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Quote of the Day #2: Pick an Issue, Any Issue

| Thu Sep. 18, 2014 12:21 AM EDT

From self-declared visionary Newt Gingrich, asked what the Republican agenda should be for this year's campaign:

I don’t actually care what it is, for the next seven weeks, as long as it exists.

Come on, folks! Just pick anything that sounds good and rally around it. Does Newt have to do all your thinking for you?

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Scotland Should Plan On Having Its Own Currency

| Wed Sep. 17, 2014 5:38 PM EDT

When provinces propose a split with the mother country, they usually insist that they'll continue to use the old currency. This is odd on its face since having your own money is usually considered one of the key attributes of a sovereign state. So what's the appeal of keeping the old country's currency? Greg Ip ponders the question:

Facilitating trade and capital movements is only one part of the story. Another, I think, is political and emotional. Forming a new country is fraught with risk. For savers, in particular the elderly, one risk looms especially large: that one’s retirement savings are suddenly redenominated in a new currency whose value is then inflated away. In both Quebec and Scotland, independence is mostly a movement of the left, and a separate currency would create the ever-present temptation to use the printing press to accommodate fiscal expansion and industrial policy. By promising to keep the old currency, separatists are reassuring savers that they will not succumb to the temptation of inflation.

I wonder if this is true? I hope it's not. I don't have a strong opinion about Scottish independence, but I do have a strong opinion about this. Here it is: if you favor independence, but only if Scotland holds onto the British pound, you're an idiot. If you don't trust a Scottish government to run its own monetary policy, then you don't trust a Scottish government. Period.

There are other arguments for currency union, of course, but I don't think they add up to much. Nor do I truly believe them. They mostly seem like post hoc rationalizations to provide people with a more palatable reason for keeping the British pound than fear of a reckless Scottish monetary authority. Generally speaking, the history of currency unions is simply too fraught for anyone who's paying attention to really think it's a good idea. And as Ip points out, they rarely last very long anyway.

An independent Scotland should have its own currency and its own monetary policy. If this makes you nervous, then the whole idea of independence should make you nervous.

Prison Rates are Down. Thanks to Lead, They're Going to Stay Down.

| Wed Sep. 17, 2014 1:18 PM EDT

Yesterday the Bureau of Justice Statistics released the latest numbers on incarceration rates, and the headline news is that we're sending fewer people to prison. But there's an interesting wrinkle in the numbers that few news outlets have picked up on, even though it's a trend that's been obvious in the numbers for a long time. Here it is:

That's from Rick Nevin, and you know what's coming next, don't you? Lead. It explains a lot of what's going on here.

The US started phasing out gasoline lead in 1975, which means that children born after 1975 were exposed to steadily less lead. And the effect was cumulative: the later they were born, the less lead they were exposed to and the less crime they committed when they grew up. However, children born before 1975 were unaffected by all this. They were born in a high-lead era, and since all that matters is exposure during early childhood, the damage had already been done.

In 2013, this means that the statistics show a reduction in crime rates in adults under the age of 40, and the younger the cohort the lower the crime rate. Unsurprisingly, this also means they're incarcerated at lower rates. The chart above shows this fairly dramatically.

But it also shows that incarceration rates have stayed steady or increased for older men. Those over the age of 40 had their lives ruined by lead when they were children, and the effect was permanent. They're still committing crimes and being sent to prison at the same rate as ever. It's hard to explain both these trends—lower prison rates for kids, higher prison rates for the middle-aged—without taking lead into account.

This is one of the reasons that the lead-crime hypothesis is important. In one sense, it's little more than a historical curio. It explains the rise and fall of crime between 1960 and 2010, but by now most environmental lead has been cleaned up and there's only a limited amount left to worry about. So it's interesting, but nothing more.

But here's why it matters: if the hypothesis is true, it means that violent crime rates aren't down because of transient factors like drug use or poverty or harsh penal codes. The reduction is permanent. Our children are just flatly less violent than the lead-addled kids who grew up in the years after World War II. And that in turn means that the decline in incarceration rates is permanent. We don't need as much prison space as we used to, and we don't need punitive penal codes designed to toss kids behind bars for 20 years at the first sign of danger.

In other words, we can ease up. Our kids are less violent and our streets are less dangerous. Nor is that likely to change. The lead is mostly gone, and it's going to stay gone. We're safer today not because of broken windows or three-strikes laws or 20-year sentences for dealing cocaine. We're safer because we're no longer poisoning our children in ways that turn them into hair-trigger thugs. And guess what? If we cleaned up the ambient lead that still remains, we'd be even safer 20 years from now.

Quote of the Day: Go Away, I'm Performing Brain Surgery

| Wed Sep. 17, 2014 12:03 PM EDT

From the campaign of GOP Senate candidate Monica Wehby, declining to respond to allegations of plagiarism:

Dr. Wehby is too busy performing brain surgery on sick children to respond, sorry.

This might be the most brilliant refusal to comment ever in the history of politics.

Republicans Are No Longer Favored To Take Control of the Senate

| Wed Sep. 17, 2014 11:43 AM EDT

Speaking of poll aggregators and the Senate race, here's an interesting infographic from Vox:

I actually haven't been following the polling super closely, so I didn't realize that basically no one is still projecting a Republican takeover except for Nate Silver—though things are still close enough that none of this probably means much yet. We're still six weeks away from Election Day, and a lot can happen in six weeks.

Still, there's a bottom line here for reporters: Republicans are no longer favored to take control of the Senate. At least, not by the folks who have had the best records for projecting election results over the past decade or so. This should no longer be the default assumption of campaign roundup stories.

There's much more at the link, including forecasts for individual races.

Polling Cage Fight Heats Up Today

| Wed Sep. 17, 2014 10:47 AM EDT

Nate Silver today:

I don’t like to call out other forecasters by name unless I have something positive to say about them....

But he wants to make an exception for one guy: Sam Wang. The guy is so preposterously deluded that something just has to be said:

That model is wrong — not necessarily because it shows Democrats ahead (ours barely shows any Republican advantage), but because it substantially underestimates the uncertainty associated with polling averages....In 2010, for example, Wang’s model made Sharron Angle the favorite in Nevada against Harry Reid; it estimated she was 2 points ahead in the polls, but with a standard error of just 0.5 points. If we drew a graphic based on Wang’s forecast like the ones we drew above, it would have Angle winning the race 99.997 percent of the time, meaning that Reid’s victory was about a 30,000-to-1 long shot. To be clear, the FiveThirtyEight model had Angle favored also, but it provided for much more uncertainty. Reid’s win came as a 5-to-1 underdog in our model instead of a 30,000-to-1 underdog in Wang’s; those are very different forecasts....If you want a “polls only” model that estimates the uncertainty more rigorously, I’d recommend The Huffington Post’s or Drew Linzer’s.

I'm not quite sure how it happened, but Silver has managed to become truly torqued off about Wang. If Wang's prediction of this year's Senate race turns out to be more accurate than Silver's, I almost hate to think what might happen. Silver's head is going to explode or something. In any case, this is far more fun than you normally get from a couple of geeky poll aggregators.

By the way, Wang is now projecting that Democrats have an 81 percent chance of controlling the Senate after the election. Not by much, mind you: he figures they're likely to hold exactly 50 seats, which would make Joe Biden the tiebreaker and give Democrats a bare majority. We'll see.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 17, 2014

Wed Sep. 17, 2014 9:43 AM EDT

US Army soldiers prepare to board a CH-47F Chinook with the Flying Dragons task force, which searches for illegal weapons in compounds in Afghanistan. (US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Whitney Houston)

Book Review: The Underground Girls of Kabul

| Wed Sep. 17, 2014 5:30 AM EDT
underground gils of kabul

The Underground Girls of Kabul

By Jenny Nordberg

CROWN PUBLISHING

It sucks to be female in Afghanistan. No surprise there. Journalist Jenny Nordberg's revelation—to Western eyes, anyway—is that more than a few Afghan families raise their girls as boys. The practice, bacha posh, accepted when done discreetly, serves as a roundabout way for girls to attend school and earn money, and for couples who lack sons to avoid public humiliation. The real tension comes with puberty, when the bacha posh is expected to give up her ambitions, respectful treatment, male playmates, and even her freedom to leave the home. Nordberg's intimate exploration leaves us rooting for her brave subjects, if deeply pessimistic about the prospects of women in this maddeningly repressive culture.

This review originally appeared in our September/October issue of Mother Jones. 

Poverty Keeps Getting Worse and Worse for Working-Age Adults

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 8:14 PM EDT

The Census Bureau released its annual poverty report today, and the headline number shows that the official poverty rate declined from 15.0 percent to 14.5 percent. This decline was driven entirely by a drop in the number of children living in poverty.

This gives me an excuse to make a point that doesn't get made often enough. You'll often see charts showing that the overall poverty rate has remained roughly the same since the late 60s, and that's true. But this is largely due to more generous Social Security benefits, which have reduced elderly poverty from over 30 percent to under 10 percent.

There's been no such reduction among working age adults. In fact, just the opposite. The low point for working-age poverty was about 9 percent, reached in 1968, and since then it's steadily increased. There are small variations from year to year, but basically it went up to about 10-11 percent in the 80s and then increased to 13.6 percent during the Great Recession. It's stayed there ever since.

The safety net has helped most of these folks tread water, but it doesn't change the fact that the market economy has gotten steadily bleaker for the poor over the past 40 years. It's great that we've made such significant inroads against elderly poverty, but aggregates can fool you about the rest of the country. Among everyone else, poverty has only gotten worse and worse.

The Endless Rabbit Hole of Secession, Shetland Islands Edition

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 6:02 PM EDT

NOTE: There's, um, a pretty important update at the bottom of this post.

Following a string of links from an Atrios post, I came across this paragraph from a piece a few months ago about the possibility of Scottish independence:

As for Mr Salmond’s fantasies about oil revenues: stocks are dwindling, fracking is driving down the price, when territorial waters are drawn up he may find some of what he thinks is his oil in the North Sea will actually be England’s, and the Shetland Islands — in whose waters much of his reserves lie — say that if Scotland goes independent, they will seek to re-join Norway.

Wait. What? Rejoin Norway? Hasn't it been quite a few centuries since they had anything to do with Norway? I clearly haven't been paying enough attention to this stuff. What's it all about? Here's a piece from earlier this year:

David Cameron today summoned Norwegian Ambassador Hårek Hardbalne to Downing Street to demand that Norway makes clear it has no territorial interest in the Shetland Islands. This follows yesterday’s extraordinary announcement by the leader of Shetland Islands’ Council, Leif Erikson, that Shetland planned to hold a separate referendum on independence from Scotland should Scots choose independence from the UK on September 18th.

....In an interview with the BBC, ambassador Hardbalne said that he did not wish to comment on the surprise move by Shetland but wished to stress that Norway has always upheld the democratic rights to self determination. The BBC reported that the threat of sanctions and exclusion from NATO already had the Norwegians running scared.

That's Dr. Leif Erikson, by the way. In any case, apparently the Shetland Islands really have been making noises about this. If Scotland secedes in order to grab a bigger share of North Sea oil wealth, then why shouldn't they secede from Scotland? They have the same gripe about unfair division of oil revenues, after all. This is from 2012:

The Orkney and Shetland islands could remain part of the UK if the rest of Scotland votes to separate, according to a report submitted by their MSPs to the Government. The islands could even declare independence themselves, it adds.

Alternatively, they could agree to join a separate Scotland only if they are granted a much bigger portion of North Sea oil and gas revenues, around a quarter of which lies in Shetland’s waters alone. Tavish Scott, the Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland, agreed the threat was political “dynamite” but questioned why Mr Salmond was the only politician who could use oil wealth to argue for self-determination.

This bit of soap opera is obviously old news to anyone who's followed the Scottish independence movement closely, but that doesn't happen to include me. In any case, it's an amusing confirmation of my belief that no matter how small a political unit you have, there's always a piece of it that's richer than the rest and feels like it should no longer have to subsidize all the rest of the freeloaders. I wonder if the Shetland Islanders would be open to an invitation to join the state of California?

UPDATE: It appears that I've been taken in by an April Fools post regarding the whole Norway business. Leif Erikson is not the leader of the Shetland Islands council, and Hårek Hardbalne (aka Hagar the Horrible) is not the ambassador from Norway. So sorry. But in a way, being suckered into this joke somehow makes this whole post better, doesn't it?

As for the rest of it, there doesn't seem to be much to that either. There's been some talk here and there about secession and/or rejoining the UK if Scotland votes for independence, but nothing very serious. Basically, I was pretty thoroughly snookered by all this.

UPDATE 2: If you're interested, the Wall Street Journal has a more sober assessment of the Shetland Islands here. Bottom line for those too lazy to click: "People on this remote North Sea archipelago are following the Scottish independence campaign as intently as the rest of the U.K. Some even want another vote soon after—on their own independence from Scotland....To be sure, the breakaway campaign is a fringe one. 'I don't get a sense there is an appetite for full independence,' said Malcolm Bell, a member of Shetland Island council."