2013 - %3, April

Corn on Hardball: The All-Too-Familiar Call for War in Syria

Mon Apr. 29, 2013 5:46 PM PDT

The arguments for American intervention in Syria are, in many ways, the same arguments that politicians made for intervention in Iraq—and are still making for Iran. "All the military options are really difficult, they might not be effective," says DC bureau chief David Corn, "but they don't care as long as we're in it." Listen to Corn and Time's Bobby Ghosh discuss the need for caution in Syria on MSNBC's Hardball:

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

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Senators Take Another Swing at Dark Money Disclosure

| Mon Apr. 29, 2013 2:52 PM PDT
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska)

Late last year, Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) penned a Washington Post op-ed taking aim at Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that helped open the floodgates for political nonprofits spending cash in the dark to influence elections. "At minimum, the American people deserve to know before they cast their ballots who is behind massive spending, who is funding people and organizations, and what their agendas are," the senators wrote.

Now Murkowski and Wyden have followed up by introducing a bill that would require any group that spends at least $10,000 on an election to disclose all of its donors who donated $1,000 or more. Currently, tax-exempt 501(c) groups that engage in political spending have no legal obligation to reveal their donors. (That's not the case with super-PACs, as the AP erroneously reported, although many super-PACs skirt disclosure by accepting donations funneled through affiliated nonprofits.) Super-PACs and dark-money groups spent more than $1 billion during the 2012 election.

Murkowski first hinted she supported shining more sunlight on dark-money groups last summer when the Senate was debating the DISCLOSE Act, which is similar to her new bill. (She voted against DISCLOSE for not being strong or bipartisan enough.) Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) filibustered DISCLOSE twice, deriding it as "nothing more than member and donor harassment and intimidation." His continued opposition to campaign finance reform means that the Wyden-Murkowski bill will also face a GOP filibuster.

If it managed to defy McConnell's opposition and pass the Republican-led House, the Wyden-Murkowski bill would also enact some smaller campaign finance reforms: It would require Senate candidates to file disclosure reports directly with the Federal Election Commission so they can be posted online more quickly and replace the FEC's quarterly reports with a real-time reporting system. And while it would require greater transparency for big donors, it would ease requirements for small donors by lifting the disclosure threshold for gifts to candidates from $200 to $1,000.

Treasury Department: Lew Remains Opposed To Bills That Would Weaken Wall Street Reform

| Mon Apr. 29, 2013 2:03 PM PDT
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.

Last week, Mother Jones reported that some financial reform advocates were worrying that Treasury Secretary Jack Lew was not taking a sufficiently fierce stance against a group of House bills that would weaken Wall Street reform. Similar measures died last year, and with some Democrats and Republicans in the process of reviving them, reform advocates have become nervous, especially since Lew has not yet echoed the strong opposition to these proposals that was voiced last year by his predecessor, Timothy Geithner.

Treasury Department officials, though, say there is nothing to fear. Last week, a Treasury Department spokesman told Mother Jones, "Of course the Treasury secretary would oppose any effort to weaken Wall Street reform," known as the Dodd-Frank law. She pointed to Lew's recent comments on Bloomberg television. "The purpose of Dodd-Frank was to make sure the American taxpayer would never again be in the position where they had to step in when banks failed," he told the news channel. "We are committed to that purpose." Treasury is not condemning these measures yet because, as a Treasury spokeswoman told Mother Jones last week, the bills have not even won approval at the committee level. A Treasury Department official this week reiterated Lew's opposition to the crusade to water down Wall Street reform, but the official noted that the department doesn't want to get into the habit of denouncing all the various bills that are thrown into the hopper on Capitol Hill. The official emphasized that Lew's previous public statements opposing efforts to undermine Dodd-Frank or delay its implementation do indeed cover the set of bills that have been re-introduced in the House. The word at Treasury: if these bills do gain traction, Lew will not hesitate to slam them.

Carolyn McCarthy Says Congress Will Act Again on Guns Before 2014 Elections

| Mon Apr. 29, 2013 1:29 PM PDT

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), one of the House's leading advocates of gun control, said Friday that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has assured her that gun reform legislation will be reintroduced before the 2014 midterm elections. But for a bill to pass, it would almost certainly have to offer more concessions to the gun lobby than Sens. Joe Manchin's (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey's (R-Pa.) failed compromise on background checks that already ceded a lot of ground.

As Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) told the Hill, that could include a measure similar to the rejected amendment introduced by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) to force states to allow concealed carry permit holders from other states to carry there. Speier said she would consider that a deal-breaker. But according to the New York Times, current talks among senators are focused on finding broader bipartisan ground on proposals like Manchin-Toomey (which only four Republicans voted for) and a less contentious measure to crack down on gun trafficking.

Before the Senate rejected the Manchin-Toomey compromise, McCarthy told Mother Jones that the gun violence task force she co-chairs had been in touch with Republicans receptive to gun reform but declined to name names or say how many were involved in the talks. Reps. Peter King (R-N.Y.) and Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) have introduced a Manchin-Toomey companion bill in the House that a spokesman for Thompson said last week that the congressman was "pushing forward with." But the House's Republican leadership doesn't plan to act on any proposals unless the Senate manages to pass one first.

Meanwhile, groups like Occupy the NRA and Mayors Against Illegal Guns are focused on a longer game. The former has targeted gun lobbyists and corporations that have retained them; the latter is taking aim at senators up for reelection in 2014 who voted against background checks. Already, those votes appear to have affected some senators' approval ratings.

Democratic leaders are looking to have it both ways. On one hand, they're discussing how to reintroduce gun legislation in the Senate. On the other, they're reaching out to potential pro-gun Senate candidates in red states to see if they'll run in 2014.

One of the potential candidates is Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who would run to replace retiring Sen. Max Baucus. Baucus was one of four Democrats to vote against the Manchin-Toomey compromise. Schweitzer has expressed support for expanded background checks in the past but also has an 'A' rating from the National Rifle Association and recently told the National Journal that he had "more [guns] than I need and less than I want."

Jason Collins Is Not the First Out Gay Pro Athlete

| Mon Apr. 29, 2013 1:22 PM PDT
WNBA's Brittney Griner at the 2012 ESPY Awards.

Although his coming out in Sports Illustrated is big news, NBA star Jason Collins is not the "first openly gay athlete in professional North American team sports," as some have claimed. Claiming as much implies that either women's sports don't matter as much (or don't exist at all), or that coming out is somehow less of a big deal for professional athletes who happen to be women. Here are just a few of them:

  • Retired WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes, who came out in 2005 when she played for the Houston Comets. (She later married a man.)
  • Brittney Griner of the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury.
  • Chamique Holdsclaw, former WNBA player most recently with the San Antonio Silver Stars.
  • Megan Rapinoe, member of the US Women's National Team, now playing soccer professionally in France.
  • Lori Lindsey, USWNT member in the 2012 Olympics who currently plays for the Washington Spirit in the National Women's Soccer League.

There have also been a number of out stars in individual sports—including Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova in tennis and Orlando Cruz, a professional boxer.

There have also been other male professional athletes in team sports who have come out, even if they're not in the "big four" professional sports—like Andrew Goldstein, the goalie for Major League Lacrosse's Long Island Lizards.

 

Why Do Conservatives Like to Waste Energy?

| Mon Apr. 29, 2013 12:34 PM PDT

Back in 2011, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) declared war on energy-efficient light bulbs, calling "sustainability" the gateway into a dystopic, Big Brother-patrolled liberal hellscape. When the lights went off during Beyoncé's halftime set at the last Superbowl, conservative commentators from the Drudge Report to Michelle Malkin pointed blame (erroneously) at new power-saving measures at New Orleans' Superdome. And one recent study found that giving Republican households feedback on their power use actually encourages them to use more energy.

Why do conservatives, who should have a natural inclination toward conservation, have a beef with energy efficiency? It could be tied to the political polarization of the climate change debate.

A study out today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined attitudes about energy efficiency in liberals and conservatives, and found that promoting energy-efficient products and services on the basis of their environmental benefits actually turned conservatives off from picking them. The researchers first quizzed participants on how much they value various benefits of energy efficiency, including reducing carbon emissions, reducing foreign oil dependence, and reducing how much consumers pay for energy; cutting emissions appealed to conservatives the least.

The study then presented participants with a real-world choice: With a fixed amount of money in their wallet, respondents had to "buy" either an old-school light bulb or an efficient compact florescent bulb (CFL), the same kind Bachmann railed against. Both bulbs were labeled with basic hard data on their energy use, but without a translation of that into climate pros and cons. When the bulbs cost the same, and even when the CFL cost more, conservatives and liberals were equally likely to buy the efficient bulb. But slap a message on the CFL's packaging that says "Protect the Environment," and "we saw a significant drop-off in more politically moderates and conservatives choosing that option," said study author Dena Gromet, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business.

The chart below, from the report, shows how much liberals and conservatives value each argument for efficiency: While liberals (gray) valued all three equally, conservatives (white), were significantly less moved by and most at odds with liberals over the carbon-saving argument.

Courtesy Gromet

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A Quick Survey on Abortion

| Mon Apr. 29, 2013 12:00 PM PDT

Ed Kilgore has an alternate-world scenario for you to consider:

Suppose it were possible to engineer a permanent national deal (it's not, but just consider it as a thought experiment) wherein in exchange for a strictly enforced ban on post-viability abortions that didn't involve direct threats to the life of the mother, we'd also start treating all forms of contraception and pre-viability abortions not only as legal, but as medical procedures that would be publicly funded just like other medical procedures, under normal (not prohibitive) inspection and regulatory regimes? I suspect a large number of pro-choice folk would go for that kind of deal, which isn't that different from the situation in much of Europe. It would reflect the fact that most late-term abortions happen not because some bad girl has had sex and now finds motherhood inconvenient, but because she hasn't had meaningful access to contraception, Plan B, or early-term abortions.

As Kilgore points out, no one on the pro-life side would ever agree to this, so it's strictly a hypothetical. But I'm curious. How many on the pro-choice side would agree to a deal like this? Basically, the deal is (a) abortions up to, say, 22 weeks or so, would be legal and easily available, (b) late-term abortions would be completely illegal unless the life of the mother were clearly and directly threatened, and (c) this put an end to the whole issue. Everyone agrees to accept this as the status quo going forward.

Obviously this is pie in the sky. But I'm still curious. If it were on the table, how many of my readers would agree to it?

Finally, the End of Austerity?

| Mon Apr. 29, 2013 11:27 AM PDT

Is the world's infatuation with austerity as the answer to the Great Recession finally over? Neil Irwin thinks it might be. The obvious big event that got everyone's attention recently was the dismantling of the influential Reinhart/Rogoff thesis that high debt produces low growth, but Irwin argues that this is just the visible tip of the iceberg. Three other things have been pushing policymakers in the same direction:

No blowback for Japan. ....The Bank of Japan has undertaken open-ended quantitative easing of its own in pursuit of 2 percent annual inflation in a country where deflation has been the norm for two decades....The international community isn't coming down on Japan with anywhere near the ire that the Fed saw three years ago.

Growing awareness that U.S. deficits are already falling. ....There is deepening recognition that—through spending cuts in the debt ceiling deal in 2011 including sequestration, tax increases as part of the fiscal cliff, and a growing economy—U.S. deficits are falling quite quickly. That being the case, Congressional Democrats are increasingly looking to hold the line and say "No Mas" to further near-term deficit reduction.

The slow-moving disaster that is Europe. Europe has been the poster child for aggressive austerity....The result is depression in the European periphery and recession in the core....But the ECB appears set to hop on the easy money train in its meeting on Thursday. And it wouldn't be shocking if, either this week or in a future month, the ECB seeks out some more innovative tool to funnel loans to the smaller businesses that are being frozen out from getting credit. The institution that most eagerly embraced austerity and tight money three years ago, in other words, is inching away from it as well.

In this telling, the paper that took apart the Reinhart/Rogoff thesis was the perfect story at the perfect time. The conventional wisdom was already changing, slowly but steadily, and the implosion of R&R provided just the right catalyst to draw everyone's attention to it.

Of the three things on Irwin's list (and you should probably add Britain's performance in there somewhere), I'd guess that Europe is the most important by far. The political barriers to doing the right thing remain pretty strong, but it's getting to the point that I suspect even Germans are starting to wonder if the game is worth the candle. There might be worse things than higher inflation or big flows of money heading south, and the specter of Europe spiraling apart may just qualify. The evidence on this score is still iffy (remember Cyprus?), and the 11th hour may not quite be upon us, but we're getting there. The austerity experiment has pretty spectacularly failed, and before too much longer even the technocrats of the EU are going to have to face up to this.

Michael Pollan's "Cooked": Delicious, If a Bit Rich

| Mon Apr. 29, 2013 10:11 AM PDT
Michael Pollan

Having largely abandoned the home kitchen, Americans have embraced the "reality" of TV cooking. We now spend less than 60 percent of our food budgets on groceries for home consumption a third less than we did a half century ago. And when we do eat at home, there's a lot of box opening and microwaving. Time spent cooking has plunged over the past 40 years. According to a 2010 study (PDF) by University of Utah researchers, the time women spend cooking dropped from over 90 minutes per day to 60 minutes per day between 1975 and 2006. And men didn't pick up the slack—their kitchen time hovered around 20 minutes over that period. Meanwhile, cutthroat cooking contests featuring celebrity and would-be celebrity chefs have soared in popularity, as have old-school cooking-demo shows. 

What gives? Why abandon the practice and embrace the spectacle? In his new book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, Michael Pollan ventures an answer. We've also abandoned other traditional household pursuits like making furniture or clothes, he notes, but "we're not watching shows or reading books about sewing or darning socks or changing the oil in the car." Our flight from the kitchen has left a void, an itch we can't scratch; unlike other happily discarded activities, cooking "retains an emotional power we can't shake, or don't want to." And so time we once spent doing the act, we now spend watching it.

That pull, he says, emanates from the depths of human history—from the African savannah, circa 1.8 million years ago. Leaning on the work of Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangam, Pollan claims that cooking, which frees up and concentrates nutrients, probably led to the expansion of the early human brain and sent us down the path that led to civilization. Something so central to the human project cannot be discarded lightly, Pollan insists.

This is a just-so story, of course; there's no way to judge its truth value. But by linking the rise of food TV with the decline of cooking, Pollan has hit upon a powerful correlation, and he marshals impressive evidence of drastic consequences: the expansion of waistlines and the deterioration of health.

Pollan's fascinating and charismatic guides range from the storied North Carolina whole-hog pitmaster Ed Mitchell to the Connecticut "cheese nun" (and Ph.D.-holding microbiologist) Noella Marcellino.

Pivoting off this central insight in Cooked, Pollan has written two different books that exist in some tension. One is a lavish, rollickngly told account of Pollan's recent culinary education, his path from pedestrian cook to the sort of fellow who maintains a sourdough starter for bread and makes his own beer. The other is a cri de coeur about our exile from the kitchen and an attempt to lead us—men and women alike—back. "My wager in Cooked," he writes, "is that the best way to recover the reality of food, to return it to its proper place in our lives, is to master the physical processed by which it has been traditionally made."

The first is an unmitigated triumph. As a longtime cooking nerd, I consumed Cooked like I do a plate of pasta with clams: that is to say, voraciously. Pollan organizes his narrative around four cooking styles correlated to the elements of pre-science Europe: fire (barbecue), water (braising), earth (fermentation), and air (breadmaking). For each, he chooses fascinating and charismatic guides, ranging from the storied North Carolina whole-hog pitmaster Ed Mitchell to the Connecticut "cheese nun" (and Ph.D.-holding microbiologist) Noella Marcellino.

Each of them pops vividly to life on the pages of Cooked, and Pollan places them in an enticing background of deftly researched history, science, and philosophy—and then takes their lessons into his home kitchen for a test run. His legendary chops as a science writer are on full display. Here he is on a loaf of bread, lovingly coaxed from a homemade sourdough starter, as it cooks in his oven:

I closed the oven door gently to make sure I didn't deflate the risen loaf while it finished baking. I needn't have worried. By now, the starches in the dough had "gelatinized"—stiffened enough to formalize the matrix of gluten, which had itself stiffened. During the early moments of baking, the cells of the matrix had ballooned under the pressure of gases expanding in the heat. At least for the first six to eight minutes of oven time, new alveoli continue to form, since the yeasts keep working until the temperature reaches a lethal 130 F. During this period, provided there remain enough sugars to feed them, the rapid flush of heat provides one last, climatic burst of fermentation.

Leave it to Pollan to turn the baking of a bread loaf into steamy drama.  

Engrossing as they are to read about, none of these adventures are practical on a Tuesday evening after a long day at the office while the kids are screaming for dinner.

Incidentally, Pollan's terrific bread section offers a possible explanation for the recent rise of "gluten intolerance" and the general bloated feeling one gets from modern bread. Today's loaves are pumped with fast-acting industrial yeasts and never undergo a lengthy fermentation, Pollan writes. But in that increasingly rare process, "the organic acids produced by the sourdough culture also seem to slow our bodies' absorption of the sugars in white flour, reducing the dangerous spikes in insulin that refined carbohydrates can cause." No wonder I feel fine after eating naturally leavened bread.

But as a clarion to lead the masses back to the kitchen, Cooked falls a bit flatter. True, it inspired me to want to expand and deepen my own kitchen practices—it left me eager to launch my own sourdough culture and rekindled a decades-old ambition to brew beer. But I've been a passionate home cook for 25 years, and worked in restaurants before that. What about the unsaved? By the time Cooked is cooked, Pollan has roasted a whole pig, been scolded by his private kitchen tutor, a Chez Panisse chef, that the dice on his mirepoix for his daube simply won't do (not fine enough), and produced a credible boule under the tutelage of the baking wizard who runs San Francisco's celebrated Tartine. Engrossing as they are to read about, none of these adventures are practical on a Tuesday evening after a long day at the office while the kids are screaming for dinner.

I put the book down wondering if such exertions might, to some, confirm precisely the attitude that Pollan is at pains to dismiss: that cooking is a luxury, a spectator sport, not a daily practice.  

But this quibble doesn't take away from the overall achievement of Cooked. Other writers—Mark Bittman, Suzie Middleton, Tamer Adler—specialize in demonstrating that anyone can cook great from-scratch food without too much fuss or expense. Still others, like Tracie McMillan, have demonstrated the brutal economic realities that undergird our flight from cooking (as with Pollan's other books, labor and class don't register in Cooked). What Pollan has done is written a brilliant set of narrative essays on what it means to transform the raw into the cooked—among the most riveting in English since those of MFK Fisher.

Awesome Reactions to Jason Collins' Coming Out (Updated)

| Mon Apr. 29, 2013 10:03 AM PDT
Left to right: Nets teammates Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson, and Jason Collins in 2006

In the latest issue of Sports Illustrated, the NBA's Jason Collins became the first active player in any of the big four sports (baseball, football, basketball, and hockey) to announce he was gay. His opening paragraph: "I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay."

Toward the end of his must-read story, Collins, a 7-foot, 255-pounder who has played for six teams in his 12-year pro career, ponders the fallout from his announcement:

I've been asked how other players will respond to my announcement. The simple answer is, I have no idea. I'm a pragmatist. I hope for the best, but plan for the worst. The biggest concern seems to be that gay players will behave unprofessionally in the locker room. Believe me, I've taken plenty of showers in 12 seasons. My behavior wasn't an issue before, and it won't be one now. My conduct won't change. I still abide by the adage, "What happens in the locker room stays in the locker room." I'm still a model of discretion.

Here's what President Obama had to say about Collins when asked at his Tuesday press conference:

And here's a look at what some people—some NBA players, some not—tweeted on Monday:

NBA response to Collins announcement

This story has been revised.