2007 - %3, February

Dinesh D'Sell Out

| Tue Feb. 6, 2007 8:23 PM EST

It happens to most academic stars. Eventually, they begin self-parodying. So it is no surprise that Dinesh D'Souza, the conservative academic who hit the big time with his 1991 critique of political correctness, Illiberal Education, has swung even farther right with his newest book, The Enemy at Home. To give a quick and dirty measure of how far right, I present its subtitle: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11. What's odd about this is that D'Souza isn't parodying himself, but political sound-byte machines. The right is really on message, is it not? Especially for a message like this one, which contains no truth whatsoever.

I've always wondered, do the Joe Blows of the right-wing believe some of the more absurd bits of spin they repeat? (I have, after much thought, come to conclude that most of the higher-ups, with some grandiosely off-kilter exceptions, do not.) But I've never seen an academic doing the work of political rhetoric quite as explicitly as this.

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Is a Deal with Dingell a Deal with the Devil?

| Tue Feb. 6, 2007 7:56 PM EST

Over the past month, the biggest threat to climate change legislation seems not to come from Exxon Mobil-sponsored think-tanks nor Texas Republicans; rather, it has been infighting between Democrats. Since becoming Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has done everything but challenge John Dingell to a bout of mud-wrestling in order to take control of climate change legislation away from the House Committee on Energy and Commerce the Michigan Democrat chairs.

That's because Dingell is infamous for being in the pocket of the Auto Industry: He has long opposed tougher CAFE standards and his wife is currently a senior executive at GM. Many see him as an obstructionist to action on climate change. (See this interview with Grist, where Dingell expresses Inhofe-esque views on global warming.)

Dingell has been outspoken in his opposition to a new committee, telling the AP in January: "We're just empowering a bunch of enthusiastic amateurs to go around and make speeches and make commitments that will be very difficult to honor."

Bygones may not yet be bygones, but Pelosi and Dingell seem to have come to a compromise, clearing the way for the new committee--albeit a weaker one than Pelosi would probably have liked. In a letter sent to the Speaker yesterday, Dingell agreed not to challenge a new committee on climate change in exchange for Pelosi's concession that the new committee will not be granted legislative authority and will expire in October of 2008. U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, chair of the Oversight and Government Reform committee, co-signed the letter, agreeing not to challenge the formation of the select committee. You're not alone if you're not sure whether to chalk this one up as a win or a defeat for the planet.

--Koshlan Mayer-Blackwell

Is a Deal with Dingell a Deal with the Devil?

| Tue Feb. 6, 2007 7:55 PM EST

Over the past month, the biggest threat to climate change legislation seems not to come from Exxon Mobil-sponsored think-tanks nor Texas Republicans; rather, it has been infighting between Democrats. Since becoming Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has done everything but challenge John Dingell to a bout of mud-wrestling in order to take control of climate change legislation away from the House Committee on Energy and Commerce the Michigan Democrat chairs.

That's because Dingell is infamous for being in the pocket of the Auto Industry: He has long opposed tougher CAFE standards and his wife is currently a senior executive at GM. Many see him as an obstructionist to action on climate change. (See this interview with Grist, where Dingell expresses Inhofe-esque views on global warming.)

Dingell has been outspoken in his opposition to a new committee, telling the AP in January: "We're just empowering a bunch of enthusiastic amateurs to go around and make speeches and make commitments that will be very difficult to honor."

Bygones may not yet be bygones, but Pelosi and Dingell seem to have come to a compromise, clearing the way for the new committee--albeit a weaker one than Pelosi would probably have liked. In a letter sent to the Speaker yesterday, Dingell agreed not to challenge a new committee on climate change in exchange for Pelosi's concession that the new committee will not be granted legislative authority and will expire in October of 2008. U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, chair of the Oversight and Government Reform committee, co-signed the letter, agreeing not to challenge the formation of the select committee. You're not alone if you're not sure whether to chalk this one up as a win or a defeat for the planet.

--Koshlan Mayer-Blackwell

Evolution in Action, Cod Shrink in Response to Overfishing

| Tue Feb. 6, 2007 7:39 PM EST

Creationists might not like it, but a study reported on the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) website details how cod in Canada's Gulf of St. Lawrence have evolved into smaller fish since overfishing in the 1960s selectively reduced their heftier ancestors.

For Atlantic cod, overfishing is the bad gift that keeps on giving. Once a mainstay of fishing fleets, cod began to thin out in the 1960s. Today, their numbers--and the fish themselves--remain small, despite a moratorium on fishing established in 1993. Now, a study of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada might explain why. Researchers report that because the largest and fastest-growing fish were harvested, cod have evolved to grow slowly--an adaptation that haunts them to this day.

The average size of young adult cod has decreased by about 20% in the last 3 decades. Lab experiments have shown that harvesting mainly large fish will cause average size to shrink. But in the wild, other factors can also influence size, such as temperature and population density.

Big fish have been declining in number and size worldwide, as reported in "The Fate of the Ocean," (Mother Jones Mar/Apr 2006). Douglas Swain, fisheries biologist at the Gulf Fisheries Center in Moncton, Canada, and colleagues, examined the data on fishing intensity, cod population, fish size, and environmental variables from 1977 to 1997. They found that temperatures were warm and prey was abundant, variables that should have stimulated growth. Instead, the fish got smaller. The average length of 4-year-old cod correlated with the size selection exerted on their parents. The authors suggest that recent generations inherited their small size from small parents, because most of the larger fish were captured by human fishers.

This makes sense, Swain says; slow-growing fish would have an advantage, as they have a greater chance of reproducing before they're caught in nets.

Evolution is alive, well, crafty, and hopefully faster than us.

"Economic Man" = Boring Old White Man

| Tue Feb. 6, 2007 6:30 PM EST

In another last-one-to-say-"Not me"-when-somebody-farts move, George Bush announced last week that income inequality was a problem in the United States. (Mother Jones has reported on the problem here, here, and here to take but a few examples.) Today, the Washington Post reports, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke also acknowledged the income-inequality problem. Like Bush, he blamed the increasing value of education.

Bush and his Fed chief don't want to admit that tax breaks for the wealthy might have something to do with the increasing income gap. But the education claim is not just an excuse; it's a big fat lie. It's false even if all kinds of education are lumped together; breaking education down by field (i.e., business or science vs. anything in the humanities) reveals even more clearly that education itself is no passkey into the upper, upper class to which the concept of "income inequality" refers.

Bernanke's proposed solutions are fascinating, because they suggest that the Fed chief knows that a true free market screws the poor. He concedes that

the U.S. economy "creates painful dislocations," such as factory closings and layoffs of workers with obsolete skills. "If we did not place some limits on the downside risks to individuals affected by economic change, the public at large might become less willing to accept the dynamism that is so essential to economic progress."

There have been some very revealing articles lately about the assumptions that economists make to be able to argue that the free market is best for everyone. Bascially, they assume everyone is the same. They call that everyone "Economic Man," and assume that he is informed and rational in all of his economic decisions. Nobel-winning economist George A. Akerlof argued recently that Friedman's free market approach, which champions Economic Man, rather oversimplifies human behavior. As Louis Uchitelle reported in the NYT:

For example, [Akerlof] says, people don't automatically insist on raises that keep their pay on par with inflation. They often are happy with smaller raises, considering them a compliment from the boss for valued work. That makes pressure for higher pay less inflationary than the Friedman approach would assume.

Has there ever been a better example of how a bunch of affluent white men sitting around pontificating will completely block out what real life is like for real people?

Last week, Salon's Andrew Leonard profiled the emerging field of neuroeconomics, which, it turns out, explores the same oversights Akerlof is talking about by way of brain scan. Leonard worries that brain scans, too, will become standardized. On the up side, maybe they'll have to use poor people as guinea pigs and the assumptions will begin favor the needy.

Specter Remorseful About Role in U.S. Attorney Purge

| Tue Feb. 6, 2007 12:47 PM EST

We've written in the past about the Bush Administration's purge of trouble-making U.S. Attorneys nationwide. In you don't know the story, read up, because it is some legitimately scary stuff. Talking Points Memo, who has been following the story more closely than anyone, uncovered the fact that Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) enabled the purge by slipping a small provision into the Patriot Act reauthorization at the Bush Administration's request that gave the administration increased control over Attorney hirings and firings.

Democrats have pressed the White House on this and in a hearing on the subject today, Specter defended his action as having reasonable intentions and unintended results. From TPM:

According to the original law, the Attorney General could appoint interim U.S. Attorneys, but if they were not nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate within 120 days of being appointed, the federal district court would appoint a replacement. Justice Department officials apparently didn't like that judges were able to appoint U.S. Attorneys, members of the executive branch, so the new language removed the court's involvement in the process. But in doing that, the change also allowed the administration to handpick replacements and keep them there in perpetuity.

Specter, who has been one of only a few Republicans to regularly challenge the administration's overreach of power in the past, said today that he hopes to change the law back to its original version.

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Bush Continues Pattern of False Promises on Education

| Tue Feb. 6, 2007 11:46 AM EST

Spotted on ThinkProgress:

"Bush's proposal to increase the maximum Pell Grant for lower-income undergraduate students was greeted with fanfare when it was announced last week. But his FY08 budget released Monday contains no new money to pay for it," CongressDaily reports.

This is hardly the first time President Bush has made a promise on education and then failed to follow through come budget time. He eliminated funding for Even Start after calling the program "incredibly important" in 2002, he underfunded No Child Left Behind by $30 billion, and screwed a whole series of educational programs after making education reform a major domestic priority.

More details? Sure. At an elementary school in Maryland in 2003, the president said [pdf], "We want Head Start to set higher ambitions for the millions of children it serves.... There needs to be a guarantee that the federal money spent on Head Start, only go to Head Start." The White House then attempted to hand control of Head Start over to state governments by blocking federal funding. States could use a portion of their Head Start funds for other state needs.

In September 2003, President Bush said [pdf] "Our economy demands new and different skills. We are a changing economy. And therefore, we must constantly educate workers to be able to fill the jobs of the 21st century. And so, therefore, I went to Congress and asked for increased funding for Pell Grants for higher education scholarships." Later that year, Bush revised the information used to determine financial aid eligibility, leading to 84,000 students losing their right to a Pell Grant. Additionally, Bush's FY2004 budget cut minimum Pell Grant awards.

It's a matter of priorities, not fiscal discipline. If Bush tried to balance the budget every year and cutting benefits to education was the only way to do so, he could make the case that it is all part of the conservative credo. But Bush has created and maintained massive deficits, mainly because he insists on tax cuts for the wealthy and huge defense expenditures. The rich and the armed come before the nation's children.

Good Intelligence Reporting Making a Comeback

| Tue Feb. 6, 2007 10:20 AM EST

As everyone knows by now, good journalism was late to the party on the Iraq War. Many very, very good books have come out in the last two years that detail how intelligence was twisted, how reconstruction was bungled, how sectarian violence was inflamed instead of dampened, and on and on, but all of them came several years too late to nip support for the war in the bud or to end it in its early stages. There was some serious work done before the invasion that examined the Bush Administration's justifications for war, often finding -- like in the case of the aluminum tubes that Iraq allegedly was using for a nuclear program -- that the evidence was flimsy, but stories of that nature were frequently overshadowed by front-page reporting by people like Judy Miller that put incorrect evidence into the public realm and helped the administration make its case.

Journalists know this sordid history, and one of the positive consequences of it has been a robust skepticism on their part about the Bush Administration's claims about Iran. A good example comes from Newsweek, where Mark Hosenball is asking difficult questions and his sources, more so than before the Iraq invasion I would wager, are willing to answer. Hosenball looked at the administration's claim that Iran is inflaming violence in Iraq, and then at the recent NIE's claim that foreign actors are actually playing a relatively small role in the Iraq turmoil, and went to some people in the know to see who was telling the truth. The results:

...three U.S. officials familiar with unpublished intel (unnamed when discussing sensitive info) said evidence of official Tehran involvement is "ambiguous," in the words of one of the officials. For example, U.S. troops have been attacked by homemade bombs triggered by infrared sensors (like ones used on American burglar alarms). U.S. agencies know Iranian purchasers have made bulk orders for the sensors—which cost as little as $1 each—from manufacturers in the Far East. Some analysts think most of the sensors are used for innocent purposes: they note that the devices are so widely available that would-be supporters of Iraqi militants could simply buy them in an Iranian store and smuggle them to Iraq; high-level government involvement wouldn't be necessary.
Last week U.S. military officials in Baghdad were set to brief reporters about evidence American forces had assembled about Iran's interference in Iraq. But the briefing was canceled; one of the U.S. officials suggested it had been put off because intel officials couldn't agree about the info.

The simple fact that the press is reporting skepticism as a major story in itself is a big improvement from the pre-Iraq period. And the Christian Science Monitor reports today that even the White House realizes it has to back down on the tough talk with Iran. As we wrote in the Iraq War Timeline, truth was a casualty of war long before we invaded Iraq. Looks like it's making a comeback.

How Many Politicians Does it Take to Outlaw a Lightbulb?

| Tue Feb. 6, 2007 1:40 AM EST

Read my post on The Blue Marble for the answer, and for more about California's "How Many Legislators Does it Take to Change A Light Bulb Act," which, if passed, would ban the sale of conventional light bulbs in the state by 2012.

—Koshlan Mayer-Blackwell

How Many Legislators Does it Take to Outlaw a Lightbulb?

| Tue Feb. 6, 2007 1:20 AM EST

In the quest to stave off cataclysmic climate change, the compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL) seems to be garnering messianic status. (Wal-Mart, for one, hopes to green its image by selling 100 million of the energy efficient, cost saving bulbs by the end of next year). Politicians are behind them too, and no state is doing more than California to encourage consumers to give up their old incandescent bulbs.

California utility giant PG&E already heavily subsidizes CFLs, making them almost as cheap as incandescent, despite the fact they nip at the company's bottom line, using 2/3 less electricity. And last week, CFLs got some additional buzz as California Assemblyman, Lloyd Levine, promised legislation dubbed the "How Many Legislators Does it Take to Change A Light Bulb Act." If passed, it would ban the sale of conventional light bulbs in the state by 2012.

Despite the prospect that the law would spur a booming black market in incandescent bulbs smuggled from neighboring, loose-lawed Nevada, it should help California meet its goal of cutting 25% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 (the typical CFL saves 640 pounds of CO2 emissions over its life cycle; California emits more than 380 million metric tons of carbon annually).

But truth be told, CFLs are not all sunshine for the environment, especially in the hands of the wasteful. CFLs contain mercury, and, to date, there is no way to make them without using at least a small amount of the toxic substance. "If you are going to make a massive switch over to compact fluorescents, which would be good for energy conservation, it makes sense to accompany it with the appropriate take-back and recycling provisions," notes Elizabeth Grossman, author of High Tech Trash.

Without a real commitment to recycling, mercury filled CFLs will end up with household garbage, land-filled and incinerated en mass. Which is a shame because assuming proper disposal, CFLs actually reduce the amount of mercury escaping into the environment. According to the EPA Energy Star program, "coal-fired power plants emit 13.6 milligrams of mercury to produce the electricity required to use an incandescent light bulb, compared to 3.3 milligrams for a CFL."

Now that's a lightbulb worth changing.

—Koshlan Mayer-Blackwell

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