2011 - %3, May

Lead, Prisons, and Crack: Why Violent Crime is Down

| Sat May 28, 2011 5:31 PM EDT

Crime guru James Q. Wilson surveys the evidence for why violent crime rates have dropped so dramatically over the past two decades. The state of the economy, he says, seems to have little to do with it:

One obvious answer is that many more people are in prison than in the past. Experts differ on the size of the effect, but I think that William Spelman and Steven Levitt have it about right in believing that greater incarceration can explain about one-quarter or more of the crime decline.

....There may also be a medical reason for the decline in crime. For decades, doctors have known that children with lots of lead in their blood are much more likely to be aggressive, violent and delinquent. In 1974, the Environmental Protection Agency required oil companies to stop putting lead in gasoline....A 2007 study by the economist Jessica Wolpaw Reyes contended that the reduction in gasoline lead produced more than half of the decline in violent crime during the 1990s in the U.S. and might bring about greater declines in the future.

....Another shift that has probably helped to bring down crime is the decrease in heavy cocaine use in many states....Drug use among blacks has changed even more dramatically than it has among the population as a whole....Among 13,000 people arrested in Manhattan between 1987 and 1997, a disproportionate number of whom were black, those born between 1948 and 1969 were heavily involved with crack cocaine, but those born after 1969 used very little crack and instead smoked marijuana.

So if I can put words into Wilson's mouth, the decline in crime is perhaps one-quarter due to increased incarceration, one-quarter due to reduced cocaine use, and one half due to reductions in blood lead levels in children. Better policing might be part of it too, though the evidence is spotty. Oddly, though, Wilson's own summary is different: "At the deepest level, many of these shifts, taken together, suggest that crime in the United States is falling [...] because of a big improvement in the culture." Aside from the reductions in cocaine and crack use, however, none of this sounds all that cultural to me. It sounds like we cleaned up the environment and built a lot of new prisons. It's hard to see an awful lot of room for cultural explanations here.

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Classy GOPer Tim Pawlenty Calls Obama A Pub-Crawling "Doofus"

| Sat May 28, 2011 12:32 PM EDT

It's been a clunker-filled week for Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty, hardly the "debut" he'd hoped for after officially announcing his candidacy last Monday.

On Thursday, at a press conference in Washington, DC, Pawlenty made his first notable gaffe when he bungled a question about his foreign policy position on Iran. "I think the situation now in Iran is such that Secretary Gates is negotiating with whether the United States military will be there beyond the end of this year," Pawlenty said. "And they're looking to the Iranians to see if they invite the Americans to stay, invite us to stay." He, of course, was referring to Iraq, not Iran—an embarrassing misstep that he later corrected. Here's the video:

That same day, Pawlenty raised eyebrows with a snarky tweet criticizing President Obama for his recent European trip that took him to Ireland and England. Pawlenty tweeted, "@BarackObama sorry to interrupt the European pub crawl, but what was your Medicare plan?" So much for civility.

But on CNN's "American Morning" on Friday, Pawlenty stooped even lower. Predictably bashing Obama for his performance as president, he quipped:

"Any doofus can go to Washington and maintain the status quo and that’s what we’ve got in the White House and in Congress in terms of their attitude about their willingness to tackle these issues. If we’re not going to have leaders who are going to say that and do it and tell the American people, look them in the eye…then we're all wasting our time."

A GOP presidential hopeful ripping a Democratic incumbent? Yawn. But calling him a "doofus"? That's awfully sophomoric. Remember, this is a candidate whose campaign slogan promises "a time for truth," casting the former governor as a politician who is serious about America's skyrocketing national debt and bleak labor market. When he unveiled that slogan, there were already plenty of questions about Pawlenty's "truthiness." Now, with the spicy tweets and using juvenile takedowns, it's even harder to take Pawlenty seriously.

NOAA's Gamble on the Bluefin Tuna

| Fri May 27, 2011 7:37 PM EDT

The Atlantic bluefin tuna's days could be numbered. The tuna's spawning population, which used to thrive in the Gulf of Mexico, has for decades been on a steep decline due to overfishing, shrinking by more than 80 percent since 1970. While acknowledging this trend, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced today that the Atlantic populations of bluefin tuna did not warrant federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, at least for now. From the agency's press release:

NOAA's status review...indicates that based on the best available information and assuming countries comply with the bluefin tuna fishing quotas established by ICCAT, both the western and eastern Atlantic stocks are not likely to become extinct.

That's a big assumption to make, especially considering that national fishing fleets routinely breach the standards set by ICCAT (the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas). ICCAT's standards, moreover, tend to be much weaker than what scientists recommend: In November, the commission set the species' annual fishing limit at about 14,200 tons, but the World Wildlife Fund recommends less than half that amount. NOAA's decision is particularly puzzling because in 2010 the US was one of three countries to support a proposal to the United Nations to ban international trade of bluefin tuna until it rebounds in number, which was voted down after facing strong opposition from major tuna consumers like Japan.

One reason NOAA posits for rejecting the bluefin tuna protection is the declining number of tuna caught in the US, arguing that domestic catch levels have consistently fallen well below its ICCAT-designated quota. But that isn't really a matter of choice, since the tuna's population in the Gulf and West Atlantic Ocean have already declined so significantly. There simply aren't fish left to catch.

A petition, filed last May by the Center for Biological Diversity, also raised concerns about the BP Deepwater Horizon's effect on bluefin, following the European Space Agency's finding that the spill had reduced the young bluefin tuna by 20 percent. And as Mother Jones correspondent Julia Whitty reported last fall, the spill's damages to deep-sea creatures (bluefin tuna included) could be far worse than we think.

But for now, NOAA has decided the study was flawed and inconclusive, and that it will wait to see what the agency's Natural Resources Damage Assessment has to say in 2012 about the BP spill's impact on the fisheries.

Cap-and-Trade Initiative Axed by New Jersey Gov. Christie

| Fri May 27, 2011 3:54 PM EDT

Yesterday, Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) announced plans to withdraw his state from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI)—a cap-and-trade system designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions 10 percent by 2018—fueling new speculations about his national political aspirations. It also raises questions about the long-term survival of voluntary cap-and-trade programs. As Emilie Mazzacurati, a Thomson Reuters Point Carbon market analyst, told the New York Times, "the direct impact" of Christie's decision "is going to be minimal...The question is, will other states follow?"

Because of that question, Jeff Tittel, director of New Jersey's Sierra Club chapter, calls the decision an "environmental disaster."

Under RGGI (pronounced "Reggie"), participating states set a limit on power plants' emissions and make them buy credits that they can exchange in order to emit specific amounts of greenhouse gases. Utilities with emissions under the limit get to sell their extra credits at quarterly online auctions.

New Jersey had been one of 10 Northeastern and mid-Atlantic states in the regional program, and is the first to pull out. But at a press conference, Christie said he remains "completely committed" to the environment and criticized RGGI as an ineffective program that unfairly taxes electric utilities and citizens alike. He also released a statement listing 21 environmental actions undertaken by his administration.

"I think his statement yesterday had so much hot air it should be regulated by RGGI," says Tittel.

As evidence, Tittel points to Christie's efforts to drain millions of dollars from environmental programs, including $158 million from the Clean Energy Fund, to pay off the state's $11 billion budget deficit; and New Jersey's recent withdrawl from a multi-state lawsuit seeking to cut the greenhouse gas emissions of five major utilities.

Politically, he says, Christie is "trying to have it both ways," presenting himself as a green energy advocate to New Jersey residents while appealing nationally to the Tea Party crowd. (Americans for Properity, cofounded by Tea Party billionaire David Koch, has actively attacked RGGI as an example of excessive taxation.)

"I think he wants to be on a national ticket, whether it's number one or number two," Tittel says. "I'm not sure he's running [for president], but he will be a top choice for vice president."

That's consistent with speculation that Christie may run for president to fill a void in an uninspiring Republican field, something that the governor has repeatedly denied. (Christie's office did not immediately return a call from Mother Jones seeking comment.)

Video: From Allergies to Deadly Disease, Feeling the Effects of Climate Change

| Fri May 27, 2011 3:04 PM EDT

A rare but deadly fungal disease once occurring only in tropical climates has recently led to several deaths in the Pacific Northwest. Some researchers believe that climate change may be to blame for the disease's emergence there.

When Trudy Rosler first got sick after a visit to Vancouver Island in British Columbia, doctors were stumped. Eventually they discovered that she had fungus growing in her brain stem—one that was previously only known to exist in the tropics. Researchers say that subtle changes in climate over the last 40 years may be the reason it's infecting people much farther north. Here in the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is already treating climate change as a serious health threat.

Need to Know's medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay examines how a warming climate is already affecting our health, from making allergies worse to affecting the spread of infectious diseases and pushing the extremes of killer weather.

This video was produced by Need to Know for the Climate Desk collaboration.

Friday Cat Blogging - 27 May 2011

| Fri May 27, 2011 3:00 PM EDT

My sister headed off to England for a vacation yesterday, and before she left she insisted that I post some extra special catblogging today so that she'd have something good to look at while staving off jet lag on her first evening in town. We always do our best on that front, but it really all depends on the cats, doesn't it?

So how's this? On the left, Inkblot is camped out on our new sofa, which Karen hasn't yet been over to see. So this is her first look at it. Inkblot's bright-eyed expression is due to timing: I took this picture last night just as Marian was shuttling food around for dinnertime, and that perked him up. On the right, Domino is basking (as usual) in the sun this morning. However, this picture's extra specialness was probably dimmed a bit because she kept batting the camera strap around instead of holding still in some kind of extra specially cute pose. Still, I hope this does the job.

Have a good Memorial Day weekend, everyone. There will probably be a light bit of posting this weekend, but normal blogging will resume on Tuesday.

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Zanran, the Search Engine for Nerds

| Fri May 27, 2011 2:47 PM EDT

Do you like charts and graphs? If you read this blog, there's a good chance you do. So you might want to check out a new search engine, Zanran, which is specifically designed for finding data and statistics. It's still in beta, and I've only played around with it a little bit, but it seems promising. If you give it a try, let us know in comments what you think.

Has Politico Upped Its Game?

| Fri May 27, 2011 2:42 PM EDT

In an aside to a post about how dismally ignorant Republican lawmakers are about the debt ceiling and what it means, Jon Chait says:

As a journalistic side note, I should point out that Politico has really upped its game and is now producing far more good political coverage than any other outlet, as the large number of my items keying off Politico stories would testify.

You know, that seems to be true. I'm not a religious reader of Politico, and it's not as if they've never run good stuff in the past, but the ratio of solid pieces to idiotic gossipmongering does seem to have gone up lately. Anyone else notice the same thing?

Pakistan is Shocked by Reports of Islamists in its Ranks

| Fri May 27, 2011 2:35 PM EDT

Today's Captain Louis Renault Award goes to the Pakistani military:

Embarrassed by the Osama bin Laden raid and by a series of insurgent attacks on high-security sites, top Pakistani military officials are increasingly concerned that their ranks are penetrated by Islamists who are aiding militants in a campaign against the state....Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who like the government has publicly expressed anger over the secret U.S. raid, was so shaken by the discovery of bin Laden that he told U.S. officials in a recent meeting that his first priority was “bringing our house in order,” according to a senior Pakistani intelligence official.

....It is unclear how authentically committed Kayani and other top military leaders are to cleansing their ranks.

You can count me among those who think it's unclear just how authentically committed the Pakistani military is to rooting out Islamists in its ranks. Or that any of its top officials were genuinely "shaken" by the discovery that Osama bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan. Or that they seriously expect us to believe they plan to do anything at all about this. As long as these guys are helpful — or perceived to be helpful — in Pakistan's neverending struggle against the Great Satan India, they'll have an endless supply of high-level sponsors. When they're no longer helpful, they'll get purged. American desires really have nothing to do with it.

"School of Shock" Founder Forced to Resign

| Fri May 27, 2011 1:16 PM EDT
Matthew Israel at the Judge Rotenberg Center

A few years ago, Mother Jones published Jennifer Gonnerman's year-long investigation of the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC), a Massachusetts private school for special needs kids that uses painful electric shocks for discipline. Despite the story's impact, and despite several state and federal investigations, the school remains open. Currently the school receives state funds to educate and care for children with a wide range of conditions. Some are severely autistic or schizophrenic, while others are simply troubled teens whose rebellious behavior was too much for the public school system to handle. But regardless of their mental or physical capacities, the school has a one-size-fits-all treatment for about half of its students: electric shocks.

JRC has weathered attacks for 40 years, but there are signs that the wind may be changing: Earlier this month, school founder and executive director Matthew Israel announced he is stepping down as of June 1. In a statement, Israel said, "I am now almost 78 years old, and it is time for me to move over and let others take the reins." Israel will reportedly be moving to California to join his wife, Judy Weber, who runs a special needs school called Tobinworld. In his official statement, Israel made no mentions of the recent charges plaguing the school, but it's been discovered that his resignation is part of a plea bargain to spare himself jail time. 

As the Boston Herald reports, Israel agreed to resign and to undergo "five years of pre-trial probation to settle charges accusing him of interfering with an investigation..." The investigation in question is a 2007 incident in which someone pretending to be a JRC supervisor prank-called the school and ordered administrators to shock two special needs teens. The administrators gave one teen 29 shocks, and the other 77. And though the school will tell you the shocks feel like a bee sting, Gonnerman says it feels more like a swarm of wasps attacking.

There is 24/7 video surveillance of all students and staff, so these actions should have been easily preserved as evidence. However, Massachusetts attorney general Martha Coakley indicted Israel on charges that he ordered staff to destroy video footage of the incident. "Dr. Israel then attempted to destroy evidence of the events and mislead investigators, and that conduct led to his indictments today," she told the Guardian. "Today's action removes Dr. Israel from the school and should ensure better protection for students in the future."

By agreeing to leave the school, Israel was able to avoid incarceration, but his departure doesn't necessarily mean that things at the school will change immediately. As part of the deal, there will be additional checks in place to make sure incidents similar to the 2007 event don't recur, but the shock devices will still be allowed. JRC is currently looking for a replacement for Israel. Until then, his longtime, trusted, second-in-command Glenda Crookes will run the school. Hope she's up to the task: even though Israel's gone, the Department of Justice still has an open investigation of the school for violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act.