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American Lives Will Be Saved, Not Lost, If We Release the Senate Torture Report

| Mon Dec. 8, 2014 2:35 PM EST

The Senate torture report seems likely to be published this week in some form or another, but there's already a campaign in full swing to keep it under wraps. Why? Because its release might put Americans in danger. Paul Waldman acknowledges that this might be true, but provides the right response:

The cynicism necessary to attempt to blame the blowback from their torture program on those who want it exposed is truly a wonder. On one hand, they insist that they did nothing wrong and the program was humane, professional, and legal. On the other they implicitly accept that the truth is so ghastly that if it is released there will be an explosive backlash against America. Then the same officials who said "Freedom isn't free!" as they sent other people's children to fight in needless wars claim that the risk of violence against American embassies is too high a price to pay, so the details of what they did must be kept hidden.

There's another thing to be said about this: Our conduct during the early years of the war on terror almost certainly inflamed our enemies, bolstered their recruitment, and prolonged the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. This cost thousands of American lives.

President Obama may have banned torture during his administration, but is there any reason to think we've now given up torture for good? Not that I can tell, and it will cost many more thousands of American lives if it happens again. So for our own safety, even if for no other reason, we need to do everything we can to reduce the odds of America going on another torture spree.

How do we do that? Well, all it will take for torture to become official policy yet again is (a) secrecy and (b) another horrific attack that can be exploited by whoever happens to be in power at the moment. And while there may not be a lot we can about (b), we can at least try to force the public to recognize the full nature of the brutality that we descended to after 9/11. That might lower the odds a little bit, and that's why this report needs to be released. It's not just because it would be the right thing to do. It's because, in the long run, if it really does reduce the chances of America adopting a policy of mass torture again in the future, it will save American lives.

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Economists Are Almost Inhumanly Impartial

| Mon Dec. 8, 2014 12:29 PM EST

Over at 538, a team of researchers takes on the question of whether economists are biased. Given that economists are human beings, it would be pretty shocking if the answer turned out to be no, and sure enough, it's not. In fact, say the researchers, liberal economists tend to produce liberal results and conservative economists tend to produce conservative results. This is unsurprising, but oddly enough, I'm also not sure it's the real takeaway here.

The methodology they used to calculate bias involves a series of bank shots. Here's how it's done. First, take a group of economists with known ideologies. Second, examine the word choices in their papers. Third, create an algorithm that links ideology and word choice. Fourth, apply the algorithm to a large group of economists. Fifth, examine the numerical results in their papers. Sixth, normalize the results within fields to see how left- or right-leaning their conclusions are. Seventh, plot numerical results vs. predicted ideology.

Whew! There are, needless to say, error bars at every step along the way. Still, you will end up with a regression line eventually, and you can see it in the chart on the right. Sure enough, it shows that liberal economists tend to produce more liberal results, and vice versa for conservative economists.

That, however, is not the conclusion I draw from all this. What I see is a nearly flat regression line with a ton of variance. Those blue dots are all over the place. If the authors say their results are statistically significant, I believe them, but it sure looks to me as if (a) the real-world error bars are pretty big here, and (b) economists as a whole are remarkably unbiased. I mean, look at that chart again. I would have expected a much steeper line. Instead, what we see is just the barest possibility that ideology has a very slight effect on economists' findings.

If these results are actually true, then congratulations economists! You guys are pretty damn evenhanded. The most committed Austrians and the most extreme socialists are apparently producing numerical results that are only slightly different. If there's another field this side of nuclear physics that does better, I'd be surprised.

Bill de Blasio Explains Why Encounters with Police Are "Different for a White Child"

| Mon Dec. 8, 2014 11:25 AM EST

In his call for Americans to begin an "honest conversation" about broken race relations in America, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio defended earlier statements he made explaining why his biracial son Dante needs to be especially careful in encounters with law enforcement.

"What parents have done for decades, who have children of color, especially young men of color, is train them to be very careful when they have a connection with a police officer," de Blasio opened up to ABC's George Stephanopoulos on Sunday.

"It's different for a white child. That's just the reality in this country. And with Dante, very early on with my son, we said, look, if a police officer stops you, do everything he tells you to do, don't move suddenly, don't reach for your cell phone, because we knew, sadly, there's a greater chance it might be misinterpreted if it was a young man of color."

His appearance on Sunday follows a previous statement he made revealing the personal story of when he and his wife sat down with Dante with instructions on how he should act if he were to ever be stopped by an officer. The anecdote drew outrage from police union leaders who criticized the mayor for "throwing officers under the bus."

In the aftermath of last week's decision by a grand jury not to indict the officer who placed Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold, de Blasio has had the difficult task of demonstrating support for both protestors and members of the New York City Police Department. Many have applauded the mayor for being able to view Garner's death from a raw, personal standpoint.

Backing de Blasio's personal views are a number of studies showing that even absent conscious, blatant racism, our brains are wired with implicit biases that cause all of us, including police, to instincitvely react with prejudice.

After his appearance on Sunday, however, Ed Mullins of the Sergeants Benevolent Association rejected the mayor for doubling down on his comments and suggested the mayor should move out of the city if he can't trust his own police force.

One Simple Truth About Facebook That Snobby Elitists Can't Seem to Wrap Their Heads Around

| Mon Dec. 8, 2014 11:10 AM EST

Alex Tabarrok mulls the question of whether advertising-supported products are fundamentally less attuned to customer needs than, say, Apple products:

Apple’s market power isn’t a given, it’s a function of the quality of Apple’s products relative to its competitors. Thus, Apple has a significant incentive to increase quality and because it can’t charge each of its customers a different price a large fraction of the quality surplus ends up going to customers and Apple customers love Apple products.

Facebook doesn’t charge its customers so relative to Apple it has a greater interest in increasing the number of customers even if that means degrading the quality. As a result, Facebook has more users than Apple but no one loves Facebook. Facebook is broadcast television and Apple is HBO.

No one loves Facebook? This is a seriously elitist misconception. It's like saying that Tiffany's customers all love Tiffany's but no one loves Walmart.

But that's flatly not true. Among people with relatively high incomes, no one loves Walmart. Among the working and middle classes, there are tens of millions of people who not only love Walmart, but literally credit them with being able to live what they consider a middle-class lifestyle. They adore Walmart.

Ditto for Facebook. I don't love Facebook. Maybe Alex doesn't love Facebook. And certainly Facebook's fortunes rise and fall over time as other social networking products gain or lose mindshare. But there are loads of people who not only love Facebook, but are practically addicted to it. And why not? Facebook's advertiser-centric model forces them to give their customers what they want, since happy customers are the only way to increase the number of eyeballs that their advertisers want. Apple, by contrast, was run for years on the whim of Steve Jobs, who famously refused to give his customers what they wanted if it happened to conflict with his own idiosyncratic notion of how a phone/tablet/computer ought to work. In the end, this worked out well because Jobs was an oddball genius—though it was a close-run thing. But how many companies can find success that way? A few, to be sure. But not a lot.

"Quality" is not a one-dimensional attribute—and this is an insight that's seriously underappreciated. It means different things to different people. As a result, good mass-market companies are every bit as loved as companies that cater to elites. They're just loved by different people. But the love of the working class is every bit as real as the love of the upper middle class. You forget that at your peril.

She & Him & M. Ward

| Mon Dec. 8, 2014 6:00 AM EST

She & Him
Classics
Columbia

M. Ward
Transistor Radio
Merge

 

Behold the two sides of M. Ward (Matt to his friends), the gifted troubadour who makes nice pop records with actress Zooey Deschanel as She & Him and crafts darker folk-rock fare on his own. Classics finds She & Him covering 13 chestnuts in engaging fashion, with Deschanel taking most of the lead vocals, as usual.

Though she lacks the booming voice of a Dusty Springfield, whose "Stay Awhile" gets a welcome reboot here, Deschanel is a charming singer who sells a lyric with understated grace. See the downcast soul standard "Oh No, Not My Baby" or the enthralling and dreamy "Unchained Melody" for proof. If their sleepy reading of "Stars Fell on Alabama" won't make anybody forget the timeless Ella Fitzgerald-Louis Armstrong duet, it's still lovely.

Ward's stellar 2005 album Transistor Radio, just reissued on vinyl with a CD containing four bonus tracks, has aged extremely well. Without straining for effect, his whispery rasp brilliantly conveys all the simmering desperation and mordant humor of haunting songs such as "Four Hours in Washington" ("It's 4:00 in the morning and I'm turning in my bed/I wish I had a dream or a nightmare in my head") and "One Life Away," recounting a visit to a sweetheart's grave. Ward can spook a person like few others when he's in the mood.

Watch This Dog React to Its Favorite Song Coming On

| Sun Dec. 7, 2014 4:15 PM EST

Here is a video of a dog sleeping in the back of a car while the driver plays Charli XCX's wonderful "Boom Clap." Then the driver switches to Frozen's "Let It Go" and the dog wakes up and starts singing along. Then Charlie XCX comes back on and it goes back to sleep.

This dog has terrible taste in music. Charli XCX is objectively better than Frozen. If this dog were a music critic, I'd fire it. But it's not a music critic. It's a dog. And all things considered, this is a spirited performance for a dog.

(via BuzzFeed)

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The Obama Recovery Has Been Miles Better Than the Bush Recovery

| Sat Dec. 6, 2014 3:19 PM EST

Paul Krugman writes today about the dogged conservative claim that the current recovery has been weak thanks to the job-killing effects of Obamacare and Obama regulation and the generally dire effects of Obama's hostility to the business sector. But I think Krugman undersells his case. He shows that the current recovery has created more private sector jobs than the 2001-2007 recovery, and that's true. But in fairness to the Bush years, the labor force was smaller back then and Bush was working from a smaller base. So of course fewer jobs were created. What you really want to look at is jobs as a percent of the total labor force. And here's what you get:

The Obama recovery isn't just a little bit better than the Bush recovery. It's miles better. But here's the interesting thing. This chart looks only at private sector employment. If you want to make Bush look better, you can look at total employment instead. It's still not a great picture, but it's a little better:

Do you see what happened? The Bush recovery looks a bit healthier and the Obama recovery looks a bit weaker. Why? Because we added government jobs. Bush got a nice tailwind from increased hiring at the state and federal level. Obama, conversely, was sailing into heavy headwinds because he inherited a worse recession. States cut employment sharply—partly because they had to and partly because Republican governors saw the recession as an opportunity to slash the size of government—and Congress was unwilling to help them out in any kind of serious way.

This is obviously not a story that conservatives are especially likely to highlight. But there's not much question about it. Bush benefited not just from a historic housing bubble, but from big increases in government spending and government employment. But even at that his recovery was anemic. Obama had no such help. He had to fight not just a historic housing bust, but big drops in both government spending and government employment. Despite that, his recovery outperformed Bush's by a wide margin.

There are, of course, plenty of caveats to all this. First of all, the labor force participation rate has been shrinking ever since 2000, and that's obviously not the fault of either Bush or Obama. It's a secular trend. Second, the absolute size of the labor force started out smaller in 2001 than in 2010, but it grew during the Bush recovery, which makes his trend line look worse. Its growth has been pretty sluggish during the Obama recovery as people have dropped out of the labor force, which makes his trend line look better. These are the kinds of things that make simple comparisons between administrations so hard. And as Krugman points out, it's unclear just how much economic policy from either administration really affected their respective recoveries anyway:

I would argue that in some ways the depth of the preceding slump set the stage for a faster recovery. But the point is that the usual suspects have been using the alleged uniquely poor performance under Obama to claim uniquely bad policies, or bad attitude, or something. And if that’s the game they want to play, they have just scored an impressive own goal.

Roger that. If you want to credit Bush for his tax cuts and malign Obama for his stimulus program and his regulatory posture, then you have to accept the results as well. And by virtually any measure, including the fact that the current recovery hasn't ended in an epic global crash, Obama has done considerably better than Bush.

Film Review: "We Are the Giant"

| Sat Dec. 6, 2014 6:30 AM EST

We Are the Giant

MOTTO PICTURES

Bahraini sisters and activists Maryam and Zainab al-Khawaja are the heart of this devastating look at the lives behind three Arab Spring uprisings. The film's interviews are interspersed with grainy, often violent footage—one heart-wrenching clip of a little girl singing at a peaceful protest is cut short by a nearby explosion; another expresses the profound remorse of a Syrian protest leader whose peaceful rallies were met by fatal attacks on his people. By the end, some of the film's main characters are questioning their faith in nonviolent resistance, but their resilience in the face of injustice is this excellent film's common thread.

Watch the Bullies Who Protest Outside of Abortion Clinics Get Exactly What They Deserve

| Fri Dec. 5, 2014 4:53 PM EST

A video of a pregnant woman delivering a scathing rebuke to a group of anti-abortion protestors outside a London abortion clinic is going viral on social media.

A group of protestors from the British pro-life organization Abort67 gathered in front of the clinic to film women as they entered. In the video, the protestors can be seen denying that they're filming the women, despite the fact that, curiously enough, they were outfitted with cameras on their chests while standing in front of a bloody fetus banner. With their weak denials quickly dissolving, one of the protestors then owns up but explains that the group regularly records their demonstrations to prevent "false accusations we're harassing people." That's when the woman courageously goes off on the protestors:

"It's wrong what you're doing. You don't know why people are doing what they're doing, but you want to be out here judging and filming...You’re standing out here making people feel guilty. I think this is wrong on so many levels. Many people have been abused, you don't know what their reasons are for."

The woman, who has been identified as an employee of a charity group that assists children in need, then suggests the protestors quit trying to guilt other women and instead help out real vulnerable kids.

Bravo.

Friday Cat Blogging - 5 December 2014

| Fri Dec. 5, 2014 2:45 PM EST

In today's episode of Friday catblogging, Hilbert is trying to prove that he's a size 12. He was unconvincing, despite plenty of squirming to try to fit his entire body into the shoe box. The result was an interestingly blurred face, but not an entire cat in the box.

In other news, we've had to clear off the mantle over the fireplace because it turns out that Hopper can shinny up the bricks and start whacking away at whatever is up there. But there's more to the story. We figured that Hilbert was a bit too gravity-bound to pose any similar danger, so we were blaming Hopper whenever something got knocked over. But on Wednesday night, during the 9 pm play hour, we watched in awe as Hilbert careened across the living room floor, flung himself straight up the brick facing, and grabbed onto the mantle. He barely made it, and had to chin himself up the last few inches, but make it he did. Nothing is safe around here anymore.