Sunday, April 29, 2007

Get Fuzzy

Tough Controls on Formaldehyde Enacted

by Janet Wilson
Los Angeles Times
April 27, 2007

California air regulators Thursday unanimously passed the world's toughest controls on toxic formaldehyde in wood products widely used in kitchen cabinets, countertops and other construction.

Environmentalists, public health advocates, and manufacturers and distributors of formaldehyde-free wood cheered the news.

Formaldehyde, widely used as a glue in wood veneer, plywood and other construction materials, has been shown to cause throat cancer, respiratory ailments and other problems.

The Air Resources Board vote limiting formaldehyde levels in wood products, which came after hours of testimony from all sides, was "a tremendous victory" for those who work with wood products, said Harry Demarest, chief executive of Columbia Forest Inc. of Portland, Ore., the largest manufacturer of veneer that uses soybean glue rather than formaldehyde.

"Formaldehyde is bad. We don't want it in our homes, and we don't want it in our stores. It is not healthy, believe me," said Valerie Cavazos, who handles sales at California Panel & Veneer Co. in Cerritos. The independent distributor has switched almost entirely to formaldehyde-free wood products, at the request of school districts and other large customers seeking environmentally friendly products.

But there was fierce debate about how the regulations, scheduled to be phased in between 2010 and 2011, would affect consumer prices.

California Air Resources Board staff said their research found it could cost as much as $6 more for a wood panel, but that would add just $400 to the cost of a new $500,000 home, or less than 1%.

But other wood industry and construction trade groups testified that the stricter limits could cause prices on wood products to skyrocket, possibly bankrupting cabinetmakers and other small businesses across the state.

Domestic manufacturers in particular fretted that overseas manufacturers would issue fraudulent paperwork saying the material met the standards, giving them an unfair advantage over local producers who could be more readily inspected. Countered Demarest of Columbia Wood: "We think the industry will be able to comply with no additional costs. We sell our product for the exact same cost" as veneer containing formaldehyde.

Cavazos, who has worked at California Panel & Veneer for 21 years, said she had suffered headaches and burning eyes from formaldehyde fumes. She thought the new regulations were a fine idea.

"They did it with all the other chemicals, so why not this?"

Scientists representing industry groups said there were conflicting studies on heath risks, and said the state's own estimates as well as national and international studies showed a tiny amount of cancer deaths, if any, would be avoided as a result of the regulations.

But Melanie Marti, chief epidemiologist for the state's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, said there was no known safe threshold for formaldehyde exposure and that cancer risks from fumes in wood products would decline by 42% under the new caps.

Currently there are an estimated 86 to 231 such deaths annually; that would decrease by 35 to 97 deaths, state researchers found.

Major home improvement stores will be among those affected by the new rules. The Home Depot did not return requests for comment, but composite-wood manufacturers said the home improvement chain had recently announced it would abide by European standards allowing minuscule amounts of formaldehyde.

Formaldehyde in wood has been banned or tightly regulated in many countries, but in the United States its use is legal except in manufactured homes, and it is routinely crafted into cabinets and furniture.

California's new rules will require even lower levels than European and Asia standards.

"California will have the most stringent standard in the world for wood resin products," said Catherine Witherspoon, executive director of the state air board.

Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times

Bruno and State Police Make Themselves Look Bad

by Fred LeBrun
Albany Times-Union
April 29, 2007

After last week's tragic shooting death of a state trooper, Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno asked the right question:

"What is more important than protecting the lives of law enforcement officers?"

Then he proceeded to hammer home the wrong answer. In a shameless bit of opportunism, he thundered about the need for a death penalty bill as a response.

As Bruno well knows, but is conveniently ignoring, passing a death penalty bill would have no effect on protecting the lives of cops, or anyone else. Every study ever done on the subject has shown that the death penalty as a deterrent doesn't work. There's simply no connection, except maybe emotionally, playing to our darker side for revenge.

I would that what New York already has, life sentence with no parole, should satisfy a cooler rendering of that urge quite nicely, without taking us a step back into the Old Testament.

But let's take another look at Bruno's excellent question, in light of the shocking revelation Friday that Trooper David Brinkerhoff was actually killed by a fellow trooper, by friendly fire.

This cockamamie focus on the death penalty because of the events down in Margaretville, Delaware County, has taken our communal eye off the ball.

Protecting our officers is indeed paramount. There's no arguing that.

In light of what we know now, did our state troopers in harm's way get the protection they deserved from their own police agency? Who gave the command to storm a house where the subject of the manhunt was known to be hiding?

Could better State Police procedures have saved David Brinkerhoff's life?

These are the question the senator and others should be thundering about at the moment. Bruno should be holding hearings on the State Police, not advocating for the death penalty. This is the second time within a year that State Police procedures deserve to be questioned and examined in a very critical and public way. The "Bucky" Phillips debacle in western New York last summer also cost a trooper his life, and wounded another. What did the State Police learn from that in terms of protecting their own? Arguably, not enough.

Maj. Kevin G. Molinari, commander of Troop C in Sydney, told the Times Union Thursday that the operation that took the lives of Brinkerhoff and Travis Trim, the subject of the manhunt, "was well-planned, well-thought-out and well-executed."

I'll bet that's a smug statement Molinari wishes he had never uttered.

A State Police K-9 unit had determined there was a high probability Trim was hiding inside a house owned by a New Jersey cop, who used it as a hunting base. Trim was inside, they were outside. There was no surprise involved from either side.

Everybody present knew that Trim already had fired point blank at another trooper. Trim was probably well hidden, in a good defensive position watching it all, and well armed.

One phone call to the owner of the house would have confirmed that the hunters who used it seasonally stored firearms and ammunition there. Many in Margaretville seemed to know that as well, so it shouldn't have been a mystery to the troopers.

Acting State Police Superintendent Preston Felton acknowledged in a press conference Friday that the slumped body of Travis Trim was found with a classic Catskills hunting rifle in his arms, probably a Winchester or Marlin .30-30.

Trim was probably killed instantly during a fire fight with seven members of the assault team that included Brinkerhoff and Richard Mattson, who was wounded.

What remained completely unanswered, however, after Felton's otherwise revealing press conference, was whether the house needed to be assaulted at all. Given the circumstances, the inclination, resources and positioning of the shooter, any police storming the house had a high probability of drawing fire. Was that necessary, considering that the house was surrounded, dozens if not hundreds of law enforcement were on the scene, and there was no deadline or hostages involved?

During the press conference, Felton emphasized how well trained the men were who stormed the house, and how they "followed established procedures."

What he didn't answer is whether those procedures were worth a damn and will be critically reviewed. Make no mistake, this is another black mark on the State Police, and they are adding up.

Copyright 1996-2007 Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation

Thursday, April 26, 2007

U.S. Gov't Discriminates Against Muslim Immigrants

by Emad Mekay
Inter Press Service
April 24, 2007

U.S. immigration practices towards thousands of Muslim immigrants over the past six years received a searing indictment in a study released Tuesday, accusing the U.S. government of turning immigration institutions into security stations that penalise individuals because of their religion and national origin.

According to the New York University School of Law's Centre for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) the government is illegally delaying the naturalisation applications of immigrants by profiling individuals it perceives to be Muslim and subjecting them to an indefinite series of security checks.

The report states unequivocally that "the government has folded immigration bodies into national security institutions."

The 63-page study says that the U.S. government, once ostensibly a world champion of democracy and human rights, has almost legalised a policy of discrimination against those immigrants, much along the lines of police states that Washington used to campaign against when it wanted to polish its image during the Cold War.

The report is one of the first serious documentations of abuse against Muslims in the United States since 9/11, the terrorist attacks on Sep. 11, 2001 in New York and Washington, which the United States blamed on Muslim extremists.

It comes as the country is caught up in a heated debate about immigration, with rising calls from conservative groups to stem the tide of people -- the vast majority are from Mexico -- arriving in the United States.

But that discussion has generally sidelined the predicament of Muslim immigrants. And the George W. Bush administration constantly cites security concerns and terrorism threats as reasons for the government's strict measures, civil rights groups say.

"We tend to get stock lines; which is to say this is for reasons of national security," said Tony Kutayli of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), a Washington-based group lobbying U.S. authorities to end discriminatory programmes that target Arab and Muslim immigrants.

The report, "Americans on Hold: Profiling, Citizenship, and the 'War on Terror'", documents the impact of expanded security checks on the lives of those experiencing citizenship delays, often for years on end. Many have lived already in the United States lawfully for many years.

The study shows how Muslim applicants are greatly hindered in their ability to travel to visit ill relatives back in their country of origin, and often endure restrictions on their ability to work or even receive life-saving benefits.

An applicant from Algeria is quoted as saying: "I want to visit my sick mother in Algeria, but I cannot go there. I sent a letter from the doctor in Algeria to an attorney here to see if that would help expedite the background check, but my lawyer advises me not to travel there."

Under the current system, profiled immigrants may be stopped, delayed, subjected to extended and unnerving security checks and even detained.

Airport officials are reportedly required to stop anyone with a "Muslim name" and name-check that individual against the list. Their computers throw up red flags even when names are merely similar to those found on the list.

Many immigrants have curtailed the extent to which they pray or worship publicly, and some have even changed their names -- the very hallmark of their religious and cultural identity.

The report cites the example of the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), which required non-citizen males from 25 countries designated as threats to national security to formally register with the government. With the exception of North Korea, those countries have predominantly Arab or Muslim populations.

"Discriminatory profiling is illegal under international law and is a poor substitute for real intelligence work," said Jayne Huckerby, CHRGJ research director.

"Taking years to identify individuals who are security threats does not make us safer. Ensuring timely and good faith completions of background checks will help the U.S. advance its national security goals," she said.

An applicant quoted in the study, who is separated from his family and is awaiting citizenship, told CHRGJ: "I call my family every day and whenever I call them, my youngest daughter asks me, 'Papa, when are you coming? When can I be there to meet you?' I all the time carry the pictures of my family in my wallet and I am dying to see them."

Another applicant stated, "The whole purpose of our struggling now is to get the whole family together -- we've been divided for more than seven years. Every day is like more than a year for us now."

Civil rights groups have long complained about the immigration pain that applicants from Muslim, Middle Eastern and South Asian nations have been suffering.

ADC, for example, complains about the "excessively long delays" in the processing of applications from men from Arab or Muslim men from those regions.

Federal law requires the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) to grant or deny citizenship within 120 days of an applicant's examination. USCIS has also set a policy goal of processing applications within six months from the time of filing.

But many Muslim applicants have been waiting in uncertainty, delaying family and business decisions as their papers were delayed for one, two or even three years.

"They are certainly discriminating against a specific part of the society and the community here in the United States. They have overstepped their boundaries, at least their stated boundaries for sure, with regard to the programme in general," said ADC's Kutayli.

A USCIS official didn't immediately return IPS phone calls for comment.

The study quotes the USCIS Ombudsman as saying that prolonged name checks "significantly delay adjudication of immigration benefits for many applicants, hinder backlog reduction efforts, and rarely, if ever, achieve their intended national security objectives."

The report urges the U.S. government to heed international law, open a probe into USCIS's attempts to circumvent law by ordering offices not to schedule interviews until security clearances are completed, and to introduce anti-discrimination training for immigration and law enforcement officials.

Copyright © 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service

U.S. Frees International Terrorist

by Amy Goodman
April 24, 2007

A terrorist lives in Miami. He is not in hiding, or part of some sleeper cell. He’s an escaped convict, wanted internationally for blowing up a jetliner. His name is Luis Posada Carriles. As the nation was focused on the Virginia Tech shooting, the Bush administration quietly allowed Posada’s release from a federal immigration detention center.

It was Oct. 6, 1976, a clear day in the Caribbean. Cubana Airlines Flight 455 departed from Barbados, bound for Cuba, with a stop in Trinidad. Posada then ran a private investigative firm in Venezuela. Two of his employees were on the flight, deplaned in Trinidad and left C-4 plastic explosive on board, disguised as a tube of toothpaste. Shortly after takeoff, the bomb exploded and the plane went down. All 73 people on board were killed.

Among them were six young Guyanese students on their way to Cuba to study medicine. Now an American citizen, Roseanne Nenninger, sister of Raymond Persaud, one of those students, was 11 years old when her brother was killed: “We had a huge farewell party for our brother and everyone came, the family members, everyone from the local community, all his friends, school friends, so it was a great day for all of us. And the next day, we all went to the airport. He was dressed in his brown suit that was made by a tailor especially for him getting on a plane. It was his first time on an airplane. We watched him walk on the tarmac and head onto the airplane. And it was a great moment for all of us.”

Within hours, he was dead. He was just one of the victims, one of 73. There was also the entire Cuban Olympic fencing team, young athletes. Each with a name, each with a story. The Cubana Airlines bombing remains to this day the only midair bombing of a civilian airliner in the Western Hemisphere. Posada was tried and convicted in Venezuela of organizing the bombing. He was imprisoned, then escaped in 1985.

Posada, who will be 80 next year, is a Cuban-born Venezuelan national. He has been a violent opponent of Fidel Castro since the early 1960s. Declassified CIA and FBI documents reveal the extent of Posada’s violent career. Through the decades he hopscotched around Latin America, smuggling arms, running drugs, plotting coups, working with Augusto Pinochet’s dreaded secret police, assisting with Oliver North’s illegal Contra war against Nicaragua—the list goes on. He was a paid CIA “asset,” and also served in the U.S. Army, rising to the rank of second lieutenant, at Fort Benning, Ga. He has been implicated in the bombing of hotels in Havana. He was caught and convicted of attempting to assassinate Castro in Panama.

Thanks to the Federation of American Scientists’ Government Secrecy Project and the private, nonprofit National Security Archive at George Washington University, the public can read for itself the declassified documents. These documents show what it means for U.S. intelligence agencies to work with “unsavory” characters. Endeavors like the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba of 1961 and the failed Iran-Contra program need operatives, and so the U.S. government hires violent criminals and overlooks their conduct, as long as the policy objectives are being pursued.

And so it is ironic that on the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, April 19, following the mass slaughter on the Virginia Tech campus, the U.S. government quietly released this convicted terrorist and mass murderer.

We learn the names of the Virginia Tech victims, their accomplishments and their aspirations. Naming the victims, hearing their stories, dignifies their lives, helps us comprehend the magnitude of the loss. So too should we learn about the 73 innocent civilians killed on Cubana Airlines Flight 455.

Venezuela wants Posada extradited. The U.S. has refused. Washington, D.C.-based attorney Jose Pertierra is representing Venezuela in this case. He says international law is clear: “The law says you extradite or prosecute, but you don’t free him into the streets of Miami.”

The Bush administration, and disgraced Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, should designate Luis Posada Carriles the terrorist that he is. Justice, and the memory of his many victims, demands it.

© 2007 Amy Goodman, Distributed by King Features Syndicate

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

You Are What You Grow

by Michael Pollan
The New York Times
April 22, 2007

A few years ago, an obesity researcher at the University of Washington named Adam Drewnowski ventured into the supermarket to solve a mystery. He wanted to figure out why it is that the most reliable predictor of obesity in America today is a person’s wealth. For most of history, after all, the poor have typically suffered from a shortage of calories, not a surfeit. So how is it that today the people with the least amount of money to spend on food are the ones most likely to be overweight?

Drewnowski gave himself a hypothetical dollar to spend, using it to purchase as many calories as he possibly could. He discovered that he could buy the most calories per dollar in the middle aisles of the supermarket, among the towering canyons of processed food and soft drink. (In the typical American supermarket, the fresh foods — dairy, meat, fish and produce — line the perimeter walls, while the imperishable packaged goods dominate the center.) Drewnowski found that a dollar could buy 1,200 calories of cookies or potato chips but only 250 calories of carrots. Looking for something to wash down those chips, he discovered that his dollar bought 875 calories of soda but only 170 calories of orange juice.

As a rule, processed foods are more “energy dense” than fresh foods: they contain less water and fiber but more added fat and sugar, which makes them both less filling and more fattening. These particular calories also happen to be the least healthful ones in the marketplace, which is why we call the foods that contain them “junk.” Drewnowski concluded that the rules of the food game in America are organized in such a way that if you are eating on a budget, the most rational economic strategy is to eat badly — and get fat.

This perverse state of affairs is not, as you might think, the inevitable result of the free market. Compared with a bunch of carrots, a package of Twinkies, to take one iconic processed foodlike substance as an example, is a highly complicated, high-tech piece of manufacture, involving no fewer than 39 ingredients, many themselves elaborately manufactured, as well as the packaging and a hefty marketing budget. So how can the supermarket possibly sell a pair of these synthetic cream-filled pseudocakes for less than a bunch of roots?

For the answer, you need look no farther than the farm bill. This resolutely unglamorous and head-hurtingly complicated piece of legislation, which comes around roughly every five years and is about to do so again, sets the rules for the American food system — indeed, to a considerable extent, for the world’s food system. Among other things, it determines which crops will be subsidized and which will not, and in the case of the carrot and the Twinkie, the farm bill as currently written offers a lot more support to the cake than to the root. Like most processed foods, the Twinkie is basically a clever arrangement of carbohydrates and fats teased out of corn, soybeans and wheat — three of the five commodity crops that the farm bill supports, to the tune of some $25 billion a year. (Rice and cotton are the others.) For the last several decades — indeed, for about as long as the American waistline has been ballooning — U.S. agricultural policy has been designed in such a way as to promote the overproduction of these five commodities, especially corn and soy.

That’s because the current farm bill helps commodity farmers by cutting them a check based on how many bushels they can grow, rather than, say, by supporting prices and limiting production, as farm bills once did. The result? A food system awash in added sugars (derived from corn) and added fats (derived mainly from soy), as well as dirt-cheap meat and milk (derived from both). By comparison, the farm bill does almost nothing to support farmers growing fresh produce. A result of these policy choices is on stark display in your supermarket, where the real price of fruits and vegetables between 1985 and 2000 increased by nearly 40 percent while the real price of soft drinks (a k a liquid corn) declined by 23 percent. The reason the least healthful calories in the supermarket are the cheapest is that those are the ones the farm bill encourages farmers to grow.

A public-health researcher from Mars might legitimately wonder why a nation faced with what its surgeon general has called “an epidemic” of obesity would at the same time be in the business of subsidizing the production of high-fructose corn syrup. But such is the perversity of the farm bill: the nation’s agricultural policies operate at cross-purposes with its public-health objectives. And the subsidies are only part of the problem. The farm bill helps determine what sort of food your children will have for lunch in school tomorrow. The school-lunch program began at a time when the public-health problem of America’s children was undernourishment, so feeding surplus agricultural commodities to kids seemed like a win-win strategy. Today the problem is overnutrition, but a school lunch lady trying to prepare healthful fresh food is apt to get dinged by U.S.D.A. inspectors for failing to serve enough calories; if she dishes up a lunch that includes chicken nuggets and Tater Tots, however, the inspector smiles and the reimbursements flow. The farm bill essentially treats our children as a human Disposall for all the unhealthful calories that the farm bill has encouraged American farmers to overproduce.

To speak of the farm bill’s influence on the American food system does not begin to describe its full impact — on the environment, on global poverty, even on immigration. By making it possible for American farmers to sell their crops abroad for considerably less than it costs to grow them, the farm bill helps determine the price of corn in Mexico and the price of cotton in Nigeria and therefore whether farmers in those places will survive or be forced off the land, to migrate to the cities — or to the United States. The flow of immigrants north from Mexico since Nafta is inextricably linked to the flow of American corn in the opposite direction, a flood of subsidized grain that the Mexican government estimates has thrown two million Mexican farmers and other agricultural workers off the land since the mid-90s. (More recently, the ethanol boom has led to a spike in corn prices that has left that country reeling from soaring tortilla prices; linking its corn economy to ours has been an unalloyed disaster for Mexico’s eaters as well as its farmers.) You can’t fully comprehend the pressures driving immigration without comprehending what U.S. agricultural policy is doing to rural agriculture in Mexico.

And though we don’t ordinarily think of the farm bill in these terms, few pieces of legislation have as profound an impact on the American landscape and environment. Americans may tell themselves they don’t have a national land-use policy, that the market by and large decides what happens on private property in America, but that’s not exactly true. The smorgasbord of incentives and disincentives built into the farm bill helps decide what happens on nearly half of the private land in America: whether it will be farmed or left wild, whether it will be managed to maximize productivity (and therefore doused with chemicals) or to promote environmental stewardship. The health of the American soil, the purity of its water, the biodiversity and the very look of its landscape owe in no small part to impenetrable titles, programs and formulae buried deep in the farm bill.

Given all this, you would think the farm-bill debate would engage the nation’s political passions every five years, but that hasn’t been the case. If the quintennial antidrama of the “farm bill debate” holds true to form this year, a handful of farm-state legislators will thrash out the mind-numbing details behind closed doors, with virtually nobody else, either in Congress or in the media, paying much attention. Why? Because most of us assume that, true to its name, the farm bill is about “farming,” an increasingly quaint activity that involves no one we know and in which few of us think we have a stake. This leaves our own representatives free to ignore the farm bill, to treat it as a parochial piece of legislation affecting a handful of their Midwestern colleagues. Since we aren’t paying attention, they pay no political price for trading, or even selling, their farm-bill votes. The fact that the bill is deeply encrusted with incomprehensible jargon and prehensile programs dating back to the 1930s makes it almost impossible for the average legislator to understand the bill should he or she try to, much less the average citizen. It’s doubtful this is an accident.

But there are signs this year will be different. The public-health community has come to recognize it can’t hope to address obesity and diabetes without addressing the farm bill. The environmental community recognizes that as long as we have a farm bill that promotes chemical and feedlot agriculture, clean water will remain a pipe dream. The development community has woken up to the fact that global poverty can’t be fought without confronting the ways the farm bill depresses world crop prices. They got a boost from a 2004 ruling by the World Trade Organization that U.S. cotton subsidies are illegal; most observers think that challenges to similar subsidies for corn, soy, wheat or rice would also prevail.

And then there are the eaters, people like you and me, increasingly concerned, if not restive, about the quality of the food on offer in America. A grass-roots social movement is gathering around food issues today, and while it is still somewhat inchoate, the manifestations are everywhere: in local efforts to get vending machines out of the schools and to improve school lunch; in local campaigns to fight feedlots and to force food companies to better the lives of animals in agriculture; in the spectacular growth of the market for organic food and the revival of local food systems. In great and growing numbers, people are voting with their forks for a different sort of food system. But as powerful as the food consumer is — it was that consumer, after all, who built a $15 billion organic-food industry and more than doubled the number of farmer’s markets in the last few years — voting with our forks can advance reform only so far. It can’t, for example, change the fact that the system is rigged to make the most unhealthful calories in the marketplace the only ones the poor can afford. To change that, people will have to vote with their votes as well — which is to say, they will have to wade into the muddy political waters of agricultural policy.

Doing so starts with the recognition that the “farm bill” is a misnomer; in truth, it is a food bill and so needs to be rewritten with the interests of eaters placed first. Yes, there are eaters who think it in their interest that food just be as cheap as possible, no matter how poor the quality. But there are many more who recognize the real cost of artificially cheap food — to their health, to the land, to the animals, to the public purse. At a minimum, these eaters want a bill that aligns agricultural policy with our public-health and environmental values, one with incentives to produce food cleanly, sustainably and humanely. Eaters want a bill that makes the most healthful calories in the supermarket competitive with the least healthful ones. Eaters want a bill that feeds schoolchildren fresh food from local farms rather than processed surplus commodities from far away. Enlightened eaters also recognize their dependence on farmers, which is why they would support a bill that guarantees the people who raise our food not subsidies but fair prices. Why? Because they prefer to live in a country that can still produce its own food and doesn’t hurt the world’s farmers by dumping its surplus crops on their markets.

The devil is in the details, no doubt. Simply eliminating support for farmers won’t solve these problems; overproduction has afflicted agriculture since long before modern subsidies. It will take some imaginative policy making to figure out how to encourage farmers to focus on taking care of the land rather than all-out production, on growing real food for eaters rather than industrial raw materials for food processors and on rebuilding local food economies, which the current farm bill hobbles. But the guiding principle behind an eater’s farm bill could not be more straightforward: it’s one that changes the rules of the game so as to promote the quality of our food (and farming) over and above its quantity.

Such changes are radical only by the standards of past farm bills, which have faithfully reflected the priorities of the agribusiness interests that wrote them. One of these years, the eaters of America are going to demand a place at the table, and we will have the political debate over food policy we need and deserve. This could prove to be that year: the year when the farm bill became a food bill, and the eaters at last had their say.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

200th Person Exonerated by DNA 25 Years After Wrongful Conviction

by The Innocence Project
April 23, 2007

With new DNA tests proving that Jerry Miller did not commit a brutal rape in Chicago for which he was convicted in 1982, the Innocence Project said today that Miller is the 200th person in the nation exonerated through DNA evidence.

In 1981, Miller was arrested and charged with kidnapping, raping and robbing a woman in downtown Chicago. He was convicted in 1982 and served 24 years in prison. Eleven months ago, he was released on parole as a registered sex offender, requiring him to wear an electronic monitoring device at all times and prohibiting him from answering his door on Halloween or leaving his job for lunch. Miller, who served more than three years in the military, was 22 years old when he was arrested and is now 48. DNA testing on semen from the rape proves that Miller did not commit the crime – and instead implicates another man as the actual perpetrator.

“Like many of the 200 people who have been exonerated through DNA, Jerry Miller lost nearly his entire adult life because of a wrongful conviction. It’s impossible to put ourselves in his shoes, but we all have a moral obligation to learn from these exonerations and prevent anyone else from enduring this tragedy,” said Peter Neufeld, Co-Director of the Innocence Project.

Miller, who always maintained his innocence, was convicted based on eyewitness misidentification. The victim in the case was approached by a man in a parking garage at night; he beat, robbed and raped her, before locking her in the trunk of her car and attempting to drive out of the garage. Attendants recognized that the car the perpetrator was driving actually belonged to the victim, and stopped the car before it could leave. The perpetrator fled on foot, and the attendants released the victim from the trunk of the car. Both of the attendants identified Miller as the perpetrator, and the victim provided a more tentative identification at trial. A rape kit was not collected after the attack (because the rape was so brutal and caused injuries that made it impossible), but semen on the victim’s clothing that could only have come from the perpetrator was recently subjected to DNA testing, which proves Miller’s innocence. The Cook County State Attorney’s Office joined the Innocence Project and the Cook County Public Defender’s Office in a joint motion to vacate and dismiss Miller’s conviction.

Today in Chicago, Neufeld and Barry Scheck, who co-founded the Innocence Project at Cardozo School of Law in 1992 and are Co-Directors of the national organization, said the 200 DNA exonerations “are the greatest data set ever on the causes of wrongful convictions in the U.S. and yet just the tip of the iceberg,” since so few cases involve evidence that can be subjected to DNA testing. Immediately following Miller’s exoneration, the Innocence Project launched “200 Exonerated, Too Many Wrongfully Convicted,” a month-long national campaign to address and prevent wrongful convictions. A booklet and video released today by the Innocence Project, along with other resources that are part of the educational campaign in all 50 states, are online here.

“The first 200 DNA exonerations have transformed the criminal justice system in this country. These exonerations provide irrefutable scientific proof of the causes of wrongful convictions, and they provide a roadmap for fixing the criminal justice system,” Scheck said. “As a result of the first 200 DNA exonerations, laws and policies around the country have changed, but it’s only a beginning. We still have a tremendous amount of work to do to make the criminal justice system fair and accurate.”

A primary goal of the national campaign launched today is to support the formation of state Innocence Commissions, statewide entities that identify causes of wrongful convictions and develop state reforms that can improve the criminal justice system. Six states already have such commissions, and seven states are currently considering legislation to create them. The existing commissions vary, but they are generally comprised of a range of people involved in criminal justice issues (including, for example, law enforcement officials, prosecutors, victims’ advocates, defense attorneys and experts in specific fields).

“The 200 DNA exonerations across the country show fundamental problems in the criminal justice system, and Innocence Commissions are able to identify and address all of the causes of wrongful convictions, rather than only some of them. Innocence Commissions bring serious, systemic remedies to serious, systemic problems,” Neufeld said.

According to the Innocence Project, which analyzes each DNA exoneration in the country to determine what caused the wrongful conviction and then advocates for systemic reforms that can prevent future injustice, the first 200 exonerations have clear patterns – and have led to specific reforms across the country (in addition to the six Innocence Commissions). For example, based on the DNA exonerations and Innocence Project reform tracking:

  • Eyewitness misidentification plays a role in 77% of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA (of those, nearly half are cross-racial misidentifications). Several dozen states and cities have reformed their identification procedures (lineups, etc.) to improve accuracy. Legislation was introduced in 13 states this year to improve eyewitness procedures.
  • Forensic errors (ranging from simple mistakes or exaggerations to outright fraud) played a role in 63% of the first 86 wrongful convictions overturned by DNA (according to an analysis published in Science magazine). Federal law passed in 2004 requires states to have independent oversight mechanisms in order to receive federal money for crime labs. Legislation was introduced in four states this year to create or improve statewide forensic science commissions.
  • Racism continues to be a significant cause of wrongful convictions. While 29% of people in prison for rape are black, 64% of the people who were wrongfully convicted of rape (and then exonerated through DNA) are black. Moreover, most sexual assaults nationwide are among perpetrators and victims of the same race (the federal government says just 12% of sexual assaults are cross racial), but two-thirds of all black men exonerated through DNA evidence were wrongfully convicted of raping white people.
  • False confessions play a role in nearly 25% of wrongful convictions overturned with DNA. More than 500 jurisdictions now record interrogations (nine states mandate the recording), and legislation to require such recording was introduced in 20 states this year.
  • Evidence is often lost or destroyed after a conviction, making DNA testing impossible. In 22 states, statutes require some type of preservation of evidence in criminal cases. Legislation was introduced in six states this year to improve or enact such laws.
  • In 40 states, laws are on the books granting prisoners access to DNA testing to prove their innocence; this year, legislation to enact such a law was introduced in five of the 10 states that currently don’t provide statutory access.
  • In 21 states, laws provide some level of compensation to people who were wrongfully convicted; this year, legislation was introduced in 13 states to create or improve compensation laws.

Click here
for more details on reforms that have been enacted at least in part because of the DNA exonerations – and legislation that is pending in states nationwide.

In Illinois, Governor Ryan’s Commission on Capital Punishment issued 85 recommendations to prevent wrongful convictions in capital cases. Those recommendations are still under consideration by the State Legislature. “Jerry Miller’s case is a powerful call to extend the commission’s term and expand its scope to include non-capital cases,” said Colin Starger, Staff Attorney at the Innocence Project, which represents Miller with the Cook County Public Defender’s Office.

Attorneys on Miller’s case include Bill Wolf of the Chicago Public Defender’s Office and Colin Starger of the Innocence Project. Cardozo School of Law clinic students Marsha Indych and Mineh Givens worked on the case at the Innocence Project and attended today’s hearing in Chicago.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Life Is Hanging By A Thread

by Jane Goodall
The Miami Herald
April 23, 2007

Recently the International Panel on Climate Change issued a report predicting an alarming array of impacts of climate change around the globe, including drought, floods, lower crop yields, threatened food security, wildfire and ocean acidification. It seems that no living thing in this web of life we are a part of will be unaffected by climate change.

As a primatologist, I am particularly concerned by the prediction that 20 percent to 30 percent of species will face increased risk of extinction.

We know that a majority of the world's species live in rainforests, from many flagship species like elephants, tigers and chimpanzees to smaller species like insects and algae. Some play a role in curing human diseases, or may in the future.

These forests are threatened both by large-scale commercial exploitation and by rapidly increasing numbers of poor people who are destroying the forests to make charcoal or to open the land for subsistence agriculture. Some of the other effects of climate change predicted by the IPCC, such as drought and food insecurity, will only exacerbate the plight of these people.

A relatively new danger to these forests is the growing enthusiasm for biofuels. In Africa, Asia and Latin America, forest blocks that were previously reserved for conservation or sustainable forestry are being converted to sugar cane and palm oil plantations, whose output will be used as fuel for ethanol or biodiesel plants.

The irony of cutting down forests for biofuels is that forests store a significant fraction of the world's stocks of carbon. If these carbon-capturing trees are felled and burned -- whether as firewood or to clear land -- the oxidation of their carbon will release billions more tons of carbon dioxide.

The tropical rainforests of Africa, Latin America and South Asia are particularly important in this regard.

Tropical deforestation contributes 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere annually, compared to approximately 6 billion tons from burning fossil fuels. Saving these forests would not only prevent the release of carbon currently stored in them, but it also would allow them to continue absorbing carbon in the future.

While population pressures cannot be quickly reversed, nor the businesses of logging and mining phased out, there is much we can do to save these forests. The core of a successful strategy involves working not only with national leaders, but also, and most important, with local people to raise living standards, especially in the areas near the forest preserves. By providing technical assistance to farmers to raise their incomes, education to young people, healthcare to families and economic investments in ecotourism, these rural communities can become the custodians of the forests, not their destroyers.

These strategies have other benefits as well: They promote local stability and security. Rural prosperity, education and effective public-health systems serve as natural defenses against outbreaks of pandemic disease, war, terrorism and political instability. By working with local people to save forests, we help to create stable communities that will surely improve global security.

The governments of the United States and other developed nations bear a special responsibility to promote these programs. Not only are Western nations the greatest consumers of oil, timber and other carbon-generating industries, they have the wealth to bring about change in poor developing countries. Relatively small increases in aid directed toward rural community development, especially through microcredit programs, can have an extraordinary impact on saving wilderness areas, including forests, and the array of life forms they sustain.

Only a few centuries ago, each of the developed nations on the continents of Europe, Asia and North America destroyed their own forests and many of the species inhabiting them in an unsustainable scramble toward wealth. Now only remnant forests remain on those continents.

The developed nations have an opportunity to enable developing nations to avoid making the same mistakes. By investing more in environmentally sustainable development, we can save valuable species, help prevent the escalation of global warming, and increase global security. Helping to preserve the forests of developing nations is in our interests, as well as theirs.

Jane Goodall is the founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and a U.N. "Messenger of Peace.''

©2007 Jane Goodall

Bloomberg Draws a Blueprint for a Greener New York City

by Thomas J. Lueck
The New York Times
April 23, 2007In a quarter-century plan to create what he called “the first environmentally sustainable 21st-century city,” Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg proposed a sweeping and politically contentious vision yesterday of 127 projects, regulations and innovations for New York and the region.

The plan is intended to foster steady population growth, with the city expected to gain about 1 million residents by 2030, and to put in place a host of environmentally sensitive measures that would reduce the greenhouse gases it generates.

Mr. Bloomberg also set the parameters for what could be a large piece of his legacy as mayor. In an address outlining the plan yesterday at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, Mr. Bloomberg likened it to the first blueprints for Central Park more than 100 years ago and the construction of Rockefeller Center in the Great Depression.

Many elements of the plan will face political hurdles in Albany and will depend on huge financial commitments from the state and federal governments, not to mention future mayors. To start, Mr. Bloomberg intends to add hundreds of millions of dollars to his proposed $57 billion budget for the next fiscal year, his aides said yesterday.

“Our economy is humming, our fiscal house is in order and our near-term horizon looks bright,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “If we don’t act now, when?”

The mayor chose Earth Day to give his speech and to release the details of his proposals. As widely predicted, the plan calls for an $8-a-day charge for people who drive their cars into Manhattan below 86th Street. The proposal for “congestion pricing,” which City Hall believes would reduce traffic and auto emissions while raising money for transportation projects, has already been met by harsh criticism from drivers and some officials outside Manhattan.

Other proposals in the plan, dubbed PlaNYC by the mayor’s staff, range from building huge capital projects and creating government authorities to implementing relatively benign initiatives in housing, transportation and land use.

One proposal calls for investments of $200 million a year from both the city and state to create a financing authority that would assure the completion of major projects like the Second Avenue subway. New authorities, with representatives from the city, state and private industry, would push for improved energy efficiency in new buildings and for the replacement of energy-guzzling power plants.

The city also would encourage the construction of platforms over railyards and highways to create land for housing. In addition, the plan would open 290 schoolyards as playgrounds, eliminate city sales taxes on energy-efficient hybrid vehicles, increase the number of bike paths and cultivate mussels to suck pollution out of the rivers.

Much of the plan, including its most costly proposals, would require state approval. Gov. Eliot Spitzer did not attend Mr. Bloomberg’s address, although another governor — Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, who appeared via videotape on two large screens — introduced the mayor.

Governor Spitzer, in a brief statement released late yesterday, said: “The mayor has released a comprehensive plan with admirable goals, especially the commitment to reduce energy consumption, and we look forward to reviewing the plan.”

Mr. Bloomberg’s initiative could be vulnerable to changes at City Hall and to setbacks in the economy.

But several observers praised it as a much-needed master plan for growth and the environment in a city that has let too many decades pass without such a vision.

“How you follow through on this is a huge political question, but it is a good time to be pushing it,” said Diana Fortuna, president of the Citizens Budget Committee. Ms. Fortuna was among several hundred people invited to the mayor’s speech, many of them associated with the 150 advocacy groups that had provided recommendations to Mr. Bloomberg.

The mayor acknowledged that the proposal for congestion pricing was the most contentious, calling it “the elephant in the room.”

Under the plan, the city would charge $8 for cars and $21 for commercial trucks that enter Manhattan below 86th Street from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays. The charge would be $4 for drivers within Manhattan, and several exemptions would apply. No one would be charged on the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive or the West Side Highway. There would be no charge for moving cars to comply with alternate side parking, and there would be no charge for taxis.

A similar system is in place in congested parts of London and Singapore, where Mr. Bloomberg said it had been shown to reduce congestion and improve air quality. In Manhattan, cameras and other equipment at intersections would deduct money from a driver’s E-ZPass account or photograph a car’s license plate, with the driver given two days to pay the fee through the mail, online or at certain stores.

The city said yesterday that it intended to seek state approval for a three-year test of congestion pricing and would need to spend $225 million to buy and install traffic-recording equipment. Officials said the city and state could jointly apply for grants from the United States Department of Transportation to cover those costs.

“The federal government really does want to be helpful,” Mr. Bloomberg said, in a rare departure from his prepared text.

Later, Mary E. Peters, the United States secretary of transportation, issued a statement praising the plan as “the kind of bold thinking leaders across the country need to embrace if we hope to win the battle against traffic congestion.”

The Nassau County executive, Thomas R. Suozzi, who has many constituents who commute by car to Manhattan, also was enthusiastic. “People’s first reaction is they don’t want to pay,” he said. “But getting them to switch to mass transit benefits us all.”

Mr. Bloomberg also called for improvements in express bus service and other public transportation in neighborhoods with little access to the subway, and where people are most inclined to drive into Manhattan for work or shopping. He said the city would complete those improvements before anyone is charged in the congestion pricing system.

Still, the reaction of many officials from outside Manhattan was cool. “I wonder if it is another hidden tax on working people,” said Adolfo Carrión Jr., the Bronx borough president. “I worry about people who need to use their cars to get to work.”

Money raised through congestion pricing would be added to the $400 million a year in combined city and state funds that the plan seeks for the creation of a new financing authority for transportation projects. The Sustainable Mobility and Regional Transportation Authority would issue bonds to award matching grants for projects by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and other agencies.

Mayor Bloomberg said yesterday that the added financial muscle was needed to close a $31 billion funding gap in 18 projects that are planned or underway, including the Second Avenue subway.

The new authority would be governed by a board with equal representation from the city and state. But it could provide a mechanism for Mr. Bloomberg and future mayors to reclaim some power over planning and capital expenditures by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. It is also a joint city and state agency, but one that has often been dominated by appointees of the governor.

In a prepared statement yesterday, officials from the authority said: “We applaud the mayor’s commitment to the transit system and will carefully analyze the city’s proposal to understand its impact on the M.T.A.”

Two other authorities, a New York City Energy Planning Board and an Energy Efficiency Authority, would be created to marshal investments that would finance energy conservation efforts and the construction of efficient power plants.

The plan also calls for a surcharge on electrical power customers, averaging $2.50 a month, with the money used to finance grants and other incentives for retrofitting buildings with energy-efficient materials. The new energy planning board, governed by city and state officials and utility executives, would make long-term commitments to buy energy from companies or investors who build efficient power plants.

In another measure, the city would plant more than 1 million trees in the next 10 years. It would offer incentives — intended to capture storm water runoff — for larger and deeper sidewalk tree pits and green roofs.

The plan calls for zoning changes in many neighborhoods with access to public transportation that would allow for larger homes and a higher density of housing, although such changes are often resisted in those neighborhoods.

It pledges that every New Yorker would live within a 10-minute walk from a park, and it calls for small public plazas in each community board district that does not have a park.

It would replace or modernize diesel-powered school buses in the city fleet and offer incentives to get heavy diesel trucks off the road. And it would commit city funds to clean up 7,600 acres of so-called brownfields, where soil has been polluted by chemicals or industrial materials. Some of the land would become parks.

Besides the introduction by Governor Schwarzenegger, Mr. Bloomberg’s address yesterday included videotaped praise by Tony Blair, the British prime minister, who made it clear the initiative was capturing the imagination of urban planners — if not necessarily the support it will need in Albany, Washington and neighborhoods outside Manhattan.

“This would mark out New York as a global leader in halting climate change,” Mr. Blair said.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

Friday, April 20, 2007

A Student Crisis

by Danny Schechter
Common Dreams News Center
April 17, 2007

The tragic shooting massacre on the Campus of Virginia Tech is being discussed and debated intensely on every media outlet. At this writing, there are more questions than answers and it seems as if American society is producing these “lone gunmen” with increasing frequency.

For years, students killing students has been a national epidemic at the high school level with inadequate intervention. I did a story for ABC News decades ago on the more than 300 students who died from gun violence in inner city Detroit in one year. Shoulders were shrugged, tears were shed and little was done. They were written off as ghetto victims.

And now this shocking event provoked shock from none other than President Bush whose Iraq War has produced a daily carnival of violence, murder and mayhem. Yes, there is a relationship because killing seems to an approved way of solving problems and expressing anquish.

But that’s not what I am writing about. There will be no shortage of pundits rationalizing the easy availability of guns or trying to minimize the larger implications of this crisis.

Students are being targeted on campuses in other ways that have also been approved of at the highest levels. In the spirit of Roberta Flack’s song “Killing me Softly,” the daily damage is being done with a fountain pen-or computer program-not a weapon.

I am talking about they way students loans have become a noose around the necks of a whole generation of students making our colleges and universities likely sets for the next edition of one of those crime scene shows.

In collision: the quest for higher education and the quest by self-interested lenders in higher profits in an 85 BILLION dollar student loan industry.

What’s coming out now is a nest of corruption in the very institutions that have set themselves up as moral exemplars and educators. An investigation in the State of New York-and where’s the FBI on this with a national probe?-has found lenders dishing out all kinds of cash to self-styled educators in the form of illegal kickbacks, referral fees, gifts, trips and other goodies. As some individuals take pay offs, students have to increase their pay-outs.

You know there is more to this by the way lenders are rushing to settle various complaints to avoid criminal charges. Anya Kamenetz writes on Huffington Post:

“Student lenders pay various kickbacks to financial aid offices to drive business their way, rather than negotiate the best deals for students. With barely a few letters sent, six schools have agreed to repay students $3.27 million on private loans, while Citibank, one of the largest student lenders, is paying $2 million into a financial education fund.

No one is admitting any wrongdoing. But cash speaks louder than words. $5 million, in an $85 billion industry, is a small price to pay to deflect further scrutiny of the obvious conflicts of interest inherent in this system. To take another example, lenders have been involved in marketing “enrollment management” software to help financial aid offices allocate grant aid to the most attractive students, leaving needier students to borrow more.”On the Hill, The Washington Post reports: “Of all the industries under attack on Capitol Hill — and there are plenty of them — the business of providing student loans is perhaps the most threatened.

The private student loan industry and its leading company, Reston-based Sallie Mae, are battling against congressional Democrats and President Bush, both of whom would like to pare back the lenders’ sizable federal benefits.”

As these investigations mount, Sallie Mae is going private to make it harder for investigators to get at the full depths of their role in sleazy practices which has included working overtime to undermine cheaper federal loan programs with bribes and intimidation. Note the words “reduce public scrutiny” in the paragraph that follows.

The Washington Post reports:

“Sallie Mae, the nation’s largest student loan company, announced yesterday that it would be bought by a group of private investors in a $25 billion deal that could reduce public scrutiny of the lender at a time when the student loan industry is under siege.

The enormous deal underscores the potential for profit that Wall Street sees in the $85 billion-a-year student loan industry, even as Congress considers slashing billions of dollars in federal loan subsidies and an expanding nationwide probe reveals fresh conflicts of interest in the student lending world.”

There’s more to these nefarious maneuvers reports the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank:

“The chairman of the Senate education committee urged the Bush administration to block student loan companies from accessing a national database that holds confidential information on tens of millions of students,” reports The Washington Post. “The request by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), came after The Washington Post reported on inappropriate searches of the database that could violate federal rules and raise concerns about data mining and abuses of privacy.”

And so add spying to the list of other charges of practices that menace students and make their lives harder.

Student loans are only part of the problem as I document in my film IN DEBT WE TRUST: America Before the Bubble Bursts. ( Students who lack experience in managing their money are easy targets for avaricious credit card companies. Together, the lenders and loan sharks are leaving students with an average of $20-30 THOUSAND dollars debt before they leave school at age 22. This means they cannot volunteer for public interest groups but have to get the best jobs they can top start paying back right away.

Talia Berman offers some reasons for why this is happening in Wire Tap Magazine:

“Student debt is climbing for three reasons: Interest rates have begun to rise, tuition is skyrocketing, and student aid programs are stuck in 2003.

2006 has been the worst in history for government action against student borrowers. In February, President Bush rolled out the Deficit Reduction Act, which cut $12 billion in federal student aid money. Part of the plan includes a hike in interest rates on federal student loans and loans taken out by parents. The interest rate on Stafford Loans to students rose from 5.3 percent to 7.14 percent on existing loans and to 6.8 percent on new loans. Interest rates for Parent Loans for Undergraduate Students (PLUS) loans increased even more dramatically, from 6.1 to 7.4 percent on existing loans and to a whopping 8.5 percent on new loans.”

Students have to start fighting back to end practices that have been subsidized by billions of taxpayer dollars. The Campaign for College Affordability is calling on Congress to ease the debt burden on students and families by cutting student loan interest rates in half. And then to make financial aid more effective by raising the minimum Pell Grant to $5,100.

This is an issue crying out for action while our nation cries for the innocent victims at Virginia Tech. Our campuses have to be physically secure and economically secure. We all have to learn more about this issue and start speaking out. One way might be to join up with other Americans who are crusading for debt relief at

© Copyrighted 1997-2007

Bowing Down to Our Own Violence

by Norman Solomon
Common Dreams News Center
April 20, 2007

Several days after the mass killings at Virginia Tech, grisly stories about the tragedy still dominate front pages and cable television. News of carnage on a vastly larger scale — the war in Iraq — ebbs and flows. The overall coverage of lethal violence, at home and far away, reflects the chronic evasions of the American media establishment.

In the world of U.S. mainline journalism, the boilerplate legitimacy of official American violence overseas is a routine assumption.

“The first task of the occupation remains the first task of
government: to establish a monopoly on violence,” George Will wrote three years ago in the Washington Post. But now, his latest Newsweek column laments: “Vietnam produced an antiwar movement in America; Iraq has produced an antiwar America.”

Current polls and public discourse — in spite of media inclinations to tamp down authentic anger at the war — do reflect an “antiwar America” of sorts. So, why is the ghastly war effort continuing unabated? A big factor is the undue respect that’s reserved for American warriors in American society.

When a mentally unstable person goes on a shooting rampage in the United States, no one questions that such actions are intrinsically, fundamentally and absolutely wrong. The media condemnation is 100 percent.

However — even after four years of a U.S. war in Iraq that has been increasingly deplored by the American public — the standard violence directed from the Pentagon does not undergo much critical scrutiny from American journalists. The president’s war policies may come under withering media fire, but the daily activities of the U.S. armed forces are subjected to scant moral condemnation. Yet, under orders from the top, they routinely continue to inflict — or serve as a catalyst for — violence far more extensive than the shooting sprees that turned a placid Virginia campus into a slaughterhouse.

News outlets in the United States combine the totally proper condemnation of killing at home with a notably different affect toward the methodical killing abroad that is funded by the U.S. Treasury. We often read, see and hear explicit media commendations that praise as heroic the Americans in uniform who are trying to kill, and to avoid being killed, in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In recent decades, the trends of war have been clear. A majority of the dead — estimated at 75 to 90 percent — are civilians. They are no less innocent than the more than 30 people who suddenly died from gunshots at Virginia Tech.

It would be inaccurate to say that the bulk of U.S. media’s coverage accepts war launched from Washington. The media system of the USA does much more than accept — it embraces the high-tech violence under the Pentagon’s aegis. Key reasons are cultural, economic and political.

We grew up with — and continue to see — countless movies and TV programs showing how certain people with a handgun, a machine gun or missiles are able to set wrongs right with sufficiently deft and destructive violence.

The annual reports of large, medium and small companies boast that the U.S. Defense Department is a lucrative customer with more and more to spend on their wares for war.

And the scope of political discourse, reinforced by major news outlets, ordinarily remains narrow enough to dodge the huge differences between “defense spending” and “military spending.” More broadly, the big media rarely explore the terrain of basic moral challenges to the warfare state.

Everyone who isn’t deranged can agree that what happened on April 16, 2007, at the campus of Virginia Tech was an abomination. It came about because of an individual’s madness. We must reject it without the slightest equivocation. And we do.

But the media baseline is to glorify the U.S. military — yesterday, today and tomorrow — bringing so much bloodshed to Iraq. The social dynamics in our own midst, fueling the war effort, are spared tough scrutiny. We’re constantly encouraged to go along, avidly or passively.

Yet George Will has it wrong. The first task of government should not be “to establish a monopoly on violence.” Government should work to prevent violence — including its own.

© Copyrighted 1997-2007

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

John de Rosier

Copyright 2007 Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.

How to Live Without a Car

April 18, 2007

Living without a car can be pretty tough, especially in the U.S., where public transportation is frequently lacking and where questionable urban planning has caused the average person to live far away from workplaces, schools, and markets. That said, it's certainly possible, as long as you're willing to change your lifestyle. Some of the suggestions below are easy for anybody, while others require more sacrifice.

  1. Determine why you are going car-less. For some people, it's about social responsibility (i.e. minimizing fossil fuel consumption). For others, it's about health or to save money. And for a few, it's simply about freedom—not being tied down to the responsibilities of owning and maintaining a car. Your reason behind living without a car will affect how far you're willing to go with this lifestyle choice. But no matter what your motivation is, one thing's for sure: there will be tremendous cost savings.
  2. Keep your car as backup during a transition period. While you're testing out your car-free lifestyle and working out the kinks, you should hold on to your car until you can rely on alternative means. Once you can go for 1 to 2 months without touching the car, you're ready to let it go.
  3. Use public transportation. If you live in an area with public transportation, take advantage of it. Research routes, find out about special fares and programs, bookmark the local trip planner on your computer, and save the customer service number on your cell phone.
  4. Consider moving to a location that is within biking or walking range to all the important places, such as grocery stores and bus or train stops or public transportation hubs. Get a map of the city's transit system or use an online trip planner, and find out how quickly you can reach a variety of destinations from your prospective home. It's always good to have at least a small grocery store within easy walking distance for quick trips. If you're looking for a big change, move to a city with a good public transit system, such as Chicago, New York, or Portland, Oregon. Alternatively, relocate to a small, yet still sizable city like Madison, Wisconsin, where you can cross the whole city by bike in a reasonable time. If you're worried about the expense of moving and living in a different neighborhood (e.g. higher rents), weigh the additional costs with the savings you can achieve by not having a car.
  5. Get a more conveniently located job. People most often choose housing that is near their place of business, but if you like a particular neighborhood or house, you can do the opposite. Make sure that your workplace is located within walking or biking range to a bus stop or train station. Also find out how difficult it is to reach your workplace from your house; if you can only get there by taking three different buses over two hours, it's not really accessible. If possible, avoid the commute altogether by working near (or from) your home.
  6. Buy a bicycle. The cheapest ones at discount stores may go as low as $45 and high quality commute bikes range from $500 to $1200. Garage sales and online classifieds frequently offer additional low cost or even free bicycles. Police departments often have annual sales of bicycles they've recovered. Remember—besides being free, environmentally friendly, and usually immune to traffic congestion, bikes also give you a free daily workout. If your day to day life is going to depend on the bicycle, look into the climate and other factors as described in the Tips below.
  7. Buy a Moped. These mini-motorcycles cost under $800 new, do not require insurance, get 80+ miles to the gallon, and are fun to ride. In many cities of the world, mopeds outnumber cars.
  8. Join forces with other commuters.
    • Consider participating in car sharing programs, such as City Car-Share, i-Go, FlexCar, ZipCar or VanPoolHawaii. There are a variety of programs that enable you to use a vehicle when you need one. If you just need to get to work, you might be able to arrange a vanpool from your local transit service.
    • If you need to take a trip outside of the range of inexpensive public transportation, try to get a rideshare. You simply find a driver who's going your way and give them gas money or help them out with the driving. You can find rideshares on the Internet.
    • If possible, get a job that allows you to use a corporate vehicle, thereby eliminating the need for a personal vehicle.


  • Buy a shopping cart or foldable wheeled tote so you can haul hefty loads from the grocery store to your home without breaking a sweat.
  • Make friends. Sometimes, such as when you're moving or need to pick up a piece of furniture, it really helps to drive a car. In these situations, it really helps to have a friend with a car or truck.
  • If you plan on riding your bike everywhere, research the climate of the area in which you plan to live. Even bitter cold winters can be fun to ride in if prepared with the proper cold weather gear. Snow skiing apparel will make you stylish and comfortable too.
  • Be sure to check out the bike accessibility of the area: does the city or neighborhood have well marked bike lanes, or will you be brushing up against cars on a narrow shoulder? In most places, you're allowed to take your bike along on the train or bus, but double check to make sure. And if you have trouble biking, consider an electric bike.
  • If absolutely necessary, don't hesitate to flag down a taxicab, or rent a car or truck. After all, you're probably saving at least $4000 a year by not having a car.


  • Don't take advantage of friends who have cars. You should try to be as self-sufficient as possible, and try to reciprocate favors, or they'll quickly get annoyed with you.
  • Buses and trains do sometimes have trouble staying on schedule. If you have to be somewhere important at a certain time, give yourself plenty of time in case something goes wrong. You'd do the same even if you had a car.
  • Be wary of carpooling with strangers, especially if you're alone.
  • If you're using a corporate vehicle, be aware that your employer may be keeping close tabs on usage, mileage, and fuel consumption. Also, they may have strict rules against using corporate vehicles for personal use, so be careful.
  • Be aware that if you give up your current car, you may also be giving up your insurance history. If you ever decide to drive a car again, and you've not been continuously insured, you will be treated like a brand new 16-year old driver, with rates to match. If you will be driving at all (e.g. in a borrowed or rented car), look into "non-owner" car insurance. It's cheap, and it makes life financially safer. Saves loads when renting a car, too.
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CBS's Nuclear Revival

April 18, 2007

On April 8, the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes aired a segment about the "resounding success" of the French nuclear power program, suggesting that "emission-free" nuclear power might offer an easy solution to the problem of climate change. The report protected this dubious assertion from skeptical scrutiny by failing to quote a single bona fide critic of the nuclear industry.

The segment was titled "Vive Les Nukes," which gave a good indication of the slant it took. Describing it as "an efficient means of producing large amounts of carbon-free energy," correspondent Steve Kroft announced at the top of the segment that nuclear power is "a technology whose time seemed to come and go, and may now be coming again." The notion of a nuclear power renaissance was bolstered by CBS's choice of interview guests—the program spoke only to nuclear power supporters (in France and elsewhere), thereby allowing their rhetoric to go unchallenged.

Guests on the segment were French energy official Pierre Gadonniex, French nuclear industry executive Bertrande Durrande, White House deputy secretary of energy Clay Sell (Bush's "point man on nuclear power"), French nuclear executive Anne Lauvergeon, MIT nuclear researcher Andrew Kadak and David Jhirhad of the World Resources Institute, described as "an environmental think tank in Washington."

Jhirhad was the only potentially balancing source, but he is quoted only to make Kroft's point that "even some environmental groups are taking a second look at nuclear power." This is an emerging line in much of the corporate media (e.g., Washington Post, 4/16/06; New York Times, 2/27/07), though the actual number of green groups embracing nuclear power is quite small. The World Resources Institute receives contributions from several energy companies and other major polluters, information that would have been useful for CBS viewers in evaluating Jhirad's claim that the nuclear industry's "safety record has been pretty good."

The segment's one-sided sourcing was made all the more problematic when the White House's Sell claimed that "no serious person can look at the challenge of greenhouse gases and climate change and not come to the conclusion that nuclear power has to play a significant and growing role in meeting that challenge worldwide." Of course, "serious people" do question precisely that--and CBS should have interviewed them.

Excluding such sources meant excluding important information. While France's nuclear power is portrayed as widely popular, CBS failed to mention large protests held across the country on March 17 (Agence France Presse, 3/17/07) against construction of a new nuclear plant. Nor, in touting the massive nuclear reprocessing plant France has built in Normandy, did the show refer to the radiation it releases into the English Channel (NIRS Nuclear Monitor, 3-4/00) or the cluster of leukemia cases occurring around the plant (British Medical Journal, 1/11/97).

Kroft even adopts industry-friendly language in describing the push to revive U.S. nuclear power, discussing the "financial incentives" and "streamlined regulatory system" intended to encourage nuclear energy development. Such "incentives" might better be described as government subsides, which have long been criticized by nuclear industry critics as a waste of taxpayers' money. Unmentioned in the CBS report were similar subsidies in France; according to the U.S.-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (5/4/06), $1 billion a year in government subsidies go to plutonium production alone.

Excluding critical voices allowed grossly misleading information to go unchallenged, as when nuclear executive Lauvergeon claimed, in the segment's conclusion, that "wind and solar are, you know, temporary sources of energy. It works when you have wind, it works when you have sun. No sun, no wind, no energy. You don't want to watch TV only when you have wind." Of course, wind and solar energy are not "temporary" sources of energy; power generated by both can be stored. Airing this sort of misinformation eliminates any real consideration of viable alternatives to nuclear energy.

At one point, Kroft says that "the Bush administration is pushing a nuclear revival." The same could be said for CBS.

Contact 60 Minutes to ask why its report on nuclear energy excluded the views of the industry's numerous critics:
CBS 60 Minutes
(212) 975-3247

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Tom Toles

©2007 The Washington Post

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

"A Tragedy... of Monumental Proportions"

by John Nichols
The Nation
April 16, 2007

There will be plenty of "rapid responses" to the gun rampage on the Virginia Tech campus, which has claimed the lives of as many as 31 students -- making it the deadliest school shooting incident in the history of the United States.

Do not doubt that the National Rifle Association is preparing its "this-had-nothing-to-do-with-guns" press release. The group has no compunctions about living up to its reputation for being beyond shame -- or education -- when it comes to peddling its spin on days when it would be better to simply remain silent. But the NRA will not be alone in responding in a self-serving manner. Many groups on all sides of issues related to guns and violence in America will be busy making their points, just as many in the media will look for one dimensional "explanations" for what the university's president, Charles Steger, has correctly described as "a tragedy... of monumental proportions."

"The university is shocked and indeed horrified," explained Steger, after it became clear that what had happened on his campus Monday was worse the carnage at Columbine High School in 1999 or at the University of Texas in 1966.

The trouble with shock and horror is that it does not often translate into contemplation, let alone serious reflection on the state of a nation in which such an incident can occur -- and, more troublingly, in which no one can suggest that the killings were unimaginable.

The first question, appropriately, is: Why did this happen?

The second question, equally appropriately, is: What should we do about it?

There is a simple answer to Question No. 1: America is a violent country.

Unfortunately, simple answers lead to simplistic responses. If America can do nothing about its violent streak, the NRA will argue, it is silly to place limits on gun ownership. Better to arm everyone, the argument goes. Or better to allow the "concealed carry" of weapons. Or, well, you get the point -- anything to avoid taking a piece out of the profits of the corporations that manufacture and sell deadly weapons.

By the same token, the notion that banning those weapons will end the violence has become a a tougher sell. Shocking and horrible rampages occur in countries with stricter gun laws than the U.S. No, they do not happen as frequently. But they do happen.

Conversely, in some countries where gun ownership is relatively high, incidents like at Virginia Tech are far less common.

We ought to wrestle with these contradictions and complexities.

But where to begin?

Here is a modest proposal: Instead of adopting a particular line, rent Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine."

Of course, there are those who will not be able to see beyond their rage at Moore to recognize the value of this particular film.

Moore's 2002 film remains the best popular exploration of violence and the gun culture in America. And, despite what the film maker's critics would have you believe, it is a remarkably nuanced assessment of the zeitgeist.

Moore's purpose was to offer an explanation for why the Columbine massacre occurred and to examine the broader question of why the U.S. has higher rates of violent crimes than other developed nations.

Moore certainly does not let apologists for the gun industry off the hook. But he does not stop there. "Bowling for Columbine" explores the role that America's mad foreign policies and obscene expenditures on weapons of mass destruction might play in fostering a culture of violence. Most significantly, Moore takes a serious look at the way in which American media, with its obsessive crime coverage, creates a climate of fear in this country -- a climate that actually ends up encouraging violence.

After the movie came out, Mary Corliss wrote in Film Comment: "Moore makes the mind swim with the atrocities and poignancies on display. 'Bowling for Columbine' should be mandatory viewing."

That was true in 2002. It is ever more true today.

Copyright © 2007 The Nation

Get Plastic Out Of Your Diet

by Paul Goettlich
November 16, 2003

You Are What You Eat

When you eat or drink things that are stored in plastic, taste it, smell it, wear it, sit on it, and so on, plastic is incorporated into you. In fact, the plastic gets into the food and food gets into the plastic and you. So, quite literally, you are what you eat[1]. . . drink. . . and breathe — plastic! These plastics are called "Food Contact Substances" by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but until April 2002, they were called "Indirect Food Additives."[2] The new name is cleansed of the implication that plastic gets into your food. In spite of this semantic deception, migration is a key assumption of the FDA.

According to Dr. George Pauli, Associate Director of Science Policy, FDA Office of Food Additive Safety, the regulations mandated in 1958 assume that all plastics migrate toxins into the food they contact. Migration is the movement of free toxins from plastic into the substances they contact — in this case it’s your food. The manufacturer must "prove" that the migrations fall within an acceptable range.[3] I agree with the assumption of migration from all plastics, but I find a critical disparity between the level of science employed by the regulations and the current scientific knowledge regarding the levels at which they migrate and the effects they can have. In particular, I am more concerned with extremely low concentrations. There is also a conflict of interest in allowing the manufacturer to submit its own testing to the FDA as proof of anything. We invite the fox into the henhouse and are surprised when there’s nothing left but eggshells and feathers.

The amount of migration and corresponding toxicological effects are highly disputed topics, even within the FDA, which has commonly acquiesced to industry in its regulation of technologies that are used in the production of our foods — plastics, pesticides, growth hormones, irradiation, and microwave. This is clear from the mass of expert and citizen testimony against such technologies that regulatory agencies bend over backwards and jump through flaming hoops to please their corporate clients, as they are called.

There is a worst plastic for any purpose — polyvinylchloride (vinyl or PVC). However, there is no best plastic to contain food or drink. It is my hope that this article will clarify this viewpoint. By the time you’ve finished reading, you should be closer to forming your own evaluation of plastics.

Its Uses

Plastic is used in contact with nearly all packaged foods. Most cardboard milk containers are now coated with plastic[4] rather than wax. It is sprayed on both commercial and organic produce to preserve its freshness. Plastic is even used to irrigate, mulch, wrap, and transport organic food. Organic bananas now come from wholesalers with a sticky plastic wrapping the cut stem to protect the bananas from a black mold.[5] The mold is controlled on non-organic bananas by dipping the cut ends in a fungicide. Chiquita would only reveal that it’s a "food grade plastic," which means that it meets minimum regulatory standards. But since it has a sticky feel to it, I suspect it either carries a fungicide or its physical characteristics act as a fungicide. Either way, if it is or acts as a fungicide, the EPA regulates it as a pesticide, which fungicides are considered a subset of. [6] In a way, this is similar to the regulation of corn that is genetically engineered to carry the toxic bacterium bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) in every cell. Rather than the FDA regulating it as a food, the EPA regulates it as a pesticide. Incredible as it may seem, they see our food as a pesticide.

According to the FDA scientist I spoke with, it’s a proprietary formula that he doesn’t know about and would offer nothing beyond that. Disclosure of proprietary information is a criminal offense.[7] All plastic manufacturers hide behind trade secrets. This is true with nearly all consumer products. It is quite impossible to know the chemical makeup of any plastic without paying a substantial amount of money for an independent lab analysis.

How is it made?

In a nutshell, plastic is made by combining monomers into polymers under great heat and pressure in a process called polymerization. Each manufacturer has its own proprietary formula for each plastic. And each uses a variety of additives such as plasticizers for flexibility, UV filters for protection from sunlight, antistatic agents, flame-retardants, colorants, antioxidants, and more. Heavy metals such as cadmium, mercury, and lead are common additives. There are also chemicals used to facilitate production such as mold releases, and countless other toxic chemicals regularly added to plastic consumer goods without our knowledge or approval. Many of the products and byproducts of the intermediary steps of plastics production are used in other plastics or industrial processes and products such as pesticides or fertilizer. For holistic thinkers, the mention of plastics and pesticides in the same sentence should begin an informative thought process, while keeping in mind that they all have complete regulatory approval.

The True Cost of Plastic

Plastic is ubiquitous in our lives because it is convenient and relatively inexpensive. It is advertised as safe and that it saves lives.[8] Its safety is based on outdated science and regulations. And while it saves lives in the short run, the record against plastic is looking quite different.

Its convenience comes from being lightweight and its ability to absorb impact shock without breaking, which on its own merit, is hard to argue with. It comes in an endless range of colors and finishes, is pliable, and is easily formed and molded. Most would say it's a perfect material, right? Here’s where the bad news begins.

Its inexpensiveness is the result of a large portion of the costs associated with its life — production, use and disposal — being put onto society as a whole. This unsolicited financial burden on society manifests itself as increased taxes to finance municipal curbside recycling programs, landfill space, and incineration. It also increases health care and insurance costs as a result of its incineration polluting the air, water, and food. I’ll give much more detail on the negative health effects later, but for now, suffice to say that a full and truthful lifecycle analysis would reveal that the long-term negative health and socioeconomic effects at the local and global scales far outweigh the benefits realized by the use of plastics.

What's so bad about plastic?

For decades, the plastics industry has deceived us with assurances that the polymerization process binds the constituent chemicals together so perfectly that the resulting plastic is completely nontoxic and passes through us without a hitch. In spite of this industry disinformation,[9] the polymerization process is never 100% perfect. Logically then, there are always toxicants available for migration into the many things they contact — your food, air, water, skin, and so on. Both the FDA and the industry know this. However, because of many millions of dollars worth of advertising and public relations work, consumers are educated to think that plastics are safe.

The additives utilized are not bound to the already imperfect plastic, leaving them quite free to migrate. One quick example: without a plasticizer additive, PVC would be rigid. The plasticizer resides between the molecules of the PVC, acting as a lubricant that allows those molecules to slide by each other, and thus flex. Many containers used for food or water are made of it. Even Barbie dolls are made of it. The plasticizer migrates out from day one. And as it ages, the migration can visibly weep out of it.[10]

Plastics, their additives and other processing chemicals can be toxic at extremely low concentrations. In fact, some are significantly more toxic at extremely low concentrations than at much higher concentrations, which is contrary to the FDA scientist’s paradigm that, "The dose makes the poison," meaning that the higher the concentration, the more toxic something is. It is an interpretation of the writings of Paracelsus, an alchemist who wrote in the 16th century that, "Alle Ding sind Gift und nichts ohne Gift; alein die Dosis macht das ein Ding kein Gift ist" [All things are poison and nothing without poison; alone it is the dose that makes a thing no poison].[11] It’s now 500 years later and that assumption of Paracelsus is still the basis for the many regulations. Except on chemical-by-chemical investigations by various independent, institutional, and academic labs, plastics are not explored for harmful effects or regulated in any meaningful way.

© Paul Goettlich