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President Obama Shows How to Defend Pragmatism the Right Way

| Thu Feb. 11, 2016 1:10 AM EST

So did President Obama kinda sorta endorse Hillary Clinton and her pragmatic approach to politics in his Springfield speech today? Not really. He was pretty focused on the bitterness and polarization of contemporary political culture and what we could do about it. But there were a few places where he seemed like he was giving Hillary a little boost if you cocked your ears just right:

I learned by talking to your constituents that if you were willing to listen, it was possible to bridge a lot of differences....They understand the difference between realism and idealism; the difference between responsibility and recklessness. They had the maturity to know what can and cannot be compromised, and to admit the possibility that the other side just might have a point.

....Our progress has never been inevitable. It must be fought for, and won by all of us, with the kind of patriotism that our fellow Illinoisan, Adlai Stevenson, once described not as a “short, frenzied outburst of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.”

....Trying to find common ground doesn't make me less of a Democrat or less of a progressive. It means I’m trying to get stuff done....Rather than accept the notion that compromise is a sellout to one side, we’ve got to insist on the opposite — that it can be a genuine victory that means progress for all sides.

Obama's defense of realism vs. idealism and his irritation toward "short, frenzied" outbursts of emotion could be read as implicit criticisms of Bernie Sanders. Likewise, his defense of his progressive record includes a deliberate echo of Hillary Clinton's description of herself as a "progressive who likes to get things done."

It's not much, and it was relatively subtle. Still, even when he acknowledged that our democracy "seems stuck" and "we have to find a new way of doing business," he didn't endorse anything revolutionary. Quite the contrary. It became yet another chance to urge pragmatism and hard work: "In a big, complicated democracy like ours, if we can’t compromise, by definition, we can’t govern ourselves."

It's unfortunate for Hillary that she can't defend this kind of politics effectively. Obama somehow makes the hard slog of slow change sound noble and heroic. Hillary makes it sound workmanlike at best and defeatist at worst. She may not ever have the simple kind of elevator pitch that Bernie Sanders has, but if she could make her brand of pragmatism sound just a little more uplifting—a little more vital—I'll bet she'd be having a lot fewer problems right now.

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Uninsured Rate Ticks Up a Bit at End of 2015

| Thu Feb. 11, 2016 12:03 AM EST

Every quarter I take a look at the CDC's survey of the uninsured to see how Obamacare is doing. So far it's doing pretty well. However, the CDC data is always six months behind, and a few days ago I noticed that Gallup's more timely survey showed an increase in the uninsured rate over the last two quarters of 2015. I figured I'd have to wait another month to see if the CDC confirmed this, but their latest data came out earlier than I expected. Sure enough, in the third quarter they show a small increase in the uninsured.

Unfortunately, I don't have anything trenchant to say about this. The data is a little noisy, and this might be nothing more than the usual bouncing around. Or it might represent a normal uptick at the end of the year, as people lose insurance before the new signup period. It's probably not really possible to say until we have quite a bit more data. And it's worth noting that the uninsured rate is still more than a percentage point below the original CBO projection.

But the raw data is the raw data. Good or bad, it's here for everyone to noodle over.

Does Obama Still Have That Old-Time Magic?

| Wed Feb. 10, 2016 2:21 PM EST

In a few minutes President Obama will be back in Springfield making a speech addressed to his supporters. "You've taken on the painstaking work of progress," he says. "You've helped us find that middle ground where real change is won....I hope you'll tune in today at 2:30 p.m. Eastern." Andrew Sprung figures this is basically going to be an endorsement of Hillary Clinton:

Obama just sent an email to supporters announcing a speech to be delivered this afternoon. I imagine it will be a message "for" Clinton — both to support her and to model a coherent pitch for incremental change.

....Then there's "the painstaking work of progress" and the 'middle ground where real change is won." Those are memes pointed at this moment, in which the frontrunners in both parties are calling for radical, fundamental change.... Incrementalism is a tough sell, but Obama has made it throughout his career, and he does so more effectively than Clinton. He's more successful because he's better at articulating the long-term goal and how the incremental steps move toward them, as well as the historical framework in which those steps fit.

But will it work? Personally, I've always viewed Obama as a cautious, pragmatic, mainstream liberal. But his strongest supporters never saw him that way. They really believed he was going to revolutionize Washington DC and end all the bickering. He'd pass universal health care, rein in Wall Street once and for all, and stop climate change in its tracks.

But he didn't. And the conventional wisdom says that his supporters from 2007—when he first went to Springfield to announce his candidacy—are disappointed in him. He turned out to be just another go-along-get-along guy, and now he wants to foist a go-along-get-along gal on us. Sorry. No sale. We're feeling the Bern these days.

We'll see. But I will say this: If Obama really wants to help Hillary Clinton, he can't afford too much subtlety. Any criticism of radical change will be read by liberals as primarily an attack on Donald Trump unless he makes it crystal clear what he's talking about. Tune in at 2:30 and find out!

Here's Why Bernie Sanders Doesn't Say Much About Welfare Reform

| Wed Feb. 10, 2016 1:24 PM EST

Clio Chang and Samuel Adler-Bell want to know why Bernie Sanders hasn't spent more time blasting the Clinton-era welfare reform law and proposing concrete ways to address poverty:

While Sanders frequently repeats and laments the statistic that one in five American children live in poverty, neither he nor Clinton has put forward a specific plan to address it. And neither spends much time talking about food stamps, housing subsidies, or the Earned Income Tax Credit, all essential programs for the poor.

Liberal pundits have criticized Clinton for defending her husband’s welfare legislation—and for parroting the conservative caricature of welfare beneficiaries as "deadbeats"—but so far, it hasn’t created any serious problems for her campaign. But this, perhaps, is to be expected from a more moderate Democrat. The oversight is arguably a more glaring problem for Sanders, who voted against the welfare bill and harshly condemned it in his 1997 book, but hasn’t made it an issue in the primary. In August, he told Bloomberg, with uncharacteristic restraint, "I think that history will suggest that that legislation has not worked terribly well."

One reason for this restraint may be simple: perhaps Sanders believes that the best approach to poverty is to enact his broad economic revolution. Once that's done, poverty will start to decrease.

But there's another possible reason: maybe welfare reform has turned out not to be an especially big deal. After all, by 1996 the old AFDC program accounted for only about $20 billion in spending, a tiny fraction of the total welfare budget—and the difference in spending between AFDC and the TANF program that took its place is even more minuscule. The truth is that it's barely noticeable compared to increases in social welfare spending during the 90s from changes to CHIP, EITC, the minimum wage, and so forth.

On that score, it's worth taking a look at social welfare spending more broadly. But what's the best way? We spend just shy of a trillion dollars a year on social welfare and safety net programs, but that number bounces up and down when the economy goes into recession and more people need help. That tells us more about the economic cycle than it does about anti-poverty programs. Instead, we need to look at spending per person in poverty. This gives us a better idea of how policy has responded to poverty over the past few decades. So here it is:

I chose 150 percent of the poverty level as my metric, but the truth is that it doesn't matter much. This chart looks pretty much the same whether you show total spending, per capita spending, or spending per family below the poverty level. If you remove Medicaid from the mix, the spending increase isn't as steep but otherwise looks little different.

There are two obvious takeaways from this. First, overall spending on social welfare programs has increased by 3x since 1980. That's pretty substantial. Second, if the 1996 welfare reform act had any effect on this steady rise in spending, you'd need a chart the size of my house to make it out. Perhaps Bernie Sanders knows this, and understands that in the great scheme of things, welfare reform just isn't worth fighting over anymore.

Two Prominent Black Intellectuals Just Delivered More Bad News for Clinton

| Wed Feb. 10, 2016 12:55 PM EST

After a crushing loss in New Hampshire on Tuesday night, Hillary Clinton may be having an even worse morning. As her campaign turns to South Carolina, where she hopes to win the primary with the support of African American voters on February 27, two prominent black intellectuals issued forceful statements Wednesday morning that could boost her rival, Bernie Sanders.

"I will be voting for Sen. Sanders," Ta-Nehisi Coates, a correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of the 2015 National Book Award winner Between the World and Me, said Wednesday in an interview on Democracy Now! Coates has written critically of Sanders recently for not embracing reparations for African Americans as part of his economic and social justice platform.

A much stronger rebuke of Clinton came from Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, who blasted the former secretary of state in an essay published Wednesday on the website of The Nation titled "Why Hillary Clinton Doesn't Deserve the Black Vote." In it, Alexander argued that the economic and criminal justice policies of the Bill Clinton administration, from the 1994 crime bill to welfare reform in 1996, were devastating to African Americans—and that Hillary Clinton was a force in that administration whose role should be scrutinized and whose current positions on criminal justice and racial equality are not strong enough.

Ironically, perhaps, Alexander cites Coates at the end of the essay in also critiquing Sanders.

This is not an endorsement for Bernie Sanders, who after all voted for the 1994 crime bill. I also tend to agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates that the way the Sanders campaign handled the question of reparations is one of many signs that Bernie doesn't quite get what's at stake in serious dialogues about racial justice. He was wrong to dismiss reparations as "divisive," as though centuries of slavery, segregation, discrimination, ghettoization, and stigmatization aren't worthy of any specific acknowledgement or remedy.

But recognizing that Bernie, like Hillary, has blurred vision when it comes to race is not the same thing as saying their views are equally problematic. Sanders opposed the 1996 welfare-reform law. He also opposed bank deregulation and the Iraq War, both of which Hillary supported, and both of which have proved disastrous. In short, there is such a thing as a lesser evil, and Hillary is not it.

Coates and Alexander are by no means the first black intellectuals to express skepticism of Clinton and endorse Sanders. Princeton University professor Cornel West, for example, has campaigned with Sanders. On Wednesday morning, Sanders traveled to Harlem to have breakfast with the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the most prominent black politician in South Carolina, is considering endorsing Clinton. She still has plenty of backing in the black political establishment. But the comments from Coates and Alexander Wednesday are a sign that the degree of support Clinton is counting on from the black community might be slipping away, and that she may not be able to sew up the black vote in South Carolina, as her supporters have long predicted.

The 2016 Election Is Likely to Be a Close One

| Wed Feb. 10, 2016 12:06 PM EST

Those are words that should cause any real progressive of any gender to damn near have an aneurysm." It's hard to argue with that.

So far, no problem. Those are all good reasons to vote for Bernie. But what comes next is pretty disturbing:

Much as I support Sanders' lifelong, rock-ribbed liberalism, I might have been persuaded to vote for a Democrat somewhat to the right of him in hopes of bringing some moderate Republicans along for the ride—especially in view of that party's clown car primary. But none of those halfway-reasonable leftists ran: not Al Gore, not Russ Feingold, not Elizabeth Warren. And the very clownishness of that madly tootling Republican vehicle, I believe, virtually ensures that whichever Democrat secures the nomination will win the general.

I wonder how common this belief is? Not too common, I hope, because it's wishful thinking in the extreme. Democrats have held the White House for eight years and the economy is in okay but not great shape. Those are not great fundamentals for a Democratic victory.

Now, it's also true that demographic shifts are making the electorate steadily more Democratic. And candidate quality matters: If Republicans nominate a Donald Trump or a Ted Cruz, they'll be shooting themselves in the foot. Nonetheless, every bit of history and political science modeling suggests that this will at least be a close election—and possibly one that favors Republicans at the start.

You should vote for whomever appeals to you. But if you're operating under the delusion that Democrats can literally nominate anyone they want because nobody sane will vote for any of those crazy Republicans, you'd better think twice. This is a belief that betrays both a lazy liberal insularity about the nature of the electorate and an appalling amnesia about a political era that's brought us Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Dick Cheney, Paul Ryan, and the entire tea party. This election is no runaway, folks.

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You May Officially Stop Wigging Out About Twitter

| Wed Feb. 10, 2016 11:03 AM EST

Finally we have some closure. Not in the presidential campaign, of course, which remains in chaos, but in our Twitter feeds. Today we learned that Twitter's new "algorithm" is apparently a feature that curates which tweets you see first if you've been away for a while:

The company, based in San Francisco, announced on Wednesday that it would start showing a selection of tweets that a user who has been away from the service might want to see. “There are lots of people on Twitter who follow hundreds or even thousands of accounts,” Jeff Seibert, Twitter’s senior director of product, said in an interview. “When they come back to Twitter, there’s actually too much for them to catch up on.”

Tweets in this update can come from any time, from minutes to hours ago. The idea is to put important tweets up top so the user does not have to wade through less interesting information.

....To avoid another panic among its more loyal users, Twitter is carrying out the latest change slowly. Users will initially have the option to switch on the new feature in the settings menu before it becomes a default setting. Everyone who doesn’t like it will be able to turn it off.

Now see? That's not so bad, is it? I will definitely be giving this a try. If it doesn't work out for me, I'll turn it off.

The Daily News Just Expertly Called Out Donald Trump's "Brain Dead" New Hampshire Supporters

| Wed Feb. 10, 2016 8:06 AM EST

As expected, Donald Trump won the New Hampshire Republican primary on Tuesday with 35 percent of the vote. His double-digit victory, while unsurprising, did finally prove Trump could turn his high polling numbers into real votes.

The Daily News had plenty to say about Trump's resounding win and the "brain dead" New Hampshire voters who catapulted him to victory:

Tell us how you really feel, Daily News.

Are Cage-Free Eggs All They're Cracked Up to Be?

| Wed Feb. 10, 2016 6:00 AM EST

Cage-free eggs, once a niche product for ethically minded (and well-off) shoppers, are suddenly a hot commodity with an unlikely customer: Big Food. Sonic and Burger King are the latest to join a slate of companies promising to ditch eggs produced by caged hens.

They follow an unlikely trailblazer: McDonald's, which announced in September that it would go cage-free by the end of 2025. That decision unleashed a "tidal wave of commitments," says Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States. The list now includes most major American fast-food chains, retailers including Target and Walmart, and food service providers, like Aramark and Sodexo.

Although the number of cage-free birds increased 37 percent last year, they remain less than 10 percent of the nation's 277 million hens, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Now large egg producers are scrambling to catch up by investing in new cage-free facilities—a swift about-face for an industry that once vehemently fought efforts to eliminate the cramped, paper-sized "battery cages" in which the vast majority of hens spend their lives. In 2008, when California voted on Proposition 2, a measure that mandated that hens should be able to fully spread their wings "without touching the side of an enclosure or other egg-laying hens," United Egg Producers, the industry's primary trade group, spent $10 million in a failed effort to defeat the initiative. But this October, UEP President Chad Gregory told Politico that the group wouldn't put up a fight in Massachusetts, where a measure modeled after California's will be on the ballot in November.

Most companies, including McDonald's, have given egg producers up to a decade to change how they house their hens. As Wired charts in detail, the industry is choosing to gradually phase out, rather than dismantle, a production system that's been designed since the 1950s to provide maximum efficiency. Today, Americans demand 6 billion to 7 billion eggs each month, and they expect every dozen to come relatively cheap.

That means that while cage-free is often portrayed as a nostalgic return to pre-mechanized farming, the newest egg facilities are not like your grandfather's bucolic little chicken farm. At nonorganic farms, where outdoor access isn't required, large egg producers are primarily building multitiered aviaries—stacked arrangements in which thousands, if not tens of thousands of birds roam throughout the barn, hopping from level to level. "There are birds by your feet, your knees, your shoulders—cities of birds," explains Shapiro.

Giving hens the simple ability to move around prevents many of the worst health problems associated with battery cages, Shapiro says, by strengthening brittle bones and allowing them to act on their natural instincts to roost and forage.

But in these large, industrial aviaries, the birds "don't typically go outside," says Shapiro. And letting a flock of birds roam within a closed, confined aviary presents its own concerns. A three-year study produced by a consortium of egg providers, academics, and advocacy groups found that aviaries had nearly twice the death rate of caged systems. Most of the difference had to do with aggression between the birds and outbreaks of cannibalism.

One study showed that aviaries had nearly twice the death rate of caged systems.

Cannibalism is a learned behavior, a nasty symptom of industrial breeding and housing, says Joy Mench, an animal behavior specialist at the University of California-Davis who co-led the study. Outbreaks are more likely to flare up in densely stocked aviaries, where hens are given unfettered access to other birds. And for that reason, aviary managers continue to rely on the standard industry practice to lessen the risks of pecking: cutting off the sharp tips of the hens' beaks.

Reduced air quality in the closed barns is another concern for both birds and workers, who need to spend more time managing the hens in a cage-free system. In battery cage systems, birds were separated from their waste. Without that separation, ammonia buildup can occur when feces aren't removed in a timely fashion, particularly in cold climates. But the most acute problem is that a moving flock clogs the air with dust. "There were days when you could hardly stand to walk into that aviary," says Mench, referring to the Midwestern egg facility where the study was conducted. "You couldn't see 4 feet in front of your face."

Additionally, in both caged and uncaged systems, disease spreads like wildfire. Last year's avian flu outbreak, which killed millions of hens and sent egg prices skyrocketing, is thought to have originated in backyard flocks but took its heaviest toll as it blazed through crowded industrial barns.

"People are going to love that they are cage-free, but you have to look at the whole system," says Janice Swanson, a professor at Michigan State University and a co-author of the study. "It's going to be a lot of work before cage-free is environmentally sustainable and actually does what we want it to do for the hens."

The study suggested that bigger, so-called "enriched" cages, with room for the multiple birds to move and exhibit more natural behaviors, may be a better bet for health and safety than aviaries. Those systems are legal under California law, which didn't ban cages but instead mandated minimum space requirements. But since they don't meet the corporate cage-free pledges, egg producers don't have an incentive to build them.

So while cage-free systems remove many of the inherent cruelties of battery cages, the welfare of the hens inside them hinges on how these facilities, which can range from packed industrial aviaries to smaller farms with ample space and outdoor access, are designed and managed. That can be difficult to decipher from the labels on an egg carton.

If you're looking to further mitigate the cruelty behind your next omelet, the Humane Society recommends looking past labels like "vegetarian-fed," "natural," or "farm fresh," which are stamped on cartons for marketing purposes. Pasture-raised, certified organic, or free-range are typically better bets for eggs produced by a happier, healthier hen—if you can stomach the higher cost.

 

Quote of the Evening: America Currently Suffering Worst Economic Catastrophe in Recorded History

| Tue Feb. 9, 2016 11:55 PM EST

I know Trump has said this before, so technically it's hardly new. Still, I mean, it's...it's...oh hell:

I am going to be the greatest jobs president that God ever created. Remember that. Don't believe those phony numbers when you hear 4.9 percent and 5 percent unemployment. The number's probably 28, 29, as high as 35. In fact, I even heard recently 42 percent. Do you think if we had 5 percent unemployment, do you really think we'd have these gatherings?

Yeah, Trump "heard" 42 percent recently. You betcha. Trump hears a lot of things, sort of like Joan of Arc. In any case, I assume Trump keeps saying this because it goes over well with his audiences. Why might this be?

  • Trump fans are really bad at arithmetic.
  • Trump fans know an ungodly number of unemployed people in their immediate circle of friends.
  • Trump fans are really eager to believe the government is lying to them.
  • Trump fans don't actually know what unemployment is.
  • Trump fans don't really have a clue what he's saying. It's just mumbo jumbo delivered with authority, and they love it.

I dunno. Could be all of the above, I suppose.