2012 - %3, February

Speaking English May Be Bad for Your Financial Health

| Thu Feb. 23, 2012 12:33 PM PST

Suzy Khimm reports on a fascinating new bit of research about the effect of language on people's tendency to save for the future:

Kevin Chen examined two groups of languages in a new working paper: languages that use words like “shall” or “will” to indicate the future, and languages that frequently rely on context rather than a separate verb tense for the future. Speakers of the first set of languages, like Greek, Italian, and English, tend to see the present and future as more disconnected. By contrast, languages that don’t grammatically distinguish between present and future events, like German, Finnish and Mandarin, “lead their speakers to take more future-oriented actions.”

Chen points to a long body of research showing that grammar can affect cognition and ultimately behavior, and discovers that speakers of German and other weak future-time reference languages are inclined to behave as though the future is an extension of the present: They’re 30 percent more likely to save in any given year, have more retirement savings, and are better at taking care of their long-term health.

Is it science or is it bullshit? Good question. At first, when I looked through the paper, I came across a chart (on page 12) that struck me as extremely weak. The line-fitting was mostly based on a tiny number of bilingual countries, and while this is a good attempt to tease out effects that don't depend on nationality, it's still a tiny number of countries with extremely wide variation around the trendline.

But then, on page 16, there's a more compelling chart. It's strictly for OECD countries, so you're basically comparing a bunch of rich economies to each other, and visually at least, it's fairly convincing. The cluster of countries on the right with low savings rates is a sea of red, indicating that they all speak languages that have a strong "future-time reference" structure. On the left, the vast majority of high-savings countries have weak FTR structures.

Fascinating! But so far, only suggestive. As Chen says: "One important issue in interpreting these results is the possibility that language is not causing but rather reflecting deeper differences that drive savings behavior." However, he believes the evidence points in the direction of language having an effect that's independent of culture: "While both language and cultural values appear to drive savings behavior, these measured effects do not appear to interact with each other in a way you would expect if they were both markers of some common causal factor."

We already know that you are what you eat. Maybe you're also what you speak. Now you have yet another excuse for why your high credit card bills aren't really your fault.

BONUS TIDBIT: I was initially surprised that Luxembourg and France were coded differently. Don't they speak French in Luxembourg? Yes they do, but it turns out the main language is actually Luxembourgish. I had no idea. If some presidential candidate had mentioned that, I would have thought he was an idiot, the kind of person who thinks they speak Argentinian in Argentina. Live and learn.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Corn on "Hardball": Do Santorum's Satanic Plot Remarks Cross a Line?

Thu Feb. 23, 2012 11:34 AM PST

David Corn and former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum's controversial claim that Satan has targeted the US. "If you were Satan, who would you attack in this day and age? There is no on else to go after other than the United States," Santorum said in a speech at a Catholic University in Florida in 2008. Four years later, Santorum still stands by his belief in a satanic plot against the US, and he's begun indentifying people who he believes are also intent to destroy America: Obama, college-educated elites, and even Protestant churches. Will Santorum's hardline religious beliefs rally his conservative supporters, or alienate them?

Rick Santorum Deserves the Undeserved Abuse He's Getting

| Thu Feb. 23, 2012 10:58 AM PST

If it weren't for the fact that I find him so creepy, I'd almost feel sorry for Rick Santorum over the abuse he's taking for his explanation last night of his vote in favor of No Child Left Behind:

I have to admit, I voted for that. It was against the principles I believed in, but, you know, when you're part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team, for the leader, and I made a mistake. You know, politics is a team sport, folks. And sometimes you've got to rally together and do something.

I guess this sort of counts as a Kinsley gaffe: a candidate accidentally telling the truth. But in a way it goes beyond that. Santorum wasn't just telling the truth, he was repeating a banality. A little artlessly, sure, but basically still just a truism of politics. Of course members of Congress vote for things that are priorities for a president of their own party. That's how politics works. If any one of the guys on the stage last night becomes president, they'll be counting on that. Party solidarity is practically a religion in the GOP these days.

So that's all bad enough. But then to hear Mitt Romney — Multiple Choice Mitt himself! — snark that "I don't know if I have ever seen a politician explain, in so many ways, why he voted against his principles" just has to be galling as hell. Somehow Romney keeps wriggling away from the plain fact that Romneycare is nearly identical to Obamacare, something that really ought to be a death sentence, but following the lead of his president on a single issue a decade ago is all set to become Santorum's undoing.

If it was anyone else, I really would feel sorry for him. But Santorum is so sanctimonious about being the only GOP candidate who's an honest-to-God principled conservative that I can't really work up anything but crocodile tears over this. He's just getting his due.

Glenn Beck's Favorite Gold Company Forced to Refund $4.5 Million to Customers

| Thu Feb. 23, 2012 10:54 AM PST
Glenn Beck shilling for Goldline in 2010.

As Glenn Beck goes, so goes his favorite gold company. For years, the Santa Monica-based precious metals company, Goldline International, has helped keep the conservative talk show host on the air by sponsoring his radio show and now-defunct Fox News show. Goldline stuck with Beck even after most of his other advertisers fled in light of the host's increasingly inflammatory rhetoric. Beck, for his part, lavishly praised the company, telling listeners and viewers that he personally bought gold from the company and calling its executives "people I trust."

Those were the golden days. Since Beck's Fox News heyday, his fortunes and Goldline's have fallen sharply. Beck parted ways with Fox in June, and in November prosecutors in Santa Monica charged six of Goldline's executives with fraud and accused the company of running a bait-and-switch operation that lured customers into buying overpriced antique coins as investments—coins that Beck promoted on his shows. Mother Jones documented this scam in a 2010 story about the company and its relationship with Beck. The former New York congressman Anthony Weiner helped bring national attention to the company's business practices. Beck went on the defensive, attacking Weiner and defending his favorite gold dealer.

On Wednesday, the Santa Monica city attorney obtained a judgment and injunction against Goldline that requires the company to radically overhaul its practices and to stop deceiving customers about prices, among other things. The company must refund up to $4.5 million to defrauded customers, and pay $800,000 into a fund for future claims. The judgment also requires the company to give up one of the staples of its marketing tactics, and one that was hyped routinely by Beck: the idea that the government's coming for your gold. For years Beck and Goldline insisted customers should buy its "numismatic" (or antique) coins rather than standard government-issued bullion because, they claimed, in 1933 President Franklin Roosevelt had ordered the government to confiscate private citizens' gold bullion; antique coins were spared from the seizure. The claim was a huge stretch, as was the notion Beck perpetuated that Obama was plotting to seize Americans' gold. Now, Goldline has to quit talking about bullion confiscation lest it face further trouble from prosecutors.

To make sure that the company abides by the injunction, Goldline has to pay the cost of hiring a former federal prosecutor to monitor its operation. The monitor will have full access to company records and will perform undercover test calls to ensure that the myth of the 1933 gold confiscation has been banished from Goldline's sales pitch.

Adam Radinsky, the head of the consumer protection unit at the Santa Monica city attorney's office said of the injunction:

This is a new day. Consumers in California and elsewhere, many of whom invested thousands of dollars and their life savings in the belief that the gold they were buying was a valuable and safe investment, will now get substantial relief. No one should have to suffer from predatory and deceitful sales practices. Whether they are buying gold or anything else, consumers expect a fair deal. We insisted that Goldline give them just that. We hope this case is a wake-up call to other large coin dealers and to other businesses. They need to know that it’s against the law to mislead consumers with false fears and misinformation. And consumers need to be especially careful when investing in this uniquely unregulated industry.

This is the second time that a gold dealer associated with Beck has been sanctioned by prosecutors. In December 2010, Santa Monica prosecutors put the Superior Gold Group into receivership, freezing its assets and seeking restitution for its customers. Prosecutors alleged that the outfit had engaged in deceptive practices similar to Goldline's, and had also taken money from customers and then failed to deliver any coins.

Goldline is trying to put a unique spin on the injunction. It issued a press release declaring, "All Charges Dismissed, Goldline Announces; Precious Metals Company Will Continue to Set Standard for Customer Disclosures." The company highlighted the fact that the prosecutors had dismissed the criminal charges against its executives and it claimed that prosecutors only turned up a handful of dissatisfied customers in their investigation. The company also noted that the judgment was not a finding of wrongdoing, which the company expressly denied.

"This is a great outcome for our customers and for the company," said Goldline CEO Scott Carter. "Customers have chosen Goldline for over 50 years because of our high quality service, transparency, fairness and reputation of integrity. Goldline is proud to raise the bar once again by enhancing disclosures and procedures that are unprecedented in the precious metals industry."

But Yuri Beckelman, a former staffer for Weiner who worked on the Goldline investigation, felt vindicated by the injunction. He said in an email:

Goldline can try to spin it any way they want. But when you have to agree to change your business model and then pay a court ordered attorney to monitor your progress for the next five years, you're admitting that what you were doing was wrong. While the millions in refunds Goldline was ordered to make will be meaningful to the people that were ripped off, the executives got off easy, and they know it.

The Obama Apology Tour Makes a Stop in Afghanistan

| Thu Feb. 23, 2012 10:11 AM PST

I see that President Obama is back on his apology tour of the world:

President Obama apologized on Thursday for the burning of Korans at the largest American base in Afghanistan earlier this week as furious protests raged for a third day and a man wearing Afghan Army uniform turned his weapon on coalition soldiers, killing two of them.

“I wish to express my deep regret for the reported incident,” Mr. Obama said in a letter to President Hamid Karzai. “I extend to you and the Afghan people my sincere apologies....The error was inadvertent. I assure you that we will take the appropriate steps to avoid any recurrence, to include holding accountable those responsible.”

So has Mitt Romney blasted Obama for this today? I promise that I haven't looked yet. Has Newt Gingrich declared that Obama, as usual, is treating our enemies timorously and making America less safe? Has Rick Santorum suggested that Obama's apology for burning Korans is all part of his disdain for Christianity? Or are they taking a different tack and claiming that this whole incident shows that Obama is unfit to lead the military?

I sure wish this had happened yesterday so John King could have asked about it during the debate. Then again, maybe I don't.

Rick and Mitt Give Latinos a Reason to Turn Out for Obama in November

| Thu Feb. 23, 2012 9:35 AM PST
2012 GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney didn't just praise Arizona's draconian immigration law during Wednesday night's GOP debate. He said it was a model for the country. 

"I think you see a model in Arizona," Romney told CNN debate moderator John King, listing off an employment verification system, a border fence, and increasing the number of border patrol agents as policies he'd pursue as president. "You do that, and just as Arizona is finding out, you can stop illegal immigration." As my colleague Tim Murphy noted, current top Not Romney contender Rick Santorum didn't just endorse Arizona-style immigration policy, he went as far as to praise Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whom the Justice Department recently accused of violating the civil rights of Arizona residents.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Making the Patent System Work Better

| Thu Feb. 23, 2012 9:10 AM PST

There are lots of cases in which two or more people invent the same thing at pretty much the same time. However, by a quirk of law, if you happen to file a patent claim even a day before anyone else, it's game over. The patent is yours.1 Alex Tabarrok, riffing off an example in which Kelly and Pat invent something independently, thinks this is crazy:

Independent invention should be a defense in a patent infringement lawsuit. An independent invention defense would allow Kelly to exclude imitators but would prevent Kelly from excluding an independent inventor such as Pat.

Inventors should not have to pay to use their own ideas! An independent invention defense is not only just, it also has good economic properties. An independent invention would create more competition. On the one hand, this does reduce the “pot of gold” incentive to create new ideas, the winner of a patent race might have to sell as a duopolist rather than a monopolist. In this case, however, there are several reasons why we wouldn’t expect the number of ideas to fall and innovation could even rise.

Several pragmatic reasons follow, but allow me to make a different argument. Patents are supposed to be issued for genuinely innovative inventions, and simultaneous discovery is a pretty practical way of deciding whether something really is innovative. If Alice patents, say, a set of finger gestures for use on touchscreen computer tablets, and for the next five years no one independently submits a similar patent, that's a pretty good indication that Alice genuinely came up with a creative, innovative idea that she deserves to reap some rewards from. However, if Bob and Carol independently submit similar patents within a few months, that's a pretty good indication that the idea was "in the air." It's not something that's really all that innovative, it's just that no one gave it a lot of thought until cheap touchscreens became commercially available. Once they did, it became obvious that consumers would need a lexicon of finger gestures to control them and so a bunch of people started creating them.

We can argue about the details. How similar do the patents need to be? How much time has to elapse before you can no longer claim independent discovery? Etc. But the basic principle is simple. Alex is right that there are practical reasons that a system like this would spur innovation, which is supposed to be the point of the patent system. However, it also appeals to a point I made earlier about IP law: that it's also about our moral sense that inventors deserve to reap the benefits of their creations. If independent invention is recognized, then genuinely innovative inventors reap the sole rewards, as they should. But if it's really just a workaday solution to a workaday problem, then they have to share the rewards. And that's fine, because it appeals to our native sense of fairness. The patent system is supposed to reward sparks of genius; it's not supposed to be a lottery.

1Technically, this is the system in every country except the U.S., which uses a "first to invent" standard. However, this doesn't really affect the argument about simultaneous invention, and in any case we'll be switching to a "first to file" system next year. So don't let the details get in the way of the broader point here.

Chart: Why the GOP's Gas Price Attack on Obama Is BS

| Thu Feb. 23, 2012 4:00 AM PST

Was George W. Bush to blame for this summer 2008 peak? Source: EIA 

Driving back from the mountains this past weekend, I commented to my wife how unusual it seemed that we weren't hearing too much public bitching about $4-a-gallon gasoline, because that's what it costs right now in California. But I spoke too soon. When we returned home, there was the Sunday New York Times with an A1 story on exactly that, describing how the GOP leadership planned to attack Obama on the issue, blaming him for high gasoline prices. 

This is the sort of well-worn populist trick that gets people riled up even when there's no substance to it. I created the chart above using an Energy Information Administration data set on weekly retail gasoline prices (excluding taxes) in selected countries. I used premium unleaded because the numbers were more complete. (Click on the chart to find the raw data.*)

Okay, so what do we see here? Does it look like domestic gas prices (black line) are responding to the policies of one American president or another? Note the peak toward the right: That's the summer of 2008, when George W. Bush was in office. The price crash that follows bottoms out in late-December 2008/early-January 2009, shortly before Obama took over. 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 23, 2012

Thu Feb. 23, 2012 3:57 AM PST

Staff Sgt. Carlos Gonzales, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, and Sgt. Ernesto Gallegos assist pilots during a run up of a CH-47F Chinook helicopter on Camp Marmal, Afghanistan, on February 16, 2012. Photo by the US Army.

The Last Debate

| Wed Feb. 22, 2012 9:55 PM PST

I sort of watched the Republican debate tonight. That is to say, I did watch it. The TV was on, and my eyes were pointed in the appropriate direction. But I only sort of paid attention. Something tells me I don't really have to explain why.

Anyway, what this means is that I'm going to outsource my commentary to a pair of Andrews. First, Andrew Sprung:

When the discussion turns to foreign policy, there is nothing these three won't say to inspire the fear and hatred they think will push themselves past their rivals for the nomination and ultimately tear down Obama. Nothing. Romney says that Obama caved to the Russians — in negotiating a treaty that six former secretaries of state and George H.W. Bush supported as a fit renewal of the START treaty. Santorum asserts that Obama could have made the Green Revolution in Iran a success, when the merest hint of concrete U.S. support for any group in Iran is toxic. Gingrich tells the audience "you live in a world of total warfare" at a time when a lower proportion of humans is dying by violence than ever before in human history. Santorum builds Iran into a global threat of supersoviet proportions. Gingrich justifies a preemptive Israeli strike on Iran — with unstinting U.S. support — purely on the basis of what Israelis might "think" Iran will do if it ever gets a nuclear weapon.

Gingrich, finally, always one to take the crown in demagoguery, delivers the coda: under Obama, "as long as you're an enemy of America you're safe." And Romney, outdone as usual in potency of demagogic phrasing but never behindhand in his will to smear and lie, immediately agrees.

This was pretty much the only part of the debate that really penetrated my weariness. But the reason has more to do with body language and CNN's directorial decisions than anything the candidates actually said. What struck me was that Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich acted like a trio of bobbleheads whenever the subject was foreign policy. All disagreement suddenly disappeared. Whenever the camera cut away, they were watching attentively, nodding along appreciatively, and all but mouthing "good point" at whatever the speaker was saying. There wasn't a hair's breadth of difference between them. The mutual admiration was so total it was almost embarrassing.

And now, Andrew Sullivan:

Maybe I've lost my mind after all these debates, or maybe I secretly want him to win (because he would finally expose all the insanity that has been building in this party and needs venting). But I thought Santorum was on form tonight. My sense is that he will not lose his current momentum after tonight. I didn't feel Newt tonight. Romney doesn't wear well. Paul was great and funny and human.

I'm in a state of profound indecision about this. Should I root for Santorum, for exactly this reason? Because he'll really and truly represent the insanity the Republican Party has descended to, and provide us with a Goldwater moment that might shock them back into sensibility? Or is that juvenile and dangerous? After all, there's always a chance he could win.

I don't know. I just don't know. But it's hard not to feel that America really needs a long, hard look into the id of the Republican Party, and then needs to decide if that's where it wants to go. Santorum, even if he has no other redeeming features, at least provides us with that.