Asian Mercury Crossing the Ocean

A fascinating new study documents for the first time how mercury gets from smokestacks in Asia to tuna on dinner tables in America. Scientists sampled Pacific Ocean water from 16 sites between Honolulu and Alaska, then constructed a computer model linking atmospheric emissions, transport and deposition of mercury, and ocean circulation.

Their findings published in Global Biogeochemical Cycles show how mercury originating from fossil-fuel-burning plants and waste-burning plants in Asia falls into the Pacific Ocean near the Asian coastline. The mercury-enriched waters are then carried by large ocean currents east towards North America.

The study documents for the first time something of the mysterious process by which mercury becomes methylmercury in the ocean. The simple version: Mercury rained down from the atmosphere is taken up by phytoplankton living in sunlit waters. When these plankton die they rain down into the depths where they're decomposed by bacteria. The process of decomposition turns mercury into methylmercury.

Methylmercury is an environmental neurotoxicant that rapidly bioaccumulates in the foodweb, eventually concentrating in top-tier predators like tunas and humans. Some 40 percent of human exposure to mercury in the US comes from eating tuna hunted in the Pacific Ocean. Pregnant women who consume mercury-laden seafood can pass on life-long developmental effects to their children.

Since the Industrial Revolution anthropogenic mercury levels in the atmosphere have risen threefold, with corresponding increases in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. This study found mercury levels in water samples rose an alarming 30 percent between the mid 1990s and 2006. That's hardly the end of it though. The authors predict another 50 percent increase in the Pacific by 2050 if emission rates continue as projected.

Yet another reason to we can't tread water on fossil fuels. Too bad Australia's Kevin Rudd just did a spineless jellyfish backflip on climate change. As if the economy is disconnected from the environment.
 

Shell Won't Have To Pay for Pesticide Mess

Taxpayers, get ready to spend more to clean up hazardous-waste sites. With a precedent-setting decision, the Supreme Court just made it a little easier for companies who are involved in environmental contamination to pass the buck to the government.

Here's what happened: Shell Oil sold millions of dollars worth of pesticides to an agricultural company called Brown & Bryant, which stored the chemicals improperly. Later, the company went out of business, and it was discovered that those cheicals had contaminated the nearby land, which was later designated a Superfund site.

Treehugger points out that this case raises some interesting (and potentially troubling) questions about corporate culpability:

...once a company sells hazardous chemicals, is it responsible for ensuring they're kept safe? Or is it out of their hands entirely? Should companies that lease land to businesses that have potentially dangerous environmental practices be responsible for the safeguarding of that land? Or should the government have to pick up the tab in unfortunate situations like this[?]

 

 

More on Religious Freedom and Same Sex Marriage

A la Kevin's earlier post, we really do have lots to think about in terms of the fall out from same-sex marriage. I'm a supporter, but I have to admit, I'm having a hard time thinking through the externalities. Which is exactly what we must all do. From the op-ed at issue:

Make Billionaires Pay Taxes? Say It Ain't So!

Republican members of Congress must enjoy pathetic approval ratings, because they're apparently already raising hell about President Obama’s call for a Congressional crackdown on offshore tax havens. And what could beat the populist appeal of standing up for thieving billionaires! Obama figures his get-tough approach (see below) could bring the Treasury an extra $210 billion over ten years. Obama, of course, is a pragmatist. Last time we touched base with Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat, he was blaming the tax cheats for Treasury losses of $100 billion—per year.

As chair of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Levin was then looking into dubious dealings by international banking conglomerate UBS—where our old pal Phil Gramm served as a vice chairman soon after pushing through legislation that brought down the economy. Another investigative target was IGT, the Liechtenstein bank owned by that principality's royal family. "The IRS doesn't have the money, the time, or the legal tools it needs to stop offshore abuses," Levin told Mojo contributor Peter Stone, who wrote this piece on offshore tax shenanigans for our November/December 2008 issue.

 

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has become the woman the right loves to hate--to the point that bloggers, talk show hosts, and right-wing groups are jumping aboard a new "dump Janet" movement.

Anyone old enough to remember the the Clinton administration should have seen this one coming. Bill Clinton’s Attorney General, Janet Reno, was second only to Hillary on the list of conservatives’ most-loathed women–and for the far right, Reno quickly moved into the #1 slot after the Waco debacle, which took place during the first year of her tenure. Waco provided fuel for radical far-right movements for years to come: It aided the growth of the Militia Movement, and was cited by Timothy McVeigh as a reason for the Oklahoma City bombing, which took place on its second anniversary.

Janet Napolitano’s transgressions are hardly in the same league as Waco. But there’s a kind of perverse symmetry in the fact that it is a half-baked, ill-timed report on “right-wing extremism” that's helped cement Napolitano’s status as the most-reviled woman in the new Democratic administration. The April 7 Department of Homeland Security report warned law enforcement officials that the economic crisis, plus the election of a black president, were likely to aid the recruiting efforts of far-right groups. 

As I’ve written before, the report was dangerously vague and speculative, and should make civil libertarians of all stripes nervous. But it was aimed at the violent, radical far-right movement, not at mainstream or even hard-core conservatives. Yet it became a rallying point for right-wing pundits and talk radio hosts, and was brandished at ”tea parties” later that month. And at the center of it all was Janet Napolitano.

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After the story of the DHS report broke, the Drudge Report featured a picture of Napolitano above the line, “SHE IS WATCHING YOU.” Within a week, Newsmax was reporting on Republicans who had “taken to the House floor to criticize Napolitano.” The ever-present Michele Bachmann asked: “Has this homeland security secretary gone absolutely stark raving mad?” and said of Napolitano: ”She needs to come before Congress. She needs to answer a few questions.” Texas’s Michael Burgess said her actions reflected “the tactics of tyrannical governments from Red China to Venezuela.” 

Further to the right, the attacks were even more vicious (and often racist, misogynistic, and homophobic), and more explicit about the Reno parallel. The blog Theodore’s World, which proclaims itself a “PC Free Zone” recently featured side-by-side head shots of the two Janets–Napolitano and Reno–with the caption “Fascist Wench’s” (sic). The whacked-out Plain Truth blog cited Waco (for which it says Reno and Bill Clinton should be hanged) and asked: “Is Janet Napolitano in some danse macabre with Janet Reno to beat her bloody record and up the ante by aiming at veterans and others whose patriotism would never be questioned by sane people?”

Then came the swine flu outbreak. Right-wingers, already unhappy with Napolitano for her perceived softness on illegal immigration, now accused her of placing U.S. lives at risk by refusing to close the Mexican border. This offered them an opportunity to simultaneously attack two of their favorite targets: Napolitano and immigrants–as talk radio’s Michael Savage did last week:

Bankers and Congress

The power of the financial lobby, even in the wake of an epic economic collapse fueled largely by its own excesses, never ceases to amaze.  The current front, of course, is a Senate proposal to curb credit card abuses.  Mike Lillis of the Washington Independent reports:

The proposal, sponsored by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), would prohibit rate hikes on existing balances, give cardholders longer notice to pay their bills, and prevent card companies from charging fees when customers pay their bills on time.

....A similar credit card reform proposal, sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), passed the House easily last week, but the Senate bill goes even further to protect card users from unexplained fees and surprise rate hikes. The question now on the minds of many anxious consumer and lending advocates is this: How strong can Senate Democrats keep those consumer protections and still have the bill pass the upper chamber?

....For consumers, there’s a great deal hinging on what credit card reform provisions the Senate can pass. The Maloney bill in the House, for example, allows card companies to hike rates on existing balances when the borrower is more than 30 days late on a payment. The Dodd bill, by contrast, prevents retroactive rate increases in all cases. An analysis conducted by The National Consumer Law Center found that roughly 10 million Americans would still be vulnerable to those retroactive hikes if Maloney’s version of the provision were adopted instead of Dodd’s.

Really, this is beyond belief.  Retroactive rate hikes on existing balances are indefensible under any circumstances.  A third grader on a playground would understand why.  Despite this, every single effort to ban the practice has failed.  Over and over and over, they've failed.  And now, even with the finance industry on its knees, hated and despised for its lavish compensation packages financed by trillions in taxpayer bailout cash, there's still some question about whether Congress can pass this no-brainer of a bill.  Instead, we might end up merely banning retroactive rate hikes for 30 days.

This practice (which goes by the charming name of "universal default") should have been banned the first time it ever reared its ugly head.  The fact that there's even a chance of it continuing to survive in any form at all after the events of the past couple of years should dispel any questions about the death grip the finance industry has on American politics.  It's the smoking gun that bankers own the country.

Healthcare in Holland

So what does Russell Shorto think of Dutch healthcare after spending 18 months in Amsterdam?

My nonscientific analysis — culled from my own experience and that of other expats whom I’ve badgered — translates into a clear endorsement. My friend Colin Campbell, an American writer, has been in the Netherlands for four years with his wife and their two children. “Over the course of four years, four human beings end up going to a lot of different doctors,” he said. “The amazing thing is that virtually every experience has been more pleasant than in the U.S. There you have the bureaucracy, the endless forms, the fear of malpractice suits. Here you just go in and see your doctor. It shows that it doesn’t have to be complicated. I wish every single U.S. congressman could come to Amsterdam and live here for a while and see what happens medically.”

Amen to that.  But there's also this:

One downside of a collectivist society, of which the Dutch themselves complain, is that people tend to become slaves to consensus and conformity. I asked a management consultant and a longtime American expat, Buford Alexander, former director of McKinsey & Company in the Netherlands, for his thoughts on this. “If you tell a Dutch person you’re going to raise his taxes by 500 euros and that it will go to help the poor, he’ll say O.K.,” he said. “But if you say he’s going to get a 500-euro tax cut, with the idea that he will give it to the poor, he won’t do it. The Dutch don’t do such things on their own. They believe they should be handled by the system. To an American, that’s a lack of individual initiative.”

I actually ran into that once myself.  Back in my marketing days, I was once in charge of a product launch that, among other things, included a contest for the salesperson who sold the greatest amount of our new gift to the high-tech world.  Pretty standard stuff.  So I went on the road for a couple of weeks presenting the new product to our distributors in the U.S. and Europe, and everything went basically as expected until I got to the Netherlands.  They didn't like the contest.  Why?  Because it singled out a single individual who did especially well, and this was unfair since sales was a team effort.  They wanted a contest that rewarded whichever group sold the most stuff.  And they were pretty serious about this.  They really, really didn't like the idea of a single person being held up as an individual success.

I've always remembered this as a good example of how ingrained our own cultural predilictions are.  At the time this happened I'd been dealing with European distributors and resellers for over a decade, so I was already pretty familiar with the various cultural differences in how sales teams worked.  But this one came out of nowhere.  It never occurred to me for even a second that anyone would object to a sales contest.  Why, it's as American as apple pie!  Which, it turned out, was exactly true.

On the other hand, no one else had a problem with it.  Only the Dutch.  And it still strikes me as an odd attitude.  But they run a pretty nice country over there, so I guess it works pretty well for them.

More here from Steve Aquino.

Religious Freedom

Should a Baptist minister be required to marry a gay couple?  Of course not.  Should an adoption service run by the Catholic church be required to place children in gay households?  Probably not.  Andrew Sullivan asks the obvious followup:

But how far do you go? Should a Catholic caterer, for example, be able to refuse to provide food for a second marriage? My own view is: yes. But then I'm a libertarian in many ways. I see protecting religious freedom in the civil sphere as a core principle. And by exposing such religious prejudice so baldly, and allowing the market to disadvantage the bigoted, we may even help jump-start the conversations that will eventually persuade people that they're wrong.

God knows, if Andrew is OK with this, I suppose I should be.  And I think there's a strong case to be made that in practice this might not be a big deal.  After all, do same-sex couples really want to hire photographers and caterers who make it clear they loathe them?  Probably not.  But then, you might have asked the same thing 50 years ago: do Southern blacks really want to eat at lunch counters where they obviously aren't welcome?  As it turned out, yes.

This has become the latest front in the gay marriage wars, and I'd be careful about ceding too much ground here.  Laws guaranteeing religious freedom are fine as long as they cover actual religious practice.  But once they start covering bog ordinary commercial establishments that don't have even a tenuous connection to a church and want to discriminate merely because they don't like gays — well, that's a line that gets pretty hard to draw pretty fast.   What's worse, in some places it's a line that would essentially take over entire towns.  If a caterer can refuse to sell me a wedding cake just because I'm gay — despite state law that would normally outlaw such discrimination — can a landlord refuse to rent me and my newly married partner an apartment despite fair housing laws saying he has to?

I haven't thought this through in a lot of detail, but I'm uncomfortable extending these "religious freedom" exemptions beyond actual religious establishments.  I'm all for compromise that turns down the volume on the culture wars, but once these laws are in place they run the risk of cementing bigoted practices in place for years or decades longer than they'd otherwise survive.  Count me as a skeptic that, in the long run, this is workable.

Awakening Update

The Sunni Awakening played a major role in the reduction of violence in Iraq in 2007 and 2008, as Sunni tribes that had been fighting the government turned their attention to fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq instead.  So how's that working out?  In Anbar Province, Liz Sly of the LA Times reports that things look pretty hopeful:

"The Awakening is an economic and political entity now, and our strategy is financial and economic," said Abu Risha, who has led the Awakening since his brother's assassination in 2007....Here in Anbar province, birthplace of the Awakening movement, the Sunni Arab paramilitaries who turned their guns on fellow Sunni insurgents have become the government.

....It promises to be quite a transformation for a movement that started out in 2006 as a tribal uprising against the insurgents who had sought to impose a vicious interpretation of Islamic law on the western desert province. Photographs on Abu Risha's wall show his slain brother, Abdul-Sattar, who founded the movement, dressed in robes, slung with bullets and surrounded by Kalashnikov-wielding militiamen.

In Baghdad and Mosul, however, the London Times reports that the news is grim:

A leading member of the Political Council of Iraqi Resistance, which represents six Sunni militant groups, said: “The resistance has now returned to the field and is intensifying its attacks against the enemy. The number of coalition forces killed is on the rise.”

The increase in attacks by such groups, combined with a spate of bombings blamed on Al-Qaeda, has had a chilling effect on the streets of Iraq. More than 370 Iraqi civilians and military — and 80 Iranian pilgrims — lost their lives in April, making it the bloodiest month since last September. On Wednesday, five car bombs exploded in a crowded market in Sadr City, Baghdad, killing 51 people and injuring 76. Three US soldiers were killed on Thursday and two more yesterday when a gunman in Iraqi army uniform opened fire near Mosul.

Broadly speaking, this is the result of a missed opportunity.  The point of the surge was to provide "breathing space" for political reconciliation, but Nouri al-Maliki, for reasons that are ultimately unknowable, either couldn't or wouldn't take advantage of it.  In Anbar, the Sunni tribes acquired political power and the Awakening is still a going concern.  In Baghdad, they were shut out, and violence is on the rise.

It's not clear to me that there's anything the United States can do about this.  It's true that George Bush's open-ended commitment to Iraq probably reduced the pressure on Maliki to make concessions to the Sunnis — after all, why bother if the Americans are going to be around forever to protect you? — but aside from that Petraeus and Crocker and the rest of the Bush team worked pretty hard to press Maliki into coming up with a political settlement that was broadly agreeable to all.  He didn't.  American influence just wasn't enough to make a difference then, and it probably isn't now.  This is still, at root, a political problem, not a military one.  It's up to Maliki to solve it, not the U.S. Army.

Should We Go Dutch?

If you haven't already, read Russell Shorto's profile of the Dutch social welfare state. He extols the system's virtues—health care, subsidized child care, and not only a month of paid vacation, but a check (8 percent of your annual salary) from the government to pay for that trip to the Swiss Alps—before tugging us back to earth:

Then, too, one downside of a collectivist society, of which the Dutch themselves complain, is that people tend to become slaves to consensus and conformity. I asked a management consultant and a longtime American expat, Buford Alexander, former director of McKinsey & Company in the Netherlands, for his thoughts on this. “If you tell a Dutch person you’re going to raise his taxes by 500 euros and that it will go to help the poor, he’ll say O.K.,” he said. “But if you say he’s going to get a 500-euro tax cut, with the idea that he will give it to the poor, he won’t do it. The Dutch don’t do such things on their own. They believe they should be handled by the system. To an American, that’s a lack of individual initiative.”

Another corollary of collectivist thinking is a cultural tendency not to stand out or excel. “Just be normal” is a national saying, and in an earlier era children were taught, in effect, that “if you were born a dime, you’ll never be a quarter” — the very antithesis of the American ideal of upward mobility.

I read those two paragraphs and immediately thought, "Knowing that, can we really achieve something like universal health care here?" For a second, my answer was "No, we can't." Even a lefty like me shudders at the idea an individual born a dime can't become a quarter, to borrow Shorto's phrase. Most Americans, myself included, believe in an equality of opportunity, but not of outcome. I like the idea that I do not have to be normal; I can take risks and excel.