2012 - %3, January

How Dangerous Is the Lead in Bullets?

| Thu Jan. 3, 2013 3:33 PM EST
Don't inhale.

The most ubiquitous danger at firing ranges has a lot to do with bullets but nothing to do with getting shot.

It's all in the lead. A recent report from the National Academy of Sciences found that OSHA lead exposure standards are too lax to protect military firing range employees. Repeated exposure to the toxic metal causes a raft of health problems including brain damage, high blood pressure, and anemia.

Lead is found in bullets as well as the explosive that ignites gunpowder. When a bullet is fired, it gets so hot that that lead actually vaporizes. Firing range employees breathe in the lead fumes, as well as ingest lead dust that settles on their body and clothes. OSHA sets the permissible level of atmospheric lead at 50 micrograms/meter2, but the report found that level frequently exceeded at military firing ranges, sometimes by several orders of magnitude.

The new report also finds OSHA's blood lead level recommendation of 40 µg/dL or lower to be too high. That limit hasn't changed since 1978, but subsequent research has found health problems at blood lead levels as low as 5 µg/dL. Lead is so damaging because it mimics calcium, an ion with essential roles everywhere in the body from bones to nerve cells. (It's especially dangerous for children with developing brains, which is why you hear so much about lead paint.) The report devotes more than 70 pages to detailing lead's many toxic effects in nearly every organ in the body, including the brain, blood, kidneys, heart, and reproductive organs.

How can firing range workers reduce their exposure? The most direct solution is switching to lead-free ammunition or at least jacketed bullets, which have a lead core covered with a coating made of copper or nylon. Lead has been traditionally favored because of its density, but the military has since developed lead-free ammunition that reportedly works just as well.

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11 Killer Albums Brought to You by Brian Eno

| Mon Dec. 31, 2012 2:22 PM EST

In addition to his solo work, the musician, artist, and producer Brian Eno—profiled by Andrew Marantz for our January/February print issue—has produced and collaborated on dozens of albums, both iconic and obscure, since the 1970s. Here's a small sampling of 11 albums to demonstrate how his unique musical sensibilities have touched our world. Why 11 and not 10? Because Eno would probably prefer it that way.

1977: Eno played a key role in Bowie's "Berlin Trilogy" of Low, Heroes, and Lodger.
 
1977: Eno coproduced the first album by this seminal British electro-pop combo.
 
1978: Eno was the genius behind Devo's weird and wonderful debut.
 
1980: An amazing followup to 1979's Fear of Music, which Eno also produced.
 
1981: Oliver Stone's Wall Street opened on a track from this iconic Byrne-Eno collaboration.
 
1984: The beginning of Eno's long and fruitful collaboration with U2.

 

1998: Eno coproduced this fusion album by Senegalese pop star Baaba Maal.
 
2000: Eno coproduced O'Connor's fifth album.
 
2006: Eno worked closely with Paul Simon on Simon's 11th studio album.
 

 

2008: Following this acclaimed release, Eno would go on to produce Coldplay's Mylo Xyloto.

 

2011: Eno coproduced this album by the youngest son of Afrobeat icon Fela Kuti.
 
Also read Andrew Marantz's profile and complete interview with Eno. And click here for more music coverage from Mother Jones.

No Deal Yet

| Mon Dec. 31, 2012 1:51 PM EST

Obama on TV: no deal yet.

I will concede—grudgingly—that if Ezra Klein is right about the current state of the talks, things might not be quite as bad as I suggested in my earlier post. Here's Ezra:

Here are the details, as multiple sources close to the talks have described them to me: The top tax rate rises to 39.6 percent for individuals making more than $400,000 and families making more than $450,000. Capital gains and dividends will be taxed at 20 percent with the same income thresholds. The Personal Exemption Phaseout (PEP) is set at $250,000 and the itemized deduction limitation (Pease) kicks in at $300,000. The AMT is patched permanently. The estate tax would exempt estates up to $10 million and tax them at 40 percent above that.

The various business tax credits — R&D, wind, etc — would be extended through 2013, as would unemployment insurance. The stimulus tax credits — namely, the expansions of the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, and the college credit — would be extended for five years, which is hugely important to the White House. The scheduled cuts to doctors in Medicare would be averted through spending offsets that neither side considers injurious. The treatment of the sequester is still up in the air, as the president is refusing to offset it unless revenues are part of the mix.

Like many of us, I shall now go watch some football and wait for the parameters of an actual deal to be announced.

Fiscal Cliff Talks Now Entering La-La-Land Stage

| Mon Dec. 31, 2012 1:05 PM EST

I have deliberately ignored the fiscal cliff machinations over the past few days. It's a holiday weekend, after all, and the rumors and reports of rumors barely seemed worth acknowledging anyway.

But the 11th hour is now upon us, so where are we? As near as I can tell, we're in la-la-land. A grand bargain has been off the table ever since John Boehner fell on his face when his own colleagues wouldn't support his "Plan B" proposal, so now we're looking at a non-grand bargain. Supposedly, this will just be a small deal that keeps middle-class income taxes from rising but not much else.

So what's the latest gossip? Well, over the weekend Republicans briefly tried to insist that Social Security be cut (via adoption of chained CPI), but then backed down immediately when it became clear that they'd actually have to take ownership of the idea, rather than pretending that it was a Democratic demand and they were merely acquiescing to it. As usual, when it comes to entitlement cuts, Republicans like to talk a big game, but are unwilling to make actual proposals that they can be held accountable for.

So now what? Supposedly, Republicans are now suggesting a deal in which taxes go up for those making over $450,000, rather than those making over $250,000. This is ridiculous. Not only would it raise only a tiny sum, but it won't even have much impact on the rich unless it's also accompanied by increases in the capital gains, dividends, and estate taxes, all of which Republicans are fighting. At the same time, taxes on the working class would go up because Republicans are insisting on the expiration of the payroll tax cut and the stimulus tax cuts. In return for this absurdly wealth-tilted deal, Democrats would get....something. It's not really clear what. Perhaps a one-year delay of the sequestration spending cuts. But since those cuts affect both defense spending and domestic spending, that's something Republicans want as much as Democrats. Ditto for the AMT patch and the doc fix, which are basically nonpartisan. Brian Beutler wraps things up pretty well:

In a tremendous irony, Republican requests for lower tax rates, a high estate tax threshold, and a permanent AMT fix — combined with Democratic requests to delay the sequester, include a “doc fix” for Medicare physicians, and extend emergency unemployment benefits — have left the parties negotiating toward a plan that would result in no net deficit reduction over 10 years on a current-policy baseline, according to Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin.

This is nuts. I suppose the details could end up looking better than I think, but honestly, based on what I'm seeing so far, Democrats would be crazy to agree to this. At the very least, we need a clean tax increase on high-income Americans. If the only way to get that is to let tax rates go up tomorrow, and then negotiate from there, then that's what they should do. It's time to stop the serial cave-ins to the tax jihadists in the Republican Party.

A Quick Look at U.S. Healthcare Costs for the Elderly

| Mon Dec. 31, 2012 12:27 PM EST

Austin Frakt has a chart up today showing that healthcare costs for the elderly are fantastically higher in the United States than they are in other similar countries. However, the vagueness of his note that the chart "is, apparently, from a year 2005 study," immediately set off my spidey sense. The link goes to a news article about an engineering professor who created the chart based on data "drawn from a 2005 study done by Boston University economist Lawrence Kotlikoff and his colleagues."

Kotlikoff's data might well be right, but it's worth at least a little bit of skepticism. A study published in Health Affairs using data through 2004 says that per capita healthcare spending for those 65+ is about $15,000, which suggests that a decent point estimate for those exactly age 65 is around $10,000 or so. Likewise, the estimate for those 85+ is $25,000, which suggests that a good point estimate for those exactly age 85 is perhaps $20,000 or so.

Using these two numbers, I drew a new line for the United States onto the chart in Austin's post. It's the dashed line below, and although it's still a lot higher than the other four countries, it's not quite as scary looking. If anyone knows of a more authoritative international comparison by age cohort, I'd be happy to post it. In the meantime, I suspect that U.S. spending levels are just in the normal scary range—which we already knew—not the mega-scary range suggested in the original chart.

UPDATE: Judging from the comments to Austin's post, this chart is bogus. Aside from the fact that costs at the high end might be overstated, it includes only public spending, which is very low in the U.S. for those under 65. So the spike at age 65 is artificial. Also, several countries are omitted, making the United States look more extreme than it actually is.

For Republicans, It's All About the Rich, the Very Rich, and the Super-Rich

| Sun Dec. 30, 2012 12:44 PM EST

Here's what the fiscal cliff negotiations have come down to:

Senate negotiators labored over the weekend on a last-ditch plan to avert the “fiscal cliff,” struggling to resolve key differences over how many wealthy households should face higher income taxes in the new year and how to tax inherited estates.

....Negotiators were trying to resolve a dispute over the estate tax, a critical issue for Republicans who have dubbed it the “death tax” and argue that it punishes people who build successful businesses and family farms.

In an agreement brokered between McConnell and the White House in 2010, estates worth more than $5 million are exempted and taxed above that amount at 35 percent. Republicans want to maintain that structure, while Democrats want to drop the exemption to $3.5 million and raise the rate on larger estates to 45 percent.

Do you know how many people leave estates valued at more than $3.5 million? Something like 0.01 percent, give or take a bit. This is a tax that's a huge deal for the super-rich, but completely irrelevant for nearly everyone else, including the merely ordinary rich. And needless to say, all the talk about small businesses and family farms is just a pretense. Virtually no family farms are affected, and the ones that are have extremely generous rules for dealing with estate taxes.

President Obama has Republicans dead to rights on this. "They say that their biggest priority is making sure that we deal with the deficit in a serious way," he said on Meet the Press this morning, "but the way they're behaving is that their only priority is making sure that tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans are protected. That seems to be their only overriding, unifying theme." Quite so.

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More Guns, Fewer Deaths? Not So Fast.

| Sat Dec. 29, 2012 12:17 PM EST

Doug Mataconis writes about California's drop in gun-related injuries over the past decade despite the fact that gun sales have nearly doubled during that time:

There are several reasons that gun related deaths an injuries have fallen, of course, not the least of them being a nationwide drop in violent crime....Nonetheless, the fact that a significant increase in gun ownership has not led to an increase in gun injuries or deaths would seem to undercut one of the primary arguments of advocates of gun control. Contrary to their assertions, it would appear that allowing law abiding Americans to own guns doesn’t lead to an increase in violence after all.

That just doesn't follow. As Doug mentions, violent crime has fallen dramatically over the past couple of decades. Without controlling for that drop, you simply can't draw any conclusions at all about the role that guns play.

As an analogy, traffic deaths in California have declined by a third since 2002 despite the fact that the number of registered vehicles has gone up by about a third. Does this mean that more cars and trucks don't lead to an increase in vehicle deaths? Of course not. Fatalities are down because of airbags, antilock brakes, higher seat belt use, improved ER technology, and so forth. If you controlled for all that, you'd likely find that more vehicles do indeed lead to more highway fatalities. But you'd have to do the math to know for sure. Until then, you really can't conclude anything at all.

My Four Favorite Cookbooks of 2012

| Sat Dec. 29, 2012 11:31 AM EST

We are in a golden age of cookbooks, and I didn't even come close to keeping up in 2012. Spending more time with my nose between covers already tops my list of resolutions for '13.  But I did get to dive into some, and here are my favorites.
 

Jerusalem: A Cookbook
By Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

When is a cookbook not just a cookbook? When it's co-written by an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian, and it involves the cuisines of one of the most bitterly contested pieces of land on Earth. The authors met in London, where they now run the celebrated Ottolenghi chain of delis, but both hail from Jerusalem, that ancient, divided capital and cultural mixing bowl. In the book's superb introduction, the two write that they still "think of Jerusalem as our home… the flavors and smells of the city are our mother tongue." What follows is a series of recipes so appealing and so rooted in the splendor of Mediterranean traditions and ingredients that you wonder if maybe, just maybe Jerusalem's diverse food culture could redeem and unite a deeply dysfunctional and hate-ridden region. As with Ottolenghi's previous effort, Plenty, this one is gorgeously adorned with the food photography of Jonathan Lovekin. (For this Ottolenghi and Tamimi's fascinating backstory, see Jane Kramer's recent New Yorker profile of Ottolenghi.)
 

 

The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee: Growing, Roasting, and Drinking, with Recipes
By James Freeman, Caitlin Freeman, and Tara Duggan

You know those bearded dudes and stylish ladies who frown and fuss over flashy chunks of Italian metal in certain cafes, as if their lives depended on crafting a perfect steamed-milk rosette in each cup? They represent US coffee culture's so-called "third wave": obsession over the beverage's every aspect, from the sourcing of raw beans to the cookies served alongside a finished cup. And now they have their Bible: James and Caitlan Freeman's The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee (written with Tara Duggan). Launched on a career as a musician, James followed his nose for coffee first to home roasting, then to micro-scale commercial roasting, then to a kiosk in San Francisco's Ferry Plaza market, and finally to the Blue Bottle micro-empire in San Francisco and New York. In the book, he delivers that story along with lucid descriptions of coffee's journey from bean to cup, including everything you'd ever want to know about brewing an impeccable cup at home. Then Caitlan, an accomplished baker who James met selling her wares at Ferry Plaza and then married him, delivers the secrets of the Blue Bottle's equally stunning pastries (try the granola, and the biscotti!). As you'd expect from a couple so focused on every aesthetic detail, The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee is gorgeously put together, pretty to look at, and a pleasure to hold.
 

Humphry Slocombe Ice Cream Book
Jake Godby, Sean Vahey, and Frankie Frankeny

Yes, I know: Food is a serious topic. It involves massive economic machinations, vast ecological disruption, major inequality and injustice. But I need for it to have a frivolous side, too: I need to live in a world that has ice cream. And if I were to construct, from whole cloth, my ideal ice cream parlor, it might just be Humphry Slocombe, a tiny, shabby shopfront in San Francisco's Mission district. I mean, these guys get that ice cream is silly stuff. In the introduction to this charming volume, author/proprietors Godby, Vahey, and Frankeny describe the germ of the idea that became Humphry Slocombe, originally conceived as an ice cream truck: "Jake's first instinct was for a little rock 'n roll ice cream truck that would make appearances at farmers markets and parks. He envisioned a graffiti-covered, run-down ice cream truck with punk music bellowing out of it. Hell, it would basically be CBGBs on wheels, sans needles." The punk-rock aesthetic extends to some of the ice cream combinations, like the celebrated one featuring bourbon and corn flakes. In short, this book is almost as fun as the Mission ice cream shop, and it's a solid primer on how to make good 'scream.
 

River Cottage Fish Book
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Nick Fisher

Last year, UK chef Fearnley-Whittingstall made my "favorite cookbooks" list with his manual for everyday cooking, which I declared, the "most charming and irresistible cookbook I've come across in ages." He's back this year with a more ambitious and serious tome—and again, he's hit a homerun. The idea here is simple, teased out in a lucid and highly informative introduction: seafood is precious, vital to humanity's evolution and its future, and yet under attack on a variety of fronts, from overfishing to climate change-induced ocean acidification. That means we have to be extremely careful about what we harvest from the sea, and then cook it into a way that wastes as little as possible while delivering maximum flavor. So Fearnley-Whittingstall focuses on plentiful species and advocates buying whole fish and then breaking them down at home. And he proceeds to teach us how to do that, step by step. As always with Hugh, the recipes are straightforward and brilliant. If you love the sea and want to be able to eat from it, too, this is your book.

Farewell Becky Tarbotton, Rainforest Action Network's Visionary Director

| Fri Dec. 28, 2012 11:55 PM EST

Becky Tarbotton, 1973-2012.

Right around the time that Madeleine Buckingham and I were taking on new roles here at Mother Jones back in 2010, Becky Tarbotton was doing the same as the new executive director for Rainforest Action Network, one of the mainstays of in-your-face but really smart environmental organizing.

Maybe that's why Becky and I hit it off so well: Figuring out these new jobs was definitely something we had in common.

Right from the start, though, it was really clear that Becky—one of a new generation of dynamic, inspiring, and field-tested visionaries coming into leadership roles in the environmental and social justice movement—was more than ready. She'd been program director at RAN for many years, knew the science, knew the policy world, and knew the importance of a kick-ass media operation and ground game.

No surprise, then, that during one of our first lunchtime conversations around the corner from RAN's downtown San Francisco office, we talked about how best to pivot our organizations to best deal with the great, new, complicated challenges of the day—challenges that the inherited patterns of thought and practice just weren't up to meeting.

I had no doubt that Becky would take RAN in the right direction. And she did. Take a look at the RAN website, and you'll see what I mean.

But now Rainforest Action Network and all of us who care about the earth and justice and democracy will have to do it without her. Becky died in an accident while on vacation a few days ago. She was 39.

Becky was carved from passionate, steely, joyful stuff. She was a young force to be reckoned with. Her death is an especially hard one, when what we assume to be a natural order in succession is upended.

Our love and deepest condolences go out to Becky's husband, Mateo, her brothers Jesse and Cameron, her mother, Mary, and the entire Rainforest Action community.

WATCH: President Obama "Modestly Optimistic" We Won't Fall Off Fiscal Cliff

| Fri Dec. 28, 2012 7:24 PM EST

Friday evening President Obama expressed modest optimism that the House and Senate will reach a fiscal cliff deal before the New Year's deadline, but said that if Congress fails to act, he will ask Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to propose a bill that protects unemployment benefits and stops tax increases on the middle class.

"I will urge Senator Reid to bring to the floor a basic package for an up-or-down vote, one that…lays the groundwork for additional deficit reduction and economic growth steps," President Obama said at a press conference on Friday, after meeting behind closed doors with Sen. Reid, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) "That's the bare minimum...and it shouldn't be that hard."

As my colleague Andy Kroll points out, the fiscal cliff "isn't really a cliff" but we're still "in for roughly $400 billion in tax increases and $200 billion in spending cuts…spread out over many months." Without a fiscal cliff deal, Bush's tax cuts for the middle class will expire, shrinking US GDP by 1.3 percent. Additionally, unemployment benefits worth $30 billion are expected to run out, potentially ending benefits for millions of Americans.

"The American people are not going to have any patience for a politically self-inflicted wound to our economy," the President said. "Outside of Washington, nobody understands how it is that this seems to be a repeat pattern."