Political MoJo

Bombs: Not So Popular

| Thu Jul. 20, 2006 2:00 PM EDT

Greg Djerejian clears his throat to point out that, contrary to what some hawks seem to believe, people in Lebanon don't actually like being bombed. More to the point, the Lebanese government is genuinely worried that all this death and destruction will only increase popular support for Hezbollah, both within Lebanon and without, thereby making everyone's life a little more unpleasant. Indeed, most Arabs across the Middle East—even our pro-democracy friends—are blaming Israel, rather than Hezbollah and Hamas, for the violence (with the curious exception of the House of Saud).

Now I'm willing to believe that Israel can probably achieve most of what appear to be its main military objectives in this offensive—namely, to push Hezbollah away from the border, degrade the militia's missile-launching infrastructure, and reduce the group to a guerrilla army once again—but that doesn't mean there won't be serious unexpected consequences to deal with afterwards.

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Talk to women about embryos? What, is he crazy?

| Thu Jul. 20, 2006 1:59 PM EDT

The Seattle Times' Alicia Mundy reports that Congressman Dave Reichert (R-Wa.) changed his vote on stem cells after having a "heart-to-heart" talk with women ("potential mothers") on his staff.

The meeting with Reichert's female staffers was emotional, according to Reichert and one participant. "There were teary eyes, including mine," Reichert said, adding that, to his surprise, "It was unanimous, really, among the women." They all favored expanding the research.

Now, cynics among you might note that Reichert, a one-termer in a swing district who has been targeted for defeat in what has been called "the only seriously competitive House race in the Northwest," also wouldn't mind getting reelected in November. But that would be so cynical.

The Case for Nuclear Power Revisited

| Thu Jul. 20, 2006 1:32 PM EDT

Jon Gertner recently visited a few nuclear power plants for the New York Times Magazine and came away glowing. Har har. No, his article's quite excellent, but I'm still not convinced that nuclear power will solve all our problems. Gertner's reporting makes the case that reactors are becoming profitable for energy utilities to build. Fair enough. But is nuclear energy an effective way to help the country as a whole wean itself off carbon-based energy sources and avert global warming? That question doesn't really get an answer.

I'll stand by everything I wrote in this post: Rough calculations suggest that it would cost $500 billion, minimum, to build 220 reactors in the United States and achieve a mere one-seventh of the carbon emissions reductions we need to make by 2050 if we want to do our part to stave off global warming. Every little bit helps, and lowering carbon emissions will require a mix of strategies, but there's a real opportunity cost here: For that same $500 billion we could, presumably, fund a variety of renewable sources of energy that don't require a massive security state to safeguard.

In fact, Gar Lipow has made the case that some renewable energy sources, like solar, can already provide electricity more cheaply than nuclear, especially if the federal government were to help steer money that way. I'm willing to believe that Gertner's right and investors will soon be able to make money off of building new nuclear plants. But at a policy level, it's not at all clear that nuclear power is the most cost-effective substitute for carbon-based energy, even if you ignore all the other problems associated with it.

I'd note one other thing. Gertner interviews Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, who says that instead of building new reactors to satisfy our electricity demand, we should just reduce that demand by increasing energy efficiency. Now I'm very much in favor of conserving energy, but I'm also dubious that these schemes work. Check out this graph in the comments to the Oil Drum. Total electricity consumption in the United States has never decreased in the postwar era (except in the industrial sector during the recession in the 1980s), despite the fact that the country continues to become more energy efficient.

Partly that's due to population growth, but my hunch is that even if energy efficiency improves as dramatically as Lovins would like, people will always find ways to use more energy—buying bigger TVs or cranking up the air conditioning—as they get richer. On the other hand, I would have thought the same thing about fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles—namely, that as cars become more fuel-efficient, people just drive more and no energy is saved—but, according to the National Academy of Sciences, CAFE standards really do appear to have helped reduced oil consumption, so Lovins is probably onto something.

Stem Cells and Swing States

| Wed Jul. 19, 2006 6:45 PM EDT

Swing State Project has a roll call of the 37 senators who voted against the bill to ease the federal restrictions on embryonic stem cell research.

Those up for reelection are the following Republicans:

George Allen (R-VA)
Conrad Burns (R-MT)
Mike DeWine (R-OH)
John Ensign (R-NV)
John Kyl (R-AZ)
Rick Santorum (R-PA)
Jim Talent (R-MO)
Craig Thomas (R-WY)

as well as the Democratic senator from Nebraska, Ben Nelson.

Over at the New York Times, you can scroll over a map of the U.S. that provides you a state-by-state pop-up of how each delegation voted. And the Times also provides a way for you to email your senators and let them know what you think of their vote.

Pundits say that it is "unlikely" that there could be enough votes (just 3 more in the Senate) to override the veto. But if you scroll down a list of Republicans who in favor of expanding embryonic stem cell research--Orin Hatch, Bill Frist, etc.--it becomes clear that reason and compassion can cross party lines.

Where You Vote Can Influence How You Vote

| Wed Jul. 19, 2006 6:07 PM EDT

Louis Menand had a memorable piece in the New Yorker a few years ago on political science's attempts to divine why undecided voters vote as they do. The picture that emerged wasn't one you'd recognize from a Civics 101 class. "'[V]ery substantial portions of the public,' [he cited a researcher as concluding] hold opinions that are essentially meaningless—off-the-top-of-the-head responses to questions they have never thought about, derived from no underlying set of principles. These people might as well base their political choices on the weather. And, in fact, many of them do." (He's not joking.) In 2000, 18 percent of voters said that they decided between Gore and Bush only in the last two weeks of the campaign, and five per cent decided the day they voted, many of them presumably based on "factors that have no discernible 'issue content' whatever."

A new research paper out of Stanford University shows that a certain kind of voter is motivated by a factor that kind of does, kind of doesn't have "issue content": the place where they vote.

A field study using Arizona's 2000 general election found that voters were more likely to support raising the state sales tax to support education if they voted in schools, as opposed to other types of polling locations. ... A voting experiment extended these findings to other initiatives (i.e. stem cells) and a case in which people were randomly assigned to different environmental [cues] (i.e. church-related, school-related or generic building images). (My italics)

This tracks with marketing research showing that supermarket shoppers, for example, are more likely to buy French (versus German) wine when French (versus German) music is playing in the store. Similarly, I presume, having to wait for hours in long lines to vote in chaotic, poorly run urban polling stations (versus, say, dropping in and out of an orderly suburban one) might influence whether or not one thinks electoral reform a good idea? In any event, the research purports to offer yet more evidence that "even in noisy, real-world environments, subtle environmental cues can influence decisions on issues of real consequence."

Ghetto Tax: Poor Losers Gain Street Cred. Or, Whither John Edwards?

| Wed Jul. 19, 2006 5:40 PM EDT

As reported in the New York Times article "Study Documents 'Ghetto Tax' Being Paid by the Urban Poor," Brookings Institution Senior Research Associate has Matt Fellowes has documented how the poor are charged more than the rest of us for basic services.

As the executive summary notes:

In general, lower income families tend to pay more for the exact same consumer product than families with higher incomes. For instance, 4.2 million lower income homeowners that earn less than $30,000 a year pay higher than average prices for their mortgages. About 4.5 million lower income households pay higher than average prices for auto loans. At least 1.6 million lower income adults pay excessive fees for furniture, appliances, and electronics. And, countless more pay high prices for other necessities, such as basic financial services, groceries, and insurance. Together, these extra costs add up to hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars unnecessarily spent by lower income families every year.
In the current issue of Mother Jones, I cited Fellowe's previous research on the barriers facing Philapelphia's poor (see chart) along with a whole bunch more depressing stats (all fully sourced) about how the poor are overcharged.

exhibit_chart2_265x262.gif

In Chicago's poorest areas, the ratio of check-cashing outlets to banks is 10-to-1. Check-cashing fees for a worker who brings home $18,000 a year add up to about $450 —that's 2.5% spent just to access income.

underserved:

In 1997, 3 out of 4 doctors provided some free or reduced-cost care. Now, 2 out of 3 do.

And just generally screwed over:

In 2004, 7 million working poor families spent $900 million on tax prep and check-cashing fees to get their refunds sooner. Average amount of time by which they sped up their refunds: 2 weeks.

Recently, I did a radio interview on this topic, in which the host asked me why nobody but John Edwards seemed to be concerned with the plight of the poor. I didn't have a good answer, certainly the rest of the Democratic Party seems to be nowhere on this issue. Perhaps the best explanation is that Americans still believe that poverty is a sign of personal failing.

But the sad fact of it is that with 1 in 4 U.S. jobs paying less than a poverty-level income, more and more Americans will find themselves to be poor at some point in their lives. During the 1980s, 13% of Americans age 40 to 50 spent at least one year below the poverty line; by the 1990s, 36% did. And since 2000, the number of Americans living below the poverty line at any one time has steadily risen. Now 13% of all Americans—37 million—are officially poor.

And the poor are getting poorer. Among households worth less than $13,500, their average net worth in 2001 was $0. By 2004, it was down to –$1,400. That's negative $1,400.

Local governments need to do their part. The Times notes that

"at a meeting connected with the [Brookings] report's release, officials from three states—New York, Pennsylvania and Washington— said they were already doing just that through a variety of programs to draw banks to poor neighborhoods, help finance the construction of supermarkets and encourage innovative insurance schemes."

That's great. But in the meantime, President Bush's tax cuts (recently extended until 2010) save those earning between $20,000 and $30,000 an average of $10 a year, while those earning $1 million are saved $42,700.

Oh, and in 2002, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) compared those who point out statistics such as the one above to Adolf Hitler.

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Bush's Stem Cell Position: Still Incoherent

| Wed Jul. 19, 2006 4:21 PM EDT

It's become commonplace to note the utter incoherence of President Bush's position on stem cell research, and Clara touches on the subject below, but I think it's worth repeating over and over again to emphasize that his veto today was cheap opportunism at its worst. The president opposes stem cell research because it involves removing cells from a blastocyst and so destroying a five-day-old embryo. But he has no problem whatsoever with IVF treatment, a process that usually produces far more embryos than are needed and so potentially requires the destruction of some of them (they can't all be snowflake babies, after all). Indeed, he's explicitly praised the work of fertility clinics.

Moreover, if Bush really believes that stem cell research involves the "murder" of embryos, as Tony Snow announced yesterday, then simply opposing federal funding for the research isn't enough. He should, logically, support a ban on all stem cell research. Murder is murder, after all, whether it's funded by the government or not. But of course Bush has never supported a ban on the privately-funded destruction of embryos. As Michael Kinsley once wrote, "Moral sincerity is not impressive if it depends on willful ignorance and indifference to logic."

Waxman Exposes Pregnancy Crisis Centers

| Wed Jul. 19, 2006 4:16 PM EDT

Rep. Henry Waxman has released a new report on "pregnancy crisis centers," which deceptively tout themselves as resource centers for pregnant women but end up giving false and misleading information about the "dangers" of abortion (a procedure which, at last count, is still safer than actually giving birth).

The report said that 20 of 23 federally funded centers contacted by staff investigators requesting information about an unintended pregnancy were told false or misleading information about the potential risks of an abortion

The pregnancy resource centers, which are often affiliated with antiabortion religious groups, have received about $30 million in federal money since 2001, according to the report, requested by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.). The report concluded that the exaggerations "may be effective in frightening pregnant teenagers and women and discouraging abortion. But it denies the teenagers and women vital health information, prevents them from making an informed decision, and is not an accepted public health practice."Amanda Marcotte wrote a great article awhile back for Alternet about pregnancy crisis centers. A pregnant 17-year-old walked into one center under the mistaken impression that it was a Planned Parenthood. The center ended up calling the police, and then resorted to "staking out the girl's house, phoning her father at work, and even talking to her classmates about her pregnancy, urging them to harass her" into not having an abortion. As a bonus, many states fund these places by slashing their family planning budgets.

Stem Cells: Science v. Spending

| Wed Jul. 19, 2006 4:02 PM EDT

Quick, count the people in your life facing a critical or degenerative illness, or those you've lost to the same. Alzheimer's, Diabetes, spinal cord injury, Leukemia and other aggressive cancers, heart disease...

Got a number?

Now tally up the amount that those diseases cost society. Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, for example, are estimated to cost $248 billion world wide.

$248 billion. That's almost four times what the Bush administration allocated for the Department of Education this fiscal year. It's about 10 times what is spent on the Department of Agriculture.

So when the true cost of impeding scientific inquiry that may produce cures for these devastating illnesses is tallied up, it's not just your friends and family, and all the other Americans for whom embryonic stem cell research holds out the best hope for a cure. It's all the money that we currently spend to treat people with these illnesses. Money that could be put to other uses.

Against the bill (H.R. 810) that opens the way to humane treatment for the sick and disabled, is the belief of those, like Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, that the destruction of embryos, frozen within a few days of fertilization when they're just a handful of cells, is akin to to murdering a live infant.

Sen. Brownback is entitled to his beliefs. And his encouragement of "embryo adoption" is fine, too. But currently there are an estimated 500, 000 frozen embryos. It's not clear that there are that many potential parents out there willing to adopt in this manner. But even if there were, we know for a fact that there are parents who don't like the notion of offering up their embryo for adoption but who would embrace donating their unused embryos for stem cell research.

Nobody's going to force parents who are against stem cell research to participate in it. But for those who would, is Congress going to stand in their way, and stand against the sick and the dying?

Could someone please hand Bill Kristol a newspaper?

| Wed Jul. 19, 2006 3:55 PM EDT

This is what he said right before the U.S. invaded Iraq:

We are tempted to comment, in these last days before the war, on the U.N., and the French, and the Democrats. But the war itself will clarify who was right and who was wrong about weapons of mass destruction. It will reveal the aspirations of the people of Iraq, and expose the truth about Saddam's regime. … History and reality are about to weigh in, and we are inclined simply to let them render their verdicts.

And this is what he said this morning:

We can try diplomacy. I'm not very hopeful about that. We have to be ready to use force." Kristol claimed the people of Iran would embrace "the right use of targeted military force."

He added that military force could "trigger changes in Iran," causing them to embrace regime change.

There are only two conclusions to be drawn here: 1. Kristol hasn't seen a television or a newspaper in a few years (if he is watching Fox News, or even CNN, this is kind of a viable theory), or 2. He has found a way to interpret what is going on in Iraq as a "success."

Think Progress has this morning's video.