2012 - %3, June

Short Takes: "Granito: How to Nail a Dictator"

| Wed Jun. 27, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

Granito: How to Nail a Dictator
SKYLIGHT PICTURES
103 minutes

Filmmaker Pamela Yates, who previously embedded with Guatemalan government forces and left-wing insurgents to document the dictatorship's genocide against indigenous Mayans, now chronicles efforts to build a case against Efraín Ríos Montt, the former general and de facto president whose death squads allegedly tortured and murdered tens of thousands. While Yates shies away from the fraught history of the conflict, her interviews with survivors and regime troops strike an emotional chord. All told, Granito, which airs June 28 on PBS, offers a taste of the slog that inevitably results when people try to hold a tyrant accountable. Trailer below:

This review originally appeared in the July/August issue of Mother Jones. 

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China's Other Sleeping Giant Is the Other White Meat

| Wed Jun. 27, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

They're going hog wild in Iowa again. Chart: Des Moines RegisterThey're going hog wild in Iowa again. Chart: Des Moines RegisterSince the dawn of the Great Recession, Americans have been eating less meat, including pork. Meanwhile, prices of corn and soy—the main components of US livestock feed—have been high.

Lower demand, high feed costs: Basic economics tells us that US factory farms should be cutting back, slowing down, producing less. And that would be a good thing, because as I've written so many times before, our style of meat production sucks up huge amounts of resources and creates vast amounts of pollution.

Yet look what's happening in Iowa, by far the nation's leading hog-producing state. There, the Des Moines Register reports, there's been a boom in state-issued permits for new factory-scale hog confinements. As the chart to the right shows, new permits fell off dramatically in 2009, driven down by the low hog prices, but are now charging back up.

BPA Linked to Brain Tumors for the First Time

| Wed Jun. 27, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

The news just keeps getting worse for bisphenol A. Lab and animal research has linked it to reproductive disorders, obesity, diabetes, and cancers sensitive to hormonal activity, like those of the breast and prostate. Studies show that more than the vast majority of Americans have measurable levels of BPA in their urine (though as Sydney Brownstone wrote on this blog yesterday, Old Order Mennonites seem to have less)—not surprising given that the chemical is used in thousands of consumer products, including cans and plastic packaging for food and beverages.

Now a new study from China has found an association, for the first time, between human exposure to BPA and brain tumors. The kind of  tumor, called meningioma, is usually benign and occurs more frequently in women than in men. Since female hormones appear to fuel the growth of meningioma tumors, it's not surprising that an endocrine-disrupting chemical like BPA, which mimics estrogen in the body, could play a similar role.

In the study, researchers compared BPA urine levels in about 250 Chinese adults diagnosed with meningioma to a similar number of healthy controls. Those with the highest levels were 60 percent more likely to have a meningioma tumor than those with the lowest, after adjusting for being overweight, having a history of hormone replacement therapy, and other factors that can influence the risk of the disease. 

The study is far from conclusive. For one thing, the researchers determined BPA exposure levels from a single urine sample. Since the body quickly excretes BPA, a sample taken after a tumor has already developed does not necessarily indicate that exposure to the chemical predated the illness.

Despite the limitations, the findings are another reminder that ubiquitous chemicals like BPA are likely to inflict significant damage before the weight of evidence finally convinces federal agencies to take greater steps to cut human exposures. As Sydney noted in her post yesterday, the FDA still thinks it's not a problem for us to ingest the chemical with our canned tomato soup.

Buying Insurance vs. Paying a Fine: What's the Tradeoff?

| Tue Jun. 26, 2012 3:05 PM PDT

Since the healthcare mandate is on everybody's mind today, Ezra Klein asks a good question: does the mandate even matter?

[If you choose not to buy insurance] you have to pay a penalty of $695 a year (that’s the 2016 number; after 2016, it rises with inflation) or 2.5 percent of your annual income, whichever is greater....[But suppose] you simply refuse to pay the mandate. What can the government do to make you pay?

Well, unlike if you refuse to pay your taxes, it can’t throw you in jail or put a lien on your home or other property (page 336 of the legislation). It can potentially reduce your tax refund, but that’s really it. If you’re not getting a tax refund, you’re free and clear. Given these specifics, it’s worth asking why anyone thinks the mandate will work at all. And it’s worth saying that some don’t.

So the fine is small and the government can't do much to collect it anyway. But in practice, there's an even more important question: how many people would fail to buy insurance and be forced to pay the fine in the first place? On the left, a fair number of people think that ACA's subsidies are stingy enough that poor families simply won't be able to afford insurance even if they want it, which would mean paying the fine instead. But is that true?

What follows is back-of-the-envelope stuff, but I think it's in the right ballpark. Let's take a family of four where the policyholder is age 35 and has an income of $40,000. How much would insurance cost them? According to this handy calculator from Kaiser, here's what that family would have to pay (converted into a monthly premium):

  • Premium cost: $925
  • Federal tax credit: $760
  • Net cost of policy: $165

However, this overstates things because it's based on the cost of a "silver" policy. But you don't have to buy a silver policy. You can pay more and get a gold or platinum policy, and more importantly, you can pay less and get a bronze policy. Bronze policies don't provide great coverage, but they do provide the basics and they also cover health emergencies. It's a reasonable option for someone who just can't afford more. By my rough calculation, a bronze policy would cost about $125 less than a silver policy. This means that the net monthly premium for our family of four would be about $40. That's not much — and it's half the cost of the fine.

But how about a family of four with an income of $50,000? After subsidies, their cost for a bronze policy would probably come to about $166 per month. That's more than the fine ($166 vs. $100) but not a lot more. How many families earning $50,000 would forego health insurance for a net cost of $66 per month? Not too many, I'd guess, even if the insurance policy is mediocre.

As for families making more than $50,000, hardly any of them are uninsured in the first place. This paper estimates only about 1.6 million uninsured adults with incomes consistently above $50,000. It's just not a big number.

You can play with these numbers endlessly, and if you choose the worst possible set of circumstances you can always come up with an example or two of people who would be forced to pay a fair amount of money for health insurance they'd rather not have. But here are the basics for a family of four:

  • Under $30,000, families qualify for Medicaid and pay nothing for insurance.
  • Under $37,000 or so, most families can buy a bronze policy for free.
  • Between $37,000 and $45,000, the cost of a bronze policy is quite small, and certainly less than paying the fine.
  • Above $45,000, the cost of a bronze policy is a bit more than the fine.
  • Above $50,000, the cost of a bronze policy is significantly more than the fine, but there aren't very many uninsured families in this category.

The numbers work out differently for single people, but singles under 30 also have the option of buying only catastrophic coverage. We don't know yet how much policies like this are going to cost, but certainly substantially less than a bronze policy. For most under-30s, this means they have the option of free or nearly free coverage all the way up to a fairly high income level.

There are a lot of numbers in this post. Sorry about that. And I don't mean to imply that the mandate is meaningless: in fact, it probably has both an objective and a subjective effect. Objective because it makes the financial case for buying insurance stronger, and subjective because most people prefer to obey the law. Still, it's not overwhelmingly important. My personal preference would be for true national healthcare, and failing that, for higher subsidy levels under Obamacare. Nonetheless, the truth is that Obamacare makes insurance available to all poor families and most working class families either free or at very small cost. It's a pretty good deal. The mandate is a backstop, and it's one I support both on a substantive policy level and as a matter of constitutional law. But the subsidies and the insurance regs are the heart of Obamacare, and they always have been.

Study: Los Angeles Average Temps to Rise 4 to 5 Degrees by 2041

| Tue Jun. 26, 2012 3:02 PM PDT
"Extreme Hot Days" to Rise for LA

A team of UCLA scientists recently fed about 20 global climate models into powerful supercomputers to calculate just how much Los Angeles-area temperatures might increase over the next few decades. After months of complex computing—about eight times as many individual calculations as there are grains of sand on the West Coast of the United States—the scientists' computers spit out some troubling projections

By 2041, the UCLA team found, temperatures in Los Angeles will rise by an average of 4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit. The number of "extreme hot days"—days with temperatures above 95 degrees—will triple in the downtown area and will quadruple or more in inland valleys, deserts, and mountains.

Dramatic shifts will occur even if the world manages to successfully curtail greenhouse gas emissions. In the unlikely event that the world starts to get its emissions problems under control, Los Angeles temperatures will still reach 70 percent of the study's "business-as-usual" levels, the researchers found.

LISTEN: Mexico's Media Predicament

| Tue Jun. 26, 2012 2:48 PM PDT

A student in the "Yo Soy 132" movement protests media manipulation on a Mexico City metro in mid-June.

"The fact that you can make jokes about extremely tragic subjects is something that people are experts at here in Mexico," says Greg Berger, known as "gringoyo," a contributor to the website Narco News. An expat who says he learned everything about satire from his Mexican friends, Berger spins out political parodies based on archetypes of figures spotted in the country, like "the revolutionary tourist," "the greedy businessman," and "the misinformed reporter." By making fun of foreigners, those in power, and also of himself, Berger engages viewers in conversations about democracy and culture. Reporting in a country where drug cartels are thriving and where the media are in many ways crippled, he's found an audience eager for his lampoons. 

And the absurdity seems at an all-time high as Mexico nears its presidential election. Berger is just one of the figures encountered in On the Media's episode "Mexican Media: Es Muy Complicado," in which reporters Brooke Gladstone and Marianne McCune take the temperature of our southern vecino, interviewing reporters, students, and activists from Juarez to Veracruz. 

Berger's political theater seems paralleled in the country's actual electoral politics. Gladstone spoke to Benito Nacif, general counsel to Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute (the Mexican version of the FEC), who referenced a recent law that bans candidates from directly buying ads, mandating that the FEI pay for the ads and regulate them instead. The lengthy vetting process the institute requires has in turn opened a space for TV commentators, often paid off by rival candidates in the editorial "black market," to jump in and characterize politicians before they have the chance to respond. "You're making these TV channels more powerful than they were in the past," Nacif says. "It's completely the opposite" of what the FEI intended.  

"Mexican Media" also explores mural-painting as rebellion, traces the steps of las mujeres desaparecidas, and zooms in on the student political protests (including the "Yo Soy 132" movement, pictured above) now buzzing in Mexico City. You can listen to the full episode below. 

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Court Upholds EPA's Right to Regulate CO2

| Tue Jun. 26, 2012 2:10 PM PDT

Turns out the Obama Environmental Protection Agency didn't make up all that stuff about carbon dioxide being bad for you. On Tuesday, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals upheld the EPA's determination that greenhouse gases warm the planet are dangerous for humans, as well as the agency's ability to regulate those gases.

Several big polluters and friends of big polluters—groups like the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the National Mining Association and states like Texas and Virginia—tried to sue the EPA to block new greenhouse gas rules. They were challenging both the EPA's 2009 finding that the gases are a threat—a finding that came in response to a Supreme Court's decision that the EPA could regulate those gases under the Clean Air Act, and a conclusion that the Bush administration itself reached but decided to sit on—and the agency's ability to write rules to deal with those emissions.

Part of the challenge contended that the EPA had not done enough of its own work to prove that climate change is a real threat, to which the Court had a rather cheeky response. "This is how science works," the judges wrote. "EPA is not required to re-prove the existence of the atom every time it approaches a scientific question."

Enviros, as you might expect, are cheering the unanimous 82-page decision that found that the EPA was "unambiguously correct" in its process to introduce new emission rules. Here's the Sierra Club's executive director Michael Brune:

Carbon pollution is dangerous to our planet and our health. The Environmental Protection Agency has the right and the duty to keep our communities healthy and now the path is clear for them to curb this dangerous pollution, which threatens our families and planet. We applaud the court’s decision and stand with the EPA as they continue to fight for the health of American families.

Meanwhile, James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the Senate's resident climate crank, has a say:

EPA's massive and complicated regulatory barrage will continue to punish job creators and further undermine our economy. This is the true agenda that President Obama is trying to hide under disingenuous reelection rhetoric about an 'all of the above' approach to energy.

The decision means that EPA can keep doing what it's been doing on climate change. Sorry, Inhofe.

September Not So Cruel a Month After All

| Tue Jun. 26, 2012 11:43 AM PDT

Remember that business from yesterday about banking crises starting in September? Forget it. Apparently if you follow the right link, and then download and unzip the companion data file, it turns out that 22 out of 25 of the September crises were from 2008. So the whole thing is a ridiculous nothingburger. Thanks to Joshua Hedlund for figuring this out, and a big raspberry to Luc Laeven and Fabián Valencia for getting us all worked up about this.

Conspiracy Watch: Did Obama Give American Islands to Russia?

| Tue Jun. 26, 2012 11:18 AM PDT

One of the big takeaways from the first three-and-a-half years of the Obama administration is that some people are crazy. I don't mean to suggest that this is an entirely new phenomenon—in the 1990s, a sitting member of Congress tried to prove that President Clinton murdered Vince Foster by blowing up a pumpkin—but it certainly seems to have picked up steam. As proof, I present the latest conspiracy theory from the fever swamps: President Obama secretly gave away seven American Arctic Ocean and Bering Sea islands to Russia. Russia! He transmitted them to Vladimir!

The theory is being promoted by Texas House candidate Wes Riddle, who argued, in a Facebook note last week, that Obama's supposed Russian giveaway was grounds for impeachment:

The reasoning for President Obama’s impeachment begins with the fact that the State Department is giving away seven strategic, resource-laden Alaskan islands to Russia. These seven islands in the Arctic Ocean and Bering Sea include one the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined. The Russians will also receive tens of thousands of square miles of oil-rich seabeds surrounding the islands. The Department of Interior estimates billions of barrels of oil are at stake.

The State Department has undertaken the giveaway in the guise of a maritime boundary agreement between Alaska and Siberia. Our own federal government drew the line to put these seven Alaskan islands on the Russian side. But as an executive agreement, it could be reversed with the stroke of a pen by President Obama or Secretary Clinton. The agreement was negotiated in total secrecy, not allowing the state of Alaska to participate in the negotiations, and was the public was not given any opportunity to comment. All resolutions of opposition passed by the Alaska have been disregarded by the State Department.

Treason! But wait, maybe there's more to this story. Factcheck.org looked into this claim back in March and concluded that the the islands had actually been forked over by President George H.W. Bush in 1991, when he signed a treaty with Russia permanently establishing the maritime boundary. All of the islands are squarely on the other side, and most of them are pretty close to the mainland; it'd be like Spain claiming Nantucket. Also: Both of Alaska's senators voted for the treaty. (The call was coming from inside Alaska!) In other words, case closed.

Anyway, Riddle is hardly the first conservative activist to condemn the island giveaway. Noted conspiracy theorist Jim Hoft of Gateway Pundit sounded the alarm back in February. And he, in turn, was only repeating an argument he'd read somewhere else. As Hoft wrote, in a moment of flickering genius that will live long in the history of the English language: "Former senatorial candidate Joe Miller broke this story at World Net Daily."

US Housing Market Starting to Rebound

| Tue Jun. 26, 2012 10:27 AM PDT

This post is dedicated to Karl Smith:

Sales of newly built single-family homes rose to their highest level in more than two years last month, adding to evidence that the U.S. housing market is on the mend and no longer dragging down the broader national recovery.

…"This is the first time I have heard any kind of pulse in the home building business in the last five years, and I think it is legitimate," said Stuart Hoffman, chief economist for PNC Financial Services Group. "The housing market will be a source of strength to the economy for the first time in years."

Karl has been trying to figure out for a while why his prediction of a resurgent housing market turned out to be incorrect, but perhaps he was only off on the timing a bit. I'm still on the fence about his theory that pent-up demand for housing will drive economic recovery, but this is a data point in its favor.