2010 - %3, October

The Scientist's Guide to Happiness

| Wed Oct. 6, 2010 6:48 AM EDT

For quite a while, scientists have largely understood happiness to be fairly static. Yes, your happiness would jump when you won the lottery, but a few years later, you'd be back to your genetically-determined "set point" happiness level. But this week, scientists from Netherlands, Germany, and Australia co-authored a paper (PDF) published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science that says life choices can cause permanent changes in happiness levels. Scientists had a number of findings that you might find useful. For example, women who are unattached but thin are happier than women who are obese but partnered; working more hours than you want to is better than being underemployed; people who prioritize family or altruistic goals are happier than those who pursue materialistic or self-centered goals.

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Tea Party Courts GOP's Evangelical Wing

| Wed Oct. 6, 2010 6:27 AM EDT

If there were ever any doubt that the tea party movement was considering a merger with old-line social conservatives, this should probably clinch it:

The Tea Party Patriots (TPP) is an umbrella group claiming to represent more than 15 million tea party activists nationwide. It has a pretty focused set of core values: fiscal responsibility, limited government, and free markets. By design, the list doesn't say anything about abortion, gay marriage, or any other hot-button social issues. But over the weekend, TPP leaders met with members of the Council for National Policy to try to raise some money. CNP is a secretive and powerful club that has worked to make the Republican Party more socially conservative. Founded in 1981 by Tim LaHaye, the evangelical minister, political organizer, and author of the Left Behind books about the coming apocalypse, CNP's board reads like a who's who of the GOP's evangelical wing.

According to the group's 2008 IRS filings, board members include Elsa Prince, a wealthy contributor to religious right causes, particularly anti-gay marriage efforts. (She is perhaps better known as the mother of Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater.) Joining her is the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins, Phyllis Schlafly, direct mail king Richard Viguerie, and Becky Norton Dunlop, the vice president for external relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation. By-invitation-only members of the group have included: Sarah Palin; the American Family Association's Don Wildmon; former FBI agent Gary Aldrich (now a TPP board member) who's famous for writing a book claiming that the Clintons hung sex toys on the White House Christmas tree; and former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, the chairman of FreedomWorks.

Earlier this year, the council was reportedly concerned about the rise of the tea party movement, which it viewed as insufficiently religious. Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, told Politico in March that he had to reassure the council members at their meeting in March that the tea party movement shared its values. Since then, the council seems to have decided to simply join the party rather than fight it.

In September, former disgraced Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed's new Faith and Freedom Coalition convened a convention in Washington to roll out a new "get out the vote" scheme. During the two-day meeting, Bob Reccord, CNP's executive director, moderated a chummy panel discussion of tea party activists, including Tea Party Patriots national coordinators Jenny Beth Martin and Mark Meckler. Meckler, who often emphasizes that the tea party movement does not touch social issues because they are too divisive, told the audience that in fact, tea partiers were angry because of "this idea of separation of church and state. We're angry about the removal of God from the public square."

The comment suggested that at least the Tea Party Patriots weren't averse to joining the culture wars—at least if it meant tapping social conservatives' significant fundraising abilities. After the discussion, I asked Meckler whether TPP was going to be working more with Reed or evangelical Christians. He said no, but apparently the cozy relations between CNP and the tea party activists on display at the Faith and Freedom event were a sign of other things brewing behind the scenes.

At this weekend's meeting with CNP in Orange County, California, TPP leaders handed out a "secret" strategy memo that lays out an ambitious goal: to "renew the commitment to limited government and free markets in the hearts and minds of at least 60 percent of the American public over the next 40 years." Posted online by talk show host and one-time Tea Party Express chairman Mark Williams, the memo indicates that in the short term, TPP anticipates spending $675,000 in a "get out the vote" effort before the midterm election, which includes everything from house parties to GPS-driven precinct walking lists. (Most of that money presumably comes from the $1 million anonymous donation TPP received last month and announced with great fanfare.)

Down the road, though, the group anticipates needing at least $175,000 to host a summit for newly elected leaders to inoculate them against the Trent Lotts of the world who would "co-opt" innocent freshmen congressmen and turn them into the "establishment." Lots of the money TPP is seeking would go towards—what else?—more tea party-type rallies, and, more interestingly, polling to see how well the group's social media, advertising, and other outreach efforts are working. Over the next 40 years, the bill would add up to about $100 million. Clearly TPP hopes that people like Prince and other deep-pocketed members of the council will be interested in picking up the tab. 

Whether the council decided to buy into the plan is anyone's guess. Neither TPP's Jenny Beth Martin or CNP's Reccord returned calls seeking further information. But the fact that TPP was even at the meeting at all suggests that TPP's top leadership don't see a conflict in advancing their agenda with money from people who have underwritten the very culture wars that the tea party movement has long claimed to eschew.

You're Not Going to Gliese 581g (a.k.a Zarmina)

| Wed Oct. 6, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

The discovery of the planet Gliese 581g (Zarmina)—a perhaps semi-habitable planet orbiting Gliese, a star 20 light-years away—was met with much rejoicing in the sci-fi nerd community when it was announced in late September. If you watched the mainstream media coverage, you'd think that we'd finally discovered a backup Earth—a planet that's relatively close that we could maybe colonize at some point in the future. Unfortunately, that's almost certainly not the case. Even if you got around some non-minor problems—the planet is tidally locked, with one side in permanent light (and heat) and the other in permanent darkness (and cold)—it would take a very long time to get there. Like, many lifetimes long. David McConville, a scientist who works with a space technology company, made a video about just how long it would take, and why the sci-fi myth that we have "backup Earths" and second chances is so pernicious:

Dave Goldberg of the User's Guide to the Universe is a lot more optimistic about advances in space travel. But his calculations include all sorts of ridiculous assumptions—the example of a sci-fi-style matter-antimatter drive, for example, to power the spacecraft. And even then, the fuel needed to power the trip would require an amount of energy that would take "3 million years to collect on earth if the entire surface were covered with solar panels." Basically, you're not going to Gliese 581g. We've got to take care of the planet we have. As Crosby, Stills, and Nash wisely said, "Love the One You're With":

(h/t io9)

DeMint: Gays, Women Who Have Sex Unfit to Teach

| Wed Oct. 6, 2010 5:15 AM EDT

It's hard to detach some right-wingers' concerns about gay rights or women's rights from their concerns about extramarital sex in general. Witness the recent comments of Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) on whether gays, lesbians, and unmarried women should be allowed to teach kids:

Speaking to the "Greater Freedom Rally" on Saturday at a church in Spartanburg, SC, DeMint actually advocated for fewer basic freedoms for gays and unmarried women. According the Spartanburg Herald-Journal, DeMint "said if someone is openly homosexual, they shouldn’t be teaching in the classroom and he holds the same position on an unmarried woman who’s sleeping with her boyfriend—she shouldn’t be in the classroom."

When this quote first came out, our Washington bureau chief, David Corn, emailed me to ask whether DeMint "really said this." David couldn't believe it—even of DeMint, perhaps the most conservative Senator in a very conservative GOP caucus. It's really that shocking. There's so much that's awful about this, but I especially love how DeMint's comments about restricting people's freedom to apply for the jobs they want came at a "Greater Freedom Rally."

Women's groups and Dems are pushing hard on these comments, pointing out that DeMint has handed out campaign cash to conservative candidates across the country. DeMint's comments are outrageous enough that they might encourage people who wouldn't otherwise vote to get to the polls. They'll also presumably help the DNC raise some money. But they probably won't change many people's votes—unmarried women, gays, and lesbians are already a pretty Democratic demographic. DeMint won't really pay. The GOP will still have a great November, and he'll still win overwhelmingly. What a jerk.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 6, 2010

Wed Oct. 6, 2010 4:30 AM EDT

U.S. Army 1st Lt. Dan Chapman, a platoon leader with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry, “Golden Dragons” 2nd Advise and Assist Brigade, 25th Infantry Division out of Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, pulls security during a cordon and search, in the Rashaad Valley near Kirkuk, Iraq, Sept. 25. Photo via. U.S. Army.

AfPak Update

| Wed Oct. 6, 2010 12:55 AM EDT

Today's war news:

If you believe all these things simultaneously, Pakistan doesn't really want us talking to the Taliban, they don't especially want us to fight the Taliban either, and they don't want to fight the Taliban themselves. Or something. Plus, Hamid Karzai is corrupt. Onward!

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ACA Once Again Working As Intended

| Tue Oct. 5, 2010 10:03 PM EDT

Stephen Spruiell writes:

Janet Adamy of the Wall Street Journal has become the administration’s worst nightmare — a writer for a major newspaper who calmly, straightforwardly, without spin or bias, reports on the unintended consequences of Obamacare as they unfold.

Oh for chrissake. Another "unintended consequence"? I guess I'd better click the link and see what it is this time. Turns out it's a story about 3M's retiree health plan:

While thousands of employers are tapping new funds from the law to keep retiree plans, 3M illustrates that others may not opt to retain such plans over the next few years

...."As you know, the recently enacted health care reform law has fundamentally changed the health care insurance market," the memo said. "Health care options in the marketplace have improved, and readily available individual insurance plans in the Medicare marketplace provide benefits more tailored to retirees' personal needs often at lower costs than what they pay for retiree medical coverage through 3M.

"In addition, health care reform has made it more difficult for employers like 3M to provide a plan that will remain competitive," the memo said.1 The White House says retiree-only plans are largely exempt from new health insurance regulations under the law.

Long story short, 3M is going to stop allowing retirees to buy into its corporate health plan starting in 2014. This is not because of any unintended consequence of ACA. It's because 3M wants to reduce its costs. Starting in 2014, thanks to ACA, high-quality private insurance will become available to everyone, so 3M has decided to give its retirees money to buy into a private plan of their choice instead of carrying them on its company plan. That's all there is to this.

Look: the whole point of ACA is to make high-quality private insurance available to everyone in the country at a reasonable price. And yes, when an alternative like this comes along, some companies will elect to take advantage of it. Others won't. It's a free choice, and it's part of a trend that was happening before ACA was even a gleam in Barack Obama's eyes. As NPR reported today:

Economist Paul Fronstin, who directs the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute, says 3M is probably the first big company to announce such changes. But he expects more companies will follow, because the new law limits how much premiums can vary based on age and other factors, such as pre-existing medical conditions.

"Employers are looking at that and saying, 'Why do I need to be offering this benefit anymore when my retirees can go out and get something that's actually better for them than what I'm offering," said Fronstin. "They can get something better than what I'm offering them and pay more, or they can buy something that's less comprehensive than what I've been offering and pay less."

Using this as some kind of black mark against ACA is crazy. It's tantamount to saying the government should never provide anything good, because if it does then someone might choose to take advantage of it. If that's the conservative view of government, include me out.

1This claim is almost certainly specious. I don't know of any provision of ACA that would have anything more than a minor effect on 3M's retiree plan.

The Problem With Idaho

| Tue Oct. 5, 2010 9:29 PM EDT

Moscow, Idaho—Moscow has been called "the Berkeley of Idaho," which is kind of a loaded statement, I guess. Mostly, I think, this refers to the fact that there's a university, and cool bars, and coffee shops (try Bucer's), an arts scene, and even a few honest-to-goodness liberals. That, and the communist thing.

It's a nice little town in the heart of the Palouse, a 10,000 square-mile stretch of rolling hills of golden wheat in southeastern Washington and northwest Idaho. The hills of the Palouse—sprawling dunes of super-rich glacial silt—are steep enough in spots that a combine capable of climbing them wasn't invented until the mid-20th century, and they're sufficiently sculpted so that if you can observe them from an elevation, and at the right time of year (I didn't), it gives the illusion of a technicolor Sahara. Coming from the west, the Palouse is the first real patch of farmland you'll have seen for hundreds of miles and the most stunning in at least five hundred; the wheat fields forms elaborate, symmetrical patterns, drawing a depth from the shadows and a scope against the Big Sky sky that makes the monotony of the corn belt wilt by comparison.

Moscow's a beautiful place—it just shouldn't be in Idaho.

Corn on "Hardball": Christine O'Donnell Not a Witch

Tue Oct. 5, 2010 7:37 PM EDT

David Corn and Pat Buchanan joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss (heatedly) the latest ad from Christine O'Donnell and recap recent developments in the Connecticut and New York Senate races.

 David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

The Output Gap

| Tue Oct. 5, 2010 5:09 PM EDT

The financial crash of 2008 has produced lots of grim looking charts, and Neil Irwin has another one today. It shows our current output gap: the difference between where the economy is and where it would be if growth had been normal. At the far left you can see the positive output gap of the late 90s followed by a negative output gap during the ensuing recession. That's fairly normal.

What we have now isn't. The economy didn't overheat during the aughts. It was running at its usual historical rate. So the financial crash opened up a huge gap, and it's one we're not closing. If the economy grows at 6% a year — far higher than its current rate — unemployment wouldn't reach normal levels until 2012. If growth averages 3% a year, unemployment won't reach normal levels until 2020.

That's a long time to wait. If we want unemployment to come down any time soon, we need sustained economic growth of 4-5% per year for the next five years. Unfortunately, right now we're not doing anything to get us there. Neither Congress nor the Fed is willing to take any kind of serious action. So we're stuck. At the rate we're going now, we're staring at high unemployment rates for the better part of another decade.