2011 - %3, September

How Effective Is The TSA's Behavior Detection Program?

| Wed Sep. 21, 2011 11:50 AM EDT

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano recently made news when she suggested that the Transportation Security Administration's shift to a more "risk-based" approach would eliminate some of the more frustrating airport security rituals enacted since the 9/11 attacks. Americans, she said, might now be able to keep their shoes going through airport security. But according to the Government Accountability Office, it's still unclear how effective a key part of that approach actually is.

The TSA's Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program works by deploying "Behavior Detection Officers" who keep an eye out for passengers displaying nervous or erratic behavior. Instead of pulling grandma out of the line or screening for people based on ethnicity, BDOs are taught to look for certain behavior markers that might indicate a threat. A "validation study" completed in April concluded that SPOT "was more effective than random screening to varying degrees." No terrorists were caught, but the program helped identify thousands of people who had outstanding warrants, were in the country illegally, or had false documents. TSA Director John Pistole said in a speech on September 6 that the TSA was looking into expanding SPOT. 

However, the GAO report notes several technical problems with data-gathering in the study, which made "meaningful analyses" of the information gathered on suspicious behaviors in the program prior to 2010 impossible. TSA fixed those problems, but DHS' validation study included data from before the problem was resolved. The results may also have been biased by the fact that BDOs knew whether individuals were being recommended to them on the basis of SPOT or through random screening. In other words, it wasn't a blind test. 

"It just raises the potential for bias," says Steve Lord, director of homeland security and justice issues at the GAO. "We're not sure how significant it was, but this is something that would need to be studied and evaluated in a subsequent analysis." 

Does that mean the results suggesting SPOT is more effective than random screening are useless? Lord says no. "It certainly answered one question, is it better than random?" Lord says. "But there's some additional work they have to do."

That said, we also have no idea how much more effective than random screening the SPOT program is. According to the GAO report, TSA considers that "sensitive information."

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Why Fake Savings Are As Good as Real Savings

| Wed Sep. 21, 2011 11:42 AM EDT

Ezra Klein remarks today on the fact that critics of President Obama's deficit plan claim that much of his savings are "fake." That is, they're savings that were going to happen anyway, so his plan doesn't really change anything:

But that means that more than a trillion dollars of our projected deficit is “fake.” That money can’t be real on one side of the ledger and fake on the other. In general, this mostly speaks to the flaws of talking about deficits in terms of dollar figures rather than debt-to-GDP ratios.

The real question for the president’s plan — or any plan — is whether it stabilizes the debt-to-GDP ratio at an acceptable level. If so, then it’s good enough. If not, then it’s not. That’s what the market cares about, and that’s what we should care about. According to the White House’s projections, their plan will leave debt-to-GDP at slightly above 70 percent in 2012.

Good point. The savings are either real or they're fake, and if they're fake they shouldn't be counted to begin with. Of course, that would mean that our existing deficit situation is less dire than it appears, and that would be inconvenient for the Chicken Littles.

In the end, Ezra is right: who cares? Either the budget gets into primary balance (i.e., not counting interest payments) in a suitable time frame or it doesn't. If it does, everything is fine and it really doesn't matter much which baseline you used to calculate things. And as you can see on the right, the Obama administration projects that their plan will reduce the country's debt-to-GDP ratio consistently from 2014 forward. You may or may not believe that this is actually going to happen, but that's a political judgment. If Congress actually enacts the president's plan, then our debt load will start to go down, and it will go down regardless of whether any of his proposed savings are "fake" or "real."

BP's Oil: Still Out There

| Wed Sep. 21, 2011 11:37 AM EDT

A new study out this week finds that the tar balls that washed ashore during Tropical Storm Lee are evidence that oil from the BP spill isn't breaking down as fast as many predicted.

After the spill last year, there were a flurry of stories about how bacteria in the Gulf of Mexico had devoured much of the oil remarkably fast. And although it did appear that ravenous sea life made quick work of a lot of the oil, in the months after the spill other studies found that some of the oil and chemical dispersants were lingering in the Gulf longer than expected. This latest research from engineers at Auburn University in Alabama points to the black lumps kicked up in the tropical storm as evidence that much of the crude hasn't broken down much since last year.

From the Associated Press:

Auburn University experts who studied tar samples at the request of coastal leaders said the latest wave of gooey orbs and chunks appeared relatively fresh, smelled strongly and were hardly changed chemically from the weathered oil that collected on Gulf beaches during the spill.
The study concluded that mats of oil — not weathered tar, which is harder and contains fewer hydrocarbons — are still submerged on the seabed and could pose a long-term risk to coastal ecosystems.

The piece continues:

Marine scientist George Crozier said the findings make sense because submerged oil degrades slowly due to the relatively low amount of oxygen in the Gulf's sandy bottom.
"It weathered to some extent after it moved from southern Louisiana to Alabama ... but not much has happened to it since then," said Crozier, longtime director of the state sea laboratory at Dauphin Island.

The full study is here. It's yet another reminder that just because we (usually) can't see the oil doesn't mean its not still there.

The Worst US Cities for Breathers

| Wed Sep. 21, 2011 10:57 AM EDT

Earlier this month, President Obama angered a lot of environmentalists, public health groups, and people who enjoy breathing when he announced that he was directing the EPA to abandon new smog rules. According to the American Lung Association, the current weaker standard for ozone pollution means that as many as 186 million Americans are currently breathing in unhealthy levels of smog—and a new report out today highlights the worst parts of the country when it comes to air quality.

Environment America took a look at the data on ground-level ozone pollution around the US, concluding that the five smoggiest major metropolitan areas last year were:

  1. Riverside- San Bernardino, Calif.
  2. Los Angeles-Long Beach, Calif.
  3. Baltimore, Md.
  4. Washington, D.C.
  5. Philadelphia, Pa.

The Riverside and San Bernardino metropolitan area experienced 110 days of unhealthy smog levels, meaning the 3 million people who live there were breathing unhealthy air almost a third of the year. Twenty-four of those days were "red alert" days, which is when the EPA advises that people with lung disease or asthma, children, and the elderly should avoid spending a lot of time outside. Two were "purple alert" days, which is when the EPA advises that all humans should avoid outdoor exertion because the air is too unhealthy.

The report also ranks the smoggiest mid-sized metropolitan areas, or those with between 250,000 and one million residents. The worst:

  1. Visalia-Tulare-Porterville, Calif.
  2. Bakersfield, Calif.
  3. Fresno, Calif.
  4. Knoxville, Tenn.
  5. Wilmington-Newark, Del.

So far, 2011 hasn't been a great year for air quality, either. The Los Angeles area has already had 85 smog days, more than double the number of the second-smoggiest city so far this year, Atlanta.

All of these figures are based on the current smog limit of 75 parts per billion—weaker than those recommended by EPA scientists. If the EPA actually tightened the standard to 60 to 70 parts per billion, which the agency planned to until Obama stepped in, most metropolitan areas would have recorded a number of additional unhealthy air days.

Breitbart Site Says Big Blunder Was "Minor Citation Error"

| Wed Sep. 21, 2011 10:40 AM EDT
Andrew Breitbart.

Earlier this week I wrote about a piece published on Andrew Breitbart's BigGovernment.com that relies so heavily on flawed assertions about a new global-warming study that it's ripe for a retraction. Not only did the piece wrongly attribute an author to the new study, published in Nature in late August, but it also recycled an old quote from that person to promote its claim that the study definitively refuted human-caused climate change. (The study, as I explained in detail, did nothing of the sort.)

Multiple attempts the prior week to reach Breitbart and the writer of the piece, Chriss W. Street, about the erroneous contents had failed to get their attention. But apparently my story (and subsequent posts in The New York Times, Salon and Media Matters) did: An editor's note appeared on the Big Government piece later the same day. Unfortunately, it's more of a wreck than it is rectifying. Breitbart.com's "in-house counsel" Joel Pollak says in the note:

Earlier today, Mother Jones...accused Andrew Breitbart of a "global warming blunder" because the piece below cited Jykri Kauppinen as an author of a Nature study on cosmic rays. The author of the piece, Chriss W. Street, has indicated that Kauppinen is the author of a separate submission to Nature in 2010 that also contests the UN Climate Panel's "consensus" view on the degree to which human activity contributes to global climate change. Street stands by his argument, regardless of the minor citation error that Breitbart's habitual critics on the left have attempted to magnify.

Why Street failed to "indicate" in his piece the true orgin of Kauppinen's comments, and why he passed them off as a conclusion of the study just published in Nature, Pollak doesn't say. Nor does Pollak explain why the piece continues to state, erroneously, that Kauppinen is one of the new study's authors. (Chalk it up, perhaps, to the stuff of "minor citation.") As for Big Government's blatantly wrong claim that the new study debunks overwhelming scientific consensus on humanity's role in climate change, it seems that one was, well, simply too hot for them to touch.

Iran Frees Jailed MoJo Contributor

| Wed Sep. 21, 2011 10:40 AM EDT
Shane Bauer in Tehran in 2010.

Two American hikers imprisoned by the Iranian regime since 2009 were finally released Wednesday. The prisoners, Joshua Fattal and Mother Jones contributor Shane Bauer, were released on $500,000 bail and turned over to a delegation comprised of Omani and Swiss officials.

After 26 months behind bars, the hikers were freed after an Iranian judge—who had already delayed their release twice—signed a release order, according to the pair's attorney Masoud Shafii. "The natural path has taken its course," Shafii told Reuters. "As I had mentioned before, I was waiting for a signature. This has now happened."

Shortly after the hikers' release was confirmed, the government of Oman announced that the hikers had been handed over to Dr. Salem Al Ismaily, the envoy of Qaboos bin Said, Sultan of Oman. "Dr. Al Ismaily with the hikers are now on their way to Muscat where they will spend a couple of days before heading home," Oman's envoy in Iran said in a statement. Fattal and Bauer's families are waiting to reunite with them in Oman, an unnamed official told CNN, where the two men will likely receive medical examination before returning to the United States.

Here is Reuters' coverage of the news:

The hikers' release comes eight days after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that the prisoners would be granted a "unilateral pardon" as a "humanitarian gesture." Fattal and Bauer were released before Ahmadinejad embarks on his annual "media blitz" in advance of his visit to New York and the UN General Assembly.

Bauer, Fattal, and a third hiker, Sarah Shourd, were arrested in July 2009 while hiking along the border between Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan. Theories on how exactly the arrest took place vary. The three Americans may have crossed the border into Iran by accident, but some believe they were abducted by Iranian forces while in northern Iraq. Shourd, who accepted Bauer's marriage proposal while the two were imprisoned, was released in September 2010 after family and supporters forked over $500,000 in bail money. But Fattal and Bauer remained in detention, and last month, the two men were sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of espionage. Prosecutors did not present any credible evidence that the hikers were American spies or government operatives, and President Obama said in a July 2010 statement that "Sarah, Shane, and Josh have never worked for the US Government."

Follow the developing story on Twitter via the hashtag #ssj.

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Jerry Brown and the California GOP

| Wed Sep. 21, 2011 9:58 AM EDT

The New York Times writes today about the education of Jerry Brown:

10 months after his return here, a time when Mr. Brown might have hoped to move beyond struggling with the budget crisis that has dragged down this state, his associates say he appears bewildered and stunned by how much Sacramento has changed since he first served. Mr. Brown has told friends he was unprepared for the extent, in his view, to which Republicans have not made sufficient efforts to accommodate him on critical issues, like putting on the ballot measures to extend taxes to avoid budget cuts.

In one case, Mr. Brown told a friend, he said he felt like “we weren’t even on the same playing field” in negotiating face to face with a Republican lawmaker who would not accept his assertion that most money in the California education budget did not go to administrative costs. Mr. Brown said he finally just stood up and left the meeting.

....“He is aghast,” said Jodie Evans, a longtime associate who had recently had dinner with Mr. Brown in Oakland. “He reports on some of the conversations, like he couldn’t believe the narrowness or lack of comprehending by public officials. He said, ‘Some of my old tools aren’t going to work.’ ”

I confess that I just don't get this. Jerry Brown is a smart guy. He was born and raised in California. He's a professional politician. And yet he didn't truly realize what had happened to the California Republican Party until he took office earlier this year? Seriously? I just don't understand that. How obvious did they have to make it? Smoke signals? Billboards? What?

Stat of the Day: Executing the Innocent

| Wed Sep. 21, 2011 9:56 AM EDT
Supporters of Troy Davis rally in Paris.

The state of Georgia is scheduled to execute Troy Davis sometime after 7 p.m. tonight, even though there are serious doubts as to whether he ever committed the crime he was convicted of (seven of the nine witnesses at his trial have since recanted). The debate over capital punishment has picked up noticabely over the last month, with the Davis execution, the Supreme Court's intervention in the case of Texas death row inmate Duane Buck, and Texas Governor Rick Perry's insistence—in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary—that the state has never executed an innocent man on his watch. In an editorial today, the New York Times takes the occasion to call for capital punishment to be permanently abolished.

They make a pretty compelling case. But this might not be a fight they can win—at least not for a while. Some death penalty supporters believe that the government is infallible when it comes to doling out capital punishment. But the numbers show that even people who think the state sometimes gets the wrong guy are still likely to support the death penalty. Here's a 2009 Gallup poll, via Grits for Breakfast:

[F]or many Americans, agreement with the assertion that innocent people have been put to death does not preclude simultaneous endorsement of the death penalty. A third of all Americans, 34%, believe an innocent person has been executed and at the same time support the death penalty. This is higher than the 23% who believe an innocent person has been executed and simultaneously oppose the death penalty.

It's comforting (ish) to think that death penalty supporters just have their heads in the sand, and if they can just be convinced that the system is broken they'll come around to abolition. But that's really not the case; a substantial number of proponents just think a flawed conviction here and there is a small price to pay for justice. Even as folks like the Innocence Project and Pamela Colloff continue to shine a light on the flaws of the system, public support for capital punishment remains pretty high and there's no indication it's in danger of flipping. Here's a handy chart from Pew:

Courtesy of Pew ResearchCourtesy of Pew ResearchWe have a notable decline over the last decade (coinciding with the switch in pollsters) but nothing about this graph screams out that the death penalty is on its last legs, and that it's not just a regression to the mean. This one from Gallup is even more ambiguous:

Courtesy of GallupCourtesy of GallupThe takeaway here is that even with cases like those of Troy Davis and Cameron Todd Willingham, death penalty opponents are going to have a pretty tough time winning converts to their cause. But there's plenty of low-hanging fruit to go after: The Davis prosecution, for instance, was aided by a flawed system of witness idenfitification—one that that the New Jersey Supreme Court recently banned entirely. The Willingham case hinged on a school of arson science that was closer to witchcraft—but a consequence of that is the state was pressured into forming a commission that now has the authority to investigate cases where poor forensic techniques were used.

Update: More numbers from PRRI today. There's also an enthusiasm gap: "Three times as many Americans say they strongly favor the death penalty as say they strongly oppose it (33% vs. 11% respectively)."

Republicans To Fed: Don't Help The Economy—Or Else!

| Wed Sep. 21, 2011 8:56 AM EDT
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other top House Republicans give a press conference.

The Republican leadership is warning Federal Reserve officials meeting this week not to do anything to stimulate the economy, despite persistent high unemployment and grim forecasts for economic growth. A letter sent by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), House Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), and Senate Majority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) states, "Respectfully, we submit that the board should resist further extraordinary intervention in the U.S. economy, particularly without a clear articulation of the goals of such a policy, direction for success, ample data proving a case for economic action and quantifiable benefits to the American people."

You might remember that Texas Governor Rick Perry made a similar case against monetary stimulus, somewhat less respectively and more honestly back in August. Perry said of Republican Appointed Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, "If this guy prints more money between now and the election, I dunno what y’all would do to him in Iowa but we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas. Printing more money to play politics at this particular time in American history is almost treasonous in my opinion."

The letter from the Republican Congressional leadership has everything but the ugly and the frank admission of concern that further stimulus from the Fed might alter their chances for retaking the White House next year. The International Monetary Fund recently downgraded its economic forecast for the U.S. next year, saying growth will be just under two percent. To give you a sense of how that affects Obama's chances, political economist Douglass Hibbs told me in early August that "If the economy catches hold, and we catch those 4 or 5 percent growth rates in a row, Obama will be okay. But he's not going to win big. It's not going to be anything like the McCain defeat."

Republicans have successfully pursued contractionary fiscal policies that will harm the economy in the short term, successfully leveraging the threat of a government shutdown and economic armageddon over the debt ceiling to push the Obama administration to acquiesce to some pretty unfavorable terms. Since the GOP has control of the House, they can block just about any legislative solutions the president might propose. The only thing they can't really control is what the Fed does—which is why they're trying so hard to intimidate them out of doing anything at all.

Europe Fiddles While Greece Crumbles

| Wed Sep. 21, 2011 8:47 AM EDT

Martin Wolf writes today about the crisis in the eurozone. I'm not sure he'd put things quite this way, but here's my shortened version:

  1. Greece cannot pay its debts. Period. It has no choice but to default.
  2. Once it defaults, it will be unable to borrow and it will be forced to cut spending even more than it has already. This will damage its economy further, which in turn will reduce tax revenues, which will require further spending cuts, which will damage its economy further, et cetera without end.
  3. This is obviously unacceptable. The only answer for Greece would be to exit the euro and devalue its currency. As painful as this would be, it would almost certainly be regarded as preferable to years or decades of economic collapse.
  4. But Greek exit from the euro would cause staggering damage to the rest of Europe and its banking system — far, far more damage than they'd suffer from merely increasing their bailout of Greece. See Wolf's column for more on this. It must be avoided at all costs.
  5. Thus, the only option left is for Europe to prop up Greece for years. For all practical purposes, this doesn't mean loaning Greece money, it means giving Greece money. Lots of it.

Europe has not yet truly faced up to the fact that #5 is really their only option. It's infuriating, the public hates it, and Europe's political leaders want no part of it. But as Wolf says, "The eurozone then cannot stay where it is, cannot undo what it has done and finds it traumatic to go forward. But the very notion of exit is destabilising. They made it; and they must now make it work." Like Wolf, I don't think they have any choice. The only question is how far past the 11th hour they'll go before finally accepting this.