2012 - %3, March

How Coca-Cola Squeezes Workers in Italy's Orange Groves

| Fri Mar. 2, 2012 3:15 PM EST

When I think of southern Italy, a kind of mental postcard comes to mind: a table laden with seafood, pasta, and wine, with Homer's "wine-dark sea" sparkling in the sun-drenched background.  

The reality, of course, is much more complicated. The food and sights can be glorious, but amid the region's base of small farms there exist industrialized, plantation-scale operations. And scale aside, working conditions on the region's farms are hardly idyllic. Last year, the UK-based Ecologist published a blistering exposé of working conditions in the region's tomato fields, which produce for the nation's vast canned-tomato export industry. Workers, mainly migrants from Africa, live in slave-like conditions, with meager pay and awful housing. As is too often the case in the United States, people who spend their time harvesting food live in dire poverty, often having to rely on charity for enough to eat.

Now the Ecologist is back, this time with a report on conditions in southern Italy's orange groves, which produce fruit to be juiced for the processed food industry, including Coca-Cola and its Fanta soft drink. It's not clear whether any of the Italian juice ends up in Fanta sold in the US. "The majority of the juice we procure from this area is used in products for our Italian market," the company wrote in a statement to the Ecologist. Honestly, I'm surprised there's any real juice in Fanta at all.

For the article, the Ecologist reporters visited a variety of work camps and talk to numerous workers, in the process sketching a hellish picture.

They typically earn 25 euros [about $33] for a day’s work in the Calabrian orange groves. They are often recruited by gangmasters acting on behalf of farm owners cashing in on the ready supply of cheap labour. The gangmasters, both Africans and Italians, can charge workers for transport to and from the orange farms—typically between 2.5 to 5 Euros—and sometimes make other deductions from wages paid by farmers. Many of the migrants in Rosarno and the surrounding countryside live in appalling conditions, in run down buildings or in makeshift slums on the edge of town. There's no electricity or running water. In many cases there's no functioning roof.

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Who Should We Blame for High Gas Prices?

| Fri Mar. 2, 2012 2:45 PM EST

This morning's topic was why gasoline prices have been rising. Today, the Washington Post essays a vastly more important topic: who are we blaming for rising gasoline prices? Here's the answer in colorful bar chart form:

What to think of this? The primary correct answer is "supply and demand," which isn't on the list, and the secondary correct answer is tension in the Middle East, which garners 11% of the answers. "Other mentions" gets the most votes, but just what are these other things that people are blaming? The answer, it turns out, is: government, speculators, Congress, gas guzzlers, rising global demand, George Bush (!), the economy, OPEC, greed, Democrats, Republicans, and (my favorite) everybody/everything.

If you put the answers in a different set of buckets, it looks something like this:

  • 31% — The government in one way or another
  • 19% — Greedy corporate gits in one form or another
  • 11% — Tension in the Middle East
  • 10% — Supply and demand in one way or another
  • 10% — Something else
  • 24% — Don't know

(Don't blame me that this adds up to 105%. Apparently some people gave more than one answer.)

Ezra Klein thinks this poll demonstrates an improvement of sorts, since 28% of Americans blamed Bush for rising gas prices after Katrina but only 18% are blaming Obama for the current rise. Maybe. But if I had to guess, I'd put this down to two things. First, Obama is just more popular than Bush was at the time. Everyone hated him after Katrina. Second, we've had a bunch of these price gyrations since 2005 and the public is getting used to them. It's harder to blame the president when this stuff happens every year or so no matter who's in office.

As for myself, I don't know. On the bright side, only 1% of Americans blame environmental restrictions on domestic drilling, despite a full-bore Republican campaign to convince them otherwise, so that's nice. On the other hand, I'd sure like to see a lot more people blaming supply and demand. Maybe 10% isn't bad, all things considered, but I was ve-r-r-r-r-y generous about what I put in that bucket. The vast majority of Americans still have no clue what's driving all this.

20 Percent of Military Fatalities in Afghanistan Are "Insider" Shootings

| Fri Mar. 2, 2012 1:25 PM EST

Domestic politics has absorbed most of my attention lately, so this came as more of a surprise to me than it probably should have:

Hours before dawn Thursday, Afghan assailants, including a man hired to teach Afghan soldiers to read, shot and killed two U.S. troops and wounded a third, Afghan and American officials said. The soldiers slain at the base in Kandahar province were the fifth and sixth U.S. military personnel to die in a span of eight days at the hands of Afghans they had worked alongside. With these latest killings, the proportion of NATO overall military fatalities caused by such "insider" shootings this year stood at nearly one in five.

There are more details later in the story, and then this:

The deaths come against a backdrop of deepening mutual mistrust between many Afghans and their Western counterparts after riots tore through the country last week over what officials said was the inadvertent burning of copies of the Koran at a U.S.-run military base....Publicly, U.S. officials have painted the Koran incident as a setback, but scarcely one that could shatter longtime bonds. They point out that the rioters made up only a tiny fraction of the Afghan population, and assert that it was a situation in which the Taliban and other Islamist militants seized an opportunity to both whip up and blend into the crowds.

But that's the whole point. Of course this is a case of the Taliban taking advantage of an incident to demagogue the U.S. presence and whip local crowds into a frenzy. Pretty obviously, though, this is the situation we're in. Our presence, for a variety of reasons,1 is unpopular enough that the Taliban can easily take advantage of small incidents like this. And they will. There will always be provocations of one kind or another. It's inevitable when you've got a hundred thousand troops who are spread out over a big, unfamiliar country and constantly under extreme stress.

Today's incident was an accidental Koran burning. Tomorrow's incident will be something else. And the next day it will be something different still. But they all point in the same direction: counterinsurgency had its chance, and it's just not going to work in Afghanistan. It's time to wish the Afghans godspeed and let them have their country back.

1For example, the fact that our military operations routinely kill and maim Afghan children and other civilians. It's not deliberate, but that doesn't matter. We still do it.

Nebraska NOT Reviving "Justifiable Homicide" Bill

| Fri Mar. 2, 2012 12:27 PM EST

Yesterday, we published a blog post indicating that the Nebraska Legislature had revived a bill extending "justifiable homicide" protections to the unborn, after several abortion rights groups contacted Mother Jones about this development; however, further reporting shows that the state has not revived the law. The groups were looking at outdated information from 2011 (first reported here at Mother Jones, in fact).

The post has been removed, and we regret the error.

Unfortunately, Obama Probably Isn't Going to Raise Your Taxes

| Fri Mar. 2, 2012 12:13 PM EST

Noam Scheiber says that deep in his heart, President Obama doesn't just want to let the Bush tax cuts for the rich expire, he wants to let all of the Bush tax cuts expire:

In the fall of 2009, Obama’s chief congressional lobbyist, Phil Schiliro, touted a clever idea for dealing with the tax cuts: introduce a bill that would extend the middle-class cuts for two years while allowing the upper-income portions to expire. After two years, the middle-class cuts would also expire unless Congress paid for them with off-setting savings or tax increases.

Schiliro figured that, if the bill passed, the whole mess of tax cuts was likely to disappear when all was said and done....At first, Schiliro’s plan went nowhere—in truth it was as much a stunt as a serious proposal. But Schiliro had an important ally: Peter Orszag, the president’s budget director....By November 2009, Orszag had become so fond of the idea that he insisted on presenting it to the president in the Oval Office. Orszag’s fellow wonks were cool to the plan, having heard him and Schiliro sing its praises repeatedly. But the administration’s chief wonk—Barack Obama—was intrigued.

I would be delighted if this were true, but this reporting seems really, really thin to me. I mean, what's the evidence here? In a single meeting over a year ago, budget hawk Peter Orszag presented an idea and Obama....listened. That's it. Scheiber says Obama was "intrigued," but the plan never went anywhere, and Orszag, of course, is no longer part of the administration. It's never come up again, and Obama has apparently never so much as mentioned it since November 2009.

"What is clear," says Scheiber, "is that, having been tempted to end all of the Bush tax cuts in 2009, the president would only find the idea more attractive were he to win a second term." But no: that's not clear at all. Obama wouldn't have to worry about reelection, but every single Democratic member of Congress still would, so the political calculus really wouldn't change much at all.

This is making a mountain out of a molehill. Staffers have ideas all the time. Sometimes they get a chance to present them to the president. The president usually listens politely, rather than screaming at them never to mention it again. That's all that seems to have happened here.

Which is too bad. Ditching the entire set of Bush tax cuts really is the only way we'll ever get the long-term deficit under control. If I had my way, we'd phase out the whole mess, maybe by thirds starting in 2013. But I'll bet the president doesn't agree, more's the pity.

Obama: "We've Got Israel's Back"

| Fri Mar. 2, 2012 11:53 AM EST

President Obama sat down with the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg to talk about Iran and nukes in a more sustained way than I've ever seen before. Here's a snippet:

GOLDBERG: Go back to this language, 'All options on the table.'....The impression we get is that the Israeli government thinks this is a vague expression that's been used for so many years. Is there some ramping-up of the rhetoric you're going to give them?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I think the Israeli people understand it, I think the American people understand it, and I think the Iranians understand it....I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don't bluff. I also don't, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say. Let describe very specifically why this is important to us.

In addition to the profound threat that it poses to Israel....it is almost certain that other players in the region would feel it necessary to get their own nuclear weapons. So now you have the prospect of a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region in the world, one that is rife with unstable governments and sectarian tensions. And it would also provide Iran the additional capability to sponsor and protect its proxies in carrying out terrorist attacks, because they are less fearful of retaliation.

....GOLDBERG: Do you see accidental nuclear escalation as an issue?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Absolutely. Look, the fact is, I don't think any of it would be accidental. I think it would be very intentional. If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, I won't name the countries, but there are probably four or five countries in the Middle East who say, "We are going to start a program, and we will have nuclear weapons." And at that point, the prospect for miscalculation in a region that has that many tensions and fissures is profound. You essentially then duplicate the challenges of India and Pakistan fivefold or tenfold.

....GOLDBERG: ....There have been disagreements between Israel and the U.S. before, but this is coming to a head about what the Israelis see as an existential issue. The question is: In your mind, have you brought arguments to Netanyahu that have so far worked out well?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: ....One of the things that I like to remind them of is that every single commitment I have made to the state of Israel and its security, I have kept. I mean, part of your -- not to put words in your mouth -- but part of the underlying question is: Why is it that despite me never failing to support Israel on every single problem that they've had over the last three years, that there are still questions about that?

In four words, Obama says the U.S. approach toward the Middle East is: "We've got Israel's back." And he's obviously pretty pissed off over the political footsie with Republicans that Benjamin Netanyahu has been playing. Obama may have Israel's back, but it looks like his upcoming visit with Netanyahu will be, in the usual diplo-speak, "frank and productive."

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 2, 2012

Fri Mar. 2, 2012 11:41 AM EST

Sgt. Craig McComsey, a member of the Mississippi Army National Guard, serving with the Zabul Agribusiness Development Team, keeps a close watch from the roof of the district center, Shah Joy, Afghanistan. Photo by the US Army.

Dear Rush Limbaugh: Birth Control Doesn't Work Like Viagra

| Fri Mar. 2, 2012 10:37 AM EST

Does Rush Limbaugh think birth control pills work like Viagra?

His misogynistic assault on Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke indicates that he does.

Fluke, who was prevented from testifying at Rep. Darrell Issa's nearly all-male hearing on contraception, has been the target of a barrage of sexist invective from Limbaugh over her view that Georgetown's health plan should include birth control. Wednesday Limbaugh called Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute", declared that "she's having so much sex she can't afford the contraception," and asserted that covering contraception was tantamount to paying her for sex. On Thursday he blurted out: "If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it, and I'll tell you what it is. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch."

Once you wade through the bile and the realization that the country's most popular conservative radio host has devoted hours on his show to attempting to bully a woman into silence for her views on birth control, it becomes clear that Limbaugh, a man over 60 who is now on his fourth marriage, does not seem to understand how birth control pills work. On Wednesday and Thursday, Limbaugh repeatedly suggested that the amount of sex a woman has is related to the amount of birth control she needs to take, as though women took birth control pills every day they had sex. This is how, say, Viagra, the erectile dysfunction medication, works. Aside from the morning-after pill*, when and how much sex you have is unrelated to the amount of birth control you need.

Limbaugh is a figure of almost religious stature among conservatives—for Republican elected officials, criticizing him is particularly dangerous—so Republican lawmakers have largely remained mum on Limbaugh's despicable tirades. Some conservatives have tried to defend Limbaugh, however, arguing that his analogy, while crude, gets to a legitimate concern over whether religious organizations and insurance companies should have to "finance" someone else's "sex life."

The trouble with this analogy is that insurance companies already "subsidize" men's sex lives, by covering erectile dysfunction drugs like Viagra. That insurance companies were already covering those drugs was part of the reason why the Employment Equal Opportunity Commission ruled in 2000 that insurance companies providing prescription coverage could not exempt birth control.

It's almost surreal to have to point out that regulating pregnancy is a legitimate medical need. Unlike erectile dysfunction drugs, whose sole purpose is to facilitate sexual activity, birth control has other legitimate medical uses beyond preventing pregnancy. It mitigates menstrual pain and helps women regulate their cycles, which is why many women use birth control even if they are not sexually active or have never had sex. In her prepared remarks, Fluke tells the story of a lesbian friend who lost an ovary due to polycystic ovary syndrome, which could have been treated with access to birth control. As Fluke dryly points out, her friend was not trying to avoid pregnancy.

The "subsidizing-your-sex-life" argument Limbaugh is making is related to, but nevertheless distinct from, the religious objection to birth control. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has opposed even allowing insurance companies to foot the bill for contraception for employees of Catholic institutions. However, it has no objection in principle to prescription drug coverage that includes Viagra. Neither, one assumes, does Rush Limbaugh. So if he wants to contend that covering birth control is akin to paying women for sex, let's hear him explain why men who want their insurance to cover their erectile dysfunction pills are not "sluts" or "prostitutes."

Correction: I initially misread the government's advice on contraception; it is perfectly safe to take Plan B when you're already on the pill.

My Tussle With Breitbart, the Genius of Agitprop

| Fri Mar. 2, 2012 7:00 AM EST
Andrew Breitbart

I'm hardly the person to properly eulogize Andrew Breitbart, the right-wing provocateur who died unexpectedly yesterday at the age of 43. My only contact with him was brief, but revealing. Like so many others who found themselves in Breitbart's crosshairs, my interaction with him was through Twitter, where he hounded me to admit that the media had applied a double standard in its coverage of the tea party and the budding Occupy protest movement I'd been following in Oakland last fall. Insisting I was willfully ignoring the ugly reality of Oakland's tent camp, 

I didn't take the bait, and our exchange turned into a light-hearted back-and-forth in which he declined my invitation to play soccer in San Francisco. "More of a baseball and football guy!" he tweeted back. "Moving. Fast. Or. Even. Slow. Not. My. Strong. Suit."

Offsides: Breitbart demurs to a invitation to a friendly soccer match.Offsides: Breitbart turns down an invitation to a friendly soccer match.Our brief correspondence angered at least one Occupier, who demanded to know why I had given Breitbart the time of day, or at least hadn't tried to savage him. Her reaction was indicative of Breitbart's simple genius, upon which his shock-jock journalism shop successfully, relentlessly trolls its political foes, who then unwittingly play into its hands. My first story on Occupy Oakland touched on this: By taking easy jabs at the left, Breitbart and his co-conspirators elicit hysterical reactions that reinforce whatever perceived hypocrisy they're assaulting.

Such a tactic isn't particularly novel, but it was the extent to which Breitbart flaunted boundaries—hijacking former Rep. Anthony Weiner's resignation press conference, screaming at Occupy CPAC protesters to "stop raping people!" (see video below)—that defied the tediousness of a Hannity or an O'Reilly. His outbursts were so outrageous that he often seemed unhinged. But he acted with purpose, reckless though it could be, and he was surprisingly effective. I wasn't the only one to suspect that the early reports of his death were another ploy until a coroner's report confirmed them.

"Project X": Drunk, Foul-Mouthed Nerds Seduce Hot Girls and Blow Stuff Up

| Fri Mar. 2, 2012 7:00 AM EST
"Project X" (2012).

Project X
Warner Bros.
88 minutes

This weekend, you could go see the highly anticipated The Lorax, with all its Truffula tufts and fleecy anti-greed morality.

The new animated movie has a stout, gremlin-type creature talking how bad it is to screw over wildlife for profit. The CGI is truly eye-popping. And there are a whole lot of gyrating bears. So, yes, you should go see The Lorax. You absolutely should do that.

You totally, definitely should.

Or, you could succumb to 90 minutes' worth of bi-curious girls, rowdy gentlemen, loud music, self-destruction in the suburbs, booze guzzled, pills popped, and cops in riot gear. (In short, all the things that make life worth living.)

The rager quickly descends into a hyper-violent mess that can only be described as a cross between 10-Cent Beer Night and a party thrown by The Who.

And just to be perfectly clear, this movie isn't a remake of the other Project X, a 1987 film in which Helen Hunt and government-trained super-chimps almost trigger nuclear catastrophe. This year's Project X is steeped in a far greater realism: Three chemically altered nerds throw a house party with 1,500 other horny teenagers and almost burn an entire neighborhood to the ground in the process.

The film, produced by director Todd Phillips of The Hangover and Old School fame, is shot in contemporary found-footage/mockumentary mode—think: cinéma vérité, by way of Cloverfield and Parks and Recreation. If you've seen Revenge of the Nerds, Risky Business, and Superbad, you'll recognize the plot: Three high-school outcasts seek to up their social standing and prove to "bitches" that they are "large-scale ballers." So when one of them gets the family home all to himself on his birthday, the boys invite half of LA to attend their all-night blow-out. After some mass-texting and old-fashioned word of mouth, they wind up with a carouse so epic—two DJs, a "Naked Girls Only" pool, a moonbounce, every harmful substance imaginable—that Kanye West is rumored to be in attendance.

And thus the evening bacchanalia descends into a hyper-violent mess that can only be described as a cross between 10-Cent Beer Night and your average party thrown by The Who.