2010 - %3, May

MMS Head Fired

| Thu May 27, 2010 10:30 AM EDT

MSNBC is reporting that Elizabeth Birnbaum, head of the beleaguered Minerals Management Service, has been fired. The division of the Department of Interior responsible for overseeing oil and gas development has been under fire for lax oversight of offshore drilling.

Birnbaum, a former official with the conservation group American Rivers, has run the division since last July. She faced grilling before a House panel yesterday about the agency's role in the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

We'll have more when it becomes available.

UPDATE: Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar issued a statement saying that Birnbaum "resigned today on her own terms and on her own volition." "Elizabeth Birnbaum is a strong and effective person and leader," said Salazar. "She helped break through tough issues including offshore renewable development and helped us take important steps to fix a broken system. She is a good public servant."

In her statement, Birnbaum pointed back to the Bush administration (without naming it directly) for leaving the MMS a deeply dysfunctional institution when she took over last July. She said that she hopes the reforms that Salazar has proposed for the agency "will resolve the flaws in the current system that I inherited." Here's her letter of resignation.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Is DC Granny-Bashing?

| Thu May 27, 2010 7:56 AM EDT

Few may remember it, but before the advent of Social Security in the 1930s and Medicare in the 1960s, the old were widely viewed as a spent force. Nobody talked about happy retirement, in part because, these were people who remembered only too well the Depression. Few looked forward to leisure worlds because the poor house was too recent in so many people's minds. Before old age entitlements, tending to the old was viewed as the job of the family. If you didn't have a family, then it was charity—you joined the begging class. And even if you did have a family, you lived knowing that the young and middle-aged couldn't wait to get rid of you.

The same is more or less true today. Some days it seems the entire city of Washington, DC, the nation's capital, is on a mission against the old. Of course, nobody would ever say that. But there is a war against the old going on here in the form of a vigorous, largely uncontested attack on entitlements—a fighting word for conservatives and conservative Democrats who simply can't stand Roosevelt's New Deal, Johnson's Great Society, and everything they stood for.

In his book The Making of an Elder Culture, recently published by New Society, Theodore Roszak, the cultural historian who more than three decades ago wrote The Making of a Counter Culture, sets out some of the grim history of old people in American society, and in doing so places elders within our current political world.

The old were in fact the worst victims of industrialism, primarily because they were not deemed worth saving. They belonged to that class of unwelcome dependents called the impotent poor—those who could not provide for themselves...as comfortable as many middle-class elders may be today, they share with all older people a long sad history of bleak mistreatment they would do well to remember. For generations the old have suffered wrongs inflicted on them by harsh public policy and often by their nearest and dearest...in the modern western world where the old have been seen as the claim of the dreary past upon the bustling forces of progress.

In the early days of the industrial revolution, Roszak writes, "aged workers became poor. The workhouse and county home were little better than the concentration camp. They were fed gruel, bedded down on straw or bare wood…they had no place to turn save for their children…They were pictured as withered, toothless, bent, lean." You must remember that as recently as 40 or 50 years ago, there was no senior lobby. The political pros never talked about a senior vote. Today all that has changed—yet Roszak sees in today's entitlement wars a serious threat to the well-being of elders.

In the same way that organized labor was once regarded as a potentially tyrannical force able to achieve its own selfish ends, entitlement critics began characterizing seniors as a threat to the democratic process...

Nobody of any political stripe wants to risk the charge of granny-bashing, but the facts are clear. In the United States, gaining even modest degrees of security in retirement has been a struggle against business leaders, political conservatives, and free market economists for whom money is the measure of all things.

In his book, Roszak envisions a society in which rather than cutting social programs for the old, we will extend them to younger people. No one would resent Medicare, for example, if we had universal health care for Americans of all ages. He sees a future where the old and the young join to create a new world devoted to common humane goals: Ending poverty at all ages, assuring education—laying the planks of a new society on the New Deal and LBJ's social welfare project. Such ideas face an uphill battle in today's political culture—but are no less inspiring for that fact.

This post also appears on Jim Ridgeway's personal blog, Unsilent Generation.

Steve Eisman's Next Big Short: For-Profit Colleges

| Thu May 27, 2010 7:55 AM EDT

Steve Eisman, the outspoken investor whose huge wager against the subprime mortgage market was chronicled by author Michael Lewis in his bestselling book The Big Short, has set sights on a new target: for-profit colleges of the kind of you might see advertised on daytime TV and at bus stops. Think ITT Educational Services, Corinthian Colleges, or Education Management Corporation.

In a speech titled "Subprime Goes to College," delivered Wednesday at the Ira Sohn Investment Research Conference, Eisman blasted the for-profit education industry, likening these companies to the seamy mortgage brokers who peddled explosive subprime loans over the past two decades. "Until recently, I thought that there would never again be an opportunity to be involved with an industry as socially destructive and morally bankrupt as the subprime mortgage industry. I was wrong," Eisman said. "The for-profit education industry has proven equal to the task." (All of Eisman's remarks here come from a copy of his prepared remarks obtained by Mother Jones.)

Eisman, a blunt, no-frills portfolio manager at FrontPoint Financial Services Fund, a Morgan Stanley subsidiary, became an overnight sensation as one of the main characters in Lewis' latest. After witnessing the first wave of subprime madness in the 1990s, Eisman grew skeptical of the industry as a whole, Lewis writes. Then, when subprime surged again in the 2000s, he put his knowledge to work. Needless to say, he's a lot richer than he was two years ago.

Sarah Palin's Endorsement Curse

| Thu May 27, 2010 7:55 AM EDT

Quiz: What do these struggling or failed political aspirants all have in common?

  • Vaughn Ward, a GOP candidate for Idaho's 1st congressional district who plagiarized Barack Obama's famous 2004 Democratic National Convention speech and thought Puerto Rico was a separate country;
  • Nikki Haley, the South Carolina gubernatorial candidate embroiled in controversy with a political blogger who claims he had an affair with Haley, who is married with two children;
  • Doug Hoffman, the conservative candidate in last fall's special House election in upstate New York's 23rd district who ultimately lost in an upset to Democrat Bill Owens;
  • Tim Burns, the Republican candidate to fill the late Pennsylvania Democratic congressman John Murtha's 12th district who lost to Democrat Mark Critz;
  • Clint Didier, the Republican candidate for Senate in Washington state trailing incumbent Democrat Patty Murray by anywhere from 15 to 26 percentage points; and
  • John McCain, the Republican loser in the 2008 presidential election

They're all the (un)lucky recipients of campaign endorsements from the Tea Party darling herself, Sarah Palin! Of course, there's no doubt Palin remains a superstar in conservative circles, her every tweet and Facebook message treated as conservative scripture these days. And she has been right on a few occasions—notably, Rand Paul in the recent Kentucky GOP Senate primary. But overall, her political seal of approval may be losing some of its luster.

And some of her fellow Republicans have noticed. In early May, Palin endorsed Carly Fiorina in the California Republican Senate primary. Later that month, Matt Rexroad, a director for political strategy group Meridian Pacific, which is employed by Fiorina's campaign, posted on Facebook  that "if Sarah Palin endorsed me I would be too embarrassed to tell anyone. [F]rom my point of view, I don't know how you quit as the governor of your state and get taken seriously." Ouch.

I guess we'll have to wait and see how the remaining candidates that Palin has blessed with her endorsement—Fiorina, Wisconsin House candidate Sean Duffy, et al—fare before deciding whether Palin's support amounts to a golden touch or the kiss of death.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 27, 2010

Thu May 27, 2010 7:54 AM EDT

 

Soldiers fire .50-caliber machine gun rounds at the base of a training target to indicate to nearby helicopters where to fire their rockets during partnered aerial-ground integration training between US and Iraqi forces on Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, on May 21, 2010. Photo via the US Army by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod.

Hurricanes Threaten Gulf Pipelines

| Wed May 26, 2010 8:05 PM EDT

Believe it or not, some 31,000 miles of oil pipelines snake across the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico. New research indicates these pipelines are vulnerable to hurricanes—including waves and currents that persist for up to a week after the passage of a cyclonic storm.

The new study is based on unprecedented observations of the eye of 2004's category-4 Hurricane Ivan as it crossed the Gulf of Mexico directly above a network of sensors on the ocean floor designed to monitor continental shelf currents.

Measurements taken under that hurricane showed storm-propelled currents powerful enough to dig up the seabed down to 300 feet. Computer modelling indicates that hurricanes considerably weaker than Ivan could still tear up the seafloor to 300 feet and cause submarine landslides.

"The stress on the sea floor lasted nearly a week," says Hemantha Wijesekera, lead author of the study out of the Naval Research Laboratory, Stennis Space Center, Mississippi. "It doesn't go away, even after the hurricane passes. Hurricane stress is quite large, so the oil industry better pay attention."

The paper, [pdf] "High Sea-Floor Stress Induced by Extreme Hurricane Waves" is forthcoming in the 10 June issue of Geophysical Research Letters.

(If you appreciate our BP coverage, please consider making a tax-deductible donation.)

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Why Did North Korea Do It? cont'd

| Wed May 26, 2010 7:11 PM EDT

Fred Kaplan, after noting that North Korea has engaged in a number of naval skirmishes with South Korea over the past decade, takes a crack at explaining why they upped the ante and torpedoed a South Korean vessel two months ago:

Some speculate that Kim Jong-il may have planned the March 2010 attack as a show of strength, both to the Seoul government and to his own military commanders. South Korean president Lee Myung-bak had already — for good reasons — abandoned his predecessors' "sunshine policy" of outreach toward the North. Kim is also believed to be caught up in succession concerns — he is thought to be ailing and wants his youngest son, Jong Un, to be installed as his successor (just as he succeeded his own father, Kim Il-Sung) — and he may have felt a need to toughen up his image after the humiliation of last November.

....Who knows how this latest gamble will play out. Some speculate that Kim made the move, hoping that it would frighten the South Korean people into voting out Seoul's current anti-détente government in next month's elections. However, some observers think that Kim has been spoiled by the excess indulgence of the previous two administrations — not realizing that the last few years of northern belligerence have strained the patience of many southerners.

Maybe. As Kaplan says, though, "You may notice the phrases believed to be, thought to be, and may have in the previous sentence." Nobody really has anything more than a guess at this point.

Are Dispersants Killing Natural Oil Eaters?

| Wed May 26, 2010 7:02 PM EDT

BP has dumped about 10,000 gallons of dispersants onto and under Gulf waters in the past month. The idea being that the dispersants will break the oil down into small enough globs for natural marine microbes to clean up.

We know these dispersants are toxic. In lab tests, Corexit—BP's favorite—kills shrimp and fish. Now David Valentine, a biogeochemist at the University of California Santa Barbara, warns the stuff may be riskier than just its toxicity. Corexit may undermine the microbes that naturally eat oil.

Some of the most potent oil-eaters—Alcanivorax borkumensis—are relatively rare organisms that have evolved to eat hydrocarbons from naturally occurring oil seeps. Valentine tells Eli Kintisch at Science Insider that after spills, Alcanivorax tend to be the dominant microbes found near the oil and that they secrete their own surfactant molecules to break up the oil before consuming the hydrocarbons. Other microbes don't make surfactants but devour oil already broken into small enough globs—including those broken down by Alcanivorax.

What we don't know is how the surfactants in Corexit and its ilk might affect the ability of Alcanivorax and other surfactant-makers to eat oil. Could Corexit exclude Alcanivorax from binding to the oil? Could it affect the way microbes makes their own surfactants? Could Corexit render natural surfactants less effective?

The National Science Foundation has awarded Valentine a grant to study the problem.

BTW, experiments from the 1980s done on wildlife in the wild (nesting Leach’s Storm-Petrels on Grand Island off  Newfoundland) found that birds exposed to crude oil or to Corexit lost more eggs and chicks than did control birds. Of the adult birds that survived contamination with higher levels of oil or Corexit, many fewer returned to breed the following year than did control birds—intimating their exposure was lethal in the long run if not the short run.

(If you appreciate our BP coverage, please consider making a tax-deductible donation.)

Fiore Cartoon: A Message from BP

Wed May 26, 2010 6:48 PM EDT

A major spill is always going to be a PR disaster for the oil company at fault, but these last few days have seen BP's image take hit after hit. First, the oil made landfall and journalists were barred from the beaches by BP. Then there was the news that BP overruled drillers in the hours before the blast. There were also more Senate hearings, where Senate Democrats are trying to raise the liability cap for BP to $10 billion. All this while the oil still gushes and BP's ongoing battle with the EPA over the use of toxic dispersants refuses to go away. So Pulizer Prize-winner Mark Fiore decided to lend the troubled oil giant a hand and produced his lastest animation from their perspective. Enjoy! 

This cartoon requires Macromedia's Flash Player. If you don't see the cartoon above, download the player here.

If you appreciate our BP coverage, please consider making a tax-deductible donation.

Corn on "Hardball": Does Obama Use Republicans as Props?

Wed May 26, 2010 6:42 PM EDT

David Corn and Ernest Istook joined host Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss Obama's contentious relationship with Senate Republicans.

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