Tyler Cowen flags an article today about Young Marmalade, "the UK’s young driver specialist," which offers Britain's youth a discount on their auto insurance if they install a black box in their car that allows their driving habits to be monitored. Apparently you also have to buy your car from Young Marmalade, and it has to be a low-powered car, but it's the black box that's new.

Though not as new as you might think. I've been watching commercials for over a year touting the "Snapshot" program from Progressive Insurance, and it's pretty much the same thing. You get a black box from Progressive, plug it into your car's diagnostic port, and they track your driving habits. If you drive safely, you get a discount. If you don't drive safely — well, they say that nothing will happen at all. You'll just keep paying your usual rate. I have no idea if that's true in real life.

In any case, the whole thing is fairly crude, tracking only enough information to determine how many miles you drive and how often you make sudden stops. No GPS, no information about exceeding the speed limit, or anything like that. Just sudden stops. But how private is this information?

We won’t share Snapshot data with a third party unless it’s required to service your insurance policy, prevent fraud, perform research or comply with the law. We also won’t use Snapshot data to resolve a claim unless you or the registered vehicle owner gives us permission.

That actually seems like a pretty broad exemption, so your driving habits might not be quite as closely held as you'd like. And I wouldn't be surprised if future black boxes get more sophisticated about the amount of information they collect. On the bright side, you can get a 30% discount on your insurance rate! When you consider that most of us are willing to turn over practically our entire private lives to online companies in return for a free song from the iTunes store, that's probably pretty enticing. Welcome to the future.

Suzy Khimm directs our attention today to the latest Gallup Poll about the rich and their taxes. Do they pay too much? Too little? The long-term trend is a pretty spectacular tribute to the power of repetition. After Bill Clinton raised taxes modestly on high earners in 1993, there was a big drop in the number of people who thought the rich paid too little in taxes. That makes sense. But take a look at the next two decades. Capital gains rates on the wealthy were cut in 1997 and the number went down again. In 2001 Bush slashed their taxes and the number went down again. Bush slashed their taxes a second time and the number went down — again. The incomes of the rich skyrocketed during the aughts and the number went down yet more. By 2010, after two decades of skyrocketing incomes and ever-falling taxes, the number of people who think the rich don't pay enough in taxes has dropped by over 20 points!

That's the power of the Republican message machine, and it's pretty impressive. In the latest poll, the number finally went up a bit, and I imagine that shows the power of a countermessage. A combination of the continued recession, a louder and more unified Democratic Party, and the Occupy movement were probably responsible for the blip back up. Fighting back can make a difference after all.

Last year I read an interesting piece by Susan Headden in the Washington Monthly about college placement tests:

Most Americans think of the SAT as the ultimate high-stakes college admissions test, but the Accuplacer has more real claim to the title....When students apply to selective colleges, they’re evaluated based on high school transcripts, extracurricular pursuits, teacher recommendations, and other factors alongside their SAT scores. In open admissions colleges, placement tests typically trump everything else. If you bomb the SAT, the worst thing that can happen is you can’t go to the college of your choice. If you bomb the Accuplacer, you effectively can’t go to college at all.

My college days are long behind me, so I'd never heard of the Accuplacer. But apparently if you apply to a community college, you take it. It doesn't matter if you're a straight-A student. It doesn't matter if you have half a dozen AP tests under your belt. It's off to the Accuplacer lab for you.

This might not be such a terrible thing if the Accuplacer accurately identified kids who needed help to begin college-level work, and if remedial classwork did a good job of providing that help. But Judith Scott-Clayton says today that neither of these things seems to be true:

For students with high school grade-point averages between 3.5 and 4.0, remediation rates have more than doubled (see chart below). This is not a result of high school grade inflation — the percentage of students with G.P.A.’s in this range has not changed — but is consistent with increasingly ubiquitous placement testing.

Screening seemingly prepared students for remediation is questionable for at least two reasons. First, the benefits of remediation are far from obvious: remediation has been referred to as the Bermuda Triangle of postsecondary education, because the majority of those who enter never make it out. Across several rigorous, quasi-experimental studies of the causal impact of remediation, only one found positive effects on college outcomes, while others found null to negative effects.

Second, the tests commonly used to screen for college readiness are only weakly related to college outcomes, as two recent studies by the Community College Research Center show....My own research, using data from a large urban community college system with particularly high remediation rates, estimates that one in four students assigned to math remediation could have passed a college-level math course with a grade of B or better and one in three students assigned to English remediation could have passed freshman composition with a B or better.

If all this is true, it suggests that these placement tests are a waste of time. You can't base high-stakes admissions decisions on them because they're too inaccurate for that, so instead they're used to place students in remedial classes. But that doesn't do much good either. The ones who couldn't handle college-level classes in the first place don't improve much and just end up dropping out. So instead, why not let everyone into freshman classes and just see how they do?

I suppose that might strain class capacity, but at the very least, it sure sounds as if there ought to be a GPA cutoff for these things. If students volunteer for remedial classes, or if they do poorly in their first semester, let 'em take the classes. But if they have a decent GPA, why not let them at least give college a try before sending them off to the Bermuda Triangle?

Supermarkets: part of the solution, or part of the problem?

My colleague Kevin Drum has a good post rounding up recent research on the problem of food deserts—neighborhoods that lack access to large supermarkets and are instead served largely by corner stores.

Food deserts have come under scrutiny as a possible cause of obesity and other diet-related health problems in low-income neighborhoods. But as Kevin shows in his post, there's no evidence that adding a supermarket to a neighborhood automatically changes people's diets or improves their health outcomes.

A quick look at the week that was in the world of political dark money...

CU Later? Vermont legislators passed a resolution calling on Congress to draft a constitutional amendment that would undo the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling. (New Mexico and Hawaii have passed similar measures.) On Wednesday, Democratic senators held a rally where they expressed their support for such an amendment. New York Sen. Charles Schumer said the 2010 ruling was "the worst decision since Plessy v. Ferguson." He also suggested that bitter rivals Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Hamilton would have agreed on taking down Citizens United: "They’d say, 'Go forward, right on, because our democracy is being ruined by these decisions.'"

The price of a White House visit: The New York Times reports that major donors have been made welcome at the White House. Around 75 percent of donors who gave $100,000 to Obama and the Democratic party have visited, and approximately two-thirds of the president's top 2008 fundraisers have visited. Many of the visitors showed up with the Washington equivalent of a bottle of wine for the hosts—a lobbyist.

New York TimesNew York TimesAttack ads on Antiques Roadshow? Last week, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a longstanding ban on political advertising on public TV. So what does the ruling really mean? Short answer: PBS stations can accept (or turn down) political ads—assuming that candidates would even want to advertise there in the first place.

Rove's $100 million money machine: Karl Rove's American Crossroads super-PAC and Crossroads GPS 501(c)4 are expected to announce that they've raised nearly $100 million in this election cycle, Politico reports. Of the $28.4 million brought in by Crossroads GPS, $10 million, or 35 percent of its haul, has come from one person or corporation. Who that megadonor might be is a mystery, since GPS doesn't have to disclose the identity of its donors.  

The sleeper super-PACs: Big national-level super-PACs like Crossroads have been getting a lot of attention, but the Sunlight Foundation reports that smaller groups are already having an impact on the state level.

Energy ad war heats up: The American Energy Alliance, a Koch-funded pro-oil advocacy group, has been taking to the airwaves in swing states with the ad below, which slams Obama's "failing energy policies." It's just one of several groups that have spent nearly $17 million attacking the president's energy record. Meanwhile, the Obama's campaign and super-PAC have spent just one-tenth that touting his record on one of the campaign's most contentious issues.  

Credit: NASA.Credit: NASA.

Most news from nature is depressing—species extinctions, changing climate, dying oceans. Yet it's not all bad... though we might never know it, since positive news is underreported. 

I wrote about this tendency in my latest MoJo print piece about my old friend Enriqueta Velarde and her work to save an island and a whole ecosystem called Can One Incredibly Stubborn Person Save a Species?

That article grew from a call-to-arms in a science paper in TREE last year: Conservation science must engender hope to succeed. The authors persuasively argued that by not reporting good conservation news, both the media and science journals facilitate a climate of despair and pessimism and create a self-defeating positive feedback loop. They suggested we work harder to broadcast successes stories and the people behind them. 

So what works and where? Here are a few stories that caught my eye recently.

Credit: Scott Schliebe via Wikimedia Commons.Credit: Scott Schliebe via Wikimedia Commons.

1) Huge Drop in PCB Levels in Norwegian Polar Bears 

Nothing we hear about polar bears these days is good. Except this. Researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology have found that levels of toxic PCBs and related contaminants in bears from the island of Svalbard have dropped by as much as 59 percent in cubs, and by as much as 55 percent in their mothers, between 1998 and 2008. Biologist Jenny Bytingsvik says the sharp downward trend is a sign that international agreements to ban PCBs are working.


Credit: Amur Leopard via Wikimedia Commons.Credit: Amur Leopard via Wikimedia Commons.

2) Amur Cats Get Their Own National Park 

Extremely rare Amur leopards (wild population: 30) have won a long-fought battle to establish a safer home for them with the establishment of the 650,000-acre (262,000-hectare) Land of the Leopard National Park in Russia's Far East. The park is also home to 10 rare Amur tigers. Since some cats cross the border into China, the World Wildlife Fund hopes to establish a cross-border reserve to allow the leopards to expand their habitat and hop the border at will. China already has two wildlife reserves on its side.


Credit: Toby Hudson via Wikimedia Commons.Credit: Toby Hudson via Wikimedia Commons.

3)  Half Billion Dollars Funds Most Ambitious Conservation Programs Ever

The Global Environment Facility based in Washington DC, which administers huge honking trust funds for conservation, allocated $516.4 million to 40 individual projects and nine larger program last November—its most ambitious round of funding ever. Included: a proposal to protect at least 5 percent of Brazil's ocean territory through marine protected areas; and a project to investigate the potential of creating 'blue forest' preserves in the ocean to facilitate the storage of carbon over time by mangrove and coral ecosystems. 

Credit: Oregon State University via Flickr.Credit: Oregon State University via Flickr.

4) Right Whales Return to New Zealand

Southern right whales have been extinct from ancestral calving grounds off New Zealand for more than a century. So presumably no living whales remembered how to get to New Zealand from their sub-Antarctic feeding grounds. Yet some whales are finding their way home again. And recently published research by a team from the US, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia suggests they're a genetically distinct group—the likely descendants of whales that once lived off New Zealand. Prior to whaling, 30,000 whales bred in the sandy bays of Kiwi Land. A few dozen have returned since 2005, hopefully the pioneers of a new wave.


 Credit: Tamar Assaf via Wikimedia Commons.

Credit: Tamar Assaf via Wikimedia Commons.

5) Arabian Oryx Returns from Extinction

This beautiful antelope was believed to be extinct in the wild since ~1973 when the last individual was shot in Oman. Captive breeding efforts went into cooperative overdrive with a program called Operation Oryx, a collaboration between the Phoenix Zoo, Fauna & Flora International, and the World Wildlife Fund. Today after successful reintroductions and a lot of hard work from antelope moms, ~1,000 individuals are again living in the wild, with ~6,00-7,000 in captive herds. The species has ratcheted up three levels on the Red List: from "Extinct in the Wild" to "Critically Endangered" to "Endangered" now to "Vulnerable." Only two more stops before "Least Concern."

Bonus: Did you know that earth's protected areas cover 8 million square miles of land and sea—more than twice the size of Canada? We've sure come a long way since 1872. Charts and maps here.

You all know what a food desert is, right? It's a place where there aren't very many supermarkets. In fact, most often it's a place with no supermarkets, and almost always it's a poor neighborhood. But why do food deserts exist? Perhaps poor neighborhoods just aren't very profitable places to open supermarkets. But poor neighborhoods usually have plenty of bodegas and little corner shops, and if those places can make money why can't a supermarket? What's more, supermarket executives have always been very cagey when they're asked about the phenomenon, which suggests there's more to it than mere profitability. It's a bit of a mystery.

But now there's another question about food deserts: Should we even care about them in the first place? For a long time, they've been a source of concern because supermarkets generally provide better access to fresh fruits and vegetables than little corner stores. Eating well is hard enough for the poor as it is, but it becomes all but impossible if they don't have convenient access to good food in the first place.

Past research has questioned whether access to supermarkets really has a big impact on either obesity or eating habits, but the question has remained ambiguous. However, it's getting less so thanks to several recent studies. In one, Helen Lee of the Public Policy Institute of California concluded that children in poor neighborhoods really do have greater access to fast-food chains and convenience stores than children in richer neighborhoods. But it didn't make any difference: Access to different kinds of stores didn't have any impact on weight gain among elementary-school-aged children.

Adam Drewnowski at the University of Washington has come to similar conclusions. For one thing, he says, it turns out that most people, even in poor neighborhoods, don't shop at the stores closest to their homes. What's more, in a study of various supermarkets in the Seattle area, he found that obesity rates were far more closely linked to income than anything else. "Obesity rates among supermarket shoppers closely tracked both food prices and incomes," he found, but not the kinds of food available. Shoppers at Albertson's, a low-cost chain, were far more obese than shoppers at Whole Foods, even though both provided plenty of access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

Finally, there's Roland Sturm of the RAND Corporation, who took a different approach, using self-reported data from 13,000 California children and teenagers. As reported by the New York Times, "Dr. Sturm found no relationship between what type of food students said they ate, what they weighed, and the type of food within a mile and a half of their homes…Living close to supermarkets or grocers did not make students thin and living close to fast food outlets did not make them fat."

Why does this matter? After all, efforts to make sure that poor neighborhoods have access to a wide variety of food are laudable even if it turns out not to have a big impact on obesity. But it matters nonetheless, because it affects where we focus our money and our energy. If obesity and good nutrition are our goal, we need to look elsewhere. Tackling food deserts, it turns out, probably isn't going to have much impact.

UPDATE: So where should we look? Tom Philpott has some ideas here.

It isn't just ourselves or our pets that have been getting bigger over the past couple of decades. Turns out, our beef cows have become gigantic too. How big? According to an excellent article by Melody Petersen in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "the average weight of a fattened steer sold to a packing plant is now roughly 1,300 pounds—up from 1,000 pounds in 1975."

That's a hefty 30 percent gain. What gives? According to Peterson, the main reason is pharmaceutical: heavy use of antibiotics, hormones, and other growth-enhancing drugs. Peterson untangles the web that connects pharmaceutical giants like Merck to professors at big public land-grant universities, who not only act as paid researchers to develop new products but also as shills who appeal directly to cattle feedlot operators.

Via the Financial Times, here's an interesting bit of color coded data from HSBC Global showing the level of correlation between various asset classes. The version on the left is from 2005, and it shows about what you'd expect. Deep red means a pair of asset classes are highly correlated — that is, when one goes up or down, the other moves in the same direction — and the red square at the top left represents various U.S. stock market indexes. Unsurprisingly, when the NASDAQ goes up, so do the Dow Jones and the S&P 500. The red square next to it is European stock markets. And the red square at the bottom represents corporate and government bonds. When one kind of bond moves up or down, so do all the rest.

No surprises there. But take a look at the version on the right from April 2012. Practically everything in the top half is moving together. At the bottom right, bonds are moving together even more tightly than before. And stocks and bonds (bottom left) are moving tightly in opposite directions. There's a bit of stuff in the middle that's not correlated with anything else, but that's all.

What this means is that it's hard to diversify a financial portfolio these days because everything is moving in sync. HSBC's view is that this is because the world economy is in such fragile shape that basically everything now depends on how well governments cope. If they cope well, the global economy will recover smartly and pretty much all asset classes will do well. If they cope poorly, everybody and everything is screwed. In other words, when you buy an asset these days — any asset — you're not really making a bet on the asset itself. You're making a bet on how well the governments and central banks of the world handle the current economic mess. No wonder everyone's so nervous. There's no escape from the Great Recession.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the number of people receiving SNAP benefits (aka food stamps) will continue rising through 2014. Newt Gingrich will no doubt use this as an occasion to snark yet again about Barack Obama being a "food stamp president," but among non-buffoons the takeaway from this is that the Great Recession is still nowhere near over. Technically it might have ended three years ago, but out in the real world things are still mighty fragile for a lot of people.