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Obama Is About to Give You the Right to Unlock Your Phone

| Fri Jul. 25, 2014 5:26 PM EDT

Ever wondered why you can't transfer your old phone to a new carrier? The practice, known as cellphone unlocking, is illegal. It probably won't surprise you that in the '90s, wireless carriers—who, for obvious reasons, wanted everyone to buy new phones and plans—lobbied for a ban.

As I wrote last year, this ban isn't just annoying and expensive for consumers, it's also wasteful. We only keep our phones for an average of 18 months , and when we get a new one, the old one seldom makes it to a recycling facility. Many languish in desk drawers; some end up in the garbage. That means a lot of electronic waste in landfills, not to mention the environmentally hazardous materials such as rare earths required to make all those new phones.

So it's great news that today the House unanimously passed a law that would finally make phone unlocking legal. The Senate approved the measure last week. Now President Obama just needs to sign off, which he has pledged to do.

After that, if you unearth that old phone from the desk drawer, someone might actually be able to use it.

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PETA's Five Most Tone-Deaf Stunts

Fri Jul. 25, 2014 4:23 PM EDT

Proving once again PETA is unfamiliar with how to a deliver meaningful publicity campaign, the animal rights group is now looking to score a win off poor people's thirst.

Some background: The bankrupt city of Detroit has been shutting off its tap water to thousands of poor residents in order to force them to pay for nearly $90 million in overdue water bills. Advocates have slammed the move, calling out the city for eliminating a basic human right. The NAACP recently filed a lawsuit calling the shut down discriminatory, as most of Detroit's low-income residents are overwhelmingly black.

It takes a certain type of callousness to look at this situation and see anything other than misfortune. PETA saw an opportunity! The animal rights group has made an offer to poor Detroit residents: Be one of 10 families to denounce meat and they'll put an end to your family's thirst. PETA will even throw in a basket of vegetables for the effort.

"Vegan meals take far less of a toll on the Earth’s resources," PETA wrote in a recent press release. "It takes about 2,500 gallons of water to produce just a pound of meat but only about 155 gallons of water to produce a pound of wheat."

This seems like as good a time as any to look back on PETA's misguided and often times exploitative PR campaigns of the past:

1. "Boyfriend went vegan and knocked the bottom out of me." (2012)

Enhance your sex life by encouraging your boyfriend to go vegan. He'll transform into a "tantric porn star," breaking your neck and causing your body to go limp. The sex will be so mind-blowing, in fact, you'll wander aimlessly in just a bra, as you reflect on the violent sex you had the pleasure of subjecting yourself to the evening prior.

2. "Holocaust on your plate." (2003)

Here the group matches photos of factory farms with Holocaust inmates. The display was promptly banned in Germany—a move PETA found absurd considering a Jewish PETA member happened to fund the campaign.

3. Too fat for Plan B? Try "Plan V." (2013)

Jumping on news Plan B may not work as well for women over 165 pounds, PETA urges women to shed a few pounds by going vegan.

4. Dog breeding is for Nazis. (2014)

Again conjuring up the atrocities of the Holocaust, which lets keep in mind systematically killed 11 million people, the group equates dog breeding to Hitler's plan to bring about a pure Aryan race.

5. Don a fur coat and you'll be beaten. (2007)

The disturbing video above even seems to justify senseless violence.

Detroit has already severed off the tap water supply to nearly 125,000 people, with thousands more likely to have their resources shut down in weeks to come. And anyone with a remote interest in current events understands most Detroiters are low-income residents, many of whom could not afford to have a vegan diet.

Nice going, PETA.

Friday Cat Blogging - 25 July 2014

| Fri Jul. 25, 2014 2:50 PM EDT

Say hello to Mozart, the latest addition to the Drum family menagerie. One of my mother's neighbors found him wandering around, so naturally he ended up at my mother's house. He's a very sociable cat and appears to be very pleased with his choice of home. To celebrate his appearance, today you get two catblogging photos: one that shows his whole body and one that's a close-up of his face. Enjoy.

Doctors Aren't Really Very Smart About Buying Generics

| Fri Jul. 25, 2014 2:05 PM EDT

Sarah Kliff takes a look today at our use of generic drugs. Long story short, it's surprising how few of us save money by buying generic pain medicine instead of name brands (Advil, Tylenol, Bayer, etc.). Why? In most cases, I suppose it's just ignorance: people don't realize that the "store brand" is genuinely identical to the name brand. In other cases it might be something else. I buy generic ibuprofen, and it usually comes in the form of small brown pills. One day, however, I went to to a different drug store to stock up, and it turned out that their generic ibuprofen came in the form of small orange pills. Marian used these for a while, but really hated them. Eventually she cracked, and insisted on buying a new bottle from our usual drug store. Sometimes little things can make all the difference.

Anyway. The main point of Kliff's post is that generics are good, and as evidence of this she puts up a chart showing what doctors themselves buy. Here's an excerpt from the chart:

It's true that doctors mostly favor generics when it comes to basic pain relievers. But frankly, what's amazing to me is how little they prefer them. For chrissake, they prefer generic aspirin by only ten percentage points. That means they buy the name brand about 45 percent of the time. Why would a doctor do this? Granted, the extra few dollars is probably no big deal to them, but why waste it anyway? Certainly not because of ignorance. Are their spouses doing the buying? Or what?

And why the active preference for name-brand rubbing alcohol, of all things? It's hard to think of anything more generic than that. What's the deal here?

As for Alka-Seltzer, the dislike of generics is so huge that there just has to be some real difference here. But what?

In any case, I suspect this might have some real importance beyond the question of doctors spending a few dollars they don't have to. If physicians aren't really sold on generics in their own personal lives, does this mean they're not really sold on them in their professional lives too? Do they tend to prescribe name brands when they shouldn't? And how much does this cost all of us?

You'd Scream, Too, If You Were This Close to a Collapsing Iceberg

| Fri Jul. 25, 2014 1:54 PM EDT

Climate change is melting ice at both ends of the planet—just ask the researchers who published two papers in May saying that a major expanses of antarctic ice are now undergoing a "continuous and rapid retreat" and may have "passed the point of no return."

As the poles melt, icebergs are breaking off and drifting with greater ease, creating a world of problems for humans and animals alike. In Antarctica, warmer winters mean icebergs aren't held in place as they once were, and are now colliding with the ocean floor more frequently, laying waste to a complex ecosystem. In Greenland, summer icebergs— like one twice the size of Manhattan that broke off 2012—can clog up shipping lanes and damage offshore oil platforms.

But whether climate change set it free or not, even a single 'berg can be dangerous if you get too close, as this couple discovered when they took a look at one floating off the coast of Newfoundland, in eastern Canada.

h/t to Minnesota Public Radio News for finding this one.

Republicans Maybe Not as Inept as We Think

| Fri Jul. 25, 2014 12:49 PM EDT

Paul Waldman thinks Republicans have become a bunch of bumblers and idiots:

Think about it this way: Has there been a single instance in the last few years when you said, "Wow, the Republicans really played that one brilliantly"?

In fact, before you'll find evidence of the ruthless Republican skillfulness so many of us had come to accept as the norm in a previous era, you'll need to go back an entire decade to the 2004 election. George W. Bush's second term was a disaster, Republicans lost both houses of Congress in 2006, they lost the White House in 2008, they decided to oppose health-care reform with everything they had and lost, they lost the 2012 election—and around it all they worked as hard as they could to alienate the fastest growing minority group in the country and make themselves seem utterly unfit to govern.

In fact, in the last ten years they've only had one major victory, the 2010 midterm election.

Hmmm. It's true that the GOP has had a rough decade in a lot of ways. The number of self-IDed Republicans has plummeted since 2004; their standing among the fast-growing Hispanic population has cratered; and their intellectual core is now centered in a wing of the party that believes we should return to the gold standard. This isn't a promising starting point for a conservative renaissance.

Still, let's not kid ourselves. If Republicans were really as woefully inept as Waldman says, then Democrats should be kicking some serious ass these days. I haven't especially noticed this. They won in the sixth year of Bush's presidency, when out parties always win, and then won in 2008, when an economic collapse pretty much guaranteed a victory for anyone with a D after their name. Then they had a single fairly good year—followed by an epic blunder that lost them a sure seat in Massachusetts, and with it control of the Senate. They got crushed in 2010. They won a squeaker in 2012 against an opponent who made a wedding cake figurine look good by comparison. For the last four years, they've basically gotten nothing done at all.

And what about those Republicans? Well, they have a hammerlock on the House, and they might very well control the Senate after the 2014 election. They've won several notable Supreme Court victories (Heller, Citizens United, Hobby Lobby, etc.). They control a large majority of the states, and have passed a ton of conservative legislation in areas like voter ID and abortion restrictions. Their "Just Say No" strategy toward President Obama has tied Democrats in knots. They won an all but total victory on spending and deficits.

Nor is it really true that today's GOP is notably more bumbling than it used to be. The myth of "ruthless Republican skillfulness" in the past is just that: a myth. George H.W. Bush screwed up on Supreme Court picks and tax hikes. Newt Gingrich—ahem—sure didn't turn out to be the world historical strategic genius everyone thought he was in 1994. George W. Bush—with the eager backing of every Republican in the country—figured that a war in Iraq would be just the ticket to party dominance for a decade. Ditto for Social Security reform. Republicans were just sure that would be a winner. By contrast, their simpleminded Obama-era strategy of obstructing Democrats at all times and on all things has actually worked out pretty well for them given the hand they were dealt.

Make no mistake: It's not as if Republicans have been strategic geniuses. There's no question that they have some long-term issues that they're unable to address thanks to their capitulation to tea party madness. But if they're really so inept, how is it that in the past 15 years Democrats haven't managed to cobble together anything more than about 18 months of modest success between 2009-10?

I dunno. Republicans keep getting crazier and crazier and more and more conservative, and liberals keep thinking that this time they've finally gone too far. I've thought this from time to time myself. And yet, moving steadily to the right has paid off pretty well for them over the past three decades, hasn't it?

Maybe it will all come to tears in the near future as the lunatic wing of the party becomes even more lunatic, but we liberals have been thinking this for a long time. We haven't been right yet.

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Gruber: "It Was Just a Mistake"

| Fri Jul. 25, 2014 11:17 AM EDT

Why did Jonathan Gruber tell an audience in 2012 that states which failed to set up Obamacare exchanges would be depriving their residents of federal subsidies? Jonathan Cohn caught up with Gruber this morning and got an answer:

I honestly don’t remember why I said that. I was speaking off-the-cuff. It was just a mistake.

....There are few people who worked as closely with Obama administration and Congress as I did, and at no point was it ever even implied that there’d be differential tax credits based on whether the states set up their own exchange. And that was the basis of all the modeling I did, and that was the basis of any sensible analysis of this law that’s been done by any expert, left and right.

I didn’t assume every state would set up its own exchanges but I assumed that subsidies would be available in every state. It was never contemplated by anybody who modeled or worked on this law that availability of subsides would be conditional of who ran the exchanges.

So there you have it: Gruber screwed up. More importantly, as he points out, he's performed immense amounts of technical modeling of Obamacare, and all of his models assumed that everyone would get subsidies even though not every state would set up its own exchange. As Cohn says, this was pretty much the unanimous belief of everyone involved:

As I’ve written before, I had literally hundreds of conversations with the people writing health care legislation in 2009 and 2010, including quite a few with Gruber. Like other journalists who were following the process closely, I never heard any of them suggest subsidies would not be available in states where officials decided not to operate their own marketplaces—a big deal that, surely, would have come up in conversation.

Kudos to Peter Suderman and his sleuths for uncovering this and getting everyone to talk about it for a day. It's a news cycle win for conservatives. But restricting subsidies to state exchanges just flatly wasn't part of Congress's intent. There's simply no way to rewrite history to make it seem like it was.

57 Percent of Republicans Want to Impeach Obama

| Fri Jul. 25, 2014 10:38 AM EDT

This is completely, barking insane:

I don't even know how to react to this stuff anymore. A solid majority of Republicans wants to impeach President Obama for....what? An EPA regulation they don't like? Postponing Obamacare's employer mandate for a year? Not prosecuting some immigrant kids who have been in the country since they were three?

This goes beyond politics as usual. It's nuts. Fox News is now officially in charge of one of America's two major political parties.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 24, 2014

Fri Jul. 25, 2014 9:00 AM EDT

US Navy sailors participate in a replenishment-at-sea on a scheduled deployment aboard the USS Oscar Austin guided-missile destroyer. (US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class DJ Revell.)

GOP to America: Rich Kids Are Worth More Than Poor Kids

| Fri Jul. 25, 2014 7:47 AM EDT

Update, Friday July 25: On Friday, the House passed Rep. Lynn Jenkins' (R-Ks.) child tax credit legislation, which would expand the credit for upper-middle class American families. The bill received the support of 212 Republican and 25 Democrats.

On Friday, the House will vote on a Republican bill that ignores an expiring tax credit for millions of low-income families, while handing one to better-off Americans.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Ks.), changes the way the federal child tax credit works by raising the eligibility cap for married couples. At the same time, the legislation would allow a 2009 child tax credit increase for low-income families to expire at the end of 2017. Here's how that would play out in the coming years. A married couple with two children that bring in $160,000 a year would get a new annual tax cut of $2,200, according to an analysis by the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). A single mother with two kids who makes $14,500 a year would lose $1,725 annually.

"The big winners would be the more-affluent families who would become newly eligible for the [child tax credit]," tax experts at the CBPP noted Tuesday. "The losers would be millions of low-income families who are doing exactly what policymakers often say they want these people to do—working, even at low-wage jobs."

Here's a look at how poor, middle-class, and wealthier Americans would be affected by the bill, via the CBPP:

The 2009 law that increased the child tax credit for poor families did so by lowering the income level required for a partial credit to $3,000 and reducing the annual income required for a full credit to $16,333. If it expires, 6 million children and roughly 400,000 veterans and military families would lose all or part of their child tax credit.

A spokesman for Jenkins explains that the reason the bill ends up extending the child tax credit to wealthier Americans is that it gets rid of the marriage penalty, which treats a married couple's total income differently than the sum of two separate incomes. The way the child tax credit is currently structured, a single person making up to $75,000 is eligible for a full credit. But for a married couple filing jointly, full credit eligibility cuts off at $110,000 instead of at $150,000, the couple's combined total income. Jenkins' bill moves the full credit cut-off to $150,000. (As income increases above these thresholds, the child tax credit phases out slowly. Under Jenkins' bill, for instance, a couple with two kids could still get the credit if they make up to $205,000.)

Jenkins' office adds that the reason that the legislation does not extend the low-income child tax credit increase is that this provision doesn't expire until the end of 2017, and future legislation can address it.

But a Democratic aide familiar with the bill says this justification is disingenuous, adding that if GOPers wanted to extend the low-income provision, they would. All 22 Republicans on the House ways and means committee voted for Jenkins' bill, while all 15 Dems on the committee voted against it. "[Republicans] can say whatever they want," the aide says. But "they are prioritizing making permanent [all the tax provisions] that they want to be permanent, and getting rid of everything else." For instance, Republicans are already pushing to extend another tax measure that expires at the end of 2017 that is designed to help parents and students pay for college expenses.

The Democratic staffer adds that if Jenkins' bill were to become law, and the low-income provision were left hanging on its own, it would be very difficult to "galvanize Congress into action" to pass a separate extension for the measure. "What carries it along is that it's bundled together," he says. Chuck Marr, one of the authors of the CBPP study, agrees that the most obvious way for the House to extend the low-income measure would be to include it in Jenkins' bill.

Even if the legislation passes the House, the bill—which would cost the government $115 billion over ten years—has little chance in the Democratic-controlled Senate.