2009 - %3, April

Senate Introduces Mining Reform Bill

| Thu Apr. 2, 2009 3:30 PM EDT
Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico has just introduced a mining reform bill in the Senate, bringing Congress one step closer to updating the nation's most outdated public lands law, the General Mining Law of 1872. A similar bill from House stalled in the Senate last year, where Majority leader Harry Reid, the son of a gold miner, has been a powerful ally of the hard rock minerals industry. Mining companies are still allowed to remove minerals from public lands without paying a cent in federal royalties. As I reported in a recent profile of Reid, Nevada remains an anachronism in a region that is becoming much less tolerant of the America's most polluting industry.

Bingaman's bill is less progressive than a similar House measure, but might win key support from Reid and moderate Republicans. According to Velma Smith, the manager of the Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining, the bill proposes reducing the House's proposed 8 percent royalty to something between 2 and 5 percent, to be set at the discretion of the Department of Interior. It would also impose a reclamation fee of .3 to 1 percent.

In what's been a keen interest of Bingaman's, the bill also asks the National Academy of Sciences to perform a study on uranium mining. Smith says uranium, which is the only energy mineral overseen by the mining law, may be moved to a leasing system. Environmentalists have been concerned that mining on any one of 1,200 uranium mining claims along the Colorado River could pollute the water supply for Las Vegas and Southern California.

In other important respects, the Senate and House bills are the same. Both call for stricter environmental permitting of mines, better ways for lands to be set off-limits to mining, and more financial assurances that mining companies will clean up after themselves. The cost of cleaning up abandoned mines in the U.S. is now estimated to be at least $32 billion.

Will Reid support the bill? "I really don’t know," Smith says. "My sense was that Senator Bingaman's office took a long time vetting this with a lot of people. I don’t see this as an extreme bill by any means. So I think there’s a chance for the industry and environmentalists to come together."

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The Great Paper Heist

| Thu Apr. 2, 2009 3:16 PM EDT

Chris Hayes of the Nation has a nice scoop. Apparently, the paper industry has been bilking the federal government in a massive, massive way. Chris explains:

In 2005 Congress passed, and George W. Bush signed, the $244 billion transportation bill. It included a variety of tax credits for alternative fuels such as ethanol and biomass. But it also included a fifty-cent-a-gallon credit for the use of fuel mixtures that combined "alternative fuel" with a "taxable fuel" such as diesel or gasoline.

Enter the paper industry. Since the 1930s the overwhelming majority of paper mills have employed what's called the kraft process to produce paper. Here's how it works. Wood chips are cooked in a chemical solution to separate the cellulose fibers, which are used to make paper, from the other organic material in wood. The remaining liquid, a sludge containing lignin (the structural glue that binds plant cells together), is called black liquor. Because it's so rich in carbon, black liquor is a good fuel; the kraft process uses the black liquor to produce the heat and energy necessary to transform pulp into paper. It's a neat, efficient process that's cost-effective without any government subsidy....

By adding diesel fuel to the black liquor, paper companies produce a mixture that qualifies for the mixed-fuel tax credit, allowing them to burn "black liquor into gold," as a JPMorgan report put it....

Get that? Paper companies are adding an unnecessary and extremely harmful fossil fuel to their manufacturing processes in order to take advantage of a federal subsidy that was intended to help the environment. Hayes says the 10 largest paper companies will get as much as $8 billion this year from this little racket they are running. Hopefully, with enough attention to this story, the federal government can shut it down.

Photo by flickr user toastiest.

Web 2.0 Expo Gets Recessionified

| Thu Apr. 2, 2009 2:57 PM EDT

The theme of this week's Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco, Silicon Valley's annual geek family reunion qua idea show and tell, is "The Power of Less." Here in the Texas-sized Moscone conference center (hike toward the panel just over the hallway horizon!), recession is definitely the new green.

Many of this year's talks are grim soup lines doling out tips on how to hang on to a slippery website dollar among fickle, fickle users, or wring a few pennies out of Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media enterprise.

And forget the Wii-filled, bass-thumping blogger room and the eco-idealist exhibit swag of 2008. Nothing but coffee urns and industrious laptop-tappers here in the media room this year, people. Thank God.

One app I'm liking today: Gawkk, which bills itself as a 'Twitter for videos,' "where members discover, share, and discuss videos from around the web with their friends by answering the question: What are you watching?"

Coming Friday: etsy! Threadless! And more counter-intuitive hipster business models that seem to work better than AIG's.

The Catholic Church, AIDS, Condoms, and Specious Arguments

| Thu Apr. 2, 2009 2:08 PM EDT

In a post Ross Douthaut called The AIDS Libel, he employs some dubious rhetoric in defense of the church's insistence on abstinence, vice condoms, in the face of an African epidemic. First he demands proof that African Catholics have higher infection rates. OK, to save time, I'll give him that one. But not this one:

...consider that Benedict XVI is the head of an international institution that does as much to fight disease and poverty as any NGO in the world. The Church runs hospitals, clinics, and schools; it channels hundred of millions of dollars in donations from the developed world to the wretched of the earth; it supports thousands upon thousands of priests, nuns and laypeople who work in some of the most difficult and dangerous conditions in the world. And it does so based on the same premises—an attempt to be faithful to the commandments of Jesus Christ—that undergird the Pope's insistence on preaching chastity, rather than promoting prophylactics. There are many other NGOs working in Africa that proceed from different premises, and take a different attitude toward matters sexual as a result, and if David Rothkopf prefers their approach that's perfectly understandable. But unless he's willing to tell the Catholic Church that it should fold up its charitable operations in the developing world and go home, I'd prefer to be spared the lectures on how the Pope is responsible for "massive death and suffering" among populations for whom Catholic institutions have provided lifelines beyond counting over the years, just because he isn't willing to to use his pulpit to preach the importance of playing it as safe as possible, health-wise, while you're committing what the Church considers mortal sin.

Let's begin with this: Where does the church get the bazillions it dispenses as largesse around the world? From individuals and from the incredible wealth it's amassed over time based on its influence. It didn't earn that money; it was given that money. And that bankroll rightly belongs to the world and should be spent there.

When the Pope gives up his mansions and jewel encrusted hand towels, I'll be impressed with his munificence. The church has a duty to the world to do the good it does. That's why we give it money (tax exemption, anyone?). To make the world better.

Next: Because the Catholic Church conducts large scale charity, it cannot be criticized?

Is Homophobia Just Narcissism?

| Thu Apr. 2, 2009 1:46 PM EDT

Ta-Nehisi Coates thinks so:

Bigotry is the heaping of one man's insecurity on to another. Sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Islamism, anti-immigrantism, really all come from the same place--cowardice. In his history of lynching, Phillip Dray notes that mob violence against black men wasn't simply about keeping black men in their place--it was about keeping white women in their place. Lynching peaked as white women went to work outside the home in greater numbers, developing their own financial power base. White men, afraid that they couldn't compete with their women, would cowardly resort to lynching. I am not saying that the anti-gay marriage crowd is a lynch mob. But in tying opposition to the sexual revolution what you see is, beyond a fear of gay marriage, a fear for marriage itself. A fear that their way of life can't compete in these new times.  It's ridiculous, of course. But bigotry always is.

DuBois wrote about racism as "the psychological wages of whiteness". Black equality would cost white people, and, of course, it did. You can't kill or rape blacks with impunity anymore, you can't make them sit in the back of the bus or stop them from drinking from 'your' fountain.  So whites definitely lost things, both tangible and intangible, with the coming of equality.  Of course, whites never had a right to those things. That's why the racial hierarchy had to be established, with all the attendant bennies and burdens nicely justified (whites are smart and work harder, etc.)

So, I think Coates is on to something with this notion - heteros lose one of the few advantages left to those born on the lucky side of any hierarchy, in this case, the sexuality continuum.  Homophobes are manic about losing the right to have someone to openly look down on. To consider innately inferior. Which is convenient because their unworthiness then allows you to collect those psychological wages like straights only in the military, straights only in the classroom, straights only in public office (just imagine an openly gay Prez), straights only with the right to marry and all the bennies that come with it. Notice how quickly the psychological wages become all too tangible.

But this is an issue, like race, whose time has come. Enjoy the last few years left of discriminating against gays 'cuz them days is almost gone.

It's hard out there for a bigot. Homophobia is on a short list of acceptable bigotries. But it's fading fast.

Quote of the Day - 4.2.09

| Thu Apr. 2, 2009 1:43 PM EDT
From the Pew News IQ survey, on partisan differences in knowledge of current events:

Across the 12 knowledge items tested, the biggest gap between Democrats and Republicans comes over awareness of the current level of the Dow.

That's a shocker, isn't it?

In fairness, Pew reports that Republicans, men, old people, college graduates, and the upper middle class are more knowledgable in general than Democrats, women, young people, high school dropouts, and poor people.  So it's not just the Dow.  But lest you get too impressed with the overall scores on this multiple choice survey, Steve Benen points out that "the same Pew Research Center report found that 11% of Americans still think President Obama is a Muslim, which is practically unchanged since the presidential campaign. About one-fifth of all white evangelical Protestants continue to buy into this obvious falsehood."

Take the test here if you dare.  I expect all my readers to score 100%.

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Is Having Children Stupid?

| Thu Apr. 2, 2009 12:31 PM EDT

Yes. It absolutely is. But I did it anyway. Twice.

OpenSalon ran a thought provoking piece the other day: Does Having Children Ruin Your Life?

Well, we know it ruins the planet, but between now and Armageddon, why have them at all? A childless 31-year-old wonders, seemingly sincerely, why people do it, meaning: Why should she? She doesn't really want to but knows her bio clock is ticking. With her egg timer running out, she muses:

The parents I know seem, as a general rule, to be less happy than the non-parents. They are more stressed out, more exhausted, more worried, less fun, less funny, and much more interested in their personal/familial lives than the outside world—at least compared to those without children. Now of course, this is all perfectly natural. Raising a child (or more than one) takes a huge amount of physical and emotional energy. Anything that sucks up your physical and emotional energy will lead to the previously enumerated list of characteristics. So I understand. But my question is, why do people become parents when parenthood seems so awful?

Why do we have kids? We no longer need them to help around the farm. We no longer expect them to go off to the work in the big city and send home money, nor can we expect them to care for us in our old age. Hell, we can't even expect to stay married to their other parent, in which case everyone involved thoroughly suffers. They're cute and adorable, but so are our nieces, nephews, students, and the babies we can volunteer to cuddle down at County General. We all know the havoc they're going to wreak in our lives, and we still move heaven and earth to have them (see octo-mom, or the material mom, Madonna).

I was always ambivalent about having kids. Growing up where I did, it was quite obvious to me that children were the supremo recipe for ensuring a miserable life for myself, at least until they were grown. My motto was: I can be one kind of happy with kids and another kind without them. But my ex wanted kids and it took me all of a minute to cast off 40 years of 'no kids, no way'. There was no rationality, no weighing of the pros and cons involved, and they make my life extremely difficult. Miserable, sometimes.

Yet, I'm glad I had them and I can't wait to see who they grow up to be. Hard work as they are, it's still like living with unicorns—unutterably beautiful creatures who nonetheless destroy the carpets, gore the walls with those horns, and embarrass me in public with their lost bowel control.

But I think I'd just be a different kind of happy without them.

So, to that author, don't do it if you don't want to. Either way, it's up to you how your life turns out.

Or, just be French about it. Check out French Vogue's take on motherhood. Talk about ambivalence.

You Know The GOP Has Lost It When David Horowitz Has To Admit It

| Thu Apr. 2, 2009 12:24 PM EDT

In a Salon piece titled "Get Over Your Obama Derangement Syndrome" Horowitz cautions:

I have been watching an interesting phenomenon on the right, which is beginning to cause me concern. I am referring to the over-the-top hysteria in response to the first months in office of our new president, which distinctly reminds me of the "Bush is Hitler" crowd on the left.
Speaking of this crowd, have you seen any "I am so sorry" postings from that quarter as Obama continues and even escalates the former president's war policy in Afghanistan and attempts to consolidate his military occupation of Iraq?
Conservatives, please. Let's not duplicate the manias of the left as we figure out how to deal with Mr. Obama. He is not exactly the antichrist, although a disturbing number of people on the right are convinced he is.

Ok, acknowledging that Obama isn't "exactly" Satan is mild praise, but still. If Horowitz thinks his homies have lost it, maybe there's hope for the right. Because so far, they hate losing more than they love America.

G-20 Review

| Thu Apr. 2, 2009 12:22 PM EDT
The draft G-20 communiqué is here.  The final communiqué is here.  Looking solely at the section on financial regulation, it's hard to see too many huge differences.  Regulation of hedge funds, which Obama was said to be resisting, is still there.  However, Obama was also said to be opposed to a greater role for international regulatory bodies, and he appears to have won that round.  The draft section that called for regulators "to supervise cross-border institutions and to complete the establishment of colleges of supervisors for all significant cross-border financial firms" is gone.

What else?  The section on tax havens got beefed up rhetorically with a single sentence: "The era of banking secrecy is over."  That's nice.

I haven't looked at the rest in any detail, but it includes about a trillion dollars in loan pledges and IMF support, but no specific targets for domestic stimulus.  That number could have been higher, and probably should have been higher, but reality being what it is, that's not bad.

And the big losers in all this?  Protesters.  The street wars were a big deal in Seattle, guys, but with every passing year your schtick just looks more and more pro forma.  Time to give it a rest.

Blood Sport

| Thu Apr. 2, 2009 11:17 AM EDT
Dahlia Lithwick writes in Slate about the insane smear campaign being waged by the wingnut right against Harold Koh, Obama's nominee for legal adviser to the State Department:

Every one of the anti-Koh rants dutifully repeats a canard that first appeared in a hatchet piece in the New York Post by former Bush administration speechwriter Meghan Clyne. She asserts that Koh believes "Sharia law could apply to disputes in US courts." The evidence for her claim? "A New York lawyer, Steven Stein, says that, in addressing the Yale Club of Greenwich in 2007, Koh claimed that 'in an appropriate case, he didn't see any reason why Sharia law would not be applied to govern a case in the United States.' "

....But, of course, Koh believes nothing of the sort. And the only real revelation here is that truth can't be measured in Google hit counts or partisan hysteria.

....Clyne's gross distortions of Koh's views have gone completely unanswered in the mainstream press. You can certainly argue that ignoring the whole story signals that it's beneath notice....[But] when moderate Americans and the mainstream media allow a handful of right-wing zealots to occupy the field in the public discussions of an Obama nominee, they become complicit in a character assassination.

The right-wing nutcase machine really does seem to have picked up from its Clinton-era follies without missing a beat.  But although Lithwick right about the moral dimensions of this kind of smear campaign, there's also a practical aspect: it's yet another part of the increasingly dismal Senate kabuki show that makes it harder and harder to fill high-level administration positions. It's one thing to go through this kind of harangue to become Secretary of State, but it's quite another to go through it to become merely a high-level aide, and as this stuff gets more and more rabid, fewer and fewer people are willing to put up with it.

So let's knock it off.  We can't stop the wingnuts, but we can take the wind out of their sails by taking away their platform.  After all, is there really any reason why the Senate needs to confirm the legal advisor to the State Deparment in the first place?  No?  I didn't think so.