2013 - %3, January

Quick Reads: Dan Fagin's "Toms River"

| Mon Apr. 1, 2013 7:01 PM EDT
book cover 

Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation

By Dan Fagin

BANTAM

As a native of southern New Jersey, I vaguely remember the news stories about mysterious cancers plaguing the children of Toms River, but until now I never had a clear understanding of what happened there. In an account equal parts sociology, epidemiology, and detective novel, veteran environmental journalist Dan Fagin chronicles the ordeal of this quiet coastal town, which for decades was a dumping ground for chemical manufacturers. Fagin's compelling book raises broader questions about what communities are willing to sacrifice in the name of economic development.

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Corn on MSNBC: Does McCain Have a Grudge Against Chuck Hagel?

Thu Jan. 31, 2013 7:33 PM EST

The confirmation hearings for Obama's defense secretary nominee, Chuck Hagel, got off to a rocky start. Senator John McCain got so testy grilling Hagel over the Iraq War that Mother Jones' DC bureau chief David Corn called it "as close as we get to soap opera at a congressional hearing." Watch the whole segment from MSNBC's BashirLive below.

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

"30 Rock": A Political History

| Thu Jan. 31, 2013 6:48 PM EST
Liz Lemon.

Thursday night, 30 Rock takes its curtain call.

After six years on the air, Tina Fey's beloved NBC comedy is ending its run with an hourlong series finale. The series, which is set behind the scenes at an Saturday Night Live-like sketch comedy show, earned a devoted fanbase with its cultural satire and rapid-fire wit. 30 Rock premiered on NBC in 2006, just as the network was launching Aaron Sorkin's highly anticipated drama Studio 60 on the Sunset Stripanother series revolving around a fictional sketch comedy program. Strangely enough, it was Sorkin's hugely political Studio 60 that tanked, while Fey's goofier series became the award-winning critical hit. (As a sidenote, it's worth remembering that when Tina Fey first pitched the show, her original idea was basically the same premise behind Sorkin's latest series, The Newsroom.)

Building Better Kids, Vocabulary Edition

| Thu Jan. 31, 2013 5:56 PM EST

Over at City Journal, E.D. Hirsch argues that the most important function of education is vocabulary development:

There’s a positive correlation between a student’s vocabulary size in grade 12, the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income. The reason is clear: vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities—not just skill in reading, writing, listening, and speaking but also general knowledge of science, history, and the arts. If we want to reduce economic inequality in America, a good place to start is the language-arts classroom.

....Why should vocabulary size be related to achieved intelligence and real-world competence? Though the intricate details of cognitive abilities are under constant study and refinement, it’s possible to give a rough answer. The space where we solve our problems is called “working memory.” For everyone, even geniuses, it’s a small space that can hold only a few items in suspension for only a few seconds. If one doesn’t make the right connections within that space, one has to start over again. Hence, one method for coping and problem solving is to reduce the number of items that one has to make sense of at any moment. The psychologist George A. Miller called that process “chunking.”

....Words are fantastically effective chunking devices. Suppose you put a single item into your working memory—say, “Pasteur.” So long as you hold in your long-term memory a lot of associations with that name, you don’t need to dredge them up and try to cram them into your working memory. The name serves as a brief proxy for whatever aspects will turn out to be needed to cope with your problem. The more readily available such proxies are for you, the better you will be at dealing with various problems.

I don't actually have an independent opinion about this, but my mother, the former fourth-grade teacher turned ESL teacher, has become convinced that vocabulary is indeed the single most important key to learning. So I'm linking to this article for her. If Mom says vocabulary development is key, then by God, I'm going to make you all read about it.

So how do we go about building vocabulary? Hirsch has a bunch of suggestions, but here's one that leapt out at me:

Nearly every child in France attends a free public preschool—an école maternelle—and some attend for three years, starting at age two. The preschools are academically oriented from the start. Each grade has a set curriculum and definite academic goals, and the teachers, selected from a pool of highly qualified applicants, have been carefully trained.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the French conducted an experiment with 2,000 students to determine whether sending children to preschool at age two was worth the public expense. The results were remarkable. After seven years of elementary school, disadvantaged students who had started preschool at age two had fully caught up with their more advantaged peers, while those who had started at three didn’t do quite as well, and those who had started at four trailed still further behind. A good preschool, it turned out, had highly egalitarian effects. A very early start, followed by systematic elementary schooling, can erase much of the achievement gap, though the payoff isn’t fully apparent until the later grades—a delayed effect that is to be expected, given the slowness and cumulativeness of word-learning.

Well. This certainly appeals to my biases. No, wait. Let's say that in a more sophisticated way. My Bayesian priors suggest that these aren't just spurious correlations, but plausibly causal agents. Vocabulary, baby!

(But seriously. There really is a lot of evidence that learning during our very early years is crucially important. See Jon Cohn's "The 2-Year Window" for more.)

The whole piece is interesting. As I said, I don't have a deep understanding of this subject, and I'm not asking you to buy into everything Hirsch says. But it's worth a read. Via Sullivan.

Why We Should Be Scared for Our Coastlines, in 55 Acronyms

| Thu Jan. 31, 2013 4:59 PM EST

A beach house in North Carolina after Hurricane Sandy.

This story first appeared on the Atlantic website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

This week, a group of 78 representatives from American government agencies, universities, non-governmental organizations, and the insurance industry published a report on the threat climate change poses to U.S. coastlines. The document—formal title: "Coastal Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerabilities: A Technical Input to the National Climate Assessment"—clocks in at nearly 200 pages, and functions as a lengthy addendum to the U.S. Global Change Research Program's National Climate Assessment.

The report's findings are unsurprising: Our coastlines are particularly vulnerable to climate change's impacts—a fact that we have had proven to us anecdotally so many sad times in the recent past. Still, though, the document is worth reading—or, perhaps, skimming—in its entirety.

CHARTS: Renewables in Bed With Natural Gas?

| Thu Jan. 31, 2013 3:22 PM EST
generation
Coal use in the US is on the decline, and renewables and natural gas are both expanding to take its place. Courtesy BNEF

It's no secret that environmentalists are going through a bit of an identity crisis when it comes to natural gas. Celebrities including Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon, and Yoko Ono have aligned themselves with green groups like the Sierra Club to come out steadfastly against gas because of fracking, the drilling technique that harvests most of it, citing concerns about water and air contamination. Meanwhile others, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Environmental Defense Fund, have boosted fracking as a "bridge" to wean the US off of coal, and usher in more renewables, a process that is already underway.

But a report released this morning makes it clear that the renewables industry sees itself in the latter camp, forming an unexpected alliance with the natural gas industry, since both groups are intent on giving coal the boot. The informal partnership should be a PR boon to the embattled gas industry, which has spent the last several years trying to allay concerns from the public and policymakers by shouting over the anti-fracking fracas.

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Raw Data: Do You Pay Higher Taxes Than You Did 50 Years Ago?

| Thu Jan. 31, 2013 2:13 PM EST

In my post this morning about government intrusion into our lives, I casually mentioned that we pay higher taxes than we did 50 years ago. I got some pushback on this, so I figured I should check my facts. That turned out to be surprisingly hard.

First off: federal taxes. We all know that top marginal rates have gone down. They were about 90 percent in 1960, compared to 39.6 percent today. At the same time, payroll taxes have gone up. The Medicare tax, for example, didn't even exist in 1960. So what does the median look like? The best I could find was a table from the Tax Policy Center that shows combined federal taxes for a family of four with a few specific assumptions. The chart on the right shows federal taxes for a median family of four over the past 50 years.

Next: state taxes. I can't really find anything reasonable here. The best I can do is the chart on the right, which shows total state and local spending as a percent of total income. Since states are generally required to run balanced budgets, this should correspond reasonably well to tax rates. What's more, since state and local taxes tend to be either flat or regressive, this probably represents median tax payments fairly well too. Still, take it for a very rough guess, not gospel.

If you put these two charts together, they suggest that the average tea partier does, in fact, pay higher taxes than she did 50 years ago: a little more in federal taxes and substantially more in state and local taxes. Overall, the combined median tax burden has increased from about 20 percent to 28 percent.

If I can find a better estimate somewhere, I'll let you know. For now, this provides a rough-and-ready tax picture of the past half century.

UPDATE: In the original version of this post I mixed apples and oranges by using federal tax rates and state spending as a percent of GDP. The state figures should be percentages of income. I've corrected the text and the bottom chart.

(Almost) Nobody Is Serious About the Deficit

| Thu Jan. 31, 2013 1:13 PM EST

Michael Kinsley writes today that deficit hawk Pete Peterson and deficit dove Paul Krugman actually agree with each other: we need more spending now, while the economy is weak, but in the long term we need to rein in the deficit.

They just approach this solution from opposite directions. Peterson wants a balanced budget and only grudgingly acknowledges the need for stimulus. Krugman wants the stimulus and only grudgingly acknowledges that there are limits: You can't borrow forever. Nevertheless, the two men — representing opposite ends of the spectrum in this debate — agree on how we should proceed.

Kinsley is exaggerating for rhetorical effect here, but there's a kernel of truth to this. So if we (almost) all agree that the long-term deficit needs to be controlled, why is there such a massive difference of opinion about whether we should start now vs. putting off the hard decisions until the economy is fully recovered? Neil Irwin takes on this question with a short guide to "why the economics crowd isn't as nervous about deficits and debt as the Washington punditocracy." Then he follows this up with the flip side: the best arguments the political class has for being more nervous about debt than the economics crowd.

It's worth a read, but I'd like to add two bullet points about why the political class is really more nervous about debt than the economists are:

  • For conservatives: They aren't. They just don't like spending lots of money on poor people. Their real desire is to cut welfare spending, and deficit hawkery is a handy excuse for this.
  • For centrists/lefties: They accept the economic argument in theory, but are more attuned to practical politics than economists are. The idea that we can safely ease the pressure for action on the debt today, but still count on politicians to virtuously cut borrowing in the future, strikes them as laughable. We're humans, not Vulcans.

I'm not much of a deficit hawk. But I cop to taking the long-term deficit seriously, and I doubt very much that it will ever get reined in without applying enormous, sustained pressure to the political class. My biggest problem, then, isn't so much that this pressure is being applied, but that it's being applied to the wrong place. There's nothing much we can (or should) do about the aging of America: we just need to pay for it, whether we like it or not. And discretionary spending isn't on an upward trajectory, so it shouldn't be sucking up so much of our attention. It's all healthcare, baby. If all of the pressure on the deficit were being applied to serious proposals for reining in healthcare spending, in an effort to get U.S. spending levels down to those prevailing in socialist Europe, I'd probably applaud. Unfortunately, virtually none of it is. We got a few new cost-containment initiatives in Obamacare, which might or might not work, complemented by some absurd hack-and-slash proposals from the Paul Ryan crowd, and that's about it. This is pretty much the exact opposite of serious.

No, the University of Chicago Isn't Tearing Down Reagan's Childhood Home to Make Way for an Obama Parking Lot

| Thu Jan. 31, 2013 12:59 PM EST

There's a new rumor going around that the University of Chicago wants to pave what's left of Reagan's paradise and put up a socialist parking lot.

On Wednesday, the UK tabloid the Daily Mail published a story claiming that the university had plans to demolish Ronald Reagan's childhood home in Chicago (832 E. 57th St.), to make room for a parking lot for a potential Barack Obama Presidential Library. It goes without saying that this would be flipping one gigantic bird to the American right.

It was at this apartment building that Reagan survived a severe bout of pneumonia. It's also where the future president was living when his older brother was run over by a horse-drawn beer wagon (the incident wasn't fatal, but left a long scar on his leg). In 2004, the University of Chicago bought the land encompassing the apartment building where the 40th President of the United States lived between the age of 3 and 4. Residents were ordered out in 2010. The Commission on Chicago Landmarks denied the structure "landmark status," which gave the university the greenlight to take a bulldoze to the vacant six-flat building to make way for planned campus expansion.

"Some have said that the liberal Chicago establishment does not want a reminder that Reagan, a conservative icon, once lived in the city," the thinly sourced Daily Mail report reads.

South Dakota Bill Implies Women Can't Think on Weekends

| Thu Jan. 31, 2013 12:48 PM EST

Two years ago, South Dakota legislators passed a new law designed to deter women from seeking abortions. Under the law, a woman must consult with her doctor, then visit an anti-abortion "crisis pregnancy center," and then wait 72 hours before she can actually have an abortion. Now legislators want to raise the barrier to accessing an abortion even higher by disqualifying weekends and holidays from the waiting period.

House Bill 1237, sponsored by Republican Jon Hansen, would amend the waiting period rule to add the line, "No Saturday, Sunday, federal holiday, or state holiday may be included or counted in the calculation of the seventy-two hour minimum time period between the initial physician consultation and assessment and the time of the scheduled abortion procedure." It has 14 co-sponsors in the house and five in the state senate.

Apparently South Dakota lawmakers believe that a woman will be unable to contemplate her abortion adequately unless she's doing it on a weekday.

If the bill passes, it would mean a woman who goes in for her initial consultation for an abortion on a Wednesday actually has to wait five days before she can have the abortion (Or six, if she happens to come in before a long weekend.) This is no small barrier for many women, especially in South Dakota. The state has just one abortion clinic, in Sioux Falls, and a doctor that flies in from out of state to provide services. Women drive up to six hours each direction to reach that clinic. The state also requires the doctor to read patients a prescribed script claiming that abortion will put them at an increased risk of suicide (a claim not backed by medical evidence).

Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the 2011 mandatory counseling law, and a court has prevented it from being enforced. But the groups decided to drop the challenge to the 72-hour waiting period part of the law last month, because Planned Parenthood said it had found a way to make that provision workable and it wanted to focus its attention on the mandatory crisis pregnancy counseling portion. Planned Parenthood will begin implementing the waiting period this year. It's almost as if this latest bill is designed to make it even harder for the clinic, and women, to comply with the waiting period.

A call to Hansen's office seeking elaboration on the intent of his proposed legislation had not been returned at press time.

"South Dakota is already one of the most difficult places in the country for a woman to access abortion," said Sarah Stoesz, the president of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota. "The legislature is proving its hostility to women's personal medical decision-making once again. If the theory is that women need 72 hours to think about their decision, then are these politicians saying women can't think on weekends or holidays? This is unbelievable."