Kevin Drum

Buried in Salt

| Wed Feb. 10, 2010 6:59 PM EST

This is old news, but who cares. It's from New York City and I'm blogging it today anyway:

Mayor Bloomberg and the Health Department have opened a new front in the battle to get New Yorkers, and maybe all Americans, to eat more healthily. The target now is salt.

Commissioner Thomas Farley has forged a consensus among government officials and health advocates that calls on the food industry to reduce the amount of sodium in a wide array of products. The goal is to cut the nation's salt intake by 25% over five years.

What's good about the plan is that it seeks to enlist food companies to voluntarily meet the target, and to do so gradually so palates used to a great deal of salt won't know the difference.

I tend toward high blood pressure, so I generally try to watch my sodium intake. But it's hard! At breakfast, my cereal has sodium. At lunch, my bread has sodium, my mustard has sodium, and my deli ham has sodium. Pretzels too. Pickles are a great snack, but they have enough sodium to choke a horse. Rice pilaf at dinner? Sodium.

Etc. etc. You get the drift. Now, some of this is unavoidable. Pickles just have lots of sodium. But what about all this other stuff? On the rare occasions that I buy peanuts, I buy the low sodium variety. Guess what? They taste plenty salty. I recently bought a can of "ultra low sodium" tuna. I made a tuna sandwich out of it and couldn't tell the difference. Danola makes a low sodium ham. Ditto.

So what's with all the sodium? I've never liked packaged mashed potatoes, but the other day a friend of ours suggested we should try a new brand. We did, and she was right: they weren't bad. Except for one thing: too salty! I was at a nice restaurant last week and had a small piece of chicken that was delicious. One of the best I've ever had. Except that it had too much salt.

So here's my question: why all the salt? Are "palates used to a great deal of salt" really the norm these days? Am I just more sensitive than most people to saltiness? Because it seems to me that you could cut the sodium content of nearly every processed food product in America by half and end up with something that's not only healthier, but better tasting.1

Obviously, though, the food industry, which spends billions of dollars to figure this stuff out, is convinced their customers think otherwise. Are they right? What say you?

1What makes this especially odd to me is that I don't generally have a discriminating palate. When it comes to fat and sugar and all the other stuff that's bad for you, I'm all for it. But salt? I'm ready to cry uncle.

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Bought and Sold and Proud of It

| Wed Feb. 10, 2010 6:18 PM EST

Yesterday Megan Carpentier wrote a post debunking the idea that Wall Street bankers had recently begun switching their allegiances, contributing more to Republicans than Democrats. It was a little complicated, though, so I just skimmed it and then moved on to something else.

But Matt Steinglass was more alert than me and noticed that Carpentier buried the lead:

The amazing part of the article isn't that some folks on Wall Street might be successful at convincing reporters that they will defund politicians who touch their institutions' profits or their bonuses. The amazing part is that some folks on Wall Street might think it would be a good idea to convince reporters that they will defund politicians who touch their institutions' profits or their bonuses. One would think that at a moment of intense public anger against the financial industry, politicians would find it risky to openly admit that they owe their jobs to campaign contributions from that industry, and would hence be unlikely to vote against financial reform in response to naked threats communicated via the mainstream media. And one would think that finance industry bigwigs would understand that.

This suggests that the finance industry is so confident of its ownership of Congress that it couldn't care less whether average voters know about it. As for John Boehner's office apparently leaking to the Wall Street Journal that Mr Boehner had been soliciting contributions from Democratic-leaning finance-industry machers by promising to be more protective of Wall Street's interests...well, it's hard to tell who these guys think they're supposed to be working for.

When you put it that way: yes, it is pretty amazing. As for who these guys think they're working for, though, I don't imagine this is something that's really all that hard to figure out.

Quote of the Day: Obama Fights Back

| Wed Feb. 10, 2010 4:46 PM EST

From the White House, responding to Sen. Kit Bond's call for the resignation of counterterrorism chief John Brennan:

Through his pathetic attack on a counter-terrorism professional like John Brennan who has spent his lifetime protecting this country under multiple Administrations, Senator Bond sinks to new depths in his efforts to put politics over our national security.

This is quite correct. Bond's attack on Brennan was shameless. But it was also wearily predictable. What's more interesting is that apparently this is what it takes to really get the White House worked up. This is about as testy as I've ever seen them. Via Spencer Ackerman.

How Are We Doing in Afghanistan?

| Wed Feb. 10, 2010 3:24 PM EST

How do we know if conditions are improving in Afghanistan? COIN expert David Kilcullen provides a list of indicators in a new paper. My favorite is this one, with commentary from Tom Ricks:

"Prices of exotic vegetables" and "Transportation prices." Now we are getting into the nitty gritty. Anything that embarrasses your S-3 as he discusses it in the briefing probably is a good metric. Until now most of DK's recommendations have been more or less rooted in common sense. But to understand this weird one, you need to understand local conditions. What people are paying for vegetables grown outside their district is a quick indicator of road security. Trucking companies factor in the risks they face, as well as the cost of bribes and other forms of corruption. So variations over time may be a helpful indicator of trends in public perception of security conditions and the corruption level of government security forces.

More here. Metrics to be avoided are here. How to measure the performance of the local government is here, including this one:

"Where local officials sleep." I really like this one because it is so simple, but it never occurred to me. In fact, I have never seen it listed before in works on metrics in warfare. But it makes sense. DK writes that, "A large proportion of Afghan government officials currently do not sleep in the districts for which they are responsible." He recommends looking into whether they fear for their safety, or perhaps are outsiders not really welcome in the districts. Both reasons are important, but have far different significance for your operations. 

This is probably harder to measure than vegetable prices, but still an interesting and nonobvious thing to keep track of.

Quantum Algae

| Wed Feb. 10, 2010 2:43 PM EST

Several years ago physicist Roger Penrose wrote a book suggesting that human consciousness can't be explained by standard chemical and physical processes. The only thing that could explain it, he said, was quantum processes, specifically microtubules that take advantage of quantum gravity effects.

I read Penrose's book when it came out, and like most people I wasn't convinced. For starters, the required quantum coherence effects just don't seem possible at room temperature. But today Tyler Cowen points to a new paper in Nature showing that there are apparently quantum coherence effects at work in the way some algae produce energy via the eight pigment molecules used in photosynthesis:

The route the energy takes as it jumps across these large molecules is important because longer journeys could lead to losses. In classical physics, the energy can only work its way across the molecules randomly.

....The team first excited two of these molecules with a brief laser pulse, causing electrons in the pigment molecules to jump into a quantum superposition of excited states....The results are a surprise. Not only are the two pigment molecules at the centre of the antenna involved in the superposition; so are the other six pigment molecules. This "quantum coherence" binds them together for a fleeting 400 femtoseconds (4 × 10-13 seconds). But this is long enough for the energy from the absorbed photon to simultaneously "try out" all possible paths across the antenna. When the shared coherence ends, the energy settles on one path, allowing it to make the journey without loss.

The discovery overturns some long-held beliefs about quantum mechanics, which held that quantum coherence cannot occur at anything other than cryogenic temperatures because a hot environment would destroy the effect. However, the Chroomonas algae perform their work at 21 °C.

None of this means Penrose is correct, of course. But it does suggest that quantum effects are at least possible at the biological level, and therefore maybe in the human brain. Interesting stuff.

Chart of the Day: Pentagon Budget

| Wed Feb. 10, 2010 1:57 PM EST

The Project on Defense Alternatives sent me this email a few minutes ago:

We’ve just opened the web page Trillions to Burn? A Quick Guide to the Pentagon Budget Surge — please have a look.  It’s a quick read with 9 charts that explain why the DoD budget has risen to over 700 billion and what it implies for other federal spending and the national debt.

Hey, you had me at "charts"! So here's your chart of the day: a look at Pentagon spending since World War II, adjusted for inflation. Right now we're spending more than we did during the Korean War, the Vietnam War, or the Reagan military buildup. And there's no end in sight. More at the link.

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Buying Votes the Old Fashioned Way

| Wed Feb. 10, 2010 1:18 PM EST

In the LA Times today, Michael Hiltzik provides a taste of our electoral future, where corporation are allowed to spend unlimited sums on their pet projects and candidates. Hiltzik's poster child is electric utility PG&E, which has qualified for the California ballot a measure that would require any public utility to get approval by two-thirds of voters before launching or expanding its public power service, or floating bonds to finance the service. That's a sweet deal, since a two-thirds vote is all but impossible to get, meaning that PG&E's public competitors would be effectively unable to ever expand their business:

Nine state legislators, led by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), warned PG&E Chairman Peter Darbee by letter that PG&E's actions might violate state law by interfering with the creation of new municipal power services. PG&E's self-interested exploitation of the initiative process, they told him, also "calls into question your company's integrity."

How did Darbee respond? His company placed an additional $3 million in the campaign kitty . If you were to translate that response to the legislators into English, it wouldn't be printable in a family newspaper.

...."The fertile minds of utility lawyers are going to be able to dream up all kinds of things," S. David Freeman, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the nation's largest municipal utility, told me last week. "This is just another attempt by a private utility to inhibit the right of public power to be a competitive yardstick. It's so hurtful of consumers that it would be laughable, except that PG&E's ability to put up brainwashing ads makes it a real threat."

Worse, state law prohibits elected officials and public agencies from spending public funds to oppose a ballot measure. That means any effort to counteract PG&E's bankroll will be crippled from the start. "It's a grim reality that public agencies won't be able to fight back at all," says Charles McGlashan, a Marin County supervisor.

PG&E's ballot measure hasn't passed yet, and the good news is that it's tough to win a majority for initiatives like this. Still, they can spend nearly unlimited sums trying to sell it, their natural opponents can't spend a dime, and that leaves nothing but generic good government groups to fight this thing. Not exactly a fair fight.

How They Do It

| Wed Feb. 10, 2010 12:31 PM EST

I guess I was dozing off during Jon Stewart's interview with Newt Gingrich last night, because I don't remember this exchange:

Gingrich: The American public doesn't understand reading Miranda rights to terrorists in Detroit when it's fairly obvious they're terrorists.

Stewart: The only thing I would say to that is, didn't they do the same with Richard Reid, who was the shoe bomber?

Gingrich: Richard Reid was an American citizen.

How does he get away with saying stuff like this? Reid was a British citizen, born in London, and radicalized at the Finsbury mosque. This is Wikipedia level stuff. But guys like Gingrich get away with repeating this nonsense over and over even though they must know they're lying. Amazing. Via Steve Benen.

Men Without Work

| Wed Feb. 10, 2010 11:13 AM EST

Back in the early 90s Joel Garreau wrote a book called Edge City. Basically, an edge city is a suburb, but it's a suburb that has the usual sprawl of stucco houses plus at least five million square feet of leasable office space. In other words, it's a self-contained community where people can both live and work, and until the mid-70s such places really didn't exist. Today they're ubiquitous. So what happened? Garreau explains:

When I started asking developers when, exactly, they first thought it plausible to build quarter-of-a-million-square-foot office monoliths out in some cow pasture, far from the old downtowns, I found it eerie how often the year 1978 came up....The only thing I've discovered that begins to account for that nationwide pattern is that 1978 was the peak year in all of American history for women entering the work force. In the second half of the 1970s, unprecedentedly, more than eight million hitherto non-wage-earning women went out and found jobs. The spike year was 1978.

That same year, a multitude of developers independently decided to start putting up big office buildings out beyond the traditional male-dominated downtown....The new advantage was proximity to the emerging work force. These Edge City work centers were convenient for women. It saved them time. This discovery was potent. A decade later, developers viewed it as a truism that office buildings had an indisputable advantage if they were located near the best-educated, most conscientious, most stable workers — underemployed females living in middle class communities on the fringes of the old urban areas.

Italics mine. This passage has stuck with me ever since I first read it. Three decades ago employers discovered that as long as their jobs didn't require much in the way of physical strength — and fewer and fewer jobs did — women were a better employment bet than men. Since then, this has become more apparent with every passing year. Which brings us to the recession of 2008-09, as described by Don Peck in the Atlantic:

The weight of this recession has fallen most heavily upon men, who’ve suffered roughly three-quarters of the 8 million job losses since the beginning of 2008....In November, 19.4 percent of all men in their prime working years, 25 to 54, did not have jobs, the highest figure since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking the statistic in 1948.

....According to W. Bradford Wilcox, the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, the gender imbalance of the job losses in this recession is particularly noteworthy, and — when combined with the depth and duration of the jobs crisis — poses “a profound challenge to marriage,” especially in lower-income communities. It may sound harsh, but in general, he says, “if men can’t make a contribution financially, they don’t have much to offer.”

Noted without comment, because I really don't quite know how this is all going to shake out. But I wouldn't be surprised if we're entering not merely a slow recovery in general, but an era in which the male employment ratio hovers permanently around 80% even for those in their prime working years. For now, though, just consider this some raw data.

Public Not Ready to Give Up on Healthcare

| Tue Feb. 9, 2010 6:59 PM EST

The Washington Post reports today that both liberals and conservatives are in favor of compromise on healthcare — as long as the other guys are the ones doing the compromising. It's a start! The results aren't quite even, though:

But even Republicans are critical of their congressional leadership, with 44 percent seeing them as doing too little to strike deals with Obama; that compares with just 13 percent of Democrats worried about inaction on Obama's part.

That's something to work with. The Fox News wing of the Republican Party obviously isn't in the mood for compromise, but this is a reminder that there's still a quieter, non-Fox wing that would like to see some things get done. And as the chart on the right shows, 63% of the country thinks "lawmakers in Washington" should keep trying to pass comprehensive healthcare reform, including 42% of Republicans and a firm majority of independents. It's not clear what all these people think they're signing up to when they say they want "comprehensive" reform, but that's still a pretty healthy level of support. At the very least it should help stiffen a few Democratic spines in Congress.