So the Dodgers declared bankruptcy while I was gone, and I hear that President Obama grew a pair at his press conference this morning. Anything else happen that I should know about? Has the country followed the Dodgers into bankruptcy yet?

Big, big thanks to Nick Baumann and Andy Kroll for filling in for me while I was gone. I hope you liked their stuff. Regular blogging will resume tomorrow. In the meantime, in keeping with the Southern California sunset theme from last week, here's a picture of sunset over the Hudson, taken from the High Line Park last Saturday. Enjoy.

In an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker, the man who lit the fuse of 2011's nationwide union protests, made the not-so-shocking admission that his administration "had not built enough of the case" to slash collective bargaining rights for public workers. Talk about an understatement.

Walker's anti-union bill, which goes into effect today, was met with massive opposition, including more than 100,000 pro-union protesters who flooded the streets of Madison, the state capital. But the statement that really jumped out from Walker's interview is his own perception of the bargaining fight:

"They defined it as a rights issue. It's not a rights issue. It's an expensive entitlement."

Hmm. I'm pretty sure the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed by the UN after World War II (and drafted and adopted by the US), says that collective bargaining is in fact a human right. Oh, yes, there it is, in Article 23 of the Universal Declaration:

4. Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Then there's the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) here in the US, which "explicitly grants employees the right to collectively bargain and join trade unions," according to the scholars at Cornell University Law School. Or as the National Labor Relations Board's website puts it, the NLRA "protects employees' rights to act together, with or without a union, to improve working terms and conditions, including wages and benefits."

Memo to Scott Walker: Before launching an assault on a right like collective bargaining for workers, you'd be wise to fully understanding what exactly it is you are trying to eliminate. Wisconsin citizens deserve at least that much.

So begins the 2012 presidential campaign's outside spending money war.

Priorities USA Action, a super PAC run by two former Obama White House aides, has launched a new ad pushing back against a multi-million-dollar attack campaign targeting President Obama's economic record by Karl Rove's American Crossroads. Priorities' $750,000 ad buy was significantly less than Crossroads', but the spots will air in states—Colorado, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, and Virginia—that are all crucial to Obama's re-election.

Titled "Portraits," the add calls Crossroads' most recent offering—blaming President Obama for the lagging economic recovery—"politics at its worst." Set against a montage of purportedly ordinary Americans, the ad's narrator hews closely to Democratic talking points, criticizing Republicans for opposing "economic reform," wanting to "end Medicare," and cutting education funding, all the while supporting subsidies for big oil companies and tax breaks for the wealthy.

Here's the ad:

Like American Crossroads, Priorities USA Action is a 527 organization, or super PAC, which means it has to report its donors to the Federal Election Commission. The public will eventually know who funded this ad and others from the Democrat-led group.

The takeaway here is this: Democrats got shellacked in the 2010 midterms, in part because they didn't have the outside spending firepower to counter the barrage of ads from Crossroads and other like-minded groups. Not anymore. November 2012 is still almost a year and a half out, but already we're getting an early glimpse at the outside money wars sure to dominate the airwaves the closer we get to election day.

Ron Carey, a former chief of staff to Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), has a message for the American public: Bachmann is not presidential material.

In an op-ed in Tuesday's Des Moines Register, Carey writes that Bachmann lacks the experience, savvy, and coordination to run the country. When he joined Bachmann's team in 2010, he writes, her congressional office was a disaster, and his tenure working for the Minnesota Republican and tea party darling convinced him that she's nowhere near the type of leader who can run the United States—not like former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, whom Carey worked with while serving as chair of the Minnesota GOP:

Having seen [Bachmann and Pawlenty] up close and over a long period of time, it is clear to me that while Tim Pawlenty possesses the judgment, the demeanor, and the readiness to serve as president, Michele Bachmann decidedly does not.

The Bachmann campaign and congressional offices I inherited were wildly out of control. Stacks upon stacks of unopened contributions filled the campaign office while thousands of communications from citizens waited for an answer. If she is unable, or unwilling, to handle the basic duties of a campaign or congressional office, how could she possibly manage the magnitude of the presidency?

Carey concludes his op-ed with this offering:

I know Tim Pawlenty very well. He is a family man filled with faith and conservative convictions proven in action. He will make a great president. I know Michele Bachmann very well. She is a faithful conservative with great oratory skills, but without any leadership experience or real results from her years in office. She is not prepared to assume the White House in 2013.

This isn't the first time Carey has publicly questioned Bachmann's presidential credentials, saying in February that "she's not going to be an electable candidate for us."

That message sounds an awful lot like what long-time GOP campaign guru Ed Rollins was saying earlier this year. As I reported, Rollins said Bachmann wasn't a "serious player" in the national Republican Party and publicly doubted her ability to win the GOP presidential nomination. Rollins has since changed his tune—because the Bachmann campaign hired him.

Kevin is on vacation, so Nick Baumann and I are filling in this week.

I keep hammering away at the GOP's preposterous cut-and-grow plan—that the economy will really begin to grow and create jobs only after slashing spending to the bone—but that's because people are still buying what the Republicans are peddling.

The following analysis, however, should once more put to rest any ideas that cut-and-grow is the right course for this country. Using a nifty chart, Adam Hersh, an economist at the Center for American Progress, plots out states that have slashed spending and states that have increased it, and then shows how well their respective economies have fared.

Via Adam Hirsch, Center for American ProgressVia Adam Hersh, Center for American ProgressAs Hersh notes in this accompanying post, states that boosted spending saw decreasing unemployment and increasing economic growth. Those who cut back saw the opposite happen.

It's one thing for governors such as Florida's Rick Scott, Wisconsin's Scott Walker, and Ohio's John Kasich to enact publicly unpopular policies that ultimately help their states. (And boy are they unpopular.) It's quite another to do so when the data shows that you're only shooting yourself in the foot. The question is, when will Republicans in Washington figure this out?

Picture this: Collecting dust in high-security vaults, unwanted by Congress and the American public, are more than a billion golden coins bearing the likenesses of famous politicians. Current lawmakers won't discuss them. But if revealed to the public, the treasure trove could prove scandalous.

Sound like an airport pulp thriller? Nope—it's just the latest embarrassing boondoggle to surface in Washington, exposed by the sharp folks at NPR.

They report today that more than a billion dollars in $1 coins—you know, those hefty golden coins that were meant to replace the dollar bill—are sitting around in Federal Reserve vaults doing, well, nothing of value. At a cost of $300 million to manufacture, the unused coins are the result of Congress' repeated failures to wean American consumers off of paper dollar bills, which, according to the Government Accountability Office, would benefit the government to the tune of roughly $5.5 billion over three decades.

Vast quantities of these coins are in storage "with no perceivable benefit to the taxpayer," the Fed told Congress in a report last year. Not only are these new coins wasting money, the Fed noted in the same report, but officials "have no reason to expect demand to improve." Turns out we Americans like our crisp dollar bills just fine, thank you very much.

Here's one scene I enjoyed, when NPR reporters visited a Fed vault storing these abandoned coins:

Inside one basementlike Federal Reserve vault in Baltimore, NPR was able to see 45 million $1 coins of various types. The coins were overflow from vaults elsewhere.

And despite a national indifference to the coins, they were heavily guarded.

A group of journalists from NPR passed through a metal detector and special secure doorway before reaching the inner entrance to the vault, a fence gate secured by two common Master padlocks.

[...]

Inside the vault, dollar coins languished in clear plastic bags piled high on sturdy metal pallets that looked like baby cribs.

You should listen to/read the story yourself. Then file it away in the Department of Destroying Confidence in Our Government.

Hormel, the company that makes SPAM, has outsourced the difficult work of pig slaughtering to Quality Pork Processors (QPP), an affilliated company. Since Hormel likes to use every part of the animal, some of the people at QPP have jobs that revolve around turning pig brains into a pink slurry that somewhat resembles a strawberry milkshake in appearance. (Yum!) From reading Ted Genoways' fascinating, sad story on QPP and Hormel in the latest issue of the magazine, I can tell you the workers do this by inserting a nozzle into the pig skull's brain cavity and firing away with a burst of compressed air. I'll let Genoways take it from here:

The line had been set at 900 heads per hour when the brain harvesting first began in 1996—meaning that the rate had increased a full 50 percent over the decade, whereas the number of workers had hardly risen...Second, to match the pace, the company switched from a foot-operated trigger to an automatic system tripped by inserting the nozzle into the brain cavity, but sometimes the blower would misfire and spatter. Complaints about this had led to the installation of the plexiglass shield between the worker manning the brain machine and the rest of the head table. Third, the increased speed had caused pig heads to pile up at the opening in the shield. At some point in late 2006, the jammed skulls, pressed forward by the conveyor belt, had actually cracked the plastic, allowing more [brain slurry] mist to drift over the head table. Pablo Ruiz, the process-control auditor, had attempted to patch the fracture with plastic bags.

As you might imagine, breathing in pig brain slurry mist is probably not great for your health, and some of the workers at the QPP factory developed a mysterious nerve ailment. Most of them, as you can see from this chart, worked near the brain-harvesting operation:

pig brains operation at qpp

Some of the workers who got sick were undocumented immigrants working with fake papers, because, I assume, "manufacturing pig-brain slurry" is one of those "jobs that Americans don't want" you always hear about. I don't want to ruin the ending, but you can probably guess that being an undocumented immigrant is not an advantage when you're trying to get your employer to compensate you for the health problems you developed while working in the brain-harvesting factory.

Genoways has written a great story chock full of really impressive investigative reporting. You should really read the whole piece. You can also support more of this kind of reporting in Mother Jones by sharing Genoways' piece on Facebook and Twitter (free), signing up for our emails (free), subscribing (cheap!), or making a tax-deductible donation. Thanks.

Kevin is on vacation this week. Andy Kroll and I are filling in for him.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has had quite a run lately. She had strong showings at the June 13 CNN debate and the Republican Leadership Conference 10 days ago. Then came this weekend's shocking Des Moines Register poll putting Bachmann in second place with 22 percent, a single percentage point behind front-runner Mitt Romney.

Today a buoyant Bachmann unveiled (again) her presidential campaign, this time in her hometown of Waterloo, Iowa. But Nate Silver warns against getting too excited amidst all the Michele mania and buzz surrounding her campaign:

Consider Jonathan Bernstein’s reminder about the first Iowa Poll in the last election cycle, which was published in May, 2007. In that survey, Mitt Romney—who eventually finished second in Iowa—had 30 percent of the vote. In second and third place were John McCain (with 18 percent) and Rudy Giuliani (17 percent), who flopped there. The winner of the caucuses, Mike Huckabee, had 4 percent of the vote at this point in time—behind the likes of Tommy Thompson and Sam Brownback.

In other words, the horse race numbers need to be interpreted cautiously. Instead, I’d pay just as much attention to the impression that voters have of each candidate.

You have to dig down to find those numbers, but they are much better for Mr. Pawlenty: some 58 pecent of voters view him favorably, versus 13 percent unfavorably. The figures for Mr. Romney, by contrast, are 52 percent favorable but 38 percent unfavorable.

Put simply, there is considerable upside in Mr. Pawlenty’s numbers—and some downside for Mr. Romney, who is effectively competing for the votes of perhaps only 50 or 60 percent of the voters in the state because of his relatively moderate positions.

Election Day 2012 is 17 months away. The Iowa caucuses are six months out. No poll is all that important right now.

Chevy Volt vs. Zurich

Leading off the New York Times' reimagined "Sunday Review" section (no more Letterman jokes?!) was a 2,380-word, mostly fawning essay by columnist Joe Nocera on the promise of the electric hybrid Chevy Volt, General Motors' great hope for the green car era. Nocera test-drove the car, talked with the sharpest auto analysts and executives, and ultimately declared the car a winner (despite its eye-popping $41,000 price tag).

Nocera contends that the Volt's success is simply a matter of time and getting drivers behind the wheel. (Fewer than 2,500 have been sold so far.) Here he is driving a Volt around Southampton, New York:

Before I knew it, my miles per gallon for that tankful of gas had hit 80. By the next day it had topped 100. I soon found myself obsessed with increasing my miles per gallon—and avoiding having to buy more gas. Whenever I got home from an errand, I would recharge it, even for a few hours, just to grab a few more miles of range. I was actually in control of how much gas I consumed, and it was a powerful feeling. By the time I gave the car back to General Motors, I had driven 300 miles, without using another drop of gas beyond the original two gallons. I’m not what you’d call a Sierra Club kind of guy, but I have to tell you: I was kind of proud of myself.

When I began to describe for [former GM executive Bob] Lutz the psychological effect the Volt had had on me, he chuckled. "Yeah," he said, "it's like playing a video game that is constantly giving you back your score."

Or as Nocera puts it later on, "The psychological grip it held me in, the smugness I felt as I drove past gas stations, the way it implicitly encouraged me to stick with battery power as much as I could—others are going to feel that as well." In other words, it's the "enviro-guilt" (his words) brought on by the Volt that will wean American consumers off of gas-guzzling SUVs and, ideally, off of gasoline-powered cars in general.

I don't buy the video-game/enviro-guilt theory. Neither, it seems, do the Swiss.

Today, the Times' Elizabeth Rosenthal reports on how big European cities aren't just demanding more energy efficient cars, but in fact making driving "expensive and just plain miserable" in cities such as Zurich, Munich, and Copenhagen. Their tactics are many: far less street parking, congestion tolls to simply enter cities, more frequent red lights to frustrate drivers, and even outright banning cars on certain city blocks. Said Zurich's chief traffic planner, "Our goal is to reconquer public space for pedestrians, not to make it easy for drivers."

I'm sure many readers—save, perhaps, those hippy-loving liberals out in San Francisco—recoiled in disgust from Rosenthal's article. Force us off the road? That's un-American! It's big government socialism!

But after reading Nocera's column and the today's story, I can't help but think it's the Swiss, the Germans, and the Danes who've got it right. They're not waiting for the pangs of enviro-guilt to kick in; they're pushing consumers in the right direction, like it or not.

Of course, if big US cities took a cue from Zurich and began making commuters' lives even more miserable, the growing pains would be huge. Many cities don't have nearly enough buses, subways, light-rails, trams, etc., to handle a massive influx of riders; some big cities' public transit is downright dismal. (Looking at you, Atlanta.) But you know what would spur rapid expansion of public transportation? Thousands of new users pressuring city officials and lawmakers in Washington for better mass transit as if their livelihood depended on it.

Grappling with climate change—and the extreme weather that comes with it—means serious action, and fast. Waiting and hoping for more efficient lithium batteries and cheaper electric cars isn't enough.

By the time you see this I should be flying across the country, ready for some R&R in New York City. The cats, of course, are ready for R&R at all times, especially on warm summer days like these. As always, let them be your guide to a successfully stress-free weekend.