2011 - %3, April

Republicans Hate Their Presidential Candidates

| Mon Apr. 11, 2011 7:23 AM PDT

Republican politicians like to talk a lot about American decline. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, for instance, recently warned that Democrats have "declared war on marriage, on families, on fertility, and on faith." (Fertility!). Newt Gingrich went even further, suggesting that Obama's agenda "would mean the end of America as it has been for the last 400 years."

Now, it looks like the new era of American Unexceptionalism is starting to take its toll in the Republican Party. Here's Politico's Jonathan Martin:

Interviews on both sides of the Capitol have revealed widespread concern about the lackluster quality of the current crop of candidates and little consensus on who Republican senators and House members would like to see in the race.

While the days when congressional insiders could determine a party nominee are long gone, their open grumbling lays bare a broadly held sentiment within the GOP.

"I don't see anyone in the current field right now, and people say that to me, as well. I'm reflecting what I hear," said California Rep. David Dreier, chairman of the House Rules Committee.

We just don't make smart, charismatic presidential candidates like we used to.

So what's the solution? Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) has been floated as a potential candidate—and he's expressed dissatisfaction with the current field—but I'm not sure Americans are going to rally behind someone who thinks gays should be banned from teaching in public schools. Marco Rubio's been called the "Cuban Barack Obama," but he's only been in the Senate for three months. Martin's sources say they're considering "a to-be-determined business executive or military leader"—but Dwight D. Eisenhower's dead (not to mention term-limited), and David Petraeus says he's not interested.

It's still, of course, very early. Mike Huckabee is leading the polls in Iowa and he's probably not running; Donald Trump is in third. But it's never a good sign for your electoral chances when party bigwigs are publicly bashing your candidates before the first debate has even been held.

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Rebel Music, Libyan Edition

| Mon Apr. 11, 2011 3:45 AM PDT

When Khaled M was a little kid, he dreamed of sneaking into Libya, assassinating Muammar Qaddafi, and freeing the country. That's not so weird considering his father was thrown into a Libyan jail and tortured for five years for taking part in a student protest against the regime. His dad escaped from jail and fled to Tunisia on foot, but Khaled still remembers how the first few years of his life was spent running from country to country dodging  the dictator's minions. "We would be in Morocco or Sudan and set up a radio station and then maybe after a few months Qaddafi's people would get a whiff of it and chase us, and we’d have to drop everything and leave," says Khaled, who is now a 26-year-old Libyan-American rapper.

Khaled's family eventually settled in Lexington, Kentucky—"the most random" place they could think of—in a bid to foil their pursuers. In Lexington, Khaled was raised in a community of political refugees and dissidents, including members of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya. He has never been to Libya himself—his family's been blacklisted there, and he could risk execution if he dared go—but he still feels a strong connection to the country. "It's a country that everyone around me has fought to liberate," Khaled says.

So, when Libyans rose up, Khaled and a network of resistance groups joined forces to create a music video entitled, "Can’t Take Our Freedom," a rebel anthem that's garnered attention from ABC Global News, CNN, and Complex magazine. It's a catchy protest song featuring Iraqi-British rapper LowKey and some exclusive footage from inside Libya. I asked Khaled about growing up in exile, Libya's music scene, and what getting rid of Qaddafi might do for the country's artistic culture. Check out the video at the end of the interview.

Is There Radiation in Your Seafood?

| Mon Apr. 11, 2011 2:30 AM PDT

The oceans around Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant are beginning to show troubling signs of radioactivity. Recent tests by TEPCO found levels far surpassing legal limits, iodine by 7.5 million times and cesium by 1.1 million times. As MoJo environmental correspondent Julia Whitty has reported in several recent posts, radioactive material is now entering the marine food web, and will likely only continue to work its way up. And ocean currents are carrying the contaminants far and wide. As a result of the increased radiation levels, several countries, including Hong Kong, Russia, and India, have enacted temporary bans on Japanese seafood imports. But so far, there is no such ban in the US.

So should I steer clear of sushi?

Some experts believe that there's little cause for concern. Andrew Maidment, an associate professor of radiology at the University of Pennsylvania, points out that people are typically exposed to 3 millisieverts of "background radiation" every year. (Did you know that Fiesta ware, smoke detectors, and bananas all emit low levels of radiation?) Maidment says that according to data from TEPCO, eating seafood from near the Fukushima plant for a year would up your radiation exposure by .6 millisieverts, roughly a 20 percent increase from normal background exposure. "But all kinds of things can increase your radiation levels," says Maidment. "People who live at high altitudes can easily be exposed to twice the radiation of people at sea level, for example."

FDA spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey assured me that so far, imported seafood that the agency has tested has not shown elevated levels of radiation. She attributed this in part to the ocean's ability to both dilute radiation and protect marine life. "Airborne radiation settles on the surface of the water and acts as a barrier to fish under the surface," she wrote in an email. "In the case of a direct release into the sea, the amount of water in the ocean rapidly dilutes and disperses the radiation to negligible levels."

But other scientists are not so sure that ocean ecosystems are in the clear. Over at Yale e360 Elizabeth Grossman has a great, comprehensive rundown of what scientists know about radiation's effect on sea life, and what they have yet to figure out. This is interesting:

How the radioactive materials released from the Fukushima plants will behave in the ocean will depend on their chemical properties and reactivity, explained Ted Poston, a ecotoxicologist with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a U.S. government facility in Richland, Washington. If the radionuclides are in soluble form, they will behave differently than if they are absorbed into particles, said Poston. Soluble iodine, for example, will disperse rather rapidly. But if a radionuclide reacts with other molecules or gets deposited on existing particulates—bits of minerals, for example—they can be suspended in the water or, if larger, may drop to the sea floor.

Given all the unknowns, you'd think testing US oceans for radiation would be top priority for the government. Is it?

Sure doesn't seem like it. I emailed the National Oceanic and Atmostpheric Administration to ask how the agency was testing for radiation in the ocean. A spokeswoman would only tell me that "NOAA is playing a supporting role in the Administration's response effort." When I asked her to describe exactly what that role was, she declined to answer.

Meanwhile, the environmental health advocacy group Food & Water Watch has criticized the FDA for inadequate inspection of imported seafood. FWW executive director Wenonah Hauter told me that the agency inspects only 2 percent of all seafood imports. The FDA's DeLancey would neither confirm nor deny Hauter's assertion, saying only: "While it's difficult to quantify exactly how much of a given product is subject to inspection, FDA uses its knowledge of various import factors and vulnerabilities to target for the most efficient and effective public health intervention. Because of the potential for radionuclide contamination, we have chosen to screen all foods from Japan very stringently until the situation stabilizes."

So which elements could eventually wind up in my sushi, and how long will they stick around?

It's hard to find specific information about the health effects of radiation, but here's what I've cobbled together: The three radioactive elements present in greatest quantities around Fukushima are iodine-131, cesium-134, and cesium-137. Iodine is of the greatest immediate concern, since both humans and sea mammals accumulate it in the thyroid. Luckily, it only has a half-life of eight days, so the levels around Fukushima are already dropping dramatically. The cesiums, on the other hand, are more of a long-term risk: Cesium-134 has a half-life of two years, and cesium-137, 30 years. Damon Mogler, director of the climate and energy program at the environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth, told me that "cesium builds up in bottom feeders, crustaceans and bivalves, which in turn get eaten by bigger fish, and ultimately, people." Maidment explains that since cesium is chemically similar to potassium, the body processes it similarly, meaning it can build up in muscle tissue.

What are the potential health effects of ingesting radiation from seafood?

No one knows yet whether the radiation from the Fukushima disaster will build up in levels high enough to cause human health problems, but we do know that accumulation of radiation in your body can lead to cancer. The EPA has a pretty good explanation of how it works here.

Are people eating less seafood because of radiation fears?

Yes, report Bloomberg and the NY Times. Several important fish auctions around the world were canceled in the wake of the nuclear disaster, and NPR reports that prices at Japan's famous Tsukiji fish market have "plummeted." FWIW, I called a local sushi restaurant called Tsukiji in Mill Valley, California, and they told me business had slowed down "a little bit" in recent weeks.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 11, 2011

Mon Apr. 11, 2011 2:30 AM PDT

U.S. Army Sgt. Alex Marsh, Mad Dog Troop, 4th Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment from Vilseck, Germany, provides security for a Human Terrain Team in front of a Stryker armored vehicle in a village near Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, April 3. HTTs are composed of military and civilian personnel that interact with the local populace to gain knowledge, so they may aid in creating a stable environment and learn on how to conduct future military and humanitarian operations. Photo via US Army

Why Did Obama Cave?

| Sun Apr. 10, 2011 9:42 PM PDT

I've been sick all weekend, and my brain is still a little bit fuzzy. Still, I've been trying to figure something out: what does President Obama really think about the deficit? Did he cave in to Republicans because he didn't have much choice, or does he really think that cutting the budget is a good idea? I'll get to that in a bit, but first, here's Ryan Avent making the case that the budget deal was, substantively speaking, a bad idea:

I think it's worth remembering a few important things. First, the federal government did not need to cut spending in this fiscal year. There is no immediate fiscal crisis; on the contrary, yields on American government debt remain extraordinarily low. Second, macroeconomically speaking, now is a bad time to be cutting spending. The economy remains very weak, state and local governments are already trimming back public spending and placing a big drag on economic activity, and there's plenty of contractionary developments in the pipeline already, from the impending end of QE2 to the impact of rising oil prices....Third, had America actually been facing a crisis or had it simply been an opportune moment to trim back state spending, this was just about the worst way to go about cutting. The cuts don't touch on the real sources of the long-term budget problem.

This is pretty much the conventional wisdom among left-of-center economists, and my guess is that Obama agrees. But if so, why did he agree to the Republican cuts? He might have felt like he was over a barrel and had no choice, but that still wouldn't explain why he talked about the deal so enthusiastically after it was done. There has to be more.

But what? My best guess is also the most boring one: He actually thinks the cuts are a good idea. Macroeconomically they don't make sense, but as a signal they might be pretty powerful. Here's how.

Most center-left types think that our first best economic policy option is more spending now, while the economy is still weak, combined with much less spending in the future, when the long-term deficit threatens to spiral out of control. But Obama probably figures, correctly, that the deal he cut during the lame duck session last year was the last stimulus he was going to get. More spending just isn't in the cards. So what's the second best policy option?

Well, the biggest problem with the first best option has always been that it's not credible. You need some way of signaling the market that you're serious about long-term deficit reduction, and there's really no way to do that as long as you're spending gobs of money in the present. That might be a risk you're willing to take as long as stimulus spending is feasible (since the substantive gain of the stimulus outweighs the drawback of lost credibility on long-term cuts), but it's not worth taking once further spending is out of the question. At that point, the long-term signal becomes your most important policy goal. So my guess is that (1) Obama is serious about wanting to rein in the long-term deficit, (2) he thinks the cuts in this year's budget are a good way of signaling his seriousness, and (3) he also thinks that a few tens of billions of dollars in lost spending will have such a minor macroeconomic effect that it's a small price to pay.

Now, I'd also guess that the last few months of economic data have persuaded Obama that the economy is rebounding, which makes the risk of cutting current-year spending even less. I'm not so sure about that, myself, but there's no question that economic signals are mixed right now. We're obviously headed for a slow recovery at best, but probably a recovery nonetheless.

So, anyway, that's it: my best shot at reading Obama's mind. I suspect Obama really is a long-term deficit hawk and figures that the current budget battle, though not really of his choosing, can be turned to his advantage. He's agreed to cuts but has also shown that he'll fight against crazy cuts, and he thinks that will help him take the high ground when he unveils his own long-term deficit program on Wednesday. This isn't how the events of the past week look to us liberals, of course, but I'll bet it's approximately what they look like to independents. And as we've all learned over the past couple of years, Obama doesn't really care much about how liberals view events.

Front page image: Zhang Jun/Xinhua/ZUMAPRESS.com

The Week in Sharia: New York's Peter King Hearings

| Sun Apr. 10, 2011 10:22 AM PDT

Let's have an adult conversation:

  • One week after bragging that he would not permit Muslims to serve in his administration, GOP presidential candidate and pizza magnate Herman Cain alleged that Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) has pledged his loyalty to Islamic law, rather than the Constitution. Per the Allen West Theorem—which states that anytime someone says anything that ridiculous, the freshman Florida congressman probably said it first—we'll just note that Allen West said this first.
  • Other people who probably won't be a part of the Herman Cain administration: Herman Cain, who trails President Obama in his home state of Georgia.
  • South Carolina came one step closer to becoming the third state to ban Islam law from being enforced in state courts.
  • The British Royal Family is in on it.
  • Nebraska State Sen. Mark Christensen introduced his state's anti-Sharia bill after a meeting with his local chapter of ACT! for America, reports Salon's Justin Elliott. The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies ACT! as a "hate group."
  • Former Florida House Majority Leader Adam Hasner wants to be the next United States senator from the Sunshine State, which is why he was in the Orlando area on Wednesday warning tea party activists about the threat of "progressive Sharia-compliant Islam." We have no idea what that phrase even means, and Hasner, for his part, hasn't clarified.
  • The New York State Senate held hearings on the threat of Islamic extremism to the Empire State. To demonstrate just how seriously they take the threat of Islamic extremism, senate GOPers selected as their star witness Frank Gaffney, who once wrote an entire column arguing that the Defense Department's missile defense logo is a gateway to Islamic law (heaven forbid Gaffney ever finds out about these). Also testifying: Rep. Peter King (R-NY), who told the committee that 99-percent of American Muslims are "outstanding Americans." 

 

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BP vs the Dwarf Seahorse

| Fri Apr. 8, 2011 2:59 PM PDT
Dwarf seahorse. Credit: Stickpen, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition on Wednesday seeking Endangered Species Act protection for the dwarf seahorse (Hippocampus zosterae)—a victim of myriad troubles in its tiny world:

  • BP's oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico
  • Seagrass beds destroyed by shrimp trawlers, pollution, and climate change
  • Commercial collection for aquariums, curios, and "medicine"

These one-inch-long (2.5-centimeter-long) seahorses live only in the shallow seagrass beds of the Gulf, off Florida, and in the Caribbean.

Long before BP unleashed its oil and dispersants, all three regions had been hard hit by destructive fishing practices, lousy boating practices, and pollution. Since 1950, Florida has lost more than half—in some places more than 90 percent—of its seagrass beds. The numbers aren't a whole lot better for the rest of the Gulf.

 

Range map of the dwarf seahorse, Hippocampus zosterae. From FishBase.org.Range map of the dwarf seahorse, Hippocampus zosterae. From FishBase.org.

 

The IUCN Red List finds insufficient data—a fact in BP's favor—to assign a listing to the dwarf seahorse: 

There are no published data about population trends or total numbers of mature animals for this species. There is very little available information about its extent of occurrence or its area of occupancy. There have been no quantitative analyses examining the probability of extinction of this species. As a result, we have insufficient data to properly assess the species against any of the IUCN criteria, and propose a listing of data deficient.

This species may be particularly susceptible to decline. The information on habitat suggests they inhabit shallow seagrass beds that are susceptible to human degradation, as well as making them susceptible to being caught as bycatch. All seahorse species have vital parental care, and many species studied to date have high site fidelity, highly structured social behaviour, and relatively sparse distributions. The importance of life history parameters in determining response to exploitation has been demonstrated for a number of species.

Dwarf seahorses can't live anywhere but in seagrass. They live only a single year. Whether we have data or not, the truth is BP probably took out most of the 2009 year-class and its 2010 year-class offspring in the northern Gulf last year.

 

 

Good Books With 'Bad' Little Girls

| Fri Apr. 8, 2011 1:49 PM PDT

This Feministing post on Anne of Green Gables at Feministing got me all nostalgic-like for my own girlhood days of reading subtly feminist books. From the post:

While Anne is indeed a feminist, she isn’t born one. When we first meet her, she has a rather traditional view of the world. She has firm ideas about what is appropriately feminine and what isn’t, and she tries her best to adhere to that feminine ideal. As she gets older, those ideas start to change. Her ideal of womanhood is no longer the romantic heroine trapped away in a castle, waiting to be rescued by a handsome knight. She stops worrying about the colour of her hair and starts worrying instead about being top of her class at school. She develops a strong sense of justice – something she has had from a young age – and is committed throughout the series to treating people with compassion and empathy. Anne Shirley is what I like to call a stealth feminist. On the surface, she adheres to all the requirements of turn early twentieth century Canadian womanhood. She’s domestic, as is expected. She’s feminine and elegant, as is expected. She’s polite and courteous, as is expected, except for those occasions on which her temper gets the better of her. But underneath all that, she’s quite a rebellious young woman.

Rebellious girls are dear to my heart, having been one once myself. Anne Shirley was a favorite, and so was Lucy from the Narnia series, Sophie from Roald Dahl's BFG, and the ever-curious Alice from Alice in Wonderland. More recently, I've been besotten with the sharp-tongued Lyra in His Dark Materials and brainy Hermoine from Harry Potter.

While I'm usually able to find fiesty female protagonists in children's books, it's harder in children's movies. Sure, there's been Mulan and Coraline and a handful of others, but girls make up half of all children. Shouldn't there be more? Pixar, for example, has been around for nearly 30 years now and will release its first film with a female lead next year. Maybe it's an American thing. Across the Pacific from Pixar, Hayao Miyazaki has been making female-led films like Kiki's Delivery Service and Spirited Away for decades, it hasn't hurt his box office appeal one bit.

Friday Cat Blogging - 8 April 2011

| Fri Apr. 8, 2011 12:04 PM PDT

Yesterday was play-with-string day. The string itself is out of the frame in both these pictures, but on the left Domino is waiting for the string to come back within reach of her paws, and on the right Inkblot is watching the string dangle above his head. What are you going to do for playtime this weekend?

I also have a lovely outdoor shot of Inkblot that I guess I'll save for next week. For this week, though, these two seemed like a nice matched pair.

This Week in Collective Bargaining

| Fri Apr. 8, 2011 11:42 AM PDT
Sanitation workers protested in Memphis 43 years ago.

This week's labor battles came from all over the country, with protests timed around the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. The March 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory killed 146 garment workers operating in unsafe working conditions and prompted improvements in worker rights.

Last Monday on the 4th, Oakland and San Francisco dock workers shut down Bay Area ports for 24 hours. Also that day, protestors in Madison, Wisconsin, dressed as zombies demanded "Brains!" from Governor Walker. In Connecticut, firefighters protested benefit and pension scale-backs; Vermont bus drivers picketed; and Pennsylvania news workers protested at the Erie Times-News office.

Organizers report thousands of other protests, teach-ins, and rallies were held nationwide. The rallies were in response to 729 collective bargaining-related bills sitting in 48 statehouses around the country. The National Conference of State Legislatures has created a database listing each bill and its (somewhat) current status. For a round-up of state labor battles, check out Matt Hrodey's post at the Milwaukee News Buzz.

Wisconsin

  • The hottest battle remains in Wisconsin, where a Supreme Court race between liberal candidate JoAnne Kloppenburg and conservative incumbent Justice David Prosser is still being hammered out. The election—largely considered more of a vote on collective bargaining than a judicial race—ended with a slim victory for Kloppenburg on Wednesday followed by a recount on Thursday. Kloppenburg kept the lead throughout most of the day. But in the 11th hour, a clerk in southeastern Wisconsin, with a notorious record for shady election-day blunders, declared she had missed more than 14,000 votes, placing Prosser in first place. But surely, that's not the last we'll hear of that.
  • On Wednesday, Wisconsin's Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen filed a petition asking the court to simply dismiss the restraining order that bars enforcement of the collective bargaining bill. The restraining order was issued by lower court Judge Maryann Sumi last month.
  • Wisconsin union organizers claim to have far more votes than needed for a recall of Republican Senators Dan Kapanke and Randy Hopper.

Ohio

In Ohio, collecting recall signatures is far from over. Last week, the state passed a collective bargaining bill that baned public sector striking; eliminated binding arbitration; and restricted collective bargaining. Labor organizers have galvanized efforts to put a referendum vote on the November ballot before the June 30 deadline.

Florida

On Wednesday, Florida teachers, police and firefighters packed the state Chamber of Commerce, irrate that they were used in this anti-union TV ad produced by the chamber:



Maine

In Maine, the Department of Labor has stepped into the battle over Governor Paul LePage's decision to remove a mural depicting the state's labor history from the Augusta Department of Labor building. The DOL says that mural was sponosred by the federal government and Maine has to either replace the mural or return the money, which was $60,000 at the time of the mural's inception. You can see the murals, created by Judy Taylor, on her personal website.

Tennessee, 1968

For a little piece of this week's labor history, listen to the stories of Memphis sanitation workers striking for collective bargaining rights. Monday, April 4th, was the 43rd anniversary of MLK Jr's assassination, the day before he was to march with the sanitation workers.