2011 - %3, September

Film Review: The Black Power Mixtape

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 6:30 AM EDT

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975

LOUVERTURE FILMS

90 minutes

Revisiting the Black Power movement of the '60s and '70s through the lens of the era's Swedish journalists? It's a strange premise for a doc, but filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson has dug up tons of old 16 mm footage, adding commentary from civil rights icons (Angela Davis, Harry Belafonte) and contemporary hip-hop artists (Erykah Badu, Questlove, Talib Kweli). Despite some great scenes—children of Black Panthers singing "pick up your guns" and Davis' moving prison interview about the Birmingham church bombing—Olsson's depiction of the struggle comes off as something you'd grudgingly watch in a high-school history class. As Badu says, "It's about the story." And this version, while informative, is rarely moving.

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Shmeat: It's What's for Dinner

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Would you eat a hamburger that was grown in a test tube? How about a chicken nugget from a petri dish? Sometimes called "shmeat" (as in, a sheet of lab-grown meat), in vitro meat might someday be an option for people with carnivorous inclinations who aren't wild about the idea of killing and eating real animals.

Although scientists have been kicking around the idea of synthetic meat for about a decade, they haven't yet been able to bring it to market, much less mass-produce it. But they're getting closer: Last week, Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden and the European Science Foundation held a workshop to discuss the future of test-tube meat and to develop an "action plan" to get fake meat to market. The conference brought together tissue engineers, as well as environmental scientists, ethicists, social scientists, and economists.

So far, the largest group of meat cells that scientists have been able to grow is only about 2.5 centimeters long and 0.7 centimeters wide, though some scientists are predicting that we could have lab-grown sausage in as little as six months, as TreeHugger reported recently. To make the stuff, tissue engineers take stem cells from an animal and place them in a nutrient-rich culture, where they can multiply into something resembling muscle tissue. It used to be that they had to use animal products to create that nutrient mixture (like animal blood), but now researchers have discovered a viable non-animal option that uses sunlight and carbon dioxide, much like photosynthesis, to grow the tissue. (The meat-substitute advocacy group New Harvest has a handy FAQ, if you're interested in learning more.)

But the researchers note that mass-marketed test-tube meat is still a ways off. The biggest challenge is a lack of funding for research. And despite the recent scientific progress, it's still very expensive to produce the fake meat, and it can't be done in large quantities, which means it's nowhere near cost-competitive with meat that comes from actual animals. A recent report estimated that the first in vitro burger could cost nearly half a million dollars.

NPR offered a good explanation of the challenges facing in vitro meat earlier this year, noting that you have to give the muscle cells a workout in order for this to be feasible—sort of like taking your fake meat to the gym:

Muscles require stimulation and exercise or they will atrophy and die. Scientists currently use electrical impulses to stimulate the muscle cells grown in the laboratory, but haven't yet figured out how to do it on a mass-factory scale.

"If you're growing it in a factory, [there's a mass] quantity of meat," Specter says. "It's difficult to see our way to zapping tons of electricity into muscle cells, because it will just be, if nothing else, extremely costly. So while that works in a lab and it works well, they are looking at other ways of doing it."

Plus it will require rigorous testing before it can be fed it to humans; it's still such a new idea that we don't really know yet what, if any, health concerns it might yield. Right now there are no regulatory guidelines for in vitro meats.

Still, the workshop participants outline a number of good arguments in favor of shmeat. As the world population increases, so does per capita meat consumption, especially in places like China, where people are rapidly becoming more affluent. If the current rate of increase in meat consumption continues, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations predicts that it will double between 2000 and 2050. That's a whole lot of meat.

Fake meat could also help address a whole host of environmental concerns. We wouldn't need to use as much land for agriculture (both for raising livestock and for growing their feed). We wouldn't have to use all the water that meat production requires, or the pesticides, hormones, or other problematic additives so common in industrial agriculture.

Indeed, a recent study from Oxford University and the University of Amsterdam found that, when compared to regular beef, synthetic meat would:

  • Use 45 percent less energy overall
  • Create 96 percent less greenhouse gas emissions
  • Require 99 percent less land
  • Use 96 percent less water

And we could reduce the threat of animal-to-human diseases, like bird flu, E. coli, and salmonella. It would also be possible to control things like the fat, cholesterol, or calorie content of a synthetic-meat product.

Mad scientists aren't the only ones stoked about the potential for fake meat. PETA is offering a $1 million reward to whomever can produce in vitro chicken meat and make it commercially viable by June 30, 2012 (a contest that apparently almost started a civil war within the organization). That contest has been running for nearly three years, though, and it doesn't look anyone is poised to claim the prize yet.

Therein seems to lie the problem, both for the scientists who organized last week's shmeat summit and the PETA folks: While you can come up with a million good reasons for it, you'd still have to convince people to eat it. There seems to be a considerable "ick" factor when it comes to test-tube meat. I mean, don't get me wrong—eating real meat also grosses me out if I think about it too much. After nearly a decade as a vegetarian, I now eat meat occasionally, even though I still realize I shouldn't. (Did you see the New York Times piece over the weekend about the stuff they've found in hot dogs? Maggots, worms, metal, plastic, a razor…) But eating test-tube meat somehow manages to freak me out even more. It might be irrational, but I can't find anything remotely appealing about eating a meat-like substance grown in a test tube.

Then again, I know plenty of carnivores who feel guilty about eating meat but don't know how to stop. They like the way it tastes; they don't feel full without eating it; it's too hard to eat a balanced diet without it; etc. So maybe this could be the solution for them. What say you, Blue Marble readers? Is shmeat neat, or not so much?

BP Hires a Pentagon PR Warrior

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 6:00 AM EDT
Geoff Morrell, in his previous life as the Pentagon spokesman.

Back in April 2010, when BP's Deepwater Horizon well was gushing crude oil all over the Gulf of Mexico, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell was coy about a possible military response. "You want to work, I believe, hand in glove with industry here because in some cases they're going to have...better assets than we would," he told reporters.

A year and a half later, Morrell is enjoying those better assets firsthand: He has joined BP America as its new spokesman. Morrell "will oversee external and internal communications for BP in the United States," according to an internal memo from company honchos quoted in The Hill. The memo added: "He will be responsible for leading our communications efforts in the US, as well as playing a critical role with our broader global communications and reputational activities."

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 7, 2011

Wed Sep. 7, 2011 5:57 AM EDT

Soldiers from 172nd Infantry Brigade, work at dislodging their M-777 155mm howitzer from the three-foot deep hole it dug its spades into after firing several rocket assisted projectiles Sep. 3. The huge weapon weighs 9,000 pounds. Photo by Spc. Ken Scar, 7th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment.

Quote of the Century: Mitt Romney on the Middle Class

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 12:53 AM EDT

From Mitt Romney, explaining step 3 of his 59-step plan to get to get America back to work:

You know, of course, Greta, who has been most hurt by the Obama economy. And it's people in middle incomes. And so what I want to do is lower taxes for middle-income Americans. And so I will remove, for middle-income Americans, people earning under $200,000 a year, any tax on interest, dividends or capital gains.  Let people save their money and use their money as they feel best with education, with their future, planning for retirement. Look, we've got to reduce the burden on middle-income Americans. They're just — they're just struggling right now.

I'm not sure which is more breathtaking: Romney's suggestion that someone earning $200,000 is "middle income," or his implication that actual middle-income Americans have more than a minuscule amount of investment income in the first place.

For the record, in 2004 the Tax Policy Center estimated that a median earner would save a whopping $70 if taxes on interest, dividends, and capital gains were eliminated completely. That's right: $70. Seven zero.

Of course, Romney has paired up this proposal with another one to eliminate the estate tax completely, which would save median earners zero dollars but save the super rich millions. The cynicism here is almost off the charts.

Obama to Maliki: Put Up or Shut Up

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 12:33 AM EDT

The New York Times has apparently confirmed a Fox News report that President Obama plans to withdraw almost completely from Iraq at year's end:

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta is supporting a plan that would keep 3,000 to 4,000 American troops in Iraq after a deadline for their withdrawal at year’s end, but only to continue training security forces there, a senior military official said on Tuesday. The recommendation would [...] involve significantly fewer forces than proposals presented at the Pentagon in recent weeks by the senior American commander in Iraq, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, to keep as many as 14,000 to 18,000 troops there.

The proposal for a smaller force — if approved by the White House and the Iraqi government, which is not yet certain — reflected the shifting political realities in both countries.

....In Iraq, a lingering American military presence is hugely contentious, even though some political leaders, especially among the Kurds and Sunnis, would like some American troops to stay as a buffer against what they fear will be Shiite political dominance, coupled in turn with the rising influence of neighboring Iran....But despite the reluctance of several administration officials to publicly get out ahead of a formal recommendation and a presidential decision on such a delicate issue, as a practical matter Mr. Panetta has almost run out of time for the military to plan the logistics of a withdrawal by year’s end.

Every leak has a reason. So here's my guess: this leak is designed to put pressure on Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. The Pentagon needs time to plan its troop withdrawals, and for quite some time they've been saying that four or five months is the bare minimum they require. But the Iraqis have been hemming and hawing all year, refusing to say they want any troops to stay but also refusing to say they want them all to go.

So now it's put-up-or-shut-up time. The message here is simple: we're starting the machinery to withdraw nearly all our troops unless you tell us ASAP that you want us to stay. In another month or two it's going to be too late to change direction, so make up your minds now.

Perhaps this will concentrate some minds in Baghdad. But if it doesn't, we'll finally be out of Iraq — except for the contractors, CIA staff, embassy guards, and 3,000 or so trainers, of course. But other than that, we'll be out.

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Corn on "Hardball": Rick Perry's Tea Party Bump

Tue Sep. 6, 2011 10:20 PM EDT

David Corn and Michael Steele joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss Rick Perry's leap to the top of the GOP presidential field and the role the tea party has played in Perry's popularity.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

A Job is a Job is a Job

| Tue Sep. 6, 2011 7:36 PM EDT

Last week I defended Republican governors from charges of hypocrisy for accepting federal funding even though they may have opposed the law that enabled the funding in the first place. Whether you oppose a program or not, once it's passed into law and your state's taxpayers are helping pay for it, you have both a right and an obligation to take advantage of it. Steve Benen comments:

But my concern isn't just the hypocrisy of Republicans decrying spending bills and then trying to direct that spending to their states and districts. My beef has more to do with their ideology: these same Republicans insist public investments can't create jobs and are bad for the economy, and then also say public investments can create jobs and are good for the economy.

And that's a problem, not of hypocrisy necessarily, but of an incoherent approach to governing.

This is quite a different kettle of fish, and it is indeed a problem of hypocrisy. If you oppose a program, that's fine. Maybe you just think it's a poor use of taxpayer dollars. But Steve is right: at any particular point in time, federal programs either create jobs or they don't. If you insist that they don't, you can't turn around and brag about all the jobs you brought to your state via federal roadbuilding projects. You can argue that you're just getting back the money your state sent to Washington in the first place, but you can't pretend that you suddenly believe that federal spending creates jobs after all just because the money is being spent in your own backyard.

Let the China Bashing Begin!

| Tue Sep. 6, 2011 7:04 PM EDT

Mitt Romney's shiny new jobs plan is about as boring and boilerplate as you'd expect a conservative jobs plan to be. (Nickel version: lower taxes on the rich, less regulation of big business, punitive labor laws, etc. In other words, the usual.) But Matt Yglesias points out that Romney also engages in some good old-school China bashing, promising the following executive order on his first day in office:

Directs the Department of the Treasury to list China as a currency manipulator in its biannual report and directs the Department of Commerce to assess countervailing duties on Chinese imports if China does not quickly move to float its currency.

There's hardly a presidential candidate in the past 20 years who hasn't promised to "get tough" with China. It's a real crowd pleaser. But what makes Romney's brand of China bashing doubly ironic is that for the first time in a while, it's not clear that China's currency is really all that undervalued anymore. The Economist, after adjusting its famous Big Mac index for the cost of labor, concludes that the yuan is actually trading at pretty much its fair value.

Now, the Big Mac index is hardly the last word on this subject, and there are some good reasons for thinking the yuan remains undervalued. Michael Pettis has a discussion of some of the underlying issues here. Still, the yuan has been rising over the past few years, and is probably undervalued less today than it's been in a decade. Whatever the truth is, though, I promise you this: if Mitt Romney becomes president, the very first promise he'll break is his promise to designate China as a currency manipulator. Like every other presidential wannabe, he'll quickly discover that once you're actually in the Oval Office, there's a stiff price to be paid if you actually want to follow up on your crowd-pleasing China bashing. He won't be willing to pay that price any more than any other president has been.

Mitt Romney's New Economic Plan: Same As His Old One

| Tue Sep. 6, 2011 6:25 PM EDT
Mitt Romney.

As he unveiled his plan to jumpstart the American economy at a North Las Vegas trucking company Tuesday afternoon, GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney kept brandishing his iPhone 4. The smartphone symbolized America's global, 21st-century economy, while President Obama's economic policies, Romney explained, were backward, ineffective, stuck in the past. "President Obama's strategy is a pay phone strategy," he said, "and this a smartphone world."

But unlike Apple's innovative and regularly revamped iPhone, Romney's new economic plan, "Believe In America," is pretty stale. The 160-page proposal consists largely of stripping away federal regulations, slashing taxes, amping up domestic oil drilling, and embracing free-market principles. In other words, pretty much the same stuff he advocated during his last presidential campaign. Of the ten actions Romney says he would take on day one of his would-be presidency, six appeared in near-identical form in his old plan. (The list includes repealing Obama's health care reform bill, which obviously wasn't possible in 2007. So really call it six out of nine.)