Mojo - May 2010

BP Info Center? And More Tweets From the Beach

| Fri May 21, 2010 1:39 PM EDT

As we reported yesterday, resident MoJo badass (and human rights reporter) Mac McClelland is down in Louisiana covering the BP oil fiasco as it washes up on shore. Today she's back at Grand Isle beach, where there are dolphins, yelling cops, and huge pools of oil. Right now she's headed to the new 'BP Information Center' to ask why cops are trying to block reporters. Barring arrest, she'll be live-Tweeting from the scene. Follow her coverage below (takes a sec to load), or follow her on Twitter here.

[Check out more Gulf photos and video from Mac here.]

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Obama Puts a Silencer on Assault Weapons Ban

| Fri May 21, 2010 9:11 AM EDT

When Mexican President Felipe Calderon addressed the US Congress on Thursday, he called for the United States to reinstate the ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004 under the Bush administration. Calderon noted that a ban on these weapons, which are flowing south across the border to violent drug cartels, could help Mexico reduce the horrific violence that has seized parts of that country.

Calderon might be forgiven for assuming that this would be a reasonable request to make to the Obama administration. While campaigning for the presidency, candidate Barack Obama backed permanently reinstating the ban. After he assumed office, his administration quickly announced it would proceed on this front. On February 25, 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder declared,

As President Obama indicated during the campaign, there are just a few gun-related changes that we would like to make, and among them would be to reinstitute the ban on the sale of assault weapons.

Holder specifically noted that resurrecting the ban would reduce the number of guns pouring into Mexico and fueling the violence there.

Compare Holder's unequivocal statement to how the White House these days addresses the matter. Hours after Calderon's appearance on Capitol Hill, press secretary Robert Gibbs was asked about this issue. Here's the full exchange:

Q: Robert, speaking of President Calderón, this morning in his address to Congress, he asked lawmakers to reinstate the assault weapons ban, something the President has supported in the past.  Does the President still support that and does he plan to lean on Congress to make progress?

GIBBS:  I would — because the President largely got asked this question yesterday about both drugs and weapons moving across the border, I’d point you to the answer that he gave about increased inspections on cargo that’s moving from the north to the south.

You know the rest. At Obama's joint press conference with Calderon the previous day, this is what the president said,

Through increased law enforcement on our side of the border, we’re putting unprecedented pressure on those who traffic in drugs, guns, and people.  We’re working to stem the southbound flow of American guns and money, which is why, for the first time, we are now screening 100 percent of southbound rail cargo.

Nothing about an assault weapons ban. A Mexican journalist followed up and asked Obama, "Shouldn’t there be an initiative that will regulate guns as they are sold? Is there going to be a ban?" Obama again talked about interdiction efforts and didn't address the assault weapons ban.

Not only will the White House not make good on candidate Obama's promise to revive the ban or Holder's announced decision to do so, it won't even talk about the assault weapons ban. Not a word. The reason is obvious: Obama and his aides don't want to spark a backlash from the NRA and voters who cling to their guns—especially as Democrats ride toward a difficult mid-term election. On this dicey topic, Obama cares most about ducking a political bullet.

Wall Street Reform: The Battle Ahead

| Fri May 21, 2010 9:02 AM EDT

With last night's passage of the Senate's financial reform bill, next up is what's called "conference," where the House and Senate must resolve any differences and merge their two bills. In size and scope, the two bills are pretty much the same. But as always, the devil is in the details.

Here's a breakdown of the differences between the House bill, shepherded through that chamber by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the House financial services committee chairman, and the Senate's, which relied on the negotiating acumen of Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), the banking committee chair, and Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) hard-charging leadership. I'll be updating this post as I dig through the two bills for more notable discrepancies.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 21, 2010

Fri May 21, 2010 4:00 AM EDT

 

Romanian Marines and soldiers had the opportunity to use night vision goggles during an NVG familiarization exercise at Babadag Training Area, Romania, on May 19. Photo via the US Marines by Cpl. R. Logan Kyle.

Dems On a Roll: Finance Reform Passes

| Thu May 20, 2010 8:48 PM EDT

All this week, despite Republican threats to prolong or outright block the process, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he wanted a swift finish to the Senate's debate on financial reform. Right on schedule, Reid got what he wanted. This evening, the Senate passed its massive, far-reaching, historic overhaul of how Wall Street does business and how our financial markets function. The vote was 59-39.

Unlike the hyperpartisan nature of health care reform's passage, the Senate's victory tonight featured a modicum of Republican support. Sens. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Olympia Snowe (R-Me.), and Susan Collins (R-Me.), all of whom voted for the cloture motion to essentially end the debate on financial reform earlier this afternoon, as well as Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Ia.) voted in favor. There were two Democratic defectors: Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.), both of whom voted against the bill because they thought it wasn't strong enough. Cantwell said changes were needed to the bill's derivatives reform language, which right now doesn't punish those who disobey the bill's proposed rules. The Senate's derivatives reform, in her view, is toothless. Meanwhile, Feingold said he believed the bill simply doesn't do enough to prevent banks and non-bank financial companies from becoming too-big- and too-interconnected-to-fail.

Financial reform advocates and the Obama administration generally hailed the bill's passage this evening.  "Today we stand closer than ever to enacting meaningful financial reform that will benefit every American family and business, help improve the competitiveness of our financial markets, and strengthen the safety and soundness of our financial system," said Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. "This bill, while not perfect, takes significant steps to close those regulatory gaps and make our financial system both safer and more stable," added Barbara Roper, director of investor protection at the Consumer Federation of America. Michael Calhoun, president of the Center for Responsible Lending, congratulated lawmakers but warned, "[C]oncerns remain. In this final stretch we hope lawmakers will resist Wall Street’s efforts to water down the bills’ strong provisions."

Breaking: Oil Makes Landfall, Cops Blocking Beaches, MoJo on the Scene [Video and Photos]

| Thu May 20, 2010 3:34 PM EDT

MoJo reporter Mac McClelland is getting one hell of a chilling story in Louisiana right now. This morning she headed down to the area where, according to online maps, oil from the BP fiasco was headed. Wherever she turned, she found sheriff's deputies blocking the beach access roads—until she hit a beach at Grand Isle, and literally stepped into the mess. (Follow Mac on Twitter here.)

Here's what unfolded in her tweetstream:

Has oil made landfall in port fourchon, LA? Can't look, bc cops turned us around at bridge to beach. about 3 hours ago

Oil just hit land in grand isle. Blobs completely covering this shore. about 2 hours ago

Governor's helicopters are flying overhead. about 1 hour ago

All these spots are blobs of oil. about 1 hour ago

All these spots are blobs of oil.  on Twitpic

Crude all over my fingers. about 1 hour ago

Crude all over my fingers. on Twitpic

These vacationers say there was no oil earlier today; this shit all just started washing up, and it's already everywhere. about 1 hour ago

This was when I realized oil arrived; when I stepped in crude. 42 minutes ago

This was when I realized oil arrived; when I stepped in crude. on Twitpic

5 sheriff's cars have arrived. No pics allowed, no more access to elmer's island. 27 minutes ago

The gov's office has arrived. 10 minutes ago

The gov's office has arrived on Twitpic

Mac says the sheriff's deputies who arrived at Grand Isle told her she couldn't take pictures of them, but didn't keep her away from the beach—yet. She's headed back to New Orleans as we write, but will be back in Grand Isle later tonight. (Here's some more background from the local media, and more pix.) UPDATE: Mac just called and noted that there are still kids on the beach, "splashing around in this huge sheen."

Yesterday families vacayed among oil blobs (see all those bro... on Twitpic

This begs many questions, such as:

Why is law enforcement trying to stifle coverage of this horror? And, as our own Kate Sheppard (follow her on Twitter here) asks: Why is BP still in charge? Kate has also been following developments intensely, live tweeting the BP hearings, and breaking the latest news—ranging from concerns over these so-called chemical dispersants to the rig owner's efforts to weasel out of responsibility. She's covered BP's fumbling containment efforts, its second Gulf rig, and its shameless attempts to downplay the problem: 5,000 barrels a day indeed! That's how much BP says it is now recovering, and this thing is so far from being over.

You can keep on top of Kate's and Mac's dispatches on our home page, Facebook page, and by following their Twitter streams.

UPDATE: Here's a video showing how sticky the stuff really is:

UPDATE 2: Check out these photos from Gov. Bobby Jindal's tour of the fouled marshes.

(If you appreciate our ongoing BP coverage, please consider making a
tax-deductible donation.)

Follow Michael Mechanic on Twitter.

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How Many Free Passes Does Rand Paul Get Before He's a Bigot?

| Thu May 20, 2010 3:19 PM EDT

Rand Paul was in high libertarian form last night on Rachael Maddow, where he refused to endorse some parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because big government has no right to make private lunch counters take down those "Whites Only" signs. That doesn't make Paul a racist, says Ezra Klein, but rather a slightly less disturbing "ideological extremist," someone comfortable standing by his small government ideals even when he comes off as an asshole. Klein's willingness to give Paul the benefit of the doubt might be justified--if not for Rand and Ron Paul's ever-growing list of associations with the kind of people who like to wear pointy white hats.

Let's start with the 2008 presidential bid of Ron Paul, Rand's father. Early on, Paul took heat for refusing to return a $500 donation from well-known white supremacist Don Black. A few months later, the New Republic's James Kirchick exposed the bigoted content of dozens of unbylined newsletters published under Paul's name starting in the 1970s. Paul accepted "moral responsibilty" for the newsletters but denied knowing about their content. Still, many reporters gave him a pass. How could a self-proclaimed fan of Martin Luther King be a bigot?

Flash forward to the early days of Rand Paul 2010. Back in December, before the MSM was paying much attention to the campaign, a Kentucky blogger exposed Paul spokesman Chris Hightower's unusual taste in fashion. On his MySpace page, Hightower had written:

So, I was in Rivergate Mall today in line to get some pizza and I noticed a group of Afro-Americans were looking at me with hate and whispering stuff. I was wondering WTF and procceeded to sit facing them and give them the "what the fuck are you looking at look". Anyway after a few snarls they quit looking at me. I was like do these fuckers think I am someone else or what? Anyway I finished my food and went to find some new shoes. About 10 minutes later, another group of Afro-Americans are giving me the same looks, it then dawns on me, there has to be something on this hoodie that is pissing off the Afro-Americans. And sure enough when I get outside the mall I look and bingo. KKK .... LOL!

He also left this post from a friend up on his wall for more than two years:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rand Paul eventually fired Hightower over the affair. Still, the ties between the Pauls and racists may now seem a bit too cozy for comfort. It's one thing to espouse a governing philisophy that just happens to appeal to shiny-headed cape wearers. It's another thing entirely to let them speak for you, maybe accidentally, or maybe not, but nonetheless over and over again.

UPDATE: This afternoon, Paul reversed himself, saying he now believes the federal government should have the power to prevent private businesses from discriminating based on race. H/T to TPM's Justin Elliott.

Checking in on Emilio Gutiérrez Soto

| Thu May 20, 2010 2:40 PM EDT

It's been nearly a year since Mother Jones published our cover story on the plight of exiled Mexican journalist Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, and in that time the Mexican drug war death count has soared to 23,000 since President Calderón launched his war on the cartels in December of 2006. Emilio's home state of Chihuahua has been the hardest hit, with an estimated 6,757 people killed. While Emilio is still waiting for his asylum trial, the stats don't look good: of the 13,000 asylum claims from Mexico filed over the past three years, only 232 have been granted. Emilio is again working for his long-time employers, El Diario, in their El Paso office, where PBS's excellent new show (and Climate Desk partner) Need to Know checks in on him:

Questions Loom over Final Finance Vote

| Thu May 20, 2010 2:23 PM EDT

On his second try, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) corralled together enough votes to all but end the debate on financial reform and set up a final vote tomorrow evening. Joining 57 Democrats to vote "Yes" on today's cloture motion, the second in two days, were Maine Republicans Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown. The cloture motion passed 60-40. 

The real story of today's vote, though, involves the two Democratic "No" votes, Senators Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.). Unlike their fellow "No" votes, Cantwell and Feingold opposed cloture today, as they did yesterday, because they want the bill to be tougher. Both senators say the bill doesn't go far enough on two hot-button subjects—preventing financial institutions from becoming too-big-to-fail and overhauling the derivatives markets.

In Feingold's case, he essentially wants to see some form of the Glass-Steagall Act—which erected a firewall between staid commercial banks and more risky investment banks—reinstated via the Senate's reform bill. Yesterday, after voting "No" the first time, Feingold said:

We need to eliminate the risk posed to our economy by ‘too big to fail’ financial firms and to reinstate the protective firewalls between Main Street banks and Wall Street firms. Unfortunately, these key reforms are not included in the bill. The test for this legislation is a simple one—whether it will prevent another financial crisis. As the bill stands, it fails that test. Ending debate on the bill is finishing before the job is done.

Maria Cantwell said yesterday after her first "No" vote that her main concern about the bill was that it contained no punishment for those who violated the new restrictions on derivatives. Cantwell explained that she wanted tougher language in the bill to crack down on derivatives users that don't comply with the bill—but that language has not yet been included, which likely explains her vote.

Cantwell and Feingold's defections are a major headache for Reid. It'll be a lot easier for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to reel back in one, two, or three of the GOPers who voted for cloture today, switching them from presumed "Yes"s to "No"s on the final vote. What's far harder is convincing Cantwell or Feingold that they should vote for the bill even though they see major, fundamental problems with how its currently written. With Feingold, he's essentially saying the biggest aspect of the bill—ending too-big-to-fail—won't fix anything and needs to be changed. There is, however, no way that'll be fixed in the next day—after all, it took months of backroom battling to get to where we are today.

Reid's got his work cut out for him winning over Cantwell and Feingold by tomorrow evening.

What's 23andMe Really Selling? (Cuz the Feds Are Asking.)

| Thu May 20, 2010 12:59 PM EDT

A congressional committee is looking closely at direct-to-consumer genetic tests of the sort that purportedly tell you your predisposition to various diseases and likely responses to drugs—and which you may have seen advertised on the sides of blimps and such. Indeed, 23andMe, which is partly owned by Google and markets its services via dirigible (among other platforms) is one of the three California personal-genomics firms now under federal scrutiny. (The others are Pathway Genomics and Navigenetics, Inc.)

Yesterday, Rep. Henry Waxman sent letters (download here) to the three firms on behalf of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. The move was prompted by news reports that Pathway plans to sell its kits—previously unavailable from retail stores—at Walgreen's, the nation's largest drugstore chain. The companies have about two weeks to produce, among other things, the following:

All documents relating to the ability of your genetic testing products to accurately
identify consumer risk, including:
a. internal and external communications regarding the accuracy of your testing;
b. documents describing how your analysis of individual test results controls for
scientific factors such as age, race, gender, and geographic location;
c. third party communications validating the association between the scientific data
your company uses for analyzing test results and the consumer's risk for each
condition, disease, drug response, or adverse reaction as identified by the results
of an individual test; and
d. documents relating to proficiency testing conducted by your clinical laboratories.

Ruh-oh!

Sounds like the feds are finally catching on to the sorts of concerns MoJo contributor and medical writer Shannon Brownlee covered in our November/December 2009 issue. (See "Google's Guinea Pigs.") The gist was that most of these kits should be labeled with that timeless disclaimer "For Novelty Use Only" given how little they actually tell us about our health. Truly useful genetic associations with disease, as opposed to navel-gazing fodder, require that you conduct serious, clinically controlled testing of hundreds of thousands of people. Brownlee writes:

Knowing how genes affect people's response to medicines could help drugmakers determine proper dosages. And tailoring products to patients with specific gene profiles may allow Big Pharma to revive once marginal drugs, extend patents, and reduce side effects—and thus lawsuits. Doctors can already use genes to determine, for example, which of their breast cancer patients will most likely benefit from the drug Herceptin.

But there's a rub: It will be years, even decades, before this new research produces many tangible benefits. For the time being, SNPs [the DNA fragments most companies use as the basis for their testing] won't tell you much. My 23andMe profile suggests I'm prone to having underweight babies. (My boy was nine pounds, six ounces.) I should have an average number of freckles. (I'm covered.) Blue eyes. (Bzzzt! Green.) Poor performance on nonverbal tests of intelligence. (I aced my SATs.) If science can't get the trivial stuff right, why should I worry when a company says I have an elevated risk for heart disease or macular degeneration? My profile also says my SNPs should make me sensitive to the anti-clotting drug warfarin. What it can't tell me is how my doctor is supposed to use this information. Should she not prescribe it, and leave me vulnerable to blood clots? Or give me a low, perhaps ineffective dose? The drug susceptibility info these companies provide is the roughest sort of guide.

In fact, for 23andMe, the tests themselves are a loss leader. Despite touchy-feely marketing that uses terms like "empowered" and "live strong," the real business model isn't about telling you your predisposition to Crohn's disease and such. As Brownlee puts it: