2010 - %3, August

Obama's "Cat Food Commission," Alan Greenspan, and the Dancing Grannies for Medicare

| Mon Aug. 9, 2010 11:04 AM EDT

President Obama’s Deficit Commission is all smoke and mirrors. Its members are making a big show of laboring over "painful" choices and considering all options in their quest to bring down the deficit. But inside the Beltway everyone knows what’s going to happen: The commission will reduce the deficit on the backs of the old and the poor, through cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Some opponents have taken to calling it the Cat Food Commission, since that’s what its victims will be forced to eat once the commission gets done slashing away at their modest entitlements.

In fact, the true intent of the Deficit Commission was evident before it was even formed. That intent was only driven home when Obama appointed as its co-chair Alan Simpson, who is well known for voicing, in the most colorful terms, what Paul Krugman calls the "zombie lie" that old-age entitlements will soon bankrupt the country.

So why the big show? Because neither Obama nor Congress wants to get caught cutting Social Security and Medicare in public, certainly not before the November elections. (Medicaid will be cut as well, but politicians tend not to worry so much about poor people, since they don’t go to the polls in the numbers we geezers do.) So instead, they are foisting off this unpleasant task onto the Deficit Commission, showing what the lawyers call "due diligence," sucking their thumbs and pretending to study how to cut the deficit. They’ve got $1 billion in walk-around money to pay for propaganda so the PR industry ought to be plenty happy. So too, should billionaire Pete Peterson, as he and his foundation lackeys push on towards a victory in their longstanding attack on entitlements.

Quite frankly, if the Republican Right could get itself together and shove the tea party nuts back into their cave—as Reagan did with the crackpots hanging around him—they too could reap the benefits of the Cat Food Commission’s work. Ever since the New Deal, the Right has been kicking and screaming about Social Security. Things just got worse in the 1960s with Medicare and Medicaid. And now, thanks to our supposedly "socialist" president, they are within a few inches of cutting a nice hefty hunk out of the largest social programs this nation has ever known.

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Are Other Oil Giants Better Prepared for a Disaster?

| Mon Aug. 9, 2010 9:40 AM EDT

Investors representing $2.5 trillion in assets are pressuring oil and gas giants to prove that they're better-prepared than BP was to prevent or deal with a massive disaster. Fifty-eight global investors, including the New York State Comptroller, California State Treasurer, Florida State Board of Administration, sent letters to the CEOs of 27 oil and gas companies.

The effort was led by the sustainable business group Ceres. From the letters to the companies:

The shareholder harm that has flowed from the BP spill has focused investor attention on the need for good governance, compliance, and management systems to minimize the risks associated with deepwater offshore oil and gas development worldwide. The BP Gulf of Mexico disaster has also highlighted the need for clear, comprehensive, well-tested response plans by oil and gas companies for dealing with future offshore accidents.

"It is important for all companies involved in subsea deepwater drilling to be open and transparent with investors and stakeholders at this crucial historic moment," the investors continued. Targets included Petrobras, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell, the three biggest deepwater drillers, as well as Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Hess, and Statoil.

The investors inquired about how much the companies have invested in spill prevention and response planning, what their contingency plans are in the event of a spill, and what lessons they have learned from the BP disaster. They also asked to see the companies' policies on selecting and overseeing contractors and their internal governance structures in place to manage risks.

It's pretty easy to understand why investors would care; BP's stock has dropped more than a third since the disaster began in April. And it's still not clear how much the oil giant will have to pay out between fines and damages.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 9, 2010

Mon Aug. 9, 2010 8:26 AM EDT

 

US Army Soldiers of 101st Airborne Division 1st Battalion 1-237 Infantry stand outside the town of Badmuk ready to assault Taliban forces suspected to be hiding in the town, Kunar province, Afghanistan, on Aug. 2. Photo via the US Army photo by Spc. Anthony Jackson.

Girl-Friendly Pop Stars

| Mon Aug. 9, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Lately I've envied the tweens. I covet their pop stars, who are clearly superior to the bland barbies that I grew up with. When I was 13—the age that I most cared about these things—it was all Brittany and Mandy and Jessica. Yes, there were a few bright spots, but now it seems there's actually a critical mass of talented, rebellious, gender-norm-defying women in pop. When you're 13, and don't yet know how to find music beyond what your parents listen to and what MTV says is cool (another point of envy, then: Pandora), a readily available stream of not-lame divas is pretty significant. So here's a list of the best girl-friendly pop stars out there today:

1) Robyn. The Swedish electropop singer's dancing is kinda bad. Stomping, fun, alone-in-your-room bad. With Robyn, that's the point: Whether it's her crooked set of pre-braces teeth, or her weirdo geometric clothes and clashing colors, she treads the line between sexy and ugly and just keeps treading that line. In short, she's the perfect pop star for an awkward adolescent.

2) Janelle Monáe. Does your favorite 12-year-old love EragonEnder's GameStar Wars fan fiction, LARPing? Monáe's an artist for her to geek out on. She's sci-fi put to soul, rock, and hip hop. In fact, it's hard to find her wearing anything but either a tux or robot gear. The Kansas City native's first album, Metropolis, was inspired by the 1927 German silent film. Since then, Monáe has developed an entire hip hopera based on the story of Cindi Mayweather, a messianic ArchAndriod sent to free the citizens of Metropolis from the dystopian secret society oppressing them. Monáe, who co-founded her own art society before she made it big, seems to hold a similar mission in real life: "Creativity, imagination and beauty still matter," she wrote in her studio's blog. "People the world over have the same concerns: they love wonder. And they love a good story, a good melody, products that are put together with care and engineered to heal the soul." Did I mention her great dance moves?  

3) Miranda Lambert.  If a girl's gonna hear way too many heartache songs for her own good—and she's gonna—much better that they're Lambert's angry, set fire to the culprit variety. In Kerosene, the country star smiles prettily at the camera and drags a gas can away from some cheatin' bastard's tin-roof house. Another song has her crooning, "I'm gonna show him what little girls are made of/Gunpowder and lead." Lambert has also beenadmirably principled about her music: At 16, she recorded a demo in Nashville but hated its "cheesy" sound. She returned home to Texas and learned guitar so she could write her own stuff. Girls Rock camps would be proud. 

4) M.I.A. For the budding activist tween. M.I.A.'s politics are controversial. She moved to London with her mother and siblings as a refugee from Sri Lanka's civil war in the 1980s, and her songs don't let you forget it. Gunshots and bomb blasts pepper her refrains; her lyrics are militant. But at least they stray from that evergreen pop topic, love, a reminder to young girls that there is actually other important stuff out there. And yes, you can dance to songs about it, too. 

5) Beyoncé. Well, duh. Knowles has been around since the dark days of divadom, de-ditzifying the airwaves with Destiny's Child tunes like Survivor and Bootylicious. She's done the same as a solo artist. When the Jessicas and the Brittanies self imploded, Beyoncé kept her cool. Now, she's a veritable pop matriarch—the next Michael Jackson, some speculate. She's classy, innovative, not stick-skinny, and has an impressive work ethic. My fresh-of-out-middle-school cousin sums it up nicely: "Beyoncé's a fantastic role model," she writes in a text. "My mom agrees."  

6) Lady Gaga. Role model? Debatable. It's not entirely proper to flip off a stadium full of baseball fans, nor is it all that ladylike to talk about losing one's power through one’s lady-parts. But bubbles, armadillo shoes, monsters! Gaga has an imagination as mad as any middle school girl's, and an equally vibrant sense of play. For that matter, what pop star has ever, ever, incorporated sandwich-making into a dance? (Gonna be okay, body-conscious tweens, just dance!) At times, the machine-gun clad singer can sound positively girlish herself. "I'm just a girl from New York City who decided to do this, after all," she told New York Magazine earlier this year. "Rule the world! What's life worth living if you're not going to rule it?"

 

Musicians on Our Radar: Best Coast

| Mon Aug. 9, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

The female characters that populate the songs of Los Angeles-based Bethany Cosentino, A.K.A. Best Coast, are in a perpetual state of heartbreak. Boys just want to be friends. Boys squabble. Boys leave and don't return.

Her debut full length "Crazy For You", released July 27th on Mexican Summer, is a window into the soul of an angst-ridden teenager (though Cosentino is 23). But this teenager (at heart) has got soul. The music is sun-drenched California garage rock blended with girl group bravado. The melodies are catchy—the album's final track "When I'm With You," perhaps the most optimistic lyrically, transitions from a slow dirge to a poppy sing-a-long (check out the video featuring a Ronald McDonald look-a-like below).

Though these narrators may be heartbroken, Cosentino's affirmative voice gives them strength and resolve. "All the '50s and '60s girl group stuff is about heartache," she explained in an interview. "It's just me trying to do a little bit of an homage to the songs of that era." Or perhaps her heart was broken as a child commercial actor (she's the fifth in this Little Caesar's conga line).

No matter her source of inspiration, Cosentino is the latest addition to our list of Los Angeles artists to be watched, which, in case you were curious, includes Ariel Pink, No Age, HEALTH, and Abe Vigoda. Not to mention that she has the best album cover of 2010. (Kevin Drum, I'm looking at you.) She brings her love(lorn) songs on the road this September—tour dates and songs here.

 

 

Are Email Attachments Bad for the Environment?

| Mon Aug. 9, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

At one of my first jobs ever, there was a guy who would print out every single email he received. Then, to make matters worse, he would forget about his printed emails and leave them on the printer. Occasionally, just to give him a hard time, we would hand deliver his emails to him and announce their contents. "Your wife says pork chops for dinner and she loves you!"

I haven't encountered anyone with that irksome habit since, probably because most people now understand that printing something doesn't make it more real. But according to Matthew Yeager, a data storage expert who works for the UK data services and solutions company Computacenter, emails—especially those with attachments—still use energy and create greenhouse gas emissions, even if you don't print them. Last month, Yeager told the BBC that sending an email attachment of 4.7 megabytes—the equivalent of about 4 photos taken on a point-and-shoot digital camera—creates as much greenhouse gas as boiling your tea kettle 17.5 times. I called Yeager to find out the whole story.

What I ended up getting was a very brief introduction to the strange world of data storage. According to Yeager, at some point in the coming year, the world will have a grand total of 1.2 zettabytes of stored data, requiring equipment with a mass equivalent to that of 20 percent of the island of Manhattan. Wonder how much data 1.2 zettabytes actually is? "If you took all the content in all the US's academic libraries and multiplied it by half a million, that would be 1.2 zettabytes," says Yeager.*

Part of the reason we have so much data has to do with redundancy: Let's say you take a picture and send it to 20 people. Each of those people then have to download it, which requires equipment—personal computers, servers, and storage centers. Steve Duplessie, a senior analyst at the Massachusetts-based data storage company Enterprise Strategy Group, explained it this way. "Ten years ago, a movie studio would physically make a certain amount of copies and then ship them off to the movie theater. Today every kid you know can create the equivalent amount of data in two minutes with an iPhone. We keep making data easier to create, so people do it. And data is not sedentary. It is shipped everywhere, usually over email. All of a sudden there are 7,000 copies, and because of that there are 7,000 devices that are being run to support that data."

Yeager didn't go into the details of how he arrived at the 17.5 kettle-boils figure, and Duplessie told me he wonders how anyone could come up with a data-storage figure that precise. Still, Duplessie says, the important lesson is, "Data is physical. When you have a million copies of the same thing, that's a big problem."

The good news is that we are getting better at sharing data more efficiently. Many email programs are beginning to make use of a concept called virtualization, or spreading the workload of transmitting data across many different servers, thereby making the whole process more efficient. "Virtualization is like the carpool lane," says Yeager. "Your email is carpooling. The more people you stick in that car the better." Equipment is getting more efficient, too. According to Yeager, the newest servers are about 1/20th the size of old servers, and as many as 50 times more powerful. Yeager notes that a few email servers—for example, Google—have already made these improvements (meaning that if you're a Gmail user, you're probably doing significantly better than the 17.5 boils figure).

The bottom line: Avoid sending giant attachments if you can. "In the last five or ten years a lot of people have added these 'think before you print' signatures to their emails," says Yeager. "Well we should all have 'think before you attach.'" Luckily, there are easy ways to share your data without attachments: Instead of sending photos directly to all your friends and family members, upload them to central locations like Flickr or Facebook. "It's much more efficient to send a link to a place where everything is stored," says Yeager. For audio and video files, I often use hosting sites like Sendspace or MediaFire.  

*- This sentence originally misquoted Matthew Yeager that 1.2 zettabytes was equal to the data in all the world's academic libraries multiplied by half a million. 1.2 zettabytes is actually only equal to the data in all the US's academic libraries multiplied by half a million.

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Plenty of Jobs, Not Enough Workers?

| Mon Aug. 9, 2010 12:33 AM EDT

The Wall Street Journal reports that even with unemployment at 9.5%, employers are having trouble finding workers:

In Bloomington, Ill., machine shop Mechanical Devices can't find the workers it needs to handle a sharp jump in business. Job fairs run by airline Emirates attract fewer applicants in the U.S. than in other countries. Truck-stop operator Pilot Flying J says job postings don't elicit many more applicants than they did when the unemployment rate was below 5%.

Sounds puzzling. Unless you read the rest of the story. The truck stop job, it turns out, pays minimum wage. The airline job requires you to move to Dubai. And the machine shop company pays only $13/hour but requires people with very specific skills. When they set up a ten-week training course of their own, they got plenty of applicants and 16 out of 24 graduated. But apparently we've gotten to the point where blue collar employers are barely willing to invest even ten weeks in training new workers for high-skill entry level positions.

There seems to be a common disconnect in stories like this. On the one hand, as the Journal notes, there really is some evidence that employers are having difficulty finding workers:

Since the economy bottomed out in mid-2009, the number of job openings has risen more than twice as fast as actual hires, a gap that didn't appear until much later in the last recovery....If the job market were working normally — that is, if openings were getting filled as they usually do — the U.S. should have about five million more gainfully employed people than it does, estimates David Altig, research director at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. That would correspond to an unemployment rate of 6.8%, instead of 9.5%.

....Researchers at the Federal Reserve have estimated that [unemployment] benefits could account for between 0.4 and 1.7 percentage points of the unemployment rate. That doesn't cover the 2.7-percentage-point gap between the current jobless rate and what Mr. Altig's analysis of job openings suggests the rate should be.

But on the other hand, the examples they come up with are pretty lame. So what's up? Even if there's a shortage of high-skill workers, that's a long-term problem, not something caused by the recession. In fact, as the chart accompanying the story shows, the number of high-skill job openings has declined since 2008. At the very least, then, companies should be having an easier time — slightly easier, anyway — filling their open positions unless either (a) they've lowered their wages or (b) high-skill workers are literally retiring en masse. Whatever it is, something doesn't quite add up here.

The Cost of Doing Business in Grand Isle

| Sun Aug. 8, 2010 12:59 PM EDT

Grand Isle, Louisiana—One of the three occupied campsites at Grand Isle State Park is taken up by an environmental activist in a bio-diesel bus; the other two are active in the oil industry. I get the now-familiar "we're not allowed to talk to you" from one couple involved in the cleanup. But Timmy Magnon, who's there with his wife and kids, is more open. He works in the industry (not for BP) and is camping here on a business trip; it's cheap, conveniently situated (there's a seaplane base down the street), and available on short notice.

"It was bound to happen sooner or later. All we keep saying is it's better it happened to an oil giant like BP than a smaller company that didn't have the funds to contain the spill," he says. "It's a cost of business."

Closer to the beach, a few steps past the red-and-white signs warning pedestrians to stay clear, I meet Wendy Ray and her family, visiting from New Orleans. She’s snapping photos of her kids in front of a backdrop of booms, Coast Guard vessels, mounds of sand, and orange barriers.

"Am I supposed to smile?," asks her daughter.

Wendy used to visit the park as a young biology student; she hadn't returned in 35 years, until today. "It was more natural then," she says. No kidding. The beach today, in addition to the sights mentioned above, also carries with it a thick aroma of petroleum, which Wendy says reminds her of fried fish.

Over the last few weeks, there's been a bit of a kerfuffle over reports, greatly exaggerated, that the Gulf's floating oil has disappeared. I won't really comment on that—read Mac McClelland instead—except to say that after actually seeing the town, the search for oil really misses the point. Driving down Bayou Lafourche, I passed dozens of tied-up fishing trawlers idling away the cleanup, boarded-up seafood shacks, and rows of homemade signs lambasting BP. You need to see oil in Grand Isle as much as you need to see the shark in the first hour-and-a-half of Jaws; the fallout should be enough. Anyways, there's little I can say about Grand Isle that Mac hasn't already written. So check her stuff out here, and read the rest of MoJo's full team coverage here.

Update: This just went up today, but you should really just stop what you're doing and read Julia Whitty's piece on what BP's scientists aren't telling us about the spill. It's probably the definitive (at this point in time) explanation of just what we're missing when pretend the oil isn't there. Seriously, check it out.

Quote of the Day: The Future of Schools

| Sun Aug. 8, 2010 12:39 PM EDT

From Berkeley professor Michael O'Hare, promoting the value of online pedagogy:

All the research I’ve seen indicates lectures are really lame devices for retention or any real learning. If the ego boost for the prof of having a roomful of students listening to him for ninety minutes twice a week is important, let’s find a cheaper way to deliver it, maybe with medals or parking spaces.

Or jetpacks. Weren't we supposed to have jetpacks by the time all this primitive face-to-face learning stuff became obsolete?

Is Paul Ryan a Flimflam Man?

| Sat Aug. 7, 2010 7:42 PM EDT

Paul Krugman says Rep. Paul Ryan is a flimflam man because he claims his Roadmap would cut the federal deficit. The problem is that although the CBO scored his spending cuts, they didn't score his tax plan, and when the Tax Policy Center took a look at it they concluded that his plan would reduce taxes a whole bunch, thus creating a considerably larger deficit than Ryan says. Megan McArdle pushes back, explaining that it's the JCT that scores tax plans, not the CBO:

As a matter of fact, Paul Ryan is willing to work on the revenue side. And he has explained this — on his web site, in February, when these complaints were first aired.

....My recollection is also that Paul Ryan couldn't get the JCT committee staff time anyway because they were a wee bit busy doing all the forecasts for health care reform....At any rate, the answer to Paul Krugman's question "Why didn't he ask" is that "He did, and they said no."

While I remain skeptical that anything like the Roadmap is politically possible, Paul Ryan is doing exactly what any sensible congressional sponsor with limited access to CBO time does; he's saying "Well, when this is getting close to being an actual bill, we'll work with the CBO and the JCT to tweak the tax rates in order to provide the amount of revenue we need." This is entirely normal.

Well....OK. Up to a point. But look: Ryan surely has some responsibility to make the tax side of his plan as realistic as possible, especially given his chosen role as toughminded truthteller. And the Tax Policy Center made it pretty clear months ago that he wasn't even close to his revenue goal. It's easy to wave this off as requiring mere "tweaks" to the tax rates, but those tweaks are exactly the place where anyone would quite reasonably be most suspicious of Ryan's willingness to play fair. After all, two or three points of GDP is a lot of money, and a tax skeptic like Ryan is going to have a very hard time making the changes necessary to come up with that kind of dough.

Ryan's Roadmap is 70 pages long and obviously the result of a lot of work. So why not put in a little more work and bring the tax side of the plan into the realm of reason? Is it really that cynical to think it's because he's trying to get credit for being a deficit fighter without having to give up the dramatic tax cuts for the rich he so obviously has his heart set on?