2012 - %3, October

VIDEO: Michael Pollan Talks GMO Labeling

| Thu Oct. 25, 2012 3:13 AM PDT

California's Proposition 37, a ballot initiative that would require the labeling of genetically modified foods, is coming down to the wire as the Nov. 6 election approaches. (I've written about Prop. 37 here, here, and here.) As recently as Sept. 27, Pepperdine University's bi-monthly poll found 3-to-1 support among the state's voters for the proposition. Two weeks later, the lead had shrunk to 48 percent for to 40 percent against. Like the presidential race, the fight over Prop. 37 has tightened dramatically.

Pepperdine University's poll shows a once-wide lead tightening rapidly.  Pepperdine UniversityPepperdine University's poll shows a once-wide lead tightening rapidly. Pepperdine UniversityWhat happened? Most likely, it's the recent multimillion-dollar major television ad blitz, funded by agrichemical giants like Monsanto and processed food makers like Kraft, to whip up opposition to GMO labeling. (Dig into the latest contributions to the effort to defeat Prop. 37 here—on Oct. 19 alone, meat giant Smithfield came through with $454,908.15; Kraft ponied up $1,094,851.75; Pepsi chipped in $429,100.00, etc.)

"This is a great example of the power of advertising," pollster Chris Condon of M4 Strategies, which conducted the survey, told The Los Angeles Times. "A lot of money has been poured into the No side, and the effect has been dramatic."

On Wednesday's Democracy Now show, Amy Goodman hosted a no-holds-barred debate between Prop. 37 spokesperson Stacy Malkan and David Zilberman, professor of agricultural and resource economics at University of California, Berkeley, who opposes the measure. In the debate, Zilberman strains to convince viewers that labeling GMOs in California would mean the starvation of thousands in Africa.

Goodman also interviewed Michael Pollan, who recently argued in The New York Times Magazine that Prop. 37 is a key test for "whether or not there is a 'food movement' in America worthy of the name—that is, an organized force in our politics capable of demanding change in the food system."

In another segment, Pollan holds forth on the food movement's burgeoning political power, agruing that the movement remains in its infancy—he argues that the food movement today is like the environmental movement before the first Earth Day in 1970.

Finally, for one more blast of Prop. 37 commentary as the election hits the stretch run, The New York Times' food guru Mark Bittman recently made the case for it.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The Disposition Matrix

| Wed Oct. 24, 2012 10:54 PM PDT

I don't have time to write a long post about this right this second, but you should read Greg Miller's piece in the Washington Post today about the "disposition matrix," the latest and greatest upgrade of President Obama's kill list:

The matrix contains the names of terrorism suspects arrayed against an accounting of the resources being marshaled to track them down, including sealed indictments and clandestine operations. U.S. officials said the database is designed to go beyond existing kill lists, mapping plans for the “disposition” of suspects beyond the reach of American drones.

Although the matrix is a work in progress, the effort to create it reflects a reality setting in among the nation’s counterterrorism ranks: The United States’ conventional wars are winding down, but the government expects to continue adding names to kill or capture lists for years....That timeline suggests that the United States has reached only the midpoint of what was once known as the global war on terrorism. Targeting lists that were regarded as finite emergency measures after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are now fixtures of the national security apparatus. The rosters expand and contract with the pace of drone strikes but never go to zero.

Doug Mataconis has a good summary of reaction to Miller's piece here. It's worth a read.

Obama: GOP Will Eventually See the Light on Immigration Reform

| Wed Oct. 24, 2012 6:47 PM PDT

On Monday, the Obama campaign agreed to an interview request from the Des Moines Register on the condition that it be off the record. How do we know this? Because shortly after the interview concluded the Register's editor wrote a long blog post complaining about it. He's getting a lot of praise for this, but at the risk of being a little #slatepitch-y, I wonder if he deserves this praise? If he had refused Obama's conditions, he'd then have every right to complain publicly. But once he agrees, doesn't "off the record" sort of imply that you not immediately start bitching about it as soon as the interview is over? I'd certainly be reluctant to talk to someone off the record if I thought it would just make me a target of abuse as soon as the conversation was over.

But I haven't really thought this through. Maybe some big-time journalism ethicist ought to weigh in on this. In any case, shortly after the Register's gripe-fest was posted, the Obama campaign agreed to lift its restriction and allow the Register to post a transcript of the interview. One question they asked was about how Obama could get anything done given the "partisan gridlock that has gripped Washington and Congress," and that's a pretty good question. Obama's answer was basically about the fiscal cliff focusing everyone's attention, but then he moved onto another subject:

The second thing I’m confident we’ll get done next year is immigration reform. And since this is off the record, I will just be very blunt. Should I win a second term, a big reason I will win a second term is because the Republican nominee and the Republican Party have so alienated the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, the Latino community. And this is a relatively new phenomenon. George Bush and Karl Rove were smart enough to understand the changing nature of America. And so I am fairly confident that they’re going to have a deep interest in getting that done. And I want to get it done because it’s the right thing to do and I've cared about this ever since I ran back in 2008.

So....what does the hive mind think about this? It all makes perfect sense to me, but that, if anything, is a pretty good reason it won't happen. This is the tea-party-ized GOP we're talking about, after all, and good sense is not exactly its hallmark.

On the other hand, if Romney loses and the tea party appears to be responsible for yet another Senate debacle, who knows? Maybe their grip on the party really will be loosened. The folks who actually run the Republican Party will put up with losing only just so much, and Obama is certainly right that they have every incentive to stop pissing off the Latino community. I just wonder who will win in a showdown between the true believers and the real bosses.

Yet More Non-Scandal Over Benghazi

| Wed Oct. 24, 2012 12:12 PM PDT

As usual, I'm trying to figure out just where the scandal over Benghazi is supposed to lie. Last night, CBS News breathlessly released three emails sent to the State Department on the day of the attacks. Two of them were reports that the compound in Benghazi was under assault. Here's the third:

And this proves....what? Both Obama and Hillary Clinton talked from the start about the attacks being the work of extremist elements. Susan Rice and Jay Carney later suggested that there had been protests outside the consulate and that a YouTube video had played a role in instigating the attack, but that's because this is what the CIA was telling them at the time. What's more, to this day there's still evidence that the video played a role. (An opportunistic one, probably, but a role nonetheless.) As for the charge that Obama was trying to downplay al-Qaeda involvement, that's not because he was trying to hold onto his reputation as the guy who killed bin Laden. It's because Ansar al-Sharia was a homegrown group with virtually no connection to al-Qaeda central. There really was no al-Qaeda involvement.

This is crazy. Where does this stuff keep coming from? Based on the evidence we know today, the worst you can say about the White House is that they didn't do a very good job of coordinating the messages being delivered to the public by all the various agencies. Beyond that, it took about a week for everyone to get on the same page because that's how long it took before the intelligence community had a good handle on what actually happened. There's just no scandal here.

Frontline: Did the Climate Deniers Win?

| Wed Oct. 24, 2012 11:14 AM PDT

On Tuesday Night, PBS's Frontline aired an hour-long special on the climate saga over the past four years—focused centrally on the skeptics themselves, whom PBS's John Hockenberry depicts as victorious in stopping any policy action. Touring Heartland Institute conferences, hearing plentiful sound bites from the Competitive Enterprise Institute's Myron Ebell, we learn that these folks are basically high-fiving right now as the presidential campaigns studiously ignore the climate issue. And yes, they really do think the science is on their side, and that they're winning on the intellectual merits.

Not that Hockenberry agrees—one of the gems of "Climate of Doubt" is a deft explanation of how climate skeptics come up with the bizarre assertion that the planet hasn't been warming lately. As NASA's Gavin Schmidt nicely explains to Hockenberry, all you have to do is go back over the noisy temperature record and "pick the endpoints" of your analysis—and you can promptly uncover numerous temporary cooling periods. "But actually, the whole thing has been moving up," Schmidt explains—warming over the course of many decades.

Hockenberry then steps in with a wonderful analogy: Skeptics, he explains, are "going down the up escalator."  Yup, that's right: The "very factual" arguments of climate deniers—as one North Carolina state legislator captured in the program puts it—really are that weak.

Mitt Romney, America's Pragmatist

| Wed Oct. 24, 2012 10:34 AM PDT

Paul Waldman asks:

In the entire history of the United States of America, from George Washington's election in 1789 on down, has there been a single candidate as unmoored from ideological principle or belief as Mitt Romney?

Beats me. I'm not enough of a historian to know. But it's worth noting that this isn't necessarily a knock on Romney. Liberals have been banging away on Multiple Choice Mitt for a long time, but the fact is that lots of voters probably aren't bothered by this. They like the idea of a president who's pragmatic and non-ideological, willing to change his mind to fit changing circumstances instead of fitting everything into a liberal or conservative straitjacket.

I'm not saying this is what Romney actually is. I'm just saying that describing him as "unmoored" might not be nearly the insult we think it is.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

It Sure Doesn't Look to Me Like We're Winning in Afghanistan

| Wed Oct. 24, 2012 10:14 AM PDT

Stewart Upton pens a remarkably unpersuasive argument in Foreign Policy today that things are actually going pretty well in Afghanistan:

We're Winning in Afghanistan: Why hasn't the media noticed?

....We are reaching the point in which the misperception being created by the media is undermining our ability to achieve their own definition of success in Afghanistan: denying al Qaeda a safe haven via a strengthened Afghan security force that is capable of taking over lead responsibility in the future.

Have insider attacks and sensational Taliban attacks taken place? Yes, and we are accountable for that. But there is something to the comments made by senior officials that the sensational attacks are reflective of a desperate insurgency. If you were a Taliban commander losing an insurgency for the past couple of years since the surge, wouldn't you feel the need to conduct sensational attacks to give the perception your narrative is winning out and to reassure your followers?

In the space of two paragraphs, Upton hauls out two of the hoariest old tropes of the Afghanistan apologists: (1) media pessimism is undermining us, and (2) all those Taliban attacks are just a sign of desperation. Then there's this:

The results of the surge — specifically, the growth of the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF) in both size and capabilities — has made it possible for the coalition to transition to what we call a Security Force Assistance mode of operations....Should Afghans see confidence and esprit de corps in the ANSF, we could see something similar to the "Anbar Awakening" in Iraq.

That confidence is starting to build....This past week all of the casualties for our area of operations were members of the ANSF. Don't underestimate ANSF's bravery or their willingness to put their lives on the line for their country because they are doing it every single day. They are not afraid of the Taliban, and they move quickly to the sound of the gun.

I don't know how things are really going in Afghanistan. Hell, maybe Upton is right. And the truth is that I'm willing to let them stick to their current 2014 timetable. It's probably the best chance we have of a non-catastrophic endgame. Nonetheless, Upton's happy talk rings pretty hollow when ISAF's own figures show that Taliban attacks remain at far higher levels than they were in 2008 and 2009, before the surge started. I don't see a lot of reason for optimism in the chart below.

Allred's October Surprise Source Tried to Tell Romney Story in Movie

| Wed Oct. 24, 2012 9:28 AM PDT
Gloria Allred.

Is this the October Surprise of 2012? Attorney Gloria Allred appeared in a Canton, Massachusetts, court today to petition a judge to unseal records in the decades-old divorce case of Tom Stemberg, the founder of Staples. Allred was there with Stemberg's ex-wife, Maureen Sullivan Stemberg, and what the two want made public is Mitt Romney's testimony from the nasty divorce trial. Romney, as he often boasts, helped Stemberg create Staples when he Romney was running Bain Capital, and TMZ has reported that anonymous sources say that Romney, in that testimony, lowballed the value of Staples stock. In court, Allred noted that she has a copy of Romney's testimony, but she has yet to say what's in it. (The Boston Globe is also asking the court to lift the gag order that was placed on the parties to the divorce.) The judge, according to the live-tweeting of David Bernstein, a reporter for the Boston Phoenix, recessed the hearing until tomorrow. Atypically, Allred left the courthouse without saying much.

It seems that Maureen Sullivan Stemberg has been trying to get her story told—including the Romney angle—for several years. Four years ago, Dragon-Lion Media, a movie production company based outside of Los Angeles, announced it was making a documentary about her, with her cooperation. It issued a press release noting that this "first-time tell all tale of the interweaving relationships and strange bedfellow[s]" in her life would feature Romney, without specifying what role he would play. But Edmund Druilhet, the founder and CEO of Dragon-Lion Media, tells Mother Jones that Stemberg had discussed with him her belief that Romney had testified falsely to help Tom Stemberg during the trial. "She told me all about that," he says. And Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti, who was tapped to be the writer on the documentary, says that when she was working with Maureen Sullivan Stemberg she read the Romney testimony and that Romney on the stand said that Staples at that time was just "a dream," and that stock in the company was not worth much. "That really stood out to me," Ranson-Polizzotti recalls. Maureen, according to Ranson-Polizzotti, firmly believed that Romney had lied on the stand to benefit her ex-husband.

The press release indicated Maureen Sullivan Stemberg was bitter about her divorce settlement, noting the film would expose the "injustice" of the Massachusetts court system.

Here's the press release:

DRAGON-LION MEDIA's Edmund Druilhet has just announced the production of "The Maureen Sullivan Stemberg Story: A Portrait In Courage", a true-life documentary film based on factual events from her childhood up to today. Maureen the first wife and inspiration for Staples which Tom Stemberg founded in 1985. Prior to 1985 he was out of work for almost three years. Tom Stemberg, served as CEO and drove the company through its growth from infancy to what is now a worldwide superstore based on the idea of a home-office. Maureen Sullivan Stemberg ran her own very successful interior design business from just such a home-office. She also designed Trump Penthouses at the Plaza. Over the past 20 years, Maureen Sullivan Stemberg has proven to be one of the most talented Interior designers in the industry. She has owned and operated successful design firms in both Boston and palm beach, taking on upscale clients with the most discriminating taste. "Her ability to transform any room into a timeless masterpiece has boosted her reputation as a visionary with inpeccable attention to detail" —Traditional Homes Magazine 1985.

In Sullivan Stemberg's own words: "I am so proud to say I was born in South Boston, came home to live with my siblings and parents in a two bedroom project. My family, valued cultural learning and discussed politics at the breakfast table. It was reading, writing and the knowledge of the world around me -- a greater knowledge than my own backyard was instilled in me from a very early age and I've learned to carry that torch with me wherever I have gone since then: shining my flashlight in hidden corners, highlighting those things that I feel require some attention on my part, be it the arts, child abuse and all the way to certain medical issues that are under-reported. I was taught to speak-up, and I do, and I am proud of my parents for teaching me this and proud of my own ability now to stand up for what I believe in. This is why I am humbled, grateful and pleased to have my story be told in this film documentary."

Maureen Sullivan Stemberg will provide an in-depth account in this first-time tell all tale of the interweaving relationships and strange bedfellow that business has made in her life. Such luminaries include former Governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney - who was the former Republican nominee in the 2008 Presidential campaign, as well as one of the first major investors for Staples while he was employed by Bain Capital, Boston, MA. This story will include the injustice of the Mass. Probate Justice system. Other heavy hitting names have yet to be released in this as of yet untold story including Dola Davis Hamilton Stemberg.

The documentary will feature Ms. Stemberg, interior designer and social advocate, whose design work has been featured in such places as House and Garden, House Beautiful, and The New York Times as well as Who's Who in Interior Design: One Hundred Top Designers (published by Rizzoli), among others. Notably, Ms. Sullivan Stemberg was selected by Who's Who Woman of Distinction for 2006, featured for her design work, and most notably for her charitable social endeavors, and most importantly to her, her work with abused children. Sullivan Stemberg is also recognized for her charitable work and advocacy for people with autoimmune diseases and conditions.

The documentary will also feature writer Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti who will be interviewing various people involved throughout her life, past and present. Anyone discussed in the documentary will be contacted for their response.

The documentary is to be sourced to Lifetime Television as well as broadcasting companies throughout the United States, Europe, and worldwide.

Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti has been named as the writer and editor of the documentary. Ranson-Polizzotti is a full-member of the national PEN America Foundation.

Clearly, Maureen Sullivan Stemberg has been seeking attention for a while. Though the movie never went into production, she may now receive an audience with this attempt to cast Romney in a starring role.

Richard Mourdock, Under Fire for Rape Comments, Got $5,000 from Paul Ryan's PAC

| Wed Oct. 24, 2012 9:21 AM PDT
Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, left, with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Richard Mourdock, who's running for US Senate in Indiana, is only the latest Republican to court controversy with comments about rape and pregnancy. On Tuesday night Mourdock voiced his opposition to abortion even in cases of rapes, saying that a pregnancy resulting from rape is "something God intended to happen."

Mitt Romney has already distanced himself from Mourdock's rape comment. "We disagree on the policy regarding exceptions for rape and incest but still support him," Romney's campaign said in a statement. However, Mourdock's Senate campaign has benefited from the largesse of Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Ryan's leadership political action committee, Prosperity PAC, gave $5,000 to Mourdock's campaign during the 2012 election cycle.

Mourdock has received tens of thousands of dollars more from other lawmakers' leadership PACs. Mourdock backers include Sens. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), John Barasso (R-Wyo.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who is a top Romney campaign adviser.

Before his rape comments, Mourdock enjoyed a modest lead in his Senate race over Democratic congressman Joe Donnelly, according to RealClearPolitics.

Correction: The headline of this post initially misspelled Mourdock's name.

Chart of the Day: Cherry Picking in the Medicare Market

| Wed Oct. 24, 2012 9:18 AM PDT

Supporters of plans to voucherize Medicare often point to Medicare Advantage as a model. MA providers bid for Medicare contracts and are typically paid a set amount for each beneficiary they sign up. In theory, because MA providers compete against each other (and against traditional Medicare), they have an incentive to provide services more efficiently, offering seniors greater benefits and better care per dollar spent.

That's debatable, but Austin Frakt points us to a new study that makes it an even more dubious claim. The chart on the right is the key evidence, and it requires a bit of explanation. For each year since 1999, it shows the average cost of patients who switch in and out of Medicare Advantage. In 1999, for example, Medicare patients who switched in to MA plans had average costs (in the previous six months) that were 80% of the average. Patients who switched out of MA plans had average costs (in the subsequent six months) that were 40% higher than average.

This same dynamic has held year after year. What it means is that, somehow, MA plans find ways to attract patients with low costs and dump patients with high costs. In other words, to the extent they provide better services for lower costs, they do it by cherry picking the healthiest patients and leaving the sickest patients for traditional Medicare.

If we switch to a fully voucherized Medicare system, as Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan would like, this would almost certainly become worse. Private plans, it turns out, aren't really any more efficient than traditional Medicare, and would probably end up competing on the basis of ever more brutal ways of making their plans attractive to the healthy and unbearable to the sick. This does not strike me as a very appealing model.