2012 - %3, April

America Getting Back on Track

| Tue Apr. 10, 2012 12:19 PM EDT

No special reason for posting this, but I was browsing through the latest ABC/Washington Post poll and was curious to see how things were going on the famous right track/wrong track question beloved of Beltway pundits. And since I took the trouble to graph it, I figured I might as well share. Answer: things are looking up. Not strongly up, but right track bottomed out last September and it's been rising slowly but steadily ever since.

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Playing Games With the George Zimmerman Video

| Tue Apr. 10, 2012 11:35 AM EDT

I don't watch very much political TV, either on MSNBC or elsewhere, and I've been following the Trayvon Martin case only from a distance. But I'm aware that we've had videotape of George Zimmerman being taken into custody for some time now, and that one point of contention is whether the videotape shows evidence of any injuries, which might buttress Zimmerman's claim that Martin was pounding his head on a sidewalk before Zimmerman shot him. And in fact, the police video does seem to suggest that Zimmerman sustained some kind of head injury. So Bob Somerby, who does watch a lot of political TV, wants to know what happened on Al Sharpton's show last night:

At [about the 11:45] point, without comment from Sharpton, new videotape of Zimmerman appears. It offers a very large close-up of the back of his head as he arrives at the Sanford police station on the night of the killing.

This close-up isn’t grainy. And wow! In this close-up image, the back of Zimmerman’s head seems to be completely pristine. There isn’t the slightest sign of any blemish or injury.

There isn’t a stub of a hair out of place. There is no sign of any injury....Does that close-up represent an accurate picture of Zimmerman’s head on the night of the killing? We have no idea. But this close-up photo is impossible to reconcile with two earlier close-up shots, including one close-up which was aired by MSNBC on March 29. That close-up seemed to show an obvious goose-egg on the back of Zimmerman’s head, crowned with an obvious abrasion.

Later, ABC produced another close-up of Zimmerman’s head. This close-up was grainer, and more distant, than the image aired by MSNBC. But it seemed to show two abrasions on the back of Zimmerman’s head.

Especially given NBC's multiple problems with its editing of the Zimmerman 911 call, it really needs to be purer than Caesar's wife on this stuff. Did anyone else notice the same thing on Sharpton's show yesterday? How does the picture above compare to those you've seen elsewhere?

The Gates Foundation Is Done Funding ALEC

| Tue Apr. 10, 2012 10:47 AM EDT
Portland Action Lab

It's been a rough week or two for the American Legislative Exchange Council, the corporate-backed group that writes model legislation for state legislators on everything from voter ID to privatizing public schools to curbing workers' rights. Since the GOP's massive gains at the state level in the 2010 elections, liberal activists have sought to expose ALEC by publishing its model bills and listing its legislative and corporate members. The pressure is having an effect. Last week, Kraft, Coca-Cola, and Pepsi all announced they would cut ties with ALEC. On Monday, another big name ALEC funder joined the list of defectors: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The foundation, which boasts an endowment of $33.5 billion, had given ALEC $375,000 in the past two years to provide "information to "ALEC-affiliated state legislators on teacher effectiveness and school finance," a spokesman told Roll Call. But no more. The spokesman, Chris Williams, said the Gates Foundation would finish its existing grant but discontinue future ALEC funding.

Here's more from Roll Call:

Last week, Kraft Foods Inc., Coca-Cola Co., and Intuit Inc. each said they would withdraw support. The announcements came after months of behind-the-scenes pressure from another liberal group, Color of Change, an African-American advocacy group.

Color of Change went public today with demands that AT&T Corp., one of ALEC's 21 corporate board members, also sever ties with the organization. Over the past year, the group has reached out to 15 consumer product companies that back ALEC, highlighting the organization’s connections to voter ID laws passed in at least a half-dozen states.

Civil rights activists say the laws disproportionately target minority, student and elderly voters, who tend to vote Democratic, and could bar up to 5 million voters from the polls this fall. In recent weeks, other liberal groups have joined the effort.

Color of Change Executive Director Rashad Robinson said the group is using Internet appeals to pressure companies that have made explicit efforts to build a strong relationship with African-American customers.

Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said in a statement that "the dominoes are falling and the curtain is closing for ALEC. People power has worked and this is a major step in the right direction." An ALEC spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Inventor of the Chair is History's Greatest Monster

| Tue Apr. 10, 2012 10:36 AM EDT

The New York Times summarizes a new bit of research:

They found that the more hours the men and women sat every day, the greater their chance of dying prematurely. Those people who sat more than eight hours a day — which other studies have found is about the amount that a typical American sits — had a 15 percent greater risk of dying during the study’s three-year follow-up period than people who sat for fewer than four hours a day.

That increased risk held true in the Australian study even if the people sitting eight hours a day spent at least part of that day exercising.

That's a drag. I think you can guess about how many hours a day my job keeps my butt firmly planted in a chair. I am doomed.

Fracking the White House

| Tue Apr. 10, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

The Department of Interior is expected to release new guidelines for fracking on public lands in the near future, which is making many in the industry a little nervous.

Fracking is the short-hand term for hydraulic fracturing, the process by which a blast of water, sand, and chemicals is used to tap into shale rock to extract natural gas. For years, the industry has been exempt from a number of federal laws, but the new Interior rules might impose some new restrictions, at least for fracking on public lands. The rules are expected to include disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking fluids, as well as well integrity and water management plans. Which his why some of the big players in the industry, like Exxon and Anadarko Petroleum, are working the White House on the rules, reports The Hill's E2 Wire:

Anadarko Petroleum Corp. Chairman Jim Hackett and other company officials met April 3 with Cass Sunstein, who heads the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the White House Office of Management and Budget.
Anadarko, according to a presentation provided to OMB, fears that the rules could lead to hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of annual delays for industry projects on public lands, and warns of “onerous” reporting requirements.
The presentation also cites concerns that Interior could deny fracking from occurring at wells that have already been drilled.

Since OIRA reviews and weighs in on proposed regulations, it's often a favorite stopping place for those looking to influence the policy. Here's the full list of who attended the April 3 Anadarko meeting. Several trade groups like the American Petroleum Institute and America’s Natural Gas Alliance had their own meeting with OMB on Feb. 29, and Exxon and its subsidiary XTO Energy had a separate meeting on March 22.

Paul Ryan has Served up Dessert, Now Let's See What the Rest of Dinner Looks Like

| Mon Apr. 9, 2012 8:23 PM EDT

One of the big criticisms of Paul Ryan's budget plan is that he's eager to specify how much he'd lower tax rates, but not so eager to explain which loopholes and deductions he'd close in order to keep everything revenue neutral. He just casually fobs that off on the Ways and Means Committee. Philip Klein wishes that his fellow conservative were more forthcoming:

I think it's a fair criticism of Rep. Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney that the tax reform in their budget plans does not specify the loopholes that they plan to close to offset their planned rate reductions. I've taken issue with this and have urged Republicans to be more open about what type of favored deductions they'd get rid of, which have become cows as sacred as entitlements. This is something that Jon Huntsman deserves credit for doing in his presidential campaign — he vowed to eliminate every deduction, even popular ones on employer-based health insurance, mortgage interest and charitable giving.

Here's why this is so important. Ryan's proposed tax cuts are above and beyond the Bush tax cuts, which he wants to make permanent. According to the Tax Policy Center, this means that Ryan's plan would cost an additional $400 billion in revenue in 2015. So to stay revenue neutral, he needs to eliminate deductions and tax credits worth about $400 billion. The technical name for all these deductions and credits is "tax expenditures," and the table below, compiled from a recent report of the Joint Committee on Taxation, shows their estimates for the total value of tax expenditures in 2015:

Do you see how hard this is? The big ticket items are things like taxing healthcare and pension benefits; the mortgage interest deduction; the Earned Income Tax Credit; the charitable contribution deduction; various state tax deductions; and exclusions for Medicare and Social Security benefits. Needless to say, those are going to be eliminated over a whole bunch of dead bodies. Other big ticket items include tax breaks on dividends, capital gains, inheritances, and offshore income, and all of those would be eliminated only over Paul Ryan's dead body. There's not a single thing in this entire table that wouldn't be a stupendous political lift, and the prospect of eliminating not just one of them, but $400 billion worth of them, is very slim indeed.

That's why it's important for Ryan to put his money where his mouth is. You can't plausibly claim that your tax cuts will be revenue neutral if that claim depends on a whole bunch of tax increases that are all but impossible politically. At the very least, you need to set out a marker so that everyone can judge just how palatable your preferred menu of increases is, and whether any of Ryan's fellow Republicans are willing to face up to the political backlash of supporting it.

We already know they love the rate cut part of Ryan's plan. Now it's time to see if they're willing to stand up and be counted on the tax increase part that goes along with it.

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Why Some States Do Better Than Others

| Mon Apr. 9, 2012 6:17 PM EDT

Alex Tabarrok posts a chart today showing that heavily urbanized states tend to be richer than less urbanized states. The correlation is impressive, but Ryan Avent asks us to focus on just the right hand part of the chart, which shows only the most urbanized states:

Ryan suggests that we look at the states above the line (wealthier than expected) and those below the line (poorer than expected):

In the rich, productive bunch, we have California, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Washington, and, just hanging below the line, Massachusetts. Sitting well below the line we have places like Arizona, Florida, Nevada, and Texas. It's striking how dispersed wealth is at the high urbanisation end relative to the low urbanisation end; the gap between similarly urbanised states like Connecticut and Florida is enormous.

What accounts for this? Ryan has a couple of ideas, but as it turns out, the Credit Suisse report that this chart is taken from addresses this very question in the context of different countries. Why do some highly urbanized countries lie so far below the trend line?

A clue lies with the most disproportionate distribution of income for any particular geographical groups of countries in our sample....Government policy to improve income distribution and social mobility appears to be as essentential an ingredient to ensure successful patterns of urbanization, and its associated improvements in living standards, as sufficient infrastructure investment and city planning.

Maybe something similar is true of U.S. states. States that promote social mobility, discourage excessive income inequality, and are willing to invest in broad-based infrastructure, do well. Those that don't, don't.

Even Small Temperature Swings Bad If You're Old, Not White, or Poor

| Mon Apr. 9, 2012 5:37 PM EDT

Even small changes in summer temperatures—as little as 1.8°F (1°C) higher than usual—can be deadly to people over age 65 with chronic health problems like diabetes, heart failure, and chronic lung disease, as well as to those who've survived prior heart attacks.

Other studies have focused on the short-term lethal effects of heat waves. But new research from the Harvard School of Public Health suggests that small changes in temperature patterns over the long run shorten life expectancy and could result in thousands of additional deaths per year. 

Scientists now predict that climate change will not only increase overall world temperatures but will also increase summer temperature variability—particularly in mid-latitude regions like the mid-Atlantic US and in parts of France, Spain, and Italy. More volatile temperature swings could pose a major public health problem, the authors note in their paper in PNAS.

Mortality risk increased 4 percent for those with diabetes, 3.8 percent for those who'd had a previous heart attack.
  • The researchers used Medicare data from 1985 to 2006 to follow the long-term health of 3.7 million chronically ill people over age 65 living in 135 U.S. cities.
  • Years when summer temperature swings were larger had higher death rates than years with smaller swings.
  • Each 1.8°F increase in summer temperature variability increased the death rate for elderly with chronic conditions between 2.8-4 percent, depending on the condition.
  • Mortality risk was 1-2 percent higher among those living in poverty and for African Americans.
  • Mortality risk was 1-2 percent lower for people living in cities with more green space.

Based on these increases in mortality risk, the researchers estimate that greater summer temperature variability in the US could result in more than 10,000 added deaths per year.

I wrote earlier about the many ways climate change is disproportionately more deadly to women than men.

Trade Agreements Produce Winners and Losers, and the Losers Aren't Very Happy About It

| Mon Apr. 9, 2012 1:26 PM EDT

Adam Ozimek lists a few things today that economists agree about almost unanimously, and I don't have a problem with most of them. But I do find this one a bit blinkered:

The benefits of free trade and NAFTA far outweigh the costs

Economists have emphasized the benefits of free trade for a long time, reflecting the field's belief in the importance of specialization, comparative advantage, and gains from trade. Indeed, these results are similar to other surveys that show economists strongly supporting free trade.

So why do pundits and voters lag economists in supporting free trade? In his excellent book The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan provides evidence that people suffer from a handful of systematic biases that influence their beliefs, and three of these can help explain why voters are skeptical of trade: anti-market bias, anti-foreign bias, and pessimism bias.

....As is reflected in the comments by some of the panelists trade will create winners and losers, which may also explain some opposition to trade. But economists on the left and the right still struggle the understand the level of opposition to trade....

OK, hold it right there. How much more do you need to know? Free trade may be good on an aggregate basis, but it does indeed create winners and losers. And I think economists pretty universally agree that workers without college degrees are always net losers from expanded trade. Given that two-thirds of Americans don't have college degrees, and that promises to help workers displaced by trade agreements are generally worthless, why is it any surprise that most Americans aren't very keen on trade agreements?

Helping the Poor is Now Apparently Anti-Bible

| Mon Apr. 9, 2012 12:42 PM EDT
Rick Warren at a TED talk in 2006.

I see that fellow Orange Countian Rick Warren — he of Saddleback megachurch and Purpose Driven Life fame — is in the news again. He was on ABC's This Week yesterday, and Jake Tapper asked him what he thought about President Obama's suggestion that God tells us to care for those less fortunate than ourselves:

Well certainly the Bible says we are to care about the poor....But there's a fundamental question on the meaning of "fairness." Does fairness mean everybody makes the same amount of money? Or does fairness mean everybody gets the opportunity to make the same amount of money? I do not believe in wealth redistribution, I believe in wealth creation.

The only way to get people out of poverty is J-O-B-S. Create jobs. To create wealth, not to subsidize wealth. When you subsidize people, you create the dependency. You — you rob them of dignity.

You know, there's nothing really wrong with a Republican politician saying this. Or a Democratic politician, for that matter. My first preference for helping the poor is indeed to make sure they have decent jobs. Unfortunately, I haven't yet met anyone who has a brilliant plan for making the economy boom on such a sustained basis that jobs are always available for everyone.

But I'm a blogger, not a minister. And while I might not be an expert on the Bible, I've read enough to know that Jesus sure didn't seem to think that helping the poor robbed them of dignity. Can someone help me out here? What part of the gospels do you think Warren is referring to?