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RIP Leonard Nimoy

| Fri Feb. 27, 2015 12:37 PM EST

Leonard Nimoy, best known for his role as the iconic Mr. Spock of "Star Trek" died on Friday at the age of 83.

His wife confirmed the news to the New York Times, saying the actor died from "end-stage" pulmonary disease. Nimoy announced he had been battling the disease earlier this year and attributed his many years of smoking for the cause.

Below is his last tweet:

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California's 3-Strike Prison Reform Is Working

| Fri Feb. 27, 2015 12:19 PM EST

California's three-strikes law used to mean that all third-time felons had to spend at least 25 years behind bars—pretty harsh, considering that the third strike could be the result of stealing a $2.50 pair of tube socks. Last year, voters decided to scale back the policy, and passed two initiatives to give judges more sentencing discretion and retroactively reduce the penalties for low-level drug and theft crimes. Law enforcement leaders warned that the reform would set free "thousands of dangerous inmates," and called it "a radical package of ill-conceived policies" that "will endanger Californians."

Of roughly 2,000 former life prisoners freed as a result of the three-strikes reform, only 4.7 percent have returned to prison.

But almost five months after the second initiative passed, that warning sounds increasingly overblown. About 45 percent of inmates released from California prisons normally re-offend within 18 months. Of roughly 2,000 former life prisoners freed as a result of the three-strikes reform, only 4.7 percent have returned to prison, according to the New York Times. These ex-convicts had been out for an average of 18 months.

Experts say that intense exit counseling helped contribute to the low recidivism rate. "There's a lot of emotional work," Mark Faucette, director of community relations for the Amity Foundation, told the Times. "They're moving from a number to a name."

Crime rates did fall—but a 2012 study from UC-Riverside later found that it had nothing to do with three strikes.

Two decades ago, fear of crime was at a nationwide peak. The murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas by a career criminal helped push Californians to pass the three-strikes law, the country's strictest, in 1994. Crime rates did fall—but a 2012 study from UC-Riverside later found that it had nothing to do with three strikes. The law also added an estimated $19 billion to the state prison budget. As federal courts started pressuring California to shrink its prison population in 2009 due to inhumane treatment and overcrowding, the three-strikes legislation made even less sense.

The tides may be shifting for the rest of the country, too. As my colleague Shane Bauer writes, a 2013 poll found that even among Texas Republicans, 81 percent favor treatment over incarceration for drug offenders. Other states—more than 20 of which also passed three-strikes laws in the 1990s—may also soon be questioning prison time as a blanket solution for low-level crimes.

Republicans Shoot Selves in Foot, Schedule Second Shooting for March

| Fri Feb. 27, 2015 11:59 AM EST

Here's the latest bit of drama in the DHS funding fight:

The House will vote Friday on a bill funding the Department of Homeland Security for three weeks in an attempt to avert a shutdown slated for Saturday at the massive agency.

....Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced the new strategy to his rank-and-file members during a closed-door caucus meeting Thursday night. Senior Republicans predicted it would win enough support to clear the lower chamber. “I think we’ve got plentiful support. I was very pleased with the response. I think it’ll be a very strong vote,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) told reporters after the meeting.

This is, literally, the worst possible outcome for Republicans. It means they'll spend the next three weeks embroiled in this inane battle instead of working to advance their own agenda. It means the tea party ultras will have three more weeks to whip up even more outrage. It means John Boehner will have to fight his own caucus yet again on this same subject in March.

In the meantime, Democrats are probably cackling with glee. This has got to be one of the most dimwitted legislative own goals of all time.

Watch a US Senator Use a Snowball to Deny Global Warming

| Fri Feb. 27, 2015 11:09 AM EST

 

This story was first published by the Huffington Post and is reproduced here via the Climate Desk collaboration.

The Senate's most vocal critic of the scientific consensus on climate change, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, tossed a snowball on the Senate floor Thursday as part of his case for why global warming is a hoax.

Inhofe, who wrote the book The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future, took to the floor to decry the "hysteria on global warming."

"In case we have forgotten, because we keep hearing that 2014 has been the warmest year on record, I ask the chair, 'You know what this is?'" he said, holding up a snowball. "It's a snowball, from outside here. So it's very, very cold out. Very unseasonable."

"Catch this," he said to the presiding officer, tossing the blob of snow.

Inhofe went on to list the recent cold temperatures across parts of the United States, which included 67 new record lows earlier this week according to the National Weather Service, as evidence that global warming claims are overhyped. "We hear the perpetual headline that 2014 has been the warmest year on record. But now the script has flipped."

Despite the record lows in some parts of the country, the nation overall has been experiencing a warmer than average winter.

Why Did the Pentagon Announce Its Battle Plan for Mosul Months Ahead of Time?

| Fri Feb. 27, 2015 10:46 AM EST

Last week, in a briefing to reporters, the Pentagon announced that it planned an offensive against Mosul in late spring. But why? Normally you don't telegraph military plans months in advance.

Joshua Rovner and Caitlin Talmadge suggest two related reasons. First, the U.S. might have decided that Iraqi security is so shoddy that surprise was never in the cards. "Given the notoriously poor operational security of the Iraqi Army," they say, "the chances of keeping secret any Iraqi-led campaign were poor anyway."

Beyond that, they speculate that the Pentagon hoped to accomplish something by sending a message:

The United States may be speaking more to its coalition partners and Iraqi counterparts than to the Islamic State....The United States might be trying to signal its own trustworthiness as a partner, stiffen the backs of unmotivated Iraqi forces, create a fait accompli with regards to campaign planning, or some combination of the above. In short, it may be aiming its communications at targets other than the Islamic State.

One can also sense a sort of “heads we win, tails you lose” logic to the U.S. public messages about Mosul. If the Islamic State forces uncharacteristically flee without a fight, they will face humiliation and a setback to their claims of control in Iraq. That’s a win, at least operationally, for Washington and Baghdad. Conversely, if the Islamic State decides to stand its ground and starts trying to flow reinforcements to Mosul in preparation for the defense of the city, that could be a good thing operationally, too. These forces will be highly vulnerable to the stepped-up coalition air attacks, which are already seriously threatening the militants’ lifeline between Raqqa and Mosul. Sending reinforcements to Mosul will also draw Islamic State resources away from Syria, where the coalition’s ability to fight is much more constrained, and into Iraq, where that ability is more robust.

Hmmm. Maybe. After all, we announced the "shock and awe" campaign for weeks prior to the start of the Iraq War in 2003. The hope, presumably, was to scare the Iraqis so badly that they'd essentially give up and flee before the battle even started. It didn't really work, but no one complained about it at the time.

There will be no shock and awe this time, though. Just a lot of grubby, house-to-house fighting led by Iraqi Shiite forces that are probably not very motivated to sacrifice their lives in order to return Mosul to Sunni control. Will it work? I can't say I'm optimistic. But I've been wrong before. Maybe I am again.

"Republican Stalwart" Chosen to Lead CBO

| Fri Feb. 27, 2015 10:18 AM EST

The current director of the Congressional Budget Office, Doug Elmendorf, is pretty widely respected on both left and right, and even a lot of Republicans were hoping he'd be reappointed to a new term by the incoming Congress. But despite his sterling credentials, Elmendorf is insufficiently dedicated to the conservative idée fixe of dynamic scoring, which insists that tax cuts will supercharge the economy and thus cost much less than you'd think. So today the CBO got a new director:

GOP dismisses CBO director, picks Republican stalwart as chief scorekeeper

Republicans Friday announced they will not keep current chief congressional scorekeeper Douglas Elmendorf and will replace him with Keith Hall, an economist with a long record of service in Washington and deep ties to Republicans.

....The CBO celebrated its 40th anniversary earlier this week, where past directors from both parties praised Mr. Elmendorf for his even-handed approach to the job. But Republicans had wanted to push the CBO to go further in the way it evaluates tax cuts by using so-called “dynamic scoring” to take into account the potential economic benefit feedback loop that could stem from Americans paying less to the federal government after a tax cut.

I'm not sure Hall has taken a public stand on the virtues of dynamic scoring, but it's probably safe to assume that he's more sympathetic to it than Elmendorf was. Should make for a fun few years.

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Diet Advice From Warren Buffett

| Fri Feb. 27, 2015 6:00 AM EST
Ren Zhenglai/ZUMA Press

"Is the junk-food era drawing to a close?," I recently wondered aloud, citing declining sales from processed food giants like Kraft and Kellogg's. If so, no one has bothered to inform gazillionaire investment mogul and octogenarian Warren Buffett. "I'm one quarter Coca-Cola,” Buffett recently told Fortune's Patricia Sellers. "If I eat 2,700 calories a day, a quarter of that is Coca-Cola. I drink at least five 12-ounce servings. I do it everyday." In addition to being one quarter Coke, Buffett literally owns 9 percent of Coca-Cola, through his conglomerate, Berkshire Hathaway. And the cagey old investor apparently knows what he's doing—even though soft-drink sales have been declining for years, Coke's share price has nearly doubled since 2011, borne up by financial engineering tricks like share buy-backs, Fortune reports.

In addition to regular infusions of the sugary soft drink, Buffett's diet regimen includes breakfasts of Utz Potato strings and chocolate chip ice cream, Sellers reports. If his diet sounds eerily similar to the one you dreamed of pursuing in first grade, that's apparently no accident. Here's Sellers:

Asked to explain the high-sugar, high-salt diet that has somehow enabled him to remain seemingly healthy, Buffett replies: “I checked the actuarial tables, and the lowest death rate is among six-year-olds. So I decided to eat like a six-year-old.” The octogenarian adds, “It’s the safest course I can take.”

For most of us, loading up on processed junk probably isn't the way forward. But far be it for me to question Buffett's lifestyle choices—he's going strong at 84 and has probably made more bank in the past 15 minutes than I'll make in my entire lifetime. 

USDA Whistleblowers Tell All–and You May Never Eat Bacon Again

| Fri Feb. 27, 2015 6:00 AM EST

In 2004, Elsa Murano stepped down from her post as chief of the US Department of Agriculture division that oversees food safety at the nation's slaughterhouses. Two years later, she joined the board of directors of pork giant Hormel, a company that runs some of the nation's largest slaughterhouses. Murano received $238,000 in compensation for her service on Hormel's board in 2014 alone. 

Read "The Spam Factory's Dirty Secret" and "Gagged by Big Ag." Illustration by Tim O'Brien

This is a classic example of the "revolving door" that separates US government regulators from the corporations they regulate. It's hardly the most shocking thing I gleaned from the whistleblower-protection group Government Accountability Project's recent exposé of conditions at three hog slaughter facilities associated with Hormel. But it's interesting to think about in light of GAP's allegations, found in sworn affidavits filed by four USDA inspectors stationed in Hormel-owned plants. Three of the inspectors chose to remain anonymous; the fourth, Joe Ferguson, gave his name.

Their comments focus on three Hormel-associated plants, which are among just five hog facilities enrolled in a pilot inspection program run by the USDA. In the regular oversight system, USDA-employed inspectors are stationed along the kill line, charged with ensuring that conditions are as sanitary as possible and that no tainted meat ends up being packed for consumption. In the pilot program, known as HIMP (short for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points-based Inspection Models Project), company employees take over inspection duties, relegating USDA inspectors to an oversight role on the sidelines.

"USDA inspectors are encouraged not to stop the line for fecal contamination."

What's more, the HIMP plants get to speed up the kill line—from the current rate of 1,100 hogs per hour to 1,300 hogs per hour, a jump of nearly 20 percent. The five plants rolled out the new inspection system around 2002, USDA spokesperson Aaron Lavallee said. That's when Murano, now on the Hormel board of directors, ran the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. If the privatization-plus-speedup formula sounds familiar, it's because the USDA ran a similar experimental program for chicken slaughter for years. After much pushback by workplace and food safety advocates and media attention (including from me), the USDA decided not to let poultry companies speed up the kill line when it opened the new system to all chicken slaughterhouses last year (though it did green-light turkey facilities to speed up the line from 51 to 55 birds per minute).

All four affidavits offer blistering critiques of the hog version of the pilot program. Three themes run through them: (1) company inspectors are poorly trained and prepared for the task of overseeing a fast-moving kill line involving large carcasses; (2) company-employed and USDA inspectors alike face pressure from the company not to perform their jobs rigorously; and (3) lots of unappetizing stuff is getting through as the result of (1) and (2).

The testimony of Inspector 3, affidavit here, is full of choice nuggets, though not of the sort you want to sample before lunch. Here are a few:

  • "Not only are plant supervisors not trained, the employees taking over USDA's inspection duties have no idea what they are doing. Most of them come into the plant with no knowledge of pathology or the industry in general."
  • "Food safety has gone down the drain under HIMP. Even though fecal contamination has increased under the program (though the company does a good job of hiding it), USDA inspectors are encouraged not to stop the line for fecal contamination."
  • "HIMP was initially designed for the kill of young, healthy animals. This hasn't always been the case. A lot of the animals the plant has killed were too old. Some also had different diseases. They didn't even slow down the line for the diseased carcasses."
  • "The company threatens plant employees with terminations if they see them condemning too many carcasses or carcass parts."

For its part, Hormel insists that "food safety is our top priority and we have been a leader in the production of safe, quality food for more than 100 years," as Rick Williamson, Hormel's manager of external communications, wrote in an email. "In addition to the USDA inspectors at the facility, there are Hormel Foods employees trained to the standards of the USDA conducting the additional inspections," he continued. "We've found this allows the USDA inspectors better perspective and more flexibility to monitor activity and identify any issues." As for food safety concerns, he added that "our facilities consistently meet or perform better than published USDA microbiological performance standards." But he didn't respond to my request for data to back that claim up, or for commentary on charges of poor training and intimidation of inspectors. But he did add a plug for the privatized inspection and faster kill lines enjoyed by three Hormel-associated plants: "The HIMP program places more accountability on the company, and we welcome that responsibility."

The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, the agency that runs the inspection program, is standing behind HIMP too. USDA spokesperson Aaron Lavallee pointed to a November 2014 FSIS report that, he said, "shows that the food safety outcomes at the pilot facilities are on par with those operating under other inspection systems." The report concluded that there's "no reason to discontinue HIMP in market hog establishments." 

Meanwhile, the pilot inspection program will continue running as is, confined to five slaughterhouse and not expanding to include others, Lavallee said. Before expanding, he added, "the agency would first need to conduct a risk assessment to determine whether doing so would have a significant positive public health impact, and then engage in the rulemaking process, which can be lengthy."

However, the USDA's and Hormel's rosy assessment of HIMP presents a stark contrast to a scathing 2013 report from yet another USDA agency, the Office of the Inspector General, which found HIMP plants—which it did not name—made up three of the top 10 US hog plants earning the most food safety and animal welfare citations in the period of fiscal years 2008 to 2011. Moreover, by far the most-cited slaughterhouse in the United States over that period was in the program—it drew "nearly 50 percent more [citations] than the plant with the next highest number." The OIG also concluded that that the Food Safety and Inspection Service "did not provide adequate oversight" of HIMP over its first 15 years, and as a result,  "HIMP plants may have a higher potential for food safety risks."

Not all company-employed inspectors "understand and have the ability to execute the proper procedures needed to make sure pathogens don't spread to other carcasses" when "fecal matter or ingesta spills out of one of the animal's organs."

Ted Genoways, who in 2012 wrote a harrowing account in Mother Jones of what accelerated line speeds have meant for workers slaughterhouse workers, rejects Hormel's sunny assessment. Genoways' reporting, later expanded into the superb 2014 book The Chain, focused on the Quality Pork Processors plant in Austin, Minnesota, which supplies its meat solely to Hormel and is one of the three Hormel-associated plants among the five in HIMP. He recently told Food Safety News, "Yes, I think the line speeds [at the HIMP plants] are too fast. When you see the workers on the line say the speeds are too fast, the inspectors say the lines are too fast, the suppliers at the farm level say the lines are too fast, there's such a unanimity of opinion that I don't think you can come to any other conclusion."

Well, not quite unanimous. The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, of course, continues to defend the pilot program. But then there's its cozy ties to industry—in addition to Murano's leap to Hormel, FSIS's then-chief of staff flew the coop to the National Turkey Federation in 2011, and another high official bolted to work for meat processor OSI Group just this month. Given the tasty meat industry opportunities that evidently await the USDA's food safety administrators, I take FSIS's defense of the HIMP program in the face of these sworn statements with about as much salt as you might find in a slice of Hormel's signature product, Spam.

Killing Obamacare Halfway Is Worse For Republicans Than They Think

| Fri Feb. 27, 2015 12:39 AM EST

Stuart Butler is probably the country's single most influential right-wing health care wonk. He opposed Obamacare and has long pushed a different, more conservative vision of national health care policy. But Joshua Green writes today that even Butler is worried about what will happen if the Supreme Court abolishes Obamacare subsidies in the 34 states that don't run their own exchanges:

Butler’s worry is grounded in an understanding that voters with skyrocketing premiums may not blame Obama, as Republicans assume. They’ll expect the party hellbent on destroying the law to have a solution—and react badly if none is forthcoming. Because 16 states operate their own exchanges and therefore won’t be affected by the court’s ruling, Butler believes the ACA will stagger on and eventually recover, since voters won’t abide a system wherein some states have affordable, federally subsidized health-care coverage and others do not....“People who believe the ACA instantly goes away are deluding themselves,” he says. “By not doing anything to develop a Republican vision of how to move forward, they could end up with the very nightmare they’re trying to avoid.”

....On the business front, the effects would be no less significant....Entire segments of the health system redesigned their business models to take advantage of the ACA’s incentives. Hospitals, for instance, were given a trade-off: They stopped receiving government payments to offset the cost of treating the uninsured, cuts that amount to $269 billion over a decade. In return, they were promised millions of new patients insured through federal subsidies. “All the major hospital systems and big insurers like Kaiser and Geisinger spent a ton of money adapting to the ACA,” says Butler. If subsidies vanish, “suddenly the market is misaligned. If you’ve hired all these new doctors and health-care workers to cover all these new people walking in the door, and they don’t come, what do you do? You lay them off.”

I agree that a system in which residents of some states get subsidies and others don't is untenable. I don't know quite how the politics would play out, but the states with subsidies won't give them up, and the states without subsidies are likely to face a revolt from residents who suddenly see a benefit taken away. Something will have to give.

The effect on the medical industry is less clear. Yes, hospitals and insurers spent a lot of money adapting to Obamacare. If it goes away, they'll have to lay off some of their staff. But how much? Obamacare has reduced the ranks of the uninsured by about 4 percentage points, and roughly half of that is in states that don't run their own exchanges. So the number of insured would probably fall (very roughly) from about 87 percent to 85 percent. That might be bad news for some small regional outfits, who will see a bigger drop locally than that, but nationally it's not a death sentence.

Still, Butler has a good point. The fallout from the Supreme Court halfway killing Obamacare would likely be more serious than conservatives believe. They don't want to think about this because they've been committed for so long to the mantra of simply repealing Obamacare, full stop. But even their own base, which has been told relentlessly that Obamacare represents the end of the America they love, might start to demand a fix once it becomes clear just what they're missing—and what all those blue states with their own exchanges are getting.

One Perfect Tweet Explains the Ultimate Lesson of #TheDress

| Thu Feb. 26, 2015 11:14 PM EST

Twitter erupted into craziness Thursday night after a dress went viral. What color was the dress? Some thought it was gold and white; some thought it was blue and black. People had fun. Fun was had! Had was fun! It was a good time and times were good. But this being the world we live in some Serious Cops had to flash their lights and start ticketing people for having fun.

There are a lot of cops on the internet. Everyone's got a set of cuffs and a gun—and whatever crime they think you've committed, well, they're ready to slap those cuffs on you and sentence you to 20 years hard internet. A lot of commenters on this site are cops. Journalism Cops. I'm sure a bunch of people will comment on this post saying, "why is this news?"

Anyway, no one likes Internet Cops. Internet Cops is probably the only police procedural CBS has ever passed on.

The lesson of #TheDress? Put your gun down, Barney Fife. Your services aren't needed.

P.S. The dress is blue. 

Disclaimer: Nick Baumann is a Senior Editor at Mother Jones. I gave him fair warning I was about to blog his tweet.