2012 - %3, August

Corn on "Hardball": What To Expect at the GOP Convention

Tue Aug. 28, 2012 2:39 AM EDT

David Corn and Erin McPike joined host Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball live at the Republican national convention to discuss how the speaker lineup illuminates the fault lines in the GOP and the Romney campaign's strategy in Tampa. Read more MoJo coverage of the convention here.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

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For Now, Apple Has Exclusive Rights to Pinch-to-Zoom

| Mon Aug. 27, 2012 10:48 PM EDT

This is the top story at the Washington Post right now:

If the swipe is the essential gesture of the smartphone revolution, the pinch is a close second....Friday’s $1 billion court ruling for Apple, which upheld patents for what manufacturers call “pinch to zoom,” among other popular features, has clouded the future of the gesture for anyone inclined to buy mobile devices from other companies. Apple made clear its determination to press its advantage Monday, announcing plans to seek preliminary injunctions on eight phones made by Samsung, the loser in the case.

The ruling has sparked searches for possible alternatives to the pinch — some have suggested finger taps, circles, wiggles — while also highlighting questions about whether a company should be able to patent how humans interact with their machines once those interactions become standardized.

Last night I was asking whether pinch-to-zoom was really part of the verdict in the Apple vs. Samsung patent case, and apparently it was. Everyone seems to think so, anyway, and it turns out that there was testimony in the trial about this (something I was unclear on). In fact, Samsung argued that Mitsubishi had demonstrated prior art in its DiamondTouch display table. Juror Manuel Ilagan confirms that it was discussed during deliberations:

We were debating heavily, especially about the patents on bounce-back and pinch-to-zoom. Apple said they owned patents, but we were debating about the prior art....[Velvin] Hogan was jury foreman. He had experience. He owned patents himself...so he took us through his experience. After that it was easier.

I still don't really understand exactly where this shows up in the patent claims, but I guess that's because I'm not a patent attorney. In any case, it looks like pinch-to-zoom was indeed part of the case, and Apple was the victor, more's the pity.

Arctic Ice Shatters Melt Record

| Mon Aug. 27, 2012 3:56 PM EDT

Arctic sea ice on Aug. 26, 2012, the day the sea ice dipped to its smallest extent ever recorded in more than three decades of satellite measurements: Scientific Visualization Studio, NASA Goddard Space Flight CenterArctic sea ice on August 26, the day the sea ice dipped to its smallest extent ever recorded in more than three decades of satellite measurements Scientific Visualization Studio, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

The Arctic sea ice extent yesterday fell below its previous record low and is currently losing frozen sea at the rate of about 29,000 square miles (roughly 75,000 square kilometers) a day. That's equivalent to an area the size of South Carolina every 24 hours.

Here's what happened:

  • On August 26 sea ice extent fell to 1.58 million square miles (4.10 million square kilometers).
  • That's 27,000 square miles (70,000 square kilometers) below the previous record set on September 18, 2007.
  • The 2007 record low ice extent was 1.61 million square miles (4.17 million square kilometers).

Note that this year's record low was set more than three weeks earlier than the 2007 record. And summer isn't over yet. There's more melting to come.

 

Arctic sea ice extent as of August 26, 2012, along with daily ice extent data for 2007, the previous record low year, and 1980, the record high year: National Snow and Ice Data Center courtesy Rutgers University Snow Lab.Arctic sea ice extent as of August 26, along with daily ice extent data for 2007, the previous record low year, and 1980, the record high year: National Snow and Ice Data Center courtesy Rutgers University Snow Lab.

What's alarming is that the 2007 record was set during a year of near-perfect conditions for melting. This year didn't have anything like perfect conditions. But even that couldn't stop the freight train running down those Arctic tracks.

According to National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) Director Mark Serreze: "The ice is so thin and weak now, it doesn't matter how the winds blow."

The six lowest ice extents in the satellite record have occurred in the last six years, from 2007 to 2012.

This trend is an indication that the Arctic sea ice cover is fundamentally changing, said NSIDC scientist Walt Meier. "The Arctic used to be dominated by multiyear ice, or ice that stayed around for several years. Now it's becoming more of a seasonal ice cover and large areas are now prone to melting out in summer."

 

Scattered ice floes are seen from the bridge of the RV Healy on August 20, 2012 northwest of Barrow, Alaska: US Coast GuardScattered ice floes seen from the bridge of US Coast Guard icebreaker Healy on August 20, northwest of Barrow, Alaska: US Coast GuardThe photo above shows the view from the US Coast Guard icebreaker Healy, a science research ship that runs north looking for ice. They've been having problems finding it the last few summers.

BTW, I'm headed out aboard Healy for their last Arctic run of the year in October. I'll let you know what I see up there. And what that might mean for the people and wildlife of the Arctic. Not to mention all the rest of us who've kind of gotten used to the effects of its frozenness on the planet.

If You Win a Charter School Lottery, You're Happy. But What About the Losers?

| Mon Aug. 27, 2012 3:46 PM EDT

How do we know if charter schools really do a better job of educating students? After all, maybe it's just that better students apply to charters in the first place. The usual way of controlling for this is to examine charter schools that select students by lottery. It's entirely random who gets in and who doesn't, so if the charter kids do better then it probably really is due to the school itself.

Last year, however, I tossed out a reason for skepticism:

Ever since seeing Waiting for Superman, I've had a nagging question about this. That documentary, if it's accurate, made it clear that parents who apply to charter schools are almost desperately anxious for their kids to get in. In fact, many of them view it as practically their only chance to escape their local schools and get their kids a real education. The ones who lose the lottery are profoundly deflated.

So here's my question: is it possible that the mere act of losing out in a charter school lottery changes some parents' behavior? With their hopes dashed, do they give up? Do they gradually stop taking an interest in their child's education? Do they become fatalistic about the prospect of success and stop prodding their kids to do their homework, behave in class, and get to school on time? And if some substantial fraction of them do, how much overall impact does this have on the aggregate test scores of the lottery-losing children?

Last night, Adam Ozimek blogged about a new NBER study that takes a crack at answering this question. All the usual caveats apply: It's only one study. A variety of techniques were used to select only about 4,000 students out of the original sample of 16,000. The study covers only a single semester, which might not be enough time to see a substantial "loser effect." And the specific variable that they studied is fairly limited.

That said, the study is interesting! The authors took a look at truancy rates as a proxy for motivation levels before and after the lottery results were announced. This is pretty clever. And since lottery results were announced in the middle of the school year, they were able to look at truancy rates after the lottery results were announced but before the winners entered the charter school. For a single semester, both the winners and losers were still attending their old schools. The only difference was that some knew they had won the lottery and would be moving on, while others knew they had lost the lottery and would be staying at their old school.

The chart on the right shows the basic results. Among girls, the effect was small and there was very little difference between lottery winners and losers. Among boys, however, lottery winners showed a big drop in truancy compared to the broad student body, while lottery losers showed essentially no change at all. So the mere act of winning the lottery apparently had a big positive impact on winners, but didn't have a big negative impact on losers. Here's what the researchers conclude about this:

We interpret this as students exerting more effort towards academics at their current school due to an increase in intrinsic motivation from knowing that they will be able to attend a school of their choice in the subsequent school year. To our knowledge, this is the first paper to separately identify this important channel through which NCLB school choice provisions may positively affect academic achievement among low-income and minority students.

Adam points out that these results are a double-edged sword for charter proponents. On the one hand, they show that better student performance at charter schools might not be entirely due to the schools themselves. Some of it may be due to the simple excitment of being accepted at the school in the first place. On the other hand, who cares? "It just highlights a previously underappreciated mechanism through which choice increases performance. As the authors of the study point out, this is consistent with the growing literature from Heckman and others showing that non-cognitive skills affect outcomes. It should not be surprising that the students who most wish to leave a school and attend another will be motivated by their ability to do so."

I'll repeat that all the caveats above apply. Truancy is an interesting proxy, but it hardly tells the whole story of student/parent motivation. And if there is a negative effect on motivation from losing a lottery, it might well take more than a few months for it to show up.

However, to the extent that this study tells us something, what it tells us is that losing a lottery doesn't seem to make kids any worse off or any less motivated. The effect is purely a positive one for the winners.

Lots of Romney Supporters Aren't Really Sure He Can Win

| Mon Aug. 27, 2012 1:59 PM EDT

No real point to make here. This is just an interesting comparison. Apparently, about a fifth of Romney supporters don't think he really has much chance to win.

Where's Pat Buchanan?

| Mon Aug. 27, 2012 1:04 PM EDT

One of the more infamous moments of recent presidential conventions occurred at the Republican gathering in Houston in 1992, when commentator Patrick Buchanan, who had unsuccessfully challenged President George H.W. Bush in the GOP primaries, took to the stage in prime time and delivered a thunderous address declaring the United States was in the midst of a "cultural war." He was in full firebrand:

Friends, this election is about more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe and what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself. For this war is for the soul of America. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton & Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side. And so to the Buchanan Brigades out there, we have to come home and stand beside George Bush.

The electrifying speech was a sensation...for the right. Many political commentators, though, considered it weighty baggage for the Bush-Quayle ticket, hurting Bush with moderate voters. Molly Ivins quipped, the speech "probably sounded better in the original German."

So with the Republican Party now skewed far to the right, is the hero of its culture-war troopers present in Tampa to rally once again the true believers? No, Pat Buchanan, who was recently dropped by MSNBC, is skipping the festivities. He is, instead, at the Delaware shore, toiling away on his latest book, according to his sister, Bay Buchanan, a prominent emissary to social conservatives for Mitt Romney.

Buchanan's new work is on Richard Nixon, his one-time boss. And it could be a doozy of a book, for Buchanan has a trove of insider stories about the Old Man. Buchanan, who has hailed Nixon as a brilliant fellow, witnessed Nixon at his best and his worst, and, back in the day, Buchanan was always eager to suggest or implement political war plans for the Nixon White White. If he can produce a book that honestly confronts Nixon's dark side, Buchanan might do a service for history. And he may be helping Romney by steering clear of Tampa.

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Romney Backs Taxpayer-Funded Elections, Gives His Base a New Reason to Bitch

| Mon Aug. 27, 2012 12:52 PM EDT

Mitt Romney just gave the Republican Party's conservative base another reason to face-palm over their party's presidential candidate. In an interview on Fox News Sunday, Romney said he "absolutely" supports returning to taxpayer-funded presidential elections if he wins in 2012 and runs for a second term in 2016. "To be competitive, we're obviously following suit," he said of his decision to forgo public financing, like the Obama campaign. "But I'd far rather have a setting where we had both agreed to the federal spending limits."

It's a strange statement for Romney to make, especially given his still-uneasy relationship with the Republican right. Conservatives, whom Romney needs to turn out in droves in key battleground states this fall, vehemently oppose taxpayers footing the bill for elections of any kind—local, state, or national. Conservative attorneys have made a career out of challenging and gutting public financing programs; recently they've scored wins doing just that in North Carolina and Arizona. One of the first acts of the current GOP's House majority was a vote to repeal the federal public financing system. (The Democrat-controlled Senate did not follow suit.)

First conceived in the wake of the scandals of the 1974 presidential election, publicly-financed elections were seen as a way to ween candidates from the big checks and undue influence of private donors. Instead, a fixed amount of taxpayer money would be set aside for presidential candidates. Everyone from Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush to Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton took public money for their presidential campaigns.

In 2008, Barack Obama sensed he could raise more money on his own, and so broke a previous pledge to accept public financing. He trounced McCain in the campaign money race, ultimately spending $730 million to McCain's $333 million. This presidential campaign, it was never in doubt that Obama and Romney would reject public funds, teeing up the first general election since Watergate with neither candidate taking taxpayer money. Doing so would've capped the candidates' campaign spending at $45.6 million during the primary season and $91.2 million in the general election. In contrast, the Obama campaign has spent $263 million and Romney team $163 million to date.

The Public Campaign Action Fund, a supporter of less money in elections, called on both candidates to offer plans to revamp the country's outdated public financing system. "Both candidates like to talk about the influence of money on their opponent's policies," said David Donnelly, executive director of Public Campaign Action Fund, "but neither has offered a plan on how to address it."

Civil Engineering in America Is the Most Expensive in the World

| Mon Aug. 27, 2012 12:42 PM EDT

California's high-speed rail line from LA to San Francisco is estimated to cost nearly $100 billion. New York City's Second Avenue subway will cost $5 billion just for the first two miles. And New York's Water Tunnel No. 3 will not only cost more than $6 billion, but take nearly half a century to complete. What's going on here? Why do big civil engineering projects in the United States cost so damn much?

I've often wondered about this, so I was interested in Stephen Smith's Bloomberg column today on just this subject. Other advanced countries, he says, build big projects for a lot less than we do. What's their secret?

Comparing American transit-construction practices with those abroad yields a number of lessons. Spain has the most dynamic tunneling industry in the world and the lowest costs. In 2003, Metro de Madrid Chief Executive Officer Manuel Melis Maynar wrote a list describing the practices he used to design the system’s latest expansion. The don’t-do list, unfortunately, reads like a winning U.S. transit-construction bingo card.

…Melis [] warned against "consultants who consultant with consultants and advisers who advise advisers," something American planners would do well to learn. He said he didn't hire any "large firm of consulting engineers" as general project managers for his Metro de Madrid expansions, and that designers weren't allowed to interfere with, or bid for, their own construction contracts.

Not so in the U.S. Parsons Brinckerhoff, perhaps the biggest name in the nation’s transit construction industry, is both the lead-design contractor and project manager for California's planned high-speed rail line, and the company stands a good chance of winning construction contracts for its own designs.

Okay. Better control of projects, no architectural flights of fancy, and a clean division between the designers and the builders. What else?

Larry Littlefield, who has worked in logistics and as a budget analyst at New York City Transit, also suggests the U.S. legal system is an obstacle to designing and building affordable infrastructure…New York government agencies are saddled by procurement rules dating back generations, Littlefield says, when corruption in infrastructure projects was endemic. Reformers demanded objective and easily policeable standards, which often meant lowest-price bidding rules. Bidders compete mostly on price, not quality.

…Littlefield also argues that judges in New York routinely side with contractors in disputes with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. "In the private sector, if you rob your customer, you will suffer a hit to your reputation and possible losses in the courts," he said in an interview. "Not so if you rob an agency like the MTA. Then it's all rights and no responsibilities."

The MTA must continue to award contracts to the lowest- price bidder, and without the ability to hold bad contractors accountable, Littlefield said, the agency turns to "writing longer and longer and longer contracts, expressly prohibiting every way it has been ripped off in the past." The byzantine contracts that come out of this process drive entrants away, limiting competition and pushing up costs.

I'll confess that this doesn't seem like quite enough. But maybe it is. Maybe small government obsession, kowtowing to private contractors, and excessive environmental and legal obstacles really are the big problems for American transportation projects. In any case, this is interesting stuff. At least it's a start toward understanding the problems we face getting big projects built.

Paul Ryan May Have Produced a Bounce for Romney After All

| Mon Aug. 27, 2012 12:12 PM EDT

Did Mitt Romney get an electoral bounce from his choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate? Generally speaking, it hasn't seemed so, but Sam Wang thinks otherwise. His model suggests that the Ryan pick did indeed help out Romney for a couple of weeks:

One week after the August 11 VP announcement, I pinpointed the size of the bounce at 1-2 points of swing in opinion. At the two-week mark, the swing has grown to 3-4 points. At the end is an uptick back towards Obama, which suggests that the post-Ryan bounce may have peaked.

In terms of EV, Sam pegs the Ryan bounce at about 40-50 electoral votes. However, "swings in the race are not predictive of the final outcome until the end of September. So the Bain- and Ryan-driven events are of only momentary interest."

I mention this mainly as a counterpoint to people (like me!) who have suggested that the past few weeks have been pretty abysmal for Romney. If Sam is right, that's true, but only until the Ryan announcement, at which point Romney started gaining back some of his earlier losses. Next up are the conventions, which usually produce temporary bounces, and then finally the real campaign. A month from now these temporary shifts in the polls will start to have a lot more meaning.

By the way, Sam says his long-term outlook still has President Obama’s re-elect probability at 88% with a likely electoral outcome of 283-353 EV. So his model overall is more Obama-friendly than most of the others out there.

The Racial Tone of Campaign 2012 May Be the New Normal

| Mon Aug. 27, 2012 11:09 AM EDT

Tom Edsall is explicit today about the Romney campaign's effort to make this year's election into one that hinges on race:

The Republican ticket is flooding the airwaves with commercials that develop two themes designed to turn the presidential contest into a racially freighted resource competition pitting middle class white voters against the minority poor.

Ads that accuse President Obama of gutting the work requirements enacted in the 1996 welfare reform legislation present the first theme....Sharp criticism has done nothing to hold back the Romney campaign from continuing its offensive — in speeches and on the air — because the accuracy of the ads is irrelevant as far as the Republican presidential ticket is concerned. The goal is not to make a legitimate critique, but to portray Obama as willing to give the “undeserving” poor government handouts at the expense of hardworking taxpayers.

....The racial overtones of Romney’s welfare ads are relatively explicit. Romney’s Medicare ads are a bit more subtle....In essence, the ad is telling senior voters that the money they paid to insure their own access to Medicare after they turn 65 is going, instead, to pay for free health care for poor people who are younger than 65.

....The Romney campaign is willing to disregard criticism concerning accuracy and veracity in favor of “blowing the dog whistle of racism” — resorting to a campaign appealing to racial symbols, images and issues in its bid to break the frustratingly persistent Obama lead in the polls, which has lasted for the past 10 months.

Why is Romney doing this? I think the answer is largely that he learned a lesson from 2008. John McCain, to his credit, really did insist that his campaign avoid anything that smacked of racial dog whistling. And he lost big. Romney, I think, has decided that McCain was intimidated by the Obama campaign, and he's not going to let the same thing happen to him. So he's going to skate as close to the race line as he can while still retaining at least a smidgen of deniability about what he's doing.

This, by the way, is the background behind Romney's birther "joke" a few days ago. Under other circumstances, it might have been shrugged off. But Romney's appeals to racial animus have been so obvious in other contexts that it's pretty hard to watch the video and decide that this was truly an off-the-cuff remark that went awry. Go ahead and watch yourself and see what you think.

Of course, the real danger here is that this kind of thing may become the new normal. Obviously racially-coded attacks are especially effective when you're running against a black incumbent, but the truth is that the Democratic and Republican parties are becoming ever more split along racial lines regardless of who's running. As this split becomes more pronounced, Democratic appeals to minorities will inevitably become more important to their fortunes while Republican appeals to white resentment will become more important to theirs. In policy terms, this will mean things like voter ID laws and increasing resistance to immigration reform of all kinds. In campaign terms, it will mean ads about gutting welfare reform and giving your Medicare dollars to people who "aren't you." Welcome to 2016.