Firefighters To Testify Against Sotomayor

The Senate Judiiciary Committee has released the witness list for Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearings next week, and suprise surprise! Testifying for Republicans will be Frank Ricci, the name plaintiff in the now-infamous Connecticut firefighter case in which Republicans have accused Sotomayor of sanctioning "reverse racism." What he has to offer about Sotomayor's qualifications for the bench seems pretty limited, but we in the media can only hope Ricci will liven up what promises to be a pretty perfunctory proceeding. (Sadly, the Republicans don't seem to have invited that nunchuck guy, who also has a bone to pick with Sotomayor.)

Democrats plan to counter such testimony with witnesses of their own, most notably, former Major League Baseball pitcher David Cone. Cone was one of the beneficiaries of Sotomayor's decision ending the baseball players' strike. Presumably Democrats are thinking that Cone will mitigate whatever nasty things Ricci has to say about Sotomayor's view of the white male.

(Hat tip to The BLT.)

Senator Barbara Boxer was expected to introduce a version of the Waxman-Markey climate bill in the Senate this month but Greenwire reports that she's going to wait:

The California Democrat told reporters that many senators are focused this month on health care reform legislation, prompting the delay from her original plan to hold a vote before the August recess.

Phew. Now everybody gets another month to stress out about this.

Furloughs and Perks

From Ezra Klein's online chat this afternoon:

Wokingham UK: It seems that some employers are persuading their workers to take wage cuts, maybe under the guise of long breaks from work. British Airways is pushing that agenda at the moment. Is this way of dealing with the crisis likely to play a big part over the next twelve months?

Ezra Klein: Yep. I'm hearing a lot about unpaid "furloughs," too. Essentially, you can do two things when labor costs are too high. You can fire people are you can cut their compensation. This is a way of cutting their compensation. And it means that the employment statistics are even worse then they look, because people are getting paid less money.

I too feel like I'm hearing way more about this kind of thing than I have during past recessions.  My sister had her 401(k) matching cut.  My wife's company is making everyone take furlough days.  The Virginia Symphony Orchestra took a month off.  Etc.  And of course, this is all on top of good old fashioned rising unemployment.

But what's the right metric to measure this?  The 401(k) stuff doesn't show up in wage figures but furlough days should, shouldn't they?  (Although many of them just end up eating into vacation time, which helps corporate accounting but doesn't affect official wage figures.)  Obviously wage freezes show up too.  On the other hand, layoffs usually hit the most recently hired workers first, who are also the lowest paid, which makes average wage figures go up even as total wages go down.

So consider this an assignment desk post.  Are furloughs and benefit cuts more widespread than they have been in past recessions?  What's the best way to measure that?  Surely some enterprising economist can answer this.

POSTSCRIPT: Someone also asked Ezra about Matt Taibbi's takedown of Goldman Sachs in the latest issue of Rolling Stone.  I finally got around to reading it the other day, and my verdict is simple: it was terrible.  Taibbi wrote a terrific article about AIG a couple of months ago, but the Goldman piece was just phoned in, a long series of blustery assertions with essentially nothing to back up any of them.  If he wants to claim that Goldman was the wizard behind the curtain of everything from the dotcom boom to last year's oil spike, he really needs to produce some evidence for it instead of just saying so.

POSTSCRIPT 2: I just learned that Rolling Stone didn't actually post Taibbi's article.  They only posted a set of excerpts, which is why the online version reads like a long series of blustery assertions with essentially nothing to back up any of them.  Unfortunately, unless you read the intro very carefully, it's not clear that these are merely excerpts.  Instead, it just seems like a very badly written article.

So: I retract what I said for now.  I still suspect that Taibbi is considerably overstating things, trying to construct a dramatic narrative by blaming Goldman for things that are actually sins of the investment community as a whole, but I won't know for sure until I read the entire piece.

Factlet of the Day

According to a recent Pew survey, 55% of scientists are Democrats and only 6% are Republicans.  This is good news for everyone.  Democrats now have quantitative backup for their sneers about Republicans being anti-science.  Likewise, Republicans now have quantitative backup for their sneers about scientists just being a bunch of liberal shills who aren't to be trusted on questions like climate change and evolution.  We all win!

In other science-esque news, scientists now rank third, in between teachers and doctors, as contributors to our collective well-being.  (Business executives rank last, even behind lawyers. So sad.)  And although most people are now aware that aspirin is recommended to prevent heart attacks, the public is still having trouble with the issue of whether electrons are smaller than atoms.  Perhaps a gazillion dollar ad campaign from the electron industry would help here.

Is Anyone Binging?

Responding to a commenter who says Microsoft doesn't really understand branding, E.D. Kain says:

Exactly right. Nor do they understand connectivity and product overlap the way Google does. Google connects your email, chat, documents, search, and even browser now, etc. into basically one product, and with upcoming innovations like Wave and their OS that connectivity and overlap will just become far, far more effective. (Apple has done this fairly well also with hardware added into the mix)

Microsoft has tried with “Windows Live” and all that, but there are just too many gaps, too many brands, etc. I mean “bing” is now part of the whole cadre of Microsoft products, but is it really tied into them well? Why Microsoft hasn’t made their Windows platform more webby is beyond me. And why they make it so difficult to integrate everything is also confusing.

I'm out of touch on this stuff these days, but in fairness to Microsoft, doesn't a lot of this have to do with antitrust rules that don't allow them to integrate everything the way they'd like to?  My understanding has always been that if they could get away with it they'd basically merge every piece of software they own into a single platform and then make it next to impossible to use anything else.  But they can't.

In any case, the motivation for the original post was David Pogue's piece in the New York Times about Microsoft's new search engine, Bing.  Anyone have any opinions they'd like to share on this?  I use it a lot for image searches, but not so much for ordinary text searches.  Partly this is because Bing doesn't seem to have an Advanced Search page, which means I'd have to memorize whatever Boolean concatenation rules they use if I want to do anything more complicated than a search for the latest Michael Jackson news.  Sure, that's lazy of me, but Google works pretty well, so even a small nuisance makes all the difference between using something new and skipping it.

On the other hand, it's sort of interesting to see what Bing comes up with in its "Related Searches" list.  If I type in my name, I get a bunch of expected stuff, but also Maitland Ward.  Huh?  Who's that?  (Says here that she's an actress born in Long Beach who attended the same university as me.  Is that all it takes?)  But even at that I'm lucky.  Matt Yglesias gets paired up with Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter.  Atrios gets Michelle Malkin and Atrio Insurance.  Jane Hamsher gets Bill Clinton.  (She also gets Jane Hamsher Death, which seems kind of ghoulish.)

Oh, and I like the background artwork on the Bing home page.  Very soothing.  Not enough to make me switch from Google on a regular basis, but soothing anyway.

Is the future of agriculture the neglected flower bed on Main Street? The San Francisco Chronicle reports today that Mayor Gavin Newsom has ordered all city departments "to conduct an audit of unused land--including empty lots, rooftops, windowsills and median strips--that could be turned into community gardens or farms." If the Mayor gets his way, you could just as well get an apple from the corner mart as from a tree growing on the street corner.

The announcement is the latest fruit from an "urban-rural" roundtable of food experts that Newsom convened last year to look for more ways to get locally-grown foods onto the plates of city residents. The effort began last summer with a quarter-acre "victory garden" in front of city hall--a big hit with locals and tourists; Newsom later announced plans to replicate the effort at 15 sites around the city. He also floated the idea of planting fruit trees on street medians, and experimented with a strawberry patch atop a bus shelter--ideas that could catch on under his new food directive.

Newsom's move builds upon a vibrant hyperlocal agriculture movement in the Bay Area and along the West Coast. Detailed in "Inside the Green Zone" in our March/April food issue, the movement encompasses everything from professional farmers who'll sow your backyard to urban fruit foragers who barter blackberries plucked from city parks. The efforts have taken on a timeliness in the midst of the recession as cities look for ways to fill lots that aren't being developed and provide healthy, inexpensive food. Indeed, the original "victory garden" was planted by Eleanor Roosevelt on the White House lawn in the waning years of the Great Depression to serve as a model for rugged self reliance.

Newsom plans to go a step further by also requiring the city departments serve only high-quality food. Within two months, he'll send an ordinance to the city's Board of Supervisors mandating that all food served in city jails, hospitals, homeless shelters, and community centers be safe, healthy, and sustainable. Of course, the switch will be much easier in San Francisco, which consumes a million tons of food a year but has 20 tons available within a 200 mile raidius, than it would in say, New York. Still, there's no reason an apple tree couldn't also thrive on a sidewalk in Brooklyn.

The Drug War Down South

The Washington Post reports on the drug war south of the border:

The Mexican army has carried out forced disappearances, acts of torture and illegal raids in pursuit of drug traffickers, according to documents and interviews with victims, their families, political leaders and human rights monitors.

....Mexican officials acknowledged that abuses have occurred in the fight against traffickers but described the cases as isolated...."I know that the armed forces are not acting inappropriately, although there have been some cases," said Interior Minister Fernando Gómez Mont, who is responsible for coordinating security operations across Mexico. "The government honestly believes that. There is no incentive for abuse."

No incentive? How about money?

There is the one reported by the US press, a place where the Mexican president is fighting a valiant war on drugs, aided by the Mexican Army and the Mérida Initiative, the $1.4 billion in aid the United States has committed to the cause. This Mexico has newspapers, courts, laws, and is seen by the United States government as a sister republic.

It does not exist.

There is a second Mexico where the war is for drugs, where the police and the military fight for their share of drug profits, where the press is restrained by the murder of reporters and feasts on a steady diet of bribes, and where the line between the government and the drug world has never existed.

Read the rest in "We Bring Fear," part of our cover package on the drug war in the current issue of MoJo.  The Mexican army's incentives should become pretty clear.

Time Goes Gaga for Palin

In a classic example of newsmagazine overthink, Time profiles Sarah Palin with a cover story that practically celebrates her thin résumé and essentially makes the case that know-nothingism could be good for America. Seriously:

Palin's unconventional step speaks to an ingrained frontier skepticism of authority — even one's own. Given the plunging credibility of institutions and élites, that's a mood that fits the Palin brand. Résumés ain't what they used to be; they count only with people who trust credentials — a dwindling breed. The mathematics Ph.D.s who dreamed up economy-killing derivatives have pretty impressive résumés. The leaders of congressional committees and executive agencies have decades of experience — at wallowing in red ink, mismanaging economic bubbles and botching covert intelligence.

If ever there has been a time to gamble on a flimsy résumé, ever a time for the ultimate outsider, this might be it. "We have so little trust in the character of the people we elected that most of us wouldn't invite them into our homes for dinner, let alone leave our children alone in their care," writes talk-show host Glenn Beck in his book Glenn Beck's Common Sense, a pox-on-all-their-houses fusillade at Washington. Dashed off in a fever of disillusionment with those in power, Beck's book is selling like vampire lit, with more than 1 million copies in print.

Citing Glenn Beck as proof that many Americans are eager to turn to a pol with little expertise in national policy? But didn't the country just have an election? And didn't a significant majority vote for the guy with two Ivy League degrees who talked about bringing professionalism, science, and expertise back to policymaking in Washington? (Anyone remember Palin's climate change denialism? Not the Time people.)

The Time crew obviously was punching up the subject matter so it could punch up the copy—and sell magazines. One dramatic theme in the piece is that Palin is pure Alaska and that to know her—really know her—you have to know Alaska and the rugged individualism and practical fatalism this far-away land breeds in its denizens:

Palin's breakneck trajectory from rising star to former officeholder — with more twists sure to come — has everything to do with her Alaskan context.

Only to a degree. The sole reason most Americans know anything about Palin is that a fellow from Arizona picked her to be his running mate. Without that, she would still be the answer to a political trivia question. So, obviously, it was the unique and rough-hewn libertarian frontier spirit of the American Southwest, where lone riders settled on arid plains to escape the confining conventions of back-East civilization, that was responsible for Palin's comet-like ascent to public prominence. Or maybe not. Perhaps it was just John McCain's bad judgment.

Without breathlessness and a contrary-for contrary's-sake thesis, Time would not have much to add to all the words spilled and spewed about the Palin pull-out. But give the newsmagazine credit. Through the efforts of five of its talented journalists, Time has managed to craft a more coherent depiction of Palin and her decision to resign than she has herself. So what's her beef with the media?

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

Australian Town Bans Bottled Water

Residents of Bundanoon, New South Wales, Australia have voted to ban the sale of bottled water in their rural town—probably the first in the world to do so. Only two voters opposed the ban. Why?

Bundanoon's battle against the bottle has been brewing for years, ever since a Sydney-based beverage company announced plans to build a water extraction plant in the town. Residents were furious over the prospect of an outsider taking their water, trucking it up to Sydney for processing and then selling it back to them. The town is still fighting the company's proposal in court.

In other words, bottling water wastes an incredible amount of resources—natural and capital. (Producing the bottles for the American market requires 17 million barrels of oil; three liter of water are needed to produce a liter of bottled water.) So officials in Bundanoon will install more drinking fountains and encourage residents to use them to fill reusable water bottles for free.

I hope something like this catches on elsewhere. It's certainly possible. When San Francisco announced it would ban businesses from giving out plastic bags for free, some store owners griped it would hurt their bottom lines because paper bags are more expensive than plastic. But walk in to any Trader Joe's or Walgreens and you'll see a majority customers bringing their own bags or reusing them from previous trips.

That's the power of a collective mindset, albeit one driven in part by a law. Of course, there are other benefits to reusable bags, the least of which is not having to dedicate a cupboard to a heap of plastic stamped with CVS's logo.

But there are more potent incentives to banning bottled water. For one, the environmental benefit is greater (Americans recycle less than seven percent of their plastic, compared to 55 percent of the paper they use.) To me, though, the most potent incentive is purely economic: Part of the reason we pay taxes is so that we have clean drinking water. Whenever I buy a bottle of water, I feel like I'm doing something incredibly irrational, spending money on something for which there exists a free and arguably better substitute—tap water.

Eco-news Roundup: Thursday July 9

Blue Marblish stories from our other blogs you might have missed.

Healthcare Pitfalls: A public plan might mean cuts for those with severe health problems.

411 on G8: World leaders at G8 summit fail to agree on climate change goals.

Placebo Effect: There are lots of treatments for cancer, but not a lot of data on results.

Justice, Iranian Style: Torture and interrogations are now common, say sources.

You Can't Catch Black: Inner-city kids booted out of pool because white guests were scared.

Numerical Oddity: Today the clock will strike 12:34:56... on 7/8/9.