Maddie Oatman

Maddie Oatman

Research Editor

Maddie worked as a travel guide in Argentina and a teacher at several educational nonprofits in San Francisco before joining Mother Jones. She’s also written for Outside, the Bay Citizen, and the Rumpus. A proud Boulder native, she makes time for mountain climbing, stargazing, and telemark skiing.

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Election Results Maps To Make Your Brain Happier

| Fri Nov. 9, 2012 7:18 PM PST

Even though by now I am 100 percent sure of who won the 2012 presidential election, looking at a traditional map of the results is unsettling. The red trumps blue, no matter how certain I am that more of the popular vote, and more electoral college seats, went to President Obama than his counterpart. See?

M. E. J. NewmanM. E. J. Newman

So it's somewhat of a relief to see these statistics represented differently. This cartogram below by Mark Newman, a physicist at the University of Michigan, scales each of the lower 48 states according to its population rather than its area.

M. E. J. NewmanM. E. J. Newman

Though the map might make you question your cocktail intake, the increase in blue over red seems a more accurate depiction of how Tuesday went down.

Newman experiments with these type of cartograms here, modeling one map as related to the number of electoral college votes per state, and another based on a proportional representation of county size. You may have seen his work before: He's been making cartograms for the last couple of presidential elections, ever since he helped create an advanced method for creating these "density-equalizing maps," drawing from physics. His software is even free for anyone to download.

Newman also brings clarity to the data by introducing shades of purple to indicate percentage of votes in each county won by the Democratic or Republican candidate, and adjusting the counties for population size. Looking at this map is starting to feel a tad Fear and Loathing:

 

M. E. J. NewmanM. E. J. Newman

If you're getting into it, NPR also has this neat video that uses cartograms to depict outside spending on political ads, especially in swing states—in Nevada, these types of groups coughed up nearly $6 per potential voter between April and October, compared to less than a cent per voter in neighboring California.

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The Soda Tax Lost. Now What?

| Wed Nov. 7, 2012 1:10 PM PST

Measures in Richmond and El Monte, California that would have taxed sugar-sweetened beverages at a penny-per-ounce rate failed to pass in either city yesterday. In Richmond, 67 percent of voters said no to Measure N, striking down an attempt by councilmembers such as Jeff Ritterman, the main champion of the tax, to raise funds in hopes of curbing high rates of childhood obesity in the area.

Measure N recieved opposition from some Richmond councilmembers, such as Nat Bates, who told the Contra Costa Times that the tax was an overreach. Fierce campaign spending may have also played a role in quashing passage of the tax; as I reported yesterday, soda and food industry groups, such as the American Beverage Association, poured $2.5 million to defeat the campaign, outspending supporters at a ratio of 35 to 1. That $2.5 million on campaign spending against the tax is almost as much as the $3 million Ritterman was hoping could be raised by the measure to be put towards addressing some of the city's health issues. The tax fared even worse in El Monte, where only 23 percent of voters favored the tax. There, the soda industry spent $1.3 million to counter the measure.

Though disappointed that the initiatives will have to wait for another election, Ritterman says just getting the measures on the ballot doesn't have much of a downside for cities. "If you win, you get millions of dollars to address childhood obesity," he told me. But either way, "you get a very spirited conversation about the health impacts of sugar-sweetened beverages that you didn't have before." Ritterman says he has seen less soda consumed at public events around the city because of the debate the tax raised, and thinks young people's soda drinking habits may have been changed by the coversations the proposed initiative sparked.

Ritterman says he believes that a statewide or nationwide soda tax would be more effective than a local one. With the Obamas' emphasis on healthy eating, he's holding out hope for national movement towards taxing soda. In the meantime, he plans to encourage 14 California cities to propose soda taxes in 2014. He also hopes people will start paying more attention to the science behind the overconsumption of sugar: in this campaign, "it was really treated as a political issue by people not taking on the science."

In the meantime, though people in Richmond and El Monte won't pay a bit more to consume sugar-sweetened drinks, the health costs of dealing with high diabetes and heart disease rates will continue to add up. Says Ritterman: "We're actually paying more money by not having the tax, but people weren't aware of that."

Will Big Soda Beat the California Soda Taxes?

| Tue Nov. 6, 2012 4:52 PM PST

Should sugary drinks be taxed to discourage people from overconsuming them? That's the question California voters in Richmond and El Monte are asking as they head to the polls today to decide on what could become the first penny-per-ounce taxes imposed on sugary beverages by cities in the US.

As I reported in June, some economists and public health researchers think that soda has enough price elasticity that its consumption rates would be shaken up by such measures. And growing research about diabetes and other health problems associated with the overconsumption of sugaras discussed in the recent Mother Jones exposé "Big Sugar's Sweet Little Lies," for instance—has convinced some it may be time for the government to help regulate its consumption.

Just in time for today's election, a new study presented at a conference last week underscored the potentially positive role such excise taxes could play in problems plaguing minorities and low income communities. When researchers from the University of CaliforniaSan Francisco and other universities projected the impact of a 20 percent drop in consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) in California, they found that incidence of diabetes and heart disease would drop up to 5.6 percent and 1.2 percent, respectively.

But more importantly, the researchers found, incidence would decrease more significantly for certain groups who struggle with these issues the most: Mexican Americans, African Americans, and poor people. For these groups, a soda tax could decrease diabetes incidence by around 8 percent, and heart disease by around 2 percent. Total savings associated with avoiding these health issues in California? As much as $1 billion for diabetes, and an extra $130 million for heart disease.

Richmond's councilman Jeff Ritterman, who proposed the city's soda tax, or "Measure N," called these research findings "the smoking gun" in an email in early November, especially considering two-thirds of the city is black or Latino, and 32 percent of school kids are obese. The city also suffers from an 11 percent unemployment rate and high rates of poverty. As California Watch reported, the lead researcher of the study thinks the findings are significant because they show that some groups that in general drink more soda and are at a higher risk of diabetes may also benefit most from a tax on SSBs.

The taxes are by no means universally popular. Many in the Richmond area, including some black and Latino leaders, feel they were left out of the soda tax discussion and worry that a tax could slow sales at local small businesses. As the debate heated up over the summer and fall, these opponents were encouraged by the likes of, who else? Big Soda. 

Maplight.orgMaplight.orgAs my colleague Kate Sheppard reported, the American Beverage Association bankrolled a coalition against the tax in Richmond, framing it as a "tax on poor people." (This coalition also successfully sued the city to not have to disclose its donors on campaign fliers). Data compiled at the end of October by Maplight.org shows that groups like the ABA, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo have outspent supporters of Measure N at a ratio of 35 to 1. The soda industry reportedly spent another $1.3 million to defeat El Monte's soda tax. Whatever the outcome of today's election, the outsize spending reveals just how far the beverage industry will go to protect its product, even if the public health consequences are less than sweet.

"Ho Hey," It's The Lumineers

| Mon Oct. 29, 2012 3:03 AM PDT
On the right, The Lumineers' Jeremiah Fraites.

The scene preceeding The Lumineers' early afternoon set at San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival was just about as competitive as that portrayed in local news coverage of shoppers streaming into Walmart on Black Friday. Attendants barked at twenty-somethings ducking ropes in pursuit of a view, the grass section in front of the stage held about one fan per square foot, and the aisle up through the middle of the meadow transformed into a slow-moving mosh pit. It wasn't even 3 p.m. I slinked through the crowd and miraculously landed an edge of someone's tarp.

Jeremiah Fraites, the Denver-based folk band's drummer, remembers the afternoon in much the same way: "When we actually took the stage, every single vantage point, every spot where a human being could be, there was one—surrounding us." The entire Eucalyptus-shaded hill behind the stage was covered with humanity, as were the bushes flanking the sides of the small outdoor arena. I spotted two shirtless dudes draped over tree branches, ready to soak it in. "It made us feel pretty damn good about that being our first time at Hardly Strictly," Fraites told me a few days after the performance. 

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