Blogs

Things Are Finally Looking Up For the American Economy

| Thu Dec. 11, 2014 10:53 AM EST

Neil Irwin says the American economy is now firing on all cylinders:

Total retail sales rose 0.7 percent in November, as holiday shopping began, and that came despite a sharp tumble in gasoline prices that reduced the dollar value of sales at gas stations by 0.8 percent. Analysts had expected a rise of only 0.4 percent.

....The November retail sales number could well be a fluke. But only 11 days into December, here is a partial list of readings on the economy that have handily beat already-strong analyst forecasts: Institute for Supply Management’s survey of manufacturing firms; its survey of nonmanufacturing firms; motor vehicle sales; construction spending; job growth; wage growth; and now retail sales. The only major piece of data that has been disappointing was a negative report this week on factory orders, a volatile series of data.

I'm not quite as excited by the wage growth number as Irwin, but it's true that recent economic news has been distinctively more positive than in the past. As usual, my biggest worry is whether weakness in Europe and China is going to derail things, and it's too early to tell just how serious a concern that is. For now, though, things are finally looking up. Huzzah.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Don't Count Out Rick Perry. He's a Better Candidate Than He Was in 2012.

| Thu Dec. 11, 2014 10:32 AM EST

From Rick Perry, asked if he's smart enough to occupy the Oval Office:

Running for the presidency’s not an IQ test.

Boy howdy, we've proven that quite a few times, haven't we? In any case, I'm genuinely interested in Perry's candidacy. Back in 2012, when he first got into the race and was being lauded as practically unbeatable, I wrote a post listing the top ten reasons that Perry was weaker than everyone thought. For reference, here's the nickel version of the list:

  1. Everyone looks good before they get into the race.
  2. He's too Texan.
  3. He's too mean.
  4. He's too dumb.
  5. He's too smarmy.
  6. He's too overtly religious.
  7. Policywise, he's too radical, even for Republicans.
  8. Despite conventional wisdom, about half of the GOP rank-and-file aren't tea party sympathizers.
  9. Perry's campaign is going to be heavily based on the "Texas miracle."
  10. Republicans want to beat Obama. They really, really want to beat Obama. Romney is still their best chance.

Obviously #1 is no longer a factor. Perry has run before, and expectations this time around are suitably modest. And #10 doesn't apply this year. Of the remaining eight, I'd say he's rather noticeably working to soften #2, #3, #4, #6 (maybe), and #7. And this in turn also means he's trying to reach out beyond his tea party base (#8). In other words, he seems to be keenly aware of the weaknesses that got my attention in 2012 and is explicitly trying to overcome them.

Does this mean he can win this time around? Not at all, and for various reasons I'd still bet against him. But despite the fact that his star has waned compared to 2012, I'd say his chances are actually better this time around. After all, he's still a very savvy politician—and although I don't know how high his IQ is, it's high enough. If he's got the self-discipline to stick to his reinvented self and not make any dumb mistakes, he could be formidable in the Republican primaries next year.

Back From the Dead: Soft Money Makes a Comeback in Congress

| Wed Dec. 10, 2014 5:35 PM EST

Update: Friday, December 12, 2014: On Thursday night, the House passed the so-called Cromnibus government spending bill with the soft money provision intact. The bill moves to the Senate where it's expected to pass.

Soft money—limitless donations pouring into the Democratic and Republican parties from labor unions, big corporations, and Hollywood moguls—was once all the rage in Washington. When the trickle of soft money began in the late 1980s, it was intended to fund building additions, TV studios, and other infrastructure for Team Blue and Team Red. But by the mid-'90s, soft money had exploded—the DNC and RNC raised $263 million of it during the '96 election cycle, up from $45 million in 1988. And by the time of Bill Clinton's reelection, soft money wasn't just funding brick-and-mortar projects—it was supporting campaign activities to elect candidates to office. And the parties went to great lengths to pocket more. Remember those infamous sleepovers in the Clinton White House for donors and fundraisers? All in the name of raising soft money. Soft money was at the core of the campaign finance scandal triggered by Clinton's '96 campaign, the brouhaha that spurred the 2002 McCain-Feingold law banning soft money.

Now, soft money is making a comeback of sorts. A provision added to the $1 trillion spending bill cobbled together by Congress this week to avert a government shutdown would increase by tenfold the amount of money wealthy donors could give to the national political parties. Those dollars would go to fund presidential conventions, physical building activities, and legal work by the parties—an echo of the old soft-money days.

Here's how the new math breaks down. Right now, donations to the DNC, the RNC, and their campaign affiliates (the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee, and so on) are limited to $32,400 per person per committee each year. If the provision becomes law, donors could give $324,000 a year—a tenfold increase—to the DNC or RNC, while also donating $453,600 a year to the other party committees. All told, that means a wealthy donor could give $777,600 a year to all these outfits, or more than $1.5 million across an entire election cycle. "This is a law for millionaires and billionaires, period," says Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a good-government group that backs limits on money in politics.

As the Washington Post notes, this move could nudge the center of gravity in the political-money world back toward the national parties, which have found themselves strapped for cash while independent super-PACs rake in seven-figure checks:

While there would be some restrictions on how parties could use those donations, the creation of new, wider lanes for money to travel into the parties would be a major boon, campaign finance experts said. The expanded avenues for giving would dramatically undercut some of the last remaining provisions of the landmark McCain-Feingold Act, which curtailed the ability of parties to raise huge, unregulated sums.

"It's always hard to predict how much more money will actually be raised when contribution limits are modified like this," said Michael Toner, a Republican election law attorney and former Federal Election Commission member. "But the opportunity is there for the national political parties to raise significantly more money. I think this could be a real shot in the arm for the national parties and it would be a further chipping away of the McCain-Feingold law."

"Money is fungible in American politics," Toner added. "Any change in the campaign finance law that allows additional funds to be raised by parties for specified purposes necessarily frees up funds to be spent electing candidates."

The ability of parties to raise huge sums could help them retake power back from super PACs and politically active nonprofits, which have emerged as major players in national politics in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in 2010.

Critics of the provision say it will transport national politics back to the scandal-ridden '90s when soft money flowed freely. "This provision would open a door to a new avenue of corruption, and is one more indication that selling American democracy is a bipartisan affair," says Josh Orton, political director of Progressives United, the advocacy group founded by former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.).

It's unclear who inserted the provision into the spending bill. The office of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), an avid foe of campaign finance regulations, denied involvement. But the provision appears to stand a good chance of surviving. Despite vowing to block an earlier attempt by McConnell to cut down campaign money limits, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told Politico that he will not block the current provision. "If President Obama signs this law into effect, assuming it passes, he will be joining with Sen. Reid in owning this legislation and the national scandals that are bound to follow," Wertheimer says.

It's a Miracle! Spending Bill Contains Virgin Birth Provision.

| Wed Dec. 10, 2014 5:32 PM EST

Our new $1 trillion spending bill1 contains a provision that allows donors to give ten times more money to political parties than in the past. This may or may not be a good thing. Jonathan Bernstein, for example, tells us that some experts on campaign finance consider formal party organizations (as opposed to independent Super PACs) to be "a force for pragmatism and against extremism." So more money flowing in that direction might be a net benefit.

Fair enough. But check out the third paragraph of the Washington Post's writeup:

Neither party’s leaders in Congress would claim responsibility for inserting the new provision, which was tucked into the final pages of the more than 1,600-page spending bill on Tuesday evening.

The bare minimum we should expect in an alleged democracy is to know where our laws come from and who sponsored them. Instead, our two major parties, which are normally at each others' throats like rabid dogs, regularly connive to produce the legislative version of a virgin birth whenever the subject is something that benefits politicians themselves. This happens again and again, and it's ridiculous. If Mitch McConnell is truly dedicated to a transparent Senate, how about putting a stop to this nonsense when he takes over next year?

1In case you've been vacationing on Mars, this bill is affectionately known as the Cromnibus, a mashup of CR (continuing resolution) and omnibus. That's because it's an omnibus spending bill that funds lots of agencies in one swoop, but for one particular agency it's merely a short-term continuing resolution. That one agency is Homeland Security, and they get only a CR for now because Republicans consider this a kind of revenge against President Obama for his recent executive order on immigration. Welcome to kindergarten.

This Is Seriously One Of the Most Incredible Weather Videos I Have Ever Seen

| Wed Dec. 10, 2014 3:12 PM EST

This story originally appeared in Slate and is republished here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

A couple of months ago I posted an amazing time-lapse video called Stormscapes, showing storms and mesocylcones, created by photographer Nicolaus Wegner. It's really worth watching; seeing those swirling, dark clouds forming vortices over the Midwest is terrifying and mesmerizing.

Wegner contacted me recently; after a year of storm chasing he put together another video, Stormscapes2, and it's way, way better than the first one. In fact, I'd say it's seriously one of the most incredible weather videos I have ever seen.

Make this hi-def, full screen, and crank the volume up, because holy yikes.

Wow.

From the opening sequence to the last frame, that's magnificent. I was also really impressed by how Wegner let the music inspire the editing, and it really adds to the look and feel of the video.

The creepy oncoming storm sets the mood immediately, but then the double rainbow and crepuscular rays (shadows of clouds leaving long, dark shadows in the sky) converging on the horizon provide a brief interlude. Very brief.

Mesocyclones! Lightning! Exploding cumulonimbus clouds! Devil's Tower! And then, at the end, one of my favorite kinds of clouds: bulbs of mammatus clouds hanging down. Those are really peculiar, and it's not at all clear why they form. Their shape gives rise to their name, because they look like mammary glands. Seriously.

I've seen mammatus clouds just once, and it was unearthly. They're harbingers of severe weather, and Wegner mentioned he got that sequence the day a series of tornadoes hit the town of Wessington Springs, South Dakota. The town was devastated, but due to the work of the National Weather Service, not a single person was killed. They predicted the conditions were ripe for tornadoes, issued a warning, and people were able to get to safety in time.

That's amazing, but that's science. We've learned so much about the weather that we can predict with pretty good accuracy where and when tornadoes can form, and get people to safety.

As I watch Stormscapes2, I'm in awe of the beauty of weather, but I'm also uplifted. We understand a lot of these phenomena very well, and the things we don't understand, we learn. And when we learn, we make things better. We save people's lives.

Science saves lives. That's a pretty good thing to learn, too.

LA’s Eric Garcetti, Mayor of Instagram

| Wed Dec. 10, 2014 1:38 PM EST
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and a constituent enjoy a selfie.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is a busy guy. But even the mayor of America's second-largest city—and potential Senate candidate—is not immune to the relaxing, time-wasting powers of social media: he's a prolific Instagrammer.

Unlike the social media accounts of most politicians, Garcetti's Instagram clearly belongs to a real human being—one with a hobby interest in photography. Compare that to the Instagram of New York City's Bill de Blasio, whose feed is clogged with press conferences—no filters to be found. No wonder, then, that Garcetti boasts nearly 12,000 followers, easily topping de Blasio's 7,800. With artsy shots like these, it's not hard to see why:

 

A photo posted by Eric Garcetti (@ericgarcetti) on

 

 

A photo posted by Eric Garcetti (@ericgarcetti) on

 

Really, though. This is just great composition:

 

A photo posted by Eric Garcetti (@ericgarcetti) on

 

Beyond showcasing his artistic eye, Garcetti's not afraid to broadcast himself hobnobbing in Hollywood:

 

#MerryGrinchmas #HappyWhoYear #MayorAugustusMaywho

A photo posted by Eric Garcetti (@ericgarcetti) on

 

Like many LA residents, he admires an appealing coffee menu:

 

@primerataza great stop during @ciclavia

A photo posted by Eric Garcetti (@ericgarcetti) on

 

He can't resist the appeal of a photogenic dog. (The dog in question belongs to California Governor Jerry Brown.)

 

California's First Dog, @SutterBrown

A photo posted by Eric Garcetti (@ericgarcetti) on

 

He puts his frequent helicopter and plane rides to good use:

 

A photo posted by Eric Garcetti (@ericgarcetti) on

 

 

A photo posted by Eric Garcetti (@ericgarcetti) on

 

Dude knows how to use some borders.

 

A photo posted by Eric Garcetti (@ericgarcetti) on

 

While some take to Garcetti's posts to complain (mostly about helicopter use), the comments on his posts are overwhelmingly positive. Representing most, one user wrote, "Mr. Mayor, I've been increasingly surprised by your photographic eye. You have a great perspective for light and color. Respect." Respect, indeed.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Here's a Bipartisan Victory For Better Health Care

| Wed Dec. 10, 2014 1:17 PM EST

One of the biggest problems with modern medical research is the way that clinical studies are publicly reported by pharmaceutical companies. Basically, if a study shows a positive result, they publish it. If it shows a null or negative result, they often just file it away and no one ever hears about it.

Here's what this means. If, say, a pharmaceutical company publishes two clinical studies showing that its new drug works better than any previous drug, no one has any idea what this means. Did they do two studies, and they were both positive? Or did they do ten studies, and two were positive compared to eight that were negative? If it's the latter, then the new drug is probably not so great. But you have no way to know. No one knows.

This is not merely a bug in the system. It's pretty much flat out corruption and scientific malpractice. Nor is it purely an academic concern. A few years ago, Irving Kirsch of Hull University used the Freedom of Information Act to demand full trial data about antidepressants from the FDA. This gave him access to all the relevant clinical studies, not just the ones that pharmaceutical companies had chosen to make public. And when his team examined them all, it turned out that the average effectiveness of several popular antidepressants was close to zero. For patients with moderate depression, the drugs were essentially no better than a placebo.

So I was delighted to learn this weekend about one doctor's campaign to change this. And even more delighted to learn from Vox's Julia Belluz that Deborah Zarin's efforts are finally bearing fruit:

For over a decade, Dr. Zarin, a Harvard-trained MD, [...] has earned a reputation as a crusader for open data, quietly presiding over the world's largest database of clinical trials, ClinicalTrials.gov. Established in 2000, and operated by the NIH, it now holds information from more than 180,000 studies in humans in over 180 countries.

The idea underlying ClinicalTrials.gov's creation was a public record about which trials are going on as soon as they are started. That should, in theory, make it more difficult for researchers to hide trials that didn't produce the results they wanted. The database also makes it easier for patients to know about studies being done, should they require access to an experimental drug, for example.

But there was still a problem: ClinicalTrials.gov, up until now, hasn't required researchers to report the outcomes of their trials — only the fact they're happening. Under a new plan, proposed by Health and Human Services last month, researchers who run clinical trials would be made to not only register them on the database within three weeks of signing up the first study participant, but also report a summary of results — no matter the outcome. This will vastly expand the trove of data on the site.

It turns out there are some exceptions in the new rules, so there are still some studies that won't be reported. But this is nonetheless a huge step forward and should go a long way toward improving the quality of pharmaceutical research. It's the kind of regulatory change that doesn't get as much attention as it deserves, and for fans of functional government, it's also an example of the kind of bipartisan cooperation that's become rarer and rarer these days. The new rules were authorized by the Food and Drug Administration Amendments Act of 2007, which was passed nearly unanimously in both the House and Senate and signed into law by George Bush. It was then implemented by the Obama administration.

And it's good news for all of us. Don't you wish we could do more stuff like this?

Is It Only Torture When Other People Do It?

| Wed Dec. 10, 2014 11:22 AM EST

I know I shouldn't spend my time responding to stuff like this. I know it. But I just can't stand it. Here is torture advocate Andrew McCarthy writing at National Review:

Here is a thought experiment I have been using for many years as we’ve debated this topic....If you take everyone in America who is serving a minor jail sentence of say, 6 to 18 months, and you [ask] them whether they’d rather serve the rest of their time or be waterboarded....how many would choose waterboarding? I am guessing, conservatively, that over 95 percent would choose waterboarding.

....So ignore the blather about how enhanced interrogation is “not who we are.”

Give him credit: there's no legalistic blather here. Just straight up advocacy of torturing enemy combatants. Full stop.

But here's a thought experiment for McCarthy. Suppose any other country in the world did what we did. Waterboarding. Sleep deprivation. Physical abuse. Stress positions. Rectal feeding. Nudity. Extreme heat and cold. All for months or years in an effort to turn prisoners into broken husks. Let's say that it was Putin's Russia or Khamenei's Iran, and the victims were American captives. What would you call it then? Enhanced interrogation?

I doubt it. You'd call it torture, and you'd loudly insist that it was barbaric and an act of war. And you'd be right. Or am I missing something?

Rich People Cheer As Republicans Cut IRS Budget

| Wed Dec. 10, 2014 10:11 AM EST

Steve Benen points me to the last paragraph of today's Washington Post story about our shiny new $1 trillion spending package:

At domestic agencies, the EPA’s budget would be cut by $60 million, and the IRS would lose $345.6 million. The nation’s tax agency also would be banned from targeting organizations seeking tax-exempt status based on their ideological beliefs.

Isn't that great? Republicans loathe the EPA as an engine of economic destruction that's dedicated to destroying the coal industry, shredding the Fifth Amendment, and regulating American corporations into bankruptcy. But even at that, they only lost $60 million. The IRS, by contrast, lost six times as much.

I'm sure the public justification is punishment for the IRS's supposed targeting of conservative tea party organizations. But in fact, this is business as usual. After being decimated for years following the Roth hearing witch hunts of the 90s, the IRS managed to slowly but steadily rebuild its enforcement staff during the aughts. Things had gotten bad enough that even George Bush was on board. Then Republicans took over Congress after the 2010 elections, and enforcement was once again targeted for cuts. In every year since then, the IRS budget has declined, enforcement staff has been cut, and audit coverage has gone down.

Why? It's simple: If the IRS budget gets cut, it means fewer audits of corporations and rich people. Any other questions?

The MPAA Says Teens Can't See a Film About Edward Snowden. This Theater Is Going to Let Them in Anyway.

| Wed Dec. 10, 2014 9:26 AM EST

"Citizenfour," a documentary about Edward Snowden, was given an R rating by members of the Motion Picture Association of America. Their rationale for doing so was apparently due to the occasional swearing that takes place in the hotel room where Snowden, director Laura Poitras, and journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill conduct their conversation.

For all teenagers who think they can handle a bit of naughty cuss words and are interested in learning more about shocking global surveillance practices carried out by their government, head over to the IFC theater in New York City, where they're overriding the MPAA's suggested rating. Their rationale? "Not only do we feel the film is suitable for teens, we feel it is essential viewing for anyone who may vote in the next election."

(h/t Boing Boing)