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Harriet Tubman to Replace Andrew Jackson on the $20

| Wed Apr. 20, 2016 12:34 PM EDT

US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew will reportedly announce on Wednesday the decision to replace the image of former President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with an image of Harriet Tubman.

Politico reports Lew will also announce that the image of Alexander Hamilton will remain on the $10 bill, but that the back of that bill will feature members of the suffragist movement. Last month, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star of the Broadway musical Hamilton, met with Lew to discuss keeping the former president on the $10 bill. 

The movement to replace Jackson's image with Tubman's image started with the "Women on 20's" group, which advocated featuring a woman on the $20 bill because of Jackson's controversial support of the Indian Removal Act.

This is a breaking news post. We will update once the announcement is made.

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Factlet of the Day: Youth Turnout in New York Wasn't Much Different Than in 2008

| Wed Apr. 20, 2016 12:33 PM EDT

For the record, here's the Democratic turnout in New York in 2008 and 2016:

 

Total Turnout

18-29 Turnout

2008

1.82 million

273 thousand

2016

1.81 million

322 thousand

The turnout rate among all residents aged 18-29 was up from 9.8 percent to 11.5 percent. That's a nice increase, but as I recall, Obama didn't spend a whole lot of time in New York in 2008. When you take that into account, it's hard to see much evidence here of a massive surge in youth interest caused by the Bernie Sanders campaign.

It's Not Just Blue-Collar Workers Who Voted For Trump Last Night

| Wed Apr. 20, 2016 11:47 AM EDT

I don't really know how much to make of this, but Donald Trump's victory in New York last night was remarkably thorough. Take a look at the exit poll results on the right for evidence.

Yes, Trump did well in his wheelhouse of high school grads. But college grads and postgrads also voted for him by huge margins. In New York, at least, having a PhD (or an MA or a law degree or a medical degree) didn't do much to help you see through his obvious flimflam.

Perhaps even more remarkably, Trump's strongest support didn't come from blue-collar workers with modest incomes. It came from middle and upper-middle-class voters. Whatever their motivations, it didn't have anything to do with China and Mexico taking away their jobs.

Another Pension Fund Goes South After the Great Recession

| Wed Apr. 20, 2016 11:14 AM EDT

Here's the latest big pension fund in trouble:

More than a quarter of a million truckers, retirees and their families could soon see their pension benefits severely cut — even though their pension fund is still years away from running out of money.

....Like many other pension plans, the Central States Pension Fund suffered heavy investment losses during the financial crisis that cut into the pool of money available to pay out benefits. While the stock market has recovered since then, the improvements were not enough to make up for the shortfall....That imbalance left the fund paying out $3.46 in pension benefits for every $1 it received from employers. The shortfall has resulted in the fund paying out $2 billion more in benefits than it receives in employer contributions each year.

One of the big criticisms of 401(k) style retirement plans is that they can lose a bundle when the stock market tanks. And sure enough, that's exactly what happened during the Great Recession. The value of 401(k) plans fell dramatically, causing a lot of pain for people who were close to retirement.

But don't let that make you nostalgic for the good old days of defined-benefit pensions. Sure, they promise a steady retirement income, but promises are only as good as the money to back them up. This means that pension funds which lost a lot of money during the Great Recession are in no better shape than 401(k) plans that did the same. There's no magic here.

What's more, 401(k) plans have rebounded since the depths of the recession: taking into account both their losses and their subsequent gains during the recovery, the average 401(k) balance has grown more than 10 percent per year between 2007 and 2013. Apparently that's not the case for the Central States Pension Fund. Perhaps those much-maligned 401(k) plans are a better retirement vehicle than their critics give them credit for?

Three Officials Charged in Flint Water Crisis

| Wed Apr. 20, 2016 10:04 AM EDT

Update, April 20, 10:20 a.m. EST: Three state and city officials have been charged in connection to the Flint water crisis. Flint employee Michael Glasgow was charged with tampering with evidence and two officials from Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality, Steven Bush and Michael Prysby, were charged with office misconduct and tampering with evidence.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette is expected to announce the first set of criminal charges on Wednesday in connection with the Flint water crisis that exposed city residents to dangerous levels of lead in their drinking water. The Associated Press reports that up to three officials will be charged, including two state regulators and one Flint employee.

The announcement comes just one day after a federal judge dismissed a $150 million lawsuit filed by Flint residents on behalf of those affected by the city's contaminated water system. The "man-made disaster," as Flint's mayor called the situation, started with a 2014 move to switch the city's water source to the Flint River instead of Lake Huron, where Detroit residents get their water, in an effort to save money.

Gov. Rick Snyder has come under pressure to resign amid growing evidence that state officials knew the change in water systems exposed residents to high levels of lead, leaving thousands of children at risk of brain damage. On Tuesday, Snyder announced he planned to drink filtered water from a Flint residence for at least a month in order to prove it is now safe to consume.

For more on the crisis, head to our investigation here.

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Inside the Country's Most Controversial Company

| Wed Apr. 20, 2016 6:00 AM EDT
From left, Glenn Stone, Tom Philpott, and Robb Fraley at Monsanto’s Global R&D Headquarters Facility in St. Louis, April 2016

I normally cover the agrichemical industry from afar—parsing World Health Organization pesticide assessments, say, or analyzing megamergers. But on a recent afternoon, I found myself plunged into the industry's very bosom: Monsanto's global R&D center in suburban St. Louis.

Alongside Washington University anthropologist Glenn Stone—whose undergraduate class on "brave new crops" I was in town to address—I spent five hours winding through the labyrinthine corridors of the vast facility, speaking with researchers, scientists, and managers from all five of the company's "innovation platforms": biotechnology, plant breeding, soil microbes, pesticides, and data science. Our long march through the building was bookended by interviews at a conference table with Monsanto's chief technology officer, Robb Fraley, who's an early innovator in genetically altered crops and a tireless defender of the controversial company.

What I look like through the heat-sensing camera Monsanto uses to asses heat stress in crops in its research greenhouse.

In his classic 2001 book on the rise of Monsanto as an agribusiness titan, Lords of the Harvest, Dan Charles portrays Fraley as a ruthless figure. "He's a really smart guy, but absolutely merciless," a former Monsanto exec tells Charles. I found Fraley formidable: a barrel-chested man with a large bald head and a steady, skeptical gaze. But he was also unfailingly friendly and even occasionally light-hearted—we joked about our common baldness, and he expressed regret that he hadn't donned a flat cap like the one I wore that day, "just to fit in."

Monsanto once had a reputation as a tightly guarded company, but has made an effort in recent years to be more transparent. My entire visit was on the record, and Fraley and other Monsanto workers spoke freely. Here are some things I learned.

The company doesn't seem too keen on old-school GMOs anymore. Fraley accompanied us to the biotechnology wing of the research center, the first stop on our tour. Strikingly, we didn't hear a peep about the GM wonder crops that the industry used to claim were just around the corner: corn that grows well in drought conditions, say, or thrives with minimal amounts of nitrogen fertilizer. Instead, we heard vigorous defenses of a trait that Monsanto has been selling since genetically altered crops first hit farm fields in the mid-'90s: the insect-killing gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, known as Bt.

A researcher from India described his childhood on a two-acre farm applying insecticides with a backpack sprayer—a hazardous activity made obsolete, he said, by the rise of Monsanto's Bt cotton in India. Then the same researcher launched into the benefits of another crop—a soybean product now taking off in Brazil. It's engineered to contain both the Bt insecticide and the other GM trait that Monsanto has been selling since the 1990s: resistance to glyphosate, the company's flagship herbicide. In other words, during our stop at the biotech wing, we heard about nothing completely new, but rather about the same two traits Monsanto has been selling for two decades: herbicide tolerance and Bt.

"When people think of us, they always think of Monsanto as the GMO company," Fraley said.

Later, back at the conference table, Fraley gave a surprisingly sober assessment of GMOs for an executive who has spent his career promoting and defending them. He declared that classical plant breeding, sped up by genomic tools, is the "mainstay," "base engine," and "core" of Monsanto's business, and stressed that it always would be, adding that it takes up half of the company's R&D budget.

"When people think of us, they always think of Monsanto as the GMO company," Fraley said. "I helped invent it [GM technology], and we've been the leader in that space," he said. "But by far the biggest contribution we've made to yield gains around the world is how we've applied biotechnology to the [classical] breeding engine itself."

Gene transfer is an expensive technology—"it costs us $150 million to develop a GMO product," he said. "We only use it on things we can't do any other way. The only way to get a Bt gene into a corn or soybean plant is to use gene-transfer technology and create a GMO," he said.

Otherwise, Monsanto prefers to use classical breeding or seed treatments—pesticides that are taken up by the plant as it grows. I asked him whether GM technology could, as boosters used to insist, one day achieve grand visions like corn that mimics legumes and snatches nitrogen out of the air for self-fertilization. "Not likely," Fraley said. He and his team have concluded that creating a nitrogen-fixing corn through gene transfer would require 30 separate traits, he said, and thus be way too costly.

But that doesn't mean Monsanto is giving up on cutting-edge techniques. While downplaying the role of gene transfer, Fraley and other Monsanto employees embraced other genetic methods for altering crops: gene silencing, or RNAi (which I've discussed at length here), and gene-editing techniques, like the much-ballyhooed CRISPR-Cas9. Fraley declared these technologies "transformative" and took pains to classify them as variations on breeding, not GMO technologies. (Washington University's Glenn Stone, who accompanied me on the tour, has more on this rhetorical effort here.)

Gene editing tools like CRISPR are a "superdirected" version of classical breeding. They "let you breed even faster and better, and allow you to do some of the things you can do [with GM technology], but won't let you introduce a new trait," he said.

As for RNAi gene-silencing technologies, Monsanto has plenty in the pipeline, Fraley added. There's a corn product in the final stages of US Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency vetting that contains RNAi matter that will target and kill specific crop-chomping insects, leaving everything else unscathed, he said (though this is not a universally held belief). He also pointed to an RNAi spray in the works that will silence the genes that allow weeds to withstand the glyphosate herbicide—adding new life to a key Monsanto product now losing effectiveness as weeds evolve to resist it.

Soil microbiota supplements are hot! (And they apparently go well with pesticides.) My favorite episode of our trip was our stop at Monsanto's emerging soil microbial unit, which develops supplements meant to boost soil health and produce more robust crops.

"You have more microbial cells in you than you have your own cells," a researcher explained.

"You have more microbial cells in you than you have your own cells," a researcher explained. "A plant is no different—I guarantee there are more cells [in soil microbes] than there are in plants." And so Monsanto is working diligently to identify and market the "most beneficial" of the microbes—ones that can help make nutrients more bio-available to crops, or crowd out soil-borne pathogens. And just like people can eat yogurt or take "probiotic" supplements to add beneficial microbes to their gut biomes, farmers can buy microbial seed treatments and sprays to fortify their soil, he said.

I suspect that diverse diets and crop rotations—not lab-grown potions—are key to engendering healthy biomes, both in our bodies and in the dirt.

Now, I'm not someone who's readily convinced that Big Pharma is going to come up with some magic probiotic mix that transforms human health; nor do I think Big Agrichemical is going to stumble upon and package just the right combo of microbe species for growing robust crops without lots of fertilizers and pesticides. The microbial communities that exist in animal guts and in the soil have evolved over eons. I suspect that diverse diets and crop rotations—not lab-grown potions—are key to engendering healthy biomes, both within our bodies and in the dirt.

Still, I was happy to see Monsanto was thinking in terms of adding life to soil, not dousing it with chemicals designed to stamp out life. So what I saw next made my jaw drop. The researchers pointed to a glass case (below) featuring hearty-looking corn and soybean plants grown with microbial products already on the market, with placards featuring names like Control, Tag Team, Optimize, and Biological.

New products from Monsanto's soil-microbiota team

But for each of the six products, I noticed, the words "Acceleron® Fungicide and Insecticide" appeared under the product name. I cleared my throat and asked why "biological" products were being marketed under biocide labels. The researcher handled the question in stride. "What we've done is taken biological products and put it on top of the fungicides and insecticides most [corn and soybean] growers are using today," he said.

Fine print: "Acceleron Fungicide and Insecticide"

Eventually, he said, they hope growers will begin to actually replace the chemicals with microbes. (In case they don't, Monsanto seems to be hedging its bets—earlier in the tour, I had met people from the chemicals division who informed me that the company is also developing new fungicides.)

Later, I looked up the Acceleron product. It turns out it's marketed by Asgrow, one of Monsanto's seed subsidiaries. It's a mix of pyraclostrobin, the potentially worrisome fungicide I wrote about last week, and Imidacloprid, a member of the neonicotinoid class of insecticides that's suspected of harming bees, birds, and aquatic creatures.

As for the microbial mix the company mashes up with those potent chemicals: It's made up of Bacillus amyloliquefaciens, a common soil bacteria, and trichoderma virens, which is, yes, a fungus. So probably the most remarkable thing I learned on my trip is that Monsanto is marketing a fungus and a fungicide in the same package. (Presumably, that particular fungicide doesn't kill the trichoderma virens fungus.)

Probably the most remarkable thing I learned on my trip is that Monsanto is marketing a fungus and a fungicide in the same package.

Altogether, it was an informative and provocative visit. In addition to what I've chronicled here, I also learned about impressive non-CRISPR technology used to speed up good old classical breeding, and I had a fascinating conversation with Fraley and other executives about the data services Monsanto sells to farmers—topics I plan to explore in future posts.

And I greatly appreciated the access and transparency granted to me. In our conversations, Fraley repeatedly mentioned the importance of open dialogue between Monsanto and its critics, and I agree. I hope we can continue it.

Watch Donald Trump Blast the GOP's "Crooked System" in His NY Victory Speech

| Tue Apr. 19, 2016 10:23 PM EDT

Speaking from Trump Tower in Manhattan on Tuesday, Donald Trump celebrated his resounding victory in New York's Republican primary. The GOP front-runner took the opportunity to dismiss his challengers, Ted Cruz and John Kasich, and to declare the race essentially over.

"Senator Cruz is just about mathematically eliminated," Trump told a crowd of supporters. "We've won another state. As you know we have won a million more votes than Senator Cruz. Millions and millions of more votes than Governor Kasich."

"We're really, really rocking," he added.

The real estate magnate closed out his victory speech by once again criticizing the Republican party, describing its presidential nomination system as "rigged." At one point, Trump even referenced the battle that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are currently waging for the support of Democratic superdelegates.

"Nobody should take delegates and claim victory unless they get those delegates with voters and voting," he said. "And that's what's going to happen, and you watch, because the people aren't going to stand for it. It's a crooked system."

In the 21st Century, We All Want Smart, Gorgeous Mates

| Tue Apr. 19, 2016 7:59 PM EDT

Wonkblog points us today to a chart from Max Roser showing how men and women rated various aspects of potential mates in 1939 vs. 2009. (Since 1939 is the comparison year, it goes without saying that we're talking about straight, cis, and most likely white folks here.) You can see the entire set of data at either of the links above, but I was interested mainly in the traits that have moved up or down significantly over that period. Here they are, in a handily color-coded pink and blue chart:

What can we tell from this? For starters, keep in mind that this is what people say they value, not what they actually value. "Similar political background," for example, has allegedly moved up only one spot, from dead last to almost last, so it's not in my chart. But there's considerable evidence that a lot of people today would rather have their big toes cut off than associate with someone of the opposite party. So take all of this with a grain of salt.

Anyway, obviously chastity is out the door. No one cares anymore. Refinement is now decidedly old-fashioned, replaced by a desire for the more egalitarian virtue of sociability. And love has zoomed up to the top of the chart. (Allegedly, anyway.)

Beyond that, the two big movers are education and good looks. Apparently we all want mates who are both smart and gorgeous, which might go a long way toward explaining why marriage seems to be in decline. How many smart, gorgeous people are there in the world, after all? And if they have to be gregarious too—well, you're just being mighty picky. Good luck.

Notably, the boring traits haven't changed much: dependability and stability were near the top of the chart in 1939, and they're still there now. I guess meat and potatoes are always in fashion. Or so we tell the pollsters, anyway.

Here's a Sneak Preview of the Upcoming Republican Health Care Plan

| Tue Apr. 19, 2016 6:46 PM EDT

Seven years after they first promised an alternative health care proposal, Republicans now say they're close. "Give us a little time, another month or so," Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) told reporters this week. Steve Benen is unimpressed:

The problem probably isn’t dishonesty. In all likelihood, Republicans would love to have a health care plan of their own — no one likes to appear ridiculous while breaking promises — but haven’t because they don’t know how to craft one.

Not true! They know exactly how to craft one. In fact, I've seen a leak of their upcoming plan. Here it is:

  • Block granting of Medicaid
  • Tort reform
  • Interstate purchase of health plans
  • High-risk pools
  • Tax breaks for buying individual coverage
  • Health savings accounts

None of this would have much effect on the health care market, and it would probably fall about 19 million short of covering the 20 million people currently covered by Obamacare. That's why they don't want to unveil it. They know what they want, and they know how to craft it, but they still don't know how to make up a plausible set of lies about how it will do anybody any good. As soon as they figure that part out, they'll go public the next day.