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Chart of the Day: We're a Car Crazy Nation Yet Again

| Wed Jul. 22, 2015 10:30 AM EDT

Bill McBride passes along the news that after a five-year slump, vehicle miles traveled in the US started to rise again in 2012, and in May of this year finally surpassed the previous record. However, this is a 12-month rolling average, so it's a little slow to pick up trends. You can see things more clearly in the chart on the right, which shows seasonally-adjusted monthly miles traveled. In the past 18 months, it's increased from 250 billion miles per month to 260 billion miles per month. That significantly outpaces population growth, which means that over the past year or so we're not only driving more, we're driving more per person.

Brad Plumer has much more here, but the basics seem simple: the economy has finally started growing and gasoline prices have been low. That's enough to get us all back in our cars.

So was it ever the case that American young 'uns fell out of love with the automobile, which partly explained why miles traveled dipped so dramatically during the recession? That's a favored explanation among urban pundits, where Zipcars and Uber are popular and lots of people don't bother owning cars. But I've always doubted it. It really does seem to be true that teenagers simply don't care about learning to drive as much as teenagers of my generation, but for the most part that just means they learn to drive a little later. And if they live in the burbs, they need to drive, same as always. They couldn't afford it while they were living in mom's basement during the recession, but they can now, and that's why car sales are up and miles driven are up.

We still love our cars, and now we can afford to use them. That will probably continue to be true until gas goes up to five bucks a gallon again. Here in California we're surprisingly close to that ($4.49/gallon for my last fill-up!), but the rest of you are still enjoying relatively cheap prices. What's more, with fracking moving along smartly, and Iran probably close to dumping another few million barrels of oil on the global market daily once sanctions ease up, prices seem likely to stay fairly low for the foreseeable future. That's unfortunate news for the planet, but good news for consumers.

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Obama Pledges to Use Executive Order to Keep Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show"

| Wed Jul. 22, 2015 8:58 AM EDT

As Jon Stewart prepares his imminent exit from The Daily Show, President Obama stopped by the set in New York on Tuesday to bid farewell to the longstanding host and promised to use his office's power to prevent him from leaving.

"I can't believe you're leaving before me," Obama said during his seventh and final visit with Stewart as host. "I'm going to issue an executive order: Jon Stewart cannot leave the show. It's being challenged in the courts."

"To me this is a states' rights issue," Stewart replied.

Following the opening banter, the two dived into more serious topics such as the Iran nuclear deal, the president's relationship with the media, and the Middle East.

When asked about Donald Trump's recent surge in the polls, Obama joked, "I'm sure the Republicans are enjoying Mr. Trump's current dominance of their primary."

Stewart's last day is August 6th.

Enjoy Your Romaine—While It Lasts

| Wed Jul. 22, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

The mighty Central Valley hogs the headlines, but California's Salinas Valley is an agricultural behemoth, too. A rifle-shaped slice of land jutting between two mountain ranges just south of Monterey Bay off the state's central coast, it's home to farms that churn out nearly two-thirds of the salad greens and half of the broccoli grown in the United States. Its leafy-green dominance has earned it the nickname "the salad bowl of the world." And while the Central Valley's farm economy reels under the strain of drought—it's expected to sustain close to $2.7 billion worth of drought-related losses—Salinas farms are operating on all cylinders, reports the San Jose Mercury News.

As the Salinas Valley's freshwater vanishes and dips below sea level, seawater from the coast seeps in to take its place—which isn't good news for crops.

What gives? It all comes down to water sources. In normal years, Central Valley farmers draw more than half of their water from the vast, publicly funded irrigation projects that carry snow melt from the Sierra Nevada mountain range, with underground aquifers providing the rest. With the Sierra Nevada water essentially gone—snows have been minuscule the past four winters—the region's farmers have been scrambling to tap as much underground water as possible. But they can't make up for the massive shortfall, so they're fallowing large tracts of land (not almonds and pistachios, though—they keep expanding) and laying off thousands of farm workers.

Meanwhile, farmers in the Salinas Valley rely nearly 100 percent on underground aquifers, drought or no. And that means "the drought's a marvelous time to grow stuff, if you have the water under full control, because you can take advantage of predictable weather and strong prices," Richard Howitt, ag economist at UC Davis, tells the Mercury News. (Prices are strong because drought-stricken farms in the Central Valley have cut back on production of non-permanent crops, reducing supply.)

But all isn't well under those fields teeming with ripe vegetables and hustling farm workers. For one thing, decades of heavy nitrogen-fertilizer use has left underground water widely contaminated with high levels of nitrate, which isn't good for the people who rely on it for drinking water, because nitrate can reduce the blood's ability to carry oxygen and has been linked to elevated rates of birth defects and cancers of the ovaries and thyroid. A US Geological Survey spreadsheet (pdf version)—part of a recent USGS study of California's water quality I wrote about here—shows that 20 percent of the region's wells (see row "SCR-Salinas") have over-the-legal–limit nitrate levels.

Worse, the region's aquifers, the lifeblood of its $8.2 billion ag economy and sole source of drinking water, are in a "state of long-term overdraft," a 2014 assessment from the California Water Foundation found. The paper notes that when the California Department of Water Resources released its ranking of the state's aquifers based on those that are under the most stress, all eight of the Salinas Valley's aquifers made the list of most-stressed basins. And the state's number-one most-stressed aquifer of all doesn't lie under some vast, arid pistachio grove in the southern Central Valley; rather, it's the Salinas' East Side Aquifer.

The problem isn't just that the area's farms—which account for 90 percent of its water use—are sucking out billions of gallons more water from aquifers every year than is naturally replenished, as this 2014 report prepared for Monterey County found. It's also that as the freshwater vanishes and dips below sea level, seawater from the coast seeps in to take its place—not good, because crops don't grow well in salty water.

So, while the drought has so far caused few immediate problems for Salinas Valley farmers, they're standing over a ticking time bomb—and so are the consumers who rely on them for salad greens and other fruits and veggies: that is to say, Americans. "The irony is that in the short run, the Central Coast farmers are better off," UC-Davis ag economist Howitt told the Mercury News. "But in the long run they've got to get their [water] credit card under control."

When Is a Tax Not a Tax? When It's a Fee to Keep the Highway Trust Fund From Going Broke Next Month.

| Tue Jul. 21, 2015 9:48 PM EDT

Good news! The Senate has come up with a compromise 6-year highway funding bill. It's 1,030 pages long, so no one really knows what's in it, and it only specifies funding sources for three years. But let's not be picky. It's a bill. So where's the money coming from?

Under the Senate agreement, Congress would raise $47.1 billion to cover three years’ worth of spending through a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. Lawmakers came up with $9 billion of the total by agreeing to sell 101 million barrels of oil from the nation’s emergency stockpile over a seven-year period through fiscal 2025. Another $16 billion would come from lowering to 1.5% from 6% the dividend paid to all but the smallest banks that are members of the Federal Reserve system.

Seriously? Tax increases? Mitch McConnell agreed to this? Maybe it's in the $22 billion that's mysteriously absent from the Wall Street Journal's report. Let's see if The Hill has more:

"The bill is fully offset with spending reductions or changes to federal programs," [three Senate sponsors] said. "It does not increase the deficit or raise taxes."

....The proposal calls for generating $16.3 billion from interest rate changes, $9 billion from sales of reserved oil, $4 billion from customs fees, $3.5 billion from the TSA fees and $1.9 billion from extending guarantees on mortgage-backed securities that had been scheduled to start declining in 2021. Other funding sources in the measure include approximately $7.7 billion in tax compliance measures.

Hmmm. I guess "fees" don't count as taxes? And apparently neither do "tax compliance measures"—though I've certainly heard Republicans claim in the past that efforts to get rich people to actually pay their taxes were little more than a stealth tax increase.

Tomayto, tomahto. Best not to be too fastidious about these things. For example, "tax compliance measures" seems to include a provision that blocks Social Security payments to individuals with felony warrants. That's a tax compliance measure? Sure, I guess. Whatever.

Amusingly, the money from customs fees comes from indexing them for inflation. And that's OK with Mitch McConnell. But indexing the gasoline tax to inflation? That's a tax increase. Absolutely out of the question.

Anyway, the House has its own highway bill, which only runs for six months but would supposedly give them time to come up with a real, honest-to-goodness, fully-funded 6-year bill. That's very optimistic, considering that Congress has been haggling over this for seven years now and has never been able to do more than pass a quick fix that kicks the can down the road for a few more months. And that might happen again. McConnell and the other sponsors of the Senate legislation want their bill voted on quickly and then approved by the House before the August recess, since that's when the Highway Trust Fund literally goes broke. But plenty of senators aren't on board yet, and House leaders are skeptical too. If we end up with yet another 90-day fix, don't be too surprised.

Republicans Are Still Totally Wrong About ISIS

| Tue Jul. 21, 2015 4:16 PM EDT
An Iraqi soldier tracks an ISIS sniper near Tikrit in April.

On Monday, Democratic presidential candidate Martin O'Malley made an astute observation about ISIS in an interview with Bloomberg.

"One of the things that preceded the failure of the nation-state of Syria, the rise of ISIS, was the effect of climate change and the mega-drought that affected that region, wiped out farmers, drove people to cities, created a humanitarian crisis [that] created the…conditions of extreme poverty that has led now to the rise of ISIL and this extreme violence," said the former Maryland governor.

Republicans were quick to seize on the comment as an indication of O'Malley's weak grasp of foreign policy. Reince Priebus, chair of the Republican National Committee, said the suggestion of a link between ISIS's rise to power and climate change was "absurd" and a sign that "no one in the Democratic Party has the foreign policy vision to keep America safe."

Here's the thing, though: O'Malley is totally right. As we've reported here many times, Syria's civil war is the best-understood and least ambiguous example of a case where an impact of climate change—in this case, an unprecedented drought that devastated rural farmers—directly contributed to violent conflict and political upheaval. There is no shortage of high-quality, peer-reviewed research explicating this link. As O'Malley said, the drought made it more difficult for rural families to survive off of farming. So they moved to cities in huge numbers, where they were confronted with urban poverty and an intransigent, autocratic government. Those elements clearly existed regardless of the drought. But the drought was the final straw, the factor that brought all the others to a boiling point.

Does this mean that America's greenhouse gas emissions are solely responsible for ISIS's rise to power? Obviously not. But it does mean that, without accounting for climate change, you have an incomplete picture of the current military situation in the Middle East. And without that understanding, it will be very difficult for a prospective commander-in-chief to predict where terrorist threats might emerge in the future.

The link between climate and security isn't particularly controversial in the defense community. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama called climate change an "urgent and growing threat" to national security. A recent review by the Defense Department concluded that climate change is a "threat multiplier" that exacerbates other precursors to war, while the Center for Naval Analysis found that climate change-induced drought is already leading to conflict across Africa and the Middle East.

In other words, O'Malley's comment is completely on-point. If Priebus and his party are serious about defeating ISIS and preventing future terrorist uprisings, they can't continue to dismiss the role of climate change.

AFFH: What You Need to Know to Keep Up With the Latest Right-Wing Outrage

| Tue Jul. 21, 2015 2:39 PM EDT

Conservatives have a whole laundry list of stuff they're outraged about: Benghazi, Fast & Furious, Agenda 21, Obamaphones, etc. etc. So what's the latest from the right wing? Stanley Kurtz tells us:

Conservative opinion has been alive with outrage over AFFH for a month now.

Huh. Never heard of it. But a few minutes of Googling will get me up to speed. Hold on a bit.

OK. So it turns out that the Fair Housing Act of 1968 outlaws most of the obvious forms of housing discrimination, and has done a relatively good job of enforcing discrimination rules since then. However, it also requires the Department of Housing and Urban Development to run its programs in a way that affirmatively furthers fair housing. That is, if a local community is heavily segregated, it has to affirmatively try to reduce that segregation in order to qualify for HUD funds.

It turns out that HUD hasn't done much of anything about this particular aspect of the law, and President Obama would like them to start. So a couple of years ago HUD started developing guidelines called, uncreatively, "Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing." Last year they released a tool for assessing segregation and fair housing choice that can be used by community planners, and a few days ago they released the final 377-page rule.

That's the basics. It's surprisingly hard to get more because Google returns almost exclusively either (a) evaluations of AFFH by civil rights and fair housing groups, or (b) outraged rants from conservative outlets. Ordinary newspapers seem to have little interest (or, as Kurtz puts it, "The mainstream press has been straining to avoid AFFH").

Obviously I'm not going to pretend to be an instant expert now that I've read half a dozen pieces about AFFH, but basically the concrete goals seem to be (1) providing communities with data regarding the racial, ethnic and income distribution of housing in their towns; (2) encouraging and funding affordable housing in prosperous areas; and (3) pressing communities to change zoning rules that promote segregation.

Will it work? Hard to say. HUD's only tool for enforcing its guidelines is to withhold money for HUD programs if communities don't comply. However, prosperous communities don't get much HUD funding in the first place, which means HUD has little leverage in high-income suburbs. They'll probably be able to almost entirely avoid the long arm of HUD tyranny.

Anyway, that's that. Mostly I just wanted to let everyone know that this thing called AFFH is the latest outrage among the conservative base. It fits in perfectly with their hysteria over Agenda 21 and their general belief that Obama wants to round up every well-off white person in the country and pack them like sardines into high-rise buildings in big cities. Now you know.

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Jeb Bush Stiffs Christian Group on Poverty Video

| Tue Jul. 21, 2015 2:15 PM EDT
Jeb Bush talks about poverty. Sort of.

More than 100 Christian leaders from the right and the left working under the umbrella group Circle of Protection recently asked all of the presidential candidates to make a three-minute video answering this question: "What would you do as president to offer help and opportunity to hungry and poor people in the United States and around the world?" Ben Carson, Bernie Sanders, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, and Carly Fiorina each responded with videos specifically produced for this project that to varying degrees answer the question. Jeb Bush replied by sending the group a stock campaign ad.

The non-Bush videos are mostly mediocre in production value and content. The Republican candidates couch most of their rhetoric in religious terms, suggesting that they would encourage families and churches take care of their own, with no help from the government. Cruz, in an awkward video, talks directly to the camera to declare the War on Poverty an abject failure. He promises to "reward" Americans who give money to Christian ministries. Fiorina barely manages to eke out a whole minute talking about the subject, but she works in lots of references to God. Carson suggests that big US agricultural companies working in Cameroon hold the key to helping the hungry. Sanders' video is low-budget but at least presents specific proposals, including funding infrastructure improvements to put people to work. Huckabee's video shows his childhood home in Hope, Arkansas. He vows to protect Medicare and Social Security.

Jeb Bush didn't bother to cut a video for the Circle of Protection, which includes the National Association of Evangelicals. Instead, he sent in the "Making a Difference" video he released last month to "introduce himself to the nation" before officially announcing his presidential campaign. The spot has high production values, music, and lots of other people talking: the mother of a developmentally disabled child; a formerly battered woman; a kid who got a private school voucher. It's easier to watch than Cruz's. But it's just a campaign ad.

Chris Ford, media relations manager for Bread for the World, one of the founders of the Circle of Protection, says that the group is not commenting on the individual videos and is "letting the voters decide" what to think. More videos, which will be circulated to churches across the country, are expected in the next week or so from Hillary Clinton, Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, Martin O'Malley and Rand Paul. Ford says that the group has reached out to Donald Trump, but he hasn't responded to its requests.

You can watch the Bush video here:

 

Donald Trump Just Gave the Most Insane Campaign Speech Ever

| Tue Jul. 21, 2015 1:30 PM EDT

Speaking at his first campaign rally in South Carolina on Tuesday, Donald Trump addressed his critics and fellow Republican presidential candidates calling for him to step out of the race.

He specifically fired back at Sen. Lindsey Graham's comments calling Trump a "jackass" yesterday by giving out his personal cell phone number.

Keeping in line with his obsession over who is and who is not smart, Trump said of Graham, "He doesn’t seem like a very bright guy. He actually probably seems to me not as bright as Rick Perry. I think Rick Perry probably is smarter than Lindsey Graham."

Other low-lights included in the near 45-minute stump speech: "If you can't get rich dealing with politicians, there's something wrong with you" and "I'm the most militaristic person ever."

Watch below for the entire spectacle:

Raw Data: How Many Unarmed Victims Do Police Shoot Each Year?

| Tue Jul. 21, 2015 1:09 PM EDT

Via Bob Somerby, here's some raw data from the Washington Post's ongoing analysis of police shootings in America:

According to the Post, about 16 percent of the victims weren't carrying a deadly weapon at the time they were killed. That breaks down like this:

  • 26 blacks out of 132, or about 20 percent.
  • 35 whites out of 253, or about 14 percent.
  • 17 Hispanics out of 83, or about 20 percent.

These percentages are roughly similar across races, but don't account for total population. When you account for that, unarmed blacks are killed at about 4x the rate of whites and 2x the rate of Hispanics.

In Today's GOP, It Pays to Be a Moderate as Long as You Don't Act Like One

| Tue Jul. 21, 2015 12:11 PM EDT

Ed Kilgore writes today about John Kasich's biggest problem:

There's a fundamental truth in Republican politics that I hope will someday stop being true: there's rarely any percentage at all in proclaiming oneself as a moderate.

That's not because there are no self-identified moderate voters in the GOP; as of January of this year, according to Gallup, 24% of GOP voters fall into that category. But the dominant conservative faction in the party just cannot tolerate leaders who don't share The True Faith, so unless one aims at capping one's support at about one in five Republicans, it's a bad idea to Go There.

There's a weird thing about this. Kilgore is right that there's no percentage in proclaiming yourself a moderate. But there is a big percentage in being a moderate. That's because those Gallup numbers are misleading. Sure, 70 percent of Republicans say they're conservative, but that hides a lot of variation. There are tea-party conservatives, social conservatives, and business conservatives. In practice, a fair number of the non-tea partiers are relatively moderate.

My guess remains the same as it was in 2012: Roughly half of GOP voters are effective moderates. That's why Romney won. While the rest of the field competed like starved piranhas for scraps of the True Believer vote, Romney hammed it up as a conservative to protect his flanks, but with enough of a wink and a nod to quietly scoop up most of the moderate vote. And that put him way ahead of everyone else.

Jeb Bush is in the same position this year. The difference is (a) he's a Bush, and (b) he doesn't necessarily have the moderate voters all to himself. There are guys like Kasich who might peel off a bit of it, but more troubling for Bush is that Scott Walker may end up competing for the moderate vote too. So far he's not showing signs of doing it very well, but that could change. If it does, we could easily end up with Bush, Walker, and one of the tea partiers beating each other bloody well into spring.