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Boehner's First Lawsuit: Obamacare is the Lucky Winner

| Thu Jul. 10, 2014 8:25 PM EDT

I am pleased to report that John Boehner has taken my advice. He introduced a House resolution today that would give him authority to sue the president, and here's what it says:

Resolved, That the Speaker may initiate or intervene in one or more civil actions on behalf of the House of Representatives...to seek appropriate ancillary relief...with respect to implementation of (including a failure to implement) any provision of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act....

Blah blah blah.

And just which provision of Obamacare does Boehner plan to target? Here you go:

"In 2013, the president changed the healthcare law without a vote of Congress, effectively creating his own law by literally waiving the employer mandate and the penalties for failing to comply with it," Boehner said in a statement. "That's not the way our system of government was designed to work. No president should have the power to make laws on his or her own."

Well, Obama didn't "literally waive" the employer mandate, he just delayed it for two years. But close enough!

Now, there are two sides to this. On the positive side for Boehner, it's fairly defensible as these things go. It's not a slam dunk, but you can make a decent case that Obama really did overstep the plain text of the law. However, the downside is that Obama probably doesn't care much about this. It's a fairly minor provision of the law, and if he loses the case it doesn't do any serious damage to Obamacare. In fact, the only damage it does is to the small employers who asked for the delay. So really, Boehner is only setting himself up to oppose the interests of small businesses.

But here's the really interesting thing about this: Boehner is suing over a provision of the law that's been delayed until 2016. But a lawsuit like this takes a while. It'll take a while to file the documents, and then a while longer to get on the calendar of a district court. Then another while for a hearing and a ruling, and then yet another while for an appeal. Then yet another while if the White House asks for an en banc review. And then finally yet another while as it goes up to the Supreme Court. How long altogether? I'd guess a minimum of a year and a half, and probably more like two years. So the best case for conservatives is that the Supreme Court takes it up in late 2015. By the time they're ready to rule, it's moot because the mandate has taken effect and Obama is out of office.1

Boehner is smart enough to know all this perfectly well. In other words, he knows that this is purely a symbolic gesture. Not only does Obama not really care much about it, but it's vanishingly unlikely that the Supreme Court will ever hear the case. That makes it an almost perfect piece of theater. Neither side cares much, and it will never be decided. Boehner gets to say he's doing something, Obama gets some mileage out of mocking him, and that's it. The real-world impact is literally zero.

And that might be just what Boehner wants.

1This assumes that any court is willing to grant Boehner standing to sue in the first place.

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Watch the Ads Obama Is Airing in Central America to Keep Kids From Coming to the US

| Thu Jul. 10, 2014 5:59 PM EDT

Preparing for his dangerous trip north, a Central American teen stops to pen a letter to his uncle in the United States. He writes that his mom is telling him to think hard about the risks: the gangs on the trains, the cartels that kidnap migrants, the days of walking through the desert. But those roadblocks, he writes, are worth it: "I see myself earning a bunch of money in the United States, and my mom here without any worries."

So begins a new public service announcement aimed at keeping Central American kids from joining the tens of thousands of unaccompanied child migrants who have been apprehended by US authorities in the last year. The PSA soon turns dark, though: After the teen says goodbye to his mother, and his uncle puts down the letter he's been reading, the camera pulls back from a close-up of the boy, dead on the desert floor. A narrator urges viewers: "They're our future. Let's protect them."

US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) developed the TV ads, as well as posters and marimba-infused radio spots, as part of its million-dollar Dangers Awareness Campaign. Rolled out shortly after Vice President Joe Biden's trip to Guatemala in June, the campaign is an attempt to counter rumors that unaccompanied kids will be allowed to stay in the United States. The ads emphasize that the journey is extremely dangerous and that children won't get legal status if they make it across the border.

The campaign will run for 11 weeks, CBP spokesman Jaime Ruiz told the Associated Press. "We want a relative that is about to send $5,000, $6,000 to a relative in El Salvador to see this message and say, 'Oh my God, they're saying that the journey is more dangerous,'" Ruiz said. "We try to counter the version of the smuggler."

Here's the other televised PSA, in which two silhouettes—a would-be migrant and a smuggler—discuss heading north, the smuggler turning increasingly aggressive and his shadow occasionally turning into that of a coyote, the slang word for a smuggler:

(Notably, CBP created slightly different versions of each of the stories for El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the three countries that have sent the most unaccompanied minors to the US. Watch them all here.)

This type of campaign isn't anything new. For years, the Mexican government has produced ads about the dangers of walking through the Arizona desert, and several years ago the Department of Homeland Security, as part of CBP's Border Safety Initiative, distributed CDs to Latin American radio stations with sad songs aimed at slowing immigration from the south. With so many variables at play, it's virtually impossible to measure their effect.

But with more than 57,000 unaccompanied kids apprehended in the United States since October—a situation that CBP head R. Gil Kerlikowske called "difficult and distressing on a lot of levels" when speaking to members of the Senate homeland security committee on Wednesday—the government seems willing to try anything.

Fine. I Retract My Defense of Optics.

| Thu Jul. 10, 2014 5:21 PM EDT

On Wednesday morning, conservatives were all atwitter over the fact that President Obama had been photographed playing pool and drinking a beer the previous night in Denver. A mere thousand miles away, there was a humanitarian crisis on the border! How out of touch can a guy get? Clearly this was Obama's Katrina moment.

This combined two of the right's favorite Obama-era tropes. First, it was about his millionth Katrina moment. Conservatives still can't get it through their heads that George Bush's Katrina moment was never really about those famous photographs of him mugging with a guitar while the levees were being breached in New Orleans and later staring moodily out an airplane window at the flooding below. It was about "heckuva job, Brownie." It was about his casual near-destruction of FEMA over the previous four years. It was about the startling contrast between his laggard response to Katrina and his near-frenetic response to the Terri Schiavo panderfest just a few months earlier. But conservatives simply refuse to believe this. They're convinced it was all about an unfair photographic comparison, and they're determined to make a Democratic president suffer the same fate.

Second, it's become practically a parlor game for conservatives to chastise Obama for engaging in some kind of social activity while there's a serious crisis somewhere. This is an evergreen faux complaint. After all, there's almost always something serious going on somewhere, which means you can always figure out an excuse to haul out this chestnut.

Now, to some extent none of this matters as long as it's just a partisan response from the professional right. But yesterday it metastasized into something more over Obama's answer to a question about why he wasn't heading down to the border to see the refugee crisis for himself. "I'm not interested in photo-ops," he said. "I'm interested in solving a problem." This almost instantly turned into a misquote: "I don't do photo-ops." And with that, the mainstream press started piling on too.

This was, obviously, ridiculous. First of all, Obama didn't say that he doesn't do photo-ops. That would have been idiotic. What he very plainly said was that in this particular case he wasn't interested in doing a photo-op. He had introduced a plan to address the crisis and he was in Texas to discuss it with state officials. That's where he wanted to keep the focus.

And with that, as if to mock me, the whole thing exploded into a moronic national conversation about the optics of shooting pool in Denver but not going to the border to have his photograph taken with wistful-looking Latin American children. This came just a couple of days after I had defended the word optics against Jamison Foser, and plainly Foser had turned out to be right. The mere availability of the word seemed to change the whole tone of the coverage. As Dave Weigel put it, "The president is the star of most D.C. political stories, obviously, so many stories end up being about whether they help or hurt him. The problem is that the press can't be sure if they will, or won't." So they just guess.

Now, I suppose I still have a feeble defense to offer. I did say there were good and bad uses of optics, and this just happened to be one of the bad ones. But the speed with which one photograph and one misquote saturated the punditocracy and morphed into an inane conversation about optics surely makes Foser's case for him.

So I give up. There are still good uses of the word optics, but as long as the press remains so addicted to dumb uses that have obvious roots in transparent partisan nonsense, it's probably best to insist that they go cold turkey. No more optics, guys. Not until you demonstrate an ability to use the word like adults.

Americans Are Surprisingly Stressed Out About News and Politics

| Thu Jul. 10, 2014 2:26 PM EDT

Via Wonkblog, here's a fascinating little chart courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. They just released a survey about the causes of stress, and things like health and money problems are predictably the biggest sources. But how about all those niggling little daily causes of stress? What are the biggest routine things that send you into conniptions?

Well, it turns out that two of the biggest contributors to high blood pressure are watching the news and hearing about what politicians are up to. And boy howdy, does this beg for a follow-up. I really, really want to know what news sources cause the most stress. Is it listening to NPR? Watching Fox News? Getting your daily Limbaugh fix? Reading Kevin Drum's blog?

Perhaps the mere act of making you think about this is, at this very moment, making you red in the face. Then again, maybe not. I want to know more. Who's most stressed out by the news? Liberals? Conservatives? Everyone? And what outlets cause the most stress? Obviously my money is on the Drudge/Fox/Limbaugh axis, but maybe I'd be surprised. I want to hear more about this.

Singer and Hardcore LGBT Rights Supporter Demi Lovato Made This Lovely Video for Marriage Equality

| Thu Jul. 10, 2014 2:22 PM EDT

Singer and actress Demi Lovato is a strong supporter of LGBT rights. She played a lesbian character on Fox's Glee, served as the Grand Marshal of the Los Angeles Pride Parade this year, and has spoken openly about her grandfather's homosexuality. "I believe in gay marriage, I believe in equality," Lovato told Cambio magazine. "I think there's a lot of hypocrisy with religion…I just found that you can have your own relationship with God, and I still have a lot of faith."

Now, she's made a video (watch above) with the Human Rights Campaign in support of marriage equality. The video, released on Wednesday, is part of HRC's recently re-launched Americans for Marriage Equality campaign, which includes messages from Hillary Clinton, Bryan CranstonMo'Nique, and Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman. Here is Lovato's message:

Hey, guys, I'm Demi Lovato, and I'm an American for marriage equality. I believe that love comes in all different shapes, sizes, and colors. So whether you're LGBT or straight, your love is valid, beautiful, and an incredible gift. So let's protect love and strengthen the institution of marriage by allowing loving, caring, and committed same-sex couples to legally marry. Please join me and the majority of American citizens who support marriage equality.

"We reached out to her [a couple months ago] knowing what a supporter of LGBT equality she is, and thought she would be great for this campaign," Charles Joughin, an HRC spokesman, told Mother Jones. He also mentioned that they have more Americans for Marriage Equality videos lined up featuring other big names, from pro-athletes and movie stars to politicians and civil rights leaders. HRC will likely be released one video a week over the coming months.

When asked if Lovato has any further plans to work with the LGBT civil rights group, Joughin said that nothing was discussed, but that they'd be more than happy to do so. "She certainly has done a lot for the larger movement…We haven't taken it into consideration, but we're such big fans of her we'd be thrilled to work with her in the future. Whether she's doing work with HRC, or elsewhere, I am certain this is a cause she's very committed to."

Now check out this video about Lovato sticking it to Russian president Vladimir Putin (and his anti-gay policies) during her New York City gay pride performance this summer. During the show, two of Lovato's male backup dancers shared a kiss; one of them appeared to be naked and was holding a picture of Putin's face over his crotch:

40 Percent of Colleges Haven't Investigated a Single Sexual Assault Case in 5 Years

| Thu Jul. 10, 2014 1:46 PM EDT

According to the results of a national survey commissioned by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and the Senate Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight, nearly half the country's four-year colleges haven't conducted a single sexual assault investigation in the past five years. The survey was completed by 236 four year-institutions across the country—private and public, small and large—but in order to encourage candid reporting, the names of the schools surveyed were not released.

Here's what scores of survivors of sexual assault in college have to deal with, according to the results:

  • Simply not receiving an investigation: Forty-one percent of schools hadn't investigated a single sexual assault in the past five years, despite the fact that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and the White House, one in five undergraduate women experience sexual assault during college. Meanwhile, more than 20 percent of the country's largest private schools conducted fewer investigations than the number of sexual assault incidents that they reported to the Department of Education.
  • Having no clue what to do: One in three schools don't train students on what constitutes sexual assault or how to respond to it. Among private, for-profit schools, 72 percent don't provide students with any sexual assault training.
  • Untrained, uncoordinated law enforcement: Though in general colleges work with a number of parties to keep campuses safe—like campus police, security guards, and local law enforcement—30 percent don't actually train the school's law enforcement on how to handle reports of sexual assault, while a staggering 73 percent of institutions don't have protocols on how the school should work with local law enforcement to respond to sexual assault.
  • The athletic department deciding if you were raped: Yes, you read that correctly. Thirty percent of public colleges give the athletic department oversight of sexual violence cases involving athletes.
  • Your peers deciding if you were raped: Experts agree that students shouldn't be part of adjudication boards in sexual assault cases—friends or acquaintances of the survivor or alleged perpetrator face a conflict of interest, and those involved in a sexual assault likely don't want to divulge the details of the assault to, say, someone they recognize from chemistry class. Still, 27 percent of schools reported students participating in the adjudication of sexual assault claims.
  • Untrained faculty, staff, and medical professionals: Often, the first person to whom a student reports sexual assault is a member of the college's faculty or staff. But 20 percent of schools don't provide any sexual assault response training to faculty and staff, and only 15 percent of schools provide access to Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners—nurses who are trained to provide medical and other services to survivors of sexual assault.
  • Knowing that the perpetrator still plays sports and goes to frat parties: Only 51 percent of schools impose athletic team sanctions against student-athletes who have been deemed perpetrators of sexual assault, and 31 percent impose fraternity or sorority sanctions.
  • Seeing the perpetrator on campus, even if you don't want to: Nineteen percent of institutions don't impose orders that would require the perpetrator of the assault to avoid contact with the survivor.

McCaskill says that the results of the survey demonstrate failures at "nearly every stage of institutions' response" to sexual assault. Together with Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), she plans to unveil legislation addressing the campus assault later in the summer.

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Republicans Love Obamacare!

| Thu Jul. 10, 2014 12:59 PM EDT

Here's an additional tidbit from that recent Commonwealth Fund survey about Obamacare:

That's a lot of Republicans who are satisfied with their Obamacare coverage. They might not realize it's Obamacare—perhaps they know it as Kynect or Covered California—but they like it. And if you take it away, they're going to be unhappy. That's several million potentially unhappy Republicans if the national GOP continues its anti-Obamacare jihad. Just saying.

Who's Afraid of an Itsy Bitsy Bit of Inflation, Anyway?

| Thu Jul. 10, 2014 12:19 PM EDT

Why are so many people obsessed with "hard money"? Why the endless hysterics about the prospect of inflation getting higher than 2 percent? Paul Krugman, like many others, thinks it's basically a class issue. If you have a lot of debt, inflation is a good thing because it lowers the real value of your debt. But if you're rich and you have lots of assets, the opposite is true. Here's Krugman using data from the Census Bureau's SIPP database:

Only the top end have more financial assets (as opposed to real assets like housing) than they have nominal debt; so they’re much more likely to be hurt by mild inflation and be helped by deflation than the rest.

Now, it’s true that some of these financial assets are stocks, which are claims on real assets. If we only look at interest-bearing assets, even the top group has more liabilities than assets.

But the SIPP top isn’t very high; in 2007 you needed a net worth of more than $8 million just to be in the top 1 percent. And since the ratio of interest-bearing assets to debt is clearly rising with wealth, we can be sure that the truly wealthy are indeed in the category where they have more to lose than to gain by a rise in the price level.

Brad DeLong isn't buying it:

It is true that the rich do have more nominal assets than liabilities....But it is also true that America's rich have a lot of real assets whose value depends on a strong and growing economy.

I find it implausible to claim that the net gain is positive when we net out the (slight) real gain to the rich from lower inflation with the (large) real loss to rich from lower capital utilization. It's not a material interest in low inflation that we are dealing with here...

I don't think I buy Krugman's claim either. He's basically saying that hard money hysteria is driven by the material interests of the top 0.1 percent, but even if you grant them the clout to get the entire country on their side, do the super rich really love low inflation in the first place? Do they own a lot of long-term, fixed-interest assets that decline in value when inflation increases? Fifty years ago, sure. But today? Not so much. This is precisely the group with the most sophisticated investment strategies, highly diversified and hedged against things like simple inflation risks.

Plus there's DeLong's point: even if they do own a lot of assets that are sensitive to inflation, they own even more assets that are sensitive to lousy economic growth. If higher inflation also helped produce higher growth, they'd almost certainly come out ahead.

So what's the deal? I'd guess that it's a few things. First, the sad truth is that virtually no one believes that high inflation helps economic growth when the economy is weak. I believe it. Krugman believes it. DeLong believes it. But among those who don't follow the minutiae of economic research—i.e., nearly everyone—it sounds crazy. That goes for the top 0.1 percent as well as it does for everyone else. If they truly believed that higher inflation would get the economy roaring again, they might support it. (Might!) But they don't.

Second, there's the legitimate fear of accelerating inflation once you let your foot off the brake. This fear isn't very legitimate, since if there's one thing the Fed knows how to do, it's stomp on inflation if it gets out of control. Nonetheless, there are plenty of people with a defensible belief that a credible commitment to low inflation does more good than harm in the long run. After all, stomping on inflation is pretty painful.

Third, there's the very sensible fear among the middle class that high inflation is just a sneaky way to erode real wages. This is sensible because it's true. There are several avenues by which higher inflation helps weak economies that are trapped at the zero bound, and one of them is by allowing wages to stealthily decline until employment reaches a new equilibrium. I think that lots of people understand this instinctively.

Fourth, there's fear of the 70s, which apparently won't go away until everyone who was alive during the 70s is dead. Which is going to be a while.

It's worth noting that hard money convictions are the norm virtually everywhere in the developed world, even in places that are a lot more egalitarian than the United States. Inflationary fears may be irrational, especially under our current economic conditions, but ancient fears are hard to deal with. As it happens, the erosion of assets during the 70s was unique to the conditions of the 70s, which included a lot more than just a few years of high inflation. But inflation is what people remember, so inflation is still what they fear.

Bottom line: Even among non-hysterics, I'd say that hardly anyone really, truly believes in their hearts that high inflation would be good for economic growth. It's the kind of thing that you have to convince yourself of by sheer mental effort, and even at that you're probably still a little wobbly about the whole idea. It just seems so crazy. Until that changes, fear of inflation isn't going anywhere.

Pundits, Start Your Engines!

| Thu Jul. 10, 2014 11:16 AM EDT

So what's the next step in the border crisis? President Obama has introduced an emergency proposal; he's traveled to Texas to discuss it with his political opponents; and in order to stem the tide of immigrants he's declined to engage in photo-ops at the border that might encourage the tide to continue.

Republicans, for their part, appear at the moment to be completely unwilling to do anything at all.

So here's the next step: a barrage of columns from our nation's pundits acknowledging Republican intransigence but then insisting that, ultimately, the lack of action is Obama's fault. Because leadership. Because LBJ. Because schmoozing. Because lecturing. Because relationships. Because political capital. Because great presidents somehow figure out a way to get things done. Rinse and repeat.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 10, 2014

Thu Jul. 10, 2014 9:48 AM EDT

US Navy sailors navigate the USS Kidd in the waters of the Indo-Asia Pacific Region. (US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Declan Barnes.)