Blogs

It's Omnicom's World, We Just Live In It

| Tue Jan. 6, 2015 9:31 AM EST

Luke O'Brien has a wonderful little story in Politico about the trials and tribulations of being on Russia's PR team these days, and it's worth a read if you have a bit of time to kill. But if you don't have the time, I was intrigued by just the list of names that peppered the piece. Here you go:

Ketchum, the giant PR agency on the Russia account....turned to The Washington Group....owned by Omnicom....Alston & Bird....Clark & Weinstock, an Omnicom company....APCO Worldwide....Diversified Energy Communications Ltd....action-movie star Steven Seagal....Global Strategic Communications Group.

Someday, we will all work for Omnicom, with an occasional job on the side for Global Strategic Communications Group. It sounds lovely, doesn't it? Almost like working for the dark side of a James Bond movie.

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Antibiotic Failure Will Kill 10 Million People a Year by 2050

| Tue Jan. 6, 2015 6:00 AM EST

If your goal is to ruin the effectiveness of antibiotic drugs, I can think of two efficient ways. One would be to wildly overprescribe them—say, to people suffering from a cold virus, even though antibiotics work their magic on bacterial pathogens, not viral ones. The other would be to feed daily, low doses of them to animals confined by the thousands in vast indoor facilities. In both cases, you're creating ideal conditions for bacteria to evolve to survive the drugs we throw at them: A percentage of bacteria withstands the chemical onslaught, and passes genes on to ever-heartier next generations.

Unhappily, both of those practices—overprescription to people and routine use on animal farmshave been in play pretty much since the emergence of antibiotics after World War II. And so we have entered an age of widespread antibiotic resistance—on our way to what Thomas Frieden, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has called a "post-antibiotics era."

What would that be like? In a great 2013 piece, the journalist Maryn McKenna laid out all the ways we quietly rely on antibiotics to control and minimize infections in high-stress but routine situations—everything from cesarean sections to car accidents. And in a new report, the UK government has come out with some startling global projections. Currently, the report finds, 700,000 people die annually from pathogens that have developed resistance to antibiotics, a figure the report calls a "low estimate." If present trends continue, antibiotic failure will claim 10 million lives per year by 2050, the report concludes. That's more carnage than what's currently caused by cancer and traffic accidents combined.

The economic toll will also be mind-boggling. By 2050, the report estimates, antibiotic resistance will be incurring $8 trillion in annual expenses globally. That's equal to nearly half of the total output of the US economy in 2014—an enormous hemorrhaging of global resources.

The report, the first in an ongoing review of antibiotic resistance ordered by British Prime Minister David Cameron last summer, focuses narrowly on impacts. Future ones will discuss potential solutions. Here's a start: Convince the US meat industry, which now sucks in 80 percent of the antibiotics consumed in the country, to wean itself from its reliance on routine antibiotic use.

Repeat After Me: Competition Is Good. Competition Is Good.

| Mon Jan. 5, 2015 8:21 PM EST

Did you know that companies facing no competition are likely to charge you more? It's true! But in case you'd like a bit of evidence for this truism, Binyamin Appelbaum directs our attention to a clever study of mortgage rates from the Chicago Fed. It turns out that when the federal government authorized the mortgage refinancing program called HARP, they set up the rules in a way that discouraged anyone from participating aside from the original lender. This meant that, effectively, the original lender had little or no competition for the refinanced loan.

The results are shown on the right. The HARP rules took effect for mortgages with a loan-to-value ratio of 80 percent or higher. Private label mortgages, which didn't fall under the new rules, show a normal range of interest rate spreads at all LTV values. But loans backed by Fannie Mae, which did fall under the new rules, show a sharp discontinuity upward precisely at an LTV of 80.

In other words, at exactly the point where lenders faced no effective competition thanks to HARP rules—i.e., Fannie-backed loans with an LTV of 80 or above—interest rate spreads suddenly increased by about 0.2 percent. Without competition, lenders were free to charge a little more, and they did.

I know: you're shocked. And in case you're tempted to think that 0.2 percent doesn't really seem like that much, the authors point out that it adds up fast: "While the anti-competitive features of HARP may appear to have curtailed borrower gains by relatively small amounts, they resulted in sizable increases in profitability for a subset of lenders. These results further highlight the importance of restoring full competitiveness to mortgage refinancing markets."

Quite so. Competition is good. We've paid less and less attention to this over the past few decades, and we do so at our peril. It's the heart and soul of capitalism.

Future Scientist Investigates Ice, Falls Adorably, Wins Everything

| Mon Jan. 5, 2015 6:52 PM EST

This video is from last year but it popped up on Digg today and I really don't care that it's old because today is the first real work day of 2015 and that's sad because work and the passage of time are two of the main reasons I'm going prematurely gray. So, instead of letting that frown sit unturned upside down, press play and, awwwww.

Here is a GIF of the moment when, in Mother Jones copy editor Ian Gordon's words, "someone takes her batteries out."

It's Official: 2014 Was the Hottest Year on Record

| Mon Jan. 5, 2015 5:31 PM EST

Update, January 16, 10:50 am, ET: NASA and NOAA announced on Friday that 2014 was indeed the warmest year on record. As NASA explained in a press release, "Since 1880, Earth's average surface temperature has warmed by about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8 degrees Celsius), a trend that is largely driven by the increase in carbon dioxide and other human emissions into the planet's atmosphere. The majority of that warming has occurred in the past three decades."

For more on the new findings, watch the video from NASA above.

 

Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA)

For many Americans, 2014 will be remembered for its multiple blasts of Arctic air and bitter winters. And this week, another bout of freezing temperatures is marching east across the country, in the first major thermometer plunge of the season.

But as cold as you may have been last year, it's now official that 2014 was actually the hottest year globally since record-keeping began. So confirmed the Japan Meteorological Agency in preliminary data released Monday.

The Japanese government agency monitors and records the long-term change of the global average surface temperatures and found that 2014 was far warmer than previous years. How much warmer? 2014 exceeded the 1981-2010 temperature average by 0.27 degrees Celsius (or 0.49 degrees Fahrenheit). There was unusually warm weather all around the world, from a record-breaking heat wave in Australia to the hottest European summer in 500 years.

The data shows that four out of the five hottest years on record have occurred in the last decade: In second place is 1998, then 2010 and 2013 tied for third, and 2005 in fifth place. The new numbers reveal that the world has been warming at an average rate of 0.7 degrees Celsius (or 1.26 degrees Fahrenheit) per century since records began.

Two US government agencies, NOAA and NASA, are expected to confirm the results of the Japanese observations in the coming weeks.

10 Great Songs to Help You Achieve Your New Year's Resolutions

| Mon Jan. 5, 2015 5:01 PM EST

So it's five days into the new year—how are those resolutions going? Yeah, that's what I thought. Sure, you could use science to shore up your flagging resolve to hit the gym every morning or play less Candy Crush. But if you need a little additional sonic inspiration, read on.

You want to: Embrace who you are.

Your song is: Perfume Genius' "Queen."

"No family is safe when I sashay," Mike Hadreas sneers in this defiant celebration of queer identity. As he put it in his own explanation of the song: "If these fucking people want to give me some power—if they see me as some sea witch with penis tentacles that are always prodding and poking and seeking to convert the muggles—well, here she comes."

You want to: Reconnect with your estranged relatives.

Your song is: Sun Kil Moon's "Carissa."

Singer Mark Kozelek's struggle to find meaning in a freak garbage-burning accident that killed his second cousin makes for a stark, haunting ballad. "You don't just raise two kids and take out your trash and die," he pleads. By the end of the song, you'll have your phone in your hand and your family's number halfway dialed—if you're not too busy wiping your eyes.

You want to: Meet "the one."

Your song is: ​TLC's "No Scrubs."

You could read the wisest advice columnists, the most egregious collections of bad pickup strategies, and even OKCupid founder Christian Rudder's data-driven take on the subject of finding love. Or you could just listen to this blast of '90s girl group goodness.

You want to: Unplug.

Your song is: St. Vincent's "Digital Witness."

Maybe you're already burned out on all the scrubs in the online-dating universe, or maybe you're worried about Facebook influencing your vote and giving you an eating disorder. Either way, take a break from the screens and dance to this funk-infused critique of online voyeurism. "If I can't show it/If you can't see me/What's the point of doing anything?" singer Annie Clark asks wryly.

You want to: See the world.

Your song is: Iggy Pop's "The Passenger."

You might know it as the soundtrack to a Guinness commercial or the intro theme music for Anderson Cooper 360, but if you listen to the lyrics, this song is actually a meditation on the nihilistic pleasure of traveling through a decaying urban landscape. Plus, Iggy seems like he'd be an entertaining road trip companion.

You want to: Get in shape.

Your song is: ​Daft Punk's "Harder Better Faster Stronger."

What are you doing sitting around and reading this playlist? Get to the gym already.

You want to: Make new friends.

Your song is: Friends' "Friend Crush."

I'm not sure if this band is just really into friendship or what, but it perfectly captures the blurred line between friend-courting and romantic courting in this sultry, bass-driven tune.

You want to: Quit smoking.

Your song is: Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House."

A gentle reminder about the dangers of smoking in bed.

You want to: Change your diet.

Your song is: Neko Case's "Red Tide."

If you've been contemplating a switch to vegetarianism, allow Case to persuade you. Her vision of a world in which the battle between humans and nature has reached a decisive end ("Salty tentacles drink in the sun but the red tide is over/The mollusks they have won") will make you scared to go near a plate of shellfish ever again in your life.

You want to: Be more like Beyoncé.

Your song is: "Flawless."

To be honest, this should be everyone's resolution.

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Iowa to Democrats: Please, Please Have a Real Race So We Can Get Lots of Your Money

| Mon Jan. 5, 2015 1:15 PM EST

Last night I noticed a Wall Street Journal piece about Iowa Democrats being slow to "rally" around Hillary Clinton, but I only read the first couple of paragraphs before I got bored. Today, Ed Kilgore tells me I quit too soon. If I had read to the bottom, I would have learned that this phenomenon probably has nothing really to do with a desire for a more populist candidate:

State Democratic officials also want a contested race because that boosts the party apparatus and fundraising....“When we have these candidates out here running for office, we invite them to county dinners and the numbers swell at these events,” said Tom Henderson, chairman of Democratic Party in Polk County, which includes Des Moines. “So it is a great, great service for the Democratic Party to have these candidates running for office.”

Kilgore explains further:

You have to appreciate that candidates in both parties for state and local office in Iowa (and to a lesser extent, in other early states) are accustomed to enjoying the benefit of world-class mailing lists, state-of-the-art campaign infrastructures, and top-shelf campaign staffers from all over the country. These goodies come to them courtesy of presidential candidates, proto-presidential candidates, people who want to work on presidential campaigns, and people who want to influence presidential campaigns. This is why Iowans so fiercely protect their first-in-the-nation-caucus status, and also why they hate uncontested presidential nomination contests. So of course they don't want HRC to win without a challenge.

Roger that. In any case, talk is cheap right now. My guess is that everything changes once HRC actually announces her candidacy. When that happens, I'll bet everyone starts rallying just fine. Iowa Democrats might be eager for their quadrennial infusion of money and pandering, but not so eager that they want to risk being caught on the losing side. Once the pressure is on to become an early HRC supporter or else spend the rest of the year on the Clinton shit list, well, I have a feeling an awful lot of early supporters are suddenly going to come out of the woodwork. We'll see.

Without Fox News, There Would Have Been No Iraq War

| Mon Jan. 5, 2015 12:24 PM EST

Max Ehrenfreund points to an interesting tidbit this morning. A pair of researchers have released a working paper that attempts to figure out if watching Fox News makes you more conservative. They do this by exploiting the fact that channel numbers on cable systems are placed fairly randomly throughout the country, and people tend to watch channels with lower numbers. Thus, in areas where Fox has a low channel number, it gets watched a little bit more in a way that has nothing to do with whether the local viewers were more conservative in the first place.

So does randomly surfing over to Fox News tend to make you more right-wing? Yes indeed! "We estimate that Fox News increases the likelihood of voting Republican by 0.9 points among viewers induced into watching four additional minutes per week by differential channel positions." And this in turn means that we owe the Iraq War to Fox News: "We estimate that removing Fox News from cable television during the 2000 election cycle would have reduced the average county's Republican vote share by 1.6 percentage points."

And what about MSNBC? It had no effect until the 2008 election, after it had made the switch to liberal prime-time programming. At that point, it becomes pretty similar to Fox in the opposite direction. But the effect is subtly different:

The largest elasticity magnitudes are on individuals from the opposite ideology of the channel, with Fox generally better at influencing Democrats than MSNBC is at influencing Republicans. This last feature is consistent with the regression result that the IV effect of Fox is greater than the corresponding effect for MSNBC.

....Table 16 shows the estimated persuasion rates of the channels at converting votes from one party to the other. The numerator here is the number of, for example, Fox News viewers who are initially Democrats but by the end of an election cycle change to supporting the Republican party. The denominator is the number of Fox News viewers who are initially Democrats. Again, Fox is more effective at converting viewers than is MSNBC.

The difference in persuasion rates is significant: the study finds that in the 2008 election, a full 50 percent of Fox's left-of-center viewers switched to supporting Republicans. For MSNBC, the number of switchers was only 30 percent. That's a big difference.

Now, in real-world terms this is still a smallish effect since neither channel has a lot of regular viewers from the opposite ends of their ideological spectrums in the first place. Still, this is interesting. I've always believed that conservatives in general, and Fox in particular, are better persuaders than liberals, and this study seems to confirm that. But why? Is Fox's conservatism simply more consistent throughout the day, thus making it more effective? Is there something about the particular way Fox pushes hot buttons that makes it more effective at persuading folks near the center? Or is Fox just average, and MSNBC is unusually poor at persuading people? I can easily believe, for example, that Rachel Maddow's snark-based approach persuades very few conservative leaners to switch sides.

Anyway, fascinating stuff, even if none of it comes as a big surprise. Fox really has had a big effect on Republican fortunes over the past two decades.

Facts Are Useless Things — Politically Speaking

| Mon Jan. 5, 2015 11:04 AM EST

Jared Bernstein thinks it makes more sense to push for an increase in the gasoline tax than to try to enact a full-blown carbon tax. But he admits the point is moot: Republicans aren't going to give either one the slightest consideration:

Yet here again, the action is sub-national, and some states have moved on this. As with all those state minimum wages, this creates a useful natural experiment wherein we can collect data on the impact of these state gas tax increases on their economies, budgets, and residents’ incomes. That way, if facts should once again matter, we’ll have some evidence as to the actual impact versus the ideologically inspired cartoon impact.

Damn! Did I miss out on the period in American history when facts used to matter? I'm bummed. Those must have been interesting times.

Republicans Are Picking Exactly the Wrong Time to Push for the Keystone XL Pipeline

| Mon Jan. 5, 2015 10:15 AM EST

The New York Times tells us what to expect when Congress reconvenes this week:

Republicans hope to strike early with measures that are known to have bipartisan support. The House is set to pass legislation this week expediting the Keystone XL pipeline; the Senate is making it the first order of business as well. The House will also take up a measure that would change the new health care law’s definition of full-time workers to those working 40 hours rather than the current 30 hours — another proposal that has drawn backing from Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate.

....Mr. Obama, who will embark this week on a series of policy-related trips in advance of the State of the Union address on Jan. 20, says he is open to working with the Republican Congress but draws the line at unraveling some of his major domestic initiatives, particularly on health care, Wall Street restrictions and the environment. The Keystone XL pipeline bill could present him with an immediate decision about starting the year with a veto, and Senate Democrats are confident they could sustain one.

I wonder how big a deal the Keystone XL pipeline is these days? It won't come on line for years, so current conditions shouldn't logically affect anything. But the world doesn't operate according to logic, and at the moment the world is awash in oil. Prices have plunged, OPEC is engaged in a production war, and gasoline is selling for two bucks a gallon. Does the American public really care very much right now about a pipeline that makes it easier for Canadians to ship their oil to Japan via the Gulf of Mexico?

I'm not sure, but I suspect Republicans may be choosing the wrong moment to take a stand on Keystone XL. Democrats can probably hold it up in the Senate without paying any real price, and even if they can't, Obama can veto it without paying any real price. It's lost its salience for the time being.

I suppose it's too late for Republicans to change their plans, but they'd probably be better off picking other fights. Changes to Obamacare could spark battles they're able to profit from. Keystone XL probably won't.