2009 - %3, November

Fertile Opposition to Pesticide-Pushing Ag Nominee

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 11:56 AM PST

Since Obama tapped Islam "Isi" Siddiqui, an executive for the pesticide lobby, to serve as the chief agriculture negotiator in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, discontent with the pick has grown so quickly you'd think it had been genetically modified. On Friday, statements from 90,000 citizens and 80 advocacy groups were delivered to Capitol Hill protesting Siddiqui's nomination. 

The Finance Committee was expected to move his nomination forward on Friday, but pushed its business meeting back until sometime after the holiday. Opponents want to make that delay a permanent one. Siddiqui's critics say he is too close to agri-business interests to perform the job adequately. Since 2001, Siddiqui worked at the agribusiness trade group CropLife America, first as lobbyist and later as vice president of science and regulatory affairs.

Last week, Pesticide Action Network North America delivered a petition to the White House signed by 77,000 people calling for Obama to remove Siddiqui’s name from consideration. Another 14,000 people have emailed their senators about the nomination, and 80 organizations—including sustainable agriculture, farmworker, environmental, trade, and anti-hunger advocacy groups— sent a letter to the Senate Finance Committee urging it to reject him. 

"All eyes are on the U.S. to demonstrate international leadership in this arena by withdrawing support for the current industrial model of agriculture, which imperils both people and the planet by undermining food security and worsening climate change," reads the online petition.

The petition also asks Obama to "reconsider" his appointment of Roger Beachy to serve as director of the new National Institute of Food and Agriculture within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Beachy was the long-time president of the Danforth Plant Science Center, the nonprofit arm of Monsanto, and his selection also angered sustainable agriculture groups who were hoping that this new USDA office would embrace alternatives to industrial agriculture. But his position did not require Senate confirmation, and at this point it's unlikely that it would be rescinded.

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Cute Endangered Animal: Mouse Lemur

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 11:45 AM PST

These little "darlings" (as Stephen Fry has called them) are tiny and cute enough that even their big-screen versions, like Mort in Madagascar, aren't quite as endearing as the real thing. Predictably, mouse lemurs were bred on the highly biodiverse island of Madagascar, home to some of the world's weirdest, coolest, adorable-ist, and endangered-ist animals. Seventy percent of the animals on Madagascar are found no where else on Earth. The country has dozens of species of lemurs, many of which are endangered due to specialized or restricted habitat on the Texas-sized island of Madagasacar, and the ususal factors: poaching, export as exotic pets, and habitat destruction by logging, agriculture expansion, or human developments. For the mouse lemur specifically, the biggest threats are slash-and-burn agriculture, and predation by carnivores (native and invasive).

The golden-brown mouse lemur, pictured above, is about 10" long (including tail) and weighs about 1.5 oz. The golden-brown lives only in a nature preserve in northwestern Madagascar and unlike other lemurs, it prefers leaping rather than walking to get around tree canopy. Golden-browns live in groups, though there is no alpha and females are not arranged in the harem system like some primates. Instead, scientists say, these tiny primates prefer a "multifemale" arrangement that results in a "promiscuous mating pattern." Meaning, these lemurs mate with whomever, and whenever, they feel like it. Group members communicate with one another through olfactory signals, as well as high-pitched vocalizations called "trills" or "chirps."

Reining in Wall Street

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 11:43 AM PST

I am — how to put this delicately? — skeptical of Congress's ability to stand up to the world-spanning tentacles of the finance lobby and actually enact serious banking reform.  Thanks to the lobby, the simplest, most robust ways of reforming Wall Street were never even on the table in the first place, and the reform bills now grinding their way through Congress are already complex enough that most bankers will have little trouble eventually figuring out a way to worm their way around them.

But Noam Scheiber reports today that maybe the lobby is about to lose a battle.  Barney Frank's draft legislation to force all derivatives to be traded on a public exchange originally included an exemption for "end users" — that is, ordinary corporations that simply want to hedge the price of oil or pork bellies or whatnot:

But independent experts who studied the measure came to a different conclusion: that it could exempt between 60 and 80 percent of the standardized market because of its vague wording, including many firms who were speculating rather than simply hedging risk....Which, as it happens, was precisely the idea. Though the end users arguably had a legitimate gripe, the banks had long viewed them as a means to deflect additional regulation. “The original plan on derivatives was basically pushed by the industry,” says one bank lobbyist. “What they wanted was, ‘Hey, let’s get the dopey end users to go out and be the face of reform. We don’t have the credibility.'” This lobbyist says the banks helped organize a group called the Coalition for Derivatives End Users, which weighed in with Congress in favor of a robust end-user exemption.

....But a funny thing happened on the way to securing the loophole: A confederation of consumer and investor groups, labor unions, environmental activists and a progressive organization called Americans for Financial Reform (AFR) started raising hackles of their own. In several meetings with Frank, these groups stressed that the exemption was too porous, and that it wasn’t just an obscure, technical issue of interest only to banks, regulators, and lobbyists.

....By early this month, the pressure from [CFTC chairman Chairman Gary Gensler] and the progressive groups had the desired effect. Though Frank believed their concerns were somewhat overblown, he pronounced himself open to tightening the language to make sure the bill didn’t give speculators a pass. “Barney likes to say redundancy is your friend,” says one financial services committee staffer. “If people have concerns, we’ll tighten up the language...hedging done by corporations is what we’re looking to protect.”

To be honest, this seems like only the tiniest ray of sunshine to me.  The derivatives legislation is important, but it's never really struck me as the core of financial reform, and the end-user loophole was so obvious that it's frankly hard to believe it was there in the first place.  Getting rid of it just means that the financial lobby failed in a longshot effort, not that it failed on any point of truly central concern.

Anyway, we still haven't seen the revised wording from Frank's committee, we still haven't voted on the bill, we still haven't seen the Senate version of the bill, and we still haven't seen the conference report.  There's plenty of time for even this minor victory to get sanded down to nothing.  I remain pessimistic on the ability of Congress to rein in the financial community in any serious way.  They just don't have the power.

Are You Pro-Choice?

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 10:44 AM PST

Perhaps, like me, you've heard that sometimes too much choice is bad.  Consumers get paralyzed by the array of products on offer and just can't make up their minds, so they simply choose to buy nothing.  This effect has been demonstrated in experiments several times, but  via Tyler Cowen, Tim Harford writes that these experiments may not have been as robust as we thought:

Benjamin Scheibehenne, a psychologist at the University of Basel, was thinking along these lines when he decided (with Peter Todd and, later, Rainer Greifeneder) to design a range of experiments to figure out when choice demotivates, and when it does not.

But a curious thing happened almost immediately. They began by trying to replicate some classic experiments — such as the jam study, and a similar one with luxury chocolates. They couldn’t find any sign of the “choice is bad” effect. Neither the original Lepper-Iyengar experiments nor the new study appears to be at fault: the results are just different and we don’t know why.

After designing 10 different experiments in which participants were asked to make a choice, and finding very little evidence that variety caused any problems, Scheibehenne and his colleagues tried to assemble all the studies, published and unpublished, of the effect.

The average of all these studies suggests that offering lots of extra choices seems to make no important difference either way. There seem to be circumstances where choice is counterproductive but, despite looking hard for them, we don’t yet know much about what they are. Overall, says Scheibehenne: “If you did one of these studies tomorrow, the most probable result would be no effect.” Perhaps choice is not as paradoxical as some psychologists have come to believe. One way or another, we seem to be able to cope with it.

Interesting!  Perhaps the paradox of choice used to be true in simpler times, but the internet and the rest of modern life have taught us to revel in choice, rather than being intimidated by it.  In a related vein, maybe it's a generational thing.  Maybe choice dazzles me more than it does a 20-something who grew up with 87 cell phone plans, 300 cable channels, and 1,000 Facebook friends.

Personally, I find a wide array of choice intimidating mainly if I'm trying to buy something brand new that I don't know anything about.  If there are 20 different kinds of cough syrup on the shelf, and I've never bought cough syrup before, I might just give up on the whole thing and keep on coughing.  I suppose that's pretty obvious, but it might explain the differences in some of the experiments.  If you showed me a huge variety of wines, I might throw up my hands in despair rather than trying to puzzle out which one to buy.  Show me an equally huge variety of candy bars and I'd pretty quickly narrow it down to half a dozen that I liked and then choose one.  That's because I consume a lot more candy bars than I do wine.

It's worth noting that whether or not social scientists are certain that the paradox of choice really exists, good sales people are certain that it does.  Watch a good sales person at work, and you'll notice that one of the first things they do is try to narrow your choices for you if you seem even the least bit confused.  When they ask what features are most important to you, they're trying to narrow your choices.  When they ask what things you don't like, they're trying to narrow your choices.  When they ask about your price range, they're trying to narrow your choices.  Because they know in their hearts that if they can just get you down to two or three alternatives, there's a pretty good chance you'll get seriously invested in the decision process and then eventually choose one of them.

So how about you?  When do you get intimidated by choice?

The New Obstruction

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 9:36 AM PST

Matt Yglesias writes about the routine use of the filibuster and other delaying tactics in Congress:

It’s worth emphasizing how one-sided efficacious minority party obstruction has been. The Bush administration wasn’t able to get its agenda through congress unscathed, but fundamentally they did achieved their main goals in terms of tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, substantially altering Medicare in 2003, and of course securing support for the invasion of Iraq and 2002.

In fact, it's worth emphasizing this even more.   Republicans gained significant levels of Democratic support for No Child Left Behind, the 2001 tax cut, the post-9/11 war resolution, Sarbanes-Oxley, McCain-Feingold, the Iraq war resolution, the 2003 tax cut, the Medicare prescription drug bill, and the bankruptcy bill.  That's a lot of bipartisan support

But what about Social Security, you ask.  That was certainly a full court press by the D team.  And yes it was.  But by the time the summer of 2005 was over, it didn't have much Republican support either.

In any case, the point isn't that full-blown unanimous obstruction is something new under the sun.  There will always be issues here and there that are so central to a party's governing ideology that there's really no room for compromise.  The point is that Dems, for better or worse, never tried to make every single bill a destruction test of the opposing party's governance.  Republicans are doing exactly that, and that is something new under the sun.  Unfortunately, as Matt says, it may be a shrewd calculation on their part: if you make the government look incapable of accomplishing anything at any time, and if the media generally treats this as politics as usual, it's the party in power that suffers the most regardless of who's been throwing the pies around.  So why not throw pies at every opportunity?

Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday November 24

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 5:33 AM PST

New Rules: The debate on new mammogram guidelines is driven by a vocal minority.

Heart Matters: An Indian surgeon's cheap, well-done open-heart surgeries is making waves.

Congress Cares: Healthcare bill requires reps to use new federal health exchanges.

Fish Story: Frozen salmon is better for the environment than fresh. [The Oregonian]

Nice Try: West Virginia commerce body doesn't want healthcare unless it can have coal too.

Money Talks: Clean coal group only spends $.02 on R&D for every dollar of profit.

Paying Pharma: Malpractice settlements have made Big Pharma even less reform-friendly.

Nonsense Labels: This "Ecosense" insecticide is greenwashing at its weirdest. [Consumerist]

WWHRD?: Democrats and others are wondering what Harry Reid will do to the bill.

Cost of Care: The Senate's healthcare bill isn't perfect, but it's not breaking the bank either.

Obama's Carbon Goal: White House to release carbon reduction goal, pre-Copenhagen.

Hot in Here: New study shows global temps could rise even higher than expected. [Al Jazeera]

Counting Carbons: Investors want companies to estimate cost of climate change.

Inertia is Powerful: Weatherizing a home reduces carbon, but people are too lazy to do it.

 

 

 

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Escolar's Sushi Swindle

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 5:01 AM PST

If you're not a foodie, eating raw fish seems like a risky endeavor even when it's labeled properly. But researchers from Columbia University and the American Museum of Natural History found this week that high-profile sushi restaurants have substituted tuna with escolar, a fatty bottom feeder that can cause diarrhea and a clear intestinal discharge (seriously gross stuff), without telling their customers. The investigation is part of an effort to collect the "DNA barcodes" of all fish species so that a consumer can determine what they're about to eat within a matter of minutes.

As Bonnie Tsui reports for the current issue of Mother Jones, this is part of a decades-long sushi rebranding campaign. As the fishing industry noticed the remarkable increase in price for popular fish—the value of blue fin tuna shot up more than fiftyfold between 1970 and 2008—they decided to rebrand other unwanted species. Here's an example:

Meanwhile, catches and value of Patagonian toothfish—once considered an undesirable tuna bycatch—have skyrocketed since it first hit US plates in the late '70s, thanks largely to a rebranding campaign by the industry to market the fish as a delicacy. They gave it a new name: Chilean sea bass. It worked so well, Chilean sea bass is now overfished itself.

Read Tsui's piece for more on escolar and the fishing industry's ploy to market gross bottom feeders as delicacies.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 24, 2009

Tue Nov. 24, 2009 3:55 AM PST

US Army Pfc. Stephen Martin cleans his weapon inside a small shelter at an observation post near Combat Outpost Munoz in Paktika province, Afghanistan, Nov. 15, 2009. Martin is assigned to Company B, 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry Regiment. (US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Andrew Smith.)

Need To Read: November 24, 2009

Tue Nov. 24, 2009 3:53 AM PST

Today's must reads:

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A Tribal Strategy for Afghanistan

| Mon Nov. 23, 2009 7:04 PM PST

A couple of weeks ago Fred Kaplan speculated that President Obama might be planning to pursue a tribe-centered counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan rather than one centered on the central government in Kabul.  Today, after reading Dexter Filkins' piece in the New York Times that describes an effort already underway to co-opt local militias, Kaplan doubles down:

The interest, even excitement, in this development stems from two sources. First, it is reminiscent of the Anbar Awakening in 2006-07, when Sunni tribal leaders in western Iraq formed alliances with U.S. forces — whom the Sunnis had been shooting just months earlier — to beat back the bigger threat of al-Qaida.

Second, it has drawn high-level attention to a 45-page paper by Army Maj. Jim Gant, the former team leader of a special-ops detachment stationed in Konar province. The paper, called "One Tribe at a Time: A Strategy for Success in Afghanistan," recounts his experiences with organizing "tribal engagement teams" to help local fighters beat back the Taliban — and it spells out a plan to replicate these teams across the country.

....There are signs that Obama has been mulling over something like Gant's strategy. At one of the seven meetings Obama has held with his national security advisers (the ninth, and perhaps final, session takes place tonight), he asked for a breakdown of which Afghan provinces could provide their own defense, which need our help, and to what degree.

....Obama is likely to announce his decision — on a strategy and on how many, if any, more troops it will require — soon after Thanksgiving. A key question to ask, in examining this mix, is how prominently it features the tribes.

I first heard about Gant's paper via email from Wagster, who wrote about it in a post earlier this month:

Gant goes on to describe how he developed close relations with the village chieftain, whom he affectionately called "Sitting Bull." He was audacious enough to arm and supply the village's fighters, probably breaking many rules but winning their trust and allegiance and gaining access to valuable intelligence. It is this approach — a tribal engagement strategy — that he advocates for the country as a whole. He calls the fighters Arbakai, a tribal militia that would protect their neighbors from Taliban intimidation. These could be the Afghani equivalent of the “Sons of Iraq,” grass-roots warriors defending their own tribal interests, with the U.S. as their ally — not imposing a central government on them, but giving them what they want: security, their tribal traditions, and the right to be let alone.

I will go farther than Gant does. Instead of envisioning an end state where Kabul dominates all of Afghanistan, we should be striving for Kabul + Largely Autonomous Tribe Lands. The Karzai government would control the heavily populated areas in the east of the country, and as best they could the border areas with Pakistan. They would have nominal sovereignty over their country, as previous Afghani governments have. The Pashtuns would be empowered to defend themselves from the Taliban, but they would largely be free of Kabul too. Provincial government structures would have to be developed in order to resolve inter-tribal conflicts and law-and-order issues, but largely, governance would come from nearby.

Kaplan says flatly that if Obama's eventual strategy doesn't look a lot like Gant's, "it is almost certain to fail."  And even if it does, it might still fail.  But at this point, the tribes are pretty much our only hope.

I am, as I've said before, skeptical about deepening our engagement in Afghanistan at all.  But the absolute minimum requirement is a strategy that's notably different from the one we've been following for the past seven years, a strategy that's done little except pour ever more troops into the country while simultaneously losing ever more control.  This might be the one. We'll probably know in another week or so.