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Craft Beer Uses 4 Times As Much Barley As Corporate Brew

| Tue Jan. 20, 2015 6:00 AM EST

For decades, US beer lovers have denounced corporate-made brew as watered-down swill. Just how diluted is the product peddled by the two enormous dinosaurs that dodder over the US beer market, InBev (maker of Bud) and MillerCoors? In a delicious new report, the US Department of Agriculture has numbers.

Most beers, industrial or craft, get their substance—what experts call body, or mouth feel, as well as any sweet and toasty flavors—from malted barley. (Malting is the process of germinating barley grains, which frees up their sugars for fermentation.) The USDA researchers crunched data on the US barley and beer markets, and found that craft brewers on average use four times more barley per barrel of beer than the giants do.

An environmental case for watered-down beer exists, but it's as weak and uninteresting as the resulting beer itself.

Which makes craft beer seem like a bit of a bargain. A six-pack of Miller Lite retails for about $5.50 in Texas, while typical craft beers go for about $10 per six—not even twice the price for four times the barley (and flavor). (Craft beers also tend to contain much more of the other main ingredient in beer, hops). In essence, Big Beer (like Big Almond) has hit upon a profitable strategy for reselling tap water at a high markup.

Now, one way to look at it is: Isn't watery beer easier on the environment? You know: Less barley embedded in each beer means less fertilizer for barley production, less pesticides, etc. That's really a version of an old industry saw—the solution to pollution is dilution. But there's no evidence that people consume fewer resources per beer-drinking session when they consume corporate beer than they do when they drink craft. Let's say Person A knocks back four easy-drinking Miller Lites and Person B is satisfied after two malty, substantial Dale's Pale Ales. The beer snob may have consumed more overall barley, but she has two fewer empties to show for her pleasure. In addition to less energy embedded in fabricating and recycling fewer cans or bottles, that also means less space in trucks, coolers, etc. An environmental case for watered-down beer exists, I guess, but it's as weak and uninteresting as the resulting beer itself.

At any rate, the report confirms a trend I've been writing about for a while (and enjoying even longer): Craft beer is undergoing a boom, even as corporate beer weathers a long, slow decline. Between 1993 and 2013, the researchers find, the amount of beer churned out by craft brewers expanded by a factor of nine, growing by an average rate of nearly 14 percent annually. Corporate swill? Output has dropped by an average of 0.6 percent annually over that period. Craft still accounts for only about 7.8 percent of beer produced the in the US—meaning there's plenty of room for additional growth.

The researchers conclude that the craft beer renaissance could boost domestic barley production—total US harvested barley acres peaked at about 11 million in in the 1980s and have since fallen well below 5 million acres. (For comparison, US farmers typically plant about 90 million acres of corn and 80 million acres of soybeans.) About a quarter of US barley is used as animal feed; the great bulk of the rest gets malted for beer. (Malted barley is also used for Scotch-style whiskey, which is made here only in small amounts—our native brown spirit, bourbon, is based mainly on corn.) Overall US malt demand has fallen since the early 1990s as Big Beer has shifted to lighter styles and seen demand for its products drop. But the craft renaissance has begun to offset and could eventually reverse the trend of falling malt demand, the USDA researchers conclude.

Currently, the malted barley industry is global in scope and dominated by a handful of companies (PDF), including Cargill. But alongside the craft-brew explosion, small, locally oriented malt houses are springing up nationwide, providing a link between brewers and nearby farmers. And that could be a good thing for the environment. If US farmers incorporated a "small grain" like barley into the dominant corn-soy rotation, it would break insect, disease, and weed cycles, drastically reducing reliance on toxic pesticides, a 2012 study conducted at Iowa State University found. I'd drink to that.

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Eric Holder Ends Horrible Civil Asset Forfeiture Program

| Mon Jan. 19, 2015 12:10 PM EST

I was getting better over the weekend, then yesterday I relapsed back into coughing fits. And today is a holiday anyway, so probably blogging will be light. But I hate to let this development from last Friday continue to go unremarked:

Attorney General Eric Holder on Friday announced sweeping changes to a federal civil asset forfeiture program that local law enforcement agencies have been able to use to seize property.

....Under new rules announced Friday, federal agencies will no longer be able to accept or "adopt" assets seized by local and state law enforcement agencies — unless the property includes firearms, ammunitions, explosives, child pornography or other materials concerning public safety. Holder described the new policy as the "first step in a comprehensive review."

This is a big deal. Civil asset forfeiture allows police departments to seize property—usually money and cars—from people they merely suspect of a crime. No conviction is necessary, and victims have no recourse unless they have the means to sue to recover their property. All by itself this has been a scandal for a long time, but the federal program Holder eliminated has been the biggest scandal of all. It's bad enough that civil asset forfeiture even exists as a legal doctrine, but it's beyond comprehension that the feds would actively encourage abuse of forfeiture laws by creating a program that allows police departments to keep most of the money they seize. This is practically an invitation to steal money from innocent people.

So good for Holder for ending this program. If cops are going to be allowed to seize property from people they merely suspect of crimes—or, in some cases, pretend to suspect of crimes, wink wink nudge nudge—they sure as hell shouldn't be allowed to keep the stuff and sell it in order to buy themselves a bunch of shiny new toys. The possibilities for abuse are obvious and have been well documented. We're well shut of this horrible program.

Ty Segall's new EP, "Mr. Face," Is a Tasty Treat

| Mon Jan. 19, 2015 6:00 AM EST

Ty Segall
Mr. Face
Famous Class

Ty Segall just can't stop making music—solo, in his band, or in collaboration with others; on singles, EPs and albums. He unleashes a flood of psychedelic garage rock with manic fervor, suggesting a condemned man desperate to be heard before his time runs out. If his prolific output sometimes cries out for an editor (especially when it comes to the songwriting) Segall's unfeigned, life-affirming enthusiasm is never less than irresistible. The physical version of the four-song Mr. Face EP is a pair of translucent red-and-blue seven-inch vinyl records billed as "the world's first playable pair of 3D glasses," but it's a tasty treat whether or not you dig novelty packaging. The jumpy title track is an acoustic rave-up that hints at a strong Violent Femmes influence. Elsewhere Segall is his usual exuberant self, plugged in and happy to blast. And coming next week: the Ty Segall Band's Live in San Francisco on the Castle Face label, a full-length set of feedback, heavy riffs, big beats and yowling vocals, guaranteed to cure the blahs with caffeinated pizzazz.

No, You Shouldn't Let Fears of a Scary Nervous System Disease Stop You From Getting a Flu Shot

| Mon Jan. 19, 2015 6:00 AM EST

Despite abundant evidence that flu vaccines are safe and effective, only about a third of Americans get the shots each season. Public health experts believe that one reason for the low immunization rates is misinformation about side effects of the vaccine. One is the belief that the vaccine can actually give you the flu (false); another is that it can cause autism in children (also false, as we've said many times).

"Your risk of GBS actually goes down when you get the vaccine because it prevents the flu."

Add that to the worry that it will cause a rare but serious nervous-system disorder called Guillain–Barré syndrome (GBS), an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the nervous system, resulting in muscle weakness, or even temporary paralysis. This fear is not completely unfounded—several studies, including a recent one by Italian researchers about the 2010-2011 vaccine—have found that getting a flu shot can indeed very slightly elevate one's risk of contracting the disease, by about one additional case per million people.

But here's where things get complicated: While it's true that the flu vaccine can raise your GBS risk, so can the flu itself. So which is more likely to lead to GBS: Getting the vaccine or getting the flu?

That's the question that Steven Hawken and Kumanan Wilson, epidemiologists from The Ottawa Hospital, set out to answer. The researchers developed a calculator that took into account baseline GBS risk (overall, it's about 10 in a million, though it varies with age and sex—GBS affects more men than women and more elderly people than young adults and children), vaccine effectiveness, and overall incidence of flu. Their findings: For most people, in a flu season where the flu incidence is greater than 5 percent and the vaccine is more than 60 percent effective, says Wilson, "your risk of GBS actually goes down when you get the vaccine because it prevents the flu."

That's good news in most years, when the flu vaccine is well over 60 percent effective. Here's the problem: This year's flu vaccine is only about 23 percent effective. Still, according to Wilson, while this year's total flu incidence isn't yet known, it appears to be greater than that of an average year—much higher than 5 percent. That means that even with the reduced effectiveness of the vaccine, the overall GBS risk is likely still greater for people who contract the flu than for those who get immunized, says Wilson.

What's more, he adds, it's important to keep in mind that the risk of serious complications from the flu outweighs that of acquiring GBS. Last year, according to the CDC, 9,635 people were hospitalized with the flu in the United States. According to the CDC there are between 3,000-6,000 cases of GBS annually (though no hospitalization data is available). Most of those cases aren't caused by flu vaccines or the flu itself; the most common cause of GBS is infection with the bacterium Campylobacter jejeuni, usually the result of eating contaminated food.

The takeaway: The GBS risk from the flu itself is most likely greater than that of the vaccine. And while GBS can be a scary disease, it's much less common than scary complications FROM the flu.

"Baby Turtle Eating Strawberry" Is the Most Adorable Thing I Have Ever Seen

| Sun Jan. 18, 2015 3:02 PM EST

I don't know if this is real. I don't know the context. I saw it on Twitter and it appears to be from some fly-by-night viral Vine account. So full disclosure, that could very well be an ambitious USC undergraduate in a turtle costume. Maybe that strawberry was created by Industrial Light & Magic. Having said that, I don't care. This is so adorable. I've never seen anything this adorable. And I've seen adorable things! I've seen bunnies hold hands and beagles wrestle. This baby turtle puts them all to shame. It makes the porcupine eating a pumpkin video look like Unforgiven. Unforgiven is not adorable! It's a blood soaked black hole from which cuteness cannot escape. That is how adorable this vine is.

 

 

via Lauren Evans.

Did Market Monetarist Predictions Trounce Everyone Else During the Great Recession?

| Sun Jan. 18, 2015 11:57 AM EST

Via James Pethokoukis, Scott Sumner claims that Market Monetarists got things right during the aftermath of the Great Recession when others didn't:

It must be a major embarrassment to the profession that us lowly MMs turned out to be more correct during the crisis than any other major group (New Keynesians, New Classical, RBC-types, etc.) and indeed more accurate than other groups on the fringes (old Keynesians, old monetarists, Austrians, MMTers, etc.):

1. It’s now obvious that Fed, ECB, and BOJ policy was far too tight in late 2008 and early 2009, but MMs were just about the only people saying so at the time.

2. We correctly pointed out that fiscal austerity in 2013 would not slow growth in the US because of monetary offset, whereas in a poll of 50 elite economists by the University of Chicago, all but one gave answers implying it would slow growth.

3. We pointed out that massive QE would not lead to high inflation, while many other economists on the right said it would.

4. We correctly predicted that the BOJ and Swiss National Bank could depreciate their currency at the zero bound, while many on the left said monetary policy was pushing on a string at the zero bound.

5. We pointed out that the ECB’s tightening of policy in 2011 was a huge mistake, which now almost everyone recognizes.

I'm a little puzzled by this. Unless I'm misremembering badly, prominent lefty economists like Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong have been saying most of these things all along. And while I'm not really quite sure if these guys think of themselves as New Keynesians or Neo-Paleo Keynesians or modified Old Keynesians or what, they're basically Keynesians.

The only one of Sumner's five points where there's disagreement, I think, is #2, and I'd argue that this is a very difficult point to prove one way or the other. My own read of the evidence is that the modest austerity of 2013 might very well have had a modest effect on growth, but frankly, a single year of data is all but impossible to draw any firm conclusions from. However, it's certainly true that there were no huge changes in the trend growth rate.

As for the others, the Keynesian types argued strongly that (a) conventional Taylor Rule calculations called for much looser Fed policy in 2008-09, (b) QE would not lead to inflation in the face of a huge demand shortfall and continued deleveraging, (c) monetary policy in countries with their own currency still had traction, but fiscal policy had a powerful role too at the ZLB, and (d) the ECB's tight monetary policy in 2011 was nothing short of a cataclysmic disaster.

I'm sympathetic to the market monetarist advocacy of NGDP level targeting, but then again, so are folks like Krugman and DeLong. So in a way, it's sometimes unclear to me exactly how far they diverge in practice, even if they subscribe to different theoretical fundamentals. My own tentativeness about NGDPLT is mostly practical: it's not clear to me that central banks can even target inflation as powerfully as many people think, let alone NGDP levels. Part of the reason is that I simply have less faith in the expectations channel than many NGDPLT advocates. It seems like something that will work fine until markets test it to find out if the Fed really has the independent power to set NGDP levels anywhere it wants even in the face of investor panic, and then suddenly it won't work anymore and the Fed's aura of invincibility will be broken. And that will be that. But that may simply reflect a lack of understanding my part. Or perhaps just a lack of faith.

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Half of All Public School Kids in Poverty? Be Careful.

| Sat Jan. 17, 2015 12:55 PM EST

What's up with the copy desk at the Washington Post? Here's a new story about our public schools:

Majority of U.S. public school students are in poverty

By Lyndsey Layton

For the first time in at least 50 years, a majority of U.S. public school students come from low-income families, according to a new analysis of 2013 federal data, a statistic that has profound implications for the nation.

The Southern Education Foundation reports that 51 percent of students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade in the 2012-2013 school year were eligible for the federal program that provides free and reduced-price lunches. The lunch program is a rough proxy for poverty, but the explosion in the number of needy children in the nation’s public classrooms is a recent phenomenon that has been gaining attention among educators, public officials and researchers.

The headline is wrong, even though Layton gets the facts pretty much right: 51 percent of kids are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, which are available only to low-income families. That's an important story. But participation in the federal lunch program is, as she notes, only a rough proxy for poverty: you qualify if you have a family income less than 185 percent of the poverty line. For a family of four this comes to about $44,000, which certainly qualifies as working class or lower middle class, but not poverty stricken.

But it's more complicated than that! The 51 percent number is attention grabbing because it's a majority, but perhaps the more important number is that 44 percent qualify for free lunches. For a family of four, that's $31,000, just barely over the poverty line. If you got rid of the word "majority," it would be safe to use the phrase "near poverty." And frankly, I wouldn't be bothered much if you just called it poverty, even if that's not quite the official federal government definition.

But wait! It's even more complicated than that—and this part is important. On the one hand, lots of poor kids, especially in the upper grades, don't participate in school lunch programs even though they qualify. They just don't want to eat in the cafeteria. So there's always been a bit of undercounting of those eligible. On the other hand, a new program called the Community Eligibility Provision, enacted a couple of years ago, allows certain school districts to offer free meals to everyone without any proof of income. Currently, more than 2,000 school districts enrolling 6 million students are eligible, and the number is growing quickly. For example, every single child in the Milwaukee Public School system is eligible. Overall, then, although the official numbers have long undercounted some kids, CEP means they now increasingly overcount others. Put this together, and participation in the school lunch program becomes an even rougher proxy for poverty than it used to be—and any recent "explosion" in the student lunch numbers needs to be taken with a serious grain of salt. This is especially true since overall child poverty hasn't really changed much over the past three decades, and if you use measures that include safety net programs it's actually gone down modestly since the end of the Reagan era.

This is, perhaps, a bit too much nitpicking. Unfortunately, we're forced to use school lunch data as a proxy for poverty among school kids because we don't really have anything better. What's more, child poverty increased during the Great Recession and God knows that I'm all in favor of calling attention to it. In a country of our wealth it's a national scandal by any measure, and a massive problem that infects practically every aspect of education policy.

Still, it's a subject that can't easily be reduced to a single school lunch number. Both headlines and copy should do their best to treat the subject accurately.

Tom's Kitchen: Pasta Fagioli With Winter Vegetables and Bacon

| Sat Jan. 17, 2015 6:00 AM EST

Pasta makes a great showcase for a season's bounty—and not just in spring, despite the famed dish spaghetti primavera. I recently found myself in possession of some excellent butternut squash and collard greens from Austin's Boggy Creek Farm, as well as gorgeous bacon from the throwback butcher shop Salt and Time. So, sweet (squash), pungent (collards), smoky/umami (bacon): elements of a great dish. To round it out, I decided to add white beans to the mix, using a method I recently picked up from the Los Angeles Times' Russ Parsons: Without any soaking, you cook the beans in a covered pot in an oven heated to 350 degrees F. Within two hours, I had perfectly tender, flavorful beans to bolster my pasta. (You can also just open a can, of course.) Grate a little Parmesan cheese and open a bottle of sturdy red wine, and you've got a dinner satisfying enough to overwhelm the winter blues.

Vegetarians can forgo the bacon and cook the collard greens in olive oil along with a rehydrated and chopped-up chipotle pepper, maintaining the smoke while adding a blast of heat.

Pasta Fagioli With Winter Vegetables and Bacon

1 large or two small butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces (a tricky task, but easily accomplished with a sharp knife and proper technique, laid out here)
Some extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
4 or 5 slices of bacon, preferably from pastured hogs, cut into half-inch chunks
3-4 cloves of garlic, smashed, peeled, and minced
1 large bunch of collard greens, stemmed and chopped
1 pound of pasta (I used Bionaturae whole wheat spaghetti)
1 1/12 cups cooked white beans (Russ Parsons' no-soak method here; you can also substitute 1 can of beans)
Plenty of fresh-ground black pepper
1 bunch parsley, chopped, and crushed chili flakes, to garnish
A chunk of Parmesan or other hard cheese, for grating.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Dump the squash cubes onto a baking sheet and give them a few glugs of olive oil, a good pinch of salt, and a lashing of black pepper. Using your hands, toss them to coat them evenly with oil, and then arrange the cubes in a single layer. Bake them, turning once or twice, until they are tender and beginning to brown, about 40 minutes or so.

Meanwhile, put a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat and add the bacon. Cook it, stirring often, until it is brown and crisp. Remove the bacon from the skillet with a slotted soon, setting it aside. With the bacon fat still in the skillet, add the garlic. Cook it for a few seconds, stirring often, and add the chopped collards. Using a spatula or tongs, toss them well, coating them with fat and garlic. Add a pinch of salt and a dash of water. Turn heat low and cover the skillet, and let the collards cook, stirring occasionally, until they are tender.

When the squash and collards are both well underway, cook the pasta using the low-water method. Reserve about a cup of the cooking liquid before draining the pasta.

In a large bowl, combine the squash, collard greens, beans, and the cup of pasta cooking liquid. Dump the hot pasta over, and gently combine everything using a tongs or two big spoons. Add the parsley, a pinch of chili flakes, and several grinds of pepper, and taste for salt, correcting if necessary. Pass the Parmesan and a grater at the table.

Friday Cat Blogging - 16 January 2015

| Fri Jan. 16, 2015 2:56 PM EST

Looky here: it's Hilbert plus the entire Drum clan. On the far left, that's me and my sister circa 1963 (my brother is there too, but Hilbert is hiding him.) Aren't we cute? In the middle are my parents, and on the right are Marian's folks. And I'm sure no one needs any help recognizing the youthful, bright-eyed newlyweds in the center.

In other cat news, my sister draws our attention to the fact that cats can save lives too. Here's the report from Russia: "An abandoned newborn baby was saved from freezing to death by the unlikeliest of hero — a stray cat. The tabby named Marsha climbed into the box the infant had been dumped in and kept the child warm for several hours as the mercury plunged below zero." Hooray for cats!

This Year's Flu Vaccine Was 23 Percent Effective

| Fri Jan. 16, 2015 2:41 PM EST

The LA Times passes along the news that this year's flu vaccine gives you a 23 percent lower chance of contracting the flu:

That 23% figure is a measure known as “vaccine effectiveness,” and it’s certainly on the low end of the spectrum. In the decade since experts began calculating a “VE” for flu vaccines, it has ranged from a low of 10% to a high of 60%.

....But the vaccine didn’t help everyone equally. Kids benefited the most — the VE for those between the ages of 6 months and 17 years was 26%. Among adults, the VE was 12% for people ages 18 to 49 and 14% for people 50 and older. The figures for adults were too small to be statistically significant.

Just my luck. This year was the first time I ever got a flu shot, and all I got out of it was a 14 percent lower chance of getting the flu. And my arm was sore for days afterward! Hmmph.