2011 - %3, June

Acting Locally, Riffing Globally

| Mon Jun. 6, 2011 6:00 AM EDT
Students at Tintale Village Teaching Center, Nepal.

Not many New Orleans buskers who've been working the streets as long as Grandpa Elliott has (60 years) will ever perform for a crowd of 15,000—in Morocco no less. But film producer Mark Johnson and his Playing For Change Foundation has been making such unlikely events happen. For the past decade, Johnson has been globetrotting with recording equipment and a vision: to bring far-flung musicians together, sometimes through technology, sometimes face-to-face. Out last week, his second CD/DVD release, entitled Playing for Change: Songs Around the World Part 2 (PFC2), is part of his ongoing quest to re-create world music, as Johnson told Mother Jones in a 2009 interview

PFC2, like it’s 2010 predecessor, features 150 musicians from 25 countries collaborating on a variety of classics like Bob Marley’s "Three Little Birds," John Lennon’s "Imagine," and Stevie Wonder’s "Higher Ground." Johnson records and films the musicians playing outdoors on their home turf—a washpan player on a New Orleans' sidewalk, a drum circle of Zuni Indians. But each records his tracks to complement ones already recorded by fellow musicians hundreds or thousands of miles away.

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Miscellany

| Mon Jun. 6, 2011 1:43 AM EDT

Jon Cohn on the almost unfathomable childishness of Richard Shelby's temper tantrum over Nobel prize winning Fed nominee Peter Diamond.

Recently retired Mossad chief Meir Dagan on the current Israeli leadership and its reckless attitude toward peace.

Lori Montgomery of the Washington Post on the GOP's anti-tax jihad and why it's not likely to end anytime soon.

Are the Luddites Finally Right?

| Mon Jun. 6, 2011 1:22 AM EDT

Jared Bernstein says that productivity growth is good for the economy and good for employment. At least, it used to be:

People sometimes worry that we’re getting too productive, able to satisfy the demands of our economy with “too few” workers. That’s an age-old worry, and those who want to downplay it cite the fact that, as the graph shows, there is a positive, not a negative, correlation between productivity and job growth overtime....But look at the end of the graph. Productivity accelerates while employment growth decelerates. And that ain’t no blip either…it suggests the possibility of a structural change in this relationship.

This is a useful chart. As I mentioned Sunday morning, I don't think there's a big mystery about why unemployment is high right now: consumers are still deleveraging instead of buying stuff, so consumer demand is low and that means there's no reason for businesses to invest or hire people.That's 70% of the problem, anyway, and we could address that 70% with more aggressive monetary policy and/or more aggressive fiscal policy. Still, it seems plausible that there's a chunk of the problem that might be more structural, and it's not a problem that suddenly popped up a couple of years ago. It's a problem that started a decade ago but was masked by the high fever of a housing bubble. And it means that either our productivity gains since then have been a mirage or else that productivity gains now leak out of the economy and no longer drive employment gains.

I don't know which it is, and it certainly shouldn't stop us from doing what we can to fix the current demand shortfall and get the economy back on track. But it's something to think about for the future. If this breakdown is real, it has some real consequences for the next few decades.

This Weekend's Score: Technology 1, Kevin 0

| Sun Jun. 5, 2011 1:51 PM EDT

So here's a weird thing. When I do a Google image search, I get a screen that looks like this:

What's weird is that this isn't what a Google image search looks like. It looks like this:

What's even weirder is that Google switched to this new look nearly a year ago. The reason I didn't know about it until recently is because nothing ever changed on my browser. It just kept returning images the same old way.

Very strange. This all came to my attention because a few days ago Google stopped giving me more than one page of image results. When I click on the second page I just get an error message. So I checked around and eventually discovered that I was stuck on an old version of image search for some reason — at least, I was stuck there on Opera, which is my normal browser. But when I cranked up an image search in either Firefox or IE, I got the new version. At the bottom of this new version, I learned, there's a link called "Switch to basic version," which is apparently what the old results page is now called. But at the bottom of the basic version, there's no link called "Switch to new version." So I'm stuck with a single page of results from the old version and no way to switch to the new version.

And even weirder: after playing around a bit, I discovered that if I left click normally on the second page of image results, I get the error I mentioned above. But if I right click and then click "Open," the second results page comes up fine. So there's some kind of difference now between normal left clicking vs. right clicking and using the context menu. Isn't technology wonderful?

Why is Unemployment Still So High?

| Sun Jun. 5, 2011 11:46 AM EDT

In a story about the possibly structural causes of our continuing deep unemployment, Don Lee of the LA Times provides us with this example:

Paul Perez, 28, who lives at his parents' home in Whittier, was unemployed for nearly a year before he landed a part-time job in April. He now unloads trucks and shelves goods at a home improvement store for $10.25 an hour.

He said he's happy to be working, but with a master's degree in religious studies from Cal State Long Beach, Perez aspires to earn more so he can get his own place and begin an independent life.

Hmmm. That's a chin scratcher, isn't it? I wonder why a guy with a master's degree in religious studies from a middling state university would be having trouble finding a job during an economic slowdown? I really don't think you need any esoteric explanations of the recession to figure that out.

On the broader question, I'm not sure what to think. Lee suggests there are three reasons why unemployment remains so stubbornly high, and #3 on his list is a very brief acknowledgement of the ongoing debt deleveraging that continues to ravage consumer spending and "acts as a massive drag on the economy." He also gives a shout out to the deficit mania that prevents the federal government from doing anything constructive about this.

Overall, though, he's trying to tell a story that our current woes are structural, not cyclical. This is tricky. On his list of causes, #1 and #2 are technology improvements and stiffer foreign competition, and I don't think #1 really holds water. As Lee admits, the IT revolution has been underway for decades, and contrary to what he says, I'm not sure there's much evidence that "it appears to have accelerated" recently. As Michael Mandel points out, business investment plummeted in 2008 and it's remained lethargic ever since. It's just not true that unemployment has remained high even though businesses have been on an equipment spending spree. In fact, business investment has been anemic.

But #2 — well, I'm not sure. Michael Mandel also has a lot to say about that, and I haven't really absorbed it yet. He makes the case that measurement problems in the tradable sector are causing us to overestimate productivity gains and that this has profound implications for employment. Oddly, though, considering how provocative his thesis is, it appears to have gotten only scant discussion among economists in the blogosphere. So I'm not quite sure what to think about it. Frankly, the evidence against a primarily structural explanation of the recession still seems pretty strong — I'd guess that the causes of our current unemployment catastrophe are about 70% cyclical and 30% structural — but I'd like to understand Mandel's argument better. I'll keep plugging away at it.

Will Redistricting Save California?

| Sat Jun. 4, 2011 12:12 PM EDT

This is a totally inside baseball post for fellow Californians who know more about what's going on in Sacramento than I do. As background for everyone else, California has an enormous hole in its budget and Gov. Jerry Brown wants to plug that hole with a combination of spending cuts and tax extensions. However, you need a two-thirds vote in the legislature to raise taxes, and Democrats are a couple of votes short in both the Senate and the Assembly. Negotiations have been ongoing with the tiny handful of Republicans who are at least willing to talk, but they've gone nowhere.

So, anyway, it all looks hopeless. But maybe not! I was chatting with a friend on Memorial Day who deals with lots of Sacramento lobbyist types, and he said those lobbyists were unanimously reporting that there was no problem. A deal would be made and revenue would be raised. I was astonished. Sure, that might be true, but it sure doesn't look that way right now. What makes these lobbyists so confident?

Answer: redistricting. In a few days a commission will announce California's new legislative districts based on the 2010 census, and some number of legislators are going to find themselves without a home and without a political future. Some of them will be Republicans, and those Republicans will be willing to cut a deal with Brown because they don't have to worry about the wrath of the voters anymore.

Hmmm. Really? It seems to me the same thing could be said about legislators who are being booted out in 2012 due to term limits, but that doesn't seem to have helped the process along. Part of the problem is that only a handful of Republicans are being termed out, and all but three or four of them are ultraconservatives who aren't going to compromise on taxes regardless of their future. I'd be surprised if redistricting ended up impacting more than two or three non-wingnut Republicans either.

But what do I know? So I put it to my California readers who follow state politics closely: are my friend's lobbyists super plugged in and know things the rest of us don't? Or are they just telling their bosses what they want to hear? Is redistricting Jerry Brown's secret hope for a deal with Republicans to extend the tax hikes that were put in place a couple of years ago? Or is this just whistling into the wind?

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Federal Prison Director Defects to Private Prison Company

| Fri Jun. 3, 2011 9:12 PM EDT

Less than a month after retiring from his post as Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), Harley G. Lappin has been hired to a top positon at the nation's largest private, for-profit prison contractor, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). In a move that has gone virtually unnoticed by the press except on the business pages, Lappin, who had run the BOP since 2003, has been named CCA's Executive VP and Chief Corrections Officer. According to a company press release, his responsibilities will include "the oversight of facility operations, health services, inmate rehabilitation programs, [and] purchasing."

Lappin announced his retirement in March, a few days before making public his arrest, the previous month, on DUI charges in Maryland. In a memo apologizing to BOP employees, Lappin admitted to a "lapse in my judgment...giving rise to potential embarrassment to the agency," but he refused to acknowledge a direct link between his arrest and his retirement. The announcement of his appointment to a leadership position at CCA came just over three weeks after his effective retirement date of May 7.

Taking advantage of two concurrent 30-year trends--toward mass incarceration and toward privatization of government services--CCA has grown to a $1.6 billion company that operates 66 facilities in 20 states, with approximately 90,000 beds. It has become notorious for its poor treatment of prisoners, and for numerous preventable injuries and deaths in its prisons and immigrant detention centers. About 40 percent of CCA's business comes from the federal government, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement as well as the Bureau of Prisons. As BOP director, Lappin would have overseen government contracts with CCA worth tens of millions of dollars. CCA spends approximately $1 million annually on lobbying on the federal level alone.

A press release from the invaluable Private Corrections Working Group notes that Lappin's quick trip through the government-to-industry revolving door is hardly unique in the Bureau of Prisons' history: "Lappin joins another former BOP director already employed with CCA, J. Michael Quinlan, who was hired by the company in 1993. He retired as director of the BOP in 1992, several months after settling a lawsuit that accused him of sexually harassing a male BOP employee. While settling the suit, Quinlan denied allegations that he made sexual advances to the employee in a hotel room."

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week [18]

| Fri Jun. 3, 2011 8:19 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.)

DOT Shuts Down Tar Sands Pipeline

| Fri Jun. 3, 2011 5:51 PM EDT

TransCanada has grand dreams of building a gigantic pipeline that would traverse the United States and ship oil from Canada's tar sands to Texas refineries. But the branch of the Keystone pipeline that the company is already operating in the US has created a considerable problem—causing a dozen spills in just its first year of operation.

The pipeline has been shut down since it sprung yet another leak on May 29. On Friday, the federal agency that oversees pipelines ordered the company to keep the pipeline, which runs from North Dakota to Illinois and then on to Oklahoma, shut down until they prove that the problems are fixed.

In an order issued to the company on Friday, associate administrator for pipeline safety at the Department of Transportation Jeffrey Wiese wrote:

… I find that the continued operation of the pipeline without corrective measures would be hazardous to life, property and the environment. Additionally, after considering the circumstances surrounding the May 7 and May 29, 2011 failures, the proximity of the pipeline to populated areas, water bodies, public roadways and high consequence areas, the hazardous nature of the product the pipeline transports, the ongoing investigation to determine the cause of the failures, and the potential for the conditions causing the failures to be present elsewhere on the pipeline, I find that a failure to issue this Order expeditiously to require immediate corrective action would result in likely serious harm to life, property, and the environment.

The entire situation does not bode particularly well for the proposed Keystone XL extension, which the State Department is expected to make a decision on very soon. Earlier this week, a group of 34 Democratic lawmakers wrote to the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency expressing concerns about the proposed line. The latest news isn't exactly encouraging.

How Bad Is Climate Change for Your Lungs?

| Fri Jun. 3, 2011 5:16 PM EDT

A new study puts a hefty price tag on climate change by linking it to the air you breathe. The report, published yesterday by the Union of Concerned Scientists, concludes that CO2-induced temperature increases will worsen ground-level ozone concentrations (the kind coming from power plants and exhaust pipes, not the kind that shields the Earth from UV rays). Higher concentrations of ground-level ozone threaten the health of millions of Americans, an impact that could cost the US $5.4 billion in 2020. If that's not compelling enough, here's what the study's findings mean for you:  

  • If you live in the following states: California, Texas, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, New Jersey, and Virginia topped the list of most vulnerable populations under the projected ozone concentration increase of 2 parts per billion per 1 degree of temperature increase.
  • If you have asthma: Higher ground-level ozone concentrations could lead to 2.8 million additional occurrences of asthma attacks, shortness of breath, wheezing, and chest pains in 2020 compared to today.
  • If you go to school: Many schools already prevent students from going outside and cancel sports games due to poor air quality. UCS projects that in 2020 higher ozone concentrations could lead to 944,000 more school absences than today.
  • If you're older than 65 or younger than 1: In 2050, an average of 24,000 more seniors and 5,700 more infants than today could be hospitalized for respiratory problems linked to air quality.

If you're an athlete, work outdoors, or live in a low-income community or in any of the 322 counties that do not meet the current national ozone standard, then you're also at high risk. And if you're a farmer, ozone pollution in rural areas may also lower your crop yields.

So what to do? There's the obvious, like riding a bike or taking mass transit instead of driving. Also, you could avoid mowing your lawn on bad ozone days. In late July, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce a stronger ozone standard as well as new proposed rules to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. But the EPA has already delayed tightening its ozone standards three times, and now the coal power plant industry and related labor unions are lobbying Congress to delay the air pollution rules. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Kent.), and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who have previously tried to reverse the EPA's ability to regulate air pollution under the Clean Air Act, have asked the EPA to delay or abandon the rules.

In any case, it might all be too little, too late. The majority of states in the US consistently violate the EPA's existing limit on ozone concentration. And there is virtually no entity that sets standards these issues at the county and state levels, report co-author Jerome Paulson said in a press conference call. He adds that "there are essentially no national level recommendations," either, because none of the federal agencies have the authority to legally mandate them.

This summer, says UCS public health expert Liz Perera, nearly 50 percent of Americans will breathe air with unsafe ozone levels. The figure will probably increase with time, since hotter temperatures could easily mean higher demand for air conditioners and more demand for electricity during summer months, thus resulting in more emissions from fossil-fueled power plants.