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Fox's Poll Cutoff for the Republican Debate Works Better Than Rachel Maddow Suggested Last Night

| Tue Jul. 28, 2015 11:14 AM EDT

Last night Rachel Maddow invited Lee Miringoff, polling director for the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, to discuss the way Fox News is using polls to cut the Republican debate field down to ten candidates. Basically, both Maddow and Miringoff agreed that the whole thing was ridiculous because so many of the candidates on the right-hand tail were so close to each other. Is it really fair for a guy who polls at 3.2 percent to be on stage while a guy with 2.7 percent is kicked to the corner? After all, the margin of error is 3 percentage points. There might not really be any difference between the two.

For some reason, Miringoff didn't push back on this. But he should have. There are two key bits of arithmetic they left out:

  • A typical poll has a 3 percent margin of error. But Fox News is averaging five polls. I don't know precisely what the margin of error is in this case, but it's probably somewhere around 1.5 percent.
  • The margin of error goes down as you go farther out on the tails. If you have two candidates polling 51-49, you can use the standard margin of error. But for candidates polling at 2 or 3 percent? It's roughly half the midpoint margin of error.

Put these two together, and the true margin of error for all the also-rans is something like 0.7 percentage points. This doesn't entirely negate Maddow's point, since the difference between 10th and 11th place might still be less than that. But it does mean the results are a lot less random than she suggested. Assuming Fox does its poll averaging correctly, there's actually a pretty good chance that the top ten really are the top ten.

That said, I wouldn't do the debate this way either. I'd rank all the candidates using the polling average, and then have one debate with all the even-numbered candidates and a second debate with all the odd-numbered candidates. Make it a 3-hour show with 90 minutes given to each group. What's so hard about that?

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Congress Just Can't Help But Fall In Love With a Nuclear Physicist

| Tue Jul. 28, 2015 10:23 AM EDT

Maybe you could call this the revenge of the nerds?

He’s blinding them with science.

Or intellectually charming them anyway. That’s how Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz seems to be winning fans in the difficult fight to sell the Iran deal on Capitol Hill....Moniz, a nuclear physicist with mad-scientist hair, has already been credited as the administration’s secret weapon in the lengthy negotiations to secure an Iran deal that will prevent the rogue country from securing a nuclear weapon.

....Moniz can certainly lapse into the technical talk with aplomb — and when he gets to talking about the half-lives of isotopes and the detection technologies that will be deployed to survey Iran’s suspected nuclear activities, he can leave his audience in the dust.

But in the two years since Moniz became Energy Secretary, lawmakers have far more often noted and applauded the former professor’s natural ability to translate complex scientific concepts into digestible terms.

It's funny, in a way. Plenty of highly-qualified scientists have testified before Congress, and mostly they get treated as if they were balky university freshmen. But nuclear physics! That still has cachet. Start talking about the half-lives of isotopes and legislators swoon with admiration.

Except for dumbest among them, of course, who can't tell the difference between an MIT-trained physics PhD and Dr. Phil. That, of course, would be Wisconsin's favorite son, Ron Johnson. He just wanted to talk about the danger of electromagnetic pulses. Nice work, Senator.

Soon You Might Actually Be Able to Tell How Much Added Sugar Is in Your Food

| Tue Jul. 28, 2015 6:09 AM EDT

When the popular news quiz show Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me! hosted the country's Surgeon General, Vicek Murthy, last weekend, he was confronted with the question: What's your one weakness? "Sweets," he answered, "I like bread pudding and cheesecake, in particular."

Even if you're concerned about your levels of added sugar intake, it's nearly impossible to tell how much you might be eating.

Many of us can identify with the hankering for the occasional piece of cheesecake after dinner. But lots of the added sugar you inhale probably doesn't come in the form of dessert. Rather, Americans get much of their sweetening in the form of beverages—especially soda—and packaged foods that at first glance seem snacky or savory (yep, one serving of hoisin sauce has two whole teaspoons; barbecue sauce one and a half). While the World Health Organization has suggested that adults should get no more than 5 percent of their daily calories from added sweeteners—that's about 6 teaspoons—the average American ingests roughly five times that amount every day.

For decades, researchers and doctors have been sounding the alarm about the negative health risks associated with a diet too rich in added sugars—from obesity, poor nutrition, diabetes, and even heart disease. But as I've written about in the past, even if you're concerned about your levels of added sugar intake, it's nearly impossible to tell how much you might be eating: Current food labels don't require added sugar to be listed. There's even indication that food companies have gone to great lengths to keep that information hidden from the public's eyes. The US Department of Agriculture used to list added sugars for popular products in online, but the database was removed in 2012 after companies claimed that added sugar amounts should be considered trade secrets.

So in March, the Food and Drug Administration proposed revising nutrition labels to include added sugars on packaged foods. And on Friday, the agency went even further by proposing to require that packaged food companies must also include a percent daily value of added sugar on the nutrition label. (The daily value would be based on the recommendation that added sugar not exceed 10 percent of total calories, or roughly 12 teaspoons of sugar a day).

The FDA has already received pushback from industry groups about the attempt to make added sugar quantities more transparent; the Corn Refiner's Association questioned the agency's "statutory authority to do so" and complained of a lack of "credible scientific evidence." Meanwhile, Kellogg argued that the proposal "to distinguish added sugars...may confuse consumers." Of course, Kellogg happens to be the world's "second largest producer of cookies, crackers, and savory snacks."

Getting a Home Loan Is Expensive—Especially for Black Women

| Tue Jul. 28, 2015 6:09 AM EDT

A recent study in the Journal of Real Estate and Finance Economics finds that black home loan borrowers are charged higher interest rates than their white counterparts—and that black women pay the highest rates of all.  

The three finance professors who authored the study analyzed the mortgages and demographic characteristics of more than 3,500 households during the height of the housing boom—2001, 2004, and 2007—using the Federal Reserve's triennial Survey of Consumer Finances. They found that on average, black borrowers were charged between 0.29 and 0.31 percentage points more in interest than whites, even after controlling for their debt and credit history.

The racial disparity was most pronounced for subprime borrowers who couldn't qualify for low-interest mortgages (the left side of the chart above), with black borrowers paying interest rates that were at least 0.4 percentage points higher than whites in the same group.

Within this group paying the highest interest rates, black women paid the highest rates of all, at an average rate of 7.9 percent. But a statistically significant disparity persisted even among those who paid lower interest rates (the right side of the chart), the study notes. In this group, black borrowers paid interest rates between 0.1 percent and 0.4 percentage points higher than their white counterparts.

Over at Quartz, Melvin Backman explains how these disparities translate into dollars: According to Freddie Mac's mortgage cost calculator, a $200,000, 30-year mortgage would cost a black man about $3,000 more than a white man over the course of the loan. A black woman getting the same loan would pay nearly $9,000 more than a white woman.

 

The study adds to a body of research showing that black mortgage applicants are more likely to be denied credit than white applicants, and are more likely to be charged higher interest rates than whites. It also appears to confirm the racial disparities identified in lawsuits against several of America's top mortgage lenders, including Wells Fargo and Bank of America's Countrywide, which faced hefty payouts in a slew of discrimination lawsuits following the housing-market crash. The lawsuits had even prompted the Obama administration to set up a new unit in the Department of Justice's civil rights division to deal with the caseload.

But the new study also suggests more granular disparities between black and white borrowers. Among black borrowers, for example, younger homeowners without a college education paid some of the highest interest rates. And among those paying higher interest rates, black women, who already face stiff obstacles to economic mobility, were likely to be charged interest rate premiums two to three times that of what black men were charged. While they do not speculate about the causes of these racial and gender gaps between borrowers, the authors conclude, "it is the more financially vulnerable black women who suffer the most."

Donald Trump's Lawyer: Marital Rape Cannot Be Rape

| Mon Jul. 27, 2015 10:12 PM EDT
Donald Trump and his ex-wife, Ivana Trump at a 1991 gala in New York City.

So Donald Trump used to be married to Ivana Trump. According to an account resurfaced by Tim Mak and Brandy Zadrozny at the Daily Beast, the former Mrs. Trump once used the word "rape" during legal proceedings in connection with an event between her and her ex-husband, the current GOP front-runner:

Ivana Trump's assertion of "rape" came in a deposition—part of the early '90s divorce case between the Trumps, and revealed in the 1993 book Lost Tycoon: The Many Lives of Donald J. Trump.

The book, by former Texas Monthly and Newsweek reporter Harry Hurt III, described a harrowing scene.

The Daily Beast has the entire "violent assault." It's indeed harrowing. Trump has denied the allegations.

"It's obviously false," Donald Trump said of the accusation in 1993, according to Newsday. "It's incorrect and done by a guy without much talent… He is a guy that is an unattractive guy who is a vindictive and jealous person."

It’s important to note that this never went to court, Trump never faced any charges, and Ivana Trump herself walked back the allegations before the book in question was published:

"As a woman, I felt violated, as the love and tenderness, which he normally exhibited towards me, was absent. I referred to this as a 'rape,' but I do not want my words to be interpreted in a literal or criminal sense."

This brings us now to Donald Trump's lawyer who The Daily Beast reached out to for comment. He went on a tirade that would make Trump blush:

Michael Cohen, special counsel at The Trump Organization, defended his boss, saying, "You're talking about the front-runner for the GOP, presidential candidate, as well as private individual who never raped anybody. And, of course, understand that by the very definition, you can't rape your spouse."

"It is true," Cohen added. "You cannot rape your spouse. And there's very clear case law."

Realizing perhaps that denying the undeniable criminality of spousal rape was not the best way to kill the story, Cohen switches gears, making things worse:

"You write a story that has Mr. Trump's name in it, with the word 'rape,' and I'm going to mess your life up…for as long as you're on this frickin' planet…you're going to have judgments against you, so much money, you'll never know how to get out from underneath it," he added.

Trump's lawyer continued to threaten the reporter by saying, "Tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting."

One thing is clear: Trump's lawyer has the same rhetorical style as Trump.

Shout out to my friend Nina Strochlic and former deputy Asawin Suebsaeng for helping report the story.

Obamacare Rates In California Will Rise Only 4% in 2016

| Mon Jul. 27, 2015 8:28 PM EDT

Obamacare's moment of truth is coming. By now we've heard all the scare stories about a few health insurers in a few states requesting gigantic rate hikes for next year. But over the next few weeks, states are going to start publishing the actual average rate increases that consumers will see in 2016. California released its report today. It's still marked preliminary, but you can expect that the final numbers will be very close to these:

I've highlighted two numbers. First, the overall average rate increase is 4.0 percent. That's way lower than you've seen in the scary headlines. And this is for a state that makes up more than a tenth of the country all by itself.

Second, the price of the second-lowest-price silver plan has gone up 1.8 percent. This is the figure used to calculate subsidy levels, so it's an important one. In fact, here's an interesting consequence of that number: because subsidies will be going up roughly 1.8 percent, and the cost of the lowest-price silver plan is going up only 1.5 percent, the net cost (including subsidies) of buying the cheapest silver plan is actually going down. As you can see in the bottom row, if you shop for the lowest-priced plan, your premiums are likely to decrease about 4.5 percent.

I have a feeling this number is not going to be widely reported on Fox News.

Now, California isn't necessarily a bellwether for all the other states. Because it's the biggest state in the union, it has lots of competition that helps drive down prices. A big population also means less variability from year to year. Also: California's program is pretty well run, and the California insurance market is fairly tightly regulated. All this adds up to a good deal for consumers.

In any case, the headline number here is a very reasonable 4 percent increase in overall premiums, and a 4.5 percent decrease for consumers shopping for the cheapest plans. These are real statewide numbers, not cherry-picked bits and pieces designed to encourage hysteria. Once again, it looks like Obamacare is working pretty well.

This all comes via Andrew Sprung, who has much more detail here.

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Boy Scouts End Age-Old Ban on Gay Leadership

| Mon Jul. 27, 2015 7:31 PM EDT
Boy Scouts and their families deliver 1.4 million signatures protesting the ban on gay Scouts and scoutmasters in 2013.

The Boy Scouts of America voted today to scrap a blanket ban on gay leaders, marking the end of a policy as old as the group itself. The change will also bar discrimination based on sexual orientation in all Boy Scouts of America official facilities and paying jobs.

Robert Gates, president of the Boy Scouts of America (and former US defense secretary), called for an end to the ban in May, saying the organization should "deal with the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be."

The end of the ban does not, however, mark complete acceptance of gay leaders: Some scout groups, particularly those with close religious affiliations, will be able to limit leadership positions to heterosexuals.

Here are some stories that demarcate turning points in the controversy:

  • An alternative group called the Navigators gained traction with families fed up with BSA policies against gay scouts, atheists, and families who wanted their daughters and sons to be in the same scouting troop. Navigators USA publicized itself as an organization that "welcomes all people...no matter what gender, race, lifestyle, ability, religious or lack of religious belief."
  • This timeline shows just how long anti-gay discrimination has been going on in the BSA. 
  • In 2013, the BSA ended its ban on kids in the program who identify as gay, but kept its ban on adults—meaning, in effect, that once a scout turned 18, he could be kicked out.
  • The Boy Scouts council threatened to kick out a Maryland pack for posting an inclusive statement on its website promising not to discriminate against gay scouts.
  • BSA funders such as UPS, United Way, the Merck Company Foundation, and the Intel Foundation fled for the hills as a direct result of the Boy Scouts' anti-gay policies.

 

Sorry Donald, Most Republicans Don't Actually Care That Much About Illegal Immigration

| Mon Jul. 27, 2015 5:32 PM EDT

Greg Sargent has an item today noting that by a 63-34 percent margin in a new CNN poll, Republicans believe the main focus of immigration policy should be stopping the flow of illegal immigration and deporting the illegal immigrants who are already here. No big surprise there. But when I clicked over to the poll itself I found a couple of things related to immigration that were kind of interesting.

First, CNN asked "Just your best guess, do you think the number of immigrants coming to the United States illegally has increased or decreased in the last few years?" Among Republicans, 83 percent thought it had increased. Granted, asking about the "last few years" is a little ambiguous, but if you assume at a minimum that it means less than a decade, then 83 percent of Republicans are woefully misinformed. As you can see from the Pew data on the right, the illegal immigrant population dropped considerably in 2008 and 2009 and has been basically flat ever since.

(By the way, among Democrats 61 percent think immigration has increased. That's a little better, but still not exactly a proud moment in voter awareness. It isn't just Fox News that's keeping us all misinformed.)

The second interesting question was one that asked about which issues were most important. This kind of thing always has to be taken with a grain of salt, but even so it's a little surprising how little Republicans actually care about immigration. For all the attention it's gotten from Donald Trump, only 9 percent said it was their most important issue, the lowest showing of any of the issues CNN asked about. The economy and terrorism/foreign policy were far and away the biggest worries among Republicans. Also surprisingly, health care didn't register very high either. The tea party may be yelling endlessly about the need to repeal the worst law since the Fugitive Slave Act, but among all Republicans, only a few rate it as a critical issue.

So....immigration and Obamacare probably aren't going to be gigantic issues this year among Republicans—or in the general election. As usual, the economy will be #1, and #2 will probably be terrorism and foreign policy in general.

Want to Meet a 9/11 Truther? Go to a Donald Trump Event

| Mon Jul. 27, 2015 5:03 PM EDT

Despite all the outrageous stunts and patently racist quotes from Donald Trump's current campaign for president, the real estate mogul continues to lead as the front-runner for the GOP nomination.

The Washington Post's David Weigel recently visited a Trump "family picnic" to take a look at the pandemonium surrounding the campaign. It's also where 9/11 Truth Activist Rick Shaddock happened to be before meandering into the press room to ask the following question:

Trump rejected the question, asking the reporters in the room, "Is this guy some kind of conspiracy guy?" But he shouldn't have been all too surprised by Shaddock's presence. After all, if you're going to peddle outrageous conspiracy theories, you're going to attract outrageous conspiracy theorists.

Hillary Clinton Refuses to Take a Position on the Keystone Pipeline

| Mon Jul. 27, 2015 1:45 PM EDT

Hillary Clinton took a strong stance on clean energy Monday, telling a crowd in Des Moines, Iowa, that her efforts to tackle climate change would parallel President John F. Kennedy's call to action during the space race in the 1960s.

"I want to get the country back to setting big ambitious goals," Clinton said. "I want us to get back into the future business, and one of the best ways we can do that is to be absolutely ready to address the challenge of climate change and make it work to our advantage economically."

Her remarks tracked closely with an ambitious plan her campaign released Sunday night, which set a target of producing enough renewable energy to power all the nation's homes and businesses by 2027.

"America's ability to lead the world on this issue hinges on our ability to act ourselves," she said. "I refuse to turn my back on what is one of the greatest threats and greatest opportunities America faces."

"I think it's bogus," said Bill McKibben. "The more she tries to duck the question, the more the whole thing smells."

Still, the Democractic front-runner refused—as she has several times before—to say whether or not she supports construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. That project, which would carry crude oil from Canada's tar sands to refineries and ports in the United States, is seen by many environmentalists as a blemish on President Barack Obama's climate record. It has been stalled for years in a lengthy State Department review that began when Clinton was still Secretary of State. The Obama administration has resisted several recent attempts by Congress to force Keystone's approval, but it has yet to make a final decision on the project—although one is expected sometime this year.

"I will refrain from commenting [on Keystone XL], because I had a leading role in getting that process started, and we have to let it run its course," Clinton said, in response to a question from an audience member.

Her non-position on Keystone earned derision from environmentalist Bill McKibben, whose organization 350.org has been at the forefront of opposition to the pipeline.

"I think it's bogus," he said in an email. "Look, the notion that she can't talk about it because the State Dept. is still working on it makes no sense. By that test, she shouldn't be talking about Benghazi or Iran or anything else either. The more she tries to duck the question, the more the whole thing smells."

Clinton also punted on an audience request to reveal further details of how exactly she would finance the renewable energy targets she announced yesterday, which aim even higher than those already put in place by Obama. She reiterated that one key step would be to ensure the extension of federal tax credits for wind and solar energy that have expired or are set to expire over the next few years. And she said that she would continue Obama's practice of pursuing aggressive climate policies from within the White House, saying that "we still have a lot we can do" without waiting for a recalcitrant Congress to act.

Clinton acknowledged that the clean energy boom would come at a cost for the US coal industry, which is already in steep decline. She said she would "guarantee that coal miners and their families get the benefits they've earned," but didn't elaborate on what she meant or how specifically she would achieve that.   

Environmental groups offered a generally positive reaction to Clinton's policy announcement Sunday. In a statement, League of Conservation Voters vice president Tiernan Sittenfield commended her for "calling out climate change deniers and effectively illustrating the urgent need to act on a defining issue of our time." She also earned praise from billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, who has set a high bar on climate action for any candidate who wants to tap his millions.

"I refuse to let those who are deniers to rip away all the progress we've made and leave our country exposed to climate change," Clinton said.