2012 - %3, October

Please Stop Asking Senate Candidates About the Red Sox

| Tue Oct. 2, 2012 12:12 PM PDT
Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) greets a supporter outside Fenway Park.

Technically, Elizabeth Warren whiffed and Scott Brown punted. With five minutes to spare in Monday night's Massachusetts Senate debate, moderator David Gregory, host of NBC's Meet the Press, concluded he'd spent enough time grilling the candidates on Afghanistan (about two-and-half minutes), and on the ethnic background of Elizabeth Warren's mother (about seven minutes), and decided to use his last question on a matter he considered to be of great importance.

"I saved the most contentious for last," Gregory said, a smile creeping across his face. "The worst Red Sox season in decades, I hate to tell you. So, Ms. Warren, does Bobby Valentine deserve another year, or should he be fired?"

Valentine is objectively terrible and should be fired. But at a debate for a race that could determine which party controls the Senate it shouldn't have even been asked.

"I had such hopes for Bobby Valentine," Warren said, referring to the franchise's beleaguered manager. "I'm still just in wounded mode on that one."

Gregory followed up: "Stick around? Should he be given another chance or should he be fired?"

"Oh..."

"This is the back page of the Boston Herald we're talking tomorrow morning, come on you've got to commit!" Gregory said.

"Then I'd give him another year," Warren said. "Let him build it, yeah, let's see if he can do it."

"Give him another year!" Gregory turned the question on Brown. "Senator?"

"Well, I remember at the beginning of the season that Professor Warren said they were gonna win 90 games and obviously that hasn't happened," he said. "It's been very disappointing, but I'll leave that up to the Red Sox management. But certainly we need to do better next year."

Gregory, incredulous again: "You're not gonna commit, one way or the other?"

"No, there's a lot of problems and they need to work it out for themselves."

So there you have it. Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren have officially weighed in on whether the manager of the local baseball team during the 2012 season should return as manager for the start of the 2013 season. All because of a pretty simple misconception—namely, that Democratic attorney general Martha Coakley's off-key comments about Fenway Park in 2010 caused her to lose her special election to Brown. Brown didn't beat Coakley in 2010 because Coakley was insufficiently enamored with the home team. If that were the case, Sen. John Kerry (whose professed favorite player, "Manny Ortez," is actually a made-up person), would have been thrown out of office long ago. Coakley's famed dismissal of the notion of shaking hands outside Fenway Park, in the cold, mattered because it reflected a voter outreach strategy that seemed to write off a large part of the population. (It wasn't Red Sox fans Coakley had spurned at Fenway; it was Bruins fans, who were there for a hockey game.)

Neither Brown nor Warren gave the correct answer on Monday night in Lowell. Valentine is objectively terrible and should be fired. But at a debate for a race that could determine which party controls the Senate—and the very real public policy implications it entails—it shouldn't have even been asked. Massachusetts isn't the only state where residents have a rooting interest in the local sports team; it's just the only state where out-of-town political journalists believe they have a responsibility to ask about it.

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Mitt Romney's Outsourcing History Highlighted In New Obama Ad

| Tue Oct. 2, 2012 11:59 AM PDT

In July, Mother Jones broke the story that Mitt Romney, when he was running Bain Capital, had invested in Global-Tech Appliances, a Chinese manufacturing company that profited from US outsourcing. This revelation came as the Romney campaign tried to portray the candidate as a private-sector jobs creator and the Obama team tried to portray Romney as a vulture capitalist who put profits ahead of people and never cared about creating jobs while at Bain.

Now, Global-Tech is again part of the campaign story. The Obama campaign is out with a new ad, seen above, challenging Romney's tough-on-China stance that zeroes in on his Global-Tech investment. Also, a labor rights group has published a report hitting Romney for investing in Global-Tech and detailing the long hours, low wages, and poor working conditions at Global-Tech's Chinese factory. The report, issued by the Pittsburgh-based Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights, calls Global-Tech a "brutal sweatshop." (In the "47 percent" secret fundraiser video revealed by Mother Jones, Romney appears to mention Global-Tech—or a Chinese factory like it. "When I was back in my private sector days, we went to China to buy a factory there," Romney said. "It employed about 20,000 people. And they were almost all young women between the ages of about 18 and 22 or 23. They were saving for potentially becoming married, and they work at these huge factories.")

First, the Obama ad. It claims that Romney and Bain believed Global-Tech was a good investment despite "knowing that the firm promoted its practice of exploiting low-wage labor to its investors." The ad ends with the message: "Mitt Romney, tough on China? Since when?" The Obama campaign says the ad will air in New Hampshire, Virginia, Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Colorado, and Nevada—all battleground states.

The Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights highlights the dismal working conditions at Global Tech while asking what, if anything, Romney or Bain did to improve those conditions. "If Mr. Romney had spoken up, conditions at Global-Tech might be far better today," the report contends. "Sadly, in 2012 Global-Tech remains a brutal sweatshop where workers are paid starvation wages of $1.00 an hour and have no rights whatsoever."

The Global-Tech revelation wasn't the only Romney investment story first reported by Mother Jones. In July, David Corn also revealed how Romney and Bain invested in firms that pioneered high-tech, or "stealth," outsourcing. Will these deals be in the next Obama ad?

Donald Rumsfeld Inadvertently Disses Himself Yet Again

| Tue Oct. 2, 2012 11:39 AM PDT

Donald Rumsfeld has weighed in on the Obama administration's at-best-muddled response to the Benghazi embassy attack:

I thought it was amazing that someone in [UN ambassador Susan Rice's] position would go on with that degree of certainty, that fast and that authoritatively and be that wrong...[I]t demonstrated such serious misjudgments...

You remember Donald Rumsfeld. He was 13th and 21st United States Secretary of Defense, first under Gerald Ford and then George W. Bush. His hobbies include playing squash and roping cattle. He was also instrumental in the judgment and degrees of certainty that led to this:

this /thisOh, right. That. Staff Sgt. Sean A. Foley/US ArmyAnd he gave the world this slice of poetry when asked in 2002 about WMD-related intelligence gaps:

[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that, we now know we don't know.
But there are also unknown unknowns; there are things we do not know we don't know.

Also, he's wanted for war crimes.

So in other words, yes, Donald Rumsfeld is absolutely the guy you would want to comment on being "wrong" with regards to foreign intel.

Beware the Drug Company That "May Be Able to Help"

| Tue Oct. 2, 2012 10:46 AM PDT

Austin Frakt points us to David Schultz today, who explains the financial incentives behind the coupon wars currently raging in the pharmaceutical industry:

Using cholesterol-lowering drugs as an example, researchers found that the popular statin Lipitor comes with an average co-pay of $30 a month, compared with a $10-a-month co-pay for simvastatin, a generic drug also used to treat high cholesterol. But with a coupon from Pfizer, the drug’s manufacturer, the co-pay for Lipitor goes down to $4 a month, making it less expensive for the consumer than simvastatin.

It’s a great deal for the patient, but not the insurer. According to the JAMA article, the insurer pays $18 a month for simvastatin and $137 a month for Lipitor.

In other words, by picking up the tab for the copay, Pfizer encourages patients to demand Lipitor instead of the generic alternative. The result is higher overall costs for the medical industry as a whole and the sweet jingle of increased patent rents for Pfizer. Needless to say, this pitch is especially effective on the poor and the elderly, who live on low incomes and are likely to push their doctors hard to prescribe the drug that saves them a few dollars.

There's more, and the whole piece is worth a read.

-$251 + $165 + 0 = 0

| Tue Oct. 2, 2012 10:09 AM PDT

Catherine Rampell provides the simple, nickel version of why the Romney/Ryan tax plan is mathematically impossible:

As the Tax Policy Center demonstrated, cutting individual income tax rates by 20 percent from today’s levels would reduce tax burdens by $251 billion per year (in 2015) among households with income above $200,000.

If you leave preferential tax rates for savings and investing (e.g., long-term capital gains and dividends) untouched, as Mr. Romney has said he would do, that leaves only $165 billion of available tax expenditures that can be eliminated from this same group of high-income earners once their marginal tax rates fall.

In other words, even if you completely eliminated all tax deductions for high earners — the mortgage interest deduction, the charitable deduction, the exclusion of healthcare benefits, etc. — it still wouldn't make up for the 20% rate cut Romney wants to give them. Their total tax bill would go down. However, Romney has also said that his total tax plan is revenue neutral, which means that someone else's tax bill has to go up to make up for the tax cuts he's giving to the rich. But Romney says that won't happen either. Middle-class taxes, on net, will stay the same. In other words:

-$251 + $165 + 0 = 0

In my 7th-grade pre-algebra class, this bit of arithmetic wouldn't have passed muster. Maybe they taught math differently at Cranbrook. In any case, all I'd really like to see from Romney is a proof of concept. It doesn't have to be his final plan or anything like that. Just any combination of a 20% rate cut and the closing of tax deductions that produces no net tax decrease for the rich. Anything at all that proves it can be done.

But he can't do it, and he knows it. Not without invoking the dynamic scoring fairy, anyway. But at this point, more than a decade after George Bush's tax-cutting extravaganza, if you still believe that tax cuts for the rich will hypercharge the economy and produce huge pots of free revenue, then you deserve whatever you get. For the rest of us, we just want to see the math. It really shouldn't take too long.

Slate Satisfies My Pet Peeve Quota For the Day

| Tue Oct. 2, 2012 9:40 AM PDT

Today, Slate takes on two of my pet peeves. First, Farhad Manjoo on the pagination of online stories:

Pagination is one of the worst design and usability sins on the Web, the kind of obvious no-no that should have gone out with blinky text, dancing cat animations, and autoplaying music. It shows constant, quiet contempt for people who should be any news site’s highest priority—folks who want to read articles all the way to the end.

Pagination persists because splitting a single-page article into two pages can, in theory, yield twice as many opportunities to display ads—though in practice it doesn’t because lots of readers never bother to click past the first page. The practice has become so ubiquitous that it’s numbed many publications and readers into thinking that multipage design is how the Web has always been, and how it should be.

Manjoo talks about some of the problems with pagination, and as you'd expect, they're not exactly world-shaking. So I'll add one to the pot. Someone I know, who will remain nameless, spent years reading LA Times articles on the web and not realizing that the wording at the bottom indicated that there was a second page of text. He did think it was odd that so many stories ended rather abruptly, and also odd that the online edition sometimes didn't always carry the full text that was in the print edition. But until I mentioned it one day, he never made the connection between this and the mysterious "Next" that often showed up at the end of online pieces. This could be solved by either stopping the use of pagination or else using a more descriptive word to tell people that there's more if they click a link. Naturally I'd prefer the former.

Mother Jones paginates its articles too, of course. Everyone does. The panjandrums at MoJo galactic headquarters have, however, been very good about humoring my unwillingness to paginate long posts on my own blog just because I hate it so much. Death to pagination! (By the way: I do my part by always linking to the single-page version of stories whenever I can. You're welcome.)

Pet peeve #2 comes from Daniel Engber, and it's about the endless, smug overuse of "correlation is not causation" as an exasperated conversation ender:

The correlation phrase has become so common and so irritating that a minor backlash has now ensued against the rhetoric if not the concept. No, correlation does not imply causation, but it sure as hell provides a hint. Does email make a man depressed? Does sadness make a man send email? Or is something else again to blame for both? A correlation can't tell one from the other; in that sense it's inadequate. Still, if it can frame the question, then our observation sets us down the path toward thinking through the workings of reality, so we might learn new ways to tweak them. It helps us go from seeing things to changing them.

I get where this comes from. Too many people really do see correlations and just assume that they imply causation of some kind. So it became common to warn people away from this. But honestly, it's gotten so out of hand that I sometimes think we now have the opposite problem: too many people think that correlations are entirely meaningless. But as Engber says, they aren't. At the very least, they provide clues and don't deserve to be immediately dismissed as meaningless.

At the very least, I'd offer the following challenge: You're not allowed to airily dismiss correlations in research studies unless you actually read the study and understand what controls the researchers used to check for causation. Was there a dose-response effect? Did they do a good job of controlling for confounding factors? Did they discuss possible mechanisms for causation? Etc. If it turns out that the researchers didn't even bother addressing the question, then feel free to mock them. If they did, then address their evidence.

And if it's not a research paper, but just a blogger tossing up a pair of lines on a graph? Same deal: at the very least, you should propose some alternative explanation, or provide some reason for doubt. It doesn't need to be bulletproof, but it ought to be something. Let's raise the bar a bit here.

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Voting Rights Groups Get a Partial Win in Pennsylvania

| Tue Oct. 2, 2012 8:46 AM PDT

The battle over Pennsylvania's voter ID law, which a top state Republican bragged would deliver the state to Mitt Romney, is over—at least for now. The ruling that came down today in Pennsylvania court partially blocks implementation of the law until after the 2012 election.

Voting rights groups are mostly relieved by this result. The Advancement Project released a statement from Co-Director Judith Browne Dianis saying "We are very glad voters will not be turned away from the polls this November if they do have an ID."

When you take a closer look however, the decision is not a total win for voting rights groups. The ruling states that poll workers are allowed to ask voters for photo identification, but those who don't have it will be allowed to cast regular ballots, as opposed to provisional ones. The distinction is crucial: Many provisional ballots don't end up being counted, and in a close election, provisional ballots that are thrown up could change who wins the state. That's a big win for voting rights advocates.

At the same time, those advocates are most likely quietly concerned that the shape of the injunction could lead to voters being disenfranchised. Poll workers might become confused about whether voters are allowed to cast regular ballots if they don't have photo identification. Confusion about what the injunction actually says could result in provisional ballots being cast instead of regular ones, or even voters being turned away from the polls because they lack photo ID.

If you trust number-crunchers like New York Times polling guru Nate Silver, Romney doesn't have much of a chance of contesting Pennsylvania. But unless poll workers get adequate guidance about what the injunction actually says, some Pennsylvania voters could still end up disenfranchised in November.

Mitt Romney's Unfortunate Trip Down Memory Lane

| Tue Oct. 2, 2012 8:12 AM PDT

When I watched Mitt Romney's latest attack ad this morning (via Steve Benen), one scene in it struck a chord in my memory. The ad is on the left. The memory it sparked is on the right. Remember that? Call me crazy, but I'm not sure Romney's ad gurus really ought to be reminding people of this.

Pennsylvania Photo ID Law Put on Hold

| Tue Oct. 2, 2012 7:48 AM PDT

This is good news:

A judge on Tuesday blocked Pennsylvania's divisive voter identification requirement from going into effect before Election Day, delivering a hard-fought victory to Democrats who said it was a ploy to defeat President Barack Obama and other opponents who said it would prevent the elderly and minorities from voting.

....Election workers will still be allowed to ask voters for a valid photo ID, but people without it can vote on a regular voting machine in the polling place and would not have to cast a provisional ballot or prove their identity to election officials after the election.

His ruling came after listening to two days of testimony about the state's eleventh-hour efforts to make it easier to get a valid photo ID. He also heard about long lines and ill-informed clerks at driver's license centers and identification requirements that made it hard for some registered voters to get a state-issued photo ID.

Honestly, this is a reasonable decision regardless of what you think about photo ID laws in general. Pennsylvania's law was simply passed too late to be implemented in any kind of fair and equitable way. At a bare minimum, you need time to make sure people know about the law, time to staff up DMV offices to process new ID cards, and time for independent groups to start up community drives to make sure everybody who wants one can get an ID. This is just common sense.

Unless, of course, your goal is just the opposite: to make sure that lots of people who want to vote aren't going to be able to. But that's not anyone's goal, is it?

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 2, 2012

Tue Oct. 2, 2012 7:46 AM PDT

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. James Bates, a security force squad leader with Provincial Reconstruction Team Farah, pulls security at a landing zone as his team loads a tactical vehicle into the cargo bay of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter in Pur Chaman district, Farah province, Afghanistan on Sept. 26. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt Jonathan Lovelady.