2012 - %3, September

The Republican Brain: Constructing an Alternate Polling Reality for 2012

| Fri Sep. 28, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

One of the odder little subplots of the 2012 election has been the growth of poll denialism among Republicans. As Mitt Romney's chances have grown ever dimmer, a cottage industry has sprung up on the right claiming that presidential polls suffer from liberal bias and Romney is really doing better than they say. "When the published poll shows Obama ahead by, say, 48-45," explains conservative pundit Dick Morris, "he's really probably losing by 52-48!"

Now, this is hardly in the same league as climate denialism or evolution denialism. What's more, it's perfectly understandable. It's human nature to cast around for reasons to stay optimistic about a political contest that you feel deeply about. I remember a milder version of the same thing happening in 2004, as liberals dug deep into the October poll numbers trying to convince themselves that John Kerry had a better chance to beat George Bush than the topline numbers suggested. One poll had a small sample size. Another one had a bad likely voter screen. A third one suffered from a known house effect. Etc.

But it's what happened next that's instructive. A couple of years after the 2004 election, a guy named Nate Silver started deconstructing polls in minute detail and explaining exactly what made some polls good and others bad. His approach was unsparingly rigorous and his overarching message was: don't kid yourself. The numbers are what the numbers are, and they don't care if you're a liberal or a conservative. Week after week, Silver dug deep into the minutiae of how polls are put together and how they're conducted, writing lengthy, table-laden posts that often meandered through several thousand words. Liberals loved it. Before long he was, for all practical purposes, the liberal patron saint of polling.

So far at least, the conservative approach has been....different. Their patron saint going into the last few weeks of the 2012 campaign is Dean Chambers, a blogger who runs a site called UnSkewed Polls. Chambers does not dig deep into the numbers. He doesn't explain sample sizes and cell phone biases. He does just one thing: he reweights all the polls so they have the same proportion of Democrats and Republicans estimated by Rasmussen Reports, a pollster with a longstanding Republican house effect. Then he announces what the numbers are after his reweighting is done. Romney is a big winner every time.

Chambers doesn't even pretend that his approach has any rigor. He adopted it, he told BuzzFeed, after seeing a poll that "just didn't look right." After a closer look, he decided that none of the others looked right either. And what does he think accounts for this widespread blundering among the nation's pollsters? Not simple incompetence, Chambers says. It's all quite deliberate. "Any poll that says NBC, CBS, or ABC is going to be skewed and invested in trying to get this President re-elected," he explained.

This is, to put it bluntly, nuts. And it suggests a fundamental difference between left and right, one that Chris Mooney wrote about earlier this year in The Republican Brain. Neither side has a monopoly on sloppy number crunching or wishful thinking, but liberals, faced with a reality they didn't like, ended up accepting reality and deciding to learn more about it. That's the Nate Silver approach. Conservatives, faced with a reality they didn't like, invented a conspiracy theory to explain it and then produced an alternate reality more to their liking. It's a crude and transparently glib reality, but that's apparently what the true believers want.

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"Movie & An Argument" Podcast: Terrorists, Serial Killers & Samuel L. Jackson

| Fri Sep. 28, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

On this week's episode of A Movie & An Argument, With Alyssa Rosenberg & Asawin Suebsaeng, we discuss:

  • Last Resort, a new serial drama about a rogue US nuclear submarine, premiering on Thursday, September 27 at 8 p.m. EDT on ABC. (Alyssa thinks it's one of the very best pilots she's seen this fall; I thought it was worse than The World Is Not Enough.)
  • Homeland, the Emmy-winning psychodrama that returns for a second season on Sunday, September 30 at 10 p.m. EDT on Showtime.
  • Dexter, which kicks off its seventh and penultimate season on Sunday, September 30 at 9 p.m. EDT on Showtime.
  • Samuel L. Jackson's new pro-Obama, super-PAC-funded video, titled "Wake the Fuck Up," and other celebrity political ads and web videos.

 Listen here:

Each week, I'll be sitting down to chat with ThinkProgress critic Alyssa Rosenberg (who also does killer work at The Atlantic and Slate's "Double X"). We'll talk, argue, and laugh about the latest movies, television shows, and pop-cultural nonsense—with some politics thrown in just for the hell of it.

Alyssa describes herself as being "equally devoted to the Star Wars expanded universe and Barbara Stanwyck, to Better Off Ted and Deadwood." I (everyone calls me Swin) am a devoted lover of low-brow dark humor, Yuengling, and movies with high body counts. I hope you enjoyed this episode, and tune in during the weeks to come.

We'll be featuring guests on the program, and also taking listeners' questions, so feel free to Tweet them at me here, and we'll see if we can get to them during a show.

Thank you for listening!

Click here for more movie and TV features from Mother Jones. To read more of Asawin's reviews, click here.

To find more episodes of this podcast in the iTunes store, click here.

To check out Alyssa's Bloggingheads show, click here.

Video: Melting Sea Ice Has Changed Life in Greenland

| Fri Sep. 28, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

This story first appeared on the Guardian website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Sea ice in the Arctic has shrunk to its smallest extent ever recorded, smashing the previous record minimum and prompting warnings of accelerated climate change. Klaus Thyman from Project Pressure speaks to two Greenlanders about how the extreme shift is impacting their everyday lives.

Longreads: 5 Diseases You Didn't Know to Worry About

| Fri Sep. 28, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

longreadsIn 2012, none of America's top killers are contagious. You don't get cancer, diabetes, or heart disease at the swimming pool or just because someone sneezed on you. But a hundred years ago, you probably died from something you caught. While hygiene and modern medicine have thankfully eliminated the deadliest of those bugs, there's still plenty of parasites, bacteria, and viruses hoping to reproduce in the warm, cozy environment of your body. Like it or not, we and these microbes are intimately intertwined.

Climate change is expanding the geographic reach of some diseases, possibly including hantavirus, brain eating amoebas, and at least seven others. Others, once eradicated, have returned due to indiscriminate antibiotic use. And still other diseases have remained a mystery, continuing to frustrate doctors and patients. Below, we've rounded up the best long-form journalism on disease, ready for your consumption. Apologies in advance, hypochondriacs.

For more long stories from Mother Jones check out our longreads archive. And, of course, if you're not following @longreads and @motherjones on Twitter yet, get on that.
 


Sex and the Superbug (Gonorrhea) | Jerome Groopman | The New Yorker | October 2012 

Are blow jobs responsible for drug-resistant gonorrhea? Related question: Does anyone use condoms during oral sex? Our combined lax attitudes toward antibiotics use and oral sex have spawned a strain of gonorrhea resistant to every known antibiotic. Luckily, there is a cheap, easy solution—if only we'll use it.

Condoms, long dismissed as unnecessary for birth control and suboptimal for pleasure, ultimately returned as a proven way to stem the spread of H.I.V. The challenge now facing the public-health community is how to persuade people to rethink an insidious disease—and, to a great extent, a sexual practice—that has come to be viewed as trivial. As the distinction between safe sex and safer sex becomes ever less meaningful, the responsibility to be vigilant grows more personal, and more urgent.

The Backstory Behind QE3

| Fri Sep. 28, 2012 12:10 AM EDT

I suppose this is a sign that I've been well and truly pulled down the rabbit hole, but I'm sort of excited that today brings a behind-the-scenes tick-tock from Jon Hilsenrath about the September 13th Fed meeting. These kinds of pieces are three-a-penny for decisions made in the White House or on Capitol Hill, but not so common for decisions made in the inner sanctums of the Eccles Building. But as you'll recall, September's meeting is the one where the Fed finally decided to implement QE3, and Hilsenrath has the skinny about how it happened:

For weeks, Mr. Bernanke made dozens of private calls on days, nights and weekends, trying to build broad support for an unusual bond-buying program he wanted approved during the Fed's September meeting, according to people familiar with the matter.

....Interviews with more than a dozen people involved in the Fed decision, both supporters and opponents, show how Mr. Bernanke won over skeptics to advance his policy—a distinction in a Washington era marked by rancor and gridlock. These people also gave a rare view of the low-key persistence of the former economics professor.

Mr. Bernanke didn't see inflation as a threat but viewed unemployment as a deeper problem than he had realized. The central bank, in his view, needed to act. The Fed chairman listened to colleagues' concerns during the calls, people familiar with the matter said, drawing out their reservations and probing for common ground. He eventually seized on a compromise that came from a little-known Fed governor.

....Drawing broad support for the plan was important to Mr. Bernanke in part because the policies he was formulating could outlast him. His term as Fed chairman ends in January 2014. Seeing a return to U.S. full employment as a distant goal, Mr. Bernanke needed the support of officials who might remain at the Fed after he left.

That last bit is an important point. Part of the September 13th announcement included an effort to persuade the market that Fed policies will remain relaxed for many years, even after the economy has started to pick up steam, and to do that Bernanke knew that he needed near unanimity. If the FOMC were bitterly split, after all, who would believe that Bernanke's policies would genuinely last through 2015 and beyond? So he spent weeks working on his colleagues and fashioning a compromise.

And that, I think, is the key takeaway from Hilsenrath's piece. Bernanke may not be managing monetary policy as aggressively as a lot of us would like, but he's really not the roadblock here. His colleagues on the FOMC are.

BY THE WAY: The "little-known" Fed governor who produced the winning compromise turns out to be Elizabeth Duke, a Bush nominee. Go figure.

Silicon Valley Is Still Slightly Less Powerful Than the Federal Reserve

| Thu Sep. 27, 2012 4:58 PM EDT

One of the knocks on the digital ecosphere is that it doesn't really employ very many people. Facebook might be cool, but it doesn't do much for the real economy. Ezra Klein grabs my attention today with a suggestion that this might be about to change:

Square, a company led by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, has the potential to be a gamechanger. It wants to do nothing less than change how we pay for everything. In doing so, it has the potential to vastly lower transaction costs for businesses that accept credit, and to significantly increase the number of transactions that happen, period. If it works, that could be a transformative advance.

Wait. Seriously? Is that what people are saying? So I clicked on the Farhad Manjoo piece in Slate that Ezra was referring to:

If you study Square’s products and its pricing, and if you talk to Dorsey about his plans, you’ll find that the company’s real mission is to alter the psychology of consumption. Dorsey is bent on creating frictionless commerce....Its pay-by-name system is so much of an improvement over the current way we pay that, over time, Square believes it will raise transaction volumes—people will buy more stuff because buying stuff is easier.

The ability of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to hold reporters in some kind of satanic thrall as they spin their mesmerizing tales is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Square might very well be a great company. Making it easier to pay for stuff is a terrific idea. But will this actually cause us all to buy more stuff?

In a word, no. Putting aside changes in fiscal and monetary policy, consumer expenditures are constrained by (a) net income and (b) our desire to save for the future. That's it. Right now, the personal savings rate is around 4%, which means we collectively spend about 96% of what we earn. Nothing that Square does will change that.1 It might be a great company — maybe even a game changer on a number of levels — but it's not going to increase consumer spending at a macro level. Even Silicon Valley doesn't have quite that much clout.

With that off my chest, however, I recommend clicking on both links above. They have interesting things to say.

1You can, perhaps, spin a tale about dramatically lower transaction costs putting more money in the hands of consumers and small business owners and less in the hands of Wall Street banks. This would be a good thing, and might even be a net positive for economic growth. But it's a stretch, and I don't think it's the story Dorsey is telling anyway.

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Obama Campaign Responds to Romney's "Harvest" Comments

| Thu Sep. 27, 2012 4:02 PM EDT

Mother Jones released some more Romney video today. This time it's footage of Romney, circa 1985, laying out Bain Capital's business philosophy. The clip was included on a CD-ROM that was created to commemorate Bain & Co.'s 25th anniversary and which was provided to David Corn by a former Bain employee. Romney has repeatedly pointed to his business experience and role at Bain as proof he can rev up the US economy and create more jobs than Obama can, but the vintage video confirms what many have been saying all along: that job creation was not the point of Bain. Young Mitt says the goal of the company was to buy stakes in undervalued companies and then "harvest them at a significant profit" years later.

The Obama campaign responded today by sending out a statement from Randy Johnson, a former worker at Ampad, the office supply company Bain acquired in 1992, proceeding to fire hundred of workers.

Today’s video confirms what I and other workers fired by Mitt   Romney’s Bain Capital already know: that Romney’s business experience   was never about creating jobs. Romney’s own words prove that his focus   was putting profits before people from the very beginning,   ‘harvesting’ companies to make a ‘significant profit’ for himself and   his investors – even if it meant investing in companies that shipped   American jobs to China. Any other explanation Romney puts forth about   this ‘private sector’ experience or understanding of the ‘real economy’   are just empty words from a man desperately trying to rewrite the past   in order to win an election.

The Romney campaign responded by trotting out its standard line about the candidate's time at Bain.  "In  addition to starting  new businesses, Mitt Romney helped build Bain  Capital by turning  around broken companies, creating and saving  thousands of jobs," Romney   campaign spokesperson Amanda Henneberg told the National Journal. "The problem today is that President Obama hasn't been  able to turn around our economy in the same way." As David Corn pointed out today, 1985-era Mitt Romney said it could take up to eight years to turn around a company. Now the candidate is willing to give the president less than four years to turn around the entire US economy.

Quote of the Day: Romney Is Ruining Things For All the Other Rich Guys

| Thu Sep. 27, 2012 3:41 PM EDT

Today's QOTD comes from Stephen Breitstone, co-head of the taxation and wealth preservation group at Meltzer, Lippe, Goldstein & Breitstone LLP, commenting on one of the tax avoidance schemes that Mitt Romney used in the $100 million trust he set up for his children and grandchildren:

It’s going to be harder to do tax planning in the future. He’s bringing attention to things that weren’t getting attention.

This comes from a Bloomberg story about Romney's use of an "I Dig It" trust, which Breitstone says is so important to the wealthy that ending its tax benefits "would put an end to much of estate planning as we know it." Here's how it works:

The person setting up the trust, like Romney, contributes assets such as an interest in a fund or shares in a company. If he makes that contribution before those assets appreciate — particularly when they are privately held and difficult to value — he can claim the gift tax obligation is low or non-existent since the declared value is low or zero.

If the trust generates any income — such as by selling stock — the eventual tax bill is the responsibility of Romney, not the trust. By paying the capital gains tax, which was 20 percent in the late 1990s and is now 15 percent, he can avoid depleting the funds in the trust — in essence making an additional donation that’s free of gift taxes....Gains in the trust for Romney’s heirs remain free of gift taxes and potential estate taxes.

Very cool, no? First, Romney undervalues the assets he puts into the trust so he owes little or no gift tax. Then, later, when the assets appreciate, he pays only the capital gains tax, which is considerably lower than the gift tax. And to make it even better, he pays the capital gains tax out of his own pocket, so the trust owes nothing. It's like making a second gift to his kids free and clear.

Bloomberg says Romney did this with some DoubleClick shares he got in 1997, back when he was CEO of Bain Capital, but that's undoubtedly just the tip of the iceberg. The DoubleClick payday amounted to a piddling $674,000 out of a trust worth over $100 million. Sadly for our nation's ultra-wealthy, though, the spotlight Romney is shining on stuff like this might spur Congress to close some of these loopholes. Maybe.

The Arctic Is Way Hotter Now Than Anytime in Past 1,800 Years

| Thu Sep. 27, 2012 2:14 PM EDT

Since 1987 summers on Svalbard have been up to 4.5°F (2.5°C) hotter than they were there during the warmest parts of the Medieval Warm Period: Svalbard landscape: Wen Nag (aliasgrace) via Flicke. Viking statue: frankdouwes via Flickr. Mashup: Julia Whitty (thanks PicMonkey!)Summers on Svalbard are up to 4.5°F (2.5°C) hotter than during the warm period when Vikings colonized Greenland and Iceland: Svalbard landscape: Wen Nag (aliasgrace) via Flickr. Viking statue: frankdouwes via Flickr. Mashup: Julia Whitty (thanks PicMonkey!)

Things are so hot on the Norwegian Arctic island of Svalbard these days that if the Vikings were still around they'd flee north to get away from their own sweat. Okay, that's total conjecture. But a fascinating new paper in the science journal Geology describes how much hotter it is on Svalbard now than it was during the Medieval Warm Period when Vikings colonized Greenland and Iceland and briefly Newfoundland.

The Medieval Warm Period was driven by a natural increase in solar radiation that warmed parts of the northern hemisphere and severely dried out others (California, Nevada, Mississippi Valley). The current warming is driven by us.

Since 1987 summers on Svalbard have been 3.6° to 4.5°F (2° to 2.5°C) hotter than they were  during the warmest parts of the Medieval Warm Period.

The authors used a novel method to decipher temperatures on Svalbard for the past 1,800 years based on the fatty remains of microscopic algae left behind in Kongressvatnet lake. Turns out the algae are miniature record-keepers extraordinaire because they make more unsaturated fats in colder water and more saturated fats in warmer waters, reports the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

The researchers then dated the sediments based on grains of glass spat from volcanoes hundreds of miles away in Iceland: Snæfellsjökullin volcano in the year 170, Hekla in 1104 and Öræfajökull in 1362. How cool is that detective work?

The big difference with the new research is that most Arctic climate records come from ice cores that tell of winter snowfalls. The lake sediments record summertime temperatures. Which reveals a lot about how climate varied from winter to summer and also in places where there are no (longer) ice sheets.

Based on the new summertime story, here's some of what the authors learned:

  • The region was not particularly cold during another recent anomalous period: the Little Ice Age of the 18th and 19th centuries when Svalbard glaciers grew to their greatest extent of the past 10,000 years (and when glaciers in much of parts of Western Europe grew too).
  • This suggests that a wetter climate (more snow) rather than colder temperatures may have fed the Svalbard glaciers.
  • By 1600 Western Svalbard had begun to gradually warm as the northern arm of the Gulf Stream (the West Spitsbergen Current) brought more tropical water to the region. 
  • In 1890 the warming began to accelerate.
  • Meanwhile ice cores from Svalbard tell a different wintertime story: a slight cooling over the last 1,800 years.
  • The conflicting evidence suggests that temperatures may have fluctuated sharply between winter and summer.

From the Earth Institute at Columbia University:

Climate models suggest that by 2100 Svalbard will warm more than any other landmass on earth, due to a combination of sea-ice loss and changes in atmospheric and oceanic circulation... In a study published last year in the journal Advances in Meteorology, Norwegian researchers estimate that average winter temperature in Svalbard could rise by as much as 10 degrees C or 18 degrees Fahrenheit [by 2100].

 

 

This video from lead author Billy D'Andrea, a research professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, describes the scientific motivations behind his work.

The paper:

  • William J. D'Andrea, David A. Vaillencourt, Nicholas L. Balascio, Al Werner, Steven R. Roof, Michael Retelle and Raymond S. Bradley. Mild Little Ice Age and unprecedented recent warmth in an 1800 year lake sediment record from Svalbard. Geology (2012). DOI:10.1130/G33365.1 

     

Why You Should Always Account for Inflation: A Case Study

| Thu Sep. 27, 2012 1:51 PM EDT

Ryan Chittum points out a good example today of how misleading news reports can be when they fail to account for inflation. Here's a sentence from a recent Wall Street Journal piece on cell phones:

Americans spent $116 more a year on telephone services in 2011 than they did in 2007, according to the Labor Department, even as total household expenditures increased by just $67.

And here's what that sentence would look like if those numbers were adjusted for inflation:

Even as total household expenditures plummeted by $4,146, spending on phones continued to rise, with Americans shelling out $22 more a year on telephone services in 2011 than they did in 2007, according to the Labor Department.

So the Journal missed a bet. The gist of their piece is that phone bills are eating up a bigger chunk of middle-class incomes, and for my money, the inflation-adjusted figures make that point a lot better. After all, which is more dramatic? Spending $116 more while incomes are flat, or spending $22 more even as your income falls through the floor? Your mileage may vary, but I'd choose the latter.

Not that it really matters. The inflation-adjusted figures are the more accurate ones. Whenever possible (and with occasional exceptions for specific reasons), they're the ones you should always use.