2011 - %3, July

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 26, 2011

Tue Jul. 26, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

MAILED FIST 1-11

Unit: 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (photo by Scott Carlton Youmans, 7/21/2011)

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The Value of a Human Life

| Tue Jul. 26, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

What's your life worth, in dollars? That question routinely bedevils federal bean counters. Though calculating the "value of a statistical life" (VSL) may sound callous or morbid, it can lead to stronger safety and environmental regulations. For example, auto safety rules that would cost $100 million to implement but might protect $500 million worth of lives (say, 100 people at $5 million a pop) are seen as a good deal, cost-benefit-wise.

VSLs can vary widely, depending on the agency crunching the numbers and the administration in office. As this chart shows, the feds currently think each of us is worth somewhere between $5 million and $9.1 million.

David Brooks vs. David Brooks

| Tue Jul. 26, 2011 12:58 AM EDT

David Brooks three weeks ago on the Republican obstructionists who derailed the debt ceiling talks:

The members of this movement do not accept the logic of compromise....The members of this movement do not accept the legitimacy of scholars and intellectual authorities....The members of this movement have no sense of moral decency....The members of this movement have no economic theory worthy of the name.

....If the debt ceiling talks fail, independents voters will see that Democrats were willing to compromise but Republicans were not. If responsible Republicans don’t take control, independents will conclude that Republican fanaticism caused this default. They will conclude that Republicans are not fit to govern.

And they will be right.

Brooks sees the light! Hooray! Unless, um, he changes his mind. Cue Brooks tonight:

Alas, the dream of a Grand Bargain died Friday evening for three reasons. First, it was always going to be difficult to round up the necessary Congressional votes....Second, the White House negotiating process was inadequate....Third, the president lost his cool.

....There has been an outbreak of sanity since Congress took control....This should be a humbling moment for the White House, and maybe a learning experience. There are other people who have been around Washington a long time. They know how to play this game.

Just yesterday I was telling a friend who likes Brooks that I'm not a Brooks hater. I'm still not. But honest to God, I've never seen a columnist who's so schizophrenic. One day we've failed because Republicans are just shy of insane, the next we've failed because Obama screwed up the negotiating process. It's like some part of him rebels whenever he finally admits to himself what the modern conservative movement has become. I wonder what it will take for him to finally figure it out for good?

Obama vs. Boehner: A Pair of Nothingburgers

| Mon Jul. 25, 2011 10:13 PM EDT

What a discouraging pair of speeches. I expected Obama to stick with his Mr. Reasonable routine, so that wasn't a surprise. But I was surprised that he didn't do a better job of making a case for his own side. It just seemed....limp. I mean, this is not exactly a rousing call to action:

I’m asking you all to make your voice heard. If you want a balanced approach to reducing the deficit, let your Member of Congress know. If you believe we can solve this problem through compromise, send that message.

When he switched to describing the Republican plan, he didn't do much better. I really don't think he managed to paint the "cuts only" alternative as all that dire sounding, and I don't think he managed to explain the tea party intransigence in the House very well either. I could figure out what he meant because I follow this stuff, but I'm not sure someone who was coming into this cold could have.

And Boehner! What kind of gall does it take to describe last week's House bill as "bipartisan"? How many Dems voted for it? Three? Four? And he repeated this nonsense multiple times. This was accompanied by claims that it was Obama who created this whole crisis in the first place, that healthcare reform added to the deficit, and that Obama's "balanced approach" meant solely more spending and more taxes. Ugh. This is about as close to outright lying as you can get without being called on it. But Boehner knows well that it doesn't matter. If anyone does call him on it, it will only be in a few print-only fact checking pieces that no one reads.

I'm not sure what Obama hoped to accomplish tonight. He didn't really explain the debt ceiling itself very well, and for my money he didn't explain the problem with the tea party caucus in the House very well either. The latter, unfortunately, isn't really something you can explain unless you're pretty blunt about it, and that's just not his style. Nor was any news made.

I dunno. Maybe I'm misjudging how this will go over with Joe Sixpack. Maybe the congressional switchboard really will light up with demands for compromise. But it sure didn't seem to me that Obama moved the needle much tonight.

Quote of the Day: Libya is a Stalemate

| Mon Jul. 25, 2011 8:41 PM EDT

From Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, on how we're doing in Libya:

I have been impressed with what NATO has done here, how fast it got together with the pressure that it’s brought on Qadhafi. It’s dramatically attritted his forces, his major forces. That said, there’s still plenty of challenges associated with the regime forces who have adjusted [] to the opposition tactics, and we are generally in a stalemate.

I guess this means we officially have yet another forever war on our hands now.

(Via Doug Mataconis.)

3 Ways Scientific American Got the Organic Ag Story Wrong

| Mon Jul. 25, 2011 7:47 PM EDT
The organic farm at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Over on the Scientific American blog, Christie Wilcox set out to expose the "myths" of organic farming. Frankly, the piece was so poorly reasoned that I read it with a yawn. But people take Scientific American seriously (as they should—it's a great publication) and the piece was received with credulity on Matt Yglesias' influential blog and at my former employer, Grist. (Grist has since published a critique of the Wilcox piece by Tom Laskawy).

Since some smart people seem to be buying what Wilcox is peddling here, let's look at her central claims.

1) Organic farms are seething hotbeds of toxic pesticide use. Wilcox notes, correctly, that organic farms are allowed to use certain non-synthetic pesticides. I agree the practice is problematic. Organic farming is built on the principle of on-farm ecological balance—that crop biodiversity should provide habitat for a variety of "beneficial insects," which should in turn keep crop-eating ones under control. Use of pesticides, even non-synthetic ones, represents a breakdown of that principle, and should be avoided by organic farmers.

But how much of a problem is pesticide use on organic farms? To hear Wilcox tell it, buyers of organic food are unwittingly getting all manner of pesticide traces on their produce. To back that up, she drops this dud of a bombshell:

Furthermore, just over 1% of organic foodstuffs produced in 2007 and tested by the European Food Safety Authority were found to contain pesticide levels above the legal maximum levels—and these are of pesticides that are not organic.

Just over 1 percent, eh? That means that just under 99 percent were found to be ok. Scary! It would be interesting to see how non-organic food fared in that study; Wilcox doesn't see fit to compare the two. Meanwhile, back here in the United States, the USDA collects data on pesticide traces on produce. In 2009, reports the Organic Center, the USDA analyzed 386 samples of organic lettuce, "by far the most extensive sampling of an organic food crop for pesticide residues ever carried out in the world." Again, "just over 1 percent" of the samples contained a pesticide residue not approved for use on organic farms, the OC reports. As for pesticides approved for organic use, 78 samples carried traces of those, meaning that 20 percent of organic produce carried a residue. 

By contrast, the most recent USDA data on non-organic lettuce showed that the average sample carried residues of nealy four four distinct pesticides, the Organic Center reports.

Thus, despite Wilcox's bluster, organic food is clearly consumers' best bet for avoiding pesticide traces on their food. (For more information on the pesticide-residue cocktails that coat conventional vegetables, see my analysis of Environmental Working Group's recent report on the topic.)

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How Climategate Got Its Name

| Mon Jul. 25, 2011 5:40 PM EDT

When the uproar over a trove of stolen emails from the Climatic Research Unit at East Anglia University started back in November 2009, I resisted calling the incident "Climategate." Yet it appeared in almost every post we wrote about it at Mother Jones, because it very quickly became the shorthand that everyone seemed to be using to refer to theft and release of a number of emails between notable climate scientists. When I wrote a feature on the episode a few months ago, it was back in the headline because my editors and I agreed that this would be the name most readily identifiable to readers.

But there were always misgivings. Anything with the suffix "-gate" automatically implies scandal, of course, and the term is overused, to say the least. It seemed, however, we were stuck with it, and in rather short order after the emails were released. Our valiant fact-checker Jaeah Lee and I tried to figure out who exactly was responsible for coining it in this particular case. We didn't really figure it out conclusively, but now David Norton, recent graduate of American University's master's program in Public Communication, has devoted considerable time and attention to it. Norton put together a detailed timeline, via AU communication Professor Matt Nisbet writing over at Big Think.

Norton pretty much concludes that the term started in a comment thread on the  skeptic blog Watt's Up With That a few days after the emails were first posted online. Within hours, it spread to other blogs and Twitter. Interestingly, Norton notes that environmentally-minded folks who thought it was a non-scandal were also inadvertently instrumental in helping the term "Climategate" catch on:

Over the next several hours, the term "climategate" propagated through blogs and on Twitter, and began to supplant the proper noun “east anglia” as an indexical and referable moniker. With the early, near-ubiquitous adoption of such a straightforward snowclone, the incident became implicitly controversial and scandalous by its very name. Environmentalists challenging the nascent meme could do little to stop its spread, and in fact, may have inadvertently solidified its name as a framing device.

The paper is an interesting read. Of course, calling the incident "Climategate" was a lot more simple than calling it "that time when some unknown person procured and released a number of emails between climate scientists, potentially via illegal means." But it's a helpful reminder that what we call things matters, particularly when a meme can take on a life of its own online.

"The Worst" Enviro Budget Cuts in 35 Years

| Mon Jul. 25, 2011 4:42 PM EDT

In all the debate about debts and deficits, it's been easy to forget that Congress is making cuts that, if approved, will have an impact immediately. This week, the House is poised to pass the 2012 spending bills for the Department of Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency—with cuts that congressional Democrats are attacking as Draconian.

"This spending bill represents one of the most egregious assaults on the environment in the history of Congress," said Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) at a press conference Monday morning, via The Hill. Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) called it "the worst" Interior and Environment Appropriations bill he's seen in his 35 years on the committee in a statement. He also warned that it could get "even worse" as debate on the bill proceeds in the full House this week.

House Dems have a bit of a flair for the dramatic (note Markey holding up a copy of the bill covered in police tape earlier today, as an example). But the proposed cuts are dramatic. Among them:

  • a 7 percent cut to the Department of Interior overall, and a 21 percent cut to the US Fish and Wildlife Service in particular (which handles endangered species issues, among other things)
  • an 18 percent cut to the Environmental Protection Agency

Republicans on the committee also approved 38 riders targeting specific programs, such as:

  • defunding the EPA's rulemaking on coal ash as well as mercury and other toxic air pollutants
  • blocking EPA from moving forward on implementing greenhouse gas emission rules
  • preventing the EPA from issuing the next round of fuel-economy standards for cars and light trucks

National Wildlife Federation and Earthjustice have more on the targeted cuts. It's a good reminder that while big-picture, long-term cuts are the getting all the news attention right now, there are immediate cuts making their way through Congress, too.

Two Years in Prison for Tim DeChristopher (Updated)

| Mon Jul. 25, 2011 4:39 PM EDT
Tim DeChristopher, center, stands by environmental authors Janisse Ray and Bill McKibben during an event in April.

UPDATE, Tuesday, July 26: A federal judge handed Tim DeChristopher a two-year prison sentence and $10,000 fine today in Salt Lake City.

ORIGINAL POST: In December 2008, during the waning hours of the Bush administration, climate activist Tim DeChristopher walked in on a Utah auction and bid nearly $2 million on federal land for sale. He never intended to pay for it, of course; he just didn't want Big Oil to either. The feds weren't amused: In March, DeChrisopher was convicted on two felony counts for disrupting the auction and tomorrow, barring any further delays, he will face a sentence of up to 10 years behind barseven though Obama Interior Secretary Ken Salazar canceled the bids before DeChristopher was even charged.

The 29-year-old activist tells Mother Jones now that he would "definitely not" have it another way if he could wind back the clock. And his supporters have stood by him. Public Citizen, the non-profit consumer advocacy group founded by Ralph Nader in 1971, released a statement today contrasting DeChristopher's punishment with the slaps on the wrist that big energy companies have received after their involvement in large-scale environmental disasters.

Chart of the Day: Running On Empty

| Mon Jul. 25, 2011 3:34 PM EDT

This is from Chris Wilson of Slate, and it shows the cash position of the U.S. Treasury over the past year. Long story short, Treasury periodically sells some bonds to raise cash and its cash position goes up. Then it spends that money, sells some more bonds, etc. But starting on May 16, when we reached the debt ceiling and Congress did nothing about it, no more bonds could be sold. For the past couple of months Treasury has been playing games to stay in business, mostly by raiding other accounts or suspending payment of securities that could be held off temporarily. But that's done, and now we're headed inexorably to zero. On August 3rd we go into the red and we stop paying a whole lot of bills.

Which bills? Well, the tea partiers never say. But if you're expecting a check from the U.S. government after next Tuesday, you might want to make a contingency plan.