2012 - %3, July

Congress' Big Gift to Monsanto

| Mon Jul. 2, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

If you want your crops to bear fruit, you have to feed the soil. Few industries understand that old farming truism better than ag-biotech—the few companies that dominate the market for genetically modified seeds and other novel farming technologies. And they realize that the same wisdom applies to getting what you want in Washington, DC.

According to this 2010 analysis from Food & Water Watch, the ag-biotech industry spent $547.5 million between 1999 and 2009. It employed more than 100 lobbying firms in 2010 alone, FWW reports, in addition to their own in-house lobbying teams.

The gusher continues. The most famous ag-biotech firm of all, Monsanto, spent $1.4 million on lobbying in the first three months of 2012, after shelling out $6.3 million total last year, "more than any other agribusiness firm except the tobacco company Altria," reports the money-in-politics tracker OpenSecrets.org. Industry trade groups like the Biotechnology Industry Organization and Croplife America have weighed in with $1.8 million and $524,000, respectively.

What fruits have been borne by such generous fertilizing of the legislative terrain? It's impossible to tie the fate of any bit of legislation directly to an industry's lobbying power, but here are two unambiguous legislative victories won on the Hill this month by Monsanto and its peers.

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The Men's Campfire Songs

| Mon Jul. 2, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
The Men

It's a Sunday night at San Francisco's Bottom of the Hill—a glowing, dimly lit stakeout of a rock venue—and I've never seen anything quite like it: A guy in the audience who'd hobbled into the crowded room on crutches is now standing near the front of the stage, bouncing up and down, holding those crutches over his head.

The band that apparently has the power to heal the sick—or at least make him forget about the pain until after the show—is post-punk foursome the Men, and the song is a track off their latest album, Open Your Heart. Lanky bassist/producer Ben Greenberg also bounces; guitarists/vocalists Mark Perro and Nick Chiericozzi lunge their instruments at negative space; drummer Rich Samis rolls and flicks his head in furious rhythm. A third of the room is a mosh pit. I desperately fish around in my bag for the earplugs I've left at home, then realize that tinnitus is inevitable.

It's okay—I've made my peace. Back in Brooklyn, the Men enjoyed a reputation for two things: First, being one of the loudest yet most versatile bands around. Second: Not giving a fart about how anyone (i.e. bloggers) tried to pigeonhole their sound according to one of many noise, psychedelic, or classic rock reference points. The result, maybe, is the rare energy of shows like these, and albums that can slap an indie listener out of background-music worship. The lost frequencies are worth it.

Review: Magic Trick's 'Ruler of the Night'

| Mon Jul. 2, 2012 5:59 AM EDT
Magic Trick.

The city that spawned the original psych-rock scene is at it again with a burgeoning group of bands and artists playing psych-pop, weird rock, and all manner of arty, eccentric takes on classic song structures and themes. Tim Cohen is one of the mainstays of this new scene: In addition to playing with the Fresh & Onlys, he started Magic Trick, initially a solo project in his apartment studio that gradually expanded to include San Francisco musicians James Kim, Alicia Vanden Heuvel, and Noelle Cahill. The band's new album, Ruler of the Night, is its second full-fledged effort after a couple of Cohen-only records.

As magic tricks go, this is a sleight of hand rather than a grand illusion—that is, one that enchants and delights in small, subtle ways, but only occasionally gives cause for outright marvel. The album is anchored by Cohen’s deep, resonant voice, often distant and washed in reverb, while tambourines, washboards, and multi-part harmonies take songs in unexpected directions. Sometimes the experimentation doesn't quite work—the quiet, twanging song "Next to Nothing," for example, is sprinkled with a distractingly obtrusive sound effect—but usually it adds a welcome note of the uncanny to catchy but otherwise straightforward pop-folk tunes.

No, Obamacare Isn't the Biggest Tax Increase in History

| Sun Jul. 1, 2012 5:33 PM EDT

Republicans have eagerly taken to the airwaves to say that the Supreme Court has proven that Democrats are liars. After all, Democrats have long insisted that Obamacare's penalty for not buying health insurance isn't a tax, but on Thursday the Supreme Court upheld it on the grounds that it was a tax. J'accuse! Or, as America's Bard of the Frozen North tweeted, "Obama lies, freedom dies."

This is so stupid it hurts. But Josh Marshall says that what comes next is even more brain dead:

Republicans are now saying it's the 'biggest tax increase in history' — either of America or the universe of whatever. But this is demonstrably false.

The Congressional Budget Office says the mandate penalty will raise $27 billion between 2012 and 2021. $27 billion over a decade. Anybody who cares to can do the math. But if you want to call it a 'tax increase' — which is debatable — it's clearly one of tiniest ones in history.

Let's be fair: When Republicans talk about ACA's tax increases, most of them are talking about all the taxes in the bill, not just the penalty. But they're still off base. There have been 15 tax increases of significant size since 1950, and Jerry Tempalski, a tax analyst in the Treasury Department, has estimated the size of all of them as a percentage of GDP.  Tempalski hasn't estimated the eventual size of ACA, but PolitiFact took a crack at it using the same methodology, and they figure that ACA amounts to a tax increase of 0.49% of GDP seven years from now. That places it tenth on the list.

It's fair for Republicans to complain that ACA includes a bunch of new taxes. It does. Most of them fall on high earners and corporations, not the middle class, but they're still taxes. However, the "biggest tax increase in history" nonsense is crazy, and no news outlet interested in accuracy should let it pass without challenge.

Coming Soon: A Worldwide Drone Shopping Spree

| Sun Jul. 1, 2012 1:09 PM EDT

This is obviously no surprise or anything, but just so you know:

Despite concerns about U.S.-made drones ending up in enemy hands, American military contractors are lobbying the government to loosen export restrictions and open up foreign markets to the unmanned aircraft that have reshaped modern warfare.

...."Export restrictions are hurting this industry in America without making us any safer," Wesley G. Bush, Northrop's chief executive, said at a defense conference this year....As the U.S. war effort draws down and the Pentagon budget shrinks, defense companies say they need Congress to ease restrictions so they can tap lucrative foreign markets for their wares.

More important, they say, the current export restrictions may cause the U.S. to lose potential customers to nations eager to elbow their way into the market. Already, Israel is making drones and selling them to several countries, including Azerbaijan, India and Ecuador. China has more than a dozen drones in development.

It's all about the economy, of course. Howard Berman's liberal 28th congressional district might not be the aerospace hub it used to be, but there's still plenty of defense business in the Los Angeles area that benefits his constituents. So naturally he's in favor of increasing the sale of drones overseas. "A very significant part of this economic recovery depends on exports," he told the LA Times. "We need to take advantage of where our strengths lie."

Neither China nor Israel is a party to the Missile Technology Control Regime, which prevents sales of all but the smallest unmanned craft, and they're selling drones all over the world. Pretty soon, we will be too. We may be pretty happy about our drone superiority at the moment, but it won't last long. Welcome to the 21st century.