2010 - %3, March

Chamber of Commerce President Hearts Michael Moore's "Capitalism"

| Fri Mar. 26, 2010 8:30 AM EDT

Kara Ceriello, the president of the Wallingford Chamber of Commerce, loves capitalism. Michael Moore's "Capitalism," that is. On Sunday, the leader of the 100-year-old group, which is based in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle, is holding a "Capitalism" watch party. All of Wallingford's 120 Chamber members are invited.

"We had done this before with 'Sicko,'" explains Ceriello, who owns the "lefty" gift shop Not a Number Gifts. "And we watched all the presidential debates, which was realy fun because we had a lot of Nerf guns and people could shoot at the screen when John McCain was on."

You might say that the Wallingford Chamber and that other, slightly larger chamber of commerce based in Washington, DC, aren't on the best of terms.  Last week at the Wallingford Chamber's meeting, Ceriello was approached by a business owner who wanted to make sure the two groups were completely seperate. Another member who runs a retirement home handed her a letter signed by 100 of his residents expressing concern about the US Chamber's move to block rape victims' lawsuits. Ceriello had to explain that her chamber isn't a member of the US Chamber. It's not even a member of the Greater Seattle Chamber, precisely because that group is a member of the US Chamber. But she promised to present the signatures to its CEO, and to tell him: "This is why we and so many smaller chambers here in Seattle are not members of your organization."

Ceriello expects a lot of Chamber members to show up at the "Capitalism" screening, which is part of a nationwide series of watch parties organized by Moveon.org. After all, her members probably have more in common with Moore's view of the world than US Chamber president Tom Donohue's.  "The US Chamber has become a Wal-Mart," she says. "They care about their bottom line of dollars, meaning, with the Chamber, their bigger members. I really don't think they consider that much the smaller businesses."

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The Human Hair Additive in Your Food

| Fri Mar. 26, 2010 7:00 AM EDT

For his recent Mother Jones story on the origins of the "remy" hair used in high-end wigs and extensions worthy of Lady Gaga, Scott Carney sacrificed his own locks to a Hindu temple, but explained that clippings from short hair like his are used mainly as fertilizer or source material for a ubiquitous food additive called L-cysteine (L-cys for short). This amino acid, which gives hair its strength, also gives Noah's bagels their bounce, puts the softness in Tastykakes, and imparts mom-made freshness to Lunchables. It's a meat flavor enhancer and an expectorant, too—and has even turned up on a list of cigarette additives.

Human hair isn't the only source of L-cys. You can extract it from poultry feathers or even synthesize it in a lab—although the end product is no different than what you'll get by dumping tons of barbershop waste into vats of hydrochloric acid and separating the coveted compound from the resulting chemical stew. George Cherian, chairman of Indian hair exporter Raj Impex Hair, however, has long been the cheapest source of L-cys. You'd be hard pressed to find a richer source: Human hair contains up to 20 percent cysteine by weight, while duck feathers may yield only about half as much.

GM's Segway Space Pod

| Fri Mar. 26, 2010 6:30 AM EDT

Well, would you check out these little bastards? Wow. As described by our friends over at ClimateProgress.org...

The EN-Vs will have a top speed of 25 miles per hour and a range of 25 miles. They are powered by lithium-ion batteries. GM hopes to outfit them with sensors, cameras and GPS devices so they can communicate with each other, avoid crashes and be operated autonomously. The communication would also let drivers talk to each other while driving, hypothetically creating a situation where two vehicles could hold a video conference while commuting to work.

Pretty friggin' nifty, to be sure. They look most excellent for navigating the Google campus. Yet somehow I just can't imagine how they would handle the potholes in my hometown. Actually, I can: Bam! Rattle! Bang! Seems like it would take some serious infrastructure upgrades for these things to be remotely practical in most urban area. Plus, they're Segways. Just sayin'.

As for autonomous control, for years we've had technology that allows cars to join up in a line and commute without the driver's help—unclogging traffic and saving gas. The problem there is a social one: Relinquishing control of the vehicle freaks people out. ClimateProgress reports that these pods might cost about one-fifth what a car does. But I can think of a cheaper, more practical alternative: the bus.

This Time, Pot Really Might Become Legal

| Fri Mar. 26, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Last year I wrote a piece for Mother Jones about marijuana legalization. There were lots of obstacles in the way of legalization at the time, so my conclusion was cautious: "Ten years from now, as the flower power generation enters its seventies, you might finally be able to smoke a fully legal, taxed, and regulated joint."

Well, it's been more like ten months since I wrote that, not ten years, but this week an initiative qualified for the November ballot that would legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana use in the state of California. This follows a year of growing acrimony in Los Angeles County over the flourishing of medical pot dispensaries and efforts by local officials to rein them in.

The initiative, sponsored by Richard Lee, who owns several marijuana businesses in Oakland, would legalize possession of up to an ounce of cannabis and cultivation of up to 25 square feet on private property for personal consumption. Beyond that, it would permit local authorities to go further: They'd be allowed to legalize commercial cultivation of larger amounts for sale to anyone over the age of 21.

Corn on "Countdown": What Does David Frum's Sacking Say About the GOP?

Fri Mar. 26, 2010 4:08 AM EDT

David Corn joined guest host Lawrence O'Donnell on MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann to discuss David Frum's abrupt departure from the American Enterprise Institute and what it says about the right-wing media and it's relationship with the Republican party.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

Iraq Update

| Fri Mar. 26, 2010 2:03 AM EDT

Juan Cole surveys the state of the Iraqi electorate and suggests that the State of Law coalition, which includes Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party, may be ready to abandon Maliki in order to make a better deal elsewhere:

The London pan-Arab daily al-Hayat [Life] reports in Arabic that that the Shiite State of Law coalition and the Shiite Iraqi National Alliance say they are prepared to make an alliance before they enter the new parliament. This move reduces the chance that current prime minister Nuri al-Maliki will get a second term.

....The fundamentalist Iraqi National Alliance groups Muqtada al-Sadr's Free Independents with Ammar al-Hakim's Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and other religious Shiite parties....The Sadrists, the leading bloc within the National Iraqi Alliance, deeply dislike al-Maliki because he sent the army in after their paramilitary, the Mahdi Army, in both Basra and Sadr City in spring-summer of 2008. The State of Law may well have to sacrifice him to get an alliance with the more religious Shiite parties.

Abdul Hadi al-Hassani of the State of Law [...] said he expected the two to merge, given that they were most compatible in their platforms. He downplayed Sadrist dislike of al-Maliki and said what was important is that the two have a similar governing structure and could settle issues by a vote. He envisaged a further partnership, with the Kurdistan Alliance and with the Accord Front (Sunni fundamentalists).

It sounds as though the State of Law leadership is entirely prepared to throw al-Maliki under the bus to get the votes required to form a government.

With Ayad Allawi's al-Iraqia coalition running neck-and-neck with State of Law, they might not have much choice. But who will the Kurds ally with?

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The Sunday Chats

| Fri Mar. 26, 2010 12:40 AM EDT

Andrew Sullivan on the Sunday morning chat shows:

My view of Sunday morning is that it should involve sleeping. But as for TV shows, what's needed, I suspect, is a reinvention of them. Real questioning of people in power; discussion of issues, not process; fewer Beltway hacks; no predictions; no sports-journalism masquerading as a serious discussion of politics. You know: what a serious version of the Daily Show would do. Its possible; just not without disturbing the balance of power in Washington.

I'd add breakfast to his view of Sunday morning, but otherwise I pretty much agree. I'm not sure anyone would accept an invitation to come on a show like the one he describes, though.

(But while we're on the subject, what's with the veneration of Jon Stewart as an interviewer, anyway? Stewart is a great comedian, but he's really not much of an interrogator. He gets in a few good licks sometimes, but most of the time he's only tolerably prepared (remember the John Yoo and Betsy McCaughey debacles?); he routinely talks over his interviewees; and he rarely asks very penetrating questions. To his credit, he doesn't play a lot of gotcha games, but he usually doesn't challenge his guests very hard either.)

All This and College Loans Too

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 10:56 PM EDT

The House passed the final component of Affordacare1 tonight. Yawn. So what has Congress done for me lately, anyway?

Oh yeah, this:

Ending one of the fiercest lobbying fights in Washington, Congress voted Thursday to force commercial banks out of the federal student loan market, cutting off billions of dollars in profits in a sweeping restructuring of financial-aid programs and redirecting most of the money to new education initiatives.

....Since the bank-based loan program began in 1965, commercial banks like Sallie Mae and Nelnet have received guaranteed federal subsidies to lend money to students, with the government assuming nearly all the risk. Democrats have long denounced the program, saying it fattened the bottom line for banks at the expense of students and taxpayers.

This is, to coin a phrase, sort of a big effin deal. The student loan program has been a disgrace for a long time, essentially insuring a fat stream of profits to banks by allowing them to make risk-free loans thanks to guarantees from Uncle Sam. It was a pretty nice racket while it lasted. Republicans, of course, denounced the end of this gravy train, demonstrating once again, as Bruce Bartlett said a few years ago, that they are "incapable of telling the difference between being pro-business and being for the free market."

Bottom line: if the taxpayer are taking the risk, then the taxpayers ought to get the profit too. Now they do, and it's going to be used to expand access to college for low and middle income students. It's a reform that's long overdue.

1aka the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 aka the Affordable Care Act aka ACA

Senators Continue to Court Industry Support for Climate Bill

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 7:18 PM EDT

Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) huddled with industry representatives for the second time in just over a week to curry support for the energy and climate package they’re putting together. Emerging from the meeting, both the interest groups and the senators hailed progress on getting to shaping a bill that's as industry-friendly as possible.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Graham said they’re making progress on getting a bill that industry groups--like the Chamber of Commerce, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and the Nuclear Energy Institute, who participated in the meeting--can support. He reaffirmed his belief that their bill would be dramatically different than the House-passed bill. "Cap and trade is dead. It’s been beaten to death," he said. "I think it’s an idea that needs to die." (This despite the fact that, from what is known about their bill, it will include some level of a cap and trade program and look a lot like the House bill).

He also downplayed the bill's (theoretically) core goal of addressing climate change as merely an ancillary benefit to everything else. "We’ve gone away from this massive, economy-wide cap and trade system that had as its goal keeping Iowa from becoming beach front property to a national energy strategy, sectorally designed, that will lead to energy independence and do the things on carbon to create jobs, not lose jobs,” he said. (Sorry, Iowa!)

"If it's not perceived to be business friendly, a revolutionarily, dramatically different approach from the old system … then I’ve failed,” said Graham.

Lieberman was laudatory of their meetings with industry groups, calling them "extraordinary discussions." But asked about threats from the left flank if the bill becomes too industry-friendly, he was dismissive. "In the end this will be one of those cases where everybody will be a little unhappy," said Lieberman. "But if they’re mostly happy that we’ve done something constructive, it will pass.”

The groups present for Thursday’s meeting didn’t offer any new details, though they said they remain pleased with the direction the senators are taking the bill. "It was just a good exchange of information from each of the groups… an exchange back and forth with the senators," said Bruce Josten, the head lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"We’ve had a bunch of provisions that we’ve been sharing with their staff," said Marvin Fertel, CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute. "They were very open-minded about that. We were very pleased with the discussions we’ve had with the staff." He also expressed hope that nuclear power would be included in a “clean energy standard” in the bill, rather than an renewable electricity standard, an idea that Graham has endorsed.

It's not clear yet when there will even be a bill. Graham said they expect to release a bill "within a couple of weeks after Easter break." Lieberman said they expect to have it ready by the week of Earth Day, April 22. They offered few details on the bill, outside of what has already leaked from previous meetings.

Drill, Maybe, Drill?

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 6:32 PM EDT

A fight is brewing among Senate Democrats over whether to expand offshore drilling in their forthcoming climate and energy legislation. According to senators and others briefed on the bill being drafted by Sens. John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham, a large portion of the outer continental shelf (OCS), the 600 million acres land just off the coast of the United States, will be available for drilling. That's riled up at least 10 progressive coastal state senators, who are now threatening to vote against the measure.

"[W]e hope that as you forge legislation, you are mindful that we cannot support legislation that will mitigate one risk only to put our coasts at greater peril from another source,” write the senators in a letter to Kerry, Graham and Lieberman. Interest groups, they warn, "are aggressively pursuing an effort to open the nation’s coasts and oceans for unfettered access to oil and gas drilling." The letter's signatories are Bill Nelson of Florida, Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Sheldon Whitehouse and Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin of Maryland, Ted Kaufman of Delaware, and Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon.

The bill will reportedly allow states to decide whether or not to permit drilling within 35 miles of their coast lines. But oil companies could drill between 35 to 75 miles off-shore unless states actively opted out of this provision. The federal government would get to decide about drilling projects more than 75 miles offshore.

The bill will also apparently give the states that opt in a cut of the revenues from the leased plots of the OCS, a deal-sweetener for state governments that the coastal-state senators also balked at. As they point out in the letter, one state could bar drilling while a neighboring state could allow it—and the state borders don't mean much in the event of an oil spill. The senators note that there have been 40 oil spills that have each dumped more than 42,000 gallons into US waters since 1964. The infamous 1989 Exxon Valdez spill covered 1,300 miles. Offshore drilling could also threaten coastal industries such as fishing and tourism, which are worth some $11.4 trillion, the letter says—and for little pay off. "The fact of the matter is that we only have 3% of the world’s oil reserves while we use 25% of the world’s oil," write the senators write. "The only way for us to lower oil prices is to pursue an aggressive policy of energy efficiency and conservation."

But there's also a sizable block of pro-drilling Democrats itching for outer continental shelf drilling to be included in the climate and energy bill. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said yesterday that a revenue sharing deal between oil companies and states is "absolutely crucial for me, yes, and for several other important senators.”

Following a meeting with Kerry, Alaska Democrat Mark Begich told reporters that senators "are still working" on drilling components, but provisions that would allow state to decide on drilling are expected to be included. "[T]hat’s great because Alaska loves OCS," said Begich, who also wrote a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid on Wednesday outlining his desire for more drilling. "It will benefit no Alaskan to slow the advance of climate change's effects if no one can afford to rebuild their eroding village, meet a payroll or heat their home," Begich wrote.

As environmental advocates briefed on the bill have pointed out, some proposed language on outer continental shelf drilling could actually mark an improvement over where things stand today. In October 2008, Congress allowed the long-standing moratorium on offshore drilling to expire. Currently almost the entire OCS is available for leasing by oil companies, though no new tracts have been leased so far. If the bill protects some areas, it could be acceptable—but that's a big if. Revenue-sharing is also a big concern for enviros, since it would dramatically increase a state's incentive to opt-in.

While enviros anticipated that they would need to accept some drilling in a bill in exchange for a carbon cap, the details that have trickled out so far indicate that the provisions might be a greater expansion of drilling than their lowest expectations. As Kerry, Graham and Lieberman court Big Oil to gather support for a bill, are they at risk of losing their left flank?