2010 - %3, February

Obama: Senate Might Drop Carbon Cap

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 2:37 PM PST

Did Obama endorse a Plan B approach to passing legislation on climate and energy this year? Well, if he didn't outright support the idea of moving an energy bill without a cap on carbon pollution, as some moderate Democrats are calling for, he did acknowledge that it might well be what happens in the Senate.

TPM reports that at a town hall meeting in Nashua, N.H. today, Obama said that limits on carbon pollution remain the "most controversial aspects of the energy debate," and that the Senate may move forward with an energy-only bill this year, rather than a comprehensive bill that also includes a cap on carbon dioxide emissions. Some in Congress, he said, are saying, "let's do the fun stuff before we do the hard stuff."

"We may be able to separate these things out, and it's conceivable that that's where the Senate ends up," he said, "but the concept of incentivizing clean energy so that it's the cheaper more effective kind of energy is one that is proven to work and is actually a market-based approach."

Now, Obama didn't endorse the idea of an energy-only bill. But he also didn't he use the opportunity to make a clear, full-throated affirmation of why the cap is a crucial part of a bill. I would argue that "incentivizing" clean energy and making it cost-competitive necessarily requires a cap, but Obama could have made that a whole lot clearer today. Instead, he seems to be caving to the demands of the Senate's most conservative Democrats on this issue.

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Imperiled UBS Threatens Entire Swiss Economy

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 1:34 PM PST

On Friday I explained why UBS was the only bank that offered to take a hit on its contracts with AIG during the government's backdoor bailout of the ailing insurer. The reason? A looming US investigation of UBS that meant the Swiss banking behemoth was in no position to play hardball. In an interview this weekend, one of Switzerland's justice ministers revealed the extent to which the fate of UBS—and the entire Swiss economy—is again in the hands of the American government.

As Mother Jones reported in November 2008, UBS helped wealthy Americans hide billions of dollars from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in violation of a 2001 agreement signed by the bank promising to identify and document customers with any US sources of income. The agreement was a major departure from historic Swiss banking secrecy laws—one which Swiss courts recently deemed to be illegal. The high court's decision could also prevent UBS from fulfilling its plea deal with the US government, in which it promised to provide more names of US customers with illegal accounts. If UBS fails to live up to its side of the agreement, the bank could face the revocation of its license to operate in America. Now, Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf warns, "the Swiss economy and the job market would suffer on a major scale should UBS fail as a result of its license being revoked in the United States."

If there ever was a bank that's too big to fail, it's UBS. It is the biggest bank in Switzerland and—before massive subprime mortgage write-downs and the attention of the IRS scared many of its wealthy customers away—it was the largest provider of high-net worth private banking services in the world. (In an ironic twist, Bank of America has since taken its wealth management crown.) UBS and its chief domestic competitor, Credit Suisse, are six times larger than Switzerland's entire economy—an imbalance reminiscent of the failed banks that decimated the economy and currency of Iceland. Last year the $2 trillion balance sheet of UBS alone was roughly four times the size of the total Swiss output. As Investment International magazine observed at that time, "a UBS 'blow up' would be catastrophic to Switzerland’s financial stability."

Lancet Retracts 1998 Study Linking MMR to Autism

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 1:32 PM PST

Venerable British medical journal Lancet retracted a 1998 study today linking the measles, mumps and rubella combination vaccine to autism, after the study's author, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, was found to have acted unethically.  A British medical panel said Wakefield had shown "callous disregard" for the subjects of his study and "the pain they might suffer." 

The Wakefield study had been a lynchpin in the argument, popular among the mothers of Beverly Hills, Long Island and La Jolla, that routine childhood vaccination against deadly diseases caused autism in some children.  Lancet editor Richard Horton called it the "starting pistol" for MMR-Autism hysteria, which reached a fever pitch toward the middle of the last decade, even amidst massive outbreaks of measles—and more recently, mumps—in the UK, Western Europe, and parts of the US.  

Sadly, it's too late to put the genie back in the bottle. With or without the jewel in their crown, those convinced that MMR will cause permanent damage to their children (more permanent than deafness, say, or death) are determined to remain convinced. As if we needed more proof, Dr. Wakefield currently practices in Austin, Texas. 

Will Brazil's New Dam Displace Indigenous People?

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 1:07 PM PST

"There is not going to be an environmental disaster," is quite a way to launch a renewable energy project. The quote is from Carlos Minc, Brazil's environment minister, at the announcement of the South American country's plan to move forward with the controversial Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in the Amazon.

Current estimates indicate that the 11,000 megawatt dam on the Xingu River, the world's third largest, will flood nearly 100 square miles of Brazil's rain forest and cost more than $17 billion. This environmental impact has caused many critics, including pop star Sting, to claim that the dam places an undue burden on Brazil's indigenous people. "We are opposed to dams on the Xingu and will fight to protect our river," said Megaron Tuxucumarrae, a leader of the Kyapo Indians of the Amazon Basin. "We want to make sure that Belo Monte does not destroy the ecosystems and the biodiversity that we have taken care of for millennia."

Some anti-dam activists have worried that, in addition to harming their forests, the project could displace indigenous populations. Minc rejects these concerns. "Not a single Indian will be displaced," he said. "They will be indirectly affected, but they will not have to leave indigenous lands."

The claim sounds reassuring, but it's difficult to take at face value since the Brazilian government has made a practice of moving indigenous people off their land in the name of conservation. As Mark Schapiro reports for Mother Jones, the Brazilian "green police" is feared for displacing the Guarani Indians as part of their conservation strategy in the Guaraquecaba Environmental Protection Area, a 50,000 acre rain forest funded by General Motors, Chevron, and American Electric Power.

Robert Messias, the head of Brazil's environmental agency, told the Amazon paper Diario do Para that the dam's construction will impact nearly 12,000 indigenous people but that they would eventually benefit from the project. "The conditions outlined in the license are designed so that the local population have a superior quality of life...at the end of the construction," he said.

New Study: Abstinence-Based Sex Ed Works

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 1:01 PM PST

Abstinence-only education free of traditional, unrealistic, wait-until-marriage preaching can delay teens' sexual debuts, researchers reported Monday. The landmark study, published in the February issue of Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, is the first to show that an abstinence-only program can successfully reduce the number of teens losing their virginity, challenging the reams of research that show otherwise. Could it color the country's approach to preventing unwanted pregnancies and STDs among teens?

Possibly, but the program researchers studied differs from conventional ones in a major way. Instead of simply disparaging pre-marital sex or condom usage, the program's teachers encouraged the (mostly 12-year-old) black students in the abstinence-only control group to analyze the benefits and drawbacks of having sex. Many students recorded more cons than pros. Two years later, a third of students in the abstinence-only group said they'd had sex, compared with nearly half of the students who learned about healthy behavior and safe sex in addition to abstinence.

Though proponents of abstinence-only sex ed are cheering the study's results, it's unlikely to revive enthusiasm for religious or morals-based abstinence programs. In four of the five states with the highest teen birth rates—Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, and Arizona—schools are not required to teach sex ed, but if they do, they must teach abstinence. The increasing numbers of pregnant high schoolers in these states, in addition to other factors, shows their model is not working. Even Bristol Palin, whose son recently turned one, told Fox last year that teaching young people abstinence is "not realistic at all."

President Obama eliminated more than $150 million in federal funding for abstinence-based sex ed programs (which had not been scientifically proven effective), but funded a new $114 million pregnancy prevention initiative that would only suppoprt programs whose effectiveness is scientifically assured. When asked whether the new study's results would alter the president's sex education policies, White House spokesman Reid Cherlin told the Associated Press that "Our approach is to use science and evidence to fund what works, while leaving room for innovation and new thinking. We feel the policy we introduced at the beginning of the administration accomplishes that." But Health and Human Services Department spokesman Nicholas Pappas told the Washington Post that the new study may signal a policy change: "No one study determines funding decisions, but the findings from the research paper suggest that this kind of project could be competitive for grants..."

Chart of the Day: Take Two

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 12:44 PM PST

Since Bruce Bartlett has gone to the trouble of making a nice chart out of the latest Kos/Research 2000 poll, it would be churlish of me not to steal it. So here it is. Source data here. Cliff Notes version: Republicans are nuts.

But let's look on the bright side. Only 23% of Republicans want to secede from the union. Not bad! Only 21% think ACORN was able to pillage the 8 million votes it would have taken to steal the 2008 election. Reality based! And be honest: Sarah Palin does have more executive experience than Barack Obama. Especially now that she's managed that book tour. So there's nothing wrong with thinking she's better qualified to be president.

I used to talk about the Texification of the Republican Party, but that's now obsolete. We're officially seeing the Foxification of the Republican Party. It's Roger Ailes' world now, we just live in it.

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Big Oil's Big Year

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 12:31 PM PST

In case you were feeling sorry for Big Oil now that the Obama administration has proposed cutting their tax breaks, the 2009 lobbying figures for the industry are available. And the industry spent big: $154 million on lobbying last year alone. That's more than any previous year, and more than any other energy interest looking to shape the debate on Capitol Hill.

Lobbying disclosures analyzed by the Center for Responsive Politics found that oil interests spent 16 percent more on lobbying in 2009 than in 2008. ExxonMobil alone spent $27.4 million on lobbying, the second biggest business spender in 2009, while Chevron spent $20.8 million, ranking seventh. Electric utilities followed close behind, spending $134.7 million last year.

By comparison, energy interests categorized as "miscellaneous" spent just $29 million on lobbying. This category includes groups like the American Wind Energy Association, local water districts, ethanol companies, smart grid promoters, and various others. Environmental organizations spent approximately $21.3 million last year on lobbying—which, if you're counting, is just 7 percent of what fossil fuel interests spent.

And this isn't all of it; CRP has only tallied 80 percent of the lobbying disclosure forms, and a more detailed report is expected later this month. It's important to note that not all energy companies are lobbying against climate change legislation. A number of electric utilities have been supportive of measure to cap and reduce carbon dioxide pollution. But the lobbying totals show just how much these industries are spending to influence what that legislation might look like.

This Just In

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 12:13 PM PST

So here's a weird thing. Today my copy of the LA Times has five sections instead of the usual four. The new section is called LATExtra, and it features "late-breaking stories, primarily from California but also including the latest possible reporting from throughout the nation and the world."

That's fine, I guess. But as near as I can tell, the front page of today's inaugural LATExtra doesn't contain a single late-breaking story. They're all just ordinary news pieces. The inside pages seem equally non-urgent. Very strange.

UPDATE: Thanks, commenters! Apparently the LAT leased its presses to the Wall Street Journal, which gets the late press run. So the composing room deadline for the LAT's news pages has moved up to early evening. LATExtra then gets anything late breaking, which I guess is defined as anything later than about 6 pm. Or something. LAObserved has the story.

Chart of the Day: Military Spending

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 12:02 PM PST

Via Spencer Ackerman, here's the Pentagon's estimate for future spending. Ignore the gray bars at the top — those are just the numbers for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Look instead at the blue bars. That's the base Pentagon budget, and it's increasing 3% per year in nominal terms.

If we applied the same freeze to Pentagon spending that we're applying to domestic spending, their FY13 base budget would be the same as their FY10 base budget: $531 billion. That would be a $51 billion savings in just a single year. So why not do it? What is it that makes us think our national security needs are going to get more and more pressing but not our domestic needs?

The 6 Weirdest Things Women Do to Their Vaginas

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 11:24 AM PST

This post first appeared at Alternet.

What's wrong with your vagina? If you answered "nothing," you're probably wrong. According to the beauty-industrial complex, it's ugly, and it smells bad. But don't worry—there's nothing that money can't fix.

1. Problem: Your Vagina Smells Bad

Solution: Vaginal Deodorant

In the seventies, Massengill tried to marry feminism and its vaginal deodorant spray ("With Hexachlorophene") in an ad that declared the product to be "The Freedom Spray." It was "...the better way to be free to enjoy being a woman. Free from worry about external vaginal odor." Because you're going to need that time you used to spend worrying about your vaginal odor to flirt your way through the glass ceiling. Oh, and Hexachlorophene? It's a disinfectant that can be lethal when absorbed through the skin. In 1972, it was added to baby powder in France due to a manufacturing error and killed thirty-six children.

In case you think vaginal deodorant is a relic of the past, just take a trip to the drug store. (I did, and I took notes. The staff of my local Walgreens is convinced that I'm both very thorough and that my vagina smells really bad.) There are several kinds of vaginal deodorants still for sale (Walgreens even manufactures a generic version). You can buy scented vaginal suppositories called Norforms in Island Escape and Summer's Eve Deodorant Spray in Island Splash. (Norforms contain something called Benzethonium chloride, which is also used as a hard surface disinfectant for fruit and classified as a poison in Switzerland. Exotic!) And you can buy FDS (Feminine, Discreet, Sensual) Spray ("For the woman who cares.") in a myriad of scents including Sheer Tropics and Fresh Island Breeze.

Because if you really cared, you'd make your vagina smell like a poisonous island.