2012 - %3, February

Raw Data: How Registration Affects Comments

| Sat Feb. 25, 2012 11:51 AM EST

A few weeks ago we started requiring registration with email verification for commenters. So how has that worked out? Here are the basic stats from our tech wizards:

  • 22% decrease in total comments
  • 22% increase in Twitter logins
  • 257% increase in Facebook logins
  • 45% decrease in comments our moderators decided to delete

So there you have it. We're getting fewer comments, but not a lot fewer, and anecdotally, the tone of the comments section seems much more civil.

The moral of the story is: Register today! You can use your Twitter or Facebook login, but you don't have to. Just submit your name, you'll get an email address with a verification link to click, and you're good to go. You only have to do it once.

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Film Review: If A Tree Falls

| Sat Feb. 25, 2012 6:01 AM EST

If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front
Oscilloscope
85 minutes

One day in December 2005, documentary filmmaker Marshall Curry's wife came home with some surprising news: Four federal agents had arrived at the domestic violence organization where she worked in Brooklyn and arrested her coworker, Daniel McGowan, on charges of eco-terrorism. McGowan, a sweet, quiet guy who'd majored in business in college and was working towards a master's in acupuncture, seemed an unlikely terrorist, and Curry—whose first documentary, Street Fight, about Cory Booker's first mayoral campaign, was nominated for an Oscar in 2005—was intrigued. He and co-director Sam Cullman set out to figure out how McGowan had ended up in handcuffs, and discovered a fascinating, sobering tale of a sensitive idealist's gradual radicalization in the face of an unresponsive political system. Curry and Cullman's thoughtful film—currently in the running for an Oscar in the category of best documentary—couldn't be more timely amidst the debate over activist tactics that's been renewed since the Occupy Wall Street protests emerged last fall.

Heartland's Tips For A Taut Tummy

| Fri Feb. 24, 2012 11:36 PM EST

Sure. From time to time we're all a little distracted by that stubborn Winter padding. Too much New Year cheer. Now it's nearly March! And goodness knows we've all done some light non-work-related Googling at the office desk on an otherwise quiet Friday afternoon.

But in the middle of an all-out international PR-offensive against alleged "fraud"; and "theft"; leveled at several quarters of the "lamestream media", maybe it's best to not only minimize, but close a few browser windows? Even if it was a pop-up ad.

A string of emails released Friday afternoon by the Heartland Institute, in the form of screenshots, details how scientist Peter Gleick obtained sensitive documents by posing as a board member.But they also reveal divided attention at a crucial moment in the Institute's PR campaign. An open browser window at the bottom of many of the screengrabs is titled "42 Best Ways To Lo..."

A quick Google reveals pages and pages of referring links to 42 Best Ways To Lose Stomach Fat Fast.

The Guardian also points to other areas of carelessness in the email release:

... it does not appear, from Friday's release, that Heartland has had a security overhaul. Despite redactions, one of the emails contained a list of board recipients, including one email address.

Corn on "Hardball": Culture Wars Seize Political Spotlight

Fri Feb. 24, 2012 7:49 PM EST

David Corn and Jennifer Donahue joined host Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss the recent political spates over women's health rights and same-sex marriage. Despite predictions that the 2012 political season would be all about the economy, the discourse has returned to the familiar tropes of the culture wars.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

Iran War Watch: New Senate Resolution a Step Toward War?

| Fri Feb. 24, 2012 5:30 PM EST

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

Last week, Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), Robert Casey (D-PA), and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) introduced Senate Resolution 380, which emphatically rejects a containment policy towards Iran and promotes a more hardline stance on preventing the Islamic Republic from acquiring "nuclear weapons capability." The proposal also encourages increased diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran, and "urges the President to reaffirm the unacceptability of an Iran with nuclear-weapons capability..." If adopted, the bill could make military conflict more likely.

Texas Axes Health Programs for Women

| Fri Feb. 24, 2012 5:08 PM EST

In the latest dispatch from the Republican war on Planned Parenthood, on Thursday the administration of Texas Gov. Rick Perry enacted a new rule banning state funds from going to any health center at all affiliated with anyone who offers abortions. The measure would effectively end the Women’s Health Program in the state, because federal law prohibits states from discriminating against specific providers in the allocation of Medicaid.

The Texas Tribune reports that the move bans Planned Parenthood clinics and other "affiliates of abortion providers" from taking part in the program:

The rule, signed by Commissioner Tom Suehs on Thursday, takes effect March 14. Unless some last-minute agreement is brokered, the program, which receives $9 in federal funds for every $1 in state funds, will be either phased out or cut off by the end of March. At least 130,000 poor Texas women will lose access to cancer screenings, well-woman exams and contraception.

In a statement, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richard said Perry has again "chosen politics over the lives of Texas women." This isn't the first time the Perry administration has cut women's health programs; last year, the governor and legislature axed two-thirds of the budget for those programs, as NPR reported in September.

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The Making of an Agribusiness Apologist

| Fri Feb. 24, 2012 3:18 PM EST

Earlier this month, Forbes.com published an op-ed by Jon Entine in which he purported to debunk Dashka Slater's must-read recent Mother Jones profile of Tyrone Hayes, the UC Berkeley professor who found that tiny doses of the widely used herbicide atrazine affects frogs' sexual development.

Entine, who describes himself as an "author, think tank scholar, leadership and sustainability consultant, media commentator, and public speaker on the DNA of human behavior," accused Slater of blatantly overstating the dangers of atrazine, which shows up at low levels in drinking water in farming-intensive areas in the Midwest and South. According to Entine, as it's currently used on American fields, atrazine poses no risks to people or farms. Entine called out Mother Jones for promoting "End of Days hysteria" and displaying "a devastating lack of respect for science." Now, Entine's critique of the science indicting atrazine is sophisticated and deserves to be answered. I have written critically about atrazine before, and much of Entine's critique of Slater's piece applies to my work as well. I'll be digging into that in a forthcoming post.

Malaria Cure for Mom Risks Child's Immunity

| Fri Feb. 24, 2012 3:06 PM EST

Life cycle of malaria.

Being born with immunity to the diseases prevalent in your 'hood because you inherited the antibodies from your mother (who suffered and survived the disease) is an important factor in human survival and adaptability This is especially true in places where you're likely to be reinfected with the same disease/parasite multiple times in your lifetime.

But what happens if you treat the mother for the infection? Will her children inherit maternal immunity? The evidence remains inconclusive as to whether treating human moms for malaria improves the survival rate of their kids. But a new study in mice shows: not so much.

The paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B finds that:

  • Baby mice born to moms who had been infected by malaria had their mortality reduced by 75 percent compared to babies born to moms who had never been infected with malaria and had no antibodies to confer. 
  • Baby mice born to infected moms treated with antimalarial drugs received fewer maternal antibodies and consequently died at a rate 25 percent higher than babies born from infected, untreated moms.

The authors write:

We observed the same qualitative patterns across three different host strains and two parasite genotypes. This study...highlights a potential trade-off between the health of mothers and offspring, suggesting that anti-parasite treatment may significantly affect the outcome of infection in newborns.

I wrote in an earlier post how rising global temperatures are likely drive malaria into 'hoods where it doesn't live now. 

The open-access paper:

  • Vincent Staszewski, Sarah E. Reece, Aidan J. O'Donnell, and Emma J. A. Cunningham. Drug treatment of malaria infections can reduce levels of protection transferred to offspring via maternal immunity. Proc. R. Soc. B 2012 : rspb.2011.1563v1-rspb20111563.

 

Friday Cat Blogging - 24 February 2012

| Fri Feb. 24, 2012 2:54 PM EST

This week doesn't really have a theme. Just a couple of cats enjoying the nice weather. On the left, Domino is rolling around in the sunshine and peering out from behind a potted plant on the patio. On the right, Inkblot obviously has some serious business on his mind as he strides purposefully toward the camera. As it turns out, that serious business was jumping down off the fence and going inside to see if the food bowl had been magically replenished. Sadly, it hadn't been. Maybe next time.

Obama Takes on the Private Equity Industry

| Fri Feb. 24, 2012 2:35 PM EST

As we all know, corporations are allowed to deduct the interest they pay on loans from their taxable income. This often makes borrowing a more attractive way of raising money than an equity offering. Barack Obama would like to put debt and equity on a more even footing, so he's proposing to reduce the deductibility of interest expenses. Dan Primack digs in:

Obama's basic framework is to lower the corporate rate from 35% to 28%....Private equity firms would uniformly support the lower rate, since it would benefit every one of their portfolio companies. But Obama also wants a reduction in the deductibility of interest payments on corporate debt....And for PE-backed companies with major leverage loads, this is not an even trade-off.

For example, take a look at hospital chain HCA Holdings (HCA), whose private equity sponsors include Bain Capital and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. (KKR). For 2010, it reported $2.23 billion in income before income taxes, and nearly $2.1 billion in interest expenses. Let's imagine everything else is equal, except that the corporate rate is now 28% and there is no deductibility for interest payments. HCA's tax bill would climb by $587 million ($156m in savings plus $734m in new taxes).

....Obama argues that reducing the deductibility of corporate debt interest "will reduce incentives to overleverage and produce more stable business finances, especially in times of economic stress."....On the other hand, I happen to still believe that private equity is a net positive for the economy — more good than evil — and much of the model is based on this particular tax quirk.

The question, therefore, becomes how big of a reduction to the deductibility is Obama looking for? If he's just looking to reduce the deduction from 100% to 80%, then HCA would actually save money under Obama's plan (again, based only on these two variables — excluding other "lost" deductions). But it would lose money at a 70% deductibility threshold. Wish I could give you an answer on his thinking here, but all I have is a source at Treasury telling me that they haven't yet gotten into that level of detail.

For me, my initial bias would be to go to around 65% or so — thus achieving the goal of reducing leverage while not making the tax hike so onerous as to destroy the profit potential of debt-heavy LBOs. And probably add in an exemption for companies with revenue below a certain level ($20m?), so as not to discourage the creation of capital-intensive small businesses in markets like manufacturing.

I don't have a settled opinion on the goodness vs. evilness of private equity financing. But I do have a bias against the tax code heavily favoring one type of financing over another — not a huge bias, mind you, but still a sizeable one. So if leveraged buyouts make sense only because of quirks of the tax code, they'd have to be enormously beneficial to make it worth supporting those tax quirks. And the evidence suggests to me that it's a close call. Private equity might be a net benefit to society, but not by a whole lot compared to other ways of financing corporate growth and acquisition.

So I'd probably go further than Primack. If a deal makes no financial sense unless Uncle Sam gives you a big writeoff, then maybe it just doesn't make sense. Lowering the writeoff to 50% would still keep moderately leveraged buyouts profitable, but it would probably kill off the most heavily leveraged ones, which are also generally the most destructive. I think I could live with that.