2012 - %3, September

Short Takes: "Detropia"

| Tue Sep. 4, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Detropia

LOKI FILMS

85 minutes

This brilliant film by the creators of the Oscar-nominated 2006 documentary Jesus Camp opens in the Detroit Opera House with a performance of Nabucco—a Verdi work that follows the plight of the Jews exiled from Babylon. Juxtaposed with visual evidence of the city's exodus—Detroit has lost half its population, and the opera house is itself near bankruptcy—it's an apt opening to a eulogy for the nation's most dystopian city. However, in once-vibrant neighborhoods that have turned into overgrown wastelands, Detropia finds grim beauty and a wealth of hopeful lessons for America's middle class. Among them: Destruction can unleash creativity, if we're brave enough to let it.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Presidential Campaigns Will Soon Be Done Entirely in CGI

| Tue Sep. 4, 2012 12:43 AM EDT

Dylan Byers reports today on an open secret: the 2012 campaign is a relentless, joyless exercise in trench warfare, and reporters hate it. So what's the solution?

Some reporters believe it is just a matter of waiting out 2012 in hopes that 2016 will see the return of 2008-level excitement....Others fear that with every election cycle, campaigns are further battening down the hatches, setting precedents of media control that ultimately render the media powerless to do anything but wait at the mercy of a scripted quote, like dogs waiting for scraps.

Bingo. This has been going on for years, and it's accelerated dramatically over the past decade or two. With every campaign, candidates push the envelope a little more, testing the boundaries of how far they can restrict press access. The answer, I think, is pretty plain: they could literally allow the press no access at all and it wouldn't hurt them. The only reason they still allow the little bit they do is inertia. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, they still find it hard to believe they could really get away with shutting out reporters completely.

But they could. The mainstream media, by its own rules, isn't really allowed to gripe about access, and anyway, nobody listens when they do. What's more, the days when candidates needed press coverage are now gone. During the primaries, when money is still scarce, it's a different story: free media attention is still a valuable commodity. But once the general election campaign starts, campaigns can reach everyone they need to reach, more safely and with more pinpoint control, via partisan media, television ads, data mining, debates, short hits on local TV, and social media. In those forums, they can pretty much say anything they want, without having to field any embarrassing questions about whether they have their facts right and without fear of inadvertent gaffes. The truth is that the downside risk of talking to reporters is now greater than the upside benefit of the coverage they give you.

This dynamic has already gone pretty far. John McCain and Barack Obama both ran very buttoned-up campaigns in 2008, and this year both Romney and Obama are famous for their spectacular lack of availability to the national press corps. They do occasional formal sit-down interviews, which are pretty safe, and — maybe — take a few questions a month. That's it. And guess what? The sky hasn't fallen. It turns out they can get away with it just fine.

By 2020 campaigns will be like studio bands that never do live shows. They'll be conducted entirely in a bubble, with national reporters allowed no access whatsoever. Doesn't that sound like fun?

Americans for Prosperity Chief: We Don't Know If $27 Million in Anti-Obama Ads Has Any Effect

| Mon Sep. 3, 2012 5:17 PM EDT
Americans for Prosperity executive Tracy Henke and AFP field staffer Rachel Fei in Missouri.

On Monday Americans for Prosperity, the conservative nonprofit group founded by billionaire David Koch, unveiled its fourth television ad attacking President Obama and demanding his ouster in November's presidential election. The newest ad volley will run in 11 states and cost $6.2 million; after accounting for this latest blitz, AFP's total spending on outright anti-Obama ads will hit $27 million.

But is that money well-spent? Has it moved the dial of public support? Is Obama less likely to win reelection? AFP doesn't know.

AFP president Tim Phillips told Mother Jones at a press conference Monday afternoon that he couldn't speak to the effectiveness of his group's multi-million-dollar anti-Obama campaign. "It's difficult to assess the kind of bang for buck, candidly," he said. "We just wanted to take a stand."

AFP is one of the most powerful political players in national conservative politics. The organization has 200-plus staffers on its payroll, chapters and affiliates in 34 states, and its overall budget will top $100 million in 2012. Because AFP is a nonprofit, it does not disclose its donors and cannot make politicking the bulk of what it does. According to ProPublica, AFP and another politically active nonprofit, the Rove-backed Crossroads GPS, spent more money on TV ads through mid-August than every super-PAC combined.

Phillips pointed out that AFP's anti-Obama ads—seen here, here, here, and here—are the first in the group's eight-year history to specifically call for any one candidate's defeat. "It was a very difficult decision for this organization. We've been around eight years and we've never done express advocacy," he said, referring to the type of ad advocating a vote for or against a candidate. "Frankly we prefer not to" run express advocacy ads, he added.

Phillips also cast doubt on whether AFP will run these kinds of politically charged ads in the future. "Frankly, we don't want to do this, and I don't suspect next year you'll see us, or the next year, doing this again, or in a very limited fashion," he said.

Paul Ryan is the Latest in a String of Honest Men Who Weren't

| Mon Sep. 3, 2012 12:49 PM EDT

Liberals have spent the past year complaining that Paul Ryan isn't the courageous truth-teller that the press corps has made him out to be. Today, Bob Somerby reminds us that Ryan is hardly the first to get this treatment:

For the past twenty years, the press corps has invented a string of Most Honest Men:

Paul Tsongas, Bill Bradley, Saint John McCain? All were pronounced The Most Honest Man—and all were soon issuing gruesome and weird misstatements.

Colin Powell was The World's Most Honest Man too. After that, he made that peculiar presentation at the UN!

On the bright side, the press corps seems to have caught on to Ryan's flimflammery a little bit faster than usual. On the not-so-bright side, I can't tell if this is because the press corps has gotten better or because Ryan's schtick is more transparent than his predecessors'. Unfortunately, it's probably the latter. You have to keep the blinders pretty firmly attached these days to keep buying Ryan's particular brand of happy talk.

The Incredible Vanishing GOP Convention Bounce

| Mon Sep. 3, 2012 12:11 PM EDT

Gallup is out with a post-convention poll asking people whether last week's festivities in Tampa have made them more likely or less likely to vote for Mitt Romney. Answer: 40% are more likely, 38% are less likely. This is a net bounce of 2 percentage points, the lowest since Gallup started tracking this question a quarter of a century ago.

The chart on the right shows the net bounce for most conventions going back to 1984. What I found most interesting is that aside from two outliers with gigantic bounces, every convention has produced a bounce of about 15 percentage points. Every convention, that is, until you get to Republican conventions in the Bush era and beyond. Ever since W stamped his imprint on the GOP, their convention bounces have been nearly invisible. Apparently, putting themselves on display to the American public simply doesn't make a positive impression anymore.

Those of us who are liberal hacks will have an obvious reaction: No kidding. Is it any wonder that the American public doesn't get the warm and fuzzies from watching the parade of rabid true believers that make up today's GOP? Still, it's kind of curious, isn't it?

In other news, Gallup reports that Romney's acceptance speech was the most poorly received of any speech since they started keeping track in 1996. In fact, it wasn't even close. The net positive rating for Romney was nine points lower than the previous worst speaker (John McCain) and a full 13 points lower than the pre-Romney average. Ouch.

Myth Busting: The Greenspan Commission Didn't Save Social Security

| Mon Sep. 3, 2012 11:16 AM EDT

I don't have a news hook for a post about the Greenspan Social Security Commission of 1983, but I was Googling around this morning for something else and happened to come across an old post from Pete Davis on the subject. The conventional wisdom about the Greenspan Commission is that it beavered away diligently for several months, produced a bipartisan plan to save Social Security from bankruptcy, and Congress passed it. Hooray! But Davis says this version of events is 180 degrees backward:

Mr. Greenspan and his fellow commissioners had met for months and were secretly deadlocked, despite optimistic public statements. Members of Congress were uniformly terrified of raising payroll taxes or cutting benefits, both of which obviously had to be part of any real solution. Then, one late afternoon, Pat Moynihan (D-NY) walked across the floor to talk to Senate Finance Committee Chair Bob Dole (R-KS). I couldn't hear what they were saying, but it didn't take a rocket scientist to realize the topic was Social Security. They cut the deal in broad outline right there, fed it to Mr. Greenspan, and left the details to his Commission.

So at the last minute, Republicans and Democrats locked arms around a plan "to save Social Security" by raising the payroll tax, to shave benefits, and to very gradually raise the retirement age on future retirees. President Reagan endorsed it, and the rest was history. Like a lot of bad economic theory, the idea that the Greenspan Commission solved the 1983 Social Security crisis has the causality backwards. Dole and Moynihan fed the deal to the Commission, not the other way around.

Then, in comments, Marc Goldwein says that even this account is too friendly to the Greenspan Commission:

Great blog post on how the 1983 commission was a cover. But even this post, I'm afraid, perpetuates some of the myth.

As of the beginning on 1983, the commission was all but dissolved. Understanding the dire political importance of not letting the trust fund run out of money, the White House then began a series of secret negotiations with Pat Moynihan and Former SSA Director Robert Ball (who was basically representing Tip O'Neill). I believe the White House representatives were David Stockman, Dick Darman, sometimes Kenneth Duberstein, and a fourth person.

Once they had agreed to a basic framework, then Dole was brought in, along with Alan Greenspan, James Baker, and Barber Conable. That group of nine or ten was eventually expanded further, to make sure they'd have the support of the leadership, organized labor, and enough commissioners.

Only then were the recommendations brought back to the commission to pass.

I don't have any particular political point to make here. This just happens to be a piece of political mythology that I'd always vaguely accepted without knowing much about what really happened behind the scenes, and I'll bet lots of other people believe it too. So I thought I'd pass along this little piece of myth busting.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

MoJo's Official DNC Scavenger Hunt

| Mon Sep. 3, 2012 9:30 AM EDT
Politician kissing baby: +1

On Thursday, President Barack Obama will arrive in Charlotte to accept the Democratic nomination for blah blah blah blah blah. Look, conventions can all start to mesh together at a certain point, so to help cut through the clutter, we've decided to turn the Democratic National Convention into a game: It's the official MoJo DNC scavenger hunt. Winner wins nothing, unless you actually find John Edwards, in which case we'll give you a reporting credit and you'll probably get an earful from his people.

Randall Terry delegate: +50

Keith Judd delegate: +100

Keith Judd: +911

—Phonetic transcript of Boston mayor Tom "Mumbles" Menino's speech: +30

—Bank of America execs cozying up to Democratic members of the House Committee on Financial Services: +25

—Official DNC literature rebranding Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium as "Panther Stadium": +5

Hologram Ronald Reagan: +50

—Hologram Saul Alinsky: +500

—RNC Chair Reince Priebus, crashing a party: +10

—Empty chair: +1

—Delegate posing with empty chair: +20

—Cher, looking empty: +50

—A homeless person who hasn't been forcibly relocated from downtown: +10

—A Scientologist trying to convert an Occupy protester: +5

—Newark Mayor Cory Booker: +10; with superhero cape: +100

—Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, looking lost: +5

—San Antonio's 35-year-old mayor and keynote speaker Julian Castro: +5

—San Antonio's 35-year-old congressman-elect Joaquin Castro: +5

—Reporter inadvertently interviewing Joaquin under the impression he's identical twin Julian: +15

—Box of M&Ms with official presidential seal: +50

—Box of Nicorette gum with official presidential seal: +150

—Party that serves recently declassified White House beer recipe, a.k.a. "Swill List": +20

"Kill List": +1,000

—Code Pink members protesting drones: +5; while being monitored by Charlotte Police Department drone: +35

Faded Obama poster: +10; with twentysomething staring at it blankly: +20

—Conservative saboteur James O'Keefe: +5; dressed like an imam: +50; dressed like Iman: +100

—John Edwards: +200

—Biden!: +1; cruising around town in a freshly-washed Trans-Am: +101

—"Green" event sponsored by oil or natural gas company: +5 (up to 10)

—Event with union bosses catered by nonunion workers: +20

Union bosses, period: +5 (up to 10)

—Drake, in character: +10

Wayne Knight, in character: +50

—Kal Penn, in character: +100

—Use of term "game changer" to describe an ultimately meaningless speech: +1 (up to 100)

—Lawmaker-turned-lobbyist, talking to lawmakers: +10 (up to 10)

—Delegate with donkey on top of hat: +2 (up to 10)

—Delegate with dog on top of hat, à la Seamus Romney: +20

—Actual donkey: +20

—Hologram Seamus Romney: +400

—SOROOOOOOOS! +1,000

—Michael Jordan: Game Over

Quick Reads: "How Children Succeed" By Paul Tough

| Mon Sep. 3, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

By Paul Tough

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Why do some children grow into successful, stable adults while others flounder? Helicopter parents, beware: You won't find the answer in Kumon books or Baby Einstein videos. The road to success, as journalist Paul Tough argues, is spattered with letdown and hardship. Apparently, the secret to a happy, healthy adulthood is learning early on to deal with disappointment and developing character traitspersistence, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, and self-control—to surmount it. Tough mines the literature and powwows with scientists, high school principals, and a middle-school chess team to show why it's likely these "noncognitive" skills, not measures like IQ, matter most.

This review originally appeared in our September/October issue of Mother Jones.

How Nervous Should I Be About Hantavirus?

| Mon Sep. 3, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Update (9/7/12): Another person was confirmed to have died from hantavirus after spending time in Yosemite, bringing the death toll to three and infection count to eight. And in a pattern shift for the outbreak, a man who had recently stayed in the High Sierra Camps in Yosemite tested positive for the virus, so officials widened the scope of the potential outbreak to include areas outside of the Curry Village tent cabins and now believe that 22,000 park visitors might have been exposed over the summer.

Whenever I stay in backcountry huts in Northern California's Sierra mountains, I fight back paranoia spurred by posted signs describing the ominous hantavirus, a rare but deadly sickness spread by rodents who nest in cabins and congregate around likely sources of food and shelter. This year, my paranoia is even more founded: Two people have died and four more are recovering from the virus in what's being described as an unprecedented outbreak this summer in Yosemite. Park officials have traced the cases back to a cushy tent compound called Curry Village where those afflicted stayed at some point over the summer, and have alerted 3,000 visitors via email of potential exposure to the virus. 

US wilderness outfits and public health officials have been warning about hantavirus for years, ever since an outbreak of the "Sin Nombre" virus, a type of hantavirus, was newly identified in the Four Corners region of the country in 1993. Since then, 602 cases of hantavirus pulminary disease, the fatal sickness asssociated with the virus, have been reported in 34 states. So why all the fuss about the six confirmed cases in Yosemite?

There are several strains of hantavirus around the world, and a few of them cause hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS), a flu-like respiratory illness that results in death almost 40 percent of the time. The Sin Nombre virus that made headlines in the nineties is carried by deer mice (Peromyscus maniculatus), which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls a "deceptively cute animal, with big eyes and ears." They live pretty much all over the US, mostly in woodlands or deserts but sometimes in urban areas. "There have been deer mice found in even Washington, DC and New York City," Yosemite National Park spokesperson Kari Cobb tells me. Contact with a deer mouse's fresh urine, feces, or saliva causes the virus to spread to humans, commonly through the inhalation of dust particles that have mixed with animal feces. This tends to happen in rural buildings like barns, cabins, and sheds–where deer mice nest and might poop.

There's no cure and no virus-specific treatment for the illness, so public health officials just warn people to avoid rodents and thoroughly clean areas where these animals nest. And even though 15-20 percent of deer mice are infected with hantavirus, Cobb explains, it's a rare disease for humans to contract, mostly because the virus dies shortly after contact with sunlight, and it can't spread from one person to another. HPS is more prevalent in the Southwest, but over half of all cases have occurred elsewhere, mostly in rural areas.

The fact that three to four people came down with HPS after staying in one specific location makes the Yosemite outbreak rather unusual. "Usually it's random and happens in different places and doesn't affect multiple people in the same place," Cobb says. The sudden uptick has park visitors pretty freaked. Once Yosemite established a hantavirus hotline last Tuesday, 700 people called to inquire about possible exposure and symptoms within 24 hours, reports ABC News. Meanwhile, the park has launched an investigation into the deer mouse population and percentage of mice carrying the virus in order to try and figure out why so many people may have contracted the illness. 

"Everything that affects the ecology of the deer mouse could affect hantavirus," says a UC-Davis epidemiologist.

I wondered whether changes in climate could have expanded the deer mouse population and therefore incidence of hantavirus. "Usually it's the wetter years that affect the mice and make populations increase," says Cobb. This year was actually pretty dry in Yosemite, with only 50 percent of normal snowpack. But, Cobb adds, "last year we had a 200 percent increase in snowpack." Potentially, a wetter 2011 may have caused deer mice colonies to grow. This scenario would mirror events described in a recent study out of the University of Utah, which mentions that increased precipitation from El Niño two to three years prior was to blame for more dense deer mouse populations in the Southwest around the time of the 1993 Sin Nombre outbreak.

Janet Foley, an epidemiologist at University of California-Davis who examines how changes in biodiversity and climate impact infectious diseases, says that the deer mouse is a very common mammal no matter the weather. But she questions what might be making the mouse become more of a pest: "Is it need for more access to a food source?" The drought this year has caused bears to become a huge hassle as they seek food; maybe the mice are also more likely to search for vittles in human shelters, Foley posits. "Everything that affects the ecology of the deer mouse could affect hantavirus," she says.

There's some indication that a changing climate could affect incidence of the virus. A 2009 study by a Slovakian virologist found that higher temperatures in Western and Central Europe have been associated with more frequent hantavirus outbreaks as vole populations increase (though voles carry Puumala hantavirus, not Sin Nombre). The Utah study mentioned above reasons that El Niño and climate change "enhance hantavirus prevalence when host population dynamics are driven by food availability." But the paper also attributes increases in hantavirus to human disturbances to the land in areas like farms (or touristy tent cabins) where human traffic increases a deer mouse's access to food. Climate change affects hantavirus patterns, the Utah researchers claim, though the changes vary depending on location, rodent species, and landscape alterations, and it's still a little early to predict what might happen with hantavirus over the next few decades as tools to diagnose the illness have only been around for 15 years or so. Researcher Denise Dearing, who co-wrote the Utah study, tells me that after eleven years of collecting data, unfortunately funding for her hantavirus study was cut last year; as she sees it, the virus will be unpredictable "unless we have a large surveillance set up" to continue studying the disease. 

The hantavirus warning posters I'll confront next time I'm in the Sierra backcountry huts will likely continue to give me the heebie jeebies. And speaking of warning signs, Yosemite never posted any in its tent cabins; the park is now under fire for allegedly neglecting to heed warnings from California public health scientists to educate visitors about the disease, a California Watch investigation discovered.  Indeed, Cobb told me there were no signs hanging in Curry Village before the outbreak. "It is just so rare, there were no known cases in Yosemite Valley before this," she said, though there were two known cases linked to Tuolumne Meadows nearby. Now the park has closed an area of Curry Village indefinitely, and plans to be pretty agro about passing out pamphlets and training employees on safe ways to clean cabins and avoid contamination; as well it should, if you consider Slovakian researcher Boris Klempa's 2009 warning that "hantaviruses will undoubtedly remain a significant public health threat for several decades to come." 

Todd Akin is Slowly Recovering From His "Legitimate Rape" Gaffe

| Sun Sep. 2, 2012 2:08 PM EDT

Public Policy Polling has some new numbers for the Missouri Senate race:

PPP's newest poll of the Missouri Senate race finds that Todd Akin is weathering the storm and the contest remains a toss up. Claire McCaskill leads 45-44, just a small change from our poll last week which found Akin ahead by a 44-43 margin.

....53% of voters say that they accept Akin's apology for his comments last week to 40% who do not....Akin's favorability numbers are still poor with 33% of voters rating him favorably to 56% with a negative opinion. But that's up a net 11 points from our survey last Monday when it came down at 24/58. A lot of voters have already moved on from being disgusted with him over his comments.

I'm sort of torn about this. Obviously I think Akin is a creep and a troglodyte, and I wish the news were worse for him. On the other hand, I have a rare chance to be correct about a political prediction here. I figured Akin would stay in the race, and he has. I figured his "legitimate rape" gaffe would blow over, and it looks like it has. I figured that eventually Republicans would quietly get back on his side, and I think that's starting to happen. And finally, I figured that he'd end up winning. So far, the polling seems to suggest that he might very well.

Unfortunately, being right isn't always what it's cracked up to be. After all, Akin is still a creep and troglodyte. Here's hoping that my cynicism about the Missouri electorate turns out to be misplaced.

BONUS HOPE: There is, of course, a pretty decent chance that Akin isn't done saying stupid things. One more major-league screwup and he's toast.