2012 - %3, March

Tom's Kitchen: Frittata With Greens

| Tue Mar. 27, 2012 7:00 AM EDT

The frittata—an Italian-style open omelette—is surely one the easiest and most versatile ways to throw together a substantial and delicious meal. Therefore, it was inevitable that I'd eventually turn my attention to it for the Tom's Kitchen column.

I learned to make frittatas at the knee of the great Italian cookbook writer Marcella Hazan. Not literally; I've never met her, and it's a good thing, because if I ever did, I'd likely collapse into a puddle of incomprehensible gushing. But I've studied her immortal Essentials of Classic of Italian Cooking, and it was there, over the past two decades, that I picked up my frittata technique.

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Chart of the Day: The Affordable Care Act and Women

| Tue Mar. 27, 2012 5:03 AM EDT

Since the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments this week on the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare), it's worth pointing out what the law would actually do. Here's one example, from the Washington State-based progressive group Fuse, on the difference between health insurance prices for women and men pre- and post-ACA:

 

"Pay for Performance" Temporarily Slightly More Meaningful Than Usual

| Mon Mar. 26, 2012 11:09 PM EDT

The Wall Street Journal reports that, at least for the moment, companies with performance goals for their CEOs are actually paying their CEOs based on whether they meet those goals:

Preliminary results highlight how corporate directors, under new scrutiny from shareholders, are tying more CEO pay to corporate performance. When companies miss targets, directors are holding the line.

"The pressure from shareholders clearly has had an effect here," discouraging boards from using their discretion to boost pay, says Robin Ferracone, executive chair of Farient Advisors LLC, a Pasadena, Calif., compensation consultant.

....That is a shift from a few years ago, compensation consultants say, when directors would often overlook missed targets and award big bonuses anyway. That dynamic has changed under pressure from investors and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

One of the worst aspects of "pay for performance" CEO compensation is that quite often it's rigged outrageously in favor of the CEO. There's almost no way to lose. And then, on the off chance that you do poorly anyway, the board decides that it was just bad luck and you shouldn't be deprived of the bonus you've been counting on all year. So they make it up to you. After all, we're all one big happy family on mahogany row, right?

But if the Journal is to be believed, company boards are actually holding their rock-jawed titans of capitalism to their promises these days. Good to hear. I wonder how long it will last?

Nudging: More Marketing Than Economics

| Mon Mar. 26, 2012 8:58 PM EDT

The Economist writes about some promising applications of behavioral economics, especially those popularized by the book Nudge:

The book, first published in 2008, is about the potential for behavioural economics to improve the effectiveness of government. Behavioural economists have found that all sorts of psychological or neurological biases cause people to make choices that seem contrary to their best interests....That theory is now being put to the test [...] in several countries including Denmark, France and, above all, Britain, where David Cameron has established a Behavioural Insights Team, nicknamed the Nudge Unit.

The Nudge Unit has been running dozens of experiments and the early results have been promising. In one trial, a letter sent to non-payers of vehicle taxes was changed to use plainer English, along the line of “pay your tax or lose your car”. In some cases the letter was further personalised by including a photo of the car in question. The rewritten letter alone doubled the number of people paying the tax; the rewrite with the photo tripled it.

Changes to language have had marked effects elsewhere, too. A study into the teaching of technical drawing in French schools found that if the subject was called “geometry” boys did better, but if it was called “drawing” girls did equally well or better. Teachers are now being trained to use the appropriate term.

At the risk of sounding peevish, I have to ask: in what way is any of this stuff behavioral economics? Trying to figure out better ways of persuading people to do things used to go under the rubric of rhetoric, politics, or salesmanship. When did we suddenly decide that the kind of thing that marketing people have been doing for the past century is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of economics?

I remember having the same problem with Freakonomics when it first came out. It was all interesting and breezily written, but most of it was nothing more than the application of clever statistical techniques to figure out how different incentives affect people's actions. But unless we've all agreed that anything involving the study of human incentives is, by definition, economics, the title of the book is seriously misleading. Only a few of the chapters dealt with subjects traditionally viewed as economics.

I've got nothing against the study of nudging. We should do more of it! But the steady colonization of economics into every area of human behavior should be put to a hard stop. I suppose that hardnosed politicians are more likely to listen to a "behavioral economics" pitch than a "marketing" pitch, but that's not much of an excuse. Just because it uses math and deals with human behavior doesn't make it economics.

UPDATE: Richard Thaler, one of the co-authors of Nudge, tweets: "Not true of the book. The article is just a thin slice." I didn't really mean to implicate the book itself, which I haven't read, with the Freakonomics problem, so apologies for that.

Corn on "Hardball": Rick Santorum Curses at NYT Reporter

Mon Mar. 26, 2012 6:34 PM EDT

David Corn and Eugene Robinson joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss Rick Santorum's recent explosion at New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny, the Santorum campaign's "Obamaville" ad, and whether Santorum has started to unravel.

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

It's Not Just the Economy, Stupid

| Mon Mar. 26, 2012 5:22 PM EDT

Over the past few years it's become fashionable in sophisticated political circles to argue that presidential campaigns themselves barely matter. What matters is the economic fundamentals. When the economy is strong, the incumbent party wins. When the economy is lousy, the incumbent party loses. All the rest is just a bunch of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

I've long had some problems with this attitude. I don't think there's any question that the state of the economy matters, and I agree that political journalists probably ought to pay more attention to this than they usually do. At the same time, it's easy to go overboard. For one thing, political scientists have come up with a lot of different models, and they don't all rely on the same economic measures. Nor do they make the same predictions. Nor do they even claim (in most cases, anyway) to explain more than about 60-70% of the variance in how well the parties do. So even if the models are accurate, there's plenty of scope for other factors to influence presidential elections too.

But are they accurate? It's easy to be impressed by a model that accounts for past election results with high accuracy. That's a nice looking regression line, pal! But it's quite another thing for your model to predict elections in advance, and that's the acid test for any election model. Until now I've never seen anyone do a systematic review of actual predictions by the various models, but today Nate Silver filled that void, taking a look at model predictions since 1992. The results aren't pretty:

In total, 18 of the 58 models — more than 30 percent — missed by a margin outside their 95 percent confidence interval, something that is supposed to happen only one time in 20 (or about three times out of 58).

Across all 58 models, the standard error was 8 points of vote margin or 4.6 points of incumbent vote share. That was much larger than the error that the models claimed they would have — about twice as large, in fact....The “fundamentals” models, in fact, have had almost no predictive power at all. Over this 16-year period, there has been no relationship between the vote they forecast for the incumbent candidate and how well he actually did.

Nate argues that the state of the economy does have some predictive power. He figures it at about 40%, but says that most current models don't even do that well because they're poorly designed. That doesn't surprise me: this is a really hard subject with lots of hard-to-answer questions. What matters most, the absolute state of the economy or whether it's on an upswing/downswing? Should we look at GDP growth or unemployment? Or something else, like disposable income? Do voters respond to some variables, like inflation, only when they get above a certain level? Etc. This is hard stuff, and we don't have a whole lot of data points to work with.

What's more, common sense suggests that other things matter too. For example, I just can't accept as coincidence that since 1950 incumbent parties have nearly always won after one term in office and nearly always lost after two terms. If I used that as my only rule, I'd have an accuracy rate of 87%. (Though only 80% if you count Al Gore as the popular-vote winner in 2000.)

All of this is one reason why I'm reasonably optimistic about Obama's chances in November. Yes, the economy is still in weak shape. But it's improving, which I suspect is at least as important as its absolute level. What's more, his party has been in power for only one term and he's a strong candidate running against a weak Republican field. Put all that stuff together, and I think his odds look pretty good.

Bottom line: the economy matters, but it's probably wise not to get too deterministic about these things. Monocausal explanations are often appealing, but just as often wrong. The world is a complicated place.

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Barataria Bay Dolphins Severely Ill

| Mon Mar. 26, 2012 4:48 PM EDT

 Researchers working with severely ill dolphins off Louisiana: NOAA.

Veterinarians collect samples from Barataria Bay dolphins, Louisiana: NOAA.

The bottlenose dolphins of Barataria Bay, Louisiana, are showing signs of severe ill health, according to a report from NOAA.

I wrote about the fate of these resident dolphins at the height of the BP's oil disaster in my Mother Jones' piece The BP Cover Up.

Barataria Bay, as you likely remember, in the northern Gulf of Mexico, was horrifically polluted by prolonged exposure to oil during the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. Here's what NOAA says about the latest problems affecting dolphins there:

Based on comprehensive physicals of 32 live dolphins from Barataria Bay in the summer of 2011, preliminary results show that many of the dolphins in the study are underweight, anemic, have low blood sugar and/or some symptoms of liver and lung disease. Nearly half also have abnormally low levels of the hormones that help with stress response, metabolism and immune function. Researchers fear that some of the study dolphins are in such poor health that they will not survive. One of these dolphins, which was last observed and studied in late 2011, was found dead in January 2012.

Veterinarians collect a urine sample from Y12, a 16-year-old adult male bottlenose dolphin caught near Grand Isle, LA. Y12’s health evaluation determined that he was significantly underweight, anemic, and had indications of liver and lung disease. After t: NOAA.Veterinarians collect a urine sample from Y12, a 16-year-old adult male bottlenose dolphin caught near Grand Isle, LA. Y12’s health evaluation determined that he was significantly underweight, anemic, and had indications of liver and lung disease: NOAA.

Since February 2010, more than 675 dolphins have stranded in the northern Gulf of Mexico—a much higher rate than the usual average of 74 dolphins a year. This has prompted NOAA to declare an Unusual Mortality Event and investigate the cause of death for as many of the dolphins as possible.

Some waters in the northern Barataria Basin, a larger area that includes Barataria Bay, remain closed to commercial fishing, as visible oil is still present along the shoreline where the closures are in place. The joint protocol directs seafood safety testing to begin only after visible oil is gone.

Deepwater Horizon Hammered Deep-Water Corals

| Mon Mar. 26, 2012 2:51 PM EDT

 Healthy deep-water coral communities were observed in November 2010 from various sites >20 km from the Macondo well.: Courtesy Chuck Fisher, PSU. Copyright Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

A healthy deep-water coral more than 12 miles (20 km) from BP's Macondo well, November 2010: Courtesy Chuck Fisher, PSU. Copyright Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

A study published this week in PNAS finds BP's oily fingerprints on severely damaged deep-water coral communities in the Gulf of Mexico.

The new research also fortifies our understanding that the sheer magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe—notably its release at depth—made for a totally different beast than for spills occurring only at the surface. 

In the photo above you can see a healthy deep-water coral with a healthy brittle star wrapped around it. This photo was taken at a site more than 12 miles (20 km) from BP's Macondo well seven months after the blowout.

Brown woolly material and tissue loss was first observed on corals in November 2010 at sites 11 km southwest of the Macondo well: Courtesy Chuck Fisher, PSU. Copyright Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.Oiled deep-water coral covered with brown wooly material and tissue loss from site 7 miles (11 km) southwest of the Macondo well, November 2010: Courtesy Chuck Fisher, PSU. Copyright Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Contrast that with the photo above of a sick, dead, or dying deep-water coral with a sick or dying brittle star attached to it at 4,300-feet deep (1,310 meters), 7 miles (11 km) from BP's Macondo well seven months after the blowout. 

So how do you know if it was BP's oil that was maiming these amazing communities that exist beyond the reach of sunlight?

That's where the interesting science comes in. Using the submersible Alvin, the researchers collected sediments and samples of the corals and filtered the brown wooly material off the sick corals. These materials were then analyzed using comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography—a method pioneered at WHOI specifically for use in oil spill research.

During six dives in Alvin, the team collected sediments and samples of the corals and filtered the brown material off of the corals for analysis: courtesy of Chuck Fisher, Pennsylvania State University, and Timothy Shank, WHOI. Deep-sea time-lapse camera system provided by WHOI-MISO.Alvin collecting sediments and samples of corals for analysis: Courtesy of Chuck Fisher, Pennsylvania State University, and Timothy Shank, WHOI.

The results delivered an oily fingerprint traceable directly to BP's Macondo well spill.

What's not yet known is whether or not these corals and the communities that depend on them will will recover. Members of this research team are monitoring the site, including with time-lapse imaging.

 

I wrote at length about my adventures in the Alvin world in my Mother Jones' piece Gone.

Supreme Court Probably Won't Punt on Health Care

| Mon Mar. 26, 2012 1:43 PM EDT

The fate of the Affordable Care Act will likely be decided before the 2012 election, as the first day of much-anticipated oral arguments at the Supreme Court concerning Obamacare showed the justices wary of the case for delaying a ruling. 

With the chambers crowded with journalists, lawyers, advocates, politicians, and legal tourists—as protesters milled about outside the court—the question before the court on Monday was whether the Tax Anti-Injuction Act, which tries to limit lawsuits by forcing Americans to wait until they have paid a given tax before suing to overturn a tax-related law, ought to apply to the individual mandate provision of the ACA, a part of the health care reform measure that doesn't take effect until 2014. Under the individual mandate, if a covered person does not obtain health insurance, he or she must pay a penalty. If this fee is considered a tax under the Tax Anti-Injunction Act, then it can't be challenged until it is levied upon someone.

The Obama administration chose not to make this case for putting off a ruling. Instead, the task fell to attorney Robert Long, who was invited by the justices themselves to argue the position (because this issue had been raised in a lower court decision now being reviewed as part of the justice's consideration of the constitutionality of the ACA). Long took a pounding from the black-robed jurists. Even the Democratic appointees on the court appeared skeptical that the individual mandate to buy health insurance was a tax covered by the Tax Anti-Injunction Act. 

"Aren't you trying to rewrite the statute in a way?" Justice Elena Kagan asked Long, suggesting he was stretching the definition of a tax.

"I would not argue that this statute is a model of clarity," Long grumbled. The audience in chambers erupted in laughter. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, another Democratic appointee, sharply rebutted Long's argument, referring to the mandate as a "must-buy requirement," not a tax.

"The Tax Anti-Injunction Act does not apply to penalties that are designed to induce compliance with the law rather than to raise revenue," Ginsburg said. "And this is not a revenue-raising measure, because, if it's successful, they won't — nobody will pay the penalty and there will be no revenue to raise."

This reasoning seemed to represent a major blow to anyone hoping Obamacare could escape Supreme Court review this year on the basis of the "it's-a-tax" argument.

Solicitor General Donald B. Verilli Jr. had a complicated argument. He maintained that the individual mandate is not a tax covered by the Tax Anti-Injunction Act, but that the mandate is authorized under the federal government's taxation power in the Constitution. This position reflected the Obama administration's desire to avoid having Obamacare be depicted as an outright tax. It drew needling from conservative and moderate justices. 

"Today you are arguing it is not a tax, tomorrow you will be here arguing that it is a tax," Justice Samuel Alito, a Republican appointee, said to Verilli. When Verilli argued that Americans could not be punished for not purchasing health insurance beyond being hit with the mandate-imposed "tax," Justice Stephen Breyer dryly observed, "why do you keep saying 'tax'?" The audience chuckled both times.

The justices seemed clear that they would not duck the historical moment by avoiding a ruling on Obamacare under what might be called a tax dodge. Judging by their remarks, the Obama administration is likely to see a verdict on its signature domestic program prior to the November election. But there's still no telling what that verdict might be.

Montana Senate Race Turning Into the Most Expensive Thing Ever

| Mon Mar. 26, 2012 1:28 PM EDT
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.)

There were two big stories out of Montana this weekend. First things first: They finally caught Bigfoot.

The second story, of perhaps more national significance, comes from Mike Dennison of the Helena Independent-Record, who reports that, thanks in part to a handful of recent Supreme Court rulings, the state has been buried by a deluge of attack ads ahead of Novemeber's US Senate race. As of early March, outside groups like Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS and the 60 Plus Association have spent more than $3 million on advertisements targeting either incumbent Democrat Tester, or his GOP challenger, Rep. Denny Rehberg (rhymes with "Freebird"). There's a lot at stake: The race could determine which party controls the upper chamber come 2013.

That $3 million is for television advertisements alone—to say nothing of radio, newspaper, and smoke signals. And in Montana, your $3 million goes a long, long way: A Montana gubernatorial candidate recently explained to the Missoulian that "It costs $150,000 to $175,000...to get one message across (the state), so 80 to 90 percent of (TV viewers) will see it six to eight times." So with that as our blueprint, it's not all that unreasonble to suggest that your average Montanan has been exposed to at least 137 iterations of ads like this:

And it's still only March. This is your campaign finance system on drugs.