Kevin Drum

Bobby Jindal Is Running for President

| Wed Mar. 19, 2014 8:45 AM PDT

I guess it's the law: The modern way to announce that you've thrown your hat in the ring for the Republican presidential nomination has nothing to do with Facebook or Twitter or anything like that. You merely have to ratchet up your wingnut rhetoric to 11. That's how you let people know.

So I guess this means Bobby Jindal is officially running for president. Dylan Scott runs down his latest crackpottery here.

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Obama's Approval Rating Is Remarkably Steady No Matter What Happens

| Wed Mar. 19, 2014 7:55 AM PDT

Jonathan Bernstein writes today that President Obama's approval rating has pulled ahead of George Bush's approval rating at this point in his presidency. "This is not to say Obama is doing well," he warns. "Unless his recent improvement gathers steam, he’s going to be a drag on Democrats in November, though he won't be as big a drag as Bush was for his party in the 2006 midterms."

This prompted me to click the link and check out Obama's approval rating in the HuffPollster's polling average. This may not be a surprise to any of you, but I don't follow Obama's polls very closely and I was a bit startled by how consistent his ratings have been. The chart below shows Obama's average approval over the past four years. It hovers around 47 percent, and it hasn't moved more than four points above or below that in the entire time. Right now he's about three points below his long-term mean, and as usual, he's reverting to it after sinking a bit during his annus horribilis of 2013.

I don't really have a point to make here. I'm just surprised that his numbers have been so steady for so long, so I thought I'd share.

How Mismanagement of GMO Corn Created a Super Predator

| Tue Mar. 18, 2014 10:05 PM PDT

Are genetically modified foods safe? As near as I can tell, the scientific community—and no, not just the part of it paid by Monsanto—has been pretty unequivocal on this subject: you can eat GMO foods with no qualms. It's possible that further research will dispute this, or that long-term effects will show up eventually, but for now there's no serious evidence that GMO foods are unsafe to stuff down your gullet.

But that's not the end of the story. Even if GMO foods are safe to eat, there are a host of practices surrounding the use and marketing of GMO seeds and crops that are highly questionable. And those practices frequently fail to get the attention they deserve thanks to intense lobbying from corporate interests with billions of dollars at stake. Over at Wired, Brandon Keim provides an example of this dynamic at work. It's the story of Bt corn, which was engineered to be poisonous to corn rootworms, a pest that used to cause billions of dollars in damage to corn crops. For a while it worked great. But then, corn rootworms evolved a resistance to Bt corn, largely due to industry and farmer resistance to proper management:

Key to effective management, said the scientists, were refuges set aside and planted with non-Bt corn. Within these fields, rootworms would remain susceptible to the Bt toxin. By mating with any Bt-resistant worms that chanced to evolve in neighboring fields, they’d prevent resistance from building up in the gene pool.

But the scientists’ own recommendations — an advisory panel convened in 2002 by the EPA suggested that a full 50 percent of each corn farmer’s fields be devoted to these non-Bt refuges — were resisted by seed companies and eventually the EPA itself, which set voluntary refuge guidelines at between 5 and 20 percent. Many farmers didn’t even follow those recommendations.

....[Entomologist Elson Shields of Cornell University] also lamented the difficulty he and other academic scientists long experienced when trying to study Bt corn. Until 2010, after organized objections by entomologists at major agricultural universities forced seed companies to allow outside researchers to study Bt corn, the crop was largely off-limits. Had that not been the case, said Shields, resistance could have been detected even earlier, and perhaps stalled before it threatened to become such a problem.

“Once we had legal access, resistance was documented in a year,” Shields said. “We were seeing failures earlier but were not allowed to test for resistance.”

There’s a lesson to be learned for future crop traits, Shields said. Rootworm resistance was expected from the outset, but the Bt seed industry, seeking to maximize short-term profits, ignored outside scientists. The next pest-fighting trait “will fall under the same pressure,” said Shields, “and the insect will win. Always bet on the insect if there is not a smart deployment of the trait.”

Click the link for the full story.

Sorry, But Childhood Obesity Hasn't Budged in the Past Ten Years

| Tue Mar. 18, 2014 5:47 PM PDT

Remember that CDC study showing a dramatic drop in obesity among 2-5 year olds that I wrote about last month? I was skeptical that it was real, and today Sharon Begley of Reuters follows up. Her conclusion? The whole thing is almost certainly bogus:

The latest study is based a well-respected data set taken from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, or NHANES....The 2011-2012 version of the survey included 9,120 people; 871 of them were 2 to 5 years old...."In small samples like this, you are going to have chance fluctuations," said epidemiologist Geoffrey Kabat of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

....A study of preschoolers in the federal WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program, which provides food vouchers, nutrition classes and counseling to low-income families, found virtually no change in obesity rates...."We agree there is a slight downward trend in obesity among 2-to-5-year olds," said Shannon Whaley, a co-author of the WIC study. "But a 43 percent drop is absolutely not what we're seeing." The WIC study included more than 200,000 children

....Other studies also raise questions about the 40 percent claim. An earlier CDC study, reported in JAMA in December 2012, found that the prevalence of obesity among 2-to-4-year olds in low-income families fell to 14.9 percent in 2010 from 15.2 percent in 2003. That represents an improvement of less than 2 [percent].

....For obesity rates to drop, researchers reckon, young children have to eat differently and become more active. But research shows little sign of such changes among 2-to-5-year olds, casting more doubt on the 43 percent claim....In 2010 Whaley and her colleagues examined the effectiveness of WIC classes and counseling to encourage healthy eating and activities for women and children in the program. Their findings were discouraging: Television watching and consumption of sweet or salty snacks actually rose, while fruit and vegetable consumption fell — changes that could lead to weight gain. One positive was a rise in physical activity.

To recap: the CDC study was small and had large error bars; other, larger studies find only slight drops in obesity; and there's no indication of any behavioral changes that might have produced a dramatic weight loss. I'd add to that the fact that the CDC data showed no correlation between lower weight at ages 2-5 and lower weight a few years later at ages 6-11.

Bottom line: I hate to be such a buzzkill, but the CDC result seems highly likely to be nothing more than statistical noise. Childhood obesity has barely budged in the last decade.

Playing Political Games With Surgeon Generals Is Nothing New

| Tue Mar. 18, 2014 2:16 PM PDT

Vivek Murthy, President Obama's nominee as surgeon general, supports regulations on gun use. This has earned him fierce opposition from the NRA and seems likely to sink his nomination entirely. Paul Waldman comments:

In the calculations over whether Murthy could get confirmed, it’s notable that everyone assumes, almost certainly correctly, that every Republican in the Senate will, of course, vote against the nomination. George W. Bush appointed only one surgeon general, Richard Carmona. He was confirmed by a vote of 98 to 0. But those days are gone — what do you expect Republicans to do, examine a nominee’s qualifications and vote to confirm if he’d obviously do a fine job? Please. The default used to be that a president will get the nominees he chooses unless there’s something really egregious in their past or what they’re likely to do if confirmed, but when it comes to this president and this Congress, that has been turned upside down. Now the Republican position is that every nominee should be rejected, unless there’s some kind of a deal that allows them to get something in exchange.

I've made similar kinds of comments in the past, so I can't really object to seeing them repeated here. Still, it's worth remembering a little history. First: although President Obama's initial choice for surgeon general, Regina Benjamin, ran into some Republican opposition when her nomination came to the floor, she was confirmed unanimously within a few days, just like Richard Carmona, Bush's first surgeon general. Second: after Carmona's term expired, Bush's next nominee for surgeon general, James Holsinger, ran into a buzzsaw of Democratic opposition based on a paper he had written in 1991 which argued that "homosexuality isn't natural or healthy." When the Bush White House suggested it might install Holsinger via a recess appointment, Harry Reid kept the Senate in pro forma sessions to prevent it. Eventually Holsinger's nomination died.

There was more going on with Holsinger, including his refusal to answer written questions, but basically his nomination was killed because of his anti-gay views. He insisted that his 1991 paper no longer represented his current views, but it didn't matter.

So do Murthy's problems demonstrate the strength of the NRA? Sure. But Holsinger's problems demonstrated the strength of liberal LGBT views among Democrats. There's nothing very new going on here.

In fact, I half wonder if opposition to Murthy is partly payback for Democrats killing Holsinger's nomination. I'd be curious to hear about this from reporters who cover the conservative movement. Down in the bowels of email lists and Sarah Palin fan clubs, do tea partiers still hold a grudge over Holsinger's defeat? Or has that long since been forgotten?

Let Us Sing a Dirge for "Spit and Image"

| Tue Mar. 18, 2014 12:35 PM PDT

We got some quick work from the Times copy desk today: the blurb on the left lasted only a couple of minutes before someone rebelled and fixed it. This reminds me of a Slate column from a couple of years ago in which Juliet Lapidos tried bravely to defend her use of spit and image on the grounds that "it makes more sense to me," but that's hopeless. Idioms aren't supposed to make sense. (On the other hand, her plea to "make absolutely sure that you're right, and the author's wrong" before sending out grammar police nastygrams is good advice.)

It's possible that you're surprised to see this usage at all. But until the mid-50s it was pretty common. However, as a quick glance at the Google Ngram viewer will show you, that was its last hoorah. For more than a decade, spitting image has been more than 20x more common than its original variant. It's time to throw in the towel.

UPDATE: Now it's been changed yet again, to "who also looks nearly identical to Kermit." I guess spitting image didn't pass muster at the Gray Lady either.

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Reince Priebus is Playing Smart Politics. Maybe Democrats Should Try It Too.

| Tue Mar. 18, 2014 12:03 PM PDT

Here's the latest from Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus:

At a Christian Science Monitor Breakfast on Tuesday Priebus said Republicans would see massive gains in the 2014 election, especially in the Senate. "I think we're in for a tsunami election," Priebus said. "Especially at the Senate level."

Ed Kilgore thinks Priebus should cut the crap. If Democrats lose five or six Senate seats, that won't be a tsunami. It will be perfectly normal given the electoral map, the six-year itch, and the usual Democratic turnout problem in midterms.

Maybe so. But that's pretty obviously not the game Priebus is playing. He's not analyzing, he's working the refs. He wants to build momentum and make Republicans look unbeatable. He wants to look like a winner. He wants to get Republicans to turn out in big numbers this November.

Democrats, by contrast, are already acting like whipped curs, moaning about the map and the itch and the turnout. They lose a special election by two percentage points and all is lost. Incumbents start dropping like flies. The press, smelling weakness, piles on. Democratic voters, acting like the normal human beings they are, get discouraged and figure that things are hopeless. So they don't contribute, they don't campaign, and they don't bother voting on Election Day.

Priebus knows this very well. If he could think of a word even bigger than tsunami, he'd use it. He wants his voters to think of themselves as part of a decisive turning of the tide against dissolute liberalism, and if his party wins in November he wants the media to write about it as a historic victory that gives Republicans a conservative mandate. It's just smart politics.

"Hoovering Up Phone Calls" No Longer Just a Turn of Phrase for the NSA

| Tue Mar. 18, 2014 10:41 AM PDT

Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani report today that the NSA now has the ability to capture and save the contents of every single telephone conversation in several target countries:

In the initial deployment, collection systems are recording “every single” conversation nationwide, storing billions of them in a 30-day rolling buffer that clears the oldest calls as new ones arrive, according to a classified summary....At the request of U.S. officials, The Washington Post is withholding details that could be used to identify the country where the system is being employed or other countries where its use was envisioned.

....Some of the documents provided by Snowden suggest that high-volume eavesdropping may soon be extended to other countries, if it has not been already. The RETRO tool was built three years ago as a “unique one-off capability,” but last year’s secret intelligence budget named five more countries for which the MYSTIC program provides “comprehensive metadata access and content,” with a sixth expected to be in place by last October.

Remember that opening scene at Waterloo Station in The Bourne Ultimatum? It was great filmmaking, but come on. Pretty far-fetched, no?

As it turns out, no. Not in 2014 anyway.

France Threatens to Cancel Russian Ship Contract Over Crimea Annexation

| Tue Mar. 18, 2014 10:17 AM PDT

So what can Europe do to express its displeasure over Russia's annexation of Crimea? Robert Farley writes that France is currently building a pair of amphibious helicopter carriers for Russia's Pacific fleet:

That sale is now in considerable doubt. Because of Russia’s invasion and presumed annexation of Crimea, the European Union is considering a variety of sanctions against Moscow. The biggest stick, in military terms, may be the Mistrals, a pair of 21,000 ton warships capable of carrying over a dozen helicopters, in addition to a well-deck for amphibious landing craft. That the Russians chose to name the second ship Sevastopol, after a city not in Russian possession until after the recent invasion, only makes the sale so much uglier from the European point of view.

....The purchase of the Mistrals (which was to include a pair of ships built under license in Russian yards) was controversial in Russia, given that it represented a transfer of scarce defense monies to a major foreign contractor. Some Russian analysts also expressed concern about what technologies the ships would include. However, given the inability of Russian yards to turn out large, quality ships since the end of the Cold War, the Mistrals represented the best chance of adding aviation and amphibious capabilities to Russia’s decaying fleets.

That final sentence is crucial. Russia didn't agree to buy French ships because it wanted to. It agreed to buy French ships because it had to. The Russian military may still be able to take on Crimea or South Ossetia—neither one larger than Vermont—but it no longer has the capability to do much more. For all his nationalistic bluster, Vladimir Putin has done nothing to address this shortfall, contenting himself instead with creating a comfortable, oligarchic state that can, for the time being, live off its mineral wealth. Putin may or may not decide to invade Eastern Ukraine, but if he does, he'll only do it if he believes that Ukraine will fall with barely a shot fired. He really can't afford to fight a serious war.

In any case, the French foreign minister said today for the first time that the Mistral deal might well be canceled—but only if other countries pitch in. "We will ask others, and I'm thinking namely the British, to do the same with the assets of the Russian oligarchs in London," he said in a TV interview. "Sanctions have to be shouldered by everyone."

Can Nate Silver Monetize the Wonkosphere?

| Tue Mar. 18, 2014 9:20 AM PDT

Nate Silver says his goal at the new FiveThirtyEight is to be a fox, not a hedgehog. That is, to know lots of little things, not just one big thing. Paul Krugman is not impressed with how that's turned out so far:

You can’t be an effective fox just by letting the data speak for itself — because it never does. You use data to inform your analysis, you let it tell you that your pet hypothesis is wrong, but data are never a substitute for hard thinking. If you think the data are speaking for themselves, what you’re really doing is implicit theorizing, which is a really bad idea (because you can’t test your assumptions if you don’t even know what you’re assuming.)

There are a whole bunch of new media ventures being launched right now: FiveThirtyEight, Ezra Klein's, Glenn Greenwald's Intercept, and several others. That's sparked obsessive chattering among media types, which is entirely understandable. I've mostly stayed quiet because I figure there's really no point in saying anything until these sites have been fully up and running for a few months. Until then, things are just shaking out.

And I hope FiveThirtyEight shakes out. But at the risk of jumping the gun, its first day didn't do much for me, and I think the reason is pretty fundamental. My basic take is that Silver's data-driven approach to journalism works well with subjects that satisfy two criteria:

  1. They lend themselves to analysis via number crunching.
  2. They are currently underserved by serious number crunchers.

Both sports and poll aggregation fit this model, and Silver made a reputation with both of them. But they're the exceptions, not the rule. Economics? It doesn't satisfy #2. Science? Ditto. "Life"? That's a pretty broad category, but I suspect it mostly fails #1. This story about the search for MH370, for example, uses the totem "Bayesian" a lot, but basically just tells me that when the searchers get new information, it affects where they search next. And politics? Aside from poll aggregation, it's hard to say. There are plenty of political scientists who already crunch political numbers, but maybe they do it badly or present their results poorly. Maybe FiveThirtyEight can do better. However, this strained effort at analyzing gubernatorial elections doesn't seem like a promising start. Nor this article making the obvious point that polling in Crimea doesn't mean much these days.

To the extent that FiveThirtyEight is providing a quantitative take on ordinary news, I suspect its audience is small. Most people just don't want lots of numbers in their news. And to the extent that it's providing a quantitative take on quantitative subjects, it's competing with lots of people who are already doing it. So what's its niche?

We'll see. Maybe I'm too blinkered to see it. Or maybe I'm blinkered by the fact that I've been immersed in the semi-quantitative blogging world for over a decade. I already see a ton of this kind of stuff, so it doesn't seem to me like it's in short supply. But the supply is probably a lot shorter in big, highly-publicized mainstream sites like ESPN. So maybe that's what FiveThirtyEight is doing: bringing the wonkosphere to the masses. Maybe it will even work.