2012 - %3, March

My Lottery Fantasies Shattered

| Fri Mar. 30, 2012 11:57 AM EDT

Since I live in California, you're probably all wondering whether I've bought a lottery ticket yet. Answer: no, I haven't. But I tried! Marian and I wandered up to our local drug store last night to get some Easter stuff, and I figured it would be a good night to buy my first lottery ticket ever. But the machine was broken. Or out of paper. Or out of numbers. Or something. No ticket for me! And the story was the same at the neighboring supermarket. So I have nothing.

Now, it turns out that Marian did sign up to be part of a lottery pool at work, so all is not lost. However, a little quick arithmetic suggests that even if our pool wins we'll only take home something like $5 million after taxes. In other words, peanuts. Hardly worth the bother of picking up the check, is it? Maybe next time.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

How Saving Obamacare Could Rein In the Welfare State

| Fri Mar. 30, 2012 11:07 AM EDT

The Supreme Court will be voting today in the Obamacare case (though we won't hear the results until June or so). One possible outcome is that they'll buy into the argument of the critics that Congress can regulate activity but not inactivity (i.e., it can't penalize you for failing to buy health insurance), and therefore strike down some or all of the law as unconstitutional. This distinction between activity and inactivity would be an example of a "limiting principle" — that is, some rule that explains what Congress is allowed to do and what it's not. Conservatives have long said that this is something the court will demand, since they aren't willing to give Congress unfettered power to do anything it wants based solely on the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution. In oral arguments, the government never really articulated an alternative principle, but a few days ago I asked why that should be the government's job in the first place. Isn't that the court's job?

And this, I think, is where there's cause for hope. Overturning Obamacare would be a very, very big deal for the court. There's good reason to think that Roberts and Kennedy in particular would be reluctant to overturn a major domestic program in an area that's indisputably political and legislative in nature, and they'd be especially reluctant to do that based on a logic-chopping decision that amounts to a technicality. They know perfectly well that Congress could have quite easily implemented the individual mandate in a way that's unquestionably constitutional, and the only reason they didn't was because no one had the slightest fear that the court would overturn the existing version. It just wasn't an issue.

So what will the court do? If they don't want a rerun of the 1930s, which did a lot of damage to the court's prestige, but they do want to put firmer limits on Congress's interstate commerce power, the answer is: find a limiting principle of their own. But find one that puts Obamacare just barely on the constitutional side of their new principle. This would avoid a firestorm of criticism about the court's legitimacy — that they're acting as legislators instead of judges — but it would satisfy their urge to hand down a landmark decision that puts firm limits on further expansion of congressional power. Liberals would be so relieved that Obamacare survived that they'd probably accept the new rules without too much fuss, and conservatives, though disappointed, would be thrilled at the idea that the court had finally set down clear limits on Congress's interstate commerce power.

I have no idea what the justices are actually thinking, of course. Hell, maybe the court's conservatives are ready for a revolution and don't care what the mob thinks of them anymore. But a new rule that reined in Congress without overturning Obamacare just might be a compromise that the liberal wing of the court could push through, especially if they made it clear they were willing to sign on themselves in order to give it bipartisan legitimacy. I guess we'll know in a few months.

People Like Free Books

| Fri Mar. 30, 2012 10:03 AM EDT

Via Tyler Cowen, we have the chart on the right from Eric Crampton. It shows book shipments [see update below] from Amazon by decade of publication, with a sharp dropoff in 1922 because books published before then are in the public domain while books published after that are still in copyright. (And probably will be forever since Congress keeps extending copyright protection whenever the current term is close to running out.) Presumably, people are buying lots of pre-1922 books because they're cheap. In fact, lots of classic books are free in their e-editions.

But there's something about this chart that doesn't feel right. If I believe it, people have bought as many books published in the 1910s as in the 2000s. Cheap or not, that just doesn't seem plausible. That's a helluva lot of copies of Ethan Frome and In Flanders Fields to compete with The Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter. There must be an explanation for this, but I can't quite figure out one that sounds right. Any ideas?

UPDATE: Sorry, I screwed this up because I hate videos and didn't watch the embedded video that explains the chart. This doesn't show shipment data, it just shows number of titles in the Amazon warehouse, taken from a random sample of 2,500 fiction titles. Out of those 2,500 titles, about 340 of them were published in the 1910s.

So this doesn't mean that Amazon is actually selling lots of books from the 1910s, which was a fairly dismal decade for classic fiction. It just means that Amazon stocks a lot of titles from the 1910s. This is still sort of surprising, but surprising in a different way. It also has a more obvious explanation: old titles that are out of copyright are very profitable for Amazon, so it's eager to stock them even if they don't sell in huge quantities. That says something about copyright, but perhaps not quite what we initially thought.

Film Review: Bully

| Fri Mar. 30, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Bully

WEINSTEIN COMPANY

90 minutes

The so-called bullying crisis in American schools has never seemed so endemic. In Emmy Award-winning director Lee Hirsch's new doc, kids are punched, strangled, and relentlessly taunted in all the familiar (offline) places—school bus, playground, cafeteria—driving children as young as 11 to suicide. Weaving together the stories of five families deeply affected by bullying, Hirsch explores who, if anyone, is to blame. While he talks to both frightened parents and maddeningly resigned school administrators, the best segments come in the frank and often intensely insightful conversations with the kids themselves. Side note: The soundtrack is excellent, with songs by Grizzly Bear and the Magnetic Fields and a cover of "Teenage Dirtbag" sung by Scala & Kolacny Brothers, a Belgian women's choir.

Was the Ghost of Contraception Wandering the Halls of the Supreme Court?

| Fri Mar. 30, 2012 12:11 AM EDT

Over at NRO, Benjamin Zycher offers up some speculation:

One trivial thought that I have not seen elsewhere: I wonder if the Left/Obama/Kathleen Sebelius didn’t shoot themselves in the backside when they decided to apply a chainsaw to the religious liberty of the Catholic hospitals, etc. That episode, I think, brought out in sharp relief the unprecedented degree of coercion inexorably inherent in Obamacare, the eagerness with which the Left employs it, and the thoughtlessness with which the Left is willing to destroy the institutions of civil society as they pursue their political goals. They really believe that people of religious faith are simpletons standing in the way of ever-greater individual dependence upon Leviathan.

And so I have a sense — but no direct evidence — that Kennedy and perhaps Roberts may have recoiled in horror from the prospect of Obamacare more deeply than otherwise might have been the case, as they were confronted with the prospective wholesale descent into economic fascism that is the very essence of Obamacare.

Putting aside the overwrought language, which is practically obligatory on the right these days, I wonder if there's anything to this? Roberts and Kennedy are both Catholic, and it's hardly a stretch to suppose that even if neither of them literally recoiled in horror, they certainly might have felt personally affronted by the whole contraception squabble. It's at least conceivable that it may have turned one or two wavering votes to uphold into likely votes to overturn.

Chart of the Day: Conservatives Don't Trust Science

| Thu Mar. 29, 2012 7:59 PM EDT

A new study by Gordon Gauchat takes a look at public trust in science and finds that it's unchanged over the past few decades for most groups. The one exception is conservatives, whose trust in science has plummeted:

This is not because conservatives are a bunch of undereducated yahoos. In fact, quite the opposite:

Conservatives with high school degrees, bachelor’s degrees, and graduate degrees all experienced greater distrust in science over time....In addition...conservatives with college degrees decline more quickly than those with only a high school degree []. These results are quite profound, because they imply that conservative discontent with science was not attributable to the uneducated but to rising distrust among educated conservatives.

In other words, this decline in trust in science has been led by the most educated, most engaged segment of conservatism. Conservative elites have led the anti-science charge and the rank-and-file has followed.

This is presumably part of the wider conservative turn against knowledge-disseminating institutions whose output is perceived as too liberal (academia, the mainstream media, Hollywood) in favor of institutions that produce more reliably conservative narratives (churches, business-oriented think tanks, Fox News). More and more, liberals and conservatives are almost literally living in different worlds with different versions of consensus reality.

An interesting side note to this is the startling lack of trust in science among moderates. After a drop in the 70s, it's stayed pretty steady for the past 30 years, but it's stayed steady at a very low level. Until recently, moderates trusted science significantly less than either liberals or conservatives. Is this because moderates have always viewed science as a politicized enterprise, something they're especially sensitive about? Or because moderates are just generally less engaged with elite institutions? Or because moderates have a higher overall degree of skepticism about everything than either liberals or conservatives? It's a mystery.

More here from Chris Mooney, whose hypothesis Gauchat was testing.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

3 New Studies Link Bee Decline to Bayer Pesticide

| Thu Mar. 29, 2012 7:40 PM EDT

It's springtime, and farmers throughout the Midwest and South are preparing to plant corn—and lots of it. The USDA projects this year's corn crop will cover 94 million acres, the most in 68 years. (By comparison, the state of California occupies a land mass of about 101 million acres.) Nearly all of that immense stand of corn will be planted with seeds treated with neonicotinoid pesticides produced by the German chemical giant Bayer.

And that may be very bad news for honey bees, which remain in a dire state of health, riddled by large annual die-offs that have become known as "colony collapse disorder" (CCD). 

In the past months, three separate studies—two of them just out in the prestigious journal Science—have added to a substantial body of literature linking widespread use of neonicotinoids to CCD. The latest research will renew pressure on the EPA to reconsider its registration of Bayer's products. The EPA green-lighted Bayer's products based largely on a study funded by the chemical giant itself—which was later discredited by the EPA's own scientists, as this leaked memo shows.

Paul Ryan Finally Meets a Budget Cut He Hates

| Thu Mar. 29, 2012 5:06 PM EDT

Paul Ryan is a budget hawk's budget hawk, never one to believe a government bureaucrat who self-servingly claims that a spending cut will cause real damage to his program and the people it benefits. But there are exceptions:

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) expressed skepticism Thursday that U.S. military leaders were being honest in their budget requests to Congress. “We don’t think the generals are giving us their true advice,” Ryan said during a forum on the budget sponsored by the National Journal. "We don't think the generals believe their budget is really the right budget."

"You don't believe the generals?" [managing editor Kristin] Roberts asked.

"What I believe is this budget does hollow out defense," Ryan responded...."I think there’s a lot of budget smoke and mirrors in the Pentagon’s budget," Ryan added, saying his proposal was an "honest Pentagon budget."

Just to be absolutely clear here: if we're talking about a program that helps the poor or the elderly or the sick, Ryan is eager to cut spending. In fact, he's usually eager to be the biggest budget cutter in the room. But if it's a program for the military, he won't accept spending cuts even if the military brass supports them. In fact, he insists on raising their budget.

For some reason, this is known in mainstream circles as being a "deficit hawk."

Arizona Outdoes Everyone With New Anti-Abortion Bill

| Thu Mar. 29, 2012 3:37 PM EDT

Bills limiting the time period during which abortion is legal have proliferated in recent years as other states have followed Nebraska's lead and banned abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. But a law under consideration in Arizona would roll back access to abortion even farther.

The Arizona bill, (HB 2036), passed in the state Senate on Thursday and will now go before the house. Like the proposals before it, Arizona's legislation is modeled on the "Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act" designed by the National Right to Life Committee. And like the other bills, it states that abortion would be banned 20 weeks into a pregnancy. But reproductive rights advocates point out that Arizona's law would actually be more restrictive than others, as the bill states that the gestational age of the fetus should be "calculated from the first day of the last menstrual period of the pregnant woman."

Not to go all middle-school health on you, but that's not exactly the same as the actual date the egg and the sperm hooked up. Figuring out that exact point one became pregnant can be tricky. Most women ovulate about 14 or 15 days after their period starts, and women can usually get pregnant from sexual intercourse that occured anywhere between five days before ovulation and a day after it. Arizona's law would start the clock at a woman's last period—which means, in practice, that the law prohibits abortion later than 18 weeks after a woman actually becomes pregnant. (LMP is what most doctors use to estimate gestational age, but previous bills like this one have instead stated that the 20-weeks is based on the "postfertilization age" of the fetus.)

The American Civil Liberties Union's Reproductive Freedom Project has called Arizona's proposed law the "most extreme bill of its kind," one that would be more restrictive than any others currently in force in the US. Although it includes exceptions if the pregnancy poses a threat to the life of the woman, there are no exceptions if, for instance, the fetus is found to have a life-threatening condition or other severe impairment. Banning abortions at the 18-week mark would also preclude women from obtaining information about the condition of the fetus, as many medical tests are either not performed or are not conclusive at that early date.

The bill doesn't stop there. Under this law, if a doctor performs an abortion after that 18-weeks, he or she can be charged with a crime, have his or her license revoked or suspended, and can be held liable for civil penalties if the father of the fetus decides to pursue legal action. The bill also requires a mandatory ultrasound for anyone seeking an abortion at any stage of pregnancy (hello, transvaginal probes) and mandates that a doctor offer to show a pregnant woman the ultrasound, describe it to her verbally and provide her with a photo of "the unborn child." It would also require a woman to wait 24 hours after the ultrasound before she can obtain an abortion. 

Reproductive rights advocates see this as yet another intrusion on the right to an abortion. "Politicians need to get out people's bedrooms and out of their doctor's office, and let women, families, and doctors make these important medical decisions," said Talcott Camp, deputy director of the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project.

This article has been revised. 

Well-From-Hell Cynicism

| Thu Mar. 29, 2012 3:07 PM EDT

Credit: Stig Nygaard via Flick.Credit: Stig Nygaard via Flick.

The five-day-and-counting mega-engineering challenge continues at Total's Well-from-Hell in the North Sea. That name was coined by Frederic Hauge of Bellona, a Norwegian group that monitors the oil industry:

"We estimate the total greenhouse gas potential of the reservoir is roughly 0,56 Gigatonnes CO2 equivalent," said... Hauge. "This is based on recoverable resources of 15 billion cubic meters of gas at the West Franklin Field. The pressure in the well is 200-300 bars higher than Macondo [the Deepwater Horizon field]. If no plugging is achieved, this leak is likely to continue for 10-12 years. This is truly the well from hell," he said.

The best-case scenario, Hauge notes, is if the leak is in a small gas pocket, not an enormous reservoir in the Elgin-Franklin gas field. From Bellona:

Should the gas be flowing from the reservoir, Hauge said, staunching the flow could be a long time operation. If, however it is coming from a gas pocket, it could well bleed itself out. 

I described Elgin yesterday as the North Sea's looming Deepwater Horizon—if for no other reason that it also lies at the farthest reaches of our technological abilities to drill and has already clearly exceeded our technological abilities to drill safely. And then there's the matter of our abilities to repair. Or know how to repair. 

The video provides a good explanation of the situation, particularly the explosive aspects of it. 

 

 

But the really pressing issue is the fact that the gas in the field is under extreme high pressure and high temperature. These crappy working conditions are some of the only options left to the UK, reports the Wall Street Journal:

These types of fields are thought to contain a significant proportion of the UK's remaining oil and gas, making them important enough to have been targeted with a specific tax break to encourage development. Yet documents show that the French oil-and-gas producer's Elgin and Franklin fields off the coast of Scotland—at the extreme end of the spectrum of high-pressure and high-temperature fields—have faced major technical challenges, from their discovery right up until the incident that triggered the gas leak.

And while Total claims there's no extremely toxic hydrogen sulfide (aka "Agent Orange" in the ocean) leaking from its Well-from-Hell... well, exactly how do they—or we—know that at this point?  

 Made with the help of LucidChart.

Made with the help of LucidChart.