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Social Security Is More Important Than a Lot of People Realize

| Mon Aug. 17, 2015 1:41 PM EDT

The 2015 Retirement Confidence Survey from the Employee Benefit Research Institute is out, and it shows the usual: hardly anyone thinks that Social Security benefits will remain stable in the future. They expect cuts, cuts, and more cuts.

This may be part of the explanation for the two charts on the right. If you ask current workers, only a third think that Social Security will be a major source of retirement income. But if you ask current retirees for a reality check, two-thirds report that Social Security is a major source of their retirement income.

Why the big difference? If workers think Social Security benefits are likely to be cut, that's probably a part of the explanation. But a bigger part is almost certainly just invincible optimism. Current workers are sure they're going to save enough, or get a big enough return on their 401(k), or get a big enough inheritance, or something—and this will see them through their retirement. Social Security? It'll just be a little bit of extra pin money for fun and games.

But in reality, that's not how it works. For most people, it turns out they don't save nearly as much as they think, which in turn means that their little Social Security check is what keeps them solvent. If more people understood this, public acceptance of conservative plans to cut Social Security benefits would probably be a lot lower.

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Conservatives Attack Carly Fiorina for Being Pro-Islam

And just wait until they find out Fiorina found comfort in Muslim prayers.

| Mon Aug. 17, 2015 1:12 PM EDT

Carly Fiorina has had the wind at her back after the first Republican presidential debate. The former Hewlett-Packard CEO earned high marks for her appearance at the "kids table" forum for the least-popular GOP candidates, and she has been rising in the polls ever since. So it was only a matter of time before the knives came out.

On Sunday evening, former Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who herself was doing well in the GOP presidential polls this time four years ago, drew her followers' attention to a 14-year-old speech Fiorina had given in Minneapolis, in which she defended the cultural, legal, and scientific heritage of the Muslim world. The catch: It was delivered just weeks after 9/11. What nerve!

Fiorina's speech reads as a thoughtful defense of the faith of many of her employees at Hewlett Packard. Her respect for Islam seems to come from personal experience. In her 2006 book, Tough Choices, she described the soothing effect of listening to Muslim prayers when she was a teen and her family lived in Ghana. (Her father was a law professor then on a teaching sabbatical at the University of Ghana). She wrote:

I remember hearing, for the first time, Muslims pray, and how over time their sound evolved from being frightening in its strangeness to comforting in its cadence and repetition—I would feel the same peace when I listened to the sound of summer cicadas around my grandmother's house. I grew to love being awakened in the morning by the sound of the devout man who always came to pray under my bedroom window.

Uh-oh. That reminiscence may well provide Bachmann with more ammo. And it's not just Bachmann who has called out Fiorina for being soft on Islam. Fiorina's comments on Islamic civilization have also been criticized by fringe-right outlets like the American Thinker and Western Journalism Review.

Islam has once again become a wedge issue in the Republican primary. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, for instance, has called for a ban on certain kinds of Muslim immigrants. Fiorina, who tried (and failed) to ride the GOP tea party wave into the Senate in 2010 by fashioning herself as a stalwart conservative—is now the target of the extremists she once courted.

Happy Families: Let's Just Call It a Tie Between Democrats and Republicans

| Mon Aug. 17, 2015 12:41 PM EDT

Who's got happier families, Democrats or Republicans? David Leonhardt reports on a new study that says it's Republicans:

Among married people between the ages of 20 and 60, 67 percent of Republicans report being “very happy” with their marriages....That gap shrank when the researchers factored in demographic differences between parties....But the gap did not disappear. Even among people with the same demographic profile, Republicans are slightly more likely than Democrats to say they are happily married. The seven-percentage-point gap that exists between Republicans and Democrats without any demographic controls shrinks to three percentage points with those controls.

OK, so three percentage points. And since this study was done by Brad Wilcox of the right-wing Institute for Family Studies, you have to figure it's as friendly toward Republicans as possible. But even Wilcox admits that causality might work in the opposite direction:

The GSS data and our earlier research suggest that an elective affinity—based on region, religion, culture, and economics—has emerged in the American electorate: married people are more likely to identify as Republican and unmarried people are more likely to identify as Democratic.

Sure. The Democratic Party is obviously more friendly toward non-married couples and the Republican Party is more dedicated to the proposition that (heterosexual) marriage is important. So the survey difference could be due to the fact that Republicans are simply less likely to admit to an unhappy marriage. As Wilcox says, "Perhaps Republicans are more optimistic, more charitable, or more inclined to look at their marriages through rose-colored glasses."

Personally, I'd be happy to put this whole subject to rest. The differences are small no matter how you slice the data, and really, who cares? Republicans generally report higher happiness levels overall, which is understandable at one level (conservatism doesn't challenge your comfort level much) but peculiar at another (if they're so happy, what's the deal with the endless anger and outrage?). But whatever the reason, if they're generally happier they're probably also happier with their marriages.

As for generally dysfunctional family behavior (teen pregnancy, divorce rates, etc.), I suspect that has a lot more to do with social factors like race, age, religion, and so forth. Party ID doesn't seem likely to play a huge role as a causal factor. Unless someone comes up with some genuinely blockbuster results, I'm willing to just call this a tie and move on.

What Happens When a Small City Raises Its Minimum Wage?

| Mon Aug. 17, 2015 11:36 AM EDT

When a big city raises its minimum wage to $15 per hour, local companies probably won't lose too much business. A few will lose business to online companies, and a few on the border of the city will lose business to competitors right over the city line, but overall losses will probably be modest. It will be a few years until we know for sure, since most cities doing this aren't phasing in the full $15 rate until 2016 or later.

But what happens if a small city does this? Emeryville is a tiny place nestled in between Oakland and Berkeley that recently raised its minimum wage to $14.44, the highest in the country. Vic Gumper runs a pizza place there:

All workers now earn $15 to $25 an hour as part of an experimental business model that also did away with gratuities and raised prices, making meals at all five locations "sustainably served, really ... no tips necessary."

....Gumper has also earned kudos from patrons for his innovation, but some have recoiled from paying $30 or more for a pizza. He has seen a 25% drop in sales over the last few months and has had to eliminate lunch hours at some locations.

"The necessity of paying people a living wage in the Bay Area is clear, so it's hard to argue against it, and it's something I'm really proud to be able to try doing," he said. "At the same time, I'm terrified of going out of business after 18 years."

Obviously this wouldn't be a problem if the national minimum wage went up—though robots might be—but it's a problem in Emeryville even though its neighboring cities also have pretty high minimum wages.

I don't have any conclusions to offer here. This is just raw data. We'll be getting a lot more like this as additional cities join the $15 club and economists eagerly collect data to see what happens. In the meantime, anecdotes like this are all we have.

Carson, Cruz, Fiorina Are the Big Winners After the Debate

| Mon Aug. 17, 2015 11:05 AM EDT

It's taken a while, but we finally have a national poll taken following the Republican debate. Fox News conducted a poll starting on the Tuesday after the debate, so the results capture not just reaction to the debate, but reaction to the big Trump-Kelly feud over the weekend. The results, it turns out, aren't that different from some of the insta-polls: Ben Carson (!) is the big winner and Jeb Bush is the big loser. And Trump? He pretty much stayed where he was.

Carson and Carly Fiorina "won" the debate; Trump and Rand Paul lost it. But these numbers are for all registered voters. Among Republicans, about equal numbers thought Trump did the best or the worst, for a net score (best minus worst) of -1 percent. Surprisingly, independents were the most enthusiastic about his debate performance, giving him a net score of +4 percent.

Overall, nearly half of Republicans now support either Trump, Carson, or Cruz for president. Those are the three of the most extreme candidates running. For the moment, anyway, it appears that Republican voters are in no mood to support anyone even remotely in the mainstream.

John Oliver Calls Out Televangelists Who Exploit Religion to Make Millions

The "Last Week Tonight" host exposes the shady, tax-free industry.

| Mon Aug. 17, 2015 9:43 AM EDT

On Sunday, Last Week Tonight took on the shady world of televangelism, an industry that—unlike actual congregations doing real work to help others—is built on promises to "heal through faith" in exchange for hefty, tax-free donations. As John Oliver described, the business thrives on the premise that "wealth is a sign of God's favor and donations will result in wealth coming back to you."

The most vulnerable people are often targeted, while celebrity televangelists rake in millions.

To help expose the industry's fraudulent doings, the show conducted a seven-month correspondence with leading celebrity televangelist Robert Tilton that revealed a disturbing set of tactics he employed to convince people to send money his way. Oliver even established his own satirical church to show just how easy it can be to scam worshipers. Welcome to Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption.

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Your Meat-Eating Habit Is Killing More Than Just Cows

A new paper finds that meat production is a leading cause of mass extinction.

| Mon Aug. 17, 2015 6:15 AM EDT

The earth is in the middle of its sixth mass extinction, and die-offs are happening more quickly than ever before. In a little over a century, the world has said goodbye to more than 400 species—and many biologists believe this is just the beginning. Scientists predict that in the next 35 years, as many as 37 percent of the world's species could go extinct, if current trends continue.

While we know that climate change is a major culprit in the loss of biodiversity, some researchers now believe burgers might also be to blame. In a new report, a team from Florida International University cited the land degradation, pollution, and deforestation caused by rising global demand for meat as "likely the leading cause of modern species extinctions," and the problem is only expected to get worse.

The world's most biodiverse areas are also the places where meat production is most likely to increase in the coming years.

"It's a colossally important paper," Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at Bard College in Annandale-On-Hudson, New York, who studies how human diets affect the environment, told Science Magazine:

Researchers have struggled to determine the full impacts of meat consumption on biodiversity, Eshel says. "Now we can say, only slightly fancifully: You eat a steak, you kill a lemur in Madagascar. You eat a chicken, you kill an Amazonian parrot."

Meat consumption has increased globally by 24 percent since the 1960s, mostly fueled by high demand from wealthy countries like the United States. Each year the number of livestock—specifically cattle, sheep, goats, and buffalo—increases by 25 million, requiring more space for both housing and feed production. Cattle, which require vast amounts of feed and produce the potent greenhouse gas methane, are expected to grow in number by more than 1 billion by 2050.

The world's "biodiveristy hotspots," areas biologists have identified where many species flourish, have already been reduced by nearly 90 percent in size and are now restricted to only 2 percent of the Earth's land surface. What's worse is that these biodiverse areas are the places where meat production is most likely to increase in the coming years. Researchers have predicted an additional loss of as much as 50 percent of land to livestock production.

Though Americans are already eating less meat than they used to, the researchers emphasized the continued need to cut back, especially because of how much meat ends up going to waste: Thirty percent of food—or $48 billion worth—is wasted in the United States each year, pushing up demand for meat production. "To support a future with lower animal product food demands," they write, "would drastically reduce habitat and biodiversity loss, fossil fuel energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, and pollution, while providing highly nutritious diets that greatly improve human health."

Here's How to Talk Like Donald Trump

| Sun Aug. 16, 2015 3:03 PM EDT

Back in 1996, Newt Gingrich wrote a memo that explained how to talk like Newt Gingrich. "That takes years of practice," he conceded up front, but he revealed that you could come close just by studying a list of his favorite words. Unfortunately, that was two decades ago and Gingrich is now a has-been. So what if you want to speak like Donald Trump? Well, that takes years of practice too. Still, you can come close just by studying a list of his go-to talking points.

So here's the list. Study it. And remember: it doesn't really matter what question you're asked. Whatever it is, just say a few words and then switch to any of these topics at random. There's no need to be subtle, either. Just switch gears. And don't worry if you've already said it. Just say it again. Telling people you're leading in the polls never gets old!

  1. Our national debt is $19 trillion. We're going to be Greece on steroids! I want to get rid of this deficit.
  2. I'd send Carl Icahn to China. He's a great negotiator.
  3. I'll build a huge wall, the greatest wall ever, and Mexico will pay for it.
  4. The Mexicans/Chinese/South Koreans are killing us. They're taking away all our jobs. Our leaders are so stupid.
  5. I get along very well with Mexicans/Chinese/Putin/foreign leaders.
  6. I'm leading in all the polls. All of them.
  7. I cherish women. I have such respect for women.
  8. We have to kick the hell out of ISIS and take all their oil.
  9. Iran is getting $150 billion. That's ridiculous. Also: 24 days is ridiculous too.
  10. I want a simpler tax plan. I want to make it great for the middle class.
  11. Saudi Arabia makes a billion dollars a day.
  12. We have to treat our vets better.
  13. I would be so tough. You wouldn't believe how tough I would be.
  14. I give money to everyone. And then they owe me favors. All the politicians are like that. It's a totally corrupt system.
  15. We don't have time for political correctness.

Here's an example: What do you think about Planned Parenthood?

Well, I hate abortion. And....you know, I cherish women. I have such respect for women. But if you really want to see poor treatment of women, just go to Iraq. They're beheading women! We have to kick the hell out of ISIS and take all their oil. It's the only way. You know, Saudi Arabia makes a billion dollars a day. They should be helping us fight ISIS. We can't afford to do it by ourselves. Our national debt is $19 trillion. We're going to be Greece on steroids! I want to get rid of this deficit.

The sad thing is that this isn't really a joke. It looks like one, I know. But if you read actual Trump answers to actual Trump questions, this is pretty much what they're like.

In any case, this is not an exhaustive list. And if you can't find something you think you can use, don't panic. Just attack. It doesn't really matter who. Megyn Kelly, Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Barack Obama, whatever. The more outrageous the better. Alternatively, do just the opposite: say that you love the people/organization in question and will support them totally. You'll be great to them!

Now you can talk like Donald Trump. You're welcome.

Maryland Official: Lead Poisoning Is the Royal Road to Riches

| Sun Aug. 16, 2015 12:25 PM EDT

Technically this has nothing to do with lead and crime, but since I'm Mother Jones' senior lead correspondent it's up to me to put up this outlandish little item from Maryland:

Gov. Larry Hogan's top housing official said Friday that he wants to look at loosening state lead paint poisoning laws, saying they could motivate a mother to deliberately poison her child to obtain free housing.

Kenneth C. Holt, secretary of Housing, Community and Development, told an audience at the Maryland Association of Counties summer convention here that a mother could just put a lead fishing weight in her child's mouth, then take the child in for testing and a landlord would be liable for providing the child with housing until the age of 18.

Pressed afterward, Holt said he had no evidence of this happening but said a developer had told him it was possible. "This is an anecdotal story that was described to me as something that could possibly happen," Holt said.

I'm pretty sure this wouldn't actually work, but that hardly matters. It's just another example of the peculiar Republican penchant for governance via anecdote. They're all convinced that someone, somewhere, is trying to rip them off, but they can never find quite enough real examples of this. So instead we get Reaganesque fables about stuff they heard from some guy who heard it from some other guy who said, you know, it could happen.

By the way, if you're tempted to do this, please don't. Licking a lead fishing weight once probably won't actually cause a detectable rise in blood lead levels, but it's still a really bad idea.

Donald Trump Still Unclear About His Own Talking Points

| Sun Aug. 16, 2015 12:12 PM EDT

Donald Trump gets serious!

RADDATZ: Let me ask you a serious foreign policy question. What would you do about ISIS using chemical weapons?

TRUMP: I think it's disgraceful that they're allowed and you can't allow it to happen and you have to go in and just wipe the hell out of them.

RADDATZ: What do you do? Do you go in with ground troops?

TRUMP: What did you say? Say that again.

Ah, the old "I can't hear you over the crowd noise" routine. I see that Trump is picking up political pointers from the pros already. He's a quick learner.

Over on NBC, he has his usual addled conversation with Chuck Todd, but I see that he hasn't been getting pointers from his policy advisors:

DONALD TRUMP: No, not at all. Look, we are a debtor nation. We owe, I mean, now it's 1.9 trillion, okay? I've been saying 1.8. Now, it's 1 point — it’s really kicked in. It's soon going to be 2.4 trillion dollars, okay? That’s like a point, whether you believe in the great economists or not, that seems to be a point of no return. That's where we're Greece on steroids, okay?

This is one of the dozen or so talking points that Trump uses as his random answer to whatever happens to have been asked, and yet he still doesn't actually understand it. The number he's trying to pull from his brain is 19 trillion, not 1.9 trillion. Since Trump is obviously good with figures and would never misstate, say, the buying price of a property, it's hard to avoid the obvious conclusion that he doesn't really have the slightest idea about—or interest in—the size of the national debt and what it means. It's just a good applause line.