When I was a kid, I wasn't allowed to eat cookies for breakfast. So instead, I became a granola junkie, eating bowls of the stuff topped with honey and yogurt. As it turns out, I might have been better off eating cookies—granolas have more sugar than any other kind of cereal, according to a report released Thursday by the Environmental Working Group, a health research and advocacy organization.
EWG analyzed more than 1,500 cereals, including 181 brands marketed to children, and determined that "most pack in so much sugar that someone eating an average serving of a typical children's cereal would consume more than 10 pounds of sugar a year from that source alone." Excess sugar intake has been linked to obesity and diabetes, as well as numerous other health problems.
Using the report, we compared Chips Ahoy cookies—which clock in at about 11 grams of sugar per three cookies—against a single serving of certain cereal brands. These servings aren't large, often hovering around a cup, which for me, a smallish lady, is a very puny breakfast indeed. Here's what we found:
Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear filed an appeal last week in federal court defending his state's ban on same-sex marriage, after a federal judge invalidated a portion of the law earlier this year. In the appeal, the state argues that legalizing interracial marriage in 1967 made sense because those unions made babies, but gay couples should not be allowed those same rights. Why? Because that would harm Kentucky's birth rate.
"Kentucky's marriage laws are rationally related to the state's interest of preserving the traditional man-woman marriage model," the appeal reads. According to the state, the case for legalizing same-sex marriage in Kentucky is different from Loving v. Virginia—the landmark 1967 Supreme Court case that invalidated state laws banning interracial marriage—because "man-man and woman-woman couples cannot procreate" and Kentucky has an interest in encouraging procreation in the name of promoting "long-term economic stability through stable birth rates."
The state claims that marriage benefits cost the state money, and stable birth rates offset that cost. However, the appeal does not cite any research supporting this, nor does it provide any evidence that legalizing same-sex marriage decreases the birth rate. The appeal does not mention the economic impact of same-sex couples having children through alternative means, such as artificial insemination, nor does it address the costs to the state of allowing infertile heterosexual men or women to get married, allowing straight couples who don't want children to get married, or housing foster children. (In 2012, Kentucky had almost 7,000 children in foster care, according to the latest government data.)
"The argument is ridiculous," says Greg Bourke, one of the plaintiffs in the case, who has been with his husband for 32 years (they married in Canada a decade ago) and has two adopted children. "This argument is not only offensive to same-sex couples, but is equally insulting to opposite-sex couples who are unable to have children, choose not to have children, or are beyond childbearing years." James Trussell, a Princeton University economics and public affairs professor who has co-authored more than 350 scientific publications, primarily in the areas of reproductive health and demographic methodology, says that the state's argument "sounds like nonsense." (Beshear's office declined to comment on the case.)
This is hardly the first time that states have tried to cite procreation as a reason that same-sex marriage shouldn't be legalized. Earlier this year, after Utah's ban was knocked down in federal court, Republican Gov. Gary Herbert's appeal also cited birth rates as a reason to defend the state's ban, arguing that states that have legalized same-sex marriage, like Massachusetts, have low birth rates. The Utah appeal conceded, however, that those statistics "do not prove a causal link between same-sex marriage and declining birthrates, [but] they do create cause for concern."
In February, a federal judge ruled that Kentucky must recognize legal same-sex marriages performed outside of the state. Gov. Beshear, a Democrat, was forced to hire outside counsel to defend the state's ban after state Attorney General Jack Conway, a fellow Democrat, refused to defend the ban, calling it discrimination. (Earlier this year, Attorney General Eric Holder said that state attorneys general are not obligated to defend laws they believe to be discriminatory.) After the Supreme Court struck down a key section of the Defense of Marriage Act last year, state laws banning same-sex marriage began falling like dominoes. Camilla Taylor, marriage project director at Lambda Legal, which advocates on behalf of LGBT clients, says that since that decision, every judge that has considered the constitutionality of marriage bans—14 in all—has rejected procreation-related arguments.
"Kentucky already has a problem with perception throughout the country of being backward and ultra-conservative," notes Bourke, the plaintiff in the case. "Here was an opportunity for a Democratic governor to make a progressive move, and he chose to bow to political pressure instead."
As Republicans stonewall President Obama's initiative to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour by 2016, some state lawmakers have taken the matter into their own hands, passing legislation that increases the salaries for America's most vulnerable workers. But there's one group that is still largely left out of the minimum wage battle: people who work for tips.
As it stands, only seven states require employers to pay tipped workers the same minimum wage as nontipped workers. The federal minimum wage for the latter is $7.25, but the federal minimum wage for tipped workers has remained stagnate at $2.13 since 1991, with no adjustment for inflation. Employers are supposed to make up the difference if tipped workers aren't earning the regular minimum wage through their tips, but it doesn't always happen. The Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, found in 2011 that tipped workers are more than twice as likely as other workers to fall under the federal poverty line.
The Minimum Wage Fairness Act, which Obama endorsed, would have gradually raised tipped workers' minimum wage to 70 percent of the regular minimum wage. But the bill has faced steep opposition from Republicans and the restaurant lobby. According to Open Secrets, the National Restaurant Association, which opposed the minimum-wage hike, spent more than $2.2 million on lobbying last year.
Like millions of Americans across the United States, 23-year-old Anna Hovland worked a waitressing job earlier this year to make ends meet. Her restaurant in Washington, DC, paid her the local minimum wage for tipped workers, $2.77 an hour, which meant that after taxes, her paycheck was usually zero. Her tips, never dependable, ranged from $20 to $200 a shift. "In a city as expensive as DC, I've been able to make ends meet by the skin of my teeth," Hovland says. "Sometimes it will only be in the last week or two of a month that I'll realize I've made enough to pay all my bills."
In December, Washington's city council voted to raise the city's minimum wage from $8.50 to $11.50 an hour by 2016. But the bill didn't raise the minimum wage for tipped workers, like Hovland, on the basis that restaurants in Washington are supposed to make up the difference if tips don't meet the equivalent of $11.50 an hour. That's how the federal law works, as well. US companies are allowed to pay tipped employees pittance because customers are expected to tip well enough to surpass at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25, and, if they don't, companies have to chip in the rest.
But that's not how things always work in the real world. "The servers who make 'good money' are in the minority," says Maria Myotte, a spokesperson for Restaurant Opportunities Center United, which aims to improve conditions for workers in the industry. She notes that tipped workers are hit especially hard by "wage theft," whereby restaurants don't make up the difference when the tips aren't rolling in. Between 2010 and 2012, the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor conducted nearly 9,000 investigations in the restaurant industry, and discovered that 83.8 percent had some kind of wage and hour violation.
Hovland tells Mother Jones that before she got in touch with the Restaurant Opportunities Center last fall—to find out why she was getting zero-dollar paychecks—she had no idea that her employer was supposed to make up the difference in tips. "We never logged our tips or reported them to our employers," she says, unless they were on credit cards. She adds, "Even after I shared information about the minimum wage difference with coworkers, nobody felt comfortable asking employers about it."
On Thursday, Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) introduced a bill that would require a federally appointed commission to study the use of solitary confinement in US and state prisons and juvenile detention facilities and recommend national standards to reform the practice and ensure it is only "used infrequently and only under extreme circumstances." The attorney general would be tasked with implementing these standards. The legislation has six cosponsors, all Democrats, and comes on the heels of a number of states, including Maine, New Mexico, Nevada, and Texas passing their own bills to study the practice.
Tens of thousands of Americans are held in solitary confinement each year. Some have been in solitary for decades. "Our approach to solitary confinement in this country needs immediate reform," Richmond said in a statement Thursday. "Do we feel comfortable putting a man or woman in a dark hole for decades on end with no additional due process? Is this practice consistent with our values? I don’t think so. I know we are better than that."
Richmond's bill says that the federal commission must recommend standards so that the use of solitary confinement is limited to fewer than 30 days in any 45-day period, unless the head of a corrections facility determines that prolonged solitary confinement is necessary for the security of the institution, or if the prisoner requests it. The proposal would require that prisoners receive "a meaningful hearing" with access to legal counsel before being placed in long-term solitary confinement, and entitle them to have their cases reviewed every 30 days.
The national standards required by the bill would include a number of other reforms, including limiting the use of involuntary solitary confinement to "protect" vulnerable individuals—for example, prisoners who are transgender—and improving access to mental health treatment for prisoners placed in solitary. The legislation also mandates that correction officials avoid placing juveniles in solitary for any duration, "except under extreme emergency circumstances." (Between April and September of last year, four juvenile correctional facilities in Ohio imposed almost 60,000 hours of solitary confinement on 229 boys with mental-health needs.) The bill requires the attorney general to publish a final rule adopting the national standards, and would reduce federal grant funds given to states for their prison programs by 15 percent each year until the states comply with the new standards.
A United Nations torture expert said in 2011 that solitary confinement should not be used for more than 15 days. Richmond's bill does not embrace that recommendation. But human rights groups say the bill is a great first step, and recommend its passage. "The introduction of this legislation will help us take a step toward more humane prison practices and shine a light on the tens of thousands of human beings condemned to suffer in prolonged solitary confinement," said Jasmine Heiss, senior campaigner at Amnesty International USA, in a statement.
If this were a Hardy Boys book, it would be The Hardy Boys and the Mystery of the Porn Stars' Disappearing Bank Accounts.
Last month, porn star Teagan Presley told Vice that JPMorgan Chase & Co. closed her account because the bank considered her "high-risk." Then, on Wednesday, porn director David Lord told the Daily Beast that Chase sent him a letter notifying him that the bank was going to close his account on May 11. The Beast and Vice suggested that a secretive Justice Department program, "Operation Choke Point," was behind the account closures. But a Chase insider familiar with the matter says that the initiative has nothing to do with the termination of these accounts.
"This has nothing to do with Operation Choke Point," the source told Mother Jones. "There's not a targeted effort to exit consumers' accounts because of an affiliation with an industry [and] we have no policy that would prohibit a consumer from having a checking account because of an affiliation with this industry. We routinely exit consumers for a variety of reasons. For privacy reasons we can't get into why."
The porn stars' allegations play into a narrative—pushed by banks and congressional Republicans—that the Obama administration is overstretching its authority by forcing banks to police the free market. Here's the real story:
What is Operation Choke Point? Operation Choke Point is a federal initiative that aims to crack down on fraud by honing in on banks and payment processors—the companies that serve as middlemen between merchants and banks on credit card transactions. Financial institutions are not supposed to do business with companies they believe might be breaking the law. But Justice Department officials suspect that some payment processors ignore signs of fraud—like high percentages of transactions being rejected as unauthorized—in transactions they process, and banks go along for the ride, earning massive profits.
The Justice Department has already filed one lawsuit under the program. In January, the government sued Four Oaks Bank in North Carolina, charging that it "knew or was deliberately ignorant" that it was working with a company that processed payments for merchants who were breaking the law. According to the lawsuit, Four Oaks worked with a Texas-based payment processor that processed about $2.4 billion in transactions on behalf of fraudulent payday lenders, internet gambling entities, and a Ponzi fraud scheme. The processor then allegedly paid Four Oaks more than $850,000 in fees. (In April, Four Oaks reached a $1.2 million settlement with the government, but did not admit wrongdoing.)
President Obama's Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, headed by the Department of Justice, is behind the program. Michael Bresnick, who runs the task force, made the program public last March. He says that the aim is to "close the access to the banking system that mass marketing fraudsters enjoy—effectively putting a chokehold on it."
Is this the first time that feds have asked banks to keep an eye on their customers? No. The Bank Secrecy Act of 1970 requires financial institutions to assist the feds in preventing money laundering, which includes scrutinizing customers. However, banks argue that Operation Choke Point goes further than that law.
Does Operation Choke Point include a "blacklist" of businesses or individuals the government is requiring banks to target? Not exactly. Last September, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation issued updated regulatory guidelines noting that "facilitating payment processing for merchant customers engaged in higher-risk activities can pose risks to financial institutions." A footnote in the guidelines linked to a list of products and services, published in 2011, that the feds say have been associated with high-risk activity, including get-rich products, drug paraphernalia, escort services, firearm sales, pornography, and racist materials. But the September guidance makes clear that financial institutions that "properly manage these relationships and risks are neither prohibited nor discouraged from providing payment processing services to customers operating in compliance with applicable law." In other words, the guidance requires banks to perform due diligence to prevent fraud, but does not require banks to go on a porn-star witch hunt.
Why are some people saying Operation Choke Point discriminates against low-income Americans? As part of the program, the feds are scrutinizing payday lenders, which offer short-term loans at high interest rates.Critics of these lenders say they take advantage of low-income Americans, while defenders note that they're often the only option for Americans unable to get loans elsewhere. Some states restrict or ban payday loans. But as payday lenders move online, they've been able to skirt state rules, according to the Justice Department. The feds hope to crack down on payday lenders that are not complying with state and federal regulations. "This effort is focusing on ensuring that lenders are not using electronic payment networks to commit fraud or offer products that would not otherwise be permitted," says Tom Feltner, director of financial services at the Consumer Federation of America, a national association of nonprofit consumer advocacy groups.
Who opposes the program? Banks, payday lenders, gun owners, conservatives, and some Democrats have expressed opposition to the program. Frank Keating, president and CEO of the American Bankers Association, wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last month accusing the Justice Department of "forcing banks to make judgments about criminal behavior and then holding them accountable for the possible wrongdoing of others." Jason Oxman, chief executive of the Electronic Transaction Association, which recently released guidelines for payment processors, told the Washington Postthat Operation Choke Point shouldn't target entire industries, and should instead focus on specific bad actors. A new lobbying group, the Third Party Payment Processors Association, opposes Operation Choke Point, and an activist group called "StopTheChoke.com" is running an online campaign against the program. The NRA, after receiving concerns from gun owners that the DOJ is using the program to take away their guns, said last week that "it will continue to monitor developments concerning Operation Choke Point."
On January 8, Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) sent a letter to the Justice Department arguing that "the extraordinary breadth of the Department's dragnet prompts concerns that the true goal of Operation Choke Point is not to cut off actual fraudsters' access to the financial system, but rather to eliminate legal financial services to which the Department objects."
Who supports it? Quite a few Democrats support the program. On February 26, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) sent a letter to the Justice Department recommending that the program continue. The letter, cosigned by 11 other Democrats, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), said: "The Department plays a critical role in ensuring system-wide compliance with anti-fraud, anti-money-laundering, and related laws, especially as they apply to the unique risks associated with our payments system, and we urge the Department to continue its vigorous oversight."
Diane Standaert, senior legislative counsel for the Center for Responsible Lending, notes that eradicating fraud is also a win for consumers. "Banks should have a vested interest in making sure their own customers accounts aren't being abused or unnecessarily drained," she says. "By complying with this existing guidance, it's a win-win."