2011 - %3, August

How To Lie With Figures

| Wed Aug. 3, 2011 4:05 PM EDT

This is hardly the biggest deal in the world, but it caught my eye so I'm passing it along. It's a "Taxpayer's Statement" mailed to me by my congressman, John Bayard Taylor Campbell III, chairman of the Budget and Spending Task Force of the Republican Study Committee. Take a look at the highlighted lines:

Miscellaneous taxes sure are up! Or wait — the statement calls them "miscellaneous receipts." Hmmm. Let's look at the footnote:

This includes taxes from a variety of places including gaming activity fees, Dept. of Interior fees, Puerto Rico, and other sources.

"Other sources" may sound like it's part of "taxes from a variety of places," but it turns out it's a completely independent clause. The vast bulk of that number, about $75 billion, is profit from the Federal Reserve's investments that have been returned to the Treasury. But even if you read the footnote you wouldn't know that. It just looks like the gummint is sucking up ever more of your money.

In the great game of misleading people about taxes, this is a misdemeanor at most. Maybe a parking ticket. Still, Campbell sure has gone to some lengths to make sure that taxes look high (and growing) and profit from the evil Fed is kept safely out of sight.

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Why Are White Guys Climate Skeptics?

| Wed Aug. 3, 2011 3:31 PM EDT

A new paper in Global Environmental Change has a generated some interesting chatter online. The title, "Cool dudes: The denial of climate change among conservative white males in the United States" sums it up the central question pretty well: Why do white guys think climate change is a bunch of baloney?

Via Chris Mooney, here's the summary of the data on conservative white males, or CWM:

— 14% of the general public doesn’t worry about climate change at all, but among CWMs the percentage jumps to 39%.
— 32% of adults deny there is a scientific consensus on climate change, but 59% of CWMs deny what the overwhelming majority of the world's scientists have said.
— 3 adults in 10 don't believe recent global temperature increases are primarily caused by human activity. Twice that many – 6 CWMs out of every ten – feel that way

It's not exactly shocking news, if you've ever taken a moment to consider that white men seem to make up the majority of the audience for Fox News, Glenn Beck, or Rush Limbaugh. The authors boil it down to a few psychological explanations: "identity-protective cognition," or seeking out and believing that which affirms the beliefs or values one already holds, and "system justification," or a motivation to defend the status quo.

Mooney also raises a good point about one theory the report authors left out of the discussion: "social dominance orientation." Basically, the idea is that white men like things they way they are now, because so far they've made out pretty well. They also seek out and are affirmed by others who believe the same things (i.e., Limbaugh and Beck). Mooney explains it eloquently:

Rather, I simply think they experience modern climate science and climate advocacy as an affront, an attack on them and what they believe. They were brought up in a certain way, they believe certain things, and they have no reason to think of themselves as bad people—and indeed, mostly they’re not bad people. They give to charity. They go to church. They provide for a family. And so on.
But then they perceive all these attacks on their values coming from outsiders—hippie environmentalists and ivory tower climate scientists. If you didn’t do anything wrong, and you consider yourself as reasonable and intelligent--but people are attacking you and your values—you maybe get kind of outraged and worked up.

What I wonder, though, is how much shifting demographics will affect this. Demographers expect that white people will become the minority in the US in the next 40 years. So the next generation of white men will not be as large or politically powerful, for one. And they might also be less inclined toward those psychological traits, having perhaps not enjoyed quite the vaunted status of our current generation of white guys.

But that also creates the potential for a backlash. As conservative white males become less numerous and powerful, this might increase the tendency toward protectionism/withdraw/hostility, particularly on the question of climate change.

Anyway, there are more interesting thoughts from Mooney, David Ropeik, and David Roberts—all of whom happen to be white dudes.

A Side of Salmonella Superbug With That Turkey Burger? (UPDATED)

| Wed Aug. 3, 2011 3:09 PM EDT

UPDATE: Marler Blog reported Wednesday afternoon that agribusiness behemoth Cargill is behind the tainted turkey. The company will soon announce a voluntary recall of nearly 36 million pounds of ground-turkey products, the blog reports, all of which emerged from a single processing facility in  Springdale, Arkansas. This latest fiasco does not mark the first time Cargill has sent out massive amounts of product potentially tainted with antibiotic-resistant salmonella. In 2009, a beef processor owned by the company had to recall 826,000 pounds of hamburger meat laced with a resistant strain called salmonella Newport. For good measure, the same plant had to recall another 22,000 pounds for the same reason a few months later. A USA Today investigation revealed that the troubled plant was a major supplier to the national school lunch program. Cargill, among the globe's largest privately held companies, processes about 25 percent of the beef consumed in the United States, along with 14 percent of the turkey and 9 percent of the pork.


Once again, a drug-resistant "superbug" has infiltrated the national food supply. This time, the culprit appears to be tainted ground turkey, although federal investigators have not been able to definitively identify the source and thus have not issued a recall. The Centers for Disease Control reports that 77 people in 26 states have fallen ill; one person has died. Here's how the CDC describes the situation:

The outbreak strain of Salmonella Heidelberg is resistant to many commonly prescribed antibiotics; this antibiotic resistance can increase the risk of hospitalization or possible treatment failure in infected individuals. [Emphasis added.]

"Treatment failure," of course, is a polite way of saying "death."

Such outbreaks are almost certainly related to the meat industry's practice of giving confined livestock daily antibiotic doses, both to keep them functioning under cramped, unsanitary conditions and to make them grow faster. Will this outbreak finally force federal regulators to crack down on this practice? Doubtful.

As I reported last week, the USDA recently acknowledged the factory farm/antibiotic-resistance link in a "technical review" of the latest peer-reviewed science on the topic. But instead of throwing its weight behind a crackdown of factory-farm antibiotic abuse, the agency unceremoniously stepped on the report, removing it from its website without explanation after meat-industry groups complained about it.

Then there's the FDA. As the agency that regulates pharmaceuticals, the FDA could act to protect the public from drug-resistant pathogens by limiting their use at factory farms. The agency strongly and publicly acknowledged the link back in 2009. Yet it maintains its official stance that antibiotics should be "used judiciously" on factory farms, and it leaves it to the industry to define what that means.

7% of Harvard Women are 'Sugar Babies'? Hmm.

| Wed Aug. 3, 2011 2:43 PM EDT

SeekingArrangement.com—a website where young women known as "sugar babies" request financial assistance in exchange for dates with wealthy older men known as "sugar daddies"—gave data to the Huffington Post about the top 20 colleges attended by sugar babies.* At first glance, the numbers seem a little high: 498 NYU undergrads are on the site? That's 4% of women enrolled. Another 4% of Tulane's girls are allegedly sugar babies too. Or what about Harvard: 231 students are supposedly sugar babies on SeekingArrangement.com, which would equal 7% of the Ivy League school's female undergrads.

These figures seem especially high when you consider the number of women registered at similar sites: the founder of EstablishedMen.com estimates that 611,000 of his members are female co-eds. Another one of his sites, ArrangementSeekers.com, has around 120,000 college girls on it. Could the recession and student loans really be turning so many smart college girls into pay-to-play sugar babies?

The devil's in the details: SeekingArrangement.com considers any person a student if they register using a .edu email address OR if they write the name of a school in their profile. Even if you don't have a .edu email address, you can identify as a "student" at any number of universities. Or (as I found out when playing around with the site today) if you register using the still-valid .edu address from your undergrad days a decade ago, you'll still be an undergrad to the site's eyes, which entitles you to upgraded membership privileges for free. Perhaps these rewards and the ease of identifying as a struggling student is part of the reason why SeekingArrangement.com's founder Brandon Wade says he's seen a 350% uptick in collegiate sugar babies since 2007.

To learn more about the sugar baby life, I highly recommend Mac McClelland's essay about SugarDaddy.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this story suggested that the Huffington Post explicity argued that 7% of Harvard undergrads were sugar babies. It didn't. Sorry.

Floridians Pink-Slip Donut-Making Rick Scott (Video)

| Wed Aug. 3, 2011 2:31 PM EDT

How unpopular is Florida tea party Republican Gov. Rick Scott? He can't even make donut-lovers happy.

As part of an image-rehabilitation program for the beleaguered novice politician, Scott's handlers revived a practice by one of his (Democratic) predecessors, Bob Graham: getting out and doing the jobs of regular Floridians for a day.

Scott's first day didn't go so well. There he was, just trying to make some donuts at Nicola's in Tampa, when he was inundated by (surprisingly respectful) protesters from Pink Slip Rick, a group that's angered by the guv's pro-privatization, anti-public schools agenda (which Stephanie Mencimer wrote about for MJ). Check out the video below.

Wait for the fireworks at 46 seconds, when the senior mother of a schoolteacher gives Scott a pink slip and a timeout:

Mother: "You should be ashamed that I have to go out and buy things for my daughter's classroom because of a shortage of funds."

Scott: (pause) "Thanks for coming."

Rust Costs Pentagon $23 Billion

| Wed Aug. 3, 2011 2:09 PM EDT

Yesterday, I explained how the grand debt compromise cuts only $7 billion in real money from the Pentagon's budget in the next two years—roughly the cost of 3 submarines, or 20 fighter jets, or one-fifth of one KBR contract in Iraq.

Guess what costs more than three times that much per year? Rust! According to Phil Ewing over at DOD Buzz:

Commanders at all levels are more aware than they've ever been about the hazards and costs of corrosion, which cost DoD $22.5 billion just in 2009, according to one study. The brass is convening rust conferences, pursuing new materials and technology to help defeat it, and, in the case of the Navy, completely changing its thinking about what it means for ships.

What's the big reason the brass isn't doing anything about it? Ewing again:

Traditionally, if you wanted to impress a general, admiral or lawmaker, you didn't show a presentation about rust. You talked about "transformation," "disruptive" or "game-changing" technologies, and had big diagrams that showed ships, aircraft, ground vehicles, UAVs, satellites and troops connected by lightning bolts.

What goes for generals...also goes for congressmen. How about it, Buck McKeon? When's the House Armed Services Committee going to stop caterwauling about its fancy shiny pork products and invest in money-saving Brillo pads?

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The Importance of Good Statistics

| Wed Aug. 3, 2011 1:07 PM EDT

Ryan Avent reviews some ancient history today. As we all know, the 2009 stimulus package was smaller than it should have been given what we knew at the time. But it was way smaller than it should have been if we'd only known what was really going on. The House passed an $800 billion stimulus bill on January 26th:

Two days after that, Americans received grim news about the economy: in the fourth quarter of 2008, GDP contracted at a 3.8% annual pace—the worst quarterly performance since the deep recession of 1982....Unfortunately, the situation was far more dire than anyone in the administration or in Congress supposed.

Output in the third and fourth quarters fell by 3.7% and 8.9%, respectively, not at 0.5% and 3.8% as believed at the time. Employment was also falling much faster than estimated. Some 820,000 jobs were lost in January, rather than the 598,000 then reported. In the three months prior to the passage of stimulus, the economy cut loose 2.2m workers, not 1.8m. In January, total employment was already 1m workers below the level shown in the official data.

So what would Obama have proposed if he'd known that GDP had just contracted by 8.9% instead of 3.8%? Beats me. But even as cautious as he is and as mainstream as his advisors were, surely a recession that was more than twice as bad as they thought would have produced a stimulus that was something on the order of twice as big. I've never thought that the difference between, say, an $800 billion stimulus and a $1 trillion stimulus was a very big deal, but the difference between an $800 billion stimulus and a $1.6 trillion stimulus sure would have been.

BEA has a long track record of not doing a good job on GDP figures when the economy is turning sharply. It's too late to cry over spilt milk now, but if there's a way to get better at this it might help us out next time.

Quote of the Day: Hostages and Ransom Demands

| Wed Aug. 3, 2011 12:31 PM EDT

From Mitch McConnell, crowing over the debt ceiling fight:

I think some of our members may have thought the default issue was a hostage you might take a chance at shooting. Most of us didn't think that. What we did learn is this — it's a hostage that's worth ransoming. And it focuses the Congress on something that must be done.

Fine. I have no problem with talk like this. And on the bright side, this means that the pearl clutchers at Fox News will stop hyperventilating about Democrats who called Republicans hostage takers. Right?

The House GOP Jobs Plan, Again

| Wed Aug. 3, 2011 12:17 PM EDT
Joined by House Republican leaders outside the Cannon Caucus Room, Speaker Boehner discusses the Republicans' jobs plan.

As soon as the ink was dry on the new debt-ceiling deal, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was on Twitter pushing the GOP's "blueprint" for creating jobs and fixing the economy. There's a special new jobs website set up to promote the Republican plan. I was pretty sure that I knew what it was even before I looked at it, but Boehner's tweets were pretty insistent, so I decided to check out the plan. As it turned out, the fancy new website simply promoted the same old "jobs" plan my colleague Andy Kroll wrote about back in May. But since that was a lifetime ago in Washington, here's a refresher on what the GOP wants to do now that the debt fight is over:

Number one on the list of "pro-growth" policies House Republicans intend to push is reducing "regulatory burdens" on small businesses. The GOP plan highlights a number of regulations that hurt "job creators," including the EPA's efforts to regulate greenhouse gasses; the FCC's net neutrality proposal, which is hated by the nation's biggest telecom monopolies; and "burdensome pesticide regulation."

Next on the list is.... lower taxes. House Republicans are promising to lower the tax rate for individuals and businesses to 25 percent, down from the current 35 percent. How that squares with the other GOP proposal to tackle the national debt isn't laid out in the plan. Presumably the big tax reduction will spur so much growth that the revenue will magically appear in the federal treasury, just the way it did, uh, with the Bush tax cuts. (It didn't.)

The GOP's other ideas include patent reform (which Congress actually passed since the last version of the plan was released) and "expediting" the drug approval process at the FDA. And no GOP jobs plan would be complete without a proposal to drill, baby, drill, to increase domestic energy production.

Critics can laugh all they want about Obama going on a bus tour to focus on job creation, but even if all he does is wrangle up some money to fix a few falling-down bridges, it's likely to put more average people to work than anything the GOP has in mind.

Turning the Tables on the Debt Ceiling

| Wed Aug. 3, 2011 11:56 AM EDT

Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, has made it clear that he considers hostage taking over the debt ceiling to be the new normal. From now on, Republicans are going to use the threat of default as a routine legislative maneuver. Michael Shear thinks Democrats should reciprocate and do the same when a Republican is president, but Jon Chait isn't sure this will work:

As a practical matter, I doubt this. In order to hold the debt ceiling hostage, you need, at the very least, extremely high levels of party discipline (in the House and the Senate, lest the upper chamber openly break ranks and isolate your hostage-taking wing.) You also probably need a propaganda apparatus that can create its own empirical reality in which the experts who warn that failing to lift the debt ceiling would create dire consequences are all wrong. I don't think the Democratic Party has either of these.

I'd add one more thing to this: what, exactly, would Democrats be holding out for if they did this? Republicans have an ideal topic: in return for raising the debt ceiling, we need to work on reducing the national debt. To a lot of voters, regardless of whether they approve, this at least makes sense. It seems natural, not artificial.

But what would Democrats do? Hold up the debt ceiling unless Republicans agree to bring the troops home from Yemen (or wherever our troops are a few years from now)? Hold up the debt ceiling unless Republicans agree to pass an immigration bill? Hold up the debt ceiling unless Republicans agree to reduce carbon emissions? None of these things seem even remotely tied to the idea of debt, which makes them far more obviously artificial than what Republicans did. And that means less public support and less media support.

That's a drag, but it's reality. Partisan tactics don't always work in mirror image form. We need to have our own outrageous tactics, not necessarily the same outrageous tactics as Republicans.

(Though Jon does offer an interesting twist: next time, maybe Dems should hold up the debt ceiling until Republicans agree to abolish the debt ceiling entirely. I don't know if that would work either, but it's an idea.)