2011 - %3, November

Tuesday's Headlines

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 9:30 AM PST

Here are the headlines that have greeted me in my first few minutes of consciousness this morning:

American Airlines files for bankruptcy as losses mount

States face a crushing economic outlook, fiscal survey says

Home Prices Decline

Businesses Scramble as Credit Tightens Across Europe

‘I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity’

Militants Turn to Death Squads in Afghanistan

Radiation covers 8pc of Japan

On the bright side, Facebook seems to believe that it's worth $100 billion. That's good news for about 500 shareholders, anyway.

I shall now go to the breakfast table and see if I can do something about my blood sugar level. Maybe things won't all seem so bad when I get back.

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The Other 1 Percent: Sick People (Chart)

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 8:55 AM PST

Here's a 1 percent no one wants to be part of: According to a recent analysis by Christopher Conover, a Duke University researcher on health policies and inequalities, barely 1 percent of the population accounts for nearly 20 percent of the nation's already inflated health care spending. These few people each account for, on average, $115,000 in health care spending every year, which is almost three times the annual salary of the average American worker. Only 5 percent of the population accounts for fully 50 percent of all the nation's health care spending. Everybody else generates, on average, about $360 a year in health care costs, or about 3 percent.

So it's not hard to  see where some of the problems lie in the health care system, which is the biggest driver of the country's long-term deficit problems. Conover helpfully provides a chart from his forthcoming book, American Health Economy Illustrated:

Health Care's 1 Percent: Christopher J. ConoverHealth Care's 1 Percent: Christopher J. ConoverGiven the small number of people driving the rapidly escalating health care costs in this country, it seems like solving the problem ought to be a snap, right? Clearly some people need to be spending a little more to make sure they don't get sick down the road, and perhaps others ought to be getting a little less of the expensive and not necessarily useful stuff. Of course, if the problem were that simple, it would have been fixed by now. As GOP presidential contender Newt Gingrich said in 2005, "'Health is about 30 times more difficult than national security."

PA Legislator Behind Controversial Electoral College Plan Mulling Senate Run

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 8:45 AM PST
Dominic Pileggi, the Republican majority leader in Pennsylvania's state Senate, is mulling a run for US Senate. He's been a prominent supporter of the plan to change the way Pennsylvania awards its electoral votes in a way that could rig the presidential election against Barack Obama.

Dominic Pileggi, the Pennsylvania state Senate majority leader, has attracted national media attention for his role as the author of the controversial, dark-money-funded plan to change the way the state awards electoral votes in order to rig the presidential election against Obama. Now the GOP lawmaker is considering a bid for US Senate.

Pileggi says he's "been approached by a number of people about the possibility of running for U.S. Senate," he said in a statement to the website PoliticsPA on Monday. Pileggi added that he's "flattered by the question," and has "made no decision," but PoliticsPA cites multiple sources who claim the state Senator has already met with national Republicans about running against Democratic incumbent Bob Casey next November. 

Senate Moves Forward On Domestic Indefinite Detention

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 5:17 AM PST

danmachold/Flickrdanmachold/Flickr

On Monday afternoon, the Senate began its deliberations over the National Defense Authorization Act, which contains controversial provisions that would authorize the indefinite military detention of American citizens suspected of terrorism, mandate it for non-citizens, and potentially interfere with the transfer of low-level insurgents in Afghanistan. The administration has already threatened to veto the bill in its current form. A vote is expected on Wednesday.

Responding to widespread criticism of the bill, Senators Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz), the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee respectively, defended the detainee provisions in a Washington Post op-ed Monday, arguing that the bill isn't as bad as critics claim:

The most controversial point involves the circumstances under which a terrorist detainee should be held in military, rather than civilian, custody. The bill provides that a narrowly defined group of people — al-Qaeda terrorists who participate in planning or conducting attacks against us — be held in military custody.

However, the bill does allow the administration, through a waiver, to hold these al-Qaeda detainees in civilian custody if it determines that would best serve national security. Moreover, the administration has broad authority to decide who is covered by this provision and how and when such a decision is made.

The two senators argue that the legislation "specifically prohibits the interruption of ongoing surveillance, intelligence-gathering or interrogation sessions." This is what you might call an "Arizona exception," after the clause in that state's draconian SB 1070 immigration bill that explicitly "prohibited" racial profiling. Just as SB 1070 "prohibited" racial profiling while in practice encouraging it, the detainee language in the defense bill "prohibits" the very thing the bill does: adding another set of rules federal authorities are obliged to follow in order to comply with the law.

"[Law enforcement authorities] should have the flexibility to make these calls on the ground," said one senior administration official. "They shouldn't have to worry about the White House getting the secretary of defense on the phone." While the administration's statement of policy reflected concerns raised by civil libertarians about militarizing domestic law enforcement matters, the administration has mostly emphasied the national security angle. 

Although Levin and McCain wrote that they're not trying to tie the executive branch's hands, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), who wants to amend the NDAA to remove restrictions against torture, plainly told the Wall Street Journal that her reasons for supporting the detention restrictions is that she believes they will force the administration to move toward her preferred policy—military detention for all non-citizen terror suspects. "I don't believe the criminal system should be a default position," even for suspected terrorists apprehended inside the US, Ayotte said. She believes the bill will tie the administration's hands; that's why she's backing it. 

Requiring special permission to use the US justice system is hand-tying whether McCain and Levin think so or not. 

Study: Common Herbicide Causes Menstrual Trouble

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 5:00 AM PST

Yet again, scientists have looked at populations routinely exposed to the widely used herbicide atrazine and found trouble.

The latest: In a study published by Envionmental Research (summarized here), researchers found evidence that atrazine could be causing menstrual irregularities and low estrogen levels in women, even when it appears in drinking water at levels far below the EPA's limit of 3 parts per billion.

The study showed that women in ag-intensive areas of Illinois, where atrazine has been shown to leach into drinking water from farm fields, were significantly more likely to experience menstrual irregularities and low estrogen levels than women in ag-intensive areas of Vermont, where atrazine use is much lower.

The Vermont/Illinois paper comes on the heels of an analysis of the Agricultural Health Study—an ongoing look at people who regularly apply pesticides and their spouses—that found similar trends among women exposed to atrazine, as well as a 2009 study finding that atrazine levels in drinking water tracked with low-weight birth incidences in Indiana.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 29, 2011

Tue Nov. 29, 2011 3:57 AM PST

US Army Staff Sgt. Mark Lynas (left), squad leader, and Sgt. Mark Record, team leader, both attached to Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul, secure a school and clear insurgent threats in a village in Shah Joy, Afghanistan, November 22, 2011. PRT Zabul's mission is to conduct civil-military operations in Zabul Province to extend the reach and legitimacy of the Government of Afghanistan. Both sergeants are deployed from Charlie Company, 182nd Infantry Regiment, Massachusetts National Guard. (US Air Force photo/Senior Airman Grovert Fuentes-Contreras)

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Chart of the Day: Synchronized Cliff Diving

| Mon Nov. 28, 2011 5:06 PM PST

Last week I blogged about a new paper suggesting that the European and the U.S. economies are more interconnected than most people think. The basic story had to do with credit conditions: Starting around 1999, European banks began to supply (or recycle) a lot of America's credit, and this means that when European banks start deleveraging it's likely to produce a severe credit contraction in the U.S. as well.

That conclusion was a little speculative, but you may recall that last week I also posted a chart showing that industrial orders had plunged 6.4% in the eurozone in September. Today, Tim Duy overlays U.S. industrial orders on the same chart and produces some sobering news:

Not a perfect match, but enough to suggest the idea of substantial decoupling looks like more myth than reality, especially in the face of a severe recession....Bottom Line: Don't take US resilience for granted this time around — Europe is getting ugly, and it is far too late to prevent severe recession. The best policymakers can hope for at this point is too avoid a depression.

Correlation is not causation. But whatever the reason, it sure looks as if the U.S. and European economies really are linked closely in some fundamental ways — which shouldn't be too surprising since Europe is our biggest trading partner and their banks are pretty tightly joined to the U.S. market. If Europe tumbles — and it sure looks likely that it will — we're likely to tumble too.

Will Obama Bow on Birth Control?

| Mon Nov. 28, 2011 4:10 PM PST

Reproductive rights activists are upping pressure on the Obama administration not to grant major exceptions to the new policy requiring health insurers to cover birth control. Religious groups—particularly the US Conference of Catholic Bishops—have been pressuring the administration to let a wide range of institutions out of covering birth control if they have religious or moral objections.

Fears are high that the Obama administration might allow not only churches, but any hospital, health clinic, or university that is associated with a religious group have an exemption to the new policy. It's not surprising that the bishops and others are lobbying for this exemption; groups that oppose contraception flipped out when the National Academy of Sciences recommended offering no-cost birth control as part of preventative care for women. They were certainly nonplussed when the Obama administration decided to require insurers to cover it. But the outrage is over the fact that the Obama administration appears to be actively considering it—and could make an announcement as soon as this week.

The push back has come from Democrats in Congress—particularly the --as well as groups like NARAL Pro-Choice America, Planned Parenthood, and the Feminist Majority Foundation, which are running online petitions to the White House.

Not even all Catholics are excited about the move. Catholics for Choice took out an advertisement in Monday's New York Times calling on Obama to to reject the call to expand the refusal clause. Their ad highlighted the fact many Catholic women use birth control for contraception, and women in general use it for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with sex.

It's also worth noting, as this piece from Jezebel about Fordham University points out, some Catholic colleges already refuse to provide birth control to students.

The 2011 Hurricane Season in 4 Minutes

| Mon Nov. 28, 2011 2:33 PM PST

 

 

Crazy gets beautiful in timelapse. From the NOAA visualizations YouTube page:

The 2011 Atlantic hurricane season officially ends on Nov. 30 and produced a total of 19 tropical storms of which seven became hurricanes, including three major hurricanes. This level of activity matched NOAA's predictions and continues the trend of active hurricane seasons that began in 1995. From Arlene to Sean, Hurricane Season 2011 has been very active, leading to 120 fatalities and causing more than $11 billion in property and infrastructure damage. Surprisingly, none of the first eight tropical storms reached hurricane status, a record since reliable reports started in 1851. Hurricane Irene's effects in the Caribbean and the United States lead to 55 deaths and accounted for the bulk of this season's damage, more than $10 billion. Irene was the first landfalling hurricane in New Jersey in 108 years. Hurricane Katia had far-reaching effects causing severe weather in Northern Ireland and Scotland and power blackouts as far east as Saint Petersburg in Russia. Tropical Storm Lee caused major flooding in Pennsylvania, New York and into the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario. The strongest storm of the season was Ophelia, which reached category four strength in the Atlantic Ocean east of Bermuda.
 

Climate Message Gets Clarity

| Mon Nov. 28, 2011 2:04 PM PST

A fascinating new paper today in Nature Climate Change on what exactly drives climate denial in the US. It's not so much a case of people filtering information to meet their pre-existing notions of climate change.

Rather, it's that a significant proportion of people (66.3 percent) believe—wrongly—that scientists disagree about climate change. It's this misperception that drives climate skepticism.

There's good news here. From the paper:

Importantly, these findings are actionable: the myth of widespread disagreement among climate scientists over whether global warming is happening has little to no basis in truth, and it emerged, at least in part, as the result of a concerted effort to deceive the public.

So what's to be done about it? The authors suggest the problem lies in crafting the message more positively:

Some studies suggest that repeating myths in efforts to debunk them—for example, stating 'many people incorrectly believe that there is much disagreement among scientists about whether global warming is happening'—will backfire and strengthen the misperception in many minds; this occurs because information that is more familiar is deemed more likely to be true, and repeating the myth only makes it more familiar over time. Instead, efforts to 'debias' audiences should repeatedly assert the correct information—for example, 'the vast majority of climate scientists agree that human-caused global warming is happening'—because repeated assertions, in time, become more familiar and therefore more likely to be deemed true. This strategy is consistent with the literature on public information campaigns, which has long emphasized the importance of the repetition of simple, clear messages to communicate effectively with the public.

 

The paper:

  • Ding Ding, Edward W. Maibach, Xiaoquan Zhao, Connie Roser-Renouf, & Anthony Leiserowitz. Support for climate policy and societal action are linked to perceptions about scientific agreement. Nature Climate Change (2011). DOI:10.1038/nclimate1295