2013 - %3, January

Quote of the Day: There Are Lots of Lies About Weight Loss Out There

| Thu Jan. 31, 2013 1:43 AM EST

From David B. Allison, director of the Nutrition Obesity Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, in an article published today in the New England Journal of Medicine:

False and scientifically unsupported beliefs about obesity are pervasive in both scientific literature and the popular press.

Roger that. More here. In a nutshell: pretty much nothing works. The odds are strong that you will never lose weight other than temporarily. I am the poster child for the truth of this.

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Corn on Hardball: "You've Got to Fight Intensity With Intensity"

Wed Jan. 30, 2013 11:56 PM EST

Mother Jones' Washington, DC bureau chief David Corn joined Mark Glaze of Mayors Against Illegal Guns on MSNBC's Hardball Wednesday to talk about the first big Senate hearing on gun violence, Gabby Giffords' moving testimony, and how to combat the NRA's ruthless lobbying. At the hearing, NRA head Wayne LaPierre reaffirmed that he was not willing to give an inch on gun control, even when it comes to moderate measures with broad public approval, such as universal background checks. What's to be done? "For those who want change," Corn said, "you've got to fight that intensity with intensity of your own." Watch here:

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

Chart of the Decade: Corporations are Pessimistic About Future Growth

| Wed Jan. 30, 2013 5:53 PM EST

Ezra Klein posted this chart today showing the steady accumulation of corporate cash and reserves over the past 15 years. I'd like to nominate it for chart of the decade or something. "Why corporations are holding so much more cash is an interesting mystery," says Ezra, but I think it's the key mystery of the past couple of decades. Total liquid assets held by nonfinancial corporations have increased from 7.7 percent of GDP to 11.3 percent of GDP.

Why? Why are corporations increasingly unable to find anything interesting to do with their cash in the real world? Why are they implicitly so pessimistic about opportunities for future growth? Is this the financial smoking gun for Tyler Cowen's "great stagnation" thesis?

I'm not sure. But for 15 years the people with money to bet have been betting that they'll get better returns investing in financial instruments than they will by investing in expansion of existing products and the invention of new ones. Until we figure out why, we're going to be stuck with a combination of sluggish growth and financial bubbles as far as the eye can see.

Arkansas Advances Anti-Abortion "Heartbeat" Bill

| Wed Jan. 30, 2013 4:56 PM EST

Arkansas is the latest state to advance legislation that would significantly limit the time period in which women can legally obtain an abortion. On Wednesday, the state Senate's Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee approved a bill that would outlaw an abortion if a doctor can detect a fetal heartbeat—which can occur as early as six weeks into gestation.

Senate Bill 134 amounts to a near-total ban on abortion, as it often takes women six weeks to realize they are pregnant at all (especially when the pregnancy is unplanned). It would also cut off access to abortion well before fetal abnormalities or other conditions are apparent. More to the point, even finding a heartbeat that early in a pregnancy requires sticking a probe inside the woman's vagina. This is basically Transvaginal Ultrasounds: The Sequel, except far worse, since it would deny a woman the right to have an abortion after having a plastic wand shoved inside her.

While the bill states that it would not subject women seeking an abortion to criminal charges, it would be a felony offense for any doctor to perform an abortion when a heartbeat is detectable. Sen. Jason Rapert, a Republican, says the bill is necessary because "[w]hen there is a heartbeat there, you have a living human being."

Ohio lawmakers drafted a "heartbeat bill" back in 2011, but it did not pass. This time, Arkansas lawmakers have taken the added step of declaring the bill an "emergency measure," which would give it the force of law on the date the governor signs it. It stands a decent chance of passing, as Republicans took control of both the House and Senate this year. The Democratic governor, Mike Beebe, has a mixed review from abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Is the Conservative Fever Starting to Break?

| Wed Jan. 30, 2013 3:13 PM EST

Andrew Sullivan thinks there's been a tectonic shift since Barack Obama's reelection:

It's not just the return to Clinton tax rates for the very wealthy; it's a real cultural shift as well. In the last week, we have seen the Boy Scouts back off a national policy of excluding openly gay scouts and scout-masters (which means the Mormon hierarchy must have not made too big a fuss); we have Tom Tancredo almost smoking a joint in public (don't make a bet with him on anything in the future); we have Sean Hannity's ratings plummeting; we see gay couples included in the president's comprehensive immigration reform; we have Limbaugh edging ever-so-slightly toward Rubio on immigration.

That chart does surprise me. Not because Obama's favorables are up five points. That seems like fairly standard inaugural honeymoon stuff. But his unfavorables are down ten points. Some of that is honeymoon stuff too, and it will wash out soon enough. Still, it's a big drop, and it suggests that maybe a bit of the fever has broken on the right. Maybe.

In any case, this is why immigration reform needs to happen soon if it's going to happen at all. And as near as I can tell, it's all in Marco Rubio's hands now. If he can persuade enough Republicans to take a deep breath and support a compromise measure—and if he can keep the conservative punditocracy from flipping out over it—it has a good chance of passing both Senate and House. If not, probably not. I don't think McCain and Graham can do it on their own.

"The Americans": Lovable Soviet Spies Who Smack-Talk Reagan and Do Kung-Fu Are Finally on Cable TV

| Wed Jan. 30, 2013 2:20 PM EST

Matthew Rhys, left, and Keri Russell.

"The American people have elected a madman as their president," a softly bearded Russian general says to KGB officer "Elizabeth Jennings" (played by a terrific Keri Russell), in obvious reference to The Gipper. The general continues: "He makes no secret of his desire to destroy us. Our war is not so cold anymore...Our enemy is strong and capable. We must meet the challenge." The year is 1981, the Reagan era has dawned, and communist sleeper agents are apparently running around Washington, raising their families and seducing Justice Department officials.

The Americans, a new series premiering tonight at 10 p.m. ET on FX, focuses on Elizabeth and her husband and partner-in-counterintelligence-crime Phillip (Matthew Rhys, the "Welshman who plays a Russian playing an American"). Their marriage was arranged by the KGB during the Khrushchev era. The two live in an upper-middle-class neighborhood with a young daughter and son, both of whom are blissfully ignorant to mommy and daddy's real allegiances. For years, the duo has hidden in plain sight, running a small travel agency, while fulfilling their mission to subvert the United States government and funnel valuable information back to the Kremlin. Elizabeth is the true believer of the household: "I would go to jail, I would die, I would give up everything before I would betray my country," she shouts. Phillip is the non-ideologue who is far more interested in his family than in ensuring Soviet global domination: "America's not so bad. We've been here a long time; what's so bad about it, you know? The electricity works all the time, the food's pretty great, the closet space..."

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6 Things We Learned at the Senate's Big Guns Hearing

| Wed Jan. 30, 2013 1:51 PM EST

Mark Kelly and Wayne LaPierre agree on something. At Wednesday's much-anticipated Senate judiciary committee hearing on gun violence—featuring former astronaut Mark Kelly, Baltimore police chief John Johnson, NRA head Wayne LaPierre, and others—the fireworks, such as they were, erupted over background checks and high-capacity magazines. But on mental health, a significant element of President Barack Obama's gun control package, there appeared to be some agreement. Here's Kelly on the Tucson shooter who tried to kill his wife, Gabby Giffords: "He had never been legally adjudicated as mentally ill, and, even if he had, Arizona at the time had over 121,000 records of disqualifying mental illness it had not submitted to the background check system." And here's Wayne LaPierre: "We need to look at the full range of mental health issues, from early detection and treatment, to civil commitment laws, to privacy laws that needlessly prevent mental health records from being included in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System."

Republican Texas Sen. John Cornyn (among others) lamented the failure of state agencies to turn over mental health records to the NICBS, and suggested it might be worth examining the ease with which the outpatient mentally ill can obtain weapons. Still, it was unclear how far LaPierre would go to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, given that he generally opposed more expansive and effective background checks.

When Gabby Giffords speaks, you should listen. The former Arizona congresswoman paused for seven seconds before reading a statement that was only 62 words. Here it is:

Chuck Grassley is okay with the CDC studying guns after all. Maybe. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) used his opening statement to challenge the president's complaint that Congress had prohibited the Centers for Disease Control from researching gun deaths. "Contrary to what you may have heard, Congress has never prohibited CDC from researching gun violence," Grassley said. "Rather, Congress prevented federal research to 'advocate or promote gun control,' which some government researchers had been doing under the guise of taxpayer supported science. Had Congress actually prohibited gun violence research, the president could not legally have directed CDC to conduct that research."

But that's not what Grassley has been saying for the last two weeks. On January 15, when President Obama announced his plans to direct the CDC to renew its research into gun violence, the senator's spokesman noted that funding restrictions enacted by Congress "effectively keeps [the CDC] from conducting any research or analysis related to gun violence." On Tuesday, Grassley took to the floor of the Senate to hammer Obama's CDC directive, arguing that "gun violence is not a disease, and lawful gun ownership is not a disease."

So is this a new position? I've reached out to Grassley's office for a response and will update if I hear back.

Lindsey Graham thinks the AR-15 will replace cops. The South Carolina GOPer—who originally planned on bringing unloaded guns to the hearing—lamented the fact that state budget cuts have forced municipalities to downsize their police departments. But according to Graham, that doesn't mean the federal government should pick up the tab or communities should shift their priorities. Instead, it means, for Graham, that the AR-15 rifle (the kind used by Newtown shooter Adam Lanza) has become a more viable alternative for self-defense. Graham also asserted that semi-automatic weapons could come in quite handy in the event that one's neighborhood is taken over by "marauding gangs" following a natural disaster. (LaPierre referred to the need to survive a "riot.") "I own an AR-15," Graham told the panel. And so should you.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives may as well not exist. In the first three hours of the hearing, the word "ATF" came up only once, even as Republican senators and key witnesses (LaPierre most frequently) griped about the failure of the federal government to enforce existing gun laws. What they didn't mention was the role they'd played in making that impossible—by curbing funding for the ATF and handicapping enforcement.

Ladies love the AR-15! The women with yellow-and-black "Stop Gun Violence Now" stickers snickered when Gayle Trotter, a senior fellow at the conservative Independent Women's Forum, reported, "Young women are speaking out as to why AR-15's are their weapons of choice!" They laughed a bit louder when Trotter asserted, "I speak on behalf of millions of American women." At a hearing where even the normally bombastic LaPierre seemed to have missed his morning coffee, Trotter's call to put more assault weapons in the hands of young mothers with babies may have been as close as the hearing came to pyrotechnics. Here's the video, via TPM:

 

 

Other people that love the AR-15: bros, small children, and people who hunt pigs.

It's OK to Torture, But Not OK to Talk About Torture

| Wed Jan. 30, 2013 1:28 PM EST

James Pohl, the Army colonel running the trial of accused 9/11-conspirator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, is not pleased. Someone—it's not clear who, but it sure isn't Pohl—is turning the audio feed of the hearing on and off. The feed was cut off yesterday when defense attorney David Nevin mentioned that portions of the hearing would be held in secret, and it wasn't immediately obvious who had done it:

There was one thing that Pohl was clear about: what Nevin had been saying when he was cut off was not secret at all. That someone apparently thought it should be is likely due to its proximity to the question of torture—a subject that has distorted the proceedings profoundly, the white noise reverberating through it all, cutting off a moral as well as legal conversation.

Welcome to military commission hearings in the world's greatest democracy, now all but impossible to hold fairly because of our history of torturing suspects. Do you feel ill yet?

Lindsey Graham Continues His Temper Tantrum Over Benghazi

| Wed Jan. 30, 2013 12:49 PM EST

ThinkProgress reports that Sen. Lindsey Graham has decided to continue his spectacular temper tantrum over Benghazi, telling Fox News last night, "I haven’t forgotten about Benghazi. Hillary Clinton got away with murder, in my view." He's not using this in its idiomatic meaning, either. He literally seems to think that Hillary Clinton has cleverly wriggled out from under a Murder One conviction via some kind of Machiavellian trickery.

Next up in Graham's Benghazi crosshairs is defense secretary Leon Panetta. Graham has now decided that he won't rest until Panetta testifies too, and to make sure that happens he's going to block Chuck Hagel's SecDef nomination until he's got Panetta sweating under the klieg lights. "Why would we not want to understand what happened during the attack itself?" he asked Greta Van Susteren rhetorically. "How could our secretary — what happened for seven hours? Why were there no military assets available on September the 11th?"

This is very close to literal insanity. Graham knows perfectly well that these questions have been answered, and he knows perfectly well that Panetta won't tell him anything he doesn't already know. So why is he putting on this performance? My theory is simple: Graham likes being a maverick, but voters in South Carolina don't really want a maverick as their senator. They want a 100 percent ACU-certified hard-right conservative. Since Graham doesn't want to give them that, he has to compensate for it with periodic high-profile eruptions that demonstrate the kind of spittle-flecked hatred of Barack Obama his constituents want. It makes up for his occasional apostasy over climate change or immigration, and shows that he's really one of them even if he does have a few peculiar pet causes they don't understand.

Either that or he really is crazy. I guess I'm not entirely sure which.

Can Charter Schools Improve Over Time?

| Wed Jan. 30, 2013 12:03 PM EST

A new study from Stanford's Center for Research on Education Outcomes concludes that charter schools "post superior results with historically disadvantaged student subgroups." Via Twitter, Neerav Kingsland asks, "can you run this study through your skepticism wringer?"

The full study is a couple hundred pages long, so the answer is no. What's more, the main conclusion of the study is actually about the consistency of charter school results over time, not charter performance among minorities. Their primary takeaway is simple: charters that start out strong stay strong, and charters that start out weak stay weak. They don't get better over time as they "work out the kinks."

I actually find that reasonably plausible. Nonetheless, although I don't have time to read the full report right now, I can read the executive summary and point out a few issues:

Short time frame: "Using the broad range of data that CREDO has developed in partnership with 25 state education agencies, we follow student-level performance in schools from their opening through their fifth year."

Small sample size: "While the available data does not extend into the past, far enough to observe the birth of all [charter management organizations], a limited number of CMO 'births' are evident in the data window at our disposal and it is possible to observe their flagship school's performance before and after replication."

Confirms own biases: "Interviews with school staff along with our own observations of school activities and operations have formed the impression that the 'rules' of a school get set early on in the life of the school....If our admittedly limited, qualitatively-based conjecture is true and more generally supported, we conjectured that it should be possible to observe the phenomenon quantitatively and test the hypothesis statistically."

These are reasons to treat CREDO's conclusions with caution. Nonetheless, it's worth pointing out that some of CREDO's results aren't super friendly toward the charter movement. Lousy charters stay lousy over time, for example, and that's especially true for middle and high schools. Charter performance, on average, is pretty average. There are very few observable attributes that serve as signals of charter quality. So while their study confirms the bias they took into it—something that seems to be an absolute scourge in the ed reform field—it wasn't all just confirmation bias. A few of their results were challenging for the charter school movement.

Overall, I don't have a big issue with this study. It seems to be fairly modest in its claims, and its main policy recommendation is that since charters display a wide range of performance, they should be monitored closely and shut down early if they perform poorly. I'm generally in favor of lots of ruthless experimentation, so I guess this appeals to my biases.

As for whether charters really are especially strong among minority and low-income populations, that's been the subject of dozens of studies, not just this one. The CREDO study seems to confirm that it's possible for a charter to do especially well among these groups, but we still don't how easy it is, how scalable it is, how replicable it is, or how expensive it is. The jury is still out.