Tag Archives: politics

Why It Has Taken 28 Long Years for the EPA to Start Reviewing Chemical Risks Again

Last wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency published its final risk assessment for the chemical trichloroethylene (TCE).

The assessment found that long-term exposure this chemical (which is used as an industrial solvent by artists, car mechanics, and dry cleaners among others) can cause a number of serious health issues, including cancer.

It probably doesn’t sound surprising that the EPA would review the health risks of a potentially harmful chemical. After all, the agency was created to protect the health of the citizens and environment of the United States by writing and enforcing regulations.

It is surprising however that this is their first assessment in 28 years. So why the long drought?

Enter the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the legislation which created the EPA in the first place 38 years ago. A loophole in the legislation basically says that any chemicals invented before the law was passed are considered “safe until proven otherwise”.

According to the EPA, that means 62,000 chemicals we regularly use today are essentially un-reviewed. In the press release, the EPA calls for a modernization of the law.

In a recent blog post, Jim Jones, EPA assistant administrator of chemical safety and pollution prevention, said:

“The American public shouldn’t have to wait 28 years between … chemical risk assessments… As the old adage goes, you have to walk before you can run.”

But without the lobbying power of large corporations or political super PACs,  the EPA lacks the political leverage to force Congress into giving it the resources it needs to actually review the thousands of chemicals all around us today.

The chemical industry has become extremely profitable in the last few decades, and has significant lobbying influence in Washington.

In just the first four months of 2014, Dow Chemical, one of the U.S.’s largest chemical companies, spent a whopping $5 million on lobbying, around $2 million more than they did in the same period last year.

Click to enlarge. Courtesy of opensecrets.org

The EPA did announce, however, that it will be reviewing the risks of 83 chemicals that have already been identified as potentially harmful to our health.

The bottom line is that long-term scientific studies on the effects of different chemical substances are expensive, and that money simply isn’t there for the EPA, mostly because it’s really not something the average American is worrying about on a day-to-day basis.

Let’s make sure we don’t let this extremely important issue get drowned out by the howling of partisan politics that has made Congress virtually useless these days.

Read the original story from Al-Jazeera here.

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A 16-Year Old Programmer Just Made a Plugin That Shows Where Politicians Get Their Funding

Nicholas Rubin is a 16-year old self-taught computer programmer from Seattle, Washington. He is also the inventor of Greenhouse, a new browser plugin that let’s you know exactly where politicians get their campaign funding from.

When the plugin is active, the names of House or Senate members on any given webpage are highlighted. All you have to do is hover your mouse over the name of a politician, and a box will pop up showing all the industries and groups that contributed funds to their campaign, as well as how much the politician got from each sector.

What the plugin looks like in action. Click to enlarge

The box also shows you what percentage of their contributions came from small donors (contributions of less than $200), and let’s you know whether or not they are in favor of reforming our relatively seedy campaign finance system.

Here’s the statement that Nicholas released with the plugin:

“It is my hope that providing increased transparency around the amount and source of funding of our elected representatives may play a small role in educating citizens and promoting change. If you use the extension when reading about a Congressional vote on energy policy, for example, maybe you’ll discover that a sponsor of a bill has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the oil and gas industry. Or maybe you’ll learn that the top donors to a member of Congress who opposes tort reform are lawyers and law firms. I use data from the last full election cycle (2012) and plan to update it as more relevant data becomes available. Special thanks to OpenSecrets.org for providing access to that data.

The motto of Greenhouse is: “Some are red. Some are blue. All are green.” What it signifies is that the influence of money on our government isn’t a partisan issue. Whether Democrat or Republican, we should all want a political system that is independent of the influence of big money and not dependent on endless cycles of fundraising from special interests. The United States of America was founded to serve individuals, not big interests or big industries. Yet every year we seem to move farther and farther away from our Founders’ vision.”

I must say this is one of the best ideas I have ever seen to combat against the influence of special interest groups on our political system.

For years, politicians have pretended to personally care about issues when, more often than not, the truth is that they were bribed by that industry (through campaign finance) to make decisions that  would help the industry.

I don’t think this will make politicians At the very least, it will make politicians think twice about where they get their contributions from.

You can download the Greenhouse plugin for free here. (NOTE: because of the plugins popularity, Greenhouse’s homepage was down when this story was published, but I’m sure they will have it back up and running soon.)

(h/t Represent.Us)

We’re Losing the Ability to See Things In the Long Term. And It’s Slowly Destroying Us

The world we live in today is very much absorbed in the here-and-now.

Modern technology has given us access to a virtually infinite amount of information, and social media allows us to keep up with all the latest news in realtime.

To compensate for this overwhelming amount of information, we’ve drastically reduced our attention spans. Driven by the fear of missing out on some amazing video or juicy piece of gossip, we skip over people who post long statuses and skim over headlines instead of reading full reports.

Twitter based their entire business model off of this phenomenon, creating a service that forces people to express themselves in 140 characters or less. Our unwillingness to to be patient on the internet is causing an increasing number of very real problems.

For one, there’s a shitstorm of questionable or straight up fake content out there that is designed to take advantage of our headline abuse.

The biggest value of the internet is that it gives us access to unprecedented amounts of information. But ironically, our predictability and quick emotions have created a growing industry of misinformation.

The trend is also affecting the so called “reputable” news agencies, which have rapidly degenerated to a point not too far above sleaziest of tabloids. The key word here is sensationalize. It’s so important I’ll give you the full definition (courtesy of my MacBook dictionary):

sensationalize |senˈsā sh ənlˌīz| ; verb: (esp. of a newspaper) present information about (something) in a way that provokes public interest and excitement, at the expense of accuracy

So what are the two best ways to “provoke public interest and excitement” in our society today?

The first is pop culture. There’s an army of paparazzi all across the country just waiting for an athlete, musician, actor or other public figure to do something crazy, or dumb, or funny, or ya know… whatever honestly.

Reality TV has made us obsessed with these people, to the point where many people have to know what’s going on with their favorite celebs all the time. Hell, Samsung even made an entire app just for people to follow around Lebron James, who has a promotion agreement with the company.

The second way to “provoke public interest and excitement” is, unfortunately, anger. This anger is typically fueled by politically-poisoned social issues.

See, politicians have also realized that we’re not willing to put in the time to do any real research into what they’ve actually voted for and against in the past (to be fair, it’s tough for the average working person to keep up with), so their best tactic to get your vote is to get you mad.

First they have to get you mad that their primary opponent isn’t extreme enough in their political views. That’s pretty much how the Tea Party emerged and how Eric Cantor, who was on his way to House Majority Leader, lost to an economics professor from Randolph Macon College (Cantor spent more on steak dinners than Dave Brat did on his entire campaign).

People were mad that Congress has been ineffective and Cantor, who had realized the only way to get things done was to compromise with the Democrats, was blamed for being to weak of a conservative. People were mad that he didn’t “stand up for his ideals”, whatever that means these days.

Eric Cantor, Republican House member from Virginia

Once the primary is won the real fun starts, because the candidates get to make you mad about stuff the things you’re most sensitive about: social issues. Guns, abortion, religion and education, gay people getting married. Most people have very strong views about these things, and these views are almost always closely entwined with our emotions.

Most people don’t vote for someone because they particularly like that candidate, they do it because they dislike or distrust the other guy even more. Get people mad about something that the other guy did some time in the past, and you win yourself votes.

Rather than basing our vote off of candidate’s long-term record, we base it off some random 30-second sound bite. And we wonder why Congress is so ineffective…

The media is complicit in this farce, because they know that discussing the issues that make us emotional will get them more viewers, so the news industry has become political polarized, with the major stations becoming more and more biased one way or the other.

Meanwhile, both parties are quietly screwing us all. Do you remember when we bailed out Wall Street after the housing bubble burst causing the recession in 2008? Well after that happened, legislation was passed letting investment banks know that the government would no longer bail them out for any risky investments they made (like the derivatives which bankrupted so many of them).

Well, late last year, the House of Representatives quietly repealed this provision, allowing banks to move their riskiest assets back into government-insured accounts. A few people reported it, but it went widely unnoticed for the most part.

Why didn’t it spark the outrage it should have? Because legislation, provisions and the general proceedings of Congress are on almost everyone’s filter of things not to read as we fly down our news feeds.

Need another example? How about the USA FREEDOM Act, which was passed by Congress after the Snowden revelations to end the NSA’s practice of mass collection of American’s phone records.

Well at least that’s what we were told it would do. But by the time it actually passed, the legislation was so watered down that it is virtually powerless to stop the mass collection of phone data.

Or how about our entire economic system, which is based off of the constant accumulation of debt?

When central banks set their interest rates super low, everyone borrows and spends a lot of money.

But when everyone realizes that most of the money being spent is money people don’t actually have, the bottom falls out.

That’s what happened in 2008. A piece of legislation designed to give more people access to housing ended up just making it very easy to give out home loans, even to people who banks knew couldn’t afford the payments.

But they gave out the loans anyways. Why? Because the government promised to pay them back for any losses. Banks went crazy giving out these toxic loans, and everyone started buying houses with money they didn’t have, slowly inflating the housing bubble.

Then one day, somebody realized the emperor had no clothes, and the housing bubble burst, dragging the economy down into a recession which screwed the average American pretty hard.

The banks, on the other hand, got bailed out to the tune of $1 trillion. The rich got richer, the poor got poorer. And this was definitely not the first time something like that happened. In fact, just 8 years before the housing bubble burst, we went through a similar downturn when the dotcom bubble burst.

This constant accumulation of debt causes cycles of inflation and deflation, but they happen over a number of years, so most people are unaware of the cycles, preferring to discuss only how  the market has performed in the past few months .

Click to enlarge

The European Union has gotten so desperate to get people to spend money that their central bank recently set the standard interest rate for banks to -0.1% (yes that’s a negative sign), meaning that banks will actually lose money if they try to hold onto their cash instead of loaning it out.

The bottom line is that history repeats itself because we allow ourselves to be so consumed in the present that we forget about the past.

We’re so obsessed with staying “current” that we have blinded ourselves to the long-term trends which are really hurting us the most.

It’s basically a massive societal drug addiction: we opiate ourselves with material things to help us avoid confronting the serious problems that we all face together these days.

Rather than trying to do something about these problems, we get drunk off retail and high off social media, feeding the cancers of our world, rather than treating them.

We need a collective awakening to these issues. Otherwise, one day very soon, we’re going to reach a point when these cancers are no longer treatable, no matter how much we pray for recovery.

The Latest from the Middle East: Terrorists, Rebels and the Geopolitical Clusterf***

I’ll try to make this as quick as I can.

Yesterday, we reported on how the new emergent terrorist group ISIS captured Iraq’s second largest city on Tuesday and stole nearly half a billion dollars from the central bank there. All this week the group has been advancing towards Baghdad, taking a number of towns along the way.

ISIS's advance towards Baghdad. Click to enlarge (Courtesy of The New York Times)
ISIS’s advance towards Baghdad. Click to enlarge (Courtesy of The New York Times)

Then early this morning, reports came out that the Syrian government, which the United States is trying to overthrow by backing largely Jihadist rebels (the Syrian government calls them terrorists), is coordinating with the Iraqi government (which was put in by, and is still heavily backed by the U.S. government) to fight against Jihadist rebels/terrorists in Iraq.

Are you still following? Feel free to read that last part again- I had to read it at least five times myself. Ok, ready? Let’s continue.

Amidst all of this ridiculousness, Iran (one of the U.S.’s biggest political foes) has offered to help it’s former sworn enemy, Iraq, and its biggest political foe (the U.S.), to fight against the Jihadist rebels/terrorists of ISIS as well.

It’s interesting how quickly all of these countries were able to put their political differences aside as soon as there was a common enemy.

On top of this already massive mound of geopolitical shit, the Daily Beast just reported that ISIS has been funded for years by wealthy donors in Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia: three of the U.S.’s closest allies in the middle east.

Welcome to the geopolitical clusterf***. My brain hurts.

Lego Asks British Government to Stop Using Their Toys In Anti-Scottish Independence Ads

On September 18th, Scottish citizens will vote in a referendum to decide whether to remain part of the United Kingdom or to break away and become independent.

Though only about a third of the Scottish population is in favor of leaving the UK, the British government has been leading a campaign to discourage voters from choosing independence.

Scottish Prime Minister Alex Salmond, who proposed the separation when he was elected back in 2012 (Photo: Reuters)

A cornerstone of the British government’s pro-unity argument is their claim that staying part of the UK will make the average Scotsman better off by £1,400 UK ($1,900 USD) per year, as compared to if the country were to separate.

To illustrate this point, the British Treasury Department made a BuzzFeed style list of the “12 things that £1,400 UK Dividend could buy”, using legos to illustrate each entry. They have since removed most of the images, but you can check out some of the original entries below:

Unfortunately for  Britain’s PR team, the plan backfired. Many people accused the government of patronizing the Scottish with suggestions like, “Scoff [eat] 280 hot dogs at the Edinburgh Festival,” or, “cover your family’s yearly shoe habit for about the next 6 years”.

On top of that, the Lego company (which is based in Denmark) asked the government to remove the images, saying,

“We have requested that the images are removed due to our neutral political stance. We are a children’s toy company and therefore all of our communication is targeted towards children. People all over the world use Lego to depict stories and scenarios – some of it not to our knowledge. We maintain our position as being a politically neutral company.”

Read more from The Guardian here.

The Pope Just Hosted A Historic Interfaith Prayer Meeting for Peace In the Middle East

Earlier today, Pope Francis, the progressive new leader of the Roman Catholic Church, set another first: he hosted an interfaith prayer gathering for peace in the Middle East at the Vatican.

He invited both Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli president Shimon Peres, as well as religious delegations from Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

The two presidents embrace as the Pope looks on (Photo: Gregorio Borgia / AP)

This multi-faith prayer meeting at the Vatican is the first of its kind and also marked the first time that passages from Islam were recited inside the Vatican.

Each religious congregation prayed separately in each other’s presence, going in chronological order of the founding of each faith (Judaism: ~2000 B.C.; Christianity: ~30 A.D.; Islam: ~570 A.D.).

Though it comes just a month after U.S.-led peace talks between Israel and Palestine broke down, the meeting was not be a mediation, and no politics were discussed. Here’s Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, a Church official in who played a key role in organizing the event:

“No one is presumptuous enough to think peace will break out on Monday. The intention of this initiative is to re-open a road that has been closed for some time, to re-create a desire, a possibility, to make people dream.”

The Pope speaks, flanked by the two presidents; Peres on the left, Abbas on the right (Photo: Gregorio Borgia / AP)

The prayer meeting concluded with both presidents giving “invocations” for peace. After that, the pair joined the Pope to plant an olive tree to symbolize,

“an enduring symbol of the mutual desire for peace between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.”

The two presidents join the Pope and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I to plant the olive tree (Photo: Gregorio Borgia / AP)

Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the country’s main decision-maker, declined the invitation and continues to refuse to engage in any negotiations in the new Palestinian unity government led by Abbas.

Read more from the New York Post here.

Feature image courtesy of Gregorio Borgia / AP.

BONUS: At a meeting with members of the Italian Sports Center in St. Peter’s Square yesterday, Pope Francis amused himself by balancing a basketball on a pencil.

Credit: Gregorio Borgia / AP

This Post About the Tiananmen Square Massacre Is Almost Definitely Blocked In China

Today is the 25th anniversary of the government massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in China’s Tiananmen Square. The massacre was the culmination of a prolonged campaign by the communist Chinese government to crackdown on dissent.

After the death of the liberal reformer Hu Yaobang, pro-democracy student activists occupied the square to mourn his death and protest against the increasingly oppressive communist regime.

Pro-democracy student activists occupy Tiananmen Square (before the massacre)

After the students had occupied the square for about seven weeks, the government sent in soldiers and tanks to clear them out and enforce the martial which had been declared amid the protests.

Protesters who chose to defy them were met with assault rifles and gunpowder. The event also produced this now famous clip of a man attempting to stop a whole battalion of tanks by himself:

The crackdown was bloody. There were hundreds of injuries and many deaths, though the government has never released official figures on the loss of life from the massacre. In fact, the government has been doing its best to totally remove the event from the collective memory of Chinese citizens since it happened.

Even now, 25 years later, China has enacted strict laws forbidding the commemoration of the massacre. Since April, 50 people, including writers, activists, artists, lawyers, journalists, filmmakers and relatives of those killed in 1989, have been, “detained, disappeared or summoned for police questioning” for discussing or planning to observe the 25th anniversary of the massacre today.

Broken bodies intertwine with broken bikes in the aftermath of the massacre

Renee Xia, who heads the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), says that this year’s censorship is the worst it has ever been:

“The leaders are more nervous because they feel less secure due to increasing social conflict and widespread discontent. They fear any display of dissent might spark protests against the government.”

Despite the risks, however, many of the victims’ relatives are still choosing to speak out about the tragedy. Liu Meihua lost her 21-year-old son in the massacre. She had this to say in an interview with the Telegraph:

“My only wish is for the government to reevaluate the June 4 incident. I have felt sad every single day since my son’s departure… I doubt I will live to see that day because of my age. No government body has ever offered us an explanation or a solution or taken responsibility for the issue. Young people today know little about June 4, since it is rarely read about or talked about, and the older people are dying out.”

As the relatives of those lost grow older, the bullying tactics of the Chinese government seem to have less and less of an effect. Sharon Hom is executive director of the organization Human Rights in China (HRIC), which just released a video with rare footage of statements being made by the families of five of the massacre victims. She puts it this way:

“The surveillance, the threats, the monitoring, the phones, all of that: they have kind of reached a plateau. Fear is no longer effective to keep them silent because they are saying: ’What more can you do to us?’ Now they are going to speak out.”

Read more from The Telegraph here.

BONUS: The incredible story of the Tank Man, including footage from the military crackdown: