2009 - %3, September

EPA Announces Toxics Reform

| Wed Sep. 30, 2009 12:48 PM EDT

Last night the ballroom of San Francisco's historic Fairmont Hotel was packed with excited 40-somethings. Environmentalists like Sierra Club head Carl Pope (wearing a florescent yellow baseball cap) and representatives from organizations like Earthjustice and NRDC hobnobbed noisily. The buzz was so loud, it could have been made by 15-year-olds waiting to see Miley Cyrus. Instead, it was EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson who showed, and gained two standing ovations for her speech.

During Jackson's speech, co-sponsored by the Commonwealth Club and PG&E, she revealed that the nation's 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) would be overhauled. Jackson, whose academic background is in chemical engineering, said that the program is still mired in using old science, and its enforcement tools are "cumbersome." As outlined by Jackson, the TSCA reform would reset scientific reporting standards, put the burden of proving safety on manufacturers instead of on the government, give the EPA more enforcement authority, and fund green chemistry R&D. In particular, Jackson mentioned the endocrine disruptor bisphenol-A (found in baby bottles), phthalate esters, and lead as targets of increased enforcement.

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How Crazy Are We?

| Wed Sep. 30, 2009 12:47 PM EDT

Do baseball players make a greater number of spectacular plays than they did 30 years ago?  Of course not.  It just seems like it because ESPN packages them all up for us every evening on SportsCenter.  These days, we get to see every spectacular play, not just the ones in the games we happen to watch.

David Post calls this the ESPN Effect and wonders if it applies to politics:

All I hear from my left-leaning friends these days is how crazy people on the right are becoming, and all all I hear from my right-leaning friends is how crazy people on the left are becoming, and everyone, on both sides, seems very eager to provide evidence of the utter lunacy of those on the other side.  “Look how crazy they’re becoming over there, on the other side!” is becoming something of a dominant trope, on left and right.  It is true that we’re seeing more crazy people doing crazy things on the other side (whichever side that may be, for you) coming across our eyeballs these days.   But that’s all filtered reality; it bears no more relationship to reality than the Sportscenter highlights bear to the game of baseball.

My very, very strong suspicion is that there has never been a time when there weren’t truly crazy people on all sides of the political spectrum doing their truly crazy things. Maybe 1% or so, or even 0.1% — which is a very large number, when you’re talking about a population of, say, 100 million.  They didn’t get through the filters much in the Old Days, but they do now.  All this talk about how extreme “the debate” is becoming — how, exactly, does anyone get a bead on what “the debate” really is?  In reality?

Is he right?  Are Fox News and Twitter and the blogosphere and talk radio the collective SportsCenter of politics?  Or are people really crazier than they used to be?

Or is it even worse than that?  SportsCenter mostly just records what happens.  (It might also play an active role in producing more spectacular plays because players are eager to make the night's highlight reel, but that's a small effect.)  But in politics it's worse.  Not only might people act crazier in order to get on the news, but seeing all those crazy people might drive the rest of us crazier too.  So maybe at first this was just the ESPN Effect, but over time it became a vicious circle and now there really are more crazy people around.  I sure feel crazier these days.  How about you?

USGS Weighs In on Samoa, Indonesia Earthquakes

| Wed Sep. 30, 2009 12:37 PM EDT

More than 100 people are thought dead in the Samoan Islands after yesterday's tsunami, and another 75 are already believed to have perished in Indonesia, where thousands are still trapped after a 7.6 quake this morning.  Why was one island devastated by the quake but spared the wave while the other survived the shaking only to watch entire villages swept out to sea? We called the geo-nerds at the United States Geological Survey's Earthquake Information Center to find out.  

According to USGS geophysicist John Bellini, both quakes occurred along the Australian plate, one of the most geologically active areas in the world. At 8.0 and 7.6 respectively, both where huge—though only a fraction of the size of the 9.2 earthquake that caused the 2004 tsunami. The Samoan quake occurred when a piece of the Pacific plate was forced beneath the Australian plate, an event that has enormous tsunami potential.  

"That displaces a lot of water," Bellini explained. "Plus, it was very shallow."  

The Indonesian earthquake was nearly three times as deep, caused when the Australian plate and the Sunda plate nudged past each other at a whopping 65 millimeters per year. Not close enough to cause a tsunami, but strong enough to level much of Padang, a city of 900,000 in West Sumatra. 

"The shaking would cause buildings to collapse," Bellini said. "A cinder block building would just be flat."

The South Pacific is the beating heart of the infamous "Ring of Fire", the veined circle of plate boundaries that define the planet's most seismicly active zones. There, major earthquakes are a fact of life. 

"We record big earthquakes there every day," Bellini said.  

The Real Public Option: Congress' Private Medical Clinic

| Wed Sep. 30, 2009 12:13 PM EDT

You can't say this enough: While members of Congress are busy protecting us from the inefficiency and danger of government-run health care, they're receiving top-notch taxpayer funded health care—seemingly without complaint. The LA Times recently detailed the benefits: A choice of 10 insurance plans and access to a wide network of doctors and HMOs. Plus, they "get special treatment at Washington's federal medical facilities and, for a few hundred dollars a month, access to their own pharmacy and doctors, nurses and medical technicians standing by in an office conveniently located between the House and Senate chambers." ABC News has more on that in-house clinic for lawmakers, officially known as the Office of the Attending Physician:

Services offered by the Office of the Attending Physician include physicals and routine examinations, on-site X-rays and lab work, physical therapy and referrals to medical specialists from military hospitals and private medical practices. According to congressional budget records, the office is staffed by at least four Navy doctors as well as at least a dozen medical and X-ray technicians, nurses and a pharmacist.

Sources said when specialists are needed, they are brought to the Capitol, often at no charge to members of Congress.

Explains a former doc from the Congressional clinic, patients who can't get treated on-site get referals to top specialists all over the country. "You would go to the best care in the country. And, for the most part, nobody asked what your insurance was." And the cost? $503. A year.

Not Out of the Woods Yet

| Wed Sep. 30, 2009 11:51 AM EDT

Housing prices were up slightly in July, but there's also this:

The number of homes lost to foreclosures rose about 17 percent in the second quarter of this year despite the launch of an extensive government program aimed at helping borrowers save their home, according to government data released Wednesday.

....The report also reflected the risks still posed by hundreds of thousands of risky home loans known as option adjustable-rate mortgages, which reset to significantly higher payments. With these "option ARMs," also known as pick-a-pay loans, a borrower chooses how much to pay each month, often less than the interest due. But the payments on these mortgages eventually rise significantly, putting the borrower at risk of losing the home.

So: rising foreclosures, another wave of ARM resets, the summer home buying season is over, and the $8,000 federal tax credit for first-time home buyers is about to expire.  Buckle your seatbelts.

Nike Resigns from Chamber Board

| Wed Sep. 30, 2009 10:05 AM EDT

Yet another blow to the US Chamber of Commerce today, as Nike announced that it is resigning from the board of directors because of the group's views on climate change policy. The Chamber was already in a tailspin this week, attempting to reclassify their position on climate policy following the departure of three major utilities.

"Nike believes US businesses must advocate for aggressive climate change legislation and that the United States needs to move rapidly into a sustainable economy to remain competitive and ensure continued economic growth," Nike said in a statement. "As we've stated, we fundamentally disagree with the US Chamber of Commerce on the issue of climate change and their recent action challenging the EPA is inconsistent with our view that climate change is an issue in need of urgent action."

Nike said in their statement that they will maintain membership in the Chamber in order "to advocate for climate change legislation inside the committee structure" and because they believe they "can better influence policy by being part of the conversation." They will, however, "continue to evaluate" their membership moving forward. Here's more from their  statement:

It is important that US companies be represented by a strong and effective Chamber that reflects the interests of all its members on multiple issues. We believe that on the issue of climate change the Chamber has not represented the diversity of perspective held by the board of directors.

The country's largest electric utility, Exelon, announced on Monday that they are leaving the group, following the recent departures of California utility PG&E and New Mexico utility PNM.

Nike is also a member of a business coalition advocating for comprehensive climate change legislation—Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy, or BICEP for short.

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Deep Waters in Deep Trouble

| Wed Sep. 30, 2009 9:55 AM EDT

America's waters are in deep trouble. The destructive practice of bottom trawling, which involves dragging nets attached to rubber wheels mow down all plant and animal life in the way, is growing in popularity, and over-fishing is endangering marine predators. The giant garbage patch of the Pacific is growing, and the oceans continue to absorb acidifying carbon dioxide that stunts the growth of coral and shells.

Up until now, such issues have always been addressed in isolation, if at all, and often by separate government agencies— regulate a little fishing here, designate a reef preserve there.  But with the onset of climate change, many of these problems are not only increasing but also becoming more and more intertwined. This June, President Obama created the Ocean Policy Task Force to devise a long-term, coordinated plan for managing America's oceans, coasts, and great lakes, as well as their resources.

The taskforce brings together 24 experts from environmental organizations and government entities, from the NRDC to the US Navy. Its goals include helping coastal communities adapt to climate change and ocean acidification and better managing the diverse ecosystems of the oceans and Great Lakes.

Ken Stump, Policy Director at the Marine Fish Conservation Network and a Task Force member, is pleased with the much-needed attention that the president has given to ocean policy. But he warns that Congress could still be a stumbling block to enacting any legislation. "The repeated attempts to legislate the [marine] reforms have not made it out of the House Natural Resources Committee," said Stump. "In both major parties there is a strong emphasis on economic production from the oceans, along with a lot of lip service about sustainable use of resources."

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 30, 2009

Wed Sep. 30, 2009 8:04 AM EDT

A Marine with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit spends his final moments with his family before deploying on the USS Bonhommen Richard Sept. 24. Service members with the 11th MEU had the opportunity to bring their families and loved ones on board the amphibious assault ship before it left San Diego Bay. (US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Jeffrey Belovarac.)

Need To Read: September 30, 2009

Wed Sep. 30, 2009 7:30 AM EDT

Today's must-reads are America's next top pundit:

Follow me on twitter! David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, also tweets, as does awesome new MoJo blogger Kate Sheppard. So do my colleagues Daniel Schulman and Rachel Morris and our editors-in-chief, Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein. Follow them, too! (The magazine's main account is @motherjones.)

How Not to Deal With a Recession

| Tue Sep. 29, 2009 7:22 PM EDT

Via John Judis, who has more about this, here's a story I missed a couple of weeks ago from the Boston Globe:

When the housekeepers at the three Hyatt hotels in the Boston area were asked to train some new workers, they said they were told the trainees would be filling in during vacations.

On Aug. 31, staffers learned the full story: None of them would be making the beds and cleaning the showers any longer. All of them were losing their jobs. The trainees, it turns out, were employees of a Georgia company, Hospitality Staffing Solutions, who were replacing them that day...."It’s unbelievable," said Lucine Williams, 41, who has worked at the Hyatt Regency Boston for nearly 22 years and was making $15.32 an hour plus health, dental, and 401(k) benefits when she lost her job. "I don't know how they can treat people like that."

The outsourced workers make $8 per hour with no benefits.  Nice work, Hyatt.  I think I'll be staying elsewhere in the future.  Now please excuse me while I go throw up.