2010 - %3, September

The View From My Windshield: We the People

| Wed Sep. 29, 2010 12:30 AM EDT

(Photo: Tim Murphy)(Photo: Tim Murphy)

I told you about a mini brouhaha at the 9/12 rally in Denver, but I didn't realize I actually had a photo of the scene until just now. So here you go.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Looking for Religious Expertise? Ask an Atheist

| Tue Sep. 28, 2010 7:52 PM EDT

A new study by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life shows that atheists and agnostics have the best religious knowledge. Atheists on average answered 20.9 of 32 religious knowledge questions correctly. Judaism (20.5 correct) and Mormonism (20.3) came in second and third, respectively. Although non-believers came in first in general religious knowledge, Jews got first place for knowledge of world religions and second place for knowledge of religion in public life. One surprising finding, although white evangelicals and Mormons knew the most about the Bible and Christianity, atheists and agnostics were the third-highest. So even though they don't practice Christianity, according to this particular study, atheists know more about the Bible than Catholics, mainline Protestants, and Jews.

"Atheists/agnostics and Jews stand out for high levels of knowledge about world religions other than Christianity," the study said, "though they also score at or above the national average on questions about the Bible and Christianity." The study found highly educated people know more about religion than the less educated, and Jews and agnostics/atheists were more likely to have a high level of education. But even controlling for education, those two groups had better scores than those of other faiths.

Atheists only make up about 3% of the US population, but according to a 2010 Gallup poll, they're one of Obama's most supportive "religions" at 63%, after Muslims (78% support Obama) and non-Christians (64%). Obama's performance has declined among all religious groups since January 2009, but it's decreased least among Muslims. The Pew study couldn't find enough American Muslims to include in its study, so at present, it's not clear what their level of religious knowledge is versus other religious groups. One can only hope they, unlike tea partiers and an estimated 20% of the US, know Obama isn't actually Muslim.

The Effect of Tax Cuts

| Tue Sep. 28, 2010 7:25 PM EDT

CBO director Doug Elmendorf testified today about the long-term effect of extending the Bush tax cuts, and his chart showing the difference between extending only the middle-class cuts vs. extending all the cuts has been making the rounds. Basically, CBO says that although temporary tax cuts would stimulate the economy right now, the effect of permanent tax cuts would be strongly negative in the long run because they'd blow up the deficit and crowd out private investment.

I was going to comment on this, but after reading through the full report it looks to me like the chart is wrong. As near as I can tell, it's drawn from data in Table 4 (page 31) but somebody in the graphics department drew the bars wrong. Take a look at the effect of a permanent extension. The original chart (in blue, below) suggests that under two different scenarios the long term negative effect of full extension is equal to or less than the negative effect of just a middle class extension. That doesn't really make sense. The revised chart (in red, at bottom) shows that full extension has a stronger negative effect than a middle class extension. This seems more intuitively correct.

I'm not actually sure of that, though. Mainly I just want to know what CBO's real opinion is. Is the chart correct or is the table correct? Or am I comparing the wrong things? I've got an email out to CBO to ask about this, and I'll let you know if I hear back.

UPDATE: My email provider decided to bounce my emails to CBO, so I never got a reply. However, I think I've figured out where the numbers in the chart came from. Unfortunately, that just prompted a followup question. Details here.

"BP Cover-Up" Expert New MacArthur Genius

| Tue Sep. 28, 2010 7:24 PM EDT

I had fun sailing with Kelly Benoit-Bird in April and helping out with a small portion of the research she and Margaret McManus are conducting off Hawaii. They're studyingthrough soundthe behavior and ecology of the the ocean's deep scattering layer. I featured Benoit-Bird and her work in my cover article for this month's Mother Jones, BP's Deep Secrets. The deep scattering layer—with its aggregation of fishes, squids, crustaceans, and other dark-sea dwellershave likely been hard hit by BP's oily freight train run amuck in the Gulf of Mexico.

It was with real pleasure I learned that Benoit-Bird has won one of this year's MacArthur fellowships. I can hardly imagine anyone more deserving. Since we first met her in her office at Oregon State University a couple of years ago, I was seriously impressed with her amazing intellect and vision—the likes of which enable her to think far outside the scientific paradigm to intiate new research. Her phenomenal brain also enables her to  develop new tools, or modify old tools, to pursue her investigations. That's a rare combo.

Here's the MacArthur video of Kelly explaining her work.

The MacArthur Foundation page describes Kelly as a marine biologist who uses sophisticated acoustic engineering techniques to explore the previously invisible behavior of ocean creatures at scales ranging from swarms distributed over many cubic kilometers to individual predators:

Although zooplankton drift in response to ocean currents, Benoit-Bird has shown that they use their modest locomotive capacity to form swarms with distinct three-dimensional structures that change with feeding conditions. Using multi-frequency acoustic backscattering, she has been able to reconstruct the feeding patterns of swimming predators of zooplankton (known as nekton) as they first pass downward through a layer of zooplankton, then reverse course and pass through upward. Having precise data about the horizontal and vertical distribution of oceanic food webs opens a new path for understanding the complexities of marine ecology. Further up the food chain, Benoit-Bird has investigated and illuminated the behavior of mammalian predators such as spinner dolphins, which hunt nekton in small, coordinated groups. These groups follow a carefully choreographed sequence of movements, repeated many times, to minimize the opportunity for the prey to escape. Using advanced acoustic engineering technology that she has modified and optimized for applications specific to her research, Benoit-Bird is addressing long-unanswered questions and providing the marine ecology community with a clearer picture of the structure and behavior of food chains.

If you want to see the übercool data animations of Kelly's spinner dolphin work, check this out. The explanation can be found on this page, as a supplement to her paper:

Benoit-Bird, K.J. & Au, W.W.L. 2009 "Cooperative prey herding by a pelagic dolphin, Stenella longirostris." Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 125: 539-546.

Science Shots: Wanking Squirrels, Sinking Houston; Fungi Cooperation; GM Pollution

| Tue Sep. 28, 2010 5:10 PM EDT

A sampling of the latest science papers. Forthwith: the masturbation strategies of African squirrels; Houston, we have a sinking problem; yes, mushrooms cooperate, sort of; and new-found form of GM stream pollution.

  • Northwest Houston is sinking rapidlyby as much as 2 inches a year, according to a new paper in Tectonophysics. The reason: groundwater withdrawal, a practise that's ceased in most of the Houston area, yet continues in the northwest, where rapid population growth continues. The problem's not new. The Brownwood neighborhood was developed in the 1930s when ground elevation was 3 meters/10 feet above sea level. Forty years later, the neighborhood stood just half a meter above sea level and was subject to frequent flooding. Hurricane Alicia destroyed the subdivision in 1983, after which the area became the Baytown Nature Center. Brownwood's sinking is attributed to the massive groundwater withdrawal by petrochemical plants along the Houston Ship Channel.
  • Mushroom spores cooperate. Really. New research in PNAS finds that forcibly ejected spores of some  fungi, including the pathogen Sclerotinia sclerotiorum, disperse with astonishing rapidity. By synchronizing the ejection of thousands of spores, these fungi create their own airflow, which carry the spores through nearly still air, around obstacles, and into atmospheric currents (therefore to new infection sites). Although many spores are sacrificed to produce the favorable airflow (creating the potential for conflict between spores), the geometry of the spore jet physically benefits those spores that cooperate maximally in its production. Synchronized spore ejection may prove a model for the evolution of stable self-organized behaviors. High-speed imaging shows synchronization is self-organized and likely triggered by mechanical stresses.
  • Streams in the midwest are receiving insecticidal proteins from genetically modified crops. The authors assessed 217 stream sites in Indiana and found dissolved insecticidal proteins from GM corn present in a quarter of them. The study was conducted six months after harvest, revealing that proteins persist in the landscape. The worry is that corn byproducts may alter the health of freshwaters. Ultimately, streams that originate in the corn belt drain into the Mississippi River, the Great Lakes, and the Gulf of Mexico. More than 85 percent of US corn crops were genetically modified to repel pests and/or resist herbicide exposure in 2009, so it's likely we're seeing the tip of a whole new iceberg here. The paper's in PNAS.
  • My personal favorite, a PLoS ONE paper called "The Adaptive Function of Masturbation in a Promiscuous African Ground Squirrel." The  author asked, why are these highly promiscuous squirrels wanking so much? She observed Cape ground squirrels in Namibia for 2,000 hours, wending her way through six hypotheses. Her data supported this reason:

Another possible explanation is that masturbation functions to remove potential infections transferred from a female that has previously mateda form of genital grooming. Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can have profound effects on fitness, even if there are no apparent symptoms. Just having an immune response to infection can affect human male fertility, including ejaculate volume, sperm concentration, sperm mobility, and sperm morphology. This hypothesis predicts that masturbation should occur on a day of oestrus, after successfully copulating, and should increase with the number of mates a female accepts. All of these predictions were supported by the masturbation data of Cape ground squirrels.

These results suggest that masturbation in this species was not a response to sperm competition nor a sexual outlet by subordinates that did not copulate. Instead masturbation could function as a form of genital grooming. Female Cape ground squirrels mate with up to 10 males in a 3-hr oestrus, and by masturbating after copulation males could reduce the chance of infection. Sexually transmitted infections can profoundly affect fertility, and their consequences for mating strategies need to be examined more fully.

Obama and the Senate

| Tue Sep. 28, 2010 1:42 PM EDT

Ezra Klein says the Obama administration hasn't done enough to change Senate rules, and Jon Cohn agrees:

White House officials complain bitterly about the constraints the filibuster places on them, and rightly so. But they've expended relatively little energy speaking out about it and even less energy (as far as I know) actually trying to end it. That's not the only reason for their political struggles or even the main reason, obviously, but it certainly hasn't helped.

I dunno. Seriously, what could Obama have done on this score? He has no authority over Senate rules. Nor would using the bully pulpit do much good since the subject is too arcane for most of the public to care about, especially with everything else that was on the agenda over the past two years. (You think it's hard to get people excited about healthcare reform in the middle of a recession? Try getting them excited about procedural reform in the Senate. I can only imagine the derision Obama would be facing if he'd spent lots of time on this in 2009 when he should have been focused like a laser on jobs, as all the pundits keep reminding us.) What's more, even in theory the filibuster can only be eliminated at the beginning of session. So jabbering about it wouldn't have done any good anyway.

And comparing this to George Bush's constant call for "up or down votes" doesn't seem relevant either. Did that ever really do him any good? Aside from judicial appointments, I don't think the filibuster was really a big issue for Bush. For better or worse, he mostly chose to push bills that (a) could be passed by reconciliation — like the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, (b) had plenty of Democratic support — like NCLB and the war resolution and the PATRIOT Act and Medicare prescriptions and the bankruptcy bill, or (c) that he didn't really like but caved in on — like Sarbanes-Oxley and McCain-Feingold. His biggest failure came on Social Security privatization, and that was so unpopular it probably didn't even have 50 votes. The filibuster just wasn't an issue.

I'd like to see the filibuster eliminated and I'd like to see unanimous consent eliminated. (For the latest abuse on that score, click here.) But the big issue here isn't Obama, I think. It's whether Harry Reid can round up even 50 votes for it when the 112th Congress meets in January. Maybe the president could help this along, but then again, he might just make things worse too. Senators haven't historically been too excited about presidents trying to push them around, after all.

Democrats haven't played this issue well, but that's where I'd put the blame. I'm not sure Obama had as much leverage here as people are suggesting.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

GOP Going Soft on Wiretapping Terrorists?

| Tue Sep. 28, 2010 12:48 PM EDT

TestMicah Wright & AntiWarPosters.com.

Are Republicans getting their wires crossed when it comes to tracking the secret communications of suspected terrorists?

On Monday, the New York Times broke a story that lit up the Internets—especially those quarters inhabited by privacy advocates and social media mavens: the Obama administration, noting that criminals and terrorists are increasingly communicating online instead of over the telephone, wants to enact legislation compelling all online communication services to be open to wiretapping. This would mean ensuring that the feds could intercept encrypted or non-encrypted communications sent by BlackBerry and similar devices, through Facebook and other social networking sites, and via Skype. In other words, any Internet communications system or service would have to have a backdoor that could be exploited for government-approved monitoring.

Republican legislators are backing the administration on this. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a member of the armed services and homeland security committees, told Mother Jones, "I'm open-minded about making sure terrorist activities are being followed," and that "if I can help" with this legislation, "I will." Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who sits on the armed services and select intelligence committees, said of Obama's plan: "I think he's dead on target...We need to give the intelligence community all the tools they need."

But privacy fans and technophiles have howled. James Dempsey, vice president of the Center for Democray and Technology, noted the administration was challenging "the fundamental elements of the Internet revolution," especially its decentralized design. Technology writer Dean Takahashi pointed out, "If companies such as Skype and Facebook were forced to design holes in their networks so that FBI officials could listen into conversations, that would re-centralize the networks, raise costs, and possibly introduce vulnerabilities to the software that could be exploited by hackers." Progressive blogger Marcy Wheeler decried this "power grab." And the Republican National Committee joined the assault.

Wait, the RNC? On Tuesday morning, the GOP HQ zapped out an email blasting Obama: "Quick To Jump On Civil Liberty Concerns In The Past, Obama Administration Now Wants To Read Your Emails And Monitor Facebook." The GOP asserted that Obama had opposed the Bush-Cheney administration's warrantless wiretapping program as "unconstitutional and illegal," but now he "seeks authority to 'wiretap the Internet.'" Citing the Times article, the RNC insisted that implementation of this policy would cause "huge technology and security" headaches and leave holes that could be "exploited by hackers." Despite the fact that top Republican lawmakers are backing Obama's proposal, the press release made it seem like a truly lousy idea. Had Michael Steele and the Gang become passionate civil libertarians opposed to government snooping supposedly designed to protect the United States from terrorists?

Not quite. RNC communications director Doug Heye says the party outfit is not taking a position "one way or the other" on the proposal. He adds: "We're just letting people know what the president is doing. A lot of people who support him are seeing he's not what they thought he was…A lot of people who are supporters of the president are concerned about wiretapping and things like monitoring Facebook, and we want to make sure they have this information." Translated: we're doing what we can to foment disappointment within Obama's base.

The GOP's slam unfairly compared Obama's proposal to the warrantless wiretapping program of the previous administration (which was vociferously defended at the time by Vice President Dick Cheney, who always referred to its official name: the "Terrorist Surveillance Program"). The eavesdropping that the Obama administration is looking to enable would presumably be subject to warrants. So this proposal—good or bad—is not inconsistent with Obama's criticism that President George W. Bush "abused" his authority and "undermined the Constitution by intercepting the communications of innocent Americans without their knowledge or the required court orders."

When we pressed Heye on whether the Republican Party supports or opposes legislation that would allow federal investigators to intercept the online or BlackBerry-type communications of suspected terrorists, he refused to say: "It's not a question I was expecting today. Our job is not to make policy pronouncements. Our job is to point out where the president has fallen short on his promises. This is one example of this. Obama supporters do not like this."

Still, the RNC's press release highlighted the potential problems with the Obama administration's proposal, making it appear as if the RNC has abandoned Cheney-like vigilance (or excess) when it comes to tracking the bad guys. But perhaps there's a greater mission: to score political points against another enemy—the president of the United States.

Front page image: Flickr/hughelectronic (Creative Commons).

Taxing the Other Guy

| Tue Sep. 28, 2010 12:38 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias notes that commuters in DC are split pretty evenly between drivers and transit users:

This means that something like higher taxes on downtown parking garages would generate lots of revenue from non-residents without disadvantaging the majority of DC residents. The revenue could then be used to reduce the district’s sales tax or increase the personal exemption of the DC income tax. Not only would that be good tax policy, it would shift the balance of power in the future further in the direction of rolling back car-subsidization policies.

Italics mine. I don't really have an opinion on higher parking taxes. It's probably a good idea, just the same as taxes on gasoline or carbon emissions would be a good idea. Almost anything that cuts down on driving is a good idea.

But I'm curious: is it my imagination, or have we seen a recent wavelet of cities and states trying to figure out ingenious ways to tax nonresidents more stiffly? Commuter taxes are one way, higher hotel taxes are another, fees on sporting event tickets and jacked up highway tolls are yet others. So two questions. First, is this sort of thing really becoming more popular, or have I just happened to notice it more over the past couple of years? Second, is it a good idea? Are nonresidents really free riders on urban awesomeness who aren't paying their fair share, or does this kind of thing run the risk of spiraling into a morass of competitive taxes that will end up hurting everyone? Just wondering.

Wage Equality State By State

| Tue Sep. 28, 2010 12:20 PM EDT

According to the Census Bureau, median household income fell by $1,500 last year, a drop of 2.9%. However, if you're lucky enough to still be working full time, your earnings went up slightly, and women's earnings went up more than men's:

For full-time, year-round workers, the 2009 ACS median earnings for women were 78.2 percent of men’s earnings [...] and the ratio of women’s earnings to men’s earnings was up from 77.7 percent....At 88.2 percent, the District of Columbia was among the highest ratios of women’s to men’s earnings. Wyoming, at 65.5 percent, was among the lowest.

The map below shows how each state fares when it comes to gender equality in wages.

Obama, the Midterms, and Civil Liberties

| Tue Sep. 28, 2010 12:09 PM EDT

Kevin Drum beats me to the punch and excerpts the key portion of President Obama's long interview in Rolling Stone:

It is inexcusable for any Democrat or progressive right now to stand on the sidelines in this midterm election. There may be complaints about us not having gotten certain things done, not fast enough, making certain legislative compromises. But right now, we've got a choice between a Republican Party that has moved to the right of George Bush and is looking to lock in the same policies that got us into these disasters in the first place, versus an administration that, with some admitted warts, has been the most successful administration in a generation in moving progressive agendas forward.

....If we want the kind of country that respects civil rights and civil liberties, we'd better fight in this election. And right now, we are getting outspent eight to one by these 527s that the Roberts court says can spend with impunity without disclosing where their money's coming from. In every single one of these congressional districts, you are seeing these independent organizations outspend political parties and the candidates by, as I said, factors of four to one, five to one, eight to one, 10 to one.

We have to get folks off the sidelines. People need to shake off this lethargy, people need to buck up. Bringing about change is hard — that's what I said during the campaign. It has been hard, and we've got some lumps to show for it. But if people now want to take their ball and go home, that tells me folks weren't serious in the first place.

If you're serious, now's exactly the time that people have to step up.

Kevin, being the "mushy sellout" he is, agrees with Obama. But he adds a caveat:

If you're, say, Glenn Greenwald, I wouldn't expect you to buy Obama's defense at all. All of us have multiple interests, but if your primary concern is with civil liberties and the national security state, then the problem isn't that Obama hasn't done enough, it's that his policies have been actively damaging. There's just no reason why you should be especially excited about either his administration or the continuation of the Democratic Party in power.

That's all true, but it's not an excuse for people to be complacent. Sure, civil libertarians like Greenwald shouldn't buy Obama's defense of his administration's continued failings on civil liberties. But people still have a responsibility to analyze the candidates in their district and decide which one would be better on the issues that are important to them. Greenwald may not be enthusiastic about Obama, or about most Congressional Democrats. But I strongly suspect that if Greenwald lived in Wisconsin, he'd vote for Sen. Russ Feingold, one of the few true civil libertarians in Congress.

On civil liberties, the difference between Feingold and his challenger is immense. But even a small difference on the issues that are most important to you is probably worth voting on. If two candidates really are exactly equally bad on your issues, not voting or casting a protest vote become reasonable options. But most of the time, a little bit of research can help you determine which candidate would be less-bad on your issues. At the very least, civil libertarians should take a few minutes to investigate the congressional candidates in their district. In other words, you don't have to like Barack Obama or be excited about Democrats to vote for Russ Feingold.