2008's Best Photographs

| Mon Dec. 29, 2008 3:19 PM EST

They're up at and they are spectacular. Check out parts one, two (the first photo at that link is amazing), and three. You can find all of Mother Jones' photojournalism here.

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*Quote of the Day - 12.29.08

| Mon Dec. 29, 2008 2:46 PM EST

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Marcia Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine:

It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines.

That is her conclusion in a review essay published in The New York Review of Books. Click the link to learn what it's based on.

Bailout Bonanza

| Mon Dec. 29, 2008 2:44 PM EST

In these days of economic turmoil many Americans are worried about staying employed and keeping up with mortgage payments, but one group of former government officials is struggling just to keep pace with an influx of new business opportunities. This "tight-knit" cadre, reports the New York Times, are veterans of the savings and loan bailout of the 1990s who helped to set up and run the Resolution Trust Corporation. These officials have since moved on to the private sector as "private lawyers, investors and lobbyists" and are currently seeking ways to cash in on the economic crisis. According to the Times:

With $700 billion in bailout money up for grabs, and billions of dollars worth of bad debt or failed bank assets most likely headed for sale or auction, these former officials are helping their clients get a piece of the bailout money or the chance to buy, at fire-sale prices, some of the bank assets taken over by the federal government.


| Mon Dec. 29, 2008 1:38 PM EST

UNIONS....Ezra Klein on unions:

The last great leap forward for unions was during World War II, and the last great expansion of the American middle class followed in its aftermath. In contrast, the most recent expansions — which have largely occurred in the absence of unions — have benefited America's rich.

Yep. And if there's one thing you definitely can't blame our current economic crisis on, it's spiraling middle class wages. In fact, there's a pretty good case to be made that stronger middle class wage growth would have reduced the motivation to borrow so heavily, which is a big contributing factor to the depth of the recesson we're facing now. (It also might have kept a little more money out of the hands of idiot Wall Street bankers, which would have been no bad thing either.)

Unions are hardly a panacea for middle class wage growth, but they can help. I'm pretty open to the idea that Mickey Kaus has been writing about lately, namely that mushrooming work rules are a specific problem for American-style unionization, and I'd be happy to see good-faith efforts to address reform in that area. Unfortunately, good faith is in very short supply in the anti-union camp. Conservatives flatly oppose anything that gives labor any additional bargaining power, full stop, and that doesn't leave much room for compromise. So unions it is. Especially in the service sector, they're pretty much the only idea on the table for seriously addressing low-end wage growth, and that means I'm for 'em.


| Mon Dec. 29, 2008 12:53 PM EST

GAZA....Richard Boudreaux of the LA Times writes that Israel's goals in the Gaza Strip are vanishingly limited:

Instead of boasting that they would "destroy" the enemy, as they did in the case of Lebanon, Israeli leaders set the more modest aim of "improving the security" of terrorized Israeli communities.

...."The army doesn't even have the pretense of neutralizing Hamas' ability to launch rockets. We have tried that before and failed," said Alon Ben-David, military correspondent for Israel's Channel 10 television.

"This operation," he explained, "is directed at Hamas' motivation to fire rockets at Israel rather than its actual ability to do so."

....And it remains to be seen whether Israeli leaders have prepared adequately for the complications that may lie ahead if their army launches a ground campaign against Hamas' 15,000-man paramilitary force, which has drawn its own lessons from Hezbollah's success in the Lebanon war.

If the point of the Gaza offensive is truly just to hit Hamas hard enough that they basically give up, then it strikes me as possibly even more poorly thought out than the Lebanon war. But on the larger issue of what the U.S. response should be, I'm keenly aware of Jonathan Zasloff's point in this post:

All those who insist that the United States should "solve" the problem should explain how. And if they can't do that, then maybe they should take some quiet time.

I doubt very much that the Israeli offensive will do them any good in the long term. But it's also not clear to me exactly what the way forward is at this point. So, for the most part, I'll stay quiet. Needless to say, plenty of other people won't, so I'm sure my voice won't be missed.

Paging Meg Ryan

| Mon Dec. 29, 2008 12:08 PM EST

PAGING MEG RYAN....Something I've long suspected has finally been Proven By Science: romantic comedies are bad for you:

According to a few enterprising social scientists at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, romantic comedies can raise unrealistic romantic expectations among fans and may therefore set them up for personal failure and a lifetime of disappointment.

....After sifting through 200 of the top-grossing romantic comedies to come out of the Big Six Hollywood studios between 1995 and 2005, [Bjarne] Holmes and his colleagues found some interesting common denominators: In the movies, new relationships are portrayed both as exciting, as most tend to be, and offering the intimacy that usually takes years to develop in real life. Past transgressions are easily forgiven. (You cheated on me with the mailman? Big deal! I still love you; let's live happily ever after!) And finally, older, more committed relationships are frequently portrayed in a negative light, with couples bickering and backbiting. More often than not, married couples are depicted as long-suffering.

Sounds right, though I'll confess that Holmes's research methodology strikes me as absurdly thin, even by the usual standards of these things. In academic-speak, he says:

Using 294 undergraduate students, an exploratory study found an association between preference for/like of romance-oriented media and two relationship-as-destiny-oriented beliefs, belief in predestined soul mates (β = .27, p < .001) and that "mind reading is expected in relationships" (β = .21, p < .001).

In English, this means that people who liked romantic comedies also tended to idealize romance. Shocking, isn't it? Still, here's the good news: Holmes and his colleagues at the Family and Personal Relationships Lab have a continuing online project dedicated to this subject and you can participate! Just click here.

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Jim Webb Takes on Prison Reform

| Mon Dec. 29, 2008 11:51 AM EST

jim_webb_saluting.jpg Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) is about to take on one of the most thankless issues in America: prison reform. Here's the Washington Post, explaining Webb's interest:

With 2.3 million people behind bars, the United States has imprisoned a higher percentage of its population than any other nation, according to the Pew Center on the States and other groups. Although the United States has only 5 percent of the world's population, it has 25 percent of its prison population, Webb says.
A disproportionate number of those who are incarcerated are black, Webb notes. African Americans make up 13 percent of the population, but they comprise more than half of all prison inmates, compared with one-third two decades ago. Today, Webb says, a black man without a high school diploma has a 60 percent chance of going to prison.
Webb aims much of his criticism at enforcement efforts that he says too often target low-level drug offenders and parole violators, rather than those who perpetrate violence, such as gang members. He also blames policies that strip felons of citizenship rights and can hinder their chances of finding a job after release. He says he believes society can be made safer while making the system more humane and cost-effective.

It may seem like a strange passion for a former military man from a state that is 75 percent white and that, pre-Obama, was proudly conservative. But this effort may be successful precisely because people assume the gruff, hard-charging Webb is a law-and-order type. It would have less credibility if the leader on this issue came out of the Congressional Black Caucus, a scenario that would probably create wrongheaded whispers about how the priorities of likely-to-be-incarcerated young black men were being placed above America's safety. (Of course, a Senate effort couldn't be led by a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. There are currently zero black senators.)

But Webb may have to go it alone on this issue, due to the fact that anyone who suggests improving our truly lamentable prison system gets quickly labeled as "soft on crime." We'll soon see if he has the savviness and political clout to make something happen. And have no doubt, something must happen. As Mother Jones illustrated in our July/August 2008 cover package called "SLAMMED," the state of America's prisons is a disgrace, and an unsustainable one at that. If you didn't know, click the link and get educated.

Asleep at the Switch

| Mon Dec. 29, 2008 11:30 AM EST

ASLEEP AT THE SWITCH....The Washington Post reports today that during the Bush administration, OSHA pretty much shut itself down and new workplace safety regulations ground to a halt. I don't think this will come as a shock to anyone. But my favorite part of the story is this anecdote about Edwin Foulke, who took over OSHA in 2006:

Foulke quickly acquired a reputation inside the Labor Department as a man who literally fell asleep on the job: Eyewitnesses said they saw him suddenly doze off at staff meetings, during teleconferences, in one-on-one briefings, at retreats involving senior deputies, on the dais at a conference in Europe, at an award ceremony for a corporation and during an interview with a candidate for deputy regional administrator.

His top aides said they rustled papers, wore attention-getting garb, pounded the table for emphasis or gently kicked his leg, all to keep him awake. But, if these tactics failed, sometimes they just continued talking as if he were awake. "We'll be sitting there and things will fall out of his hands; people will go on talking like nothing ever happened," said a career official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to a reporter.

In an interview, Foulke denied falling asleep at work, although he said he was often tired and sometimes listened with his eyes closed.

I think "Listening With His Eyes Closed" is a great metaphor for the entire Bush era. Somebody should write a book with that title.

Wingnuttia Update

| Sun Dec. 28, 2008 2:50 PM EST

WINGNUTTIA UPDATE....Ed Yong posts this weekend on some research about what happens when people feel they have less control over their lives. The nickel version is that they tend to see patterns that don't exist, they get more superstitious, and they become ever more captivated by conspiracy theories. You can read Ed's measured, sober writeup here, or you can just take in Tim F.'s more pungent summary instead:

Anyhow, about peak wingnut theory. Republicans (and Republican bloggers) will spend at least the next two years with about as much political control as a bug in a jar. You can make your own conclusions.

Oh yes. We can. It's gonna be an entertaining era as long as this remains confined to wingnuttia. If it breaks into the mainstream media, as it did in the 90s, not so much.

Cap and Tax

| Sun Dec. 28, 2008 1:09 PM EST

CAP AND TAX....Matt Yglesias suggests that although a gasoline tax would have been a good idea 20 years ago, today it's obsolete:

Given what we've learned about the risks of catastrophic climate change, it [] seems like a concept that's been somewhat overtaken by events. A carbon tax, or a cap on greenhouse gas emissions with auctioned permits, would constitute a tax on gasoline among other things. And there's no particular reason that burning fuel in a car should be disfavored versus other carbon-intensive activities.

This is true, but it's worth noting that for technical reasons there's an argument to be made that cap-and-trade is a good solution for stationary carbon souces (primarily coal and gas fired power generating stations) while a tax is a better solution for mobile sources. A lot of this revolves around whether your favored cap-and-trade plan applies directly to fuel sources ("upstream" cap-and-trade) or to the actual emission of carbon ("downstream" cap-and-trade). Downstream is essentially impossible with cars and trucks since it's impractical to monitor hundreds of millions of carbon sources, so if that's the version of cap-and-trade you prefer, then you need to apply a different solution to the transportation sector.

In addition, it's also possible that driving should, in fact, be disfavored even compared to other sources. The elasticity of gasoline demand is very low (it's higher in the long term than in the short term, but still low in either case), which means you have to price gasoline at a very, very high level if you want to get meaningful reductions in use. In Europe, for example, gasoline is taxed at around $2-3 per gallon, which is equivalent to a carbon tax of about $1000/ton, and even the most aggressive cap-and-trade plan won't produce carbon charges remotely near this level anytime in the foreseeable future. It's arguable (though, admittedly, far from obvious) that a gasoline tax might be able to get to that range faster than a cap-and-trade plan.

I don't have any special dog in this fight. My tentative preference right now is for gasoline taxes combined with cap-and-trade for stationary sources or, possibly, for gasoline taxes in addition to a broader-based cap-and-trade plan. If we really want to reduce driving, encourage use of urban/suburban transit alternatives, and produce a revenue stream big enough to fund it, that might be what we need.