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Colbert Wishes Your Kid a Good Night's Sleep With This New Pro-Gun Illustrated Book

| Wed Aug. 6, 2014 3:46 PM EDT
"My Parents Open Carry" Lorna Bergman, Brian G. Jeffs, Nathan R. Nephew.

I first saw this children's book going around Facebook yesterday. You know the one: it celebrates 13-year-old Brenna's Mom and Dad for "open carrying" their hand guns. At first I thought, "the illustrations and dependence on Comic Sans are so eye-bleedingly bad it must be a perfectly conceived Masters project by some NYU Tisch grad." The website promoting the book carries the kind of knee-slapping prose that must be satirical, right? "Before writing this, we looked for pro-gun children's books and couldn't find any." Couldn't find any! Ha, ha, ha. Which non-profit/government agency/university supplied the grant to fund this brilliant take-down of gun culture in America? Was it Bloomberg himself?

But then I paid my $3.95 for the PDF (you'll pick up the tab, Mother Jones), and it dawned on me: It's real. Then I thought, "Wow, this seems custom-made to be pilloried by Stephen Colbert!"

Enjoy:

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Voter Fraud Literally Less Likely Than Being Hit By Lightning

| Wed Aug. 6, 2014 3:10 PM EDT

Justin Levitt has been tracking allegations of voter fraud for years. "To be clear," he says, "I’m not just talking about prosecutions. I track any specific, credible allegation that someone may have pretended to be someone else at the polls, in any way that an ID law could fix." So far, he's found 31 cases representing around 200 individuals. If every one of them turns out be a genuine case of fraud, that's a fraud rate of:

Of course, Levitt might be off by an order of magnitude. Or maybe even two or three orders of magnitude. That would put the fraud rate at 0.02 percent. On the other hand, these are just allegations. If past performance holds true, nearly all of them will turn out to be clerical mistakes, which means we're back to 0.00002 percent. This compares to many thousands of voters who have been turned away from the polls for lack of ID in just the past few years.

Also worth noting: every single one of these cases involves just one or a few people. There's not a single credible case in the past 15 years of any kind of organized voter impersonation scam of the kind that might actually affect the outcome of an election. There's just no there there.

Your House Is Killing You: Couch Edition

| Wed Aug. 6, 2014 2:55 PM EDT

Couch potatoes take heed: Sofas and beds, like so many other household items we hear about these days, might be messing with our bodies.

A study on fire retardants written by scientists at the Environmental Working Group and Duke University and published this week in Environmental Science and Technology delivered some pretty disturbing news: Of the 22 mothers and 26 children tested, 100 percent showed exposure to a fire retardant called TDCIPP, a likely carcinogen, and the average concentration in children was nearly five times that of their moms. The study measured the concentration of fire retardant "biomarkers," or compounds produced when the fire retardants are broken down, in the participants' urine. In addition to finding TDCIPP, researchers found high levels of the chemicals used to make the popular fire retardant brand, FireMaster.

The Environmental Working Group report accompanying the study explains, "People end up with fire retardants in their bodies mainly by inhaling or swallowing dust." Many flame retardants are "additives," meaning that they are added to our furniture and other products instead of binding with chemicals through chemical reactions. This makes them a lot more likely to migrate out of the products in the form of dust.

The researchers suspected that kids had higher flame retardant levels than their mothers simply because they spend more time on the floor, where dust accumulates.

The researchers suspected that kids had higher exposure levels than their mothers simply because they spend more time on the floor, where dust accumulates, and because they put their hands in their mouths more. A study from earlier this year found that kids who wash their hands five or more times a day had fire retardants on their hands at concentration levels 30 to 50 percent lower than those who washed their hands less frequently.

Here's a rundown of four of the chemicals examined in the most recent study, their associated health effects, and where they are commonly found:

TDCIPP is a common flame retardant in couches, mattresses, and other cushioned furniture. A 2012 Duke University analysis of 102 couch cushion samples found evidence of TDCIPP in more than half of the couches purchased after 2005. The scientists also found traces of the retardant in over a third of the 101 car seats, baby carriers, portable mattresses, and other baby products sampled. Animal studies have shown TDCIPP to cause tumors in multiple organs, and TDCIPP is listed in California as a carcinogen and labeled by the Consumer Product Safety Commission as a "probable carcinogen." The TDCIPP biomarker was found in 100 percent of kids and 100 percent of mothers. The children's concentrations were, on average, nearly five times larger than those of their own moms.

FireMaster components: Three of the chemicals studied are components of FireMaster 550 and FireMaster 600, two products of a fire retardant brand produced by chemical manufacturer Chemtura and commonly used in mattresses and furniture cushioning. The 2012 study by researchers at Duke found evidence of FireMaster 550 in 18 percent of couches purchased after 2005 and 17 percent of baby products. The components:

  • TPhP is the second most frequently detected fire retardant in the foam of couches purchased after 2005 (after TDCIPP). In addition to being part of FireMaster 550, it’s a common plasticizer in rubber and vinyl, used in things like shower curtains, and rubber and plastic toys. Not much is known about the health effects of TPhP, but recent studies show that TPhP could be an endocrine disruptor, associated with decreased sperm count and increased estrogenic activity. The TPhP biomarker was found in 100 percent of kids and 95 percent of mothers, with children showing concentrations nearly three times that of their mothers.
  • ip-TPhP, an isomer of TPhP, is another component of FireMaster 550. Like TPhP, little is known about the long-term health effects of ip-TPhP exposure.
  • EH-TBB is a component of FireMaster 550 and 600. When combined with flame retardant TBPH in a 2008 study, it caused developmental and reproductive damage to lab animals.  EH-TBB biomarkers were found in 70 percent of kids and 27 percent of mothers.

Amy Lamott, a representative Chemtura, acknowledged that these chemicals are in FireMaster products, but wrote, "We rigorously test our products to ensure the risk of health effects is low and the fire protection benefits are real. Our products have been approved by an EPA review process, and we review any study that might offer new information. In a real world environment, exposure levels of flame retardants are low—and the fire safety benefit outweighs any potential risk that has been found."

In 1975, California passed a law requiring the foam of all furniture sold in the state to withstand the ignition of a small flame for twelve seconds.

The recent studies on flame retardants still beg the question: why are we putting these chemicals in furniture to begin with? Back in 1975, California passed a law requiring the foam of all furniture sold in the state to withstand the ignition of a small flame for twelve seconds. One cheap and easy way for furniture manufacturers to live up to the standard was apply large amounts of fire retardants to the foam—of the 102 couch foams sampled in the 2012 study referenced above, 85 percent of them contained at least one fire retardant, and the chemicals accounted for as much as 11 percent of the weight of couch foam. Many furniture companies douse all of their foam in retardants in order to avoid making California-specific furniture, but because there are no federal labeling laws, consumers often can't tell what's in their furniture. The same 2012 study found that 60 percent of unlabeled couch foam samples contained fire retardants.

When studies started suggesting that PBDE, a class of common flame retardants, was associated with neurodevelopmental problems in children, chemical manufacturers phased out PBDE chemicals between 2004 and 2013. The Duke/EWG study released this week was the first study to test exposure levels to flame retardants that have become popular since the phase out of PBDE.

Despite all this glum news, things may be looking up. In 2012, California Governor Jerry Brown revised the flame law due to health concerns about flame retardants and the inefficacy of applying retardants to foam rather than to the surface of furniture. The new law, effective January 1st of this year, requires furniture manufacturers to meet a "smolder test" instead of the 12-second test. The flame retardants listed above aren't prohibited—they're simply not required to meet the new standards. Old furniture dispenses dust long after it's bought and it's too soon to tell how much the new law will affect chemical treatment of furniture, but for now, we can keep our (recently washed) fingers crossed.

Even Wall Street Thinks Income Inequality Could "Capsize" the Economy

| Wed Aug. 6, 2014 2:35 PM EDT

There's a lot of evidence that record-high income inequality has gutted the United States' post-recession recovery. But on Tuesday, the argument was made by an unexpected source: Standard & Poor's (S&P), a Wall Street firm providing ratings and analysis on stocks and bonds, issued a report pointing out economic disparity's role in "dampening US economic growth."

Over the next decade, S&P forecasts that the economy will expand at just a 2.5 percent annual rate, a downgrade from the 2.8 percent growth it predicted just five years ago. One explanation: "At extreme levels, income inequality can harm sustained economic growth over long periods. The US is approaching that threshold."

income distribution

The gap between the richest and poorest Americans has been skyrocketing for decades, with no end in sight. How exactly does this widening wealth gap affect the economy? "Higher levels of income inequality increase political pressures, discouraging trade, investment, and hiring," the report explains. It leads extremely wealthy households to save more and consume less, while lower-income households must borrow to sustain consumption. "When these imbalances can no longer be sustained, we see a boom/bust cycle such as the one that culminated in the Great Recession."

S&P warns against drastic changes to the tax code, arguing that "heavy taxation solely to equalize wages may reduce incentives to work or hire more workers…Policymakers should take care, however, to avoid policies and practices that are either too heavy handed or foster an unchecked widening of the wealth gap. Extreme approaches on either side would stunt GDP growth."

Instead, S&P suggests focusing on education to increase national productivity. According to the report, one additional year of education in the American workforce could increase GDP by $525 billion—about a 2.4 percent boost—over the next five years.

As S&P ominously concludes the report, "A lifeboat carrying a few, surrounded by many treading water, risks capsizing."

Map of the Day: Here's Why Congress Doesn't Really Care About Your Petty Problems

| Wed Aug. 6, 2014 12:52 PM EDT

Via Vox, here's a colorful map from Broadview Networks that helps illustrate one reason that policymaking in Congress often seems so disconnected from the real world. It's because policymakers tend to be pretty well-off folks living in a pretty well-off region that shelters them from the problems many of the rest of us encounter. If you live in Missouri, you might be annoyed that internet speeds in the US are so low. But if you live in Washington DC or northern Virginia, guess what? Your internet speed is pretty good! Virginia is ranked #1 in the nation, and DC is right behind it. So is it any wonder that this really doesn't seem like a pressing problem in Congress? Especially when all the big ISPs are telling you that there's plenty of competition already—plenty!—and then slipping a few grand to your Super PAC? Of course it's not.

News You Can Use: Don't Auto-Renew Your Obamacare Policy

| Wed Aug. 6, 2014 12:05 PM EDT

Sam Baker has a long piece in National Journal about a looming Obamacare problem that could hit a lot of people who renew their coverage later this year. Here's the short version: federal subsidies are calculated based on a "benchmark" plan, and this means that low-income taxpayers can buy the benchmark plan at pretty low cost. However, since Obamacare encourages competition (yay!), your region might have a whole bunch of new, lower-cost plans available next year. This means the benchmark will be recalculated, and if you want to keep your low payments you'll need to switch to one of the newer plans.

But what if you don't? What if you just auto-renew without thinking about it? Since you're no longer buying the benchmark plan, your subsidies will go down and your annual premium will go up. Maybe a lot:

As cheaper plans come into the marketplace, millions of consumers will see the cost of keeping their plan rise. But they might not know it.

HealthCare.gov isn't able to automatically recalculate the subsidies existing consumers are eligible for. So, while the dollar value of your financial assistance drops, you can only find out that's happening by going back into the system and asking for a redetermination as part of the shopping process.

Consumers who auto-renew their policies will get the same dollar value of subsidies they got last year—even though changes in the marketplace all but guarantee that will no longer be the right subsidy amount for millions of people.

"That's the totally crazy part," Pearson said. "They're basically going to send them what they know to be the wrong subsidy."

The IRS will eventually figure out how much financial assistance you should have received, and will reconcile the difference on your taxes. If you should have gotten a bigger subsidy, the government will issue you a tax credit. If your subsidy was too big, which would be the case if you keep your plan and lower-cost options come to the market, you'll owe the IRS money.

This puts everyone in a tough spot. HHS officials want to make auto-renewal as simple and automatic as possible. Long experience shows that even a little bit of added complexity will reduce the rate of sign-ups. But a simple auto-renewal runs the risk of misleading people about how much their insurance costs if they don't switch to a new plan. What to do?

In broad terms, this is yet another bit of fallout from the sausage-making process that created Obamacare. In order to get a bill passed, it had to satisfy lots and lots of interest groups. In order to satisfy those interest groups, the structure of the program was made complex. And then, barnacles were added to barnacles to further satisfy everyone. The result is stuff like this.

In narrower terms, this might have a technical fix: add a few steps to the auto-renewal process that make the cost of renewing more transparent. Given the number of people who signed up initially despite the horrific rollout problems with healthcare.gov, I suspect this wouldn't have a huge impact on renewal numbers. And it might save a boatload of grief down the line.

In any case, if you or a friend is enrolled in Obamacare, here's the bottom line: don't just mindlessly auto-renew. Take a few minutes to find out if anything has changed that affects your annual premiums. Don't wait till next year to find out via a letter from the IRS.

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Here's What You Need to Know About Tax Inversions: Almost Nothing

| Wed Aug. 6, 2014 11:15 AM EDT

I guess that corporate tax inversions are slated to be the topic of the week. This is the maneuver in which a corporation buys a company overseas and then transfers its headquarters to the new country, where tax rates are lower. Voila! A lower tax bill:

Dozens of additional deals are in the works, according to administration and congressional officials, and other companies are quietly contemplating the move. Last month, CVS Caremark chief executive Larry Merlo met with Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and urged him to act to stop the rash of expatriations. Otherwise, Schumer said that Merlo warned him, CVS “might be forced to do it, too,” to duck a total tax bill expected this year to approach 40 percent.

“There’s a huge number coming,” Schumer said in an interview. “We hear there are going to be several big announcements in August.”....The potential costs to the U.S. treasury are enormous. One measure, by the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT), suggests that the nation stands to lose nearly $20 billion in tax revenue over the next decade. Former JCT director Edward Kleinbard said he thinks the potential loss is much higher.

“My guess is they didn’t fully reflect the sharknado of inversions that is about to happen,” said Kleinbard, a law professor at the University of Southern California.

This whole issue is maddening in the usual way. As it happens, both Democrats and Republicans agree that this problem needs to be fixed, but in approximately the same way that Israelis and Palestinians both "agree" that war in the Middle East needs to be fixed. President Obama proposed a corporate tax overhaul years ago, followed by a more targeted proposal back in March, but they've gone nowhere because Republicans want a net tax cut. Republicans, for their part, have proposed wide-ranging tax reform, but the prospect of getting the current Congress to agree on wide-ranging tax reform is laughable. Hell, they can't even agree on a tiny, focused bill to fix the border crisis.

So now Democrats are pushing Obama to fix the problem administratively, and Republicans in turn are yelling "tyranny!" And that's where we stand. It's all very edifying.

This post is not an "explainer." I have deliberately left out every single relevant detail because none of them matter. Republicans want net taxes on corporations to go down, and Democrats want them to stay the same. Ne'er the twain shall meet, and that's pretty much all you need to know. But it did give me a chance to quote an eminent law professor using the word sharknado.

Voting Rights Act Signed Into Law Today in 1965

| Wed Aug. 6, 2014 10:04 AM EDT
African Americans demonstrating for voting rights in front of the White House as police and others watch; sign reads "We demand the right to vote everywhere." Warren K. Leffler/Library of Congress

President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law today in 1965. Conservatives began work to chip away at it immediately, culminating in the 2013 Supreme Court decision, Shelby County v. Holder which, in the New York Times' words, "effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act."

President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act as Martin Luther King, Jr, and other civil rights leaders look on. Yoichi Okamoto/LBJ Library

 

The Toxic Algae Are Not Done With Toledo. Not By a Long Stretch.

| Wed Aug. 6, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
The algae bloom that swallowed parts of Lake Erie in 2011. Toledo sits near—and draws its water from—the lake's southwest region, where algae tends to accumulate.

Last weekend, Toledo's 400,000 residents were sent scrambling for bottled water because the stuff from the tap had gone toxic—so toxic that city officials warned people against bathing their children or washing their dishes in it. The likely cause: a toxic blue-green algae bloom that floated over the city's municipal water intake in Lake Erie. On Monday morning, the city called off the don't-drink-the-water warning, claiming that levels of the contaminant in the water had fallen back to safe levels. Is their nightmare over?

One expert said he could "almost guarantee" that the conditions that caused the crisis, i.e., a toxic bloom floating over the intake, would recur this summer.

I put the question to Jeffrey Reutter, director of the Stone Laboratory at Ohio State University and a researcher who monitors Lake Erie's annual algae blooms. He said he could "almost guarantee" that the conditions that caused the crisis, i.e., a toxic bloom floating over the intake, would recur this summer. But it's "pretty unlikely" that toxins will make it into the city's drinking water. That's because after the weekend's fiasco, a whole crew of public agencies, from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to the US Environmental Protection Agency to the City of Toledo, have been scrambling to implement new procedures to keep the toxins out. "I think they have a pretty good plan in place," he said. But "you can't guarantee [there won't be a recurrence] because you can't predict "how bad the concentration of the toxins going into the plant [from the lake] is going to be."

Reutter added that he "anticipated" that the new system for protecting Toledo's drinking water would be more expensive than the current one. Back in January, local paper the Blade reported that Toledo "has spent $3 million a year battling algae toxins in recent years, [and] spent $4 million in 2013."

And those hard realities highlight a hard fact about our way of farming: It manages to displace the costs of dealing with its messes onto people who don't directly benefit from it. The ties between Big Ag and Toledo's rough weekend are easy to tease out. "The Maumee River drains more than four million acres of agricultural land and dumps it into Lake Erie at the Port of Toledo," the Wall Street Journal reports. More than 80 percent of the Maumeee River watershed is devoted to agriculture, mainly the corn-soy duopoly that carpets the Midwest. Fertilizer and manure runoff from the region's farms feed blue-green algae blooms in the southwest corner of Lake Erie, from which Toledo draws its water.  

And those blooms don't just tie up oxygen in water and push out aquatic life, creating dead zones. They also often contain the compound that triggered the water scare: microcystin, a toxin that can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, severe headaches, fever, and even liver damage. Apparently, a particularly noxious chunk of algae floated over Toledo's water intake equipment, causing the microcystin spike.

Back in early July, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Michigan delivered their forecast for this year's bloom on the western part of Erie: It would likely be much smaller than it was in 2011, when a record 40,000 metric tons of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) accumulated, but likely much higher than the past decade's average of 14,000 metric tons—the researchers forecast a 2014 bloom weighing in at 22,000 metric tons. The blooms don't peak until September, which is why Reutter is convinced that the condition that created last weekend's troubles will likely re-emerge.

Here's a chart from the report:

Chart: NOAA and University of Michigan researchers

The bottom half of that chart tracks the flow of phosphorus, the component of fertilizer and manure that triggers freshwater algae blooms, into Lake Erie. Of course, farm runoff isn't the only way phosphorus makes its way into the lake. Municipal sewage and industrial waste play a role, too. But reforms imposed by the Clean Water Act in 1972 minimized those sources, pulling Lake Erie from the brink of death.

The below chart, taken from a 2013 Ohio Lake Erie Phosphorus Task Force report, shows the sources of Lake Erie phosphorus over the past several decades. Under pressure from the Clean Water Act, pollution from "point" sources like wastewater treatment plants and factories have been severely curtailed. But the CWA doesn't regulate "non-point" sources, mainly agriculture. "Harmful algal blooms were common in western Lake Erie between the 1960s and 1980s," NOAA notes. "After a lapse of nearly 20 years, blooms have been steadily increasing over the past decade."

Chart: Ohio Lake Erie Phosphorus Task Force

Climate change plays a role, too—both because longer, warmer summers give algae more time to build up, and because warmer mean temperatures are also likely driving a steep increase of heavy rains in the upper Midwest, which force more phosphorus off farm fields and into waterways. Changes in the way farmers apply fertilizers are also apparently making phosphorus more mobile as this 2012 article by Jessica Marshal for the Food and Environment Reporting Network shows.

Of course, western Ohio isn't the only Corn Belt region encountering toxic algae. "A reported chemical spill on the Des Moines River above Saylorville Lake Wednesday turned out to be a blue-green algae bloom," the Iowa Department of Natural Resources reported in late July. More recently, the Army Corps of Engineers issued an advisory against swimming in two beaches of Lake Red Rock, Iowa's largest lake, "in response to the presence of a significant blue-green algae bloom which has the potential to impact the health of humans and their pets."

The website Toxic Algae News tracks blooms nationwide. Here's its latest map. Red pins in a state mean harmful algal blooms recur annually in "many" lakes; orange pins mean they recur in one or two lakes.

And phosphorus isn't the only fertilizer component that feeds algae blooms. Nitrogen does to saltwater what phosphorus does to freshwater—and every year, the Mississippi River carries titanic amounts of nitrogen into the Gulf of Mexico, more than half of which comes from corn and soy farms. These flows feed a vast algae bloom that creates an aquatic dead zone that can reach the size of New Jersey—blotting out a wild, abundant source of high-quality seafood, in order to grow crops that mainly go to feed livestock, cars, industrial-cooking fats, and sweeteners. This year's dead zone clocks in at 5,008 square miles—"roughly the size of Connecticut and…three times larger than the 2015 goal established by a task force specifically created to address the problem," the Mississippi River Collaborative announced Monday.

Such sacrifices are what economists call "externalities"—the costs of doing business that don't show up on the bottom lines of farmers, or the companies that buy their goods for animal feed and ethanol, or the firms that sell them the seeds, pesticides, and fertilizers that facilitate mass monocropped plantings.

Residents of places like Toledo are left holding the bag. Many people there are questioning the safety of their water supply and turning to pricey bottled water instead, USA Today reports. And now, the city's taxpayers (or some public entity) will likely be paying more than ever to keep algae toxins out of the tap water.

Tom's Kitchen: ¡Ceviche!

| Wed Aug. 6, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

I'm reading Paul Greenberg's superb new book American Catch. In it, Greenberg teases out Americans' weird relationship to the sea. "We are a nation of coasts," he writes, in which "nearly half of the population chooses to live less than ten miles from the sea." Yet on average, we eat just 15 pounds of fish and shellfish annually per capita, vs. 100 pounds of red meat. Don't even get me started about how growing loads of Midwestern corn, mainly for livestock feed, takes out huge swaths of the Gulf of Mexico, the mainland US's greatest fishery. Of the fish we do eat, a startling 91 percent is imported—much of it farmed under dodgy conditions and barely inspected by food safety authorities. Meanwhile, we export nearly a third of our own abundant wild catch.

Contemplating these contradictions made me want to eat some damned fish. So I went to Austin's stellar old-school fish monger Quality Seafood to see what I could get from the seascape nearest me, the Gulf of Mexico. The display included a gorgeous stack of black drum filets, a firm white fish subtly streaked with red—and rated a "good alternative" by the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program, which scrutinizes fisheries based on their sustainability. Contemplating the brutal heat outside and my stash of produce at home—tomatoes, a red onion, serrano chiles, limes, etc—inspiration hit me: ceviche, that sublime, no-cook Latin American answer to sushi. Well, it's not exactly like sushi—the acid in the lime juice breaks down the fish, effectively cooking it. Which beats the hell out of firing up the oven on a hot day.

So I snatched a filet of black drum and got busy with the cutting board. Here's what I did. This dish brings together a lot of sharp, bright flavors in a lovely way.

Simple Ceviche
1 pound filet of a firm white fish—preferably from a nearby source—cut into ½ inch chunks
1 red onion, cut into 1/4 inch chucks
Sea salt and black pepper
4 limes, juiced; and at least one extra, in case
1 ripe tomato, cut into ½ inch chucks
1 clove of garlic, smashed, peeled, and minced into a fine paste
1 hot chile pepper, such as serrano or jalapeño, minced fine<
A little extra-virgin olive oil
1 avocado, cut into ½ inch chucks
1 small head of cilantro, chopped

Put the fish, the onions, and a good dash of salt and pepper in a bowl. Add the lime juice and toss. There should be enough juice to fully submerge the fish. If not, juice another lime and add it to the bowl. Let the fish/onion/lime juice combo sit in the fridge, covered, for an hour or so (here's an excellent Serious Eats guide to how long to let ceviche marinade based on your taste).

To finish, add the tomato, the garlic, the chile, a lashing of olive oil, and the avocado and cilantro (if someone in your crew hates cilantro, parsley and even mint work great). Toss, taste for salt, and serve with chips.