2009 - %3, September

Free Torture Trading Cards!

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

It was only a matter of time. Remember those Operation Enduring Freedom trading cards that Topps put out in 2001? And who could forget those Iraq's Most Wanted trading cards released by the Pentagon back in the halcyon days of 2003. There's a card for everything nowadays. During the Clinton years, I even wrote a little piece for Mother Jones on colorful infectious disease trading cards the CDC was handing out to children—ebola, plague, meningitis and all of that fun stuff. (Sorry, it's not online.) So it comes as little surprise that the Center for Constitutional Rights has come up with its own Torture Team collectibles.

You can order up hard copies of the Torture Team cards—10 for free; all 20 for $5—but if you're just browsing, CCR has created a neat Flash widget to display them online. Check out George W. and Condi, along with Cheney and his evil sidekick David "the Shadow" Addington, arguably the most ruthless driver of Bush-era torture policies and, according to a media quote on the card, "the most powerful man you've never heard of." Don't forget White House legal pariahs like John Yoo and Jay Bybee. Or the brass—former Pentagon top dogs like Don Rumsfeld, Guantanamo CO Geoffrey Miller (who helped involve doctors in torture) and the Iraq-bungling Douglas Feith. You can click to flip the cards and reveal each player's basic stats, along with fun tidbits and quotes in their own words. (Feith: "Removal of clothing doesn't mean naked.")

Best of all, if you want to add your two cents, the site lets you sign up as part of "Team Justice" and create your own card, complete with your photo and whatever you care to say about the patriotic activities of the Torture Team. The mind reels with the possibilities. Somehow, though, I don't think Topps is gonna greelight this one. It doesn't package well enough with bubble gum.

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A Stealth Troop Increase

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 12:37 AM EDT

Julian Barnes reports in the LA Times that the Army is planning a stealth increase in troop strength in Afghanistan:

U.S. officials are planning to add as many as 14,000 combat troops to the American force in Afghanistan by sending home support units and replacing them with "trigger-pullers," defense officials say.

The move would beef up the combat force in the country without increasing the overall number of U.S. troops — a contentious issue as public support for the war slips. But many of the noncombat jobs are likely be filled by private contractors, who have proven a source of controversy in Iraq and a growing issue in Afghanistan.

....The changes will not offset the potential need for additional troops in the future, but could reduce the size of any request from Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and allied commander, officials said....Such a request could be submitted in coming weeks.

McChrystal is definitely showing off that "political savvy" his bosses have been looking for.  Still, an increase in combat troops is an increase in combat troops.  It doesn't really matter how you get there.  Just keep this in mind and add it to the total when McChrystal finally unveils his official request a few weeks from now.

Workers are Getting Screwed, Part MDCCXII

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 12:05 AM EDT

In a new study, 68% of the workers who were interviewed had experienced at least one pay-related violation in the previous work week.  You heard that right.  In the previous week alone:

In surveying 4,387 workers in various low-wage industries, including apparel manufacturing, child care and discount retailing, the researchers found that the typical worker had lost $51 the previous week through wage violations, out of average weekly earnings of $339. That translates into a 15 percent loss in pay.

The researchers said one of the most surprising findings was how successful low-wage employers were in pressuring workers not to file for workers’ compensation. Only 8 percent of those who suffered serious injuries on the job filed for compensation to pay for medical care and missed days at work stemming from those injuries.

“The conventional wisdom has been that to the extent there were violations, it was confined to a few rogue employers or to especially disadvantaged workers, like undocumented immigrants,” said Nik Theodore, an author of the study and a professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois, Chicago. “What our study shows is that this is a widespread phenomenon across the low-wage labor market in the United States.”

They were surprised by this?  Seriously?  Sure, I suppose 68% is higher than I would have guessed, but I sure wouldn't have guessed that this kind of thing was confined to a "few rogue employers" either.  How many reports of mistreatment do we have to get before we finally figure out that labor violations are rampant in this country?

McDonnell's Crazy Thesis

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 8:11 PM EDT

Bob McDonnell, Virginia's GOP gubernatorial candidate, is under fire for a college thesis he wrote two decades ago. In it, he bashes "cohabitators, homosexuals and fornicators" and claims working women are "detrimental" to the family.

Since The Washington Post first revealed the thesis Sunday, McDonnell has vehemently claimed his positions have changed, while his opponent has racked up an additional 300 donors.

The treatise is the latest erstwhile paper to come back to haunt a public figure. When Michelle Obama's Princeton thesis about race was unearthed during the presidential campaign, more than 20 years after she originally penned it, conservatives claimed it proved she hated whites. More recently, Sarah Palin accused Ezekial Emanuel of being a "death panel"-advocate based on a paper he wrote about health care 13 years ago.

But while both these cases involved word-twisting by adversaries, McDonnell's controversial views are much more explicit. It's hard to claim you're being misrepresented when you write "[W]hen the exercise of liberty takes the shape of pornography, drug abuse, or homosexuality, the government must restrain, punish, and deter," or claim public schools should teach "traditional Judeo-Christian values." (To read the whole thesis—which includes many other choice nuggets—click here.)

It's not out of the question that McDonnell's views have shifted, considering how long ago his thesis was written. But proving that's the case is going to be an extremely uphill battle.

Cute Animal in Danger: Giant Panda

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 7:13 PM EDT

With their distinctive coloring and large size, Giant Pandas have long been a favorite of zoo-goers. The giant furballs look as if they'd like nothing better than to chew some bamboo and watch a re-run of Mad Men with you on the couch. Maybe order a pizza, vegetarian-style. But contrary to their adorable appearance, giant pandas are actually quite ornery according to many keepers' accounts. One Beijing Zoo panda named Gu Gu has attacked three visitors, one of which entered his cage specifically to hug him. In his most recent attack, the 240-lb Gu Gu "clamped down on the intruder's leg and refused to let go... Zookeepers had to use tools to pry open the animal's jaws."

Fortunately for China, which rents out panda bears to various zoos for approximately $1 million a year, Americans and people around the world still love the panda. With their big dark eyes and baby-like body shape, pandas are easily anthromorphized and seem to breed well in captivity. In fact, 25 were born near Sichuan since the May 12 earthquake there.

The 25/25 Rule

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 6:49 PM EDT

Virginia Republican Bob McDonnell is in trouble.  He's running for governor, and a couple of weeks ago he happened to mention to a pair of Washington Post reporters that he had written his master's thesis at Regent University on "welfare policy."  So they went to the Regent library and took a look.  It turns out that "welfare policy" was a pretty bloodless way of describing it:

He described working women and feminists as "detrimental" to the family. He said government policy should favor married couples over "cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators." He described as "illogical" a 1972 Supreme Court decision legalizing the use of contraception by unmarried couples.

Oops.  He's supposed to be a moderate conservative, you see. Michelle Cottle comments:

I find myself torn in this fight. In general, I find the obsession with politicians' student writings excessive. Most of these papers spring from the  brains of people in their early- to mid-20s who have spent the past several years in the self-indulgent cocoon of academia.

....That said, Republicans are hardly in a position to gripe about this tendency. Anyone recall the frenzy the Right whipped itself into over Hillary's thesis on Saul Alinksy or Michelle O's thesis on black Princeton grads? The former ostensibly proved Hillary to be a socialist and the latter revealed Michelle to be a militant whitey-hating bigot. Ah, good times.

So we're to judge Democrats by their academic ramblings but not Republicans? I think not.

I have a solution to this problem that I call the 25/25 rule: it doesn't count if you did it more than 25 years ago or before your 25th birthday.  Obviously there are exceptions to this.  A major scandal (Watergate, say) or career accomplishment (passing a bill) should stay with you more or less forever.  Likewise, if you can show a consistent pattern of behavior, then the entire historical track record is fair game.

But for modest, one-off stuff like this, I think 25/25 works pretty well.  Sadly for McDonnell, he doesn't qualify on either count: he wrote his thesis 20 years ago, when he was 34 years old.  So there's no need to be torn: McDonnell was no utopian teenager scribbling out plans to save the world in the pot-ridden 60s.  He was a grown man writing during the first George Bush administration.  That doesn't mean his thesis should disqualify him from office or anything, but it does mean that it's fair for his opponents to bring it up in their campaigns.  It's up to McDonnell to convince us that he doesn't believe this stuff anymore.

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Is Peak Oil a Waste of Energy?

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 6:32 PM EDT

That's the thesis of Michael Lynch, a former MIT energy expert turned consultant, in a lengthy New York Times op-ed published last week. "Like many Malthusian beliefs," he writes, "peak oil theory has been promoted by motivated groups of scientists and laymen who base their conclusions on poor analyses of data and misinterpretations of technical material." Lynch concludes that oil will come down to $30 a barrel as new supplies come online in the deep waters off Africa and Latin America, in East Africa, and "perhaps the Bakken oil shale fields of Montana and North Dakota."

Setting aside the pitfalls of oil shale, it's probably worth noting that Lynch is not your average oil supply forecaster. He's a frequent guest on talk shows who is famed for attacking Peak Oil with the same zeal that proponents defend it. Lynch is one of many disparate voices quoted in a 2005 Times piece, "On Oil Supply, Opinions Aren't Scarce."  And way back in 1998, he wrote "Crying Wolf: Warnings About Oil Supply," where he made some of the same points as he did last week.

It's worth noting that 1998 marked the birth of the modern Peak Oil movement with the publication, that same month, of "The End of Cheap Oil," a Scientific American piece by Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrere, two oil industry veterans every bit as qualified as Lynch. Campbell was Amoco's former chief geologist for Ecuador, who spent a decade studying global oil production trends.  Laherrere supervised production techniques worldwide for Total. All of this is to say that the Peak Oil theory is not just a bunch of blog chatter, as Lynch would have us believe.

Still, sometimes those bloggers manage to shed some light on this arcane debate, as Kevin Rietmann, aka The Dude, did on the Oil Drum, the main online gathering place for the peak oilers, last Thursday. Rietmann broke down a graph comparing the accuracy 2008 oil supply predictions made by Campbell and Lynch in the mid-90s (see below). The result? Campbell underestimated 2008 production, which was just shy of 74 million barrels per day, by 4.79 million barrels per day. But Lynch was even further off, overestimating production by more than 12 million barrels per day.

Of course, as your stockbroker will tell you, past performance is no guarantee of future profit. Wars, hurricanes, and botched geological assumptions can quickly throw off forecasts, or not. That's why the safest approach is often to consider a wide range of projections from multiple experts. And when you do that with the global supply of conventional oil, one thing is clear: we are running out fast.

Wildfires and Climate Change

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 5:37 PM EDT

At last year's Netroots Nation I ran into CAP's Brad Johnson one day, and he told me that one of the consequences of global warming was increased wildfire activity in California.  I wasn't sure I really believed that, so he promised to send me some stuff to read.

Well, he did, and I read it, and he was right.  I blogged on that shortly afterward, and with fire season on us once more it's worth writing about again.  Roughly speaking, it turns out that land use issues are probably responsible for about half of the increase in western wildfire activity over the past few decades and climate change is responsible for the other half.  The mechanism is pretty straightforward: higher temperatures lead to both reduced snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas and an earlier melt, which in turn produces a longer and drier fire season.  Result: more and bigger fires.  Plus there's this, from CAP's Tom Kenworthy:

In recent years, a widespread and so far unchecked epidemic of mountain pine beetles that has killed millions of acres of trees from Colorado north into Canada has laid the foundation for a potentially large increase in catastrophic fires. Climate change has played a role in that outbreak, too, as warmer winters spare the beetles from low temperatures that would normally kill them off, and drought stresses trees.

In the western United States, mountain pine beetles have killed some 6.5 million acres of forest, according to the Associated Press. As large as that path of destruction is, it’s dwarfed by the 35 million acres killed in British Columbia, which has experienced a rash of forest fires this summer that as of early this month had burned more than 155,000 acres. In the United States to date about 5.2 million acres — an area larger than Massachusetts  —have burned this year.

Destruction of trees by the mountain pine beetle, combined with climate change and fire, makes for a dangerous feedback loop. Dead forests sequester less carbon dioxide. Burning forests release lots of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. More carbon dioxide adds to climate change, which raises temperatures, stresses forests, and makes more and bigger fires more likely.

It’s a frightening prospect, as British Columbia’s Forests Minister Pat Bell told an International Energy Agency conference last week. “I am not a doomsayer,” said Bell. “I am not one who wants to say we are beyond the tipping point. But I am afraid that we are getting close to that.”

Today, 100,000-acre conflagrations that take two weeks to contain and kill three or four firefighters along the way are perfectly normal here in Southern California.  They weren't when I was a kid. This is partly due to global warming, and it's something that's happening now — not in 2050 or 2075 or 2100.  And it's only going to get worse if we don't do something about it.

State Department Responds to ArmorGroup Allegations

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 5:08 PM EDT

When State Department spokesman Ian Kelly woke up this morning, he may have been anticipating some tough queries from reporters. But he probably wasn't expecting to field questions about US embassy guards in Kabul engaging in what the Project on Government Oversight has described as "deviant hazing and humiliation," acts that allegedly included "peeing on people, eating potato chips out of ass cracks, vodka shots out of ass cracks."

"These are very serious allegations and we are treating them that way," Kelly told reporters at a briefing this afternoon, after POGO sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton detailing a host of charges relating to ArmorGroup's $189 million contract to provide security for the US embassy in Kabul. Kelly said Clinton had been informed of the allegations and noted that the matter had been referred to the State Department's Inspector General. Kelly added that the State Department has "zero tolerance for the type of conduct that is alleged in these documents."

A Big Gulp of Human Fat

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 5:04 PM EDT

We all know New York City takes a hard line against the fast food industry and its role in the obesity epidemic. Last year, the city mandated that chain eateries with more than 10 outlets in NYC would be required to display calorie information next to the price of every item, a move that other cities have been copying like the answers to a pop quiz. With one victory under its belt, the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has set its sights on a new opponent: soft drinks.

On Monday, the city debuted a truly repulsive-looking $367,000 ad campaign depicting a bottle of cola being poured into a glass of human fat. Sound disgusting? Then don't click here.