2012 - %3, August

Low-Paying Staples Is Romney's Go-To Example of "Success"

| Thu Aug. 30, 2012 10:21 AM PDT

The RNC lineup for Thursday night includes Thomas Sternberg, the co-founder of Staples. Mitt Romney, who served on Staples' board of directors in addition to investing in the company when he was at Bain Capitol, likes to tout the chain as an example of private-sector success. But as the National Employment Law Project Action Fund points out in a new report, that success has not trickled down to employees.

The report lists Staples as one of the 50 largest low-wage employers in the US. The company has continued to turn high profits even in the recession, and its CEO made $8.8 million in 2011 (which was a 40 percent drop from what he made in 2010). And yet most of its nearly 33,000 employees make less than $10 per hour. Here's part of the graphic that goes with the report:

NELP Action FundNELP Action Fund

National Employment Law Project Action Fund also highlights the fact that next week's Democratic National Convention lineup includes Jim Sinegal, the former CEO of Costco, also a hugely profitable corporation, which pays workers an average of $19 an hour and gives many of them health benefits. There are pretty clear differences between the businesses that the political parties are holding up as examples of "success" at their conventions.

That's not, of course, to say that Costco is without its issues. The AFL-CIO and other unions have been picketing the chain, accusing it of not following its own Supplier Code of Conduct for continuing to do business with the frozen pizza manufacturer Palermo Pizza, whose workers have been on strike since June after the company refused to recognize their attempts to unionize.

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This Single Chart Explains a Lot About the GOP Convention

| Thu Aug. 30, 2012 10:04 AM PDT

Via Dan Amira at New York magazine, who polled 50 RNC delegates—it's not scientific, but when your margins are this big, they mean something:

The National Debt is a Problem, But Honestly, Not That Big a Problem

| Thu Aug. 30, 2012 9:57 AM PDT

Are you worried about our soaring national debt? In the long term, you probably should be. Not because of the debt per se, but because the main cause of a skyrocketing national debt is a weak economy. So if our national debt really does keep going up sharply, it will be because our economy remains sucky for years to come. That really would be a grim problem.

Still, there are problems and there are problems. As Dean Baker points out today, the thing that debt worriers should really worry about is the interest on the national debt. After all, that's the part that hits the federal budget. And guess what? It's not really all that scary looking. CBO estimates that even with all the Bush tax cuts, even with the crappy economy, and even with all the money we've spent to deal with the crappy economy, interest on the debt will start to flatten out in 2020 at about the same level it was at after Reagan ballooned the national debt in the 80s. That didn't seem to hurt us much either then or later during the Clinton boom of the 90s.

But surely this is all just an artifact of low interest rates? Well, yes it is. But Dean has you covered there too:

Am I pulling a fast one here by switching from debt to interest payments? Not at all. Suppose we issue $4 trillion in 30-year bonds in 2012 at 2.75 percent interest (roughly the going yield). Suppose the economy recovers, as CBO predicts, and the interest rate is up around 6.0 percent in 4-5 years. The federal government would be able to buy back the $4 trillion in bonds it had issued for roughly $2 trillion, immediately eliminating $2 trillion of its debt. This will make those who fixate on the debt hysterically happy, but will not affect the government's finances in the least. It will still face the same interest obligation.

Look: you should be worried about rising debt levels. Even if debt isn't strangling us right now, a higher debt level gives us less room to maneuver in the future. We should all be in favor of a plan that acknowledges the need for spending now but also takes seriously the need for both higher taxes and lower spending in the future.

But should we be panicked about this? Not really. If you have any friends who are, show them the chart above. It's not the end of the world.

Sharron Angle Is Happy the GOP Followed Her to Crazytown

| Thu Aug. 30, 2012 8:51 AM PDT

She's baaaaack.

Back in the heady tea party days of 2010, it seemed even a wet noodle could have beaten Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the beleaguered Senate majority leader and perennial butt of conservative jokes. But then the Republican Party nominated Sharron Angle, a maverick "Oath Keeper wanna-be" and anti-fluoride activist who stood up for BP, called unemployed Americans "spoiled," and railed against "an unscientific hysteria over the man-caused global warming hoax." Fox News laughed at her, she lost the race, and it seemed the GOP had finally found a heap of crazy that even they couldn't carry.

But she's back, baby. Ducking into a ladies' room at the Republican convention in Tampa Wednesday, Las Vegas Sun reporter Karoun Demirjian ran headlong into a chipper Angle, who exulted in the party's continuing embrace of her brand of crazy wisdom. Demirjian reports:

"In 2010, when I was running, everybody said 'No, you're too extreme,'" Angle said. "But now look, it's where everybody is going."

She mentioned specifically the push to audit the Fed, a rallying cry for the pro-Paul camp that they managed to get on the Republican platform last week. Angle had called for it in her 2010 campaign.

Beyond that, the new GOP platform also calls for the United States to study a return to the gold standard, and Angle has long advocated "making a basket of commodities (metals, oil, etc.) as a basis for maintaining the value of the U.S. currency"—call it the "gold, pork bellies, and frozen concentrated orange juice standard."

Angle—a longtime Ron Paul sympathizer—supported Rick Santorum in the primaries and is a lukewarm Romney backer now, according to Demirjian. She was joined in the bathroom by two organizers of a group called Tea Party and Republicans Uniting Nevada Conservatives, and at this convention, it seems they're realizing their dream of one party, under Sharron. Said one of the organizers: "She was ahead of her time."

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

Thu Aug. 30, 2012 8:06 AM PDT

U.S. Army Pfc. Sean Serritelli, with Legion Company, 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, provides security during a combat operation outside Combat Outpost Charkh, Logar province, Afghanistan, Aug. 23, 2012. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Alexandra Campo.

Quote of the Day: SOS for GOP's AWG Vote

| Thu Aug. 30, 2012 7:53 AM PDT

From Sen. Lindsey Graham, on the long-term problems of the Republican Party:

The demographics race we’re losing badly. We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.

Maybe not, but Mitt Romney sure is doing his best to change that. By election day he should have the GOP's dwindling crop of angry white guys done to a turn. Inspiring, isn't it?

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Why Healthcare Costs Keep Growing

| Thu Aug. 30, 2012 7:28 AM PDT

I don't have much of an instant reaction to this, but the chart below from Austin Frakt is pretty interesting. It shows three different estimates of what has contributed most toward the growth in healthcare spending. Two of the estimates (blue and red) are for 1940-1990 and one of them (green) is for 1960-2007. All of them lay a big part of the blame on all the shiny new technology that we're so eager to use (and use and use and use), and the most recent estimate also lays a lot of the blame on rising incomes (as incomes go up, we actively want to spend a bigger share of our income on healthcare). The other categories get smaller, but somewhat different shares of the blame from each of the three studies.

Austin has a few more comments at the link.

Charts: Republican Platforms, Then and Now

| Thu Aug. 30, 2012 3:02 AM PDT

On Tuesday, the Republican Party released its 2012 party platform, a 62-page, 32,000-word treatise on its agenda, which includes priorities such as reconsidering a return to the gold standard, bringing back Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and ignoring climate change.

Platforms' planks come and go: For instance, accusing Democrats of "work[ing] unceasingly to achieve their goal of national socialism" (1952), increasing federal arts funding (1976), or calling for biodegradable plastics (1992). But some core themes remain the same. For a quick look at how Republican platforms have changed in the past seven decades, I examined some of the party platforms kept on file with the University of California-Santa Barbara's American Presidency Project. A few things that stood out:

Platforms are getting longer: The 1948 GOP platform clocked in at a tidy 2,739 words. By 2004, it had bloated to more than 41,000 words. This year's is a little slimmer, but it's hardly a quick read.

Heroes and foes come and go: George W. Bush has received more love (relative to the length of party platforms) than even Ronald Reagan, yet he went from being mentioned 250 times in 2000 to being mentioned 3 times in passing this year. Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter have been popular bogeymen. Barack Obama, however, is mentioned only 9 times this year, usually in the phrase "Obamacare." Reagan is also mentioned 9 times this year.  

 

Complaning about taxes never grows old: The Republican party seems more tax-obsessed than ever, yet unfair taxation has been a constant theme in its platforms for decades. Debt and God also get regular mentions. Communism, once a top international and domestic concern, is all but forgotten. 

How Google Mixed Up Sherrod and Scott Brown

| Thu Aug. 30, 2012 3:01 AM PDT

When Lynn Raskin googled Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown, she ended up clicking on an ad for Republican Senator Scott Brown.  Screenshot: GoogleWhen Lynn Raskin googled Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown, she ended up clicking on an ad for Republican Senator Scott Brown. Screenshot: GoogleLynn Raskin, a Washington D.C. realtor, and her husband, Marcus, a cofounder of the Institute for Policy Studies, have routinely contributed to progressive candidates in tight congressional races during this election cycle. They've donated to Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), and Elizabeth Warren, the Democrat running for Senate in Massachusetts. They've also given money to Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

Late Saturday evening, Raskin typed "Sherrod Brown" into Google to make another campaign contribution. She clicked the first link populating her search results, a Google ad that took her to an innocuous-looking campaign fundraising page. She entered her Visa digits, hit submit, and just like that, she'd forked over $50 to a Republican in one of this season's most hotly contested Senate races: Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts.

Raskin realized her mistake the next day when she read the automated thank-you email from Scott Brown's campaign. She says she takes "full responsibility for not paying attention" when she clicked on Scott Brown's Google ad, but she still feels like she was duped. After all, why should a search for Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat, bring up an ad for Scott Brown, Massachusetts Republican?

When I told Sherrod Brown's communications director Justin Barasky about Raskin's story, he says he'd never heard of anything like it before, though it seemed "pretty shady." Raskin also found it shady. "Obviously, it’s a way to try to get mistaken contributions from people like me who are not paying attention," Raskin theorizes. "It's a way to divert money from people who are supporting progressive candidates."

But is it?

Google's algorithms, not a sneaky Scott Brown operative, are likely to blame. Scott Brown spokesperson Alleigh Marré says that the campaign did not pay to have the keyword phrase "Sherrod Brown" trigger its Google ads. She declined to comment further on the campaign's online strategy.

But Clay Schossow, a cofounder of web-development firm New Media Campaigns, has a pretty good idea of what happened. "You can see where the mix up is," Schossow says. "They both have the same last name and the same first letter of their first name...As someone who has been there, I have seen our political clients get traffic to their website based on specific terms we don't want to target."

That's because most advertisers who sign up for AdWords, Google's flagship pay-per-click advertising platform, target specific keywords (e.g. "Scott Brown") and allow Google to run their ads around searches loosely related to those words (e.g. "Massachusetts senator") in order to reach as many eyes as possible. AdWords uses a sophisticated algorithm to match ads with search terms based on the amount of money advertisers are willing to spend, as well as the ads' relevance to users' searches. But the Google gods aren't infallible, so not all queries generate pertinent ads, as Schossow pointed out. It's important, he says, for advertisers "to keep a close eye on what terms they're paying for and how those terms are converting folks."

On Tuesday, a Scott Brown ad popped up when I googled "Sherrod Brown." (See image above.) But as of yesterday, a search for Sherrod Brown no longer called up a Scott Brown ad. 

Scott Brown's use of Google ads is not new. In his 2010 Senate bid, Brown, a long-shot candidate with a shoestring budget, defeated state Attorney General Martha Coakley in part because he ran "one of the most aggressive" Google AdWords campaigns ever. The Scott campaign reportedly used AdWords to reach users searching for both his and Coakley's names. So impressed was Google that the search engine behemoth invited Brown's chief web strategist to give a talk at its Washington, D.C. headquarters.

Ordinarily, online ads funded by political candidates must state that they've been paid for by the candidate. Two years ago, the Federal Election Commission voted to permit Google to run short text-based politcal ads without disclaimers. However, there's nothing about the Scott Brown ad that suggests it might be an ad for another candidate. 

In the aftermath of the mix-up, the Scott Brown campaign has issued Raskin a full refund and she has donated successfully to her preferred Sen. Brown.

5 Crazy Ideas to Save Coral Reefs

| Thu Aug. 30, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

Coral reef image: Nick Hobgood via Wikimedia Commons; beach umbrella: Loren Sztajer via Flickr Coral reef image: Nick Hobgood via Wikimedia Commons. Beach umbrella image: Loren Sztajer via Flickr

How are we going to save coral reefs in a world where carbon dioxide is changing the temperature and chemistry of the ocean at a rate unprecedented in 300 million years?

"We urge that the marine science and management communities actively solicit and evaluate all potential marine management strategies, including unconventional ones."

Three marine ecologists have written a persuasive paper in Nature Climate Change arguing that the time has come to seriously consider rolling up our sleeves and doing something.

"It's unwise to assume we will be able to stabilize atmospheric CO2 at levels necessary to reduce or prevent ongoing damage to marine ecosystems," says coauthor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg. "In lieu of dealing with the core problem—increasing emissions of greenhouse gases—these techniques and approaches could ultimately represent the last resort. I hope we don't end up in the position but we must at least be prepared."

Here are a few suggestions worthy of exploration, suggest the authors, even if only on a small scale:

  1. Deploying buoyant shade cloth (it's been tried on the Great Barrier Reef) to protect corals from heat stress that leads to bleaching and death
  2. Using electrical current to stimulate coral growth and mitigate bleaching
  3. Trying selective breeding or genetic engineering to help species develop biological resistance and adaptation
  4. Maintaining or managing ocean chemistry by adding base minerals such as carbonates and silicates to neutralize acidity and help marine creatures make their shells/skeletons
  5. Convert CO2 from land-based waste into dissolved bicarbonates to add to the ocean for carbon sequestration and reduced ocean acidity 

 Coral image credit: Nick Hobgood via Wikimedia Commons. Lifesaver image credit: dharma communications via Flickr.Coral image credit: Nick Hobgood via Wikimedia Commons. Lifesaver image credit: dharma communications via Flickr.

Why the urgency?

Well, while some species may be able to adapt to change by migrating deeper into the ocean or further from the equator, it's not going to be easy. For instance, the Great Barrier Reef would have to migrate south at the rate of nearly 10 miles (15 kilometers) a year to keep pace with the predicted increases in ocean temperatures.

"The magnitude and rapidity of these changes is likely to surpass the ability of numerous marine species to adapt and survive," Hoegh-Guldberg says.

The open-access paper:

  • Greg H. Rau, Elizabeth L. McLeod & Ove Hoegh-Guldberg. The need for new ocean conservation strategies in a high-carbon dioxide world. Nature Climate Change. 2012. doi:10.1038/nclimate1555