2011 - %3, October

Why Freakonomics Is Wrong About Cantaloupes

| Fri Oct. 21, 2011 2:55 PM EDT

Federal investigators have traced the source of listeria-tainted cantaloupes, which have killed 25 people and sickened 123, to a single farm in Colorado.

Holly, Colorado-based Jensen Farms grows, packs, and ships 480 acres of cantaloupes. This year, it produced 300,000 cases of the fruit, which went out to—and sickened people in—26 states. In addition to cantaloupes, it also grows two subsidized commodity crops, wheat and corn, for which it drew $66,000 in federal direct payments in 2010.

And like many operations trying to hustle loads of product out the door as quickly and cheaply as possible, Jensen appears to have cut corners. FDA investigators (report here) turned up no evidence of listeria in the field, but plenty of it in Jensen's packing house, where they found deplorable conditions: standing water on the ground contaminated with the same strain of listeria that ended up in the offending cantaloupes, as well as filthy packing equipment also contaminated with listeria. Then there's this:

Another potential means for introduction of Listeria monocytogenes contamination into the packing facility was a truck used to haul culled cantaloupe to a cattle operation. This truck traveled to and from a cattle operation and was parked adjacent to the packing facility where contamination may have been tracked via personnel or equipment, or through other means into the packing facility.


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Obama: No Immunity, No Troops

| Fri Oct. 21, 2011 2:41 PM EDT

Dan Drezner imagines Obama giving a campaign speech about the difference between foreign and domestic policy:

As president, I have to address both domestic policy and foreign policy. Because of the way that the commander-in-chief role has evolved, I have far fewer political constraints on foreign policy action than domestic policy action. So let's think about this for a second. On the foreign stage, America's standing has returned from its post-Iraq low. Al Qaeda is now a shell of its former self. Liberalizing forces are making uneven but forward progress in North Africa. Muammar Gaddafi's regime is no longer, without one American casualty. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are winding down. Every country in the Pacific Rim without a Communist Party running things is trying to hug us closer.

Imagine what I could accomplish in domestic policy without the kind of obstructionism and filibustering that we're seeing in Congress — which happens to be even more unpopular than I am, by the way. I'm not talking about the GOP abjectly surrendering, just doing routine things like actually confirming my appointments. I've achieved significant foreign policy successes while still cooperating with our allies in NATO and Northeast Asia. Just imagine what I could get done if the Republicans were as willing to compromise as, say, France.

Roger that. In other foreign policy news, President Obama announced today that we'd be pulling all our troops out of Iraq by the end of the year:

According to a White House official, “this deal was cut by the Bush administration, the agreement was always that at end of the year we would leave, but the Iraqis wanted additional troops to stay. We said here are the conditions, including immunities. But the Iraqis because of a variety of reasons wanted the troops and didn’t want to give immunity.

“So that’s it. Now our troops go to zero,” the official added.

That last line is now mysteriously missing from the ABC News story, but it was in the initial version they emailed me. No immunity, no troops.

I wonder what Republicans are going to say about that? I'm sort of afraid to look. In a normal world, pretty much everyone would agree that if a host country won't cut some kind of immunity deal for military troops in what's still, after all, basically a warzone, then the troops have to come home. But we don't live in a normal world, so I imagine Republicans are going to turn this into some kind of massive appeasement/apology tour/lack of willpower outrage on Obama's part, frittering away the hard won gains of the Bush administration etc. etc. Or something. Let me know in comments.

Skeptics' Last, BEST Hope?

| Fri Oct. 21, 2011 2:30 PM EDT

On Thursday, University of California-Berkeley physicist Richard Muller put out his much-anticipated Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project (BEST). Muller had been a skeptic of human-caused global warming, was highly critical of climate scientists, and was beloved by climate deniers who thought he would finally prove them right.

Unfortunately for them (and the Koch brothers, who spent $150,000 on the project), Muller's alternative analysis of global climate data found the same rise in temperatures. It became clear a few months ago that Muller's report was probably going to be a let down for deniers—he previewed Thursday's results in testimony before the House Committee on Science and Technology in March. "Global warming in my evaluation is real and much of it, if not most of it, is caused by humans," Muller said in a recent speech. Here's what his team's analysis of 1.6 billion temperature reports from 15 data archives looks like:

See Kevin Drum for more on the report and the skeptics' reaction.

Map of the Day: How's Obama Doing?

| Fri Oct. 21, 2011 2:03 PM EDT

New York magazine's Dan Amira took a look at President Obama's fundraising database today and created this map of his financial prowess. It shows the number of per capita donors in each state, with darker blues indicating more donors. Obviously Obama is doing well in the Northeast and the Pacific coast, which is no surprise. He's also doing pretty well in Colorado and New Mexico. What else is there to see here?

Its biggest revelation, in our opinion, is Ohio. With its eighteen electoral college votes and working-class population, Ohio is a perennially important swing state. Obama won it by 5 percent in 2008. But as the map shows, it has a pretty low Obama donors-per-capita ratio. Every other state in Ohio's color tier was won by John McCain except for Indiana (and nobody expects Obama to win Indiana again) and that one weird Omaha electoral vote in Nebraska. This doesn't bode well for Obama's chances in Ohio.

Well, it's still early days. But this map does suggest that it's going to be a very close election.

ACLU: FBI Guilty of Massive Racial Profiling Operations

| Fri Oct. 21, 2011 1:37 PM EDT

The FBI has engaged in vast surveillance operations that involves unconstitutional racial profiling and "mapping" of American communities across the country, the American Civil Liberties Union said Thursday.

"The FBI has targeted communities for investigation not based on suspicion of a crime, but on crude stereotypes," said Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU's National Security Project. Shamsi said documents released by the FBI in response to a Freedom of Information Act request "confirm our worst fears" about the FBI targeting communities on the basis of identity and association rather than evidence of criminal wrongdoing. Communities surveilled on the basis of race, religion and national origin range from African-Americans in Georgia to Arab-Americans in Michigan, the ACLU said on a conference call with reporters. The FBI told the New York Times that it does not base investigations "solely" on factors like ethnicity or religion, though Bush-era investigative guidelines long-criticized by civil libertarian groups but retained by the Obama administration allow agents to consider those qualities when deciding whether or not to start investigations.

The documents obtained by the ACLU also include more anti-Muslim and anti-Arab training materials, including an outline of a 2003 training course in San Francisco that states: "Islam was not able to change the cluster Arab mind thinking into a linear one" and declares, laughably and inaccurately, that "to be in an Islamic Sunni terrorist organization, you must be a Muslim Brotherhood member. This is a precursor for all terrorists." Just to put into perspective how idiotic that "observation" is, by that standard Osama bin Laden was not a terrorist. The name of the course instructor is redacted, presumably for some practical reason other than protecting the individual from being publicly exposed as a know-nothing.

The ACLU's criticisms follow on the heels of a lengthy Associated Press investigation into the New York Police Department, which revealed that, with the assistance of the CIA, the NYPD had engaged in wide-ranging surveillance and mapping of New York City's Muslim communities. While the CIA has already pledged to investigate its role in the program, civil libertarian critics say the NYPD lacks similar oversight mechanisms. This kind of sophisticated intelligence-gathering operation has traditionally been the province of the federal government rather than local police, so the New York City Council doesn't exercise the same kind of monitoring over the NYPD that say, Congress does over the FBI and CIA. 

An FBI spokeswoman was critical when asked about the NYPD program, saying, "If you're sending an informant into a mosque when there is no evidence of wrongdoing, that's a very high-risk thing to do...You're running right up against core constitutional rights. You're talking about freedom of religion." The ACLU documents however, suggest the FBI was already engaging in something similar, in an effort that went far beyond just the American Muslim community.

The Great Showdown: Stimulus vs. Energy

| Fri Oct. 21, 2011 1:37 PM EDT

The global economy has gotten ever so slightly better this year. Hooray! Of course, even a slightly stronger economy means rising oil prices. Brad Plumer tells us what that means:

In 2011, as gas prices have risen, Americans have cut back on fuel consumption by about 1.8 percent. But that’s not nearly enough to offset the price increase: overall gas expenditures still rose 25 percent over the past year, or $102 billion. That essentially wiped out all of the benefits from President Obama’s middle-class tax cut.

....The amount that families are spending on gasoline has leapt dramatically since 2004, as fast-growing countries like China and India nudge up oil prices. In states such as Montana and Mississippi, where even routine trips are long and transit alternatives rare, a whopping 19 percent of median income now goes toward gas.

Stimulus is hard in an energy-constrained world. I confess that the more I think about this, the more I wonder if conventional fiscal/monetary policy has as much traction as we believe. I'm not an energy fundamentalist by any stretch, but the constraints are real. Ordinary stimulus measures still work, and we should be pursuing them more aggressively, but I can't help but suspect that we're entering an era where they're getting less effective all the time.

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Obama and (Steve) Jobs

| Fri Oct. 21, 2011 1:08 PM EDT

I can't help but be fascinated by these excerpts from Walter Isaacson's new biography of Steve Jobs:

Jobs, who was known for his prickly, stubborn personality, almost missed meeting President Obama in the fall of 2010 because he insisted that the president personally ask him for a meeting. Though his wife told him that Obama "was really psyched to meet with you," Jobs insisted on the personal invitation, and the standoff lasted for five days. When he finally relented and they met at the Westin San Francisco Airport, Jobs was characteristically blunt. He seemed to have transformed from a liberal into a conservative.

"You're headed for a one-term presidency," he told Obama at the start of their meeting, insisting that the administration needed to be more business-friendly. As an example, Jobs described the ease with which companies can build factories in China compared to the United States, where "regulations and unnecessary costs" make it difficult for them.

Jobs also criticized America's education system, saying it was "crippled by union work rules," noted Isaacson. "Until the teachers' unions were broken, there was almost no hope for education reform." Jobs proposed allowing principals to hire and fire teachers based on merit, that schools stay open until 6 p.m. and that they be open 11 months a year.

OK, three things. Regarding the first paragraph: Jeebus, what a dick Jobs could be. Regarding the second paragraph: We all know why it's easier for Foxconn to open a factory in China. I think I'll keep our child labor and environmental rules intact, thank you very much. And regarding the third paragraph: Just where does Jobs think the massive budget increase is going to come from that would allow schools to stay open ten hours a day and eleven months a year? Even if he's right about the dire effect of teachers unions, something with pretty scanty empirical evidence, I don't think that California, to pick a state at random, is really up for the $20-30 billion tax increase it would take to roughly double instructional hours. Besides, even a really good intensive preschool program would cost less than that and almost certainly deliver better results. Think different, people!

Other than that, though, Jobs sounds like a great guy.

Occupy Wall Street Drummers Driving Neighbors Batty

| Fri Oct. 21, 2011 12:40 PM EDT

"I was 100 feet from where 4,000 people were killed. Okay? That's what's missing here. You are a half a block from Ground Zero. You are not occupying Wall Street—you are occupying Zuccotti Park in my backyard. And you are drumming at all kinds of crazy hours. When is it going to end?"

So said an emotional neighbor of Occupy Wall Street at a contentious, two-hour meeting last night of the Quality of Life Committee of the Manhattan Community Board 1, the city body that deals with neighborhood issues near Wall Street. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer had kicked things off with the admission that "tensions have been growing between protesters and residents." And as the meeting dragged on, that seemed like an understatement.

"I am an occupier, I am a drummer, and, despite what they say, I am also a human being," said Ashley Love, a young member of the OWS People of Color Working Group, who'd tried to organize a protest march against the meeting. "It's primarily a commercial area; not too many people live there," she went on, to an uproar of boos and hollers. "The majority of the drummers are people of color with low-income or no-income backgrounds, and Wall Street was built by slaves when they brought the Africans over here. The council people back then prohibited drumming because it was a way of protesting. It was a way of communication. And I just think you guys are scapegoating us."

In Politics, Fundamentals and Campaigns Both Matter

| Fri Oct. 21, 2011 12:24 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias is annoyed with a New York Times piece about Barack Obama supposedly trying to replicate George Bush's awesome reelection strategy of 2004:

I’ve written about this before, but the fact of the matter is that this theory is based on a largely mythical recollection of what happened in 2004. Democrats seem to have persuaded themselves that the hideously unpopular Bush won re-election by trashing the reputation of John Kerry. The fact of the matter is that Kerry’s vote share outperformed most fundamentals-based models. The solid foundation of Bush’s re-election strategy was that on Election Day most voters said they approved of Bush’s job performance. Kerry got an extraordinary 93 percent of the vote of Bush-disapprovers. The phenomenon of the anti-Bush voter who voted for him anyway out of disgust with Kerry’s flip-flopping was extremely rare.

I don't actually disagree with this much. Economic fundamentals matter a lot, and on that score it's true that Kerry did better than expected. (Just as Democrats did worse then even the lousy fundamentals predicted in 2010.) But I don't feel like writing about Muammar Qaddafi again, so I'm going to disagree anyway.

Presidential elections, of course, aren't won by national vote shares. They're won in the electoral college. And if John Kerry had won Ohio, he would have won the election and become the lucky overseer of our economic catastrophe in 2008. (And John McCain would probably be president right now.)

So what happened in Ohio? Obviously economic fundamentals played the same role there that they played everywhere else. But there's also this: Kerry lost Ohio by only 120,000 votes. This means that a switch of 60,000 Kerry voters to the Bush column was enough to give him a second term. And Ohio was, infamously, ground zero for saturation TV ads from the Swift Boat Veterans group about how Kerry was a conniving, lying, phony war hero who didn't deserve his military decorations and, in fact, was something of a coward who connived to get his fake bronze stars so he could skedaddle out of Vietnam as soon as he could.

The Swift Boat smears ran in heavy rotation in Ohio. Did that make a difference of 60,000 votes? Political scientists might say no: TV ads don't have a huge effect, and they especially don't have a huge effect months before an election, which is when the ads ran. But I'm not so sure. In a state like Ohio, these ads left a very sour taste in a lot of mouths. They not only took away Kerry's aura as a decorated war hero, but actively tarred him as the worst kind of sniveling opportunist, a man who used fake wartime decorations to grease his way up the political pole. I don't have a hard time believing that this might have switched 60,000 votes out of the 5 million cast in Ohio.

So yes, fundamentals matter. But sometimes campaigns matter too. I think the 2004 presidential campaign is actually pretty good evidence for both.

Stat of the Day: Dismantling the EPA

| Fri Oct. 21, 2011 11:53 AM EDT

From Lisa Jackson, head of the EPA:

Since the beginning of this year, Republicans in the House have averaged roughly a vote every day the chamber has been in session to undermine the Environmental Protection Agency and our nation's environmental laws.

These are, of course, all symbolic votes, since none of these bills are going anywhere in the Senate. Still, symbolism is a pretty good way of getting a read on what a party's real priorities are. And you never know: if they win control of the Senate next year, Republicans might turn out to actually be serious about this stuff. Best not to take chances, I think.