Roundup: Comedy + Timeliness = Action?

Comedy as a tool for change • Farmers in D.C. to support Country of Origin Labeling • Undocumented farm worker now owns farm • Is Appalachia the next HIV hotspot? • The history of heroin in rural America • Making money in oil while others lose their shirts • The real cost of coal

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Late-night television seems like the last place you’d tackle a complex public policy issue. Aren’t folks ready to fall asleep anyway?

John Oliver, host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” has proven he can keep Americans awake with deep-dive reports on news and politics, even in the midnight hour.

Will his formula for popularizing complex issues like net neutrality work on regulation of the meatpacking industry?

The Grain Inspections, Packers and Stockyard Act (GIPSA) regulations that Oliver covered (at least in part) in his Sunday report are easily as complex as the net neutrality issue. And net-neutrality advocates say Oliver’s broadcast helped move the needle and encourage the Federal Communications Commission to approve a net neutrality rule. So don’t count out meatpacking reformers just because the issue is complex.

There are other similarities between the two issues.

In both cases, major corporations are geared up and fighting against the regulations.  And, on the other side of the issue, there’s a well established network of advocates. It’s obvious to us that in both the net-neutrality and chicken-industry reports, Oliver relied on these advocates to prepare his segments.

Oliver provided the jokes. Policy groups and researchers with deep knowledge of the issue provided the background.

Will the policy straightmen score some points again, with the help of Oliver's comedy?

In raw numbers, we’re certain Oliver’s chicken-industry segment has gotten the issue before a much larger audience than it had before. The news is full of coverage of the show, though we’ve seen absolutely no response from lawmakers to the segment.

Oliver focused his call for advocacy on one very small part of the larger debate. The House Appropriations Committee may vote next month on protecting chicken growers from corporate retaliation if they speak out about problems with their chicken-growing contracts.

We’ll see how that vote goes. Here’s how the vote went last time (a nay vote was against protecting the free-speech rights of chicken growers from corporate retaliation).

Will the next vote be different? If the system works, that depends at least in part on what you think.

— Tim Marema

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Sixty members of the National Farmers Union from 27 states are in Washington, D.C., this week urging members of Congress to support Country of Origin Labeling, or COOL, according to a press release.

The law requires meatpackers to disclose to consumers the nation in which their products were raised and processed. Canada has sued the United States, saying the law has harmed their agricultural economy. A study by Robert Taylor at Auburn University says Canada’s downturn in the meat industry was the result of the 2008 recession, not COOL.

A Farmers Union fact sheet says that congressional efforts to reform COOL are “veiled attempts to gut the law.” One proposal under consideration is to change the country of origin requirement to a “continent of origin,” as in labeling meat produced in Mexico, Canada and the United States with “Made in North America.”

“COOL is clearly one of the most important issues for rural America, and [Farmers Union] members have chosen to travel to Washington to voice their commitment and unwavering support for this popular labeling law,” said Roger Johnson, NFU president.

COOL is currently being litigated before the World Trade Organization.

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Grist looks at the life of a man who worked his way up from a 15-year-old farm laborer to farm owner in California. Even though he and his citizen wife have built the farm from scratch, they both live in fear of him being deported.

Four years later, the farm — which primarily produces pastured chickens and pigs — now grosses between $100,000 and $200,000 in annual sales, and Caitlin and Angel are actively working on diversifying the operation to include more vegetables and grains as well as sheep and goats. That may sound like a lot of money, but the operating costs of farms are so large that it’s not even enough to pay Angel a living wage. In fact, his salary as a farmer is less than he made as a farmworker. Caitlin helps support the family with a full-time job off the farm.

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The Appalachian region of Kentucky could be the next epicenter for an HIV outbreak, warns the Louisville Courier-Journal. This comes after the national news spotlight found that Austin, Indiana, population 4,200, has basically exploded with the disease. Sharing needles used to inject prescription drugs caused the majority of the cases. The fear is that eastern Kentucky shares “the raw ingredients of Austin's tragedy are all there: poverty, doctor shortages and a scourge of pain-pill addiction that has led to rampant intravenous drug abuse.”

HIV is already festering in rural areas of some states. While no outbreak has reached the size of Indiana's, research reveals a high prevalence of HIV in some rural counties in the South, with more than half of cases located outside large metropolitan areas in Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and North Carolina. Idaho had two rural HIV clusters in 2008, with a total of 15 cases linked to sex and drugs.

And a recent CDC report showed new cases of hepatitis C — driven largely by prescription painkiller abuse — more than tripled in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia between 2006 and 2012. Officials said this shows Kentucky is at high risk for more HIV, though it had less than half the national rate of people living with the virus in 2013.

But while risks are rising, federal money for HIV prevention and care is mostly centered on cities, which still contain the vast majority of HIV cases. Currently, the Kaiser Family Foundation ranks Indiana last among states in funding per person living with the disease — $2,453 compared with a national average of $3,370. It ranks Kentucky last in HIV prevention grant funding from the CDC — $347 per person living with the disease, compared with an average of $610.

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Not to beat a dead drug horse, but here’s some more rural drug news. NPR talks to Sam Quinones, author of the book “Dream Land.” Quinones tells the history of how heroin made its way from Mexico to the rural U.S, a trip with a major stop-over in Portsmouth, Ohio, where doctors were freely writing out prescriptions to pain pills.

These pills contain drugs that are molecularly very similar to heroin. They are opioids, there are synthetic opiates. People would get addicted to the pills believing that well, "This is OK because it's a doctor's orders," you know, prescribing this and this is comes from a drug company and this kind of thing.

But at a certain point, they would no longer be using it for their pain, they would be using it because they're addicted. Frequently the doctor would cancel the prescription or simply they just couldn't get the pills with the regularity they needed. And so heroin is the fallback drug.

Quinones goes on to talk about how the drug got from Xalisco, Mexico, to Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky and the role Mexican cartels played in the operation.

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Oil-pipeline magnate Kelcy Warren made his first millions more than 20 years ago by purchasing a bankrupt Texas pipeline company. Today, with his net worth in the billions, Warren says the downturn in the oil boom is yet another opportunity for his businesses to turn a profit.

A 3,000-word Bloomberg profile focuses on Warren’s apparent ability to make money while others are losing theirs. He’s a one-man celebration of survival of the fittest:

He says the price shock [in oil] will weed out weak players so that well-capitalized and diversified outfits—such as Energy Transfer, which accrued $3.2 billion in cash last year to distribute to its investors—can snatch them up cheap and put their assets to better use. “Like Mother Nature, the energy industry purges itself now and then,” says Warren. “I don’t wish any negatives on my friends, but the most wealth I’ve ever made is during the dark times.”

Warren made his mark reworking the national pipeline system to flow north to south, carrying oil and gas from locations like North Dakota and Pennsylvania to the Gulf of Mexico for refinement.

Competitors have shelved plans to expand pipelines, giving Energy Transfer an advantage. “‘We got so lucky,’ he says, flashing a giddy smile during an interview in his capacious Dallas office. ‘All of our competition vaporized.’”

Warren says he’s all alone in North Dakota after the price drop in oil. “‘I don’t think there’s ever going to be another pipeline built to the Gulf Coast out of there,’ he says. Unless the star-crossed Keystone XL pipeline wins approval, ‘we’re all by ourselves.’”

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Coal receives the largest public subsidy of any energy source, if you account for its impact on the environment, according to a new paper released by the International Monetary Fund.

The paper examined the cost of “post tax subsidies,” such as environmental damage from global warming and air pollution.

“If energy prices were to reflect their harm to the planet, the authors wrote, we'd probably use less fossil fuel,” reports Bloomberg. “Not to mention, they note, that fewer people would die of air-pollution related causes, particularly in the coal-heavy developing world.”

Post-tax subsidies are on the rise, the paper says, and will account for a projected $5.3 trillion in costs to society this year.

 

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