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Why Does Everyone Think Lolita Is a Teenager?

| Wed Apr. 23, 2014 7:20 AM PDT

This is way off my usual beaten path, but here is Hillary Kelly in the New Republic:

People have the wrong idea about Lolita, and Lolita. Today, the name is widely used as a synonym for a sexually precocious young girl. But the most important fact of the novel is that Lolita is a 12-year-old girl....This makes the oversexed, hyper-titillating cover art that has been repeatedly slapped on Lolita incredibly bizarre—not to mention disturbing. We aren't meant to find Lolita sexy. We shouldn't find Lolita sexy. Nabokov himself said that readers were "misled" by the book's repuation "into assuming this was going to be a lewd book." I'm not so naïve as to imagine book covers always faithfully replicate the literary intentions of their authors. But Lolita covers aren't simply exaggerated or oversimplified representations. They're downright creepy.

Huh. I didn't know that. But there's a good reason for this: I've never read the book. Like a lot of people, however, I have seen the movie. And in the movie, Sue Lyon plays a teenage Lolita. So I always figured Lolita was indeed a high-school age girl. I don't know if Stanley Kubrick made this decision for artistic reasons or—ah, wait. Sure enough, the ever-helpful Wikipedia informs me that "Lolita's age was raised from twelve to early teens in the film to meet the MPAA standards. As such, Sue Lyon was chosen for the title role partly due to her more mature appearance."

Anyway, I wonder if this is the wellspring of much of the common confusion? I'll bet a whole lot more people have seen the movie than ever read the book.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 23, 2014

Wed Apr. 23, 2014 7:07 AM PDT

Marines with Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, convoy their light armored vehicles across the beach as a Navy landing craft, air cushion with Assault Craft Unit 4 departs the beach of Sierra del RetÌn, Spain, during Spanish Amphibious Bilateral Exercise 2014 Feb. 24, 2014. Spanish PHIBLEX is an annual exercise designed to improve interoperability, increase readiness and develop professional and personal relationships between U.S. forces and participating nations. The MEU is deployed to the U.S. 6th Fleet area of responsibility with the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group as a sea-based, expeditionary crisis response force capable of conducting amphibious missions across the full range of military operations. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Austin Hazard/Released)

Monsanto GM Soy Is Scarier Than You Think

| Wed Apr. 23, 2014 3:00 AM PDT

Soybeans are the second-largest US crop after corn, covering about a quarter of American farmland. We grow more soybeans than any other country except Brazil. According to the US Department of Agriculture, more than 90 percent of the soybeans churned out on US farms each year are genetically engineered to withstand herbicides, nearly all of them involving one called Roundup. Organic production, by contrast, is marginal—it accounts for less than 1 percent of total American acreage devoted to soy. (The remaining 9 percent or so of soybeans are conventionally grown, but not genetically modified.)

Americans don't eat much of these lime-green legumes directly, but that doesn't mean we're not exposed to them. After harvest, the great bulk of soybeans are crushed and divided into two parts: meal, which mainly goes into feed for animals that become our meat, and fat, most of which ends up being used as cooking oil or in food products. According to the US Soy Board, soy accounts for 61 percent of American's vegetable oil consumption.

Given soy's centrality to our food and agriculture systems, the findings of a new study published in the peer-reviewed journal Food Chemistry are worth pondering. The authors found that Monsanto's ubiquitous Roundup Ready soybeans, engineered to withstand its own blockbuster herbicide, contain more herbicide residues than their non-GMO counterparts. The team also found that the GM beans are nutritionally inferior.

In the study, the researchers looked at samples of three kinds of soybeans grown in Iowa: (1) those grown from GM herbicide-tolerant seeds; (2) those grown from non-GM seeds but in a conventional, agrichemical-based farming regime; and (3) organic soybeans, i.e., non-GM and grown without agrichemicals.

Most Independent Voters Aren't, Really

| Tue Apr. 22, 2014 5:31 PM PDT

I write from time to time about the myth of the independent voter, which goes something like this: there aren't any. Oh, lots of people say they're independent, but it turns out that most of them lean in one direction or another, and when Election Day rolls around the leaners vote just as reliably as stone partisans. True independents—the ones who switch between parties from election to election—make up only about 10 percent of the electorate.

Still, 10 percent is 10 percent. It's not quite nothing. But it turns out that it really is. Today, Lynne Vavreck breaks things down a bit further and explains just how these folks vote:

Only a small percentage of voters actually switched sides between 2008 and 2010. Moreover, there were almost as many John McCain voters who voted for a Democratic House candidate in 2010 as there were Obama voters who shifted the other way....On average, across districts, roughly 6 percent of Obama voters switched and just under 6 percent of McCain voters switched.

So, yes, there are some true switchers. But mostly they're going to cancel each other out. The net result from a huge push for swing voters is likely to be no more than 2 or 3 percentage points. In a few high-stakes states in a presidential election, that might make them worth going after. But in your average congressional election, it's a waste of time and money. So what does make the difference?

On turnout, the numbers were not evenly balanced for Democrats and Republicans. Only 65 percent of Obama’s 2008 supporters stuck with the party in 2010 and voted for a Democrat in the House. The remaining 28 percent of Mr. Obama’s voters took the midterm election off. By comparison, only 17 percent of McCain’s voters from 2008 sat out the midterms.

....It may seem hard to believe that the [2010] shellacking was more about who turned up than about who changed their minds between 2008 and 2010, but it lines up with a lot of other evidence about voters’ behavior. Most identify with the same political party their entire adult lives, even if they do not formally register with it. They almost always vote for the presidential candidate from that party, and they rarely vote for one party for president and the other one for Congress. And most voters are also much less likely to vote in midterm elections than in presidential contests.

The problem is that going after turnout is every bit as hard as picking up the crumbs of the swing voters. Traditional Democratic constituencies—minorities, low-income voters, and the young—simply don't turn out for midterm elections at high rates. They never have, despite Herculean party efforts and biannual promises that this time will be different. But it never is. They'll vote for president, but a big chunk of them just aren't interested in the broader party.

So what's the answer? Beats me.

How Taxpayers Subsidize the Multi-Million Dollar Salaries of Restaurant CEOs

| Tue Apr. 22, 2014 12:35 PM PDT
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz raked in $236 million in taxpayer-subsidized compensation over the past two years.

As the fight to raise the minimum wage has gained momentum, the restaurant industry has emerged as the biggest opponent. This is no surprise, since the industry claims the highest percentage of low-wage workers—60 percent—of any other business sector. Front-line fast-food workers earn so little money that about half of them rely on some form of public assistance, to the tune of about $7 billion a year. That hidden subsidy has helped boost restaurant industry profits to record highs. In 2013, the industry reaped $660 billion in profits, and it in turn channeled millions into backing efforts to block local governments from raising pay for low-wage workers and to keep the minimum wage for tipped workers at $2.13 an hour (exactly where it's been for the past 22 years). But public assistance programs aren't the only way taxpayers subsidize the restaurant industry.

A new report from the Institute for Policy Studies finds that the public has been contributing to excessive CEO compensation as well, helping to widen the gap between the lowest-paid workers and their bosses. Thanks to a loophole in the tax code, corporations are allowed to deduct unlimited amounts of money from their tax bills for executive compensation, so long as it comes in the form of stock options or "performance pay." The loophole was the inadvertent result of an attempt by Congress to rein in CEO compensation by limiting the tax deduction for executive pay to $1 million a year. That law exempted pay that came in the form of stock options or performance pay. This loophole has proven lucrative for CEOs of all stripes, but it is particularly egregious in an industry that pays its workers so little that it is already heavily subsidized by taxpayers. 

According to IPS, the CEOs of the 20 largest companies that belong to the National Restaurant Association personally reaped more than $660 million over the past two years in performance pay—compensation that collectively ended up cutting their companies' tax bills by more than $230 million. That hefty subsidy is enough to cover the average cost of food stamps for 145,000 families for a year, according to IPS.

Topping the list of executives raking in big bucks with help from the taxpayers is the CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, who was paid $236 million in performance pay and other deductible compensation over the past two years, an outlay that saved the company $82 million in taxes. That $82 million tax subsidy could easily translate into a living wage pay raise for more than 30,000 baristas, who now make on average $8.79 an hour.

There's also Yum! brands CEO David Novak, who over the past 14 years has been the beneficiary of a special tax-deferred retirement plan not available to ordinary workers. His subsidized retirement assets now top more than $232 million. Meanwhile, his employees at Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and KFC earn so little money that they're estimated to rely on $650 million in public assistance every year. IPS figures that Novak's retirement benefits alone could save taxpayers $61 million in public assistance costs annually if they were instead used to raise the pay of 16,000 of Yum!'s low-wage workers to $15 an hour, a move that would take about 9 percent of the company's employees off the public dole. Instead, though, Yum! officials have been working behind the scenes to fend off legislation that might give their workers a paid sick day now and then. No wonder fast-food workers are going on strike.

Male Doctors Bill Medicare for More Services Than Female Doctors

| Tue Apr. 22, 2014 11:45 AM PDT

Via German Lopez, today brings us an interesting study from Andrew Fitch of NerdWallet. Long story short, he finds that male doctors get paid a lot more by Medicare than female doctors.

Obviously there are several reasons for this. Chief among them: Higher paid specialties tend to be dominated by men, and men see more Medicare patients than women. But here's the most interesting bit:

  • Male doctors perform more services per patient treated.  To explore this, NerdWallet Health devised a metric to calculate a physician’s average “service volume” per patient. We found that male doctors billed Medicare, on average, for one more procedure per patient than female physicians (5.7 services performed per patient by male doctors vs. 4.7 services per patient by female doctors).
  • This gap in service volume is true across specialties. Male doctors performed more services per patient than female doctors across nearly all specialties. In a specialty like pathology — where doctors infrequently provide services directly to patients — we found no variation in average service volume.

On average, male doctors bill 5.7 services per patient vs. 4.7 for women! That's a huge gap. And it's not just that cardiologists tend to bill for more services than, say, pulmonologists. Even within specialties, men bill for more services than women.

But why? Are they just generally more aggressive? Are they gaming the system? Do sicker patients prefer male doctors for some reason? If this analysis turns out to be true, it would sure be fascinating for someone to follow up and try to figure out what's going on.

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Martin Sheen Reprises His "West Wing" Role—for a Sentencing Reform PSA

| Tue Apr. 22, 2014 9:37 AM PDT

On Tuesday, Brave New Films released a new PSA calling on Congress to pass the Smarter Sentencing Act. The proposed sentencing-reform legislation aims to reduce prison populations and costs by creating less severe minimum terms for nonviolent drug offenders. (On Monday, Yahoo News reported that President Obama could grant clemency to "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of nonviolent drug offenders by the end of his second term.) The video was produced in partnership with the ACLU and Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), and stars actor Martin Sheen. It's titled "President Bartlet has a message for Congress," in reference to Sheen's role on Aaron Sorkin's political drama The West Wing.

Watch it here:

"When BNF joined with FAMM and the ACLU to rally support for the Smart Sentencing Act, we couldn't think of a better spokesperson than Martin Sheen," Brave New Films president Robert Greenwald said. "When he portrayed President Bartlett on The West Wing, his character commuted the sentences of nonviolent drug offenders. In the real world, Martin Sheen has been an advocate for sentencing reform and alternatives to the harsh, long prison sentences we give to nonviolent drug offenders."

Sheen isn't the only one in Hollywood trying to raise awareness about this. Last year, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson starred in the drama Snitch, a film about a father who reunites with his estranged son after the kid is thrown in prison due to draconian mandatory minimum sentencing laws. The film is based on a 1999 episode of PBS' Frontline titled, "Snitch: How Informants Have Become a Key Part of Prosecutorial Strategy in the Drug War." (FAMM teamed up with Participant Media, the production company behind the film, to create awareness about the issues of mandatory-minimum drug sentencing.)

Now, here's a clip of Sheen as Bartlet on The West Wing, talking about the failing War on Drugs and the American prison population:

Chart of the Day: Wind Turbines Don't Kill Very Many Birds

| Tue Apr. 22, 2014 9:22 AM PDT

Tom Randall is fed up with hysteria over wind turbines being responsible for bird genocide. The numbers just don't support it:

The estimates above are used in promotional videos by Vestas Wind Systems, the world's biggest turbine maker. However, they originally came from a study by the U.S. Forest Service and are similar to numbers used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Wildlife Society — earnest defenders of birds and bats.

....It’s nice for wind-farm planners to take migration patterns and endangered habitats into account. But even if wind turbines were to double in size and provide 100 percent of our energy needs (both of which defy the laws of physics as we currently understand them), they still wouldn’t compare to the modern scourges of high-tension power lines or buildings with glass windows. Not even close.

Wind turbines can be noisy and they periodically kill some birds. We should be careful with them. But the damage they do sure strikes me as routinely overblown. It's bad enough that we have to fight conservatives on this stuff, all of whom seem to believe that America is doomed to decay unless every toaster in the country is powered with virile, manly fossil fuels. But when environmentalists join the cause with trumped-up wildlife fears, it just makes things worse. Enough.

America's Middle Class is Losing Out

| Tue Apr. 22, 2014 7:20 AM PDT

First, there was Wonkblog. Then came 538. Then Vox. And now we have The Upshot, a new venture from the New York Times that aims to present wonky subjects in more depth than you normally find them on the front page. Today, David Leonhardt and Kevin Quealy kick off the wonkiness with an interesting analysis of median income in several rich countries. Their aim is to estimate the gains of the middle class, and their conclusion is that America's middle class is losing out.

Their basic chart is below. As you can see, in many countries the US showed a sizeable gap in 1990. Our middle class was much richer than most. By 2010, however, that gap had closed completely compared to Canada, and become much smaller in most other countries. Their middle classes are becoming more prosperous, but lately ours hasn't been:

Germany and France show the same low-growth pattern for the middle class that we see in the United States, but countries like Norway, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Britain have shown much faster growth. What's going on?

[The data] suggest that most American families are paying a steep price for high and rising income inequality. Although economic growth in the United States continues to be as strong as in many other countries, or stronger, a small percentage of American households is fully benefiting from it.

....The struggles of the poor in the United States are even starker than those of the middle class. A family at the 20th percentile of the income distribution in this country makes significantly less money than a similar family in Canada, Sweden, Norway, Finland or the Netherlands. Thirty-five years ago, the reverse was true.

Note that these figures are for after-tax income. Since middle-income taxes have been flat or a bit down in the United States, this isn't likely to have had much effect on the numbers.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 22, 2014

Tue Apr. 22, 2014 7:04 AM PDT

Marines with 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, Battalion Landing Team, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, participate in a Combined Arms Live Fire Exercise during Exercise Ssang Yong 14 at Su Seung-ri Range, Pohang, Republic of Korea, April 4, 2014. SY 14 is conducted annually in the Republic of Korea to enhance interoperability between U.S. and ROK forces by performing a full spectrum of amphibious operations while showcasing sea-based power projection in the pacific. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Andrew Kuppers/Released)