2011 - %3, October

#OccupyWallStreet—and Madison—Comes to Washington

| Thu Oct. 6, 2011 4:18 PM EDT
"To boost the economy, why not pay interns?" Why not? MoJo does it.

As Andy Kroll reported this morning, the three-week-old #OccupyWallStreet movement has risen out of many of the same grievances that sparked massive protests at the Wisconsin state capitol. In some cases, as I discovered on Thursday at a satellite demonstration in DC, it even includes the same group of people.

Chad Bucholtz drove to DC ("crammed in like sardine cans") along with 14 others from Wisconsin to attend the rally. A veteran of the union demonstrations in Madison last February, he sees the 99-percent movement as a direct continuation of those efforts. "I see a lot of similarities; in Madison it wasn't just Democrats, it was Democrats and Republicans—maybe former Republicans," said Bucholtz, a student at UW–Milwaukee. "It was both the left- and right-wing people that recognized that the corporate influence of Koch Industries was pretty much buying policies." He politely disagrees with skeptics who say the movement hasn't articulated any specific goals: "We need a constitutional amendment to clarify that money is not free speech," he says. "My opinion is that the root [of the problem] is money buying politics."

Carrie Scherpeltz of Madison, another veteran of the Wisconsin demonstrations, said she expected about 100 Wisconsinites were on there way to show their support. "We were a spark; I personally want to fan it." Her message: "De-rig our economy. They've been rigged in favor of corporatocracy and against the people."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Global Warming Rocks Our World

| Thu Oct. 6, 2011 3:31 PM EDT

Can climate change cause or intensify earthquakes? Christopher Mims wrote about some of the science on this subject back in March, after the Japanese quake. This set the collective panties of climate skeptics a-bunching, chafed at the very notion that global warming might have some impact on plate tectonics.

This month, New Scientist takes a closer look at the subject. Their content is behind a pay wall, unfortunately, but the article concludes that there is strong evidence that melting ice and sea level rise will impact the earth's crust, potentially causing earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes. There's clear evidence that what happens at the surface of the earth can have a significant impact on even massive tectonic plates—the melting of ice after past ice ages; major erosion from monsoons over the course of millions of years; and (more recently) the construction of dams have all impacted plate movement.

The piece makes several things very clear: there has not been a significant increase in erupting volcanoes or earthquakes in the past century, and there are no scientists out there claiming that there's a connection between global warming and things like the Japanese quake. But that doesn't mean it won't have an impact in the future, as Bill McGuire, a volcanologist with the Benfield Hazard Centre of the University College London argues in the piece:

There is, however, evidence that warming has triggered major landslides. And there has been very little warming so far compared with what is to come: McGuire thinks we will we see a clear effect on volcanoes and earthquakes when climate change really gets going. "Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions over a hundred years would cluster. You need a certain amount of strain to accumulate and climate change may bring forward the time that takes," he suggests. This will mean more earthquakes and eruptions in a given period, rather than more in total, he says.
The main reason is melting ice. There is far less ice now, of course, than at the end of the last ice age. But the planet is warming much faster, so sea level may rise as fast as it ever did before. While sea level rose just 0.17 metres over the 20th century, most glaciologists expect sea level to rise around a metre by the end of the 21st century. This would add an extra tonne per cubic metre to undersea and coastal faults.
The good news is that it will probably weigh down and stabilise faults beneath the sea floor. The bad news is that it will create extra stress at the coast. Here there will be a kind of see-saw effect as the seabed is pushed down. That could add enough stress to trigger a quake on faults that straddle the coast, or run parallel to them, such as the San Andreas fault in California, the North Anatolian fault in northern Turkey, and the Alpine fault in New Zealand.

Anyway, it's a great article from reporter Caroline Williams.

Meet The Child Workers Who Pick Your Food

| Thu Oct. 6, 2011 2:21 PM EDT
Know your farmworker, know your food: Zulema Lopez, 12, left, with her her mother and sister.

Agriculture tends to cling to certain practices long after the rest of society has discarded them as morally repugnant.

You might think slavery ended after the Civil War, yet it exists to this day in Florida's tomato fields, as Barry Estabrook demonstrates in his brilliant book Tomatoland. Likewise, the practice of subjecting children to hard, hazardous, and low-paid labor seems like a discarded relic of Dickens' London or Gilded Age New York. But here in the United States, hundreds of thousands of kids are doing one of our most dangerous jobs: farm work. They toil under conditions so rough that Human Rights Watch (HRW) has seen fit two issue two damning reports (here and here) on the topic over the past decade.

In the second report, from May 2010, the group concluded: "Shockingly, we found that conditions for child farmworkers in the United States remain virtually as they were a decade ago." Which is to say, appalling. The kids who pick our crops are routinely exposed to toxic pesticides, their fatality rate is four times that of other working youth, and they are four times more likely to drop out than the average American kid—overall, HRW reports, just a third of farmworker kids finish high school.

Oddly, there's nothing illegal about their plight—most federal laws governing child labor don't apply to farms, according to HRW; the US government spends $26 million fighting abusive child labor in other countries, but has failed to bring the fight to America's fields.

The Harvest/La Cosecha, a new documentary directed by the veteran photographer and human rights advocate U. Roberto Romano, shines a bright light on this murky corner of the agribusiness universe. The film traces the lives of three teenagers and their families as they move across the US following the harvest, from Texas onion fields to Michigan apple groves and places in between.

After Troy Davis, More Doubt on Georgia's Death Row?

| Thu Oct. 6, 2011 2:10 PM EDT
The Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, where Marcus Ray Johnson lives on death row.

On the night of September 21, Georgia executed death-row inmate Troy Davis despite lingering doubts about his guilt in the 1989 killing of an off-duty Savannah police officer. Just a few hours later, the state quietly announced that another man, Marcus Ray Johnson, would be executed on October 5. But Johnson, convicted of the brutal rape and murder of Angela Sizemore in 1994, was granted a stay Tuesday by Dougherty County Superior Court Judge Willie Lockette in light of newly discovered forensic evidence that has never been DNA-tested. The US Supreme Court rejected an appeal from prosecutors to overturn the stay.

According to trial records, Johnson met Sizemore at a bar on the west side of Albany, Georgia, on March 24, 1994. Johnson, angry that another woman had spurned his advances, began to chat up Sizemore, who was so drunk that the bartender refused to serve her. He handed her keys to Johnson, and the two left to hook up in a vacant lot a couple blocks away. A post-coitus argument ensued; Johnson told police that he punched Sizemore in the face, and the next thing he knew he woke up the next morning in his front yard.

That morning, Sizemore was found dead in her white van on the opposite side of town. A medical examiner determined that she had been cut and stabbed 41 times and had wounds consistent with the blade of a small knife belonging to Johnson. She had been brutally raped with a tree limb, the prosecution claimed. Blood was found on Johnson's clothing, and a handful of witnesses placed him in the area shortly before Sizemore's body was found.

That, Dougherty County District Attorney Greg Edwards told local TV station WALB, convinced him that Johnson's "absolutely 100 percent guilty of the crime." The defense's appeal for further DNA testing (which Judge Lockette stopped short of granting), Edwards said, was just another "attempt to delay."

El Paso Judge Tells Perry Et Al. to Get Smarter, Not Tougher, on Border

| Thu Oct. 6, 2011 2:09 PM EDT

Texas Gov. Rick Perry and fellow Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney sparred last weekend over Perry's suggestion that the threat of Mexican drug violence spilling into the United States "may require our military in Mexico…to kill these drug cartels and to keep them off of our border and to destroy their networks." Liberals mocked Perry's comments, and on Thursday, a border town judge chided both candidates in a New York Times op-ed for their "quasi-military approach [that] ignores the need for real solutions to our economic and social challenges."

In her piece, El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar claims that Perry's border hawk posturing—for instance, saying President Obama was either poorly informed or "an abject liar" for claiming in a spring speech that El Paso and other border cities had become safer on his watch—could actually end up hurting places like El Paso. According to a July report in USA Today, the border city has recently "seen sharp declines in violent crimes despite being in the shadow of Ciudad Juárez, one of the main battlegrounds of Mexico's drug wars where 3,400 people were murdered last year." Writes Escobar, a Democrat: "Claims about our supposedly dangerous border would be laughable if they didn't damage our image and our ability to recruit talent, investment and events."

She continues: 

Mr. Perry is far from alone. Many Republican politicians—and not a few Democrats, too—use the bogeyman of border violence to justify exorbitant security measures, like the ever-lengthening border fence that costs $2.8 million per mile (for a total of $6.5 billion, including maintenance, over the 20-year lifetime of the fence). Mr. Perry's brainchild, security cameras, have so far cost $4 million to put in place and maintain.

These measures do little besides waste money. Tunnels already run below the border fence. During their first two years in operation, Mr. Perry's cameras led to the arrest of a whopping 26 people—that's $154,000 per arrest. And once undocumented immigrants are apprehended, costs continue to mount: in this fiscal year alone, the federal government is budgeting $2 billion just for detention.

Those facts haven't stopped the likes of Romney and "every mile, every yard, every foot, every inch" Michele Bachmann from talking up the idea of a fence running the entire length of southern border. Still, as unlikely (and unmanageable) as it seems, don't look now: The Secure Border Act of 2011—which would require the Department of Homeland Security to gain "operational control" of US borders within five years—just recently made its way through the House Homeland Security Committee.

Advertising in the Age of Social Media

| Thu Oct. 6, 2011 1:44 PM EDT

Julian Sanchez points out today that chain restaurants are largely an answer to a signaling problem: once cars allowed us to routinely travel to unfamiliar places, we needed a way to avoid truly awful food. Chains may not have offered the best food in a given place, but they guaranteed that you wouldn't get something too horrible.

Branding and marketing in general serve this same signaling purpose, but what happens if consumer rating services like Yelp take over the world?

Imagine [] what effect it might have if, five or ten years hence, augmented reality using sophisticated image recognition were as ubiquitous as Internet-enabled phones are becoming in the developed world. Imagine that, for nearly any product consumers encountered, some kind of aggregate rating—based on whatever criteria the individual has determined are most important—would simply appear, with minimal effort. Simply looking at an aisle of products—or even passing shops on the street—I might effortlessly learn which were deemed most satisfactory by people with tastes similar to mine. My incentive to take the time to rank products would be provided by my desire to give the system a basis for determining which other user’s rankings were most likely to be relevant for me. (Think here of Netflix recommendations or other type of social filtering, where contributing ratings enables the system to make better predictions about what I am likely to enjoy.)

With such information more directly available, marketing would become far less relevant to the buyer—and a far less worthwhile investment for the producer. Products, of course, would still need to be distinguished in some way, but a seller with a superior product would be far better able to compete without investing in a costly national marketing campaign. Advertising might be initially important in raising awareness about a new product and building an initial pool of reviews, but its salience would rapidly diminish.

I'd need to think about this some more to decide if I agree. In general, I feel that the power of corporate marketing is routinely underestimated by internet-centric consumers. Remember the Cluetrain Manifesto? Well, it turned out that to a large extent, corporate America adapted just fine to the power of conversation and ended up controlling large swathes of the internet, not the other way around. I suspect that corporate advertisers will adapt just fine too. Marketing is simply too central to human activity to be reined in significantly.

Will marketing change a lot? Probably so. But my gut feel is that it will remain controlled by gigantic, rich, sophisticated players for a long time. They'll just figure out ever better and subtler ways of keeping us from knowing it.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

GOP Congressman Equates Purchasing Health Insurance With Buying an Expensive Vacation Home

| Thu Oct. 6, 2011 12:22 PM EDT

Just when you thought it could not get more ridiculous, GOP Congressman and Chairman of the House Appropriations Labor-Health and Human Services subcommittee, Denny Rehberg, has come up with a novel idea. He wants the Congressional super committee to solve $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction by simply killing off the expansion of Medicaid and the subsidies that will open the door to health care for millions of Americans.

In making his argument, Rehberg noted that expanding the Medicaid safety net program, and providing subsidies to low and middle class workers, is akin to the "expensive vacation home" that the average American would choose not to buy if that American was facing a deficit as serious as the nation's.

Why Apple Never Conquered the Computing World

| Thu Oct. 6, 2011 12:05 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias, a longtime Apple junkie, wants to know why the rest of the computing industry sucks so bad:

It always seemed to me, as an Apple fan, that the qualities Apple put together were pretty basic — gadgets that work well, which a lot of people do, paired with good design sense. And in fields that aren’t computers and electronics, lots of people seem to do this....In computing, not so much. Even at the height of Microsoft’s power in the late-’90s, Windows 98 was oddly ugly. Surely the richest company on the planet could hire someone to design a better logo than this, right? Why were the default color combinations on Excel charts so wretched? Why didn’t anyone else bother to design power adaptors that look good?

On the power adapter thing, I've long wondered about that too. This is not exactly rocket science. And I can't believe that Apple's version is really that much more expensive than the brick used by everyone else. It's weird.

But on the broader question, there really is an answer. Make no mistake: Apple under Jobs did a great job. But Steve Jobs chose to keep Apple a niche product, aimed at people who could afford to spend a lot of money for a computer that worked precisely the way he wanted it to, and did so with a nice design aesthetic. There are plenty of people who like this vision, but "plenty" still means about 10% of the market or so.

The rest of the personal computing world took a different turn. No one company controlled everything, the PC was a wide-open environment, and it was both cheap and aimed at the business market, where green eyeshade accountants simply didn't care if the Windows logo was ugly. Yes, the competition over price, features, flexibility, and bringing new applications to market was so frenetic that there was a price to be paid in reliability. But no matter how much you hate it, lots and lots of people decided this was a superior approach. Sure, the parts didn't work together as well as they did on a Macintosh, but there were a lot more parts available. Sure, the design aesthetic was clunky, but lots of people didn't care and the cost was often half of a comparable Macintosh. Sure, the Mac did a few things better in the page makeup and illustration fields, but PCs did a lot of things better in the business software field, in both the front office and the back office.

This whole argument reminds me of the great VHS vs. Betamax controversy. Consumers are stupid! screamed the Beta fans when their format died. Beta was clearly a superior format. Well, no, it wasn't. There's no single continuum of "quality": every piece of technology ever invented is a series of compromises. Beta provided better picture quality, but with short runtimes and relatively high cost. VHS made a different set of compromise: adequate picture quality with higher runtimes and lower cost. That set of compromises turned out to be more popular.

Ditto for PCs. By hook or by crook, PCs and Macintoshes simply represent a different set of compromises. If you're primarily a writer or an artist, aren't too price sensitive, don't care about setting up an office network, and value good design, then a Macintosh is a great computer. But don't kid yourself: you're accepting a certain set of compromises, not picking an objectively better product. If you're primarily a financial analyst or a product manager, want lots of choices of computing platform and software, work primarily on a corporate network, don't want to spend a lot of money, and don't really care about design aesthetics, then a PC is a better choice for you. This was especially true in the 80s and 90s, when PCs and Macintoshes were initially duking it out for market share. You can laugh at those old Compaq sewing machines all you want, but in 1983 they were revolutionary and it was many years before Apple had anything to compete with it.

A lot of these differences are less pronounced now than they used to be. Although price is still a big difference, Macs are more network friendly and have a broader range of software than they did in the past. Likewise, PCs have a better design sense and work better than they used to. To a large extent, PC market share today is just an artifact of the inertia PCs gained in the 80s and 90s. Still, that inertia happened for a reason, and only part of it was the famous Microsoft marketing juggernaut. The PC market and the Macintosh market evolved as a different set of compromises to address a similar set of problems, and in the end, the PC's compromises attracted more buyers. Neither one was better or worse. They were just — as Steve Jobs might have said — different.

Topeka to Legalize Domestic Violence?

| Thu Oct. 6, 2011 12:03 PM EDT

Domestic violence may become legal in Topeka, Kansas, because local officials are caught up in a spat about who's supposed to pay to prosecute it.

Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor announced on Sept. 8 that he isn't going to prosecute misdemeanors anymore, which includes those for domestic violence, because he's too broke to deal with it. The decision came after the county commission voted to cut the DA's budget by 10 percent for 2012. Taylor argued, instead, that city prosecutors should be handling misdemeanors—even though, as the city manager pointed out at the time in the Topeka Capitol-Journal, state law requires the district attorney to prosecute those cases. Besides that, the county has better resources for dealing with those cases, especially domestic violence.

So then the Topeka City Council decided that in order to fix this situation, they would just repeal the city code that makes domestic battery illegal. Apparently council members believe this would force Taylor to prosecute those crimes. But, as domestic violence survivors warned the city council on Tuesday, that's a really terrible idea.

VIDEO: Obama: Occupy Wall St. "Expresses the Frustrations the American People Feel"

| Thu Oct. 6, 2011 11:50 AM EDT
The scene at Occupy Wall Street.

President Obama made his first public comments on the growing Occupy Wall Street protests in a press conference on Thursday. "I think it expresses the frustrations that the American people feel that we had the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, huge collateral damage all throughout the country, all across Main Street, and yet you're still seeing some of the same folks who acted irresponsibly trying to fight efforts to crack down on abusive practices that got us into this problem in the first place." He went on, "So yes, I think people are frustrated and the protesters are giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works."

Here's the video:

It's not just Obama finally weighing in on Occupy Wall Street. At the Atlantic's Washington Ideas Forum today, Vice President Joe Biden was asked by by NBC's David Gregory, "Do you stand in solidarity" with Occupy Wall Street? Here's Biden's reply, via Slate's Dave Weigel:

"Look, that's a really fair question. Let's be honest with one another. What is the core of that protest? The core is: The bargain has been breached. The core is: The American people do not think the system is fair, or on the level. That is the core is what you're seeing with Wall Street. Look, there's a lot in common with the Tea Party. The Tea Party started, why? TARP. They thought it was unfair."

Obama's and Biden's sympathetic remarks are big news—not just because they come from the president and vice president of the United States, but also because they signal a possible shift within the Obama administration. Consider what Bill Daley, the White House chief of staff, said about Occupy Wall Street on Tuesday, which was far less encouraging:

"I don't know if it's helpful. I wouldn't characterize it that way. Look it—people express their opinions. In the new social network world, they can do it pretty effectively outside the normal way, historically, people have done it. So whether it's helpful to us, or helpful for people to understand in the political system that there are a lot of people out there concerned about the economy—I know the focus is on Wall Street, but it's a broader discussion that we're having."

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner was similarly indifferent. Asked by Atlantic editor James Bennet if he felt any sympathy for the Occupy Wall Street protesters, Geithner replied: "No, I feel a lot of sympathy for what you might describe as the—as a general sense among Americans is whether, you know, we've lost a sense of possibility."

But if Daley and Geithner doesn't feel much sympathy, Obama and Biden apparently do. And that's a big development for the angry, boisterous protesters making their home in Zuccotti Park.

At the same time, the Democratic rank-and-file continues to rally behind the Occupy protests. Those voicing their support include former presidential candidate Howard Dean; Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.); House Democratic Caucus leader John Larson (D-Conn.); progressive House members Raul Grijalva, Keith Ellison, and Dennis Kucinich; and former senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin.