2011 - %3, August

Superweeds: This Time, It's Serious

| Wed Aug. 24, 2011 12:36 PM EDT

Blogging has been light this week because I've been on vacation. But I can't resist commenting on something that made me choke on my coffee this morning. While reading a news report on superweeds—weeds that have developed resistance to Roundup herbicide, from widespread use of Monsanto's genetically engineered Roundup Ready seeds—I came across this passage:

McNeill says that in the Midwest and other areas of the country, such as Louisiana and Mississippi, weeds like water hemp, giant ragweed, lamb’s quarter and velvet weed have become Roundup resistant through natural selection, due to a particular genetic mutation that survived the poison and therefore reproduced successfully and wildly.

Wait, ragweed, the scourge of Maverick Farms, the western North Carolina farm where I work? And lamb's quarters, the "wild green" (ok, weed) that we harvest and really enjoy eating all summer? I avoid buying genetically modified foods at the supermarket. Are we unwittingly inviting them into our kitchen through the backdoor?

I've been writing about "superweeds" for years now. It turns out—as any agricultural expert could have predicted—that when you douse millions of acres of farmland with the same weed-killing chemical several times a year for a decade, some of those weeds develop resistance to the chemical (and eventually, to the other poisons farmers deploy in their desperate zeal to control them).

But I've always written about the problem with a certain amount of detachment—I assumed that the Monsantoization of weeds was something that happened somewhere else, to some other kinds of weeds (like Roundup-resistant Palmer amaranth, a "nightmare" haunting cotton country in the South), not to the ones we grapple with in the field or (gulp) eat. It's true that not much industrial agriculture takes place in our mountainous area; but plenty takes place to the south and east of us. It's conceivable, I suppose, that our own stock of weeds could have become infected with Monsanto's gene, spread by pollen carried by birds and/or wind.

So, is our despised ragweed now genetically modified? Are our beloved lamb's quarters now Roundup Ready? I'll try to figure it out when I get back from vacation.

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Putting a Stake Through the Retirement Age Zombie

| Wed Aug. 24, 2011 12:28 PM EDT

A few days ago I wrote about the perennial popularity of raising the retirement age for Social Security and Medicare. It's a bad idea that doesn't save very much money, is savagely unfair to the poor, and in the case of Medicare, does nothing to rein in cost growth, which is our biggest problem. But it's an easy sound bite, so it sticks around forever even though there are loads of better ways of addressing entitlement spending.

Here's a nice little chart from CBPP (based on data from the Kaiser Family Foundation) that illustrates this for Medicare. Here's what it shows:

  • If the Medicare eligibility age were raised to 67, it would produce net savings of $5.7 billion. That's a whopping 1% of total Medicare spending. The reason the number is so low is that a lot of 65-66 year-olds would end up on Medicaid or in Obamacare's subsidized healthcare exchanges. The feds pay either way.
  • But wait! Although the federal government would save a bit of money, employers would end up spending $4.5 billion more and seniors themselves would spend $3.7 billion more.
  • In the end, the federal government would end up with only tiny savings, and those savings would be more than made up by higher spending elsewhere. The net effect on the healthcare system as a whole would be an increase of $5.7 billion, not a decrease.

This is just a bad, bad, zombie idea. It might be worth arguing over the methodology here if the numbers were big enough to matter, but they aren't. Even in the best case, raising the Medicare eligibility age would have an insignificant effect on the federal budget.

The more time we spend on this, the less time we're spending on ideas that might actually accomplish something. It's time to move on.

Check Your Blood Pressure!

| Wed Aug. 24, 2011 11:51 AM EDT

Via Atrios, I see that doctors in Britain want to change the way they measure blood pressure:

More than a quarter of patients may have been misdiagnosed for high blood pressure, a finding that will see the way doctors identify hypertension changed for the first time in more than a century....Currently patients have a number of appointments to have their blood pressure checked, and it is estimated that 25% suffer from "white-coat hypertension" — a syndrome in which people show elevated blood pressure in a surgery or hospital but nowhere else.

....Although there is no debate over the existence of white coat syndrome, some researchers argue that even mild exercise can influence readings and patients should be at home when an assessment is made.

I can vouch for both of these. I have mild hypertension,1 but it turns into severe hypertension whenever I'm in a doctor's office: my blood pressure routinely registers 20 points higher there than anywhere else. The effect is so reliable that I don't even react anymore when attendants record my blood pressure before a visit and produce their usual startling results. Likewise, I discovered years ago that if I walked up to the local drugstore, my blood pressure registered 10-15 points lower on their machine compared to readings after driving over.

The British answer, apparently, is to make people wear a blood pressure monitoring system for a full day. My answer is to own a blood pressure monitor that's been checked and calibrated by my doctor. This works great and it only cost 50 bucks. But it only works great if you actually use it, and I guess that's a common problem. Perhaps 24-hour blood pressure boxes are in all our futures.

1Nicely controlled at the moment, thanks for asking.

Congressional Staffers Dispute No Labels Town Hall Report

| Wed Aug. 24, 2011 11:15 AM EDT

Congressional staffers are pushing back against a report by the group No Labels that claims nearly 60 percent of members of Congress did not schedule free, public town halls during the August recess.

Here's what Ellis Brachman, a spokesman for the House Democratic Caucus, wrote in an email on Wednesday:

I’m sure No Labels had the best intentions in trying to put this report together—but it's so riddled with errors, many of which even a simple internet check would have caught, that the result is at best incredibly misleading. I can't speak for House Republicans, many of whom it's been widely reported are hiding behind pay walls to keep a friendly crowd, but House Democrats are out in their districts listening to their constituents at Town Halls and all sorts of other events. Anyone claiming differently is very misinformed.

A No Labels spokesman didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. You can the group's original report here.

Big Labor Eyes the Super PAC Playing Field

| Wed Aug. 24, 2011 10:30 AM EDT
AFL-CIO chief Richard Trumka with President Obama.

The AFL-CIO, the largest labor federation in America, is considering launching its own "super PAC." The move would allow the labor group to rake in unlimited amounts of campaign cash from inside and outside its affiliated unions to spend in state and federal elections. If the new political action committee gets the final stamp of approval, the Associated Press reports, it would join more than 100 super PACs already raising and spending money to influence the 2012 elections.

The explosion of super PACs onto the political scene came after the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which opened the door to unlimited political spending by corporations and labor unions. Here's more from the AP on the AFL-CIO's plan to potentially capitalize on that decision:

The move would also help steer more of labor's money to state legislative battles, where unions have been battling efforts to curb union rights in states like Wisconsin and Ohio.

"The essential idea is that changes in the law for the first time really allow the labor movement to speak directly to workers, whether they have collective bargaining agreements or not," AFL-CIO political director Michael Podhorzer said in an interview. "Before, most political resources went to our own membership."

Labor leaders discussed the plan at the AFL-CIO executive council meetings earlier this month, but officials said the idea remains subject to final approval over the next few weeks.

Quote of the Day: The Education Swamp

| Wed Aug. 24, 2011 10:29 AM EDT

From Felix Salmon, refereeing a skirmish in the ed wars between Steven Brill and Diane Ravitch:

As a general rule, anybody who thinks that anything about education reform is “simple and obvious” is wrong.

Words of wisdom. It's not unions, it's not teachers, it's not the curriculum, it's not funding, it's not charter schools, it's not poverty, it's not testing, and it's not poor parenting. It's all those things. Anyone who gets too obsessed with only one or two pieces of the ed system is just guaranteeing that they'll never understand what's going on.

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Bracing For the Great Mississippi Valley Earthquake

| Wed Aug. 24, 2011 9:41 AM EDT

With many DC residents still cowering nervously under our desks after yesterday's earthquake, Dave Weigel flags a rather regrettable tweet from Sen. John McCain from 2009. (Regrettable Tweets from John McCain is good Tumblr idea, come to think of it.) McCain has a habit of going on Twitter sprees, in which he rattles off a long list of earmarks that he considers to be prima facie ludicrous. Like this one:

The punchline is that this is a terrible waste of money because everyone knows Memphis doesn't even have earthquakes.

But actually, the punchline here is John McCain, who is blissfully ignorant of the fact that Memphis, Tennessee actually does sit on top of a major fault line, the New Madrid Seismic Zone. There haven't been any major earthquakes on the New Madrid fault since the winter of 1811–1812 (when there were four), but FEMA believes that a serious earthquake in Memphis "is likely to constitute the highest economic losses due to a natural disaster in the United States," due to the impact it would have on interstate commerce, agriculture, and property damage. It would displace about up to 7 million people and could cause hundreds of billions of dollars in damage. A FEMA-commissioned study, meanwhile, showed that the likelihood of a magnitude 6 or 7 earthquake occuring along the New Madrid fault in the next 50 years was 90 percent. There are also 15 nuclear power plants within the New Madrid Seismic Zone. If a major earthquake were to happen there, it would go "way beyond Katrina" in terms of devastation, as one senior Department of Defense official put it, according to Wired.

As it happens, there's a debate within the seismological community about just how much of a threat there is of an earthquake in the Midwest. A Northwestern University professor I spoke with in April believes that the fault may have shut off, in which case spending money on earthquake readiness would be a bad investment. What's at stake? Billions of dollars in long-term costs (shoring up all federal buildings, for instance) as well as harder-to-calculate economic costs to communities along the fault. Folks in Paducah, Kentucky say the threat of a major earthquake there has made it harder to lure new businesses. With so much hinging on the science, investing in research right now may actually be a very cost-effective approach.

The larger issue here is that McCain and plenty of other lawmakers have sought to make the case that earmarks are by definition wasteful, as part of their crusade against government spending. But earmarks have about the same degree of usefulness as any other form of non-earmarked funding. In reality, it's not the earmarks themselves that McCain should be concerned with; it's the process by which they're allocated.

What's All the Fuss About the Keystone XL Pipeline?

| Wed Aug. 24, 2011 5:00 AM EDT
Construction on the existing Keystone pipeline.

Hundreds of activists have arrived in Washington, DC, to protest the proposed Keystone XL project, a 1,661-mile pipeline that would carry oil from Canada's tar sands to refineries in Texas. If TransCanada gets the green light from the Obama administration, the pipeline would carry as much as 900,000 barrels of oil every day—oil with a carbon output 20 percent higher than conventional oil supplies.

The State Department is expected to release a final environmental impact statement on the proposal this month and issue a decision by the end of the year. The looming ruling has prompted activists to organize two weeks of protests at the White House—with several thousand expected to risk arrest.

Since the action began on Saturday, 212 people have been arrested outside of the White House. The majority have been processed and released, though some of the higher-profile activists were kept from Saturday through Monday morning, a move they believe was made to deter further protests. Writer and activist Bill McKibben (also a Mother Jones contributor), lawyer and environmental leader Gus Speth, and LGBT-rights activist Lt. Dan Choi were among those kept in jail.

The protesters have arrived outside the White House each morning, with a group of volunteers agreeing to sit in until they are arrested each day. Organizers estimate that between 50 and 100 people will be arrested every day, with the biggest day of action planned for Saturday, August 27. Spokesman Jamie Henn, of the group 350.org, said that 2,000 people have signed up to participate. They plan to continue the protest through Labor Day.

Because many of you may be wondering what the heck is going on with the protests, we've compiled this backgrounder. But I'm sure none of you need it, since you've been following our coverage of the Keystone XL all along. Right?

What is the Keystone XL? The Canadian energy company TransCanada has asked for permission to build a 1,661-mile pipeline that would travel from Hardisty, Alberta, down to oil refineries in Houston and Port Arthur, Texas. It would supplement the existing Keystone pipeline, which went into operation last summer and can carry up to 435,000 barrels of oil per day. The pipeline would carry tar sands oil, which is heavier, more carbon-intensive, and more corrosive than conventional oil. It is scheduled for completion in 2013, though it would not hit capacity until 2056.

What's wrong with building a giant pipeline across the US? That existing Keystone line has already leaked a dozen times in just one year of operation. The Keystone XL would cross more than 70 rivers and streams, including the Missouri, Platte, Yellowstone, and Arkansas. The oil spill from another pipeline in the Yellowstone River last month didn't do much to allay those concerns. It would also cross the Ogallala Aquifer, which provides nearly one-third of the groundwater used to irrigate US crops, supports $20 billion in agriculture, and supplies drinking water to about 2 million people. A recent report from a researcher at the University of Nebraska estimated that there would be 91 significant spills from the pipeline in the next 50 years. A worst-case-scenario spill in Nebraska's sand hills above the Ogallala Aquifer could dump as much as 180,000 barrels, tainting the vast water supply in the region.

The much-higher carbon footprint of tar sands oil and its contribution to climate change are also concerns, as are the health problems reported near extraction sites.

Who is opposed to building the pipeline? Environmental groups, landowners along the path of the pipeline (especially those threatened with eminent domain), the National Farmers Union, climate scientists, a number of senators (including both the Republican and Democratic senators from Nebraska), the Transport Workers Union, and the Amalgamated Transit Union have all urged the State Department to veto the plan.

Who supports building it? TransCanada, of course, as well as the oil companies that plan to ship oil through it, the American Petroleum Institute, the Teamsters Union, the US Chamber of Commerce, and the members of the House that voted for a bill that would expedite consideration of the plan.

How does the Keystone XL compare in size to other oil pipelines? If constructed, it would certainly be among the longest pipelines in the United States. But there are longer ones, like the 1,679-mile Rockies Express natural gas pipeline from Colorado to Ohio or the 1,900-mile Lakehead System from North Dakota to Michigan.

But won't the pipeline create tons of jobs? API refining issues manager Cindy Schild claimed in a press call last week that the pipeline would directly create 20,000 new jobs, and spur the creation of as many as 80,000 more jobs in the United States related to tar sands development. TransCanada's own projection on job growth has ballooned in the past few years, from initial predictions of 13,000 to now 20,000. But most of those jobs would be short-term, lasting for just the two years expected to take to complete the pipeline.

Why does the State Department get to decide whether to build it? Because the pipeline crosses an international border. The State Department is required, however, to ask other federal agencies to weigh in. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency gave a failing grade to State's initial environmental-impact analysis. State issued a new draft in April and is expected to issue a final version later this month. After that, they plan to hold public meetings in September.

Where will all that oil go? That's a good question! Supporters argue that getting oil from our friendly neighbors up north is preferable to getting it from Middle Eastern countries that don't like us very much. But our oil demand is expected to decline anyway. And since it would be pumped down to ports in Texas, it can easily be shipped to other countries in Europe or Asia, a concern that critics have raised.

What does President Obama think about the pipeline? That's another good question! It's also the reason the protesters plan to be out there for the next few weeks. They're hoping that the actions will put pressure on Obama, who has so far been pretty quiet on the subject, to weigh in against the pipeline. Obama may be in Martha's Vineyard right now, but the protesters will be waiting for him when he returns to the White House.

We already have a ton of pipelines, so why do activists care so much about this one? Well, unlike most major environmental issues, President Obama doesn't need Congress to do anything here. The decision is entirely within the control of his administration. For protesters, this is also symbolic; if Obama wants to show that he still cares about climate change, he could veto this project, they argue. Environmental groups are also hoping for a concrete victory. Even with a supposedly sympathetic president, they haven't seen the big policy shifts on this front that they were hoping for. And while addressing climate change is a giant, complicated challenge, vetoing a pipeline is fairly straightforward.

Evo Morales: Enviro Saint or Sinner?

| Wed Aug. 24, 2011 5:00 AM EDT
Indigenous Bolivians march to protest the building of a road through a national park.

With his Aymara heritage and anti-imperial outlook, Evo Morales has often been portrayed as one of the developing world's leading voices on global warming. Back in 2009, the Bolivian president shook the Copenhagen climate change summit when he blamed rising temperatures on capitalism and suggested that, without drastic changes, Africa would "suffer a holocaust." In December, at a conference in Mexico, he said governments that avoided emissions reductions would be guilty of "ecocide."

But lately environmentalists and indigenous groups have been calling Morales a hypocrite, claiming his ecofriendly talk doesn't jibe with his government's recent record on fossil fuel exploration and mining-related pollution. And now, with the government in the midst of a road project that eventually will cut right through a national park, the protests have ramped up. On August 15, indigenous residents of the Isoboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS) began a 300-plus-mile protest march from the Amazonian lowlands to La Paz.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 24, 2011

Wed Aug. 24, 2011 4:57 AM EDT

A soldier from 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, unloads his Stryker armored fighting vehicle after a long day of conducting fire missions at the National Training Center Aug. 12. Photo by Army Spc. Ryan Hallock.