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Personal Health Update

| Fri Dec. 19, 2014 8:34 PM EST

I haven't had any fresh news on the health front lately, so I haven't brought it up on the blog. But I continue to get lots of queries and good wishes, and today I finally have something to report. I'm 8 weeks through my 16-week regimen of chemotherapy, and last week my doctor ordered up sort of a halftime report on how I'm doing. This is an extended set of lab tests, and today she called to tell me the results.

Apparently they came out great. Unfortunately, I don't actually remember the names of the protein markers and other things we were looking for, so I have to be a little vague here. Immunoglobulins? Lympho-somethings? In any case, the levels were way, way down, and that's what we were hoping for. This means the chemo is working well so far and the myeloma is hopefully on the run.

That's my good news for the day. What's yours?

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Watch President Obama Call on Female Reporters for Every Single Question During Friday's Presser

| Fri Dec. 19, 2014 4:12 PM EST

For his final press conference of 2014, President Obama exclusively called on female reporters. The White House had planned it that way:

By the eighth and final question, Obama even appeared to ignore a male reporter's attempt to participate. The result was amazing. Watch below:

Elizabeth Warren: Wall Street Just Got Another Giveaway

| Fri Dec. 19, 2014 3:54 PM EST

Last week, Congress did Wall Street a solid. When lawmakers passed a giant spending bill that funds the government through September, they included a provision written by Citigroup lobbyists that allows banks to make more risky trades with taxpayer-insured money. Then, on Thursday, bankers got another giveaway: The Federal Reserve announced it would delay for up to two years implementation of a crucial section of the Volcker rule—one of the most important regulations to come out of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. The rule generally forbids the high-risk trading by commercial banks that helped cause the financial crisis. The move by the Fed pushes the deadline for banks to comply past the next presidential election and gives Wall Street lobbyists more time to weaken it.

"Less than a week after Wall Street slipped a bailout provision written by Citigroup into the government spending bill, the Fed has given the big banks another victory," Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said in a statement Friday.

"It's really hard to see an excuse for this," says Marcus Stanley, the financial policy director at Americans for Financial Reform, an advocacy group.

The Volcker rule ensures that financial institutions don't engage in something called proprietary trading, which is when a bank trades for its own benefit as opposed to for the benefit of its customers. Banks were supposed to comply with the Volcker rule by July 21, 2014. Last year, when banking watchdogs finalized the rule, the Fed granted banks a year-long extension. The Fed's Thursday announcement gives banks another year to get rid of certain investments—including those in private equity firms and hedge funds. The central bank also noted Thursday that it plans to push out the deadline again next year, by another 12 months. That brings the new compliance deadline to July 2017, far past the 2016 election. If the new president is a Republican, he could fill his administration with Wall Street insiders opposed to the rule, making it even easier for lobbyists to gut it.

Before the Volcker rule was finalized last year, the financial industry fought like mad to weaken it. The regulation could slash the total annual profits of the eight largest US banks by up to $10 billion, according to an estimate by Standard & Poor's. Banking reform advocates were fairly happy with way the final reg turned out. But now the financial industry has extra time to take a few more whacks at rule before banks actually have to obey it. "Wall Street’s loophole lawyers and other hired guns will… continue to hit at the rule as if it were a piñata," Dennis Kelleher, the president of the financial reform advocacy group Better Markets, said when regulators completed the rule in 2013.

The Dodd-Frank law already contains a provision allowing banks that will have difficulty getting rid of particular investments before the initial compliance deadline to request an extension from banking regulators. The Fed's announcement yesterday amounts to an unnecessary "blanket" extension, Stanley says. "It's hogwash."

Friday Cat Blogging - 19 December 2014

| Fri Dec. 19, 2014 2:55 PM EST

I have to run, but before I do here's what passes for an action shot of the dynamic duo. It's about the best I can do these days. As you might guess, they're entranced with something we're waving around just outside the frame. Maybe a pencil? I'm not sure. But with cats, the cheapest cat toys are always the best.

(Seriously. Hopper's favorite, by far, is an empty toilet paper tube. She just goes nuts over them.)

Obama: Sony "Made a Mistake" Stopping the Release of "The Interview"

| Fri Dec. 19, 2014 2:40 PM EST

On Friday, President Barack Obama called Sony's decision to cancel the release of "The Interview" a "mistake."

"We cannot have a society in which a dictator in some place can start imposing censorship in the United States," he told reporters at his final press conference of the year. "Imagine if producers and distributors and others start engaging in self-censorship because they don’t want to offend the sensibilities of someone who’s sensibilities probably need to be offended."

"I wish they'd spoken to me first," he added. "I would have told them: Do not get into the pattern in which you are intimidated."

Earlier on Friday, the FBI officially linked the North Korean government to the cyber attack on Sony. In the press conference, Obama indicated the US government was considering how to respond.

When asked for specifics, he said, "We've been working up a range of options. They will be presented to me and I will make a decision based on what I think is proportional and appropriate to the nature of this crime."

More Good News For Obamacare: Employer Health Coverage Hasn't Crashed

| Fri Dec. 19, 2014 1:50 PM EST

The share of the population with employer health insurance has been slowly eroding for years. The chart on the right tells the story: total coverage rates have dropped from 70 percent to 62 percent since 2001. The trend is pretty clear: the number of workers covered by employer insurance has been dropping about half a percentage point per year for more than a decade.

So has Obamacare accelerated this trend? There have long been fears that it might: once the exchanges were up and running, employers might decide that it was cheaper to ditch their own insurance and just pay their workers extra to buy coverage on the open market. But a new study released by Health Affairs says that hasn't happened:

We found essentially no change in offer rates throughout the study period. Overall, the rates stayed steady, at around 82 percent. Offer rates in small firms also held steady, at around 61 percent....We found no change in take-up rates overall, or by income or firm size, between June 2013 and September 2014.

....As with offer and take-up rates of employer-sponsored insurance, there were no significant differences in coverage rates for the insurance overall or for any subgroup. The rates stayed roughly constant at about 71 percent across all workers, about 50 percent among workers in small firms, and about 82 percent among workers in large firms. The rates also remained constant among low- and high-income workers in either small or large firms.

Note that the percentages themselves differ between the Kaiser numbers and the study numbers thanks to differences in methodology. And there are, of course, plenty of reasons we might see only small changes in employer coverage. The economy has improved. Inertia might be keeping things in check for a while. Perhaps as Obamacare becomes settled law and its benefits become more widely known, more employers will drop their own coverage.

Those are all possibilities. For now, though, it looks as though fears of employers dumping health coverage were unfounded. It's yet more good news for Obamacare.

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Americans Are More Concerned About Racism Than at Anytime Since Rodney King

| Fri Dec. 19, 2014 1:35 PM EST
Gallup

A new poll conducted by Gallup found that 13 percent of Americans believe racism is the country's most important problem, up from just 1 percent in November. It's the highest that number has been since the Rodney King verdict in 1992.

The sharp rise follows national outrage and a wave of protests that swept the nation in response to the failure by two separate grand juries to indict two white officers who killed two black men, Eric Garner and Michael Brown.

According to the data published Friday, nonwhites are more than twice as likely as whites to call race relations/racism the country's most important problem:

Gallup

The latest poll echoes recent studies revealing similar sentiments, including worsening race relations and a growing distrust of law enforcement officers among Americans. As for the latter, however, Gallup found in a poll published earlier this week that while trust in police by nonwhites has plummeted by 22 percent, whites' views on the issue have barely changed.

Gallup

As for the most important problem facing the nation, that's still the government, which leads racism by 2 points.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the last time so many Americans viewed racism as the nation's biggest problem; it was after the Rodney King verdict, not his death.

Are Republicans Really Ready to Embrace Net Neutrality?

| Fri Dec. 19, 2014 12:32 PM EST

Well, this is unexpected. Democrats are generally in favor of net neutrality, the principle that all websites should be treated equally by internet service providers. Companies can't pay extra for faster service and ISPs can't slow down or block sites they don't like. Naturally, since Democrats are in favor of this, Republicans are opposed. But maybe not all that opposed:

Republicans in Congress appear likely to introduce legislation next month aimed at preventing Internet providers from speeding up some Web sites over others....Industry officials said they are discussing details of the proposal with several Republican lawmakers, whom they declined to name. The officials also said the proposal is being backed by several large telecommunications companies, which they also declined to name.

One important piece of the proposed legislation would establish a new way for the FCC to regulate broadband providers by creating a separate provision of the Communications Act known as "Title X," the people said. Title X would enshrine elements of the tough net neutrality principles called for by President Obama last month. For example, it would give FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler the authority to prevent broadband companies from blocking or slowing traffic to Web sites, or charging content companies such as Netflix for faster access to their subscribers — a tactic known as "paid prioritization."

...."Consensus on this issue is really not that far apart," said an industry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks were ongoing. "There's common understanding that rules are needed to protect consumers."

Huh. I wonder if this is for real? The reported price for supporting this legislation is relatively small: the FCC would be prohibited from regulating the internet as a common carrier under Title II, something that even net neutrality supporters agree is problematic. The problem is that although Title II would indeed enshrine net neutrality, it comes with a ton of baggage that was designed for telephone networks and doesn't really translate well to the internet. This would require a lot of "regulatory forbearance" from the FCC, which is almost certain to end up being pretty messy. A new net-centric Title X, if it truly implements net neutrality, would be a much better solution. It would also be immune to court challenges.

One possibility for such a law would be a modified version of net neutrality. My sense has always been that the real goal of net neutrality supporters is to make sure that internet providers don't provide fast lanes for companies willing to pay more, and don't slow down or block companies they dislike (perhaps because the companies provide services they compete with). At the same time, everyone acknowledges that video requires a lot of bandwidth, and internet providers legitimately need incentives to build out their networks to handle the growing data demands of video. So why not have content-neutral rules that set tariffs based on the type of service provided? Video providers might have to pay more than, say, Joe's Cafe, but all video providers would pay the same rate based on how much traffic they dump on the net. That rate would be subject to regulatory approval to prevent abuse.

I dunno. Maybe that's too complicated. Maybe it's too hard to figure out traffic levels in a consistent way, and too hard to figure out how much video makes you a video provider. Maybe rules like this are too easy to game. In the end, it could be that the best bet is to simply agree on strong net neutrality, and then let ISPs charge their customers for bandwidth. If you watch a ton of Netflix, you're going to pay more. If you just check email once a day, you'll get a cheap plan.

In any case, it's interesting that President Obama's announcement of support for strong net neutrality has really had an effect. It apparently motivated the FCC to get more serious about Title II regulation, and this in turn has motivated the industry to concede the net neutrality fight as long as they can win congressional approval of a more reasonable set of rules. The devil is in the details, of course, and I have no doubt that industry lobbyists will do their best to craft rules favorable to themselves. Luckily, there's a limit to how far they can go since it will almost certainly require Democratic support to pass a bill.

Anyway, this is all just rumors and reports of rumors at this point. Stay tuned to see if it actually pans out.

We Should Respond to North Korea. But What If We Can't?

| Fri Dec. 19, 2014 11:01 AM EST

Over at the all-new New Republic, Yishai Schwartz sounds the usual old-school New Republic war drums toward North Korea. "The only way to prevent future attacks," he says, "is for foreign governments to know that attacks against U.S. targets—cyber or kinetic—will bring fierce, yet proportionally appropriate, responses." And time is already running out. We should be doing this now now now.

Right. So what's the deal, Obama? Why all the dithering in the face of this attack? Are you just—oh wait. Maybe there's more to this. Here's the Wall Street Journal:

Responding presents its own set of challenges, with options that people familiar with the discussions say are either implausible or ineffective. North Korea's only connections to the Internet run through China, and some former officials say the U.S. should urge Beijing to get its neighbor to cut it out…But the U.S. already is in a standoff with China over accusations of bilateral hacking, making any aid in this crisis unlikely, the intelligence official said.

Engaging in a counter-hack could also backfire, U.S. cyberpolicy experts said, in part because the U.S. is able to spy on North Korea by maintaining a foothold on some of its computer systems. A retaliatory cyberstrike could wind up damaging Washington's ability to spy on Pyongyang, a former intelligence official said. Another former U.S. official said policy makers remain squeamish about deploying cyberweapons against foreign targets.

…North Korea is already an isolated nation, so there isn't much more economic pressure the U.S. can bring to bear on them either, these people said. Even publicly naming them as the suspected culprit presents diplomatic challenges, potentially causing problems for Japan, where Sony is based.

I'd like to do something to stomp on North Korea too. Hell, 20 million North Koreans would be better off if we just invaded the damn place and put them all under NATO military rule. It's one of the few places on Earth you can say that about. However, I'm sensible enough to realize that things aren't that easy, and there's not much point in demanding "action" just because the situation is so hellish and frustrating.

Ditto in this case. A US response would certainly be appropriate. And honestly, it's not as if there's really anyone taking the other side of that argument. But given the nature of the DPRK, a meaningful response would also be really hard. America just doesn't have a whole lot of leverage against a place like that. What's more, if we do respond, it's at least even odds that it will be done in some way that will never be made public.

So let's cool our jets. Armchair posturing might make us feel better, but this isn't a partisan chew toy, and it's not a matter of the current administration being insufficiently hawkish. It's a matter of figuring out if there's even a way to respond effectively. Like it or not, it might turn out that there isn't.

Watch Stephen Colbert End Final Episode with an Epic Celebrity-Soaked Sing-Along

| Fri Dec. 19, 2014 8:11 AM EST

Stephen Colbert bid farewell to "The Colbert Report" with a joyous sing-along of "We'll Meet Again," which saw cameos from nearly every friend of the show you could imagine, from Jon Stewart, James Franco, Samantha Power, Patrick Stewart, Bill de Blasio, George Lucas, Big Bird, and many more. The inimitable Randy Newman played piano.

It was a spectacular moment that concluded with our beloved host riding off into the night in Santa's sleigh, a unicorned Abraham Lincoln and non-unicorned Alex Trebek in tow.

Earlier on, Colbert managed to actually cheat death by defeating the Grim Reaper in a rousing, violent game of chess. "I just killed death. I'm immortal!" Here's to hoping there's more to come from our favorite right-wing blowhard: