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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

Donald Trump Gave Out a Senator's Cell Phone Number. So He Doused the Phone With Lighter Fluid and Torched It.

| Wed Jul. 22, 2015 2:08 PM EDT

Lindsey Graham learned the hard way on that you never give your phone number to a petty billionaire. But even though Donald Trump's public read-out of Graham's cell phone number to the entire country on Tuesday led to a slew of random calls, the Republican senator from South Carolina is responding with a sense of humor.

First he joked on Twitter that he needed a new phone thanks to the flood of calls, asking his Twitter followers on Tuesday afternoon what kind he should get.

Now Graham is trolling Trump in a video for IJReview, a conservative news site. Using fire, a toaster oven, a golf club, a cleaver, and other fun but totally unnecessary methods, he destroys a bunch of flip phones—and one unfortunate blender. "Or if all else fails, you can always give your number to The Donald," Graham says in closing, before hurling one last phone off screen "for the veterans," a dig at Trump's attack on Sen. John McCain's time as prisoner of war.

Someone may eventually want to tell Graham this isn't actually how phone numbers work, but we'll take the videos for now.

Ben Carson Says Prison Is So Comfy Some People Never Want to Leave

| Wed Jul. 22, 2015 1:05 PM EDT

President Barack Obama visited a federal prison in Oklahoma last week to discuss sentencing reform for non-violent drug offenses. At an event in Arlington, Virginia, on Tuesday, Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson revealed that he, too, had visited federal prisons—and had a much different takeaway. Federal prisons are really nice!

From the Washington Post:

"I was flabbergasted by the accommodations—the exercise equipment, the libraries and the computers," he said. He said he was told that "a lot of times when it's about time for one of the guys to be discharged, especially when its winter, they'll do something so they can stay in there."

...

"I think that we need to sometimes ask ourselves, 'Are we creating an environment that is conducive to comfort where a person would want to stay, versus an environment where we maybe provide them an opportunity for rehabilitation but is not a place that they would find particularly comfortable?'" he told reporters.

Not all federal prisons are alike, but to put his experiences in perspective, Carson may want to read up on the federal maximum-security facility in Florence, Colorado:

A federal class-action lawsuit filed in June alleges that many ADX prisoners suffer from severe mental illness that has been exacerbated or even caused by their years of extreme isolation and sensory deprivation in small concrete cells. It claims that the BOP fails to provide even a semblance of psychiatric care to these prisoners, with grisly results. According to a litigation fact sheet, "inmates often mutilate themselves with razors, shards of glass, sharpened chicken bones, writing utensils and other objects. Many engage in prolonged fits of screaming and ranting. Others converse aloud with the voices they hear in their heads. Still others spread feces and other waste throughout their cells. Suicide attempts are common. Many have been successful.

CFPB Wins $700 Million Deceptive Practices Case Against Citibank, So Ted Cruz Wants to Shut Them Down

| Wed Jul. 22, 2015 12:25 PM EDT

Steve Benen points out today that Ted Cruz wants to eliminate the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau because it "does little to protect consumers." Ironically, this comes on the same day that the CFPB won a case against Citibank for deceptive practices that resulted in a $700 million fine. But irony is not a Republican strong suit, and most of them not only want to eliminate the CFPB, they want to eliminate all of Dodd-Frank while they're at it.

This is not a big surprise since (a) Republicans have hated Dodd-Frank all along and virtually all of them voted against it, (b) it's an Obama thing, nuff said, and (c) it forces big banks to treat consumers fairly, and Republicans don't like laws that force big banks—or any other big business—to treat consumers fairly. Benen comments:

If the Dodd/Frank were actually imposing unreasonable burdens on well intentioned financial institutions, the complaints might be worth considering, but the fact remains that Wall Street reform is an under-appreciated success story. The repeal crusade is misguided on political and policy grounds.

This actually brings up a point worth repeating: one of the prices we pay for extreme political polarization is the inability to tweak big laws after they're passed. No Democrat would claim that Obamacare is perfect, for example. With a few years of experience under our belts, there are some things we now recognize could have been done better. But it's impossible to tweak the law because Republicans flatly refuse to cooperate. It's repeal or nothing. To their base, tweaking the law would be a tacit admission that Obamacare can be improved, and that's effectively treason to the cause. It's a socialist nightmare and it has to be torn out root and branch, period.

The same dynamic is true of Dodd-Frank. You can make a good case, for example, that the Dodd-Frank rules pose an unnecessary burden on small community banks that are obviously no threat to the financial system. But even if Democrats would now be willing to loosen the compliance requirements for banks under a certain size, there's no way to make it happen. It's a tweak to the law, and supporting that tweak merely helps Dodd-Frank stay on the books. Better to keep the law as crappy as possible so that opposition to it stays as strong as possible.

We see this play out over and over. Modern legislation is inherently complex and needs to be periodically tweaked to keep it working properly. When you can't do that, it steadily gums up the works and keeps everyone in a seething fury about how incompetent the federal government is.

Which is the whole point, of course. Welcome to the modern Republican Party. The more they can make a hash out of government operations, the better off they are.