Monday, May 14, 2012


I mentioned the Chicago Tribune's series on chemical companies and the ubiquity of toxics that have serious health consequences last week; all four articles in the series are now up, along with a multitude of online resources, and well worth checking out. The chemical industry has used deceptive tactics and distorted science, while — in a story that's all too common — the regulatory regime that should be protecting the public has failed to do so. The story begins with the cigarette industry pushing for fire retardants, rather than make safer cigarettes, and doing so with by embracing fire marshals to carry their message forward:
The industry insisted it couldn't make a fire-safe cigarette that would still appeal to smokers and instead promoted flame retardant furniture — shifting attention to the couches and chairs that were going up in flames.

But executives realized they lacked credibility, especially when burn victims and firefighters were pushing for changes to cigarettes.

So Big Tobacco launched an aggressive and cunning campaign to "neutralize" firefighting organizations and persuade these far more trusted groups to adopt tobacco's cause as their own. The industry poured millions of dollars into the effort, doling out grants to fire groups and hiring consultants to court them.

These strategic investments endeared cigarette executives to groups they called their "fire service friends."

"To give us clout, to give us power, to give us credibility, to give us leverage, to give us access where we don't ordinarily have access ourselves — those are the kinds of things that we're looking for," a Philip Morris executive told his peers in a 1984 training session on this strategy.

The tobacco industry's biggest prize? The National Association of State Fire Marshals, which represented the No. 1 fire officials in each state.

A former tobacco executive, Peter Sparber, helped organize the group, then steered its national agenda. He shaped its requests for federal rules requiring flame retardant furniture and fed the marshals tobacco's arguments for why altering furniture was a more effective way to prevent fires than altering cigarettes.

For years, the tobacco industry paid Sparber for what the marshals mistakenly thought was volunteer work.


This clever manipulation set the stage for a similar campaign of distortion and misdirection by the chemical industry that continues to this day.
Meanwhile, the manufacturers of these toxics continually distorted the science in order to sell their message that toxics are good for you:
The misuse of Babrauskas' work is but one example of how the chemical industry has manipulated scientific findings to promote the widespread use of flame retardants and downplay the health risks, a Tribune investigation shows. The industry has twisted research results, ignored findings that run counter to its aims and passed off biased, industry-funded reports as rigorous science.

As a result, the chemical industry successfully distorted the basic knowledge about toxic chemicals that are used in consumer products and linked to serious health problems, including cancer, developmental problems, neurological deficits and impaired fertility.

Industry has disseminated misleading research findings so frequently that they essentially have been adopted as fact. They have been cited by consultants, think tanks, regulators and Wikipedia, and have shaped the worldwide debate about the safety of flame retardants.

One series of studies financed by the chemical industry concluded that flame retardants prevent deadly fires, reduce pollutants and save society millions of dollars.

The main basis for these broad claims? A report so obscure it is available only in Swedish.

When the Tribune obtained a copy and translated it, the report revealed that many of industry's wide-ranging claims can be traced to information regarding just eight TV fires in western Stockholm more than 15 years ago.

Although industries often try to spin scientific findings on the safety and effectiveness of their products, the tactics employed by flame retardant manufacturers stand out.

Tom Muir, a Canadian government research analyst for 30 years, called the broad claims based on the eight Stockholm TV fires "the worst example I have ever seen of deliberate misinformation and distortion."

The American Chemistry Council, the leading trade group for the industry, said flame retardants are safe products that help protect life and property. "ACC's work is grounded in scientific evidence, as we believe regulatory decisions related to chemistry must be evaluated on a scientific basis," the trade group said in a written statement.

But when the Tribune asked the trade group to provide research that showed flame retardants are effective, the council initially provided only one study — the one Babrauskas wrote and now says is being distorted by industry.

Later, in response to additional questions from the newspaper, the trade group highlighted a different study as evidence that flame retardants work well: research based largely on the obscure Swedish report.

In reviewing key scientific studies and analyses behind the chemical industry's most common arguments, the Tribune identified flaws so basic they violate central tenets of science.
And compounding the problem is that the agencies tasked with protecting public health are failing in their task, partially because the legal framework in place, in essence, places the burden on regulators to show that chemicals are dangerous (rather than on manufacturers to prove safety):

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, whose mission is to safeguard America's health and environment, praised the withdrawal of penta as a "responsible action" and promised that the new flame retardant had none of the problems of the old one. Unlike penta, Firemaster 550 would neither stick around in the environment nor build up in people and wildlife, a top EPA official declared in a 2003 news release.

Not everyone at the EPA believed that rosy public assessment. Documents obtained by the Tribune show that scientists within the agency were deeply skeptical about the safety of Firemaster 550, predicting that its chemical ingredients would escape into the environment and break down into byproducts that would pose lasting health hazards.

Behind the scenes, agency officials asked the manufacturer to conduct basic health studies, citing the same concerns that forced penta off the market.

Today, in sharp contrast to the promises of industry and government, chemicals in the flame retardant are being found everywhere from house dust in Boston to the air in Chicago. There also are signs the chemicals are building up in wildlife, prompting concern that Firemaster 550 or its byproducts could be accumulating in people.

The manufacturer's own health studies, obtained by the Tribune, add to that troubling picture. They found that exposing rats to high doses of Firemaster 550 can lower birth weight, alter female genitalia and cause skeletal malformations such as fused ribs and vertebrae.

The history of Firemaster 550, pieced together through records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, highlights how EPA officials have allowed generation after generation of flame retardants onto the market without thoroughly assessing health risks.

The previously unreleased documents also show how the nation's chemical safety law, the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, gives the government little power to assess or limit dangers from the scores of chemicals added to furniture, electronics, toys, cosmetics and household products.

At a time when consumers clamor for more information about their exposure to toxic substances, the chemical safety law allows manufacturers to sell products without proving they are safe and to treat the formulas as trade secrets. Once health effects are documented, the law makes it almost impossible for the EPA to ban chemicals.

A growing list of critics — including the nation's leading group of pediatricians and the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress — are calling for a sweeping overhaul of the law. Some compare the situation to Whac-A-Mole, the carnival game where plastic moles keep popping out of holes even after a player smacks one down.

"By the time the scientific community catches up to one chemical, industry moves on to another and they go back to their playbook of delay and denial," said Deborah Rice, a former EPA toxicologist who works for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Chemtura Corp., the Philadelphia-based company that makes Firemaster 550, said in a statement that the flame retardant is safe for use in polyurethane foam, the kind often used in furniture. The company also said the studies that found Firemaster 550's chemical ingredients in homes and wildlife don't prove that those compounds came from its product.

Introducing Firemaster 550 "was an early example of our strategy of Greener Innovation and the success it could have, even under significant EPA scrutiny," the company said.

Nevertheless, the EPA is now concerned enough that in February it targeted two of Firemaster 550's key ingredients for a "high priority" review, citing potential health hazards and widespread exposure from household products.

"We didn't think it would bioaccumulate, but it turns out that prediction isn't borne out by reality," Jim Jones, the EPA's top chemical safety official, said in an interview. "We want to make sure we understand it and that nothing bad is going to happen."


EPA officials acknowledge they know little, if anything, about the safety of not only Firemaster 550 but most of the other 84,000 industrial compounds in commercial use in the U.S.

Unlike Europe, where companies generally are required to prove the safety of their chemicals before use, U.S. law requires manufacturers to submit safety data only if they have it. Most don't, records show, which forces the EPA to predict whether chemicals will pose health problems by using computer models that the agency admits can fail to identify adverse effects.

The EPA can require studies of new chemicals that it anticipates could affect people's health — as it did with Firemaster 550 — but this step is rare, and the research doesn't need to be completed before the chemicals are sold.

To ban a chemical already on the market, the EPA must prove that it poses an "unreasonable risk." Federal courts have established such a narrow definition of "unreasonable" that the government couldn't even ban asbestos, a well-documented carcinogen that has killed thousands of people who suffered devastating lung diseases.

When the EPA approved Firemaster 550, the agency knew that it contained two brominated compounds, known as TBB and TBPH. Both are structurally similar to a plastic-softening phthalate that Congress has banned in children's products. Called DEHP, the phthalate is listed in California as a known carcinogen and developmental toxin.

EPA scientists also have known since the mid-1990s that burning products containing TBB could release highly toxic dioxins, records show.

The only health studies of Firemaster 550 conducted to date are two Chemtura-funded papers that the company submitted in 2008 at the EPA's request, five years after the agency declared it was safe.

The effects seen in some of the test rats, such as low birth weight and skeletal malformations, often lead to more serious health problems later in life. Yet the industry researchers repeatedly dismissed those effects as "spurious," "unclear" or "incidental," saying the problems weren't seen in all of the animals or when different doses were tested.

The company said its animal tests found no harmful effects at levels "expected to be seen in the environment" and proved that Firemaster 550 is "acceptable for use in the applications for which it was intended."

Stapleton and Heather Patisaul, a toxicologist at North Carolina State University, now are researching whether low doses of the brominated chemicals in Firemaster 550 could cause harm. Scientists increasingly are finding that the body can mistake tiny amounts of certain chemicals for hormones.

Based on earlier findings about such endocrine disrupters, including penta, Stapleton and Patisaul are looking for signs that Firemaster 550 could mimic or block hormones during critical stages of development.

"This is not a case where we are looking for missing arms and legs," said Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and a veteran government scientist who has raised concerns about toxic chemicals for years. "We're looking at reduced ability to learn, altered behaviors, decreased sperm count, premature ovarian failure — things that are more difficult to pick up in the standard studies."

EPA officials said they still think penta is more toxic than Firemaster 550, but they acknowledge missing some of the early warning signs about the newer flame retardant. They blamed the agency's delayed response on a lack of sufficient staff and funding to assess hundreds of new chemicals introduced by industry every year.

"We are always learning," said Jones, the EPA's acting assistant administrator for chemical safety and pollution prevention. "We want to make sure we have a better understanding of the human health and ecological risks before we commit to any course of action."
More on the ubiquity, lack of benefits, and human health risks of flame retardants. And all the while, industry continues to fight any semblance of a reasonable regulatory framework.

“Willard” Mittens Romney used to be one of those moderate, northeast Repubs — reasonable and sane on environmental issues, for instance, and advocating for an end to sprawl and encouraging smart growth. Now that he has to appeal to the UN-conspiracy-minded Teabaggers who see plots for global domination embedded within any efforts to embrace sustainability, he's stopped talking about those issues:
As governor of Massachusetts, Romney actively fought sprawl and promoted density. He ran on a smart-growth platform: “Sprawl is the most important quality-of-life issue facing Massachusetts,” he said in 2002.

After winning, Romney swiftly set about remaking state government to encourage smarter land use. He created a powerful new Office for Commonwealth Development, and appointed an aggressive environmental activist to run it — Douglas Foy, who for 25 years had headed the Conservation Law Foundation, a litigious regional environmental group. The state’s business community was appalled.

The Office for Commonwealth Development served as a “super-secretariat” or umbrella office for state agencies dealing with transportation, housing, energy, and the environment. It made sure the agencies were all pulling in the same direction toward smart-growth goals — concentrating development in town centers, constructing housing near transit stations, fixing existing roads instead of building new ones.

“I think [Romney] views sprawl as inefficient land use, and he’s all about efficiency. From a business perspective, he thinks smart growth makes a lot of sense,” says Anthony Flint, who served as a policy advisor in the Office for Commonwealth Development under Romney, and is now a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a think tank in Cambridge, Mass.

The Romney administration pursued smart growth not through strict regulation but through incentives. The Office for Commonwealth Development channeled hundreds of millions in state funds to cities and towns that changed zoning rules to allow more high-density housing and adopted other smart-growth policies.

Romney was a vocal advocate for the cause. “I very much believe in the concept known as smart growth or sustainable development, which is the phrase I used in the campaign,” Romney told CommonWealth magazine in 2003. “You do not want to deplete your green space and air and water [in order] to grow, and the only way that’s possible is if your growth is done in a thoughtful, coherent, strategic way.”

As Romney put it in 2005, “By targeting development to areas where there is already infrastructure in place, not only can we revitalize our older communities, but we can also curb sprawl as well.” His administration actively pursued a “sustainable development agenda” and promoted “transit-oriented development,” “multi-modal transportation,” “village-style zoning,” “green building,” “mixed-use” development, “mixed-income housing,” and other approaches that would delight any green-leaning city planner — and rile up any red-blooded Tea Partier.

Environmental activists still found plenty to criticize in Romney’s approach to land use and development, but many greens and smart-growth advocates were pleasantly surprised, at least in the first half of Romney’s term. In 2006, the U.S. EPA gave Massachusetts’ Office for Commonwealth Development its National Award for Smart Growth Achievement.


Flint, who worked under Foy, says, “Romney the governor was very active on the environment and smart growth and, for a time, climate change.” And now? “His positions on those topics have certainly changed, so I’m not sure what to think.”

The New Yorker runs a long piece on geoengineering, which focuses almost exclusively on the techno-fix aspect of and reads almost as a hagiography of those who advocate tinkering with the climate system in order to turn back global warming. Sadly, very little attention is paid to the ethical aspects (such as disparate impacts, like how to deal with countries that end up worse off as a result of geoengineering), the difficulties with implementation insofar as global negotiations and governance go (and why we should ever expect that the global community — which is unable to agree to virtually any measures to combat climate change — to agree to a plan to drastically intervene in the climate system with little-to-no idea of what the consequences would be on a local or regional level), and even with the myriad uncertainties and inevitable unforeseen consequences related to trying to assert control over a very complex system with no prior testing. Instead, author Michael Specter puts quite a bit of faith in a technological breakthrough solving everything, and says as much on the associated podcast (in which Elizabeth Kolbert makes some far more skeptical arguments).

It's just the standard issue of scientists and engineers being completely cut off from the implications of their works, and completely failing to understand politics — as if it's simply a matter of implementing their proposals and then everything would be fine. And while it's not surprising that scientists and engineers still don't get it (though it's yet another point in favor of approaching interdisciplinary problems in an interdisciplinary way), it's too bad that the Specter doesn't call them out on this or take a wider look at the issue.

More skepticism towards the Marine Stewardship Council's certification process:
About one-quarter of seafood sold as ‘sustainable’ is not meeting that goal, according to an analysis taking aim at the two leading bodies that grant this valuable label to fisheries.

In an online paper in Marine Policy and at a conference this week in Edinburgh, UK, fisheries biologist Rainer Froese of the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany, launched a stinging attack on the schemes by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and the marine-conservation organization Friend of the Sea (FOS) to certify fisheries as sustainable. Such schemes aim to help consumers and retailers to support fisheries that are sustainable and not exploited by overfishing.


Froese says that he was an early supporter of MSC certification in Germany, but that as the number of stocks given the sustainable label increased, “more and more I said, not this one”.

Speaking to Nature from the World Fisheries Congress in Edinburgh, Froese says that pressure is mounting on certification bodies to clean up their acts, with increasing numbers of scientists and non-governmental organizations raising objections to the schemes. “We’re putting them under a lot of pressure and we hope that will work. I want to improve them, not to kill them,” he says.

His criticisms chime with previous concerns about certification for particular species. In 2010, a critique of the MSC by conservation scientist Jennifer Jacquet, marine biologist Daniel Pauly and others in Nature triggered a series of responses from scientists both for and against the group.

Jacquet, who works on the Sea Around Us fisheries and ecosystems research project at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, says that the paper by Froese and Proelss “represents not only growing concern among scientists about the effectiveness of seafood eco-labelling in general and the MSC label specifically, but an increasing willingness for scientists to take on rigorous research in response to that scepticism — research that the MSC should probably be doing itself.” She adds, “The results were pretty depressing, even for someone who was already dubious of the MSC.”

Paolo Bray, director of Friend of the Sea in Milan, Italy, says that he considers the study “the best assessment that was ever done of its kind”. After Froese and Proelss completed their study, but before the paper was published, FOS de-certified three stocks, while the MSC has suspended certification for a similar number. Bray notes that once the three de-certified stocks are factored in to the assessment, 88% of fisheries certified by his group are neither overexploited nor overfished.

“This is for FOS a very good result and confirmation of the selectivity of our assessment,” he says, adding that the remaining 12% is down to factors such as FOS accepting data up to five years old, whereas the study by Froese and Proelss considered only two-year-old data.

But the MSC forcefully disagrees with Froese and Proelss’ conclusions. David Agnew, director of standards at the London-based organization, says that the work attempts to redefine the term ‘overfished’.

We're killing animals to protect agriculture, and the results aren't so pretty:
Strader's employer, a branch of the federal Department of Agriculture called Wildlife Services, has long specialized in killing animals that are deemed a threat to agriculture, the public and – more recently – the environment.

Since 2000, its employees have killed nearly a million coyotes, mostly in the West. They have destroyed millions of birds, from nonnative starlings to migratory shorebirds, along with a colorful menagerie of more than 300 other species, including black bears, beavers, porcupines, river otters, mountain lions and wolves.

And in most cases, they have officially revealed little or no detail about where the creatures were killed, or why. But a Bee investigation has found the agency's practices to be indiscriminate, at odds with science, inhumane and sometimes illegal.


In March, two congressmen – Reps. John Campbell, R-Irvine, and Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. – introduced a bill that would ban one of Wildlife Services' most controversial killing tools: spring-loaded sodium cyanide cartridges that have killed tens of thousands of animals in recent years, along with Compound 1080 (sodium fluoroacetate), a less-commonly used poison.

"This is an ineffective, wasteful program that is largely unaccountable, lacks transparency and continues to rely on cruel and indiscriminate methods," said Camilla Fox, executive director of Project Coyote, a Bay Area nonprofit.

"If people knew how many animals are being killed at taxpayer expense – often on public lands – they would be shocked and horrified," Fox said.

Read more here:
And the killings have significantly detrimental effects on ecosystems and predator-prey interactions, and that's just the beginning of the chain of unintended consequences:
For decades, Wildlife Services, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has specialized in trapping, poisoning and shooting predators in large numbers, largely to protect livestock and, more recently, big game.

Now such killing is coming under fire from scientists, former employees and others who say it often doesn't work and can set off a chain reaction of unintended, often negative consequences.

In biological shorthand: Kill too many coyotes and you open a Pandora's box of disease-carrying rodents, meadow-munching rabbits, bird-eating feral cats, and, over time, smarter, more abundant coyotes. You also can sentence the deer you are trying to help to slow death by starvation.

"There is a widespread perception that predators are the root of all evil and I'm tired of it," said Stewart. "More often than not, if you have predation on a mule deer population, you're going to have a healthier population."

Agency officials say controlling predators is a must, especially in the West where livestock graze large tracts of unfenced land. "The intent is not to prevent predation," said William Clay, deputy administrator of Wildlife Services. "All we're trying to do is remove the problem animals."

Killing predators is part of Wildlife Services' DNA, a mission it pursues – along with a wide range of other animal control work – largely outside public view.

Some details, though, can be gleaned from the agency's Web page, where it posts a sea of data showing – species by species – the millions of birds and mammals its employees kill each year. Sift through the numbers and you find that about 560,000 predators were killed across America from 2006 to 2011, an average of 256 a day.

The body count includes more than 25,000 red and gray foxes, 10,700 bobcats, 2,800 black bears, 2,300 timber wolves and 2,100 mountain lions. But the vast majority – about 512,500 – were coyotes.

"When they see a coyote, all they got is one thing in mind: killing it," said Gary Strader, a former Wildlife Services hunter in Nevada. "They don't know if it was a coyote that killed a sheep. It's just a coyote, and it's got to be killed."

While fewer bobcats are killed today, the numbers of three other major predators shot, trapped and snared by the agency have risen. In 1970, agency employees killed 73,100 coyotes, 400 black bears, 120 mountain lions. By 2011, the tally had climbed to 83,200 coyotes (up 14 percent), 565 black bears (up 41 percent) and 400 mountain lions (up 230 percent).

"If you look at their mandate, we could not have written it better for them," said Suzanne Stone, Northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife, who has worked with Wildlife Services employees to promote nonlethal control. "It's all about supporting wildlife conservation and promoting humane tools.

"That's not what is happening on the ground," Stone said. "Unfortunately, in parts of the western United States it just seems like they are still in the Dark Ages. They go at this as a kill mission. They are at war with wildlife."


Coyotes are known for their cunning. But their response to hunting takes craftiness to a new level: They are expanding their numbers and colonizing new territories.

"The more you shoot, the more you need to shoot," said Steve Searles, wildlife management officer in Mammoth Lakes. "We go easy on the gun because if you start shooting up the population, you're not part of the cure. You're part of the problem."

In Nevada, scientists found that when Wildlife Services began killing coyotes to protect deer south of Ely in 2004, the average coyote litter size jumped from one pup to 3.5. In 2007, one coyote killed by a Wildlife Services hunter in Nevada had 13 fetuses in its uterus.

Just how coyotes prosper amid persecution remains a mystery. But many believe they benefit from better dining opportunities that emerge over time as coyotes are killed and rabbits and mice begin to multiply.

"A lot of it comes down to nutrition and competition. When you have fewer animals (coyotes) on the landscape, you have more food available per individual. There is a ton of food on the landscape. Why not have a bigger litter?" said Stewart, the Nevada ecologist.

Many also believe killing coyotes en masse only makes them smarter, through natural selection. "I'm sure of it," said Barrett, the UC Berkeley professor. "How can an animal like that be so successful if there wasn't strong selection for individuals that take care of themselves under intense pressure? You've got to hand it to them. It's pretty amazing."

"We've raised a super race of coyotes," said Bill Jensen, a sheep rancher in Marin County. "There is nothing more cunning than these things now."

Read more here:

Read more here:

Another skeptical and rather cynical take on Obama's gay marriage announcement:
[M]arriage equality is designed to distract liberal consciences and give Democrats political cover to gut social services. While the passage of gay marriage enjoyed the support of prominent campaign donors, it was directly preceded by cuts to homeless shelters for queer youth. It’s a campaign season bait-and-switch — winning votes without making real concessions.

Case in point: Bloomberg commended Obama for joining a legacy of “courageous stands that so many Americans have taken over the years on behalf of equal rights for gay and lesbian Americans, stretching back to the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village.” This days after slashing youth homeless shelter funding by $7 million, in a city where 40% of homeless youth are LGBT.

Looked at from this vantage point, the chief beneficiaries of gay marriage will be Crate & Barrel, not the queer folks with the most desperate needs. There is an obvious disconnect between the desires of politically connected, wealthy gay people and the needs of queer youth, and yet the major gay rights organizations have all rallied around gay marriage as if it will solve the problems of gay people everywhere, regardless of race or class.

Gay marriage proponents feed us two flavors of justification for their crusade. For the romantics they supply fantasy — the notion that legal inclusion brings social justice; for the cynics, they tout the thousand individual rights that a marriage certificate bestows.
While Dahlia Litchwick and Sonja West advocate for a constitutional argument for gay marriage:
The “marriage is a purely state issue” rhetoric has been around for some time. It’s become a familiar default argument, maybe because it sounds fair and feels safe. But having “evolved” this far on gay marriage, the time has come to evolve our own thinking on what is really at stake when we talk about marriage equality. We must embrace that this is a constitutional and not a democratic issue. Equality is not a popularity contest. This is hardly a radical argument. It’s Supreme Court doctrine: Our rights to be treated as equal and full citizens do not evaporate when we cross state lines. Rather there are certain essential liberties, even in the realm of marriage, we all enjoy regardless of our ZIP code.

Obama wasn’t technically wrong to observe that states have broad latitude to fashion their own marriage rules and usually have to recognize marriages solemnized in other states. But that state power has important constitutional limitations. The Supreme Court recognized, in its landmark 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia that the “right to marry is of fundamental importance for all individuals” and “one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness.” After Loving, marriage is deemed a “fundamental freedom” protected by the constitution, and states cannot deny an individual of this basic right without an exceedingly good reason. If it’s not a good enough reason for a state to prohibit someone from getting married because he committed a crime or failed to pay child support, then it’s clearly not enough that he happens to be gay.


A federal constitutional opinion would be easy to write and easy to implement. Judge Vaughn Walker already wrote it in his decision about the Prop 8 ballot initiative. There is a right to marry the person you love. Americans cannot be discriminated against simply because of their sexual preference. Justice Anthony Kennedy could go to town with the “poetry of the law.” It wouldn’t be messy; it would be beautiful.

You wanna know what is messy? What’s messy is what we have now—an oddball collection of marriage laws, civil unions, and same-sex bans that stop and start at state lines. This is simply unworkable in a country where we all have the right to travel (another one of those “fundamental rights”) and there’s no way to ask people to check their marriages at the border. Add to the mix that nobody has any idea whether the Defense of Marriage Act can overrule the Full Faith and Credit Clause by telling states that don’t recognize same-sex marriages that they can ignore unions from states that do. We have interstate child custody disputes that are Solomonic in scope. And our schizophrenic tax codes treat the same couple as married on one form and not married on the next. Social security, Medicaid, health care directives, estate planning, and immigration all hinge on marital status, which in turn hinges on the whim of the voters. The courts are just now wading into that morass and we won’t lie, it’s ugly out there.

The current system is unsustainable. Just as our country couldn’t go on with a mix of free states and slave states, we cannot continue with this jumble of equal marriage states and discriminatory states. Recognizing a federal constitutional right is the only, and the best, method to put this issue to rest.

Advocates (perhaps including the president) will say that the timing is wrong. Gay-rights supporters learned all too well with Bowers v. Hardwick that an ill-timed, unfavorable decision can set back their cause by decades. But eventually we do reach a tipping point where, as a country, we need to address this as the federal civil rights issue it truly is. Or more appropriately, we need to acknowledge that basic equality is not subject to popular vote, even when majorities would like it to be. President Obama’s announcement, we believe, knocked our country over that tipping point, but it needs to go further. The court has been clear that we can go further.

It’s time to fight this battle where it belongs, which is on the federal stage. It’s time to embrace the language of constitutional justice. It’s time to say what is at stake here—true equality, full citizenship for everyone, basic human dignity and, yes, a fundamental right. The state-by-state rhetoric gives too much credence to the argument that the states have an option to discriminate, sometimes, so long as enough of their citizens cast a vote. They don’t. The Constitution forbids it.
But gay marriage IS SO SCARY:

Hmm, I wonder why it is that some people think the War On Terror is actually code for A War On Islam:
The U.S. military taught its future leaders that a “total war” against the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims would be necessary to protect America from Islamic terrorists, according to documents obtained by Danger Room. Among the options considered for that conflict: using the lessons of “Hiroshima” to wipe out whole cities at once, targeting the “civilian population wherever necessary.”


The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently ordered the entire U.S. military to scour its training material to make sure it doesn’t contain similarly hateful material, a process that is still ongoing. But the officer who delivered the lectures, Army Lt. Col. Matthew A. Dooley, still maintains his position at the Norfolk, Virginia college, pending an investigation. The commanders, lieutenant colonels, captains and colonels who sat in Dooley’s classroom, listening to the inflammatory material week after week, have now moved into higher-level assignments throughout the U.S. military.

For the better part of the last decade, a small cabal of self-anointed counterterrorism experts has been working its way through the U.S. military, intelligence and law enforcement communities, trying to convince whoever it could that America’s real terrorist enemy wasn’t al-Qaida — but the Islamic faith itself. In his course, Dooley brought in these anti-Muslim demagogues as guest lecturers. And he took their argument to its final, ugly conclusion.

“We have now come to understand that there is no such thing as ‘moderate Islam,’” Dooley noted in a July 2011 presentation (.pdf), which concluded with a suggested manifesto to America’s enemies. “It is therefore time for the United States to make our true intentions clear. This barbaric ideology will no longer be tolerated. Islam must change or we will facilitate its self-destruction.”


In the same presentation, Dooley lays out a possible four-phase war plan to carry out a forced transformation of the Islam religion. Phase three includes possible outcomes like “Islam reduced to a cult status” and “Saudi Arabia threatened with starvation.” (It’s an especially ironic suggestion, in light of today’s news that Saudi intelligence broke up the most recent al-Qaida bombing plot.)

International laws protecting civilians in wartime are “no longer relevant,” Dooley continues. And that opens the possibility of applying “the historical precedents of Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki” to Islam’s holiest cities, and bringing about “Mecca and Medina['s] destruction.”


After the Pentagon brass learned of Dooley’s presentation, the country’s top military officer, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, issued an order to every military chief and senior commander to get rid of any similar anti-Islam instructional material. Dempsey issued the order because the White House had already instructed the entire security apparatus of the federal government — military and civilian — to revamp its counterterrorism training after learning of FBI material that demonized Islam

Trust the folks in charge; they say everything they do is fine — so really, there's no need for transparency or accountability:
[I]n case you were wondering, there is no question who among us are the best, most lawful, moral, ethical, considerate, and judicious people: the officials of our national security state. Trust them implicitly. They will never give you a bum steer.

You may be paying a fortune to maintain their world -- the 30,000 people hired to listen in on conversations and other communications in this country, the 230,000 employees of the Department of Homeland Security, the 854,000 people with top-secret clearances, the 4.2 million with security clearances of one sort or another, the $2 billion, one-million-square-foot data center that the National Security Agency is constructing in Utah, the gigantic $1.8 billion headquarters the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency recently built for its 16,000 employees in the Washington area -- but there’s a good reason. That’s what’s needed to make truly elevated, surgically precise decisions about life and death in the service of protecting American interests on this dangerous globe of ours.

And in case you wondered just how we know all this, we have it on the best authority: the people who are doing it -- the only ones, given the obvious need for secrecy, capable of judging just how moral, elevated, and remarkable their own work is. They deserve our congratulations, but if we’re too distracted to give it to them, they are quite capable of high-fiving themselves.

We’re talking, in particular, about the use by the Obama administration (and the Bush administration before it) of a growing armada of remotely piloted planes, a.k.a. drones, grimly labeled Predators and Reapers, to fight a nameless, almost planet-wide war (formerly known as the Global War on Terror). Its purpose: to destroy al-Qaeda-in-wherever and all its wannabes and look-alikes, the Taliban, and anyone affiliated or associated with any of the above, or just about anyone else we believe might imminently endanger our “interests.”

In the service of this war, in the midst of a perpetual state of war and of wartime, every act committed by these leaders is, it turns out, absolutely, totally, and completely legal. We have their say-so for that, and they have the documents to prove it, largely because the best and most elevated legal minds among them have produced that documentation in secret. (Of course, they dare not show it to the rest of us, lest lives be endangered.)

By their own account, they have, in fact, been covertly exceptional, moral, and legal for more than a decade (minus, of course, the odd black site and torture chamber) -- so covertly exceptional, in fact, that they haven’t quite gotten the credit they deserve. Now, they would like to make the latest version of their exceptional mission to the world known to the rest of us. It is finally in our interest, it seems, to be a good deal better informed about America’s covert wars in a year in which the widely announced “covert” killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan is a major selling point in the president’s reelection campaign.

Krugman explains why we must regulate the financial services industry:
[T]here’s a large heap of poetic justice — and a major policy lesson — in JPMorgan’s shock announcement that it somehow managed to lose $2 billion in a failed bit of financial wheeling-dealing.

Just to be clear, businessmen are human — although the Lords of finance have a tendency to forget that — and they make money-losing mistakes all the time. That in itself is no reason for the government to get involved. But banks are special, because the risks they take are borne, in large part, by taxpayers and the economy as a whole. And what JPMorgan has just demonstrated is that even supposedly smart bankers must be sharply limited in the kinds of risk they’re allowed to take on.

Why, exactly, are banks special? Because history tells us that banking is and always has been subject to occasional destructive “panics,” which can wreak havoc with the economy as a whole. Current right-wing mythology has it that bad banking is always the result of government intervention, whether from the Federal Reserve or meddling liberals in Congress. In fact, however, Gilded Age America — a land with minimal government and no Fed — was subject to panics roughly once every six years. And some of these panics inflicted major economic losses.
JPMorgan, of course, fought against the Volcker Rule earlier, and the regulators complied:
[I]n the company’s annual report, Mr. Dimon wrote: “If the intent of the Volcker Rule was to eliminate pure proprietary trading and to ensure that market making is done in a way that won’t jeopardize a financial institution, we agree.”

He added: “We, however, do disagree with some of the proposed specifics because we think they could have huge negative unintended consequences for American competitiveness and economic growth.”

JPMorgan wasn’t the only large institution making a special plea, but it stood out because of Mr. Dimon’s prominence as a skilled Washington operator and because of his bank’s nearly unblemished record during the financial crisis.

“JPMorgan was the one that made the strongest arguments to allow hedging, and specifically to allow this type of portfolio hedging,” said a former Treasury official who was present during the Dodd-Frank debates.

Those efforts produced “a big enough loophole that a Mack truck could drive right through it,” Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who co-wrote the legislation that led to the Volcker Rule, said Friday after the disclosure of the JPMorgan loss.

The loophole is known as portfolio hedging, a strategy that essentially allows banks to view an investment portfolio as a whole and take actions to offset the risks of the entire portfolio. That contrasts with the traditional definition of hedging, which matches an individual security or trading position with an inversely related investment — so when one goes up, the other goes down.

Portfolio hedging “is a license to do pretty much anything,” Mr. Levin said. He and Senator Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat who worked on the law with Mr. Levin, sent a letter to regulators in February, making clear that hedging on that scale was not their intention.

“There is no statutory basis to support the proposed portfolio hedging language,” they wrote, “nor is there anything in the legislative history to suggest that it should be allowed.”

While the banks lobbied furiously, they were in some ways pushing on an open door. Officials at the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve, the main overseer of the banks, as well as the Comptroller of the Currency, also wanted a loose set of restrictions, according to people who took part in the drafting of the Volcker Rule who spoke on the condition of anonymity because no regulatory agencies would officially talk about the rule on Friday.
Yet, even now, JPMorgan's Jamie Dimon still refuses to acknowledge the need for regulation:
“It plays right into the hands of a bunch of pundits out there,” sighed Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, on Thursday.

He was on a conference call to analysts and reporters, and he tossed off that throwaway line in the course of acknowledging that his bank has lost some $2 billion on a complicated hedging strategy that had gone terribly awry. And, yes, he’s right: The giant loss, which involved credit default swaps — the same derivatives that had done so much damage during the financial crisis — does, indeed, play into the hands of the pundits. As well it should.

For much of the last three years, as the Obama administration and Congress have grappled with how to rein in a financial system that had lost both its moorings and its ethical compass, no one has been more vocal in his opposition to a more regulated banking system than Dimon. He has complained repeatedly about higher capital requirements. He has said that some proposed regulations were “anti-American.” He has consistently flayed the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation, which was ultimately Congress’s attempt to prevent another Lehman Brothers-style meltdown.

As for derivatives, Dimon took the view that most of what Dodd-Frank proposes to do — such as make derivatives more transparent, while eliminating the ability of banks to make proprietary trades, thanks to the so-called Volcker Rule — was unnecessary if not downright counterproductive.
But, once we recognize that Wall Street is run by psychopaths, we shouldn't be surprised:
A recent study found that 10 percent of people who work on Wall Street are “clinical psychopaths,” exhibiting a lack of interest in and empathy for others and an “unparalleled capacity for lying, fabrication, and manipulation.” (The proportion at large is 1 percent.) Another study concluded that the rich are more likely to lie, cheat and break the law.

The only thing that puzzles me about these claims is that anyone would find them surprising. Wall Street is capitalism in its purest form, and capitalism is predicated on bad behavior. This should hardly be news. The English writer Bernard Mandeville asserted nearly as much three centuries ago in a satirical-poem-cum-philosophical-treatise called “The Fable of the Bees.”

“Private Vices, Publick Benefits” read the book’s subtitle. A Machiavelli of the economic realm — a man who showed us as we are, not as we like to think we are — Mandeville argued that commercial society creates prosperity by harnessing our natural impulses: fraud, luxury and pride. By “pride” Mandeville meant vanity; by “luxury” he meant the desire for sensuous indulgence. These create demand, as every ad man knows. On the supply side, as we’d say, was fraud: “All Trades and Places knew some Cheat, / No Calling was without Deceit.”

In other words, Enron, BP, Goldman, Philip Morris, G.E., Merck, etc., etc. Accounting fraud, tax evasion, toxic dumping, product safety violations, bid rigging, overbilling, perjury. The Walmart bribery scandal, the News Corp. hacking scandal — just open up the business section on an average day. Shafting your workers, hurting your customers, destroying the land. Leaving the public to pick up the tab. These aren’t anomalies; this is how the system works: you get away with what you can and try to weasel out when you get caught.
And given the extent to which Dodd-Frank has been completely neutered is what allowed JPMorgan's nonsense to occur at all — as Matt Taibbi presciently noted in an article that went to press just before JPMorgan gambled away $2 billion — it raises fundamental questions about how well government can regulation Big Finance when the financial industry owns the regulators:
The fate of Dodd-Frank over the past two years is an object lesson in the government's inability to institute even the simplest and most obvious reforms, especially if those reforms happen to clash with powerful financial interests. From the moment it was signed into law, lobbyists and lawyers have fought regulators over every line in the rulemaking process. Congressmen and presidents may be able to get a law passed once in a while – but they can no longer make sure it stays passed. You win the modern financial-regulation game by filing the most motions, attending the most hearings, giving the most money to the most politicians and, above all, by keeping at it, day after day, year after fiscal year, until stealing is legal again. "It's like a scorched-earth policy," says Michael Greenberger, a former regulator who was heavily involved with the drafting of Dodd-Frank. "It requires constant combat. And it never, ever ends."


[T]he underlying problem with cracking down on Wall Street: Our political-economic system has grown too knotted and unmanageable for democratic rule. While it's incredibly difficult to get a regulatory reform passed, it's far easier – and more profitable to politicians – to kill it. Creating legislation is a tough process. But watering down legislation? Strangling it with lawsuits and comment letters and blue-ribbon committees? Not so tough, it turns out.

You can't buy votes in a democracy, at least not directly, but our democracy is run through a bureaucracy. Human beings can cast a vote, or rally together during protests and elections, but real people – even committed professionals – get tired of running through mazes of motions and countermotions, or reading thousands of pages about swaps-execution facilities and NRSROs. They will fight through it for five days, or maybe even six, but on the seventh they will watch a baseball game, or Tanked, instead of diving into that morass of hellish acronyms one more time.

But money never gets tired. It never gets frustrated. And it thinks that drilling holes in Dodd-Frank is every bit as interesting as The Book of Mormon or Kate Upton naked. The system has become too complex for flesh-and-blood people, who make the mistake of thinking that passing a new law means the end of the discussion, when it's really just the beginning of a war.

Indebtedness and the price of college:
With more than $1 trillion in student loans outstanding in this country, crippling debt is no longer confined to dropouts from for-profit colleges or graduate students who owe on many years of education, some of the overextended debtors in years past. Now nearly everyone pursuing a bachelor’s degree is borrowing. As prices soar, a college degree statistically remains a good lifetime investment, but it often comes with an unprecedented financial burden.

Ninety-four percent of students who earn a bachelor’s degree borrow to pay for higher education — up from 45 percent in 1993, according to an analysis by The New York Times of the latest data from the Department of Education. This includes loans from the federal government, private lenders and relatives.

For all borrowers, the average debt in 2011 was $23,300, with 10 percent owing more than $54,000 and 3 percent more than $100,000, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports. Average debt for bachelor degree graduates who took out loans ranges from under $10,000 at elite schools like Princeton and Williams College, which have plenty of wealthy students and enormous endowments, to nearly $50,000 at some private colleges with less affluent students and less financial aid.

Public transit access for those with disabilities.

Sure, it's pretty much symbolic, but Vermont is banning fracking.

The harassment that's become part of daily life for climate scientists.

The impending global water crisis.

Photographing biodiversity.

UC, community ag, and democracy.

Industry succeeds in delaying new sunscreen rules from the FDA.

Falsely imprisoned solely for being Muslim? The feds think it's constitutional and that victims should have no legal recourse.

CAP lists the ten worst offenses detailed in the DOJ's complaint against Sheriff Joe.

The surveillance campaign against Occupy: “Nobody who cares about democracy wants to live in a world where simply engaging in vociferous protest qualifies any citizen to have his or her identity and life details archived by state security agencies.”

It's time for action to deal with the problem of long-term unemployment.

Young people aren't insured, need to be insured, want to be insured, and the ACA would help.

NARAL head Nancy Keenan steps down; what's next?

Huey Newton on gay rights, circa 1970.

In addition to being horribly unjust, gay marriage bans may be economically stupid, as well.

The last two decades have been pretty damn nice for the ultra-rich.

The Director of the Census responds to the Grand Old Party Of Anti-Intellectualism's efforts to kill the Census.

More on the GOP War On Political Science.

And a response to those in Congress calling political science worthless.

Ezra Klein on Jeff Flake's plan to politicize NSF funding.

Richard Lugar was not a moderate; his defeat shows just how insane today's GOP has become.

Romney, the Constitution, and treason.

The adoption of innovation.

Napkin folding: a history.

Nonsense words and children's lit.

Maria Bamford on mental illness and comedy.

An 11-year-old badass.

Bandwiches. (h/t Wifey and Doug)

With Einstein On The Beach playing in London, Philip Glass gives an interview to the BBC.

Spiritualized appears on Letterman to perform “Hey Jane”:

And even more Spiritualized (with the audio of the entire concert available, as well):

Yeah, I'm really excited about this show.

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