petroleum-laced wastewater obtained from oil and gas wells—a practice that is increasingly common in drought-stricken Southern California.

"No one expects their lettuce to contain heavy chemicals from fracking wastewater."

As I reported last month, oil companies last year supplied half the water that went to the 45,000 acres of farmland in Kern County's Cawelo Water District, farmland that is owned, in part, by Sunview, a company that sells certified organic raisins and grapes. Food watchdog groups are concerned that the state hasn't required oil companies to disclose all the chemicals they use in oil drilling and fracking operations, much less set safety limits for all those chemicals in irrigation water.

A spokesman for the USDA's National Organics Program confirmed that it has little to say on the matter. "The USDA organic regulations do not directly address the use of irrigation water on organic farms," said the spokesman, who asked to be quoted on background, "but organic operations must generally maintain or improve the natural resources of the operation, including soil and water quality."

Of course, that's easier said than done. USDA organic regulations do not require farms to perform water quality tests, and irrigation water is not evaluated as an input by the Organic Materials Review Institute, which vets products used on organic farms. Calls placed to California Certified Organic Farmers, which certifies organic farms in California, were not returned.

Irrigation water appears to be a major loophole in a food safety program that otherwise strictly controls what farmers can apply to their land. Notably, the organics program does prohibit the use of sewage sludge-based fertilizer, a product widely used on nonorganic farms that sometimes contains chemicals such as flame retardants and pharmaceuticals.

On Monday, California Assemblyman Mike Gatto, a Democrat from Glendale, introduced a bill that would require crops irrigated with wastewater from oil and gas operations to be labeled as such. "No one expects their lettuce to contain heavy chemicals from fracking wastewater," he explained in a press release.

That's especially true if their lettuce is labeled "organic," adds Adam Scow, the California director of the environmental group Food and Water Watch: "I think most people's logic would tell them that's not a practice consistent with organic standards."

A Conversation About Scott Walker's Health Care Plan

| Wed Aug. 19, 2015 9:04 PM EDT

Ramesh Ponnuru thinks I got Scott Walker's health care plan wrong. Maybe! Let's go through his objections.

  1. I complained that Walker's plan would cost a lot but he doesn't tell us how he's going to pay for it without raising taxes. Ponnuru: "Walker says he is going to reform the tax break for employer-provided plans and get savings out of Medicaid....There’s no reason to doubt that some such mix could be made to work."

    I tentatively doubt it.1 My back-of-the-envelope guess was that after accounting for both Medicaid cuts and the end of Obamacare outlays, Walker still had a $100 billion hole. I was wrong about that. It's probably more like $150 billion or so, since Walker would also repeal all of Obamacare's taxes. The only proposal he offers to raise money for this is to "reform the way the tax code treats gold-plated, employer-sponsored health care plans." This is the Obamacare Cadillac tax, and even in the far future it won't generate anything close to $150 billion annually. Walker still has a very big hole to fill.
     
  2. I complained that if you don't have continuous coverage and you get sick or have a pre-existing condition, you're screwed. Ponnuru: "At that point you’d have to go to a high-risk pool."

    There's a reason I didn't mention this. Walker says that his plan will "provide funds" and "flexibility" for states to address pre-existing conditions if they feel like it. "One way states could do this is by managing high-risk pools, something states have done for decades. My plan would make it easier for states to expand these pools, or pursue alternative approaches."

    In other words, high-risk pools aren't a part of Walker's plan. He just mentions them as a possibility that states might pursue if they want to. And anyway, high-risk pools are infamous for working poorly because they're always underfunded. Would Walker really be willing to fund them at levels high enough to actually work?
     
  3. I complained that Walker doesn't tell us how he'll prevent insurance companies from raising rates on people with expensive pre-existing conditions. Ponnuru: "A protection for people in the group market who have maintained continuous coverage has been law since 1996. Walker’s plan would just expand and strengthen that approach in the individual market."

    That's possible, but Walker's plan doesn't say this. I can only respond to things Walker actually says. What's more, the individual market is fundamentally different from the group market, which is why HIPAA regulates the group market but doesn't even try to regulate the individual market. This is tricky stuff, and requires more than "just" expanding and strengthening HIPAA. And since it likely requires a fair amount of detailed regulation—which Republicans are famously averse to— I'd like to hear how Walker plans to do it.
     
  4. I complained that Walker's plan wouldn't cover everyone. Ponnuru acknowledges this. I also complained that Walker had no concrete proposals to reduce the cost of health care. Ponnuru: "Capping the tax exclusion for employer-provided coverage is as much a 'concrete proposal to reduce the cost of health care' as anything in Obamacare. And so on."

    That's true, and I should have acknowledged it. The Cadillac tax, which is part of both Obamacare and Walkercare, is likely to rein in costs. As for "And so on," I'm not sure what to say. I need something more specific.

Nickel summary: Ponnuru is right about the Cadillac tax pushing costs down. But I don't think his other criticisms really hold water.

On a related note, Ponnuru is right that, in practice, Obamacare doesn't cover everyone. There will always be people who go uninsured regardless of mandates, either because they don't feel like paying for insurance or because they can't afford to, even with subsidies. But aside from illegal immigrants, Obamacare really does try to give everyone a chance to buy decent coverage. And it would cover many more people if Republican governors accepted Medicaid expansion and Republican members of Congress were willing to increase the funding for subsidies.

Walker's plan, by contrast, doesn't even try to cover everyone. There are lots of people who will fall through the cracks, and this is by design. Maybe you prefer this. I don't. I'd like to see genuinely universal coverage. But either way, it's a big difference.

1Tentatively because I don't know for sure how much Walker's plan will cost. Someone is bound to do a detailed dive into this eventually, and maybe it will turn out to be cheaper than I think. If so, I'll let you know.

The "Bad Lip Reading" of the First GOP Presidential Debate Is Hilarious

Hahaha.

| Wed Aug. 19, 2015 8:48 PM EDT

This is amazing. Watch it. Or don't. This isn't Fascist Italy. You can do whatever you want. George Washington came to this country on the Mayflower, which he made from wood he got from a cherry tree, because he wanted his ancestors to be able to make their own decisions. And George Washington NEVER told a lie. Think about that.

T h i n k

a b o u t

i t.

Sorry, California Is Not Winning the Drought

A new study says water shortages could sink the Golden State’s economy.

| Wed Aug. 19, 2015 6:54 PM EDT

As the epic California drought drags through its fifth year, researchers are now saying the agricultural sector's increased reliance on groundwater could lead to an economic decline that affects all sectors statewide. 

A new economic analysis conducted by a team from the University of California-Davis shows that as the drought continues, the overtapped groundwater reserves will become increasingly expensive and inaccessible: Water shortages in the famous Central Valley could cost the state $2.74 billion in 2015, as well as nearly 21,000 jobs, which would amount to $1.3 billion in losses from California's gross domestic product and a decline of $720 million in statewide labor income.

The study claims these numbers are expected to get worse as the drought continues and more acres are fallowed, more crops lose earnings, and revenue from livestock and dairy farms declines due to dry pastures and increasing feed costs. The net water shortage is now expected to increase by 2.9 million acre-feet each year (that's more than 945 billion gallons); the researchers estimate that economic costs will grow by 6 percent by 2017.

The researchers called for better data collection on water use and drought impacts, and policies that will provide support for areas where drought-caused unemployment is severe, but they emphasized the importance of new state groundwater laws to slow the depletion of reserves—which are now relied on to make up 70 percent of water shortages.

"The transition will cause some increased fallowing of cropland or longer crop rotations," Jay Lund, director of the UC-Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, said in a statement, "but will help preserve California's ability to support more profitable permanent and vegetable crops during drought."