2013 - %3, February

The Odd Case of Liability and Small Airplanes

| Tue Feb. 19, 2013 11:49 AM EST

Back in 1994, Congress passed the General Aviation Revitalization Act. Under this law, small airplane manufacturers were no longer liable for accidents in planes more than 18 years old. So how did that affect the behavior of pilots? Alex Tabarrok has a new paper out that looks into this:

Our estimates show that the end of manufacturers’ liability for aircraft was associated with a significant (on the order of 13.6 percent) reduction in the probability of an accident. The evidence suggests that modest decreases in the amount and nature of flying were largely responsible. After GARA, for example, aircraft owners and pilots retired older aircraft, took fewer night flights, and invested more in a variety of safety procedures and precautions, such as wearing seat belts and filing flight plans. Minor and major accidents not involving mechanical failure—those more likely to be under the control of the pilot—declined notably.After GARA, for example, aircraft owners and pilots retired older aircraft, took fewer night flights, and invested more in a variety of safety procedures and precautions, such as wearing seat belts and filing flight plans. Minor and major accidents not involving mechanical failure—those more likely to be under the control of the pilot—declined notably.

I don't know anything about this, and I'm not qualified to judge the paper. But if it's correct, it sure does suggest a counterintuitive view of human nature. At one level, the obvious response is: Hey, incentives matter! Make pilots responsible for their own behavior, and they become more careful. What's so counterintuitive about that? But at a deeper level, think about what this implies. We're supposed to believe that once the ability to sue over an (extremely unlikely) accident was taken away, pilots actively decided to fly less, wear seat belts more, and replace their old equipment. Really? The prospect of dying didn't do the trick, but the prospect of not being able to sue did? This really doesn't fit my mental model of human behavior. That's especially true given this comment from Alistair Cunningham:

If you look back at the lawsuits that did take place, they were rarely pilots suing, they were the families of deceased pilots egged on by what almost every pilot I’ve ever met would consider as parasitic lawyers. They tended to be awarded large payouts by sympathetic juries who saw only a poor grieving family and a rich distant corporation, and who didn’t understand that the overwhelming majority of general aviation accidents are the pilot’s fault.

If that's the case, then liability would be expected to have no effect at all on pilots themselves.

I'm not really trying to take sides here. Like I said, I'm not qualified to judge the paper (which I haven't read). But I would say that if this conclusion holds up, we should see similar behavior in lots of other areas, with legislative changes that affect remote consequences having significant and measurable effects on immediate behavior. Do we?

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Georgia Man With IQ of 70 Granted Stay of Execution (UPDATED)

| Tue Feb. 19, 2013 7:47 AM EST

Update, 4:18 p.m.: The Georgia supreme court has denied Warren Hill's motion for a stay of execution.

Update, 6:44 p.m.: The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has granted Warren Hill a stay of execution, according to his lawyers.

Update, 2/20/2012: Here's the order from the 11th Circuit. The Georgia court of appeals also issued a stay, due to complications surrounding the state's recent switch from a lethal-injection "cocktail" to a single drug.

Warren Hill has an IQ of 70 and placed in the third percentile on his middle-school standardized test. Doctors have found him to be "mildly mentally retarded." But even though the US Supreme Court in 2002 ruled that executing the mentally handicapped is unconstitutional, Hill will be put to death today, barring a late intervention by the courts.

In 1989, while serving a life sentence for murdering his girlfriend, Hill was given the death penalty for murdering his cellmate with a wooden board.  Georgia had outlawed the death penalty for the mentally handicapped by then, but the state mandated that defendants prove their handicap "beyond a reasonable doubt"—putting the burden of proof, in other words, on the disabled defendant.

Hill's appeal rests mostly on a single compelling point: The team of state doctors who originally concluded he qualified for capital punishment has completely reversed itself, citing their own inexperience (one of them had never evaluated a patient for mental retardation before) and advances in the field. As one member of the team, Dr. Thomas Sachy, put it in Hill's application for a sentence commutation:

The totality of evidence shows that far from "malingering a cognitive disorder," Mr. Hill has had a cognitive disorder with adaptive skill deficits since early childhood. He consistently tested in the 2-3 percentile in childhood achievement and intelligence testing, consistent with mild mental retardation. There was no dispute in 2000 among the clinicians who had evaluated Mr. Hill that he has an IQ of approximately 70. There is also evidence of significant deficits in such areas of his functioning as self-care, functional academics, interpersonal skills, and home living since prior to age 18.

Among the arguments in favor of qualifying Hill for the death penalty were a set of letters he had written from prison to his lawyer and family members, which seemed to demonstrate a higher level of mental competence than he'd shown in his examination. But doctors now believe those letters were written by someone else.

Georgia isn't the only state that has found its way around Atkins v. Virginia, the 2002 decision in which the Supreme Court ruled that executing the mentally handicapped violates the Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. In August, Texas executed Marvin Wilson, who sucked his thumb into adulthood and couldn't tell the difference between left and right, on the basis of mental competence guidelines that were inspired by the John Steinbeck novel Of Mice and Men.

Hill's execution had originally been scheduled for last August but was stayed by the state Supreme Court—not because of his mental capacity, but because of questions about the lethal injection drug the state was using. It is now set for 7 p.m. tonight.

Can Police Be Trusted With Drones?

| Tue Feb. 19, 2013 7:02 AM EST
The Aeryon Scout unmanned drone.

Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern wants to buy a surveillance drone, or, as he prefers to call it, a "small Unmanned Aerial System." At a meeting before the county's Board of Supervisors last week, he claimed that he'd only use the drone for felony cases, not to spy on people or monitor political activists. But a few minutes later he'd seemed to change his mind, adding: "I don't want to lock myself into just felonies."

Catcalls and hisses erupted from a crowd of some 100 anti-drone activists. One man later called the proposal "an assault on my community."

Around the country, a small but growing number of localities are considering the use of domestic drones—aircraft that are smaller, lighter, and cheaper (though not much less controversial) than what the military uses in Afghanistan. Police departments could outfit drones with infrared sensors that see through walls, with facial recognition software, or with technology that intercepts calls and emails. Yet the the federal government doesn't do much to regulate how drones can use such technologies to collect information on private citizens.

Charts: The Staggering Cost of Death Row for California Taxpayers

| Tue Feb. 19, 2013 7:02 AM EST

I recently came across an ambitious infographic created by the California Innocence Project following the failure of state Proposition 34, which, had it passed last November, would have abolished the death penalty in California. Voters weren't quite ready to go there—they rejected Prop. 34 by a 52-48 margin. Yet nearly 6 million Californians voted to do away with capital punishment, the administration of which has been fraught with problems, and which has huge budget implications in a state struggling mightily to fund essentials like public education.

The infographic is worth revisiting in light of California's policy on capital punishment remaining status quo. The Innocence Project, a program of California Western Law School that aims to identify wrongfully convicted prisoners and work toward their release, presents the facts here as they apply to California, whose death row population even dwarfs that of Texas. (Although Texas executes more people by far than any other state.) The numbers are stark, to say the least:

What sentencing people to death costs California taxpayers:

How much more it costs to keep someone on death row:

How much Californians pay per execution, and how long it takes:

The number of people California sentences to death:

The skewed racial makeup of the condemned:

The relative size of California's death row population:

The number of people wrongfully sentenced to death in California and elsewhere—that we know of…

…in many cases because of racism, incompetence, and/or official misconduct:

There's even more interesting stuff in the original infographic, which you can view or download from the California Innocence Project's website.

Insist That People Coexisted With Dinosaurs…and Get an A in Science Class!

| Tue Feb. 19, 2013 7:02 AM EST

A T-Rex, Oklahoma, and the unfortunate fate of Charles Darwin.

UPDATE: On February 19, HB1674 passed through the Oklahoma Common Education committee on a 9-8 vote. On March 14, the bill died in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, according to the National Center for Science Education.

In biology class, public school students can't generally argue that dinosaurs and people ran around Earth at the same time, at least not without risking a big fat F. But that could soon change for kids in Oklahoma: On Tuesday, the Oklahoma Common Education committee is expected to consider a House bill that would forbid teachers from penalizing students who turn in papers attempting to debunk almost universally accepted scientific theories such as biological evolution and anthropogenic (human-driven) climate change.

Gus Blackwell, the Republican state representative who introduced the bill, insists that his legislation has nothing to do with religion; it simply encourages scientific exploration. "I proposed this bill because there are teachers and students who may be afraid of going against what they see in their textbooks," says Blackwell, who previously spent 20 years working for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma. "A student has the freedom to write a paper that points out that highly complex life may not be explained by chance mutations."

These bills are "a kind of code for people who are opposed to teaching climate change and evolution."

Stated another way, students could make untestable, faith-based claims in science classes without fear of receiving a poor mark.

HB 1674 is the latest in an ongoing series of "academic freedom" bills aimed at watering down the teaching of science on highly charged topics. Instead of requiring that teachers and textbooks include creationism—see the bill proposed by Missouri state Rep. Rick Brattin—HB 1674's crafters say it merely encourages teachers and students to question, as the bill puts it, the "scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses" of topics that "cause controversy," including "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning."

Privately Run Medicare Plans are Really Expensive

| Tue Feb. 19, 2013 1:20 AM EST

Austin Frakt draws my attention today to a new article about the administrative costs of Medicare. Exciting stuff! Long story short, Kip Sullivan of the Minnesota chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program wants everyone to understand just what's involved in figuring out the true administrative costs of Medicare. The cost of collecting payroll taxes is one frequently overlooked element, for example. More interestingly, though, there's a large and growing gap between the overhead calculations of the Medicare Trustees and those of the National Health Expenditure Accounts. Why is that?

According to Sullivan, the Treasury’s calculation of administrative costs does not include those incurred by Medicare Advantage and private, Part D (drug) plans....The trustees’ and NHEA measures were fairly close until the 1980s. Then they diverged as enrollment grew in Medicare Advantage and its predecessor programs. In 2006, Part D drug plans became available and the two types of administrative costs diverged further still. As traditional Medicare’s administrative costs went down, those of private plans grew.

The chart below shows what happened. When Medicare was run traditionally, overhead was fairly low and getting lower (dashed blue line). Then private plans were introduced and total overhead costs started to flatten (black line). By 1997, total overhead was about 1.4 percentage points higher than traditional Medicare alone. In that year, Medicare Advantage was introduced, and by 2005 the gap had widened to 2.1 percentage points. Then privately run prescription drug plans were introduced, and now the gap is 4.5 percentage points.

In the case of prescription drugs, it's possible that higher overhead is justified by the lower overall program costs we get from having a lot of competing plans. In the case of Medicare Advantage, it's just pure waste. We have higher overhead and higher overall costs, with very little benefit to show for it. As Sullivan says, this should "long ago have triggered inquiries within Congress and the US health policy community as to whether the higher administrative costs associated with the growing privatization of Medicare are justified."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Software Patents: A Test Run for Bipartisan Cooperation?

| Mon Feb. 18, 2013 6:09 PM EST

Ramesh Ponnuru writes in the New York Times today that Republicans need to stop idolizing Ronald Reagan's policies, which were great in the 80s but no longer address the problems we face now. The truth is that income tax rates are low enough already and the Fed has inflation well under control. Today we have to deal with growing income inequality and rising healthcare costs. The answer, Ponnuru suggests, can be found in things like lower payroll taxes, child tax credits, reforming the tax subsidy for employer health insurance, and adopting NGDP level targeting at the Fed. And this:

The Republican economic program of the 1980s also fought against government-imposed restrictions on economic activity: decontrolling energy prices, for example. Today we should target different restrictions. Software patents have become a source of unproductive litigation that entrenches large tech companies and inhibits creativity. Republicans shouldn’t support those patents. Economic growth has to trump corporate executives’ campaign donations.

As usual, when the subject is anything other than abortion, Ponnuru makes some sharp points. Most of them, however, the Republican Party isn't really ready to hear yet. But what about that last one? There are, obviously, some powerful corporate interests who really don't want to see us make changes to our intellectual property regime. And I suppose that dooms any effort at patent reform. Still, this is something that a lot of liberals would like to see happen, and as Ponnuru points out, it's also a good fit for a party that wants to see less economic regulation and more entrepreneurship. Surely there ought to be at least some chance of a bipartisan effort here?

For what it's worth, it's also something that lends itself fairly well to talk radio mockery. They patented a button? Rounded corners? WTF? It seems like there are some real possibilities there for anyone of either party who's more interested in getting something useful done than in scoring partisan points. I'm not sure how many of those we have these days, but surely at least a few?

John McCain Goes All-In on Benghazi "Cover-Up"

| Mon Feb. 18, 2013 11:55 AM EST

Hoo boy, has John McCain lost it. Yesterday, on Meet the Press, he blathered on for a while about all the unanswered questions he supposedly has regarding Benghazi—most of which have been answered, of course—and then accused President Obama of a "massive cover-up." David Gregory interrupted McCain and asked the question that regular readers know has also been nagging at me from the start: "What is the cover-up? Of what?" Here's McCain's McCarthy-esque spluttering when Gregory challenged him:

Do you care....do you care, David....do you care, David....do you care....I'm asking you, do you care....I'm asking you, do you care whether four Americans died?

....You said there's a cover-up. A cover-up of what? A cover up of what?

Of the information concerning the deaths of four brave Americans.

So that's that. When he's challenged about the ridiculous cover-up charge, which has never made sense from the start, McCain's answer is to accuse Gregory of not caring about the deaths of four brave Americans. Welcome to the modern Republican Party.

Celebrating Our Metrosexual, Baby-Kissing, Gun-Toting Presidents

| Mon Feb. 18, 2013 7:11 AM EST

Happy Presidents' Day! Why not celebrate by browsing MoJo's archives of presidential-themed photos, music, and trivia? 


Q: Which president suffered from severe sleep apnea and was known for falling asleep in public?

A: Find out the answer when you take our quiz about our sickest* presidents. (*Sick as in ill, that is.)


Q: Which president owned Jesse James' original pistols?

A: See these 13 photos of presidents holding guns.


Q: Which less-than-cuddly president is thought to have invented the tradition of politicians kissing unsuspecting babies?

A: Read up on the history of presidential child-smooching.


Q: Which presidents were name checked in a song by They Might Be Giants?

A: Listen to the answer in this musical roundup of 44 songs for 44 presidents.


Q: Which president's tax returns revealed a $60 dividend from a frozen yogurt chain?

A: Search for frozen assets in this review of presidential tax forms.


Q: Which fashion-conscious future president was once called "Jane-Dandy" and "Oscar Wilde" by his colleagues?

A: Dig the most metrosexual presidents of all time.


Q: Which recent president has inspired thousands of Americans to name their baby girls after him?

A: Check out these charts on baby names honoring presidents (and Sarah Palin).


Bonus: See if you can make it through this video without experiencing motion sickness.

5 Female Vocalists to Watch in 2013

| Mon Feb. 18, 2013 7:11 AM EST

Rachael Price, Sarah Dugas, Luz Elena Mendoza, Aluna Francis, and Laura Mvula.

Male bands (Mumford and Sons, the Black Keys, Fun.), poppy collaborations (like Gotye and Kimbra's tired duet), and, as Stereogum put it, predictable "mom-safe and Starbucks ready" favorites (Adele and Beyoncé) predominated the list of Grammy winners this year. Meanwhile, I've been struck by the array of refreshingly bold new female vocalists blossoming behind the mainstream. Quirky, fresh, raspy, vintage, or full of lungs, all five of them are under-the-radar but destined for bigger spotlights. Check out the videos below so you can say you heard them before they were famous.

Rachael Price (of Lake Street Dive):

Australian by birth, Nashvillian by pedigree, Price earned a degree in Jazz Studies from New England Conservatory and performed with T.S. Monk Sextet at jazz festivals around the world. After hearing a recording of Price in 2003, actress/singer Kathryn Grayson deemed her "the best young voice I've heard, period. No one around her can even touch her voice and style." While Price mostly stuck to standards in her early career, she's now departed from strictly jazz as a member of the indie group Lake Street Dive.

Price's voice soars with clarity and classically trained precision. She can make the most of a Motown cover but also glides easily into blues, country, and pop. The video above, featuring Price belting out a relaxed cover of The Jackson 5's "I Want You Back," aptly showcases her glamor and command. But also make sure to listen to the band's original song "Bad Self Portraits" (below), which has Price sounding like a young Bonnie Raitt. Bonus: Her band mate Bridget Kearney rocks it on the upright bass and has a lovely voice, too. Lake Street Dive just finished touring with Yonder Mountain String Band, will soon be touring with Josh Ritter, and has a date this week opening for Mavis Staples in Iowa.

Aluna Francis (of AlunaGeorge):

AlunaGeorge, featuring chanteuse Aluna Francis, is quickly becoming one of the breakout bands of 2013. Consisting of Francis and producer George Reid, the electronica group combines intimate vocals with synthesized pop, house, R&B, and dub-step. Though already pretty big in the UK—the duo nabbed second in BBC's Sound of 2013 contest—Francis' voice will likely get way more air time in the US in the coming year.

Francis, who is half Indian and half Jamaican, worked as a reflexologist and previously sang for the band My Toys Like Me. She first met Reid when he remixed one of My Toys' songs, and they paired up and released their first commercial single ("Your Drums, Your Love," above) late last year. Though minimalist and futuristic, AlunaGeorge's songs are made human by Francis' velvety touch. She imbues the pulsing drive of a late-night dance tune with soulful emotion, and her high-pitched timbre balances well with Reid's beats, to a mysterious but alluring effect. "You can't say I'm going nowhere, when you don't know where I am from," she croons. On the contrary, I'd say she's barreling straight toward stardom. AlunaGeorge's debut album, Body Music, is due out in June.

Luz Elena Mendoza (of Y La Bamba):

Portland-based band Y La Bamba draws from Mexican folk songs and mariachi singers as influence for its eerie tunes. Emerging in 2003, the band has enjoyed limited success in indie circuits, but never much widespread attention, apart from becoming one of NPR Music's darlings. That could change this year, as they just wrapped up an East Coast tour alongside the Grammy-nominated Lumineers.