Smart Charts

These Two Charts Show the Incredible Disappearing Center in American Politics

“It’s not news that the ideological middle in Congress is disappearing,” writes Chris Cillizza in today’s Washington Post. “But rarely have I ever seen it so starkly documented as in these two slides courtesy of Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti, a lobbying firm here in DC.”

Cillizza explains:

Using National Journal’s annual vote ratings, the slides compare the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat and count the number of Members in between those two poles.

Here’s how that looks in the House from 1982 -2013:

In the last three decades, the number of members in the middle in the House dropped from 344 (79 percent of the House) in 1982 to four (.9 percent of the House) in 2013. As the slide suggests, redistricting — the decennial re-drawing of the nation’s Congressional lines — plays a major role in that decline. The last two nationwide re-draws have largely been incumbent protection efforts, making Republican districts more Republican and Democratic districts more Democratic. Self-sorting — the growing tendency of people to live around like-minded people — is also a major factor in the disappearance of the ideological middle in the House.

More intriguing — and harder to explain — is how the middle has dropped out of the Senate, which is not subject to redistricting and, because Senators represent entire states, self-sorting should be less powerful. And yet, here’s the Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti slide on the partisanship in the world’s greatest deliberative body:

Read the rest of Cillizza’s article at The Washington Post.

In the post, Cillizza doesn’t mention what may be the most important political trend of our time: the asymmetric nature of our contemporary polarization. Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker used a system called DW-NOMINATE, which measures how far from the center lawmakers’ votes fell, for his 2006 book, Off Center. In it, he noted that since 1975, Senate Republicans have moved twice as far to the right as their Democratic counterparts moved to the left. In the House of Representatives that trend has been even more pronounced. Hacker found that Republicans in the lower chamber had shifted six times further to the right than their Democratic counterparts went to the left over that same period.

The Growing Partisan Divide on Evolution

Frederick Kyalo Manthi , Phd, holds the H. erectus complete skull he discovered in 2000 near lake Turkana in Kenya, Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2007 at the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi. Surprising fossils dug up in Africa are creating messy kinks in the iconic straight line of human evolution from knuckle-dragging ape to briefcase-carrying man.(AP Photo/Karel Prinsloo)
Frederick Kyalo Manthi, Ph.D., holds the homo erectus skull he discovered in 2000 near lake Turkana in Kenya. (AP Photo/Karel Prinsloo)

New research has found that about a third of Americans do not believe in evolution, more-or-less unchanged since the last time the Pew Research Center asked the question in 2009. But researchers did notice a note-worthy shift — Republicans are now far less likely to believe in evolution than Democrats. In 2009, 54 percent of Republicans and 64 percent of Democrats endorsed evolution, a ten-point gap. That gap has since increased to 24 points, with 43 percent of Republicans and 67 percent of Democrats believing in evolution in 2013.

Pew poll evolution

Belief in creationism has remained relatively consistent for decades. Gallup has a higher figure than Pew, finding in May 2012 that roughly 46 percent of Americans don’t believe in evolution (to Pew’s 33 percent). When Gallup pollsters asked the same question for the first time in 1982, 44 percent of Americans said they were creationists; researchers got the same figure two decades later, in May 2008. MORE

How We Won — and Lost — the War on Poverty, in 6 Charts

President Lyndon B. Johnson speaks at a news conference at the White House in Washington, Feb. 1, 1964. (AP Photo/John Rous)

This post originally appeared at Mother Jones.

President Lyndon B. Johnson announced a “war on poverty” in America in his State of the Union address on January 8, 1964. “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America,” he said. “It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest nation on Earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.” The aim of the war, he said would be to “cure” and “prevent” poverty.

Johnson’s administration went on to design “Great Society” initiatives, including a permanent food stamp program, Medicare and Medicaid, Head Start, which provides early education to low-income kids, and increased funding to public schools.

The war on poverty helped raise millions above the poverty line. During Johnson’s years in office, the poverty rate dropped from 23 percent to 12 percent. MORE

Report: 2012 Grads Have Highest-Ever Student Debt

This post first appeared in The Nation.

The Institute for College Access & Success, an independent nonprofit organization based in Oakland, California recently released its eighth annual report on average student loan debt in the US, and its findings are dire. College graduates who borrowed for bachelor’s degrees granted in 2012 have an average student loan debt of $29,400, the highest average student loan debt ever on record.

Overall, 70 percent of college seniors graduated in 2012 with debt.

“The graduates of 2012 left school and entered repayment at a time of high unemployment,” said Debbie Cochrane, research director at the institute. “In many ways, these graduates were hit from both sides.”

“They went to college during a recession when their family’s ability to pay for college was likely reduced. Now they are graduating from college and may be experiencing substantial challenges getting a job to repay the loans.” MORE

Charts: The Worst Long-Term Unemployment Crisis Since the Depression

This post first appeared in Mother Jones.

Officially, the Great Recession of 2007 ended in June 2009. Yet the economic downturn remains in full effect for millions of Americans, particularly the nearly 40 percent of the unemployed who have been looking for work for six months or more.

In less than a week, emergency federal unemployment benefits for 1.3 million of these jobless Americans are set to run out. Proponents of ending the benefits argue that the economy is expanding and that the benefits prevent people from finding work. “You get out of a recession by encouraging employment not encouraging unemployment,” according to Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who opposes extending benefits. However, the data shows that while corporate America has bounced back, it is not restoring all the jobs it shed when the economy tanked five years ago.

Currently, nearly 11 million Americans are unemployed. The unemployment rate stands at seven percent. Both of those stats are improvements from a little more than four years ago, when the post-recession jobless rate peaked at 10 percent and more than 15 million people were out of work.

However, there currently are more than four million Americans who have been unemployed for six months or longer. Not since the Great Depression has the United States experienced such massive and persistent long-term unemployment.

Overall, the long-term unemployed (those with out a job for six months or longer) make up nearly 40 percent of all the jobless.

Long-term unemployment has not affected all Americans evenly. African-Americans and the poor make up 23 percent and 34 percent of the ranks of the long-term unemployed, respectively.

For many people, going without work for more than six months can kick off a vicious cycle or financial and personal crises that may take years to break out of.

While the unemployment rate is steadily falling, hiring has not recovered as quickly as it did during the three most recent previous recessions.

Currently, there are about three people looking for work for every job opening. Compare this to 2007, when “job seekers ratio” was nearly half that. The ratio varies widely across industries, but even in the most applicant-friendly industry, insurance and finance, has 30 percent more seekers than positions.

Meanwhile, corporate America has regained the financial ground it lost during the Great Recession. Real corporate profits after taxes have grown 30 percent since 2007, while the number of jobs is still below its pre-recession level.

And the price of continuing long-term unemployment isn’t just borne by the jobless and their families. It’s dragging down the entire economy—to the tune of $1 trillion a year.

Dave Gilson is a senior editor at Mother Jones. Read more of his stories, follow him on Twitter at @daudig.
Tasneem Raja is MoJo’s Interactive Editor. She specializes in web app production, interactive graphics and user interface design. Follow her on Twitter at @tasneemraja.
AJ Vicens is an editorial fellow at Mother Jones. Follow him on Twitter at @AJVicens.

Facts and Figures on Incarceration in America

Over the last four decades, America’s prison population has increased dramatically. This tremendous growth disproportionately affects minorities, and has been exacerbated by the war on drugs. Mass incarceration has become a form of legalized discrimination — what activist and lawyer Michelle Alexander calls the “new Jim Crow” — that makes it more difficult for millions to participate in basic aspects of our democracy.

Below are some facts and figures on incarceration in America.

America has 5 percent of the world's population, but has 25 percent of the world's prison population.In the early 1970s, there were 250,000 inmates in the United States; today, there are 2,400,000 -- an increase of over 800 percent.The average cost of housing an inmate is between $20,000 and $30,000 a year. States spend over $50,000,000,000 a year on corrections.For every 2 white Americans incarcerated, 11 black Americans are incarcerated.Prison sentences of black men were nearly 20 percent longer than those of white men for similar crimes in recent years.If incarceration rates continue to grow at the pace they have since the 1970s, 1 of every 3 black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, as can 1 of every 6 Latino males and 1 of every 17 white males.Nearly 6,000,000 Americans are barred from voting for committing a felony, including 2,200,000 African Americans.

For further reading on mass incarceration in America, check out the American Civil Liberties Union’s infographic on the topic, The Sentencing Project’s report to the UN on racial disparities in the US justice system, its state-by-state map, the Washington Post’s editorial on state spending on corrections and Professor Heather Schoenfeld’s “Five things everyone should know about US incarceration.”

More Than Half of Americans Now Have Tougher Gun Safety Laws

This story first appeared in Mother Jones.

Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, from San Antonio, Texas, who lost their daughter Jessica Ghawi, 24, in the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting, shows a picture of their daughter. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, from San Antonio, Texas, who lost their daughter Jessica Ghawi, 24, in the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting, show a picture of their daughter as they call on Congress to pass further legislation to prevent gun violence. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

An unthinkable massacre ignites an intense national debate. Then, Congress does nothing. The powerful gun lobby wins again. End of story.

So went the popular narrative last spring with the collapse of gun control legislation on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, scores of people have been wounded or killed in five new mass shootings and other gun rampages around the country and an estimated 30,000 have been killed by firearms — including hundreds of young children, as documented in our latest investigation.

But no, the gun lobby did not “win.” The real action after Newtown was not in the nation’s capital — it was in most statehouses around the country, where no fewer than 114 bills were signed into law, aiming in both political directions. America has warred over its deep-rooted gun culture on and off for decades, and Newtown set off a major mobilization on both sides.

Determining how that battle changed the terrain in 2013 isn’t just a matter of the total number of laws passed (some of which contain multiple measures), but also the types of activity and swaths of population they affect. Unsurprisingly, the redder states mostly continued to deregulate firearms, while bluer coastal states — and a more politically split Colorado — moved aggressively to tighten restrictions.

Based on data from the nonpartisan Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which tracks state legislation closely, here’s how the barrage of new measures has altered Americans’ ability to legally bear arms:

Strengthening gun regulations:

  • 41 new laws in 22 states made it harder for people to own guns, hard for people to carry them in public and enhanced the government’s ability to track guns.
  • Additionally, 15 laws in 15 states made it harder for people with serious mental health problems to possess guns — a major factor in mass shootings, as our ongoing investigation has shown.
  • Together, these laws affect more than 189 million people.

The most sweeping restrictions came in Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland and New York, including background checks for gun buyers and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Although tracking gun ownership is anathema to the National Rifle Association and its allies, 18 states and the District of Columbia boosted their capabilities to do so: New measures included requiring lost or stolen firearms to be reported (Maryland, New York) and criminalizing the tampering with manufacturers’ identification marks on firearms (Rhode Island). From Florida to Colorado to Washington state, lawmakers required more rigorous reporting of mental health records to the FBI’s criminal background check system and imposed greater restrictions on the mentally ill.

Weakening gun regulations:

  • 75 laws in 29 states made it easier for people to own guns, carry guns in public places — including schools, churches, restaurants, bars and casinos — and made it harder for the government to track guns.
  • Together, these laws affect more than 185 million people.

The long-running NRA-backed movement to deregulate guns also continued apace after Newtown, with a particular focus on expanding concealed-carry rights: No fewer than 63 laws in 26 states made it easier for citizens to pack heat in public, including in Illinois, which became the 50th state to allow such permits. Seven states authorized firearms to be carried in K-12 schools — including Alabama, which now allows the grounds where kindergartners frolic to be patrolled by armed “volunteer emergency security forces” that can include local citizens alongside school employees. Texas alone enacted 12 new measures deregulating guns. (It was also the state with the most child gun deaths in 2013.)

As a recent New York Times interactive shows, the majority of laws deregulating guns were passed in states with Republican-controlled legislatures and governorships, while a majority of laws tightening restrictions passed in states where Democrats were in control.

But several states in fact pulled the trigger in both directions. The Democratic-controlled statehouse in Minnesota, for example, was among those improving mental health reporting but also passed a measure curtailing data collection on individual gun ownership. New Jersey prohibited individuals named on the federal Terrorist Watchlist from purchasing a firearm but also made concealed-carry permit records confidential. Utah passed two measures aimed at halting domestic violence against women — a problem frighteningly exacerbated by lax firearms laws in some states — but also made it easier to carry a concealed gun on university campuses.

Mark Follman, senior editor at Mother Jones
Mark Follman is a senior editor at Mother Jones. He is a former editor of Salon and a cofounder of the MediaBugs project. His reporting and commentary have also appeared in Salon, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, USA Today and on Fox News and NPR’s All Things Considered. The in-depth investigation into mass shootings he led for Mother Jones has been honored with multiple awards: The 2013 Izzy Award, two Society of Professional Journalists awards for reporting excellence and an Online Journalism Award.

23 Petty Crimes That Have Landed People in Prison for Life

This post originally appeared at Mother Jones

In this photo taken Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013, during a session of The Last Mile at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

As of last year, according to a report released yesterday by the American Civil Liberties Union, more than 3,200 people were serving life in prison without parole for nonviolent crimes. A close examination of these cases by the ACLU reveals just how petty some of these offenses are. People got life for, among other things…

Despite Record Poverty, the US Has Made Most Gains in Global Wealth (with Charts!)

This post first appeared in Mother Jones.

The United States is the wealthiest country in the world, in terms of GDP. But which country is the richest in terms of median wealth per person? Australia. The median wealth of adults there is $219,505, according to the Credit Suisse 2013 Global Wealth Report, which was released on Wednesday. In the US, the median wealth is only $45,000, compared to an average wealth per person of more than $250,000. Here are some other chart-tastic findings from the report.

Global wealth reached an all-time high of $241 trillion, up about five percent since last year. If all the money in the world were spread out evenly, it would amount to $51,600 per person. And here is a map of what it would look like if countries’ GDP were spread out evenly among their populations.


Unequal Skylines for an Unequal Nation

Over the summer, designer and blogger Nickolay Lamm re-envisioned New York’s skyline such that the height of buildings represented the wealth of the people who inhabited them.

The art was striking, and exposed the city’s vast inequalities. “I feel a lot of people look at New York’s skyline and think, ‘that’s where dreams happen, that’s where dreams are made,” he says. “I wanted to recreate the skyline to show dreams can happen there, but it’s not as easy as it seems.”

Lamm has just come out with a new set of illustrations visualizing inequality for several other cities, including Chicago, Boston, Miami, San Francisco and Los Angeles.


Here’s how his visualization of income inequality works: If one section of a city had a net worth for example of $500,000, the height of the green 3D bar shape for that section is 5 cm. If one section had a net worth of $112,000, the height for that section is smaller at 1.12 cm.

Lamm’s method reveals striking divides within cities. In his visualization of Chicago above, for instance, one can see wealth clustered along the shore of Lake Michigan and in the suburbs to the west, but not in between.

Here’s another map by Lamm that shows the same phenomenon. The dark green areas represent those areas with the highest wealth, similar to the soaring green bars in the previous image.

By the Numbers: The Incredibly Shrinking American Middle Class

A typical American household made about $51,017 in 2012, according to new figures out from the Census Bureau this week. That number may sound familiar to anyone who remembers George H. W. Bush’s first year as president or Michael Jackson in his prime. That’s because household income in 2012 is similar to what it was in 1989 (but back then it was actually higher: you had an extra $600 or so to spend compared to today).

That sobering statistic gives an indication of where the American middle class appears to be headed. Take a look below at a snapshot of where the middle class is now, the problems they face and what our Facebook audience has to say about squeaking out a living these days.

A note on the term “middle class”: There is no single, universal definition so we turned to economic analyst Robert Reich – who spoke to us this week – for some direction. Reich suggested defining middle class as those with income levels 50 percent above and below the median income. Median is a term that means the “middle of the middle.” Median earnings are a key indicator of how the middle class is doing. MORE

One Good Reason to Clean Your Plate

This post first appeared at Mother Jones.

A man pays for his fruit at Lisbon's Arroios food market, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013. Portugal has sold euro 1.25 billion (US$1.66 billion) in Treasury bills in a debt auction at an interest rate of 2.29 percent for 18-month and 1.08 percent for 3-month. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
A man pays for his fruit at Lisbon's Arroios food market, Sept. 18, 2013. Wasted fruit has a relatively small ratio of food waste to carbon emitted. Meat's ratio is much larger. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

A full third of the world’s food is wasted. According to a new report from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, discarded food accounts for a staggering amount of planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, if food waste was a country, its 3.3 gigatonnes of emissions would make it the third highest-emitting country in the world, after China and the United States: MORE

How Close do You Live to America’s Dirtiest Power Plants?

The massive Plant Scherer near Juliette, Ga. puts 21.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year, more than any other power plant in America. (AP Photo/Gene Blythe)
The massive Plant Scherer near Juliette, Ga. puts 21.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year, more than any other power plant in America. (AP Photo/Gene Blythe)

Our energy comes from 6,000 power plants which together produce about 40 percent of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions, the main greenhouse gas driving climate change. But a handful of very large, very dirty plants are responsible for a disproportionate share of the problem.

A new report from two think tanks — the Frontier Group and the Environment America Research & Policy Center — takes a look at this small group of heavy polluters. The researchers found that the 50 dirtiest power plants in the U.S. are responsible for 30 percent of the energy industry’s CO2 emissions, and a full two percent of all emissions worldwide — these 50 plants were responsible for more climate change than all but six countries in the world.

The top 100 dirtiest plants in America produce 3.2 percent of the world’s carbon emissions — or roughly the same amount as all passenger vehicles in the U.S. MORE

Paying CEOs Top Dollar for Poor Performance

This post first appeared in The Nation.

Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. Chief Executive Richard S. Fuld Jr., testifies before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Capitol Hill  in Washington, Monday, Oct. 6, 2008, on the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Days from becoming the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history, Lehman Brothers steered millions to departing executives even while pleading for a federal rescue, Congress was told Monday. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Lehman Brothers Chief Executive Richard Fuld testifies before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Oct. 6, 2008, on the collapse of Lehman Brothers. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

One of the great American delusions is meritocracy — the idea that everyone competes on an even playing field, and then gets what they deserve. In a meritocratic society, we would expect top-earning chief executives to represent the best and the brightest. Or, at the very least, to be good at their jobs.

Consider the case of Richard Fuld, who ran Lehman Brothers from 1994 until 2008. Fuld made the list of America’s twenty-five highest-paid executives for eight years in a row, until the bank collapsed under a slew of bad investments. The Lehman bust was the largest bankruptcy in the nation’s history and a defining event in the financial crisis. For his leadership in the eight years prior to the collapse, while the firm was making bad bets and covering them up with accounting tricks, Fuld raked in more than $466 million.

Then there’s Vikram Pandit, former CEO of Citigroup. Pandit made the top-twenty-five list in 2008, earning $38 million. That same year, his firm laid off 75,000 employees, and took government bailouts ultimately exceeding $472 billion. Pandit accepted only $1 for his services while his firm was in the red, but by 2011 he was back on the list of top earners. MORE

Our Growing Racial Wealth Gap

A man walks through a blighted neighborhood, July 11, 2013, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
A man walks through a blighted neighborhood, July 11, 2013, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The vast chasm between the richest one percent of Americans and everyone else continues to widen, and researchers have found that when you factor race into the equation, the economic gap is even more pronounced.

A recent Urban Institute report finds that the racial wealth gap — measured as the difference in wealth accumulated by white Americans and black and Latino Americans — is the largest it has ever been since the Federal Reserve started tracking it. In 1983, for every dollar held by the average black or Latino family, the average white family had five. In the aftermath of the financial meltdown and the Great Recession that figure today has increased to six dollars. The figures for the median post-recession family — a measure less skewed by America’s handful of superrich — are even further apart: in 2010, for every dollar held by the median black or Latino family, the median white family had eight.

Credit: Urban Institute. Click to enlarge.

One thing that’s remarkable about these statistics is that the racial wealth gap is three times greater than the racial income gap. In other words, white people not only have higher incomes, but they are also better positioned to retain that income and build it. “Such great wealth disparities help explain why many middle-income blacks and Hispanics haven’t seen much improvement in their relative economic status and, in fact, are at greater risk of sliding backwards,” the researchers who compiled the Urban Institute study note. MORE

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