2012 - %3, July

Mitt Romney Praises Socialized Health Care, As Long As It's Not American

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 11:31 AM EDT

Over the weekend, as I was watching Mitt Romney extol the virtues of Israel's entrepreneurial spirit, I tweeted sarcastically, "Wikipedia tells me that top marginal Israeli tax rate is 48% on income over $125,000. I wonder if Romney knows that?" Apparently not. Here's Romney at a fundraiser in Jerusalem on Monday:

Do you realize what health care spending is as a percentage of the G.D.P. in Israel? Eight percent. You spend eight percent of G.D.P. on health care. You’re a pretty healthy nation. We spend 18 percent of our G.D.P. on health care, 10 percentage points more…We have to find ways—not just to provide health care to more people, but to find ways to fund and manage our health care costs.

It kind of makes you wonder if Romney actually knows anything about Israel aside from the fact that they fight Arabs and Persians now and again. I mean, he does know that Israel has historically been a socialist state, right? And they have universal health care. ThinkProgress tweaks Romney by suggesting that he was praising a system that includes an individual mandate, but really, they're giving him too much credit. Yeah, there's a mandate, but it's a mandate to choose which of four free systems you want to sign up with. What Israel has isn't really a mandate in the same way Obamacare has a mandate, it's the full-blown lefty dream of free, universal healthcare funded through the tax system. Properly speaking, Romney ought to be appalled with their health care system.

And wouldn't that have been great? After visiting London and questioning whether they'd manage to pull off their Olympics, maybe he should have gone to Israel and chastised them for their socialist health care system. I'm not sure what that would leave for Poland, but I'm sure something will present itself. Maybe he could attend a concert and then muse afterward about how he's always thought Chopin was overrated.

POSTSCRIPT: By the way, speaking of Israel and health care, I heard an interesting story a few weeks ago. It turns out that among end-of-life patients in hospitals, CPR is essentially useless. In America, we don't care. When a patient goes into cardiac arrest, we call a code and rush to their bedside anyway. In Israel, they don't. They deliberately respond slowly, essentially letting the patient die if he or she is near death anyway. In other words, in Israel they really do have death panels.

I wonder if Romney knows that? Probably not. Also: I'd love to hear either confirmation or otherwise about this policy. Is this really common practice in Israeli hospitals? Or did I hear some kind of garbled old wives' tale?

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Berkeley Earth Project Says Carbon Dioxide is Cause of Global Warming

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 10:55 AM EDT

I promised to link to Richard Muller's latest climate change paper from the Berkeley BEST group when it was posted on Monday, and it's now Monday. So here it is. Previous BEST papers have confirmed dramatic global warming over the past century, and the new paper is mostly an attempt to figure out what caused the warming. The answer, unsurprisngly to most of us, is human activity:

Many of the changes in land-surface temperature follow a simple linear combination of volcanic forcing (based on estimates of stratospheric sulfate injection) and an anthropogenic term represented here by the logarithm of the CO2  concentration....When we included solar forcing we found that the solar variability record assumed by the IPCC did not contribute significantly to the fit of historic temperature.

....After accounting for volcanic and anthropogenic effects, the residual variability in land-surface temperature is observed to closely mirror and for slower changes slightly lead variations in the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation Index. This is consistent with both the land and North Atlantic responding [to] the same unknown process....Though non-trivial, this number is small compared to the anthropogenic changes that appear to have occurred during the last century.

In English, this means that (a) volcanoes cause short-term spikes in the climate record, (b) changes in solar activity have virtually no effect, and (c) periodic oscillation in North Atlantic sea temperatures accounts for some of the variability we see in the temperature record. However, the primary cause of warming since 1800 is anthropogenic. That is to say: humans did it. Carbon dioxide has produced virtually all of the warming that we see around us today, at the rate of about 3.1 degrees C for every doubling of atmospheric CO2. The chart below shows the close match between CO2 levels, volcanic activity, and surface temperature.

This is pretty much the same result produced by the IPCC and the consensus of every climate scientist working today. The skeptics dived into the data, crunched it in an entirely different way, and came up with the same result: Global warming is real and human activity causes it.

Why Hasn't Romney Moved More to the Center?

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 10:16 AM EDT

It's an old story. Republican presidential candidates move rightward to win the GOP primary (and Democrats move left). After securing the nomination, both Republicans and Democrats move back towards the center to appeal to the broader electorate. "Everything changes" in the general election, Eric Fehrnstrom, a top Romney adviser, said in March. "It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again." Yet so far, Romney's actual policy ideas haven't changed much at all. Sure, he's softened his tone on immigration. But he hasn't edged away from his previous proposals.

Perhaps the reason it seems that Romney hasn't moved more to the center is that he hasn't been particularly specific about what he would do as president. It's hard to be seen as changing your position if no one knows what your position is. But on some issues, at least, there seems to be some potential for Romney to pick up votes by moving towards the center. A recent survey by Public Policy Polling found that picking Condoleeza Rice, who has a reputation as a moderate on domestic policy and has described herself as "mildly pro-choice," as his running mate would be a "huge game changer," creating a tie in Pennsylvania and dramatically narrowing President Barack Obama's lead in Michigan. But Romney has run away from his moderate, pro-abortion rights, pro-health care reform record as governor of Massachusetts, and there is not yet a single significant domestic policy position that Romney has staked out in the general election that is significantly more centrist than the proposals he advocated in the Republican primary. How can that be?

There's no doubt that Romney has a reputation as someone who radically shifts his positions based on the political climate. His campaign may be wagering that tacking center will only reinforce that image. They also probably want to illustrate as large of a contrast with Obama as they can. But money might have something to do with it, too. Never before has a presidential candidate been so indebted to just a few major donors. Just seven families gave the pro-Romney super-PAC Restore Our Future $15 million of the $21 million it raised in June. Gambling billionaire Sheldon Adelson has already given eight figures to pro-Romney groups. Conservative millionaires and billionaires certainly want Romney to win, but they also want to keep him on the straight and narrow. Presidential nominees have always had to answer to party machers and big money donors. But campaign donations on this huge, post-Citizens United scale carries even larger obligations.

Has Aid to Afghanistan Been Wasted?

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 9:57 AM EDT

Rajiv Chandrasekaran reports on the latest from Afghanistan:

A U.S. initiative to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on construction projects in Afghanistan, originally pitched as a vital tool in the military campaign against the Taliban, is running so far behind schedule that it will not yield benefits until most U.S. combat forces have departed the country, according to a government inspection report to be released Monday.

The report, by the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, also concludes that the Afghan government will not have the money or skill to maintain many of the projects, creating an “expectations gap” among the population that could harm overall stabilization efforts.

....The latest report adds new weight to the argument — voiced by independent development specialists and even a few government officials — that the United States attempted to build too much in a country with limited means to assume responsibility for those projects.

I'm genuinely puzzled here. I thought this was a lesson we had learned by the 70s. Giant infrastructure projects that can't be maintained by the local workforce are not only useless, they're counterproductive. Aid needs to be provided on a scale that's sustainable locally. How is it that we seem to have forgotten this?

Notorious Astroturf Firm Nabbed Sending Forged Letters Has a New Name

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 9:51 AM EDT

Remember Bonner & Associates, the "grassroots" consulting firm that got busted in 2009 for sending forged letters to members of Congress claiming to be from local minority and senior citizen groups? Apparently they're back, with a new corporate identity.

The notorious astroturf shop has either rebranded or launched an offshoot: Advocacy to Win (A2W). Its website doesn't mention the Bonner connection, but the domain for A2W is registered to Jack Bonner, the president and namesake of Bonner & Associates. No one answered the phones at the numbers provided for Bonner or A2W on Friday, nor did anyone respond to emails sent to addresses at both organizations. A tipster, who used to work for Bonner, alerted us to A2W in an email: "The infamous Bonner & Associates has quietly changed their name—must be trying to hide from Google searches on your articles!"

The outfit, launched in 1984 by Jack Bonner, a former GOP senate aide, has good reason to want to wipe the slate clean. The group drew congressional scrutiny after it got caught sending forged faxes to the office of former Rep. Tom Perriello, a Democrat representing central Virginia, while the House was debating a climate change bill. The letters claimed to be from the Charlottesville branch of the NAACP and the Latino group Creciendo Juntos, but were signed with fake names. Later, two other members of Congress discovered that they, too, had received forged letters. At least 13 letters urging the lawmakers to vote against the climate bill were determined to be forgeries, claiming to come from groups like the American Association of University Women and the Erie Center on Health & Aging. It was soon revealed that the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), a coal industry front group, had contracted with a strategic communications firm known as the Hawthorn Group, which had in turn hired Bonner to generate "grassroots" opposition to the climate bill.

When the forgeries came to light, Bonner blamed a rogue temporary employee. But as documents released in the course of the ensuing congressional investigation and interviews with former staffers demonstrated, the firm's standard procedures relied on misleading people about the corporate interests behind Bonner's campaigns and hiring a fleet of temp workers who were paid according to the number of letters they generated. Back in 1997—well before the forged letter controversy—a Mother Jones investigation deemed Bonner & Associates "a leader in the growing field of fake grassroots." Perhaps A2W will one day earn such Astroturf acclaim.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 30, 2012

Mon Jul. 30, 2012 9:30 AM EDT

Canadian Army Warrant Officer Robby Fraser, a platoon warrant officer with Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, directs machine gun fire at a support by fire position during a platoon-size live-fire assault as part of Rim of the Pacific 2012. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Robert Bush.

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Scalia Take 2: The American Public is Pretty Smart After All -- Unless We're Talking About Supreme Court Hearings

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 8:39 AM EDT

A few days ago I scolded Antonin Scalia for his belief that Supreme Court hearings shouldn't be televised because the media would just play short snippets of the proceedings and Americans couldn't be trusted to figure out what was really going on. Here's Scalia:

If I really thought it would educate the American people, I would be all for it. If the American people sat down and watched our proceedings gavel to gavel [...] they would be educated. But they wouldn't see all of that. [C-SPAN] would carry it all, to be sure, but what most of the American people would see would be 30-second, 15-second takeouts from our argument, and those takeouts would not be characteristic of what we do. They would be uncharacteristic.

At the end of the post I wondered aloud whether Scalia was equally pessimistic about the public's ability to discern the truth in any other context. As it turns out, I didn't have to wonder for long. Reader JB sent me a clip from a different part of the same interview that answers this exact question. In this clip, Brian Lamb asks Scalia about campaign finance:

As a person, do you worry at all that there's too much money in politics?

No, I really don't....

But what about — people are worried that corporations now can buy....

If you believe that, we ought to go back to monarchy. That the people are such sheep, that they just swallow whatever they see on television or read in the newspapers? No. The premise of democracy is that people are intelligent and can discern the true from the false.

Italics mine. So that's that. When it comes to judging the policies of the legislative and executive branches, the public should be assumed intelligent enough to see through all the clamor and commotion and figure out what's going on. No paternalism here! But when it comes to the judicial branch, we should assume no such thing. Instead, we should carefully decide exactly what kind of access to give the public, lest the media and special interests appeal unfairly to their collective passions and leave the wrong impression of what the court is doing.

Personally, I'd say the case for a modest amount of paternalism is quite a bit stronger in the campaign finance arena than it is in the Supreme Court hearing arena, which is naturally insulated already from political and special interest influence. But apparently Scalia doesn't see it that way.

POSTSCRIPT: As long as I'm on the subject, I was surprised at how much pushback I got against the idea of televising Supreme Court hearings in the original Scalia thread. I know that we're in the middle of a presidential campaign, and in particular we're in the middle of a campaign in which Mitt Romney is rather spectacularly using 15-second TV clips to misrepresent his opponent. So it's natural to be disturbed about the misuse of televised snippets at the moment.

But as I said in comments, limiting exposure to public proceedings just because you don't like what the media will do with it is a very, very bad precedent. Transparency and access should be core liberal values even if we don't always like the results. It's one thing to restrict access because you think judges and lawyers will play to the cameras if they're on TV. That has some merit, even if, in the end, I don't find it compelling. But limiting access because you don't trust the media or the public with the information? Count me out.

Expert: Conservatives' Favorite Study on Same-Sex Parents Is "Bullshit"

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 7:55 AM EDT

Marriage equality opponents were overjoyed by a study released in June that purported to show that the children of same-sex parents end up worse off than those of straight parents.

Anti-gay rights conservatives claimed the study, which was funded by anti-gay rights groups and conducted by Mark Regnerus, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas-Austin, offered scientific backing for their argument that the government has a valid non-religious reason to prevent gays and lesbians from getting married. But Darren E. Sherkat, the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale sociology professor who audited the study on behalf of the academic journal Social Science Research, has bad news for marriage equality foes: The UT study is "bullshit." From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The peer-review process failed to identify significant, disqualifying problems with a controversial and widely publicized study that seemed to raise doubts about the parenting abilities of gay couples, according to an internal audit scheduled to appear in the November issue of the journal, Social Science Research, that published the study.

The highly critical audit, a draft of which was provided to The Chronicle by the journal’s editor, also cites conflicts of interest among the reviewers, and states that "scholars who should have known better failed to recuse themselves from the review process."

Among the significant problems cited in the Chronicle: "[O]nly two respondents lived with a lesbian couple for their entire childhoods, and most did not live with lesbian or gay parents for long periods, if at all." This flimsy methodology was the basis on which Regnerus concluded, defying decades of social science to the contrary, that being gay or lesbian makes you a worse parent. 

The UT study was never going to be a silver bullet anyway, since it would not be constitutional to say, ban marriage among poor people just because a study showed that they turned out less successful than the children of rich parents. But opponents of marriage equality who were hoping this study might provide a stong, non-religious argument against same-sex marriage ought to realize it doesn't.

Do Sports Drinks Really Work?

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Just in time for the Summer Olympics in London, a top science journal has issued a blistering indictment of the sports drink industry. According to the series of reports from BMJ (formerly British Medical Journal), the makers of drinks like Gatorade and Powerade have spent millions in research and marketing in recent decades to persuade sports and medical professionals, not to mention the rest of us suckers, that a primal instinct—the sensation of thirst—is an unreliable guide for deciding when to drink. We've also been battered with the notion that boring old water is just not good enough for preventing dehydration.

I've been as susceptible to this scam as anyone else; I knew, or thought I knew, that if I'm thirsty after my half-hour go-round on the elliptical trainer, it means I was underhydrated to begin with. So for years I've been trying to remember to ignore my lack of thirst and make myself drink before working out. Not any more.

The BMJ's package of seven papers on sports performance products packs a collective wallop. The centerpiece is a well-reported investigation of the long-standing financial ties between the makers of Gatorade (PepsiCo), Powerade (Coca-Cola, an official Olympic sponsor), and Lucozaid (GlaxoSmithKline) with sports associations, medical groups, and academic researchers. It should come as no great surprise that the findings and recommendations that have emerged through these affiliations have tended to include alarming warnings about dehydration and electrolyte imbalance—warnings that conveniently promote the financial interests of the corporate sponsors. 

And who knew there was something called the Gatorade Sports Science Institute? According to the BMJ investigation, "one of GSSI's greatest successes was to undermine the idea that the body has a perfectly good homeostatic mechanism for detecting and responding to dehydration—thirst." The article quotes the institute's director as having declared, based on little reliable evidence, that "the human thirst mechanism is an inaccurate short-term indicator of fluid needs."

Another study in the BMJ package finds that the European Food Safety Authority, which is authorized to assess health claims in food labels and ads, has relied on a seriously flawed review process in approving statements related to sports drinks. A third study reports that hundreds of performance claims made on websites about sports products, including nutritional supplements and training equipment as well as drinks, are largely based on questionable data, and sometimes no apparent data at all. One overall theme emerging from the various papers is that much of the research cited was conducted with elite and endurance athletes, who have specific nutritional and training needs; any such findings, however, should not be presumed to hold for the vast majority of those who engage in physical activity.

Critics have long blasted sports drinks as being loaded with calories and unnecessary ingredients. (Not to mention concerns about the environmental costs of producing, shipping, and discarding all those millions of plastic bottles.) Yet the product category represents a lucrative and growing market, with US sales of about $1.6 billion a year, according to the BMJ. In fact, Powerade is the official sports drink of the London Olympics, and Coca-Cola is hyping the brand with a campaign featuring top-tier athletes.

The BMJ papers address two related but distinct questions: Should people who exercise seek to proactively replace fluids lost, or can they rely on thirst to guide them during and after physical activity? And when they rehydrate, do they need all the salts, sugars, and other ingredients dumped into sports drinks, or is water fine? The correct answers are: best to rely on thirst, and water is fine. All that stuff about replacing electrolytes and so on you've been hearing all these years? Never mind! The evidence doesn't support it.

Overhydration presents a far greater risk of serious complications, and even death, than dehydration.

In a commentary accompanying the investigations in the journal, Timothy Noakes, chair of sports science at the University of Cape Town, points out that overhydration presents a far greater risk of serious complications, and even death, than dehydration. Moreover, he notes, the notion that fluid and electrolytes must be immediately replaced is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of our past as "long distance persistence hunters" in arid regions of Africa.

"Humans do not regulate fluid balance on a moment to moment basis," Noakes writes. "Because of our evolutionary history, we are delayed drinkers and correct the fluid deficits generated by exercise at, for example, the next meal, when the electrolyte (principally sodium but also potassium) deficits are also corrected…People optimize their hydration status by drinking according to the dictates of thirst. Over the past 40 years humans have been misled—mainly by the marketing departments of companies selling sports drinks—to believe that they need to drink to stay 'ahead of thirst' to be optimally hydrated."

Should You Buy Beef to Help US Ranchers Survive the Drought?

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Meet the Vintons, a ranching family in the Sandhills region of northeast Nebraska. Last week I spoke to Sherry, the smart, friendly matriarch of the family (in red). She began ranching 30 years ago, shortly after marrying her husband Chris (in brown), whose family has worked this land for five generations. Today, Sherry and Chris run the operation with help from their two grown children and their spouses. Their youngest daughter (front and center) is in college. Photo appears courtesy of the Vinton familyPhoto appears courtesy of the Vinton family

So far this year, the Vintons' ranch has received less than two inches of rain. In a typical year, it would have gotten eight or nine by now. When I asked Sherry to describe the difference between a typical year and this drought year, she sent me a set of photos taken by one of her daughters. Here's a view of her pasture from August 2007:

Photo by Jessica Vinton TaylorPhoto by Jessica Vinton TaylorAnd this photo of the same pasture was taken this summer:
Photo by Jessica Vinton TaylorPhoto by Jessica Vinton Taylor

The Vintons' ranch is a cow-calf operation, which means that they keep a herd of mother cows who give birth to beef calves. All told, the Vintons have about 1,500 head of cattle, though the number varies. In a good year, most of the mother cows will give birth to calves in the spring. The Vintons will keep the young calves around till the following September, by which time they'll have gained enough weight to fetch a good price; a good slaughter weight is about 1,200 pounds. 

But in order to gain that weight, the young calves need to eat a lot, either on pasture or in feed composed of hay, corn, and other grain. In a drought year, pasture is scarce, and grain is expensive. In drought years, keeping the calves around until they reach market weight isn't cost effective, since it costs so much to feed them. It's also important to keep enough grass for the mother cows so that they'll continue to be healthy and productive in the long term.

So all winter and spring, it's a guessing game: Will the drought end in time for the rancher to be able to afford to keep the mother cows healthy and the babies growing? Or will they have to sell some so that the remaining animals have enough to eat? And if they do keep them around, will they be able to afford feed once the pasture is gone?

This year for the Vintons, unfortunately the answer was pretty clear. "This drought is so widespread that it is going to be difficult to find feed," Sherry told me. "And feed is very expensive." Already the Vintons have sold three truckloads of cattle to ranchers in Texas who haven't been hit as hard by the drought. Some of the animals they sold were pregnant cows—a tough decision, says Sherry, since they lose money both on the cow and the calf it would have given birth to. As for the yearling calves, by selling them now instead of in September, they'll lose about $350 per animal. Sherry estimates that before the drought is over, they'll have to reduce their herd size by 43 percent. "And it could be worse than that," she says. "We have a pretty good sense that this is going to extend through October. There is no relief in sight."

There's a lot of guesswork that goes into making these decisions. But weather forecasts and news about the droughts in other regions help a lot. In earlier years, Vinton told me, she and her husband relied on predictions in monthly farming publications. Now they use this web-based map from the US government that allows them to see conditions all across the United States (an interactive version is here):

The U.S. Drought Monitor is a partnership between the National Drought Mitigation Center, United States Department of Agriculture, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Map courtesy of NDMC-UNL.The US Drought Monitor is a partnership between the National Drought Mitigation Center, United States Department of Agriculture, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Map courtesy of NDMC-UNL.

Sherry has been through other tough years: '88, '95, and '02 were all very dry. But nothing as long-lasting or widespread as this. "This drought has become very severe very fast," she says. "That's one of the things that’s different about it."

David Anderson, a livestock economist with Texas A&M University's ag extension, agrees: This year is drier and hotter than anything he can remember. "As this drought gets worse, where can those cows go?" says Anderson. "There is no place for them to go but to slaughter." Anderson notes that slaughtering decisions can have long-term consequences. Conception rates among mother cows are typically lower in the year following a drought. What's more, ranchers spend a lot of time and resources perfecting the genetics of their herd—ensuring that the mother cows are bred to be productive and the steers to yield high quantities of valuable meat. If ranchers have to send a large portion of their herd to slaughter, they lose valuable breeding resources. 

Of course, all this affects the price of beef. Last week, the Climate Desk's James West reported that many foods—milk, eggs, chicken, and bread—will become more expensive in the coming months because of the drought. Interestingly, says Anderson, beef prices will actually take a nosedive in the short term—say, through September. Since so many ranchers are being forced to sell their cows right now, the market will be flooded with beef. But after that, there will be a scarcity, so the prices will rise again.

So should you buy beef to support the ranchers through the drought? It's a really tough question. From a purely environmental standpoint, the answer is probably no. In terms of energy use, emissions, and waste production, beef—especially the conventionally raised kind—has a bigger footprint than almost any other meat. Hardline environmentalists recommend against eating any beef at all.

But I think it's more complicated than that. As I wrote in this column a few years back, grazing animals, if managed correctly, can actually enhance the land. Unfortunately, the way the beef industry is structured now, most ranchers can't afford to keep their animals on pasture for their entire lives. It's simply too expensive. That said, ranchers like the Vintons put an enormous amount of time and effort into caring for the land—they have to, in order to ensure that their ranch is profitable in years to come. Without grass, there would be no cows.

The truth is that if droughts like this continue in the years to come, it's going to be harder and harder for families like the Vintons to care for the land. Since pasture will become even more scarce, they'll have to feed grain—which is much worse for the environment than grass. The evidence that recent droughts and heat waves are linked to climate change is piling up. As my colleague Kate Sheppard wrote recently, one study placed the odds of this year's extreme heat happening without climate change at 1 in 1.6 million.

So to help ensure that droughts like this don't become the new norm, the best thing you can probably do for America's ranchers is to help curb climate change. Aside from that, you can buy American beef rather than the cheap imports from South America, which tend to drive prices down.

In the meantime, Sherry and her family will be closely monitoring the drought map and hoping that this year's dry weather finally gives way to rain, she says. "I'd be lying if I didn't say this made me nervous about providing for our family."