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Greece Surrenders to Europe -- For Now

| Mon Jul. 13, 2015 10:48 AM EDT

Well, it appears that Greece has accepted the European deal. This means austerity as far as the eye can see, and no guarantees from Europe except that negotiations over the real agreement will begin soon. Greek opinion on the street was mixed:

Miltiades Macrygiannis, proprietor of an antiques store in Athens, Art and Craft Interiors, said he was hopeful and relieved that a so-called Grexit — a Greek exit from the eurozone — appeared to have been avoided. But he was also disgusted.

“It’s simple: We wasted five months,” Mr. Macrygiannis said. In the end, he added, the austerity measures that had to be taken appeared to be worse than what the creditors had been willing to give five months ago, when the new Greek government took office.

All true. And banks will remain closed for at least another week until Greece passes legislation implementing the preconditions just to get talks started. After that, who know? But Grexit is still a live possibility. Alexis Tsipras has chosen against it for now, but there's no telling if he'll remain opposed once the Europeans really start twisting the knife.

In any case, if he's smart he'll start up all the plans for Grexit so he's ready to go if that's the way things turn out. There's not much point in keeping it secret, either. Everyone knows it's a real option now, so he might as well have drachmas and government IOUs ready to go if the day comes. Grexit may never come, but if it does, there's no point in making it even more chaotic than it has to be.

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John Oliver Explains How Wealthy Sports Teams Are Scamming Taxpayers

| Mon Jul. 13, 2015 10:26 AM EDT

Every year, American cities across the country spend billions of dollar in public money in order to build shiny new sports stadiums we probably don't need. As John Oliver explained on the latest Last Week Tonight, these stadiums are increasingly designed to look like "coked-up Willy Wonka" coliseums with expensive features like swimming pools and party cabanas.

"We don't just help teams build stadiums, we let them keep virtually all the revenue those stadiums produce," Oliver said on Sunday.

The segment goes onto show, stadium financing often hurts the local economy and surrounding businesses, even blocking cities from paying for crucial things like hospitals—all this as wealthy stadium owners only get richer with empty promises of economic growth.

"I'm not saying we shouldn't have giant aquariums in ballparks full of terrified fish. Of course we should, this is America! If we don't have them, no one else will! But we should not be using public money to pay for them."

David Letterman Comes Out of Retirement to Call Out Donald Trump

| Mon Jul. 13, 2015 8:45 AM EDT

David Letterman may have only retired just two months ago, but that isn't going to stop the former "Late Show" host from taking on the joke of a presidential run that is Donald Trump's current campaign for the White House

On Friday, Letterman reemerged on stage in San Antonio, Texas for a very special "Top 10" list to explain.

"I retired," Letterman told the crowd, with Martin Short and Steve Martin by his side. "I have no regrets. None. I was happy, I'll make actual friends, I was complacent, I was satisfied, I was content. And then a couple of days ago Donald Trump said he was running for president."

"I have made the biggest mistake of my life."

Among the zingers reserved for Trump, "During sex, Donald Trump calls out his own name" and "He wants to build a wall? How about building a wall around the thing on his head?" drive it home.

Watch below for the full list:

 

The Punk Band Negative Scanner Gets Apocalyptic

| Mon Jul. 13, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Negative Scanner
Negative Scanner
Trouble in Mind

Folks who cheered Sleater-Kinney's recent reunion and crave another righteous blast of purifying punk noise should check out the debut album of this exciting Chicago foursome. Echoing the equally terrific White Lung, Negative Scanner makes a bracing racket from pungent raw materials—careening drums, clattering guitars, urgent vocals—with agitated frontwoman Rebecca Valeriano-Flores hinting at apocalyptic consequences every time she sings. Highlighted by blistering tunes like "Planet of Slums" and "Would You Rather," this searing 27-minute eruption is close to perfect, but not for delicate ears.

Europe's Message to Greece: Don't Let the Door Hit You On Your Way Out

| Mon Jul. 13, 2015 1:25 AM EDT

A few days ago everyone thought Greece had capitulated completely to European demands for further austerity. It turns out that was all sorts of wrong. Over the weekend, Europe's finance ministers met in Brussels and eventually released a statement that showed Greece what real capitulation looks like. Marcus Walker of the Wall Street Journal summarizes things pretty well:

Sunday’s statement on Greece by eurozone finance ministers will go down as one of the most brutal diplomatic démarches in the history of the European Union, a bloc built to foster peace and harmony that is now publicly threatening one of its own with ruination unless it surrenders.

....The other 18 euro members were late Sunday pushing Greece to implement all of the austerity measures and broader economic overhauls its voters have twice rejected—in elections in January and in a referendum on July 5—not in return for new rescue loans, but as a precondition for even talking about them.

....The demands from the so-called “Eurogroup” of finance ministers range from handing Greek public assets to a fund in Luxembourg to auction off to giving international technocrats powers to approve or veto draft laws in Athens.

Yep. Greece not only has to agree to additional conditions, that's just the starting point. It has to actually pass them into law before the rest of Europe will even agree to open further talks—at which point Greece will learn what Europe really wants from them. Considering that Germany has already demanded they hand over €50 billion in public assets for eventual privatization to pay off loans, it's hard to know just how much more they could demand. But apparently there's more. Much more.

A senior EU official described this as an "exercise in extensive mental waterboarding," and that seems pretty appropriate. Actual shooting wars have ended with the victors demanding less onerous terms than these.

Greece hasn't responded yet, and it's hard to know what their next move will be—primarily because it's hard to know what's really behind the European demands. Are they harsh but nevertheless made in good faith? Or have they deliberately been crafted to be impossible to accept because the rest of Europe is fed up and simply wants Greece to exit the eurozone?

Nobody knows. France presumably wants Greece to stay. Germany gives every indication that it wants Greece to get the hell out and go its own way. In any case, Alexis Tsipras's gamble that the threat of default and Grexit would scare the rest of Europe has obviously backfired spectacularly. Even Greece's friends—relatively speaking—seem not to care much anymore. Maybe they'd prefer Greece to stay and the eurozone to remain intact, but if it doesn't happen, they'll shrug and move on.

As for the consequences, my guess is that whatever comes next will matter only to Greece. The rest of Europe will be largely unaffected. If Greece accepts austerity, Greece will suffer and everyone else will sigh. If Greece defaults and exits the euro, European institutions will barely notice that a supposedly key pillar of the EU—that the euro is inviolable—has been shattered. For now, anyway, Greece is seen as unique: a singularly reckless country that lied to get into the euro in the first place and never should have been part of it. Nobody thinks this debacle will repeat itself.

It doesn't matter if this is true or not. What matters is that it's widely accepted, and that means Greece no longer has any leverage. They either become a ward of Brussels—Europe's Detroit, if you will—or they default and leave the euro. That's it.

Given that, I'd say I've moved from being about 50-50 on either option, to being about 80-20 in favor of default and Grexit. Make no mistake: the economic and social devastation would be immense. But eventually things would get better. Conversely, given the events of this weekend, it's no longer clear if that would be the case if Greece stays in the euro. The pain would be all but unending. At long last, Grexit now looks not only possible, but maybe even inevitable. If so, better now than later.

It's Time to Cool It On "People Need to Work Longer Hours"

| Sat Jul. 11, 2015 5:18 PM EDT

Maybe I'm just being naive here, but I wonder if liberals could give it a rest mocking Jeb Bush for saying "people need to work longer hours"? Yeah, he really did say it, but then again, Obama really did say "You didn't build that." Little snippets taken out of context can make anyone sound dumb.

In this case, Bush pretty quickly clarified that he was talking about the underemployed, people who want to work more hours but can't get them. This didn't sound to me like some hastily concocted excuse. It probably really was what he meant, and it just didn't come out quite right. That's common in a live setting.

Now, after the idiotic way Republicans plastered "You didn't build that" everywhere short of Mount Rushmore in 2012, maybe they deserve a taste of their own medicine. And sure, politics ain't beanbag. You get your licks where you can find them. Still, there's a limit to how hackish we all should be. We're pretending Bush meant one thing when we all know perfectly well he meant something else. Let's be better than the Republicans, OK?

UPDATE: Let me respond briefly to a few criticisms of this post. First, over at the New Republic, Brian Beutler says, essentially, that Obamacare makes it easier to work fewer hours, since workers no longer depend on a full-time job to get health insurance. Bush opposes Obamacare, which means he opposes things that allow people to work fewer hours. By inference, he's therefore in favor of using "economic policy as a cattle prod" to get people to work more hours whether they want to or not. Your mileage may vary, but this strikes me as a real stretch.

On Twitter, Dean Baker says that Bush's clarification doesn't fit with his previous positions on work. In fact, his original statement is "consistent with his plans to raise Social Security retirement age. He wants more work." But that's a stretch too. "Work longer hours" just isn't the same thing as raising the SS retirement age. No one would phrase it that way.

Via email, Michael Hiltzik points out that average hours worked swung sharply up after the recession and the number of involuntary part-timers swung sharply down. "It raises the question of where exactly Bush’s longer hours are supposed to come from. Any way you slice it, he seems to be blowing smoke and not have a coherent picture of the employment situation." I agree that Bush doesn't have any kind of coherent economic plan, but that's a very different thing than suggesting he wants full-time workers to start putting in 50-hour weeks instead of 40-hour weeks.

More generally, I'd make two points:

  • First, it's not enough to say that Bush really does want people to work longer hours because it's "consistent" with some of his other stated policies. We should just criticize those other policies, not twist them like a pretzel to fit the theory we're trying to sell.
  • Second, does anyone seriously think that Bush believes full-time workers in the US should be working more late nights and weekends? That flatly makes no sense. His clarification about the underemployed, on the other hand, makes perfect sense. It might make only a small dent in his goal of 4 percent growth—something he probably doesn't realize—but it's still a reasonable component of it.

The real problem here is that Bush has things backwards. You don't get growth from workers deciding to work more hours. You get growth from good macroeconomic policies that spur employers to offer more hours. So the question is: What is Bush's economic plan? If it's a good one, then the underemployed will work more hours. If not, they won't. The horse needs to pull the cart, not the other way around.

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Here's Why Greece Is Having Such a Hard Time Getting European Agreement to Europe's Own Proposal

| Sat Jul. 11, 2015 2:54 PM EDT

The Greek austerity proposal has been approved by parliament, and since it's essentially identical to the European demands of two weeks ago, everything should now be hunky dory, right? The Europeans will accept the Greek capitulation and move on.

Um, no. Emergency talks in Brussels are being held around the clock this weekend, and there are still a couple of big sticking points.

First: The new proposal is much bigger than the previous one. Back in June, Greece was asking for about €7 billion in loans that would cover its needs for a few months. Now it's asking for €53 billion over three years, and European experts think even that number is too optimistic. Greece will really need about €74 billion—plus additional funds to recapitalize Greek banks, which have basically disbursed all their cash over the past couple of weeks. This raises several concerns:

  • The European proposal in June was meant to set conditions for releasing the final €7 billion in loans that were part of Greece's second round of bailouts. But the new Greek proposal essentially wants to use these same conditions as the basis for a third round of bailouts that would be bigger and longer-lasting. European finance ministers are skeptical, with many suggesting that the June proposal was never meant to cover a whole new round of bailouts. Something tougher is now required.
  • The fact that Greece estimates its needs at €53 billion and European technocrats estimate it at €74 billion suggests to many Europeans that Greece still can't get its finances straight. This does little to boost confidence in the Syriza government.

Second: No one trusts Greece even slightly. The Europeans have never trusted the Greeks to implement the deals they agree to, and they still don't. "What guarantees can Greece give they are actually going to implement what they propose?" Austrian finance minister Hans Jorg Schelling asked bluntly, echoing similar questions from the Dutch finance minister and others. Even Greek allies like France need to be convinced of Greek goodwill. "Confidence has been ruined by every Greek government over many years which have sometimes made promises without making good on them at all," said French finance minister Michel Sapin.

After the events of the past two weeks, the issue of trust is even worse. Dutch state secretary Eric Wiebes notes that the commitment of the Greek government is a key concern. "That has been the weak point because, after all, we are discussing a proposal from the Greek government that was fiercely rejected a week ago." And to make things worse, although the Greek parliament approved the latest proposal, it caused a serious schism in the Syriza party, with many members voting against it. "The parliamentary majority of the government now in Athens is being eroded," Irish finance minister Michael Noonan said, "and they may not have the capacity to implement the measures they have agreed as time goes by."

Things have now degraded to such a dire point that German finance minister Wolfgang Schauble has even floated the idea of a "temporary" five-year Greek exit from the euro. This is so batty that almost everyone else at today's talks—including some of Greece's strongest skeptics—thinks it's both ridiculous and probably illegal too. But even though it's not likely to be taken seriously, it does indicate just how frosty the Germans are toward any new bailout deal with Greece. It also gives ammunition to Greek critics who have maintained for weeks that Germany's real goal is to kick Greece out of the euro.

So there you have it. The June proposal from the Europeans may have been OK two weeks ago, but it's now past its sell-by date. Getting European buy-in to a new, third bailout for Greece continues to be a very delicate and knotty problem. Stay tuned.

Reddit's Faction of Racist Trolls Celebrates CEO Ellen Pao's Resignation

| Fri Jul. 10, 2015 6:18 PM EDT
Former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao

In the minutes following today's announcement that Ellen Pao, Reddit's embattled interim CEO, would be stepping down, users of the site responded with glee. Pao has been widely criticized by many of the site's unpaid moderators for her recent tone-deaf firing of a popular employee—see here for more on what really happened with that—and for ignoring the moderators' needs and contributions to running the platform. Yet beneath the celebration lurked a disturbing undercurrent of racism. As of 2:45 p.m. PST, the second most "upvoted" comment beneath the announcement was this:

 

 

The biggest problem with the comment isn't the mocking of Pao's Asian name. It's the commenter's handle, "DylanStormRoof." Dylann Roof, of course, is the young man accused of massacring nine people at South Carolina's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last month.

Other Redditors quickly alleged that DylannStormRoof moderates a notoriously racist subreddit:

Reddit's trolls have been out to get Pao ever since she shut down five toxic subreddits last month, including one called r/shitniggerssay. They also aren't psyched that she called out Silicon Valley's misogynistic culture. That's not to say that Pao's handling of Reddit's most controversial communities is the only reason she's unpopular with users of the site, which is, after all, the 10th most trafficked on the internet. But today's reaction illustrates the challenges her replacement, Reddit co-founder Steve Huffman, will face if he wants to rein in the site's most offensive tendencies.

Update, July 10, 2015, 5 p.m. PT: Cooler heads on Reddit have since taken over, as they often do, burying "DylannStormRoof"'s comment and up-voting a reply pointing out its racist connotations.

Friday Cat Blogging - 10 July 2015

| Fri Jul. 10, 2015 3:00 PM EDT

Hopper was up in her usual spot on my stomach, but when I crossed my legs she sort of slid on down into the crook between my knees. She seemed pretty happy with it, though in this picture I think she's telling me impatiently to hold still and stop shifting my legs around. So I did. A few minutes later she was snoozing away, saving up energy for her next round of mayhem and destruction. Someday she's going to catch that laser pointer!

Koalas Get Laid By Making This Horrifyingly Disgusting Grunting Sound

| Fri Jul. 10, 2015 2:59 PM EDT

Listen to the sound in that video. If I had to guess what it meant, soliciting sex would probably be pretty far down my list. It strikes me more as the sound a Chicago Bears fan might make after swilling a pitcher of Bud Light.

But new research has revealed for the first time that this mysterious bellowing is most likely the male koalas' mating call.

Despite their popularity, relatively little is known about koalas' social interactions, since they tend to be solitary and thus difficult to study. To overcome that challenge, researchers at Australia's University of Queensland fitted 21 koalas on St. Bees Island with GPS tracking collars during the summertime mating season.

Over two months, the GPS devices recorded how often koalas came into contact with one another. The scientists found that while male-female interactions increased during mating season, male-male encounters remained rare, suggesting that the male koalas had a way of avoiding each other while attracting females.

The most likely explanation is that bellow, lead author William Ellis told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:

Researchers suggest that the male koala's bellowing serves to warn other males away from their territory, so there's no need for close-up grappling and competition.

Ellis says the bellows may also be a way of communicating important information to potential mates.

"Our studies on the bellows have certainly shown us that the bellow itself contains information on size but also individuality; they are distinct for each particular male," he says...

Given the often isolated nature of koala groups, individuality of bellows may help female koalas avoid mating with close relatives, thereby maintaining the population's genetic diversity, says Ellis.

Happy Friday!