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LA's Crappy Old Pipes Mean More Epic Floods Are Coming

| Wed Jul. 30, 2014 6:38 PM EDT
Workers respond to the broken water main in Los Angeles.

Yesterday at around 3:30 pm, a water main burst near the campus of UCLA in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. It gushed for nearly three hours, sending water as high as 30 feet into the air and flooding campus—cars' wheels were submerged, the brand-new basketball court was covered in standing water, eager students brought boogie boards. As much as 10 million gallons are estimated to have been lost, at a rate of 38,000 gallons per minute.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 30, 2014

Wed Jul. 30, 2014 1:17 PM EDT

The USS George Washington conducts flight operations east of Okinawa. (US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Beverly J. Lesonik.)

Fast-Food Workers Just Took McDonald’s Down a Notch

| Wed Jul. 30, 2014 12:55 PM EDT

On Tuesday evening, the federal government dealt a huge blow to McDonald’s, which has for over a year and a half been the target of worker protests and lawsuits over its low wages and questionable labor practices.

McDonald’s has long maintained that as a parent company, it cannot be held liable for the decisions individual franchises make about pay and working conditions. On Tuesday, the general counsel at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that this is nonsense, saying that the $5.6 billion company is indeed responsible for employment practices at its local franchises. That means that the company is no longer shielded from dozes of charges pending at regional NLRB offices around the country alleging illegal employment practices.

"McDonald’s can try to hide behind its franchisees, but today’s determination by the NLRB shows there's no two ways about it," Micah Wissinger, an attorney who brought a case on behalf of New York City McDonald's workers said in a statement Tuesday. "The Golden Arches is an employer, plain and simple."

The Fast-Food Workers Committee along with the Service Employees International Union has filed numerous complaints against the company with the NLRB since November 2012. Most recently, workers filed seven class action lawsuits against McDonald’s corporate and its franchises in three states alleging wage theft. The NLRB consolidated all these complaints into the case it decided on Tuesday, which focused on whether McDonald's corporate can be considered as a "joint employer" along with the owner of the franchise.

Since the fall of 2012, fast-food workers at McDonald's, Burger King, and KFC franchises around the country have been striking to demand a $15 minimum wage and the right to form a union without retaliation. The strikes recently went global. Organizers say Tuesday's ruling will lend workers new momentum in their ongoing battle against the fast-food mega-chain.

Lucy and the Great 10% Myth

| Wed Jul. 30, 2014 11:44 AM EDT

Andrew Sullivan reminds me of something I was curious about the other day. He quotes Jeffrey Kluger, who writes in Time that he's annoyed with the movie Lucy because it perpetuates the ridiculous myth that we only use 10 percent of our brains. I sympathize. I was sort of annoyed just by seeing that in the trailer. But it did make me wonder: where did this urban legend come from, anyway? Wikipedia to the rescue:

One possible origin is the reserve energy theories by Harvard psychologists William James and Boris Sidis...William James told audiences that people only meet a fraction of their full mental potential....In 1936, American writer Lowell Thomas summarized this idea...."Professor William James of Harvard used to say that the average man develops only ten percent of his latent mental ability."

In the 1970s, psychologist and educator Georgi Lozanov, proposed the teaching method of suggestopedia believing "that we might be using only five to ten percent of our mental capacity."....According to a related origin story, the 10% myth most likely arose from a misunderstanding (or misrepresentation) of neurological research in the late 19th century or early 20th century. For example, the functions of many brain regions (especially in the cerebral cortex) are complex enough that the effects of damage are subtle, leading early neurologists to wonder what these regions did.

Huh. So we don't really know for sure. That's disappointing but not surprising. It's remarkable how often we don't know where stuff like this comes from.

As for its continuing popular resonance, I have a theory of my own. There are an awful lot of people out there with remarkable—and apparently innate—mental abilities. They can multiply enormous numbers in their heads. They can remember every day of their lives. That kind of thing. And yet, they operate normally in other regards. The fact that they've stored, say, distinct memories of the past 15,000 days of their lives doesn't seem to take up any cerebral space or energy that they needed for anything else. So surely all that storage and retrieval capacity is just sitting around unused in the rest of us?

No, it's not. But the idea resonates because freakish mental skills seem to be so much further out on the bell curve than freakish physical skills. It makes the whole 10 percent thing seem pretty plausible. And that's why it sticks around.

POSTSCRIPT: Or does it? I mean, has anyone tried to find out how many people still believe this myth? For all I know, everyone has long been aware that it's not true. We need a poll!

An Awful Lot of People Think Obama Is Bored With Being President

| Wed Jul. 30, 2014 11:05 AM EDT

You have to give the Fox News polling operation credit for mixing things up in an interesting way sometimes. At first glance, their latest poll is just a collection of all the usual leading questions about Obama busting up the Constitution, Obama being a loser compared to Vladimir Putin, Obama being incompetent, etc. etc. This is mostly yawn-worthy stuff intended as fodder for their anchors. All that's missing is a question about whether Obama plays too much golf. But then there's this:

Who else would think to ask a question like that? But it's kind of fascinating, really. And what's most fascinating is that it's barely partisan at all. In virtually every group, something like 40 percent of the respondents think Obama is bored with the whole presidenting thing. That goes for Democrats as well as Republicans; for blacks as well as whites; for the rich as well as the poor; and for liberals as well as conservatives. It's not quite a majority in any group—though it's pretty close among Hispanics and senior citizens—but an awful lot of people sure are convinced that Obama has already checked out of the Oval Office. He might want to do something about that.

GDP Increases At a Smart 4.0% Rate in Second Quarter

| Wed Jul. 30, 2014 10:15 AM EDT

Here's something that counts as good news: GDP increased in the second quarter at an annual rate of 4.0 percent. At the same time, the first quarter numbers were revised to a slightly less horrible -2.1 percent growth rate. This means, roughly speaking, that the economy has grown about 1.9 percent over the first half of the year.

Now, this is obviously nothing to write home about. A growth rate of 1 percent per quarter is pretty anemic. Still, it's better than expectations after the terrible Q1 numbers, and the rebound in Q2 suggests there really was some make-up growth. A fair amount of this growth came from inventory build-up, which is normally a reason for caution, but after two previous quarters of inventory decline it's probably not the warning sign it might otherwise be.

All in all, this is decent news. It's still not possible to say that the economy is roaring along or anything, but the Q1 number now looks like it really was an anomaly. Slowly and sluggishly, the economy is continuing to recover for the ~95 percent of us who haven't been unemployed for months or who haven't given up and exited the labor force entirely. For those people, economic growth is still slow enough to leave them behind. One good quarter is nice, but we still have a lot of work to do.

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Jimmy Hoffa Went Missing 39 Years Ago Today [Photo]

| Wed Jul. 30, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Teamsters Union President James R. Hoffa, left, stands with Anthony Provenzano, right, and fellow union members during Hoffa's visit to New Jersey. AP
 

On this date in 1975, Jimmy Hoffa was last seen around 2:45 p.m. outside a Detroit area restaurant. His unlocked car was found at the restaurant, but there were no other signs of his whereabouts. Hoffa's disappearance sparked numerous theories as to what might have happened to him, and where he might be buried. In 1982, on the seventh anniversary of his disappearance, Hoffa was legally declared dead.
 

Jimmy Hoffa poses for a photo on July 24, 1975, just six days before his disappearance.  Tony Spina/MCT/ZUMA Press

 

Bud and Miller Are Trying to Hijack Craft Beer—and It’s Totally Backfiring

| Wed Jul. 30, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

InBev and MillerCoors loom over the US beer landscape like…well, like one of those monstrous inflatable Bud Light bottles that spring up at certain football tailgate parties and outdoor concerts. Together, the two global giants own nearly 80 percent of the US beer market. InBev alone, corporate owner of Budweiser, spends a staggering $449 million on US advertising.

But also, like those vast blow-up beer bottles, their presence is not-so-faintly ridiculous and always teetering. The industry's signature light beers are suffering a "slow, watery death," BusinessWeek recently reported, their sales declining steadily.

Meanwhile, independent breweries cranking out distinctive product—known as craft breweries—are undergoing an accelerating renaissance. "Sales of craft beers grew 16 percent in volume over the past year versus a 1.7 percent decline for the biggest U.S. beer brands," Bloomberg reported in January. And new craft breweries are budding like hop flowers in spring. Here are the latest numbers, just out from the Brewer's Association. Note that that the number of US craft brewers has nearly doubled since 2010, and grew 20 percent in the past year alone.

Chart: The Brewers Association

Now, here's an historical look at the situation, a chart that I also included the last time I looked at the craft-beer revival, back in 2011. Note that the number of breweries plunged with the coming of Prohibition, surged with the onset of legalization in the 1930s, and then began a long, slow decline as the beer industry consolidated into the hands of giants like Budweiser, Coors, and Miller. By the end of the 1970s, the entire US beer market was being satisfied, if that's the word, by fewer than 100 large brewing facilities.

And then, starting in the early '80s—with the gradual demise of Prohibition-era restrictions like the one that kept breweries from selling beer directly to the public, as well as people's growing distaste for watered-down swill—the craft-brew revival, the one reaching full flower today, emerged.

Chart: Biodesic

For its part, Big Beer has responded to the declining popularity of its goods in two ways. The first is relentless cost cutting. When Belgian mega-brewer InBev bought US corporate beer giant Bud in 2008, it very quickly slashed 1,400 jobs, about 6 percent of its US workforce. And the laser-like focus on slashing costs has continued, as this aptly titled 2012 BusinessWeek piece, "The Plot to Destroy America's Beer," shows.

Ersatz "craft" beers include Shock Top, Blue Moon, Leinenkugel, Killian's, Batch 19, and Third Shift.

The second is to roll out phony craft beers—brands like ShockTop and Blue Moon—and buy up legit craft brewers like Chicago's Goose Island, which InBev did in 2011. Other ersatz "craft" beers include Leinenkugel, Killian's, Batch 19, and Third Shift. The strategy has been successful, to a point. Bloomberg reports that InBev has seen its Goose Island and Shock Top sales surge.

But there's a catch: These stealth Big Beer brands aren't "putting the microbrewers who started the movement out of business," Bloomberg reports. Rather, "the new labels are taking sales from already-troubled mass-market brands owned by the industry giants peddling these crafty brews." In other words, consumers aren't dropping Sierra Nevada or Dogfish Head and reaching for the Shocktop. Rather, ShockTop sales are being propped up by refugees from Bud Light and the like.

Meanwhile, the beer world is buzzing about what would be the granddaddy of all mergers: rumors are swirling that InBev is preparing a bid to takeover SABMiller, a move that would give the combined company 30 percent of the globe's beer market. The motivation, reports the St. Louis Post Dispatch: "A-B InBev could reap $2 billion in cost-savings through an acquisition of their largest rival, through global procurement and shared services, and eliminating job redundancies."

While Big Beer attempts to solve its problems with crafty marketing and yet more giantism, US craft brewers are trying out innovative business models. Big-name craft brewers Full Sail (Oregon), New Belgium (Colorado), and Harpoon (Boston) are all fully employee-owned. Here in Austin, Black Star Brewery and Pub is cooperatively owned by 3,000 community members and managed by a "workers assembly" as a "democratic self-managed workplace." It may sound like it should be a cluster, but the place is always packed, the service is brisk, the food is good, and the beer is excellent. And the employees proudly refuse tips, citing their living wage as the reason. Meanwhile, a forthcoming worker-owned project, 4thTap Brewing Co-op, is creating excitement among Austin beer nerds with its promise to "bring radical brewing to the forefront of the Texas craft beer scene."

For me, all of this ferment underlines an important point about the US food scene: It may be dominated by a few massive, heavily marketed companies at the top, but that doesn't stop viable alternatives from bubbling from below.

Republicans Still Holding Up Virtually All Obama Appointments

| Wed Jul. 30, 2014 1:52 AM EDT

Jonathan Bernstein notes today that although filibuster reform has technically given Democrats the ability to confirm any executive branch appointment, in practice Republicans can still tie up the Senate by insisting on lengthy parliamentary delays for every nominee. And that's what they're doing:

Senate Republicans continue to impose an across-the-board virtual hold on every executive branch nomination....Republican foot-dragging has created a backlog of more than 100 nominees, almost none of whom are controversial, and some of whom have been waiting since January for Senate floor action.

....I understand that Republicans are upset about the Democrats' filibuster reform. It has robbed them of leverage over nominations — even if it's entirely their own fault for having abused that leverage. But Republicans aren’t harming Senate majority leader Harry Reid by blocking nominations. They’re harming the functioning of the U.S. government. (Perhaps it might be nice to have ambassadors appointed in a few important nations?) And they are needlessly, cruelly, messing with people’s lives. On top of all that, they’re eliminating the leverage of individual Senators. As Ted Cruz (maybe) just learned, there’s no point putting an individual hold on a nomination that is already being held up by the entire Republican caucus.

And why? For the sake, as far as I can tell, of a tantrum.

Pretty much. But this is what they've been doing all along. The point of filibustering everything and everyone has never been just to prevent a few objectionable candidates from being confirmed. It's been to tie up Senate floor time and disrupt even the routine functioning of a federal government that's under Democratic control. Even with filibuster reform they can still do that, so why should they stop now? A broken government is nothing but good news for Republicans.

Bernstein says in another post today that he's tired of hearing about political polarization. It's not really anything new, after all. That's true enough, and this is a good example. It's not a case of polarization, it's just a straightforward case of assholery. There's no principle or ideology behind this, they're merely causing dysfunction for the sake of causing dysfunction. Welcome to the modern GOP.

My Ten-Dollar Offer to the Halbig Truthers

| Tue Jul. 29, 2014 8:31 PM EDT

There's no question that the statutory text of Obamacare contains a mistake. In one of its sections, it authorizes federal subsidies only for taxpayers who enroll through a state-based exchange, not for those who enroll through the federal exchange. But was it really a mistake? Brian Beutler comments:

Right-wing activists have spent the last several months fabricating a rival narrativea ludicrous theory of intent, in which leading Democrats meant to condition the subsidies, but decided to keep the inducement a secret from reporters, back bench members, governors, budget analysts, and health care reform advocates. This kind of deceptive argumentation is perhaps to be expected from activists. What's become incredibly frustrating to me about the Halbig brouhaha in the last few days is watching the conservative health care writers who were in the same trenches watching the same debate unfoldattempting, from a very skeptical vantage point, to explain the bill correctlysuddenly turn around and vouchsafe the Halbig Truthers.

That suggests something to me. As far as I know, not a single reporter who covered the Obamacare battle believes that Congress intended to restrict subsidies to state exchanges. As Beutler says, "To the extent that the question wasn’t probed widely, if at all, it's because that would've been almost like asking whether the subsidies were intended to be denominated in Rubles." Sarah Kliff agrees: "It was never a question, during the five years I've spent writing about Obamacare, whether this would be case." Nobody in Congress questioned the universality of subsidies. Nobody in the executive branch questioned it. No governors questioned it. None of the bureaucrats tasked with building the exchanges questioned it. And nobody in the press questioned it.

And that brings me to my suggestion: Is it really true that no one in the press questioned it? For the moment, let's forget about liberals. Hell, everyone knows we're in the bag for Obamacare, and by now we've probably scrubbed all our old posts of damning evidence. Ditto for the mainstream media. They're just shills for Obama anyway. But how about conservatives? They covered the Obamacare battle pretty obsessively too. Here's my guess: every single article written by conservatives between January 2009 and March 2010 (a) assumed that subsidies were universal and (b) never so much as mentioned the possibility that they weren't. In other words, they all believed in universal subsidies too because there was never any reason in their reporting to believe otherwise. Not one single reason.

But maybe I'm wrong! So here's my offer: I will send a crisp, new ten-dollar bill to anyone who can point out a conservative who so much as suspected that subsidies were limited to state exchanges prior to March 2010. Surely that's incentive enough? Let's start digging up evidence, people.