High Fashion vs. Dame Helen Mirren

Sixty-six year old actress Helen Mirren was recently voted the female "body of the year" by Los Angeles gym patrons, beating out Jennifer Lopez and Pippa Middleton and other younger competitors. Mirren's enviable physique has been the focus of many a photographer (and an SNL skit) and it is formidable. While it may not be realistic for the average sixty-something woman to have Mirren's figure, I was thankful that at least the people who voted her the "body of the year" chose an actual mature woman as a sex symbol.

The New York fashion world has not been as kind lately. For years, it has pushed the size 0 and size 00 super-slim figure out onto the runway. The sample sizes are now so small even models have trouble fitting into them. For some designers, the solution is to not to change the clothes, but to  hire models as young as 12 who are still in the gangly, hip-less, limbo of adolescence. Now, art directors and photographers and designers have gone even further and are dressing figures that aren't physically possible for women, and that's because they're not women. Ten-year-old model Thylane Loubry Blondeau has recently taken the fashion world by storm, posing in French Vogue and walking for Jean Paul Gaultier. Blondeau's childish body is highlighted (some say sexualized) by pictures like the one of her in designer jeans with necklaces covering her bare chest, or another where she's wearing stiletto heels and lying on a tiger-skin rug. Another person who's captured designers imagination is the biologically male, androgynous-looking model Andrej Pejic, who wears both menswear and women's clothing on the runway and in photo shoots.

I understand that breasts and hips, even size 0 ones, may tweak the lines of a haute couture dress, but designing clothes for women that are modeled by young men or prepubescent girls just doesn't make much sense and seems to create a body archetype that is literally unachievable for women. Already, images of grown women are Photoshopped so as to be comically incompatible with biological reality. Depicting a young man or a prepubescent girl as a fashion icon just takes it one more, illogical step forward.

As for Mirren, well, her figure is remarkable but at least within the realm of reality. It's encouraging that even the body-conscious gym-goers of Los Angeles see a womanly figure as something to celebrate. New York fashion world, you could take a page from their book. Maybe sixty is the new size zero.

Scientists to Obama: Keystone XL Pipeline Sucks

James Hansen

The massive oil pipeline TransCanada wants to build from Alberta, Canada to Texas has already garnered criticism from environmentalists, senators, and farmers. On Wednesday, a group of prominent scientists added their names to the opposition roster with a letter to President Obama that calls the Keystone XL pipeline "environmentally destructive" and nonsensical.

"The tar sands are a huge pool of carbon, but one that does not make sense to exploit," the letter asserts. "It makes no sense to build a pipeline system that would practically guarantee extensive exploitation of this resource." Because the pipeline would cross an international boundary, it requires a presidential permit issued by the Department of State, and legislation (PDF) recently passed by the House of Representatives would force Obama to make up his mind by November 1.

If Richard Houghton, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Research Center and one of the letter's signatories, has anything to do with it, the president's answer will be a big fat "No." "The point of government is to look after the public interest, and I can't believe this pipeline is in the public interest," Houghton said in a phone interview. "It seems as though a pipeline is focused on immediate needs and not thinking on a bigger scale."

Getting Tough is Harder Than it Looks

So what can President Obama do to show that he's not a wimp? Jonathan Bernstein suggests the he ignore the "we're technically not in recess because we're holding pro-forma sessions every few days" ploy and just go ahead and make a few recess appointments anyway:

There’s nothing at all stopping Obama from calling this pro forma non-recess recess a farce, saying that for all practical purposes it’s really a recess (and after all, it certainly is in the sense that the Senate has no intention of working on nominations for the entire month), and appointing someone anyway....In my view, the president should start with a relatively uncontroversial pick — say, his commerce secretary appointee, John Bryson. And he should make it clear: He’ll continue with more, plenty more, if Republicans continue their unprecedented levels of obstruction.

I'm all for this. Not because I care about Obama showing off how big his package is, but because I'm in favor of just about anything that stirs up a fight over the absurd impasse we've reached on presidential appointments. As far as I'm concerned, the constitution requires the Senate to act on presidential nominees in some kind of reasonable time and it requires a simple majority vote for confirmation. It's not an optional thing. So bring it on.

More broadly, though, I think it's worth pointing out that this business of displaying toughness is an asymmetric war. Opposition parties in Congress can do pretty much anything they want and pay no price as long as they keep public opinion under control. Presidents can fight back a bit, but frankly, there's not that much they can do. No matter how mad he gets, Obama just doesn't have a lot of leverage to hurt John Boehner in any serious way.

Unfortunately, the flip side is different because presidents actually want to accomplish stuff, not merely bring the other side to a halt. Think about Obama's first two years in office. With the exception of a few weeks at the end of 2009, he never had 60 votes in the Senate. That meant that to get anything done he always needed at least two or three Republican votes. He didn't get any of those votes for healthcare reform, but he did get them for the stimulus, for Lily Ledbetter, for Dodd-Frank, for DADT repeal, for START, and for several other bills. (Student loan reform got passed via reconciliation and didn't need any Republican votes.)

So what would have happened if Obama had taken a confrontational, take-no-prisoners stand from the very beginning? One possibility is that the public would have swooned, Republicans would have been overwhelmed, and he would have gotten a lot more done. And I guess that's possible. But what's far more likely is that if he had turned into a partisan warrior then even the few moderate Republicans left in the Senate would have toed the party line and refused to support anything with Obama's name on it. That's what happens when you amp up the tribal lines.

How would that have worked out in the end? I guess there's no telling. But if I had to bet, I'd say that Obama would have gotten a whole lot less done. David Corn provides the White House line on all this here, in a piece worth reading. I'd say that Obama has been more accommodating than he should have been, but the truth is that he just doesn't have the luxury of lashing out. He's got a country to run, after all.

Scholastic: From Big Coal to Big Egg

Earlier this year environmental and educational groups criticized the publishing giant Scholastic for partnering with the coal lobby to produce classroom materials on energy. The company ended up apologizing for it shortly thereafter and promising to be more vigilant in the future when partnering with outside organizations. But even with the a new advisory board and standards, the company still plans to partner with Big Egg for classroom educational materials.

Last week, the company issued a statement from its president and CEO Richard Robinson with an update on the actions it's taken since the coal kerfuffle. It noted that it is now focusing on working "only with a carefully selected list of non-profit, corporate and government partners," which will be vetted by a new board it created. Robinson predicted that this will result in axing a number of their corporate partners and about 40 percent fewer partnerships overall in the next year. The company also stated that it is "strengthening the editorial review of sponsored supplemental educational content and putting additional checks in place to ensure the accuracy and impartiality of the content."

In an interview with the New York Times, Robinson acknowledged that "once in a while there was a slip-up in editorial judgment" when it came to their sponsorship program, and vowed to improve. In addition to the coal group, its corporate partners have included the water filter company Brita, Microsoft, Disney, Nestlé and Shell.

But as the Times noted, the company still plans to partner with trade groups like the American Egg Board—the flacks behind the "Incredible Edible Egg" slogan. From the piece:

In the 2010-11 school year, the program included a Back to Breakfast contest in which 12 teachers each won $5,000 for short essays describing how they would use that grant, with the winners creating videos to post on YouTube. In one video, "Eggucation Week Back to Breakfast Challenge," a Chicago fourth-grade teacher tells of teaching her students about the benefits of eating eggs, and asking them to create egg recipes. Susan Linn, director of the Boston advocacy group, said the egg program raised many of the same issues that the discontinued ones had.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood points out that while healthy eating is of course an excellent educational topic, that information is probably not best presented by Big Egg.

Meanwhile, a conservative Christian group is now going after the Scholastic for another item in its collection: The Magic School Bus and the Climate Challenge. The Magic School Bus series is among its most popular, but the Cornwall Alliance argues that the book is promoting "global warming alarmism" in schools. The group also uses this as an opportunity to promote their own video series about how environmentalists are pushing "anti-Christian" views. Perhaps they'd prefer that Scholastic keep the lessons sponsored by Big Coal?

CIA Faker Blasts Obama, Sells Books

The right-wing opinion site Human Events added a new blogger in June, Frederick "Cork" Graham, whose most recent offering trashes President "Barack H. Obama, Jr." and Attorney Gen. Eric Holder for allegedly prosecuting covert operators for abuses against "terrorists." The purple prose suggests Graham, the author of a memoir titled The Bamboo Chest, was hired for his paramilitary pedigree, not his command of rhetoric:

Dear President Obama,

As a former CIA paramilitary operations officer, I worked for two of your predecessors. One was a staunch defender of the US Constitution. The other was more occupied with the New World Order....

Holder is quickly becoming recognized as the most dangerous man to the American people and The Constitution of the United States, and in no clearer example of this is his office leaking a story to a reporter from AP, to out a former-paramilitary operations officer, In a glaring attempt to make the United States seem like an even friendlier ally of the Islamist states.

The problem is no one can verify that Graham was, in fact, a CIA officer of any kind. He lists no prior military experience; his Wikipedia page merely tells how he grew up in Vietnam, dropped out of college, became a failed conflict photojournalist, and was later jailed in Vietnam searching for Captain Kidd's buried treasure. Spy Talk's Jeff Stein talked with several experts, including vets of the agency's 1980s Latin American campaigns, in which Graham claims to have been a trainer and gunrunner. All of them said Graham's claims and photographs flagged him as a typical faker. "We did not hire paramilitary officers who had no military experience or training," former operative Merle Pribbenow told Stein. "That would be like hiring a dentist whose only dental experience was having his teeth cleaned twice a year."


Light Bulbs, Agenda 21, and You

A couple of days ago I accidentally stumbled onto an odd bit of conservative outrage over the Obama administration's alleged attempt to force farmers to get commercial drivers licenses if they wanted to continue operating their tractors and combines. It wasn't true, but that didn't really matter. The outrage had long since become self-sustaining.

Anyway, as I was googling my way through the woods trying to figure out what this was all about, I kept coming across references to Agenda 21, which was apparently some kind of nefarious UN scheme for world domination or something. But I wanted to stay focused on the whole farm thing, so I didn't look into it beyond a quick peek at Wikipedia, which told me it was a "comprehensive blueprint" for sustainable development adopted in 1992. That's a long time ago, and not much has happened since then, so it didn't really seem like much of a menace.

But I was wrong! By coincidence, Tim Murphy has a piece up today about.....Agenda 21. And Michele Bachmann. And light bulbs. Here's a taste:

To some conservatives, Agenda 21 became something far more nefarious—a gateway to a global government built on a radical doctrine of secular environmentalism.

As these conservatives saw it, the agreement paved the way for the entire planet to be controlled by a central bureaucracy: Humans would be cleared out of vast swaths of settled areas—like the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, for example—and instructed to live in "hobbit homes" in designated "human habitation zones" (two terms embraced by tea party activists). Public transportation would be the only kind of transportation, and governments would force contraception on their citizens to control the population level. A human life would be considered no more significant than, say, that of a manatee. "Sustainability," the idea at the heart of the agreement, became a gateway to dystopia.

I guess this is the new Trilateral Commission. Or the new NAFTA superhighway. Or something. In any case, there's more, so much more at the link. I can't believe that Glenn Beck never picked up on this. Or did he?

Just How Much Turkey Did Cargill Recall?*

What once looked like the beginnings of a great dinner no longer seems so appetizing.

Late Wednesday afternoon, Cargill, one of the globe's largest agribusiness firms, announced one of the most massive meat recalls in history: 36 million pounds of ground turkey potentially laced with antibiotic-resistant salmonella, all of it from a single massive processing plant in Arkansas.

There are many hard questions to be asked about this affair, but first I want to get a grip on scale. I have trouble visualizing 36 million pounds of dodgy ground turkey. That's a lot of suspect turkey burgers! How many? Let's allot each burger a third of a pound (a little bigger than McDonald's iconic Quarter Pounder). That would make 108 million sketchy burgers—enough to sicken every resident of the globe's six most populous cities (Shanghai, Istanbul, Karachi, Delhi, Mumbai, and Beijing).*

Okay, so we've established that we have a massive recall going on here. Let's get to some more serious questions.

How Much Finance is Too Much?

As financial sectors grow, they generally get more robust and more efficient at allocating capital. This is a boon for economic development, which is why a vigorous, well-managed banking system is a key component of all modern capitalist economies. But can a financial sector get too big? That is, not just big enough that the returns to scale become small, but big enough that they actually become negative, hurting economic development? A paper published a few months ago by Jean-Louis Arcand, Enrico Berkes, and Ugo Panizza suggests the answer is yes:

Our results show that the marginal effect of financial development on output growth becomes negative when credit to the private sector surpasses 110% of GDP. This result is surprisingly consistent across different types of estimators (simple regressions and semi-parametric estimations) and data (country-level and industry-level). The threshold at which we find that financial development starts having a negative effect on growth is similar to the threshold at which Easterly et al. 2000 find that financial development starts increasing volatility. This finding is consistent with the literature on the relationship between volatility and growth (Ramey and Ramey 1995) and that on the persistence of negative output shocks (Cerra and Saxena 2008).

If their results are right, the financial sector in the United States is about twice as large as it should be. And it's not just us: they say that their findings suggest that "all the advanced economies that are now facing serious problems are located above our 'too much' finance threshold." The chart above shows the full set of countries that are above or, in some cases, way above their threshold.

Food for thought. The full paper is here. (Via Felix Salmon.)

Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

NBC's Michael Isikoff has a bombshell-of-a-scoop on a now-dissolved mystery company that, according to recent campaign fillings, donated $1 million to a super PAC founded by associates of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

That company, W Spann LLC, was formed in March by a Boston-based lawyer named Cameron Casey who specializes in estate tax planning. Six weeks after its formation, W Spann made a mega-contribution to Restore Our Future, the allegedly independent, Romney-linked "super PAC," Isikoff reports.

Casey dissolved W Spann on July 12, two weeks before Restore Our Future made its first campaign filling of 2011, disclosing that it had received just over $12 million in contributions in the first six months of they year. From Isikoff:

[T]he most intriguing of the million-dollar donations was from W Spann LLC. Its address was listed on the Restore Our Future campaign report as 590 Madison Ave., a 43-story, ultra-modern office building in the heart of midtown Manhattan.

But there is no public listing for any company called W Spann LLC at 590 Madison. A top executive of Minskoff Equities, the firm that manages the building, told NBC News that he had "never heard of" W Spann and that his management firm has no record of any such tenant.

Casey works as an associate in a law firm called Ropes & Gray’s. That's where the plot thickens, Isikoff reports:

One of the Rope & Gray’s longtime clients is Bain Capital, the investment firm formerly headed by Romney. It is also one of a number of major companies—including UBS, IBM and Cemex— that have offices at 590 Madison, the address listed for W Spann.

Asked about W Spann, Alex Stanton, a spokesman for Bain Capital said, in an email: "Bain Capital has many employees who actively participate in civic affairs, and they individually support candidates from both parties. The firm takes no position on any candidate, and the entity in question is not affiliated with Bain Capital or any of our employees."

Thanks to the Citizens United decision—which allowed corporations to contribute unlimited amounts of money to political campaigns—super PACs like Restore Our Future and Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS have been loading their campaign warchests with millions from undisclosed donors.

The use of a here-today-gone-tomorrow front company like W Spann shows just how far these crafty operatives have become at exploiting what's left of campaign finance law.

Bachmann, Romney Sign Anti-Gay Marriage Pledge

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Mitt Romney.

The last time a social conservative organization unveiled a marriage pledge for GOP presidential candidates, it was kind of a disaster. (And by kind of, we mean "totally.") Frontrunner Mitt Romney denounced the pledge as "undignified"; Tim Pawlenty took a pass as well. That's what happens when you include language asserting that black families were more stable during slavery.

But on Thursday, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM!) released its own marriage pledge, and this one is off to a noticeably smoother start. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, and—notably—Romney are all on board. Here are the key points of the pledge, per the release:

  • Support and send to the states a federal marriage amendment defining marriage as one man and one woman,
  • Defend DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act] in court,
  • Appoint judges and an attorney general who will respect the original meaning of the Constitution,
  • Appoint a presidential commission to investigate harassment of traditional marriage supporters,
  • Support legislation that would return to the people of D.C. their right to vote for marriage.

That presidential commission on the harrassment of traditional marriage supporters should be a blast. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty hasn't weighed in yet, but he'll be joining NOM next week for the Values Voters Bus Tour through Iowa, so it'd be a little awkward if he just left them at the altar on this one. Also tagging along on the tour? Santorum, Reps. Steve King (R-Iowa.) and Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), and—schedule permitting—Bachmann herself.