Blogs

The John Kasich-Ted Cruz Alliance Is Already Unraveling

| Mon Apr. 25, 2016 11:51 AM EDT

On Sunday night, it finally happened. Just before 11 p.m., the campaigns of Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz released matching statements promising to work together to stop Donald Trump from clinching the Republican nomination before the convention. The agreement they struck was that Kasich would stop campaigning in his neighboring state of Indiana, to give Cruz a chance to catch Trump there, and Cruz would stop campaigning in his neighboring state of New Mexico, as well as Oregon, in the hopes of boosting Kasich there. Anti-Trump voices had been calling for candidates to work together for months (Cruz trampled over Marco Rubio's frantic appeal for help in Florida); the alliance was a sign that reality had set in.

But one thing missing from the agreement was any indication that Kasich and Cruz would actually tell their voters in Indiana, New Mexico, or Oregon, to support the other guy. And sure enough, while eating at a diner in Philadelphia on Monday morning, Kasich decided to pour water on the whole plan. Would the governor, a reporter asked, tell his supporters in Indiana to vote for Cruz? No, Kasich said. "I've never told them not to vote for me; they ought to vote for me." He explained that the deal had nothing to do with strategic voting—it was only about whether to campaign or not campaign. Sounds like a strong alliance!

This is the most passive-aggressive thing Kasich has done since the last time someone tried to make a deal with him:

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Are Wall Street Profits Fundamentally Based on Consumer Laziness?

| Mon Apr. 25, 2016 11:25 AM EDT

Brad DeLong:

It used to be that we collectively paid Wall Street 1% per year of asset value--which was then some 3 years' worth of GDP--to manage our investment and payments systems. Now we pay it more like 2% per year of asset value, which is now some 4 years' worth of GDP.

He is responding to a post by Noah Smith that, when I click on it, turns out to be a response to me. My question was simple: finance is a very competitive industry, so how has it stayed so astronomically profitable for so long? Smith suggests that part of the answer is lending to households, but another part is asset management fees:

Asset-management fees are middleman costs that all kinds of players in the finance industry charge to move money around....The amount of wealth in the U.S. economy has soared since 1980 — just think of the rises in the housing and stock markets over that time — meaning that the middlemen in the finance industry have been taking their percentage fees out of a much larger pool of assets.

....But why have profits from these middleman fees stayed so high? Why haven’t asset-management charges gone down amid competition? In a recent post, I suggested one answer: people might just be ignoring them. Percentage fees sound tiny — 1 percent or 2 percent a year. But because that slice is taken off every year, it adds up to truly astronomical amounts. So if people are just ignoring what middlemen skim off the top, because each fee seems small, investors could be handing significant fractions of the country's GDP to the financial sector out of sheer carelessness. That would certainly keep profits high; if many investors pay no attention to what they're being charged, more competition can’t push down those fees.

So a combination of rising asset values and unchanging management fees can explain a large part of both finance’s growth and its continued profitability.

James Kwak has more here, basically suggesting that lots of people pay high fees for actively-managed funds deliberately. They figure that the higher price means better performance, just as a higher price usually means better performance in most areas of the consumer economy.

If Smith and Kwak are right, it means the enormous profitability of the financial system is based primarily on products sold to consumers (mutual funds, home loans), not to services offered to the rich or to the rest of the industry. Is this true? To find out, someone would have to break out industry profitability by product line (so to speak) and figure out where most of the money is coming from. Has anyone ever done that?

Lin-Manuel Miranda Raps a Powerful Plea to Save Puerto Rico From Its Debt Crisis

| Mon Apr. 25, 2016 8:29 AM EDT

On Sunday, John Oliver focused his attention on Puerto Rico's paralyzing debt crisis and the fast-approaching May 1 deadline looming over the island to repay $72 billion—an amount the island's governor announced last June could not be repaid and was therefore crippling Puerto Rico's economy. The ongoing crisis has affected many of Puerto Rico's 3.5 million people and shut down schools across the island, while members of Wall Street have profited along the way.

In recent months, a growing number of politicians, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, have called on the US government to provide economic relief and the opportunity for Puerto Rico to restructure its debt. One of the most outspoken defenders of Puerto Rico has been Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star of the Broadway musical "Hamilton." On Sunday, the newly-minted Pulitzer Prize winner appeared on Last Week Tonight to continue his plea for help, this time with a new rap song in hopes that members of Congress will rescue the island. It's a brilliant performance, so be sure to watch above.

Summer Flake's Electric Folk Casts a Powerful Spell

| Mon Apr. 25, 2016 6:00 AM EDT

Summer Flake
Hello Friends
Rice Is Nice Records

Courtesy of Grandstand Media/Rice Is Nice Records


Australia's Stephanie Craise, who records as Summer Flake, makes electric folk music that's both mammoth and intimate. Her sweet-and-sour combination of frayed guitars and dreamy, overdubbed voices has a bracing sizzle, with sentimental melodies tugging at the heartstrings to amplify the drama. If Hello Friends feels like eavesdropping on someone's aching reveries, it never achieves the creepy oversharing quality sometimes heard in confessional pop, thanks to Craise's vibrant sense of songcraft. Check out "So Long" and "Make Your Way Back to Me," both five-minute-plus epics that benefit from their extended running time by allowing her to slowly cast a powerful spell. Following last year's tantalizing, albeit tentative, Time Rolls By EP, this arresting album marks an exciting leap forward. Bravo!

First We Piss You Off, Then We Ask You For Money

| Mon Apr. 25, 2016 12:00 AM EDT

Ah, Twitter. Here's something I got last night after writing a post about Hillary Clinton's fondness for military intervention:

My Bernie cesspool! Regular readers were amused, since I've written dozens of posts supportive of Hillary. But no one should get a free pass. If Hillary Clinton is too fond of military intervention for my taste, then it's best to say so. That's especially true during a primary campaign, when it might actually make a difference.

MoJo's head honchos agree, and they make their case in "Why We’re Tough On The Candidates You Like: The Case For Offending Some Of The People, All Of The Time":

Mother Jones is a reader-supported nonprofit, and that means we rely on donations and magazine subscriptions for 70 percent of our annual budget. It also means that by April 30, we need to raise $175,000 from readers like you to stay on track.

So the easiest thing to do, in some ways, would be taking it easy on our election coverage so as not to upset any of you while we're asking for your support—we know Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders appeal to a lot of our readers. But taking it easy on anything is not in our DNA; in fact, it's exactly the opposite of what (we think) you want us to do.

....Two years ago, when few were talking about Clinton's links to the fossil fuel industry, we did a major investigative feature on her support for fracking as secretary of state; now her links to the fossil fuel industry are a big issue. Last summer, we ran the first in-depth piece on Sanders' political evolution (and put an illustration of him on Mount Rushmore on the cover of our magazine); it took months for other major outlets to take him seriously. Since then, we've both covered the breaking news in the race and dug deeper on the strong points and weak points of both candidates—because that's the job you want us to do.

Check it out and join the comments on the Facebook post if you’re so inclined. And if you want to support this kind of journalism, both in the magazine and here on the blog, help us out by pitching in a few bucks today for our spring fundraiser. You can give by credit card or PayPal.

Semi-Raw Data: Top Ten Countries by Twitter Removal Requests

| Sun Apr. 24, 2016 1:31 PM EDT

The number of official requests to remove Twitter content is growing fast. In the first half of 2015, Twitter received 1,013 requests. In the second half they received four times as many, 4,618. This includes removal requests from both court orders and government agencies.

So which country is most active at censoring Twitter? In absolute numbers, Turkey is the winner by a mile, with 2,211 requests in the second half of 2015. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan really, really doesn't like to be insulted.

But if you adjust for number of Twitter users, Turkey comes in second. I had to guess at the number of Twitter users in Mongolia, but even guessing conservatively they amassed an impressive 555 removal requests per million Twitter users. I'm not sure what that's all about.

Among Western countries, France is the leader by a bunch, with 47 removal requests per million users. The US and Britain, which have high absolute numbers thanks to their very high Twitter usage, clock in at a fairly modest 2.5 requests per million Twitter users.

Take these numbers with a big grain of salt. First off, it's hard to get good data on Twitter users per country. I think I'm in the right ballpark, but there are definitely some large error bars on this data. Second, removal requests don't have to be aimed only at a country's own Twitter users. Countries like the US and France likely have a fairly worldwide approach to this sort of thing.

Still, this gives you at least a rough idea of which countries are most active at trying to remove both Twitter accounts and individual tweets. Comments?

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Are Liberals Too Smug? Nah, We're Too Condescending.

| Sat Apr. 23, 2016 6:41 PM EDT

Are liberals too smug? Sure. That's what Emmett Rensin says at Vox, anyway. Unfortunately, his essay runs to a Voxtastic 7,000 words, so there probably aren't too many people willing to read it all the way through. These days, I'm tempted to say that the real problem with liberalism is that we've forgotten how to make a good, crisp point in a couple thousand words. We've fallen victim to the idea that longer essays signal greater importance. Maybe I'll write a 2000-word piece about that someday.

But anyway—smugness. Are liberals too smug? I'd say so, except I'm not sure smug is really the right word. Here is Rensin explaining it:

By the 1990s the better part of the working class wanted nothing to do with the word liberal. What remained of the American progressive elite was left to puzzle: What happened to our coalition? Why did they abandon us?

....The smug style arose to answer these questions. It provided an answer so simple and so emotionally satisfying that its success was perhaps inevitable.... The trouble is that stupid hicks don't know what's good for them. They're getting conned by right-wingers and tent revivalists until they believe all the lies that've made them so wrong. They don't know any better. That's why they're voting against their own self-interest.

....It began in humor, and culminated for a time in The Daily Show, a program that more than any other thing advanced the idea that liberal orthodoxy was a kind of educated savvy....The internet only made it worse. Today, a liberal who finds himself troubled by the currents of contemporary political life need look no further than his Facebook newsfeed to find the explanation:

....NPR listeners are best informed of all. He likes that.

....Liberals aren't just better informed. They're smarter.

....They've got better grammar. They know more words.

....Liberals are better able to process new information; they're less biased like that. They've got different brains. Better ones. Why? Evolution. They've got better brains, top-notch amygdalae, science finds.

Etc.

Fair enough. But what would you call that? There's some smugness in there, sure, but I'd call it plain old condescension. We're convinced that conservatives, especially working class conservatives, are just dumb. Smug suggests only a supreme confidence that we're right—but conservative elites also believe they're right, and they believe it as much as we do. The difference is that, generally speaking, they're less condescending about it.

(Except for libertarians. Damn, but those guys are condescending.)

In any case, to boil things down a bit, Rensin accuses liberals of several faults:

  • Making fun of all those working-class rubes who vote for Republicans.
  • Spending too much time citing research studies and insisting that simple facts back up everything we believe.
  • Adopting a pose of knowing things that are faintly arcane. "The studies, about Daily Show viewers and better-sized amygdalae, are knowing....Anybody who fails to capitulate to them is part of the Problem, is terminally uncool. No persuasion, only retweets. Eye roll, crying emoji, forward to John Oliver for sick burns."
  • Abandoning the working class because we just can't stand their dull, troglodyte social views.

I agree with some of this. I've long since gotten tired of the endless reposting of John Oliver's "amazing," "perfect," "mic drop" destruction of whatever topic he takes on this week. I'm exasperated that the authors of papers showing that liberals are better than conservatives seem unable to write them in value-neutral ways that acknowledge the value of conservative ways of thinking. I don't like the endless mockery of flyover country rubes. We should punch up, not down.

As it happens, I think Rensin could have constructed a much better case with 7,000 words to work with. His essay didn't feel very well researched or persuasive to me, even though I agree with much of it. Still, the pushback has mostly been of the "Republicans are smug too!" variety:

But this isn't smugness. It's outrage, or hypocrisy, or standard issue partisanship. And as plenty of people have pointed out, outrage sells on the right, but for some reason, not on the left. We prefer mockery. So they get Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly, while we get Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart.

You can find a good example in conservative criticism of political correctness on college campuses: trigger warnings, safe spaces, shouting down speakers, etc. They're infuriated by this. They think college kids are cosseted by their administrations; can't stand to be disagreed with; and have no respect for the First Amendment. But they're not usually smug or condescending about it. Most of the time they're scornful and outraged.

Generally speaking, elite conservatives think liberals are ignorant of basic truths: Econ 101; the work-sapping impact of welfare dependence; the value of traditional culture; the obvious dangers of the world that surrounds us. For working-class conservatives it's worse: they're just baffled by it all. They're made to feel guilty about everything that's any fun: college football for exploiting kids; pro football for maiming its players; SUVs for destroying the climate; living in the suburbs for being implicitly racist. If they try to argue, they're accused of mansplaining or straightsplaining or whitesplaining. If they put a wrong word out of place, they're slut shaming or fat shaming. Who the hell talks like that? They think it's just crazy. Why do they have to put up with all this condescending gibberish from twenty-something liberals? What's wrong with the values they grew up with?

So liberals and conservatives have different styles. No surprise there. The question is, do these styles work? Here, I think the answer is the same on both sides: they work on their own side, but not on the other. Outrage doesn't persuade liberals and mockery doesn't persuade conservatives. If you're writing something for your own side, as I am here most of the time, there's no harm done. The problem is that mass media—and the internet in particular—makes it very hard to tailor our messages. Conservative outrage and liberal snark are heard by everyone, including the persuadable centrist types that we might actually want to persuade. In the end, I think this is probably the real point to take away from Rensin's essay. The first law of marketing, after all, is to know your audience. Handily, that's also the first law of journalism.

Chart of the Day: Hillary and Bernie Duke It Out on Soda Taxes

| Sat Apr. 23, 2016 9:32 AM EDT

Finally we have a real difference between Hillary and Bernie. Hillary supports Philadelphia's proposed tax on sugary drinks of 3 cents per ounce. Bernie doesn't. "A tax on soda and juice drinks would disproportionately increase taxes on low-income families in Philadelphia," he said on Thursday.

Clearly this requires data. First off: how much of this tax would be passed on to consumers? The conventional wisdom is that most of it would, but a recent study out of Cornell suggests the real pass-through is much lower. The authors looked at prices of sugary drinks in Berkeley, which passed a 1-cent soda tax in 2014, both before and after the tax was implemented. Then they compared this to the before-and-after price of the same drinks in San Francisco, which voted in favor of a soda tax but not by the supermajority it required. The net difference is shown in the chart below:

The Snapple outlier is unexplained. Apparently 100 percent of the tax got passed through to Snapple addicts. But for most sugary drinks, only a fraction of the tax was passed through. Overall, after doing a bit of fancy math, the authors conclude that an average of 22 percent of the tax was passed through for Coke and Pepsi products.

So how would this affect Philadelphia? A Gallup poll confirms Bernie's general concern: low-income consumers are more partial to sugary drinks than high-income consumers, who prefer diet drinks. A recent NIS study concluded the same, and put some numbers to it. Using their data, I figure that a low-income family of three buys about 3,000 ounces more sugary soda per year than a higher income family. If 22 percent of the 3-cent tax is passed through, that's 0.66 cents per ounce, or about $20 per year for the entire family.

So yes, this is a regressive tax. On the other hand, it's also a pretty small tax, and the potential benefits are large if it cuts down on consumption of sugary soda and thus reduces the incidence of diabetes—a disease that's especially widespread among low-income families. But does it? Since we have virtually no real-world experience with this, nobody knows for sure.

So make up your own mind. It's possible to calculate a ballpark estimate of how much a soda tax would amount to, and although it's regressive, it's pretty modestly regressive. But we have no idea whether it would accomplish anything. We can only try and find out.

Evil Dex Update

| Sat Apr. 23, 2016 6:30 AM EDT

With the evil dex reduced to 12 mg, I thought I'd try taking it in the morning instead of at bedtime. I won't be doing that again. Even at the lower dose and with a sleeping pill, I'm wide awake at 3 am. I suppose I'm slightly less wide awake than before, but that's small comfort.

Oh well. If you don't try, you'll never know. I guess dex reaches its full effect after about 18 hours or so. Keep that in mind in case any evil doctor ever talks you into using it.

On the bright side, this is giving me plenty of time to Photoshop a new bit of desktop wallpaper with a better picture of the furballs. As usual, then, the score is Cats 1, Humans 0.

UPDATE: Here it is:

Suicide Rates Are Up, But the Most Obvious Explanations Are Probably All Wrong

| Sat Apr. 23, 2016 1:18 AM EDT

The CDC reports that the suicide rate was up again in 2014, and the Washington Post immediately offers some possible reasons. I've added numbers for easy reference:

(1) Last decade’s severe recession, (2) more drug addiction, (3) “gray divorce,” (4) increased social isolation, and even (5) the rise of the Internet and social media may have contributed to the growth in suicide, according to a variety of people who study the issue.

But (6) economic distress — and dashed hopes generally — may underpin some of the increase, particularly for middle-aged white people. The data showed a 1 percent annual increase in suicide between 1999 and 2006 but a 2 percent yearly hike after that, as the economy deteriorated, unemployment skyrocketed and millions lost their homes.

David French comments:

There’s much more to say about this, but millions of our fellow citizens — friends and neighbors — are experiencing existential crises that are far beyond the ability of politics to solve. With civil society faltering, families fracturing, and millions of Americans “bowling alone,” the human toll will only continue to rise. God forgive our nation for believing we could build a culture without you.

Let's slow down a bit. The causes of suicide are complex, and correlations are hard to prove. Still, there are a couple of things we can say. First, there should at least be a correlation if you're claiming causation, and second, the purported cause had better come first. You can't blame increased suicide on things that didn't happen until years later.

With that in mind, let's look at recent suicide rates for men. Not only does this help us control for gender, but it's also a less noisy set of data since men commit suicide at nearly 4x the rate of women. It turns out that suicide rates barely budged between 1999-2005, so I'm going to look only at 2005-14. The chart is on the right, with suicide rates divided into three 3-year buckets. Here are some things we can say based on this and other data in the CDC report:

  • The Great Recession (and economic distress more generally) doesn't really fit the facts. The suicide rate went up the most from 2005-2008, before the Great Recession. It went up the least from 2011-14. But if prolonged economic distress was at fault, you'd expect just the opposite: no effect before the recession and the greatest effect after it had been grinding away for a couple of years with no relief in sight.
  • Drug addiction is more plausible—but only modestly. According to HHS, marijuana use is up since 2005, but that's an unlikely cause of suicide. Cocaine, hallucinogen, and illicit prescription drug use is down. Heroin use and heroin dependence are up. Overdose deaths among heroin and prescription opioid users are also up—but they've been rising since 2002 and it's unclear how many of these deaths are suicides anyway. More generally, overall drug addiction rates have waxed and waned over the past five decades, and it's difficult to tease out a correlation between addiction and suicide rates over the long term.
  • "Gray divorce" has been a thing since the 80s, well before the suicide rate started rising. It hit the mainstream in early 2007 with the publication of Calling It Quits, also before the suicide rate started rising. What's more, suicide rates have been flat among the elderly since 1999. It's other age groups that have seen an increase. This is unlikely to be more than a minuscule cause at most.
  • Increased social isolation could be a cause, but the 2006 paper that kicked off this discussion suggested only that Americans had become more isolated between 1985 and 2004. This corresponds to a period when suicide was declining or flat. What's more, a 2009 Pew study that replicated the 2006 research found a substantially smaller—possibly zero—effect.
  • Internet and social media could also be a cause, though I don't really see what the mechanism is supposed to be. And that 2009 Pew study found that internet and cell phone users were less isolated than others.

We also know that suicide is up only among whites and Native Americans, but not among Hispanics or African-Americans. So any theory about the rise of suicide needs to at least engage with what might cause this. Are whites more economically distressed than blacks? That seems distinctly unlikely. Do they have higher drug addiction rates? Higher social isolation? More family fracturing? Maybe, but I'd like to see the evidence. And what about overall life satisfaction rates? They seem to have been quite stable over the past few decades. This doesn't suggest that growing existential angst is the cause.

My point here is not really that the increase in suicide rates can't possibly be due to any of these things. A deeper dive might implicate any of them. What's more, a lot of these possible causes affect a lot of people. But although suicide has seen a large percentage increase since 2005, in absolute terms it's only gone up by about 1000 per year. That's a small number, which makes it really hard to tease out from large-scale effects. A mere 1 percent change in the Gallup life satisfaction index, for example, represents a couple of million people, so it's unlikely to give us much insight into relatively tiny changes in the suicide rate.

So what is my point? Just this: writers need to be careful not to casually project their own sentiments or guesses onto a topic like this. Sure, the Great Recession might be the cause of more suicides. Maybe existential crises and fracturing families are the cause. Opioid abuse could be a factor. But just because these all seem plausible doesn't mean they're true. Likewise, just because you personally don't like the direction of American culture doesn't mean they're true either—no matter how true they seem. None of them should be tossed out casually.

For my money, we flatly don't know what's causing the increase in suicides over the past decade. Based on the size of the numbers and the evidence at hand, if you put a gun to my head I'd probably guess opioid abuse was the biggest cause. But I don't know, and I'm not sure anyone else knows either.