Out of Iraq

OUT OF IRAQ....Barack Obama visited an elementary school today and chatted with the children. From the pool report:

Then he told the kids he was opening the floor to questions, and proceeded to take more than double the number of questions than he took at his press conference....One child ask him about iraq and he said he plans to have troops home in.a year and a half.

This is good to hear. Obama wouldn't lie to a bunch of fourth graders, would he?

The Gift of Nature

399px-Eaglecreek-28July2006.jpg Walking in a park in any season or even viewing pictures of nature helps improve memory and attention by 20 percent. All it takes is 30 minutes. Even when it's cold. Even when we don't enjoy it. The study by U of Michigan researchers found that effects of interacting with nature are similar to meditating.

Participants were sent on walking routes through urban streets as well as through a botanical garden and arboretum. The city strolls provided no memory boost but the parks improved short-term memory. Interestingly, the test subjects didn't need to enjoy the walks. They received the same cognitive benefits when it was 80 degrees and sunny as when it was 25 degrees in winter.

Participants were also tested sitting inside and looking at pictures of either downtown scenes or nature scenes. The results were the same: about 20 percent improvement in memory and attention scores from looking at photos of nature.

The study appears in Psychological Science and dovetails with some of the researchers' earlier work suggesting that people will be most satisfied with their lives when their environment supports three basic needs: the ability to understand and explore; the ability to make a difference; and ability to feel competent and effective.

Best holiday present? Take someone out into nature. Truly the gift that gives forever. Or at least for 20 percent longer.

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.

Median Wages

MEDIAN WAGES....So let's assume that we manage to stabilize the economy sometime soon via whatever combination of stimulus spending, tax cuts, and bailouts you think is best. What's next? Where will demand come from to get the economy moving normally again? Paul Krugman comments:

I find it useful to compare U.S. spending in recent years with spending in the mid-90s, when things seemed much more sustainable. What changed? Well, we had bloated housing investment and bloated consumer spending. Meanwhile, nonresidental investment as a percentage of GDP was about the same in 2007 as it was in 1996.

So what offset the consumer/housing boom? A vastly increased trade deficit. And that suggests that a return to normalcy would involve getting savings up, housing spending down, and a combination of more exports and less imports.

I think the big thing I'd add to that is growth in median incomes. One way or another, there's really no way for the economy to grow strongly and consistently unless middle-class consumers spend more, and they can't spend more unless they make more. This was masked for a few years by the dotcom bubble, followed by the housing bubble, all propped on top of a continuing increase in consumer debt. None of those things are sustainable, though. The only sustainable source of consistent growth is rising median wages. The rich just don't spend enough all by themselves.

The flip side of this, of course, is that rich people are going to have to accept the fact that they don't get all the money anymore. Their incomes will still grow, but no faster than anyone else's.

How do we make this happen, though? I'm not sure. Stronger unions are a part of it. Maybe a higher minimum wage. Stronger immigration controls. More progressive taxation. National healthcare. Education reforms. Maybe it's just a gigantic cultural adjustment. Add your own favorite policy prescription here.

This isn't just a matter of social justice. It's a matter of facing reality. If we want a strong economy, we can only get it over the long term if we figure out a way for the benefits of economic growth to flow to everyone, not just the rich. This is, by far, Barack Obama's biggest economic challenge. Until median wages start rising steadily and consistently, we haven't gotten ourselves back on track.

mojo-photo-bushshoe.jpgSometimes the internet might seem like a vast wasteland of empty-headed blogs (ahem!), pornography, and pop-up ads, but then something like this happens, and it renews one's faith in having this series of tubes hooked up to our idea trucks. Or whatever. Journalist Muntather al Zaidi not only expressed Iraqi frustrations at still-President Bush with his famous footwear lob, but also inspired legions of Photoshoppers to create their own chuckle-riffic versions of the event and provide them on their internets for all to see. My ten favorite, via Boing Boing, HuffPo, Wired, and Urlesque after the jump.

The top ten ethics scandals of 2008, which we've got on prominent display today, is classic Mother Jones content. But we write about things that are positive, too! Or at least we link to them. Sometimes. Like right now!

The Drum Major Institute has a list out of the best public policy from 2008. It includes Los Angeles' attempt to clean up its ports, an executive order from pre-Hookergate Eliot Spitzer, the Second Chance Act for released prisoners, and an attempt to expand health care citywide in San Francisco. Check it out here.


TORTURE....Responding to Andrew Sullivan, Reuel Marc Gerecht defends his defense of torture:

I take it from your post that if you had been confronted on 7 September 2001 with a captured Khalid Shaykh Muhammad or Abu Zubaydah and you knew that a major, mass-casualty terrorist strike was about to go down in the United States, and you had plenipotentiary authority for the nation's security, you would not have used any physically coercive techniques against the gentleman? Okay, but I do believe that moral men can go the other way, and I strongly suspect that the vast majority of Democrats and Republicans elected or appointed to high office would go the other way.

....Would that the Clinton and the Bush administrations — especially the Bush administration — had started a public discussion of what we do with holy warriors who live to slaughter thousands....You might not like what America's legislature would have decided (Andrew, what was your position on this in 2001/2002?), but it would have carried the approval of more of the American people's representatives.

Sadly, I suspect that Gerecht is right: if torture had been put to a vote back in 2001, it would have passed. The language would have been prettied up, of course, but the intention would have been clear enough and the public would have approved. Even today, I'm pretty sure that a majority of Americans are basically OK with torture as long as it's mostly kept out of sight and they can go about their business.

But even for torture apologists like Gerecht, I wonder how far they're willing to go. He must know that over the past few years we've tortured a steady and sizeable stream of people who were either decidedly small fish or else just completely innocent. How many of those people is he willing to brutalize on the slim chance that once, someday, we'll just happen to have someone in our custody who knows about a terrorist plot scheduled for tomorrow and can be successfully tortured into giving it up in time? Dozens? Hundreds? Thousands? Where exactly does he draw the line?

"It's time for a bailout for the oceans," declared Oceana's chief scientist Michael Hirschfield at today's National Press Club press briefing. Hirschfield, along with three of the country's top marine scientists, urged the Obama administration, namely recent energy appointees Carol Browner and Lisa Jackson, to abandon the ideology of the past eight years and take science seriously.

Overfishing, climate change, pollution, and increasing acidity were cited as the most ominous threats. But these threats are hardly new. Mother Jones examined the plight, the players, and the solutions in our 2006 special report "The Last Days of the Ocean." Check it out here.

The Minnesota canvassing board is taking a look at challenged ballots one by one right now. You can follow along via live video at theuptake.org. It's interesting stuff, and a Senate race likely hangs in the balance.

Following the indictment of five former Blackwater contractors last week, Erik Prince, the company's founder and CEO, took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal today to defend his company. What he says is less important that the fact that he's saying it at all.

In the past, the firm has responded to damaging news with silence. This is due in part to the firm's contractual obligation to avoid discussing its work for the State Department with the press, but also to the tight-lipped sensibility of the company itself. When it comes to the latter, I have it from two sources that Mother Jones has a little something to do with Blackwater's bunker mentality.

A new poll of more than 21,000 people in 21 countries shows that American impressions of the United States government's behavior in the Middle East differ drastically from the impressions of the rest of the world. A majority of Americans (56 percent) believe that the US "shows respect" to the Muslim world, but just 16 percent of worldwide respondents feel this way. Exactly two-thirds of the world feels the United States acts disrespectfully toward the Islamic world. Roughly half who feel this way believe American disrespect is born out of "ignorance and insensitivity" and half say the disrespect is shown on purpose. Importantly, majorities in Iran, Egypt, and Pakistan believe the United States intentionally tries to humiliate Muslims, with near majorities of Palestinians, Turks, and Jordanians agreeing. (Looks like Karen Hughes didn't accomplish all that much.)

American and worldwide opinion is similarly at odds on the question of America's global military footprint. Seventy percent of Americans believe it is a good idea for US naval forces to be stationed in the Persian Gulf, but just 22 percent of the worldwide public agrees. Huge majorities in Gulf states disagree. Full numbers can be found at worldpublicopinion.org.

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