2011 - %3, August

Look Who's Advising Michele Bachmann on Foreign Policy

| Mon Aug. 1, 2011 10:03 AM EDT

Lost amid the last-second push to pass the "sugar-coated satan sandwich" that is the debt ceiling deal, Eli Lake has an interesting piece over at The New Republic exploring the Republican party's collapsing foreign policy consensus. The good news? The cocky, rigid neoconservatism that defined the last decade is less influential now. But that doesn't mean it's being replaced by anything more, well, sane. Here's Lake:

When I started asking around about Bachmann's foreign policy ideas, I heard the same thing from multiple people: that I should talk to Frank Gaffney. Gaffney himself stressed that he had no formal relationship with Bachmann as an adviser. But he did say that he had contact with several of the GOP candidates. And, of Bachmann, he said this: "She is a friend and a person I admire. I hope she is getting the best counsel she can." He added, "We are a resource she has tapped, I'm assuming among many others." When I asked him whether Bachmann had been briefed on the Team B II Report, he replied, "We've spent hours, over several days with her. I think she's got the bulk of what we would tell her in one of the more formal presentations."

...

Bachmann's connection to the Team B II Report—and her conviction that sharia law is a threat to the United States—helps explain some of the key places that she splits from the neoconservatives. To most neocons, the Arab Spring was good news, because it meant the potential spread of democracy in the Muslim world. But the Team B II crowd was pessimistic. "Ever since 2003, when the thrust of the War On Terror stopped being the defeat of America’s enemies and decisively shifted to nation-building, we have insisted—against history, law, language, and logic—that Islamic culture is perfectly compatible with and hospitable to Western-style democracy," McCarthy has written. "It is not, it never has been, and it never will be."

Gaffney, for the unfamiliar, is a former Ronald Reagan Pentagon official who has become one of the leaders of the right-wing anti-Islam crusade. Team B II was an ad hoc group formed by his Center for Security Policy which last year produced report, Shariah: The Threat to America, on the existential threat posed by radical jihadis in the United States government.

Gaffney has warned that CIA Director David Petraeus is a slave to Islamic Shariah law; that President Obama's missile defense logo represents a concession to radical Islam (it was actually produced by the Bush administration); and that "there is mounting evidence that the president not only identifies with Muslims, but actually may still be one himself." In 2008, he also argued that "there is evidence Mr. Obama was born in Kenya." Gaffney believes that high-ranking members of the Obama foreign policy team are secretly working for the Muslim Brotherhood, and, last fall, he alleged that Americans for Tax Reform founder Grover Norquist was in cahoots with radical Islamists as well—which, in turn, meant that the entire Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) had been compromised.

This all makes Gaffney sound conspiratorial, but that's kind of the point: His big foreign policy idea, which he's presumably counseling Bachmann on, is that is that there is a comprehensive plot by Islamic extremists to infiltrate the United States government and all other levels of society and destroy America as we know it. But then again, considering Bachmann once attended a conference dedicated to framing Middle Eastern politics in the context of End Times prophecy, Gaffney might be a step up.

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Major Study Links Decline of Unions to Rising of Income Inequality

| Mon Aug. 1, 2011 7:30 AM EDT

It's well known that the death of America's labor unions coincides with a staggering rise in income inequality, though the link between the two has never been as obvious as it seems. Many academics argue that unions play a relatively minor role in the equation, instead blaming educational disparities and the shifting makeup of the economy. But now comes a major new study from Harvard sociology professor Bruce Western that suggests that the decline of unions is as important as any other factor, explaining a full third of the growth in of income inequality for male workers.

The loss of labor unions explains a full third of the growth of inequality for male workers

Western and co-author Jake Rosenfeld, a sociology professor at the University of Washington, looked at the period between 1973 and 2007, when inequality in hourly wages spiked by 40 percent. During that time, union membership for private-sector male workers fell from 34 percent to 8 percent (female workers were never as unionized as their male counterparts). Their paper in the August issue of the America Sociological Review concludes that deunionization's biggest effects on inequality were indirect: 

1) The threat of unionization caused non-unionized employers to raise wages; that threat disappered along with unions.
2) Unions occupied a bully pulpit; knocking them off left the moral case for equality vulnerable to attack. (What do you mean Viacom's CEO isn't worth $85 million?)
3) Workers lost their Washington lobbyists, and with them, any hope of winning political battles for better wages and benefits.

These ideas are nothing new. Kevin Drum ably explores them in his March/April Mother Jones essay, "Plutocracy Now." Yet the Harvard study bolsters them with a rigorous regression analysis of census data, showing empirically what many pundits have long suspected. "Our study underscores the role of unions as an equalizing force in the labor market," Western says. If only proving their importance was as easy as figuring out how to replace them.

Review: Ximena Sariñana

| Mon Aug. 1, 2011 6:30 AM EDT

TRACK 2

"The Bid"

from Ximena Sariñana (Warner Bros.)

Liner notes: Mexico's Ximena Sariñana fuses dance-floor energy and a grandiose melody, exclaiming, "I don't think you notice me/Don't know who I really am," on this alluring track, one of many songs on her English-language debut exploring the difficulties of making meaningful connections.

Behind the music: The daughter of director Fernando Sariñana, the 25-year-old acted in movies and telenovelas and fronted the jazz-funk band Feliz No Cumpleaños before releasing Mediocre, her self-deprecatingly titled solo debut, in 2008. Producers on this new project include TV On The Radio's Dave Sitek and Greg Kurstin of The Bird and The Bee.

Check it out if you like: Smart singer-songwriters like Fiona Apple, Norah Jones, and Lily Allen.

Click here for more music features from Mother Jones.

Front page image: Natan Vazquez/Flickr

Gary Johnson: I'm Not. Dead. Yet.

| Mon Aug. 1, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

The race for the Republican presidential nomination does not appear to be going well for Gary Johnson. According to the most recent Zogby poll, the libertarian former two-term New Mexico governor, climber of Mount Everest, and consumer of medical marijuana is polling at 1 percent among likely GOP presidential primary voters nationwide. That's 24 points behind front-runner Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.); 10 points behind fellow libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas); and 1 point behind former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who at this point is basically just trying to sell more copies of his books. Johnson is trailing Fred Karger, the gay former dark-arts operative who is running solely for the sake of hounding Mitt Romney, by 1 point.

But if you ask Gary Johnson, he is exactly where he wants to be. "The vantage point that I have is the only vantage point that I've ever had in politics, which is being last," Johnson explained on Friday following an address to the National Conference of College Republicans in downtown Washington. "I've run for two political offices in my life: governor of New Mexico, and reelection as governor of New Mexico. This was just where I was in New Mexico."

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 1, 2011

Mon Aug. 1, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

A US Army soldier uses a graphic reference to determine the location of friendly elements in Wardak province, July 18, 2011. The soldier, in support of Special Operations Task Force - East, consulted the reference while conducting a clearing operation, which took place to disrupt insurgent networks. (US Army photo by Sgt. Justin P. Morelli)

Will Chickens Give Your Kids Cancer?

| Mon Aug. 1, 2011 5:30 AM EDT

Last week, researchers from New Zealand published a paper that showed that kids raised on livestock farms had an elevated risk of developing blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma later in life.  It didn't take long for the news of this finding to make it around the world. On Friday, an MSN Health News headline proclaimed, "Growing Up Near Livestock Tied to Blood Cancers." Whoa now, I thought. Near livestock? Plenty of people grow up in the general vicinity of farms. And given the growing popularity of urban agriculture, even city kids could be exposed to livestock on their very own block!

But before you forbid your kids to visit the petting zoo, let's take a closer look at the study. The researchers analyzed death certificates for more than 100,000 New Zealanders between the ages of 35 and 85, from 1998 and 2003, cross referencing cause of death with parents' occupation. If the deceased person had a parent who was, say, a poultry farmer, the researchers took that to mean that the person grew up on a poultry farm. The team found that subjects whose parents were livestock farmers were 22 percent more likely than those whose parents weren't farmers to develop blood cancer as adults. The finding was especially pronounced among children of poultry farmers, whose blood cancer rate was three times that of their non-farm-kid peers.

So, how to explain the connection? The researchers hypothesize that exposure to animal viruses during childhood might be to blame, making people more vulnerable to blood cancers later in life. But I wondered whether the researchers had considered the effects of pesticides, antibiotics, and other chemicals. Andrea Mannetje, a lead researcher on the study, explained that her team had looked at animal farming separately from crop farming, since crop farms generally use more pesticides. They found an increased cancer risk for growing up on animal farms but not for growing up on crop farms. "This suggests that pesticide exposure cannot explain this observed pattern for growing up on a farm," Mannetje says.

Mannetje admits, though, that livestock operations aren't always chemical-free. And unfortunately, the death certificates provided no information about which kind of chemicals and medicines each farm used, or in what quantity. In fact, the researchers didn't have a clue about the size or kind of operation to which each subject was exposed. Giant factory farm? Tiny mom-and-pop operation? No one knows. Given that, the headline claim that growing up "near" livestock leads to cancer looks awfully vague.

Still, despite the limitations, there's lots to pay attention to in this study. For example: Growing evidence suggests that kids raised on farms are less prone than non-farm kids to asthma, allergies, and other conditions involving the immune system. Some studies have found that people who suffer from these conditions are actually less likely to develop cancer than nonallergic people. One explanation for this, as the paper notes, is that "allergic conditions may enhance the ability of the immune system to detect and eliminate malignant cells." It'd be interesting to look at childhood farm exposure and cancer rates in the developing world, where asthma and allergies are much rarer than in the US.

The relationship between farming and cancer is strange. Several studies have found that farmers have an increased risk of developing leukemia and lymphoma. On the other hand, at least in the US, farmers are less likely than others to die of heart disease and cancers of the esophagus, bladder, lung, and colon, according to the National Cancer Institute. Having identified this pattern, researchers now hope to figure out what's causing it. To that end, the institute's Agricultural Health Study aims to tease out the particular environmental factors in farming that cause illness. The study is still going on, but one significant (if not terribly surprising) takeaway so far is that exposure to certain pesticides is linked to a wide variety of conditions, from cancer to Parkinson's to retinal degeneration. For more on the specific findings, click here.