Mojo - November 2010

Invasion of the Body Scanners: Airport Security May Not Work, But It Does Cause Cancer

| Tue Nov. 23, 2010 2:00 PM EST

On the eve of some of the busiest travel days of the year, airport scanners are causing hysteria–and with good reason. Never mind the puerile TSA screeners giggling at your naked body. It turns out that the things may pose serious health concerns. In a letter to John Pistole, administrator of TSA, New Jersey Congressman Rush Holt, a scientist and the Chairman of the House Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, raised the possibility that the machines might be carcinogenic.

In March, the Congressional Biomedical Caucus (of which I am a co-chair) hosted a presentation on this technology by TSA, as well as a briefing by Dr. David Brenner of Columbia University on the potential health effects of “back scatter” x-ray devices. As Dr. Brenner noted in his presentation and in subsequent media interviews, the devices currently in use and proposed for wider deployment this year currently deliver to the scalp “20 times the average dose that is typically quoted by TSA and throughout the industry.”

Dr. Brenner has pointed out that the majority of the radiation from X-ray backscatter machines strikes the top of the head, which is where 85 percent of the 800,000 cases of basal cell carcinoma diagnosed in the United States each year develop. According to Dr. Brenner, excessive x-ray exposure can act as a cancer rate multiplier, which is why our government should investigate thoroughly the potential health risks associated with this technology.V

Various experts have questioned whether older people and children ought to be subjected to scanners, and whether people susceptible to or having melanoma and cataracts should undergo the scan. 

Holt also questioned the efficacy of the body scanners, which would come as no surprise to critics who’ve been lambasting them for years. Last January, when the government’s appetite for body scanners got a big boost from the underwear bomber, there was skepticism about their ability to detect the types of explosives favored by would-be airline bombers. As I wrote at the time:

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Will Legislative Gridlock Really Help the GOP?

| Tue Nov. 23, 2010 1:22 PM EST

Do the results of the midterms even matter? Most Americans don't think so, according to a new ABC News/Yahoo! Poll, 40 percent don't think the election results will affect the direction of the country, while 34 percent think the outcome will help the country and 21 percent think the outcome will negatively impact the nation. What's more, 56 percent of those surveyed think that "government gridlock" is a bad thing.

It's tempting to interpret the survey as a sign that the Republican Party should take heed and not overreach with its newly empowered House majority. "The survey reinforces the notion that Republicans, who rode a wave of public support into the House majority, still have much to prove after being voted out of power in Congress in 2006 and out of the White House in 2008," The Hill concludes.

But it's important to remember there has effectively been "government gridlock" ever since the passage of health care  and Wall Street reform. Exceedingly little has happened since then: there's been an extension of unemployment benefits and a ramped up border enforcement bill that didn't draw much attention. The Republicans didn't need to take the House back to jam up the works: they had already pushed the Dems to the brink in the 111th Congress, and skittish Democrats up for re-election refused to take any more heat after the big votes on financial reform and health care.

While Americans may not like the sound of "government gridlock," it's already begun. The GOP-driven obstructionism in the next Congress will just be a continuation of the status quo, and if Americans don't expect much to change in Washington, they're right. After all, it's already becoming clear that the GOP's most radical reforms—like repealing the federal health care law—don't have a real chance of happening. The GOP-controlled House does promise for more dramatic political showdowns but doesn't meant they'll be able to push significant legislation past the Democratic Senate, not to mention the president's desk.

Activists on both ends of the political spectrum may disappointed that their respective parties won't have accomplished more by 2012. But if little but the bare-minimum gets done, it's unclear exactly who middle-of-the-road voters will take to task for federal inaction.

CREW Slams Holder, DOJ

| Tue Nov. 23, 2010 12:04 PM EST

The more things change, the more they stay the same. At least they do at the Department of Justice, according to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW)

The watchdog group sent a letter to the DOJ today, calling out Attorney General Eric Holder and the Obama administration for dragging their heels on several of the group's Freedom of Information (or FOIA) requests. Holder and the DOJ's lack of transparency, CREW argues, runs counter to the president's campaign promises to run a more open administration than his predecessor.

The letter cites CREW's requests for information on a investigations involving the Bush administration, including the Dick Cheney's involvement in the Valerie Plame affair and former Office of Legal Counsel deputy John Yoo's infamous memos giving the president the legal greenlight to authorize torture.

CREW writes in a release that the "DOJ continues to operate—as it did during the Bush administration—under a presumption of secrecy" and is "deliberately withholding information about what DOJ is up to and why."

CREW's letter comes not long after Wil Hylton's sobering profile of Holder in the December issue of GQ. It describes a politically compromised DOJ, buckled by a fear of relitigating the past and incurring the wrath of congressional Republicans eager for evidence of White House overreach. "The president has promised transparency," says CREW's chief counsel Anne Wiesmann, "and the Department of Justice should be leading the way not trailing the herd."

DC Ticker on ABC News: Pistole, Sell; Huckabee, Buy

| Tue Nov. 23, 2010 11:21 AM EST

I've previously explained the DC Ticker I compile most days, which is now being featured weekly on ABC News' website show, Political Punch, hosted by Jake Tapper. Here are the picks featured on the latest PP:

John Pistole, sell — More squeezing or less at airport screening? TSA chief John Pistole has been sending conflicting signals.

* Mary Cheney, buy — The ex-veep's other daughter is making a bid to be a GOP powerbroker, helping to organize a political committee for Maria Cino, a former Bush administration official angling to replace Michael Steele as RNC chair.

* Sarah Palin, buy — Hasn't she supersaturated the political marketplace yet? Short answer: no. Her new book is out this week, her new TV show is up, and Bristol Palin went much farther on DWTS than could be expected.

* Mike Huckabee, buy — The 2012 presidential wannabe was in Iowa courting social conservatives, just as several Iowan evangelical groups have merged into a single outfit—which could make it easier for Huckabee to rally that crucial Iowa voting bloc.

You can receive the almost-daily DC Ticker report by following my Twitter feed. (#DCticker is the Twitter hashtag.) Please feel free to argue with my selections—though all decisions of the judges are final. And please feel free to make suggestions for buy or sell orders in the comments below or on Twitter (by replying to @DavidCornDC).

DC Ticker is merely an advisory service. It and its author cannot be held liable for any investments made in politicians, policy wonks, or government officials on the basis of the information presented. Invest in politics at your own risk.

Whole Foods CEO: Yes, We Have No Obamacare

| Tue Nov. 23, 2010 7:00 AM EST

Last August, John Mackey, the founder and CEO of Whole Foods, sparked outrage in the liberal blogosphere and a customer boycott by publishing a full-throated critique of Obamacare on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal. He argued that the country should "move in the opposite direction—toward less government control and more individual empowerment," and held up Whole Foods' own health plan as an alternative: "Our plan's costs are much lower than typical health insurance, while providing a very high degree of worker satisfaction."

But it turns out that Mackey's claims, which also fueled conservative opposition to the Democrats' health-care bill, were misleading. In a memo that he sent to all employees last month, obtained by Mother Jones, Mackey concedes that Whole Foods is actually sinking under the weight of its health care expenses. In the past seven years, he writes, the cost of the company's health care plan as a percentage of its sales has gone up 60 percent. This year's tab is "equal to about 10% of the total Team Member compensation of $2 billion," Mackey complains. "On average over the past three years we have spent more on health care costs than we have made in total net profits!"

Far from being a model of do-it-yourself health care reform, then, Whole Foods' costly insurance plan illustrates why Mackey's opposition to the Affordable Care Act was misguided. Like other major grocery store chains, Whole Foods is facing rampant inflation in health costs. (Unlike Whole Foods, however, Safeway supported key parts of the ACA.) Experts blame this on a lack of incentives for doctors to control costs and the 44 million uninsured Americans who burden the system. The health care bill passed in March is meant to address those problems, in part, by mandating that everyone purchase insurance, subsidizing coverage for the neediest, and creating exchanges in which individuals can pool their resources to purchase affordable coverage. A report by the Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs from large companies, estimates that the bill could lower health care costs by as much as $3,000 per employee by 2019.  

Yet Mackey, an avowed libertarian, appears to see only one upside in the passage of health-care reform: The opportunity to use it as a scapegoat for Whole Foods' increasing health costs. In the memo, he informs his employees that their insurance deductibles will be increasing to $2,000 for the company's medical plan and $1,000 for its prescription plan, a spike that he blames entirely on the federal government: "This is very important for everyone to understand: 100% of the increases in deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums in 2011 compared to 2010 are due to new federal mandates and regulations." (His emphasis.)

But Whole Foods CEO isn't being honest with his employees about the real cause of the company's escalating health costs. Most of the ACA's key provisions don't go into effect until 2014. Major parts of the bill that kick in sooner, such new rules governing "mini med" plans offered by fast food chains, wouldn't directly affect Whole Foods. And even then, the bill allows companies to petition for temporary exemptions from the new rules. "It really strains credibility to say that all of Whole Foods' cost increases are due to the Affordable Care Act," says Karen Davenport, the director of health policy at the Center for American Progress. Last year, for example, the average price of an individual health insurance plan rose 5 percent—part of a continuing hike in medical costs that began more than a decade before the ACA was passed.

A spokeswoman for Whole Foods confirmed the Mackey memo's authenticity but declined to answer any questions about the company's health care plan.

Whatever the reason for Whole Foods' health care woes, its solution is simple: Cover fewer workers. Another internal Whole Foods document obtained by Mother Jones, "Guidelines for a Part-Time Work Force," notes that part-time workers are less likely than full-timers to qualify for or sign up for the company's health plan—a major reason why part-timers cost less. "Whole Foods currently has 17% of their team members as part-time," the document notes. "The ideal situation is to have 30% part-time. By shifting the workforce by 13% we expect to substantially improve the company expenses by 2011."

In short, Whole Foods' solution is to become part of the problem Mackey is complaining about. By increasing the portion of its workforce that goes without insurance, it is burdening the health care system and driving up costs for everyone else. That's exactly the type of vicious cycle that the ACA is intended to break. Starting in 2014, the law requires uninsured Americans, like Whole Foods part-timers, to purchase coverage through their employers or through nonprofit exchanges. If the exchanges work as envisioned, they'll provide affordable care for the neediest while lowering insurance premiums across the board. Now that, as much as any organic, free-range Thanksgiving turkey, would be a reason to be thankful.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 23, 2010

Tue Nov. 23, 2010 6:30 AM EST

U.S. Army Pvt. Michael Cozad 2nd Platoon, Charlie Troop, 389th Cavalry Squadron, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division watches the rooftops for enemy snipers Charkh District, Logar Province, Afghanistan Nov.13, 2010. (U.S. Army Photo by Sgt. Sean P. Casey 982D Combat Camera ABN/ Released)

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A Draft for Tea Partiers?

| Mon Nov. 22, 2010 5:58 PM EST

You'd think that late 2010 is an awful time to reconsider the military draft. Nobody, left or right, is particularly enthused about America's ongoing expeditions in Iraq and Afghanistan. After the midterm elections, the Republicans are claiming a mandate for a strange tea-party rule that hates Islamofascists, but hates debt and government largesse more.

And yet. Foreign Policy blogger and longtime military reporter Tom Ricks lays out a three-pronged proposal for a national service requirement that's got something for everyone: A military option provides for the common defense while likely making the ranks a little more representative of America at large. If successful, it could make voters more circumspect about the future use of force, while also disarming a lot of conservative criticism of "elitist" liberals who allegedly don't share the burdens of citizenship with Middle America's soldier caste.

Then there's the civilian service option to "be a teacher's aide at a troubled inner-city school, clean up the cities, bring meals to elderly shut-ins"...you know, to be a community organizer. It's a choice that ensures young folks that they don't have to learn to handle an M-16 or Claymore mines to give back to their country. It's also nothing new, an option that's been included in recent proposed draft legislation, like Rep. Charlie Rangel's (D-N.Y.)—a guy who needed compulsory national service if there ever was one.

But it's Ricks' third option, for the kids of angry tea partiers and wrecking-crew Republicans, that I find the most fascinating:

The libertarian opt-out. There is a great tradition of libertarianism in this country, and we honor it. Here, you opt out of the military and civilian service options. You do nothing for Uncle Sam. In return, you ask for nothing from him. For the rest of your life, no tuition aid, no federal guarantees on your mortgage, no Medicare. Anything we can take you out of, we will. But the door remains open—if you decide at age 50 that you were wrong, fine, come in and drive a general around for a couple of years.

In terms of social contracts and tradeoffs, I think this proposal has a lot to recommend it. Don't like the idea of compulsory public service? Think the government is de debbil? Fine: Tune out, turn off, and drop out. We dirty collectivists will make sure you still get to sleep safe. We just won't be able to help you with that optional ARM mortgage that you had to get from a usurious private bank.

What do you think? Tell us in the comments!

Remembering Chalmers Johnson

| Mon Nov. 22, 2010 4:03 PM EST

I'm sad to report that Chalmers Johnson died on Saturday. He was a stalwart of TomDispatch, writing for it regularly from its early moments. Without the slightest doubt, he was one of the most remarkable authors I've had the pleasure to edit, no less be friends with. He saw our devolving American world with striking clarity and prescience. He wrote about it with precision, passion, and courage. He never softened a thought or cut a corner. I dedicated my new book to him, writing that he was "the most astute observer of the American way of war I know. He broke the ground and made the difference." I wouldn't change a word. He was a man on a journey from Depression-era Arizona through the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and deep into a world in which the foundations of the American empire, too, began to shudder. A scholar of Japan, one-time Cold Warrior, and CIA consultant, in the twenty-first century, he became the most trenchant critic of American militarism around. I first read a book of his—on Communist peasants in North China facing the Japanese "kill-all, burn-all, loot-all" campaigns of the late 1930s—when I was 20. I last read him this week at age 66. I benefited from every word he wrote. His Blowback Trilogy (Blowback, The Sorrows of Empire, and Nemesis.) will be with us for decades to come. His final work, Dismantling the Empire: America's Last Best Hope, is a testament to his enduring power, even as his body was failing him. To my mind, his final question was this: What would the "sole superpower" look like as a bankrupt country? He asked that question. Nobody, I suspect, has the answer. We may find out. "Adios," he invariably said as he signed off on the phone. Adios, Chal.

Chalmers Johnson was also a regular contributor to Mother Jones. You can find an archive of his articles for us here.

Could Social Conservatives Hijack the States?

| Mon Nov. 22, 2010 11:47 AM EST

The Republican Party seems intent on doing all it can to ensure gridlock in the next Congress, with little expectation for major Democratic legislation to pass the Republican-controlled House. But increasingly, it looks like the GOP may be able to inflict the most damage on the Democratic agenda outside of Washington. The GOP made major 2010 gains in the state legislatures, some of which may move swiftly to enact significant fiscal and social reforms while partisan warfare overtakes Capitol Hill.

Before the midterms, 27 state legislatures were under Democratic control, while 14 were under GOP control, and eight states were split. Now, the Washington Post notes, the GOP has control over more state legislatures than the party has since 1952: "Republicans control 26 state legislatures, Democrats 17, and five have split control… It is the first time since the 1800s that Republicans will control the full legislatures in Alabama and North Carolina. Republicans will lead the Minnesota Senate for the first time ever."

In others, GOP state legislators may have simply benefitted from the down-ballot effect of being on the ticket with the national GOP. Either way, states with total Republican control now have far greater leeway to set and enact their agenda, particularly as compared to their Washington counterparts. The Post explains how the shift could empower GOP-controlled states to act on issues that stayed off the radar during the elections:

Social issues barely rated in this year's economy-centric midterm elections…But major GOP gains in state legislatures across the country - where policy on social issues is often set - left cultural conservatives newly empowered. Opponents of same-sex marriage, for instance, now see an opportunity to block or even reverse recent gains by gay rights advocates … [the National Organization for Marriage] The group focused particularly on Maine, New Hampshire, Minnesota and Iowa, four states grappling with the same-sex marriage issue.

Anti-choice advocates and legislatures have also vowed to make inroads on abortion through state-level programs and the new federal health law. In Wisconsin, the entire state flipped from blue to red: the governor's office and the state legislature, as well as one Senate seat. Wisconsin's GOP Governor-elect has now vowed to "oppose the state's expansion earlier this year of a program that provides free birth control to low-income people and youth as young as 15." Elsewhere, abortion advocates are pushing for states with newly empowered Republicans to bar private insurance companies from covering abortions as part of their health plan, following the lead of five other GOP-controlled states. In some states, groups like the National Organization for Marriage gave millions to GOP state candidates to help put them into office.

Socially liberal advocates—along with some state Republicans themselves—deny that GOP-controlled states will be eager to act on such social issues, given the prevailing concerns about jobs and the economy. Groups like pro-Republican, pro-gay GOProud, along with some tea party activists, have urged the national GOP to keep social issues off the agenda. But even so, there are many areas where fiscal and social issues intersect, and social conservatives may have an opportunity to put their imprimatur on the state level, at least. The fiscal crises that continue to grip state budgets have pushed conservative state legislatures across the country to put a huge host of programs on the chopping block, and funding for hot-button items like free contraceptives could be the first to go.

Missing Figures in Indian Country

| Mon Nov. 22, 2010 7:00 AM EST

Native American crime statistics are notoriously scattered or simply non-existent, so luckily for me, Mac McClelland, a former fact-checker, neatly annotated her investigative steps behind this issue's "A Fistful of Dollars." The stirring piece highlights Indian Country's fragmented justice system and the services offered by a Pawnee man, who is routinely hired to avenge crimes that have gone unpunished. Melissa Tatum, research law professor and associate director of the University of Arizona Indigenous Peoples Law & Policy Program, explained to me that many available stats are based on national surveys, which fail to carve out the realities of the Indian demographics.

Currently, tribes have little penalizing authority, and most crimes just go unpunished. And though Tatum confirms the federal government's efforts to make culturally sensitive legislation (as seen in the recently penned Tribal Law and Order Act (TLOA) [PDF], she foresees a problem in trying to make a one-size-fits-all policy for Indian nations. She explains that tribes vary in geography, history and culture, and therefore, crime problems. To complicate matters, she says there are varying degrees of cultural retention among tribes which affects their justice systems similarly.

"The federal government needs to look to each tribe and each geographic area [and let them] decide for themselves what is appropriate," Tatum explains. "It's listening to each tribe and each culture about what would work for them. And realizing that there's not going to be an ability to find one nationwide solution, but there's going to have to [be] flexibility." Tatum believes the TLOA has potential to fill some of the data gaps and could work to prove Indians' competence to maintain law and order in their own communities, because it seeks to standardize crime-gathering in Indian Country, and encourages data-sharing within the tangled maze of bureaucracies that oversee tribal lands [pdf]. So, if nothing else, at least it could create some reliable data set so tribal, and federal, authorities know what they're dealing with.