2009 - %3, July

Conservatives on Healthcare

| Sun Jul. 5, 2009 9:57 PM EDT

Two pieces in the LA Times today demonstrate why conservatives are increasingly losing the healthcare argument.  First up is Michael Tanner of Cato, a guy who's practically an op-ed machine on the subject of healthcare, and right up front he says this about healthcare in America: "It costs too much. Too many people lack health insurance. And quality can be uneven."  And he admits that "supporters of the free market" — like him — "have been remiss in positing viable alternatives."

A promising start!  But his solution is bizarre:

There are two key components to any free-market healthcare reform. First, we need to move away from a system dominated by employer-provided health insurance....Changing from employer-provided to individually purchased insurance requires changing the tax treatment of health insurance....For tax purposes, employer-provided insurance should be treated as taxable income.

....The other part of effective healthcare reform involves increasing competition among both insurers and health providers. Current regulations establish monopolies and cartels in both industries.

These may or may not be good ideas.  They might or might not reduce the cost of healthcare.  That much is at least debatable.  But they'd do nothing to reduce the number of people who lack health insurance.  Just the opposite, in fact.  If we took his advice, employers would drop health insurance like hot coals and it's a dead certainty that anybody who's over the age of 50 or has a previous history of anything at all would be unable to get replacement coverage in the individual market.  This isn't debatable at all.  So why does Tanner think any ordinary middle-aged, middle-class op-ed reader is going to support a plan that increases the odds that they'll have no health insurance in the future?  That doesn't make much sense.

But at least Tanner isn't crazy.  Unpersuasive, maybe, but not crazy.  Charlotte Allen, conversely, thinks that in order to free up some much needed healthcare cash, Barack Obama wants to take all our old people and set them adrift on ice floes to die.  Do you think I'm engaged in some bloggy exaggeration for rhetorical effect?  Let's roll the tape:

The Eskimos used to set their elderly and sickly adrift on the ice or otherwise abandon them during times of scarcity, and that, metaphorically speaking, is what Obama would like us all to start doing.

....The scarcity of resources to pay for expensive medical procedures will only increase under a plan to extend medical benefits at federal expense to the 47 million Americans who lack health insurance. So why not save billions of dollars by killing off our own unproductive oldsters and terminal patients, or — since we aren't likely to do that outright in this, the 21st century — why not simply ensure that they die faster by denying them costly medical care?

The rest of the piece is a weird Soylent Greenish hodgepodge of scaremongering about comparative effectiveness research, fear of jackbooted government bureaucrats pulling the plug on grandma, and a revival of zombie "No Exit" agitprop last seen in 1994.  Allen barely even pretends there's any real evidence for this stuff — mainly because there isn't any, I suppose — so instead she just riffs hysterically about what Obama "seems" to believe about how to reform healthcare.  Most weirdly of all, though, at the end of the piece the conservative Charlotte Allen herself seems to suggest that Medicare should be funded with infinite amounts of money and there should never be any restriction on how it's spent.  Either that or she doesn't realize that Medicare is the way most old people in America get medical care.  Or that Medicare is a government program.  Or something.  I can't really make sense out of it.

Better conservatives, please.  These two are hopeless.

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Roger v. Andy

| Sun Jul. 5, 2009 3:16 PM EDT

I feel like I ought to have a post about the Federer vs. Roddick match at Wimbledon today, but I have oddly little to say.  The fact is, despite the spectacular final score, it didn't feel like that great a match to me.  Roddick dropping six consecutive points in the second set tiebreaker set a bad tone, and the rest of the match was basically just a serve-a-thon.  That's Wimbledon for you, of course, but in the end it just didn't have the feel of an epic contest.  How is that possible for something that ended 16-14 in the fifth?  I'm not sure.

Still, it was great to see Federer get #15.  If Nadal doesn't get his bum knee back in shape soon, Federer is going to end his career with a grand slam record somewhere in the 20s.  Amazing.

Quote of the Day

| Sun Jul. 5, 2009 2:58 PM EDT

From Sarah Palin, still governor of Alaska for the time being, taking advantage of the power of social networking to continue her self-pity fest on Saturday:

How sad that Washington and the media will never understand; it's about country. And though it's honorable for countless others to leave their positions for a higher calling and without finishing a term, of course we know by now, for some reason a different standard applies for the decisions I make.

Um, what higher calling are we talking about here, Sarah?  Freeing up your schedule to whine more regularly on your Facebook page?

But here's an interesting thought: Maybe she really means this.  Seriously.  Maybe she really doesn't get the difference between resigning your office to, say, accept a nomination as Secretary of State or ambassador to China, and resigning your office just because people are mean to you and the whole governor thing has gotten kind of boring.  This is Sarah Palin we're talking about, after all.

Palin's Last Act: Parental Consent

| Sat Jul. 4, 2009 1:17 PM EDT

As I tweeted yesterday, when MoJo was reduced to a twitter-only operation, the day before Sarah Palin annouced her resignation, one of Alaska's top public health officials was forced out for butting heads with Palin over social issues, specifically a provision that would require that girls under the age of 17 obtain parental consent before getting an abortion. Beverly Wooley, state public health director, was the second official to be forced out over this issue. The state's chief medical officer, Jay Butler, left in late June. Both made the critical mistake of wanting to present scientific evidence on the impact of parental consent laws to the state Senate. They never got the chance; the Senate "ran out of time." From the Anchorage Daily News:

Wooley said she also intended to answer questions from legislators and said she would rely on data, not anyone's personal beliefs. Whether she personally agreed with the governor is beside the point, Wooley said.

She intended to refer to studies from states that already had passed similar legislation, she said. Some of the research shows that, with parental involvement requirements, girls tend to get abortions later in their pregnancy, which is riskier and more expensive, she said. Other research shows fewer girls get abortions, which abortion foes like Palin likely would applaud. Wooley cautioned that the studies are small and not definitive because such laws are still fairly new.

"You let those facts speak for themselves. And truly, people will interpret those facts differently based on their own personal history and experience," Wooley said.

That was enough to get her canned. And guess what? The next day, the very day that Palin resigned:

A proposal to require parental notice or consent before a female younger than 18 could have an abortion was certified Thursday by the state so that its backers can seek enough signatures to get the initiative before voters next year.

So, Sarah Palin may be gone soon. But her policies live on. And no matter where her career takes her (Fox News anchor gig?), her last act cements her bona fides with pro-lifers. Which can only help her ability to raise or earn money.

The Real Stink Behind Sewage Sludge & the White House Garden

| Sat Jul. 4, 2009 12:44 PM EDT

 Since I raised the possibility two weeks ago that sewage sludge fertilizer could have contaminated the Obamas' White House vegetable garden with lead, there has been a flurry of press on the subject. Various food and gardening blogs and dueling Huffington Posters weighed in, followed by the AP, Reuters, and the New York Times after a White House spokeswoman publicly addressed the lead issue on Thursday. Much of the coverage has sought to quell misperceptions that produce from the White House garden is unsafe to eat. Indeed, as I pointed out in my original post, the levels of lead in the garden are still well below those that the EPA says can cause health impacts. But in obsessing over whether the Obamas are poisoning themselves and their guests--and there's no proof that they are--most of the media missed the more interesting question: Is it really a good idea to grow vegetables on land that has been fertilized with sewage sludge?

The EPA thinks so, and has promoted the practice for decades as an alternative to landfilling sludge or dumping it in the ocean. In what was probably the single most effective component of a vast marketing campaign for sludge fertilizer, the National Park Service tilled it into the White House's South Lawn through much of the 1990s. Interest in the President's preferred brand of sludge spiked to the point that its makers had a hard time meeting the demand. Today, more than half the poop flushed in America ends up as fertilizer.

The safety of sludge might not be such a concern when it's spread your lawn and covered in a layer of grass, but chew on this: Food companies such as H.J. Heinz and Del Monte won't accept produce grown on sludge-treated land. The Netherlands and Switzerland effectively ban the use of sludge on farmland, and the practice is expressly prohibited by the USDA's organics standards. If sludge has been spread on the South Lawn anytime since about 2006, the Obamas' pesticide-free garden could not be certified as organic.

The human poop in sludge isn't necessarily the problem. Sludge can contain traces of anything that gets poured down the drain, from Prozac flushed down toilets to lead hosed off factory floors. The EPA sets concentration limits for several heavy metals found in sludge, including lead, but the limits are higher than what is deemed safe in some European countries. For example, the EPA permits sludge to contain up to 300 parts per million of lead, but the Netherlands raises concerns about soil with more than 40 ppm of lead.

Saturday Cat Blogging - 4 July 2009

| Sat Jul. 4, 2009 12:19 PM EDT

Last week we had double catblogging.  So how do I make up for the site being down all day yesterday?  Triple catblogging!  Six pictures instead of the usual two.

Inkblot gets a series of action shots today.  It goes something like this: (1) Ah, a string on the end of a stick.  The classics are always the best.  I think I'll roll over and smack it.  (2) Whoa! Where'd the edge of the table come from? Flip back over, quick! (3) I'm calling OSHA.  You guys really ought to put up a guardrail or something.  (4) OK, that's better.

And Domino?  Not much action here.  Just the usual sun worshipping.  Have a nice Fourth, everyone!

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Say It Ain't So, Sarah

| Sat Jul. 4, 2009 11:55 AM EDT

Obviously God has it in for us, taking down our website (explanation here) on the same day that Sarah Palin decided to resign as governor of Alaska. Twitter just isn't the same.

True story: I was eating a bowl of popcorn when CNN cut to Palin's speech. Very appropriate. So have you watched it yet? If you haven't, do it now. Seriously. It was an instant classic, right up there with Nixon in '62 as a resentment-fueled blast of grievance and self-pity mongering—though this was sort of the breathless junior high school version. Here's the gist:

William Seward....endured such ridicule and mocking for his vision for Alaska....I wish you'd hear more from the media of your state's progress....I have taken the slings and arrows....You don’t hear much of the good stuff in the press anymore, do you?
....Political operatives descended on Alaska last August, digging for dirt....Life is too short to compromise time and resources....I will not seek re-election as Governor....I know when it's time to pass the ball—for victory.
....This decision comes after much consideration....The "hell yeah" sealed it—and someday I'll talk about the details of that... I think much of it had to do with the kids seeing their baby brother Trig mocked by some pretty mean-spirited adults recently.
....Worthy causes....not this local / superficial wasteful political bloodsport....My parents' refrigerator that says "Don't explain: your friends don't need it and your enemies won't believe you anyway."...."We are not retreating. We are advancing in another direction."

But that's not all. You really have to watch the whole thing from beginning to end. There's the dead fish. There's the bit about staying in office being the quitter's way out. There's the basketball riff. There's the part about resigning being the only way she can stop herself from going overseas on lavish taxpayer financed junkets. I guess we all have our favorite parts, but my sister's reaction pretty much summed it up: WTF? What's more, even the endlessly chattering talking heads on the cable nets couldn't say much more. They sent up little more than a collective WTF too. When was the last time those guys were left speechless?

So what's really going on? If I had to take a guess, I'd say we take her at her word: She just got tired of all the crap. Via email, reader JS puts it like this:

The reason is scattered all througout the speech—she's not having any fun anymore. She's fed up, pissed off. When she was the golden girl and everybody in Alaska adored her and she was able to push through pretty much everything she wanted to do, that was exhilarating. Now her popularity has plummeted, she's fighting with almost everybody in the state, and the MSM, the blogs, the late-night comedians and the McCain operatives are all trashing her and her family daily. That's not what she thinks she signed up for.
She's only thick-skinned when she's getting her way and the people who are fighting her are on the losing end. I think she simply doesn't have the stomach for this kind of long-running battling.

Reihan Salam has a similar take:

Sarah Palin’s [announcement] makes perfect sense to me. Though I wouldn't exactly be surprised if she turned blue, sprouted several additional arms, and decided to become America's chief advocate of a forceful Hindutva politics, I tend to think she really wants to leave politics behind and perhaps become the evangelical Oprah.

Still, who knows? Maybe there really is some other shoe about to drop, like the long-rumored house/hockey rink scandal. You'd have to be a fool to try to say anything conclusive. But if Palin really is leaving big-time elective politics for good, it's only fitting that she goes out the same way she came in: in a flurry of incoherence so freakish that we're all left in jaw dropping astonishment.

Oh, and I'll ask again: Has anyone ever resigned a governorship before without actually saying why? Or is this a first?

And now: catblogging!

MoJo Is Back Online!

| Sat Jul. 4, 2009 11:26 AM EDT

We've been down for the last 36 hours thanks to a fire at a massive server center in Seattle. (You can read all about the travails of us and many other companies at Twitter #fisherfire. Or as David Corn dubbed it #serverBBQ). That would have been stressful enough, but it turned into the ultimate take out the trash Friday when Sarah Palin suddenly announced she was resigning. (Sarah, our legal case to get your emails is still pending.) Corn's been tweeting about it. And the whole staff has been pitching in at the @MotherJones Twitter stream, check it out.

Clara Jeffery is Co-Editor of Mother Jones. You can follow her tweets here.

This Week In Frog: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

| Fri Jul. 3, 2009 9:27 AM EDT

The Good

Thanks to pesticides, invading bullfrogs, nonnative diseases, and the loss of wetlands, the northern leopard frog may warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act in 18 western states, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announcement that's scheduled for today.

The Bad

National Geographic reports that the "mating between the rare California tiger salamander and the introduced barred tiger salamander has created a monster." The combination of native and nonnative species seems to be the worst pairing since ligers. As a result of these new creatures, biodiversity is taking a major hit in the ponds of California's Salinas River Valley. The new superpredator grows larger than either of its parent species, so "its bigger mouth enables it to suck up a wide variety of amphibian prey." This spells certain trouble for frogs who have difficulty competing against larger salamanders.

The Ugly Salamander

Check out this National Geographic video that shows a bunch of new species that were recently observed in an isolated Ecuadorian forest, including the transparent glass frog and the E.T.-like "ugly salamander":

 

Eco-News Roundup: Friday, July 3

| Fri Jul. 3, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

Before you head for the beach, some science, environment, and health posts from our other blogs to kick off your holiday weekend:

Geeks' Green Dreams: Silicon Valley techies can't bankroll green energy on their own (much as they might like to). That's why we need creative incentives, and not just tax credits.

Healthcare Humdinger: If you're confused by the Congressional Budget Office's latest healthcare cost estimates, you're not alone.

Lies Your Sunscreen Tells You: SPF 100? All-day protection? Sweat-proof? Uh, not quite. Plus: Want to get enough vitamin D? Here's how, no tanning salon required.