2013 - %3, April

Sunnis Are Awakening Once Again in Iraq

| Wed Apr. 24, 2013 8:45 AM PDT

The latest from Iraq:

Security forces for the Shiite-led Iraqi government raided a Sunni protest camp in northern Iraq on Tuesday, igniting violence around the country that left at least 36 people dead.

The unrest led two Sunni officials to resign from the government and risked pushing the country's Sunni provinces into an open revolt against Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite. The situation looked to be the gravest moment for Iraq since the last U.S. combat troops left in December 2011.

...."A minority of hard-liners are using these protesters as human shields and have infiltrated these demonstrations. They want to drag the country into a civil war between the Sunni and Shiites," said lawmaker Sami Askari, who is close to Maliki. "The majority [of Iraqis] reject this."

But even as Askari and others vowed to stave off disaster, the government appeared hobbled by mistrust. Kurds have boycotted the Cabinet along with most Sunnis. The Sunni education minister, Mohammed Tamim, resigned Tuesday after trying to broker a peaceful resolution between the protesters and security forces in the hours before the early-morning raid. The minister of technology, Abdul Kareem Samarrai, also resigned.

This is all Obama's fault, amiright? George Bush—currently enjoying a sudden resurgence of love from conservatives this week—was right on the verge of working everything out and bringing peace and harmony to Iraq when Obama was elected and ruined everything. That's the story I've been hearing for the past couple of years from the neocon rump, anyway.

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SEC Asked to Require Companies to Disclose Political Donations

| Wed Apr. 24, 2013 7:51 AM PDT

The New York Times reports today on a petition asking the SEC to require public companies to disclose their political donations. Needless to day, business lobbying groups are unamused:

Earlier this month, the leaders of three of Washington’s most powerful trade associations — the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Business Roundtable — issued a rare joint letter to the chief executives of Fortune 200 companies, encouraging them to stand against proxy resolutions and other proposals from shareholder activists demanding more disclosure of political spending.

....“The Chamber believes that the funds expended by publicly traded companies for political and trade association engagement are immaterial to the company’s bottom line,” said Blair Holmes, a spokeswoman for the business group, who added that the advocates’ “apparent goal is to silence the business community by creating an atmosphere of intimidation under the cover of investor protection.”

You have to admire the chutzpah, don't you? Who else but the Chamber of Commerce would have the balls to claim that corporations don't believe that political donations have any effect on their earnings? I mean, that's pretty much the whole point of political donations, no?

Iowa GOPer: "Let's Hear it For Rising CO2 on Earth Day!"

| Wed Apr. 24, 2013 7:43 AM PDT

No one celebrates Earth Day quite like the Republican party of Iowa. On Monday, as environmental activists across the world called for increased attention (or any attention at all, as the case may have it) to the effects of anthropogenic climate change, state Rep. Dwayne Alons took to the floor of the state capitol to offer up a counterpoint: Climate change is awesome.

Alons cited a 2012 article in Global Change Biology on the impact of increased carbon dioxide levels on the growth of Greek fir trees:

There's a man by name of Koutavas has come out with this report that basically says there's a very positive indication that rising global CO2 is a good factor, not a bad factor, and we shouldn't be fighting that. And to sum up of some of his words in his report and such observations in the words of Koutavas are most consistent with a significant CO2 fertilization effect operating through restricted stomatal conductance and improve motor use efficiency. And he also opines that if this interpretation is correct—and what other interpretation could there possibly be?—atmospheric CO2 is now overcompensating for growth declines anticipated from dryer climates suggesting its effect is unusually strong and likely to be detectable in other up-to-date tre-ring chronologies from the Mediterranean. There we have it: The increasing concentration of atmospheric CO2 as illustrated in the data I have before me, and the graph is quite significant, appears to be the most important factor driving recently enhanced growth rates of Greek fir trees, and it in spite of unfavorable moisture conditions and declining temperatures that should be causing growth declines. Not bad for a growth-promoting and life-sustaining molecule that some have incorrectly labeled a pollution. So let's hear it for rising CO2 on Earth Day!

The study doesn't actually say, as Alons suggests, that CO2 is a "good" thing or that we "shouldn't be fighting that." It's simply looking at a near-term effect of CO2 on a specific population. Scientists are skeptical that tree growth will continue to keep pace with rising CO2 levels. And all is not well for Alons' beloved Greek fir; he forgot to mention—or perhaps had no idea—that the species is in a continual decline due to, among other things, drought and air pollution.

Rep. Ralph Watts, who followed Alons on the floor, proposed Iowans observe Earth Day by honoring power plants. He suggested that legislators "leave our lights on all night long in celebration of Earth Day and recognition of those privileges we have."

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 24, 2013

Wed Apr. 24, 2013 6:29 AM PDT

A U.S. Marine Corps CH-53 Super Stallion helicopter lands at Camp Al-Galail, Qatar, to drop off several Marines assigned to Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, for Exercise Eagle Resolve April 21, 2013. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kenny Holston/Released.

"Go to Sleep or I Will Call the Planes"

| Wed Apr. 24, 2013 6:01 AM PDT

A week ago, activist Farea al-Muslimi was live-tweeting the aftermath of a drone attack on his childhood village of Wessab in Yemen. Monday, he was testifying before a Senate subcommittee on the legality and impact of the Obama administration's targeted killing program. It was the first time Congress has heard from a witness with anything close to first-hand experience with being on the receiving end of a drone strike. 

"Women used to say [to kids] go to sleep or I will call your father," Muslimi said. "Now they say go to sleep, or I will call the planes."

Last week's strike killed Hameed al-Radmi, described by the US government as an Al Qaeda leader, and four suspected militants. But Muslimi told the Senate that Radmi had recently met with Yemeni government officials, and could easily have been captured, rather than killed in a strike that alienated everyone in the village. 

"[A]ll they have is the psychological fear and terror that now occupies their souls," Muslimi said of the residents of Wessab. "They fear that their home or a neighbor's home could be bombed at any time by a U.S. drone." President Obama received some backup from an unlikely source—Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has spent the last week criticizing the Obama administration for handling the suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings in civilian court. Graham said although he would prefer to capture terror suspects, Yemeni officials couldn't be trusted to apprehend them. "The world we live in is where if you share this closely held information you're going to end up tipping off somebody," Graham told Muslimi.

The United States has carried out 64 drone strikes in Yemen since Obama took office, according to the New America Foundation. The Obama administration did not send a witness to the hearing to defend its targeted killing policy despite promising greater transparency, but Obama has previously defended the targeted killing policy by stating that lethal force is only used in "a situation in which we can't capture the individual before they move forward on some sort of operational plot against the United States." Critics of the policy, which include former members of the Obama administration, have said that the policy creates more enemies than it eliminates. 

That was Muslimi's take. "The drones have simply made more mistakes than [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] has ever done with civilians," he told the Senate panel. "The drones have been the tool they have used to prove [ordinary Yemenis] are at war with the US."

Lew Won't Adopt Geithner's Stand Against Wall Street Deregulation Bills

| Wed Apr. 24, 2013 3:00 AM PDT

 

This post has been updated.

Last year, then-Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner slammed a series of bills that would have deregulated Wall Street banks. But this year, as a slate of nearly identical bills is being considered by the House Financial Services Committee, newly minted Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has declined to oppose them.

The bills are presented as technical fixes to the 2010 Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Act, which was aimed at preventing another 2008-style financial crisis. Most of them aren't. One bill would allow certain derivatives that are traded among a corporation's various affiliates to be exempt from almost all new Dodd-Frank regulations. Another measure would expand the types of trading risks that banks can take on. Yet a third bill would allow big multinational US banks to escape US regulations by operating through international arms. Etc. Etc.

The main problem with these bills, financial reform advocates say, is that it's too early to tweak Dodd-Frank. Although the massive financial-reform law passed more than two years ago, all of its provisions must go to regulatory agencies to be crafted into rules before they take effect in the real world. Because of heavy industry lobbying to weaken or kill the regulations, two-thirds of the 400-odd rules are still not finalized. "You take the least controversial [bill], and it's still pulling a thread out of a jacket," says Jeff Connaughton, an investment banker-turned-financial reform advocate who worked with former Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.) on financial reform legislation in 2009 and 2010. He says altering these sections of the law could make the whole thing fall apart. "Can we please get the rulemaking done first before we start pulling thread out of the sleeve?"

When many of the same bills were introduced in the last Congress, Geithner sent a letter to the House Financial Services Committee warning against the measures. The Dodd-Frank Act "provides essential financial reforms that should not be weakened or repealed," he wrote:

The bills present issues that the regulators are still actively considering in their rulemakings. If enacted, the proposed legislative changes would undermine the integrity of the rulemaking process, further complicate the work of the regulators, and increase uncertainty for firms. Accordingly, Treasury believes that the proposed bills are at best premature and that the regulators should be permitted to continue their work through the rulemaking process.

When asked about Lew's position on the bills and whether he would take a stand against them, Lew's office had no comment. However, his spokesperson did point to recent testimony by a Treasury official who said, "Efforts to repeal the Dodd-Frank Act in whole or piecemeal...will...be corrosive to the strength and stability of our financial system." But a Treasury official saying that a partial Dodd-Frank repeal would be bad does not carry the same weight as a letter from the Secretary of the Treasury that takes a stand against specific bills.

Financial reform advocates have said the administration has not done enough to defend Dodd-Frank. "This is a three-front war by Wall Street," Connaughton says. "The administration needs to be standing up strongly on all three fronts and they're not. They haven't been supporting the agencies the way they should. They haven't been giving the judicial battles the legal importance it deserves. They haven't loudly stated Geithner's position from April 2012, so they're not fighting Congress."

The seven bills sailed out of the House Agriculture committee in late March and are now being considered by the House Financial Services Committee. Last year, the similar bills cleared all the committees, but some never received a vote on the House floor, and they all failed to reach the Senate by the time the 112th Congress ended. As Bart Naylor of Public Citizen noted in April, the bills got an early start this time around, so the pressure on the Senate to take them up if they pass the House will be higher.

Update: After this story, the Treasury Department got in touch with Mother Jones to clarify its stance on Dodd-Frank. After that story, the Department got in touch with Mother Jones again to further reiterate its support for financial reform.

 

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USDA Ruffles Feathers With New Poultry Inspection Policy

| Wed Apr. 24, 2013 3:00 AM PDT

The Obama administration is on the verge of dramatically scaling back the US Department of Agriculture's oversight of the nation's largest chicken and turkey slaughterhouses—while also allowing companies to speed up their kill lines.

Currently, each factory-scale slaughterhouse has four USDA inspectors overseeing kill lines churning out up to 140 birds every minute. Under the USDA's new plan, a single federal inspector would oversee lines killing as many as 175 birds per minute. That would mean there are three fewer inspectors for a production line running 25 percent faster. (The line rates at turkey slaughterhouses are, for obvious reasons, slower, but would also be sped up under the new rules).

After the idea was floated last year, it was met by massive pushback from food safety and worker advocates, who argued that the combination of more speed and fewer inspectors would lead to dangerous conditions for both consumers and workers.

Since then, the proposal has been caught in the federal rulemaking process. But on April 10, the administration released a prospective USDA budget indicating that the agency plans to implement the new rules by September 2014. And in testimony before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture on April 16, Vilsack said the rules would be finalized "very soon," declaring that the plan "will allow the poultry industry to continue to be profitable, and allow us [the USDA] to save some money as well."

Indeed, according to a 2012 statement, the department expects to save $90 million over three years by firing inspectors. Meanwhile, the USDA calculates that by increasing kill line speeds, the plan will save the poultry industry more than eight times as much, or $256.6 million each year. That windfall would accrue mainly to four large companies—Tyson, Pilgrim's Pride (now mostly owned by JBS), Purdue, and Sanderson. Together, they slaughter nearly 60 percent of the chicken consumed in the United States. (Another four companies, led by Butterball, slaughter 55 percent of turkeys.)

The USDA insists that the new system will improve poultry product safety. In his recent testimony, Vilsack said his department expects the new system will prevent "somewhere between three and five thousand foodborne illnesses" per year. Interestingly, Vilsack's numbers are less optimistic than other recent claims from department officials: Just a year ago, Alfred Almanza, administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service, wrote that the plan would "help prevent an estimated 5,200" from getting sick.

The USDA is right that poultry product safety could stand improving. In an analysis of the Food and Drug Administration's latest tests of retail meat, Environmental Working Group found that 81 percent of ground turkey and 39 percent of chicken wings, breasts, and thighs tested contained antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

How would speeding up the kill line and removing all but one inspector improve this dreadful situation? Under current rules, multiple USDA inspectors monitor the kill line for "visible defects"—feces, bruises, blemishes, blood, and the like. But the department insists that's time poorly spent, focusing on the outward cosmetic appearance of the carcasses—quality control issues that the USDA argues should be the slaughterhouse's responsibility. Under the new rules, company employees would instead be in charge of visually inspecting the line and removing defective birds. To control pathogens, the poultry plants would be allowed to conduct "online reprocessing"—that is, dousing all the bird carcasses that pass through the line, "whether they are contaminated or not," with water laced with chlorine and other antimicrobial chemicals. Beyond that, the lone USDA inspector would randomly select 20 to 80 birds per shift to test them for defects. That would represent a tiny fraction of the birds processed over the course of an eight-hour shift; in a single hour, a kill line operating at the new high speed would spit out more than 10,000 carcasses.

Since the late '90s, the USDA has been running a pilot program testing the rules at 20 slaughterhouses, and claims that the results have been sterling. But last year, Food & Water Watch used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain six months' worth of recent inspection documents from participating slaughterhouses. The results, as I reported at the time, were alarming, and don't suggest that the factories' own employees are effectively inspecting the birds.

Here's Food & Water Watch:

Company employees miss many defects in poultry carcasses. The inspection category that had the highest error rate was 'Other Consumer Protection 4' for dressing defects such as feathers, lungs, oil glands, trachea and bile still on the carcass. The average error rate for this category in the chicken slaughter facilities was 64 percent and 87 percent in turkey slaughter facilities. In one turkey slaughter facility, nearly 100 percent of samples found this category of defect.

From March to August 2011, 90 percent of the defects found by the USDA inspectors involved "visible fecal contamination that was missed by company employees." Yuck.

You don't have to resort to FOIA to question the USDA's claim that the new system will cut down on illnesses from eating poultry: In its publicly available 2011 evaluation of the pilot program, the USDA found that finished birds at pilot facilities were more likely to test positive for salmonella. And 2 of the 20 pilot facilities—a Tyson factory in Clarksville, Arkansas, and a Golden Rod Broilers one in Cullman, Alabama—failed the USDA's latest test for salmonella standards. According to Food & Water Watch, that 10 percent failure rate—granted, drawn from a small sample size—is higher than the industry's overall rate.

If the USDA is making shaky claims around food safety, it's not making any claims on worker safety, over which it has no mandate. In his House testimony, Vilsack didn't have much to say on the topic: "We've attempted to address those [worker safety] concerns by suggesting that this gives us a chance to study that issue."

But the new rules would force workers to wield sharp knives and make repetitive motions at a kill line that, with 35 more birds going by each minute, would running significantly faster. Tragically, the federal agency that might have something to say about those conditions, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), doesn't. As a fresh, devastating report from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) on poultry workers shows, slaughterhouses exist in a worker protection limbo:

Despite OSHA's responsibility to ensure worker safety, it has no mandate to regulate processing line speeds to protect workers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the only agency that currently regulates line speeds. But the USDA's regulations are designed to guard against contamination of the product, not to protect workers from hazardous conditions.

Even under current line speeds, workers are regularly harmed. Citing OSHA figures, the SPLC reports that 5.9 percent of the poultry workers are injured each year, 50 percent more than the national average. And the report shows that workers routinely face intimidation and might think twice about reporting an injury. Here's the SPLC, describing current conditions on kill lines:

The processing line that whisks birds through the plant moves at a punishing speed. Over three-quarters of workers said that the speed makes their work more dangerous. It is a predominant factor in the most common type of injuries, called musculoskeletal disorders. But if the line seems to move at a pace designed for machines rather than people, it should come as no surprise. Plant workers, many whom are immigrants, are often treated as disposable resources by their employers. Threats of deportation and firing are frequently used to keep them silent.

The Obama administration has clearly expressed the benefits of its new plan: minor savings for the government, major savings for Big Poultry. Testifying before Congress last year, Cass Sunstein—then serving as the famously regulation-averse chief of Obama's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs—hailed the poultry slaughter proposal as an example of the administration's will to unburden industry of "cumbersome, outdated" regulation. The costs, though, don't appear to have been reckoned with adequately, if at all.

Would You Rather Walk a Mile or Walk For 30 Minutes?

| Tue Apr. 23, 2013 9:18 PM PDT

Aaron Carroll reports today on a recent study about the effect of calorie labeling on restaurant menus. Four different menus were randomly assigned to different diners:

(1) a menu with no nutritional information, (2) a menu with calorie information, (3) a menu with calorie information and minutes to walk to burn those calories, or (4) a menu with calorie information and miles to walk to burn those calories. 

There was a significant difference in the mean number of calories ordered based on menu type (p = 0.02), with an average of 1020 calories ordered from a menu with no nutritional information, 927 calories ordered from a menu with only calorie information, 916 calories ordered from a menu with both calorie information and minutes to walk to burn those calories, and 826 calories ordered from the menu with calorie information and the number of miles to walk to burn those calories.

For the moment, let's assume the study was done properly and these results are actually meaningful. Why would people respond so differently to minutes walked vs. miles walked? Here are a few possibilities:

  • Minutes don't sound so bad. People vaguely figure they'll do a few hundred minutes of walking just in the ordinary course of their day.
  • "Miles" strikes people as inherently more athletic. It's the kind of distance you hear in the Olympics.
  • Most of us walk so little that we overestimate just how long a mile is.

To be honest, the first option is the only one that really sounds plausible to me. What am I missing? Assuming this isn't just a statistical aberration, what would account for the large difference in response to minutes vs. miles?

Assessing President Obama's Wimpitude

| Tue Apr. 23, 2013 4:53 PM PDT

Here is the opening anecdote of a New York Times story devoted to demonstrating that President Obama is a wimp:

Senator Mark Begich, Democrat of Alaska, asked President Obama’s administration for a little favor last month. Send your new interior secretary this spring to discuss a long-simmering dispute over construction of a road through a wildlife refuge, Mr. Begich asked in a letter. The administration said yes.

Four weeks later, Mr. Begich, who faces re-election next year, ignored Mr. Obama’s pleas on a landmark bill intended to reduce gun violence....But Mr. Begich’s defiance and that of other Democrats who voted against Mr. Obama appear to have come with little cost. Sally Jewell, the interior secretary, is still planning a trip to Alaska.

....The trip will also reinforce for Mr. Begich and his colleagues a truth about Mr. Obama: After more than four years in the Oval Office, the president has rarely demonstrated an appetite for ruthless politics that instills fear in lawmakers.

Wow! Obama really is a wuss. LBJ never would have put up with that kind of behavior. He would have reared right up on his haunches and — hold on a second. What's that? There's more to this story? OK, Olivier Knox, you have the floor:

The real reason for [Jewell's] visit—and the reason Obama agreed to give the road project a second look despite fierce opposition from environmentalists (and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)—was a deal last month between the administration and Alaska's Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

Murkowski had vowed to block Jewell's confirmation by any means necessary unless the Interior Department reconsidered. The administration, eager to see the former REI executive confirmed, relented....Murkowski voted for Jewell's confirmation on April 10. She got what she wanted; the administration got what it wanted. If there was arm-twisting, the administration appears to have been the twistee. But the road's not built yet, Jewell is Interior secretary, and reports of the death of Obama's ability to work with Congress appear to have been greatly exaggerated.

So the reason that Jewell is still planning to visit Alaska is because of a promise Obama made to Murkowski, not Begich. She kept her end of the deal, so Obama is keeping his. That's it.

This was Exhibit A in the case against Obama's willingness to work his steely will on Congress. In fact, in the Times story, it was the only exhibit. And it was completely bogus. Next, please.

Bulletproof Clothing for America's Schoolkids? Seriously?

| Tue Apr. 23, 2013 3:27 PM PDT

The collapse of the Senate's gun control efforts last week has left parents to wonder what, if anything, might protect their children from another Newtown-style massacre. The world's leading high-fashion bulletproof clothing company has an answer: discreet kid-sized body armor woven into school backpacks, t-shirts, and puffer vests. The new line of clothing from Miguel Caballero, a Colombia-based company best-known for outfitting celebrities, executives, and political figures, is aimed specifically at the US market as a response to the number of mass shootings here. Watch:

Via TechEBlog