In Washington, no one blinked when President Obama chose Harvey Milk, the slain San Francisco councilman and gay rights activist, to receive the Medal of Freedom. But in San Francisco, one man did.  

His name is Randy Thomasson, and he heads the conservative policy watchdog Save California. On Wednesday, the group held a press conference outside San Francisco City Hall to protest the honor, spitting distance from where Milk was assasinated in 1978. Using a series of visual aids, Thomasson argued that the civil rights crusader was unfit for the nation's highest civilian honor. 

"Is this for the Onion? Come on, this must be for the Onion,"  a casual observer announced to no one in particular.  

That pretty much sums it up. Of the 16 recipients of the Medal of Freedom today—among them Stephen Hawking and Sidney Poitier—perhaps none is more artificially controversial than Milk, whose life and work inspired last year's Oscar-nominated film. Sure, California's enjoyed it's fair share ofreal gay controversy this past year (Prop 8, anyone?). But nothing stokes artificial controversy like TV news cameras. 

 

Phrases You Really Don't Want to Hear

From Richard Holbrooke on how to gauge success in Afghanistan:

"You'll know it when you see it."

In fairness, click the link to read about the various metrics and aid programs and whatnot that Holbrooke's team uses and supports.  That said, though, I have a sinking feeling that when all's said and done, that offhand comment represents our real state of knowledge depressingly well.

Newt the Visionary

Matt Taibbi points out today that up until very recently, Newt Gingrich was a big booster of advance care directives and hospice care:

Well, what happens when suddenly the Republican party decides it wants to scare the shit out of a bunch of old people by telling them the new health care bill is going to include a provision in which “death panels” ask them “when they want to die”? Now all of the sudden Gingrich is violently against the same programs he was so windily praising earlier this year.

And make no mistake, this is exactly the same thing. The only thing that’s actually in the health care proposals is a provision that would allow Medicare to pay for exactly the kind of programs Gingrich praised, on a voluntary basis. The programs are not government-administered in any way, there’s just government money now to pay for the private programs. And now Gingrich is suddenly aghast at them.

Nobody ever accused Newt of not being opportunistic enough, so this is no surprise.  It's also pretty much identical to his flip-flop on cap-and-trade.  Two years ago he was a huge fan because it used market mechanisms to control greenhouse gas emissions.  Hooray for the market!  But when an actual cap-and-trade plan was introduced — by Democrats — it suddenly became a "command-and-control, anti-energy, big-bureaucracy agenda, including dramatic increases in government power and draconian policies that will devastate our economy."

But Newt's a visionary.  Never forget that.

Cooling the Planet for Free

"Why do we tune up our cars but not our far more complex buildings?" asks Evan Mills, a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.  He's talking about "commissioning," a basket of techniques for increasing the energy efficiency of buildings:

Energy-wasting deficiencies are almost always invisible to the casual observer, and unfortunately also to building designers, operators, and owners. Commissioning is not a widgit or “retrofit”; it is an integrated quality-assurance practice.

....Back in 2004, the U.S. Department of Energy asked my team at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab to build a national database of commissioning experience....The results are compelling. The median normalized cost to deliver commissioning was $0.30/ft2 for existing buildings and $1.16/ft2 for new construction....Correcting these problems resulted in 16% median whole-building energy savings in existing buildings and 13% in new construction, with payback times of 1.1 years and 4.2 years, respectively.

....Applying our median whole-building energy-savings value (certainly far short of best practices) to the U.S. non-residential building stock corresponds to an annual energy-savings potential of $30 billion by the year 2030, which in turn yields greenhouse gas emissions reductions of about 340 megatons of CO2 each year.

In other words, this is a way of reducing greenhouse emissions significantly — and it's not just free, it saves money.  It's a no-brainer, and it's the kind of thing that will become more widespread if the Waxman-Markey climate bill passes.

It's also why the cost of Waxman-Markey, despite the pronouncements of the doomsayers, is likely to be close to zero.  The CO2 goals in W-M are actually fairly modest (a 17% decrease from 2005 levels by 2020), and commissioning could provide upwards of a thirds of that at no cost.  Other technologies have similar paybacks, and the net result is that we can almost certainly achieve a 17% reduction at a net cost that's very, very small.  Things gets tougher after 2020, but that's also the point at which W-M has provided several years of incentives to develop green technologies that will make further cutbacks considerably less painful than they would be today.  Warts and all, that's why Waxman-Markey needs to pass.

Health Care Reality Check

The health care debate has generated a lot of crazy talk (Obama wants to kill grandmas! And Sarah Palin's Down Syndrome baby!) So it's not surprising that the president has launched a website to debunk the lies, dubbed "Health Insurance Reform Reality Check."

When Obama unveiled a similar site, "Fight the Smears," during the campaign, it was considered a smart political move. But it's unclear how effective it actually was.

The same day that we put up our exposé of Fiji Water—produced under a military dictatorship, processed in a diesel-fueled plant, and shipped across thousands of miles of ocean in bottles that use twice as much plastic as many competitorsthe New York Observer's John Koblin served up a fab look into the Condé Nast empire, where folks are running scared that the consultants from McKinsey are going to put an end to their gilded way of life (Nobu, town cars, spa treatments--all on the company dime.) 

How bad is it at 4 Times Square? Not only has Graydon Carter been, gasp!, spotted in the (Frank Gehry designed) company cafeteria but:

“When I started, there was this little refrigerator, and it was stocked with amazing drinks,” said one ad-sales source. “Pellegrino, Orangina, Red Bull. And like the water wasn’t Poland Spring, it was like Fiji. I remember when I started working here, I emailed everyone I know and I was like, ‘I have to tell you about the drinks!’”

But then in December, a few months after Condé Nast ordered publishers and editors to cut 5 percent from their budgets, the drink supply emptied out. That Fiji water turned into Poland Spring. Worse, instead of the fridge, the water bottles were stowed in a warm closet.

And then: “I just found out today that we are on our last batch of Poland Spring,” said the source. “We won’t have any more after this. We have to start drinking tap water.”

The horror, the horror!

Substantive cuts (when and if they come) to the actual great journalism that Condé Nast, particularly the New Yorker, can produce would be no joke. But Jeez, if the company hadn't encouraged editors to act as if ridiculous, over-the-top consumption on every level wasn't just a matter of course, but de riguer, not only for themselves, but the rest of us, then maybe we all wouldn't find ourselves underwater at every turn. Just saying.

Clara Jeffery is Co-Editor of Mother Jones. You can follow her on Twitter here.

In Which I Remain Confused

Via Tyler Cowen, Randall Kroszner writes in the Financial Times about the delicate role the Fed has to play as we (hopefully) exit the current recession.  If they keep monetary policy loose too long, they risk long-term inflation.  But if they tighten too fast, they risk cutting off the recovery too soon, as they did in 1937.  What to do?

Just last autumn, Congress gave the Fed a new tool that will play a crucial role as it exits from its unusually accommodative monetary policy: the ability to pay interest on reserves. Previously, a recovery would mean more opportunities for banks to lend and so they would draw down non-interest-bearing reserves and expand credit and hence the money supply. Interest on reserves, however, can cut that logic short by providing incentives for banks to hold reserve balances rather than lend them out, as the Federal funds rate target rises. The Fed now has a greater control over the reserve choices of banks because it can raise the return on reserves relative to banks’ lending opportunities, and thereby better manage credit and money growth in a recovery.

The basic idea here is simple: if the Fed raises the rate it pays on bank reserves, banks will park money at the Fed.  That reduces the amount of money they lend out.  Cut the rate and banks will pull their money out and find a better use for it.  Lending will increase.

Fine.  That makes sense and always has, as long as you trust the Fed to handle this particular monetary knob properly.  But what I still don't get is why you'd turn this knob up during a crisis, as the Fed did last year.  That reduced bank lending at a time when credit had already dropped off a cliff and was threatening to choke off the economy completely.  Is there some triple bank shot (no pun intended) here that I'm not getting?  Did the Fed figure that banks just flatly weren't going to loan out funds no matter what, so they might as well pay them interest as a backdoor way of recapitalizing them?  Or what?  I'm still confused.

Betsy Yet Again

The intellectual superstructure for the "death panel" nonsense — such as it is — derives partly from sections of the House bill related to living wills and partly from the academic writings of Ezekiel Emanual.  Zeke is Rahm Emanuel's brother, a sometime advisor to the White House on healthcare, and a longtime medical ethicist who has written extensively on some of the most difficult kinds of healthcare decisions.

That was enough to make him a poster boy for the death panel crowd.  The heavy lifting, unsurprisngly, was done by our old friend Betsy McCaughey.  Michael Scherer explains:

In her Post article, McCaughey paints the worst possible image of Emanuel, quoting him, for instance, endorsing age discrimination for health-care distribution, without mentioning that he was only addressing extreme cases like organ donation, where there is an absolute scarcity of resources. She quotes him discussing the denial of care for people with dementia without revealing that Emanuel only mentioned dementia in a discussion of theoretical approaches, not an endorsement of a particular policy. She notes that he has criticized medical culture for trying to do everything for a patient, "regardless of the cost or effects on others," without making clear that he was not speaking of lifesaving care but of treatments with little demonstrated value. "No one who has read what I have done for 25 years would come to the conclusions that have been put out there," says Emanuel. "My quotes were just being taken out of context."

The whole piece is worth a read.  McCaughey and her ilk obviously don't care about any of this, but it's worth understanding how it all happened.

Bottled Waters: Our Blind Taste Test

In the course of fact-checking Anna Lenzer's excellent piece on Fiji Water, and in writing my own sidebars to the piece, I drank a lot of water. And truthfully, I liked the taste of the stuff coming out my San Francisco tap better than the Dasani or Arrowhead I bought from the bodega. So I got to wondering: Can all these bottled waters on the shelf really taste that differently from one another? Are they better than tap? Could I even tell the difference between Volvic and Voss? To find out, I bought eight bottles of water at my local Whole Foods and had a blind taste test in the Mother Jones office with several editors, interns, fellows, and art staff. For a good measure, we also included filtered and unfiltered San Francisco tap in the test.

The results: Fiji Water, for all its claims of purity, tasted okay to our staff. One or two people out of about ten said it was their favorite. "I actually liked Fiji best," said one staffer, who will remain anonymous.

The TARP Time Bomb the Media Missed

Over at Politics Daily, MoJo's DC bureau chief, David Corn, points out that all the fuss over death panels and granny-killing government health care has overshadowed some very disturbing economic news. The congressional oversight panel monitoring the bank bailout, or Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), released a report Tuesday on the toxic assets that helped suck the country into an economic vortex. And, as David writes, the panel found that "the Treasury Department has not used its TARP billions to purchase this junk—which includes both lousy commercial and residential mortgages and securities based on lousy mortgages—and that billions of dollars of toxic assets remain on the books, threatening the security of numerous financial institutions."

So far, David observes, the news that TARP's billions have not been used as intended, and that the economy remains at real risk, has barely registered on the media's radar. Read the rest of the column here.