2011 - %3, September

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 27, 2011

Tue Sep. 27, 2011 2:57 AM PDT

Combat boots are placed in formation to represent America's Prisoners of War and Missing in Action on Sept. 15, 2011. US Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jerilyn Quintanilla.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The Alternate Universe Strikes Again

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 10:18 PM PDT

It's probably not a wise use of time to obsess too much about David Brooks, but.....I just don't get the guy. Today he argues that the global economy is on the verge of a train wreck and neither Democrats nor Republicans are thinking big enough:

We need an approach that is both grander and more modest. When you are confronted by a complex, emergent problem, don’t try to pick out the one lever that is the key to the whole thing. There is no one lever. You wouldn’t be smart enough to find it even if there was.

Instead, try to reform whole institutions and hope that by getting the long-term fundamentals right you’ll set off a positive cascade to reverse the negative ones.

Simplify the tax code. End corporate taxes and create a consumption tax. Reshape the European Union to make it either more unified or less, but not halfway as it is now. Reduce the barriers to business formation. Reform Medicare so it is fiscally sustainable. Break up the banks and increase capital requirements. Lighten debt burdens even if it means hitting the institutional creditors.

Wow. Eliminate corporate taxation! Completely reform the EU! Fix Medicare! Break up the banks! Declare a debt holiday! And do it all now now now. This is coming from a guy who likes to think of himself as a Burkean conservative?

At a grand policy level, it's not even that I disagree that much. I've written in favor of all these things except for simplifying the personal tax code (sort of trivial on the scale Brooks is writing about) and reducing the barriers to business formation (the World Bank ranks us pretty satisfactorily on this already). But whether or not these are good ideas, this is a pretty mind-boggling list of things to just casually toss off with one sentence apiece. I mean, what's the pitch to the Europeans? You've probably never thought about this before, but you need to either dissolve the eurozone or create a United States of Europe. Tick tock, time's a wasting. What's it going to be? [Cue Jeopardy theme music.]

It's probably not a good idea to dash off a column right after you've jerked awake in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. Especially one week after writing a column castigating President Obama for cynically proposing ideas that "couldn’t get passed even when Democrats controlled Congress." But implementing a VAT, getting healthcare costs under control, reforming the tax code, and breaking up the banks could? In which universe?

In the universe we actually do live in, Democrats are willing to talk about the kinds of things on Brooks's list. Maybe not as bravely or as fully as Brooks would like, but at least they'll entertain his ideas. But Republicans? They're dead set against any tax reform that isn't effectively regressive; they're dead set against a VAT; they're dead set against any new revenues for Medicare, which is plainly required as part of any serious reform; they're dead set against breaking up banks; and they're dead set against any kind of debt relief. Until conservatives like Brooks manage to get their more rabid compatriots to abandon this antediluvian approach to just about everything, there's not even a faint hope of getting anything on his wish list done. That's Job 1. In the meantime, there's hardly any point in writing about anything else.

Rick Perry and the Invisible Primary

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 6:38 PM PDT

Yesterday I said that although Rick Perry's immigration gaffe is getting a lot of attention, his "real problem is that Thursday's debate badly shook up a GOP establishment that was pretty uneasy with him already." Adam Serwer dissents: "According to a forthcoming study from Harvard's Theda Skocpol and two of her graduate students, Vanessa Williamson and John Coggin, immigration is among the most important issues for self-identified 'Tea Party' Republicans."

This is actually a pretty minor disagreement, since I too believe that Perry's immigration apostasy is a really big deal. Still, it's worth explaining briefly why I said what I said. Basically, I'm piggybacking on the views of political scientists Martin Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel, and John Zaller, who wrote an influential book a couple of years ago called The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform. Their contention is that the key fight isn't so much the primaries themselves, but the "invisible primary" that's fought for several months before voting ever starts. During this time, candidates fight for the attention and endorsements of party insiders, as represented by interest groups, state party leaders, funders, media bigwigs, and others whose support is either important in its own right (because lots of people take their cues from them) or whose support is an important signal of acceptability. Hans Noel explains:

Our argument is that the party is not just the formal DNC and RNC chair and the official hierarchy. It’s all of the people who have made a commitment to be part of the group that’s coordinating together to try to advance the party’s interests.

You could say the voters count too, because they’re doing some type of coordination and trying to encourage their friends. But their contribution is much smaller, because they don’t have as much influence. So we focus more on the high-profile actors, but we have an expansive definition to encompass all the elite actors who are trying to help the party achieve its collective goals.

And those goals are to find a nominee who can win, but who is also someone they can trust. Whether they can trust them because they’re in the right place ideologically is part of it, but it’s richer than that. It’s someone who they think will advance party goals over their own personal goals.

If you buy this argument, it means that although tea party unhappiness with Perry over immigration is what's getting lots of attention, it's really just a superficial sign of a deeper danger. Perry's real problem is that his inability to address an obvious and predictable problem with the base — which reveals either laziness, ineptitude, stubbornness, or all of the above — makes him an unreliable candidate. If this view starts to harden among party insiders, they'll eventually start to signal their support for Romney or some other candidate, and the rank-and-file will follow their lead.

By all accounts, Perry's disastrous debate performance has hurt him badly in the invisible primary. He's still got plenty of time to rejuvenate himself, but he can't afford too many more outings like last Thursday's. The party is watching.

Understanding Comp Plans

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 5:09 PM PDT

Dan Ariely says you shouldn't be too specific in your compensation practices because it motivates people to game the system instead of working hard. For example:

A consulting company once told me they made a rule that if you stayed until 8 in the office, you could order food and use the car service to get home. So what happens? A ton of people are there at 8. Nobody’s there at 8:05.

Really? A "ton of people" who probably billed out at $300 per hour were there at 8? At a cost of maybe 30 bucks in food and another 50 for the car service? Sounds like this strategy worked great — as long as you understand that it's primarily aimed at increasing billable hours. What's the problem?

Quote of the Day: Massive Failure

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 2:34 PM PDT

From Ryan Avent, surveying both the weak current economy as well as the spectacular destruction about to be let loose in the near future:

It's just shocking to think about the dangers that loom and consider the extent to which they're driven by governmental failures.

And yet, to a large extent, governments are merely responding to the wishes of the public. It's a simple fact that the average Joe (or Dieter or Emile or Carlotta) believes pretty strongly in folk economics — low inflation, a strong currency, and balanced budgets — and decidedly doesn't believe in bailing out people who aren't them. On the latter front, this applies both to Germans who don't want to bail out Greeks and Americans who don't want to bail out underwater homeowners.

It's all perfectly understandable — and about as self-destructive as insisting that we should plant crops by the phase of the moon. Which might be about where we're headed if we don't get our act together soon.

Gulf Fish Hammered by BP Oil

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 2:33 PM PDT

Deepwater Horizon oil coming ashore at Chandeleur Islands, LA.: Credit: Jeffrey Warren, Grass Roots Mapping project, via Wikimedia Commons.Deepwater Horizon oil coming ashore at Chandeleur Islands, LA. Credit: Jeffrey Warren, Grass Roots Mapping project, via Wikimedia Commons.

Even minuscule amounts of BP's crude oil has affected fish in profound ways in the Gulf of Mexico—even when oil in the water was nondetectable. This according to a paper in early view in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Science).

The problems showed up as genetic responses in liver tissue and as aberrant protein expression in gill tissues—and they lived on in fish even after their environment looked and tested clean.

Gulf killifish, Fundulus grandis.: Credit: USGS.Gulf killifish, Fundulus grandis. Credit: USGS.

Researchers from Louisiana State University, Texas State University, and Clemson University studied the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe on Gulf killifish (Fundulus grandis).

They collected water and tissue samples from six sites—though only one, Louisiana's Barataria Bay was heavily oiled. They collected at three times:

  • Once in early May before oil had reached shore
  • Once in late June when the marshes were fouled
  • Once in late August when oil was no longer visible

You can see the sites and a graph of the results at my blog, Deep Blue Home.

The researchers found that exposure to BP's crude oil caused the same kind of changes in gene expression in adult killifish from the marshes as in killifish embryos exposed to contaminated water samples in the lab. These types of changes are known to:

  • cause developmental abnormalities
  • to diminish embryo survival
  • to lower reproductive success

Gill tissues important for maintaining critical body functions were also damaged by altered protein expression correlated to oil exposure. Worse, these effects persisted long after the visible oil disappeared from the marshes. Exposures in the lab to developing embryos induced similar cellular responses.

"This is of concern, because early life-stages of many organisms are particularly sensitive to the toxic effects of oil, and because marsh contamination occurred during the spawning season of many important species," says lead author Andrew Whitehead
Oiled marshes, Barataria Bay, June 2010.: The Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. Credit: ©Julia Whitty.Oiled marshes, Barataria Bay, June 2010. Credit: ©Julia Whitty.

The research echoes ongoing studies from the Exxon-Valdez catastrophe showing that sub-lethal biological effects of oil continue to impact herring and salmon populations long after the disaster. The new paper indicates Gulf killifish are suffering similar early sub-lethal effects in the Gulf.

And as with the Exxon Valdez, the fish are proving far more sensitive indicators of exposure and contamination than the environmental chemistry.

"Though the fish may be 'safe to eat' based on low chemical burdens in their tissues, that doesn’t mean that the fish are healthy or that the fish are capable of reproducing normally," says Andrew Whitehead.

BP's oil in Barataria Bay, June 2010.: Credit: ©Julia Whitty.BP's oil in Barataria Bay, June 2010. Credit: ©Julia Whitty.The paper:

  • Whitehead, A., B. Dubansky, C. Bodinier, T. Garcia, S. Miles, C. Pilley, V. Raghunathan, J. Roach, N. Walker, R. Walter, C.D. Rice, and F. Galvez. Genomic and physiological footprint of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on resident marsh fishes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI:

 

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Why Immigration Is Hurting Perry

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 2:15 PM PDT

My colleague Kevin Drum speculates that what's hurting Texas Governor Rick Perry is not so much his positions on immigration as his resemblance to a certain half-term governor of Alaska who couldn't bothered to learn her stuff:

That's just way too Palinesque for the political pros. He looks like a guy who's had such an easy time in Texas that he doesn't really think he's going to have to work for the nomination — or the presidency. Gentleman's Cs have always been good enough, and he figures they'll be good enough again. So he's got nothing except a single set of sound bites for every occasion, and he's not prepared to put in the time and effort it takes to sound even minimally ready for prime time when he's taken out of his comfort zone.

That's a scary thought for Republicans. The economy is bad enough that Barack Obama is seriously vulnerable, but even with a bad economy he can beat somebody who's convinced that his winning personality is enough to see him through any troubles. When Perry first announced his candidacy, he had the aura of a political animal willing to do whatever it takes to win. Now he looks like he's willing to do anything except actually work hard. That's a sure way to lose in November, and that's why the GOP establishment is suddenly so nervous.

I really think Palin has nothing to do with this. According to a forthcoming study from Harvard's Theda Skocpol and two of her graduate students, Vanessa Williamson and John Coggin, immigration is among the most important issues for self-identified "Tea Party" Republicans. Why? Because it crystallizes their attitude towards "big government," namely that government assistance is entirely appropriate for those who've "earned it," and less so for those who haven't.

This impassioned opposition to illegal immigrants is often equated with racism, but Ms. Skocpol and her colleagues take great pains to point out that the Massachusetts Tea Partiers, whom they studied most closely, are vocally and actively opposed to overt racism. A racist poster to their Web site was publicly reprimanded and a plan was made to take down racist signs at a rally (though, in the event, the researchers didn’t spot any that needed removing). For the Tea Partiers, the major intellectual distinction isn’t between black and white — although that is the color of most of them — it is between deserving, hard-working citizen and unauthorized, foreign freeloader.

I think this description reduces racist statements or actions to something only people with closets full of white sheets who spend their Saturdays burning crosses ever engage in, but it really illustrates why Perry is so vulnerable on immigration. The Texas governor is on the wrong side on one of the defining ideological issues of the modern conservative movement. That's why his support for in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children is so damaging—it's seen as giving the undeserving an advantage over the deserving. The David Weigel piece Drum links to contains an exchange that really illustrates the point:

"Look," admitted Clark. "Perry blew it. It's his fault that this is a discussion, because he did a bad job of explaining the program. There's no welfare for illegal immigrants. If they're in the state for three years, they're adding to the economy, they can get the tuition rates that Texans get." Van Remmen couldn't be convinced. "I have grandchildren going to college," she said. "They're struggling. Their Pell grants aren't worth as much this year. The reason why is that all this money is going to illegal immigrants."

Weigel writes that these conversations were happening all over the Florida convention center where the piece takes place. This zero-sum view of immigration is based on an economic fallacy, but it's intuitive so it persists.

A better question, it seems to me, is why Perry seems to be suffering so much given that in 2007, he and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney were both on record supporting President George W. Bush's comprehensive immigration reform plan. The answer may be that Romney's much-ballyhooed insincerity is serving him well here: Having vetoed an in-state tuition plan for undocumented immigrants as governor, it's much easier to see his support for comprehensive reform as the ambitious pander, rather than the other way around. Perry, on the other hand, with his remarks about those who disagree with him "not having a heart," gives Republican primary voters the sneaking suspicion that his moderation on the issue is genuine.

Big Trends, Little Trends

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 1:45 PM PDT

Jonathan Bernstein picks up on one of my hobbyhorses:

Here's the thing. Barack Obama isn't as popular now as he was in January 2009. This is not exactly a little-known fact; indeed, we fortunately have some really good indicators of exactly how popular Obama is overall, and they're not all that obscure.

What this means is that sloppy journalists can get endless mileage from picking out any subgroup in the nation and finding out that, gee, Obama has lost popularity there!....To know whether any of these stories is actually news, it's absolutely necessary to compare Obama's decline within the group in question to his overall decline. If it's more, then you have something; if it's the same or less, then you're at best illustrating how an overall decline works within that subgroup.

Roger that. This usually bugs me most during the post-election recap season. In 2008 the media was full of breathless reports about how Obama gained support among married women or McCain lost support among Hispanics or some such. But of course they did. In 2008 Obama did a lot better among all voters than Kerry did in 2004, and McCain did worse than Bush. So it stands to reason that Obama also did better among most demographic groups and McCain did worse. In 2008, for example, several writers suggested that Obama did especially well among churchgoers, but in fact he didn't: he performed about 9 points better than Kerry overall and about 10 points better among churchgoers. There was nothing to it.

Anyway, this is just another example of "compared to what?" That's a question that should be on everyone's minds a lot more than it usually is.

How Ben Bernanke is Helping Rick Perry Win the White House

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 12:09 PM PDT

Brad Plumer points today to a Dallas Fed report that, rather amusingly, demonstrates that a big reason Texas has done well during the recession is because of Fed policy. Roughly speaking, most of the Fed's monetary policy works through bank channels, and since Texas banks were in better shape than most (thanks to Texas's mild housing bubble), the Fed's actions were especially effective there. That's pretty interesting. But for sheer comedy gold, this chart is my favorite:

That "debased" dollar that tea partiers keep screaming about? Actually, it's not really very debased in the first place. But it has weakened over the past couple of years, and it's weakened especially against Texas's major trading partners, primarily Mexico. And the Texas economy has benefited from that.

Maybe Rick Perry needs to send Ben Bernanke a a fruit basket or something?

Government Shutdown? Now a Battle for the Soul of America

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 12:00 PM PDT

For the third time in nine months, the threat of a government shutdown is back on the table.

For the overwhelming majority of Americans, such an event would pass mostly unnoticed.  Planes will still fly as federally paid air-traffic controllers continue to control the skies, federal law enforcement and military efforts will continue and social security checks will go out in the mail. 

However, for one very special class of Americans—the victims of this year's spate of deadly and destructive disasters—there will be nothing that is the least bit routine about such a shutdown.

At some point this week, FEMA, the federal agency struggling to keep up with the extraordinary pain and suffering created by this year's record number of disasters, will run out of money. The continued funding of the agency, plus the recognition that their budget must be increased to meet the demands of the many who have been stricken, is at the heart of the latest game of chicken being played out in Washington.