Books: Fact-check, Mate

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 4:37 PM EST

Joel Best's Stat-Spotting: A Field Guide to Identifying Dubious Data, belongs on the nightstand of anyone who regularly encounters statistics—which is to say, everyone. In my line of work as a fact-checker, the book's case studies are even more of a must-read.

Take, for example, this health statistic, repeated on a number of websites: Each year, 20,000 people die from taking aspirin.

Advertise on

Habeas at Bagram

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 3:42 PM EST
Should prisoners held at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan have the right to file habeas corpus suits challenging their imprisonment?  Both the Bush and Obama administrations say no.  Hilzoy has a good post exploring the issues:

On the one hand, had anyone asked me in, say, 1991 whether Iraqi prisoners whom we were holding in Kuwait were entitled to file habeas petitions in US court, I would have said: of course not. They are entitled to lots of things, many of them detailed in the Geneva Conventions. But it would have seemed bizarre to me to suggest that they were entitled to habeas rights.

I still feel this way about those detainees at Bagram who were captured on or near an actual battlefield. To say that I do not think they are entitled to habeas rights is not to say that I do not think they are entitled to anything. Afghanistan is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions. Its soldiers are entitled to the rights of prisoners of war. Any civilians we capture are likewise entitled to those rights until "a competent tribunal" determines that they are not prisoners of war.

The problem is that not all the prisoners at Bagram were captured on a battlefield.  Some, like Amin Al Bakri, were abducted in Thailand and then flown to Bagram, and this makes it impossible to simply assume that everyone there is a POW:

It was neither me nor the federal courts that muddied the distinction between the jurisdictions of the federal and military courts, thereby making it impossible for the federal courts to simply defer to the military in these matters. It was the Bush administration. They were the ones who sent CIA agents all over the world kidnapping people, flew those people from places like Thailand into a war zone, and then turned around and said: heavens, you cannot scrutinize what we did — you'd be interfering with the conduct of the military in wartime!

Read the whole thing for a pretty good, nuanced discussion of the issues at hand.  This is a tough one to unwind.

New (Leaked) Music: Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz!

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 3:33 PM EST
It's BlitzHas everybody in America thrown out their guitars? When do we get to call this a trend? Okay, sure, a quick look at the iTunes Top 100 shows All-American Rejects and Jason Mraz still wielding the axes in the Top 20. But there's something New Wave-y in the air when even rapper Flo Rida hits #1 with a Dead or Alive cover and bisexual robo-pixie Lady Gaga is America's sweetheart. Into this synthtastic moment strut the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and while Nick Zinner's noisy, careening guitar work has always defined the band's sound, they're also respectably New Wave, with an appreciation for accessible, dramatic pop melodies, not to mention Karen O's colorful outfits. Over the last few years, they've even started offering up their hits for remixes, and Zinner himself has tried reworking the band's songs for the dance floor. It feels completely natural that they'd turn to drum machines and keyboards on It's Blitz!, and they still wring an organic, rich noise out of their gadgets.

The Mandate Returns

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 2:52 PM EST
During the primary campaign, one of the big disagreements between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton was about healthcare mandates.  Should a national healthcare plan require that everyone be covered one way or another, or should coverage be optional?  Clinton favored a mandate and Obama didn't, but Ezra Klein has been talking to some of the Obama folks involved in formulating the upcoming budget and says that things have changed:

The budget — and I was cautioned that the wording "is changing hourly" — will direct Congress to "aim for universality." That is a bolder goal than simple affordability, which can be achieved, at least in theory, through subsidies. Universality means everyone has coverage, not just the ability to access it. And that requires a mechanism to ensure that they have it.

Administration officials have been very clear on what the inclusion of "universality" is meant to communicate to Congress. As one senior member of the health team said to me, "it will cover everybody. And I don't see how you cover everybody without an individual mandate." That language almost precisely echoes what Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus told me in an interview last summer. "I don’t see how you can get meaningful universal coverage without a mandate," he said. That judgment was further emphasized last fall, when he released the first draft of his health care plan and built in an individual mandate.

This strikes me as a concession to reality on Obama's part — both political reality and policy reality.  It's also good news.  Regardless of the details, I think it's important to commit to the principle of universality in a concrete way, and an individual mandate is one way to do that.  It's not the way I'd do it, but at least once the principle is in place it makes it a lot easier to argue productively over the details.  So two cheers for the mandate.  It's a pragmatic and welcome shift.

Cui Bono?

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 2:24 PM EST
Bond king Bill Gross thinks it would be a bad idea to nationalize banks and force bond owners to take a haircut.  This would "create an instability policymakers should not want to risk," he says, and might undermine other financial sectors such as insurance companies and credit unions.  Megan McArdle is unimpressed:

The problem is that seeing as he's a gigantic manager of bond funds, this is also the policy that will make Bill Gross best off.

This is, writ large, the problem faced by Geithner and Bernanke:  the people who know the most are those with the most to lose or gain by their actions.  If they do not talk to the experts, they will do something incredibly stupid through not having thought through the possible consequences.  If they do talk to the experts, their ears will be filled with advice that is both plausible and self-serving.

....I am concerned about the sudden consensus about nationalization — I haven't yet seen a good reason to believe that a tiny bank in a tiny nation like Sweden presents a good model for tackling the problems of the largest financial services company in the world.  But the fact that Bill Gross is worried about bondholders taking a loss makes me more inclined to favor the notion.  It's perverse, I know.

Nationalization should be a last resort.  And there's no question that nationalizing a multinational giant like Citigroup is a far more complex undertaking than nationalizing Nordbanken.  On the other hand, there's just no way that taxpayers can be expected to continue shoveling capital into big banks in return for tiny minority shares.  In the case of Citigroup, for example, the government has so far handed over $45 billion to a company that could be purchased lock, stock and barrel for only $10 billion.  There's just no way that taxpayers are going to keep putting up with that, and they shouldn't.

In any case, it's also possible to overstate the difficulty of nationalizing a big money center bank, I think.  It's not as if we'd fire the entire staff, after all.  What would happen in reality is that the board of directors would be dissolved, some of the senior staff would be replaced, shareholders and bondholders would take a hit, and the bank would continue running as normal except with a stronger capital base and government guarantees behind it.  Then, in a few years, it would be refloated and put back in private hands.

It would be nice if it doesn't come to that.  But there's a pretty good chance that it will.  Not because anyone wants it to, but because, eventually, it will probably be the least bad option left for the weakest of the banks.

Take It Or Leave It

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 1:59 PM EST
Chuck Schumer says that grandstanding governors who hope to score political points by turning down some minuscule proportion of the stimulus money earmarked for their state have another thing coming:

No language in this provision [] permits the governor to selectively adopt some components of the bill while rejecting others. To allow such picking and choosing would, in effect, empower the governors with a line-item veto authority that President Obama himself did not possess at the time he signed the legislation.

Take that, Bobby Jindal!  Or, rather, thanks, Chuck Schumer!  After all, if Schumer is right, it means that guys like Jindal are off the hook.  "I tried to be fiscally responsible, folks, I really did, but the Democrats didn't give me any choice."  Long sigh.  "So I guess I'll have to take all their money after all."  Even longer sigh.

But I guess that's OK.  A bit of Republican theatrics won't hurt us, and at least this means that Louisianans will get the unemployment benefits that Jindal tried to deny them.  Which is not only good for them, but good for the economy too, as even commie pinko Fed chairman Ben Bernanke recognizes:

BERNANKE: If unemployment benefits are not distributed to the unemployed, then they won't spend them and it won't have that particular element of stimulus.

SEN. JACK REED (D-RI): So if this was done on a wide basis, it would be counterproductive, not productive?

BERNANKE: It would reduce the stimulus effect of the package, yes.

If you have some principled objection to the idea that fiscal stimulus works, then fine.  But if you don't, there's no reason to object to extended unemployment benefits.  In terms of bang for the buck, it's probably one of the best uses of stimulus funds in the entire package.

Advertise on

Growing Your Own

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 1:32 PM EST
Mark Kleiman repeats his longtime favorite proposal for decriminalizing pot:

Substantively, I'm not a big fan of legalization on the alcohol model; a legal pot industry, like the legal booze and gambling industries, would depend for the bulk of its sales on excessive use, which would provide a strong incentive for the marketing effort to aim at creating and maintaining addiction....So I continue to favor a "grow your own" policy, under which it would be legal to grow, possess, and use cannabis and to give it away, but illegal to sell it. Of course there would be sales, and law enforcement agencies would properly mostly ignore those sales. But there wouldn't be billboards.

I get his point: decriminalizing marijuana is one thing, but do we really want the Philip Morris marketing machine working overtime to produce endless PR campaigns allegedly aimed at adults but in reality doing nothing of the kind?  Probably not.

But I wonder if there's some middle ground here?  I'm always dubious of proposals that rely on law enforcement to "mostly ignore" technical violations of a law, since that's an open invitation for them to abuse their discretion.  So I'd prefer to legalize commercial operations. But practically speaking, is there some way to open up commercial cannabis sales but limit their operations to a fairly small size?  It seems like there ought to be, and it would certainly be a boon to those of us without green thumbs.  Ideas?

UPDATE: Another objection here.

Climate Tipping Point Coming Faster Than IPCC Thought

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 1:18 PM EST
Two reports released recently—one from the UN's Environmental Programme and the other by the World Bank—warn that dramatic, irreversible climate shifts are coming faster than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) anticipated. In the IPCC's last report, published in 2007, it expected that global sea levels could rise up to two feet: the UN document says it may be more like six feet. More disturbingly, it says that "we may have already passed tipping points that are irreversible within the time span of our current civilization."

Although we've covered tipping points in previous issues of Mother Jones, it's still disturbing to hear the UN say they may have already been tipped, and not in our favor. For those who are interested, the World Bank report goes into further detail about tipping points as seen in the Andes, coral reefs, Gulf of Mexico wetlands, and Amazonian forests that may or may not be too far gone to do anything about.

Yes, It's True: GMOs Contaminate Mexican Corn

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 1:16 PM EST
Ignacio ChapelaIn April 2002, I sat in the office of UC Berkeley environmental science professor Ignacio Chapela as an ancient telephone chortled incessantly with calls from scientists and journalists curious about his latest study, a paper published in Nature showing how genes from GM corn entered local varieties of the plant in Mexico, where GM crops are banned. Samples of the corn sat in vials on his desk. An international controversy had erupted over the experiment, and earlier that month the prestigious journal published an unprecedented near-retraction. “Nature has concluded that the evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper,” said a terse editorial note. Chapela admitted to making a few interpretative mistakes, but stood by his findings even when a study by a different team of researchers in 2005 was unable to replicate his results. His findings were finally corroborated this week by scientists from Mexico, the United States, and the Netherlands who looked at thousands of seed samples from hundreds of Mexican corn fields and found that around 1 percent of them had genes that had jumped from GM varieties. Even before this week, major detractors agreed with Chapela's main point. Corn disperses pollen easily, so one should expect that GM pollen carried by the wind has mated with local corn varieties in much of the world.

Although neither expensive--total cost $2000--nor surprising, Chapela’s study was attacked because it provoked ongoing feuds. Disagreements about what might happen when GM crops interbreed with their unaltered neighbors are now more than a decade old. Scientists still debate whether transgenics will diminish genetic diversity in local crop varieties, kill beneficial creatures, or reduce the ability of entire plant populations to survive.

Scientists already know that pollen from GM crops can kill beneficial insects. For example, the Bt gene in corn poisons pests like the European corn borer but could also inadvertently wipe out the valuable Typhlodromalus aripo. The T. aripo, as it is known, eats both corn pollen and the ignominious green mite, which wreaked havoc on Africa’s cassava crop in the 1980s and early 90s. The mite was accidentally introduced from South America and scientists combated it in 1993 by importing the T. aripo from Brazil. After it went to work eating mites, it immediately increased cassava yields by 35%. The addition of Bt pollen to that diet could be a boon to the mites and a disaster for T. aripo and farmers. “If it destabilized cassava,” says Andrew Paul Gutierrez, a Berkeley researcher who has done computer modeling on GM crops, “it could destroy the basic food staple for 220 million Africans in an area twice the size of the United States.”

Accepting such risks becomes even more difficult given that Bt is probably only a temporary solution to insect invasions. Last February, University of Arizona researcher Bruce Tabashnik documented the first case, in GM cotton, of insects developing a resistance to the Bt gene. “My own experience in the history of insect resistance is that they develop resistance to whatever control measure is used against them,” he told me in 2002. “I think it’s just a matter of time.”

The Home Mortgage Deduction

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 12:59 PM EST
The home mortgage deduction is regressive, pushes up housing prices, motivates people to buy bigger houses, and doesn't increase homeownership rates anyway.  So Ed Glaeser says we should get rid of it:

Now, I do understand that drastically reducing the cap on the mortgage interest rate now, in the midst of a housing crash, would be kicking the markets when they are down. Yet this crisis provides us with an opportunity to act that will be lost if we wait until housing prices rise again.

So here is my utterly quixotic proposal. Enact legislation now that will gradually decrease the cap on the mortgage principal for which homeowners can deduct interest payments by $100,000 a year over the next seven years until it hits $300,000.

Sure, fine by me.  The home mortgage deducation is a perfect example of a policy that might have made social sense at one time, but outlived its usefulness years ago and now continues a zombie-like existence as one of the third rails of American tax policy.  But why bother decreasing the cap?  Why not just decrease the amount of interest you can deduct from 100% to 95% to 90% and eventually to zero over 20 years, starting, say, in 2011?  And replace it each year with a proportionate increase in the standard deduction.  (Or maybe something else.  Ideas welcome.)

Or replace it with nothing at all, in the name of fiscal responsibility.  Not many votes in Congress for that, though, are there?