Blogs

The New TV Season: An Inside Look

Laughing Liberally previews the hottest shows of the 2007 season

This Old Hospital
Watch Norm Abrams and the gang fix up Walter Reed as critically wounded soldiers look on from their creaky beds in Building 18. Is it a hospital or a construction site? It’s both! Our workers won’t know whether to plaster the walls or the casts as they do an extreme makeover of this embarrassing eyesore as it recuperates America’s bravest. Look out, is that spilled paint? No, it’s blood! This hospital is a real fixer-upper! Viewer Warning: Contains vermin and other disturbing images. (PBS)

You Cannot be Syria’s!
Tennis legend John McEnroe hosts this docudrama which follows the adventures of intrepid explorer Johnny Mac and trusty sidekick Hans Blix as they search Syrian weapon stockpiles looking for Iraqi WMD’s. (The Discovery Channel)

The Devil Wears Pantsuits
A weekly Fox News panel discussion where eminent conservative scholars and theologians attempt to prove Hillary Clinton is the Antichrist to the dozen or so Fox News viewers that aren’t already convinced. Evidence presented includes quotes from ancient religious texts and unflattering photographs of the Senator and former First Lady. Hosted by “Democratic Strategist” Dick Morris. (Fox News)

Duck Blind Justice
Each episode follows Justice Antonin Scalia as he hunts with a celebrity guest who also has a case pending before the Supreme Court. Viewer Warning: To preserve the authenticity of the hunting experience, this program contains impact shots and questionable ethics. (Court TV)

Who’s Left?
Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, and Laura Ingraham gather each week to discuss the pervasive liberal media. Four hour talk show moderated by John Stossel, simulcast on Clear Channel radio outlets and CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News.

Fishin’ Accomplished!
A nostalgic look at George W. Bush’s years in the Texas and Alabama National Guard. “W” may miss roll call but he doesn’t miss a chance to hang with his buddies talkin’ bout the one that got away (the Vietnam War) with a little fishin’ and a lotta drinkin’ in a band of brothers that refer to themselves as “Swiftboat Veterans for Trout.” No violent scenes. This is must viewing…unless you know somebody, then you can skip it. (OLN)

All My Sons
Reality show which documents Mitt Romney’s boys’ service to their country in Iowa, New Hampshire, and beyond. Romney, who once said, “One of the ways my sons are showing support for our nation is helping me get elected,” has since vowed to have more children if necessary. “I’ll do whatever it takes,” said Romney. “I’ll have’em two at time if I have to, I love this country.” (ABC Family)

Let’s Do Cooking Right
Demonstrates a conservative approach to food preparation emphasizing wholesome ingredients and American-style cooking…no ethnic foods in this kitchen! Learn to cook fair and balanced meals for the whole traditional family (with the occasional exception for a dish like “Mary Cheney’s Meatless Chili”). Featured recipes in the series include classics like Oysters Rockefeller, but also contemporary entrees with a neoconservative twist like Water-boarded Sockeye Salmon, Alaskan Caribou Steaks (dredged in oil), and sinful desserts such as New Orleans Forgotten Cookies and Heckuva Job Brownies. Hosted by Katherine Harris. (The Food Network)

Touched by an AttorNey GenEraL
It’s bedtime for Gonzo in this one hour drama as each week the ghostly image of a certain A. G. hovers over the sickbed of a desperately ill patient and pressures them on important decisions. The shady apparition also materializes to fire U.S. Attorneys with witty quips like, “Hasta la vista, baby!” and, “You serve at the pleasure of the President, bitch!” Missing this show would be torture! (FX)

The House on Abstinence Street
Finally, a primetime soap for the whole family! This soap opera features no premarital sex, no extramarital sex, and no marital sex! Viewer Warning: May contain suggestive glances. Note: Critics predict the lowest-rated television show of all-time. (PAX)

Some Like It Hot
Examines the benefits of climate change…Imagine a future with coffee plantations on the North Slope, Spring Break on the Aleutian Islands (over 20 hours of daylight!), hosted by Patricia Heaton. Safe viewing for the whole family, no Gore. (The Weather Channel)

HBO ½ Hour Comedy Special: Dick Cheney Uncensored! Live from an Undisclosed Location
Cheney builds on the comedy act he delivered at the Correspondents Dinner in this new HBO special. Early reviews are mixed. The Corpus Christi Caller-Times calls Cheney Uncensored, “A Revelation!” while The New York Times said Cheney is “Funny as a heart attack.” Viewer Warning: Explicit language and extreme denial of reality. (HBO)

Best Week Ever
Sunday news magazine that looks back at the highlights of the previous 7 days of the Iraq War, emphasizing progress in reconstruction and GI’s distributing candy. Each show ends with a random list of U.S. soldiers who were not killed or wounded that week. At long last an unashamedly positive look at the Iraq War. Hosted by Elizabeth Hasselbeck. (The Military Channel)

Cavemen
A weekly roundtable featuring Don Imus, Isiah Thomas, and Hootie Johnson discussing women’s issues, with a special appearance by Sean Connery. Hosted by Geraldo Rivera. (Spike TV)

Whose Wife is it Anyway?
A quiz show where contestants are asked to match Republican Presidential candidates with their current and former wives. Hosted by Chuck Woolery (Game Show Network)

A Good Man Is Hard to Find
Reality show which follows the Bush Administration process for naming high level appointments, from open calls across the country to regional competitions leading to confirmation hearings before finding the one candidate who best strikes the delicate balance between incompetent yes-man and political hack. (C-Span 2)

Tax Cuts of the Rich and Famous
See how the other half (okay, top 1%) lives, as we tour mansions, yachts, and look over the hedge funds of the primary beneficiaries of the Bush tax cuts. Co-hosted by Robin Leach and Billy Bush. Viewer Warning: Obscene wealth. (The Style Network)

Every Breath You Take
A dual examination of the Bush Administration’s domestic spying program and the emasculation of the Clean Air Act. (Airing on Oxygen...for a limited time)

FEAR MONGERS VS FISHMONGERS

It shouldn’t be hard to tell a true grassroots organization from an industry-sponsored Astroturf campaign; a real grassroots coalition springs from the fertile soil of citizen activism, whereas if you dig for the origins of an Astroturf group, you’ll find no roots at all—just a plastic mat of fake grass hiding slimy lobbyists intent on manipulating public opinion.

But I confess I’m baffled by the recommendation from the non-profit National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition asserting that pregnant women should eat a minimum of 12 ounces of seafood a week. This advice conflicts with current recommendations from the FDA and the EPA that pregnant women should consume a maximum of 12 ounces of seafood weekly in order to minimize their consumption of methyl mercury.

The experts behind HMHB’s recommendations concluded that insufficient consumption of omega-3 fatty acids--so crucial to fetal brain development--is a bigger problem than methyl mercury:

The recommendations come at a time when the debate about mercury in fish and an FDA/EPA advisory have created confusion for pregnant women, causing a reduction in their fish consumption. This leads to inadequate intake of omega-3 fatty acids resulting in risks to their health and the health of their children…

…women who want to become pregnant, are pregnant or are breastfeeding should eat a minimum of 12 ounces per week of fish like salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel, and can do so safely.

HMHB seems to have impeccable credentials as a legit grassroots group, but these findings were funded by a $60,000 grant from a seafood industry group, the National Fisheries Institute, creating what appears to be a blatant conflict of interest.

As Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told NPR on Thursday, "It's very troubling that the National Fisheries Institute is essentially paying for a public health message."

HMHB is not some fly-by-night, hastily assembled front group; founded in 1981, its members include the March of Dimes and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

But the announcement came as a surprise even to some of HMHB’s own members, as NPR reported:

"I really think that's the wrong recommendation to be making," says pediatrician Frank Greer, chairman of the nutrition committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "We really should not be implying that women should be eating more than 12 ounces of seafood."

Christina Pearson, spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, told NPR “We are members of the coalition, but we were not informed of this announcement in advance, and we do not support it."

The fact is that the fish industry is, indeed, suffering from a pr problem; consumers are so confused about which fish to eat, and how much, that many pregnant women don’t eat enough fish to ensure healthy fetal development.

So, even though I question the National Fisheries Institute’s methods of promoting their products, I support the goal of getting pregnant women—along with the rest of us--to eat more fish. If you have trouble keeping track of which fish is high in omega-3’s and low in mercury, print out a wallet-sized guide from one of these organizations untainted by industry influence:

Oceans Alive

Monterey Bay Aquarium

National Resources Defense Council (pdf)

Purdue University

Phony-ing it in

Clear Channel: "Rush Limbaugh's listeners are too stupid to think for themselves."

Via Salon:

The Clear Channel affiliate that airs Rush Limbaugh's show in Palm Beach, Fla., is refusing to run VoteVets.org ads dealing with Limbaugh's "phony soldiers" remark on the ground that the ads "would only conflict with the listeners who have chosen to listen to Rush Limbaugh."

To be fair, if your diet consists solely of swallowing bullshit, I imagine any abrupt change in that diet would cause a massive shock to your system. So, really, Clear Channel's just trying to protect the people. Good lookin' out!

As for Rush, I'm sure his drug-addled mind is just confused. It happens when you're a drug addict. Besides, how would he know what a real soldier is? The only soldiers he's ever seen are the ones he avoided serving with.

A NATION IN NEED OF A NANNY?

Americans are significantly fatter—and sicker—than our European counterparts, according to a new study from Emory University.

It’s not that French women don’t get fat. Some do, but, like the rest of their fellow Europeans, at a much lower rate than we do.

Well, sure, you say; it’s easy to stay thin when you’re smoking Gauloises instead of scarfing down Cheetos.

Only that may be a myth, too. The study found that Americans are not only out-eating, but out-smoking their European counterparts:

…about 17 percent of European adults are obese, compared with around a third of American adults. In addition, 53 percent of adult Americans are either former or current smokers, compared with 43 percent of those in Europe. American adults were also more likely than Europeans to have heart disease, cancer, diabetes and chronic lung disease -- all associated with obesity and/or smoking.

The study compared rates of obesity and disease among Americans aged 50 and up and their counterparts in Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, and found that we’re faring worse across the board, “with many more Americans chronically ill than their European counterparts.”

And our lousy lifestyle is costing us a fortune, as the lead researcher, Kenneth Thorpe, told U.S. News & World Report:

"The United States spends more on health care than any country in Europe," Thorpe said. In the United States, in 2004 the per capita spending on health care was $6,102 -- about twice as much as in the Netherlands and Germany, and almost twice that of France.

If the prevalence of obesity could be reduced (and along with it, chronic disease), Thorpe's team estimates that health spending could be cut by $100 billion to $150 billion per year, trimming up to 18.7 percent off the nation's total health-care budget.

But that’s a big “if,” and it’s followed by an even bigger “how.” How do you get a nation of chip-chomping couch potatoes to shape up?

"I'm not sure obesity is a medical condition that lends itself to medical treatment," said Greg Scandlen, the founder of Consumers for Health Care Choices, a health-care lobbying group. "Certainly, it does suggest the need for more exercise and better diets, but that is a grandmother's advice. Do we need highly trained and expensive professionals telling people what grandmothers have told them for free for generations?"

Scandlen’s solution:

“Bring back P.E. classes, [use the] transportation system, use more bicycles and fewer cars, and urban design, get rid of escalators so people will walk up stairs."

But funding for phys ed is iffy, and funding for mass transit’s even iffier. Bicycles? Love ‘em, but in a culture where the car is king, our cyclists get the cold shoulder of the road all too often.

Which brings me to Scandlen’s next point; fewer cars. Yeah, and I’m all in favor of fewer guns, too, because when you try to pry Americans out of their beloved automobiles, they will shoot you.

Urban design? All well and good, if you happen to live in a city. Not much help if you’ve exiled yourself to the exurbs, which is what we call all that former farmland where rural folks used to grow real food that the rest of us used to eat.

Lastly, the suggestion that we do away with escalators and force folks to take the stairs. Do you want our health insurers to go bankrupt paying for all the new knees people would need? Every superfluous pound of weight puts stress equivalent to four pounds of added weight on your knees. Kind of a double-edged sword; can you lose enough weight climbing stairs to take the pressure off your knees before they give out on you?

Might be safer to take a walk, if you can find a pedestrian-friendly place to do it. Just be careful, and look both ways before you cross. I know that sounds obvious, but then, so does the “grandmotherly” advice that we need to eat better and get more exercise, and most of us ignore that, too.

So what becomes of a nation that disregards these eternal maternal edicts en masse? Two words: nanny state. Don’t like it? Put out that cigarette, ditch the donuts, and take a hike. Do we really want to be number one in health care costs, or boast the highest rates of heart disease? It’s a free country, I know, but our bad habits are really adding up.

Blackwater Runs Deep

Is privatized security really the answer? Have we forgotten the lessons of Robocop? Wasn't one "Republican Guard" in Iraq enough?

This is the description of Blackwater Worldwide from their website:

"Blackwater Worldwide efficiently and effectively integrates a wide range of resources and core competencies to provide unique and timely solutions that exceed our customer’s stated need and expectations."

Good stuff. There's nothing better than core competencies. Just a thought, though, you might want to stop "exceeding [your] customer's stated need and expectations." At least until the heat's off.

"We are guided by integrity, innovation, and a desire for a safer world. Blackwater Worldwide professionals leverage state-of-the-art training facilities, professional program management teams, and innovative manufacturing and production capabilities to deliver world class customer driven solutions."

I agree. Just as NRA members believe we'd all be safer if everyone carried guns, I believe we'd all be safer if everyone had their own private security firm. And “state-of-the-art training facilities” is right. No monkey bars in the desert for this outfit.

"Our leadership and dedicated family of exceptional employees adhere to an essential system of core corporate values chief among them are integrity, innovation, excellence, respect, accountability, and teamwork."

In case anybody's wondering...profit's place as a core corporate value at Blackwater? A distant 7th. Blackwater is a family, and just like any family, Blackwater has someone who gets drunk and causes trouble around the holidays.

This really is a great website, and even though it looks like an evil-action-movie-villain cliché, I've been assured it is real. There's a "proshop" and everything. [Is your daughter's Barbie safe? Can you afford to take a chance? Buy her a Blackwater action figure!]

All that's missing is a corporate slogan. Here are a few suggestions...

Blackwater: We kill more Iraqis before 9am than most people do all day
Blackwater: Army strong; corporate earnings
Blackwater: So secure it hurts

TAKING OUR CUES FROM MR. MAGOO

When did Mr. Magoo, the fifties cartoon character whose severe shortsightedness caused him to regularly stumble into catastrophic situations, become our national mascot?

America is suffering from a massive outbreak of myopia—it’s everywhere you look, if you can only see it. We’re bogged down in Bagdad—who could have foreseen that? Sub-prime mortgage meltdown—who would have guessed those folks might have trouble making their payments? Plummeting sales for Detroit’s gas guzzlers—who knew that gas prices would go up and fuel demand for greater fuel efficiency? Skyrocketing health care costs from diabetes and other obesity-related disease—would it be cheaper to foot the bill for preventative care than to pick up the tab for all those foot amputations?

The latest nominees for the “Who’d a thunk it?” hall of fame are the corn growers who planted all those amber waves of fool’s gold and rushed to build ethanol distilleries. As the New York Times reported last Sunday:

The ethanol boom of recent years — which spurred a frenzy of distillery construction, record corn prices, rising food prices and hopes of a new future for rural America — may be fading.

Only last year, farmers here spoke of a biofuel gold rush, and they rejoiced as prices for ethanol and the corn used to produce it set records.

But companies and farm cooperatives have built so many distilleries so quickly that the ethanol market is suddenly plagued by a glut, in part because the means to distribute it have not kept pace. The average national ethanol price on the spot market has plunged 30 percent since May, with the decline escalating sharply in the last few weeks.

As Tom Philpott of Grist prophesied last October:

As more distillers enter the market, ethanol's price -- and profit margin -- will fall. According to a recent Dow Jones article, there are now 102 operational ethanol plants, 32 under construction, and another 127 in various stages of planning.

If all of those proposed plants come online, Dow Jones reckons, the industry will soon be churning out 16 billion gallons of ethanol per year -- about four times the 2005 level. To do so, they'll eat up 5.3 billion to 5.9 billion bushels of corn. In 2005, ethanol took just 1.6 billion bushels.

That surge in usage will likely mean a big jump in the price of corn. And here's the catch: if the corn price surges, it will make ethanol production much less profitable…

…What we're looking at is the dirtiest four-letter word in the energy lexicon: glut. Which players in the market are the likeliest to fail if ethanol prices dip below the cost of production? Small fry like farmer-owned cooperatives. And what deep-pocketed player is likely to ride out the storm, then snap up a bunch of failed ethanol plants for pennies on the dollar? Well, that would likely be the biggest producer of all: Archer Daniels Midland. And what happens when ethanol production falls after a bunch of plants shut down? The price of corn drops, and farmers are right back where they started.

Of course, ethanol was never going to be a real solution to our energy problems, anyway. As Philpott noted in the same post, “even if the fuel's energy balance is marginally positive, that factor is probably outweighed by the vast environmental liabilities of large-scale corn production.”

Growing all this corn for fuel has so many downsides it’s hard to know where to begin: food prices are rising to keep up with the higher cost of feed; farmers eager to cash in on the ethanol boom are destroying their topsoil with repeated sowings of corn instead of rotating their crops, and the massive quantities of chemicals that agribiz corn farmers rely on are taking a terrible environmental toll which will only worsen as more acres of corn get planted.

We know that nitrogen run-off from industrial agriculture is feeding the algae blooms that choke our waterways and destroy marine habitats, but the frenzy to grow more corn is contributing to other environmental calamities we’re hardly hearing about. In Iowa, there’s growing evidence that a weed killer routinely sprayed on corn crops is weakening and even killing the Corn Belt’s oak trees, according to The Gazette (hat tip to Mikael Brown):

Department of Natural Resources foresters have collected circumstantial evidence strongly suggesting that a weed killer sprayed on cornfields is damaging, if not killing, oak trees.

"We don't have the smoking gun, but we have lots of evidence pointing to acetochlor," a leading corn herbicide, as the cause of oak leaf tatters, said Paul Tauke, chief of the DNR Forestry Bureau.

Since 2000, Tauke and his colleagues have been studying the role of acetochlor in oak tatters, an ailment that defoliates Iowa's state tree, and lace-leaf hackberry, a similar condition that affects hackberry trees.

Often the trees grow new leaves and survive, but scientists believe tatters stresses and weakens them, making them more susceptible to death by disease and insects.

Researchers are further troubled by evidence indicating the ill effects are often caused not by application errors, such as spraying crops on a windy day, but by volatilization, the process by which chemicals evaporate and accumulate in the
air.

They also worry that the chemical may harm other life forms, including people -- a prospect that no one is investigating.

And they are certain that acetochlor usage -- nearly 100 pounds per square mile in Iowa -- will increase given that American farmers planted 19 percent more corn this year than last in an effort to meet ethanol demand.

There are several scary aspects to this story; one, the fact that even when correctly applied, chemicals have a way of wandering off and doing harm beyond the boundaries of the farms they’re sprayed on; and, two, if this stuff is so toxic to oak trees, how good can it be for people? As the Gazette notes, no one’s even asking this question.

Corn-based ethanol is a federally mandated mistake, not a solution to our insatiable thirst for energy. Cellulosic ethanol, i.e. “non-feedstock bioethanol” made from switchgrass or sugarcane, has far greater potential for reducing greenhouse gas emmissions, but requires more research and investment before it can become a viable alternative.

Why isn’t our government looking to solar power, to wind power, to hydropower, to conservation, aka good old fashioned people power? Maybe because the sun, wind and water haven’t got powerful lobbyists drumming up support for them in Congress, unlike the corn industry.

As for the farmers who bet the farm on corn, I’m sorry they bought into the corn-based ethanol boondoggle, but, hey, who could have predicted the market for feed-based fuel would flounder? I mean, besides Tom Philpott, and a few thousand other visionaries who aren’t blinded by tunnel vision.

Mr. Magoo’s own myopic missteps were compounded by his stubborn refusal to acknowledge the mistakes his poor eyesight led him to make. Maybe he should throw his hat into the ring of Repubican presidential contenders—that is, if he can find it.

WEEKEND GARDEN BLOGGING

Every year I plant several squash and pumpkin vines, and every year, our garden only manages to produce one lone, spectacular specimen. Last year it was a huge Queensland Blue Hubbard squash, an exotic Australian variety with deep blue/gray/green ribs, superb flavor, and an ability to keep almost indefinitely, even in an overheated apartment. It literally lasted us all winter and made a dozen or so meals.

This year, Babar’s bursting with Gallic pride over our still-growing Rouge Vif d’Etampes, a French heirloom famous for its cheese wheel shape and lovely reddish orange color (ours has yet to start turning red.) It’s said to be excellent for cooking and baking, and, as a bonus, it apparently makes an excellent soup tureen as well. A Rouge Vif d’Etampes can grow as big as 40 pounds—big enough to feed a large family for several months.

Next year, I’m planting a more diminutive pumpkin, say, Small Sugar, or maybe Baby Bear. Something I can carry back to the city on the train, instead of having to prevail on a friend with a pick-up truck to ferry our sole super-squash from the Hudson Valley to the West Village so we can show it off and pretend like we’re such great gardeners.

 

MUST COKE AND PEPSI KEEP STEEPING OUR KIDS IN SALT & SUGAR?

Now that soda’s been exiled from school vending machines, the beverage industry’s angling to replace that lost revenue with sports drinks like Gatorade and “enhanced” VitaminWater. Pepsi and Coca-Cola, the companies who make these drinks, have spent a fortune hyping them as “healthy,” but public health advocates say their high fructose corn syrup and sodium content ought to disqualify them for a slot in the vending machines.

A billion-dollar battle is brewing over the fight to get these fizz-free pseudo sodas out of our schools, as the Washington Post reported Wednesday. Senator Tom Harkin’s attempt to pass a bill that would raise the nutritional standards of the foods and drinks sold in our schools is running into fierce opposition from food and drink manufacturers whose fortunes rest on a foundation of high fructose corn syrup and sodium.

The beverage lobby insists that these drinks are being attacked unfairly. One beverage industry spokesman told the Washington Post:

"These drinks are low in calories and the portion sizes are capped…They have benefits to the student. Where you have students competing in athletics throughout the day, it's an essential beverage to make available. These are very reasonable, common-sense things."

So, where, exactly, do you have students “competing in athletics throughout the day”? As far as I can tell, the average American kid is only marginally more active than a factory farm cow. And second, the only essential beverage to make available is water, pure and simple. Only a serious athlete in intensive training even has to worry about losing significant electrolytes, which, by the way, are easily replenished by eating, say, a carrot or an apple.

As Marion Nestle notes in What to Eat, “Gatorade is a salt-supplemented sugar drink, but with fewer sugars and calories than a regular soft drink.” Is it better for you? In some ways, it may be worse; according to the Washington Post, a 12-ounce bottle of Gatorade Rain contains 165 milligrams of sodium, more than triple the amount of sodium in a can of Coke (52 milligrams.)

So, what’s the big deal about a little extra salt? Well, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, salt is “probably the single the most dangerous ingredient in our food supply.” Excessive sodium intake leads to high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute estimates that “cutting the amount of sodium in packaged and restaurant foods by half would save 150,000 lives a year.”

But American taste buds have been trained to expect, and welcome, an incredibly high level of salt and sugar in almost everything we eat. Our palates have been so warped by processed foods that things just don’t taste “right” unless they’re sufficiently salty or sweet. And that’s why it’s now possible to consume your entire daily allowance of sodium at one meal—in one dish, even--at many restaurants.

The CSPI has been after the FDA for years to reclassify salt as a food additive and regulate its use; currently, it’s classified as GRAS, or “generally recognized as safe.” But it’s not safe in the quantities that food manufacturers rely on to improve the taste of processed foods that would otherwise be unpalatable.

So now our kids are so used to salty, sugary, fatty foods that unadulterated “real” foods, i.e. fruits and vegetables, just don’t taste good to them.

Senator Harkin told the Washington Post he wants to get sports drinks and sugary waters banned from our schools:

“Our most recognized national health watchdog -- the Institute of Medicine -- said sports drinks are equivalent to flavored water, noting their high sugar content…If the beverage industry is serious about the health of our kids, as it repeatedly claims to be, science and sound health should be the guiding principle."

But of course, the beverage industry’s true obligation is to its shareholders, not our nation’s children. And that’s the billion dollar question: can we have healthy corporations and healthy kids?

ARE WE EATING THE FRUITS OF SLAVE LABOR?

Slavery in America is alive and well, according to author John Bowe, whose book Nobodies documents the shocking degree to which some American industries--including food producers--are exploiting foreign workers. Bowe’s book is a shot across the bow to American consumers; are we so enslaved by our own addictions to cheap food and cut-price clothing that we’ll still buy these things knowing they’re a product of slave labor?

Bowe’s book unravels the Florida-based food chain that connects Tropicana, Minute Maid, Taco Bell and McDonald’s, among others, to a network of contractors who lure migrant workers into a form of indentured servitude that sounds so Dickensian you can’t believe it exists in this country, in this day and age. The workers Bowe profiles in Nobodies sometimes don’t get paid at all, and are essentially prisoners in squalid camps or trailer parks where they’re subjected to abysmal living conditions and routinely threatened with violence if they attempt to leave.

The workers, many undocumented and most speaking little or no English, are reluctant or unable to seek help, so they make perfect victims. Their employers pay them little or nothing, and pass the savings on to the corporations who’ve subcontracted the production of citrus fruits and tomatoes to these shady operators so that they can reap the benefits of this sleazy system without having to worry about public relations.

After breezing through Bowe's lively, gripping expose of Florida’s fruit and vegetable growers, I understand just how crucial undocumented workers are to some of our largest companies. Corporate America needs those porous borders to keep its profits flowing.

But does it, really? Bowe discussed the pervasiveness of the problem with Jon Stewart on Monday's Daily Show, and again on Tuesday with Doug Krizner of American Public Media’s Marketplace:

KRIZNER: So what are the companies, then, that I might be familiar with who are taking advantage of this situation, where we have workers in conditions that we are calling slave-like?

BOWE: I would say that the conditions are bad enough, especially in the fruits and vegetables area, that pretty much every large vendor of food products -- that means McDonald's, Burger King, Wal-Mart, anybody big at the top of the supply chain -- probably has a trickle of slave-picked stuff in their supply chain.

KRIZNER: If we go up and talk a little bit about pseudo-slave labor, immigrants who have come in and are making themselves available to do work, what would be the impact if these people were to be fairly compensated for their work?

BOWE: Well, one of the things I found that was so surprising is how little money it would take to make it so that the lowest-tier workers are adequately treated. So for example, for the 1 to 2 million migrant farm workers we have in the U.S., for them all to be paid minimum wage would cost the average American household $50 a year. So I don't think it'd be stretching too far to be able to make it fair.

Bowe expresses the hope that Americans would rather not knowingly purchase goods made by slave labor. He’s also optimistic about the power of organizations like the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to shine a light on this very dark side of our food chain. CIW’s mission is to help migrant workers, bring their exploiters to justice, and shame corporations into raising their standards.

They’ve succeeded in getting the Department of Justice to prosecute some of the worst subcontractors, and they’ve also persuaded Yum! Brands, which owns Taco Bell, to pay an additional penny per pound directly to their tomato pickers. That may not sound like much, but, according to Bowe, it will nearly double the pickers’ wages. And, pressured by CIW and a coalition of church and student-based groups, McDonald’s has agreed to a similar program.

Nobodies profiles two other industries that rely on indentured servitude besides the Florida produce growers: a Tulsa, Oklahoma pressure tank plant that imported fifty three workers from India and then essentially held them hostage, paying them three dollars an hour; and the garment industry of Saipan, a U.S. commonwealth in the Western Pacific, where workers toil for companies like Target and the Gap in sweatshop conditions while the clothes they crank out get to bear a “Made in America” label, thanks to the machinations of patriots like Tom Delay and disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Bowe writes about the grimmer aspects of globalization and capitalism run amuck in a surprisingly entertaining and engaging way, providing a wealth of facts and figures while openly acknowledging his own biases. He dissects the notion of “free trade” and wonders just how much unfairness and misery we’re willing to inflict on others in pursuit of our own creature comforts.

We’re paying a price, too, with millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs washing out to foreign shores and a commensurate flood of shoddy and toxic consumer goods from overseas filling our store shelves. Bowe takes issue with Thomas Friedman’s rosy view of our globalized economy; a “flat” world hasn’t translated to a level playing field for the workers Bowe profiles. What’s so great about a flat earth, anyway? Seems like you could sail right off the edge of it without seeing the precipice.

COMMUTING VS COMMUNING

The average American commute is growing ever longer, according to a study released last week:

Despite high gas prices – $2.66 in Atlanta on Tuesday – 9 of 10 Americans still drive to work each day, the vast majority of them alone, according to census figures released in June. What's more, the average commute in America has lengthened by a minute a year since 2000, now topping out at 38 minutes, according to the report.

"The big picture is we see congestion increasing in cities of all sizes," says Tim Lomax, an author of the study.

It's not just cars that have wear and tear, experts say. Robert Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard University, found that every 10 minutes added to a person's commute decreases by 10 percent the time that person dedicates to their family and community.

Longer commutes eat into mealtime, too; with more of us leaving the house at the crack of dawn and coming home later in the evening, we’re too rushed, even, for a bowl of cereal in the morning, much less a home-cooked meal in the evening.

And those obliged to drive to work miss out on the opportunity to incorporate a bit of physical activity into their workday, unlike folks who are lucky enough to live within walking or biking distance of their jobs.

Do we really need to read another study to figure out that all this eating on the run and endless driving is eroding our quality of life? The automobile has not lived up to its promise; it doesn’t provide us with true autonomy or mobility. It’s enslaved us to fossil fuels from foreign countries while depriving most Americans of any alternative means of transport. And all this commuting is a driving force behind climate change, too.

Mass transit, regarded as a common good that merits serious investment in most developed nations, is considered by many American planners and politicians to be as quaint and outmoded as, say, the Geneva Convention.

Plenty of people still consider proximity to public transportation a selling point, judging by the property values of older suburban enclaves that offer the convenience of commuter trains. But somewhere along the line, we started to put all our eggs in one combustible basket, and now we’ve hatched a whole flock of problems.

Many people would dearly love to live closer to their jobs, but can’t afford the high cost of housing near their workplace. Parents who might prefer to raise their kids in a more densely populated, culturally diverse, mixed-use kind of neighborhood find themselves forced to move to the ‘burbs because the public schools are better, the streets are safer, or the property taxes are lower.

But there’s a sizable percentage of folks who’d rather live in a bigger house on a larger lot no matter how far from their place of work, for whom the long daily drive seems a reasonable trade-off—or even a pleasure. Their commute gives them precious “alone” time, or a chance to listen to their favorite author’s latest book, or an opportunity to multitask on their cell phones (hands free, we hope.)

So if these so-called extreme commuters are happy with their way of life, why should anyone else frown upon it?

It depends on whether you regard global warming as a problem. If you don’t, well, then, there’s not much I can say to persuade you that the exurbs are inherently unsustainable. But as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon just told a roomful of world leaders at today’s Climate Summit, "the time for doubt has passed…inaction now will prove the costliest action of all in the long term."

And another report issued last week, from the Urban Land Institute, points out that choosing to live closer to work is, in fact, a more effective way to fight climate change than switching to a hybrid car.

Unfortunately, our land use policies historically have encouraged exactly the opposite phenomenon, with federal, state and local policies that actively encourage sprawl and make it seem inevitable. And there are plenty of people willing to defend our ever expanding exurbs. As James Burling, the litigation director for the Pacific Legal Fund, a conservative group that dismisses environmentalists’ concerns over sprawl and global warming, told the Los Angeles Times:

"So long as people ardently desire to live and raise children in detached homes with a bit of lawn, there is virtually nothing that government bureaucrats can do that will thwart that," he said.

Ah, the proverbial bit of lawn, that precious American birthright. Who cares about greenhouse gases, as long as we can have our own bit of green? When it turns brown from drought, will the suburbs lose their luster, or will extreme commuters even notice, since they leave their homes before dawn and return after dark?

In the meantime, I’m off to hear Dr. Cynthia Rosenzweig, head of the Climate Impacts Group at NASA’s Goddard Institute, give a lecture on the impact of climate change on agriculture and food in the Hudson Valley.

Lucky for me, the venue hosting the event is within walking distance, because Manhattan is going to suffer from major gridlock today, thanks to the UN’s Climate Summit. Featured speakers include Al Gore, Arnold Schwarzenegger, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Bush couldn’t make it, but he condescended to send Condi. Guess he’s busy prepping for his own two-day climate summit on Thursday and Friday, which will call for the usual voluntary measures and other pie-in-the-sky solutions. Brace yourselves for more hot air.

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