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This Is the Degrading Bullshit Nail Salon Workers Put Up With Every Single Day

| Thu May 7, 2015 3:29 PM EDT

Update, May 11, 2015: Following the Times investigation, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced an emergency order to protect nail salon employees from health dangers and wage theft. 

Scoring a cheap manicure or pedicure, particularly in New York, is incredibly easy. After all, nail salons abound on seemingly every other city block and thus keep prices low in order to compete. It all comes at a steep price, however. The New York Times has published an in-depth investigation looking into the disturbing culture of exploitation, racism, and low-wages salon workers endure throughout the New York region. Here are the most shocking bits:

Some workers are paid as little as $1.50 an hour. In Manhattan, where the average price for a manicure is $10.50, salons compensate for such low prices by severely underpaying workers and oftentimes hitting employees with surprise charges just to work there. On slow days, some worker aren't even paid at all.

Among the hidden customs are how new manicurists get started. Most must hand over cash — usually $100 to $200, but sometimes much more — as a training fee. Weeks or months of work in a kind of unpaid apprenticeship follows.

Ms. Ren spent almost three months painting on pedicures and slathering feet with paraffin wax before one afternoon in the late summer when her boss drew her into a waxing room and told her she would finally be paid.

Race often determines how well a worker is paid.

Korean workers routinely earn twice as much as their peers, valued above others by the Korean owners who dominate the industry and who are often shockingly plain-spoken in their disparagement of workers of other backgrounds. Chinese workers occupy the next rung in the hierarchy; Hispanics and other non-Asians are at the bottom.

[...]

Many Korean owners are frank about their prejudices. "Spanish employees" are not as smart as Koreans, or as sanitary, said Mal Sung Noh, 68, who is known as Mary, at the front desk of Rose Nails, a salon she owns on the Upper East Side.

Workers are frequently subjected to physical abuse.

...the minichain of Long Island salons whose workers said they were not only underpaid but also kicked as they sat on pedicure stools, and verbally abused.

Salons rarely go punished because language barriers prove too difficult.

When investigators try to interview them, manicurists are frequently reluctant to cooperate, more so than in any other industry, according a Labor Department official involved who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official was not permitted to talk with reporters. "It’s really the only industry we see that in,” the person said, explaining that it most likely indicated just how widespread exploitation is in nail salons. "They are totally running scared in this industry."

In all, the story paints a deeply disturbing portrait of income inequality literally an arm's length away. To read the investigation in its entirety, head to the Times.

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These Scientists Just Lost Their Lives in the Arctic. They Were Heroes.

| Thu May 7, 2015 3:14 PM EDT
Philip de Roo (left) and Marc Cornelissen.

Early last month, veteran polar explorers and scientists Marc Cornelissen and Philip de Roo set out on skis from Resolute Bay, a remote outpost in the patchwork of islands between Canada and Greenland. Their destination was Bathurst Island, a treacherous 70-mile trek to the northwest across the frozen sea, where they planned to document thinning Arctic sea ice just a few months after NASA reported that the winter ice cover was the lowest on record.

It wasn't hard to find what they were looking for, according to a dispatch Cornelissen uploaded to Soundcloud on April 28.

"We're nearing into the coast of Bathurst," he said. "We think we see thin ice in front of us…Within 15 minutes of skiing it became really warm. In the end it was me skiing in my underwear…I don't think it looked very nice, and it didn't feel sexy either, but it was the only way to deal with the heat."

His next message, a day later, was an emergency distress signal picked up by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. According to the Guardian, a pilot flying over the spot reported seeing open water, scattered equipment, and a lone sled dog sitting on the broken ice. By last Friday, rescuers had called off the search. The pair are presumed to have drowned, victims of the same thin ice they had come to study. Cornelissen was 46; de Roo had just turned 30.

Yesterday, Cold Facts, the nonprofit with whom the pair was working at the time, dispatched a snowmobile expedition to attempt to recover their belongings. You can follow their progress on Twitter here. The dog, Kimnik, was found a few days ago and is doing fine, the group said.

In a blog post on the website of the European Space Agency, Cornelissen was remembered by former colleagues as "an inspirational character, an explorer and a romantic. He had fallen in love with the spellbinding beauty of the poles and had made it a personal mission to highlight the magnitude of the human fingerprint on this last wilderness."

It's not clear whether the ice conditions the pair encountered were directly attributable to climate change, according to E&E News:

That the region had thin ice is evident. Perhaps the ice had been thinned by ocean currents that deliver warm water from below, or by the wind, which could generate open water areas. It is difficult to know. Climate change may have played a role, or it may not have…the impacts of the warming on ice thickness regionally can be unpredictable, [ESA scientist Mark] Drinkwater said.

Still, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as anywhere else on Earth. We rely on the work of scientists like these to know exactly what is happening there and how it will affect those of us who choose to stay safe in warmer, drier places. Their deaths are a testament to the dedication and fearlessness required to stand on the front lines of climate change.

Rest in peace, guys.

Attention Parents: Your Neighborhood Matters More Than You Do

| Thu May 7, 2015 12:34 PM EDT

A few days ago Justin Wolfers passed along some new research showing that growing up in a good neighborhood has immensely positive effects on future success:

I will start with the smaller of their two studies....The findings are remarkable....The children who moved when they were young enjoyed much greater economic success than similarly aged children who had not won the lottery....The sharpest test comes from those who won an experimental housing voucher that could be used only if they moved to low-poverty areas. Here the findings are striking, as those who moved as a result of winning this voucher before their teens went on to earn 31 percent more than those who did not win the lottery. They are also more likely to attend college.

....It is rare to see social science overturn old beliefs so drastically. It happened because these scholars returned to an old experiment with a fresh perspective, based on the idea that what matters is how long children are exposed to good or bad neighborhoods. But is this the right perspective?

Here’s where the second study is critical. While the conclusions of the Moving to Opportunity project are based on following only a few thousand families, Mr. Chetty and Mr. Hendren use earnings records to effectively track the careers and neighborhoods of five million people over 17 years.

Instead of contrasting the outcomes of families in different areas — which may simply reflect different families choosing to live in different areas — they can track what happens to families when they move....Their findings are clear: The earlier a family moved to a good neighborhood, the better the children’s long-run outcomes. The effects are symmetric, too, with each extra year in a worse neighborhood leading to worse long-run outcomes. Most important, they find that each extra year of childhood exposure yields roughly the same change in longer-run outcomes, but that beyond age 23, further exposure has no effect. That is, what matters is not just the quality of your neighborhood, but also the number of childhood years that you are exposed to it.

A crucial advantage of this analysis is that it follows the children through to early adulthood. This matters because a number of recent studies have shown that interventions have effects that might be hard to discern in test scores or behavioral problems, but that become evident in adulthood. The same pattern of years of exposure to good neighborhoods shaping outcomes is also apparent for college attendance, teenage births, teenage employment and marriage.

This may all seem obvious to you—of course good schools and good playmates matter a lot—but professionals in this field have long believed that quality of parenting is by far the most important factor in a child's success. This is a popular and comforting notion that Judith Rich Harris effectively demolished more than a decade ago in The Nurture Assumption, but it hangs on tenaciously anyway. Nor do you have to buy Harris's theories hook, line, and sinker to believe she has the basic shape of the river correct. For example, I happen to think she underplays the evidence that good parenting matters. But not by much. The simple fact is that kids pick up cues about how to act far more from the collective influence of friends, siblings, teachers, TV, babysitters, and others than they do from their parents. It's hardly even a fair contest. As I put it a few weeks ago: 

This means that the single biggest difference you can make is to be rich enough to afford to live in a nice neighborhood that provides nice playmates and good schools.

This, unfortunately, doesn't make things any easier for policymakers. Teaching good parenting skills may be a monumental challenge, but it's no less monumental than somehow conquering poverty and making sure every child grows up in a good neighborhood. There are no easy answers. But at a minimum, it's always better to at least make sure we're pointed in the right direction.

You're Really Going to Hate James Franco's Offensive Nostalgia Trip to McDonald's

| Thu May 7, 2015 11:20 AM EDT

In the midst of plummeting sales, pressure to bump wages, and an apparent gastronomic identity crisis, McDonald's needs all the help it can get right now to reclaim its status as a global fast-food powerhouse. Today, the company found a friend in actor James Franco.

The aspiring Renaissance man and actor, who once worked as a McDonald's employee for a total of three months, has penned a bizarre op-ed in the Washington Post to defend the company from its growing chorus of detractors. The piece, titled "McDonald's Was There for Me When No One Else Was," describes his decision to quit UCLA as an undergrad in 1996 in order to pursue an acting career.  While studying at a "hole-in-the-wall" acting school, Franco worked a part-time job at a Los Angeles McDonald's:

When I was hungry for work, they fed the need. I still love the simplicity of the McDonald’s hamburger and its salty fries. After reading "Fast Food Nation," it's hard for me to trust the grade of the meat. But maybe once a year, while on a road trip or out in the middle of nowhere for a movie, I'll stop by a McDonald’s and get a simple cheeseburger: light, and airy, and satisfying.

Franco, who seems to forget that being a drop-out from an elite university set him apart from most hourly workers at McDonald's, goes onto reminisce about his rosy experience: Mixing it up with co-workers and even practicing funny accents. "I refrained from reading on the job, but soon started putting on fake accents with the customers to practice for my scenes in acting class," he recalls. Franco even encountered a homeless family. "They lived out of their car and did crossword puzzles all day," Franco writes. "Sometimes they would order McDonald’s food, but other times they would bring in Chinese or groceries."

Franco also had the thrill of getting hit on by a man who actually cooked those "light, airy, and satisfying" burgers.

He wanted to hook up in the bathroom, but he didn’t speak English, so he had someone translate for him.

To everyone out there fighting for a living wage, this experience could offer some hope. After all, with the right attitude, McDonald's can be a stepping stone on your path to Hollywood stardom, just as it was for James Franco.

Do Small Businesses Deserve Exemptions From the Minimum Wage?

| Thu May 7, 2015 9:00 AM EDT
Brian Hibbs (far right) and his employees, some of whom may lose shifts or even their jobs, if San Francisco's minimum wage goes to $15.

Brian Hibbs, a Mother Jones reader and owner of Comix Experience, wrote in to object to San Francisco's plan to raise its minimum wage. Conservatives who argue against the minimum wage often point to jobs lost and heavy burdens on small businesses, and progressives largely brush off those arguments as so much Chamber of Commerce propaganda. And then you have guys like Hibbs. Read what he has to say, and then we'll discuss.

I own two comic book stores in SF, and while we're a profitable business and have been for 26 years, we're only modestly profitable, y'know? When you calculate my own salary on a per-hour basis, given that 70-hour weeks are not at all uncommon for me, I don't make much more than the high-end of SF's new minimum wage law.

Raising the minimum wage by 43 percent (from $11.05 today to $15 in 2018) means that we need to generate at least another 80 grand in revenue. Eighty grand. I don't personally make eighty grand in a year. I'm not some kind of fat cat getting rich off the exploitation of my workers or something. And look, if I did manage to increase sales by that amount, I'd sure be hoping that I got to keep a tiny little percentage of it myself.

Just so we're clear: The hole I find myself soon facing isn't one created by escalating San Francisco rents (my landlord is awesome!), or because of competition from the internet (in fact, our sales consistently grow year-over-year, and sales growth has accelerated since the introduction of digital comics), but one solely and entirely created by the increase of the minimum wage.

I'm a progressive; I support fair labor practices, and I try, above all else, to give the folks who work for me absolute agency in their jobs. I have multiple employees who quit higher paying jobs for corporate owners to come work for me, because I actively valued their passions. I don't own a comic book store to make money as my primary goal, right? The primary goal is to wake up the morning and be excited by what you do, to feel like you're spreading your passion, that you're promoting art, and creators and joy—and my staff feels much the same way.

I have staff who are supported by a spouse and are working for me to essentially make pocket money; I have staff who want to be full-time artists, and this helps them get closer to their goal by exposing them to the form and helping them make contacts. I have staff who are actively working toward having their own stores, and I'm basically paying them to get a master's class (though I am fine with that!). I have staff who are full-time students living at home.

I'm not exploiting any of them, I don't think. They all have options, and they all work for me because they want to.

If I can't increase sales by $80,000—which is not something that seems likely, given historical year-over-year gains—then I have to start firing people, or trimming hours of operation. We don't run extravagant overlaps—nearly 60 percent of the hours the stores are open we only have one person on deck; nor do we have a lot of waste or absurd inventory or anything like that. I've survived in a kind of marginal business for 26 years by being a savvy businessperson, and a relatively nimble and predictive one. But firing people, cutting hours…how does that help the employees? How does that help the business expand so I can eventually hire more people?

I have the largest staff of any SF comics business (because I have two locations), and, in point of fact, my two closest competitors have zero employees. Not being impacted by this mandate, they'd have no reason to raise prices in tandem…and really, every reason to not do so. If I raised prices by, let's say, 10 percent to meet this mandate, I'm absolutely positive we'd lose at least 20 percent of our business to stores that didn't raise their prices—thereby putting us at a net negative.

We’re trying to solve this problem by growing our way out of it with a new national, curated Graphic-Novel-of-the-Month Club, but I think that if we’re able to succeed from that (and I am not at all sure we will) it will be because of years of building our exceptional reputation. As a result, I do not at all think that this type of solution is scalable for the average small business. The City of San Francisco’s own Office of Economic Analysis believes the minimum wage hike will cost 15,270 jobs, or 2 percent of the private workforce!

Honestly, if San Francisco had voted for "Minimum Wage must be at least equal to X percent of your net profit" or "Every person in America gets a guaranteed income of $20,000/year paid for by progressive taxes" or some other scheme where you know that people being asked to contribute more can afford it, then maybe we'd be on sounder ideological ground...But I think that the higher minimum wage, the higher you're making the barriers for low-income people and marginal-but-promising businesses to even have a chance to enter the marketplace and to survive in the first place, let alone legacy businesses like ours.

Here's my personal take: It's hard not to feel sympathy for Hibbs, yet it would be a mistake to take his situation as a case for abolishing or making exceptions to the city's minimum wage law. As I've noted elsewhere, raising the minimum wage doesn't tend to decrease overall employment; in general, businesses find new efficiencies and their workers find themselves with more disposable income to spend on things like comics.

Of course, that's probably little comfort to Hibbs, who faces competition from smaller comics stores whose sole proprietors are the ones manning the cash registers. Hibbs may well be able to keep his doors open by downsizing, bringing in volunteers, or drumming up donations from devoted customers (as one local bookstore has done), but when it comes down to it, there simply may not be much of a future for bricks-and-mortar comics stores in a city with astronomical real estate prices.

"I super commiserate with him because we are in almost the identical situation," says Lew Prince, a member of the group Business for a Fair Minimum Wage and the owner of Vintage Vinyl, a record store in St. Louis. Dwindling sales and rising labor costs forced Prince to consolidate his two Vintage Vinyl locations into one. He nonetheless supports increasing Missouri's minimum wage from $7.65 to $12 an hour because he thinks it's the right thing to do. "The job of the business owner is to prepare for the future," he told me. "I have great empathy and sympathy for [Hibbs], but you have to do the job every day, and sometimes the marketplace defeats you."

But maybe that point of view is too harsh. I'd love to hear, in the comments, what Kevin's readers think about all of this.

This Supercut of Candidates Singing "Let's Get It On" Is Why We Love Britain During Elections

| Wed May 6, 2015 5:36 PM EDT
 

Who could get it on after #GE2015? Watch our #GeneralAffection song to find out.Full election coverage on Sky News, May 7th from 9pm.

Posted by Sky News on Thursday, April 30, 2015

British voters are heading to the polls today for what promises to be a very tight election. Latest polling suggests the two major parties, Labour and the Conservatives, are tied near the finish line. The result is likely to be what's known as a "hung parliament". Both Labour and the Conservatives will need support from smaller parties across the spectrum to form government—among them the Scottish National Party (SNP) on the left, the Liberal Democrats somewhere around the center, and UKIP, on the right. Whomever can stitch together enough seats in parliament to win a majority will ultimately form government. If no group of parties can get to the magic number of 326 seats, Britain might well be heading back to the polls again soon to sort this whole mess out.

Even if you're unfamiliar with British politics, the video above from Sky News gives a nice introduction to the main players—David Cameron (the current Conservative PM), Ed Miliband (the current opposition leader, from the Labour party), and Nicola Sturgeon, from the resurgent SNP among them. All set to Marvin Gaye's classic, "Let's Get It On". Enjoy. (And happy voting, friends across the pond.)

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Dear Marvel and Sony: We Love Movies for Their Kick-Ass Female Heroes, Too, You Jerks

| Wed May 6, 2015 5:21 PM EDT

While Kevin Drum is focused on getting better, we've invited some of the remarkable writers and thinkers who have traded links and ideas with him from Blogosphere 1.0 to this day to contribute posts and keep the conversation going. Today we're honored to present a post from Shakesville founder Melissa McEwan.

Each time WikiLeaks posts another round of emails from the Sony hack, there is a garbage trove of misogyny: unequal pay, gendered and racist harassment, Aaron Sorkin waxing sexist, Angelina Jolie dismissed as a spoiled brat. Found among the latest collection was a dispatch from Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter to Sony CEO Michael Lynton on the subject of female-centered superhero films, and if it's not exactly as awful as you're already imagining, that's possibly because it's even worse. Sent under the simple subject line "Female Movies," Perlmutter writes:

Michael,

As we discussed on the phone, below are just a few examples. There are more.

Thanks,

Ike

1. Electra (Marvel) – Very bad idea and the end result was very, very bad. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=elektra.htm

2. Catwoman (WB/DC) - Catwoman was one of the most important female character within the Batmanfranchise. This film was a disaster. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=catwoman.htm

3. Supergirl – (DC) Supergirl was one of the most important female super hero in Superman franchise. This Movie came out in 1984 and did $14 million total domestic with opening weekend of $5.5 million. Again, another disaster.

Best, Ike

Case closed, your honor! At Women and Hollywood, Laura Berger quite rightly notes that Perlmutter's list is highly selective and narrowly defined. "It seems fair to assume," writes Berger, "that Perlmutter is referring specifically to female superhero movies. If that's the case, why is something like 'The Hunger Games' omitted from this list? The extremely lucrative franchise is led by a woman, and while Katniss isn't technically a superheroine, she's certainly marketed as one. Isn't 'The Hunger Games' a more relevant example of how female-led films fare at the box office today than, say, 'Supergirl,' which was released over 30 years ago?" Emphasis original.

At ThinkProgress, Jessica Goldstein shows how easily one could selectively compile a list of male-centered superhero flops if one were inclined to make the incredulous assertion, based exclusively on box office returns and not on the inherent quality of the films, that male-centered superhero films don't work.

The three films on Perlmutter's list frankly just weren't very good. Which has to do with their female heroes only insomuch as studios don't generally dedicate equivalent creative and financial resources to female-centered superhero films, because they don't want to "waste" them on films they fear won't succeed at the box office. Thus the vicious cycle continues: Many female-centered superhero films are set up to fail, and then when one fails, the blame is directed at the women at its center, rather than the misogyny at her back.

This is a conversation that happens around every genre of "hero" film: Superhero films, action films, fantasy films, adventure films. The wildly successful male-centered flicks get rattled off as evidence of what "works," and implicit condemnation of what (allegedly) doesn't.

Many of the wildly successful male-centered franchises have, however, a token female character—carefully segregated from other women and girls, lest they get any ideas about taking over the world, I suppose.

When I watched the Superman series, it was for Margot Kidder's Lois Lane, who I was certain was the coolest woman with the most amazing voice who had ever lived.

And we are ever meant to understand that all of the dedicated superfans of these films watched them because of the men, always the men. What Perlmutter and his cohort don't understand, don't consider, or simply don't care about is that there are plenty of us who watched those films for the women.

When I watched the Superman series, I wasn't watching those films for Christopher Reeve; I was watching them for Margot Kidder's Lois Lane, who I was certain was the coolest woman with the most amazing voice who had ever lived. When I watched the Star Wars trilogy, I had zero interest in Luke; I showed up for Leia. When I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark, I was watching it as much for Marion as I was for Indy. When I watched Dragonslayer (which admittedly was a commercial flop, but later became a cult classic) over and over until I could say every line, I was all about Valerian. When I watched Romancing the Stone, I was cheering for THE JOAN WILDER.

There were female heroes in my favorite films, and they were the reason I watched them. I imagine there are plenty of little girls (and little boys) who watch The Avengers not because of the guys, but because of the one, remarkable, exceptional (in every sense of the word) female hero in their midst. That doesn't show up in the numbers—nor, apparently, in the imaginations of the men who make creative decisions based on numbers.

The thing about many of the films I mentioned is that they're generally regarded as good movies. They were made with monumental investments of care and attention. And they didn't have to be male-centered, but they got that care and attention because they were.

What would happen if a female-centered hero were given the same mighty powers? Welp.

The World's Carbon Dioxide Levels Just Hit a Staggering New Milestone

| Wed May 6, 2015 3:17 PM EDT

The monthly global average concentration of carbon dioxide just broke 400 parts per million for the first time since record-keeping of greenhouse gas levels began.

The milestone, reached last month, was announced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Wednesday.

"It was only a matter of time that we would average 400 parts per million globally," said NOAA scientist Pieter Tans in a press release. "We first reported 400 ppm when all of our Arctic sites reached that value in the spring of 2012. In 2013 the record at NOAA's Mauna Loa Observatory first crossed the 400 ppm threshold. Reaching 400 parts per million as a global average is a significant milestone."

Crossing the 400 ppm threshold is equal parts disheartening and alarming. Less than a decade ago scientists and environmental activists, including Bill McKibben, launched a campaign to convince policy makers that global CO2 concentrations needed to be reduced to 350 ppm in order to avoid massive impacts from global warming. McKibben, who co-founded the group 350.org, explained the significance of that figure in a 2008 Mother Jones article entitled "The Most Important Number on Earth":

And so we're now in the land of tipping points. We know that we've passed some of them—Arctic sea ice is melting, and so is the permafrost that guards those carbon stores. But the logic of Hansen's paper was clear. Above 350, we are at constant risk of crossing other, even worse, thresholds, the ones that govern the reliability of monsoons, the availability of water from alpine glaciers, the acidification of the ocean, and, perhaps most spectacularly, the very level of the seas.

[…]

It's not clear if a vocal world citizenry will be enough to beat inertia and vested interest. If 350 emerges as the clear bar for success or failure, then the odds of the international community taking effective action increase, though the odds are still long. Still, these are the lines it is our turn to speak. To be human in 2008 is to rise in defense of the planet we have known and the civilization it has spawned.

We're now at 400.

Our Country's Cartoonish Gun Debate Isn't Just Idiotic—It's Really Damaging

| Wed May 6, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
"Pew, pew, pew!"

Kevin Drum doesn't write much about guns, which is why I'm going to keep on it a bit here and honor him by rolling out the red carpet for a bunch of grating 2A trolls to stampede into the comments thread.

How exactly is that going to honor Kevin, you ask? By underscoring what his legions of intelligent readers already know: These dudes could learn a thing or three from Kevin Drum. He's open-minded and deeply curious. He asks shrewd questions and tests his own assumptions. He respects data. And he's a damn fine writer—clear, to the point, and not always entirely correct but who the hell cares because he's right there chatting with you as if happy hour has come early today and the drinks are already on the table. (Godspeed, Kevin—we miss you, we're stoked that you're on the road back to full-time badass blogger, and we'll see you again soon.)

So, to the subject at hand: Late last week, I spoke with Michael Krasny on KQED's Forum about our deep investigation into the economic toll from gun violence, which dings America for no less than $229 billion a year. (Yes, that's capital-B billion, further explained visually here and methodologically here.) The project has made waves not just for that staggering sum, but because we spent months digging up the elusive data behind it, from the personal to the societal. Yet, as listeners called into the show with questions, I was quickly reminded of just how ridiculously dumb and polarizing the gun debate really is—thanks to both sides—even in the face of groundbreaking information.

After a former US Marine came on the air and criticized the National Rifle Association for lying, the next caller, another gun owner, promptly denounced him for speaking against the Second Amendment and being "full of it." (Which in this arena is basically the equivalent of a puppy's kiss.) That was followed by a woman who wanted to know what could be done to prevent gun manufacturers from manufacturing guns, whether "we could stop it at the source."

And that, in a nutshell, is pretty much the state of America's gun debate. Here's more of it—but also some vivid stories and data from those who know gun violence firsthand:

Having reported on this subject intensively for the last three years, I'm still not totally sure whether guns kill people or people kill people, but I'm almost certain that you can be riddled to death with inanities. (See, for the umpteenth time: "Knives, baseball bats, and hands and feet kill people too!!")

But while there are offenders at both ends of the spectrum, one side is fundamentally responsible for the enduring standoff. The NRA's power tends to be regarded as legendary in politics and in the media, though it's probably overstated, especially nowadays. Still, the gun lobby has pulled off a messaging feat decades in the making—its leaders perpetually blasting away with the idea that any discussion of guns in America can be nothing other than a brutal dichotomy. You're either a defender of constitutional liberty, their premise goes, or you're an anti-freedom "gun grabber." Barack Obama's mass seizure of law-abiding citizens' firearms may have yet to materialize six-plus years in, but the NRA is taking no chances, already preparing as it is for Hillary Clinton's own nefarious plans.

The NRA's former "point person" in Congress now agrees that research on gun violence is essential.

More than just inciting the imagination of the NRA's political base, this construct evidently has become the default setting for the national debate. Some of the blame also falls on the gun-control movement, which expends considerable energy pontificating about how the NRA is evil. Of course, this bleak if cartoonish disconnect hardly reflects most Americans' attitudes about firearms, gun owners included.

But it has caused some very real, very serious collateral damage, according to numerous public health experts I've spoken with. The American medical community is nearly unanimous that gun violence is a serious public health threat, and yet, as we detailed in the aforementioned investigation, there remains precious little research on the problem, let alone funding to do more. As Mark Rosenberg, the former director of the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control put it during another recent radio conversation, the entrenched gun debate itself carries a steep price:

This is really destructive to our ability to make progress. It's posed as an "either or," and this was done by strategists working for the NRA over a long period of time. They wanted people to think that either you protect the rights of all gun owners to keep their guns, or you do research on gun violence, and that the two are diametrically opposed. And they had a zero-tolerance philosophy that said, "You can't even discuss research on gun violence because that leads down the slippery slope of all of us losing our guns." And that's led us into the morass where we are today.

One of Rosenberg's fiercest old adversaries, former Republican Rep. Jay Dickey of Arkansas—who in his own words "served as the NRA's point person in Congress"—now agrees with Rosenberg. After the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado (which cost that community at least $100 million), the two published a joint op-ed in the Washington Post: "We were on opposite sides of the heated battle 16 years ago," they wrote, "but we are in strong agreement now that scientific research should be conducted into preventing firearm injuries and that ways to prevent firearm deaths can be found without encroaching on the rights of legitimate gun owners. The same evidence-based approach that is saving millions of lives from motor-vehicle crashes, as well as from smoking, cancer and HIV/AIDS, can help reduce the toll of deaths and injuries from gun violence."

Read their whole July 2012 piece, look at the findings from our new data investigation, and you'll also begin to see—another 100,000 deaths, 250,000 injuries, and one unthinkable elementary school massacre later—just how much we still don't know.

Your Winter Vegetables: Brought to You by California's Very Last Drops of Water

| Wed May 6, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

California's drought-plagued Central Valley hogs the headlines, but two-thirds of your winter vegetables come from a different part of the state. Occupying a land mass a mere eighth the size of metro Los Angeles, the Imperial Valley churns out about two-thirds of the vegetables eaten by Americans during the winter. Major crops include broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, and, most famously, lettuce and salad mix.

Two-thirds of winter broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, lettuce, and salad mix come from the desperately dry Imperial Valley.

And those aren't even the region's biggest moneymakers. Nestled in the state's southeastern corner, the Imperial Valley also produces massive amounts of alfalfa, a cattle feed, and its teeming feedlots finish some 350,000 beef cows per year.

In terms of native aquatic resources, the Imperial makes the Central Valley look like Waterworld. At least the Central Valley is bound by mountain ranges to the east that, in good years (not the last several), deliver abundant snowmelt for irrigation. The Imperial sits in the middle of the blazing-hot Sonoran Dessert, with no water-trapping mountains anywhere nearby. It receives a whopping 3 inches of precipitation per year on average; even the more arid half of the Central Valley gets 15 inches.

The sole source of water in the Imperial Valley is the Colorado River, which originates hundreds of miles northeast, in the snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains. As it winds down from its source in the snow-capped peaks of northern Colorado down to Mexico, it delivers a total of 16.5 million acre-feet of water to the farmers and 40 million consumers in seven US states and northern Mexico who rely on it. (An acre-foot is the amount it takes to flood an acre of land with 12 inches of water—about 326,000 gallons.)

Of that total, the Imperial Valley's farms gets 3.1 million acre-feet annually—more than half of California's total allotment and more than any other state draws from the river besides Colorado. It's an amount of water equivalent to more than four times what Los Angeles uses in a year, according to figures from the Pacific Institute.

 

The Colorado Rivers waters are so in demand that they rarely reach their endpoint in Mexico's Sea of Cortez. Map: Shannon/Wikimedia Commons

 

Because it owns senior water rights based on a 1931 pact, the Imperial gets its allotments during low-flow years even when other regions see reductions. Currently, the Rocky Mountain snowpack that feeds the Colorado stands at about 44 percent of its average for this time of year, triggering fears of an impending shortfall—but not for the Imperial. "Nevada, southern Arizona and Mexico will be cut back before the Imperial district loses a drop," The Los Angeles Times recently reported. Whereas Central Valley farmers, reliant on vanishing snowmelt from the Sierras, have seen their irrigation allotments curtailed the last two years, growers in the Imperial Valley haven't lost any water (though the Imperial Valley District did agree to sell as much as 0.2 million acre-feet of water by 2021, of its 3.1 million acre-foot allotment, to fast-growing San Diego in a 2003 deal).

The Imperial gets its allotments during low-flow years even when other regions see reductions.

Already, decades of intensive desert farming have had severe ecological effects, epitomized by that beleaguered inland body of water known as the Salton Sea, which sits uneasily at the Imperial's northern edge. Before the big irrigation projects that made the valley bloom, what's now the Salton periodically captured flood waters from the then-mighty Colorado River. Now it's fed solely from Imperial Valley farm runoff, and as Dana Goodyear shows in a superb recent New Yorker piece, it's slowly decaying into a toxic mess—one that could "emit as much as a hundred tons of fine, caustic dust a day, leading to respiratory illness in the healthy and representing an acute hazard for people with compromised immune systems."

Meanwhile, the Colorado's flow has proven inadequate to supply the broader region's needs. In a paper last year (my account of it here), University of California-Irvine and NASA researchers found that farmers, landowners, and municipalities are supplementing their river allocations by drawing water from underground aquifers at a much faster rate than had been known. Between December 2004 and November 2013, the Colorado Basin lost almost 53 million acre-feet of underground water, an enormous fossil resource siphoned away in less than a decade.

A desert in bloom: the Imperial Valley as seen from space, from a photo taken by NASA astronauts in 2002. Photo: NASA

Consider also that the Southwest's population is on pace to expand by a third by 2030—and that the river's annual average flow is expected to decrease by anywhere from 5 percent to 18 percent by 2050, compared to 20th century averages, according to the National Climate Assessment, throttled by rising temperatures and declining precipitation.

Thus the Imperial's titanic water allotment is looking increasingly vulnerable to challenge. Just as we probably need to get used to sourcing more of our summer fruits and vegetables from places beyond California's Central and Salinas valleys, the Colorado River situation makes me wonder if we shouldn't rethink those bountiful supermarket produce aisles in February, as well.