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Bonus Homecoming Cat Blogging - 30 May 2015

| Sat May 30, 2015 5:39 PM EDT

Everyone is back home. It took Hilbert about a minute to settle in and recognize everything. Hopper took a little more convincing. She spent several hours sniffing everything in sight before she finally decided things were OK.

In the top photo, Hilbert has taken possession of his favorite teal chair. It's as if he never left. Below, Hopper finally hopped into my lap after lunch and purred herself to sleep, which surely means she's now settled in too. If you look closely, you'll also see that my hair is starting to grow back. But you have to look pretty closely.

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Martin O'Malley Is Running for President. Here's What You Need to Know

| Sat May 30, 2015 10:56 AM EDT

The wait is over. Martin O'Malley is running for president. The former Maryland governor formally kicked off his quest for the Democratic presidential nomination on Saturday in Baltimore, the city he served as mayor for six years. O'Malley, who has been publicly weighing a bid for years, is aiming to present himself as a solidly progressive alternative to former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. But it's going to be an uphill slog—in the most recent Quinnipiac poll, he received just 1 percent—56 points behind Clinton, and 14 points behind Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who was an independent until he entered the 2016 Democratic contest.

Here are five things you should read about O'Malley right now:

  • He's the "best manager in government today," according to a 2013 profile by Haley Sweetland Edwards at the Washington Monthly:

The truth is, what makes O'Malley stand out is not his experience, his gravitas, nor his familiarity to voters (Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden crush him in those regards). Nor is it exactly his policies or speeches (New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, both rumored presidential aspirants, have cultivated similar CVs). Nor is it that he plays in a band. Nor is it even the Atlantic's breathless claim last year that he has "the best abs" in politics. (Beneath a photo of the fit governor participating in the Maryland Special Olympics' annual Polar Bear Plunge, the author gushed, "What are they putting in the water in Maryland?") Instead, what makes O'Malley unique as a politician is precisely the skill that was on display in that windowless conference room in downtown Annapolis: he is arguably the best manager working in government today.

That may not seem like a very flashy title—at first blush, "Best Manager" sounds more like a booby prize than a claim a politician might ride to the White House. But in an era where the very idea of government is under assault, a politician’s capacity to deliver on his or her promises, to actually make the bureaucracy work, is an underappreciated skill.

  • He pursued a tough-on-crime policing strategy as mayor of Baltimore, according to a recent Washington Post article:

It was as a crime-busting mayor some 15 years ago that O'Malley first gained national attention. Although he is positioning himself as a progressive alternative to Hillary Clinton, O'Malley also touts a police crackdown during his time as mayor that led to a stark reduction in drug violence and homicides as one of his major achievements.

Yet some civic leaders and community activists in Baltimore portray O'Malley’s policing policies in troubling terms. The say the "zero-tolerance" approach mistreated young black men even as it helped dramatically reduce crime, fueling a deep mistrust of law enforcement that flared anew last week when [Freddie] Gray died after suffering a spinal injury while in police custody.

  • He's obsessed with the War of 1812 and discussed said obsession in an interview with the Daily Beast's Ben Jacobs last September, after dressing up in an 1812-vintage uniform and mounting a horse:

Win, lose, or draw, O'Malley said he is enthusiastic about the bicentennial and has read up on past commemorations to prepare. He recalled for The Daily Beast a 100-year-old Baltimore Sun editorial about the centennial in 1914 and searched excitedly through his iPad for it. PBS will broadcast the event nationwide on Saturday night, and it will feature what is planned to be the largest ever mass singing of the "Star-Spangled Banner" and an outdoor concert in Baltimore that will include a rock opera about the War of 1812, and O'Malley's own band, which he referred to simply as "a small little warm-up band of Irish extraction."

  • Though he was the model for the character of Baltimore Mayor Tommy Carcetti on the HBO series The Wire, he is not a huge fan of the show or its creator, David Simon, who described an awkward encounter with the governor last year on an Acela train:

This fellow was at the four-top table immediately behind me. I clocked him as we left New York, but as he is a busy man, and as most of our previous encounters have been a little edgy, I told myself to let well enough alone. I answered a few more emails, looked at some casting tapes on the laptop, checked the headlines. And still, with all of that done, we were only just south of Philadelphia.

I texted my son: "On the southbound Acela. Marty O'Malley sitting just behind me," then joking, "Do I set it off?"

A moment later, a 20-year-old diplomatic prodigy fired back a reply: "Buy him a beer."

...I stood up, noticed that Mr. O'Malley was sipping a Corona, and I walked to the cafe car to get another just like it. I came back, put it on the table next to its mate, and said, simply, "You’ve had a tough week." My reference, of course, was to the governor's dustup with the White House over the housing of juvenile immigrants in Maryland, which became something of a spitting contest by midweek.

Mr. O'Malley smiled, said thanks, and I went back to my seat to inform my son that the whole of the State Department could do no better than he. Several minutes later, the governor of my state called me out and smacked the seat next to him.

"Come on, Dave," he said, "we're getting to be old men at this point. Sit, talk."

  • Writing for the Atlantic in December, Molly Ball dubbed O'Malley, "the most ignored candidate of 2016." Another takeaway from the piece, which chronicled his trip to an Annapolis homeless-prevention center that provides job training, might be that he tries too hard:

"I love kale," O'Malley told the chef, Linda Vogler, a middle-aged woman with blond bangs peeking out from a paper toque [who was teaching a cooking class]. "Kale's the new superfood!"

"We're learning quinoa next," Vogler said.

"You're going to teach what? Keen-wa?," O'Malley asked, genuinely puzzled. "What's keen-wa?"

"It looks like birdseed," she replied, hurrying on with the lesson. As the class counted off the seconds it took to boil a tomato, O'Malley changed their "One Mississippi" chant to "One Maryland! Two Maryland!"

Literally the Only Good FIFA News You’ll Hear This Week

| Fri May 29, 2015 4:18 PM EDT
Alex Morgan, right, hugs her teammates during a Women's World Cup qualifier.

Electronic Arts, the gaming company that makes the popular FIFA video game franchise, is bringing women to the virtual pitch, adding 12 women's national teams to FIFA 16 this September.  

From the Wall Street Journal:

EA announced Thursday that a dozen women's international soccer teams will be included in the coming FIFA 16 game scheduled for release in September. EA didn't say in its announcement why it took so long to mend the gender gap or whether the petition played a role. In an email, EA said it had been considering adding women for years and that it had made the necessary advancements to more accurately represent how the characters run and sprint, for example. The game's motion capturing tracked four members of the U.S. Women's National Team: Sydney Leroux, Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, and Megan Rapinoe.

EA's decision came three years after an online petition called for inclusion—and right before this year's Women's World Cup starts next week in Canada. (It also came a day before Sepp Blatter won his fifth term as FIFA president, with the governing body embroiled in the ongoing corruption crisis.)

Last fall, a group of women's soccer stars, including US forward Abby Wambach, filed a gender discrimination lawsuit claim against FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association over the organization's decision to play this year's World Cup games on artificial turf, even though the men's games are played on grass. The group later withdrew the suit. And in an interview with Time, star US forward Alex Morgan, who will be featured in the new game, said that Blatter didn't recognize her at the 2012 FIFA Player of the Year event—even though she'd just been named one of the three best women's players in the world.

Friday Cat Blogging - 29 May 2015

| Fri May 29, 2015 2:30 PM EDT

For the past two weeks, Hopper and Hilbert have apparently been fighting a rearguard battle over their latest acquisition: a cardboard box. Hilbert took possession first, but Hopper got into the act pretty quickly. Her expression is clearly a declaration that this is her box now, and other cats better stay away. I'm reliably informed that she backed this up with some fancy paw action and sent Hilbert scampering away.

And with that, let's all give three cheers for my sister, who has taken such good care of Hilbert and Hopper that we're not sure they'll even recognize us when they come home. I should add that her six weeks of catsitting was an even bigger favor than you might think, given H&H's penchant for destruction of anything left lying around accidentally. But tomorrow they come home. Marian has been catproofing our house for the past week, and on Saturday Karen will deliver the furballs back to us. I'm sure they'll show us very quickly if there are any catproofing spots we missed.

News Flash: Bill Clinton Has a Pretty High Speaking Fee

| Fri May 29, 2015 1:36 PM EDT

Over in the New York Times today, Deborah Sontag has a 2,000-word piece about a charity called the Happy Hearts Fund. There seem to be two big takeaways: (a) celebrities use their fame to promote their charities, and (b) Bill Clinton usually won't appear at your event for free. His speaking fee is a donation to the Clinton Foundation. In this particular case, Happy Hearts donated $500,000 to the Clinton Foundation, and in return Clinton appeared at their event to receive a lifetime achievement award.

I'm racking my brain here. I know I'm partisan about this and would just as soon not attribute dark motives to Clinton. But even putting that aside, what's the story here? Celebrities use their fame to promote their pet causes? Bill Clinton commands a high speaking fee? Is there something that's even unsavory about this, let alone scandalous? Is there something that's out of the ordinary or not already common knowledge? If the story featured, say, George W. Bush instead of Clinton, would I be more outraged? What am I missing?

A New Poll Has Good News for Pro-Choicers

| Fri May 29, 2015 1:07 PM EDT

After seven years on the outs, choice is back. For the first time since 2008, significantly more Americans identify as pro-choice (50 percent) than pro-life (44 percent), according to a Gallup poll released Friday.

"This is the first time since 2008 that the pro-choice position has had a statistically significant lead in Americans' abortion views," the survey notes. In the intervening years, Americans were split fairly evenly on the issue of abortion—except in 2012, when pro-life sentiment outpaced pro-choice views 50 percent to 41 percent.

The poll found that in the past three years, women have become more pro-choice (54 percent) than men (46 percent). Since 2012, Democrats, Republicans and independents have all become increasingly pro-choice. But Democrats show the biggest long-term jump in pro-choice views, from 55 percent in 2001 to 68 percent today. By contrast, 30 percent of Republicans were pro-choice in 2001 and 31 percent identify as pro-choice today—a statistically insignificant change.

The years since the last pro-choice peak in 2008 have been rough for abortion rights advocates. Republican legislatures across the country have sought to roll back access to abortions—banning the procedure after 20 weeks (and even earlier in some cases), requiring additional doctor visits and ultrasounds, and placing onerous regulations on clinics that forced many to shut their doors. Gallup didn't touch on these issues, simply noting that "the momentum for the pro-life position that began when Barack Obama took office has yielded to a pro-choice rebound."

Gallup raised the possibility that abortion views are riding on the coattails of a "broader liberal shift in Americans' ideology of late" that "could mean the recent pro-choice expansion has some staying power."

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If You Want to Be Part of the Top 1 Percent, You'd Better Be Working For a Top 1 Percent Firm

| Fri May 29, 2015 11:53 AM EDT

What has caused the explosive growth of income inequality over the past three decades? Is it the fact the CEO pay has skyrocketed, leaving everyone else behind? Maybe. But according to a new paper, that's not quite the right story.

Basically a group of researchers at NBER have concluded that inequality between firms has skyrocketed, and employees of those firms all go along for the ride. A small number of "super firms" have become enormously successful, and within these super firms inequality between the CEO and the worker bees hasn't changed much at all. They pay all their employees more than the average firm, from the CEO down.

The chart on the right tells the story. Ignore the green line for the moment and just look at the blue and red lines. The red line shows that the top tenth of firms have far outperformed everyone else. The blue line shows that workers follow the same pattern. The ones who work for the top firms get paid a lot more than the folks who work for average firms.

As it turns out, some industries have more super firms than others and thus contribute more to growing income inequality. The FIRE sector—Finance, Insurance, Real Estate—is the most obvious example. Both firm revenue and individual compensation has gone up far more than in any sector. But other sectors have their superstars too, and individuals at those firms get paid a lot more than a similar worker at a firm that's not doing so well.

So in addition to talking about the top 1% of individuals, we should be talking about the top 1% of firms. But what does that mean? Things get a little hazy at this point:

Instead of top incomes rising within firms, top-paying firms are now paying even higher wages. This may tend to make inequality more invisible, as individuals do not see rising inequality among their peers. More research needs to be done to understand why inequality between firms has increased so much more than inequality within them. But this fact of stable inequality within firms should inform our understanding of the great increase in inequality within the United States over the last three decades.

Matt O'Brien suggests that this means nearly every industry is now part of the winner-take-all economy. In the same way that modern technology allows a tiny subset of superstar singers or actors to earn huge audiences (and huge paychecks), perhaps it also enables modern firms to do the same. And it could be self-reinforcing. The super firms can afford to hire the best workers, and that in turn drives even more unequal growth.

In any case, if the authors are right, it matters a lot which firm you work for. If you pick the right one, you might ride the income inequality gravy train right to the top. In not, you probably won't.

US Officially Removes Cuba From List of State Sponsors of Terrorism

| Fri May 29, 2015 11:45 AM EDT

On Friday, the State Department announced the decision to drop Cuba from a list of states sponsoring terrorism. The official press release:

In December 2014, the President instructed the Secretary of State to immediately launch a review of Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, and provide a report to him within six months regarding Cuba's support for international terrorism. On April 8, 2015, the Secretary of State completed that review and recommended to the President that Cuba no longer be designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism.

Accordingly, on April 14, the President submitted to Congress the statutorily required report indicating the Administration’s intent to rescind Cuba’s State Sponsor of Terrorism designation, including the certification that Cuba has not provided any support for international terrorism during the previous six-months; and that Cuba has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future. The 45-day Congressional pre-notification period has expired, and the Secretary of State has made the final decision to rescind Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, effective today, May 29, 2015.

The rescission of Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism reflects our assessment that Cuba meets the statutory criteria for rescission. While the United States has significant concerns and disagreements with a wide range of Cuba’s policies and actions, these fall outside the criteria relevant to the rescission of a State Sponsor of Terrorism designation

The decision is a major step toward normalizing diplomatic relations with Havana. Among other activities, Friday's announcement will allow Cuba to do banking in the United States. However, the move does not lift the trade embargo, which requires congressional approval. 

Economy Shrinks in Q1; Annual Growth Still Stuck in the Doldrums

| Fri May 29, 2015 10:29 AM EDT

Today brings disappointing economic news. The economy didn't just grow slowly in the first quarter, it actually shrunk by 0.7 percent. As usual, winter weather is getting part of the blame, and some economists are going even further, wondering if we need to step back and take a look at the formula for seasonal adjustments. Perhaps, for some reason, the formula is no longer reflecting reality during the winter quarter.

Maybe. But what this shows is that although the US economy continues to putter along in decent shape, it still hasn't reached takeoff velocity. The economy has been growing at a rate of 2-3 percent per year for the past five years, and there's little evidence this is going to change anytime soon.

This Girl's Yearbook Quote Has the Most Amazing Feminist Message

| Fri May 29, 2015 9:14 AM EDT

Before leaving high school, Caitlyn Cannon, a 17-year-old who just graduated from Oak Hills High School in California, gifted her senior class with an amazing yearbook quote that nails feminism and sticks up for LGBT rights—all in just one line:

Her powerful message has since gone viral. Cannon, who describes herself as both "feminist" and "really gay" on Twitter, told the Huffington Post, "I was tired of seeing the same old quotes from popular books and movies and authors, and I wanted to call attention to a problem that women face. I've never really been ashamed to say that I am gay, so the LGBT aspect was simply who I am."

The future is looking so bright.