2012 - %3, March

My Tussle With Breitbart, the Genius of Agitprop

| Fri Mar. 2, 2012 6:00 AM EST
Andrew Breitbart

I'm hardly the person to properly eulogize Andrew Breitbart, the right-wing provocateur who died unexpectedly yesterday at the age of 43. My only contact with him was brief, but revealing. Like so many others who found themselves in Breitbart's crosshairs, my interaction with him was through Twitter, where he hounded me to admit that the media had applied a double standard in its coverage of the tea party and the budding Occupy protest movement I'd been following in Oakland last fall. Insisting I was willfully ignoring the ugly reality of Oakland's tent camp, 

I didn't take the bait, and our exchange turned into a light-hearted back-and-forth in which he declined my invitation to play soccer in San Francisco. "More of a baseball and football guy!" he tweeted back. "Moving. Fast. Or. Even. Slow. Not. My. Strong. Suit."

Offsides: Breitbart demurs to a invitation to a friendly soccer match.Offsides: Breitbart turns down an invitation to a friendly soccer match.Our brief correspondence angered at least one Occupier, who demanded to know why I had given Breitbart the time of day, or at least hadn't tried to savage him. Her reaction was indicative of Breitbart's simple genius, upon which his shock-jock journalism shop successfully, relentlessly trolls its political foes, who then unwittingly play into its hands. My first story on Occupy Oakland touched on this: By taking easy jabs at the left, Breitbart and his co-conspirators elicit hysterical reactions that reinforce whatever perceived hypocrisy they're assaulting.

Such a tactic isn't particularly novel, but it was the extent to which Breitbart flaunted boundaries—hijacking former Rep. Anthony Weiner's resignation press conference, screaming at Occupy CPAC protesters to "stop raping people!" (see video below)—that defied the tediousness of a Hannity or an O'Reilly. His outbursts were so outrageous that he often seemed unhinged. But he acted with purpose, reckless though it could be, and he was surprisingly effective. I wasn't the only one to suspect that the early reports of his death were another ploy until a coroner's report confirmed them.

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"Project X": Drunk, Foul-Mouthed Nerds Seduce Hot Girls and Blow Stuff Up

| Fri Mar. 2, 2012 6:00 AM EST
"Project X" (2012).

Project X
Warner Bros.
88 minutes

This weekend, you could go see the highly anticipated The Lorax, with all its Truffula tufts and fleecy anti-greed morality.

The new animated movie has a stout, gremlin-type creature talking how bad it is to screw over wildlife for profit. The CGI is truly eye-popping. And there are a whole lot of gyrating bears. So, yes, you should go see The Lorax. You absolutely should do that.

You totally, definitely should.

Or, you could succumb to 90 minutes' worth of bi-curious girls, rowdy gentlemen, loud music, self-destruction in the suburbs, booze guzzled, pills popped, and cops in riot gear. (In short, all the things that make life worth living.)

The rager quickly descends into a hyper-violent mess that can only be described as a cross between 10-Cent Beer Night and a party thrown by The Who.

And just to be perfectly clear, this movie isn't a remake of the other Project X, a 1987 film in which Helen Hunt and government-trained super-chimps almost trigger nuclear catastrophe. This year's Project X is steeped in a far greater realism: Three chemically altered nerds throw a house party with 1,500 other horny teenagers and almost burn an entire neighborhood to the ground in the process.

The film, produced by director Todd Phillips of The Hangover and Old School fame, is shot in contemporary found-footage/mockumentary mode—think: cinéma vérité, by way of Cloverfield and Parks and Recreation. If you've seen Revenge of the Nerds, Risky Business, and Superbad, you'll recognize the plot: Three high-school outcasts seek to up their social standing and prove to "bitches" that they are "large-scale ballers." So when one of them gets the family home all to himself on his birthday, the boys invite half of LA to attend their all-night blow-out. After some mass-texting and old-fashioned word of mouth, they wind up with a carouse so epic—two DJs, a "Naked Girls Only" pool, a moonbounce, every harmful substance imaginable—that Kanye West is rumored to be in attendance.

And thus the evening bacchanalia descends into a hyper-violent mess that can only be described as a cross between 10-Cent Beer Night and your average party thrown by The Who.

Mass Appeal to Governors: Don't Privatize Prisons

| Fri Mar. 2, 2012 6:00 AM EST

The private prison giant Corrections Corporation of America has made states an offer they can—and should—refuse. That's the message that went out to state governors on Thursday in letters signed by 60 policy and religious groups. The letters urged the governors of all 50 states not to take up a blanket deal CCA has put forth to buy and privatize their state prisons in return for a promise to keep those prisons filled. 

Two weeks ago, the Huffington Post revealed that CCA was reaching out to states, offering to buy their prisons as a way to deal with their "challenging corrections budgets." The company is proposing that it receive, in exchange for the cash, a 20-year management contract that would require the states to keep their prisons at least 90 percent full for the duration.

This power play by the private prison firm may indicate some anxiety in what has historically been a growth industry. (See charts below.) Beginning in 2009, for the first time in nearly 40 years, the overall US prison population declined slightly. And in several states, plans to privatize prisons have been scaled back, stalled, or rejected.  

Sometimes In-Kind Aid Really is Better Than Cash

| Thu Mar. 1, 2012 9:50 PM EST

Ed Glaeser is unhappy that we provide so much in-kind aid to the poor instead of simply giving them cash. The following is a mouthful, but bear with me:

Over the past 40 years, in-kind programs have grown steadily more important than cash transfers. In 1968, the last year of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, the federal government spent $1.61 billion ($10.5 billion in 2012 dollars) on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (the predecessor of Temporary Aid to Needy Families); it spent $1.81 billion ($11.8 billion in 2012 dollars) on Medicaid and $505 million ($3.3 billion in 2012 dollars) for food and nutrition assistance. There was no Earned Income Tax Credit or housing vouchers, so the ratio of in-kind aid to cash transfer was 3 to 2.

The 2013 budget contains $293 billion for Medicaid, $112 billion for food and nutrition service (food stamps) and $28 billion for tenant- and project-based rental assistance, which includes housing vouchers. That is a total of $433 billion of in-kind transfers from these three primary programs.

By contrast, the budget includes only $17 billion for the Administration for Children and Families (which administers Temporary Aid to Needy Families). The Earned Income Tax Credit paid out $59.5 billion in 2010, and Obama’s proposal would eventually increase its generosity by about $1.5 billion a year. Considering just these programs, the ratio of in-kind assistance to cash aid is now to 5.6 to 1. In 1968, the in-kind share of assistance was 60 percent; now it is 85 percent.

Glaeser goes through the various justifications for relying so much on in-kind aid and dismisses each of them, but he forgets one big one: the increase here is driven mostly by Medicaid. If Medicaid had stayed at the same level as in 1968, the percentage of in-kind aid would have changed from 60% to 66%. That's still up, but it's not up that much.1

And Medicaid, of course, is the one program that really can be justified as in-kind aid. It's insurance that pays out at unpredictable intervals and in unpredictable amounts, so it can't really be replaced by a simple monthly check. That's why healthcare insurance is the usual way of paying for medical services in the first place. If insurance companies were required by law to sell insurance to all comers at a price set by the government, then a monthly check might work OK. But that's not the case right now.

Medicaid aside, there are some good arguments for getting rid of the rest of our crazy quilt system of in-kind aid and simply mailing checks to poor people. It would sure be a lot more efficient. Unlike Glaeser, though, I think some of the arguments for keeping in-kind aid also make sense. All in all, though, his column is worth a read as long as you keep in mind that once you account for Medicaid, the increase in in-kind aid over the past 40 years isn't quite as dramatic as he suggests.

1It's also worth keeping in mind that the 2013 numbers Glaeser cites for in-kind aid are artificially high compared to 1968 because of the current economic downturn. They'll go down once the economy recovers.

Diet Soda: Silent, But Maybe Not so Lethal

| Thu Mar. 1, 2012 8:58 PM EST

My colleague Tom Philpott reports on a study suggesting that diet soda is bad for you:

Known as the Northern Manhattan Study and housed at Columbia University, the project enrolled thousands of people from the community and subjected them to medical testing while recording their food consumption habits.

Among its results, a surprising one has emerged []: People who drink at least one diet soda a day are 43 percent more likely to experience a "vascular event"—i.e., strokes and heart attacks—than people who drink none....Crucially, this study accounted for factors like weight, diabetes, high blood pressure, and intake of calories, cholesterol, and sodium, study author and University of Miami epidemiologist Hannah Gardener told me in a phone conversation. In other words, nonoverweight diet soda drinkers showed significantly more risk of heart attack than nonoverweight people who don't drink diet soda.

I ran across this study a while ago, and I'd urge caution for a couple for reasons. First, the sample size was pretty small: only 116 participants drank diet soda daily. Second, there was no dose-response finding. If you drink six diet sodas per week, you're fine. If you drink seven or more, you need to get measured for a coffin. This suggests fairly strongly that something else might be going on. For example, the results might be driven by a small number of very heavy diet soda drinkers, or it might be that people who drink diet soda daily are making up for other parts of their diet that are the actual root of the problem. Even Gardener is wary of drawing any firm conclusions:

Gardener acknowledged some limitations of the diet soda study, including the use of self-reported dietary data at a single time point, and concluded that the findings are "too preliminary to suggest any dietary advice."

"If and only if the results are confirmed can we suggest that diet soda may not be an optimal substitute for sugar-sweetened beverages, which have been shown to have various health consequences," she said.

In any case, I drink three or four diet sodas a week, so I guess I'm good. Aside from that, I find that water is a pretty good hydration tool. Cheap, too.

Gasoline Does Not Cost $5 per Gallon

| Thu Mar. 1, 2012 6:14 PM EST

Larry Kudlow tweets a promo for tonight's show: 

I'll have more to say about this tomorrow morning, but for now I just want to make one point: gasoline isn't shooting up to $5 per gallon. If you look at the most expensive grade, in the most expensive formulation, in the most expensive state, at the most expensive gas station, then a gallon of gas comes close to $5. But the EIA publishes the average price of gasoline on a weekly basis, and as of this week it's.....

$3.78.

Not five bucks. The price of gas is indeed up, and that's bad news, but it's not up that much, and it's not at record-breaking highs either. As recently as last April, it was even higher. So everybody take a deep breath, OK?

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Corn on "PoliticsNation": Why Isn't Romney the GOP Front-Runner Yet?

Thu Mar. 1, 2012 5:38 PM EST

David Corn and Democratic strategist Tad Devine joined Al Sharpton on MSNBC's PoliticsNation to discuss what Mitt Romney's narrow victories in Michigan and Arizona say about his chances on Super Tuesday. The strain of the campaign seemed to show in Romney's victory speech: "We didn't win by a lot, but we won by enough, and that's all that counts," he said before urging supporters to donate to his campaign. As the GOP primary drags on, will Romney ever be able to gain a definitive edge over the other candidates?

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

Student Protests Seek to Breathe New Life Into Occupy

| Thu Mar. 1, 2012 4:49 PM EST

march1strikeucsc.orgmarch1strikeucsc.orgIn the past three years, California has slashed funding for public education by $20 billion and laid off 40,000 teachers. Once known for its stellar public school system, the state now has the lowest staff-to-student ratio in the country. Even its crown jewel, the University of California, is losing luster. Tuition has gone up by 300 percent since 2000. Other states' public and university systems are in similarly dire straits.

In the era of offshoring, digitization, and corporate downsizing, public education remains one of the few hopes for sustaining the middle class. While a generation ago, high-school graduates (or even dropouts) could reasonably expect to earn enough working a factory floor to buy a house and put their kids through college, those jobs have mostly been replaced by an "innovation economy" that demands even factory workers to have years of specialized training. As Adam Davidson ably explores in "Making It In America," his article in the current Atlantic, we live in a world in which "the opportunities for being skilled grow and the opportunities for unskilled Americans diminish."

Nobody understands the importance of reinvesting in education better than the students who now depend on it for their futures. As tuitions skyrocket, some of them are being priced out of a college education. Others are entering an uncertain job market saddled with mountains of student debt, which now totals more than a trillion dollars nationally.

Today, many students are joining protests organized by Occupy Education, a coalition of 80 occupy, labor, and community groups, to launch a week of action around the idea that "education is a human right." Rallies using the Twitter hashtags #OccupyEducation and #M1 are taking place in seven cities. Students will stage walkouts in Boston and Philadelphia. In Oakland, organizers will embark on a 99-mile march from Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant Plaza (the old home of Occupy Oakland) to Sacramento, where they plan to occupy the state capitol on Monday. Their demands: Killing a proposed 24 percent tuition increase at UC Berkeley and getting the university to support a tax on millionaires that would raise $6 billion annually for public education.

"I think this is the beginning of an uprising of the 99 percent on campuses this spring," says Charlie Eaton, a UC Berkeley PhD student in sociology. He believes "the stakes are huge" but the students' demands aren't: All they want is to "get an education without taking on a huge amount of debt and have an opportunity to get a job when we finish."

Chart of the Day: Gun Ownership is on a 30-Year Decline

| Thu Mar. 1, 2012 2:46 PM EST

Paul Waldman, in the final installment of his epic series about guns and the NRA (nickel summary: the gun lobby isn't as influential as you think), provides us with a surprising chart. For the last 30 years, it turns out, gun ownership has dropped steadily. Today, only about 30% of households own a gun. Most of this is due to demographics. Apparently there was a big spurt in gun ownership in the generation born between 1920 and 1960, and then the spurt went away. Cohorts born in later years all own guns at substantially lower levels.

It's hard to square this up with gun sales because (a) nobody seems to reliably track overall gun sales, and (b) the vast majority of new gun sales are made to a smallish number of big customers, such as police forces and militaries. Still, unit gun sales seem to have gone up pretty explosively between 2005-10, doubling from around 5 million per year to 10 million per year. FBI background checks, a proxy for gun sales to individuals, have gone up too.

So I'm not sure what's going on. Gun sales to individuals seem like they've increased a fair amount over the past decade, but the number of households reporting gun ownership has decreased a bit. Does this mean that fewer households own guns, but the ones that do own guns have more and more of them? More data please!

See the Racist Email About Obama Sent by a Federal Judge

| Thu Mar. 1, 2012 2:08 PM EST

The Great Falls Tribune reported Wednesday that Richard Cebull, a George W. Bush-appointed federal judge in Montana, sent a racist joke about President Barack Obama from his official email account. Even as far as racist jokes go, the dig is mightily unclever—the punchline contains an implied comparison between black people and dogs. 

Josh Glasstetter at Right Wing Watch has obtained an image of the email, which he writes has been going around the Internet around for months. It resembles a cheesy greeting card:

The joke also implies that instead of being married to Barack Obama Sr., Obama's mother Ann Dunham merely got pregnant at a party at which she was drunk, because how else could a white woman end up sleeping with a black man? So it manages to be profoundly racist and sexist at the same time.

Judge Cebull apologized and said he understood the joke was racist. What's interesting was his explanation for sending it around anyway:

"The only reason I can explain it to you is I am not a fan of our president, but this goes beyond not being a fan," Cebull said. "I didn't send it as racist, although that's what it is. I sent it out because it's anti-Obama."

Cebull doesn't seem to understand there's no way to deploy racism exclusively against President Obama. Racist animus cannot be focused on a single person. It is, by definition, a collective judgement on an entire people.

Perhaps Cebull's cognitive dissonance explains the appeal of certain racialist explanations for Obama's behavior—"Kenyan anti-colonialism" and so forth—and why some conservatives don't seem to understand why so many black people react to such language as though they're being personally targeted. They are, even if those doing the targeting don't seem to realize it.