2012 - %3, September

Does the American Public Really Support Bowles-Simpson?

| Tue Sep. 25, 2012 1:40 PM EDT

Andrew Sullivan thinks that defeat in November will chasten Republicans and make them more likely to compromise. I doubt it. I think it takes several successive defeats to accomplish that (think Democrats under Reagan/Bush or Labor under Thatcher/Major), and at least one of those defeats needs to be a big one. But Republicans won the 2010 midterms, and if they lose this year it will probably be close. That's just not enough to convince them that they need to change.

But who knows? Maybe a few of them will see the writing on the wall, and Obama will certainly have more leverage over Congress in January if he lets the Bush tax cuts expire in December. That might force some tax compromises in the short term. But I'm even more skeptical of Sullivan's followup:

I think Americans want a fiscal compromise on a sane, Bowles-Simpson line. And radical tax reform is an area of common ground. That kind of deal is normally only possible in a second term, when the president is not going to get political capital for it, and if it is bipartisan, which was the idea behind Bowles-Simpson as well.

....And on immigration, all you need is a few Republicans to absorb the lesson of alienating the critical Latino constituency. If Jeb Bush and Karl Rove came out for a deal, and they both support one, politics change change. In other words, as I wrote, this is about the shift in thinking, a change in leverage after an election, not before it. Elections can concentrate the mind. The GOP loves to win and if it sees its current path is doomed, the fever, in Obama's metaphor, might break.

Do Americans really want Bowles-Simpson? I guess anything's possible, but if something like this passes it will most likely be in spite of the American public, not because of it. I know that "compromise" sounds great, and lots of Americans say they're in favor of it, but when push comes to shove what that usually means is that they think the other guys should compromise. The tax jihadists still won't want tax increases and the interest groups still won't want spending cuts and old people will still fight Medicare and Social Security reform to their dying breath. It's not impossible for some kind of Bowles-Simpson-ish thing to happen, but the truth is that it will almost certainly be unpopular. Politicians will have to drag the public into it, not the other way around.

Immigration might be a different story, though. I think a lot of Republican pols really do understand that diehard opposition to immigration reform is killing them, and the political calculus is different too. At this point, I suspect that big business would mostly be willing to support a reasonable bill, even if it contains tough employer sanctions; e-Verify continues to generate opposition, but it's declining as the accuracy of the system gets better; Obama has spent four years amping up border security; and hardcore opposition to immigration may well be smaller than we think. Yesterday, for example, Bill Bishop reported on a very interesting poll that asked rural voters about immigration policy. It turns out that if you read them the Democratic position, only 39% support it. But if you read it to them without telling them it's the Democratic position, 49% support it. That could well go up to 60% or higher if compromise language became the de facto Republican position.

So then: short-term tax compromise? Quite possible. Immigration reform? Somewhat possible. Bowles-Simpson? Not impossible, but the public will have to be dragged into it kicking and screaming.

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Cut Mitt Some Slack on His Airplane Window Gaffe

| Tue Sep. 25, 2012 12:33 PM EDT

Last Friday, after smoke from an electrical fire forced Ann Romney's plane into an emergency landing, Mitt Romney told reporters that airplane fires were a big problem because "you can't find any oxygen from outside the aircraft to get in the aircraft, because the windows don't open. I don't know why they don't do that."

That was dumb. But I'm with James Fallows: I think everyone should settle down about this. I wouldn't be at my best if Marian had just made an emergency landing either, and I might easily say something a little incoherent. Fallows has more:

1) Cut Mitt some slack. His wife had been through an upsetting and potentially dangerous episode. However stressed she was, he might have felt even worse — because he wasn't there, and because of reason #3 below.

....3) People are afraid of different things, and the reasons aren't purely logical. Some people are afraid of dogs — or snakes or spiders or rats, or the big needles a doctor uses to give a shot. I don't mind any of those, but (like many people who fly airplanes) I'm a little queasy with heights. I also get nervous in very tight spaces, and I have an irrational fear and dislike of horses....Here's why I mention this. I have heard over the years, within the flying world, that Mitt Romney views airplanes more or less the way I view horses. He is (I have heard) not a happy or comfortable flyer, and one who can always imagine things going wrong. Fortunately I don't actually have to ride horses — but he has no choice but to fly, white-knuckled, from one stop to the next. Someone with this outlook would naturally be all the more rattled by an emergency landing. So cut him all the more slack.

There are plenty of other reasons to mock Mitt. We don't really need this one too.

UPDATE: Dan Amira says there's an even better reason to cut Mitt some slack:

The Los Angeles Times story that relayed Romney's airplane remark to the world was based off a pool report written by the New York Times's Ashley Parker. When we asked Parker this morning whether it seemed as if Romney made the mark in jest, she left no doubt. "Romney was joking," she e-mailed. Parker told us that while the pool report didn't explicitly indicate that Romney was joking, it was self-evident that he was. "The pool report provided the full transcript of his comments on Ann's plane scare," she said, "and it was clear from the context that he was not being serious."

OK then.

Gender Bias Blocks Women in Science

| Tue Sep. 25, 2012 12:20 PM EDT

We hear a lot about the gender imbalance in the sciences. Now scientists have looked at one reason women might be disinclined to join the profession: gender bias. A new study from researchers at Yale University analyzed how professors treated candidates for a lab manager position, using applications that were identical in every way except the name on the top of the form. Here's what they found:

Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant.

The study, published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), focused on professors in biology, chemistry, and physics, three hard sciences where men typically outnumber women. The researchers found that, based on these fake candidates, professors preferred those with male names—and offered them a starting salary that averaged $4,000 higher than the candidate with female names. 

But here's what's perhaps the most interesting part of the study:

It is noteworthy that female faculty members were just as likely as their male colleagues to favor the male student. The fact that faculty members’ bias was independent of their gender, scientific discipline, age, and tenure status suggests that it is likely unintentional, generated from widespread cultural stereotypes rather than a conscious intention to harm women.

This suggests that the answer isn't necessarily just getting more women into the profession—and, more specifically, into academic jobs. Instead, it suggests that more needs to be done overall to change the impression of women as less-qualified simply by virtue of being women. Certainly, getting more women into the profession would go a long way toward addressing the bias, but it might not be the only remedy necessary. 

This reminds me of an excellent piece in the Wall Street Journal from 2006, in which transgender scientists described their experiences working in the field first as a woman, and then later as a man after they transitioned. Neurobiologist Ben Barres talked about how much more accepted and praised his research was when he presented it as a man, rather than as Barbara Barres. As a woman, Barres was often rejected for positions that she was just as, if not more, qualified for than male colleagues.

Paul Ryan Has Something He Wants to Sell You

| Tue Sep. 25, 2012 11:57 AM EDT

Rebecca Kaplan reports that Paul Ryan is "letting his wonk flag fly":

It came to a head on Saturday, when he stepped to the podium for a town hall at the University of Central Florida. In addition to a debt clock — now a must-have prop at Republican political rallies — Ryan was flanked by two large screens that projected a favorite tool of academics and businessmen: a PowerPoint presentation.

Dave Weigel is unimpressed: "That's all it takes? Four slides about the size of the debt?" I'm unimpressed, too, but for a different reason: do wonks really use PowerPoint? I think most of them would recoil in horror at the thought. PowerPoint decks are the favored tool of the well-coiffed marketing weenies, not the number crunchers. True wonks would be a lot more likely to either (a) spend hours lovingly kerning their equations in LaTeX and producing 3-D scatterplots in R, or (b) spend five minutes pounding out something unreadable in Emacs, accompanied by a crude line chart generated by some completely inappropriate shell script.

So then: Ryan isn't a wonk. He's a marketing weenie. And here's a pro tip from a fellow member of the tribe: When you see a PowerPoint presentation, usually the first thing you should do is put your hand on your wallet. I think that's good advice in Ryan's case too. He's not wonking out, he's trying to sell you something.

WATCH: Scott Brown Staffers "Tomahawk Chop" at Warren Volunteers

| Tue Sep. 25, 2012 11:12 AM EDT

This is how you kill a talking point. On Monday, Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) released a new television ad hammering his Democratic challenger, Elizabeth Warren, for identifying herself as part Native American to her employers at Harvard Law School. On Tuesday, the progressive blog Blue Mass Group published this video, which shows at least three two top Brown staffers shouting Indian war whoops and making tomahawk gestures at a group of Warren supporters:

The Warren volunteers had gathered outside of a Brown campaign event in Boston on Saturday.

Brown's Native American attack always had an air of desperation to it, but this video of his aides—according to Boston ABC affiliate WCVB, that's Brown's deputy Chief of Staff Greg Casey and Constituent Service Counsel Jack Richard in the video—would seem to further complicate his efforts.

Update: Brown's response, per WCVB: "It is certainly something that I don't condone. The real offense is that (Warren) said she was white and then checked the box saying she is Native American, and then she changed her profile in the law directory once she made her tenure."

Being Rich: Not That Tough After All

| Tue Sep. 25, 2012 11:01 AM EDT

I don't think this will come as a big surprise to anyone familiar with the real world, but it might come as a surprise to the Fox News set that endlessly glorifies all those job creators. It turns out that the rich and powerful don't lead especially tough lives after all:

A new study reveals that those who sit atop the nation's political, military, business and nonprofit organizations are actually pretty chill. Compared with people of similar age, gender and ethnicity who haven't made it to the top, leaders pronounced themselves less stressed and anxious. And their levels of cortisol, a hormone that circulates at high levels in the chronically stressed, told the same story.

The source of the leaders' relative serenity was pretty simple: control. Compared with workers who toil in lower echelons of the American economy, the leaders studied by a group of Harvard University researchers enjoyed control over their schedules, their daily living circumstances, their financial security, their enterprises and their lives.

...."People in a company at all levels may be affected by the market and its unpredictability," she said. But while rank-and-file employees may worry about being laid off, chief executives can pretty much rest assured that "they'll keep their position in society, their superiority, their lifestyle and their income" even if the organization over which they preside suffers, she said.

Worrying about whether your division will meet its revenue goals is unquestionably stress inducing. But guess what? Worrying about being laid off, not finding a job, losing your home, and not being able to buy food for your kids — that's a lot more stressful. People in the middle and at the bottom of the pile live tough lives, and lack of money and control make their lives even tougher. The rich should probably extend them a wee bit more sympathy than they do.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 25, 2012

Tue Sep. 25, 2012 10:29 AM EDT

U.S. Army Capt. Christopher Harris, assigned to 10th Air & Missile Defense Command, moves through an obstacle during U.S. Army Europe Expert Field Medical Badge examination in Grafenwoehr, Germany, Sept. 20, 2012. U.S. Army photo by Visual Information Specialist Gertrud Zach.

States Aren't Enforcing Their Own Oil and Gas Rules

| Tue Sep. 25, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

The biggest domestic oil and gas boom in a generation is going unpoliced by regulators in many states, according to a report released today by the environmental group Earthworks. Since 2005, the United States has increased oil production by about 10 percent and gas production about 20 percent, largely due to technological advances in horizontal drilling and fracking. Meanwhile, enforcement actions in six major oil and gas states have not kept pace with all the new drilling.

The report, "Breaking All the Rules," examined oil and gas regulation in Colorado, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas. It found that in recent years the number of oil-and-gas-related enforcement actions and total dollar amount in penalties in each state have either remained fairly constant or dropped. The only exception was in Colorado, where penalties increased because the state addressed a backlog of old cases.

One reason enforcement hasn't kept pace with drilling could be that regulators are overwhelmed. In Ohio, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas, there are more than 2,000 wells for each oil well inspector (there are nearly 4,500 wells per inspector in New Mexico). In 2010, the report found that some states inspected only 1 in 10 oil and gas wells to determine whether they complied with state rules. Here's a chart of the percentage of oil and gas wells that went uninspected in the each state:

EarthworksEarthworks

When inspectors in these states do discover violations of the law, their findings often don't get recorded, or don't lead to penalties, or result in penalties that are too small to deter bad behavior, according to Earthworks. For instance, an oversight commission in Texas recently found that state regulators take "relatively few enforcement actions, resulting in a lack of deterrence for future compliance." In 2011, Pennsylvania collected about $1.3 million in total penalties related to oil and gas violations—a drop in the bucket considering that a single Marcellus Shale well on average grosses $2.9 million.*

Of more than 3,300 oil spills in North Dakota since 2009, the state has issued only 45 citations.

To be sure, the Earthworks report does not offer a complete picture of the industry. Most notably, it doesn't examine oil and gas regulation in North Dakota, Alaska, or California, which are, respectively, the second-, third-, and fourth-largest oil-producing states. Those three states have better inspector-to-well ratios than the states in the Earthworks report, with North Dakota leading the pack with a ratio of 1 inspector for every 368 wells. Yet even that number has not translated into a stellar record of environmental enforcement. Despite more than 3,300 oil spills in North Dakota since 2009, the state's industrial commission has issued only 45 enforcement citations. This recent ProPublica story exposed many of the gaping holes in North Dakota's oversight of its booming Bakken oil field.

The environment is not the only victim when states fail to hold the oil and gas industry accountable. The other casualty is often the governments of those states, as we've seen in the Middle East and Africa. People in the United States still "believe that rules matter—that after the rules are created, the government will enforce them," Earthworks points out. But "in the case of state oil and gas rules, that is simply not true."

Correction: Due to errors in the embargoed version of Earthworks' report, the original version of this article stated that Pennsylvania levied about $1 million in oil and gas fines in 2010. The actual number is $4 million. It also incorrectly stated the year that Chesapeake Energy received a record environmental fine in Pennsylvania. The fine was levied in 2011.

Quick Reads: "The Signal and the Noise" by Nate Silver

| Tue Sep. 25, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—But Some Don't 

By Nate Silver

PENGUIN PRESS

Nate Silver, now the New York Times' resident stat-head, began earning his rep as something of a whiz by devising a probabilistic model that changed the way baseball franchises evaluate players. And during the 2008 election, he correctly predicted the winner of 49 states and all 36 Senate races. But his book isn't a victory lap, it's a confession: We're not as smart as we think we are. From the housing bubble to political science, the best and perhaps the brightest routinely blow the biggest calls because they can't separate the signal (truth) from the noise (distractions). We'll risk one prediction, though: Silver's book will be hard to put down.

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

Obama's Lead Is Starting to Look Insurmountable

| Mon Sep. 24, 2012 11:09 PM EDT

Nate Silver has an epic post today about late September polls from past years and how well they predict the eventual winner of a presidential race. Here are the highlights:

  • Obama is currently up by 3.7 percent. No candidate in the past 50 years has lost a lead that big.
  • No candidate with more than 47 percent of the vote in late September has ever lost. Obama is currently at 48.3 percent.
  • Big changes in the final month aren't impossible, but they've gotten rarer in the past 20 years.
  • It's not true that undecided voters tend to break for the challenger in the last few weeks of a race.

Read the whole thing for more. At the moment, though, the race is pretty clearly Obama's to lose. And Sam Wang agrees: his latest electoral vote forecast has Obama winning 347-191. Given all this, I'll make two predictions of my own:

  • The mudslinging from the Romney campaign is going to get really, really nasty and desperate over the next few weeks.
  • The smart money is shortly going to start deserting Romney and focusing downballot instead. The conservative base never liked Romney all that much to begin with, and I don't think it will take much for them to abandon him.

Make your own predictions in comments!