2012 - %3, November

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 12, 2012

Mon Nov. 12, 2012 1:19 PM EST

U.S. Army Spc. Pete Sigala, who hails from Anaheim, Calif., a helicopter landing zone sling load specialist from Headquarters Company, 626th Brigade Support Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team “Rakkasans,” 101st Airborne Division, awaits as a civilian contacted air asset helicopter approaches for a sling load of supplies at Forward Operating Base Salerno, Nov. 5, 2012. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Abram Pinnington, TF 3/101 Public Affairs.

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Question of the Day: Was Mitt Romney's Campaign Delusional or Incompetent?

| Mon Nov. 12, 2012 1:11 PM EST

There have already been dozens of postmortems of the Romney campaign making the point that they screwed up their data analysis. But I'm not quite sure I buy it. A couple of passages from John Dickerson's piece in Slate today explain why. Here's passage #1, explaining that Team Romney figured Obama couldn't match the turnout he got in 2008:

Though Romney said he was “severely conservative,” it was the Obama team that played its hand conservatively. They, too, planned for fewer Democrats to show up at the polls, but in their case it was so that their campaign organization would work twice as hard. On election night in Ohio, when turnout exceeded their intentionally conservative estimates in some districts, they knew that they’d win the state 45 minutes before the networks called it.

It’s not that the Romney camp failed to meet its targets. They say they actually met their voter outreach goals in Ohio....“We did everything we set out to do,” says a top strategist about the Ohio effort. “We just didn’t expect the African-American vote to be so high.” African-American participation in Ohio jumped from 11 percent of the electorate to 15 percent between the 2008 and 2012 elections. "We could never see that coming. We thought they'd gotten a lot last time." But that wasn’t the only problem. Romney underperformed George Bush’s results from 2004 in the vast majority of Ohio’s counties, not just the ones with big African-American populations.

It wasn't crazy to think that Obama couldn't match his turnout from 2008, or that Democrats were less enthusiastic than they were four years ago. In fact, the Obama team apparently thought the same thing. And Ohio was a pretty close-run thing if Obama's campaign wasn't sure they'd won there until 10:30 pm.

But here's what I continue to not get. Is it really that hard to predict turnout? Public polls in the last month of a campaign are all based on "likely voters," and there's no rocket science to this. They just ask people if they're likely to vote. And for the entire four weeks prior to the election, Obama was winning the swing states among people who said they were likely to vote. No matter what preconceptions you might have, why would you dismiss this? It's a butt-simple metric, and it's worked before: if someone says they're likely to vote, then they're likely to vote. Boom. There's your most probable turnout distribution.

And with that, here's passage #2:

In the final 10 days of the race, a split started to emerge in the two campaigns. The Obama team would shower you with a flurry of data—specific, measurable, and they’d show you the way they did the math....The Romney team, by contrast, was much more gauzy, reluctant to share numbers, and relying on talking points rather than data. This could have been a difference in approach, but it suggested a lack of rigor in the Romney camp. On Election Day, the whole Romney ground-game flopped apart. ORCA, the much touted- computer system for tracking voters on Election Day, collapsed....Field operatives never saw a beta version. They asked to see it, but were told it would be ready on Election Day. When they rolled it out Tuesday, it was a mess. People couldn’t log on and when they did, the fields that were supposed to be full of data were empty.

This tells a whole different story. First, it suggests that the Romney camp didn't simply misinterpret their numbers. They never really had them in the first place. If their polling operation was anything like ORCA, it just wasn't rigorously run. It was a mess.

I'm not sure which story to believe. Did they really have solid numbers but completely screwed up their analysis? Or was their whole operation being run on a hope and a prayer from the start?

Oliver Stone's History of the United States

| Mon Nov. 12, 2012 12:21 PM EST

Oliver Stone has made some of the best movies of the past three decades. With Salvador, Platoon, and Wall Street, he helped shape the cultural history of the 1970s and 1980s. Now, he's trying to influence the national security history of postwar America. His 10-part documentary, The Untold History of the United States, begins tonight on Showtime (an hour before Homeland!). It's notable that a major network—okay, a major cable network—is devoting 10 hours to an unabashedly left-of-center analysis of modern America that confronts many of the myths of the national security state that evolved after World War II. The 750-page book accompanying the documentary series—coauthored by Stone and American University professor Peter Kuznick—opens with an explicit note:

This book and the documentary film series it is based on challenge the basic narrative of U.S. history that most Americans have been taught. That popular and somewhat mythic view, carefully filtered through the prism of American altruism, benevolence, magnanimity, exceptionalism, and devotion to liberty and justice, is introduced in early childhood, reinforced through primary and secondary education, and retold so often that it becomes part of the air that Americans breath....[B]ut like the real air Americans breathe, it is ultimately harmful, noxious, polluted. It not only renders Americans incapable of understanding the way much of the rest of the world looks at the United States, it leaves them unable to act effectively to change the world for the better.

These are fighting words. And Stone and Kuznick are waging a battle. See Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday's review:

"Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States" runs over 10 one-hour episodes, beginning in World War II and continuing through the Obama administration. With newsreel footage, copious research and Stone’s own understated narration, "Untold History" revisits familiar events, but through an unapologetically leftist lens. While "Untold History" is grounded in indisputable fact, some of its contentions will certainly give conservatives and even moderate liberals pause, including its championing of [Henry] Wallace [FDR's progressive-minded veep], who has been castigated in recent years for what critics see as an appeasing attitude toward Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and surrounding himself with communists.

No doubt, Stone and Kuznick knew that this project would be greeted by mainstream skepticism, for their task is to poke the conventionalists in the eye. (Their book chapter on President Ronald Reagan is appropriately and justifiably subtitled, "The Reagan Years: Death Squads for Democracy," the one on President Barack Obama, "Managing a Wounded Empire.") And the conventionalists won't disappoint them. Take Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times:

The title alone is easy to scoff at. "Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States" sounds almost like a parody, a sendup of that filmmaker's love of bombast and right-wing conspiracy. This documentary series, beginning Monday on Showtime, isn't a joke, though some may find it laughable. It's deadly serious but also straightforward: a 10-part indictment of the United States that doesn't pretend to be evenhanded.

The series doesn't focus extensively on many of the things the United States has done right, Mr. Stone and the historian Peter Kuznick write in the introduction to their similarly titled companion book. It is more concerned with focusing a spotlight on what America has done wrong.

Still, Stanley is forced to concede, "Along the way [Stone] raises some valid points, notably that Americans too easily overlook the Soviet contribution in waging and winning World War II."

Stone's film work has always demonstrated a skill-driven flair for drama and a gut-level desire to convey basic ideas about life, war, history, politics, and the media. So it's no surprise a truly historical endeavor from Stone will rile up folks. And if doing so inspires any popular scrutiny of the nation's most fundamental myths, he and Kuznick will be able to say: Mission accomplished.

The FBI's Surprisingly Thorough Investigation of Some Harassing Emails

| Mon Nov. 12, 2012 11:55 AM EST

The Wall Street Journal provides an extra bit of detail today on the David Petraeus case. It all started in May, when Jill Kelley complained to an FBI agent she knew about receiving a series of harassing emails:

Agents spent weeks piecing together who may have sent them. They used metadata footprints left by the emails to determine what locations they were sent from. They matched the places, including hotels, where Ms. Broadwell was during the times the emails were sent. FBI agents and federal prosecutors used the information as probable cause to seek a warrant to monitor Ms. Broadwell's email accounts.

....They learned that Ms. Broadwell and Mr. Petraeus had set up private Gmail accounts to use for their communications, which included explicit details of a sexual nature, according to U.S. officials. But because Mr. Petraeus used a pseudonym, agents doing the monitoring didn't immediately uncover that he was the one communicating with Ms. Broadwell.

That's not a trivial amount of work. The FBI team spent weeks (months?) tracing email metadata, which requires court permission. Once they figured out the emails had come from Broadwell, they began tracking her movements. Then they went to court to get a warrant to read her email. Then they apparently got a warrant to monitor a second email account belonging to someone Broadwell was having an affair with. It turned out to be Petraeus.

Wow. What kind of juice does Kelley have? This sure seems like a helluva lot more than your ordinary FBI attention to some harassing emails.

SHOCKER: Allen West Not Going Down Quietly

| Mon Nov. 12, 2012 11:31 AM EST
Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.)

No one ever expected Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) to go out with a whimper. 

The tea party icon went to bed on election night trailing Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy by 0.8 points (about 2,500 votes) in the 18th congressional district, to which he had moved after redistricting turned his previous district decidedly blue. Since Florida law stipulates that a recount can only be requested if the race is within half a percentage point, under normal circumstances that would have been the end of the show for the losing candidate. Good job, good effort, time to begin plotting a comeback in 2014.

Except West wasn't finished. He alleged almost immediately that the election had been stolen by a pro-Murphy clerk in St. Luicie County. He asked for an injunction—which was refused—to impound the voting machines in St. Lucie and Palm Beach counties, and demanded a full hand recount in St. Lucie. He got his wish on Sunday, sort of. The county board of elections convened in an abandoned shopping mall to do a partial recount of the ballots that came in during the last three days of early voting. The tally, per the Palm Beach Post:

Murphy’s total dropped by 667 votes and West lost 132 votes in the recount of 16,275 ballots from the last three days of early voting in St. Lucie County. West's net gain of 535 votes still leaves him about 0.58 percent behind Murphy in congressional District 18, which also includes Martin County and part of Palm Beach County.

That's quite a swing, given the limited sample, but it still leaves West behind by more than the margin needed for a recount. The West campaign insists the real problem wasn't with the last three days of early voting (as problematic as the counting turned out to be), it was with the first three days of voting. So the St. Lucie partial recount has only exacerbated their anxiety. On Sunday, West's campaign was characteristically apopleptic, issuing this statement:

What was originally viewed as dangerous incompetence on the part of [St. Lucie County Elections Supervisor] Gertrude Walker now appears more and more like a willful attempt to steal the election for Patrick Murphy. Nothing about this story adds up. If there is truly nothing wrong with the data from the first three days of voting, why will it not be released?

West for Congress will pursue every legal means necessary to ensure a fair election, not only to ensure Gertrude Walker is held accountable, but also ultimately replaced, so the citizens of St Lucie County will be ensured fair and accurate elections."

Given that West is already alleging a conspiracy against him, this episode doesn't stand much chance of winding down any time soon.

60 Percent of Women in Congress Were Girl Scouts

| Mon Nov. 12, 2012 7:08 AM EST

When the new Congress is sworn in next January, it will include a record number of women senators. Interesting fact about the 20 women in the Senate: 70 percent of them were Girl Scouts.

Of the newly elected senators, Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) were all involved with Girl Scouts, the national organization reports. (At press time, they were still trying to figure out if Heidi Heitkamp, the new Democratic senator from North Dakota, was a scout, too.) If you include the House as well, 60 percent of women in Congress were once Girl Scouts.

This is notable, as only about 8 percent of women overall in the US were scouts in their youth. I talked to Anna Maria Chávez, the chief executive officer of the Girl Scouts of the USA, about why the group, which celebrated its 100th anniversary this year, is so well represented in Washington. "From the very beginning the whole mission of this organization has been to create girls who are very sensitive and in tune with their community needs," said Chávez. "We develop not only leaders, but leaders with a political conscience."

She noted that Girl Scouts are also well-represented among women business leaders and astronauts, for example. "This organization has literally created the female leadership pipeline in this country," she said. "There's obviously a secret sauce in our methodology."

For certain, Girl Scouts learn a number of life skills—financial literacy, environmental awareness, the value of community service. On the campaign trail, Warren talked about teaching her daughter and friends how to use a knife when she was a troop leader, which is also pretty helpful.

While we're all excited about having 20 women in the Senate, that's still far from representative of the US population. Chávez said that is also why the Girl Scouts launched a new campaign this year, To Get Her There, which aims to increase the number of women in leadership roles through mentorship and supportive environments for developing those skills. The goal of the program is to achieve parity within a generation, which they're defining as about 25 years from now.

OK, so, by 2037 there better be at least 50 women in the Senate. We're looking at you, Girl Scouts!

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The Man Behind Citizens United Says 2012 Has Vindicated Him

| Mon Nov. 12, 2012 7:08 AM EST
James Bopp, the legal architect of the Citizens United case.

Last month, James Bopp, the legal mind behind the Citizens United case that gave rise to super-PACs and the dark-money boom, told me he didn't really believe Americans were all that upset with the increasing amounts of money spent on politics. "There's a general cynicism among the American people about politicians and politics," he said, but "they could care less about campaign finance."

Now that the election's over, Bopp says he's been vindicated. When I caught up with him late last week, he told me he figures that Mitt Romney's loss was probably due to a variety of factors like poor messaging and spending. Without Citizens United, though, he says the election would have turned out much worse for Republicans: There would have been no counterbalance to the mainstream media. "The lesson here is all the hype over independent spending was just completely overblown," Bopp says. "Nobody can buy an election."

The poor return on investment among the biggest conservative outside spending groups would appear to back that up. You can only spend so much to sway voters, says Bopp. "There's a diminishing returns as you saturate a market. Once you've got your message across, the addtional spending accomplishes nothing." The pro-Romney super-PAC Restore Our Future, for instance, made significant ad buys just one week out from the election in Minnesota and New Mexico, two states that Obama was at no risk of losing. Those moves led reporters to wonder if outside groups had raised more money than they knew what to do with. "That's why this thing about buying elections is fundamentally false," Bopp concludes.

The $6 billion in total spending in 2012 dwarfs that of any recent election, but Bopp simply attributes that to an increasingly bloated system that requires increasing amounts of money to compete against incumbents.

Bopp says the election was "fought to a draw," and "neither side accomplished what they set out to do." The county still has the same president, Republicans still have control of the House, and Democrats still lack a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. As for Obama's consideration of a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, Bopp hopes he pursues it. He's confident that Republicans at the national and state level could block any serious efforts to undo the decision, especially with Republican supporters of the now-defunct McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill like Richard Lugar and Olympia Snowe departing the Senate.

"I hope [Democrats] spend all their time on that," Bopp says, "because it's not going anywhere."

Crystal Castles' (III): Abrasive and Irresistible

| Mon Nov. 12, 2012 7:08 AM EST

Crystal Castles
(III)
Casablanca/Republic Records/Fiction

You've got to hand it to Crystal Castles. It's not easy to be relentlessly macabre and unapologetically bleak while at the same time making people want to get up and dance. But when Alice Glass, the Canadian duo's goth-eyed frontwoman, glowers with punk ferocity across producer Ethan Kath's hard-driving beats, the only reasonable thing to do seems to be to follow them to hell and back; it's rave music in every sense of the word. 

One of the band's trademarks is its spooky album-coverage imagery—an illustration of Madonna's bruised, bloody faced glared out from the cover of their first EP; a possessed little boy lurches across a graveyard on the cover of II. But the occultish, phosphorescent image of a shrouded figure cradling a man's body on the cover of this third album, (III), moves beyond haunting for its own sake: It's actually a stylized photo of a Yemeni woman holding her son, a protester who's been tear-gassed. Glass has said that "oppression" is a major theme of (III), explaining vaguely that "I didn't think I could lose faith in humanity any more than I already had, but after witnessing some things, it feels like the world is a dystopia where victims don't get justice and corruption prevails.” (She's somewhat more forthcoming in a cryptic email interview with Pitchfork, reciting a litany of statistics detailing various forms of gender oppression.)

Charts: How Big Pork Screws Small Towns

| Mon Nov. 12, 2012 7:08 AM EST

I've argued often that the food system functions like an economic sieve, draining away wealth. Imagine, say, a suburb served by a handful of fast-food chains plus a supermarket or Walmart or two. Profits from residents' food dollars go to distant shareholders; what's left behind are essentially low-skill, low-wage clerical jobs and mountains of generally low-quality, health-ruining food.

But the food system's secret scandal is that it's economically extractive in farming communities areas, too—and especially in the places where industrial agriculture is most established and intensive. I first learned about this surprising fact from the Minnesota-based community economics expert Ken Meter, specifially this 2001 study on a farm-heavy region of Minnesota. And now Food and Water Watch, working with the University of Tennessee's Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, has come out with an excellent new report documenting the food industry's effect on several ag-intense regions, with the main spotlight on the hog-centric counties of Iowa, the nation's leading hog-producing state.

The structure of Iowa's hog farming went through a dramatic change starting in the early 1980s. As this FWW chart show, first, the number of hog farms in the state declined.

All charts by Food and Water Watch. All charts by Food and Water Watch. At the same time, the total number of hogs raised in the state nearly doubled.

Accordingly, the remaining hog farms scaled up dramatically, growing by a factor of nearly 11 between 1982 and 2007:

What caused this epochal change? According FWW's analysis, it was driven by the increasing consolidation of hog packing. Packers are the companies that buy hogs from farmers, slaughter them, and cut them into chops, bacon, and the like. In the 1980s, the meatpacking industry began what economists call a consolidation wave—big companies buying smaller companies and consolidating operations into bigger and bigger processing facilities. As the pork packers got bigger and bigger, they were able to use their market weight to force down the per-pound price they paid farmers for their hogs.

To assess the level of an industry's concentration, economists use a measure they call "CR4"—the percentage of a market controlled by the four biggest companies. "In most sectors of the US economy, the four largest firms control between 40 and 45 percent of the market," FWW writes. At CR4 levels above 40 or so, the reports continues, markets start to lose competitiveness—the big firms have power to dictate terms to their suppliers, in this case, farmers. Look at how CR4 has grown nationally since 1982:

In Iowa, the situation is even more stark. CR4 levels have edged down slightly in recent years, but remain near 90 percent. That means that many hog farmers must either sell to one of the Big Four—Smithfield, Tyson, JBS, and Cargill—or exit the business altogether. As noted above, 80 percent of the farms selling hogs in Iowa in 1982 took the latter route. Most of the rest of them scaled up—and saw the prices paid them by the Big Four plunge. As the next chart shows, the real (inflation-adjusted) price farmers get for each hog fell by more than half between 1982 and 2007.

Now here's the kicker. When you look at the state as a whole, Iowa's hog farmers were bringing in more money, in inflation-adjusted terms, in 1982, when they raised 23.8 million hogs, than they did in 2007, when they raised 47.3 million hogs.

This is a great deal for the Big Four packers—they're getting nearly twice the pork, for less total money. For the farmers, it's a different story.

People who live within smelling distance of large hog farms have higher incidences of high blood pressure.

Now, Iowa's hog farming used to be widely distributed across the state—most farms raised some hogs along with corn, soy, and other crops. As farms either exited hog production altogether or scaled up dramatically, hog farming got more and more concentrated into a handful of counties. You might think that people who live in these hog-centric counties got some economic benefit from the vast scaling up of hog production. At least you'd hope so—as I learned on a 2007 trip through one of those counties, Hardin (report here), it's no fun to live in industrial-hog country. Such areas are marked by clusters of bleak hog houses, each containing as many as 2,400 animals—as well as fetid, foul-smelling manure cesspools (known as "lagoons") and horrific periodic spraying of nearby fields with liquid shit rife with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. A recent study from University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill researcher Steve Wing showed that people who live within smelling distance of industrial-scale hog farms have higher incidences of high blood pressure.

Well, Food and Water Watch found that hog-heavy Iowa counties don't do better economically than other counties—the opposite, in fact. The next chart compares real median annual household incomes in hog-heavy counties (based on the total number of hogs sold each year) with the statewide average.

Note that in '82, hog-heavy counties had slightly higher-than-average median incomes. After 25 years of scaling up, that reversed itself. Overall, the state's average median income rose by 14.5 percent over the time period, while median incomes in the state's hog-intense counties grew by just 10 percent.

Food and Water Watch also finds evidence of growing inequality in the hog counties—while real median incomes grew by 10 percent between '82 and '07, average incomes jumped by about a third. "The rise in real per capita income alongside a less robust increase in median household income suggests that earnings are being captured by a smaller portion of more well-off people in counties with high hog sales," FWW writes.

Why the dismal economic performance in the counties that house Iowa's booming pork industry? It costs money to run a big farm, and the larger the farm, the less of those farm expenditures go to local business, FWW found. Large farms buy about a third less per hog worth of goods from local businesses than small farms, the report shows. And that's a third less money circulating through local economies, building wealth and creating jobs. The study found that for the average Iowa county, the average number of nonfarm local businesses grew by about 30 percent between 1982 and 2007. For the hog-heavy counties, though, the average number of such establishments fell by more than 10 percent.

Not surprisingly, while the average Iowa county saw robust growth in total jobs over that period, for hog-heavy counties, total jobs dropped.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the economic story for meatpacking and processing workers—the people who slaughter, cut, and package Iowa's vast annual hog crop. As Ted Genoways' blockbuster 2011 Mother Jones piece shows in graphic detail, conditions have grown quite grim on the slaughterhouse floor. The following chart looks at real annual earnings for packers (workers who slaughter live animals) and processing workers (people who turn carcasses into sellable products). This is a story of full-on immiseration—what were once middle-class jobs now pay poverty-level wages.

Here's how FWW sums the situation up:

Counties with more hog sales and larger farms tend to have lower total incomes, slower income growth, fewer Main Street businesses and less retail activity. General employment levels have suffered, wages in meatpacking have declined and farm job opportunities are more difficult to find. In spite of what Big Pork boosters have said, there is little evidence that the trends in Iowa hog production have been good for Iowa’s rural economies.

Now, in their defense, the meatpacking giants often counter that the changes described here are necessary for the provision of cheap food. To deliver you a bountiful supply of pork chops, farmers and workers must be squeezed. But here, too, FWW brings a cold slap of reality. The report finds that when hog prices rise, the pork packers tend to pass on the increase to consumers "completely and immediately"; but when they fall, as they have for much of the past 25 years, the companies tend to pocket much of the difference as profit, passing only some on to consumers.

So, in addition to all the environmental damage associated with factory-scale hog farming, it's an economic disaster, too—unless you happen to be a shareholder in one of the Big Four pork packers.

Music Review: Bat for Lashes' "Laura"

| Mon Nov. 12, 2012 7:08 AM EST

TRACK 5

"Laura"

From Bat for Lashes' The Haunted Man

CAPITOL

Liner notes: "You're the train that crashed my heart/You're the glitter in the dark," cries Natasha Khan, a.k.a. Bat for Lashes, on this mournful piano ballad, as cello and French horn amplify the melancholy.

Behind the music: Born to a Pakistani father and British mother, Khan received mainstream exposure last year via the soundtrack of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. The Haunted Man, her third album, features cameos by Beck and Justin Parker.

Check it out if you like: Cosmic spirits like Kate Bush, Bjork, and Joanna Newsom.

This review originally appeared in our November/December issue of Mother Jones.