2012 - %3, April

Samuel L. Jackson Not Really the Highest Grossing Actor Ever

| Thu Apr. 26, 2012 1:10 PM EDT

I love me some Samuel L. Jackson, but this nonsense bugs me:

It’s all but impossible to turn on a TV set any night of the week without happening on one of his movies (and sometimes two or three). Hence his anointment by Guinness World Records as “the highest-grossing film actor” of all time.

Yeah, yeah. His films have grossed $7.4 billion. But more than a third of that, $2.5 billion, was thanks to an essentially bit part in the three Star Wars sequels. And do those Nick Fury cameos count too? Give me a break. Jackson's a great actor, but he just doesn't drive box office grosses the way this factoid suggests. Profile writers should drop it.

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Does Rubio's "DREAM Act" Really Put Obama in a Box?

| Thu Apr. 26, 2012 12:54 PM EDT
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) at CPAC in 2012.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has been trying to create some political space for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who has embraced a draconian "attrition through enforcement" approach to immigration, to move to the center on the issue. The Washington Post reports that Rubio's alternative to the DREAM Act, which would provide legal status without citizenship to some undocumented immigrants brought to the US as minors, is getting a look from immigration reform activists:

In recent days, Rubio has quietly reached out to a number of immigrant advocates who are usually White House allies but have grown frustrated with some of the president’s policies. Some of the activists say they are open to Rubio’s effort — even though it would stop short of a provision in the Democratic-backed Dream Act to create a path to citizenship — because it would at least provide some relief to people at risk of being deported.

Rubio's plan is getting attention from activists in part because they're in dire straits—legalization without citizenship is better than getting deported to a strange country you've never really lived in because your of something your parents did. The temptation to embrace Rubio's proposal must be pretty strong, particularly for those activists who have family and friends who would be eligible for legal status under the proposal.

The Post piece, however, is shorn of the relevant historical context of the DREAM Act. Although many media outlets have referred to Rubio's proposal as "Republican DREAM Act," the original DREAM Act was the Republican DREAM Act. It was first introduced by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) in 2001, who later opposed President George W. Bush's attempt at comprehensive immigration reform. The proposal quickly became a bipartisan one. Like the individual mandate in health care reform, the DREAM Act represented a narrower alternative to a more ambitious approach to a policy problem—one Republicans were willing to embrace as long as there didn't seem to be any chance of it happening. Like the mandate, once Obama embraced the DREAM Act, it became the latest manifestation of the dark socialist menace threatening America.

Rubio's DREAM Act doesn't actually resolve the primary objection of the GOP's immigration restrictionist wing, which is that any legalization of undocumented immigrants will encourage more illegal immigration. That's why immigration restrictionist Kris Kobach, (whom Romney looked to for an endorsement as far back as 2008 but whom he's recently tried to distance himself from) doesn't like the idea.  

The Rubio proposal hardly puts Obama in a "box," as the Post suggests. All Obama has to do is endorse the Rubio option as a stopgap measure, say it's the best that can be done for now, and tell Congress to get to work. At that point, the GOP will fling it into a black hole of obstruction, from which neither hope nor light can escape.

Barack Obama = One Hip Dude (Wink Wink)

| Thu Apr. 26, 2012 12:00 PM EDT

Here's the latest anti-Obama ad from Karl Rove & Co. The actual policy content is short and pro forma, so no need to pay attention to that. Mainly, it's just a reminder that Obama is awfully, um, hip. He's, you know, young and savvy....in an....urban kind of way. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I assume this is all just part of the mud-against-the-wall phase of the campaign, as the Rovesters try to get a bead on exactly which message makes Obama the least palatable to their heartland target audience. Unfortunately for them, this one makes Obama look a little too much like Will Smith, and I don't think the heartland really has anything against Will Smith. But I'm sure they'll learn from this and do better by the time summer rolls around.

Corn on "Hardball": Romney and "Fairness"

Thu Apr. 26, 2012 11:03 AM EDT

Mother Jones Washington bureau chief David Corn joined host Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball on Wednesday to discuss Mitt Romney's campaign-trail pivot to "fairness."

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

Obama's Honeymoon Lasted Zero Days

| Thu Apr. 26, 2012 10:36 AM EDT

In Do Not Ask What Good We Do, Robert Draper reports on a long dinner in which Republicans mapped out their campaign strategy against President Obama:

The dinner lasted nearly four hours. They parted company almost giddily. The Republicans had agreed on a way forward:

Go after Geithner.....Show united and unyielding opposition to the president’s economic policies....Begin attacking vulnerable Democrats on the airwaves.

This sounds unremarkable except for one thing: it took place on Inauguration Day, 2009. That's how long the Obama honeymoon lasted: zero days. Most of the Republican leadership was dead set against compromising in any way from the very first day.

By now that's not exactly news. But it certainly belies the Republican claim that they were willing to work with Obama but he simply never made the effort. They weren't.

Can You Get Mad Cow Disease From Milk?

| Thu Apr. 26, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

USDA-mandated testing turned up a downed California dairy cow that was infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as mad cow disease, the agency announced Tuesday. According to an exec with the rendering plant where the poor beast ended up, it was chosen for testing completely at random, having shown "no signs" of disease.

The scenario suggests that relatively recently, a BSE-infected cow was producing milk for public consumption. According to the USDA, there's nothing to worry about. The agency's chief veterinary officer, John Clifford, released a statement Tuesday declaring that the the the cow in question had "atypical BSE, a very rare form of the disease not generally associated with an animal consuming infected feed." He added that "milk does not transmit BSE."

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Rearranging the Deck Chairs at the Postal Service

| Wed Apr. 25, 2012 11:23 PM EDT

Hooray! Today the Senate passed a bipartisan bill to save the postal service. After plowing through half a dozen separate reports about what the bill does, I've compiled a comprehensive list. Take a deep breath:

  • Allows USPS to recoup more than $11 billion that it had overpaid into one of its pension funds. 
  • Provides early retirement incentives for nearly 100,000 USPS workers.
  • Restructures payments to a health benefits fund for future retirees.
  • Frees up USPS to offer a broader range of services like delivering beer and wine for retailers.
  • Creates a USPS chief innovation officer.
  • Halts the immediate closing of up to 252 mail-processing centers and 3,700 post offices.
  • Forces USPS to preserve overnight delivery of mail sent to nearby communities.
  • Forbids USPS from closing a rural post office unless the next-nearest location is no more than 10 miles away.
  • Places a one-year moratorium on closing rural post offices and then requires the mail agency to take rural issues into special consideration.
  • Prevents USPS from cutting Saturday delivery for two years, until the agency can prove such a cut is needed as a "last resort."
  • Transitions from door-to-door delivery to curbside delivery in some areas, such as suburban neighborhoods.
  • Strengthens the appeals process for customers opposed to closing a post office.
  • Caps bonuses and pay for USPS executives.
  • Forces USPS to wait until after Election Day to close postal facilities in states that permit voting by mail.
  • Permits USPS to co-locate post offices in government-owned buildings.

Hmmm. Do you notice anything missing? Let me think.

Oh yeah: there's nothing in there about allowing the postal service to increase postal rates. This is crazy. Take a look at countries around the world that have smaller volumes of mail than us: they all charge higher postage rates. They have to. And as volumes keep declining in America, we're going to need higher rates here too. Right now, a first-class equivalent stamp runs 75¢ in Germany, 72¢ in Britain, 82¢ in France, 98¢ in Switzerland, 97¢ in Belgium, and 63¢ in the Netherlands. There's no way that we can stay at 45¢ as volumes decline and pretend that somehow everything will be hunky-dory.

But allowing the price of a stamp to go up is apparently even more of a political taboo than closing rural post offices. I suppose Democrats are afraid of annoying granny and Republicans are so intent on busting the postal carriers union that they don't like the idea of anything that brings in more revenue. We are ruled by idiots.

We Are Having an Epidemic of Tonsillectomies

| Wed Apr. 25, 2012 5:03 PM EDT

This is strange. Just the other day, for no apparent reason, it occurred to me that no one ever has their tonsils removed anymore. It seems like that used to be a pretty common procedure, and then it just fell off the map.

But I was thinking about adults, and that was a big mistake. Sarah Kliff reports today that I wasn't just wrong about this, but wildly, totally, 180 degrees wrong:

It turns out we’re in the middle of an epidemic — a tonsillectomy epidemic, to be more specific. Tonsillectomies are the most common procedure, for children, requiring anesthesia. And we’re doing more of them: The number of tonsillectomies performed spiked by 74 percent between 1996 and 2006. In 2006 alone, more than a half-million children in the United States got their tonsils removed. The only problem is there’s no evidence they work for most children.

The procedure does show some benefits for those with really serious symptoms — very sore throats, fevers and other symptoms at least seven times in the past year — but no improvement for those whose indications are milder.

So why do we keep doing them? Tonsillectomies aren't big moneymakers. Parents aren't demanding them. There are no government guidelines that encourage them. Apparently it's basically just inertia. Doctors have been doing tonsillectomies for a long time, so they just keep on doing them even though there's little evidence that they work in most cases. It's much like life itself.

BP, Dow Chemical Sponsoring the "Greenest Ever" Olympics, and UK Enviros Aren't Having It.

| Wed Apr. 25, 2012 4:54 PM EDT

Ever since the fleet-footed runners and chariot races of ancient Greece, ethics have been at the root of the Olympic games. There's an Olympic oath, creed, and hymn. And then there's the torch, which has come to represent purity or goodwill, depending on who you ask. 

So, in the spirit of Olympic integrity, London—which will host the summer Olympics this July—has promised to prepare for its games with an eye towards environmentalism, making London 2012 "the greenest Games ever." Just one problem: Three of the Olympics' official sponsors—BP, Dow Chemical, and Rio Tinto—are all currently embroiled in lawsuits over alleged commission of large-scale environmental harms. (A set of criminal charges against BP were just filed yesterday.)

The irony here has not been lost on some of the UK's environmental watchdogs, who last week launched "Greenwash Gold 2012," a campaign to bring attention to the environmental records of these three sponsors. The groups behind the project—the London Mining Network, Bhopal Medical Appeal, and the UK Tar Sands Network—argue that it's greenwashing to let these eco-harming companies sponsor the games. 

The campaign's website offers up details on each company's environmental records alongside biting, animated videos. Visitors are asked to vote on which company "gets the dishonour" of winning the Greenwash Gold for "covering up the most environmental destruction"—to be awarded by the campaign in July, when the Olympics start. (Silver and bronze will also be awarded, so don't worry: all three companies are guaranteed to medal.)

"I'm Going To Hold Up if God Is Kind. If He's Harsh, I Will Have To Retreat."

| Wed Apr. 25, 2012 2:50 PM EDT

Pham Van The. Photo by Kate SheppardPham Van The. Photos by Kate Sheppard

On Tuesday, I traveled to the edge of Vietnam's Ben Tre Province, to the place where the Cua Ham Luong, a broad branch of the Mekong River, meets the South China Sea. We had to take a boat to get out here, wading through the warm waters to the flat, brown sand beach. And there, beyond a manmade sand wall, I met Pham Van The, a 60-year-old farmer out here at the edge of the earth.

Pham grows watermelons and a local variety of yellow melons here in the sandy soil, the vines creeping out from the ground in long rows. He used to have 5,000 square meters of farm, on land the government gave him. He's been here for a quarter of a century, but in the past few years, the water has been creeping in on his farm. "The sea was swallowing it up," he tells me, through a translator. In the last three years, it's gotten much worse, threatening the small thatched building he and his family use while they're out here working on the farm. Their home, at least, is about 3 kilometers inland and is safer from floods.

Pham has built a makeshift barrier against the seas out of sand and coconut fronds, which is littered with trash that's washed ashore. The small wall provides some protection, but not enough. The floods still come in during very high tides, the worst of which come late October to mid-November. When those tides happen, he stays up all night, watching for the water to come in. If it gets too close, he adds more sand to try to save the farm.

I asked why he thinks the floods are getting worse. "I'm a farmer, I wouldn't know how to predict it," he says. "When it comes I deal with it."

Pham is small and bronzed by the sun, and his face is expressive. He laughs easily, even while talking about the damage that's been done to his farm. He hand-rolls tobacco as we talk under the shade of their workshop. The slightly salty breeze from the sea provides relief from the brutal mid-day sun. His wife, Duong Thi Hai, rests in the hut before going back out to the fields to water the crops.

The worst he and his wife have seen was when Typhoon Durian—a storm named after the pungent southeast Asian fruit—ripped across the southern coast of Vietnam in 2006. They were out at the farm when it made its way to land. "I couldn't grab anything," he says. "I just grabbed my wife's hand and was like, 'You have to follow me! Don't go anywhere else, or we’ll die.'" They ran inland, and neighbors with boats pulled them to safety.

I visited his house with Nguyen Thanh Lap, the vice director of Thach Phu Nature Reserve based in this district. Along with other local officials, Lap is in charge of a project to plant mangroves and other trees along the coast, in hopes that it would provide a better barrier for farmers like Pham. They're currently trying to convince Pham and his neighbors to take part in the project.

"If there was forest here, it would stop the wind, stop the tides, protect their land," Lap tells me. But the trees take a long time to grow, and the farmers here already working with limited space fear losing profitable farmland to the trees. While the government does provide some compensation for planting and caring for the trees, it's not as much as they'd make on melons.

"It's hard to convince them to give up this short vision for a long one," says Lap.

Pham says he's been persuaded of the value of the proposal, but they still have to bring the 15 other farmers in the area to consensus on the project before it can go forward. In the meantime, they'll keep fighting back the tides themselves.

"I'm going to hold up against it if God is kind," says Pham. "If he's harsh, I will have to retreat."

Duong Thi Hai: Kate SheppardPhotos by Kate SheppardPhotos by Kate Sheppard