2011 - %3, January

RIP, Select Committee on Global Warming

| Thu Jan. 6, 2011 9:39 AM EST

The kick-off of the 112th Congress on Wednesday also marked the end of an era in the House—the demise of a committee devoted solely to climate change and energy issues. The Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming, created by Nancy Pelosi in 2006, has been shuttered under the new Republican leadership. In the final days of the committee, staffers released a report on what the committee accomplished in its brief tenure—an epitaph of sorts.

Tackling issues from the politicization of climate science to the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, the committee held 80 hearings and briefings. It played a role in shaping policy for the 2007 energy bill, the 2009 stimulus package (which included $90 billion in energy, efficiency, and other green elements), and, of course, the 2009 climate bill (the one that never became law, of course, because the Senate didn't act on it).

The final report concludes with the question of whether the United States will respond to all the information that the committee has compiled during its lifespan on the climate and energy challenge:

Someday, our children and grandchildren will look back on the record of the Select Committee. That record will reflect a respectful and rigorous debate and an unprecedented understanding of the challenges before us. Whether or not they will see that this generation has taken the bold action required by these challenges remains to be seen.

Select Committee Chair Ed Markey (D-Mass.) will now serve as the ranking member of the natural resources committee, so I'm sure we will be hearing more on the subject from him in the next two years.

There had been some talk among Republicans of keeping the committee alive so it could be used to mock climate change and harass scientists, but leadership put the kibosh on that idea. It went out on a high note, and on its own terms, so I suppose we can take some small comfort in that.

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Is The Jobs Recovery Finally Here?

| Thu Jan. 6, 2011 9:29 AM EST

Has the once-mightly American jobs machine finally lurched back to life? According to a startling new employment report, the answer to that question is a long-awaited yes.

On Wednesday, business data corporation ADP said in its monthly jobs report (PDF) that private employers had added 297,000 jobs in December 2010. That figure exceeded—and, in some cases, nearly tripled—estimates by economists and the business press for December, and far outpaced the total for November, which was 92,000. Indeed, 297,000 jobs is the biggest jump since ADP began keeping jobs records in 2001.

There's no one answer for why hiring spiked in December. One theory: "Companies have been pretty cautious and they've accumulated a lot of spending power, and we’ve seen that in purchases of equipment and software," one economist told Bloomberg News. "Now they need more workers to man the equipment.

So how much should we care about the ADP report? The Wall Street Journal's Dave Kansas writes that ADP, for the most part, tended to underestimate jobs gains month by month in the past year. That's partly due to government hiring, like the temporary jobs created by the Census in 2010, which briefly made the jobs rolls look healthier than they probably were. But in all but one month of 2010, the ADP jobs report low-balled the official report, released by the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics a few days after ADP's report comes out. Economist Mark Thoma, however, says ADP is not the most reliable of sources, especially when reporting on jobs during the holiday season, when figures fluctuate even more than usual.

Now, if the Labor Department does report encouraging numbers on Friday, it'll be bittersweet news for the Democrats. They were trounced in midterm elections largely for their inability to jumpstart America's jobs market, yet it was the Democrats who laid the groundwork for jobs growth last month. No doubt both parties will try to spin any good jobs news—even if it's not as optimistic as ADP's report—as evidence of their hard work bearing fruit.

But even if the economy added 300,000 jobs in December, that's nowhere close to filling the massive jobs deficit plaguing the American economy. The jobs market needs not one or two but dozens of months of job growth—think 300,000 jobs or more—to be on the path to recovery. Right now, we're not even close.

Six Self-Control Tips From Experts

| Thu Jan. 6, 2011 8:59 AM EST

Over the past four months, I gained a little weight. About 20 pounds to be exact. My beautiful runner's abs have slowly softened into a jelly belly, my butt has become a pants-busting behemoth. In short, it's time to hit the gym. But like every journalist, I'm an expert procrastinator. What better way to stave off actually doing something about my new love handles than to conduct "research"? Over the holidays, I read Daniel Akst's new hardcover, We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess, which relies on scientific studies to help explain why it's so hard to resist fatty foods and tobacco and other indulgences, even when we know the consequences. To help us all in our New Year's resolutions, I've summarized below a few self-control tips from Akst, some from his book and others from this interview I did with him. Now excuse me while I go hop on a treadmill. Or at least think about it.

1) Be humble. Know that your willpower is limited, evolutionarily disadvantaged, and will fade under stress. Acknowledge that you don't have total control of yourself, as willpower is strongly correlated with genetics.

2) Pre-commit. Knowing your weaknesses, take steps to "pre-commit" to your goals, meaning you change your environment to include or exclude desired presences. Don't want to eat cookies? Don't buy them at the grocery store. Want to work out? Take a new route to the office that forces you go past the gym, or pack a work-out bag and put it in your car. 

3) Document. If you mark on the calendar that you've resisted the donut shop's siren call for X number of days, give yourself a reward. But don't overdo it. Instead, strive to make your next number of days even longer. 

4) Enlist others to help you. Knowing we traditionally used others to help ensure harmony (e.g. having people witness your wedding so you're less likely to break its vows), do the same with your resolutions. Make a bet with a friend for a significant amount of money or a donation to a cause you hate. E.g. if your weight goes above 200, you must donate $500 to the NRA or give your friend $1000. The higher the price you set on failure, the likelier you are to succeed. 

5) When faced with temptation, you can deal with it with resistance techniques such as thinking of something else, reading a book, keeping the desired object out of your sightline, or listing unattractive attributes of the object of desire rather than focusing on attractive ones.

6) Go outdoors. Studies have shown that spending time in nature strengthens self-resolve, even among the weak-willed. Time spent among green, living things will not only up your willpower, it's an easy way to work in some endorphin-boosting exercise or meditation. 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 6, 2011

Thu Jan. 6, 2011 5:30 AM EST

Soldiers and Marines walk through rotor wash from a UH-60 Blackhawk Helicopter as they move toward a Forward Operating Base in the village of Darrah-I-Bum, Badghis Province, Afghanistan Jan. 5, 2011. The cadre of personnel accompanied the International Security Assistance Force Command Sergeant Major, Command Sgt. Maj. Marvin L. Hill on a visit to the Marines, sailors, and Soldiers of Special Operations Task Force-West living and working in Darrah-I-Bum. U.S. Marine photo/Sgt. Brian Kester

The Great MMR Vaccine Fraud

| Thu Jan. 6, 2011 1:00 AM EST

The belief that vaccines cause autism got its start in 1998 with a paper in the Lancet authored by Andrew Wakefield. We've known for a long time that it was a piece of crap: it used a nonrandom sample of 12 children, it depended largely on observations by parents, it was marred by egregious conflicts of interest, and in 2004 it was renounced by 10 of its co-authors and later retracted by the magazine. That's all bad enough. But it turns out that it was even worse: the paper was an outright fraud from start to finish. Aaron Carroll summarizes:

How bad was the deception?

First of all, in order for this all to make sense, the children had to have what is known as “regressive autism”. In other words, they had to have been fine — normal, in fact — and then get much worse after the MMR shot, developing autism. Children who obviously weren’t right from the start would have had something wrong already, and not have autism caused by the MMR vaccine. In Wakefield’s paper, he described 9 of the 12 children as having regressive autism. Mr. Deer’s investigation found that three of the 9 children he reported as regressive autism were not. Moreover, an additional 5 of the remaining 6 could not be proven to have regressive autism. So — at best — only 6 of the 12 children in the study had regressive autism; more likely, only one did.

Next, Wakefield’s paper alleged that a colitis brought on by the vaccine is what led the shot to become so damaging. In his paper, he reported that 11 of 12 of the children had a nonspecific colitis. What did the records show? That only 3 of the 12 had nonspecific colitis. The other 6 cases were falsified.

And, of course, the final piece of the puzzle was that symptoms needed to start not long after the vaccine was given. In Wakefield’s paper, 8 of the 12 patients reported symptoms days after the MMR. Mr. Deer’s investigation confirmed that for 10 of the 12 children, this was false. For the other two it was unknown. So — at best — 2 of the 12 children showed symptoms near the vaccine. At worst, none did.

And Lancet's editors added this: "Is it possible that he was wrong, but not dishonest: that he was so incompetent that he was unable to fairly describe the project, or to report even one of the 12 children’s cases accurately? No. A great deal of thought and effort must have gone into drafting the paper to achieve the results he wanted." The punchline, of course, is that parents panicked over Wakefield's results and lots of them decided not to get their kids vaccinated. As a result:

Measles has surged since Wakefield's paper was published and there are sporadic outbreaks in Europe and the U.S. In 2008, measles was deemed endemic in England and Wales.

The vaccine-autism quackery that Jenny McCarthy and her ilk continue to promote isn't just harmless fun and games. It's damaged untold children and might well have killed a few. It's long past time for it to stop.

Quotes of the Day: Pitchforks and Plutocrats

| Wed Jan. 5, 2011 8:45 PM EST

From Matt Steinglass, commenting on Chrystia Freeland's "global elites":

Back in mid-2009, Barack Obama told the assembled plutocrats of Wall Street that they ought to be more grateful to him; he was "the only thing standing between you and the pitchforks." The plutocrats smiled, and departed by helicopter. To the extent any pitchforks have been seen, they were applied to the Democrats' behinds last November. Perhaps, rather than attempting to stand between Wall Street and any hypothetical pitchforks, Mr Obama should have gotten out of the way.

And Ryan Avent on the same theme:

It's striking how little inchoate public rage has actually boiled to the surface in the rich world....In America, the language of the angriest is very similar to that of the plutocrats themselves. Indeed, the complaint that today's elite lack the noblesse oblige of the aristocrats of old, and are therefore risking public anger, seems to badly misread American public opinion. The middle class doesn't want hand-outs from condescending rich people. They want moralistic language and complaints about deficits.

Amazing, isn't it? After nearly destroying the world, the plutocrats just dipped into their petty cash accounts, funded a tea party movement dedicated to promoting their interests, and won the next election. Problem solved! Now, where should we have dinner tonight? Paris or Rome?

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Does Crime Pay?

| Wed Jan. 5, 2011 5:32 PM EST

Mike Konczal writes today about our skyrocketing prison population. He attributes this partly to a 70s-era school of thought known as Incapacitation Theory, which basically says the only way to protect ourselves from bad people is to lock them up so they can't do bad things. It sounds pretty obvious, but where did it come from?

I’ve been reading a lot of 1970s conservative criminology lately, and I believe it actually grows out of a critique of the rational choice mode of crime. In the law and economics approach of the Chicago School of Becker, Posner, Coase, etc. it is hard to balance the idea that crime is committed by an estimate of costs and benefits. Risking 30 years in prison to rob a store for $80 can’t really be rationally possible.

What the Incapacitation School argued is that it can’t, unless you consider that criminals have a cognitive makeup where they are impulsive and “present-orientated.”

I wouldn't be surprised if criminals tend toward an impulsive cognitive makeup, but I don't think you have to abandon rationality to explain a lot of criminal action — and I'm not sure critics like Becker and Posner did so. In real life, you have to look at the likely payoff from, say, a burglary, compared to (a) the probability of getting caught and (b) the likely length of the sentence. Mark Kleiman provides the numbers in When Brute Force Fails:

In 1974, at the low point for punishment-to-offense ratios, there were about 6 million burglaries....On average, [] each burglary resulted in about 1 percent of a year — about four days — behind bars....The combination of rising crime rates and shrinking prison capacity over the decade 1964-74 meant that the "price" of a crime — in the form of punishment — had been falling in the teeth of a crime wave.

....In that context, there seemed to be a reasonable case for building more prisons....Indeed, in the intervening three decades we have built prisons, and built prisons, and then built still more prisons, until some of us who supported expanding prison capacity from its low 1970s level have started to feel like the Sorcerer's Apprentice, vainly looking for the "off" switch on a mechanism gone completely out of control.

....The punitiveness index, which fell by 68 percent from 1962 to 1974, quintupled from 1974 to 2007. The punishment-price of a burglary, which fell from fourteen days in 1963 to four days in 1974, reached sixteen days in 2007. But the political, ideological, legal, and administrative impetus behind the prison-building boom, which developed when crime was frighteningly high and rising, has not noticeably dissipated now that crime has decreased.

I had dinner with Mark a couple of months ago, and his shorthand opinion is that in 1974 it made sense to build more prisons, and by the mid-80s or so we'd built about the right number. But then we kept right on building and now we have way more prisons than we need. We've made the cost of crime far higher — both to us and to the criminals we're trying to deter — than we need to.

This is actually just the starting point of the book, which is largely about ways we can reduce crime, and especially crime committed on probation, without putting ever more people in prison. If you haven't read it, you should. Here's a review from Forbes to get you started.

If You Dig Political Muckraking, Thank Wayne Barrett

| Wed Jan. 5, 2011 5:11 PM EST

Spend a day working for Wayne Barrett, and you'll get a taste of his great loves in life: punctuality, precision, Google Documents, and the word "fuck."

Spend a semester with him, and he'll develop an even deeper passion: you.

On Tuesday, Wayne—one of the last giants of political investigative reporting in New York City—offered an elegaic farewell to his readers at the Village Voice, where he'd raked the muck full-time since 1978—the year of my birth. Beleaguered by financial woes (as we all are), searching for a sound balance between costly longform reporting and cheap blog snark, the Voice can no longer afford Wayne. It loses longtime metro columnist Tom Robbins in the deal, too, because in a profession full of neurotics and back-stabbers, Tom is the most generous, empathetic guy you'll find, from humoring an intern's anti-Yankees trash talk, to running a license plate for a cub reporter, to donating a kidney to a friend, to "going out with the guy who brought me to the dance"—as he told Wayne when explaining why'd he quit the Voice, too.

Let's not cry over these guys yet. Though the addresses may change, they'll keep on transforming our weird world with wicked good writing. Tom's honesty, lyrical prose, and insistence on keeping 10-year-old interview tapes once freed an ex-FBI agent dubiously accused of a mob murder. Wayne—well, among other things, you can thank Wayne for the fact that "President" and "Rudolph Giuliani" don't go together in a sentence.

But now's as good a time as any to reflect on Wayne's reach, because it goes far beyond his own writing: He's a one-man journalism school for aspiring copy-slingers, indirectly responsible for much of what you read in MoJo and the rest of the investigative world. He's always leaned on a cadre of unpaid interns to assist with his research. Unpaid internships generally get a well-deserved bad rap: free labor, exploitation, insecurity. But if you worked for Barrett and paid him a hefty sum each day for the privilege, you'd still be making out like a greasy politician on the deal. From Politico to Rolling Stone to here and here and here at MoJo and far beyond, hundreds of Wayneniks are out there, and we pretty much all feel the same way: His guidance humbled us and empowered us. It made us better reporters and people.

Depending on the Rich

| Wed Jan. 5, 2011 3:42 PM EST

In Chrystia Freeland's Atlantic piece about the new "global elite," she defined them like this: "Its members are hardworking, highly educated, jet-setting meritocrats who feel they are the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition—and many of them, as a result, have an ambivalent attitude toward those of us who didn’t succeed so spectacularly." That reminded me of one of my favorite passages from Matt Bai's The Argument. This is from Chapter 5, which tells the story of Rob Stein's attempt, following the 2004 election, to create a group of super-rich liberal donors called the Democracy Alliance:

Although he had now spent the better part of two years bonding with liberal millionaires and acting as their political therapist, Rob was still a peculiarly Washington figure, a mere interloper in the world of hedge funds and Lear jets. And this, in the short term, would be his undoing.

....Steven Gluckstern and his wife, Judy, lived in a 7,500-square-foot open loft on Spring Street in Soho, with a spacious garden on the roof and mgnificent views of the Empire State Building to the North....He made his fortune in the reinsurance industry, working first for the billionaire Warren Buffet and then with a partner, and had recently retired from the $4 billion investment fund he had helped start. I heard grumbling from some of the other, richer partners that Steven wasn't really that good at making money, but if that was true, then it was clearly relative. He was certainly better at it than anyone I knew in Washington.

....Like most of the partners I met, Steven applied the mystical language of business to his work with the Alliance....He talked about doing "due diligence" on these groups, about "capitalizing" them, so they could be "brought to scale." He talked about finding "customers" for the Democratic "product." It was clear, spending time with Gluckstern and other partners, that they felt they had identified with some precision the cause of these recurrent Democratic failures: the problem was that the party was being run by a bunch of political experts, when, in fact, it needed to be run like a business....The way the partners saw it, people who were really smart made tons of money, and if you didn't make tons of money, then you couldn't be very smart.

....From the beginning, Rob Stein had been highly attuned to this worldview....And yet, much as he seemed to speak the language, he could not escape what he represented in the minds of many donors. In Steven's view, Rob had spent too much of his career in Washington. And, as if to confirm his suspicions, Rob's most recent job had been to manage a private investment fund—and still Rob hadn't gotten rich....What did it say about a man when he started a fund and somehow didn't walk away with millions of dollars? As far as Steven was concerned, that in itself probably disqualified Rob from making the big decisions.

Emphasis mine. Now compare this to a passage from An American Melodrama, written 40 years ago by a trio of London Times reporters about the 1968 election:

There is one very good reason why [] the exploitation of mass media should actually be negatively correlated with radicalism. The new political technology is very expensive. It depends on computers, public opinion surveys, film, videotape, and other expensive toys. It also depends on the services of clever, highly educated and trained people to use these techniques....In general, it is naive to suppose that techniques which can be used only by those with access to enormous financial resources will often be available for any really damaging assault on the status quo.

Emphasis mine again. I will leave the obvious conclusion as an exercise for the reader.

Filibuster Mini-Reforms Unveiled

| Wed Jan. 5, 2011 2:48 PM EST

Greg Sargent has posted a summary of the filibuster reforms that Democrats plan to introduce later today, and it's a fairly modest effort. Here are the bullet points:

  1. Eliminates Secret Holds
  2. Right to Amend: Guarantees Consideration of Amendments for both Majority and Minority
  3. Clear Path to Debate: Eliminate the Filibuster on Motions to Proceed
  4. Expedite Nominations: Reduce Post-Cloture Time
  5. Talking Filibuster: Ensures Real Debate

Eliminating secret holds and giving the minority a right to amend legislation are both good ideas, but neither really does anything to rein in filibusters. Of the other three items, #3 and #4 basically reduce the amount of floor time that filibusters eat up. You still need 60 votes to proceed, but you can only filibuster the main motion, not both the main motion and the motion to proceed, and post-cloture debate on nominations is reduced to two hours instead of the current 30. (Legislation still gets 30 hours of post-cloture debate.)

Finally, there's #5: require honest to goodness Jimmy-Stewart-talk-til-you-drop debate if you want to filibuster a bill. It's not clear just how this would work technically, but in any case it's not really much of an impediment to filibusters. If you have 40 senators willing to join in, each one just reads the phone book for an hour or two and then yields. That's about one hour of phone book reading per week per senator, which is hardly onerous. In fact, it's so obviously non-onerous that I imagine it changes nothing in practice. Once the minority starts up and demonstrates that it's willing to engage in a talkathon, the majority will give up and move to other business. Before long, this will morph into the same convention we have now: simply announce that you're willing to talk and the majority takes you at your word.

Overall, then, this is a pretty weak reform package. Items #3 and #4 are worthwhile, but the others are mostly window dressing. The Senate will remain a 60-vote body, but if you can scrounge up those 60 votes then things will move along a bit faster than before. That's about it.