2010 - %3, July

Two for One: Gitmo Won't Close, But Illinois Supermax Will Open

| Wed Jul. 7, 2010 10:33 AM EDT

Obama's oath to close the military detention camp at Guantanamo Bay within a year of his election was more than a campaign promise or a post-inauguration executive order; for many people, it signified a return to some semblance of the rule of law after eight years of a rogue administration. But the 44th president had barely taken office when the opposition—and the backpedaling—began. In January 2010, the White House announced that it would miss its original deadline for closing Guantanamo. At the same time, however, the administration presented a plan to buy and refit a state prison in rural Illinois, which it promised would serve as the future home for remaining residents of Gitmo.

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Enviro Links: Abandoned Gulf Wells, Greens Sue Exxon, and More

| Wed Jul. 7, 2010 9:49 AM EDT

In Gulf disaster news:

There are more than 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells in the Gulf of Mexico, many of them closed off decades ago, and no one has been keeping track of whether or not they're leaking, reports the Associated Press. Many are classified as "temporarily abandoned," and may have failing cement jobs because the rules for capping those wells are not as stringent they are for permanent closures.

The Obama administration has asked a federal appeals court to reinstate the moratorium on new offshore drilling.

More tar balls have been found in Galveston, Texas.

The Navy is sending a blimp to help monitor cleanup efforts in the Gulf.

Oil is now making its way into Lake Pontchartrain, a lake that borders New Orleans. More than 1,000 pounds of tar balls and waste have been removed from the lake.

At least the Gulf spill is benefiting someone: Atlantic Coast vacation destinations.

And in other environmental news:

Environment Texas and the Sierra Club are suing the nation’s largest oil refinery in Baytown, Texas, owned by ExxonMobil Corp, for illegally releasing at least 5.9 million pounds of hazardous air pollutants over five years.

The EPA announced new, tougher standards for dangerous sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions yesterday. By 2012, the plan will cut SO2 emissions 71 percent from 2005 levels and nitrogen oxide emissions by 52 percent, the EPA said.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) is pressuring the Obama administration to oppose a massive pipleline that would bring oil into the US from Canada's tar sands.

Did You Know Tar Balls Glow Orange Under UV Light?

| Wed Jul. 7, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Rip Kirby's got the 365-nanometer UV flashlight and I've got the shovel. He's a grad student in the University of South Florida's geology department, and we're standing on Pensacola Beach in the middle of the night digging a hole so he can show me the layers of tar buried beneath new sand the tide has washed up. Some of the tar mat is so thick that it's visible to the naked eye. Other traces of contamination are so subtle that they can only be seen with Kirby's ultraviolet light, which makes crude fluoresce an unnaturally bright orange.

 


Photos: Rip Kirby, Alexander Higgins, Mac McClelland


We trek around Pensacola Beach with the oversize light, illuminating oil everywhere: on decks, driveways, boardwalks, handrails. Blobs of it, smears of it, perfect imprints of footprints glowing neon, far beyond the waves washing oil from the Deepwater Horizon leak ashore. "The problem," says Kirby, who works with USF's Coastal Research Lab, "is that they're not using proper decontamination practices in the cleanup. What they should be doing is stopping the workers at the edge of the contamination area"—the shore within the reach of the waves—"and having them get totally cleaned up or stripped down before they walk away."

He complains about the machines that drive around collecting sand in giant sifters that are supposed to collect the tar balls while redepositing the pretty white sand. "But the sifters are breaking up the tar balls and spreading them all over the place," Kirby says. "This operation and the traffic are spreading the contamination everywhere."

The "traffic" would refer to tourists. Though Pensacola was hardly at full capacity this 4th of July weekend, there were plenty of beachgoers out. "We're having fun at the Hampton Inn Pensacola Beach!" the reservations clerk at the Hampton answers. In the lobby, the lady in the asymmetrical top on HLN says the beaches are closed; past the blaring TV, families outside frolic in the emerald surf. As the hotel desk will tell you, the beach is indeed technically open. The Escambia County Health Department has erected some signs warning people to "avoid" swimming, and that children and pregnant women should avoid the area altogether. I drove down 15 miles of beach and saw only two such warnings. It's definitely possible I missed some—they're about the size of a sheet of computer paper.


"Did y'all go swimming?" I ask a couple coming off the beach in swimsuits and towels. They did. Did they see this sign, I ask, pointing? They lean in closer. They didn't. "Oh!" the woman says. "Well, lotsa people are swimmin' out there, and it seems fine."

It does. But for the tar balls, Pensacola Beach is still jaw-droppingly gorgeous. And the messages coming out of local government are confusing. The little signs on the beach say "oil product" is present and dangerous even if it's not visible. But health department director John Lanza made comments to the Miami Herald urging people to stay out of the water only if they saw oil in it or felt it on their skin while swimming. He also said, "We are not advising that anyone go in the water," right before he said, "If you really want to go into the water, you're welcome to do that.'' He admitted that the EPA hadn't yet determined if the water is safe, but not that the University of West Florida Center for Environmental Diagnostics and Bioremediation is consistently finding crude in its water samples. Nor did he acknowledge that there appears to be no information available about the presence of BP's dispersants, which, tourists may or may not know, with excessive repeated exposure can make your red blood cells explode.

The director of the Louisiana ACLU has pointed out that it's nobody's business to forbid you from rolling around in tainted sand if you're so inclined, any more than government officials can slap a cigarette out of your mouth. But as with warnings on cigarette packs, it is government officials' responsibility to make clear how seriously you could be compromising your health.

"Being on the beach will cause respiratory problems," a woman at the Escambia County citizens' information line told me. "A lot of people who've been in contact with the oil are having that." When I ran that past the county public information officer, she said she had no idea what I was talking about, and that neither the EPA nor the health department had advised the county to shut down the beach. The Escambia County commissioner says he's "not afraid to close the beach'' if he gets "the right kind of information." But, understandably, he doesn't "want to err on the side of putting several people into bankruptcy.'' One anonymous health department employee knows that Pensacola's economics will continue to temper the official messages about possible health effects. "The only way this beach is going to close," he admitted to a group of environmentalists, "is if it's on fire." In the meantime, the top of the Escambia Disaster Response web page announces, "The beaches are open and ready for business!"

And so, there are people everywhere, under the impression that they're "fine," picking up and spreading contamination, the full extent of which is visible only under Kirby's UV light. One of the resorts has put up oil-washing stations on its beaches—not, according to the accompanying signs, for health reasons, but so you don't bring it into the buildings. The pier is packed with tourists fishing. When I arrive there, someone has just caught a blacktip reef shark longer than me. I join the crowd to watch the fisherman wrestle it onto its side, pin it beneath his knees, and start stabbing it to death. Just a few yards further down the pier, another fisherman has snared another one, almost as big. He picks it up by the tail, and when I turn my face away before he can swing it face-first into a wooden post, I see that the guy watching next to me is also wincing.

"This is horrible," I say to him.

"Yeah," he nods, but then reconsiders, and relaxes his furrowed brow. "Though I guess with all this oil, it was just gonna die anyway."

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 7, 2010

Wed Jul. 7, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

 

US Soldiers and Airmen, as well as soldiers from five NATO nations, parachute from a C-130J Hercules aircraft over the Alzey drop zone in southwestern Germany, on June 15, 2010. Photo via the US Air Force by Staff Sgt. Shawn Weismiller.

A Sense of Where We Are: Today's Map

| Wed Jul. 7, 2010 2:19 AM EDT


View Westward Expansion in a larger map

Extreme Presidential Makeover

| Wed Jul. 7, 2010 1:33 AM EDT

Lancaster, Pennsylvania—Rather than lop off the heads of our failed leaders and shun their names, Americans have an endearing tendency to celebrate their misadventures with schools, highways, cities, and quarries upon quarries worth of marble monuments. And that's what's brought us to Lancaster, and the sprawling estate of our fifteenth president. How do you spin the legacy of a man universally regarded as one of America's worst presidents? If you're Patrick Clarke, director of James Buchanan's Wheatland Estate in Lancaster City, it's simple, really: Talk about his prior work experience. Although Clarke says he doesn't avoid the presidency altogether, they make an effort to place his disastrous one term in the context of a lifetime of public service. It's a bit like a music snob saying, "yeah, I liked their old stuff better." But there's some truth to it: While Buchanan was a terrible president, he was involved (if still terribly) in nearly every major bit of foreign policy during the nation's age of expansion. Plus, Clarke notes, if Buchanan were a little less putrid, no one would have been clamoring for Abraham Lincoln.

Buchanan is noteworthy not just for his innovative style of crisis management, but for the theory that he might have also been our first gay president. Clarke says more than a few tourists have stopped by specifically to pop the is-he-or-isn't-he question: "Some of the tour guides are incensed at the question," Clarke says, "but I tell them, if you want to conclude that James Buchanan was heterosexual, that's fine; if you want to believe that James Buchanan was homosexual, that's fine too." If Clarke has an inclination one way or the other, he doesn't say. "We just don't know," he says. And barring the discovery of, say, the Presidents' Book of Secrets, that's how things will stay. "That's one of the great things about history," he says. "You can just keep on arguing forever." That, and it's full of second chances.

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The Problem with GPOs

| Wed Jul. 7, 2010 1:32 AM EDT

Controlling healthcare costs is hardly a new concern. In the 90s the hot topic was HMOs. In 80s it was capitation and vertical integration. And in the 70s it was GPOs, or group purchasing organizations. In the current issue of the Washington Monthly, Mariah Blake explains:

The underlying idea was simple: because suppliers generally give price breaks to customers who buy large quantities, hospitals could get better deals on, say, gauze or gloves, if a group of them came together and bargained for ten cases, rather than each hospital buying a case on its own.

A good idea! But then things changed: hospital collectives started spinning off GPOs as standalone for-profit subsidiaries that other hospitals could join by paying dues. By the end of the 70s, virtually every hospital in America belonged to a GPO — which might still have been a positive development if it weren't for one further thing:

In 1986 Congress passed a bill exempting GPOs from the anti-kickback provisions embedded in Medicare law. This meant that instead of collecting membership dues, GPOs could collect “fees” — in other industries they might be called kickbacks or bribes — from suppliers in the form of a share of sales revenue. (For example, in exchange for signing a contract with a given gauze maker, a GPO might get a percentage of whatever the company made selling gauze to members.) The idea was to help struggling hospitals by shifting the burden of funding GPOs’ operations to vendors. To prevent abuse, “fees” of more than 3 percent of sales were supposed to be reported to member hospitals and (upon request) the secretary of health and human services.

But, as with many well-intended laws, the shift had some ground-shaking unintended consequences. Most importantly, it turned the incentives for GPOs upside down. Instead of being tied to the dues paid by members, GPOs’ revenues were now tied to the profits of the suppliers they were supposed to be pressing for lower prices. This created an incentive to cater to the sellers rather than to the buyers....This situation only grew thornier in 1996, when the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission overhauled antitrust rules and granted the organizations protection from antitrust actions, except under “extraordinary circumstances.” Once again, the idea was to help struggling hospitals, this time by allowing the buying groups to grow big enough to negotiate the best deals for their members. But the decision led to a frenzy of consolidation. Within a few years, five GPOs controlled purchasing for 90 percent of the nation’s hospitals, which only amplified the clout of big suppliers.

The net result, Mariah reports, is that today GPOs sign exclusive sweetheart deals with huge suppliers, and these deals prevent smaller, more innovative companies from breaking into the healthcare market. The exemption from the anti-kickback law was passed with the best of intentions — but then, that's what the road to hell is paved with, isn't it?

Via email, Mariah adds: "Interestingly, despite all the focus on health care costs in the run up to health care reform, GPOs never entered the conversation." But they probably should. The whole piece is worth a read.

Beck U. Courses: Your Ideas

| Tue Jul. 6, 2010 8:44 PM EDT

My, oh my. From Keith Olbermann's Countdown sendup to your comments and tweets, it seems plenty of folks have gone abuzz over Glenn Beck's foray into academe. When he announced—just before the 4th of July holiday—that he'd offer "Beck University" classes online for his angry horde faithful viewers, MoJo drew up a short list of course offerings we hoped to see. And since then, you've added ever more.

Based upon our cullings from the MJ comment section and tweets with the hashtag #BeckUCourses, we've compiled just a few of your crowdsourced course descriptions, with links to the creative readers wherever possible. Below that, check out a live tweet feed of the ideas that just...keep...coming...

Keep an eye out for our next hashtag fandango—what will it be? Post-election job titles for Michael Steele? New policy suggestions from Sharron Angle? The possibilities are—well, if not limitless, a lot of fun, anyway!

  • HITLR 101: Intro to Modern American Politics—@LeahLibresco
  • Art Appreciation with Thomas Kinkade—@S_Shapiro
  • Art 200: Drawing Devil Horns on Obama—@CPUihlein
  • Philosophy 303: Transcending Jus Ad Bellum & Jus In Bello and Just Waging War—@mgdemocracy
  • The Social and Cultural Roots of Founding Fathers Fetishism—@krwilmott
  • Gender Studies 201: Male Tears for Money and Power—@WilliamHarryman
  • Foreign Language Requirement: Tongues (Conversation Class)—@onomatomaniac
  • The Teleology of 911 as Political Weapon: Harnessing the Ineluctable Truthiness—@JoshHarkinson
  • Semiotics 101: Decoding the Hidden Socialist Messages in Household Objects—@sflorini (also known as "Reds Under Beds"—@RedScareBot)
  • Pinko Floyd: Neo-Communist Utopias and Progressive Rock—@thatdanstewart
  • Holocaustic: Appropriating World-Historical Tragedy for Public Speaking Points—@adamweinsteinmj
  • Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death Panels:The Semiotics of Sarah Palin—@joshharkinson
  • From Benedict Arnold to Barack Obama: Hitler's influence on US History—@whatscottreads
  • EDU 551 Rewriting Curriculum and Textbooks Using the Texas Model—Joe Pribyl
  • Keynes 101: The Problem with Bisexual Economists—Anonymous
  • OB/GYN Seminar: Miscarriage Management: Mocking Women on Air—bg
  • Latin 1: How to Give Your Fake University a Real Latin Motto—Anonymous

 

Gulf Sea Turtles Win Protection, For Now

| Tue Jul. 6, 2010 8:35 PM EDT

This is a few days late, but bears mention. Several environmental groups reached a settlement with BP and the Coast Guard last Friday for the company to remove live sea turtles from clumps of oil-soaked seagrasses in the Gulf before they light them on fire. This is fantastic news, as there have been more than 270 burns in the Gulf since the spill and hundreds of turtles found dead. The settlement is for two separate legal actions filed by environmental organizations against BP last week. One was a 60-day intent-to-sue for violations of the Endangered Species Act and other laws, and the other was an immediate injunction to stop the burns until turtle safety concerns could be met. The injunction may be renewed if BP does not live up to its pledge to put trained biologists on boats with the burn crews.

How To Pass a Temporary Stimulus

| Tue Jul. 6, 2010 5:04 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias on the problem of credibly committing to a "temporary" stimulus:

If we paid tons of people to dig ditches and then fill them in, I think it would be easy to convince people that we intended to stop doing that once unemployment fell. But conservatives recognize that, in general, liberals think the government should be spending more money on infrastructure projects and public services. So if we get to pass some spending increases at a time when the case for temporary stimulus is strong, who believes we’ll really give the spending up? And the same thing applies to conservatives and tax cuts.

Actually, I think there's an easy solution to this quite aside from automatic stabilizers like extended unemployment insurance, which will automatically come down as the recession eases. And that solution is: a temporary payroll tax holiday paid out of the general fund. At this point, if we're going to pass a second stimulus I think it needs to be something that takes effect quickly, and a payroll tax holiday is about the fastest possible stimulus you could ask for. What's more, it's pretty effective, since the benefits primarily go to middle and working class families, who are more likely to spend it than rich families. And making it credibly temporary isn't hard either. Just set it on autopilot with a gradual phaseout: maybe a full holiday for two quarters, followed by a 75% holiday, a 50% holiday, and finally a 25% holiday. Or something like that. That would be easy to stick to and would avoid the problem of withdrawing all the stimulus at once just as the economy was starting to seriously pick up steam.

Would Republicans agree to this? Probably not. But some of them might, and public opinion would probably be pretty favorable even among the tea partiers, who prefer tax cuts to deficit reduction by a margin of 49%-42%.

Even if you think federal spending is the first best solution to stimulate the economy, a payroll tax holiday is a pretty good second best solution. It's faster, easier, and more likely to get some Republican support. Liberals could do worse than to start putting their weight behind something like this.