2010 - %3, July

Taxing Sugary Soda

| Wed Jul. 7, 2010 2:07 PM EDT

Via Matt Yglesias, here's a chart from a recent Dept. of Agriculture study suggesting that a 20% tax on sugary soft drinks would reduce overall consumption of said beverages and thereby reduce our net calorie intake from all beverages:

By assuming that 1 pound of body fat has about 3,500 calories, and assuming all else remains equal, the daily calorie reductions would translate into an average reduction of 3.8 pounds over a year for adults and 4.5 pounds over a year for children.

Not so fast, I say. Even assuming that all the assumptions in the report are correct, all it does is show that our net calorie intake from beverages would, on average, go down. But if you switch to diet soda, it's pretty likely that you'll just make up the calories somewhere else. In fact, if this study is correct, it's possible that you might increase your total calorie intake.

I'd actually be interested in some large state imposing a tax like this purely for research purposes, and since I don't drink sugared soda I'd be happy to nominate California. We need the money anyway. But my guess is that the results would disappointing. People might end up swilling less high-fructose corn syrup, but they'd probably just eat more corn nuts to make up for it.

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Dept. of Amusing Campaign Tactics: Strickland-Kasich Edition

| Wed Jul. 7, 2010 1:46 PM EDT

Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland really wants you to know what a regular Ohio guy he is. When Ohioans go to the polls, Strickland wants them to remember that he's like them—and that the fellow who's running against him, John Kasich, is just a big-city banker. It's a plausible strategy. Kasich once worked for Lehman Brothers (the horror!). Kasich's spokesman even helped Strickland's campaign narrative along by mocking the fact that the governor grew up "in a chicken shack." Now the Strickland campaign is doubling down on the down-homeyness by playing up the guitar stylings of Frances Strickland, Ted's wife. Witness:

Frances also played guitar on the campaign trail when Strickland ran for his first term in 2006. You can bet the Strickland campaign is going to continue to try to emphasize these sorts of "identity" stories in the weeks and months to come.

John Zogby Isn't Jealous of Nate Silver

| Wed Jul. 7, 2010 1:12 PM EDT

As you may have heard, Nate Silver's political statistics/projection blog FiveThirtyEight will be moving to the New York Times. This is a huge win for Silver— and for people who haven't been exposed to his intricate work with polling data—but veteran pollster John Zogby is not pleased. Not. One. Bit. He even said so, in an op-ed at the Huffington Post. Samples from Zogby's cantankerous rant below:

"You are hot right now—using an aggregate of other people's work, you got 49 of 50 states right in 2008. I know how it is to feel exhilarated. I get the states right a lot too. But remember that you are one election away from being a mere mortal like the rest of us."

"Those of us doing this work for decades understand that so much happens in the closing weeks, days, and hours of a campaign. As many as 4% to 10% of likely voters tell us they make up their minds the day of the election. Some of my colleagues suggest that you are being disingenuous when you knowingly use this data; others say you have a personal axe to grind. But repeating these errors over and over will not make them true."

"You are a statistician—a very good one—but you are not a pollster. You should conduct some polls and learn that the rest of us good pollsters survey people, not statistics. The numbers tell the story; preconceived ideologies and fuzzy-math statistical models do not."

Nate Silver, never one to shy away from engaging with critics and commenters, responded last night. Here's some of what he said. The entire response is here.

"Mr. Zogby, I think you may be mistaking me for my Wikipedia page. I don't really spend a lot of time touting my accomplishments or resting on my laurels—there are no marketing materials of any kind on this site... So when we get something right, we usually just move on with our lives rather than brag about it."

"Along those lines, I think you need to examine the thought process behind your interactive (Internet) polling, which any objective attempt at analysis will demonstrate has achieved vastly inferior results, beyond any shadow of a doubt."

"I knowingly am a bit conceited about is the only thing that I have complete control over: the amount of effort that I put into FiveThirtyEight and my other projects. I work my butt off—80-100 hour weeks have been the norm for about two years here."

The Gulf of Oil from Space on Day 75

| Wed Jul. 7, 2010 1:06 PM EDT

 

This Earth Observatory posted this image from July 4th of oil from the damaged Deepwater Horizon oil well off the Mississippi Delta. The MODIS on NASA’s Terra captured the natural-color image. The oil appears as an uneven light gray shape east-southeast of the delta.

Is Our Kids Studying? – Take 2

| Wed Jul. 7, 2010 12:33 PM EDT

After I posted a couple of days ago on the subject of whether or not college students are studying less than they used to, I got a long email on the subject from Paul Camp, a physics professor at Spelman University. This is pretty far outside my wheelhouse of expertise, but his take was so interesting that I wanted to repost it here just so that everyone would have a chance to comment on it. Here's what he told me:


I've been engaged in a few conversations about this in the past couple of years. I can offer the following data that correlates with anecdotal evidence from other professors at a variety of institutions.

Since the early 1990's, I have pre and post tested all of my introductory mechanics classes using a research based diagnostic instrument, the Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation. This instrument is based on research by Ron Thornton at Tufts that identified a reproducible sequence of intermediate states that all people seem to pass through in the process of gaining a Newtonian understanding. So it can give me not only a do they get it/do they not measure, but also, along several conceptual dimensions, a measure of how close they are to getting it.

My first job out of graduate school was at an unranked tier 4 institution in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Coastal Carolina "University" to be specific. It was the 13th grade. There were a few brilliant students — I've learned that for a variety of reasons you can find exceptional students anywhere — but for the most part the student body was composed of people who were there for financial reasons or because they thought it would be a cool idea to go to school at the beach. The first four pages of our brochure described the beach, not the college. We knew which side our bread was buttered on.

I pretty reliably got 50-60% normalized gains on the FMCE.

Normalized gain is the ratio of how much their scores increased compared to how much they could have increased — (post-pre)/(100-pre). 50-60% is actually pretty stupendous on this particular measure. It means they were typically getting 80-90% of the questions right.

I left that job in a huff. There's a very long story, but the short version is that I was ordered by my dean to give everyone a passing grade and I wouldn't do it. I spent 5.5 years in a research position at Georgia Tech before coming to Spelman.

Spelman is a top 75 liberal arts college, according to US News, and top 10 according to the Washington Monthly. My personal impression of the students is that the average is generally much higher than it was at Coastal. These are students who can think around a few corners. Also, since they are able to cross register in some considerably easier classes at other AUC institutions, I tend to get classes of students who are there because they choose to be there and are therefore more engaged and thoughtful about their efforts.

I think I'm at least as good an instructor as I used to be, and probably a lot better. I know quite a bit more about developmental psychology and cognitive science as a result of my job at Georgia Tech and I think that improves my instruction considerably.

And yet, in a good year I get about 20-30% normalized gains.

I don't really know what is different but something clearly is.

Right now, I'm blaming No Child Left Behind, but that is less because of data than of general suspicion of high stakes testing. In fact, I am also now quite skeptical of pre/post testing (I could send you a research paper on that if you're interested) but not enough that I can account for the difference in the data.

My job at Georgia Tech involved, among other things, observing curriculum implementations in middle schools. I was in the schools at least once a week, and at one point three days out of five for 10 weeks. What I saw was deeply disturbing.

In Georgia, the tests come at the beginning of May so on the first of March all education comes to a screeching halt. From that point on, the entire day is filled with drilling on multiple choice practice tests, pep rallies about how great we're going to do on the tests, and so on. After the test, the school year is over. Until the second week in June, every day is field day, movie day, recess day . . . since you can no longer affect the test, there's really no longer any point in school, now is there?

This means that compared to when I was in school (in Georgia), the school year has been shortened by a third and the one things that students have the most experience with by far is multiple choice testing.

Forgive me if I point out that this isn't really the best preparation for college.

I can't really say that this is a correct account. I can say that many faculty I have spoken with have expressed similar observations without me prompting them, but the difference between me and them is that I have data. I know what I used to get at a crappy college with surfer students, and I know what I now get at a top tier college with highly engaged students, and it isn't consistent with ought to be happening, all other things being equal.

So that's my data point. I suppose I could always have had some kind of mental excursion and become a bad teacher without knowing it, but I don't think so and my students don't think so either, and neither do my peers in and out of the physics department. So I'm going to provisionally discount that explanation.

I left Coastal in 1998. I started at Spelman in 2004. You tell me what changed during that time frame.

Donald Berwick (Temporarily) Appointed CMS Head

| Wed Jul. 7, 2010 12:23 PM EDT

Yesterday Barack Obama decided that the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services really couldn't go leaderless any longer, so instead of waiting fruitlessly for Senate Republicans while they obstructed his nominee for another few months he made a recess appointment. Donald Berwick is now the head of CMS.

And what do I think of Berwick? Who cares? I mean, what do I know about the guy? He seems to be a serious, well-respected wonk who's an expert on healthcare delivery and eminently qualified to run CMS, and I don't think the Senate should be wasting its time confirming positions like this anyway. It should just be a straight presidential appointment. But via Ezra Klein, Berwick wins my heart forever by making this #2 on his list of proposed hospital reforms:

Patients would determine what food they eat and what clothes they wear in hospitals

The rest of his reforms are pretty good too — though I guess I'm not sure how practical #5 is. In any case, sign me up as a Berwick fan!

And on a less lighthearted note, I repeat that he appears to be a serious, well-respected wonk who's an expert on healthcare delivery and eminently qualified to run CMS. It's way past time to put an end to the farcical regime of Senate confirmation that prevents the president from appointing a guy like this. Ezra:

If Berwick cannot find a smooth confirmation, then no industry leaders who are nominated in a time of political polarization can. And that'll mean, in the long run, that the best people will hang up the phone when they get that call from the White House, as they don't want to see their past quotes pulled out of context and picked apart, and they don't want to spend a year in limbo only to settle for a recess appointment, and they won't be under any illusions that respect from both sides of the aisle and an unimpeachable record will be armor enough.

Roger that.

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Quote of the Day: Arizona's Legislature

| Wed Jul. 7, 2010 11:56 AM EDT

From Ken Silverstein, describing a state that was effectively taken over by the Tea Party years ago:

The general unsightliness of the capitol makes it a fitting home for today's Arizona legislature, which is composed almost entirely of dimwits, racists, and cranks.

C'mon Ken, don't hold back. Tell us what you really think.

Arizona Police Prep for Immigration Crackdown

| Wed Jul. 7, 2010 11:24 AM EDT

The Obama administration finally filed its long-anticipated lawsuit against Arizona’s harsh immigration law on Tuesday. But the suit won’t stop the law from going into effect as scheduled on July 29, and Arizona officials are already preparing for the crackdown. Last week, the state released the guidelines—including a 90-minute DVD—that will be used to train 15,000 law enforcement officers to enforce the law.

The video repeatedly emphasizes that racial profiling is against the law and should not be used to determine whether someone is an illegal immigrant. But the state also says that police officers can use dress, the ability to speak English, and presence in a place where “unlawfully present aliens are known to congregate looking for work” as acceptable grounds for reasonable suspicion. (Under the law, police must have another grounds for stopping someone first—e.g., if they suspect the person has violated a state or local ordinance—before they can inquire about immigration status.)

Pro-immigration activists, however, contest that such guidelines still effectively legitimize racial profiling. "I don't believe the police will approach white people and ask them for their papers because of the way they're dressed,” one Latino activist told Gannett News Service. And even state officials admit in the DVD that they’re not sure how all the parts of the law are supposed to be enforced. “[T]he law allows any legal resident of Arizona to sue if a local agency has a ‘policy’ against enforcing federal immigration laws, but the video warns that no one knows what that means,” writes the Los Angeles Times. “The provision puts police in an awkward situation, [a state official] says in the video, because they will be accused of racial profiling for enforcing the law and risk a lawsuit if they don't.”

2010 Hopefuls: Me? Politician? Never!

| Wed Jul. 7, 2010 11:20 AM EDT

The first thing you notice when you see the names Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.) and Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) is the title: "Rep." Namely, member of the US House of Representatives, a chamber that's one-half of a Congress deeply unpopular among most Americans right now. Ellsworth and Blount and just about every other incumbent running for office in 2010 understand that "Washington" and "career politician" are labels to be avoided at all costs. But you'd think, in a campaign advertisement, guys like Ellsworth and Blunt would at least acknowledge the fact that their current employer is the House of Representatives, right?

Wrong. In two new ads, one from Ellsworth and one from Blunt who're both angling for the US Senate this fall, neither congressman so much as mentions his current job here in Washington. As he walks through a decrepit warehouse, Ellsworth says in his ad, "One thing that 25 years as a sheriff teaches you is zero tolerance for bull. There's too much at stake. But out in Washington it's like they live and breathe the stuff." A two-term congressman and Blue Dog Democrat, Ellsworth goes on to rail against lobbyists and special interests in the 30-second ad, and typically paints himself as an outsider aiming to breathe fresh air into the corrupt Senate:

Likewise, Missouri congressman Roy Blunt avoids mentioning his current job, and instead stresses his previous roles as a teacher and president of Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri. "Irresponsible spending and crippling debt are killing jobs today, and our children's future tomorrow," he says in the ad. Yet Blunt's omission is even more glaring than Ellsworth's. Blunt, after all, has full Washington resume: A House member since 1997, he's former Majority Whip and Majority Leader, and right now he's the second-highest GOPer on the House energy and commerce committee. Here it is:

Ellsworth and Blunt's ads are notable for their complete omission of the two congressman's jobs, but not at all surprising. Upwards of 70 percent of Americans disapprove of the job that Congress is doing. Another glaring example is Nevada gubernatorial candidate Rory Reid, son of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, whose campaign has done a stellar job of airbrushing out Rory's ties to his largely unpopular father (at least outside Democratic circles.)

The lesson here is this: Any candidate who touts his Washington credentials on the campaign trail is committing political seppuku and sealing his or her own demise. Watch for plenty more ads like these in the weeks and months to come, as the wave of occupational amnesia spreads to more incumbents fighting for survival.

Ethanol Subsidies: Bad for the Gulf, Good for BP

| Wed Jul. 7, 2010 10:54 AM EDT

Josh reported yesterday on the National Corn Growers Association's attempt to put a farmer-friendly spin on the Gulf disaster by promoting ethanol as an alternative. But as Josh notes, ethanol production presents its own disaster for the Gulf. But it gets worse: among the major beneficiaries of our country's corn-loving ways is BP. The oil giant stands to gain $600 million through ethanol tax breaks this year alone.

An analysis from Environmental Working Group finds that BP will bring in millions through the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (or VEETC), a tax break for refiners that blend ethanol into gasoline. The tax credit has become yet another handout to oil companies.

"As one of the largest blenders and marketers of biofuels in the nation, we blended over 1 billion gallons of ethanol with gasoline in 2008 alone," BP boasts on its website. According to the Energy Information Association, BP is the fourth largest ethanol blender in the country.

EWG notes that in 2008 the VEETC was worth 51 cents per gallon, which means BP would have brought in $510 million. Now the tax credit is 45 cents per gallon, but "it is highly likely that BP is blending more ethanol now than they did in 2008," EWG writes. Between 2005 and 2009, taxpayers shelled out $17 billion in credits to subsidize corn growers, according to EWG's analysis.

CongressDaily has more on how Big Oil is a major beneficiary of these tax breaks.

So despite what the corn lobby wants us to believe, our ethanol policies are actually a boon for BP, too.