2011 - %3, September

Methyl Iodide: A Nasty Pesticide Explained

| Fri Sep. 2, 2011 4:56 PM EDT
Nasty stuff: methyl iodide applied to a California farm field.

Pesticides usually do their bug killing away from public view. But one such poison, a fumigant called methyl iodide, has been making headlines.

Activists have been staging elaborate protests outside the San Francisco offices of its maker, Arysta Lifescience, Grist reports. And newly released documents reveal, shall we say, irregularities in the process of its recent approval by the state of California, writes Mother Jones' own Jen Quraishi.

What gives? Labor Day is a good time to ponder that question, because methyl iodide poses a clear menace to farmworkers, especially those who tend California's vast strawberry fields.

According to Pesticide Action Network, exposure to the stuff "causes late term miscarriages, contaminates groundwater and is so reliably carcinogenic that it's used to create cancer cells in laboratories." Since it is applied to soil before plants even go into the ground, it poses little risk to consumers of strawberries. But for the farmworkers who apply it and the people who live near treated fields, it's a different story, because of its "tendency to drift off site through the air," the group warns.

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Is The Bachmann Super PAC Run By Mother Jones Fans?

| Fri Sep. 2, 2011 4:20 PM EDT
A still of the anti-Perry TV ad that references a Mother Jones blog post.

Keep Conservatives United, a super PAC supporting GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann's presidential bid, has produced an anti-Rick Perry attack ad, set to air in South Carolina after the Labor Day weekend. And it uses a Mother Jones article to make its case that Bachmann is the better—and more to the right—candidate.

The ad, which will begin airing September 7 on CNBC, Fox News, and CNN, pillories Perry for pitching himself as a fiscal conservative and friend of the tea party despite going on spending binges during his decade as Texas governor. Considering Perry's entry into the 2012 race has threatened Bachmann's share of the tea party vote, the gist and tone of the ad aren't unexpected. What is a bit surprising is that this latest Bachmann super PAC ad deploys a Mother Jones blog post to sell Bachmann. Watch the TV spot below; the MoJo promo appears at the 30-second mark, as the voice-over proclaims that "there is an honest conservative, and she's not Rick Perry":

This isn't even the first time Bachmann's super PAC has cited MoJo. But the ad makes it seem as if we were endorsing her as the "honest" one.

Leaving aside the obvious, farcical tangle of questions this presents (like, "Why didn't they just use a National Review post?"), the ad glosses over all the, well, you know... content.

The referenced blog post was written by our DC reporter Andy Kroll on July 19, and the first paragraph starts with a sarcastic jab at how "All that fact-checking must be paying off for Michele Bachmann"—a reference to her penchant for saying things that are patently not true. (This is clearly visible in the ad.)

No doubt, Keep Conservatives United will keep churning out the pro-Bachmann ads. So here are a few other Bachmann-related MoJo heds that we suggest for the super PAC's next spot:

"Michele Bachmann Is Not a Doctor"

"Michele Bachmann Said What!?"

"The Teen Suicide Epidemic in Michele Bachmann's District"

"Michele Bachmann: Crazy Like a Fox"

"Michele Bachmann's Auschwitz Warning"

And, of course:

"Does Michele Bachmann Think the Apocalypse is Imminent?"

This KCU TV spot might be the first Bachmann ad Mother Jones truly endorses. In today's economy, we'll take all the free advertising we can get.

CNN Series Follows MoJo's Investigation of Teen Homes

| Fri Sep. 2, 2011 3:20 PM EDT

A month after Mother Jones published our investigation of fundamentalist religious compounds, CNN is covering abusive teen homes in a two-part investigative series on Anderson Cooper 360° called "Ungodly Discipline." On September 1, coverage focused on Hephzibah House, an Indiana boarding school for troubled teenage girls that has long battled accusations of abuse from its former students.

Just in case you missed it in our July/August issue, read "Horror Stories From Tough-Love Teen Homes," and see our slideshow of "Survivor Snapshots From Teen-Home Hell." Teen girls were sent to Independent Fundamental Baptist homes like the New Bethany School for Girls to build character and to reform from troubled ways, but instead, they say they were abused and tortured. Former residents call themselves "survivors" and compare their time in teen homes to prison sentences.

Friday Cat Blogging - 2 September 2011

| Fri Sep. 2, 2011 2:54 PM EDT

This week's catblogging plan originally focused on cats and laser pointers. Unfortunately, it was too dark and none of the pictures turned out. So instead we get preprandial playtime—a fixture of our day around here. On the left, Inkblot is rolling around and looking at a big black blob. That would be Domino. On the right, Domino is now plonked on the carpet staring at someone. Guess who? This all lasted about five minutes, until one of Inkblot's alpha-cat neurons fired and Domino decided to hightail it out into the yard. But it was fun while it lasted. Dinner followed shortly after that.

Have a nice Labor Day weekend, everyone. Go Trojans!

Caving In on the Economy

| Fri Sep. 2, 2011 2:02 PM EDT

Barack Obama has pretty much caved in to the Republican contention that budget deficits are the biggest problem our economy faces. He's pretty much caved in to the Republican contention that higher taxes are bad for the economy. And he's pretty much caved in to the Republican contention that nothing big can done to improve the unemployment picture.

So what's his next cave-in on the economy? Apparently this. I guess regulatory uncertainty is what's holding us back after all. So much for the agenda-setting power of the presidency.

Book Review: Can Israel Survive?

| Fri Sep. 2, 2011 2:00 PM EDT
A border wall between Israel and the West Bank.

Can Israel survive? It's a question that used to be asked with the threat of hostile neighbors and Palestinian terrorists in mind. Today, more often than not, it refers to the country's viability amidst an intransigent right-wing government, a peace process going nowhere, an impending demographics crisis, seemingly imminent UN recognition of a Palestinian state—and maybe Iran.

These latter concerns dominate Hirsh Goodman's thoughtful new book, The Anatomy of Israel's Survival, which hits bookshelves next week. A longtime Israeli journalist who's lived through at least five wars, two intifadas, and too many failed peace initiatives to keep track of, Hirsh counts as something of a rare breed among Israeli intellectuals these days: an optimist.

As Goodman runs through the list of threats to Israel, the source of his bright attitude isn't immediately apparent. Iran represents an existential threat. Gaza is a "mini-Iran." Israel's 5.7 million Jews are about to be overtaken by the 5.4 million Arabs in Israel and the occupied territories.

Goodman, meanwhile, has nothing but stinging criticisms for Israel's leaders since the 1967 Six-Day War. He calls Golda Meir "one of Israel's most myopic leaders ever," Benjamin Netanyahu's first stint in office in the late '90s "a disaster," and Netanyahu's successor Ehud Barak "like Midas in reverse" for squandering major peace talks with both Syria and the Palestinians.

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The Immigration Trap

| Fri Sep. 2, 2011 1:51 PM EDT

Ed Kilgore notes that Rick Perry will be spending his Labor Day weekend in South Carolina and might end up walking into a buzz saw:

It’s well known that Perry’s record and positions on immigration represent the one glaring area where he’s significantly out of step with conservative orthodoxy. He has, after all, consistently supported a guest-worker program and a path to citizenship for undocumented workers, both positions contemptuously dismissed as code for “amnesty” by many conservative activists. Worse yet, from their point of view, he signed and still defends a state version of the DREAM Act, which provides in-state tuition rates at state universities for illegal immigrants brought to this country as children.

....So it’s well worth noting that the co-inquisitor who will be sitting next to Jim DeMint (along with right-wing Princeton professor Robert George) at the Palmetto Freedom Forum event on Labor Day will be none other than [Tom] Tancredo’s successor as Congress’ preeminent anti-immigration agitator, Representative Steve King of Iowa. King, whose views on the subject are so extreme that he was denied the chairmanship of a House subcommittee on immigration despite being its senior member, can hardly be expected to pass up an opportunity to bash Perry’s record in the forum’s one-on-one questioning format.

....If Rick Perry does walk into a beatdown by King in Columbia, and doesn’t handle it well, the political consequences could be pretty serious....If the extremely powerful Jim DeMint is looking for an excuse to support someone else or simply withhold his imprimatur, watching Perry squirm while his buddy King taunts him with a hot poker could provide an excellent excuse. And even more obviously, King is a major powerbroker back home in Iowa, and is likely capable of stopping Perry’s recent momentum in the state.

My guess is that if Perry has been able to handle himself on this issue in Texas, he can probably handle himself in South Carolina. Besides, where is the hardcore anti-immigrant vote going to go? Mitt Romney? Hardly. Michele Bachmann? Maybe. She's the obvious choice, and she's made a show of talking up immigration issues lately. What's worse, on immigration Perry really will have to contend with the ghost of George Bush, another Texas governor who held moderate immigration views and ended up getting pilloried by his own party for it.

Still, I suspect that Perry will he able to pivot well enough to avoid a disaster. He'll never be the favorite of the anti-immigration crowd, but he'll probably be good enough. It'll be worth watching how he does, though.

Obama to Breathers: Sorry, Wait Until 2013

| Fri Sep. 2, 2011 1:00 PM EDT

On Friday, in a move that shocked enviros and public-health advocates, President Obama asked the Environmental Protection Agency to withdraw its proposal to tighten a key air-quality standard. The request, Obama said, is part of the administration's efforts to reduce "regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty."

The EPA has been at work on new rules on ozone pollution, better known as smog, since September 2009. The agency rolled out new, tougher draft standards in January 2010, only to have the release of the final rules repeatedly delayed. In a statement, Obama said he has asked the agency to wait until 2013—you know, after the next election—to improve the standard.

The decision to single out this rule is significant. Back in 2008, the Bush administration EPA issued smog rules that called for limits of 75 parts per billion, which were weaker than those that the agency's own scientists said was necessary to protect human health. Improving the standard has been a top priority for environmental and public-health experts, so when the EPA said in January 2010 that it was considering lowering the limit to between 60 and 70 parts per billion, those groups were cheering.

According to the American Lung Association, the weaker standard means that as many as 186 million Americans are currently breathing in unhealthy levels of smog. The EPA's own figures are even more shocking. If the Obama administration set the lower standard of 60 parts per billion, it would prevent 4,000 to 12,000 premature deaths a year by 2020. Even the higher standard of 70 parts per billion would save between 1,500 and 4,300 lives per year. Improved air quality would bring down the number of deaths and hospitalizations every year due to asthma, bronchitis, and other heart and lung conditions.

The EPA also noted that while compliance with the new rule would cost polluters between $19 billion and $90 billion a year by 2020, the benefits to human health will be worth between $13 billion and $100 billion every year.

EPA administrator Lisa Jackson issued a terse statement on Friday morning, citing other major improvements that the administration has made on clean air and promising to "revisit the ozone standard." And the White House circulated a blog post from Deputy Assistant for Energy and Climate Change Heather Zichal touting all the other things it has done on air quality.

But environmental and public-health groups are, as you might guess, flabbergasted at Obama's announcement. "This is a huge win for corporate polluters and huge loss for public health," said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, in a statement. The statements from pretty much every other group have expressed similar outrage.

The American Lung Association filed suit against the EPA following the weak Bush standards but dropped it after the Obama administration said it was going to reconsider. The group issued a statement on Friday signaling that it will revive the suit now that the Obama administration has signaled that it is not going to improve the standard, which is a violation of the Clean Air Act, the group says.

My two cents: I don't think it's a coincidence that the announcement came on day when the Labor Department released the worst jobs report in 11 months. The move certainly plays right into the "jobs vs. the environment" frame that the opponents of any and all regulations have constructed. Worse, though, is that it feeds the idea that it's perfectly okay for the administration to ignore the advice of agency scientists.

It's also not clear whom Obama thinks he's going to win over with this. I'm pretty sure this won't send the American Petroleum Institute or the Chamber of Commerce rushing to donate to his reelection bid, or make Republicans start saying nice things about him.

Rick Perry's Secret Progressive Legacy

| Fri Sep. 2, 2011 12:55 PM EDT
Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas)

Texas, as Amanda Marcotte artfully put it, "is a really big state with a lot of different people in it"—something people often forget when they write about Texas politics. Along the same lines, Rick Perry is a long-serving governor who has done a lot of different things. Many of those things are questionable—his support for the repeal of the 16th and 17th Amendments, for instance, or his penchant for hooking up big-time donors with jobs and contracts.

But some of the stuff he's done has been pretty good. Over at the excellent blog Grits for Breakfast, Scott Henson (who I spoke with for my story on Perry's dubious prison health care privatization scheme) has a helpful roundup of some Perry-approved reforms, mostly on the criminal justice front, that progressives might actually like:

2001: Signed bill requiring local law enforcement to gather racial profiling data, including information on stops and searches. Authority was later given to a state agency to gather them all and publish them online.

2001: Signed the Tulia legislation requiring corroboration for informants in undercover drug stings.

2001: Signed legislation creating Chapter 64 of the Code of Criminal Procedure that facilitated post-conviction DNA testing.

2001: Signed the Texas Fair Defense Act improving county indigent defense systems, establishing minimum qualifications for attorneys.

2001: Became the first governor to sign the DREAM Act allowing children of illegal immigrants to attend college at in-state rates.

And so on. More recently, he's signed some pretty progressive sentencing legislation designed to prevent overcrowding in state jails (by about 17,000 beds), and placing a greater emphasis on treatment versus incarceration for drug users. If this seems incongruous, there's a method to it all.

"Perry will focus his energies on supporting policies if, number one, it's not controversial, or number two, somebody who has been directly impacted manages to get his attention," explains Ana Yanez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. "So for example you have the Tim Cole family [Cole was posthumously pardoned by Perry after being executed for a crime he didn't commit]. Well, his family had talked to the governor so it hit home for him... The same thing for the DREAM Act kids. In 2001, Texas was the first state to pass a DREAM Act version and Perry has defended his stance on the DREAM Act. But he's actually seen these kids that are valedictorians. So if it hits home to him...he'll be like, 'okay, let's do it."

There might be something to that. As one longtime Perry-watcher explained to Jonathan Martin for his SEO-optimized "Is Rick Perry Dumb?" story, the GOP frontrunner has a pretty linear approach to knowledge: "If he should know about John Locke, he'll know about John Locke... If it's not on his schedule, it's irrelevant to him." The difficulty is in getting him to pay attention.

On the other hand, given Perry's widely condemned record on the death penalty (presiding over the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was likely innocent, and then squashing the ensuing investigation), and his cozy relationship with private prison lobbyists (see here and here), these bright spots on criminal justice do have a sort of "How was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?" quality to them.

Millions Are Starving in the Horn of Africa, but Nobody's Talking About It

| Fri Sep. 2, 2011 12:32 PM EDT

The United Nations has called the ongoing drought and famine in Somalia the "worst humanitarian disaster" in the world. It's going to get worse in the coming months. Yet a new Pew Research Center study released on Thursday shows that news outlets have barely noticed: "In July and August the food crisis has accounted for just 0.7 percent of the newshole. Year-to-date the crisis registers at just 0.2 percent."

Aid workers say the current famine, which has affected Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti, "is worse" than the one that hit Somalia in 1992—making it perhaps the most serious food crisis since the famine that devastated Ethiopia in 1985.

The statistics are shocking: In Somalia, at least 29,000 children died of starvation in 90 days. Some 2 million children are malnourished, and another 500,000 children are at great risk of starving to death. Some 12 million people in the region need emergency assistance. The crisis has been exacerbated by the al-Shabaab Islamist insurgent group, which has played a hand in causing the famine by forcing out aid groups and preventing starving Somalis from fleeing the country.

As you read this, you might be thinking, "Huh? There's a famine in Somalia right now?" If you haven't heard about the crisis before, it's because US news coverage has been focusing on other topics—a tabloid scandal, Congress' budget deficit battle, the economy, Middle East revolutions, and, most recently, Hurricane Irene. Some of these are important, attention-worthy stories, but they've drowned out almost any coverage of the famine. That matters: Relief organizations say their fundraising efforts have stalled because the media isn't talking about the famine. The United Nations recently announced that it needs $1.1 billion to adequately respond to the crisis.

Even a little media coverage can have a big impact on relief fundraising. When ABC News reported from famine refugee camps in Somalia, Doctors Without Borders received $100,000 in donations just hours after the coverage aired.

Here's a Google trends graph comparing searches for Somalia, Hurricane Irene, Kim Kardashian, and Libya: 

Maybe Kim should mention the famine in Africa. If that's what it takes to get the public to start paying attention and donating to relief organizations, so be it.