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Congress Might Actually Pass a Bill to Address VA Problems

| Mon Jul. 28, 2014 11:38 AM EDT

Since I've been griping for a long time about Congress being unable to pass so much as a Mother's Day resolution these days, it's only fair to highlight the possibility of actual progress on something:

House and Senate negotiators have reached a tentative agreement to deal with the long-term needs of the struggling Department of Veterans Affairs and plan to unveil their proposal Monday.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), who lead the Senate and House Veterans' Affairs committees, continued negotiating over the weekend. Aides said they "made significant progress" on legislation to overhaul the VA and provide funding to hire more doctors, nurses and other health-care professionals. Sanders and Miller are scheduled to discuss their plan Monday afternoon.

We don't have all the details yet, and the bill hasn't actually passed or anything. There's still plenty of time for tea partiers to throw their usual tantrum. And there's also plenty of time for the House GOP leadership to respond to the tantrum by crawling back into its cave and killing the whole thing. It'll be President Obama's fault, of course, probably for attending a fundraiser, or maybe for sneezing at the wrong time.

But maybe not! Maybe they really will pass this thing. It would provide vets with more flexibility to see doctors outside the VA system, which is a bit of a Band-Aid—but probably a necessary one—and it provides additional funding for regions that have seen a big influx of veterans. On the flip side, I don't get the sense that the bill will really do much to fix the culture of the VA, which becomes a political cause célèbre every few years as we discover that all the same things we yelled about the time before are still true. But I guess that's inevitable in a political culture with the attention span of a newt.

All things considered, it would be a good sign if this bill passed. The VA, after all, isn't an inherently partisan issue. Just the opposite, since both parties support vets about equally and both should, in theory, be more interested in helping vets than in prolonging chaos for political reasons.

In other words, if there's anything that's amenable to a basically technocratic solution and bipartisan support, this is it. In a way, it's a test of whether our political system is completely broken or just mostly broken. "Mostly" would be something of a relief.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 28, 2014

Mon Jul. 28, 2014 9:43 AM EDT

US Marines take cover behind a barrier after tossing a grenade at Pohakuloa Training Area, Hawaii during Rim of the Pacific Exercise 2014. (Photo by Sgt. Sarah Dietz.)

Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens' "Cold World" Brings the Spirit

| Mon Jul. 28, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens
Cold World
Daptone

Naomi Shelton Cold WarIf you pick up Cold World, get ready to do some foot-stomping. Like her more secular labelmate Sharon Jones, Naomi Shelton sings with a gritty warmth that will rouse believers and nonbelievers alike, while her Gospel Queens serve as a stirring foil, locating that sweet spot where church music and old-school R&B intersect. This isn't a mere exercise in nostalgia for purists, however: Exciting tracks like "Get Up, Child" and "Bound for the Promised Land" boast propulsive grooves that will keep any party cooking with funky grace.

Fast Tracks: Imelda May's "Tribal"

| Mon Jul. 28, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

TRACK 3

"It's Good to Be Alive"

From Imelda May's Tribal

VERVE

Liner notes: Riding an exuberant rockabilly groove, the Irish shouter delivers a message of hope.

Behind the music: A veteran of Jeff Beck's guitar sessions, May wrote this exhilarating tune the day after giving birth to her first child.

Check it out if you like: Big, confident voices, from Wanda Jackson to Connie Smith to Neko Case.

This review originally appeared in the July/August 2014 Issue of Mother Jones.

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

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

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

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

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

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

PETA's Five Most Tone-Deaf Stunts

Fri Jul. 25, 2014 4:23 PM EDT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Dog breeding is for Nazis. (2014)

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

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

The disturbing video above even seems to justify senseless violence.

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

Nice going, PETA.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 25 July 2014

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

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

Doctors Aren't Really Very Smart About Buying Generics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Republicans Maybe Not as Inept as We Think

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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