Mojo - June 2011

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for June, 22 2011

Wed Jun. 22, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

U.S. Army Spc. Daniel Miller (left) and Spc. Daniel Scott, both assigned to the Zabul Provincial Reconstruction Team security force, provide security as members of the team make their way to a canal project site in Zabul province, Afghanistan, on June 14, 2011. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson, U.S. Air Force.

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Speedup Wonkdown

| Tue Jun. 21, 2011 5:47 PM EDT

July/August Cover of Mother Jones Magazine

The internet has been liking our "Speedup" essay about how Americans are being squeezed at work—no wonder, given that many of you probably read the piece sitting at a stoplight, on the phone to your boss, while firing off a couple of emails. "I haven't felt as 'hell yeah' about an article in a while," tweeted one reader. Commenters dug deep into census stats and the cost of childcare. And then there was a post by one of our favorite conservative bloggers, NRO's Reihan Salam, who in addition to calling the piece "a winner for the progressive mediasphere" (thanks!) and suggesting that we expand it into a book, asked a lot of smart questions including this one (about our point that all this overload merely serves to goose corporate profits):

If most of that 22 percent increase in profits accrued to the financial sector, should we reassess how we think about real economy firms? Could it be that addressing the pathologies of the financial sector is the right approach, not embracing more aggressive labor market regulations, collective bargaining, etc.?

Our answer, you won't be surprised to hear, is: We need both. But Salam is absolutely right that more data is needed on this whole topic—we were quite stunned, in researching the piece, at the lack of detailed research on worker productivity and its role in the economy. Could it have to do with the pollution of the economics profession? We'd dig into this immediately, but... we're slammed. Reihan, it's definitely going into the book (thanks, Ezra!) file.

Man Robs Bank of $1 To Get Health Care in Prison

| Tue Jun. 21, 2011 3:56 PM EDT

No, it's not an Onion article. An unemployed, sickly man in North Carolina robbed a bank of a single dollar in hopes of being arrested and receiving free health care in prison. The New York Times relays the story, which seems destined to become a political anecdote about our dysfunctional health care system:

James Verone, an unemployed 59-year-old with a bad back, a sore foot and an undiagnosed growth on his chest, limped into a bank in Gastonia, N.C., this month and handed the teller a note, explaining that this was an unarmed robbery, but she'd better turn over $1 and call the cops. That, he figured, would be enough to get himself arrested and sent to prison for a few years, where he could take advantage of the free medical care...

In a television interview last week with a local news station, WCNC, Mr. Verone explained that he was hoping for a three-year sentence, which would give him a place to live and free health care until he was old enough to collect a Social Security check and buy a condo on the beach.

The story is telling not just because it shows the sad desperation of uninsured Americans who have trouble finding health care—but also how costly it is to leave such problems unattended. James Verone may have only robbed the bank of one dollar, but the cost of jailing him for just one year in North Carolina is over $23,000, not to mention the legal fees his case will rack up as well. Similarly, if he wasn't in prison, and his health problems worsened, he could end up in an emergency room, where the state would again have to help foot the bill if he couldn't pay. Insuring him would likely be the cheapest option—which is one reason why Democrats have made universal coverage a priority under federal health reform.

New Warning Labels: Ruining Smokers' Days?

| Tue Jun. 21, 2011 11:58 AM EDT
New warning labels issued by the Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday carry graphic depictions of the potential consequences of cigarette smoking.

On Tuesday morning, the Food and Drug Administration issued its new warning labels for cigarette packages. They're pretty gross:

Among the images to appear on cigarette packs are rotting and diseased teeth and gums and a man with a tracheotomy smoking.

Also included among the labels are: the corpse of a smoker, diseased lungs, and a mother holding her baby with smoke swirling around them. They include phrases like "Smoking can kill you" and "Cigarettes cause cancer" and feature graphic images to convey the dangers of tobacco, which is responsible for about 443,000 deaths in the U.S. a year.

Cigarette makers have until the fall of 2012 to introduce the new labels (I'm going to go ahead and bet you won't see them until right around then), which must cover the top half of every pack of cigarettes.

Now, if you're a smoker, I can see how this might bother you. You probably feel like you know the health risks of smoking, and you've made an informed decision. (In fact, that's the exact same argument the tobacco companies made for years in court as they successfully smacked down one cancer lawsuit after another.) Why should the FDA ruin your day by putting disgusting photos and disturbing warnings on your cigarette pack?

But here's the thing: it's not just you who is paying for the health consequences of your decision. If you live past 65, the taxpayers are footing the bill, just like we would for anyone else. So if the government isn't going to make a habit that is a massive public health risk illegal (and I think the drug war shows why that might be a bad idea), the least it can do is strongly discourage the habit. (The FDA is actually behind many first-world public health agencies in mandating really explicit anti-smoking labels on cigarette packs.)

I recently finished Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies, an awesome "biography" of cancer that everyone should read. I was especially struck by the contrast between Mukherjee's willingness to, if not forgive, at least understand the horrible mistakes that were made in early cancer treatment (e.g., radical mastectomies for everyone!) and his barely suppressed rage at the "range and depth of devastation" caused by cigarette smoking:

It remains an astonishing, disturbing fact that in America—a nation where nearly every new drug is subjected to rigorous scrutiny as a potential carcinogen, and even the bare hint of a substance's link to cancer ignites a firestorm of public hysteria and media anxiety-one of the most potent and common carcinogens known to humans can be freely bought and sold at every corner store for a few dollars.

Is New Jersey's Honeymoon With Chris Christie Over?

| Tue Jun. 21, 2011 9:11 AM EDT

The state of New Jersey's love affair with Republican Governor Chris Christie seems to have come to an end.

A new poll by Quinnipiac University shows that Christie's approval rating is at its lowest ever among his state's citizens, with 44 percent supporting him and 47 percent disapproving. But the biggest loss for Christie came among women respondents, who have turned against governor: 54 percent disapprove of him, while 36 percent approve. This likely reflects his contentious education reform agenda, which involves weakening teachers' unions, cutting public school funding, and creating more charter schools.

"Gov. Christie is having a big problem with women, perhaps because they care more about schools and disapprove 60-34 percent of the way he's handling education," said Quinnipiac pollster Maurice Carroll. "But voters like their 'Jersey guy' governor better as a person than they like his policies," Carroll added. "Men like him a lot; women, not so much."

As for Christie's national political prospects, a majority of voters (61 to 32 percent) don't think Christie would make a very good GOP vice presidential pick. Christie himself has repeatedly said he won't run for national office, but nonetheless he's been touted as a Republican politico who could enter the GOP presidential race late in the game and still compete with President Obama.

Christie's sinking approval ratings mirror those of fellow first-term GOP governors, including Florida's Rick Scott, Michigan's Rick Snyder, Wisconsin's Scott Walker, and Ohio's John Kasich. Swept into office on the tea party tide in the 2010 elections, these governors face not only public backlash for their hard-right policies—busting unions, slashing public health-care and social services—but, in some cases, recall campaigns demanding their early ouster.

Did the Tea Party Convert David Mamet?

| Tue Jun. 21, 2011 6:01 AM EDT
David Mamet.

The new book out this month by Pulitzer-prize winning playwright David Mamet isn't winning any rave reviews from the mainstream press. No doubt that's because the MSM is dominated by a bunch of liberals, and Mamet, formerly a liberal himself, has come out as a Fox-News-watching right-winger. This weekend, his book was panned in the New York Times by Christopher Hitchens.

Like Mamet, Hitchens has moved far to the right of his liberal roots, but he still wasn't finding much to love about The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture. He calls it "an extraordinarily irritating book." Reviewers, including Hitchens, have noted that Mamet credits such right-wing talk show hosts as Glenn Beck and Hugh Hewitt for putting him on the path to righteousness. But could it be possible that the tea party movement had something to do with his conservative conversion as well?

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for June 21, 2011

Tue Jun. 21, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Patrick Hendrickson, platoon leader, 1st Platoon, Company A, 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry Regiment, 34th Infantry Division, Iowa National Guard, takes cover in a wheat field behind a dirt mound as he moves his platoon into position prior to moving into Ruwquiean Village, Afghanistan on June 9. U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Andrew Guffey 210th MPAD

Corn on "Hardball": Jon Stewart Takes Down Chris Wallace

Tue Jun. 21, 2011 4:55 AM EDT

David Corn and Alex Wagner joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss Jon Stewart's recent smackdown of Fox News anchor Chris Wallace.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter and Facebook. Get David Corn's RSS feed.

Surprise! TSA Is Searching Your Car, Subway, Ferry, Bus, AND Plane

| Mon Jun. 20, 2011 6:15 PM EDT

Scott Ableman/FlickrScott Ableman/FlickrThink you could avoid the TSA's body scanners and pat-downs by taking Amtrak? Think again. Even your daily commute isn't safe from TSA screenings. And because the TSA is working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Border Patrol, you may have your immigration status examined along with your "junk".

As part of the TSA's request for FY 2012 funding, TSA Administrator John Pistole told Congress last week that the TSA conducts 8,000 unannounced security screenings every year. These screenings, conducted with local law enforcement agencies as well as immigration, can be as simple as checking out cargo at a busy seaport. But more and more, they seem to involve giving airport-style pat-downs and screenings of unsuspecting passengers at bus terminals, ferries, and even subways.

These surprise visits are part of the TSA's VIPR program: Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response. The VIPR program first started doing searches in 2007, and has grown since then. Currently, the TSA only has 25 VIPR teams doing these impromptu searches: in 2012, it wants to get 12 more.

The searches are in the name of passenger security, and the TSA says it wants to prevent incidents like the 2004 Madrid train bombings. But if the airports' TSA searches miss security risks like large knives, loaded guns, and explosives, there's certainly the chance that screenings at train stations would be similarly flawed.

Not to worry: security isn't the only goal of VIPR. A recent VIPR operation/screening at a Tampa Greyhound bus station was conducted with US Border Patrol and ICE. "What we're looking for is threats to national security as well as immigration law violators," said Steve McDonald from US Border Patrol. An ICE representative said that they were also looking for smuggling, and Gary Milano from Homeland Security said that although that was the first time the Tampa bus depot had been screened, VIPR would be back again sometime in the future and was using the element of surprise as a deterrent to "the bad guys."

Although one man at the Tampa screening said he felt "safer," VIPR operations are not without their naysayers. A VIPR screening at a Des Moines Greyhound station last week is alleged to have targeted Latinos. Another TSA/Border Patrol VIPR screening on a trolley in San Diego resulted in three teens being handcuffed and deported while on their way to school. Around 20 others were also deported, according to local news outlets.

The trolley is part of the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System. "We believe this is a flagrant violation of human rights, when we have a situation in which children are being separated from their families without the proper due process rights being afforded to them," said a spokesman for the girl's family. The three teens nabbed in the San Diego VIPR operation were deported to Tijuana, but later allowed to re-enter the United States on humanitarian visas.

More children, this time train passengers disembarking at Savannah, Georgia, were treated to questionable TSA treatment in February along with their families. While the passengers (who again, had just gotten OFF a train) were lifting their shirts and having bras handled during pat-downs, their luggage was sitting unattended on the train platform.

The TSA later admitted that the VIPR operation should have ended before the train entered the station, but told the public that the Savannah passengers didn't have to enter the screening area... even though an eye-witness says a TSA agent instructed them to go into the screening area to collect their luggage... the luggage that was actually waiting somewhere else.

VIPR operations are now even targeting freight trucks on highways. In addition to the random checks on public transit systems, it makes you wonder: can private vehicles be far behind? Will there be any mode of transportation beyond the reach of the TSA?

UPDATE: According to at least one news report out of Brownsville, Texas, TSA/VIPR has already conducted unannounced inspections of private passenger cars and trucks. Thanks for the tip, reader @jwindz.

UPDATE 2: Welcome, Drudge Report readers! If you liked this story, check out our story on how the TSA is scanning your face in an attempt to read your mind, our explainer on the safety of the new "porno-scanners," our report on the TSA missing a man's loaded handgun, our investigation of the people who are profiting from the new scanners, and Kevin Drum's anti-anti-TSA rant.

Why Did Facebook Block UK Strike Site?

| Mon Jun. 20, 2011 6:05 PM EDT
UK Prime Minister David Cameron videochats with Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, in July 2010.

Did Facebook intentionally block the website of UK-based labor protest organizers? The company denies the allegation, but UK activists aren't convinced.

Labor unions and student activists in the United Kingdom are organizing a massive strike of public workers to protest cuts planned by Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative-led government. They're hoping to draw tens or even hundreds of thousands of supporters into the streets to join the workers in an across-the-pond version of the Wisconsin demonstrations that captured national attention n March.

But over the past few days, as activists worked to promote their plan, they ran into a problem: Facebook, the social networking site that has helped activists across the Arab world organize pro-Democracy protests in recent months, was blocking the strike organizers' website, www.j30strike.org. Here's one message received by people who attempted to share the site on their walls:

Screenshot of the error message received by people (including several Mother Jones staffers) who attempted to share the website promoting a strike planned for June 30 in the UK.Screenshot of the error message received by people (including several Mother Jones staffers) who attempted to use Facebook to share a website promoting a strike planned for June 30 in the UK.UK-based activists had been receiving the error message for days before a US-based tipster contacted Mother Jones with the news via our scoop [at] motherjones [dot] com tip line. After confirming that my coworkers and I had the same problem, I contacted Facebook by phone and email around  noon Eastern time on Monday. Sharing of the site was enabled almost immediately after my inquiries, but by 1:30 p.m., the site was blocked again. Around 3 p.m., I heard from Andrew Noyes, a Facebook spokesman in the company's DC office. "The site was blocked in error," he wrote in an email. "We've now unblocked it and apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused." I emailed back to report that the site had been blocked again. I have yet to hear back, but the site was unblocked again by 5:30 p.m, and seems to be working now.

The UK activists, meanwhile, believe something sinister may be afoot. They note that Facebook also seems to be blocking sharing of a post by Chris Peterson, a blogger who first wrote about this problem. Several activists sent me links to a Guardian article reporting on claims that Facebook had conducted a "purge" of accounts run by UK student activists. The activists also noted that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has encouraged Britons to use Facebook to submit ideas about government funding cuts to Cameron's government, and that Cameron and Zuckerberg conducted a video chat to promote the idea last summer.

All that said, Facebook is now on the record saying this was an error. But as an increasingly important means of communication and social and political organizing, it's important—for Facebook and its users—that the company be seen as a neutral party in debates over political issues. Ensuring that both sides of a debate have equal access to Facebook's impressive organizing powers is part of that equation. If blocking the June 30th strike website really was an error, Facebook should make sure it stays unblocked—and take steps to prevent similar errors in the future.

UPDATE: Chris Peterson, the blogger mentioned above, has written a follow-up post on this controversy. Check it out.