2012 - %3, July

Release the Romney Jokes!

| Fri Jul. 27, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Forget—for the moment—Mitt Romney's tax records, his calendars, his list of bundlers, and his gubernatorial emails. What the public really needs to see are the Romney jokes.

In his 2004 book about his stewardship of the 2002 Winter Olympics, Turnaround, Romney, describing his management style, wrote the following:

We instituted a rule at Bain Capital that every meeting had to begin with a joke. I love jokes and I love laughing. The humor spread through the entire meeting: people were always on the lookout for a laugh. When Ed [Eynon] began the process of having task forces [at the Salt Lake Organizing Committee] determine which should be our guiding principles, I directed that "fun" needed to be one of them. It was. And I always tried to begin meetings with a joke, just to keep things in their proper perspective.

This is information voters must have: Romney's jokes. Did the gags make it into the minutes of the Olympics meetings? Did Romney keep a list? A set of index cards? Yes, many of the Olympics records were destroyed after the games, despite Romney's public declarations of transparency. But is it possible that some of the gags survived?

In search of the missing Romney jokes, I did contact a former Bain Capital partner, and asked if he would reveal what riddles, gags, or jests Romney shared in the boardroom to lighten things up during his days as a chieftain of high finance. Did Romney favor the knock-knock variety? Chickens crossing roads? Saucy limericks? Clergy-walking-into-bars scenarios? His official response: no comment. So you know they must be good.

Ann Romney has hailed her husband as a prankster. But a funny guy? That has yet to be seen. Reporters covering the GOP presidential candidate should demand immediate access to the Romney gags. And if Romney refuses to release his jokes, the obvious question will linger until Election Day: what's he hiding?

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Your Weekend Longreads List on the Genetics of Life

| Fri Jul. 27, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Photo by djem/ShuttPhoto by djem/Shutt

longreads

Can your genes be "owned" by someone else? Well, over a quarter of them already are, but the debate rages on about whether or not this is kosher. Last Friday, the the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit began hearing a Supreme Court-mandated case over whether isolated human genes can be patented in the first place. The defendants, Myriad Genetics, hold patents for two genes hugely implicated in breast cancer—and by extension control the means to test the genes for potentially dangerous mutations.

It's unclear whether this case will settle the two-year tug-of-war over whether our naturally-occurring genes can qualify as patentable human inventions. But in the meantime, here are some weekend #longreads that weave together stories about families, politics, and self-identity—all through the lens of our basic genetic building blocks. For more long stories from the pages of Mother Jones, check out our longreads archive. And, of course, if you're not following @longreads and @motherjones on Twitter yet, get on that. Have a great weekend, readers!



"Facing Life With a Fatal Gene"
| Amy Harmon | The New York Times | March 2007

When a daughter tests positive for carrying the lethal Huntington's gene, it means her mother must be a carrier as well. Amy Harmon's moving account tells the story of a girl determined to face her inevitable disease head-on, and a mother who insists on denying it—while already beginning her downward spiral into brain disease.

In the tumultuous months that followed, Ms. Moser often found herself unable to remember what normal had once been. She forced herself to renounce the crush she had long nursed on a certain firefighter, sure that marriage was no longer an option for her. She threw herself into fund-raising in the hopes that someone would find a cure. Sometimes, she raged...She never, she said, regretted being tested. But at night, crying herself to sleep in the dark of her lavender bedroom, she would go over and over it. She was the same, but she was also different. And there was nothing she could do.
 

"Defining Jews, Defining a Nation: Can Genetics Save Israel?" | Jeff Wheelwright | The Atlantic | March 2012

A conference of Israeli and American geneticists studying Jewish DNA devolves into the question: What does it mean to be a Jew?

Is a person Jewish because of blood or because of culture? Must Jewish identity follow the biological pathway of descent, like those tongue-twisting names in the Hebrew Bible connected by begat, or can Jewishness be acquired merely by espousing the faith?…The implications of the debate matter for more than just Jewish Israelis. Allowing for biological yardsticks of Jewish ancestry begs a question about the blood origins of the Palestinians in their midst. On the family tree of humanity the two peoples are surprisingly close, or so says science.
 

"An Error in the Code" | Richard Preston | The New Yorker | August 2007

An extremely rare genetic mutation discovered in 1964 causes boys to have strikingly devastating self-mutilating behaviors. This is the story of two men living with the disease, and what they can tell us about the genetic roots of human behavior.

I went back several times to visit James Elrod and Jim Murphy, and began helping their staff with daily tasks. Elrod spat in my face a few times, and gave me a left jab to the jaw. Once, his Kevlar-covered fingers closed on my skin like pliers; he apologized while we both worked to get them loose. Murphy, at his thirty-third birthday party, planted his face in his cake, and then punched me. Nevertheless, I came to like them a lot.
 

"My Genome, My Self" | Steven Pinker | New York Times Magazine | January 2009

Experimental psychologist and popular science writer Steven Pinker takes us on a unique quest of self-discovery: having his genome sequenced and posting it online for geneticists to analyze. This is the story of what he learns along the way.

People have long been familiar with tests for heritable diseases, and the use of genetics to trace ancestry—the new “Roots”—is becoming familiar as well. But we are only beginning to recognize that our genome also contains information about our temperaments and abilities. Affordable genotyping may offer new kinds of answers to the question “Who am I?”—to ruminations about our ancestry, our vulnerabilities, our character and our choices in life.
 

"Who Owns My Disease?" | Arthur Allen | Mother Jones | Nov/Dec 2001

The Human Genome Project was just drawing to a close, and one family dealing with a rare genetic disease decided to take the issue of gene patenting into their own hands.

After overcoming their initial awe at scientists and their jargon, they came to a disheartening conclusion. "We realized nobody knows what's happening with this disease," Sharon recalled…With the help of friends, neighbors, fellow patient advocates, and the Internet, the Terrys embarked on an unprecedented project: They sought out people with PXE and their family members, and asked them to provide blood and tissue samples. "We realized that if we got enough people's DNA, we could find the gene," Sharon Terry explains. "So we decided to make a central repository. And we decided to keep the key to the repository ourselves."

Alarming Loss of Species in Protected Forests

| Fri Jul. 27, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Tropical  forest, Malaysia Peter Coxhead via Wikimedia CommonsTropical forest, Malaysia: Peter Coxhead via Wikimedia Commons

I was interested to read a new paper in the science journal Nature this week. Not least because it was co-authored by more than 200 scientists from around the world—a veritable who's-who of researchers from the world of tropical forest ecology.

The gist of the paper is alarming:

  1. The rapid disruption of tropical forests worldwide probably imperils global biodiversity more than any other force today.
  2. The best hope lies in protected areas.
  3. Yet many protected areas are not effectively protecting biodiversity.

The authors write:

Our analysis reveals great variation in reserve 'health:' about half of all reserves have been effective or performed passably, but the rest are experiencing an erosion of biodiversity that is often alarmingly widespread taxonomically and functionally.

Comparison of ecological changes inside vs outside protected areas: Laurance, et al, Nature 2012 DOI:10.1038/nature11318Comparison of ecological changes inside vs outside protected areas, for selected environmental drivers. The bars show percentage of reserves with improving vs worsening conditions: Laurance, et al, Nature 2012, DOI:10.1038/nature11318

The authors studied more than 30 different categories of species—from trees and butterflies to primates and large predators—in protected areas across the tropics in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. They calculated how these groups have fared in recent decades and identified the drivers of environmental change.

Lead author William Laurance of James Cook University in Australia and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama told me:

One of the things our study demonstrated was a sort of "mirror effect"—that the changes inside vs. outside [the reserves] tend to be positively correlated.

In other words, the reserves are only as strong as the lands surrounding them. And their power to protect biodiversity—that is, a full, healthy spectrum of lifeforms from the smallest to the largest—is threatened by activities on their borders, particularly from the illegal encroachment of colonists, hunters, and loggers.  

Jaguar, an apex predator: US Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia CommonsThe jaguar, an apex predator: US Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia CommonsThe authors found that some guilds—that is, ecological groups of plants and animals—were more at risk than others. The most sensitive guilds included apex predators, large non-predatory vertebrates, bats, stream-dwelling amphibians, terrestrial amphibians, lizards and larger reptiles, non-venomous snakes, freshwater fish, large-seeded old-growth trees, epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants, like orchids), and ecological specialists.

Several other groups were somewhat less vulnerable, including primates, understory insectivorous birds, large frugivorous [fruit-eating] birds, raptorial birds [birds of prey], venomous snakes, species that require tree cavities, and migratory species. In addition, five groups increased markedly in abundance in the reserves, including pioneer and generalist trees, lianas and vines, invasive animals, invasive plants and human diseases.

Considering that the most endangered species are living in protected areas that are themselves embedded in extremely degraded landscapes, then the picture looks even gloomier.

Juvenile howler monkey picking berries: Alphamouse via Wikimedia CommonsJuvenile howler monkey picking berries: Alphamouse via Wikimedia Commons

But in my article in the May/June 2012 issue of Mother Jones, Can One Incredibly Stubborn Person Save an Ecosystem?, I wrote about the need to spend more time discussing and dissecting success stories in conservation biology. As things stand, the bad news stories overwhelm us and threaten to defeat our willpower and continued efforts.

So I asked Laurance, if we were to turn his paper around for a moment, what can we say is working in the 50 percent of reserves that are doing a decent job protecting biodiversity? His answer:

In very general terms, the 50 percent of reserves that were doing relatively well had (1) better on-the-ground protection inside the reserve, and (2) had suffered less-intense changes outside the reserve. 

Thus the paper presents a blueprint of what to do, as well as what not to do, if we want to maintain Earth's biodiversity in a rapidly changing world. The authors conclude:

Protected areas are a cornerstone of efforts to conserve tropical biodiversity. It is not our intent to diminish their crucial role but to highlight growing challenges that could threaten their success. The vital ecological functions of wildlife habitats surrounding protected areas create an imperative, wherever possible, to establish sizeable buffer zones around reserves, maintain substantial reserve connectivity to other forest areas and promote lower-impact land uses near reserves by engaging and benefiting local communities. A focus on managing both external and internal threats should also increase the resilience of biodiversity in reserves to potentially serious climatic change in the future.

The paper:

  • William F. Laurance, et al. Averting biodiversity collapse in tropical forest protected areas. Nature (2012). DOI:10.1038/nature11318

New Study Shows That Medicaid Expansion Really Does Save Lives

| Fri Jul. 27, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Most of the recent conversation about Medicaid expansion has been about costs. If states decide not to participate in Obamacare's expansion of Medicaid, how much will it save the federal government? If they do decide to participate, how much will it cost the states?

But what about the benefits? What happens when more people are eligible for Medicaid? I usually caution people not to focus too much on death rates when they look at questions like this, since mortality is notoriously hard to measure. What's more, the value of reliable medical care shows up far more in quality of life than it does in raw death rates. Decent dental care may not extend lifespans enough to show up in gross mortality statistics, but it's sure as hell still worthwhile for the folks who get to keep their teeth intact.

That said, preventing unnecessary deaths is still an important metric of decent access to medical care. So how does Medicaid stack up on this score? A trio of Harvard researchers tackled that question by looking at three states that expanded Medicaid eligibility between 2000 and 2005 (Arizona, Maine, and New York) and comparing their change in mortality rates with nearby states that didn't expand Medicaid eligibility. The chart below shows the results. In the expansion states, Medicaid enrollment went up dramatically, from 8% to 13% of the population. At the same time, mortality rates went down substantially, from 320 per 100,000 to 300 per 100,000.

As usual, you should interpret these results cautiously. Three states is a small sample, and the results are dominated heavily by strongly positive results in New York (in fact, mortality actually went up in Maine). Still, this study strongly suggest that Medicaid expansion really does extend lives. It's a helluva bargain for states that participate.

GOP Candidate Comes Clean on Gay Bookstore Sting

| Fri Jul. 27, 2012 5:00 AM EDT
Minnesota congressional candidate Allen Quist (R).

Allen Quist has a LexisNexis problem. In May, I reported on the Minnesota GOP congressional candidate's history of out-there statements (comparing a gay counseling clinic at a state university to the Ku Klux Klan) and actions (like going undercover at bath houses and adult bookstores in order to prove that they had become a "haven for anal intercourse"). Quist, who is seeking the GOP nomination to take on Democratic Rep. Tim Walz in a district that leans ever-so-slightly Republican, is hoping support from the Christian Right and an endorsement from Rep. Michele Bachmann can carry him to victory in the mid-August primary.

These days, Quist would prefer to focus on issues like the national debt instead of, ahem, congress. But the questions about Quist's past statements came anyway, and the candidate initially took an odd approach: he pretended none of it ever happened.

At a town hall meeting in Rochester in mid-July, Quist was asked directly about my piece, specifically an anecdote about him comparing a gay counseling center at Mankato State University to the KKK. "I just want you to know, that's a total invention from some lefty that doesn't like me," Quist said. "I mean that is absolute total bull."

But there was a paper trail. An April, 1994 story in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported that as a state Senator in the 1980s, Quist "alleged that Mankato State University was encouraging the spread of AIDS by sponsoring a counseling center for gays, comparing it to a center for the Ku Klux Klan." That was in 1994; there's no indication Quist sought a correction then, or at any time in the ensuing 18 years.

Quist also denied another story detailed in my piece, in which he went undercover at bath houses in Mankato in an effort to turn up incidents of gay sex. Quist told a Twin Cities talk show earlier this month that the gay bath house story was "a total fabrication." As he explained it, "the thing of it is I was extraordinarily effective in the legislature. Consequently the lefties invented all kinds of stuff that they've said about me, and it's mostly not true or totally taken out of context. And that happened to be one of those."

That was apparently his first attempt to correct the record on his undercover escapades. And once again, Quist might have trouble convincing voters that they never happened, given that there are contemporary news stories recounting his bath house visit and other related inspections. For example, 19 years ago the St. Paul Pioneer Press conducted an interview with Quist where he "revealed that he personally had done some undercover research in an X-rated bookstore and graphically reported to his House colleagues the details of his findings, including booths for 'anonymous multiple-partner sodomy' and 'body fluids' on the floor."

Likewise, Quist was asked at the same Rochester town hall meeting about a famous comment he'd made in an interview with David Brauer of the Twin Cities Reader arguing that women have a "genetic predisposition" to be subservient to men—a claim he later doubled down on. But Quist dismissed that, too, as a "magician's-type trick" designed to distract voters. The problem: Brauer still has the audio. On Thursday, he posted a transcript of the interview and a soundbite at MinnPost. That's some kind of trick.

Now Quist has finally decided to come clean. On Thursday, the farmer and retired college professor wrote a letter to supporters, apologizing for the Ku Klux Klan comparison ("I would not say anything like that today") and attempting to explain the undercover gay sex sting:

The first is the allegation that, twenty four years ago, as a state legislator, I entered the Mankato adult bookstore in disguise to check out whether it included a serious public health risk. Parry’s distortion of my response to an important constituent complaint—that the bookstore posed a serious public health risk—is shameful. All I did was fulfill my responsibility as a Minnesota legislator.

Having first asked the Department of Health to investigate the matter (they did not) and being unwilling to allow an alleged public health risk to continue, I checked it out myself. Not in disguise, as my attackers would suggest, and not in sunglasses that suggests something to hide. (The reporter involved later went to work for the DFL caucus in St. Paul.)

I entered the adult bookstore dressed normally in shirt and blue jeans. The real story that won’t be printed is that I did the right thing. There was in fact a huge public health risk involved—a problem that was immediately remedied because someone had the courage to bring the issue to the light of day.

In fact people may well be alive today because I did my job. Distorting the facts and then attacking someone for having the courage to do what is right is destructive to our nation.

The campaign of Mike Parry, Quist's rival in an August 14 GOP primary, has been attacking Quist's oddball history. (It was their most recent salvo, on Tuesday, that prompted Quist's apology.)

While Parry may be hoping to distinguish himself from his investigating opponent, his tea party-flavored positions could present an obstacle to his congressional hopes. As Sally Jo Sorensen at the blog Bluestem Prairie notes, Parry recently sponsored legislation to set up a legislative commission on the United Nations' Agenda 21, a non-binding document never ratified by the Senate, that outlines basic principles of sustainable development. (Some conservatives, including Bachmann, believe Agenda 21 is part of a nefarious one-world plot to force humans to return much of rural America to the wildlife.)

Indeed, neither candidate has caught much traction; Parry had just $30,000 cash on hand, according to his July quarterly fundraising report to the Federal Elections Commission—considerably less than Quist's $165,000, though it's worth noting that almost all of Quist's money came from a personal loan.

The clear winner in all of this is, in other words, is Walz, who is looking at an easy re-election campaign in a Republican-leaning district that could very well go to Mitt Romney in November.

Corn on MSNBC: To China, With Love

Thu Jul. 26, 2012 7:43 PM EDT

David Corn joins MSNBC's Reverend Al Sharpton to discuss how he broke the story on Romney's outsourcing history with Bain Capital.

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

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Antonin Scalia Doesn't Think the American Public Can Be Trusted to Watch Televised Supreme Court Proceedings

| Thu Jul. 26, 2012 3:50 PM EDT

C-SPAN's Brian Lamb recently asked Antonin Scalia why he opposed televising Supreme Court proceedings:

I'm against it because I do not believe [...] that the purpose of televising our hearings would be to educate the American people. That's not what it would end up doing. If I really thought it would educate the American people, I would be all for it. If the American people sat down and watched our proceedings gavel to gavel [...] they would be educated. But they wouldn't see all of that.

Your outfit would carry it all, to be sure, but what most of the American people would see would be 30-second, 15-second takeouts from our argument, and those takeouts would not be characteristic of what we do. They would be uncharacteristic.

But now what we see is an article in a newspaper that's out of context with what you say is 

That's fine, but people read that and they say, well it's an article in the newspaper, and the guy may be lying, or he may be misinformed. But somehow when you see it live, an excerpt pulled out of an entire — when you see it live, it has a much greater impact. No, I am sure it will miseducate the American people, not educate.

I don't especially want to pick on Scalia here, since I'll bet that most of the other justices agree with him, but there's an arrogance here that's really pretty stunning. He thinks the American public doesn't deserve televised coverage because the American public might misuse it. Which is to say, they'd use it in ways that Antonin Scalia thinks is unfair.

There's an argument to be made that televising judicial proceedings encourages both judges and lawyers to play to the cameras in ways that are damaging to the cause of justice. I find this only partly compelling in the case of jury trials, and not really compelling at all in appellate courts. Still, it's a legitimate argument. But complaining that the American public won't give your proceedings the deference you think they deserve? That the media might dare to play short snippets of your arguments? Color me very unimpressed.

UPDATE: Last sentence changed to "the media might dare...." Commenters are right about that.

And let me add: it's not that Scalia is wrong. Of course the media will do stupid stuff. Of course they'll play the most incendiary snippets they can find. Of course Super PACs will do the same. And of course most of the public won't ever bother to truly understand all the details of the proceedings.

So what? Nobody thinks that's a good reason to limit access to any other branch of government. Politics is a messy game. It's often unfair. That's life, and in a democracy the public should get to see it unfold regardless of whether you think they're smart enough to appreciate it.

Suppose the Supreme Court were hearing a case in which some government body wanted to restrict public access to hearings. Do you think they'd buy an argument that the limits were reasonable because the public and the media would just abuse full access and couldn't be trusted to treat it with the proper intellectual respect? I don't.

Michigan's "Vaginagate" Bill is Back

| Thu Jul. 26, 2012 3:23 PM EDT

Remember Michigan's omnibus anti-abortion bill? It's baaaack.

On Thursday morning, Michigan's Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing and passed the bill out of committee by a vote of 3 to 1—a crucial step towards a vote in the full Senate. Abortion rights groups complained that the hearing was only announced on Wednesday, giving both legislators and the public little time to prepare. When the bill passed in the House last month, it erupted into an argument about the use of the word "vagina."

The bill requires abortion providers to meet the same standards as "ambulatory surgical centers"—a provision often referred to as "targeted regulation of abortion providers" (or TRAP) laws by abortion rights advocates. That provision alone would likely shut down all abortion providers in Michigan. Other provisions of the bill require a physician to be physically present in order to dispense abortion drugs (which would outlaw the use of telemedicine abortions), and implement new procedures for disposing of fetal remains that require them to be treated like the body of a dead person.

The Center for Reproductive Rights put out a statement shortly after the committee vote calling on the Senate to "end this relentless attack on Michigan women's constitutional rights." The full Senate is not back in session until August 15, so the bill isn't expected to move any further until after that.

Mitt Romney Needs to Start an Apology Tour, Pronto

| Thu Jul. 26, 2012 11:39 AM EDT

I suppose this doesn't matter much in the grand scheme of things, but for a guy supposedly dedicated to shoring up the Anglo-American special relationship, Mitt Romney sure has managed to screw the pooch a remarkable number of times in a mere 24 hours. It's almost Palinesque, in a lower key kind of way. Andrew Sullivan has the details.

Rahm Emanuel Needs to Back Off on Chick-fil-A

| Thu Jul. 26, 2012 11:23 AM EDT

Glenn Greenwald is appalled that Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and Boston mayor Thomas Menino are trying to block Chick-fil-A from opening stores in their cities because the company's CEO opposes gay marriage:

If you support what Emanuel is doing here, then you should be equally supportive of a Mayor in Texas or a Governor in Idaho who blocks businesses from opening if they are run by those who support same-sex marriage — or who oppose American wars, or who support reproductive rights, or who favor single-payer health care, or which donates to LGBT groups and Planned Parenthood, on the ground that such views are offensive to Christian or conservative residents. You can’t cheer when political officials punish the expression of views you dislike and then expect to be taken seriously when you wrap yourself in the banner of free speech in order to protest state punishment of views you like and share. Free speech rights means that government officials are barred from creating lists of approved and disapproved political ideas and then using the power of the state to enforce those preferences.

I'll confess that I can imagine exceptions to this rule. If the Westboro Baptist Church or the KKK wanted to open a hamburger joint in Irvine, my dedication to the First Amendment would be pretty sorely tested. I suppose I'd let them in, but I won't pretend that I might not scrutinize their applications a little more closely than usual, hoping to find a reason to turn them down.

That aside, there's really no excuse for Emanuel's and Menino's actions. If you don't want to eat at Chick-fil-A, don't eat there. If you want to picket them, go ahead. If they violate the law, go after them. But you don't hand out business licenses based on whether you agree with the political views of the executives. Not in America, anyway.

On a related note, what makes this whole situation so weird is that Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy has always opposed gay marriage. He's a devout Southern Baptist, just like his father, who founded the company. The place is closed on Sundays, for crying out loud. There's just nothing new here.