2012 - %3, March

The Pill Makes Women Richer

| Wed Mar. 28, 2012 12:28 PM EDT

Not only is birth control helping women not get preggers, it's also making women richer. Widespread availability of oral contraception—a.k.a. "The Pill"—has played a major role in closing the gender wage gap since the 1980s, according to a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

During the 1980s, the gap in median annual wages between women and men closed rapidly; women working full-time earned 60 percent of what their male counterparts earned in 1979, but earned 69 percent of men's wages by 1989. There were a number of good reasons that gap narrowed so quickly—the women's movement of the '60s and '70s, the increase in the number of women getting college degrees, and the protections afforded women by the 1964 Civil Rights Act and a series of legal decisions. But the researchers found that use of "The Pill" accounted for 10 percent of the narrowing of the wage gap in the 1980s:

Its diffusion to younger, unmarried women improved their ability to time births, altered their expectations about future childbearing, and reduced the cost of altering career investments to reflect their changed expectations. The timing of its diffusion during the 1960s and 1970s also fits well with the slow growth in women’s wages during the 1970s (as younger women invested more in their human capital) and the rapid convergence in the gender gap during the 1980s (when these women enjoyed the returns on their human capital investments and accumulated labor market experience).

To determine how much of a role birth control might have played, the researchers looked at states that lowered their age of consent laws for medical care from 21 to 18. In those states, women could suddenly make decisions about contraception without parental involvement at an earlier age. This new age of consent doubled use of The Pill among women 18 to 20, the researchers found. The result was "a Pill-induced revolution," as more women were planning for and opting into paid work. The NBER also found that the increased availability and use of oral contraception was responsible for 31 percent of the narrowing of the wage gap in the 1990s.

The main reason for this, the researchers conclude, is that, "as the Pill provided younger women the expectation of greater control over childbearing, women invested more in their human capital and careers."

This is all the more interesting right now, as the country has been engaged in a heated debate over a provision in the new health care law that would guarantee all women access to birth control at no cost. One has to wonder what impact even greater access to contraception might have on wages going forward.

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Policing the Language Police

| Wed Mar. 28, 2012 11:58 AM EDT

Ed Kilgore linked today to a Tim Noah piece about the misuse of the word "Christian," and I was all ready to throw in my own two cents about this until I clicked the link and read Tim's first paragraph:

In November I introduced a periodic blog feature called “Language Cop” to “keep track of unacceptable words and catchphrases that enter the political dialogue.” In that column I exiled the terms “optics” and “inflection point.” Earlier this month I inveighed against “pivot,” and last week I suggested this euphemism be replaced with a new term, “shake,” in deference to America's first multiplatform gaffe. Today I banish “Christian ”—not the word itself, but a specific, erroneous usage.

Hold on there, pardner. Here's what I want to know: why do so many people get so upset about particular new pieces of jargon that enter widespread use? There's nothing wrong with optics or inflection point or pivot. They're perfectly good descriptive words. "Optics" doesn't mean quite the same thing as "appearances" and "inflection point" definitely doesn't mean the same thing as "significant developments." That makes them genuinely useful. "Pivot" seems fine too. All three of these terms seem like they're both nicely descriptive and full of meaning. When someone says "optics," for example, I know that they're talking not just about general appearances, but about how something plays in the media and how it plays with public opinion. Using the word optics also suggests that you're referring to a highly-planned operation managed by media pros, not just some random event on the street.

Anyway, if Tim Noah can be a language cop, then I can be a language cop cop. And I hereby declare all these words just fine. Anyone want to fight about it?

Chart of the Day: President Obama Hates Oil Drilling

| Wed Mar. 28, 2012 11:17 AM EDT

This comes via Stuart Staniford, and it's not really anything new. Still, I wonder how many people realize just how strongly the oil industry has boomed under the Obama administration? The shale gas boom (red line) has petered out since the mid-2000s thanks to falling prices, but the number of working rotary oil rigs (blue line) has skyrocketed since January 2009. (A rotary rig is one used to explore for new oil.) If President Obama is hostile to new oil exploration, he sure has a funny way of showing it.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 28, 2012

Wed Mar. 28, 2012 11:05 AM EDT

Capt. Rudy Stevens, a chaplain with the 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, reads the latest issue of the Army Times as he waits for his unit to board buses for the airport to deploy to Afghanistan March 21, 2012, at Fort Bragg, N.C. The chaplain's unit is one of two infantry battalions that belong to the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team. US Army photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod.

Farmworkers Get Beat Up in Florida Fields and the US Senate

| Wed Mar. 28, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

In the heart of Florida's industrial-scale fruit and vegetable fields, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has achieved the most tangible gains for US farmworkers since the glory days of the California-based United Farm Workers in the 1970s. CIW has methodically taken on large tomato growers and the giant corporations that buy their product, winning for themselves an extra penny for every pound of tomatoes they harvest, which amounts to a substantial raise; as well as code-of-conduct agreements between buyers and growers that set up a grievance process for alleged abuses and other protections.

But despite CIW's burgeoning power, conditions remain rough in the area's farm fields—especially on farms that haven't signed the code of conduct. The group's agreements so far only cover tomatoes; workers toiling in other crops remain underpaid and largely unprotected. And last week, the group reported Sunday, a worker from a nearby eggplant field walked into its office wearing a bloodied t-shirt. Here's what happened:

He had been working at a vegetable packing house, packing eggplants, about 10 miles from Immokalee when a supervisor approached him. According to the worker, the supervisor criticized his work, and he, thinking the criticism unjustified, answered back. A discussion ensued when, according to the worker and a witness, the supervisor hauled off and punched him in the face. Staggered, he swung back, but was knocked to the ground by the supervisor before others in the area stepped in to pull them apart. The worker was told to go home, clean up, and return the next day. Instead, he went to the CIW's office, and filed a police report. He then went to the hospital, where he learned that the supervisor's punch had broken his nose.

For CIW, the incident was a haunting reminder of how things were in tomato fields in the mid-1990s, before the penny-per-pound campaign, when another young man walked into the offices wearing a bloody shirt:

He had been picking tomatoes in a field near Immokalee when he stopped to take a drink of water. A field supervisor accosted him, shouted "Are you here to work, or to drink water?", and launched into him, leaving him badly bruised and bloodied—and determined to find justice. The young worker walked back to Immokalee, headed straight to the CIW office, and sparked a nighttime march of nearly 500 workers on the crew leader's house. The marchers brandished his shirt as a banner, declaring "If you beat one of us, you beat us all!", and helped launch a movement that changed Immokalee forever.  

While I read CIW's report, I thought about another place farmworkers are getting beat up: in the halls of the US Senate. Senators John Thune (R-S.D.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) have introduced what they call "common sense" legislation designed to squash new rules proposed by Labor Secretary Hilda Solis that impose new restrictions on employing children on farms. The  proposed rules would prevent kids under 16 from handling pesticides, working in animal feedlots, among other things that most people wouldn't want their kids doing.

Mitt Romney's Big Problem: No One Likes Him

| Wed Mar. 28, 2012 12:22 AM EDT

I know it's early days and all that, but this ABC News/Washington Post poll tells you all you need to know about Mitt Romney's November problem: nobody likes him much. I figure he'll make up his relatively poor showing among Republicans once the primaries are over and it's time to sing Kumbaya, but independents and moderates just don't want anything to do with the guy. Obama scores decently with both groups, but Romney is completely in the tank. I suppose he'll make up some of this deficit once the general election campaign starts and he does his Etch A Sketch restart, but he's got an awfully big hole to climb out of.

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The Supreme Court Shows Its True Colors

| Tue Mar. 27, 2012 9:01 PM EDT

From an attorney friend who's long been more pessimistic than me1 about the possibility that the Supreme Court might overturn Obamacare:

Dalia Lithwick posted an updated piece after the arguments — the gist of which was that they really might strike it down. She didn't mention her "no they really won't" piece (I wouldn't expect her to yet, but it's interesting how fragile her previous piece's argument seems to be).

Toobin's hair on fire response is interesting because I think legal watchers deep down believed that the Court would not be so superficial as to unhinge established jurisprudence for an ideological cause. It's a fun parlor game, but they figure that when sobriety prevails the court will bow to precedent where — as here — the issue is squarely within existing precedent. Well, no, and they are perfectly free to channel right wing bullshit points such as inactivity vs. activity.  I think this really rattled Toobin to see justices behaving like congressmen from Alabama in their arguments.

Lithwick points out that no one on the right discussed the case law. I mean .... why, who needs it!?

I'm still sticking with my guess that the individual mandate survives. But I'll confess that I'm sure not thinking it'll be a 7-2 decision any longer.

1Yeah, the Supreme Court is a political body and always has been. I've never thought otherwise. But I had a hard time believing they could be so brazenly political that they'd overturn a law so plainly supported by past precedent. Just goes to show that it's almost impossible to be too cynical these days.

Donald Verrilli Makes the Worst Supreme Court Argument of All Time

| Tue Mar. 27, 2012 6:20 PM EDT

Virtually everyone agrees that today's arguments before the Supreme Court were a disaster for the Obama administration. Adam Serwer tells us why:

Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. should be grateful to the Supreme Court for refusing to allow cameras in the courtroom, because his defense of Obamacare on Tuesday may go down as one of the most spectacular flameouts in the history of the court.

Stepping up to the podium, Verrilli stammered as he began his argument. He coughed, he cleared his throat, he took a drink of water. And that was before he even finished the first part of his argument. Sounding less like a world-class lawyer and more like a teenager giving an oral presentation for the first time, Verrilli delivered a rambling, apprehensive legal defense of liberalism's biggest domestic accomplishment since the 1960s—and one that may well have doubled as its eulogy.

This is just bizarre. Verrilli is an experienced guy. He's been involved in loads of Supreme Court cases and has personally argued more than a dozen. So what on earth happened? So far I haven't seen anyone even take a stab at trying to figure it out. How could Verrilli possibly be unprepared for the questions he got, given that the conservative arguments against Obamacare have been extremely public and obvious for well over a year? Everyone in the world knew what to expect. Everyone except Verrilli, apparently.

This is just mind-boggling.

No New Coal Plants! Great, But What About the Old Ones?

| Tue Mar. 27, 2012 6:14 PM EDT

The Environmental Protection Agency made a huge step forward on Tuesday with the announcement of rules limiting greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants—the first rules for power plants, ever. The rules are the beginning of the end of conventional coal-fired power plants, and have been cheered by environmental and public health groups.

Here's what the proposed rule states, from the National Journal:

The agency is proposing that new fossil-fuel power plants—namely those fired by coal and natural gas—emit no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon per megawatt-hour of energy produced. That's about the same amount of carbon emissions produced by today's natural gas-plants and about half the amount of produced by coal plants.

This basically means that going forward, anyone proposing new power plants has two options: build a natural-gas powered plant, or build a coal plant that has carbon-capture-and-sequestration (CCS) technology to significantly reduce the emissions from that plant.

The rules make it likely that there won't be any new coal plants built in the US—or at least not anytime soon. While there are currently demonstration plants in the works that feature CCS technology, they aren't to the scale of a new full-sized plant, nor are they cost effective. What's more, plants powered by natural gas, which is pretty cheap at the moment, can meet the new, lower-emission requirements pretty easily.

But here's why environmentalists aren't celebrating quite as much as you'd think they would: The rule doesn't apply to power plants that have already received permits to begin construction. Nor does it apply to plants that are already in operation—meaning that the approximately 300 older, dirtier coal plants that currently provide 39 percent of our energy will still be allowed to release CO2 unfettered. "We have no plans to address existing plants," said EPA administrator Lisa Jackson. She noted that "in the future if we were to," that would require an additional and thorough rule-making process.

Jackson noted that she believes coal "will remain an important part of America's electricity generation mix for foreseeable future," and that the rule "is meant to provide a path forward for those new coal-fired power plants that choose to minimize their carbon emissions."

Even before the new rules, environmentalists and local activists had already stopped quite a few new coal-fired power plants. Since 2001, they've blocked the construction of 166 plants around the country. The EPA said that there are 15 plants currently pursuing permits that would not be impacted by the new rule. *

As the chart to the left shows, cutting emissions by only stopping new coal plants isn't as effective at reducing US emissions as an economy-wide cap-and-trade law passed by Congress would have been, because in this scenario old plants are still emitting with abandon. But stopping plants—either by EPA action like today's or by blocking them from being built—does eliminate a chunk of potential future emissions.

As one might imagine, the coal industry isn't a big fan of the new rules. The National Mining Association told the New York Times that the rule is a "big mistake," one "virtually calculated to drive coal, a very, very affordable generator of electricity, out of the US electricity."

Here's a map drawn from Sierra Club's anti-coal campaign showing plants that have already been defeated around the country even before today's new rule announcement, as well as those that are currently in the works:

 


Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the 15 plants would be impacted by the new rule, when in fact they will not. The sentence has been corrected.

Tighter Rules for Factory Farm Antibiotics? Maybe.

| Tue Mar. 27, 2012 4:00 PM EDT

On Dec. 22, the FDA quietly delivered what I called at the time a "Christmas present for factory farms": It announced it was ending a process it had begun 35 years earlier to determine whether routine antibiotic use on factory-scale kivestock farms posed a public health threat. Instead of pursuing regulation, the agency declared, it would rely on a "voluntary" approach to persuading livestock operations to reduce antibiotic abuse.

This, even though the agency itelf has conceded that that the practice of giving animals raised in tight quarters daily antibiotic doses of generates antibiotic-resistant pathogens that threaten people; and even though the meat industry has shown no appetite to end the practice on its own.

Just three months later, the industry's gift has been unceremoniously snatched back by a federal judge, responding to a lawsuit brought by a coalition of consumer and enviro groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Food Animal Concerns Trust, Public Citizen, and the Union of Concerned Scientists.