2010 - %3, November

The Pay Freeze Message

| Mon Nov. 29, 2010 9:07 PM EST

It's common for members of the wonkosphere to point out that elections are dominated by the state of the economy and that communication strategies have little impact. Jonathan Bernstein pushes back:

There's good reason to believe that there are rarely big gaps between the effects of Democratic and Republican electioneering (including messaging), because both parties and their candidates try hard to do well in those areas. If one side abdicates, "the margins" may get a bit less marginal. So while I'd certainly recommend simply as a matter of electoral politics that presidents place a higher priority on economic growth than on spin, that's not the same thing as saying that they should ignore spin. Plenty of stuff that only matters on the margins is still worth doing.

I think this is worth keeping in mind. It's true that the economy matters the most, but most models show that structural factors (including the economy) account for perhaps 70% of the variance in election results. The remaining 30% is obviously a smaller share, but still: 30% ain't nothing. And as Jonathan says, it would probably be a lot more than 30% if it weren't for the fact that both sides are always pushing hard against each other. If one side just gave up because they decided messaging wasn't important, they'd be a lot more likely to lose regardless of how the economy was doing.

(This is a testable proposition, by the way, though probably a tricky one. I'd guess, for example, that congressmen who run unopposed have higher approval ratings than those who don't. Obviously a higher approval rating tends to discourage competition in the first place, but even if you control for that I'd bet that uncontested politicians rate higher with their constituents. This is largely because they get to create their own messaging strategy without anyone else pushing back.)

So: messaging does matter. Communication strategy matters. You can't just cede the field. That said, though, I have to agree with the consensus on the left that in the particular case of President Obama's decision today to freeze federal pay, it's not going to work. On a substantive level, it's far too small to have any serious effect. On a messaging level, I simply can't believe that anybody is going to care. Obama seems endlessly besotted with the idea that he can use small executive decisions (supporting nuclear power, allowing offshore drilling, freezing federal pay, etc.) as a way of convincing the electorate that he's really a moderate, but there's no evidence that suggests this stuff has even the slightest impact. And it's certainly not going to make a dent on the Republican caucus in Congress. I really have no idea what the point of this kind of thing is.

UPDATE: That was Jonathan Bernstein I was quoting up there, not Jon Cohn as I originally had it. I've corrected the text.

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Seabirds Hopped Up on Summer

| Mon Nov. 29, 2010 7:53 PM EST

Streaked shearwater. Photo by Marj Kibby, at Flickr.

Streaked shearwater. Photo by Marj Kibby, at Flickr. 

Shearwaters are long-winged, strong-flying seabirds of the open ocean who come ashore only to breed. The rest of their lives—including the time between fledging and sexual maturity, up to 12 years in some species, maybe more—are spent entirely at sea. They're long-lived birds, with reports of one 55-year-old Manx shearwater still breeding in Ireland as of 2003. The more we learn, the more we see how these oceanic travellers follow vast systems of winds and waves across hemispheres and even oceans.
 
First up, there's an interesting paper out in the current issue of The Auk about a presumed foraging association between streaked shearwaters (Calonectris leucomelas) and skipjack tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis). Foraging associations—as the term implies—are the result of a follower species (the shearwater) commonly following a nuclear species (the tuna) to capture prey flushed in the course of the nuclear's feeding or travels. The deep blue home is full of foraging associations... including the way savvy human fishers follow seabirds to find fish.
 
 
Streaked shearwater at breeding colony on Mikura Island, Japan. Photo by Kanachoro, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Streaked shearwater at breeding colony on Mikura Island, Japan. Photo by Kanachoro, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
A little background: Streaked shearwaters make impressive migrations of ≤5,400 kilometers /3,300miles between Northern Hemisphere breeding grounds (Japan, China, and Korea) during the boreal summer and Southern Hemisphere "wintering" grounds (New Guinea, the Philippines, and Australia, plus Vietnam in the north) during the austral summer. Those results are reported in a 2008 paper in Ornithological Science by some of the same members of the shearwater-skipjack team during an earlier phase of study.
 
In their latest investigations, the researchers attached small global location sensors to 48 breeding birds in 2006, 38 of whom returned the following year with their geolocators intact. Their findings, from the abstract:
Most Streaked Shearwaters wintered off northern New Guinea, an area of low primary productivity but high Skipjack Tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis) abundance. Streaked Shearwaters flew for longer periods and landed on the water more frequently around dawn and dusk during the wintering period. This pattern of activity is similar to that of subsurface predators such as tuna, and to that of tropical seabirds that are known to feed with subsurface predators. We suggest that Streaked Shearwaters probably forage in association with subsurface predators in the tropical oceans during the wintering period. Foraging in association with subsurface predators and morphological adaptations for gliding may allow Streaked Shearwaters to forage efficiently in both temperate and tropical environments.
 
 

This Blue Planet video shows the dynamics of shearwaters (not sure which species) working schools of mackerel herded up to the surface, initially by dolphins, then by skipjacks.

 

Sooty shearwaters. Photo by Marlin Harms, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Sooty shearwaters. Photo by Marlin Harms, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

(Sooty shearwaters. Photo by marlin harms, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.) In an incredible piece of scientific detective work a few years back, a different team of researchers found that another species, sooty shearwaters (Puffinus griseus), embarked on remarkable 64,000-kilometer/40,000-mile annual migrations through the entire basin of the Pacific Ocean from Antarctica to the Bering Sea—the longest migration of any animal tracked to that point.

 

 
 
From PNAS.

 

The map shows the geolocation tracks of 19 of their tagged sooty shearwaters at New Zealand breeding colonies (light blue); their migration pathways north (yellow); and their wintering grounds and southward transits (orange). Figures bd represent the figure-eight movement patterns of individual shearwaters travelling to one of three "winter" destinations in the North Pacific. The authors suggest the figure-eight  pattern is facilitated by prevailing wind patterns and by the Coriolis effect—which influence the long-range trajectories of the birds as they rocket between hemispheres at rates of up to 910 kilometers/565 miles a day, and as they chase the waves of summer from one hemisphere to the other.

 

Credit: NASA/Seasat.Credit: NASA/SeasatYou can correlate something of the travels of the sooty shearwaters to this map of prevailing winds over the Pacific. The 2006 sooty shearwater paper appeared in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. From the abstract:

Electronic tracking tags have revolutionized our understanding of broad-scale movements and habitat use of highly mobile marine animals, but a large gap in our knowledge still remains for a wide range of small species. Here, we report the extraordinary transequatorial postbreeding migrations of a small seabird, the sooty shearwater, obtained with miniature archival tags that log data for estimating position, dive depth, and ambient temperature. Tracks (262 ± 23 days) reveal that shearwaters fly across the entire Pacific Ocean in a figure-eight pattern while traveling 64,037 ± 9,779 km roundtrip, the longest animal migration ever recorded electronically. Each shearwater made a prolonged stopover in one of three discrete regions off Japan, Alaska, or California before returning to New Zealand through a relatively narrow corridor in the central Pacific Ocean. Transit rates as high as 910 ± 186 km·day−1 were recorded, and shearwaters accessed prey resources in both the Northern and Southern Hemisphere’s most productive waters from the surface to 68.2 m depth.

But now the flying record of the sooty shearwaters been topped by a diminutive seabird, the Arctic tern, who not only crosses hemispheres but ocean basins as well. The February paper in PNAS for the first time revealed complete migrations for individual Arctic terns of more than 80,000 kilometers/48,000 miles a year.

 Arctic tern. Photo by Malene Thyssen, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Arctic tern. Photo by Malene Thyssen, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Such globe-trotting transits keep these butterflies-of-the-sea hopped up on the endless summers of the high-latitudes. They barely know night.

The papers:

  • Takashi Yamamoto, et al. At-Sea Distribution and Behavior of Streaked Shearwaters (Calonectris leucomelas) During the Nonbreeding Period. The Auk. 2010. 127 (4) 871–881. DOI: 10.1525/auk.2010.1002
  • Akinori Takahashi. Post-breeding movement and activities of two Streaked Shearwaters in the north-western Pacific. Ornithological Science. 2008. 7 (1) 29-35. DOI: 10.2326/osj.7.29.
  • Scott A. Shaffer, et al. Migratory shearwaters integrate oceanic resources across the Pacific Ocean in an endless summer. PNAS. 2006. 103 ( 34) 12799-1280. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0603715103.
  • Carsten Egevang, et al. Tracking of Arctic terns Sterna paradisaea reveals longest animal migration. PNAS. 2010. 107 (5) 2078-2081. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0909493107.

Crossposted from Deep Blue Home.

Attention Philadelphians

| Mon Nov. 29, 2010 7:23 PM EST

After I wrote about the Philadelphia origins of the term "Black Friday" for the shopping day after Thanksgiving, I got the following email from a reader:

I had recently dropped out of college for the first time. I had just turned nineteen and had no clue what I wanted to be when I grew up. The dire warnings came from the sweet older women that took me under their wings in the arts and crafts department at John Wanamaker's department store in center city Philadelphia shortly after I was hired as temporary holiday help in October, 1971. They warned me to be prepared for the hoards of obnoxious brats and their demanding parents that would alight from the banks of elevators onto the eighth floor toy department, all racing to ride see the latest toys on their way to visit Santa. The feeling of impending doom sticks with me to this day. The experienced old ladies that had worked there for years called it "Black Friday." I'm quite sure it had nothing to do with store ledgers going from red to black.

Unfortunately, this doesn't push the frontiers of knowledge forward since we already knew that the term was in common use by at least 1966. But it does offer us an opportunity for some crowdsourced research. I figure this blog must have at least several dozen readers from Philadelphia. With some linkage help, maybe a few hundred will see this. Many of you will have older relatives who have lived and worked in Philadelphia for a long time. And many of those older relatives will have been cops or bus drivers or retail clerks in the 40s, 50s, and 60s.

So here's your task, Philadelphians: talk to your relatives. Find out if they remember the term "Black Friday" being in common use and compare this to the era when they worked. If, say, clerks from the 40s don't remember this, but clerks from the 50s do, we'll be making some progress. Science demands that we do this. So ask away, and either email me your results or leave them in comments. Let's demonstrate the power of the internet to the infidels.

WikiLeaks Chic: "Lifestyles of the Kazakhstani Leadership"

| Mon Nov. 29, 2010 6:37 PM EST

From a cable released today in the WikiLeaks trove:

Kazakhstan's political elites appear to enjoy typical hobbies—such as travel, horseback riding, and skiing. Not surprisingly, however, they are able to indulge in their hobbies on a grand scale, whether flying Elton John to Kazakhstan for a concert or trading domestic property for a palace in the United Arab Emirates.

Even better is this assessment, which, thank God, has some context in the memo:

President Nazarbayev, like many of his countrymen, has a strong affinity for horses.

Also, since you asked:

There have been separate reports that Nelly Furtado performed at the August 2007 birthday bash for Kulibayev's wife, Dinara Nazarbayeva.

Must have been trying to compete with neighboring Uzbekistan's strongarm dictator and his penchant for Sting. But hey, it's not all glitter in Almaty!

Kazakhstan's political elites also have recreational tastes that are not so exotic. Some, in fact, prefer to relax the old-fashioned way. Defense Minister Akhmetov, a self-proclaimed workaholic, appears to enjoy loosening up in the tried and true "homo sovieticus" style—i.e., drinking oneself into a stupor.

Is anyone else wowed by the observational and literary prowess of US diplomats? Yowza!

Wikileaks: Can Karzai's Brother be Trusted?

| Mon Nov. 29, 2010 4:40 PM EST

A crucial front in the Afghanistan war is the Kandahar region in the southern part of the country. A crucial player in that area is Ahmed Wali Karzai, the younger half-brother of President Hamid Karzai. He is the chief of the provincial council—which means he essentially runs the place—and he's long fought off charges that he's a drug-dealing warlord (even claiming the US Drug Enforcement Agency has cleared him of this accusation, though it hasn't).

Now, the latest WikiLeaks dump of classified US State Department cables shows that AWK—as he's called—is in low repute among Americans officials, who nevertheless figure they have no choice but to work with him. In a October 3, 2009, cable to Foggy Bottom reporting on a meeting Frank Ruggiero, the embassy's senior civilian representative for southern Afghanistan, held with AWK, the US embassy in Kabul wrote, "While we must deal with AWK as the head of the Provincial Council, he is widely understood to be corrupt and a narcotics trafficker."

During that meeting, AWK shared suggestions that would seem to benefit, well, AWK. According to the cable—classified "confidential"— he "cautioned against the use of small scale projects and additional cash-for-work-programs." He wanted big infrastructure projects, which would result in lots of cash being passed around and which would be controlled supposedly by local elders. He also proposed, the cable said, that all the local militia commanders providing security to convoys and projects in the area be brought "under one umbrella in Kandahar, with one person given the license for the private security sector." The cable noted, "AWK is understood to have a stake in private security contracting, and has aggressively lobbied the Canadians to have his security services retained for the Dahla Dam refurbishment. Both he and the governor have tried to exert control over how contracts are awarded in the province."

The cable summed up the face-to-face by implying AWK was corrupt:

The meeting with AWK highlights one of our major challenges in Afghanistan: how to fight corruption and connect the people to their government, when the key government officials are themselves corrupt. Given AWK's reputation for shady dealings, his recommendations for large, costly infrastructure projects should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism.

The cable did not suggest what ought to be done with or about AWK.

Months later, on February 23, 2010, Ruggiero again met with AWK, according to another cable, and AWK, unprompted, raised the allegations of his participation in narcotics trafficking. He offered to take a lie-detector exam and, the cable said, "dismissed the narcotics allegations as part of a campaign to discredit him, particularly by the media, saying the allegations are "like a spice added to a dish to make it more enticing to eat.'" The cable did not record any response Ruggiero made to AWK about this. But the cable—classified "secret—ended up with not a positive assessment of the president's brother:

AWK was eager to engage and rarely stopped talking in the two hour meeting. While he presented himself as a partner to the United States and is eager to be seen as helping the coalition, he also demonstrated that he will dissemble when it suits his needs. He appears not to understand the level of our knowledge of his activities, and that the coalition views many of his activities as malign, particularly relating to his influence over the police. We will need to monitor his activity closely.

WikiLeaks' initial release is rather selective. These are the only two cables in its first batch that come from the US embassy in Kabul. (WikiLeaks will be releasing 251,287 documents in stages over the next few months) Consequently, the documents offer snapshots—not a full picture—of the US government's interactions with and worries about AWK, who still plays a pivotal role in a pivotal area. But these two cables do explicitly illustrate one of the profound challenges of the Obama administration's Afghanistan policy: how to succeed in a war when you don't trust your partners.

TSA Travel in 3 Bullet Points

| Mon Nov. 29, 2010 4:09 PM EST

Here are three things I learned about the TSA over the Thanksgiving holiday.

• TSA may not tell you you're being scanned. In my case, an agent simply motioned for me to walk between two black panels and told me to raise my arms "for a few seconds." He had not done this to the two passengers before me, and he did not tell me raising my arms was for a backscatter scan. I asked if this was for a scanner, which he confirmed. I decided to opt-out due to conflicting information on radiation levels.

• During my "enhanced pat down," I learned the TSA does use new blue gloves for every passenger. Hurray!

• The TSA agent frisking me obviously hated conducting the search as much as I hated receiving it. While grimacing and frowning, she didn't go so far as to touch my vulva with her hand, but she did get to my upper thighs. I was wearing a miniskirt, t-shirt, and flip-flops and the agent was annoyed about the skirt because it altered the procedure somewhat. In my defense, it was 80 degrees and humid in the airport, and I was quite comfortable (aside from the strange woman stroking my bare legs) while the agent was sweating through her TSA standard-issue polyesters.

Overall the pat-down wasn't as bad as I had anticipated. It was a bit embarrassing, and it's sort of amazing the agent was able to pat me down without revealing my "assets" to the rest of the passengers, since I was wearing a short skirt. I did think about getting scanned, but a pat-down only lasts a few minutes and radiation is forever. But as recent news reports show, many people did decide to go through the scanners over the Thanksgiving holiday... just not nearly as many as the TSA would have you believe.

The TSA reports how many people opt-out of scanners, and the total number of travelers. So at LAX, less than 1% of all travelers opted out of being scanned. But as my experience is an example of, not every traveler is asked to be scanned. Nate Silver points out that this makes the TSA's data presentation problematic: "TSA’s data is not really worth very much without knowing how many passengers had the option of opting out—meaning, that they were asked to pass through full-body scanners than metal detectors." I would additionally be interested to know how many passengers are even told they are going to be scanned, or informed they CAN opt-out. As I found out this weekend, just because you do have a right to opt-out doesn't mean your local TSA agent will tell you about it.

 

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Liberia: Monkeys, Pets or Meat?

| Mon Nov. 29, 2010 3:43 PM EST

Editors' Note: Laura McClure traveled to Liberia this month on an IRP Gatekeeper Editors trip organized by the International Reporting Project (IRP).

I asked this University of Liberia student (see photo) what Christmas present I should bring back to America for my 4-year-old.

"Maybe a monkey?" he suggested.

Me: "As a pet?"

Student: "Yes, as a pet."

Me: "But don't Liberians also eat monkeys?"

Student: "Yes, but first you can play with them. Families do that sometimes, raise monkeys and then eat them."

Me: "What about dogs, do you eat them too after they're pets?"

Student: "Yes, dogs too."

Me: "Cats?"

Student: "Yes."

Me: "Birds?"

Student: "Yes."

Me: "Lizards?"

Student: "Yes."

Me: "Chameleons?"

Student: "No." (Makes a disgusted face.)

Maybe he was putting me on, but I kind of doubt it. Bushmeat is a big, unapologetic family cottage industry in Liberia, hence Sapo National Park signs and bumper stickers with "please don't eat the wildlife" messaging, like this one:

"Please don't feed the wildlife" stickers might be a ways off."Please don't feed the wildlife" stickers might be a ways off.

Stay tuned for more Africa dispatches.

What if Western States Were Organized by Water?

| Mon Nov. 29, 2010 3:35 PM EST

Map courtesy of USGSMap courtesy of USGSIt is a matter of public record that I'm an avid fan of weird maps. And over at the appropriately named Strange Maps blog, Frank Jacobs has unearthed a pretty neat one: John Wesley Powell's proposal to divide the western United States into a series of amoeba-like blobs amoeba-like water districts. Powell, the one-armed geologist who first mapped the Grand Canyon, believed that water management was the single most important issue facing regional development, and therefore the West should be governed accordingly. Per Jacobs:

Powell's warning at an irrigation congress in 1883 seems particularly prescient: "Gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply the land." Powell must have been frustrated by the contrast between the way his achievements were lauded, and his warnings ignored...

Like Jefferson's states, the units proposed by Powell seem, well, the wrong shape. From a purely cartophile point of view, they don't work as well as the states that did eventually make the cut. Ironically, they lack the normality of the present batch of straight-border states. Or is that just the force of habit talking?

To jump to Powell's defense, I'd say the whole thing actually has a sort of Central Asian feel to it; you won't find any box-like Wyomings hovering around the Hindu Kush. The biggest problem, though, seems to be that these places would be even less populated than our existing western states. The southwestern corner New Mexico, for instance, gets its own hypothetical state/district, even though no one actually lives, or ever has lived, southwest of Las Cruces.

Anyways, Powell was prescient in that he understood that management of natural resources and environmental limits were going to be preeminent issues facing the nation a century hence. But he was obviously shortsighted in thinking that 21st-century (or 20th-century, or 19th-century) leaders might ever be moved to do anything about it. To wit: His amoeba plan was scrapped at the behest of...the railroad industry.

What's Happening in Haiti: Elections Edition

| Mon Nov. 29, 2010 3:00 PM EST

Here's the CliffsNotes version: Yesterday the country's first post-quake elections were held. By midday, most of the 18 candidates banded together to denounce the vote, claiming that the government was fixing the race in favor of the candidate from President Rene Preval's party. The government says ballots were only destroyed at 3.5 percent of polling stations, so the vote stands. Today, some protesters in Port-au-Prince are blocking roads and setting stuff on fire; supporters of Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly, a popular musician, are getting teargassed. Unfortunately, the ugliness has a long time to escalate: Results aren't expected for more than a week. And things are likely to get worse before they get better. "The people," one of my Haitian friends texted me this morning, "want Preval's head."
 

Healthcare and Its Discontents

| Mon Nov. 29, 2010 2:41 PM EST

Ezra Klein makes a good point today: contrary to much mythology, Medicare does control medical costs better than the private sector. Unfortunately, there's a limit to how much cost control Medicare can accomplish in a world that's still dominated by private insurance:

The problem is that Medicare can't control costs too much better than private insurers or, as you see from the article above, doctors will simply abandon Medicare. In a world where there's only Medicare and Medicare decides to control costs, doctors can either take the pay cut or stop being doctors. And as we see from other countries, lots of people want to be doctors, even if being a doctor doesn't make you particularly wealthy. But in a world where Medicare is just one of many payers and Medicare decides to control costs, doctors can simply stop taking Medicare patients and a lot of legislators will lose their jobs.

Keep this in mind when you hear congress critters bloviating about payment formulas and cost control mechanisms and how they're never going to work. In fact, they might never work. But it's not because there's anything inherently impossible about them. It's because the private sector does a terrible job of cost control, and there's only just so much distance that Medicare can open up with its private competitors. As Uwe Reinhardt puts it: "The private sector is the inflationary component of health care, not Medicare or Medicaid. Medicare and Medicaid haven't grown faster, even though they deal with the older population. It's the private sector that doesn't know how to control costs."

In other healthcare analysis, Tyler Cowen offers seven worries about healthcare reform, one bright spot, and, of course, the observation that Republicans still don't have any better ideas. His summary: "Overall, the policy is shaping up to be a mess more quickly than I had thought, though not through the mechanisms I had been expecting. It still seems to have too many jerry-rigged pressure points." My take is that he's overreacting to growing pains that will almost certainly work themselves out over time in far less apocalyptic fashion than critics think. Partly this will be via administrative rulemaking compromises and partly via congressional changes as it becomes clearer which pressure points are real problems and which ones aren't. It's still early days.