2012 - %3, April

Bomb Explodes at Wisconsin Planned Parenthood (Updates)

| Mon Apr. 2, 2012 10:41 AM EDT

A small homemade bomb exploded outside of a Planned Parenthood office in Grand Chute, Wisconsin, on Sunday evening, local media reported. The explosive device, which was placed on a window sill, went off and started a small fire that triggered alarms and brought the local fire department to the scene. There were no reported injuries, and the building was closed at the time. Local police are investigating.

The office that was attacked is now "temporarily closed," according to the welcome recording on its voicemail system. I've put in a request for comment to Stephanie Wilson, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Wisconsin. I'll update this post if she responds. I've also asked the local police department for more details and will update if I hear back.

UPDATE, 12:30 p.m. EST: Talking Points Memo reports that the FBI has joined the investigation.

UPDATE 2, 1:30 p.m. EST: Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin has issued a short statement via Twitter:

Thank you to everyone for your ongoing support and concern. Last night our Appleton center was vandalized w/ a homemade explosive device. No staff or patients were injured. The Appleton health center will reopen tomorrow. Our primary concern today—as always—is our patients, staff and volunteers.

Teri Huyck, the CEO of Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, issued a longer statement via the group's website.

UPDATE 3, 4:00 p.m. EST: Talking Points Memo reports that the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, which is charged with investigating violations of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, is also probing the bombing incident.

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America's Top 10 Most-Polluted Waterways

| Mon Apr. 2, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

If you are a fly-fisher, a rafter, or heck, just a person who drinks water, here is some troubling news: Our waterways are in rough shape. An eye-opening new report (PDF) from Environment America Research and Policy Center finds that industry discharged 226 million pounds of toxic chemicals into America's rivers and streams in 2010. The pollution included dead-zone-producing nitrates from food processors, mercury and other heavy metals from steel plants, and toxic chemicals from various kinds of refineries. Within the overall waste, the researchers identified 1.5 million pounds of carcinogens, 626,000 pounds of chemicals linked to developmental disorders and 354,000 pounds of those associated with reproductive problems.

In the report are a few goodies (or baddies, really) that are worth ogling. First up, there's this map of the most heavily polluted waterways in the United States, broken down by state:

And if you're curious about which waterways suffer from the most pollution, here's the top 10:

Finally, a list of the top 20 polluters—composed mostly of steel manufacturers, chemical plants, and food processing operations:

It's important to note that the vast majority—if not all—of these releases are perfectly legal. I reached out to all of the companies on the list above and received a response from several. They all basically told me the same thing: "All discharges meet permit requirements," Cargill said. "This is a natural process that is fully licensed, and included as part of our wastewater discharge reporting," echoed McCain Foods.

We'll have to take their word for it, since the companies are not required to release the results of their chemical safety testing to the public, nor do they have to reveal how much of each chemical they are releasing. The Clean Water Act doesn't even apply to all bodies of water in the United States; exactly how big and important a waterway must be to qualify for protection has been the subject of much debate. Rivers get the big conservation bucks; they're the waterway equivalents of rhinos and snow leopards. But pollutants in oft-neglected ditches, canals, and creeks—the obscure bugs of the waterway world—also affect ecosystems and our drinking water quality. Sean Carroll, a federal field associate in Environment America's California office, estimates that 60 percent of US waterways aren't protected. "The big problem," he says, "is that we don't know how big the problem is." 

The situation has gotten slightly better since the last time Environment America conducted a study; overall waterway pollution decreased by 2.6 percent from 2007 to 2010. There's still a lot of room for improvement, Carroll says. Environment America is calling on Obama to extend the protections offered by the Clean Water Act before the end of his first term. A list of the group's specific recommendations is here.

A Photographer's View of Big Coal

| Mon Apr. 2, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

The River Rouge coal plant near Detroit is the perfect test case for the challenge facing anti-coal activists: On one hand, its pollution is responsible for an estimated 44 deaths, 72 heart attacks, and 700 asthma attacks. On the other, the plant provides a significant chunk of the town's revenue, as well as decent-paying blue-collar jobs. As the Beyond Coal campaign zeroes in on its target of shutting down one-third of the nation's coal plants by 2020, its success will depend on whether it can help communities, and workers, find alternative ways to survive.

Photographer Daniel Shea, who has spent nearly five years working on a project about the coal industry in Appalachia, documented the plant and its surroundings for Mother Jones.

At the time of its construction, in 1956, the River Rouge plant was the largest in the world.

For miles in each direction from the plant runs a vast industrial area.

 

Rhonda Anderson grew up in the neighborhood; today, she's an organizer with the Sierra Club, which is working with the community to figure out how to replace the jobs and tax revenue provided by the plant.

Anderson remembers her father taking her to Belanger Park, adjacent to the plant. Today she takes granddaughter N'Deye Anderson-Mack.

The River Rouge, not far from the plant.

Homes in the town of River Rouge, pop. 7,903.

Calculator: How Much Does Using Coal Really Cost?

| Mon Apr. 2, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Each month, Americans households spend an average $111 on electricity—chump change considering we need it to do just about everything from watching television to charging our laptops to just getting around in the dark. Much of our electricity comes from coal, a relatively plentiful and accessible energy resource in the United States, but coal's abundance masks a dirty truth: Burning coal fills the air with toxic pollutants, with scary and sometimes fatal health consequences, particularly for people living near the power plants that fuel your home. What would happen to your monthly bill if utilities actually paid for these hidden costs? Use our calculator to find out.

Figures rounded to the nearest dollar. Sources: Clean Air Task Force; Energy Information Administration (PDF); EPA; Paul R. Epstein, Harvard Medical School. Additional reporting by Alyssa Battistoni and Hamed Aleaziz.

Read Their Lips: No New Coal

| Mon Apr. 2, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

As so often with the Obama administration's environmental policies, there is less than meets the eye to the new global warming rule the EPA proposed this week. In a new article for the next issue of Mother Jones, published online today, I reveal how a network of grassroots activists actually beat the EPA to the punch by imposing a de facto moratorium on new coal-fired power plants, America's top source of greenhouse gas emissions.

On March 27, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson proposed a regulation that would sharply reduce how much carbon dioxide America's power plants can emit—to 1,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour of electricity produced. Coal defenders squawked, accurately, that the EPA rule, if adopted, would make it all but impossible for new coal plants to operate. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III, a Democrat, accused the EPA of waging "a war on coal."

But the real war on coal had been won well before this by grassroots activists of the Beyond Coal campaign. Alarmed by the Bush administration's 2001 push to build 150 new coal plants, a network of local environmentalists, public health professionals, students, farmers, and ordinary citizens employed classic retail politics—mobilizing friends and neighbors, packing regulatory hearings, lobbying local officials and news media, demonstrating before city halls and statehouses—to say no to coal. With national coordination by the Sierra Club, the Beyond Coal campaign has helped to block 166 (and counting) new coal plants over the last decade, most of them in the red states of the South and Midwest.

These defeats reduced America's greenhouse gas emissions by roughly two-thirds as much as Obama's cap-and-trade legislation, rejected by the US Senate in 2010, would have achieved (assuming, generously, that cap-and-trade worked as well as its proponents claimed).

The new EPA rule will lock in these gains, and thus is important. But as a practical matter, the EPA is merely ratifying what Beyond Coal has already achieved: an end to new coal in the United States.

Calling All Louis C. K. Fans: Meet Tim Minchin

| Mon Apr. 2, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

In 2005, Tim Minchin, the Australian-born singer-songwriter comic who's been called "the gothic love-child of Cole Porter and Lenny Bruce," performed a song at a breast cancer fundraising event in which he counted the ways in which he appreciates his blow-up doll:

You don't have problems with your weight at all. You never steal food off my plate at all . . . You never seem to menstruate at all/ So you're not angry when I'm late at all . . . You have a box, and you are storable.

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Strange Yellow Ostriches in a Strange Land

| Mon Apr. 2, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Yellow Ostrich
Strange Land
Barsuk Records

Yellow Ostrich started out in 2009 as a solo project of front man Alex Schaaf, who recorded his first album, Wild Comfort, on a drum machine in his Wisconsin bedroom. On his second full-length, last year's critically acclaimed The Mistress, Schaaf brought in drummer Michael Tapper, of the band Fool's Gold. Along the way, Schaaf kept busy recording quick-turnaround EPs, all of which are up on his Bandcamp.

With this new album, Strange Land, Yellow Ostrich finally achieves "real band" status, as Schaaf—who's now based in New York—and Tapper are joined by multi-instrumentalist Jon Natchez, whose stints with Beirut, Camera Obscura, Okkervil River, and The Antlers led NPR to call him the most valuable sideman in indie. The introduction of guitar and heavier drums lends a welcome edge to YO's earlier poppy lightness. And Strange Land moves more into the realm of conventional indie rock than Yellow Ostrich's previous low-fi electronica, while still keeping enough of the latter to give it a distinctive sound. 

On "Stay at Home," Schaaf says he'll stay inside to "hide from you," but the rambunctious guitars suggest otherwise. "Daughter" starts off with a steady riff that's joined by a decisive beat as Schaaf declares "we'll make it complicated for you." "Up in the Mountains" builds to a frenzy of guitar and drums as Schaaf sings of longing to get away from it all: "I will leave behind all the people who're making me sigh / I'll be gone / Maybe you'll be there too / It's up to you." His looping sound is more apparent on tracks like the standout "Marathon Runner" and "I Want Yr Love," which sounds closer to Yellow Ostrich's earlier work than anything else on the album. "Wear Suits" eschews the guitar riffs for an airier sound; Schaaf's voice is high and distant as he sings "wear suits / and talk about the futures / of all your children / sing of serious things that kill you."

Meanwhile, Natchez's chops shine on songs like "When All is Dead," where a tangle of horns swells to a melancholy crescendo. Schaaf has described his previous work as "a guy in a bedroom" and the most recent incarnation of Yellow Ostrich as a band "in a slightly bigger room." Judging from a tight set at a recent sold-out show in San Francisco, small venues are where Yellow Ostrich shines.

You can give the full album a listen over at Paste, where it's still streaming, and check out the group's tour dates here

Click here for more music coverage from Mother Jones.

Obamacare and the Fate of the Supreme Court

| Sun Apr. 1, 2012 11:37 PM EDT

Jonathan Cohn says the Supreme Court itself was on trial last week:

Before this week, the well-being of tens of millions of Americans was at stake in the lawsuits challenging the Affordable Care Act. Now something else is at stake, too: The legitimacy of the Supreme Court.

....The plaintiffs have conceded that a universal health insurance program would be constitutional if, instead of penalizing people who decline to get insurance, the government enacted a tax and refunded the money to people who had insurance....Think about that for a second: If the justices strike down the Affordable Care Act, they would be stopping the federal government from pursuing a perfectly constitutional goal via a perfectly constitutional scheme just because Congress and the Preisdent didn’t use perfectly constitutional language to describe it.

There are two ways to look at this. The first is through the lens of what it would actually mean to overturn Obamacare. On this score, Jonathan is right: it would be unprecedented. The Supreme Court has handed down plenty of big decisions before, but very, very rarely has it overturned a major piece of federal legislation. Not since the mid 30s, in fact. What's more, it would be overturning this legislation — a consummately political compromise forged in a consummately political area of public policy — based on a distinction that I think even most of Obamacare's critics would acknowledge is a very fine point of constitutional law. And that's not all. It would be overturning the law on a party-line 5-4 vote, and it would be doing so in the wake of oral arguments in which several of the justices made arguments so transparently political that it felt more like we were listening in on the Senate cloakroom than the chambers of the Supreme Court.

So yes: in terms of its actual impact, overturning Obamacare would be a very big deal indeed, and among a large chunk of the chattering classes it would certainly lead to a more jaundiced view of the modern Supreme Court as a nakedly political body.

But there's also a second lens to look at this through: the lens of public opinion. And although poll results on this are a little tricky to parse, there's no question that Obamacare is not much of a barnburner among the general public and isn't getting more popular over time. Even a generous reading of the survey data suggests that only about half the country likes Obamacare, and even among that half support is fairly lukewarm. When the Supreme Court started overturning New Deal legislation in the 30s, it ran into a buzzsaw of public condemnation. If it overturned Obamacare, most of the public probably wouldn't care very much.

So no: in terms of the public's view of the court, overturning Obamacare probably wouldn't have a big impact at all.

So which matters more? The general public's view? Or the view of a small but dedicated segment of elite opinion? In the short term, the general public probably matters more. In the longer term, probably elite opinion. Obviously we won't get a reprise of FDR's disastrous court-packing scheme, but overturning Obamacare could end up mobilizing movement liberalism in the same way that the Warren Court mobilized movement conservatism four decades ago. The nomination of Supreme Court justices is already an intense partisan battleground, and getting more intense all the time. Overturning Obamacare would raise the stakes even higher.

Corn on Maddow: Why Romney's Latest Obama Attack Won't Work

| Sun Apr. 1, 2012 10:14 PM EDT

Corn talks with Rachel Maddow about why Mitt Romney is going to be as unsuccessful attacking President Obama on foreign policy grounds as he has been attacking him on the presidency. 

NBC Jumps the Shark on George Zimmerman

| Sun Apr. 1, 2012 12:47 PM EDT

According to the Today show, here's what George Zimmerman said to a 911 dispatcher as he was trailing Trayvon Martin last February:

Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.

What a racist! Obviously Zimmerman had a real hang-up about black kids. But no. It turns out some bright spark at NBC decided to edit the conversation just a wee bit. Here's the whole exchange:

Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. Or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.

Dispatcher: OK, and this guy — is he black, white or Hispanic?

Zimmerman: He looks black.

This is now fated to be Exhibit A in conservative charges of mainstream media bias for about the next century or so. And who can blame them? What a cockup.