2011 - %3, August

Rick Perry's Unfortunate Book

| Mon Aug. 22, 2011 11:49 AM EDT

From Rick Perry, on August 14th:

Have you read my book, "Fed Up!" Get a copy and read it.

From Rick Perry's communications director, Ray Sullivan, on August 18th:

The book, Mr. Sullivan said, “is a look back, not a path forward.” It was written “as a review and critique of 50 years of federal excesses, not in any way as a 2012 campaign blueprint or manifesto,” Mr. Sullivan said.

This has been making all the usual rounds today, and why not? It's unusually dumb. Given the amount of — well, let's call it inconvenient bluster in the book — I guess Sullivan has to give this a try, but does he really think Perry can disown a book that he released nine months ago? That's not very swaggering and tea partyish. Sounds like Mr. Perry is all hat and no cattle.

Which of course makes this the perfect time for Sarah Palin to enter the race. We could use a common sense conservative who doesn't kowtow to the lamestream media. There's a real shortage of that in the Republican contest right now.

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Rick Perry vs. The Trial Lawyers

| Mon Aug. 22, 2011 10:00 AM EDT
The Torts and the Hair: Texas Governor Rick Perry has made tort reform a centerpiece of his presidential campaign.

Politico's Alexander Burns reports today that trial lawyers are gearing up for a major fundraising effort against Texas Governor Rick Perry, should he win the GOP presidential nomination:

Among litigators, there is no presidential candidate who inspires the same level of hatred — and fear — as Perry, an avowed opponent of the plaintiffs’ bar who has presided over several rounds of tort reform as governor...

That's a potential financial boon to [Obama] who has unsettled trial lawyers with his own rhetorical gestures in the direction of tort reform. A general election pitting Barack Obama against Perry could turn otherwise apathetic trial lawyers into a phalanx of pro-Obama bundlers and super PAC donors.

"If this guy emerges, if he's a serious candidate, if he doesn't blow up in the next couple weeks, it's going to motivate many in the plaintiffs' bar to dig deeper to support President Obama," said Sean Coffey, a former securities litigator who ran for attorney general of New York last year. "That will end up driving a lot of money to the Democratic side."

So that's the horse-race element of it. The larger battle here, which my colleague Stephanie Mencimer literally wrote the book about, is that conservatives and their business interests have for decades attempted to demonize trial lawyers for multiple reasons, none of which really involve your best interests. Perry makes a tort reform a major part of his stump speech; it's one of the four steps he would take as president to turn the economy around, along with lower taxes, fewer regulations, and reduced spending. And, to his credit I suppose, he has made it a priority in Texas so at least he's consistent. But as Kevin Drum points out, Perry's crusade against frivolous lawsuits has really just made it harder for people with legitimate claims to file suit, without offering the return on investment (lower health care costs, primarily) it purports to deliver.

Another Beer: Corporate Power, Deregulation, and Why German Brew Is (On Average) Better Than American

| Mon Aug. 22, 2011 9:08 AM EDT
The selection of cask-conditioned beers at Brooklyn's glorious Bierkraft.

Last week, I posted on what I think of as the beer paradox: that the industry is dominated by two swill-producing giants, and yet excellent craft beer proliferates.

To me, the beer paradox is about the limits of corporate power and the potential of grassroots organizing. Some readers had a different take on the phenomenon, and let me know on Twitter and in their own blogs. I'd like to respond to a few.

• The first involves corporate power. In progressive circles, there's a tendency to see corporations as all-powerful entities that dominate our lives. "Wow. You can't escape the corporate beer Matrix," one reader commented on Twitter after reading my post. But what I was trying to show is that the corporate "Matrix" is often like Oz's wizard: powerful, yes, but only as omnipotent as we let it be.

Anheuser-Busch owns a grotesque 50 percent of the US beer market, but that hasn't stopped excellent small-scale craft breweries in my area from cropping up. Within 100 miles of me in rural Western N.C., Craggie, Highland, Hoothills. Green Man, Pisgah, and Catawba Valley all churn out good-to-excellent small-batch beer. People in most areas of the United States can make a similar list. Escaping the beer Matrix may take a bit of effort, but it's certainly not impossible.

The Almost Famous Infamous Stringdusters

| Mon Aug. 22, 2011 6:40 AM EDT
The Infamous Stringdusters at Outside Lands.

Chris Pandolfi doesn't need to focus too much attention on tuning his banjo. We're talking backstage at the Outside Lands music festival in San Francisco, and as he cleans strings and plucks chords, he never stops the flow of conversation, never gives a glance to the beautiful, well-loved instrument in his lap. The bluegrass licks that subtly interrupt us seem to issue from somewhere else, because to look at Pandolfi's face you could never tell he was playing them. Perhaps that's because Pandolfi is a thirteen-year veteran of his instrument, but it's also probably because tuning up for big festival shows has become increasingly de rigeur for him in recent years.

Pandolfi makes up one-sixth of the rollicking bluegrass ensemble The Infamous Stringdusters, a group that has been on a steady uphill climb since being named 2007's Emerging Artist of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association (their first album, Fork in the Road, also snagged top honors that year for best song and album). This summer, the band has done its time on the festival circuit, playing in Telluride, Grand Targhee, and most recently, performing with established rock stars of the Yonder Mountain String Band at Red Rocks. You might think a rise to the top would distract the band from its musical foundations, but as far as Pandolfi is concerned, nothing could be less true.

Imelda May's Glam Rockabilly

| Mon Aug. 22, 2011 6:31 AM EDT

Witnessing Imelda May's live performance felt like attending a séance for the early blues label Chess Records and legendary rock label Sun Records—and it was one hell of a party. Beginning by cooing the last syllable of Howlin' Wolf's "Poor Boy" with the same legendary ache as the man himself, the singer didn't take a second's pause before diving straight into her signature rockabilly romp, "Psycho." Then, with a quick snap of a cymbal, May mellowed the mood with "Kentish Town Waltz," relishing every note as the audience sashayed to her husband Darrel Higham's guitar riffs and multi-instrumentalist Dave Priseman's trumpeting.

It's May's ability to revamp standards from the classic big bands and meld them with country rock, surfer punk, and blues that makes her an emerging force. With her two-toned coif and Betty Paige pinup looks, an infectious Irish brogue, three rock-solid albums, and a rippin' backup band (check out double-bass player Al Gare's blog for live updates on the band's shenanigans), she's much more than just a new twist on an old theme.

Mother Jones sat down with May before her August show at The Independent in San Francisco to dish on performing at burlesque clubs, producing albums, and her early beginnings with Ronnie Wood. 

Mother Jones: You've surrounded yourself with the absolute best in the business, performing with Jeff Beck for a Les Paul tribute, hanging with Dr. John in New Orleans. What's it like to rotate in the legend's circle? 

Imelda May: It's terrific, absolutely terrific. I'm glad my music has gone the direction I hoped it would. I know it's a specialist kind of music, and I didn't want it to be a novelty act, which can happen to bands. This is what I've done all my life and I would have been disappointed if that was the take away. There's an awful lot of women in the music business—it can be all about style and fashion, and I didn't want that to be the focal point. 

MJ: Like a gimmick, so to speak.

IM: Yes, I didn't want it to be gimmicky. I don't care about gossipy stuff. It's absolutely brilliant to be surrounded by people I've admired for years. Funny enough, I started performing when I was 16, 21 years ago. I was in this little underground blues and rockabilly club in London, way too young to be there, but my brother would sneak me in and take care of me while I performed. One night, the lovely Ronnie Wood came in, jumped on stage and started jamming as I was singing. I spoke to Wood recently when I was with Jeff Beck for one of his shows, and when I was telling him the story, he was like "No way! You're not that same girl! I remember that night and couldn't believe there was this young child singing the blues!" So I started off on a good note.

MJ: Are you and Jeff Beck working on an album? 

IM: We're not working on anything at the moment. He asked me to sing on his album, Emotion & Commotion. We've jammed and recorded stuff, but I don't know what he's going to do with it. 

MJ: Any other artists you'd kill to collaborate with? 

IM: I would love to work with Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, B.B. King. I'd love to do something with Arctic Monkeys, Miles Kane, and The Last Shadow Puppets. If I got a call from Juliette Lewis or PJ Harvey, or Chrissie Hynde, that'd be a thrill. 

MJ: Who's poster did you have on your wall growing up? 

IM: My foremost heartthrob was River Phoenix. It was the movie Stand by Me, and I really loved the soundtrack and Ben E. King; it got me into that kind of music. 

MJ: Your music pulls from multiple influences: country rock, rockabilly, jazz. Did you have a punk phase? Or were you into '80s hair metal? What was your thing? 

IM: I had a big time punk-rock phase and psychobilly phase. I used to go mad for the Guana Batz. I love loads of music: Blondie, The Clash, The Cramps. I tried to be a goth for a while. I'd pour baby powder on my face and paint my lips black, but that didn't last long. I thought I looked cool at the time. But then you look back and wonder, "Why did anyone let me out of the house looking like that?" 

MJ: What's it like to be from the Liberties? If I were to visit, where would you take me? 

IM: It's a great place, really strong community: proper working-class, hard-working people who haven't had the easiest of times. But it's rich in character and rich in people. My family has been there for generations. And where I'd take you, definitely to Brazen Head. It's the oldest pub in Ireland, right in Liberty Village. That's where my brother plays traditional Irish folk music, and I'd go and join him when I'm in town. 

MJ: Are your parents musicians? 

IM: My dad was a dancer and instructor. He didn't make any money off it when the '60s arrived, because everyone started dancing on their own, so he became a painter and a decorator. And my mom was a dressmaker and seamstress. They're both retired now. Back then, they weren't allowed to speak during work time, so they would sing with their friends constantly. My mom sang to me all the time. Even now, she'll go to bed and lie there for two hours in bed, every night, singing along to the radio. You can hear her singing in the dark. 

MJ: How do your parents feel about you reviving the classics they grew up with? 

IM: They love it. They gave me Glenn Miller, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, all the big bands, so I got that love from them. The record collection in my house was huge. One of my brothers was into David Bowie, Meat Loaf, the other was into Elvis. I have two brothers and two sisters, it was the seven of us in a two-bedroom house, and it was a great upbringing for music and good songs. We partied a lot, and even now when we get together, we sing together; just about everyone in the family has a song that they sing. 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 22, 2011

Mon Aug. 22, 2011 5:50 AM EDT

A marine with Headquarters and Service Company, Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, ejects a shell casing from an M40 sniper rifle during an unknown distance shooting competition, August 17. The marines were competing against each other for a prize and bragging rights. The 31st MEU is the only continuously forward-deployed MEU and remains the nation's force in readiness in the Asia-Pacific region. Photo by Cpl. Garry J. Welch.

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We Walk Our Pigs in Oakland

| Mon Aug. 22, 2011 5:30 AM EDT
4-H member Kendall Post, 14, with her rooster.

For the next few months, I'll be periodically hanging out with members of 4-H Club. One of the largest youth organizations in the world, 4-H counts agribusiness giants like Monsanto, DuPont, Cargill, John Deere, Philip Morris USA, and Kraft Foods among its partnering sponsors. That these companies would want to turn kids onto farming makes sense when you consider the fact that the average age of the American farmer is creeping up toward 60. But the values that the kids learn about livestock—ethical and humane treatment of animals, lots of personal interaction, and responding to each animals' individual needs—goes completely against the agribiz-as-usual model about which my colleague Tom Philpott has blogged extensively. My first post on 4-H, where I check out the animals at the Alameda County Fair, is here.

One sunny afternoon in July, I drove up a series of narrow, winding roads into the hills of Oakland, California, to meet two seasoned members of the Montclair 4-H Club: Kendall and Garrett Post. The Post kids live with their mom and dad in a cool old farm house, behind which are fire trails that snake up through the woods. The setting feels rural, but it's actually only a few minutes' drive from bustling downtown Oakland.

Garrett Post checks for eggs.Garrett Post checks for eggs in the chicken coop.

This spring, the Post kids raised two pigs for 4-H in their barn. Since their property isn't big enough to properly exercise the pigs, Kendall and Garrett walked them on the public fire trails behind their house, guiding them with short crops, since pigs don't do well with leashes. More than a few hikers, they told me, did double takes at the sight of a couple of kids prodding their pigs up the trail.

By the time I visited, the pigs had already been sold for meat at the Alameda County Fair. But the kids were nice enough to show me a few of their other animals and to chat with me about what it's like to raise livestock in Oakland.

Kendall Post, 14, holds one of her roosters.Kendall Post, 14, holds one of her roosters.

When I visited the Posts, 4-H activities had wound down for the summer. The only animals around were chickens, rabbits, and a few gawky teenage turkeys. But in the spring, during the weeks leading up to the county fair, Kendall explained, things can get a little crazy, since the kids have to make sure that their show animals are ready for prime time: healthy, well-groomed, and obedient. Kendall and Garrett walk their pigs as many as three times a day. The walk is partially for exercise, but it's also for fair practice: "You have to make sure you can control your animal in front of the judges," Kendall says.

At 14, Kendall has been a 4-Her for nine years, during which time she's raised rabbits, chickens, turkeys, goats, and pigs. She describes 4-H as "a giant time commitment." In addition to the one to two hours every day she spends with her animals, there's club meetings, project meetings, and officers' meetings; Kendall serves as club treasurer.

Over a lemonade in the backyard, Kendall and her little brother Garrett, 11, demonstrated how to show a pig, pantomiming how to direct the animal with a stick. "What if you have a pig with an attitude?" I asked. Kendall giggled. "Well then, you're kind of done."

The Posts' pig pens (for feeding time).The Posts' pig pens (for feeding time).Many 4-H kids raise their animals on other people's properties or on a 4-H farm, but Kendall and Garrett are lucky: They have a big yard and a dad who likes to build animal enclosures, so their chickens, goats, rabbits, and pigs live right on their family's property. In fact, a few other 4-H kids who don't have as much space raise their pigs at the Posts' place.

The Post kids admit that 4-H can be a lot of pressure, especially in the months leading up to the fair. Kendall and Garrett devote a lot of energy to making sure their pigs reach the required weight of 250 pounds, since underweight animals aren't allowed to be shown. They also do a lot of cramming to prepare for questions from tough judges: Kendall even participated in something called Rabbit Bowl, a quiz-show style contest where kids answer questions about rabbit health and handling. And competition is fierce. "When I tell people I got fourth place*, it doesn't sound like that big of a deal, but to me it is," she says. "We're up against kids from farms, and 4-H is their whole lives." Their hard work paid off: Kendall's pig sold for an impressive $1,700, and Garrett's sold for just over $1,000. 4-H kids typically use most of what they earn from a sale to pay back loans they've taken out to buy and feed the animals, but the net profit is usually still a few hundred dollars. 

Garrett says hello to a turkey poult.Garrett says hello to a turkey poult.Next year, Kendall will be a freshman at a Catholic high school in Oakland. I asked her what her friends at school think of her 4-H activities. She thought about it for a minute. "I think they're interested, but they can't see themselves doing it," she said. Kendall's not sure yet how she'll balance the demands of high school with her 4-H animal projects. She'd like to try out for school plays, and rehearsals could conflict with pig-exercising and sty-cleaning time.

So was it worth devoting all that time to an animal that you know is going to be sold for meat? I asked Garrett whether it was sad to say goodbye to his pig at the fair. "Last year I was really sad," he said. "This year I got a little misty-eyed on the way home from the fair, but I didn't break down."

Kendall explained it this way: "We know that our pigs have a way better life than the ones whose meat you get at the grocery store. We know exactly what they're fed. We walk them. We play tug-of-war with them. Of course it's sad to say goodbye to them, but I know that they're happy."

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Kendall's pig took fourth place. That was incorrect; both Kendall and Garrett took fourth place in showmanship. The sentence has been corrected.

Repealing the 16th Amendment

| Mon Aug. 22, 2011 1:07 AM EDT

Does Rick Perry really think we should repeal the 16th Amendment and completely eliminate the income tax? This has been making the rounds, so I got curious. Here's what he says in his book:

This leads me to the great milestone on the road to serfdom: the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment....This was the birth of wealth redistribution in the United States.

....[One] option would be to repeal the Sixteenth Amendment [] and then pursue an alternative model of taxation such as a national sales tax or the Fair Tax....America needs a fairer, flatter, and simpler system, one which working families can complete without having to hire a bevy of professionals to assist them.

So that's the skinny. Obviously Perry doesn't think very highly of the 16th Amendment and believes that repealing it is an "option." That's pretty loopy, but it's actually what comes next that's really loopy: he'd like to replace all federal taxes with the Fair Tax, a proposal that basically levies a 30% sales tax on all goods and services — including housing, healthcare, food, and everything else. Mike Huckabee was touting this nitwit idea back in 2007, and Bruce Bartlett shredded it here pretty conclusively. My comment at the time:

What's really amazing is that Bruce can write a thousand words on this subject and maintain a calm and even demeanor throughout. After all, among serious tax analysts a national sales tax ranks right up there with eliminating the Fed and putting the United States back on the gold standard. It's crankery. And yet it keeps rearing its ugly head, like a vampire that just won't die. Anybody got a silver bullet handy?

This is really scary. At the time, I assumed that eliminating the Fed and putting the United States back on the gold standard were so obviously stupid that they were good examples of transparent economic crankery. But guess what? Both of those cretinous ideas have gained a lot of traction among Republicans lately. So it's hardly any wonder that at least one of their candidates has reanimated the zombie Fair Tax proposal too. I wonder what's next? No one's mentioned fluoride in the drinking water lately, have they?

Are the Nature vs. Nurture Wars Over?

| Sun Aug. 21, 2011 6:33 PM EDT

Matt Ridley has an odd column in the Wall Street Journal this weekend called "A Truce in the War Over Smarts and Genes." He's optimistic that a recent discovery in molecular genetics conclusively demonstrates that intelligence does indeed have a genetic basis but also that it doesn't matter that much:

The immediate cause of this optimism is a recent paper in Molecular Psychiatry, which confirms that genes account for about half of the difference in IQ between any two people in a modern society, but that the relevant genes are very numerous and the effect of each is very small.

....It turns out the genetic differences may have been all just below the measurement radar. A new technique, which can now detect very slight genetic influences, has succeeded where the old techniques failed. The genes for intelligence are there, but there are thousands of them and each has only a tiny impact....So the old terror, which so alarmed many psychologists and educationalists, that one day people—or governments—would use genes to decide whom to kill, sterilize or prevent being born because of their intelligence, suddenly looks a lot less scary. There are just too many genes.

I don't get this. First, it's been a very long time since I've read anyone suggesting the existence of "an IQ gene." The proposition that intelligence and other cognitive traits are the product of lots of different gene complexes has been pretty well accepted for decades, even if definitive proof was lacking. So although this new result may be important, it doesn't seem all that earthshaking in the context of the nature/nurture wars.

Second, the reason that nature vs. nurture has been such a nasty battle hasn't really been due to fears of a new eugenics movement breaking out. It's been due to fears that if intelligence has a genetic basis, then it's also conceivable that different races have different inherent IQs. That's where the emotional core of the war has resided since at least the 50s and 60s, and it remains there whether intelligence is the result of one gene or thousands.

But I confess that I haven't paid very much attention to the nature/nurture debate over the past decade or so. So maybe I'm wrong about this. Anyone care to weigh in on the current state of the controversy?

Why Maps Are So Annoying

| Sun Aug. 21, 2011 4:54 PM EDT

Quick: does this diagram have more blue squares or more red squares?

Time's up! There are more red squares. But according to Berkeley's Eduardo Andrade, most people overestimate the number of blue squares when they're lumped in the middle like this. Scatter them around in different ways and you can reliably get people to guess that there are more red squares or that there are the same number of both. This makes the visual display of information important:

It is relatively easy to bias people’s visually-based estimates. As experiment 1 demonstrates, estimations of the actual proportion of winning squares differed by almost 30 percentage points when the winning-on-the-edge vs. winning-in-the-middle formats were contrasted (30.7% vs. 57.6%). Surprisingly, people are often tempted to rely on the costless and apparently ‘‘infallible’’ visual input. Experiment 2 showed that an astonishing 75% of participants in the ‘‘pictorial format only’’ condition acknowledged that they did not systematically compute the actual probabilities before making a betting decision that involved their own participation fee.

I don't know if this is really all that surprising or not, but there you have it. In any case, this reminds me of the old chestnut about why, when you look up something in a map book, the thing you're looking for always seems to be right on the edge, forcing you to flip back and forth between two pages. Answer: because most of the map is on the edge. The outermost 15% of a page contains half the map. The outermost 20% contains two-thirds. So the odds of finding something near the center seems like it ought to be high but in fact is surprisingly low. Thus the annoyance factor.

Via Kevin Lewis of the Boston Globe.