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Health Update

| Mon Jun. 29, 2015 1:30 PM EDT

This is probably it for blogging today. It's biopsy day for me, and unfortunately this is up in LA, so it's going to wipe out most of the day. The good news is that this is the last of the tests for now, and in a week or two we'll know for sure how well I responded to the second-round chemo up at City of Hope. Whether that turns out to be good news or bad is the million-dollar question.

In the meantime, I'm feeling pretty good. I bought myself a Surface 3 yesterday as part of my tablet collection hobby. It's my fourth in four years. I now have an iPad, an Android tab, and two Windows tabs. Since I don't spend a lot of money on anything else, I figure it's actually a fairly harmless and cheap hobby.

Seems to be OK so far with a few odd quirks. But I've not yet been able to answer my key question: how well does Firefox work? Their servers appear to have been down for maintenance since last night, so I'm unable to sync the new tablet. Until then, it's basically a brick since Firefox is about half of what I do with it. Maybe the Mozilla folks will have their servers back up and running by the time I get home.

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Court Rules EPA Must Consider Cost in Regulation of Power Plants

| Mon Jun. 29, 2015 11:51 AM EDT

In today's EPA case, the question at hand was whether EPA has to consider both costs and benefits when it makes the decision to regulate power plants. EPA says it has to consider only benefits during the initial decision, and can consider costs later when it writes the actual regulations themselves.

The conservative majority on the Supreme Court disagreed. Although the Clean Air Act generally requires EPA to regulate sources that  “presen[t] a threat of adverse effects to human health or the environment," the requirements for regulating power plants are different. EPA can only regulate power plants if it finds regulation "appropriate and necessary."

So what does that mean? "There are undoubtedly settings in which the phrase 'appropriate and necessary' does not encompass cost," the majority opinion says, "But this is not one of them." Then this:

EPA points out that other parts of the Clean Air Act expressly mention cost, while [the power plant clause] does not. But this observation shows only that [the power plant clause's] broad reference to appropriateness encompasses multiple relevant factors (which include but are not limited to cost); other provisions’ specific references to cost encompass just cost. It is unreasonable to infer that, by expressly making cost relevant to other decisions, the Act implicitly makes cost irrelevant to the appropriateness of regulating power plants....Other parts of the Clean Air Act also expressly mention environmental effects, while [the power plant clause] does not. Yet that did not stop EPA from deeming environmental effects relevant to the appropriateness of regulating power plants.

As it happens, this is not entirely clear. The origin of the phrase "the exception proves the rule" applies to this. If I say that parking is not allowed on 4th Avenue on weekdays, this implicitly means that parking is allowed on weekends. The fact that I made a specific rule and deliberately failed to include certain cases in that rule, means that the rule doesn't apply to the excepted cases.

In this case, cost is specifically mentioned elsewhere in the Clean Air Act, but not here. So power plants appear to be an exception to the general rule that cost has to be considered from the very start. This means that the question is whether "appropriate and necessary" encompasses cost, or whether Congress would have specifically mentioned cost if it wanted it considered.

The conservative majority decided cost was inherently part of that phrase. The liberal dissenters disagreed. The conservatives won.

John Oliver: Quit Asking Transgender People About Their Genitals

| Mon Jun. 29, 2015 11:08 AM EDT

Friday's historic Supreme Court ruling invalidating gay marriage bans across the country was a major step for equal rights in America. But when it comes to equal rights and protection for the transgender community, the country still has a long way to go.

"For all the strides transgender people have made lately, let's not get too complacent about how far we've come because they still face a host of obstacles," John Oliver reminded on Sunday's Last Week Tonight. "Even when the news media are trying to be supportive they can make dumb mistakes.

It's true—just listen to how the media discusses the "wrong genitalia" and continues to ask invasive questions about a trans person's body.

"It is no more okay to ask transgender people about their sex organs than it would be to ask Jimmy Carter whether or not he's circumcised," Oliver said. "Which by the way he is—smooth like a boiled carrot."

Of course, the challenges facing the transgender community go much farther than how issues are discussed. As Oliver noted on Sunday, it's the practical, everyday changes such as simply allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice, many parts of the country are still fighting against.

"This is a civil rights issue. If you're not willing to support transgender people for their sake, at least do it for your own. Because we've been through this before; we know how this thing ends. If you take the anti-civil rights side and deny people something they're entitled to, history is not going to be kind to you."

Watch below:

Supreme Court Justice Calls Death Penalty Drug "Equiva­lent of Being Burned at the Stake"

| Mon Jun. 29, 2015 10:45 AM EDT

On Monday, the Supreme Court upheld the use of the drug midazolam for lethal injections in a 5–4 decision that pitted the five conservative justices against the four liberal ones. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who wrote her own dissent, argued that the use of the drug, which prolongs the execution process and sometimes doesn't work at all, was in violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on "cruel and unusual punishment." Then she went a step further, comparing the drug to a more notorious form of punishment—the burning of heretics at the stake:

[T]he Court today turns aside petitioners’ plea that they at least be allowed a stay of execution while they seek to prove midazolam’s inadequacy. The Court achieves this result in two ways: first, by deferring to the District Court’s decision to credit the scientifically unsup­ported and implausible testimony of a single expert wit­ness; and second, by faulting petitioners for failing to satisfy the wholly novel requirement of proving the avail­ability of an alternative means for their own executions. On both counts the Court errs. As a result, it leaves peti­tioners exposed to what may well be the chemical equiva­lent of being burned at the stake.

Later in her dissent, Sotomayor added a few more comparisons for good measure. "Under the Court's new rule, it would not matter whether the State intended to use midazolam, or instead to have petitioners drawn and quartered, slowly tortured to death, or actually burned at the stake."

Justice Stephen Breyer, in a separate dissent, went a step further, arguing that the death penalty itself might be unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court Just Struck Down Obama Regulations on Power Plants. Read the Opinion Here.

| Mon Jun. 29, 2015 10:45 AM EDT

On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled against EPA regulations to limit mercury emissions and other pollutants at power plants. Read the opinion in its entirety below:

 

This Will Probably Not Be a Very Fun Week

| Mon Jun. 29, 2015 10:41 AM EDT

This week's news to watch for:

  • Greek talks have broken down and they might be about to leave the euro, causing chaos.
  • Negotiations with the Iranians have hit a pretty rough patch. There may be no nuclear deal after all.
  • Puerto Rico has effectively declared bankruptcy.
  • China's stock markets, which have been falling already, are off a cliff today. "China’s main stock index entered bear-market territory Monday," says the Wall Street Journal, "as a surprise interest-rate cut over the weekend failed to lift the market amid concerns over investors’ debt levels, while uncertainty about Greece shook sentiment elsewhere in the region."
  • And in non-financial bad news, the Supreme Court has a couple of important cases coming up this week. The smart money suggests that the liberal run of good luck in the high court may be over. Fasten your seat belts.

POSTSCRIPT: It's already happening. The Court has just upheld lethal injection procedures for executing death-row inmates and has struck down EPA rules on toxic emissions. On the brighter side, they ruled that independent commissions can draw district lines. So liberals are 1-2 so far this week.

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Greece Now Has to Decide Whether to Leave the Euro

| Mon Jun. 29, 2015 10:01 AM EDT
A man passes by anti-euro graffiti in Athens.

Today's news is all about Greece. To make a long story short, the Greeks last week presented the Europeans with an austerity proposal that was pretty much what they had been asking for. But it turned out that "pretty much" wasn't good enough. The Europeans wanted exactly what they had been asking for and sent the Greeks packing. Talks broke down completely, and the Greek prime minister has called for a referendum later this week. The question: whether to accept the humiliating European terms and stay in the euro, or to reject the terms and exit the euro. Paul Krugman offers his opinion:

I would vote no, for two reasons. First, much as the prospect of euro exit frightens everyone—me included—the troika is now effectively demanding that the policy regime of the past five years be continued indefinitely. Where is the hope in that? Maybe, just maybe, the willingness to leave will inspire a rethink, although probably not. But even so, devaluation couldn’t create that much more chaos than already exists, and would pave the way for eventual recovery, just as it has in many other times and places. Greece is not that different.

Second, the political implications of a yes vote would be deeply troubling. The troika clearly did a reverse Corleone—they made Tsipras an offer he can’t accept, and presumably did this knowingly. So the ultimatum was, in effect, a move to replace the Greek government. And even if you don’t like Syriza, that has to be disturbing for anyone who believes in European ideals.

It's worth unpacking this a bit, and doing it in the simplest possible way. If Greeks vote no on the European proposal, it's basically a vote to abandon the euro and recreate a new version of their old currency. Call it the New Drachma. They would then devalue the ND, making Greek exports more competitive in the international market. That would mean more tourists, more olive exports, and more fish exports. At least, that's what it would mean in the long term.

In the short term it would mean chaos. Banks would close, and capital controls would be put in place until the new currency could be put in circulation. Imports would skyrocket in price, and this would effectively mean pay cuts for everyone. Savings would be lost, and pensions would be effectively slashed.

In other words, Greece would almost certainly suffer more short-term austerity by leaving the euro than by staying within in it. The payoff, hopefully, would be control of their own currency, which would allow them to rebalance their economy in the long run and begin a true economic recovery. In the meantime, however, I'd be skeptical of Krugman's belief that leaving the euro would cause a bit of chaos, but not much more than Greece is already suffering. Here's Barry Eichengreen:

Nearly a decade ago, I analyzed scenarios for a country leaving the eurozone.…The costs, I concluded, would be severe and heavily front-loaded.…a bank run…shutter[ing] the financial system.…losing access to not just their savings but also imported petrol, medicines and foodstuffs.…Not only would any subsequent benefits, by comparison, be delayed, but they would be disappointingly small.…Any improvement in export competitiveness due to depreciation of the newly reintroduced national currency would prove ephemeral.…Greece’s.…leading export, refined petroleum, is priced in dollars and relies on imported oil.…Agricultural exports.…will take several harvests to ramp up. And attracting more tourists won’t be easy against a drumbeat of political unrest.

A lot of people think it's a no-brainer for Greece to leave the euro at this point. This is why it's not. Make no mistake: it will cause a lot of pain. Greek incomes will effectively be slashed, and it will take years to recover on the backs of improved exports. It's quite possible that this is the only good long-term solution for Greece, which has been treated badly by its European creditors—for which you should mostly read "German creditors"— but it is no easy decision. There will be a lot of suffering for a lot of years if Greece goes down this road.

This is why the Greek prime minister has called for a referendum on the European proposal. If Greeks vote no, they're accepting his proposal to exit the euro and accepting the inevitable austerity that will follow. That allows him to keep governing. If they vote yes, he will accept the European proposal and presumably step down from government. The people will have spoken, and effectively they will be saying that they were bluffing all along, and now that their bluff has been called they're willing to fold.

For Europe, the problem is different. If Greece leaves the euro, it probably won't affect them very much. The Greek economy is simply too small to matter, and most Greek debt is now held in public hands. However, the political implication are potentially huge: It means the currency union is not forever and ever, as promised. If the pain of using a currency whose value is basically dictated by the needs of Germany becomes too severe, countries will leave. Perhaps later they will be let back in. Instead of a currency union, it will become more of a currency board, with countries coming in and out as they need to. This will be especially true if observers like Krugman are right, and the short-term pain of Greece leaving is mild and long-term recovery is strong. That would send a strong lesson to any future country stuck in the web of German monetary policy and finding itself in a deep and long economic depression.

Stay tuned.

Watch Badass Woman Scale Statehouse Flagpole, Take Down Confederate Flag

| Sat Jun. 27, 2015 12:18 PM EDT

A woman named Bree Newsome just scaled the flagpole in front of the South Carolina state capitol and took down the Confederate flag. She was then arrested. Badass. Too bad state workers promptly put it back up.

The Threatened Atlantic Puffins Are Nesting And It's Adorable

| Sat Jun. 27, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
Atlantic puffins chilling on a cliff.

The Atlantic puffins are back...for now. After spending much of the year on the open sea, the photogenic birds have made their annual trip to the North Atlantic shores of Maine, Newfoundland, and the United Kingdom to breed.

But as Rowan Jacobsen reported in a Mother Jones feature last summer, rising ocean temperatures have taken a huge toll on these seabirds. Cold-water thriving zooplankton, critical to the Gulf of Maine's food web, have reached their lowest numbers ever, forcing the fish that puffins feed to their young to go elsewhere for food. Without a reliable source of food, in 2013, only 10 percent of puffin pairs in burrows tracked by researchers successfully fledged chicks (normally that rate is 77 percent).

This isn't the first time puffins in Maine have faced an existential threat. After 300 years of hunting and over harvesting eggs, Atlantic puffin colonies in Maine nearly disappeared. Fortunately, a successful Audubon Society initiative in the 1970s brought them back to nesting islands off the coast of Maine; by 2013, 1,000 pairs were laying eggs there.

During the past couple of years, cold water has returned to the gulf of Maine, which is great news for the puffins. In 2014, they saw a rebound: 75 percent of chicks survived. This year they are back again and as cute as ever. You can watch them below on the Audubon's puffin live cam until August when they leave again for the ocean:

If that's not enough, below are some more photos and video of Atlantic puffins:

Randy Rimland/Shutterstock

Helen Kattai/Shutterstock
Eric Isselee/Shutterstock

 

gabrisigno/Shutterstock

 

Congress Doesn't Think Agricultural Sustainability Has Anything to Do With Your Health

| Fri Jun. 26, 2015 6:15 PM EDT

Every five years, the US government revisits its Dietary Guidelines—suggestions for how Americans should eat. The guidelines won't legally require you to, say, eat an apple a day, but they do affect things like agricultural subsidies and public school lunches, so they're fairly influential.

The National Cattleman's Beef Association argued that the Advisory Committee "clearly does not have the background or expertise" to tackle issues of sustainability.

When the committee tasked with making scientific recommendations for the 2015 Dietary Guidelines released its report this year, it ruffled some feathers. For the first time it included concerns about the environmental issues linked to certain dietary patterns and agricultural practices—for example, how eating less meat and more plant-based foods is "more health promoting and is associated with a lesser environmental impact." Or that assuring food security might rely on creating agricultural practices that "reduce environmental impacts and conserve resources."

Some lobbyists and politicians, especially those who pad their pockets with cash from Big Food and Big Ag, weren't too happy about these suggestions. As I've written in the past, the suggestion that plant-based diets might be healthier for people and the planet messes with the meat industry's bottom line, so why would they back it? In letters sent to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack over the past few months, industry groups have tried to argue that sustainability issues do not fall within the scope of the Dietary Guidelines. One letter from the National Cattleman's Beef Association argued that the advisory committee "clearly does not have the background or expertise to evaluate the complex relationship between food production and the dietary needs of a growing American and international population."

The House Appropriations Committee on Agriculture, which accepted at least $1.4 million from the food industry in 2013 and 2014, apparently caved to these complaints. It recently stuck a rider in its 2016 Agricultural Appropriations bill that would A) explicitly prohibit the upcoming Dietary Guidelines from mentioning anything other than diet and nutrient intake, and B) force the guidelines to only rely on scientific evidence that has been rated "Grade 1: Strong" by the Department of Agriculture. Politico reported on Thursday that a similar Senate agriculture appropriations rider would force any advice in the Dietary Guidelines to be "solely nutritional and dietary in nature."

In an unprecedented move, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has shot back with a letter of its own. Health and food systems should be more closely related in the government's eyes, the committee argued. "Future food insecurity is predictable without attention to the safety, quality, cost, and sustainability of the food supply," the letter stated, adding that "the US health and public health systems are burdened with preventable health problems." In other words, to narrow the reach of the Dietary Guidelines is to ignore the connection between things like exercise and obesity, for instance, or agricultural pesticide use and disease. To read more of the DGAC's arguments, see the full letter here.

Expect the finalized Dietary Guidelines late this year. In the meantime, it looks like the DGAC isn't giving up the battle for a more holistic national framework for how people eat. They certainly have Food Politics author Marion Nestle on their side; as she summarizes on her blog:

[Members of the DGAC] were asked to review and consider the science of diet and health and did so. They reported what they believe the science says. Some segments of the food industry didn't like the science so they are using the political system to fight back. That some members of Congress would go along with this is shameful.