2011 - %3, January

Please Don't Be Offended

| Mon Jan. 24, 2011 12:15 PM EST

I might be the last person to notice this, but I still sort of wonder what it says about us. I was over at Dave Weigel's place a few minutes ago, and he linked to a Twitter post by Jim Geraghty, who I don't happen to follow. When I clicked the link, it included the following message:

This Tweet is from someone you're not following. The media they're mentioning could be anything, even something you might find offensive.

It could be anything! We can't have that, can we? Best to hide it from sensitive eyes.

This is, obviously, no big deal, and you can change your default setting pretty easily to see everything automatically. Still, it seems a little dismaying that we're so delicate these days that even when we actively click on a link, we apparently need to be protected from the mere possibility of getting a fleeting glimpse of something we might find offensive. Buck up, America!

And while we're on the subject of why not a single Republican has announced a presidential candidacy yet — yep, that's the subject — isn't the answer obvious? It's because they all know Barack Obama is as good as a shoo-in in 2012. Unless something cataclysmic happens, the only reason for any Republican to run is either as a vanity candidate or to get practice for 2016.

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Sam Cooke's Wild Side

| Mon Jan. 24, 2011 11:36 AM EST

Sam Cooke
Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963
RCA

Eighty years ago last Saturday, Sam Cooke was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He started out as a gospel singer, and when he switched to recording secular music his smooth style made him an instant success. In the short 33 years before he was killed by a motel manager in Los Angeles, California, he wrote and recorded 29 Top 40 soul hits. In 2008, Rolling Stone ranked his voice as the fourth-greatest of all time, behind only Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and Elvis Presley. But Cooke didn't always stick to the polished sound that made him famous. As his often-overlooked album Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 reveals, there were two very different sides to Mr. Soul.

Liberals and Economic Growth

| Mon Jan. 24, 2011 11:19 AM EST

Mike Konczal and Matt Yglesias scoff at the notion that the economy will suffer unless the president constantly massages the egos of sensitive businessmen, a sentiment I share profoundly. Matt goes on to note that, in any case, regardless of what the business class thinks, economic growth is usually better under Democrats than Republicans:

The fact of the matter is that businessmen like conservative politicians....Economic growth was better in the 1990s than in the 2000s, but businessmen liked George W Bush better than Bill Clinton. Growth was better under FDR than under Eisenhower, but businessmen liked Ike. And that’s fine, businessmen are free to like or dislike whomever they want. But their subjective view of politicians doesn’t cause or hamper economic growth.

....I really do think progressives need to try harder to claim the mantle of growth for ourselves. Conservatives like to talk about the importance of economic growth, but they’re not only bad at delivering it in practice, they’re remarkably hostile to the idea of boosting growth....

I agree that liberals ought to do a better job of persuading the electorate that liberal policies are friendly toward economic growth, but it's worth a pause to say that even if we do this successfully it won't affect the business community's view of us at all. Despite what they say, business executives don't care much about economic growth. They should, but they don't. What they care about is low taxes, light regulations, firm anti-union policies, robust corporate profits, and a sense that the bureaucracy of the government is sympathetic to their needs. Liberals are just never going to give them that other than narrowly and briefly (as with financial deregulation, for example, which was great for the Democratic Party but turned out to be not so great for the economy).

As for the broader electorate, they don't care much about generic economic growth either. They care about their own paychecks. This means that if Democrats want to win them over, they need to support policies that support economic growth and channel that growth largely toward the working and middle classes. Those are separate challenges, but without them both an agenda dedicated to economic growth won't really do us much good.

Amazon Case Against Chevron Enters Final Stage

| Mon Jan. 24, 2011 9:43 AM EST

The attorneys representing Amazonian communities in a lawsuit against Chevron have submitted their final argument to a judge in Ecuador, the latest development in a legal saga involving the oil giant that that began nearly two decades ago. The plaintiffs are seeking up to $113 billion in compensation for environmental damages in the Amazon.

This particular case started in 2003, though the legal challenges stretch back to 1992. The plaintiffs argue that Texaco dumped 16 billion gallons of heavily polluted waste water from their oil production operations into waterways in the Amazon between 1964 and 1990. Chevron acquired Texaco in 2001, and claims that its subsidiary "fully remediated its share of environmental impacts" before 1992.

But the Amazonian communities represented in the case say otherwise. The oil company, their lawyers state in the final argument obtained by Mother Jones, knowingly dumped millions of gallons of the toxic waste into the rainforest, taking no action to minimize the risks it posed to communities in the region. The company also dug 900 open, unlined pits for dumping "drilling muds," which the plaintiffs describe in their filing as "a toxic soup of oil drilling byproducts that includes barium, heavy metals (e.g., chromium, lead, and zinc), chloride, petroleum compounds, and acid." Thousands of gallons of oil also leaked from the pipeline running through the region, which the company repeatedly failed to report or address, they argue.

The plaintiffs report contamination from toxic chemicals at 45 sites they inspected in the area. Further, they point to Chevron's own internal memos obtained in the case as evidence that the company knew about legacy of pollution at the sites. And they say that the remediation work the company took at the sites was a "sham" intended to fend off lawsuits.

The oil company succeeded in getting the case moved to Ecuador, but has since sought to dismiss the case there as well, claiming misconduct on the part of plaintiffs and the judge. Most recently, Chevron also attempted to obtain raw footage from Joe Berlinger, a documentary filmmaker, that they say will reveal inappropriate interactions between the plaintiffs and one of the experts in the case. Earlier this month, a US court ruled that the filmmaker will have to turn over his tapes.

The case has been bogged down in wrangling for months, with the judge in the case changing multiple times amid accusations of misconduct. It's unlikely that a judgment in this case will end the years-long fight. Meanwhile, the issue at the heart of it—whether and how much Chevron should compensate Amazonian indigenous communities for the pollution—still remains unresolved.

"After almost 20 years of Chevron's legal sideshows, delay tactics, false accusations, and intimidation, the time has come for Goliath to face David head-on," they wrote in a summary of the final appeal to the court.

Will Obama Stand up for Clean Air?

| Mon Jan. 24, 2011 9:00 AM EST

Following the administration's announcement last week that it wants to make the regulatory system more friendly to businesses, there's some increasing anxiety about whether Obama will aggressively defend the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. A number of environmental and public health groups are lobbying the president to explicitly defend the agency's climate regulations in his State of the Union address on Tuesday.

A coalition of 23 environmental groups sent a letter to Obama asking him to "underscore the critical need for the Clean Air Act’s sensible safeguards and to oppose any attempt to block, weaken, or delay its continued implementation" in the State of the Union address. The groups note that the Clean Air Act is "a remarkably successful public health law that has saved hundreds of thousands of lives over the last 40 years while our economy has tripled in size."

Charles D. Connor, president of the American Lung Association, also sent a letter to Obama last week asking him to "send a clear message that protecting the public from air pollution and enforcing the Clean Air Act is a clear and urgent priority for the health of our nation and the health of our economy." He continued:

The public needs to be reminded that the Clean Air Act has prompted technological innovations that have led to much greater pollution reductions at much lower costs than forecasted. America remains the global leader in air pollution technology. American workers help their fellow citizens and millions around the globe breathe easier.

Of course, every issue group has a wish list of things for President Obama to talk about in next week's State of the Union address. The climate regulations, though, are likely to be among the most contentious for the Obama administration this year, so a clear affirmation of the SOTU this week would certainly be a win for those who care about ensuring that the administration moves forward on protecting clean air.

WATCH: Birth of a New Island

| Mon Jan. 24, 2011 7:23 AM EST

This post courtesy BBC Earth. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous.

When people think of new things in nature, they usually think of baby animals. And that's usually what's captured on camera... until now. Check out this incredible video of a volcanic island being born in the Solomon Islands.

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Will the IRS Extinguish Medical Marijuana?

| Mon Jan. 24, 2011 7:20 AM EST

In February, 2009, the US Department of Justice announced that it would no longer raid medical marijuana dispensaries that abided by state laws, sparking a boom in quasi-legal cannabis investments that I detail today in "Joint Ventures" (my feature from the January/February print magazine that's now online). Even so, the fast-growing grey-market in ganja could be about to get pruned. The Internal Revenue Service is reportedly auditing some of California's largest and most reputable medical pot dispensaries, examining their compliance with an obscure section of tax law aimed at drug dealers. Dispensary owners say that the provision, if strictly applied, could effectively snuff out the nation's burgeoning medical marijuana industry.

Enacted in 1982, the year that President Ronald Reagan declared a "War on Drugs," section 280E of the federal tax code explicitly bans any tax deductions related to "trafficking in controlled substances." Though 280E predated the legalization of medical marijuana in California and other states, it has remained "like a dagger held at the throat of every medical cannabis organization," says Steve D'Angelo, the founder of Oakland's Harborside Health Center, which recently underwent an audit by the IRS that targeted its compliance with the provision. "If 280E is applied literally and strictly, it has the potential to close down Harborside and every other medical cannabis dispensary."

According to Americans for Safe Access, a nonprofit group that advocates on behalf of medical marijuana users and growers, the IRS has recently launched audits of several other large dispensaries in California based on 280E. (The IRS did not return a phone call last week). "I think it's a new front [in the War on Drugs]," says Caren Woodson, the ASA's director of government affairs. "We're nervous that this is going to have a big effect."

The State of the Union That Got Away

| Mon Jan. 24, 2011 6:45 AM EST

President Barack Obama is due to give his annual State of the Union address on Tuesday night. Politico's Roger Simon had an interesting column on Friday arguing that no one remembers these speeches, and that ultimately they don't really matter. "Ask yourself if you can remember a single memorable line from a State of the Union address," Simon writes, before pointing out that many of the lines that echo down through history are from inaugural addresses, not SOTU speeches. But as a friend points out in an email, Simon makes one glaring (and recent) omission, from George W. Bush's SOTU in 2003. They're called the "16 words," and you almost certainly remember them:

The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

FactCheck.org has a good explainer on the history of that line. In July 2003, several months after the speech, former ambassador Joe Wilson published his famous New York Times column explaining why he thought the line was bogus. The day after Wilson published his article, Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer told the media that the information on "yellow cake" had turned out to be "incorrect." CIA Director George Tenet took the blame for the line later that day: "These 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the President." (Later, of course, someone told columnist Bob Novak that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, was a CIA officer, and Novak printed it.) This all seems like pretty important recent history, and should serve as a reminder that as cynical as the press corps sometimes gets about these speeches, they really do matter. You should watch.

Earthquakes Don't Kill People, Bad Governments Kill People

| Mon Jan. 24, 2011 6:37 AM EST

A recent report in the journal Nature has bad (if somewhat obvious) disaster news for citizens of bad governments: Corrupt countries have been responsible for 83 percent of all deaths caused by building collapse during earthquakes over the last 30 years. Haiti, of course, being responsible for 300,000 of those deaths in the January 2010 quake. Number of people killed during an earthquake of the same magnitude during the same year in New Zealand: 0. 

"The structural integrity of a building is no stronger than the social integrity of the builder, and each nation has a responsibility to its citizens to ensure adequate inspection," the Nature article says. "In particular, nations with a history of significant earthquakes and known corruption issues should stand reminded that an unregulated construction industry is a potential killer."

As I reported during the past two weeks in Haiti, here is a (just very partial) list of other things a corrupt government fails to do for its people: protect them from horrendous violent crimes, provide them with basic welfare services, get their orphans out of the country and into new families. Add to the list "not making the same massive fatal mistake twice": A year after Haiti's quake, there is some rebuilding going on, a lot of it in the private sector. But if you'd like a Haitian to look at you like you are very stupid, ask them, "What kind of permits and code requirements do you need to do that?"

RJD2 is Not Guilty

| Mon Jan. 24, 2011 6:30 AM EST

On stage, Ramble John Krohn (a.k.a. RJD2) has an ability to entrance his audience into a sea of synchronized hand-waves and head-bopping. The vinyl-scratching, mass-Tweeting, Ohio-raised DJ started spinning in 1993, when he decided to buy a pair of turntables from a friend. He's since produced 20 albums, 28 singles, and dozens of other collaborations, mix tapes, and remixed tracks.

We recently caught up with Krohn, who abides by the music-making philosophy of not giving "a s*** as long as it sounds hot." He fuses explosive elements from hip-hop, brass-band, and metal rock with soul-funk and electronica, churning bad-ass beats that make you want to jump into a 1970s high-speed car chase. He's even sampled sounds from KFC-commercials. His loyal following of hip-hopping/skateboarding/hoop-shooting/plaid-wearing crowds love him anyway, as do commercial heavyweights like the NBA, Levi's, Adidas, and the TV series CSI-NY, all of which have featured his songs. A preview of his latest EP, "The Glow" remixes, is available here.

Mother Jones: What’s your favorite recent release in your genre?

Ramble John Krohn: This is a bit slippery, as I'm not sure what genre I belong in, but I guess I'd say Big Boi's album [Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty] at the moment. It's somewhere between a weirdo funk record, a hip-hop record, and an electro record. I absolutely love it.