Tom Philpott - July 2011

Philly Sacrifices 26 School Kitchens to the Austerity Gods

| Tue Jul. 5, 2011 12:40 PM EDT
PB&J as metaphor: a prefab lunch in an Illinois public-school cafeteria.

As negotiations over the "debt ceiling" drag on (handy MoJo explainer here), one thing is clear: Austerity is coming to the United States. No matter what—whether the Republicans accept minor tax hikes as part of a deal; whether bond investors freak out or don't freak out; whether Obama and the Democrats completely cave in to GOP insanity or just partially cave (as they already have)—the federal government will slice spending by about $1 trillion over the next decade, most likely including cuts to important social-insurance programs like Medicare and Medicaid

Let's be clear: Slashing government spending at a time of lingering 9 percent unemployment and stagnant wages is imbecilic. You don't have to be John Maynard Keynes to understand that when corporations stop hiring and investing, the federal government has to fill the gap, not widen it. And as the University of Texas economist James K. Galbraith has demonstrated numerous times over the past year (most recently here), the most-dire problems facing the nation are the related ones of underemployment and underinvestment in vital infrastructure, not budget deficits or the national debt. Our existing fossil-fuel-based infrastructure—roads, bridges—is crumbling. And if we're going to transition to a post-fossil-fuel economy, we'll need to build up decentralized electricity grids, wind and solar energy capacity, mass transit, local and regional food systems, and more—investments that aren't being made at nearly a sufficient rate by private actors.

Galbraith likes to quote Keynes, architect of the postwar recovery: "There is work to do; there are men to do it. Why not bring them together?" Instead, congressional GOP leaders and (to a lesser extent) the president seem intent on keeping them apart. Results will likely be disastrous; the cascading effects of ill-timed austerity will likely lead to yet larger bills down the road. Penny wise, dollar poor.

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Is Your Meat Habit Giving You Diabetes?

| Mon Jul. 4, 2011 5:30 AM EDT

The United States has one of the highest diabetes rates in the developed world—and the malady is spreading faster here than it is in most other rich nations, a recent Lancet study (registration required) found.

I've always associated our diabetes problem with the steady rise in sweetener consumption since the early '80s, triggered by the gusher of cheap high-fructose corn syrup that opened up at that time. But another culprit may be contributing, too: exposure to certain pesticides and other toxic chemicals. A new peer-reviewed study published in the journal Diabetes Care found a strong link between diabetes onset and blood levels of a group of harsh industrial chemicals charmingly known as "persistent organic pollutants" (POPs), most of which have been banned in the United States for years but still end up in our food (hence the "persistent" bit—they degrade very slowly).

The ones with the largest effect were PCBs, a class of highly toxic chemicals widely used as industrial coolants before being banished in 1979. Interestingly, the main US maker of PCBs, Monsanto, apparently knew about and tried to cover up their health-ruining effects long before the ban went into place. Organochlorine pesticides, another once-ubiquitous, now largely banned chemical group, also showed a significant influence on diabetes rates.