Photo of the day

Well, it’s been cold enough over here (at least the Eastern US) that the Telegraph thought it worth a photo gallery.  This photo doesn’t actually look all that cold, but I love it

Ice and snow lead to record freeze in the USA, in pictures

Steam rising off Lake Michigan as the sun risesPicture: Kiichiro Sato/AP

The parent agenda

I’ve been meaning to blog about this Nate Cohn piece that I basically wish I had written (and Laurel– my Politics of Parenthood co-author– and I really should have written something like this).  Anyway,  basic point is on how the Democrats’ policy agenda is now very much about the needs of modern parents:

The emerging Democratic agenda is meant to appeal to parents. The policies under discussion — paid family leave; universal preschool; an expanded earned-income tax credit and child tax credit; free community college and perhaps free four-year college in time — are intended both to alleviate the burdens on middle-class families and to expand educational opportunity for children. The result is a thematic platform addressing some of the biggest sources of anxiety about the future of the middle class…

It’s far too early to know how these themes will resonate with voters, or even the extent to which Mrs. Clinton will emphasize this agenda, but it does have the potential to give the Democrats a more coherent message for the middle class than the party had in 2014 or even 2012.

It could give them a better chance of reclaiming their support among traditionally Democratic white working-class voters who supported Mr. Obama in 2012 but now disapprove of his performance. Yet it would still appeal to many affluent families who feel burdened by the costs of college, child care and the challenge of raising children with two parents working outside the home…

The parental agenda has the potential to resonate among the large group of voters with children under 18 at home, 36 percent of the electorate in 2012. It might also resonate among the already Democratic-leaning young voters of the Obama era, 18 to 29 years old in 2008, who are now entering prime childbearing years. The birthrate among millennials has dropped to near-record or record lows, depending on the age cohort, probably in part because of economic insecurity. Weekly earnings for full-time workers aged 25 to 34 are down 3.8 percent since 2000.

Early polling data suggests there could be strong public support for many elements of Mr. Obama’s agenda — including free community college, child care spending and paid leave — although it remains to be seen whether support will endure after Republicans respond.

Cohn makes a pretty convincing case that this policy agenda is a winner.  I admit to being double-biased in that 1) I really like these policies and 2) it fits so nicely with my research agenda, but I think he’s basically right.  It will be very interesting to see how this plays out in the 2016 campaign in which the Republican response will surely be a variation of “lower taxes for rich people and less government regulation is the real way to help your family.”

Photo of the day

From the BBC– a weasel on a woodpecker’s back.  More photos and the story here.

Woodpecker flying with weasel on back, Hornchurch Essex

Martin Le-May caught the moment when the woodpecker took flight with a weasel on its back

Vitamin B.S.

Couldn’t help but steal the pitch-perfect title from the Atlantic iinterview with the author of a new book on our false belief on how vitamin supplements can save us.  My mom was a huge believer in all things vitamin and supplement-related.  Among other things, I took megadoses of Vitamin C when I got colds (surely did no good).  That said, given my horrible diet when I was younger, I might have actually gotten scurvy without Vitamin C supplements (and I suspect the same would be true for some of my kids).  Anyway, the occasional case of scurvy avoided for a really picky eater, it is quite clear that our culture has put far too much faith into vitamin supplements:

The third idea wasn’t new, and wasn’t born from the conference so much as strengthened by it: the notion that vitamins were the key not only to health, but to a state of health-plus, with the ability to boost bodies past sick, past normal, and into something even better. In recent years, researchers have debunked, over and over, the idea that vitamin supplements confer any measureable benefit at all—but still, around half of Americans take them regularly. Together with other dietary supplements, they enjoy a reputation for nutritional power that stretches far beyond their true capabilities…

I was especially intrigued by this part:

Catherine Price: There’s actually only 13 human vitamins: A, D, E, K, C, and the eight B vitamins. But when we use the word vitamin in our everyday speech, we tend to lump in all the other dietary supplements that you could take—things like fish oil or all the herbals and botanicals that you can find if you go into the drugstore or GNC.

In terms of the chemical definition of a vitamin, there actually isn’t one. [Most of those 13] were discovered around the same time, and the word was coined before any of them had been isolated, and it just ended up being such a great word that it stuck around, even after scientists found out that the vitamins actually weren’t all chemically in the same family. But in general, it’s a substance you need in an extremely small amount, usually from your diet, that prevents a specific deficiency.

Romm: If they aren’t all chemically united, what is it that groups vitamins together?

Price: A lot of it is the history. They were discovered because of deficiency diseases—things like scurvy, which is a deficiency of vitamin C, or rickets with D. Or beriberi, which none of us know about now, which was horrible—that’s vitamin B1. And pellagra, which is niacin [B3]. So they were discovered through this process of recognizing the idea of a deficiency disease. And that was really revolutionary, because there was this idea that you could get sick from something you didn’t have, as opposed to a germ. So scientists started hypothesizing in the early 1900s that there was a group of chemical compounds in food that prevented these diseases. In 1911, this Polish biochemist, Casimir Funk, suggested that they be called vitamins. So that’s kind of how the concept became established and the word was created, and why they started to get lumped together. It was only after that point that they actually discovered what the substances were…

Romm: Were vitamins marketed more for their health benefits, or in terms of what would happen if people didn’t get enough of them?

Price: Both, actually. On the one hand, you had advertisers warning you of what would happen if you were deficient. Some of the early researchers were writing for the popular press, and they would write these terrifying columns saying how your teeth would fall out if you didn’t have enough vitamin C—which is true, but most Americans don’t have scurvy. That’s extreme deficiency. So a lot of it was this fear-mongering, and I thought that was fascinating because we still see it today all the time. And then there was this flipside, where the idea of optimization started to take hold—if vitamins were necessary to prevent a deficiency in a small amount, then if you had more of them, you’d be like a superhero. So yeah, they were doing both. Vitamins, more than any other dietary chemical, really established that two-sided relationship, where we’re driven both by fear and by the hope that we’ll become superhuman, that we can optimize ourselves if we just eat the right things.

Based on the research and my (now) healthy diet, I finally stopped taking vitamins a few years ago.  As for my kids, I am definitely not expecting any great health benefits, but until their diets improve, I’m playing it safe to prevent any deficiencies.

Also, not in here, my very favorite piece of vitamin lore I have heard… Sugar producers lobbied for vitamins to be added to breakfast cereal because that requires more sugar to mask the taste of the vitamins.

The good cops need to stand up

I’ve probably made this point before, but to me, what really ruins the reputation of the police is good cops standing by and supporting the bad cops who do horrible things.  I truly believe that most cops are good and want to serve the public, but when they seem to rally around and defend the worst of their brethren at any cost, it puts a huge black mark on all of them.  Great piece from Jamelle Bouie on just this problem in relation to the horrendous Tamir Rice shooting?  I mean seriously, would it be so hard for fellow cops to (rightfully) throw this horrible cop under the bus?

A select group of officers is very good at its job. Most others are fine. Some are bad, and a small minority of them are destructive to their mission, their department, and their colleagues.

Here’s the problem: While most professions will tolerate poor performance, they won’t stand for damaging behavior. A cook who occasionally flubs his order might keep his job; a cook who contaminates food and poisons customers will almost certainly lose it. But modern American policing is different. [emphases mine]

Officers hold great power and discretion, but that doesn’t seem to come with responsibility or accountability. In all but the most egregious cases, bad and destructive cops are virtually immune from the consequences of their actions, even when they lead to death or serious injury. What’s more, unlike the journalist shunned for fabulism or the lawyer disbarred for theft, the officer accused of brutality can expect the full support of his colleagues and superiors. Some of this is understandable: It’s often hard to know exactly what happened in a police-abuse case, and it makes sense to err on the side of the officer. But there are times when that choice is ludicrous—when an officer is clearly in the wrong, but the department stands with him anyway…

Both officers have checkered records.  The shooter, Timothy Loehmann, was awashout. Superiors at a previous posting described him as “unable to follow basic functions as instructed” and visibly “distracted” during weapons training. “Individually,” wrote his former boss, “these events would not be considered major situations, but when taken together they show a pattern of a lack of maturity, indiscretion and not following instructions. I do not believe time, nor training, will be able to change or correct these deficiencies.” …

These men never should have been on the street, where in their incompetence they’ve made life harder for other, better police officers. Yet both the city and the police union are behind them…

More broadly, where are the actual good cops in all of this? Where are the men and women who have to deal with the fallout from the death of Rice? They exist, and of everyone in this drama, they should be the loudest voices for better training and accountability, if only because it helps them and their jobs. As always, they’re quiet. They may not like the Loehmanns and Garmbacks of the world, but right now they look awfully content to let the actions of such poorly suited officers speak for the whole.

Yes!!!  I’ve heard a lot from cops complaining about the bad rap they are getting and what a hard time it is to be a cop right now.  Okay, then, stand up to the most appalling and egregious behavior of your worst colleagues (instead of offering explicit or implicit support for their worst actions) and things might be different.

Is American democracy doomed?

Maybe.  Matt Yglesias (relying heavily on political science research) makes a good case for it.  The basic problem, a presidential system such as ours is simply not well-designed to handle two highly-ideological polarized parties.  And while we have had party polarization before, it’s never before had such a strong ideological component.  And here’s the basic theory at work:

Still, Linz offered several reasons why presidential systems are so prone to crisis. One particularly important one is the nature of the checks and balances system. Since both the president and the Congress are directly elected by the people, they can both claim to speakfor the people. When they have a serious disagreement, according to Linz, “there is no democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved.” The constitution offers no help in these cases, he wrote: “the mechanisms the constitution might provide are likely to prove too complicated and aridly legalistic to be of much force in the eyes of the electorate.”

In a parliamentary system, deadlocks get resolved. A prime minister who lacks the backing of a parliamentary majority is replaced by a new one who has it. If no such majority can be found, a new election is held and the new parliament picks a leader. It can get a little messy for a period of weeks, but there’s simply no possibility of a years-long spell in which the legislative and executive branches glare at each other unproductively.

But within a presidential system, gridlock leads to a constitutional trainwreck with no resolution. The United States’s recent government shutdowns and executive action on immigration are small examples of the kind of dynamic that’s led to coups and putsches abroad.

Is it going to come to a true failure of our government.  I think probably not, but I do actually find it quite plausible.  Give us some sort of crisis and it is not too far for a president to essentially become a dictator.  I will agree that “doom” is probably far more likely due to our presidential system than if we had a parliamentary system.

Video of the day

Single Transferable Vote is one of those really cool concepts that political scientists love, but almost nobody knows about (except of course the good people of Ireland).  I love this video that explains it with the animal kingdom.

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