2010 - %3, October

Our Old-New Elite

| Sun Oct. 24, 2010 8:45 PM EDT

Charles Murray has a long moan in the Washington Post today about the New Elite (his term) and its increasing isolation from "mainstream America." What's weird about it is that its core argument is in this passage:

Get into a conversation about television with members of the New Elite, and they can probably talk about a few trendy shows — "Mad Men" now, "The Sopranos" a few years ago. But they haven't any idea who replaced Bob Barker on "The Price Is Right." They know who Oprah is, but they've never watched one of her shows from beginning to end.

Talk to them about sports, and you may get an animated discussion of yoga, pilates, skiing or mountain biking, but they are unlikely to know who Jimmie Johnson is (the really famous Jimmie Johnson, not the former Dallas Cowboys coach), and the acronym MMA means nothing to them.

They can talk about books endlessly, but they've never read a "Left Behind" novel (65 million copies sold) or a Harlequin romance (part of a genre with a core readership of 29 million Americans).

They take interesting vacations and can tell you all about a great backpacking spot in the Sierra Nevada or an exquisite B&B overlooking Boothbay Harbor, but they wouldn't be caught dead in an RV or on a cruise ship (unless it was a small one going to the Galapagos). They have never heard of Branson, Mo.

Even aside from the threadbare trope that anyone who doesn't follow NASCAR isn't a real American, this is nuts. The Old Elite (my term) of a century ago could talk about Tosca or Mahler, but might not have known what was showing at the Palace Theater or seen an entire Pearl White movie all the way through. They probably knew who had won Wimbledon or what regattas were being held off Long Island, but quite possibly didn't know or care who Jack Johnson was. They chattered about Edith Wharton's latest, but had never soiled their hands with In His Steps or Nick Carter Stories. They toured Europe and summered in Maine, but wouldn't be caught dead at Coney Island.

This is just the nature of elites. Of course they do different things than the teeming masses. If they didn't, they'd hardly be elites, would they?

What's odd about Muray's op-ed, though, is that buried beneath his tired catalog of cultural cliches he touches briefly on something that might actually have been interesting to explore: the changing life patterns of our elites. We've always had hereditary elites, this argument would go, but in the past at least our self-made elites mostly came from common backgrounds. Think Henry Ford or John D. Rockefeller. Today, even our self-made elites typically come from upper-middle-class backgrounds. Think Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. Our modern elite class contains virtually no one who has ever had much contact with the working class.

Now, I don't know if this is actually true. But it would be interesting to take a look and find out. Unfortunately, Murray doesn't bother. Instead, he just stuffs a whole bunch of tired red-blue/heartland-coastal/urban-rural chestnuts into a tattered burlap sack and heaves it onto the Post op-ed page. Blecch.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Will California Legalize Pot?

| Sun Oct. 24, 2010 12:54 PM EDT

Via Mark Kleiman, here's an interesting poll result for Proposition 19, the initiative to legalize marijuana cultivation and sale in California. It comes from the pro-19 forces, and I don't have any independent way of knowing how reliable it is, but it shows that standard polling has Prop 19 losing 46%-41%, while automated polling shows it winning 56%-41%.

Take this for what it's worth. I'm basically skeptical that Prop 19 will pass, and I have my doubts that there's really such a large number of people who are afraid to express support for Prop 19 to a live interviewer. Supporting pot legalization isn't really a huge stigma in California, after all. Still, it's interesting if it's legit. We'll find out a week from Tuesday.

California Business

| Sun Oct. 24, 2010 12:30 PM EDT

The chart on the right comes from the LA Times. It shows that, despite the endless complaints about California being such a business unfriendly state, our corporate tax take has gone down dramatically over the past 30 years:

California takes about 4.7% of what a business produces in taxes — which happens to be the national average. The government take is higher in Alaska (13.8%), New York (5.5%) and Florida (5.3%). Even Texas, known for rolling out the red carpet for business, pocketed more than California — 4.9%.

That's according to an annual study of the tax burdens in all 50 states by the Council on State Taxation, a business-friendly group led by senior executives of Chevron Corp., General Electric Co. and other major corporations. "California is pretty middle-of-the-pack when it comes to business taxes," said Joseph R. Crosby, the organization's senior director of policy.

Granted, there's more to business friendliness than just taxes. California has more stringent environmental rules than most states, for example. And the article notes that California's corporate tax structure tilts downward: big companies tend to pay fairly low taxes while small companies pay higher taxes. (Thanks, Chamber of Commerce!) Still, most of the griping you hear comes from big companies, and most of it revolves around taxes. But the fact is that their tax bill just isn't especially high.

The Asymmetry of Incompetence

| Sat Oct. 23, 2010 3:46 PM EDT

From Thoreau, who lives nearby and who I really ought to meet someday:

I’m probably just dwelling on the trivialities of my comfortable suburban professional existence, but my basic grievance against big companies is that when they screw up they take 6-8 weeks to fix it, usually after multiple phone calls and whatnot, but if I screw up a penalty is immediately levied. This happens on every scale, from billing snafus with $7 fees, to cases of people being foreclosed on even though they had never missed a payment and spent money on lawyers to prove this, to “Oops, we broke the global economy, could you send $1 trillion to our Nigerian accounts?”

The latest snafus on my end are (1) I’m getting a bill for water service in an apartment that I moved out of, for a billing period that doesn’t overlap my last month in that apartment and (2) I set up autopay with another utility, or at least tried to, something didn’t go through, and now I’m paying a $7 late fee....It’s not the $7, it’s the asymmetry of the responsibility. If I screw up (and I still maintain I did everything necessary for autopay!), I have to pay a late fee. If they screw up, they give me runaround. As long as it’s $7 at stake, fine, but they do this at every level. I think of the hassle I had to go through to get the title for my car after I paid off the loan (early) and I can’t even imagine the hell it must be to have your house foreclosed because of a snafu that they didn’t even notify you of (because of another snafu).

So, I say that we should be able to put large companies on hold when they want something, send them through phone trees, and ask them to re-submit paperwork that we may or may not lose track of.

All in favor, raise your hands. Motion carried! 

What's In Your Placebo?

| Sat Oct. 23, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

In the 1960s, a six-year trial of a potential heart-disease drug was conducted in 19 hospitals across Scotland. Researchers gave 350 subjects with heart problems a drug containing the agent clofibrate; 367 got a placebo. For the most part, clofibrate proved to be statistically better at prolonging the subjects' lives. But when it came to a subgroup of participants who had recently suffered a heart attack, clofibrate was only as good as the placebo. Normally, the mortality rate following a heart attack was four to nine percent per a year. But the placebo group's was less than three percent.

It's possible that the placebo group was just an unusual sampling of heart-attack patients with an above-average survival rate. This was the conclusion that the researchers published in 1971. But, as it turns out, the study's placebo contained olive oil, which is now known to fight heart disease. It appears that this possibility never occurred to the researchers. However, since they published their placebo's ingredients, others were able to question and examine their conclusion. Yet more often than not, researchers don't disclose what's in their placebos—making oversights like the Scottish researchers' nearly impossible to catch.

Will New Air Force Motto Take Off?

| Fri Oct. 22, 2010 5:29 PM EDT

The US Air Force announced earlier this month that it had finally adopted a new motto: "Aim high...fly-fight-win!" This simple slogan of five monosyllabic words took nine months of research and development by a crack team that included a lead scientist, two generals, a colonel, and the service's top enlisted man, who surveyed airmen and vets around the world. I had to check and make sure that Major Major Major Major wasn't a member of the Air Force's "motto team," because its work sounds like a scene straight out of Catch-22:

When the Air Force motto team embarked on the project, they committed to Airmen buy-in in an inclusive, well-researched effort, rooted in Air Force culture and identity...

"We took the time to try to get this right," General Schwartz said. "A service motto belongs to those who serve, and we've done our best to give voice to how Airmen feel about serving this nation...

After understanding the shared identity, the motto team began transforming words and concepts into a unifying, enduring and credible motto, said Lt. Col. Clark Groves, lead scientist for the project.

"The research team held more meetings with nearly 250 Airmen on bases in each major command, discussing scores of identifying words and concepts tied to the core Airman identity," he explained. "These discussions, information from Air Force historical archives and input from total force Airmen, Air Force civilians, retired Airmen, and the public provided the basis for identifying the ideal motto candidates."

This took nine months of R&D? Anyone who was alive in the '80s will remember the "aim high" recruiting tagline. And Schwartz, the Air Force's big cheese, has been using the "fly-fight-win" motto in pep talks since at least 2008. Why, I don't know. It's an eminently vapid mission statement, like a football team adopting the creed "Score more points."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

An Ethics Overhaul at BLM?

| Fri Oct. 22, 2010 3:45 PM EDT

Looks like the Department of Interior's Bureau of Land Management plans to look into the potential ethics violations of its former New Mexico district manager, Steve Henke, after all. Henke, as we've reported here previously, was cited by the Department of Interior's inspector general for what seemed like pretty clear violations of ethics policy, like accepting trips from the companies he was supposed to be regulating and getting them to fund his kid's baseball team. He recently left his post to take a job as head of an oil and gas industry advocacy group. This week, BLM Director Bob Abbey signaled that he wants the Department to investigate the case again.

Abbey sent a letter to Acting Inspector General Mary Kendall asking her office to "renew its investigative inquiries regarding certain 'questionable activities' that may have occurred during the tenure of Steve Henke, to include activities which eventually led to his employment by the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association."

The watchdogs over at the Project on Government Oversight have been calling for an investigation, pointing to this as just another example of an agency in the Department of Interior falling down on the job. The group applauded today's announcement, but wondered if there are larger reforms underway.

"Why does it take a punch in the gut to get Interior to do anything on ethics? This is an obvious first step that BLM needs to take in order to assure the public that the agency takes a serious approach to ethics," said Danielle Brian, POGO's executive director. "But Interior still needs a cultural overhaul. We all saw what happened the last time an agency within Interior made itself vulnerable to industry influence and failed to hold ethics offenders accountable." (She's referring, of course, to the former Minerals Management Service, whose many failures have been fingered in the months since the Deepwater Horizon disaster.).

Terror Trial Update: The Sparring Match Begins

| Fri Oct. 22, 2010 3:14 PM EDT

Read Karen Greenberg's previous coverage of the trial of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the first Guantanamo detainee to be tried in a civilian court.

If Wednesday's testimony was a step into the historical al Qaeda, now obsolete in many ways, yesterday's was an attempt to link that al Qaeda back to the defendant. By the end of the day, Ghailani seemed slightly more present in the prosecution's grand narrative.

The day began with a description of al Qaeda's criteria for selecting new members. "Young and trust," L'Houssaine Kherchtou, a former al Qaeda member and Osama bin Laden's pilot, testified. Young because "if you are new, nobody knows who you are." "Trust is very important," he asserted several times.

Kherchtou was confident during his direct examination the other day, his memory full of granular detail, his words nearly matching those he had used at the first embassy bombing trial in 2001. His easy manner belied the violent nature of the organization he was describing. But on cross examination yesterday, he became a more elusive witness: "I don't remember," "What do you mean by missions?", "What does 'revered' mean?"

Introducing 'Climate Hawks'

| Fri Oct. 22, 2010 3:09 PM EDT

On Monday I asked, "What should we call people who care about climate change and clean energy?" A fantastic discussion ensued, up to 226 comments and counting—thanks to everybody who weighed in, not only on the site, but on Facebook, Twitter, email, and "words spoken in my physical presence" (kids, ask your parents!).

As the logorrheic post below will attest, I've read all your feedback and given the matter quite a bit of thought. At long last I've settled on something I'm happy with, though of course I'm just Some Blogger and who cares what I think.

Without further ado, the winner is ... [drumroll] ...

Climate hawks.

WikiLeaks Iraq Dump Is On

| Fri Oct. 22, 2010 2:36 PM EDT

[UPDATE: As of 5 p.m. EDT Friday, the WikiLeaks Iraq documents have dropped...all 391,831 of them. They are accessible in a searchable database here. Find anything you think is worth highlighting? Want to help drive MoJo's coverage? Let us know in the comments below, or email scoop@motherjones.com.]

WikiLeaks and its erstwhile mainstream media partners this weekend will release hundreds of thousands of documents relating to the Iraq war's conduct, a representative of one of the news organizations confirmed to Mother Jones.

A New York Times representative told MoJo that the data dump is coming soon, and other news outlets are reporting that the leak will form the basis of the Times' page 1 coverage Saturday. Al-Jazeera also confirmed the leak, saying it "has had full access to the documents." That would be a new development; in previous Afganistan coverage, WikiLeaks has leaned exclusively on the Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel.

The Iraq document dump had been rumored to occur earlier this week, but WikiLeaks' secretive honcho, Julian Assange, took potshots at those reports. It appears the leak had been held off to give the mainstream news organizations more time to mull the documents over, but that couldn't immediately be confirmed Friday.

In any case, like the DOD, Mother Jones has a team of knowledgeable investigators ready to pore over the document database once it's published. What specific issues or incidents would you most like to see investigated? Leave a comment below or email scoop@motherjones.com.