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  • Biden's White House Ambitions May Die in Iowa?Again

    Joe Biden's 2008 campaign died on the evening of the Iowa caucuses. "So many of you have sacrificed for me and I am so indebted to you," Biden told supporters in a speech in Des Moines announcing that he was shutting down his campaign, shortly after the results had come in. "I feel no regret. I ain't goin' away." Biden, then a senator from Delaware, had staked his entire campaign on a strong showing in the caucuses. He spent months bouncing around the state from campaign event to campaign event, but he came up well short. He finished in fifth place, with just 1 percent of the caucus delegates, behind not only the marquee candidates Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards, but also Bill Richardson.

    If Biden decides to run for president again in 2016, he'll surely draw more support, thanks to his increased public profile after serving as Obama's vice president for the past seven years. But Iowa will once again pose problems for his presidential ambitions, particularly with such a late entry into the race. Caucus votes will be cast five months from now, and so far there is scant evidence of a groundswell behind Biden in the state—or the organization to bring it about.

    Recent polls have put Biden far behind Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in Iowa. The veep drew just 14 percent in a Des Moines Register poll released this week, compared with 37 percent for Clinton and 30 percent for Sanders. (Biden supporters argue that his numbers are high for someone who has yet to start an official campaign.) In the Democratic caucuses, a candidate needs at least 15 percent support in a precinct in order to win any delegates, a bar Biden currently falls under statewide.

    There doesn't appear to be much movement toward an official Biden campaign in Iowa either, according to old Biden hands in the state. "There's been interest, there's been conversations," says one Biden 2008 Iowa staffer who requested anonymity due to continued involvement in state politics. "There's been outreach at the first level [of close Biden friends], but it hasn't been intense." Some of his longtime supporters have yet to hear from that inner circle, though. "Our sense is that it's more possible that he's going to run than not run," says state Sen. Tony Bisignano, a supporter of Biden's 1988 and 2008 presidential campaigns. "It seems much more likely." What gives Bisignano that sense? "We're just hearing the news and reading different stories about it," he says. He hasn't heard anything beyond that.

    Bisignano is part of a small band of elected officials in Iowa who have endorsed Draft Biden, a super-PAC started earlier this year to encourage the vice president to enter the race. The Chicago-based group started off as a small-time outfit of former low-level Obama staffers and volunteers, and got off to a slow start, raising just $80,000 in the first half of the year. Even as it has gradually been ramping up over the past month, bringing on a slew of former Biden staffers, the group has a small Iowa footprint.

    Clinton and Sanders already have massive field teams working the ground to identify supporters in Iowa. According to a spokesperson for the Sanders campaign, the senator has 53 paid organizers working out of 15 field offices in Iowa. As of early June, the Clinton campaign tallied 47 paid organizers in Iowa.

    Draft Biden, on the other hand, didn't bring on an Iowa state director until June. And that director, James Rigdon, spent just two months in the state before moving to Chicago to work as the group's national outreach director. Draft Biden recently hired a new state director and two other paid organizers in the state. "First and foremost, it's going to be outreach to volunteers and supporters who have already signed up, and there are plenty of those to make a continued hit with," Rigdon says of the new hires. "Beyond that, it's going to be attending the county party meetings and attending any other local events across the state. Just getting the word out that Draft Biden is for real, this isn't a flash in the pan or a desperate attempt, we are a force to be reckoned with."

    But that force of potential volunteers to be organized is still a small pool. Draft Biden has gained more than 200,000 signatures for its petition encouraging Biden to run. Rigdon boasted that 6,000 of those signatures had come from supporters who live in Iowa—hardly the makings of a grassroots army.

    Still, Biden's Iowa fans are optimistic that the campaign could ramp up rapidly should the vice president officially enter the race. "I think the Democratic race needs to get reenergized," Bisignano says. "I think it has fallen flat this summer. With the Clinton issues, it's a constant flow of negativity and negative discussion. Biden would bring a breath of fresh air to the enthusiasm here."

  • Jeb Bush Says He Helped Save Thousands of Ethiopian Jews. Here's What Really Happened.

    Did Jeb Bush help launch a covert mission to airlift thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the 1980s, saving them from starvation?

    He says he did. Twice in the past week his campaign has posted blog posts on its website making this claim in order to tout Bush's record on Israel and to show his foreign policy chops. One reads:

    In the 1980's thousands of members of the Jewish community had fled their homeland due to famine for a refugee camp in Sudan. Jeb, hearing of the conditions in the camp and the persecution these Jews were suffering, suggested to Reagan-Bush officials that the United States had a duty to support a massive airlift. The resulting effort, Operation Moses, made history when Israeli planes, with American support, brought these Jews to the homeland of the Jewish people, the State of Israel.

    But Bush's campaign boast is false. Bush, then 31 years old and a fledgling developer in Miami, had nothing to do with with Operation Moses, the secret operation that rescued nearly 8,000 Jews in Africa. And he played no role in triggering the rescue effort by prodding the Reagan-Bush administration to take action. However, he—and several other Americans—did play a bit part in a subsequent effort to rescue about 900 Ethiopian Jews left behind when Operation Moses was halted abruptly in early 1985.

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  • Coal Companies Are Dying While Their Execs Grab More Cash

    These are dark days for coal. In July, the industry hit a milestone when a major power company announced plans to shutter several coal-fired power plants in Iowa: More than 200 coal plants have been scheduled for closure since 2010, meaning nearly one-fifth of the US coal fleet is headed for retirement. President Barack Obama's recently completed climate plan, which sets limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, is designed to keep this trend going over the next decade. But the industry was in deep trouble even before Obama's crackdown, thanks to the rock-bottom price of natural gas made possible by America's fracking boom.

    In case the shutdown of hundreds of coal plants wasn't a sufficient indicator of the industry collapse, here's another clue: coal companies' rapidly deteriorating bottom lines.

    A study this spring from the Carbon Tracker Institute found that over the past five years, coal producers have closed nearly 300 mines and lost 76 percent of their value. In August, Alpha Natural Resources, the country's second-largest coal company, filed for bankruptcy, making it the biggest domino to fall in a string of more than two dozen corporate collapses during the past couple of years. On Monday, one of the company's top executives resigned. Meanwhile, shares of Peabody Energy, the world's biggest coal company, hit their lowest price ever, dipping below $1. A year ago, Peabody's share price was hovering above $15; it peaked at $72 back in 2011. The stock plunge at Arch Coal was even more extreme—it fell from $3,600 to under $2 between 2011 and August 2015. (It has since rebounded slightly.) This year, both companies have been among the worst performers in the S&P 500.

    You might think that the leaders of coal companies would be made to pay the price for these failures. But in the perverse world of American corporate compensation, they are, in fact, getting a raise.

    According to a report today from the Institute for Policy Studies, which bills itself as the country's oldest progressive think tank, executive salaries and bonuses at the top 10 publicly traded coal companies increased an average of 8 percent between 2010 and 2014, even as the companies' combined share price fell 58 percent. Meanwhile, the same executives cashed in well over $100 million in stock options, according to the report, which analyzed the companies' public filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. In other words, coal execs are cashing in while their companies tank.

    "That [stock-based] part of their compensation package is not so valuable right now, so the value of their cash-based pay has been going up," said Sarah Anderson, the report's author. "We're seeing this move to insulate them from the implosion of the coal sector by handing out more cash."

    The chart below, from the report, shows how cash compensation started to rise just as the share prices took their second dive in five years:

    At Peabody, for example, CEO Greg Boyce cashed in $26 million in stock before the price collapse that began in 2011. At Arch Coal, cash compensation for the company's top five executives grew 94 percent between 2010 and 2014, to an average of $2.3 million. Arch, Alpha, and Peabody did not return requests for comment.

    To be clear, there's no evidence of anything criminal happening here. But you can include this trend in the pantheon of corporate executives getting rewarded for their companies' bad performance. Even the world's best CEO probably wouldn't be able to save these corporations—the fact is, the American coal market is disappearing and isn't coming back. But, Anderson argues, if these execs were truly interested in fixing their business models, they could have invested in alternative forms of energy, such as gas or renewables. "The smart thing," according to Anderson, "would have been to diversify their portfolio so they wouldn't be so vulnerable."

  • The Controversial Doctor Behind the New "Viagra for Women"

    The path to market for the first-ever women's libido drug began in 2010 when Dr. Irwin Goldstein chased a pharmaceutical executive around a Miami medical conference.

    "Irwin is famous for chasing people around with his MacBook," says Cindy Whitehead, the CEO of Sprout Pharmaceuticals and Goldstein's quarry that day. "And you're always a little scared of what he's going to show you on video."

    Goldstein is one of the top researchers in the budding field of sexual medicine. But on this occasion, he showed Whitehead videos of his patients—clothed—as they relinquished samples of a drug they had been receiving through clinical trials. The drug was a female libido booster called flibanserin, and the pharmaceutical giant that owned it was shutting down the clinical trials. The women looked dejected. Several of them cried.

    For Whitehead, it was an "aha" moment. The encounter sent Sprout on a quest to obtain the rights to flibanserin and a five-year saga of costly clinical trials, aggressive lobbying, and fraught regulatory meetings that ended last month when the Food and Drug Administration approved the drug for sale under the brand name Addyi.

    For others, the moment was another case of Goldstein's expert leveraging of his ties to the pharmaceutical industry. To these critics, Goldstein's work raises the same controversy that is dogging flibanserin: Is he advancing the frontiers of medicine, or the bottom line of the pharmaceutical industry?

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  • Can This Genius Strategy Stop Big Ag from Dumping Fertilizer Into Drinking Water?
    Gary Taxali

    Corn is to Iowa what oil is to Texas—so it's not every day that an Iowa official takes on the state's biggest industry. But Bill Stowe, CEO and general manager of Des Moines Water Works, has had it with Big Ag. It "rules the roost in this world," he says. "It's a nasty business."

    Stowe isn't just talking smack: Last March, in an unprecedented move, Des Moines Water Works filed a lawsuit in federal court against three upstream counties, charging that they violate the federal Clean Water Act by allowing fertilizer to flow into one of the rivers from which the city gets its drinking water. The suit will likely drag out for years, says Neil Hamilton, director of Drake University's Agricultural Law Center. But if it succeeds, it will not only force farmers upstream from Des Moines to limit their fertilizer runoff; it could also herald a new era for the Clean Water Act, the '70s-era legislation that severely limited pollution from heavy industry but left farms essentially unregulated.

    Not everyone is so keen on the changes that the lawsuit could bring about. Six-term Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, famously aligned with agribusiness, is fuming. "Des Moines has declared war on rural Iowa," he snarled at a January press conference. And in May, a group affiliated with the Iowa Farm Bureau called Iowa Partnership for Clean Water began running TV ads praising farmers for their water stewardship and claiming the suit "threatens our land, home, and even your food."

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  • Obama Is a Climate Hypocrite. His Trip to Alaska Proves It.

    This story was originally published by Slate and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

    On Monday morning President Obama headed to Alaska—the front lines of climate change—for a trip the White House is calling "a spotlight on what Alaskans in particular have come to know: Climate change is one of the biggest threats we face, it is being driven by human activity, and it is disrupting Americans' lives right now."

    Problem is, those words fall flat when compared with Obama's mixed record on climate. The widely publicized trip comes at a delicate moment for the president. Barely two weeks ago, his administration gave Royal Dutch Shell final approval to drill for oil offshore from Alaska's northwest Arctic coast—not exactly the sort of thing you'd expect from someone who professes to be "leading by example."

    The leases that allow Shell to drill in the Arctic were awarded by the George W. Bush administration, and the president had limited options to block them. Still, as Think Progress notes, Obama could have outright canceled Shell's lease, or begun a process to declare the region a marine protected area, making future leases nearly impossible. Neither of these actions would be easy to do, but either would have sent a powerful message to industry: Starting now, climate change concerns trump energy exploration, period.

    Climate activists vociferously opposed the approval of Shell's permit: Last month a group of protesters in kayaks briefly blockaded an Arctic-bound Shell support ship while it was in a Portland, Oregon, port. In recent days Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic candidate for president, has also voiced her opposition.

    One progressive activist group, Credo Action, has called the unfortunate juxtaposition of Obama's words and actions his "Mission Accomplished" moment, in reference to Bush's declaration of victory in the Iraq war. I agree.

    "It's such an odd own goal to first hand Shell a shovel and then go for a visit," climate activist Bill McKibben told me today. Earlier this year McKibben wrote in the New York Times that the president was guilty of "climate denial of the status quo sort" should Shell's drilling permit be approved. "Even in this most extreme circumstance, no one seems able to stand up to the power of the fossil fuel industry. No one ever says no," McKibben wrote.

    After decades of delay, scientists now say the world—especially countries like the United States with historically high emissions—needs to immediately embark on a radical path of truly bold action on climate change. So far, Obama's plan for carbon cutting, despite being loudly trumpeted by the administration, has been middling at best. For many environmental activists, Obama's approval of Shell's Arctic drilling permit is the icing on an extremely hypocritical cake.

    Credo's Elijah Zarlin, who worked for Obama's 2008 election campaign, calls the rhetoric from the White House surrounding Obama's visit to Alaska "stunningly brazen," given the go-ahead for Shell to drill in the Arctic.  

    "The hypocrisy just speaks for itself when you hear him saying things like 'this is our wakeup call,' given his record on oil, gas, and coal extraction," Zarlin said. "His words [on climate change], which are powerful, just ring more and more hollow. Ultimately, it just makes me sad, because I believed in the guy."

    On the trip, Obama will become the first sitting American president to visit the Alaskan Arctic. He'll travel to the coastal village of Kotzebue, where Shell has some drilling equipment stationed, to view the effects of rising seas and melting permafrost firsthand. He'll also film an episode of Running Wild With Bear Grylls, in which he will discuss climate change and receive a "crash course in survival techniques," according to a statement from NBC.

    The effects of global warming in Alaska continue to accelerate. This year's off-the-charts wildfire season was a record-breaker, burning through even the permafrost. Just last week, another startling "haul-out" of walruses was observed as thousands of animals were forced ashore by the lack of sea ice in the Alaskan Arctic, not far from where Obama will visit. On Sunday the administration announced that Alaska's Mt. McKinley would be officially renamed Denali. What the president didn't emphasize enough: Denali is losing its glaciers at a rapid clip.

    In his weekly address on Saturday, Obama addressed the Shell controversy, saying "we don't rubber-stamp permits." But what the president seems to miss is that environmental activists aren't as concerned with the potentially devastating impacts of an oil spill in the Arctic as the message it sends to the rest of the world: Bold action on climate change doesn't look so different from the status quo. In reality, the scale of action that climate science demands is far beyond what Obama has put in place. America can't solve climate change on its own, but it could offer a truly heroic leader. It just doesn't seem like Obama is the person for the job.

  • A Lot of American Catholics Have Never Heard of Pope Francis' Most Important New Message

    Pope Francis has so far had a tough time selling his high-profile climate campaign to Americans—even to the faithful. Two recent national surveys asked whether American Catholics were familiar with the pope's call for action, and the results were decidedly mixed.

    Polling data released Monday by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that one in five Catholics are still unfamiliar with the pope's position on climate change, outlined in his landmark encyclical—or papal letter—in which he said humans were contributing to the "unprecedented destruction of the ecosystem." PRRI describes that number as "substantial" but notes that it's similar to other hot-button political issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage. A separate poll, released two weeks ago by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and researchers from Yale University, found an even larger proportion of Catholics who were unaware of the pope's views: only 40 percent had heard about the papal letter and its themes of environmental and economic justice.

    Still, there's plenty of good news in both polls. According to the PRRI survey, American Catholics are much more likely to side with the pope's position on global warming than to oppose it—47 percent compared with 24 percent. The earlier AP-NORC/Yale survey found that a majority of Catholics (64 percent) said they thought it was appropriate for the pope to take a stand on global warming.

    The PRRI survey also found that support for government action to prevent global warming is high: Nearly two-thirds of the general public, and more than 70 percent of Catholics, believe the government should do more to address climate change. Fully 86 percent of non-white Catholics support increased climate action. Non-white Catholics also report hearing about climate change in church more frequently than white Catholics.

    Robert Jones, the CEO of PRRI, says the unfamiliarity with the pope's message may not be about climate change per se, but a lack of awareness of Francis's political views more generally. Timing might also be key. "I think with news in the summertime as people head to vacation, it's often a difficult time to break through," said Jones. That means the pope's visit to the United States in late September will be crucial. "After his visit, these numbers will look a little different," Jones said. The papal visit "will give him a platform to highlight priorities and put issues on the front burner."

    Leading experts on Catholicism and the environment say it's still too early to gauge the impact of the pope's climate initiative, and they agree that his US visit will bring it to a much larger audience.

    Mary Evelyn Tucker, a director of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University, anticipates that the pope's message will seep into actual sermons given in American churches and Catholic schools. She also said the pope's timing was tricky: The encyclical's release came during intense media coverage of the Charleston church massacre. "What was anticipated for well over a year was completely trumped by a very, very tragic story," she said.

    But Tucker also said she wouldn't expect the needle to move on this issue just a month after its release. "This is extremely challenging," she said, referring to the pope's letter. "It says ecology and the economy and equality are all intertwined. And that's a very unusual mix for Americans, who regard these as separate issues."

    "These are some things that some people don't want to hear," she added. Republican candidates for the White House were quick to criticize Francis' climate pitch at the time of its release, and anti-climate action groups such as the Heartland Institute began encouraging followers to send letters and emails to the pope and to push climate skepticism within their local congregations.

    "Faithful Catholics look to the Holy Father for guidance of the spirit, not instruction on scientific matters," Heartland spokesman Jim Lakely told Mother Jones. "Pope Francis is not an expert on the climate, and the scientists he has relied on for guidance have led him astray. Most Catholics can see that."

    "As always, Francis' heart is in the right place," Lakely added. "But his decision to follow the policy advice of the alarmist scientists at the United Nations would only hurt the poor by making vital energy more expensive and less reliable."

    Given that level of opposition, Dan Misleh, executive director of the environmental advocacy group Catholic Climate Covenant, is encouraged by the early polling. "Is it where we would like it to be as an organization? Certainly not," he said in an interview after the AP-NORC survey was released. "It's a big population. So not everybody is paying attention."

    "Is it where we need it to be to affect policy?" he added. "It's not ideal, but it's way bigger than anything in my recent memory."

    Tucker agreed. "There's always going to be pushback," she said. "This is part of the arc of justice. We have to take a historical perspective."

  • Study: People Are Quicker to Shoot a Black Target Than a White Target

    According to a new report from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, racial bias can affect the likelihood of people pulling the trigger of a gun—even if shooters don't realize they were biased to begin with. Researchers found that, in studies conducted over the past decade, participants were more likely to shoot targets depicting black people than those depicting white people.

    A team led by researcher Yara Mekawi looked at 42 studies that used first-person-shooter tasks to identify shooter bias. In the lab, images of black or white people were shown to participants, who then had less than a second to decide whether they would shoot the target. In some images the people were armed, and in others they were holding another object, like a cellphone.

    The meta-analysis showed that the participants were quicker to shoot when an armed person was black, slower to choose not to shoot when an unarmed person was black, and more trigger-happy toward black targets in general.

    There was little difference between false-alarm shootings between black and white targets overall; however, in states where gun laws are less strict, shooter bias against black targets increased—unarmed black targets were more likely to be shot. The bias only got worse in areas that were more racially diverse.

    "What this highlights," Mekawi told NPR, "is that even though a person might say, 'I'm not racist' or 'I'm not prejudiced,' it doesn't necessarily mean that race doesn't influence their split-second decisions."

    Read "The Science of Why Cops Shoot Young Black Men," from our January/February 2015 issue.

    Racism, it turns out, can actually be hardwired into our brains. Last year on the Inquiring Minds podcast, neuroscientist David Amodio explained why we discriminate even if we don't want to:

    When we look at faces of individuals of a different race, a part of our brain called the amygdala often gets active. The amygdala is involved in learning and, specifically, in a type of learning called fear conditioning…The problem is that because our culture is filled with racial stereotypes, many of us "learn" inaccurate and prejudicial information about those who look different. And the amygdala operates extremely rapidly, long before our conscious thoughts have time to react. Thus, the operations of this and related brain regions, "if left unchecked, they might lead to the expression of some bias in a way that you don't intend," says Amodio.

    The good news is, as Chris Mooney pointed out in his January/February 2015 Mother Jones cover story on the science of racism, research is providing insights into how these biases can be overcome. That's why the authors of the meta-analysis are saying their results could be especially important in law enforcement training—to help police address racial bias before it becomes deadly.

    "Understanding the factors that contribute to shooter biases in the laboratory," they write, "may provide critical insight into targets of change for interventions designed for gun-owners and law enforcement officers." But there's still more work to be done: "Research identifying effective interventions is needed to maintain the basic human rights of racial and ethnic minorities, keep communities safe, and increase the effectiveness of policing."

    This story has been revised.

  • Watch Donald Trump Completely Contradict Himself on US Troops in Iraq

    Donald Trump, the celebrity tycoon and front-runner in the Republican 2016 race, doesn't hold back when he criticizes the Bush-Cheney crowd for the Iraq War. Over the years, he has called the Iraq invasion a "big mistake" and a "mess," and he has insisted he never would have launched that war. Though the war remains unpopular, Trump's critique does put him at odds with the Republican establishment and GOP voters who supported the invasion. So as he has soared to the top of the polls, Trump has deftly devised a way of discussing the Iraq War that includes Obama-bashing. The problem (well, it would be a problem for a conventional politician): Trump is contradicted by his own words.

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  • The Hosts of This Ted Cruz Event Warned Attendees They Might Get Murdered By Bees

    Attendees to a Ted Cruz event on Sunday held at the farm of a Dover, New Hampshire couple were handed an eyebrow-raising disclaimer before entering the premises. "You may be at serious risk if you enter our property," the flyer warned, listing off the litany of perils that potentially awaited Cruz supporters, including bees, wasps, hornets, packs of coyotes, rabid raccoons, and, most ominously, very large turkeys.

    According to local press reports, everyone survived the event unharmed by the wildlife.