Michael Mechanic

Michael Mechanic

Senior Editor

Michael landed at MoJo after six years as an award-winning features editor at the alt-weekly East Bay Express. He's written for numerous publications, including The Industry Standard, the Los Angeles Times, and Wired. He lives in Oakland, California, with his wife, two kids, four chickens, striped cat, and way too many musical instruments to master.

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Michael landed at MoJo after six years as an award-winning feature editor at the alt-weekly East Bay Express. He's written for numerous publications, including The Industry Standard, the Los Angeles Times, and Wired. He set out to be a scientist, and as an undergrad spent a year in an organic chemistry lab at UC-Berkeley, where he was a biochemistry major, trying to synthesize natural poisons found in the skin of certain tropical frogs. He later earned a masters degree in cellular and developmental biology from Harvard University and a second masters in journalism from UC-Berkeley. In 2009, he was a finalist for a National Magazine Award for public service, as one of five writers in MoJo's "Torture Hits Home" package. The father of two mostly charming kids and an only occasionally charming striped cat named Phelps, Michael lives in Oakland, California, where, after years of classical piano and raucous punk-rock drumming (and putting out more than a dozen CDs on his former DIY label, Bad Monkey Records), he has retired to old-time and traditional music, guitar finger-picking, and more recently fiddle and mandolin. He has four chickens—Lucia, Podge, Cat, and Weed Whacker—but what he really covets is a hedgehog.

Chart: Why the GOP's Gas Price Attack on Obama Is BS

| Thu Feb. 23, 2012 7:00 AM EST

Was George W. Bush to blame for this summer 2008 peak? Source: EIA 

Driving back from the mountains this past weekend, I commented to my wife how unusual it seemed that we weren't hearing too much public bitching about $4-a-gallon gasoline, because that's what it costs right now in California. But I spoke too soon. When we returned home, there was the Sunday New York Times with an A1 story on exactly that, describing how the GOP leadership planned to attack Obama on the issue, blaming him for high gasoline prices. 

This is the sort of well-worn populist trick that gets people riled up even when there's no substance to it. I created the chart above using an Energy Information Administration data set on weekly retail gasoline prices (excluding taxes) in selected countries. I used premium unleaded because the numbers were more complete. (Click on the chart to find the raw data.*)

Okay, so what do we see here? Does it look like domestic gas prices (black line) are responding to the policies of one American president or another? Note the peak toward the right: That's the summer of 2008, when George W. Bush was in office. The price crash that follows bottoms out in late-December 2008/early-January 2009, shortly before Obama took over. 

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I Created Elmo, and Here's Proof!

| Wed Jan. 25, 2012 7:00 AM EST

Ignore the blue and green paint. I was five. Sheesh.Ignore the blue and green paint.  I was five.  Sheesh!You want proof? Ta-daaa.

My nine-year-old son pulled a poster tube out from behind his bed the other day. My mom had sent it a while back, but I never looked inside.

Turns out it contained this painting, which I did in July 1970, at age five, before Elmo existed.

I hereby claim 17 percent of gross proceeds from all Elmo licensing and merchandising, retroactively and hereafter.

Hello, 1 percent!

And now, back to substantive journalism

Chart: Is Obama Really the "Food Stamp" President?

| Tue Jan. 24, 2012 7:00 AM EST

In his South Carolina victory speech, Newt Gingrich laid into President Obama and disparaged him as the "food stamp" president—as if it's a repugnant notion to help Americans when they're struggling. In any case, he inspired me to chart some data.

I calculated the percentage of the civilian noninstitutional population—anybody 17 and older who's neither in prison nor the military—receiving federal food aid. (Click on links for source data; I used the July population figures.) The red and blue bars indicate the party of the president who created that year's budget. For instance, Obama's first budget was for fiscal year 2010, which commenced in October 2009. So for the first three quarters of 2009, America was operating on a Bush budget.

So what does this tell us? Well, food stamp use is certainly higher than it's been in more than four decades. Is that because, as Gingrich claims, Obama is nurturing a culture of dependency? Hardly. It just means that more people are hurting (to the degree that a few have even resorted to illegal activities to pay the bills).

The chart also tells us that the explosion of participation in the food stamp program began with President Bush's first budget and continued all through his tenure. More Americans signed up for food assistance under Bush than have signed up under Obama—so far, anyway. And if you really want to blame presidents for soaring food stamp use, you should probably also point out that Bush had eight years to turn the trend around—including four years with backup from a solidly GOP Congress—yet failed to do so.  

The steepest decline in food stamps came under President Clinton—when Gingrich was House speaker and the nation was going hog-wild with its dot-com boom. President Reagan, Gingrich's hero, whose deficit spending helped fuel a degree of prosperity, oversaw a decline in food stamp use followed by an increase that left things worse than when he took office.

In short, it's disingenous of Gingrich, and really kind of insulting to out-of-work Americans, to go after Obama on this account. The candidate is smart enough to know that the number of hungry people seeking help is a pretty good gauge of our economic health. And as the chart makes clear, neither party has a monopoly on the good times.

UPDATE (Jan. 24, 3:41 EST) — This just in. A large and growing share of food stamp households (48 percent) are working households. So much for Newt's dependency theory.

In Classrooms, Climate Change Is the New Evolution

| Tue Jan. 17, 2012 9:31 PM EST

Over at Science magazine's ScienceInsider, Sarah Reardon reports on how the National Center for Science Education—a group dedicated to fighting the teaching of creationism in public schools—is expanding its mission in response to special-interest attacks on the teaching of climate science. The groups include the Heartland Institute, which has worked with the Koch Brothers to perpetuate the notion that climate change is a hoax, and which sends its "educational" materials to public-school teachers hoping to further its pro-business agenda. (Click here to check out the rest of our "Dirty Dozen of Climate-Change Denial.") From Reardon's dispatch:

"It's not like we're bored," says NCSE Director Eugenie Scott: Five state bills that would allow teaching intelligent design in schools have already surfaced in 2012. But after hearing an increasing number of anecdotes about K-12 teachers being challenged about how they taught climate science to their students, she says she began to see "parallels" between the two debates—namely, an ideological drive from pressure groups to "teach the controversy" where no scientific controversy exists.

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