Mystery Tour: What's the Pentagon testing in the desert? A death ray perhaps?

Recession's Cost: As recession wears on, state healthcare programs are faltering.

Telling on DADT: At a Congressional hearing, long-time military men talk 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.'

What a Boob: Are explosives-laden breast implants something to worry about?

Black Gold: Oil corporations are outraged Obama's taking their tax breaks.

High Hopes: Sen. Harry Reid says he hopes Dems move healthcare forward.

No Cigar: Sen. Nancy Pelosi says Dems are 'very close' to passing healthcare bill.

Nothing to Lose: Poll shows Democrats have nothing to lose from passing bill.


Need to Read: February 5, 2010

 The must-read stories from around the web and in today's papers:


In his 2004 book, What's the Matter With Kansas?, Thomas Frank probed the psyches of Midwestern "values voters" to explain why blue-collar Americans abandoned economic self-interest to vote for George W. Bush. This eponymous documentary begins as a retelling of Frank's book but ends as a timely exploration of how an obsession with a narrow moral agenda can be self-defeating.

Much of the film revolves around the Dillards and the Bardens, likable families who belong to the congregation of Terry Fox, a Baptist preacher who's been ousted from his church for his right-wing politics. The families follow him to a new house of worship in a gaudy auditorium in Wichita's Wild West World theme park. Fox convinces them to pour their savings into the park, which goes bankrupt under a cloud of suspicion. Still, this betrayal doesn't cause the Dillards and Bardens to question Fox or his beliefs.

There are fleeting hints of a shifting political climate. Hard times during the Bush years convince "redneck" farmer Donn Teske to forsake the GOP, declare himself a "populist without a party," and even praise the New Deal. Yet the film ends with a home-schooled Fox follower declaring that the framers believed "that our country needed to be founded on Christian principles" and a mention of the murder of Wichita abortion provider Dr. George Tiller. We're left to draw our own conclusions about what the next chapter of this story may be, but in the age of Tea Party populism and a reenergized conservative base, it's hard to see Kansas making an about-face.

war photo 020510

Marines and Afghan national army soldiers with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, step out on patrol through the Shorshurak region of Helmand Province, Afghanistan, on January 29. Photo via the US Marines by Lance Cpl. James W. Clark.

The increasing acidity of the world ocean is a threat to marine species, says world-renowned Antarctic marine biologist Jim McClintock, who's ongoing research explores the chemical defenses of polar marine organisms and impacts of ocean acidification on marine invertebrates. Carbon dioxide sequestered from the atmosphere by the ocean is interfering with aragonite saturation seasonally in Arctic waters. The problem is predicted to become a constant in Arctic and Antarctic waters by 2050, seriously impacting marine life that builds shells or shell-like structures.

McClintock tells UAB:

"Existing data points to consistently increasing oceanic acidity, and that is a direct result of increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere; it is incontrovertible. The ramifications for many of the organisms that call the water home are profound. There is no existing data that I am aware of that can be used to debate the trend of increasing ocean acidification."

McClintock and co-authors reviewed recent data on ocean acidification at high latitudes for an article (pdf) in the journal Oceanography, for an issue focusing on ocean acidification worldwide. McClintock also recently published research that revealed barnacles grown under acidified seawater conditions produce weaker adult shells.

McClintock Point, in Explorers Cove, Antarctica, was named for Jim McClintock in 1998.

"Clean energy jobs" get a lot of lip-service these days. But just how many of them would be created if Congress actually passed legislation that would require states to draw power from renewables?

A new report from the RES Alliance, a group of renewable energy companies, finds that the number of jobs in the renewable energy sector "would more than double by 2025" if the United States puts in place a renewable electricity standard, often called an RES, that would mandate that states draw a certain percentage of power from renewable sources. A federal RES would create 274,000 additional jobs in the renewable electricity industry. But there's a caveat -- Congress would have to enact a 25 percent RES in order to create those jobs.

But even the House-passed climate and energy bill didn't meet that goal. That bill requires 20 percent to come from renewables by 2020, but it would allow 5 percent of the requirement be met through efficiency measures rather than new renewable capacity. The House bill would also allows governors to petition for a weaker standard if they don't believe their states can meet the target. It originally had a higher standard, but moderate Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee negotiated it down.

The Senate version currently in legislative purgatory sets the target even lower, requiring utilities to draw just 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources or energy-efficiency measures by 2021. Up to a quarter of that can be met through efficiency.

The RES Alliance argues that the bill's targets should be raised to 12 percent in 2014, 20 percent in 2020, and 25 percent in 2025, purely from renewables like wind, solar, and biomass. Clean-power advocates note that more ambitious near-term goals are particularly vital to boosting the industry and creating new jobs. The lower figures under consideration in Congress won't generate many new jobs beyond the trajectory the industry is already on without a federal standard, they argue. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia already have an RES in place.

The study, conducted by Navigant Consulting, finds that every state in the country would see some job growth with a higher RES in place. Some states might gain under 2,500 jobs, but some could gain up to 20,000. Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, California, Tennessee, Texas, and Colorado are expected to see the biggest growth in new jobs. Fifty-two percent of those jobs would be in manufacturing, 23 percent in construction and trades, and 11 percent in engineering and professional technical services, meaning it could create both blue collar jobs and jobs for college graduates with technical skills.

Tax Cut Fail

Flickr/Ben Ward (Creative Commons).Flickr/Ben Ward (Creative Commons).Democrats' inability to inform the public that the stimulus plan cut taxes in a big way should go down as one of their biggest political screw-ups in recent years. Barack Obama felt it necessary, during the State of the Union address, to spend a big chunk of time hammering home the fact that his party cut taxes. And PolitiFact recently decided it had to to check David Axelrod's claim that the Democrats passed 25 tax cuts last year without the help of Republicans. (PolitiFact has a list of all the tax cuts—they rated the claim "true.") Both of these events are signs that the fact that the Democrats cut taxes has not sunk in to Americans' psyches. It's not common knowlege. If it were, would the Tea Partiers be talking about how they're "Taxed Enough Already?" Well, probably. But they'd at least be challenged on that. 

The second part of Axelrod's claim is basically true, too. Only three Republicans (including Arlen Specter, who is now a Democrat) voted for a stimulus bill that included hundreds of billions of dollars of tax cuts. And yet the Dems are still hoping that the GOP is going to lend them a helping hand on their jobs bill. Good luck with that.

Kevin is traveling today.

You've heard plenty about the big banks' role in the Great Recession, but their headaches are about to get worse.

At a packed hearing today, the Senate investigations subcommittee led by Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) shed new light on banks' negligence and wrongdoing—and this time it's not credit-default swaps or derivatives but money laundering and arms dealers. The hearing, held in conjunction with a 325-page report by the subcommittee, focused on four detailed cases of foreign money pouring in the United States and the ways in which American banks, lobbyists, lawyers, and other businessmen aided that money laundering. "For the United States, which has so much riding on global stability, corruption is a direct threat to our national interests," Levin said in his opening statement. "The stories we uncovered are striking in their misuse of our financial system."

In essence, the hearing and the report highlighted how institutions like Bank of America, HSBC, and Citibank snoozed when it comes to due diligence and investigating their clients, while notorious arms dealers, sons of despotic politicians, and even shady central banks channeled millions upon millions into the US to buy planes, sports cars, and luxury houses. Singling out HSBC, whose anti-money laundering compliance director testified at the hearing, Levin slammed the bank for actually encouraging the Central Bank of Angola—whose clients include many questionable red-flagged individuals, or "Politically Exposed Persons"—to move millions to an offshore bank in the Bahamas beyond the reach of British financial laws. "You claim that you're a leader in anti-money laundering rules and enforcement," Levin told HSBC's Wiecher Mandemaker. Yet "you facilitate people evading the law of your own country."

Levin, seated next to subcommittee ranking member Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), had also invited three active participants in the corruption cases detailed in the report—Beverly Hills attorneys Michael Berger and George Nagler, who'd aided Teodoro Obiang, son of the president of Equatorial Guinea, and Jeffrey Birrell, an American lobbyist who tried to purchase armored cars and military transport planes for Omar Bongo, the president of Gabon. All three directly implicated witnesses, however, chose not to speak at the hearing, citing the Fifth Amendment. 

Levin and Coburn did offer a modicum of praise to a Bank of America senior executive who spoke at this morning's hearing. Bank of America appears several times in the subcommittee's report for allowing Pierre Falcone, an infamous arms dealer imprisoned several times, and his relatives to circulate at least $60 million through 29 accounts with the bank. In fact, Levin pointed to documents obtained by the subcommittee showing that Bank of America knew of Falcone's background and the millions flowing into his accounts from the secretive countries and shady "clients" yet concluded that "activity for the accounts of the Falcone's [sic] is not unusual." And while William Fox, the Bank of America executive, acknowledged that the bank had made "a bad judgment call" with Falcone, he emphasized the tougher disclosure and anti-money laundering safeguards that bank had installed in the past few years, measures that Levin praised.

In all, the hearing, together with the report, offered an unparalleled glimpse at the ways in which corrupt foreign figures still funnel their money into major American financial institutions. At the hearing, Levin said he hopes to close legal loopholes and revoke a 2002 exemption allowed by the Patriot Act, among others, to cut off the gaping holes that still allow dirty money to come into the US. "There is a lot more that can be done to combat foreign corruption," Levin said. "It doesn't have to be that way."

It's right and proper that the ad has its own high holy day which, as Robert Lipsyte points out, we call the Super Bowl. After all, the ad has so much to celebrate. It's been the great colonizing force of our age. When I was younger, for a period, I subscribed to the trade magazine Advertising Age, not because I had anything to do with the business, but because I was fascinated by the fact that, no matter how obscure the subject, the ad had an interest in (and a perspective on) it.

In a sense, in this century, the ad has inherited the restlessness once associated with the American pioneering spirit. The Marlboro Man, it turns out, was more than a logo. The ad can't stay still. It's always searching for, and moving into, new territory, and then trying to settle down, often initially alone and under attack. It is expansionist by nature, never taking no for an answer. By my childhood, the ad had already redefined most common space as consumer space. In my lifetime, the ad has broken almost every taboo, and into just about every previously sacred (or profane or private) space. It's made it into the bedroom, first via the radio and then, far more strikingly, the TV set; into the school, the doctor's office, and the airport; onto the sides of buses, into and onto taxis, into elevators, onto gas pumps, and above urinals, as well as into your pocket, thanks to the iPhone and the like. You name it, and the ad's invaded its territory. One of the last largely ad-free bastions in the culture, the book, is about to fall to next generation Kindles, iPads, and other "readers" which will, like the rest of the Internet, be ad-friendly.

Since President Obama first broached the subject of immigration reform last summer—and devoted a whopping 39 words to the subject during last Wednesday's State of the Union—there's been a bit of discussion as to whether any comprehensive reforms will get the green light this year. There have been some signs of action: The US Conference of Catholic Bishops began organizing in January to push for reforms, and Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill) has introduced reform legislation in the House. But given the myriad problems Democrats face right now, it's difficult to imagine anything getting passed in the near future. Immigration is always next year's problem, anyway.

To get a sense of how bearish elected officials have become on the topic, just look to Massachusetts. Yesterday Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick all but conceded defeat on his state’s version of the DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented immigrants to attend public colleges and universities at in-state tuition rates. Anti-immigrant backlash and calls to focus on jobs have swamped the proposal—not too surprising when you consider that stuff like this passes for intelligent debate.