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Benghazi Committee Now Aiming Its Popguns at Iran Deal

| Thu Jul. 23, 2015 11:47 AM EDT

Back when Trey Gowdy was appointed to lead the House Select Committee on Benghazi, a friend of mine told me I should withhold judgment for a while. Gowdy might be a true believer conservative, but he wasn't a hack like Darrell Issa. His committee might actually do a fair job.

I was skeptical, but I didn't really know much about Gowdy except for his captivatingly unkempt hair (since cleaned up a bit, sadly). So I waited. Before long, the committee was leaking snippets of testimony taken out of context, a favored tactic of Issa. Then it seemed to morph into a full-time attack machine aimed at Hillary Clinton. And now, just to prove that things can always get stranger, Gowdy has inserted himself into the Iran nuclear deal.

It turns out that Gowdy wants to interview John Kerry's chief of staff, Jon Finer. No problem. However, the State Department told Gowdy that Finer wouldn't be available next Tuesday because he had to accompany Kerry to a Foreign Affairs Committee meeting on the Iran deal. Steve Benen picks up the story:

Kerry’s chief of staff, Jon Finer, has actual work to do and needs to be available to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday. The State Department made clear to Benghazi Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), in writing, that it “will not be possible” for Finer to speak to the Benghazi panel on July 28.

So, Gowdy scheduled a meeting and demanded that Finer appear on July 28. If he has a relevant role to play in helping address concerns over the nuclear deal, too bad.

When House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and GOP leaders created the House Select Committee on Benghazi, critics predicted a ridiculous escapade that would do little to shed light on the deadly terrorism, and would instead become a sad, partisan spectacle.

Republicans appear to have gone out of their way to prove the critics right. It didn’t have to be this way.

The funny thing about this is that for all the damage Republican investigations did to Bill Clinton in the 90s, their encore performance has gone miserably. In the Obama era, committee after committee has bombed. Fast & Furious, Solyndra, Benghazi, net neutrality, the IRS, and dozens more: all have petered out with hardly enough to make Obama blush, let alone do him any real damage. The fact is that Obama has run a remarkably clean administration, and Republicans just can't stand it. They just know that the socialist-in-chief is scheming to destroy America if only they can dig up the evidence. So they keep digging maniacally.

But the digging goes nowhere, because there's no there, there. I don't think they'll ever admit it, though.

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Mike Huckabee Is Blowing Up Disney Characters for Attention

| Thu Jul. 23, 2015 11:19 AM EDT

Donald Trump's antics have caused his fellow Republican presidential candidates to take crazy—and, in some instances, pyrotechnical—steps to get attention. Rand Paul took a chainsaw to the tax code. Lindsey Graham torched his cell phone. And here is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's official response to President Barack Obama's nuclear deal with Iran:

What a wonderful phrase.

Yet More Magical Unicorn Thinking From Right Wing on Iran Nuclear Deal

| Thu Jul. 23, 2015 10:59 AM EDT

I've been waiting for a while now for a plausible conservative alternative to President Obama's nuclear deal with Iran, and Max Fisher informs me today that Michael Oren has stepped up and done just that in the pages of Politico. Except for one thing: the increasingly unhinged former ambassador to the US may have a plan, but it's about a million miles from plausible.

You should read Fisher's whole post, but I'm going to skip the long preamble and get straight to Oren's proposal. Here it is:

Israel would have embraced an agreement that significantly rolled back the number of centrifuges and nuclear facilities in Iran and that linked any sanctions relief to demonstrable changes in its behavior. No more state support of terror, no more threatening America’s Middle Eastern allies, no more pledges to destroy the world’s only Jewish state and no more mass chants of "Death to America." Israel would have welcomed any arrangement that monitored Iran’s ICBMs and other offensive weaponry. Such a deal, Israeli leaders across the political spectrum agree, was and remains attainable.

That would be great, of course. But not exactly plausible. Here's Fisher:

All of these are politically impossible and, in some cases, physically impossible....Try to imagine a US negotiator actually asking for this. "The inspections procedures of uranium mines look good here, and we are satisfied with the limits on centrifuge research and development. But we require a binding commitment that no one in your political system will speak certain combinations of words about Israel anymore." We might as well demand that Iran give us a unicorn that we can ride all the way to Candy Mountain.

....Is it really worth blowing up a historic nuclear deal — one that will substantially and verifiably limit Iran's nuclear program, with global cooperation — over the possibility that one of the Iranian ayatollahs might not be legally forbidden from saying the wrong words?

These are poison-pill demands, and very lazy ones at that. They are not designed to be implemented, but rather to raise the political bar for any nuclear deal beyond what can be achieved.

And what about sanctions? Surely the other countries that are parties to the deal would quit in disgust if the US demands were as ridiculous as Oren suggests they should be. Indeed they would, but Oren says that if they drop out we should threaten to sanction them. Fisher: "This is indeed a specific proposal. But it is also insane. Oren is arguing that Obama should threaten to blow up the world economy, including America's own economy, just to secure some vague improvements to the Iran deal."

Fisher is right: this is nuts. It's basically just an excuse not to ever conclude a deal with Iran, and instead to (a) keep sanctions in place forever and (b) bomb Iran's nuclear facilities. Some plan. The first part is impossible, and the second part would do little except to convince Iran to redouble its efforts to build a bomb.

But I guess this is what passes for sounding tough in conservative land. God help us.

Ikea Recalling Dressers After Two Children Die from Falling Drawers

| Thu Jul. 23, 2015 10:12 AM EDT

In February 2014, a two-year-old boy from Pennsylvania was killed after an Ikea Malm dresser tipped over and pinned him to his bed. In another incident in June of that year, a 23-month-old child died after being trapped beneath falling drawers from the same line of Ikea's popular dressers.

The company is now offering a free repair kit to 27 million customers who purchased the company's Malm dressers to help remove the furniture's "tip-over hazard."

The recall is in conjunction with a safety alert issued by the Consumer Product Safety Commission on Wednesday warning of the dressers' potential dangers. The commission recommended that parents no longer buy Malm dressers taller than 23.5 inches for children and 29.5 inches for adults, unless the products are properly secured to a wall.

The free repair kits provide such an anchoring mechanism.

Malm Dresser, Ikea

The company said in total it received 14 accident reports stemming from the line's drawers, four of which resulted in injuries.

In a statement, Ikea's U.S. commercial manager Patty Lobell said the company was "deeply saddened" by the deaths and hoped its efforts would "prevent further tragedies."

For information on how to receive the free repair kit, head over to the commission's alert here.

No, Smartphones Aren't Responsible for the Drop in Teen Sex

| Wed Jul. 22, 2015 11:55 PM EDT

Over at Wonkblog, we learn that American teenagers are having less sex than they used to. But why?

Crotchety adults may joke: Maybe they’re too busy messing with their iPhones.

That’s actually a decent theory, said Dr. Brooke Bokor, an Adolescent Medicine Specialist at the Children's National Health System. More teenagers than ever have smartphones....Many are more comfortable searching in private for credible information about sexual health....They could be better educated about the risks.”

....Another possible driver of the sexual slowdown is the growing popularity of the HPV vaccine, which is now widely offered to boys and girls as young as 11. The shots, of course, come with an educational conversation. Kids learn earlier about the prevalence of STIs and how they're spread.

Alert readers will understand immediately not only why these aren't decent theories, but why they're ridiculous ones. In case you need a hint, it's in the chart on the right.

As you can see, the percentage of teens who report ever having intercourse has been dropping since the late 80s, and dropped especially sharply during the 90s. There were no smartphones in the 90s. There was no HPV vaccine in the 90s. No matter how appealing these theories might be at first glance, neither is even remotely credible as an explanation for the decline in teen sexual activity.

So what's the answer? How about video games? Or hip hop? Or energy drinks? I have no evidence for any of these, and clean-living adults might be scandalized at the idea that any of them could have tangible benefits, but they're all better theories than smartphones or the HPV vaccine. At least the timing fits decently.

These provocations aside, I suppose you're now expecting me to get serious and suggest that the decline in childhood lead exposure is responsible for the drop in teen sex. Maybe! There is, after all, some evidence that reduced lead exposure is associated with the drop in teen pregnancy over the past few decades, and it's reasonable to suspect that less teen pregnancy might be the result of less teen sex. But there are at least two problems with this. First, pregnancy rates can go down even if sex doesn't, simply due to more widespread use of birth control. Second, the data on teen sex comes from the CDC, and their cohort breakdown doesn't seem to fit the lead theory. In particular, the percentage of ninth graders reporting sexual experience didn't start dropping until 2001, and if lead is responsible you'd expect the youngest cohort to drop earlier than older cohorts. At first glance, then, I'm not sure lead explains what's going on. But it might. I'd just need to see more and better data to be sure.

In other words: we don't really know for sure why teen sex is down. What we do know is that on a whole range of measures—crime rates, pregnancy, drug and alcohol use, cigarette smoking, math and reading proficiency, high school completion—teenagers have become better behaved over the past couple of decades. They just aren't as scary as they used to be. That's a little hard to take if you're a social conservative who's convinced that liberal values are destroying America, but it's true nonetheless. And good news too.

Medicare Cost Projections Are Down Stunningly in 2015 Report

| Wed Jul. 22, 2015 5:16 PM EDT

As long as we're on the subject of annual trustees reports, the 2015 Medicare report was released today too. And if the Social Security report was slightly good news, the Medicare report is, once again, spectacularly good news. Here's the 75-year spending projection from ten years ago vs. today:

Ten years ago, Medicare was a runaway freight train. Spending was projected to increase indefinitely, rising to 13 percent of GDP by 2080. This year, spending is projected to slow down around 2040, and reaches only 6 percent of GDP by 2090.

Six percent! That's half what we thought a mere decade ago. If that isn't spectacular, I don't know what is.

The 2005 projection was based on past performance, which showed costs rising ceaselessly every year. That turned out to be wrong. This year's projection is also based on past performance, which shows that costs have flattened substantially since 2008. Will it turn out to be wrong too? Come back in 2025 and I'll tell you.

In any case, this illustrates the big difference between cost projections for Social Security and Medicare. Social Security is basically just arithmetic. We know how many people are going to retire, we know how long they're going to live, and we know how much we're going to pay them. Do the math and you know how much the program will cost us. It can change a bit over time, as projections of things like GDP growth or immigration rates change, but that happens at the speed of molasses. There are very few surprises with Social Security.

Medicare has all that, but it also has one more thing: the actual cost of medical care. And that's little more than an educated guess when you start projecting more than a decade ahead. Will costs skyrocket as expensive new therapies multiply? Or will costs plummet after someone invents self-sustaining nanobots that get injected at birth and keep us healthy forever at virtually no cost? I don't know. No one knows.

Beyond that, it's always foolish to assume that costs will rise forever just because they have in the past. Medicare is a political program, and at some point the public will decide that it's not willing to fund it at higher levels. It's not as if it's on autopilot, after all. We live in a democracy, and after lots of yelling and fighting, we'll eventually do something about rising medical costs if we simply don't think the additional spending is worth it.

Still, the news for now is pretty good. I happen to think the slowdown in medical costs is real, and will continue for some time (though not at the extremely low rates of the past few years). For more on this, see here, here, and here. Others think it's a temporary blip due to the recession, and big increases will return in a few years. We'll see.

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New York Fast-Food Workers Just Scored a Big Win In Their Fight For a Living Wage

| Wed Jul. 22, 2015 4:20 PM EDT

In a widely expected move, a panel appointed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recommended today that the state's minimum wage for employees of fast-food chain restaurants be raised to $15 an hour.

The recommendation comes three years after strikes by New York City fast-food workers set off a national labor movement that has led to the passage of a $15 minimum wage in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. But unlike those cities, New York doesn't have the power to set its own minimum wage—it's up to legislators in Albany.

When New York lawmakers balked at raising the minimum wage last year, Gov. Cuomo convened a board to examine wages in the fast food industry, which employs 180,000 people in the state. The state's labor commissioner, a Cuomo appointee, has the power to issue an order putting the proposal into effect. If he approves the wage hike, fast-food workers currently earning the state's minimum wage of $8.75 will get a 70 percent raise, effective by 2018 in New York City and 2021 in the rest of the state.

"It's hard to explain to my children why they can't do things other kids do," Barbara Kelley, a Buffalo mother who works at Dunkin' Donuts and takes home an average of $150 a week, said in a statement released by labor organizers. "With $15 an hour, I will be able to get by and maybe reward my kids in little ways, like ice cream after a long day, and in big ways like being able to save for the future." Labor organizers are optimistic that the $15 wage will be adopted and will spur raises in other industries.

A Campus Cop Killed An Unarmed Black Man In Ohio. It Was Caught On Video. Where's the Video?

| Wed Jul. 22, 2015 3:13 PM EDT

Authorities are still withholding crucial video evidence from the public three days after a deadly confrontation between a campus cop and an unarmed black person in Cincinnati, Ohio. On Sunday night, Ray Tensing, a white University of Cincinnati police officer, stopped 43-year-old Samuel Dubose for driving without a license plate. Police say Tensing asked Dubose for his driver's license multiple times, before Dubose handed over a bottle of alcohol. 

When Tensing asked Dubose to step out of the car, a struggle reportedly ensued. Tensing, who has since been placed on administrative leave, allegedly fired his weapon, shooting Dubose in the head. The Cincinnati Enquirer reports that authorities have so far withheld video footage taken from a body camera and a nearby building while the Hamilton County prosecutor's office investigates the incident. That video has been turned over to the prosecutor's office for the probe, which is expected to be completed by the end of the week. 

Dubose's death comes after months of national scrutiny, and widespread protests, over police shootings. More than 500 people have been killed by police so far in 2015, according to a Washington Post analysis. It's worth noting that the arming of campus police officers has also been on the rise: Seventy-five percent of four-year private and public colleges had armed officers during the 2011-2012 school year, up from 68 percent in 2004-2005, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. 

Disability Insurance Is Going to Be a Big Deal In Next Year's Presidential Campaign

| Wed Jul. 22, 2015 2:35 PM EDT

Another year, another report from the Social Security Trustees. Here's the basic chart, which shows the combined Social Security Trust fund becoming insolvent in 2034, one year later than last year's projection. At that point, if nothing is done, benefit checks will be reduced about 25 percent.

There's not much change since 2014, as you'd expect since this stuff doesn't change a lot from year to year. The bigger news is that if you pull apart OASI (old age benefits) from DI (disability), it turns out that DI is going to be insolvent next year. Everyone has known this for a while, so it's no big shock. But next year is an election year, which means Congress either needs to come up with a fix this year, while everyone is mesmerized by Donald Trump, or else put it off until next year, when they'll have to do it under the blazing white klieg lights of a presidential campaign.

It'll probably be next year, since Social Security traditionally doesn't get fixed until it's literally a few days away from not sending out checks to people. That should make this a great campaign issue between Republicans, who think DI is going broke because too many lazy bums are gaming the system, and Democrats, who mostly think it's going broke because boomers are retiring and the economy is still weak.

So who wins this argument? Republicans have a story that will appeal to their base audience, but when you finally get to the point where checks to disabled people are being reduced—or not being sent out at all—that tends to concentrate the mind wonderfully. Public opinion will likely end up on the side of the disabled, especially since the usual fix (moving a bit of money from OASI to DI) is cheap and painless.

But we'll see. In any case, this is a fight that can't be avoided. You can count on it becoming a focal point of next year's campaign.

Good News, Bad News: Your Almond Milk May Not Contain Many Almonds

| Wed Jul. 22, 2015 2:26 PM EDT

Still chugging almond milk, despite everything we've told you this past year? There's some good news: you may not be destroying the environment as much as you've continued to not care about. Why? Because of the bad news: you are likely getting duped.

According to a new lawsuit, Almond Breeze products only contain 2 percent of almonds and mostly consist of water, sugar, sunflower lecithin, and carrageenan, the blog Food Navigator reports. Almond Breeze is among the top five milk substitute brands in the country.

The class action lawsuit, filed by two unhappy almond milk drinkers in the US District Court in New York earlier this month, seeks $5 million in damages from the products' distributor, Blue Diamond Growers.

While Blue Diamond Growers doesn't label how much of a percentage of its milk is made from almonds, plaintiffs Tracy Albert and Dimitrios Malaxianis say the company is misleading consumers by its claim on the front of the package that it is "made from real almonds."

Water-wasting and now potentially deceptive, if you needed one more reason to lay off the almond milk, here it is.