The story of the 2010 midterm elections is increasingly one of what are called "independent expenditure" campaigns, the secretive organizations that have unleashed a torrent of cash into the political bloodstream thanks to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in January. As the Washington Post reported today, outside interest groups are spending five times as much cash—$80 million—in the 2010 elections as they did four years ago. Most of that money is coming from conservative groups, by a seven-to-one margin. What's more, the source of that money is more unclear than ever, as corporations and labor unions and deep-pocketed ideologues are now able spend freely without having to out themselves.

Today, Peter Stone, a veteran campaign finance reporter with the Center for Public Integrity and Mother Jones contributor, takes an expansive look at 2010 campaign fundraising and the shadowy orgs and operatives behind it. That includes Karl Rove's American Crossroads outfit, one of the biggest players in the midterms so far that's hoping to spend over $50 million to influence voters. But American Crossroads is just one right-leaning player in a field of many, Stone writes:

These independent GOP allies represent the leading edge of the new world of campaign finance, 2010 edition. Sensing a possible takeover on Capitol Hill, they have aggressively tapped a network of angry corporate and conservative donors, a task made easier by the Supreme Court’s famously controversial January ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. That decision overturned decades of campaign finance law and gave the green light to corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on ads and other campaign activities that can urge voters to directly oppose or support individual candidates. Some companies in sectors hit hard by new regulations—including financial, energy and health care interests—are grabbing for their checkbooks, and they are actively seeking the anonymity provided by new and older independent groups in the post-Citizens United world.

The tens of millions being plowed into these groups are also partly attributable to another phenomenon: management and fundraising problems at the Republican National Committee under Chairman Michael Steele. Those woes have given major donors and fundraisers heartburn and prompted many to put their political and financial chips elsewhere.

And now Democratic constituencies are responding. Jittery about a potential avalanche of corporate money flowing to GOP allies, several unions, led by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the AFL-CIO, and the Service Employees International Union, have begun plotting a counter-strategy—hiking their budgets, polishing their famous “ground game” tactics, and expanding cooperative efforts of their own to avoid a debacle in November.

Notwithstanding labor’s defensive efforts, based on budget and spending projections from many big groups on both sides it’s expected that GOP-allied entities are likely to outspend their Democratic foes by a three to two margin and perhaps even two to one.

There's far more here from Stone—on the left's answer to Rove and Co., how unions are seizing on the Citizens United decision, and whether Congress can do anything to stop this spending spree. You can find the full story here. A month away from Election Day, it's well worth your time.

No More TARPs?

In the Wall Street Journal today, Deborah Solomon and Naftali Bendavid point out that while TARP was wildly successful at rescuing the American banking system, it remains wildly unpopular with the American public anyway. And this might be a good thing: bailouts encourage moral hazard, and the fact that TARP is so unpopular means "the chances of another government bailout are essentially nil." Dan Drezner comments:

Now, truth be told, I'm not sure this is entirely accurate. Sure, rescue packages are unpopular now — but let the Dow Jones Industrial Average fall 800 points and politicians might react differently. If, however, the political perception is that no more bailouts from DC will be forthcoming, then it might condition financial players to act in a more prudential manner.

In other words, the Tea Party activists on the right and the netroots activists on the left might be the political lobbies that do the most to preserve the integrity of the U.S. financial system. I'll be spending the rest of the day savoring this irony. I welcome commenters trying to burst my cognitive bubble, however.

OK, I'll take a shot at that. There are only two possible states for any major economy: one in which large scale bank failures are impossible, or one in which the central government prevents large scale bank failures. Now, does anyone think the reforms of the past year have made large scale bank failures impossible? Anyone? Bueller?

Eventually a banking crash will happen again. Maybe sooner, maybe later. And when it does, the U.S. government — even a U.S. government run by Sarah Palin or Dennis Kucinich — will rescue the banking system. Because it won't have any choice.

All the big talk aside, everyone knows this and all the evidence suggests that banks know it too and haven't changed their behavior a whit. TARP was, after all, not the first banking rescue in history. Just in the last 20 years various governments have bailed out Long Term Capital Management, the Swedish banking system, the Mexican banking system, the American savings and loan industry, and a motley collection of southeast Asian banking systems. That's not even a full list, and guess what? It didn't stop banks around the world from acting stupidly in the aughts, and it didn't stop governments around the world from saving their bacon. Because they didn't have any choice.

So forget the talk about how TARP is so unpopular that it can never happen again. Of course it can, because neither the tea parties nor the netroots left has any real influence on U.S. economic policy and the banking industry knows this perfectly well. The next time they fuck up, they'll be rescued. All it will take is another banking crisis.

Welfare in California

Here is the lead story in today's LA Times:

More than $69 million in California welfare money, meant to help the needy pay their rent and clothe their children, has been spent or withdrawn outside the state in recent years, including millions in Las Vegas, hundreds of thousands in Hawaii and thousands on cruise ships sailing from Miami.

....Las Vegas drew $11.8 million of the cash benefits, far more than any other destination. The money was accessed from January 2007 through May 2010....The $387,908 accessed in Hawaii includes transactions at more than a thousand big-box stores, grocery stores, convenience shops and ATMs on all the major islands.

When I read this, I immediately wondered how far the Times would make me read before they told me just how big a percentage of total welfare payments this represents. Let's count.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18....ah, here it is. Paragraph 18, buried deep on page A11 in my print edition:

The out-of-state spending accounts for less than 1% of the $10.8 billion spent by welfare recipients during the period covered, and advocates note that there are legitimate reasons to spend aid money outside of California. From the data provided, it cannot be determined whether any of the expenditures resulted from fraud.

So Vegas/Hawaii/Miami accounts for about 0.11% of total welfare expenditures. Total out-of-state spending accounts for 0.63% of all spending, but as paragraph 18 notes, quite a bit of it is probably legit ("Many recipients travel to other states in an emergency such as a death in the family," we learn in paragraph 24). So figure the total amount of fraud is probably well south of 0.5%.

All fraud is bad fraud, and if welfare payments are being used fraudulently then they should be weeded out. But I gotta say, if over 99.5% of welfare payment are being used properly, that's a helluva well run program.

You used to be able to play as "the Taliban" in the ultra-realistic modern warfare video game Medal of Honor. As you might expect, the prospect of ten- and twelve-year-old American boys killing virtual Marines while pretending to be virtual Taliban bothered some folks. (If you've ever played these games online, you'd know that parents don't adhere to the ratings system.) So now Electronic Arts, the game's publisher, is making a change:

To be sensitive to families and friends of fallen soldiers, the game will be changed so that the "Opposing Force" or "OpFor" — not "Taliban" — will be in the multiplayer mode, says the game's executive producer Greg Goodrich. "Medal of Honor is a big thank-you letter to the troops, and if this one word caused some troops to not be able to receive that ... let's change it and hopefully people will get that."

As far as I can tell, this is a pretty minor change. The "OpFor" characters in the game will still presumably look like (and carry the weapons of) Taliban fighters. I have a vet friend who plays these sorts of games all the time. He certainly doesn't seem to be bothered by the Taliban concept. But I understand how some people might be. As the New York Times' Seth Schiesel pointed out when this issue first arose, the Nazis have been playable characters in World War 2-era games for years. The vast majority of gamers are able to separate video games from reality. Being randomly assigned to be a "Nazi" in a multiplayer video game doesn't make you a Hitler fan anymore than playing as an Elite in Halo makes you an alien (or a human-hater).

All this is to say that I doubt most of the people who actually play Medal of Honor will care about the Taliban issue. But video games are mass media now. Publishers, like moviemakers, have obligations to a broader group than just the folks who play their game. I think those are the folks whom this is directed at. And that's fine. Some gamers will cry censorship, but ultimately this is a minor change. If it makes some people feel better, it's probably for the best. Those ten- and twelve-year-olds will probably just refer to "OpFor" as the Taliban, anyway.

U.S. Army Sgt. Adam M. Hawes, of Pittsburgh, Pa., a squad leader with the military police platoon, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Special Troops Battalion, Task Force Spartan, launches a Raven remotely piloted aircraft at Combat Outpost Garcia here Oct. 2. Hawes was one of several Soldiers taking part in a certification class for the Raven and Puma RPAs. (Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Albert L. Kelley, 300th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

The Carolina Chocolate Drops are gettin' hotter by the minute. This young North Carolina trio—solid multi-instrumentalists and protégés of 91-year-old African American fiddler Joe Thompson—have set out to revive the nearly extinct tradition of black old-time string bands. In their five years of existence, they've recorded five albums, toured with blues great Taj Mahal, performed on NPR's Prairie Home Companion, were the first black string band ever to play the Grand Ole Opry—not that the Opry deserves them—and have been winning over new fans at a rapid clip.

The reason why was evident Friday at Slim's in San Francisco, where I caught the Chocolate Drops the night before their debut at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass fest. Following local openers The Stairwell Sisters, a thoroughly enjoyable five-woman old-time outfit—complete with clogging by Evie Ladin, who plays a mean clawhammer banjo—the Chocolate Drops got the crowd fired up rousing renditions of "Starry Crown" and "Don't Get Trouble in Your Mind." They followed up with a lengthy set in which none other than Mr. Mahal himself joined them onstage to pinch hit on the banjo.

By now you've no doubt heard, or rather seen, Cee-Lo Green's supremely NSFW "Fuck You" on YouTube. Green uploaded a video for his expletive-laden single August 19, and it quickly acquired late-summer anthem status, garnering millions of views and the adulation of Rolling Stone, which called it a contender for best track of 2010. Green, best known as half of Gnarls Barkley, released the video as a sneak preview of his third solo album, The Lady Killer, due in December—and took the YouTube route to circumvent the FCC's regulatory grip on the airwaves. The song became so popular so fast that it was rushed-released to radio within six days, in explicit and bleeped versions, and also as the watered-down "Forget You," which Green has said he hates. The video even spawned a remixed response by 50 Cent, who freestyles over the opening chords with customary bluster.

All this over a video in which there wasn't much to see: It consisted entirely of the song lyrics, in big block type, bouncing around to the tune onscreen. (See below.) The titular refrain appears simply, triumphantly, against a solid red background. Call it the anti-OK Go—a band whose video for "This Too Shall Pass," which went viral back in March, is an astonishingly complex feat of engineering that took the band six months to create; it features a giant Rube Goldberg machine timed in sync with the music. With a piano crashing to the ground on cue and band members supervising the spectacle in paint-splattered jumpsuits, the song itself is all but an afterthought. Green's video seems of a different era.

Unrelatedly: The Focus on the Family bookstore in Colorado Springs has all your back-to-school needs (Photo: Tim Murphy).Unrelatedly: The Focus on the Family bookstore in Colorado Springs has all your back-to-school needs (Photo: Tim Murphy).Butte, Montana—Somewhere along the road between Slab City and the Big Sky, at a time and place that will forever remain unknown, I developed a serious urge to buy a truck. It started off, as all such cravings do, as just a bug. A longing, when I'd pass a large piece of machinery waylaid on the side of the road, to hitch it up to my Sable and tow it away; a wistful gaze when a 4x4 passed by with a hound dog bobbing out of the cab and a fractured piece of furniture in the back.

Things escalated from there. Not just any truck would do: I needed a Chevy Silverado with a 403 horsepower engine and five-ton towing capability. Or a Dodge Ram with a 1,500-lb payload capacity and trailer sway control. Or a Ford F-150 with a whopping 15 miles-per-gallon and a built-in tailgating step, just in case; I'm not sure what I'd do with a tailgating step, but I'd hate to someday find out I needed it and didn't have it. I wanted a big ol', beat-up truck with 150,000 miles on it three times over, and mud splattered amid the rust spots like an industrial-strength Pollack.

I can't tell you when the craving began, but I can tell you exactly where it came from—my radio dial.

The chickens pictured on the egg producer Chino Valley Ranchers' Simply Organic site look pretty happy. And from the description of their digs, it sounds like they'd have good reason to be: "When you walk into the chicken houses and you see all the birds scratching around in the dirt, running around, flapping their wings and hear the soft clucking from each of them, you can feel their contentment," the copy below the little fuzzballs reads. "It is the way nature intended."

An industrial henhouse jam-packed with 36,000 birds, on the other hand, is probably not "the way nature intended." But that is exactly what investigators from the organic food advocacy group Cornucopia Institute found when they visited a Wisconsin henhouse that supplies Chino Valley Ranchers with organic eggs.

And Chino Valley isn't alone. A recent Cornucopia investigation revealed that conditions at many facilities that produce organic eggs are often just as crowded and industrial as those at conventional egg farms. And although US organic standards require outdoor access for laying hens, Cornucopia found that at many organic farms, "outdoors" often consists of nothing more than a tiny concrete screen porch adjoining the tenement-like henhouse.

Last year, a group of organic egg producers (listed below) signed a letter to the National Organic Standards Board opposing the rule that mandates organic operations to grant their chickens outdoor access. They argued that the rule put too much of a financial burden on producers; the Cornucopia report excerpts a comment that Bart Slaugh, Eggland's Best's director of quality assurance, posted to the NASD: "The push for continually expanding outdoor access and decreasing protection needs to stop," writes Slaugh.

Cornucopia plans to file an official complaint to the USDA about the conditions at four farms (listed below), including Hillandale Farms, one of the culprits in the recent salmonella outbreak. While it hasn't been proven that organic eggs are less likely to be contaminated with salmonella than conventional eggs, Cornucopia cofounder Mark Kastel believes that crowded factory-farm conditions can breed disease. "If you are living in these filthy conditions it takes a tremendous toll on your immune system," he says. "And when you are dealing with those incredibly huge industrial scales, you can't pay attention to the health of individual birds."

Cornucopia rates major organic egg producers it investigated on this scorecard. (The setup is a little confusing, since the lowest scorers were those that refused to participate in Cornucopia's survey, not the farms where the most egregious violations were found. That's because Cornucopia rightly believes that producers of organic food should be transparent about their operations.) Here's a list of the organic egg producers that Cornucopia is filing a complaint against, plus the companies that signed the letter opposing outdoor access for chickens:

Here's the latest on campaign spending:

The $80 million spent so far by groups outside the Democratic and Republican parties dwarfs the $16 million spent at this point for the 2006 midterms....The bulk of the money is being spent by conservatives, who have swamped their Democratic-aligned competition by 7 to 1 in recent weeks. The wave of spending is made possible in part by a series of Supreme Court rulings unleashing the ability of corporations and interest groups to spend money on politics. Conservative operatives also say they are riding the support of donors upset with Democratic policies they perceive as anti-business.

The last time I wrote about this I was reminded that the action isn't all on the conservative side: ActBlue is on track to distribute $80 million to Democratic candidates this cycle. That's a pretty impressive number. When it comes to outside interest groups, however, the GOP pretty much owns the airwaves.

For more on the tidal wave of money in politics, check out "Who Owns Congress," a special report in the current issue of the magazine.