Blogs | Mother Jones http://www.motherjones.com/Blogs/kevin%20drum http://www.motherjones.com/files/motherjonesLogo_google_206X40.png Mother Jones logo http://www.motherjones.com en Obama's Had a Helluva Good Month Since the Midterms http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2014/12/obamas-had-helluva-good-month-midterms <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd"> <html><body><p>So how have things been going for our bored, exhausted, and disengaged president? He's been acting pretty enthusiastic, energized, and absorbed with his job, I'd say. Let us <img align="right" alt="" class="image image-_original" src="/files/blog_obama_happy.jpg" style="border: 1px solid black; margin: 20px 0px 15px 30px;">count the things he's done since the November 4th midterm elections:</p> <ul><li><strong>November 10:</strong> Surprised everyone by announcing his support for strong net neutrality.</li> <li><strong>November 11:</strong> Concluded a climate deal with China that was not only important in its own right, but has since been widely credited with jumpstarting&nbsp;progress at the Lima talks last week.</li> <li><strong>November 20:</strong> Issued an executive order protecting millions of undocumented workers from the threat of deportation.</li> <li><strong>November 26:</strong> Signed off on an important new EPA rule significantly limiting ozone emissions.</li> <li><strong>December 15:</strong> Took a quiet victory lap as Western financial sanctions considerably sharpened the pain of Vladimir Putin's imploding economy.</li> <li><strong>December 16:</strong> Got nearly everything he wanted during the lame duck congressional session, and more. Democrats confirmed all important pending nominees, and then got Republican consent to several dozen lesser ones as well.</li> <li><strong>December 17:</strong> Announced a historic renormalization of relations with Cuba.</li> </ul><p>I guess you can add to that a non-event: In its second year, Obamacare signups are going smoothly and ahead of target. Am I missing anything beyond that? Maybe. It's been quite the whirlwind month for our bored, exhausted, disengaged president, hasn't it?</p> <p>All of these things are worthwhile in their own right, of course, but there's a political angle to all of them as well: they seriously mess with Republican heads. GOP leaders had plans for January, but now they may or may not be able to do much about them. Instead, they're going to have to deal with enraged tea partiers insisting that they spend time trying to repeal Obama's actions. They can't, of course, but they have to show that they're trying. So there's a good chance that they'll spend their first few months in semi-chaos, responding to Obama's provocations instead of working on their own agenda.</p> <p>Was that part of the plan? Beats me. But it seems to be working pretty well so far.</p></body></html> Kevin Drum Obama Wed, 17 Dec 2014 20:37:59 +0000 Kevin Drum 266871 at http://www.motherjones.com The Person Who Cares Most About Barack Obama's Approval Rating is Hillary Clinton http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2014/12/person-who-care-most-about-barack-obamas-approval-rating-hillary-clinton <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd"> <html><body><p>Peter Beinart thinks President Obama is due for a comeback. <a href="http://prospect.org/article/barack-obamas-revival-way" target="_blank">Paul Waldman agrees:</a></p> <blockquote> <p>I think Beinart is probably right, and the economy is the main reason; it swamps every other consideration in evaluating the president. We could have some major shock that upends the momentum it has been gaining, but if things proceed for the next two years on the trajectory they're on, the Obama presidency will be one of the best for job creation in recent history. <strong>But it's also important to understand that an Obama revival, should it happen, is going to look different than that of other presidents.</strong></p> </blockquote> <p>In this case, "look different" means that even in the best case Obama will end his presidency with approval ratings in the mid-50s, but no higher. The country is just too polarized to produce anything better. Conservatives of nearly all stripes are going to disapprove of Obama come hell or high water, and that puts a ceiling on how high his approval rating can go. Ditto for any other president these days.</p> <p>But it's true that the economy seems to be doing pretty well these days, and it's usually the economy that drives approval ratings. That's good news for Obama, but it's far better news for Hillary Clinton. For Obama, leaving office with a strong economy is nice for his legacy, but that's about it. For Hillary, it almost certainly means the difference between winning and losing the presidency. If the economy is sluggish or worse in 2016, there's simply no way she overcomes voter fatigue toward Democratic rule. But if the economy is ticking along strongly, she just might.</p> <p>So that's that. The person who cares most about Obama's approval rating isn't Barack Obama. It's Hillary Clinton. It's the tailwind she needs if she wants to become the first woman to occupy the Oval Office.</p></body></html> Kevin Drum 2016 Elections Hillary Clinton Obama Wed, 17 Dec 2014 18:41:10 +0000 Kevin Drum 266841 at http://www.motherjones.com New York State Just Banned Fracking http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2014/12/new-york-state-just-banned-fracking <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd"> <html><body><p>After years of wrangling between environmentalists, lawmakers, and fossil fuel companies, New York's top public health administrator said he would ban fracking in the state, citing health risks.</p> <p>From <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/18/nyregion/cuomo-to-ban-fracking-in-new-york-state-citing-health-risks.html?smid=tw-bna&amp;_r=0" target="_blank">the </a><em><a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/18/nyregion/cuomo-to-ban-fracking-in-new-york-state-citing-health-risks.html?smid=tw-bna&amp;_r=0" target="_blank">New York Times</a>:</em></p> <blockquote> <p>The Cuomo administration announced Wednesday that it would ban hydraulic fracturing in New York State, ending years of uncertainty by concluding that the controversial method of extracting gas from deep underground could contaminate the state&rsquo;s air and water and pose inestimable public-health risks.</p> <p>"I cannot support high volume hydraulic fracturing in the great state of New York," said Howard Zucker, the acting commissioner of health.</p> <p>That conclusion was delivered publicly during a year-end cabinet meeting called by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in Albany&hellip;The state has had a de facto ban on the procedure for more than five years, predating Mr. Cuomo's first term. The decision also came as oil and gas prices continued to fall in many places around the country, in part because of surging American oil production, as fracking boosted output.</p> </blockquote> <p>New York is the second state to ban fracking, after <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/17/vermont-fracking-ban-first_n_1522098.html" target="_blank">Vermont did so in 2012</a>. That move was largely symbolic, since Vermont has no natural gas to speak of. New York, by contrast, would have been a prize for the fracking industry, thanks to its massive share of the <a href="http://www.dec.ny.gov/energy/46381.html" target="_blank">Marcellus shale formation</a>.</p> <p>"This is the first state ban with real significance," said Kate Sinding, a senior attorney in New York for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "My head is still spinning, because this is beyond anything we expected."</p> <p>The fracking battle in New York isn't quite over yet, Sinding said. Now the attention of activists will turn toward proposed infrastructure projects in the state&mdash;like a <a href="http://www.irondequoitpost.com/article/20141119/News/141119635" target="_blank">gas storage facility</a> by Lake Seneca and an <a href="http://www.app.com/story/news/local/red-bank-middletown-area/middletown/2014/12/16/fight-renews-offshore-liquified-natural-gas/20499791/" target="_blank">export facility on Long Island</a>&mdash;that would handle natural gas from fracking projects in neighboring states like Pennsylvania.</p> <p><em>This post has been updated.</em></p></body></html> Blue Marble Climate Change Climate Desk Infrastructure Wed, 17 Dec 2014 18:01:03 +0000 Tim McDonnell 266836 at http://www.motherjones.com Young Fidel Castro Wrote FDR to Ask for 10 Bucks http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2014/12/fidel-castro-fdr-10-bucks-letter <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd"> <html><body><p>In November 1940, a young Cuban student named Fidel Castro sent <a href="http://research.archives.gov/description/302040" target="_blank">a handwritten letter</a> to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Writing in English, Castro congratulated the president on his reelection and requested "a ten dollars bill green american&hellip;because never, I have not seen a ten dollars bill green american and I would like to have one of them." Thinking strategically, the future Cuban dictator also offered access to his country's iron to build American ships.</p> <p>He signed off with a flourish:</p> <div class="inline inline-center" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" src="/files/castro-sig630.gif"><div class="caption">National Archives</div> </div> <p>The letter from the now 88-year-old Castro (<a href="http://www.lettersofnote.com/2009/09/my-good-friend-roosvelt.html" target="_blank">who was 14</a> when he wrote it, not 12 as he said) now resides in the <a href="http://research.archives.gov/description/302040" target="_blank">National Archives</a>. FDR probably never saw the letter. Castro did receive a response&mdash;<a href="http://mentalfloss.com/article/28940/time-fidel-castro-asked-fdr-10" target="_blank">but no cash</a>&mdash;from the US Embassy in Havana. The polite snub officially marks the first exchange between Castro and the United States&mdash;and the beginning of a long, acrimonious relationship that may be <a href="http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/12/obama-cuba-alan-gross" target="_blank">about to thaw</a>.&nbsp;</p> <p>Text of the letter (errors and all):</p> <blockquote> <p>Mr Franklin Roosvelt, President of the United States.</p> <p>My good friend Roosvelt I don't know very English, but I know as much as write to you.<br> I like to hear the radio, and I am very happy, because I heard in it, that you will be President for a new (periodo).<br> I am twelve years old.<br> I am a boy but I think very much but I do not think that I am writing to the President of the United States.<br> If you like, give me a ten dollars bill green american, in the letter, because never, I have not seen a ten dollars bill green american and I would like to have one of them.</p> [&hellip;]</blockquote> <blockquote> <p>I don't know very English but I know very much Spanish and I suppose you don't know very Spanish but you know very English because you are American but I am not American.<br> (Thank you very much) Good by. Your friend,</p> <p>Fidel Castro</p> <p>If you want iron to make your ships I will show to you the bigest (minas) of iron of the land. They are in Mayari Oriente Cuba.</p> </blockquote> <p>&nbsp;</p> <div class="inline inline-center" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" src="/files/castro-letter630.gif"><div class="caption">National Archives</div> </div></body></html> MoJo Foreign Policy International Wed, 17 Dec 2014 17:04:50 +0000 Dave Gilson 266826 at http://www.motherjones.com Battered Ruble Stabilizes -- For Now http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2014/12/battered-ruble-stabilizes-now <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd"> <html><body><p>I promise not to post this chart every day, but since I've put it up for the past two days when the ruble was crashing, I figure I should let everyone <img align="right" alt="" class="image image-_original" src="/files/blog_ruble_dollar_2014_12_17.jpg" style="border: 1px solid black; margin: 20px 0px 15px 30px;">know when the crash has halted. For a few hours, anyway, <a href="http://www.wsj.com/articles/ruble-volatile-in-early-trading-1418802891?mod=WSJ_hp_LEFTWhatsNewsCollection" target="_blank">thanks to some dubious measures from Russian banking authorities:</a></p> <blockquote> <p>The currency was trading 8% stronger against the dollar at 62.1 on the Moscow exchange, while Russia&rsquo;s RTS Index was up 17%, after the central bank eased regulations on the banking system in a bid to provide some relief on capital adequacy for banks and convince Russians to keep their money in rubles.</p> <p>Measures including allowing banks not to take provisions against souring loans and weakening assets they hold, and allowing lenders to use last quarter&rsquo;s exchange rate when settling some foreign-exchange transactions.</p> </blockquote> <p>I'm not sure that loosening banking regulations is a great response to a currency crisis, but I guess you never know. In any case, it seems to have stabilized things for the time being. In the longer term, storm clouds are still brewing. Stay tuned.</p></body></html> Kevin Drum Economy International Wed, 17 Dec 2014 16:49:49 +0000 Kevin Drum 266821 at http://www.motherjones.com Surprise! Obama Plans to Normalize Relations With Cuba. http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2014/12/surprise-obama-plans-normalize-relations-cuba <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd"> <html><body><p><a href="http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2014/12/sure-why-shouldnt-obama-normalize-relations-cuba" target="_blank">A couple of weeks ago,</a> <em>National Review's</em> Jay Nordlinger suggested that maybe President Obama's next executive action would be normalization of relations with Cuba. That struck me as something out of left field, since I'd heard not even a hint of a <img align="right" alt="" class="image image-_original" src="/files/images/Blog_Visit_Cuba.jpg" style="border: 1px solid black; margin: 20px 0px 15px 30px;">peep of a rumor that anything along these lines was in the works. But congratulations Jay! <a href="http://www.wsj.com/articles/american-alan-gross-released-from-cuba-after-5-years-in-prison-1418825981?mod=WSJ_hpp_LEFTTopStories" target="_blank">You were right:</a></p> <blockquote> <p>The United States will restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba and open an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half century after the release of an American contractor held in prison for five years, American officials said Wednesday.</p> <p>In a deal negotiated during 18 months of secret talks hosted largely by Canada and encouraged by Pope Francis who hosted a final culminating meeting at the Vatican, President Obama and President Raul Castro of Cuba agreed in a telephone call to put aside decades of hostility to find a new relationship between the island nation just 90 minutes off the American coast.</p> <p>....The United States will ease restrictions on remittances, travel and banking relations and Cuba will release 53 Cuban prisoners identified as political prisoners by the United States government. Although the decades-old American embargo on Cuba will remain in place for now, the administration signaled that it would welcome a move by Congress to ease or lift it should lawmakers choose to.</p> </blockquote> <p>Oddly enough, I don't see any reaction yet from Nordlinger, or indeed, from anyone over at <em>National Review</em>. Perhaps the intercession of Pope Francis is giving them pause?</p> <p>In any case, this is good news. I don't personally care an awful lot about Cuba or our relations with them, but half a century of pointless enmity really ought to be enough. Fidel Castro may not have been an admirable guy, but&nbsp;Fulgencio Batista was no great shakes either, and it's long past time to stop pining away for the days when he was in power. So let it go, folks. We don't have to approve of everything Cuba does in order to act like adults and conduct normal relations on both sides. We manage to do it with Russia and Venezuela and Pakistan, after all.</p> <p>In any case, that's that. The next step is lifting the trade embargo, but I suppose it's unlikely that a Republican Congress is going to act on that any time soon. Too bad. There's no longer any reason for it, and I'll bet the majority of cigar smokers are Republicans. They want their Havanas, so lifting the embargo would, in a sense, be nothing more than a routine bit of base maintenance. Perhaps if Republicans think of it as just another political payoff for their strongest supporters, they can be talked into it.</p></body></html> Kevin Drum International Wed, 17 Dec 2014 16:31:38 +0000 Kevin Drum 266811 at http://www.motherjones.com BREAKING: US To Normalize Relations With Cuba http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2014/12/breaking-us-normalize-relations-cuba <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd"> <html><body><p><a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/report-cuba-frees-american-alan-gross-after-5-years-detention-on-spy-charges/2014/12/17/a2840518-85f5-11e4-a702-fa31ff4ae98e_story.html" target="_blank">Wow</a>:</p> <blockquote> <p>The United States and Cuba will begin talks to normalize relations, including opening an embassy in Havana and putting to rest one most enduring Cold War standoffs, a U.S. official said Wednesday.</p> <p>The landmark initiatives appeared to be set in motion by a surprise prisoner swap that freed American contractor Alan Gross after five years in custody in Cuba. In exchange, the United States would release three Cubans jailed for espionage, the Associated Press reported.</p> </blockquote> <p>President Obama&nbsp;is scheduled to speak at noon. Watch below for his press conference:&nbsp;</p> <iframe width="630" height="354" src="//www.youtube.com/embed/m6MgATBZMII" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe> <p><strong>Update: </strong>The White House just released a fact sheet outlining the policy changes with Cuba:</p> <div class="DV-container" id="DV-viewer-1382402-white-house-fact-sheet-cuba">&nbsp;</div> <script src="//s3.amazonaws.com/s3.documentcloud.org/viewer/loader.js"></script><script> DV.load("//www.documentcloud.org/documents/1382402-white-house-fact-sheet-cuba.js", { width: 630, height: 500, sidebar: false, text: false, pdf: false, container: "#DV-viewer-1382402-white-house-fact-sheet-cuba" }); </script><p>&nbsp;</p></body></html> MoJo Wed, 17 Dec 2014 16:16:54 +0000 Ben Dreyfuss 266806 at http://www.motherjones.com Wall Street Salivating Over Further Destruction of Financial Reform http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2014/12/wall-street-salivating-over-further-destruction-financial-reform <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd"> <html><body><p>Conventional pundit wisdom suggests that Wall Street may have overreached last week. Yes, they won their battle to repeal the swaps pushout requirement in Dodd-Frank, but in so doing they unleashed Elizabeth Warren and brought far more attention to their shenanigans than they bargained for. They may have won a battle, but with the public now suitably outraged and alert for further mischief, they're unlikely to keep future efforts to weaken financial reform behind the scenes, where they might have a chance to pass with nobody the wiser.</p> <p>Then again, maybe not. Maybe it was all just political theater and Wall Street lobbyists know better than to take it seriously. Ed Kilgore points to <a href="http://thehill.com/policy/finance/227363-emboldened-wall-street-ready-to-dismantle-dodd-frank-financial-law" target="_blank">this article in <em>The Hill</em> today:</a></p> <blockquote> <p><strong>Banks and financial institutions are planning an aggressive push to dismantle parts of the Wall Street reform law when Republicans take control of Congress in January.</strong></p> <p>Fresh off a victory in the government funding debate that liberals decried as a giveaway to Wall Street, advocates for the financial sector aim to pursue additional changes to Dodd-Frank that they say would lighten burdens created by the 2010 law. <strong>Among the top items on the wish list: easing new requirements on mortgages, loosening restrictions on financial derivatives and overhauling the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau....</strong><strong>Another fight on the horizon is the push for &ldquo;regulatory relief,&rdquo;</strong> as financial institutions and Republicans seek to require agencies to pursue more cost-benefit analysis when writing rules.</p> <p>....In the face of loud opposition, financial lobbyists say they have a compelling case for revisiting the law. While the economy is improving, they argue the new rules have made it exceedingly difficult to obtain loans, including mortgages.</p> </blockquote> <p>Will Democrats in the Senate manage to stick together and filibuster these efforts to weaken Dodd-Frank? Or will enough of them peel off to allow some of them to pass? I'd like to think that Elizabeth Warren has made unity more likely, but then again, I have an uneasy feeling that Wall Street lobbyists might have a better read on things than she does. Dodd-Frank has already been weakened substantially in the rulemaking process, and this could easily represent a further death by a thousand cuts. After all, as the Wall Street flacks say, the economy is improving. And who needs a bunch of fussy rules when the economy is good?</p></body></html> Kevin Drum Congress Economy Regulatory Affairs Wed, 17 Dec 2014 15:37:46 +0000 Kevin Drum 266796 at http://www.motherjones.com This New Report Explains Exactly How the Afghan Economy Will Fall Apart http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2014/12/us-government-has-new-report-which-explains-exactly-how-afghan-economy-will-fall-apart <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd"> <html><body><p>When then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld toured a reconstruction center in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, in 2004, he was <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2004/08/12/international/asia/12rumsfeld.html" target="_blank">gushing with optimism</a>. "It is so clear that the Afghan people are winning the struggle to rebuild this nation," he said. That hope is now basically dead. Last week, the Special Investigator General for the Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) issued a <a href="http://www.sigar.mil/pdf/spotlight/High-Risk_List.pdf" target="_blank">report</a> that explains exactly how Afghanistan's economy will fall apart in the next few years. The reasons are easy to understand: Western powers came to the country and built a lot of infrastructure. Now coalition forces are leaving, and Afghanistan has to figure out how to maintain everything the westerners built. With foreign funds drying up, that'll be a tall order.</p> <p>In 2013, the Afghan government collected $2 billion internally, but it spent $5.4 billion. "In other words," SIGAR notes, "domestic revenue covered only 37% of the total budget." The 2014 budget of $7.6 billion plans for even more spending than last year. But Afghanistan's government expects to pay for just $2.8 billion of that with its own money.</p> <p>Afghanistan, like any other debt-burdened nation in the world, can make the imbalance work as long as it has another, external source of funds. But donors are starting to temper their support, and the security, social services, and infrastructure maintenance costs are increasing rapidly. (You can read <em>Mother Jones</em>' list of Afghan infrastructure disasters from last year <a href="http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/11/afghanistan-withdrawal-left-behind" target="_blank">here</a>.)</p> <p>More money will be hard for Afghanistan to come by on its own. There's some mineral development in the works, but it'll be decades before it reaches its true potential, SIGAR says. Licit exports only amounted to a $376 million, or about $8.20 per person, in 2012, according to the <a href="https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/af.html" target="_blank">CIA World Factbook</a>. (The CIA names "small-scale production of bricks" and "handwoven carpets" among the country's top industries.)</p> <p>Afghanistan's one lucrative export is illegal everywhere. Last year, Afghanistan's opium industry was worth an estimated $3 billion, despite the <a href="http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/10/afghanistan-opium-poppy-heroin-record-levels" target="_blank">billions</a> the US has spent trying to stamp it out.</p> <p>"Without donor contributions," SIGAR argues, "the Afghan government will not be able to meet most of its operating or development expenditures." Citing an IMF report, SIGAR says the gap between domestic revenue and expenses will average $7.7 billion every year through 2018.&nbsp;</p> <p>So who's fault is this mess? SIGAR lays much of the blame at the feet of the United States and other countries that built Afghanistan's infrastructure in the first place. "Each new development project that the United States and other international donors fund increases the country's O&amp;M [operation and maintenance] costs, adding pressure to Afghanistan's operating budget," the report states, adding that the US and other other governments should have had a plan for how to pay for their projects' maintenance, knowing they'd eventually have to leave.&nbsp;</p> <p>"Much of the more than $104 billion the United States has committed to reconstruction projects and programs risks being wasted," the report adds, "because the Afghans cannot <em>sustain</em> the investment without massive continued donor support."</p></body></html> MoJo Afghanistan Foreign Policy Top Stories Wed, 17 Dec 2014 15:16:46 +0000 Alex Park 266706 at http://www.motherjones.com The Best Food Books of 2014, Part 1 http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2014/12/best-food-books-2014-part-1 <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd"> <html><body><p>The publishing industry may be in the midst of a long, slow decline, but it's churning out a cornucopia of food books&mdash;and 2014 has been another banner year. Today, I'll look at my favorites on the politics/culture front, and soon I'll take up the cookbook beat.</p> <div class="inline inline-left" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" src="/files/big%20fat%20surprise%20image.jpg"></div> <p><strong><em>&bull; The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat, and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet,</em> by Nina Teicholz.</strong> This is the most provocative and assumption-shredding food book I've read in years. With exhaustive reporting and lucid science explication, Teicholz drives home her central thesis: that dietary fat, even (if not especially) the saturated kind, is actually good for us. But that's not even her most impressive feat. She also rips the halo from the so-called Mediterranean Diet (which she distinguishes from the actual diets consumed by Mediterranean dwellers), exposing it as one part sound science and three-parts olive oil industry-funded (you read that right) hokum. (I'm still reeling from the revelation that olive oil is a relatively recent addition to the Italian and Greek diets.) And she shows why the food industry's recent rush away from trans fats&mdash;whose evils she herself helped establish in a <a href="http://www.gourmet.com/magazine/2000s/2004/06/heart_breaker">2004 <em>Gourmet</em> article</a>&mdash;may actually be a net negative for public heath. (Partial spoiler: Unlike trans fats, which are artificially hardened vegetable oils, liquid vegetable oils generate lots of "toxic oxidative breakdown products" when they're held at high heat for an extended time&mdash;as they are in fast food industry's fry bins.) All in all, a must read.</p> <div class="inline inline-left" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" src="/files/defending%20beef%20cover.jpg"></div> <p><strong><em>&bull; Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production, </em>by Nicolette Hahn Niman.</strong> A longtime critic of industrial agriculture and a lawyer by training, Niman mounts a lawyerly case for pasture-based beef production. She does so from an interested position. She's the wife of Bill Niman, one of the nation's most celebrated grass-based ranchers. But critics who want to dismiss Niman's advocacy on economic-interest grounds have to grapple with the mountains of evidence she brings to bear. The main ecological question that haunts grass-fed beef involves climate change. Cows emit methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon, when they burp, which is often. But by grazing, they also promote healthy, flourishing grasslands, which suck carbon from the atmosphere and store it in soil. In doing so, they convert a wild vegetation that people can't digest into a highly nourishing foodstuff. So on balance, do cows contribute to or mitigate climate change?&nbsp; The conventional view holds that the burps win. Niman casts more than reasonable doubt on that verdict. Citing loads of research, she argues that enteric emissions (methane from burps) are likely overstated and can be curtailed by breeding and techniques like abundant salt licks, and more than offset by the carbon-gulping capacity of intensive grazing (where farmers run dense herds through a pasture for a short time, and then give the land plenty of time to recover). She also shows that healthy pastures also provide plenty of other benefits, including habitat for pollinating insects and birds, which are declining rapidly as industrial grain farming&mdash;mostly for grain to feed confined animals&mdash;expands. Reading Niman alongside Teicholz makes you want to grill a steak&mdash;or, better yet, a fatty and nutrient-dense beef liver.</p> <div class="inline inline-left" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" src="/files/the%20chain%20cover.jpg"></div> <p><strong>&bull; <em><a href="http://www.amazon.com/The-Chain-Farm-Factory-Fate/dp/006228875X">The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food,</a> by Ted Genoways. </em></strong>If <em>Defending Beef</em> delivers a compelling vision for how meat can and <em>should</em> be produced, Genoways exposes&mdash;perhaps more clearly than any writer since Upton Sinclair&mdash;its massive human toll in an era of corporate dominance. Building on two long features published in <em>Mother Jones</em> (<a href="http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2013/06/ag-gag-laws-mowmar-farms" target="_blank">here</a> and <a href="http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/06/hormel-spam-pig-brains-disease" target="_blank">here</a>), he lays out in withering detail the horrific conditions faced by workers in factory-scale slaughterhouses after decades of union busting and a relentless push to speed up the kill line. Having laid out the unsavory tale of the rare neurological disorder that overtook workers at a Spam factory in Minnesota in the mid-2000s, Genoways shifts to the plight of animals raised cheek-by-jowl in factory-like conditions, tended by workers under severe pressure to make them conform to their environment. Abuse&mdash;beating with sticks, kicking, etc.&mdash;is routine, Genoways shows; and the meat industry uses its considerable political clout to promote laws that ban efforts to expose it. Niman exhorts her readers to choose their meat "wisely and well"; Genoways reminds us of just how tricky that task is.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <div class="inline inline-left" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" src="/files/meat%20racket.jpg"></div> <p><strong><em>&bull; The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America's Food Business, </em>by Christopher Leonard.</strong> How did the meat industry amass such power? To answer that question, the veteran agribusiness journalist Christopher Leonard teases out the rise of Arkansas-based Tyson Foods, which evolved after the Great Depression from a small country business to the globe's largest meat company. Today, it slaughters and packs about a quarter of the beef consumed in the United States, and a fifth of the pork and the chicken. Tyson developed the highly lucrative model that would come to dominate US meat production: grab hold of the profitable bits of the supply chain (selling feed and meat) and foist the risky bits (actually raising animals) onto farmers working under contract. As Tyson and other meat companies scaled up, they enticed farmers to scale up, too&mdash;taking on huge crushing debt burdens to build massive high-tech barns, keeping them subject to the whims of the big processors. Leonard has written the best account I know of on the serf-like conditions faced by farmers who operate under the heel of the meat giants.</p> <div class="inline inline-left" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" src="/files/american%20catch%20cover.jpeg"></div> <p><strong><em>&bull; American Catch, </em>by Paul Greenberg</strong>. Most recent books on the state of the oceans suggest we're eating too much seafood&mdash;that overfishing strains fish populations and contributes to their impending collapse. They're probably right in global terms, but in <em>American Catch,</em> the excellent fish writer Greenberg shows that we Americans, at least, are eating too <em>little</em> of it&mdash;and that our fish-averse ways are contributing to ecological degradation, not just in the oceans that surround us, but also on land, particularly in population-dense regions like New York City and the Gulf Coast. In rollicking prose worthy of a novelist&mdash;Greenberg's vocation before he took up seafood as his great topic&mdash;he spins out a compelling argument that goes like this: Despite the 3.8 billion acres of ocean that lie in US territory along more than 94,000 miles of coastline, we eat just 15 pounds of seafood per capita annually (vs. about <a href="http://www.nationalchickencouncil.org/about-the-industry/statistics/per-capita-consumption-of-poultry-and-livestock-1965-to-estimated-2012-in-pounds/" target="_blank">200 pounds of meat and poultry</a>)&mdash;and 91 percent of that paltry amount is imported. As a result, we have little incentive to maintain our coasts as robust ecosystems. And so we pave over vital marshlands and salt flats, leaving coastal cities vulnerable to the ever-harsher storms promised by climate change. And we foul coastal waters with agricultural runoff and the pollution from near-shore oil drilling, sacrificing an abundant source of wild, healthy food. <em>American Catch</em> will leave you craving a couple dozen US-grown oysters&mdash;and a beer to help ease your pain at the folly he describes.</p> <div class="inline inline-left" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" src="/files/third%20plate%20cover.jpg"></div> <p><strong><em>&bull; The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, </em>by Dan Barber</strong>. Barber, a celebrated chef known for his obsession with farm-to-table cooking, offers a serious critique of the very trend that he rode to fame&mdash;and a vision for what comes next. The farm-to-table restaurant movement started in the 1970s, when chefs began to realize that decades of industrial agriculture had sapped ingredients of flavor. So they began to seek out more interesting produce from the few surviving small-scale farms, and helped spark a revival of agriculture focused on quality and flavor, not just volume and gross profit. But those innovative chefs never revised their vision of what Barbers labels the "first plate": a big chunk of corn-fed beef meat with a few vegetables on the side. "The steak was now grass-fed, the carrots were now a local, heirloom variety, grown in organic soil," he writes. "But inasmuch as it reflected all of the progress American food has experienced in the past decade, the striking thing about the second plate was that it looked nearly identical to the first." Using his considerable storytelling skills and his wide travels as fodder, Barber makes the case for a "third plate": a "new cuisine, one that goes beyond raising awareness about the provenance of ingredients and&mdash;like all great cuisines&mdash;begins to reflect what the landscape can provide." That is, a much more farm-centered, regionally adapted vision of the restaurant&mdash;one that puts what's being harvested at the center of the plate, not necessarily big, fancy cuts of meat. Bringing a Wendell Berry-like ecological vision to the role of the chef, Barber has produced a delicious read.</p></body></html> Tom Philpott Books Food and Ag Top Stories Wed, 17 Dec 2014 11:00:07 +0000 Tom Philpott 266751 at http://www.motherjones.com Republicans Cave In, Begin Traditional Holiday Backbiting, and Head For Home http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2014/12/republicans-cave-backbite-head-home <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd"> <html><body><p>Earlier today, Harry Reid pushed through Senate confirmations of Tony Blinken to be deputy secretary of State and Sarah Salda&ntilde;a to head up Immigration and Customs Enforcement. At that point, Republicans, finally tired of staying in <img align="right" alt="" class="image image-_original" src="/files/images/Blog_US_Capitol_0.jpg" style="border: 1px solid black; margin: 20px 0px 15px 30px;">session and convinced that Reid wasn't bluffing about continuing to hold confirmation votes, <a href="http://www.politico.com/story/2014/12/sarah-saldana-confirmed-immigration-and-customs-enforcement-113612.html?hp=t4_r" target="_blank">caved in:</a></p> <blockquote> <p><strong>Dozens of nominees were confirmed unanimously or by voice vote</strong> as the clock ticked on, building on Democrats&rsquo; progress pushing through several bitterly contested nominations during the last days of their majority. After fighting Democrats tooth and nail for more than a year on lifetime judicial appointments, <strong>Republicans waved the white flag on fighting Reid&rsquo;s attempts to confirm a dozen judicial nominations and allowed eleven of them to go through without dissent.</strong></p> </blockquote> <p>Wait. <em>Dozens</em> of nominees? <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/another-republican-upends-the-senates-year-end-plans/2014/12/16/127292d8-8559-11e4-9534-f79a23c40e6c_story.html?hpid=z3" target="_blank">How many dozen?</a></p> <blockquote> <p>Democrats controlling the Senate also <strong>secured agreements from Republicans to confirm at least six dozen of President Obama&rsquo;s nominees</strong> to serve as federal judges, agency bosses and on myriad government boards, a last-minute coup for the White House since most of the picks faced tougher odds next year once Republicans take full control of Capitol Hill.</p> </blockquote> <p>And of course everyone knows <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/17/us/politics/with-the-way-eased-two-more-obama-nominees-win-approval-from-senate.html?hp&amp;action=click&amp;pgtype=Homepage&amp;module=second-column-region&amp;region=top-news&amp;WT.nav=top-news&amp;_r=0" target="_blank">who to thank for all this:</a></p> <blockquote> <p>Most of the day was consumed with nominations, none more irritating to many Republicans than the ones who received a vote because of an impulsive move by one of their colleagues. <strong>And with the book now closed on the 113th Congress, they could go down as the Cruz Confirmations</strong> &mdash; the batch of the president&rsquo;s nominees who were confirmed by the Senate only after Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, forced his colleagues to stay in session for 10 hours on a bleak December Saturday.</p> <p>&ldquo;No, we would not have had all of these 24 confirmations, and I think most people know that,&rdquo; said Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, referring to the two dozen nominees that Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, forced votes once Mr. Cruz made his move.</p> </blockquote> <p>Merry Christmas!</p></body></html> Kevin Drum Congress Wed, 17 Dec 2014 06:09:11 +0000 Kevin Drum 266776 at http://www.motherjones.com On Torture, Dick Cheney Isn't the Problem. We Are. http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2014/12/torture-dick-cheney-isnt-problem-we-are <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd"> <html><body><p><img align="right" alt="" class="image image-_original" src="/files/blog_pew_poll_torture.jpg" style="border: 1px solid black; margin: 8px 0px 15px 30px;"><a href="http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/394773/interrogation-verdict-rich-lowry" target="_blank">Rich Lowry is a satisfied man:</a></p> <blockquote> <p>After a week of condemnations of the CIA interrogation program, and talk everywhere of how it violated our values and weakened our standing in the world, the verdict of public opinion is in: People support it....In the case of <em>Cheney v. Feinstein</em>, Cheney wins&mdash;at least with the public.</p> </blockquote> <p>This is the most discouraging part of the whole torture debate. It's one thing to learn that Dick Cheney is every bit the vicious wretch we all thought he was. But time after time since 9/11, polls have shown that the American public is basically on his side. As a nation, we simply don't believe that a comprehensive program of state-sanctioned torture is wrong. On the contrary: we think it's just fine as long as it's done to other people. If we're a Christian nation, as we're so often reminded, we're still an Old Testament one.</p></body></html> Kevin Drum Human Rights Tue, 16 Dec 2014 23:50:50 +0000 Kevin Drum 266766 at http://www.motherjones.com The Great Paradox of Bitcoin: If It Ever Succeeds, It's Doomed http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2014/12/great-paradox-bitcoin-if-it-ever-succeeds-its-doomed <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd"> <html><body><p>Will Bitcoin ever become a major competitor to the world's more conventional currencies? It certainly has some advantages over existing payment networks, thanks partly to its technical structure and partly to the fact that it's largely free of regulation. But Henry Farrell argues that <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2014/12/16/bitcoins-financial-network-is-doomed/" target="_blank">its freedom from regulation is a chimera:</a></p> <blockquote> <p>Up to this point, regulators have largely tolerated Bitcoin as a curiosity and experiment....But if Bitcoin were ever to threaten to become a truly decentralized payments network, owned by no one, and with no one e.g. capable of implementing Know Your Customer rules, regulators <em>would</em> know very well what to do with it. <strong>They&rsquo;d introduce regulatory guidances and pass laws to freeze it off from the regular financial system.</strong> Very possibly, Bitcoin could still survive at the margins (as the Hawala system has survived). However, it would be isolated, and in no position to <img align="right" alt="" class="image image-_original" src="/files/blog_bitcoin.jpg" style="margin: 20px 0px 15px 30px;">threaten Visa or Mastercard, let alone the underlying payment and messaging services that really underpin the world financial system.</p> <p>If Tim Lee and other Bitcoin fans want to make the case that Bitcoin can become a major payment network, they need to do one of two things. First, they could show that the U.S. and other major states would not feel threatened by a well-established payment system that they couldn&rsquo;t control. Second, they could show that a Bitcoin financial network would survive the opposition of hostile states that have enormous control over the actually-existing financial systems that Bitcoin needs to connect to, as well as regulators, police, etc. I don&rsquo;t see any very plausible arguments that would support either claim. It&rsquo;s perfectly possible that the underlying technologies of Bitcoin (which help solve some interesting problems of trust and exchange) can be deployed to other valuable uses. <strong>But Bitcoin is doomed as a payments network &mdash; the very point at which it looks as though it is likely to be widely deployed is the point at which governments, like that of the United States, will crack down on it.</strong></p> </blockquote> <p>This is almost certainly correct, and the interesting question, I think, is whether Bitcoin and its ilk can figure out ways to operate on a large scale without being effectively shut down by real-world governments. At the moment, I don't see any way they can do that, but it's not impossible that this will change in the future.</p> <p>The evolution of the internet itself provides conflicting guidance as an analogy. Generally speaking, national governments have had considerable difficulty regulating internet content. It's just too distributed and fast moving. So perhaps digital payment networks similar to Bitcoin will eventually thrive because they pose similar problems to would-be regulators. Like kudzu, they'll simply be impossible to contain.</p> <p>On the other hand, countries like China have shown that internet content <em>can</em> be regulated. It merely requires sufficient motivation. And even less authoritarian governments have managed to throw a lot of sand in the gears when they rouse themselves to action. Given that regulating commerce and money is easier than regulating content, this bodes ill for the future of Bitcoin. There's not much question that it can harried into uselessness if national governments decide to do it.</p> <p>Still, there are lots of currencies in the world, and it's possible that a medium-scale version of Bitcoin could stay alive by remaining fairly modest in its connection to any one currency, but fairly large when all of its connections to all the world's currencies are added up. This might cause problems of coordinated action that would end up defeating national regulators, especially if there were dozens or hundreds of different digital currencies to deal with. Maybe. Possibly. I'm not sure if the arithmetic here would ever add up to anything significant, but I'm also not sure it's impossible.</p> <p>But if I had to put money on it? I'd say Bitcoin is doomed in the medium-term future. Farrell is right: it can be a bit of a curiosity, but if it ever enjoys wider success, that very success will kill it.</p></body></html> Kevin Drum Economy International Tue, 16 Dec 2014 19:55:47 +0000 Kevin Drum 266746 at http://www.motherjones.com This Is the Best C-SPAN Call of All-Time http://www.motherjones.com/mixed-media/2014/12/best-c-span-call-all-time <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd"> <html><body><p>The brothers Woodhouse sit staunchly on opposite ends of the political spectrum. They regularly take to C-SPAN to publicly squabble over their ideological differences. Their mother, Joy Woodhouse, has finally had enough:</p> <p>"Oh god it's mom," a slightly panicked Dallas Woodhouse mumbles upon realizing the&nbsp;next caller is their mother.</p> <p>Watch below as Mrs. Woodhouse awesomely takes down her sons' political bickering:</p> <p><iframe allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="354" src="//www.youtube.com/embed/Q15xhG6pVUw" width="630"></iframe></p> <p><em><a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2014/12/16/hero-mom-calls-into-cspan-to-berate-her-arguing-pundit-sons/" target="_blank">(h/t Washington Post)</a></em></p></body></html> Mixed Media Video Media Tue, 16 Dec 2014 18:46:27 +0000 Inae Oh 266731 at http://www.motherjones.com This Little History Lesson Should Terrify Vladimir Putin http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2014/12/it-may-not-be-1989-russia-it-sure-looks-close-cousin <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd"> <html><body><p>Why did the Soviet Union lose control of its satellite states behind the Iron Curtain in 1989? Lots of reasons, but the proximate cause was a disastrous war in Afghanistan; plummeting oil prices; and a resulting economic crisis. <a href="http://www.aei.org/feature/the-soviet-collapse/" target="_blank">Here is Yegor Gaidar:</a></p> <blockquote> <p>The timeline of the collapse of the Soviet Union can be traced to September 13, 1985. On this date, Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the minister of oil of Saudi Arabia, declared that the monarchy had decided to alter its oil policy radically. The Saudis stopped protecting oil prices, and Saudi Arabia quickly regained its <img align="right" alt="" class="image image-_original" src="/files/blog_kremlin_night.jpg" style="border: 1px solid black; margin: 20px 0px 15px 30px;">share in the world market. During the next six months, oil production in Saudi Arabia increased fourfold, <strong>while oil prices collapsed by approximately the same amount in real terms.</strong> As a result, the Soviet Union lost approximately $20 billion per year, money without which the country simply could not survive.</p> <p>The Soviet leadership was confronted with a difficult decision on how to adjust....Instead of implementing actual reforms, the Soviet Union started to borrow money from abroad while its international credit rating was still strong. <strong>It borrowed heavily from 1985 to 1988, but in 1989 the Soviet economy stalled completely. The money was suddenly gone.</strong> The Soviet Union tried to create a consortium of 300 banks to provide a large loan for the Soviet Union in 1989, but was informed that only five of them would participate and, as a result, the loan would be twenty times smaller than needed.</p> <p>The Soviet Union then received a final warning from the Deutsche Bank and from its international partners that the funds would never come from commercial sources. Instead, if the Soviet Union urgently needed the money, it would have to start negotiations directly with Western governments about so-called politically motivated credits. <strong>In 1985 the idea that the Soviet Union would begin bargaining for money in exchange for political concessions would have sounded absolutely preposterous to the Soviet leadership. In 1989 it became a reality, and Gorbachev understood the need for at least $100 billion from the West to prop up the oil-dependent Soviet economy.</strong></p> <p>....Government-to-government loans were bound to come with a number of rigid conditions. For instance, if the Soviet military crushed Solidarity Party demonstrations in Warsaw, the Soviet Union would not have received the desperately needed $100 billion from the West....The only option left for the Soviet elites was to begin immediate negotiations about the conditions of surrender. Gorbachev did not have to inform President George H. W. Bush at the Malta Summit in 1989 that the threat of force to support the communist regimes in Eastern Europe would not be employed. This was already evident at the time. Six weeks after the talks, no communist regime in Eastern Europe remained.</p> </blockquote> <p>This sounds awfully familiar, doesn't it? War, sanctions, an oil crash, and finally bankruptcy. And while history may not repeat itself, it sure does rhyme sometimes: 25 years later Vladimir Putin has managed to back himself into a situation surprisingly similar to the one that led to the end of the Soviet Union and the final victory of the West&mdash;the very event that's motivated almost everything he's done over the past few years. This is either ironic or chilling, depending on your perspective.</p></body></html> Kevin Drum Economy International Tue, 16 Dec 2014 17:58:43 +0000 Kevin Drum 266716 at http://www.motherjones.com Gouging the Gougeable: Yet Another Triumph of the American Health Care System http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2014/12/gouging-gougeable-yet-another-triumph-american-health-care-system <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd"> <html><body><p>Len Charlap has had a couple of outpatient echocardiograms recently. <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/16/health/the-odd-math-of-medical-tests-one-echocardiogram-two-prices-both-high.html?hp&amp;action=click&amp;pgtype=Homepage&amp;module=second-column-region&amp;region=top-news&amp;WT.nav=top-news" target="_blank">Elisabeth Rosenthal tallies up the damage:</a></p> <blockquote> <p>The five hospitals within a 15-mile radius of Mr. Charlap&rsquo;s home here charge an average of about $5,200 for an echocardiogram, according to an analysis of Medicare&rsquo;s database. The seven teaching hospitals in Boston, affiliated with Harvard, Tufts and Boston University, charge an average of about $1,300 for the same test. There are even wide variations within cities: <strong>In Philadelphia, prices range from $700 to $12,000.</strong></p> <p>....In other countries, regulators set what are deemed fair charges, which include built-in profit. <strong>In Belgium, the allowable charge for an echocardiogram is $80, and in Germany, it is $115.</strong> In <img align="right" alt="" class="image image-_original" src="/files/blog_portable_echo.jpg" style="margin: 20px 0px 15px 30px;">Japan, the price ranges from $50 for an older version to $88 for the newest, Dr. Ikegami said.</p> <p>Because Mr. Charlap, 76, is on Medicare, which is aggressive in setting rates, <strong>he paid only about $80 toward the approximately $500 fee Medicare allows.</strong> But many private insurers continue to reimburse generously for echocardiograms billed at thousands of dollars, said Dr. Seth I. Stein, a New York physician who researches data on radiology. Hospitals pursue patients who are uninsured or underinsured for those payments, he added.</p> </blockquote> <p>This is now such a common story that it's hard to work up the outrage it deserve. Is this practice corrupt? Merely venal? Or just crazy? I don't even know anymore. What I do know is that if an outpatient echo costs $80 in Belgium and $500 via Medicare, there's no conceivable justification for a $5,200 charge. It bears no relationship to the actual cost of the test, and is designed primarily to gouge the occasional uninsured patient who has no choice in the matter along with the (inexplicable) occasional insurance company willing to pony up even for obviously outrageous charges. One of the hospitals that performed an echocardiogram on Charlap didn't even bother denying that this is what they're doing:</p> <blockquote> <p>In a statement, the hospital in Princeton that performed Mr. Charlap&rsquo;s first, more expensive echocardiogram noted that &ldquo;the vast majority of customers&rdquo; paid much less than the listed prices. It added that its pricing reflected the need to offset losses because many programs, including Medicare, reimburse less than the cost of delivering services.</p> </blockquote> <p>I doubt that Medicare is reimbursing less than the cost of performing an echocardiogram, but you can see what's going on here. The "vast majority" of patients do indeed pay far less than list price. So why have such a high list price? In order to gouge the tiny minority who are gougeable.</p> <p>It's lovely the way American medicine works, isn't it?</p></body></html> Kevin Drum Health Care Tue, 16 Dec 2014 17:12:00 +0000 Kevin Drum 266711 at http://www.motherjones.com These Are the Cutest Animal Videos of 2014, According to the World's Leading Science Journal http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2014/12/science-says-these-are-cutest-animal-videos-2014 <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd"> <html><body><p><iframe allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="354" src="//www.youtube.com/embed/-q35xO-hcfY" width="630"></iframe></p> <p><em>Nature</em> is one of the world's flagship peer-reviewed scientific journals, a venue for some of our best new ideas about the world. Sometimes, those ideas are about animals that also happen to be outrageously, unconscionably cute. I'm talking baby-penguins-and-pomeranians-and-monkeys-cute. This morning the ingenious folks in <em>Nature</em>'s video department rounded them all up into <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-q35xO-hcfY&amp;feature=youtu.be" target="_blank">one face-melting video</a>.</p> <p><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NiFjxxwJp7M" target="_blank">Here's how to put a YouTube video on endless loop</a>. You're welcome.</p></body></html> Blue Marble Video Animals Climate Change Climate Desk Film and TV Science Tue, 16 Dec 2014 16:08:30 +0000 Tim McDonnell 266696 at http://www.motherjones.com The Ruble Continues Its Free Fall http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2014/12/ruble-continues-its-free-fall <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd"> <html><body><p><img align="right" alt="" class="image image-_original" src="/files/blog_ruble_2014_12_16.jpg" style="border: 1px solid black; margin: 8px 0px 15px 30px;">Well, we have our answer: the Russian central bank's last-ditch effort to stop capital flight didn't work. It was indeed taken by the market as a sign of desperation, not strength. The ruble recovered a bit right after the surprise interest hike in the middle of the night, but by mid-morning panic had settled back in and the ruble was once again in free fall. Even the enticement of 17 percent interest wasn't enough incentive for people to <a href="http://www.wsj.com/articles/russian-ruble-rallies-after-interest-rate-rise-1418715476?mod=WSJ_hpp_LEFTTopStories" target="_blank">keep their rubles in Russian banks:</a></p> <blockquote> <p>By early afternoon in Moscow, the ruble dropped sharply, reaching 80 to the dollar, a record low and a 35% decline from opening levels when it rallied briefly. At 1630 local time, the dollar was trading around 73 rubles....Deputy Chairman Sergei Shvetsov called the situation &ldquo;critical,&rdquo; the Interfax news agency reported. &ldquo;At lot of (market) participants are in serious condition because of these events.&rdquo;</p> <p>&ldquo;The choice the central bank made (to raise rates) was between very bad and very, very bad,&rdquo; he said, noting that the bank could yet take more measures to stabilize the market....Economists warned that the central bank appeared to be losing control of the market and might have no alternative but to restrict trading. &ldquo;Capital controls as a policy measure cannot be off the table now,&rdquo; said Citigroup&rsquo;s Mr. Costa.</p> </blockquote> <p>Stay tuned.</p></body></html> Kevin Drum Economy International Tue, 16 Dec 2014 15:50:56 +0000 Kevin Drum 266701 at http://www.motherjones.com Pakistani Taliban Kills At Least 145 People—Including More Than 100 Kids—in Savage School Massacre http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2014/12/peshawar-taliban-school-attack <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd"> <html><body><p>The Pakistani Taliban is claiming responsibility for a deadly attack inside a military-run school in Peshawar, in northwestern Pakistan, on Tuesday,&nbsp;that has left <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/17/world/asia/taliban-attack-pakistani-school.html?_r=0" target="_blank">as many as 145 dead</a>, more than 100 of them students. The BBC has described the attack as the <a href="http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-30491435" target="_blank">deadliest</a> massacre ever carried out&nbsp;by the Taliban in Pakistan.</p> <p>Gunmen entered Army Public School and Degree College&nbsp;by <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/17/world/asia/taliban-attack-pakistani-school.html?hp&amp;action=click&amp;pgtype=Homepage&amp;module=a-lede-package-region&amp;region=top-news&amp;WT.nav=top-news&amp;gwh=B57FE7DC379EFDFFB60969F08CD5FDD7&amp;gwt=pay&amp;assetType=nyt_now" target="_blank">scaling</a> the walls of the campus' main building. The attackers held students hostage for more than eight hours, as they moved systematically&nbsp;from classroom to classroom firing at children.&nbsp;<span style="line-height: 24px;">Reuters <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/12/16/us-pakistan-school-idUSKBN0JU0JO20141216" target="_blank">quoted</a>&nbsp;a local hospital as saying&nbsp;that the dead and injured were aged between 10 and 20 years old.</span></p> <p>Six gunmen were reportedly <a href="http://www.theguardian.com/world/live/2014/dec/16/over-100-people-killed-in-pakistan-taliban-school-siege-says-provincial-chief-minister-live-updates" target="_blank">killed</a> in the gunfire. A spokesperson for the&nbsp;<span id="advenueINTEXT" name="advenueINTEXT" style="float:left;"> </span>terrorist group says the massacre was a retaliation against earlier Pakistani military activities against militants in North Waziristan.</p> <p><span id="articleText">"We selected the army's school for the attack because the government is targeting our families and females," Taliban spokesman Muhammad Umar Khorasani said, <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/12/16/us-pakistan-school-idUSKBN0JU0JO20141216" target="_blank">according to Reuters</a>. "We want them to feel the pain."&nbsp;</span></p> <p>Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has traveled to Peshawar, has called for <a href="http://www.theguardian.com/world/live/2014/dec/16/over-100-people-killed-in-pakistan-taliban-school-siege-says-provincial-chief-minister-live-updates" target="_blank">three days </a>of national mourning.</p></body></html> MoJo International Top Stories Tue, 16 Dec 2014 15:43:10 +0000 Inae Oh 266691 at http://www.motherjones.com Will Private Prisons Finally Be Subject to the Freedom of Information Act? http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2014/12/will-private-prisons-ever-be-subject-open-records-laws <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd"> <html><body><p>Anyone can use the federal Freedom of Information Act to request records about prisons owned and operated by the government. Information about prisoner demographics, violent incidents, and prison budgets are all obtainable. But privately run facilities&mdash;even those that hold federal prisoners&mdash;are exempt from the law. Last week, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) introduced legislation to change that. On December 10, she introduced a new bill, the <a href="http://www.motherjones.com/documents/1380679-jackson-h-r-5838" target="_blank">Private Prison Information Act</a>. If passed, it would force any nonfederal prison holding federal prisoners to comply with the Freedom of Information Act.</p> <p>In 2013, 41,200 federal convicts&mdash;19 percent of the entire federal prison population&mdash;were housed in private facilities. That year, <a href="http://www.usaspending.gov/search?form_fields=%7B%22search_term%22%3A%22CORRECTIONS+CORPORATION+OF+AMERICA%22%2C%22dept%22%3A%5B%221500%22%2C%227000%22%5D%2C%22fyear%22%3A%5B%222013%22%5D%7D&amp;sort_by=dollars&amp;per_page=25" target="_blank">Corrections Corporation of America</a>, the largest prison contractor in the United States, collected more than $584 million from the federal government.</p> <p>Passing Lee's bill will be difficult, if not impossible. From 2005 to 2012, Democrats (including Lee) introduced <a href="http://www.nationofchange.org/private-prisons-currently-exempt-freedom-information-act-1348581256" target="_blank">five separate bills</a> that aimed to apply&nbsp;FOIA to private prisons. All of them failed. With the GOP&mdash;which has been generally <a href="http://www.cjr.org/united_states_project/key_senators_on_immigration_get_campaign_cash_from_prison_companies.php?page=all" target="_blank">friendly</a> to the prison industry&mdash;controlling both houses of Congress beginning next year, the new bill will likely meet a similar end.</p> <p>Meanwhile, increasing numbers of prisoners are locked up in facilities that are legally immune to open-records requests. From 2000 to 2009, the number of people locked up in private facilities at every level of the justice system increased 37 percent, to 129,336, <a href="http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2011/09/26/328486/us-private-prison-population-lobbying/" target="_blank">according to</a> the Department of Justice. By the end of 2013, 133,000 inmates&mdash;<a href="http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p13.pdf" target="_blank">about 8 percent</a> of the entire US prison population&mdash;were housed in private prisons. The figure is on par with the entire California prison population at that time.</p></body></html> MoJo Congress Crime and Justice Top Stories Tue, 16 Dec 2014 11:45:05 +0000 Alex Park 266506 at http://www.motherjones.com The Federal War on Medical Marijuana Is Over http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2014/12/department-justice-congress-war-medical-marijuana <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd"> <html><body><p>Good news for medical pot smokers: The $1.1 trillion federal spending bill approved by the Senate on Saturday has effectively ended the longstanding federal war on medical marijuana. An amendment to the bill blocks the Department of Justice from spending money to prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries or patients that abide by state laws.</p> <p>"Patients will have access to the care legal in their state without fear of federal prosecution," Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.), a supporter of the rider known as the Hinchey-Rohrbacher amendment, <a href="http://www.safeaccessnow.org/patients_applaud_congressional_restriction_on_federal_medical_marijuana_enforcement_in_omnibus_budget_bill" target="_blank">said in a statement</a>. "And our federal dollars will be spent more wisely on fighting actual crimes and not wasted going after patients."</p> <p>The Department of Justice last year <a href="http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2013/08/justice-department-memo-obama-medical-marijuana-dispensaries" target="_blank">pledged</a> not to interfere with the implementation of state pot laws, but the agency's truce left it with plenty of room to change its mind. Earlier this year, for instance, the DOJ accused the <a href="http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2014/05/19/marijuana-washington-kettle-falls-five/9031751/" target="_blank">Kettle Falls Five</a>, a family in Washington State, of growing 68 marijuana plants on their farm in Eastern Washington, where pot is legal. Members of the family face up to 10 years in jail&mdash;or at least, they did; the amendment may now stop their prosecution.</p> <p>More broadly, the change provides some added peace of mind for pot patients in California, where the DOJ's pledge appeared not to apply. The Golden State's 1996 medical pot law, the first in the nation, has long been criticized by the DOJ as too permissive and decentralized.</p> <p>Medical marijuana activists hailed the amendment's passage as a landmark moment for patients' rights. "By approving this measure, Congress is siding with the vast majority of Americans who are calling for change in how we enforce our federal marijuana laws," said Mike Liszewski, Government Affairs Director for Americans for Safe Access.</p> <p>The CRomnibus spending bill wasn't a universal victory of marijuana advocates, however. Another rider aims to prevent the District of Columbia from legalizing marijuana; it prohibits federal funds being "used to enact any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance." But <em>Reason</em>'s Jacob Sullum <a href="http://reason.com/archives/2014/12/15/did-congress-stop-marijuana-legalization" target="_blank">notes</a> that the rider may be moot because DC's pot law has already been "enacted" by voters&mdash;it passed at the polls in November by a 2-to-1 margin.</p> <p>Whatever the outcome in DC, the appropriations bill is an undisputed win for pot smokers. As <em>Slate</em>'s Josh Voorhes <a href="http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2014/12/cromnibus_pot_laws_washington_has_quietly_become_much_more_pro_pot_that.html" target="_blank">points out</a>, "the District is home to roughly 640,000 people; California, one of 23 states were medical pot is legal, is home to more than 38 million." In short, Congress has done a bit of temporary weed whacking in its backyard, but it's acknowledging that stopping the repeal of pot prohibitions by the states is all but impossible.</p></body></html> MoJo Civil Liberties Top Stories marijuana Tue, 16 Dec 2014 11:00:08 +0000 Josh Harkinson 266666 at http://www.motherjones.com These Ubiquitous Chemicals May Be Making Us Stupid http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2014/12/ubiquitous-chemical-thats-making-us-stupid <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd"> <html><body><p>You may not think much about the class of industrial chemicals called phthalates, which are used both to make plastics more flexible and to dissolve other chemicals. But you're quite likely on intimate terms with them. According to the Centers for Disease Control, they're found in "vinyl flooring, adhesives, detergents, lubricating oils, automotive plastics, plastic clothes (raincoats), and personal-care products (soaps, shampoos, hair sprays, and nail polishes)."</p> <p>Because of their ubiquity, researchers routinely find phthalate traces in people's urine, CDC reports. Does it matter? "Human health effects from exposure to low levels of phthalates are unknown," the agency claims. But a growing body of research&mdash;summarized <a href="http://safecosmetics.org/article.php?id=290" target="_blank">here</a> and covered on <em>Mother Jones</em> <a href="http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2014/08/rainbow-loom-bracelets-phthalates-cancer-risk" target="_blank">here</a>, <a href="http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/10/plasticizers-dehp-ICU-babies-pvc-plastic-medical-equipment" target="_blank">here</a>, <a href="http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/03/regulatory-capture-bpa-plastic-estrogen-endocrine-disruptor-feds" target="_blank">here</a>, and <a href="http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2013/12/children-baby-pollution-development-brain" target="_blank">here</a>&mdash;suggests they're causing us subtle but significant harm.</p> <p>The latest: A <a href="http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0114003" target="_blank">study</a> from a team of Columbia University and CDC researchers, published in the peer-reviewed <em>PLOS-One,</em> found that higher levels of exposure to phthalates at the prenatal phase is correlated to lower IQ scores for kids at age seven. The researchers tracked 328 New York City women and their children through a project called the Columbia Center for Children&rsquo;s Environmental Health (CCCEH). They took urine samples during the third trimester of pregnancy, looking for traces of five different phthalates. Nearly all of the samples contained them. They divided the women into four groups, ranging from the lowest to the highest phthalate readings. Then they subjected their kids to intelligence tests at age seven, and&mdash;controlling for socioeconomic and lifestyle factors&mdash;found that the ones exposed to the highest levels of two common phthalates in the womb had an IQ score, on average, more than six points lower than children exposed at the lowest levels.</p> <p>None of the exposure levels, the authors report, were unusually high&mdash;they fell "within the range previously observed among general populations."</p> <p>The study builds on a <a href="http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/1103705/" target="_blank">similar one</a> by the same team, published in 2012, that found that the preschoolers with the highest prenatal levels of exposure to phthalates showed lower mental and motor development than less-exposed toddlers. The new study suggests that these effects persist into school age&mdash;a disturbing finding. "We note that the consistency of the associations over time has implications for public health and regulatory policy," the authors declare. That's science jargon for: "shouldn't the the feds be doing something about this?" Currently,&nbsp;phthalates are <a href="https://www.cpsc.gov/en/Business--Manufacturing/Business-Education/Business-Guidance/Phthalates-Information/" target="_blank">banned</a> from kids' toys, but beyond that, neither the <a href="http://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/ProductsIngredients/Ingredients/ucm128250.htm" target="_blank">Food and Drug Administration</a> for the <a href="http://www.epa.gov/opptintr/existingchemicals/pubs/actionplans/phthalates.html" target="_blank">Environmental Protection Agency</a> has taken any action to rein in their use.</p> <p>In a <a href="http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/12/141210140823.htm?utm_source=feedburner" target="_blank">press release</a> from Columbia University that accompanied publication of the study, the researchers say that while it's "impossible" to completely avoid phthalates, we can minimize our exposure to them by "not microwaving food in plastics, avoiding scented products as much as possible, including air fresheners, and dryer sheets, and not using recyclable plastics labeled as 3, 6, or 7." That's great advice&mdash;for consumers in the know. But in the absence of federal action, the vast majority of people, including pregnant women, will continue being exposed to them, unaware of their potential downside. After decades of federal campaigns, excessive drinking while pregnant has acquired the whiff of social stigma. Using plastic in the microwave while expecting&mdash;much less using dryer sheets and air fresheners&mdash;not so much.</p></body></html> Tom Philpott Food and Ag Tue, 16 Dec 2014 11:00:07 +0000 Tom Philpott 266661 at http://www.motherjones.com Quote of the Day: Russian Central Bank Decides It Needs to Destroy the Economy In Order to Save It http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2014/12/russian-central-bank-decides-it-needs-destroy-economy-order-save-it <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd"> <html><body><p><a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/16/upshot/vladimir-putin-vs-the-currency-markets-what-to-know-about-the-rubles-collapse.html?partner=rss&amp;emc=rss" target="_blank">From Neil Irwin,</a> commenting on the huge interest rate jump announced by Russia's central bank in the wee hours of the morning:</p> <blockquote> <p>It may go without saying, but a 6.5 percentage point emergency interest rate increase announced in the middle of the night is not a sign of strength.</p> </blockquote> <p>Roger that. Russian central bankers hope that this will be an incentive for people to keep their money in Russia, earning high interest, instead of shipping rubles out of the country at warp speed and squirreling them away in any safe haven that comes to hand. And maybe it will work. Alternatively, as Irwin suggests, it may be viewed as a sign of desperation, causing Russia's oligarchs to pile on the dilithium crystals and ship out their money even faster. You never know what's going to work when a currency crisis goes into panic mode.</p> <p>In any case, even if it works, the price is going to be high. Here in America, we argue about whether the Fed will choke off recovery if it raises interest rates to 2 percent. Russia is now at 17 percent. Even if this puts a halt to currency flight, it's going to kill their economy. In Russia tonight, there are no good options left.</p></body></html> Kevin Drum Economy International Tue, 16 Dec 2014 02:05:42 +0000 Kevin Drum 266676 at http://www.motherjones.com This Video Reveals Just How Degrading Professional Cheerleading Really Is http://www.motherjones.com/mixed-media/2014/12/crazy-cheerleading-video-dallas-cowboys <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd"> <html><body><p><iframe allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="473" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/CAsgGLPer1w?start=868&amp;end=1040" width="630"></iframe></p> <p>Earlier today I published a <a href="http://www.motherjones.com/media/2014/12/cheerleader-history-timeline" target="_blank">timeline</a> that chronicles the history of cheerleading, featuring everything from the debut of the Washington Redskinettes to Robin Williams' cameo as a Denver Broncos cheerleader. But for all the confounding moments in the hundred-plus years of cheerleading, this clip of a reality TV show called<em> Making the Team</em> might take the cake.</p> <p>Now in its ninth season on Country Music Television, the show follows candidates as they try out for the famous Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. In the clip above, from August, team director Kelli Finglass performs "uniform checks," which she punctuates with choice comments like, "Today, we had a little bit of thigh and butt running together, so we're calling it a 'thutt.' Megan had a little bit of a thutt. We can cover cankles with boots, but we can't cover thutts."</p> <p>Keep in mind: Finglass <a href="http://www.dallascowboyscheerleaders.com/dcc-history/" target="_blank">has said</a> that she wants her cheerleaders to be "role models" who are a "cross section of the American woman." Also, it's 2014.</p></body></html> Mixed Media Video Sex and Gender Sports Mon, 15 Dec 2014 21:08:40 +0000 Julia Lurie 266636 at http://www.motherjones.com The Lima Climate Talks Actually Produced Something Important: An Idea http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2014/12/lima-climate-talks-actually-produced-something-important-idea <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd"> <html><body><p>So what should we think about the recently concluded climate talks in Lima? They were, as usual, a dog's breakfast. Rich countries fought their usual battles with poor ones. The talks nearly foundered completely. Over the weekend the wording of the draft agreement went from "weak to weaker to weakest," <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/climate-talks-deadlocked-27584788" target="_blank">in the words of Sam Smith,</a> chief of climate policy for the environmental <img align="right" alt="" class="image image-_original" src="/files/blog_lima_climate_cop20.jpg" style="border: 1px solid black; margin: 20px 0px 15px 30px;">group WWF. And in the end, no legally binding limits were set on greenhouse gas emission.</p> <p>That sounds pretty bad. And yet, something important happened in Lima. As weak as the final language turned out, it does do one thing: it asks every country on the planet to submit a plan to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. It doesn't mandate what the plans should be. It doesn't require any independent review of the plans. It doesn't set out any timetables. <em>But it does require a plan from everyone.</em></p> <p>This is something new. It may not be legally binding, but then, no agreement was ever likely to be. For the first time ever, though, Lima enshrines the idea that every country should have a plan to fight climate change. This is similar to Obamacare, which is flawed in dozens of ways but, for the first time in American history, enshrined in law the idea that everyone should have access to affordable health coverage. Once you do that&mdash;once you get that kind of public agreement to an idea&mdash;you can use it as a building block. Eventually Obamacare will become universal health care. In the same way, Lima may eventually be the building block that produces a universal agreement to fight climate change on a global scale.</p> <p>This is a fairly rosy view of the Lima agreement, and I don't want to oversell it. Still, the mere principle that every country on the globe should have a formal plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is important. Once the plans are in place, they become a concrete starting point for climate activists everywhere. And then they go from weakest to weaker to weak to something that's actually meaningful. Everywhere.</p> <p>It's not enough. But it's something.</p></body></html> Kevin Drum Climate Change Mon, 15 Dec 2014 20:42:01 +0000 Kevin Drum 266641 at http://www.motherjones.com