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.

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.

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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.

MoJo's Abortion Top 10

| Fri Mar. 25, 2011 5:30 AM EDT

Since the midterm elections this past November, a reenergized Republican party has forged ahead with plans to dismantle abortion rights on every front, at both state and federal levels. The developments are coming so fast and furious that it can be a little overwhelming, but here's a recap of some of the recent highlights, in order of publication date. 

1. "The Man Who Loved Women Too Much" — Contributor Sara Blustain profiles Harold Cassidy, the lawyer behind a legal strategy that reframes abortion restrictions not as simply protecting the unborn, but rather as protecting women from the consequences of their decisions—in other words, chipping away at a woman's right to choose in the name of…women's rights. (January/February issue

2. "Are You Sure You Want an Abortion?" — Using information provided by the Guttmacher Institute, I put together these maps showing which states have imposed abortion restrictions such as waiting periods, obligatory ultrasounds, or mandatory counseling that includes discredited medical information. (January/February issue)

3. "The House GOP's Plan to Redefine Rape" — Pretty much all abortion restrictions, in this case a ban on the use of federal money for abortions, contain a rape exemption. But DC-based staff reporter Nick Baumann exposed a recent Republican attempt to redefine rape as only "forcible" rape. Boy, did that piss people off. Baumann's story spread like wildfire—even showing up (hilariously) on Jon Stewart. The GOP caved on that provision. (Jan. 28, 2011)

4. "Is Providing Abortions Creating a 'Nuisance'?" — In Wichita, Kansas, ground zero in the abortion wars, Dr. Mila Means wants to replace the murdered Dr. George Tiller as the area's last remaining abortion provider. But thanks to threats from anti-abortion groups, and the ruling of a judge who had previously donated to pro-life causes, nobody will rent Means any office space. Kate Sheppard reports from MoJo's DC bureau. (Feb. 4, 2011)

5. "If You Thought the GOP's 'Rape Redefinition' Bill Was Bad..." MoJo editorial fellow Maddie Oatman reports on a proposal that would let doctors refuse to abort a woman's fetus even if an abortion was necessary to save the life of the mother. (Feb. 8, 2011)

6. "South Dakota Moves To Legalize Killing Abortion Providers" — Kate Sheppard reports on a bill under consideration in the Mount Rushmore State that would have made preventing harm to a fetus a "justifiable homicide" in many cases. Her story caused a national uproar, forcing state legislators to table the bill. Nick Baumann later reported on similar bills introduced in Nebraska and Iowa. (Feb. 15, 2011) 

7. "Revealed: The Group Behind the Bills that Could Legalize Killing Abortion Providers" — Nick Baumann and Dan Schulman, our DC-based senior editor, show us who's pushing all these "justifiable homicide" bills. (Feb. 28, 2011)

8. "Texas Considers Bill to Ban Almost All Abortions" — DC staff reporter Tim Murphy reports on a mind-bogglingly restrictive bill that was penned by anti-abortion activists and introduced in the Lone Star state without even the usual exemptions for rape and incest. Christ. (March 11, 2011)

9. "GOP Bill Would Force IRS to Conduct Abortion Audits" — Were you raped? Was it incest? These are the types of questions the government's tax police would have to ask women who've terminated pregnancies if Congressional Republicans have their way, Nick Baumann reports. (March 18, 2011)

10. "The Limits of Tax Jihadism" — Citing the article above, political blogger Kevin Drum makes the case that Republicans are willing to push their anti-abortion agenda even at the expense of their anti-tax orthodoxy. (March 18, 2011)

Late-breaking honorable mention: "Ohio's 'Heartbeat' Abortion Bill Moves Forward" — Jen Phillips digs into the details of a pending Ohio bill that would outlaw abortions after six weeks of gestation, a point at which point many women haven't even confirmed that they're pregnant. In other words, it more or less outlaws abortion. This one is even making anti-abortion activists nervous, because they're afraid the courts will smack it down, setting a precendent that might come back to haunt them. (March 29, 2011)

Click here for more Mother Jones coverage of reproductive rights.

 

Does America Put "Illegal Aliens" to Death?

| Fri Mar. 25, 2011 3:01 AM EDT

Q. What does the U.S. do with illegal aliens?

A. The U.S. puts them to work in the army.
B. The U.S. shoots them into outer space.
C. The U.S. puts them to death.
D. The U.S. sends them back where they came from.

This was one of the multiple-choice questions on a homework assignment, a story entitled "What Is an Illegal Alien?" recently given to a bunch of third graders at Chesney Elementary in Duluth, Georgia. (The teacher, by the way, was hispanic.) Apparently, nobody noticed how inappropriate this was until Kelly Avalos, the elder sister of one of the third graders, alerted a local TV station.

Some of us, apparently, have never recovered from our own experiences on the playground.

Okay, trolls. Have at it.

WATCH: Jerry Brown Takes Budget War to YouTube

| Mon Mar. 21, 2011 1:46 PM EDT

Today, in what may be an unprecedented move by a governor (unless you count this clip of Arnold Schwarzenegger with a giant knife), Jerry Brown took California's budget war online with a direct YouTube appeal to Californians. For anyone not paying attention, Brown has vowed to balance California's deficit by any means necessary—closing a massive gap of some $26.5 billion. The legislature is about halfway there, having agreed to cuts in services for the poor, the disabled, college students, and so on.

Brown wants to cover the rest through temporary extensions of taxes such as the vehicle license fee. The GOP minority, of course, won't even consider it, despite what is essentially a fiscal emergency. Nor are they supporting further cuts to universities, K-12 education, parks, health care, etc., which in Brown's words will cause "drastic alterations in the very fabric of our public service." What's more, state Republicans are blocking Brown's attempt to put his tax extensions on the ballot.

The YouTube video is Brown's attempt to put some constituent heat on the obstructionists. "We've been kicking the can down the road," he says, explaining his choice to balance the budget. "You've been treated with evasions, and gimmicks—smoke and mirrors... There's been a tendency to avoid reality, and you can't do that forever." Recalling his campaign promise to check in with voters on the most important decisions, Brown continues, "This is a matter that is too big, too irreversible to leave just to those you have elected... So let me know, let your legislators know, would you like the chance to cast this vote, or would you feel it's appropriate to shut out the people of California?"

He adds: "I don't see this as a Republican vs. Democratic issue."

Quite an operator, that Jerry Brown. But hard not to like the guy. Watch...

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