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Defending Free Speech Doesn't Require Solidarity With the Speech Itself

| Sat Jan. 10, 2015 1:28 PM EST

A couple of days ago, I had in mind a follow-up post about the point that defense of free speech doesn't necessarily demand "solidarity" with the speech itself. This is obvious. If an extremist gay rights lunatic murdered a dozen members of the Westboro Baptist Church, would we all start showily plastering "God Hates Fags" on our websites? The question answers itself. There might a few photos showing WBC members sporting the phrase because there's some news value in making it clear what sparked the attacks, but that would be it.

Anyway, I didn't do it. The only way to make the point was to choose something deliberately and revoltingly offensive, so I backed off. But Glenn Greenwald didn't:

This week’s defense of free speech rights was so spirited that it gave rise to a brand new principle: to defend free speech, one not only defends the right to disseminate the speech, but embraces the content of the speech itself. Numerous writers thus demanded: to show “solidarity” with the murdered cartoonists, one should not merely condemn the attacks and defend the right of the cartoonists to publish, but should publish and even celebrate those cartoons. “The best response to Charlie Hebdo attack,” announced Slate’s editor Jacob Weisberg, “is to escalate blasphemous satire.”

Some of the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo were not just offensive but bigoted, such as the one mocking the African sex slaves of Boko Haram as welfare queens....But no matter. Their cartoons were noble and should be celebrated — not just on free speech grounds but for their content. In a column entitled “The Blasphemy We Need,” The New York Times’ Ross Douthat argued that “the right to blaspheme (and otherwise give offense) is essential to the liberal order” and “that kind of blasphemy [that provokes violence] is precisely the kind that needs to be defended, because it’s the kind that clearly serves a free society’s greater good.” New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait actually proclaimed that “one cannot defend the right [to blaspheme] without defending the practice.”

....It is self-evident that if a writer who specialized in overtly anti-black or anti-Semitic screeds had been murdered for their ideas, there would be no widespread calls to republish their trash in “solidarity” with their free speech rights....When we originally discussed publishing this article to make these points, our intention was to commission two or three cartoonists to create cartoons that mock Judaism and malign sacred figures to Jews the way Charlie Hebdo did to Muslims. But that idea was thwarted by the fact that no mainstream western cartoonist would dare put their name on an anti-Jewish cartoon, even if done for satire purposes, because doing so would instantly and permanently destroy their career, at least. Anti-Islam and anti-Muslim commentary (and cartoons) are a dime a dozen in western media outlets.

I don't agree with everything Greenwald says in his post. In particular, I think he really does downplay the disparity in both the number and virulence of terrorist attacks by radical Islamic groups compared to other groups. Like it or not, that makes a difference. He also would have been well-served by reprinting more than just anti-Semitic cartoons. Nonetheless, he makes his point vigorously, as usual, including a refresher of the evidence that terrorist violence is hardly limited to radical Islamists.

I am, I confess, conflicted about this. There is value in solidarity in the face of such a hideous attack. Still, although refusing to publish out of fear is plainly wrong—this is hardly a controversial point—letting a terrorist attack provoke an overreaction is a dubious response as well. For this reason, Greenwald's piece is worth reading in full even if, in the end, you think he's wrong. Maybe even especially if you think he's wrong.

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Unemployment Is Low, But It Can Still Go a Lot Lower — And It Should

| Sat Jan. 10, 2015 10:25 AM EST

Justin Wolfers makes a good point today. There's a concept in economics called NAIRU, which rather awkwardly stands for the Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment1. Basically it means that there's a "natural" rate of unemployment in the economy2, and if you go below it then inflation will start to accelerate. When that happens, the Fed raises interest rates to slow down growth before inflation gets out of hand.

But what's the actual value of NAIRU? Based on past experience, most economists think it's around 5.5 percent or so—which happens to be where we are now. And yet, inflation is still very low, and definitely not accelerating. This could be just a temporary phenomenon as we recover from a huge balance-sheet recession, or it could be something more permanent. For two reasons, my guess is that it's mostly the latter. First, inflation has been steadily dropping for 30 years in the US, and there's some reason to think that it's the 70s that were a high-inflation anomaly, not the rest of the low-inflation 20th century. Second, there's reason to think that the headline unemployment rate is not measuring quite the same thing as it used to. If you look at long-term unemployment, marginally attached workers, and the decline of the labor force participation ratio—which has been falling for 15 years now—it appears that a headline rate of 5.5 percent probably implies more slack in the economy than it used to. Here's Wolfers on the natural rate of unemployment:

The problem, though, is that no one really knows what that rate is. Our uncertainty is even greater today than it normally is, because no one knows the extent to which those workers who dropped out of the labor force in response to the financial crisis will return when jobs become plentiful. By this view, today’s most important macroeconomic question is what the natural rate actually is.

The latest jobs report helps answer this question. The unemployment rate has fallen to 5.6 percent, and there are still no signs that wage inflation is rising. Indeed, with wage growth running at only 1.7 percent, the economy is telling us that we still have the ability to bring many more of the jobless back into the fold without setting off inflation.

It is only when nominal wage growth exceeds the sum of inflation (about 2 percent) and productivity growth (about 1.5 percent) that the Fed needs to be concerned that the labor market is generating cost pressures that might raise inflation. So the latest wage growth numbers suggest that we are not yet near the natural rate. And that means the Fed should be content to let the recovery continue to generate more new jobs.

There's one more thing to add: Even when unemployment falls to around 4 percent, we should remain cautious. We've tolerated an inflation rate that's under the Fed's 2 percent target for the past five years. There's no reason we shouldn't tolerate a catch-up inflation rate that's a little over the Fed's target as we begin to recover. If inflation runs at 3-4 percent for the next five years, it's probably a good thing, not a bad one.

1Obviously economists could have used a branding expert to help them with this. On the other hand, if they'd done that we might have ended up with Xarelxo or JobsMax™. In any case, we're stuck with it for now.

2The idea here is that even a thriving economy has a certain amount of natural unemployment as people leave their jobs and move to new ones—because new sectors pop up, old companies go out of business, etc. That's a good thing and a perfectly natural one in a competitive economy that's producing lots of innovation. Trying to push unemployment lower than the natural rate is basically fruitless.

72 Percent of Republican Senators Are Climate Deniers

| Sat Jan. 10, 2015 6:00 AM EST
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) at the 2009 UN climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark

On Thursday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) offered a simple amendment to the controversial bill that would authorize construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Sanders' measure, which he proposed to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, would have declared it the "sense of Congress" that climate change is real; that it is caused by humans; that it has already caused significant problems; and that the United States needs to shift its economy away from fossil fuels.

Sanders' amendment went nowhere. But Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the chair of the committee, used the opportunity to take a shot at climate science. "I do believe that our climate is changing," she said. "I don't agree that all the changes are necessarily due solely to human activity." Murkowski didn't elaborate on her current thinking about the causes of global warming, but in the past she's advanced a bizarre theory involving a volcano in Iceland.

Sanders will get another chance next week, when the full Senate debates the Keystone bill—but he's likely to run into stiff resistance from GOP climate deniers. As Climate Progress revealed Thursday, more than half of the Republican members of the new Congress "deny or question" the overwhelming scientific consensus that humans are causing climate change. If you just look at the Senate, the numbers are even more disturbing. Thirty-nine GOP senators reject the science on climate change—that's 72 percent of the Senate Republican caucus.

The list includes veteran lawmakers like James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who is the incoming chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW) and has written a book titled, The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. And it includes new senators like Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who thinks climate change might be caused by solar cycles. (For a great interactive map showing exactly how many climate deniers represent your state in Congress, click here.)

What's more, the Climate Progress analysis shows that many of the congressional committees that deal with climate and energy issues are loaded with global warming deniers:

…68 percent of the Republican leadership in both House and Senate deny human-caused climate change. On the committee level, 13 out of 21 Republican members of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, or 62 percent, reject the science behind human-caused global warming, joined by 67 percent, or 21 out of 31 Republican members, of the House Energy and Commerce Committee…In addition to Inhofe, 10 out of 11, or 91 percent, of Republicans on EPW have said climate change is not happening or that humans do not cause it.

All this could have serious policy consequences: Republicans are threatening to use their majority to cut the EPA's budget and derail the power plant regulations at the heart of President Obama's signature climate initiative.

Check Out This Amazing Presidential Debate Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush Just Had

| Fri Jan. 9, 2015 5:43 PM EST

On Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Mitt Romney may be running for president again in 2016. Meanwhile, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is also considering a run! Mother Jones DC bureau chief David Corn, who broke the news of this little video back in 2012, had a couple of thoughts about how that battle for the GOP nomination might play out:

We can't wait. 

WSJ: Mitt Romney Considering '16 Presidential Bid

| Fri Jan. 9, 2015 5:01 PM EST

Wow! The Wall Street Journal just ripped open everyone's Friday afternoon with this shocking, game-changing scoop:

This would be a good time to watch the 2014 Netflix documentary Mitt, which was the first time Romney signaled that he'd run again.

Have a good weekend, everyone.

Friday Cat Blogging - 9 January 2015

| Fri Jan. 9, 2015 2:44 PM EST

Here's Hopper in the sewing room, surrounded by sewing paraphernalia. That look in her eye suggests either that her brother was somewhere nearby or that she was just about to gallop across all of Marian's stuff and make a huge mess. Or maybe both. Making a mess is a favorite pastime around here these days.

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President Obama Starts to Focus on the Middle Class

| Fri Jan. 9, 2015 2:04 PM EST

One of the hot topics of conversation in progressive circles these days is the middle class. Democrats support plenty of programs that provide benefits to the poor (Medicaid, minimum wage, SNAP, etc.), but what about programs that benefit the middle class? What do Democrats do for them?

By coincidence, this week provides a couple of examples of programs that are targeted more at the middle class than the poor. First up is President Obama's proposal to fund two years of free community college for everyone. As Libby Nelson explains, Pell Grants already make community college free for most low-income students:

The most radical part of Obama's free community college proposal isn't that it's free — it's that it's universal....So the best way to look at the Obama free college plan is as a promise to the middle class. Families who earn too much for federal financial aid but aren't wealthy enough to afford thousands of dollars of college bills are rightly feeling squeezed as tuition prices rise.

This might not be the most effective way to spend federal money. But it's politically smart. To see why, look at pre-K. Most of the research on pre-kindergarten effectiveness is about whether it helps poor children catch up to their peers from wealthier families. But in 1995, Georgia decided to use lottery winnings to make free pre-K available not just to the poor, but to any family who wanted to join.

Two decades later, Georgia's universal pre-K program is very popular, championed by liberals and conservatives alike. And the reason it's managed to stay relatively apolitical and noncontroversial is that it's universal, Fawn Johnson wrote in National Journal last year. A program just for the poor "would be about class warfare," one Georgia Republican told her.

Elsewhere, Greg Sargent notes that new rules governing overtime wages could benefit middle-class workers:

Obama will soon announce a rules change that governs which salaried workers will get time-and-a-half over 40 hours under the Fair Labor Standards Act....“The spotlight is now on raising wages,” [AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka] told me. “Raising wages is the key unifying progressive value that ties all the pieces of economic and social justice together. We think the president has a great opportunity to show that he is behind that agenda by increasing the overtime regulations to a minimum threshold of $51,168. That’s the marker.

....A lower threshold could exclude millions. In raising his voice, Trumka joins Sherrod Brown, Elizabeth Warren, and other progressive Senators who have urged a threshold of $54,000, and billionaire Nick Hanauer, who is urging $69,000. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that raising the threshold to a sum approximating what the liberal Senators want could mean higher overtime pay for at least 2.6 million more people than raising it to $42,000. EPI says setting it at over $50,000 could mean over six million people, or 54 percent of salaried workers, are now covered.

Both of these proposals would primarily benefit middle-class workers which makes it unlikely that either of them will get any support from Republicans or from the business community. But they're worth pursuing anyway. At least they let everyone know whose side each party is on.

The House Just Voted to Approve the Keystone XL Pipeline

| Fri Jan. 9, 2015 2:03 PM EST

The House of Representative voted overwhelmingly Friday to approve construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. But even with 28 Democrats joining nearly all Republicans in voting "yea," supporters of the project still fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to override President Barack Obama's promised veto.

The State Department, which has jurisdiction over the proposed pipeline because it would cross an international boundary, is currently in the process of determining whether the project is in the national interest. The House bill would circumvent that process and force approval of the pipeline. In a statement today reiterating its veto threat, the White House said Obama opposes the bill because it "conflicts with longstanding Executive branch procedures…and prevents the thorough consideration of complex issues that could bear on U.S. national interests."

The debate will now shift to the US Senate, which is planning to vote on the pipeline next week. Late last year, Senate Republicans came within one vote of the 60 needed to pass a bill to approve the project. With Republicans now in control of the Senate, the Keystone bill will likely pass next week. But as in the House, pipeline supporters will struggle to attract sufficient Democratic votes to override a presidential veto.

The Agriculture Department Has Advice In Case You're Ever Kidnapped

| Fri Jan. 9, 2015 12:07 PM EST

In an apparent effort to prove that you can write an explainer about anything, Alex Abad-Santos writes one today about the Taken movies. So how good is Liam Neeson's advice in those movies to the various family members of his that get abducted? Here is Abad-Santos:

According to the a safety protocol guide on the USDA's website, it's recommended that you....

Wait. The USDA? As in the Department of Agriculture? WTF?

Anyway, yes: it turns out the United States Department of Agriculture has a Personnel and Document Security Division, and they have a handy web page called "Kidnapping and Hostage Survival Guidelines." Sadly, it turns out not to really be a USDA document. It's part of a security program developed for the Defense Security Service Academy by the Defense Personnel Security Research Center. The security awareness cartoons were provided by the Information and Personnel Security Office, Chief of Naval Operations. From there, the whole package was distributed to other government agencies, including the USDA.

Still, it has a quiz! If you'd like to test your knowledge of proper security procedures for government employees, click here.

I've Never Gotten an Annual Physical. How About You?

| Fri Jan. 9, 2015 11:17 AM EST

Ezekiel Emanuel passes along the results of research about the value of getting an annual physical exam:

The unequivocal conclusion: the appointments are unlikely to be beneficial. Regardless of which screenings and tests were administered, studies of annual health exams dating from 1963 to 1999 show that the annual physicals did not reduce mortality overall or for specific causes of death from cancer or heart disease. And the checkups consume billions, although no one is sure exactly how many billions because of the challenge of measuring the additional screenings and follow-up tests.

How can this be? There have been stories and studies in the past few years questioning the value of the physical, but neither patients nor doctors seem to want to hear the message. Part of the reason is psychological; the exam provides an opportunity to talk and reaffirm the physician-patient relationship even if there is no specific complaint. There is also habit. It’s hard to change something that’s been recommended by physicians and medical organizations for more than 100 years. And then there is skepticism about the research. Almost everyone thinks they know someone whose annual exam detected a minor symptom that led to the early diagnosis and treatment of cancer, or some similar lifesaving story.

This is a funny thing. I've never had an annual physical. This isn't for any specific reason. It just never occurred to me, and none of my doctors has ever recommended it. I've probably had half a dozen different primary care physicians over my adult life, and not one of them has ever suggested I should be getting an annual physical.

I'm not sure what this means. Is the annual physical something that doctors only do if their patients ask? Or have I just had an unusual bunch of doctors over the years? What's your experience with this?

And as long as I'm noodling about stuff like this, here's a thought that passed through my brain the other day. I was thinking about the fact that one of the indicators of the multiple myeloma that I was diagnosed with comes from blood tests. So why not test routinely for the markers of multiple myeloma? The answer is obvious: you'd be performing millions of blood tests every year with a vanishingly small chance of finding anything. What's more, there are lots of different cancers. Are you going to draw a few pints of blood every year and test for all of them at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars? That makes no sense in otherwise healthy people.

But this got me thinking about that new blood testing technique I wrote about a few months ago. In a nutshell, it requires only a tiny amount of blood, and the tests themselves are super cheap. If this works as advertised—and presumably gets even cheaper with time—does it open up new possibilities for an annual physical that actually makes sense? Would it be possible to draw no more than a standard vial of blood once a year, and then perform a huge variety of tests at a cost of a few hundred dollars? The odds of finding anything would still be small, but it might nonetheless be worth it if the cost both in time and money was also small.

Of course, there are still problems with false positives and so forth, even if the cost of this regimen was small. So maybe it would be a lousy idea regardless of its feasibility. I really have no idea. But it's an intriguing possibility.