2012 - %3, July

We Make More Money Than Our Parents, But We Aren't as Rich

| Mon Jul. 9, 2012 11:11 PM EDT

Here's an interesting pair of charts from the latest release of the Pew Economic Mobility Project. It compares income and wealth between generations at roughly age 45 (though there's a bit of statistical massaging involved to make the ages similar), and the results are shown below. Income — which includes cash transfers like Social Security and welfare payments, but not non-cash payments like food stamps — has risen for every income level. Wealth, however, hasn't. Despite making more money than their parents, the bottom three income quintiles have all amassed less wealth. Only the top two income quintiles have done better. The data goes through 2009, so there's probably a little bit of an artifact from the housing bust, but not a huge one. All figures are adjusted for inflation.

I'm not quite sure what conclusions to draw from this. For now, just consider it an interesting piece of raw data.

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Fear and Loathing at the Supreme Court

| Mon Jul. 9, 2012 4:53 PM EDT

Conservatives are mad at Chief Justice John Roberts for voting to uphold Obamacare. But two liberal justices, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, joined Roberts in ruling that Congress went too far when it threatened to remove all Medicaid funding from any state that didn't accept Obamacare's new Medicaid expansion. Congress can nudge the states, said Roberts, but it can't command them, and the threat of losing all Medicaid funding amounted to "gun to the head."

So should liberals be just as mad at Breyer and Kagan as conservatives are at Roberts? Scott Lemieux says no: Roberts was the swing vote that meant the difference between keeping or killing the entire Affordable Care Act, while Kagan and Breyer were just two bonus votes on a small subset of the law. There was already a 5-4 majority for Roberts's view, so Kagan and Breyer didn't affect the outcome.

But there might be more to this. Lemieux spells it out:

There was a unique strategic element to this case that gave a powerful reason for Kagan and Breyer to join Roberts. Roberts's belated decision to uphold most of the ACA, first of all, probably compelled Kagan and Breyer to show some cross-ideological comity to encourage him to stay in the fold. Admittedly, we cannot know for certain what effect the strategic votes of Kagan and Breyer had on Roberts. (I hope that the Supreme Court leakers will find some time to tell us whether Breyer and Kagan changed their votes after conference.) Given that it's unlikely that there was explicit horse-trading involved, it may always be unknowable. But this is where the first point becomes crucial. Liberals had nothing to lose by joining Roberts on this one issue, so they had no reason not to try to cement his belated switch.

This is all completely speculative, of course, but my gut feeling agrees with Lemieux. Whether the horsetrading was explicit or not, something about this whole case smells of logrolling: Maybe Roberts really did feel that it was unwise to overturn ACA based on a new and fairly tenuous doctrine, but I can't help but wonder if he also tried to convince some of the other conservative justices that there was a deal to be made with the liberals: namely keeping Obamacare alive in return for a strong ruling (7-2, maybe even 8-1) that placed some real constraints on Congress's Commerce Clause powers. In the end, he didn't get that. None of the conservatives signed on to a larger deal, and all Roberts got was a 7-2 ruling on the Medicaid issue.

Needless to say, I have no idea if this is what happened, and I'll admit that the sense of genuine anger coming from the conservative leakers doesn't really fit this theory. Their anger is more consistent with the notion that Roberts's switch came out of the blue and was motivated by cowardice or politics or fear. 

On the other hand, the fact that the leakers are so obviously angry means that we're getting a pretty one-sided story from them (i.e., Roberts betrayed us even though we tried hard to make him see reason, and that's all there is to it). Isn't there somebody somewhere who has any contacts with the liberal side of the court and can get their side of the story? If we're going to hear anything at all, it would be nice to hear from more than just the embittered Kennedy/Scalia wing.

Dems: Dark Money Groups Use "Secret Money to Subvert the Democratic Process"

| Mon Jul. 9, 2012 3:30 PM EDT

Democrats are continuing their offensive against conservative dark-money groups, arguing that they are not "social welfare" nonprofits as they claim but rather political committees flaunting donor disclosure rules. In a new complaint to the Federal Election Commission first reported by the New York Times, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee executive director Guy Cecil calls out Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, the senior citizen-focused 60 Plus Association, and the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity. The three groups, Cecil writes, "are in the vanguard of using secret money to subvert the democratic process."

The complaint singles out a factually challenged ad from 60 Plus targeting Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a similarly fuzzy Crossroads ad targeting Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), and an Americans for Prosperity ad attacking Senate candidate Tim Kaine (D-Va.). Cecil writes (PDF):

Each group shields its donors from disclosure by disavowing political committee status under FECA, and claiming exemption from tax under 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code. None has a legitimate claim...Outrageously, 60 Plus and AFP each told the Internal Revenue Service on its 2010 Form 990 that it engaged in no direct or indirect activities on behalf of or in opposition to candidates at all during the bulk of the 2010 cycle. These claims are risible on their face, given what is known publicly about these groups' activities.

Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio told the Times that complaints that fail to mention similar groups supporting Democrats doing "exactly as their center-right counterparts are publicity stunts to promote partisan causes and are not taken seriously by serious people." Likewise, 60 Plus chairman James Martin said the complaint is "naked politics, pure and simple. They need to stop their whining and stop trying to achieve with lawyers what they can’t in the arena of public opinion." Last week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell penned an op-ed for USA Today arguing that requiring 501(c)(4)s to reveal their donors could inspire a Nixonian enemies list used to harass big political donors.

While a federal appeals court ruled last month that the government must start determining the "major purpose" of 501(c)(4) groups like Crossroads GPS, the decision will likely be subject to more legal wrangling. And as the Times reminds us, the FEC "is usually slow to respond to such complaints, and any action is unlikely to affect the 2012 election."

4 Summer Heat Charts That Will Blow Your Mind

| Mon Jul. 9, 2012 2:53 PM EDT

 

Credit: diametrik via FlickrCredit: diametrik via Flickr

NOAA's latest National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) State of the Climate report is out, and it's pretty impressive in the trends and records department.

More on the report below. But, first, I can't help but think of it in light of an interesting new paper in Nature Climate Change today. Researchers studying tree-ring data from living trees and dead trunks preserved in lakes in Finnish Lapland found a much longer-term cooling trend over the past 2,000 years than previously understood. This trend involves a cooling of -0.3°C per millennium due to a gradual increase in the distance between Earth and the sun.

"This figure we calculated may not seem particularly significant," says lead author Jan Esper, "however, it is also not negligible when compared to global warming, which up to now has been less than 1°C. Our results suggest that the large-scale climate reconstruction shown by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change likely underestimate this long-term cooling trend over the past few millennia."

Which implies that human-induced global warming might actually be higher than we've been calculating. Perhaps this is contributing to a disturbing trend researchers are beginning to notice—that extreme weather events are proving more extreme than we've predicted.


Contiguous US temperature average for January to June 2012: NOAA | National Climate Data CenterContiguous US temperature average for January to June 2012 NOAA | National Climatic Data Center

Back to the NCDC report. The past six months, January to June 2012, just ranked as the warmest first half of any year on record for the contiguous United States.

As you can see in the graph above, the past six months of extremes contributed to a warming trend of 1.7°F per century.

Highlights from the January-June 2012 period:

  • The national temperature of 52.9°F was 4.5°F above the 20th-century average.
  • Most of the contiguous United States was record and near-record warm for the six-month period, except the Pacific Northwest.
  • 28 states east of the Rockies were record warm.
  • 15 additional states were top-10 warm.
  • The first six months of 2012 were also drier than average with a nationally averaged precipitation total 1.62 inches below average.

According to the report, the extremes in the first half of 2012 were the most extreme of the extremes:

The U.S. Climate Extremes Index (USCEI), an index that tracks the highest and lowest 10 percent of extremes in temperature, precipitation, drought and tropical cyclones across the contiguous U.S., was a record-large 44 percent during the January-June period, over twice the average value.


Warmest 12-month periods 1895-2012: NOAA | National Climate Data CenterWarmest 12-month periods 1895-2012 NOAA | National Climatic Data Center At an even larger scale, note that all the 12 warmest 12-month periods since 1895 have occurred since 2000. And that the past 12 months busted a record broken only last month.

Even more interesting, the past 12 months (July 2011-June 2012) saw each month measuring among the warmest ever on record. From the NCDC report:

During the June 2011-June 2012 period, each of the 13 months ranked among the warmest third of their historical distribution for the first time in the 1895-present record. The odds of this occurring randomly is 1 in 1,594,323.

Year-to-date average temperatures for select locations: NOAA | National Climate Data CenterYear-to-date average temperatures for select locations (click for full list) NOAA | National Climatic Data CenterThe list above shows only the beginning of 150 stations recording crazy temperatures in the first half of this year. You can see the full list of 150 locations with long-standing weather data and their records here.

The temperature anomalies for the first half of 2012 are impressive enough to be game changing. NOAA's National Climatic Data Center report describes them:

In some locations, 2012 temperatures have been so dramatically different that they establish a new "neighborhood" apart from the historical year-to-date temperatures.

 

Scott's Bluff, Nebraska, year-to-date average temperatures, June to January 1893-2012: NOAA | National Climate Data CenterScottsbluff, Nebraska, year-to-date average temperatures, January to June 1893-2012 NOAA | National Climatic Data CenterAmong many notable records, these stand out:

  • Scottsbluff, Nebraska, broke the longest-running record of 116 years with temperatures running 5.3°F above average this year (see graph, above, and note the 116-year temperature trend ticking relentlessly upward).
  • Green Bay, Wisconsin, wracked up the highest departure from average for the first half of this year with temperatures 7.6°F above normal.
  • As a region the upper Midwest saw the biggest departures from average with Des Moines, Iowa, at 7.3°F above average; Fargo, North Dakota, at 7.0°F above average; and Rochester, Minnesota, at 7.1°F above average.

Every state across the contiguous US had warmer than average temperatures between July 2011 and June 2012, except Washington, which was near normal.

The Key to Mitt Romney's $106 Million Haul? Barack Obama

| Mon Jul. 9, 2012 2:40 PM EDT
Mitt Romney.

David Koch, one-half of the brotherly duo that controls the Koch Industries conglomerate, played host to one of the three fundraisers this weekend in the Hamptons (a summer enclave for rich people near the eastern tip of Long Island) benefitting presumptive GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. According to the New York Times, Koch told attendees "he was committed to ousting President Obama, citing the evening's fundraiser and his own efforts to raise campaign money this year." Ted Conklin, owner of the posh American Hotel in Sag Harbor, told the Times as he idled in his gold Mercedes on the way to a Romney fundraiser: "Obama is a socialist. His idea is find a problem that doesn't exist and get government to intervene." You can bet that this kind of Obama hatred was on full display at all three of Romney's Hamptons fundraisers, which together netted the candidate more than $3 million.

That sum isn't included in Romney and the Republican National Committee's breathtaking $106 million haul for June. But there's a simple enough explanation for why Romney is raising so damn much money: Barack Obama. When it comes to reeling in campaign cash, the president surpasses any of Romney's fundraisers. Just as Democrats banked hundreds of millions in 2004 by invoking George W. Bush and his policies, in 2012 Obama and his policies are the reason Romney, the RNC, and Republican super-PACs and nonprofits are swimming in money. "You can walk into certain rooms and say, 'We've got to get rid of Obama,' and out come the big checks," says Anthony Corrado, a political scientist at Colby College.

Here's some context for Romney and the GOP's $106-million month. It's $58 million more than GOP presidential hopeful John McCain and the RNC raised in June 2008. It's $35 million more than the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee raised in June. And it's the second month in a row that Romney and the Republicans outraised Obama and the Democrats. (In May, Romney raised $77 million to Obama's $60 million.) To borrow from Vice President Joe Biden, Romney's June numbers are a big fucking deal. 

The Obama campaign wasted no time Monday underscoring this fact. In an email to supporters titled "We could lose if this continues," Ann Marie Habershaw, Obama for America's chief operating officer, wrote, "This is no joke. If we can't keep the money race close, it becomes that much harder to win in November."

A few weeks ago, Obama told supporters that he could be the first president in modern history to be outraised by his challenger. That possibility alone will nudge some Democratic donors off the sidelines. For all their quibbles with Obama, these individuals will open their checkbooks if it helps prevent a Romney presidency. The question is: Will Democratic donors large and small pony up enough to counter the white-hot Obama anger among Republicans and conservatives?

Getting It Right on the Obama Tax Plan

| Mon Jul. 9, 2012 2:28 PM EDT

Dan Amira makes a point today about President Obama's new tax proposal, and I'm trying to figure out if I think it's mostly a pedantic complaint or one with real substance. You be the judge.

Basically, every news outlet in the country is reporting that Obama wants to extend the Bush tax cuts for those making under $250,000 per year. In fact, even Obama himself describes his own plan that way. But it's not true.

What Obama is actually proposing is to retain the Bush rates on all income under $250,000. If you're a middle-class wage slave, this applies to all your income. If you're a Wall Street lawyer pulling down half a million per year, it applies to half your income. Everyone would have lower taxes than they did in the 90s. The table on the right shows how this would work. (The tax brackets are approximate and apply to married couples filing jointly.)

So the question is: what's the best way to describe this? The Obama way ("keep the tax cuts for anyone making less than $250,000") is more populist and a lot easier to understand. The technically correct way is more complicated, but it reduces the alleged class warfare angle a bit. Obama isn't taking away all the tax cuts the rich got from Bush, just some of them.

So which is better? More populist or more centrist-y? Decisions, decisions.....

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Your Smartphone Is Spying on You

| Mon Jul. 9, 2012 1:46 PM EDT

The feds demanded subscriber information from cell phone companies more than 1.3 million times last year, the New York Times reported Monday. According to the Times, the number of people whose data was turned over to the government could be far larger than 1.3 million, because "a single request often involves multiple callers." The information was released in response to an inquiry from Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass), but it's incomplete—T-Mobile, which claims 33 million customers, didn't provide Markey with specific data about the government's requests. 

This isn't just about wiretaps. Rather, the authorities can obtain an incredible amount of information about you even without listening to your phone conversations. Instead, telecom companies are handing over things like text messages, voicemails, geolocation data (where you were when your phone connected with a cell tower) and which phone numbers you're calling when. Much of this kind of information is available without a warrant because, from a legal perspective, they government isn't searching you, it's asking for information from a private third party to whom you've willingly given this information by signing on as subscriber. In a few cases, the telecom companies refused to comply with the requests. 

"We're talking about everything you can get from a cellphone carrier, except the content of the conversation," says ACLU legislative counsel Chris Calabrese. Much of this information can be obtained without direct or substantive evidence of criminal behavior. When a law enforcement agency requests a cell tower "dump," that is, information on who was near a specific cell tower at a given time, "it may get back hundreds or even thousands of names," according to the Times, including information on people who have nothing to do with the individual of interest to the authorities. Part of the problem, Calabrese says, is simply that the laws meant to govern telecommunications haven't been updated to account for advancements in communications technology. 

There's a bill in Congress, the Geolocation Privacy and Security Act, would tighten the restrictions on when cell phone companies are allowed to hand over location information. It has two sponsors in the Senate, Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). On the House side, a version introduced by Jason Chaffetts (R-Utah) has an unusual (but still small) group of bipartisan co-sponsors. Even this bill wouldn't require law enforcement to obtain a warrant before requesting this kind of information—it retains an exception for any "emergency situation" involving "immediate danger of death or serious physical injury to any person," "conspiratorial activities threatening the national security interest" or "conspiratorial activities characteristic of organized crime." Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has proposed a bill, the Electronic Communications Privacy Amendments Act, that would make all cellphone content avaliable to the authorities only through a warrant. It has similar "emergency" exceptions.

"These new technologies have gotten away from us," Calabrese says. "We shouldn't have to give up technology to enjoy privacy, and we certainly shouldn't be carrying around a portable tracking device."

Obama, the Senate, and the Future of the GOP

| Mon Jul. 9, 2012 1:22 PM EDT

Will Republicans win control of the Senate this November? Jamelle Bouie cuts through the fog of detailed state-by-state projections:

The easy way to put this is that the Republican Senate majority depends entirely on Mitt Romney’s performance in November. If Romney wins with even a slight majority, then—given the decline of split-ticket voting—odds are good that Republicans [will win the Senate]. By contrast, an Obama win—which would imply high minority turnout—would likely result in a narrow Senate majority for Democrats, and a smaller House majority for Republicans. In other words, we would have a variation on the status quo.

It should be said that this puts lie to Obama’s promise to “break the stalemate” if he wins re-election. Republicans have no incentive to be The moderate; as time goes on, it becomes much more difficult for the incumbent party to maintain its hold on power. If Republicans hold on to their right-wing intransigence, they’ll eventually be rewarded; Democrats will lose their grip on the White House and their majorities in Congress, and the GOP will have the space it needs to pursue its agenda.

Maybe. But this implies that Obama himself plays no real role in this aside from winning a second term. I'm not sure that's true. If you assume that the election is going to be close either way, then it probably matters whether or not Obama runs a fairly selfish campaign, focused solely on his own reelection, or if he spends a fair amount of time in Wisconsin and Virginia and a few other states with close races. The latter might help tip a few states into the blue column that would otherwise go to the Republicans.

As for the future, I guess I agree with Jamelle at this point. A couple of years ago, I would have suggested that if Republicans lost again in 2012 they'd finally do what Democrats did in the late 80s, and start tacking back toward the center. That would mean compromising on immigration, ditching the anti-gay hysteria that turns off young voters so badly, and maybe even accepting more government intervention in the healthcare market. But I'm nowhere near as sure of that anymore. The other possible GOP reaction to demographic change is to double down on the groups that already support them — whites, Southerners, the rich, the elderly, etc. — and continue trying to eke out victories. Given how slowly demographic changes occur, and how powerful the Fox News effect is, this strategy could be effective for longer than anyone thinks.

Who Is Edmund Husserl?

| Mon Jul. 9, 2012 12:06 PM EDT

This is way outside of my usual wheelhouse, but I was sort of intrigued by this network graph of famous philosophers put together a few weeks ago by Simon Raper. (Via Sullivan.) As you'd expect, virtually all of the big circles are household names (or pretty close), and as the circles get smaller there's a greater chance that I haven't heard of the person. But what's interesting is that this graph has a feature shared by a lot of assessments like this, namely that there are frequently one or two sharp exceptions: someone extremely influential who's not only not a household name, but completely unknown to me. In this case, it's Edmund Husserl. Never heard of him. And yet, if this graph is anything close to accurate, he's as influential among philosophers as Heidegger, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Hume, and Wittgenstein — and more influential than Leibniz, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, and Mill.

This seems to happen a lot. In this case I'm curious about whether it's for real. Is Husserl one of those guys who had immense influence within his profession but is largely unknown to the public at large? Did the algorithm that produces this chart make a mistake? Or was the guy who wrote his Wikipedia entry just an enthusiast who eagerly dropped Husserl's name into lots of other entries, thus gaming the system? Educate me in comments.

Quote of the Day: Samsung Not As Cool As Apple

| Mon Jul. 9, 2012 11:29 AM EDT

From UK Judge Colin Birss, ruling that Samsung tablets don't infringe on Apple's iPad design:

They do not have the same understated and extreme simplicity which is possessed by the Apple design. They are not as cool. The overall impression produced is different.

Now that's a Pyrrhic victory.