2007 - %3, March

My Answer to Automakers: Get Outta Dodge

| Mon Mar. 26, 2007 8:06 PM EDT

The epic continues: A handful of chronically floundering non-innovative companies which have contributed more to the current climate disaster than almost anyone else continue to run the country in the most asinine, illogical and Orwellian fashion possible. Who am I talking about? The U.S. automakers, of course. Meeting with President Bush, the Big 3's CEOs pronounced with a straight face that ethanol is the answer to the country's environmental and national security issues.

Do these guys read the paper? Any paper? Here's a sampling of headlines from this year alone:

• "The truth about ethanol," AP, March 17
• "A test tells the story of ethanol vs. gasoline," San Jose Mercury News, March 11
• "Ethanol is still a long way off in U.S.," Los Angeles Times, March 10
• "Ethanol is politicians' snake oil," Denver Post, February 15
• "It's time to move beyond ethanol," The Houston Chronicle, January 26
• "Bush's 'clean fuel' move may cause more harm, say environmentalists," The Independent, January 25
• "Bush pushes plan to cut gasoline use; Tours DuPont ethanol research site," Plain Dealer, January 25
• "Contradictions seen in alternative energy plan," Los Angeles Times, January 24

There's plenty more where that came from. Here's a quick synopsis of what's wrong with the ethanol "solution":

• The only flex-fuel vehicles the automakers have made thus far are versions of their biggest gas-guzzlers.
• We don't have enough land to grow the corn to make the ethanol we need to drive all of our cars.
• Corn-based ethanol—the only kind currently available in the United States—requires as much fossil fuel to produce as it generates.
• It costs more than gasoline, and will almost certainly drive up the price of corn and meat.
• As a car burns ethanol, it produces slightly less greenhouse gases than a conventional car. But you know what burns less—a lot less—than a flex-fuel vehicle? A hybrid vehicle. So why aren't U.S. automakers making any hybrid vehicles?

If you've seen "Who Killed the Electric Car?," you'll know the answer already: The Big 3 promise things which will take years to develop, and then they wait for the political winds to change so they never deliver on their promises. It's time to give these losers the boot.

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Return of the Single?

| Mon Mar. 26, 2007 7:59 PM EDT

mojo-photo-45s.jpgToday's Times explores an interesting change in the record industry brought on by the digital revolution: the resurgence of the single. Long overdue, I say. Even those as youthful (ahem!) as myself will remember buying 7" singles well into the 80s; it was a cheap, fun and easy way to grab your favorite new Eurythmics song. But with the advent of the CD, the whole point of a single seemed to go away -- there's 70 minutes of room on the dagburn things no matter what you do, so why not fill it full of fluff, call it an album, and charge $12 for it?

This is, of course, not to predict the demise of the album (like one of the music consultants the Times quotes), nor whitewash the digital world. 128-kbps mp3 files, for instance, have always seemed to me like medium-quality "trial copies," requiring any serious audiophile to pick up the CD or vinyl after buying something on iTunes. But, again, the ability to do this at all should be welcomed by the industry (faced with ever-shrinking venues to promote its product) and by artists, since both edgy and mainstream bands could benefit from a more flexible approach from labels. Whether we'll see more singles released without accompanying albums remains to be seen, but in the meantime, wish Apple luck at keeping the price at 99 cents.

Moving Mountains Just Got Harder

| Mon Mar. 26, 2007 7:36 PM EDT

Moving mountains may not sound so bad until, that is, you realize you have to put them somewhere. So say detractors of mountaintop removal, a commonly practiced technique for mining coal in the Appalachian Mountains.

Between 1985 and 2001, a federal study estimated that more than 1,200 miles of streams in the Appalachians were buried or severely impacted as a result of mountain top removal, and environmentalists have long decried the Army Corps of Engineers for okaying ditches that have been constructed to replace the waterways—an ecological tradeoff on par with ordering free-range Cornish game hen and getting chicken McNuggets.

On Friday, a District Court Judge in West Virginia agreed, rescinding permits at four state mines, and by ruling that the Army Corps of Engineers' environmental impact assessments fail to meet the requirements of Clean Water Act. The judge called [PDF] portions of the Corps' assessments "no more than lip service," pointing out that despite the Corps' claim that ditches could be connected and made to perform the same function as destroyed streams, the Corps' own witnesses did "not know of any successful stream creation projects in the Appalachian region."

Environmental attorney Steve Roady, with Earthjustice, sees the court's decision as a major victory.

"The federal government has been illegally issuing such permits...The Corps has had every opportunity to prove its claim that mountaintop removal mining can be done without destroying entire watersheds and landscapes."

And until it does, the court's ruling could impact as many as 60 new coal mines pending permits in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

—Koshlan Mayer-Blackwell

Moving Mountains Just Got Harder

| Mon Mar. 26, 2007 7:28 PM EDT

Moving mountains may not sound that bad until, that is, you realize you have to put them somewhere. So say detractors of mountaintop removal, a commonly practiced technique for mining coal in the Appalachian Mountains. The practice decimates rivers and streams, completely altering entire ecosystems.

On Friday, a West Virginia judge decided he'd had enough. Read all about it over at The Blue Marble.

-Koshlan Mayer-Blackwell

Texas Tots for Sale

| Mon Mar. 26, 2007 7:28 PM EDT

Ok, so Texas isn't really selling tots -- they're selling babies. Well, maybe. Republican State Senator Dan Patrick recently proposed the Adoption Incentive Program, which some are calling the "Texas Baby Purchasing Act of 2007." Patrick's bill calls for the development of a program to encourage adoption over abortion and mandates that every woman who chooses to carry her baby and then yield her parental rights in lieu of having an abortion receives $500. I am pretty sure this type of proposed legislation is a first (if I'm wrong, do let me know) although obviously not the first tactic to be used by pro-lifers to coerce women into not having abortions. There are many. Just last week, Nicole wrote about South Carolina passing a bill that "requires women to view their own ultrasounds before having the procedure."

So, besides the fact that it is just creepy to buy and sell babies and that the price isn't really right ($500 is just $.07 an hour to carry a child for nine months), as the folks over at Culture Kitchen point out, isn't it illegal? Apparently, the Texas senator dealt with this minor barrier. The act reads: "Penal Code, does not apply to the grant or acceptance of money under this section." Now, surely this legislation is unlikely to go anywhere and is pure wingnuttery, but it is definitely symbolic. As the Huffington Post notes, this act is "reflective of just how little 'pro-life' politicians and leaders actually care about women." The Huff Post has more great insight about this program. Worth a read.

Monsters of the Deep Rise and Attack

| Mon Mar. 26, 2007 7:14 PM EDT

squid.jpgJumbo squid live at depths of at least 650 feet, so humans have rarely had contact with them. We still know little about them, although the first specimen was landed 3 years ago, and a larger (colossal) specimen followed last month. Ignorance, it seems, has been bliss. These things are flesh-sucking monsters, as this account of a diver's life-and-death battle with several squid propelling themselves at him at speeds up to 25 miles per hour and grabbing at his exposed flesh with their "tooth-lined tentacles" and "raptor-like beaks" makes all too clear. Unfortunately, though, the squid are showing signs of making Northern California's waters their own. Once there, they will likely attack more divers and devour the catch of the day at many regional fisheries.

A result of human-caused climate change? We don't know enough about the animals to know, which just proves the point that nature is way too complicated to f-ck with.

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Sorry Pakistanis- This is How We Do It

| Mon Mar. 26, 2007 6:23 PM EDT

American foreign policy is predictable: say one thing and do another. And what is said is usually just a half-assed attempt to satisfy critics, like the "nonbinding resolutions" on the war in Iraq. Take the new developments in Pakistan. Two weeks ago, I blogged about the massive protests that have raked Pakistan as a result of General Musharraf's decision to sack the too independent chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Chaudhry.

Yesterday, more than 200 people were arrested, prior on the eve of today's protest where thousands of Pakistani opposition supporters rallied throughout Pakistan. In total, more than 1000 Pakistani protesters have been arrested.

Officials from the religious party Jaamat-e-Islami have even chimed in. Secretary General Syed Munawar Hasan:

"Gen Pervez Musharraf is subjugating all state institutions including the judiciary with the help of military power and he has dealt a deadly blow to the judiciary by suspending Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad."

Hasan said the worst victims of Gen Musharraf's era were the constitution, law and justice and all of them had been buried alive.

"The military rulers have enslaved 160 million people of the country at gunpoint and the crimes being committed on the people and sacred state institutions are the worst in the history of the country...It is ironic that Gen Musharraff always bows before the US but fires bullets at his own people."

The US response? Nada. Oh, sure, some members of Congress are "reaching out" to the Pakistani people and "there should be more than one phone number there to dial," but nothing substantial. Some members wrote a letter to Musharraf, asking him to hold fair and free elections while still wearing his uniform.

You don't ask a military dictator to enact democracy. But the U.S. doesn't really care if democracy reigns in Pakistan. If we did, the administration would have given explicit support to the protesters, organizations, parties, and the legal community in Pakistan which are demanding democracy.

Instead, the administration simply says that the situation is a "sensitive" issue. Plus, Congress isn't exactly moving to halt military aid to Musharraf either.

Musharraf has requested that the issue not be politicized: "I appeal to all lawyers that they should let this constitutional and legal process be completed. It should not be made a law and order or political issue," he said. Pakistani protesters may not comply, but the US sure will. After all, this is how we do it.

—Neha Inamdar

Birth Control Costs On Campus Double Thanks to Medicaid

| Mon Mar. 26, 2007 2:00 PM EDT

The cost of birth control sold at student health centers on college campuses nationwide are skyrocketing and women can thank Medicaid for costs that have now doubled from around $10 a pack to $22 for a month's worth of pills. The price hike comes after of a change in a Medicaid rebate law that means pharmaceutical companies are no longer providing large discounts on some drugs to universities, including, surprise, contraceptives.

Previously, pharmaceutical companies often sold drugs at deep discounts to colleges, the discounts made business sense for the companies in that they created brand loyalty for the company, plus they didn't count against the drug makers in a formula calculating rebates they owed states to participate in Medicaid.

But the 2005 Medicaid bill, which went into effect in January, means that drug manufacturers who provide any discounts to colleges mean drug manufacturers need to pay more to participate in Medicaid. The result, fewer companies are offering discounts, meaning the pills are less affordable.

About 40% of female undergrads use oral contraceptives, according to a recent survey conducted by the American College Health Association. Many colleges tried to maintain costs for contraceptives for a few months by buying in bulk before the new law took effect, but now their stocks are low and they have had to increase prices.

ACHA said that the Medicaid bill should have included an exemption for companies to provide prescription drugs to college health centers and the group has supported a proposal to change the law. And for those who are anti-contraceptives, know that this rule change affects all discounts. For example, for the 16% of college students who have been diagnosed with depression—a 56% increase since 2000— their prescription costs are up as well.

Prosecutor Purge, Sort Of Like Anna Nicole Smith...

| Mon Mar. 26, 2007 12:16 PM EDT

Thanks to Salon, we didn't miss the Republican Senator from Oklahoma Tom Coburn comparing the media coverage of the U.S. Attorneys case to that of Anna Nicole Smith during last Thursday's hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, during which the senate voted to subpoena Karl Rove and several other WH officials implicated in the purge:

"[I]f you're sitting out in the middle of this country and this [prosecutor purge] becomes the topic du jour...like Anna Nicole Smith for the last two months, which has sickened the American public but that's what the press has run with because it makes for a nice dirty story, what are we doing to our country?"

Granted, media coverage of Washington scandals or any scandal for that matter can get out of control, but comparing the media's obsession with the death of a former Playboy bunny to that of its coverage of blatant executive power abuse is a stretch.

Coburn's comment comes in the wake of this ever-thickening plot. Last Thursday night, more documents were released to Congress containing pertinent information about the firings of the eight U.S. attorneys last year. One email, McClatchy reports, puts AG Alberto Gonzales at a meeting about firings on November 27, 2006 (only ten days before seven of the eight USAs were told to resign). This potentially contradicts what Gonzales has been saying; that although he takes full responsibility for "any mistakes" that occurred within his department, he was not aware of the details of the firings and that his former chief of staff Kyle Sampson was heading up that "process."

Sampson has voluntarily agreed to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee this Thursday. But, Politico reports that friends of Sampson claim the former chief of staff is "not gunning for anybody" and "does not plan to deliver bombshells." "Sampson will contend there was no underlying sin, just a botched response." I'm fairly certain though, as TPMmuckraker points out as well, this "Gee, shucks, we just weren't ready with a response" routine is not going to fly with Chairman Patrick Leahy, and committee members Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Schumer. Should be interesting. Stay tuned.

Why the NYPD's Abuses Matter to You and Us

| Sun Mar. 25, 2007 11:44 PM EDT

Most people who support the Bush administration's generous reinterpretation of the rights of government in the name of fighting terrorism (and many do) do so with the fundamental assumption that they would never be the ones whose civil liberties were yanked out from underneath them. After all, they're law-abiding citizens who couldn't possibly be mistaken for terrorist-sympathizers or enemies of the state. Well, the Times' article on the far-reaching surveillance conducted by the New York police in the lead-up to the 2004 Republican convention demonstrates how false that assumption is—even for upper-class white heterosexual Christian moderates.

Attend a meeting of a group opposing Bush or the death penalty or other government policies, or supporting the environment (or, or, or) and the government opens a file on you. Engage in email with these groups and your email will be read and stored. Simply walk down the wrong block in Manhattan during the Republican convention—whether or not you were there to protest, and whether or not your protest was held in violation of any rule or regulation, however minor—and you may have been jailed in the huge dragnet arrests that caused more than 1,800 people to be held for up to 2 days. Not only were many innocent of all charges, but virtually all were charged with violations that would not normally be cause for making a trip down to the station. Few detainees were charged within the legal time limit, and the NYPD failed to respond to the writs of habeas corpus filed on their behalf. Why? So they could get fingerprints of every person being held.

This is per the paper of record; it's no conspiracy theory, though many who have been giving their version of events for more than 2 years have been dismissed as paranoid.

Which brings me to my second point. Without the investigative journalism of a serious local paper, this story would never have come to light. In this era of media consolidation [PDF] and profits-first, it pays to remember that. All national news is local somewhere. Investigative journalism, which is time consuming and doesn't always strike pay dirt, may not make sense in terms of a simple equation of time in: money out, but knowing what your government is up to—well, that's priceless. And it could easily be your freedom that depends upon it someday, whoever you are.