2012 - %3, September

5 Ways the Stanford Study Sells Organics Short

| Wed Sep. 5, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Is organic food little more than a trumped-up marketing scheme, another way for affluent consumers to waste money? A just-released paper by Stanford University researchers—and the reaction to it by the media—suggests as much. (Abstract here; I have a copy of the full study, but can't upload it for copyright reasons.)

"Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce," declared a New York Times headline. "Organic food hardly healthier, study suggests," announced CBS News. "Is organic healthier? Study says not so much, but it's key reason consumers buy," the Washington Post grumbled.

In reality, though, the study in some places makes a strong case for organic—though you'd barely know it from the language the authors use. And in places where it finds organic wanting, key information gets left out. To assess the state of science on organic food and its health benefits, the authors performed what's known among academics as a "meta-analysis"—they gathered all the research papers they could find on the topic dating back decades, eliminated ones that didn't meet their criteria for scientific rigor, and summarized the results.  

In another post I'll get to the question of nutritional benefits—the idea, expressed by the Stanford authors, that organic and conventional foods are roughly equivalent in terms of vitamins and other nutrients. What I want to discuss now is the problem of pesticide exposure, and why I think the Stanford researchers are underestimating the risks.

 

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At Democratic Convention, Unions Battle "Thug" Image

| Wed Sep. 5, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

There is no way to sugarcoat it: Labor unions got shafted in the planning of the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Labor leaders say they weren't consulted before Democrats picked Charlotte, North Carolina, an anti-union city in a "right-to-work" state, to host their quadrennial confab. After pumping $8.5 million into the 2008 Democratic convention, many unions decided against funding this year's convention, and they threw their own "Workers Stand for America" rally in Philadelphia last month.

But don't be fooled into thinking union leaders and rank-and-file members are avoiding the Democratic convention. Labor is here—and it's on a mission.

You might say union members are using the convention as a teachable moment. Here, in a state with the lowest unionization rate in America (2.9 percent), union workers are telling anybody who'll listen about the benefits of joining a union, and also trying to defuse the stereotypes of union members as greedy or thuggish. "We're here to spread the word," says Lillian Roberts, executive director of the New York City affiliate of American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the city's largest public worker union. The convention "is an excellent way to educate people here on how important labor is."

On Monday, union members walked the streets of Charlotte and handed out AFL-CIO fliers titled "What's so good about unions anyway?" The fliers touted unions' efforts to give workers more input in their employers' business decisions and helping to "balance the power of big corporations and create a fair economy." In the wake of fights over collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin and Ohio, the flier reads, "When working people have the right to bargain collectively at work, it's good for us, for our communities, and for the whole economy."

The North Carolina AFL-CIO union took direct aim at the stereotype of "union thugs" here on the streets of Charlotte. At an event called "Hug-a-Thug" on Monday, state AFL-CIO members dished out hugs aplenty to friendly passersby amid the hubbub of the CarolinaFest street fair. Several other unions hosted booths at CarolinaFest, chatting up the crowd and handing out pamphlets, stickers, and more.

Jaime Rodriguez, an employee with the American Federation of Teachers in Oregon, says his message to North Carolinians echoes one of the themes in heard in Tuesday's speeches—the idea that everyone deserves the opportunity to succeed and earn a living wage. Rodriguez says his conversations with locals have stressed how union representation benefits not just union members but also nonmembers. "A union job means higher wages for everybody," Rodriguez says. "People here hopefully will realize that."

The official convention proceedings present union leaders with a national platform to reach millions of Americans. Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, spoke on Tuesday night, giving a full-throated defense of Obama and a rousing call for working people to rally around the president and reelect him in November. "Middle-class Americans cannot afford four years of Romney economics," she said. "We need a president who fights for us, and that's what we have in President Barack Obama." United Auto Workers president Bob King and AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka are set to speak tonight.

Not all union members have embraced labor's lemons-into-lemonade strategy here in Charlotte. At a Baptist church just outside of the city, the Los Angeles Times reported, labor organizers circulated an open letter to Obama noting that North Carolina "has been cited by the United Nations' International Labor Organization for its violations of international labor standards."

Nick Ciaramitaro, the legislative director for a Michigan branch of AFSCME, sees North Carolina's hostility to organized labor as "an opportunity to show a right-to-work state how unions work and work well." He told me that labor's anger at the Democratic Party for picking Charlotte was "ancient history," and that he looked forward to spreading his union's message far and wide. "We're here showing people we don't have horns," he says. "We'll win hearts and minds."

Corn on "Hardball": Obama's Surrogates Step Up

Wed Sep. 5, 2012 3:09 AM EDT

David Corn and Robert Costa joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss the big performances from night one of the Democratic National Convention.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

Michelle Obama's Pitch to Disaffected Democrats

| Wed Sep. 5, 2012 12:56 AM EDT

The passage below was only a tiny part of Michelle Obama's speech tonight, but I think the entire rest of the address, all 3,000 words of it, had only a single purpose: to make this one tiny part resonate by the time she got to it.

I love that we can trust Barack to do what he says he's going to do, even when it's hard — especially when it's hard....He reminds me that we are playing a long game here — and that change is hard, and change is slow, and it never happens all at once.

....And if so many brave men and women could wear our country's uniform and sacrifice their lives for our most fundamental rights, then surely we can do our part as citizens of this great democracy to exercise those rights. Surely, we can get to the polls and make our voices heard on Election Day.

That was it. That was the whole point of the speech: to convince disappointed Obama fans that her husband was worth getting off their butts and working for again. Change is hard. It happens one small step at a time. We're playing a long game and you should be ashamed of yourself if you feel like quitting just because Barack hasn't won every battle. Now get out there and vote.

The rest of the speech was extremely well crafted and Michelle Obama delivered it like a pro. It hit all the right notes. There were no gratuitous partisan attacks (unless her remark that "the truth matters" was a subtle barb). I'll bet it gets high marks in the overnight polling. But as good as the rest of it was, it was, in the end, just a superstructure designed to provide emotional support for the four sentences above. If they hit home, the speech did its work. If they didn't, it failed.

Driverless Cars Coming Soon to a State Near You (If You Happen to Live Near California)

| Wed Sep. 5, 2012 12:10 AM EDT

Google insists that its technology for driverless cars is just about ready for prime time. Apparently the California legislature, which a few months ago was still hung up on liability issues, now agrees:

SB 1298 from Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Van Nuys, was passed unanimously by the Senate Wednesday night following the Assembly's 74-2 approval Tuesday....The bill charges the DMV by January 2015 with determining standards for cars that would essentially operate on autopilot, since such technology is so new that the state's vehicle code never mentions driverless cars.

That's pretty amazing. Not the technology, mind you, but the fact that California's Democrats and Republicans managed to agree on something virtually unanimously. Normally I wouldn't put money on them coming together to pass a Mother's Day resolution.

I'm planning to buy a new car later this year, and I usually keep my cars for about ten years before I replace them. That said, I'm willing to bet that this is the last car I ever buy that I drive myself.

Quote of the Day: Why Bipartisanship is Impossible Right Now

| Tue Sep. 4, 2012 10:02 PM EDT

From Barney Frank, explaining the difference between Democrats and Republicans:

George Bush came to us on the Democratic side in late '08 and said, we're in a crisis, we need your help — and we gave it to him, very openly, very fully. Then Obama comes in to try to deal with the terrible situation he inherited from Bush and the Republican media went into full partisan attack.

That's pretty much true, isn't it? And not just the Republican media, either.

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Corn on "Hardball": The Battleground State of Virginia

Tue Sep. 4, 2012 6:39 PM EDT

David Corn and Howard Fineman joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss the wimpy bounce in the polls the accompanied the GOP convention, the campaigns' use of microtargeting technologies to turn out the vote, and how the presidential contest will play out in Virginia and other swing states.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

US Sanctions Anger Iranian 'World of Warcraft' Gamers, US Treasury Department Weighs In

| Tue Sep. 4, 2012 6:33 PM EDT

For citizens of Iran, brutal American sanctions could mean the end of the world...

...of Warcraft. The Los Angeles Times reports:

Sanctions by the United States, it seems, have hit World of Warcraft.

WikimediaWikimediaIranian gamers took to the World of Warcraft message board...complaining that they had been shut out of the online game. "Well, as if life of an Iranian couldn't get worse, the Battle.net became completely inaccessible as of today," one World of Warcraft fan wrote in frustration.

Another lamented, "Well we had a good run, Goodbye cruel world..."

The year's salvo of US and international sanctions, aimed at choking off Tehran's controversial nuclear program, have throttled the Iranian economy (see: plummeting oil exports), ravaging major industries like transportation and emergency civilian health care along the way.

The online role-playing game is merely the latest casualty in this drawn-out geopolitical fight.

For those unfamiliar with WoW—the online global phenomenon that involves engaging with Orcs and doing battle with throngs of complete strangers—here's a quick refresher:

Blizzard Entertainment, the California-based video game developers who debuted the WoW series in 2004, recently explained that the Iranian gamer black-out was required to stay in compliance with US law. "We apologize for any inconvenience this causes and will happily lift these restrictions as soon as U.S. law allows," one employee wrote.

Late last week, the US Department of the Treasury begrudgingly weighed in on the subject of pwning n00bs in Persian society. John Sullivan, a media affairs specialist at Treasury, told the Times that "clearly the focus of our sanctions is not on video games." (He went on to note that the department would "consider a license request from Blizzard Entertainment should they choose to apply for one.")

The World of Warcraft universe includes roughly 9.1 million subscribers worldwide, an 11-percent drop from 10.2 million in March 2012. The game also holds the 2009 Guinness World Record for the most popular multiplayer role-playing game.

There have also been numerous studies on the severity of video game addiction, with some rating World of Warcraft as addicting as cocaine. Pity the Iranians going through withdrawl.

Mass. Democrats Give Romney the Death Hug

| Tue Sep. 4, 2012 6:25 PM EDT

There was something missing from the Republican National Convention in Tampa last week, and Jim Roosevelt found it. "I've had a number of members of the press who were in Tampa comment to me how remarkable it was that in four days of convention compressed to three, there was never a mention of Governor Romney's greatest achievement, and that is the health care legislation he passed in Massachusetts," the DNC official told a gathering of Massachusetts delegates on Tuesday.

Democrats—and Massachusetts Democrats in particular—have spent a good portion of the last year or so arguing Romney was a failed governor who'd make a terrible president. But, at an industry-sponsored forum on the effects Romney's landmark 2006 health care reform law (it was held on a wood-paneled room in the 47th-floor offices of health care lobbying firm K&L Gates), they had a different message: Thanks.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, rattling off a list of statistics—98 percent of Massachusetts residents and 99.8 percent of kids now have insurance; 90 percent of residents have a primary care doctor—had nothing but praise for his predecessor. "The beauty of what happened was not that it was a perfect idea from the outset; it was that this broad coalition decided that there was a better solution than the usual two, which was a perfect solution or no solution at all," he said. "Policy matters only at the point where it touches people in my view. And in that respect this policy matters. I am very proud of what we've done in Massachusetts. I think, by the way, Mitt Romney is too." As proof, he pointed to Romney's official portrait:

It's kind of jarring sometimes to walk by and see him sitting, on my desk, with my pictures behind it. And they have painted in two things. One is a photograph on an easel of Mrs. Romney with forget-me-nots behind her. It's very beautiful. And the other thing that's painted in sitting next to Governor Romney on the desk is the health care bill. The health care bill!...There's only one thing it could be. And at the time he acknowledged that's what it was AND HE SHOULD HAVE! Because it's done a lot of good for a lot of good people. There's no doubt that in my mind that if the Affordable Care Act, based as you know on what he did in Massachusetts, were polling better nationally he would wrap his arms right around it.

As it stands, Massachusetts Democrats are happy to wrap Romney in a warm embrace of their own. It's a buffer against the GOP nominee's attacks on the Affordable Care Act Romney helped inspire—and a not-so-subtle reminder to skeptical conservatives that the Republican party's nominee just isn't one of them.

Investors Sue BP Over Safety Claims

| Tue Sep. 4, 2012 6:17 PM EDT

More than two years after a BP well gushed 4.9 million barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, some of the company's investors are suing the oil giant for fraud in a Texas court. The investors say BP lied to them about their safety, UPI reports:

Investment groups that bought BP shares on the London Stock Exchange filed a lawsuit in a Texas court under a state fraud law. They say BP made misleading claims about its commitment to safety.
"BP paid only lip service to ... (safety) reforms, lacked any tools for dealing with oil disasters such as deep-water spills and continued to operate by sacrificing safety for savings," the suit was quoted by British newspaper The Daily Telegraph as stating. "Indeed, BP's reform failures led directly to the April 2010 disaster."

"The investors claim that they would never have paid top dollar for the firm’s shares had they ‘known the truth,'" reports the UK publication Management Today.