2010 - %3, March

Quote of the Day: The Afghan Narco State

| Tue Mar. 30, 2010 10:02 PM EDT

From Alfred McCoy, on the fact that opium farming generates 50% of Afghanistan's GDP and supports 20% of its population:

To understand the Afghan War, one basic point must be grasped: in poor nations with weak state services, agriculture is the foundation for all politics, binding villagers to the government or warlords or rebels. The ultimate aim of counterinsurgency strategy is always to establish the state's authority. When the economy is illicit and by definition beyond government control, this task becomes monumental. If the insurgents capture that illicit economy, as the Taliban have done, then the task becomes little short of insurmountable.

That's from "The Opium Wars in Afghanistan," a brief history of the three Afghan wars of the past three decades.

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Can Hilda Solis Revive the Labor Department?

| Tue Mar. 30, 2010 8:15 PM EDT

Nice piece by Esther Kaplan in The Nation about how Hilda Solis and her team are turning things around at the Department of Labor after nearly a decade of pro-business neglect:

Solis and her able deputies have inherited a Department of Labor in tatters. By the time they arrived in Washington, health and safety compliance had become all but voluntary, as had minimum wage and overtime pay. Within two months of taking office, Bush and his labor secretary, Elaine Chao, had rammed through Congress the repeal of a new ergonomics regulation that had been a decade in the making. "It was almost like PATCO [the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization] in terms of its symbolic importance," says NYCOSH director Joel Shufro, referring to Ronald Reagan's crushing of the union in 1981. "That sent employers a huge message." After that, the DoL didn't issue a single new regulation unless it was forced to by Congress or the courts.

....Facing badly depleted enforcement ranks, Solis hired 710 additional enforcement staff, including 130 at OSHA and 250 for the crucial wage-and-hour division, upping inspectors by more than a third. Another hundred will come on next year to staff a crackdown on the misclassification of millions of employees as "independent contractors" — a dodge to avoid paying taxes and benefits — a move that has set off enormous buzz on business blogs.

....[Labor Solicitor Patricia Smith is] known especially for her insight that, as Retail union organizer Jeff Eichler, who worked closely with Smith in New York, says, "to impact an entire sector had to involve working with groups outside the bureau." She used labor unions, churches and immigrant groups as her eyes and ears on the ground; they organized plaintiffs, served as liaisons with state investigators and translated big enforcement fines into long-term gains for workers by means of union contracts or sector-wide employer manuals.

In fact, it was these efforts to use community groups as a force multiplier that triggered a furious campaign by business front groups to block her nomination. Senator Enzi obtained reams of e-mails to produce an alarmist forty-page report about one small pilot program Smith had launched, Wage Watch, which trained community members to report wage violations. Conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation and Americans for Limited Government piled on, the latter issuing an alert that if her concept went national, "it could turn tens of thousands of 'community organizers' into raving vigilantes." Nonetheless, at the new DoL, community partnerships are fast becoming standard operating procedure.

Actually, I sort of like the idea of roving bands of vigilantes turning in employers who mistreat their employees. Sounds like Solis and Smith are on the right track here.

Obama Signs Student Loan Reform

| Tue Mar. 30, 2010 7:21 PM EDT

President Obama has said he considers community colleges "one of the great undervalued assets in our education system." Tuesday, he affirmed that sentiment by signing student loan reform into law at the Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria. The legislation ends a program started half a century ago that ceded lucrative government subsidies to private student loan lenders. It also helps make college more affordable by redirecting $36 billion of the $61 billion the legislation saves taxpayers over 10 years to the Pell Grant program for low-income students. Minority-serving institutions, community college job training programs, and a grant program to increase college access and readiness will also receive part of the savings.

Obama thrust community colleges into the national spotlight last summer when he challenged them to graduate 5 million more students by 2020 and proposed a $12 billion plan to finance his vision. But that mandate has not yet been funded, and an annual survey released Tuesday shows community colleges are facing greater enrollment gains and deeper budget cuts than in previous years. Of the 128 community college presidents and chancellors who responded to this year's survey, about two-thirds said their enrollment had increased more than 10 percent from the winter of 2009 to the winter of 2010. More than half of respondents also confirmed that their operating budgets had shrunk, with 18 percent reporting a decrease of more than 10 percent. Student loan reform is a great legislative victory, but it will mean little for students if traditionally open-enrollment community colleges are forced to start turning applicants away for fiscal reasons.

Kiddie Scarface Producer Outed

| Tue Mar. 30, 2010 5:46 PM EDT

Guess who's behind this sick and twisted little performance?

Hint: It's not a schoolteacher about to be fired. Or a principal about to be fired.

And he won't care if you're offended.

He's also responsible for works your tween children could name-check.

Okay, give up? The LA Times reveals.

Sarah Silverman Meets Climate

| Tue Mar. 30, 2010 4:37 PM EDT

I can't attend this event tonight, but I imagine it will be quite a hoot: Phelim McAleer, the filmmaker behind Not Evil, Just Wrong, debates Amanda Little, author of Power Trip, a new book on clean energy solutions. And it’s hosted by Sarah Silverman and sponsored by Lexus (yes, the car company).

McAleer, a climate skeptic, created the video now used as a recruitment tool for Tea Partiers, as Stephanie Mencimer reported last fall. I also encountered McAleer at the Copenhagen climate summit last December getting kicked out of a press conference. And Little is a former coworker of mine at Grist, whose new book on the energy past and future of the US is a must-read. And Silverman … well, she's better known for jokes that I can’t repeat on our blog. Like this one.

From the press release:

On Tuesday, March 30, 2010, Lexus will introduce the CT 200h premium compact hybrid for the first time to North America with an original event – a debate between a proponent and a skeptic of climate change.
Welcome to the darker side of green.
The exchange, moderated by the one and only Sarah Silverman, will include the journalist and author of Power Trip Amanda Little (the proponent) debating the director and producer of Not Evil Just Wrong Phelim McAleer (the skeptic).

Actually, I’m pretty sure there have been debates between skeptics and those who believe in climate change in the past. But it probably hasn’t been as funny. It’s taking place at the New York Auto Show, for anyone in the area, and we'll try to get video afterwards. Just think -- all we've needed to bring together the two sides of the climate debate for all these years was the introduction of a hybrid luxury car.

We Can "Live With" a Nuclear Iran: Brzezinski

| Tue Mar. 30, 2010 4:34 PM EDT

Iran's stubbornness on its nuclear program has dominated a meeting this week of the G-8 nations' foreign ministers—and even convinced Canada, the US's "peaceful neighbor to the north," to press for sanctions against the Middle Eastern state. But as the ministers focus on taking steps against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime, a trusted ally of the Obama administration and former national security adviser is telling the Arab media that America can "live with" a nuclear armed Iran, if necessary.

Zbigniew Brzezinski—who served as President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, and is a mentor to numerous current and former US diplomats—made the comments in an extended interview that's set to air Wednesday on an Al Jazeera English TV show titled Empire. When asked if the US could tolerate a nuclear Iran, Brzezinski replied thus:

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Immigration Reform and the Wingers

| Tue Mar. 30, 2010 4:04 PM EDT

Earlier this morning I mentioned that political issues usually stay fairly subdued until something happens to make them salient. Only a few wonks care about Social Security until the president proposes to privatize it. Healthcare stays on the back burner until the president proposes to reform it. Etc.

The hook for that post was immigration reform, and over at the Boston Phoenix David Bernstein says there's more to it:

I would add to that, that in today's conservative marketplace the rhetoric and anger boil up when it pays. Health care reform is a great example. Drum is only half-right when he writes that "Opposition to healthcare reform was mild until 2009, when Barack Obama turned it into an active issue." In fact, I would argue, opposition remained mild well after Obama started actively pushing it, and even as it moved well on its way toward nearly becoming law last summer.

Truth is, it's really not a core money-maker for the right. A year ago, or two years ago, conservative organizations couldn't raise a dime off it, and conservative radio shows couldn't keep listeners by talking about it — even when it became "active" last spring. But eventually they found ways to make it pay; the first to find a way to do it was Dick Morris, in his June bestseller Catastrophe, with the argument that Obama's health care plan would inevitably lead to rationing, meaning bureaucrats deciding which old people to let die; Sarah Palin then coined "death panels" and a thousand direct-mail solicitations were launched. Dick Armey and others swooped in for their piece of the profit, leading to the summer recess Townhall Meetings, and the ball was rolling.

Unlike healthcare reform, immigration/nativism always pays in the conservative marketplace — although Drum is quite right, that it doesn't pay nearly as well when there's nothing in the news about it. Nevertheless, last summer when I asked the head of a conservative direct-mail-funded organization what topics were money-makers for him and others in the business, his top answers were the old stand-bys of amnesty and English as the official language.

Among the hard core right-wingers, this is probably true — though they sure seem able to pivot mighty fast to pretty much any topic at all when they put their minds to it. But yeah: some topics are basically always on tap, just waiting for any old nudge to put them back into the fundraising rotation.

David then goes a bit further and suggests that this explains why Rahm Emanuel and Chuck Schumer plan to introduce immigration reform this year even though it has no chance of passing. Basically, they want to drive the tea party right crazy, thus helping to turn out lots of Hispanics in November to vote for Democrats. Very Machiavellian! And plausible, too.

Plastic Bags and Econ 101

| Tue Mar. 30, 2010 3:21 PM EDT

Via Matt Yglesias, WeLoveDC reports on the results of the District's new tax on plastic bags:

The District’s 5-cent bag tax, which started in January 2010, netted approximately $150,000 during its first month of enactment. According to the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue, only 3 million bags were issued in the month of January compared to 2009’s 22.5 million bags per month average, and it appears that the new law DC shoppers has been successful in altering shopping bag habits faster than was expected.

Impressive! So why has a small charge been so effective? The actual amount of money involved is pretty tiny, after all. Some guesses:

  1. There's excellent substitutability here, since it's easy to reuse plastic bags a few times or switch to infinitely reusable cloth bags.
  2. People respond disproportionately to being charged for things they've been conditioned to think of as free.
  3. Green agitprop has put lots of people right on the knife edge of switching to resusable bags already, so a tiny nudge is all that was needed.
  4. There's a bit of an optical illusion here: Customers are still using plastic bags, but insisting that they be filled to bursting so they use fewer of them.
  5. Something else.
  6. All of the above.

A question for DCers: how does this tax work? That is, how does the cashier know how many bags to charge you for before all your groceries are bagged? Do they have to wait to finish ringing you up to see how many bags the bagger uses? Does that slow things down? Is that another incentive to bring your own bags?

Apropos of my reason #3, it didn't take much to get me to switch. About a year ago my local Gelson's started giving away cloth bags now and again and the checkers always ask if you have them before they start bagging. It was a tiny thing, but it was just enough to put it at the top of my mind and get me to bring my cloth bags with me when I went shopping. Sometimes a nudge is all you need.

Ocean Conveyer Holding Steady

| Tue Mar. 30, 2010 2:45 PM EDT

The latest analysis of data from 2002 and 2009 shows no slowing of the North Atlantic portion of the "ocean conveyer" that keeps Europe warm.

Physical oceanographer Joshua Willis of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena analyzed sea surface height using satellite measurements, combined with temperature, salinity, and velocity data collected by free-floating Argo drifters to calculate the flow of the conveyor at 41°N.

His paper in the current Geophysical Research Letters finds no significant slowing in the critical climate switch known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation. From the abstract:

Global warming has been predicted to slow the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), resulting in significant regional climate impacts across the North Atlantic and beyond. Here, satellite observations of sea surface height (SSH) along with temperature, salinity and velocity from profiling floats are used to estimate changes in the northward-flowing, upper limb of the AMOC at latitudes around 41°N. The 2004 through 2006 mean overturning is found to be 15.5 ± 2.4 Sv (106 m3/s) with somewhat smaller seasonal and interannual variability than at lower latitudes. There is no significant trend in overturning strength between 2002 and 2009. Altimeter data, however, suggest an increase of 2.6 Sv since 1993, consistent with North Atlantic warming during this same period. Despite significant seasonal to interannual fluctuations, these observations demonstrate that substantial slowing of the AMOC did not occur during the past 7 years and is unlikely to have occurred in the past 2 decades.

Science Now reports that a finding of no slowing is fine by physical oceanographer Carl Wunsch of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology:

The satellite-drifter analysis is only the latest evidence against a slowing, Wunsch says. And at this rate, it will likely be decades before the conveyor changes enough to be detected by in situ or satellite-borne instruments.

The video is one of NASA's better pieces, with Josh Willis decribing how the satellite observations of sea surface height work.

 

 

House Members Call for Carbon Cap

| Tue Mar. 30, 2010 2:32 PM EDT

The House environmental caucus has a message for the Senate: don't send us a climate and energy bill that only does half the job.

This is the latest dispatch from representatives concerned that the Senate will screw up their work on a comprehensive climate and energy package. A group of moderate Senate Democrats has been agitating for an energy-only bill. At the same time, Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and other senators working on an energy package have maintained that it shouldn’t be a "half-assed" bill (i.e., should contain a cap on carbon along with energy policies), but there’s considerable concern that the Senate bill won't be as strong as the House-passed version.

On Friday, 45 House Democrats sent a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer calling for a bill that includes strong energy and climate goals. They also sent copies to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Barack Obama. The representatives are all members of the Sustainable Energy & Environment Coalition, a block of progressive Democrats organized in January 2009 to advocate for clean energy policies. "[I]t is of the highest priority that any comprehensive energy legislation includes reductions of greenhouse gas emissions necessary to spur private investment in American clean energy technology," wrote Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), co-chairman of the SEEC, in the letter.

"It is essential that a comprehensive energy bill includes greenhouse gas emissions targets and durable mechanisms to ensure those targets are achieved," the letter continued. A carbon cap, the letter argues, "gives industry predictability and strong incentive."

Inslee said in a statement that he is "encouraged by the bipartisan work to get an energy bill in the Senate," but House members want to reaffirm that the cap is an "essential" component of legislation.