It's official. Or sort of. Mitt Romney appears to be finishing the presidential race with 47 percent of the popular vote. According to the National Popular Vote Tracker, Romney's take of the nationwide vote, which is still being tallied in several states, now stands at 47.43 percent. Rounding down, that's the magic number. And given that the states that have not finalized their vote count include California and New York, where Obama won big, it's likely Romney's percentage will tick down a bit. With Obama bagging 50.86 percent, the history books will record the contest as a 51-47 percent contest.

Romney was stuck at 47 percent even within twelve swing states, where he drew 47.32 percent of the cumulative vote. In the non-swing states, he pocketed 47.49 percent. This is highly convenient. Anytime the results of this presidential race are referenced, there will be a reminder of Romney's now infamous 47 percent rant.

In the aftermath of the election, numerous politicos—and strangers on the street—have told me they consider the revelation of the 47 percent video to have been the game-changer. Various post-mortems have cited Romney aides saying the same. There is, of course, no way to know what might have transpired had the video not roiled Romney's campaign for nearly two weeks during the crucial general-election period, where every single day counts. The video certainly reinforced the narrative that Romney's critics—including the Obama campaign—had been pushing: He was a 1-percenter who could not relate to middle- and working-class Americans confronting serious economic challenges and troubles. But the 47 percent story also caused Romney another problem; it stole time.

Money is not necessarily the most precious resource for a political campaign; it is time. Money can always be raised. Time cannot. After the political conventions, Romney had nine weeks to execute his strategy for winning the presidency. As campaigns do, his crew mapped out how it would use those weeks: when it would run ads, when it would stress particular messages, when it would focus on this or that state. The dust-up created by the 47 percent video lasted nearly a fortnight, throwing sand into Romney's gears during that crucial period. A week and a half after Mother Jones broke the story, a top executive at a broadcast news outlet sent me an email: "Used your video tonight (not too many stories are still going 10 days strong)." The 47 percent video had become one of the longest-running dramas of the 2012 campaign.

During those days, Romney was knocked off his already not-too-sure footing—which he wouldn't regain until the first debate, thanks to President Obama's limp performance. By then, the Obama campaign and its allies were using the 47 percent video in a series of ads that reinforced its initial impact on the race. On election night, an Obama adviser told me that the campaign did not rush out 47 percent ads right after the video emerged because in focus groups, undecided voters were bringing up Romney's remarks without prompting. His 47 percent comments had penetrated the voting public so fast and so far that the campaign had no cause at first to spend money to remind voters.

Romney was the 47 percent man. And that's how he is ending up.

In a private post-election call with funders that was revealed by the New York Times, Romney explained his loss by saying that Obama had showered key parts of his coalition with "gifts," by which he meant federal support for college loans, a health care law that allows children to remain on their parents' policies, and an executive order that permits the children of undocumented residents to remain in the United States. With those comments—something of a sequel to his 47 percent tirade—Romney was failing to take personal responsibility, holding the government accountable for what happened to him, and portraying himself a victim. Now where have we heard that before?

Members of the Fix the Debt coalition ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange

Corporate chief executives who get involved in politics often invoke their business bona fides as a superior guide to fixing the nation's problems. The CEO's behind the latest "Fix the Debt" campaign are no exception. The top dogs at more than 90 American corporations—ranging from Honeywell's David Cote to Loews' James Tisch— have signed on to the coalition to press Congress to rein in federal spending, particularly on entitlements, and to balance the nation's books. The anti-debt coalition would like to see big cuts in Social Security benefits and an increase in the retirement age as a "fix" for the program.

Of course, American political leaders should always take the advice of rich businessmen with a grain of salt (and here they are almost uniformly men), especially when the remedy also includes big corporate tax cuts, as the "Fix the Debt" coalition is advocating for. But also, in this case, it's fairly clear that there's nothing about being a CEO that makes one especially well-equipped to dictate massive changes to the nation's collective retirement plan. Indeed, the CEO's behind the "Fix the Debt" coalition come from companies with rather dismal records of managing their own retirement plans.

Consider this: According to a new report from the Institute of Policy Studies, the 71 publicly held firms in the coalition have "a combined deficit of more than $100 billion in their employee pension funds." As with Social Security, these companies' retirement plans don't have enough money in them to pay out the promised benefits to the company workers. That's not because the companies don't (or didn't) have the cash. On the contrary.

One of the largest companies participating in the "Fix the Debt" campaign is GE, which in the 1980s had a $24 billion pension fund surplus. But GE and other big companies like it found ways to siphon money out of the fund to use for other things, like restructuring deals. GE also failed to contribute any money to the fund for 24 years. By 2009, GE's pension fund had a $22 billion deficit. Rather than draw on some of its cash reserves—some $85 billion currently on hand—GE last year decided to simply close the fund to new participants, forcing them into the sub-par 401(K) system.

Meanwhile, GE's CEO, Jeffery Immelt, hasn't skimped on his own retirement funds. He has a pension worth more than $47 million, plus another $5.3 million in deferred compensation coming his way, a nest egg that would translate into a monthly pension payment of about $292,000 for the rest of his retired life, according to IPS. By way of comparison, the average monthly Social Security check is $1,237.

IPS also includes in its report some staggering statistics about the state of the private sector's retirement planning that suggest some of these companies' retirement policies are one reason American workers are so reliant on the very safety net that the "Fix the Debt"ers want to slash. Here are a few:

  • Percentage of Fortune 100 firms offering traditional pensions to employees in 1980: 89
  • Percentage of Fortune 100 firms offering traditional pension for employees in 2012: 11
  • Percentage of Fortune 100 firms operating such plans for CEO and other executives: 79
  • Percentage of private sector workers having traditional pension at work in 1980: 83%
  • Percentage of private sector workers having traditional pension at work in 2011: 15%
  • Percentage of current full-time American workers in their 50s that have neither 401(K) nor traditional retirement plan at work: 44%
  • Percentage of Americans with no retirement assets of any kind: 34%
  • Estimated amount of retirement savings necessary (beyond Social Security) to provide $25,000 in annual income during retirement years: $500,000

The marine snail Limacina helicina antarctica showing acute levels of shell dissolution in Southern Ocean where deep-water upwelling and ocean acidification combined to reduce aragonite saturation in surface waters. This specimen was Image provided by Nina Bednarsek and Bernard LézéThe marine snail Limacina helicina antarctica showing acute levels of shell dissolution in Southern Ocean where deep-water upwelling and ocean acidification combined to reduce aragonite saturation in surface waters. This specimen was alive at capture: Image provided by Nina Bednarsek and Bernard Lézé

A new paper in Nature Geoscience reports the first evidence of marine animals dissolving in acidified waters off Antarctica. The pteropods—also called marine snails or sea butterflies—were found in waters 656 feet (200 meters) deep, alive but suffering severe shell damage from a combination of natural upwelling and human-caused ocean acidification.

Natural upwelling is triggered by strong winds that drive deep cold water from the bottom to the surface. We know that many upwelled waters are corrosive to animals like sea butterflies which use aragonite to build shells. But the saturation horizon for aragonite in the Southern Ocean typically occurs at around 3,280 feet (1000 meters) deep—far below where Limacina helicina antarctica live. So what happened to hoist that horizon line 2,625 feet (800 meters) closer to the surface?

Live Limacina helicina antarctica with intact shell: Russ Hopcroft, University of Alaska, Fairbanks via NOAA Ocean ExplorerLive Limacina helicina antarctica with intact shell and its wing-like "butterfly" parapodium trailing behind: Russ Hopcroft, University of Alaska, Fairbanks via NOAA Ocean Explorer

"Current predictions are for the saturation horizon for aragonite to reach the upper surface layers of the Southern Ocean by 2050 in winter and by 2100 year round," says co-author Dorothee Bakker from the University of East Anglia.

The answer is ocean acidification (OA)—the result of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning leaching from the atmosphere into the ocean and changing its pH. (I wrote more about that here and here and here, and about how ocean chemistry is measured in my "Arctic Ocean Diaries" here.)

Numerous lab experiments have demonstrated that OA has the potential to damage marine organisms who make shells or skeletons. This paper reports the first evidence that OA is already damaging marine life in the Southern Ocean. 

And not just any marine life. Marine snails are a vital part of the food web of Antarctic waters, supporting zooplankton, fish, birds, marine mammals, and us. (Read Tom Philpott's piece on the correlation between OA and human food here.)

Marine snails are also important players in the Southern Ocean's carbon cycle—the shuttling of carbon between atmosphere and ocean. In that work they've mitigated a lot of our C02 emissions. Too many for their own good, apparently.

Co-author and science cruise leader, Geraint Tarling from the British Antarctic Survey, says:

Although the upwelling sites are natural phenomena that occur throughout the Southern Ocean, instances where they bring the 'saturation horizon' above 200m will become more frequent as ocean acidification intensifies in the coming years. The tiny snails do not necessarily die as a result of their shells dissolving, however it may increase their vulnerability to predation and infection consequently having an impact to other parts of the food web.

 The paper:

A Chinese construction worker walks past the headquarters of China National Offshore Oil Corporation in Beijing.

China is ratcheting up its fracking ambitions with virtually no regard for groundwater protection or other environmental safety measures, according to a new investigation by the independent publication Caixin. The report points to an October 24 white paper on energy development released by China's top cabinet which "calls for ramping up the industry and pumping 6.5 billion cubic meters of natural gas from underground shale formations by 2015."

"The model for China's anticipated success is the US shale gas sector," the article states. "Geologists estimate the nation's recoverable reserves at about 25 trillion cubic meters, on par with the United States."

Fracking has particular appeal in China because it provides an alternative to burning coal, which currently supplies about 70 percent of the nation's consumed energy. Because natural gas can generate electricity at half the greenhouse gas emissions of coal, some see it as a way to reduce China's carbon footprint.

But fracking isn't without environmental problems, as I and my colleagues at Mother Jones have reported before. And Caixin's review of government documents as well as interviews with industry sources, government officials, and environmental advocates reveal that fracking's risks have not come under public scrutiny the way they have in the US, "much less addressed by the [Chinese] government or controlled via environmental laws."

If fracking takes off in China as planned, it will likely exacerbate the nation's existing water crisis. "Most of the nation's shale gas lies in areas plagued by water shortages," the report says. With about 20 percent of the world's population and only 6 percent of the world's water resources, China is one of the least water-secure countries in the world. Its water shortages are made worse by pollution: According to the Ministry of Water Resources about 40 percent of China's rivers were so polluted they were deemed unfit for drinking, while about 300 million rural residents lack access to safe drinking water each year.

In order to reach the government's annual shale gas production goal of 6.5 billion cubic meters by 2015, as many as 1,380 wells will need to be drilled across the country, requiring up to 13.8 million cubic meters of water, an industry source told Caixin. China's industrial sector already consumes about 35 billion cubic meters of water a year. That amount of water would fill about 14 million Olympic-size swimming pools.

There's also serious risk of water contamination, as seen in the US fracking experience. Multiple studies in recent years including those by the EPA, Pennsylvania, and Duke University have concluded that shale gas drilling releases methane which can contaminate nearby water supplies. A 2009 ProPublica investigation found methane contamination from fracking was widespread in Colorado, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. But as Caixin reports, "there would be no legal reason to limit methane emissions at a shale gas well because China's pollution standards do not cover methane." One Ministry of Environmental Protection source told the publication that writing a new standard into law would take three years, "which helps explain why the State Council's decision to fast-track the nation's fledgling shale gas industry is making a lot of people nervous."

China's main energy and economic planning agencies seem to view fracking's environmental risks as minimal or inflated.

Groundwater in 57 percent of China's 660 cities have already been significantly polluted, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

An unidentified source at China's Ministry of Land Resources told Caixin that as shale gas development accelerates the government will likely introduce specific environmental policies to address fracking, such as groundwater protection. But these are not likely to be legally binding, an industry source told the publication.

Perhaps a bigger concern is that China's main energy and economic planning agencies, including the Ministry of Land Resources, seem to view fracking's environmental risks as minimal or inflated:

The MLR geological department source said, for example, that China's shale gas is at least 3,000 meters and sometimes 4,000 meters underground—significantly deeper than aquifers, and separated from underground water by impermeable rock.

Other industry sources argue that fracking fluids, which are mainly comprised of water and sand, break down naturally over a short time. And chemical additives make up less than 0.5 percent of what's injected, they say.

Similarly upbeat arguments against environmental fretting can be found in the government's development plan for the period ending in 2015. It was jointly issued by four agencies including the National Development and Reform Commission and National Energy Bureau.

Meanwhile, Caixin reported that one test fracking operation in Shaanxi Province—a major coal region in China's dry North—recently "went awry, forcing local officials to temporarily cut a nearby city's water supply."

Commercial fracking operations in China have not yet started, according to Caixin's report, but some Chinese companies have drilled test wells, and the government has begun selling chunks of designated fracking territory. In its latest round of auctioning shale-gas exploration blocks, for example, the Ministry of Land Resources awarded two blocks to Sinopec and Henan Coal Seam Gas Development and Utilization Co, in deals worth an estimated $128.5 million.

Foreign companies including Royal Dutch Shell are also showing interest in China's fracking plans. Shell announced earlier this month that it had shale gas agreements with three major Chinese oil companies. Caixin also reported in September that Shell was in talks with one company about a shale gas joint venture. ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, and France-based Total are also working to form shale gas partnerships with Chinese oil and gas companies, according to an August National Geographic report

As the fiscal cliff looms, there's a consensus that, one way or another, the rich are going to have to pay up. But that doesn't mean the poor are home free. Any "grand bargain" budget deal will be just that—a deal, which means that even though Democrats want to shield social programs from cuts, they will inevitably end up as bargaining chips on the table.

Obama's starting point for negotiations is the deficit plan that came out of the 2011 debt-ceiling showdown. It already contains heavy cuts in discretionary spending, which is spending on stuff that is not entitlements, including military and domestic programs. And 25 percent of that domestic spending goes to programs that help low-income people, according to Richard Kogan, a federal budget expert and senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). Obama and the Democrats have been pretty set against cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and long-term unemployment benefits. However, Rep. Paul "62-percent-of-my-proposed-budget-cuts-come-from-poor-people-programs" Ryan will likely be leading the charge on the other side of the aisle. He won't be able to chop up the safety net to his liking, but he and his fellow Republicans will do what they can. 

Kogan says that even though a final budget deal is likely not to eliminate tax benefits for the poor, it will almost certainly include deeper cuts to lots of social programs. Here are 12 possible targets (program costs are from 2012 unless otherwise noted):

Medicaid ($258 billion): Though Obama has largely targeted providers for potential Medicaid cuts, Republicans want beneficiaries to fork over more. In which case, says Kogan, patients might be forced to make copayments, or program costs may be shifted to the states, which could decide to scale back coverage.

Food Stamps ($78 billion in 2011): The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program serves about 45 million people. It is not part of discretionary spending, but Ellen Nissenbaum, senior vice president for government affairs at CBPP, told The Nation it faces a real prospect of being cut in negotiations.

Inventing David Geffen


114 minutes

If nothing else, this film reminds us just how ubiquitous David Geffen is. "The music culture, a show-biz culture, the motion picture culture," says Tom Hanks. "He built it." This funny, fast-paced documentary uses interviews with old friends, A-list stars, and Geffen, 69, to chart how a Jewish kid from a modest Brooklyn household became a media magnate adored and reviled for his relentless cultivation of talent from Dylan to Nirvana—a man who produced films like Beetlejuice and Risky Business, helped launch Broadway's Dreamgirls, and still found time to schmooze with presidents, date Cher (even though he's gay), and sue Neil Young. Highlight: Geffen describing his early career at the William Morris talent agency, where he honed his talent for spewing "bullshit on the phone" and essentially conned and lied his way to the top.

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

Oddly Normal: One Family's Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms with His Sexuality

By John Schwartz


Joe, the youngest son of New York Times reporter John Schwartz, grew up playing with Barbies, BeDazzling his toys, and ransacking his big sister's jewelry box. Schwartz knew his "fabulous five-year-old," sashaying around the house in pink light-up shoes, was different, but was he gay? Eight years later, when Joe came out, his schoolmates took the news in typical middle-school fashion—horribly. It wasn't long before the boy tried to kill himself with a Benadryl overdose. Equal parts memoir and reportage, Oddly Normal chronicles the Schwartz family's mistakes, heartaches, and triumphs in raising a child coming to grips with his sexuality.

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

Mark Carney, a Canadian, was appointed today to head up the Bank of England. This is, needless to say, a surprise, since the the job of UK central banker would normally go to a UK citizen. But Carney is very highly regarded, and Felix Salmon wonders why this kind of cross-border appointment doesn't happen more often:

In general, high-profile public-sector jobs tend to be done better when they’re done by foreign nationals. The logic is simple: if you’re choosing from a global pool of candidates rather than simply a national pool of candidates, you’ll end up with a better person at the end.

Which raises the obvious question: why is such a move still unthinkable in the US? There are lots of big jobs coming up here: Treasury secretary, SEC chairman, Fed chairman — and all of them are going to go, automatically, to US nationals. Think about it this way: Mark Carney is the best central banker in the world, and he would be an amazing replacement for Ben Bernanke. What’s more, given the choice, he would surely plump for the Fed over the Bank of England. So it’s reasonable to assume that if the US wanted him, they could have had him.

Felix is, I think, more or less a proponent of a borderless world, which makes him a bit of an outlier on things like this. Still, it's a good question. Why not hire a foreigner to run the Fed?

First things first: would it even be legal? As it happens, many federal government agencies aren't open to noncitizens, and the annual appropriations act generally prohibits the use of appropriated funds to pay noncitizens. If we were talking about, say, HUD or the Department of Education, a foreigner would probably be out of luck. Luckily for us, the Fed allows employment of foreign nationals with the appropriate work authorization, and presumably that wouldn't be too hard to get. So yes: it would be legal.

But would it be a good idea? I'm more of a nationalist than Felix, and I'm not sure it would be. This is not, after all, just another cog in the civil service bureaucracy. I'd want my president to be a U.S. citizen, for example, because I'd want to be damn sure that the president has the best interests of the United States firmly at heart. Ditto for members of Congress. And ditto again for the most senior, policymaking positions in the federal government. That decidedly includes the Fed chairman.

Beyond that, I'm not really convinced there's any such thing as "the best central banker in the world" anyway. If your problem is that you don't like Ben Bernanke's policy preferences, then you've got a problem with Barack Obama, not Bernanke. There are probably plenty of qualified Americans who share your taste in monetary policy, whatever it happens to be, but apparently Obama didn't want to appoint any of them. Likewise, if your problem is that you think America's regulatory apparatus is too friendly to Wall Street, then you should blame Congress and the past few presidents. They're the ones who deregulated the financial industry and continually reappointed as Fed chairman a guy who was eager to implement this deregulation. Finally, if your problem is that Bernanke hasn't been able to persuade the FOMC to adopt looser monetary policy, what are the odds that a Canadian technocrat would have been any better at it? Slim and none, I'd guess.

I don't doubt that Mark Carney is a terrific central banker. But technical competence isn't that hard to find, and Carney had the advantage of working in a country with a long history of conservative financial regulation. That probably had more to do with Canada's strong performance during the financial crisis than Carney's response to the crisis did. After all, Ben Bernanke provided mountains of liquidity to the financial system, just like Carney, and dropped interest rates to near zero before Carney did. Long story short, the main difference between the U.S. and Canada seems to lie in their respective regulatory regimes before the crisis hit, not the response of their central bankers after the crisis hit.

So there's probably not much point in looking overseas for a Fed chairman. We have plenty of good candidates on offer right here at home. What we really need is a better regulatory regime and a different national attitude toward monetary policy. This is a political problem, not really a central banking problem per se, and the solution isn't a better Fed chairman, it's a political class that wants a better Fed chairman in the first place. Horse, meet cart.

College students already smoke a lot of pot, but now some of them can also study it in the classroom.

Northern California's Humboldt State University recently launched the Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research, what's believed to be the nation's first pot institute at an accredited university, according to the Eureka Times-Standard. The HIIMR will offer scholarly lectures and help coordinate reefer-related research among 11 faculty members from fields such as politics, economics, geography, sociology, and psychology.

"Across the country, there was a tendency to ignore the 'green elephant' in the room," institute co-chair Josh Meisel told the Times-Standard, explaining how the idea for the institute went from pipe dream to reality. "With these public discussions (around pot legalization), there were a lot more questions than there were answers."

Located in California's "Emerald Triangle," the epicenter of the state's pot-growing economy, Humboldt State has about 7,000 full-time students, putting it among the smallest third of the 23 campuses of the California State University system.

Unlike well-known "cannabis colleges" such as Oakland's Oaksterdam University, HIIMR won't offer classes on pot cultivation—at least not for now. But it will have the ability to teach courses for college credit. Its first annual speaker series kicks off tomorrow with a public lecture on the implications of pot legalization for "marijuana communities"—groups like the backwoods growers in Humboldt County.

An early voting line in Florida on November 3, 2012.

According to a report in the Palm Beach Post, current and former Republican Party officials in Florida have confirmed what voting-rights advocates have long suspected: That the GOP has hyped concerns about voter fraud as a means to reduce Democratic election turnout. Former Governor Charlie Crist told the Post that party leaders approached him when he was governor to see if he'd back efforts to limit early voting. While he didn't recall the officials explicitly saying their intention was to target black voters, Crist said that "it looked to me like that was what was being suggested. And I didn't want them to go there at all."

In 2011, Crist's successor, Republican Gov. Rick Scott, signed a bill passed by the GOP-controlled legislature that slashed Florida's early voting period from two weeks to eight days. (The bill also tightened restrictions on voter registration laws, although many of those provisions were tossed after a court challenge.) This November, Florida was plagued with long early voting lines that extended into Election Day and may well have disenfranchised voters.

Crist's claims were echoed by former Florida Republican party chairman Jim Greer, who told the Post he was first approached about restricting early voting in 2009. Greer told the Post: "The Republican Party, the strategists, the consultants, they firmly believe that early voting is bad for Republican Party candidates. It's done for one reason and one reason only…'We've got to cut down on early voting because early voting is not good for us.'…They never came in to see me and tell me we had a (voter) fraud issue. It's all a marketing ploy."

Republican Party of Florida spokesman Brian Burgess told the Post that Crist, who recently left the GOP and is considering running for governor as a Democrat, "speaks out of both sides of his mouth" and implied that Greer's claims weren't credible in light of his indictment for embezzling $200,000 from party coffers. But two current Republican consultants also told the Post that their party's intentions were clear:

Wayne Bertsch, who handles local and legislative races for Republicans, said he knew targeting Democrats was the goal.

"In the races I was involved in in 2008, when we started seeing the increase of turnout and the turnout operations that the Democrats were doing in early voting, it certainly sent a chill down our spines. And in 2008, it didn’t have the impact that we were afraid of. It got close, but it wasn’t the impact that they had this election cycle," Bertsch said, referring to the fact that Democrats picked up seven legislative seats in Florida in 2012 despite the early voting limitations.

Another GOP consultant, who did not want to be named, also confirmed that influential consultants to the Republican Party of Florida were intent on beating back Democratic turnout in early voting after 2008.

Read the rest here.

UPDATE, November 28, 2012: Republican Party of Florida spokesman (and former Rick Scott communications director) Brian Burgess sent out a press release today attacking the Palm Beach Post for its "unsupported claims" and "dubious sourcing." He pointed to a statement on the state GOP's website from Wayne Bertsch, who says he "never participated in any discussion or meetings with any of the named individuals about how to create impediments to any voters," has never been on contract with the party, and that "a quote from me [was taken] entirely out of context."

Burgess also repeated the assertions he made to the Post that Crist and Greer are untrustworthy sources with an axe to grind against the GOP, and claimed the fourth, unnamed source in the Post's story "has no first hand observations to substantiate Greer's claim" that voter suppression talks happened. Meanwhile, Florida Democrats have called for a federal civil rights investigation because of the story.