Friday, December 19, 2008

Message to Obama: Explain Ethics of Choosing Rick Warren

I've been worrying to myself about Obama's choice of people he will rely on try to stitch our economy back together. I've been perplexed about his retention of Gates at the Pentagon. But I, like a lot of other people have been taking seriously Obama's statement that he will be the one setting policy and that he has good political and managerial reasons for his picks.

But selecting Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his Inauguration causes me to wonder if I, and others like me, have mistaken Barack Obama. I voted for this man because he seemed to be the moral antidote to George W. Bush, an individual of ethics and integrity with a vision of an all-inclusive America.

Instead we will have the sad spectacle of someone who fought against the civil rights of gay people filling a role of great honor when Obama swears his loyalty to the Constitution of the United States.

I can't but help feel that I, we, deserve an explanation of the ethical thinking that went into this choice. I don't mean a superficial answer, I mean one worthy of Obama's education, which is so broad that I have no doubt that it included reading the wisdom of philosophers from Plato on who have probed what it means to be ethical. 

With ethical questions, there is not necessarily a single right or wrong answer as there is, for example, with the decision not to kill another human being. (War situations excepted, for most people.) Making an ethical decision most often involves assessing the harmful consequences a choice might cause. It involves imagining the reaction of those with a stake in your decision, and then weighing all these negatives against the positives of those choices.

Mike Madden in Salon writes that "cozying up to Warren has been one of Obama's favorite ways of showing evangelicals that he might not be so scary." Obama himself has offered the explanation that  choosing Warren as his Inaugural Day preacher is about making the point "that we're not going to agree on every single issue, but what we have to do is to be able to create an atmosphere where we can disagree without being disagreeable."

This comment implies that Obama does not understand or perhaps empathize with the deep hurt that California's vote to ban gay marriage has caused. Because preacher Warren supported that effort, choosing him is like further opening the wound, an action far beyond a loss of civility. This offense to the gay community is ethical consequence that Obama should have weighed. Did he?

Did he consider his duty to those who supported him? Not just gays themselves, but all those others, like me, who consider expanding gay rights part of the change we expect from Obama. Don't all who have been oppressed rise and fall together?

A spokesperson for Obama claimed the decision was not political. Well, if that's true, then what did justify it? Are there not a sufficient number of clergy members who could appropriately, passionately, deliver words of spiritual transcendence in honor of his Inauguration?

Obama prides himself on being a straight talker; indeed, one of his favorite phrases is, "I want to be perfectly clear." Well, now's the time for a perfectly clear explanation of the ethical calculation that will put Rick Warren in the face of gay people on a day when they thought they would be celebrating.

Friday, December 12, 2008

$18 for a Bag Full of Prescription Meds--in Italy

We visited an old friend of ours last year who has retired to Venice, Italy. Richard had a heart attack not long after he moved there, and had to be taken by boat-ambulance to the hospital in this magical city of canals.

He was most pleased by the care he received, and recovered very well. So well, in fact, that we had a hard time keeping up with him as he trotted us through the maze of alleys and up and over all the bridges as he showed us the city's fabulous sites. Then 79, Richard has just turned 80. 

One morning he told us we were on our own because he had to see his doctor to get renewals of his prescriptions. A few hours later, when we were all back at his apartment, he showed us a plastic bag full of his medications. Laughing gleefully, he asked us how much we thought he had paid for them.

Not knowing how he paid for health care in his adopted country, I guessed $1,000.

Oh no, he said. $18.

$18! Which prompted me to ask what he had paid for his stay in the hospital, all his follow-up care, and his regular visits to the doctor since then? A big fat zero. Zilch. 

To our amazement, as a permanent non-citizen resident who does not work, Richard pays only a few hundred dollars a year to be covered by Italy's system of universal health care. Wow.

I told this story the other night to a couple of acquaintances, and they both immediately raised the stereotypical objections to the U.S. switching to a similar system: So why do the Canadians all come here to the U.S. for surgery? Those systems make people wait for care. etc. etc. The government can't be trusted to run anything, and so on.

Now that Obama has appointed Tom Daschle to be his new Secretary of Health & Human Services, it's urgent that we re-open this discussion of how best to reform our unconscionably expensive and income-based health care system. Solving the inequities of our system and lowering its cost is fundamental to solving many of the persistent social problems we face as well as making our businesses more competitive.

While some doctors continue to see their self-interest in continuing our present system, the 60,000 members of Physicians for a National Health Program disagree. In a section on their website , they point out, for example, that "the government" wouldn't be running a single-payer system--doctors and patients would be.

As far as people having to wait for operations--a form of health care rationing--they point out that rationing of health care also occurs in the U.S. It's just done differently here. Instead of being based on the urgency of a person's need as in Canada and elsewhere, here we base it on ability to pay. Here, an estimated 18,000 Americans die every year because they can't afford care. 

Besides providing coverage for everyone regardless of means, moving to a universal, single-payer health care system, would eliminate a big source of corruption in our society. The Boston Globe recently reported that AARP earned nearly $500 billionin  2007 alone by selling seniors 17 varieties of insurance policies, including Medicare supplemental insurance for drugs. Despite the opposition of consumer organizations, AARP worked against the interest of its own members in 2003 by backing a form of coverage of prescription drug costs that raised costs for seniors with low income. For all seniors, the new plan also increased the complexity of Medicare, which is now so complicated that even a careful reading of explanatory booklets leaves you scratching your head. 

But the change was good for AARP: After its passage, AARP expanded its contract with the United Health Group to sell the new policies which, according to the Boston Globe article, are not the lowest cost choice available despite advertising to the contrary. 

Health care system lobbyists, of course, are one of the largest special interest groups that have a big hold members of Congress--from both parties--thanks to campaign contributions and other perks they offer.

It's time to put this whole bunch out of business.

Of course, a lot of Americans currently have jobs in the huge bureaucracy that wastes so much of our health care dollars. Moving to a single payer system can't be accomplished over night. 

But as the Obama Administration addresses this problem, it should be working to implement changes that in increments, over time, move us to a universal, single-payer system. Daschle understands the advantages of a single-payer system but, apparently, believes it is too radical an idea to promote since it's been smeared by opponents as socialized medicine..

But if not now, when change is in the air, when?  I fear we'll have to wait a very long time for another opportunity to move toward a universal system. 


Thursday, December 4, 2008

"Hate Radio" Talkers Get a Free Pass

When radio's Don Imus lost all sense of decency and called the Rutger's women's basketball team a name that revealed both his sexism and racism, we finally saw that there is a limit to public tolerance of radio's shock jocks.

But it's a preciously low limit, as a new report by Media Matters, a non-profit monitor of conservative misinformation, points out. 

The report shows that there really is no boundary as long as these purveyors of prejudice aim at adult public figures or at large swaths of the population, like women in general rather than under-age, identifiable individuals--and athletes besides. Unless of course, they use a four-letter word. That, or baring a breast even for a tenth of a second, are about the only offenses that incur the wrath of the Federal Communications Commission these days.

The report, "RadioActiveSmears," lists some of the worst offenders plying their ugly trade at local and regional stations around the country. The report gives details of utter falsehoods, such as two jocks' claims that 5 million illegal aliens got subprime mortgages, (despite repeated denials by HUD) or wildly inflammatory predictions, such as KOA's "Gunny" Bob Newman saying that after gay marriage is legalized will come "legal human-animal marriage."

The report singles out KTLK radio host Chris Baker for special censure, describing him as "one of the most prolific purveyors of inflammatory rhetoric." 

Baker apparently finds a big audience among men who hate women and respond well to comments like: "I'm not excited about women voting;" and, Sarah Palin "shoulda had a little cleavage going...I noticed a little panty line on her."

He added, "I'm a pig, and that's fine." At least he was right about the pig part.

The press secretary for Media Matters, J. Jioni Palmer, wonders why, if "we don't tolerate sexism on our local television station or local paper," why "should radio get a free pass?"

It's a good question. If the columnist for a local newspaper, or an anchor at a local television station made such comments, they would be censured by an outraged public and probably lose their jobs.

Is talk radio different?

Yes. First, newspaper columnists and TV anchors are journalists, and journalists are expected to adhere to a code of ethics. 

Radio shock jocks are not journalists, and have no code of ethics. Apparently, they have no personal ethics, either. 

Ethical theorists (I teach a course on media ethics at Hofstra University) speak of journalists' duty to the truth, to their audience and the community. To fulfill those duties requires an effort to find out the truth and to seek balance and fairness. 

Radio shock jocks obviously see their duty only as one of increasing their ratings and their pay.

So what's the answer? As Palmer of Media Matters says, should these obnoxious talkers just get a free pass because of both their First Amendment rights and the ability of people to simply turn them off?

No, they shouldn't.

Parthiv Parekh, the editor of an Indian-American magazine based in Atlanta, argues that the mainstream media have a duty to take on the excesses of radio purveyors of prejudice and hate. He contends that by highlighting their excesses on a regular basis, ethical journalists can enlist the public in making advertisers and station owners uncomfortable in letting offenders keep their jobs.

In his essay, "The Unfairness of Talk Radio,"  Parekh says, "Just as talking heads use their medium to routinely knock the mainstream press, they in turn must frequently call to attention the irrationality of talk radio." So, when right-wing talkers, in particular, take every opportunity to criticize the "liberal" mainstream media, why shouldn't mainstream journalists give it right back to them when these amoral individuals repeatedly ignore the facts and promote disgusting stereotypes?

The motivation to do this is not competition or revenge. What's at stake here is the ability of people in our democracy to acquire good information on which to act as citizens: to vote, first of all, and to decide which public policies are best for themselves and the country.

 Unfettered by any requirement or any personal sense of duty to be truthful or even-handed, right-wing talkers reinforce the worst stereotypes and fears of their audiences. This is why we had a significant percentage of the electorate believing before the election, and probably still believing, that President-elect Obama is a Muslim. Some shockers went as far as to label him "the Beast," meaning Satan. (Listen to a 1-minute recording of some of the worst comments compiled by Media Matters by clicking here.)

Newsweek's Joe Klein expressed the danger of media slicing and dicing audiences in 1992:

"The basic principle is centrifugal: market segmentation targets those qualities that distinguish people from each other rather than emphasizing those things we have in common. It is the developed world's equivalent of the retribalization  taking place in Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia."

Klein was referring at the time to the rise of cable channels focused on particular ethnic and racial audiences, sports enthusiasts and other slices of the public.  Far worse is to parse your audience based on their hatreds and fears, but that is exactly what the shock talkers do.

So did Media Matters' report on the shock jocks get covered by the mainstream media?

No. Not a word in The New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, or even in newspapers or TV stations in the towns where these shock jocks ply their ugly trade.

Pity. Because that silence does give these hate talkers a free pass and the ability to avoid being tried where they should be,  in the court of public opinion.


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Nanny Nightmares: No More Bottled Water for You!

The Competitive Enterprise Institute is mightily upset about a report by the Environmental Working Group(EWG) that points out what should be obvious: buying bottled water is usually a giant waste of money particularly because what's in the bottle could very well be just plain old tap water. Meanwhile, bottled water is a giant source of profit to Coca Cola, Pepsi and other members of the industry.

The folks at the Washington D.C.-based booster of corporate America (CEI) is trying to counter criticism of bottled water by suggesting that consumers' worst enemy is --shriek!--the Nanny State! You know, those government Nannies in their frumpy clothes, their lips tight in disapproval, who don't want you to have choices, choices, choices! In this case, the choice of drinking bottled water while leaving to the public at large the cost of disposing of the container and ignoring the oil used in making all that plastic and its impact on global warming. The CEI has even created a special website just to fight efforts to shrink use of bottled water.

Here's the bottom line from the EWG: "With bottled water, you don't know what you're getting." Laboratory tests found Walmart's Sam's Club bottled water contains traces of disinfection, a sign that it is simply bottled tap water. Other brands sampled contained traces of contaminants at levels higher than the bottled water industry's own purity standards allow.

"Given the industry's refusal to make available data to support their claims of superiority, consumer confidence in the purity of bottled water is simply not justified," the report continues.

Of course, what's given the bottlers and the CEI that sinking feeling is that the growth in sales of bottled water is slowing. Reports like this from EWG, combined with growing public concerns about the environmental damage from the bottles, surely won't help to revive industry growth. In 2002, consumers spent $11 billion on bottled water, and sales grew 12 percent. This year, the increase is expected to be under 2.5%. Uh, oh.

There's even an effort by some universities to ban bottled water sales on campus as a green initiative. That has particularly disturbed the folks at CEI, bothering their rest with Nanny Nightmares.

Angela Logomasini is the CEI's spokesperson on this subject, and she criticized the EWG report as "junk science" and misleading. She's a Ph.D, a press release points out, but the CEI's web site says her advanced degree is in political science not biology or chemistry. I gave her a call to ask her to explain her assessment of the report, and it turned out she had no criticism of the laboratory findings, just the conclusion that bottled water is no better than tap.

She asserts that even though some bottled water is drawn right from municipal supplies that it's still better because it is filtered further and thus may taste better.

Her political background is more to the point of the CEI's criticisms. Calling a ban on bottled water sales on campuses "ridiculous," she asserts, "We're against the Nanny state. It's a right for people to live in a free society and engage in voluntary exchange, free trade."

What I've always loved about this view of capitalism--and I have a background in economics--is that free enterprise champions never want to pay the real price of so-called free trade.

How about a tax or at least a deposit on water bottles to cover the costs of disposing of the bottles? Nope. In fact, Logomasini said CEI would like to do away with all bottle deposits.

What about a labeling requirement that would tell consumers the source of bottled water, so you'd know, for example, that you were paying $1.50 for 12 ounces of some municipality's public water supply? Nah. Most brands, she asserts, have a phone # on the label where you can get such information.

The CEI's bottom line is that an unfettered market is always the answer.

Here's my bottom line: Buy genuinely reusable water bottles and refill them. A good source is REI, a retailing cooperative with a strong sense of responsibility to the public and the environment. With all the money you save, you can buy something really worthwhile in a bottle to celebrate your newfound thrift. Champagne anyone?

Friday, November 14, 2008

They Didn't Get to Vote Nov. 4

One of the least recognized penalties for committing any kind of felony in America is loss of the right to vote. And the biggest losers of that most basic aspect of citizenship are blacks and Latinos, most of them convicted of non-violent drug offenses.

The effect is unblushingly racist: the disproportionate enforcement of our failed drug laws and bans on voting by felons weakens the political power of minority communities. 

And that's no accident, says Ira Glasser, president of the Drug Policy Alliance and former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. Glasser, who woke me up to this issue when I heard him speak a couple of years ago, believes this is a deliberate policy to deprive minorities of power, an extension of the Jim Crow laws we thought we had left behind.

Here's the picture:
  • Although African Americans make up about 12% of the U.S. population and 13% of drug users, 38% of those arrested for drug offenses and 59% of those convicted are black.
  • Almost all states and the District of Columbia strip felony prisoners of their right to vote. Only 2 states--Maine & Vermont--allow voting by felony prisoners.
  • 35 states prohibit voting while felons are on parole
  • 30 states prohibit voting by felons on probation
  • 2 states--Kentucky & Virginia--are completely non-forgiving. Even after you've done your time, you never again can vote.
  • A few other states delay restoration of voting rights for certain offenses for as long as 5 years.
An estimated 5.3 million Americans (1 in 40 adults) have currently or permanently lost their voting rights as a result of a felony conviction.

But of those people, 1.4 million are African-American men--13% of the total population of black men, or more than 1 in 10.

As bad as that is, here's a shocking look forward, according to the Sentencing Project:

If the current unfair enforcement of drug laws continues, three in 10 of the next generation of black men can expect to be disenfranchised at some point in their lifetime. 

Not only is this situation racist, but it's costing us money we can ill afford. 

Here we are trying to find money to support education and health care and other essential services as our economy goes into the tank, and we're still wasting billions of dollars nationally keeping people in prison for using the short list of drugs we call illegal. Not so for those who abuse prescription drugs or alcohol, as long as they don't drive or engage in other behavior that hurts other people. Shouldn't that be the standard for all drugs? What makes marijuana or cocaine or heroin so different, other than that they are illegal and therefore the cause of so much crime, here and abroad?

Alternatives to incarceration, community-based drug treatment--in short, treating drug use as a health problem--would be far less expensive, not to mention humane than locking people up and in the process destroying their families and communities.

This picture looks even worse when you consider that in some states, the prison population is counted for representation in the communities where the prisons are located---mostly rural areas--rather than the home towns of the prisoners. In some communities, this results in giving the votes of a small number of generally white voters more weight than those of others. That's a clear violation of one person, one vote.

It's a situation crying out for change. 

Let's hope the new Obama Administration finds the time to dial down the drug war and put the drug problem in a new framework that delivers a healthier, more just America.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Obama's Win: Power to the People!

We did it. We all did it. All of us who marched and protested over and over, in the bitter cold and the hot sun, who circulated and signed endless petitions, who wrote countless letters and emails, who went in person to beseech our elected representatives, only to have all of these actions fall on deaf ears in Washington--this election of Obama was our victory and our revenge.

 This election wasn't decided by hockey moms or middle-aged white men. 

This election was decided by the members of the PTA and the social justice committees in churches across America. It was decided by the veterans pleading for an end to war and health care for their injured comrades. It was decided by the women's groups determined to save our option for abortion and our access to birth control and emergency contraception. It was decided by the organizations of nurses outraged by a health care system that leaves many to die without needed treatment. It was decided by immigrant rights groups looking for justice and not exploitation. It was decided by environmental activists passionate about saving our planet from global warming, about preserving the life in our oceans and on our lands. It was decided by the organizers of small coops distributing garage-made biodiesel to members of their community.

In short, it was decided by all those millions of people who for the past 8 years have been looking for a voice in Washington. And who have been stunned and dismayed that no matter how they pleaded, they were ignored by an incompetent President proud of his ignorance, and by deluded Republicans who thought they had the power. 

Most analysts are pointing to the implosion of our economy as the decisive factor in this election, and surely it made the need for change more urgent than ever.

But when the Republicans disparaged Obama's experience as a community organizer, they insulted just those people with the knowledge, the ability and the passion to take them down.

It was all those folks, with experience in a wide array of grassroots organizations, who saw in Obama the person who seemed willing and able to listen and be reasonable. And with faith in him, they put their organizing skills to work on his behalf, traveling to the embattled states, making phone calls on his behalf, contributing the massive amounts of money he needed to overcome the smears and the constant babble of right-wing bloviators on radio and TV.

So on this day, I'm celebrating because we the people, the people who work to make our communities, our country and the world better, we won yesterday. We won. 

I, for one, will take this day to enjoy our victory. Power to the people!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Obama Plan to Bankrupt Coal Industry? Not.

In my worst nightmares as the presidential campaign neared its end, I envisioned the Bush Administration bombing Iran as its "October surprise," a game-changing event designed to push the election to McCain.

Thankfully, this didn't happen. Instead, in the past couple of days Republicans dredged up a recording of an interview Obama gave earlier this year in which he talked about the future of the U.S. coal industry.

I was supposed to be shocked and dismayed by an email that landed in my inbox with the headline:  "Obama Plan to 'Bankrupt' Clean Coal Would Cost Thousands of Jobs." 

Just as with so many campaign ads this political season, the words in that headline are a gross distortion. Here's why.

First, Obama has no plan whose intent is to bankrupt the coal industry. What he did say was that he would put into place a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases that would, for the first time, put a dollar value emissions that contribute to global warming. Unless an electric utility were able to somehow contain the emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that come from burning coal, the utility would have to pay for each unit of gases it spews into the air. 

The effect of that system would be to put coal, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, at a disadvantage against electricity made from cleaner fuels. 

And, indeed, Obama said in that interview that under such a system, the marketplace would determine that coal is too expensive to compete, leading to the bankruptcy of coal system operators.

This, of course, would be a good thing. By making energy companies pay the real costs of their business activity, the market would function to favor the cleanest sources of energy, including, of course, solar, wind, biodiesel, etc. 

This of course, is a horrible prospect to the Western Business Roundtable, the group that sounded the alarm in the final day before the election.  Like so many Big Businesses who speak the praises of capitalism and free markets when they apply to someone else, they've gotten used to letting other people--read taxpayers--pay to clean up the environmental messes they leave behind. The Roundtable is an association of energy companies, oil, coal, & natural gas, active in western states. They and their brethren in the rest of the country, including the coal strip-mining companies engaged in taking the tops off mountains in West Virginia, want to be allowed to continue to despoil our beautiful land and warm our planet without paying the price for their action.

Mountaintop removal is something you have to see, at least in pictures, to understand the devastation it creates. To get at the coal underneath all those pesky trees, bushes and top soil these environmental vandals just blast away the mountain tops and dump hundreds of millions of tons of creation into nearby valleys. From the air, these huge strip mines look like lunar landscapes.

Second distortion: Always looking for the angle that can rouse ordinary folks to take their side, the Roundtable's alarmist email also raised the specter of the loss of "hundreds of thousands of jobs" if a cap-and-trade system made coal mining the market loser that it should be.

This would also be a good thing. The dirty, deadly job of underground coal mining might eventually become a bad memory.  Certainly those workers will need help during the transition away from coal, and that must be one of the uses to which emission payments should be put. As for the folks who run the giant machines that eat mountains, let's find work for them building and repairing bridges and roads and other beneficial public works.

The last distortion in the headline of that email lies in the words "clean coal." There's just no such thing. The death toll and injuries, the environmental devastation involved in mining coal are so overwhelming that this is an industry that should become obsolete. For an excellent overview of all that, have a look at this article in the Washington Post. 

Even if it does become possible to pump the greenhouse gases from electricity plants underground--an incredibly expensive idea--or, better, to feed the carbon dioxide to algae that can then be harvested to make biofuels--the production of coal itself is an insult to the earth. Using the adjective "clean" in relation to coal is, plain and simple, an oxymoron.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

McCain Wrong on Head Start

John McCain's nose grew a bit longer last night during the final presidential debate as he continued trying to tar Barack Obama with the same tired accusations. But he also managed to get in a new falsehood: that Head Start is a failure.

McCain asserted that by the third grade, the advantages bestowed by the pre-kindergarten program disappear, leaving the children with no long-term benefit. f

Well, that study was done in 1969, only four years after Head Start began. Since then, its methodology has been criticized as flawed, according to The National Head Start Association.

Newer studies since then have found solid evidence that Head Start is most worthwhile.

That doesn't surprise me. I worked as an assistant teacher back in the early days of Head Start while I was still in college. The children in my class had health problems that I or the teacher noticed; we reported them and the children got the care they needed. We read to the children, did crafts with them, played with them, and exposed them to the larger world. We gave them the kind of coaching and attention that their parents were either too overworked or under-educated to provide.

Studies in 2003 and 2007 that McCain didn't mention found that Head Start children have higher achievement test scores and higher graduation rates than children who did not take part. Furthermore, a 2004 study projected that for every $1 spent on Head Start, society received $9 in benefits including increased earnings for the graduates, decreased dependency on welfare, and fewer children repeating grades and needing special education services.

When I had my own children, I realized how much of a head start affluent children have. One of my sons began struggling with school in the second grade despite having a high IQ revealed by tests. The school seemed unable to deal with his situation, so I had him privately evaluated. It turned out he had a visual problem that made it very difficult for him to put down on paper what he saw on a blackboard. 

Two months of occupational therapy changed him from an unhappy school child to an enthusiastic one who thereafter had consistently good grades. Among the simple tools that the therapist introduced were chunky pencils that he could hold more easily. 

Every child should have not only a Head Start program if they need one, but also screening for learning problems such as my son had. Investing in early childhood programs and screening pays dividends later, and not only in dollars. 

Imagine how much parental stress and childhood anguish would be avoided if all children received the help they need early in life.

What were you thinking, John McCain?

Friday, October 3, 2008

Outrageous! VP Debate Ignored Women's Issues

I was outraged last night that moderator Gwen Ifill didn't ask a single question about women's issues, and particularly women's reproductive rights. Not one question of a woman making a historic run for vice-president who supposedly appeals to disappointed Hilary supporters. 

Here was folksy Sarah Palin with a 17-year old pregnant daughter, all set up for a shot-gun wedding with a reluctant boyfriend, and Ifill didn't ask her one question about her stance on abortion, contraception, teenage pregnancy or teen marriage. I'm not suggesting that she should have asked her how she would handle her responsibilities as a mother if she becomes vice president. If she does get elected, she'll muddle through as a working Mom like the rest of us have or still do.

But didn't the American public deserve to hear her defend her extreme view that abortion should not be permitted even in cases of rape and incest? What about the fact that in Alaska, rape victims have to pay for the rape kits used to get evidence to prosecute rapists? (See Planned Parenthood's upcoming ad on this be clicking here. Disclosure: the page also asks for a donation.) Shouldn't Palin been asked about the crushing effect on young women of teen motherhood? Or the terrible odds of success of teen marriages?

I can only speculate that Ifill was afraid of appearing partisan, perhaps because she was criticized before the debate because of her book-in-progress. The coming book is about politics in the age of Obama,  and critics had suggested it was complementary of him, thus making her partisan. By not touching on women's issues, Ifill avoided questioning Palin about views on these subjects that do not sit well with most Americans. So was she over-compensating in order to escape criticism?

(Once the criticism surfaced about her book, Ifill should have walked away from moderating the debate. There are so many other excellent journalists who could have been selected whose neutrality would not have been questioned. Another journalist might have had the guts to challenge Palin's views about women's control of their own reproduction. It was an ethical challenge, and Ifill chose to ignore it at the country's expense.)

So Palin got away without having to talk about views that are so out of step with the vast majority of American women. Shame on Gwen Ifill for giving her a pass.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Bravo! European Diesels impress Consumer Reports; Diesels for U.S. Market on the Way

OK, car buffs. How would you like to drive a 2009 Audi A4 that has 236 horsepower, shove-you-back-in-your-seat acceleration of 369 lb-ft of torque and still get 36 miles per gallon? You would?

Better get on an airplane, then. This Audi isn't sold in the U.S. Neither is the 2008 Mini Cooper D, (the "D" stands for diesel), that gets 60 mpg, or a 2007 BMW 123d hatchback, another diesel, which gets 45 mpg. (These are European mpg ratings.)

In fact, in 2007, Europeans had a choice of 113 vehicles that got 40 mpg or better, according to a report from The Civil Society Institute's All were made either by U.S.-based manufacturers or those with substantial U.S. sales operations like Nissan and Toyota.  Many, if not most of these were diesels; half the new cars sold in Europe these days are diesels. 

The car wonks from Consumer Reports got to test-drive a sample of these European vehicles recently at the annual International Motor Press Association track days at Pocono Raceway, and they were mightily impressed. They gave the 2009 Audi the highest marks, and their only objection to the other diesels was that they weren't "quite as smooth as the best gas engines." 

I've been driving a 2002 Jetta diesel since 2004, when I bought it used. The advantage of a diesel like mine over hybrids like the Toyota Prius is that it has better acceleration and handles like a big car on an Interstate, keeping up with the traffic, at 80 mph. And gets 43 mpg all the while. (No, I'm not being paid by Volkswagen!) Hybrids like the Prius, which I've test-driven, are best in stop-and-go city driving, especially where the terrain is flat and the gas engine doesn't have to go to work. 

We've been languishing without new diesel car choices in the U.S. for years now, mainly because California's air resources board put human health over conservation, a position it's hard to argue with. In smoggy California, the pollution created by old-technology diesels, particularly emissions of tiny particles implicated as a cause of asthma, outweighed diesels' better mileage and lower emissions of carbon dioxide of about 20 percent. So they banned sales of new diesel cars in California, and when other big states like New York followed their example, the manufacturers stopped selling them even in states where they were not banned.

That's changing now as car manufacturers have finally met California's air quality standards. About a dozen new diesels are now available, according to the Diesel Technology Forum. Unfortunately, this group is heavily skewed toward high-priced luxury cars like the Mercedes E320 Bluetec, which will knock you back nearly $60,000 once you pay the taxes and other fees. And its fuel economy is only 23 mpg, city, and 32, highway.

The only reasonably priced model yet available is the 2009 Volkswagen Jetta, which gets 30 mpg, city, and 41, highway. (Compare that to 21 city, 29 highway for the gas version.) You also get a $1,300 fed tax credit if you are one of the first 60,000 people to buy the car.  But wait a year or so, and there will be a lot more choices.

Of course, diesel car fuel is now more expensive than gasoline. But the difference in price, at least in my corner of Long Island, New York, is no more than 15 percent. (About $4.55 a gallon versus about $4, or a bit less, for regular gasoline) Diesels extract a lot more than 15 percent more miles from a gallon, so you're still way ahead. Beyond the dollars, however, you'd also be conserving a great deal of oil and cutting CO2 emissions 20%. The same model car with a diesel engine instead of gas gets between 20 and 40% better mileage. Furthermore, diesel engines just run and run and run, often to 200,000 or 300,000 miles.

Of course, it was my hope that I'd be filling my car with truly clean biodiesel now; that prospect is what tipped me into buying my used Jetta. That hasn't happened yet because this alternative fuel is still scarce in my part of the world. But that's another story...

Friday, September 19, 2008

Who said being a citizen is easy?

I usually blog about newsworthy issues like liquid natural gas and offshore drilling. But not today. Here we are in the  final weeks of what seems like the most important national election of my lifetime, and people in my circle of friends are complaining that the political competition is tiring them out, confusing, or boring.

Usually they finish their complaint by asserting that it doesn't matter anyway, that whoever wins, it won't make a difference. 

I'm here to say, suck it up and stop copping out.

No one ever said it was easy being a citizen. 

Of course, no one ever really instructs us in what's expected of citizens of this great country. We take for granted that we not only get to vote, but also to write, phone, email our representatives if we so choose. Likewise, our ability to run for office, or, unwilling to take on the job ourselves, to support candidates we favor with our money and time. We even get to engage in public demonstrations--sometimes, these days fenced in by hostile police, sometimes beaten or arrested, but at least there's always an outcry when that happens and some resolution of the matter later on.

For comparison, just ask the people of China what it's like not to have the freedoms we citizens of America take so lightly. Start with the Chinese citizens who applied for permits to protest during the Olympics, and got arrested for just asking. Or the people of Myanmar, better known to us as Burma, where even outside aide to tsunami victims was blocked by the military government. I could go on...and on, but you get my point.

With Wall Street collapsing while the top executives walk away unscathed, with health care out of reach for so many, with our infrastructure falling down, a ruinous war still in progress, now is the time to make being a citizen a top priority in our lives. Above watching our favorite sports teams, tuning in reality shows, getting our nails done, shining the car, and any of the other optional diversions on which we spend time.

Now is the time to bother to listen carefully to the competing claims, and anyone who does look at the platforms of the Republicans versus the Democrats, or at Obama's resume and positions versus McCain's, will find it impossible to claim both will bring about the same future. Who gets elected matters, and I don't just mean who gets to be president, but who gets into the Senate and House of Representatives.

Inform yourself and then use the tools we have as citizens. Donate money to your favored candidates. Could be the best investment you'll ever make, one that might actually protect your portfolio and the Social Security benefits you hope will be there when you need them. Stop avoiding political discussions with your friends (how many times have I heard people stop conversations with the flat assertion--I never talk politics? Well, why not?) Such discussions help us clarify our thinking.

If you feel strongly, go make phone calls to voters in other states or otherwise assist in the campaigns. Or, go help with a voter registration effort.

Give it a try. You just might discover that this reality show has all the others beat.


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Oil Industry PR Campaign Uses Phony Bin Laden Quote to Promote Offshore, Alaska Drilling

First they used a venerable civil rights organization, the Congress on Racial Equality, to attack efforts to reduce America's reliance on oil. Now they're using a phony quote from America's favorite terrorist, Osam bin Laden, to try to convince Americans that drilling off our coasts and in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge is patriotic. 

"They" are the oil industry folks behind Americans for American Energy (AAE), and they've been poisoning the Internet with broadcast emails full of lies. The bin Laden one hit my inbox today with the catchy headline: "Osama bin Laden says 'America must not drill for its own oil. They must be kept dependent on ours.' " 

Did bin Laden really say that, I wondered? So I phoned Greg Schnacke, who signed the email, and, by golly, he picked up the phone right away. Introducing myself as a journalist, I told him I'd received the email and would like to know the source of the quote.

"That's our view," he answered. But is it a quote, I asked? It's presented as one. "I'm very well aware of what we are doing," he said, finally adding, "It's not a quote."

Ahh. Ethics anyone? Obviously not at AAE which is funded by Pac/West Communications. Pac/West received a $3 million no-bid contract from the State of Alaska to campaign for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That bit of information comes from Source Watch, which monitors media frauds like this one.

This comes after another round of email publicity by AAE  for  a July rally in which the once proud civil rights organization, CORE, became a shill for the oil industry. Not caring that their action would actually hurt the people they supposedly represent, CORE's leaders attacked environmental groups as responsible for high energy prices. 
Tell me, can these people sleep at night? I'm all for asking them directly, so here's Greg Schnacke's phone number so you can call him up and ask him: 866-416-0659. It's toll-free, so dial away, folks. 

Friday, September 5, 2008

TV News Misleads About Offshore Drilling

Recent polls show that 51% of Americans believe that opening up coastal areas to offshore drilling would significantly lower gasoline prices. But the U.S. government agency that reports data on energy issues says it's not so, that the impact of new drilling would be minimal.

So how come so many Americans think otherwise? They heard it on TV,  in the mouths of their favorite newscasters.

 A study of transcripts of 267 news programs between June 16 and August 9 found that only one--that's right, just one-- bothered to mention that the Energy Information Agency (EIA) predicts that increased offshore drilling would have no significant effect on oil prices. At peak production in 20 years, the new wells would yield 200,000 barrels a day, two-tenths of one percent of world production.

The study of the newscasts was done by the Center for Economic & Policy Research, an independent, non-partisan think tank whose advisory board includes Nobel Laureate economists.

So what's going on here? Nothing less than an abdication of journalistic responsibility.

Reporting on the government prediction would have meant contradicting assertions by Republican presidential candidate John McCain that we urgently need to risk our coastal environment for the sake of more oil.  CNN, for example, mentioned the proposed drilling 139 times, but only once also bothered to mention the EIA forecast. None of the other broadcasts studied--ABC World News Tonight, NBC Nightly News, CBS Evening News, etc.--ever referred to it at all. 

Neither did Fox News, behind only CNN with 86 reports on the proposed drilling.

These newscasts treated the issue as simply open to opinion because the falsehood about the benefits of new drilling came out of the mouth of a man running for president. To have knocked him down would have incurred the wrath of Republican leaders with ready access to the owners of the major media. Rather than take any heat that might have come, the editors and anchors of these broadcasts simply sat on their microphones.

Remember that the EIA is like the Labor Department and the Federal Reserve, an agency that is non-partisan and whose mission is to gather information for everyone's benefit, including corporations. This is one of the legitimate reasons why we pay taxes, folks, so armies of bureaucrats can go out and collect data. We don't guess about the employment or inflation rates, and we certainly listen to the economic forecasts from agencies like the Federal Reserve. Energy forecasts are no different. 

It bears repeating that the most important function of the media is to provide the public with the information we need  to be engaged in the running of our democracy. That's why the founders of our country enshrined freedom of the press in the First Amendment. Shame on the TV newscasts for failing us so badly. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

88 Years & Counting to Equality for Women

Today is the 88th anniversary of the day U.S. women won the right to vote. For me, it is a day for mixed feelings of celebration on the one hand and disappointment on the other. It is also a reminder that for millions of women around the world the right to vote pales in importance to their continuing  bondage in families, communities and countries controlled by men of brutality and warped thinking.

Years ago, before 9/11, before the U.S. government showed any concern for the enslavement of women by the Taliban, I realized that no woman, anywhere, should feel free as long as any woman had to accept enshrouding in a burka and gross limitations on her very freedom to move about in her own community.

I also can not wholeheartedly celebrate the status of women in America, despite the progress we have made. The United States is still one of only 8 countries that has not ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (known as CEDAW). This is both a bill of rights for women and an agenda for action. It deals not only with civil and legal rights but also reproductive rights, and therein lies the rub for U.S. approval. Parties to this international treaty are supposed to guarantee that women have the right and the information "to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children." 

Of course, signing is easy, and better that the U.S. not be hypocritical in signing and then , as is the case with other countries that have signed, including--and this blows my mind-- Afghanistan continue to discriminate against women.

There's another reason many American women can not celebrate today: Hilary Clinton will not be the one crowned as the Democratic nominee for president. As a life-long feminist, I share the feeling of opportunity missed, of not experiencing the thrill in the gut of seeing a woman at the pinnacle of power. But I was one of the feminists who could not support Clinton because she refused to acknowledge her mistake in supporting the Iraq War. For me, this ruinous, cruel war, made possible by deceit and deception, trumps women's rights. I believe that Hillary, not Obama, would be accepting that nomination if she could have admitted her failure to see through the Bush Administration lies and denounced them.

So what now? Should feminists who hoped to see a woman in the White House spite themselves by supporting McCain and the Republicans who disdain women's rights? Please, no. With Obama we have a chance at least of seeing the U.S. not only sign CEDAW but maintaining and perhaps--if we elect enough liberal members of Congress-- expanding our reproductive rights. With McCain, we'll go backwards.

As we watch Obama accept the nomination in the coming days, we should take a moment to meditate on the efforts of all the women who have struggled to give us the freedom we do enjoy today. And in that meditation, find the strength to continue that struggle, even if we must wait again to see a woman president.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Why is Biodiesel Still So Expensive?

In my recent article for The Nation, I wrote that the U.S. biodiesel industry is operating at only 20% of capacity and focused on one of two main reasons for that: the lack of facilities at wholesale terminals for blending the biofuel with petroleum diesel.

The other big reason is the price of soybeans and soybean oil, the primary feedstock used to produce biodiesel in America. Even with petroleum diesel selling at even higher prices than gasoline--hovering around $5 a gallon where I live on Long Island, in New York--soybean biodiesel is still even more expensive.

And that, says Dr. Mark Cooper, research director for the Consumer Federation of America, has a lot to do with speculation. 

Many news reports in mainstream media keep quoting industry experts who deny that speculation has driven up the price of commodities including crude oil, corn and soybeans, but the fact is that they have no real evidence to prove their assertion. In testimony two months ago to the Senate Commerce Committee, Cooper pointed out that much of the trading in oil and commodities now takes place outside of regulated exchanges. Therefore, we really don't have the information we need to know who is trading and how much they are trading because these transactions are hidden from public view. That's why there's such disagreement about the role of speculation in driving up these prices.

But we do know that people like biodiesel producers--who actually want to use the physical commodities to make something real--have been priced out of the market. "Public policy has made speculation much more attractive than investment in genuinely productive enterprise," concludes Cooper. 

 His prescription is "vigorously enforced registering and reporting requirements(that) will chase the bad actors out of the commodity markets" and "margin and tax policies (that) will direct capital out of speculation and into productive long term uses."

That sounds eminently sensible, but will Congress listen and the President sign corrective legislation?

Seems to me we'll have to wait until we have a new President and a new Congress.

Monday, August 4, 2008

" Animal Welfare Approved:" A Gold Standard for Humane Animal Treatment

Thanks to a comment from reader, Emily, I've learned about a really robust humane animal certification program that allows complying farmers to label their eggs and meats "Animal Welfare Approved."

The good news on the budget side is that you can find products with this label at Costco. You can also find them at Whole Foods, Wild Oats, Trader Joe's and Fairway.

The requirements are stringent. Under this program, laying hens must have access to the outdoors, must be able to engage in all kinds of natural behavior inside or outside, can't be starved to get them to produce more eggs, and get to keep the tips of their beaks--no beak cutting allowed. The standards are extensive, but this certification does not require organic feeding. 

Thanks again, Emily.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Egg Labels: What do they really mean?

If you have a dog, cat, any pet, or any empathy for animals in general, then you probably want to make sure that the food you buy didn't come with a side-dish of cruelty. The food industry knows this very well, and therefore uses food labels to lull you into thinking all is well.

Starting with this post, I'm going to tell you what some of those labels actually mean. Let's start with eggs. 

The issues here are whether the laying hens are kept in so-called battery cages, unable to nest, perch and dust-bathe, and what kind of food they get to eat. 

Cartons of standard eggs, of course the least expensive variety of eggs, make no statements about either question. But most producers follow the guidelines of United Egg Producers.  This usually means that the hens spend their lives together inside wire cages.  The point of their beaks is sliced off so they can not hurt each other. They can also be forced to produce more eggs by being starved periodically, or by having their food rations reduced, and then allowed to eat again. (This practice goes by the less shocking name of forced molting: they lose all their feathers because they are starving.) United Egg Producers claims the hens have enough room to spread their wings and are healthier because they can not catch diseases outdoors. (Maybe we should keep people inside too?) They can be fed antibiotics and their food may have been treated with pesticides.  

The more expensive eggs have a variety of labels that are not defined on the packages, and which seem to be overlapping or very similar. Here's what they really mean:

Cage Free: No battery cages for these hens. They are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, but may not have access to the outdoors. So at least they can move around. Beak-cutting and starvation are permitted. This label implies nothing about what the hens eat. No one audits growers to make sure the hens are really kept this way.

Free Range: Essentially the same as Cage Free, but the hens are presumed to have some access to the outdoors.  No auditing.

Certified Humane: The big difference here is that the egg farmers are audited by Certified Humane, a program of Humane Farm Animal Care. Surprisingly, however, the treatment of the hens is essentially the same as Cage Free--there's no requirement that the hens get to go outside. But there are standards for the number of hens kept inside the space and the number of perches and nesting boxes available to them. And, while beak-cutting is permitted, starvation is not. No guarantees about the quality of the diet they receive.

Certified Organic: They are uncaged, must have outdoor access, and eat an organic all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides. But beak-cutting and starvation are allowed. This is a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and it is enforced through third-party auditing.  

A word about another label claim that has nothing to do with animal cruelty: omega-3 enriched eggs. These come from hens that have been fed a diet rich in these fatty acids, often from flaxseed. The egg yolks from hens on this diet contain more of these healthful omega-3s. 

The price of cage-free or organic eggs can be 50 percent or even more than for standard eggs.  But consider the price the hens are paying! Wealthier folk should pony up the extra $ to push the industry in a more humane direction. Eventually, perhaps, the era of factory farming will be just a bad memory.

Next time: meat and dairy labels.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Is Confinement in Crates Animal Torture? California to Decide

When I think about how most farm animals spend their lives confined in crates, never seeing the sun, having the ground under their feet or breathing open air, I can't help but compare the situation to the debate over torture of human beings.

When writing about water boarding or sleep deprivation for weeks at a time, news reporters feel constrained to add that some people regard these practices as torture. This is convenient for those who ordered their use--read Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and President Bush--because they otherwise would be unequivocally regarded as criminals. And I do hope some day to see all of them indicted by international courts for these and other crimes.

The same can be said of defenders of factory farming, although they face no such possible accountability for the suffering they have caused. Can anyone who has ever looked into the eyes of a calf, heard the squeals of a pig, or watched chickens pecking at each other, sincerely believe that they don't suffer when confined in crates? 

On this, as on so many other issues these days, action to stop this suffering isn't coming from the federal government but from the states. Florida, Arizona, Oregon and Colorado have banned the use of gestation crates by pig producers, who confine pregnant sows to crates so small they can not move around normally. Arizona and Colorado also ban use of veal crates. These are tiny pens to which baby calves are tethered after they are taken from their mothers when only a few days old. Here they stay until they are slaughtered to be served up to Americans as high-priced veal.

Now, thanks to efforts of advocates for humane animal treatment, Californians will have the chance this November to vote on a measure that would require that farm animals be given sufficient room just to turn around and stretch their limbs!

No doubt the measure will be fought fiercely by agribusinesses who will raise alarms about the impact this would have on food prices and the poor. One pro-agribusiness group that masquerades as pro-consumer contends that such measures are designed to "cripple meat and dairy producers" and calls groups like the humane society radical. To the contrary, factory farming is a radical concept of the 20th century, designed to drive family farmers out of business and concentrate food profits in the hands of a small number of giant corporations. Concerns about humane raising of food animals has helped keep in business small, family farmers who actually care about their animals. Periodically I buy meat from one such farmer from upstate New York, who would otherwise be out of business, like so many other family farmers. 

Furthermore, not many poor folks can afford veal these days, no matter how it's raised. More important, I think if most people  actually saw or heard the distress of factory-farmed animals they would opt not to eat them--if they had a choice. And they do have a choice.

This, of course, is the crux of the problem: the disconnect between the food we eat and our awareness of the conditions under which it is raised or grown.

So what choices do we have? We can vote with our pocketbooks. Although I love veal, I think I've eaten it twice in the past 10 years. In states like my own, New York, which have not yet taken action against farm animal cruelty, we can find sources of humanely raised animals. Sure, there's a price to pay for an animal living a life without suffering. But the food budget can be kept under control by eating less meat, cutting out a meat meal or two every week and substituting grains, beans and vegetables. 

Animals suffer when confined in factory buildings and handled like live but unfeeling objects on an assembly line. There's no more doubt about that than whether water boarding is, indeed, torture. 


Thursday, July 10, 2008

Help a Farmer, Help Yourself To Safe Veggies!

 Prompted, I guess, by the repeated fruit and vegetable scares, The NY Times finally got around today to reporting on Community Supported Agriculture, the awkward name for what is essentially a coop of consumers who band together in advance of the growing season to buy shares of a local farmer's produce. (Click here for more information and to locate one near you.)

I've belonged to one for at least 5 years now, and my reasons are both political and personal--and spiritual. 

Political in that I don't want giant agribusinesses to ever gain control over all food production. They've got an iron grip around most of it, from controlling seed production to ownership of way too much land. Instead, I'm pleased to know that I'm helping keep in business Green Thumb farm, a family-owned enterprise on Long Island's gorgeous North Fork.

From a personal perspective, this means I don't have to worry about being poisoned by a vegetable.  The folks at Green Thumb follow strict organic methods, and plant heirloom varieties of great-tasting fruits and vegetables. Agribusinesses grow varieties that lend themselves to mechanical picking and repeated handling. That's why, for example, you need a super-sharp knife to cut into a supermarket tomato grown for its tough skin, not taste.

Green Thumb picks my veggies the day before they deliver them to a local church, where we pick them up. As a result, even if I can't use them immediately, they stay fresh in my refrigerator for much longer than supermarket produce, which often travels thousands of miles before landing at the local market. Distribution of fruit and vegetables has become really insane, with tomatoes picked in Florida getting shipped to Mexico for sorting and boxing before being shipped back to the U.S.  

Sometimes Green Thumb delivers  veggies I've never seen before, like salsify, which looked to me like just a bunch of twigs. (Actually, it's a root that can be cooked and mashed.) Once I even had to go on line to try to identify some of the veggies I received.  They had been labeled at the pick-up point, but they looked alike to me! But I appreciate having to stretch  my culinary skills as I try to move away from meals centered around meat.

All this costs me about $20 a week for things like strawberries (in season only!) that are really sweet and free of pesticides; sugar snap peas; beets, various kinds of lettuce, arugula, etc. 

The spiritual part has to do with being in rhythm with the earth and the seasons, knowing as the summer progresses that the lettuce has gone to seed, and won't be good again until the weather cools, but the tomatoes--ah, the tomatoes, will be wonderful--while in fall I'll see amazing varieties of cauliflower and other wonders. For me, this is all about the mystery of life and living on planet Earth.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

What's In Those Bread Crumbs? Surprise: Corn Syrup

I'm one of those people you see standing in the supermarket aisle reading ingredients lists. It's a habit born of my many years writing stories about dangerous food additives and sweeteners as well as concern about my own health and need to avoid too much sugar and salt. 

But until recently I had never bothered to read the ingredients of packaged bread crumbs. Down the list--which is always arranged, by federal regulation, from most used ingredient to least--was high fructose corn syrup. Sweetener in my bread crumbs? Yes--and in the plain versions as well as the seasoned ones. 

High fructose corn syrup is not a natural product. It's created in food labs, has supplanted cane sugar as the dominant sweetener in American food, and reportedly has adverse effects on the human body, while contributing to the epidemic of obesity. Now, I've not evaluated these reports, but I've long held a firm belief in the health benefits of natural foods on the grounds that our bodies have evolved to deal with them. Not so for high fructose corn syrup, which was invented in the early 70s. (Here's a link to one site that discusses its health effects.)

I found the presence of corn syrup in the bread crumbs surprising until my old friend, Arthur Schwartz, prolific cook book author and radio personality, reminded me that the crumbs are made from standard American bread, which itself is sweetened to cater to American palates. That includes "good" brands like Pepperidge Farm whole-grain breads.

But Arthur being Arthur, it got him to thinking about how that corn syrup affected recipes calling for bread crumbs. So when my husband and I visited him recently and sat down to an eggplant appetizer, he told me that he had breaded the thick-sliced eggplant with homemade crumbs made from unsweetened bread. This had made it possible to bake the eggplant long enough to be tender without over-browning the crumbs. Had there been sweetener in the crumbs, they would have  caramelized quickly and been black by the time the eggplant was done. 

It's a small matter compared to so many larger issues. But if you, like me, try to avoid sweeteners in food that shouldn't have any, and high fructose corn syrup in particular, you'll need to make your own crumbs from bread you're sure hasn't been sweetened or find a source of unsweetened crumbs.  One choice is to get crumbs from a local bakery after asking whether they use sweetener in their bread.

Another is to make crumbs from crunchy-crusted long loaves of Italian or French bread that, if made according to traditional recipes, should be free of sweetener. But it's not always possible to be sure. The loaf of Italian bread in my kitchen right now came in a long paper bag that has no ingredients list. It should have one--again by federal regulation--but it doesn't. 

This, unfortunately, is the result of lax enforcement of basic consumer protection laws. City and local consumer protection agencies used to enforce a host of laws intended to help food shoppers know what they are buying and to pick the most economical brands. It seems almost quaint now, as we mostly ignore the small, everyday ways we get cheated in the marketplace. 

Coming back to the bread crumbs, they provide an example of how hard it is to avoid the ubiquitous presence of high fructose corn syrup in processed food. Our only defense is the ingredients list. So keep on reading!

Friday, June 27, 2008

Will Offshore Oil Be Exported?

Here's a question for all those who favor drilling for new oil in Alaska and off the coasts of the U.S.: if we take the environmental risks, allow industrialization of our ocean coasts and pristine areas of Alaska, will we end up seeing that oil exported? 

Here's why I ask: I've been researching the topic of gasoline and diesel prices, and I was surprised to find  that U.S. oil companies are currently exporting both gasoline and diesel fuel out of the U.S. In the case of gasoline, 5,691,000 gallons were exported in March, 2008, the latest month for which statistics are available; for distillate fuels, which include diesel, 11,110,000 gallons in March.

Ron Planting, an economist at the American Petroleum Institute pooh-poohs the impact of these exports, noting that for gasoline they amount to only 2% of the U.S. market. 

But gasoline use in the U.S. has been flat for the three years ending in 2007, and is declining this year. That trend should continue for the next 5 to 10 years, the time it would take for the new drilling to produce oil. Not only are Americans shunning gas guzzlers for more efficient vehicles, but biofuels are increasingly displacing petroleum. In fact, petroleum imports are already falling. 

Planting says Americans shouldn't mind even if the newly drilled oil is exported because it will simply be adding to world supply and help keep the price of crude from going higher. 

But I do mind. If the U.S. Congress is foolish enough to take the environmental risks of drilling offshore and in Alaska (remember the Exxon Valdez? The Supreme Court has just drastically lowered the punitive damage award against the company for the biggest spill in history--caused by human error.) they'd better include the requirement that the oil from those wells can not be exported. . Otherwise, the argument that the drilling would improve our energy security is entirely specious.

Furthermore,  we need to reduce global consumption of oil and other fossil fuels if we are to arrest  climate change. Keeping supplies tight will spur conservation and a shift to a new era of alternative fuels. 

Which means that my grandchildren, should I be so lucky to have them some day, will be able to sail to the horizon without drilling platforms in their way.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Broadwater: Energy Security It Isn't

When NY State Governor David Paterson announced the state's decision against Broadwater, I had the suspicion we were not done with this fight. Sure enough, thanks to the deep pockets of its owners, Shell Oil and TransCanada, Broadwater has filed an appeal  to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. In addition to various other arguments, the company claims that building Broadwater would improve national security by diversifying and improving the reliability of our sources of energy here in the NY Metro area.

What's amazing about this argument is that it's such a fantasy. The LNG that would be brought to the Broadwater terminal would be coming across the oceans from some of our favorite Mid-East countries, including Qatar, Yemen, Iran and Algeria. If that scenario suggests an improvement in energy security, the folks at Broadwater should stop smoking whatever they're putting in their pipes.

Energy security will come to us when we have our own domestic supplies of renewable fuels. Period.

But thanks, Broadwater, for imposing a new expense on us taxpayers in New York. Now we'll have to pay all the legal fees in fighting off this appeal. Just what we need while the folks at Shell Oil are enjoying their profits from $4 a gallon gasoline and $5 a gallon diesel.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Organic Milk Offers Superior Nutrition, Natural conditions for Cows

When you next see an ad for dairy products showing happy cows grazing peacefully in pastures, take a deep breath and realize that what you're seeing is mostly fantasy.

Sadly, most cows these days never get to set a foot on the grass, much less eat lovely clover or enjoy the shade of a tree. Mostly, they live in cow factories, which the industry calls "confined feeding operations." That means standing in a stall with just enough space to lie down, eating a diet designed to maximize their output of milk. It's a cruel fate for creatures that are rightly worshiped in India, because cows are able to transform plants that are indigestible to us into food we can eat. Indeed, human civilization could not exist without cows.

I've long suspected that cows who get to graze on pasture probably produced more nutritious milk, but now there's proof that this is true. As part of a cross-European study, researchers at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom have found that cows that graze on grass produce milk with healthier fatty acids and higher levels of fat soluble vitamins and antioxidents. Of course, they've also not been fed antibiotics or hormones that otherwise would get passed along to us.

How can you get your hands on milk from grazing cows? The surest way is to buy certified organic milk, if you can afford the premium price. According to Mark Kastel, codirector of The Cornucopia Institute, a farm and food policy research group, "the vast majority of brand name organic milk comes from cows that were given the opportunity to graze on fresh pasture whenver possible."

But "vast majority" doesn't mean all. Aurora Organic Dairy, which provides private-label organic milk for stores such as Wal-Mart and Target, has been found to be in violation of organic standards, including not putting them out to pasture sufficiently. Cornucopia also charges that Dean Foods' farms, which markets organic milk under the Horizon brand, also does not give its cows enough access to pasture.

The Cornucopia Institute has ranked producers of organic milk based on a 19-question survey it sent them. Its rating system is based on factors including whether the farm is run by a resident family and whether it gets all of its milk from its own herds or buys some of it on the open market, meaning the source of that milk could be a factory operation. Makers of cheese and other dairy products are included, so you will find, for example, that Ben & Jerry's ice cream gets a 3-cow rating (5 is the best).

Unfortunately, none of the grocery chains that sell private label organic milk thought fit to respond to the survey, so Cornucopia's researchers used enforcement records from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and industry sources to get information.

If you find your local brand in this category of non-respondents, try telling your local store manager, filling in a comment form, or sending a letter to the corporate office. At stake here isn't just honesty: if factory farms are able to sell their product as organic, they will muscle out of business the families that really do care for and about their animals. For food security, we can't allow that to happen!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Gender Diffferences in Treatment of Heart Problems

This is my first blog post in weeks due to emergency treatment for blockage of a coronary artery and then a hemorrhage that left me with untreated anemia for a week. After suffering with the symptoms that result from the loss of well over a quart of blood, I finally received a transfusion of two pints of blood. It's been a slow climb back, but I am now close to feeling my usual amount of energy.

The episode has once again turned my attention to gender differences in health care.

I first addressed this topic in my book, Women Pay More (New Press, 1995). At the time, women were still not being treated as early as men for symptoms of heart disease or coronary artery disease, although heart disease was, and still remains, the leading cause of death for women.

In my case, after a stress test showed the likelihood of a blockage in a coronary artery, a local cardiologist immediately told me I needed a cardiac catheterizataion, an amazing procedure in which instruments are inserted from a point in the groin through the femoral artery up to the heart. The doctors who do these procedures, interventional cardiologists, can then see an image of the coronary arteries, determine the extent of blockages, clear them and then insert one or more stents to hold them open. In my case, I needed one stent. I've since heard from one friend after another about people who have 3, 6, 9 stents holding open their arteries. Who knew?

All this went just fine until I began to hemorrhage internally, and suddenly realized there was a small crowd around my bed. Two doctors were pressing on my abdomen, working to stop the bleeding. My abdomen swelled up, my husband says, about an inch and a half. After some time, I can't say how long, they seemed to have stopped the bleeding.

The next morning, without further discussion of this bleeding episode, I was sent home. This was at St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn, New York, reputedly one of the very best hospitals for heart problems.

After a week of feeling absolutely horrible, I returned there to be subjected to a bunch of tests which finally ended with the conclusion that this bleeding had indeed made me anemic. The two pints of blood relieved my worst symptoms (shortness of breath, pounding heart, fever), and home again I went. I'm slowing getting back to my usual routine of swimming, long walks, golf, tennis, etc. A couch potato I'm not.

Now, here's the kicker: women are twice as likely as men to suffer complications after a cardiac catheterization, according to a comprehensive research study published in the Journal of Invasive Cardiology. Why? No one seems to know. A commentary on the article suggested that women may just react more strongly to the usual anti-coagulant drugs that are given before the catheterization. It is not clear that this is related to body size, hormonal differences, or other factors. Or if the vascular sealing device used by my surgeon and other surgeons--instead of manual pressure for a half hour, followed by putting weights on the site and forced immobility--fails more in women than men.

The surgeon who did my procedure probably does 50 of these per week, and the hospital itself has more than a half-dozen catheterization labs that are in constant use. So it seems reasonable to wonder if extra attention should be paid to complicatons in women. In my case, that surely did not happen.

Anyone with similar experiences?

Thursday, May 8, 2008

1 in 3 American Women Castrated

Castration is an ugly word, but it's the right word to use when talking about the 600,000 American women who have their uteruses removed every year! And of them, 438,000 simultaneously have their ovaries cut out also. One out of three American women over 60 lives on without her uterus or ovaries, and is never the same for their loss.

Never the same sexually: a woman who always had uterine contractions during orgasm can't have them ever again after a hysterectomy. Furthermore, even if her ovaries are not removed, sexual sensation is diminished because of the severing of nerves and lowered flow of blood to the vagina, labia and clitoris. If a woman consents to removal of her ovaries also, she is thrown into an immediate and crushing menopause.

As someone who underwent uterine removal in her 40s, I am speaking from personal experience, but to get a sense of how bad it is for women take a look at both the website of the HERS Foundation and its associated blog and comments. The foundation's mission is to stop this continuing assault on women by the medical profession. In their comments on the blog, young women, one only 16, others in their 30's and older describe not only devastated sex lives, but loss of energy, depression, memory loss, bone and joint pain.

Nora Coffey, president of the HERS Foundation, is campaigning for a law that would require that women receive complete information about hysterectomy before they consent. They aren't getting that now, with so-called patient education information limited primarily to talking about the uterus's function as a baby incubator. (You don't need it anymore, dear, do you? goes the spiel.) HERS has developed an 11-minute video that makes clear the uterus's other functions as a sexual organ and a muscle that supplies support to the bladder and bowel. The video should be required viewing before a woman gives her consent. In fact, there's a petition to sign to make that happen.

In no other country do so many women undergo hysterectomies, and the procedure is less necessary today than ever because there are now alternatives for treating bleeding from fibroids, for example, the single largest reason for hysterectomy. It's a scandal of which America's oby-gyns should be ashamed.

Friday, May 2, 2008

"Do Not Mail" Campaign Against Catalog Waste

ForestEthics, a non-profit conservation group, points out that Americans receive 100 billion--that's billion--pieces of junk mail every year that cost the earth 100 million trees, while producing as much global warming emissions as 3.7 million cars.

Plus these catalogs are a damn nuisance. Every day I go from the mailbox to the recycling bin with as many as a dozen unwanted catalogs, some of them duplicates of ones that came in only a week before. These direct mail sellers obviously make enough profit to afford the cost of all this marketing, but of course those "costs" do not include the assault on the environment that the catalogs truly represent. (Nor do they include the full cost of paying the postal service to deliver them; instead of making them pay more,the postal service in the past year raised mailing costs of small magazines!)

So ForestEthics has started a campaign for creation of a national DoNotMail registry similar to the DoNotCall registry that has stopped most of the annoying calls from telemarketers.

You can get more information and add your name to their petition at one place on the web, but no doubt it will be tough to get legislation like this through Congress. In the meantime, you can opt out of receiving specific catalogs by registering with the Direct Marking Association. It's a laborious process that requires you to enter the name of each catalog you don't want, but the time spent should pay off in less time sorting the mail and fewer trips to the recycling bin. Another free service for opting out is Catalog Choice.

I've started collecting the covers of the catalogs I never want to see again, and will go through the process. Of course, the companies are not required to honor the request, but some folks report that if they follow up with a phone call, they can make even those companies stop.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Greening Vacation Travel

I'm not one for extremes, like suggesting people should never fly or go on cruise ships because they generate so much pollution. But there's no excuse any more for not at least considering the environmental impact of your vacation travel and possible alternatives.

The Sierra Club has come up with a neat little quiz that highlights the climate impact of various choices. Take the quiz yourself for a fix on your travel/climate IQ, but here are a few of the conclusions I drew from it:

Jet fuel and gasoline both add about 20 pounds of CO2 to the atmosphere/gallon burned. But jets are 6 to 8 miles up in the air where the CO2 plus the water vapor and nitrogen oxides they emit create heat-trapping clouds. Non-stop flights pollute less than those that make stops.

The most environmentally-friendly way to travel is by train. Not such a great option in the U.S., but if you're going on a European tour, that's a viable choice.

Cruise ships are environmental villains. Not only do they emit three times as much CO2 as airliners, they pollute the oceans with sewage and garbage and--this is my opinion, not the Sierra Club's--exploit poor countries. The passengers get to frolic on unspoiled beaches for which the cruise lines pay the host countries little or nothing. What little money passengers do spend in their hours-long swarming of port cities goes mostly to luxury chain stores, not to the citizens of these very poor countries.

So, if you've got a fuel efficient car, pack in the family and head off on a road trip this summer. Allow a little time for serendipity, and this could be your most memorable vacation ever.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Bottle Makers Turn Away from BPA

The New York Times continues to follow the unfolding BPA story, but in the business pages, not the regular news columns. So for them this isn't so much a health story as it is one about how manufacturers of bottles are coping with growing public alarm about bisphenol-a.

That's a disservice to readers who don't bother with the business section. But the good news is that manufacturers are acting swiftly to find other materials for their bottles. Since February, Aladdin food containers and water bottles have been made with a new plastic (Tritan copolyester) free of BPA. Israeli-based Born Free is making baby bottles of another sort of plastic. Both alternatives are reportedly more expensive right now than BPA-containing polycarbonate.

Let's hope that these new plastics are safer, but bear in mind that people thought polycarbonate was safe also. If I had a baby, I'd breast feed as long as I could to avoid BPA-tained formula, and then shift to glass bottles. (Owens-Illinois has started making glass baby bottles again, after a 20-year hiatus).

Personally, I've been tucking a Sigg aluminum water bottle into my tennis bag for years now. It's not beautiful but it's light-weight and does the job. Another good choice would be steel.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Canada Calls BPA Toxic

It's official: the Canadian government has declared bisphenol-a (BPA) toxic, and has moved to ban sales of baby bottles, cups, etc. made from polycarbonate plastic, which leaches the chemical in normal use.

In addition, California, New York and Maryland are considering laws to ban sales of toys, child care and feeding products made with BPA. To no one's surprise, of course, the industry has filed suit against California arguing that federal law preempts California's action.

This is one of those times when caution should dictate our actions. With easily available alternatives, ditch those BPA bottles and cups and replace them.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Baby, Water Bottles Dangerous to Health

As I've been telling my friends ever since I wrote an article for Sierra Magazine on the subject, those attractive, hard-plastic water bottles that come in vivid, see-through colors, just aren't safe.

And that goes in spades for the baby bottles made from the same substance, polycarbonate plastic. You can usually identify bottles made of this plastic from the "#7 Other" recycling code on the bottom. One of the most popular manufactuers is Nalgene, but just yesterday, the company announced that it will stop production because of public concern.

The problem is a chemical called bisphenol-A, now recognized as a hormone disrupter that mimics estrogen. Ten years ago, as I reported in Sierra, a geneticist at Case Western University found that mice accidentally exposed to it from their plastic cages developed a high rate of chromosomal abnormalities.

Here's an excerpt from the just-released draft report on it from the National Toxicology Program (click on "draft report" in the right column to read it):

"The NTP concurs with the conclusion of the CERHR Expert Panel on Bisphenol A that there is some concern for neural and behavioral effects in fetuses, infants, and children at current human exposures. The NTP also has some concern for bisphenol A exposure in these populations based on effects in the prostate gland, mammary gland, and an earlier age for puberty in females." (italics from the report)

Bear in mind that this alarming report is coming from a most cautious federal agency. The list of possible other health effects is much longer. Scientists who've reviewed all the studies not funded by industry are very alarmed, and believe the chemical may be a cause of breast cancer. Something in our environment (my italics) is pumping up the breast cancer rate, as women have long suspected, and something is lowering the age of puberty for girls. The frustration has been not knowing which of the myriad chemicals to which we are exposed are causing these effects.

Here's the bottom line: this chemical may very well be particuarly dangerous for fetuses. Tell any pregnant women you know not to use these water bottles. And new parents should use other kinds of plastic baby bottles (soft or cloudy-colored plastic bottles don't contain it) or old-fashioned, but sanitary and safe, glass. Ditto for sippy cups or dishes.

The bad news, however, is that while we can choose to avoid those products, babies drinking infant formula will still be exposed to it. Most canned food sold in America is coate with the stuff. Last year, the Environmental Working Group found it in 55 of 97 cans they tested. And, even worse, they found the highest levels of the chemical in infant formula, at levels that had caused serious adverse harm to animals.

And by the way, don't be persuaded by industry people saying animal studies don't prove anything about how something will affect people. They use animal studies all the time to prove the safety of drugs they want to sell before they test them in people.

It may be years before the U.S. Food & Drug Administration acts to stop use of this chemical, but other countries, as usual these days, are already acting. The New York Times reported Wednesday that Canada is apparently close to declaring it a toxic chemical. And Wal-Mart Canada just announced it will stop selling products containing it.

As I've said before on this blog, we should stop walking for the cure but for real prevention. (Early detection is not prevention, despite the bill of goods sold to so many cancer survivors.) Bisphenol-A may cause cancer as well as birth defects and harm to reproductive organs. It's not filling some essential need. So why should we be exposed to it ?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Why Did Broadwater Lose?

In the Bush era when citizen protests go unheard in Washington, it is truly remarkable that the Broadwater LNG project failed. Federal regulators had, as usual, ignored citizen protests and ruled in favor of mega-business interests. But Broadwater lost locally and regionally. You only had to be at Sunken Meadow last week when Governor Patterson nixed the project to see that just about every state, county and local politician was there to support what they clearly saw as a popular decision.

News stories gave short shrift to the reasoning behind the decision, which was a finding by the New York Secretary of State that Broadwater was inconsistent with the state's coastal zone management plan. That finding said the project violated 6 state policies, including "sustainable use of living marine resources" and fostering a pattern of development in the Sound that "enhances community character" and "preserves open space," among other things.

Nevertheless, the decision was political, and proponents see the loss as another case of NIMBY-ism. John Hritcko, Jr., Broadwater VP, told me just before the decision last week that "with any energy infrastructure project--whether LNG, a pipeline or a windmill--you're going to have trouble siting it." And it's true that some of the local politicos as well as Adrienne Esposito, director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, spoke favorably about another LNG project that would involve construction of an artificial island in the Atlantic Ocean off the New Jersey/New York coasts. But environmental groups in New Jersey have serious concerns about that project as well.

So what was the political calculus behind the Governor's decision? Why was the opposition successful in the face of Broadwater's intensive, professionally managed campaign for approval? I'd like to invite everyone who cared about Broadwater to offer their own ideas about why it failed. If not NIMBY, then what? How was the opposition able to kill Broadwater?