2011 - %3, June

Fewer Mountaintops, More Birth Defects

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 12:31 PM EDT

A new study linking Appalachian mountaintop removal mining to birth defects offers compelling new evidence of the practice's impact on human health. The data could spell bad news for coal companies that have resisted efforts by President Obama's Environmental Protection Agency and others to curtail the controversial mining method.

In mountaintop removal mining, companies like Massey Energy (now owned by Alpha Natural Resources) blast apart peaks to get to the coal inside without the need for much manpower. Before demolition, the mountains are stripped of their forests. (A 2003 EPA report (PDF) projected a loss of 1.4 million acres of trees if the mining continued unabated.) Then, dynamite-powered explosions produce waste that's dumped in valley streams and poisons drinking water in nearby communities.

So it's no surprise that the practice has long been criticized for its environmental impacts. But the new study "offers one of the first indications that health problems are disproportionately concentrated" in mining areas, West Virginia University associate professor and report coauthor Michael Hendryx said in a statement.

Researchers at Washington State University and WVU pored over nearly 2 million central Appalachia birth records from 1996 to 2003. Their findings are disturbing: Kids born near mountaintop mining operations suffered higher rates of a bevy of birth defects, including central nervous system, musculoskeletal, urogenital and circulatory and respiratory problems.

Still, many politicians in DC and central Appalachia won't let mountaintop removal mining die without a fight. In West Virginia, where coal brings billions of dollars to the state's economy, Democratic acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has defended the industry against environmentalists while lashing out at the EPA. And in Kentucky, whose economy also benefits greatly from coal mining, Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear humored anti-mining activists who staged a sit-in at his office but remains a supporter of mountaintop removal. Both politicians continue to take heat for their stance, most recently during efforts to defend West Virginia's Blair Mountain. The results of the birth defects study could increase that pressure.

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On Jose Antonio Vargas, Undocumented Immigrant

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 12:16 PM EDT
Jose Antonio Vargas.

Kevin is on vacation, so Andy Kroll and I are filling in for a few days.

In April 2008, Jose Antonio Vargas, then a reporter at the Washington Post, shared a Pulitzer prize for the paper's coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings. Last September, he published a 6,200-word profile of Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg in the New Yorker—the result of what he later called his "dream assignment." By any yardstick of traditional journalism, Vargas had made it.

This morning, the New York Times published Vargas' confession: he's an undocumented immigrant, and he's apparently committed a number of fraud-related crimes in order to obtain the documents he needed to stay in the country and keep working. It's hard to summarize Vargas' story—he didn't even know he was undocumented until, at 16, he applied for a learner's permit—so you should read the whole thing.

I'm sympathetic to Matt Yglesias' view that we should empathize with all people who come to the United States in search of a better life, even if, unlike Vargas, they do so knowing that what they're doing is illegal. But I've also worked with foreign-born journalists who've paid thousands or tens of thousands of dollars and waded through miles of red tape and seemingly senseless regulations—including, sometimes, returning to their home countries for a period—in order to work in this country.* (This applies outside of journalism, too, of course.) I wonder how they're feeling about Jose Antonio Vargas this morning.

*UPDATE: As discussed in the comments, these senseless hurdles are a central part of the problem.

Ohio Dispatch: Can My Friend Get a Job Interview?

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 11:34 AM EDT

Editors' note: Mac is spending a month in her home state of Ohio, reporting on the Wisconsin-style showdown involving Republican Governor John Kasich, public employees, unions, teachers, students, and struggling middle-class families.  

Last week was Erin's 31st birthday. When I asked her what her husband, Anthony, got her, she said, "Not a damn thing, I'd imagine, since we might be about to be a single-income family." She was wrong: Like on Mother's Day, he came home armed with presents.

The next day, Anthony called. His employer, the Ohio Consumers' Counsel, which is slated to have its finances reduced by as much as half in Governor John Kasich's budget, had given him notice. His job ends on June 30.

"What are we gonna do, monkey?" Erin asked their toddler, Jocelyn, as she sank to the floor, sighing. "I'm going to have to start entering you in pageants." Her face brightened a little when she turned to me. "I watched Toddlers & Tiaras for the first time today. I don't know why I haven't done that. Except that it smacks of child abuse."

Jeff Robek has some better advice. Yesterday, I watched the Ohio State University career advisor deliver a whole PowerPoint deck full of advice on career exploration. He was talking to a conference room in the downtown Columbus Metropolitan Library, which invited him as part of its Job Help Center. Staff and volunteers help job-seekers with everything from the very basics—email training, online-application navigating—to workshops for professionals. CML's website is the second most-visited in the whole county. Within the site, the Job Help Center page is the most-visited page. (It's not clear how those services will be affected after the new budget passes, since libraries are also in line for a big cut.)

"A lot of the people I'm working with have been laid off or find their field is shrinking," Robek told the assembled audience. The other big demographic? "I work with a lot of older job-seekers. Fifty-plus, sixty-plus." (OSU career advising is available not just to alumni but to anyone in the community.) Robek—who is perfectly Midwestern, with khakis and friendliness and neat hair—taught me the term "encore career," which appears to be a euphemism for "professionals who are old but can't afford to retire." He pointed us toward a lot of websites that list jobs, that allow you to research possible careers, and that have stats about jobs, like which ones are supposedly in a growth period. "With the job market as tight as it is right now, employers are picky," he cautioned.

The fact that it's a hirer's market is stunting Anthony's job search. He had an interview on Friday, his first one so far, though he's got years of experience and has been applying for dozens of jobs, for weeks. He was fortunate to make it into those who got interviewed out of the 150 who applied, but he's still up against 11 other contenders. He wore a purple shirt, to stand out, and because he doesn't like to be "bland." Though he has his fingers crossed, he's not counting on that position.

At night, after work, he was still working on his communications portfolio and putting in more applications. According to Robek, the odds aren't awesome; his last slide said that only 14 percent of people land a position through advertised jobs. Seventy percent of jobs come from networking, 11 percent through staffing agencies, and 5 percent through sending resumes. "I'm making a portfolio so I can use it on interviews," Anthony said with a toothy smile as he picked up a piece of it Jocelyn had thrown on the floor. "If I ever get one."

Plus: For much more on our "work more, earn less" economy, including the jobless recovery, see our current package on The Great Speedup.

Wanted: Better Bank Regulators

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 11:17 AM EDT

Hello there, Drum readers! I'm Andy Kroll, a reporter here in MoJo's DC bureau. For the next week, I'll be one of the guest bloggers keeping the Drumbeat lively while Kevin lounges on a beach somewhere curled up with a McKinsey report and his new camera. (Kidding—I have no idea where he is.) My email is at the end of every post, so don't hesitate to drop me a note or give me an earful. Onward...

Regulatory capture: It's the wonky name for when an industry co-opts the watchdogs that are supposed to be regulating it. And there's no clearer example of that than the banking industry and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), which oversees about 1,400 US banks. For instance, it was the OCC in 2003 that squashed Georgia's efforts to outlaw the most toxic home loans on the market—think negative amortizing loans, NINJA (no income, no job, no assets) loans, you name it. How prescient.

On Tuesday, the OCC was at it again. Its chief, John Walsh, went before the Senate to testify against new bank capital requirements, calling for a "fundamental rethink" of rules that would force banks to keep more capital on their books to absorb losses and weather crises. "My view," Walsh said, "is that we are in danger of trying to squeeze too much risk and complexity out of banking as we institute reforms to address problems and abuses stemming from the last crisis." Translation: These rules will pinch bank profits.

Capital is the protective cushioning, if you will, that banks keep on hand in case disaster strikes. In the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, plenty of banks didn't think it was necessary to stash away capital, and when the crisis arrived, they suffered serious enough damage to necessitate a government rescue. Research by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund shows definitively [PDF] that large banks with too little capital suffered far more during the crisis than those who chose the safer route.

Which is where the new requirements come in. As Kevin noted last fall, the Basel III proposals would hike capital requirements three- and four-fold, depending on the type of capital. There's also a more recent proposal circulating to make larger banks hold still more capital as they grow in size. While technical, these reforms shouldn't be scoffed at: Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has called higher capital requirements the most important piece of financial reform.

But Walsh's testimony adds to the growing drumbeat to weaken these requirements. He joins JPMorgan Chase exec Jamie Dimon and a host of other banking big-wigs in opposition.

One lawmaker who's unequivocally onboard is Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). A staunch defender of tighter financial regulations, Levin was so angered by Walsh's testimony that he demanded his ouster in the middle of the hearing: "It is past time for the president to nominate new leadership at the OCC to protect American families and businesses from the excesses of Wall Street." However, it'll take more than one angry senator to beat back the banking lobby and put these rules into action.

Gore vs. Obama on Climate

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 11:14 AM EDT

Al Gore has a lengthy piece in the forthcoming issue of Rolling Stone on—what else?—climate change. He starts out with some harsh (and deserved) words about the media's overall coverage of the issue. But his toughest criticism is reserved for President Obama, whom he says "has thus far failed to use the bully pulpit to make the case for bold action on climate change."

In the congressional debates on the subject, allies "felt abandoned when the president made concessions to oil and coal companies without asking for anything in return"—like his plan to dramatically increase offshore drilling. Moreover, though, Obama has not used his position to advocate for dealing with the problem, Gore writes:

Yet without presidential leadership that focuses intensely on making the public aware of the reality we face, nothing will change. The real power of any president, as Richard Neustadt wrote, is "the power to persuade." Yet President Obama has never presented to the American people the magnitude of the climate crisis. He has simply not made the case for action. He has not defended the science against the ongoing, withering and dishonest attacks. Nor has he provided a presidential venue for the scientific community — including our own National Academy — to bring the reality of the science before the public.
Here is the core of it: we are destroying the climate balance that is essential to the survival of our civilization. This is not a distant or abstract threat; it is happening now. The United States is the only nation that can rally a global effort to save our future. And the president is the only person who can rally the United States.

Of course, the administration would argue that it's been quite vocal about the kind of policies that would address the climate crisis—fuel efficiency standards for automobiles, a national clean energy standard, and investments in green jobs. Not a week goes by that I don't get a press release from the administration about Obama or another administration official touring a clean tech manufacturing facility or something similarly photo-opportune. But you never hear about how the status quo is dangerous when it comes to climate change, and the implications are catastrophic and irreversible.

I realize that a fleet of pollsters and messaging gurus have decided that the American public wants to hear positive messages about jobs and economic opportunity, not scary warnings about how we're destroying the planet. But like Gore, I've always thought that there is a missed opportunity in not presenting the counterargument to the contention that truly addressing climate change will be economically catastrophic. It's not just that there are also opportunities in investing in alternatives (and I think there are). It's that not doing so has very, very bad consequences—ones that most Americans don't fully appreciate yet. It's here that Obama's message has been lacking.

Nikki Haley’s Arizona-Style Immigration Crackdown

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 8:37 AM EDT

South Carolina is poised to become the latest state to enact an anti-immigration bill modeled on the drastic law in Arizona that ignited a national debate. The Wall Street Journal reports that on Tuesday, the South Carolina legislature passed a bill that "requires police in South Carolina to check suspects' immigration status" if they are stopped for a traffic offense or arrested otherwise, mirroring one of the most controversial provisions in the Arizona law. Governor Nikki Haley's spokesman confirmed to the Journal that she will sign the bill.

Before Arizona passed its law last year, South Carolina was considered to have some of the country's strictest laws against illegal immigrants. The states's new law will also require that all businesses check the immigration status of new hires through a federal online database called E-Verify.

Though Haley is the daughter of Sikh immigrants, she has maintained a hardline immigration stance, in line with her other hard-right views. "My parents are immigrants, they came here legally, they put in the time, they put in the money, they did what they were supposed to. It makes them mad when they see illegal immigrants come into this state," Haley declared in a 2010 campaign video. Having praised Arizona's immigration law, Haley was long expected to support a similar effort in her own state.

With Haley's backing, South Carolina will soon join a handful of states that have passed sweeping anti-immigration laws since Arizona, including Alabama, Georgia, and Indiana. Though a federal court prevented Arizona from enacting some of the most controversial parts of its law, states have continued to follow Arizona's lead, despite the legal challenges they're likely to face. Stay tuned for my in-depth account of these new immigration battles later this week.

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Got A Problem? Blame It On Illegal Immigrants

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 6:30 AM EDT
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she / With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" | Or, you know, don't.

Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) took some heat this weekend for blaming wildfires in Arizona and New Mexico on illegal immigrants. McCain has since recanted (sort of), claiming that he was merely repeating what an unnamed Forest Service official told him in a briefing.

McCain's comments are just the latest example of our country's habit of blaming all manner of problems on immigrants. Let's take a look at a few recent instances of illegal immigrants becoming scapegoats for... well, you name it:

  • Car Accidents: Thank Arizona's senior senator for this one, too. McCain told Bill O'Reilly (who else?) that Arizona's highways were plagued by illegal immigrants who intentionally crash into other drivers. No word on how doing so could possibly be to their benefit.
  • Swine Flu: Remember this? While everyone was running around buying face masks and speculating on Swine Flu's origin, CNN's Jack Cafferty suggested that illegal immigrants—not just anyone traveling from Mexico—might be at fault.
  • The Mortgage Crisis: Conservative pundit Michelle Malkin argued that banks specifically targeted illegal immigrants for shady home loans, and when they couldn't pay up... well, you know what happened.
  • America's Drug Problem: The majority of illegal immigrants coming from Mexico are "drug mules," according to Arizona Governor Jan Brewer.
  • Litter: Some officials think border crossers need to brush up on their "Leave No Trace" etiquette.
  • California's Budget Deficit: Forget about mismanagement and overspending: some argue that California ran out of money because of illegal immigrants, who used services like hospitals and schools without paying for them. (Actually, many undocumented immigrants pay taxes.) Immigrants had a friend in the Governator, though, who said they were an "easy scapegoat" and not the real source of the problem.
  • Bad Traffic: The American Immigration Control Foundation ran ads accusing immigrants (illegal and otherwise) of worsening gridlock and pushing urban sprawl
  • Various Episodes of Violence: Something scary happened in your neighborhood and you can't find the criminal? No problem! It was probably illegal immigrants (this rule applies internationally, too).

Immigrants must be exhausted after leaving their foreclosed homes in pot-laden cars, crashing in standstill traffic on their way to the ER, hacking and wheezing, and then tossing their used Kleenex out the window!

Vacation Time

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

I'll be on vacation for the next week, but fear not for the blog. Nick Baumann and Andy Kroll, who are both great and who you should be following anyway, will be filling in, and a few other MoJo writers will be popping in as well from time to time. I might even pop in myself occasionally, depending on the vagaries of my mood and my WiFi connections. Catblogging, of course, will appear as scheduled.

I'll be back next Thursday. Don't let the world collapse while I'm gone.

Newt Gingrich's Tiffany Troubles Get Worse

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 5:58 AM EDT

Things just got even worse for Newt Gingrich, whose presidential campaign has imploded in recent weeks with the bulk of his staff jumping ship. The latest blow to his campaign is the revelation that the Gingrichs had not one but two lines of credit at the luxury jewelry store Tiffany. As the Washington Post reports, Gingrich must file a personal financial disclosure form within a month of declaring his candidacy, and that form will show that Gingrich enjoyed a $500,000 to $1 million line of credit at Tiffany, which has been closed with a zero balance. Here's more from the Post:

[Gingrich spokesman Joe] DeSantis added that all debts to Tiffany had been paid in full. He offered no details about when the second line of credit was taken out, what it was used for or when it was closed.

This revelation comes roughly a month after personal financial disclosure forms for Gingrich’s wife, Callista, showed that the family had carried a line of credit ranging between $250,000 and $500,000 at Tiffany’s during 2005 and 2006.

Gingrich’s campaign has struggled since its inception. After formally entering the race on May 12, he weathered widespread staff departures earlier this month amid allegations that the campaign was running low on cash even as the candidate insisted on taking chartered planes to and from events.

That jet-setting has left the Gingrich campaign more than $1 million in debt, with fundraising dollars coming in at a trickle. That probably explains the departure of top fundraising aides Mary Heitman and Jody Thomas last week, dealing yet another blow Gingrich's flailing campaign. The question now is: How long can Newt keep his presidential bid afloat with only himself and his big ideas?

2011: The Year of the Natural Disaster

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

From NOAA's National Climatic Data Center, here's a chart that shows the number of disasters, and their cost, for every year since 1980:

As you can see, we're just halfway through 2011, and already eight extreme weather events in the United States have each caused more than a billion dollars in damage—a record since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration began keeping tabs in 1980. The US has faced 99 weather-related disasters that cost at least $1 billion in the past 31 years, totaling $725 billion (when adjusted for inflation). But even though it's only halfway through, 2011 ranks second overall in total number.

There have been $32 billion in damages caused by extreme weather events this year, which have included blizzards, tornados, floods, and wildfires, National Climatic Data Center director Tom Karl said last week. The NCDC, a division of NOAA, released a released these stats last week in the wake of this spring's tumult.

Hurricane season—which tends to yield some of the costliest weather events—just started on June 1. And we've barely seen the beginning of the summer heat.

While the economic costs are high, so, too, are the human. There have been 575 deaths from this year's weather events, the majority of them in the tornadoes in the Southeast and Midwest. The damage in Joplin, Mo. is a testament to the power of the most extreme among extreme weather events.

The weather-related disaster that people recall most immediately is Hurricane Katrina, which caused 1,833 deaths and caused $133.8 billion in damages. But drought and heatwaves have accounted for the two most catastrophic events to date: 10,000 deaths and $55.4 billion in damages in 1980 and another 7,500 deaths and $71.2 billion in damages in 1988.

Of course, we've always had severe weather events. And this year so far has been more extreme than most. But scientists have now warned repeatedly that we should expect extreme events more often in the future as the climate changes. It's safe to say we can expect more billion-dollar events down the line.

The front page photo of tornado devastation in Joplin, Missouri was taken by Andy Kroll.