2012 - %3, January

Fear and Contempt on the Campaign Trail

| Mon Jan. 23, 2012 8:21 PM EST

This is hardly the most important thing in the world, but I've heard an awful lot of people lately saying that Newt Gingrich's recent success is due to the fact that no one is better than him at channeling the anger of the Republican base. There's nothing really wrong with that formulation, but for the record, I don't think anger is quite the emotion in play here. Rather, it's fear and contempt. The tea party wing of the Republican Party fears that the America they love is being taken away from them, and they have almost unbounded contempt for President Obama, the taker-away-in-chief.

And who does fear and contempt better than Newt? No one. Those are the emotions he's channeling, not just boring old anger.

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Gay Sex Still Illegal in Kansas

| Mon Jan. 23, 2012 6:01 PM EST

On Friday, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback released a long list of state statutes that he thinks are outdated and should be tossed out. He even issued an executive order last year to create a new position, the Office of the Repealer, to come up with that list. But his final product did not include the repeal of the state's anti-sodomy law.

Despite the fact that the Supreme Court ruled that anti-sodomy laws were unconstitutional in 2003, Kansas has kept its own law on the books. Kansas Statute 21-3505 lists "criminal sodomy"–that which occurs "between persons who are 16 or more years of age and members of the same sex or between a person and an animal"–as a misdemeanor. Straight sodomy is a-OK.

Even though the state sodomy law is pretty much moot in terms of enforcement, it still has an impact on the lives of gays in the state, as the New York Times reports:

The decision, despite public and private lobbying, has angered gay leaders here. "We were pretty much the first in line with our request to have this unconstitutional ban on gay and lesbian relations repealed," said Thomas Witt, chairman of the Kansas Equality Coalition.
"This isn't just some archaic law that’s sitting on the books and isn’t bothering anyone,” Mr. Witt continued. "It's used as justification to harass and discriminate against people, and it needs to go."

And in case you're wondering what other states continue to consider sodomy illegal, Tim Murphy created this handy map.

The Taller the Man, the Less Likely the Heart Failure?

| Mon Jan. 23, 2012 4:22 PM EST
Which coffee cup do YOU think will outlive the other?

Tall men, it seems, tend to get everything in life. Heightened self-esteem, better returns in the dating world, fatter paychecks, racial-stereotype-defying careers in professional sports.

And according to some Boston medical researchers, vertically gifted gents may also have naturally superior odds at dodging heart disease than you short folk do.

Or maybe they don't.

Reuters reports on the decidedly wishy-washy study:

Tall men appear less likely than shorter ones to develop heart failure, according to a study covering thousands of U.S. doctors. Researchers in Boston said that while there is no proof that a few extra centimeters protect the heart, it was possible that short and tall people are different in other ways, including in their diets or diseases growing up, and that this too could affect heart risks.

"This study doesn't say anything definite about whether height, itself, is going to lead to anything," said lead researcher Luc Djousse, of Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical Center.

But the researchers...said it's also possible that something about the biology of taller people, such as the distance between their hearts and certain branches of arteries and blood vessels, could decrease stress on the heart. Data came from 22,000 male doctors who were followed as part of a large study of heart disease and cancer, starting when they were in their mid-50s, on average...The taller men were, the lower their chance of heart failure, the researchers found. The tallest men in the study, those over 1.8 meter (six feet), were 24 percent less likely to less likely to report a heart failure diagnosis during the study period than men who were 1.72 meters (5 ft 8 in) and shorter.

It's important to remember how this (just like countless other scientific studies out there) isn't in any way conclusive, which, to be fair, the researchers fully and openly acknowledge. The height-focused part of their study, published in the current issue of the American Journal of Cardiology, sounds at least somewhat plausible: A taller frame could mean that it takes more time for blood to reach the heart, meaning less stress for the vital organ.

However, since that point is caveated to hell—infections, childhood nutrition, and other factors that can affect both heart health and height—there's no cause to believe that Jamie Cullum is destined to cardiovascularly buy the farm years before Bob Saget does. Also, it's worth mentioning that the medical journal The Lancet Oncology published a study in July 2011 showing a possible link between greater height and increased risk of ten common types of cancer, so there's really no point in inferring that taller individuals are biological X-Men.

But it's not like that is going to stop people from wondering whether being tall gets you elected President of the United States.

USDA Greenlights Monsanto's Utterly Useless New GMO Corn

| Mon Jan. 23, 2012 4:15 PM EST

You've got to keep an eye on US regulatory agencies in the second half of December. That's when watchdog journalists like me tend to take time off—and regulators like to sneak gifts to the industries they're supposed to be regulating. This year, I was alert enough to detect this gift from the FDA to the meat industry; but the USDA caught me napping. The agency made two momentous announcements on GMO crops, neither of which got much media scrutiny. It deregulated Monsanto's so-called drought-tolerant corn, and it prepared to deregulate Dow's corn engineered to withstand the herbicides 2,4-D and dicamba. More on the later this week. 

The drought-tolerant corn decision, which came down on Dec. 21, was momentous occasion, because it marked the first deregulation of a GMO crop with a "complex" trait. What I mean by that is, the other GMOs on the market have simple, one-gene traits: a gene that confers resistance to a particular herbicide, like Monsanto's Roundup Ready seed or a gene that expresses the toxic-to-bugs properties of the bacteria Bt, as in Monsanto's Bt seed. But a plant's use of water is a complex process involving several genes; there's no single "drought tolerant" gene. Generating such traits in plants that succeed in field conditions has been considerably more tricky for the agrichemical giants than than simple traits.

Your Daily Newt: Death Penalty for Drug Dealers

| Mon Jan. 23, 2012 4:14 PM EST
Newt Gingrich tried marijuana in college and hated it so much he concluded anyone bringing it into the country should be executed.

As a service to our readers, every day we are delivering a classic moment from the political life of Newt Gingrich—until he either clinches the nomination or bows out. (Daily Newt is back from a brief sabbatical following Newt around South Carolina.)

Ross Douthat's criticism notwithstanding, Newt Gingrich is very much a man of ideas—so many ideas, in fact, that he often ends up floating vastly contradictory proposals within a manner of just a few years. As Daily Newt explained previously, Newt Gingrich wrote a letter to the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1981 calling for marijuana to be legalized for medical purposes. "[L]icensed physicians are competent to employ marijuana," he wrote at the time. Pragmatic!

Flash-forward to 1996, and Gingrich's views had shifted to the right, and then kept going for a little while past that. Gingrich was the lead sponsor of the "Drug Importer Death Penalty Act," which, as its name suggests, would have made importation of even a small amount of marijuana punishable by life imprisonment (first offense) and death (second offense):

 

How much is "100 usual dosage amounts" of pot? About two ounces—more than the usual Friday afternoon with Snoop Dogg, but well beneath the load carried by the serious drug traffickers Gingrich's law was purportedly targeting. Our friends at Weedguru inform us that an ounce "can last a month for some smokers, but if you smoke multiple times a day it will vary from 1 week to 4 weeks." The law would be just as likely to target college kids coming back from a long night in Tijuana as it would members of an international drug cartel.

Chart of the Day: Global Abortion Rates

| Mon Jan. 23, 2012 3:38 PM EST

To mark the 39th anniversary of Roe v. Wade this week, the Guttmacher Institute has released some insightful data visualizations on abortion rates around the world. Turns out, the countries with the more liberal abortion laws actually have fewer abortions:

 

Guttmacher reports that the rates were high—between 29 and 32 abortions per 1,000 women of childbearing age—in countries in Africa and Latin America, where most abortions are illegal. But the rate was much lower in Western Europe, where it's generally legal, averaging 12 per 1,000. The most likely reason for this, of course, is that countries that have legalized abortion are also more likely to have women who are A) more educated about and have access to various types of contraception and B) are empowered to use it. The takeaway is that draconian restrictions on abortion don't actually ensure that there are fewer abortions—just that the ones that do take place are less safe.

And while we're on the subject, read our 2004 piece on life before Roe, "The Way It Was."

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Josh Harkinson on Countdown: How to Repeal Citizens United

Mon Jan. 23, 2012 3:16 PM EST

Mother Jones reporter Josh Harkinson hit the streets last week to cover protests against Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that opened the floodgates to corporate money in politics. On Countdown on Friday, he talked to Keith Olbermann about how Occupy activists are building a grassroots movement to repeal the ruling.

Charts of the Day: U.S. Energy Consumption Not Likely to Change Much

| Mon Jan. 23, 2012 3:00 PM EST

Brad Plumer points us to the U.S. Energy Information Administration's newly released Annual Energy Outlook 2012 report, and their projections aren't especially heartening. They forecast that the U.S. mix of energy consumption isn't going to change much over the next 25 years, and as a result our carbon emissions aren't likely to decrease either. Brad has more here. The complete EIA report (with bigger charts!) is here.

The Catch-22 of Drone Assassinations

| Mon Jan. 23, 2012 2:41 PM EST

Glenn Greenwald points out something today that I'm embarrassed to say hadn't occurred to me:

On Saturday in Somalia, the U.S. fired missiles from a drone and killed the 27-year-old Lebanon-born, ex-British citizen Bilal el-Berjawi. His wife had given birth 24 hours earlier and the speculation is that the U.S. located him when his wife called to give him the news…El-Berjawi’s family vehemently denies that he is involved with Terrorism, but he was never able to appeal the decree against him for this reason:

Berjawi is understood to have sought to appeal against the order, but lawyers representing his family were unable to take instructions from him amid concerns that any telephone contact could precipitate a drone attack.

Obviously, those concerns were valid. So first the U.S. tries to assassinate people, then it causes legal rulings against them to be issued because the individuals, fearing for their life, are unable to defend themselves. Meanwhile, no explanation or evidence is provided for either the adverse government act or the assassination: it is simply secretly decreed and thus shall it be.

I'm already opposed to assassinations of U.S. citizens, and not especially excited about assassinations of non-U.S. nationals either (el-Berjawi was a dual Lebanese British national whose British citizenship was stripped in 2006). So this doesn't really change my mind about anything in a serious way. But it does make the whole thing a lot more Kafka-esque than I had imagined.

Still, in the case of non-U.S. nationals, I think the question of targeted assassinations is more difficult than some critics make it out to be. As always, it gets back to the fundamental question of (a) whether we're at war and (b) what the battlefield is. In a shooting war, obviously you're allowed to go after enemy combatants without a court order, and that's the essential rationale for these killings. But where does the line get drawn? Does this war ever end? Is its scope the entire world? Neither the Bush nor the Obama administrations have ever been willing to say, claiming simply that the AUMF, along with the president's inherent commander-in-chief powers, gave them all the authority they needed to make decisions solely within the executive branch.

And yet…it's not clear what other option there is. Genuine judicial hearings, even if you think that's the right way to go about this, are obviously nonstarters in practical terms. You could have something like the FISA court, authorizing targeted assassinations in secret hearings, which would be an improvement in technical terms but probably not in real life. It's not as if FISA turns down government requests very often, after all. Or we could simply stop killing suspected terrorists overseas unless they're in a declared war zone.

I'm a squish. I don't know the answer. One way or another though, I can't help but think that this is all going to turn out badly eventually.

Report: White House Pressured Scientists to Underestimate BP Spill Size

| Mon Jan. 23, 2012 2:28 PM EST
Heavily oiled Brown Pelicans captured at Grand Isle, Louisiana on June 3, 2010 wait to be cleaned.

Back at the height of the massive Gulf oil spill in 2010, there was quite a bit of controversy about just how much crude was blasting out of the well. According to new documents that a watchdog group released on Monday, there was heated debate among the scientists who evaluated the flow rate as well.

For the first few weeks after the spill began in April 2010, BP misled the public about how big it was, and the government repeated BP's estimate without question. And when the government released its own estimate in late May of up to 25,000 barrels per day, that too was controversial—and proved to be far lower than the actual size, which was more like 53,000 barrels of oil per day.

Now, an email released by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) traces efforts to downplay the spill size in the initial weeks back to the White House. The group released a May 29, 2010 email from Dr. Marcia McNutt, the director of the US Geologic Survey and head of the government's Flow Rate Technical Group (FRTG), that was released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The email came after scientists on the flow-rate team complained to McNutt about how the spill figures were conveyed to the press, and in response she cited pressure from the White House as the reason the numbers were low-balled. Rather than reporting that the lower-end estimate of the spill was 25,000 barrels per day, officials cited that figure as the higher-end estimate:

I cannot tell you what a nightmare the past two days have been dealing with the communications people at the White House, DOI, and the NIC who seem incapable of understanding the concept of a lower bound. The press release that went out on our results was misleading and was not reviewed by a scientist for accuracy.

McNutt's email reportedly came in response to complaints from scientists on the team about how the flow rate had been handled. PEER also filed a complaint against Dr. William Lehr, a scientist at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who was the team lead for the FRTG's plume analysis team. PEER argues that Lehr "manipulated the scientific results" of the team's experts and understated the spill rate in what it communicated. From PEER's release on the complaint:

Lehr was leader of one of the most important FRTG teams, the “Plume Team” which analyzed videos of the oil leaks to produce the first estimates. Three of the 13 Plume Team experts used a technique called Particle Image Velocimetry (PIV) to estimate a leak rate in the range of 25,000 bpd. But three other experts on the Plume Team reported that PIV was underestimating the size of the leak by more than 50%. Those three experts used a different technology to correctly peg the leak rate at 50,000 to 60,000 bpd.
Yet Lehr did not tell the public or key decision makers that there was a deep split on the Plume Team. In the Plume Team’s Final Report, the body of which Lehr wrote, he reported that "most of the Plume Team used PIV" which produced “consistent and accurate” estimates. These underestimates were repeated to the public and media.

The government was also criticized for its handling of an August 2010 report on where the oil went, for which Lehr also served as the lead scientist. (I've requested comment from NOAA and the White House, and will update this post to reflect that when I receive it.) UPDATE: Scott Smullen, a spokesman for NOAA, said it is "not appropriate to comment" on this matter because it is still in litigation.

It's not entirely clear from PEER's release, though, what was real reason for the inaccurate figures—a single scientist giving inaccurate information, the White House pressuring him to do so, or the White House screwing up the reporting of the figures. Whatever it was, it resulted in the public getting a dramatically inaccurate impression about the size of the spill.