2010 - %3, March

Michele Bachmann, Wrong Again

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 11:43 AM EDT

The indispensable PolitiFact.com has a great story about how Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) tried to claim that an unscientific email survey conducted by "the Medicus Firm, a physicians recruiting service" was actually "released" by the prominent and well-regarded New England Journal of Medicine. The survey (remember, it was unscientific) found that 22 percent of respondents "would try to retire early" and 8 percent "would try to leave medical practice even if not near retirement age" if health care reform without a public option was passed. Bachmann characterized that as a survey "released" by NEJM that found that  "over 30 percent of American physicians would leave the profession if the government took over health care." NEJM, of course, doesn't publish or peer-review unscientific email surveys:

[Medicus] wrote an article about the survey results, which was first published on the firm's Web site. The article was later reprinted in Recruiting Physicians Today, an advertising newsletter put out on the NEJM's Career Center Web site. The Medicus Firm neither paid to have the article published, nor was it paid for the article.

It was never published in the actual New England Journal of Medicine.

But it's easy to see how someone might have been confused. Although the small print explains that the survey was done by the Medicus Firm, the article prominently states at the top, "From the publishers of the New England Journal of Medicine" and carries the NEJM seal.

There are two lessons here. One is that the all publications have to be very careful about how they attach their names to advertising supplements and promotional inserts. Readers need to be able to easily distinguish advertising from actual editorial content.

The second lesson is that no matter how careful you are, someone will probably find a way to misrepresent the truth. Bachmann's spokesman told PolitiFact that all this is really NEJM's fault, but that's a bit too precious. The NEJM put a disclaimer on its website explaining that the survey didn't represent its views a full 10 days before Bachmann made her claim to the contrary. Even if you accept Bachmann's explanation that the confusion about the survey's source is NEJM's fault, that's not the only problem with her statement. As PolitiFact emphasized, Bachmann didn't simply get the source of the survey wrong. She also "sensationalize[d]" the results. Some people just can't handle the truth.

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Top GOPer Disavows Wall St. Bill

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 10:41 AM EDT

Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), a top GOP negotiator in the Senate's financial reform battle, told the Wall Street Journal that he "absolutely cannot support" the Senate's Wall Street overhaul, a thousand-plus-page bill largely crafted by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT). Dodd is the chairman of the banking committee, which recently passed a financial reform bill on a 13-10 party-line vote; Corker is a member of the committee as well, who'd closely negotiated with Dodd for weeks on the bill. "I couldn't support the bill in its current form," Corker told the Journal. "I am absolutely not throwing in the towel. I have no plans to support the current legislation. I hope we'll get back to the negotiating table."

Corker had more recently made headlines as a potential defector from the Republican camp to side with Democrats on financial reform. (The Huffington Post exclaimed, in a blaring headline, that Corker was "going rogue.") In remarks at the US Chamber of Commerce last week, Corker criticized the GOP's decision to not negotiate financial reform in committee, instead saving the inevitable battle for the Senate floor. The Tennessee senator called this decision "a major strategic error" by Republicans.

Now, however, top GOP brass appear to have reined Corker back in with a party that largely opposes the financial reform bill as it stands. The Republicans have clashed with Democrats on a number of issues in the bill, including an independent consumer protection agency, the creation of a council to guard against too-big-to-fail, and greater shareholder input on executive compensation. The potential loss of Corker could be a blow to Democrats, who need at least one Republican vote to pass the bill. The Senate plans to begin negotiations on financial reform when they return from recess in mid-April.

Obama to Expand Offshore Drilling

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 10:34 AM EDT

The Obama administration is set to announce announced today that it plans to open vast swaths of the outer continental shelf to offshore oil and gas extraction, making large areas of the eastern seaboard, the Gulf Coast, and Arctic Ocean available for drilling.

The New York Times and Los Angeles Times broke the story late last night; President Barack Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar are expected to make made the formal announcement this morning. Here’s a map showing the new areas the plan will open up.

The move officials opens up virgin terrain that has been off limits to oil and gas companies for decades. In October 2008, amidst calls of "drill, baby, drill" from conservatives, Congress failed to renew the long-standing moratorium on offshore drilling. Months earlier, George W. Bush had lifted an 18-year-old executive ban on offshore drilling, which had originally been imposed by his father in 1990.

Obama, of course, could have issued his own order, but didn’t. As a candidate he changed his position on offshore drilling, a move that displeased his environmental supporters but which he touted as necessary to reaching bipartisan agreement on energy policy. “We can't drill our way out of the problem," said Obama at the time. "I also recognize that in the House and the Senate, there are Republicans who have very clear ideas about what they want, and at some point people are going to have to make some decisions,” he continued. "Do we want to keep on arguing, or are we going to get some things done?"

It’s an approach he's maintained as president, again calling for expanded drilling in his State of the Union address in January. But while the area was officially opened to drilling in 2008, the new leasing plan from the Obama administration will mark the first sale of leases on these tracts of land. More drilling has been offered as a deal-sweetener on a climate and energy legislation, though it’s stirred up controversy in the Senate among coastal state Democrats.

There is some positive news in the initial reports on today's announcement: the Pacific Coast, the area of the Atlantic from New Jersey northward, and Alaska’s Bristol Bay will not be included in the leasing. But environmental activists aren’t happy about how much the administration has given away in the new plan.

Oceana said in a statement that the group is "appalled" by Obama's "wholesale assault on the oceans." Environment America said in a statement to Mother Jones that the group is "outraged" by the expansion. "It makes no sense to threaten our beaches, wildlife and tourism industry with spills and other drilling disasters when we’re about to unleash the real solutions to oil dependence--cleaner cars and cleaner fuels."

"Is this President Obama's clean energy plan or Palin's drill baby drill campaign?" said Greenpeace Executive Director Phil Radford.

I'll have more on the announcement shortly.

Obama Sells Out College's Working Class

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 10:15 AM EDT

President Obama took a huge step yesterday toward expanding access to higher education. By cutting out private student loan lenders, he's saving a projected $61 billion, which will go toward beefing up the Pell Grant program; annual loan payments are now capped at 10 percent of income, so students aren't deterred from enrolling by the specter of crippling debt; and a host of other funding programs will now support minority-oriented institutions and other colleges. Yet conspicuously absent from HR 4872, the Health Care and Education Affordability Reconciliation Act, was much-touted effort called the American Graduation Initiative (AGI).

The AGI was the most ambitious presidential plan since Truman to bolster community colleges, the nearly 1,200 schools that cater to students who can't afford a traditional university, want to work and go to school at the same time, want to use community colleges as a stepping stone to a four-year school, or want job re-training when looking to change careers. (Full disclosure: My dad's an English professor at a community college.) These colleges enroll anywhere from 35 to 50 percent of undergraduates nationwide. They enroll more low-income and minority students than four-year schools. 95 percent of community colleges are open admission—in other words, everyone's welcome here.

The AGI recognized the role of community colleges—increasingly so in light of the economic recession, when fewer people can afford skyrocketing tuition costs. Most importantly, the initiative proposed spending $12 billion over ten years to increase community college graduates by 5 million over the next decade.

But when higher ed reform got grafted on the health care bill, and a melee ensued to pass that package, the AGI somehow died. Apparently the community college "lobby" couldn't keep the AGI in the reconciliation bill signed by Obama. What these two-year schools did get out of the final bill was $2 billion to fund existing programs, mostly for disabled workers—nothing to scoff at, but a far cry from what Obama envisioned last summer, when he unveiled the AGI to much fanfare. "I know the colleges are grateful for the money that's in there, but it's for the status quo," Sara Goldrick-Rab, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin, told NPR. "The money for focusing on college completion might have been transformative."

Losing the AGI is, in short, a major loss for working class students. The initiative specifically targeted them and sought to offer the upward mobility of a college degree to millions of new students. So much for that idea. And considering how much political capital Obama expended to pass health care and student loan reform, it's unlikely we'll see future transformative initiatives for community colleges anytime soon. In the meantime, community colleges are increasingly cutting back on class offerings and are unable to hire enough qualified instructors—full time or part time—to meet a growing demand. Thanks to Obama's new bill, access to four-year colleges—a nice spot if you can afford it—may be increasing, but working class students will find themselves again shut out.

Geoengineering for Fun and Profit (Asilomar Dispatch 4)

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 7:30 AM EDT

To say there's no money in geoengineering right now is an understatement. But that hasn't stopped either scientists or critics from fretting over the role of profit motive in climate-intervention politics.

I met Dan Whaley last week at the Asilomar International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies. He's the CEO of Climos, a company we've written about that is researching ways to sequester atmospheric carbon by seeding the seas with iron. The nutrient promotes blooms of phytoplankton, single-celled organisms that suck up carbon dioxide as the grow. When they die, in theory, they sink to depths where the carbon is trapped. (Eventually, Climos may be able to license the technology or sell carbon offsets based on the method—and other companies are attempting similar strategies with other nutrients.) But the jury is out on how long the carbon remains out of circulation. And as with most geoengineering schemes, iron fertilization raises more questions than it has answered.

The potential side effects of this and other methods are scary enough that ETC Group, an environmental advocacy organization, recently circulated a letter protesting the premise of the Asilomar gathering. "This is about people with commercial ties trying to offer a way out while we continue to pollute and use fossil fuels," says Silvia Ribeiro, an ETC program manager. "It's extremely convenient for politicians."

What's Really Inside Your iPhone?

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 7:10 AM EDT

In just three days, the Apple iPad arrives, buoyed by breathless talk of saving magazines, killing the Kindle, and bringing portable porn to the masses. Steve Jobs' latest gadget may indeed prove revolutionary, but what's inside it is anything but. The iPad, like the iPhone, iPod, and virtually every other electronic device out there, is packed with components whose cutting-edge applications mask their often-sketchy origins. For our current issue, I deconstructed an iPhone 3GS' guts and found that if they could talk, they might tell tales of conflict minerals from Congo, sweatshop labor, environmentally damaging mining, and e-waste. That might not keep you from shelling out for your next favorite gizmo. Just don't expect it to be filled with solar-power unicorns. Click here to learn more about where your electronics' "killer apps" really come from.   

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Can The Pope Be Impeached?

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

In recent weeks, the firestorm over sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergymen has reached even the pope himself.

The New York Times reported last week that Pope Benedict XVI was copied on a memo explaining that a priest who abused children would be reassigned to work with kids. The priest later abused again, and while the Vatican denies that the pope had any knowledge of the situation, the pontiff has come in for a barrage of criticism. Could the pope be impeached?

No. There's no procedure in church law that allows for a pope to be impeached. It's an open-and-shut case, Watson.

The pope has what is probably the world's safest job. It's essentially impossible to dislodge him without his consent. Even if he's sick or otherwise incapacitated, he's still the pope until he says otherwise. Theoretically, a pope can resign—and some of Benedict's critics have urged him to do so. But it's unlikely that this will happen. Canon law requires that any resignation be "freely made and properly manifested." The last pope to step down from the post was Gregory XII, in 1415.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 31, 2010

Wed Mar. 31, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

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An Afghan Highway Police officer stands watch during a joint reconnaissance mission with U.S. Soldiers assigned to the 8th Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment In Robat, Afghanistan, on March 17, 2010. Photo via the US Air Force by Master Sgt. Juan Valdes.

Obama Opens Up the Coast

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 1:38 AM EDT

Drill, baby, drill:

The Obama administration is proposing to open vast expanses of water along the Atlantic coastline, the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the north coast of Alaska to oil and natural gas drilling, much of it for the first time, officials said Tuesday.

....The proposal is intended to reduce dependence on oil imports, generate revenue from the sale of offshore leases and help win political support for comprehensive energy and climate legislation.

I guess this makes me a bad environmentalist, but I've never really had a big problem with opening up these offshore tracts as long as (a) the affected states are OK with it and (b) oil companies don't get sweetheart deals. But here's what I don't get. When it comes to energy, conservatives are crazy about two things: nuclear power and offshore drilling. Now Obama has agreed to both. But does he seriously think this will "help win political support for comprehensive energy and climate legislation"? Wouldn't he be better off holding this stuff in reserve and negotiating it away in return for actual support, not just hoped-for support? What am I missing here?

Quote of the Day: The Afghan Narco State

| Tue Mar. 30, 2010 11:02 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.