Michael Mechanic

Michael Mechanic

Senior Editor

Michael has been a senior editor at MoJo for seven years, after spending nearly as long as an award-winning features editor at the alt-weekly East Bay Express. He edits (and occasionally writes) features, as well as being in charge of the magazine's Mixed Media section. His writing has appeared in a range of alt-weeklies, newspapers, and magazines including Wired, The Industry Standard, and the Los Angeles Times. He lives in Oakland, California, with his wife, two kids, four chickens, striped cat, and way too many musical instruments to master.

Full Bio | Get my RSS |

Michael has been a senior editor at MoJo for seven years, after spending nearly as long as an award-winning features editor at the alt-weekly East Bay Express. He edits (and occasionally writes) features, as well as being in charge of the magazine's Mixed Media section. His writing has appeared in a range of alt-weeklies, newspapers, and magazines including Wired, The Industry Standard, and the Los Angeles Times. 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 tropical frog poisons. He later earned a masters degree in cellular and developmental biology from Harvard University and a masters in journalism from Cal. 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. (His contribution, "Voluntary Confinement," involved a reality TV show that held contestants in isolation.) He also won a 2014 Society for Professional Journalists award for "It Was Something Like Slavery," a photoessay he wrote with photographer Nina Berman. The father of two preteens and caretaker of a surly cat named Phelps, Michael lives in Oakland, California, where, after years of classical piano and raucous punk-rock drumming (and releasing more than a dozen CDs on his former DIY label, Bad Monkey Records), he has retired to old-time fiddling. But you never know.

Must-See: Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit

| Mon May 16, 2011 5:50 AM EDT

This past November, when the wonderfully talented Brit-folk troubadour Johnny Flynn told me he was set to have a baby in March with his longtime girlfriend, I sent a onesie to his London address, and resigned myself to the fact that we probably wouldn't be seeing him for quite a while.

At the time, Flynn, who is in his late twenties, was touring solo because it was too expensive to bring his band, the Sussex Wit, all the way to America, where he's still relatively unknown. So I was pleased to learn that not only was he embarking on his third tour of the States—but the full band would be in tow this time around. 

I first came across Flynn's debut album, A Larum, in the Dog Pile, the collection of books and CDs sent to the magazine from people we have never heard of, and where you can make a great discovery on occasion—like A Larum. I was pretty much smitten after listening to it twice, and Flynn's followup EP, Sweet William, and recent full-length CD, Been Listening, proved that his first effort was no fluke.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Does Energy Efficiency Matter?

| Tue Mar. 29, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

It's a reversal of the old fallacy, "spend more and you'll save more." When it comes to household energy use, we're saving more and then using our savings to buy more stuff. At least that's one way to interpret the latest figures from the Energy Information Administration's Residential Energy Consumption Survey.  

Since 1978, household appliances have gotten way better. Most notablly, heating used to account for 66 percent of our collective residential energy use. Nowadays, thanks to cleaner-burning furnaces and energy-efficient construction and window design, that number is closer to 40 percent. Not only that, the total energy devoted to heating houses has dropped by 38 percent, even though we have 45 percent more houses to heat. Hey, impressive!

Yeeeeah, but the thing is, we're now buying so many of these very-efficient appliances that we suck up as much power as we used to. In other words, we're channeling all that efficiency into better lifestyles. Behold some EIA stats...

  • The number of US households grew by 34.5 million from 1978 to 2009
  • The share of households with central air conditioning nearly tripled, from 23 percent in 1978 to 61 percent in 2009
  • The share of households with clothes washers increased from 74 percent to 82 percent
  • The share of households with dishwashers increased from 35 percent to 59 percent

Here's a chart illustrating the trend. (Being a clunky government agency, the EIA is still using 2005 data, but it's close enough.)

Not that I would begrudge anyone a washer. But unless you've been living in a Faraday cage for the past decade, you're aware that rechargable gadgets and big-screen TVs have proliferated as well—and I might actually begrudge you a few of those. The EIA breaks it down...

  • In 1978, personal computers were expensive and not typically used by US households. In 2009, 76 percent of US homes had at least one computer, eight percentage points more than just four years prior, and 35 percent had multiple computers.
  • In 1978, most households had only one television. In 2009, the average household had 2.5 televisions. Over 45 percent of homes have at least one television with a screen size of 37 inches or larger. Screen size and average energy consumption per television have continued to grow over time.
  • DVD players and Digital Video Recorders (DVRs), which did not exist 15 years ago, are now widespread. As of 2009, 79 percent of homes had a DVD player, and 43 percent had a DVR. Nearly a third of all households also had at least four electronic devices, such as cell phones, plugged in and charging at home.

Hey, I want five-plus televisions, too! (One for the cat!) Now children, don't forget to tweet this item from your smartphones as you stream The Social Network via your Wii consoles to your personal Sony wide-screens.

Bernie Sanders' Top 10 Tax Avoiders

| Tue Mar. 29, 2011 5:30 AM EDT

In a Sunday press release calling on wealthy individuals and corporations to pay their share, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont offered a list of what he calls "some of the 10 worst corporate income tax avoiders."

Sanders, you'll recall, made headlines for his epic 8.5-hour speech/filibuster this past December, dealing with how Obama's pending tax-cut deal with the GOP would be bad for America. The speech—published this month as a paperback simply titled The Speech—was in vain: Congress passed the deal, extending tax breaks not merely to the poor and middle-class, but to America's richest people.

It also slashed the estate tax from 55 percent to 35 percent and exempted the first $5 million of an estate's value ($10 million for a couple)—up from $1 million pre-Bush. In his speech, Sanders warned against this change, noting, "Let us be very clear: This tax applies only—only—to the top three-tenths of 1 percent of American families; 99.7 percent of American families will not pay one nickel in an estate tax. This is not a tax on the rich, this is a tax on the very, very, very rich. (Click here for our blockbuster charts showing just how rich the very, very, very rich actually are.)

If the estate tax—which Republicans have cleverly rebranded the "death tax"—were to be eliminated entirely (another GOP goal), Sanders says it would cost US taxpayers $1 trillion over 10 years. "Families such as the Walton family, of Walmart fame, would have received, just this one family, about a $30 billion tax break," he said in the speech.

Cash for Clunkers: Nuclear Edition

| Mon Mar. 28, 2011 2:25 PM EDT

Correction: Yikes. As some commenters noted, I blundered by attributing the energy losses shown in the chart below entirely to electricity lost during transmission. That was careless, and I've corrected it below. In fact, a lot of the losses are due to heat lost in the generation process. Transmission losses, as the fine print indeed noted, were estimated at 6.5 percent. On the other hand, that's still an enormous amount of lost power. In retrospect, I guess I'd have to agree with the commenter who says we need a mixture of distributed and centralized power to meet our needs. But I still contend that utilities have actively resisted distributed power generation, and that's counterproductive. What's more, companies need to do more to reduce heat losses. Here's a great piece from the Atlantic on that very topic.  

In response to Japan's nuclear crisis, the US green-building group, Architecture 2030, sent out a couple of emails last week fact-checking media assertions that nuclear power accounts for roughly 20 percent of US energy consumption. In fact, the group points out, nuke plants provide about 21 percent of US electricity consumption, but less than 9 percent of overall US energy consumption.

It's a wonky distinction, but the accompanying chart shows something more striking, in case you didn't know it: The way we make and deliver electricity is incredibly inefficient. "Electricity consumption," in utility jargon, is the sum of the power we actually use plus the power lost as heat during generation and transmission of electricity through cables to our homes and businesses. If you were to completely ignore this massive waste, nuclear accounts for just 3 percent of actual energy use, and 17 percent of actual electricity use.

The chart above suggests that just 26 percent of nuclear-generated electricity makes it to customers, versus 32 percent for all generation sources combined. And that's before factoring in the staggering capital costs (requiring tens of billions of dollars in federal loan guarantees), the very scary problem of what to do with spent fuel rods (which has also sucked up billions of tax dollars), and the fact that the US government has had to insure the nuclear industry against disasters because no private company will assume that risk.

In essence, this chart is a reminder that we would benefit from a big increase in distributed power generation—a fancy way of talking about electricity produced at small facilities closer to where it's used, rooftop solar being the ultimate example. Trouble is, the private utilities that own the reactors and coal plants and gas turbines (as well as many transmission lines) have fought tooth and nail to shut smaller companies and residential power generators out of the grid. After all, they wouldn't want their Edsels to lose value.

Fri Nov. 14, 2014 5:30 AM EST
Wed Sep. 17, 2014 4:30 AM EDT
Mon Apr. 21, 2014 5:00 AM EDT
Mon Feb. 10, 2014 6:00 AM EST
Thu Jan. 24, 2013 6:06 AM EST
Mon Dec. 31, 2012 2:22 PM EST
Fri Dec. 14, 2012 10:03 PM EST
Fri Nov. 16, 2012 3:56 PM EST
Thu Nov. 1, 2012 3:31 PM EDT
Thu Sep. 27, 2012 1:07 PM EDT
Thu Mar. 22, 2012 2:05 PM EDT
Tue Mar. 20, 2012 5:30 AM EDT
Mon Mar. 19, 2012 1:02 PM EDT
Mon Feb. 27, 2012 6:00 AM EST
Wed Jan. 25, 2012 6:00 AM EST
Mon Dec. 5, 2011 5:00 AM EST
Thu Dec. 1, 2011 6:30 PM EST
Tue Nov. 22, 2011 5:10 PM EST
Fri Oct. 21, 2011 5:30 AM EDT
Mon Jun. 20, 2011 7:51 PM EDT
Mon Jun. 6, 2011 5:30 AM EDT