Blogs

Malaria Vaccine

| Tue Dec. 9, 2008 11:26 AM EST

MALARIA VACCINE....My morning paper reports some spectacularly good news for Africa:

A vaccine against the parasitic disease malaria cut illnesses by more than half in field trials and could be safely given with other childhood inoculations, two studies have reported.

....Malaria kills nearly 1 million people each year and sickens about 2 million others, according to estimates from the World Health Organization. Most of the deaths are among children younger than 5 in sub-Saharan Africa, the population that the vaccine targets.

More here.

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Idiocy in Illinois

| Tue Dec. 9, 2008 11:12 AM EST

IDIOCY IN ILLINOIS....I seem to recall reading somewhere recently that Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich has a 4% approval rating. So I guess he figured he had nothing to lose:

Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois was arrested on Tuesday morning and charged with corruption, including an allegation that he conspired to profit from his authority to appoint President-elect Barack Obama's successor in the United States Senate, prosecutors said.

As Mr. Blagojevich mulled the Senate appointment, prosecutors say, he discussed gaining "a substantial salary" at a nonprofit foundation or organization connected to labor unions, placing his wife on corporate boards where she might earn as much as $150,000 a year and trying to gain promises of campaign money, or even a cabinet post or ambassadorship, for himself.

A 76-page affidavit from the United States Attorney's office in Northern Illinois says Mr. Blagojevich was heard on wiretaps over the last month planning to "sell or trade Illinois' United States Senate seat vacated by Pres-elect Barack Obama for financial and personal benefits for himself and his wife."

....According to the statement from prosecutors, Mr. Blagojevich told an adviser last week that he might "get some (money) upfront, maybe" from one of the candidates hoping to replace Mr. Obama. That person was identified only as "Candidate 5."

In an earlier recorded conversation, prosecutors say, Mr. Blagojevich said he was approached by an associate of "Candidate 5" with an offer of $500,000 in exchange for the Senate seat.

Jeebus. Is Blagojevich also the world's biggest moron? The evidence says yes.

...And Also the Most Deluded

| Tue Dec. 9, 2008 10:52 AM EST

blagojevich-sucks.jpg Already pointed out that Blagojevich is incredibly corrupt and incredibly ballsy. He's also incredibly delusional. Look at the reasons why he was considering appointing himself to fill Obama's Senate seat. From Fitzgerald's press release:

Blagojevich also allegedly spent significant time weighing the option of appointing himself to the open Senate seat and expressed a variety of reasons for doing so, including: frustration at being "stuck" as governor; a belief that he will be able to obtain greater resources if he is indicted as a sitting Senator as opposed to a sitting governor; a desire to remake his image in consideration of a possible run for President in 2016; avoiding impeachment by the Illinois legislature; making corporate contacts that would be of value to him after leaving public office; facilitating his wife's employment as a lobbyist; and generating speaking fees should he decide to leave public office.

Really? The two bolded sentences didn't strike him as conflicting in any way? He thought, sure, if I can just get past those impeachment charges, I can run for president! I smell a new segment of "Really!?! With Seth and Amy."

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich Is the Ballsiest Governor in America

| Tue Dec. 9, 2008 10:15 AM EST

Rod_Blagojevich2.jpg The most corrupt politician in America is, apparently, also the gutsiest. Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, has been under investigation for three years because of a litany of corruption charges and has the most famous prosecutor in America, Patrick Fitzgerald, circling him — so what does he do? He embarks on an effort to literally SELL the Senate seat vacated by the president-elect. And for that, he is finally in FBI custody.

From Fitzgerald's press release, out this morning:

A 76-page FBI affidavit alleges that Blagojevich was intercepted on court-authorized wiretaps during the last month conspiring to sell or trade Illinois' U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama for financial and other personal benefits for himself and his wife. At various times, in exchange for the Senate appointment, Blagojevich discussed obtaining:

  • a substantial salary for himself at a either a non-profit foundation or an organization affiliated with labor unions;
  • placing his wife on paid corporate boards where he speculated she might garner as much as $150,000 a year;
  • promises of campaign funds —l including cash up front; and
  • a cabinet post or ambassadorship for himself.
Just last week, on December 4, Blagojevich allegedly told an advisor that he might "get some (money) up front, maybe" from Senate Candidate 5, if he named Senate Candidate 5 to the Senate seat, to insure that Senate Candidate 5 kept a promise about raising money for Blagojevich if he ran for re-election. In a recorded conversation on October 31, Blagojevich claimed he was approached by an associate of Senate Candidate 5 as follows: "We were approached 'pay to play.' That, you know, he'd raise 500 grand. An emissary came. Then the other guy would raise a million, if I made him (Senate Candidate 5) a Senator."

Sounds like some other folks are in trouble as well. Starting with "Senate Candidate 5."

Capitalize on Obamania: Obama-Biden Domains Available on eBay

| Tue Dec. 9, 2008 9:28 AM EST

In August of this year, an entrepreneurial webbie bought up a slew of domain names potentially of use to the Obama-Biden ticket (or its enemies) and tried selling them for $100,000. Looks like business wasn't so good, because three of the most useful domains — obamabiden.org, obama-biden.com, and obama-biden.org — are available on eBay now for the greatly reduced price of $1,000. GoDaddy.com and WhoIs.com do not make it clear if the same person was behind both sales.

For Obama, that thousand bucks is loose change, isn't it? Surely he can snag these three URLs before right-wingers arguing that Obama isn't a natural-born citizen make one of them the hub for eight years of conspiracy theories and rumor-mongering?

obama-biden-web.jpg

If you've got someone on your holiday wish list who would like a little piece of Obama web history, you can buy the domains at this eBay auction. You've got roughly 5 days. So far, no bids.

Race and Status

| Mon Dec. 8, 2008 11:31 PM EST

RACE AND STATUS....Blacks are often stereotyped as having lower status than whites. That won't surprise anyone. But does it work in the other direction too?

Apparently so. The LA Times reports today on a study suggesting that people are more likely to be identified as black if their status changes for the worse. In a review of data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, in which subjects are interviewed annually (biannually after 1994), a pair of researchers found that people who had been identified by interviewers in one year as white were less likely to be identified as white the next year if they were in jail, unemployed, or impoverished:

"Race isn't a characteristic that's fixed at birth," said UC Irvine sociologist Andrew Penner, one of the study's authors. "We're perceived a certain way and identify a certain way depending on widely held stereotypes about how people believe we should behave."

....For example, 10% of people previously described as white were reclassified as belonging to another race if they became incarcerated. But if they stayed out of jail, 4% were reclassified as something other than white, the study said.

I don't have any special views on the "race is a social construct" question, but this certainly suggests, at the margins at least, that social status does indeed have an effect on how race is perceived. The full study is here.

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Co2 To Ploughshares

| Mon Dec. 8, 2008 9:22 PM EST

800px-Farmer_plowing.jpg An ancient method of ploughing charred plants into the ground to revive soil may also trap greenhouse gases for thousands of years. Here's how it works: Plants absorb CO2 from the atmosphere as they grow. Burning these plants and trees in airtight conditions produces a high-carbon substance called biochar. Johannes Lehmann of Cornell estimates the carbon storage time of stable biochar could be a few thousand years, reports Reuters.

Lehmann's ambitious scenario estimates biochar could store 1 billion tons of carbon annually. That's more than 10 percent of 2007's 8.5 billion tons of global carbon emissions. His conservative scenario prescribes heating without oxygen (pyrolysis) 27 percent of the world's crop waste and ploughing it into the soil to store 0.2 billion tons of carbon a year.

According to the International Biochar Initiative, soils with biochar made by Amazon people thousands of years ago still contain up to 70 times more black carbon than surrounding soils and are still higher in nutrients. . . Two big howevers: We can't cut forests to do this and we can't avoid reducing CO2 emissions at the same time. But we can put all the little fixes together starting now.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the PEN USA Literary Award, the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal.

Risk

| Mon Dec. 8, 2008 7:33 PM EST

RISK....Brad DeLong says that, ultimately, the global stock of capital fluctuates based on five factors: (1) savings and investment, (2) good and bad news out in the real world, (3) the default discount, (4) the liquidity discount, and (5) the risk discount. The first two haven't changed recently. The third has produced about $2 trillion in mortgage losses and $4 trillion in followon recession-based losses. The fourth, thanks to heroic efforts from central banks, has had a positive impact of about $3 trillion. So in Brad's estimate, the first four factors have produced a net loss of about $3 trillion worldwide. However, total actual losses worldwide during the economic crisis of the past year have come to about $20 trillion so far:

Thus we have an impulse — a $2 trillion increase in the default discount from the problems in the mortgage market — but the thing deserving attention is the extraordinary financial accelerator that amplified $2 trillion in actual on-the-ground losses in terms of mortgage payments that will not be made into an extra $17 trillion of lost value because global investors now want to hold less risky portfolios than they wanted two years ago.

....Our models predict that in normal times, with the ability to diversify portfolios that exists today, the risk discount on assets like corporate equities should be around 1% per year. It is more like 5% per year in normal times — and more like 10% per year today. And our models for why the risk discount has taken such a huge upward leap in the past year and a half are little better than simple handwaving and just-so stories. Our current financial crisis remains largely a mystery: a $2 trillion impulse in lost value of securitized mortgages has set in motion a financial accelerator that we do not understand at any deep level but that has led to ten times the total losses in financial wealth of the impulse.

.... $2 trillion shocks to global wealth [] happen every several years, every time there is a recession or a big rise in the prices of natural resources. But financial distress of the magnitude we see today happens once a century. Since the Bank of England developed its lender of last resort doctrine in the 1830s, we have only had two episodes this bad: the Great Depression and today.

If I had to guess, I'd say the financial accelerator was so outsized this time around because of the size and scope of the uncertainty it generated. During an oil shock, say, or a dotcom bust or a Latin American default, investors have at least some idea of which investments are going to be hardest hit and — more importantly — which ones aren't. But this time around, because of the size of the initial losses and their fundamental opacity, every investment has become suspect. After all, until the global derivative chains are somehow unwound, virtually every bank, hedge fund, and corporation with any serious exposure to modern financial instruments is — maybe, possibly — bankrupt. A housing bust wouldn't normally affect IBM very hard, for example, but what if it turns out that IBM has a bunch of CDS counterparty exposure to mortgage losses somewhere on its books? They probably don't, but how sure are you of that? Multiply that uncertainty by every company in the world, and you get $17 trillion in losses.

Eventually, I guess, the housing market will bottom, the toxic waste sloshing around the financial system will once again have a reasonable range of values, and the question of who has exposure to the losses will start to get narrowed down. Until then, the risk premium will probably stay sky high.

NBC May Cut Back on the "B" Part

| Mon Dec. 8, 2008 6:48 PM EST

mojo-photo-nbclogocuts.jpgHow the mighty have fallen. We knew things were bad at NBC, with ratings falling right along with the economy, but we didn't know quite how bad. Heads are rolling over at the Peacock, with some high-ranking executives getting axed, along with 3% of the company's 15,000-person workforce. But the network might not be done with it's slicing-and-dicing. Rather than actually try to come up with shows people want to watch, NBC Chief Executive Jeff Zucker has announced that the network is considering just cutting back on the hours--or even the number of nights--it provides programming. From the AP:

"Can we continue to program 22 hours of prime-time? Three of our competitors don't. Can we afford to program seven nights a week? One of our competitors doesn't," Zucker said. "All of these questions have to be on the table. And we are actively looking at all of those questions." … Part of the problem at NBC has to do with the economic crisis and slowdown in advertising revenue in a market that is "as difficult as any we've seen," Zucker said. "Businesses are just afraid to commit."

Er... especially to crappy shows.

Food News Round-Up

| Mon Dec. 8, 2008 6:04 PM EST

As I was browsing the internet and reading e-mails today, I came across a number of interesting food-related headlines. Instead of blogging them all, I've put them in an easily digestible (no pun intended) format, below:

  • Tomorrow, Greenpeace will release a new version of their list of supermarkets ranked in order of seafood sustainability. At the top, Whole Foods. At the bottom, stores like Trader Joe's and Price Chopper that still stock "red list" animals like swordfish and Chilean sea bass.
  • A new gadget that looks like a Pixar character produces drinking water out of humid air.
  • Netflix is buying DVDs of a controversial animal rights documentary, despite the fact the film has no distributor. The documentary, Earthlings, was requested by so many Netflix users that the company decided to make an exception to their usual policies.
  • PETA's Bruce Friedrich, via the Huffington Post, raises some interesting points about a comprehensive food policy under Obama.
  • Vanilla-lovers may be in trouble. A nasty, orchid-killing fungus has broken out on the island of Madagascar, which produces 60 percent of the world's vanilla beans.
  • Experts say just because a fruit is brighter, or tastes better, doesn't mean it's more nutritious.