2012 - %3, April

Super-PAC Bankroller Foster Friess Jumps on Romney Bandwagon

| Tue Apr. 10, 2012 6:38 PM EDT
Foster Friess.

Rick Santorum and Foster Friess, the silver-haired, crocodile-hunting, born again financier who made his fortune in mutual funds, go way back. Friess helped raise money for Santorum as early as 1994, when Santorum first ran for US Senate in Pennsylvania. During Santorum's surprisingly successful presidential campaign, Friess poured $1.6 million into a super-PAC called the Red, White, and Blue Fund that was devoted to helping Santorum win the GOP nomination. The money helped keep Santorum competitive in multiple primary states. But after Santorum dropped out of the race on Tuesday, it didn't take long for Friess to jump on the Mitt Romney bandwagon.

"I'm obviously going to be of help [to Romney] in whatever way I can," Friess told Politico's Ken Vogel, who broke the news. Friess continued: "I've got some plans as to how I might be able to be of help. The bottom line is, I'm going to be very supportive and I'll probably have plans to share with you a little later on."

If Friess does decide to go all-in for Romney, he could give a max of $2,500 to Romney's campaign. But there's no limit on what Friess can give to the pro-Romney super-PAC Restore Our Future. (An official with Restore Our Future did not respond to a request for comment about reaching out to Friess since Santorum's departure.) Friess could also give to Karl Rove's American Crossroads, a Republican super-PAC that plans to spend up to $300 million blitzing President Obama and supporting Republicans. Or he could donate to Crossroads GPS, a 501(c)(4) non-profit that doesn't disclose its donors and runs a mix of so-called issue advocacy ads and pure political ads. In other words, there's no shortage of Romney-friendly political players eager to take Foster Friess' money.

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Dad and Junior: A Wee Tale of Medicare Spending and Double Counting

| Tue Apr. 10, 2012 5:52 PM EDT

Today I want to tell you a little economic fable. My tale is about a family with two members: Dad and Junior. Dad earns $100 per month in the lucrative field of political blogging. Junior earns $10 per month from his lemonade stand. He uses his money to buy comic books, and if he has any money left over at the end of the month he gives it to Dad, who gives him an IOU in return. Over time, Junior has built up $25 in IOUs from Dad. Needless to say, Dad has long since spent the money that Junior gave him.

Our story opens in January. Junior has discovered some new comic books that he likes, so he starts spending $15 per month on comics. His lemonade income isn't enough to cover this, so he finances his habit by cashing in $5 worth of IOUs each month. This goes on for three months, and during that time Dad has $95 to spend on food, clothing, and other necessities of life.

In March, Junior realizes that he only has $10 worth of IOUs left. At his current rate of comic consumption, he'll run out by the end of May! So he decides to cut back: from now on, he'll buy only $12 worth of comics per month. This means he has to cash in only $2 per month in IOUs.

There are two consequences of Junior's decision to cut back:

  • Dad has $98 to spend instead of $95. This is no mirage. It's real money that he can spend on additional stuff.
  • Junior's stock of IOUs will now last longer. Instead of running dry in May, it will last through August. Again, this is no mirage. His IOUs really will last longer.

Do you see what this means? Both of these things are true. Dad really does have more money to spend, and Junior's stockpile of IOUs really will last longer. There's no effect on total family spending, and no effect on total family debt.

In essence, this is the story of Obamacare and the great "double counting" flap, which has gotten a new lease on life following the release of a new report from Charles Blahous, a Republican trustee for Medicare. Blahous is retailing a conservative story of long standing, namely that Obamacare double counts its planned savings from Medicare.

But it doesn't. In the story above, Dad is the federal government, Junior is Medicare, and the IOUs are treasury bills. When Medicare spending is cut back — as it is under Obamacare — it cashes in fewer treasuries. This means that the federal government has more money to spend on other healthcare needs and that the Medicare trust fund will last longer. Both these things are true. And there's no net effect on either spending or the deficit. Other actions of the federal government, which has unlimited taxing and borrowing power, might increase both spending and the deficit, but this particular mechanism doesn't.

Now, there are other things you can say about all this. You might be skeptical that Obamacare's spending cuts will actually pan out. You might want to re-run the deficit numbers now that HHS has given up on the CLASS Act. You might believe that Obamacare is likely to cost more than anyone estimates right now. That's all fine. Beyond that, you might, as Blahous does, worry that extending the life of the Medicare trust fund will lull everyone into complacency and delay an all-out effort to rein in Medicare spending. Or you could go further, as Blahous also does, and assume that without Obamacare we'd already be feverishly at work cutting back Medicare benefits. The fact that we aren't therefore counts as additional spending and bigger deficits.

That seems to me like an eccentric way of looking at things, but Blahous certainly has the right to do so. What he can't do, however, is pretend that there's double counting here. There just isn't.

UPDATE: Ezra Klein tackles this issue in a more conventional way here.

Scoop: White Kids Work For Obama

| Tue Apr. 10, 2012 5:01 PM EDT

On Monday, President Barack Obama's re-election team circulated this photo of volunteers and staffers at the campaign's Chicago headquarters:

This is not what a Young Republicans meetings looks like.: Obama for AmericaThis is not what a Young Republicans meeting looks like. Obama for America

All those people look really excited for the new M. Ward album! But this being the Internet and it being an election year, a seemingly innocuous picture of youthful volunteers turned into something else—evidence of President Obama's growing race problem. Wait, what?

Over at the Daily Beast, Mansfield Frazier writes that the candid photo of a bunch of college-aged kids looks like a "Photoshopped dirty trick." He explains:

The campaign is pushing back, saying the photo is much internet ado about nothing, but the image, first published by Buzzfeed and then picked up by the Drudge Report, is real and it is damning. Our first sitting president of color is so afraid of being labeled "president of the blacks" by his enemies that he goes in the other direction and earns a reputation for stiff-arming citizens of color.

"[I]t looks like a young Republican gathering," he writes, adding, "all of those selected could not have just happened to be white absent racism on someone's part."

First things first. This is what a Young Republicans gathering looks like:

This is what a Young Republicans meeting looks like.: TKTKTKThis is what a Young Republicans meeting looks like. Jerry Lara/San Antonio Express-News/ZumaPress.comNote the absence of artsy sweaters and flannel. 

As for the thesis of the piece, that the Obama campaign is deliberately "stiff-arming citizens of color" in order to make some larger point: Frazier offers no evidence to support this except to note that Cornel West is upset. Obama's approval-rating among African-Americans is still in the high '80s, and the campaign has made clear that massive participation by minorities and young people is key to his re-election effort. In this case Team Obama is clearly making an appeal to young voters—the picture might as well be captioned "phone-banking is fun!" (Without getting into a "guess the ethnicity" game with a low-res photo, it's also quite clearly more diverse than he posits.) Is there anything to suggest these kids are any different from the residents of Michigan Avenue in 2008?

The reality is that any bias in weeding out volunteers is likely more of a means-test: Volunteers for political campaigns are necessarily college-age kids with enough financial backing to allow them to work full- or part-time (and overtime, in some cases) without pay and with little if any opportunity for advancement. That gives well-off white kids a boost, I suppose.

The Worst Farm Bill Ever?

| Tue Apr. 10, 2012 4:18 PM EDT

The farm bill—that vast, byzantine, twice-a-decade plan for federal food, ag, and hunger policy—expires on Sept. 30, just weeks before what promises to be an epically contested presidential election.

Under normal circumstances, getting Congress to agree on such complex and expensive legislation at a politically charged juncture would be daunting. This year, with both parties touting fiscal austerity and with the GOP-dominated House having recently approved a draconian budget proposal, getting a farm bill through the legislative process will be nearly impossible.

But none of that will likely stop Big Agribusiness from getting what it wants, which is programs that underwrite environmentally ruinous, nutritionally vapid corn/soy agriculture. Take Big Ag's lobbying power and add a big pinch of fiscal hysteria and what you get is thin gruel for everything else in the farm bill, which could could choke off the USDA's progressive-ag programs and even result in sharp cuts to hunger programs at a time of high un- and underemployment.

Study: We're Screwed Without Wolves and Bears

| Tue Apr. 10, 2012 3:53 PM EDT
A wolf in Yellowstone

Deer have been a blight on suburbia for a while now, munching their way through tract-housing gardens and making some highways extremely dangerous for motorists, as their populations have exploded. (In DC, where they live in abundant numbers in the city's biggest park, Rock Creek Park, they're known by neighbors as rats with antlers.) Deer are also radically changing places like the forests of the Adirondacks by devouring young tree shoots from the storied maples and leaving nothing but beech. But a new study finds that it's not just deer populations that are wreaking havoc on North American ecosystems. It's all of the large mammals that graze on plants.

Moose, elk, and deer populations are at historic highs, according to an extensive review by scientists at Oregon State University. And they're taking their toll on young trees, reducing biodiversity of forests and contributing to climate change as a result. The leading cause of the disrupted ecosystems is the disappearance of the predators, namely wolves and bears. Researchers found that large mammal densities were six times higher in areas without wolves than in those with them. 

"These issues do not just affect the United States and a few national parks," said William Ripple, an OSU professor of forestry and lead author of the study, in a statement. "The data from Canada, Alaska, the Yukon, Northern Europe and Asia are all showing similar results. There's consistent evidence that large predators help keep populations of large herbivores in check, with positive effects on ecosystem health."

Wolf and bear populations have been decimated by humans who fear them for many reasons, but mainly by ranchers who see them as a major threat to valuable livestock. But humans have been far less successful in dealing with the resulting explosion of big game that's come as a result. I was in my home state of Utah for the past couple of weeks, where it's pretty common to find lots of deer alongside the highways, where they cause a lot of car accidents. But this time, i was shocked to pass elk and moose among the road kill, the leftovers of what must have been horrible collisions given the animals' size. My dad told me that the moose had gotten so out of control that they were hanging out in people's backyards like domesticated animals.

Hunting, according to the Oregon scientists, is a poor substitute for the efficient wolves and bears, and it doesn't do much to reduce the herds. (See our slideshow for more on why we need wolves.) In Utah, where hunting is a childhood rite of passage, that's clearly the case. The moose occasionally get so thick in populated areas that they have to be relocated in other ways.

Back in 2001, I was driving down Parley's Canyon from Park City to Salt Lake and saw the wreckage of a helicopter overturned in an icy reservoir. The helicopter had hit a power line while trying to airlift a moose, one of 15 to 20 the state was trying to remove from the canyon to improve highway safety, particularly in the run up to the 2002 Olympics, when the traffic was expected to be especially thick. The helicopter crash killed three people. These sorts of stories make a return of the wolf look like a pretty reasonable alternative.

 

MAPS: March Was an Epically Weird Weather Month

| Tue Apr. 10, 2012 3:25 PM EDT

 March 2012 temperatures: departure from average: NOAA National Climatic Data Center

March 2012 temperatures—departure from average: 

March was a whole new breed of insane for the record books according to NOAA's State of the Climate report for the month.

First up, the mega tornado outbreak early in the month spawned 2012's first billion-dollar disaster, as warmer-than-average conditions created a juicy environment for severe weather. There were 223 preliminary tornado reports in March, a month that averages 80 tornadoes. The majority occurred during the 2-3 March outbreak across the Ohio Valley and the Southeast. Forty people died and damages exceeded $1.5 billion.

Other March *highlights:*

  • It was the warmest March on record for the contiguous United States, a record that dates back to 1895.
  • The average temperature of 51.1 degrees F was 8.6 degrees F above the 20th century average for March and 0.5 degrees F warmer than the previous warmest March in 1910.
  • Of the more than 1,400 months that have passed since the U.S. record began, only one month, January 2006, saw a larger departure from its average temperature than March 2012.


Surface wind flow for 21 March 2012. Click for animation: NOAA.

Surface wind flow for 21 March 2012. Click for animation: NOAA. 

The March craziness was due to a persistent weather pattern that put a kink in the jet stream and kept cold away from the eastern two-thirds of the Lower 48. In the wind map above (click for amazing animation), you can see how this pattern formed a cut-off low: an atmospheric eddy, like an oxbow in a river, visible in the swirl of winds around Dallas.

Here's how Martin Hoerling of NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory describes the results of that kinky pattern:

Nature's exuberant smashing of daily high temperature records in recent weeks can only be described as "Meteorological March Madness". Conditions more fitting of June than March prevailed east of the Rocky Mountains since the start of the month. The numbers are stunning. Take, for example, the nine consecutive record high temperatures in Chicago from 14-22 March, eight of which saw the mercury eclipse 80°F. For those unfamiliar with the area's climatology, high temperatures do not normally begin exceeding 80°F until after commencement of the Summer solstice. NOAA's National Climate Data Center reported that over 7000 daily record high temperatures were broken over the U.S. from 1 March thru 27 March. With beachgoers flocking to the balmy shores of Hampton Beach, New Hampshire this week, one wonders if a new normal is emerging for the preferred destination of Spring-break revelers.

NOAA National Climatic Data Center

NOAA National Climatic Data Center

The same pattern brought cooler-than-average conditions to the West Coast states of Washington, Oregon, and California. Nevertheless:

  • Every state in the nation experienced a record warm daily temperature during March.
  • Preliminary data show 15,272 warm temperature records broken (7,755 daytime records, 7,517 nighttime records).
  • Hundreds of locations across the country broke their all-time March records.
  • There were an unbelievable 21 instances of nighttime temperatures being as warm, or warmer, than the existing record daytime temperature for that date.

 March precipitation departures (%) from 1981-2010 average: NOAA

March precipitation departures from 1981-2010 average: NOAA

It wasn't only about temperature either. Precipitation was anomalous throughout much of the country too, as you can see in the map above... really wet or really dry compared to the 1981-2010 average, with not a whole lot in between. 

In fact the entirety of the so-called cold season that spanned October 2011 to March 2012 was whack. According to NOAA's US Climate Extremes Index (USCEI)—which tracks the highest and lowest 10 percent of extremes in temperature, precipitation, drought, and tropical cyclones across the contiguous US—38 percent of the contiguous US racked up the second highest USCEI rank on record:

  • A record 100 percent of the Northeast and Upper Midwest regions were walloped by extremes in both warm maximum and warm minimum temperatures.  
  • Between 90 and 100 percent of the Ohio Valley and the Southeast experience record extreme temperatures between October 2011 and March 2102.

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Rick Santorum's Greatest Hits

| Tue Apr. 10, 2012 2:55 PM EDT

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum ended his presidential campaign on Tuesday at a press conference in—naturally—Gettysburg, effectively ending the Republican primary and cementing Mitt Romney's path to 1144 delegates. (You can see just how far behind Santorum was by checking out our primary predictor.) Citing his youngest daughter Bella's poor health and the realities of the race (recent polls had him trailing Romney in his home state of Pennsylvania), Santorum's brief remarks were more of a nostalgia trip than a plan of action for going forward. He pointedly did not endorse Romney.

Santrorum's campaign was a long-shot, and for a while it looked like the lack of media coverage was entirely justified. He hovered in the low single digits for most of 2011 before rising, over the course of just a few weeks, to a first place finish in the Iowa caucuses, and he did it all on a shoe-string budget that saw him travel from one campaign event to the next in a supporter's pickup truck. Santorum's unforecasted success, primarily in the Deep South and Sun Belt, served as a constant reminder of Romney's weakness among some of the GOP's core consituencies—Evangelicals and people who make less than $250,000 a year.

The former Pennsylvania senator's role going forward is unclear, but if history is any indication, his second-place primary finish would put him in good position for a second effort, November-permitting, in 2016. Here's a look at what you might have missed from the campaign that was:

What'd we miss? Leave your memories below.

Exclusive: McDonald's Says It Has Dumped ALEC

| Tue Apr. 10, 2012 2:41 PM EDT

This story has been updated.

Add another name to the list of corporations who've ditched the American Legislative Exchange Council: McDonald's.

The fast food giant tells Mother Jones that it recently decided to cut ties with ALEC, the corporate-backed group that drafts pro-free-market legislation for state lawmakers around the country. "While [we] were a member of ALEC in 2011, we evaluate all professional memberships annually and made the business decision not to renew in 2012," Ashlee Yingling, a McDonald's spokeswoman, wrote in an email. Yingling didn't mention any specific campaign or outside pressure as playing a role in the company's decision to leave ALEC.

Rick Santorum Bows Out

| Tue Apr. 10, 2012 2:16 PM EDT

Apparently Rick Santorum is bowing out of the presidential race. Mitt Romney, the inevitable nominee, is now truly inevitable.

James O'Keefe Shows Everyone Just How Hard Voter Fraud Is

| Tue Apr. 10, 2012 12:56 PM EDT

I see that famous right-wing videographer/editor James O'Keefe is back in the news. His latest obsession is voter fraud, and a few days ago he conducted one of his famous stunts. You see, Attorney General Eric Holder says (correctly) that actual voter fraud is all but nonexistent in America, so O'Keefe hired a white guy who looks nothing like Holder to walk into a polling place and cast a vote as Eric Holder. See? It is possible to vote fraudulently!

Alex Koppelman has more here, but he misses out on the biggest point of all: O'Keefe's video doesn't show how easy it is to vote fraudulently. It shows how hard it is. You see, O'Keefe's stunt double didn't actually vote. Ben Shapiro, editor-at-large of Breitbart.com, explains why: "Obviously this wasn’t an actual case of voter fraud—O’Keefe and Project Veritas didn’t want to break the law."

Obviously. And that's the whole point. Nobody in his right mind deliberately casts an illegal ballot. You're risking a felony rap over one vote. Hell, O'Keefe's guy wasn't willing to risk it even though that was the whole point of the stunt, and even though, according to Shapiro, the odds of getting caught were "almost zero." That's because O'Keefe's stooge isn't clinically insane, which is about what you'd have to be to take a chance like that for essentially no gain at all.

But wait! How about the possibility of wide-scale fraud? Risking prison to cast a single vote might not be worth it, but maybe the reanimated corpse of ACORN would be willing to pay thousands of people to vote fraudulently — enough to seriously influence an election. But that's just a fever dream too. Does anyone seriously think that an enterprise like that could (a) work and (b) be kept secret? With thousands of participants? Please.

There's no question that in-person voter fraud is possible. No one's ever denied it. The question is whether anyone ever actually does it. And on that score, there's voluminous evidence that virtually no one ever does. That's because anyone crazy enough to do it is busy yelling at passersby about the approaching end of the world, not wandering into polling places to cast ballots in the name of Eric Holder.

POSTSCRIPT: It's worth adding that notwithstanding all this, O'Keefe's video is very effective. He may be a hack, but he's a pretty impressive one.