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.

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