Junk analysis

The Washington Post reported this morning that the EPA chose to ignore a scientific study showing that stricter controls on mercury power plant emissions could potentially save $5 billion a year in health costs—over 100 times more than the EPA's own estimation. And yet:

Top agency officials ordered the finding stripped from public documents, said a staff member who helped develop the rule. Acknowledging the Harvard study would have forced the agency to consider more stringent controls, said environmentalists, and the study's author.

When asked why the agency had not included the report, one of the EPA's chief economists claimed it was submitted too late to be factored in and that crucial elements of the analysis were flawed. Yet interviews and documents show that the EPA had been aware of the study since August, and had received its results by the January 3rd deadline.

Prepared by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, the report was commissioned and paid for by the EPA, co-authored by an EPA scientist and peer-reviewed two other EPA scientists. As the Post notes, the Harvard group's expertise has been widely cited by the Bush Administration before, a fact which caused the Harvard Center's Director, James Hammitt to question why it went ignored this time around:

"I didn't think that was terribly fair," Hammit said. "Now here we are doing the same kind of analysis and it comes out in a more environmentally protective direction than EPA is, and they ignore it. There is an irony in that."

The report, which also details new evidence that mercury causes heart attacks in adults, is not the first report to criticize the EPA's new mercury rule. An internal investigation by the EPA discovered major flaws in the EPA's plan and found that the agency had issued orders to disregard analysis that would have suggested more stringent emissions controls were needed. And a report by the Government Accountability Office, as detailed here by Chris Mooney, illustrates how the EPA rigged its economic analysis to favor its preferred cap and trade solution to mercury.

The Energy Crunch To Come: Soaring Oil Profits, Declining Discoveries, and Danger Signs, by Michael T. Klare.

Unlike the average driver of the average automobile, the oil industry has just come off a bumper year. Profits have reached all-time highs, with, for example, Exxon-Mobil reporting quarterly income of $8.42 billion, the highest quarterly income ever reported by an American firm.

But, as Michael Klare, author of Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America's Growing Petroleum Dependency, notes, this can't last.

[C]heering as the recent announcements may have been for many on Wall Street, they also contained a less auspicious sign. Despite having spent billions of dollars on exploration, the major energy firms are reporting few new discoveries and so have been digging ever deeper into existing reserves. If this trend continues -- and there is every reason to assume it will -- the world is headed for a severe and prolonged energy crunch in the not-too-distant future.

We can soften the landing by conserving energy today funding R&D for alternative technologies tomorrow, but "at current rates of development, none of these alternatives will be available on a large enough scale when petroleum products become scarce," a point also made by Paul Roberts in a recent Mother Jones article.

Check out Michael Klare's "The Energy Crunch To Come" online at Mother Jones.

Only a matter of time...

According to one detainee lawyer, there are still some 500 hours of unreleased video footage of prisoners in Guantanmo Bay, some of it containing evidence of abuse by the U.S. military. But what's truly sick and perplexing, as the Daily Telegraph reports, is how lawyers first learned about the existence of this footage:

[T]he U.S. military videotaped the actions of the Immediate Reaction Force (IRF) who were responsible for prisoner control at Guantanamo Bay... Evidence of the violence used by the IRF came to light when a member of the U.S. military... identified as Specialist Baker, applied for medical discharge after being involved in a training session.

Here is where things gets weird. This "training session" involved Baker, a U.S. soldier, being dressed in orange jumpsuit prisoner garb and handed over to the IRF squad, which was told that he was in fact a detainee who had abused a guard. The IRF apparently did such a good job working Baker over that he needed to apply for medical discharge from the military due to the brain damage he received from the beating.

The ACLU is pushing for the video footage to be released, though U.S. officials are refusing due to "privacy concerns." Meanwhile, numerous former detainees from Afghanistan and Guantanamo have come forward with allegations of abuse—oftentimes claiming that videotapes and photographs were used as a part of the humiliation process. It seems like it's just a matter of time before even more visual material emerges. The internet and inexpensive digital technology have enabled soldiers to bring home the war in an unprecedented way. We have already seen an explosion of soldiers' personal footage online, and it's likely that new incriminating footage will come from members of the U.S. military who have documented unconscionable acts—especially if they entail soldiers abusing soldiers.

This via Ideopolis, the useful blog of the Moving Ideas Network:

A new study of 12,000 teens released from Yale and Columbia Universities found that teens who pledged to remain virgins until marriage were more likely to take chances and participate in sexual acts that increase the risk of sexually transmitted diseases. This follows a series of similar studies which have come to the same conclusion. When will this administration learn that abstinence-only education programs won't stop teen pregnancies and STDs?

Answer: Not soon! As as been exhaustively—and fruitlessly—noted, the Bush administration doesn't do the Enlightenment, and has never passed up an opportunity to spurn expertise and put politics above mere science.

These are dark days for the BBC. Yesterday more than 2,000 staffers in production and broadcasting (meaning news, sport, and drama) heard they're getting the boot. This comes on top of 1,700 business-side layoffs announced a couple of weeks ago. By the time Mark Thompson, the newish director general (the last one, you'll remember, quit over that dodgy WMD story) gets done swinging the meat axe, the BBC will be about 6,000 people lighter.

No doubt there's a lot of fat to trim at the Beeb, which, while indispensable on so many counts, is a big, unwieldy bureaucracy -- and one, moreover, that subsists on taxpayer money. If Thompson is as good as his word and the money saved will go into new and better programming, all to the good. But we'll see.

Then again, lately the BBC is finding it can't even spend the money it wants to spend. Ricky Gervais, the man behind "The Office" (the best, and most painful, thing to come out of the BBC in years) just turned down a $10 million deal with the corporation, saying, sublimely, that such arrangements encourage "laziness and extravagance" and that, anyway, he didn't want to be the BBC's "bitch."

Few surprises in this new Pew study on illegal immigration to the US. The number of undocumented immigrants has reached 10.3 million and keeps on growing; Mexicans account for the largest chunk, at 57 percent, or 6 million; undocumented migrants now represent about one-third of the total foreign-born US population; the most rapid growth of illegal immigration occurred in states without a long tradition of immigration, especially North Carolina and Arizona. (One number that did surprise me: one in six illegals is a child.)

The AP story doing the rounds describes a "surge" in illegal immigration driven by Mexicans and making a mockery of post 9/11 border-control efforts. True enough, these are big numbers, and they've been getting steadily bigger -- by about 485,000 a year since 2000. But I notice that more illegal immigrants came to the US in the boom years of 1995 and 1999 than did between 2000 and 2004 (3.6 and 3.1 million, respectively); this doesn't suggest to me that we've got a handle on illegal immigration; but nor does it tell me the problem's gotten totally out of hand, which you'd assume from the tenor of the coverage. Just something to bear in mind as Bush gets together with Vicente Fox and the usual suspects renew their calls for draconian anti-immigrant measures.

"There is no dentistry crisis, [British health] minister insists"

The Onion? Austin Powers? No, sadly, the above is a headline from today's London Guardian. Turns out there's a shortage of dentists in Britain such that less than half the population is registered with one. For for those of us British expatriates who've labored, by example and argument, to combat the widely shared idea that Brits are dentally challenged -- well, let's just say this development sets us back years.

"We are bringing in 1,000 dentists between now and the autumn," [said the British health minister.] We are at this moment negotiating with the British Dental Association an improved contract to bring dentists back into the [National Health Service].

"We're encouraging retired dentists to come out of retirement and join the NHS again, so we are actually taking action at this moment to try to solve this problem. We accept there is a serious problem and intend to put it right."

While they wait for aged dentists to dust off the old drill, and younger ones to be recruited, authorities in Scotland are handing out free toothpaste and toothbrushes to children. Oh, the shame!

Is torture really all that bad?

This question seems to be getting continual play. Take Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz: he thinks that if the U.S. is going to torture people no matter what, "it ought to be done openly, with accountability, with approval by the president of the United States or by a Supreme Court justice." He even went so far as to recommend a sticking a sterilized needle under fingernails as a good, non-lethal method of torture. And it's not just Dershowitz taking a soft stance on torture.

The fact that the media has been so slow and reluctant to use the word "torture," and to publish the nasty truth of the sanctioning of torture readily evident in published military reports reveals a more deeply-seated belief that torture may not be all that bad—especially if we're talking about torturing "bad" people. People don't like the word "torture," so the CIA has tried to come up with something else. Last Thursday, CIA Director Porter Goss was challenged by Sen. John McCain about the CIA's use of "waterboarding", in which a prisoner is made to believe that he will drown. Mr. Goss replied only that the approach fell into "an area of what I will call 'professional interrogation techniques.'"

Unfortunately, it seems we've gotten to a point where it's necessary to point out that having a needle pushed under your nail (yes, even if it's sterilized) is unacceptable. And, making a prisoner believe he is going to drown, while it may be a "professional interrogation technique," is still torture. The fact that there is even a discussion about whether or not we should, in times of conflict, consider torture as a viable tactic is absurd.

Dershowitz's argument that "the government is going to do it anyway, so we might as well give it some legal oversight" could be applied to almost any criminal activity employed in wartime. Perhaps the word "torture" has been so oft-repeated that it has dulled our senses. Let's replace it with the word "rape"—arguably a much more successful tactic in wartime than torture has proven to be. A colleague of mine at Mother Jones has written about the widespread campaign of rape an efficient war-time tactic: "Rape has been recognized and implemented by its perpetrators as an effective means of breaking down a society and as a strategic means towards achieving military ends." So just because rape will continue to be used in conflict anyway, and successfully achieves its goals, should a country legally sanction it, or regulate it?

If we've gotten to the point where the only way we can obtain intelligence, and prevent future acts of terrorism is through such an unreliable means as torture, we're in trouble. This administration has often been criticized for trying to reduce complex issues into oversimplified arguments of "right" and "wrong," "good" and "bad." But here is a case in which the subtleties of language, and the law, have no place.

New today on the Mother Jones home page (and in the current issue of the magazine): Sacrificial Ram, by Daniel Duane. Not your typical MoJo story, this. Duane, a card-carrying Sierra Club member and outdoor type, recently tagged along on a "conservation hunt" in the Mexican desert for the majestic -- and endangered -- bighorn ram. That's right, conservation hunt. Sounds like a term cooked up by the same folks who brought us "Compassionate Conservatism" and "Clear Skies" -- but, no, it's for real, and it works like this: Conservationists sell off the right (at a cool $60,000 a pop) to kill a couple of sheep each year, with the revenue going into conservation efforts. And it looks like the approach is paying off: since the hunts began, the bighorn population has increased fourfold.

Don't buy it? Well, if my inbox is any guide, you're not alone: plenty of readers have written in to give us hell. (One of the more polite emails ran as follows: "This is a classic case of 'cognitive dissonance.' Only a turncoat could get so enthusiaistic about supporting something he vehemently opposed in the past. Shortly, Duane will probably go to Falluja and give a glowing account about 'how democracy is taking root among the gun pocked ruins...'") But roughly equal numbers have praised the article -- and the approach. ("Daniel Duane understands ... and all it took was an open mind and one experience.") Read the article and judge for yourself. Also, check out a Mother Jones interview with Daniel Duane where he explains how he went, over the course of the hunt, from weirded-out skeptic to gung-ho proponent of conservation hunting -- won round to the idea of shooting sheep to save them.

Daniel Gross, one of my favorite columnists around, had a great New York Times piece over the weekend explaining why voters are so resistant to changes in Social Security. In the end, Americans suffer enough income volatility as it is:

The factors that functioned as internal shock absorbers for families have weakened. And so, too, have external buffers. Over the last three decades, the percentage of workers covered by defined-benefit pension plans and employer-provided health insurance - guarantees that provide ballast for fluctuating incomes - has declined. Add this to the trend of rising volatility - especially for people in the lower and middle income levels - and it's easy to understand the reluctance to transform a government program that guarantees seniors an income.

The whole piece deserves a look. It's also worth noting, as Mark Schmitt explained nicely last week, that income security doesn't need to be incompatible with opportunity. Social Security doesn't make people lazy or dependent, it doesn't stifle growth or creativity—if anything it boosts opportunity by allowing many people to move from job to job without fear of losing their pensions. There are ways to create an opportunity society without watching the majority of Americans fall prey to the vicious income swings and devastating shocks that Gross so clearly describes.