2013 - %3, February

WATCH: What's It Like to Land on an Aircraft Carrier?

| Tue Feb. 26, 2013 7:06 AM EST

Hurtling toward the USS Nimitz in a biofuel-powered jet airplane was just one of the adventures that Mother Jones environmental correspondent Julia Whitty had while reporting the cover story for the March/April 2013 issue of the magazine. Watch Julia talk about her adventures—and the US Navy's green makeover—here:

If you're in the Washington, DC, area, you can see Julia speak at the next Climate Desk Live event on Wednesday, February 27, at 9:30 a.m., where host Chris Mooney will discuss the Navy's charge toward energy independence with Dr. David W. Titley, retired naval officer who led the US Navy’s Task Force on Climate Change; Capt. James C. Goudreau, director of the Navy Energy Coordination Office; Dr. D. James Baker, director of the Global Carbon Measurement Program of the William J. Clinton Foundation and former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) during the Clinton Administration; and Julia Whitty.

Event Details:
Date: February 27, 2013, 9:30 a.m.
Location: University of California Washington Center, 1608 Rhode Island Avenue, NW, Washington, DC
Please RSVP to cdl@climatedesk.org

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CHARTS: World's GMO Crop Fields Could Cover the US 1.5 Times Over

| Tue Feb. 26, 2013 7:06 AM EST

Despite persisting concerns over genetically modified crops, a new industry report (PDF) shows that GMO farming is taking off around the world. In 2012, GMO crops grew on about 420 million acres of land in 28 countries worldwide, a record high according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, an industry trade group.

If all the world's GMO crop fields in 2012 were sown together, it would blanket almost all of Alaska. As the chart from the report shows, globally GMO farming has been on an uninterrupted upward trend. What's especially noteworthy is the growth of GMO farming area in developing nations (see red line), which surpassed that in industrial nations for the first time in 2012. The ISAAA's report doesn't project into the future, but we may see this upward trend continue as "a considerable quantity and variety" of GMO products may be commercialized in developing countries within the next five years, according to a recent UN Food and Agriculture Organisation forum (PDF).

Clive James/ISAAA

The ISAAA says the area of land devoted to genetically modified crops has ballooned by 100 times since farmers first started growing the crop commercially in 1996. Over the past 17 years, millions of farmers in 28 countries have planted and replanted GMO crop seeds on a cumulative 3.7 billion acres of land—an area 50 percent larger than the total land mass of the United States, the group adds.

"This makes biotech crops the fastest adopted crop technology in recent history," ISAAA chair Clive James states in the report. "The reason—it delivers benefits."

What kinds of benefits? According to the ISAAA, GMO farming has reduced use of pesticides, saved on fossil fuels, decreased carbon dioxide emissions, and "made a significant contribution to the income of < 15 million small resource-poor farmers" in developing countries. These small-scale farmers now make up over 90 percent of all farmers growing GMO crops, the group states.

But just looking at the United States—consistently the biggest GMO crop producer in the world by a long shot—there is much reason to doubt on some of ISAAA's claimed benefits. (More after the chart.)

 

David Brooks Has a Deal for President Obama

| Tue Feb. 26, 2013 1:43 AM EST

After last week's debacle, where he got hammered for claiming that Barack Obama had no plan to replace the sequester, David Brooks says today that "Humiliation is a good teacher." This means that in this week's column we get a glimpse of the good Brooks.

And the thing is, when Brooks is good, he can be genuinely interesting. Today he goes beyond the sequester to tell us what kind of grand bargain he wishes Obama would fight for. Here it is:

My dream Obama would nurture investment in three ways. First, he would take spending that currently goes to the affluent elderly and redirect it to the young and the struggling. He would build on the means-testing Medicare idea that Yuval Levin described recently in The Times. Older people with higher lifetime earnings would have fewer benefits, and they wouldn’t kick in until age 70. That money could be used to reduce our children’s debt burden and to fund early education, community colleges, research and infrastructure projects.

....Second, Obama could nurture investment by starting a debate on the sort of consumption tax plan Michael Graetz describes in his book “100 Million Unnecessary Returns”: Enact a value-added tax, use money from that tax to finance an income tax exemption of $100,000, cut the corporate tax rate to 15 percent, replace the earned-income tax credit with payroll tax relief and debit cards.

....Third, Obama could talk obsessively about family structure and social repair.

You know what? I'd mostly support this. The devil is in the details, of course, and if Brooks and I really got into the weeds we'd end up disagreeing about a lot. Still, if something like this deal were on the table, I'd probably take it. I'd trade lower benefits for well-off retirees for universal pre-K. A progressive VAT on income up to $100,000 might be a good idea if the system as a whole raised more revenue and were at least as progressive as the current one. And although I don't think presidential yakking really does much good, I'd be perfectly happy to shine the White House spotlight on family structure and social repair (even if I'm not entirely sure what Brooks means by this).

But how do we get there? Brooks thinks it would be hard to get liberals on board with this, and he's probably right about that. But that's hardly worth worrying about, since conservatives would be loudly and adamantly dead set against every single aspect of his proposal. They don't want universal pre-K; they don't want to spend more on a bunch of lefty universities; they don't really care about infrastructure; and they don't want a VAT. Aside from the yakking, which I suppose they'd support as long it was an excuse to decry liberal decadence, there's simply nothing about this deal they'd support.

If there were a Republican version of the DLC, ideas like this might have a place to gain a toehold. Until then, though, conservative reformer types like Brooks, David Frum, and Ross Douthat simply aren't talking to anyone. The actual existing Republican Party is just flatly uninterested in their ideas. Unfortunately, the GOP has almost completely purged the centrist impulse that led Democrats to start up the DLC in the 80s, so it's not clear where one would come from on the right. Maybe that's something Brooks could take up in a future column.

Eat Your Nuts!

| Mon Feb. 25, 2013 8:50 PM EST

Today's newspapers are all running front-page stories about a new study showing the benefits of a Mediterranean diet. However, one of Aaron Carroll's sharp-eyed readers pointed out that Table S5 in the appendix shows that the only truly big difference between the test group and the control group was their consumption of olive oil and nuts, which participants in the test group were given free. Sure, enough, if you read down to the very end of the report, the authors say this:

The interventions were intended to improve the overall dietary pattern, but the major between-group differences involved the supplemental items. Thus, extra-virgin olive oil and nuts were probably responsible for most of the observed benefits of the Mediterranean diets.

I'd add one more thing. The researchers were studying the frequency of "end point" events: heart attacks, strokes, and deaths. Here are the raw numbers: in the test group (Mediterranean diet + nuts), the total number of all those events over the period of the study was 3.8 percent. In the control group it was 4.4 percent.

Now, these are statistically significant and probably represent a genuine result. But don't get too excited. The participants were all over 55 and had either Type 2 diabetes or three major risk factors for cardivascular disease. So you'd expect them to be teetering on the edge of one of these end point events anyway. But even at that, the additional risk over five years from eating whatever you wanted was 0.6 percentage points. That's not really a helluva lot.

Do Republicans Have Ratio-Myopia?

| Mon Feb. 25, 2013 4:16 PM EST

Ezra Klein is confused about why Republicans are holding out on a sequester deal that cuts spending but also raises revenues by limiting deductions for high earners. After all, nobody believes Republicans will get bigger spending cuts by holding out, nor does anyone believe that Obama will eventually agree to some future deal that pairs up deductions and lower tax rates without a net increase in revenues. So maybe it's this?

A third answer is that the anti-tax pledge holds that cutting deductions to reduce the deficit is a tax increase, and Republicans won't vote for a tax increase, even if it results in a policy outcome they vastly prefer. In other words, it's ratio-myopia.

And perhaps that's the real answer. But it's a bit hard to believe. Perhaps I'm missing something?

I'm confused about the confusion. Republicans have been the anti-tax party for more than 30 years now. They've never been willing to trade tax increases for spending cuts, and they've been vocally, implacably dedicated to this during every budget showdown of the past three years. A deal that includes both spending cuts and tax increases is very much not a policy outcome they vastly prefer.

So yeah, #3 is the real answer. I don't quite get why this is hard to believe.

Deficit Hawkery and DC Journalism

| Mon Feb. 25, 2013 3:12 PM EST

Here is Dave Weigel's conclusion after writing about the Republican Party's recent losing streak vs. Barack Obama on grand bargains, fiscal cliffs, debt ceilings, and now the sequester:

They still aren't in a good position to win the argument! I don't think this is [Eric] Cantor's fault, really. The idea that you can be a deficit hawk while ruling out any tax increase, ever, is politically and mathematically untenable.

Mathematically untenable? Yes. Politically untenable? I'm not so sure. But don't forget about journalistic tenability! That's no problem at all. DC reporters and columnists are endlessly willing to pretend that someone whose only real-world devotion is to cutting social welfare spending is a "deficit hawk." That's one of the single biggest reasons that this position remains politically tenable even though it's mathematically absurd.

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Rights Groups to GOP: Stop Watering Down the Violence Against Women Act

| Mon Feb. 25, 2013 1:52 PM EST
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor at the Values Voters Summit in 2011

When House Republicans released their version of the Violence Against Women Act late on Friday, advocacy groups for victims of domestic violence were unanimous: They hate the Republicans' plan.

"There are over 20 House Republicans who have made public statements in support of a bipartisan VAWA that protects all victims. This is not that bill," said Kim Gandy, president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence said in a statement to reporters Friday evening. Monday, Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, called the House GOP's version of the bill "nothing less than shameful."

For more than a year, Republicans have been blocking the reauthorization of the once bipartisan Violence Against Women Act, which was first passed in 1994. House Republicans had three main objections to the new VAWA drafted in the Democratic-controlled Senate: It increased the number of visas available to undocumented victims of domestic violence, it denied grant money to organizations that discriminate against LGBT victims of domestic violence, and it allowed Native American tribal courts to prosecute non-tribe members who are accused of abusing their Indian partners. 

In order to address House Republicans' concerns, Senate Democrats removed the section of the draft VAWA that would have granted more visas to undocumented victims of domestic violence who cooperate with police against their abusers. Although law enforcement determines whether an individual has been helpful in an investigation and is therefore eligible for such a visa, Republicans charged that increasing the number of visas available would lead to fraud. This compromise version of the bill passed the Senate last week with 78 votes. 

That wasn't good enough for House Republicans, however. As the Huffington Post's Jennifer Bendery reported Friday, the House GOP's version of the bill lacks the Senate language related to LGBT protections:

Specifically, the bill removes "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" from the list of underserved populations who face barriers to accessing victim services, thereby disqualifying LGBT victims from a related grant program. The bill also eliminates a requirement in the Senate bill that programs that receive funding under VAWA provide services regardless of a person's sexual orientation or gender identity. Finally, the bill excludes the LGBT community from the STOP program, the largest VAWA grant program, which gives funds to care providers who work with law enforcement officials to address domestic violence.

Sharon Stapel, executive director the New York Anti-Violence Project, released a statement saying that "Leaving LGBT survivors of violence behind is an unacceptable response to the real violence that LGBT people face every day." The Centers for Disease Control has found that same-sex couples experience domestic violence at the same rates as heterosexual couples.

As for allowing tribal courts to prosecute non-tribe members accused of abusing their Indian partners, Republicans altered—but did not remove—those sections of the bill. The changes the House GOP made to the law, however, make it harder to prosecute non-tribe members and harder to protect victims, according to the National Congress of American Indians. The Senate version of the bill requires that tribal courts meet the due process standards of the US Constitution. But under the Republican version of the bill, the tribal courts would also have to get the permission of the US attorney general before prosecuting a non-member. That's a heavy burden.

That's not the only change the GOP made that will affect American Indian victims of domestic violence. Tribal courts have long dealt with an epidemic of domestic violence by issuing civil protection orders (similar to a restraining order) against non-tribe members. Derrick Beetso, a staff attorney at NCAI, called these protection orders "the only recourse that Native women have against non-Indian abusers." The House GOP's version of VAWA makes it harder for tribal courts to issue these sorts of orders. Under the GOP's plan, even a restraining order-like ruling would now require tribal courts to get permission from the US attorney general. That's the same standard Republicans want tribal courts to meet in order to prosecute non-tribe members. "Now to exercise civil authority, they have to meet a criminal threshold," Beetso explains. NCAI opposes this new certification requirement.

The House is expected to consider the bill later this week.

Citi's Odd Bonus Payment to Jack Lew

| Mon Feb. 25, 2013 1:40 PM EST

It's amusing to watch the Wall Street Journal editorial page try to pretend that the revolving door between Wall Street and the federal government is somehow a scandal restricted to the Democratic Party, but still, you have to admit that this tidbit about Jack Lew is damn odd:

The terms of Mr. Lew's original employment contract with Citi included a bonus guarantee if he left the bank for a "high level position with the United States government or regulatory body."

Most companies include incentives for top employees not to leave, but in this case the contract was written to reward Mr. Lew for treating the bank like a revolving door. Citi says it likes to accommodate employees who do public service or work at nonprofits. But the Lew contract was specific about a senior job in the federal government. There would be no special payout if he left to run the Red Cross or the New York state budget office.

Lew is a certified budget genius with many years of government experience, so it's hardly a surprise that Citi expected that he might leave at some point. Still, what innocent explanation is there for actively encouraging him to leave? I'd certainly like to hear the reasoning behind this.

UPDATE: This might not be as sinister as it sounds. Possible innocent explanation is here.

RAW DATA: Debt Levels of Families Approaching Retirement

| Mon Feb. 25, 2013 1:23 PM EST

A couple of weeks I put up a post showing projections of future retirement income, but these were long-term projections and didn't provide any insight into the specific effect of the Great Recession on those who are currently nearing retirement. There are two big things we're interested in: (a) the effect on retirement savings [401(k)s, IRAs, etc], and (b) debt levels as a percent of income. EBRI provided some rough data on the former here, and today they provide us with a look at the latter. Here's their quick summary for all families with a head of household over 55:

The percentage of American families with heads age 55 or older that have debt held steady at around 63 percent from 2007–2010. Furthermore, the percentage of these families with debt payments greater than 40 percent of income—a traditional threshold measure of debt load trouble—decreased in 2010 to 8.5 percent from 9.9 percent in 2007. However, total debt payments as a percentage of income increased from 10.8 percent in 2007 to 11.4 percent in 2010.

This includes both near-retirees and retirees. In order to get a clearer look just at people nearing retirement, the chart below shows debt payments for families with a head of household age 55-64 (red line). As a comparison, it also shows debt payment levels for all families, taken from Fed data (blue line):

There's much more in the full report, including data on families already in retirement, as well as breakdowns between housing debt and other consumer debt.

The Supreme Court Won't Hear "Citizens United on Steroids" Case

| Mon Feb. 25, 2013 12:18 PM EST
The United States Supreme Court.

That whooshing sound you just heard was campaign finance reformers breathing a deep sigh of relief. On Monday morning, the Supreme Court declined to take up a lawsuit named Danielczyk v. United States, a challenge to one of the oldest laws in campaign politics: the ban on direct corporate contributions to candidates.

The case stems from donations that two Virginia businessmen, William Danielczyk and Eugene Biagi, made to Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign. Danielczyk and Biagi gave to Clinton's campaign under the impression that they would be reimbursed by the private equity firm that employed them. Instead Danielczyk and Biagi were prosecuted by the Department of Justice for violating the century-old ban on corporate contributions. They responded by fighting to dismiss the charges. Their attorneys argued that the Supreme Court's logic in the Citizens United case—that independent expenditures do not corrupt or create the appearance of corruption—applied to donations directly to candidates. Thus the ban on corporate donations, they argued, was unconstitutional. In 2011, a federal district court agreed with Danielczyk's lawyers and dismissed the charges, but the case was later reversed on appeal.

When Danielczyk reached the Supreme Court, supporters of tougher campaign finance laws feared that the court might go even further than Citizens United by demolishing the ban on direct corporate donations, one of the last remaining pillars of campaign finance law in US. They had reason to worry: Last week, the high court agreed to the hear the McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, another troublesome case in the eyes of the reformers. McCutcheon challenges the overall cap on what donors can give to candidates, parties, and political action committees, currently set at $46,200 to federal candidates and $70,800 to parties and PACs over a two-year election cycle. That limit is nearly 40 years old, dating back to the post-Watergate era, and if it falls, the reformers fear that future challenges to, say, the limit on donating to a candidate (now at $2,600 a year) could fall, too.

The Supreme Court could, sometime down the road, reconsider the corporate donation ban. But for now, the reformers have received a small bit of good news at an otherwise bleak point in the political money wars.