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What Do Iran Trade Sanctions Have to Do With California Pistachios?

| Mon May 11, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Amid an epochal drought with no end in sight, farmers in California's Central Valley have entered a veritable well-drilling arms race to capture water from fast-depleting aquifers, causing large swaths of land to sink and permanently reducing its ability to hold water. But none of that has reined in the pistachio industry's relentless expansion. Acreage devoted to pistachios grew more than 20 percent between 2012 and 2014; at a conference in March, nut magnate Stewart Resnick, co-owner and president of Wonderful Pistachios, urged growers to plant more, more, more, claiming that the tasty nuts deliver an even tastier $3,519 average per acre profit. (Resnick's team also beseeched growers to invest some of their windfall in lobbying to maintain industry-friendly water rules.)

With Iranian pistachios banned in the United States, California farmers sensed an opportunity and started putting in groves.

But if California's epic water crunch can't slow down the state's pistachio juggernaut, here's one thing that just might: a possible deal, now being negotiated within the United Nations, to end trade sanctions against Iran if it agrees to curb its nuclear program.

What does Iran have to do with California pistachios? Pretty much everything, it turns out. Flash back to 1979. Iran, governed for decades by the US-friendly Shah, dominated the global pistachio trade. Pistachios barely registered as a crop in California. Then came the Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis; overnight, the nation went from trusted trading partner to pariah—a status it has held, more or less, ever since. With Iranian pistachios banned in the United States, California farmers sensed an opportunity and started putting in groves. By 1990, the state's pistachio acreage had more than doubled. By 2014, it stood at more than 294,000 acres—nearly ten-fold growth since the Shah's fall. (Numbers here.)

But if the Iran nuke deal goes into effect, trade barriers will tumble and Iranian pistachios will again be available in the United States—exposing California farmers to competition and possibly threatening those windfall profits being brandished by Resnick. "Iran has far more clout in the market for cocktail nibbles than it does in crude trading," Bloomberg notes. "While it ranks only as the world's seventh-largest oil producer, the Middle Eastern country vies with the U.S. to be the biggest pistachio grower."

Then there's Europe, a market worth about $300 million to US growers. Iranian pistachios aren't banned outright there, Bloomberg reports, but are severely constrained by broader sanctions on banking and shipping. A deal on nukes would change all that.  

No one knows precisely how much an open market for Iranian product would affect prices for the profitable nibbles. But Bloomberg speculates the "biggest losers may be Californian farmers who have doubled pistachio acreage over the past ten years despite drought conditions."

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Religous Zealot Would Like to Talk to You For a Minute About the Drought

| Sun May 10, 2015 1:48 PM EDT

As you may know, there is a drought in California. The water? It's gone! The state? It's dry! The consequences? Very bad, indeed.

Where did the water go? I have no idea. I'm not a private detective who specializes in missing water.

Why did the water leave? No clue. Maybe it's climate change or almonds or squirrels or people or agricultural blah blah blah. Maybe the water saw Thelma & Louise and got inspired. Again: If you're looking for answers, you're reading the wrong writer. But you know who else has no idea why the drought happened? This idiot.

[Conservative journalist Bill Koenig] suggested that the drought in California is a result of the state’s support for same-sex marriage and abortion rights: “We’ve got a state that over and over again will go against the word of God, that will continually take positions on marriage and abortion and on a lot of things that are just completely opposed to the scriptures and unfortunately a lot of times when it starts in California it spreads to the rest of the country and even spreads to the rest of the world. So there very likely could be a drought component to this judgment.”

The end-times crowd always does this whenever there is a natural disaster or terror attack or anything. They always finger the same suspect. Gay people. 9/11? Gays. Katrina? Gays. Drought? Gays.

Social conservatives are the guy in the movie theater who keeps whispering to his friends, "I KNOW WHO DID IT."

Pundit blames California's catastrophic drought on the gays. http://t.co/Xt101dJfKz

— HuffPost Green (@HuffPostGreen) May 8, 2015

The thing is, the lunatic premise that God is punishing California for being less inhospitable to gays than Bill Koenig would like wouldn't even lead to the conclusion that the drought is the fault of gays and LGBT allies in California. The conclusion it would lead to is: it's God's fault. 

If someone stole some fruit and the store manager caught them and punished them by murdering their entire family and everyone they'd ever met, the headline would not be, "Millions Dead, Fruit Thief Blamed," it would be, "Maniac Murders Millions." The fruit thief wouldn't even be mentioned until the fifth paragraph.

And One Chart to Rule Them All

| Sat May 9, 2015 8:34 PM EDT

It feels like it's been weeks since I last created a chart for this blog. I suppose this is because it has been weeks. Today that changes.

Over on the right is the chart that's controlled my life for the past couple of weeks. That's not to say there weren't plenty of others. My potassium level seemed to be of particular concern, for example, but that would make an especially boring chart since it just bounced around between 3.3 and 3.9 the entire time. (They added a bag of IV potassium to my usual daily hydration whenever it fell below 3.6.) Now that I'm home and my IV line is gone, I'm eating more bananas than usual, just to be on the safe side, but that's about it.

But that was nothing. What really mattered was my white blood count. You can see it on the right. For some reason, the two days of actual chemotherapy are called Day -2 and Day -1, and the day of the stem cell transplant is Day 0. On that day, as you can see, my count was around 6500, which is quite normal. Then, as the Melphalan steamrolled everything in its path, it plummeted to ~0 on days 7 and 8. Bye bye, immune system. Finally, on Day 9, as the transplanted stem cells started to morph into various blood products, my count skyrocketed. By the time I was discharged on Day 14, it was back to normal levels.

Fascinating, no? Especially when it's in chart form!

Lessee. Any other news? My fatigue is still pretty heavy, and will stay that way for 2-3 weeks. I didn't realize it would last so long, partly because my doctor waited literally until my discharge date to tell me. But it's for real. It took me two tries to create this post: one session to create the chart, after which I crashed, and a second session to write the text. Not exactly speed demon blogging. What else? I have a nasty metallic taste in my mouth all the time. It sucks. And I think my hair is finally getting ready to fall out completely. This morning my pillow was covered with tiny little pieces of hair, and it's pretty obvious where they came from. On the bright side, my appetite is improving. I'm not yet at the stage where I really want to eat, but I'm mostly willing to eat, which is good enough for now. This may be partly due to the fact that I'm wearing one of those seasickness patches behind my ear to fight nausea. It seems to be working.

Oh, and I can now take a nice, normal shower without first having to spend ten minutes trying to bundle up my catheter so it doesn't get wet. Woohoo!

Friday Cat Blogging - May 8 2015

| Fri May 8, 2015 3:44 PM EDT
VZ and CC

While Kevin is taking a break and getting better, we're rounding out the usual Friday Cat Blogging routine with some special Mother Jones-affiliated guests.

Today, I'm happy to present CC and VZ. These handsome brothers were adopted from a Berkeley shelter by Ian Gordon, our copy editor. Named Sacco and Vanzetti at birth (I did mention the shelter was in Berkeley, right?), their new family quickly developed nicknames that would be less of a mouthful. Below you'll find CC on the left, and VZ on the right.


These fellas are intrepid neighborhood explorers. Ian reports that they have indoor visitation rights at at least three nearby houses. Don't you wish they'd stop by and class up your joint sometime?

If they did, they just might come bearing gifts. Their phase of hunting, gathering, and gifting mysterious objects to their caregivers is well cataloged on Ian's Look What the Cats Dragged In Tumblr, where you'll find alternately hilarious and discomfiting documentation of undergarments, empty food packages, and decades-old newspapers.

Where do they get this stuff? How do they make their selections? What are they trying to communicate?

The only ones who know aren't talking.

These Were the Most Popular Baby Names of 2014

| Fri May 8, 2015 3:42 PM EDT

Have you given birth to a human in the last year? If so, you very well may have bestowed onto said baby human one of the following monikers. According to the Social Security Administration, the agency tasked to tracked such data, these were the most popular baby names of 2014:

Social Security Matters

Judging by the list of popular girl names, it's apparent the allure of the Victorian-era is all the rage. Emma, Olivia, Abigail, Emily, Charlotte—Downton USA has basically written itself into production! But the list of popular boy names doesn't appear to fit into such period-defining molds. Can someone please explain this to me? I'm childless and lost.

After a Mother Jones Investigation, Starbucks Says It Will Stop Bottling Water in California

| Fri May 8, 2015 2:49 PM EDT

On the heels of a Mother Jones investigation last week that found that Starbucks sources its bottled water from a spring in the heart of California's drought country, Starbucks announced yesterday that it will phase out use of its California bottling plant for Ethos Water over the next six months. Because of "the serious drought conditions" in California, the company will transition to its Pennsylvania supplier while looking for another source to cover the western United States, Starbucks officials said in a press release.

The Pennsylvania county to which Starbucks is now shifting its water production is itself facing drought conditions.

The California counties from which Starbucks sources and bottles Ethos have been in a drought emergency for years now. Placer County, where Ethos' spring water is drawn, was already declared a natural disaster area by the USDA because of the drought back in 2012. Reports from more than a year ago noted that the county was already scrambling to deal with the area's "extreme drought." Merced county, where the bottling facility is located, declared a local emergency due to drought more than a year ago, as "extremely dry conditions have persisted since 2012."

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania county to which Starbucks is now shifting its entire national production of Ethos Water is itself facing drought conditions. While not as catastrophic as California's historic water emergency, Luzerne County, where Starbucks' east coast supplier sources and bottles Ethos, was declared to be under Drought Watch by Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection back in March. DEP issued the declaration after below-normal rainfall over the past year has led to low groundwater levels in the region, which the agency noted has the potential to cause well-fed water supplies to go dry. The state is asking local residents to voluntarily reduce water consumption and to "run water only when absolutely necessary." DEP has put large water users on notice to plan for possible reductions in water supplies.

Nevertheless, Ethos' Pennsylvania bottler, Nature's Way Purewater, which bottles a number of other brands at its facility, announced in January that it planned to double production going forward.

This article was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, with support from the Puffin Foundation.

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That Time Mike Huckabee Preached Against Booze, Sex, and Monty Python

| Fri May 8, 2015 1:34 PM EDT

Good luck tracking down sermons from Mike Huckabee's two decades as a Baptist preacher. The GOP presidential candidate, who once started a television station out of his church to broadcast his sermons, kept those tapes under wraps during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Among the handful of sermons open to the public is a partial recording of a 1979 sermon in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, at the congregation Huckabee had tended as a pastor a decade earlier when he was a student at Ouachita Baptist University. The sermon, included in the school's special collections, catches a young Huckabee confident in his beliefs and fluid in his rhetoric, riffing from one New Testament passage to the next in critiquing the most "pleasure-mad society that probably has ever been since Rome and Greece, in the days when there was just absolute chaos and debauchery on the streets":

It's a sad thing but it's true in this country: 10,000 people a year are directly killed by alcohol in this country. Ten thousand. But we license liquor. There's one person a year on average killed by a mad dog, just one. But you know what we do? We license liquor, and we shoot the mad dog. That's an insane logic! But it's what's happening, it's because we love pleasure more than anything else. A lot of times we look around our society we see this problem we see pornography and prostitution and child abuse and all the different things that we're all so upset about. You know why they're there? You know why they're in the communities? You say "because the Devil"—they're there because of us.

It was dark days indeed, he argued, when "an x-rated theater can open up down the street from a church." Above all, Huckabee was upset with Monty Python's 1979 movie, Life of Brian. Huckabee was hardly alone in condemning Life of Brian, which follows the story of a Jewish man, Brian, who is mistaken for the Messiah because he was born on the same day as Jesus. The film was banned in Ireland; picketed in New Jersey; denounced by a coalition of Christian and Jewish leaders; and canceled in Columbia, South Carolina after a last-minute intervention from Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond. (On the other hand, the movie does have a score of 96 at Rotten Tomatoes.) Per Huckabee:

There was a time in this country when a movie like The Life of Brian which, I just read—thank God the theaters in Little Rock decided not to show, but it's showing all over the Fort Worth–Dallas area, which is a mockery, which is a blasphemy against the very name of Jesus Christ, and I can remember a day even as young as I am when that would not have happened in this country or in the city in the South.

But friend, it's happening all over and no one's blinking an eye, and we can talk about how the devil's moved in and the devil's moved in but what's really happened is God's people have moved out and made room for it. We've put up the for sale sign and we've announced a very cheap price for what our lives really are. We've sold our character, we've sold our convictions, we've compromised we've sold out and as a result we've moved out the devil's moved in and he's set up shop. And friend [he's] praying on our own craving for pleasure.

No word on whether Huckabee will defund the Ministry of Silly Walks if elected.

Bonus Friday Cat Blogging - 8 May 2015

| Fri May 8, 2015 12:00 PM EDT

Well, I'm home. I slept in my own bed last night for the first time in two weeks. No cats to greet me, though, since we first have to wait for all my shiny new cells to mature a bit—enough to handle a couple of cats, anyway. The furballs will be back home in three weeks, but in the meantime here are Hilbert and Hopper lounging on my sister's magazine pile. Sadly, the New York magazine on the far left met with a gory death a few days after this picture was taken. It is the price of cuteness.

Why Would an Economic Analysis Want to Ignore American Slavery?

| Fri May 8, 2015 7:00 AM EDT

While Kevin Drum is focused on getting better, we've invited some of the remarkable writers and thinkers who have traded links and ideas with him from Blogosphere 1.0 to this day to contribute posts and keep the conversation going. Today we're honored to present a post from Ryan Cooper, national correspondent for the Week.

The next several years will see a rolling 150th anniversary of Reconstruction, my favorite period in American history. From about 1865 to 1877, American society as a whole tried reasonably hard to do right by the freed slaves, before getting tired of the effort and abandoning them to the depredations of racist terrorism. For the next nine decades, black Americans had few if any political rights under the boot heel of Jim Crow.

It's both a shining example of what can happen when a society really tries to right a past wrong, and tragic, infuriating failure of will. But most of all it's very interesting. Things were changing, social orders were being overthrown, historical ground was being broken. At a time when few nations had any suffrage at all, roughly 4 million freed slaves got the vote in a single stroke, perhaps the single starkest act of democratic radicalism in world history.

So it's weirdly fascinating to read conservative historiography of the 19th century, such as this piece by Robert Tracinski at the Federalist, as an example of how Darryl Worley-style historiography irons all the best parts out of American history.

He's interested in trying to prove that a "non-coercive" economy is possible, by which he means that taxes and spending could be dramatically lower than they are today. Thus he charts government spending as a percentage of GDP, finds that it was pretty low for most of the 19th century, and claims victory:

What the left wants is not just to make America’s economic history disappear. It needs to make America’s political system disappear: to make truly small, truly limited government seem like a utopian fantasy that can safely be dismissed. Please bear in mind that this latest example came up in the context of a discussion about the justification for government force. So what they want to describe as an unrealistic fantasy is a society not dominated by coercion.

One might think that when writing a paean to a noncoercive century, it might be a good idea to address the fact that for 60 percent of that century, it was government policy that human beings could be owned and sold like beasts, or that half or more of the national economy was based on that institution. But no, the word "slavery" does not appear in the piece. Neither does "Civil War" or "Reconstruction," which as a literal war against and military occupation of the South would seem fairly coercive.

So speaking of the 19th century as one notably free of coercion is not just utterly risible, it's also a cockeyed way to look at what was good or bad about it. The economy of the antebellum South was founded on the labor of owned human beings, extracted through torture. Slave masters set steadily increasing quotas for cotton picking, for instance, and would flog slaves according to the number of "missing" pounds. As Edward Baptist writes, they thus increased the productivity of slave cotton-picking by nearly 400 percent from 1860 to 1865.

It was akin to the Gulag system of Soviet Russia, except that it had all the power of the red-hot Industrial Revolution, including cutting-edge financial technology, behind it. That combination of slavery plus explosive economic growth and innovation made the antebellum South one of the most profoundly evil places that has ever existed — one that was an absolutely critical part of early industrial growth in both Britain and the North.

But on the other hand, the war that ended slavery, despite involving coercion in the form of organized mass killing, was therefore good! And so was Reconstruction, even though that involved extremely harsh measures against the likes of the KKK. Whether coercion is good or bad depends on just who is being coerced and why.

And that, in turn, puts the lie to conservative complaints that liberals always "blame America first." On the contrary, grappling with the pitch-black periods of history makes the positive notes shine all the brighter. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has written, the "epoch of slavery is…the quintessential romance of American history." It's just a romance difficult to detect in the GDP statistics.

This Study Will Add Fuel to the Abortion Wars

| Thu May 7, 2015 4:16 PM EDT

On Thursday, the New York Times carried a front-page story reporting new research that could have a profound impact on the nation's abortion debate: a study concluding that a small number of premature infants born at 22 weeks can survive with intensive treatment.

The study, which appears in the New England Journal of Medicine, followed 5,000 infants born between 22 and 27 weeks of gestation. Seventy-eight of those infants were born at 22 weeks and given treatment to increase their chances of survival; 18 of them survived. Of the 18, which the researchers followed up on as toddlers, 6 experienced severe impairments, from blindness to debilitating cerebral palsy, and 7 were relatively healthy.

The news has huge implications for the the medical community, where there has been debate about how much treatment to provide to babies born at this stage of gestation. But it could also have sweeping consequences for the fight against abortion rights—giving abortion opponents new support for a popular abortion ban, while possibly undermining their quest to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that established a right to abortion.

In the immediate future, the news is most likely to impact the coming congressional debate over House Republicans' proposed 20-week abortion ban, which many see as a direct challenge to Roe. In that ruling, the justices forbid the states from banning abortion before a fetus was viable outside the womb. A 20-week ban, mainstream medical groups have argued, bars abortion before viability.

But abortion foes may use this new study to argue that 20 weeks is indeed within the range of viability, and a ban on procedures after 20 weeks is legal. (When abortion opponents talk about 20-week bans, technically, they mean 22-week bans. Click here to read a full explanation.)

Viability, however, is not a bright red line. And this new research is less of a breakthrough and more of a rigorous confirmation of what smaller, less systematic studies have already observed. One such study found that 85 percent of infants born at 22 weeks (or 20 weeks, in political parlance) die within 12 hours. Another study found that 98 percent of 22-week-old infants are born with major health issues such as brain hemorrhaging, and 93 percent die within a year. (The University of California-San Francisco Medical Center, by contrast, states that no infants born earlier than 23 weeks have survived.) Some major medical groups have been debating whether to move average viability to 23 weeks from 24 weeks. But there are no signs that the study will cause medical organizations to set 22 weeks as the new average viability.

Abortion foes have always had dual motives for pushing 20-week abortion bans. (About 2 percent of all abortions would be affected by a 20-week abortion ban. About 13,000 women sought these abortions in 2011, the most recent year for which there is reliable data.) In public, they insist that these bans are only preventing abortions of viable infants. The majority of the medical community wouldn't agree, but there is broad public support for the idea of banning abortion on viable pregnancies.

At the same time, as I reported earlier this year, 20-week bans are designed to bring a challenge to Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court. In Roe, the justices ruled that states could not set a specific date for viability. (That determination was left up to doctors.) The legal wing of the abortion rights movement is fighting some 20-week bans, which have been passed in 10 states, on the grounds that they violate Roe. If one of those cases were to make it to the Supreme Court, it could be an opportunity for the justices to overturn Roe's viability standard altogether.

Here's Samuel Lee, a former lobbyist for Missouri Citizens for Life, explaining how a measure he wrote, requiring doctors to perform viability tests before providing abortions to women who appeared to be at least 20 weeks pregnant, was designed to overturn Roe:

The 20 weeks gestational age was chosen to push the envelope on when the state's interest in protecting the life of the unborn child could take place. It was designed as an opportunity to attack the Roe trimester framework, while still giving the Court some wriggle room (the statute required a determination of viability, not a prohibition of abortion after viability). It was an opportunity for the Court to discuss an interest by the state in protecting unborn human life earlier than the viability line of demarcation permitted…It was chosen because it was earlier than the earliest limits of viability at the time, but not so early that the unborn child could never be viable.

The Supreme Court upheld Lee's provision in 1989. Later, Justice Thurgood Marshall's papers revealed that the conservative majority in Webster had come within one vote of using the 20-week provision to strike down Roe entirely.

If the average age of viability were to inch backward toward 22 weeks—with this study being the first step—then 20-week abortion bans would cease to pose a broad constitutional challenge to Roe. At the time of its ruling, after all, the Supreme Court majority noted that average viability began at 28 weeks (the start of the third trimester), but it was possible that fetuses would someday be viable as early at 24 weeks.

In other words, the medical advances behind this new research don't automatically undermine Roe—especially when it comes to something as nebulous as viability. But they may fuel the drive for a national 20-week abortion ban.

*Abortion opponents typically count the weeks of pregnancy from the date of fertilization, while the medical community uses the more rigorous method of counting the weeks of pregnancy from the start of a woman's last menstrual period. In medical terms, then, the House Republicans' 20-week abortion ban is actually a 22-week abortion ban. Unless we're talking about the bans, this article uses the medical method of dating a pregnancy.