2006 - %3, April

Divesting from Sudan

Fri Apr. 7, 2006 6:12 PM EDT

Major unions are continuing to divest pensions from the Sudan in an effort to pressure the Sudanese government to halt the current campaign of slaughter, rape, starvation and displacement in Darfur.

Calpers, the nation's second-largest public pension fund, is the latest organization to begin unloading investments in the region. The board unanimously decided that none of the fund's $141 billion in assets will be distributed to stock holdings in foreign firms that profit from the oil rich Sudan. Their strategy for divestment will be modeled after that proposed by the University of California, which on March 16 unanimously approved a plan to get rid of both their direct and indirect holdings.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Global Warming Debate Suppressed

Fri Apr. 7, 2006 1:45 PM EDT

The Bush Administration is making it increasingly difficult for scientists to disseminate their research on global warming. According to the Washington Post:

[Over the last year,] administration officials have chastised [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] for speaking on policy questions; removed references to global warming from their reports, news releases and conference Web sites; investigated news leaks; and sometimes urged them to stop speaking to the media altogether. Their accounts indicate that the ideological battle over climate-change research, which first came to light at NASA, is being fought in other federal science agencies as well.
As of summer 2004, all NOAA media releases had to have prior authorization from those higher up in the administration, a caveat that intimidates some researchers to modify what they publish. According to Christopher Milly, a hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, his team "purged key words from the releases, including 'global warming,' 'warming climate' and 'climate change,' " in order to get a news release issued. James Hansen, head of NASA's top institute studying the climate, said:

Banning Junk Food from Schools

| Thu Apr. 6, 2006 7:44 PM EDT

The war against junk food is as quixotic as ever:

The days when children consume two orders of French fries in the school cafeteria and call it lunch may be numbered. A bipartisan group in Congress plans to introduce legislation today that would prohibit the sale in school not only of French fries but also of other fatty or sugary foods, including soft drinks.
That's from the New York Times. Anyone who believes that Congress will actually manage to ban junk food from schools—including junk food from vending machines—should save their optimism for Powerball or some other reasonable venture. Back in May of 2004, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) introduced a measure that would merely develop nutritional guidelines for school vending machines. Guidelines. That's all. But no. Four Democrats sided with eight Republicans to defeat the measure.

Is the junk food lobby really that powerful? Consider the evidence: In June of 2005, Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell vetoed a bill that would've rid Connecticut schools of junk food, despite widespread parental approval. Guess who opposed the measure? Two months earlier, Kentucky had just barely managed to squeak out a bill that banned soda from elementary schools—anything more stringent would never have passed. Arizona had to make the same compromise in April. Members of Congress who oppose federal regulations on junk food always say that these issues should be matters of "local control." But local legislatures are powerless in the face of our Frito-Lay overlords, evidently.

At any rate, the Times piece helpfully swats down some arguments against nutritional standards—namely, that they'll cost schools revenue or that kids won't eat healthy food. But it's less clear that nutritional regulations in schools will get anywhere close to the root of the junk-food problem—namely, that large agribusinesses have managed to hijack the entire system of food production in the United States and secure themselves $180 billion worth of government subsidies enabling them create utter crap on the cheap. Against that sort of tide, a few dams in the cafeteria won't do very much.

Pushing Prescriptions

| Thu Apr. 6, 2006 6:00 PM EDT

What can you buy for over $100 million? Quite a bit, actually. The Center for Public Integrity has a new report out revealing that pharmaceutical companies spent $18 million on political contributions between 2001 and 2004, along with $44 million lobby state governments in 2003 and 2004, in order to thwart state attempts to reduce drug prices. And that all pales beside the $83 million the industry spent to defeat a California drug discount proposition in 2005.

33 states have passed at least 66 separate laws pushing down drug prices since 2003, although the Center doesn't quite say how many further laws were scuttled because of lobbying, besides, of course, the California initiative.

Massachusetts Gets Universal Health Coverage

| Thu Apr. 6, 2006 3:08 PM EDT

Massachusetts looks set to pass legislation to guarantee universal health coverage—the first state to do so—and that should count as good news, even if the policy itself might have a few kinks in it. At first glance, the new law will require everyone to carry health insurance or face higher income taxes, provides subsidies for low-income workers (those making under $9,500 a year get free coverage), and levies a very small fine on businesses that don't provide health insurance.

As with most things, the devil's in the details. Matthew Holt has an incisive comment here—how this plan fares will depend on how the state regulates its insurers. If insurance companies are allowed to offer cheap policies to the healthy and unaffordable policies to the unhealthy, then the market will implode; those people forced to buy very expensive policies under the new mandate will simply end up underinsured, with all the risks that entails. Or perhaps insurance companies will be very heavily regulated (Massachusetts already requires community rating, which is good); we'll see. Leif Wellington Haase also notes that funding issues, which have torpedoed many a state universal health care plan, could become an issue.

Ezra Klein says he would've preferred legislation that severed the tie between employers and the insured. That might be ideal, although now we'll see once and for all whether individual mandates, which are often touted as a moderate alternative to single-payer or single-insurer systems, can actually work, and how well. There's something unsettling about watching states "experiment" with various approaches to universal coverage—there are, after all, actual lives at stake here—but seeing as how the U.S. health care system is going to need a radical overhaul once someone who actually cares comes to office, it will be good to have evidence on which systems work and which don't from as many states as possible.

Uranium for Everyone

| Thu Apr. 6, 2006 2:38 PM EDT

I realize not everyone dashes to the mailbox to see if the latest issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has arrived yet, but there's a story in this month's magazine that's worth reading. Basically, back in the day, the United States used to export highly-enriched uranium (HEU) to other countries for various civilian purposes, until discovering that the stuff can very easily be used to make nuclear bombs, should some crafty terrorist get it into his or her head to do so. No good. So we switched to exporting low-enriched uranium (LEU) instead, which can be used for the same civilian purposes, but can't be used for nuclear weaponry.

Anyway, so it's pretty much LEU for everyone nowadays, except that four major international producers of medical isotopes, which are used for diagnostic procedures and chemical treatments, still buy about 85 kilograms of HEU a year from the United States to make their isotopes. That poses something of a proliferation threat, especially since medical facilities aren't exactly the most secure of sites. Congress, for its part, has tried to introduce laws to force these companies to switch to LEU, which is much safer, to produce their isotopes—something that is technically feasible.

But. These producers are lazy, and in 2003, they successfully lobbied to loosen that requirement in the energy bill, which Bush signed into law last year. So basically, thanks to business lobbying, the United States continues to send bomb-grade uranium around the world—indeed, as a result of the bill, it will probably increase exports of HEU—to unsecured locations. Sweet dreams, everyone.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Frist's Immigration Compromise

| Thu Apr. 6, 2006 2:15 PM EDT

I'm not sure I understand the point of this "compromise" immigration bill floating through the Senate. In the latest version, all immigrants that have lived here illegally for more than five years could apply for citizenship; anyone that has lived here less than five but more than two years would have to leave and apply for "guest worker" status—or indentured servant status, if you prefer—and any illegal immigrant that has lived here for less than two years would have to leave, period.

Okay, so why would any of those undocumented immigrants who have lived here less than five years ever show their faces? They wouldn't, and this bill will only push those immigrants even further underground. Meanwhile, how will the Department of Homeland Security, which now handles immigration, know which immigrants have been here how long? After all, these immigrants are all undocumented—that's the point. Someone who has been living here ten years illegally might have a hard time proving it.

Then there's another concern. As Jean of Body and Soul observes, the last time the United States cracked down on immigration, in 1929, officials "made no distinction between people of Mexican ancestry who were in the USA legally and those who weren't." There was a lot of intimidation and harassment and shipping people off on trains. All this for a policy that almost certainly won't stop illegal immigration. Moreover, the latest Senate "compromise" will only get worse once it gets compromised further, in conference with the draconian House bill. It's probably time to scuttle immigration "reform" altogether and wait for a more sensible Congress to come to power.

Plenty of opportunities to impeach Bush

| Wed Apr. 5, 2006 10:40 PM EDT

The United States of America has undergone three impeachment proceedings. In 1868, President Andrew Johnson was impeached because he removed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton from his position, which was a violation of the Tenure of Office Act. He was not convicted, and Kansas Senator Edmond G. Ross, who cast the vote that saved the president, is profiled in John F. Kennedy's Profiles In Courage. In 1974, President Richard M. Nixon was impeached because of the Watergate break-iin coverup, but he resigned from office before the proceedings could go forth. And in 1998-99, President Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about an affair he had with an intern. Clinton, of course, was not convicted.

In each case, impeachment proceedings were begun because of the perception that the president had violated a law. Patiot Daily points out that Congress may ratify Bush's illegal spying with new FISA legislation so that his actions will be deemed legal and he cannot be impeached for having committed them.

Patriot Daily goes on to say, however, that during the month of March alone, Bush violated enough other laws to make impeachment proceedings possible. The writer of the Patriot Daily piece says that, "to avoid writing a book," it was necessary to omit any violations of law committed before March 1, 2006, violations of humanitarian laws and negligence, and some of the prior laws to which there had not been additional information added.

With these restrictions in mind, here are just a few of the March violations:

Bush signed the spending bill, knowing that violated a Constitutional requirement that the bill must first pass in both chambers.

He violated the material witness law by using it as preventive detention authority who could commit terrorist acts some day but for whom there is no cause for criminal charges.

He violated the Clean Air Act by by loosening emission standards for aging coal-fired power plants. The Clean Air Act makes it clear that only Congress may make such a decision.

In a legal brief written for the U.S. Supreme Court, Bush cited evidence from a debate by two Republican senators. There was no such debate. The evidence was manufactured by the White House.

Bush defined "material support" for terrorists in such a distorted fashion that victims of terrorists wound up being defined as terrorists.

He approved the ports deal, knowing that Dubai's boycott of Israel was illegal under U.S. law.

He failed to hand over delinquent mining company safety violation fees to the Department of the Treasury, as required by law. (He also decreased major fines, and did not collect any in half of the caes.)

He violated the law when he secured the UAE ports deal without the required national security review.

Bush's nuclear deal with India violates U.S. and international nuclear nonproliferation laws.

Patriot Daily lists many more violations committed by the Bush adminiistration, as well as relevant links.

Iraq and Libya Revisited

| Wed Apr. 5, 2006 6:08 PM EDT

This argument hasn't come up in awhile, but way back in the day, Iraq war-supporters used to argue that it was the invasion and ouster of Saddam Hussein that convinced Libya's Muammar Qaddafi to give up his own burgeoning nuclear program. Way back in 2004, I discussed some evidence that this wasn't the case: the relevant policy towards Libya had been put in motion long, long ago, and it took a lot of old-fashioned diplomacy by this administration—so much so that the people negotiating had to sideline John Bolton from the talks—to get Libya to give up the bomb.

Anyway, Arms and Influence links to a new analysis by Dafna Hochmann which says much the same thing: the invasion of Iraq had at most a marginal effect on Libya's decision. Robert Farley also has some good comments on the paper.

Texas' High Teen Pregnancy Rates

| Wed Apr. 5, 2006 5:33 PM EDT

Jill at Feministe points out that Texas—which has, over the years, slashed funding for family planning and teaches abstinence—has the highest teen birthrate in the country, along with a very high rate of unintended pregnancies. According to the Houston Chronicle, 1.5 million women are "without help in avoiding unplanned pregnancies," and that was before the latest round of funding cuts and clinic closings.

Meanwhile, Bitch | Lab has a response very much worth reading, noting that a lack of family planning resources may lead to unintended pregnancies across the board, but it isn't the only factor leading to high teen pregnancy rates: "It's not always lack of information. It's lack of desire to want to avoid pregnancy. And it's sometimes about a desire to want to get pregnant." Among other things, she notes that teen pregnancy is culture specific—Latina teen mothers in particular are much less likely to say that their pregnancy was "unintended" than white and African-American teen mothers, according to various studies. I don't really have a larger point here, I just thought both posts were interesting.