Trevor Noah Debuts on the "Daily Show" With Pledge to Continue "War on Bullshit"

| Tue Sep. 29, 2015 9:24 AM EDT

Last night, Trevor Noah premiered as the new host of the Daily Show with a fresh round of jokes about the pope's recent visit to the United States and John Boehner's surprise decision to resign as House speaker late last week.

But before diving into the news of the hour, the South African comedian used his opening monologue to thank Jon Stewart for the opportunity and promised to continue fighting his predecessor's 16-year "war on bullshit."

"Jon Stewart was more than just a late-night host," Noah said. "He was often our voice, our refuge, and in many ways our political dad. It's weird, because Dad has left and now it feels like the family has a new stepdad—and he's black."

"Thank you, John," he continued. "Thank you for believing in me. I'm not quite sure what you saw in me, but I'll work hard everyday to find it. And I'll make you not look like the crazy old dude who left his inheritance to some random kid from Africa."

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One Good Thing to Come Out of California's Drought Is This Luminous Book

| Tue Sep. 29, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

What if, contrary to current El Niño predictions, California never again catches a break from drought? Such is the world imagined by Mojave Desert-bred Claire Vaye Watkins in her electrifying debut novel Gold Fame Citrus. 

Watkins was born in Bishop, California, a small city in the Sierra Nevada's eastern foothills, and grew up in parched territory nearby. She first made waves with her short story collection, Battleborn, which won the Dylan Thomas prize and the New York Library Young Lions Fiction Award. Vogue called Watkins "the most captivating voice to come out of the West since Annie Proulx."

Gold Fame Citrus opens with young couple Luz and Ray eking out an existence in a vacant mansion in what was once Los Angeles, during a "drought of droughts," under the "ever-beaming, ever-heating, ever-evaporating sun." Bronzed Luz, wafer-thin and grimy, traipses around the mansion in a starlet's old robes, dodging rats and scorpions and living as "basically another woman's ghost," while Ray, usually shirtless with long, unbound curls, attempts to turn the villa into a survival bunker. 

Watkins' prose sizzles, her pen morphing sentences into glimmering new arrangements.

In this vision of the not-so-distant future, the West has run dry. Its citizens, who had once crowded California in search of "gold, fame, citrus," are now referred to as Mojavs and are all mostly banned from the more lush parts of the country. Water is rationed in paltry jugs at precise points of the day.

While attending a demented raindance festival, Luz and Ray encounter a strange girl they call "Ig," who clings to the couple and soon thrusts herself into their lives. Afraid of the vagabonds who might come looking for Ig, the improvised family flees Southern California in a search for more fertile territory, passing nomads, forest graveyards, and anthropomorphized sand dunes along the way.

Watkins' prose sizzles, her pen morphing sentences into glimmering new arrangements. While surrealist fiction is often striking for the fantastical scenery it conjures, Gold Fame Citrus haunted me with its references to objects I now take for granted. In a passage describing the only fruit still available in Luz and Ray's world, Watkins writes:

Hard sour strawberries and blackberries filled with dust. Flaccid carrots, ashen spinach, cracked olives, bruised hundred-dollar mangos, all-pith oranges, shriveled lemons, boozy tangerines, raspberries with gassed aphids curled in their hearts, an avocado whose crumbling taupe innards once made you weep.

Just as she turns a familiar landscape into a mysterious and foreboding geography, Watkins breathes new life into words we thought we knew well. Gold Fame Citrus will hypnotize you like a dream, and make you want to take a big swig of the water we have left.

There Are Thousands of Clinics That Could Replace Planned Parenthood, Right? Nope.

| Tue Sep. 29, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

This week, the Congressional controversy over Planned Parenthood could come to a head as investigations continue through the House of Representatives. Today, Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, will testify before the House Oversight Committee, one of several committees conducting an investigation in the wake of videos from anti-abortion activist David Daleiden, who is also expected to testify in the continuing discussion.

Most of the clinics listed don't even appear to have a certified OB-GYN on staff.

One of the claims they may address has been neatly presented in a map circulating on social media. The graphic claims that there are 13,540 clinics where women can find comprehensive health care, as opposed to a mere 665 Planned Parenthood locations. It has become a popular talking point in the conservative push to defund Planned Parenthood—most notably mentioned by Jeb Bush in the GOP debate earlier this month. The map in question seems to be referring to a list of clinics, organized by state, from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services.

But what the graphic doesn't mention is that most of the clinics listed don't even appear to have a certified OB-GYN on staff. The clinics are mostly general practice, meaning they may lack equipment and expertise to deliver reproductive health care to women. It's not clear what criteria the groups circulating the map used to define viable options to replace Planned Parenthood's services, and the groups did not respond to requests for comment.

While the clinics on this list do accept Medicaid, they are not set up to take the massive influx of patients that would result from a shutdown of Planned Parenthood. What's more, many private reproductive health care clinics—those that aren't represented on the list—don't take Medicaid at all. That's because the program pays just a fraction of what private insurers will reimburse.

The claim that community clinics could replace Planned Parenthood represents "a fundamental misunderstanding of how the health care system works."

Planned Parenthood, on the other hand, is set up to handle large numbers of Medicaid patients. Nearly half of all Planned Parenthood patients use Medicaid coverage, and more than a third of women who receive publicly funded family planning care rely on Planned Parenthood.

Mark DeFrancesco, president of the American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecologists, says it's common for practitioners not to accept Medicaid patients, because the reimbursement rates can't come close to offsetting the operating costs of their clinics. "The reimbursement is such that Medicaid just by definition doesn't pay anywhere near what private insurers pay for OB-GYN visits," says DeFrancesco.

Sara Rosenbaum, a health law professor at George Washington University, agrees. In a blog post for Health Affairs, she writes that the claim that community clinics could replace Planned Parenthood represents "a fundamental misunderstanding of how the health care system works."

Additionally, the Congressional Budget Office estimated in a report issued earlier this month that if Planned Parenthood were defunded, as many as 650,000 women "in areas without access to other health care clinics or medical practitioners who serve low-income populations" would lose their reproductive health care. And a survey by the Guttmacher Institute found that women often value specialized family planning clinics such as Planned Parenthood over primary care clinics for reasons such as affordability, increased confidentiality, and a greater range of contraceptive options. Guttmacher also reports that in 103 counties, Planned Parenthood is the only "safety net" family planning service, meaning that a large portion of their patients are either uninsured or reliant on Medicaid.

If Planned Parenthood were to lose a third of its entire budget, DeFrancesco warns, "these patients won't have anywhere else to go."

House Benghazi Committee Breaks Record — Sort Of

| Mon Sep. 28, 2015 7:51 PM EDT

Today's news:

The House committee investigating the Benghazi attacks is now the longest congressional investigation in history, committee Democrats announced today. As of Monday, the House Select Committee on Benghazi, has been active for 72 weeks — surpassing the record previously held by the Watergate Committee in the 1970's.

I suppose this is technically correct. But let's gaze through a broader lens and take a look at the Whitewater investigation:

  • The House Banking Committee began hearings in March 1994, and they petered out in early 1995. Call it 50 weeks or so.
  • The Senate Whitewater Committee began in May 1995 and issued its final report in June 1996. That's 57 weeks.
  • But wait! The Senate investigation was a continuation of the Senate Banking Committee investigation, which began in July 1994. If you count this as one big Senate investigation, as you really should, it lasted 98 weeks.
  • But wait again! The Whitewater investigation really started on January 20, 1994, when special counsel Robert Fiske was appointed. It ended on September 20, 2000, when Fiske's successor, Robert Ray, announced there was "insufficient evidence" to show that the Clintons had done anything wrong. That's 348 weeks.

So sure: in terms of a single congressional committee in continuous existence, Benghazi is now the all-time record holder. But in terms of how long a political investigation has lasted through all its permutations, I'd guess that 348 weeks is unlikely to be beaten anytime soon. When it comes to political witch hunts, Whitewater was—and remains—the king of fruitless idiocy.

It's Really Hard Not to Hate the Pharmaceutical Industry

| Mon Sep. 28, 2015 6:35 PM EDT

Another day, another drug. Today comes news of Nitropress, a generic blood pressure drug that was priced at $44 per vial way back in 2013. Then it was sold to Marathon Pharmaceuticals, which raised the price to $257. A few months ago it was sold yet again, this time to Valeant Pharmaceuticals, which raised the price to $806. But no worries! According to a spokesman, no one will ever be denied this medication:

“These are drugs that are only used by hospitals — they are not sold in pharmacies — in accordance with specific surgical procedures. This means that whenever the protocol calls for use of these drugs, they are used. Patients are never denied these drugs when the protocols call for their use.”

And there you have it. Hospitals have to use it, and no one else makes it, so Valeant can charge whatever they want. Satisfied?

Anyway, Democrats are "demanding answers" from Valeant, which will probably do about as much good as it did when they demanded answers from Marathon last year about their price increase. Or all the other companies they've demanded answers from ever since 10x price increases became the pharmaceutical industry's favorite new sport. That is to say, none.

It's a funny thing. I've probably read just about every reason in the book explaining why national health care is supposed to be a terrible idea. Most of these reasons are pretty lousy—either unsupported by the evidence or else directly contradicted by it. But there's one exception: the argument that a national health care plan would drive down the price of drugs—as it has everywhere else in the world—and this would stifle innovation in the pharmaceutical biz. There's some real merit to this claim.

It's not quite that simple, of course, and it would take a longish post to go through this topic in detail. Nonetheless, you can put me in the camp of those who want to tread pretty carefully when it comes to regulating pharmaceutical pricing. But these guys are sure making it hard to maintain that position, aren't they?

Jeb Bush's Tax Plan Is Written in Pixels, Not Stone Tablets

| Mon Sep. 28, 2015 3:01 PM EDT

There's nothing Republicans like more than talking about taxes. So Chris Wallace asked Jeb Bush about his tax plan this weekend. In particular, he wanted to know why the rich were getting such a big break under Bush's plan. Jeb replied that this was simply a law of nature:

The simple fact is 1 percent of people pay 40 percent of all the taxes. And so, of course, tax cuts for everybody is going to generate more for people that are paying a lot more. I mean that’s just the way it is.

You will be unsurprised to learn that this isn't true. Bush's plan includes new tax brackets for everyone, and the rich pay a lot less under his plan because he chose to cut taxes in their bracket a lot. He didn't have to do that. He could have left their tax rates where they are or lowered them only a little. Instead he chose to lower them a lot. However, as my comprehensive graphic below shows, this was handed down in pixels, not stone tablets. So Bush can change this anytime he wants.

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George Zimmerman Posted a Photo of Trayvon Martin's Dead Body

| Mon Sep. 28, 2015 2:52 PM EDT

Over the weekend, George Zimmerman retweeted an image of Trayvon Martin's dead body. The image was first tweeted to him by a fan who wrote, "Z-Man is a one man army."

After the tweet was deleted, apparently by Twitter, Zimmerman posted a tweet directing media inquiries to the phone number of a car audio shop. When I called it, a disgruntled man said it was not affiliated with Zimmerman. I asked what he meant, and he said, "It's pretty cut and dry, dude. Do you understand English?" Then he hung up. The number, it turns out, belongs to a man Zimmerman has been waging a social media campaign against.

Twitter would not comment on why they took down the photo, but the company directed me to its policy, which states that users "may not publish or post threats of violence against others or promote violence against others."

Previously, Zimmerman's tweets have referred to black people as primates and "slime."

In August, Zimmerman teamed up with the owner of a gun store with a no-Muslims-allowed policy to sell prints of his Confederate flag art, which he says "represents the hypocrisy of political correctness that is plaguing this nation."

Elizabeth Warren Just Showed Democrats How to Talk About Race in America

| Mon Sep. 28, 2015 2:48 PM EDT

In the modern-day fight against racial inequality, activists and policymakers alike should look to the past to change the present.

That's the message Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) sent on Sunday in a stirring speech at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in Boston. Warren called for wide-ranging civil rights reforms to combat racial inequality, from the restoration of voting rights to changes in policing practices.

In a year marked by public outcry over police brutality, Warren echoed the sentiments of the Black Lives Matter movement, drawing connections between the group's push for social-justice reforms and the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

"None of us can ignore what is happening in this country. Not when our black friends, family, neighbors literally fear dying in the streets," Warren said. "This is the reality all of us must confront, as uncomfortable and ugly as that reality may be. It comes to us to once again affirm that black lives matter, that black citizens matter, that black families matter." 

Here are five issues Warren covered in her speech, which starts at the 12:25 mark in the video above:

On violence against African Americans:

Fifty years later, violence against African Americans has not disappeared. Consider law enforcement. The vast majority of police officers sign up so they can protect their communities. They are part of an honorable profession that takes risks every day to keep us safe. We know that. But we also know—and say—the names of those whose lives have been treated with callous indifference. Sandra Bland. Freddie Gray. Michael Brown. We've seen sickening videos of unarmed, black Americans cut down by bullets, choked to death while gasping for air—their lives ended by those who are sworn to protect them. Peaceful, unarmed protestors have been beaten. Journalists have been jailed. And, in some cities, white vigilantes with weapons freely walk the streets. And it's not just about law enforcement either. Just look to the terrorism this summer at Emanuel AME Church. We must be honest: Fifty years after John Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out, violence against African Americans has not disappeared.

On voting rights:

And what about voting rights? Two years ago, five conservative justices on the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, opening the floodgates ever wider for measures designed to suppress minority voting. Today, the specific tools of oppression have changed—voter ID laws, racial gerrymandering, and mass disfranchisement through a criminal-justice system that disproportionately incarcerates black citizens. The tools have changed, but black voters are still deliberately cut out of the political process.

On economic inequality:

Violence. Voting. And what about economic injustice? Research shows that the legal changes in the civil rights era created new employment and housing opportunities. In the 1960s and the 1970s, African American men and women began to close the wage gap with white workers, giving millions of black families hope that they might build real wealth.


Today, 90 percent of Americans see no real wage growth. For African Americans, who were so far behind earlier in the 20th century, this means that since the 1980s they have been hit particularly hard. In January of this year, African American unemployment was 10.3 percent—more than twice the rate of white unemployment. And, after beginning to make progress during the civil rights era to close the wealth gap between black and white families, in the 1980s the wealth gap exploded, so that from 1984 to 2009, the wealth gap between black and white families tripled. 

On policing:

Policing must become a truly community endeavor-not in just a few cities, but everywhere. Police forces should look like, and come from, the neighborhoods they serve. They should reach out to support and defend the community—working with people in neighborhoods before problems arise. All police forces—not just some—must be trained to de-escalate and to avoid the likelihood of violence. Body cameras can help us know what happens when someone is hurt. 

On housing discrimination and predatory lending:

The 2008 housing collapse destroyed trillions in family wealth across the country, but the crash hit African Americans like a punch in the gut. Because middle class black families' wealth was disproportionately tied up in homeownership and not other forms of savings, these families were hit harder by the housing collapse. But they also got hit harder because of discriminatory lending practices—yes, discriminatory lending practices in the 21st century. Recently several big banks and other mortgage lenders paid hundreds of millions in fines, admitting that they illegally steered black and Latino borrowers into more expensive mortgages than white borrowers who had similar credit. Tom Perez, who at the time was the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, called it a "racial surtax." And it's still happening—earlier this month, the National Fair Housing alliance filed a discrimination complaint against real estate agents in Mississippi after an investigation showed those agents consistently steering white buyers away from interracial neighborhoods and black buyers away from affluent ones. Another investigation showed similar results across our nation's cities. Housing discrimination alive and well in 2015.

You can read Warren's full remarks here.

Lie of the Year: Donald Trump's Tax Plan Will Cost Him a "Fortune"

| Mon Sep. 28, 2015 1:44 PM EDT

From Donald Trump, bragging about his new tax plan:

It’s going to cost me a fortune.

Let's see. I think Trump says he makes $400 million per year. Is that regular income? Investment income? Dividends? Hot air? Who knows. But that's what he says. If it's regular income, he'll save $60 million right off the top thanks to his huge cut in the top marginal rate. If it's investment income, he'll come out even. Let's just say that it's a combination of both, so he'll save $30 million. Fair?

I don't think any of his proposed tax increases would affect him except for the "other loopholes" he's allegedly going to close. So for this to cost him a "fortune," he'd need to pay $40 million more from his loss of deductions.

Does anyone think this is remotely feasible? Anyone?

Let's make this clear: Trump's claim that he's raising taxes on the wealthy is the baldest kind of lie. No one should report this with a straight face. And if Trump doesn't like it? All he has to do is offer up the details to prove his case and show me what a loser I am. Let's see 'em.

Social Media or Not, a Primary Is Still a Primary

| Mon Sep. 28, 2015 1:12 PM EDT

I'm going to pick on my friend Ezra Klein today. He begins an essay about changes in American politics with a list of four recent developments in this year's presidential primary race:

  • First, Scott Walker, who looked to be the conservative establishment's pick for the GOP nomination, dropped out of the race.
  • Then John Boehner unexpectedly resigned from Congress....
  • Then an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll was released showing Bernie Sanders merely 7 points behind Hillary Clinton....
  • The same poll showed that Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina — the GOP's true outsider candidates — have reached a combined 52 percent in the polls, while Jeb Bush, the GOP's top insider candidate, has plummeted from 23 percent to 7 percent.

"Let's state the obvious," says Klein. "No pundit anywhere predicted any two of these things back in June. Hell, I'm not aware of a pundit who predicted even one of them....The models we typically use to understand American politics are breaking down."

Before we get to those models, let's talk about whether they're really breaking down in the first place. Klein is surely right that nobody predicted precisely the four things he mentions. But that sets the bar way too high. Nobody's ever pretended that a model of politics can do that. Instead, let's go through them in a more general sense:

  • Every observer of primaries has written about the "winnowing" effect. This is exactly what it sounds like: some candidates will turn out to be worse than expected and will lose the support of donors and voters. Then they'll drop out. Nobody ever knows exactly who this will be—that's why we run actual races—but everyone expected that at least one or two seemingly strong candidates would drop out before the Iowa caucuses.
  • Pundits have been talking about the possibility of Boehner resigning for at least a year. He has a thankless job these days and was basically forced out by the tea party. But speakers have lost support before—Newt Gingrich is the most dramatic recent example—and what happened to Boehner, though unusual, isn't unheard of.
  • Outsider candidates—Eugene McCarthy, Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, Gary Hart, Bill Bradley—have a long history of spiking in the polls and giving establishment leaders fits. Sometimes they even win their primary battles, as George McGovern and Barack Obama did.
  • OK, this one is pretty unusual.

Klein's theory is that party insiders have lost a significant amount of influence in our brave new world of internet news sources and social media. And that might be true. But parties have been losing power for a long time, and changes in media infrastructure are nothing new. Candidates who took advantage of the rise of radio (FDR), then the rise of TV (Kennedy, Nixon), and then the rise of the web (Obama) have always done well. In terms of infrastructure, candidates have had to adapt to the rise of primaries, the rise of direct mail, the rise of microtargeting, and much more. Nothing ever stays the same.

Has social media fundamentally changed the landscape of presidential campaigns? I'm not really convinced. It's certainly changed things, but I'm not sure it's changed things any more than the routine-yet-seismic shifts that have been documented about once a decade in campaign tomes going back to Theodore White in 1960.1 Our traditional models of presidential politics need to keep up with the times, but my guess is that they're not quite ready for the graveyard yet.

1Off the top of my head: television in the 60s; convention/nominating rules in the 70s; direct mail in the 80s; talk radio/cable news in the 90s; web/microtargeting in the 00s; social media in the teens.

POSTSCRIPT: But I admit that there has been one big change this year: the rise of the first name. We have Bernie, Hillary, Carly, and Jeb. Has there ever been a primary campaign with more candidates going by their first names? What's up with that?