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Will Democrats Keep Control of the Senate This Year?

| Fri Aug. 29, 2014 12:09 AM EDT

Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium thinks that Democrats currently have a 72 percent chance of retaining control of the Senate this year. Most other forecasting outfits think Republicans have a 60-70 percent chance of winning control. Why the difference?

In most cases, added assumptions (i.e. special sauce) have led the media organizations to different win probabilities — which I currently believe are wrong....The major media organizations (NYT, WaPo, 538)...all use prior conditions like incumbency, candidate experience, funding, and the generic Congressional ballot to influence their win probabilities — and opinion polls.

....Longtime readers of PEC will not be surprised to know that I think the media organizations are making a mistake. It is nearly Labor Day. By now, we have tons of polling data. Even the stalest poll is a more direct measurement of opinion than an indirect fundamentals-based measure. I demonstrated this point in 2012, when I used polls only to forecast the Presidency and all close Senate races. That year I made no errors in Senate seats, including Montana (Jon Tester) and North Dakota (Heidi Heitkamp), which FiveThirtyEight got wrong.

I'd sure like to believe this. PEC is my go-to political polling site, after all. But it sure doesn't feel like Democrats are in the driver's seat right now, does it? All of my political instincts scream that Wang's forecast is wrong.

That's probably because I'm a pessimist by nature. But you either believe in poll aggregation or you don't. I do, and PEC has performed well in every election for the past decade. So just as I wouldn't "deskew" bad poll results I didn't like, I guess I won't try to second guess good poll results that don't seem quite right. If Wang thinks Democrats are currently favored to keep control of the Senate, then so do I.

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Quote of the Day: "We Don't Have a Strategy Yet."

| Thu Aug. 28, 2014 5:31 PM EDT

From President Obama, asked if he needs congressional approval to go into Syria:

I don't want to put the cart before the horse. We don't have a strategy yet.

That's not going to go over well, is it? Three years after the Syrian civil war started and (at least) half a year after ISIS became a serious threat in Iraq, you'd think the president might be willing to essay a few broad thoughts about how we should respond.

Don't get me wrong. I think I understand what Obama is doing here. He's basically trying to avoid saying that we do have a strategy, and the strategy is to do the absolute minimum possible in service of a few very limited objectives. And generally speaking, I happen to agree that this is probably the least worst option available to us. Still, there's no question that it's not very inspiring. You'd think the brain trust in the White House would have given a little more thought to how this could be presented in a tolerably coherent and decisive way.

In the meantime, "We don't have a strategy yet" is about to become the latest 24/7 cable news loop. Sigh.

Oh, and the tan suit too. It's quite the topic of conversation in the Twittersphere.

This is What a Russian Invasion of Ukraine Looks Like

| Thu Aug. 28, 2014 2:56 PM EDT

It has become quite hard for Vladimir Putin to deny that Russia's activities in Eastern Europe are benign. On Thursday, Ukraine's president, Petro Poroshenko, announced that "Russian forces have actually entered Ukraine." And at a State Department briefing, spokeswoman Jen Psaki called Russia's activities "an incursion and a violation of Ukraine's sovereignty."

The most striking evidence comes from NATO, which has released satellite photos of what it calls "concrete examples of Russian activity inside Ukraine."

Digital Globe/NATO

According to NATO, the image above depicts a Russian convoy carrying artillery in Krasnodon, an area of Ukraine currently controlled by pro-Russian separatists, on August 21.

Digital Globe/NATO

This shows artillery setting up in firing positions in Krasnodon. "This configuration is exactly how trained military professionals would arrange their assets on the ground, indicating that these are not unskilled amateurs, but Russian soldiers," a NATO press release notes.

Digital Globe/NATO

This image shows side-by-side photos of Rostov-on-Don, about 31 miles from the Ukrainian border, taken two months apart. The photo on the left, taken on June 19, shows the area mostly empty. The photo on the right shows the same area on August 20 occupied with tanks and other armored vehicles, cargo trucks, and tents. These units "are capable of attacking with little warning, and could potentially overwhelm and push-back Ukrainian units," according to NATO.

Digital Globe/NATO

According to NATO, this image shows Russian six artillery pieces, probably 6-inch howitzers, positioned six miles south of the Ukrainian border. The guns are pointed toward Ukraine.

5 Terrifying Facts From the Leaked UN Climate Report

| Thu Aug. 28, 2014 2:08 PM EDT
A massive "ice island" breaks free from the Petermann Glacier in Greenland in 2012.

How many synonyms for "grim" can I pack into one article? I had to consult the thesaurus: ghastly, horrid, awful, shocking, grisly, gruesome.

This week, a big report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was leaked before publication, and it confirmed, yet again, the grim—dire, frightful—reality the we face if we don't slash our global greenhouse gas emissions, and slash them fast.

This "Synthesis Report," to be released in November following a UN conference in Copenhagen, is still subject to revision. It is intended to summarize three previous UN climate publications and to "provide an integrated view" to the world's governments of the risks they face from runaway carbon pollution, along with possible policy solutions.

As expected, the document contains a lot of what had already been reported after the three underpinning reports were released at global summits over the past year. It's a long list of problems: sea level rise resulting in coastal flooding, crippling heat waves and multidecade droughts, torrential downpours, widespread food shortages, species extinction, pest outbreaks, economic damage, and exacerbated civil conflicts and poverty.

But in general, the 127-page leaked report provides starker language than the previous three, framing the crisis as a series of "irreversible" ecological and economic catastrophes that will occur if swift action is not taken.

Here are five particularly grim—depressing, distressing, upsetting, worrying, unpleasant—takeaways from the report.

1. Our efforts to combat climate change have been grossly inadequate.
The report says that anthropogenic (man-made) greenhouse gas emissions continued to increase from 1970 to 2010, at a pace that ramped up especially quickly between 2000 and 2010. That's despite some regional action that has sought to limit emissions, including carbon-pricing schemes in Europe. We haven't done enough, the United Nations says, and we're already seeing the effects of inaction. "Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history," the report says. "The climate changes that have already occurred have had widespread and consequential impacts on human and natural systems."

2. Keeping global warming below the internationally agreed upon 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (above preindustrial levels) is going to be very hard.
To keep warming below this limit, our emissions need to be slashed dramatically. But at current rates, we'll pump enough greenhouse gas into the atmosphere to sail past that critical level within the next 20 to 30 years, according to the report. We need to emit half as much greenhouse gas for the remainder of this century as we've already emitted over the past 250 years. Put simply, that's going to be difficult—especially when you consider the fact that global emissions are growing, not declining, every year. The report says that to keep temperature increases to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, deep emissions cuts of between 40 and 70 percent are needed between 2010 and 2050, with emissions "falling towards zero or below" by 2100.

3. We'll probably see nearly ice-free summers in the Arctic Ocean before mid-century.
The report says that in every warming scenario it the scientists considered, we should expect to see year-round reductions in Arctic sea ice. By 2050, that will likely result in strings of years in which there is the near absence of sea ice in the summer, following a well-established trend. And then there's Greenland, where glaciers have been retreating since the 1960s—increasingly so after 1993—because of man-made global warming. The report says we may already be facing a situation in which Greenland's ice sheet will vanish over the next millennium, contributing up to 23 feet of sea level rise.

4. Dangerous sea level rise will very likely impact 70 percent of the world's coastlines by the end of the century.
The report finds that by 2100, the devastating effects of sea level rise—including flooding, infrastructure damage, and coastal erosion—will impact the vast majority of the world's coastlines. That's not good: Half the world's population lives within 37 miles of the sea, and three-quarters of all large cities are located on the coast, according to the United Nations. The sea has already risen significantly: From 1901 to 2010, global mean sea level rose by 0.62 feet.

5. Even if we act now, there's a real risk of "abrupt and irreversible" changes.
The carbon released by burning fossil fuels will stay in the atmosphere and the seas for centuries to come, the report says, even if we completely stop emitting CO2 as soon as possible. That means it's virtually certain that global mean sea level rise will continue for many centuries beyond 2100. Without strategies to reduce emissions, the world will see 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit of warming above preindustrial temperatures by the end of the century, condemning us to "substantial species extinction, global and regional food insecurity, [and] consequential constraints on common human activities."

What's more, the report indicates that without action, the effects of climate change could be irreversible: "Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems."

Grim, indeed.

In the Restaurant Biz, It Pays To Be a Man

| Thu Aug. 28, 2014 1:22 PM EDT

Via Wonkblog, here's a chart showing the pay gap between men and women in the restaurant industry. It comes from a recently released EPI report, and as you can see, not only are men better paid in virtually every category, but the premium goes up for the highest paying jobs. Bussers and cashiers are paid nearly the same regardless of gender. But when you move up to cooks, bartenders, and managers, the premium ranges from 10-20 percent.

This data isn't conclusive. There are other reasons besides gender for pay gaps, and the EPI report lists several of them. Whites make more than blacks. High school grads make more than dropouts. Older workers make more than younger ones. You'd need to control for all this and more to get a more accurate picture of the gender gap.

But in a way, that misses the point. There are lots of reasons for the gender gap in pay. Some is just plain discrimination. Some is because women take off more time to raise children. Some is because women are encouraged to take different kinds of jobs. But all of these are symptoms of the same thing. In a myriad of ways, women still don't get a fair shake.

Ex-George Washington University President Responds to Controversy Over His Sexual Assault Remarks

| Thu Aug. 28, 2014 1:12 PM EDT

A former university president came under fire this week for the advice he gave on how to combat sexual assault on college campuses. On Tuesday, George Washington University President Emeritus Stephen Trachtenberg appeared on NPR's Diane Rehm Show and said, "Without making the victims responsible for what happens, one of the groups that have to be trained not to drink in excess are women. They need to be in a position to punch the guys in the nose if they misbehave." Critics pounced. Jezebel slammed his comments as "jaw-droppingly stupid," and the website noted, "If this is the attitude freely and blithely expressed by a former University President, it's no wonder that more than 75 schools are currently under investigation by the Department of Education for botching sexual assault investigations."

The following day, Trachtenberg told the school newspaper, The GW Hatchet, that his remarks had been taken "out of context," but he reiterated his main point: "What I'm saying is you want to have somebody you care about like your daughter, granddaughter or girlfriend to understand her limits because she will be less likely to be unable to fight off somebody who is attacking her."

On Thursday, Mother Jones asked Trachtenberg to comment on the ongoing controversy, and he replied with a written statement. Regarding Jezebel, he said:

Jezebel has a world view that informs their prose. They are an advocate for an important cause and they take every opportunity to make their case. Sometimes in their enthusiasm they may get a little overheated. It's hard to resist an apparent opportunity when you believe you are on the side of the angels. 

In response to other questions—including why he chose to use the word "misbehave" to describe sexual assault—Trachtenberg said:

I chose that word because I was thinking and speaking quickly under time constraints on a radio show. Under different circumstances I might have used another perhaps stronger word. I am an educator. I believe in the power of education. I think that education about drinking and its effects on an individual can help protect that person from vulnerability. Knowledge makes one stronger. I also believe that having skills gives one power. If you know how to defend yourself you have strength that can be helpful in the event things turn physical. These two ideas are not meant to solve all problems. They are not blame shifters. They are what they are. Better to know things then not. No silver bullets here. We need to educate men too. Date rape is largely the responsibility of young men and alcohol and opportunity. We can address these issues as a community. Men and women and institutions together. Victims should do their best but they are victims and not to blame. My recommendation is to change the culture of the campus so that men and women protect and nurture each other as a family would. It will take work but it can be done.

Is this an apology? You be the judge.

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Mitch McConnell Doesn't Get to Decide if Republicans Will Threaten Another Government Shutdown

| Thu Aug. 28, 2014 12:15 PM EDT

Are congressional Republicans threatening once again to shut down the government this year unless they get their way on a bunch of pet demands? Over at TNR, Danny Vinik doesn't think so: "There is no excuse for the news media to inflate the quotes of Republican politicians to make it seem that they are threatening to shut down the government again," he says. But Brian Beutler thinks Vinik is being too literal. It's true that no one is explicitly using the word shutdown, but no one ever does. Still, he says, "the threat is clear."

I'm with Beutler, but not because of any particular parsing of recent Republican threats. It's because of this:

The truth is practically irrelevant to the question of whether [recent saber rattling] presages a government shutdown fight. Just as it doesn’t really matter whether Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell actually has a government shutdown in mind when he promises to strong-arm Obama next year, or whether he intends to cave.

In either case he’s threatening to use the appropriations process as leverage to extract concessions. That's a government shutdown fight. And no matter how he plays it, he will unleash forces he and other GOP leaders have proven incapable of restraining. They can’t control the plot.

Yep. It's just not clear that McConnell has any real leverage over Ted Cruz or that John Boehner has any leverage over Michele Bachmann. Once they implicitly endorse the rider game, they cede control to the wingnuts. And the wingnuts want to shut down the government. Fasten your seatbelts.

Stock Buybacks Are a Symptom, Not a Disease

| Thu Aug. 28, 2014 11:42 AM EDT

Paul Roberts writes in the LA Times today about stock buybacks:

Here's a depressing statistic: Last year, U.S. companies spent a whopping $598 billion — not to develop new technologies, open new markets or to hire new workers but to buy up their own shares. By removing shares from circulation, companies made remaining shares pricier, thus creating the impression of a healthier business without the risks of actual business activity.

I agree: that statistic is depressing. In fact, back in the days of my foolish youth, when I dabbled a bit in stock picking, one of my rules was never to invest in a company that had done a share buyback. I figured it was a sign of tired management. If they couldn't think of anything better to do with their money than that, what kind of future did they have? Moving on:

Share buybacks aren't illegal, and, to be fair, they make sense when companies truly don't have something better to reinvest their profits in. But U.S. companies do have something better: They could be reinvesting in the U.S. economy in ways that spur growth and generate jobs. The fact that they're not explains a lot about the weakness of the job market and the sliding prospects of the American middle class.

....Without a more socially engaged corporate culture, the U.S. economy will continue to lose the capacity to generate long-term prosperity, compete globally or solve complicated economic challenges, such as climate change. We need to restore a broader sense of the corporation as a social citizen — no less focused on profit but far more cognizant of the fact that, in an interconnected economic world, there is no such thing as narrow self-interest.

I agree with some of what Roberts says about American corporations increasingly being obsessed with short-term stock gains rather than long-term growth. It's also true that stock buybacks are partly driven by CEO pay packages that are pegged to share price. Those have been standard complaints for decades. But it's misleading to suggest that US companies could be spurring the economy if only they'd invest more of their profits in growth. That gets it backwards. Companies will invest if they think they'll get a good return on that investment, and that decision depends on the likely trajectory of the macroeconomy. If it looks like economic growth will be strong, they'll invest more money in new plants and better equipment. If not, they won't.

The macroeconomy doesn't depend on either companies or individuals acting altruistically. You can't pass a law banning stock buybacks and expect that companies will invest in plant expansion and worker training instead. They'll only do it if those investments look likely to pay off. Conversely, forcing them to make investments that will lose money does nothing for the economy except light lots of money on fire.

You want companies to invest in the future? The first step is supporting economic policies that will grow the economy. If we were willing to do that, corporate investment would follow. If we don't, all the laws in the world won't keep the tide from coming in.

Economy Doing Ever So Slightly Better Than We Thought

| Thu Aug. 28, 2014 9:58 AM EDT

The economy is doing ever so slightly better than we thought:

Gross domestic product, the broadest measure of goods and services produced across the economy, grew at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.2% in the second quarter, the Commerce Department said Thursday. The agency had previously estimated the second quarter's growth rate at 4%, relying on incomplete data for international trade, inventories and other sectors.

Nobody should mistake this for anything meaningful. Obviously it's better for GDP to be revised up than down, but this particular change is so small that it's not really noticeable. GDP growth for the first half of the year now clocks in at about 2.1 percent instead of 1.9 percent, but that's pretty anemic either way.

Don't Feel Bad for Tall People on Planes. They Probably Make More Money Than You.

| Thu Aug. 28, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Amid the raging, only-in-August debate over whether it is ever okay to recline your airplane seat, a good dose of schadenfreude has been directed at the vertically advantaged, as summed up by this tweet from one of my own bosses:

It's true: Being of above average height, particularly if you're a man, does come with significant perks beyond having your own weather patterns. As a 2004 paper on the economic advantages of height explains, researchers have found that taller people are seen as more persuasive, more attractive, and more likely to become leaders: "Indeed, on the latter point, not since 1896 have U.S. citizens elected a President whose height was below average; William McKinley at 5 ft 7 in. (1.7 m) was ridiculed in the press as a 'little boy'." That paper calculated that a 6-foot-tall person can expect to earn $166,000 more over a 30-year career than someone who is 5-foot-5. In another 2004 article, researchers concluded that "a sizable fraction of the population" might consider taking Human Growth Hormone as teenagers to ensure bigger paychecks as adults. (They estimate that teens see a 1.9 to 2.6 percent increase in future earnings for every additional inch of height.)

That tall dudes get an extra leg up in the job market is borne out by data from the Centers for Disease Control's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a survey of more than 500,000 Americans' health and demographics.

The average American adult male is 5-foot-9. According to a crosstabulation of the CDC's 2011 data, men of slightly below-average height are at an income disadvantage: Around 28 percent of men between 5'5" and 5'8" earn $35,000 or less, compared with 19 percent of men between 5'9" and 6'0". And at the other end of the scale, 56 percent of men between 5'5" and 5'8" earn $50,000 or more, compared with 66 percent of men between 5'9" and 6'0".

And the really tall guys tower over everyone else: Just 5 percent of them earn less than $20,000, and nearly 69 percent earn $50,000 or more. And the really short guys have it rough: 35 percent earn less than $20,000 while 23 percent earn $50,000 or more.

The height-income gap for women isn't quite so stark—or predictable. The average height for women is 5-foot-4. Around 31 percent of women between 5'1" and 5'4" earn $35,000 or less, compared with around 26 percent of women between 5'5" and 5'8". And 53 percent of women between 5'1" and 5'4" earn $50,000 or more, compared with 58 percent of women between 5'5" and 6'8".

Yet unlike men, women beyond a certain height pay a penalty. Women between 5'5" and 5'8" are more likely to earn more than $50,000 than women over six feet. And, surprisingly, women over six feet are more likely to earn less than $20,000 than women of average height. However, women under 5'1" are far more likely to earn less than $35,000 than taller women. But compared to their male counterparts, they do better—they're more likely than the very shortest men to earn more than $75,000.

What does any of this have to do with modern air travel? Nothing. Just don't be a jerk.