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It's Time for Another Obama Apology Tour

| Wed Jun. 24, 2015 1:49 PM EDT

Here's our latest "crisis":

French President Francois Hollande held a crisis meeting of the country's Defense Council on Wednesday after newspapers published WikiLeaks documents showing that the United States eavesdropped on him and two predecessors.

After the meeting, the council issued a statement lambasting U.S. spying as "unacceptable" and declaring that France had demanded two years ago that the National Security Agency stop snooping on its leaders. The latest WikiLeaks revelations, published by the daily newspaper Liberation and the investigative news website Mediapart, claim the NSA eavesdropped on telephone conversations of former Presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy as well as Hollande.

Look, can't we just assume the NSA has been spying on every world leader around the globe? Clearly, the answer is for President Obama to put this finally to rest by embarking on an apology tour of the entire planet—except for leaders we don't like and plan to keep spying on. This will accomplish two things: (a) it will take care of the whole spying thing all at once, instead of having it dribble out every month or two, and (b) Obama really would go on an apology tour, which would make Republicans deliriously happy. Finally they'd be able to accuse him of going on an apology tour and they wouldn't even have to lie about it. How cool is that?

Then, when it's all over, we can go back to spying on everyone, except more carefully. I mean, you didn't really think we were going to stop spying on these guys, did you?

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The Rest of the World Is Pretty Happy With President Obama's Handling of World Affairs

| Wed Jun. 24, 2015 12:36 PM EDT

President Obama has had his ups and downs on the world stage. Libya didn't turn out so well. There's been no progress between Israel and the Palestinians. Vladimir Putin continues to be annoying. Still, all things considered, he hasn't done badly. He's started some new wars, but none as horrifically bad for US interests as George Bush's. He appears to have managed passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He negotiated the NEW START treaty with Russia. He's mostly stayed out of Syria, despite endless braying from Republicans. The pivot to Asia has been moderately successful. And he might yet sign a treaty that will halt Iran's nuclear bomb program, though it still looks like no more than a 50-50 proposition to me.

But enough about me. What does the rest of the world think of Obama? According to a new Pew poll, they think surprisingly well of him. Obama's foreign policy is astonishingly well regarded in France, Italy, and Germany—and surprisingly, although his numbers are down from last year, he still does reasonably well in Israel too. And here I thought Obama was universally hated in Israel because he had betrayed them to their enemies thanks to his preoccupation with sucking up to Muslims. I guess that'll teach me to listen to Republicans.

Obama bombs in a few countries too, notably Russia, Jordan, and Pakistan. Russia and Pakistan are easy to understand, but what's the deal with Jordan? I don't quite remember what we've done to piss them off.

China is surprisingly positive: 44-41 percent approval. The rest of Asia is strongly positive, probably because they trust Obama to stand up to China.

Anyway, Obama's median approval throughout the world is a surprisingly healthy 65-27 percent. He could only wish for such strong approval at home.

Home Weatherization Not As Good a Deal As We Thought

| Wed Jun. 24, 2015 11:48 AM EDT

Brad Plumer passes along some bad news on the effectiveness of residential energy efficiency upgrades. A massive controlled test in Michigan showed that it doesn't pay for itself:

The researchers found that the upfront cost of efficiency upgrades came to about $5,000 per house, on average. But their central estimate of the benefits only amounted to about $2,400 per household, on average, over the lifetime of the upgrades. Yes, the households were using 10 to 20 percent less energy for electricity and heating than before — but that was only half the savings that had been expected ahead of time. And households weren't saving nearly enough on their utility bills to justify the upfront investment.

The culprit appears to be the real world. Engineering studies suggest that residential upgrades should pay for themselves in lower energy costs within a few years, but in real life the quality of the upgrades is never as good as the engineering studies assume:

These engineering studies may not always capture the messiness of the real world. It's easy to generate ideal conditions in a lab. But outside the lab, homes are irregularly shaped, insulation isn't always installed by highly skilled workers, and there are all sorts of human behaviors that might reduce the efficacy of efficiency investments.

....In this particular study, the economists found that the federal home weatherization program was not a particularly cheap way to reduce CO2 emissions. Although energy use (and hence carbon pollution) from the homes studied did go down, it came at a cost of about $329 per ton of carbon. That's much higher than the $38-per-ton value of the social cost of carbon that the US federal government uses to evaluate cost-effective climate policies.

Back to the drawing board.

Mississippi's Republican Senators Say the State's Confederate Symbol Has Got to Go

| Wed Jun. 24, 2015 11:42 AM EDT

Update: Sen. Thad Cochran, the state's senior senator, has joined his colleague in appealing to the state legislature to change the Mississippi flag. "it is my personal hope that the state government will consider changing its flag," he said in a statement. The original story is below:

When Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) was asked on Sunday about removing the Confederate cross from his state's flag, he demurred. That decision "should be up to the Mississippi legislature and the people of the state," he argued. But 48 hours later, he has changed his mind. On Wednesday, he released a statement calling for the current incarnation of the flag to be "put in the museum" and replaced with something else:

After reflection and prayer, I now believe our state flag should be put in a museum and replaced by one that is more unifying to all Mississippians. As the descendant of several brave Americans who fought for the Confederacy, I have not viewed Mississippi’s current state flag as offensive. However, it is clearer and clearer to me that many of my fellow citizens feel differently and that our state flag increasingly portrays a false impression of our state to others.

In I Corinthians 8, the Apostle Paul said he had no personal objection to eating meat sacrificed to idols. But he went on to say that "if food is a cause of trouble to my brother, or makes my brother offend, I will give up eating meat." The lesson from this passage leads me to conclude that the flag should be removed since it causes offense to so many of my brothers and sisters, creating dissention rather than unity.

This is an issue to be decided by the legislature and other state government officials and not dictated by Washington. If I can be part of a process to achieve consensus within our state, I would welcome the opportunity to participate.

Wicker joins the chancellor of the University of Mississippi, the nephew of former Gov. Haley Barbour, and the state's Republican speaker of the House among other prominent Mississippians who have called for the Confederate symbol to go after the murder of nine African American parishioners at a church last week in Charleston, South Carolina.

Strom Thurmond's Son Just Called for the Removal of the Confederate Flag

| Wed Jun. 24, 2015 10:18 AM EDT

On the floor of the South Carolina Senate Tuesday, the son of longtime US Senator and segregationist Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond made an impassioned call to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse.

Republican State Sen. Paul Thurmond looked past his own ancestry—and at least two of his colleagues in the Senate who have told the Post and Courier they would vote to keep the flag. He told his colleagues that the "time is right" to remove the symbolic flag from above the statehouse one day after Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Lindsey Graham called for its removal. Thurmond eulogized his friend and colleague state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, who was leading Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Church when he was killed, alongside eight other black churchgoers, in a mass shooting on June 19. Authorities have charged 21-year-old Dylann Roof.

Reflecting on the June 19 shooting, Thurmond said:

I cannot comprehend the hate that was visited upon the Holy City, but I can respond with love and unity and kindness and maybe show others that their motivation for future attacks of hate will not be tolerated, will not result in a race war, will not divide us, but rather will strengthen our resolve to come together as one nation, one state, and one community under God.

Though he said nothing in his speech about his father, who is arguably most famous for his day-long filibuster against civil rights legislation in 1957, the longest in US history, Thurmond discussed his ancestors' place along General Robert E. Lee when the Confederate army surrendered at Appomattox Court House and said he could not fathom how "anyone could fight a civil war based, in part, on the desire to continue the practice of slavery."

Here's an excerpt from his speech:

I think the time is right and the ground is fertile for us to make progress as a state and to come together and remove the Confederate battle flag from prominent statue outside the Statehouse and put it in the museum. It is time to acknowledge our past, atone for our sins and work towards a better future. That future must be built on symbols of peace, love, and unity. That future cannot be built on symbols of war, hate, and divisiveness.

I am aware of my heritage. But my appreciation for the things that my forebearers accomplished to make my life better doesn’t mean that I must believe that they always made the right decisions and, for the life of me, I will never understand how anyone could fight a civil war based, in part, on the desire to continue the practice of slavery. Think about it for just a second. Our ancestors were literally fighting to continue to keep human beings as slaves and continue the unimaginable acts that occur when someone is held against their will. I am not proud of this heritage. These practices were inhumane and were wrong, wrong, wrong.

Now we have these hate groups and the symbols that they use to remind African Americans that things haven’t changed and that they are still viewed as less than equal human beings. Well, let me tell you: Things have changed. Overwhelmingly, people are not being raised to hate or to believe that they are superior to others based on the color of their skin. My generation was raised to respect all people, of every race, religion, and gender.

I have often wondered what is my purpose here, in the Senate. I’ve asked God to guide me and strengthen me. I have prayed that I will be able to make a difference for this state. I have prayed that I will leave this place better for the future generations. I am proud to take a stand and no longer be silent. I am proud to be on the right side of history regarding the removal of this symbol of racism and bigotry from the statehouse. But let it not satisfy us to stop there. Justice by halves is not justice. We must take down the confederate flag, and we must take it down now. But if we stop there, we have cheated ourselves out of an opportunity to start a different conversation about healing in our state. I am ready. Let us start the conversation.

Fox News Has Apparently Had Enough of Sarah Palin

| Wed Jun. 24, 2015 9:52 AM EDT

Fox News just dropped Sarah Palin. Mike Allen reports:

Fox News will not renew its contract with Sarah Palin, whose bombastic appearances have been a cable staple since the former Alaska governor’s failed run on John McCain’s ticket in 2007 [sic]. When asked for comment, a Fox News spokesperson confirmed the network had amicably parted ways with the governor on June 1.

Palin, 51, is expected to make occasional guest appearances on Fox and Fox Business, and will appear on other networks and cables. She has a show on the Sportsman Channel, does a lot of speeches, and will announce a new publishing project soon.

Now she'll presumably have more time to pick imaginary fights with Liz Warren on her web series.

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Coke and Pepsi Are Trying to Sell You Pretend Craft Soda

| Wed Jun. 24, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
Just add mustache: Pepsi's new Stubborn line of sodas will deliver a "tap-like pouring ritual."

Selling massive volumes of colored, sweetened, fizzed-up tapwater at a fat markup isn't what it used to be. US soda sales declined for the 10th straight year in 2014. For a while, beverage giants Coca-Cola and PepsiCo could turn to diet soda for relief. But now, the artificially sweetened stuff is losing popularity even faster than regular soda—diet beverage sales are down nearly 20 percent since their 2009 peak and are expected to plunge an additional 5 percent this year.

PepsiCo "craft" line includes flavors like black cherry with tarragon, orange hibiscus, pineapple cream, and agave vanilla cream.

Enter the new savior: "craft soda." Just as the globe's two dominant beer conglomerates are seeing their own US sales decline while dozens of upstart brewers stage a fast-growing craft-beer renaissance, Big Soda has watched small players like Jones Soda and Reed's grow rapidly, defying the long-term soda slump.

And just like Big Beer, the soda giants are taking the approach of, "If you can't beat 'em, buy' em or imitate 'em." The incentive is clear. Not only are craft sodas growing in popularity while the overall category shrinks, but the price they fetch in the market is much sweeter. As 12-pack of 12-oz Pepsis sells for as little as $5; Reed's gets that much for a four-pack of its ginger ale.

PepsiCo recently announced plans for a line of "craft" sodas called Stubborn, in flavors including black cherry with tarragon, orange hibiscus, pineapple cream, and agave vanilla cream, the Associated Press reports. Sweetened with cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup, they'll initially be served at soda fountains, through a special machine that delivers what the company has called a "tap-like pouring ritual." (Apparently, convenience-store clerks overseeing these contraptions will have to supply their own hipster mustaches.)

The imminent Stubborn launch (the date hasn't been announced) isn't Pepsi's first dip of the toe into the burgeoning alt-soda market. Earlier this year, it launched Mountain Dewshine, a clear, sugar-sweetened version of the creepy-green, corn syrup- and caffeine-laden beverage. Employing a clumsy backwoods marketing scheme likening the soft drink to illicit moonshine, PepsiCo underlines the "craft" nature of Dewshine by making it available only in glass bottles. Last year, the company rolled out Caleb's Kola, a "blend of sustainable Fair Trade cane sugar, kola nuts from Africa, a special blend of spices from around the world, and a hint of citrus." ("'Caleb' is Caleb Bradham, who in the 1890s developed the recipe for Pepsi," Bloomberg reports.)

A 12-oz serving of Mountain Dewshine delivers 42 grams of sugar—roughly equal to the sugar content of regular Mountain Dew (46 grams).

Rival Coca-Cola has is also testing the crafty waters. In June, the company snapped up the Hansen's and Blue Sky "natural soda" brands—apparently, the first move made by its new Craft Beverages unit, which Coca-Cola formed back in March, the Wall Street Journal reports. The company has yet to launch a homegrown craft line, but given that it saw fit to devote an entire unit to the concept, it's a fair bet that we'll be hearing about a craft Coke project soon.

The question is, will donning the "artisanal" halo be enough to revive Big Soda's flagging fortunes?

I think not. The craft beer industry has grown dramatically in recent years because people grew tired of low-flavor products like Bud and Miller and began seeking out more robust alternatives. With soft drinks, though, people aren't just seeking out more flavorful high-sugar fizzy beverages. They're mainly just cutting back on high-sugar beverages, period, because it's becoming more and more clear that huge jolts of sweetness deliver horrible health consequences, from obesity and diabetes to (possibly) Alzheimer's.

As my colleague Maddie Oatman reported back in March, the World Health Organization recommends that people consume no more than 25 grams (about six teaspoons) of added sugar per day. A 12-oz serving of Mountain Dewshine delivers 42 grams of sugar—roughly equal to the sugar content of regular Mountain Dew (46 grams). The Big Soda business model thrived when people didn't think twice about swilling down several Mountain Dews per day. Consumers who are now shying away from Mountain Dew because of its sugar content aren't likely to revert to their old habit just because Dewshine comes in glass bottles (and is pricier, to boot).

A recent piece in Food Dive summed up the problem:

People like soda. They’re just not drinking soda as much as they used to because it’s not part of their diet anymore," said Jonathan Texeira, co-owner of beverage distributor Refreshments Direct and the Batch Craft Soda brand. "Occasionally, they’re gonna want a root beer, say, once or twice a week, and when they do, they would like to have a really good root beer."

There are two problems for Big Soda in that last sentence. The first is that when people want a "really good root beer," why would they turn to Coke or Pepsi, best known for mass-produced swill, when so many small, regional soda makers are popping up? The second is the "once or twice a week" bit. The entire Big Soda business model—its vast factories, its freight fleets, its distribution deals with retailers like Walmart—is predicated on churning out and selling vast amounts of cheap product to a public that sees soda as a daily staple, not a treat. I predict craft soda will remain a niche market—one not likely to bring the fizz back to Pepsi and Coke sales.

America Sucks at Affordable Housing. The Supreme Court Might Make It Even Worse.

| Wed Jun. 24, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
The Iberville Projects in New Orleans, Louisiana.

In the coming days, the Supreme Court will hand down a decision that could weaken the Fair Housing Act's ban on racial discrimination in housing. The timing couldn't be worse: The nation's housing affordability crisis is growing, according to research from the Urban Institute published last week.

Researchers found that in 2013, the last year for which data is available, no county in the US had enough affordable housing for its "extremely low-income" households—those making less than 30 percent of their county's median income. Nationwide, just 28 out of every 100 extremely low-income households had housing considered affordable by government standards, renting at less than 30 percent of their income. The report also found that the affordability gap is widening: Between 2000 and 2013, the number of extremely low-income households seeking to rent increased 38 percent nationwide, from 8.2 million to 11.3 million, while the supply of affordable housing increased only 7 percent, from 3 million to 3.2 million.

Every county in the US had a large gap between the renting needs of its extremely low-income population and available affordable housing. Ben Chartoff/The Urban Institute

The Urban Institute produced a handy interactive showing the affordability gap for low-income renters, county-by-county, using data from the Census and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The report also breaks down some of the key issues contributing to the housing affordability crisis:

1. Market-rate affordable housing is dwindling, putting pressure on federal assistance programs.

Federal housing assistance—in the form of public housing, rent vouchers, and other subsidies—has grown modestly since 2000, but now makes up a far greater share of the affordable housing stock, the Urban Institute found. That's in part due to low vacancies and increasing rents nationwide, which have lifted market-rate units that were once affordable beyond the reach of low-income families. But others have been completely wiped from the market: The report notes that 13 percent of unassisted units with rents at or below $400 in 2001 had been demolished by 2011 and weren't replaced. "Nearly half of the remaining units were built before 1960, putting them at high risk of demolition," the researchers add.

Medical Examiner Rules Freddie Gray's Death a Homicide by Fatal Blow to the Neck

| Wed Jun. 24, 2015 3:56 AM EDT

A leaked autopsy report shows that Freddie Gray suffered a fatal "high-energy" blow to the neck, the Baltimore Sun reported late Tuesday.

From the Sun:

The state medical examiner's office concluded that Gray's death could not be ruled an accident, and was instead a homicide, because officers failed to follow safety procedures "through acts of omission."

Though Gray was loaded into the van on his belly, the medical examiner surmised that he may have gotten to his feet and was thrown into the wall during an abrupt change in direction. He was not belted in, but his wrists and ankles were shackled, making him "at risk for an unsupported fall during acceleration or deceleration of the van." The medical examiner compared Gray's injury to those seen in shallow-water diving incidents.

Gray's death in police custody in April sparked protests in Baltimore and throughout the country. Baltimore State Attorney Marilyn Mosby decried the leak of the report on Tuesday, saying in a statement, "I strongly condemn anyone with access to trial evidence who has leaked information prior to the resolution of this case." In May, a grand jury indicted the six officers involved in Gray's arrest. Though a sealed court document at one time suggested a prisoner in the van heard Gray "banging against the walls," assistant medical examiner Carol Allan cast doubt on that possibility in the autopsy report, noting that Gray "may have been suffering a seizure at the time," according to the Sun

After Gray's death, several former victims came forward to speak out against "rough rides," a practice in which police allegedly drive erratically with an unrestrained, cuffed prisoner so as to cause injury or pain.    

Another Common Herbicide Linked to Cancer

| Tue Jun. 23, 2015 6:22 PM EDT

Less than three months after declaring that the ubiquitous herbicide glyphosate, marketed by Monsanto as Roundup, is "probably carcinogenic," a working group of scientists convened by the World Health Organization has taken aim at another widely used herbicide, 2,4-D, which the WHO panel has found to be "possibly carcinogenic."

These announcements can hardly be welcome news in the Midwest, whose farm fields are blanketed in corn and soybeans. Since the advent of crops genetically engineered to withstand glyphosate in the 1990s, farmers there have come to rely heavily on the herbicide that many weed varieties have evolved to resist, causing many headaches and a surge in herbicide use.

This past spring, Dow Chemical introduced new genetically modified corn and soybean products designed to solve that problem. They're engineered to resist not just glyphosate, but also, you guessed it, 2,4-D. And Dow is selling farmers a proprietary herbicide known as Enlist Duo, a combo of glyphosate and 2,4-D, that farmers can apply directly to the crops grown from the new genetically modified corn and soybean seeds. As I've shown before, these double-herbicide-resistant crops will likely accelerate, not solve, the resistant-weed problem.

Even so, rather than filling their spray tanks solely with a "probable" carcinogen, corn and soybean farmers can now fill up with a mix of "possible" and "probable" carcinogens before spraying their fields. That may sound like a twisted form of progress, but it should be noted that there's evidence that toxic chemicals do worse things to us when combined than they do solo. That such "synergistic" effects are little studied is hardly comforting.