2012 - %3, January

What "Happy Feet Two" Star Matt Damon Taught Me About Fracking

| Fri Dec. 28, 2012 7:06 AM EST

And a fine singer to boot.

Promised Land
Focus Features
106 minutes

If Matt Damon & Co. really wanted to make a movie that would scare American audiences off of fracking for good, they should have just made a movie dramatizing fracking's potential threat to America's beer. Instead, what we get is a quaint love story wrapped in a conspiracy movie, draped in a toothless political polemic, festooned with mawkish aimlessness.

It didn't have to be this way. Promised Land's script was originally developed with Dave Eggers, the acclaimed, award-winning author. The film offers the considerable acting skills of Damon, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, Hal Holbrook, John Krasinski, and Scoot McNairy. And, due to the hotly controversial issue of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, the movie has had the honor of being slammed by the Heritage Foundation and petroleum lobbyists.

Promised Land is also directed by Gus Van Sant, a man who has a keen artist's eye for both mainstream fare and indie grit. (Yes, Van Sant and Damon are reunited, so beware of the lame and painfully obvious Good Will Fracking headlines.)

See? Nothing but good résumés and intriguing publicity behind this movie. And yet it putters out into both embarrassment and creative lethargy, fueled (if that's the term I want) by an acute lack of focus and commitment. Promised Land struggles to compel just as much as it fails to inform. By the film's end, Matt Damon will have taught you precisely two things about fracking: That it's bad for cows, and even worse for heartfelt dramatic monologues delivered by Matt Damon.

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How Technical Sounding Nonsense Can Boost Your Career Prospects

| Thu Dec. 27, 2012 11:07 PM EST

Is a research paper in the social sciences more impressive if it contains some impenetrable math? Kimmo Eriksson, who made a mid-career move from pure mathematics to cultural evolution and social psychology, had a hunch that it might. So he did a test. He recruited a bunch of volunteers with either masters degrees or PhDs to read abstracts of two actual papers that had been previously published. Half the group got the original abstract, while the other half got the abstract with this sentence added:

So what did he find? Reviewers were asked to rate the quality of the research on a scale of 1-100, and it turned out that when the reviewer had a degree in a tech-related area, the addition of the nonsense equation had no effect. In fact, it reduced their rating of the abstract slightly. But if the reviewer's degree was in the humanities, social sciences, medicine, or education, the added math raised their rating of the abstract significantly. Eriksson comments:

The experimental results suggest a bias for nonsense math in judgments of quality of research. Further, this bias was only found among people with degrees from areas outside mathematics, science and technology. Presumably lack of mathematical skills renders difficult own critical evaluation of meaningless mathematics....It may also be that people always tend to become impressed by what they do not understand, irrespective of what field it represents—much in line with the "Guru effect" discussed by Sperber (2010). The scope of the phenomenon is a question for future research.

The chart on the right shows how participants rated the abstracts with the added math compared to the original mathless abstract. The full paper is here.

The Big Debate: Should We Raise Taxes on the Rich or the Poor?

| Thu Dec. 27, 2012 4:25 PM EST

Ezra Klein has said this before, and I'm pretty sure I've said it before too—possibly by linking to Ezra saying it—but it bears repeating: Both Democrats and Republicans want to raise taxes on certain people. The main difference is which people they want to raise taxes on:

Democrats do want to raise taxes on families making more than $250,000. You sometimes hear Democrats say they just want to "restore the Clinton-era rates" for these folks, but that's misleading. In addition to letting the Bush tax cuts expire, the White House wants to add about $700 billion in further tax increases on these taxpayers. And that's in addition to the high-income taxes passed in the health-care law. Under Obama's plan, taxes on the richest Americans would be much higher than under the Clinton tax code.

So yes, Democrats want to raise some taxes. But so do Republicans. They want to let the payroll tax cut and the various stimulus tax credits (notably the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit) expire. Those are the tax cuts that primarily help poor and middle-class Americans. In fact, 87.8 percent of the payroll tax cut's benefits go to taxpayers making less than $200,000 and 99.9 percent of the stimulus tax credits' benefits go to taxpayers making less than $200,000.

But you want numbers, don't you? How much do Democrats want to raise taxes on the rich? How much do Republicans want to raise taxes on the poor? This is a little tricky, since the healthcare taxes Ezra mentions are a done deal. They really shouldn't be counted as part of the fiscal cliff negotiations at all. What's more, I don't have numbers for the entirety of Obama's most recent proposal. However, the Tax Policy Center gives us a good rundown of the major points of contention in the chart below, which I've compressed and annotated. Bottom line: allowing the payroll tax cuts and the stimulus tax cuts to expire will raise taxes on the poorest Americans by nearly 3 points. Allowing the high-end Bush tax cuts to expire will raise taxes on the richest Americans by nearly 4 points. Take your pick.

The Whole Six Yards

| Thu Dec. 27, 2012 1:47 PM EST

Have you always wondered where the phrase "the whole nine yards" comes from? You're not alone. "For decades," says Jennifer Schuessler of the New York Times, "the answer to that question has been the Bigfoot of word origins."

And that's true. Back before I knew this was a controversy, I simply assumed the phrase derived from the game of football. Why? Because I had always heard it used a bit sarcastically, suggesting that if you gave something "the whole nine yards," you weren't really putting in enough effort to get the job done. This naturally suggested a football origin.

That's wrong, it turns out, but no one really knows the actual origin of the phrase. Until now! Recent research suggests that the meaning of "nine yards" is....nothing. It's just "numerical phrase inflation." Click the link for the whole deflating story.

Quote of the Day: The Problem With Economics

| Thu Dec. 27, 2012 1:18 PM EST

From Matt Yglesias, talking about the current state of macroeconomic theorizing:

It's far too easy for people with the relevant skills to demonstrate just about anything.

Technically, of course, this is true of just about any field. I've seen plenty of sophisticated debunkings of Einstein's theory of relativity, for example. Luckily, it turns out that physics is a fairly simple field, which makes it possible for the physics community to gather enough empirical data to keep the cranks safely at bay. If your GPS device gets you safely home, then the theory of relativity can't be too wrong, after all.

At the same time, climate science is only moderately more complex than relativistic mechanics, and its standing in the relevant scientific community is very nearly as strong. What's more, there's a ton of empirical data suggesting that the globe is indeed warming dangerously. But that hasn't done it much good. In the end, it turns out that the reason the theory of relativity is widely accepted in the outside world has very little to do with how strongly the physics community believes it. It has to do with the fact that, unlike climate science, it doesn't gore any powerful oxes. (Oxen?)

Sadly, macroeconomics combines the worst aspects of just about everything. It's wildly complex. Its fundamental precepts change over time as the basis of the economy changes. Reliable experimental evidence is practically impossible to come by. Even the effect of fairly simple changes to basic quantities—hell, even the direction of the effect—is often contested. And of course, it's a field that gores just about every ox in existence. So there's always a ready audience for any result, no matter how strained an interpretation of reality it takes to get it.

The part I can't figure out is why there's so much contention even within the field. In physics and climate science, the cranks are almost all nonspecialists with an axe to grind. Actual practitioners agree pretty broadly on at least the basics. But in macroeconomics you don't have that. There are still polar disagreements among top names on some of the most basic questions. Even given the complexity of the field, that's a bit of a mystery. It's understandable that economics is a more politicized field than physics, but in practice it seems to be almost 100 percent politicized, with the battles fought out by streams of Greek letters demonstrating, as Matt says, just about anything. I wonder if this is ever likely to change? Or will changes in the real world always outpace our ability to build consensus on how the economy actually works?

Fiscal Cliff Deal "Virtually Impossible" by New Year's Deadline

| Thu Dec. 27, 2012 1:08 PM EST
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Brace yourselves, nation: It looks as if we're headed off the so-called "fiscal cliff."

After House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) failed last week to corral enough Republican votes on a bill to let the Bush tax cuts expire for the wealthiest Americans, the spotlight moved to the Democratic-controlled US Senate. It is now up to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), working with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and President Obama, to forge a deal to avert the slew of tax increases and spending cuts, hitting domestic programs and the defense budget alike, that begin to go into effect on January 1, 2013. And of course any deal passed out of the Senate must also be approved by the House. Yet the prospects of a timely agreement in the Senate look grim, too.

The consensus on the Hill, Politico reports, is that a fiscal cliff deal by New Year's Eve is "virtually impossible":

With the country teetering on this fiscal cliff of deep spending cuts and sharp tax hikes, the philosophical differences, the shortened timetable and the political dynamics appear to be insurmountable hurdles for a bipartisan deal by New Year’s Day.

Hopes of a grand-bargain—to shave trillions of dollars off the deficit by cutting entitlement programs and raising revenue—are shattered. House Republicans already failed to pass their “Plan B” proposal. And now aides and senators say the White House’s smaller, fall-back plan floated last week is a non-starter among Republicans in Senate—much less the House.

On top of that, the Treasury Department announced Wednesday that the nation would hit the debt limit on Dec. 31, and would then have to take “extraordinary measures” to avoid exhausting the government’s borrowing limit in the New Year.

Senate Democrats are considering fallback options to resolve the crisis, but they appear unlikely to push forward if Republicans decide to mount a serious opposition. The White House, a senior administration official said, is in close coordination with Senate Democrats. Late Wednesday, Reid’s office pushed Republicans to pass a bill to extend tax rates for income below $250,000.

The fiscal cliff, to be clear, isn't really a cliff. As Kevin Drum pointed out, it's more of a staircase or a slope. We're in for roughly $400 billion in tax increases and $200 billion in spending cuts, but that pain will be spread out over many months. If Congress were to cut a deal soon after January 1, the fiscal pain would be minimized; let it drag on for months and then the pain really hurts.

How much hurt? Those tax hikes and spending cuts would suck almost 3 percentage points out of the US' gross domestic product in 2013 and nudge the unemployment rate up by a disastrous 3.4 points, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

That's recession territory. And for the moment, that appears to be where we're headed with Congress locked in a stalemate.

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Lisa Jackson Leaves the EPA

| Thu Dec. 27, 2012 12:52 PM EST

EPA chief Lisa Jackson has stepped down after four years on the job. The NY Times puts her resignation in the context of what many perceive as a lack of climate-change action on the part of the Obama administration:

Ms. Jackson's departure comes as many in the environmental movement are questioning Mr. Obama's commitment to dealing with climate change and other environmental problems. After his re-election, and a campaign in which global warming was barely mentioned by either candidate, Mr. Obama said that his first priority would be jobs and the economy and that he intended only to foster a "conversation" on climate change in the coming months.

Here's Jackson's statement:

I want to thank President Obama for the honor he bestowed on me and the confidence he placed in me four years ago this month when he announced my nomination as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. At the time I spoke about the need to address climate change, but also said: "There is much more on the agenda: air pollution, toxic chemicals and children’s health issues, redevelopment and waste-site cleanup issues, and justice for the communities who bear disproportionate risk." As the President said earlier this year when he addressed EPA’s employees, "You help make sure the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat are safe. You help protect the environment not just for our children but their children. And you keep us moving toward energy independence…We have made historic progress on all these fronts." So, I will leave the EPA confident the ship is sailing in the right direction, and ready in my own life for new challenges, time with my family and new opportunities to make a difference.

More at NY Times.

A Question From the Staff of the Mother Jones Irvine Bowl

| Thu Dec. 27, 2012 12:36 PM EST

Browsing through the sports section this morning, I came across this sentence:

UCLA brings plenty of offense to the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl on Thursday night in San Diego....

I've been wondering for a while how it is that newspapers got bullied into using the full, sponsored names for bowl games. I understand why TV announcers do it: I assume they're contractually obligated to use the sponsor's name. But what's everyone else's excuse? Why not just call it the Holiday Bowl and let the TV guys do all the water carrying for the corporate sponsors? Ditto for every other bowl that actually has a name. Does anyone know how and when this entered the stylebooks of our nation's print media?

Republicans Now 100 Percent AWOL From Fiscal Cliff Talks

| Thu Dec. 27, 2012 11:49 AM EST

John Boehner gave up on fiscal cliff negotiations after he was unable to get House Republicans to agree to any proposal at all, even one that he himself had crafted. The fate of the Republic, he said, was now in the Senate's hands. So how is Mitch McConnell handling things?

An aide said Wednesday that McConnell had not been in contact with any top Democrats, including Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader, during the holiday break....Always cautious, McConnell has kept a decidedly low profile during the last few weeks of political theater in the Capitol....Behind the scenes, he [] helped devise Boehner's Plan B maneuver, which failed to gain enough Republican votes to be brought up in the House. In the aftermath of that defeat, however, McConnell may be unwilling to take on the job of deal-maker. The reasons reflect the pressures that have buffeted his fellow Republicans.

"I cannot emphasize how little a constructive role he will play in this," Democratic strategist Jim Manley, a former top Reid aide, said of McConnell. "He's going to be very reluctant to get involved, and to the extent he does get involved, he's going to move very slowly."

No Republican dares to be associated with a tax increase, including McConnell. Grover Norquist and his blood pledge still control them all. Will this change after January 1, when the conversation is no longer about raising taxes, but about lowering them? That would make sense, but sense is in short supply these days in the GOP caucus. Here's the best quote in the entire story:

"The president made a strategic miscalculation and overreached," said one GOP aide granted anonymity to discuss party strategy. "He could have worked to reach a fair agreement, but instead he picked a fight, poisoned the well, and now we are likely to have a rather unproductive next four years. The decision he made only hurts himself."

The president overreached! He spent an entire year campaigning on letting tax rates go up modestly on the rich, and then, after winning a convincing victory in November he insisted on....letting tax rates go up modestly on the rich. In GOP-land, that constitutes "poisoning the well," and it will now become the official excuse for another four years of bitter obstruction and spittle-flecked conspiracy theories. The whole process took less than two months from start to finish. Happy New Year, everyone.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 27, 2012

Thu Dec. 27, 2012 11:33 AM EST
Sgt. Quentin Deckard, an infantryman assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 3rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division fires an AT-4, an anti-tank weapon, at the Udairi Range Complex near Camp Buehring, Kuwait, Dec. 20. US Army photo.