2012 - %3, October

Chart of the Day: We Are Becoming a Nation of Heathens

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 12:30 PM EDT

There's nothing new here, but the chart below happened to show up in a new Pew report on the rise of Americans with no religious affiliation, so I thought I'd pass it along. As you can see, religious affiliation held fairly steady until 1991, but in the twenty years since then the number of people reporting no religion has more than doubled. This has come almost entirely out of the ranks of Protestants.

We all have our own guesses about why this might be, and obviously this has been a common phenomenon throughout the advanced economies of the world. In the American context, I blame the rise of Jerry Falwell and the politicization of religion for the drop in the number of people who want to call themselves Protestants. It's just become a toxic label for a lot of people who aren't rabid social conservatives, especially among the young. The Pew report has more on this, and Ed Kilgore has some comments too.

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Paul Ryan: Obama Won't Take Away Your Guns

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 11:26 AM EDT

Buzzfeed's Andrew Kaczynski flagged this video on Monday afternoon, in which an agitated Rep. Paul Ryan chides a Michigan television reporter for a particularly loaded line of questioning. But I was more interested in what Ryan actually said.

Pressed on whether he supported new restrictions on gun ownership, Ryan responded: "If you take a look at the gun laws we have, I don't even think President Obama's proposing more gun laws. We have good strong guns laws—we have to make sure we enforce our laws, we have lots of laws that aren't properly enforced. We need to make sure we enforce these laws."

By contrast, take a look at this new ad from the National Rifle Association:

And here's Paul Ryan himself, in an interview with Outdoor Life magazine in September: "What I worry about as a hunter, as a person who believes in the Second Amendment, as a gun owner, is knowing that President Obama—in his earlier career, prior to his presidency—was an advocate for gun control. I worry about what his attitude will be once he never has to face voters again."

President Obama isn't proposing new gun laws. In fact, the only gun-related pieces of legislation he's signed into law have actually expanded gun rights. Caught in a defensive moment in a local news interview, even Ryan seems to admit it.

The Conspiracy of Silence About Mitt Romney's Medicare Plan

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 11:09 AM EDT

Once again, I am gobsmacked. David Brooks writes an entire column today about the Romney/Ryan plan to voucherize Medicare, and the whole thing goes like this:

The second approach is to replace the fee-for-service system with more normal market incentives. Give recipients a choice among insurance options and have providers compete to offer comprehensive coverage like today’s Medicare....Paul Ryan wrote his own version a few years ago and has come up with a more moderate version with Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat.

....There are serious health economists who scoff at market-based strategies. Others just don’t know....The Romney-Ryan approach might work. If it doesn’t, the federal budget would suffer but seniors wouldn’t. Today’s seniors would be left untouched anyway, and tomorrow’s would have the option of private plans or traditional Medicare. At worst, if the market approach flopped, we’d be back to where we started.

As usual, there isn't a single word in this column about the most important feature of the Romney/Ryan plan: it arbitrarily limits premium growth to GDP + 0.5% per year.

Now, there are good arguments for imposing a cap like this. But one thing you can't say is that it's a market-based approach. If you had to pick just one single thing that distinguishes a market-based economy from any other kind of economy, it's the principle of using competition to generate a price signal. If you don't generate a price signal, it might look superficially like a market, but it's not.

In the Romney/Ryan plan, the government sets the price it will pay for Medicare coverage and then asks private providers for bids. It's true, as Brooks says, that competition among providers might help reduce prices a bit, but by far the heaviest lifting is done by the government-mandated price cap. That's central control every bit as much as any panel of bureaucrats that Barack Obama has ever proposed.

I just don't get it: how can conservatives repeatedly write about the Romney/Ryan Medicare plan without ever mentioning the price cap? It's as if they don't even realize it exists, and don't realize that both Romney and Ryan have been studiously unwilling to say what happens if insurers can't meet the cap — which they probably can't. Does the cap go up? Do seniors pay the difference? No one knows. If the latter, then it's decidedly untrue that "seniors would be left untouched" if it fails. 

But one thing we do know: the cap exists, and it's by far the most important part of the plan. There sure seems to be a mighty widespread conspiracy to keep it a little-known secret, though.

UPDATE: Andrew Sprung emails to tell me that although Paul Ryan's Medicare plan includes the GDP + 0.5% spending cap, Mitt Romney's plan doesn't. The Boston Globe quotes one of Romney's advisors saying: "Governor Romney has never proposed a cap on premium support growth that would leave seniors without the assistance they need to afford a plan with coverage at least as good as today’s Medicare."

I'm not sure what to think now. Romney's plan, as outlined on his website, is vague to the point of meaninglessness, but I thought he had endorsed Ryan's cap. Now he says he doesn't. So I guess Brooks is off the hook on this.

However, this also makes Romney's plan laughably incomplete. I don't think there are any serious analysts anywhere who think that competitive bidding all by itself will hold down Medicare costs. Without some kind of additional structure, this is just fairy dust.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 9, 2012

Tue Oct. 9, 2012 10:19 AM EDT

Marines with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 469, Marine Aircraft Group 39, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) wait for a flight next to a UH-1Y Venom helicopter in Camp Dwyer, Helmand province, Afghanistan Oct. 4, 2012. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Gregory Moore.

Bloggingheads: Culture War Edition

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 10:07 AM EDT

ThinkProgress culture writer Alyssa Rosenberg graciously invited me on her Bloggingheads show this week to talk TV—namely, three of the most politically inclined shows this season: the spy thriller Homeland, the Tom Clancy-meets-Gilligan's Island Last Resort, and the political mystery/romance Scandal:

My review of Homeland is here; Rosenberg reviewed Homeland and Last Resort together here. As for Scandal, which is a ridiculous show that I very much enjoy, here are my favorite fantasy Washington things about the series:

  • You only need a bare majority to pass legislation in the Senate, because apparently the filibuster either doesn't exist, or no one ever uses it. 
  • The president is a moderate (liberal?) non-interventionist Republican who supports the DREAM Act.
  • It's really cheap to live in DC, as evidenced by a "cub reporter" for a "dying newspaper" living in a really, really, nice one-person condo.

Abortion Rights Group Launches "Bill of Reproductive Rights"

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 9:00 AM EDT

The Center for Reproductive Rights, known best for fighting against state and federal laws that seek to limit abortion access, is branching out. Its new "Draw the Line" campaign asks Americans to sign a "Bill of Reproductive Rights," and features a star-studded series of ads.

The first video, posted at Drawtheline.org, features Meryl Streep. Another video features Streep, Amy Poehler, Kevin Bacon, Sarah Silverman and a bunch of other stars. Here's what the "Bill of Rights" includes:

1. The right to make our own decisions about our reproductive health and future, free from intrusion or coercion by any government, group, or individual.
2. The right to a full range of safe, affordable, and readily accessible reproductive health care—including pregnancy care, preventive services, contraception, abortion, and fertility treatment—and accurate information about all of the above.
3. The right to be free from discrimination in access to reproductive health care or on the basis of our reproductive decisions.

The pledge comes as CRR marks its 20th anniversary. This year was also the 20th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in which the court first allowed states to put their own limits on abortion access. It's also just ahead of the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade in January 2013. 

Those notable milestones, coupled with the unprecedented number of new laws limiting abortion access passed in the last two years, pushed CRR to launch its new campaign, president Nancy Northup told Mother Jones. The group plans to deliver the signatures to the new president and to members of Congress after the election. 

"We knew it was time to not only continue defending in the courts, but to begin a very aggressive campaign with a clear articulation of what it is that we are seeking to establish," said Northup. The campaign calls for women's access to reproductive care to be as protected at the national level as the rights to free speech, she said. "You shouldn't have a different set of rights as a woman in Mississippi as you do in New York."

Here's the Meryl Streep video, with a cameo from Sarah Silverman:

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Would an Obama Win Hurt Campaign Finance Reform?

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

President Barack Obama has always had a love-hate relationship with campaign finance reform. In 2008, he backtracked on a pledge to join John McCain in accepting public financing, remarking that "we face opponents who've become masters at gaming this broken system." He then went on to raise a record $745 million. When the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling came down in early 2010, Obama slammed it a week later in his State of the Union address, predicting that it would "open the floodgates for special interests."

More recently, Obama's campaign distanced itself from super-PACs, only to decide they're a necessary evil. Meanwhile, his campaign is on track to haul in $1 billion, even as it's claimed that Obama could be "the first president in modern history to be outspent."

Which raises the question: If Obama defeats Mitt Romney in November, will his victory weaken the opposition to Citizens United by undercutting the notion that a handful of megadonors pouring millions of dollars into super-PACs and shadowy nonprofits have the power to dictate the outcome of an election?

Can We Bank on Recessions to Keep Global Warming In Check?

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

This post first appeared on the Guardian website.

Greenhouse gas emissions rise when economies expand but don't fall as quickly when recession strikes, according to new research that emphasises the risks of relying on economic downturns to keep future emissions in check.

The most likely reason is that carbon-emitting vehicles and infrastructure created as the economy grows continue to be used in harder times, even as the economy contracts.

Why Aren't Politicians Listening to This Guy on Climate?

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Joe Romm

This post is a preview of our October 10, 2012, Climate Desk Live event entitled "Climate Change's Sleeper Role in Election 2012," where Joe Romm will be speaking.

Joe Romm has been called "America's fiercest climate blogger." And as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a former Clinton administration official on clean energy, and an MIT-trained physicist, the subjects he covers are vast—ranging from energy policy to the role of rhetoric in communications, as discussed in his new book Language Intelligence. But there's been a recurrent theme over the years at Romm's popular blog Climate Progress—the argument that political leaders, and perhaps most prominently President Obama, need to step up and explain to the public why global warming is such a dramatic threat to our livelihoods and future.

Indeed, Romm has called Obama's failure to speak out about global warming, loudly and often, his "biggest communications mistake."

Now, a raft of new polls are showing that this issue has the potential to move independent and swing voters—the subject of our first Climate Desk Live Capitol Hill briefing on October 10. So we stopped to chat with Romm, who will present at the briefing, about his unique take on this subject.

Chris Mooney: You've been writing for a long time about how climate is a winning political issue. So what first got you onto this?

Thar She Blows! Arctic Ocean Diaries No. 2

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Humpback whale with northern fulmars.

Editor's note: Julia Whitty is on a three-week-long journey aboard the the US Coast Guard icebreaker Healy, following a team of scientists who are investigating how a changing climate might be affecting the chemistry of ocean and atmosphere in the Arctic. Read her first dispatch here.

On our way north yesterday, we encountered a phenomenal gathering of humpback whales. I've seen a lot of whales in my time, dating back to my filmmaking days, but I've never seen as many humpbacks as were congregating off Unalaska Island yesterday. They're migrating south, some to Hawaii, others to the west coast of Mexico. They must have run into something of consequence—maybe krill—for so many to stop and feed.

But because Healy's on such a tight schedule, we can't linger until we reach the first mooring site sometime Tuesday morning. From that point on there will be a crazy amount of work to do literally around the clock in all weather, fair and foul.

Most of the scientists aboard are sampling water from various depths and in various locations in relation to land and rivers. In a way they're doing what whales and other marine life do: "reading" the water. The humpbacks are presumably reading for clues to food, migration route, friends, and foes. The humans are reading for clues to the rapid change underway as the Arctic icecap dwindles—change that will likely impact the future of krill, humpback whales, and people, to name a few.

The map below marks our current position as of 1517 hours on October 8. The red lines marks our passage up from Dutch Harbor, Unalaska, through the Bering Sea. We passed through the Bering Strait and over the Arctic Circle sometime last night. We're currently in the Chukchi Sea. You can see the yellowish outline of a boat with red dot in the center: That's us. The red triangles mark mooring sites where we'll be stopping to sample water. We'll be cruising the Alaskan shelf of the Beaufort Sea all the way east to the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

To collect data, the Healy research team will use CTD (conductivity-temperature-depth profiler), a package of oceanographic instruments that captures water at various depths and takes other measurements on its way to and from the bottom. It's deployed via winch and run to the bottom (or wherever) on cables.

Most research aboard Healy this cruise is supported by the National Science Foundation, Office of Polar Programs.