2010 - %3, September

Quote of the Day: No Solutions Please, We're Republicans

| Mon Sep. 27, 2010 11:12 AM EDT

From John Boehner, responding to Chris Wallace's complaint that the Republican Pledge to America doesn't contain any proposals to cut entitlement programs:

When you start down that path, you just invite all kind of problems. I know. I’ve been there....Let’s not get to the potential solutions. Let’s make sure Americans understand how big the problem is. Then we can talk about possible solutions and then work ourselves into those solutions that are doable.

Boehner is being a smart pol. Actually telling the American public what the Republican Party wants to do after it's in office would indeed invite all kinds of problems. Namely that Americans would all hate it and start voting against Republicans. So I think we can safely predict that they'll continue to be resolute in their unwillingness to fess up to the "potential solutions" they have in mind. They want to leave that as a surprise.

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Gulf Fund Czar Under Fire

| Mon Sep. 27, 2010 10:56 AM EDT

The Department of Justice is not happy at all with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility and its administrator, Kenneth Feinberg. Associate US Attorney General Thomas Perrelli recently sent a sharply worded letter to the spill fund czar, calling the current speed of processing claims "unacceptable."

The letter directs Feinberg to make whatever changes are necessary to expedite payments to Gulf residents. It's a claims process that has been fraught—as my profile of Feinberg earlier this month detailed, he's faced a number of challenges in administering the fund and has been much slower to deliver checks than he promised. Last week Feinberg admitted that some of his initial promises of expediency might have been overly optimistic.

But the DOJ isn't taking any excuses. The letter notes that, even in cases where a lack of documentation is not a factor, "tens of thousands of claims have been pending, awaiting GCCF review, longer than the time periods you proposed." Perrelli wrote:

Your recent public statements have acknowledged that the process is more complicated and time-intensive than you had anticipated. I would reiterate to you, however, that the efficiency of the GCCF's review and payment process is not just a matter of fulfilling your own performance goals. The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill has disrupted the lives of thousands upon thousands of individuals, often cutting off the income on which they depend. Many of these individuals and businesses simply do not have the resources to get by while they await processing by the GCCF.

The letter was sent on Sept. 17, but made its way into the press over the weekend. On Saturday, Feinberg announced that he would implement "new and improved procedures to expedite claims," and said the center would be "sending out more generous checks more quickly" in the coming days.

"Over the past few weeks, I have heard from the people of the Gulf, elected officials, and others that payments remain too slow and not generous enough. I am implementing new procedures that will make this program more efficient, more accelerated and more generous," Feinberg said.

A Michele Bachmann/Bill Clinton Smackdown

| Mon Sep. 27, 2010 10:20 AM EDT

Michele Bachman seems particularly happy—now that she's running for reelection against Bill Clinton.

The Minnesota Republican, who heads the House Tea Party Caucus, has been sending out fundraising emails to conservatives, asking them to help her "defend herself against Bill Clinton." What's Clinton got to do with it? In mid-September, he spoke at a Minneapolis fundraiser for state Sen. Tarryl Clark, who is challenging Bachmann. According to Bachmann, Clinton attacked her and the tea party movement by calling her "stupid." Hitting up the right-wingers for campaign cash, she decries "the despicable Clinton attacks on my character," and declares, "Clinton, Pelosi, Obama, and the rest of the liberal establishment are in panic mode as Tea Party candidates across the country rise up against their socialist government. We must continue to fight!"

Clinton sure did take a swipe at Bachmann at that fundraiser, but how tough was it? Journalist Joe Conason was there, and it's his account that started the fuss. Here's what the ex-president said, with Clark standing by him, according to Conason:

Your opponent is the ultimate example of putting ideology over evidence…I respect people with a conservative philosophy. This country has been well-served by having two broad traditions within which people can operate. If you have a philosophy, it means you’re generally inclined one way or the other but you’re open to evidence. If you have an ideology, it means everything is determined by dogma and you’re impervious to evidence. Evidence is irrelevant That’s how I see Rep. Bachmann. She’s very attractive in saying all these things she says, but it’s pretty stupid.

To parse Clinton's words (!), he didn't call Bachmann stupid, just the ideas she's promoting. But that was enough for her to self-righteously portray herself as a Clinton victim--and to do so in melodramatic terms. "Bill Clinton will stop at nothing to raise money to defeat me," she insists in one of the fundraising emails she sent out. And she claims that in the first five days of her anti-Clinton contributions-collecting effort, she bagged over $117,000 in online donations. "The liberal left loves Bill Clinton," Bachmann maintains. And the conservative right still loves bashing him.

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"I Want to Make Sure I Have a Home To Go Back To"

| Mon Sep. 27, 2010 9:28 AM EDT

Activists from across Appalachia are in Washington, DC, this week to call attention to mountaintop removal coal mining, the controversial practice of blowing up mountains to reach coal reserves. Appalachia Rising participants will march from the Environmental Protection Agency headquarters to the White House on Monday and hold a lobby day Tuesday to call attention to the practice they say is destroying their homes and communities.

"The region's not going to survive much longer if we don't do something soon," says Dustin White of Charleston, W.Va., in town for this week's events. White, a 27-year-old with a crew cut and glasses, is orginally from James Creek, a community of about 100 people on Cook Mountain in the southwestern part of West Virginia. The mountain was named for one of his ancestors, and many are buried nearby. Two months ago, Patriot Coal Corporation, one of the largest mining companies in the country, told White's father, a former coal miner, that they would soon be blasting near his home.

White describes nearby towns that are no longer, as residents have been bought out by coal companies or simply abandoned due to the blasting and diminished quality of life. There's Lindytown, which sits on the other side of Cook Mountain in the valley below a Massey MTR site, which he says went from 100 people a few years ago to just three today. White fears the same might happen to his town.

"I'm in limbo—I don't know whether my hometown is going to exist in 20 years," said White.

"Twenty? Try five!" chimed in Mary Love, an anti-mountaintop-removal activist from Kentucky.

White says he's not anti-mining. He just thinks it can and should be done safely underground, the way it was before mining companies had the machinery, firepower, and more lenient environmental rules that have allowed them to blast mountains and dump the waste in nearby valleys. The practice was also accelerated in the past eight years, thanks to a 2002 Bush administration change to the Clean Water Act rules that made it legal to fill valleys with waste from blast sites. The same change also made it legal to dump the debris and even waste like old toilets and junk cars into valleys.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 27, 2010

Mon Sep. 27, 2010 8:50 AM EDT

U.S. Army Capt. Sungmin Kim, a civil structural engineer with the Parwan Provincial Reconstruction Team and a Willowbrook, Ill., resident, greets the Parwan Director of the Ministry of Higher Education in the city of Charikar here Sept. 20. Kim and members of the Civil Military Support Team and the Republic of Korea Provincial Reconstruction Team visited the school to inspect a newly constructed building that will be used as a teachers training college. (Photo by U.S. Army Spc. Kristina L. Gupton, Task Force Wolverine Public Affairs, 982nd Combat Camera)

Bringing the Andes to Brooklyn: Chicha Libre's Olivier Conan

| Mon Sep. 27, 2010 6:31 AM EDT

Imagine hiking in the Peruvian Andes and finding a group of chicha musicians: migrants playing a fusion of Cuban son, Andean melodies and psychedelic surfer rock, blended like the Inca corn whiskey the music is named after. These days, though, you might be more likely to encounter chicha—whose popularity peaked in Peru during the late-'70s/early '80s—here in the United States.

That's because Olivier Conan, a Brooklyn-based French musician, fell in love with chicha while on vacation in Peru, and managed to revive it at home by way of his six-man band Chicha Libre. (He sings and plays the Cuatro, a small four-string guitar.) What began as tribute music to the populist treasure of the Andean highlanders has picked up nuances from the international scene that has sprung up around Barbès, a South Brooklyn bar and community center co-owned by Conan and Chicha Libres guitarist Victor Douglas.

 

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Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas' Free Lunch

| Mon Sep. 27, 2010 6:31 AM EDT

That was a treat! How often can you leave work on your lunch break, grab a burrito, and plop your ass down 20 feet from a world-renowned symphony orchestra for a free concert led by this guy.

The San Francisco Symphony, fresh from a round of festivals in Switzerland and Italy, played an outdoor freebie for their appreciative hometown rabble Friday afternoon, the players laughing as nearby car horns and sirens worked their way into the refrains. It was delightful show, ignoring the program's admonition that "video or audio recording of today's performance is strictly prohibited" (Please! This is the iPhone generation.) Superconductor Michael Tilson Thomas took the helm, launching his talented crew of waiters (or so they appeared in their white tuxedoes) into the Roman Carnival Overture (Opus 9) by Berlioz, followed by the First Movement (Allegro con brio) from Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Opus 67. (See rant below.)

Are Genetically Engineered Foods (Including Salmon) More Allergenic?

| Mon Sep. 27, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

You've probably heard that the FDA is considering whether to approve the first-ever genetically-engineered fish. Developed by a Massachusetts-based company called AquaBounty Technologies, this new supersalmon is basically an Atlantic salmon with genes from Chinook salmon and a fish called the ocean pout. In theory, this could be a good thing: The new genes allow the fish, called AquAdvantage, to grow twice as fast as regular salmon, meaning more salmon for everyone, and less stress on wild stocks. 

But a number of consumer, health, and environmental groups say that neither AquaBounty Technologies nor the FDA has enough evidence to ensure the public that the fish—which wouldn't have to be labeled as genetically engineered (GE) on supermarket shelves—is safe for people or the planet. Consumers Union senior scientist Michael Hansen called the company's food safety tests "woefully incomplete," and the group pointed out that the FDA approval panel is mostly comprised of GE cheerleaders, with no fish ecologists or allergists. Why's an allergist important? Because the company's own tests suggest that the new salmon could be much more allergenic than regular salmon.

In order to understand the allergy tests, a bit of backstory on how AquAdvantage salmon are made is necessary. First, genetic engineers create a "diploid" fish, meaning like people, it has two sets of chromosomes. Then, to make the final market product, they add genetic material from other fish and breed a new salmon with three sets of chromosomes—a "triploid" female that can't reproduce. AquaBounty researchers compared the allergenicity—or potential to cause an allergic reaction—of a control group of salmon to both the genetically engineered diploids and triploids. They found (PDF, see page 102) that the diploid salmon were 40 percent more allergenic than the control, while the triploid group was 19 percent more allergenic.

AquaBounty says that the triploids' allergenicity level wasn't statistically significant, and although the diploids' level is significant, it doesn't matter because only triploids will be sold. But Hansen of the Consumers Union finds a few problems with this argument. For starters, the test wasn't double blind, meaning the researchers knew which fish were part of which test group. Second, the sample size of triploid fish was tiny—only six fish in all. Third, although AquaBounty is going to try to turn all its market-bound fish into triploid sterile females, the process isn't perfect, and some 5 percent could end up as the more allergenic diploid. Especially scary when you consider that unlike the triploids, the diploids aren't sterile. So if they escaped, they could breed with wild salmon.

The FDA simply doesn't have enough information to determine whether AquaBounty's salmon are likely to cause more allergic reactions than their non-GE counterparts. But there is good reason to be concerned about the potential allergenicity of all GE foods, says Margaret Mellon, director of the scientist Union of Concerned Scientsts' Food and Environment Program. "You have this technology that allows you to essentially move proteins around from food to food," she says. "You can move a highly allergenic protein into a new food, and no one will know to avoid the new food."

Indeed, a 1996 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people who were allergic to Brazil nuts were also allergic to soy beans that had been implanted with a Brazil nut protein. There is also some evidence that even proteins don't usually cause allergies can become allergenic when they are moved to a new food. A 2005 Australian study found that mice who were fed peas containing a typically non-allergenic protein from kidney beans experienced allergic reactions.

Another worry is that potentially allergenic GE crops might "escape" into foods. In the late '90s, the pharmaceutical giant Aventis introduced StarLink, a genetically engineered variety of corn. StarLink was approved for sale in the US, but only for non-food uses, since it contained a potentially allergenic protein. But then, traces of it started turning up in food (most famously, Taco Bell taco shells), and 28 people claimed they had suffered allergic reactions to foods containing StarLink. Although the CDC later found no medical evidence that any of those people had an allergy to the corn, an EPA advisory panel acknowledged that the CDC's tests did "not eliminate StarLink...protein as a potential cause of allergic symptoms."

The bottom line: It's not that genetically engineered foods are inherently more allergenic than traditional foods, but transfering genes does make it more likely that allergens might pop up in unexpected places. "There can be a lot of unintended side effects when you do genetic modification, which means you have to test very carefully," says Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the watchdog group Food and Water Watch. "In the case of salmon, one test on six fish just seems very insufficient for something that will open the floodgates to other GE meat and fish."

 

 

Wiretapping the Internet

| Mon Sep. 27, 2010 1:16 AM EDT

The New York Times reports today that the Obama adminstration plans to propose "sweeping new regulations for the Internet" that will help them wiretap communications by criminal and terrorism suspects. In particular, they want anyone who provides encrypted communications services to have the ability to monitor, decrypt, and make messages available to the feds when they ask for them:

Susan Landau, a Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study fellow and former Sun Microsystems engineer, argued that the proposal would raise costly impediments to innovation by small startups. “Every engineer who is developing the wiretap system is an engineer who is not building in greater security, more features, or getting the product out faster,” she said.

I look forward to conservatives at Fox News and the Heritage Foundation expressing outrage over a proposal that will heighten uncertainty and burden our small businesses with yet another set of bureaucratic rules. After all, we know how important small businesses are to these guys. So they'll surely object. Right?

The Liberal Future

| Sun Sep. 26, 2010 7:42 PM EDT

Apparently Matt Yglesias has been getting some questions about the neoliberalish direction of his blog lately, so he explains where he's coming from:

There’s a couple of reasons. One is simply product differentiation — I don’t think just writing the same posts as Kevin Drum and Ezra Klein and Jon Chait is what the world needs from me, but we obviously all have similar political opinions. The other is the point I’ve made before, namely that with the passage of the Affordable Care Act the long struggle to expand the scope of the welfare state is largely over.

[Chart showing federal spending rising rapidly thanks to spiraling cost of Medicare.]

Realistically, does anyone think we’re going to increase the overall size of the government faster than that? I sure don’t. And yet there are actually some areas in which I’d like to see the government doing more — specifically nutrion, early childhood education, infrastructure, and probably K-12 education writ large....So the future of American politics is necessarily going to be about things like making the tax code more efficient, finding areas of government spending to cut relative to projection, and thinking of policy measures that will help people that don’t involve spending more money.

Sadly, this is not going to do the trick when it comes to product differentiation since it pretty much mirrors my own views. When it comes to domestic politics, my version of the narrative goes something like this:

  • Liberals have gotten a lot done in the past 80 years. There are plenty of things still left on our plate, but among big ticket legislative programs the only thing left is national healthcare. Link.
  • We now have a good start on that. What's left is constant evolution and improvement.
  • This, along with modest fixes to Social Security, will eventually put total state/local/federal spending somewhere around 40-45% of GDP. That's as high as I'm comfortable with. Link.
  • So we can't spend huge sums on much of anything else, and to spend even modest sums we're going to have to cut some existing programs and figure out ways to make others more efficient. Link.

To make things even worse on the product differentiation front, I even agree that of the medium scale programs liberals should focus on, education in general and, more specifically, early and intense interventions in high-poverty areas should probably be one of our highest priorities. I'd also add climate change legislation to the top of this list, but that's likely to be a long, grinding fight for small advances, not one or two big ticket items. For the time being, then, the main way to tell us apart is that Matt is the one preoccupied with basketball and parking regulations while I'm the one preoccupied with cats and the growth of income inequality. Maybe someday we'll figure out something else to gin up a fight over.