2013 - %3, January

Obama's Plan May Put More Guns in Schools

| Fri Jan. 18, 2013 7:01 AM EST

President Obama's new plan for reducing gun violence includes a $150 million proposal to give school districts money that they can use to hire specially trained police officers, social workers or other support staff. Recent polling shows some support for the idea of more armed adults on school grounds, but how likely is it to become widespread?

In the wake of Newtown, there has been a push for more armed staffincluding teachers and even janitorsin some areas of the country. Two hundred teachers in Utah and 400 in Texas have reportedly flocked to conceal-and-carry courses, and a gun rights group in Ohio offering free classes for teachers has reported big interest in its program. In Ohio last week, one school board unanimously passed a plan to arm janitors. In many states, it’s legal for teachers and other school staff to carry concealed firearms with permits, as long as they have admistrators' permission (typically from the principal or school board), though few schools have taken advantage of that loophole in the past.

In most cases, however, there's a big difference between installing a police officer and a social studies instructor who's gotten some basic firearms training. Is arming school teachers and janitors a good idea at all? For starters, as Mother Jones' in-depth investigation showed, data on mass shootings strongly suggests that it's neither a smart nor effective solution for stopping massacres. And that's aside from the fact that studies show when more firearms are around, the odds of more people getting shot go up significantly, whether accidentally or otherwise.

Other bad outcomes may be in store, as some scenarios in Mississippi demonstrate. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves recently proposed spending an additional $7.5 million on hiring more law enforcement officers in schools, but as a newly released report on school discipline in Mississippi shows, only 4 percent of arrests at schools in Jackson in 2010 and 2011 were for incidents that posed any serious threat to students, teachers, or staff. That report comes on the heals of a US Department of Justice lawsuit filed against the city of Meridian, Miss., alleging that students have been arrested at school and incarcerated for disciplinary infractions, punished without due process, and held in jail for days at a time without probable cause hearings.

Opponents of having armed personnel in schools also point out that there’s no clear correlation between having more armed staff at a school and reduced violence. Resources, they say, would be better spent on mental health professionals and other support services.

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Chart: The Black Triangle Suffocating Beijing

| Fri Jan. 18, 2013 7:01 AM EST
Beijing Coal Map

In 2008, Beijing pulled off what some (myself included) considered a miracle: banishing choking smog to reveal an Olympic city bathing in blue. They reportedly took a million of the city's 3.3 million cars off the road, and closed down factories and construction sites.

But try as they might, in the years since the Olympics, city officials have rarely replicated that success, despite replacing the city's coal-fired power stations with natural gas, capping its annual coal consumption at 20 million tons by 2015, forcing heavy trucking to go nocturnal, and limiting car exhaust and construction dust.

The recent crisis that featured "beyond index" rates of pollutants and a thick, blanket of smog that choked the city for days, proves why Beijing just can't do it alone. China's enormous boom in cars often gets blamed, but in fact the bigger problem lies farther afield.

The chart above shows that without controlling emissions across the country—especially from neighboring coal-producing provinces like Hebei and Shanxi—prevailing winds will keep blowing toxic smog Beijing's way. Climate Desk has compiled data from NOAA, Greenpeace, and CARMA to show 38 power plants that lie in the path of the winds that brought smog to Beijing during its pollution crisis from January 10-12.

The pollution is bad news for people's health: A recent study by Greenpeace East Asia and Peking University’s School of Public Health estimated that 8,572 premature deaths occurred in four major Chinese cities in 2012 because of the smog.

A note about the data: CARMA produces a detailed list of carbon-emitting power plants around the world—but for China, it can be tricky to get their precise locations and emissions because there is no public disclosure database provided by the government. The area displayed on the map is a rough approximation.

The Gun Debate Is Just Another Part of the Culture War

| Fri Jan. 18, 2013 7:01 AM EST
The SOCOM 16 is a civilian version of the M14 assault rifle. It has the shortest permissible barrel for civilian use under NFA guidelines.

As we wade deeper into the guns debate, one thing is becoming abundantly clear: This issue is just as much a part of the never-ending culture wars as gay marriage and abortion.

I've written in the past about the language of politics, and specifically the language of conservative (or "reactionary") politics. People on the right and the left tend to use different language to present and enforce their ideas about the world and society, and this can create something of a barrier between liberals and conservatives. For instance, the president is often referred to by members of the far-right as a "socialist" while many members of the far-left refer to him just as disparagingly as a "neo-liberal." You could just as easily find more libertarian types calling the president a "statist" while died-in-the-wool socialists might refer to him as a "capitalist." Yes, he can be all these things at once, and yet none of them helps us understand his actual politics.

Obviously definitions vary wildly depending on one's point of view. Language is simply another currency of power, and every party to a political fight seeks to exploit language in order to advance their cause. The gun debate is no exception. 

Two of the most loaded terms in this debate are "assault weapon" and "gun control." Assault weapon has a very frightening sound to it, especially for people who don't own or understand much about guns. Gun control is similarly alarming for pro-second amendment activists, and certainly groups like the NRA utilize the term (and other more extreme language) to fan fears.

"Assault weapon" evokes images of machine guns firing off dozens of rounds each second, the sort of military weapons people are accustomed to seeing in violent films and video games. "Gun control" inspires people to line up at gun retailers to purchase as many weapons as possible before the government comes and takes them all away.

Neither of these assumptions is correct, and both serve to muddy the waters of debate. So let's take a look at some of the current misconceptions surrounding guns and gun control, and try to have, for lack of a better phrase, a fair and balanced discussion of the issues. Full disclosure: I'm not a gun owner, and have never liked guns, and if I had a magic wand I'd erase them from the planet. But since I live in the real world, in which magic wands are regulated far more heavily than AK-47s, I'll be happy with more practical solutions.

Coke: Wait, People Thought Vitaminwater Was Good for You?

| Fri Jan. 18, 2013 7:01 AM EST

In light of Coca-Cola's much-discussed attempt to place itself at the vanguard in the fight against obesity—see video above—it's worth taking look at its line of "enhanced waters," known as Glacéau vitaminwater. You could be forgiven for thinking the product is a life-giving nectar. The made-up word Glacéau evokes the purity of glaciers. Vitamins are essential nutrients. And water is an unimpeachable ingredient.

Coca-Cola's marketing encourages the healthy image. According vitaminwater's website, the Power -C flavor of vitaminwater delivers "zinc and vitamin C to power your immune system"; while the XXX offers "antioxidant vitamins to help fight free radicals and help support your body." And so on.  

But not everyone's convinced that vitaminwater does a body good. Back in 2009, the Center for Science in the Public Interest sued Coca-Cola for making "deceptive and unsubstantiated" health claims about the products. In 2010, a US federal district court judge rejected Coca-Cola's motion to dismiss the suit (document here), noting that Coke's lawyers had made a remarkable argument: "At oral argument defendants suggested that no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking vitaminwater was a healthy beverage."

In other words, no one actually believes our flashy marketing—it's obviously nonsense. The vitaminwater suit still hasn't been resolved, a CSPI spokesperson informed me. And hilarity over Coca-Cola's cynical defense strategy is ongoing, too. Stephen Colbert spoofed it just this week:

 

The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Vitaminwater Advertising Lawsuit
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive

 

And I think Coke's obesity campaign should be read in the same light: No consumer should be misled into thinking that the sugary-beverage giant (its heavily marketed array of "diet" products nothwithstanding) has been transformed into an obesity-fighting machine. Or, as New York University dietician Marion Nestle put it on her Food Politcs blog, "Coca-Cola fights obesity? Oh, please."

Just for fun, I checked out the ingredients of "orange-orange"-flavored vitaminwater, which are remarkably similar to the other 11 flavors (also listed in that link). Here they are :

Reverse osmosis water, crystalline fructose, cane sugar, less than 0.5% of: citric acid, magnesiumlactate and calcium lactate and potassium phosphate (electrolyte sources), natural flavors, vitamin C (ascorbic acid), gum acacia, vitamin B3 (niacinamide), vitamin E (alpha-tocopheryl acetate), vitamin B5 (calcium pantothenate), glycerol ester of rosin, vitamin B6 (pyridoxine hydrochloride), vitamin B12, beta-carotene, modified food starch, sorbitol.

So, it contains less than 0.5 percent of a whole list of stuff (none of which has anything to do with this particular flavor's namesake fruit, the orange), and thus at least 99.5 percent water, crystalline fructose, and sugar. Crystalline fructose, it turns out, is an even more processed version of high-fructose corn syrup—it provides a pure jolt of fructose. "Cane sugar" is about half fructose and half glucose. There's a growing body of literature, described ably by Gary Taubes in his 2011 New York Times Magazine piece "Is Sugar Toxic," suggesting that refined sweeteners, and in particular their fructose component, are driving a range of health problems including diabetes. Recently, UCLA researchers have found evidence that "a diet steadily high in fructose slows the brain, hampering memory and learning." And then there's the emerging suspicion that diets high in refined sweeteners can trigger Alzheimer's disease. In a 2012 Mother Jones piece, Taubes and Cristin Kearns Couzens showed how the sugar industry has worked hard over the decades to suppress and downplay such research.

So what Coke is passing off as "enhanced water" is mostly just sugar water; or as CSPI has put it, "vitamins + water + sugar + hype = soda - bubbles." Granted, there's less sugar in vitaminwater (19 grams per 12 oz.) than in, say, Coca-Cola classic (39 grams per 12 oz.). But it's still pretty sugary.

Coke charges about twice as much for its vitaminwater as it does for Coca-Cola Classic."

What about the other 0.5 percent of vitaminwater—the vitamin part? It includes electrolytes—the stuff found in sports drinks. It turns out that electrolyte-laden drinks are mostly hype. As for all those vitamins, there's little or no evidence that vitamin supplements do much to improve health. "We have an enormous body of data telling us that plant-rich diets are very healthy," Josephine Briggs, head of the National Institute of of Health's  National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine told The Wall Street Journal in 2011. "As soon as we take these various antioxidants [and other nutrients] out and put them in a pill, we're not consistently getting a benefit."

In other words, you're much better off getting your vitamins from whole foods than from sugary drinks.

What, then, is vitaminwater good for? Well, it does seem to provide good profit margins for its maker. At Staples, you can pick up an assorted 12-pack of assorted 20-oz. vitaminwaters for $19.99. That's about 8 cents per ounce. Another form of Coca-Cola-produced sugar water, Coca-Cola Classic, fetches $11.99 for a 24-pack of 12-oz. cans at Staples. That's about 4 cents per oz. So Coke gets about twice as much for its vitaminwater as it does for its flagship product.

Say what you want about Coke's marketing of vitaminwater and its anti-obesity rhetoric, but its business sense is impeccable.

Corn on MSNBC: NRA Advertisement Featuring Obama's Children Went Too Far

Thu Jan. 17, 2013 7:49 PM EST

Former RNC Chairman Michael Steele debate the NRA's latest ad, which targeted the Obama children, on MSNBC's The Ed Show yesterday. "I am an ardent supporter of the NRA," Steele says, "but it is time for Republicans across the spectrum, and particularly on issues like this, to stop doing stupid."

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

I Think the Media Gets a Pass on the Manti Te'o Hoax

| Thu Jan. 17, 2013 7:47 PM EST

The sports world is all atwitter over the revelation that Manti Te'o's girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, has turned out to be a hoax. The two didn't meet after Notre Dame lost to Stanford in 2009, they didn't get together occasionally when Kekua visited Hawaii, and Kekua didn't die of leukemia the same week as Te'o's grandmother. She never even existed.

There are, needless to say, questions galore about this, and I look forward to the media frenzy over it. But this I don't really get:

The revelation that Kekua had never actually lived, let alone died, has stunned a nation and a sporting press that had blithely reported details of their relationship for months on end. Many are now angry at the media. "Nobody asked: who is she? Where did she live? Not one reporter dug deep. The lack of legwork is a total surprise to me," said Frank Shorr, a sports and journalism expert at Boston University.

Well....OK. But come on. Reporters don't go into cynical investigative mode when a football player tells sappy stories about his girlfriend. Why would they? Not only would it be kind of creepy, but there's simply no reason to suspect any kind of foul play. I mean, who lies about stuff like this? Nobody. So why would anyone ever be skeptical enough to start digging into it? This is a football player's girlfriend, not the president of the United States saying he had nothing to do with that botched burglary over at the Watergate.

I think the press gets a pass on this. You'd have to be a little deranged to think about investigating something like this. It's not even slightly surprising to me that no one ever did.

UPDATE: Hmmm. More here from SI's Pete Thamel, who wrote a cover story about Te'o on short deadline a few months ago. I'm not sure whether this changes my mind or confirms it. Either way, this is one damn peculiar story.

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Former CIA Legal Adviser Hits Obama Over Targeted Killing

| Thu Jan. 17, 2013 6:36 PM EST

Vicki Divoll, a former staffer for the Senate intelligence committee and legal adviser to the CIA, excoriated the Obama administration for its secrecy on targeted killing in an op-ed for the New York Times Wednesday [emphasis added]:

While Mr. Obama has criticized his predecessor, he has also worried about his successors. Last fall, when the election’s outcome was still in doubt, Mr. Obama talked about drone strikes in general and said Congress and the courts should in some manner “rein in” presidents by putting a "legal architecture in place." His comments seemed to reflect concern that future presidents should perhaps not wield alone such awesome and unchecked power over life and death—of anyone, not just Americans. Oddly, under current law, Congress and the courts are involved when presidents eavesdrop on Americans, detain them or harshly interrogate them—but not when they kill them.

It is not just the most recent president, this one and the next whom we need to worry about when it comes to improper exercise of power. It is every president. Mr. Obama should declassify and release, to Congress, the press and the public, documents that set forth the detailed constitutional and statutory analysis he relies on for targeting and killing American citizens.

Congress has occasionally criticized the administration for its secrecy on targeted killing, and it's made rhetorical demands that the White House release a legal analysis for why it believes it has the authority to kill American terrorism suspects abroad. But every time a group of legislators actually attempts to compel the administration to come clean with its legal analysis, they're kneecapped by their colleagues

Divoli's op-ed highlights one of the key paradoxes of the Obama administration: That many Democrats who were harshly critical of Bush's record on civil liberties have largely given Obama a pass when it comes to secrecy and executive power.

Are the Congressional Chaplains Attending an Anti-Obama Prayer Breakfast?

| Thu Jan. 17, 2013 5:52 PM EST

Just before President Barack Obama's swearing in on Monday, a group of religious conservatives plans to hold a prayer breakfast featuring a number of anti-Obama conspiracy theorists. The Presidential Inaugural Prayer Breakfast—billed as offering "prayer, worship, and reconciliation of the nation"—will feature the editor of the birther site WorldNetDaily and minister and media mogul Pat Robertson, according its website. The organizers of the prayer breakfast also claim the House and Senate chaplains will speak at their event—appearances that may conflict with the non-partisan nature of the chaplain job.

House Chaplain Rev. Patrick Conroy and Senate Chaplain Barry Black (who has been in the news recently for his prayers during the fiscal cliff negotiations asking God to "save us from self-inflicted wounds") are listed under the "Prayer for the Nation" portion of Monday's event, just ahead of Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). But featured speaker Joseph Farah, the WorldNetDaily editor, has drawn the most attention, given his website's regular assertions that President Obama was actually born in Kenya and allegations that he is "the first Muslim president." The event also features "messianic rabbi-pastor and author" Jonathan Cahn, who believes that there are signs of the apocalypse encrypted in Obama's communications.

The group Faithful America started a petition on Thursday asking the chaplains to skip this "anti-Obama" event, which gathered more than 5,000 signatures in less than a day. But it got weird when Mother Jones asked the chaplains if they were actually attending the event. "Chaplain Black has NOT agreed to attend," Senate Chaplain Black's office responded via email. "We are working with the organizers planning the event to get his name taken off any promotional materials associated with this."

A spokeswoman for the prayer breakfast who declined to give her name told Mother Jones that Black is scheduled to deliver a prayer at the event. "He spoke directly with us and said he was," she said, adding that they will have to "clear up" any confusion.

We also reached out to House Chaplain Conroy's office, but he was traveling and had not responded to a request for comment at press time.

The breakfast organizers seem to be having a hard time figuring out who is actually speaking at the event. On Wednesday, Media Matters detailed a rather bizarre exchange with organizer Rev. Merrie Turner as to whether or not Farah is an official speaker at the event.

UPDATE: Elizabeth Flock at US News reported on Friday that Senate Chaplain Black will not be attending the inaugural prayer breakfast. However, House Chaplain Conroy's office said that Conroy will be in attendance and will recite a quick prayer. (Conroy's office stated that he will not "stay too long," though.)

As of 4:00 p.m. ET on Friday, the Presidential Inaugural Prayer Breakfast website continues to list the Senate Chaplain as a featured guest for their "Prayer for the Nation."

Welcome to the NRA Wine Club

| Thu Jan. 17, 2013 4:44 PM EST

The NRA may or may not be a gun club for whiners, but it does have a wine club. The NRA Wine Club, as it is known, offers "limited collector's editions NRA wines." If you sign up, you'll also get a "Custom NRA Engraved Wine Box."

Sadly, the NRA does not offer a domestic-beer club. Yet in one sense, marketing alcohol of any kind to hard-core gun owners is a stroke of brilliance: According to a 1997 study in the American Journal of Public Health, owners of semi-automatic weapons are more likely than other gun owners to report binge drinking.

Now if only the NRA could start a tobacco club, it would be primed for a raid by the "jack-booted thugs" in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

You Need to See These 5 Shocking Facts About Money in the 2012 Elections

| Thu Jan. 17, 2013 3:17 PM EST
Sheldon Adelson.

Not since the years before the Watergate scandal has a small cadre of mega-donors influenced our elections as much as wealthy givers such as casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson, DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, Texas homebuilder Bob Perry, and Chicago media mogul Fred Eychaner did in 2012. These men and a few dozen others pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into super-PACs and shadowy nonprofits and raised tens of millions more for presidential and Congressional campaigns.

Now, a new report titled "Billion-Dollar Democracy" by the Demos think tank and the US Public Interest Research Group, both left-of-center groups, distills all the fundraising and spending on last year's elections and spits out an array of eye-popping factoids about where all the money came from (or most of it, at least) and how it was spent. It is vital information as reporters, activists, and others try to make sense of an election season full of firsts—the first full cycle since the 2010 Citizens United decision, the first $1 billion campaign (Obama), and the first presidential race in which both major candidates rejected public financing.

I've plucked out five must-see highlights from the report, with graphics courtesy of Demos and US PIRG:

32

It took just 32 of the biggest super-PAC donors to match the total giving—$313 million—by every single small-dollar donor to Barack Obama's and Mitt Romney's campaigns combined. Donors who give less than $200 aren't disclosed, but it's at least 3.7 million people.

Source: Demos and U.S. PIRG Education Fund analysis of FEC and Sunlight Foundation data.


159 donors

A tiny sliver of the American population supplied most of the money super-PACs used during the 2012 campaign season. How tiny? Sixty percent of all super-PAC donations came from just 159 people.

Source: Demos and U.S. PIRG Education Fund analysis of FEC and Sunlight Foundation data.


31%

Of the $1.03 billion outside groups spent last election cycle, 31 percent was "dark money," meaning we don't know who gave the money or where it came from.

Source: Demos and U.S. PIRG Education Fund analysis of FEC and Sunlight Foundation data.


58%

Dark money fueled a huge chunk of those TV attack ads you noticed during commercial breaks for Parks and Recreation. Fifty-eight percent of outside groups' TV spending on the presidential race was funded by dark money.

Source: The Washington Post, “Mad Money.”


322,000 average Americans

It would take 322,000 middle-income Americans—say, the entire population of Anaheim, Calif., minus a few thousand folks—giving 0.37 percent of their net worth to match casino magnate Sheldon Adelson's $91.8 million, which was 0.37 percent of his net worth. Forbes estimates Adelson's fortune at $20.5 billion.

Source: Dēmos and U.S. PIRG Education Fund analysis of FEC and Sunlight Foun- dation data.