2011 - %3, April

"BP Hasn't Made People Whole"

| Wed Apr. 20, 2011 2:35 AM PDT

Read about the top 10 reasons to still be pissed off about the BP spill here.

The Gulf oil disaster largely disappeared from the headlines last August, after the well was finally capped and the federal government declared that most of the oil was "gone."

For Gulf coast residents, though, the nightmare was just beginning. A year later, business hasn't come back for many in fishing and tourism, and the compensation check from BP still hasn't arrived. In the areas closest to the shores, people are reporting health problems consistent with exposure to chemicals. Dead turtles, dolphins and fish are still washing ashore. So are tar balls. So while most of the country has moved on, a number of Gulf coast residents have been in DC over the past week to tell decisionmakers one thing: It's not over.

Mother Jones talked to with several Gulf residents who have become advocates for their communities in the wake of the spill.

Kindra Arnesen, 33, of Buras, Louisiana

Arnesen and her husband, David, were just putting the finishing touches on the house they rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina when the Deepwater Horizon exploded. The disaster made an accidental activist out of this fisherman's wife and restaurant owner.

"We're not used to having to come up here and ask all these agencies in DC to do what our tax dollars pay them to do. I own two homes, a restaurant, and four boats. I've put that back together in the last five years. I don't owe no money on anything. We work really, really hard for what we do and what we get, and then it is almost like we’re painted by our own politicians through their actions, or lack thereof, as people that don’t need to exist, like we are expendable."

To read my interview with Arnesen, click here.

Cherri Foytlin, 38, of Rayne, Louisiana

Foytlin, a reporter, wife of an oilfield worker, and mother of six, walked 1,243 miles from New Orleans to Washington, DC, to demand a better future for Gulf residents.

"I would love for my husband to be making solar panels, but all the solar panels are being made in China. One of the things I’m totally advocating is bringing clean energy jobs here, and then providing subsidies so our oil workers get those jobs first."

"We are not divided. It's them that's dividing us up, and making us feel like we’re against this other group, that the oil workers are against the green movement and the green movement are against the oil workers. They are not—they are against the oil companies. That's a big difference. The oil companies don't care about the oil workers."

To read my interview with Foytlin, click here.

Ryan Lambert, 53, of Buras, Louisiana

Lambert rebuilt his charter boat company, Cajun Fishing Adventures, after it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. But a year after the oil disaster began, business still hasn't come back.

"BP hasn't made people whole. I'm not saying I'm so much worried about me, because financially, I'm okay. I'm the oldest one in the business, just about. But the youngest guys are starving to death. People are losing their homes, losing their boats and there's BP advertising that they're spending millions of dollars. They're not. They're not making anyone whole."

To read my interview with Lambert, click here.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 20, 2011

Wed Apr. 20, 2011 2:30 AM PDT

Army Sgt. Derric Byrd, a sling load technician with Okinawa, Japan, 35th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, sling loads a pallet of water to a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter at Ishanomki, Japan, April 11. The sling load Byrd and his other soldiers prepared was delivered to residents in some of the most remote areas of the tsunami ravaged areas of Japan. Photo via US Army.

Mitch Daniels Was Once Caught With 2 Shoeboxes Full of Weed?

| Wed Apr. 20, 2011 12:01 AM PDT
Mitt and T-Paw Go To White Castle.

When it comes to pot, we've come a long way from the days of "I did not inhale." Fifteen states (plus the District of Columbia) currently permit the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, and according to a recent Pew survey, 45-percent of Americans say they'd support legalizing marijuana outright—a 29-point increase from just two decades ago. Cannabis is fast losing its political stigma, too: The GOP might march in lockstep on abortion and tax cuts, but when it comes to pot, things get a bit hazier. Some of the party's presidential candidates have never touched the stuff; more than a few of them inhaled; one of them even got nabbed in a drug bust. In honor of 4/20, here's a quick guide to where the GOP's 2012 contenders stand on pot:

Mitch Daniels: As a student in Princeton, the Indiana governor was arrested in a police sting that netted two size-12 shoeboxes worth of marijuana, along with LSD and drug paraphernalia. Daniels was cited for pot possession but got off with a $350 fine for "maintaining a common nuisance." He told the Daily Princetonian in 1988 that because of the arrest "any goal I might have had for competing for public office were shot," and later called the incident an "unfortunate confluence of my wild oats period and America's libertine apogee" (far out!). As governor, Daniels has endorsed alternative sentencing for non-violent offenses like pot possession as a way to reduce prison overcrowding.

Jon Huntsman: In 1978, the US ambassador to China dropped out of high school to play in a prog rock band called "Wizard." As Politico noted, two of his bandmates were "very active in drugs," but Huntsman, who is Mormon, never joined in, and a friend says he "never saw him inhale." Medical marijuana is not legal in Utah, where Huntsman was governor for four years.

Mike Huckabee: He opposes marijuana legalization in any form, but did invite Tommy Chong (of Cheech and Chong fame) on his TV show to discuss pot policy, for a segment called "Is Pot Ruining Our Kids?" Chong ended the segment by calling Huckabee a "mushroom farmer," because "you keep 'em in the dark and throw [expletive] at them":

Our Ongoing Medicare Follies

| Tue Apr. 19, 2011 10:11 PM PDT

Everybody agrees we need to restrain the growth of Medicare. Unless, of course, someone proposes an actual way to restrain the growth of Medicare.

We are ruled by idiots. Bipartisanly, of course.

It's Not Just Rude, It's Ruining Your Brain

| Tue Apr. 19, 2011 9:38 PM PDT

Is it rude to be constantly checking messages while you're socializing with someone else? That's a matter of opinion. But a professor friend emails to remind me that rudeness is actually the least of the problems with the perpetual multitasking of the smartphone generation:

This is the way kids these days think. My administration calls it "the millennial student" and apparently we are supposed to cater to their habits. Fully half of my 60 person general physics class this semester sits in the back of the room on either phone or laptop. They're not taking notes. The good ones are working on assignments for other classes (as if being present in mine causes the information to enter their pores). The bad are giggling at Facebook comments.

....But here's the thing: there is convincing evidence that this inveterate multitasking has a serious, measurable and long lasting negative effect on cognitive function. Look up Stanford psychologist Clifford Nass sometime. There's a lovely episode of Frontline from a year or so ago featuring him. He has shown that multitaskers are not only bad at multitasking, but they are also worse than nonmultitaskers on every individual one of the tasks.

That's the millennial student and it isn't something to be catered to. Put the damn iPhone down before you make yourself stupid.

I should have remembered that! Nass has been studying "high multitasking" for years, and his results are pretty unequivocal. Here's the Frontline interview:

What did you expect when you started these experiments?

Each of the three researchers on this project thought that ... high multitaskers [would be] great at something, although each of us bet on a different thing.

I bet on filtering. I thought, those guys are going to be experts at getting rid of irrelevancy. My second colleague, Eyal Ophir, thought it was going to be the ability to switch from one task to another. And the third of us looked at a third task that we're not running today, which has to do with keeping memory neatly organized. So we each had our own bets, but we all bet high multitaskers were going to be stars at something.

And what did you find out?

We were absolutely shocked. We all lost our bets. It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking. They're terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; they're terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organized; and they're terrible at switching from one task to another.

....We were at MIT, and we were interviewing students and professors. And the professors, by and large, were complaining that their students were losing focus because they were on their laptops during class, and the kids just all insisted that they were really able to manage all that media and still pay attention to what was important in class -- pick and choose, as they put it. Does that sound familiar to you?

It's extremely familiar.... And the truth is, virtually all multitaskers think they are brilliant at multitasking. And one of the big new items here, and one of the big discoveries is, you know what? You're really lousy at it. And even though I'm at the university and tell my students this, they say: "Oh, yeah, yeah. But not me! I can handle it. I can manage all these," which is, of course, a normal human impulse. So it's actually very scary....

....You're confident of that?

Yes. There's lots and lots of evidence. And that's just not our work. The demonstration that when you ask people to do two things at once they're less efficient has been demonstrated over and over and over. No one talks about it — I don't know why — but in fact there's no contradictory evidence to this for about the last 15, 20 years. Everything [as] simple as the little feed at the bottom of a news show, the little text, studies have shown that that distracts people. They remember both less. Studies on asking people to read something and at the same time listen to something show those effects. So there's really, in some sense, no surprise there. There's denial, but there's no surprise.

The surprise here is that what happens when you chronically multitask, you're multitasking all the time, and then you don't multitask, what we're finding is people are not turning off the multitasking switch in their [brain] — we think there's a switch in the brain; we don't know for sure — that says: "Stop using the things I do with multitasking. Focus. Be organized. Don't switch. Don't waste energy switching." And that doesn't seem to be turned off in people who multitask all the time.

Italics mine. So here's the thing: whether it's rude or not, multitasking is probably ruining your brain. You should stop. But if you can't do that, you should at least take frequent breaks where you're fully engaged in a single task and exercising your normal analytic abilities. So why not do that while you're socializing? It's as good a time as any.

Non-Boots, Meet Non-Ground

| Tue Apr. 19, 2011 4:48 PM PDT

So about those ground troops in Libya:

A rebel official in Libya's besieged city of Misrata pleaded desperately on Tuesday for Britain and France to send troops to help fight strongman Moamer Kadhafi's forces, saying "if they don't, we will die." In the first request by any insurgents for boots on the ground, a senior member of Misrata's governing council, Nuri Abdullah Abdullati, said they were asking for the troops on the basis of "humanitarian" principles.

The French foreign minister is said to be "entirely hostile" to the idea of sending in ground troops, but perhaps that phrase doesn't translate quite the way you'd think:

The EU has drawn up a "concept of operations" for the deployment of military forces in Libya, but needs UN approval for what would be the riskiest and most controversial mission undertaken by Brussels.

The armed forces, numbering no more than 1,000, would be deployed to secure the delivery of aid supplies, would not be engaged in a combat role but would be authorised to fight if they or their humanitarian wards were threatened. "It would be to secure sea and land corridors inside the country," said an EU official.

....The planning has taken place inside the office of Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign and security policy chief....Diplomats say Ashton is pushing for a UN consent under strong pressure from the French, which is generally keen to promote projects supporting European defence and security policy.

This would be an EU force, not a NATO force, and would be tasked only with protecting humanitarian aid, not fighting for the rebels. So, just like all the other non-boots on the non-ground in Libya, this also wouldn't count as boots on the ground. Comprendre?

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The Future of China, Take 2

| Tue Apr. 19, 2011 2:52 PM PDT

A couple of weeks ago I linked to a paper predicting that China's growth would start to slow down in about five years, when its per capita income reaches $17,000. The authors based this on a comparison to a set of other countries that had also experienced high growth rates but eventually slowed down.

This week the Economist gathered a host of economists to comment, and for the most part they all agreed with the gist of the paper. However, they didn't invite Stuart Staniford, who thinks the $17,000 number is all wet. Roughly speaking, he thinks the authors chose the wrong set of countries for comparison, so he set out to get a more apt sample set:

To try to get a better grip on the situation, I did two things. Firstly, to formalize the instinct that the US has been at/near the productivity frontier at most times, I expressed every country's GDP/capita as a fraction of the US value in the same year. Then I started kicking countries out of the sample, unless they met the following criteria: they started out the sample clearly less productive than the US (I took less than 60% as my threshold), and ended up significantly more productive, relative to the US, than they had started out. Ie, we want countries where it's somewhat plausible that there's a story of underdevelopment, period of rapid catchup, followed by slowing growth once the country is a fully developed country with modern capital infrastructure and levels of productivity.

Long story short, Stuart produced the chart below, which suggests China can keep growing at a fast pace until its per capita income is somewhere in the $25,000 range, which is probably still 15-20 years away. I don't have the chops to adjudicate this, but I thought it was worth highlighting a contrarian opinion anyway. China might very well slow down in the next five or ten years anyway, since it faces multiple constraints (resource scarcity, productivity limits, demographics), but the $17,000 limit is just a guess, and you should probably put some fairly large mental error bars around it.

BP's Back in the Electoral Game

| Tue Apr. 19, 2011 12:13 PM PDT

Three hundred and sixty-four days after the explosion that caused the largest oil spill in US history, BP is back in action in electoral politics. The Hill reports that the company has made generous contributions to a number of House lawmakers and congressional campaign committees, with all but one of those donations going to Republicans:

BP Corp. North America gave $5,000 contributions to [House Speaker John] Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) through its political action committee, according to a campaign finance report filed with the Federal Election Commission on Tuesday.

BP's PAC also gave $5,000 to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the National Republican Congressional Committee, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Only one Democrat—Rep. Pete Visclosky of Indiana—received a donation ($3,000).

In the wake of the spill, BP's federal contributions basically stopped; the one check the company did cut to a House member was refused. BP did, however, make some contributions to state-level candidates. Buta year after the spill, it's apparently acceptable to take BP's campaign cash once again.

UPDATE: Upton tells The Hill that he plans to return the BP money.

Who's Afraid of Standard & Poor's?

| Tue Apr. 19, 2011 10:47 AM PDT

It's not like Paul Krugman needs my help in spreading his opinions, but people really ought to be paying a little more attention to the fact that right after S&P's warning yesterday morning about U.S. debt, interest rates on U.S. debt.....fell. Why? Because demand for U.S. securities rose and their price went up, as the chart below of a typical treasury index fund shows.

In other words, actual bond traders not only ignored S&P, they decided that U.S. debt was even safer than they thought before. And if S&P's warning didn't have any impact on trading in actual treasuries, it almost certainly didn't have any impact on anything else, including the stock market. As Krugman says, "People, this was a non-event."

The Indy Conundrum

| Tue Apr. 19, 2011 10:06 AM PDT

Greg Sargent notes a contradiction:

The poll finds that 63 percent of independents support dealing with the deficit by raising taxes on those over $250,000. It also finds that only 23 percent of independents support cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, versus 75 percent who oppose such cuts. Indys are far more in agreement with Obama than with Republicans on the two core questions at the heart of the fiscal debate right now.

Yet the poll also finds that only 28 percent approve of Obama’s handling of the deficit, versus 68 percent who disapprove.

How can this be? What explains such odd behavior?

This will probably satisfy no one, but I think the answer is pretty simple. First: the vast, vast majority of independents don't really have any idea what Obama's plan to handle the deficit is. They just know that (a) the deficit is high and (b) Obama is president. Beyond that, there are kids to get to school, laundry to be done, bosses to be pleased, and leaky faucets to be fixed. The details of the deficit debate are just a bit of partisan background noise that they haven't really parsed yet.

Second: the economy still sucks. Unemployment is high, wages are stagnant, housing prices are dropping, friends and neighbors are having trouble making ends meet, and taxes are due. So approval of everything Obama related is down.

I realize that these two things are sort of an all-purpose explanation for everything. Nonetheless, that's my explanation.