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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.

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in December

| Fri Jan. 9, 2015 10:12 AM EST

The American economy added 252,000 new jobs last month, 90,000 of which were needed to keep up with population growth. This means that net job growth clocked in at 162,000 jobs, which is not quite as good as last month but still not bad. Virtually all of this growth was in the private sector, yet another sign that the recovery is finally motoring along at a steady if unspectacular rate.

But the news was not all good. The headline unemployment rate fell from 5.8 percent to 5.6 percent, but this was mostly because of people dropping out of the labor force. Wage growth was also disappointing. Last month's wage increases, which I was skeptical about, were entirely washed away. Earnings for nonsupervisory workers actually dropped to slightly below their October levels.

Overall, this jobs report is decent news, but hardly great. Until we start to see steady employment growth and steady wage growth, the labor market still has a lot of slack no matter what the headline unemployment rate is. Given this, in addition to possible headwinds in the rest of the world, the Fed needs to continue to keep interest rates low for quite a while longer. It's not yet time to tighten.

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Gunmen Suspected in Charlie Hebdo Attack Killed; Four Dead in Second Hostage Situation

| Fri Jan. 9, 2015 8:49 AM EST

This is a developing story and is being updated below.

Police have closed in on two men they believe are the brothers suspected in Wednesday's terrorist attack at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper. The Times reports hundreds of security forces have descended upon a printing shop northeast of Paris, where at least one hostage has been taken.

A second hostage situation is developing elsewhere in Paris, near Porte de Vincennes, with multiple hostages being held inside a kosher supermarket.

The AP reports the hostage-taker inside the supermarket is believed to have fatally shot a French policewoman in a southern suburb of Paris on Thursday. He appears to be connected to the gunmen behind the Charlie Hebdo massacre. 

For live video of both situations, watch below: 

Update: Friday, January 9, 11:10 a.m. EST: Gunshots and explosions have been heard  at both the printing shop where the two suspected gunmen, brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, are holed up and the kosher supermarket.

Update: Friday, January 9, 11:30 a.m. EST: There are multiple reports citing the gunmen in the Charlie Hebdo attack have been killed. 

Update: Friday, January 9, 12:05 p.m. EST: Multiple reports are indicating that the hostage-taker at the kosher supermarket is dead, along with at least four hostages. Police officers are reportedly injured.

Update: Friday, January 9, 2:10 p.m. EST: President Hollande confirms at least four people were killed in the kosher market siege. 

Net Neutrality Might Be a Step Closer to Reality

| Thu Jan. 8, 2015 9:20 PM EST

Net neutrality got some new momentum yesterday from FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler:

Speaking here at the 2015 International CES tech trade show, Wheeler repeatedly hinted he favors reclassification of broadband as a public utility, which would subject Internet providers to some of the same rules that govern old phone companies. The approach is already drawing heavy fire from Republicans and telecom giants who warn it will lead to burdensome regulation.

....Back in Washington, Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) quickly slammed Wheeler’s comments, urging him to defer to Congress. And Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) separately on Wednesday said he’s pushed the FCC to delay its new rules until lawmakers have a chance to come up with their own solution. He expressed early interest in legislation that would specify new consumer protections without going as far as reclassifying broadband

We think a legislative route is a better way to go, and we’ve developed some language that we think addresses a lot of the concerns that Democrats have raised — but does it without that heavy regulatory approach,” the senator said.

The best solution to the problem of net neutrality would be the introduction of genuine competition among ISPs. Your local cable company might still want to discriminate against rivals in the video business—or maybe team up with one of them and degrade the others—but they'd have a hard time doing that if Google was providing great quality for every web-based video service and customers could easily switch if they got tired of poor Netflix streaming. More generally, competition would put a ceiling on all sorts of bad behavior. If your prices are high, or your service is poor, or you have a habit of playing favorites with certain sites, then you're going to lose customers unless you get your act together. True competition would make heavy regulation of broadband mostly unnecessary.

But we don't have true competition and we're not likely to get it anytime soon. So we do what we always need to do when corporations enjoy monopoly positions: we regulate them. And given the noises that ISPs and other broadband suppliers have occasionally made in candid moments, strict regulation requiring equal treatment for everyone is probably in order.

This means that Wheeler's announcement is good news. In theory, so is John Thune's. That's because I agree with him: the best net neutrality solution would be a legislative one. It would allow more flexibility than the FCC has under its existing Title II telephone regulations, and it would almost certainly be less vulnerable to court challenges.

But is Thune really serious about addressing "a lot of the concerns that Democrats have raised"? I guess I'm skeptical. Part of the reason is that I've never really understood exactly why Republicans are so dead set against net neutrality regulations. This isn't something that would stifle competition, after all, nor is it a simple matter of siding with corporate interests that Republicans are traditionally sympathetic to. Rather, net neutrality is basically a battle between corporate behemoths: in general, content providers are for it and ISPs are against it. I've never quite figured out why the GOP has so steadfastly taken the side of the broadband providers in this battle.

This makes me wonder what forces are driving Thune, and whether he's really able and willing to make substantive compromises on net neutrality. Without something to prod him, my guess is that he'd prefer doing nothing, so if Wheeler's actions provide that prod, then three cheers for Title II regulation. It might not be ideal, but it might be just the incentive Republicans need to get serious about introducing legislation good enough to get support from both President Obama and enough Democrats to pass the Senate. We'll see.

This Is One of the Worst Retractions a Newspaper Has Ever Had to Publish

| Thu Jan. 8, 2015 8:04 PM EST

The News-Enterprise in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, had a story on its front page today that paraphrased a local police official as saying that most cops typically go into law enforcement "because they have a desire to shoot minorities." Spicy stuff! Only problem: It never happened.

The paper quickly issued a retraction on its home page and updated the online version of the story—ironically headlined "Law enforcement to be honored for service"—to include a formal apology from editor Ben Sheroan. The corrected story now reads: "Hardin County Sheriff John Ward said those who go into the law enforcement profession typically do it because they have a desire to serve the community."

So what happened? The paper initially called it a "typographical mistake" but that obviously didn't make any sense. Jim Romenesko reports that it was actually a joke mistake. "One [copy desk staffer] wrote the 'shoot minorities' line on the page proof as a joke and the second—in charge of the front page—put it in the story."

Never joke on the page proofs.

Satellite Imagery Shows the Extent of Boko Haram Devastation in Nigeria

| Thu Jan. 8, 2015 5:53 PM EST
Residents stand outside burnt homes in Gambaru, Nigeria after a Boko Haram attack in May 2014.

Update, Thursday, January 15, 2015: New satellite imagery released by Amnesty International shows the extent of the devastation Boko Haram has visited upon northern Nigeria over the past week. Below are before and after images of the town of Doron Baga. Healthy vegetation is colored red.

The Islamist militant group may now control up to 20 percent of the country, according to NPR. Journalists are unable to report on the killing in the north, because approaching the area would be a "death wish," The New Yorker's Alexis Okeowo told host Melissa Block Tuesday.

Update, Friday, January 9, 2015: On Friday morning, Amnesty International said the latest Boko Haram attack could be the "deadliest massacre" in the group's history, if the early reports that as many as 2,000 people were killed turn out to be true.

This week, Boko Haram, the Islamist terror group based in northern Nigeria, launched a massive attack on the town of Baga, killing dozens, according to Reuters. Other initial reports put the number of dead in the hundreds or thousands. The attack is the latest in the group's increasingly bloody campaign to establish an Islamic state in the West African country. The group attained international infamy last April after it abducted some 300 girls. More than 200 of them are still missing.

Over the course of this Tuesday and Wednesday, the militants set fire to buildings in Baga and shot indiscriminately at civilians. Nearly the entire town was torched, according to the BBC. Baga, which had roughly 10,000 residents, is now "virtually non-existent," Musa Alhaji Bukar, a senior government official, told the British news agency.

Here's more from the BBC:

Those who fled reported that they had been unable to bury the dead, and corpses littered the town's streets, he said.

Boko Haram was now in control of Baga and 16 neighbouring towns after the military retreated, Mr Bukar said.

While he raised fears that some 2,000 had been killed in the raids, other reports put the number in the hundreds.

The attack follows an assault by Boko Haram on a military base in Baga on Saturday.

The AFP reported late Thursday that the terror group also decimated over a dozen towns and villages surrounding Baga:

Boko Haram launched renewed attacks around a captured town in restive northeast Nigeria this week, razing at least 16 towns and villages, a local government and a union official told AFP.

'They burnt to the ground all the 16 towns and villages including Baga, Dorn-Baga, Mile 4, Mile 3, Kauyen Kuros and Bunduram,' said Musa Bukar, head of the Kukawa local government in Borno state.

Boko Haram has been terrorizing Nigeria for more than five years. Over the past year, the group has killed more than 10,000 people, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.