2011 - %3, June

Are Republicans Ready for Pentagon Cuts?

| Tue Jun. 28, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Eager to avoid being pegged as the party that made America default on its debt, congressional Republicans are hinting that they'll offer a compromise first proposed by the tea partiers in their ranks: deep cuts in military spending. But as Senate leaders meet with President Obama to tackle the debt limit, disagreements among conservatives and a lack of specifics make it unclear just how committed the GOP really is to shrinking the defense budget.

Republicans and Democrats have been at loggerheads over lifting the national debt ceiling and preventing a government default. House Republicans insist they won't approve any settlement that raises taxes, and they've struggled to offer budget cuts that could seal a bipartisan deal. But outspoken conservatives and sympathetic pundits say there's a growing willingness to entertain the idea of cutting the Pentagon's budget. "Would you support dramatic decreases in military spending as a way to cut the deficit, or would you rather support the spending with tax increases?" asked Mackenzie Eaglen, a national security fellow at the Heritage Foundation, as he spoke with Southern California Public Radio host Pat Morrison yesterday.

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week [21]

| Mon Jun. 27, 2011 8:32 PM EDT

Mother Jones guest blogger Mark Armstrong is the founder of Longreads, a site devoted to uncovering the best long-form nonfiction articles available online. And what better time to curl up with a great read than over the weekend? Below, a hand-picked bouquet of five interesting stories, including word count and approximate reading time. (Readers can also subscribe to The Top 5 Longreads of the Week by clicking here.)

The Top Media Policy Stories of the Week: FCC Decries Lack of Media Diversity, Stymies Low Power TV

| Mon Jun. 27, 2011 8:03 PM EDT

Local coverage and diversity are in short supply in today's media landscape—especially when it comes to broadcast and cable TV. But there is hope. In markets like the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles, Low Power TV (LPTV) has emerged as a viable alternative to network and cable TV, offering 24-hour programming and locally-produced news shows for ethnic communities in their own languages.

While LPTV offers incredible opportunities for ethnic communities, as I reported here and here for New America Media, these stations face considerable challenges, including an unfriendly regulatory landscape and the weighty influence of the big-bucks telecommunications industry, which just wants LPTV to go away so it can claim the full digital spectrum.

Moreover, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) considers LPTV a secondary service with no legal protection from interference or displacement by broadcasters—which makes it difficult, if not impossible, for LPTV to thrive, since its future is uncertain.

The Supreme Court Goes to Bat for Violent Video Games

| Mon Jun. 27, 2011 4:16 PM EDT

To the nation's young gamers—

I know you are no longer satisfied by the rantings of Cave Johnson, the eccentric dead billionaire in Portal 2. I'm aware you cannot countenance another 30 levels of Angry Birds. I sense that, just for once, you want to see something hemorrhage like the old days. Well know this: the judicial branch has not forgotten about you.

In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court on Monday put an end to a long-stalled California law that would have prohibited the rental or sale of violent games to minors.

The California law, AB 1179, was introduced by Democratic state senator Leland Yee and signed by Governor Schwarzenegger in 2005. It was vigorously opposed by advocacy groups such as the ACLU and (naturally) the video game industry, which argued that its products should benefit from the same First Amendment safeguards as other media.

The Opening Round of Fuel Efficiency Debates

| Mon Jun. 27, 2011 3:05 PM EDT

On Friday, I raised the question of whether the Obama administration would raise fuel economy standards significantly this year as a real response to rising fuel costs. Over the weekend, the Washington Post reported that the administration plans to at least come pretty close to the 60-miles-per-gallon target enviros set, raising the average for passenger cars and other light vehicles to 56.2 MPG by 2025:

The White House’s ambitious opening bid, which it revealed in conversations with domestic auto companies and lawmakers last week, has already sparked resistance. U.S. automakers have offered to raise fuel efficiency over the next eight years to between 42.6 and 46.7 mpg, according to sources who had been briefed on the negotiations.

Of course, as the article and the comment from the White House makes clear, 56.2 MPG appears to be the administration's opening bid. That means it is likely to be subject to some negotiations between now and September when the proposed rules are expected to be announced. Automakers are starting down at the low end of 42.6 miles per gallon and, as they have in the past, will likely do their damnedest to pull the figure that direction.

A Nuclear Situation in Nebraska?

| Mon Jun. 27, 2011 2:09 PM EDT

The internet has been making much ado about the flooding currently affecting a Nebraska nuclear power plant. But via the Associated Press, it appears that, at least for now, the plant isn't suffering major problems:

Missouri River floodwater seeped into the turbine building at a nuclear power plant near Omaha on Monday, but plant officials said the seepage was expected and posed no safety risk because the building contains no nuclear material.
An 8-foot-tall, water-filled temporary berm protecting the plant collapsed early Sunday. Vendor workers were at the plant Monday to determine whether the 2,000 foot berm can be repaired.
Omaha Public Power District spokesman Jeff Hanson said pumps were handling the problem at the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station and that "everything is secure and safe." The plant, about 20 miles north of Omaha, has been closed for refueling since April. Hanson said the berm's collapse didn't affect the shutdown or the spent fuel pool cooling.

The Missouri River flooding is no joke; neither is a power plant sitting in two feet of water. It's certainly a situation worth keeping an eye on, but doesn't appear to be a crisis. Given the crisis at a nuclear plant following the tsunami in Japan just a few months, it's easy to see why people are jumpy. But remember: The problem at Fukushima was that the earthquake and tsunami wiped out the main electrical supply and screwed up the battery back-ups, which caused the cooling system to fail. The loss of power was the disastrous part.

Now it's a concern that the berms that were supposed to protect the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station apparently failed, and that they had to rely on back-up power for about 12 hours. But as the Iowa Independent explains, for now it appears safe:

The Calhoun plant was built at 1,004 feet mean sea level, and can sustain flood waters up to 1,014 feet. On Sunday, when the dam broke, the Missouri River was at roughly 1,006.5 feet near the Calhoun station. If floodwaters reach 1,009 feet, the plant would likely switch from the lowest level of emergency status (where it has been since June 6) to the second of four emergency levels. Based on the latest figures given by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is gauging the release of water from dams upstream, flooding near Calhoun should peak at 1,008 feet.

This should, however, stand as a reminder that our own infrastructure is also vulnerable to the whims of natures.

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Breaking: Breathing In Misty, Mushed-Up Pig Brains Is Bad for Your Health

| Mon Jun. 27, 2011 2:05 PM EDT

Hormel, the company that makes SPAM, has outsourced the difficult work of pig slaughtering to Quality Pork Processors (QPP), an affilliated company. Since Hormel likes to use every part of the animal, some of the people at QPP have jobs that revolve around turning pig brains into a pink slurry that somewhat resembles a strawberry milkshake in appearance. (Yum!) From reading Ted Genoways' fascinating, sad story on QPP and Hormel in the latest issue of the magazine, I can tell you the workers do this by inserting a nozzle into the pig skull's brain cavity and firing away with a burst of compressed air. I'll let Genoways take it from here:

The line had been set at 900 heads per hour when the brain harvesting first began in 1996—meaning that the rate had increased a full 50 percent over the decade, whereas the number of workers had hardly risen...Second, to match the pace, the company switched from a foot-operated trigger to an automatic system tripped by inserting the nozzle into the brain cavity, but sometimes the blower would misfire and spatter. Complaints about this had led to the installation of the plexiglass shield between the worker manning the brain machine and the rest of the head table. Third, the increased speed had caused pig heads to pile up at the opening in the shield. At some point in late 2006, the jammed skulls, pressed forward by the conveyor belt, had actually cracked the plastic, allowing more [brain slurry] mist to drift over the head table. Pablo Ruiz, the process-control auditor, had attempted to patch the fracture with plastic bags.

As you might imagine, breathing in pig brain slurry mist is probably not great for your health, and some of the workers at the QPP factory developed a mysterious nerve ailment. Most of them, as you can see from this chart, worked near the brain-harvesting operation:

pig brains operation at qpp

Some of the workers who got sick were undocumented immigrants working with fake papers, because, I assume, "manufacturing pig-brain slurry" is one of those "jobs that Americans don't want" you always hear about. I don't want to ruin the ending, but you can probably guess that being an undocumented immigrant is not an advantage when you're trying to get your employer to compensate you for the health problems you developed while working in the brain-harvesting factory.

Genoways has written a great story chock full of really impressive investigative reporting. You should really read the whole piece. You can also support more of this kind of reporting in Mother Jones by sharing Genoways' piece on Facebook and Twitter (free), signing up for our emails (free), subscribing (cheap!), or making a tax-deductible donation. Thanks.

Kevin is on vacation this week. Andy Kroll and I are filling in for him.

Cold Water on Bachmann's Big Weekend

| Mon Jun. 27, 2011 2:03 PM EDT
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has had quite a run lately. She had strong showings at the June 13 CNN debate and the Republican Leadership Conference 10 days ago. Then came this weekend's shocking Des Moines Register poll putting Bachmann in second place with 22 percent, a single percentage point behind front-runner Mitt Romney.

Today a buoyant Bachmann unveiled (again) her presidential campaign, this time in her hometown of Waterloo, Iowa. But Nate Silver warns against getting too excited amidst all the Michele mania and buzz surrounding her campaign:

Consider Jonathan Bernstein’s reminder about the first Iowa Poll in the last election cycle, which was published in May, 2007. In that survey, Mitt Romney—who eventually finished second in Iowa—had 30 percent of the vote. In second and third place were John McCain (with 18 percent) and Rudy Giuliani (17 percent), who flopped there. The winner of the caucuses, Mike Huckabee, had 4 percent of the vote at this point in time—behind the likes of Tommy Thompson and Sam Brownback.

In other words, the horse race numbers need to be interpreted cautiously. Instead, I’d pay just as much attention to the impression that voters have of each candidate.

You have to dig down to find those numbers, but they are much better for Mr. Pawlenty: some 58 pecent of voters view him favorably, versus 13 percent unfavorably. The figures for Mr. Romney, by contrast, are 52 percent favorable but 38 percent unfavorable.

Put simply, there is considerable upside in Mr. Pawlenty’s numbers—and some downside for Mr. Romney, who is effectively competing for the votes of perhaps only 50 or 60 percent of the voters in the state because of his relatively moderate positions.

Election Day 2012 is 17 months away. The Iowa caucuses are six months out. No poll is all that important right now.

Chipping Away at Abortion Access

| Mon Jun. 27, 2011 12:35 PM EDT

Some anti-abortion activists contend that the new class of laws targeting abortion providers with onerous regulations are merely an effort to protect women from "unsafe" clinics. They argue that laws like the one enacted recently in Kansas aren't intended to end abortion. But now that one of the three clinics in Kansas looks likely to survive the new regulations, anti-abortion activists in the state are bemoaning the fact that the current law doesn't go far enough.

The Planned Parenthood clinic in Overland Park, Kansas expects to be granted a license to continue operating, despite the stricter new laws imposed on a tight time frame. And Personhood Kansas is none too pleased that their backdoor ban failed to succeed in ending safe, legal abortion in the state. From their press release Monday:

"The legislature has passed every abortion regulation imaginable. No baby is safe from the grasp of the abortionists until the personhood of every human being is affirmed by law," explained Committee Chairman, Bruce Garren.

Anti-abortion groups and lawmakers have been busy this year advancing laws that seek to make it difficult, if not impossible, for women to have an abortion. This type of legislation is no exception—it's just another measure they're using to chip away access to a federally affirmed right.

Chevy Volt vs. Zurich

| Mon Jun. 27, 2011 12:25 PM EDT

Leading off the New York Times' reimagined "Sunday Review" section (no more Letterman jokes?!) was a 2,380-word, mostly fawning essay by columnist Joe Nocera on the promise of the electric hybrid Chevy Volt, General Motors' great hope for the green car era. Nocera test-drove the car, talked with the sharpest auto analysts and executives, and ultimately declared the car a winner (despite its eye-popping $41,000 price tag).

Nocera contends that the Volt's success is simply a matter of time and getting drivers behind the wheel. (Fewer than 2,500 have been sold so far.) Here he is driving a Volt around Southampton, New York:

Before I knew it, my miles per gallon for that tankful of gas had hit 80. By the next day it had topped 100. I soon found myself obsessed with increasing my miles per gallon—and avoiding having to buy more gas. Whenever I got home from an errand, I would recharge it, even for a few hours, just to grab a few more miles of range. I was actually in control of how much gas I consumed, and it was a powerful feeling. By the time I gave the car back to General Motors, I had driven 300 miles, without using another drop of gas beyond the original two gallons. I’m not what you’d call a Sierra Club kind of guy, but I have to tell you: I was kind of proud of myself.

When I began to describe for [former GM executive Bob] Lutz the psychological effect the Volt had had on me, he chuckled. "Yeah," he said, "it's like playing a video game that is constantly giving you back your score."

Or as Nocera puts it later on, "The psychological grip it held me in, the smugness I felt as I drove past gas stations, the way it implicitly encouraged me to stick with battery power as much as I could—others are going to feel that as well." In other words, it's the "enviro-guilt" (his words) brought on by the Volt that will wean American consumers off of gas-guzzling SUVs and, ideally, off of gasoline-powered cars in general.

I don't buy the video-game/enviro-guilt theory. Neither, it seems, do the Swiss.

Today, the Times' Elizabeth Rosenthal reports on how big European cities aren't just demanding more energy efficient cars, but in fact making driving "expensive and just plain miserable" in cities such as Zurich, Munich, and Copenhagen. Their tactics are many: far less street parking, congestion tolls to simply enter cities, more frequent red lights to frustrate drivers, and even outright banning cars on certain city blocks. Said Zurich's chief traffic planner, "Our goal is to reconquer public space for pedestrians, not to make it easy for drivers."

I'm sure many readers—save, perhaps, those hippy-loving liberals out in San Francisco—recoiled in disgust from Rosenthal's article. Force us off the road? That's un-American! It's big government socialism!

But after reading Nocera's column and the today's story, I can't help but think it's the Swiss, the Germans, and the Danes who've got it right. They're not waiting for the pangs of enviro-guilt to kick in; they're pushing consumers in the right direction, like it or not.

Of course, if big US cities took a cue from Zurich and began making commuters' lives even more miserable, the growing pains would be huge. Many cities don't have nearly enough buses, subways, light-rails, trams, etc., to handle a massive influx of riders; some big cities' public transit is downright dismal. (Looking at you, Atlanta.) But you know what would spur rapid expansion of public transportation? Thousands of new users pressuring city officials and lawmakers in Washington for better mass transit as if their livelihood depended on it.

Grappling with climate change—and the extreme weather that comes with it—means serious action, and fast. Waiting and hoping for more efficient lithium batteries and cheaper electric cars isn't enough.