2010 - %3, March

It's Official: HFCS Makes You Fat

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 6:27 PM EDT

The high fructose corn syrup industry has been arguing for years that their product is no worse than sugar when it comes to weight gain and obesity. According to a new study by Princeton University, that's simply not true.

When researchers fed HFCS to rats, the rodents gained significantly more weight than those fed regular sugar. Further, the HFCS-fed rats exhibited more specific characteristics of obesity, including increased abdominal fat and trigylcerides.

The study illuminates the underlying problem with the obesity epidemic, which hits low-income areas the hardest. Agricultural corn subsidies make HFCS a remarkably cheap sweetener to produce, so it's commonly used in low-cost products. Not surprisingly, last year the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found higher intakes of HFCS in groups with low income levels.

Yet for all the evidence that the syrup is a major contributor to our country's burgeoning and class-based obesity problem, our government continues to serve as the industry's biggest cheerleader. According to the Tufts University Global Development and Environment Institute, HFCS producers receive implicit government subsidies of $243 million a year—plenty to keep the product a staple of the American diet.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

DOJ Balks on Cartel Crime Rise

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 5:46 PM EDT

Drug trafficking Mexican cartels continue to spread like weeds throughout the US, funneling drugs through American cities and pocketing massive profits. In the National Drug Intelligence Center's annual "Threat Assessment" report for 2008, the agency found that Mexican drug traffickers had distribution networks in at least 230 American cities, an expansive operation generating billions of dollars a year.

Today, the NDIC, which is part of the Justice Department, released its 2010 "Drug Threat" report. Again, the NDIC highlighted the rise of Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) in the US: "Mexican DTOs are more deeply entrenched in drug trafficking activities in the United States than any other DTOs." What the 2010 report doesn't include, however, is the latest tally of American cities now fostering Mexican drugrunners and dealers. The 2010 report says only that they're "active in more cities throughout the country than any other DTOs."

So why the omission? Is the DOJ reluctant to include the figure because the number is so large, the power of Mexican cartels so far reaching? An official with the National Drug Intelligence Center said the report didn't include a hard figure because the agency was "in the throes of reanalyzing" its data, and wouldn't have a new figure for another month or so. The official did add that the NDIC predicts that 230 figure has increased from 2008. You can read into the DOJ's lack of new data however you'd like, but be prepared for some startling statistics when the department does release its new tally of cities caught in the Mexican cartels' web.

Texas SBOE Facing Death Sentence?

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 5:20 PM EDT

If Democratic lawmakers have their way, the Texas State Board of Education could soon go the way of the Enlightenment and Hip-Hop. Yesterday, state senator Juan Hinojosa announced plans to write a bill eliminating the board, in response to the...ungenerous treatment of civil rights and minorities in the state's new social studies curriculum. Earlier this month, the board tentatively approved the standards after making a host of controversial changes. Meanwhile, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White (and his gigantic ears!)widely considered to be the Democrats’ best threat to win a statewide race in Texas since the late Ann Richardscalled on his opponent, Gov. Rick Perry, to send the social studies standards back to the drawing board.

Specifically, White wants the professional educators who wrote the more balanced first draft of the standards (before passing it on the board for substantial editing) to have another crack at them. Those are both pretty obvious suggestions: It's not entirely clear why you'd want a dentist, rather than experts, to have the final say over education policyor, for that matter, how electing board members locally makes them any more accountable than if the governor appointed them.

David Frum Fired From AEI

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 5:03 PM EDT

David Frum, onetime coiner of the phrase "axis of evil," but more recently a persistent critic of the increasing Palinization of the Republican Party, was fired today by the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think tank he's worked at since leaving the Bush administration. Bruce Bartlett, another reform conservative who was fired by a think tank for being too critical of Republicans, comments:

Since, he is no longer affiliated with AEI, I feel free to say publicly something he told me in private a few months ago. He asked if I had noticed any comments by AEI "scholars" on the subject of health care reform. I said no and he said that was because they had been ordered not to speak to the media because they agreed with too much of what Obama was trying to do.

It saddened me to hear this. I have always hoped that my experience was unique. But now I see that I was just the first to suffer from a closing of the conservative mind. Rigid conformity is being enforced, no dissent is allowed, and the conservative brain will slowly shrivel into dementia if it hasn't already.

This shouldn't come as any big surprise. As many, many people have pointed out, the reform bill we ended up with is very similar to both the 1993 Republican counterproposal to Clintoncare and to Mitt Romney's healthcare plan for Massachusetts. Of course there were lots of honest conservative health wonks who, even if they opposed parts of it, were basically sympathetic to the overall superstructure.

But this wasn't a battle where wonks were welcome on the conservative side. It was a battle for political dominance. It was a battle to see if Sarah Palin would be the new face of the conservative movement. And now she is.

Scahill on Healthcare

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 4:45 PM EDT

Glenn Greenwald commends to us Jeremy Scahill's take on healthcare reform:

BD: Given the political divisiveness of issues like health care, there's a lot of pressure for progressive publications to fall into what you have called a "blue state" mentality. What are the hazards of this?

....Health care is a perfect example of this. Obviously, we want to have pre-existing conditions covered. Obviously, we want young people to be able to continue on their parents' health care plans. There are many things that are going to be improvements.

But let's be clear here: This is a complete and total sellout to the interests of the insurance lobby by the Obama administration. This is, as Michael Moore has said, a complete victory for the ultra-capitalists. Yet, if you look on the liberal blogosphere, people like Jane Hamsher are attacked mercilessly for having the audacity to stand up and say "this is a Democratic sellout."

So you have this blind allegiance to ... what? To Obama as a man? To the Democrats as a party? To me, it's very dangerous when you start going down the road of unquestioning support for any powerful individual or any politician. The moment you cede your conscience to a politician is the moment you stop struggling for a better society.

I've got nothing but props for Scahill's work, but this is just wrong. There are, obviously, plenty of partisan hacks on both sides of the aisle, but most of us who supported the current healthcare bill — warts and all — did so because it was, plainly, not only an enormous first step1 forward, but the only way to make that first step. A government-run single-payer solution was never even remotely politically plausible, and anyone who insisted on jettisoning our current framework of private insurers as a condition of reforming healthcare would never get any serious reform passed. End of story.

Supporting the legislation we got doesn't make anyone a sellout, and it doesn't make anyone a blind supporter of St. Barack. It makes us people who actually want to create a better society, not just struggle for it.

As for the private insurance industry, I'll make a prediction: within 20 years it will be gone in all but name. Either the federal government will fund the vast majority of health insurance, or else private insurers will essentially be regulated utilities, as they are in Germany or the Netherlands. This bill is the beginning of the end for all of them, and this week's reform bill is what set that train in motion.

1OK, technically it was the second step. Medicare was the first. But you know what I mean.

Sen. Kyl: Dems Using Violent Threats for Political Gain

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 4:35 PM EDT

Top Republican leaders have accused Democrats of trying to politicize the recent spate of violent threats against legislators who supported health care reform. The threats—which have ranged from cut gas lines to a coffin placed on the lawn of one House member—have fueled security concerns, leading some Democratic lawmakers to fear for their families. In response, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and other top Democrats have slammed Republicans for "stoking the flames" of violence by cheering on protesters and propagating myths about the bill—a charge that Republicans have fiercely disavowed and characterized as a political gambit.

And now Republicans are pushing back. Shortly after the Senate voted along party lines on Thursday to approve the reconciliation bill tweaking the health care reform package, Sen. Jon Kyl, the Republican minority whip, huffed about the Democrats blaming GOPers for the violent reactions to the passage of the health care legislation: "I get a bit tired of--every time something like that happens [Democrats say], 'Oh, it's the fault of the Republicans. That's baloney. It's a shame, because nobody wants anybody to be under threat. There are always a few people out there in the world who do irresponsible things."

When asked what he would say to constituents who felt like venting their anger, Kyl responded, "Don't throw a brick through somebody's window—that's not the way to resolve your political differences."

Kyl's comments echoed remarks made by his counterpart in the House, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who maintained that Democrats were not only politicizing the threats, but also "dangerously fanning the flames by suggesting that these incidents be used as a political weapon." Cantor also added that he himself had been the target of violence, mentioning that a shot had been fired at his campaign office. (Details of the incident have yet to be confirmed.)

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Conservatives Fire David Frum

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 3:23 PM EDT

[UPDATE: We've added in a reference to DC bureau chief David Corn's Sunday night dispatch, which highlights the incendiary remarks David Frum made about health care politics as Republicans' "Waterloo"possibly the remarks that led to his ouster from the conservative fold.]

David Frum, the enigmatic young mandarin of the GOP who speechified many of George W. Bush's most manichaean lines, just dropped a bomb over on his blog: He's been dumped by his significant other of seven years, the right-wing American Enterprise Institute. And it doesn't sound like it was a pleasant breakup. Said Frum:

"I have been a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute since 2003. At lunch today, AEI President Arthur Brooks and I came to a termination of that relationship. Below is the text of my letter of resignation."

Dear Arthur,

This will memorialize our conversation at lunch today. Effective immediately, my position as a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute is terminated. I appreciate the consideration that delays my emptying of my office until after my return from travel next week. Premises will be vacated no later than April 9.

I have had many fruitful years at the American Enterprise Institute, and I do regret this abrupt and unexpected conclusion of our relationship.

Very truly yours,

David Frum

So what gives? How could one of the best-known fellows at one of the best-known Beltway opinionators end up on the outs? Well, back in December, our own Kevin Drum said that Frum "has been estranged from the hard-right wing of the Republican Party for a while." And on Monday, the MoJo blog reported that Frum's recent activities had included a poll that exposed the general ignorance of Tea Partiers about US politics and taxes, which couldn't have sat well with his overseers at AEI. They do loathe them some health care reform and love them some irate patriots. But perhaps most damningly, as MoJo's DC bureau chief David Corn reported Sunday, was an incendiary Frum blog post describing health care as the GOP's Waterloo. Corn writes:

He noted that "it's a good bet that conservatives are over-optimistic about November" because "by then the economy will have improved and the immediate goodies in the healthcare bill will be reaching key voting blocs." Frum's j'accuse! blamed "conservatives and Republicans ourselves" for making a poor strategic decision: "We would make no deal with the administration. No negotiations, no compromise, nothing...We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat." Republican legislators who wanted to cut a deal, he notes, were trapped and pinned down by "conservative talkers on Fox and talk radio."

Strong stuff—and Frum didn't back away from it the next day in his commentary to the New York Times on GOP political nihilism:

Reconciliation Passes

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 2:53 PM EDT

The healthcare reconciliation bill has passed the Senate and is on its way to the House for final passage. That was quick. Did Republicans just completely give up on all their brilliant plans for obstruction? They only offered up 40 amendments. I thought the plan was for hundreds. I hope their base punishes them for being the sellouts they obviously are.

Palin To Speak at Anti-Abortion Fundraiser

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 2:36 PM EDT

It seems that almost anything Sarah Palin touches—a Tea Party speech, targeting Democrats—turns into controversy. So here's a head's-up. On May 14, 2010, the former Alaska governor will be the featured speaker at a Washington, DC, breakfast fundraiser for the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group. A single ticket costs $150. But those who want a photo with her can purchase a $5,000 package that includes 10 tickets to the breakfast and two tickets to the "photo opportunity." The VIP package for $25,000 comes with 20 tickets to the speech but still only 6 tickets to that "photo opportunity."

The Susan B. Anthony List has been a big booster of Palin. In 2008, it launched a social networking site called TeamSarah.org to support her vice-presidential campaign. This is Palin's crowd. The group's chairman, Jane Abraham, notes, "As a mother, wife, and successful leader—[Palin] embodies what it means to be a pro-life feminist today. From moms at the PTA to women leaders in the boardroom, Sarah Palin continues to serve as a role model for what it means to be a true American woman leader, and we are honored to have her stand with us."

Besides, Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) was not available for the gig. Earlier this week—after the anti-abortion Stupak and the White House forged an abortion-related compromise that would lead to passage of the health care reform bill—the Susan B. Anthony List declared it was withdrawing the "Defender of Life" award it had planned to bestow upon Stupak. "I didn't seek the award," Stupak told CNN. "I stood on my principle. I don't need an award." And now the group has found someone else to celebrate. The press release announcing the Palin speech did not say whether or not she would receive a fee for her appearance.

UPDATE: Mallory Quigley, press secretary for the Susan B. Anthony List, emails: "We are very excited. Governor Palin is not receiving a speaker fee, she will be doing the event to benefit Susan B. Anthony List."

Chart of the Day: 8th Grade Reading

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 2:24 PM EDT

Is our kids learning? Probably, but at least when it comes to reading they aren't learning any better than in the past. NAEP reading scores for 2009 have just been released and they're pretty uninspiring. Scores for 8th graders have been flat since 2002, and as the chart on the right shows, they've been flat at pretty much all achievement levels. Good readers are reading as well as they did in 2002 and poor readers are reading as poorly. Black-white and Hispanic-white gaps have narrowed ever so slightly, and the male-female gap has stayed about the same. Broken out by public, private, and Catholic schools, scores still remain flat across the board.

So is there any good news? Well, scores for the worst readers have improved at the 4th grade level, and it's possible that these improvements will eventually filter up to the higher grades as well. That hasn't happened in the past (in fact, gains in the lower grades tend to wash out at higher grades), but you never know. Maybe this time they will.

Of course, there is another bit of good news: American students may not be improving much in reading, but neither has there been a wholesale collapse, as news reports sometimes suggest. Reading scores are slightly up over the past two decades, and math scores are up considerably. But count me as skeptical of this, from the New York Times:

In seeking to explain the lagging reading scores, some experts point to declines in the amount of reading children do for pleasure as they devote more free time to surfing the Internet, texting on cellphones or watching television. Others blame undemanding curriculums.

For example, Susan Pimentel, an expert on English and reading standards who is a member of the governing board that oversees the test, said that American schools were fairly efficient at teaching basic reading skills in the early grades, but that as students matured they need to be consistently challenged to broaden those skills by reading not only complex literature but also sophisticated nonfiction in subjects like history and science.

Reading scores haven't "lagged," they've been flat. And they've been flat for 20 years, which means that the internet and texting are pretty unlikely to be at fault. In fact, to the extent that the internet has replaced TV watching, it seems as if it's likely to be a net benefit, not a problem.

But for whatever reason, we seem to have gotten a lot better at teaching math (scores are up 20+ points over the past two decades, roughly two grade levels) but not at teaching reading. The reasons remain elusive.