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Watch John Oliver Explain Why Washington D.C. Should Be the 51st State

| Mon Aug. 3, 2015 8:32 AM EDT

On Sunday, Last Week Tonight took on the issue of restricted voting rights for Washington D.C. residents, despite the fact they pay federal taxes and have a larger population than some entire states such as Vermont and Wyoming. Even the Dalai Lama once called the situation "quite strange."

"The people of D.C. clearly deserve a greater voice in their own affairs and they've actually come tantalizingly close to getting a voting representative in Congress," John Oliver explained. "In 2009, a bill to give D.C. a vote was introduced in the Senate, and the Senate did the most dickish thing imaginable: passing it, but with a little addition."

That controversial addition sought to repeal all of D.C.'s gun control laws, further illustrating the uphill battle that is granting D.C. statehood.

"It was the kind of amendment NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre dreams about as he sleeps in his bullet-filled bathtub, I presume," Oliver said.

As a result the bill was dropped.

With the help of a group of singing children, Oliver continued his call for D.C.'s statehood with an amended tune about America's 50 states. Not convinced? The song ends with the suggestion, "Well then let's all kick out Florida cause no one thinks they're great."

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One Pollster Has Stopped Polling the Republican Primary. Will Others Follow?

| Mon Aug. 3, 2015 12:28 AM EDT

I've been wondering for a while who the first pollster would be to stop polling the Republican primary. Today I got my answer:

As candidates jostle to make the cut for the first GOP presidential debate this week, the McClatchy-Marist Poll has temporarily suspended polling on primary voter choices out of concern that public polls are being misused to decide who will be in and who will be excluded.

....“It’s a problem when it’s shaping who gets to sit at the table,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute....“It’s making candidates change their behavior. Kasich is trying to get a big bounce. Rand Paul has a video with a chain saw. Lindsay Graham is hitting cell phones with golf clubs,” Miringoff said. “Now the public polls are affecting the process they’re supposed to be measuring.”

Miringoff is also concerned that candidates may be excluded from the debate due to differences between 10th and 11th place that are so close they're within the margin of error. I think those concerns are overblown, but that doesn't mean they aren't real. There's clearly a certain amount of arbitrariness at work here.

I doubt that very many outfits will pull out of primary polling. But a few more might, and of course that also affects which candidates will make the cut. In the end, then, McClatchy might be kidding itself here. There's just no way for news organizations that make editorial and placement judgments to avoid affecting the events they report on. It might be best to accept that and deal with it openly instead of pretending they can make it go away.

As Federal Aid Goes Up, College Costs Rise Enough to Gobble It All Up

| Sun Aug. 2, 2015 5:46 PM EDT

Josh Mitchell of the Wall Street Journal writes today about the spiraling cost of college:

The federal government has boosted aid to families in recent decades to make college more affordable. A new study from the New York Federal Reserve faults these policies for enabling college institutions to aggressively raise tuitions.

....Conservatives have long held that generous federal-aid policies inflate higher-education costs, a viewpoint famously articulated by then-Education Secretary William Bennett in a 1987 column that came to be dubbed the Bennett Hypothesis.

Regular readers know that I have at least a bit of sympathy for this view.  But Mitchell doesn't really explain how the data supports this hypothesis. So I'll give it a try. As you can see on the right, federal aid increased very modestly from 2000 to 2009. Then it went up sharply starting around 2010. If this aid were truly helping make college more affordable, out-of-pocket expenses for students (i.e., actual cash outlays net of loans and grants) would start to flatten out or even go down.

But that hasn't happened. You can lay a straightedge on the red line in the bottom chart. Basically, families received no net benefit from increased federal aid. Actual cash outlays rose at exactly the same rate as they had been rising before.

My guess is that this will continue until universities get to the point at which students and families simply don't value higher education enough to pay any more. That's the gating item, not aid programs. When out-of-pocket expenses finally equal the value that students put on a college degree, prices will stabilize.1 That's my guess, anyway.

The Journal article has more on this, and the Fed study is here if you want to read more about the methodology—much more sophisticated than mine—that the authors used to come to a similar conclusion.

1Actually, it's when the perceived value of a college degree equals current cash outlays plus whatever burden students associate with future loan paybacks. However, the latter is pretty tricky to quantify since it varies widely depending on the university, the student's major, and their subjective discount rate.

Tell Us What You Really Think About Donald Trump

| Sat Aug. 1, 2015 7:23 PM EDT

I've sort of promised myself not to write about Donald Trump, but (a) it's a weekend, and (b) David Fahrenthold has a pretty entertaining piece about Trump in the Washington Post today. Here's a brief excerpt of some of the reactions Fahrenthold got to a variety of Trump's blatherings:

Mark Krikorian, a foe of illegal immigration, on Trump's immigration ideas: “Trump is like your Uncle George at Thanksgiving dinner, saying he knows how to solve all the problems. It’s not that he’s always wrong. It’s just that he’s an auto mechanic, not a policy guy.”

David Goldwyn, a former State Department official in the Obama administration, on Trump's plan to fight ISIS by simply bombing them and then taking all their oil: “That is sheer lunacy on so many counts, it’s hard to start.”

Some anonymous sources on the same idea: “Oil-industry experts expressed skepticism about this plan. Skepticism, in fact, may not be a strong-enough word.”

Michael Tanner of Cato, on Trump's endless vision of new building projects combined with his insistence on lowering taxes: “You can’t spend more and collect less. That’s kind of basic math. You can argue about how the math adds up in the other people’s plans. But there’s math there. This, there’s just no math.”

Gary Hufbauer of the Peterson Institute on Trump's plan to jack up tariffs on countries he doesn't like: “If you thought this had a ghost of a chance — which it doesn’t — you would sell all your stocks,” because of the damage that a trade war would do to the U.S. economy.

You know, when Mark Krikorian is critical of your anti-immigration ideas; Michael Tanner is skeptical of your tax-cutting ideas; and oil companies want no part of your oil-stealing ideas, you just know there's something wrong.

Anyway, Fahrenthold's piece is worth a weekend click. And you might as well do it while you can. We won't have Trump to kick around forever.

Our Anti-ISIS Program in Syria Is a Bad Joke

| Sat Aug. 1, 2015 11:44 AM EDT

So how are we doing in our efforts to train moderate Syrian allies to help us in the fight against ISIS? Here's the New York Times two days ago:

A Pentagon program to train moderate Syrian insurgents to fight the Islamic State has been vexed by problems of recruitment, screening, dismissals and desertions that have left only a tiny band of fighters ready to do battle.

Those fighters — 54 in all — suffered perhaps their most embarrassing setback yet on Thursday. One of their leaders, a Syrian Army defector who recruited them, was abducted in Syria near the Turkish border, along with his deputy who commands the trainees....Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter has acknowledged the shortfalls, citing strict screening standards, which have created a backlog of 7,000 recruits waiting to be vetted. Mr. Carter has insisted the numbers will increase.

Okay, I guess 54 is a....start. So how good are they? Here's the New York Times today:

A Syrian insurgent group at the heart of the Pentagon’s effort to fight the Islamic State came under intense attack on Friday....The American-led coalition responded with airstrikes to help the American-aligned unit, known as Division 30, in fighting off the assault....The attack on Friday was mounted by the Nusra Front, which is affiliated with Al Qaeda. It came a day after the Nusra Front captured two leaders and at least six fighters of Division 30, which supplied the first trainees to graduate from the Pentagon’s anti-Islamic State training program.

....“This wasn’t supposed to happen like this,” said one former senior American official, who was working closely on Syria issues until recently, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential intelligence assessments....Division 30 said in a statement that five of its fighters were killed in the firefight on Friday, 18 were wounded and 20 were captured by the Nusra Front. It was not clear whether the 20 captives included the six fighters and two commanders captured a day earlier.

Let's see, that adds up to either 43 or 51 depending on how you count. Starting with 54, then, it looks like Division 30 has either 11 or 3 fighters left, and no commanders. But apparently that's not so bad!

A spokesman for the American military, Col. Patrick S. Ryder, wrote in an email statement that “we are confident that this attack will not deter Syrians from joining the program to fight for Syria,” and added that the program “is making progress.”

....[A senior] defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence reports, described what he called “silver linings” to the attack on Friday: that the trainees had fought effectively in the battle, and that coalition warplanes responded quickly with airstrikes to support them.

The trainees fought effectively? There are no more than a dozen still able to fight. That's not the same definition of "effective" that most of us have. As for the US Air Force responding quickly, that's great. But the quality of the US Air Force has never really been in question.

This is starting to make Vietnam look like a well-oiled machine. Stay tuned.

The Clinton Rules, Tax Record Edition

| Fri Jul. 31, 2015 5:01 PM EDT

I was sitting in the living room this afternoon and Hopper jumped into my lap. So I told Marian to turn the TV to CNN and I'd watch the news until Hopper released me. The first thing I saw was John Berman teasing a segment about Hillary Clinton releasing a health statement plus eight years of tax records. In other words, pretty routine stuff for any serious presidential candidate. But when Berman tossed to Brianna Keilar, here's what she said:

KEILAR: When you think of a document dump like this, you normally think of, uh, in a way, sort of having something to hide. But the Clinton campaign trying to make the point that they're putting out this information and they're trying to be very transparent.

Talk about the Clinton rules! Hillary Clinton releases nearly a decade's worth of tax records, and the first thing that pops into Keilar's mind is that this is probably an effort to hide something. But hey! Let's be fair. The Clinton campaign says it's actually so that people can see her tax records. But they would say that, wouldn't they?

Unbelievable. If any other candidate released eight years of tax records, it would be reported as the candidate releasing eight years of tax records. But when Hillary does it, there's very likely something nefarious going on. God help us.

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Huckabee Says He'd Consider Using Federal Troops to Stop Abortions

| Fri Jul. 31, 2015 4:48 PM EDT

Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee told supporters in Iowa on Thursday that if he were elected president he would consider using the FBI or National Guard to end abortion by force. Per the Topeka Capital-Journal:

"I will not pretend there is nothing we can do to stop this," Huckabee said at the event, where a Topeka Capital-Journal correspondent was present.

At his next stop, in Rockwell City, Huckabee answered follow-up questions from the correspondent, saying: "All American citizens should be protected."

Asked by another reporter how he would stop abortion, and whether this would mean using the FBI or federal forces to accomplish this, Huckabee replied: "We'll see if I get to be president."

That's crazy. The right to an abortion has been upheld by the Supreme Court. Huckabee is saying he might simply disregard the judicial branch and stop the practice unilaterally—that is, he'd remove the checks from "checks and balances." It's not the first time he's proposed a constitutional crisis as an antidote to things he doesn't like. Huckabee has also said states should practice civil disobedience by ignoring the Supreme Court's decision on same-sex marriage.

And to think, we're still nearly a week away from the first primary debate.

Friday Cat Blogging - 31 July 2015

| Fri Jul. 31, 2015 2:50 PM EDT

Hopper (left) and Hilbert are so entranced by something or other that even my sister wants to know what they're looking at. My guess: a dust mote in the cat dimension.

Speaking of my sister, she is promising some guest cat blogging for next week. Will she come through? Tune in next Friday to find out!

The HPV Vaccine Prevents Cancer. So Why Aren't Most Teens Getting It?

| Fri Jul. 31, 2015 2:37 PM EDT

According to latest National Immunization Survey, released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Thursday, around 60 percent of teenage girls and 78 percent of teenage boys haven't received all three of the recommended doses of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, which helps prevent reproductive cancers and genital warts caused by the virus.

One in every 100 people infected with HPV will develop genital warts, and 23,000 are diagnosed with HPV-caused cancers each year.

Administered through three shots over a six month period, the vaccine protects against the most common types of the highly contagious virus, which is spread through sexual contact. Health officials recommend that adolescents receive the shots between the ages of 11 and 12 to boost the chances for immunity prior to any sexual activity, but the survey showed that 40 percent of girls and 60 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 hadn't received even the first dose.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease—most people will contract one of the 40 strains at some point in their lives. Seventy-nine million people in the United States have HPV, and an additional 14 million people are infected annually. Many people don't even know they have the virus, and it often goes away on its own.

But not everyone is so lucky: One in every 100 will develop genital warts and 23,000 are diagnosed with HPV-caused cancers each year. According to the CDC, the vaccine prevents almost all pre-cancers and warts caused by the virus in both males and females. Since the first HPV vaccine was developed in 2006, the vaccine has helped reduce HPV infections among teenage girls by 56 percent—even with vaccination rates as low as they are.

Michele Bachmann claimed that the vaccine was "very dangerous" and caused "mental retardation."

Still, many parents are deciding to pass. A study published in Pediatrics in 2013 showed that the reasons most cited included unwarranted fears about vaccine safety and disbelief that their kids would be sexually active. Despite it's proven safety and effectiveness, the vaccine has become a politically divisive issue. In 2011, Texas Governor Rick Perry was the first in the country to order a mandate, sparking outrage from the religious right. During a 2011 debate, Michele Bachmann claimed that the vaccine was "very dangerous" and caused "mental retardation," and Rick Santorum called vaccine mandates, "just wrong."

HPV vaccine uptake has not kept pace with that of other adolescent vaccines and has stalled in the past few years. In 2012, only about one-third of 13- to 17-year-old girls received all three recommended doses. These levels fall considerably short of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Healthy People 2020 goal of having 80 percent of 13- to 15-year-old girls fully vaccinated against HPV. Immunization rates for U.S. boys are even lower than for girls. Less than 7 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 completed the series in 2012. This low rate is in large part because the ACIP recommendation for routine vaccination of boys was not made until 2011. However, it is even lower than what was observed for girls in 2007—the first year following the recommendation for females—suggesting that concerted efforts are needed to promote HPV vaccination of males. - See more at: http://deainfo.nci.nih.gov/advisory/pcp/annualReports/HPV/ExecutiveSummary.htm#sthash.R6gsTr6L.dpuf

The National Cancer Institute has called for an "urgency of action" in closing vaccination gaps , citing that current vaccine rates are falling short of the US Department of Health and Human Services Goal for 80 percent coverage among 13 to 15 year old girls by 2020.

Though the focus is more often on girls, men are at also risk for HPV-caused cancers, including throat cancer, which may soon replace cervical cancer as the most common caused by the virus.

The survey did show there had been big gains in some parts of the country—Illinois, Montana, North Carolina and Utah all averaged increases of roughly 20 percent—which health officials say is an encouraging sign.

"The large increases in these diverse parts of the country show us it is possible to do much better at protecting our nation's youth from cancers caused by HPV infections," Dr. Anne Schuchat, assistant surgeon general and director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in a statement released with the report. "We are missing crucial opportunities to protect the next generation from cancers caused by HPV."

It's Republicans, Not Obama, Who Want to Bust the Sequestration Deal

| Fri Jul. 31, 2015 2:21 PM EDT

The LA Times reports today that we might be headed for another government shutdown. Big surprise. But these paragraphs are very peculiar:

President Obama has signaled his intention to bust, once and for all, the severe 2011 spending caps known as sequestration. He's vowed to reject any GOP-backed appropriation bills that increase government funding for the military without also boosting domestic programs important to Democrats such as Head Start for preschoolers.

The Republican-controlled Congress is also digging in. Since taking control in January, GOP leaders had promised to run Congress responsibly and prevent another shutdown like the one in 2013, but their spending proposals are defying the president's veto threat by bolstering defense accounts and leaving social-welfare programs to be slashed.

It's true that Obama has proposed doing away with the sequestration caps. But his budgets have routinely been described as DOA by Republican leaders, so his plans have never gotten so much as a hearing. What's happening right now is entirely different. Republicans are claiming they want to keep the sequestration deal, but they don't like the fact that back in 2011 they agreed it would cut domestic and military spending equally. Instead, Republicans now want to increase military spending and decrease domestic spending. They're doing this by putting the additional defense money into an "emergency war-spending account," which technically allows them to get around the sequester caps. Unsurprisingly, Obama's not buying it.

So how does this count as Obama planning to "bust" the sequestration caps? I don't get it. It sounds like Obama is willing to stick to the original deal if he has to, but he's quite naturally insisting that this means sticking to the entire deal. It's Republicans who are trying to renege. What am I missing here?