After last week's organic food online forum, we're ready for the next course. This week's topic: recycling and waste. The modern recycling movement got its start alongside the first Earth Day, nearly 40 years ago this week. Since then, recycling's gone mainstream: Americans now recycle and compost a third of their trash, up from just 6 percent in 1970. Yet, as detailed in the current issue of Mother Jones, we're generating more waste than ever before. In just 5 minutes, we use another 1,060,000 aluminum cans, 2 million plastic bottles, and 15 million sheets of paper. We're still drowning in plastic, New York recycles only a fifth of its garbage, and trash haulers still find landfill more profitable than recycling. Then consider that municipal solid waste—that's the stuff that fills our home garbage cans and office paper bins—is just 2.5 percent of our total "Gross National Trash" output. While we've been agonizing over whether our plastic yogurt lids can be recycled, have we been missing the big picture? Is recycling giving us a false sense that we're solving our waste problem?

We put that question to four experts: Elizabeth Royte, Eric Lombardi, Annie Leonard, and Susan Strasser. Check out some highlights from their answers below the jump. Or head on over to our recycling online forum, which kicks off today. For the rest of this week, our panelists will be checking in to respond to readers, discuss and debate the future of recycling and waste, and perhaps even solve the mystery of the yogurt lid.

I spoke too soon.  Sorry Atrios!  The real quote of the day comes from Jane Harman (D–Calif.), caught on tape during an NSA wiretap:

“This conversation doesn’t exist.”

You just know that any conversation that ends this way can't be good.  Here's the backstory from CQ:

Rep. Jane Harman , the California Democrat with a longtime involvement in intelligence issues, was overheard on an NSA wiretap telling a suspected Israeli agent that she would lobby the Justice Department to reduce espionage-related charges against two officials of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, the most powerful pro-Israel organization in Washington.

Harman was recorded saying she would “waddle into” the AIPAC case “if you think it’ll make a difference,” according to two former senior national security officials familiar with the NSA transcript.

In exchange for Harman’s help, the sources said, the suspected Israeli agent pledged to help lobby Nancy Pelosi , D-Calif., then-House minority leader, to appoint Harman chair of the Intelligence Committee after the 2006 elections, which the Democrats were heavily favored to win.

Harman vigorously denies that anything of the sort happened.  Conversely, CQ reports that not only does the conversation exist, but that then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales stopped the probe of Harman because he wanted her support for the NSA wiretapping program, which was under fire at the time.

Juicy!  So I wonder who leaked this?

Life in the Golden State:

California voters routinely use the ballot box to approve big spending on big things — canals and superhighways, light-rail systems, levees and social programs.

Now, with the state struggling financially, they're being asked to do some ballot box demolition.

State lawmakers fighting to escape a riptide of budgetary red ink have two propositions on the May 19 special election ballot that would yank more than $2 billion from a pair of popular programs that help some of the state's most vulnerable: young children and the mentally ill.

This is one of the reasons I loathe the initiative process these days.  Take Proposition 1E.  It asks me if I'd like to temporarily transfer some funds earmarked for mental health services to the general fund.  The amount at stake is a little over $200 million per year.

This is ridiculous.  I have no idea if this is a good idea or not, and for a trivial sum like this I'm not about to spend hours poring over ballot arguments.  It's like having a municipal initiative here in Irvine to decide if we want to plant a new tree in front of city hall.  But year after year, we keep passing these absurd initiatives because, after all, they're all for a good cause.  Education!  Mental health!  Children's hospitals!  Bullet trains!

Bah.  This is why we elect a legislature.  Unfortunately, thanks to some even earlier initiative nonsense, the California legislature is unable to actually pass a budget during a recession.  Our current pile of six initiatives (1A through 1F, for some reason or another) is on the ballot solely because one (!) member of the state senate extorted them as the price for his vote on a compromise bill to raise some taxes and cut some spending a couple of months ago.  So now we have a special election, at a cost of God knows what, so that the good people of California can decide, among other things, whether to move 0.2% of the state budget from one account to another.


From Atrios, after attending a technology conference:

I do think there's a tremendous not very understood generation gap forming between those who grew up online and those who didn't, along with the class-based digital divide within generations.

I agree!  And lately I've been wondering if this is quite as benign as I used to think.  Mysteriously, however, I'l have to leave it at that.  More later, maybe.

Good News, Bad News

The bad news: no blogging from me on Sunday.  Sorry about that.  The good news: in its place, several thousand steaming words on marijuana legalization were produced for the summer issue of the magazine.  You can't wait to read them, can you?

By coincidence, one of the things I puzzled over a bit while I was researching my piece was the total size of the cannabis business in the United States.  Basically, the numbers I saw didn't seem to make much sense, but since I wasn't planning to use them anyway I didn't bother trying to track down the problem.  Perhaps in honor of 4/20, though, Michael Hiltzik did it for me:

Let's start, as [Jon] Gettman did, with a standard quantification of U.S. domestic cultivation today: 10,000 metric tons, or 22 million pounds. This figure has a curious history. It first appeared in a 2003 report by the Bush White House. Yet, as Gettman observed, that was nearly triple the estimate of 3,500 metric tons the feds had been using for years.

....The government backpedaled in 2007, when the Justice Department estimated the domestic crop at 5,650 to 9,417 metric tons. That's a huge margin — like saying the distance from L.A. to New York is between 1,000 and 6,000 miles.

....Gettman acknowledges that concrete information is exceedingly scarce in this field. "When you drill down, the only hard fact is they seize a lot of plants," he said.

The "soft facts" include the size in dollars of the U.S. marijuana market. Gettman's 2007 estimate of $113 billion is in the stratosphere compared with some others. In a 2001 report, the federal government pegged the black market at $10.5 billion, a discrepancy that suggests either that we became a nation of total potheads over the following few years, that pot prices experienced an inflation rate that would make the rise in college tuition look sick, or that somebody's numbers are way off.

In other words, no one really knows.  Which doesn't surprise me.  One of the things I've found out over the past few weeks is that virtually all of the research related to cannabis is, perhaps fittingly, sort of hazy.  The research is hard to do, it often points in contradictory directions, and natural experiments are hard to come by.  We know a fair amount, but our confidence level in what we know isn't all that great.

But enjoy 4/20 anyway.  Just don't blog while high, OK?

Hello again from La Quinta, where we've just returned from what may have been the most action-packed day of the 2009 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. In tonight's exciting edition: Giant creepy eyeballs! Rock star friends have a moment in the sun! And unsuspecting festivalgoers have their ears melted from their heads! Most importantly, we kind of snuck out a little early tonight after our traumatic parking lot experience last night, so hopefully this wrapup will be a little less muddled. Click "more" to jump in.

Welcome to night two of Mother Jones' blanket coverage of the Coachella Valley Music and Art Festival! In tonight's exciting edition: Oodles of star sightings! Endless traffic jams! A major cancellation! And apparently M.I.A. reads the Riff! It's 2:00 a.m. and we've just made it back to our lovely rental crib, so my apologies for poorly grammar, nonsensical metaphors like palm trees on fire, or sentences that don't. Click "more" only if those things don't matter to you.


Blue Girl comments on recent research showing that phthalates (substances added to plastics to increase their flexibility, pronounced THAL-ates) may be one of the causes of skyrocketing childhood obesity:

I spent a significant portion of a 24-year career in endocrine research. In the first fifteen years, I did not see a single case of Type II [diabetes] in a juvenile.  Toward the end, I routinely taught diabetic education counseling classes that were geared exclusively to groups of teenagers....That is a lot of diabetic kids.  And what I can tell you anecdotally is that every single one of the things that have gotten the blame for the epidemic I have observed to exist, so this is a 'big picture' problem if ever there was one.    

Diet and exercise can not be discounted, we have always had chubby kids who didn't eat a proper diet or get enough exercise, but very few were considered obese, and literally none of them were diagnosed with Type II diabetes, a disorder of the endocrine system....But we can't overlook the revolution in food packaging over the last thirty years or so, either.  When I was a kid, in the 60s and 70s, soda pop (which wasn't made from corn syrup back then) came in aluminum cans or glass bottles, not in plastic; and meat came in butcher paper, not polystyrene trays and plastic wrap.

Childhood obesity is far higher than it used to be, but it's not brand new: there have always been kids who were sedentary and ate lots of crappy food.  But 30 years ago, these kids just got flabby, they didn't get diabetes.  Today they do, and it's possible that phthalates may play a role in this.  More research, please.

Matt Yglesias passes along an email from a reader:

One interesting thing about how much Fox news and friends are covering these tea parties is that it’s illustrative how much conservatism has been transformed from a political movement into an entertainment demographic. Political movements, I would think, are defined by a common set of semi-coherent policies and proposals that movement sympathizers hope to see implemented by government. Entertainment demographics are defined by shared tastes or predilections that media companies can target for ratings.

Actually, doesn't this apply to all politics these days?  Bob Somerby has been on a tear recently against the snark-based lefty shows on MSNBC hosted by Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, for example, and although I don't buy his entire argument, he does have a point.  Unfortunately, this is just the way things are.  An old saying says that politics is  show business for ugly people, but in the past this mainly meant that politicians themselves were showmen at heart.  Today, though, with the rise of Rush Limbaugh and Crossfire and CSPAN and Fox News and Drudge and Politico and Jon Stewart and now MSNBC, the entire enterprise is thoroughly infused with the ethos of Hollywood.  Like it or not, liberals had to get with the program or die.

Given the fact that virtually everything in the world has been entertainment-ized these days, it's hard to see how politics could have avoided this fate.  Finance is entertainment.  Cooking is entertainment.  Science is entertainment.  Real estate is entertainment.  Sports has always been entertainment.  Hell, entertainment itself is having a hard time competing these days.  What are the odds that politics, of all thing, could have bucked this trend?

I guess about zero.  After all, it's a better way of making money.  Paddy Chayefsky was right all along.

A couple of days ago I asked why Goldman Sachs was paying back its TARP money even though it also had an outstanding $5 billion investment from Warren Buffett on far more onerous terms.  Why not pay Buffett back instead?  What's more, why do a risky capital raising first?  If they're really well capitalized already, why not just pay back the money immediately?

A reader appears to have the all-too-obvious answer: they can't.  The terms of the TARP agreement say this about repurchasing shares other than the Senior Preferred shares issued by the Treasury:

The [Treasury's] consent shall be required for any share repurchases [...] until the third anniversary of the date of this investment unless prior to such third anniversary the Senior Preferred is redeemed in whole or the [Treasury] has transferred all of the Senior Preferred to third parties.

So until they pay back the TARP money, they can't repurchase Buffett's shares.  As for the capital raising, there's this:

Senior Preferred may not be redeemed for a period of three years from the date of this investment, except with the proceeds from a Qualified Equity Offering (as defined below) which results in aggregate gross proceeds [...] of not less than 25% of the issue price of the Senior Preferred.

Goldman got $10 billion in TARP money, and they weren't allowed to pay it back unless they raised at least $2.5 billion first.  So that's what they did.

Unless I'm missing something, this appears to answer all my questions.  Goldman paid back the TARP money first because they were required to, and they raised money before doing it because they had to do that too.  Mystery solved.