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A Simple Chart That Shows We've Locked Up Too Many People

| Mon Feb. 16, 2015 11:55 AM EST

Correlation is not causation. This has recently become something of an all-purpose comeback from people who want to sound smart without really understanding anything about a particular research result. Still, whether it's overused or not, it's a true statement. When two things move up and down together, it's a hint that one of them might be causing the other, but it's just a hint. Sometimes correlation implies causation and sometimes it doesn't.

The inverse statement, however, is different: If there's no correlation, then there's no causation. With the rarest of exceptions, this is almost always true. Dara Lind provides an example of this as it relates to crime and mass incarceration.

The chart on the right shows the trend in various states at reducing incarceration. If reducing incarceration produced more crime, you'd expect at least some level of correlation. The dots would line up to look something like the red arrow, with lots of dots in the upper left quadrant.

Obviously we see nothing like that. In fact, we don't appear to see any significant correlation at all. As Lind says, the scatterplot is just a scatter.

It's possible that a more sophisticated analysis would tease out a correlation of some kind. You can show almost anything if you really put your mind to it. But if a simple, crude scatterplot doesn't show even a hint of a correlation, it's almost a certainty that there's nothing there. And in this case it demonstrates that we've locked up too many people. Mass incarceration hit the limit of its effectiveness in the late-80s and since then has been running dangerously on autopilot. It ruins lives, costs a lot of money, and has gone way beyond the point where it affects the crime rate. It's well past time to reverse this trend and get to work seriously cutting the prison population.

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Is the Government About to Warn America Against Meat?

| Mon Feb. 16, 2015 6:00 AM EST

Every five years, the United States Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) get together to revise their recommendations about what Americans should eat. These guidelines influence doctors' health advice, food labels, the ever evolving food pyramid-turned-plate, and what goes into school lunches. For instance, in 2010, a time when more than half of adults were overweight or obese, the agencies recommended things like drinking water instead of sugary beverages, filling half your plate with fruits and veggies, cutting sodium, and just eating less in general.

It's 2015, so time for some new advice. The guidelines draw on input from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Committee (DGAC), which will publish a report sometime this winter. So what are the hottest items under debate this year? Here's a run-down of what to look for in the upcoming Dietary Guidelines for Americans report:

The meat vs. plants showdown: It probably comes as no surprise that Americans eat a diet lacking in fruits and vegetables and full of too many solid fats. In fact, vegetable consumption was on the decline between 2001 and 2010 even as each of us now eat 202.3 pounds of meat a year; a bit less red meat than a few years ago but more poultry than ever before. In the past, the government has warned against overdoing it with red meat and urged people to chow down on lean meats like chicken and fish instead. But this year, for the first time, the committee might caution against overconsumption of all kinds of meat—and not just for health reasons, but also because of meat's environmental footprint. Livestock operations now produce 15 percent of the world's carbon emissions. Eating fewer animal-based foods "is more health promoting and is associated with a lesser environmental impact," the committee suggested in its draft report.

Raising livestock now comprises 15 percent of the world's carbon emissions.

Which of course has ruffled the meat industry. Removing lean meat from healthy diet recommendations is "stunning," read a recent statement by the North American Meat Institute. "The committee's focus on sustainability is questionable because it is not within the committee's expertise."

Cholesterol is back: Your body makes its own cholesterol but you also get some when you eat animal fats, including eggs. Previous guidelines warned that too much of the waxy substance in the blood leads to higher risk of heart disease, and recommended that adults consume no more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol a day. But this year's guidelines might downplay dietary cholesterol's risk, marking the comeback of the daily omelet. The DGAC's December meeting notes stated that "cholesterol is not considered a nutrient of concern for overconsumption."

"We now know that cholesterol in the diet makes very little difference in terms of bad cholesterol in the blood," University of Pennsylvania's molecular biologist Dan Rader told Forbes. People get high cholesterol in the blood because of their genes or because the body's mechanisms for cleaning out blood cholesterol aren't working properly, he explains.

"Cholesterol is not considered a nutrient of concern for overconsumption."

We've been cautioned against cholesterol in our diets for the last fifty years, ever since the American Heart Association warned about it in 1961, reports the Washington Post. But in late 2013, a task force including the AHA found "insufficient evidence" in studies it reviewed to warn most people against eating foods high in the substance, such as eggs, shellfish, and red meat.  

Put down the soda: I repeat: Put down the soda. Americans consume way too much added sugar, 22 to 30 teaspoons a day by some estimates, or nearly four times the healthy limits proposed by the AHA. And sugar-sweetened drinks account for nearly half of these added sugars. As Mother Jones has reported over the years, these jolts of added sugar have been linked with obesity, diabetes, metabolic disease, and a whole host of other ailments.

The World Health Organization turned heads last year when it reduced its recommendation about healthy added sugar intake from roughly 12 teaspoons to around 6 teaspoons a day (aka less than one can of Coke). The Dietary Guidelines might not go that far, but this year the committee will likely propose limits on added sugar for the first time: No more than 10 percent of your daily energy should come from added sugar, the committee suggests, which comes out to about 12 teaspoons a day for an adult with an average BMI.

Not sure how we feel about salt: "Sodium is ubiquitous in the food supply," noted the Committee in its December meeting notes. The 2010 Guidelines recommended that adults consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day, a far cry from the 3,400 mg we inhale on average. The Guidelines also suggested that certain at-risk groups like people over age 51 and diabetics should eat less than 1,500 mg a day.

But while a 2013 report by the Institute of Medicine stated that reducing sodium intake is important for heart health, it also pointed to recent research suggesting that "sodium intakes that are low may increase health risks—particularly in certain groups"—like people with diabetes or kidney disease. The report asserted that there's no evidence of benefits in reducing sodium intake to 1,500 mg for these subgroups or for the general population. While the Committee seems to want to warn people off sodium-laden diets for the 2015 guidelines, given these mixed findings about levels it seems unlikely that it will set a new defined limit.

A Mesmerizing, Freewheeling JD McPherson Recaptures the Golden Era of Rock and Roll

| Mon Feb. 16, 2015 6:00 AM EST

JD McPherson
Let the Good Times Roll
Rounder

More than a half-century after the original golden era of rock and roll, it can be hard to remember just how disruptive—even dangerous—early stars like Eddie Cochran and Little Richard seemed with their crazy beats and oversize personalities.

Though no revivalist by any stretch, Oklahoma's JD McPherson does a swell job of recapturing that freewheeling sense of abandon on his terrific second album. Not nearly as predictable as the generic title suggests, Let the Good Times Roll gets its sizzle from a rip-snorting backing band, snappy original songs and, most important, McPherson's fiery vocals, which find him howling one moment and pleading the next, as if barely able to maintain control. Recalling the Blasters at their peak, he's a mesmerizing showman with a timeless gift for deliciously greasy sounds.
 

5 States Where Republicans Are Getting Serious About Criminal Justice Reform

| Fri Feb. 13, 2015 2:04 PM EST

A growing group of conservatives are stepping back from their traditional "tough on crime" stance and taking a lead on reforming the criminal justice system. There's even talk that congressional Republicans and Democrats could come together on the issue: Earlier this week, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee introduced a bipartisan prison reform bill. (Though it seems to have considerable flaws.)

At the state level, Republicans have already been taking on the issue. Here are five states where Republican governors and their fellow GOP lawmakers are taking on broken prison systems and the harsh laws that have fueled the incarceration boom:

Nebraska: Members of Nebraska's legislature have introduced several bills that address the state's overcrowded prisons. These include two bills introduced Wednesday, which would do away with mandatory minimum sentences for a slew of crimes (including distributing cocaine and heroin) and limit Nebraska's "three-strikes" law to violent crimes. While the Cornhusker State's legislature is nonpartisan, a majority of bills' cosponsors are affiliated with the Republican Party, including Sen. Jim Smith, the head of the state branch of the American Legislative Exchange Council.  Republican Governor Pete Ricketts reportedly supports the push for prison reform, as does the Omaha-based Platte Institute, a conservative think tank that recently released recommendations for decreasing incarceration that have drawn support from the Nebraska ACLU.

Utah: Republican state Representative Eric Hutchings is sponsoring legislation that aims to reduce Utah's prison population and decrease recidivism. The bill, which has yet to be publicly released, would decrease the charge for drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. Governor Gary Herbert, also a Republican, has put aside $10.5 million for recidivism reform.

Illinois: Governor Bruce Rauner's agenda includes a plan to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison by instead sending them to community programs. Earlier this week, he created a commission of lawmakers, cops, and activists to recommend reforms to the state's criminal justice system. More details about his plan will come out when he releases his 2016 budget recommendations next week.

Alabama: The legislature-appointed Alabama Prison Reform Task Force is gearing up to propose a new bill for the next legislative session, which begins in March. Led by Republican state Senator Cam Ward, an outspoken Second Amendment defender, the task force is seeking ways to cut down the state's prison population, which is more twice its intended size. One of Ward's ideas? Making re-entry easier by throwing out draconian laws for ex-felons, like those preventing them from getting driver's licenses.

Georgia: A similar task force, the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform, has been recommending reforms to lawmakers. Formed in 2011 by Republican Governor Nathan Deal, the group has pushed the state to stop imprisoning juveniles and reform sentencing for nonviolent offenders, which slashed $20 million off the cost to house inmates in Georgia. The council's current agenda includes initiatives to improve reentry for ex-felons.

Friday Cat Blogging - 13 February 2015

| Fri Feb. 13, 2015 1:20 PM EST

Chemotherapy may be over, but I still have to go in to the infusion center once a month for a bone-strengthening treatment. Unlike chemo, which was a pretty quick procedure, this actually takes a while, and this month it happens to be scheduled for mid-morning today. So that means I'm checking out early. Sorry about that. On the bright side you get early catblogging out of the deal. Here are the sibs posing for their dual royal portrait, Hopper on the left and Hilbert on the right. Have a good weekend, everyone.

Republicans Are Cutting Taxes on the Rich and Raising Them on the Poor

| Fri Feb. 13, 2015 12:52 PM EST

Shaila Dewan surveys the tax policies of actual Republicans who are governing actual states:

A number of Republican-led states are considering tax changes that, in many cases, would have the effect of cutting taxes on the rich and raising them on the poor.

Conservatives are known for hating taxes but particularly hate income taxes, which they say have a greater dampening effect on growth. Of the 10 or so Republican governors who have proposed tax increases, virtually all have called for increases in consumption taxes, which hit the poor and middle class harder than the rich.

Favorite targets for the new taxes include gasoline, e-cigarettes, and goods and services in general (Governor Paul LePage of Maine would like to start taxing movie tickets and haircuts). At the same time, some of those governors — most notably Mr. LePage, Nikki Haley of South Carolina and John Kasich of Ohio — have proposed significant cuts to their state income tax. In an effort to relieve some of the added pressure, Mr. LePage’s plan includes a tax break for the lowest-income families.

This gets back to what I was talking about a couple of days ago. Contrary to what Republican reformicons are proposing, Republicans on the ground continue to focus most of their attention on cutting taxes on the rich. Or, in a pinch, if they have to raise revenue, they're raising it from the poor and middle class. This is despite the well-known fact that virtually all of the income gains in recent years have gone to the well-off.

There are ways to make consumption taxes progressive. It's not impossible. The problem is that Republicans simply don't want to. Their goal is, and always has been, to reduce taxes on the wealthy. Any other tax agenda just isn't on the table.

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg: "I Wasn't 100 Percent Sober" During SOTU Address

| Fri Feb. 13, 2015 12:21 PM EST

Contrary to earlier speculation that she had power-napped through last month's State of the Union Address because it was just so damn dull, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg revealed on Thursday it was actually due to the fact she wasn't exactly "100 percent sober."

The 81-year-old justice told a crowd of George Washington University students:

The audience for the most part is awake, because they're bobbing up and down, and we sit there, stone-faced, sober judges. But we're not, at least I wasn't, 100 percent sober. Because before we went to the State of the Union, we had dinner together... Justice Kennedy brought in... it was an Opus something or other, very fine California wine, and I vowed this year, just sparkling water, stay away from the wine, but in the end, the dinner was so delicious, it needed wine.

According to Ginsburg, she was thankfully flanked by colleagues, who, like any good friends, casually nudged her awake when they noticed her dozing off. Watch below:

Republicans Are Shooting Themselves in the Foot Over Net Neutrality

| Fri Feb. 13, 2015 11:35 AM EST

I've written before about the GOP's peculiarly uncompromising stance on net neutrality. At its core, net neutrality has always been a battle between two huge industry groups and therefore never really presented an obvious reason for Republicans to feel strongly about one side or the other. But they've taken sides anyway, energetically supporting the anti-neutrality broadband industry against the pro-neutrality tech industry. Today an LA Times article dives more deeply into the problems this is causing:

As tech firms and cable companies prepare for a fight that each says will shape the future of the Internet, Silicon Valley executives and activists are growing increasingly irritated by the feeling that the GOP is not on their side. Republican leaders have struggled to explain to their nascent allies in the Bay Area why they are working so hard to undermine a plan endorsed by the Obama administration to keep a level playing field in Internet innovation.

....The fight comes at a time when Republicans had been making gains in Silicon Valley, a constituency of well-heeled donors and coveted millennial-generation voters who have generally been loyal to Democrats....Republicans have hoped to seize on recent Democratic policy moves that riled tech companies, including a push for strict anti-piracy rules and the Obama administration's continued backing of National Security Agency surveillance of Internet users.

But the hot issue in Silicon Valley now is net neutrality. And on that issue, the GOP and the tech industry are mostly out of step...."It is close to a litmus test," said Paul Sieminski, a Republican who is the general counsel to Automattic, the company that operates Web-making tool WordPress.com. "It's such a fundamental issue for the Internet," said Sieminski, who has been active in fighting for net neutrality. "I guess it is a proxy on where a candidate may stand on a lot of issues related to the Internet."

The obvious and cynical explanation for the Republican view is that President Obama is for net neutrality, so they're against it. The more principled view is that they hate regulation so much that they don't care what it costs them to oppose net neutrality. It's regulation, so they're against it.

Neither one truly makes sense to me, and I suppose their real motivation is a combination of both. Most Republicans probably started out moderately skeptical of net neutrality because it represented a new layer of regulation, and then gradually adopted an ever more inflexible opposition as it became clear that Obama and the Democratic Party were staking out the pro-neutrality space. Eventually it became a hot button issue, and now the die is cast.

But it's sure hard to see what it buys them. It's already eroding any chance they had of appealing to the growing tech industry, which is going to be even more firmly in the Democratic camp after this. And while the support of the broadband industry is nice, it's not big enough to tip the fundraising scales more than a few milligrams in either direction.

All in all, it's an odd fight. It remains unclear to me why Republicans have chosen this particular hill to die on.

Republicans and Democrats Are Both in Favor of Approval to Fight ISIS

| Fri Feb. 13, 2015 10:44 AM EST

So what does the public think of President Obama's request for an authorization to use military force against ISIS? According to a new NBC/Marist poll, they're basically in favor:

Greg Sargent has a partisan breakdown, and approval of the AUMF is surprisingly bipartisan: 60 percent of Democrats approve and 52 percent of Republicans approve. So I imagine this is going to pass before long, probably without too many major changes.

The poll has some other responses that are a bit odd. Only 45 percent of the respondents have much confidence in President Obama's strategy, but 66 percent think we're going to be able to defeat ISIS anyway. Is this a triumph of partisanship over actual belief, or the other way around? Or just the usual incoherence you get in practically every poll about everything?

In any case, it will be interesting to see what line Fox News and the rest of the right-wing punditocracy take on this, and whether this affects future poll results. I wouldn't be surprised if there's a much bigger partisan split on this question a couple of weeks from now.

A Torrent of Tributes to David Carr

Thu Feb. 12, 2015 11:58 PM EST

Upon news of the New York Times columnist's death on Thursday night, Twitter exploded with shock, remembrances, and praise for David Carr. Here are some highlights: