Rich Man, Poor Man

Everyone thinks they're middle class. This isn't a big surprise: the word "rich" has specific connotations (servants, mansions on the Gold Coast, 200-foot yachts, etc.) and even someone making $200-300 thousand a year probably doesn't have any of that stuff. What's more, most people in that income range were likely raised middle class, so culturally they still think of themselves that way even if their incomes give them a pretty comfortable lifestyle.

But Catherine Rampell notes something more interesting today. Researchers surveyed 1,100 households in Buenos Aires and asked them a purely objective question: what decile do you think your income puts you in? The bottom decile means you're part of the poorest 10%, the fifth decile means you're right in the middle, and the tenth decile means you're part of the richest 10%. Here's how things shook out:

Fascinating! The very poorest thought they were actually in the fourth decile — just barely below average. The very richest thought they were in the sixth decile — just barely above average.

If the same thing is true here — and I wouldn't be surprised if it were — it could go a long way toward explaining the political dynamics of taxation and economic policy in the United States. After all, if the poor don't really know they're poor, they're never going to mount much of a fight for more egalitarian public policies. And if the well-off don't know they're well off, they're going to strongly resist more egalitarian public policies. The result can be startling increases in income inequality without anyone really knowing it's happening or caring very much about it.

Looks like the past year hasn't been so bad after all for BP, which today reported a 16 percent increase in profits over the first quarter of 2010. The company reported $7.2 billion in net earnings—compared to $6.2 billion for the first three months of last year.

The company sold off a bunch of assets in order to pay for the Gulf oil disaster, which is how they managed to keep the profits up. BP also hasn't been drilling in the deepwater since that whole giant oil catastrophe it unleashed last year. But to still report an increase in income is, well…let's just say I have a hard time feeling too bad for them because their profits weren't as high as they could have been.

Never fear though, as the company says it expects to be back out drilling in the Gulf by the second quarter of this year.

Vaccines and Ideology

Is vaccine denial primarily a leftie/hippy/Hollywood phenomenon? There's apparently no really good data on this, but Chris Mooney rounds up what he can and concludes that the whole issue is pretty nonpolitical: "Bottom line: There’s no evidence here to suggest that vaccine denial (and specifically, believing that childhood vaccines cause autism) is a distinctly left wing or liberal phenomenon." More here.

I see that even our own Tim Murphy has fallen for the White House's "long form birth certificate" scam this morning. How disappointing to see one of MoJo's own being so credulous. This "official" copy has obviously been doctored, as anyone can see clearly by looking at the bottom of the form. See line 23? "Evidence for Delayed Filing or Alteration"? If this were a true copy, it would carry an official stamp saying "None" to indicate that it hadn't been altered. But obviously the form has been altered, to remove the official evidence of alteration. This story is far from over, my friends. Far from over.

UPDATE: A reader emails to point out that Fox News is taking an appropriately skeptical stance about all this. Kudos to them. I'm glad there's at least one news organization left that doesn't just accept White House agitprop at face value.

UPDATE 2: From commenter dennisS:

     You call that a long form?! It's not even 8.5 x 11 !! I want the reeeeeallllly loooong form!!

The rest of the comments are good too!

"Were you born here?"

This morning, in an attempt to end, once-and-for-all, the right-wing conspiracy that he is not eligible for office, President Barack Obama released his long-form birth certificate from the state of Hawaii. "The President believed the distraction over his birth certificate wasn't good for the country," the White House said in a statement.

But those distractions won't be going away anytime soon. I just got off the phone with Texas GOP State Rep. Leo Berman, sponsor of his state's birther bill, and a vocal proponent of the idea that the President was not born in this country. Berman, who has explained previously that he gets much of his news via "YouTubes," was not aware of the White House's release when I called him up, but his initial reaction more or less set the tone: "I wonder why it took them almost two years to release that? That seems kind of strange."

I sent Berman the White House's statement and a copy of the certificate, and after a few minutes he called back ready to talk. "If this is the true birth certificate, I'm very happy to finally see it," he said. But today's news didn't answer his lingering doubts; if anything, it raised even more questions. Berman was comparing the White House release with another birth certificate he said was from Mombasa, Kenya. "There are two hospitals [in Honolulu] at the time and neither hospital will claim him," Berman said. "Today, if you have a hospital where the president was born they'd probably take the room where he was born and make a shrine out of it." Plus, the Kenyan certificate just seemed more compelling: "When I look at the one from Kenya, there is a British lord who is the clerk for registering all births in Kenya at that time." He added, "The one from Mombasa even has a footprint on it. Like a human footprint."

Now that President Obama has taken the surprise step of confronting the birther conspiracy theory head on, the birthers will be satisfied, right? Well, not really.

In an interview with Mother Jones, Andy Martin, a Chicago-based activist and the self-proclaimed "King of the Birthers" says he considers the White House's release of Obama's long-form birth certificate a "tremendous triumph" for the birther movement. But he adds that other questions about Obama's background still remain to be answered. Now, he's demanding the release of Obama's college transcripts and admission documents, as well as an investigation into another conspiracy theory suggesting that a black nationalist Muslim lawyer paid for Obama's law school tuition.

"Well, I'll be damned…it looks OK!" Martin told Mother Jones by phone, as he perused the document for the first time. "I'm stunned…obviously the pressure got to be too much."

Martin credits himself for single-handedly launching the birther movement before Obama had even taken office; he even annouced his own presidential bid in December to push the issue. (Martin insists that he's never doubted that the president was born in Honolulu, but that officials' refusal to release the document cast a cloud of suspicion.) Rather than prove the birthers wrong, Martin insists the release of the birth certificate simply speaks to their political clout. 

"As his power waned, he was hectored and forced to respond," Martin says of Obama. According to Martin, White House officials said that it wasn't possible to release the birth certificate under any circumstances on Monday—the same that the copy of the document was issued. "How did it get released on Monday? Obviously they were lying." (A CNN reporter asked White House press secretary Jay Carney about Obama's birth certificate on Monday, but Carney simply dismissed the concerns without further comment.)

Martin, however, says that the birth certificate doesn't put to rest other questions about Obama's past and rise to power. Echoing Donald Trump's recent demands to see Obama's college grades, Martin said he wants to see the "admission files and the transcripts" of Obama’s college years. "The pressure for his college records is going to become relentless," he vows.

Martin says that he also has questions about Khalid Abdullah Tariq al-Mansour, whom fringe activists claim is a black Muslim nationalist who paid for Obama's law degree. Though he says that most birthers will be satisfied with the document released by the White House today, Martin points out there's another wing of the birther movement that still won’t believe that Obama's a natural-born citizen because he has a Kenyan father.

For his part, Martin doesn't plan to drop his own campaign to challenge Obama for president. "I’m running as the guy who now forced Obama" to release his birth certificate, Martin says triumphantly. Then he adds without elaboration: "Our god is stronger than Obama's god, whatever his god is."

The White House released President Obama's long-form birth certificate this morning:

The President believed the distraction over his birth certificate wasn’t good for the country. It may have been good politics and good TV, but it was bad for the American people and distracting from the many challenges we face as a country. Therefore, the President directed his counsel to review the legal authority for seeking access to the long form certificate and to request on that basis that the Hawaii State Department of Health make an exception to release a copy of his long form birth certificate. They granted that exception in part because of the tremendous volume of requests they had been getting.

Courtesy of the White HouseCourtesy of the White House

Let us never speak of this episode ever again.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R).

Election watchers looking for something to monitor this week might want to keep an eye on Indiana, where lawmakers are deciding the fate of a bill that would cut funding for Planned Parenthood in the state and dramatically limit abortion access. Mitch Daniels, the Hoosier state's governor and a potential GOP presidential contender, has called for a truce on social issues in favor of a focus on budget matters. How Daniels handles this truce-breaking legislation will be an important test of how seriously he takes his call for peace.

On Tuesday afternoon, Republicans in the Indiana House filed a motion to concur with the Senate's version of the bill, paving the way for a vote as early as Wednesday. Unlike the House measure, the Senate bill includes language that blocks Medicaid dollars from going to the state's 28 Planned Parenthood clinics, which currently receive $3 million in public funds for reproductive health programs. If the proposal becomes law, Indiana will be the first state in the country to use this tactic to target Planned Parenthood. The move comes amid Republican attempts to defund the organization at the federal level.

The measure has implications beyond one organization, however, because federal law generally prevents states from deciding which family planning services Medicaid patients can use. That means that Indiana could forfeit all $4 million it receives in federal family planning funding, Family and Social Services Administration Secretary Michael Gargano told the Associated Press. That would leave 22,000 low-income residents without access to family planning services according to Betty Cockrum, executive director of Planned Parenthood Indiana. The bill has been filed as an "emergency" measure, meaning its provisions go into effect immediately.

While the Planned Parenthood "cut" appears to save money, it could actually end up costing the state. Indiana's Family and Social Services Administration says that more than half the births in Indiana are paid for by Medicaid, and that percentage is almost certain to increase if thousands of women lose access to contraceptives.

Even if Daniels can prevail upon his allies in the legislature to remove the Planned Parenthood language, it's just one of a number of anti-abortion and reproductive rights measures in the bill. The proposal also includes a ban on abortions after 20 weeks, claiming a state interest in preventing pain to the fetus. Another provision requires that doctors tell women that abortion may cause breast cancer, infertility, or pain to the fetus—all medically dubious claims—and requires an 18-hour waiting period before a woman can have an abortion. The bill also states that "human physical life begins when a human ovum is fertilized by a human sperm."

Daniels, an abortion opponent, has argued that the Republican Party should drop the culture wars for the time being in favor of focusing on the economy. While the provisions in this bill would seem to break that truce, most observers expect he'll approve it anyway. "The political climate in Indiana these days would suggest that he would sign it," Cockrum tells Mother Jones. She said her group is working with lawyers to determine its legal options if the bill becomes law.

At the very least, Daniels' critics are anticipating some fun watching how the likely 2012 contender will handle the situation. "Those of us who watch this stuff will enjoy seeing how much he squirms," says John Schorg, director of media relations for the Indiana House Democratic Caucus. "These are the kind of decisions that tend to be remembered when someone decides to run for president."

UPDATE 4/27, 6:02 EST: The House approved the bill by a vote of 66-32 on Wednesday evening. Now it goes to the governor's desk.

Rosario Dawson poses with a sack of Kellogg Amend, a fertilizer composed of sewage sludgeRosario Dawson poses with a sack of Kellogg Amend, a soil additive made from sewage sludgeLast May, a group of movie stars gathered at a schoolyard garden in Venice, California to raise money for the Environmental Media Association, a prominent Hollywood green group that supports organic gardens at public schools. Among the publicity photos snapped that day was a product-placement shot of Rosario Dawson planting vegetables alongside a sack of Kellogg Amend, an "organic" soil supplement sold by Kellogg Garden Products, one of EMA's corporate sponsors. "This was one of those unfortunate weird things," says EMA president Debbie Levin, who hadn't known anything about Amend before the shoot. Amend, she later learned, is not approved for organic farming because it's made from municipal sewage sludge.

Levin isn't the only urban gardener who has gotten cozier than she might have liked with other people's poo. The list of ingredients on Amend's packaging avoids the terms "sewage sludge" and "biosolids" (the sewage industry's preferred term) in favor of the more vague "compost." But there's no doubt that Kellogg's "compost" comes from sludge, says John Stauber, a consultant for the Wisconsin-based Food Rights Network, who traced Amend's origins to a Southern California sludge treatment plant. He equates the discovery to "finding out that the giant gorgeous Alpine mountain that you've been living next to is a heap of toxic waste." (Kellogg Garden Products did not return a call from Mother Jones).

Poop may be the least of the problems with biosolids; sludge's dirty secret is that it can contain anything that goes down the drain—from Prozac flushed down toilets to motor oil hosed from factory floors. A 2009 EPA survey of sludge samples from across the US found nearly universal contamination by 10 flame retardants and 12 pharmaceuticals and exceptionally high levels of endocrine disruptors such as triclosan, an ingredient in antibacterial soap that scientists believe is killing amphibians. Large food processors such as H.J. Heinz won't allow crops grown with sludge in any of their products. For more on sludge's safety issues, check out the 2009 Mother Jones story, Sludge Happens.

Stauber, who who first exposed the hyping of sludge in the 1995 book Toxic Sludge is Good For You!, sees Amend and similar products as examples of greenwashing gone wild. The USDA doesn't regulate which fertilizers can be labeled as "organic," allowing anyone to use the term (though it bans the use of sludge in organic agriculture). And the nonprofit U.S. Composting Council sees no problem in using its green image for the Orwellian rebranding of sludge. Biosolids companies sit on its board of directors and are sponsoring its upcoming Composting Week. 

So what to do if you're a home gardener who wants compost without the sewage? Try checking the website of the Organic Materials Review Institute, which vets agricultural products used by certified organic farmers. That's the preferred approach of Levin, who stresses that no Kellogg Amend was ever actually applied to EMA's gardens (though one school may have inadvertently ordered a different sludge-based product). "Everything was according to what we asked for," she says. "We use the organic stuff." 

Soldiers in the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division hone their combat skills at the Army's National Training Center in preparation for an upcoming deployment. Photo via US Army.