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How a 20-Minute Conversation Can Convince People With Anti-Gay Views to Change Their Mind

| Thu Dec. 18, 2014 6:00 AM EST

A recent study suggests that a single conversation between a gay person and a same-sex marriage opponent may have the power to change the person's mind on the issue. 

The study, published last week in the journal Science, analyzed data collected by the Los Angeles LGBT Center after it sent pro-gay marriage canvassers to areas of southern California that had voted overwhelmingly in favor of Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California in 2008 until the Supreme Court overturned it in 2013. Starting in 2009, canvassers—both gay and straight—engaged in over 12,000 brief one-on-one conversations with those precincts' registered voters about either gay marriage or, with a placebo group, recycling. The survey found that respondents who had discussed gay marriage showed less prejudice towards gay people following their chat with the canvasser than those who had discussed recycling.

But these conversations weren't equally effective across the board: At a certain point in the initial conversation, the gay canvassers had been instructed to reveal that they were gay and hoping to get married, but that the law prohibited it, whereas the straight canvassers spoke of a "friend" or "relative."

Only the gay canvassers' effectiveness proved enduring.

"Those who discussed same-sex marriage with straight canvassers," write the study's authors, Michael J. LaCour and Donald P. Green, "quickly reverted to their pretreatment baseline opinions, and 90% of the initial treatment effect dissipated a month after the conversation with canvassers."

Meanwhile, the respondents who spoke to gay canvassers remained just as enlightened nine months later.

"The data show that in 20 minutes, the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s volunteer canvassers accomplished what would have otherwise taken five years at the current rate of social change," the center's David Fleischer said in a statement. "How did we do it? Our team had heartfelt, reciprocal and vulnerable conversations on the doorsteps of those who opposed marriage for same-sex couples, and volunteers who were LGBT came out during their conversations."

Researchers are hopeful their persuasion methods can produce similar results in reducing prejudices on other social issues as well. 

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Russia Has Already Blown Up the Global Economy Once. Will It Do It Again?

| Thu Dec. 18, 2014 12:47 AM EST

Just in case you're thinking that Russia's economic problems are little more than a fitting karmic payback for Vladimir Putin, you might want to think twice. When the global economy is fragile, sometimes even small events can send the whole system into cardiac arrest, and that affects everyone, not just Putin and his cronies. So in case you've forgotten, here's a brief refresher on the events of August 1998:

  1. Russia devalues its currency and defaults on its sovereign debt.
  2. Markets that are already jittery thanks to the East Asian financial crisis go into full-blown frenzy mode.
  3. Money pours out of low-quality emerging market investments and into high-quality US, Japanese, and European bonds.
  4. As a result, yield spreads between low-quality and high-quality bonds widen sharply.
  5. Long Term Capital Management, which had made large bets on spreads narrowing as the East Asian crisis receded, is blindsided, suffering huge losses.
  6. As LTCM gets close to insolvency, Bear Stearns stops clearing their trades. Death is imminent.
  7. Because LTCM is so highly leveraged, its debts exceed $100 billion and its collapse thus threatens every bank on Wall Street. Amid growing panic over a systemic meltdown, the Fed finally steps in and arranges a bailout package. Crisis over—for now.

This is not going to happen again. The world is not the same now as it was in 1998. It's just meant as an example of how an otherwise limited financial crisis can have a global impact. The fact that it begins with a Russian currency crisis is merely a felicitous coincidence.

But also a bit of an unnerving coincidence. More than likely, Russia's problems will be contained to Russia. But they might not be, so we should all be careful what we wish for.

Obama's Had a Helluva Good Month Since the Midterms

| Wed Dec. 17, 2014 3:37 PM EST

So how have things been going for our bored, exhausted, and disengaged president? He's been acting pretty enthusiastic, energized, and absorbed with his job, I'd say. Let us count the things he's done since the November 4th midterm elections:

  • November 10: Surprised everyone by announcing his support for strong net neutrality.
  • November 11: Concluded a climate deal with China that was not only important in its own right, but has since been widely credited with jumpstarting progress at the Lima talks last week.
  • November 20: Issued an executive order protecting millions of undocumented workers from the threat of deportation.
  • November 26: Signed off on an important new EPA rule significantly limiting ozone emissions.
  • December 15: Took a quiet victory lap as Western financial sanctions considerably sharpened the pain of Vladimir Putin's imploding economy.
  • December 16: Got nearly everything he wanted during the lame duck congressional session, and more. Democrats confirmed all important pending nominees, and then got Republican consent to several dozen lesser ones as well.
  • December 17: Announced a historic renormalization of relations with Cuba.

I guess you can add to that a non-event: In its second year, Obamacare signups are going smoothly and ahead of target. Am I missing anything beyond that? Maybe. It's been quite the whirlwind month for our bored, exhausted, disengaged president, hasn't it?

All of these things are worthwhile in their own right, of course, but there's a political angle to all of them as well: they seriously mess with Republican heads. GOP leaders had plans for January, but now they may or may not be able to do much about them. Instead, they're going to have to deal with enraged tea partiers insisting that they spend time trying to repeal Obama's actions. They can't, of course, but they have to show that they're trying. So there's a good chance that they'll spend their first few months in semi-chaos, responding to Obama's provocations instead of working on their own agenda.

Was that part of the plan? Beats me. But it seems to be working pretty well so far.

The Person Who Cares Most About Barack Obama's Approval Rating is Hillary Clinton

| Wed Dec. 17, 2014 1:41 PM EST

Peter Beinart thinks President Obama is due for a comeback. Paul Waldman agrees:

I think Beinart is probably right, and the economy is the main reason; it swamps every other consideration in evaluating the president. We could have some major shock that upends the momentum it has been gaining, but if things proceed for the next two years on the trajectory they're on, the Obama presidency will be one of the best for job creation in recent history. But it's also important to understand that an Obama revival, should it happen, is going to look different than that of other presidents.

In this case, "look different" means that even in the best case Obama will end his presidency with approval ratings in the mid-50s, but no higher. The country is just too polarized to produce anything better. Conservatives of nearly all stripes are going to disapprove of Obama come hell or high water, and that puts a ceiling on how high his approval rating can go. Ditto for any other president these days.

But it's true that the economy seems to be doing pretty well these days, and it's usually the economy that drives approval ratings. That's good news for Obama, but it's far better news for Hillary Clinton. For Obama, leaving office with a strong economy is nice for his legacy, but that's about it. For Hillary, it almost certainly means the difference between winning and losing the presidency. If the economy is sluggish or worse in 2016, there's simply no way she overcomes voter fatigue toward Democratic rule. But if the economy is ticking along strongly, she just might.

So that's that. The person who cares most about Obama's approval rating isn't Barack Obama. It's Hillary Clinton. It's the tailwind she needs if she wants to become the first woman to occupy the Oval Office.

New York State Just Banned Fracking

| Wed Dec. 17, 2014 1:01 PM EST
Anti-fracking activists at a rally in New York in October 2012.

After years of wrangling between environmentalists, lawmakers, and fossil fuel companies, New York's top public health administrator said he would ban fracking in the state, citing health risks.

From the New York Times:

The Cuomo administration announced Wednesday that it would ban hydraulic fracturing in New York State, ending years of uncertainty by concluding that the controversial method of extracting gas from deep underground could contaminate the state’s air and water and pose inestimable public-health risks.

"I cannot support high volume hydraulic fracturing in the great state of New York," said Howard Zucker, the acting commissioner of health.

That conclusion was delivered publicly during a year-end cabinet meeting called by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in Albany…The state has had a de facto ban on the procedure for more than five years, predating Mr. Cuomo's first term. The decision also came as oil and gas prices continued to fall in many places around the country, in part because of surging American oil production, as fracking boosted output.

New York is the second state to ban fracking, after Vermont did so in 2012. That move was largely symbolic, since Vermont has no natural gas to speak of. New York, by contrast, would have been a prize for the fracking industry, thanks to its massive share of the Marcellus shale formation.

"This is the first state ban with real significance," said Kate Sinding, a senior attorney in New York for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "My head is still spinning, because this is beyond anything we expected."

The fracking battle in New York isn't quite over yet, Sinding said. Now the attention of activists will turn toward proposed infrastructure projects in the state—like a gas storage facility by Lake Seneca and an export facility on Long Island—that would handle natural gas from fracking projects in neighboring states like Pennsylvania.

This post has been updated.

Young Fidel Castro Wrote FDR to Ask for 10 Bucks

| Wed Dec. 17, 2014 12:04 PM EST

In November 1940, a young Cuban student named Fidel Castro sent a handwritten letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Writing in English, Castro congratulated the president on his reelection and requested "a ten dollars bill green american…because never, I have not seen a ten dollars bill green american and I would like to have one of them." Thinking strategically, the future Cuban dictator also offered access to his country's iron to build American ships.

He signed off with a flourish:

National Archives

The letter from the now 88-year-old Castro (who was 14 when he wrote it, not 12 as he said) now resides in the National Archives. FDR probably never saw the letter. Castro did receive a response—but no cash—from the US Embassy in Havana. The polite snub officially marks the first exchange between Castro and the United States—and the beginning of a long, acrimonious relationship that may be about to thaw

Text of the letter (errors and all):

Mr Franklin Roosvelt, President of the United States.

My good friend Roosvelt I don't know very English, but I know as much as write to you.
I like to hear the radio, and I am very happy, because I heard in it, that you will be President for a new (periodo).
I am twelve years old.
I am a boy but I think very much but I do not think that I am writing to the President of the United States.
If you like, give me a ten dollars bill green american, in the letter, because never, I have not seen a ten dollars bill green american and I would like to have one of them.

[…]

I don't know very English but I know very much Spanish and I suppose you don't know very Spanish but you know very English because you are American but I am not American.
(Thank you very much) Good by. Your friend,

Fidel Castro

If you want iron to make your ships I will show to you the bigest (minas) of iron of the land. They are in Mayari Oriente Cuba.

 

National Archives

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Battered Ruble Stabilizes -- For Now

| Wed Dec. 17, 2014 11:49 AM EST

I promise not to post this chart every day, but since I've put it up for the past two days when the ruble was crashing, I figure I should let everyone know when the crash has halted. For a few hours, anyway, thanks to some dubious measures from Russian banking authorities:

The currency was trading 8% stronger against the dollar at 62.1 on the Moscow exchange, while Russia’s RTS Index was up 17%, after the central bank eased regulations on the banking system in a bid to provide some relief on capital adequacy for banks and convince Russians to keep their money in rubles.

Measures including allowing banks not to take provisions against souring loans and weakening assets they hold, and allowing lenders to use last quarter’s exchange rate when settling some foreign-exchange transactions.

I'm not sure that loosening banking regulations is a great response to a currency crisis, but I guess you never know. In any case, it seems to have stabilized things for the time being. In the longer term, storm clouds are still brewing. Stay tuned.

Surprise! Obama Plans to Normalize Relations With Cuba.

| Wed Dec. 17, 2014 11:31 AM EST

A couple of weeks ago, National Review's Jay Nordlinger suggested that maybe President Obama's next executive action would be normalization of relations with Cuba. That struck me as something out of left field, since I'd heard not even a hint of a peep of a rumor that anything along these lines was in the works. But congratulations Jay! You were right:

The United States will restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba and open an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half century after the release of an American contractor held in prison for five years, American officials said Wednesday.

In a deal negotiated during 18 months of secret talks hosted largely by Canada and encouraged by Pope Francis who hosted a final culminating meeting at the Vatican, President Obama and President Raul Castro of Cuba agreed in a telephone call to put aside decades of hostility to find a new relationship between the island nation just 90 minutes off the American coast.

....The United States will ease restrictions on remittances, travel and banking relations and Cuba will release 53 Cuban prisoners identified as political prisoners by the United States government. Although the decades-old American embargo on Cuba will remain in place for now, the administration signaled that it would welcome a move by Congress to ease or lift it should lawmakers choose to.

Oddly enough, I don't see any reaction yet from Nordlinger, or indeed, from anyone over at National Review. Perhaps the intercession of Pope Francis is giving them pause?

In any case, this is good news. I don't personally care an awful lot about Cuba or our relations with them, but half a century of pointless enmity really ought to be enough. Fidel Castro may not have been an admirable guy, but Fulgencio Batista was no great shakes either, and it's long past time to stop pining away for the days when he was in power. So let it go, folks. We don't have to approve of everything Cuba does in order to act like adults and conduct normal relations on both sides. We manage to do it with Russia and Venezuela and Pakistan, after all.

In any case, that's that. The next step is lifting the trade embargo, but I suppose it's unlikely that a Republican Congress is going to act on that any time soon. Too bad. There's no longer any reason for it, and I'll bet the majority of cigar smokers are Republicans. They want their Havanas, so lifting the embargo would, in a sense, be nothing more than a routine bit of base maintenance. Perhaps if Republicans think of it as just another political payoff for their strongest supporters, they can be talked into it.

BREAKING: US to Normalize Relations With Cuba

| Wed Dec. 17, 2014 11:16 AM EST

Wow:

The United States and Cuba will begin talks to normalize relations, including opening an embassy in Havana and putting to rest one most enduring Cold War standoffs, a U.S. official said Wednesday.

The landmark initiatives appeared to be set in motion by a surprise prisoner swap that freed American contractor Alan Gross after five years in custody in Cuba. In exchange, the United States would release three Cubans jailed for espionage, the Associated Press reported.

President Obama is scheduled to speak at noon. Watch below for his press conference: 

Update: The White House just released a fact sheet outlining the policy changes with Cuba:

 

 

Wall Street Salivating Over Further Destruction of Financial Reform

| Wed Dec. 17, 2014 10:37 AM EST

Conventional pundit wisdom suggests that Wall Street may have overreached last week. Yes, they successfully managed to repeal the swaps pushout provision in Dodd-Frank, but in so doing they unleashed Elizabeth Warren and brought far more attention to their shenanigans than they bargained for. They may have won a battle, but with the public now suitably outraged and alert for further mischief, they're unlikely to keep future efforts to weaken financial reform behind the scenes, where they might have a chance to pass with nobody the wiser.

Then again, maybe not. Maybe it was all just political theater and Wall Street lobbyists know better than to take it seriously. Ed Kilgore points to this article in The Hill today:

Banks and financial institutions are planning an aggressive push to dismantle parts of the Wall Street reform law when Republicans take control of Congress in January.

Fresh off a victory in the government funding debate that liberals decried as a giveaway to Wall Street, advocates for the financial sector aim to pursue additional changes to Dodd-Frank that they say would lighten burdens created by the 2010 law. Among the top items on the wish list: easing new requirements on mortgages, loosening restrictions on financial derivatives and overhauling the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau....Another fight on the horizon is the push for “regulatory relief,” as financial institutions and Republicans seek to require agencies to pursue more cost-benefit analysis when writing rules.

....In the face of loud opposition, financial lobbyists say they have a compelling case for revisiting the law. While the economy is improving, they argue the new rules have made it exceedingly difficult to obtain loans, including mortgages.

Will Democrats in the Senate manage to stick together and filibuster these efforts to weaken Dodd-Frank? Or will enough centrists peel off to allow a few of them to pass? I'd like to think that Elizabeth Warren has made unity more likely, but then again, I have an uneasy feeling that Wall Street lobbyists might have a better read on things than she does. Dodd-Frank has already been weakened substantially in the rulemaking process, and this could easily represent a further death by a thousand cuts. After all, as the Wall Street flacks say, the economy is improving. And who needs a bunch of fussy rules when the economy is good?