2012 - %3, February

Personal Income Revised Upward — Way Upward

| Wed Feb. 29, 2012 10:06 PM PST

The BEA announced today that GDP in the fourth quarter of 2011 went up 3.0%, not 2.8%. That's good news, but nothing super special. It's a pretty small correction, really.

However, the BEA also announced a correction to its estimate of income growth, and it was considerably more spectacular. Over at his official blog, Mark Doms, the chief economist at the Department of Commerce, provides his take on this:

While the upward revision to GDP was welcome news, there was even better news in revisions to the income data....Personal income growth was revised upward, from 0.8% to 3.2% in Q3, and from 2.6% and 3.2% in Q4.

As consumer spending wasn’t revised, this extra income implies that the personal saving rate was also revised upward in both quarters: from 3.9% to 4.6% in Q3, and from 3.7% to 4.5% in Q4.

These revisions to income and savings are significant because of the story they tell about the sustainability of the recent strength of consumer spending. The old story line was that some of the growth we saw in consumer spending in the second half of last year was fueled by a decrease in the saving rate. A challenge we then faced was the sustainability of future growth (since one can only lower the saving rate for so long). Today’s data show that the saving rate didn’t fall much and that the growth was instead fueled by higher incomes. I realize this is getting into the weeds a bit, but it really is quite good and important economic news.

This is good news. If growth is being driven by consumers spending down their savings, that's unsustainable. This is yet another sign that the economy may really be on the mend this time around.

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Half of MoJo's Bylines Are Women's

| Wed Feb. 29, 2012 7:19 PM PST

Kevin Drum summed up the state of gender equality in media well when he said that "the news remains pretty bleak."

When VIDA recently compared the number of articles written by men to those written by women at 14 thought-leading publications in 2011, including The New Yorker, Harper's, The New Republic, and The Atlantic, only one publication, Granta, emerged with a roughly equal gender division—30 male and 34 female bylines. (Granta is somewhat of an outlier, though, given that it only publishes four times per year and one of its 2011 issues was dedicated to feminism.) Adding to the good list, GOOD magazine's executive editor (and MoJo alum) Ann Friedman notes that their past three issues have seen a 50-50 split between male and female bylines.

So how did Mother Jones measure up? We crunched the numbers for all of our 2011 print magazine articles, and Mother Jones broke exactly even across those six issues: 41 bylines went to men, 41 bylines went to women. And not that I need to mention it, but we're one of the few "thought-leader" magazines in the country headed by women.

It's 2012, but gender inequality is still a reality in just about every sphere of public and private life. If our update about women in media hasn't convinced you, just consider the renewed war on contraception, the almost 5 to 1 male-female ratio in Congress, and the disparity between men and women's wages. But as Mother Jones proves, it's not all bad news.

Romney Didn't Know What the Blunt Amendment Was

| Wed Feb. 29, 2012 4:30 PM PST

Say you're Mitt Romney. You believe Obama has declared war on religion. As someone who is trying to be the John Connor of the resistance to the forces of free birth control, you could reasonably be expected to know what exactly, your party is doing to rescue Americans from the fresh Hell of preventive care and minimum essential health benefits. Yet when asked by a reporter, Romney seemed unaware of the two main legislative measures Republicans have deployed to prevent exempt employers and insurers from having to cover birth control. 

When asked about the amendment proposed by Senator Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) this afternoon, as the Washington Post's Greg Sargent noted Romney told Ohio reporter Jim Heath that he was opposed to it. That was a mistake—one the Romney campaign is walking back by saying that Heath phrased the question improperly when he said that the Blunt Amendment "deals with allowing employers to ban providing female contraception."

Heath referred to the Blunt-Rubio amendment, but there are actually two seperate amendments—Senator Marc Rubio (R-Fla.) proposed one that deals narrowly with birth control, while Blunt's amendment, as I reported weeks ago, would allow employers to opt out of providing any benefits mandated by Health and Human Services as long as they have a "moral objection" to doing so. Rubio is also a co-sponsor on Blunt's bill. Still, Heath's summary was clear enough, and yet Romney said that he didn't want to get "into questions about contraception within a relationship between a man and a woman." The GOP line is that coverage for birth control is a matter of conscience, not what individuals do with their own bodies. Unfamiliar with the basic countours of the debate he was wading into, Romney gave what sounded like a suspiciously liberal answer.   

Democrats are accusing Romney of another characteristic flip-flop, but that's not really what happened here—Romney has since made clear he supports the Blunt amendment. It's not so much that Romney changed his mind—it's that he had no idea what Republicans were doing to stem Obama's free-love apocalypse. Now either this whole "war on religion" rhetoric is entirely overblown, or Romney just doesn't care enough to be minimally conscious of what's happening on the front lines. 

Chart of the Day: Women and Bylines

| Wed Feb. 29, 2012 3:29 PM PST

VIDA has once again counted up the bylines in a variety of literary and political magazines in order to compare the contributions of men and women, and the news remains pretty bleak. Among the mainstream magazines (as opposed to the purely literary journals), the most and least egalitarian are the New York Times Review of Books, where 45% of the contributors are women, and the New York Review of Books, where a dismal 13% of all articles are written by women:

This comes via E.J. Graff, who asks:

Why is this important? Because the news purports to be objective, to tell it like it is. The media help create our image of the world, our internal picture of what’s normal and true. And when the news is being written by men about men, a significant part of reality is missing from view.

....We've all had plenty of fun mocking [Darrell] Issa's all-male panel on contraception—er, religious freedom. But you know what? That wasn't an outlier. The fact that Issa's panel was about lady business made it particularly egregious. But check out the world around you. All-male and 90-percent male panels convene every day. Sometimes they're called "Congress." Sometimes they're called your newspaper. And they're giving you a false picture of your world. 

More at the link. Here's a complete list of the mainstream magazines covered by the VIDA project, from best to worst. Sadly, Mother Jones wasn't part of the project. Perhaps some enterprising intern can leaf through our 2011 issues and come up with a count.

  • 45% — New York Times Book Review
  • 40% — The Nation
  • 31% — Boston Review
  • 26% — New Yorker
  • 26% — Atlantic
  • 25% — New Republic
  • 17% — Harper's
  • 14% — London Review of Books 
  • 13% — New York Review of Books

UPDATE: Ask and ye shall receive. Samantha Oltman checked through MoJo's 2011 archives and discovered that we ran 41 pieces bylined by men and 41 pieces bylined by women. Not bad! Click the link for more details.

Iran War Watch: Netanyahu to Pressure Obama on Military Action

| Wed Feb. 29, 2012 2:11 PM PST

Are the United States and Iran on a collision course over the Middle Eastern country's controversial nuclear program? We'll be posting the latest news on Iran-war fever—the intel, the media frenzy, the rhetoric.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly planning on urging President Obama to declare explicitly—and publicly—that the US is ready for military operations in the event that Iran breaches certain "red lines," a senior Israeli official tells Haaretz. The two leaders will meet in Washington this Monday, during which the prime minister will push the White House to ratchet up its rhetoric. (This may include asking the president to clarify his statements that he will take "no options off the table" to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.)

Google Is Dumbing Down Search, and I Don't Like It

| Wed Feb. 29, 2012 1:22 PM PST

Atrios:

I don't care where in the search results a specific Santorum page pops up, but I hate that their algorithms increasingly seem to favor recently updated sites. That's great for news, because it's, you know, news, but it's made Google increasingly useless as a research tool. Once upon a time if, say, Little Ricky said something stupid, I could do a Google search and easily [see] if he said a similar stupid thing a few years ago. Now the first several pages of search results will inevitably be just repeated quotes of the current gaffe.

Agreed. There's already Google News if you want the latest and greatest news. And there's an option (on the Advanced Search page) to limit your results to the past day or week or whatever. So people who want to search for recent stuff already have options. It would be nice if those of us who don't necessarily want just the recent stuff had the option to get that. Increasingly, we don't.

I don't suppose this will ever happen, but it would actually be kind of interesting if the Advanced Search page gave you the choice of various ranking algorithms. That could be really handy. Other than the fact that it might be a pain in the ass for the development team, is there any special reason for Google not to do this?

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Mazda Enlists Kids to Market Cars in Exchange for Library Books

| Wed Feb. 29, 2012 1:03 PM PST

The internet was aflurry last week after Mazda launched new advertisements for its crossover SUV featuring the endorsement of The Lorax. Many balked at the idea that the much-loved Dr. Seuss book that debuts on the big screen on March 2 would be used to sell cars. But today it gets even worse: Apparently, Mazda is now deploying people in Lorax costumes to schools to get kids to convince their parents to test-drive the new car.

From the Washington Post:

The sales pitch is part of the National Education Association’s “Read Across America tour — Driven by Mazda,” which arrived at Alexandria’s James K. Polk Elementary School on Tuesday.
It was a hybrid event: a celebration of reading, a fundraiser for public-school libraries, and an opportunity to market Mazdas to the pint-size set. While they don’t buy many cars themselves, they have direct access to parents who do.

According to the National Education Association's website, Mazda and Universal Pictures are teaming up to raise up to $1 million for public school libraries. The catch, though, is that public school libraries will get $25 for every test-drive of a Mazda vehicle between Feb. 21 and April 2, 2012. So, in order to get the money, schools will need to get parents to go test-drive the cars—hence the need to enlist a fleet of mini-marketers.

10 Coal-Fired Power Plants Shuttered

| Wed Feb. 29, 2012 12:12 PM PST

Christmas came on Leap Day for anti-coal activists. On Wednesday, two Midwestern utilities announced the closure of a total of ten aging coal plants, including two intercity Chicago plants that have long been a focal point for environmental groups.

Midwest Generation announced that it will close Chicago's Fisk Power Plant in 2012 and the Crawford Plant in 2014. Local and national activists have been targeting those two plants for their impacts on poorer city neighborhoods, and new mayor Rahm Emanuel also recently threatened to shut them down. GenOn Energy announced that it is closing eight plants in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey because the cost of complying with tougher new pollution rules will be too high.

Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, both of which are running campaigns focused on closing older, polluting plants, were certainly cheered by the news. "The Fisk and Crawford coal plants have loomed over the City of Chicago for a hundred years, fueling climate change and exposing families to dangerous levels of soot, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxide," said Kelly Mitchell, a Chicago-based Greenpeace organizer. "After a groundbreaking ten-year grassroots campaign to shut down these archaic plants, Chicagoans have reclaimed their right to clean air."

Defending Empirical Evidence

| Wed Feb. 29, 2012 11:49 AM PST

Matt Yglesias isn't impressed with my post this morning showing that child tax subsidies don't have much impact on fertility:

I buy it, but on another level I don't buy it at all. This is just a chart showing that we've had sweeping waves of social and economic trends over the decades that totally swamp tweaks in the tax code. It's true that you can put together a two-variable chart with appropriately-scaled axes to make it appear silly to say that the tax code is having an influence on fertility rates, but really the chart tells us nothing. We know that some people have children, and that different people have different numbers of children. We know that people exercise some level of conscious choice about this. And we know that having children is costly in both financial and non-financial ways. People also find it rewarding. But the costs are real and extra money to defray those costs should, at the margin, encourage people to have more children.

A few points:

  • In fairness, the study itself is a lot more than a "two-variable chart with appropriately-scaled axes." That just happens to be the only part of the study that I included in my post.
  • In a sense, though, I agree with Matt: economists are endlessly clever at finding ways to prove that nothing ever has any effect. Design your model right and control for enough variables and pretty much anything can wash out if you really put your mind to it. These things should always be taken with a grain of salt until they get confirmed using a bunch of different approaches.
  • On the specific issue of child tax subsidies, of course there's a lot of underlying stuff going on here. And unquestionably, a tax subsidy almost has to have some positive effect on fertility. But the size of the effect is really, really important. Far more important than the mere Econ 101 statement that people react to incentives at the margin. Sure they do. But if the incentive effect is so small that it's swamped by everything else — which is what this study seems to show — then for all practical purposes there's no effect. Alternatively, sometimes there are counteracting incentives that no one has thought about. The only way to find out is to dig into the evidence.

Contra Matt, empirical evidence is not "one of the most overrated things in policy debates." It needs to be treated carefully, and it shouldn't overwhelm common sense. But sometimes common sense is wrong, and sometime incentive effects, no matter how theoretically compelling, are small enough that they don't really matter in the real world. That seems to be the case here.

In a nutshell: size matters. If I have one takeaway that I wish everyone would tattoo on their foreheads, that's it. As usual, then: more evidence, please!

POSTSCRIPT: As always, it's worth being conscious of your own confirmation biases. My intuition, for example, is that tax subsidies are unlikely to have much impact on decisions to have children. The benefits aren't big enough, people don't understand them very well, and other reasons for having (or not having) children are overwhelmingly more important. So naturally when I see a study that confirms this, I'm likely to believe it. Reihan Salam, who supports pro-natal policies in general, and Matt, who has more faith in theoretical constructs than I do, are more likely to be skeptical. Caveat emptor.

New Hot Guy App Reminds You To Touch Yourself

| Wed Feb. 29, 2012 11:21 AM PST

Can hot dudes get women to do regular breast self-exams? That's the inspiration for a new app, wherein studly guys pop up on your phone every month to remind you to feel yourself up. It comes from the Canadian charity Rethink Breast Cancer, which focuses on women under age 40. Here's their promotional video, wherein the hot guys demonstrate how to conduct an exam while strutting around shirtless:

A colleague currently at TEDActive sent along the video after seeing the group's presentation. It's both funny and accessible, though I must admit to feeling like one of the YouTube commenters who found the over-the-top sexualization of men just as disturbing as when it's women using their bodies to sell a product or idea. I also had to wonder if they're planning to make a corollary app for lesbians, but that would probably end up being used for purposes other than reminding women to conduct self exams.