Friday, July 20, 2012


First, some personal announcements. So, it turns out cancer is expensive. In just the five months since Aetna so graciously kicked me to the curb (look, they couldn't make $2 billion in annual profits if they actually paid for treatment now, could they? Why do you hate the free market?!), I've racked up $118,000 in bills. And that's despite the fact that I've received no chemo since early March. But an ablation and a couple scans later, things add up. So, we've got some new raffle items up in the webstore. Head on over and buy some raffle tickets for such prizes as Red Sox-Twins tickets, every Fugazi live recording ever, an autographed CD from Jack Quartet, and some lovely handmade tote bags. And we've still got t-shirts.

And now on to your daily-ish dose of internet sadness...

Sadly, I'm not the only one out there who has been kicked to the curb by our cruel private health insurance system:
I charged the second month of her medication on my credit card. Then, I drafted a letter to everyone we’d ever known.

Asking for help has never been a strength of mine. Sini is similarly disposed. But we were out of alternatives. We set up a page on the crowd-funding Web site Indiegogo. One of Sini’s best friends, a photographer, designed it. I wrote the copy. Another friend, a filmmaker, edited a video. And others agreed to spread the word. We modestly estimated the PICC treatment costs for the coming months (not including living expenses or the considerable debt already accrued) at $12,000. None of us expected to raise the full amount over the 60-day period, but any little bit would help.

One morning this May, about an hour after the campaign went live, I checked my phone while out running errands to see if anything had been donated. There was already $1,500 in pledges. I refreshed the browser to confirm that I was seeing correctly, and the number jumped another $300. I shakily drove home and opened the computer. We had raised more than $3,000. By the end of the first day, we had raised $8,000; by the end of the second, we had surpassed our goal.

Knowing that Sini would be able to continue her treatment was a magnificent relief. But what so blindsided me and filled my heart were the comments, e-mails, texts, Tweets and Facebook postings poured toward us in hundreds. Most of the donations were between $20 and $100, and the vast majority of these were from family, friends, New Yorkers and others who had performed or worked with Sini, or been helped by her work — and from other people suffering from late-stage Lyme (and other diseases that insurance fails to cover) thanking us for going public with our struggle, for raising awareness and helping them to feel less alone. Sini and I had both felt completely detached from our community for the past two years. Unmoored, and consumed by our situation, we had felt guilty requesting the help of these people from whom we had alienated ourselves. But it was as if they had just been waiting for us to ask.

Two months have passed, with two days left in the campaign, and we have raised over $19,000, a number beyond my wildest expectations. Because here is the thing: we didn’t expect anything. It is not our community’s responsibility to pay our exorbitant medical bills, to prevent our lives from being annihilated by the cost of illness. It is our government’s responsibility. Perhaps, for others like us, the Affordable Care Act will make a difference. My hope is that by the time the legislative changes trickle down to our lives, Sini’s health will have improved enough that she will no longer be in danger of being bankrupted by medical expenses.

Our continued modification of the desert landscape is driving dust storms here in the southwest. And climate change will make those haboobs worse:
The desert is not barren but teeming with organisms like algae, mosses and lichens that act as filaments holding a floor of sand and gravel together.

When that crust is disturbed by farming, roads, mining, or “hooves, bikes, wheels, boots,” Dr. Belnap said, “you have an area that’s ready to blow.”

Every desert has small areas of tall plants like sagebrush that protect soils. In deserts like the Mojave, there are large areas with rock cover. But in general, deserts are vulnerable.

Once a desert surface is disturbed, a chain reaction of events is set in motion that can prove damaging. The dust can cover snow on mountains, for example, resulting in faster and earlier snow melt. The soil underneath is then exposed to sunlight, which causes moisture to evaporate into the air rather than run off into streams and rivers.

The effect is measurable: for example, reduced runoff from snow melt has caused an annual 5 percent decrease in the amount of water entering the Colorado River, which experts say already faces the risk of significantly drying up. “This is now a really big deal,” Dr. Belnap said.

Yet the West was not always a dusty place, she said. Starting in the 1850’s, the massive westward migration of people and grazing animals trampling across the fragile terrain led to a gradual erosion of the soil, spawning the modern idea of the dust-choked western landscape with blowing tumbleweed.

The organisms that make up the crust are cryptobiotic, meaning that their metabolism shuts down when it’s dry. Damaged crypto can only grow back when it’s wet.

“We can’t put the desert back together again like we put Pennsylvania back together after strip mining ended there,” Dr. Belnap said. “We don’t get much rain here.”

With climate change, she said, the problem is only going to get worse. But the good news is that something can be done, she added. “We need to map vulnerable areas and stay off them, and we can plant areas as well,” she said. “But we need to make this a priority.”

Most of the dust problem originates at small-point sources like abandoned croplands outside Phoenix and in northeastern Arizona where decades of coal mining have damaged aquifers and caused dry conditions.

Tackling such areas could address a large part of the problem, Dr. Belnap said, but ultimately it will take money and the political will.


Policy decisions can be thorny for those agencies, she said. “It’s going to be very politically loaded,” Dr. Belnap said. “You go to Joe Rancher and tell him he can’t put his cattle there, you’re affecting his livelihood.”

Another report from the Annals of Corporatization of Public Space:
Sales of naming rights represent the seizure and control of the public sphere by private interests. First, corporations fund broad anti-tax campaigns, which starve public goods and services. Then financiers—the corporate vanguard—take advantage of the resulting fiscal desperation by offering superficially attractive swap deals. The swaps turn out to have disastrous consequences for municipalities. At that point, public authorities are reeling, willing to sell even the names of stations to the highest bidder. Corporations are poised to become the “white knight” of public transit, conveniently obscuring their role in creating the political and economic crises that their charity and advertising money barely dents. Whatever scholars say about the history of this neoliberal conquest, the popular image will persist: Barclays or AT&T is saving our city.

What Barclays now stands for—rapacious financialization and outright fraud—directly offends the values that public transit represents. Perhaps its yearly $200,000 payments can fund two or three union jobs. But if we were really serious about both raising employment and reducing inequality, we would tax our cash-hoarding corporate behemoths, not beg them for ad money.

As it is, we have difficulties even getting them to pay the historically low rates that they owe. The IRS is now battling U.S. banks over a series of dubious transactions that none other than Barclays structured for them. Hundreds of millions of dollars are at issue in deals that Barclays itself billed as [PDF] “double dip[s],” “free money” for the banks involved because of the “ability of both parties to obtain credits for” taxes. Barclays is but one of many London financial firms that have invested thousands of hours of brilliant accountants’ and lawyers’ time to find ever more recherché tax avoidance schemes. It is time to impose simple exactions on them to support basic infrastructure in the countries in which they do business.

For example, Barclays had $50 billion in revenue in 2011. One percent of that is $500 million—a paltry sum for the company to pay to continue doing business in the United States, given that it’s already paid $450 million in fines to secure a non-prosecution agreement and end regulatory investigations of its Libor misconduct. Just one percent of that one percent levy would more than pay for the naming rights now sacrificed by the MTA—and leave $495 million to support our crumbling infrastructure.

As for the other transit agencies considering naming rights deals, they should resist. As it is, we’re only a few steps away from David Foster Wallace’s dystopic vision of the sale of each calendar year to corporate interests. (In the novel Infinite Jest, much of the action occurs in the Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment). A city’s streets and stations should reflect the history of its people, not the rootless corporations that have already made over so much space in their own image. Let the banks and cable companies advertise all they want within public spaces. The names of the spaces themselves should be off-limits.

In the mind of today's conservative, only the rich add any value to the world. The rest of us are just leeches:
[T]he real idea the right is appealing to here is the idea of the "job creator." It goes beyond the person who gets by on his own without any help from the government or the public at large. It's the idea that the rich create all the value of the economy. They are, as John Paul Rollert put it in a great post wondering what Adam Smith would think of "job creators," the visible hand of the economy. The rich are, as people at the Mitt Romney fundraiser put it, "the engine of the economy" who all the other people "rely" on for their survival. (I'm assuming. I would have meant it the other way around, but I wasn't at that fundraiser.) The economy isn't something we create together. It is something the rich create for everyone else.

And, crucially, rather than being a myth or a fairy tale conservatives tell themselves, this idea of the "job creator" is the basis for current policy-making on the right. As Texas Governor Rick Perry put it during the primary, “America is not going to move forward until we remove restrictions of over-taxation, over-regulation and over-litigation on the job creators and free them so the jobs can be created.” Charles Krauthammer argues on TV that we have a capital strike that's holding back the economy. John Boehner gives speeches where he argues "private-sector job creators in particular — are rattled by what they’ve seen out of this town over the last few years. My worry is that for American job creators, all the uncertainty is turning to fear that this toxic environment for job creation is a permanent state. Job creators in America are essentially on strike."

Speeches like these diagnose the problem, and then it turns into policy. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney's policy plans for job creation operate under the assumption that those at the top of the economic pyramid are being held in check. His Day One proposals include “the elimination of Obama-era regulations that unduly burden the economy or job creation," “revers[ing] the executive orders issued by President Obama that tilt the playing field in favor of organized labor," cutting corporate taxes, eliminating the estate tax, and a variety of other policy designed to give the "job creators" a firmer hand in controlling the economy. His education policy includes putting private actors in charge of everything, especially putting commercial banks back into the sweet spot of collecting government-insured money and expanding how easy it is for for-profit colleges to qualify for federal money. Presumably he does this because the private is always superior to the public, regardless of how much the business model appears to be a vacuum for subsidies. His tax and social safety net policy focus on boosting the earnings of those at the top of the pyramid on the backs of those at the bottom.

These policies include no hint that the economy is stuck due to inadequate demand or the weak purchasing power of the middle and working classes and the delinking of wages and productivity. There's no mention of the need to expand education and infrastructure to create the economy of the 21st century. There's absolutely no sense that the economy encourages the most innovative or entrepreneurial when there is full employment and a portable social safety net that provides economic security. And it is light-years away from the observation that society is a system of cooperation in which the value in the economy is created together.
But the rich just aren't like you and me:
It’s no secret that, at this point, many of America’s richest men — including some former Obama supporters — hate, just hate, President Obama. Why? Well, according to them, it’s because he “demonizes” business — or as Mitt Romney put it earlier this week, he “attacks success.” Listening to them, you’d think that the president was the second coming of Huey Long, preaching class hatred and the need to soak the rich.

Needless to say, this is crazy. In fact, Mr. Obama always bends over backward to declare his support for free enterprise and his belief that getting rich is perfectly fine. All that he has done is to suggest that sometimes businesses behave badly, and that this is one reason we need things like financial regulation. No matter: even this hint that sometimes the rich aren’t completely praiseworthy has been enough to drive plutocrats wild. For two years or more, Wall Street in particular has been crying: “Ma! He’s looking at me funny!”

Wait, there’s more. Not only do many of the superrich feel deeply aggrieved at the notion that anyone in their class might face criticism, they also insist that their perception that Mr. Obama doesn’t like them is at the root of our economic problems. Businesses aren’t investing, they say, because business leaders don’t feel valued. Mr. Romney repeated this line, too, arguing that because the president attacks success “we have less success.”

This, too, is crazy (and it’s disturbing that Mr. Romney appears to share this delusional view about what ails our economy). There’s no mystery about the reasons the economic recovery has been so weak. Housing is still depressed in the aftermath of a huge bubble, and consumer demand is being held back by the high levels of household debt that are the legacy of that bubble. Business investment has actually held up fairly well given this weakness in demand. Why should businesses invest more when they don’t have enough customers to make full use of the capacity they already have?

But never mind. Because the rich are different from you and me, many of them are incredibly self-centered. They don’t even see how funny it is — how ridiculous they look — when they attribute the weakness of a $15 trillion economy to their own hurt feelings. After all, who’s going to tell them? They’re safely ensconced in a bubble of deference and flattery.
One thing that makes them different? Their ability to buy elections, thanks to SCOTUS:
Back in the Watergate days, American Airlines funneled secret money to the Nixon campaign through Beirut. It was complicated, shady, and illegal. These days, as the New York Times has explained, corporations can give millions legally to party conventions, getting special perks. And thanks to Citizens United and the FEC, corporations have the same leeway as individuals to give to super PACs, the U.S. Chamber, and other groups.

In Watergate, illegal donations bought tremendous influence, but at a risk. Lifting the cloud of illegality has simply emboldened big donors. This is the point Justice Kennedy missed when he said that “independent” expenditures—money that goes to groups that help candidates get elected, rather than candidates themselves—doesn’t corrupt or create the appearance of corruption. And it’s the point Matt Bai missed in his New York Times Magazine article this week, by claiming that Citizens United did not make much difference to the world of campaign spending. Before the chain of events unleashed by the 2010 Supreme Court ruling, if Sheldon Adelson tried to give $100 million to outside groups to support a presidential candidate, he would have faced a criminal investigation and potential charges. The big 527s from previous elections, including the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and Americans Coming Together, faced hefty fines for trying to do illegally what super PACs can now do legally: specifically, setting up a group to take unlimited contributions to influence federal elections.

There is one big danger today that does hark straight back to Watergate. It’s the proliferation of secret 501(c)(4) groups that take money without publicly disclosing their contributors. The people and companies who give to these groups are not revealed to the public, though of course they are often eager to reveal their identity to the politicians they are supporting. These contributors get all the perks of influence without any of the public scrutiny. And if we can’t trace their connections to the actions of elected representatives, we’re much less likely to find out about illegal quid pro quo. Which is why we should improve our disclosure laws—which Republicans have refused to do because they see electoral advantage in secrecy.

But even with better disclosure laws, we’d still be in worse shape now than we were at the time of Watergate. Increasingly, large sums contributed by the wealthy affect who wins elections and what the winners do once in office. Even well-meaning officials who won’t want to bend to the Sheldon Adelsons of the world have to find other friends with cash so that they can fight back. Those friends will want their own special access, and the people they help elect have every incentive to give it to them.

The new campaign finance order isn’t held up by paper bags full of cash. That’s the old way. When corruption is conveniently legal, you can pay by check or credit card.

Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that the right course of action is to keep up Paterno's statue at Penn State, in order to remind everyone of the institution's complicity in the Sandusky scandal:
In Columbia, S.C., there stands a statue of Ben Tillman, the populist South Carolina senator who helped found Clemson University and, in his spare time, defended lynching from his august national offices. For years there have been calls to remove Tillman’s statue, emanating from those who think it a shame to continue to honor him. But in a democracy, memorial statues are not simply comments on their subjects, but comments on their makers. That Americans once saw fit to honor a man who defended terrorism from the Senate floor is a powerful statement about our identity and history.

Whereas Tillman’s most spectacular sins were known at the time of his lionization, Paterno’s only later came to light. And yet the central sin that now haunts Happy Valley has long been in evidence — a tragic myopia. The Freeh report noted that a janitor who’d witnessed one of Sandusky’s rapes declined to report it, fearing that Penn State would close ranks to protect the football program. It is easy to talk about what we would do were we in the janitor’s place. Much harder is to conclude that we might be susceptible to the same fear, that living in a culture where football is a creed, we too might tremble before the nation’s wrath.

The problem here is not that Paterno shamed Happy Valley, but that Happy Valley, through its broad blindness, has shamed itself. Last week an artist who’d once painted Paterno with a halo altered his mural by removing it. This effort has less to do with the better rendering of Paterno and more to do with escaping the shame of hasty canonization.

Arguing for the statue’s removal, the legendary coach Bobby Bowden said he wouldn’t want Sandusky’s crimes “brought up every time I walked out on the field.” That’s the point. Sandusky’s crimes should never be forgotten, nor should the crimes of the broader community. It is shameful to deify men who put nationalist ritual before children. But it is more shameful to pretend that this elevation was achieved by Joe Paterno’s singular hand.

Removing the Paterno statue allows Happy Valley to forget its own compliance in a national crime, to expunge its own culpability in its ruthless pursuit of glory. The statue should remain, and beneath it there should be a full explanation of Sandusky’s crimes, Paterno’s role and some warning to all of us who would turn a pastime into a god and elect a mortal man as its avatar.

What does this drought, the worst this country has seen in some 50 years, tell us about the future? The news isn't good: “[I]s this a glimpse at our hotter, drier future? It appears so. While severe dry spells can (and do) occur naturally, some recent U.S. droughts have been linked to the broad-scale warming of the planet. And if greenhouse gas emissions keep rising and temperatures keep ticking upward, scientists say, we can likely expect more serious and persistent droughts in the years ahead.”

Because of a cruel feedback, increased drought means more extreme heat.

Sprawl exacerbtes drought.

Crop losses in this year's extreme drought already match last year's. And there's much summer still left.

Thanks to the drought, food supplies are at risk.

The reduced harvest means you'll feel the hit in your pocketbook as food prices go up.

Drought in the US, but global concerns over both food and fuel.

Yet, Republicans in the House don't even want to discuss climate change.

Ideology and how we perceive temperature. (h/t Andrew)

An invasive species success story. Also, poo.

Linking bladder infections and CAFOs.

China reaches per capita carbon emissions that rival Europe.

The fight for global resources: it's gonna get worse.

New York can't manage the oil and gas wells they have now, so why should we expect they'll be able to properly regulate fracking?

Copenhagen's bicycle superhighway. This is probably what my friends Miller and Adele dream of.

Canada's war on science.

As best I can tell, the GOP's organizing doctrine seems to be equal parts spite and cruelty — killing public radio and television, AmeriCorps, a healthy eating program championed by the first lady, and most appallingly, new rules to protect construction workers and miners.

And more on the GOP's opposition to policies that will save the lives of coal miners and protect them from black lung.

Johnson had his War On Poverty, the GOP has its War On The Poor.

Redefining basic arithmetic in order to further perpetuate the GOP's War On Women, War On Dark-Skinned People Voting.

The racist law-breaking disgrace that is America's Most Despicable Sheriff: what Sheriff Joe's lunatic birther crusade tells us about his approach to SB1070. (Hint: if you're brown, it doesn't matter what your papers say, because he'll make sure they're considered to be fraudulent.)

Big Ag owns the House GOP. And as such, the Farm Bill looks atrocious.

Mapping stop and frisk.

Every single word uttered by Guantanamo Bay detainees in trial is classified.

Krugman on the rise of financialization.

Drug development is still a long ways away, but the Cancer Genome Project provides new hope to defeating colon cancer.

Young adults and cancer: support is lacking.

Surgery for early-stage prostate cancer may not be wise.

Stream the entire Bikini Kill catalog.

Flying foxes in the city.

Squid sex!

Physics For The Ladies. And more.

Oh, sweet eggcorns.

Turing machine meets tea vending machine.

People are not especially good at quantitative tasks. And marketers take advantage of this.

Strange, disturbing pictures in the aftermath of a horrible industrial disaster. (h/t Peter)

Beautiful pictures from National Geographic readers.

Docile and begging for death, the zebra traverses the African plain, counting down the seconds until a predator tears the flesh from its bone”:

Heather's Happy (ok, not so happy this time, since the subject of the article was rather gloomy) Link of the Day: interviewing Nick Drake, circa 1970.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Halfway around the world, earnings are down for an oil services giant, Halliburton, because prices have risen for guar, the bean that Mr. Singh and his fellow farmers raise.

Halliburton’s loss was, in a rather significant way, Mr. Singh’s gain — a rare victory for the littlest of the little guys in global trade. The increase in guar prices is helping to transform this part of the state of Rajasthan in northwestern India, one of the world’s poorest places. Tractor sales are soaring, land prices are increasing and weddings have grown even more colorful.

“Now we have enough food, and we have a house made of stone,” Mr. Singh said proudly while his rail-thin children stared in awe.

Guar, a modest bean so hard that it can crack teeth, has become an unlikely global player, and dirt-poor farmers like Mr. Singh have suddenly become a crucial link in the energy production of the United States.

For centuries, farmers here used guar to feed their families and their cattle. There are better sources of nutrition, but few that grow in the Rajasthani desert, a land rich in culture but poor in rain. Broader commercial interest in guar first developed when food companies found that it absorbs water like a souped-up cornstarch, and a powdered form of the bean is now widely used to thicken ice cream and keep pastries crisp.

But much more important to farmers here was the recent discovery that guar could stiffen water so much that a mixture is able to carry sand sideways into wells drilled by horizontal fracturing, also known as fracking.

The fracking boom in the United States has led to a surge in natural gas production, a decline in oil imports and a gradual transition away from coal-fired power plants. Fracking may also have spoiled some rural water supplies and caused environmental damage in parts of the United States, but it is hard to find anyone in Rajasthan who sees fracking as anything but a blessing.

“Without guar, you cannot have fracturing fluids,” said Michael J. Economides, a professor of engineering at the University of Houston who is a fracking expert. “And what everybody is worried about is that there is virtually no guar out there now.”

India produces about 85 percent of the world’s guar. As worries rose about the prospects for this year’s monsoon, which is vital for an adequate crop, speculation over guar production built to a frenzy. Trading in guar futures was even suspended, and with the monsoon still behind schedule, it remains postponed. Ramesh Abhishek, India’s chief commodities market regulator, said guar trading would resume when supplies proved adequate.

“If the physical market doesn’t provide enough supplies, then the futures market causes more harm than good,” Mr. Abhishek said.
Of course, there's something just a bit ironic about concerns over the timing and intensity of the much needed monsoon, given that monsoon patterns in south Asia are changing as a result of climate change — which is driven, of course, by fossil fuel emissions like those stemming from fracking and subsequent burning of natural gas. Nevertheless, with most poor landowners and others being screwed over by fracking, at least there are some folks who normally get screwed by these sorts of activities (and by globalization in general) that come out as winners for once. But with the water table continuing to drop, one has to wonder how long this boom can last.

Larry Lessig on our open-to-the-highest-bidder political system:
That disease is just this: because of the way we fund the campaigns that determine our elections, we give the tiniest fraction of America the power to veto any meaningful policy change. Not just change on the left but also change on the right. Because of the structure of influence that we have allowed to develop, the tiniest fraction of the one percent have the effective power to block reform desired by the 99-plus percent.

Yet by "the tiniest fraction of the one percent" I don't necessarily mean the rich. I mean instead the fraction of Americans who are willing to spend their money to influence congressional campaigns for their own interest. That fraction is different depending upon the reform at issue: a different group rallies to block health-care reform than rallies to block global warming legislation. But the key is that under the system we've allowed to evolve, a tiny number (with resources at least) has the power to block reform they don't like.

A tiny number of Americans -- .26 percent -- give more than $200 to a congressional campaign. .05 percent give the maximum amount to any congressional candidate. .01 percent give more than $10,000 in any election cycle. And .000063 percent -- 196 Americans -- have given more than 80 percent of the super-PAC money spent in the presidential elections so far.

These few don't exercise their power directly. None can simply buy a congressman, or dictate the results they want. But because they are the source of the funds that fuel elections, their influence operates as a filter on which policies are likely to survive. It is as if America ran two elections every cycle, one a money election and one a voting election. To get to the second, you need to win the first. But to win the first, you must keep that tiniest fraction of the one percent happy. Just a couple thousand of them banding together is enough to assure that any reform gets stopped.

Some call this plutocracy. Some call it a corrupted aristocracy. I call it unstable. Just as America learned under the Articles of Confederation, where one state had the power to block the resolve of the rest, a nation in which so few have the power to block change is not a nation that can thrive.
Last year, the nine biggest conservative Super PACs received more than 50% of all their funds from just 17 individuals. Yes, the entire political discourse is being shifted by the spending of less than two dozen rich assholes.

Meanwhile, every single GOP member of the Senate is opposed to disclosure requirements on the corporations and other entities trying to exert even greater control over our political system, but there was a time when there was some semblance of sanity within the Republican caucus, represented by folks like moderate Repubs Chuck Hagel and Warren Rudman, who call for members of both parties to support disclosure:
In the near term, there’s nothing we can do to reverse this dramatic increase in independent expenditures.

Yet what really alarms us about this situation is that we can’t find out who is behind these blatant attempts to control the outcome of our elections. We are inundated with extraordinarily negative advertising on television every evening and have no way to know who is paying for it and what their agenda might be. In fact, it’s conceivable that we have created such a glaring loophole in our election process that foreign interests could directly influence the outcome of our elections. And we might not even know it had happened until after the election, if at all.

This is because unions, corporations, “super PACs” and other organizations are able to make unlimited independent expenditures on our elections without readily and openly disclosing where the money they are spending is coming from. As a result, we are unable to get the information we need to decide who should represent us and take on our country’s challenges.

Unlike the unlimited amount of campaign spending, the lack of transparency in campaign spending is something we can fix and fix right now —without opening the door to more scrutiny by the Supreme Court.

A bill being debated this week in the Senate, called the Disclose Act of 2012, is a well-researched, well-conceived solution to this insufferable situation. Unfortunately, on Monday, the Senate voted, mostly along party lines, to block the bill from going forward. But the Disclose Act is not dead. As of now, it is 9 short of the 60 votes it needs.

The bill was introduced by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, who deserves tremendous credit for crafting such comprehensive legislation, listening to his critics and amending his bill to address their concerns in a bold display of compromise. At its core, Whitehouse’s bill would require any “covered organization” which spends $10,000 or more on a “campaign-related disbursement” to file a disclosure report with the Federal Election Commission within 24 hours of the expenditure, and to file a new report for each additional $10,000 or more that is spent. The F.E.C. must post the report on its Web site within 24 hours of receiving it.

A “covered organization” includes any corporation, labor organization, section 501(c) organization, super PAC or section 527 organization.

This is a huge improvement over the status quo, where super PACS currently have months to disclose their donors (often withholding this information until after an election) and 501(c) organizations have no requirement to disclose their donors at all.

The report must include the name of the covered organization, the name of the candidate, the election to which the spending pertains, the amount of each disbursement of more than $1,000, and a certification by the head of the organization that the disbursement was not coordinated. The report must also reveal the identity of all donors who have given more than $10,000 to the organization.

We have no doubt that the Disclose Act will be spared any credible constitutional challenges if it were to pass the Senate and the House. In its Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court, by an 8-1 majority, upheld the provisions of federal law that require outside spending groups to disclose their expenditures on electioneering communications, including the donors financing those expenditures. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the Court, noted that these provisions “impose no ceiling on campaign-related activities” and “do not prevent anyone from speaking.”

We believe that every senator should embrace the Disclose Act of 2012. This legislation treats trade unions and corporations equally and gives neither party an advantage. It is good for Republicans and it is good for Democrats. Most important, it is good for the American people.
The NYTimes editorial page has more.

Also, while Aetna makes $34 billion in revenues and some $2 billion in profits, they can't offer a decent, affordable health insurance plan that covers my costs of cancer treatment unless they're forced to do so by new ACA guidelines. Yet, they're willing to spend some $7 million on contributions to shadowy conservative causes that agitate against healthcare reform, even though Aetna publicly claims to support the law.

A NYTimes piece from a few weeks ago shows just how corporations like Aetna are playing the game by donating to the shadowy “social welfare” organizations that mustn't reveal their donors — precisely what the DISCLOSE Act was meant to counter.

The Obama administration drags its feet on consumer protections:
The Food Safety Modernization Act, which passed with broad bipartisan support, was the first major overhaul of the Food and Drug Administration’s food safety laws since the 1930s. It gives the agency, which is responsible for the safety of most of the country’s food supply, more control over food imports as well as broad new powers to set standards to prevent contamination of produce and processed food.

The law was motivated, in part, by the growing globalization of the nation’s food supply. Food imports have more than tripled over the past decade — about 80 percent of seafood is imported, for example — and currently, the F.D.A. inspects less than one pound in a million of imported foods.

But the F.D.A. rules that are needed to carry out the law have been under review by the Office of Management and Budget in the White House since December, and consumer health advocates say there has been no explanation for what they describe as a lengthy delay.

“It’s frankly a surprise to us,” said Erik D. Olson, director of food programs at the Pew Charitable Trusts, which was involved in promoting the legislation. “The administration was proud of this accomplishment, and having these things just sit there is quite a juxtaposition.”
Let's just hope OMB doesn't cave in to corporate (and electoral) interests the way Sunstein & Co. did with the EPA's ozone rule.

Joey Fishkin attempts to understand right-wing opposition to the Medicaid expansion:
This is not one of those issues, like ethanol subsidies, where a narrow but powerful lobby is able to win despite the weakness of its arguments for the classic public-choice reason that a small, organized group with a lot to gain beats a disorganized general public with only a little to lose (per person).  Here, if anything, the most powerful narrow interest—hospital systems—favors the Medicaid expansion.  Instead, this seems to be one of those odd cases where ideology or partisanship, by itself, is giving Republican governors a sufficiently powerful reason to seriously consider overriding their states’ obvious economic interests. Here are three possible stories of what is going on here:
 (A) Anti-Obamacare / anti-Obama.  This story is more partisanship than ideology.  The idea is that Obamacare is so terrible that anything associated with it deserves maximum resistance. 

 (B) States’ rights ideology.  (As discussed above, libertarianism won’t get you there—it has to be states’ rights.)  The popular resonance of an ideology of states’ rights today, long after the end of Reconstruction and the demise of Jim Crow, seems more limited than the popular resonance of, say, libertarianism.  Outside of the Tea Party, how many Americans really believe that it matters a lot to make particular decisions at the state level rather than the federal level?  Some, I guess.  Governor Perry thought he could ride that horse all the way to the White House—and although that didn’t work out so well, his states’ rights theme was not his main problem.

 (C) This is the darkest possibility: opposition to universal coverage itself.  Here, the idea is that covering lots of uninsured people is not merely something we don’t especially value—it’s something we actively don’t want, and are willing to pay not to have.  Perhaps because of fears of what will happen if millions of people actually get care who need care (overcrowding, etc.) or perhaps because of deep revulsion at a possibly-irreversible change to the social contract in which access to medical care becomes an element of the social contract, on this view, the stand against the Medicaid expansion is ultimately a stand against universal coverage, full stop.  The reason Perry had no answer to the friendly Fox interviewer asking him for any of his own ideas for covering the uninsured, is, on this dark view, that he actively doesn’t want them to have coverage.  Perhaps they should have to work for it.  (Even if they are in their eighties?  See point 8 above…)
I’m not honestly sure which of these is the right story (or which combination).  To the degree that it is (A), things may die down a bit after the election.  To the degree that it is (B), I guess it’ll keep sputtering along until the South stops rising again.  But to the degree that it it is (C), if Obama is re-elected, perhaps at some point this objection will be laid to rest.  Once we have made the switch to a policy regime in which it is more or less the case that people generally have medical coverage, or can obtain such coverage if they need it, that policy regime will shape the ideological space in which future debates like this one take place.  And then someday, hopefully, Republicans can move on to denouncing Democrats for cutting Medicaid.  It took a long time, but we got there with Medicare.  That’s what progress looks like.
Fishkin assesses some of the GOP opposition to the expansion in an earlier post, as well.

The science of extreme weather and climate change, in infographic format.

William DeBuys, author of A Great Aridness, discusses climate change and the southwest.

This drought is bad.

Corn sex and climate change.

A failure in regulation and an increase in black lung. And related reporting from the Center for Public Integrity

And in a surprise to no one at all, the GOP attempts to kill any reforms that would help prevent more from dying of black lung. Pro-life indeed.

Glenn Greenwald on the pathetic fealty of political reporters. And Wonkette with more.

Not that I really care much to defend the compromised law that is Obamacare, nor do I really believe that the ideologues screaming “socialism!” at a plan hatched by the Heritage Foundation, promoted by Newt, and implemented by Mittens are swayed by facts and empirical reasoning, but nevertheless here's yet another take-down of the many myths regarding the ACA circulated by the hacks on the right.

Texas' new photo ID law which supposedly aims to stop non-existent voter fraud is nothing but a poorly concealed poll tax. And more.

If it's even possible, Crazy Eyes Michele Bachmann just got even crazier, now accusing all Muslims, those who know Muslims, and anyone else who may have ever encountered a Muslim as trying to take down the US government.

Romney: of the 1% and for the 1%.

A new paper from my childhood friend Matthew Joseph Notowidigdo suggesting that manufacturing and construction jobs aren't coming back gets written up in Slate.

Sady Doyle writes a beautiful essay on friendship — specifically, female friendship, but more generally all friendship.

What Gawker's offer of a cash reward for the identification of the person from whom Magic Johnson got HIV says about our society's attitude towards AIDS and people with AIDS.

Caitlin Moran is my new crush.

Why? Because she is awesome. (h/t Marci)

Does Penn State football deserve the death penalty? A compelling argument in favor. While Dave Zirin reminds us of who gets caught in the crossfire and the complete and utter illegitimacy of the NCAA. Joe Nocera chimes in for the death penalty, too, while recognizing the joke that is the NCAA. On balance, I still come out in favor of dropping the program for a couple years.

Google Street View hits Antarctica.

If you can't see it, feel it: maps for the blind.

Heather's Happy Link of the Day: Dinosaur Sexytimes.

Monday, July 16, 2012


If we fail to understand and take care of the natural world, it can cause a breakdown of these systems and come back to haunt us in ways we know little about. A critical example is a developing model of infectious disease that shows that most epidemics — AIDS, Ebola, West Nile, SARS, Lyme disease and hundreds more that have occurred over the last several decades — don’t just happen. They are a result of things people do to nature.

Disease, it turns out, is largely an environmental issue. Sixty percent of emerging infectious diseases that affect humans are zoonotic — they originate in animals. And more than two-thirds of those originate in wildlife.


Diseases have always come out of the woods and wildlife and found their way into human populations — the plague and malaria are two examples. But emerging diseases have quadrupled in the last half-century, experts say, largely because of increasing human encroachment into habitat, especially in disease “hot spots” around the globe, mostly in tropical regions. And with modern air travel and a robust market in wildlife trafficking, the potential for a serious outbreak in large population centers is enormous.


IT’S not just the invasion of intact tropical landscapes that can cause disease. The West Nile virus came to the United States from Africa but spread here because one of its favored hosts is the American robin, which thrives in a world of lawns and agricultural fields. And mosquitoes, which spread the disease, find robins especially appealing. “The virus has had an important impact on human health in the United States because it took advantage of species that do well around people,” says Marm Kilpatrick, a biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The pivotal role of the robin in West Nile has earned it the title “super spreader.”

And Lyme disease, the East Coast scourge, is very much a product of human changes to the environment: the reduction and fragmentation of large contiguous forests. Development chased off predators — wolves, foxes, owls and hawks. That has resulted in a fivefold increase in white-footed mice, which are great “reservoirs” for the Lyme bacteria, probably because they have poor immune systems. And they are terrible groomers. When possums or gray squirrels groom, they remove 90 percent of the larval ticks that spread the disease, while mice kill just half. “So mice are producing huge numbers of infected nymphs,” says the Lyme disease researcher Richard Ostfeld.

“When we do things in an ecosystem that erode biodiversity — we chop forests into bits or replace habitat with agricultural fields — we tend to get rid of species that serve a protective role,” Dr. Ostfeld told me. “There are a few species that are reservoirs and a lot of species that are not. The ones we encourage are the ones that play reservoir roles.”

Conservative economist Ed Glaeser thinks we need to move away from extracting wealth from unsustainable means like extractive industries, and should instead move towards notions of growth and well-being based on knowledge and human capital:
America became great because it transformed its vast natural resources -- Iowa farmland, Mesabi iron, Texas crude -- into human capital, equipped with skills to succeed in the Information Age.

Now, when human capital is king, some look toward Texas and North Dakota and see natural-resource extraction as a path to economic rejuvenation. But if we look at Australia, the model of a major mineral producer, we see that widespread prosperity comes not from the stuff beneath the ground but from the stuff between our ears.


A recent paper I co-wrote with William Kerr and Sari Pekkala Kerr examined the long-run impact of mining across the U.S. Fifty years ago, the economist Benjamin Chinitz noted that New York appeared even then to be more resilient than Pittsburgh. He argued that New York’s garment industry, with its small setup costs, had engendered a culture of entrepreneurship that spilled over into new industries. Pittsburgh, because of its coal mines, had the huge U.S. Steel Corp. (X), which trained company men with neither the ability nor the inclination to start some new venture. A body of healthy literature now documents the connection between economic success and measures of local entrepreneurship, such as the share of employment in startups and an abundance of smaller companies.

Our new paper documents Chinitz’s insight that mineral wealth historically led to big companies, not entrepreneurial clusters. In Australia, iron ore and coal are mined by giant corporations such as Rio Tinto Plc and BHP Billiton Ltd., and giant enterprises typically work best with other big companies. Across U.S. metropolitan areas, we found that historical mining cities had fewer small companies and fewer startups, even today in sectors unrelated to mining or manufacturing, and even in the Sunbelt. These mining cities were also experiencing less new economic activity.


It is a fiction that U.S. economic woes could be solved if only the nation adopted a “drill, baby, drill” attitude toward natural resources. Less than 0.6 percent of American jobs are in natural-resource extraction. Even a vast increase in drilling employment would have a trivial impact on U.S. jobs. Oil prices are set in the world market, so American production can do little to radically decrease the global price of petroleum.

The wealth that comes out of the ground is a short-term windfall, not a long-term source of economic growth. The U.S. and Australia should both recognize that their futures depend on training smart, innovative entrepreneurs and reducing the barriers that limit their success.
Though he's much too conservative to throw around hippie words like sustainability, that's really precisely what he's talking about. His language is actually something folks like me can learn from — rather than talking about limits and unsustainable growth, the issue should be one of reframing what we mean by growth and well-being and focus on things like mining human capital, rather than destroying natural capital for our generation of wealth.

Tourism can exacerbate water scarcity:
The disproportionate use of fresh water by tourists in developing world destinations is causing local conflict, exacerbating poverty and helping to spread disease, says a report to be published next week by the charity Tourism Concern.

The report examined five coastal destinations popular with international tourists – the Gambia, Bali in Indonesia, the islands of Zanzibar off the coast of Tanzania, and Goa and Kerala in India. Researchers claim to have uncovered huge inequalities in consumption and access to water supplies between tourists and the local populations.

"While hotels may have the money and resources to ensure their guests enjoy several showers a day, swimming pools, a round of golf, and lush landscaped gardens, neighbouring households, small businesses and agricultural producers can regularly endure severe water scarcity," says the report.

In the resort villages of Kiwengwa and Nungwi in Zanzibar, Tourism Concern's researchers found that, on average, tourists were using 16 times more fresh water a day per head than locals. The researchers found that locals used, on average, 93.2 litres of water per day, whereas in the five-star hotels the average daily consumption per room was 3,195 litres. In less luxurious tourist "guesthouses", the consumption rate fell to 686 litres per day.

The water crisis has led some Zanzibar hotels to employ security guards to protect the water pipes leading into their walled complexes following sabotage attempts by angry locals who claim they are facing extreme shortages as a result of the area's falling water table. "Hoteliers were taking much water and communities decided to demonstrate and destroy the water system to the hotels," one Nungwi villager told a Tourism Concern researcher.

Sure, there's political polarization, but one party's far more responsible for the widening gap than the other — it's asymmetric polarization:
The parties have not become equally ideologically homogenous or moved equally far toward their extremes. They do not behave in the same way or share the same attitude toward established social and political norms. Republicans have moved farther right than Democrats have left.


[O]ver the 32 years leading up to 2004, the mean Dem moved six points to the left and the mean Republican moved 22 points to the right. Much farther! And second, there is virtually no overlap left between the parties. The humps have almost entirely separated. In short, the chart shows asymmetrical polarization.


Today, the national Democratic Party contains everything from the center-right to the far-left. Economically its proposals tend to be center to center-right. Socially, its proposals tend to be center to center-left. The national Republican Party, by contrast, has now been almost entirely absorbed by the far right. It rejects the basic social consensus among post-war democracies and seeks to return to a pre-New Deal form of governance. It is hostile to social and economic equality. It remains committed to fossil fuels and sprawl and opposed to all sustainable alternatives. And it has built an epistemological cocoon around itself within which loopy misinformation spreads unchecked. It has, in short, gone loony.

Corporations aren't people; they're much more awesome — that's why they can get away with murder, right?:
Imagine you’re the closest living relative of a child who just inherited $100 million after her parents died in a car crash. You’re a distant cousin, but if something happened to her, you’d be next in line.

She has juvenile diabetes. So you “adjust” her insulin prescription a bit yourself, doubling the dose. When that doesn’t work, you tell her a different drug works just as well, and when she’s reluctant, you offer her a trip to Disney World.

What would happen if you got caught? You’d probably be convicted of attempted murder and spend several years in prison.

Earlier this month, the Justice Department announced a settlement with the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline. The company had, among a host of criminal actions, helped publish falsified data in a medical journal, failed to report the dangers of a drug and used “favors” like trips to Jamaica to persuade doctors to use its medications for unapproved — and unproven — purposes on children.

These two fact patterns have a lot in common, except that instead of endangering the life of one child, the company endangered the lives of many, and instead of anyone receiving prison time, the company agreed to pay a fine — which it will no doubt pass on to its customers and shareholders — that is, to us.

This isn’t an exception. Several other pharmaceutical companies, The New York Times reported, have recently agreed to similar settlements.
Robert Reich is not at all impressed with the GSK settlement:
Now $3 billion may sound like a lot of money, but during the years covered under the settlement, Glaxo is reported to have made nearly $30 billion on these three anti-depressants alone.

But to the extent the penalty will affect Glaxo's profits and share price, the wrong people will be feeling the financial pain. Most of today's Glaxo shareholders bought into the company after the ill-gotten profits were already built into the price they paid for their shares.

The only way to get a big company like this to change its ways is by making individual executives feel the heat. But not a single executive has been charged. Glaxo has agreed to reclaim the bonuses of any executives who engaged in or supervised improper behavior. But without legal charges against the executives involved, it's impossible to know whether Glaxo will follow through.

An even more basic issue is why the advertising and marketing of prescription drugs is allowed at all, when consumers can't buy them and shouldn't be influencing doctors' decisions anyway. Before 1997, the Food and Drug Administration banned such advertising on TV and radio. That ban should be resurrected.

Finally, there's no good reason why doctors should be allowed to accept any perks at all from companies whose drugs they write prescriptions for. Codes of ethics that are supposed to limit such gifts obviously don't work. All perks should be banned, and doctors that accept them should be subject to potential loss of their license to practice. It's an inherent conflict of interest.
Just what all bullshit did GSK engage in?

Two points that bear constant repeating: (1) the GOP doesn't care about the uninsured, (2) the GOP has no credible response to Obamacare:
Fifty million uninsured Americans would be the immediate casualties of the GOP’s “let them eat the emergency room” mentality. But all of us would be at risk. In America — alone among wealthy nations — everyone is a pink slip or job change or new illness away from finding they have lost coverage or are uninsurable.

This is the shameful reality behind the GOP’s rhetoric on health care. Republicans don’t want to spend a penny to insure the uninsured.


You may have noticed that Republicans have been struggling to come up with a credible alternative to the Affordable Care Act once they repeal it. Why is it so hard? Because Obamacare WAS the Republican alternative. It was the conservative-designed mandate and subsidy approach. Republicans are in such an intellectual cul-de-sac on this issue that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) actually blasted Obamacare for being a sop to the president’s “cronies” in the insurance industry. Oy!

I feel like a broken record, but some truths bear repeating. Only in America could a Democratic president pass Mitt Romney’s health plan and fund it partly through John McCain’s best idea from the last campaign (taxing some employer-provided plans) and be branded a “socialist.”

In every other advanced nation, the idea that government has a central role in assuring basic health security was settled decades ago — a consensus that conservatives abroad embrace. Always remember: conservative icon Margaret Thatcher would have been chased from office if she had proposed anything as radically conservative as Obamacare — which relies on private docs to deliver the medicine, after all, and still leaves 20 million people uncovered.
The GOP's healthcare plan: You have cancer? Sucks to be you.

John Feinstein calls on colleges to stop paying so much attention to sports programs:
[N]o college coach should be placed on the pedestal that Paterno was put on at Penn State. That pedestal is what prevented then-President Graham Spanier from stepping up in 2001, when a graduate assistant coach told Paterno that he had seen Sandusky in a university shower sexually assaulting a 10-year-old boy. Instead of ruling that the only option was to notify authorities, Spanier and the university’s athletic director allowed Paterno to dictate the school’s course of action — which was no action at all.


College presidents love to talk about the importance of academics and refer to football and basketball players as “student-athletes.” They set themselves up as bastions of righteousness even as they let coaches run amok in the name of winning games and making money.

This is an opportunity for presidents to do something other than preen. They should take steps to ensure that no coach can ever again have the absolute power Paterno wielded. They should stop giving coaches multimillion-dollar contracts. They should stop building statues and naming stadiums, arenas and basketball courts for them — especially while the coaches are still active. They should also stop asking them to raise funds. Tell them to coach their teams and try to see to it that their players graduate. Period.

Carbon emissions as ignored fossil fuel subsidy.

Turns out that despite what the frackers had been telling us for years, fluids from the Marcellus Shale layer can, in fact, migrate upwards and into groundwater.

The market speaks: Nationwide Insurance refuses to offer policies covering damages that result from fracking.

How to make corn more sustainable? Plant less corn. And then move towards more “hardier, more nutritious and more efficient” crops.

[T]ransit fails to connect most employers with a majority of their metropolitan labor pool. Instead, the average employer can reach only 27 percent of the metropolitan labor pool via transit in 90 minutes.”

The Dead Zone isn't getting any better.

Global warming means more heat waves.

Al Jazeera English airs a well-done, 25-minute piece on climate change and extreme weather:

The American public is beginning to recognize climate change.

It's not just coastal infrastructure that's at risk with climate change.

The EPA moves to deal with poor air quality at national parks; the right, as expected, throws a fit.

Water rich vs. water poor.

Public lands, Private profits, a series of three short video documentaries from the Center for American progress and the Sierra Club.

You can add what to organic foods?

The Amazon's extinction debt.

Though I don't think environmental guilt is a particularly useful response, it's interesting nonetheless to see that those with the least environmental impact have the most guilt, and those with the greatest impact have the least guilt. More interesting to me, though, is that it's the guilt-free consumption class that feels “they could have a positive impact on the environment.” (h/t/ Wifey)

The US ranks #9 (of 12) in energy efficiency.

[O]ne more in a litany of broken promises from Shell when it comes to drilling in the Arctic.”

Climate change and salmon evolution.

Helping women who've been raped? Pshaw. That's a distraction from the real public health issues.

Providing contraception would make a huge dent in cutting maternal deaths.

Let's just cut the crap: the only explanation for this is nothing but racism. It's true that people filter information that conflicts with their pre-exisiting beliefs. But the only justification for the belief that Obama wasn't born in the US is racism, pure and simple.

Increasing political polarization — especially over the need for environmental regulations and the social safety net.

How the GOP abandoned the center — and Richard Posner.

This is the worst Congress ever.

States' rights if it means more power to corporations, the ability to discriminate against minorities and other powerless group, and the right to torture animals. But it's a full-on embrace of the Commerce Clause if corporate rights are under attack or some states want to grant greater rights to the oppressed.

Yup, Wall Street execs are as despicable as you thought.

Well, prosecute the Banksters.

The shareholder value myth.

Alabama's debtors prison.

How many cellphones are cops tracking?

It's time to recognize your phone for what it is: a tracking device.

And it's time to amend privacy laws to keep up with new technologies and protect consumers.

ProPublica rounds up the best reporting on rendition and detention under Obama.

NYPD has stopped all the terrorism ever.

I am sorry, we don’t sell to Persians.”

Don't feel guilty about taking vacation. However, do agitate for the rights of all workers to have such benefits.

The FDA spied on its own scientists because they had the gall to suggest “that faulty review procedures at the agency had led to the approval of medical imaging devices for mammograms and colonoscopies that exposed patients to dangerous levels of radiation.”

Stop disrespecting the social sciences.

How to make STEM disciplines more woman-friendly.

Women, STEM, and the stereotype threat.

Don't get sick in July.

Antibiotic overuse in chickens just gave you that bladder infection.

Doctors cash in by playing the role of pharmacist.

What can you eat across the world if you're living at the poverty line? (h/t Peter via Katelyn)

Beautiful storm clouds.

Olympic venues as “ruin porn.”

Woody at 100.

Damn right, he was a fascist-hating commie. Get over it.

New Mountain Goats on the way!

John Hodgman is excited about the new Mountain Goats album. That is all.

Harry Reid, n. ˈhærɪ rēde “A sexual position where you climb on top and then do absolutely nothing.”

I’m a Steely Dan fan so naturally I wanted to read the book they thought compelling enough to name their band after an element of” and other great one-star Amazon reviews of great books.

What happened with the Pulitzer's fiction prize this year? (h/t Wifey)

Penis bones.

No, it wasn't funny when Daniel Tosh made a rape "joke", but The Onion just told the greatest rape joke ever.

A trailer for the new film from funnyman Mike Birbiglia:

Monday, July 9, 2012


The fact is, organic food has become a wildly lucrative business for Big Food and a premium-price-means-premium-profit section of the grocery store. The industry’s image — contented cows grazing on the green hills of family-owned farms — is mostly pure fantasy. Or rather, pure marketing. Big Food, it turns out, has spawned what might be called Big Organic.

Bear Naked, Wholesome & Hearty, Kashi: all three and more actually belong to the cereals giant Kellogg. Naked Juice? That would be PepsiCo, of Pepsi and Fritos fame. And behind the pastoral-sounding Walnut Acres, Healthy Valley and Spectrum Organics is none other than Hain Celestial, once affiliated with Heinz, the grand old name in ketchup.

Over the last decade, since federal organic standards have come to the fore, giant agri-food corporations like these and others — Coca-Cola, Cargill, ConAgra, General Mills, Kraft and M&M Mars among them — have gobbled up most of the nation’s organic food industry. Pure, locally produced ingredients from small family farms? Not so much anymore.


“As soon as a value-added aspect was established, it didn’t take long before corporate America came knocking,” Mr. Potter says. He says he gets at least one e-mail a week from someone seeking to buy Eden, which is based in Clinton, Mich., and does about $50 million a year in sales. “Companies, private equity, venture capital, even individuals,” Mr. Potter says. “The best offer I ever got came from two guys who had money from Super Glue.”

Between the time the Agriculture Department came up with its proposed regulations for the organic industry in 1997 and the time those rules became law in 2002, myriad small, independent organic companies — from Honest Tea to Cascadian Farm — were snapped up by corporate titans. Heinz and Hain together bought 19 organic brands.

Eden is one of the last remaining independent organic companies of any size, together with the Clif Bar & Company, Amy’s Kitchen, Lundberg Family Farms and a handful of others.

“In some ways, organic is a victim of its own success,” says Philip H. Howard, an assistant professor at Michigan State University, who has documented the remarkable consolidation of the organic industry. Organic food accounts for just 4 percent of all foods sold, but the industry is growing fast. “Big corporations see the trends and the opportunity to make money and profit,” he says.

BIG FOOD has also assumed a powerful role in setting the standards for organic foods. Major corporations have come to dominate the board that sets these standards.

As corporate membership on the board has increased, so, too, has the number of nonorganic materials approved for organic foods on what is called the National List. At first, the list was largely made up of things like baking soda, which is nonorganic but essential to making things like organic bread. Today, more than 250 nonorganic substances are on the list, up from 77 in 2002.

The board has 15 members, and a two-thirds majority is required to add a substance to the list. More and more, votes on adding substances break down along corporate-independent lines, with one swing vote. Six board members, for instance, voted in favor of adding ammonium nonanoate, a herbicide, to the accepted organic list in December. Those votes came from General Mills, Campbell’s Soup, Organic Valley, Whole Foods Market and Earthbound Farms, which had two votes at the time.

Big Organic lost that round. Had it prevailed, it would have been the first time a herbicide was put on the list.

Joe Stiglitz warns the 1% to consider self-interest; with such widening inequality, the center cannot hold:
There are good reasons why plutocrats should care about inequality anyway—even if they’re thinking only about themselves. The rich do not exist in a vacuum. They need a functioning society around them to sustain their position. Widely unequal societies do not function efficiently and their economies are neither stable nor sustainable. The evidence from history and from around the modern world is unequivocal: there comes a point when inequality spirals into economic dysfunction for the whole society, and when it does, even the rich pay a steep price.


Many, if not most, Americans possess a limited understanding of the nature of the inequality in our society. They know that something has gone wrong, but they underestimate the harm that inequality does even as they overestimate the cost of taking action. These mistaken beliefs, which have been reinforced by ideological rhetoric, are having a catastrophic effect on politics and economic policy.

There is no good reason why the 1 percent, with their good educations, their ranks of advisers, and their much-vaunted business acumen, should be so misinformed. The 1 percent in generations past often knew better. They knew that there would be no top of the pyramid if there wasn’t a solid base—that their own position was precarious if society itself was unsound. Henry Ford, not remembered as one of history’s softies, understood that the best thing he could do for himself and his company was to pay his workers a decent wage, because he wanted them to work hard and he wanted them to be able to buy his cars. Franklin D. Roosevelt, a purebred patrician, understood that the only way to save an essentially capitalist America was not only to spread the wealth, through taxation and social programs, but to put restraints on capitalism itself, through regulation. Roosevelt and the economist John Maynard Keynes, while reviled by the capitalists, succeeded in saving capitalism from the capitalists. Richard Nixon, known to this day as a manipulative cynic, concluded that social peace and economic stability could best be secured by investment—and invest he did, heavily, in Medicare, Head Start, Social Security, and efforts to clean up the environment. Nixon even floated the idea of a guaranteed annual income.

So, the advice I’d give to the 1 percent today is: Harden your hearts. When invited to consider proposals to reduce inequality—by raising taxes and investing in education, public works, health care, and science—put any latent notions of altruism aside and reduce the idea to one of unadulterated self-interest. Don’t embrace it because it helps other people. Just do it for yourself.
Stiglitz discusses other costs of inequality in another essay:
Inequality leads to lower growth and less efficiency. Lack of opportunity means that its most valuable asset – its people – is not being fully used. Many at the bottom, or even in the middle, are not living up to their potential, because the rich, needing few public services and worried that a strong government might redistribute income, use their political influence to cut taxes and curtail government spending. This leads to underinvestment in infrastructure, education, and technology, impeding the engines of growth.

The great recession has exacerbated inequality, with cutbacks in basic social expenditures and with high unemployment putting downward pressure on wages. Moreover, the United Nations Commission of Experts on Reforms of the International Monetary and Financial System, investigating the causes of the great recession, and the International Monetary Fund have warned that inequality leads to economic instability.

But, most importantly, America's inequality is undermining its values and identity. With inequality reaching such extremes, it is not surprising that its effects are manifest in every public decision, from the conduct of monetary policy to budgetary allocations. America has become a country not "with justice for all", but rather with favouritism for the rich and justice for those who can afford it – so evident in the foreclosure crisis, in which the big banks believed that they were too big not only to fail, but also to be held accountable.

America can no longer regard itself as the land of opportunity that it once was. But it does not have to be this way: it is not too late for the American dream to be restored.
In these debates about inequality, as Stiglitz notes, is a battle for America's heart and soul and the very nature of the country we want to be:
The intellectual battle is often fought over particular policies, such as whether taxes should be raised on capital gains. But behind these disputes lies this bigger battle over perceptions and over big ideas—like the role of the market, the state, and civil society. This is not just a philosophical debate but a battle over shaping perceptions about the competencies of these different institutions. Those who don’t want the state to stop the rent seeking from which they benefit so much, and don’t want it to engage in redistribution or to increase economic opportunity and mobility, emphasize the state’s failings. (Remarkably, this is true even when they are in office and could and should do something to correct any problem of which they are aware.) They emphasize that the state interferes with the workings of the markets. At the same time that they exaggerate the failures of government, they exaggerate the strengths of markets. Most importantly for our purposes, they strive to make sure that these perceptions become part of the common perspective, that money spent by private individuals (presumably, even on gambling) is better spent than money entrusted to the government, and that any government attempts to correct market failures—such as the proclivity of firms to pollute excessively—cause more harm than good.

This big battle is crucial for understanding the evolution of inequality in America. The success of the Right in this battle during the past thirty years has shaped our government. We haven’t achieved the minimalist state that libertarians advocate. What we’ve achieved is a state too constrained to provide the public goods—investments in infrastructure, technology, and education—that would make for a vibrant economy and too weak to engage in the redistribution that is needed to create a fair society. But we have a state that is still large enough and distorted enough that it can provide a bounty of gifts to the wealthy. The advocates of a small state in the financial sector were happy that the government had the money to rescue them in 2008—and bailouts have in fact been part of capitalism for centuries.

These political battles, in turn, rest on broader ideas about human rights, human nature, and the meaning of democracy and equality. Debates and perspectives on these issues have taken a different course in the United States in recent years than in much of the rest of the world, especially in other advanced industrial countries. Two controversies—the death penalty (which is anathema in Europe) and the right to access to medicine (which in most countries is taken as a basic human right)—are emblematic of these differences. It may be difficult to ascertain the role the greater economic and social divides in our society has played in creating these differences in beliefs; but what is clear is that if American values and perceptions are seen to be out of line with those in the rest of the world, our global influence will be diminished.
On a related note, a journey climbing up the rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. Interestingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the only individual profiled with any animosity towards others is the richest of the bunch with plenty of misplaced aggression towards those on whose backs his wealth is created.

So it should come as no surprise that being rich makes you as asshole:
How does living in an environment defined by individual achievement—­measured by money, privilege, and ­status—alter a person’s mental machinery to the point where he begins to see the people around him only as aids or obstacles to his own ambitions? Piff won’t name a tipping point after which the personality transformation kicks in, only that his studies of ethical behavior indicate a strong correlation between high socio­economic status and interpersonal dis­regard. It’s an “additive” effect; the fever line points straight up. “People higher up on the socioeconomic ladder are about three times more likely to cheat than people on the lower rungs,” he says. Piff’s research also suggests that people who yearn to be richer or more prominent make different choices than those more content with their present level of material comfort. No matter how much money you actually have, you’re likelier to behave unethically if you check the “agree” box next to the following statement: “In order to be a successful person in this society, it is important to make use of every opportunity.”

Unlike the discovery that the Earth is round or that lifesaving medicine can be made from mold, the results of this new field of inquiry hardly challenge human intuition. Philosophers and writers going back at least to Aristotle have had something to say about the potentially corrupting influence of wealth. Jesus warned that one might more easily push a camel through the eye of a needle than encounter a rich man in Heaven, and Dante designed the fourth ring of his Inferno for the greedy. Scrooge, Lily Bart, and ­Sherman McCoy are modernity’s Virgils, guides to the hell of living too much in money’s thrall. But science looks for solutions, and though affluence has been held up as a potential hazard to the soul, it has not in the United States been, empirically speaking, a problem. (The health and fortunes of the poor, by contrast, have been abundantly studied.) Rich people are thinner than poor people and have better cardiovascular health. They live longer. They’re better educated. They score higher on standardized tests. “They have more money,” as ­Ernest Hemingway was said to have quipped. Experiments over the past three years have shown that wealthier people suffer less from mood disorders than poorer people and that they have less cortisol in their saliva, a sign that they feel more impervious to threat.
And over at Rolling Stone, we see what the collapse of America's middle class means for people actually living through it. Indeed, the American Dream just seems dead and out of reach for too many.

A great visualization of global croplands, irrigation, and efficiency — based in large part of the work of my colleague, Chad Monfreda.

Indian lands are disproportionately exposed to dirty energy. (And George Will doesn't give a shit.)

Growing wildfire risks in Colorado, thanks to the convergence of climate change, years of fire suppression, and continued infringement of suburbia into conflagration-prone forested areas.

Central cities are outgrowing suburbs.

Unwalkable communities are often unhealthy communities.

Creating sustainable communities, with help from the feds.

Sustainability concerns regarding a growth in palm-oil plantations.

What's greener than LEED? It's the Living Building Challenge.

Green your city by banning plastic bags.

The big questions we must answer in order to more sustainably manage our water resources.

Will Steffen on Rio+20 and planetary boundaries.

A sequel of sorts to Josh Fox's Gasland:

Josh Fox gets into a debate with Andy Revkin on fracking. Revkin, ever the middle-grounder, refuses to take Fox seriously.

And some responses to the Fox-Revkin debate.

Small farms and local ag: a new (renewing an old?) economic model for agriculture.

Conservative theology and free market fundamentalism meet the realities of wildfire.

Obamacare: turning two decades of conservative health care policy thinking into law.

Tom Tomorrow cartoon about Lisa Brown
Some questions for the fearmongers on the right about the ACA.

What happens if a state opts out of the Medicaid expansion?

Well, the feds can just foot the bill, right? Nope.

Screwed over by medical research? Well, learn to take care of yourself.

If we fully implement the ACA, we might be able to reach Rwanda's levels of coverage.

The Constitution and the feds' powers to deal with collective action issues.

Richard Posner: the GOP has gotten crazy, and I've gotten less conservative.

7,000 words on the 15 minutes of confusion over SCOTUS' ACA decision. (h/t Wifey)

Having it all? Women among the working poor are nowhere close.

More than 150 years after Dickens' Little Dorritt, we've still got debtor's prisons.

Structural impediments to recognizing the rights of the working class and vacation time.

The STEM jobs aren't there. (h/t Marci)

Danny Kahneman tells us what he knows.

Science takes on Big Food.

Why are we fat?

Expelling people from their own homes: ‘I am an illegal alien on my own land’

One language disappears every two weeks.

Publishers are being assholes when it comes to e-books and libraries.

In defense of the “conscious pause.”

More on the New Yorker and the “f-word.”

Dream Team vs. Dream Team: the greatest basketball ever played. And pretty much no one ever saw it. (h/t Wifey)

Banana slugs and their penises.

Heather's Happy Link Of The Day: Ohio is the Underpants State and more things we can learn from the shapes of states.