2012 - %3, November

Everyone Hates the Idea of Raising the Medicare Age

| Wed Nov. 28, 2012 11:27 AM EST

One of the favorite entitlement-reforming proposals among both Republicans and Beltway centrists is raising the Social Security retirement age. It's a bad idea. Another favorite proposal is raising the Medicare eligibility age. This is also a bad idea, though for different reasons.

But it's more than a bad idea. It's also massively unpopular, as a recent ABC/Washington Post poll shows. It's not just unpopular among Democrats, it's also wildly unpopular among independents and even among Republicans. This has the potential of becoming a zombie idea every bit as bad as raising the Social Security age, and it really needs to be stopped in its tracks. It's unfair to the poor, it wouldn't save much money, and everyone hates the idea. It should be deep-sixed before it ever has a chance to catch on.

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Cost of Going Solar Takes a Nosedive

| Wed Nov. 28, 2012 10:22 AM EST

A bit of good news for fans of renewable energy: Driven by a steady decline in the cost of manufacturing solar panels, the cost of going solar in your home or business is the lowest its ever been, according to a new analysis of project data by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Total installation prices fell 11-14 percent from 2010 to 2011, depending on size, continuing the downward trend of the last decade, which analysts predict will carry forward into 2012:

Courtesy Lawrence Berkeley National LaboratoryCourtesy Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

The study looked at some 150,000 systems installed since 1998 in search of concrete proof to bolster the "quite a bit of anecdotal evidence along the way that prices were falling," said author Galen Barbose. Tech advances and exploding demand have pushed down the cost of the solar modules themselves, the main factor in the overall drop. But Barbose cautioned that that drop could level out if prices for the ancillary aspects of installing solar stay high relative to the cost of the physical panels. That includes permit fees, installation labor, power inverters, and marketing and overhead costs for installation companies.

"There are limits to how much further module prices can drop," he said, and pointed to Germany as an example of a place where hardware costs are comparable to the US, but easier and cheaper permitting practices cut the overall cost for household installations nearly in half. "'Soft' costs could come down significantly in the US, but to really make an impact on a national scale there will need to be efforts on the federal level to spur changes that aren't happening locally."

In other words, solar is in the same boat as wind: Big-time growth will be a pipe dream until the feds can chart a detailed course for renewables. 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 28, 2012

Wed Nov. 28, 2012 10:02 AM EST

Soldiers with Alpha Battery, 2nd Battalion, 32 Field Artillery, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, observe the impact of artillery rounds fired from an Afghan D-30 howitzer during partnered training in eastern Afghanistan, Nov. 21, 2012. U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Nicolas Morales.

Obama: Whistleblowers' New BFF

| Wed Nov. 28, 2012 7:56 AM EST

When it comes to protecting whistleblowers, President Obama's track record has been fairly bleak. In his first term, he trampled over them on his quest to aggressively prosecute government leakers. But Obama's legacy on the issue may have changed on Tuesday when he signed a law called the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, a far-reaching bill that affords federal whistleblowers a host of new safeguards.  

This hard-fought law (activists have been working to get it passed for more than a decade) upgrades the existing protections for federal employees who witness waste, fraud, or abuse within the federal government.

Specifically, the law lowers the standard of proof whistleblowers must provide in order to receive protection and closes judicially-created loopholes that were added to the original 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act. It also makes it easier for the Office of Special Counsel, the federal government's whistleblower protection agency, to discipline employers or agencies who retaliate, and it provides compensatory damages to certain whistleblowers who have successful cases. (This compensation is different than the monetary awards available to certain whistleblowers in the private sector. The Securities and Exchange Commission, which received 3,000 tips last yearrewards private sector whistleblowers who expose financial corruption, and whistleblowers who bring Qui Tam cases are also eligible for compensation under the False Claims Act.)

The Obama administration has angered whistleblower advocates in the past for being particularly tough on whistleblowers and prosecuting them under the Espionage Act. But, with the passage of the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, whistleblower advocates seems to think the administration has turned over a new leaf. According to the Government Accountability Project (GAP), Obama restored a large portion of the bill that protects national security whistleblowers after the House gutted it via a presidential directive. 

"Most Presidents have offered lip service for whistleblower rights, but President Obama fought to give them more teeth," Tom Devine, legal director of GAP said in a statement

Idaho Lawmaker Promotes Bold New Plan to Elect Romney

| Wed Nov. 28, 2012 6:03 AM EST

Idaho state Sen. Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll (R) has found a daring plan to reverse the results of the November election and turn the keys to the Oval Office over to Mitt Romney: Boycott the Electoral College. Last Monday, Nuxoll, a Republican, blasted out a link on her Twitter feed to a new proposal from Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips, explaining that if 17 Romney states rejected the Electoral College, they could throw the outcome of the election to the GOP-controlled House of Representatives. As Phillips put it, referring to episodes in which Democratic lawmakers crossed state lines to avoid controversial votes, "Democrats have actually set this precedent of refusing to participate to deny Republicans a quorum. They did this in Wisconsin and in Texas. Why can't we do this with the Electoral College?"

So is this possible? Has the key to a Romney presidency been hiding in plain sight all along? 

No.

Betsy Russell of the Spokane Spokesman-Review burst conservatives' bubble, and snagged the quotes of the year:

Constitutional scholar David Adler, director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University, said the plan is not "totally constitutional," as touted in the article, but is instead "a radical, revolutionary proposal that has no basis in federal law or the architecture of the Constitution."

Adler called it "really a strange and bizarre fantasy."

Nuxoll said, "Well, I guess that's one lawyer."

Annnnnd scene.

Are We Heading Toward Peak Fertilizer?

| Wed Nov. 28, 2012 6:03 AM EST

You've heard of peak oil—the idea that the globe's easy-to-get-to petroleum reserves are largely cashed, and most of what's left is the hard stuff, buried in deep-sea deposits or tar sands. But what about peak phosphorus and potassium? These elements form two-thirds of the holy agricultural triumvirate of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (also known as NPK, from their respective markers in the periodic table). These nutrients, which are essential for plants to grow, are extracted from soil every time we harvest crops, and have to be replaced if farmland is to remain productive.

For most of agricultural history, successful farming has been about figuring out how to recycle these elements (although no one had identified them until the 19th century). That meant returning food waste, animal waste, and in some cases, human waste to the soil. Early in the 20th century, we learned to mass produce N, P, and K—giving rise to the modern concept of fertilizer, and what's now known as industrial agriculture.

The N in NPK, nitrogen, can literally be synthesized from thin air, through a process developed in the early 20th century by the German chemist Fritz Haber. Our reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer (as its known) carries its own vast array of problems—not least of which that making it requires an enormous amount of fossil energy. (I examined the dilemmas of synthetic N in a 2011 series at Grist.) But phosphorus and potassium cannot be synthesized—they're found in significant amounts only in a few large deposits scattered across the planet, in the form, respectively, of phosphate rock and potash. After less than a century of industrial ag, we're starting to burn through them. In a column in the November 14 Nature, the legendary investor Jeremy Grantham lays out why that's a problem:

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Great: Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria on Your Pork Chop

| Wed Nov. 28, 2012 6:03 AM EST

It's no secret that chowing down on raw pork is probably not the best call, a point emphasized by the USDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A new study by Consumer Reports drives this lesson home with sickening clarity: After testing 198 samples of raw grocery store pork loins and ground pork, it found that a full 69 percent of the samples harbored Yersinia enterocolitica, bacteria that can cause abdominal pain, diarrhea, and fever for up to 3 weeks. Salmonella, staphylococcus aureus, and listeria, all potentially sickness inducing, also appeared in 3 to 7 percent of the samples. These bacteria would hypothetically be killed off if the pork is thoroughly cooked, but there's still the potential of spreading the bacteria while slaughtering, processing, and handling the raw meat.

Though this is within the realm of what the USDA considers safe (and inspectors don't test for Yersinia because illness from it is rare, though cases of yersiniosis are thought to be under reported), Consumer Reports' more worrisome finding was that much of this bacteria was resistant to common antibiotics. Over 90 percent of the Yersinia-infected samples, when exposed to antibiotics normally effective against this bacteria, proved resistant to one or more antibiotic, and over 50 percent to two or three antibiotics. Of the 14 samples that revealed staph, 13 of them were resistant to at least one antibiotic, and of the 8 samples with salmonella, 3 were resistant to five antibiotics. The discovery adds to a growing body of evidence that the low-dose antibiotics fed to farm animals for growth are breeding a class of resistant mutant bugs more slippery and dangerous than their progenitors.

Quick Reads: "What's a Dog For?" by John Homans

| Wed Nov. 28, 2012 6:03 AM EST

What's a Dog For?

By John Homans

PENGUIN PRESS

The spayed and shampooed apartment-dwelling puppy has come a long way from its wolf ancestors. John Homans, a dog lover and executive editor of New York magazine, retraces that journey from Darwin's study of canine emotions to puppy mills to a canine-science conclave in Vienna. The book covers doggie consciousness and evolution, but Homans hits his stride on topics like the red-state (pro)/blue-state (con) divide over euthanasia and the aristocratic origins of canine pedigree. Sprinkled throughout are charming anecdotes that will delight dog lovers and even likely appeal to die-hard cat people.

This review originally appeared in our November/December issue of Mother Jones.

Dick Durbin Wants to Make a Deal on Social Security

| Tue Nov. 27, 2012 9:29 PM EST

I'm a big fat granny-hating sellout, which probably explains why I think a deal to make Social Security solvent would be a good idea. But Dick Durbin is a liberal hero, and guess what? He wants to make a deal too:

I believe we need a new bipartisan commission to recommend a plan to keep Social Security solvent for the next 75 years. The commission should have a reasonable amount of time — eight months to a year — to present a plan to Congress. Congress should vote on the commission’s plan and any other bipartisan plan that makes Social Security solvent for 75 years. Whatever plans wins the most votes — beyond the 60 votes you need to pass anything of significance in the Senate — is the plan that ought to move forward.

Fine. But it's worth answering a few questions I've gotten about this. First question: I've suggested that a successful deal would take Social Security off the table for decades. But didn't the Greenspan Commission think they'd taken Social Security off the table forever back in 1983? Now it's popped back up. What's the deal?

Answer: That was never their intent. The commission's plan was to make Social Security solvent over 75 years by building up a surplus through 2020 and then using the surplus to pay off the retiring baby boomers through 2060. After the surplus had been used up, however, they knew perfectly well that Social Security would be insolvent again. In fact, on an ongoing basis, their estimate of Social Security's shortfall is pretty similar to our current estimate, as the charts below show:

Thirty years have passed since the Greenspan Commission's report, and our job now is to finish their unfinished business by figuring out how to make Social Security solvent after the surplus is exhausted. If we do this without trust fund gimmickry, it really will make the system fully funded more or less permanently.

Second question: Why bother with this now? At worst, the trust fund surplus will run out around 2040 or so. Why not wait and see how things work out?

Actually, I'm fine with that. Another ten years won't do any harm, and we'll have a better picture of where the economy is headed by then. Still, if we start earlier, it allows us to phase in changes more slowly, and I think there really is a benefit to this. It makes the impact on both current workers and current retirees smaller, and it allows everyone to plan better.

Third question: Why are people like me talking about a compromise approach that includes both tax increases and benefit cuts? Social Security isn't a very generous program to begin with. If it needs fixing, it should be done solely through tax increases.

That's a reasonable view, but I don't think it's a realistic one. I believe Social Security should be broadly financed, so I don't favor closing its shortfall with a whopping big tax increase on the rich. And benefits are scheduled to increase over the years, so what we're talking about here is a smaller increase, not a cut in absolute terms. A blended approach—say, two dollars of revenue increases for each dollar of benefit cuts—that gradually increased payments to low earners, reduced payments to higher earners, and increased taxes broadly, would be pretty tolerable if it were phased in over 20 or 30 years.

Fourth question: Isn't this just pie in the sky? Yes, it absolutely is. Even squishy sellouts like me are only in favor of a deal that includes both small revenue increases as well as small cuts in future benefit growth. However, there's approximately zero chance of Republicans agreeing to any revenue increases, which means no deal is really on the horizon.

And let's make this more specific. Right now, there's a proposal on the table to change Social Security's inflation indexing formula in a way that would slow the growth of future benefits. This is a defensible idea (though see Dean Baker for a dissenting view), but under no circumstances should it ever be passed on a standalone basis. It should only be passed, if at all, if it's accompanied by a revenue increase that's at least as large.

That said, a compromise deal would shore up a key program of the liberal project and put an end to scary stories about how Social Security won't be around for today's younger workers. I'm in favor of young people having confidence in liberal programs, and that's why I think a deal would be good for us lefties. The only problem is finding enough Republicans who agree.

Corn on MSNBC: Are Republicans More Scared of the Tea Party or Grover Norquist?

Tue Nov. 27, 2012 8:19 PM EST

The President may have won an election, but he has another big fight with Republicans over the fiscal cliff. DC bureau chief David Corn talks to MSNBC's Martin Bashir about what strategies both sides may use in this debate. Are Republicans really going to abandon Grover Norquist's pledge not to raise taxes

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